Actions

Work Header

The Show Must Go On

Chapter Text

Pairing(s): eventual Zidane x Kuja, Zidane + Dagger, Blank + Marcus
Spoilers: through the end of the game

This is a YAOI fic (male x male relationship). If you are offended by homosexual relationships, please do not read this. Flames will be disregarded.

* * *

 You are on your own now.
Zidane... take care of Kuja.
... and protect the crystal.
Farewell...

It had started with those four simple words: take care of Kuja.

When Garland’s fading voice had delivered that last message in Memoria, Zidane had thought he’d understood the task that lay before him, that it was up to him to take care of Kuja once and for all, to eliminate the threat the older Genome posed to all existence on Gaia.

He’d done his best to hold to that, both he and his friends… They’d confronted Kuja, clashed against him in one last, bitter fight, pushing him to the brink of defeat, before the fearsome mage had unleashed his ultimate spell, intent on taking them out with his last breath…

But they’d survived. And so had Kuja, though they hadn’t realized it until later when, despite his injuries, he’d somehow teleported them away from Necron as the godlike entity had corroded, destroying everything in the immediate vicinity as he had faded from their world. Then he’d managed to send one last message to Zidane, faintly bidding him farewell. And Zidane, rash as ever, made his decision…

It should’ve been simple. Get in, find Kuja, and… well, Zidane hadn’t thought past that, actually. Certainly it hadn’t been an issue when he’d finally clambered up onto the platform which Kuja had lain. His brother had looked like he was knocking upon death’s door: bleeding profusely from a nasty open wound on his left side, the tears in his clothing revealing a multitude of additional cuts and bruises. His skin had been white from blood loss; his silver hair painted with blotches of dark red. If that hadn’t been enough, Zidane had known, even if the injuries had somehow been less severe… it wouldn’t have mattered. Garland had said Kuja would die soon. And Kuja had expended so much his energy in that final battle; could he even recover from that?

And though it hadn’t been the time or place for a heartfelt conversation - the Iifa Tree had been going wild around them – Kuja had been desperate to talk, despite how short and labored each breath had become. He’d asked after Zidane’s companions, had spoken of regret… and then he had passed out. For a split second Zidane even thought Kuja had died, just like that. And in that moment, he’d suddenly wondered, had he misunderstood the meaning of those four simple words? Take care of Kuja… And what, help him? Save him?

Then the Iifa Tree’s branches suddenly reared up and surged towards them, like angry snakes zeroing in on a meal, and the only thing Zidane could think of doing was throwing himself over the prone body beside him as the world went dark all around them.

* * *

 Author's Notes:

 - A bit of background: I first played FFIX in 2013, however I'd seen the ending (and only the ending) when the game first came out. Zidane's reckless charge into the Iifa Tree to find Kuja really stuck with me even though I didn't understand what was going on, and it somehow lay dormant in the back of my head until my interest in the game resurfaced years later. Long story short, my reason for writing this is I didn't like Kuja's fated ending (this seems to be a reoccurring theme with me), and as most fanfics out there end up inevitably being deathfics, I felt it was up to me to come up with a different outcome.

 - While I tried to stay as close to canon as possible, I'm fudging things like the timeline dates and of course the ending:

 1) According to the canon timeline, the events in Memoria / the Iifa Tree took place in mid March (though I don't remember the game giving any real indicators of that). But in order for my story to work as planned, I'm pushing it out by about 5 months so that the body of the story will start out in the winter.

 2) I'll be using as much of the existing ending as possible. The major difference would be Kuja - and Vivi - surviving (so obviously, Mikoto's soliloquy at the Iifa Tree didn't happen exactly as it did in canon and the same with Vivi's memory in the sky speech. This also means no mini Vivis).

 - It's my belief that Kuja, Zidane and Mikoto are not genetically siblings in canon, going by the English version of the game. I base this off a few quotes: 1) Garland telling Zidane, "The one I sent to Gaia might also be called your brother…" and 2) Zidane saying of Mikoto, "She's kinda like my little sister." If they were siblings I would think it'd read more like "The one I sent to Gaia is your brother" and "She's my little sister." So to me, "brother" in this case is more like fellow countryman, that sort of thing.

Thanks for reading; this story is cross-posted from my own site and FFnet. I’ll be posting a chapter or two every day or so until caught up to the current chapter. Reviews are always appreciated (well, not that there's much to say about a prologue).

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Hang On in There" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Zidane quietly slipped through the front door, alert for any sign of the house’s other occupant as he dropped a bundle of supplies onto the floor.

"Kuja?" he whispered. No response. He hadn’t really expected one, but he’d always been an optimist…

The small bedroom lay directly across from the entrance. Zidane crept over and pushed open the door, wincing at the creaking of rusted hinges, before making his way over to the bed to stare at the figure lying before him.

At least Kuja was still breathing. He was alive. But the latest bout of fever gripping him didn’t want to break, even after Zidane poured his few remaining healing potions down Kuja’s throat. His skin was pale – well, paler than usual – and damp with a cold sweat; the thin hands that gripped the blankets were trembling faintly. Zidane sat down on the mattress, reached out, and gently brushed a few stray hairs off his brother’s face. No reaction other than an unconscious shiver. Zidane sighed. Every time he went on a supply run, he worried that he’d come back only to find that Kuja had worsened or even expired while he was gone. But it seemed a real possibility now. He’d been unable to wake his brother since the morning before, and it was now late in the day, the sun barely hovering above the horizon, taking away what little heat it had provided during the increasingly short winter days.

After adjusting the blankets on the bed, the blonde stole out of the room, needing to take care of a few things before calling it a day.

The fire in the fireplace had died some time during the afternoon, so Zidane fetched wood and tinder from the kitchen and quickly got it going again, striking some flints until they sparked and set the tinder aflame. He shivered, threw in a few extra logs for good measure, and frowned. Even with the fire, it would be a cold night. The long abandoned house had been in such disrepair when he’d found it: the roof leaked, many of the windows were cracked and broken. Zidane had done what repairs he could with salvaged wood and a bag of slightly rusted nails, but he wasn’t much of a carpenter and all he’d been able to do was minimize the draftiness. Not that he had a right to complain, he scolded himself, his lips twisting into a smirk. Ninety-nine percent of a roof was better than none at all, right? And it really had been a godsend to find shelter out in the middle of nowhere when he’d been on the brink of collapse, having dragged Kuja’s injured body out of the Iifa Basin while bruised and exhausted himself.

But it really was damn cold…

The frigid temperature, along with Kuja’s current condition, had forced the blonde into an unexpected position. With only one bedroom and only one bed, Zidane had given up on trying to sleep on the lumpy sofa for curling up under the covers with his brother, relying on body heat to get them through the night. Being in a comparatively soft, warm bed was nice. Being in a comparatively soft, warm bed with a rather clingy male bedmate was… well, different.

Every morning since then, Zidane had woken up to find a cheek pressed against his shoulder, a hand clutching at his shirt, a long silver tail draped over his waist or hips, a leg flung over his, hooking around an ankle. Once, Kuja had even managed to get both hands under Zidane’s shirt, resting one on his chest and the other low on his stomach, just above the waistband of his pants. Zidane frowned slightly at the memory, then scratched the back of his head and shrugged. He couldn’t hold it against the mage. Sick as he was, and the nights being as cold as they’d been, homing in on the body heat nearby had to be pretty irresistible.

Who would’ve figured Kuja was a cuddler? Nothing about him was cuddly when he was unleashing Flare Star and Ultima on one’s ass. Not that Zidane wasn’t a cuddler too… except he wanted to cuddle with girls, period. Despite Kuja’s pretty face – and Zidane had discovered to his amusement that it was even prettier once he’d wiped it clean of the cosmetics the other man favored - and the rather feminine build, he was no girl. It was almost too bad that he wasn’t…

The sudden loud rumbling of his stomach derailed Zidane from the track his thoughts had taken. With a sigh, he went back to the front door and picked up the items he’d bought from the tiny Dwarven outpost on the edge of the Lucid Plains. He took the supplies to the kitchen, a room barely suited to be called that since neither the stove nor icebox worked, and after cutting himself a thick slice of bread and an equally generous amount of cheese, packed away the rest of the provisions in the one cabinet that still had a door.

Munching on his dinner, he leaned against the counter and stared out the smudged window. It had been a little over three months since the fight in Memoria, since he’d last seen his friends. He was bored. He wished Kuja would wake up so he’d have someone to talk to. Or talk at. For even when Kuja was awake and lucid, he didn’t really say much. He was tired and sore and cranky, his wounds not healing as well as Zidane would’ve liked. And when he did talk, he annoyed Zidane by constantly bitching and complaining and saying that he should’ve been left behind to die, that he deserved it… and Zidane was sick of it. How many times did he have to tell him that no one should have to die like that, that he didn't deserve it, not if he really was sorry, before it got through his thick skull? Even if Garland was right and Kuja didn’t have long, Zidane thought the older Genome ought to try living for once instead of running full speed into the grave.

It was too cold and too late for a bath, so Zidane settle for washing his hands and face in the kitchen sink before heading back to the bedroom. He quickly shed his battle worn clothing and pulled on the scavenged cotton shirt and pants that served as his sleepwear, and slipped under the sheets on the near side of the bed. Knowing full well he’d wake up with his arms full of Kuja whether he liked it or not, he rolled towards the middle and awkwardly inched over until their shoulders were touching. More or less satisfied with his positioning, he stared up at the ceiling and tried to relax and fall asleep, but sleep no longer came easily. Not since the Iifa Tree. He wondered how his friends were doing, how Dagger was faring. He missed them all terribly. Did they miss him? When would he see them again?

Tired of staring at the unresponsive ceiling, Zidane rolled over and stared at his unresponsive brother instead. As much as he wanted to run back home to the familiar comfort of his friends, he couldn’t… no, he wouldn’t. It didn’t matter if he’d misunderstood Garland’s message or not; this wasn’t an obligation. He did care. He believed that Kuja had changed and he wanted to give him a chance at a life worth living, though he knew it wouldn’t be easy. If anyone ever saw him, recognized him… But Zidane wasn’t a quitter and he knew Kuja wasn’t one either, if he only he could convince him that he did matter, that his life had value.

The blonde frowned, suddenly feeling tired, as if thinking took more out of him than a run to the supply outpost and back. But he couldn’t go to sleep just yet. He reached over and put a hand on Kuja’s shoulder, almost to his chest. He could feel it slowly rise and fall with each breath, a bit of reassurance that Kuja was still there, still fighting to survive.

Zidane sighed and finally shut his eyes, letting the slight movement and warmth lull him into an uneasy sleep.


 

It felt like he’d only just fallen asleep, but there was no escaping the shafts of morning light that threaded through the window, alighting on his face. Zidane scowled, squinting his eyes against the brightness of the light, then stilled at the unshakeable feeling that someone’s eyes were on him… and someone’s chin digging into his sternum. Zidane smiled slighty at that. He felt deliciously warm. He could still taste the vestiges of his dream where he’d been holding Dagger and she’d felt so nice in his arms, smelling like sunshine and rose petals.

He tilted his head down a little to look at the figure in his arms and froze, suddenly as awake as if a splash of cold water had hit his face. How on Gaia had he ended up on Kuja’s pillow, with Kuja’s head crushed against his chest? Zidane swallowed as he realized the silver-haired man couldn’t move away even if he wanted to since Zidane’s arms were steadfastly holding him in place. But at least he was awake… the relief that brought was worth the embarrassment of their positioning.

"Well, uh… good morning," Zidane said, grinning stupidly as he released Kuja from the death grip he’d had him in. Surprisingly the mage didn’t move away, seemingly content to remain where he was to stare up at the blonde. Or maybe he didn’t have the strength to move?

"How do you feel?" Zidane asked, concerned it was the latter. He pressed his hand against Kuja’s cheek and was relieved to find that his fever had indeed broken. Kuja was still a little sweaty and hot to the touch, his blue-gray eyes a bit glassy, but he was light years better than he’d been the day before.

The other Genome finally rolled away and onto his back, taking stock of his condition before answering. "Tired. Sticky," he grunted, his nose wrinkling in disgust. He slung his arm over his eyes and scowled as his hand brushed against strands of unwashed hair. "Ugh…"

Zidane sat up. "If you’re up to it, I’ll heat some water for a bath."

"Please."

For some reason Zidane found it funny that Kuja had manners at all, since that felt like the antithesis of world destruction, though he supposed Kuja had spent a lot of time around nobles and royalty, where such things mattered.

"Do you need help getting up?" Zidane asked, though his hands had already moved to provide assistance.

Of course, that was deemed immediately offensive. Kuja swatted at them. "No. Don’t touch me."

Great, he’s going to be pissy today, Zidane thought to himself though he kept a smile pasted on his face, mostly out of the knowledge that it’d irritate the heck out of his brother. At least he’s talking though. That alone was a massive improvement over drooling at the ceiling, brooding at the wall, or feverishly sweating all over the bed. "Well princess, I’ll go get started on the water then. You just take your time," the young thief said sweetly as he strode from the room.

Kuja scowled at the departing back, suddenly determined to show just how capable he was of getting by on his own. He didn’t need anyone for anything; he wasn’t foolish enough to expect something like that. Mind made up, he sat up carefully, concentrating on making sure his surrounding stood still, then swung his legs off the bed as he continued to assess his condition. Not great, but he’d manage somehow. He had to. He always had before.

He stood slowly and began shuffling towards the door.

* * *

Kuja slowly lifted his head from where it was leaning against the wall, his brows knitting in irritation at the sound of loud knocking. Strange… he didn’t remember letting his head drop down. Had he been so out of it that he’d somehow nodded off while on his feet? "What?" he managed to croak.

The voice that forced its way through the door seemed too loud, too lively. "Just making sure you’re not on the toilet. Hot water is ready, by the way."

Kuja frowned. Zidane needed to learn tact. He also needed to take down his volume a few notches.

"So can I come in or what?" Zidane yelled.

"Yes."

The door flew open and Zidane’s tail swept in, followed by the rest of his body. He was bent over, dragging a heavy pot from the fireplace to the tub in the corner of the bathroom. When he’d finally gotten it to where he wanted it, he straightened up and exaggeratedly swiped his hand across his brow.

"Whew! Sorry I couldn’t get it hotter, but anything is better than ice cold right?" Zidane said brightly, though he didn’t expect a response. It was too bad he couldn’t get anything except cold water running, or else they’d be able to have proper baths, but he wasn’t going to sweat the small stuff. He looked over to where Kuja was standing and noted how he was slumped against the wall, still fully dressed in baggy pajamas, with a towel loosely clutched in one hand. "You need help?"

Kuja scowled faintly. "No." He didn’t want to admit that it was taking all of his strength just to stand there. How he’d managed to make it the short distance from the bedroom to the bathroom in the first place, he wasn’t sure.

Zidane cocked his head, then after a moment, began pulling off his shirt. "Right. You can barely stand on your own."

"What are you doing? I told you, I don’t need help," Kuja snapped.

"Riiight." Zidane tossed his shirt out the door, then went and yanked off Kuja’s as well, ignoring the snarls of protest. "Now then, pants next. Unless you think you can manage that part yourself?"

Considering the oversized pants were barely hanging on to his hips as it were, even Kuja could handle that part. He managed to balance himself enough to step out of them without stumbling, then took a deep breath and swung himself into the tub, sitting down wearily and immediately wincing at how cold the metal was. It was as effective a wake up call as a bucket of water to the face and just as unwelcome. He drew his long legs up against his chest so that he’d fit better. His tail got wound around his feet.

He gritted his teeth as shivering overtook his body. It was times like this where he most missed the luxuries of the Desert Palace, Treno or even Alexandria Castle. Heck, even a common inn had heated baths! They didn’t have that luxury here, and it didn’t help that the tin tub was too small and the water supply too scant for a good soak anyhow. It was better than nothing though; he knew that. He had no right to complain. But it didn’t mean he had to be happy about it either.

He sighed softly when Zidane knelt behind him and began ladling water over his hair. It was impossible to get it completely clean without the addition of some herbs and oils, but the warmth of the water felt good, as did the careful fingers rubbing over his scalp and combing through the long silver strands.

A bar of soap tapped against his shoulder, and Kuja accepted it gratefully, glad that Zidane wasn’t planning on scrubbing him down too. Not that he had the same hang ups as his brother – men, women, it didn’t matter – but he hated the thought of having to depend on anyone for anything, especially basic necessities that he ought to be able to handle on his own. It rankled to know that Zidane must’ve been washing him, feeding him, dragging him back and forth to the toilet and so on, for countless day or even weeks, while he’d been as helpless and unaware as a newborn babe.

Kuja began soaping himself up, frowning as he brushed over the scars he’d accumulated, a permanent reminder of his loss to Zidane and his companions. Most of the smaller ones would probably fade in time, but he couldn’t say the same for the long whip-like mark cutting across both upper thighs, or the large starburst that wrapped around his left side, reaching from the bottom of his ribs to mid hip. Tumbling through the canopy of the Iifa Tree would do that to a body, though ironically it was that same canopy that had slowed his fall enough to allow him to survive the plunge. He knew he should be grateful he hadn’t broken his back or something, that his internal injuries hadn’t been fatal, but his appearance was something he’d always taken pride in. Unfortunately healing potions just weren’t strong enough to remove all evidence of damage that severe, and although he was nearly as good with white magic as he was with black, he’d been too weak to manage even a single Cure spell since his fall, and now it was too late to erase the resulting marks.

"Don’t worry, you’re still pretty," Zidane remarked when he noticed what Kuja’s attention was fixed on.

Kuja turned and glared, earning him a painful yank on the strands of hair Zidane had been hanging on to. He hated that. "Beautiful" was fine - it couldn’t be helped - but "pretty" was the sort of thing that drunken Treno nobles used when they tried to grope him. "Now you’re mocking me." His tail flicked a bit of water out of the tub in reaction to his growing agitation. He turned his glare on it instead.

"No, not at all. You’re alive; isn’t that what’s important?" When the mage didn’t answer, Zidane went on. "Besides, no one will notice those if you wear normal clothes. You know, ones that don’t look like women’s undergarments."

"My attire was chosen for practical reasons," Kuja finally answered, but he didn’t explain what that meant. Zidane cocked his head. He couldn’t think of a single thing practical about a cropped jacket with billowing sleeves and a thong backed by yards of fabric, unless Kuja meant that it was attention catching and thus inflating to his already overstuffed ego, but Zidane kept his mouth shut. It wasn’t important anyhow, and he didn’t want to fight, not about something so stupid.

"Hmm, if you say so." Zidane began dumping the remaining water over Kuja’s back for a rinse off.

"Appearances matter," Kuja insisted, gingerly tracing yet another long, thin scar on the inside of his right arm, running from wrist to bicep. "Surely during your time masquerading as an actor you came to understand that much." He caught Zidane’s wrist as the blonde went to hand him a towel and tutted softly at the scars the younger Genome had likely picked up after stupidly diving in after him. At least Zidane’s didn’t look nearly as bad from what Kuja could see. A few marks on the arms, a slightly worse one on a shoulder... Zidane must’ve managed a more controlled fall whereas Kuja felt like he’d hit every damn branch on the way down.

And knowing how Zidane’s brain worked, he probably thought the scars made him look more manly or something, a badge of honor to impress girls with. Kuja could just imagine the way the young thief would brag to any ladies in earshot: Oh, these? Yeah, let me tell you about the time I took a flying leap into an angry tree to save my brother while he was lying there helplessly awaiting rescue…

Zidane pulled free of Kuja’s hold and dumped a second towel over his head to carefully dry the silken strands. "I wasn’t masquerading. We’re just an acting troupe with a hidden exit fee tacked on," he explained with a grin as he gently blotted the moisture out of the feathers that crowned Kuja’s mane.

A slight smile appeared on Kuja’s lips, then disappeared just as quickly. "A hidden fee… Is that why you’re still here, Zidane? To collect?"

Sometimes Kuja’s leaps of logic were unfathomable. "What?"

"I’ve been trying to figure it out. Why you came back to the Iifa Tree. Why you bothered dragging me out. Why you’re still here…"

Damn it, and it had been going so well… Zidane grumbled to himself. He wondered if he’d ever get used to Kuja’s mercurial moods. "I’ve already told you – and I’ll keep telling you ‘til you get it - I went back for you ‘cause I wasn’t going to just leave you there to be crushed to death or whatever! And even if… even if it was too late, I didn’t want you to die alone. No one deserves that. I know you’ve changed. You’re sorry for the things you’ve done. You said so, and I believe you. So I want to make sure you get a second chance. Is that so hard to understand?"

The older Genome’s eyes fluttered shut. He was suddenly aware of just how exhausted he was. Zidane was right; he’d explained himself many times already, but Kuja didn’t know if he’d ever be able to believe him. How could he? Zidane’s brand of sunny optimism sounded so stupid. What was the point in giving someone useless like him another chance? He’d destroyed cities and homes, taken so many lives. He bet a lot of those people deserved a second chance more than he did.

"What’s the point? Garland said I’d die soon. It’s what I deserve anyway," Kuja said stiffly. He refused to look at Zidane, even when the blonde stopped drying his hair and moved over to hunch down front of him. "Why bother trying?"

"And when is ‘soon’? You’re just going to give up, just like that, when you don’t know…? You could have years left. But you’d rather squander them moping and feeling sorry for yourself. If you really want to make up for what you’ve done, then you gotta try living, or else you’re right, this is all for nothing."

Kuja sighed but didn’t reply. Zidane went on. "You rebelled against Garland’s expectations, against his orders. You’re not going to roll over and die now just because he said so. Prove him wrong!"

"But… what if he isn’t?" Kuja insisted.

Zidane suddenly stood up. He walked off a few feet, his hands clenching in to fists momentarily. He took a deep breath and managed to relax them enough so that he could rub at his temples, trying to push away the headache that was starting to pound at the sides of his skull. Why did his brother have to be so gods damned stubborn?

"Stop trying to be a hero, Zidane. You can’t save everyone."

Oh yeah, he was going to have a headache for sure. Zidane spun back around. "Good thing I’m not trying to! You’re taking all of my effort as it is."

"What do you want from me, Zidane?" Kuja asked, much more sharply.

"For starters, can you try being more agreeable?"

Kuja’s immediate reaction was to open his mouth to argue, but he caught himself and snapped it shut instead. He still didn’t understand Zidane’s way of thinking; he didn’t know if he ever would. But he’d do as asked and hold his tongue this instance. He owed that much to Zidane. And he still needed to get out of the tub; as loathe as he was to admit it, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to do so on his own.

Zidane looked a little surprised to not get another snappy retort thrown in his face, but he recovered quickly and nodded. "Guess that’s a start. Now then, you think you can manage to dry yourself off?"

Kuja stood… and fell over the moment he tried to step out of the tub. Zidane had been ready to give him a hand, so he was able to catch him easily. He picked up the towel Kuja had dropped and handed it back to him, then held on to his arm, steadying him while the mage tried his best to dry himself off.

Zidane couldn't help but notice that Kuja was starting to shiver again. "Come on, let’s get you back to bed," the young thief sighed. Not wanting to waste time on arguing over it, he simply scooped Kuja up, ignoring the hiss of protest, and carried him back to the bedroom. Although the silver-haired man was a good hand and a half taller, he was proportionally thinner and had lost so much additional weight from being laid up that the younger Genome had no trouble carrying him.

Kuja fought the urge to struggle. He didn’t have the energy for it and was trying to be "agreeable" anyhow. Besides, if he were to be completely honest with himself, although he was still trying to get used to it, it wasn’t that bad, being cared for by someone. It was so foreign that it was almost novel. That didn’t mean he planned on letting his debt go unpaid forever though. There had to be something Zidane wanted or expected from him. He just didn’t know what it was yet, or what he could offer to make things right…

After reaching the bedroom, Zidane put Kuja down on the mattress, damp towels and all, and then rummaged for some fresh clothing. He fished up a gray shirt and blue drawstring pants, much too large of course, but at least they were clean. He tossed them to his brother, who made a face at the selection but went ahead and got dressed, albeit a bit clumsily. There wasn’t a hole cut in the pants for a tail, but he’d been used to concealing it in the hidden pouch built into the skirt-like flap of his old outfit anyhow, so he simply made do by threading it down one pant leg.

Zidane sat down on the bed behind him and went back to drying Kuja's hair, finger combing the strands into some semblance of order. "Feel a little better? Want something to eat?" After Kuja shook his head negatively, the young thief sighed and said, "I didn’t mean to make you shut up completely you know. I’m sorry if that’s what you thought. I want to help, but I don’t know if I’m getting through to you. Don’t you trust me at all?"

"I don’t know how to. I’ve never tried trusting anyone."

"Well, try then. It’ll make both our lives a lot easier."

Kuja snorted.

"Worry about it later though. I’m just glad you’re awake and doing better, after the last few days." Zidane gave the silver mane a final toweling off, then pulled back the covers and nudged Kuja into the center of the bed before tucking him in. "Get some rest, okay?"

"Come to bed too," Kuja asked before he thought to stop himself.

Zidane paused, then smiled. "Actually, I need a bath myself."

"Fine, suit yourself." Kuja grumbled, rolling over.

So much for being agreeable, Zidane chuckled to himself. "Oh, all right." He hesitated a split second, trying to decide whether or not he should stay on top of the covers, then decided it was too chilly to just hang out without a shirt. So he slid under the blankets on the side closest to the door, propping his chin up with one hand while letting his fingers play lightly over Kuja’s shoulder the way one would comfort a child. The mage made a small, pleased sound at the contact. Zidane smirked. Only minutes ago, Kuja was spitting mad at being touched, and now he was welcoming it. It made Zidane wonder amusedly if maybe Genomes were part cat, because only cats were so hot and cold about being touched. That and the tails of course…

But at least it did the trick. Kuja was asleep in no time. Once Zidane was sure of it, he rolled out of bed, grabbed the towels and a change of clothes, and silently padded out of the room. Good thing he’d already had a second pot of water heating. Kuja had seemed to enjoy his bath; Zidane was looking forward to one too.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

 - I know, Genome tails are prehensile like a monkey’s, but while Zidane certainly reminds me of a monkey, Kuja makes me think of a prissy, fussy cat. I can’t resist equating him with one.

 - Shout outs, before I forget. Thanks to Nenya85 for beta work, even without foreknowledge of the game. And to the Final Fantasy Wiki and The White Dragon’s walkthrough on the Let’s Play Archive for providing much needed information, game quotes, and inspiration. Let’s face it, it’s pretty hard trying to memorize every nuance of a game, and I wanted to utilize as much canon as possible to build the foundation for this fic.

 - For a bit of extra flavor, I would encourage readers to look up the corresponding lyrics to each chapter title. All the chapter titles are taken from Queen songs. I have lyrics posted on the chapters posted on my site but have omitted them from the chapters here to avoid any conflicts with terms of service.

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" is performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Once again, it was late afternoon by the time Zidane got back from his supply run. It had becoming something of a routine… twice a week, he’d leave for the Dwarven outpost early in the afternoon and come back as the sun began dipping down behind the mountains, bathing the land in a golden glow before the coolness of night came to swallow up the light’s warmth.

He shouldered the door open and dumped the provisions on the floor. That too was part of the routine. Come home, toss everything onto the floor, and sort it out later. The first priority was to check in on his housemate, of course.

Much to his relief, he immediately spotted Kuja in the living room, sitting on the sofa by the window. "Honey, I’m home!" he called out cheerily.

"Not sure who you’re talking to, but if you wish to converse with an imaginary friend, be my guest," Kuja sourly responded.

Zidane just grinned. He didn’t mean to tease his companion, not really, but it made him happy to hear a response, no matter how biting the comments were. Winter was just beginning to loosen its grip and Kuja’s condition was improving, though he still had a ways to go. On the surface he looked fine, if slightly worse for wear. And he hadn’t had a severe setback since the high fever that had floored him for a couple of days at the onset of winter. But for some reason he hadn’t recovered any of his former strength, as if his soul were still dying despite all of Zidane’s efforts to save him. So Kuja remained bedridden for the most part, tiring easily and sleeping a lot as a result. And of course magic was still completely beyond him… Zidane had come home three days ago to find the once unstoppable mage passed out on the floor, all because he’d tried to cast a basic Fire spell on the wood in the fireplace.

At least Kuja hadn’t been stupid enough to try that again. The older Genome was currently curled up on the sofa with a blanket and a large, weathered looking book.

"What’s that?" Zidane asked.

Kuja looked up and gave him a funny look. "It’s called a book, Zidane."

Zidane smirked. Along with the weather and Kuja’s health, their relationship had improved as well. They could hold a real conversation now. They could even joke around and say stupid things to each other. Zidane found himself increasingly enjoying the time he spent with his fellow Genome. There was a lot he still didn’t know about his species, about Garland, about Terra, and he was eager to snap up any little tidbits Kuja let slip his way, though the silver-haired man was still reluctant to talk about those things. Yes, Zidane still missed his friends, but the loneliness that had hung heavily over his head the first couple of months had finally abated now that there was someone to pass the time with. So even though it was finally starting to warm up, he had no plans to move back out of the bedroom they’d been sharing.

Letting loose an exaggerated sigh to match his devil may care smirk, Zidane volleyed back, "I KNOW that. I mean, where did you find it? I don’t remember seeing anything like that on the bookshelf."

"It was in the shed out back."

"Oh…" Zidane wasn’t sure if he ought to scold Kuja for wandering around outside or congratulate him on feeling well enough to do so, despite the risk of faceplanting in the snow and freezing to death. Though he supposed he wasn’t surprised. There really wasn’t anything to do around the house and Kuja had blown through the entire shelf of books multiple times already… Maybe that was why he’d asked Zidane to pick up a sewing kit from the outpost, because he was just that bored.

Zidane stepped closer and glanced at the cover of the book again. "Reading up on Eidolons huh? Learned anything new?"

"I’m not doing anything bad," Kuja snapped defensively. "It was just sitting there. And I like reading. I don’t see anything wrong with it."

"Hey hey, I wasn’t complaining," Zidane said, hands held up defensively. He wasn’t surprised to find confirmation that they were holed up in a former Summoner home, probably built by one of the survivors of Kuja’s attack some eleven years prior. Ironic then that it was providing them both safety and shelter. Hell, Eiko Carol’s family might have lived there at some point… She might’ve even been born there.

No point in tripping that trap though. Zidane hated having to avoid conversational land mines all the time, but since he’d already stepped on one, he supposed it was up to him to steer the conversation to safer ground. He remembered his friends telling him about the huge library within the Desert Palace, the shelves stretching three floors high, all the way to the ceiling. "You must like reading a lot. The Desert Palace had a library that rivaled Alexandria Castle’s, right?"

Kuja nodded, pleased that Zidane had taken note of that. "I had a lot of time on my hands. When I wasn’t plotting anything, of course," the mage added with acidic sweetness.

Zidane thought back to the Desert Palace again. The name was fitting – it was a huge, palatial estate, surpassing even the Grand Castle of Lindblum and Alexandria Castle in opulent splendor. But for such a tremendous building, it had been surprisingly empty, occupied by some monsters and not much else. "It must’ve been pretty boring there otherwise, huh?"

"I suppose."

"Why’d you live there then? I mean, I know you had a way of getting back and forth, but it was still awfully out of the way."

"It was convenient precisely because it was 'out of the way.'"

"So you really didn’t think of it as home?"

"It was… a pretty cage. A place to put books, artwork… guests. Whatever caught my fancy," Kuja said with an unapologetic smile.

Zidane rolled his eyes at the jab. "So Alexandria or Treno were more to your taste then?"

Kuja just shrugged. He had no idea why Zidane was asking. It seemed he was missing the point entirely. "‘Home’ is a foreign concept when you’re stuck on an alien world, don’t you think?"

The thief scratched his head. "Well, you say that, but I still consider Lindblum my hometown, even if I wasn’t born there."

"Suit yourself."

Zidane wondered if he was ready to step on another trap, though there was one thing he’d been dying to find out since he’d first met Garland. It seemed the perfect time to ask, if he was willing to risk it. As much as he liked getting to know Kuja, things like home and friends and family were weighing more and more on him as of late. "Um… do you mind if I ask you something else?"

"You enjoy the sound of your own voice entirely too much," Kuja complained, but still he shut the book, putting it aside with a sigh. "As if I could stop you."

"Haha, real funny. So, well… uh," and Zidane began mindlessly tracing a pattern on the floor with his foot, "why Lindblum?"

"Why Lindblum what?"

"Why’d you take me to Lindblum and leave me there, when I was little?"

There was no answer. No sound even, as if they’d both held their breaths for a few heartbeats. Kuja shifted slightly on the sofa, and the creaking of the wood frame seemed as loud as a crash in the silence. Zidane looked up from where he’d been studying the worn rug to see his brother staring off into space. "Kuja?"

The mage turned to blink at Zidane, and the blonde was struck by the somewhat confused, somewhat haunted look in those slate blue eyes. "Why do you think?" Kuja finally responded, his voice flat.

"Garland said… he told me that you’d left me on Gaia because you felt threatened by me, by my potential."

"And you believed him?"

"Well…" Zidane briefly scratched the back of his head. "It kinda made sense at the time. And it wasn’t like I could ask you, until now."

Kuja huffed. "Maybe he thought that that was the truth. It wasn’t like he asked me to explain myself, nor did he care. Or maybe he’s just a chronic liar... Unless you think he only lied to me about one little thing, that I’m not really going to drop dead any day now?" he asked bitterly.

"You know I don’t believe that. But I think he didn’t understand his own creations as well as he’d thought. The Black Mages didn’t turn out the way you'd intended either…"

"Thanks for the reminder."

Zidane let it drop. It wasn’t fair for him to throw Kuja’s past transgressions in his face every time they started arguing. The last time he’d done it – while they were fighting about who ought to be doing the cooking, of all things – Kuja had gotten all worked up and barricaded himself in the bathroom while yelling that he was worthless and deserved to die. Zidane had been tempted to kick the door in but he’d been sick of catering to Kuja’s hissyfits, so instead he’d sat outside the bathroom for over an hour, waiting for Kuja to get over himself, before the mage had finally, sulkily, crawled out. Zidane so didn’t want a repeat of that. All the drama was exhausting. He knew that the other Genome was sorry about the things he’d done. It didn’t help anyone or anything to remind him of his many misdeeds; all it did was make him to beat himself up over it.

"So why’d you do it then?" Zidane finally asked. He wanted to know the reason, because now that he thought about it, Garland’s assumption didn’t make much sense. If Kuja had truly been jealous of him or hated him, wouldn’t he have simply killed him and been done with it?

"Oh, I don’t know," Kuja sighed. "Why do you think?"

Zidane scowled. "Just tell me!"

"What’s the point? I’ve lied to you as much as Garland has. What if I just lied to you again?" Kuja threw back.

Zidane shut his eyes a moment. It was so easy for his fellow Genome to push his buttons, but he knew if he didn’t take the bait, Kuja would calm down too, and talk. Maybe he was trying to avoid the topic for some reason…?

"You won’t," Zidane insisted. "Not now, not ever again. Not to me."

Kuja frowned, blinking owlishly. He hadn’t expected the younger man to say something like that. How could he be so sure when even Kuja himself didn’t know if he could hold up to such an expectation?

"Please. I want to know," Zidane said softly. "Even if Garland was right, that’s okay too. I won’t hold it against you, you know."

Kuja wrung his hands, something Zidane noted simply because he’d never seen the mage do that before, as he seemingly tried to make up his mind about something. Maybe he wanted to reveal the truth but didn’t know how… or he feared how it would be received. Zidane reached out and lightly touched Kuja’s shoulder, seeking to reassure him. Kuja started at the contact but didn’t pull away.

"I didn’t always hate him," the silver-haired man began hesitantly. He looked for his brother’s reaction - in this case, a nod of acknowledgement - before going on. "In the beginning I tried to do everything he expected of me. But he was never satisfied. I didn’t understand why. I didn’t know… he wasn’t ever going to accept me no matter what I did. After all I was a test subject, a defect, and he was going to get what use he could out of me before discarding me."

Kuja continued on. "What was so wrong with me? Did I sound insincere when I called him ‘Master?’ Did I not grovel fast enough or long enough for his liking? Or did he decide I wasn’t worth keeping just because some fluke in my genetic programming gave me the wrong hair color, the wrong eye color?" Kuja reached up and twined a few long strands of hair around a finger, then yanked, hard. "I can’t help this, you know. I didn’t ask to be made like this."

Zidane shook his head slowly as his hand tightened on Kuja’s arm of its own accord. He didn’t have an answer. But at the same time, he couldn’t stop the mental image that cropped up of Garland walking though the labs of Bran Bal, examining the Genomes growing in the capsules, stopping before Kuja’s capsule and calculating whether he should simply dispose of the aberration within or keep it around to experiment on.

"If only I’d been created second… It must’ve been nice, being the beloved hero," Kuja sighed, but Zidane didn’t fall for the trap. As wistful as it had sounded, the blonde knew it was a dig at him. Kuja wasn’t going to stop baiting him just because they were on friendly terms now.

"Your canary is quite the catch, isn’t she?" Kuja went on in his usual singsong way, as if nothing were amiss. "The rest of the bunch were rather ragtag though, but I suppose that couldn’t be helped. Though perhaps the little Summoner girl has potential…"

It was one thing for Zidane to let an insult directed at him slide off his back. He wasn’t nearly so forgiving when it came to his friends. "Hey, lay off! You don’t get to pick on them anymore. They’re all good people… and they’re my friends."

Kuja snorted dismissively and flipped his hair back off his shoulders. He looked smug, his earlier sadness momentarily eclipsed by the satisfaction of getting a rise out of his brother.

Hearing the mage talking like that, his tone wavering between pained bitterness and fake cheer, Zidane understood why Garland had thought Kuja had hated him enough to abandon him on Gaia. It was pretty sad… though Kuja had never been anything but an adult, just like a child seeking a parent’s affections, he had wanted his master’s approval. He’d wanted recognition and praise. Instead he’d been used as a tool, with the knowledge hanging over him that he’d be replaced when he was no longer good enough. No, Kuja hadn’t been totally truthful when he’d said he hadn’t dumped Zidane on Gaia out of jealousy – there had to be some element of that in there – but even though he could’ve just killed Zidane and been done with it, he hadn’t. So the truth had to lie somewhere between the two extremes. Kuja himself probably didn’t really know his own reasons.

But there was one thing Zidane had figured out. Garland had been wrong about Kuja, and not just about his reasons for taking Zidane away and leaving him on Gaia. Their creator had derided Kuja for being inferior because he couldn’t achieve Trance due to his inability to experience the complex emotions needed to fuel the change. But it wasn’t that Kuja was incapable of experiencing them. Clearly, he had feelings like anyone else with a soul. But he had no clue what to do with them or how to control them, fluctuating wildly between moods all the time. It made him an unstable mess – dangerous and flippant, narcissistic and petty, yet childish and sad and deeply insecure. And Zidane was now the one stuck dealing with the fallout.

"You still didn’t answer my question, you know," Zidane finally pointed out, after another minute of silence. He wasn’t sure if Kuja had purposely evaded it again, or if he’d gotten caught up in himself as usual and completely forgotten about it.

Kuja glanced at him and began fidgeting again. "Oh, that. Well… honestly, I’m not sure why I did it. But that’s not what you were hoping to hear, is it?"

The silver-haired man suddenly stood up and began pacing, his tail lashing about behind him. "Was I trying to save you? I knew he’d planned on starting your ‘training’ soon. Or maybe I didn’t care about that at all; maybe I was only trying to save myself, by removing you from the equation. Or… maybe I just wanted to make Garland mad. I seemed to be good at that."

Kuja was right, it hadn’t been what he'd wanted to hear, but Zidane still felt some relief. It appeared that he understood his brother more than he used to, although he still wasn’t completely buying the explanation. "It sounds like it was a little bit of everything..."

"Maybe…" Kuja shrugged in an exaggerated manner, ending that portion of the conversation, then continued on in a silky smooth voice, "Master Garland had been so displeased when I’d gotten back. There was no point in hiding it… who else would’ve done it? I didn’t tell him where I’d left you though, not that it mattered… By the time he’d taken the Invincible to check the forests around Lindblum, you were long gone."

"Wait, if you didn’t tell him, how did he know that I was around Lindblum?"

"That’s a silly question, isn’t it? There’s plenty of ways to obtain information." Kuja tapped an index finger on the side of his head, then went on. "Be grateful he hadn’t anyone else to send after you and was unwilling to risk revealing himself, or he might’ve found you."

"But… why did you go back? You could’ve just stayed on Gaia, in Lindblum, with me. Baku would have taken us both in, I’m sure."

"And what else, pray tell, would’ve kept Garland’s attention long enough to buy time to ensure your escape?" Kuja suddenly snapped, a slight sob catching in his throat. He tried in vain to cover it up with a cough, then continued on in a more subdued voice, "Besides, he could track me far easier than you. So there was no choice, was there?"

Zidane sucked in a breath. He knew it… his brother really had wanted to save him from sharing his fate as Garland’s puppet, despite all his claims to the contrary, despite the jealousy that kept rearing its head like a venomous snake.

"Kuja… what did he do to you?" Zidane whispered, thinking back to the time when he’d stupidly gone to confront Garland on his own and barely escaped being turned into an empty vessel. He still wasn’t sure what Garland had done to try and purge his consciousness, and he didn’t think he wanted to know. To know that his brother had shackled himself to the master he hated just to give him a shot at the freedom he’d so desperately craved was horrifying.

The mage’s eyes narrowed slightly. "Once I had sufficiently recovered, he threw me out of Terra and banned me from returning," he replied, both answering and evading the question at the same time. "That didn’t stop him from giving me orders and trying to ensure my obedience, but at least it meant I wouldn’t be back in his lab."

Zidane couldn’t help it. He stepped forward, threw his arms around Kuja and squeezed, hard. Though it was true that Kuja was guilty of many misdeeds, how different would things have been if someone had done for him what he’d done for Zidane? It shouldn’t have taken 25 years for someone to care enough to offer him a helping hand.

Kuja jerked in surprise before cautiously relaxing into the embrace a little. He wasn’t sure what Zidane wanted from him, so he figured it was best to wait and see what would happen. Zidane was starting to stroke his back slowly, as if he were a cat, and so it only felt natural for Kuja to turn his head and rub his cheek against Zidane’s golden hair. It felt nice, being held by the younger Genome. He had a powerful, athletic body, though it was slim and compact too, and large hands that were surprisingly gentle. He was warm as a ray of sunshine. Kuja hesitantly began rubbing Zidane’s back in return and was rewarded with a faint, contented sigh.

They stayed like that for a minute or two until Kuja broke the comfortable silence with a soft laugh. "You were always like this, even when you were little."

Zidane’s hand stilled and he reluctantly pulled away to look up at his brother quizzically. "What do you mean?"

"You liked grabbing on to me however you could – by my leg, my tail, my clothes – and you’d hang on tightly and wouldn’t let go. I’m not sure why you singled me out though..."

That was the first time he’d heard anything about what he’d been like as a baby. Kuja had always avoided the subject before. It made Zidane curious as to what life was like in Bran Bal. His only early childhood memory was a blue light, nothing more. Though at least the answer to Kuja’s question was obvious. "Maybe it’s because I liked you, then."

"Is that so?" Kuja’s eyes were beginning to glimmer beneath heavy lids. "Do you still like me now?"

"Of course."

Kuja grinned. "Good. I like you too," he purred, pursing his lips as he gripped Zidane’s shoulders and pulled him closer.

The blonde was so stunned by the turn of events that he barely managed to turn his head in time to avoid a mouth on mouth collision. "Wha… what are you doing?!" he gasped as Kuja’s lips glanced off his cheekbone.

"You said you liked me, didn’t you? And I like you."

Zidane quirked an eyebrow. "Yeah, but not like… like-like," he lamely protested. Great, now he sounded like a two-year-old. It was hard concentrating on vocabulary though when he could still feel Kuja’s warm breath gusting against his cheek. He shivered slightly.

"Like-like? What does that even mean?"

Zidane felt his face flushing. "Uh… never mind."

Perplexed, Kuja frowned slightly, then tried again to reel Zidane in. The shorter Genome froze momentarily in disbelief before pushing away with a hiss. "Okay, seriously, it’s not funny anymore!"

"You’re right, it’s not. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Me?? Uh, hello? You’re a guy? I’m a guy?"

Kuja rolled his eyes. "So?"

"So why are you trying to kiss me?"

"You tell me. You started this!"

Zidane was flabbergasted. "I started this?"

"You grabbed me first. And you said you liked me," Kuja said flatly.

The blonde stared at his hands helplessly a moment, as if they’d betrayed him by wandering where they shouldn’t have. He didn’t remember doing anything inappropriate… "It was a hug. Just a hug. And I don’t like you like that. I mean, you’re not even a girl!"

"Thanks for noticing. I’m glad I don’t have to take my pants off to prove it this time."

"What?! What does that… No, I mean… Damn, I don’t even know what I mean anymore," Zidane stammered. He was starting to get confused. If Kuja had been a girl, would he have turned his head or pushed him away? Or would he have been receptive to his… er, her advances? What about Dagger?

Meanwhile Kuja just continued to stand there, scowling.

Zidane stared back. Even when angry, Kuja really did have a beautiful face. And… Zidane had no idea why he’d just thought that. "Why doesn’t it bother you?"

"Why would it?"

Zidane frowned and took a half step back to look Kuja up and down. Genomes seemed to default to an androgynous or even slightly feminine build regardless of their gender, and Kuja was no exception. He was built like, well… a flat chested girl. He even had a tiny waist and curved hips like a woman would have, though his baggy clothing was obscuring that at the moment.

"Excuse me for being repulsive," Kuja said, shifting uneasily under the sudden scrutiny, pushing back limp bangs and smoothing down his ill-fitting shirt, as if a few adjustments would magically improve Zidane’s perception of him. As if that were the problem.

The thief sighed. Kuja may have been many things, but repulsive was not one of them. "Believe me, you’re not. It’s just… well, we’re both guys."

"And?"

"And I’m not into that!" Zidane yelled, louder than he’d intended.

Kuja jerked back, eyes narrowed. "You need to be more honest with yourself, Zidane," he snarled, taking in the younger man’s flushed cheeks and the slight bulge in his pants. "But I get it now… This was all a mistake. You’re just confused. You didn’t mean what you did or said."

Zidane noticed what Kuja was looking at and immediately began squirming helplessly, trying to will it to go away. He couldn’t believe what his body was doing… what the hell was going on? He sucked in a breath to continue arguing, decided against it, then abruptly turned tail and fled the house, ignoring Kuja’s cry of, "Where are you going?" The blonde thought he had to be going crazy, stuck out in some gods forsaken wasteland with Kuja for months. That was the only explanation for it. He wasn’t attracted to the older Genome, damn it!

* * *

Author’s Notes:

 - I liked the scene after Zidane and co. rescue Lady Hilda because of her revelation that Kuja told her all his plans (that, and Hilda scolding / threatening Cid amused me greatly). There’s two ways to interpret this, I suppose. One is Hilda’s theory, that Kuja’s so egotistical that he figured even if someone knew of his plans, there was no way of stopping him. But I don’t think that’s a complete explanation… Kuja’s a pretty smart guy (and not the Riddler), so I don’t see why he’d go babbling to Hilda just to stroke his ego. The other possibility, the one I think is the main reason, is that he’s so lonely that he resorted to talking to his prisoner, for lack of anyone else to talk to. Logically he should’ve just killed her or something if all he wanted was her airship (Hilda says that she didn't believe her abduction was part of his plan) – it’s not like he had any qualms about killing people off - but since she was a good listener, he didn’t mind dragging her around with him.

- One of the mental hurdles I had to overcome when I first started writing this story is the fact that I see Zidane as straight… mostly. He clearly loves the ladies; gone unchallenged, he’d happily chase skirt for the rest of his life. I didn’t want to flip a switch and make him magically, exclusively gay. But I think (assuming you buy that he’d have some previously unexplored inclination to some degree of bisexuality) he could be open minded to possibilities and change as well. And I think Kuja’s androgynous enough in both appearance and mannerism to kind of sneak in under the radar and shake up Zidane’s perceptions enough to allow for something to develop. Well... at least I’m not asking Zidane to make eyes at Steiner? : )

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews, as always, are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Leaving Home Ain’t Easy" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Zidane ran and ran until he exhausted himself. By the time he stopped to catch his breath, he couldn’t see any sign of the house at all, not even a curl of smoke from the chimney. The part of the path he’d been sprinting along had obviously lain unused for quite some time, being overgrown with clumps of dead weeds that poked out of the thin layer of late season snow. He wasn’t quite sure where he was, nor how much further the path would go on. Not that it mattered. The sun was already setting. There wasn’t really anywhere else to go but back to the old house he’d been sharing with Kuja.

He finished looking around, then, in the interest of not freezing his tush and tail off on the ice covered boulders, gingerly crouched down to think. Zidane prided himself on being really easy going and tolerant, but Kuja had somehow managed to push him too far. And what sucked even more was the fact that it had happened during the course of a meaningful conversation, one that had given Zidane a new perspective on who Kuja really was. Or at least, that’s what Zidane had thought he’d been seeing…

Had Kuja simply been playing with him, plying him with lies? Zidane considered it a brief moment before dismissing it. No… Although he had no doubt that Kuja was a pretty good actor, there was no mistaking the genuine rawness of the older man’s emotions when he’d said he had returned to Garland to give a then four-year-old Zidane a better chance at escaping. He hadn’t made up that story. He really had sacrificed himself for Zidane’s sake.

But then right on the heels of that came the mess / misunderstanding that had sent Zidane running. He still wasn’t sure how things had gotten so out of control. All he’d been trying to do was to make Kuja feel better, to remind him that he now had a friend he could count on. But Kuja had somehow had misread that as Zidane making a pass at him, and then gotten mad that younger Genome had mislead him. Zidane shook his head. Was it really possible that Kuja didn’t understand the concept of friendship? There was no way he could be that clueless. Surely, at some point… he must’ve befriended someone, somewhere.

But try as he might, Zidane couldn’t remember ever seeing Kuja socializing or being friendly with anyone. He saw other people only as tools to be used, controlled or manipulated, just as he'd been Garland’s tool.

And as much as the blonde hated to admit it, although he’d hugged Kuja as a friend, the reaction his body had had had nothing to do with friendship. So who was the real liar?

… Well, if he HAD to pick a guy to make out with…

Ugh, no way! Why am I even wondering about it? Maybe I really HAVE been stuck out here too long, Zidane yelled at himself in exasperation. But he kind of felt bad for dismissing it so readily too. If that was how Kuja was, well, he couldn’t help it. And it didn’t really change things did it? Hell, they’d been sleeping in the same bed for months now and nothing bad had happened, so as long as Zidane went back and explained himself clearly, they could go on living as they’d been.

But what if Kuja did want more? He hadn’t been opposed to it when he’d thought Zidane had been making a pass at him. He’d even said that he liked Zidane, and not in the friendship sense. The thief didn’t want to hurt Kuja's feelings, but there was no avoiding it – there was just no way they could have a relationship. Zidane still had every intention of returning to Dagger, of finally telling her - clearly - just how he felt. But he couldn’t back to her until he knew Kuja would be okay without him. And yet he’d run off and just left his fellow Genome behind over a stupid misunderstanding… and it was getting darker and colder with each passing minute.

With a heavy sigh, Zidane stood up and began running back up the path.

* * *

It was well into the evening by the time Zidane managed to pick his way back to the house. It was even darker inside than it was outside as the fire in the hearth had burned down to mere embers. Zidane quickly tossed in a few logs and got it going again, then looked around for his brother, though he didn’t have to look far. Kuja was curled up in a ball on the floor next to the sofa, pretty much where Zidane had left him. The blonde crouched down beside him. Kuja refused to look up or acknowledge him.

Zidane sighed softly and reached out to lay a hand on Kuja’s shoulder. The silver-haired man flinched and jerked back as soon as it made contact, but gave no other response. Zidane frowned. "Hey, I know you’re awake. Come on, talk to me."

"Why?" Kuja croaked, refusing to unfurl. Even his tail was curled up defensively around him.

"Please? I don’t want to apologize to the top of your head."

The feathers atop Kuja’s mane quivered a little as he lifted his head a bit, just enough so he could peek out from the barricade formed by his arms. Zidane tilted his head to look at him. He couldn’t be sure, but Kuja’s eyelids looked a little puffy...

"You… came back," Kuja said slowly, his voice still muffled.

Zidane nodded. "Yeah. Listen, I…"

Kuja suddenly gave a dry chuckle. "Ah, I suppose you did leave all your things here."

The younger man sighed again. "Kuja, I’m not going anywhere. You still need my help."

"Your help? I don’t need it. I don’t want anything from you!"

"Do you seriously have to argue with me on every little thing?" Zidane snapped back. Kuja’s mood swings drove him crazier than anything else on Gaia.

Immediately Kuja rolled back up into a tight ball. "Fine then, go away! Leave me alone!" he spat, the words barely discernable once again.

Zidane’s head dropped to his chest. He shouldn’t have lost his temper. He didn’t have the right when he was the one who needed to apologize. He let out a huge sigh. "Okay, let me try that again. I’m sorry. I really am. I shouldn’t have walked off earlier, and I shouldn’t have snapped at you just now. Please, Kuja… forgive me?" Seeing that his words weren’t getting through, the thief decided to try a different tactic. Actions spoke louder than words after all.

He reached out again and rested his hand on Kuja’s hair and began stroking it slowly. He knew Kuja responded to physical contact better than anything else. He just hoped that a few pats on the head would be safe enough and wouldn’t be misconstrued as something else. But after a few seconds, Zidane’s hand stilled. His brow furrowed. Why was Kuja’s hair so cold to the touch?

"Kuja?" Zidane’s hands slid down to firmly rest on the other Genome’s shoulders, then flew down over his arms. It was chilly in the house, yes, but Kuja was even colder, as if he’d been out in the snow or something. Zidane checked him over even more carefully. Kuja’s pants were damp at the knee and ankle. And he was trembling faintly from more than just being upset. "You didn’t go outside did you?"

Kuja finally responded in a low voice. Zidane strained to hear him. "I yelled for you to come back. I said I was sorry. But you didn’t stop. I started to follow, but…"

"You’re gonna make yourself sick again!" Zidane gasped, but he stopped short of making it a lecture and instead hopped to his feet to grab the blanket off the sofa, which he draped over Kuja’s shoulders. Then he disappeared into the bedroom a minute before returning with a pair of socks and pants. "Come on, put these on."

The older man finally looked up and accepted the change of clothing. He didn’t look happy about it, but he went ahead and complied instead of arguing back.

Kuja wasn’t healthy. That was no secret. He must’ve run after Zidane until he’d gotten too tired to go on, then dragged himself back to the house. Zidane’s instinct was to pull him into a hug, but he forced himself to refrain from doing so. The last thing he needed was to complicate things even more when they hadn’t had a chance to clear the air on the previous incident. So instead he sat down on the sofa with the mage and got the blanket around both their shoulders before going back to petting the long silver hair. He even wrapped his tail around Kuja’s, trying to warm that up as well.

"I’m sorry. I really am an idiot. I didn’t mean to worry you this much," Zidane said sincerely.

"Who says I was worried?"

Zidane just smiled. "You really do drive me nuts, you know that? But that doesn’t matter. I know I get mad at you, but that’s only 'cause I care about you and worry about you." He paused, then added, "Would it be okay if I hugged you? You’re really cold. It’d help warm you up faster, but… it’s just a hug, okay?"

Kuja shrugged, but went ahead and initiated the hug this time, slinging an arm around Zidane’s shoulders. Zidane hesitated a moment, wondering if anything else would happen, but when the other Genome didn’t try anything, Zidane reached over and pulled Kuja closer, until Kuja leaned his head against Zidane’s and shut his eyes. "I can’t stay mad at you. But I don’t understand you either. You saved my life when you had no reason to at all; you’ve taken care of me for months… even though you have a lovely little canary waiting at home for you. Why would you go to such lengths for someone like me? Why give me another chance?"

No matter how many times Kuja asked, the answer was the same. "Because you wanted to make amends, and I wanted you to have that chance," Zidane automatically replied. Then he paused, thought about it, and added, "And because… I’m your friend. This is what friends do, you know?"

"I don’t know. I haven’t had any."

Zidane swallowed a sigh. He’d wondered about that just a while ago, and now he had his answer. But knowing definitely didn’t make him feel better. "Well, now you know what it’s like to have one, okay?" he finally said.

Kuja snorted tiredly. "You say that, but part of you was interested in what I was offering."

"A wet, sloppy kiss?" Zidane tried joking.

"I was trying to give you what you wanted, because you said you liked me."

"But you understand what I meant now, don’t you?" Zidane waited until Kuja gave a hesitant nod, then added, "Although it’s okay with me if you’re into that sort of thing. I mean, I’m not going to think badly of you just because of that. Just… I’m not one of those people."

"’Those people’…" Kuja tsked softly, then lightly nuzzled Zidane’s hair. He tried not to laugh at the lack of negative reaction. It made no sense that Zidane would complain about a kiss but be fine with cuddling. "One kiss won’t kill you. And honestly… if you haven’t tried it, how can you say you wouldn’t like it? It really makes very little difference if it’s with a guy or a girl, you know. Even moreso if you like women with beards."

Zidane rolled his eyes, though he managed to refrain from pulling back or pushing Kuja away. Even with the fire and the blanket, Kuja wasn’t warming up as fast as Zidane would’ve liked. "What’s with you and wanting to kiss me?"

Kuja smiled, but grew a little more serious. "Even though I don’t understand you, and we get on each other’s nerves more often than not, I’m still grateful you’re here. I’ve never had anyone worry about me. I wanted to do something for you, to thank you, and I figured… Well, it’s not like I have much else to offer you at this time..."

"Saying thanks is enough. I don’t need anything else."

"It’s not," Kuja insisted.

"It is for me. Besides, I can’t imagine kissing someone if I don’t even… like-like them, you know?"

"Why?"

Zidane did pull back at that, just enough to give his fellow Genome a look. "Are you kidding?" he asked incredulously. Kuja could fib at the drop of a hat. He did it so naturally it was impossible to tell half the time if he was being truthful or not.

"It’s not a big deal. It’s quite easy, actually, to do it and make it convincing."

"Of course it’s a big deal! I mean, if you could do that, then…" Zidane just stared at his brother, remembering how he used to dress, flashing so much skin that it’d make a cabaret dancer blush. It was nearly as revealing as some of the Terran clothing Zidane had spied on their fellow Genomes but far, far flashier. And something that had lain in the back of his mind for many weeks suddenly sprung up again. Appearances matter. My attire was chosen for practical reasons. "You couldn’t have… You didn’t, did you…?"

"Didn’t what?" Kuja asked, but when Zidane glanced over at him, it was clear from his expression that he knew exactly what the thief was asking.

"You know what! Quit being difficult."

"Hmph. What does it matter to you? Don’t try to pretend to be noble. Sex is merely another way to wrest power."

"It does matter! I couldn’t imagine doing something like that without at least really, really liking the other person."

The silver-haired man sighed dramatically, as if he were dealing with a child. "Would you have preferred that I simply killed them all instead?"

"That’s not funny! Kuja…"

"No, what’s funny is you thinking poorly of me for using what I easily have at my disposal to engage in a common activity that benefits both parties."

Zidane had never heard of lovemaking being described so clinically and… verbosely before. "Benefits?"

"I usually am quite good at whatever I set my mind to," Kuja sniffed, offended. "Besides, you only gain their confidence if you can first satisfy their desires, whatever they may be."

Kuja hadn’t mentioned feeling love, desire, or even pleasure. "But… why? Why would you go to such lengths?" the younger man asked.

"I wasn’t nearly as powerful as you think, not when I first began my campaign here. Let me remind you, I couldn’t even enter Trance until recently. What did you think I was collecting Eidolons for? Why did I need an army of Black Mages? I needed power, and lots of it. So while I honed my magic I also learned to persuade, to manipulate… and if a silver tongue weren’t enough to do the trick, well, there was always the body that came with it." Kuja paused in his rambling to catch his breath, then added, "It really did turn out to be the simplest and most effective route in many cases."

Zidane frowned, but stayed silent as he thought back on Kuja’s earlier, tasteless joke… and then his mind went to a bad, bad place. "Please don’t tell me… Queen Brahne…" he gasped out, shaking his head as if that’d dislodge the mental image of his brother making romantic moves on Dagger’s rather… generously sized mother.

Kuja glared at that but didn’t answer. Zidane wasn’t sure if he ought to be relieved or not. Either the other Genome was offended at his presumption, or he really had gone through with it and didn’t want to remember that he’d resorted to such a measure.

"Never mind. Don’t answer that." Zidane reached up to rub at his forehead. Kuja’s brand of logic never failed to give him a headache. "Okay, I get that you don’t respect anyone else. But how could you do that to yourself?"

Kuja’s face darkened a moment, then grew thoughtful. He opened his mouth to speak but seemed to be struggling to find the right words. "Why did Garland give me… us - free will if we weren’t supposed to use it? But free will meant nothing when I was tethered on a leash like a dog." He sighed. Considering the amount of time he’d spent carefully plotting his master’s demise, he’d never gotten to enjoy his hard won freedom. Even in death, Garland had managed to cast one last noose around his neck. He still couldn’t shake the feeling that Death was always a half step behind him and ready to wrap cold hands around his throat.

"In the end, it’s my body and my decision to use it however I please," the older Genome finally managed to croak, swallowing hard.

"I guess," Zidane mumbled as he leaned back against Kuja a little, before reaching over for a strand of hair to play with. He didn’t know why, but it was kind of relaxing, just stroking Kuja’s hair. "You should be a little nicer to yourself though."

Kuja just laughed, though it wasn’t a happy sound. "I’ve only ever been nice to myself." He glanced at Zidane and shrugged. "But at least you don’t have to worry about it anymore. No one on Gaia is going to fall for the ‘charms’ of a beat up, washed up, former Angel of Death. Even you don’t want me, and you’re the only person who can even tolerate being in my presence."

"Don’t say that."

"Well it’s true, isn’t it? You won’t even let me show you some gratitude… you’d rather run off and freeze to death out in the snow, you dolt."

"Geez, I said I’m sorry you know," Zidane grumbled. "Look, what can I do to make it up to you?" He regretted saying that as soon as the words were out of his mouth though, because Kuja instantly turned and began eyeing him critically. "Um…"

"Let me try it, just once. If you truly hate it, I’ll never ask to do it again."

Zidane made a face. But he’d kind of talked himself into a corner, and they both knew it. And he really did feel bad about running off earlier instead of just sticking around to talk things through. If something had happened to him, it would’ve been a death sentence for Kuja too.

He let out a heavy sigh. "I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… argh, fine! Just once, Kuja. And you gotta give me your word on it."

"Just once, but only if you hate it."

The blonde stared at the older man’s mouth, at the satisfied smirk pulling at the corners. "Believe me, I’m not planning on liking it. And you’d better not try and slip me some tongue or anything weird like that."

Kuja chuckled, but responded in a gentle tone, "Just close your eyes. You don’t even have to kiss back if you don’t want to, so just relax." He leaned in and nuzzled Zidane’s hair again, then quickly gave it a light kiss as well. "That of course didn’t count. It was just a warm up."

"Fine, whatever." Though Zidane still had his doubts, he’d given his assent, so he would follow through with it though really, he just wanted to get it over with. He shifted over so that they now sat facing one another, then squeezed his eyes closed. He licked his lips in nervous anticipation, half expecting Kuja to just dive in with reckless enthusiasm… but that didn’t happen.

This is absolutely crazy, Zidane thought, feeling one of Kuja’s hands lightly grip his shoulder while the other cupped his cheek. He wondered what Dagger would think if she were to find out. Well, she’d probably flip out over the fact that Kuja was still alive more than anything. So relatively speaking, a single kiss would be at most only a minor problem. Except maybe for the fact that he’d never gotten the chance to kiss her ye…

The lips that suddenly pressed against his were unexpectedly soft, plush even. Zidane was surprised. He thought it’d be disgusting, being kissed by a man. He thought Kuja would smell and taste of sweat or something nasty like that. But… well, the initial impression wasn’t bad. Maybe Kuja was right. Maybe it wasn’t all that different from kissing a girl.

Kuja began rubbing small circles against Zidane’s cheek with his thumb. His mouth started moving against Zidane’s as well – not too forcefully, but with just enough heat and pressure to coax a similar response. He was a damn good kisser – unhurried and focused and gentle, confident in his technique but not pushy or overbearing. Zidane found his lips parting slightly to breathe in Kuja’s breath before massaging them against Kuja’s mouth in return. His tongue darted out briefly to taste Kuja's lips.

There was a soft, breathy moan. Zidane wasn’t sure who’d made the sound. It didn’t really matter. All he knew was by the time he pulled back for a much needed gulp of air, one of his hands had knotted itself around a handful of long, silky hair. His face felt a little hot. He raised a hand to his mouth in surprise, his mind suddenly clearing when he felt how moist his lips were, the realization of what he’d done slapping him back into reality.

Kuja on the other hand didn’t look flustered at all. He had a maddeningly triumphant smile on his face, like a cat that’d just eaten a canary. Out of the corner of his eye, Zidane could see a silvery tail tip flicking about. "See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?" Kuja purred. He paused a second, and Zidane suddenly knew what was coming next. "So can we do it again?"

The thief groaned. "No!"

"But you said…"

Zidane groaned again. He knew he shouldn’t have given in! Now Kuja would never quit asking or pushing for more. "Not now, okay? I’m… I’m still trying to figure out how this all happened."

"Does it matter? I enjoyed it. You did too."

"Okay, I’m willing to admit it wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. But that doesn’t mean…" and Zidane hesitated, trying to think of the best way to explain without hurting the other Genome’s feelings. "Kuja, can I ask you something? It’s really important."

The Cheshire Cat grin softened into a genuine smile that warmed even the normally cold slate in Kuja’s eyes. "Of course. Anything."

Zidane sighed. He didn’t want to see that smile fade, but at the same time, he felt it was best to just tell the mage the truth now instead of letting him hang on to false hope. "Kuja… are you in love with me?" he asked quietly.

A silver eyebrow twitched and then went up. "What are you talking about?"

"The way you’ve been acting… I like you, you’re my friend, but… this… what we just did, isn’t going to change things," Zidane quickly blurted out. "I love Dagger; you know that. And one day, I’m gonna go back to her and tell her how I feel and ask her to marry me." He took a deep breath, mentally cringing in anticipation of the inevitable explosion, and looked back up. Kuja was staring at him as if he were try to decipher an impossible puzzle. Zidane stared back, trying to figure out what that look meant. Had he been too blunt still? "Um, are you okay? I didn’t mean to be so forward, but I didn’t want you to misunderstand…"

Another half minute passed before Kuja finally made a move, waving his hand dismissively in the air to break the unintentional stalemate. The smile on his face had reverted back to that of a predatory cat, broad and full of teeth. "How sweet of you! I appreciate your concern. But don’t worry, you can’t break my heart or anything. Love is impossible for someone like me."

"That’s not true."

"Of course it is. Didn’t Garland tell you? I’m not capable of experiencing emotions of that complexity," Kuja chided him. "If I could, why wouldn’t I have Tranced a lot sooner, and on my own?"

Zidane shook his head sadly. While he couldn’t explain the latter, he didn’t believe the former at all. And he’d learned by now that when Kuja sounded that cheerful, that glib, he was really only trying to avoid facing how he really felt.

Sometimes Zidane almost missed how Kuja was when he’d first woken up after being rescued from the Iifa Tree, when he’d been in too much pain to try and hide what he was thinking and feeling. Not that he wanted Kuja hurting like that again, but he missed the honesty. They got along far better now, but it almost felt like their friendship was built on a bed of pretty lies.

"Somewhere, there’s gotta be someone that’s right for you too. And I hope you find them someday and live happily with them," Zidane mumbled. Even he wasn’t convinced with what he was saying, nor could he muster up the false conviction needed to make it sound better. "But… I’m not that person. I can’t be. And I didn’t want you getting your hopes up or anything, so that’s why…"

Kuja snorted. "What hopes? I only figured, with your reputation as a ladies man and all, that you would be a fairly skilled kisser. I wanted to see for myself if that were true. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to partake in a little physical enjoyment every now and then right?"

Zidane scratched his head. He supposed Kuja had a point. The kiss had been better than the blonde had anticipated, and they both obviously were gluttons for physical contact. "I guess not."

The silver tail began lashing about once more. "So does that mean we can kiss again?"

Zidane stopped to think about it some more. He couldn’t take his eyes off Kuja’s face, at the eagerness there, at the slight hint of anxiety that put a fine crease in his brow. He instantly wanted to soothe it away. "Don’t push it – don’t ask for anything more, you got that? – and, well, maybe I’ll agree to it once in a while."

Kuja’s eyes lit up. "Really?"

Zidane nodded. Seeing the older Genome so happy made him feel good too, and he now felt a lot more optimistic about his decision. Maybe it really would be okay, as long as he made sure the boundaries were clearly defined. As long as he enforced them. "Yeah, really."

"Then how about right now?"

"See, you’re being pushy again," Zidane scolded, but he couldn’t help but laugh when Kuja gave him a slight pout. He really was as cute as a girl sometimes. Zidane couldn’t resist giving him a quick peck because of it. He just hoped that’d be enough to tide him over for the time being. He really didn’t feel like doing more at the moment. "There, better?"

"Well, it’ll do for now," Kuja said, but he seemed satisfied. He even snuggled up against Zidane with a contented sigh, their earlier dispute all but forgotten.

Zidane wrapped his arms around the taller man, relieved he was finally warmed back up and resting comfortably. But even as he held Kuja the younger man forced himself to focus on Dagger for a moment instead. He felt a little uneasy every time her face flashed through his mind. He did love her. He missed her. He hoped she’d forgive him for everything he’d screwed up: for worrying her by diving back into the Iifa Basin, for staying behind to nurse Kuja back to health. For kissing Kuja when he hadn’t even kissed her, when he hadn’t ever told her how much he needed her in his life. He wanted his old life back, but he’d gotten used to his life with Kuja too. He just didn’t know if he could reconcile the two…

And although he had warned Kuja not to fall in love with him, he wasn’t sure if the warning had come too late… or if Kuja had been his intended target in the first place.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- A shout out to FFnet’s Doctor Haifisch, whose fic "Rose Petals of Regret" helped me make up my mind on whether or not Kuja would be willing to do anything for power. On one hand, it could easily be argued that Kuja was far too proud and narcissistic to ever consider demeaning himself for money, power, position, etc. Certainly it’s undeniable that he’s a narcissist and powerful in his own right (though I always thought that, out of Trance, he wasn’t nearly as powerful as everyone assumed he was). But on the other hand, I’d argue that he could also be the type who’d be willing to resort to any means necessary, because he’s erratic and crazy enough to consider going to extreme lengths, and so focused on his goals that he’d decide that the ends justified the means.

- Although this story really is more about Kuja than Zidane, I think I prefer setting my "camera" over Zidane's shoulder because I like viewing Kuja through his eyes. Plus, I think it'd be overly complicated to do the reverse for the duration of the whole story, though of course I'll continue to flip flop as needed depending on the scene. I see Kuja as someone who is so used to lying that he can't even be honest with himself, and so emotionally damaged that he can't easily understand or accept the things Zidane's trying to tell him. Not that Zidane's being completely honest with himself here either; I see him as someone who deals with uncomfortable situations by being "conveniently dense."

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "I Can’t Live With You" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

The last of the snow finally melted as winter lost its grip upon the Outer Continent. Forced, prolonged inactivity obviously didn’t suit Zidane – as soon as it warmed up he began venturing out much more frequently, for longer periods of time, exploring the nearby areas and picking fights with whatever monsters he came across. Kuja on the other hand had never been the athletic nor adventurous type, so he had no desire to join the spry blonde on his trips. He excused himself by saying he didn’t feel up to exploring quite yet and instead sat at home and worried about the future, all while trying not to panic whenever Zidane stayed out a little later than expected.

Truthfully, Kuja wasn’t feeling that bad at all, at least physically, but he was rightfully worried that he’d never fully recover. He still could not use any magic nor any of his other latent abilities, like the telepathy he’d always taken for granted. His last attempt, he’d insisted on trying to heal some minor wounds Zidane had sustained in a scrap with a pair of Trolls. The effort had rendered him unconscious for nearly two days. When he'd finally awakened, Zidane had chewed him out thoroughly before begging him to stop with the magic lest he do some permanent damage, but Kuja had had a hard time agreeing to that. He couldn’t afford to lose his magic when it had been his only defense for so many years, and now that he’d made the whole world his enemy, he needed it more than ever.

But Zidane was probably closer to the truth than he’d realized. Kuja wondered if Garland had done to him that which he’d done to the Black Mages… and if that made it irony or karma? The Black Mages had been animated by the Mist that used to cover parts of Gaia. Their magic drew internally from that same source. The more they used their powers, the faster they wore out. So if he were correct in his assumption, and if Garland had been truthful that he’d die soon, then that had to mean that he didn’t have the life force to spare to power his magic. Even attempting one more low level spell could be enough to kill him. It was a hard truth to stomach, but Kuja bet even Zidane would say that he’d deserved it. That he’d reaped what he’d sowed.

Some days it was hard to keep from being overwhelmed by the reality of the situation. Kuja found himself hastily penning note after note detailing his last wishes, only to throw each and every one of them into the fire, as if by putting the words on paper he’d created a death curse that needed to be expunged. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to dwell on it. He didn’t want Zidane to think he’d given up and to give up on him in turn. But he couldn’t get it out of his head either; there was no fire that could burn away those thoughts completely.

So the mage – now former mage - tried a different tactic. He threw himself into all the previously neglected chores, washing and tailoring their clothes, sweeping up and cleaning up as best he could. They didn’t look any more stylish nor the house any less rundown, but at least they were all a little more presentable and comfortable than before. He even agreed to try his hand at cooking, though he really had no clue what he was doing, and they ended up eating cheese sandwiches more often than not. Kuja was surprised that Zidane didn’t complain about that, and even moreso every time the younger man thanked him for his efforts and happily ate whatever was put in front of him. Kuja wasn’t sure if Zidane was doing it to be polite, but it felt nice, being appreciated just for trying, even if all he was doing was screwing up.

Zidane really did appreciate what Kuja was trying to do, but sometimes he wondered if his smiles were slipping and his anxiety showing through. The whole situation felt awkward. He didn’t want to play house and have Kuja as his docile housewife, greeting him at the door with a kiss whenever he came back with firewood or supplies… though he had to admit he’d gotten used to both the kisses and being greeted upon his return. And Kuja wasn’t exactly docile, not even when he was being more agreeable like he'd been as of late. But it was hard reconciling the man who’d once been powerful enough to destroy entire planets with the one kneeling in front of the bathtub, wringing out the laundry, his long hair neatly tucked under a repurposed handkerchief.

More than once, the blonde thought to himself that if he hadn’t met Dagger, hadn’t fallen in love with her, that he might have considered staying with Kuja in their quiet little sanctuary instead. He’d grown comfortable in their life together and worried about what would happen once he left, even if it were only for a short while, like he’d planned. He didn’t know how well Kuja could manage on his own, given his lack of fighting prowess sans magic and the general state of his health. And if anyone were to see him and recognize him – not impossible given that they were a two day’s walk away from the Black Mage Village – and spread the news that he was still alive, it would be a total disaster. Kuja would be lucky if he got away with a sentence of life imprisonment in a dungeon somewhere. Zidane couldn’t let that happen. Not that he thought that Kuja deserved to get away scot free, but executing him wasn’t going to undo the damage that had been done or bring back the lives that had been lost.

But it wasn’t just his desire to protect Kuja that was making Zidane delay his return. It was no longer enough that Kuja "survived"… Zidane wanted him to find happiness too. Not that he hadn’t wanted that before as well, but… that first kiss had really changed things. Zidane no longer thought of Kuja as a brother, and even "friend" was no longer a sufficient term either. Kuja meant more to him than that. He was someone special. And Zidane felt… he felt… well, he supposed he really did like him. Loved him, even - though not that kind of love. That would be impossible. He couldn’t feel that way about another man, and he was in love with Dagger anyhow.

… So why didn’t he didn’t mind kissing the older man and sharing a bed with him even though they didn’t need to do so any longer? Why did he feel compelled to touch his hair or to gather him up into a hug whenever he could? Why did he like stealing glances at him? Why did being with him just feel so comfortable and right?

And what did Kuja think of him? How did he feel? He’d said before that he liked Zidane and of course he’d been the one to initiate the whole kissing thing, but at the same time he’d also claimed that he couldn’t feel love and was only interested in sharing some physical pleasure. Was the silver-haired Genome so desperate for some affection or attention that doing anything with anyone would suffice? Or was he equally confused as Zidane, feeling something but not knowing what to do about it or if he could even find the words to describe it? Zidane didn’t see a point in asking since Kuja rarely gave straight answers. And the younger man wasn’t sure if he wanted to know anyhow. The truth might only complicate things even more.

It was far easier to concentrate instead on the things that he did understand, that he could do something about. Zidane couldn’t even think about leaving Kuja and returning home without first making sure that the former mage could handle getting supplies and defending himself from roaming monsters along the way. And Zidane also needed to consider where he could find Kuja refuge – some place where he’d be safe and welcomed. He couldn’t expect him to stay out here in the middle of nowhere forever. That was no way to live. But it’d take time to weigh all the options…

For the time being, he could at least tackle the first two things on his list. That meant figuring out the best way to disguise Kuja so that he could make trips down to the Dwarven outpost and figuring out what kind of weapons would suit him, perhaps something like a staff or a rod. And although Kuja didn’t have any hand to hand combat experience, Zidane figured it couldn’t be too hard to teach him some basic moves. Kuja was smart. And he had plenty of free time to practice if he’d put down the broom and books once in a while. Zidane didn’t anticipate there’d be any problems with his plans.

* * *

After considering what items the supply outpost had available, Zidane bought a pair of Magician Cloaks as well as a Multina Racket and an Oak Staff. The cloaks would suffice as disguises for the time being – the Dwarves had never seen Kuja during his reign of terror so really the main concern was to keep any traveling Black Mages or Genomes from spotting them, especially if they ended up venturing closer to Conde Petie, which served as a trading hub for all the peoples in the area. And the weapons seemed to be reasonable choices for a beginner to work with. The flimsier, magic bolt flinging racket was ideal for distance attacks – Zidane thought that would feel most natural to Kuja – while the staff was there as backup, in case Kuja was forced into close range combat. The blonde figured that would be the most logical set up for Kuja, but once they’d had their first training session the next morning, he began to wonder if he’d bitten off more than he could chew.

Zidane was used to the way he and his Tantalus brothers had trained, so it hadn’t occurred to him to do things differently with Kuja. After they’d gone through the basics like stance and grip, Zidane figured they could try sparring a little so he could get a better sense of what Kuja’s innate fighting ability was like.

"Okay, I’m gonna make this real easy. I’m going to stand right here, and you swing at me."

One of Kuja’s eyebrows went up. "Um, are you sure…?"

"Of course I’m not going to let you hit me. I just want to see what you can do." Zidane stretched both his arms across his chest, then squared his shoulders and bent his knees a little, bouncing slightly where he stood. "Okay, give it your best shot, whenever you’re ready."

The taller man didn’t look entirely convinced, but after checking that his grip on the weapon was the way Zidane had showed him – firm and balanced, but not so tight that his wrists locked in place – he went ahead and planted his feet and took a swing.

Kuja had seen Zidane in action many times before, but it still amazed him just how fast the younger Genome could move. Zidane instantly dropped into a very low crouch to duck under Kuja’s swing, then immediately unsheathed his daggers, spun them, and swiftly brought the butt ends up into the underside of Kuja’s right arm before he even realized Zidane was retaliating.

The taller man immediately let out a cry, dropped his weapon, and took a step back, his left hand clamping down near the twinging spot on his arm. He looked stunned and stricken. "You hit me?" he yelped. "I can’t believe you did that!"

Zidane rolled his eyes. Kuja’s reaction was a bit much. He’d barely tapped him. "Uh, yeah, monsters aren’t going to stand there and wait their turn to attack you, you know."

"I thought we were just practicing!" Kuja protested.

"We are."

"So shouldn’t you… pull your punches or whatever?"

"I did. We’d be calling you ‘Stumpy’ right now if I’d been serious." Zidane flipped his daggers back around before resheathing them, then waved a few wayward strands of hair out of his face. Kuja took a half step back at the motion, looking betrayed. Zidane sighed. "Suck it up, this is how Tantalus does things. This is how I was trained, you know."

"It’s how I was trained too. That doesn’t mean I want to go through it again!"

Zidane blinked. "Really?"

"What, do you think Garland nicely asked me to go read up on magic and then pat me on my head and sent me on my way?" Kuja spat. His face was getting pretty red, and the tears that had welled up in his eyes right after Zidane had landed his blow were now threatening to spill over. Surely the blonde knew he didn’t have shields anymore. He’d probably never be able to erect them again. There was nothing he could do if Zidane wanted to test his defensive capabilities the way Garland had.

"Well, no, but…" Zidane scratched the back of his head awkwardly. "Sorry, I probably did overdo it. I thought it’d be helpful if we could spar with each other. But you only just started out today, so it’s probably too soon. It wasn’t going to be a fair fight no matter how you look at it."

Kuja just stared at him for a minute, frowning and absentmindedly rubbing his arm. "That’s really how you were trained?" he finally asked in a quiet voice when Zidane stepped up and took a hold of his arm to check if he’d actually done some damage.

Zidane paused to consider the question, then quickly finished his examination of the sore spot. It’d probably bruise a bit, but it wasn’t a big deal. He had held back after all. "Yeah, pretty much. Other than Ruby, it was all boys. We were really rowdy. So Baku’s idea of keeping order was to smack us all in the back of the head every so often but otherwise, he’d just let us beat each other up as we pleased. You learn to dodge pretty fast when there’s only one cookie left and you know everyone’s gonna try to punch you in the face because they want it too. Actually Baku was the worst of the bunch, now that I think about it. He almost always got the last cookie, damn it."

"So I delivered you from Garland and straight into the hands of barbarians, is that what you’re saying?"

Zidane simply shook his head and kissed Kuja’s arm. Just that small gesture caused him to visibly relax, just a little. The blonde hid his growing smile. It was cute that Kuja was worried that he’d done the wrong thing in taking him from Terra. But he was wrong if he thought Zidane was complaining. "It sounds worse than it was. We're pretty much family, you know? We weren’t really going to hurt one another. We were just trying to toughen each other up."

"So that’s what you were trying to do? Toughen me up?"

"Kinda. But it was underhanded, not telling you that I might hit back."

"I see… Well, it’s not like Garland warned me either. I’m pretty sure that’s why I picked up white magic much faster than black," Kuja said casually, though he still looked like he was going to flee if Zidane so much as looked at his daggers again.

Zidane stared at him. Kuja had this amazing way of verbally punching him right in the gut sometimes. The thief hadn’t realized… hadn’t thought that his actions would be taken that way. His Tantalus brothers would’ve called what he’d done tough love, but Kuja seemed to see it as the prelude to a torture session. Garland’s training methods must’ve been beyond brutal, though as always, Kuja refused to say anything more about it.

"Hey, come on. It’s not like that. I’m not trying to hurt you. You know that." Zidane ran his fingers through the ends of Kuja’s hair, then very gently tugged on a strand until Kuja lowered his chin to look at him. The blonde quickly took advantage of that to rise up on his toes and kiss Kuja on the mouth, but this time, a kiss wasn’t enough to smooth out the worried crease on Kuja’s forehead. "I’ll come up with a different way to train, okay?" Zidane promised. "Maybe I can just have you knock me around a bit or something instead."

"I don’t want to do that either! If I wouldn’t like it, why would I want to inflict that on you instead?"

"Believe me, if I can’t absorb or parry your blows, I’m doing something wrong," Zidane reminded him, though he was touched that Kuja didn’t want to risk the possibility of harming him. It made him feel even guiltier about the cheap shot he’d taken. "Or I guess we could just pick a tree or something to use as a training dummy."

"What, you have a vendetta against trees now?" Kuja snapped. As soon as the words were out he shook his head and took a breath to steady himself. He didn’t want to get upset. The younger Genome was trying to fix things. He wasn’t going to use force to make Kuja perform; he’d given his word on that. And so far he’d had a pretty good track record of keeping his promises. "No, that’s fine. Whatever you think is best."

Surprisingly Zidane humored him. "How about a dead tree then? Or a rock? Rocks don’t have feelings last I checked. Though… well, we’d probably break your staff if we went that route." He shrugged, struggling to keep his expression neutral. But it was kind of funny, seeing Kuja go from a planet destroyer – and he’d felled quite a number of trees on Terra before finally blowing it up – to an apparent tree hugger. Just another indication of how much he’d changed since his fall. "Dead tree it is then. I’ve seen a few of them scattered around."

Kuja didn’t feel like training anymore, but he didn’t say so. But Zidane must’ve gotten that vibe off of him anyhow, because instead of continuing the discussion, he switched subjects. "Hey, so what’s for lunch?"

"Lunch?"

"Yeah, you know… usually you’d be making sandwiches or something right about now."

"Oh." Kuja was frankly sick to death of sandwiches but it wasn’t like he could complain when he was the one that kept making them. "Sorry, I didn’t think about it," he mumbled as he tried to reroute his thoughts towards a culinary direction. Didn’t Zidane pick up a ham the day before? Or was it more cheese?

"Hmm, that’s okay. Want me to make lunch then instead?"

Kuja stared at him. Was Zidane offering because he wanted to make up for earlier? Was it really okay to let him do that, or was he being selfish in wanting more reassurance that Zidane’s apology had been genuine. "If you want…" he finally replied, still unsure as to what the right answer was.

"Okay then." And Zidane stooped to pick up Kuja’s staff, handed it to him, then offered Kuja his hand so they could walk back together. The taller man accepted. "But honestly, you make better sandwiches," Zidane added with a smile.

It didn’t matter that he didn’t agree. Kuja couldn’t stop himself from coloring slightly at the compliment. "Flattery won’t get you fed any faster."

"I know. But I just wanted to tell you that. Everyone’s good at something, right?"

"And bad at something else?" Kuja asked, looking at the staff in his hand.

"Pssh. I guarantee you’ll be a pro in no time with that thing. Trust me," the thief said confidently.

Kuja didn’t argue back, though it still felt weird to be carrying a weapon. It didn’t seem to want to settle into his hand. But it was easier to go along with Zidane’s idea than to try and find a reason to disagree.

* * *

Well, I take it back. So much for it being easy to teach an old dog new tricks…

Zidane sighed heavily. After a week or so of training, he was beginning to wonder if Kuja was a hopeless case after all. Even a six-year-old Eiko had been more adept at fighting, and she had been trying to hit things with a flute. A flute. At least she could kill oglops with it. Kuja probably couldn’t even manage that.

"Sometimes I think you’re not even trying," Zidane said, frustrated, watching as Kuja flailed at the training dummy he’d set up, which was simply a half rotten tree trunk girded by a moth eaten rug and some curtains from the house. "I’d say you hit like a girl, but I’ve seen how much damage Freya and Beatrix can do, and I’m not dumb enough to insult them like that."

Kuja stopped and took a few moments to catch his breath. A couple strands of hair had escaped the high ponytail he'd tied his hair in and stuck to his flushed, sweaty skin, and Zidane immediately felt bad for thinking Kuja hadn’t been giving it his all. "I can’t help it. I’m not any good at it, and my hands hurt!"

Zidane just nodded after a second’s thought. Kuja was right; it seemed melee weapons didn’t agree with him at all. His palms had blistered badly by the second day of training. He now wore gloves to protect his hands; other than his shoes, they’d been the only things usable from his old, flashy outfit. So at least he wasn’t earning new blisters, but the existing ones had to be a bit painful still.

Though… what Kuja said was only a partial truth. Not that he was going to tell Zidane that. The silver-haired Genome wanted to learn how to fight because he knew he needed to, but at the same time, he worried that if he got too good at it that Zidane would leave even sooner, thinking that Kuja would be fine and able to take care of himself. He wondered if he was somehow holding himself back or even sabotaging himself with thoughts like that?

Not that Kuja wanted to rely on Zidane or anything. He hadn’t ever relied on anyone. He could take care of himself just fine, as he’d done all his life. He didn’t need the younger man at all…

Except, it was nice having someone to talk to. It was nice having someone who would ask him how he felt and meant it, someone who’d kiss him and hug him and lay beside to him night after night without demanding anything in return.

It was almost like a fairy tale. And that’s all it was – a fantasy, an illusion. Kuja knew it wouldn’t last much longer no matter how much he tried to extend it. As the days grew longer Zidane spoke more and more about Alexandria and Lindblum, about how much he missed Dagger and his Tantalus brothers, about how worried he was that something had happened to someone and he wasn’t able to be there for them. Kuja didn’t want Zidane to go, but at the same time, he couldn’t ask him to stay. He owed him that much.

"Hey, are you listening?" Zidane’s loud voice bullied its way through Kuja’s brooding thoughts.

The former mage blinked and looked over to see Zidane approaching him, hand extended. "What?"

"I said, I shouldn’t have said what I said. I didn’t mean… that is, I know you’re trying, but you’ve gotten sloppier the last five minutes or so." He exhaled and tried again. "Are you really that tired?"

Kuja slowly nodded.

Zidane slapped his hands on Kuja’s shoulders and rubbed them briefly, his fingers digging into the muscles for a quick yet effective massage. Kuja groaned, his head rolling a little, his arms going slack at his side. Zidane chuckled and patted him on the back, making a mental note to give Kuja a more thorough massage later since it looked like he could use it. "All right, go ahead and take a break then. And hand me your staff. I want to try giving it a whirl since I haven’t had much practice with one. But make sure you watch what I’m doing, okay? The way I hold the staff, the way I extend my body into each strike, how I position my feet…"

A break sounded more than good. Kuja had been whacking at the tree for a good half-hour and all his muscles were protesting, though the mini rubdown had helped soothe the ache a tiny bit. It didn’t help that he’d put in the same amount of work the day before. And the day before that. And so on and so forth.

He handed Zidane the staff and quietly thanked him, before retreating to a relatively shady spot nearby so he could watch Zidane go through his paces on the training dummy.

What Zidane lacked in magical ability he more than made up for physically. He was far more powerful than his relatively slight build would indicate, and flexible and agile as well. Kuja’s best blows hadn’t done more than scuff up the cloth padding tied around the tree; Zidane’s opening blows were already hitting much harder and faster than that. Once he’d gotten warmed up, he really turned it on. The thief even added in all sorts of extra moves, ducking and dodging as if he were beset by multiple opponents, though nothing was done for the sake of being showy. His movements were deliberate and precise, elegant in their efficiency.

Kuja knew he was supposed to be taking notes on technique and positioning, but he found his mind wandering as the gently rising heat of day lulled him into a sort of daydream state. His eyes wandered over the clean lines of Zidane’s body, taking in the way his muscles bunched and stretched as he moved. The silver-haired man was even fascinated by the way Zidane’s golden tail whipped around as a counterbalance. Sometimes the sunlight would catch on it just so and make it look like it was glowing white for a split second, as if Zidane were on the verge of Trancing. And even though Kuja didn’t like being reminded that that was the one thing he’d never managed on his own, he thought he wouldn’t mind seeing Zidane Tranced again, just to admire the surge in his power.

As Zidane had no reason to Trance, he continued his practice session as he was. Kuja felt his eyelids gradually growing heavier. He shifted his weight so that he was leaning against the smoothest part of the large rock at his back and laced his hands over his stomach. His body was sore and he wanted very much to take a bath, but at least the spring warmth was pleasant, especially after the long and cold winter. Birds were chirping off in the distance, their songs punctuated by the rhythmic thwacks of Zidane’s strikes.

He hadn’t planned to nap, but regardless of intention, he ended up nodding off at some point. He wasn’t sure how long he was out for, but when he awoke, Zidane was no longer trying to demolish the training dummy and instead stood before him, head cocked, his shadow falling over Kuja’s mostly prone form like a blanket.

Kuja looked up, blinking. The blonde had taken his shirt off; he was sweaty and his chest heaved with each breath. Kuja couldn’t help but continue to stare even as he told himself that Zidane wasn’t his type at all: too short, babyfaced, simpleminded… Then again, those same traits had made him an unlikely hero as well. That, and the whole "Angel of Death raised by thieves" bit. But Zidane had performed admirably as the hero, hadn’t he?

And it wasn’t like Kuja really had a type. He’d never thought about it. It hadn’t mattered before. But he supposed if he had to pick, he’d go for a cute girl, not too young of course, with wide eyes and waves in her hair. Or maybe an older, elegant lady, poised and well spoken, with tasteful clothing that’d skim her curves. Or even a young man, not too muscular but not skinny either, with dark hair to contrast his own. Or a blonde would be okay too, since gold and silver would play nicely off one another… a blonde with blue eyes, an athletic build, and sunkissed skin.

Kuja facepalmed. I just described Zidane, didn’t I?

"What’s up?" Zidane asked as he flopped gracelessly onto the ground. He placed Kuja’s staff on the ground between them. When Kuja didn’t answer, Zidane just shrugged and pulled his hair tie loose from his ponytail before shaking out his sweat darkened locks. His hair was getting pretty long and scraggly, though it didn’t seem to bother him one bit. "Have a good nap?" he added with a smirk.

Kuja found himself reflexively running his fingers through his own long hair, though part of him wanted to reach out and touch Zidane’s instead. It probably wouldn’t hurt for him to get a trim as well, though the additional length wasn’t as noticeable on his hip length hair. "Can you pick up some shears next supply run?"

Zidane stared at the older man a moment, at the silver hair he was fingering. "Oh, heh. Yeah, I guess we could both use a trim. But I don’t need scissors for that!" The thief quickly pulled out one of his daggers, bent forward at the waist, and began cheerfully hacking at his bangs, much to Kuja’s horror.

"Don’t do that! It’s going to look like a mess!" Kuja yelped, expecting at any moment to hear a "Whoops!" and see a large chunk of hair – or an ear – go flying.

Zidane straightened back up slightly. All his hacking hadn’t made much of a difference to his overall look. His bangs were just shorter. "Why? This is how I always cut it."

"But… it’s uncivilized!"

Zidane just laughed. Being out in the sun with the dirt and bugs, getting in a good workout, and bantering with Kuja… it all put him in a very good mood.

"Besides, I didn’t say it looked bad. The longer length suits you," Kuja muttered.

The younger Genome tried to imagine himself letting it all grow out, until he had a lion’s mane of gold hair. "Really? But I’d end up looking like you, wouldn’t I?" Zidane joked as he reached out to play with Kuja’s ponytailed hair. Kuja immediately shifted away; he didn’t want sweaty hands making contact with his hair, even though he was in need of a bath himself. Zidane grinned and shrugged it off. "Aww, I was just kidding. We don’t look alike anyhow."

Zidane however did look like all the other Genomes. Sometimes Kuja wished he did as well. Not that he didn’t appreciate what his appearance had done for him, but it wasn’t always a good idea to stand out. He’d be recognized no matter where he went, unless he dyed his hair and tail Genome blonde and plucked out the feathers down to the quill. "Is that a good or a bad thing?" he said, more to himself than anything.

"Well, I don’t think Dagger would like it if we did."

Kuja made a face. He was tired of hearing her name over and over, as if he needed a reminder that Zidane was chomping at the bit to go "home." "And what about me? Where am I supposed to go? Or am I to live here as a hermit for the rest of my life, however short it might be?"

"Huh? Hey now, stop that! Look, you’re doing a lot better now. You’re not going to suddenly die."

"I might as well! It’s better than staying here by myself!"

Zidane frowned. But despite the subject, he didn’t lose his cool for once. "I didn’t want to say anything earlier – because I can’t promise anything, okay? – but I’ve been thinking about it, you know? I was going to talk to Mikoto and see if the Black Mages would let you live in their village. Or… and this is a long shot, mind you, but maybe if I gave her some time, Dagger might agree to pardon you. And then you could come to Alexandria and live with us. That wouldn’t be so bad, right?"

A pardon. What kind of queen would pardon the criminal mastermind who’d wiped out half her city, who’d killed both her birth parents and her foster mother? "You must be crazy – why would she? There isn’t a soul on this planet that would agree to that!"

"How can you be sure if you don’t try?"

Kuja simply shook his head. Zidane was totally unrealistic. He was going to be sorely disappointed someday when reality slapped him upside the head. He’d simply been lucky so far, that was all. But some small part of Kuja wanted to believe in him… And he quickly squashed that down. He didn’t do well with rejection or disappointment.

"I’ll find you some place to go. Believe me," Zidane said firmly, not realizing how much Kuja was struggling with it already.

Kuja picked up his staff and jumped to his feet. His body felt stiff and a bit sluggish, but he tried his best to hide it. "I assume you’re done," he said flatly as he pointed at the training dummy. It was still intact, though much more beaten up than before.

"What? Oh, that. Yeah, I guess…"

He could do it. He had to. Kuja knew he wouldn’t be able to rely on Zidane forever, and now it was sounding like he didn’t have much time to pick up the skills he’d need to survive. "I guess I better get in some more practice then," he said, and before Zidane could get in another word, he stalked off, ignoring the pain in his hands as they curled tight around the staff.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- I couldn’t resist making a bit of a fourth wall breach with Zidane’s "monsters aren’t going to stand there and wait their turn to attack you" comment. Well, he’s right… if you have battle mode set to Active : )

- While it’s non-canonical (magic in FF9, as in most fantasy games, isn't really explained), I don’t think it’s too farfetched to imagine the following scenario, that the Black Mages draw their magical power from the Mist that animates them and therefore, would perhaps live longer if they refrained from using magic. So by extension, perhaps something similar could be applied to Kuja as well (as he created the Black Mages based off his knowledge of how Genomes were created).

- The game also never explains how Tantalus came to be, but I think the explanation given on the Final Fantasy Wiki sounds reasonable, that Baku assembled the group by picking up orphaned boys and street urchins. So while they're a group of actors / thieves, they're also something of a family.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Pain Is So Close to Pleasure" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Zidane had to admit, he’d been wrong. Not that Kuja had magically transformed into a great warrior or anything like that, but after a couple months of practice he’d finally begun showing enough progress that Zidane felt comfortable with the prospect of going into actual combat. And the best way to do that would be to go on a supply run, which would also help Kuja get acclimated to the route and routine which served as a lifeline for anyone living out in the wilderness.

Kuja was of course a little apprehensive about his first trip away from the safety of the house, and made known his protests even as he followed the younger Genome down the dirt path towards the Lucid Plains. "But… what if they realize who I am?" he asked, tugging down the hood of his cloak a little more. A disguise was necessary, but not terribly comfortable; the moderate warmth of spring had morphed into hotter summer. He’d taken the precaution of tying back his hair as well, both to hide it and to stay cool. That long silver hair and the matching tail were enough to make him stand out amongst other Genomes, with their standard blonde coloration; the feathers in his scalp were a dead giveaway as to his identity for anyone who’d ever even heard of him.

"They won’t – they’re pretty isolated, especially at the supply station. And see, I’ve been working on this already… you’re gonna be masquerading as Dagger," Zidane cheerfully explained.

Kuja’s brow wrinkled. "… And why is that?"

"’Cause, the Dwarves remember her passing through Conde Petie with me, but they don’t remember what she looks like. So it’s perfect right?"

"Oh sure, except for the fact that I’m neither human nor female," Kuja said distastefully, swishing his tail so that his cloak undulated behind him, as if a strong breeze had caught it and lifted it.

Zidane suddenly stopped. Kuja nearly collided into him and scowled when the blonde spun around to face him. "Gee, that’s funny. You were pretty insistent about hiding the fact that you’re a Genome when we first met. And you definitely didn’t look manly either, if you catch my drift."

"I’ve already explained the latter," the former mage sniffed.

"Okay… So then why’d you hide your tail? I don’t think you've ever explained that one."

Kuja’s cloak fluttered back down to drape around his legs. "Well… it gets in my way, I guess. You should know, they’re pretty sensitive."

While there was truth to that, Zidane knew their tails were less a hindrance and far more of an asset. And even in his rough and tumble life as a thief, he’d really only ever gotten it pinched once or twice by a fast closing door. "That can’t be the only thing…"

Kuja looked away for a moment, then began walking again, following the path as he had no real clue which way they were headed. Zidane trotted to catch up, then repeated his question.

"Why would I want to be reminded of what I am? You’ve seen how the other Genomes are: mindless, soulless. They’re nothing more than dolls. I want to have nothing to do with them," he spat.

"But it’s okay to hang out with me, right?"

"Do I really have a choice?" When Zidane’s brow rose at that, Kuja sighed and backtracked a little. "I didn’t… mean that. You aren’t like the rest of them either. You’re better than that… better than m…"

Whatever Kuja was trying to say was forgotten as a bunch of rocks and plant material suddenly got kicked across the curve of the pathway they were standing on. Zidane instantly whipped around, daggers already in hand as something big and green and gurgling came lumbering towards them.

"Ochu," Zidane grumbled, crouching down and holding his daggers up and behind his back in his usual fighting stance while sizing up the thorny plant monster. He ran into them on occasion but was still surprised at just how stealthy they could be, until they were right on top of you. But despite its size and rather nasty armaments, it wasn’t terribly dangerous in combat, being dimwitted and far too bulky to turn around quickly. It was about as ideal a target for a novice fighter as he could hope for. "Hey Kuja, you can take this guy right?"

The blonde spared a moment to glance over at his companion. Kuja had been traveling with his staff in hand, so all he’d had to do was lift it and assume a battle stance. He had done just that, but he didn’t look completely convinced that he was doing it right. His hands kept shifting along the staff as his eyes searched over the monster, gauging its movements and looking for some sort of opening amidst the sharp teeth and flailing tentacles.

"You’re overthinking it. Just trust in your instincts, run in there, and whack it," Zidane said. "I’ll back you up if you need it."

If Kuja were to "follow his instincts" he’d have magic sizzling in the middle of his palms, but that was no longer an option. All he could do now was to try and remember what he’d learned the last several weeks and hope that he was up to the task. And though he thought "just run in there" didn’t sound too wise, he wasn't getting anywhere just standing there, staring at it. Zidane said he’d back him up… surely he didn’t bring the older man out there just to let him fall to the first random monster they came across, right?

Kuja took a deep breath, checked his grip one last time, and then before he could change his mind, sprang forward, focusing in on the monster’s left tentacle. He swung the staff overhead and brought it down sharply, just as he’d been taught. The wood collided with a satisfying, solid thwack, not dissimilar to all those strikes against the target dummy, and the monster gurgled angrily as the lower half of its tentacle went limp.

Kuja had to admit, he was a little surprised he’d managed to wound the creature, but he wasn’t naïve enough to think that it’d be scared off so easily. As soon as the limb went down he immediately pivoted, swinging the staff out and behind him to defend against a possible counterattack from the monster’s right side. But his positioning was off; he had the staff down a bit too low. He caught the flash of a spiky green tentacle coming in fast towards his head and cringed out of reflex, in anticipation of a hard blow…

Instead of the smack of impact against his skull, he heard the Ochu roar again. Forcing his eyes open he saw Zidane skidding to a stop a few yards away, daggers flashing in the sunlight. The majority of the monster’s now severed right tentacle was twitching on the ground between them.

"Thanks…"

"Don’t drop your guard; it’s still a threat, even like this," Zidane warned.

Kuja noticed wisps of deep green smoke beginning to waft up from the depths of the toothy maw and nodded in agreement. If he dallied too long, the thing would probably spit noxious gas at them or something. And it still had its left tentacle; although damaged, it was still able to lash it about like a whip. Too bad for the Ochu then… if it had been smart enough to flee and find for a meal elsewhere, he would have probably let it go.

Don’t overthink it. Just go, he told himself as he gathered his strength for another pass.

Feeling a bit more confident in both his own abilities and further bolstered by Zidane’s presence beside him, Kuja decided to try for a series of connected hits this time. He darted back in, ignoring the disgusting sap that was starting to drip down from the severed tentacle stump and struck the monster’s body with a blow from the right, then the left, then spun and finished with another right before leaping away. He turned back just in time to see Zidane run in to deal the final blow, the Ochu flopping to the ground like a felled plant.

"That wasn’t so bad now was it?" the younger Genome asked, all smiles now that the threat was gone.

Kuja wiped drops of sap off his face and glared at the withering green husk. He should’ve been happy that he’d managed to survive his first real fight without a scratch, that he’d even gotten a few blows in, but now that the adrenaline was starting to wear off, he wasn’t satisfied with how he’d performed. Upon closer inspection it was obvious he hadn’t contributed anything at all. He had landed a few bruising blows; Zidane on the other hand had severed a thick tentacle easily and scored the monster’s body with deep, fatal wounds. Kuja shook his head. If he still had his magic, he would’ve easily dispatched the creature without needing assistance, without ever having to go near it. But now… all he’d managed to do was hold Zidane back by clumsily getting in his way. Wasn’t that indisputable proof that Garland was right? Zidane was the superior Genome and Kuja the failed prototype, just as his creator had always claimed…

"You did pretty well, considering it’s your first time and all. Though… maybe I should’ve trained you on daggers instead," the blonde mused.

Great, now Zidane was resorting to giving him the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head to try and make him feel better. "Maybe," Kuja mumbled, not really caring. How would adding a blade fix anything? No matter what weapon he was armed with, he’d have to get in close to hit his opponent, without magic shielding to protect him if he screwed up. And although it was true that Zidane had no shields either, he didn’t need it – he made up for it with superior strength and agility.

The silver-haired man tried to imagine what it would be like going at it alone, armed with only a staff or a magic racket… It wasn’t exactly a pretty picture. What would he do if he got injured? He no longer had access to white magic either.

"Well," Zidane continued, unaware of the darkening of Kuja’s mood, "the most valuable piece of advice I can give you is this: if all else fails, run."

Kuja could only sigh. He had the feeling he was going to be resorting to that a lot in the future.

* * *

The remainder of the trip down to the supply outpost was uneventful. Zidane had already reduced the monster population in the area quite a bit during his many solo treks, so they were able to complete the journey unmolested. Kuja wasn’t sure if he ought to be thankful for that or not… it was never a good idea to kill off all the monsters in an area; they naturally discouraged unwanted guests from intruding. That’s why he’d left monsters roaming the halls of his Desert Palace. But more than that, Kuja wasn’t sure if he wanted a reprieve. He wasn’t the sort to be "itching for a fight" but at the same time, he wanted some sort of outlet for the tension that had been building up all day.

Upon reaching the plains, Kuja could see smoke rising from a firepit just beyond the river, accompanied by a few tents pitched in front of a lean-to built against a natural outcropping of rock. Reflexively Kuja tugged down his hood a little more, leaving only a small slice of pale skin visible before following Zidane past the tents and to the lean-to, which was occupied by a pair of Dwarves.

"Rally-Ho!" the two Dwarves called in greeting, hands held up so that their palms were facing their visitors.

"Rally-Ho," Zidane echoed, grinning. He nudged Kuja, staring at him expectantly.

"Uh… Rally-Ho?"

"Ah, I see ye brought yer wifey this time, did ya laddie?" the shorter of the two Dwarves immediately commented while looking Kuja up and down. Privately the Dwarf wondered if Kuja was an ugly woman since he couldn’t see the face beneath the hood, but he didn’t comment since it wasn’t really his business if his customers liked ugly women.

"Wife?" Kuja echoed. Why would they assume he was Zidane’s wife of all things? And even though he knew that that Zidane was trying to pass him off as Dagger, he was still a little put off by the fact that he was presumed to be a girl, even with no makeup on – not that they could see his face - and dressed in men’s clothing – not that they could see his clothes either.

"Oh yeah… heh, I guess I forgot to mention it. The Dwarves sorta married me and Dagger way back when," Zidane quickly whispered to him.

"… WHAT," Kuja hissed back loudly before he could stop himself. It was probably a good thing that Dwarves were generally hard of hearing. Zidane was married?? He’d never mentioned that before. Why would he…

"They wouldn’t let us go on to the Iifa Tree unless we got married, okay? It’s not like we’re married-married. Hell, even Vivi and Quina got married, and we don’t even know what Quina is."

Kuja’s hand automatically landed on his face. He’d been doing that around Zidane quite a lot.

"Lass, yer lookin’ a wee bit pale. Not a healthy one, are ya?" Short Dwarf said, staring at the white face that was revealed as Kuja accidentally knocked back his hood a little. Human females weren’t at all the Dwarf’s type but he thought Kuja didn’t look half bad, with fine silver brows above eyes the color of stormy skies and porcelain skin, which made him wonder instead if Zidane was the jealous type who wanted to hide his wife from curious eyes.

"Perhaps she is with child?" the taller Dwarf suggested.

"WHAT?!" Kuja shrieked as Zidane began sniggering behind his back. "Do I look like I’m ‘with child’?!" He flung one side of his cloak open so they could see how thin he was. It was bad enough having to masquerade as a woman; it was certainly another to be mistaken for a pregnant one.

The pair of Dwarves slowly looked him up and down, then turned to look at each other, then back to Kuja. "Well, how would we know? Ye humans and monkey-tails all need fattenin’ up," Short Dwarf said.

Kuja wondered why he hadn’t tried to kill off the Dwarves during his stint as the Angel of Death. Or was it that he’d figured they were so stupid that he couldn’t even be bothered to do so?

"I’m sorry, I just…" Zidane managed to choke out between chuckles, "but he… er, she’s definitely not pregnant."

"Ah? Well, that’s unfortunate. Ye should try harder!" Tall Dwarf exclaimed.

"Oh yes, we’ll try harder, right DARLING?" Kuja seethed, reaching around to pinch Zidane’s ass, hard.

"OW! Yes! No! I mean… Uh… Wait, what??" And why was Kuja’s hand on his rear anyhow? Zidane thwapped at the wayward hand with his tail, earning him a grumble and another pinch in return. Slightly irritated and yet somewhat amused at the same time, Zidane let loose a low growl himself, then readied his tail for another swat, only this time, he aimed for Kuja’s butt instead.

The silver-haired man jumped in response, then slapped Zidane’s rear as if it were a ripe pumpkin. "Stop that you idiot!"

"What, you started it!" the thief yelled back.

"Ah, must be nice ta be married," Short Dwarf sighed as the two Genomes began poking at each other in earnest. He felt a little envious. He wanted a fiery little wife to pick on too.

Tall Dwarf laughed and began rummaging through his supplies. "Aye! And I’ve got just the thing for tha’ lovebirds…" After a minute of searching he triumphantly pulled out a small ceramic jug and began waving it in the air. "Aha! Here we go!" And he shoved it at Zidane, who managed to grab it while fending off Kuja with his free hand.

"What is it?" Zidane asked after finally managing to uncork it for an experimental sniff. There was some sort of oil inside the jug.

"It’s an aphro-disi-macallit. See, ye put a little of this on yer…"

"We don’t want it!" Zidane yelped, nearly dropping the container.

"But it’ll help ye with making babies! See, I used a bit o’ this magic potion and now I ‘ave three, count ‘em, three wee ones! And I’m giving it to ye for free, being that yer a good regular customer and all."

"Uh, thanks, but really, we don’t…"

"Just take it, laddie. Put it ta good use. Or else ye be stuck out here in Sanctuary fer years to come!"

* * *

Unable to convince the Dwarves to take it back, Zidane ended up pocketing the oil before focusing on the reason for their trip - supplies. He showed Kuja how to pick out items they’d need and how to efficiently pack it all up for the trip back. They paid for the goods, loaded them up in two bundles which they strapped onto their backs, then bade goodbye to the Dwarves before heading back up the trail towards home.

On the way back, Kuja got his "wish" - another Ochu, just as huge and toothy and foul as the previous one, stood in their path. This time he didn’t wait for Zidane to goad him on; he made the first move, though this time he went low, trying to disable one of the leg tentacles, hoping to topple the behemoth over. It wouldn’t have been a bad idea if he’d been a little quicker and more battle experienced, but Kuja didn’t have the agility needed to evade the creature’s counterattack. The arm tentacle that came flying down tore through the bundle he’d been carrying – in his haste he hadn’t bothered shrugging it off first – scattering bread and fruit everywhere and knocking him to the ground.

Zidane was immediately at Kuja’s side, examining him, then sighing in relief when he realized that the older Genome simply had the air knocked out of him for a moment. Ironically enough, Kuja’s uncharacteristic show of impatience had saved him; the supply bundle had cushioned the blow.

"I’ll get him," the blonde said before darting nimbly beneath the monster and neatly relieving the creature of two of its four legs in a single pass, essentially doing the exact thing Kuja had tried and failed at. It went crashing down, flailing helplessly. Zidane swiftly pivoted around and stabbed both his daggers through the fibrous husk of the body, then tore them out, killing the Ochu almost immediately.

Zidane sheathed his weapons, then went back to help Kuja to his feet. The former mage was now sitting up, but still looked a bit stunned. Zidane bent down and took his hand, but as soon as he made contact Kuja snarled and yanked his hand back. He suddenly looked pissed off instead.

"Okay, now what?" Zidane demanded.

"… Nothing."

"Kuja…"

The silver-haired man swallowed hard. He ought to be thanking Zidane for saving his ass yet again. But the self-depreciation he’d felt earlier had returned in full force, mingling with anger and confusion. He shut his eyes, struggling to deal with the flood of emotions. He was mad: at himself, for being so weak and worthless as to need help; at Zidane, for being presumptuous enough to help. And at the same time he felt a rising sense of panic at the thought of Zidane leaving, at the prospect of being left to fend for himself, when he couldn’t fight, when he was probably the most wanted man on the planet.

He’d never considered begging for anything before, but he was closer than he’d ever been to doing so. But what was the point, other than throwing away what little pride he had left? It didn’t matter that he didn’t want Zidane to leave… that was inevitable. Why would he stay when he had a beautiful, powerful young queen and friends all waiting to give him a hero's well deserved welcome home? Kuja couldn’t even begin to offer him anything like that.

Maybe it’d be best if Zidane just up and left right away. What was the point in sticking around for weeks or a month more, when in the end, it wouldn’t change anything? It wasn’t like Kuja would last for much longer anyhow. What difference would it make if he met his end on the claws of a monster instead?

Uncertainty tore through him. He wanted to push Zidane away and at the same time, grab onto him and not let go. He didn’t know what to do anymore. He feared losing control over his life more than anything, but wasn’t that what was happening? Had he ever had any control over it in the first place?

He suddenly felt hands close over his, pulling them away from his face. Kuja jerked back in surprise, then blinked up at Zidane through a veil of hair. His fingers were tangled in it. He hadn’t realized he’d been pulling at it.

Zidane frowned as he crouched down. "What’s wrong?" he asked softly, letting go of Kuja’s hands to lightly brush back the silver strands. "Did you really get hurt that badly?"

Kuja merely stared back at him mutely.

Zidane sighed again. There was no point in demanding an answer; if Kuja wasn’t going to talk, he wasn’t going to talk. Besides, he looked genuinely upset, almost like a lost child, if that could be believed. So Zidane tried being a little gentler, a little more understanding, stroking Kuja's face and leaning in to kiss him lightly on the forehead. "What’s wrong?" he asked again.

Kuja pressed his cheek against the blonde’s palms a little bit – he remembered many years ago feeling comforted by baby Zidane’s hands patting his cheeks - then shook his head slowly. He couldn’t say it; he couldn’t ask him to stay. He already knew the answer. And he didn’t want to hear Zidane telling him that.

"You did good today, you know, especially since this was your first time in real hand to hand combat and all," the thief said, making his best guess as to what was bothering the older man. He enveloped Kuja in a hug. "I mean that. I’m proud of you."

Kuja flinched. No one had ever told him that before, especially not Garland, who’d never seemed satisfied no matter how hard he’d tried. "How can you say that? I screwed up…"

"No one’s perfect their first time out."

"I could’ve gotten us both killed!"

"Nah. I knew it’d be okay. And I know you won’t make the same mistake again." Upon hearing Kuja sigh heavily, Zidane tapped him on the nose and added, "Stop moping. You’re doing great, like I said! You’ll be a pro at this in no time – I’m gonna make sure of it."

"… And then what?" Kuja asked bitterly.

Zidane cocked his head. "What do you mean?"

Something akin to hurt anger flickered in the depths of Kuja’s eyes, but he refused to say anything more and merely shook his head again.

The conversation really wasn’t going anywhere, and even Zidane knew he ought to call it quits before he said something he'd regret. They’d been having a pretty good day, or so he’d thought, and then Kuja just had to go and start raining on the parade again. He was getting so tired of it: Kuja’s constant moodiness, his pessimism, the bouts of silence… it was all very draining. Zidane did care for Kuja, and he was trying to do his best to help him adjust to this new life, but it seemed the former mage was determined to make the task as difficult as possible.

How did the saying go? If you saved someone’s life, they were indebted to you for the rest of their lives… or was it, you were obligated to take care of them for the rest of your life? Zidane had thought it was the former but it was starting to look like the latter was true. And that wasn’t something he’d bargained for when he’d gone charging into the wild heart of the Iifa Tree; he had only been thinking about saving Kuja’s life at the time, or at least being by his side so that he wouldn’t be alone when he died.

Zidane took a deep breath and stood up, offering Kuja his hand. No, the thief couldn’t take care of the other man forever, but a little longer… that wasn’t unreasonable. He could handle that, even though he was getting more and more anxious to get back to his friends and family, because Kuja was almost family too, or something like that.

"Come on, let’s get back to the house. It’s been a long day, hasn’t it?"

For a moment it almost looked like Kuja was going to just sit there stubbornly, refusing to budge, but then he gave a tired sigh and accepted a hand up… and then wouldn’t let go. He didn’t explain himself and Zidane didn’t ask; he simply did his best to help Kuja dust himself off one handed, then readjusted his grip so they could more easily walk side by side as they made their way back to the house.

* * *

Kuja remained quiet the remainder of the journey, though his mind was going a mile a minute. He wondered if they’d encounter another monster… He wasn’t itching for a fight anymore, but still he found himself thinking about combat again.

He wondered what would happen if he deliberately let himself get beaten up during an encounter. Would it be worth it to take a few blows to keep Zidane around a few additional weeks? Kuja was sure it would work… he was used to identifying people who had flaws he could exploit, then manipulating them into doing what he wanted. The younger man’s flaws were obvious: he was an annoyingly gullible simpleton who was also kindhearted and protective of others. So if Kuja got hurt, Zidane would be saddled with guilt, for not jumping in quicker, for not having trained the former mage sufficiently in the art of physical combat. He would stick around for a little longer, intent on protecting him.

But it didn’t take long for Kuja to scrap that idea. It wasn’t worth it, getting injured just to buy a little more time. He didn’t want to be in pain and more scarred up than he already was. But beyond that, Zidane had said he was proud of him, that he’d done well in the two fights. And Kuja treasured that little sliver of approval. He didn’t want to lose it, no matter what.

And although he was used to using his body, as much as anything else, to get what he wanted – and a few additional scars wouldn’t make much of a difference anyhow – there were other, less risky, more physically pleasurable ways to go about it. The question was whether or not that’d work on Zidane…

By the time they got home, it was already noticeably late. Kuja immediately headed for the bath, saying he felt sore and filthy, and casually hinted to Zidane that he ought to join him, but the thief was oblivious to his overtures and instead went to unpack their purchases and get dinner started while Kuja went to bathe.

Kuja wasn’t deterred. It wasn’t outright rejection after all. He just figured that meant he’d have the luxury of making himself as presentable as possible. With a little bit of water he scrubbed off as much of the road dust as possible to start, then broke some herbs into the remaining water to perfume it, hoping that the scent would cling to his skin and hair as he sat in the tub. He slowly combed his fingers through his hair, approving of the herbal scent he’d concocted, and wished he’d thought about asking the Dwarves if they had any skin cream or cosmetics for sale, though he doubted they’d carry such things. Besides, it was probably too late to try and soften the appearance of the scars he now bore anyhow. And as for the cosmetics, he wasn’t sure if that was something Zidane liked anyways, given that he didn’t remember seeing Dagger – and great, even he thought of her as "Dagger" now – wearing much makeup. Then again she was naturally, flawlessly beautiful. Kuja bet there wasn’t a single scar or blemish on her royal body. No wonder Zidane had instantly become smitten with her.

There was an impatient tap on the door, and then it swung open.

"Hey…"

Kuja looked up to see Zidane cocking his head at him. "Yes?"

"You didn’t hear me knocking?"

"Sorry…"

The blonde shrugged. "Well, I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. You’ve been in here a while."

"Oh." He hadn’t realized he’d spent so much time in the bath, thinking. The water was starting to get pretty cool, and he hadn’t even noticed. But since Zidane was there, he figured he ought to take advantage of it…

Kuja stood up, making the move as graceful as possible, letting the water sheet off his slender frame. He was pleased to notice Zidane’s eyes flickering briefly over his body. It was exactly the reaction he’d been hoping for.

"Could you hand me the towel?" Kuja asked in a low purr, seizing the opportunity before him.

"Huh? Oh, um… sure… Here."

"Thank you." Kuja accepted the offered towel, then began drying himself off slowly, dabbing droplets of water off his arms, lightly scrubbing the fabric over his chest, leaning down to work over one leg at a time, like a girl putting on stockings. He wanted it to appear he was just casually drying off, though it wasn’t as easy - his back was starting to hurt from the Ochu’s earlier attack and his legs ached from all the walking. And he had to fight to not rush over the areas that he wasn’t so confident about, instead artfully positioning the towel or a limb over the worst of the scars, to minimize them. But thankfully they didn’t seem to deter Zidane that much - he could feel the blonde’s gaze staying with him, following his every movement, so he fixed a pleasant expression on his face and kept up the act.

The younger Genome was indeed intrigued by what he was seeing. He’d already admitted to himself that he liked looking at Kuja. It wasn’t just that he was beautiful and graceful like a peacock, he also had a charisma that was hard to resist. It got a little weird whenever his brain tried to point out that Kuja was male, but Zidane just made it a point to skip over anything below the belt, so to speak.

Better yet, Kuja was now in a good mood it seemed, unlike earlier. That made him a hundred times more attractive. That made Zidane want to hang around and wait for him, to talk to him.

Kuja finally finished up by turning around, spreading the towel across his back like a flag, then folding up the bottom half over the ends of his hair to sop up the dampness. He turned back around and sauntered towards Zidane, who was still standing there, transfixed. Kuja remembered Zidane touching his face earlier and decided to repay that in kind, reaching for Zidane’s face, cupping his chin in his hand, stroking his thumb over the younger man’s lips. Zidane didn’t resist as Kuja followed that up with a kiss, so the former mage decided to take things a step forward and slip in a bit of tongue.

Zidane made a tiny squeak of protest, but after a moment of confusion, he willingly opened up and let Kuja explore his mouth. The blonde had never been kissed like that before – despite what Kuja had thought, Zidane hadn’t been all that successful with the ladies; he really was just an incurable flirt - but it wasn’t as weird as he thought it would be. It wasn’t like Kuja was trying to make him swallow his tongue. It was just a kiss with an added bonus of being a little more wet, a little more slippery…

Speaking of a little wet, Kuja’s bangs were starting to drip noticeably onto Zidane’s face. It made the thief scrunch up his face and squirm, enough to disrupt the kiss.

Kuja pulled back a bit, uncertain as to what had happened, and then he smiled at what he saw. Zidane’s lips were moist and his cheeks were lightly flushed. His eyes were wide, the bright blue irises slightly clouded over. He really was rather attractive - young enough to be boyishly cute and a bit innocent, but old enough to be a man, without a doubt. It made the next move easy.

"What… what are you doing?" Zidane mumbled as Kuja moved on to nibbling on his neck. He wasn’t really sure if he needed an answer though. Maybe it was better to not know and to simply close his eyes and concentrate on the varied sensations: Kuja’s hot mouth versus his cold damp hair, the soft curves of his body and the firm, bunching muscle that lay just beneath the surface. He was stronger and more forceful than a girl would be, even though his skin was just as silky, his hair just as fragrant, touched with an herbal scent. Zidane found the contrasts oddly exciting.

Kuja’s body was fully pressed against his now, pinning him against the doorjamb. Zidane reacted on instinct, slipping his tail between Kuja’s legs and around his thighs, wrapping his arms around Kuja’s narrow waist, then letting his hands drift down to the swell of flesh below, fondling it after only slight hesitation. Kuja had a full, curved ass, perfect for squeezing. In the back of his mind, Zidane remembered Dagger had a pretty nice looking rear as well, though he’d never gotten to touch it. Nor had he ever seen her naked. Hell, they’d never even kissed – he’d tried once and she’d walked off.

Zidane’s eyes snapped open, and he quickly realized there was something firm beginning to press into his abdomen. He glanced down. He wasn’t sure what to be more horrified by: the fact that Kuja’s arousal was prodding him, or the fact that he’d forgotten all about Dagger for a few minutes. It wasn’t until he’d had Kuja in his arms that he remembered her. And why were his hands and tail all over Kuja anyhow?

Zidane instantly let go of whatever he’d been fondling. "Woah! What the…"

"You’re enjoying it too, in case you haven’t noticed," Kuja quickly pointed out, reaching down to lightly pat the bulge in Zidane’s pants.

The flush coloring Zidane’s face deepened. This was the second time he’d gotten aroused because of Kuja. He didn’t understand… Was it just because what Kuja was doing felt good? But he was a man, so it shouldn’t have had that kind of effect on him, should it? And how would they… Wait, what AM I doing? What about Dagger!? "Stop it, I… we can’t…" But the other Genome wasn’t stopping, so Zidane pulled back from the hand that was still rubbing him and pushed Kuja back lightly. "Listen to me!"

"What?"

"I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but… I can’t do this."

Kuja looked down as well. He really wanted to rub up against Zidane some more, but he refrained from pushing his luck… at least for the moment. "If it bothers you that much, you don’t have to look at it you know."

"That’s not… it’s not the only thing!"

"You could just flip me over and do it from behind…" Kuja continued, and Zidane swallowed hard at the image of the silver-haired man bent over, rear in the air.

"No way… I couldn’t. I can’t… I can’t do that to Dagger."

Kuja stepped back, a low hiss escaping his lips. He didn’t want to lose to her, not in this, not when she wasn't even on the same continent. "She’s not even here now, is she?" he asked dangerously.

"She is, in my heart! I can’t do this to her."

"Good thing I’m not asking for your heart then."

Zidane jerked. So this was just a physical thing then?

"Did she ever do anything like this for you?" Kuja asked, pressing for an answer, the tip of his tail slowly working it’s way up Zidane’s leg.

"Of course not! She’s not like that. And stop that!" Zidane yelled, swatting at the silver tail with his own.

"Then let me be the one."

Zidane stared at him. Kuja’s eyes were dead serious; he wasn’t just jerking Zidane’s chain. But the younger Genome wasn’t ready to consider such a thing. He didn’t know if he ever would be. He still didn’t understand why he reacted to Kuja, and what that meant, if anything. Maybe being out in the middle of nowhere so long was driving them both a little crazy. Maybe he ought to start planning his trip home, before things got out of hand.

Zidane let out a long, slow sigh, then took a hold of the towel around Kuja’s shoulders and pulled it down to wrap it around the other man’s torso. "Look… I just came in to tell you dinner’s ready. Get dressed and we can go eat, okay?"

It was a rejection of sorts, but on the other hand, Zidane hadn’t completely turned him down either. And there’d been no mistaking the thief’s reaction, no matter how much Zidane tried to deny it. So Kuja slowly nodded and rewrapped the towel more securely around his body. Zidane smiled at him, looking relieved. Kuja smiled back. He was willing to concede, for now. At least the seed had been firmly planted, and it wasn’t like he had anything better to do than to cultivate it.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- I know the Dwarves should sound more "Scottish," but as I wanted the dialogue to be easy to understand, I went sorta halfway so that they would keep a bit of their canon accent while remaining intelligible.

- Debating whether or not next chapter should be a lime or a full-blown lemon (yes, really, it's that time!) Right now I’m leaning towards lemon (frankly I don’t know how to lime, it seems) but of course the scandalous bits would then have to be omitted from the ffnet version, with the full version available on my site. Feel free to leave feedback if you have an opinion on the matter!

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "The Great Pretender" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Despite his moniker of "Angel of Death," Kuja had never particularly relished killing. He’d done it because it was what was expected of him, and he was good at it. But as he stood over the body of his fallen foe, a foul smelling Gnoll, he felt a weird mix of pride and apprehension. Pride, because Zidane was clapping him on the shoulder and congratulating him on the improvement in his fighting ability that had allowed him, for the first time, to take down an enemy in melee combat, by himself. And apprehension, because now that he’d proven himself in combat, Zidane was that much closer to leaving.

As if reading his counterpart’s mind, Zidane cheerfully said, "Now I don’t have to worry about your safety when I’m not around!"

Kuja forced a smile onto his face, not wanting to ruin the mood. But his heart was pounding from more than the adrenaline of battle. It was clear the thief wanted to leave as soon as possible and now that the last barrier to his leaving had been disposed of, Kuja was betting he’d be gone by the end of the week.

After Zidane finished pushing the Gnoll’s body over the steep drop off a few yards beyond the path – it’d be pretty gross to have to step over a rotting carcass in the days to come – he motioned to Kuja to continue on up the mountain path. The silver-haired man picked up his pack of supplies and hefted it onto his shoulders, watched as Zidane did the same, and began walking again, leading the way back to the house.

"You’re used to this routine now, huh?" Zidane asked as Kuja easily picked his way past the loose rocks around the next bend.

The former mage frowned slightly, wondering if "Does Kuja know the way to the supply depot?" was just another thing for Zidane to check off on his list. "I suppose…"

"Hey now, what’s up?"

You’re leaving soon, aren’t you? Kuja thought, though he couldn’t make himself say it. He tried to think of something that would sound more acceptable in their current situation. "Of course I know the route; we’ve traveled it often enough."

"Yeah, you’re right. It’s hard to believe… we’ve been here almost a year."

Kuja thought about it. It didn’t sound right; it seemed like it had only been a few weeks since he’d awoken to find Zidane tending to his injuries, but logically he knew that was impossible. He lifted his chin a little. The air around them was hot and dry thanks to the late summer sun, but he could detect just the faintest hint of a cool breeze drifting by. "Hmm, it seems you are correct."

"I know I’m correct. I’ve been marking off the days on the post outside the front door," the thief revealed.

Kuja had wondered why there were scratches and notches and nails seemingly randomly driven into the wood. "Ah…"

"I wonder how everyone’s doing…" Zidane mused aloud. "I sure miss them. I can hardly wait to go home…"

Home. The older Genome used to think that that simply meant the city of one’s residence, or the building in which one would sleep, but now he understood… Zidane wasn’t looking to return to a place, but to the people he’d left behind.

Kuja supposed in some abstract way he’d always understood. He’d always been a voracious reader as well as a good observer, using everything around him to supplement the knowledge base Garland had programmed into him. But it was one thing to memorize the definition of a word and another to experience it and glean knowledge that way. He felt something tighten in his throat and he shook his head hard, as if that would clear it. It made no sense to wonder what it was like to have a "home"… how could he want something that would never exist, moreso now that Terra had been destroyed, and by his own hands? But maybe that was a desire built in to all living things, regardless of the hows and whys behind their creation.

He sighed, then caught Zidane looking at him oddly, and cocked his head a little in response. "What?" he croaked.

"I said… oh, never mind. It didn’t come out right anyhow," Zidane muttered. He chewed on his lower lip a little, then added, "…I’m not running away, you know. I’ll come back for you, once I find some place where you’ll be safe. I promise."

Now Kuja wondered what he’d missed while he’d been distracted by his own thoughts. It was inconvenient that Zidane, who was usually stupid as a bag of rocks, could be surprisingly astute as well. Kuja floundered for a way to push aside what Zidane had said, then gave up and muttered, "I don’t believe in promises. They’re just words. There’s nothing binding about them, regardless of what you may think."

"Then what do you believe in?" When Kuja didn’t answer, Zidane got a little louder. "I meant what I said. You can’t really think I was just planning to leave you here and that’s that?"

Kuja suddenly threw his head back and laughed. "Ah, and I was just starting to think you were capable of some modicum of intelligence. But you really are just a hopeless idiot, aren’t you?"

"If anyone’s an idiot, it’s you! What does it take to get through to you?"

Kuja’s eyes narrowed slightly at the insult. Then he smirked. His hand shot out to grab Zidane’s tie and he pulled until the blonde was flush against his body, then kissed him as forcefully as he could.

Zidane was so surprised that he just stood there slack jawed, which only made it that much easier for Kuja to slide his tongue in between the younger man’s lips. Zidane made a muffled sound but didn’t resist; in fact, by the time he regained his wits, his tongue had somehow found its way into Kuja’s mouth as well, and Kuja’s hands had migrated down to his hips.

With some effort, Zidane finally managed to push Kuja off to hold him at arm’s length. He wiped off his lips with the back of his hand. "Hey! What’s with that? One second you hate me and the next you wanna make out with me?!"

One of Kuja’s fine brows went up. "I never said I hated you."

"Right, because otherwise you wouldn’t keep kissing me..."

"Zidane… we already had this discussion. Kissing has nothing to do with liking or disliking someone. Though it’s easier if you don’t dislike them, I suppose. And at least it’s honest in that regard. After all, if you didn’t enjoy it at least a little bit, I’m sure you wouldn’t allow it. And… you wouldn’t react to it."

Zidane growled and stomped off on slightly stiff legs, trailed by the sound of Kuja’s mocking laughter.

It was a good thing Kuja could take care of himself now. Zidane needed to get out of the situation he was in, before… before… Dang, I don’t even know anymore! The whole thing was so confusing; it gave him a headache. He didn’t know why he felt any sort of attraction towards Kuja when they were both men. It just wasn’t normal. It wasn’t right. And the former mage wasn’t helping matters either, with all the touching and the kissing. It had been going on for months, and yet Zidane had no clue what it was that Kuja was expecting. Every time the blonde had asked, Kuja had danced around the issue until Zidane had given up in frustration. So what was going on with him? Surely he didn’t greet people by sticking his tongue into their mouths. So was he doing it simply to tease Zidane, just to see him red and flustered? Was he just really horny? Or was there something more to it, something that he wasn’t willing to admit to?

Zidane abruptly stopped and whirled around. Kuja was still grinning at him, which really set the thief off. He was tired of the games. "I think it’d be for the best if I left next week or so," Zidane finally snapped, watching with some satisfaction as the smile vanished from Kuja’s face.

"Sensible. I suppose travel would be more difficult once the weather gets bad," Kuja replied blandly, after a bit of a pause.

Zidane was a little surprised - Kuja was being agreeable, mostly. He’d been expecting something more along the lines of a tantrum. "Yeah, that’s right..."

The former mage pursed his lips. The word "stay" was on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t say it. He didn’t believe in begging, not that it had never worked anyhow. And he known for weeks, months even, that Zidane was eager to go home. It was inevitable, so what was the point in delaying it?

… Then again, Kuja wasn’t the type who’d go down without a fight, no matter how high the odds were stacked against him. He knew how to fight dirty, how to take advantage of any opening… he excelled at that. And that was what it’d take if there was any possibility of keeping Zidane around.

But just as he’d told the younger Genome earlier, he didn’t believe in words. He believed in action. And Zidane was in no mood for that right now. But Kuja wasn’t deterred. He’d already decided what he was going to do. He just had to be patient and wait until the right moment to carry out his plan.

* * *

Zidane regretted that he’d been so blunt about it, but by the end of the week, he was convinced that he’d made the right decision. He couldn’t stay there forever, away from everything he knew and loved, nor did he think he could fight off Kuja’s advances indefinitely. And what it would mean if he gave in, Zidane didn’t even want to consider. So it was better this way, even if it wasn’t easy to walk away. He’d gotten used to life here, for better or for worse.

He set a goal date for one week out. That’d give him time to get extra supplies for the both of them, and to plan out his route. And maybe that would buy him enough time to try and locate Choco’s tracks too; if he could find the friendly chocobo, he could save a lot of time and energy by riding instead of walking.

He figured he’d head to the Black Mage Village first. It was close by, and he wanted to see how his fellow Genomes were adjusting to life on Gaia. Plus there was a decent chance that he’d be able to convince them to take Kuja in. That would be the best possible scenario – he was certain Kuja would do pretty well amongst his own people. But he did have to consider the possibility that the Black Mages would refuse, and it was their village after all… he’d have to respect their decision on the matter.

After that, he’d need to find a way across the sea. Once he reached the Mist Continent, he figured he’d head to Lindblum, to Tantalus. As much as he wanted to be with Dagger again, he owed it to his brothers and Baku to let them know he was alive… and perhaps they could help him plan out a suitably dramatic proposal. And maybe Baku could be cajoled into taking Kuja into the gang if needed, so that was another reason to pay him a visit as well. If that didn’t work out, Zidane figured he’d check in on what was going on in Treno, since Kuja had lived there before and it had been one of the few places that had remained unscathed during his and Brahne’s campaign. And if that didn’t seem viable, as a last resort he’d ask – beg even, if it came down to it - Dagger to let Kuja come and live with them.

Zidane was pretty pleased with himself. He wasn’t one for planning things out so he thought he’d accomplished quite a feat by coming up with so many backup options in case one or the other fell through.

End goal now in sight, the days seemed to speed by. There was a lot to do and not much time to do it in. They went down to the Dwarven outpost several times to stock up and for Zidane to say goodbye – the Dwarves had literally been their sole lifeline and he wanted to thank them, and to ask them to take care of Kuja in his absence. Kuja offered to help with whatever else was needed to make the trip easier; Zidane had him patch up a tear in his cloak and asked him to help search for Choco as well, which proved to be a good decision as Kuja spotted the telltale tracks before Zidane did. Much to Zidane’s relief Choco remembered the sound of his whistle and came running. Even though he was just a bird it was great to reunite with an old friend, and even Kuja seemed to enjoy meeting the creature, though it got a little bit awkward when they realized that Choco had somehow become smitten with Kuja’s feathers. The poor chocobo actually looked depressed when they let him go again, but they promised they’d be back later and he perked up before running off, kicking up a cloud of dust behind him.

The former mage was being surprisingly nice and tolerant about everything Zidane asked of him actually. It made the younger man feel that much more guilty about leaving, though he stuck to his decision after thinking it through yet again. It was weird… he’d never had a problem making up his mind on things before, but Kuja had a way of throwing him for a loop, making everything topsy turvy.

Finally the last day arrived. Zidane slept in a bit before heading back out to where they’d last seen Choco and summoned the gold chocobo back to his side. The oversized bird was happy to see him again, kweh-ing and rubbing him affectionately with his beak while searching for his promised reward of gyshal greens. Once Zidane got back to the house, Kuja greeted him with a surprise: a late lunch of stewed rabbit and root vegetables. It was amazingly good, enough that Zidane proclaimed it one of the best things he’d ever eaten. Whether it was the company he was keeping or his excitement at the thought of going home that made it taste that much better, Zidane wasn’t sure, but either way, it was one of the most memorable meals he’d had in a long time.

After lunch Zidane did his final packing, triple checking to make sure he had everything he could possibly need, and divided up his remaining Gil, giving Kuja the lion’s share to make sure he’d be able to buy whatever supplies he’d need to survive. The blonde didn’t anticipate being gone for more than a month or two, but it was better to be safe than sorry in this case. As nice as the Dwarves were, they obviously weren’t going to give away their goods for free.

They had some more stew for supper, then Kuja suggested they sit outside to enjoy the rest of the evening. It was still summer after all, and while the midday temperatures could climb rather high, the nights were cool. It was really a beautiful, clear night; Zidane had never really noticed it before, but without city lights to obscure them, the stars in the sky were as dazzling as diamonds. He went to point it out to Kuja, but as soon as he turned to him he’d forgotten what he wanted to talk about.

Zidane had already admitted a hundred times over that Kuja was strikingly attractive, moreso than most women. But he’d never quite seen him like this before. The faint moonlight made Kuja’s pale skin and hair glow luminously against the soft darkness of the night. It set off the elegant lines of his cheekbones and nose and darkened his eyes into pools of ink in contrast. Night jasmine, Zidane’s brain blurted out. Pristinely white and fragrant with summer’s warmth. Zidane frowned; since when did he think of stuff like that? It didn’t make any sense. Then again, not much ever did when it came to Kuja. Zidane had the maddening urge to kiss him, but that was probably a bad idea, given that he’d be gone in a matter of hours to return to Dagger’s side.

"Is there something on my face?" Kuja asked in a low voice, looking at Zidane as Zidane stared at him in turn.

"No… I was just thinking. Er, remembering something, I guess."

"Remembering what?"

Zidane sighed to buy himself a few moments while trying to recall what it was he’d originally wanted to say, before he’d caught sight of Kuja in the moonlight. Now that he was on the verge of leaving, he knew he didn’t have much time left to get it all out. But that was easier said than done. He couldn’t think of anything to say other than what he’d already said before: that they were friends, that everything would be okay, that he’d return as soon as he could. He didn’t want to sound like a broken record, repeating those same things over and over. Still, he really was going to miss the other man. Even though Kuja was moody and difficult at times, he had his good points too. He was intelligent and witty, beautiful and brave. And there was a kindness in him that Zidane hadn’t expected. But despite his strengths there was a vulnerability to him as well, which really set off Zidane’s protective instincts, even though the former mage was definitely no damsel in distress.

"This past year," Zidane began slowly, "I enjoyed my time here with you. Even if we didn’t always get along, I don’t regret any of it. I’m glad I got to know you. I'm glad we’re friends now."

"Friends…" Kuja murmured, looking down for a moment. Then he lifted his head, reached a hand up, and lightly touched Zidane’s chin. Zidane stared back, blue eyes wide. "I enjoyed my time here with you as well," Kuja said, leaning in to capture the younger Genome’s lips in a soft, probing kiss.

Zidane allowed it for a few moments, then pulled away with some reluctance. "We… I can’t do this anymore. I’m going back to Dagger."

"Yes, you are. Tomorrow. But tonight, you’re still here with me," Kuja said, pushing Zidane’s hands away to kiss him again.

It was a cool summer’s night, yet Zidane felt like he was burning up. Kuja’s breath against his mouth was so warm, and the tongue that had slid back into his mouth was as hot as fire. There was no reason why it ought to feel good, but it did. Zidane moaned, only dimly aware that the sound had come from his own throat, before being shocked back to awareness by something hitting his back. He reflexively tried to push Kuja away again.

"Really, we aren’t going to get anywhere if you keep shoving me," Kuja complained. Zidane blinked up at him. Somehow the taller man had pushed him down onto his back, and he hadn’t even noticed the change in his verticality beyond the initial impact.

"What? Wait…" the thief began protesting weakly before his complaints were completely cut off by another feverish kiss that stole his breath. Some small part of his mind told him to fight against it, but the truth was, Zidane liked it. He didn’t really want to stop. Kuja always made him feel so amazing, waking up every nerve in his body like he’d never experienced before. It was almost like the adrenaline rush of combat, without the danger.

Finally seeing Zidane starting to give in, Kuja’s hands relaxed and released Zidane’s shoulders, then began making their way down the planes of Zidane’s chest. Kuja could feel the frantic beating of Zidane’s heart just under his palm. He smirked; he’d give the blonde something to be excited about, if he could just peel back a few layers of clothing…

"Ah!" Zidane gasped as Kuja slipped one hand under his shirt to stroke a nipple with his index finger.

"Never had someone touch you like this?" Kuja inquired, though he didn’t let up. But he wasn’t going to push the matter too hard either until he got his answer.

"No… when would I have?" Zidane groaned. He arched his back as Kuja began pinching the small nub, rolling it between his fingers.

Kuja smiled. Well, then Zidane wouldn’t have had anyone do anything like this either… He pulled the younger Genome’s shirt up completely, then lowered his head down and began kissing Zidane’s nipples, alternating between them a few times before adding some suction, along with a bit of tongue.

Zidane reacted wonderfully, gasping and squirming beneath Kuja. His hands floated up to knot in long silver hair, holding Kuja’s head in place, and Kuja rewarded all the tugging with a slight setting of teeth on sensitive flesh, which earned him an even louder cry.

After a minute more of nipping and licking and learning about what Zidane liked and disliked – he liked a lot of tongue, but was ticklish on his sides - Kuja finally lifted his head to murmur, "I’m not complaining, but there’s no need for us to be out here when there’s a warm bed inside."

Yes, he knew it was a risk to bring Zidane back to awareness of what they were doing, but for starters, a wooden porch wasn’t exactly the most forgiving of surfaces to have sex on…

The blonde blinked at the question. His pupils were dilated, his face flushed. The tenting in his pants was unmistakable. But instead of pressing his advantage, Kuja sat back to give Zidane some breathing room and to await his answer. He wasn’t going to force him. If Zidane firmly said no, Kuja would back off. He wasn’t going to let Zidane have the sort of experience he’d had his first time. Not that he’d been forced into it either, but he had been confused when it had happened. A man had offered him shelter for a night and he hadn’t understood the implication of those words. Although he’d known what copulation entailed in a clinical sense, he hadn’t realized it could happen between two men. It hadn’t been the most pleasant learning experience, but he’d gotten over it once his eyes were opened to the advantage his body had given him. An advantage he was grateful for, at times like this…

"I want this. And I think you do too. Think of it as… my thank you, for everything you’ve done for me," Kuja said.

"I don’t need that. Words are enough."

"No, they’re not," Kuja insisted. "You know I don’t believe that. So please… let me do this. Or else all I’ll think about is…" And he stopped to swallow, surprised at the strange feelings welling up, "…is what could’ve been. If I’d only tried…"

Zidane wasn’t sure what the silver-haired Genome was talking about anymore, but it didn’t matter. For some reason, this was that important to Kuja – and Zidane understood what it meant to not want to be in debt to someone. But more than that, he was feeling extremely guilty about leaving… If something like this would make Kuja feel a little better, then… maybe…. "I’m… I don’t know…"

"Zidane…"

"I mean, I don’t know what to do."

"Ah. I’ll show you then." Kuja leaned back in to kiss him on the lips, no tongue this time, just a sweet, simple kiss. "Thank you, Zidane." He stood up and offered his hand to his younger counterpart.

For a moment Zidane just stared at the hand, and it seemed perhaps he’d changed his mind, but then he reached up and accepted it.

The distance from the front door to the bedroom was short, but to Zidane it felt like it took forever to get from one to the other. He was excited, nervous, and a bit scared too. People spoke of sex as this miraculous, wondrous thing, an experience that would change your life. But he still wasn’t sure exactly how it worked, beyond the basics. Would it hurt at all? He’d heard his Tantalus brothers speak of an ache, of dizziness, of being gripped by a fever. They’d made it sound like some disease. He wasn’t sure if they’d just been trying to scare him into not doing it, because he was the "baby" of the family. But he wasn’t a kid anymore, so he wasn’t going to let those old fears stop him.

Once they got to the bedroom, the pace picked up dramatically. Kuja had been worried that Zidane would be a bit shy, but now that the blonde had made up his mind, he was recklessly throwing himself into it, as if running into battle. He threw off his shirt and pants and undergarments, then sat down on the bed, waiting for Kuja to do the same.

A little more confident that everything was going to plan, Kuja followed suit, albeit a bit more slowly.

Zidane looked Kuja up and down as the silver-haired Genome stripped. At first he told himself to focus on the feminine face, the creamy, smooth skin, the flare of the hips – a Genome trait to be sure, but one that Kuja had in abundance. With clothing on, Kuja could pass himself off as a woman if he so chose; naked, there was no doubt that he was male… and aroused. Zidane’s hand moved up to cover his mouth as he stared at the other’s engorged length, feeling his own starting to droop in response.

What had he been thinking? He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t get over it. He could overlook the lack of breasts and the masculine voice, but THAT… He wasn’t sure if he was scared of it or confused or disgusted or what. It was just… thick and twitching and swollen. "I… uh…" Zidane began stammering, not sure what he wanted to say.

Kuja figured it out pretty quickly, considering Zidane had been staring blatantly at his crotch before turning away, his face red. "You don’t have to do anything with it you know. Or even look at it. Here…" And Kuja quickly turned around to give Zidane a view of his rear instead. He even pulled his tail out of way. "Is that better?"

Zidane wasn’t sure. Though… Kuja sure did have one hell of an ass. "… Yeah, I guess."

Kuja frowned a little. "Well, if that didn’t do it, I know something that’s guaranteed to perk you right back up." And then he knelt on the floor, right in front of where Zidane was sitting, and looked up at the blonde with a pleading look. "May I?" he asked, lightly resting his hands on Zidane’s thighs.

"Uh…?"

The former mage figured that was about as much permission as he needed to get. He grasped Zidane’s faltering manhood, and began stroking it slowly yet firmly, watching as the tension on Zidane’s face melted away. Not a bad reaction, considering he hadn’t gotten to the good stuff yet…

Zidane’s eyes suddenly flew open in bewildered bliss. There was something incredibly hot and damp encircling his hard on, sending waves of pleasure radiating through every fiber of his body and making his feet twitch. He looked down, curious, and gasped. Kuja’s head was between his legs. One hand had formed an "O" around the base of his shaft. And Kuja’s mouth… was wide open, licking and sucking on his cock like it was a candy stick. Zidane had never seen anything so erotic in his life. He groaned helplessly. He didn’t know if he ought to be doing anything or just sitting still and enjoying it while he could but damn, it felt incredible!

Kuja suddenly pulled away with a pop. Zidane couldn’t stop himself from thrusting into the air a few times. The older man smiled at the reaction. It certainly was more honest than Zidane's attempts at mimicking a statue. "Well don’t just sit there. Or do I have to do everything?" he purred.

"What?"

"Just go with your instincts," Kuja advised, giving the now rigid member in his hand another sweeping lick, like a cat enjoying his new toy.

Instincts…? The only thing Zidane could think about was putting his cock back in Kuja’s mouth, and so he did. Once again, he was in heaven! But… he wondered if it could get even better… He hesitantly put one hand on the back of Kuja’s head while thrusting in a bit deeper, moaning at the sensation. It felt so good, so right… and Kuja was humming as if encouraging him to continue on, sending vibrations up Zidane’s spine. The blonde picked up the speed a little, pushing in a little more vigorously with each stroke, until suddenly Kuja pulled back again.

He’d had really been enjoying it, so why had Kuja stopped? "H… hey, what gives?"

The taller man delicately wiped off his mouth on the back of his wrist. "Sorry. But I didn’t think you’ll hold out for too much longer if we’d kept up with that." He stood up, climbed onto the bed, and sat on his left hip, draping an arm across his lap to camouflage his own aroused unit, knowing that Zidane didn’t want to see it. "Isn’t there something else you’d rather do?"

Zidane swallowed hard. He’d fantasized once or twice about what Kuja would look like naked, bent over, buttocks in the air, crying out his name… but it seemed wrong to ask for something like that. Or was that what Kuja wanted as well? Go with your instincts, wasn’t that what Kuja had said?

Once again Kuja wondered if Zidane had changed his mind, but then the younger Genome shifted forward and wordlessly took Kuja’s hands in his own. He guided them down onto the mattress, then grasped Kuja’s hips and pulled, until Kuja got the hint and got onto his knees. Why did it not surprise him that Zidane would chose this position? But he wasn’t complaining; it was fine with him, however Zidane wanted it.

All Zidane wanted to do at first was squeeze and fondle that fine ass. He really wasn’t sure what else he could do. But then Kuja produced a familiar looking jug from under the pillow – apparently he’d planned ahead – and dripped some thick, oily liquid onto a couple of fingers. Then, as Zidane watched on in fascination, he spread his legs wide, reached back, and began slipping those glistening fingers into his rear orifice. He arched his back as his digits rhythmically slid in and out, pausing every handful of strokes to make a scissoring motion, stretching the entrance. Wanting to get a better view of the show, Zidane parted Kuja’s asscheeks a little and just watched for a good minute or two. He’d never thought about doing anything like that to himself, not thinking of that spot as some place where anything should be going IN, but it wasn’t a turn off either. He wondered if it felt good. Certainly Kuja seemed to be enjoying it.

Dizzy with desire, Zidane was barely aware of how much his heart rate and breathing had picked up. He felt all hot inside, and his groin was starting to throb. He glanced down – he’d never seen his manhood get so hard, even when he’d indulged in pleasuring himself in the past. And it was pointing right at Kuja, as if it knew that’s where it wanted to be.

Kuja slipped his fingers out with a sigh. He was intending to slick them up a bit more, add a third one maybe, just to make sure he was really ready, as it had been a while since he’d had sex with a man, but then Zidane shocked him by grabbing a hold of his hips and pushing into him, and Kuja couldn’t even protest in time to stop him from forcing his way in.

"Wait… nnngh, slow down! Zidane!" Kuja yelped, but Zidane could only hear the blood rushing through his ears, making them buzz. He couldn’t believe the pleasurable sensations that were assaulting him as he pushed all the way in in a single motion, then as he began thrusting, each and every stroke building upon the last. If he’d thought he'd felt hot before, it was nothing compared to the intense inferno that raged in him now as he buried himself deeply in the body before him. Kuja was so right… sex was amazing. It was inflaming, velvety, moist. Addictive. He felt like he was being sucked in, like he needed more, like his body’s greed and lust were suddenly the only things that mattered.

Trying to delve in even deeper, Zidane pushed Kuja’s head down with one hand and grasped the base of his tail with the other – forgetting of course how much he hated it when his own tail got yanked - pulling up on it to open Kuja up more, to angle him just so.

"Mmnhhff!" Kuja cried out, the sound muffled by the pillow. It was too much. He needed more lubricant; he hadn’t prepared himself fully before Zidane had pounced. But as much as he wanted to stop it he didn’t. He told himself to relax, to just take it… it was hardly the worst thing that had ever happened to him. And pain was temporary - and well worth it – when it got the results he’d been after.

So instead of complaining or crying about it, Kuja gritted his teeth and concentrated on breathing – a bit of a struggle given that his face was being pushed into a pillow - and relaxing his muscles as best he could. His ass burned, his thighs were straining from all the pushing and pulling, his tail hurt - and when he tried to slide it out of Zidane’s grasp, the other man dug his nails into it, not wanting to let go.

And then, suddenly, mercifully, Zidane released both Kuja’s head and tail. Kuja lurched forward slightly and managed to lift his head to catch a few quick breaths before Zidane latched onto his hips and reeled him back in. He began ramming into Kuja even more vigorously than before, the pace growing increasingly frantic and uneven. The older man realized what was coming and choked back a cry of relief.

Zidane threw his head back and screamed as he came, not even recognizing the sound as his own voice. His body was jerking and he couldn’t stop it even if he wanted to. Not that he wanted it to end... It was the single most intense, pleasurable moment in his life. There were no words to adequately describe it… nothing could compare. But when he finally began coming down from that high of highs, he found himself sweaty and flopped onto Kuja’s back, sticking a little him, his spent length still inside the other man’s body. Kuja was shaking beneath him. They were both laboring for breath. Then Kuja reached back and lightly touched him on the arm, whispering his name.

… And it finally sank in; Zidane was struck with horror at what had transpired.

By the gods… what have I done? Dagger…

No matter how guilty he'd felt about leaving, this wasn’t the answer. He ended up doing exactly what he’d sworn he’d never do, what he'd thought he was incapable of doing… and betrayed the woman he loved in the process. Horrified, he pushed off Kuja and fell back on the bed, just staring at him. He wanted to blame Kuja for seducing him, manipulating him, just as he’d apparently done with so many others, but he knew it wasn’t fully Kuja’s fault. Still, Zidane couldn’t help but be angry, because regardless of where the blame lay, it had happened, and there was nothing he could do to take it back. How could he go home and face his family and friends now? How could he face Dagger??

Kuja suddenly shifted and turned a little towards him, a slight smile on his pale face. No matter how sore he was, he wasn’t going to do anything to spoil the mood for Zidane. But the smile faded when he saw Zidane’s expression...

Zidane was grimacing. He was already mad at himself and at the way his body had betrayed him. And now he couldn’t help but notice the semi erection the other Genome still sported, jutting out from between his legs. He quickly looked away. It was just as intimidating as before, an undeniable reminder of Kuja’s gender. Still averting his gaze, the thief scrambled off the bed, shaking his head briefly before staggering out of the room on shaky legs. He needed a bath, badly.

Kuja sighed once Zidane disappeared, wincing a bit as he sat up. His body ached badly but he knew the pain would fade after a night’s sleep, so it wasn’t much of a concern. He really had given it all he had. It just hadn’t been enough. He brushed his fingertips over his hard on and frowned. He couldn’t become a girl for Zidane any more than he could become queen of Alexandria.

Kuja wrapped his arms around his shoulders as the air temperature seemed to drop, making him shiver a little. Considering how hot and heavy things got during sex, it funny how the warmth never lasted longer than it took to complete the act. A hot bath would be welcome just about now, but he was pretty sure that’s what Zidane had in mind as well, and he probably didn’t want to see him right now. Left with few other options and suddenly feeling tired, Kuja crawled under the sheets, not caring that they stuck to him, and curled up on his side, ignoring the way his unfulfilled erection protested the action.

He told himself not to be disappointed. Zidane had always been very upfront and honest about his intention to return to Dagger. The best Kuja could have expected was a delay in the thief’s trip by a few days, a few weeks maybe. It would’ve been nice if that had happened. It would have made it all worth it. But it hadn’t worked out in his favor. And Kuja was okay with that. In the end, the result would’ve been the same, regardless.

He didn’t know why he was wasting time thinking about it. So he closed his eyes and told himself to go to sleep. Not that there really was a reason for it anymore, but he wanted to wake up early enough to see Zidane off the next morning.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

 - Re: the lemon. I hope I was able to do it justice. I really didn't want to emphasize the sex but, well, I'm no good at limes either. This was a bit outside of my wheelhouse though. It certainly wasn't meant to be romantic by any means, though there are elements of that in there, but at the same time it's not hate!sex either. Just a lot of guilt tripping and denial and a complete lack of meeting of the minds.

 - Re: finding a way across the sea. In the game, a gold chocobo would be a perfectly valid and logical option for crossing an ocean, but I just have a hard time picturing (without laughing) an ostrich-like bird flying across miles and miles of open water with a passenger clinging to it, so Zidane will have to find another way to get home. For the purposes of this fic, Choco's pretty much just an ordinary chocobo.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Don’t Stop Me Now" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Zidane wasn’t as small as he used to be. He really was growing up fast. But he was still a child, fitting easily in Kuja’s arms as the silver-haired man threaded through the forest, searching for some sign of humanoid habitation amongst the trees.

Once or twice Kuja looked down at the head of blonde hair nestled under his chin. Zidane was clinging to him tightly but he didn’t seem afraid, never once asking where they were or what was going on. He was too trusting, but maybe that flaw would serve him well, given what Kuja was planning.

Garland had been preparing to start training Zidane. But Kuja thought the child was too small, too delicate both physically and mentally, to endure it. And if he were right then simply, Zidane would not survive.

Why that mattered so much, Kuja wasn’t exactly sure. The boy was, in many ways, his competition, but he was also a companion, the only other Genome with a soul and a will of his own. And he had chosen from the start to attach himself to Kuja, as if the young mage were his parent. His attachment had become so strong in fact that Garland had simply decided to leave Zidane’s care in Kuja’s hands. Kuja hadn't even been eigh at the time and had had no experience with either babies or parental care before. It was understandable then that he didn’t handle the inconvenience well – Zidane had to be fed, bathed, cared for at all hours – to the point where Kuja had come close to killing him, but in the end they’d both somehow survived it. Kuja was grateful for that, actually… even if it had only been for a short while, it had been nice to have a warm body that snuggled up to him in bed, to have someone to talk to, who smiled at him when he spoke.

Kuja had never fully understood Garland’s logic in creating a Genome infant in the first place, but it had not been his place to question it. Nor was it his place to argue over training methods or anything else. Although he had been given free will, he was simply expected to do as he was told – arguing against orders or even balking would only earn him punishment. But Kuja could not stand idly by and let Garland have his way, not this time. If he had any say in it, Zidane would never know what it meant to be an Angel of Death.

The forest floor was dappled with light and heavily shaded by the canopy of leaves overhead. Kuja frowned and readjusted his grip on the child in his arms. Maybe he’d been wandering about for too long, or had taxed himself with too much teleporting around streams and fallen logs, but something was off. He felt a little lightheaded, as if he weren’t quite all there. Light and shadow seemed to blur, and he began losing sense of time and direction, but suddenly he stumbled upon a small clearing and there, he finally found what it was he’d been searching for.

There was a burly man pulling a cart loaded with firewood, with some boys of various ages by his side. They were a bit of a rough looking bunch, but the boys seemed adequately cared for, not that Kuja was any sort of expert on the subject. Wanting to make sure his assessment was correct, Kuja reached out with his powers and very lightly skimmed their thoughts. The man fancied himself an actor as well as a gentleman thief, though he was more a common pickpocket than anything else. The boys were orphans the man had taken in as apprentices / accomplices, but they did think favorably of him at least. It seemed that the man treated them like they were his sons.

Kuja put Zidane down. The boy looked up at him with wide eyes and clutched at the hem of his skirt, sensing that something was wrong. Kuja tried to put a calm, pleasant expression on his face as he crouched down to speak to him.

"See that man over there? I want you to go to him and tell him, ‘I am lost, can you please help me?’ Do you understand?" Kuja whispered, trying to keep his directions as easy as possible.

Zidane nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving Kuja’s face.

"Repeat what I just told you to say."

Zidane did as he was told, reciting the line word for word, his childish voice making it sound believable. Kuja was satisfied.

"Good. I will stay here and make sure everything goes to plan. And Zidane… if he asks you to go with him, do so. Understand?"

The kid nodded again.

"Good. Now go," the mage said. Zidane took a few steps forward, then balked and began turning back. Kuja tsked softly at him. "Get going." He reached out and gave the child a shove.

After a short pause, Zidane did as he was told, and the man reacted as Kuja had predicted – although he seemed surprised to see such a young child wandering about in the forest and even looked around a bit suspiciously, he knelt down almost immediately to speak to him. He even patted the child on the head as Zidane did his best to answer his questions, before picking him up and putting him on the cart. Kuja let go of the breath he’d been holding in, relieved, though he didn’t move. He needed to see the man take Zidane away, before he’d be able to make himself leave.

It was all working out. It almost seemed too good to be true. But as the cart began rolling away Zidane suddenly began looking around, his face scrunching up, and Kuja knew what was about to happen. He began rising to his feet, intending to beat a hasty retreat if he had to, just as Zidane burst into tears and began shrilly crying out, "Kuja! Kuja!"

The man began looking around again, then after tersely instructing the oldest boy to keep an eye on the others, began marching in the direction Zidane was trying to escape towards.

Kuja spun on his heel and fled as swiftly as he could. He could hear a gruff voice chasing after him, telling him to stop, interspersed with Zidane’s cries. Small branches tore at Kuja’s shoulder length hair and his feet seemed to trip over every exposed root, but he didn’t stop and instead ran even faster. He could still hear Zidane screaming his name, though his voice seemed to be growing smaller and more distant with every step.

Kuja put his head down and kept sprinting until he could no longer hear anything except his own ragged breaths and the pounding of his heart, until he’d completely lost himself in the forest, swallowed up by the shadows cast by the looming trees.

Had he done the right thing? Would that man really take care of Zidane? And would Zidane ever understand why he’d done it? He was so young still… maybe he’d just forget about everything: Terra, Garland… Kuja too. It would probably be for the best if that happened. At least now, he had a chance…

Kuja awoke, disoriented, to the sting of tears in the corner of his eyes. He’d had that dream before – or was it an old memory? He almost wished he knew for certain, but maybe it was better not knowing. Maybe Garland had been telling the truth, that he’d thrown Zidane away on Gaia out of jealousy. After all, he’d dreamed that before as well. Or maybe neither one was the truth? He would never know for certain; he couldn’t trust his own memory on what had happened back then because Garland had done something to scramble everything up when he’d been searching for some clue of Zidane’s whereabouts… It had been bad enough that Kuja had more or less forgotten about Zidane, seeing him only as a whisper in easily forgotten dreams, until they’d met again, so many years later. Even now, there were still a few gaps he couldn’t quite fill in…

And on that subject, where was Zidane anyhow? Suddenly nervous, Kuja called out to him, fearful that the thief had already snuck off, but then a familiar voice answered back and Kuja looked over to see a shaggy blonde head pop into view.

Zidane was sitting on the floor, already fully dressed, stuffing the very last of his things into his packs for his trip. Normally the older man liked taking his time waking up and getting up, but seeing that Zidane was on the verge of leaving, Kuja was startled into sitting up so quickly that his head spun for a moment.

Zidane glanced over, then turned back to his bags. "Morning. Hope I didn’t wake you," he said, pretending to focus on his task. Truth was, he didn’t have anything left to pack, but it was hard to even look in Kuja’s direction at the moment, considering the sheets were sliding off to reveal bare shoulders and chest. All the proof of just how messed up things had become was right there in front of him. In the end, he hadn’t gone back to the bedroom and hadn’t been able to sleep a wink on the sofa either, tossing and turning with all guilt and anger rampaging through his head. It had been an unforgettable experience… and an unforgivable one as well. The only thing he’d decided for sure was that he’d never let something like that happen again – even though some small, insistent part of him almost wanted it to - and that Dagger would never know.

"Is that so?" Kuja sighed once he’d gotten his bearings. It sure sounded like Zidane had been trying to sneak off without even saying goodbye…

"You looked like you needed the rest, that’s all," Zidane replied. Then he tacked on, "It wasn’t like I was going to leave without saying goodbye," as if he’d managed to read that much from Kuja’s mind. The former mage frowned at the prospect.

Kuja took a moment to compose himself as best he could, pulling the wrinkled sheets around his naked body and combing his fingers through tangled hair. He wanted a bath badly, but couldn’t risk running off to take one, lest Zidane disappeared. But he figured he probably looked like hell at the moment and certainly, felt like it too. He was still sore, though it had dwindled to a manageable dull twinge, just like he’d figured it would. Ignoring the pain, he forced himself out of bed and onto his feet. "Anything I can help with?" he asked, shuffling over a few steps. He didn’t really mean it. But anything was better than sitting there in silence.

Zidane gave him another glance. He wished Kuja would put some clothes on at least. It was horribly distracting; he couldn’t stop himself from remembering the feel of the body that lay beneath. "Thanks, but I’m good." Zidane gave the bag he’d been working on a pat, then stood up. "Actually… I think that’s everything. Um… and… so you want to have breakfast, or something?"

Kuja shut his eyes a moment. It was painfully awkward, trying to pretend like everything was fine, like it was just another morning, when it wasn’t. "I’m not really hungry…" Then he took a deep breath, and took the plunge. "Zidane… about last night…"

"Well I’m not hungry either so guess I better get going huh?" the younger man quickly blurted out in a huge rush.

"Um… I guess?"

They both stood there uncomfortably staring at the floor, then Zidane shifted forward a step. With departure imminent, it would be normal to want to go in for a hug, but that didn’t seem right – it was too much physical contact, especially with Kuja’s current lack of dress. Zidane ended up extending his hand for a handshake, and the result had to be one of the most awkward handshakes in the history of Gaia.

"I’ll come get you as soon as I can. So take care of yourself, okay?" Zidane said as their hands separated.

Kuja nodded slowly, then pulled his hand back until it disappeared under the sheets. It was strange… he felt numb, to the point where he hadn’t even registered the handshake. He’d confirmed that it had happened with his own eyes, but it was almost like he’d been a spectator, and not a participant.

There wasn’t anything else to talk about, with the obvious subject now dropped. Zidane managed a small smile, picked up his bags and slung them over his shoulders, and Kuja followed him as far as the front door. He leaned against the door frame, watching silently as Zidane went and got Choco and loaded his supplies onto the bird’s back, then jumped up himself.

Say something! a small voice screamed in Kuja’s mind, and he opened his mouth to speak, but he didn’t know what to say. And even if he did, it was probably too late for it anyhow.

Zidane looked back briefly once he was mounted. His eyes flickered across Kuja’s face, and what he was seeing, Kuja didn’t know, but whatever it was, it made Zidane add, "Well, I guess this is goodbye then," as Choco stomped his feet, eager to get moving.

"… Farewell, Zidane."

That was what Kuja had said at the Iifa Tree, when he’d been prepared to die alone. Zidane couldn’t leave it at that. "Don’t say it like that. I’ll see you later, I promise."

Zidane waited for Kuja to reply with a nod before he finally turned and began heading off, Choco stirring up a bit of dust with each step.

There was no good reason to remain standing there in nothing more than a sheet, but Kuja felt as if he couldn’t move, not until Zidane was completely out of sight, though it seemed the morning light was swallowing up both bird and rider far faster than Kuja would’ve liked.

From some distance away, Zidane looked back one more time before the house disappeared completely from view. It was weird; he’d lived there for nearly a year and had never thought of it as "home," but at the same time, he was going to miss it a little, weather worn roof and lumpy sofa and all. But most of all, he was going to miss Kuja, in spite of everything that had happened. Zidane could just barely make out the figure still standing in the doorway, a silent, white shape, almost like a ghost. Given that Kuja’s devastated departing expression was already beginning to haunt Zidane, that seemed an appropriate comparison, but Zidane steeled himself and kept going. He’d be back soon. He’d promised to return, after all.

* * *

When Zidane had been living with Kuja, all he could think about was Dagger, Tantalus, going home. And now that he was on his way back to the life he’d left behind, all he could think about… was Kuja.

He found himself stopping Choco from time to time as they made their way south. It was ridiculous… they’d only been apart for a few hours; the urge to turn around and return to Kuja’s side was that strong. But Zidane talked himself out of it each time. He figured it was guilt – for leaving, for having had sex with him – that was thrusting Kuja to the forefront of his thoughts. So he told himself to push past that. He had other obligations now, not just Kuja. He had to let his friends know that he was okay, that he’d survived the Iifa Tree. And he wanted to see Dagger badly, though he didn’t know how he was going to face her after what had transpired the night before.

Scattered thoughts notwithstanding, the trip to the Black Mage Village went smoothly, and by mid-afternoon Zidane had cleared the Dead Forest. Upon arriving at the village, he immediately noticed that it had gotten quite a bit larger since he’d last seen it… the influx of a few hundred Genomes certainly had affected the town’s growth.

As Zidane made his way down the village’s main road, gathering a number of curious glances along the way, he also began noticing the telltale signs of individuality emerging amongst his formerly soulless brethren. Some of them had adopted the Black Mage wardrobe: long dark coats, ballooned trousers, the ubiquitous pointed hats. Others had taken advantage of trade with the Dwarves and were dressed in a hodgepodge of colorful, sturdy woven fabrics. Their hairstyles were varied now as well… Zidane spied ponytails and braids on some, buzzcuts on others, and he thought he even saw a mohawk in the distance.

"Wow, I bet Garland would’ve flipped if he’d walked into Bran Bal and seen this," Zidane joked to himself. "It’d be like a rebellion or something."

"In a way, that is what it is," came a female voice from behind him. Zidane whipped around to see a familiar, pink clad Genome walking up to him with a short Black Mage in tow. A huge grin spread across Zidane’s face as he jumped off Choco’s back to greet them.

"Mikoto! And VIVI!" he yelled, immediately running over to hug his friend. It was such a relief to see him… As much as Zidane hadn’t wanted to think about it, it had been a real possibility that Vivi could’ve "stopped" some time during his absence. But the little guy was really there, and he hadn’t changed at all.

"Zidane, I can’t believe you’re here! I mean, Mikoto said you were all right, but…" Vivi faltered a little, trying to contain his emotions. But he couldn’t stop the tears of relief that started welling up. "It’s been so long!"

Zidane smiled, then hugged Vivi a little tighter. "Yeah, I know. I’m sorry, buddy. I didn’t mean to be gone so long!"

"I know. We were just so worried! Dagger, er, Queen Garnet most of all…"

Zidane released Vivi and nodded. He knew that. But it felt so good seeing Vivi and Mikoto that a lot of his anxiety was ebbing away. And now some of the other Black Mages and Genomes were congregating around them as well. While Zidane would be lying if he said he could remember meeting them all, he did recognize a few of them. He gave the group a smile and a wave, and received nods and smiles in return.

"So how are you, Zidane?" Mikoto asked.

Zidane turned to her. She’d grown up a bit more in the past year and now looked like a teenager. He couldn’t resist hugging her too, then picked her up as well and spun her around. Vivi laughed. Mikoto didn’t look nearly as entertained. "I’m good! How’s life treating you, ‘little sister?’"

"It’s fine, when it’s not spinning around."

Zidane grinned broadly and put her down. She’d grown up, but her personality hadn’t changed one bit.

"Where’s Kuja?" she asked as soon as her feet were solidly back on the ground.

Boy, she’s not cutting me any slack! Zidane thought. He knew she’d ask about him sooner or later. But Vivi was standing right there and had suddenly tensed up, and the rest of the Black Mages were starting to whisper to one another. Zidane hadn’t been ready to deal with a discussion about Kuja yet and could only think of alleviating their concerns as quickly as possible. "Don’t worry, he can’t hurt you anymore. I promise," he assured the lot.

"Is he… dead?" Vivi asked.

"He’s…" And Zidane paused, trying to think of what he could say to make things right. Then Vivi suddenly hugged him again.

"I’m sorry. You don’t have to talk about it right now if you don’t want to. I know… he mattered to you."

"Eh?" Zidane blinked, realizing quickly that Vivi had misunderstood his pause for something else. "No… well…" Gods, how do I explain it to him?

"Zidane, why don’t you come to my house for some tea, just the two of us?" Mikoto suddenly offered, and when Zidane looked over at her, she lifted an eyebrow slightly and he realized… she knew. So he accepted her invitation, handing Choco off to some villagers who were eager to introduce him to their own Bobby Corwen, and followed her back to her hut, wondering the whole while what it was that she wanted to say to him.

* * *

"So… how is Kuja?" Mikoto queried as soon as she’d shut the front door. She pointed to the kitchen table and Zidane sat down as the young woman began rummaging around the kitchen.

"Well, he’s okay, I guess… How’d you know he was alive?" Zidane asked while he glanced around at the tidy abode. The Genomes might’ve been displaying individuality in their clothing, but for the sake of ease of construction, they all lived in little round huts identical to the ones the Black Mages lived in. And like the Black Mages, they were probably living two or three to a house as well. He wondered what Mikoto’s housemates were like…

"I can track either one of you no matter where you are. That was one of the reasons for my creation."

"Was that so that Garland could find me when the time came?"

"Yes." She walked away from the stove and sat down across from Zidane. "So why have you come here now, alone?"

Zidane struggled to find an answer. Mikoto was so direct, so straightforward, unlike Kuja. Zidane had gotten so used to dealing with Kuja’s evasiveness that it was a little hard to switch gears and take Mikoto’s question at face value. "Well, I wanted to get back to my friends and stuff on the Mist Continent. And if possible, I thought that maybe Kuja could come live here. It’d be good for him if he could be with his own people, I think."

"The Invincible is here, if you require transport. As for the other matter…" Mikoto looked away briefly, uncharacteristically hesitant. "I have no objection. I believe the other Genomes would have no objection either. But the Black Mages… You’d need to talk to Mr. 288, at the very least. And to Vivi as well."

Zidane had kind of anticipated that, but at the same time, he had been hoping to skip past that part. "I see… But, you’re right. Though I admit I’m a little surprised that you don’t think the other Genomes would have a problem with it, considering what happened to Terra and all."

Mikoto pursed her lips a little. "Even though Kuja destroyed our world, we do not think of him as an enemy. We know that Kuja was not a good person. What he did was wrong. But he gave us one thing: hope. We were all created for the wrong reason, but he alone defied our fate. We have not forgotten that."

Zidane scratched his head. Mikoto made Kuja sound almost heroic or something. "Will you come with me to talk to Mr. 288 then?"

"If you’d like. However, I can not make a case to the Black Mages for Kuja coming here. The cause is yours, not mine."

It sounded cold, but she was only being truthful. And, Zidane suddenly remembered, she’d never met Kuja. She didn’t know him beyond his name and the one good thing he’d inadvertently done. She couldn’t say that he’d changed, that he was a better person now. Only Zidane knew that.

"Yeah… I guess you’re right. It is up to me… I’m just glad Mr. 288 is still around; I know he’ll at least hear me out." Then Zidane paused, realizing that he hadn’t really counted on there being many Black Mages around to protest Kuja’s possible arrival. But he had spotted plenty of them in the village. How had so many of them survived when Kuja had designed them to be disposable, when they’d been dropping like flies before that?

"Hey, so you figured out a way to keep the Black Mages from… er, ‘stopping?’ That’s fantastic! How’d you do it?"

Mikoto got up a moment to pour two cups of strong tea, then brought them back, a thoughtful look on her face as she began explaining. "I had a hypothesis based on what I knew of Garland’s design philosophy. Magic is indeed powerful, but it has a major drawback: it is not an infinite resource. It taxes the wielder; black magic, doubly so. Kuja understood that, and yet he seems to have believed himself immune to it, because he was designed to last longer. But he was wrong." Mikoto shook her head a brief moment. "I digress. Like Kuja, the Black Mages were created to be powerful, at the expense of their own lives. Logically then, if they were to refrain from using magic, they would live much longer lives."

"So… they’re not really Black Mages anymore, then," the thief couldn’t resist joking.

"Honestly, Zidane…"

"Then the same ‘fix’ would apply to Kuja?" Zidane mused, remembering all the times the older Genome had moaned that he was on the verge of dying.

"Correct. If he refrains from taxing himself further, he should not expire within the timeframe Garland had set for him."

Zidane breathed a sigh of relief and took a sip of his drink, but before he could get too comfortable Mikoto went on, her voice growing somber as if she had something weighing on her conscience. "But even if he had realized the truth about his own mortality, he would not have survived beyond Garland’s need of him. As the third Angel of Death, I was also intended as a failsafe against Kuja, to terminate him on command, and to return the body to Garland."

"What?!" Zidane yelped, nearly spitting out a mouthful of tea. How could she say that so casually? "Why??"

"Garland wanted to dissect him, to study the defects in his physical make up. Assuming the body was still viable after that, it would have most likely been reused as an empty vessel," Mikoto explained.

Zidane was horrified. No one deserved a fate like that. Had Kuja known that that was Garland’s eventual plan for him? Was that why he’d been so desperate to break free? "He’s not defective, and he certainly deserves better than to be treated like some sort of broken machine!" Zidane yelled. "Don’t you dare touch him!"

"I have no intention of doing anything to him now that both Garland and Terra are gone."

Zidane shook his head angrily. Before the conversation had taken a turn for the worse, he’d been thinking about asking Mikoto if she’d consider going and checking in on Kuja in his stead, but that didn’t seem right any longer.

Mikoto’s expression softened a little. "I did not mean to upset you. I… merely wanted to explain some things to you. Be assured I hold no ill will towards Kuja and do not wish him any harm. And if I had no other obligations I would have offered to go to his side in your stead. But there are things that I must do for this town, for the people here. They need guidance, support, representation. I believe… this is my purpose now."

Zidane slowly sat back down; he hadn’t realized he’d leapt to his feet in outrage. "Yeah… yeah, you’re right. Sorry... for yelling at you like that. It was just hard to hear..." He suddenly stopped, Garland’s last words to him echoing through his head. "Take care of Kuja," huh? So the old man really had meant for him to kill Kuja then. And he’d nearly gone through with it… he’d had every intention of killing the other Genome during the battle in Memoria, if that’s what it took to save the world he considered home.

"It is impossible to know for certain what Garland had intended. Perhaps, in the end, even he regretted how Kuja’s life had turned out. For he had the opportunity to order me to kill Kuja if you and your friends were unable to do so, but he did not." She shrugged, then added, "If you think about something that strongly, yes, it is the same to me as if you had yelled it out loud."

Zidane snorted. He’d always been curious about Mikoto’s powers. He supposed that answered that, then. But she had brought up an interesting point. Even though Kuja had created them, he’d resented the Black Mages for reminding him of what he was – a mere tool, a disposable weapon. Had Garland felt the same, resenting the life he’d created because it reminded him of the reason behind his own existence? "And if he had, at that point…?"

"I don’t know," Mikoto admitted. "Would I have killed Kuja to save the world I was created to destroy, the world which has now become our home? I can only say I am glad I did not have to make that decision." And then she put a finger to her lip, her brow creasing. "But to this day, I wonder… Kuja got to the crystal well before you did. Why did he not destroy it when he had the opportunity, if that was his goal? Or had that not been his intention in the first place?"

"What do you mean? Why else would he have gone there?"

"He thought he was dying. He knew you would follow."

"Uh, doesn’t that sound a bit extreme? Going to such lengths just so…" …just so he wouldn’t die alone, his brain finished for him, but Zidane couldn’t make himself say it. Then again, this was Kuja they were talking about. And Mikoto did have a point – Kuja had been waiting there for them, floating before the crystal, his face paler than usual, wreathed in hair and feathers red as blood. Zidane had assumed Kuja had waited because he’d wanted witnesses to his moment of triumph, wanted to make sure that the small band of heroes who dared to stand against him were the ones who died first. He hadn’t considered the other possibility until much later, but somewhere along the way, he’d forgotten all about it again.

The thief groaned. Now that he was thinking about it, he remembered too his reaction that day - he’d called Kuja a coward and told him to go die by himself.

"Look, can we talk about something else?" he muttered. "And why are you so concerned anyhow? It almost sounds like you want me to go back to him or something." All this talk about Kuja dying made him want to do just that. It was crazy… he hadn’t even been gone a day!

"I am not suggesting that you forget your friends and tether yourself to his side," Mikoto said. Then she added softly, "It means a great deal that we are free to choose our own destinies. Regardless of how it happened, that was the freedom he granted us, a freedom he never truly experienced himself."

"He will have it soon. I promised him I’d go back and get him as soon as I could find him safe haven," Zidane swore.

Mikoto gave a curt nod, satisfied, then asked, "So, will you be staying here for the night at least?" and Zidane stared blankly at her for several seconds before realizing she’d done exactly as he’d asked, dropping the subject.

"I’d planned to, though I really miss Dagger…" He trailed off. That sounded so flimsy and selfish after all the things Mikoto had said. He certainly had a lot to think about. "But, I would like to spend some time with Vivi. We have a lot of catching up to do."

"Yes."

Zidane paused, thinking if there was anything else he needed to ask Mikoto about, and then it dawned on him. "Say… can you check in on Kuja from here? You said you could track us…"

Mikoto shook her head. "The distance is too great. I only have the vague sense that he is alive, somewhere to the north… nothing more."

"Rats!"

"… But in your absence I can try to monitor him that much at least. Would that help you rest easier?"

Zidane gave a small sigh. Even though it wasn’t what he’d been hoping for it was certainly better than nothing, and Mikoto had been kind to offer. "Yeah, it would. Thanks a lot! You’re really amazing!"

She smiled a bit shyly at the praise, and Zidane smiled back. He suddenly realized that beneath the calm, cool surface was a nice girl who was trying her best to help those around her, even though it was a real challenge. She just wasn’t good at showing her emotions. Zidane had been feeling sorry for himself, feeling the responsibility of Kuja’s well being bearing down on him like a stone weight. But Mikoto had a lot on her shoulders too, and she wasn’t complaining at all.

He got up and went around the table and hugged her for the second time that day, noting that, like Kuja, she seemed a little confused by the display of affection. But she didn’t push him away or question it, and merely quietly commented, "I think I still have much to learn."

"That’s just how life is." I guess there’s things I still need to learn too… he told himself as he resolved to be a little more like Mikoto – less complaining, more self reliance - when it came to handling difficult situations.

Mikoto nodded.

"Oh, and thanks for the tea, by the way. It’s delicious."

Mikoto nodded again. "I’m glad. And you are welcome to stay for dinner as well, though beyond that… I must inform you, there’s no spare room…"

"I figured as much, and I wasn’t planning on imposing…" Zidane replied. "You have housemates, right?"

"Yes."

"And you all get along?"

"Yes."

"So… what are they like? Are they funny, interesting, nice..."

"They’re Genomes..."

Zidane laughed. It was such a Mikoto thing to say. But more than that, he was starting to feel a little more relaxed now that they’d sailed clear of the hard part of the conversation. Kuja was still on his mind of course, but having Mikoto’s reassurance was helping to take the edge off of his worry. And he liked having the chance to talk to her, to get to know her, too. He bet Kuja would like her as well. Zidane could hardly wait to introduce them to each other. If everything worked out, they’d get to meet pretty soon. It was just a matter of convincing the Black Mages to give Kuja a second chance, and Zidane was optimistic that they would.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- Although Kuja says he's unsure if the events in his dream are accurate or not, that's how I imagined it had happened. But given how much Garland was able to mess with Zidane's head in a short period of time, I can only imagine what he might've done to Kuja if he thought he needed "reprogramming" and had all the time in the world to accomplish it.

- Mikoto’s statement about Kuja not being a good person, but giving the Genomes hope by defying their fate was my way of incorporating her speech from the end of the game into this story, modified of course to fit into a conversation.

- Next chapter should be Mr. 288 and maybe Tantalus? Sorry, I’m not a huge fan of Vivi and so while he has to make an appearance in the story, I just don’t have much to say about him and don’t plan on writing a lengthy conversation between him and Zidane.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Too Much Love Will Kill You" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

After leaving Mikoto's house, Zidane went and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening with Vivi. There was a lot to catch up on - it was amazing how much things had changed in the past year, not just in the Black Mage Village but for everyone on Gaia.

Vivi had changed too. Being able to spend time with his own kind, helping them and being helped in turn, had done him a lot of good. He was still smaller than all the other Black Mages – Zidane wasn’t sure if he could ever physically "grow up" - but he was more confident than he used to be, and a lot more talkative.

But thankfully, not everything had changed: Vivi was still thoughtful and considerate, a true friend. Despite the hours of conversation, the little Black Mage didn't ask any difficult or probing questions nor did he have anything bad to say about Kuja. He really seemed to be trying to avoid the subject altogether since he knew it wasn’t nice to speak ill of the dead. Zidane felt a little bad about deceiving him, but it was for the best, at least for the time being. He needed to talk to Mr. 288 first before letting Vivi in on the truth of the matter. He needed to know if Kuja stood any chance of a future here.

After many rounds of Tetra Card Master – Kuja had never wanted to play – and a delicious dinner, the conversation slowly wound down. Zidane retired to the village’s inn, where he spent a predictably sleepless night. As comfortable as his lodgings were – and they were vastly better than the musty old house and lumpy bed he’d shared with Kuja – he was unable to settle down to restful slumber. Every time he managed to nod off he’d suddenly wake with a start, his arms reaching in vain for the body that should’ve been by his side. But Kuja wasn’t there. It was ridiculous to think that he’d gotten so used to the other man’s presence, but then again, it was their first night apart in almost a year. And even though it was for the best that he’d finally walked away, Zidane couldn’t help but worry. Was Kuja okay? Had he eaten enough for dinner? Was he keeping warm? Even though it wasn’t that cold out the house got a little drafty at times... The thief tossed and turned and fretted over those questions and more, until he finally fell asleep from exhaustion.

Long as the night was, morning seemed to arrive all at once, rudely rousing Zidane with a sunbeam straight to the face. The sleepy Genome got up, groaning, intending to close the curtains, but then he thought better of it. Even though it was relatively early, since he was already up, he figured he might as well go and find Mr. 288 - always an early riser – and get his admission over with. Plus doing it so early in the morning meant it was unlikely anyone would overhear any of the conversation they’d be having.

The de facto leader of the Black Mages wasn’t hard to find. He was at his usual post at the small hill that served as the town’s cemetery, on the outskirts of the village. He didn’t seem at all surprised to see Zidane there, and Zidane suddenly found himself hoping that Mikoto had changed her mind after all, and negotiated with Mr. 288 for asylum for Kuja.

"Good morning," said Mr. 288.

"Good morning," Zidane echoed in greeting as he joined the man in looking out over the cemetery. Hats and robes and other personal items, secured to the tops of staves and poles, fluttered atop each grave, memorializing the numerous Black Mages who'd "stopped." Zidane found himself starting to count the markers and sighed. He didn’t remember how many there’d been the last time he’d visited the village. How many more graves had been dug in the past year? He thought about what Mikoto had theorized in regards to the Black Mages’ – and Kuja’s – life spans, and mused aloud, "Has it really gotten better?"

Mr. 288 took a moment to digest the question, then replied, "Before, we had to dig holes every week. After we began following Mikoto’s advice, it slowed to a few per month. In the last two months, we’ve only had to dig one."

"Wow, so Mikoto was right." Zidane knew he ought to be glad to get confirmation of that, but he still felt uneasy. "But then, it still hasn't stopped it completely..."

Mr. 288 shook his head. "No. But we understand now; life is not eternal. One must be content… with what one has been given."

Zidane nodded. "That’s a pretty good attitude to have." It was a mindset Kuja didn’t have of course, though it was too abrupt to simply blurt out the truth. "Kuja… didn’t think that way," he ended up saying, hoping to work the conversation towards that direction.

"While I do not like the way he treated us, I think I understand, a little. It is the nature of all living things to do what they can to ensure their own survival." There was a pause, then Mr. 288 slowly turned so that he fully faced Zidane, fixing his glowing gaze on the Genome. "He’s alive, isn’t he?"

"Wha…"

"Kuja isn’t dead."

"How… how’d you know?" Zidane asked even as his brain pointed out to him that if Mikoto had spoken up on Kuja’s behalf, then of course Mr. 288 would know. "Did Mikoto…?"

Mr. 288 shook his head again. "I would have assumed you found your way here after he had passed, but you never confirmed that. Nor did you seem to be in mourning. Even though you were once enemies, I though you would’ve become friendly over the last several months."

"Friendly, yeah…" and then some. Zidane swallowed, quickly pushing that memory aside. "Yeah, you’re right." Then he pursed his lips a little and let out a short whistle. "Wow, no pulling the wool over your eyes, huh?" The man certainly was sharp – no wonder he was respected by the other Black Mages as a sage and a leader.

Mr. 288’s eyes brightened slightly. He might’ve been smiling at the compliment or frowning at the truth – it was hard to tell.

Zidane took in a deep breath. "Um, so… there’s something I need to ask you then."

"I’m sorry, Zidane. I have to say no," Mr. 288 said gravely.

"But I didn’t even ask the question yet!" the blonde protested.

"He cannot come here. Isn’t that what you wanted to ask?"

Zidane gaped at the other man as he frantically tried to think of a good argument to persuade him to change his mind. "But he’s changed! He can’t hurt you anymore. He really can’t…" he began sputtering.

Mr. 288 nodded. As a Black Mage he understood; the price they’d paid for their power had been great. And now he had confirmation that Kuja was facing the same grim penalty. "If you say so, then I do not doubt you," he reassured Zidane. "But… his being here would be difficult for us."

"You are still afraid of him." It wasn’t a question.

"… Yes, we are. A little. Do you think that is unreasonable?"

Zidane tried to think of what he could say in response to that – he wasn’t sure if there was anything he could say - but then Mr. 288 turned away and looked back out over the graveyard, at the many monuments dotting the grassy knoll. "We were created to be weapons just as he was. But when we gained awareness we realized we had a choice. He chose differently," the Black Mage leader murmured.

"He… he didn’t feel like he had a choice," Zidane pointed out bitterly. He began worrying his lower lip between his teeth. He hated having to make the correlation, but he felt he had to. "There was a time when many of the Black Mages strayed down the wrong path as well."

"Yes, you are correct. And that is why he cannot come here. If something like that were to happen again…" Mr. 288 looked back at Zidane a moment before letting the rest of the thought go. The Black Mages were no longer weapons. They would never be again. "We want to build peaceful relations with the cities and countries on the other continents. Kuja’s mere presence would be problematic," he explained, hoping that Zidane would understand.

"Ah…" It was impossible to keep arguing. It felt unfair, but Mr. 288 was right; the Black Mage Village was still pretty isolated. If they wanted to open trade and communication with the other cities, having Kuja there would be a complication. And the Black Mages themselves still feared him. It wasn’t going to work out here, no matter what.

"I am sorry. I would help you with anything else, but this…"

"Yeah, I think I get it now. Though… um, can I ask you for something else then?" Zidane asked.

The other man nodded once, his pointed hat tipping forth.

"Please don’t tell anyone that he’s alive. Right now it’s just you, me and Mikoto that know. And I get that you’re afraid of him, but honest, he really won’t come here or do anything to you ever again. So please, don’t hurt him," Zidane said in a rush, trying to get everything out before Mr. 288 could launch a counter argument. He hoped he hadn’t made a mistake in confiding in the man in the first place.

After several seconds of silence Mr. 288 tapped his staff on the ground, once. "You have my word. We Black Mages will not search for, harm or punish Kuja for what occurred in the past, for despite everything, he is still our creator, and we are grateful for the lives we have," he swore. "We only wish to live in peace, nothing more."

Zidane sighed heavily. He held out his hand to seal the deal. "Thank you. It’s a relief, hearing that."

Mr. 288 accepted the handshake. "I do hope… that you find some place that will suit your needs."

Zidane’s thoughts were already racing towards Lindblum… Tantalus’ home and his as well. "Yeah, I think I know just the place. But I’ll need to head to the Mist Continent first…" He wondered how rough the ride would be over the seas via Choco, or would it be better to take the underground route through Fossil Roo?

"Ah, that, we can help with. The Invincible is available, if you should need it."

The blonde thought the warship would’ve been permanently grounded, given the massive destruction it had caused, but apparently the villagers had found some use for it after all. "Really? I didn’t think anyone would want to keep it around."

"With help from the Genomes and the humans of Lindblum, it has been disarmed, though it remains the fastest ship on Gaia. It is now a very reliable cargo vessel. It can deliver you to your destination as well."

Zidane nodded. As with Kuja and the Black Mages, perhaps things were never as cut and dry as they first seemed. Kuja was no longer an Angel of Death; the Black Mages were no longer mindless puppets, expendable tools of war. Even the Invincible had changed to serve a new purpose, one it had never been designed for. And it really was fitting in a way: the ship that had first brought him to Gaia, that had served as a lifeline for the Genomes, would be the one to bring him back home.

"Thanks, that’ll be a great help. And, well… though I don’t want to do anything that would mess up your schedules, when’s the next flight to the Mist Continent supposed to be?" Zidane asked.

The Black Mage’s eyes flickered again. This time, Zidane was pretty sure it was a reaction of amusement. "I assume you want to be reunited with your friends as quickly as possible. It will not cause us great inconvenience if you wish to leave today."

Zidane smiled. "Yeah, no time like the present!" While he would’ve loved to stay and spend more time with Vivi and Mikoto, he really was looking forward to seeing his family again. And he wanted to get the whole matter with Kuja resolved as well; it was weighing on him more heavily than he would’ve liked. "But I do want to say some goodbyes before I go."

"I understand. I will have the crew assemble later this morning, will that be sufficient?"

"Yes, thanks!"

They shook hands again, then Zidane bade Mr. 288 goodbye and headed back to the inn. It was still relatively early, too early to go to see Vivi or Mikoto to say goodbye. He told himself he ought to try and get a little sleep before the flight, though he realized he was probably too wired to nap. But he lay down on the bed anyhow and simply stared up at the ceiling, smiling at the realization that he was finally heading home.

* * *

The Invincible was still as swift as Zidane remembered. Even though they departed from the Black Mage Village just past mid-morning, by the afternoon, they were already at Lindblum’s Falcon’s Gate, waiting for permission to dock.

As soon as they were secured in the city’s massive airship dock Zidane thanked the crew of Genomes and Black Mages before unloading Choco and taking off. After releasing his feathered companion at the main gates – Choco was just too big to be left wandering about the streets of the city – Zidane headed for the restored air cabs that served as the main form of transit between the city’s four districts. The theater district that sat above the Falcon’s Gate was his destination; he just hoped that Tantalus was around. He’d be more than a little disappointed if he waltzed in to make his grand reappearance, only to find out they were out traveling for shows or something.

The city appeared to be mostly recovered from Brahne’s siege. The theater district, which had been decimated during the attack, looked as good as it ever had. All the rubble was gone; broken stairs and walkways had been repaired, and citizens were once again patronizing the area. The old clock tower that served as Tantalus’ base had also been restored, mostly… it still looked a bit shabby and dated, but Baku had always preferred it "well worn." It seemed some things never changed.

Upon reaching the door to his old home, Zidane paused and took a deep breath. Now that he was there he couldn’t think of anything cool or witty to say in greeting. He wondered if everyone had assumed he’d died in the Iifa Basin. Maybe they’d think he was a ghost or something; maybe he’d be able to give them a good scare. That would be momentarily amusing at least.

Oh well, let’s do this. He exhaled, walked up the stairs, and pushed open the heavy wooden doors.

"Hi everyone, I’m home!" Zidane cried out.

All conversation dropped off as everyone in the hideout turned to stare at him. Marcus, Cinna and Baku were seated at the large table in the center of the room. Judging by the messy pile of books and papers it looked like they’d been flipping through some scripts, probably trying to decide on the next play they’d be bringing to the stage. Blank had been leaning against the wall but pushed away from it to quickly walk over and clap his hands on Zidane’s shoulders, grinning broadly at his "little brother."

Baku’s loud, sudden sneeze shattered the silence. He put down the scripts he’d been shuffling through and cleared his throat. "Well well, if it isn’t Zidane. What are you doing here?"

Zidane gawked at the man who’d raised him for a good several seconds before yelling back, "What do you mean what am I doing here!? What kind of greeting is that? Sheesh!"

"The kid has a point. He has been gone for a year, Boss," Marcus said coolly, rocking back in his chair a bit. He gave Zidane a toothy grin that rivaled Blank’s, but unlike his "bro" made no attempt to get up, as if it were no big deal for a family member to stroll in through the front door after a year’s absence.

"Welcome home, kiddo," Blank added, finally granting Zidane the words he’d been waiting to hear. He gave the Genome’s hair a good ruffle, earning him a light swat to the hand. Zidane didn’t mind the show of affection, but he wasn’t a kid anymore and didn’t want to be treated as such, especially since he was now taller than Blank by an extra inch or two. Blank wasn’t so easily deterred though and ruffled the blonde locks again, much to Zidane’s dismay. Almost immediately they began tussling with one another.

"Home, bah! He ain’t Tantalus anymore, so why are ya here instead of running off to see your princess?" Baku asked.

"’Cause maybe I wanted to come and see you all and let you know I was alive?" Zidane huffed, pushing Blank off as the redhead tried to put him in a headlock.

Blank chuckled. Truth was, they’d all been worried about Zidane. The younger man had been gone so long, it really had felt like he was never coming back. But Baku wasn’t ever going to admit to that; it’d ruin his tough guy image. And the other members of Tantalus mirrored that attitude. "Yeah, but we all knew you were fine. You wouldn’t go down so easily."

"We figured you just wanted… a vacation, or something!" Cinna cheerfully added.

"A vacation?!"

Several heads nodded. "The thought of proposing marriage is enough to make many a man want to run for the hills. And you’d be proposing to a queen, no less!" Marcus clarified.

"Don’t be stupid, I want to be with Dagger more than anything!" Zidane yelled back. He was no coward!

"Well then, what are ya waiting for?" Baku demanded.

"I… just have to figure out how I wanna pop the question. It’s a big deal, you know? I figured maybe you guys could help." That was met with more nodding, which was reassuring. But then before the blonde could get too happy about their agreement, Kuja’s image flashed through his mind again, so strongly that it almost seemed that he were standing there in the room with everyone. Zidane frowned, faltering a little. "And, well, there’s something else I have to take care of too, something important… Boss, I need to talk to you."

"Hmm? Okay then, spit it out."

"… In private. Please," Zidane added, a little more urgently. After Mr. 288’s earlier rejection of Kuja, he really needed Baku to agree to take in the older Genome. Yes, Zidane wanted to be with Dagger more than anything, but there was no way he could think about that without getting the matter of Kuja’s placement squared away first.

For a moment it looked as if Baku was going to be pigheaded and not agree to it, but finally the large man inclined his head. "All right, all right, I’ll hear ya out." Then he waved his hand at the others in the room. "Out with you lot - and take the scripts with ya! Go practice outside ‘til Zidane’s done with whatever it is he has ta say."

"Geez, the kid just got back and already we’re being booted out before we’ve had the chance to grill him over what he’s been doing this past year," Marcus grumbled as he grabbed a sheaf of paper and stood up. He slung his arm around Blank’s shoulders and began herding him out of the room.

Blank leaned into Marcus a little and laughed. "We can grill him later. Right, Zidane?"

"Uh, sure," Zidane mumbled, momentarily distracted. Strange… he’d always known Marcus and Blank were close, but had they always been that close? It felt like there was something going on… or was he reading too much into it?

"We’ll hold you to that!" Cinna added before chasing after the other two as they left the room. He didn’t seem to think that anything was amiss. "Hey, wait up!"

Zidane remained silent until he could no longer hear the departing footsteps before turning his attention back to Baku. He wondered if he should tell Baku to sit down first, but then decided to just give it to him straight. "I need to ask for a big favor."

Baku sighed heavily, folding his burly arms. He had a bad feeling he knew where Zidane was heading with an opener like that. It wasn’t like the young thief to have gone missing for so many months for no reason. "Lemme guess. You weren’t the only one who wouldn’t go down so easily," he said gruffly, echoing Blank’s words from earlier.

Zidane nodded, and decided to pull out a chair and sit down. This was either going to be one hell of a long conversation, or over and done with in a flash. Either way, he wanted to make sure he was ready for whatever Baku’s reaction might be.

The blonde took a deep breath, then decided to just go for it. It was always best to be as direct as possible with Baku; he didn’t put up with bull from anyone. "Kuja needs a place to stay…" Zidane began.

"And?"

"BOSS…"

"So ya thought you’d come here and ask me? Hmm… " And Baku began stroking his beard and pacing, looking rather thoughtful, and for a moment Zidane thought he’d found the solution to his problem, just like that. But then the older man opened his mouth again and sent Zidane’s hopes crashing. "Nope, I won’t do it."

"Wha? Well, why not?" It really had seemed for a second that the Tantalus leader had been considering it, so what had stopped him? If it was about all the bad things Kuja had done, he was pretty sure he could convince Baku that the former mage had changed…

Baku eyed his adopted son critically. "Zidane, ya can’t go passing off your problems onto others, ya know?"

"Wha… I’m not trying to pass off my problems, I’m just trying to find Kuja a home!"

"He’s not a stray kitten. You can’t just drop him off wherever ya please."

"He just needs a place to live! Anywhere, I don’t care!" Zidane cried out in frustration. This wasn’t how he’d thought the conversation would go at all.

"So it’d be good ‘nough if I were to lock him up on the Prima Vista II and throw him bread every few days? That ain’t living, Zidane." Baku sighed. "Geez, yer such a kid. I’d thought you’d grown up a bit more by now."

"I’m not asking you to take him in for free. I’m sure he’d help out, earn his keep…" Zidane grumbled.

"Oh? Doin’ what? I couldn’t even have him scrub the decks!" Baku argued back. He stopped to scratch the back of his head, then said, "Look, I guess ya don’t know, but there’s a huge bounty on his head. From Burmecia, Alexandria, Lindblum… even Treno."

"Treno too?" Well, there went another possibility, though the young thief didn’t understand why a city-state that had been unaffected by Kuja’s campaign was in on the bounty hunt too. Maybe they were just following the lead of all the other cities?

"Yeah. Something about bein’ wanted for the murder of a Mr. King, who’d owned the auction house…"

Zidane made a face. Well yes, there was that… Kuja had even admitted to it during a conversation at one point, though he’d said the man deserved it. As usual, he hadn’t explained anything past that… but one way or another, he’d managed to gain control of the most lucrative business in Treno.

"Look, I know he did some awful things. I’m not saying he didn’t. But he’s not a bad person. He’s really changed. He just needs someone to give him a chance," Zidane tried again.

"Even if you think that way, others won’t agree. And I told ya before: my boys come first. If I wasn’t willin’ to risk Tantalus for a princess, I certainly won’t be riskin’ Tantalus to shelter the world’s most wanted criminal, ya know?"

Zidane did remember. He also remembered that Baku had ended up sending Blank to lend a hand with Dagger’s rescue. He smirked slightly at his adoptive father, as if calling him out on his bluff, and Baku roared back, "Don’t push your luck boy, I ain’t doin’ that again! This isn’t yer pretty little queen yer askin’ me to save!"

"But…!"

"Ya can’t even give me a good reason why I should. ‘He just needs a chance. He just needs a place ta stay.’ Bah!"

"But… I promised I’d find him place to live. I can’t stop worrying about it. I need to find him a home, or I don’t know what I’ll do," Zidane said desperately.

"That’s it?" Baku probed.

Zidane suddenly wondered what, if anything, was showing in his expression. "… And because… when I was little, I think he was trying to help me, bringing me here. So I owe him. I have to do this for him."

Baku seemed to be mulling it over again. Then he suddenly blurted out, "Silver hair and a silver tail, right? A pretty face, like a girl? That sound like him?"

"Huh? How’d you…" When had Baku seen Kuja before? Or… "Is there something you aren’t telling me?"

Baku rubbed his beard a few moments more before he seemed to make up his mind about something. Very carefully he said, "You cried for him for days after we picked you up in the forest."

Zidane was floored. Baku had met Kuja back then?! He’d never said a word about it, even though Zidane had asked many, many times about what had happened that day. "…. Why didn’t you tell me about that? Do you know how hard I tried to find out anything I could about my past?!"

"Yeah, you ran away from home because of it, ya dummy! I wasn’t gonna let ya do that again! B’sides… I thought it was for tha’ best that you’d forgotten." Seeing Zidane’s doubtful expression, Baku explained, "Look, I’d thought he was a woman – your mother or somethin’. And the way he was dressed, I thought mebbe… he was a ‘working girl’ and that’s why he was lookin’ ta get rid of ya. Why would I want ya to find out somethin’ like that? I didn’t want ya go back to some dame who’d dumped you in a forest."

… Except Kuja hadn’t "dumped" him. Baku’s story was undeniable proof of that. Kuja really had tried to save Zidane from sharing his fate, just like the younger Genome had thought. But Kuja didn’t know that. He couldn’t remember; his memories had been damaged by whatever Garland had done to him after he’d gone back to Terra, intent on shielding his younger counterpart even if it meant sacrificing himself. It made Zidane want to leave Lindblum and run back to Kuja to tell him the truth, because he deserved to know. He might have done a lot of bad things since that day, things that the world would never forgive him for, but for a moment, he truly had been a hero.

The blonde looked back up at Baku. "When did you realize… no, when did you think that maybe… that the Kuja I was trying to stop was the same as the guy you saw that day? Didn’t you think that…" Zidane sucked in a deep breath, trying unsuccessfully to quell his rising anger, then spat out, "Damn it, I could’ve killed him without ever knowing who he was!"

"Yeah, mebbe, though I wasn’t sure it was the same guy, ‘til now. But in tha end, would it have changed anything if I’d told ya? If that’s what you were gonna hafta do, that’s what you were gonna hafta do, right?" Baku said stonily.

It hurt to hear that, even if Zidane grudgingly admitted that it was the truth. Even if he had known who Kuja was, he still would’ve gone to Memoria and confronted him, fighting against him or even killing him, if that was what it took to stop his mad schemes. Everyone’s lives… the whole world… all of existence, didn’t deserve to be destroyed just because Kuja was unhappy. Just because Kuja had been so scared and alone that he’d snapped under the unbearable pressure…

Zidane squeezed his eyes shut. It wasn’t fair at all, not to either one of them, that things had ended up the way they did, but there was no point in moping over the past. Baku had taught him that much. All he could do was make every effort to change their future, to find Kuja someplace where he could live in safety and peace.

"Now then… ya feel like you owe him, ya wanna look out for him, protect him… yer gonna have to do it yourself. That’s what a man does. That’s what a Tantalus does. Or have you forgotten about that?"

"Yeah, I know. You’re right," Zidane sighed. And he did have a backup plan that would allow him to do just that. Problem was, he was uncertain if Dagger would agree to it. He had already considered asking her if he could bring Kuja to Alexandria as his backup-backup plan, but knowing now that Kuja had a price on his head, it seemed impossible. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t try to persuade her. Perhaps it hadn’t even been her idea at all? Maybe she had merely followed the lead of the other city-states, or maybe it was a suggestion from Beatrix or Steiner. Those certainly were likely possibilities…

Regardless… he knew he’d have to proceed with caution. He’d just have to time it right. And to think, he had thought proposing to her would be the difficult part!

* * *

Kuja cocked his head and wondered if he’d already lost his mind after only a single day alone. But there it was again – a light tapping at the front door. It seemed too good to be true, but Kuja was sure now he wasn’t hearing things. His first, hopeful thought was that it was good news: Zidane had come back! Maybe the Black Mages had agreed to allow him to live in their village. Or maybe… he'd come back, just because?

But as soon as those thoughts popped into Kuja’s head, something else occurred to him. If it was Zidane at the door, why didn’t he just come in? He knew the front door didn’t lock. Was something wrong? Maybe the thief hadn’t made it very far before having a nasty encounter with some monsters, and now he needed help.

… Or, possibly, was there someone else at the door?

Without backup, Kuja knew he had to be cautious. His opponent could be as innocent as a lost traveler, or as dangerous as a bounty hunter. And although Zidane had taught the former mage how to fight, Kuja wasn’t as proficient with his weapons as he would’ve liked; it didn’t feel as natural to him as the magic he could no longer use.

He quietly crept under the window and over to where his staff was leaning against the wall, taking it in hand while running through his battle prep checklist. Licking his lips anxiously, he stood, readjusted his grip on his weapon to ensure he had it just right, and then in a single swift move stepped forward and threw open the door, his right arm poised to strike… but the only thing he managed to accomplish was to startle a small bird which quickly tried to take wing, only to crash a few feet away. Perplexed, the silver-haired man stuck his head out and quickly looked around, but there was no sign anyone had been at the house. It appeared that it had simply been the bird pecking around the front door, and in his anxiousness he’d mistaken that for someone knocking.

After another glance around the front porch – he wasn’t so careless as to completely let his guard down – Kuja breathed a small sigh of relief and lowered his staff. He looked back over at the bird, his curiosity piqued. The little gray ball of feathers was sitting on the ground at the bottom of the steps, puffed up and eyeing him warily. It fluttered its wings again when the Genome ventured forth and got too close for its liking, but the effort was weak and only stirred up a little dust. Kuja leaned over and carefully picked it up, lifting it for a quick look over.

One of its wings had streaks of blood on it; possibly it was broken as well. Maybe a hungry hawk had tried to make a meal of it. Otherwise it seemed healthy, fat even; the birds in the region were already preparing for the migration south for the winter. If Zidane had been there Kuja bet he’d say that it looked tasty, that they ought to roast it for dinner, tiny as it was. But Kuja felt a little bad for it. Once fall was in full swing, the rest of the flock would fly south. The unfortunate members that got delayed, whether by lack of food or injuries, would be left behind to die once the snow fell. That was the way of the world: the strong lived while the weak perished. Kuja believed in that too, had had it driven into his skull, but that didn’t mean it had always felt right.

He’d tamed a silver dragon under similar circumstances. He’d found her near Bran Bal with a badly injured wing and had decided to try and heal her back to full health. At the time he’d told himself he was only doing it to hone his white magic; he had no concept of "pet" or "companion." But the beast he’d named Nova had proven to be far more useful than target practice. She’d followed him to Gaia after he’d been banished from Terra; though it had taken some time for them to reunite, she’d proven valuable as both transport and watchdog after that.

It was strange. Maybe he’d been too preoccupied with self-pity, or perhaps he hadn’t wanted to face the truth, but he really hadn’t thought about her since Memoria. The last command he’d given her was to stop anyone who was pursuing him; she had done just that, and more. And yet he’d never done anything to reward her for her loyalty, never given her reason to obey. But from what Zidane had told him, hundreds of silver dragons, the last vestiges of the great numbers that had once filled Terra’s skies, had rallied to launch a kamikaze attack on the Invincible. And after they’d fallen and the ship had been the verge of breaking through, one lone surviving dragon had swept in and made a last stand: undoubtedly Nova, following through on her master’s orders to the bitter end…

Kuja looked back down at the bird sitting in his cupped hand. The little creature would never be even a fraction as useful as a dragon; it could never be a weapon or a shield. And Kuja couldn’t use magic to heal it; the best he could do was to treat its wounds and keep it warm and fed while it healed naturally. Perhaps… it really would be best to turn it into dinner. But if it really wanted to live, then Kuja though perhaps it should get that chance.

Pressing the bird lightly against his chest so that it wouldn’t thrash around and slip out of his grasp, Kuja headed back to the house. On his way in, he paused to look at the doorpost. Zidane had marked it up to keep track of the passing days. Kuja carefully added a notch of his own, then stepped back inside and shut the door.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- Re: The Prima Vista. Pretty sure the ship got permanently wrecked in the Evil Forest early in the game, but considering they were able to put on a play by the end, I'm assuming another ship was built so that Tantalus could go on doing their shows.

- Re: Kuja’s dragon. I meant to bring her up sooner in the story but it worked having her mentioned here. I changed my mind a few times before settling on her fate in this story; her fate in the video game, I’m a little more uncertain on. The most likely possibility is that she was the boss the party faces right before fighting Garland, though why she suddenly shows up there and fights on Garland’s behalf is something that’s never explained. The Nova Dragon the party encounters later on is clearly not the same dragon (different color, different head), however I felt that that was the best spot for Kuja’s dragon to make her final stand. It seemed fitting then to give her the name of the boss she’s standing in for. And incidentally I decided Kuja's dragon ought to be female, as a nod to Seto Kaiba’s Blue Eyes White Dragon from Yu-Gi-Oh!

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Don’t Try So Hard" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

A little disheartened after his conversation with Baku, Zidane stepped out, intending to take a walk around the theater district to clear his head so that he could begin formulating a new plan. But before he’d even cleared the entryway he stopped short, cocking his head at the sight before him…

Marcus was embracing Blank like they were dance partners. "Sweet Marcus, I fear I love thee more than I should!" Blank said, his voice pitched high in falsetto.

"Princess... Wilt thou be happy, married to a lowly peasant such as I?" Marcus responded, in a low whisper.

Zidane instantly recognized the lines from Lord Avon’s "I Want to Be Your Canary." But that didn’t explain why the two of them were having an impromptu recital in the middle of the entryway, nor why they looked and sounded like they were really getting into their respective roles. "Okay, what’s up with you two?"

"Oh, hey Zidane. We were just thinking, it’d be easiest to do a reprisal of ‘Canary’ for Her Majesty, don’t you agree?" Cinna asked as Blank and Marcus slowly broke apart to stand beside him, forming a loose human wall around the blonde Genome.

"Her Majesty?" Zidane parroted.

Blank sighed loudly. "Queen Garnet? Your lady love? We do a show in Alexandria every year on the queen’s birthday?"

Zidane frowned. He still wasn’t used to thinking of her as a queen. Nor had she been on his mind until Blank mentioned her name. Zidane scratched the back of his head. His thoughts had been swirling in sluggish eddies after Baku had shot down his request to take in Kuja, and it was a little hard to refocus. "That’s not what… I mean… ugh…" He shook his head, trying to remember what he’d seen that had stopped him in his tracks. "Oh, yeah… so what’s going on with the two of you anyhow?" he asked, gesturing at Marcus and Blank. "You seemed awfully cozy…"

Blank laughed. "So were Cornelia and Marcus," he said, referencing the characters from the play. "What are you trying to say?"

"Uh…" What was he trying to say? Why’d he think there was something more to it than just acting? But then he remembered how Blank had leaned against Marcus earlier, when Marcus had put his arm around him, and how they’d held each other while reciting the lines, as if they were as much lovers as Marcus and Cornelia. But that was impossible, there was no way… "Well… you seemed really into it, I guess."

Marcus and Blank exchanged quick looks, then Blank shrugged. Marcus coughed into his hand, then gave Blank another look before asking, "Are you sure?"

The redhead tipped his chin. "You wanna do it, or me?"

Zidane stared at them both, then before he realized it he opened his mouth and blurted out, "Are you two together or something?"

"Oho, he finally noticed," said Cinna with a goofy grin.

"Really? Wait… really? How… Since when?" The questions came out in a huge rush.

"Since forever?" Cinna cheerily replied. Blank and Marcus both turned and gave him a look, and the potbellied man just laughed. "All right, all right, I get it – I’ll shut up now!" he announced before disappearing back into the building.

"Really?!" Zidane repeated once the door shut behind Cinna. Marcus and Blank a couple?? He couldn’t fathom it. No man would choose to be with another man… at least, under normal circumstances. Guys were supposed to be with girls, anything else had to be a mistake. "Really though… How long has this been going on? Or did this all happen while I was away?"

"Oh, it’s been a couple of years now…" said Blank.

"A couple of years?! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?" The blonde tried to remember if he’d seen any indication of anything earlier, but came up empty. Either they’d been really careful, sneaking around behind everyone’s backs under the guise of friendship, or he’d never looked in the right place at the right time.

Marcus shrugged. "You wouldn’t have understood. You were just a kid then."

Zidane scowled. Blank was only older than him by three years, not even that! If he’d been old enough to start a relationship, then Zidane had been old enough to have been told about it. "I’m not! Sheesh, give me some credit." He stamped his foot for emphasis, realizing after he’d done so that in fact, it was a rather childish thing to do.

Marcus tried to disguise his chuckle as a cough.

"So… does Baku know?" Zidane had to ask. If Cinna knew, then their adoptive father probably did as well. Though he came across as being a bit dimwitted, in truth he had always been very sharp.

"Man, everyone knows!" Marcus told him. "And now you do too, so stop complaining."

"Guess you didn’t notice before because you weren’t in love," Blank responded coolly.

"Hey, I’ve been in love with Dagger a long time!"

"Then you should have noticed! We weren’t exactly hiding it!" Blank yelled back.

"Hey…" Marcus tapped Blank on the arm to calm him down, then took a quick look around behind them. Though the streets weren’t terribly busy, he had no desire to attract unwanted attention by having his lover screaming their "secret" to everyone passing by. While he wasn’t ashamed of his relationship, he was also prudent enough to know it wasn’t something that many people accepted. Zidane’s reaction was proof of that.

"Well I wasn’t expecting you two GUYS to…" Zidane began muttering in retort, before something occurred to him. He stared at Blank, scrutinizing him. "I could’ve sworn you liked girls. You were always checking them out with me..."

"He does. But he likes guys just fine too," Marcus answered for his partner.

"I’m not picky in that regard," Blank agreed.

Zidane boggled at him. How could he say it didn’t matter? That was like something Kuja would say… Kuja, who’d freely admitted to having both male and female partners, not for love, but for power and political gain. And although it had shocked the younger Genome at first, it hadn’t seemed too farfetched once he’d given it some thought, as if that were just one more sign of Kuja’s insanity.

But Blank wasn’t crazy or weird. Neither was Marcus. Heck, out of everyone in Tantalus, they were the most "normal." So how did they end up together? It didn’t make sense - especially in Blank’s case, that he claimed to like girls and yet had paired up with a guy who was as far removed from "girly" as any man could be. Marcus wasn’t a big fellow but he was built like a bulldog, with a good amount of muscle on his shoulders, chest and legs, a broad nose, and a square jaw that always seemed to sport a bit of stubble.

And Blank, there wasn’t anything girly about him either, although…

Zidane blinked. He’d never thought about it before but Blank was kind of… well, sexy, in a way. Zidane had complained about Kuja dressing scandalously but Blank routinely wore less. He just didn’t make a show of it like Kuja did. And even though the redhead was nowhere near flawless, his skin marked up by a patchwork of grafts over burns he’d suffered as a child, the ladies loved him anyhow, attracted by his roguish charm and confidence. It seemed a waste that he wasn’t interested in returning their affections.

Marcus folded his arms, frowning slightly at Zidane’s distraction. "Is it that hard for you to understand? And you wonder why we didn’t tell you sooner!"

"Well, but… I mean, I get um, how it’d work physically," Zidane admitted, wincing as he tried very hard to push the reemerging memory of that last night with Kuja out of his head, "but…"

"Just physically? Come on, you know better than that," Marcus growled.

Zidane’s lips tightened. The whole thing had sounded like a joke at first, a little bit like, "Ha ha, let’s get Zidane good now that he’s come back!" but it was clear as day now that the two other men were quite serious and no longer amused with having to explain themselves. "Sorry. I guess… I’d never really thought about it before."

It wasn’t a lie. Despite everything he’d done with Kuja – beyond the sex there’d been hand holding, kissing – the blonde hadn’t thought it was anything beyond a passing fancy. He’d chalked it up to the fact that they were isolated with only one another for companionship; he’d blamed it on Kuja’s charming and flirtatious nature which had worn him down and seduced him. But Kuja hasn’t forced him to do anything… he’d gone along with it of his own free will. It wasn’t right to lay all the blame at his feet when Zidane had been a willing participant as well.

Zidane’s gaze dropped to his feet, shuffling guiltily on the well-worn steps. Why couldn’t he just accept it? What did it matter if Marcus and Blank preferred one another’s company, instead of the companionship of ladies? If they loved each other, wasn’t that enough? Maybe he was balking because he was thinking of Kuja, because he’d felt guilty not only because of what they’d done, but because the memory was still so fresh that he couldn’t get it off his mind. Maybe he felt a little betrayed too, that the family that he’d been through thick and thin with hadn’t seen fit to share the truth with him before.

Blank sighed loudly, which brought Zidane’s eyes back up. With the conversation now at an awkward standstill, Blank felt it was up to him to try and explain things a little more. From what he could tell Zidane wasn’t really against it – it was more like he felt left out because they hadn’t told him sooner and was now suddenly overwhelmed by the unexpected reveal. That was kind of understandable… he’d just made his way home after being away for a year. Blank sat down on the steps and motioned for the younger man to join him. Marcus remained standing, watching, his arms still folded across his chest.

"Zidane, you loved fairy tales when you were a kid," Blank began. "You always said you wanted to grow up to be the hero, climbing the tower to save the princess from the evil sorcerer. I’m happy for you; you got what you wanted." The redhead paused briefly. "But me… I don’t need that. I’m fine with who I am: a pretty decent thief and a part-time actor, who’d be perfectly happy with either a ‘princess’ or a ‘prince’ in his life. Does that make sense?"

"Um… sort of. I guess?"

Blank rolled his eyes. "Well, what would you have done if instead of a princess, it had been a prince up in the tower instead?"

Zidane thought of how he’d raced up the crumbling towers of Alexandria Castle to save Dagger when the city had been attacked, of how he’d plunged into the Iifa Basin after Kuja after his fall. He hadn’t done it just to be a hero; he didn’t need the accolades. He simply believed in doing whatever he could to help, no matter who needed it. "Of course I’d help him too!" he insisted.

Blank sighed again. Zidane was taking his example far too literally. "All I’m trying to say is that I’m open to different types of relationships. That doesn’t mean just anyone will do - and being with a guy isn’t the same as being with a girl, for sure. But what’s important is the same: loving someone, wanting to be with them, caring about their happiness… that doesn’t change even if the other person happens to be the same gender as me."

Zidane nodded. That sounded reasonable, though he couldn’t imagine ever thinking like that himself. Even if he did like guys as well as girls, he couldn’t see why he’d ever pick one over a girl.

"We’re still the same guys you grew up with. Nothing’s changed between us…" And Blank gesticulated at Zidane and then himself, then repeated it with Zidane and Marcus, who finally decided to join them in sitting on the steps. "The only difference is now you know. And I’m sorry we didn’t tell you sooner, but… it wasn’t that we didn’t trust you, but we weren’t sure you’d get it."

Zidane looked down, his face a little flushed. He’d pretty much proven Blank correct by lashing out and questioning his relationship, as if love was something that ran off of logic and explanation.

"So you understand now?" Blank asked gently. He reached over and ruffled the head of blonde hair beside him, earning him a weak scowl. But Zidane wasn’t mad… it was a familiar, comforting thing, being razzed by his brothers. After so much time away, this was his true welcome home…

Zidane smoothed his ponytail back into some semblance of order. "I think so…"

"You still gonna give us a hard time?" Marcus pressed.

"No. Even if I don’t really get it, ‘cause it’s not something I’d want, I think I’m okay with it now. You just caught me off guard, that’s all. But you’re right. I never thought about these things before, so I didn’t know what to think…"

"You’re just sheltered because you’re the baby of the family, so we forgive you," Blank said, winking.

Zidane let out an exasperated sigh. "I told you, I’m not a kid anymore!"

"Oh yeah? And how many girls you’ve been with again?" Marcus prodded as he elbowed the youngest member of their family. His wide, toothy grin practically swallowed up his face. "Yeah, that’s what I thought."

"Hey hey, I don’t need to do that kind of stuff now that I have Dagger! Once I get back to Alexandria I’m gonna ask her to marry me, and we’ll make a bunch of babies, and live happily ever after."

Blank’s grin matched Marcus’. "You love her that much, huh?"

"Damn straight. I just have to figure out how to pop the question. I want it to be really special, because she means the world to me."

"You’ve had all this time to think about it. Shouldn’t you have figured it out by now?" Blank joked.

Zidane turned and stared at Blank. He was probably right… he should have thought about it but he’d been so distracted…

"Well… I wanted some help deciding. You know, bounce some ideas off a few people," Zidane quickly explained as an excuse.

Marcus nodded. "Go ahead, we’re all ears."

"Yeah, and so I was thinking… that uh…" Zidane began slowly, as he tried to think of something, anything, that he could throw at them. He focused on his last memory of her, when the Hilda Garde III had whisked her and the rest of his friends to safety – the way the wind caressed her glossy brown hair, the brave, worried expression on her lovely face. She’d made him promise to come back to her, though at the time all he could do was nod. What could he have said to her then, when frankly he hadn’t been certain he’d walk out of the Iifa Basin in one piece? But then the image in his head blurred, and suddenly it was Kuja’s sad face that he was seeing, Kuja’s slender body, wrapped in a sheet, as he stood in the doorway of the decaying house, watching him go. And try as he might, he couldn’t switch his focus back to Dagger… "All right, all right, so I haven’t thought of anything. Sheesh."

While Marcus simply shook his head, Blank seemed slightly concerned. "You’ve been a little distracted since you got back. Anything else on your mind?"

The blonde stared hard at his best friend. Blank knew him better than anyone, and it felt at times like he could almost read the youngest thief’s mind. For a moment Zidane was struck by the urge to confess everything he’d been hiding…

But he held his breath and counted to ten very slowly, until the moment passed. He couldn’t tell him, especially after the hard time he’d given Marcus and Blank about their relationship. He didn’t want them to think of him as a hypocrite when he wasn’t anything like them. What he’d done was make a mistake; he had no interest in men and that wasn’t going to change, no matter what…

Zidane scowled at himself; he needed to stop obsessing over the past and focus on the future – no wonder he couldn’t think of what he wanted to do for a proposal! He supposed he could take the safe but direct route… have a special dinner prepared, then get down on one knee, promise her his undying love, and present her with a ring. Or he could try for something a little more personal, like bringing her back to Lindblum’s Festival of the Hunt, where he’d dedicate his victory to her as a nod to that first date that never quite happened. Though maybe it wasn’t so romantic to woo a lady while covered in the blood of wild beasts? Or… wait, was there some sort of special protocol that had to be followed when one was proposing to royalty?

He thought about some of the things Blank had said. Being the hero, finding his fairy tale ending… There was nothing wrong with that. A lot of people dreamed of living "happily ever after" and he was lucky enough to have that dream within reach, as long as he didn’t screw up again. Although he appreciated that Marcus and Blank had opened his eyes to something he’d never considered possible before, he’d made his choice. Dagger was the one for him, and all he wanted was to return to her and hold her in his arms, even if that meant he had to best the unbeatable General Beatrix to earn the right to marry her.

Zidane heard a sigh and realized, he’d never given Blank an answer. "I was just trying to figure out if I have to do something different to propose to her, because she’s a princess," Zidane settled on telling him. It wasn’t a lie; it had been the last thing on his mind.

"Queen," Marcus corrected.

"Oh, yeah. Darn it, that makes it worse, doesn’t it?" Zidane asked.

"Who knows? I haven’t tried proposing to any queens lately," Blank said, laughing. "You get to be the first; good luck, let us know how it goes," he continued to joke when Zidane frowned at him. He wasn’t completely convinced that that was all the younger man had been distracted by, but he wasn’t going to press the issue. He guessed it had something to do with the passing of the man Zidane had stayed behind to rescue, and if that were the case, then he was free to take as much time as he needed to come to terms with it, before talking to them about it. It was probably why he’d wanted to speak to Baku in private earlier, so that he could unload a little without anyone else seeing.

"Urgh, but I don’t know… hey, wait a sec. You guys said you’re working on a play for Dagger’s birthday?"

"That’s been the tradition for years now, you know that," Blank reminded the blonde.

Zidane mulled it over. Dagger’s birthday was in January, nearly three months away. He really didn’t want to hold off on reuniting with her for that long, but… certainly, if he had the patience to hold out, he could stage the most romantic surprise proposal ever! What was the saying, absence makes the heart grow fonder? It was tempting to put that to the test – if anything could win her heart and her hand, this new idea had to be it! - but it also meant he wouldn’t be able to bring Kuja down from the northern continent anytime soon. He supposed he could go back to see him, to assure him he hadn’t forgotten about his promise, but that didn’t seem like a good idea. What if Kuja attempted to seduce him again… What if he caved? Then what? He couldn’t possibly show his face to Dagger after a second betrayal!

So maybe a delay really would be for the best… Time and distance would help dull the unnatural feelings of desire Kuja had managed to cultivate within him.

"And you guys were thinking of doing ‘Canary’ again?" Zidane asked. Even though it was a tragic romance it was one of Dagger’s favorite plays – perhaps she saw a bit of herself in the heroine, Cornelia. If he did something with that in mind it would surely win her over!

Marcus shrugged. "That was Cinna’s idea. But, I suppose it would make it a lot easier… we wouldn’t have to learn any new lines or anything."

"You think I could work my marriage proposal into it?"

"I don’t see why not," Blank mused, rubbing his chin a little. "That’s not a bad at all. I almost can’t believe you came up with that."

"Hey!" But Zidane couldn’t help but smile, his confidence bolstered by the redhead’s approval. He jumped to his feet, spinning around to face his brothers again. "Yeah, I really like it. I’ll be her Marcus and she’ll be my Cornelia. And best of all I have plenty of time to think about how exactly I want to pull it off."

"Oh? Aren’t you going back to Alexandria right away?" Blank asked.

Zidane shook his head.

"I thought you were dying to see her!" Marcus exclaimed.

"I am! But… I really want this to be a surprise. So I guess I’m staying here for the time being. If the old man agrees to it, that is." Zidane shrugged. "He might just throw me out again."

"He won’t, not if you tell him what you’re up to. At least… I don’t think he will." Blank paused, then added, "Well if he does, we’ll put you up somewhere. Don’t want anything to get in the way of true love, after all."

Marcus chuckled. "You’re such a romantic, Bro."

"You know I am," Blank bragged, with a barely visible wiggle of his eyebrows.

They were starting to make eyes at each other again. Zidane saw no reason to stick around and find out what they liked doing in their spare time…

"Well, I guess I’ll go help Cinna convince Baku to do ‘Canary’ again," Zidane told them. Neither man was paying him much attention; Blank smiled in his general direction, Marcus barely even looked up.

"Okay, so… see you guys later!" Zidane tried again. Blank absently waved at him.

With a shake of his head, Zidane skirted around the pair then hopped back up the stairs and disappeared back into the building, closing the door carefully behind him so as not to disturb the pair sitting just outside. A quick backward glance told him he’d been successful… or they were just that oblivious. Zidane rolled his eyes, then wondered if he was that sappy around Dagger. He probably was… and he didn’t even care if that ruined his image. Love was definitely worth it.

* * *

Kuja sighed as he stared at the tiny, still bundle of feathers lying in the crate on the bathroom floor. On one hand, he wasn’t surprised at the result… the bird probably had had injuries other than the wounded wing, injuries that he’d been unable to do anything about. On the other hand, he was a little… disappointed. Disappointed that the injured bird had been so weak and ungrateful as to give up and die after only two days, disappointed in himself, for having thought that there could have been a different result.

He wasn’t sure what to do with the corpse. The reasonable thing would be to simply throw it away, like garbage. The dead body served no purpose after all, unless he planned on eating it, and the thought made his stomach queasy for some reason. It really was too scrawny to make a meal out of anyhow; he bet it wouldn’t taste any good.

Or he could bury it, with a little marker, like the Black Mages did with their "stopped" brethren. But he didn’t see the point of that. Dead things were dead; they couldn’t appreciate the lengths others went to to mark their passing. And it wasn’t like the bird meant anything to him in any way… it was just one of many hundreds of tiny birds that lived in the area. Maybe it was one of the ones that had pecked at crumbs of stale bread he’d thrown outside before, but that only meant it wasn’t any more special than any of the others.

… Besides, he didn’t want to get dirt under his nails while trying to dig a hole in the hard earth outside.

Still unsure of what action to take, he hesitantly picked up the bird, then immediately dropped it. The feathers were still soft but the body beneath it was stiff. It was unpleasant to touch. As good as he’d been at killing, he had never particularly liked it. Being around dead or dying things made him feel uneasy. It was one of the reasons he preferred killing from a good distance away – magic had been extremely useful in that regard – and used tools, whether they were people, creatures or machines, to do the deed for him.

Resolving to not touch it again, he picked up the crate and headed outside, then marched down the path a short way to the ledge where Zidane had usually dumped their trash. After a little hesitation he held the crate away from his body and turned it upside down. The tiny body fell out and tumbled a short distance away before getting caught in some brush that clung tenaciously to the terrain. Kuja frowned, put the crate down, and looked around for a branch or a stick to poke it loose with; he didn’t want the corpse just sitting there, decomposing… another reminder of how he’d failed. After a few good jabs with a branch the feathered lump finally broke free and disappeared from sight. Kuja tossed aside the branch, then, since he didn’t need the crate either, threw that too over the edge.

He wondered, when the time came… what would Zidane do with his body? Bury him, most likely, with some stones or hastily lashed together sticks marking the location. That was the norm across most of Gaia. It was a custom he wasn’t particularly fond of; some of that had to do with the fact that he was no Black Mage, even if he bore some slight similarities to them. But unlike the bird, he did have some say in it – he’d tried writing Zidane letters before, a will basically, but had burned them all in the fireplace. He still wasn’t sure what he wanted, nor did he understand why it mattered. Hadn’t he just admitted that dead was dead and nothing beyond that mattered? But it bothered him to think of Zidane throwing him over the cliff’s edge like trash, or a nameless dead bird. Maybe if he didn’t tell him he didn’t want that, Zidane would do it out of ignorance.

He went back to the house and dug up some paper and ink and a pen. Even if he was still uncertain, even it took him many more tries, he needed to try writing a note for Zidane again, because he didn’t know when the younger Genome would be coming back.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- I wavered over whether or not I ought to pair Marcus and Blank, because I didn't want this to come across as being just another story where everyone's magically gay, but it became obvious after a while that that was the best way to open up dialogue about gay relationships. I can't say I necessarily see Blank + Marcus in the game but at the same time I find it plausible enough that it wasn't a stretch at all to write it.

- Hope this came across clearly (and if not, well, here it is) - Zidane, Blank and Marcus' scene comes immediately after the end of chapter 8. Kuja's scene takes place 2 days later. I included them in the same chapter because I liked the contrast in mood, plus there'll be a bit of a time skip between this and next chapter.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Kuja slowly ran his fingers over the notches marking up the doorframe, then added a new one before shutting the door. One hundred and thirty-one days – nearly three and a half months - had come and gone, and there was still no sign of Zidane.

But that was to be expected, with the weather as bad as it was. It was snowing outside and had been for days, turning the mountainside into a barren white desert. The paths were laden with snow and ice and thanks to a cycle of thawing and freezing, were now completely unsafe for traveling. Even all the animals and monsters in the area knew better than to be out and about.

Kuja shook his head. He’d known from the start that he shouldn’t have taken Zidane’s words so literally… the thief had said he’d be back in "a month, maybe two." But even though Kuja had known better, he hadn’t been able to stop himself from clutching at the slippery strand of hope that Zidane would hold true to that promise. Yes, the younger man was rather… simpleminded, but he’d always been honest as well.

Kuja returned to his usual post in the living room, curling up as best he could with the blankets on the sofa, close as possible to the fireplace. The previous winter hadn’t been nearly as bad, so the severity of the storm had really caught him off-guard. Without another body around, without more supplies, it was hard to stay warm, even indoors. He debated on whether or not he ought to throw more wood on the fire, but as tempting as it was to try and up the temperature a few degrees, he decided against it. He didn’t know how long the snowstorm would continue for; he had a limited amount of wood. It would be unwise to blow it all for the sake of comfort, rather than necessity.

The former mage was thankful that the Dwarves had warned him to stock up on firewood and food when they’d noticed the weather taking a turn for the worse, though he still wasn’t sure if he’d bought enough. Actually the Dwarves had initially advised him to leave, saying the mountains were no place for a "skinny human woman." Short Dwarf had even offered to let him stay at his family home in Conde Petie until the thaw came, but as tempting as it had been to accept, Kuja could only thank him for offering and decline. It was just too great a risk; he’d be spotted too easily by any Genomes or Black Mages that stopped by… and he didn’t want Zidane to come back and find him gone. He could’ve just left a note letting him know where he went, but what would Zidane think of that, especially when it sounded like the Dwarf had only made the offer with some form of compensation in mind. But Kuja didn't know why that bothered him so much when it had never mattered before?

He frowned and shook his head, then picked up a book from the bookshelf. He’d read them all already, multiple times. He had entire passages memorized. But beyond mundane chores there was nothing else to do, and he’d always enjoyed reading anyhow.

Books were useful things. They imparted knowledge without inflicting pain. They provided a window into new worlds, inhabited by interesting people, even when one was locked away in a laboratory room or holed up during a storm. And they made no demands upon him, expecting nothing at all in return for their presence, except maybe a dusting off every once in a while.

He snuggled down more into his seat and began reading. If could lose himself in the pages, it would be easier to forget about the miserable weather or the annoying rumbling of his stomach. It was easier to ignore the fact that there wasn’t anyone there to say good morning to or to argue with him over every little thing he said.

He was just beginning to relax, his mind sinking into the scene the writer had painted, lush with warm sunlight and fantastic creatures, when a low creaking sound made him raise his head. The house had been making complaining noises for a while, but that one was a little louder than the others. He stood up hesitantly, cocking his head, trying to figure out where it was coming from, when a series of popping, splintering sounds started up. He’d barely managed to take a step forward towards the source of the noise, when a sudden, loud rumble assaulted him, as if the mountain was collapsing on him. Clapping his hands over his ears, Kuja nearly lost his footing as the entire house shook violently.

Was it an avalanche? An earthquake? Was the planet itself rising up against him, to purge his existence once and for all? He almost didn’t want to know. But after what felt like an eternity, Kuja slowly lowered his hands and opened eyes that he hadn’t remembered shutting, and realized, it had gone silent again, save for his frantic, heavy breathing. And somehow, he was still in one piece. But the house wasn’t…

Through the bedroom door he could see exactly what had happened. Part of the roof had given way under the heavy fall of snow, leaving a corner of the room open to the sky. He walked in, shivering at the sudden drop in temperature, watching puffs of snow roll in to land on shattered wood and torn mattress and sheets.

He stood still a moment, trying to fully absorb what was going on. His first thought was that he ought to be thankful it hadn’t happened while he’d been asleep. It might not have killed him outright, but it was no consolation to think that he could’ve gotten badly injured and then succumbed to exposure and infection instead. His second thought was that it wasn’t over yet, that more of the roof or walls could collapse still. That realization got him moving. He had to salvage what he could – blankets especially. What clothing he had was in there too; the wardrobe had been damaged by the debris as well. He just grabbed anything that was dry and carried it all out to the sofa, making several trips before he was sure he’d gotten all he could. Then he stepped back out of the room and looked up to survey the damage again.

It sucked about the roof. Kuja didn’t really know how to fix it, and the weather wasn’t allowing him to give it a try. But something had to be done; the cold air streaming in through the opening was enough to chill him to the bone.

In the end the best "fix" he could think of was to simply shut the door, ceding the room to the elements, and then using the stuffing of the ruined mattress as insulation around the door. The sofa would have to serve as his bed now; the kitchen cabinets and chairs, his wardrobe. It wasn’t a bad solution - it seemed a little warmer even with one room closed off - but he felt more confined than ever.

He sat down, turned and looked back out the window. White… everything was completely drowned in blank whiteness. It reminded him of the Desert Palace, with miles of uninterrupted, colorless nothing in every direction. It reminded him too of his assigned room in Bran Bal, furnished only with the bare necessities, of the other Genomes living there as well, who only spoke when spoken to and otherwise wandered about, mindlessly carrying out their duties, ignoring his presence.

He didn’t want to be stuck in the house anymore, but he didn’t have the option to leave, not even for a moment. He wouldn’t make it more than a few yards before the cold would claim his life. He got up and began pacing around restlessly, giving that a try, but there really wasn’t room for anything more than short laps. He came to an abrupt stop, then held out his hands, palms up. If only he could manage a bit of magic, he could go outside safely. It wouldn’t hurt to try, just a little, would it? But Zidane wasn’t there to catch him if he fell again…

His hands suddenly balled into tight fists. No, he couldn’t risk it. The last time he’d tried, it had knocked him out. If the roof collapsed, if even a couple of windowpanes blew out while he lay unconscious on the floor, the indoor temperature would drop enough that he’d probably never wake up again.

He slowly sank back down onto the sofa, his shoulders slumping, his head bowing. For a minute he simply remained like that, as if the ice had managed to creep in, freezing him in place. Even his breathing had grown shallow. Then his head suddenly jerked up with a start; disoriented, he blinked several times in rapid succession, his eyes clearing as he came back to himself.

He’d had similar "episodes" in the past, but he’d never been able to figure out exactly what triggered them. Maybe something got broken when Garland messed with his memories, because they’d started after that? It probably had something to do with emotions too… maybe flaws in his programming caused his mind to shut down when he encountered something that it couldn’t process? That was what he’d always thought, though it didn’t sound right anymore… When Zidane had been around, Kuja hadn’t had a single episode even though the thief had thrown all sorts of strange new concepts his way. But a few weeks ago, there’d been a relapse. And now, once again…

Maybe the cold was making his brain short circuit? Maybe it meant his health was declining. He couldn’t even tell if he was feeling all right, or if he was running a fever or something. He felt cold all the time. Or was he only in trouble if he could no longer discern cold from warm?

He didn’t want to think about it anymore. His head was starting to throb.

Since escape wasn’t an option, he supposed the only thing left to do was pick up where he’d left off. Maybe he simply needed to keep his mind occupied, and then it’d be all right. He grabbed the book he’d dropped, rewound the blankets about his body, and flipped back to the page he’d been on, forcing himself to begin reading again. The printed words didn’t offer the same sense of reassurance as they had before, but he ignored his discontent and plowed on.

* * *

Backstage, Zidane fiddled with the hood of his cloak for the umpteenth time. His stomach was in knots. In a matter of moments, he’d finally get his wish – to reunite with Dagger, to hold her again… to ask for her hand in marriage.

The past few months had gone by in a flash. In retrospect Zidane was glad he'd held off on rushing back to Dagger’s side. It had been wonderful to reconnect with friends and family – he’d celebrated with Eiko after her adoption by Regent Cid and Hilda, witnessed Freya and Fratley renewing Burmecia’s peace treaty with Lindblum, and had even caught up with Amarant as the bounty hunter passed by on his way to parts unknown. It’d been helpful to recover a little from his time away too – he’d grown a few inches taller during the past year, but hadn’t gained weight to match until he’d gotten home. And he’d needed the time to clear his mind as well, though unfortunately, that hadn’t gone as well as he’d hoped.

It wasn’t like he was trying to forget that Kuja existed. Zidane had every intention of making good on his promise to go back and get him, once he found him safe harbor. But when he thought about the silver-haired Genome, he wanted to think about him the way a man ought to think about another man – like a friend, like a brother. It was fine recalling what it had been like teaching him to fight or even the meaning of a hug. But Zidane didn’t want to lick his lips and suddenly remember the feel of Kuja’s pressed against them, tongue sliding in to explore his mouth. He didn't want to spend sleepless nights tossing and turning while recalling the way Kuja's arms and legs had wrapped themselves around him. He didn’t want to wake up every morning, squirming uncomfortably in bed, hard as a rock from the memory of Kuja writhing naked on the sheets.

Even now, minutes away from the reunion he’d been dreaming about, even as he tried to force himself to think of Dagger’s beautiful face, he could only remember the devastated look on Kuja’s as he’d ridden away, leaving him behind.

Zidane sighed. His nerves were getting the best of him. Maybe that’s why he kept focusing on Kuja instead of worrying about Dagger. He simply needed to see her – that was all. Once he laid eyes on her, once he spoke to her, it’d all be okay. Because if it wasn’t…

He shook his head and began pacing slowly. He needed something else to think about, something that would calm him down for sure. So he reached out for a distraction and found it in a familiar melody, which he began humming softly, letting the song wash over him. It was her song… no, their song. Her inheritance from Madain Sari and the companion she’d brought along on their journey. Kuja had referred to her as a canary, and it almost seemed fitting; although it was a lovely melody, only she could do it justice. Strange though, he hadn’t thought about it in over a year…

Of course he didn’t have anything like that with Kuja. Zidane bet the former mage didn’t even know how to sing. Or did he? Something like that… Kuja would’ve probably mocked him for asking such a silly thing before refusing to reply.

The curtain finally dropped for the scene change. With his role in "I Want to Be Your Canary" now over, Blank ambled off stage and gave Zidane a light pat on the arm, startling him and stopping him in his tracks. They stared at each other a moment, then Blank smiled. He figured it made sense that the wide-eyed Genome would be a bit distracted and nervous before his big moment, especially with the huge crowd present. So he decided to play it cool, punching Zidane in the shoulder before telling him, "You’ll do fine! Go break a leg, kiddo."

Exhaling loudly, Zidane nodded, pushed away every thought of Kuja as far and hard as he could, and took to the stage.

* * *

By the time the curtain came back up, Zidane had taken Marcus’ place with no one outside of Tantalus aware of the actor switch. It would still be Marcus reciting his namesake character’s lines, but this time, he was the one hiding backstage while Zidane acted out his role before the audience. That normally would’ve been easy enough, but the blonde could barely focus enough to remember how to do it properly.

Thankfully Marcus’ lines gave him a frame of reference. When Marcus mentioned the sun rising in the sky and the birds taking flight, Zidane tilted his head toward the props dangling before the painted backdrop. Thanks to his attire, he didn’t even have to worry about the expression on his face. But when the focus turned to the twin moons, Zidane knew that was his cue – it was time to turn fiction into his reality.

"I beseech thee, wondrous moonlight, grant me my only wish!" Marcus recited, trying his best to keep his voice steady as he delivered his final line. How many chances did one get to participate in a public proposal, and to a queen no less! But his role in this play was over… It was all up to Zidane now.

As the line was delivered, Zidane raised his arms to the moons, then lowered them to undo the clasp of his cloak for the big reveal. His hands were so shaky that he fumbled with the clasp for several seconds before he finally got it undone, then, with that last barrier finally out of the way, he spun around and whipped off the cloak as dramatically as possible.

"Bring my beloved Dagger to me!" he shouted.

Even with the distance between them, Zidane could see the surprise on Dagger’s face as she leapt to her feet, squinting as she strained over the balcony railing towards him, as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Then she too spun around, bolting for the double doors at the rear of her box, disappearing out of sight once Beatrix and Steiner pushed them open for her.

After a few moments, Zidane stepped towards the edge of the stage, craning his neck as he tried to catch a glimpse of Dagger in the crowd. It was pretty packed… was she going to be okay? There were a large number of people in the back standing room only section; he could see a few of them starting to shift about as someone began pushing their way through the throng. Then he finally saw her as she forced her way through, all thoughts of manners and royal decorum thrown right out the window. She lost the Silver Pendant in the mayhem, but instead of going back for the priceless heirloom, she left it where it had fallen, then discarded even her crown as she rushed down the steps and onto the stage. Zidane met her at the threshold, opening his arms to greet her as she threw hers tightly around his neck. With all her momentum it was all he could do to catch her, spinning her around before finally setting her back down on her feet so he could get his first good look at her in a long, long time.

She was just as lovely as he remembered, with large, doe-like eyes in a flawless, pale face, her chocolate brown hair grown long again in his absence. Befitting her position she wore a strapless white silk dress and gloves, decorated with green floral embroidery and adorned with ornate silver jewelry; it made her look like an angel shimmering in the sunlight.

Zidane smiled slightly and, tongue tied, shrugged at her, unsure of what to say other than the obvious. "Hi."

"You… you idiot!" she suddenly sobbed as she began pounding on his chest. "I thought you died! I thought I’d never see you again!"

Her distress was all the proof he needed of her feelings for him. Zidane reached up to lightly stroke her hair. "I know. I’m sorry." Then he hugged her once more, holding her a little more tightly than before, ignoring the sudden, strange notion that she ought to be taller, with a little more muscle…

"How did you survive…?" she asked, her voice soft and muffled against his shoulder. But it was enough to pull Zidane’s attention back onto her.

He thought about how he’d unwisely run headlong into the Iifa Basin to find Kuja, then how he’d even more unwisely thrown himself over the other man’s unconscious body as the dying tree zeroed in on them, sending branches and tendrils crashing down. It was a miracle they hadn’t been torn apart or crushed to death on the spot. But once the dust had settled and he’d realized they’d survived, all he could think of was that he needed to get both of them out of there. He hadn’t thought about what would come after that.

"I didn’t have a choice. I had to live," he told her. Because Kuja wouldn’t have stood a chance otherwise… his mind unhelpfully supplied. Of course he couldn’t say that though! He pushed the stray thought aside and tried again, racking his brain for something more romantic. "I wanted to come home to you. So… I sang your song. Our song."

Although it was the truth, he felt like he was grasping at straws a little, but then a tiny smile touched her lips and Zidane felt like he was soaring higher than the sky. He was barely aware of the crowd applauding in approval or their friends gathering around them. All he could think about was how good it felt to finally hold her and bask in her smile! Her body was so soft and warm against his; she was so radiant and smelled so good. It felt like his heart was going to explode right out of his chest from how hard it was beating. But there was one last thing he needed to do to make the moment absolutely perfect…

Zidane reached into his pocket, palming the delicate object lying within. He’d done some odd jobs over the last few months to save up the money for it, since he’d left almost everything behind with Kuja. It had ended up costing him every penny he’d saved. But, it was well worth it…

He took a half step back before dropping down to one knee. "Dagger… there hasn’t been a day gone by where I didn’t think about you. All I wanted was to come back to you, like I’d promised, because I love you with all my heart. And now… well, I’m finally home. So I can finally ask the question I’ve been dying to ask you." He paused and inhaled deeply. "Dagger, will you marry me?" he asked as he gently took her hand and presented her with the ring he’d worked so hard for.

She was openly crying now, tears sparkling on her cheeks, but the smile on her face was brighter than the sun. "Zidane…" she breathed, then she sank down onto the floor to embrace him again. "Yes, yes I will, Zidane Tribal!"

"Gods, Dagger, you’ve made me the happiest guy on Gaia! I love you so much!" He went to kiss her, and their lips met briefly before she suddenly turned away, her eyes wide and her cheeks flushed pink. He laughed awkwardly and hugged her to him again. He couldn’t think of what else to do if she wasn’t going to let him kiss her. But he wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong…

"I’m sorry…" she whispered after a moment.

"What’s wrong?" he asked, dropping his voice so he was equally quiet.

"You see… that is, I’ve never done that before. And everyone’s here, watching. So I couldn’t…"

Well, she was a princess… er, had been. She probably hadn’t been allowed to roam around, dating and kissing and stuff. "Wow, really? I’m your first?"

She nodded.

"I like that. Your first kiss!" Not that it had been much of a kiss. He kind of felt bad for not making more of an effort to connect. But then again, she would’ve slapped him - at the very least - if he’d tried to do like Kuja and stick his tongue in her mouth.

Her blush deepened. "What about you?"

"Oh, well… you know, being an actor and stuff, I’d meet girls…" He trailed off. She didn’t need to hear about that; it’d just make her mad or wonder how she compared, and he didn’t want to go there. And obviously, he wasn’t going to admit that the last person he’d been kissing – and more - was Kuja.

Before Dagger could press for details, Zidane was saved by Steiner, of all people.

"Your… Your Majesty! May I be the first to offer my congratulations on your engagement!" Steiner bellowed, his voice shaky from all the conflicting emotions rolling around in his head. He was even redder than his queen. Zidane thought the expression on the knight’s face looked like a cross between an uncle who was happy to be reunited with a favorite nephew of his, and a disapproving dad who’d just heard his daughter was intending to marry the hooligan crashing in their basement.

"Congratulations, Queen Garnet," Beatrix echoed. She bowed, the motion precise and controlled, the complete opposite of her love interest, Steiner. Or had they made it official? Zidane wasn’t sure.

That seemed to open the floodgates. All of a sudden everyone was mobbing them, giving them their blessings, peppering them with comments.

"Good job, kiddo!" Blank said encouragingly while slapping Marcus on the back for his role in the proposal. "And congratulations, Your Majesty. You got yourself a good man there, even if he is an idiot sometimes."

"Gee, thanks!" Zidane grumbled.

"You have to admit, you certainly did take your time," Freya said, a hint of a mischievous smile on her face.

"Better late than never," Ruby countered.

"Garnet, I’m so happy for you! And Zidane, now that you’ve finally taken the big step, you better treat her right, or else!" Eiko said, her hands on her hips.

The thief grinned lopsidedly, having no doubt that the fiery little Summoner girl meant every word she said. "Of course I will!"

"Everybody so happy! Make me hungry. I glad you back, Zidane! And only Zidane. No Kuja!" Quina chimed in. That single comment suddenly stopped all the conversation in the group, the jubilant mood forgotten. Quina looked around at all the serious faces staring back at him/her. "What? Something I say?"

"Um, yeah…" Zidane began. He’d been soaring amongst the clouds, thinking nothing could ruin this perfect day, but now he was brought crashing back down into reality. For a second he was suddenly, unreasonably, angry at Kuja, for having intruded upon his special moment with Dagger. Zidane had just wanted to get engaged, damn it! Why did Kuja have to keep popping up in his thoughts? But just as quickly the moment passed, leaving Zidane with a very sour taste in his mouth. He took a deep breath and held it, unsure of what else to say. All he knew was, he hadn’t been prepared to propose and ask for a pardon in the same breath.

The silence was unsettling. Someone had to say something. Once again it was Steiner who spoke up. "What happened to him anyhow?" the knight asked, his voice much more muted than usual. "You really were gone for a long while…"

Zidane paused. Baku, Mikoto, and the absent Mr. 288 were the only ones who knew the truth. Zidane looked at the former. Baku merely folded his arms and remained silent, but Mikoto gave Zidane a sharp glance in return, and the young thief noted that he ought to ask her for an update later. He did want to tell his friends and fiancée the truth, but he couldn’t. Not until he had a better idea of how they’d respond, especially Freya, who’d tensed up at the mere mention of Kuja's name, and maybe Beatrix, who was watching Zidane's reaction like a hawk. Kuja was more or less defenseless. If they decided to go after him, he was a dead man. Zidane couldn’t let that happen.

But then Vivi touched Steiner’s arm and said somberly, "He died, a few months ago." The little Black Mage looked at Zidane for a moment, then added, "It’s still hard to talk about it, isn’t it?"

Zidane slowly nodded, then glanced at Dagger. She looked up at him with sad eyes, then wrapped her arms around him and hugged him again. Zidane was grateful that Vivi had stepped in, but at the same time, he was nervous about how Dagger would react once he admitted the truth to her. Though she did seem sympathetic enough now…

"And you were able to reconcile with him?" Beatrix inquired. It seemed like an odd question coming from her.

Zidane took a half step back from Dagger and nodded again. "Yeah. I got to know him. He turned out to be… a lot different than I thought he'd be. He really was sorry about the things he did, you know?" He grimaced, then decided to come clean… at least partially. "I feel guilty. I wish I could’ve done more for him."

"Because you couldn’t save him?" Dagger asked gently.

The thief didn’t answer, which was his response in and of itself.

Dagger nodded a little, then looked down. "But… maybe it’s better this way. If he had survived, where would he go?"

"I… guess I’d have brought him with me," Zidane admitted, carefully watching for Dagger’s reaction.

She began fiddling with the delicate chain at her waist. She didn’t say anything for a minute, then said, "Well, things happen for a reason, I suppose."

There was nothing more he could say or do for the moment, though he wasn’t giving up. She hadn’t actually said no. He’d talk to her about it later, once things were a little more settled, once she got used to him being by her side again… Once there weren’t so many other ears listening in.

"Zidane, are you okay?" Eiko asked, concerned.

"Huh?" Zidane tilted his head at her, then realized that everyone was staring at him. He wondered if he was coming off as depressed instead of being deep in thought. Well, that wouldn’t do! So he put on a big grin for his young friend, swept all his worries under a mental rug, then said, "Oh, yeah, I am… thanks! Um, so…" and he turned to Dagger, "Wow, you really said yes!"

Dagger’s eyes searched over his face, as if she needed proof that he really was okay, then she relaxed a bit and smiled. "Yes, I did."

He knew he ought to be satisfied. He’d popped the question in the most romantic fashion ever and she’d said yes! And he’d finally kissed her! They were going to marry and have their happily ever after. So that was what he needed to force himself to focus on. Besides, he’d have plenty of time to work on the issue of Kuja between now and their fairy tale ending.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- For Dagger and Zidane's reunion, I tried to stay as close to the canon ending as possible while inserting my own thoughts and dialogue where appropriate. Vivi's presence is probably the most notable change here. The bit of canon dialogue at the very end, short as it was, gave me a bit of trouble, because... well frankly, it's kinda corny - "I wanted to come home so I sang your song" - really?? But hopefully I managed to successfully combine canon with my own ideas to make a cohesive whole.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Kuja shivered as he struggled to finish off the last of his cold lunch before pushing it aside, the spoon rattling against the lip of the bowl as he did so. Although he hadn’t had much of an appetite lately, he’d been forcing himself to eat, even though he could barely stomach the muddy tasting bean soup that had become his usual meal. It was unlike him to get hung up on such a middling detail but he was just so sick of smelling and tasting it, day after day - and worse, it reminded him of the bland, nutrient infused gruel that had been the bulk of the Genome diet in Bran Bal. The memory of it made him want to spit up everything he’d just swallowed.

He twisted around in his chair, then pushed away from the table and began pacing restlessly around the small house. That too was becoming a habit, pacing in circles. Exercise helped to keep him warm… and he had nowhere else to go. With winter still gripping the land in its clutches, it wasn’t safe to venture out for any reason. The Dwarves, well versed in reading the local weather patterns, had shuttered the supply outpost early; all of their brethren living out in "Sanctuary" moved back to Conde Petie for the remainder of the season. Kuja worried about just how far away spring seemed to be. He’d gone through almost all his foodstuffs already and was left with only handfuls of beans and a couple of wrinkled, questionable looking root vegetables. So bean soup, cooked in bulk in order to conserve firewood and then plunged into snow to keep, would remain on the menu for many days to come.

He thought back to the bird he’d foolishly tried to help. His stomach growled weakly at the thought of roasted squab stuffed with rice and mushrooms. He regretted that he hadn’t eaten it; it made no sense to have wasted energy on taking care of it just to throw it away in the end. Not that a few extra bites to eat would’ve made much of a difference months after the fact, but at least it would’ve been useful in some way. It seemed a greater crime to have rendered its life meaningless by discarding it.

Although it was constantly on his mind – and lingering on his tongue - the palability of his meals was far from his biggest concern. Far more distressing was the realization that he’d been losing track of things, like the passage of time, and it seemed to be worsening day by day. Sometimes he’d wake up and the sun would be high up in the sky, or he’d fall asleep before dinnertime. Or he’d wake up thinking it was around sunrise, but then it would get darker instead of brighter and he’d realize that he’d somehow slept through most of the day. Even adopting Zidane’s old habit of notching the doorframe as a makeshift calendar wasn’t helping; Kuja knew he might’ve missed a day or two without knowing, and that really bothered him. No wonder it seemed like winter was stretching on forever.

His malaise went beyond losing track of time though. Everything felt off. He felt sluggish, like everything was shutting down little by little. Just like his taste buds, his mind too was starved for stimuli. It was different than anything he’d experienced before. Even though he was used to being by himself, for the first time in his life he was truly, completely alone, bereft even of Garland’s unwanted presence squirming around in the back of his thoughts, like a parasite. He had hated it so much – for so many years had he planned and plotted and struggled to break free of his master’s control! But now that Garland was no more, the emptiness left behind was like a black hole, sapping his energy, draining away his thoughts and even his sanity.

The "episodes" had gotten far worse since the day the roof had caved in. They were happening more frequently and seemed to be lasting longer. As far as he could tell, nothing happened most of the time, but now and then there were exceptions that were very worrisome. Instead of just sitting still and blanking out, his body would act on its own, as if it was desperately struggling to free itself from the dying soul inside it. One time, he’d punched out a windowpane; he’d come to to find his glove torn up and cold air gusting through the shattered glass. An even worse incident found him outside, blinking stupidly and shivering while snow melted into his hair and dampened his clothing. He hadn’t remembered going out. And he certainly hadn’t remembered standing outside long enough for precious body heat to melt the frigid flakes that clung to his still form. Shocked at the situation, he’d run back inside and shut the door firmly behind him, then checked around the house to make sure that there wasn’t anything else amiss, as if there were some other explanation for what had happened. Even thinking about it now made his heart race.

He needed to get out, but he had to stay inside. Even with the threat of the roof collapsing further, it was still the safest place to be. He knew all that… but he felt like he was trapped, suffocating. He’d mockingly called the young queen of Alexandria a canary in a gilded cage, but was he really all that different? Although the old house was, by necessity, his sanctuary from the storm, it was a cage as well. And Zidane was the one with the key...

He told himself to be patient. He’d endured 24 years under Garland’s heel. At least this time it’d be a shorter wait, one way or another.

* * *

Zidane was fussing with the overly complicated toggles on his coat when he heard the sound of an armored gauntlet rapping on the door, followed by a male voice calling out, "Pardon me, Your Highness, but the meeting will be starting very soon. The guests have already arrived. Do you require any assistance to get ready?"

The blonde made a face. As expected, it was Steiner. Although the knight was respectful, even friendly, towards Zidane now, he still had the bad habit of nipping at his heels like an overeager herding dog. And he got even worse about it when he was anxious about something. "No, I’m good. I’ll be out in a minute!"

"One minute… Very well! I shall return!" The fading clank clank of Steiner’s footsteps indicated he was indeed moving away from the door, for the time being.

Zidane sighed and shook his head. "Prince Zidane Tribal of Tantalus" - Dagger had granted him that title very shortly after their engagement. But he still wasn’t used to being royalty and hadn’t settled into life at Alexandria Castle like he thought he would. Which was strange… he thought it would’ve been a breeze, living the easy life with a beautiful woman at his side. But reality was quite different from a fairy tale. As large as the castle and its surrounding grounds were, it all felt too limited. He didn’t like being constantly followed by guards, having to report to Steiner or Beatrix every time he wanted to go out into town. Even things that should’ve been simple, like having a private dinner with Dagger, had all sorts of restrictions and rules in place – the meal had to be scheduled, the menu approved, and in the end, it wasn’t ever a private affair anyhow. Servants lurked behind a curtain, keeping an eye on them, rushing in to refill their goblets or clear out dirty plates. And the food was always too rich for Zidane’s tastes… how he longed for a sandwich with thick, rustic bread or a meat pie from a pub!

Even his clothing was a problem. The young Genome turned back to the mirror and cocked his head in scrutiny. It was nice of his fiancée to have ordered clothing for him that bore some resemblance to the things he used to wear, but his new wardrobe was only similar on the surface. Everything the royal tailors had crafted was ornate and overdone – there was too much lace on the cravat, the ruffled cuffs were ridiculous, and the vest was so heavily embellished that it felt like armor. The pants were made of a stiff fabric that unfortunately seemed prone to tearing – he’d accidentally discovered that while screwing around on the trellis in the garden. And the cherry on the sundae was a large gold pendant with dangling semi-precious gems, strung on a strand of gold beads – Dagger’s engagement gift - that supplanted the blue ribbon tie he used to wear. Even though it was just a strand of silk fabric, nothing particularly special or anything… he sure missed that tie. It had been something of a signature piece for him and he’d worn it all the time. But when he’d complained about his new attire, Dagger had given him a small smile and pointed out that once he was king, he’d have an image to uphold, and so that was that.

There was knocking at his door once again. Zidane rolled his eyes. "I know, I know, I’ll be right there!"

"You said one minute, Your Highness!" Steiner emphatically retorted.

He could only turn Steiner away for so long. Resigned to his fate, fussy clothing and all, Zidane went and let Steiner in. "You’re such a stick in the mud. Besides… what’s the rush? It’s just Cid."

"Just ‘Cid?’ How disrespectful! That’s REGENT Cid to you!"

Zidane laughed. He couldn’t help it, he liked watching Steiner flip his lid. "All right, all right. I’m just messing with you. I’ll be good, I promise."

Steiner frowned but didn’t take the bait. Instead he made a show of straightening himself up even more and said, "Shall we go? The queen is waiting."

The Genome nodded and followed the knight to the throne room, where Dagger received her important guests. As they made their way through the castle, guards stopped to salute and servants bowed before them. Zidane nodded at them as he passed by. It felt awkward if he didn’t pause to acknowledge them, even though he knew he was supposed to just smile and keep walking like it was nothing.

Steiner pushed open the doors to the throne room, holding them open as he called out, "Please excuse the intrusion! Announcing the arrival of Prince Zidane!"

Zidane tried not to roll his eyes, not that it would do any good anyhow. He settled for a silent, polite smile, then marched in.

"Prince Zidane! It’s been a while!" an enthusiastic voice greeted him as soon as he entered, Steiner automatically falling in behind him, like a shadow.

Zidane smiled, a genuine one this time. Little Eiko was adjusting far better than he to life as a member of a ruling family. "Hello, Eiko."

"You mean Lady Eiko!" she mockingly scolded him, then they both laughed.

Seeing an old friend made him feel a bit better. But he couldn’t relax too much; he still needed to mind his manners while greeting Eiko’s adoptive parents, Regent Cid and Lady Hilda, as well as his fiancée. That meant bowing slightly to Lindblum's regents, repeating the same motion with Dagger, then stepping around to her right and offering her his arm, before leaning in to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. He really disliked that he had to be so formal with her but on occasions like this, Dagger was queen first, fiancée second.

With introductions out of the way, the group headed to the conference room and seated themselves at the imposing table within, before General Beatrix began outlining all the matters that were scheduled to be addressed during the course of their meeting. Zidane frowned to himself. There was a lot of stuff on the list, and most of it wasn’t terribly exciting. But he was stuck there regardless of his level of interest, so he squared himself in his seat, plastered a vaguely interested look on his face, and let his mind wander as Regent Cid began to speak about the expansion of trade paths through the village of Dali.

* * *

Zidane barely managed to suppress a yawn as the conference dragged on into its second hour. Part of it was boredom – formal meetings were so dry and dull! – but he was also tired. He hadn’t been sleeping well since moving into Alexandria Castle. His accommodations were very luxurious and he knew he had no right to complain about it; he’d been given Dagger’s old room, along with a large new bed and silk-soft sheets, but it felt almost too big and too empty. Come to think of it, he hadn’t been sleeping all that well during the months before with Tantalus, though at the time he’d attributed that to rooming with Cinna, since the man constantly talked to himself in his sleep. The last time he’d gotten a good night’s rest was probably back when he lived with Kuja… The house had been old and drafty; they’d been isolated. But he’d felt more comfortable there than anywhere he’d been since.

He wondered how Kuja was holding up. He thought about him every day, regardless if he wanted to or not. The former mage was still at the old house, waiting for him… at least that’s what he’d gleaned from Mikoto’s last message: "Winter is here, but we are all doing as well as could be expected, staying indoors and waiting for spring to come." It was a small comfort, receiving her updates, knowing she was doing her best to keep an eye on Kuja, but Zidane was still worried.

He wished he could’ve convinced Dagger into getting married sooner rather than later, but a royal wedding took some time to plan, and so Zidane hadn’t forced the issue. At least she’d been agreeable to enough to set the engagement to a mere four months rather than a year or more. But the number that was in Zidane’s head was six months - he’d been keeping Kuja waiting that long already. He hated the thought of making him wait another two months. But he didn’t really have a choice, not if he wanted his plan to work…

He needed to become king of Alexandria. Then he’d have the power to grant Kuja an official pardon. It was the best protection Zidane could offer. Even if no one could forgive Kuja, at least they wouldn’t risk going after him, not with Alexandria’s might as his shield. Maybe he could even stay at the castle, though maybe that would be a bad idea. It would probably be pushing things one step too far for Dagger.

Speaking of which, Dagger would be mad for sure. There was no way around that. Kuja had kidnapped her, half destroyed her kingdom, and deprived her of not one, but two mothers and a father. And Zidane had not only helped him to survive, but had hidden that fact. But she wasn’t an unreasonable or unkind person. Surely with a little time and effort, she’d see… Kuja had changed. He’d lost his fearsome powers. There was no reason to persecute him any longer.

And it wasn’t like Zidane was marrying her just to save Kuja. Of course he loved her… though she wasn’t the only one he cared for…

Zidane sighed softly. That was the truth, wasn’t it? He’d been certain that time and distance would’ve dulled his desire for Kuja, but they hadn’t. For months he’d told himself it was just some twisted sort of physical attraction, a warped sense of friendship, as if he repeated it enough he’d end up believing it… but he knew now he’d only been lying to himself. Marcus and Blank had opened his eyes to possibilities; he’d seen how happy they were together, and how natural it was for them. They weren’t "weird" or "freaks;" they hadn’t changed at all from the guys he’d grown up with… The only difference was now he knew.

Some part of him really did… like-like Kuja, although he still couldn’t figure out what had changed in him to make him feel that way about the other man. Other than the obvious gender issue, there were so many things about Kuja that should’ve made him "unlikable," for lack of a better term. Kuja was moody and selfish; he was a chronic liar who unapologetically used people to get what he wanted. When he’d gotten mad or upset, worlds crumbled, people died.

The things Kuja had done weren’t easy to forgive. But Zidane did have some sympathy for the circumstances that had led him to that point. Having been created for the same purpose, he knew he would’ve ended up doing the same awful things as Kuja had… if the silver-haired man hadn’t carefully hidden him away on Gaia. That - and the fact that Kuja had teleported them all to safety after Necron's defeat - proved Kuja wasn’t irredeemable, despite all the strikes against him – he had kindness in him, even if it had somehow gotten buried and forgotten along the way.

And oddly it was perhaps the fact that Kuja was so flawed that attracted Zidane, from the way he treated any show of affection as an invitation to sex, to the irritatingly smug smile that he wore as his default expression. There had been nothing genuine about any of it, as if Kuja had learned to mimic actions and expressions without having learned anything of the emotions that should’ve accompanied them. It made Zidane want to stay close to him and show him that there was so much more to life than what he’d seen. Zidane was certain that, with time and patience, the former mage could learn to experience the full range of emotions just like the other Genomes could. And he wanted to be the one to show him…

Not that Zidane himself was a saint either. Sure, he had always dreamed that one day he’d be a hero, like in the stories. He’d save the kingdom, marry the princess, have a statue erected in his honor. And some would say he’d accomplished just that, having thwarted Garland and Kuja’s plans, saving Gaia, and then returning to his ladylove’s side. But the reality was, he was a former thief who’d never been brought to justice, an incurable flirt who’d hit on other women right in front of Dagger, who’d sleep with a man in her absence. And he was an even worse sort of liar than Kuja, because he had lied to, and was continuing to lie to, the woman he claimed to love… because it was easier to live with the lie than trust her with the truth.

Zidane wondered what would’ve happened if he’d simply stayed with Kuja instead of returning to his family and friends, then shook his head slightly. No… that wouldn’t have been right. At the very least he owed it to everyone to let them know that he’d survived, that he was safe and happy. He supposed he could’ve just sent a letter, but…

"Prince Zidane? What do you think?"

Zidane’s head suddenly jerked up, both at the sound of his name and the exasperation in Dagger’s voice as she'd spoken. "Um… er…" He looked around the table, remembering suddenly that he was at a meeting between Lindblum and Alexandria. He had no clue what they’d been talking about at all. Grasping at straws, he thought back to what he’d last heard and said, "Yes, I think we should do it."

Everyone stared at him a moment, then Regent Cid hid his smile behind his hand and pretended to clear his throat. "You want to charge the Burmecians for the emergency medicine we’ve sent them?"

"The emergency medication, which, mind you, was sent in goodwill, for humanitarian reasons…" Dagger clarified, her eyes darkening slightly. "Honestly, Zidane… if you won’t contribute, can’t you at least pay attention? Even Lady Eiko can manage that and she’s eight!"

"Hey, I’m almost nine!" Eiko added with a pout, earning her a few soft chuckles from around the room. Dagger gave her a small, apologetic smile.

Zidane held up his hands in a position of surrender. There was no way he was going to weasel out of the situation, so he figured it was best that he come clean. "Sorry. I had other stuff on my mind. Plus I’m not good at this, you know that."

Steiner groaned. "Then you need to learn to be ‘good at this,’ Prince Zidane! This is a major part of a king’s duties!"

Zidane made a face at the knight. No matter what he’d tried – and he’d tried everything from lots of coffee to picking a conference room without windows - it was like his mind refused to cooperate and just focus on the task at hand. It was funny… he’d never had this sort of problem back when he had to memorize lines for a play or instructions for a heist. But still, Steiner was right… kings attended diplomatic meetings and signed treaties and made decisions for the good of the country. That was a huge responsibility. He’d have to suck it up and figure out some way to force himself to do it.

Maybe he could approach it like an actor would, and treat it as a role. That was something he could manage… except he had no script to memorize, no Baku standing in the wings, hissing, "Just follow Blank’s lead!"

"Yeah, you’re right," Zidane sighed. "And I am working on it, I swear."

Steiner looked like he wanted to continue expressing his displeasure, but Beatrix gripped his arm to silence him as their queen spoke up again.

"I’m not asking you to do this for me. This is for the people of Alexandria. They’re counting on us to lead them and protect them, to restore the kingdom to its former prosperity," Dagger said firmly.

She sounded like a disappointed aunt or big sister or something – Zidane half expected to get whapped upside the head and sent to bed with no dessert. He shook that image of his head and sighed again. He really didn’t want to let her down. He’d just have to try a lot harder. Maybe he could pinch himself every time his thoughts started wandering or something. "I know. I’m sorry."

"Now now, there’s no need to apologize. You’ll learn soon enough; it will just take time and practice. Perhaps Her Majesty and Doctor Tot could provide you with more guidance," Lady Hilda said reassuringly. Zidane looked over and wondered how much time and practice it had taken the elegant noblewoman to perfect her regal poise and manners. He felt like a hopeless case. But then again, Kuja had managed to learn proper court etiquette, and their backgrounds were ultimately the same, so maybe it wasn’t impossible after all?

"Yes… after all, a good king has to listen to his queen." Regent Cid joked. "Isn’t that right, my dear?"

"Oh my, that isn’t what I said at all," Lady Hilda insisted with a fluttering of lashes.

"Please, Mother, Father, not here…" Eiko groaned. Not that she minded her adoptive parents flirting – she thought it was cute, usually - but it was a little embarrassing to have them do it in front of all her friends. She glanced over at Dagger, who had turned slightly pink at the sight, then at Zidane, who didn’t seem to be bothered at all by it.

That was another thing Zidane realized he needed to work on, learning to be subtle in his affectionate gestures. He wanted to be lovey dovey with Dagger too, but she rebuffed almost all his public displays of affection, saying they were too showy and inappropriate. But her daily schedule and the very nature of her position didn’t allow for much private time either, and even then, there was no way she was going to engage in anything more than kissing until they were properly wed.

He looked over at his fiancée, waiting until he’d caught her eye, then gave her a bright grin, knowing that much was okay. She smiled back, a little hesitantly, and Zidane felt himself relax. At least she didn’t seem to be mad at him anymore.

Zidane was just starting to wishfully think that maybe the rest of the meeting would be cancelled or postponed, when Regent Cid’s voice cut into the calm that had settled over the room.

"Ah… where are my manners? I apologize for the delay. Where were we… ah yes, the Burmecians," the leader of Lindblum said smoothly, steering everyone’s attention back to the topics at hand.

Dagger broke off from looking at Zidane and gave her uncle her full attention. There was still quite a lot to discuss and only so many hours before their scheduled evening meal. "Yes. And I do believe we should have another shipment ready to go, if the situation does not improve. Having some medication stockpiled will be to the benefit of our cities as well, in a worst case scenario," she stated, easily picking back up where they’d last left off.

Resolving to pay closer attention, especially since the topic sounded important, Zidane sat up a little straighter in his chair. He wanted to prove to everyone, especially Dagger, that he could handle himself as a prince and carry out a ruler’s duties. And he needed to prove to himself that he could stand by Dagger’s side as her equal. Because the last thing he wanted was to drag her down with his incompetence, when he ought to be the one supporting her and lending her strength. He couldn’t imagine marrying her without at least managing that much.

* * *

It seemed like it had gone on forever, but finally, winter began to relent. Ice and cold still sunk its claws into the land, but the sunlight was a little brighter and warmer than before, forcing snow to give way, baring little patches of brown earth. Kuja was so relieved to see it that he nearly cried. He was so cold and hungry, so tired and disoriented… it felt like a whole year had passed since his last trip to the supply outpost. He’d lost all track of time.

But as much as he wanted to run out the door at the first sign of thawing, he held himself back. It would be risky venturing out too early – if he underestimated the weather, he could get caught in a late season storm. If he misjudged the condition of the rough mountain roads, he could injure himself. He didn’t even know if the outpost would be open again quite yet, and he didn’t have the energy to waste on an unfruitful trip. At the same time, he knew he couldn’t wait forever. He was in desperate need of supplies, especially since winter wasn’t over yet. Starving to death was a frightening prospect. But being unprepared for a sudden, late season storm could also cost him his life.

He finally settled on a day that seemed optimal for travel and was relieved when he woke up and saw that he’d chosen well; the sky was clear and the air crisp, but not bitingly so. Heading out early in the morning, he hoped to maximize the hours of sunlight since it’d be slow going. The paths still weren’t completely safe – the ice formed slippery patches, and the snow had knocked rocks down in one area and caused an already narrow section to slide off the mountainside – but at least there weren’t any enemies to contend with. Most of the monsters in the area were hibernating or had moved down to the less treacherous lowlands.

As he picked his way along - a little more cautiously after taking a bad step and sliding over some pebbles – he couldn’t help but wonder how Zidane was doing. He found himself scanning the mountains for any sign of the other Genome, hoping against hope that Zidane was coincidentally heading back to take Kuja away, as promised, but of course, there was no one else on the path.

Kuja’s mouth twisted in a rueful smile; the blonde was undoubtedly all warm and cozy, basking in the comforts of Alexandria Castle alongside his queen. No wonder he hadn’t returned yet. The younger man wasn’t the brightest, but he also wasn’t stupid enough or masochistic enough to leave behind his comfortable life to test himself against the icy mountains of the northern continent, especially for someone who’d once been his enemy. The former mage couldn’t blame him… although Zidane had said they were friends he’d already done a lot for him. He’d saved Kuja’s life, nursed him back to health, then stayed by Kuja’s side to teach him how to survive and fight without magic. Kuja had tried to repay him as much as he could, but he knew that he was still in Zidane’s debt. So Zidane certainly didn’t owe it to him to come back or find him a new place to live, but he’d promised to anyhow. Kuja tried to remind himself of that, repeated it to himself all the way down the mountain, but he couldn’t quite shake off the doubt that had sprouted in his heart from all those long days alone.

He let loose a massive sigh of relief when he neared the supply station and saw movement around it. The Dwarves had indeed returned! Suddenly far more optimistic about his chances, he almost wanted to sprint to them in happiness, but he couldn’t. After months cooped up, his legs felt so stiff that he was amazed he could keep shuffling forward. The last thing he wanted to do was to slip and wipe out mere yards from his goal, so he continued to mind his footing as he approached the outpost.

Short Dwarf, who was standing out front, was quick to offer up a greeting as soon as he spotted the figure staggering towards the depot. He raised both hands in the traditional Dwarven greeting gesture. "Rally-Ho! Ah, yer a sight fer sore eyes!"

Kuja couldn’t help but smile at the familiar face, even though the expression made his dry lips crack. "Ral… Rally-Ho…" he rasped in return. The smile sagged into a frown. He coughed, wondering if that would loosen up his throat. When was the last time he’d spoken aloud?

"Lass… I was worried ye wouldn’t survive tha’ winter." The Dwarf paused to look over the figure in front of him. Even with the hood hiding Kuja’s face and layers of clothing obscuring his body, the Dwarf could see just how much paler and thinner he’d become. He shook his head slowly. "Well, I’m glad ta see ya managed," he added gruffly.

Kuja tilted his chin down. "Yes."

"So…" Short Dwarf began, but before he could voice what was on his mind, a voice called out from within the lean-to.

"Who is it yer talkin’ to? A customer?" A curious head peeked out – it was Tall Dwarf, of course. "Ah, Missus Dagger! Come in… it sure is cold outside, ain’t it!"

It certainly was. Short Dwarf looked a little embarrassed at having kept Kuja outside, and quickly ushered him into the lean-to. Although it was cold inside as well, there was a cheery fire going just beyond the end of the structure, which made it far more tolerable.

"Would ye like a mug of hot tea?" Tall Dwarf held out a rough-hewn mug that billowed soft puffs of steam. Kuja accepted it gratefully, appreciating how the radiant heat warmed his hands. A few sips and he was a lot toastier on the inside too. It was strange… he’d been cold for so long, he’d become completely numb to it. It was almost painful getting feeling back in his fingers and toes.

Tall Dwarf grunted in approval as Kuja finished drinking and handed the mug back. "Refill?" Kuja nodded eagerly and took a second serving.

"Now then, what can we do fer ye?" the shopkeep asked, once the Genome looked like he’d had his fill.

"Supplies. I’ll need a lot."

"Well now, ye come to tha’ right place!" Tall Dwarf exclaimed. It was good to be back in business.

As Kuja began rattling off his order and Tall Dwarf dug around, looking to fulfill as much of it as he could, Short Dwarf just hung around, shifting a bit nervously in the background. Kuja ignored him at first… he was hungrily staring at the smoked sausage that was being bundled up, and also thinking about how difficult it was going to be getting all the supplies back up to the house. Most likely, he’d have to leave some of it behind and make a second trip in a day or two.

But Short Dwarf kept staring and Kuja wondered if he’d gotten so used to not having eyes on him that it was starting to wear thin, very quickly. Knowing the little guy fancied him a bit, Kuja finally asked, "What is it?"

"Well, it’s been a pleasure havin’ ye as a customer…" Short Dwarf began.

"Thank you," Kuja said slowly, curious as to where the conversation was going.

"… ‘Cause I only came ta help Douglas ‘ere set up tha’ shop fer the season. Ye see, I’m gettin’ married, soon as tha’ spring is full upon us."

Kuja just stared at the Dwarf. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but that hadn’t been it. "Oh. Um, congratulations?" He wasn’t sure why the Dwarf had chosen to share that with him, and why he seemed so uncertain about it. Had Kuja underestimated the Dwarf’s interest in him? Did he not want to get married or something? The former mage was just about to gently rebuff his suitor when Short Dwarf spoke up again.

"Me wife-ta-be is a good gurl, a hard workin’ lass… if only she was half as pretty as…" Short Dwarf chuckled and looked away, his face slightly red. "Well, never ye mind that! Anyhoo, I won’t be workin’ here after this. I gotta help my new missus in her family’s shop. But…" and he paused, briefly. "Well, I’m sure yer husband will be back soon. So don’t ye worry. You’ll be all right. He wouldn’t jus’ leave ye here, I’m sure. Even if somethin’ happened…"

"Now Angus, why’d ye say that to tha’ lady?" Tall Dwarf scolded, waving around a tin of tea. "She’s probably already worried ‘nuff as it is!"

Kuja stared at them both. Was that why Short Dwarf had been acting funny? He was concerned about him? Short Dwarf was getting married and not coming back… Zidane was also getting married, or so he’d claimed. But he’d said he’d come back; he’d promised…

Unless something had happened…?

Kuja shook his head fiercely. Of course Zidane was all right. The young thief was a good fighter and street savvy. He’d probably gotten caught up in reuniting with his friends, then got delayed by the winter weather. Once the roadways cleared up, he’d return for him.

The conversation dried up as Tall Dwarf got Kuja’s order together, then helped him pare it down to the most essential items, with the remainder set aside for another day. Once the essentials were efficiently bundled up and paid for, the pair of Dwarves walked their customer out to see him off.

"Take care of yerself, lass," Short Dwarf said.

"Stay warm!" Tall Dwarf added.

"Thank you. And… goodbye, and good luck," Kuja replied, nodding at Short Dwarf. He was going to miss the little guy, he suddenly realized, although he wasn’t sure why. The Dwarves were merely a convenience, supplying him with food and clothing and other necessities. Tall Dwarf would continue to provide that service. Short Dwarf’s absence wouldn’t affect that at all, really…

But even though he knew that, Kuja was suddenly taken with the desire to hug Short Dwarf goodbye. He hadn’t touched another person in months, hadn’t talked to anyone, until now. But he forced himself to keep his arms down. It wasn’t right; they weren’t anything more than mere acquaintances – a shopkeeper and a customer. And he had no intention of changing that.

Zidane… should’ve been nothing more than an acquaintance too, even though they had been created for the same purpose. But he’d shown Kuja kindness and called him a friend, and Kuja had liked it, so he’d tried everything he could to keep the blonde around. In the end it hadn’t made a difference. Zidane had gone home to his loved ones, just like he’d planned from the very start. And Kuja, unused to receiving promises, unsure if he’d even survive, had bade Zidane farewell, just as he had when he’d lain broken and bleeding in the Iifa Tree. And just like that time…

I don’t want to be alone, the former mage thought, as he turned for "home," the supplies weighing heavily on his back. And more to the point: I miss him. I want to see him again, he realized with sudden clarity. Strange…

He’d made a point of not forming attachments to others; a concept like trust seemed like a trap made for fools. He knew that well, having used it as a weapon in his campaign, always being cautious enough to ensure that he wouldn’t fall for the same snare in return. Why he felt a sudden desire to see Zidane now, he wasn’t sure, but it felt as if something that had been sleeping deep inside him had suddenly awoken, surfacing with force. It flared up like a flame, momentarily warming him up just as the hot tea had, but leaving behind a hollow ache in its wake.

It would be a huge risk to leave the relative safety of the old house, but Kuja knew he had to take the chance if he wanted to see Zidane again. Even if he did fail in his quest – and there were many possible points of failure in such a venture; could he even make the journey, and what if he got caught? – would it really be a great loss? Dying alone after having faded away into madness… that was a far worse fate. And Kuja was willing to do anything to avoid that, even if it meant risking stepping off the edge into the unknown.

But as much as he wanted to immediately spring into action, he didn’t, just likes he hadn’t rushed down to the supply depot at the first sign of spring. Taking a chance wasn’t the same as being reckless; he’d face better odds once the weather was more favorable, even if that meant having to deal with more monsters on the prowl. That’d give Zidane time to return as well, because he’d said he would. And when he did, he’d just smile a little and shake his head before gently scolding Kuja for having doubted him, but that was fine – anything was fine, as long as Zidane came back.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Long Away" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Kuja began packing and planning well before it was feasible to leave. For the first time in a long while, he had a goal to focus on, and he threw himself wholly into the task. Thankfully his mind and body were cooperating; the frequency and severity of his "episodes" had finally begun to taper off. It gave him hope that he’d be able to see his plans through to the end.

Although the weather seemed to be holding fairly steady since that first trip back to the supply depot, it was still very early in the season. The migrating songbirds hadn't begun to return yet. Kuja knew he’d need to keep a close eye on the weather, maybe give it a few more weeks, before he’d be able to set a departure date. Eager as he was to leave, he knew if he headed out too early, there’d be risk of a sudden downturn in temperature or an end of the season storm. But if he hung around too long, spring showers would become a new threat, turning the mountain paths into dangerously muddy slides. Warmer weather would beckon more monsters out of their dens too, driving them back up to their summer hunting grounds. And he was woefully out of practice with his weapon.

He’d made a list of things he’d need from the supply depot. Sturdy boots and a large, durable pack topped the list. An extra flint or matches, a newer, sharper pocketknife, a small cooking pot, a compact bedroll... those were all essential. Some hardtack and dried fruit and jerked meat would have to suffice for foodstuffs; he’d probably have to forage food most of the way down. His cloak was serviceable so he didn’t need to replace it, but a new coat would be a welcome addition – his current one was warm but bulky; it would weigh him down too much through the course of a long journey.

He’d probably need a map too, a decent one. He knew where the Black Mage Village and the Dwarven town of Conde Petie were in relation to his current location, but he’d never traveled to either on foot. To get to the Mist Continent without a chocobo or an airship, he’d have to make his way through the heart of the Dwarven lands, then head through the winding network of deep earthen tunnels known as Fossil Roo. As far as he knew the exit lay somewhere north of Lindblum; from there he’d have to go northeast through both mountains and forests to reach Alexandria.

It would probably be for the best if he stayed off the main roads, especially around areas where other humanoids were afoot. But then again, roads tended to be safer – there were fewer monsters and bandits to deal with, and fewer roots and rocks to trip over, and far less risk of getting lost.

Or maybe he could try masquerading as a human once again… Hiding his tail would be simple for enough; he’d done it for years and was accustomed to holding it still for hours on end. But his long silver hair and cascading feathers were pretty distinctive, and he wasn’t sure if there was a bounty on his head and wanted posters posted through every town, with a detailed description and even illustrations depicting what he looked like. Perhaps if he took full advantage of his looks and tried to pass himself off as a female it would work better – he could tuck his tail under a skirt and his hair under a hat, and style it so that the feathers would looked like decoration at the band. Or he could disguise himself as a "normal" Genome by cutting his hair and dying it blonde… but those in the know would probably notice his eyes were the wrong color, and his skin too pale.

Kuja tugged lightly at the ends of his hair. Even when he tied it back and covered it strands tended to stray out from under his hood. It didn’t help that it was longer and wilder – and in worse condition – than it had ever been in his life. Perhaps he ought to cut some of it off. He’d considered it several times before. So why hadn’t he gone through with it? Was he really so vain as to risk his life over it?

Suddenly determined to do it before he could second-guess himself, Kuja snatched up his sewing shears and raised them to his hair. Using his free hand to gather up as much as he could into a messy, twisted tail, he tried to force himself to clip off a chunk, but his hands began shaking so hard that it was impossible. He couldn’t help thinking… the last time he’d had short hair, he’d been living under Garland’s heel on Terra. He’d been forced to adhere to Garland’s grooming standards back then – all the Genomes had sported similar shaggy, low maintenance cuts. No exemptions meant that even his feathers had gotten cropped down, like a bird getting its wings clipped so that it could no longer fly even outside of a cage.

He tried to tell himself there was no other option, but his hands wouldn’t move. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t want to become like them. Wasn’t that a sort of death as well, to lose one’s individuality? He’d almost lost it before, when Garland had torn through his mind and memories and banished him to Gaia. He’d narrowly escaped becoming a vegetable. Even now he hadn’t managed to piece everything back together. He couldn’t go through that again.

And Zidane seemed to like the way he looked, maybe - though he supposed that didn’t matter much anymore. Even if his appearance had caused him many difficulties, it had also saved him. It had allowed him to claw his way out of the alleys of Treno and into the company of nobles and royalty. If it came down to it, he’d do to it again, if that meant the difference between survival and death.

With a violent shudder, Kuja slammed the shears back onto the table. He wasn’t sure if he was disappointed in himself for not being able to force himself to go through with it, or if he was angry for having considered it in the first place. Since when had surviving stopped being enough? Since that moment all his careful plotting and accumulation of power had been ground into dust by Garland’s cruel parting words?

Do you think a defect like you could last forever? Even as I die, you'll have died without ever leaving your mark on the world...

The silver-haired man exhaled harshly. Of course this wasn’t the life he’d imagined for himself, but somehow, despite Garland’s intentions, he was still alive. He just didn’t know how much longer he had. And he didn’t want to waste any more of it with nothing but melting snow and stale air as his companions, counting each breath that he drew, wondering if the next would be his last.

It was a slight relief that his locks had been spared. Kuja released his grip on his hair and let the strands drift back down until they shrouded him like a security blanket. For better or worse, he had decided… he would make the trip as he was, instead of pretending he was someone or something he wasn’t, though he honestly couldn’t say what that meant exactly. He had spent his early years trying – and failing - to meet his master’s expectations, then wasted many more altering everything from his clothing to his behavior to suit the fickle tastes of nobles, royalty, whoever it was that he needed to step on to achieve his goals. He couldn’t say that, if he’d been left to his own devices, that he would’ve wanted to become any of the things he’d been. Even with Zidane… Kuja had learned to fight with a weapon and toned down his flashy appearance to please him. Zidane had been encouraging and praised the former mage for his efforts. But it hadn’t been enough to keep the younger Genome around for any longer than it had taken to bed him…

Kuja shook his head, not wanting to get sidetracked by unprofitable thoughts. If he wanted to survive - no, live - he needed to rely on logic, not fall sway to the random throes of his flawed emotions. The life lessons he’d learned could still be of use. As good as he’d been at drawing attention to himself, he’d been equally good at keeping inconspicuous as well, when circumstances called for it. If he kept himself covered up, hiked off the beaten path, avoided towns, and generally remained quiet and unobtrusive, he ought to make it to the heart of the Mist Continent without anyone being the wiser. Though he had no idea how he was going to manage to get into Alexandria and find Zidane without being spotted... It definitely wasn’t his style to "wing it," but he figured he’d come up with something once he’d had the chance to evaluate what worked and what didn’t during the course of his journey.

He didn’t have Zidane’s blind faith that everything would work out okay in the end, but perhaps he’d been influenced a little by the younger man’s carefree attitude. At this point, what else could he go on but a wing and a prayer?

* * *

Doctor Tot shuffled towards the suite near the end of the hall, books in hand. The scholar had been tasked with educating Zidane in everything from royal decorum to the history of Alexandria. But the thief-turned-prince was proving to be a difficult student, even for someone as patient as the doctor.

"Prince Zidane?" The room was empty and the window pushed wide open. Doctor Tot peered out, scanning the grounds below, but Zidane was long gone. The old man shook his head slowly. "Now, where did he go?"

Zidane hadn’t gone very far. From his perch in a leafy tree on the edge of the castle garden, he could see Doctor Tot searching for him through the window, then withdrawing when he failed to find him. Zidane smirked. A tail was certainly a handy thing. He’d discovered long ago that very few people considered looking up when trying to find someone, a fact he’d taken advantage of as a child playing hide and seek. Oddly it worked even better now that he was an adult.

He hadn’t really planned on ditching his lessons – he liked Doctor Tot just fine and knew he was only doing his job – but it was a beautiful day out and he didn’t want to spend it cooped up with a bunch of books. He should’ve been thrilled that his plan worked, that he was getting to laze away in the comfortably warm shade of the canopy. But… he wasn’t able to relax at all.

Zidane sighed heavily. He had promised Dagger that he’d apply himself, but he was pretty much failing at it, colossally. Even when he did show up for his scheduled lessons, he never felt completely there, as if his mind was determined to escape the confines of the room, even if he physically couldn’t. He didn’t know what was going on with himself anymore. He was living the life he’d always dreamed of and yet, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt genuinely happy. The day he reunited with Dagger, maybe? Was that really the last time? But, that was months ago…

As stupid as it sounded, even though the sky above him was the same as that above the northern continent, somehow the sun’s rays didn’t feel as warm nor the breeze as refreshing as it’d been up there. He wondered, for the umpteenth time that day, how Kuja was faring – he hadn’t gotten any recent updates from Mikoto but in this case, he figured no news was probably good news. He knew that, yet he couldn’t convince himself to believe it. What if something had happened and Mikoto couldn’t figure out a way to tell him? What if she’d sent a message, and it had gotten lost? He didn’t want to pressure her for reports too often, but if he didn’t, then he began worrying that she’d forget, that maybe she’d become too busy with matters in the Black Mage Village to remember to look in on Kuja.

He regretted not telling Dagger the truth at the start, but with the wedding growing ever closer and the lie growing more and more tangled, it really did feel like brute forcing a resolution with a pardon was the only solution now.

He closed his eyes, then frowned. As always, Kuja’s face filled his mind the moment his lids slid shut, as if his visage had been etched into his eyelids. He couldn’t shake the memory of the sadness in Kuja’s eyes as he’d seen him off, of the way Kuja’s hands clung to the thin sheet wrapped around his otherwise nude body. Sometimes, if Zidane looked over his shoulder quickly enough, he could swear Kuja was behind him, hesitantly peeking at him from around a corner or a doorway, as if begging Zidane to remember that he was there, still waiting.

I know, I know… I swear, I’ll be back to get you soon, Zidane promised, though there was no way he could pass that message to his intended target, no matter how much it felt like Kuja was haunting him.

The blonde Genome rolled over onto his stomach, carefully - at least his body remembered that he was up in a tree - and scrubbed in frustration at his face. As he hadn’t been sleeping well, he’d been hoping to reward himself with a quick nap for having managed to steal away, but it didn’t look like his thoughts would quiet enough to allow that to happen.

When he did sleep, he dreamt, a lot. But those dreams had taken a slight turn as of late. For months, they’d mostly been filled with memories of the time he’d spent with Kuja – not just the sex, but mundane stuff too, like their trips to the supply depot or the hand to hand combat lessons. He still had dreams like that on occasion, but more and more he found himself dreaming of what might have been, if he hadn’t left… or if he’d taken Kuja with him, like he should’ve. He had fantasies about strolling arm in arm through the starlit streets of Treno, watching Kuja’s eyes light up at the endless rows of books in Daguerreo’s library, attending a Tantalus production in Lindblum while in disguise, as if they were actors in the play themselves. It would’ve been wonderful if they’d had the chance to do some of those things together, if they’d been able to have fun, without a care in the world. But unfortunately those were fantasies that would never come true.

Zidane still hoped that someday, Kuja would come to understand what love was, that he’d find someone to love… someone gentle and patient, yet strong enough to protect him from the world, if it came to that. Even though Kuja had once been so frighteningly powerful that he’d seemed untouchable, the truth was he was a lonely soul, a bit childish, unstable, and a little too caught up in his own cleverness for his own good. It was almost like he was simultaneously older and younger than his actual age, like his life experiences had aged him prematurely while keeping him emotionally stunted. He needed someone to pull him out of the rut he was in, or he’d live and die without ever getting the chance to grow into his true potential.

Zidane frowned as he felt a twinge of jealousy run through his body. He didn’t like the thought of someone else holding Kuja, kissing him, loving him. He wanted to be the one… the only one. But it was wrong to feel that way when he knew… there was no way he could do that. And the quicker he got those stupid fantasies out of his head, the better. Dagger didn’t deserve a fiancé who couldn’t dedicate himself wholly to her. She probably didn’t deserve a fiancé who routinely ditched his history lessons either.

Sometimes, Zidane wished he’d never come back to Alexandria at all. Maybe it would’ve been better that way. But it was too late to worry about the what-ifs. He’d proposed; she’d accepted. He wasn’t going to walk away from a promise he’d made.

* * *

Beatrix sighed softly to herself as she strolled briskly through the castle halls. Although it wasn’t her job to "babysit" Alexandria’s errant young prince – a task Steiner had taken upon himself, to his constant dismay – she couldn’t turn a blind eye to his behavior either. It was her duty to report back to the queen with anything that was amiss in her kingdom.

After she’d run into Doctor Tot, she’d agreed to take a look outside to see if she would have better luck spotting Zidane. She didn’t think it’d be that hard to find him since he was predictable and obvious in thought and action. It helped that he’d dumped his coat, a distinctive embroidered blue velvet number, on the bushes at the edge of the garden. And she knew from experience that he tended to think vertically when it came to sneaking off. Following that logic, the leafy tree branches above where the coat was located had to be the hiding place.

"Prince Zidane, I know you’re up there," she said. Now that she was close she could just make out the gold fur of his tail against the darker bark of the branch he was sitting on.

She heard the branches rustle softly before he decided there was no point in pretending she wasn’t there. "Oh… hi. Um, how are you?"

She wasn’t there for conversation. "Do correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s probably very difficult to learn about the history of Alexandria while sitting in a tree," she said dryly.

"Ah, yeah. I guess so."

She didn’t say anything else; she merely waited under the tree until Zidane realized she wasn’t going to budge. With a sigh, the Genome hopped down from his roost.

Zidane quickly shook a few loose leaves and twigs out of his hair. "Well then, I guess I better… head back to see Doctor Tot…" he said, his tail lashing around behind him.

Beatrix briefly eyed the restless tail and the not-quite-innocent smile on the young man’s face, and said, "I trust you won’t object if I accompany you. How could I possibly explain it to my queen if you were to get lost again?" she added with a toss of her hair.

His lips twitched. "Hey, if you don’t mind, can we not tell Dagger about this?"

"Then you should’ve made an effort to be found by Steiner or one of his men, and not by me. I report everything to Her Majesty, you know that."

Zidane opened his mouth to either protest or beg her to reconsider, but then he shut it without making further complaint. He picked up his coat, shrugged it back on, then fell in beside Beatrix as they began heading back to his room.

Beatrix frowned slightly as they walked. She didn’t dislike Zidane, but she’d be lying if she said they were friends. Not that he was a bad person or anything; he had his good points. He was selfless, always looking out for his friends, willing to do anything to help people in need. And he had a lot of courage even though he wasn’t the biggest or toughest guy around. But… she had her doubts about whether or not he’d be able to handle a king’s duties. He wasn’t exactly the brightest fellow she knew. He was still somewhat childish. And he was so laid back, with his head in the clouds, that it came across as laziness sometimes.

Or maybe it wasn’t as simple as that. She’d noticed that ever since he’d come back, he’d seemed distracted, staring off into the distance as if looking for something beyond the horizon. Maybe losing Kuja had been harder on him than they'd thought. Not that he’d talk about it, at least, not with her. Maybe not with anyone. As far as Beatrix knew, Zidane hadn’t said anything to anyone, not even the queen, about what had happened during the year he’d been missing. But something must’ve happened. It felt like he’d lost a little of the spunk that was so much a part of who he was.

Or perhaps she was overthinking it… Zidane really was a pretty simple guy. Maybe it was something as easily explained as the looming wedding weighing on him? That, and all the studying that went along with it, since sitting down with a pile of books clearly wasn’t something he'd choose to do. Beatrix wondered if a good workout would help him shake his restlessness. She considered asking him if he’d like to spar, just to take his mind off whatever was bothering him, but their styles were so dissimilar it wasn’t a good match. He was all speed and scrappiness; she was power and finesse. She doubted he'd ever be a match for her, going head-to-head.

"The wedding plans are coming along well," Beatrix finally said, watching for a reaction.

"Hmm, I think so." Zidane shrugged. Honestly he didn’t care about the details, as long as Dagger was happy with how things were coming along. And she seemed to be. Thankfully she didn’t bother him too much anymore with the little details, making most of the decisions herself or with the input of other friends. "I mean, I know Dagger’s got it all under control. But I’ll feel a whole lot better once it’s all over with," he added with a dry laugh.

Beatrix didn’t want to scold him – it wasn’t her place nor her duty – but he didn’t seem to be taking anything seriously, as if joking around would solve anything. "Part of that is you doing what is needed in order to prepare for your new role, and applying yourself to learning whatever Doctor Tot can teach you." She paused, considered what she knew of the young man beside her, then tried a different angle. "I wouldn’t think studying royal dictates would be all that different from learning a part for a play."

Zidane’s head jerked up. He had tried that approach, but it didn’t work out the way he hoped it would. Unlike acting, he couldn’t just change out of his outfit as he would at the end of a show and then go on, being himself. Even shedding his royal attire and climbing up a tree didn’t change the fact that he was still a prince, just with a bit of foliage mixed in.

"I guess there’s some similarities," he agreed without much conviction. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and fell back into silence.

It was a relief that the walk back was short. Beatrix wasn’t sure what else to say. In some ways it felt like she was escorting a prisoner back to his cell.

They arrived back at Zidane’s suite and stopped before the doors. Zidane turned and gave his escort a final look, as if silently asking her to reconsider reporting back to Dagger, then shook his head once. With a slight smile pasted back on his face, he pushed open the doors and strolled in, waving goodbye to Beatrix while greeting Doctor Tot with a loud, "Oh, hello! You know, it really is a nice day outside…"

One wayward prince located and escorted back to where he belonged. Task accomplished, Beatrix tossed her hair over her shoulder and headed towards the throne room, her white leather coat billowing behind her, but once she got there, she paused, her hand on the door handle. There was a difference between duty and personal obligation; she’d learned that a little too late during Queen Brahne’s campaign against the other kingdoms on the Mist Continent. The Burmecians and Cleyrans had suffered greatly for it. Her own princess had nearly died because of it.

This obviously wasn’t the same sort of situation, and she really was almost inclined to let Zidane’s little outing slide. But the wedding was coming up in barely more than a month, and the queen had a right to know that her fiancé needed more guidance, if he was to be ready to step up to the throne.

Decision made, the general stepped in, announced herself, and thumped her fist against her chest while bowing her head in deference, the movement smooth and well practiced. "Your Majesty, I have something to discuss with you, if you have a moment."

The young queen looked up and smiled. She’d been sitting at a small side table, reviewing some documents for some property disputes she was mediating. She lay the sheets down and nodded. "Of course, General. And perhaps afterwards you can help me make decisions on these cases as well."

Beatrix bowed her head in agreement, then sat down at the table. She got right to the point without hesitation. "Although it is not my place to say, I have my concerns about how Prince Zidane’s education is coming along. Today, he was daydreaming in the garden when he had lessons scheduled with Doctor Tot."

The pleasant smile on Dagger’s face faded. She pressed her lips together a bit, then took a breath and candidly said, "I’m sorry that you had to chase him down. I’ll have another talk with him."

"My Queen, you should not have to apologize on his behalf."

"I know. But it’s all I can do right now." She paused, then in a softer voice, added, "I think once he becomes king, it’ll be okay. I didn’t understand how hard this would be either, nor how much responsibility I’d have, until I took the throne."

Except Dagger had been an attentive student, excelling in all her studies, and the very model of a proper young lady. Even though she had been adopted into the royal family, she’d filled the position of crown princess as well as if she’d been born into it.

"I know it’s been an adjustment for him, but… I believe in him," Dagger continued on, with a little more confidence. "He’s always come through, hasn’t he?"

Beatrix looked at her. Even if the general didn’t believe in Zidane, her queen did, and that was enough. It was Dagger’s right to make decisions, and Beatrix’s duty to see them through. "For you? Yes."

Dagger blushed faintly. She couldn’t help but remember the time that Zidane had come flying across the crumbling castle parapets to save her from falling to her death. It was at that moment that she realized, perhaps there was something to those fairy tales that both she and Zidane had grown up with… It was unbelievable to her that she’d been prepared to let him go before that moment. But maybe it wasn’t so bad wanting a hero to recklessly, bravely, come leaping to her rescue. "Well, I’ll still need to talk to him. He should be doing this for Alexandria, and for himself… not just for me."

"You will always be the first and last thing on his mind."

The blush deepened. "Well… I suppose that isn’t such a bad thing, is it?" Dagger asked. She giggled softly, and Beatrix was reminded that for all her poise and competence, the young queen was no older than her fiancé.

"That’s how it should be," Beatrix replied with an answering smile. She knew she had a reputation for being stern and serious - cold blooded even - but she too had a soft spot in her heart for romance, especially the innocent sort of love between a young maiden and the dashing hero who’d literally swept her off her feet. She took a moment to drink in Dagger’s happiness, then turned to the papers that had been left on the table. "I apologize if I have caused you concern, Your Majesty. I have no doubt that you’re right: everything will work out in the long run."

"Thank you. But I’m still glad you told me what happened." Dagger eyed the documents. "And I know I said I wanted to consult with you on those," and she nodded at the papers, "but I wonder if those cases would work as part of Doctor Tot’s lessons?"

"Would you like me to take them to him, and find out?"

Dagger stood up, smoothing down her skirt a little. "I will come with you. Perhaps Zidane will have an easier time focusing with me around."

Beatrix smirked. She had no doubt about that, either. But what he’d be concentrating on was up for debate.

* * *

Finally, the day of departure had come. Kuja was relieved to see that the sky was clear as could be; the work he’d put in tracking the movement of the clouds had paid off. It seemed even the sun and the wind and the mountains were glad to see him off.

He ate his breakfast a little more hastily than usual, feeling both anxious and excited at the same time. For days he’d been trying to figure out what he wanted to say, if he saw Zidane again. And he’d been trying to guess what Zidane might say to him in turn. On one hand Kuja wanted to ask him why he’d taken so long to come back - but the weather had been pretty bad, so he couldn’t really blame him… Maybe he’d tried and couldn’t get through. Maybe now that it was a lot better, Zidane had started making his way back and they’d end up meeting on the road…

Still, Kuja knew he couldn’t count on that. Nor could he stay and wait for help that might never… Well, he knew the chances of them happening to be on the same road at the same time were slim. He had to be prepared to make the full journey, on his own two feet.

Once he was done eating, the Genome took his plate to the sink out of habit, even rinsing it off and drying it before it sunk in that he wasn’t going to be there to use it again. He put it down on the counter and sighed as he looked around the main room. Most of the stuff he cared very little about… none of it belonged to him anyhow. He would’ve liked to take some of the books with him – he’d probably never see copies of the Summoner works again - but even one or two was too much of a hindrance, and he was far too practical to give it further consideration. He had a long way to go; only the bare essentials would be making the trip with him.

There was one last task he needed to see to before he left. He’d put it off for long enough. Taking pen to paper, he wrote two notes, one to leave behind for Zidane, and the other to carry with him. Surprisingly the former was more difficult to write; Kuja wasn’t sure exactly how much or how little he ought to say. In the end he opted for brevity, in part because he couldn’t be sure the letter would fall into the right hands. He couldn’t even put their names on it, but he was sure… if Zidane saw it, he’d know.

The second letter was a request, to whoever should find it, in hopes that they should be merciful enough to consider fulfilling someone’s last wish. The former mage had finally come to a decision… He didn’t want to be buried in the cold earth of a world that he didn’t belong to, nor did he want to be kicked off a cliff into a ravine, even if that was what he deserved. When he died he wished for his body to be set ablaze, until the flames rose up into the sky for one last flight, until there was nothing left below but ash, so that he could never be used by anyone again.

He folded the second note and tucked it away inside a coat pocket, then lay the first note on the kitchen table before carefully plucking a single small feather from his scalp. It was as close to a signature as he could leave. Both items got pinned under the large book about Eidolons. It seemed an appropriate enough paperweight.

He picked up his knapsack and hefted it onto his back, palmed his staff, and threw on his cloak, then headed towards the front door, pausing at the threshold to take one last look around at the crumbling building that had been "home" for the last year and a half. Somehow it had managed to hold up, just as he had, but unlike the house he couldn’t just wait around for someone to come and shore him up, or conversely, to watch him crumble. It was time for him to take hold of his life again, because when it came down to it, he knew he could only rely on himself.

He opened the door one final time, pausing to notch the doorframe to mark the moment, then stepped through and shut it securely behind him. The letter he’d left behind fluttered slightly in the wake of his departure but remained securely pinned in place, awaiting its intended recipient.

I’m heading south. May our paths cross again.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- Re: Beatrix. I wanted to give her a little "airtime" here as she'll be important later on, and it was interesting looking at both Zidane and Dagger through her eye(s). I hope I'm doing her justice! I don't have a lot of female characters that I truly love (I think my list has a whopping three names on it) but yes, she's one of them.

- Re: Beatrix and Steiner. Honestly I'm not keen on them as a pairing, so every time I've tried to work in some mention of them as a couple, it doesn't really make the cut : ( I can't help but think that she could do so much better than him! Same with Freya and Fratley... I'm one of those people inclined to ship Freya with Amarant.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "I Want to Break Free" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

The migrating songbirds soaring through the skies overhead were confirmation that spring was indeed returning to the Outer Continent. Kuja squinted up at the tiny bodies silhouetted against the sun, slightly jealous of the fact that they could fly when he no longer had the option to do so.

His migration would be on foot, a daunting task to be sure, but he’d done as much planning as he could to maximize his odds for success. He had his route through the Outer Continent pretty well mapped out… The Dwarves had been kind enough to give him the location of other outposts further south, one on the edge of the Donna Plains and another in fairly close proximity to Fossil Roo. They’d be convenient for restocking supplies, though he’d have to be cautious and make sure that no Black Mages or Genomes were in the vicinity during his visit.

Everything started off well enough. He made good time getting down the mountain trails, passing the familiar supply depot and starting across the wide expanse of plains while it was still morning. With every step he took, he felt a little more confident that he could do it, that the journey wouldn’t be impossible.

Unfortunately, Kuja's optimism began wearing thin as the day dragged on. By the time he stopped, early in the evening, he was completely fatigued and sweaty and grimy with road dust. His feet were already beginning to blister. He was pleased with the distance he’d managed to cover, but uncertain whether or not he’d be able to keep up his current pace – ten hours of brisk walking a day, with a full backpack, didn’t seem sustainable. He hoped dinner and a good night’s sleep would be enough to help recharge him for the next day.

After setting up camp by an outcropping of rocks, he dined on bread and overly tart berries that he’d picked along the way, then got a fire going for the night, for both safety and warmth. With no one to watch his back and no way of setting up shields or a perimeter alarm spell he was worried that wild beasts might attack him while he slept. But he also had to keep in mind that a fire that was too large or bright would attract undue attention from bandits or otherwise overly curious folk. There probably wasn’t as much risk of that out in the middle of nowhere though.

When it was finally time to turn in for the evening, Kuja quickly realized that the bedroll didn’t provide enough padding to prevent him from feeling every single pebble and ridge in the dirt – and there went his hopes for a "good night’s rest." He hadn’t had to sleep on the ground in years; it was amazing how those old memories sprung forth the moment he lay down.

He rolled onto his back and stared up at the night sky, a sea of the deepest blue, punctuated by the twinkle of diamond lights. It was eternally twilight in Treno, nearly as dark as this; the lights from the city held complete darkness at bay while greedily gobbling up starlight as well.

He remembered coming to in the slums, his head throbbing, with nothing but his name and whatever shredded bits of memory that had survived his master’s purge. The sky had been the only roof over his head - his body and his intellect, his only possessions. But at least he hadn’t remained long in that pathetic position. After awkwardly fumbling his way through those first few intimate encounters, his mind had mended enough for him to understand the situation he was in, to realize that he needed to be choosier with who he lay with, if he were to survive in this new world. So by the time he was introduced to Mr. King, owner of the King Family Auction House and wealthiest man in the city, he’d recognized he’d hit the jackpot, and he’d known what to do. Seducing the man hadn’t been hard at all; worming his way into his business affairs and his subconscious, that had taken a bit more time and effort. But the payout had been worth it.

It had been Mr. King that had refined Kuja's look and mannerisms, to make him as appealing a bargaining chip as possible for his black market dealings. It was amazing what could be rented or purchased or bartered for, as long as the price was right.

Sometimes Kuja would entertain guests, both male and female, at his benefactor’s decadent parties. Oftentimes he’d draw an audience, along with praise for his graceful beauty and willingness to please. He’d smile as if their words and touches pleased him, while memorizing names and faces for blackmail later on. There was so much gossiping and backstabbing, it was hard to keep track of it all, but he did his best, knowing that for Mr. King, information was just another thing to sell to the highest bidder.

Kuja had been grateful for the lessons he’d learned. When it came time to cut himself free – one master had been bad enough; two was intolerable - it hadn’t been hard to manipulate a newer "employee" into repaying Mr. King for all that he’d done for them. Everyone agreed that while it was unfortunate that Mr. King met his end while working on some unstable kid from the slums, it certainly wasn’t unexpected. And how fortunate it was for the estate and the King legacy that the childless Mr. King had recently announced that he had legally adopted the most clever and charming of his assistants, giving him an heir and successor. Of course they all had their suspicions that Kuja had played a role in bringing about his sudden turn of fortune, but no one was stupid enough to say that to his face.

For a moment the former mage wondered what happened to the auction house. It was too profitable, too prestigious, too central to Treno’s image, to have gone to ruin. Maybe once the city council had established that "Mr. Kuja King" of the auction house was the same Kuja who’d wreaked havoc in Alexandria and Burmecia before himself falling in battle, they’d voted that the property had been abandoned and took over ownership. Or perhaps there were different factions still tussling and fighting over control, as certainly there’d been quite a few parties wanting a piece of the business for themselves.

He supposed it didn’t matter anymore; it wasn’t as if he wanted to go back there anyhow. It hadn’t been "home." In the end the auction house had just been a means to an end... but Garland was gone now. No longer did his voice whistle through Kuja’s thoughts like an endless wind. It was dead silent now.

Kuja sighed. He was tired… and he had a long way to go. Despite the cold and discomfort and the lingering stench of those early days in the gutters of Treno, he fell into a deep sleep after only a few minutes of tossing around.

He awoke the next morning with the rising sun serving as unwanted alarm. Blinking back fading dreams, he took stock of his condition, groaning softly as he did so; his muscles were stiff and his back aching. But… he had a schedule to adhere to, so he got up with a sigh, packed his supplies as quickly as he could, and hit the road as the sun began climbing the sky once again.

Miles of yellow earth dotted by newly sprouted grasses and budding brush slowly passed by as Kuja put one foot in front of the other. By the afternoon his legs were starting to throb noticeably and his feet felt leaden. His pack of supplies seemed to be getting heavier by the hour; the straps dug into his shoulders. He was tempted to take a break but he knew if he sat down he’d find it hard to get back up and get moving again, so he paused to sip some water under the shade of a small, sparse tree, then continued to walk on.

A slight movement at the edge of the path caught his eye. Kuja froze in his tracks. There was a creature – some sort of spiny serpent? - peeking out from behind thick bramble. He held his breath as he crept forward an extra step for a closer look. It appeared it had not yet noticed him.

He had a few choices… he could find another route, which would require a bit of backtracking. Or he could try to slip by, taking his chances on the thing being harmless in spite of its impressive spikes, which perhaps functioned as camouflage against the thorny bushes. Or he could face it head on. The first was the safer option, but it would eat up some time. The last… well, the creature wasn’t terribly large. Kuja was pretty sure that even someone with his limited fighting abilities could take it on. But there was no reason to fight if it really posed him no danger…

Decision made, he got a good grip on his staff, just in case, then began creeping past the monster, making sure to keep his eyes trained on it, looking for any sort of threatening movement. The thing just sat there sedately as Kuja inched by, until the moment the cookpot dangling from the backpack caught and clattered against the branch of a dead tree.

The spines bristled and the monster began weaving back and forth. Kuja swore under his breath and swung his staff as hard as he could, hoping to at least stun it, but instead of knocking it out, he heard a very angry roar and a large, lizard-like body rose up from the thicket. Kuja staggered back a few steps. It hadn’t been a snake at all, but the tail of a Dracozombie, a rather hideous beast with tattered, leathery skin that clung in patches over rotten looking flesh. A putrid stench emanated from its toothy maw. It was nothing like his elegant Silver Dragon, though it was almost as large.

There was a saying that one should let sleeping dragons lie. Unfortunately this one was quite awake now. And Kuja doubted he could beat it hard enough to make it to go back to "sleep."

At the height of his power, a single spell would’ve easily reduced the monster to ashes. But now, all Kuja's hands could do was swing around a staff ineffectively. So he chose another option – he turned tail and ran.

Kuja wasn’t nearly as athletic as Zidane. Sitting in a cabin hadn’t done a thing to improve his cardiovascular conditioning. But adrenaline provided an amazingly effective boost. The Dracozombie gave chase, crashing through the bramble, but the silver-haired Genome darted just out of its reach, relying on speed he didn’t even know he had. He instinctively used his tail for balance, allowing him to make tight turns through the increasingly thick brush. Thorns tore at his cloak and threatened to dislodge his pack of supplies, which swayed and thudded against his back, but somehow he managed to keep both his footing and his belongings as he put enough distance between himself and the dragon, to end the pursuit.

Skidding to a halt by some rocks, the former mage panted for breath, his lungs working overtime, his legs shaking. He wondered if it was too late to turn back to the safety of the old house, but he was a good two days away, and there was nothing left for him there anyhow. He had no choice but to forge ahead.

* * *

The entire city of Alexandria was in a celebratory mood. There were visitors pouring in from all over Gaia; some were acquaintances, but many were simply well wishers wanting to be part of the big event.

Very few of them realized Prince Zidane was in their midst, making his way back to the castle, skirting the edge of the crowds with a heavy cloak drawn tightly over his all-too-obvious garb so that he wouldn’t draw attention. He too was enjoying the revelry and the citizens’ high spirits – it had put a smile on his face and a bouquet in his hand. The flowers had been given to him by an elderly florist with sharp eyes who’d recognized him when he’d paused by her stand; she'd insistently pressed the gift into his palm so he’d have something nice to present to his fiancée when he returned home. He hoped they’d be enough to get him out of the doghouse in case he got caught sneaking back in.

He still continued to have the occasional, nagging doubt about marrying Dagger, but figured they’d go away completely once they were husband and wife. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that everything really was going pretty smoothly, and that it’d be awesome to see all his friends again once the special day arrived. Having second thoughts… that really probably was just a combination of pre-wedding nerves and worry over Kuja, as he hadn’t gotten any recent updates on how the other Genome was doing. The last message Mikoto had sent simply said, "The package is on its way south." He chuckled as he wondered what type of wedding gift she had sent, considering concepts like love and marriage were that something she - and the rest of the Genomes – were still grappling with.

There was no doubt about what Tantalus would offer as their present. The entire group was already in Alexandria – they’d gotten there almost three weeks early in order to work on a special stage show for the celebration. Zidane had just gone to visit them, hoping to get a sneak preview and maybe even lend a hand if he could, but Blank had told him, "No peeking!" and booted Zidane off the ship.

He kicked at a pebble in his path as he headed towards the boat dock that provided passage across the castle moat. He was glad the wedding was making everyone happy, but he wished there was more he could do to contribute. He wanted to help out, even if he really didn’t know that much about what went into a wedding… that was just a part of who he was. But he was barely able to get a word in edgewise on anything; everyone else "knew best," like the gardeners supplying the flowers, the cooks planning the reception meal, the tailors crafting the clothes.

Pushing back his hood, Zidane nodded at the guards stationed at the dock. They immediately bowed before him, then hurried to prepare a gondola for immediate crossing.

Once on the other side, Zidane pulled off his cloak and tried to find a place to stash it, to make it less obvious that he’d gone out. He headed through the garden since he knew of a few good hiding spots in the back, but with the wedding so close the grounds were full of workers buzzing around busily, pruning bushes, gathering flowers, bedecking everything in ribbons. Part of the reception would take place in the garden, so it obviously had to look just as spectacular as the rest of the castle.

Truly, it would be a beautiful wedding, fit for a queen – a perfect fantasy. He couldn’t complain. But for some reason, he couldn’t find the sense of excitement and anticipation that he knew ought to be in his heart. He felt… distant, almost. Like he was looking at a stage set for a play he wasn’t part of, even though this was what he’d wanted…

His thoughts turned to Kuja, as usual. He realized he’d never asked Kuja about where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do, even though it was Kuja’s life, his future. Realistically… they’d both known that the choice wasn’t Kuja’s to make. Finding a new home for the former mage would be a difficult enough task; it was asking for too much to have a pick of options as well. But wasn’t that a little like what Zidane was experiencing now? Here he was, the groom, the future king… and he barely had any say in his own wedding.

It was a good thing everyone was so busy; no one seemed to have noticed Zidane standing there, spacing out. He finally shook himself out of his distraction. Weddings were happy things; he didn’t know why he was moping over minor details when the important one – marrying the girl of his dreams – was all that really mattered.

Thinking he’d gotten away having snuck out, the blonde was just about to turn and head for a side entrance when suddenly someone tugged at the end of his ponytail. He whipped around in surprise. "Woah, you scared me!"

Dagger gave her fiancé a slight smile. "Sorry. You didn’t seem to hear me when I called to you."

"Oh… I was just admiring the garden. Stop and smell the roses and all that." He inhaled exaggeratedly to get his point across.

Dagger giggled softly. She knew she ought to scold him for having ditched his lessons – again – especially without notifying anyone, but for the sake of harmony before the wedding , she didn’t want to argue about it anymore, especially since it seemed Zidane had been trying harder as of late. At least, Doctor Tot hadn’t complained about absences or tardiness the past week, not until this morning. Besides, with Tantalus in town, it was very likely that Zidane had simply gone to visit with family.

She reached out to finger his hair again, cocking her head in thought. "It’s getting pretty long, isn’t it?"

Zidane started to pull away before stopping himself. Kuja had told him the longer length suited him; he hadn’t cut it since then. But Dagger was his fiancée… and it wasn’t like it really mattered if Kuja liked his hair or not… "I guess. Should I trim it or something?"

She held her thumb and forefinger apart a few inches, then moved them a little closer together, then rethought it and moved them further apart again. "A little bit. It would make it look neater, don’t you think? Especially for the wedding."

Zidane shrugged. "Sure." If that was what she wanted, then he had no issue with it. It was only hair after all.

Then he remembered he was still holding the bouquet. He thrust it into her face before it fully sunk in just how weird it was to be giving her flowers, wildflowers at that, while standing in the royal garden, surrounded by carefully tended roses. Even Dagger, in her pristine white ruffled dress, looked just like a blossoming rose. "Um… here. I just wanted to say, I’m sorry for wandering off again…" he blurted out.

She smiled brightly as she accepted his offering. "Thank you!" And after looking around to ensure that not too many pairs of eyes were upon them, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek as a reward. "I know you’ve been trying a lot harder with your lessons lately, so I’m not mad. Just make sure you let someone know that you’re going to see your family next time, okay?"

Sometimes Zidane wasn’t sure if he was gaining a mother or a wife. But as she wasn’t upset, he smartly held his tongue and grinned lopsidedly at her instead.

He was spared the task of coming up with something else to say as heavy footsteps came tromping up to join them, accompanied by the rusty squeak of old armor hinges. Zidane turned his grin at the new arrival. "Hey, Steiner."

The knight made an exasperated sound at the casual greeting, but managed to pull himself together enough to bow and say, "Good afternoon, Prince Zidane. My apologies, Your Majesty, if this is a bad time, but the Red Rose is back in port and ready for your final inspection."

Dagger gave Zidane an apologetic look. What had once been her mother’s personal ship had been renovated twice, first into a steam-powered airship, and then just recently into a combination seaworthy cruiser and airship, thanks to Regent Cid’s technological know how. And soon, it would be taking them away on their honeymoon… they’d be traveling all over Gaia for a couple of weeks. Zidane already had one stop that he planned on making…

Zidane nodded at her, releasing his fiancée from any obligation she might’ve felt towards staying in the garden with him. Dagger smiled in return and promised to see him later at dinner before walking off with Steiner, leaving Zidane alone in the garden once again.

The Genome took in a deep breath of fragrant spring air, then after a last look around, headed back into the castle to find his tutor.

He had to admit, he felt a little lonely. It was ironic… Here he was, days before his wedding, surrounded by friends and family, but he felt more alone than he had with only Kuja by his side. It wasn’t like Kuja had been the best of company either, he’d been injured and ill-tempered part of the time and oddly evasive the rest. In the year Zidane had spent in the company of the other man, he really hadn’t learned all that much about him.

But even though Dagger was everything Zidane could’ve hoped for in a girl, even thought Zidane loved her and she loved him back, she was always so busy. And in those few moments of free time that she did have, there were so many restrictions on what they could and couldn’t do. He couldn’t take her out to lunch in a park or for a walk through town, and he definitely couldn’t spend the night in her room. That would change once they were husband and wife, of course. But Zidane was starting to wonder if that would be enough? It wasn’t like lovemaking was a magic pill that made everything perfect. That was something he’d learned the hard way.

He’d thought that getting married would fix everything. But now he saw that it wouldn’t be that simple. Still, he’d committed himself to that course of action. It had to work; he’d give his all to see it through.

* * *

Kuja was grateful his journey through Fossil Roo proved to be slightly less problematic than the opening leg, if far more disgusting. The Gargants were placid creatures, giant subterranean crickets that could cover great distances and unfortunately happened to smell of mildew. Unsurprisingly, the tunnels they called home reeked of the same odor. Kuja wondered if he’d ever get the stench out of his hair and clothing.

He dreamt about soaking in a bathtub full of sudsy water. He wished for soft rays of sunlight and a gentle, fresh breeze. Instead, he was greeted by a wet, unappealing, sight… Fossil Roo emptied out into a swamp. And the gray skies above threatened to add even more moisture to the mix; he could almost smell the rain, even with the swampy stench that wafted up from the boggy ground.

He normally loved the rain, not because he liked being wet, but because of the memories… It had been raining in Treno his first day on Gaia. As cold and miserable as he'd been, huddled on the streets, he’d had his first taste of freedom. The steady patter of raindrops and the sheer distance from Terra had muted Garland’s voice in his head to a faint whisper. He'd been free to make his own decisions, his own mistakes, even if it all was only an illusion.

And as silly as it sounded, even the slums had looked a little better after the rain had washed away some of the filth. The cobblestones and glass windowpanes glittered under the sputtering streetlights, while across the canals, the nobles’ district glowed even brighter with the promise of wealth and prosperity.

More recently, though just as significant… it had been raining the day he’d finally gotten proof that the unlikely specter of a little baby Genome who’d haunted his dreams was in fact, real… and no longer a child, but very nearly an adult. The sheer unexpectedness of the whole situation had caused Kuja to stay his hand, sparing both Zidane and his companions, on a day where they could’ve very easily perished, just as hundreds of soldiers in Burmecia had.

Of course, at the time, they’d been enemies… technically. But even though they’d fought one another, Kuja really hadn’t wanted to kill Zidane, no matter how much he’d threatened to do so, no matter how often Zidane had gotten in the way of his plans. Actually, the former mage had looked forward to their clashes. Every chance meeting, every battle, uncovered a little more of Kuja’s forgotten past, solidifying those shaky memories. It was a shame that not all of it could be recovered.

Kuja tried to tell himself that that was for the best, though. As far as he could tell, there hadn’t been anything worth remembering from that time beyond those few moments with Zidane. Surely nothing of importance had been lost…

The rain finally began to fall, softly at first, then in bigger drops that plunked onto Kuja's hood before sliding heavily off the side. Kuja tried tightening the cloak about his body and face, but gusts of wind managed to blow wayward droplets onto his skin and clothing.

He needed to find shelter but a swamp was definitely not where he wanted to be stopping. He felt exposed to more than just the elements - established pathways of well-worn stone and planks of wood told him that the swamp was inhabited. If he recalled correctly, the swamps were home to those curious creatures called the Qu. Zidane’s circle of friends included one; it would be a disaster to run into her/him here.

Thankfully the swamp wasn’t too expansive and what inhabitants there might have been, were absent. Kuja headed towards the south until boggy marsh yielded to lightly wooded grasslands which offered marginally better cover and far better footing, finally setting up camp under a few larger trees which offered the best shelter he was going to get for the time being.

He would’ve liked to keep going. It wasn’t that late in the day yet, and he needed to keep pushing if he wanted to get anywhere anytime soon. But all those days spent trying to find his way underground had left him disoriented. And slogging through the sticky muck had sapped away what little energy he had left. His leg muscles kept twitching and jerking, and the blisters on his feet stung from all the moisture that had seeped into his boots.

He also needed to think about his next course of action, now that he’d made it to the Mist Continent. The risk of being recognized was now far greater, so he had to choose his path carefully. He knew if he kept heading south he’d end up in Lindblum, Zidane’s "hometown." But even though Zidane had likely stopped by there to visit, it was far more probable that he was now in Alexandria, further to the northeast. Going there would be the biggest risk of all – there was a good chance he’d get discovered, no matter how careful he was. But if he wanted to find Zidane – and wasn’t that why he’d come? - then he had no choice but to take that chance.

Decision made, Kuja put away his map and compass and hunkered down in his bedroll, trying to ward off the increasingly heavy rain and chill. His stomach complained that he’d skipped dinner but he was too tired to want to eat and was running low on supplies anyhow. The last decent meal he’d had had come from a trio of prospectors down in Fossil Roo, who’d, after establishing that Kuja wasn’t there to muscle in on their claim, had been nice enough to give him a bit of their lunch along with directions on finding a way out. Kuja appreciated their help, but more than that, he was just glad that the tunnels were so dimly lit that they hadn’t gotten a good look at him.

He told himself as he nodded off that he’d make up for the missed meal the next day, along with the miles that he should’ve covered, even if he wasn’t sure if he could manage either.

By the time he awoke the next morning, the sun was up and the sky clear, as if it hadn’t been dismal and wet the night before. Kuja hoped it was a good omen – he needed something to help carry him through the rest of the journey. But although the weather was cooperating his body wasn’t. He was so stiff that it was a struggle to even stand, but he gritted his teeth and used his staff to help push himself upright. He took a few shaky, experimental steps, then sighed at himself. How was he going to manage ten hours of walking when he could barely keep on his feet?

It was a good thing he was used to lying to himself. He tried to keep his mind busy with stories or even random nonsense, so he’d "forget" just how slow he was moving. With some effort he wrung out as much residual rainwater as he could from his bedroll and clothing, then packed them up with the rest of his things. When he finally finished, he hefted his pack – which seemed to be getting heavier by the day, even as his supplies dwindled – onto his back, and staggered from the campsite.

He wasn’t sure how many days it’d take to get to Alexandria; he was pretty sure though that he was more than halfway to his destination. At least the weather remained consistently pleasant through the rest of the day… and the days that followed. With the rise and fall of the sun he could keep track of time once again. So every time he felt himself faltering he told himself it’d be just one more day. He’d only have to climb one last hill or ford one last river… And then as the days piled on, he told himself, it’d be just another hour, just one or two more steps… Anything was fine as long as he kept moving forward, no matter how slowly.

And then… it really was one last step that took him to the edge of the bluffs overlooking the beautiful city of Alexandria, shimmering like a mirage amongst the trees and rivers of the valley. Kuja couldn’t help but laugh in disbelief – he’d made it! He was so relieved that it felt like his body had gone completely numb; he had to look down to make sure he was still standing. The realization that somehow, he was, was enough to make him want to give in, and so he did, tugging his arms free of his backpack and letting it drop heavily onto the ground before he collapsed against it, exhausted and exhilarated. But as happy as he was to have reached his destination, he knew the trickiest part of his journey still lay ahead…

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- I’ve always imagined Treno as a city with a dirty, secretive underbelly, though I don't doubt some readers might be horrified by the backstory I've come up with. But I've often wondered just how Kuja had obtained ownership or control over the auction house. I could see him being attracted to the life that that wealth and social standing could provide. But on top of that, he probably needed the funds in order to create the Black Mage army he needed for the war Garland wanted. Because despite his Angel of Death moniker, Kuja seemed obsessed with keeping his hands as clean as possible - he always found a way to get someone else to do the dirty work for him, whether it was encouraging Brahne to wage war on the neighboring countries or taking control of Bahamut to attack Alexandria.

- I know Fossil Roo, in the game, has a one-way only mechanic, but that’s video game logic for ya (as they conveniently lock you out of many areas once you’ve passed through them). I see no reason Kuja couldn’t use the same route to get back to the Mist Continent.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Keep Yourself Alive" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Very few people paid attention to the shuffling, hooded man making his way through the crowd. They only looked over long enough to make sure they weren’t going to accidentally brush up against him, to wrinkle their noses in disgust at how filthy he was.

It couldn’t be helped. If Kuja could’ve safely managed it, he would’ve gotten a room at an inn at some point in his journey – a bath, clean clothes, and a nice bed would’ve done wonders for his appearance and his well being. But there was one advantage about looking like a beggar… people were actively avoiding him, as if he were invisible. He never thought he’d be so happy to be ignored, but it was working in his favor this time.

That didn’t mean he was going to let his guard down of course. There were townspeople everywhere and many soldiers out and about as well; he’d never seen the streets of Alexandria so crowded in his life. Something was going on, though he didn’t know what it was yet. It wasn’t the queen’s birthday or the anniversary of the kingdom’s founding. But there were flowers and billowing ribbons festooning the street lamps and flagpoles and the citizens seemed very upbeat and excited.

It wasn’t until he reached the central town square that he realized just how poorly timed his arrival was. A booth by the inn was hawking memorabilia dedicated to the upcoming royal wedding – Zidane’s upcoming royal wedding. Kuja couldn’t help but shake his head at the tchotchkes being sold: coins stamped with Dagger and Zidane’s profiles, decorative plates with the wedding date over a painting of Alexandria Castle, handkerchiefs with the couple’s initials – until the vendor hissed at him and waved him off.

He slowly hobbled away, at a loss for what to do next. No wonder Zidane had forgotten about him. The younger man had gotten exactly what he’d longed for: the promise of marriage to a beautiful queen, with plenty of friends and family around to lend their support. It was the perfect "happily ever after" to end a fairy tale… except that in stories, the bad guy should’ve been thoroughly vanquished, not rescued by the hero to end up wandering about the streets of a city he’d lain waste to.

Kuja knew it’d be for the best if he just turned around and left, but he had nowhere else to go. And he still wanted to see Zidane – even if he had no reason to do so now, he’d come all this way… but he had no idea how to get near the castle without arousing suspicion.

Weary and distracted by his dilemma and by the general din of the crowd, he didn’t really notice the group of local children playing tag and hide-and-go-seek among the booths crowding the square. And kids being kids, the youngsters were more caught up in their game than watching where they were going. A collision was inevitable.

Kuja managed to stay upright after the first child bounced off of him; she’d spotted him at the last moment and hit the brakes instead of plowing into him at full speed. But the second child who’d been chasing after her had been too focused on his target to notice Kuja before it was too late.

The former mage was sent stumbling into a stand laden with fruit, his heavy backpack pulling him further off balance, until he ended up landing on his rear, with bruised fruit rolling around on the cobblestones. The kid ended up in a similar position, looking just as startled as the stand’s owner.

A woman came running out of a nearby shop, her head swiveling between the fallen Genome and the fruit vendor and the shocked kids. "Sam, what did you do?" she scolded the boy.

"We were just playing, Mama," the boy mumbled, ducking his head.

"Playing, and paying no mind to anything around you even though the streets are this crowded?" The woman quickly pulled her son to his feet. She shook her head at all the ruined produce – she’d have to compensate her neighbor for it – then looked back over at the vendor and the unkempt silver-haired man on the ground.

"I’m sorry," the boy said before being shooed into his home by his mother.

Kuja waved the woman off before she made a bigger deal out of the situation. He didn’t care about the apology. He just wanted to get out of there. All the ruckus had drawn a lot of attention, and he didn’t realize until after several seconds that his hood had somehow gotten pulled back, exposing his hair and face to the crowd.

He kept his head down as he scrambled to cover up again, struggling with the cloak which had gotten all tangled up around the backpack. He needed to get covered up and get out of there before someone recognized him.

But just as he managed to get his hood back on, a hand touched his shoulder and a voice said, "Pardon me…"

He glanced up, then looked away, trying to tamp down a sudden sense of panic. It was a pair of Alexandrian soldiers. The younger of the pair had a concerned expression; the older surveyed the scene with beetling brows. He wasn’t sure if they’d seen the accident and were simply checking in on him, or if they’d seen his face...

He shook his head and got back up, wincing as he did so. The fall hadn’t been too bad, but his blistered feet protested at having to bear weight again.

The younger soldier stopped him. "Here," she said, bending down to pick up Kuja’s supply sack. Kuja didn’t know what to say. She was trying to help. The kindness was unexpected. So was the stroke of luck; she hadn’t recognized him.

Breathing a sigh of relief, he gave the soldier a nod of gratitude, shouldered his supplies, and began walking away. But he didn’t get more than a few feet before another hand landed on his arm, forcing him to spin around.

"Sergeant?" the younger soldier gasped.

Her frowning partner pulled back the hood of Kuja’s cloak, wanting to see his face. She hadn’t gotten a good look at him earlier but had felt a nagging sense of unease since seeing that fall of long, silver hair. Kuja tried to pull away, ducking his head down, but it was too late. As soon as she uncovered the feathers crowning his mane, her unease turned into alarm. She grabbed a fist full of hair and forced him to lift his head. "This… how is this possible? But it has to be…"

"Sergeant?"

The woman’s hand tightened on Kuja’s arm like a vice. She let go of his hair to draw her sword with the other. "Kuja - the fiend who killed Queen Brahne and then attacked Alexandria itself!"

A murmur rippled through the crowd, though the younger soldier looked a little unconvinced. She’d heard tales about the former queen’s confidant of course. But this thin, dirty beggar didn’t look like he had the strength to kill a fly, never mind commit murder and mayhem. "Are you sure? I thought he was dead!"

The older soldier held her sword up against Kuja’s throat and backed him up against the wall, watching him carefully for any sign of resistance. He seemed weak, but she was sure his bedraggled appearance was a disguise – she wouldn’t be so easily fooled. "I haven’t forgotten this face. I was there that day when he attacked Queen Brahne’s fleet. I watched my comrades die. And I was on duty the night he laid siege to the city. So many have suffered because of this one man," she spat, pressing her sword against his neck until it drew a thin line of blood. "Do you have anything to say, you monster?!"

Kuja responded with a faint smile, but said nothing.

The older soldier hissed and glanced at her comrade. As much as she wanted to kill him where he stood, that would be a privilege for the queen to grant. "Quickly, report this to the castle!"

"Yes, Sergeant!" And the younger soldier ran off as the nervous buzz in the crowd continued to grow.

The older soldier frowned. The streets were so packed, it was going to be tough trying to keep the civilians out of harm’s way. The spark of panic in the air was spreading like wildfire; some people were trying to get away and starting to push back against the throng. Others were more curious than sensible, wanting to catch a glimpse of the infamous criminal.

With her partner gone, all the remaining soldier could do was hold Kuja in place at sword point while barking at the crowd to stay back and disperse slowly. At first it seemed to work; people began backing away. But suddenly a projectile came flying from somewhere in the crowd and the soldier barely managed to sidestep in time to avoid an apple as it smashed into the brick wall behind Kuja.

"I bet he’s here to kill the prince and the queen!" one voice cried out.

"We won’t let you, you bastard!" another man yelled, and another piece of fruit was hurled, this time finding its mark on Kuja’s shoulder. The former mage grunted but made no attempt to fight back.

Suddenly the crowd was emboldened. Following the man’s lead, others began picking up whatever they could find – fruit mostly, along with small rocks – and began hurling them at Kuja along with insults and threats like "Kill him!" The soldier shouted back at the throng, trying to maintain order, but under the barrage even she had to duck and then run for cover for her own safety.

Kuja cringed against the wall as the angry mob descended upon him. Without magic to turn to, he tried to shield his head with his arms, grateful that that was even an option - Garland had kept him physically restrained during shield strengthening exercises until he’d gotten good enough with defensive spells to stop multiple projectiles. But at least Garland hadn’t been trying to kill him. Kuja spared a glance up at the sword-like crystalline spire of the castle, rising high above the rooftops, glistening like a beacon. He wondered if he’d meet his end here and now, once again failing to achieve his goal even though it was nearly within his reach.

When the mob ran out of fruit and rocks they ran in, tearing away the backpack which had provided Kuja with a modicum of cover, and began using their fists and feet, punching and kicking at the huddled figure on the ground. Someone grabbed a broomstick and smashed him on the upper back with it. Another man ran in with a utility knife, brandishing it right in Kuja’s face. The silver-haired man held his breath in fearful anticipation, but suddenly something knocked the blade away and drove back the rest of his assailants as well.

Kuja hadn’t realized he’d squeezed his eyes shut after that moment, but as the crowd fell silent he opened them again. There was someone looming over him, someone clad in pristine white. He blinked up at her, straining to see through the dirt and blood smeared all over his face. But despite his predicament, it didn’t stop the corners of his mouth from twitching upwards in recognition. It was good to see a familiar face, even hers.

"The ‘Rose of May.’ Or was it ‘Beatrix who felled a hundred knights?’ I could never remember which you preferred," he rasped. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to do anything. He tried to sit up, not wanting to crawl before her like a dog, but it was so painful…

Beatrix frowned. If there’d been any doubts as to the man’s identity, they were wiped out as soon as he opened his mouth. "I suppose tales of your demise were premature. You have guts, showing your face around here again. Did you really think you’d make it past my watch?"

"Well… I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try."

She snorted in mild amusement. She’d never liked him, never trusted him, but she had to admit, he had a way with words. She turned to the soldiers behind her. "Take him into custody. And be careful; he’s a wily one."

As a couple of soldiers secured Kuja’s wrists behind his back and pulled him to his feet, the restless crowd began jeering.

"Just kill him now, where he stands!" one person yelled.

"He doesn’t deserve to live for even a minute longer!" another added.

"Her Majesty will decide his fate," Beatrix declared loudly. Then her good eye sharpened. "Or do you wish to challenge me on this?"

If Kuja was infamous throughout the lands, so was Beatrix. No one was stupid enough to stand up to her, and she knew it. The mob quieted back down and began dispersing. She smirked.

"Let’s go," she told her troops. With a toss of her hair she began leading the way back toward the castle.

Kuja had to be pushed along to keep up. Every time his steps faltered, someone jabbed him or jerked on his arm, causing twinges of pain to spark through his torso. And the open sores on his feet made it feel like he was walking on glass. But in some ways he was getting exactly what he wanted, even if this wasn’t the route that he’d hoped for. As long as he got to see Zidane again, then nothing else mattered. It wasn’t like he had anything planned beyond that moment anyhow.

* * *

News of Kuja’s presence spread swiftly throughout the castle. As Beatrix took the prisoner down to the dungeon, Dagger – accompanied by Steiner and Doctor Tot – went to find Zidane, to get some answers.

Understandably, the young queen was beyond furious – she’d thought the nightmares of the past were behind her, that there would finally be peace and calm through the whole of Gaia. And she was saddened as well, having to learn that Zidane had lied to her, having to find out such a thing less than a week before their wedding…

Zidane had been waiting in the study for Doctor Tot, unaware of all the commotion in the castle. He was a little bored. Doctor Tot had always been very punctual, so it was unusual to be left watching the clock, awaiting his arrival. If anything, it was usually Zidane that kept Doctor Tot waiting. The Genome wondered if maybe his tutor was trying to teach him a lesson in the importance of scheduling? Or maybe he thought he’d need the extra time to finish writing a summary on trends gleaned from a decade’s worth of commodities reports.

Suddenly the door swung open, and Zidane nearly fell over, as he’d been mindlessly rocking his chair up on its back legs. Swiftly recovering his balance, he looked over, surprised to see Dagger and Steiner standing alongside his mentor. His lovely fiancée was scowling at him.

Zidane rose to his feet, looking from one face to the next. No one looked particularly happy to see him. "Uh… what’s up?"

Dagger quietly asked Steiner to shut the door behind them, then – knowing that no one else but the four of them would be privy to what was about to happen - turned to her fiancé, took a deep, slow breath… and exploded.

Throwing all concern of decorum out the window, she stomped forward, barreling right into Zidane, shoving him hard enough to force him to take a half step back. For a split second she paused, taken aback by her own behavior, before remembering what had happened that had driven her to hunt down Zidane in the first place. "I can’t believe you lied – to me! WHY?! Why would you do such a thing?"

"Huh? What are you talking about? I have no idea what’s going on, I swear..."

"KUJA," she spat out bitterly. "He’s alive. He’s here. You said he was dead!"

A thousand thoughts collided in Zidane’s head, all at once: the wedding… the fairytale ending he’d dreamed of; his attraction to Kuja competing against his love for Dagger; the planned pardon. He looked helplessly at the two men silently shadowing the queen – they looked nearly as confused as he - then back at Dagger. "How’d you…" he began, then the rest of her words sank in. "Wait, he’s here??"

"Yes!" she hissed.

Zidane’s mouth dropped open and he stared at her as he struggled to find the right thing to say. What should he do? Confess? That was a given. Beg for mercy on Kuja’s behalf? Would that even do any good?

"Can I see him?" he ended up blurting out.

Dagger stomped her foot, exasperated. "You really don’t have anything to say for yourself? Like… ‘I’m sorry, I lied,’ or ‘I honestly thought he was dead but he somehow rose from the grave to haunt me, because he’s just that kind of monster…’"

"He’s not! He’s changed. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have tried to protect…" His voice dropped off, as he realized he’d been defending Kuja rather than reassuring Dagger; her eyes were flashing at him like a lightning storm. He shook his head and started over again, his voice dropping. "Yeah, I’m sorry. I did lie. Of course I knew he was alive. I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t know how…"

"Were you ever going to tell me? What else are you hiding from me?"

"I was! I was going to tell you," he assured her while pointedly ignoring the second question, as there was no way he could ever admit to her that he’d slept with Kuja.

"When?!"

Zidane’s tail swished about nervously. "… After the wedding?"

"Why? What would that accomplish?"

Zidane inhaled and held his breath. All the other plans he’d made for Kuja’s future had flown the coop at one point or another. And now, his last, best plan to save the former mage was dead in the water too. There was no way he’d be allowed to pardon Kuja himself now, so the only chance he had was to try and convince Dagger to do it. He steeled himself for the inevitable backlash, then pushed his words out in a rush. "Please… give him a chance. I promise you, he’s really different now. He’s lost all his powers; he can’t hurt anyone ever again. He only wants to live a quiet life now, nothing more."

"What about the wedding?!" She was infuriated that Zidane seemed to only be thinking about Kuja. Then it dawned on her that perhaps he hadn’t proposed to her out of love, but for Kuja’s sake… that maybe he thought if he buttered her up enough, she’d happily, stupidly go along with his suggestion to let Kuja go unpunished. But… Zidane wasn’t that kind of person, was he?

"Dagger, please! I’m begging you to spare him."

"… So you never wanted to marry me in the first place…" she said, her voice catching a little. It hurt, having to suffer yet another betrayal at the hands of someone she loved. At least with her mother… it hadn’t really been her fault. Kuja had timed his appearance perfectly; he’d crept his way through the wounds left by her husband’s death and gotten into Brahne’s head, twisting her, until she was no longer recognizable as the kind monarch who'd once been so beloved by her people.

She wondered if this too was Kuja’s doing? Had Kuja worked his influence on Zidane during the year they’d spent together? Maybe this was his revenge on her, for her role in ruining his plans. It always came back to that wicked man, didn’t it… he was the catalyst for everything bad that had ever happened to her!

"Wha? No, I do - really! That’s all I ever wanted, since I was a kid. But… I wouldn’t even be here today, as I am, if it weren’t for Kuja. I owe him big time. He saved me from becoming someone like him. Doesn’t that count for anything?"

Dagger looked like she was considering it, and for a moment Zidane thought she’d hear him out, but then she turned to Steiner and said, "Sir Steiner, until the day of the wedding, Prince Zidane is not to leave his rooms without accompaniment, not even for lessons or meals."

"No! Please… at least let me go see him," Zidane moaned, but his plea was drowned out by Steiner’s alarmed voice.

"The wedding? Your Majesty, you can’t be thinking of marrying this… this dirty scoundrel after all he’s done!" the knight blurted out, unable to hold his tongue at the thought of his beloved monarch tying herself down to some lying, no-good, fugitive hiding thief! He was so angry that he was shaking, but all that did was make his armor rattle like an empty tin can.

Dagger held back a sigh. "It’s what the people have been waiting for. How can I take that away from them, letting them down with less than a week to spare?" she replied, her tone cool and carefully controlled. She couldn’t let the hurt show. She wouldn’t give in to despair. She was the queen; she had to maintain composure no matter what. It was her duty. Even with her relationship falling to pieces, she had to continue being the steadfast pillar at the core of her kingdom.

"Your Majesty, it would be advisable to consider postponing the wedding at the very least," Doctor Tot said, trying to appeal to reason since Steiner’s emotional entreaty hadn’t worked.

"Too much effort and planning has gone into it. Even postponing it a week would cause problems," Dagger parried. "Guests have already come. Food and flowers, ordered…"

Zidane was horrified that all anyone was talking about was the wedding, when a man’s life was on the line. "Dagger, I’ll do anything, anything at all, to make all this up to you. I love you – that’s no lie. But please, I’m begging… if you have any love for me at all, don’t hurt him."

"Stop it! I can’t be your ‘Dagger,’ not in this!" she lashed out. Then she paused, lifted her chin and set her jaw. "I am Garnet Til Alexandros XVII, Queen of Alexandria. My duty is to my kingdom and my people. And I’ve seen the damage this man has caused, the families he's shattered, the many lives he's taken away. I've seen the fear in the citizens’ eyes at the very mention of his name. So for the sake of my country, I cannot grant you your request. Alexandria will see Kuja tried and sentenced for his crimes."

Zidane made a pained sound and began pacing a few steps, before looking back at his fiancée, if he could even call her that any longer. "I don’t get it. When I said I was going back for him at the Iifa Basin, you supported me. You told me to go on and do it. And now you want to put him in prison, or worse?"

"I told you to go because we thought he was dying… It was a courtesy. I didn’t want you to regret it, not getting the chance to say goodbye. If I had known that this would’ve been the result..."

"So now you won’t even let me see him? You want me to keep me locked in my room like I was a criminal too. Because even if I gave you my word now, you don’t trust me anymore, do you?"

Her eyes narrowed. Zidane had some gumption, to ask her such a thing. She’d been so happy when he had returned to her, when he’d proposed so dramatically… she’d dreamt about their wedding day, swept up in all the excitement, fantasizing about their future. But the entire time he’d been lying to her. He hadn’t trusted her. So how could he expect her to ever trust him again?

"You said that you love me. But this entire time, I’ve only heard concern for Kuja’s wellbeing in your voice," Garnet said dourly, before turning and exiting the room.

* * *

Kuja wasn’t surprised when he was pushed into the darkest, dankest cell at the bottom of the dungeon. Even though he was in such poor condition, Beatrix was taking no chances. In some ways he was flattered… she considered him so clever and scheming that she wasn’t going to risk all this being part of some elaborate ruse to get into the castle.

After the soldiers finished shackling Kuja’s ankle to the back wall – his wrists were still secured behind his back - Beatrix ordered her troops to accompany her out for further orders. Then she and all the soldiers stepped out of the cell, the heavily reinforced door slamming shut behind them.

Sitting in near darkness – the only light came from the gas lamps in the hallway filtering through a tiny window in the door - Kuja strained to hear Beatrix’s muffled commands and wondered if he was going to be left to rot in the cell. But before he could get himself too worked up over the thought of dying alone in the darkness, he dismissed it. It wasn’t Beatrix’s style, so unless the queen ordered it, the chances of him being starved to death were pretty slim. More likely they’d hang him or behead him. He wasn’t sure. During his time in Alexandria under Brahne’s rule, he couldn’t recall attending any formal executions. But for someone like him, there was no punishment more suitable.

Well, regardless of his fate, there was nothing he could do about it now. At least it’d be over soon.

He shut his eyes, too tired to want to stay awake, but in too much pain to be able to nap. It didn’t help that he couldn’t even sit comfortably; with his wrists shackled and his back and arms bruised, he couldn’t lean against the wall or lie down. And there was only a thin blanket and a bit of musty straw for bedding, not that he could manipulate any of it with his hands behind his back. He ended up crouching against the back wall, his legs throbbing, with an unbruised section of his forehead and one shoulder resting up against the cold stone. He wondered if he had suffered any broken bones from the beating he’d taken. It didn’t seem like it, but he was in no position to tell. It was just an unfortunate fact… he was built to endure, but felt pain all the same. What was the point of being able to physically survive such assaults if it only meant prolonged suffering?

A bunch of footsteps marched by the door. Then the keys jangled in the lock and the door swung open once again, creaking on rusty hinges.

It was Beatrix, of course. Kuja silently swallowed down the disappointment that it wasn’t Zidane. At least she had food; she was carrying a plate and a large mug, which she sat down on the ground. He was a little surprised to that she was choosing to handle such a mundane task herself, but then again, none of the other soldiers had the confidence to calmly remain in his presence, even though he was in chains.

"I’ll release your wrists so you can eat," she told him.

Kuja didn’t – or couldn’t - get up, so she knelt down and undid the wrist shackles.

She hadn’t brought much, just a lump of brown bread and an apple. But Kuja was so hungry, he didn’t complain – he just began tearing into it, even though it hurt to chew. The cup held a bit of warm broth, which was an unexpected surprise. It helped the bread go down a lot easier.

Beatrix silently stood watch as Kuja ate, noticing that he had to struggle to get through each bite, since his left cheek and the side of his mouth were starting to swell and discolor. She made a mental note to bring him something easier to eat for dinner.

Once he’d finished, she put the cuffs back on but assured him she’d be back shortly.

Left alone in the dark again, Kuja zoned out. He might have fallen asleep, though he wasn’t sure of it; it could’ve been another episode even. Either way, it seemed Beatrix had only left for a moment, and then suddenly she was back again, this time with a lot more items.

She dropped a bucket of water and a washcloth on the cell floor, along with a towel and clean shirt and pants. She then freed his wrists before stepping back. "Make yourself presentable so that I may bring you before the queen."

"Are you going to give me a bath?" he asked in a not very innocent fashion.

His flirtatious nature grated on her. It was almost worse that he was doing it while bruised and filthy, caked in dirt from traveling and blood from the beating he’d taken. "No. You give yourself a bath."

He chuckled softly, then, realizing Beatrix wasn’t budging until he complied, began slowly stripping off his shirt.

She took a few steps back to give him the illusion of privacy as Kuja turned his back to her and did the same, though he knew full well that she wasn’t going to take her eyes off him for a second. Even in the dim light, she could see newer scrapes and bruises upon bruises on his pale, skinny body, along with some older scars. The angry mob had done quite a number on him. So apparently had a fall through a massive tree.

He was grunting softly in pain as he strained to reach his back, as battered muscles protested and nubby cloth scraped against open wounds. Beatrix watched him struggle for a minute, then called a little magic into her palm. "This isn’t much, but it should help," she told him as she approached and pressed a Cure spell into him. The healing magic seemed to improve his condition a bit, though not as much as she thought it would. She recalled him telling her once upon a time that he had a high resistance to foreign magics; it seemed that he’d been truthful about that.

He sighed and glanced at her over his shoulder. It had been so long since his body had felt the flow of magic... he couldn’t help but enjoy it, despite his predicament. "Thank you. But you shouldn’t be wasting magic on someone you’re going to hang tomorrow, you know."

She snorted. "Tomorrow is tomorrow. I’m only dealing with the here and now."

"Is that so? You’re being a lot nicer than I expected, General."

"Don’t kid yourself. If the queen ordered me to strangle you right now with my bare hands, I would do so without hesitation."

"Yes, I know. You always were better about taking orders than I."

Beatrix scowled at how he managed to compliment and insult her in the same breath.

A smile touched his lips when he realized she had no retort. He continued on, trying to score another point. "Since you’re being nice ‘here and now,’ could you bring a few more blankets as well?"

"Just hurry and get cleaned up," she snarled. Her patience had its limits and he was sorely testing the boundaries.

He sighed again. As much as he enjoyed needling her, he couldn’t afford to drive away the one person who was treating him with some modicum of respect. She could’ve just tossed him a bowl of gruel and told him to put his face in it; she could’ve just thrown buckets of cold water at him until he smelled passable. And he didn’t have the energy to spare to continue bantering with her anyhow. He tried to focus on getting himself cleaned up instead, because there was a good chance that Zidane would also be present in the throne room – and Kuja still had a tiny bit of pride left, enough to want to show a brave, and hopefully clean, face.

Once he had finished wiping himself down, he dressed himself in the clean, plain shirt provided, then waited for Beatrix to secure his wrists behind his back once again before she unchained his ankle so that he could pull the pants on too. She couldn’t help but notice his tail for the first time as he threaded it down a pant leg. It seemed that he was still in the habit of hiding it, even though everyone now knew he was a Genome.

After looking him over, she was satisfied that he was about as presentable as he could be under the circumstances, and urged him to his feet. At her signal several guards, members of the Knights of Pluto, marched into the cell to provide escort to the throne room at the crown of the castle.

"A trial isn’t really necessary, is it? We both know what’s going to happen," Kuja said to Beatrix as they began making their way out of the bowels of the dungeon, up a seemingly endless flight of stone steps. He kept his voice low, so that the guards surrounding them wouldn’t whip around and tell him to shut his mouth, though none of them dared rebuke him if Beatrix didn’t do so first. Though the men weren’t under her direct command, the general was still the highest ranked individual outside of the royal family… they accepted her orders without question.

"You don’t know that for sure," she responded. He was limping badly, slowing down their procession quite a bit, but considering his condition, she didn’t push the pace, even though the knights kept glancing back at her to make sure everything was all right.

He managed a half smile. "Yes, I do. Certainly you can’t tell me that a man like me deserves any mercy."

It wasn’t that Kuja was innocent – far from it. But it wasn’t as if he’d acted alone. Regardless of the fact that he’d been the voice whispering in Brahne’s ear, no one in Alexandria – save the then-Princess Garnet - had stopped to question the queen’s sudden interest in conquest and war. All of Alexandria’s military might had been mobilized, without complaint or hesitation; Beatrix herself had led troops into Burmecia and Cleyra. She’d shed as much blood as he had. But no one was putting her on trial or demanding that she pay for her role in the war. Kuja, it seemed, would be carrying the blame for all their misdeeds.

"Perhaps not," Beatrix finally agreed. "But Queen Garnet is not Queen Brahne. She might be swayed, if you watch your words. Or you could try to appeal to the prince to speak on your behalf. You are allowed to mount a defense; the queen will take that into consideration."

Beatrix wasn’t wrong in thinking that the young queen had a big heart; she did. But then again, Beatrix hadn’t been present for the disastrous argument with Zidane just an hour prior. She’d only heard from Steiner in passing that the queen was looking to speak to Zidane, as soon as possible.

"Ahh… so he’ll be there," Kuja murmured.

"Prince Zidane? I would assume so. Why?" She kept the question light, but focused carefully on his answer; she had to know if Kuja had any intention of harming Zidane. Although the younger Genome wasn’t her king yet, he would be very soon… and she would protect him if need be, just as she would the queen.

Kuja’s reaction wasn’t at all as she expected. At the sound of Zidane’s name, he suddenly stopped mid-stride, and looked away. Beatrix gave him a slight nudge to get him moving again.

"I wanted to ask him…" Kuja began hesitantly before trailing off. "I just wanted to know…" Then he shook his head, leaving whatever it was that he’d been thinking, in the dust. "It doesn’t really matter, I suppose," he said wearily, looking down at his feet. "It won’t make a difference, now."

She didn’t like that he didn’t give her a straight answer. He never did. But… she trusted her instincts. And she just knew… Kuja was no threat, at least, not in the conventional sense. He wasn’t feigning his powerlessness. But something had compelled him to walk into the lion’s den, even though he must’ve known it was unlikely he’d escape unscathed.

Kuja remained silent the rest of the way. He barely even looked up when they reached the throne room. But when the knights finally pushed open the double doors and General Beatrix bowed to the queen and then announced that she’d brought the prisoner, Kuja tentatively lifted his head, eyes darting all around, before letting his chin drop again with a silent sigh.

Zidane wasn’t there. He wasn’t attending the trial.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- One of the things I think that Zidane’s forgotten up until this point is that it's Dagger that he fell for during their travels, but Dagger is just part of who Queen Garnet is. At one point during the game he realizes that he’s incompatible with a queen and her duties, and leaves (without admitting to her how he feels… doesn’t that sound familiar!), but then ends up having to dramatically swoop in to save her, just like a fairy tale hero. I could see him thinking after that that they were fated to be together (especially since she goes back to being Dagger, until the end of the game), while forgetting that that hasn’t change the fact that she eventually would take up the mantle of queen again.

- Also, while on the topic, I've switched from Dagger to Garnet in the narrative as this marked a turning point for her and her relationship with Zidane. Hopefully this won’t be too confusing. However, Zidane will probably always think of her as Dagger in the back of his mind, so "Dagger" will continue to pop up throughout the story.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Hammer to Fall" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Kuja didn’t look anything like Garnet remembered. Oh, she recognized him, for sure, but gone were the cosmetics and the flashy, body baring clothing and the smug, self-confident grin. He looked noticeably older than when she’d last seen him, and… smaller, even? Garnet recalled thinking of him as someone tall and imposing, with a big personality and an even bigger ego. But seeing him now, all worn down and bruised up, there really wasn’t anything impressive about him.

Still, appearances could be deceiving; Kuja was a dangerous man. As if to prove that, he suddenly lifted his chin and stared at her, no sign of fear or distress evident, even with a puffy lip and one eye on the verge of swelling shut. He cocked his head slightly at her, as if regarding a small animal. Garnet sat back on her throne, relieved to have General Beatrix standing smartly next to the prisoner. If something were to happen, she stood the best chance of being able to neutralize Kuja immediately.

With a nod from Garnet, Steiner secured the door at the rear of the room, then marched back to his spot flanking the queen to announce the start of the trial, but he barely got more than a few words out before Kuja suddenly cut him off.

"Why bother with the pretense of a trial? We all know what I’ve done," he said, his voice surprisingly steady in contrast to Steiner’s sputtering protests. Kuja sought out Garnet’s gaze again, then smiled. "So what will it be? Hanging, beheading, poisoning…? Or do you prefer something more barbarous? I read that back in the early days of Alexandria, immurement and burning at the stake were the favorites of the first queens."

Garnet’s mouth tightened. "Punishing without even the benefit of a trial… that isn’t how a civilized country does things. I won’t be like you, taking a life without any thought."

Kuja shrugged slightly, just barely managing to keep evidence of stabbing pain in his back and shoulders from showing on his face. "But we both know that will be the end result. And I’ll make this easy on you: I’m admitting my guilt. Yes, I incited war between Alexandria and Burmecia, Cleyra and Lindblum. And then I attacked Alexandria myself. My actions cost thousands upon thousands of people their lives."

Beatrix turned sharply at that, but held back from saying anything about the role she'd played in said war. This was Kuja's trial. And it was the queen's right to prosecute and sentence him as she saw fit… as the general, Beatrix was there to ensure the safety of everyone in the room, nothing more.

Garnet leaned forward, her eyes narrowing. "You… do you even have a shred of remorse for what you’ve done?"

"Does it matter?" Kuja tossed back, as if they were having a casual conversation.

"Of course it does!"

"No, it doesn’t. Because if I have to spend the rest of my life locked up, alone, then I’d rather die…" He paused, as if even he needed time to let that admittance sink in… No, he didn’t want to die, but if that was his inescapable fate, then he wanted to go out on his own terms, instead of falling victim to the limits Garland had set. He exhaled slowly, then continued on. "I have no defense to offer. So let’s not waste time on trivial formalities… what’s my fate?"

The queen frowned, her composure slipping. She really did want to conduct a fair and just trial, but Kuja was making it impossible. He was practically begging to be put to death. He almost looked proud of himself for having goaded her to the point where she was giving serious consideration to doing just as he wanted…

Was that what he was doing, then? Playing a twisted game, trying to get one last "win" over her by turning her into someone she was not? Or was he employing some sort of reverse logic to trick her into being merciful, playing off her fear of being labeled "barbarous" like some of her predecessors? He sure did like to talk a lot, and he had that soft, singsong quality to his voice that tended to lull people into listening to what he had to say.

Well, whatever he'd been planning, it wasn’t going to work. Although Garnet didn’t have any bloodlust in her, she knew justice demanded punishment, and beyond that, the danger he posed had to be neutralized. Even if he seemed harmless enough right now, all tattered and bruised, there was no guarantee that he wasn’t feigning weakness, or that he wouldn’t regain his fearsome power over time.

"What do you suggest, General Beatrix?" Garnet asked, wanting the opinion of someone who was wiser and experienced in such matters.

"Beheading. It’s the quickest and simplest…" the older woman responded without hesitation.

Garnet couldn’t help but recoil slightly at the thought of having to spill blood. "Is that really the only option?"

"Hanging takes too long, poisons are unpredictable. Neither is a more pleasant option for either executioner or prisoner," Beatrix explained.

"You’re too kind, General," Kuja said, smiling at the woman at his side.

Beatrix’s eyebrows twitched. "Oh, shut up."

Garnet frowned. It was too weird, having Kuja actively participating in planning his own execution. But she sat back and thought about it carefully. Beheading was as final a fate as could be. She still didn’t like the idea of executing someone at all, but Kuja was a very special case. If anyone deserved to die for their crimes, it was him. But had he given her a full confession of all that he’d done? This was probably the only chance she’d have to try and wring the truth out of him…

"You admit that you drove my mother, Queen Brahne, to wage war against Burmecia," Garnet began, the words bitter on her tongue. "And that you killed her."

"Yes."

"Did you have anything to do with the destruction of Madain Sari?"

Kuja hesitated for a moment. Garland had feared the Eidolons and, by extension, the Summoners who wielded them. He’d ordered the village to be leveled and the inhabitants, eradicated. He’d even granted Kuja use of the ship Invincible to make sure the job got done. And Kuja had done just that… except he’d made sure he was just "sloppy" enough that a few survivors slipped out. He'd needed them to stay alive after all, if he was going to harness their powers to use against his master at a later date.

It had been a decent plan, if he’d been able to put it into motion a lot sooner. It was too bad that time had given Garland the opportunity to upgrade the Invincible into too strong a barrier for the Eidolons to overcome.

"I was there, yes. I was under orders to wipe out the town," Kuja admitted. Seeing the rage that suddenly flooded into Garnet’s eyes, he added, "I know it’s no consolation, but it was never personal."

"Of course it was! It was my family you killed, my home you destroyed!" Garnet exclaimed, all thoughts of decorum forgotten. "I was only six then, but I can still see it in my mind: fire and bitter smoke everywhere, rising into the sky. And the eye at the center of it all. But I can’t remember my parents… I know my father put my mother and me on a boat to try to get us to safety. There was a terrible storm; my mother must’ve tried to shield me from the waves. She didn’t make it."

Kuja opened his mouth, then shut it again when it was clear that the young queen wasn’t done.

"Years later, you struck again. I’d been living a happy, safe life, but then my father died and you showed up, with such incredible timing that it makes it suspect... You took advantage of my kind, loving mother, twisting her into someone unrecognizable… someone who didn’t care about her people or her daughter. And when she was no longer useful to you, you turned against her. I held her while she lay dying from the injuries you inflicted on her," Garnet choked out.

Steiner took an aborted step towards his liege, compelled to comfort her, but he managed to restrain himself from running over to her, partially because it would’ve been presumptuous for him to do so, and partially because he needed to keep both eyes on Kuja, even with Beatrix standing guard. Kuja was just too wily, too evil, to let one’s guard down around. Hands still shaking, Steiner shot Kuja a deadly look, but the silver-haired man was focused on Garnet and paid the captain of the guard no attention.

Garnet pressed the back of her hand against her eyes to hold back the tears. It hurt, reliving the past like that, but at the same time, this was the only chance she’d get to confront Kuja directly. She managed to steady herself enough to take in a deep breath, before hissing, "Because of you… I have no parents. My mothers and fathers will never see me get married."

Kuja wasn’t sure how to respond. It wasn’t like he had any experience with "parents" but he did understand that the family was something important to Gaians. "You won’t believe me, but I wasn’t targeting you. Well, not you personally… You were a Summoner; I had need of one."

She stared at him in disbelief. She knew he didn’t have the normal range of emotions that everyone else did, but she’d poured her heart out… and that was all the response she was going to get? "That’s all you can say? You RUINED my life!"

Kuja thought back to earlier, when she’d asked him if he was sorry for the things he’d done. He was. Or at least, he thought he was. The truth was, he wasn’t completely sure what he felt was remorse. That was the word Zidane had assigned to it. But what he was sure of was that a flawed, incomplete life form such as himself he should’ve never been created in the first place. At least now, that could finally be fixed, though he understood that nothing would ever truly make amends for all the damage he’d caused…

"I regret that my actions have so impacted your life. But you can end it all here and now, by taking mine in exchange. Would that suffice?" Kuja asked gently.

"Your Majesty, may I ask a question?" Beatrix suddenly asked. Garnet seemed too stunned by Kuja’s response to answer, but she finally nodded her head, granting Beatrix the right to speak.

The general bowed her head, then turned to her prisoner. "Do you really want to die that badly? If so, you could’ve just done it yourself, instead of coming here."

That had never really occurred to him. Kuja wasn’t sure why. Maybe that was yet another failsafe Garland had programmed into him, denying him any say over his life or his death. Struggling for an answer, Kuja ended up saying the only thing he could think of. "Well, it would be difficult for me to behead myself, though if you’d hand me your sword, I can attempt to do so now…"

Beatrix scowled. It was a good thing she didn’t have her sword in hand already, or else she might’ve done something that she wouldn’t be able to take back. "Don’t try to be clever!"

Garnet slapped her hand down on the arm of her throne. "I’ve heard enough," she said sharply. She waited until everyone in the room turned their attention to her, then announced, "I am ready to hand down the sentence now. Angel of Death Kuja, for your crimes against Alexandria, and the whole of Gaia, I, Queen Garnet Til Alexandros XVII, have no recourse but to sentence you to death. You are to be beheaded at the break of dawn tomorrow." She hesitated briefly, then added, "Do you have any last requests?"

Kuja didn’t bat an eye at the sentence. He was, however, surprised that she was willing to grant a last request. "I have two, actually," he said after some thought.

Garnet mulled it over a moment, then parried back. "I will grant one, so choose."

Kuja glanced briefly around the room again. He wanted to say goodbye to Zidane, but there was no point in trying to make a memory like that; it wasn’t going to matter once his life ended. So he dropped his chin slightly before saying, "After it’s all over, I’d like for my body to be burned until there’s nothing but ash."

That wasn’t what Garnet expected to hear, but it wasn’t an unreasonable request. She gave it some thought but saw no reason to deny it. "Granted. General, Captain, please make sure to see to it that that happens." After the pair acknowledged her order, Garnet’s curiosity got the best of her and she found herself asking, "What was the second request?"

"Ah. There was someone I thought I should say goodbye to. But never mind. By tomorrow it won’t matter anyhow."

There was an awkward silence. Kuja grinned lopsidedly. Even without saying the name, it was obvious whom he was referring to.

Garnet gestured at Steiner, indicating that it was time to end the hearing, and once he finished announcing it, Beatrix escorted the prisoner out of the throne room. After the doors closed behind the Genome and the general, Garnet sat back heavily in her seat, still thinking over that second request.

It was so awkward that they were all dancing around Zidane’s conspicuous absence. He really should’ve been there – not only for Kuja’s sake, but for Garnet’s as well. It was a heavy burden, having to order someone's death. She hadn’t wanted to do it, but in this case, there really was no other option…

She wasn’t under any obligation to let them see each other, but perhaps she’d sleep a little better if she allowed it, as a kindness. That way she could finally close the book on this chapter of her life without being haunted by the thought that she’d been too cruel to a doomed man… Maybe it’d help to start mending bridges between her and Zidane as well.

Decision made, the young queen rose, and, as a surprised Steiner scrambled to follow, began making her way up to her fiancé’s suite to deliver the news.

* * *

Zidane was sitting by the window, staring blankly out at the garden, when Garnet walked in. Normally he’d greet her with a wide grin and a bounce in his step, like a happy puppy. But not this time. He didn’t even get up; instead, he turned to look at her, then bowed his head slightly, all while seated.

She had planned on telling him that she’d had a change of heart, that he’d be allowed to go and say goodbye to Kuja, but seeing Zidane sulking like that made her a little mad. He was the one who’d put her in this position in the first place; he didn’t even have the decency to stand in support of her now.

"You said that he’s sorry, that he’s changed. But I don’t see it. The entire trial, he joked around, with that insincere smile on his face. He couldn’t be serious, even for a moment, even with his life on the line," she said.

Zidane shook his head. He didn’t agree – he knew Kuja regretted what he had done, and he knew him well enough to know that the jokes and smiles were just a front - but he chose not to argue back. She wouldn’t believe him anyhow. So instead he asked, "So what will happen now?"

There was no way to soften the blow, so Garnet went with the plain truth. "Kuja will be executed tomorrow morning." She paused to give Zidane a moment to absorb the news. He didn’t seem surprised, but he definitely looked unhappy about it. He wouldn’t even look her in the eye anymore.

"He made a couple of last requests," she continued awkwardly, her anger deflating a little at how Zidane was slumping in his seat, a man defeated. It made her want to comfort him like one would a child. "One of them was to say goodbye to you. I told him no, but I’ve reconsidered… I will grant that wish."

Zidane finally looked up at her again, sighing heavily. He was still haunted by the last time he’d said goodbye to Kuja. This time, it seemed, would be the last. "What was the other request?"

"He asked to be cremated."

Zidane turned away. It sounded so… final, thinking about what would happen with Kuja’s body afterward. That wasn’t what he expected to hear, but then again, he had no idea what else Kuja would've asked for as a "last request." Despite the time that they’d spent together, the former mage was enigmatic as ever. His decisions often made sense only to him.

"Look, this wasn’t an easy decision to make. I didn’t want to be placed in this position. But it’s the right thing to do," she explained, her voice as gentle as she could manage. It was times like this that she wished she could simply be Dagger – but she had never been the type to run away from her responsibilities, no matter how difficult the situation. "Putting aside my personal feelings, I don’t think anyone in this city will sleep soundly as long as they know he’s alive."

"He saved us, you know? After we fought Necron, he used his remaining magic to spirit us away. It was pretty much the last spell he cast. He hasn’t been able to do anything since."

She hadn’t known about that. But even so, it didn’t change a thing. "One good deed doesn’t erase all the bad ones. And if he lives and recovers his power over time - then what? I won’t risk this world on the slim possibility that he won’t turn his magic against innocents again."

Zidane sighed again. She just couldn’t see the good in Kuja, even when it was right in her face. "I can’t believe it. It can’t end like this for him. It’s not fair…"

"I didn’t want to delay it. There’s no reason to. It’s not just because of the wedding…"

"The wedding?" Zidane spat. He shook his head. He didn’t care about the damn wedding! He didn’t care if he ever got married! How could he possibly walk down the aisle and then dance and feast in celebration, with Kuja’s execution casting a dark shadow over it all?

"If it were further out, even by a few weeks, I’d want to postpone it. But… it’s not fair to everyone who came to see us, who worked hard to help us prepare, is it?" she chided. The wedding felt like a burden now, not a blessing, but she refused to back away, even though she wasn’t sure if they could ever mend this tear in their relationship. The differences between them, the very differences that had once attracted her to Zidane, suddenly felt too great to overcome.

"I don’t care!"

Garnet held her breath until she was sure she wouldn’t yell back in frustration. She’d been infuriated earlier. She’d given her fiancé the cold shoulder. Now Zidane was doing the same back to her. She still felt justified in her earlier reaction, given that Zidane had lied to her, that he’d been more worried about Kuja’s feelings than hers, but she supposed she’d overreacted by ordering that he be confined to his room and refusing to allow him to participate in the trial. It wouldn’t have changed the outcome, but perhaps he’d understand better where she was coming from, if he’d seen how Kuja had acted.

"I’ll lift the confinement order. When you’re ready to go see him, one of the Knights of Pluto will escort you down."

"So you didn’t trust me, and now you’re trying to trust me, but you really don’t," Zidane said.

Garnet’s head spun from Zidane’s comment. She stopped trying to make sense of it and sighed, "Just do the right thing, Zidane."

The right thing… Zidane didn’t even know what that was anymore. It felt like no matter what he did, he was making the wrong decision. Was there any way out of the mess he’d made at all, or was he going to have to choose between a bad outcome and an even worse one?

* * *

It came as no surprise that Kuja was being kept in the darkest, most distant cell in the dungeon. On one hand, Zidane was pretty sure he would’ve had some trouble finding it without the castle guards escorting him there. On the other, he felt like he was the one under surveillance. Because even though Garnet had told him she trusted him to "do the right thing," she was going to make sure that he did just that – her way.

He’d been so impatient to go see Kuja that he’d headed down without giving himself enough time to decide what to do next. Was there really nothing he could do, other than tell Kuja goodbye? But if he wanted to save him, then…

Zidane frowned. He didn’t want to say goodbye to Garnet either, though at least the separation there would be alienation, not death. Even though they’d been arguing, even though he’d been dissatisfied with life at the castle even before Kuja had shown up, that didn’t mean he’d stopped caring for her. He wanted to protect her and make her happy. He still thought of himself as her knight in shining armor, her fairy tale prince.

But he cared about Kuja too. He wanted to protect him and make him happy as well. And if anyone needed a shield between themselves and the world – a role Zidane figured no one else would willingly play - it had to be Kuja.

It was frustrating. Why did it have to happen this way? He’d been fine being friends or even family with Kuja, he’d enjoyed the time they spent together, but then they’d crossed that line… If that hadn’t happened, if he hadn’t been seduced, then he probably wouldn’t have felt so torn. He wouldn’t have had his thoughts filled with maybes and what-ifs. He wouldn’t be second-guessing every single thing he did. He wouldn’t be thinking about running away from everything he’d thought he ever wanted, just to find his way back to Kuja’s embrace.

He was so busy going in circles in his head that he didn’t notice that the guard in front of him had stopped walking, and narrowly missed colliding into the man.

The guard turned and gave him a funny look. "Your Highness, we’re here," he stiffly stated the obvious, before bowing and stepping back to give Beatrix room to approach.

Ignoring the female general, Zidane looked at the heavy door to his left. A tiny, barred window provided an opening he could peer into, but it was completely dark inside. Zidane glanced back at Beatrix, who nodded curtly at him, then turned back to the door. He reached up and hesitantly wrapped his fingers around one of the bars. "Um… Kuja?"

There was no response at first, then he could hear something like the scraping of metal on stone. "Zidane?"

The voice was soft, a little weak, but still, a momentary flood of relief flowed through Zidane at the sound of it. It had been so long… and yet he’d never forgotten... "Kuja… I’m here. I can’t see you though…"

A little more scraping – it was obvious Kuja was shackled in some manner – and then the former mage said, "That’s as far as I go. I can see your hand though." He chuckled dryly. "I’m just glad that the canary reconsidered my request."

Zidane frowned. "She did, so don’t call her that." He immediately took his hand off the bars and pressed his face against the opening, squinting into the dark cell, but he could barely make out the shape of the shadowy figure inside. "Beatrix, can't you open the door?"

She folded her arms, slightly amused that he’d had the guts to ask. "No."

Zidane tried a different tact. "What if I order you…"

The general tossed her hair back. "Absolutely not, Prince. The queen’s orders…" She would’ve offered to bring over a candle, but then Kuja chose to cut into the conversation.

"Ah yes, it’s Prince Zidane now," Kuja purred, his voice a little louder than before. "I have to say, I’m a little jealous… I never managed to obtain a title like that."

Zidane’s tail began twitching. He hated it when Kuja got that smug, condescending attitude rolling. "That doesn’t matter. What are you doing here?"

"I came to congratulate you on your pending nuptials. I didn’t bring a gift though."

"A gi… What is wrong with you? This isn’t a joke! Your life is on the line here, don’t you get it?"

"I knew what was at stake," Kuja replied evenly.

Zidane shut his eyes a moment. He’d come down out of concern for Kuja, hoping that he could think of some way to save his life, but the former mage seemed dead set on playing around, mocking him. He had no idea just how torn Zidane felt. His dream wedding, his relationship… they were pretty much in shambles now. Even if he and Garnet went though with the wedding, no one would be happy with the result. "You… you have no clue what you’ve done. I had it all planned out, but now… How am I supposed to get married at a time like this? You’ve ruined everything!" he blurted out.

Kuja hesitated, wavering. He hadn’t had much opportunity to speak to anyone for a long time, until this day. So he’d fallen into old habits while bantering with Beatrix and even the queen. He’d forgotten how easily Zidane got upset when he felt Kuja was being evasive or glib. But he really didn’t want the blonde to be upset with him, when he was the only person he could actually talk to…

"I’m sorry," Kuja said, and Zidane grimaced as he struggled to identify if Kuja was actually being sincere, or just starting in on another joke. It was impossible to tell. "I didn’t know what was going on. It wasn’t like I got an invite," Kuja added after a slight pause.

Of course Kuja had been unaware of just how bad his timing was. Zidane knew that. But it was easier to focus on the last part of Kuja’s comment instead of admitting that he had a valid point. "Yeah, because - surprise! You’d be the last person Dagger would want to see on her wedding day!"

Ignoring Zidane’s comeback just as Zidane had ignored his explanation, Kuja continued on, the mirth now gone from his voice. "I waited for you to come back. I waited, because you gave me your word… If I’d known you weren’t coming back, hell, I would’ve taken that Dwarf up on his offer…"

The last thing Zidane wanted was reminder of the promises he’d broken. And Kuja’s flippant attitude grated on him, as it always did. The two combined made him irrationally irate. "And I told you I’d come back for you when I found some place for you to stay. Well, guess what? I tried! I tried several times. No one wanted you, okay?!"

With tears suddenly stinging the corner of his eyes, Kuja sat silently as the careless words crashed into him. It was funny how something formless as words could cut just as sharply as a sword. Normally he would've brushed them off. But against Zidane, he’d always felt oddly defenseless.

Of course he’d known that no one would take him in. That was a given. But he’d stupidly clung to Zidane’s promise because he’d wanted so badly to believe that somehow, the younger Genome could pull it off. And it had felt nice, thinking that there was someone who cared about what happened to him.

"Well, at least it sounds like you made some effort before throwing in the towel," Kuja muttered. He felt his throat tighten; it made it hard to get the words out.

"And it sounds like you don’t believe that at all. It’s obvious you don’t. You couldn’t stay put, could you? You didn’t trust in me to come through in the end," Zidane hissed, ignoring the nagging voice in the back of his head pointing out that he was the one who’d said he’d be back in a month or two, that he was the one who’d failed at finding safe haven.

"The point is, your plan failed, regardless," Kuja retorted, hitting Zidane’s sore spot dead on. "There’s going to be no safe harbor for me, no future – this will truly be our last conversation. A final farewell."

"You would’ve been safe if you’d done like I said and stayed put! Then everything would have worked out for us both. But no… you had to ruin my plans for the future too!

Kuja took a shaky breath, feeling a pain that was only partially from the physical injuries he’d sustained, dimly aware that the tears he’d thought he’d held back were now slowly rolling down his face, one at a time. Then suddenly, he began laughing again. Even though it hurt, even though he could barely breathe, he couldn’t stop. "Oh Zidane, you should’ve left me in that damn tree! Then none of this would have happened," he gasped.

Zidane gawked at the door as laughter filled the hallway. "Yeah, you’re right. I probably should’ve!" he hissed before pushing away from the cell door and stomping away, bumping against Beatrix in his haste to escape. Damn it!! He was furious and heartbroken at the same time. He needed to get out, clear his head… or else he’d do something he’d really regret.

"I’m going out," he curtly told his escort when he reached the guard standing in wait for him by the stairwell. The knight made haste to follow him upstairs, even as Zidane snapped that he wanted to be left alone.

In his cell, Kuja slumped against the wall and continued to laugh, even as he began coughing from lack of air. His face was wet and sticky now, but he didn’t care. Wasn’t that what he’d been created for? To be used and discarded once he’d served his purpose? It didn’t matter if it had been Garland, Zidane, or some random person trolling for a one-night stand. In the end, the result had always been the same. But he was completely useless now…

Why had Garland given him a soul, given him the ability to feel, even if only to a limited degree? Kuja was exhausted. Even he had his limits. If no one wanted him around, what was the point of going on? The best thing to do was to give in to the inevitable and just die. That was what the whole world wanted, wasn’t it? It was the only thing he could do to make amends. That was why he hadn’t fought the young queen’s sentence, why he’d welcomed it, actually.

In a matter of hours, his pathetic mockery of a life would end… and the world would go on without him.

He curled up on the floor, not bothering with the extra blankets Beatrix had provided. He felt so numb that neither the hard, cold floor nor the aching of his injured body registered anymore. With no one to hold on to, he clutched at his tail – a habit from his earliest days - and closed his eyes. He was so tired. He just wanted to sleep. Perhaps his dreams would be a little bit merciful… if not, even oblivion was fine. He didn’t mind if he didn’t wake up again.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- I know, Zidane's extremely unlikable here, no matter if you're siding with Garnet or with Kuja. Hopefully he's coming across as more of a confused young man who's completely overwhelmed and making bad snap judgments, rather than an irredeemable, chronic asshole.

- That said... I SWEAR that things will get better from here, really, even if (like Zidane) I haven't yet figured out how pull it off. Please no throw rotten fruit my way!

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "In My Defence" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

After Zidane stormed out of the dungeon, Beatrix also excused herself from her post. She returned a short time later with a tray of food in hand, along with a second portion for herself so that she wouldn’t have to leave the dungeon for the rest of the night. She’d managed to pick up some things that she thought Kuja would find more manageable, with his swollen face: ripe fruit, a few center slices out of a fresh loaf of bread, and more broth. Even though the man was slated to be executed early the next morning, even though Beatrix would be his executioner, she saw no reason not to see to his needs while he still was alive.

The guards on duty opened the door for her. She went in, saw Kuja lying on the ground with his hair half covering his face, and crouched down next to him. He appeared to be sleeping, but she wasn’t sure. Given the nature of his "discussion" with Zidane just a short while before, it was just as likely that he was brooding as well.

"I brought some dinner," she said, keeping her voice low in case he really was asleep.

He didn’t stir at all, so she set the plate down and tried lightly tapping him on his arm, but that still didn’t get a reaction. Beatrix frowned. Kuja’s arm had felt cool to the touch, and was trembling faintly. Meanwhile, the extra blankets she’d brought for him were still piled up, unused. She sighed, eyeing them, then after a moment’s thought, began unfolding them and laying them over Kuja.

Unsure of how long he’d continue sleeping for, she left her lantern next to the plate on the floor, so he’d see it no matter what time he woke up.

She stepped back out of the cell, locking the door behind her, nodding at the guards nearby to relieve them of duty for the time being. She pulled over a chair and sat down with no real appetite of her own, so her plate also ended up sitting on the floor.

Beatrix understood justice. She understood revenge. And while she would never accuse her queen of not knowing the difference between the two, it didn’t sit well with her that Kuja’s execution was being done in the name of justice when that wasn’t the whole truth.

She couldn’t stop thinking about the irony of the situation… as Kuja’s executioner she was the one person who’d rivaled him in both fearsome reputation and in body count. But despite Beatrix’s role in the wars, she knew she’d never be punished for her part in the near genocide of the Burmecians and Cleyrans. And neither would any of her troops. She knew well the excuses… "I was just following orders," "I was only doing what I was told." But all of them had known exactly what they were doing; the excuses were just that, excuses.

Kuja too had followed orders and done what he was told to do, all while plotting against both his master and his allies behind their backs. He’d emulated Garland by crafting and ruling over his own creations of war, the Black Mages. But given that they’d been created as soulless weapons and had been unaware of the nature of their actions before "awakening," the surviving Black Mages were in no more danger of being punished for the destruction they doled out than the soldiers of Alexandria.

So while Kuja had been part of the problem, he’d just been one of many cogs in the machine of war. But because he’d alienated everyone and stood alone, because he'd become the common enemy, because of his sheer power... there was no one who would offer excuses or beg for forgiveness for him, other than perhaps Zidane. So Kuja would have to take the fall for everything. And the denizens of the Mist Continent would all feel relieved that finally, evil was getting its just desserts, but there again, that was more about revenge and less about justice. Yet, she wasn’t sure what else could be done. He certainly couldn’t go unpunished. And it wasn’t like a death sentence was unwarranted; some would even say he was getting off easy. But were there really any other options at all? They couldn’t lock him up for the rest of his life… what if he did regain his power? Then what? And Kuja hadn’t wanted that either; he’d said he’d rather die.

Beatrix looked back at the cell door, then shook her head, wondering if waiting… thinking… was all she could do until dawn arrived.

Well even if Kuja slept through the rest of the night, she’d see to it that he wasn’t alone. Though he’d likely protest, Steiner would survive one night without her. And when the sun finally rose, she would bring her blade down as swiftly and accurately as she could, and not just for the sake of duty. She owed him that much as a former comrade.

* * *

As urgently as Zidane had fled the castle, he didn’t end up staying away for long.

He’d run all the way out to the grassy plains outside the city, looking for something, anything, to unleash his frustration on, but the local monsters sensed his foul mood and wisely stayed far, far away. The only living thing he came across was Choco, and there was no way he could take his anger out on the friendly bird…

He ended up decimating an old tree stump, turning it into splinters just for the hell of it, until the frantic clash of anger and worry in his mind had begun to ebb. By the time he stumbled away from the mess he’d created, all his excess energy had flown away along with the negative emotions, leaving him feeling utterly drained, but a little more clear headed than before.

What am I doing? he asked himself as he hopped onto Choco and began riding in aimless circles, while continuing to rack his brain for answers. Acting like a fool, that’s what!

He’d yelled at Garnet, then promptly went and argued with Kuja too. Neither one of them had deserved it. But things had been going so well, for it to all suddenly fall apart like that, he’d overreacted and…

Going so well? It wasn’t going well at all! he yelled at himself. He’d made a promise to Kuja, and despite his best intentions, he’d broken it. He’d made a promise to Garnet too, but he’d just shattered that as well. The entire engagement now felt like a farce; he’d just told Garnet that he didn’t care about the wedding, and that was probably the first truthful input he’d given on it since proposing to her. He loved her. But he didn’t want to be a prince or a king… he didn’t want a kingdom or a castle or fancy clothes and meals. The stories he’d loved as a child had made it all sound so easy – rescue the princess, live happily ever after. No one had ever written about how the hero’s life would’ve changed, how he’d miss living a low key, carefree life, how he’d resent being trapped by rules and restrictions, how he might’ve had second thoughts… or how he might’ve fallen for someone else along the way.

And then he’d run off like a coward, because he hadn’t known what else to do. No, that wasn’t it… he’d known what he was facing and he hadn’t like it. But there was no way to outrun the decision he had to make; he had to make a choice - now.

Kuja’s life was on the line – that should’ve made it obvious. But it wasn’t that simple. Even though Zidane accepted that he didn’t want to be king, that perhaps he wasn’t even ready for marriage yet, he knew… if he chose Kuja, he would be closing the door to the life he’d known, forever. He wouldn’t just be losing Garnet or the city that was now his home. He’d probably never see any of his friends again, and possibly not even his family.

But… he’d been ready for that same possibility when he’d gone into the Iifa Basin to retrieve Kuja. There’d been no guarantee that either of them would’ve survived. But he’d jumped in without hesitation anyway, because…

Take care of Kuja.

The thief sighed, throwing back his head and closing his eyes against the bright sky above. Garland’s final words still haunted him. He bet his creator would’ve been disappointed with how things had turned out.

Zidane knew that Kuja hadn’t come to Alexandria to ruin his wedding. He’d come because he didn’t have anyone else to turn to. Something must’ve been wrong, really wrong, for him to risk his life to make the journey. Maybe the house had burned down or the roof had blown off or something. Maybe someone had spotted him and threatened his life. Maybe he really was dying, and this was the only thing he could do so that his last moments wouldn’t be spent alone.

Just do the right thing, Garnet had said.

Zidane let his chin drop, then shook his head. She wasn’t going to agree, but he knew what he had to do… He now understood that when he’d saved Kuja back in the Iifa Tree, he’d also taken on the responsibility of looking after him.

Garnet would be hurt by his betrayal, of course. That couldn’t be helped. But in the long run, she’d be okay… maybe even better off, without Zidane as a constant distraction.

She was a strong woman, far stronger than he’d given her credit for. She no longer was in need of rescue. Zidane loved her confidence, but at the same time, he had to admit, some selfish part of him needed to be, well, "needed."

… A need that taking care of Kuja would fulfill.

Zidane sighed. It had to be more than that – if he just wanted to take care of something, well, even a cat or a plant would do. But he still wasn’t sure just how deep his feelings for Kuja went. He’d never given them a chance before, but now, he wanted to. He was ready to. There’d been a spark of something there… maybe it wasn't too late to resuscitate it and let it grow.

He wasn’t sure if Kuja would accept him any longer, either as a lover or a friend, considering everything that had happened. If that was the case, then Zidane told himself he’d have to accept it, even if it hurt. He probably deserved to get rejected anyhow. But no matter what, he wanted to support Kuja the way he should’ve all along.

He was just left with the little matter of how to pull off the great escape. He turned Choco back towards the direction of the city, suddenly aware that the chocobo could at least provide him transportation out of the area. But how would he get Kuja out of the castle itself? It didn’t seem like there’d be enough time to come up with a plan, and that wasn’t his forte anyhow.

Brute force was out of the question – there were way too many guards and soldiers to get through. Sneaking by was also not going to happen, due to the sheer numbers and the fact that everyone was on high alert… plus there was the whole matter of sneaking Kuja out of the dungeon even if Zidane could sneak himself in. That also killed the idea of disguising himself as a Knight of Pluto to get in, as there was no way he could sneak in a second set of armor inside the first.

Back in Tantalus they often relied on distractions to get a job done. But Zidane was flying solo on this; there wasn’t anyone he could call on for aid or even to bounce ideas off of.

He then thought about setting a small fire in his room, just enough to produce some smoke. That would attract a number of guards, especially if he barricaded the door so that they’d be forced to waste time trying to break in to save him. But Zidane dismissed the idea almost as soon as he’d come up with it. There was a risk that the fire and smoke would spread, putting innocent people in harm’s way. No matter how desperate Zidane was to save Kuja, he wasn’t going to do it by hurting others.

Still struggling to come up with something, Zidane mindlessly tsked at Choco as the bird stretched his neck out to reach some weeds, and then the perfect idea hit him like a ton of bricks.

"Yes! Choco, you’re brilliant!" he yelled, startling the bird.

Sleeping weed! He still had some in his old thieves’ kit. Dried, it resembled any number of culinary herbs that might be found in a pantry; it could also be soaked in anything from syrup to broth to form a potion. Garnet had used it quite effectively in Lindblum in order to sneak out of the castle; how ironic was it that he was now planning to turn her idea against her? Since everyone in Alexandria Castle took meals from the same kitchen, by spiking the castle’s food supply, if it worked, he could simply walk in and out of the dungeon while most everyone slept. And even if a few guards somehow managed to avoid it, he was pretty sure he could take out a few stragglers along the way.

The trickiest part would be measuring out a good amount of herb to use, given that he wasn’t going to be able to control how much each person ingested. Too big of a dosage and diners would fall asleep almost instantly, giving away the fact that their meals were spiked. Too little and they’d end up lethargic but very much awake.

He wished he had more time to plan things out, but a quick glance skyward told him he had to hurry; the castle’s chefs would start putting out dinner for the staff in just a little while.

After saying goodbye to Choco – and promising him a bushel of greens later if he’d remain in the area - Zidane rushed back to his suite, pocketed his pouch of sleeping weed, then headed straight down to the kitchen. Quina and the other cooks greeted him as he walked in. Zidane was suddenly very thankful for the fact that he was a semi-regular visitor there; whenever he was hungry between meals he’d drop in to snag a snack, so no one questioned his presence.

"You hungry, Zidane?" Quina asked as the Genome began looking around for finished dishes to spike.

Zidane stared at his friend, then realized what a good opportunity he’d been handed. "Sure am. Um… well, what’s ready to eat? Besides bread I mean…"

"Salad good and ready! But you no like. How about potato? Or soup almost done…"

The huge, open pot of soup looked like the perfect target – it was the sort of staple that would appeal to busy guards and soldiers. "The soup looks good. Mind if I have a taste?"

Delighted at Zidane's show of interest, the Qu nodded and fished out a big spoon to give him a taste. "You like? Not sure if done-done…" he/she asked as Zidane made a show of enjoying it. It really was pretty good, but more importantly, it had a strong, meaty flavor that would easily hide any "addition" to it.

"Oh wow, it’s really great! I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Can I get a bowl to go?"

"Yes! So glad you like!"

As Quina went to get a bowl, Zidane sneakily dumped about half the bag of sleeping weed into the soup, giving it a quick stir with the ladle. The herb immediately disappeared into the thickened liquid. He hoped he’d put in enough to do the trick…

"I no give too much or you no eat dinner!" Quina said once he/she came back, even as he/she ladled Zidane a good-sized portion.

The young thief accepted it with a grin. "Thanks a bunch! Gonna take it to go… see ya!" he said before disappearing out the rear door and heading back up to his room.

After making sure the doors were securely locked behind him, Zidane dumped the doctored soup, then began rummaging through his armoire and dresser, figuring out what he needed to take with him and what could be left behind. The first thing that had to go was his fussy prince’s garb – he wouldn’t miss it at all. His old adventuring outfit was in the back of the cabinet. It felt a little nostalgic, putting on the sleeveless shirt with its ruffled collar, the leather-trimmed vest, the slightly baggy blue pants.

It was a little harder to unclasp and put aside the gold and gemstone pendant which he’d worn constantly for the last few months. Although it wasn’t his style, it had been Garnet’s engagement gift to him. He would’ve liked to keep it as a memento, but that wasn’t right… he was breaking off the engagement so he had no right to it. And he didn’t want a reminder of what he was leaving behind. He refused to keep living like that: constantly looking back, wondering what could have been, wondering if he should’ve decided differently. He’d made his choice now and he was going to stick with it, come hell or high water.

He drew his blue silk tie around his neck, then belted on the sheath for his daggers. He filled a small rucksack with a change of clothing, some bandages and medicine, and his thieves’ kit, sans sleeping weed. He tied a pouch with a little bit of coin onto his belt. The last thing he fished out was the sooty brown cloak he’d worn on stage the day he proposed to Garnet. He frowned as he fingered the fabric a moment, wishing he had another option, but it would have to do; he needed something of a disguise, and it would also keep him warm as he sought to make his way out of the city. But still, he should’ve known that it would be impossible to erase all reminder of his time with her…

He had to leave her a note. She’d never forgive him, so there was no point in asking for that, but he had to explain himself… Maybe, someday, she’d at least come to understand why he had to do what he was about to do. And if not, well, at the very least he wanted her to know, it wasn’t her fault.

My Dearest Dagger,

I’m so sorry. I wish I could be a man worthy of you but I guess Steiner was right; I’m just a no-good scoundrel. And you deserve so much better. But just as you can’t be "Dagger" for me, I can’t be a fairy tale prince, even for you. I thought I could, if I simply tried hard enough, but in the end, I couldn’t become someone that I’m not.

You really are one of the most important people in my life. But so is Kuja. I wish I’d told you about him from the start. I don’t know why I didn’t, honestly. Maybe I thought I could "fix" everything myself but instead all I did was make it a lot worse.

You told me to do the right thing. And you’re right, that’s what I’ve got to do. I can’t sit back and let him die. I have to save him. I really don’t know where we’ll go or what will happen from here on out, but I’m willing to take my chances.

So I guess this is goodbye, then. I’m going to miss everyone, but I’ll miss you most of all. I’ll always love you.

He signed his name at the bottom, not that there was any question as to who had penned the letter, folded it in half, then placed it in the edge of the bed, knowing that Garnet was sure to see it as soon as she stepped into the room. The engagement pendant went on top, like a glinting beacon.

Finally ready to depart, Zidane sat down to wait for the drug to take effect, knowing there was nothing more he could do other than hope for the best. He ended up staring out the window, watching the sun set. It seemed to be lingering in the sky quite stubbornly, as if time had crawled to a near standstill, but ever so gradually, the sky changed from soft blue to burnt orange and faded violet, to a stormy deeper blue similar to the color of Kuja’s eyes.

At some point a guard knocked on the door, announcing that dinner was ready, but Zidane sent him away, claiming he didn’t feel hungry. He kept waiting, until the gray-purple skies became an inky backdrop for the moons and stars, then, noticing the absence of footfalls from the constantly patrolling guards, Zidane opened the doors and quietly crept out.

At first he didn’t see anyone, but then he realized the motionless shadow at the end of the hall was a guard, slumped on the floor, apparently asleep. He cautiously approached him...

"Hey, you okay?" he asked, leaning in closely, pretending to strike up conversation while testing if the man really was out cold.

No response at all. He couldn’t believe it… had it really worked? Emboldened, he turned the corner and spotted a pair of soldiers. Only one was awake but clearly losing the fight against the drug; her eyelids were drooping and she was leaning back heavily against the wall by her partner.

Zidane hurried back to his room, grabbed his weapons, pack and cloak, then, after scouting out the grounds below his window, went right over the balcony. He figured that the road less taken was still the safer route, since there was no guarantee that all the soldiers and guards were equally affected.

Once he was safely on the ground, he headed for the dungeon, sprinting between patches of shadow to minimize the possibility of exposure. But there really was no one around… at least no one lucid enough to effectively stop him; Zidane couldn’t believe his amazing luck. It felt like even the gods were encouraging his efforts.

Kuja’s cell was unguarded; there was a chair sitting outside, but no one in sight, not even a sleeping soldier. But Zidane didn’t drop his guard. He picked the lock as quickly and quietly as he could, grateful that his skills hadn’t deteriorated too much during his stay at the castle, then rushed inside while softly calling out to Kuja.

The silver-haired Genome lay on the floor, bundled under some blankets. He didn’t respond. Zidane noticed the food tray and lantern nearby. He wondered if Kuja had possibly ingested some of the doctored soup. If so, it’d be a little tricky to get him out as Zidane needed his hands free to respond if a fight did break out, but he figured his determination would give him the strength he needed to pull it off, if it came down to that.

Kuja was chained to the wall by his ankle; his wrists were shackled as well. Zidane undid the bindings as quickly as he could, then tried shaking Kuja awake, hoping that maybe he could rouse him enough to at least avoid having to carry him out the whole way.

"Wake up. Come on, wake up, we have to get out of here," Zidane muttered, alternating between squeezing Kuja’s shoulders and lightly patting his face. It was hard to see in the dim light, but the former mage looked a bit bruised up, so Zidane tried to be as gentle as possible. "Kuja, please…"

Kuja suddenly lurched awake, then collapsed back onto the floor, shuddering, as his body remembered just how badly injured it was. Zidane held onto him, supporting him, whispering his name, until the trembling slowed.

"It’ll be all right," Zidane said, as he helped Kuja sit up a bit. He gently stroked his fingertips down one side of Kuja’s face, trying his best to avoid the bruised areas, which turned out to be worse than he first thought. Even the areas that weren’t discolored from bruising were puffy and tacky to the touch. Zidane wished he could give the older man more time to recover, since it looked like he needed it, but he couldn’t risk any delays. He had no clue when the effects of the sleeping weed would start wearing off. "Do you think you can get up? Can you walk?"

With only one good eye – and even that was now too swollen to be fully usable - Kuja tried to focus on the face hovering over his. He was sure he was hallucinating; it looked like Zidane and sounded like Zidane but that was impossible, Zidane didn’t want to see him. Frustrated, Kuja switched to processing what was being asked of him. He wasn’t sure if he could get up anymore, but the last time he’d said something to Zidane – assuming that really was Zidane there beside him – the younger Genome had told him he should’ve left him behind in the Iifa Tree. So in lieu of a verbal response, Kuja tried to push himself up, grunting as he did so. Bruises and lacerations mingled with general muscle soreness from the long journey; his feet were a mass of blisters. But the strong arms that had been holding him lent him their support, bracing him, until he somehow managed to get upright.

"Good." Zidane pulled one of Kuja’s arms over his shoulders. The other went around his waist. "Ready? We’ve got to get going, okay?"

Kuja bit back a cry of agony as Zidane started hustling him out of the cell. He’d already been in pain but the sudden movement set all his injuries ablaze. He wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to keep on his feet, but his legs tried their best to keep up as Zidane guided him down the corridor.

The lamp lit walls and floors looked like an endless grayish blur. Kuja tried to concentrate on just keeping his feet shuffling forward, but he was really starting to fade. He still didn’t know where he was being taken. Was it dawn already? And why was Zidane there, and not Beatrix or a gaggle of castle guards? Had Zidane decided to do the deed himself? Or maybe he was dreaming, but the pain was too real... Nothing made any sense, but he was afraid to ask what was going on, as if voicing his confusion would somehow warp his perception even more.

"Why doesn’t this surprise me?" an all-too-familiar female voice said from the shadows.

Zidane stopped, spinning around, trying to place where Beatrix was, cursing inwardly at the fact that the most formidable member of Alexandria’s army was the one person who’d somehow overcome the effects of the sleeping drug.

He suddenly heard the soft hiss of a sword being drawn behind him and he whirled around, forced to release his hold on Kuja in order to respond in kind. Kuja fell against the wall and then dropped to his knees; he no longer had the strength to stand without support.

"Sorry," Zidane whispered. He wished he’d had the luxury of setting Kuja down more gently, but dealing with Beatrix was going to require all his attention. He crossed his daggers behind his back and shifted into a defensive posture in front of Kuja as the general stepped out of the shadows, the razor sharp edge of Save the Queen glinting in the flickering light.

"You intend to fight me?" Beatrix asked, eyeing Zidane’s daggers, her voice steady and confident.

"I don’t want to, but I will. I’m going to protect him, even if it means my life… or yours," Zidane warned.

"That’s quite the change in attitude from a few hours ago." Beatrix sounded mildly amused. She looked past Zidane, at the former mage slumped against the wall. Kuja looked pretty bad; his bruises had continued darkening, and a cold sweat had broken out on his brow. If nothing was done for him, he might very well pass away even without her having to raise her sword. Frankly she was surprised that he was even conscious, though from the sound of his labored breathing and the way he was wobbling, even seated, he wouldn’t remain that way for long. So she called out to him.

Kuja lifted his head with effort, managing to push past the fog clouding his mind long enough to focus momentarily on Beatrix and the bared blade in her hands. So Zidane really was delivering me for execution... he thought. Maybe it was for the best though; at least Zidane would be there at the end… Feeling himself fading fast, he managed to give the blonde one last look before passing out.

Startled, Zidane began to reach for Kuja, but he stopped himself, forcing his attention back onto Beatrix.

"Hey, how come you’re not drugged?" Zidane asked, searching for some sort of opening. He wondered if she’d ingested any of it at all, or had she somehow proven resistant to the herb’s effects?

"Why? What did you do?" Beatrix queried, her voice sharpening slightly.

"I… put sleeping weed in tonight’s dinner?"

She hadn’t realized that that’s what had happened, but it made sense. If the situation weren’t so serious, she might even have found it funny. "I see… Well luckily for me, I took my meal early, as I planned on staying down here the entire evening. You can imagine my surprise however, when my soldiers inexplicably started to fall asleep at their posts after dinner, all around the same time."

A slight smile flitted across Zidane’s lips for just a second. "I was hoping you’d be one of them."

"Unlucky for you, then," Beatrix noted. She tossed her curls over her shoulder, smirked, and added, "May I remind you, you’ve never bested me in combat before."

"Yeah, you’re right. But maybe this time will be different," Zidane said, shifting his weight lightly on the balls of his feet. The tip of his tail flicked out from under his cloak and arched over his back. It began glowing and turning pinkish. "I won’t know ‘til I try."

Beatrix wasn’t afraid of facing Zidane, even if he fully Tranced – actually, she thought that would make it interesting - but she’d had no intention of fighting him in the first place. If anything, she was grateful for Zidane’s interference… by him pulling off his escape plan, he’d given her a convenient out. She hadn’t wanted to take Kuja’s life; now she wouldn’t have to.

She looked back once again at Kuja’s unconscious form lying awkwardly against the wall like a sack of flour, then relaxed until she’d dropped out of her fighting stance. "It’s a shame we’ll never find out then." She slid her sword back into its scabbard.

Zidane straightened up slightly as well, his tail changing back to its normal golden hue, though he wasn’t so quick to put his daggers away. "You’re letting us go?" he asked incredulously.

"I never saw you come though here. And I better not see you again," she warned him, steel in her voice. Zidane’s eyes widened as the implication of her words sank in. She smirked again, knowing full well that what she was doing amounted to treason, but she also knew that no one would challenge her assertion that she’d been incapacitated by the doctored food.

The young thief stood still a moment, trying to decide whether or not to believe her, then he too put his weapons away, sighing in relief. It wasn’t so much that he trusted her, but he knew she’d abide by the knight’s code of honor and would not strike him from behind. He turned around to check on Kuja.

"You’re really choosing him over the queen… over your ‘Dagger,’" Beatrix said from behind Zidane’s shoulder.

"He needs me," Zidane replied as he got his arms under the taller man and carefully picked him up, tucking Kuja’s head against his shoulder so that it wouldn’t flop backwards.

"So does she."

"No, not like this. Besides, she has you, and she has Steiner. I was never going to be anything more than an actor playing dress up as king."

"That’s not what I meant, and you know it," Beatrix sighed.

"Yeah… but there’s nothing more I can do for her. I can’t even tell her goodbye to her face." Zidane paused, then a bitter smile touched his lips. "I shouldn’t have come back at all; if only I’d known how things would’ve turned out… But, that’s hindsight for ya."

"Yes. And I hope I won’t regret my decision here as well. But be warned: I will not stay my hand a second time. You are both now enemies of Alexandria, and of the other city-states that have treatied with Alexandria," Beatrix declared.

"Yeah, I figured." Zidane took a half step back. "Well… take care of her. And farewell. We won’t meet again."

Beatrix gave him a slight nod.

Zidane returned the gesture. Then he readjusted his grip on the limp bundle in his arms before turning and walking away.

Beatrix stood and watched until the shadows swallowed them, until the footsteps faded and the door creaked open and slammed shut in final punctuation. Then, knowing there was no one there to bear witness, she threw out a quick salute, her fist thumping against her chest, her heels clicking together. She felt sorry for her queen, and had already begun mentally preparing herself to offer what support she could, but still… she wished them well. And she truly hoped she’d never see them again, as she had every intention of following through on her threat should their paths cross again.

With no reason to remain on guard duty in the dungeon, Beatrix began heading upstairs as well, curious to see just how extensive the damage was from Zidane’s little plan. He may have been a lousy prince, but he’d turned out to be a better thief than she’d given him credit for.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- We’ve arrived at the official halfway point of this story! I’d considered splitting it into two stories, basically a first half and a second half, but as it is meant to be read as one complete story I scrapped that idea.

- Like Zidane, I’m not one for planning ahead (at least with writing) and so I freely admit I got to this chapter without a solid plan for getting Kuja out of the dungeon. My original idea was to have Zidane set his room on fire as a distraction – and I paid tribute to that by having him consider it - but I can’t see him risking injury to dozens of innocent people just to get Kuja out.

- I have to credit my husband for the sleeping weed idea… I’d forgotten it was in the game, actually. He’d suggested that Quina somehow help Zidane but I couldn’t see him/her doing that deliberately, and then I remembered that Garnet had drugged the party’s food in Lindblum (and that Zidane had been the one to provide her with the sleeping weed). I loved the idea of Zidane being clever enough to return the favor, so to speak, and Quina's food ended up being the perfect delivery route.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Scandal" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Zidane had no clue where he was going. The destination didn’t matter he supposed; north, west, south… anywhere "away" would suffice. He was more concerned about losing any possible pursuers he might’ve had, so even thought it was the dead of night and the light drizzle that had dogged him since the start of his escape had turned into a steady rainfall, he kept backtracking and circling and making as much of a muddy mess of his tracks as possible.

He was getting tired though. His arms were beyond numb. Even Choco was faltering. But the young thief didn’t dare slow down or slacken his hold. Kuja’s life was on the line. Even though his arms felt like they were going to fall off, even though he was so exhausted he wanted to collapse, even though his stomach was growling endlessly and the splash of cold raindrops clouded his eyes, he worried that he had no choice but to keep going.

Zidane spared a glance upwards as they continued down a river, as the forest canopy opened up briefly to the night sky, letting the light of the twin moons through to dance with raindrops on the flowing water. He had no idea how long they’d been on the run for – hours, probably. Would that be enough? It would have to be. With the rain not letting up, his thoughts began turning towards finding shelter.

An abandoned house, like the one he’d found before, would be a godsend. But he wasn’t counting on being lucky enough to find something like that again. Maybe a cave would suffice? Or even a thicket of trees dense enough to provide some protection against the elements?

Zidane suddenly sneezed. He shook his head, frowning as his damp bangs stuck against his skin; he’d wrapped his cloak around Kuja when they’d left the dungeon, both to disguise him and to keep him warm. But even with rainwater dripping onto his face, Kuja hadn’t stirred at all the entire time, and Zidane was growing increasingly concerned. Mind made up, he slowed Choco down, took a good look around, then realized what he thought was just a dark section of rock was actually a natural opening between the cliffs surrounding the valley, easily missed amongst the trees and shadows. He guided the chocobo up and over the bank to take a closer look, then decided to go ahead and head in. It wasn’t like there were many other options at the moment.

He’d been hoping for a cave or outcropping of some sort. He didn’t find any, at least, nothing big enough for anything more than a small animal or maybe, at best, a single person. But he instinctively stayed on the path and was rewarded for his persistence when it opened up into a secluded, forested vale.

He’d never been in this corner of the continent before. He wasn’t sure if the area was even inhabited. But it looked like an ideal hiding spot, and so he decided to continue searching the area for whatever shelter he could find.

When he first spotted the small house and docks on the shore of a tranquil lake, he thought it was a mirage or even a trap, something laid out by a witch to catch unwary children or travelers. It was too convenient; there weren’t any other signs of civilization around. Maybe some crazy hermit lived there? If someone was living there, it’d be rude to bother them in the middle of the night. But he - and Kuja - were in no shape to look a gift house in the… well… door. So after a moment’s hesitation he hid Kuja behind some trees, asked Choco to keep watch over him, and crept up the porch of the house, intending to peek into the windows to see if there was anyone inside.

Zidane nearly sighed in relief at the feel of solid wood beneath his feet – at least the house wasn’t some figment of his imagination! But what surprised him even more was that the front door had a note nailed to it. Curious, Zidane picked it up and squinted at it. The moons’ light was just enough for him to read the short message:

Wanted: dockmaster. Please inquire at the bakery (ask for the mayor).

So the house came with a job? Did that mean it was vacant? And where was this bakery? Zidane took a quick peek in the front window but couldn’t see anything in the dark, then looked past the porch railing to see a shed out back plus a pathway weaving through the trees. Well, that answered that. There was a town somewhere beyond. And while he didn’t know anything about docks or boats or whatever, he was pretty sure he could handle it or at least act like he could handle it, since it was probably all just physical labor. It wasn’t like, pretending to be a prince… He made a face at the reminder.

Thankful again for his thief’s training, Zidane made short work of the locked front door, then, holding his breath in nervous anticipation of what he’d find, he stepped inside.

The house was really nothing more than a single room, measuring perhaps twenty feet by twenty feet total, including the attached bathroom. Even calling it a cottage was generous. At least there were lamps on hand and some basic furnishings in place: a small bed in one corner, an armoire with some linens, a bookcase, a kitchen table with seating for four, a corner kitchenette with bare cupboards. But overall it looked clean and in good repair and most importantly, was currently unoccupied.

Zidane felt the corners of his mouth twitch upward for the first time that day. Small though it was, it was more than sufficient to house a pair of fugitives on the run for a few weeks or even more.

He hustled back out to retrieve Kuja, pausing only to release Choco for a well-deserved meal by the riverbank. After carrying Kuja up the porch steps and into the cottage, he managed to shut the door behind him with his shoulder before leaning back against it, hard. They were both wet, filthy and exhausted. The bed looked awfully tempting. But Zidane knew if he went to sleep as he was, if he let Kuja sleep like that as well, they’d both end up sick. So as much as he wanted to simply crawl into the bed, he didn’t.

He turned and headed for the bathroom instead.

It seemed like a miracle, but the house had hot water too. Relieved, Zidane carefully sat Kuja up against the wall near the tub, then began filling it with water. A small storage niche had some linens as well, another bonus! Zidane swiftly stripped himself down, then turned his attention back to Kuja to do the same for him. He shook his head sadly; he’d fantasized about touching Kuja again, slowly undressing him… but it wasn’t supposed to be like this. He just hoped the former mage wouldn’t suddenly awaken; it’d probably be shocking for him to find himself being laid bare in a strange house. He’d probably think Zidane was trying to do something unsavory. But it couldn’t be helped if he did… they both needed a good bath.

Kneeling down, the Zidane began peeling back sodden fabric to reveal a very thin body, white skin marred by welts and cuts and bruises. He grimaced. Kuja hadn’t had weight to lose to begin with. And although none of the injuries looked to be permanently debilitating, they were worse looking and more numerous than Zidane had expected. Recovery would take some time. He hoped he could work out some sort of deal with whoever wrote the note on the door; it’d be best if they could stay in one place while Kuja recuperated.

But what the younger man saw when he finally got down to removing the well worn shoes from Kuja’s feet was enough to stun him, like a punch to the gut. Kuja’s feet were severely blistered, the skin red and raw and inflamed all over. His left ankle was swollen too. He must’ve pushed himself hard to get to Alexandria, step by step, day after day, the fading leather offering insufficient protection against weather and terrain. No wonder he’d been so reluctant to stand when Zidane had busted him out of prison. It must’ve been agonizing for him, like walking on needles. And yet despite all of that he’d forced himself to stand, instead of complaining or begging Zidane for help to even make it out of his cell.

It was hard to pull his attention away from Kuja’s wounds, but treating them would have to wait until the next day. Kuja’s skin felt cold and he was starting to shiver noticeably. And Zidane didn’t have the right supplies on hand, and he was just so tired… Putting Kuja in a bed piled with blankets, letting him rest… that was the best thing to do for the moment.

The tub was round and unusually tall, like a big half barrel. Hell, that probably was what it had been once upon a time. It made it tricky to get an unconscious body in and out of it, but Zidane did his best. He got them both cleaned up and dried off as well as he could, then he lifted Kuja onto the bed, trying his best to not put pressure on the bruises, carefully maneuvering him to the side nearest to the back wall before climbing in himself. It was a good thing Zidane didn’t mind the close quarters; the bed really wasn’t built for two. But it was surprisingly comfortable even without nightclothes, and Kuja was finally starting to warm up, his breathing steady… Zidane’s thoughts didn’t make it much further than that before he too was fast asleep.

* * *

General Beatrix spent most of the night cleaning up the mess Zidane’s little escape plan had created. The vast majority of the soldiers and guards in the castle had taken a dose of the sleeping weed; those that had been least affected, along with the few that had skipped the meal or at least, the doctored soup, had to be reassigned to cover the most essential positions. Everyone else that had been drugged, from the lowest private to the castle’s cooks themselves to even the queen, had to be seen safely to their quarters to sleep off the effects.

By the time everyone had been accounted for and attended to, the sun was already painting the margins of the sky a coppery orange hue. Beatrix managed to fight back a yawn. For her, sleep would have to come later. As general of Alexandria, she was expected to oversee all matters affecting the castle and the city until the queen was ready to resume her duties.

Normally she would’ve had Steiner at her side, supporting her, but he’d eaten quite a lot of soup at dinner and so was deeply asleep. She’d scold him later for it. For now though, it wasn’t bad, having things so quiet. The silence suited her mood.

She wasn’t looking forward to the long, chaotic day ahead. There’d be many people asking questions - some in hushed whispers, others in loud wails - about the disappearance of the prince, about the cancellation of the wedding, about what had happened to the terrible criminal Kuja. There’d be confusion and disappointment and fear and anger too.

She’d already decided on her explanation for what had happened, one that wasn’t the truth and yet not completely a lie either. Kuja had escaped because she’d been busy scrambling to get things back in order as soldier after soldier had fallen asleep. That sort of failing was bad enough to earn her a harsh reprimand or punishment, because she was supposed to make sure such things would not occur, and yet Beatrix was sure that nothing would happen to her. Queen Garnet just wasn’t that type of person, a ruler who’d cruelly punish someone for an oversight, even if that person had failed her before. She’d let the story stand, even if it felt a little off to her, because there was no way to disprove it, and because she would want to believe that she hadn’t been betrayed by yet another close to her.

But… it was a sort of betrayal. Nothing like what Zidane had pulled, but still...

Beatrix didn’t feel guilty about it though. She was a little surprised by that. For once, she’d done what she’d felt was right, instead of just blindly, mindlessly following orders – that was the difference. She could live with that. It was strangely liberating, even with the weight of truth settling on her conscience.

Hours passed and the sleeping castle inhabitants finally began rousing, one after another. It was a relief to all that the sleeping drug proved harmless… it had been more of an inconvenience than anything.

Beatrix was in the middle of reorganizing schedules and coverage when she was summoned to the queen’s chambers. Without hesitation she stood up and went, only pausing in front of a mirror long enough to make sure she still looked alert and presentable, before announcing her arrival at Garnet’s room.

The queen sat on the bench at the foot of her bed, dressed rather simply in a white blouse and long blue skirt, clutching a note and a gold pendant in her hands. She turned when Beatrix walked in, and the general immediately noticed that Garnet’s eyes were shimmering with dampness, but the young monarch was bravely holding back any tears that wanted to well up.

Steiner on the other hand, had apparently not been as successful. His eyes were big and moist and his nose red. He paced restlessly back and forth, his gauntleted hands occasionally flapping like clumsy birds as he wailed, "My poor, poor Queen Garnet! I cannot believe… why, if I see that hooligan again, I’ll…!"

"Adelbert," Beatrix admonished, sighing. She rarely used his first name publicly, but his hysterics weren’t helping, and it was only the three of them in the room. But she was a little relieved to see him awake and, well, being himself.

He gave her a look like he was going to burst into tears all over again, but then with visible effort – quivering chin and all – he stopped and straightened up and did his best to imitate a statue at his queen’s side.

"Your Majesty, we will not think any less of you if you need to cry," Beatrix told Garnet, gently as she could.

Garnet managed a weak smile that faded almost as quickly as it had appeared. "You’ve seen his letter then," she said, her fingers reflexively tightening around the sheet of paper.

"No. I don’t have to. I’ve pieced together what has happened."

"I’d told him to do the right thing," Garnet said, staring at her hands. "The right thing, apparently, was to take him and leave." Her lips tightened; she didn’t even want to say either of the Genomes’ names.

"Your Majesty, just give the word, and the Knights of Pluto will immediately begin pursuit," Steiner offered, his voice still a bit raw and shaky.

"You think it’ll be easy to track them, after so many hours, especially with the rain this morning? Any tracks they’d left would have washed away," Beatrix countered, shaking her head. "They’re long gone, Steiner. We have no clue where they might’ve gone. And we're in no shape to dedicate resources to a blind pursuit."

"We can start by questioning that bunch of thieves he calls a family!" Steiner growled in frustration. He pounded a fist in his open palm. "Something must be done! Are we really letting that villain get away? And how did he manage to escape under your watch, anyhow?"

"Captain," Garnet said sharply, ending the brewing argument before it began. She could see Beatrix puffing up a little. The general had too much pride to take an insult like that, even from her lover… especially from her lover. "I don’t doubt that General Beatrix had her hands full with the guards on duty falling asleep, along with the majority of the castle staff."

The general bowed her head slightly. She didn’t need the queen to stick up for her, but Garnet’s assumption was right in line with the explanation Beatrix had prepared, so it was convenient to simply go along with it.

"Ah… My apologies, Queen Garnet, Bea… General…" Steiner stammered, bowing.

Beatrix relaxed back into her usual stance, her face calm once again. She also bowed to Garnet in silent apology.

The queen turned back to her knight. "Also, I consider Marcus and Cinna and Blank amongst my friends. I will not allow you to harass or interrogate them like they’re criminals," she added. "If you have anything you must ask them, please treat them with respect and I’m sure they’ll be happy to assist you in any way they can."

Slightly cowed, Steiner lowered his head momentarily, but then he spoke up again, though he minded his words and tone a little more carefully. "At the very least, we should put out wanted posters immediately. That way, no matter where they hide, they’ll be flushed out sooner or later."

Garnet mulled it over. It wasn’t a bad suggestion; she saw no reason to object. It would at least reassure the people that something was being done, that neither Kuja nor Zidane would be able to just waltz back into the country. "Agreed. Sir Steiner, can you please see to that? There should still be some old wanted posters in the archives…" she trailed off, before clearing her throat. "Well, they can be used as reference," she managed to finish.

Steiner perked up a little, now that he had a task to focus on. "Yes, Your Majesty! Then, by your leave…"

Garnet nodded.

After Steiner left, Beatrix automatically turned to follow, but stopped when Garnet suddenly said in a small voice, "I know it’s wrong, but… a very small part of me is relieved that he’s gone. That sounds awful, doesn’t it?"

Beatrix turned back around. She wasn’t sure if "he" referred to Zidane or Kuja, though she was pretty sure it was the former. "My Queen?"

"He was my fiancé. But it never felt like he wanted to be here, or maybe he felt like he didn’t belong. And I didn’t know how to make it better…" Garnet looked back out the window, thinking of the difficult times she’d seen and how she’d sometimes wished she could’ve flown away from it all, even though this was exactly where she belonged. In a way she was a little envious of Zidane having managed to escape from it all, even though it came at her expense. "Even if Kuja hadn’t come… it wasn’t going to be happily ever after, was it? Even though he said that he loved me," she continued musing aloud.

"I cannot say, Your Majesty."

Garnet’s eyes sought the blue sky that stretched endlessly above. The world was a wide, open space. If Zidane and Kuja truly wanted to disappear, even posting rewards for their capture would do no good – there were many places far beyond the reach of her influence. "I wish I could ask him. But at the same time… I hope we don’t find them, even though I just told Steiner to post wanted posters."

Beatrix nodded. Garnet had found it distasteful having to sentence Kuja to execution. There was no way she’d be okay with doing the same to Zidane, even if the punishment was justified.

Garnet’s lashes fluttered back down. She looked at the letter and pendant in her hand, then slowly placed them on the bench beside her. She twisted her engagement ring off as well, dropping it on top of the other items, before turning to address Beatrix again. "Thank you for listening. You may go, General."

"Yes, Your Majesty." And the general saluted and bowed before stepping out of the room, carefully shutting the door behind her. The young queen needed time to mourn, to gather her thoughts, to start planning out her next steps. Until then, Beatrix intended to do everything she could to help her in running the kingdom.

She was just heading back down to her usual post when she ran into Mikoto, who’d apparently been waiting for her by the castle’s entrance. It was a little startling to see her, mainly because she looked so similar to Zidane, if Zidane lacked all but the most basic of facial expressions…

Beatrix wondered why the young Genome was there, and then it dawned on her that a number of important wedding guests were due to arrive this day and next. She frowned. Word would not spread fast enough to stop most of them from making the trip. She was not looking forward to having to explain, over and over, why the wedding was cancelled, nor having to apologize for the inconvenience and wasted time. But she’d do it as many times as she needed to, without complaint – Garnet had enough to deal with already, without the addition of sympathetic or confused guests to the mix.

But Mikoto was staring at her expectantly, as if she already knew...

"Shall I tell you where they are?" Mikoto asked quietly, getting right to the point, not even bothering with a greeting other than a slight tilt of her head.

Beatrix stared back, suddenly remembering that Mikoto could track Zidane, at the very least… and perhaps Kuja as well? Had she known he’d survived, then? The general stepped closer, her thoughts continuing to spin in different directions. Part of her wanted to lay blame at Mikoto’s feet, for having kept Kuja’s survival a secret, but that wasn’t fair to the girl when Zidane might’ve done something to convince her to keep her mouth shut. Another part of her wanted to take the information that Mikoto was offering and run with it; she’d be hailed as a hero if she apprehended the escapees. But Beatrix did neither. She would always carry out her queen’s orders to the letter, there was no question about that, but anything beyond that…

"No, don’t. Or I’ll be forced to act on that information," Beatrix murmured, just loud enough for Mikoto’s ears. She paused, still thinking, then added, "Who else knows you can do this?"

"Zidane."

"Is that why you came to me? Because I already knew…"

Mikoto’s head tilted a little more. "Yes. Did I do the right thing?"

"That depends on what you consider as ‘the right thing.’"

"I don’t want to tell you where they are. But I didn’t want to wait to be asked either."

Beatrix relaxed. It seemed they were in agreement, then. "Good. Don’t say anything more. We never had this conversation, understand?"

Unlike Zidane, Mikoto was highly intelligent. She was nodding. But also unlike Zidane, she didn’t have much in the way of social skills. Beatrix was a little concerned that maybe the young Genome misunderstood what she meant, but before she could clarify, Mikoto looked at her and said, "It’s too bad… I was looking forward to the wedding."

"As were we all," Beatrix muttered. There was no point in mentioning that, just like Garnet, part of her felt relieved… Although it was terrible seeing her queen’s heart broken, perhaps, in the long run, this really was for the best.

"I’ve never attended one before," Mikoto added a bit wistfully.

Beatrix shrugged. She hadn’t attended many weddings herself. As a career soldier, it wasn’t really something she thought about, even though she was currently in a relationship; it wasn’t like Steiner was likely to propose any time soon.

"Perhaps yours will be next?" Mikoto asked conversationally, as if Beatrix hadn’t just been thinking contrary to that.

The general smirked, but she went ahead and took the bait. "If that happens, I’ll be sure to invite you."

Satisfied with the answer, Mikoto nodded. "If that happens, I’ll look forward to it," she said, before excusing herself to go inform the rest of the Genomes and Black Mages that had accompanied her of the latest news.

Beatrix watched her go, then shook her head. She supposed it made sense that Mikoto didn’t understand… Getting married, even getting a relationship to progress to that point, wasn’t an easy thing. Zidane and Garnet were proof of that. It was only in storybooks that "happily ever after" was the obvious and inevitable ending.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- RIP David Bowie.

- This chapter is slightly shorter as it serves as a transition to the next phase of the story. My original intent was to skip doing a transition entirely, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it had to be done, to give some sense of closure to Zidane's life at the castle. Hopefully I was able to do so, and to move things in a forward direction once again.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Under Pressure" are performed and recorded by Queen and David Bowie. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Zidane awoke abruptly to find himself in an unfamiliar room, in an unfamiliar bed, next to a familiar, yet motionless body… and immediately felt a wave of panic wash over him.

"Kuja!"

He hurriedly leaned over to do a check on the former mage’s condition. There was no noticeable change one way or another – Kuja’s breathing remained steady, which was a

huge relief, but he was still unconscious and his body temperature ran a little high. The bruises that mottled his skin looked more livid under the sunlight filtering through the back window, but at least they didn’t seem to be spreading more than they already had. The amount of swelling was still pretty alarming though, especially on the left side of his face and his upper back. And his feet were still a mess, with spots of fluid having seeped through the bandages Zidane had applied the night before.

Zidane sighed and shook his head. At least Kuja was alive and safe, for now. But it was already past midday, judging by the sun’s position in the sky. And Zidane was in a bind; he didn’t want to risk leaving Kuja alone while he went to check out the town, but on the other hand they desperately needed food, clothing, extra medication and bandages…

He weighed the pros and cons, then decided the trip to town had higher priority. Without those basic supplies, Kuja would not survive. But he had to keep the trip as brief as possible… it was terrifying thinking of what could happen if someone chanced upon Kuja in his current state. Zidane hoped that by riding Choco, he could lessen his travel time and minimize his time away, though he didn’t yet know how far away the town was. Maybe if he locked the door and drew the curtains and even hung the note back on the nail – basically making it look like no one had been in there – no one would think of checking inside the house to see that it was now occupied.

After jotting down a list of everything he needed and doing his best to clean up any evidence of his presence, Zidane grabbed his knapsack, stepped out onto the porch, and called Choco to him. The bird appeared after a minute, looking mostly recovered from the long ride the night before. Zidane smiled as Choco kweh-ed at him.

"Sorry buddy, I know I promised you something good to eat," Zidane said apologetically. "So I still owe you. But I really need a ride to town, you think you can do that?"

Choco bounced up and down slightly in place, then ran in a tight circle as if to say, "What are we waiting for, let’s go!"

Zidane’s grin broadened. "Thanks," he told the bird as he swung up onto his back, before urging him into a loping run. He didn’t want to push Choco too hard after last night’s workout, but the longer he was gone, the more he’d worry. He just wanted to get his supplies and hurry back.

* * *

The town ended up being not all that far away, maybe a mile and a half or so. It was a relief finding it so close by, in case he'd had missed something crucial on his shopping list.

It was a very small town though, the sort of place where life moved at a slower pace and everyone knew everyone else. Like most border towns it was anchored by a cluster of buildings centered around intersecting dirt roads, thinning out to farmland dotted by houses. Zidane counted a tavern, a general store, something larger that was probably a town hall or community center, and sure enough, a bakery, amongst the buildings.

Well, first things first. He dismounted, hitched Choco to the railing in front of the bakery, and looked up at the storefront. It was a fairly nondescript two-story, semi-modified house with a small porch and a few low steps. A large picture window showed off a baker’s rack that held a few loaves of bread. The upstairs had smaller windows with homey looking curtains and a fat cat lounging in a basket. Zidane assumed the baker's family lived upstairs, so did that mean he or she was also the mayor?

The door to the shop had a little bell that jingled merrily when Zidane walked in. The Genome’s head swiveled as he took a look around. The place was small: a narrow counter sat perpendicular to the entrance, and additional baker’s racks behind that held a few baked goods. There was a trio of small tables across from the counter. To Zidane’s relief there were no other customers – and apparently no shopkeeper either. But it sure did smell great, and his stomach rumbled as if to remind him of the fact that he hadn’t eaten recently. "Um, hello?"

A young lady suddenly hustled in from behind a curtain in the rear of the room. "So sorry… Oh my, a traveler!"

Zidane’s mouth dropped open. Dagger?! No… but she reminded him so much of his ex-fiancée, it was uncanny. This woman had the same heart shaped face, the same wide, expressive dark eyes, the same thick hair. But her hair was a lighter shade of brown and plaited in a loose braid, and her skin a touch darker, with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. The plain cotton blouse, faded blue skirt with rickrack trim, and ditsy floral apron weren’t the sort of things a queen would be caught dead in.

"Mister, can I help you?" she asked, cocking her head as Zidane continued staring at her.

Her casual manner of speaking was different enough to finally snap Zidane out of his stupor. She’s not Dagger, he scolded himself. She just looks a little similar. Not that it matters… I’ve closed the door on that part of my life. "Sorry, you reminded me of someone… And uh, I’m pretty hungry. What’s good?"

She giggled. "Everything! But if you’re wanting something filling, our hand pies make for a good lunch. Though… as it’s a little late in the day, there’s only a couple of potato and cheese ones left…" she said, gesturing at the shelves. "We don’t usually have much of anything by this hour, I’m afraid."

"That’s fine. Can I get two of those? And a big loaf of bread and two of those muffins back there. And… um, I saw a sign on the house by the lake advertising for a dockmaster… I wanted to apply. Are you the mayor as well?"

"My husband Arnett is the mayor," Garnet's lookalike replied as she wrapped the order in squares of paper. "Shall I’ll get him for you?"

He was more than a little curious to see what kind of person her husband was. "Please. Oh, and I should’ve asked sooner, but what’s your name, by the way?" he asked, not wanting to keep thinking of her as "Not-Dagger."

"I’m Sara." She stuck her hand over the counter. "And you?"

Zidane was so stunned for the second time in minutes that he just gawked at her. Was this some sort of cosmic joke? Garnet’s birth name was Sarah. So not only did this woman look similar but her name was nearly identical as well?

But then he suddenly remembered Garnet fiercely declaring that she couldn’t be "his Dagger" any longer, that she was Garnet Til Alexandros XVII, Queen of Alexandria. As shocked as he’d been when she’d said that, the memory of it now helped him relax a little. Garnet had released any claim she’d had on being "Sarah" a long time ago. And this was just a coincidence, nothing more. It wasn’t like Sara / Sarah was an uncommon name.

He gave Sara an awkward smile in apology, then reached out and shook her hand, before remembering he needed to pay as well. "I’m Zidane. Sorry, I’m just a little scatterbrained today," he said as he put some coins on the counter.

She giggled again and handed him his purchase, along with some change. "I’ll let him know you’re here about the position," she said, disappearing through the curtain in the back.

Too hungry to hold back, Zidane pushed one of the potato pies and the bread and muffins into his sack, then tore into the other pie as he waited for the mayor. The pie was so good, the perfect sort of hearty, simple, satisfying food that he craved after putting on a late night show or a running around with his gang after a sneaky heist. He managed to polish off half of it just as the curtain fluttered again and a man came lumbering out to greet him.

"I’m Arnett," the man said, extending a massive hand, and Zidane tried hard to not choke on a mouthful of bread and potato. The guy was enormous, with little black pebbles for eyes, and hairy, like a bear, with thick, dark sideburns and a mustache.

"You’re the mayor?" Zidane managed to wheeze as Sara came back out. She poured him a cup of water as a courtesy, and he nodded his thanks before taking a few careful sips. He couldn’t help but think about what an odd couple these two made, this delicate flower of a girl and this mountain-like man.

"Yup. You’re here about the dockmaster job?" Arnett asked, looking Zidane up and down as the young Genome quickly packed away his unfinished lunch before offering up his clean hand for a handshake. Arnett wasn’t impressed. Zidane didn’t seem suited for physical work; he was barely more than a kid, with a chest and arms that looked too thin for heavy lifting. He grunted in disapproval. "Think you can handle it, kid?"

Zidane scoured his brain for something useful to say. His tail lashed behind him as he scratched his head. "Well, I’ve been on plenty of ships – even airships. Can’t say I ever had to fix one though…"

Arnett roared in laughter. It reminded Zidane a little of Baku’s laugh. "That part, someone can show ya. But it’s not easy work, kid. It takes a man to do a man’s job."

Zidane frowned slightly. "Okay, so maybe I don’t really know much about boats or docks or whatever. But… I’m not a kid. I’m tougher than I look!"

"Oh yeah? Wanna arm wrestle over it?"

Zidane eyed the mayor’s biceps as the big man flexed for show. The guy was impressively built for sure, but Zidane knew strength was about more than muscles. Though he’d rarely won outright, he used to arm wrestle with his brothers a lot and had often managed a draw or a even a win by acquiesce, despite his usual lack of leverage and pure physical power. Not that that meant he was weak either… just because he wasn’t a muscle-bound hulk didn’t mean he was a pushover. He'd fought his way all through Gaia to Terra and back. Hiding a grin, he rubbed his chin thoughtfully a moment, then shrugged, saying, "What happens if I win?"

"You get the job!"

"And if I lose?"

"HA! Then you don’t."

"Well, guess I don’t have a choice then." Zidane planted an elbow on the counter and held up his hand. "Let’s do it."

If nothing else Arnett admired Zidane’s spunk. "That’s the spirit, kid!" he said as he too planted an elbow onto the counter and locked up grips with the young blonde. "Hun, wanna start the match?"

Sara muttered, "Boys will be boys" under her breath, but smiled and put her hands over the men's locked hands and asked, "Ready?"

Both men nodded, so she let go...

Zidane jumped the gun slightly, as he always did, so he could make the initial push and put Arnett on his heels slightly. He’d always gotten away with it, because he was young and charming enough to fake innocence, as if he hadn’t meant to do it. He wasn’t surprised when Arnett immediately pushed back and evened things up. The mayor really was a strong fellow; those muscles weren’t for show. Zidane knew winning would be difficult the longer the match dragged on, so he immediately played his next card.

"What happens if it’s a stalemate…" Zidane managed to ask between gritted teeth, as their arms shook between them. The big guy was tough all right, but not unbeatable. If Zidane had to he’d Trance. But he held back. That seemed a bit much… he wasn’t trying to rip Arnett’s arm off!

The mayor grunted. He didn’t give an answer… at least not immediately. But Zidane felt his grip slacken a bit and so he let go as well, and as both men straightened up, Arnett broke into a grin and suddenly slapped Zidane heartily on the shoulder.

"Not bad, not bad! To be honest, I didn’t think you stood a chance, with those skinny arms." Arnett laughed again. "Well, you didn’t win but I don’t care. I like you. You can have the job."

"Awesome!"

"Lemme warn ya, it doesn’t pay much… we’re a small town, as you can see. Sometimes you’ll get tips, but that’s rare."

"It comes with the house too. The one the notice was posted on," Sara added. "I hope that'll work for you…"

"Yup, it’s perfect!" The house was far more important to Zidane than the stipend. He could figure out other ways to earn money if needed. "Though I’ll need someone to give me some tips on what to do though, like you said…"

"Yeah, that’s no problem. A couple folks in town have been pitching in, sharing the work, so they’ll help ya get set up…" Arnett paused, trying to think of what else to mention about the position. "It’s physical work, but it comes and goes. Really slows down in the winter and in bad weather. And… I dunno, old man Raffe handled it for years – he was the one who built the house and the dock - but we’ve never found a good replacement after he stepped down." Arnett folded his big arms. "This is fair warning though: you better last for more than two months! Don’t go disappearing on us in the middle of the night!"

Zidane tipped his chin again, though he was careful not to make any promises. If all went well, he saw no reason why they wouldn’t stay… but if there were even a hint of trouble, he’d be ready to disappear with Kuja immediately. Having the boats right there was an extra boon, if it came down to escaping by river. "What’s this town called, anyhow?"

"Nil." Arnett paused, waiting for a reaction, but Zidane just stared back at him. "Well, we’re not on most maps, so I wouldn’t be surprised if ya hadn’t heard of it. Folks only seem to end up here by accident."

The town name did sound vaguely familiar, but Zidane couldn’t recall where he might’ve heard it, so he let it go. "Yeah, I guess that’s how I ended up here – was trying to get out of the storm. But I like it so far; it’s peaceful."

Both Arnett and Sara seemed proud of that observation.

"By the way, is there a doctor around here?" Zidane asked, focusing again on his list of to-dos.

"No," Sara replied. "There’s one a few towns over, I think, if you’re really needing it…" She couldn’t help but look him over for injuries.

"Ah, it’s not for me," Zidane reassured her. "Um, I have a… companion. He’s unwell."

"We’re a little isolated here, hence the boats. The nearest town is Gorge, on the very far side of the lake, but it’s not much bigger than Nil. But if you follow the stream past that a ways, there’s a bigger town, Jidor. That’s where the doctor would be," Arnett noted.

Zidane shut his eyes a moment. A doctor would be fantastic, but he was wary of leaving town, and especially of going to a bigger one, where news traveled faster and there were more eyes to spot wanted criminals. Since Kuja was in no immediate danger, for now it was probably best to lie low and just treat him with whatever potions and medicines were available.

"There’s a general store kitty-corner from here. They usually have some medicines in stock. I don’t know if that’ll be enough to help your companion, though," Sara said.

"Thank you, I figured that would be a good place to start."

Zidane hefted his knapsack onto his shoulder and said a quick goodbye to his new acquaintances, promising to be back the next day for more baked goods, then headed across the street to the general store.

Like the bakery, the general store sat in a modest, two-story building, but instead of a cat in the window, there was an elderly woman smiling down at him. He flashed a smile at her in return before stepping inside, where he was immediately struck by just how small and cramped the shop was. Goods were stacked in piles and heaped on shelves and hung off racks all the way up to the ceiling. There was a little of everything: foodstuffs, clothing, housewares, tools, even some pieces of furniture like chairs and a daybed. There were even items crammed onto the counter, spilling out of baskets, and on the stairs beyond that lead to the upstairs apartment.

Besides the clutter, the other thing Zidane noticed right away was that the shop was staffed by Burmecians. And that made him a little nervous. Kuja had led troops of Black Mages into the heart of Burmecia during Alexandria’s siege of the kingdom. There was a chance that the shop workers would raise a ruckus if they happened to spot him. But Zidane realized he’d have to worry about that later, if and when it happened. Right now, he needed supplies, a lot of them. And it wasn’t like there was another general store in town.

"Hello. Can I help you find something?" one of the Burmecian women asked from behind the counter as Zidane stood in the middle of the store, swiveling his head around. She had her head cocked and was looking him over from head to toe. Visitors were apparently quite rare in this neck of the woods, and it wouldn't be surprising if they'd never seen a Genome before either.

"Hi. Yeah, help would be great. I’m new to this town and I need a whole bunch of stuff," Zidane said lamely. He was going to be stuck in the shop a while if it was left up to him to dig through all the piles of goods.

"Do you have a list?"

"I do." Zidane unfolded it and handed it to her. She looked at it, nodding, and then handed it off to her nearly identical companion.

"My, this is a lot! But I think we have most of what you need," the second Burmecian woman said. She looked towards the stairs in the back. "Clyde! We need your help!" she yelled, and a rather sullen looking young Burmecian man wandered in. "Can you pull down the bins up there?" she asked, waving the list in his direction.

Clyde stared at the paper, then went to get a ladder to begin filling Zidane’s order.

Zidane watched him go, then turned back to the women. "I’m Zidane by the way. You are…?"

"Zidane?" The two ladies exchanged glances. "The same Zidane who helped the Cleyrans during Alexandria’s siege?" the first woman asked.

"You’re from Cleyra?" That was almost worse in a way. Burmecia had been devastated during the war; Cleyra had been destroyed outright. The only "good" thing about this piece of news was that Cleyrans wouldn’t recognize Kuja outright – he hadn’t taken part in the attack on Cleyra himself. But he had provided Brahne with the weapon she’d used to destroy the city.

Zidane scrutinized them further. He tried to remember if he’d seen them before, but to be frank, Burmecians and Cleyrans all sort of looked alike to him. The only difference he could see between the two ladies was that one had slightly longer hair than the other. Otherwise, they pretty much looked identical to one another, as well as all their kin.

"Yes, my sister and I are Cleyran. I’m Molly and she’s Millie," the first woman, the one with longer hair, said. "And the fellow from earlier is Clyde."

Zidane nodded slowly. "Yeah, I was there during the attack. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more." He couldn’t help but recall that there’d been few survivors from Cleyra.

"It’s all right. You did more for our people than we could’ve expected," Millie said gently.

"None of us would’ve made it out of there without your help," Molly added.

There was an awkward pause.

"So how’d you end up here? This is pretty far from the northern lands," Zidane noted, switching up the conversation as Clyde walked back in with a tall ladder which he set against the wall. The young Genome didn’t want to dwell on a past that couldn’t be changed, and doubted the Cleyrans wanted to mope over their lost home either.

"Our people were scattered far and wide. We didn’t know where to go, so we just kept moving. We met Clyde along the way and well… our feet, and the river, landed us here," Molly said.

"We’re grateful to have ended up here. The elderly lady who owns this store gave us work and a place to stay. We’ve been treated well by everyone in town," Millie added. "But how did you find your way here?"

"Well… it’s a long story. But I made some stupid decisions, finally realized what an idiot I am, and now here I am, trying to start over and make things right," Zidane replied, after some thought. It was an accurate summary, but it barely touched on all the things that had happened.

Millie nodded sagely. It was a common enough story around town. Maybe it was simply a matter of location, maybe something greater and more inexplicable than that, but Nil seemed to attract people who’d seen hard times, who didn’t have anywhere else to go, who needed a fresh start. "I wish you luck then."

They stood around and made more small talk as Zidane began picking out some items, piling them on the crowded counter and then onto a cleared off spot on the floor, all while wondering how he was going to get it all back to the house. Even with Choco’s help a second trip would probably be unavoidable.

Millie and Molly’s chatter wasn’t unpleasant. It was the sort of semi informative gossip that women in a small town made. Zidane picked up a few useful tidbits. The old lady upstairs had three sons, two of whom had become traveling merchants that supplied the general store with goods from all over the continent, so if he wanted to procure something specific, he need only ask. And yes, the large building on the corner was the town hall, and thus served as everything from a schoolhouse to a morning market for everything from fresh eggs and vegetables, to all sorts of handmade wares from local craftsmen. The tavern on the other corner rarely had guests, but the gruff innkeeper did offer a basic lunch, if you weren’t choosy about what you got, along with a regular dinner menu. The tavern’s porch was also a gathering place of sorts in the early morning and late afternoon, as it was the usual haunt of the town’s mail moogle, Mopo, as well as the location of the posting board for news and announcements. Zidane made a note of checking it later, in case news of Kuja’s escape popped up.

Unlike the ladies Clyde didn’t have much to say, but he did help Zidane bundle things up and loaded onto Choco. He even offered to help carry some of it to the lakeside house, but Zidane declined. He didn’t want to have visitors quite yet. He’d just have to come back and get the other things later.

It was late afternoon by the time Zidane returned to the house with all his supplies. He wished he’d gotten back sooner but he was pretty pleased with how the day had gone: not only had he secured a place to stay along with necessary supplies, but he’d even landed a job and the approval of the mayor. He figured he could spend the evening putting things in order, but the priority now was treating Kuja’s injuries and getting some water and medicine into his system.

Kuja lay limp in bed against the wall, just as Zidane had left him hours earlier. At least his condition remained stable, but it was a little discouraging that he hadn’t regained consciousness. The younger man carefully moved Kuja into the middle of the bed, then laid out a good amount of bandages, ointments, potions, and clean water and towels before pulling back the covers and getting to work.

It was hard looking at Kuja’s injuries, not just because they looked so painful, but each one was a reminder of his broken promise, of his failure to protect the former mage. Even though he hadn’t inflicted any of the wounds himself, he felt responsible, even more than he had after the events in Memoria, when Kuja had borne wounds from Zidane’s attacks. He’d gotten what he’d deserved back then. But this... this should never have happened.

Zidane started with Kuja’s feet, working slowly and carefully, soaking off the old bandages, washing and drying the affected areas thoroughly, and then gently working medicated cream into the blistered skin before rewrapping it all in loose layers of gauze. He felt over Kuja’s swollen ankle and decided that it was probably a sprain and that immobilizing it would be the best course of action; he’d have to split some wood later for a suitable splint. Moving past that, Zidane continued working his way up over the other Genome’s body, checking over each and every injury. Cuts got washed out with soap and received a light swipe of ointment as needed. Welts and bruises were examined and the worst of the lot got warm compresses to increase circulation and hopefully speed along healing.

Other than the blisters on Kuja’s feet, the massive bruise on his face was the most concerning injury. The skin was so swollen and tender that Kuja’s left eye was reduced to a sunken slit and one side of his lips had ballooned up like a plump pillow. And now that Zidane was carefully looking over the entire contusion, he could see the skin had split slightly under the eye socket and at the left corner of the mouth. He cleaned those as well as he could, then used some bandages with adhesive to hold the edges together in hopes that they’d heal more cleanly, as he knew Kuja was sensitive about his appearance.

With that thought in mind, Zidane even took time to carefully untangle and brush out Kuja’s hair after he’d gotten a couple of potions and a glass of water down Kuja’s throat, one mouthful at a time. Kuja wouldn’t appreciate it while unconscious, but Zidane didn’t want him waking up to find even the smallest detail neglected in some way. And besides, he’d had such beautiful hair… it was a shame to neglect it when it took only a little effort and attention to make it shine again.

Once he’d done all he could for the other Genome, Zidane sat down to eat a quick dinner before going out to check on Choco and chop some firewood, chipping off some suitable pieces for a splint. And then just as he’d planned, he spent the rest of the evening tidying up, putting things away, and generally turning the house into a comfortable home before checking in on Kuja one last time, then turning in for the night himself.

He curled up against Kuja’s side, a little amused and yet somewhat saddened too at how quickly he’d gotten used to sharing a bed with Kuja once again. He felt much more comfortable now than he’d been in a long time, even though he was far away from everyone and everything he’d known. It was almost funny how life had ended up circling around and repeating itself, as if even time was trying to hammer a point home. Some twenty months ago he’d dragged Kuja’s injured, unconscious body to an abandoned house and waited for him to recover. And now, he’d just finished dragging Kuja’s injured, unconscious body to an abandoned house, and was waiting for him to recover. At least this time he’d chosen a house in much better condition, with a town nearby. At least this time, he had no other destination in mind, no other goal… At least this time, he knew what he wanted.

With a sigh, Zidane snuggled even closer against Kuja, draping his tail over Kuja’s leg, lightly resting his hand on the other man’s chest so he could feel the gentle pulse of his heartbeat. It reminded him of the time back when they were living in the shack in the mountain pass, when he’d lain next to a feverish Kuja, only to wake up to blue-gray eyes glaring at him. Maybe it was too much to hope for a repeat of that - well, minus the glaring – but Zidane was an optimist by nature. He saw no reason why Kuja wouldn’t wake up soon. And then maybe – after he apologized, after they talked things through – they could pick up where they’d left off. He just wanted things to go back to how they were.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- Obviously this chapter introduces some non-canon NPCs (non-player characters) populating this part of my story. I tried to think about what the average small town looks like in a typical RPG and created Nil and its denizens based on that. Additionally Nil is loosely based off Zozo from FFVI (FFIII in the US) but that won’t be relevant 'til later on...

- Re: Sara. Back in the earliest stages of story planning (aka I wasn’t sure if I could even manage a FF9 fanfic), I hadn’t yet played the game nor had I watched anyone play it in years. So I didn’t remember that Sarah was Garnet’s birth name until I started researching the story in depth. I’d originally chosen the name after listening to too much Stevie Nicks, and as a nod to my sister-in-law. But after some thought I decided to keep the name because I’d gotten used to thinking of the character as "Sara," and I liked the irony of it.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Doing All Right" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Zidane woke up to Kuja’s weight pressing into his chest, and for a sleep-addled moment he thought that the silver-haired man had finally woken, but then it dawned on him that Kuja had only "moved" because he’d been pulled into that position by Zidane’s arms as he slept.

Disappointed, the younger Genome lay back and blinked up at the ceiling a few moments, unsure of what to do next, his hand absentmindedly carding through Kuja’s hair. He’d really been hopeful that Kuja would’ve recovered enough to wake up. Although his injuries were serious, they shouldn’t have been enough to render him completely unresponsive. But maybe he’d misjudged things… maybe there were internal injuries that he hadn’t accounted for, though the healing potions should’ve been enough to help with those, even with Genomes being slightly incompatible with the Gaian elixirs. But anything was better than nothing. Zidane figured he’d pick up some more from the general store later on.

He rolled over, carefully pulling his arm from under the other man’s dead weight, and sat up a little to look him over. Kuja did look a bit better, at least. The swelling on his face was starting to go down, though it was still pretty puffy; the darkest areas were starting to take on a faint green cast at the edges, a sign that the worst had passed. He wasn’t a pretty sight, but somehow… there was still something beautiful about him, even in his battered state. His lips were parted slightly as his breath whistled past his teeth, and Zidane suddenly wanted to lean down and kiss him, so he did just that.

Zidane followed it with a kiss to the forehead too, before pulling back to watch Kuja’s face carefully for any sign of awareness. But there was no change of expression, no twitch of the eyelids… nothing at all. Slightly disappointed, Zidane sat back, shaking his head. It had been too much to hope for, waking him with a kiss. Kuja wasn’t a storybook princess after all.

Well, nothing was going to change if they both just lay there. It was morning, time to get up and get the day started. Zidane carefully arranged Kuja back on his side of the bed, then hopped off to go wash his face and grab a quick bite to eat. He wanted to check out the town’s morning market and of course, the bulletin board, in case anything new got posted.

As soon as Zidane got to town, he hitched Choco in front of the inn and climbed onto the porch. Arnett was there, along with Mopo the moogle and several townspeople Zidane hadn’t met before. The mayor was standing off to the side, looking at some papers, shaking his head slowly as he began rolling them up.

"Good morning, Arnett," Zidane hailed the big man. He nodded at the other townsfolk. "Morning, everyone."

Mopo seemed slightly startled, but gave him a small nod before fluttering off into the inn. The others townspeople tipped their hats or nodded courteously and greeted him with "Morning" in response. Several paused to introduce themselves and to ask him for his name in turn before they left. Zidane noticed that most of the townspeople were heading to the morning market, just as he’d been planning to do.

Zidane was about to turn his attention to the bulletin board when it occurred to him that Arnett was acting a little weird. The mayor had been so friendly yesterday but hadn’t said a word since Zidane walked up; he’d been the only one who hadn’t greeted him at all. He seemed to be focused on twisting the papers in his hand into a tighter and tighter roll…

"Hey, Arnett? Morning…"

Arnett’s gaze drifted up from his hands, then he peered at Zidane’s face searchingly, before finally returning his greeting. "Morning, kid," he said, without enthusiasm.

"Whatcha got there?" Zidane asked, gesturing at the paper in Arnett’s hands. He was starting to worry…

The mayor paused another moment, before unrolling and holding up one of the sheets. It was a copy of the dockmaster’s job posting, like the one that had been on the door of the lakeside house. "Just taking this down, that’s all…"

Zidane smiled, shrugging off the odd behavior. Maybe Arnett just wasn’t a morning person. Instead of worrying about it, Zidane turned back to the posting board, eyes searching over the papers pinned there.

Most of the papers there showed signs of age; there wasn’t anything new posted. He breathed a tiny sigh of relief, glad to have at least another day of respite. But then he spotted a well weathered wanted poster, left up so long that the paper was yellowed and spotted. It had been scribbled on to the point that the name and original illustration were mostly obscured beneath layers of silly additions, like spectacles and a top hat, but after staring at it long enough, Zidane suddenly realized just who was featured on there.

He turned back to Arnett. "Arnett the Bear; a 25,000 Gil reward?"

The big man snorted. A sudden smirk tugged at his lips for just a moment. "What, you gonna bring me in?"

Even if he wasn’t a wanted man himself, Zidane wouldn’t have considered doing that. But he was curious as to why the notice was there at all. The promised reward was certainly substantial. "What did you do?"

"Does it matter?" Arnett gruffly shot back.

"Guess not."

Arnett followed Zidane’s gaze back to the poster. "There’s no point in taking it down. Everyone in town knows who I am." He sighed, realizing that here was one person who didn’t know. "I was drunk and in a bar fight. It was an accident. But one guy ended up dead and the other one crippled. The second guy, he was the son of some Treno noble. So it goes. And so here I am."

For a moment Zidane wanted to confess what he’d done, because if anyone could possibly understand, it would be another wanted man, but he couldn’t risk the possibility of exposing Kuja to danger, so he kept his trap shut. But Arnett was looking at him expectantly, waiting for a response, and so Zidane told him, "Of course I won’t turn you in. I think you really are sorry that it happened; you didn’t mean to hurt those guys like that."

"Is that so?"

Zidane shrugged. "I trust my instincts. I know you’re not a bad guy. You wouldn’t be mayor - or Sara’s husband - if you were."

Arnett snorted. He wished he could say the same. His instincts had told him Zidane was a good person – that’s why he’d offered him the dockmaster’s position upon their initial meeting – but now he worried that he’d been too hasty in giving Zidane his trust. "Yeah, well… thanks."

Zidane gave him a slight smile. "Don’t worry about it." Things still felt awkward between them but that was to be expected, given the subject matter and all. It was probably something that Arnett had to explain every time someone new moved into town, even if he wanted to just put it all behind him.

They both stood there a moment, struggling for something to say, but before the silence got too stifling, Zidane broke the stalemate, saying, "Well I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m still getting things set up in the house, so I guess I better get going."

Arnett grunted. "Ah, yes. See ya then."

"See ya!" Zidane returned, before bounding down the steps and running across the street.

Arnett watched him leave while shaking his head slowly, and then headed back to the bakery, wondering how he was going to break the news to his wife.

* * *

The door to the bakery jingled as Arnett returned. Sara was helping a customer but looked up and smiled; upon seeing her husband’s serious expression, the smile faded slightly, and she gave a tilt of her chin. He needed to talk; she’d listen. Although Arnett had been elected mayor it was no secret around town that Sara had a lot of influence over him. If it hadn’t been for the fact that she was more interested in baking than town policies, she would’ve made a fine mayor herself.

"What is it?" she asked Arnett once the customer had left and they’d retreated to the back room for some privacy.

"This." Arnett unrolled the remaining papers he’d been holding on to, the ones he hadn’t shown Zidane, slapped down a sheet tray and a rolling pin to hold them flat, and stepped back. "Remember how Zidane said he was here with a ‘companion?’"

Sara stared at the two wanted posters, the back of her hand coming up to rest against her mouth, as if she were holding back a cry of disbelief. She recognized the town’s newly hired dockmaster as one of the fugitives, wanted for aiding in the escape of a dangerous criminal mastermind named Kuja. And the second poster detailed this Kuja’s many exploits; he was wanted for murder in Treno, for partaking in the razing of Burmecia, for providing weaponry used in the destruction of Cleyra and the siege of Lindblum, for kidnapping royalty, and for attacking Alexandria and killing its former queen with his powerful magics. It also had side and portrait illustrations of the Genome’s somewhat feminine face and descriptions of his distinguishing features – long silver hair topped by a cascade of feathers, a silver tail that was usually kept hidden, a large starburst scar on his left side – as well as the promise of an unheard of reward of 500,000 Gil for information leading to his capture. That was more than enough for the common man to never have to work a day in his life again, and then some!

"But if they came here… surely they’re seeking refuge…" Sara began saying, though even she sounded like she couldn’t believe what she was suggesting. "Zidane didn’t seem like a bad person…"

"Except he’s helping someone who is!" Arnett insisted, jabbing a finger at Kuja’s face on the poster. "There’s no way they can stay. What if this guy gets pissed off at something and decides ta wipe out the entire town?"

"And if we threaten to turn him in he might do the same," Sara pointed out. "Besides, who would be willing to do it? How many in this town are wanted for one charge or another? I don’t want to see you hauled away, nor any of our friends or neighbors. No one wants to see an army come marching in here; it would be a disaster, perhaps a risk even greater than allowing him to stay."

"We could ask them to leave. Tell Zidane he’s lost the job. Maybe give them some money to go away. It’s not like we haven’t made people leave before."

"Only when they squandered the opportunity they’d been given." Sara’s lips tightened; Arnett braced himself for a lecture. "My grandfather founded this town because he realized there’s no place to go for those with troubled pasts, those who just don’t fit in… This town has always been about second chances."

"This isn’t the sort of man who deserves a second chance!"

"That’s what my grandfather was told, everywhere he went. He’d been a thief for so long, no one thought he could turn a new leaf. And wasn’t it the same for you? You had nowhere else to go; your own brother tried to turn you in. But when you came here I believed you when you said that you hadn’t meant to hurt anyone and just needed a chance to prove it. And so you have; I know you haven’t raised a hand in anger nor even touched a drop of liquor since then."

Arnett couldn’t deny that. He’d appreciated everything Sara had done for him. But he disagreed with his wife; his situation and Kuja’s were nothing alike, no matter how passionately she argued otherwise. Arnett wanted nothing to do with a monster powerful enough to wipe out an entire city by himself. "I know. And I’m grateful you believed in me. But this…" He shook his head. "It’s the town that matters. And the town has a right ta know."

"Yes, you’re right. We need to call an emergency town meeting. We need to hear everyone’s opinions; let the majority decide..."

"Aye."

Sara nodded, then hesitated a little longer before asking, "But before that, will you come with me to meet him?"

Arnett stared at his wife as her request began sinking in. "Oh no… no you don’t! I’m not letting ya anywhere near that man, not until I’m convinced it’s safe. And don’t think I’ll be easily convinced!"

"You’ll protect me, I know you will," she said earnestly.

"Sara…"

"We have to meet him. You know that. How else can we judge if he’s changed or not?"

Arnett shook his head, but he was already thinking about how he could do just that, while protecting his wife and himself as much as possible. Perhaps he could grab some of the other townspeople, the biggest, toughest guys, and show up under the pretense of teaching Zidane about boat maintenance? It wasn’t a stretch at all; wasn’t Zidane expecting help and education on that front already? "All right, all right. But I want to bring a few others along, just in case." He paused, thinking of his many friends and neighbors. He needed guys that were brave and strong, in case they had a fight on their hands. They had to be levelheaded too, and not afraid to disagree with him or Sara if they felt either was wrong in their assessment. "I’ll talk to Smyt and Selvin about it."

Sara nodded. Smyt was the town’s blacksmith, a barrel-chested retired mercenary with sharp eyes. Selvin didn’t have Smyt’s fighting experience, but his arms were just as big; he could cut and split lumber faster than even the native born lumberjacks in the area, though he’d once been a con artist. But as tough as both men were, they were also well respected for being even tempered and fair.

The bell to the storefront suddenly jingled, and both Arnett and Sara turned and peeked out from behind the shop curtain. Immediately recognizing the customer, Sara smiled and waved at her, and after nodding at Arnett again, went out to take her order. Neither had said it, but both were in agreement… they were relieved it hadn’t been Zidane. They weren’t ready to confront him just yet.

* * *

The morning market had been worth the visit. Zidane honestly couldn’t remember the names of all the people who’d introduced themselves to him, but it had been nice feeling that sense of community even though he was still very new to the town. The market itself was a real gem too; even though Nil was such a tiny village, there were plenty of skilled craftspeople and the farmers’ stalls overflowed with the local bounty; Zidane had picked up an assortment of vegetables to make soup with, figuring that that would be good for Kuja’s recovery, along with thick wool socks to help protect his feet.

After stopping by the general store for more medical supplies, Zidane hurried back to the little cottage on the lake. He opened the door with an upbeat "I’m back!" even though he knew he’d get no reply, but what he saw when he walked in was almost as good as hearing a shouted "Welcome home!" in return.

Kuja… was sitting up in bed. He was leaning against the wall, his hair half covering his face, his shoulders trembling slightly with each breath, but he was up.

Zidane immediately rushed to his side, dropping his purchases on the floor along the way. "Kuja, thank the gods! You really scared me for a while there," he said as he flung an arm around the other man’s neck, hugging him carefully.

Kuja didn’t say anything, nor did he make any attempt to return the hug. Zidane sighed against his hair.

"You’re mad at me, aren’t you? I can’t blame ya. I know I let you down. I’m so sorry. But I promise, it’ll be different now…" Zidane rattled off, before realizing he was still not getting any response, not even a quickening of breath. He pulled back a bit, brushing away some of Kuja’s hair to try and get a read on his mood. But he still wasn’t saying anything… He wasn’t even looking at the younger Genome, really – it was more like he was staring ahead, blankly. The eyes that usually resembled a brewing thunderstorm were instead featureless gray skies, set in a mask of broken porcelain.

Zidane felt a chill run down his spine. Something was terribly wrong… "Kuja? What is it? What’s wrong?"

More blank staring accompanied by the occasional slow blink.

It was probably a bad idea to shake the silver-haired man, given his injuries, but Zidane couldn’t help it, though he was careful to not shake him too hard. Why wasn’t Kuja responding at all? He wasn’t the silent treatment type of guy, no matter how angry he got. "Come on, this isn’t funny! Kuja, say something - anything! I don’t even care if you want to yell at me, I can take it!"

Kuja blinked. His lips parted. And then he finally spoke. "Some... thing," he rasped.

"Huh? Kuja?"

Kuja fell silent again. Zidane tried to figure out what he’d meant, what had triggered that. He thought about what he’d said moments earlier…

"Say something?" Zidane tried again.

Dead silence.

"Kuja, say something!" Zidane yelled, frightened and frustrated.

"Something," Kuja parroted, with some effort.

Zidane sat back on the bed, feeling like the air had suddenly been knocked from his lungs. He suddenly remembered being in Bran Bal, surrounded by his soulless, mindless brethren who could only act on orders given to them. Worthless dolls, Kuja had called them; he’d wanted nothing to do with them. He’d refused to be compared to them, had even hidden away his tail as if to deny what he was – and Zidane didn’t doubt that that had factored into his decision to keep it under cover, but now…

This can’t be real – Kuja can’t… he couldn’t have…

The younger Genome thought of all the times he’d talked to his older counterpart, how Kuja would dance around the truth, pretending like nothing was ever out of his control. He remembered all the times when they’d argued, how Kuja would snap at him or mock him or say things that would incense him even more. He’d give anything to have him do any of those things, right now. But Kuja continued to sit there, silent and still … and it was just so very wrong.

Zidane shuddered, sick to his stomach. He remembered Garland’s final words to Kuja. And too, he remembered all the times that Kuja had annoyed him by saying he was dying. Zidane remembered having gotten mad at him, telling him to stop talking like that, that he couldn’t possibly be dying…

Had he been wrong all along? It was only now dawning on him that perhaps Garland hadn’t been talking about death in a physical sense. Mikoto had said that Garland had planned on using Kuja’s body after he died. Had that been the old man’s intention then, for Kuja’s soul to burn out and fade away, leaving an empty husk behind?

But living bodies weren’t meant to exist without a soul. The surviving Black Mages and Genomes were proof of that. Zidane knew that much, though he wasn’t sure how that worked. So maybe… there was still a chance that Kuja could be revived from this state, somehow…?

Zidane’s hands balled into tight fists. He had to try. Hope was the only thing he had to hold on to. He’d thrown away everything else to save the man he’d fallen in love with, and he wasn’t going to surrender to despair, no matter how bleak the outlook. It wasn’t in his nature to give up, just as it wasn’t in Kuja’s either. After all, Kuja had managed to survive falling out of Memoria and through the Iifa Tree after being bombarded by their strongest attacks; he’d managed to survive being dragged out of said tree as it thrashed beneath their feet, even with his grievous wounds. He’d survived a winter alone in a decaying dwelling in a forgotten mountain pass, with only a few Dwarves for company. He couldn’t possibly give in and die so easily.

The problem was, the blonde didn’t know what he could do, other than make sure Kuja’s body was well cared for. He wished he could get in contact with Mikoto, to get her advice, but it was too risky to contact her via Mognet, and there was no way he could visit her or take Kuja up to see her.

Zidane reached out and pulled Kuja into his arms again, for a moment. The weight and warmth of his body provided a small amount of reassurance. "I won’t give up. Don’t you dare quit on me either," Zidane whispered, knowing that he’d get no response.

Reluctantly, he had to let go in order to retrieve the supplies he’d bought, leaving Kuja sitting on the bed like a beautiful, fragile doll. Zidane needed to get him fed; he needed to get more potions in his system. Those were the only things the thief could think of to try and make things better. He had to do something, because he couldn’t stand the helpless feeling that was beginning to weigh upon him.

* * *

Vegetable soup turned out to be a bad idea.

At first Zidane tried feeding Kuja directly, unsure if the other man could manage to feed himself. But after Kuja obediently swallowed several spoonfuls of broth without issue, Zidane decided to take a chance and go for it, handing him the spoon and telling him, "Kuja, eat the soup with this spoon," while watching to see what would happen. If Kuja could handle eating by himself, that would be one less thing to worry about.

Kuja’s arm lowered and the spoon splashed into the bowl, sending liquid sloshing over the rim. Zidane winced. But then Kuja picked it back up and lifted it to his mouth and swallowed, and then repeated the motion, and Zidane felt a little better, even though Kuja’s blank expression never changed the entire time. Zidane could even hear his stomach gurgling desperately in hunger, but Kuja ate methodically without any urgency or interest.

The swelling on the former mage’s face made it impossible for him to chew easily, so broth began dribbling out the left side of his mouth once he reached the chunks of vegetables towards the bottom. It didn’t slow him down any, but he was getting soup all over himself and the tabletop. Zidane patiently wiped away the excess as well as he could, as he tried to think of what type of dishes would be easier to eat. Maybe something creamy or soft, like custard or mashed potatoes, though Zidane didn’t know how to make the former and had used up ingredients for the latter already, which meant another trip to town was imminent.

At least it hadn’t taken long to figure out most of the quirks of Kuja’s condition. Kuja needed to be addressed directly before he’d accept a command. And they had to be worded as simply and precisely as possible – he’d do exactly as told, no more, no less. But on the upside, at least he knew his own name. At least he knew what things like "eat" and "spoon" were, without having to have them defined. At least he had control of his basic functions; he wasn’t going to suddenly forget to breathe or blink.

But… he was prone to suddenly nodding off – for example, he’d fallen asleep mid-meal - and once he awoke, he had no memory of what he’d been doing, so he’d simply sit there and stare at the empty air in front of his face, awaiting instruction. And he kept trying to stand up, even though his feet and ankle were in no condition for walking. Why he kept doing that, Zidane wasn’t sure; it was the only thing he did on his own, without being told to. Zidane wasn’t sure what he could do to about it, other than be quick about picking him up so that he wouldn’t do more damage to himself. At least it wasn’t a problem carrying him about the small house.

And although it was a small relief that Kuja didn’t seem to be suffering or in pain from his injuries, it also meant he was more careless than he ought to be. Which meant Zidane had to be more careful instead, though that was a lesson he had to learn the hard way.

Zidane had thought it would be all right to let Kuja wash his face off in the sink after the soup debacle, while he filled the tub for a medicated foot bath. He’d made sure the water temperature was running warm, then instructed Kuja to lather and rinse his face off before handing him a bar of soap and a washcloth. Everything had seemed fine at first and so Zidane turned his attention back to the tub, but when he’d looked back, Kuja had mindlessly scrubbed his face to the point that the scarred skin under his eye had split and begun welling blood. It had been hard for Zidane to stop himself from screaming at him, but he knew it’d do no good, so instead of getting mad, he’d just cursed himself under his breath while treating the wound the best he could.

Zidane was in the middle of replacing the bandages on Kuja’s feet when he heard footsteps marching up the porch steps, followed by knocking at the door. For a moment he simply froze, unsure of what to do first – he needed to hide Kuja, he needed to shoo off whoever was at the door. He needed to think of a believable story in case either one of those things didn’t happen as planned. And he needed a pseudonym for Kuja, in case that was something that came up…

Zidane stared at the figure on the bed. He could call him… Jaku? It wasn’t exactly creative, but it was good enough. And a story… Jaku was his friend; they’d been traveling, hunting monsters, and then they’d gotten lost and Jaku had fallen ill and that’s how they’d ended up in Nil. Zidane made a face. It was bad enough that he couldn’t reveal Kuja’s name; it was almost worse that he kept referring to him as a friend or companion when that wasn’t what he was at all… or at least, Zidane hoped for more. But he wasn’t sure how anyone would react to that revelation either.

The person at the door knocked again, and a familiar voice called out, "Zidane?"

Sara. It was Sara. Zidane wasn’t sure if he ought to be relieved or mortified. She was a nice lady; maybe she’d understand, if he told her? But what if he did that and her reaction was to run screaming for her husband, and he in turn roused a mob to come lynch them?

"Zidane, are you there?" she asked. He could hear her tapping lightly at the windowpanes, but he’d drawn the curtains, so he was sure she couldn’t see in… or could she see the vague outline of him and Kuja sitting on the bed? Maybe if he held still enough, he could pretend they weren’t there?

A few seconds passed. Zidane held his breath. "I think he’s on the bed. Maybe he’s taking a nap?" he heard her say to someone else.

"Zidane, wake up!" Arnett bellowed. "I brought a few fellas to teach ya about maintaining the boats!"

Oh. Arnett was there too. He wasn’t going to buy that Zidane wasn’t at home, not after what Sara had just said.

"Um, just a sec!" Zidane called back. He quickly turned to Kuja, trying to figure out what to do with him. Hiding him under some pillows and blankets seemed the best option at the moment, so he whispered, "Kuja, lay down. Stay here a minute, okay?"

Once the other man did as told, Zidane quickly pulled some blankets over him, then arranged pillows in a sort of haphazard wall against his side, and then, satisfied that he was about as well disguised as could be, Zidane slid off the bed and headed for the door. On the way over he grabbed his daggers and strapped them around his waist – he didn’t want to fight, but if it came to that, he would…

Zidane unlocked the door and opened it just enough to allow himself to slip through, immediately pulling it closed behind him. When he turned around, he had a grin pasted on his face for the guests on his porch. Sara was over by the kitchen window. Arnett and two other men stood closer to the door.

Sara gave him a small smile once he made his appearance. "Well, hello, sleepyhead!"

It was easiest to go along with her assumption. "Yeah, you got me. Sorry about that," Zidane said.

Arnett grunted, then gestured to the pair behind him. "This is Smyt and Selvin, they’ve been pitching in with the boats the last few months, whenever they could. Figured they could teach you a thing or two about ‘em, since you said you needed some help."

"Oh, great! Nice to meet you, I’m Zidane," the young thief introduced himself, reaching out to shake their hands. He was inches away from clasping Selvin’s hand when a loud thud from inside the house drew everyone’s attention.

"What was that?" Selvin asked, but Zidane was already in motion, darting for the door, his eyes wide with fear.

He didn’t have the opportunity to slam the door shut behind him, not with everyone practically standing in the doorway, peering in… and not with what had happened inside that required his immediate attention.

Zidane rushed to Kuja’s side. Somehow, for some reason, he’d fallen off the bed and onto the floor and was now scrambling around, trying to stand up, but each time he tried to get his feet under himself he left smears of blood on the floorboards. One ankle was bound in a splint; it didn’t stop him from scraping it against the floor in an attempt to bear weight on it.

"Kuja, stop it! Stop moving!" Zidane hissed, forgetting all about the fake name he’d come up with, not that Kuja would’ve responded to it anyhow. But at least his blurted command had the desired effect. Kuja stilled to lie placidly on the floor. He was breathing hard, but other than that, showed no sign that he’d been thrashing around just a moment earlier. Zidane shook his head, not realizing that when he’d told Kuja to stay on the bed, that he’d specified "a minute" – and that the older Genome had taken that literally.

Sara suddenly appeared at Zidane’s side, having rushed past the wall of men in front of her to offer her assistance. She was horrified by what she’d just witnessed. The town had seen its share of people in terrible shape: frightened young runaways, refugees of war, escaped convicts bearing scuffs from shackles, but never had she seen a man in such dire condition. It wasn’t just that Kuja was covered in injuries, but he seemed disoriented, or worse, oblivious to that fact. His eyes were completely blank. "What’s wrong with him? Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Sara!" Arnett took a step forward, intending to pull his wife back to relative safety behind him, but she shook her head, refusing to budge, her eyes pleading for understanding. She had such a soft heart… but wasn’t that what he loved most about her? He sighed, unable to deny her anything. He looked at the wounded man on the floor, then at Zidane. "Need a hand?"

"No… but thanks. I’ve got this." Zidane gathered Kuja into his arms, then lifted him back onto the bed. He stuffed a towel under his feet to keep him from bleeding all over the sheets, then shook his head over the mess Kuja had made. The blood would come off the floor easily enough, but how would he explain things to Arnett and Sara and the other townspeople?

Zidane turned to the quartet standing behind him. "Um… this is Kuja. He’s my…" he trailed off, struggling for the right thing to say. At least no one had come flying angrily at him upon hearing the name. Maybe there was a chance that things would work out okay? Maybe this town was too small and remote to get the news, or maybe Garnet had decided against pursuing them. Or… maybe things would all fall apart the next day. But he couldn’t worry about that now. For the time being, he just had to offer some sort of explanation, because everyone was looking at Kuja like he was crazy or contagious or something.

"He’s your…?" Sara prompted.

"He’s… the most important person in my life. But I was stupid and didn’t understand… no, I couldn’t accept it, until it was almost too late. I left him behind, he tried to follow, and he ended up getting hurt. Now all I can do is try my best to take care of him, even though I don’t know if he’ll recover." Zidane looked up at the faces before him, noticing they were all still glancing at one another with some degree of discomfort. "Please, I’ll do anything to stay here. I’ll be the best, hardest working dockmaster you’ve ever had! Just don’t make us leave. He won’t survive…"

Sara wanted to reassure him, but she couldn’t promise anything, not yet. She looked at her husband again, as if to say, "See, they really do need our help."

Arnett looked at his friends. He’d told them the real reason they were paying a visit to the little house by the docks, but now they were looking at him like they were starting to buy into Zidane’s sob story as well. Zidane didn’t seem to realize yet that they all knew his true identity; it seemed he was assuming that because he’d fallen for another man, that he’d be asked to leave because of that. Arnett shook his head, then motioned to Sara, Smyt and Selvin to follow him outside.

"As you know, I intend to have the town vote on this matter tonight. But for now… I want to know, what do you two think?" Arnett asked his friends once they were outside and well out of Zidane’s earshot. He already knew Sara’s opinion on the matter, so there was no point in asking her to weigh in again.

"I know that that’s a dangerous man in there. But he certainly didn’t look that way, did he? He looked pitiful," Selvin said thoughtfully.

"Pitiful? He was a complete wreck," Smyt clarified. "I came here ready for a fight, but that fella looks like he’s already been through quite enough of them. Unless it’s all an act…"

"Would you let yourself get beaten up that badly, as an ‘act?’" Selvin shot back. "Believe me, that was no act – I would know. He was bleeding all over the floor in there. He didn’t even seem to realize it."

"They really are wanting nothing but shelter," Sara opined, ignoring her husband’s frown. The other two men nodded at her after a moment’s thought.

"Certainly does seem that way," Smyt added agreeably.

Sensing the tide turning, Arnett shook his head slowly and said, "We’ll see what happens tonight, but for now… I guess I’ll go back in and tell Zidane that we’ll come back tomorrow, since he clearly won’t want to be outside working on boats when he has other things he needs to take care of."

The mayor headed back up the stairs and into the house. Predictably Zidane was sitting on the bed, with Kuja’s feet in his lap as he dabbed ointment on the torn up skin, though his hands stilled as soon as he noticed Arnett. For his part, Kuja stared straight up at the ceiling and made no sound.

"It doesn’t matter to me who ya wanna to be with. You wouldn’t be the only ones like that in this town, I’ll tell ya that much," Arnett began, and immediately Zidane’s shoulders relaxed a little. "Anyhow, seein’ as this is a bad time for you, Selvin and Smyt agreed ta come back out tomorrow to work with ya, if that sounds good?"

Zidane gave him a grateful smile. "Thank you so much!"

Arnett nodded. After the way Zidane had begged and pleaded to be allowed to stay, the mayor felt a tiny bit of guilt for not telling him the truth, that there was no guarantee that the other men would show up to help him the next day, depending on the town meeting results. But then again, it wasn’t like Zidane was telling them the truth about who he was, about who Kuja was. So they were at something of a stalemate. But Arnett could live with that for now. He’d wait and see what the majority decided before worrying about his next move.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- Didn't plan on letting the townspeople take over this chapter but my original idea (which was to keep it secret that the town knew who Kuja was all along) wasn't going to work, not without some set up and explanation.

- jaKu / Kuja… Zidane wasn’t exactly creative in coming up with a pseudonym (and he didn’t even bother with one for himself)!

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Reaching Out" are performed and recorded by Queen and Paul Rodgers. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

It was probably the closest vote the town had seen on any issue, but in the end, the 51 votes for beat out the 46 against, and so Kuja and Zidane won the right to stay. Sara’s passionate pleas probably had a lot to do with that – she had reminded those present that many of them also had pasts they weren’t proud of, and yet, because they’d been given the chance to change, they were now living peaceful, productive new lives.

A few others had weighed in with more personal stories. Millie and Molly had pointed out that Zidane had been a hero. He’d stood up to the Alexandrian invasion in Burmecia; he’d gone to Cleyra to try and help the people there too. In the end he hadn’t been able to save either city, but he’d saved lives. A man like that surely had to have good reason for wanting to save his old enemy, even if no one else could understand it. And Selvin and Smyt had also seen Kuja in person earlier in the day and vouched for the fact that he wasn’t in any condition to cause anyone any harm. As well respected, long standing members of the community, their opinions carried a lot of weight as well.

Arnett had lent his voice to the opposition. He’d felt it was his duty as mayor to point out all the risks that harboring an extremely dangerous felon would pose to their little village. But when it came down to the vote itself, even he’d voted for letting them stay. It wasn’t like he was getting soft. But he had to admit, his wife certainly had a way with words. Because she believed so strongly that people could change, he wanted to believe in that too. They all did. And maybe that’s what had swung the vote in her favor.

Of course, Arnett wasn’t the only one who’d spoke up against letting the two Genomes stay. The most vocal had been one of the newer residents, the former Burmecian soldier, Clyde. He’d been there during Alexandria’s invasion; he’d seen firsthand the damage Kuja and his Black Mage troops had done. The attack had been so sudden and terrifying that he’d deserted his post and run in fear as the ancient kingdom was reduced to rubble in a matter of hours. He admitted he was a coward, he’d have to live with that flaw the rest of his life, but maybe that was who he was at his core. Some things couldn’t change. And he believed a man like Kuja, who’d smiled while delicately stepping over the broken bodies of his foes, who’d laughed while a building collapsed on screaming masses huddled inside… was someone so despicable, so evil, there was no way he could change either.

Just as Sara’s arguments had captured some votes, Clyde’s warning had won over some of the townspeople as well, to the point that when the results were announced, Clyde and several others stormed out of the town hall. No one stopped them from leaving however. Because no matter how much they disagreed with the results, it was understood, that was how things worked in Nil. And if anyone took it upon themselves to act against the majority decision, they too would likely find themselves voted out of town.

By the next day, things were mostly back to normal. Unaware of how close he’d come to losing his new home, Zidane showed up in town the next morning just as he had the day before, checking the bulletin board and visiting the market, bakery and general store.

Arnett was pleasant and smiling again, a far cry from how he’d been the morning prior. But the people at the market were now running hot and cold – some seemed friendlier than they’d been the day before, others far brusquer. Zidane could understand being stressed by all the little – and big - things in life, so he didn’t worry about it. He had enough on his own plate anyhow. Then he got to the general store, where Clyde glared at him before disappearing upstairs, muttering "Inventory" under his breath as he vanished. This time it was easier for Zidane to shrug off the behavior. Clyde had never been the most gregarious fellow anyhow.

At least the girls were still as nice as ever. They’d gotten some new inventory, so even though Zidane had only planned to get a couple of things, he ended up picking up a book for Kuja – though he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to read it as he was - as well as a basic Tetra Card Master deck for himself, to replace the one he’d left behind in Alexandria.

Clyde reemerged once Zidane had paid and left. He stood by the window, peeking from behind the curtain, and clucked in disapproval as the Genome hopped onto his chocobo and disappeared down the street.

Even though he knew that just a single sentence: "We know what you’ve done" - could drive Zidane and Kuja out of town, he couldn’t say it. He liked this town. He didn’t want to leave. He liked Millie and Molly too, even though they’d voted against him. He’d been slightly disappointed by it, but not surprised… as Cleyrans, they were pacifists by upbringing. But even more than that, they still saw Zidane as the hero of Cleyra, so in gratitude, they were giving him – and Kuja - the benefit of the doubt. He wished he could do the same, but he just couldn’t. He’d be damned if he saw Nil share the same fate as Burmecia.

"It’ll be all right, Clyde. You’ll see," Millie assured him, once Clyde peeled himself away from the window.

"It’ll be too late if I’m right," Clyde said bitterly, as he headed back upstairs. If it came down to it, he’d run and take the two sisters with him. He wasn’t going to fight a battle he couldn’t win.

* * *

When Zidane left that morning, Kuja had been asleep. But after what had happened the day before, Zidane took the precaution of securing the older man in bed, rolling him up tightly in the blankets and then trussing the whole bundle like a giant roast. As distasteful as it was leaving Kuja tied up like some wild animal – especially in light of the fact that he’d just been freed from a dungeon, where he’d been chained up - it was preferable to letting him loose to "walk" aimlessly around the house. Zidane didn’t want to come back to a broken ankle or worse.

He threw open the front door with his usual "I’m home," his optimistic side hoping to hear a verbal response in return. But just as before, there was no answer. At least Kuja was still on the bed, though he was awake or… well, moving around a bit, like an undulating caterpillar. Zidane put down his purchases and stepped closer to peer at him.

Kuja’s eyes were closed, his lashes fluttering slightly; he was dreaming, it seemed. Zidane couldn’t help but smile a little in relief and amusement. It was a good thing. An empty shell could only lie there in rest; it took a soul to create dreams. So he really was in there, somewhere…

Kuja had been struggling enough to loosen the ropes binding him. But now that Zidane was home, there was no reason to keep Kuja restrained any longer, so the young thief immediately began undoing the remaining knots. He had barely begun when Kuja started moaning softly.

The smile that had been dancing across Zidane’s lips instantly vanished. Zidane couldn’t help but apologize, even though he knew the words wouldn’t register. "I’m sorry, I didn’t want to, but… well, I’ll have you loose in a jiffy."

In response, Kuja tossed and turned a little more restlessly, before suddenly uttering a single word in a low, pained voice.

"Master…"

The blonde froze, frowning. So it wasn’t a dream, but a nightmare. And all that wriggling wasn’t random movement, but a struggle.

Zidane quickly finished freeing Kuja and waited to see if he’d say anything else, but he didn’t. He kept squirming though, like he was still trying to escape, even though he was no longer bound. Zidane could only guess at what Kuja was remembering. He’d always avoided talking about his time on Terra. What had he gone through during his early years, when he’d been the only Genome with a soul and thus the sole focus of Garland’s attention?

Eventually Kuja’s struggling lessened and he returned to a still slumber, the rumpled state of his clothing and sheets lingering evidence of his nightmare.

Zidane tried to not let his imagination get away from him, but it was hard to keep it from wandering even as he turned away to start making some oatmeal for Kuja. He remembered Kuja mentioning that Garland had trained him in magic by forcing him to heal himself, to defend himself, to fight back. He couldn’t imagine that that had involved anything as mundane as being struck by a fist. What had Garland done, tortured Kuja and then sat back to watch him try to mend the damage? Threatened him with yet more punishment if he couldn’t conjure or control powerful enough spells, knowing full well that the effort was eating away at Kuja’s lifespan? Mikoto had told him that Garland planned to dissect Kuja’s body after he died, then patch it back up like a broken toy, so keeping him in one piece probably hadn’t been much of a concern.

Zidane looked back at the sleeping body on the bed, and sighed heavily. He thought back to Garland’s last words and wondered yet again if his creator had meant for him to save Kuja or to kill him. Given the animosity between the two of them, Zidane was leaning towards the latter. Not that it really mattered… Zidane had obviously decided for himself what he needed to do the moment he jumped in after Kuja. He’d just made a complete mess of everything afterwards, and now Kuja was paying the price for it.

At least the former mage would probably physically recover with few aftereffects; Genomes were designed to be durable and already many of his injuries were looking better, even without the benefit of magical treatment. But inside, something was horribly broken, and Zidane wasn’t sure if he could fix it. The only thing he could do was stay by Kuja’s side and provide whatever support he could, in the hopes that time would indeed heal all wounds.

The water started to simmer on the stove. Zidane stirred in some oats, then, with nothing else demanding his attention at the moment, decided to crawl onto the small bed, wrapping his arms around Kuja and holding him close, warming the limp body with his own. He didn’t know what else to do.

Zidane began stroking Kuja’s hair, an action that had become something of a habit. The familiar feel of the silken strands brought him some small degree of comfort. But this time Kuja shifted in reaction to his touch, rolling over to press his face against Zidane’s shoulder before settling down more towards his chest. It was strange how he was only responsive while asleep, but Zidane was glad for the improvement. He hugged him a little tighter. Even if Kuja was only aware of him on a subconscious level, Zidane knew he had to do all he could to reassure him, to remind him he wasn’t alone any longer.

At some point Zidane realized he’d dozed off as well. Or more precisely, he awoke to the smell of burning oatmeal and the sight of Kuja sitting up in bed, staring off into the distance. At least he hadn’t tried standing up. But when Zidane called his name, he showed as little reaction as he had the day before.

Jumping out of bed to yank the burned mess off the stove, the young thief tried to focus on cleaning up instead of wallowing in disappointment. He had to be patient. Kuja was starting to get better; he just needed more time. He’d fully wake up once he was ready. In the meantime, he needed lunch and that, at least, was something in Zidane’s realm of control. He just needed to make sure he didn’t burn it again.

* * *

Adjusting to life as Nil’s dockmaster wasn’t particularly difficult. Zidane learned very quickly that maintaining the property and boats was physically demanding work but he didn’t mind - it certainly beat having to pretend like he cared about royal decorum or the history of the Mist Continent. He didn’t have any complaints about the meager pay either – he’d brought some money with him when he’d fled Alexandria - but he was still grateful for Selvin’s advice that fishing might be a way to supplement his income, if he didn’t have any other marketable skills. It was what the former dockmaster had relied on for extra money; most everyone in town did side jobs to get by. Zidane supposed thieving didn’t count as a "marketable skill," and since Tantalus had a policy against stealing from anyone but the wealthy anyhow, he’d refrain from it. Besides, he wanted to stay in Nil, if possible… and it’d be pretty obvious who the thief was if money and items coincidentally started vanishing in time with his arrival.

Even though Zidane had gone into the position blind, Smyt and Selvin turned out to be decent teachers, willing to answer questions and even coming over to lend a hand as needed. It turned out that everything but the most crucial tasks had been ignored for months while the town had struggled to fill the position, so even though the dock had been kept in working condition, most of the existing boats were no longer serviceable and had been pulled ashore and simply left there. So there were extensive repairs to be done, wood that needed to be resealed or repainted, missing parts that needed to be replaced, and so on and so forth.

So it wasn’t the easiest of jobs. But on the upside, the work was sporadic, even with all the deferred maintanence and repairs to be done, so Zidane was left with a good amount of free time to use as he pleased. He definitely needed it; every moment he had to spare went to looking after Kuja.

Managing Kuja wasn’t nearly as easy as taking care of a boat, but even that became something of a routine in just a matter of days. Zidane continued to secure Kuja in bed in the morning after seeing to his wounds, so he could run to town for supplies and a bit of gossip. Once he got home, he’d fix Kuja something to eat before securing him again so that he could work outside. On days where the weather was nice, Zidane would bring Kuja out with him, seating him on one of the sling chairs on the porch while he worked on boats through the afternoon. Kuja was in no hurry to wake up, it seemed, but sometimes he’d sit blinking in the filtered sunlight on the porch, and Zidane had to figure the warm spring breeze was doing him some good.

Once the sun began setting, Zidane would head back in and fix dinner for the both of them – something more substantial for himself, and something easy to eat for Kuja – and then spend an hour or so afterwards reading to Kuja, in hopes that his voice would seep into Kuja’s mind and stir his consciousness. Then Zidane would bathe them both before turning in for bed, and as he lay in bed holding the former mage, he’d wonder what the next day held in store for them. Would it be a repeat of the previous day? Would Kuja finally wake up for real? Or would their identities get revealed and their cover blown, forcing them to have to start all over - again?

And then sometimes, just before falling asleep, Zidane would think to himself that although he’d fully expected to miss his old life - he’d expected to miss her - he didn’t, which was strange… When he’d been separated from Kuja, all he could think about was how much he wanted to see him, and worry about whether or not he was he doing all right. Maybe it was because he was so busy trying to take care of Kuja, but he hadn’t really thought about Garnet at all since he’d left. He certainly didn’t feel the need to rush back to her side, and he didn’t regret what he’d done. It wasn’t like he’d seen much of her even after they’d gotten engaged. It was hard missing someone whom he’d spent so little time with, whom he had so little in common with. Not that he had all that much in common with Kuja either, but they’d managed to get along in a way that he and Garnet hadn’t.

When Zidane finally did nod off, his dreams weren’t all that different from where they’d been months ago. His thoughts were filled with Kuja: memories of the time they’d spent together, fantasies about moving forward in their life together. When he had dreams like that, he felt hopeful. Perhaps he and Kuja couldn’t ever have a typical storybook ending, but they could still find happiness together.

But sometimes the dreams would turn sour, and he’d be racked by guilt, seeing Kuja’s sad face as he left him behind, or worse, he’d remember the stupid argument they’d had in the dungeon. Why had he been so cruel, telling Kuja that he should’ve left him behind in the Iifa Tree? He hadn’t meant it. But he’d been upset and he’d wanted Kuja to hurt too, so he’d opened his mouth and spoke without thinking.

And sometimes his soured dreams would fully deteriorate into nightmares. More than once he dreamt that he’d been too late, that Kuja had already been executed by the time he'd gone down into the dungeon to see him. Or that he’d gone back to the mountain house to retrieve him, only to find that Kuja had passed during his absence. After a nightmare like that, it was a relief to wake up and find Kuja warm and breathing beside him; it didn’t matter that he still wasn’t himself yet, only that he was alive.

* * *

Unlike Zidane, Kuja didn’t sleep – or do anything else - with any set schedule. But something had changed in him. When he was physically awake, his mind stayed shut down. But when his body was resting – which was the majority of the time, as he was still recovering from his ordeal - his consciousness stirred, floating through a sea of memories, unaware of reality beyond the most vague of sensations.

As Kuja lay dreaming, he swore he could hear someone softly calling his name. And then a gentle hand would caress his hair, occasionally drifting down to trace the line of his cheek and jaw, as a light kiss flitted across his forehead. It was such an unfamiliar sensation… but at the same time, he thought he’d experienced it before. He just couldn’t remember how long ago it had been, or whom the voice, hand and lips belonged to. All he knew was, he didn’t want it to end. He was warm and content, wrapped in sunbeams and lulled by heartbeats; he didn’t want to wake up, not if it meant losing those ghostly traces of affection. All his life he’d longed for a bit of kindness, some small sign that he was wanted, even though he’d never been able to put those feelings into words. Even though he’d never had the luxury of thinking about it.

But as he drifted a little closer to awareness, memories of pain suddenly arose, swelling like a wave, swallowing him. Harsh images assaulted him; sound and sensations bombarded him – too many, all at once. He remembered the same kind voice who called his name promising that he’d come back for him, then yelling that he should’ve left him behind to die after all. He remembered being alone and so very cold, and how his feet had stung from miles of marching; his side had burned too, when he’d torn himself open falling through the branches of the Iifa Tree. He remembered struggling to gain his freedom by trampling on thousands of lives, then watching it all slip out of his hands as Garland got the last laugh on him. He remembered having to bow down to people he didn’t like or respect, and spreading his legs for people whose names he couldn’t recall, smiling fixedly even though he wanted to vomit as they groped him with sweaty hands. He remembered his memories burning away as if they were on fire, then waking on the streets of Treno, the rain dripping relentlessly as he tried to recall… He remembered being trapped in a tiny, plain room in a village of silent dolls who were nothing like him, except for the one tiny Genome who was, but then… He remembered cowering every time his master called for him, because it hurt to have to train in magic, because he was never good enough, because it didn’t matter if he was awake when it was time to collect tissue and fluid samples, only that he held still…

Frightened and overwhelmed, he’d sink back into the dark nothing of unconsciousness, just as he’d done when he was much younger, when he’d been Garland’s only test subject.

He would’ve liked to stay that way forever, preferring oblivion to pain, but his body never allowed his mind to take refuge for long – it wanted to live, even if the rest of him had stopped caring…

The silver-haired Genome abruptly sat up in bed, his eyes flickering open.

The sudden movement woke Zidane as well. Groggy, Zidane stretched and scratched himself before glancing at the window to confirm that it was indeed morning, though just barely. And then it dawned on him that Kuja was the one who had woken him.

"Good morning, Kuja," Zidane said, yawning.

And… nothing but silence...

Zidane grunted. He was saddened, but not surprised, by the lack of response. "Damn, it’s awfully early. Mind if I sleep a little longer?" He paused, trying to think, then added, "Kuja, lie back down. It’s okay if you don’t want to sleep, just lie here with me."

Kuja did as he was told, but as Zidane cradled him, he realized, the older man’s skin was slightly tacky, like he’d been sweating. His breathing was a little faster than usual, and uneven, too. Had he been woken up by a nightmare?

Zidane sighed. Given his choice between a completely unresponsive Kuja and one that at least showed some signs of life, he’d happily take the latter. But that didn’t mean he didn’t feel helpless in face of Kuja’s pain. He rubbed his cheek against the top of Kuja’s head while slowly massaging his arms, his back, whatever else he could reach. He didn’t know if anything he did was getting through to him, but he had to try. He had to give Kuja reason to want to wake up.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- Re: "Zidane knew he had to do all he could... to remind him he wasn’t alone." Yes this is a deliberate reference to the song "You Are Not Alone" which plays after the scene where Zidane gets mindfucked by Garland. It’s pretty potent stuff, Zidane struggling to remember who he is while accepting the reality of why he was created, all while his emotions are going out of whack; he manages to pull himself together because his friends stand in support of him, even when he tries to push them away. In this fic I’m obviously assuming Kuja went through something similar, minus the support... How difficult would that have been to overcome? I don’t think it’d be a stretch to think that that would be a form of correction Garland would’ve used on him, especially if Kuja were to, let’s say, drop Zidane off on Gaia and then refuse to reveal where he’d left him, hmm...

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Through the Night" are performed and recorded by Queen and Paul Rodgers. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Garland was a fool.

Kuja frowned at the squirming, squalling little creature dangling by its ankles from his grasp. Why his master thought it’d be a good idea to create an infant Genome, Kuja had no idea. Why he’d thought it’d be a good idea to make Kuja the sole caretaker of the helpless thing, that made even less sense.

It was obvious that maturing it in the growth vats like the other Genomes would be far more efficient and sensible. But Garland theorized that a more "natural" maturation process would give this particular Genome – chosen for its superior physical potential – the complex emotions and stability needed to do something that Kuja couldn’t: Trance. And children were supposed to be more malleable, more tractable… more apt to accept commands given to them. The major downside was someone needed to raise it for the many years it would take for it to reach adulthood. And so the task fell on Kuja, as Garland didn’t want to spare time for it and there was no one else capable of carrying out such a complicated task. To make up for Kuja’s lack of knowledge on the matter – like all the other Genomes, he’d been efficiently grown to adolescence in a nutrient bath-filled glass tube – Garland had supplied him with an instructional book along with basic care items, like liquid food and diapers.

Kuja didn’t like it. He wanted no part in taking care of it, tempting as the prospect of grooming him to oppose Garland was. The infant was tiny and pathetic; it couldn’t speak, it couldn’t walk, it couldn’t feed itself. It couldn’t even control its bodily functions; even a normal Genome could manage that! And this baby was supposed to somehow grow up to one day render Kuja obsolete? Ridiculous!

All Kuja had to do was let his hands "slip" and Garland’s new prized project would be nothing more than a still, broken blob of flesh on the hard floor - and if one "slip" didn’t do it, a few more would. But Kuja knew the punishment for that would be severe… Garland could possibly go as far as decommissioning him if he were to do such a thing. So that was not a valid option.

… That didn’t mean Kuja couldn’t fantasize about it though.

It was too tempting standing there with the baby – Garland had named it Zidane – dangling in the air, so Kuja put him on the table as he began crying anew. The silver-haired mage snarled and began pacing as he tried to remember what he’d read on the subject of crying from the book.

It could be anything, really. Zidane could’ve been hungry, tired, needing to relieve himself, or in pain…

Kuja tried to rationally sort through the list. He’d fed Zidane a portion of his assigned liquid diet only a short while ago, so that wasn’t likely to be it. Before that, he’d been sleeping, so being tired probably wasn’t it either. Kuja did a quick check of the diaper – that wasn’t it either. He didn’t have any injuries so it wasn’t pain, was it? Or was he malfunctioning internally?

Unsure of how to check that last point – and not wanting to have to see Garland about it - Kuja picked the baby back up again. Zidane’s cries grew a little more intense. Eyes narrowing, Kuja poked and prodded the baby to see if he could somehow zero in on the location of discomfort, but Zidane just kept wailing nonstop.

"Be silent, you worthless thing," Kuja hissed, shaking him back and forth. Zidane made a wet, gasping sound, then cried even louder. Grimly, Kuja set him back on the table and began calling upon his magic.

First he tried a Cure spell, but that didn’t seem to have much effect. So he tried again, opting for a different approach…

It was hard to concentrate on the spell while being bombarded by such loud, unpleasant noise, but Kuja was relieved when his mind-scanning spell turned up something. It wasn’t easy making sense of an infant’s thoughts, but it seemed Zidane was in discomfort from pressure building up in his abdomen.

There’d been something in the book about babies getting gassy, so Kuja went to look it up. Apparently babies needed to be burped at times, which sounded vile, but anything was better than waiting for Zidane to cry himself to exhaustion, so Kuja followed the instructions given, lifting the infant to his shoulder and supporting his head with one hand while smacking him on the back with his other hand, until there was two noticeable belches, followed by some softer ones, and then… blessed silence.

Disgusted yet relieved, Kuja went to pull the baby off his shoulder and winced as he realized Zidane had somehow grabbed a handful of his hair while he was being burped. Back against his shoulder the baby went, until Kuja could get his hair pulled free, then he dangled Zidane from his outstretched hands again, this time, right side up. "You won’t survive if you don’t learn to take care of yourself, faster," he scolded Zidane as the infant’s head lolled back. With a sigh, Kuja ended up holding him in the crook of his arm just to keep his head from flopping around, since it seemed to make him start fussing more often than not.

He fully expected the baby to start howling again anyway, just because. Or to wet his diaper or spit up in his face or… something else foul. But Zidane surprised him by staring at him and making contented gurgling sounds, as if Kuja hadn’t just been thinking about killing him minutes earlier.

And that reaction was probably why Zidane was still alive. Not because of the threat of punishment – if Zidane was gone Kuja knew Garland couldn’t afford to get rid of him – and not even because he hoped Zidane would divert some of Garland’s attention away from him. It wasn’t that Kuja needed to be stared at, but just seeing a reaction…

The other Genomes simply stared vacuously in his direction when spoken to. Garland only looked at him to observe him or to check for compliance with commands. Other than the dragon he called Nova, which only passed by the town every once in a while, there wasn’t a single living creature who ever looked at him like he was there at all. Like he mattered at all. Only this tiny infant, who now lay docilely in his arms, blinking sleepily up at him…

* * *

There was no gentle, easy wakening for Kuja. One minute he was drifting along, half-dreaming and half-wondering if it was a dream, the next, he was startled awake by a spasm of pain from his shoulder. Reality and fantasy blurred, and he reflexively tried to draw his arm in, to cradle the baby against his body, fearing he’d drop him, but for some reason, he couldn’t move his limbs. Bewildered, his eyes snapped opened only to baffle him by what he saw.

What? Where…?

Whether his dream had been a true memory or not, that was forgotten for the moment. This bed, this small room… it was all completely unfamiliar to him. There was a window above the bed, covered with a curtain, but he couldn’t reach it to look out. For some reason, he was wound up tightly in some blankets, to the point where he couldn’t seem to free himself, even when he twisted and turned. Only his head was free to move about, though all it could do was look to the left and right.

Kuja couldn’t hold back the whimper that escaped his lips. His first confused thought was that this was Garland’s doing; he was being punished for his misbehavior. But… this wasn’t how Garland normally did things. This wasn’t his assigned room; this didn’t look like any place he’d seen in Bran Bal. And he’d kicked Garland off a cliff on Terra, hadn’t he?

His eyes slid shut as his mind struggled to separate past fears from his present reality. Yes, he was sure of it. Garland was gone. So was all of Terra. He’d seen to that himself.

A sudden flood of images flashed through his thoughts, so quick he could barely process them... The brilliance and warmth of the crystal in Memoria. Zidane plummeting past as he lay prone in the Iifa Tree. An old, decaying house in the mountains and a pair of mismatched Dwarves at an outpost at the foot of the path. The view of Alexandria Castle from the surrounding cliffs, standing out like a sparkling gem amongst a patchwork of green growth and blue water. Dark stone walls and General Beatrix, drawing Save the Queen, the sword’s edge glinting in the flickering gas light.

Queen Garnet had sentenced him to death. Zidane had too, in a way, by leaving him behind, but Kuja had stubbornly refused to release his hold on life. How ironic that he’d ended up being dragged to the executioner by Zidane himself after all of that…

Was this all an illusion then? The last, lingering gasps of a dying mind? He’d remembered reading that at the moment of death, one’s whole life would flash before one’s eyes. Or had that moment already passed? Was it already over, but some stubborn fragment of his soul couldn’t accept it?

Then why did his body hurt? How could he feel physical pain, if he was dead? Or was this his punishment – eternal damnation – the price he’d pay for the sins he’d committed in life? He’d never believed in concepts like gods or hell, but if anyone deserved to suffer forever for what they’d done, he’d be an obvious candidate.

He struggled against the sheets some more, then cried out in surprise when he noticed the door in the far corner swinging open. Who was his tormentor? The former queen, Brahne? His old "employer," Mr. King? One of his other countless, nameless victims? His eyes snapped shut of their own volition, but that didn’t stop the footsteps from rushing over towards him. Cringing, Kuja forced them open again, only to see a very familiar face looming over his.

Stormy blue-gray eyes locked with bright aqua blue. Zidane was as surprised to see Kuja awake, as Kuja was to see him. "Kuja… are you really…? Oh, thank gods! It’s okay. It’ll be okay." Zidane immediately began untying the ropes that bound the former mage, quickly as possible. "I’m so sorry about this, I just couldn’t leave you wandering around."

Kuja just stared up at him. What was he talking about? And why was he there? He wasn’t dead. And he didn’t have time to be tormenting him. He was supposed to be getting married; he was going to be king. Or… was it really him? Could it be someone masquerading as the young thief? But it sure sounded like him…

"Kuja? You… you can understand me, right?" Zidane asked. Kuja was awake, wasn’t he? His eyes were following him; they weren’t glazed over anymore, but wide and worried. So why wasn’t he responding?

"… Zidane?"

"Yeah." The blonde grinned slightly in relief and finished undoing the ropes. "There. Sorry… I didn’t want to tie you up, but you’d taken to sleepwalking or something like that."

Sleepwalking? What? Kuja’s brow furrowed. "Did Garland send you? Or am I dead?"

"Huh? Kuja, Garland’s long gone, and you’re alive..." Then Zidane remembered Kuja mumbling at Garland in his sleep, and he sank onto the bed, wondering what Kuja had remembered. Or more importantly, what he might’ve forgotten… "Kuja, what’s the last thing you remember?"

Kuja searched his memory for the last thing that seemed real. That would be… the execution? He wasn’t sure. "Beatrix..."

"Beatrix?" Zidane scratched his head. Well, she had been there, yes. "Not me?"

"You aren’t real. But I remember her drawing her sword. And… and…"

"I’m not real?" Zidane wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He was sitting on the bed, his weight depressing the edge of the mattress; he’d just untied Kuja as well. Zidane leaned a little closer to the other Genome, until he had his hands planted on either side of Kuja’s body. "If I’m not real, why are you talking to me then?"

Instead of answering, Kuja clamed up and looked away, as if to prove that there really wasn’t anyone there.

"If I’m not real, how could I do this?" the blonde asked, as he reached out and lightly touched Kuja’s cheek, causing Kuja to flinch as if he’d been slapped instead.

"It’s another dream, then - or a nightmare. Just a dream... It must be, otherwise, you wouldn’t be here," Kuja mumbled, refusing to look back at Zidane.

"… Ouch." But Zidane figured he deserved that.

"Maybe I’ll die in my sleep. That wouldn’t be so bad. It’d be for the best, I think. I won’t have to wake up again. I don’t want to," Kuja continued muttering to himself.

"Kuja, you’re not dreaming. Like I said, this is real," Zidane said gently, even though he was starting to get frustrated – not with Kuja, but with just how messy things had become. Zidane was glad to see him awake, but he hadn’t expected Kuja to be so disoriented and now, he had no clue how he was supposed to get through to him.

But Zidane had managed to inadvertently say something to get the former mage’s attention. "You’re a liar! I won’t be fooled again," he snapped, shoving at Zidane, his expression shifting from angry to surprised when his hands made contact with a solid body.

Zidane sat back on his haunches, unsure of what to say. It was ironic that Kuja of all people would call someone out for lying… but maybe he’d only been treating others the way he’d been treated. Because despite Kuja’s confusion about almost everything else, he was right about one thing: Zidane hadn’t kept his word. He’d promised Kuja that he’d find him safe harbor and deliver him there. He’d failed miserably.

"You’re right. I broke my promise," the young thief admitted. "I didn’t intend to, but… I made some bad decisions. I really screwed things up. I’m so sorry."

"You’re sorry…" No one had ever apologized to Kuja before, not for anything that mattered. He should’ve been pleased to receive an apology. He should’ve smiled and pretended like he was happy to do so. Instead, he felt rage boiling up inside him. He struggled to suppress it, telling himself that if Zidane was being even a tiny bit truthful, he couldn’t afford to be pushing him away - but he just couldn’t.

"You’re sorry?" Kuja spat. It had been so cold in the shack that he’d struggled to fall asleep, his body shivering uncontrollably as he’d fretted that he wouldn’t wake again the next morning. It had been so painful and exhausting, staggering towards Alexandria on blistered, bloodied feet; it had felt as though he’d been walking on shards of glass. He’d been terrified when the angry mob had surrounded him, bombarding him with whatever they had on hand – fruit, trash, rocks. And Zidane was sorry??

"Kuja, please… hear me out."

Kuja suddenly began laughing. "What choice do I have?" Even though he was no longer tied down, he could tell, he didn’t even have the strength to get up, never mind leave.

It was the same sort of laugh that Zidane had heard back in the dungeon. There wasn’t anything happy about it – not then, and not now. In fact, Kuja looked close to tears. But last time, Zidane had let his own frustration get the best of him, and he’d said something he now regretted…

This time, he leaned down and wrapped his arms around Kuja and hugged him. "It’ll be okay, I swear. Just listen, please…"

Kuja froze for a split second, before he suddenly began thrashing around. "No! It’s not okay! I don’t believe you!" he yelled hoarsely as the tears he’d been holding back finally spilled over.

It was sort of a blessing that Kuja was still weak from the three weeks or so that he’d been bedridden, otherwise Zidane would’ve had to use more strength to hold him down, at the risk of hurting him. As it was, he was still a handful. Zidane ended up clutching him against his body while grimacing at his own poor choice of words. Obviously Kuja didn’t want to hear any more of his promises. Maybe he didn’t want to hear anything from him at all. But Zidane had to try.

"I really wanted to go back and get you – I thought about it every single day, even in my sleep! – but I was scared. Because I felt something for you that I thought… couldn’t be possible. So I tried to convince myself that I was wrong, that I was just confused. I tried to force myself to follow the script I had in my head of how my life was supposed to be. But I was only lying to myself, to Dagger, to you… Believe me, I never intended to hurt you, or to break my promise to you! In fact, I was only going to go through with the wedding because the only thing I could think of to protect you was to pardon you once I became king," the younger man rattled off, rapid fire, before pulling back slightly to see if his explanation had any effect.

Kuja didn’t give any indication that he’d heard any of it. He was sobbing to the point that he could barely remember to breathe, his shoulders shaking hard as he gulped in air, only to resume crying again.

Zidane frowned. Garnet had managed to look pretty even while crying. But there was nothing attractive about the way Kuja cried. His face was all scrunched up and his nose was running and the tears seemed endless, like he’d been holding in so much sadness for so long, he could no longer stop it from bursting forth. It was so raw and painful, even Zidane’s chest hurt from it.

The last time Kuja had snapped, he’d expelled his rage outward and ended up destroying his home world. He’d cried then too, though no one had stuck around to witness it. But now, without his magic, without any other outlets, all he could do was wail helplessly.

Feeling just as helpless and unsure of what he could possibly do to make things right, Zidane shuffled back until he was sitting up against the headboard, and simply held Kuja, stroking his hair, while the other Genome clung to his shirt and soaked it. He’d hoped for a better reaction; he’d thought that Kuja would at least give him the chance to properly apologize. But he tried to remain optimistic… At least Kuja had woken up. That was the important thing. His soul hadn’t died. And his body was on the mend. From all indications he’d recover pretty well, physically. Apologies and explanations, those could wait until later.

After a few minutes Zidane realized that Kuja had grown quiet and still. Worried, he cocked his head and looked down to find that Kuja had managed to exhaust himself and had fallen asleep. His breathing was somewhat labored – no doubt he was congested from all the crying – but otherwise he seemed to be at peace, for the moment.

Zidane was tempted to stay by Kuja’s side, but he’d been in the middle of doing some repairs to one of the boats when he’d come in for a drink of water. He really didn’t want to leave things a mess outside; at the very least, he had to clean up. So he carefully pried Kuja’s fingers off his shirt and lay the former mage down, tucking the blankets loosely around his body after considering – and dismissing – the necessity of tying him up again. Hopefully the next time Kuja awoke, he’d be at least lucid enough to realize he needed help to get up.

* * *

The next time Kuja awoke, it was a few hours later, in the early evening.

His first thought was that the heartbeats thudding softly in his ear were an echo of his, not someone else’s. His second was that his pillow was firmer and warmer than he’d expected. His third, he really had to use the bathroom…

He sat up, clutching at his head as a wave of dizziness struck him, and suddenly, his thoughts cleared and his earlier show of weakness came back to him in a huge, shameful rush. He’d clung to Zidane’s shirt and cried and cried, far harder than he’d thought possible, until he’d lost consciousness…

"Kuja? How are you feeling?"

The older Genome spared a glance to his right. Zidane had been lying beside him in bed – apparently he’d been said "pillow" - but he was sitting up now as well. Why was he still there? Kuja remembered getting mad and snapping at him, struggling against him, sobbing all over him… Maybe Zidane stayed simply because he’d enjoyed seeing his former enemy brought down to such a state. But then why would he be lying in bed with him?

However there was nothing but concern in Zidane’s eyes as he carefully reached out to touch Kuja’s cheek, then moved up to Kuja’s forehead, as if checking for a fever.

This time, Kuja didn’t twitch away, though it was more out of fear that any motion would make his head feel worse.

"Bathroom," Kuja managed between gritted teeth, once Zidane’s hand moved away.

"Ah, okay." Zidane slid off the bed, then turned around and scooped Kuja up in his arms. The surprise in Kuja’s eyes gave away the fact that he hadn’t expected help, either in getting up or making it to the bathroom.

"No way I’m letting you walk right now," Zidane said firmly as he set Kuja down in front of the toilet.

Kuja wasn’t sure if he ought to point out that he didn’t appreciate the level of attention that Zidane was giving him, considering the situation, though at the same time, he doubted he could’ve made it to the bathroom without crawling. Even standing up was a strain. His legs felt so weak, he feared they would give out at any moment and send him tumbling to the ground, but Zidane had his hands firmly planted on his back and the side of his hip to help keep him upright so that that wouldn’t happen. Kuja frowned. Zidane’s steady hands should have felt reassuring, but they didn’t. If Kuja leaned into them, and Zidane pulled away, if he suddenly left… Kuja would be left to fall alone.

He tried not to think about it and concentrated instead on the task at hand.

When he was done, Kuja managed to shuffle over a few feet to the sink to wash his hands, shrugging off Zidane who still insisted on following close behind, making protesting sounds. Although the older man’s feet hurt, the pain was bearable – just an overall soreness instead of sharp, cutting jabs of hurt. It helped that his reflection was distracting him as well. He couldn’t help but stare at what he saw in the small mirror over the sink – his face looked pinched and his hair was in disarray. There was a scar under his left eye, amidst the ugly yellow bruising around the socket. And if this was what his face looked like, he could only imagine what lay beneath his clothes.

His nose and eyes were puffy and red from crying. He splashed some cold water on his face, hoping to at least reduce the redness, though he doubted it would make it look any better. He hid a sigh as he dabbed his face dry. One thing was for certain, Zidane wasn’t sticking around just to look at a mug like his.

After Kuja confirmed he was done, Zidane picked him up again and carried him back out to the main room. The blonde looked towards the bed a moment, then over at the small kitchen table before heading over to the latter. He deposited Kuja in one of the wooden chairs, then went to the stove, glad he’d had the foresight to put a simple stew on the stove before Kuja had woken up. "I bet you’re hungry. Dinner’s almost ready, I think."

Kuja put his hand on his stomach but didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure if he was, though he was pretty certain he needed to eat regardless of how he felt. He’d always been slender through the waist but was beyond skinny at this point.

Zidane took Kuja’s silence as a yes. He briefly checked on the contents of the pot, prodding at a chunk of potato, then at a piece of meat. It needed longer, from the looks of it… the meat would be far better if it was more tender.

The blonde turned away from the stove, then hesitated. Normally he would’ve gone straight back to the dining table and sat down for a conversation, but Kuja wasn’t being very talkative. So as something of a peace offering, Zidane went over to the mostly empty bookcase, picked up the book he’d been reading aloud to Kuja during the past few weeks, and placed it on the table in front of the silent silver-haired man.

Kuja glanced at the cover, then up at Zidane, questioningly.

Zidane explained, "I know you like to read so I picked it up at the store. I’d been reading it to you, when you weren’t… well, but I don’t know if any of it got through. Did it?"

After flipping briefly through the pages, Kuja was pretty sure he’d read the story before but wasn’t sure if his memory of it was from way back when, or more recently… Frowning slightly at his uncertainty, he looked back up at Zidane again, then cocked his head slightly. "You cut your hair," he observed.

"Hmm?" Zidane straightened up, fingering the end of his ponytail before remembering that yes, he had cut it for the wedding, at Garnet’s request. "Ah, yeah, Dagger said she thought it looked better shorter. But I’ll grow it back out. You liked it longer, right?"

Kuja gave a half-hearted shrug. He didn’t see what difference his preferences made.

Zidane smiled slightly. He let his hand drift down, until it was lightly resting on Kuja’s head. "You have such beautiful hair. I’m glad you’ve left it long."

"I shouldn’t have. I should’ve disguised myself better," Kuja sighed, suddenly angry at himself for having tried to walk to Alexandria in the first place. It had been a bad idea, and he’d understood that, but… he hadn’t known what else to do.

"Maybe. Maybe not. It wouldn’t have made a difference if someone like Beatrix saw you anyway."

Kuja grunted.

Encouraged by the fact that Kuja was conversing with him at all, Zidane figured it was a good a time as any to try apologizing again. He sat down and laced his fingers together, resting his chin on them, as his tail began swaying rhythmically behind him. "Listen… I don’t blame you for being mad at me. I know I messed up, badly. And I know you’ve had it rough – probably far worse than I could ever imagine. But I’m trying my best to set things right. I really am sorry, Kuja. I didn’t intend to be away for so long. I really did think I could find some place where you could live in safety, but I was being naïve, I guess. And I certainly didn’t mean what I said in the dungeon; I don’t regret rescuing you from the Iifa Basin. I don’t regret the year we spent together. Because then I would’ve never gotten to know you, to, uh…"

Zidane unlaced his fingers, reached out, and captured Kuja’s hand in one of his own. Such long, slender fingers… not as delicate as a woman’s, but just as elegant. Zidane longed to kiss them, but he refrained. He wanted to do this properly, though Kuja was just looking at him suspiciously.

He looked Kuja right in the eyes and said, "Kuja, I think I’m in love with you."

Kuja frowned. "Oh." Now it made sense… sort of. Zidane knew he was an easy lay; Queen Garnet, on the other hand, had likely refused his advances and maybe he’d grown tired of waiting for her. Zidane should’ve known better though. Flattery or trickery wasn’t necessary. He only needed to point out that Kuja owed him for saving him, and he’d be able to get what he was after.

"’Oh?’ That’s it?" Zidane asked, disappointed. He hadn’t really expected Kuja to reciprocate just like that, but "Oh" was such a non-answer… "I understand if maybe you’re not sure how you feel yet, or you need some time to think about it, or, well… something like that…" he trailed off. Even he wasn’t sure what he was asking for anymore. It was weird to think about it, but proposing to Garnet had been slightly easier in comparison. At least in that case, there was only the possibility of a "yes" or a "no."

"What do you want me to say?"

Zidane shrugged. "Well, what do you think of it?"

Kuja really wasn’t interested in answering, but it was just awkward leaving things as they were. He yanked his hand out of Zidane’s grasp. "You’re wasting your time. I’m not capable of reciprocating your feelings."

"Maybe not right now, but if you give me a chance…"

"Are you stupid? I wasn’t designed that way, that should be obvious by now."

Zidane frowned.

Kuja rolled his eyes and made a dismissive wave of his hand. "I know what this is all about. I don’t mind. You don’t have to pretend to like me or whatever."

"What?"

Kuja’s lips twisted. He looked over at the bed. "I’ll let you do it right now, if you want."

"What?" Zidane followed the direction of Kuja’s gaze, then blushed slightly. "No, that’s not what I…"

"Hmph. I figured as much. I must look like hell right now." He felt like hell too, though he didn’t think that mattered. "Well, now or later, it’s all the same to me," Kuja added.

"You don’t. Look like hell, I mean." Zidane sighed heavily as he gathered his thoughts. "I want you, I really do. But this isn’t about sex. Well, I mean… let me put it this way - as much as I want you, I only want to make love to you. So until I know you feel the same as I do, I swear, to you and to myself, that I’m not going to make that move on you."

The older man sighed as well. Sex, lovemaking…. he had no use for that sort of wordplay. "I guess you’ll be waiting for the rest of your life then, or until you find someone else to pique your interest."

"No, I don’t think so. You’re the only one that matters to me."

"Aren’t we the eternal optimist?" Kuja asked in his singsong voice, the one that made Zidane worry about what crazy thing was going to come out of his mouth next. "Here’s some news for you: I don’t trust you. I don’t even like you."

That hurt. Kuja had said earlier that he no longer believed in him, but Zidane hadn’t realized that things had deteriorated so badly that he’d go as far as to say that he disliked him. Not that it was undeserved, but still… "Come on, you don’t mean that."

"I certainly do."

Zidane reached out for Kuja’s hand again, persisting even when the former mage tried to pull away. Kuja ended up relenting with a tsk and a slight frown. In a half pleading, half hopeful tone, Zidane said, "I know I let you down; I know I’m going to have to work extra hard to regain your trust. But no matter what, I want to stay by your side – even if you decide you don’t want us to be anything more than friends. All I ask is that you give me one more chance to prove myself to you."

Kuja didn’t answer. But he didn’t pull away again either. That didn’t mean he agreed though; he’d been burned far too many times to want to risk opening himself up to something like that again. At the same time, he knew he wasn’t in any sort of position to be choosy about the help being offered. Zidane must’ve known it too. Kuja could barely walk; he didn’t even know where they were! If he cared at all about his survival – and at the moment, he wasn’t sure if he did, truth be told - then he’d have to give Zidane the chance he was asking for.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- Don't shake babies or dangle them upside down or let their heads roll around, obviously! : p But I figured Genomes are made of sterner stuff so baby Zidane managed to survive Kuja’s clumsy, ignorant attempt at childrearing.

- Admittedly I wasn't sure how Kuja ought to react once he woke up and found that he'd been saved by Zidane, again. My original thought was, "Well, he'd make a snarky comment, of course." But once I started working on it, it didn't go that way. I couldn't see how someone so disoriented would be able to pull his thoughts together enough to do anything other than have a complete breakdown. Now, I really don't see him as a crybaby or anything, but I think if he did cry, he'd cry hard. And I don't see how someone so full of barely restrained emotions could NOT cry after going through so much.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Back to the Light" are performed and recorded by Queen and Brian May. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Zidane’s waking thought was, I hope that wasn’t all just a dream.

He looked down at the body curled up against his own, and despite a slight reservation at what he was about to do, poked it in the arm to see if he’d get a reaction.

Kuja murmured and swatted at his hand, but didn’t wake up.

Zidane frowned. It wasn’t much of a reaction. It wasn’t anything different from what he might’ve done when he hadn’t been himself. So Zidane poked him again a couple of times, then pinched him for good measure.

One eye cracked open. "… What?" Kuja growled, looking about as pleased as a Catoblepas woken from its slumber.

Zidane smiled apologetically. Kuja had never been a morning person. "I had to make sure yesterday wasn’t just a dream."

"You’re supposed to pinch yourself, moron," the former mage muttered.

"Hmm, yeah. Sorry."

Kuja grumbled a little more, but closed his eyes and let his head drop back down to Zidane’s chest, before he reconsidered it and rolled over instead.

Zidane sighed at the rejection and sat up, intending to get out of bed, but just as he swung his feet towards the floor, he heard Kuja ask in a small voice, "Where are you going?"

"Gonna get my day started. You can go back to sleep if you want."

Kuja immediately rolled back over, reaching out to snag the hem of Zidane’s shirt. "You’re not going anywhere?"

Zidane cocked his head, not sure why Kuja had suddenly become obsessed with what he was doing. "Well, I usually go to town in the morning. But it’s still too early for that. I was going to fix some breakfast. Want any?"

"Oh." Kuja relaxed slightly into the pillow, then yawned.

Zidane smiled and ruffled Kuja’s hair just a moment, which earned him a growl of disapproval. "Go back to sleep. I’ll make you something to eat later, if you want."

Zidane felt Kuja’s fingers release their hold on his shirt, so he stood up. Kuja just looked up at him a moment, before burying his face in his pillow. "You’ll wake me before you go?" Kuja asked, the words heavily muffled.

"Sure, if you want."

Zidane wasn’t sure if Kuja had intended to go back to sleep, but by the time he sat down to eat his breakfast, he could hear the other man softly snoring.

As the blonde chewed his way through a thick slice of bread topped with honey and fruit, he wondered how long it would be before Kuja could accompany him into town. The older Genome was clearly unhappy at the thought of being left behind, but his health was a real concern. Zidane supposed he could offer to carry Kuja around town, if he really wanted to go, but there was no way he’d suggest it; Kuja was too proud to accept being manhandled like that. Besides, appearances mattered to him. He’d rather stay at home and sulk than be seen bruised and battered and leaning against Zidane for support.

Zidane decided the best way to handle it was to load up on supplies so that he wouldn’t have to make another trip for a few days. Now that he was more settled in the house, he wasn’t needing to pick up nearly as much stuff as he had before.

He took his time eating and working on his grocery list and getting ready, buying Kuja as much time as he could before he had to wake him. He even spent a couple of minutes sitting by the bed and watching Kuja sleep – it was relaxing watching the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, the way his pink lips would part slightly sometimes as he exhaled, the occasional fluttering of silver gilded lashes. Zidane would’ve rather let Kuja continue resting, but he’d promised to wake him before he left, so that was that.

"Kuja. Hey…" Zidane couldn’t resist stroking his fingertips down Kuja’s cheek and along his jaw. "Wake up, beautiful." He cupped Kuja’s chin in his hand and leaned down to kiss him lightly.

Kuja murmured, rubbing his face against Zidane’s hand a moment before his eyebrows wiggled and his eyelids slid open. The haze clouding his blue-gray eyes cleared after a few moments more. "Mm?"

"I’m going to head out in a few minutes. Is there anything I can pick up for you while I’m in town?"

Kuja blinked, processing the question. He had to assume Zidane had picked up enough clothing and toiletries for the both of them – after all he wasn’t lying in bed naked – but beyond basic necessities like that, was there anything else he really needed? "No…?"

Zidane smiled. "Okay. Well if you do think of anything, I can pick it up the next time I make a trip." He paused a second, thinking, then added, "Do you want me to fix you something to eat before I go?"

Kuja still wasn’t hungry at all, even though he knew he ought to eat. "No."

"There’s some bread on the counter, in case you change your mind. Can you walk that far?"

Kuja eyed the kitchen, then turned back to Zidane. "Are you saying I can’t make it ten feet?"

It was more like fifteen feet, but Zidane saw no reason to point that out. "No, I’m saying that I worry about you. That’s all."

The former mage grunted. Despite his indignant protests, he wasn’t sure if he could make it to the other end of the room, even though it was only a few yards away.

Zidane sighed. He wondered if he ought to go at all, but he had to, or else they’d be eating nothing but bread the rest of the day. And Kuja needed something more substantial than that if he was going to regain his strength.

"I have to go," he said, kissing Kuja on the forehead before he got up and walked to the door. "I should only be gone an hour or so."

Kuja just shrugged. He didn’t have anything else to say. What did Zidane want, to hear him say goodbye? To hear him beg him to stay?

Zidane left. A minute passed, and then another. Kuja frowned. He turned to stare at the closed door and wondered if he should’ve asked Zidane to take him with him. He shook his head, hating how weak his body felt, and how weak his resolve had gotten as well.

With a groan, he flopped back down on the bed and stared up at the beams of the ceiling a moment before glancing over at the window. It still didn’t feel real, being here. Being alive. It was unbelievable that Zidane had managed to sneak him out of the dungeon, after having drugged the majority of the castle staff with sleeping weed and talking his way past Beatrix. At least that’s how Zidane had explained it when he’d sat down to answer Kuja’s questions last night immediately after dinner.

Kuja hadn’t contested Zidane’s story or his motives. If Zidane was deluded enough to think he’d fallen in love with a man who’d once been his mortal enemy, then maybe he would’ve been crazy enough to pull off a stunt like that too.

Zidane had also had some questions of his own. He’d inquired if Kuja had managed to remember anything from the past few weeks, and at that, Kuja had felt obligated to reveal that he occasionally suffered from episodes where he’d lose awareness, and that they’d been happening with some frequency since Zidane had left for the Mist Continent. Well, that was what he meant at least. He’d put it far more bluntly, saying, "I lose awareness sometimes, like my mind has forgotten how to function. It’s just something that happens off and on; it’s been like that much of my life."

Zidane had looked distressed upon hearing that. "Really? That’s terrible! I didn’t know…"

"I guess Garland figured he could be sloppy when he created me, since I wasn’t meant to last anyhow," Kuja had curtly replied.

"I don’t think that’s the case at all. Everyone has their breaking point, no matter how strong they are…"

"Or how weak?" Kuja had spat. He hadn’t wanted to hear that from Zidane, who’d recovered in no time at all when Garland had tried to purge his mind. As if he’d needed more proof that Zidane was the superior Genome. "At least none of my ‘episodes’ were quite as severe back in the mountains, or maybe I would’ve frozen to death there. Maybe that wouldn’t have been so terrible though. It certainly would’ve been better than starving to death."

"Don’t say that!" Zidane had snapped, but after that they’d both let the subject drop - Zidane, because he’d been truly disturbed by what he’d just learned, and Kuja, because he’d gotten the younger man riled up and that somehow made him feel a bit better.

Kuja still didn’t understand how Zidane could’ve walked away from his fiancée when she’d been the only thing he’d thought about and talked about for an entire year. He’d said he’d done it because Kuja had become more important to him, but they’d been apart for months – how did that make sense? Though there was a saying: absence makes the heart grow fonder. So maybe Zidane had begun missing Kuja to the point that he’d started confusing it with something like love…? Didn’t that mean that now that he was away from Garnet once again, that he’d start missing – and "loving" her – once again?

Irritated, Kuja sat up and swept the curtain aside.

The back of the cottage faced a shed that looked to be nearly as large as the house itself. Tall trees gracefully laced the area with shade. There weren’t any other houses or buildings in sight, only some rocky cliffs.

Kuja sighed, letting the curtain fall back into place. Even after Zidane had explained what had happened and where they now were, it was still hard to remember that he was no longer alone, trapped in that old house in the northern mountains.

But… what if Zidane didn’t come back, again? What if he’d realized his mistake, and went back to her?

Kuja suddenly felt his stomach lurch. Zidane was just going to town for an hour or so, to pick up supplies, Kuja told himself. That wasn’t anything unreasonable. Kuja wanted to believe that. Zidane had gone on supply runs all the time back in the mountains; he’d always returned from those.

But he’d also said he’d be back in a couple of months…

Kuja threw himself out of bed, bracing himself against the wall as his legs began failing him. Gritting his teeth, he stood there, hanging on until his limbs stopped quaking so much. Following the line of the wall, past the bathroom and along the kitchen counters, he struggled towards the front door.

Kuja took one step out the door before he remembered that he had nothing on his feet but socks, and with his feet as tender as they were, he couldn’t risk going much further like that. But he spotted some slippers Zidane had left by the door; they were too small to be comfortable, but they’d suffice for the time being.

The view from the front of the cottage was about as non-revealing as the one from the back window – there was no sign of town or any other dwellings - except now Kuja could clearly see the docks and the long expanse of lakefront that flanked the dockmaster’s abode. A meandering path tramped down between some trees was very likely the road into town, but all Kuja could see from his vantage point was water, rocks and greenery.

Most people would’ve said the cottage was cozy, that the location was idyllic and peaceful. And while Kuja had to admit the house - tiny though it was - was in far better condition than the last one, he still felt that same sense of isolation that he had before. It wasn’t that he’d ever been that sociable, really… although he’d been very good at gracefully navigating his way through various social situations, the reality was most people grated on his nerves. Often he’d preferred the company of his books. But at the same time, he couldn’t stand being completely alone, to the point where he could accept almost anyone as a companion. Even Zidane.

Kuja frowned. He’d told Zidane yesterday that he didn’t trust him, that he didn’t like him. He hadn’t been exaggerating on the former, but perhaps a bit on the latter. Even though Zidane had let him down, Kuja couldn’t bring himself to hate him. Maybe it was because Zidane had shown him some degree of kindness, more than anyone else ever had; maybe it was because he had no other option, with the rest of the world wanting him dead.

Come to think of it… Zidane had said Nil was quite small, barely a blip on the map. So why did they need a dock and someone to maintain it? Maybe the boats were the main mode of transport in and out of town. If so, wasn’t it risky living in such a location? What if a traveler happened by and spotted them? Or even the townspeople… surely they had access to Mognet, even in a sleepy backwater burg like Nil. Sooner or later someone would figure out who they were, and then…?

Zidane just didn’t think sometimes… or even most of the time. He was reckless, relying too much on sheer dumb luck. But everything always seemed to work out just fine for him in the end. Kuja resented that. He’d struggled for everything he’d ever had, and even then, it hadn’t been enough. The freedom he’d longed for, the power he’d accumulated through years of training, the social status he’d curried… all he had left now was his life, and even that was in constant danger of being snuffed out. It made no sense that Zidane would want to be linked to someone like that, someone who could only get him in trouble, who couldn’t even properly respond to his desires or needs… someone who only knew how to destroy and failed at everything else...

Kuja staggered forward a few feet, then stumbled and dropped onto his knees. He’d felt dizzy; it was like something was suddenly clouding his vision. He couldn’t seem to get back up. He didn’t know if something was wrong with him, or if it was just a side effect of his poor health. Was he still in danger of dying? How ironic that would be… to suddenly drop dead after all that had happened. What would Zidane think of that? And speaking of Zidane… where was he? He’d said he’d be back in an hour or so, but surely it’d been an hour already.

It was getting harder to breathe. The sun was too bright, too hot. Kuja tried to brace himself upright to catch his breath, but when that failed, he half crawled, half dragged himself to the nearest patch of shade, taking refuge there in hopes that the spell would soon pass.

* * *

True to his word, Zidane had only stayed in town long enough to run his errands, though now that Kuja was awake, there were extra things that the blonde figured he’d ought to pick up.

After loading his purchases onto Choco, he swung by the inn just to make sure the posting board remained clear of bad news, then headed home. It was a nice spring day, and with Choco cheerily jogging along at a good clip and songbirds singing in accompaniment, Zidane was feeling upbeat… that was, until they were very nearly at the house, and Zidane spotted an unexpected figure curled up under the shade of a tree.

Shocked, Zidane immediately urged Choco into a run before flinging himself off the bird’s back as they reached the clearing in front of the house.

"Kuja! Why are you out here?" Zidane yelped as he sprinted up to the man kneeling on the ground. Kuja’s hunched posture indicated illness or injury; his tail lay limply in the dust. Had he hurt himself somehow, and only managed to barely crawl past the door before collapsing? Or was it something worse? Zidane suddenly couldn’t get out of his head what Kuja had told him last night about his "episodes." He remembered staring at Kuja’s conscious-yet-unconscious body, wondering if something had broken inside… To now know that that was what had happened, Zidane had to admit, he was scared. If it happened again, would he be able to pull Kuja out of it once more? Or would he finally slip through Zidane’s grasp, accepting death as the price for escape?

Kuja looked up, blinking, eyes wide. He seemed a little dazed, as if he’d lost track of time. "You’re back…"

Still worried but greatly relieved at having gotten a response, Zidane crouched down and hugged the former mage, squeezing a little harder than he’d intended, as Choco came up to them both and began lightly nibbling at Kuja’s hair. "Of course. I told you, I was just going for supplies. I came right back as soon as I could."

Kuja shook his head slowly, the strange fuzziness clearing away almost as quickly as it had struck. He reached up and gently but firmly pushed the chocobo away, then tried to do the same with Zidane as well, but the young thief refused to let go.

"Did you really think I was trying to ditch you? Would I have busted you out of prison and brought you all the way out here… would I have spent weeks nursing you back to health, just to dump you as soon as you woke up?" Zidane demanded.

Kuja’s lips tightened. "I don’t know. I didn’t say that!" he protested. But he had been thinking it; he couldn’t help it, even though he’d known it wasn’t logical, even without Zidane pointing it out.

Zidane frowned. He didn’t want to see Kuja upset. But he’d had to say it; Kuja was acting like he’d been abandoned – again. The careless words Zidane had uttered in the dungeon… the promise he’d thoughtlessly broken… the scars left by those actions were just as real as the ones marring Kuja’s body. The younger Genome didn’t know if he could mend the damage he’d done, but he was determined to give it his all.

"I’m sorry. I know I still need to prove myself to you. I won’t ever hurt you like that again," Zidane murmured into Kuja’s hair. "I love you."

"Is that supposed to be an improvement over yesterday’s ‘I think I love you?’ What could you possibly even like about me?" Kuja laughed bitterly. "So you think you’ve developed feelings for me. You used to have them for her. You’ll change your mind again next week, or the week after."

Zidane’s lips pursed. Had he said it like that? He’d been nervous when he’d confessed… It wasn’t because he was uncertain about what he wanted though. For the first time in a long time, he was sure of how he felt – and he'd dreaded the thought of being rejected. But Kuja couldn’t see into his head or his heart – he didn’t know how much Zidane had wrestled against his confusion before he’d finally accepted that what he felt for Kuja was real.

The blonde stood back up, brushing a bit of grass off his pants. There wasn’t anything more he could do at the moment to win over Kuja, but that didn’t mean he’d given up. He’d just have to tell him he loved him over and over; he’d have to prove himself again and again, until even Kuja couldn’t deny it anymore. "Let’s go in and have lunch, okay? And when I make another trip in a couple of days, if you feel up to it, come with me."

And with that, Zidane offered Kuja a hand up. He could’ve just picked him up and carried him back into the house, but he knew Kuja would resent that. Besides, he’d made it this far under his own power…

Kuja tsked, refusing to take hold of the hand. "… Come with you? Don’t be stupid. If I go into town, I’ll be recognized immediately. I’ll be killed!"

"No, you won’t. I promise."

"How ridiculous! How can you say such a thing?"

"Because some of the townspeople have already met you. You just don’t remember. You were having that ‘episode’ thing, you know?"

Kuja was so surprised, he couldn’t even think of a response. He nervously smoothed his hair back with one hand. Zidane had let people in to see him while he was injured? While he wasn’t of right mind? Was one of them a doctor or something?

"They were here to give me a hand with the boats. It couldn’t be helped. But they were really nice about it – when they saw I had my hands full taking care of you, they said they’d come back later when I wasn’t so busy. And they did."

"You let… they didn’t…" Kuja stuttered. He frowned, not wanting to think about what else might have happened while his body lay there unaware. He tried switching to another topic instead. "Isn’t there a Moogle here? Does news not travel?"

"There is, but…" Zidane shrugged. "I was worried about it at first, but it’s been weeks now and nothing’s happened. Maybe it’s just a matter of time, but for now, at least, we’re safe."

The former mage sighed. It sounded too good to be true. Even Zidane’s amazing luck could only hold out for so long.

"I like it here. I think we could be happy here, you know? But that doesn’t mean I’ve let my guard down. If we have to run, I’m ready."

Kuja finally reached up and took hold of Zidane’s hand and let him pull him to his feet. Zidane wrapped his arm around Kuja’s waist as well, once he was up, to provide extra support. Kuja didn’t protest as they slowly made their way back to the house. Even if this was just another temporary hideout - or even a passing "relationship" - it was fine. It wasn’t like he had any expectation that things would work out for him in the long run.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- I can't see Kuja being much of an optimist, especially by this point. Although he still has his life he doesn't have much else. So I can see him being a little resentful of the fact that Zidane seems to be blessed with some incredibly good luck... while at the same time worrying that his mere presence in Zidane's life might somehow cancel that out and put them both in danger. At least he's being practical in thinking about all the downsides to living in Nil, though it's not like he has any better options at this time.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Keep Passing the Open Windows" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Three days after his last trip to town, Zidane figured it was about time to go back again - this time, with Kuja in tow.

The older Genome was still recovering but Zidane saw signs of improvement each day. Kuja had begun walking around the house, even venturing outside from time to time, and did some light housework that was minimally taxing, like folding laundry and making tea. It all seemed rather… dull – he’d even read his book from cover to cover twice during that span – so Zidane figured Kuja would be eager to get out of the house, but when he told Kuja of his plans, the silver-haired man looked at him blankly and answered, "Oh."

"That’s your answer to a lot of things nowadays," Zidane pointed out. They were just finishing up breakfast. And as was usual in the morning, Kuja was sluggish and only half-awake and not very hungry. He’d eaten about a third of his food and promptly pushed the rest away. He claimed that he couldn’t stomach that much first thing in the morning, but Zidane always loaded up his plate anyway, knowing that Kuja needed it, even if he didn’t want it.

"What am I supposed to say?"

"How about ‘Sure that sounds great!’ or ‘I don’t know if I’m up to it yet.’ I told you I’d take you with me as long as you were able to go, didn’t I? And you’ve looked better these past few days, so…" Zidane shrugged. He snagged the last slice of toast on the table, right off Kuja’s abandoned plate; they were out of bread, at the very least. "No time like the present."

Kuja opened his mouth to protest, but he couldn’t think of a good excuse. Yes, he was feeling a bit better overall. Yes, he was bored sitting around the house, with little to do. And at least Zidane had remembered that he’d told him he’d take him the next time he made a supply run.

What Zidane hadn’t remembered, of course, was that Kuja had never agreed to go… except he’d probably figured out by now that Kuja didn’t want to be left behind, not even for a quick trip to get a loaf of bread.

Kuja pushed himself away from the table. He hated it. He shouldn’t have cared whether or not Zidane dragged him along, but he did. And if Zidane had gone without asking him, he would’ve been upset by it. Or angry. Or maybe a little – or a lot - of both.

Zidane followed suit, standing up and hurrying to Kuja’s side, grabbing his arm to stop him from wandering off. "Hey, come on. Do you really not want to go? We can go tomorrow, if that’s better?"

"… No."

"No to which?"

Kuja shook his head. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to go at all – what if someone recognized him? – but he just couldn’t think of another reason to refuse. "No, we can go."

"Are you sure?"

Kuja exhaled with a hiss. "I agreed didn’t I?"

"Yeah. Sorry. Thanks." The thief hugged Kuja briefly, then glanced around, looking for the time. "We need to head out soon then. Do you need help getting ready?"

Kuja was tired of being babysat in everything he tried to do. "No," he snapped as he went and grabbed his only outfit before disappearing into the bathroom and shutting the door with slightly more force than needed.

Zidane considered following, then thought better of it. The house was too small at times like this; if Kuja wanted some privacy, it was his right to have it.

* * *

After getting ready himself, Zidane went out to check on Choco and to tack him up, then headed back in to see if Kuja had emerged yet. He had, but he didn’t look too happy. He had a brush in one hand and his hair gathered back with another and was spinning around, looking for something.

"Is there only one hair tie in this house?" Kuja asked, eyeing the blonde’s usual neat ponytail.

Zidane thought about it. He’d been using towels and things like that to hold Kuja’s hair back when he’d been bedridden. He hadn’t bothered picking up something like a hair ribbon or tie; it just wasn’t high on the priority list. "Um… probably?"

"I’ll just leave it down, then," Kuja sighed. He usually wore it down. He’d only ever tied it back when it got in the way. But he hadn’t been happy with it for some time now; his body wasn’t the only thing trying to recover from neglect and the effects of traveling and weather damage. Not that styling his hair would really change the impression he’d make, but he was already facing the prospect of going to town with such plain clothing and his face a mess… it would’ve been nice if he could’ve looked like he put some modicum of effort into his appearance.

Zidane was still looking around the room and even peeked in the bathroom. "Hmm, well…" He could always offer his hair tie to Kuja... And then he froze as he realized something; the ribbon that he wore as a necktie would do, wouldn’t it? It was long enough and soft and shiny too. And it wasn’t like he needed it to be considered dressed. He tugged it out from under his shirt collar, then held it up. "Will this do?"

"You don’t need it?"

"Nah."

Kuja considered it, then gave a single nod. He reached out, intending to take it and tie his hair back himself, but Zidane gestured for him to turn around. After a moment Kuja did so, letting Zidane sweep his hair into a low ponytail. He wasn’t used to having someone brush and stroke his hair, but he did find it enjoyable. Zidane seemed to look for any excuse to touch it as well.

"There. Turn back around?" Zidane smiled at what he saw. "It looks good, if I do say so myself!"

"It’ll do," Kuja pronounced after checking it in the mirror himself – and after pulling out a few extra strands of his bangs to cover his face. Zidane may not have approved of cosmetics, but Kuja thought a good concealer would’ve done more for hiding the discoloration on his face than his hair could. "I’ll return it to you later," he added. Zidane had worn that ribbon forever; it must’ve meant something to him. He was a sentimental sort of fellow.

"Don’t worry about it. Use it as long as you need to."

* * *

Having Choco available was a blessing. Nil’s town square wasn’t too far from the lakeside, but at the same time, walking that distance with blistered feet would’ve been slow going, not to mention painful.

Zidane waved to random people as they rode down the street. There was the woodworker Will and his family on their way to the morning market, and Dorothy, who taught arithmetic twice a week in the town’s lone schoolroom, heading in to prepare for class. Smyt was helping Nanette and Bess unload their wagon of goods – the ladies had a farm on the other side of town that supplied eggs, cheese, and most of the meats eaten locally. Zidane hadn’t talked to the innkeeper Ennis much, but regularly exchanged nods of greeting whenever he went to check the posting board, as the man was working just inside. Ennis’ teenaged son Howard was out sweeping the porch before it was time for class; he watched as they passed by, then turned away, his face flushing a little. And the townsfolk stopped and waved back, all while staring at the familiar-but-unfamiliar face trying to press itself into Zidane’s shoulder, long silver hair flagging behind him; for most of them, this was their first time seeing the most infamous man in town, in person.

Choco came to a stop in front of the bakery, and Zidane slid off before helping Kuja down. Kuja could smell the fresh bread beckoning to him before they even opened the door. The lady behind the counter had her back turned as they walked in, but spun around as soon as she heard the bell.

"Good morning, Zidane," Sara greeted. Then she noticed the figure behind him, and gasped. "Oh, Mr. Kuja’s awake!"

Kuja’s head jerked up slightly. He couldn’t help but stare at the cheerful woman behind the counter. Zidane had told him that she looked like Garnet, but Kuja didn’t quite agree. She did remind him vaguely of her, if the young queen had had a country cousin… a passing resemblance, nothing more. But she wasn’t any less attractive. Even Kuja couldn’t help but notice she had a more ample bosom than Garnet.

Kuja glanced at Zidane, concerned that the young thief was seeing something more than what was actually there, then turned his attention back to the baker, who was staring right back at him intently. "Have… we met?"

"Oh, that’s right, you were ill then…" Sara murmured, mostly to herself. She couldn’t stop staring. She’d lived in Nil all her life and was accustomed to the rough, unrefined men that populated the town. She’d never seen anyone like Kuja before; she’d never thought of describing a man as beautiful, though she couldn’t think of any word more suitable. The drawing on the wanted posters really did him no justice. Even though he was weary and thin, with bruising spotting his face and clothes that didn’t seem to suit him, even though he shifted nervously under her scrutiny… he really was beautiful enough to rival even the loveliest of ladies. But while he definitely wasn’t "manly" she didn’t think he looked "girlish" either – was it possible to look like both male and female and yet neither at the same time?

She suddenly realized that she’d gotten distracted to the point of rudeness and that Kuja had even lowered his head in an attempt to hide his face behind a fall of bangs, so she quickly extended her hand over the counter. "I’m sorry, I’m being terribly rude. I’m Sara, it’s nice to meet you."

Kuja stared at her outstretched hand a moment. Without realizing it, he grimaced slightly. He knew how to lie convincingly, how to trick people, how to exploit their weaknesses, how seduce them. But he didn’t know how to befriend them. Maybe a handshake was a logical place to start? He hesitantly reached out and accepted her hand.

"I hope you don’t mind my saying, but I’m a little jealous. You’re very good looking," Sara told him.

Kuja wasn’t sure how to respond. Was she propositioning him? Or was it simply a harmless compliment? Did that mean he should he thank her? And why would it make her jealous? He turned to Zidane, trying to gauge his reaction, but Zidane was grinning mindlessly at Sara. Kuja fought the urge to roll his eyes.

The thief was happy that things seemed to be going well, but then he thought about what Sara had said earlier. "Hey, how come he gets a ‘Mister’ and I don’t?"

"Mr. Zidane…" Sara tried. She giggled. "It doesn’t really suit you, does it?"

Zidane pouted a moment, then began nodding in agreement. "Yeah… can’t say I like it. Just plain ol’ Zidane is better."

Kuja sighed. Now it sounded like the two of them were flirting instead. But before he could say anything – not that he knew what to say, or even if he should say anything - something bumped against his leg and he practically jumped back in surprise.

Zidane spun at the sudden movement. "Kuja?"

The silver-haired man was staring down at his feet. Now over his initial fright, he bent down slightly to get a good look at the culprit. It was fat and orange striped and purring very faintly. "Just a big cat…" He held his hand out but made no attempt to touch the cat, allowing the creature to approach him instead. The cat seemed pleased with his consideration and began rubbing itself against his palm, inviting him to pet it.

"Looks like you’ve made a friend," Zidane commented, but when he reached out to pet the cat as well, it began backing away, hissing softly, until it was crouching behind the tip of Kuja’s tail. "Hey now, that’s not nice! Look, I have a tail too!" Zidane cried. He waved the appendage at the cat but it swatted at it in disapproval, threatened by the unpredictable way it moved.

Sara leaned over the counter. "That’s Cookie. Sorry, she hasn’t been very friendly with strangers ever since her belly started showing."

"She seems to like Kuja just fine, and he’s never even been here before!" Zidane huffed.

"Sure looks that way! Mr. Kuja, do you like cats?" she asked. The fact that her pregnant-but-irritable cat liked Kuja was making her even more curious about the man.

He shrugged. He’d never thought about it. But Cookie seemed to be enjoying rubbing against his tail while purring quietly, so he didn’t mind letting her stay there.

While Zidane selected some bread and pastries and continued joking around, Kuja remained standing slightly behind and off to the side. He was starting to feel uneasy being there, watching them. Something about being in a quaint little bakery in a quiet town, with a smiling proprietor that looked vaguely like Queen Garnet, made him nervous. It was like a setting out of a storybook; it didn’t feel real. He was expecting a platoon of Alexandrian soldiers to ambush him at any moment, while Sara acted as a decoy and kept Zidane distracted.

Kuja sighed. He wished they’d just show up and take him away and get the whole thing over with. The ending of his story was inevitable. These people that Zidane wanted him to play friends with would eventually find out who he was and turn him in. Kuja couldn’t even blame them; any reasonable person would do the same under those circumstances. He’d mentioned it to Zidane earlier that morning; the younger man had said he was being paranoid. But it was easier being paranoid than to pretend that everything was okay, like he was safe and cared for, when that was just a momentary illusion.

"…berry or apricot? Kuja?"

The former mage started, finally scaring Cookie away. Zidane and Sara were both staring at him now. "What?"

"Danish?" Zidane pointed at the display case. "Strawberry or apricot?"

Kuja shifted on his feet. They were already starting to hurt a little. "Um, you pick."

"One of each, then," Zidane ordered. "And that should do it. Unless there’s anything you want, Kuja?"

Kuja shook his head. He still hadn’t fully regained his appetite, so he really didn’t care what Zidane was putting in front of him. Eating felt like an obligation now.

Zidane and Sara said their goodbyes – Kuja gave her a nod instead - then Zidane led the way out of the bakery, grabbing Choco before deciding to diagonally cross the intersection to hitch the bird to the front of the general store instead. There was the morning market and the inn to visit as well, but the general store took priority, since Zidane figured Kuja was probably more eager to get some new clothes or personal goods than anything else. If that meant they missed the market, they could just try again the next day.

Clyde was outside tidying up the porch, but as soon as he noticed who was approaching, his eyes darkened; he didn’t even bother trying to make an excuse before vanishing inside and up the stairs. Zidane was used to the man disappearing when he stopped by; Kuja didn’t know who he was so he didn’t question it either. But unbeknownst to them, Clyde hadn’t really left. Concerned over Kuja’s appearance, he stayed in the stairwell with his ears pricked, ready to run out to try and save Millie and Molly if needed, but otherwise not wanting to have anything to do with the pair of Genomes.

"Well then…" Zidane began. The ladies were both standing behind the counter, shoulder to shoulder, smiling politely as always, but neither came forward to offer their assistance. Although they’d both voted to let Zidane and Kuja stay in their tiny burg, that didn’t mean they knew how to interact with the former mage. It was a little scary, coming face-to-face with him for the first time. Should they talk to him like a normal customer? Would he bother acknowledging them? Or did he expect "commoners" to bow and grovel before him? He didn’t look very imposing… but then again, he didn’t have to be. Reputation alone was enough to make everyone a little cautious.

Their hesitation didn’t really register with Zidane. He was familiar enough with the shop now to no longer need assistance. He looked over at Kuja instead. "I wasn’t sure what you’d want or need. I’m sure there’s some stuff I missed."

Zidane might’ve been there enough to know where most things were, but Kuja found it a little overwhelming. There was some vague sense of organization to the general store, but it was also more chaotic and random than the older Genome would’ve liked.

Clothing was the obvious thing to start with. Kuja plucked at the fabric of his shirt. Other than the plain items he currently wore, he only had some sleepwear; he supposed it made sense since he’d been bedridden for weeks and awake, mere days.

He found himself standing undecided between two racks of clothing. One rack held women’s clothing, mostly dresses; the other side was for men. He obligingly turned to the men’s rack but immediately frowned at the baggy, boring-but-functional choices – overalls, cargo pants like the ones Zidane was wearing, button-up shirts, formless pullovers. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to choose – when he was living with Zidane before, he’d worn old, oversized men’s clothing because that was what the blonde had given him to wear. Zidane hadn’t asked him if he’d wanted something different and Kuja hadn’t cared enough to say anything about it. But before that, Kuja had usually worn things that were a lot more showy - even feminine - by most standards. He’d done it to draw – and keep - attention. But now… he wasn’t sure if attention was a good thing. And he had to wonder, did Zidane have a preference? He hadn’t cared for the cosmetics that Kuja used to wear.

Kuja turned to the other rack. He hesitantly fingered an off-white boatneck tunic with a drop waist and elbow length sleeves. It wasn’t too fussy or girly, yet still more visually interesting than anything in the men’s section.

"It suits you, somehow," Zidane said from behind his shoulder.

Kuja looked over, mildly surprised. "It doesn’t bother you?"

"Should it?"

Kuja looked back at the shirt. "I don’t know," he said, unsure if they were still talking about clothes.

"You should get whatever you like," Zidane said, smiling.

No one had ever said anything like that to Kuja, and meant it. It should’ve made him happy. Instead, he shifted uneasily. Was this what real freedom felt like? He wasn’t sure if it suited him.

"Are you going to try on a skirt too? Though I don’t know if pink flowers are your thing," Zidane commented, grinning. But seeing the other man immediately frown in response, he quickly backpedaled. "Hey, it was just a question!"

Kuja shook his head and went to put the shirt back. He wasn’t sure if Zidane had been joking or not; on Terra, skirts were assigned attire for both genders. Kuja had worn something similar to that the majority of his life. But he’d never tried on anything like the lace-trimmed, country floral skirts that seemed de rigueur in rural towns. Was Zidane trying to tell him something? After all, pants weren’t something that happened until they’d started living together. Surely, that had to be Zidane indicating his preference…

But before Kuja could turn away the younger man grabbed the top that had been returned to the rack and held it up again, eyeing it carefully. "Kuja, I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t care what you wear. Well, I mean… I care. But you should get whatever you feel comfortable with." He thrust the shirt at Kuja, who accepted it back after a moment’s pause.

So Zidane cared but he didn’t care? Kuja’s head was spinning at the contradiction, but he didn’t ask for clarification. He figured he’d just have to keep an eye out for any tells Zidane gave, and make his selections based off of that.

Kuja turned back to the women’s rack. He pulled out a second top, sleeveless and fitted through the chest, with a fluttery, flared hem. Then he figured since he was pulling tops from that section, why not go ahead and try on some bottoms too? It wasn’t like skirts were the only option; there were a few pairs of pants and shorts available there as well, and at a glance it seemed like they’d work with the shape of his body better than anything in the men’s section. He grabbed a pair of cropped red pants that looked like they’d probably fit, and some little black shorts too, when he noticed Zidane’s eyebrow twitch as he skimmed by it on the rack.

"If you want to try anything on, we have a dressing room here," Millie called from the other side of the store as she indicated a little makeshift cubby with a curtain drawn over it. She’d been curious about the items Kuja had picked up – or more precisely, the section he’d been shopping from - and he looked so uncertain…

Kuja clutched the items to his chest, unsure if he wanted her to see what he’d chosen, but Zidane came to his side and said, "You should try them on. The ladies here can do some tailoring if needed."

Kuja figured he could do that himself, but he headed to the dressing room without further protest. He supposed it was better to know for sure that Zidane was okay with what he’d chosen than to buy blindly and hope for the best.

The first top was comfortably loose but not baggy. The cropped pants fit around his hips well, but the waist was too big. He could easily wrap his tail around his waist and still button the pants up with room to spare. The former mage sighed as he regarded his reflection. He supposed he’d have to settle for belting the pants up for the time being. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so thin.

"You doing okay?" Zidane asked from the other side of the curtain. "Let me see."

"Just a minute." The older Genome swapped the first outfit out for the second, then he checked the mirror again before frowning at it once more. He didn’t have a chest to fill out the top as intended but it didn’t look bad once he adjusted the lacing in the back. The shorts were a lot shorter than he’d expected, barely peeking out from under the hem of the shirt; the obvious scars on his thighs were left exposed. And frankly it was still a bit too cool to consider wearing the outfit out. But something told him that Zidane might like it, even if Kuja himself wasn’t sure, so he went ahead and drew the curtain back to get Zidane’s opinion. "… Well?"

Zidane wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but the outfit was far better than anything he could’ve imagined. The tiny shorts clung to Kuja’s hips and the top skimmed his torso just right. "Wow, that’s really… that’s…" he stammered, struggling to form a proper compliment without sounding like an overly possessive would-be boyfriend. The outfit was really flattering, but not in an overtly sexual way like his old outfit.

"You don’t like it," Kuja finished for him as he began shrinking back into the dressing room. Out of the corner of his eye he could see both of the Cleyran ladies staring at him as well. What did they think, seeing him looking like that?

It wasn’t about vanity. Well, not all about vanity… In Kuja’s experience, people didn’t bother wasting time on things they didn’t consider attractive. Would anyone have spoken to him or even stopped to consider him when he’d sat cowering in that alleyway, if they hadn’t liked his face, his body? It had been the first lesson he’d learned on Gaia; he’d never forgotten it.

"I do! Just… if you wear it around town, you’re going to have to fight off a ton of admirers!" Zidane explained with a laugh.

"Admirers…" Kuja repeated flatly, thinking of what he was seeing when he looked in the mirror: a bruised face, dull hair the color of tarnished silver, a mix of scars, both old and new.

Zidane thought that that had been a good compliment, so he wasn’t sure why Kuja seemed so down, even moreso than before. He’d been moody and despondent ever since he’d woken up in Nil, but it wasn’t getting better like Zidane thought it would. "Kuja?"

The former mage shuffled his feet; they were starting to noticeably hurt, a steady, throbbing sort of pain. And he was getting tired. He didn’t want to stand around and argue. "Should I get it or not?" he sighed.

"Only if you like it. If you don’t, well… don’t buy it just because I liked it."

Kuja didn’t say anything else before disappearing back behind the curtain. A minute later he emerged and just as silently, handed everything over to Zidane.

"All good?" Zidane asked, trying to encourage the other man with a gentle smile.

Kuja simply nodded and kept looking around while Zidane took the items to the counter. He really just wanted to go back to the house and lie down for a while, but since they most likely wouldn’t be coming back for a few days, he ought to make sure he grabbed whatever he could possibly need.

A couple of books wouldn’t be bad. The store didn’t have much of a selection though, and the ones they did have were scattered around the shop, many of them wedged under other items as if they were only valued as display stands. Kuja managed to dig up a volume of poetry but that was the only one of interest to him. He headed to the counter to add to their stack of purchases, then something else caught his eye – a half smushed basket of sewing notions, sitting tucked amongst some dishware by the register. It contained embroidered ribbons, bits of fabric, a handful of assorted beads and baubles. It wasn’t like he loved sewing but he was sufficiently proficient at it; he figured wouldn’t take much time or effort to add some trim to his new clothes, to spruce them up to suit his taste.

"See something you want?" Zidane asked. He wasn’t sure what Kuja was looking for, but at least he seemed interested in something for once.

Kuja merely grunted and kept digging.

"That’s where the basket went!" Molly exclaimed when she saw what he was focused on. Like her sister, she hadn’t said much if anything the entire time the two Genomes had been in the shop, but she just couldn’t get over the fact that Kuja was nothing like the fearsome monster Clyde had warned them about. Instead, all she’d seen was a quiet, withdrawn young man with a pretty face and a slight build, nursing an assortment of injuries.

"Do you sew?" Millie asked, her interest piqued as well.

Kuja’s head bobbed slightly. He did, a little. He glanced up at the sisters as his fingers stilled on a swath of velvet and a length of ribbon. They were Cleyran, not Burmecian, but their people all looked the same to him. And they all had the right to claim vengeance against him, for the role he’d played in the destruction of both cities. He swallowed hard, his head drooping back down.

Zidane noticed Kuja’s growing discomfort and spoke up in his stead, just so they could leave. He put a hand on Kuja’s shoulder, feeling his muscles twitch as the contact jolted him back into reality, before asking, "How much for these?" He indicated the items in Kuja’s hand even as Kuja tried to back away, as if he’d suddenly changed his mind about getting supplies and would rather just go without.

"Oh, well…" Millie shrugged her shoulders and explained, "It’s all scraps, leftovers from sewing jobs. I’m not exactly sure what’s in there."

"I misplaced the basket. It’s just something I keep around when working. But if you want it, you can have everything in there," Molly added.

"Thanks! That’s really nice of you ladies. Here, Kuja," Zidane said, with his hand extended.

Flushing slightly, Kuja handed him the basket. He felt bad for accepting free goods from people he’d wronged. It made him almost want to confess to who he was, even though that would make Zidane mad. And he wasn’t sure why, but he felt a little silly too for wanting to make his clothes look nicer when it wouldn’t do anything to change the body wearing them. Clothes make the man, the saying went, but they couldn’t make him a better person.

By the time the ladies were done ringing up their purchases, all Kuja wanted was to get out of there and get off his feet. He didn’t notice Clyde watching balefully from the shop’s porch window as he joined Choco in waiting for Zidane to load up their purchases. As soon as the blonde was done with that task, he gave Kuja a hand up, and the former mage let out a loud groan of relief as his feet got their first reprieve in an hour.

Zidane’s brow furrowed in concern. He’d noticed that Kuja was hurting, but he hadn’t realized how much. He’d been thinking about asking him if he’d like to stay in town for lunch, but that sounded like a bad idea now.

He’d been a little worried that Kuja wouldn’t be up to making the trip at all, but he’d seemed to be handling it all right… at least, he hadn’t made a sound in complaint. But then again, he hadn’t complained either when Zidane had hustled him along in the dungeon, even though his feet had been bleeding right through his socks…

Mind made up, Zidane firmly said, "I think it’s time we head home," and he swung up onto Choco right behind Kuja. He didn’t like to overburden their friendly, reliable mount, but he wanted to get home as soon as possible.

Kuja didn’t say anything, but he relaxed a little against Zidane as they made their way back down the road towards the lakeside house. The town's road quickly gave way to a rougher, rockier path that then softened with grass and greenery before reaching the lake.

Zidane carried in the supplies while shadowing Kuja up the steps and into the house. The blonde wasn’t at all surprised when the older man kicked off his shoes and sank onto the bed, flopping onto his back with a wide yawn.

"Lemme put this stuff down, then I want to check your feet," Zidane said as he began unpacking their bags, hurrying around and making smaller piles to sort through later.

Kuja grunted drowsily. A short trip to town shouldn’t have worn him out so much, but he was still recuperating from his injuries and the aftereffects of a sleepless night; he’d stressed himself out worrying that the trip wouldn’t go well, that something terrible was bound to happen. And then nothing at all had happened, and he wasn’t even sure if he was relieved or annoyed that Zidane had been right.

His head didn’t feel right on the pillow; he’d forgotten, his hair was still tied back. Kuja supposed Zidane wanted the ribbon returned, so he reached up and tugged until it came loose in his hand, and then, too tired to do anything else, he waited.

By the time Zidane got over to the bed to take a look at Kuja, the former mage was already drifting in and out of sleep. He was barely aware of Zidane inspecting the couple of spots where fluid had seeped into his socks, of Zidane removing said socks, of him carefully cleaning the wounds and applying ointment, of him gently massaging his way up Kuja’s calves, working out the knots in those muscles. He didn’t really register Zidane removing the ribbon from his hand and placing it on the little ledge above the bed, nor Zidane kissing him on the forehead before pulling the sheets up. By the time Zidane stepped away to begin cleaning up around the house, Kuja had completely surrendered to exhaustion.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- Kuja’s physical description of himself doesn’t match the descriptions given by the townspeople because he’s judging his flaws far more harshly than anyone else. The townspeople see an attractive young man with some unusual features. All Kuja can see is how damaged he’s become, even though Zidane clearly isn’t put off by it.

- Zidane’s comment about Kuja buying a skirt was just a little joke at first (I’ve seen plenty of fanfic writers who decide to go full crossdress) but after I thought about it, Kuja’s probably worn something similar to a skirt most of his life, and it was only when he began living with Zidane that he switched to pants (as that’s what was available). But for Kuja, who is still struggling to establish who he is and who he wants to be in this new life, a joke like that had the unintended side effect of making him second guess himself. At least Zidane realized the effect his comment had, as he handed the shirt Kuja had chosen back for him to try on.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Dreamer's Ball" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Zidane liked to spend the first few minutes of his morning admiring Kuja as he lay curled up beside him. Wrapped in a cocoon of sleep, he looked relaxed – younger, even… whatever worries wore heavily upon his shoulders were gone, even if only for the night. Deep asleep, he was just a tangle of silver hair and pale skin, next to a loosely clenched hand resting on the pillow.

As nice as it would be to just lounge around and admire the other man all day, Zidane knew he had to get up and get going. Mornings were always busy; there was breakfast to be made and usually a trip to town to squeeze in - though he was skipping that today – and that was all before a day’s labor outside.

After a bit of stretching, Zidane swung his legs out of bed and walked over to the tiny kitchen on the other side of the room. He dug around in the icebox and pantry, trying to figure out what to make for breakfast. They had a couple of eggs and rolls, but he pushed them aside, figuring they’d make a tasty lunch instead. Oatmeal seemed like the easy and obvious choice, at least until Zidane overpoured, spilling groats onto the counter and the floor. Grumbling under his breath, he cleaned up, only to pause just as he was about to dump the spilled oats into the trash bin.

He shook his head. It was too early to be thinking hard - even if it was the best time for it, since it was quiet and the day hadn’t yet yielded any other distractions - but it suddenly occurred to him that whenever he made oatmeal, Kuja never seemed terribly enthusiastic about it. He’d take a few bites, say he wasn’t hungry, and walk away… which frustrated Zidane and led to him giving Kuja an even bigger bowl of the stuff on subsequent days, because Kuja needed to eat up if he was ever going to be healthy again. Zidane’s intentions had been good, but it suddenly occurred to him that perhaps Kuja wasn’t eating because he didn’t like what was on his plate…

Well that’d be silly. If he didn’t like it, wouldn’t he just say so? Zidane reasoned, before remembering that Kuja rarely gave his honest opinion about anything. For a guy who seemed to love the sound of his own voice, he had always revealed surprisingly little.

That was a much bigger issue than uneaten oatmeal: it wasn’t just that Kuja was eating less overall, but he was also talking a lot less than before, truth or lie.

Zidane finished dumping the spilled oats, then put away the rest of the oatmeal while thinking about what meal he could prepare instead. Using up the eggs and bread was an option. But then something else caught his eye, distracting him from making breakfast…

There was a shirt draped over the back of a kitchen chair. Zidane picked it up. It was one of Kuja’s new purchases, which he’d begun embellishing with embroidery. A wreath of delicate twisting vines and leaves were starting to encircle the neckline. It was really well done, precise and eye-catching without being overly ornate. Zidane never knew Kuja was capable – or interested in – doing something like needlework. How had he learned to do it? When had he found time to hone his skills? Zidane doubted Kuja would’ve learned it under Garland’s orders, as it had nothing to do with magic or conquest.

The cropped pants lay neatly folded under where the shirt had been; Kuja had darted in the waist and added in a tail hole, a proper one, with double stitching around the edge. Zidane was impressed, especially since all the sewing had been done in one afternoon. And compared to Zidane’s own solution, which was to rip out enough stitches at the seam to stuff his tail through, Kuja’s handiwork was far more practical and durable.

In addition, Kuja had also started making a sash or something from the bits and pieces in the scrap basket, gray velvet on one side and stiff ribbon on the other. Like everything else, it was expertly done with even stitching that would be the envy of any tailor.

Sighing, Zidane put the clothing back down. He was going to give himself a headache, but the obvious question bothered him: what else had he missed? He knew that Kuja liked the rain and loved to read, and that maybe he wasn’t fond of oatmeal, that clothing and fashion was of interest him, and that he… that he…

The blonde frowned, suddenly disappointed in himself. Was he really that clueless about the person that he loved? Had it never occurred to him to ask Kuja about his likes and dislikes, about his hobbies, about his dreams? What did Kuja fantasize about? What made him laugh… and had he ever heard Kuja genuinely laugh? What songs made him want to get up and sing or dance? Heck, what was his favorite color? His favorite foods?

Zidane didn’t doubt his feelings for Kuja, nor did he doubt Kuja's capacity to love. But that didn't mean it had to be him. Zidane wondered if he’d messed up one too many times to make things right between them.

It wasn’t like Kuja wasn’t desirable, or… experienced. He had to know there were plenty of fish in the sea. Maybe he preferred women. Maybe he preferred taller, older men. Zidane frowned. If he truly loved Kuja, he ought to be willing to let him go, if that was what was best for him. How could he not, when all he wished for was Kuja's happiness? But… he didn’t want Kuja to choose anyone else; he wanted Kuja to want only him!

Even when Zidane had been engaged to Garnet, he’d felt a nagging possessiveness over Kuja. Even when he’d thought it was impossible, he’d desired him, longed for him. But what had Kuja thought of him during their time apart? Undoubtedly he’d missed Zidane as a companion, as a friend… but had that been enough to drive him to make the difficult journey from the Outer Continent to Alexandria?

Zidane glanced at the bed, then walked back over to it. Kuja was still sleeping, though he’d rolled over so there was nothing to look at but the back of his head. Zidane carefully sat down on the mattress, caught between the desire to hug him and the understanding that he ought to let him sleep. The younger man felt stupid and selfish. Being in love wasn’t enough, he realized. He had to prove to Kuja that he was worthy of him, that he was ready for a relationship, that he was reliable and trustworthy and mature… basically all the things he hadn’t been. He’d never given Kuja a reason to choose him over someone else; he’d never done anything to win his heart. He could wish and hope all that he wanted, could tell Kuja he loved him over and over, but in the end, it had to be Kuja’s decision… even if that meant Zidane was left heartbroken.

Zidane stood back up and, after another glance at his sleeping companion, went and fetched the eggs along with the oatmeal, along with a couple of small pots for boiling water. They needed to have a good talk, he decided, even if he had to force the issue a little. Or more precisely, Zidane figured he needed to learn to listen to what was being said – and what was being left unsaid. He didn’t want to do it on an empty stomach though.

* * *XXXXX

Kuja awoke to the smell of various foods mingling in the cool morning air. He propped himself up, rubbing at his eyes, wondering why Zidane appeared to be cooking up a storm on the small potbelly stove. Was the thief that hungry or was it so late that Kuja had missed breakfast altogether?

"Good morning!" Zidane called out in greeting.

Kuja considered it, then glanced at the pot in Zidane’s hand before simply nodding in return.

"Oh, this is for me," Zidane said, waving the pot slightly in the air, though internally, he was cheering at himself for having figured out that Kuja wasn’t keen on oatmeal. "I’m making hard boiled eggs and warmed rolls for you. Hope that’s okay?"

Kuja couldn’t quite hide his surprise. "Oh?"

"It’ll be ready in a little bit, so no hurry," Zidane said, flashing a confident smile, knowing that the other man would probably laze around in bed at least a few minutes more.

Kuja grunted and made no immediate effort to get up.

Zidane was beaming by the time Kuja made it to the table for breakfast. The younger Genome had managed to time things perfectly, so that the eggs were properly cooled while the rolls were warm and toasty. He added a dish of butter and crocks of jam and honey to the table as well, as he wasn’t sure what Kuja liked best with his bread.

They began eating in silence – Zidane too preoccupied with trying to observe Kuja’s eating habits to start up conversation, and Kuja pondering the possible reasons behind Zidane’s decision to make two different meals. Were they out of oatmeal or something? If that was the case, Kuja was surprised Zidane didn’t shove the remaining oatmeal at him, since he’d always seemed determined to make the older man eat as much of it as possible. Maybe the eggs and bread needed to be used up? But there was enough for both of them, so why did Zidane go through the effort of making oatmeal as well?

"You’re done?" Zidane asked when Kuja finally pushed his plate away. He’d eaten one egg and three-quarters of the bread. Zidane also noted that the honey had gotten the most use out of the condiments, though a little of the jam had been used as well.

Kuja nodded.

"Did I make too much? I tried to not overload the plate. Or was it not to your liking?"

Kuja hesitated, unsure why Zidane was asking, wavering between answering the questions and just brushing it off. "I’m not that hungry in the morning, that’s all."

"You don’t get hungry later on, either," Zidane pointed out. He paused, wondering if Kuja would take that as a complaint. Already the other man’s jaw was tightening up. Zidane sighed. The last thing he wanted was for Kuja to get upset and stop responding. "I wasn’t criticizing. I just worry about you, that’s all. I’ve never seen anyone eat so little before. If it’s because of the foods I’m getting, or it’s just my cooking, I wish you’d tell me. I won’t get offended!"

Kuja dropped his chin a little. He didn’t know what to say. Zidane was right though; even Kuja knew he ought to eat more, but ever since they’d reunited… no, even before that, his appetite had gone. Maybe it was because of the lean winter months, where he’d had no choice but to cut back on the size and frequency of meals. Maybe it was because traveling – and imprisonment – and nearly being executed - had been so hard on him.

He suddenly didn’t want to be at the table anymore, with Zidane’s concerned eyes searching over his face. Kuja pushed away, standing up, muttering a quiet "Thank you" for the meal, but before he could make his escape, Zidane stood up and grabbed his wrist.

"Wait. Talk to me, please. I want to know…" the blonde began before trailing off. There were so many things he could finish that thought with. "I want to make you happy. But I don’t know what you like, what you dislike… I mean, I know that you like reading and tea and maybe chocobos and cats, but I didn’t know that you enjoyed needlework or that you don’t like oatmeal and maybe you don’t like eggs and toast either?" Zidane rambled.

Kuja made a face. What was Zidane babbling about? Chocobos and cats? Besides, breakfast had been acceptable… certainly a good alternative to the usual offering. "I told you, I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t dislike it."

"That’s it?"

"Yes."

"But you didn’t say you liked it, either."

Kuja rolled his eyes. "It was fine. I know I have to eat."

"But it was better than the oatmeal at least?" Zidane prodded, determined to get something out of the exchange.

"You feed me better than Garland did, are you happy?" Kuja hissed, tired of the whole conversation. "What do you want me to say?"

Zidane’s hold on Kuja slackened momentarily, then tightened again. "Garland? What does Garland have to do with… Did he serve oatmeal for breakfast too?" the blonde asked, genuinely confused.

Kuja squirmed a little, then admitted, "Not oatmeal. Something similar. Every day, for almost every meal." He seemed to deflate with each word.

Zidane nodded slowly. So every time he put a bowl of oatmeal down for breakfast – or anything similar - he had inadvertently reminded Kuja of those times.

"Some days I couldn’t bring myself to eat; it made me feel sick to even think about it," Kuja added, barely loud enough for Zidane’s ears. The former mage wasn’t sure why he’d voiced that aloud, but part of him wanted Zidane to understand, even while the rest of him doubted that that would mean anything to Zidane.

The young thief nodded again. As terrible as that was to hear, the important part was that Kuja was confiding in him, even if just a bit. Zidane was about to stammer an apology to reassure him that things were different now, but it occurred to him that that wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t change things. And Kuja was sick of his apologies. What would help would be figuring out what Kuja wanted to eat, so that he would eat, instead of making him explain why he didn’t like certain foods.

Zidane slackened his hold on Kuja’s arm, but didn’t let go. Instead he let his hand slide down until he could gently grip Kuja’s. "Thanks for telling me. I won’t buy any more, or at least, I won’t put any in front of you. Or does it bother you if I eat it?"

"That… I don’t care."

Zidane searched Kuja’s expression carefully to try and decipher more out of "I don’t care," but Kuja ducked his head, doing his best to avoid Zidane’s prodding gaze, so Zidane backed off, sitting back down at the table and motioning for Kuja to do the same. The former mage relaxed slightly, but didn’t take a seat; he was undecided whether he wanted to continue conversing, or take flight.

"So what do you like to eat then? I don’t know what your favorite foods are…" Zidane tried again, trying to steer the conversation into safer waters.

"My favorite food?"

"Yeah. You know, what do you want to eat more than anything on the planet? It can be one thing, or a whole dish, or a whole bunch of things."

Kuja thought about it a moment. Certainly there were things he preferred, but he couldn’t say that there were one or two things that he coveted above all. "I don’t have one."

"Really? But everyone has at least one!"

Kuja shrugged.

Zidane wasn’t deterred. "Maybe I can help you figure it out then. Do you like things that are sweet, salty or sour?"

Salty was out. Between the other two… "Sweet, I suppose."

"Okay. Sweet as in like, fruit, candy, pastry…?"

"Not candy; that’s too sweet. And plain fruit is dull."

"Cake, pies, cookies…?"

"Those are the only options?"

"They’re not – if there’s something else that’s more appealing, you can pick that instead. I’m just trying to give you some ideas."

Kuja mulled it over. "The bakery in town wasn’t bad."

"Anything in particular? I think Sara does apple, peach, berry…"

"I liked the strawberry pastry you got last time."

Zidane frowned slightly. The day before, he had gotten both apricot and strawberry danishes, and he’d ended up eating the majority of the strawberry one since Kuja hadn’t said a thing about liking one more than the other. "So Sara’s strawberry danish would be a favorite food?" Zidane asked hopefully. He’d happily buy a million of them, if that was what it took to get Kuja to eat.

Kuja shrugged. Saying it was a favorite seemed a bit much when he’d only eaten it once. "I wouldn’t mind eating it again."

"And honey, what about that? I know you said you don’t like anything too sweet, but maybe some honey on top of fruit?" Zidane hadn’t forgotten that Kuja had gravitated towards the honey as a condiment for his rolls. "Because you said plain fruit is boring…"

"Mm, that wouldn’t be bad either."

Zidane flashed a grin like he’d won a major victory. Before he’d gotten to know him, he’d thought of Kuja as the sort of guy who never shut up, endlessly talking about himself and making up stories. But in reality he was pretty reticent, as if he feared being punished for voicing an honest opinion, as if any revelation would be used against him, even if it was only about a pastry or some fruit.

Building on his momentum, Zidane turned his attention to the altered clothing on the spare chair. "By the way, I like the embroidery you’re adding to your new outfit. It’s really well done! I didn’t know you liked doing that sort of thing."

Kuja blinked, as if he’d only just remembered that he’d been working on that all yesterday afternoon. "I don’t really… well, that is, I don’t mind, but…" and he exhaled before sighing, "I just wanted to look a little nicer. Right now, I…" He trailed off, leaving the rest unsaid, but he couldn’t stop himself from running his fingers over the faint scar under his eye.

Zidane immediately snatched Kuja’s free hand, stopping him from picking at the scarred area. "Hey now… no one even notices that. It’s barely visible. It doesn’t bother me at all, other than the fact that it bothers you."

Kuja made a clicking sound in disagreement as he tried to pull away, but Zidane tightened his hold a tiny bit to prevent him from escaping.

He’d always thought of Kuja as vain, arrogant; he hadn’t realized how fragile his confidence was. Kuja could only fret over imperfections; he couldn’t see himself the way Zidane saw him, the way that the townspeople had gazed at him, struck by his beauty. He didn’t realize that something as simple as his smile, a hint of self-assurance, would do far more to make him shine than any outfit ever could.

And Zidane suddenly came to another sobering realization: Kuja was severely depressed. It wasn’t just about his looks. Just as Garnet had been rendered mute by shock, guilt and depression after Kuja had turned her own Eidolon, Bahamut, on the city of Alexandria, Kuja was now suffering in a similar way. He hadn’t lost his voice, but he had no appetite, no energy. His mind had been slipping in and out of awareness, as if that was the only outlet, the only way he could cope. He certainly had reason to be depressed… he’d lost nearly everything that defined who he was – his flawless appearance yes, but also his power, his social status, his carefully crafted plans for the future. He only had his life left… and even that had nearly been torn away from him.

Zidane wondered why he hadn’t noticed sooner, just how bad things had gotten. He hadn’t noticed with Garnet either; he’d needed Eiko to tell him. Was he really so self centered that he couldn’t see the suffering of those around him? Or had he been so sheltered that it hadn’t occurred to him that someone could be so lonely, so despondent, that they’d simply shut down?

It suddenly felt too awkward to have the conversation at the kitchen table, especially since Kuja hadn’t sat back down. So Zidane stood up instead, and, after considering his options – and how he wished they had a cozy sofa right now! – backed up until they were up against the bed, pulling Kuja down with him to sit on the floor against the mattress.

Carefully wrapping his arms around Kuja’s shoulders, Zidane gave him a squeeze and said, "I wish you could see just how special, how beautiful, you are to me."

Kuja immediately tried to push Zidane off, though the younger man had braced himself, expecting it. "You’re as blind as you are stupid. I’m worthless, useless… even moreso than before! All I can do now is sit and wait for someone to catch and imprison me again, or until you come to your senses and realize that you should’ve left me in the Iifa Tree, like you said. Either way, the end result will be the same: I’ll be alone, and then it’ll be all over," Kuja yelled.

It was the same old thing they’d argued about back in the rundown house, just with a twist. Zidane had heard it enough by now that he didn’t take the bait. "It doesn’t have to be that way. You could try living. Isn’t that what you told me in the Iifa Tree? You finally realized what it means to live… but you were wrong when you said it’s too late. It's not! You still have a lot of life to live, and I’m going to make sure you make the most of it. You’re not alone anymore, Kuja; I’m here, and I’m not leaving you again."

Kuja suddenly let out a single, short laugh. Zidane braced himself for what would come next. "Beatrix did ask me why I hadn’t simply killed myself. I probably should have."

Zidane nearly screamed the older man’s name to stop him from continuing down that line of thought, but instead, he held back, realizing yelling wasn’t going to help anything. There was so much pain in Kuja’s voice; he deserved a proper response… "You didn’t, because you wanted to see me again, even though I’d broken my promise. You trusted me, and I took it for granted. Something so precious, and I just squandered it." Zidane shook his head slowly, blonde ponytail swaying. "I know I hurt you badly. I can’t blame you for saying you can’t trust me anymore, that you don’t even like me anymore. But if I earned your trust once, maybe I can do it again. And if I can manage that, maybe the next step isn’t impossible either."

Kuja didn’t respond. At least he wasn’t still trying to pull away. He just sat there, stiff as a board, but Zidane could tell that he was listening to each and every word.

"It might take months, even years… but I’m gonna try my best. It’s worth it, if it’s for you. That doesn’t mean I’m going to force you to love me, though… If in the end, you just can’t reciprocate my feelings… if I’m simply not the one for you, I’ll still be here, supporting you, as a friend."

Kuja remained silent. He wasn’t sure what he ought to say. Zidane was so adamant that he wanted to be in a relationship with him, but it wasn’t that simple. They were in no position to be thinking about forging a relationship; survival took priority. And more importantly, had Zidane forgotten? Even though Kuja had bought clothing intended for women, nothing was going to change the fact that he was a man. Kuja was certain that Zidane would run away again once he was confronted with physical proof of that fact.

"Of course now that I’ve said all that, it just occurred to me that I don't know if you actually prefer men or women. Or if you find someone like me attractive," Zidane said with a grin, but his eyes were serious. "If I hadn’t screwed it all up, would you have been interested in going out with me?"

Kuja trembled slightly at how close Zidane’s question came to his own thoughts. He honestly didn’t know if he had a preference; no one had asked about that before. When it came to sex, it only mattered if they liked his face and parts of his body, not the other way around. "I don’t know. I never had a choice before. But… " He remembered that warm spring day, in the mountains, when a shirtless Zidane had woken him after letting loose on a target dummy... how the sun had glinted off his golden skin, his eyes a brighter blue than even the cloudless sky. "I don't find you... unattractive," Kuja confessed. He looked away, his face turning a little pink even as a lump formed in his throat.

Zidane’s show of kindness and concern was painful, and Kuja didn’t know why. No one else had ever cared about what he wanted or listened to his requests, even if it was just him complaining about oatmeal. So he’d kept everyone at arm’s distance, pushed their buttons, driven them away. He’d never let them closer than that… except for Zidane. And then Zidane had hurt him in a way that even Garland couldn’t have – a hurt so sharp, so deep, it made him wish that he’d died instead. Was he really willing to go through that again?

Kuja swallowed and glanced back at Zidane. "I know you prefer women. But no matter what I look like, I’m a man, too. Can you honestly accept that?"

Zidane’s response was immediate and firm. "Yes."

With quaking limbs, Kuja guided one of Zidane’s hands down to his groin, and held it there. "That’s not going away no matter what I’m wearing."

What Kuja didn’t know was that Zidane had already asked himself that very question while the former mage had been unconscious. After all he’d been taking care of him; he’d had plenty of opportunity to take a good look at Kuja’s body while he slept. He’d figured it was better to do that than wait for Kuja to awaken and see his expression; he wanted to make absolutely sure that he wouldn’t avert his eyes again. And he hadn’t – there wasn’t anything scary or gross about it. He wondered why he was so scared of it before. Kuja was a man, Zidane loved him - it was that simple. Zidane only wished he'd realized that earlier – what he would give to redo their first time! But all he could do now was think about what needed to change for them to find a future together.

It wasn’t yet the right time for that though. Zidane could feel Kuja’s body heat radiating through the fabric of his pants. It took all of the younger man’s willpower to keep his fingers relaxed and still. Already his mind was trying to run away from him with thoughts of Kuja aroused and tossing about on the bed, or writhing on the floor while Zidane peeled off his clothing to taste every inch of skin that lay beneath…

"I know… I won’t run away again," Zidane said gently. "I want you, you don’t even know how badly! But I also promised you I wasn’t going to lay my hands on you until the time was right." Despite his words, he didn’t withdraw immediately, knowing that Kuja would see that as a rejection.

Instead, Zidane lifted his free hand to Kuja’s cheek and cupped it in his palm. "I won’t settle for anything less than your heart, and neither should you. You deserve to be loved, and to be in love in turn. I know I haven’t won you over yet. But if you give me the chance, I swear to you… I’ll give you all the love you’ve ever wanted, and then some." He finally let his other hand shift off Kuja’s groin, so that he could hold Kuja’s hand instead.

Kuja lowered his eyes again, and then, gave the slightest of nods. The thought of giving his heart to someone - whatever that meant – sounded frightening, but he wanted so badly to believe that someone could want him, that he was worthy of being… loved… That he too could feel that way someday. It wasn’t like he had anything left to lose. If Zidane betrayed him again, he doubted he’d survive long enough to care about what happened afterwards.

"Thanks," Zidane murmured, pressing his forehead lightly against Kuja’s shoulder. "I know I still have a long way to go to prove myself to you. But I’ll make you happy, no matter what it takes."

They probably could’ve sat there in relative silence for several minutes, even an hour, but there was a sudden sharp sound at the door, causing Kuja to practically jump off the floor. Zidane immediately got up to investigate, dusting himself off as he went, casually eyeballing his daggers to confirm that they were still hanging near the entrance while hoping, as always, that this wasn’t an occasion where they’d be needed.

It turned out to be Ennis asking about a boat. Zidane apologized for forgetting that he'd reserved it days ago, let him know he’d be right out to take care of it, then turned and smiled at Kuja. "Sorry, I gotta take care of this. But it’ll be quick. I’ll be right back." He waited for Kuja to nod at him before slipping out the door, nearly bumping into Ennis and Howard, who'd both been peering into the little house out of curiosity.

For the first time in a long time, Kuja didn’t feel the urge to chase after Zidane. He didn’t even look out the window to confirm that he was there. He wasn’t sure if that meant he’d been convinced by the thief’s promises – fear and doubt always seemed ready to claw its way into his mind - but when he flexed his fingers slightly, he could still feel the lingering warmth of Zidane’s hand in his.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- I tried to strike a balance between being too sappy and being too weird / gross (I really wanted to make sure it didn’t read like Zidane had done something inappropriate while Kuja was unconscious). Hopefully I was able to achieve that. I need these guys to do it right this time!

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Somebody to Love" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Zidane half expected Kuja to argue when he'd said that they ought to go back to town the next day to get supplies and stuff, but he hadn’t. It was unrealistic to think that he’d somehow become agreeable in a single day, but he was trying, and that was enough for now.

The next morning they headed out, Kuja in his new clothes – he wasn’t completely done with the embroidery, but the outfit was wearable and certainly preferable to the oversized items Zidane had originally bought – and with a new hairstyle. Zidane had tied back the long silver strands from around the crown, finishing it off with a neat bow. The former mage wasn’t sure if he really liked it or not as it revealed more of his face than he wanted, but Zidane seemed pleased with the results, and Kuja didn’t want to say anything that would discourage Zidane from brushing his hair in the future.

They stopped by the inn before heading to the market. As usual there were a few people picking up messages and reading the bulletin board. Zidane greeted Arnett and was about to formally introduce Kuja to him, but was distracted by the sight of the mayor tying a bright orange ribbon to the porch post. There were matching ribbons at the entrance of the town hall as well. Zidane was sure he’d seen something like that before, but he couldn’t remember when, or what it had signified.

"Hey, what’s that for?"

"Well good morning to you too," Arnett grunted. "And this? Means there’s a town meeting tonight. It’s normally once a month, but something came up."

Zidane gave him a slight, awkward smile. "I see…" He wasn’t sure if that meant they were invited, though he wasn’t sure if he wanted to attend, either. But it’d be awkward to show up if they weren’t supposed to… just as awkward as leaving Kuja hovering behind him… "Ah, sorry! Kuja, this is the mayor, Arnett. Arnett, this is Kuja."

Arnett extended his hand and Kuja stepped forward and reciprocated. They exchanged brief words of greeting, then Kuja withdrew to his usual spot behind Zidane. The young thief cleared his throat and turned back to the mayor with an expectant look.

"If the two of ya wanna come, town meetings are always at 7:30, in the main hall. Normal meetings are on the first of the month. Emergency ones, look for the orange ribbon in the morning, meet that same evening," Arnett explained, watching as Zidane glanced back at Kuja, shrugging, apparently undecided about attending.

"Hmm…"

"You should come. Especially when there’s important matters to discuss," Arnett added. He couldn’t help but look past Zidane’s shoulder at Kuja. Sara had given him her impression of him when they’d met at the bakery two days earlier; other townsfolk had been gossiping about his looks and demeanor. Arnett still wasn’t convinced that it was safe to have the man around; he worried they’d be in over their heads trying to deal with him and / or any potential bounty hunters that followed in his wake. Kuja himself certainly seemed harmless enough. But maybe he was hiding his true nature. Maybe he’d slip up, if enough eyes were upon him. Arnett was determined to uncover the truth, even if it took effort and time.

"We’ll try to make it," Zidane replied. "I can’t promise, though."

"Right… I’ll see you two tonight then," the mayor said with a grin, making his expectations obvious.

Zidane flashed a crooked smile in response, then, after giving the message board a quick look, excused himself and Kuja before leading his companion towards the largest building anchoring the town’s center.

This was Kuja’s first time at the morning market. He’d expected something a little more organized like the outdoor markets he’d seen in larger cities, not this rather casual gathering in the town hall. Apparently there were only so many tables to go around; many of the goods sat on blankets on the floor or were perched on chairs. Most of the "booths" weren’t even staffed: a pile of assorted vegetables sat next to a scale, a cash box, and a chalked sign reading "8 Gil / lb," and the ladies that sold eggs and smoked meats were off talking to an older woman who kept on knitting, her wares piled next to her chair.

"It’s mostly food but there’s folks that make things too. Obviously if there’s anything you want, just go fer it," Zidane said as he went to inspect some fruit. The apricots and cherries looked nice. "Is there any of this that you won’t eat?"

Kuja gave a slight shrug. Zidane apparently thought he needed to check in with him on every single ingredient he bought. "It’s fine."

Zidane paused as if assessing the truthfulness of that statement, then nodded and began filling up his basket.

With nothing else to do, Kuja began looking around the room, though there wasn’t much of anything to see. Even though it was the town hall, the main room wasn’t as large as he had expected. So Kuja just followed Zidane around as the younger man circled the room, trying to decide what looked good for the next few meals. The other shoppers were doing the same while socializing as well. Zidane joined in on some of the conversation, but Kuja hovered like a shadow behind him, all while wondering why anyone needed to go around the room more than once. A few people tried to engage Kuja in small talk as well, but he only exchanged greetings and said little else beyond that.

Zidane kept an eye on the interactions, but tried not to butt in too much. He really wanted Kuja to be able to talk to these folks on his own, but for now, it seemed futile. The more that people approached him, the more Kuja withdrew, until finally, Zidane had had enough and excused the both of them, before taking Kuja over to a quiet corner.

"Are you okay?" Zidane asked softly, standing like a wall between Kuja and all the other activity in the room.

Kuja took a deep breath before nodding slowly. It hadn’t been the talking, but the staring that had gotten to him. He’d thought he’d be used to it by now – after all he’d been scrutinized or admired most of his life – but things had changed, and without his magic he wasn’t sure what people thought of him when they looked at him. Even in new, nicer clothes, he was no longer the flawless beauty that had once enraptured nobles. And even if someone was somehow attracted to him, he was no longer willing to give himself to just anyone. It wasn’t simply because there was nothing to gain from it, but…

He suddenly averted his eyes from Zidane, unable to describe what he was feeling, even to himself.

Zidane didn’t press for more of an answer, though he assumed Kuja was overwhelmed by all the attention and maybe feeling a bit tired too. But the blonde had discovered a little something recently and had been dying to show it to Kuja, and now seemed like the perfect time.

"Come with me." Taking a hold of Kuja’s hand, Zidane led him out a side door and down a hallway, then opened the door at the end and stepped aside, all while hiding a knowing smile. "Voila – the library!"

Kuja’s lips twisted slightly. Calling the cramped little room with its trio of not-quite-full bookshelves a "library" was an insult to libraries everywhere - it really was nothing more than a converted storage room behind the town’s small schoolroom. Then again, it was a minor miracle that a town as tiny and isolated as Nil had a library at all. A snide voice in his head wondered if half the people in town could even read…

Kuja looked over at Zidane, the obvious question in his eyes, and Zidane nodded and said, "I already asked. You can borrow some. They just want you bring them back when you’re done."

That was all the encouragement the silver-haired man needed. Kuja stepped inside and started browsing. The windowless room was musty and in need of better lighting – as well as some organizing, since there seemed to be no logic to how the books were arranged - but books were books, and that was all he cared about. So immediately engrossed was he in what he was doing that he didn’t hear Zidane say that he’d be back in a few minutes, nor did he notice Zidane shutting the door behind him.

With Kuja distracted, Zidane returned to the main hall to finish shopping, though he did so with one eye on the hall door, in case the older Genome needed anything. But Zidane wasn’t really surprised to see the door stay shut the whole time.

Once done with the morning market, Zidane loaded up his purchases on Choco and went back in to get Kuja. Predictably, Kuja was slightly reluctant to leave – he couldn’t decide how many books he should take. He didn’t want to grab too many since this was his first time borrowing, but it was hard deciding between the ones he’d already begun flipping through. He eventually settled on two: a small volume of poetry and a well-worn tome about the flora and fauna of the region – the former appealed to his love of the dramatic, the latter, his practical side.

Zidane gave Kuja a smile when he finally got up to leave. He’d always thought of the older man as being high maintenance and difficult to please but he looked so content with nothing more than a couple of used books tucked under his arm. He’d even perked up enough to nod at the few people who said goodbye to them as they were leaving.

Zidane had never asked Kuja why he loved of reading so much – he seemed to assume it was mainly due to boredom - but he supported it, and that was all that mattered to Kuja. It wasn’t like a few books changed his world, but Kuja couldn’t help but feel a little more balanced with them, as if they were weights stabilizing his mood. Unlike people, books were easy to understand… he didn’t have to wonder what they thought of him; books didn’t expect him to answer inane comments about the weather. So even though his choices weren’t particularly exciting, he looked forward to going home and sitting down on the porch and reading. It was something safe and predictable in a life that had been anything but.

They walked out of the market side by side and headed over to the bakery, then to the general store. Sara complimented Kuja on his new outfit; the Cleyran sisters praised him on his embroidery work, thinking it a nice improvement over the plain garment he had started with. They even suggested that Kuja consider doing embroidery piecemeal, and Kuja thanked them and said he’d think about it.

He’d never thought about working for a wage before but he was beginning to realize how much they were spending each time they came to town. Zidane was earning 250 Gil a week, just enough for a single person to live off of if they were frugal, but Zidane had spent more than that on a single trip. He’d said he had some money in reserve, but how long would that last if he weren’t mindful of his spending? The sisters had told Kuja that he could make at 20 - maybe even 30 - Gil an hour doing needlework; even if he only worked a couple hours a day, it’d be enough to put food on the table. It wasn’t much, but Kuja hated the thought that he wasn’t contributing at all, that Zidane was having to do everything while he just moped around, eating food he hadn’t worked for and buying clothing he hadn’t earned.

"Do you think I should do it? Take in some work, I mean," Kuja asked as they rode back to the cottage.

"Only if it’s something you want to do." Zidane paused, then tried again. "I like taking care of you, you know. I’ve always liked taking care of people. Maybe I’m just wired that way. So don’t feel like you’re obligated to ‘pitch in.’ But… if that’s what you want… Well, I know it would drive me nuts if our roles were reversed and you told me I didn’t have to do anything, because I’d want to contribute, if I could…" Because I’d want to be useful, Zidane finished to himself, realizing that was exactly how Kuja felt. He’d said many times after his defeat that he felt useless. Finding work, making a little money, helping out around the house… it didn’t take a lot to give someone a sense of self worth.

"Maybe I’ll give it a shot." Kuja fingered the stitching on his top and sighed. Would people really pay him for such a thing? He was already starting to doubt himself. Who would want to hire him for a trivial task in a town so simple and isolated?

"The ladies loved what you did, and so do I. I bet other people would want something like that too."

"And we could use the money…?"

"Don’t worry about money. Really." Zidane could feel Kuja staring right through the back of his skull, and he chuckled. "No, I’m not planning on stealing from the people here! What I meant was I have some ideas… Like fishing! I don’t see anyone selling fish, though supposedly some of the previous dockmasters did that. Or maybe I can go back to hunting monsters - but I haven’t seen many around." The blonde waved a hand in the air. "I’m sure there’s something more I can do, even if it’s just odd jobs around town."

Kuja didn’t exactly feel reassured by Zidane’s haphazard plans, but it wasn’t like he could offer up anything better at the moment.

Zidane lowered the hand he’d been waving around and settled it onto Kuja’s hand as it rested against his waist as they rode. "I won’t let you down. Maybe if it was just me, I’d struggle to get motivated, but for you – for us - I’ll work hard and do my very best, no matter what."

If Zidane really meant that, then Kuja figured he should give the embroidery thing a try as well. If it didn’t pan out, well, then he’d just have to find some other way he could contribute. Maybe he could do something in the town’s library. Heck, maybe he could learn to work on the boats too, though he didn’t have Zidane’s strength or endurance. But he bet he could choose better paint color combos than what was currently slapped on the vessels.

"I, too. I’ll do what I can, as well as I can." The former mage said it in a quiet voice, but there was steel in his voice that hadn’t been there in a while.

Zidane suddenly wished he could turn around to embrace and kiss Kuja, but he doubted Choco would appreciate having passengers twisting and turning about while riding. He settled for squeezing Kuja’s hand and tilting his head back and slightly in on the side, to barely bump it against Kuja’s cheek. "I know you will."

Kuja leaned in enough to briefly rest his head on Zidane’s shoulder. It wasn’t a hug but it felt comforting like one. Zidane seemed to agree, letting loose a contented sigh.

… And then Choco joined in with an enthusiastic "Kweh," bouncing both his riders around on his back as he picked up speed as the cottage came into sight.

Zidane chuckled and straightened up, albeit a little reluctantly. But Choco did have a point. The back of a giant bird was probably not the best place to fantasize about making out with someone.

* * *

With his latest promise to Kuja foremost in his mind, Zidane spent part of the afternoon testing out fishing equipment. There was more stuff in the shed than he’d realized; he’d been using regular rods to catch the occasional fish for their dinner, but there were nets and traps and assorted artificial baits that he hadn’t yet tried that were probably far more effective at catching sellable quantities of fish.

Predictably, Kuja spent as much time reading on the porch as he could, only heading indoors to work on embroidery when Zidane signaled that someone was arriving. It was almost always someone from town, wanting a boat; the town rarely got visitors. Kuja tried not to stress out too much each time Zidane coughed and stretched his arms in warning, but it felt sometimes that no matter how vigilant they were, eventually the wrong someone would slip by, and these peaceful days would come to a sudden and violent end.

But even with that ever present fear lodged in the back of his mind, Kuja had to admit, this wasn’t a bad life. He was no longer cold, no longer hungry, no longer alone. And Zidane was being more patient and kind than he’d ever been, not that anyone else had been much of either to him before. While the town, like its library, was a little dull, it really wasn’t a bad thing. He’d never stopped to give the state of his soul much thought before but it seemed a quiet life and easy routine were the balms he needed if he were to have any hope of recovery.

The day passed quickly, and soon Zidane was securing the boats for the evening and giving his fishing gear one last check. He’d caught a trio of small fish earlier and set them over some coals to smoke; he wasn’t sure if they were any good to eat – would anyone want to buy them? - but there was one way to find out…

The fish turned out to be surprisingly tasty, but because they were so small, Zidane ended up flaking them into some soup with greens and new potatoes. It wasn’t the most substantial meal but Kuja seemed to approve, finishing up his bowl without complaint. Zidane made a note to catch more of those fish the next day and try his hand at selling them. At worst, no one would buy them and they’d have them for dinner again.

Zidane had been unsure whether or not he wanted to attend the town meeting – he half wondered if the whole thing was a trap – but even if that were so, it wasn’t like the townspeople didn’t know where they lived. They could just as easily ambush them at the lakeside house. It seemed far more likely that Arnett had been truthful: there was something going on that the town needed to know about. With that being the case– and as Kuja had no objections either - they found themselves heading back to town via chocobo. It was nearly dark, but Choco had little problem navigating down the now-familiar path with both Zidane and Kuja holding lanterns aloft for spots of light.

There was a steady trickle of people heading into the town hall by the time they arrived. The two Genomes slipped in as quietly as possible, trying to not attract attention, though that proved to be impossible since Sara stood up and ran over to greet them as soon as she saw them.

"You made it! Arnett wasn’t sure you’d come," Sara said.

"Yeah, I figured we should see what’s going on…" Zidane nodded at her even as he looked around. The same room that had been stocked with produce and crafts that morning had been rearranged so that all available chairs were placed in the center, facing a chalkboard at the back wall of the room. There was ample standing room near the entrance and to the sides, but most of the chairs were already taken, mostly by women and the elderly. From the looks of it, nearly the entire town’s population was in attendance.

Sara turned to Kuja. She seemed to be considering something for a moment, her eyes dropping down to Kuja’s feet before asking, "Mr. Kuja, do you want to sit down? You can have my seat."

She always surprised him with her kindness. Kuja was confused by it. But it no longer appeared to him that she was doing it to try and earn his favor, as her imposing looking husband was mere feet away and watching their interaction, but doing nothing to interfere.

The former mage looked over Sara’s shoulder, focusing back on the question at hand. He wasn’t sure how long the meeting would go for or if he could comfortably stand the whole time, but he didn’t want to come across as an invalid either. It was even less appealing that the chair that Sara had vacated was dab smack front and center.

"Are you sure? Maybe you should…" Zidane began.

Sitting meant being separated from Zidane as well. Kuja didn’t like that at all. He shook his head again, pressing himself a little closer to the younger man’s side. Reflexively, Zidane slid his arm around Kuja’s waist, which made Sara smile.

"If you change your mind, let me know," Sara told him before making her way back to her seat.

As soon as her back was turned, Kuja went to peel Zidane’s arm off of his waist, but he stopped when he realized that no one was staring at them or paying special attention to what they were doing. It seemed most everyone in town had figured they were a couple… or something like that. It didn’t even matter that that wasn’t quite true. No one was questioning them or hassling them about it, even though they were both men. Kuja wasn’t sure why that was the case, but he wasn’t going to complain about it. Having one less thing to worry about was always a bonus.

The meeting started a couple minutes later, right on time. Arnett walked to the front, and without any preamble, said, "I’ll get right to the point. Our problem dragon is back, I’m afraid."

Murmurs rippled through the crowd. Zidane managed to catch a few phrases here and there, enough to piece together some vague idea of what was happening. The past couple of years, a dragon had been hitting local farms and eating up livestock. The last attack had taken place late last fall, leaving two farmhands injured while another two lost their lives as they tried chasing off the monster.

Arnett waited patiently for the townspeople to quiet back down before continuing on. "Something needs ta be done, but what? It’s not just ‘bout pigs and chickens… Bess and Nanette and everyone else who lives on the outskirts are at risk. But after what happened last year, how can I send anyone after it?"

More murmuring from the assembly. Zidane looked around, then yelled out, "Hey, what kind of dragon is it?"

"A big one. An ancient one," someone shouted back.

Zidane shook his head. That wasn’t specific enough to be useful.

"We believe it’s a Grand Dragon," Arnett supplied.

Ahhh… that would be tough to take down alone. "If a few others are willing to come with me, I think we can take it down."

Another voice piped up. "Are you mad? Who would go? Two men were killed last year fighting it."

"I’ve fought and beaten them before, but as part of a group, not by myself. I could try it alone," and at that, Kuja’s hand suddenly grabbed onto Zidane’s shirt, "but I’d have a far better chance at succeeding with a couple of battle experienced companions at my side."

There was a lot of shaking of heads. Even though Zidane had been a war hero, he was still one of the smallest guys in town and very young to boot. Everyone had a hard time envisioning the lithe blonde Genome taking down something as massive as a dragon.

Several people also stole glances at Kuja, wondering why the most feared man on the planet wasn’t volunteering to join Zidane’s party – if anyone could take down a dragon, wouldn’t it be him? - but the silver-haired man was too busy glaring at his companion to notice.

"We could hire mercenaries…" another voice called out, as the discussion stalled, but someone immediately countered with, "No way, we don’t want bounty hunters here. And even if we did… how could we afford to pay for them?"

"But we can’t just sit around and do nothing!" the first voice insisted.

There was more murmuring through the room, as people bounced ideas off the folks closest to them. Kuja's head whipped around; he was overwhelmed by the disorganization of it all. He couldn’t figure out why the mayor was letting people speak out of turn, why he wasn’t maintaining control over the meeting. All Arnett seemed to be doing at the moment was jotting down ideas on the chalkboard. Allowing open discussion… wanting to make decisions as a group… it seemed needlessly hectic.

Smyt finally spoke up. "What about rigging up a trap? Bait it into a pit or an enclosure… and then drop explosives on it. I bet even a Grand Dragon couldn’t survive that!"

"A pit? Can we even dig one big enough?" someone wondered.

Zidane didn’t like what he was hearing. "Even if you could, that still might not be enough. Grand Dragons are extremely tough! And if you can’t kill it outright, it might make things worse. A wounded dragon is a dangerous one."

"If explosives can’t kill it, what makes you think you can?" a voice volleyed back, bolstered by several others. "Even you admitted that you only managed to pull it off with the help of other experienced fighters."

Zidane wanted to protest, but what could he say? He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to take down a mature dragon if no one was willing to go with him. And Kuja was clearly worried about the prospect of him getting injured… or worse.

Things quieted down a little bit as Arnett finished putting up notes on the blackboard, consolidating any ideas that were similar. When he was done, he did a final call for any last minute suggestions or comments, and when no one spoke up, he began the voting process via show of hands. Each person present could vote for as many ideas as they liked. Arnett and two others tallied the votes, ensuring that the count was correct, before the mayor posted the number of votes each suggestion received.

Zidane wasn’t thrilled with the final result, but he wasn’t surprised by it, either. His suggestion had only gotten seven votes. At least Kuja had given him his vote, despite the fact that he’d clearly been worried… that made Zidane feel a little better. Setting a trap probably felt like the safest option to everyone, but he doubted it would go as well as they hoped it would. If his worst fear were to come true, he’d be forced to take action, regardless if anyone authorized it or backed him up.

Arnett capped off the meeting by saying he wanted everyone to think about how they could put the plan into action – they needed a good location for the trap, as well as an appropriate amount of explosives with reliable triggers, and manpower to put it all into play. He’d take suggestions and volunteer sign ups over the next couple of days. The goal was to have a concrete plan in place by the next monthly town meeting.

People began leaving the town hall as they had arrived, trickling out the doors and dispersing in different directions. Kuja and Zidane rode out into the darkness, Choco tracking the light that illuminated his path.

"You know, I’m a little surprised you gave me your vote," Zidane admitted once they were off the town’s dirt road.

Kuja mulled over his response before finally saying, "I was worried… I still am, about what might happen if you were to face off against a Grand Dragon. But if the trap doesn’t work…"

"Yeah, it’ll be a mess." Zidane reached down and ran his fingers over his sheathed weapons, and sighed. "I really do hope I’m wrong. But I want to be prepared, in case I’m right."

Kuja had lost the staff Zidane had given him back in Alexandria. Now he wondered if he ought to get a replacement. But he’d never gotten very good at wielding it; maybe being armed would only make him more of a liability. Kuja wasn’t sure what he should do - or if he should even make mention of it, as Zidane hadn’t included him in his plans to combat the dragon in the first place.

* * *

Kuja had originally planned on spending the evening reading, but by the time he and Zidane got back from the town meeting he just wanted to take a bath and go to sleep. He’d thought earlier that he was doing better, but attending the meeting had sapped what energy he’d had; the reality was he was still recovering and needed rest.

Zidane shadowed Kuja silently, trying to be unobtrusive but available at the same time, which wasn’t always a simple task in a house so small. But eventually Kuja got into bed, curling up under the covers, and Zidane rushed to finish brushing his teeth so he could join him. The younger man wasn’t sleepy yet, but he liked watching over Kuja as he fell asleep, listening to his breaths slow and deepen, feeling his body warm up as he rolled over and pressed himself against his bedmate.

Besides, they’d made some headway the previous couple of days. Hesitant though Kuja was, he’d tried to answer Zidane’s questions with a rare honesty that he’d never granted anyone else before. Zidane had struggled to not overload him with questions – he definitely didn’t want it coming across like an interrogation. And he’d tried to keep his choice of topics neutral so Kuja would feel safe talking to him, confiding in him, even if it was only about something as simple as what his least favorite season was.

Zidane slid into bed. They lay there in silence a solid minute, the only sound the occasional rustling of the sheets and the backdrop of their breaths, then Zidane asked, "Hey, are you still awake?" though he knew full well that Kuja hadn’t fallen asleep yet. He waited until he heard Kuja grunt in response, then followed up with, "Hey, what’s your favorite color?

Even if Kuja hadn’t been thinking about the town’s dragon problem, the question would’ve caught him off guard. A grumbling sound rose from his throat. He was tired; he didn’t appreciate Zidane attempting to catch him unaware. And what kind of random question was that, anyhow? It seemed harmless enough, but it simply wasn’t important. At least there was some logic behind the query Zidane had made the previous night; the younger man had asked Kuja how he liked his eggs, so he’d know for breakfast the next morning.

"I don’t know," Kuja reluctantly answered.

"You don’t know?"

Kuja grumbled again. "I don’t have one. Why, what’s yours?"

Zidane thought about it. Actually, he wasn’t sure what his was either. "Blue, I guess…"

"You guess?" Kuja chuckled, the sound dampened slightly by the blankets. "If you don’t know yours why are you asking for mine?"

Zidane shrugged against his pillow. "Just making conversation."

"… Shouldn’t that go both ways?"

It was too dark for Kuja to see his expression, but Zidane could only imagine that he was looking pretty darn stupid at the moment, his jaw hanging slack. He hadn’t realized… hadn’t thought… he’d been so fixated on learning more about the older man that it hadn’t occurred to him that Kuja would want to know more about him, too.

"You’re right," Zidane breathed. "Wow, I’m sorry."

"Huh?"

"I didn’t mean to make this into a question / answer session. I just wanted to know more about you, down to the little things. But it didn’t occur to me to do the same, in exchange." Zidane exhaled harshly. "How can I expect you to fall in love with me if you can’t get to know me?"

Kuja wasn’t quite following, but he wasn’t sure if that was because he was tired, or if Zidane wasn’t making sense. "I don’t know what you’re going on about. I just don’t want to answer pointless questions, that’s all."

"Yeah… I’ll think of better things to talk about in the future."

They went silent again, but just when Kuja thought it would be all right to try and fall asleep, Zidane suddenly spoke again.

"I never thought about what my favorite color is, honestly. I think I tend to pick blue by default. I was always told it suited me."

Kuja wondered if Zidane was hoping for a response. He supposed he’d obligated himself to answer when he’d said that conversations went both ways.

"It does," Kuja quietly agreed. "Emphasizes your eyes."

"Really? Thanks. And also, thanks… for giving me your support tonight. Your vote meant more to me than all the others," Zidane rolled over, closing the small gap between himself and Kuja until he was spooned up behind him in the middle of the bed. He draped his tail over Kuja’s legs, stroking the furry appendage down the long limbs. "Good night, Kuja."

Wrapped in warmth, Kuja should’ve been able to fall asleep easily. But instead he worried and worried, wondering if he’d inadvertently encouraged Zidane into a dangerous course of action, until he finally fell into an exhausted sleep.

* * *

Author’ s Notes:

- I'm not sure how much 1 Gil would translate to in the current world - the best reference I could find was a sign at Dali Inn advertising breakfast at 20 Gil - so I had to do some math to figure out what would be a realistic price for vegetables, a very minimal but livable stipend for Zidane, and a reasonable wage for Kuja if he were to work.

- Zidane's default outfit has a lot of blue so I figured that was a good candidate for his favorite color. I gave some thought to what Kuja's might be, but nothing really jumped out at me as an obvious choice for him. It's just as likely that he doesn't have one, since it's not something that would've helped him survive or gather power.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Back Chat" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Even though Zidane had voted against the plan to set a trap for the dragon, he still wanted to help out if he could. Temporary or not, Nil was their home. And so the next morning he and Kuja were back in town, at the bakery, where Zidane went to discuss things with Arnett while Kuja was left to do the shopping.

It shouldn’t have been a difficult task. But without Zidane around as a buffer, Kuja didn’t know what to say once Sara had packaged up his order. She just stood there, smiling and patient, while he awkwardly tried to decide whether he ought to excuse himself – and to where? – or if he was supposed to make small talk until Zidane’s return.

He used to be good at it, talking about nothing of importance, making people think that he shared their interests, their beliefs. Then again, he used to not care what anyone else thought. Kuja looked around, trying to find something safe to chat about, until Sara finally took pity on him and found a topic for him.

"I heard from the ladies at the general store that you were thinking of doing embroidery work?"

Kuja was still waffling over the pros and cons of doing such a thing. "I haven’t decided…" he admitted.

"I see. Well, if you do decide to do it, tell me – because I’d love to be your first customer! I got a new apron, but it’s so plain…" Sara explained. "I was going to add some trim, but a little design on the front pocket would be extra nice. And I like what you've done with your own clothing."

That sounded easy enough. And Sara seemed easy to please. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take on the job…? "I guess… I could do that."

"Really? I’m so happy; thank you so much!"

Kuja remembered the Cleyran sisters telling him he could make 20 Gil an hour, but that was a professional’s fee… he couldn’t imagine charging that when he didn’t work as quickly or efficiently – or produce the quality of work - as someone with experience could. So he offered to work for half that, which Sara immediately agreed to, and then turned his attention to the design of the piece. Sara didn’t have anything particular in mind; she just wanted something simple and pretty, like a garland of flowers or a curl of ribbon. And… she wanted to him to decide on the design himself.

"Are you sure?" Kuja asked. He was at a loss for what would work best on her apron. Maybe he could do something like a cake, as she was a baker?

"Yep! I think you have a good eye. Now, let me go get…" Sara had been walking to the back of the store. She suddenly stopped and turned abruptly. "Oh, remember my cat, Cookie?"

Kuja nodded slowly. He recalled that there’d been a fat cat in the shop before, though he wasn’t sure why she was asking…

Sara giggled. "She just had her kittens. Would you like to see them?"

Kuja considered his options. Sara had been nothing but nice to him, but he didn’t trust "nice." And he still wasn’t really comfortable going anywhere without Zidane. But it wasn’t like she was asking him to leave the building, and it would only take a minute. It would be polite to accept. So he nodded. "Okay."

He followed her past the curtains and up the stairs to the small, neat apartment on the second floor. It looked larger than the cottage he shared with Zidane, but not by much. Sara led him over to a basket on the floor next to the sofa. Kuja squatted down, but made no attempt to touch Cookie or her babies. The newborn kittens were tiny, defenseless things. Their eyes were closed and they didn’t seem to be able to control their movements, wriggling around in the basket.

Sara knelt beside him. "Aren’t they cute?"

Kuja wasn’t sure if he’d call them "cute" – they barely resembled cats in their current state – but he supposed there was something about fragile little creatures that appealed to one’s protective instincts. In that way they did remind him of baby Zidane, just a tiny bit… the stubby, fuzz covered tails, the squirming, their overall helplessness.

He almost wanted to reach out and touch one, just to satisfy his curiosity, but the mother cat was flexing her claws and he wisely decided against testing her.

"What if… I put your cat on the apron?" Kuja suddenly asked, studying Cookie as she stared back at him. A cake would’ve been appropriate, but now that he thought about it, maybe Sara would appreciate something more personal?

"You can do that?" Sara gasped.

"I’ve never tried, so I can’t say for sure," Kuja quickly explained. He didn’t want her to expect too much. "But if I could find an illustration in the library, I could probably copy it."

"That would be wonderful!"

Since they were already on the subject of the library, Kuja decided to forge ahead with something else that had been on his mind as of late. "I was wondering… who takes care of the library?"

"The town library? No one does, really… though I think Allie, who teaches reading, straightens it up every so often."

"Would it be all right if I organized it then?"

"Oh my, of course you can! That would be very nice of you, Mr. Kuja. Do you like reading, then?"

Kuja was about to reply in the affirmative when Arnett’s voice bellowed from downstairs, "Hun, where are ya?"

"We’re upstairs!" Sara called back. She smiled as her husband thundered up the stairs and joined them in the apartment, with Zidane in tow. "I was just showing Mr. Kuja the kittens..."

"So tiny!" Zidane remarked from behind Kuja’s shoulder.

"They grow up fast though. Before you know it, they’ll need new…" Sara paused, her eyes brightening in anticipation. "Say, Zidane, Mr. Kuja, would you like one?"

Kuja was so caught off guard that he didn’t know what to say. He stared at Sara, then turned to look at Zidane, who had already began to decline, saying, "Oh, I don’t think we’d…" until he saw the look on Kuja’s face.

The former mage had always looked younger than his actual age, but he’d never looked quite this young before. His eyes were wide, pleading, but as Zidane’s words sank in Kuja looked down, then away. He told himself he wasn’t disappointed… how could he be?… it wasn’t like he’d had any plans to get a pet before it had been brought up. After all they didn’t need a kitten, he didn’t know how to take care of one - and who would trust him with a baby animal anyhow? He’d sacrificed his dragon to protect himself; he hadn’t even been able to save a tiny bird. And surely a kitten would be just one more thing to worry about if they had to leave town all of a sudden…

"Kuja… did you want one?" Zidane asked with a slight grimace. He realized he should’ve asked first, instead of replying as though he spoke for the both of them.

Predictably, Kuja shook his head no. He was going to accept Zidane’s decision without question. It made Zidane mad… at himself. He’d thought he was making some headway, opening the lines of communication between them. He might’ve just undone a lot of the progress he’d thought he’d made.

Sighing softly, Zidane leaned down to give Kuja a quick hug, then turned back to Sara. "We’ll talk it over… unless you need an answer right now?"

"Oh, no rush! I only mentioned it, because…" and the baker glanced at Kuja, before letting the subject drop completely. "Well, I’ll go get that apron, okay?"

"Apron?" Zidane echoed.

Kuja didn’t say anything, but stood up and waited for Sara to return with the aforementioned article, a pristine yellow rectangle of fabric with ties for the neck and back. He accepted it, nodding his head at her as he turned to leave. Zidane quickly followed him out.

"What was all that about?" Arnett asked once the two Genomes had gone.

"I hired him to do a little work for me."

The big man snorted. "That’s not what I meant. I was worried, you know, seein’ as you’d vanished from downstairs…"

Sara shook her head sadly. "You still don’t trust him, do you?"

"I trust him as long as I can keep an eye on him," was Arnett’s gruff reply.

Knowing there was nothing she could do to change his mind, Sara didn’t argue back. Instead, she gave Arnett an understanding smile and a kiss on the cheek before taking him by the hand and leading him back down to the bakery. It was going to take time – and continued good behavior on Kuja’s part – to convince Arnett and many others in town that Kuja really was no different than anyone else there, a man in need of a second chance.

* * *

Zidane wanted to sit down and talk to Kuja about the kitten, but that would have to wait until they were home, or at least, not in the center of town. But Kuja headed straight for the town hall once they left the bakery and initially, Zidane wasn’t sure why he was so eager to go shopping… until the older man opened the door leading towards the library.

"I’ll come get you when I’m done," Zidane called out. Kuja gave a brief nod before disappearing through the doorway without a word.

The blonde couldn’t help but sigh heavily. Kuja probably thought he hated cats or something. That wasn’t the case. While Zidane had no real interest in owning a cat, he didn’t have any objection to it either. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he realized that it might be good for Kuja to have a pet. Kuja was struggling with his self-confidence… having a pet to care for would give him a sense of worth. And in return, he’d receive a sort of friendship and affection that he could probably accept; an animal would not judge him for who he’d been or what he had done.

With that weighing on his mind, Zidane did his shopping quickly, then headed to the library to fetch Kuja. The small room looked even more disorganized than the thief remembered, as someone had been pulling books off the shelves and stacking them in assorted piles. It was immediately obvious who was responsible for the chaos, since Kuja was currently thumbing through a child’s picture book with several more resting in his lap.

"What are you doing?" Zidane asked.

"Organizing books… the baker said it would be all right. Plus, I needed reference material."

Zidane looked at the cover of the book in Kuja’s hand. It read "Miss Kitty Meow-Meow" with a cute drawing of a cat under the title. He wondered if Kuja was trying to give him a hint. "Oh… Well, should I come back a little later then?"

Kuja’s gaze flicked down to the filled sack of goods in Zidane’s hands. "You’re done?"

"Yeah, but I’m sure I can find something to pass the time, if you want to stay here a little longer."

Kuja thought about it before shaking his head. He could probably spend hours organizing the library, but he wasn’t in any hurry to get it done - he could spread it out over several days. More importantly, he’d found something he could use for Sara’s project. The cartoonish cat in the book was perhaps too cutesy for an adult, but Sara was young at heart… and the design was simple enough that Kuja was confident that he’d be able to replicate it.

"Can we stop by the general store? I need some supplies," Kuja requested.

"Sure," Zidane replied, but instead of leading the way out of the room, he squatted down amongst all the books instead, earning him a lifted eyebrow from Kuja. "So about this cat thing…"

The older Genome began rising to his feet. Zidane grabbed a hold of his hand and tugged him back down.

"When I answered Sara earlier, I was only answering for myself," Zidane continued. "Because I don’t care about having a cat one way or another, and if we have to high tail it out of town, it would just be another thing I’d have to worry about. But even with that said… I think it might be good for you to have a pet."

"Why?" Kuja asked suspiciously.

"It’ll give you something to look after, a reason to keep doing your best even when you’re feeling discouraged. It’ll always be at home waiting for you. And it won’t judge you or turn against you no matter who you were or what you’ve done."

"But… I don’t know how to take care of a cat. What if I do something wrong?"

"I’m sure Sara could give you pointers. Otherwise, learn as you go along, I guess." Zidane shrugged. "I bet you didn’t know anything about babies either, but I turned out okay, right?"

Kuja frowned deeply. It was a minor miracle Zidane survived infancy. He wasn’t looking to put a little kitten through that sort of thing.

"Besides, I’ll help too. Not that I know much about cats either, but how hard could it be?"

Kuja still looked unconvinced. Zidane leaned in, closing the distance between them until he could kiss Kuja very lightly on the lips.

"Let's get a kitten. Heck, get two if you'd like," Zidane said as he bumped his forehead against Kuja's.

Kuja seemed too stunned to react at first, but then he suddenly returned the kiss, though in a far more passionate manner than the shorter Genome expected. Kuja’s lips were slightly moist; his tongue flicked out to graze Zidane’s lower lip, as if inviting him in for a taste. Zidane didn't even realize it when his tongue had made its way past Kuja's lips to mingle with his; he'd been holding back for so long that he could only think about what a relief it was to be able to respond in kind.

Without breaking the kiss, Zidane pulled Kuja closer, wrapping his arms tightly around the slender body. Somehow they went from sitting amongst stacks of books to lying on the floor, some of the books scattering as they accidentally brushed by them.

Zidane hadn't planned on making out with Kuja in the little library. He hadn't planned on making out with him at all, not until he knew Kuja felt something for him, too. But it was too easy to get caught up in the sensations, especially since Kuja was so damn good at pushing his buttons. Zidane felt so dizzy with desire that he couldn’t spare a thought for what had prompted Kuja to make a move.

The thief really might've gotten so swept up that he would’ve ended up doing something irreversible, if it weren't for the fact that the library door creaked open and a strangled "Ack!" suddenly interrupted them.

Zidane yanked his hands out from under Kuja’s shirt – how had they ended up there? – and jerked into a sitting position to see the innkeeper’s boy, Howard, standing in the doorway, shuffling his feet as if he couldn’t decide whether to stay or to run. Zidane groaned, unsure if he should encourage the teen to leave, or beg him not to tell anyone about what he’d just witnessed.

"Uh… I’m sorry," said Howard, his cheeks pink.

"No, don’t. I’m the one who should apologize, not you. We shouldn’t have… um…" Zidane scratched his head, trying to think of what to say and how to best say it. "I messed up. Sorry."

Howard’s eyes flickered down to Kuja as he lay on the floor, silently staring at the ceiling, his clothes askew, then looked away. He’d had a tiny bit of a crush on Kuja, thinking the silver-haired man pretty, even though he wasn’t a girl, but it was way too weird seeing him like this. The teen wished he could disappear instead of standing there awkwardly, talking. "Can I go now?"

Zidane nodded. "Yeah, yeah of course! Um… you won’t tell anyone, right?" He managed to paste a stiff smile onto his face.

"… I won’t."

The younger Genome’s jaw relaxed and the fake smile gave way to a real one, but Howard was gone by then. Zidane shut the library door, sighing and leaning on it for a moment, then turned his attention back to Kuja. He remained standing instead of leaning down to give Kuja a hand up; it was easier avoiding ending up rolling around on the floor that way.

"I’m sorry. I said I wouldn’t do anything unless I knew how you felt, then I went and got carried away, just like that."

Kuja finally pushed himself up and began smoothing down his clothing. He looked at the books lying all around in disarray, and tsked under his breath. "I started it; I wasn’t going to complain if you saw it through."

Zidane wasn’t sure if he was more disappointed that Kuja was so dismissive of his concerns, or that he was so casual about sex.

"Well I’m just glad we didn’t go any further; that would’ve been hard to explain to Howard!"

Kuja paused to pick up the books he was borrowing, then pushed past Zidane to leave. "Doesn’t matter to me."

"It should matter! Kuja…" Zidane protested as the door swung closed. Kuja’s curt replies filled Zidane’s head with dozens of questions, but the blonde doubted the other man would give him an honest answer like this. He wasn’t going to let it go though… he’d bide his time, maybe wait until the evening, and try again.

* * *

By the time Zidane caught up to Kuja in the general store, the former mage seemed more or less normal again. Kuja only stayed long enough to pick up some embroidery thread and notions, then he was ready to head home.

The rest of the day went by like many others before - Zidane dealt with boats and fishing, Kuja started work on his new project for Sara and read a little on the side. They had dinner, spent a little more time cleaning up around the house, then prepared for bed.

But once they got under the covers, before Zidane could begin asking questions, Kuja beat him to the punch. "Just say it. I know you’ve been dying to say something all day."

Hearing Zidane inhale in surprise, Kuja realized he was putting himself on the spot, but he just wanted to get it over with. It was exhausting trying to think of ways to evade the inevitable. And given the time of day, it seemed the best time to bring it up: he couldn’t see Zidane’s face in the dark, just as Zidane couldn’t see his. And it would be harder for Zidane to jump out of bed and run away in anger when it was so late… where would he go? He’d be forced to at least stay for the rest of the night.

The younger man sighed. He’d spent all day thinking about what had almost happened in the library, as well as some things Kuja had told him before - that sex wasn’t a big deal, that it was all about power and manipulation. "Yeah…" He swallowed hard, stalling for a few extra seconds, but finally went for it – if Kuja really wanted him to come out and say it, he would. "Does sex really mean so little to you? You talk about it like it’s no big deal, but… it is to me! I mean, I don’t want to just have a physical relationship with you, can’t you understand that?"

For a moment Zidane thought Kuja wouldn’t answer him, despite his earlier invitation, but then his voice broke through the heavy silence. "It didn’t stop you before."

"Before was a mistake… and NOT because it was with you. But I wasn’t ready for it emotionally. I was in such denial over how I felt. I certainly shouldn’t have slept with you knowing I was intending to leave the very next day."

Kuja shrugged, the motion jerky. "That was only to be expected. You had a home to return to."

"But I had a home with you as well. And I ran away from it, like that ever solves anything." Zidane stifled a sigh. It was just like the time when he’d run away from home when he was little. He’d wanted to find his "real" family even though he’d had next to nothing to go off of. He’d accomplished nothing besides making Baku anxious and angry over his foolishness. Apparently he hadn’t learned a thing from that incident.

Kuja couldn’t resist pointing out the obvious. "You ended up running away from her as well," he scoffed. "Even though you said you loved her."

"I did… or I thought I did. I mean, I still do… but only as a friend. It’s like… I had this script in my head of how my life was supposed to be. I never questioned it until I was forced to decide between accepting that I really did love you, or faking my way through a wedding with her." Zidane gave a rueful chuckle. "I give you grief about not owning up to your feelings, but I wasn’t any better myself."

Kuja snorted. "So you’re young and naïve. Like that wasn’t obvious."

"So what if I am? It’s better than being ‘mature’ and ‘realistic’ if that means pretending that love doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter."

"Sex is sex, that’s all it is. Stop trying to turn it into something else," Kuja snapped.

"It’s only like that because you want it that way! Just how many people have you slept with?!" Zidane shot back. His mouth shut with an audible snap as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Of course he’d been thinking about it; he hadn’t meant to actually say it.

The silver-haired man exhaled. The conversation had been leading up to that, hadn’t it? He wondered for a moment whether or not repeats counted, then decided it didn’t matter, because it didn’t change his answer. "I didn’t keep count."

Kuja looked over at his now-silent companion out of habit but couldn’t make out his expression in the dark; it didn’t stop his mind from superimposing in the sneer of disappointment and disgust that he knew would be there. So much for Zidane’s "love" for him… "Just say it – you’re disappointed. You’re disgusted. But it was my choice… I did what I wanted."

"Yeah, but… is that really all you expected? To feel good? Not once have I heard you say that someone made you happy or made you feel cared for." Zidane’s voice sounded a little sad.

Happy? Cared for? Kuja’s partners had only been concerned with fulfilling their needs. And in exchange, Kuja had only expected his bedmates to hold up their end of the deal, whether it was an exchange of physical pleasure or the acquisition of goods or favors. "What use would any of that been? Power, and the freedom to make my own decisions, that’s what mattered," Kuja spat out.

Zidane still couldn’t fathom thinking like that. Even though his first time with Kuja had been far from perfect, Zidane hadn’t felt the sort of detachment that Kuja seemed to associate with sex. Had Kuja really felt nothing for anyone, ever?

The younger Genome’s arm slipped around the older man’s waist, light but unyielding. Kuja twitched at the contact. "What was your first time like?" Zidane asked, genuinely curious.

Kuja hesitated, squirming slightly. He didn’t want to share that information with the blonde. It wasn’t a great memory; it wasn’t really any of Zidane’s business. But maybe if he told him Zidane would stop with his useless romantic pursuit of him… and he was so tired of waiting for the illusion to shatter. "After Garland threw me away, a man approached me in the alley and said he liked my face. He promised me food and shelter, so I went with him. I learned that night, kindness is an illusion. If you want something you have to give something in return."

That wasn't a fair trade at all! "… Couldn’t you refuse him?"

"How? By the time I understood what he expected from me, he was on top of me!" Kuja yelled, startling even himself with his words. He wasn’t sure why he was so mad. He might’ve been confused back then, but he’d gone through with it willingly. And the man had given him bread and let him use a pallet in a side room afterwards, so it wasn’t like he hadn’t done what he’d promised…

Zidane bit down on his lower lip, mostly to keep himself from saying anything else stupid, as he tried to steady his breathing. At the same time, his arm tightened around Kuja, as if he could somehow protect him from his memories. He couldn’t help it - he was furious at the unnamed man who’d tricked a lost, confused soul into his bed for the night. And he was mad at himself for having been no better. Just like how seeing Kuja’s blistered, broken feet had brought to light how much he’d gone through to get to Alexandria, this new revelation gave Zidane clarity into why Kuja was so afraid to trust, why he didn’t believe he could be loved, why he saw people’s lives as mere commodities… He’d never been anything but a tool, a convenient body, unattached and disposable…

"You’re mad," Kuja observed, sounding defeated.

"No, not at you. It’s not your fault."

"Of course it was! I was hungry and stupid… stupid enough to believe that someone would be nice for no reason at all. I didn’t stop to think… all I saw was someone offering me a hand, and I took it."

Zidane pressed his face against Kuja’s shoulder. He’d always imagined himself a hero; he’d always wanted to help people, save people. He’d given his hand to Kuja, pulling him out of the Iifa Tree, encouraging him to live… then left him behind in the old house when it was no longer convenient to remain there. He still remembered the awkward handshake as they'd said their goodbyes, the haunted look on Kuja’s face as they'd parted.

He really wasn’t any better than that man, was he? Zidane had never intended to use Kuja, had never wanted to see him hurt, but he’d done just that.

"I’m sorry," Zidane mumbled.

"Why? You didn’t have anything to do with it."

But he did. If Kuja hadn’t taken him away from Terra, Garland wouldn’t have banished him to Gaia. If Kuja hadn’t refused to divulge where he’d hidden him, Garland wouldn’t have torn up his memory so badly that Kuja couldn’t remember what he’d done to deserve punishment.

Zidane released his hold on Kuja’s waist and slid his arm up until he was clutching Kuja’s hand in his own, lacing his fingers with long, slender ones. The taller man shivered. "I should never have let go. Not for a day, and certainly not for seven or eight months."

"I don’t get it. Why would you still want to be with me after what I’ve just told you?"

"Because I love you. And I want to see you happy." Zidane realized he sounded like a broken record but he wasn’t sure what else to say. He’d once wondered if by saving Kuja’s life, Kuja was indebted to him for the rest of his life – or if that meant he was obligated to take care of Kuja for the rest of his life. But now he realized neither was correct. Kuja sure didn’t owe him a thing… he’d already given up too much. But Zidane wasn’t sticking around out of obligation either. He simply wanted to be with him, in whatever way Kuja would allow.

He waited for Kuja to argue back like always – that Zidane didn’t make sense, that love was meaningless… But Kuja didn’t. Maybe he was tired and just wanted to go to sleep. Or maybe, just maybe… a little of what Zidane had said was starting to sink in? Zidane squeezed Kuja’s hand and pressed a kiss onto his shoulder.

The former mage rolled away, suddenly restless, needing to put space between himself and the younger Genome. He felt so torn… If only he could believe in what Zidane said, maybe he would find happiness. But Kuja wasn’t sure he could convince himself to take that chance. There was a strange sort of safety in clinging to the familiar fears and doubts in his head, the ones that told him to not trust, not hope, not care. He couldn’t be disappointed if he had no expectations in the first place.

Zidane let him go, giving Kuja as much space as possible despite the limited bed space. Kuja had opened up to him as much as he could; Zidane wasn’t going to push for more. But he had spent enough time with Kuja to know that backing off entirely wasn’t the right thing to do either. Kuja was hurting… he needed a reminder that he wasn’t alone, before he slipped into deeper depression, before his doubts became the only thing he could hear.

Zidane’s tail wound around Kuja’s tail – which elicited a jumpy twitch - then slid down until it lay loosely wrapped around the tip of Kuja’s. If the silver-haired man really couldn’t stand it and wanted to pull away, it would be easy for him to slip his tail out of Zidane’s hold; it was Kuja’s decision and Zidane wanted him to know that.

Kuja’s tail was taut with tension. But finally, the tip curled just enough to hook onto Zidane’s. Zidane didn’t tighten his hold, content with the fact that Kuja accepted that small amount of contact. Even when Kuja finally fell asleep, his tail didn’t let go.

* * *

Zidane didn’t realize he too had fallen asleep until he was woken by Kuja’s fingers clawing at his shirt. The taller Genome had rolled over towards Zidane at some point to sleep by his side; his tail was still knotted with Zidane’s. But his entire body was as tense as his tail had been earlier.

Rolling onto his back, the thief groggily tried to pull away before he realized what was happening. A nightmare… Kuja had them with some frequency but because he didn’t usually thrash around or cry out – the only time he'd done that was he had when he’d been having an "episode" after their escape to Nil - it had taken a while for Zidane to recognize the signs for what they were. Zidane could only imagine what he was dreaming about, given the subject of their discussion before bed.

Zidane carefully worked Kuja’s fingers loose from his shirt, before grasping the spasming hand in his own to give Kuja something better to hold on to. He moved his left arm so he could encircle Kuja’s shoulders, pulling him closer so his head rested against Zidane’s chest. Kuja’s breathing hitched a moment before smoothing out and slowing; his muscles finally began relaxing until his body resettled heavily against Zidane’s.

Zidane exhaled slowly. It was hard having to watch Kuja suffer through nightmares, especially knowing they were echoes of a painful past, though the blonde felt a little less helpless knowing that he could provide some relief by holding him, his body heat and heartbeat a soothing comfort. He just wished Kuja would turn to him like that while awake, instead of freezing up or pulling away before reluctantly moving closer.

It was another reminder of how far still they had to go – Kuja might’ve started opening up, but he was still hesitant with how much he was willing to divulge, especially during the day. Zidane worried sometimes that no matter what he did, it wouldn’t be enough. Kuja wouldn’t ever fully trust him; they would never be happy.

He almost wanted to slap himself for thinking like that… except he couldn’t, because he risked dislodging Kuja and now that he was sleeping quietly, Zidane didn’t want to disturb him in any way. Zidane smiled bemusedly at himself. He wasn’t a pessimist; more importantly, he had to believe in himself and in what he was doing, because it was on him to keep them both going, no matter what.

"It’ll be okay," he whispered, his voice barely perceptible. He shut his eyes, unsure of whom he was trying to reassure. After all it wasn’t like he cuddled with Kuja solely for Kuja’s benefit.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- I think a cat would be the perfect sort of pet for Kuja (both in personality and appearance), as that's what he himself reminds me of.

- I've beaten to death the idea that Zidane didn't understand how much Kuja's past physical relationships have affected him. But this latest revelation was shocking enough to drive the point home. The main difficulty (for me) was tiptoeing around the obvious while conveying the message clearly, all without using certain language... hopefully I was successful in doing so!

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Rain Must Fall" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Kuja had never really cared about Zidane’s supply runs or befriending the townspeople, but he suddenly found himself with a pair of reasons to accompany him to town. So while Zidane pitched in with the town's dragon trap, handled the shopping, and sold the occasional smoked fish at the morning market, Kuja split his time between the library and Sara’s apartment.

Unlike human babies, the kittens grew up fast. It seemed one week they were helpless, fuzzy sausages, then the next, their eyes were open and they were crawling around on uncoordinated little legs. Then another week or two went by and suddenly they were recognizable as tiny cats.

Despite his initial concerns about letting the former mage wander about his home, after a few weeks, even Arnett got used to the sight of Kuja heading up the stairs in the back of the bakery or passing by on the way to the library. Kuja still wasn’t all that good at socializing, but he was polite, and no one had any complaints about the job he was doing straightening up the formerly disorganized library. It was inspiring everyone else to take better care of it too.

His embroidery work was a hit with the ladies as well. Sara loved her new custom Miss Kitty Meow-Meow apron; Kuja had carefully recolored the character to match Cookie the cat, laying down long stitches in shades of orange thread to emulate fur. He’d even copied the character’s dress with scraps of pink fabric and a peach ribbon sash. Sara happily showed it off to everyone who came to the bakery. Within two days of it being delivered, Kuja received a half dozen job requests.

Kuja was a little overwhelmed by more than just the response. It was almost unbelievable that four months ago, he’d been awaiting execution, his body and spirit broken. And even after he awoke and began recovering, he’d thought he’d never be useful to anyone for anything again. But now he had things he could do that were valued, and the townspeople treated him like he’d been a fixture in the town for years. Kuja had never thought he’d want to be treated like he was just a regular person, but it wasn’t such a bad thing. It almost made him feel safe, though he couldn’t completely convince himself to believe that. He figured he should be satisfied just living day-to-day. But he couldn’t stop his thoughts from straying towards the future, even though hope was as foreign a concept as safety.

He ended up accepting most of the jobs he’d been offered. It wasn’t so much about the money; he just wanted something to help pass the time. He tried not to fixate on it, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t counting the days until the kittens were old enough to go to their new homes.

* * *

The moment Zidane saw the smile on Kuja’s face, he was glad he’d reconsidered and agreed to getting a kitten.

Sara had promised Kuja first pick of the litter. By the time they were weaned and ready for new homes, Kuja was set on which one he wanted. He’d watched them grow up, after all.

"This is the one," he said, eagerly picking up the sole longhaired kitten from the litter for Zidane to see.

Zidane smiled. It didn’t surprise him that Kuja had chosen the prettiest kitten in the bunch, creamy white with an orange striped tail and more orange around one ear, and crystalline blue eyes. "She’s really pretty."

Kuja nodded and clutched the kitten close. She was pretty, but he hadn’t picked her solely for her looks. Of all the kittens, she was the most affectionate, always first to seek him out when he stopped by to visit.

"I knew you’d choose her; she’s such a little darling!" Sara exclaimed. She was as happy as Zidane to see Kuja cuddling with the kitten. "Have you thought about names yet?"

Kuja nodded slowly. He’d been tumbling around possible names in his head, but he hadn’t wanted to settle on one until the kitten was actually his. Not that he thought Sara was the type of person who’d renege on an agreement, but he couldn’t help but be wary of proffered gifts or favors.

He stroked his thumb over the kitten’s head, earning a soft purr. The remaining two kittens, used to playing with both Kuja and their sister, tumbled out of their basket and began mock fighting for attention, swatting at each other as they rolled all over the ground.

Kuja chuckled, and Zidane was surprised by it. Not by the fact that he was laughing at the kittens’ antics, but by the genuine joy in the sound.

As happy as Zidane was to see Kuja’s smile, he wished he was the one that put it there; he wanted to be the one to make him laugh. It meant he needed to work harder and do more, to earn that same reaction himself.

"I was thinking of calling her Silky," Kuja finally said. He looked over at Zidane, trying to gauge if he had an opinion.

"Silky, huh?" The kitten sure looked soft as silk… Zidane reached his hand out to pet her.

Kuja suddenly realized that he hadn’t let Zidane handle the cat yet. What if she didn’t like him for some reason or vice versa? Maybe he was being paranoid, but he didn’t want to take her home and then find out there was an issue…

"Here." Kuja thrust the kitten at the younger Genome.

She was even softer than Zidane thought she’d be, like a little cloud. Zidane couldn’t resist cuddling with her just as Kuja had. "Silky it is, then," he agreed, handing the kitten back.

They’d brought a blanket-lined basket to carry the kitten home. "Do you think she’ll miss her family?" Kuja asked hesitantly, as he tucked Silky inside.

Zidane was about to brush it off with a simple, "She’ll be fine, she’s just a cat," but he stopped himself. Was this the first time Kuja had given thought to the concept of family?

"She probably will, at first. It’s a big change for a little cat. But she’ll be okay, given a few days," the younger man replied instead.

"And you can bring her over to visit, if you want," Sara added. "The other kittens will be going to new homes around town, but Cookie will always be here."

Kuja nodded, finding some comfort in her offer.

The two Genomes took their new pet straight home. Kuja was relieved to see that his fears were unfounded – Silky’s eyes were bright as she explored the cottage. She nibbled on a little food and had some water, then chased after Zidane’s tail, pouncing on it like it was one of her siblings as he lashed it back and forth. She played with Kuja’s tail as well, though more gently; she had learned previously that he wasn’t nearly as keen on having it pawed at.

As much as Zidane wanted to stay in to play with the kitten, he had to get some work done after lunch. He figured it was a good idea for Kuja to spend some time bonding with his new pet anyhow. Apparently it worked, because when the blonde stepped back in for a water break a couple hours later, he found Kuja napping on the bed, his sewing in his lap and Silky asleep on the pillow above his head, her little paws clutching at the feathers atop Kuja’s mane.

Zidane had to admit, he was a little jealous. Not only had the kitten gotten Kuja to laugh and smile, but she’d managed to get close enough to sleep by his side after only a few hours. But they sure were cute together...

* * *

Silky accepted Kuja as her person right away; figuring out where Zidane belonged in the scheme of things took her slightly longer. As far as the kitten was concerned, Zidane was something to play with, a swinging tail and not much else. He talked too much and a little too loudly; he distracted Kuja and drew his attention away from her. He scolded her when she bit at his toes or woke him with a "Good morning, feed me!" meow. Well, it wasn’t like she wanted to share her bed and her Kuja with him either!

But after a few days of careful observation, Silky decided she could tolerate the younger Genome’s presence. Not only was he the source of the fish that went into her food dish, but he took care of Kuja, and Kuja seemed to like it, even if he frowned at Zidane more often than not. Zidane would brush Kuja’s hair and make sure he ate and soothe him when he grew restless in his sleep. If Kuja was her person, then surely Zidane was Kuja’s?

Zidane hadn’t put too much thought into why Silky behaved differently towards him. As long as she was good with Kuja – and she was - that was all he asked for. But he certainly was happier when she’d stopped savaging his tail and toes and moved aside on the bed instead of trying to force herself in between him and Kuja. Apparently at some point she’d decided he was okay, or maybe they’d come to a mutual understanding that Kuja’s happiness was what mattered.

Raising a kitten would’ve been enough to keep Kuja busy, but it was embroidery work that was eating up most of his time. The town’s annual end of summer festival was only a couple weeks away, and many of the ladies in town liked to take the opportunity to get new outfits and dress up. Kuja could understand that. It made it hard for him to turn down the requests that had come flooding in. His feelings about Treno remained mixed, but he had enjoyed the festivals there and especially the dancing, though he couldn’t remember how long it had been since he’d last indulged.

Silky was his constant "assistant" as he worked. She dug out buried buttons for him, rearranged ribbon and trim from the scrap basket, and clung onto his tail while he concentrated on laying down precise stitches. Zidane was surprised that Kuja hadn’t gotten mad enough to toss her out the door. But Silky also warmed Kuja’s lap and reminded him to take breaks – sometimes he’d focus so much on what he was doing that he’d lose track of time – and if he felt like talking, she’d listen, without interrupting him, except for the occasional mewl.

Pushing to finish his projects on time, Kuja got so busy that he couldn’t even find time to read at night, so Zidane read aloud to him while Kuja’s hands kept on task. It worked out surprisingly well - after all, Zidane had been an actor; he had a knack for telling stories. And listening to the thief weave a tale as they sat side by side helped Kuja remain focused. The silver-haired man was able to deliver his final batch of orders with three days to spare. That gave him enough time to work on embellishing outfits for himself and Zidane.

That was Kuja’s sole focus as he sat with his kitten and his needlework in the shade of the porch in the afternoon. Zidane was checking his fishing lines in between cleaning out the shed that served as Choco’s home. Both were accustomed to their routine as of late; neither gave much thought to the crunching of boots on the gravel heralding the arrival of a guest.

"Huh… well, this is unexpected…" a deep male voice rumbled.

Zidane shook back his bangs and began turning around. "Hey, what can I do for…" He froze once he caught sight of the man’s familiar face and distinct shock of red dreadlocks, then immediately swung his head towards the porch. "GET INSIDE!" he yelled, as he started running towards the house.

Kuja’s head jerked up at the urgency in Zidane’s voice. It took him a moment to register what Zidane had said, another to recognize the man in the road behind him. Kuja scooped up Silky with one hand as he scrambled to his feet, rushing into the house and slamming the door shut behind him.

As soon as the former mage disappeared, Zidane spun back around. "Amarant! Boy it’s been a while, hasn’t it? How have you been?" But Zidane could barely focus on his one-time adventuring companion; his eyes darted around as he searched for a weapon, and to determine just how many opponents he’d be facing, if it came down to that. He cursed himself under his breath for having left his daggers inside – they’d gotten in his way as he worked, so he’d stopped carrying them at his hip. After a while he’d stopped bringing them outside altogether.

"You can’t possibly think I didn’t see him," Amarant replied, his arms crossing.

Zidane sighed. In a hand to hand battle, he wasn’t sure how effective he’d be against a seasoned pugilist. At least Amarant appeared to be alone… "What are you doing here?"

Amarant shrugged. "Passing through. Needed a boat. I didn’t expect to find a runaway prince and the world’s most wanted man." He unfolded his arms and shifted his weight slightly forward.

Zidane’s lips lifted in a feral sneer as he squared himself directly in front of the house. "I’m not a prince anymore. And you go inside over my dead body."

"You wanna fight? Well, suit yourself. But like I said, I just need a boat."

"I can’t just let you leave, either. There’s a price on his head, right?"

"On yours too."

Zidane shrugged that off. He’d figured that was the case. "And you’re a bounty hunter. All that money, and to be a hero too… It has to be irresistible."

Amarant thoughtfully rubbed at his beard, then crossed his arms again. It was true, he had a decision to make. Although he was a bounty hunter, he only did it because it seemed to suit him. He’d never had any real interest in money – he only needed enough to get by. And he preferred anonymity to recognition. "If I told you I wasn’t gonna haul your ass in, would you believe me?"

"What about Kuja?"

"Who?" Amarant smirked.

Zidane shook his head. "Give me your word," he tersely demanded. "You won’t take us in, and you won’t tell anyone you saw us either." It seemed like a longshot, but Amarant adhered to a strict personal code of honor. If he swore he wouldn’t turn them in, he’d abide by it, no matter how crazy the request was.

Amarant grunted. He’d joked about it just a moment earlier, but to actually promise to not turn in either fugitive… "Now, you know that’s not my style. I’m gonna decide what I’m gonna do." If it was only Zidane, it wouldn’t be an issue, but Kuja was a whole other matter.

Zidane relaxed slightly. It wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no, either. "Fair enough," he said, straightening up. He’d fallen into his battle stance without thinking. "Want something to drink?"

Of course Amarant had heard all about Zidane dosing everyone in Alexandria Castle with sleeping weed. He wondered if the thief would try to pull the same trick twice. But Zidane had to know he wasn’t going to fall for it. "Whatever."

Zidane smiled slightly, before turning and heading towards the house.

As tempting as it was to jump him from behind, Amarant would no sooner do that than go back on his word. And Zidane knew it. The redhead snorted to himself; he’d been neatly caught in a trap, it seemed.

In the meantime, Kuja tried to calm himself down as he stood with his back against the locked door, his heart thumping loudly. His thoughts swirled in a thousand directions.

He’d recognized the man outside; undoubtedly the man had recognized him as well. Kuja didn’t remember his name, but he knew he’d been one of Zidane’s companions who’d fought to stop him during his reign of terror.

It didn’t matter that he wasn’t that person anymore. No one who’d fought against him would ever be able to see him as anything but the monstrous Angel of Death. No one except Zidane, and he was an idiot, a fool…

No… it wasn’t Zidane’s fault. Kuja was just upset, with himself… He couldn’t believe he’d gotten so complacent as to not notice a possible opponent walking right up to the house. He’d been lulled into a false hope; he’d started to believe that he could safely live in this little town… or be allowed to live at all. But that had been a fantasy. The reality was, he’d made the whole world his enemy and would one day have to pay the price for that. That wouldn’t change no matter how hard he tried to pretend to live a normal life.

Kuja clutched Silky tighter against his chest. Sara would’ve never let him take the kitten if she’d known who he was. She would’ve never asked him to embroider her apron, or even let him into her bakery. No matter how friendly she seemed, she and the rest of the townspeople were acquaintances, not friends. And this wasn’t "home"; the house was just a temporary shelter. But seeing what life might’ve been like, if someone had done for him as he’d done for Zidane… it wasn’t such a bad thing. He’d thought it would only leave a lingering bitterness, but there was a slight warmth too. Even though this was just a brief glimpse into the life he might've led, he was glad to have gotten to experience it at all.

Suddenly, it occurred to him that there was a possibility that Zidane would leave with the other man. He and Zidane were friends, weren’t they? They’d traveled together, fought together, watched out for one another… Maybe the other man figured that if he could lure Zidane away, it would both protect Zidane and make Kuja an easy target to be picked off later.

But… Zidane wouldn’t do that, would he? He’d told Kuja again and again that he loved him, that he wanted him, that he wanted to live with him. He wouldn’t have done that, if he intended to leave again… right?

Kuja risked a peek out the window. Both Zidane and the visitor were standing outside, apparently squaring off. At least, Zidane was in something similar to his usual battle stance… his torso lowered, his weight shifted forward on the balls of his feet, his tail held high for balance. But he usually carried his daggers crossed behind his back…

Kuja turned, his eyes sweeping around the room. It took him a moment to spot the pair of sheathed daggers under the small ledge behind the door. He put down Silky and picked up the weapons, still unsure of his next move. Was Zidane really intending to fight? And could he do so unarmed? The other man was big, muscular, and undeterred by Zidane’s threatening pose. But if Kuja went outside – with or without weapons in his hands – surely he’d draw the visitor’s attention. Though… maybe that was a good thing? Zidane would have no problem beating a distracted opponent.

The former mage shook his head. If he kept thinking about it he’d probably change his mind, so before that could happen he mustered up his courage and threw the door open.

From the way both Zidane's and Amarant’s eyes widened, it was obvious that neither man had expected Kuja’s sudden emergence.

"Here," Kuja said, thrusting Zidane’s daggers at him.

Zidane looked at the daggers, then back up at Kuja. His blue-gray eyes betrayed his uncertainty. Zidane almost wanted to scold him for having come out of hiding, but it meant more to him that Kuja had noticed that he was unarmed and had decided to do something about it. "Thanks…"

Zidane slowly belted his weapons around his waist while trying to figure out whether or not he should introduce the two men to one another. What was the proper etiquette for reintroducing former enemies? Was there even such a thing?

"Kuja, could you go get the lemonade?" the younger Genome finally settled on asking.

"Lemonade?" Kuja echoed, startled. He’d been distracted, obviously… it was uncomfortable being stared at by the bounty hunter, but at least the man hadn’t made a move towards him. Was Zidane telling him to go away? But then why had he asked for lemonade? Or was he reading too much into it? Maybe Zidane was trying to be hospitable to his friend, nothing more… He risked a glance at Zidane and received a small smile of reassurance. "Uh, okay…"

Kuja headed back to the house, making only a slight detour to collect the embroidery work he’d left outside. Zidane waited at the bottom of the porch steps until the taller Genome was inside, then positioned himself by the entrance while pointing at the further of the two chairs on the stoop. "Welcome to our humble abode. Have a seat."

Amarant squeezed by, then stopped in front of the chair. Kuja had been sitting there earlier, apparently sewing, while playing with a kitten. Amarant shook his head before sitting down. It was almost impossible to believe that the quiet man inside the house, fetching lemonade, was the same monster that had singlehandedly destroyed Terra and terrorized all of Gaia.

"You really are unbelievable," Amarant said as Zidane perched himself in the other chair.

"How's Garnet? Have you seen her recently?"

Amarant crossed his arms. He’d shown up for the wedding and left disappointed, like everyone else. He hadn’t been back since. Wasn’t the answer obvious? "You’re asking me? How do you think she’s doing??"

"It’s not like I wanted to leave her at the altar!" Zidane protested before hesitating, unsure of just how much he ought to reveal. He’d been in love with Garnet. He was in love with Kuja. But it wouldn’t be truthful to call Kuja his lover, not yet… though to deny that he had feelings for him was just as much a lie.

As Zidane continued debating over how to best explain things, the door opened and Kuja came back out with two glasses of juice, which he placed on the small table. Figuring it was easier to show how he felt rather than explain, Zidane grabbed hold of Kuja’s arm before he could straighten back up and landed a kiss on his cheek. Kuja turned to stare at him in disbelief, so Zidane added a quick peck on the lips as well. Kuja’s face turned an interesting shade of red before he disappeared back into the house.

Amarant was silent for a long minute. Zidane picked up his lemonade and began sipping at it while waiting for a reaction; he wished he could better see the bounty hunter’s eyes under his thick shock of dreadlocks.

"You’re completely crazy, always doing whatever the hell you want," Amarant ended up grumbling. He stared at his glass, then picked it up and took an experimental gulp. It wasn’t bad. More importantly, it didn’t taste off, though he knew sleeping weed was hard to detect.

"I used to think that, too. But I get it now; the things I say and do have consequences."

"Isn’t that obvious?"

Zidane smiled sheepishly. "Well, yeah, but I’d always found ways to avoid having to deal with it."

Amarant snorted. He’d had first hand experience with that; Zidane and his buddies had robbed a mansion under his watch – which irony of all ironies, had been Kuja’s estate - and Amarant had ended up taking the fall for it.

"I’m not proud of what I did," Zidane continued. "I probably shouldn’t have gone back to Alexandria in the first place; I sure as heck shouldn’t have proposed marriage! But I’m doing the right thing now, and that’s what matters. I haven’t been this sure of myself since the moment I decided to jump back into the Iifa Basin after our battle against Necron."

Amarant remembered how insistent Zidane had been in going after Kuja. And how he’d insisted on going alone. "Just how long has this been… no, never mind, I don’t want to know," he muttered. He really didn’t. Romantic relationships were complicated enough without the added mess of a love triangle, if it could be called that. After all, what kind of love triangle involved a "hero," a princess, and a common enemy?

They fell into silence again. Amarant nursed his drink while thinking about consequences, decisions… It would be easy enough to pretend like he hadn’t run into Zidane and Kuja, if that was what he decided on. He barely kept in contact with the others in the group anyhow. But the problem was, was that the right thing to do? What if Kuja was playing them all for suckers – not that tricking Zidane was hard - and laying low until he had time to put his plans into action again? Saving the world was a tall task and not one Amarant cared to repeat. He hadn’t wanted to do it the first time, but he’d owed Zidane…

Amarant suddenly brought up his fist and knocked on the frame of the window overlooking the porch. He could see the curtain in one corner peel back. "Hey, come on out, you…"

Startled, Zidane jumped to his feet. "What are you doing?"

"Just needed a refill," Amarant said calmly. He held up his nearly empty glass.

Zidane sputtered in protest, but the door creaked open a moment later and Kuja stepped out, carafe in hand. The former mage had been listening in; he wasn’t at all surprised that he was being called out. It hadn’t sounded like Zidane had gotten any closer to figuring out a way to resolve things.

Kuja topped off Amarant’s glass, then waited for the other man to say something. He couldn’t clearly see Amarant’s eyes, but the bounty hunter was obviously assessing him, so he stood there, awaiting judgement.

"So you actually like this idiot?" Amarant finally asked, gesturing at Zidane.

Kuja hesitated. Old habits were hard to break, especially ones that he’d relied on for his survival. His first inclination was to say whatever he thought the other person wanted to hear… or to claim the exact opposite and make them mad. But he bet this guy was testing him to see if he was trustworthy or not.

"I… don’t know." Kuja bit down on his lip. Zidane was staring at him now as well. "But I think… I can count on him, a little."

Zidane’s eyes widened. Was that an admission of trust? Even if just a tiny bit…

"Someone you can count on, hmm?" Amarant rolled that thought around. Zidane was an idiot for sure. But he was surprisingly reliable too, and a far better judge of people than almost anyone Amarant could think of. He was probably right in this case… there wasn’t a single thing about the silver-haired man that felt dangerous or deceitful, unlike before.

Several seconds ticked by. Kuja held his breath, waiting for another question or a verdict, but Amarant just drank his lemonade and didn’t say anything.

"Oh, speaking of which… are you planning to pass by Lindblum any time soon?" Zidane suddenly asked.

Amarant shrugged.

"Think you could deliver a message for me?" Zidane continued with a wheedling grin.

"What? Why would I? You won’t even rent me a boat."

"But you’re not turning us in, right?" Zidane stared pointedly at him.

The bounty hunter shook his head and groaned. He was going to catch hell if anyone ever found out, but the two people who could tattle on him would be in even bigger trouble, if it came down to that. "Oh no… you’re not getting me involved in this mess," he declared. "You aren’t worth my time and effort." It was a complete and utter lie, but he had his pride. There was no honor in taking in a defenseless mark, nothing to be gained but some Gil. And despite all the craziness, Zidane was one of the few people he counted as a friend, and he wasn’t going to sell him out.

Both Genomes relaxed visibly.

"Well then, if on the off chance you do happen to pass by the theater district in Lindblum, could you stop in and tell Baku that I’m doing fine and not to worry ‘bout me?" Zidane requested.

"That’s it?"

"Yeah, pretty much… I would’ve sent it via Mognet but I figured that was too risky."

Amarant smirked. He didn’t promise anything – after all, he had no clue where he’d be headed next - but he didn’t have an issue with passing on the message either, as long as it wasn’t out of his way...

The blonde let the matter drop; he knew Amarant would deliver the message the next time he was in that neck of the woods. Maybe he’d even pass along some additional information, if pressed for it, but that was up to Baku. Zidane understood that Baku might not want to get Tantalus involved, so if that was the case, the less he knew, the better. But at least he’d have confirmation that Zidane was alive and well.

After Amarant polished off his drink, Kuja offered another refill but Amarant declined. The silver-haired man nodded politely at him and then returned to the house while Amarant accompanied Zidane to the dock to get a boat. Zidane gave him instructions on how to dock it at the next town for easy return or retrieval, then said goodbye before sending his friend on his way.

Kuja came out and rejoined Zidane at the dock as Amarant’s borrowed rowboat disappeared around the curved shoreline of the lake. "You’re really not going with him? He’s your friend…"

"So are you."

Kuja didn’t reply to that. He knew Zidane was hoping for more. He just didn’t know how much he could offer. At times even friendship felt like too much of a stretch. Instead, he ended up asking, "What was his name, anyhow?"

"Ahh?" Zidane stared at Kuja, then began chuckling. He’d forgotten… he hadn’t introduced them. He supposed he should’ve. It was unlikely that Kuja had bothered catching the names of everyone who’d fought against him. "That was Amarant Coral, the bounty hunter."

"Not a very good one if he’s willing to just walk away," Kuja said, a touch of uncertainty in his voice.

"He’s a good guy. He won’t turn us in. I trust him, as much as I trust you," Zidane said with a warm smile.

Obviously Zidane was thinking about what Kuja had said earlier. Kuja flushed at the memory, not knowing what else to say. But it hadn’t been a lie. He wasn’t sure when - or how – it had happened, but little by little, he’d started believing in Zidane again. And if Zidane swore that this friend of his wouldn’t betray him, then Kuja could only trust in Zidane’s faith too.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- I hope I did Amarant justice. He wasn't the easiest character for me to nail down, as he doesn't have a terribly big role in the game (of the main playable characters, I think only Quina gets less character development, but Quina at least is predictably easy to write). I did consider having Lani be the surprise visitor, but the fact that she's more predictable than Amarant would be worked against her; I can't imagine a scenario where she'd be willing to walk off without collecting on the bounty.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Sheer Heart Attack" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t like Kuja could simply forgot about Amarant’s visit. Even with Zidane’s assurance, he couldn’t stop worrying – if they’d been spotted by one bounty hunter, surely another would find them. But he’d been looking forward to the end of summer festival for weeks, and now it was here. So he tried his best to bury his fears; he told himself that he wanted to have at least one good memory before they were discovered by someone who’d have no qualms about turning them in to authorities.

The festival started in mid afternoon and ran well into the night. There was an endless amount of food and drink – almost everyone brought a dish or two to share – and games and contests of all sorts. Zidane won 20 Gil for climbing a rope faster than anyone else and another 20 for tossing a dart closest to a bullseye, though he placed just out of the money in the town’s Tetra Card Master tournament. Kuja hadn’t considered entering anything for the crafting contest, but quick thinking Molly whipped off her headscarf which Kuja had embroidered with bluebirds and entered that for him, so he ended up being rewarded in the end. 80 Gil wasn’t much, but he appreciated the recognition… and the fact that there could be more money on the way in the future. Molly and Millie didn’t hold back from chiding him for not charging enough for his work when they found out how much he’d been making.

Of course Kuja wasn’t there for contests or games or eating. Dancing was what he’d been looking forward to, even though this wasn’t the sort of formal event he’d been used to attending. As soon as the music kicked up, he was one of the first people on the dance floor.

Zidane wasn’t surprised that Kuja became the most highly requested dance partner of the evening. Dressed in a semi sheer, double layered tunic with bell sleeves reminiscent of his old combat outfit and blue tap shorts, and graceful as a swan, he was dazzling, like a beam of light too bright to stare at, but too radiant to ignore. By the end of the night he’d danced with half the ladies in town and even had a few men extend an invitation as well, though they’d backed off when he refused to give up lead. Other than Zidane, young Howard was the only guy who'd consented to being led, but given that it was the teen’s first real dance lesson, that wasn’t unexpected.

Zidane hadn’t minded stepping aside as Kuja graciously accepted each invitation. Zidane didn’t dislike dancing, but it had been a lot more fun watching Kuja enjoying himself, though he couldn’t help but be pleased that he was the only one Kuja danced with multiple times - everyone else who'd asked, Kuja had politely turned down.

Zidane had never realized how much the older man loved to dance, given how antisocial he could be at times. It was another thing Zidane had missed, just like Kuja’s birth date… It was only now, on the eve of Zidane’s own birthday, that the younger Genome realized he’d never gotten that particular piece of information out of his counterpart.

Fiddling with the fasteners on his vest as Kuja took another whirl around the dance floor without him, Zidane wondered if Kuja remembered that tomorrow was Zidane’s birthday? He hadn’t said a thing about it. Zidane wondered if he should mention it at all. It wasn’t like he needed a party or presents or anything like that… he was old enough to not demand such things. Or perhaps he could consider his new outfit a gift of sorts? Kuja had chosen a navy vest, slightly longer the ones the blonde usually wore, and cuffed brown shorts, for the festival. The vest bore Kuja’s signature detailwork in the form of small gauge rope tied into nautical knots, couched across the back of the vest and up the front as decorative trim, with knotted toggles to match. But unlike the tailored clothing Zidane had been assigned during his time as Garnet’s fiancé, the new outfit didn’t feel stuffy or forced. Kuja hadn’t changed anything about Zidane’s practicality or style, he just gave it a new twist.

But hearing a "Happy Birthday" would be nice, Zidane decided, as well as some open dialogue about the topic. Even without asking, Zidane was pretty sure, no one had ever celebrated Kuja’s birthday before.

The song came to an end and Kuja rejoined Zidane on the sidelines. The silver-haired man was a little winded, but smiling. "The next song is the last. Care for one more dance?" He extended his hand.

Rising to his feet, Zidane accepted the invitation. Birthdays could wait. For now, he just wanted to enjoy the final dance of the evening with the one he loved.

* * *

They had to get up early the next morning. Everyone in town had signed up to help with some aspect of the festival. Zidane and Kuja were no exception; they’d volunteered to help dismantle decorations and clean up around the town square the morning after.

In retrospect, it hadn’t been the best idea. Kuja was tired from all the dancing the night before and protested when Zidane tried to rouse him.

Zidane persisted. "It’s just for one morning. You can take a nap this afternoon if it’ll help."

Kuja grumbled but pushed himself up as Silky climbed onto the bed to greet him. His hair was sticking out in places as he’d gone to bed while it was still damp; he looked nothing like the confident, graceful beauty who’d stolen the spotlight the night before. Zidane couldn’t help but chuckle at the contrast, earning him a dirty look. He shrugged and smiled apologetically before grabbing the hairbrush. At least Kuja was awake now.

They had a quick breakfast of warmed rolls, then headed into town. There were already plenty of people tidying up by the time they arrived. Ennis, who was overseeing the clean up, asked the two Genomes to start taking down the decorative banners ringing the downtown square. It made sense given that Zidane had won the rope climbing contest the night before.

They got to work, with Zidane scaling the poles to unhook the banners and lowering them down to Kuja, before winding them up for storage. It went on for several minutes before Zidane could no longer hold back from saying something.

"You know… it’s my birthday today. In case you forgot," Zidane said, once he was back on the ground.

Kuja looked up from the banner he was folding. It wasn’t like he didn’t know what a birthday was. It was something Gaians liked to celebrate, with a party and presents. But just because Zidane had been raised on Gaia didn’t mean he was like everyone else on the planet… "You don’t have a birthday. Genomes were created, not born." He paused, then added a little snidely, "In case you forgot."

"Still, there’s a day that I… uh, gained awareness, right? Isn’t that pretty much the same?"

"If that’s how you want to see it."

Mildly irritated, Zidane huffed, putting a hand on his hip. "Well then, how do you know when you’re another year older?"

Ever since Kuja had learned about his mortality, he’d tried to avoid thinking about that, as if by avoiding it, he could somehow stem the passage of time. "I add a year in January," he wearily replied.

"January, huh? What day?"

Kuja frowned. It was only January because that was the start of the year; that was all. It wasn’t like he’d been given a Gaian calendar when he’d gained awareness to know the exact date or even the month. Time, days… they hadn’t much meaning back then. "Just ‘January.’"

Zidane thought back to where he’d been the previous January, and the one before that. He scowled faintly. Last January, he’d gotten engaged. The previous one, Kuja had been bedridden, recovering from his defeat in Memoria. There’d been no opportunity for celebrating a birthday or anything of the sort, even if Zidane had known about it.

The thief set his jaw. "This year… I’ll make sure you get a birthday party for sure."

This time, Kuja couldn’t keep it from slipping out. "Why, so I can remember how much closer I am to dying?"

Zidane winced, not only at the bitter words, but at the flash of pain in Kuja’s eyes. "Kuja, that’s not… it’s about celebrating life."

The former mage pursed his lips, ready to keep arguing, but it seemed a waste of breath to try and do so. In the grand scheme of things, it was utterly unimportant. Given how much his life had changed in the course of four months, who knew what it would look like in another four? Maybe someone would catch him and throw him in prison. Maybe Zidane would finally get tired of dealing with him and leave again. Or maybe he’d be dead and that'd be that.

"Is that the issue? You feel slighted because you wanted a party?" Kuja asked instead. They’d just attended a festival the night before… wasn’t that close enough?

"No. I just… I hoped you’d wish me a happy birthday or something."

"Why?"

"I want to know that you’re thinking about me," Zidane said with a slight smile.

Kuja sighed heavily. What did that even mean? But before he could say anything, there was a booming, rumbling sound somewhere in the distance. Both Genomes turned their heads slightly, trying to figure out what it was, but they didn’t hear anything else.

Zidane climbed up another pole, using his tail to steady himself as he began pulling down some streamers. He was only up there a minute when he heard another sound, this time, a little closer. He surveyed the street below and noticed everyone else staring in the same direction. Squinting, Zidane used his perch to try and get a glimpse of what could’ve caused it, but all he could see was a cloud of dust slowly rising up towards the sky.

He slid back to the ground and handed Kuja the streamers he’d managed to take down. "Something’s kicking up a lot of dust over there…" Zidane began saying, then the rumbling of an enraged howl rolled in like thunder following a lightning strike.

"What was that?!" Molly gasped. She’d been setting up for a clearance sale at the general store, but the sound had been loud enough and strange enough to catch everyone’s attention, no matter how busy they were. Even those who were indoors poked their heads out in confusion.

One moment Zidane was pondering that exact same thing, and then the dust cloud grew ominously closer and it hit him all at once. "The trap must’ve gone off! But, the dragon…"

There was another roar, louder and closer than before, and Zidane gritted his teeth as the town square erupted in pandemonium. Everyone had come to the same realization: the trap hadn’t worked. And now the dragon that had been terrorizing the area was clawing its way down the road and straight into the heart of town. Some people immediately darted for cover indoors, while others froze in place, both fearful and curious, wanting to catch a glimpse of the beast even though it was obviously a risky thing to do.

Zidane ran towards the town hall, as many of the townspeople had congregated just outside the doors. "Don’t stand there gawking! Get inside!" Zidane ordered. He’d already unsheathed his daggers, determined to take the fight to the dragon. He spun around to make sure Kuja was somewhere safe as well, and was relieved to see the silver-haired man peeking out from the doorway of the inn.

People were still running around, looking for loved ones, seeking shelter. Arnett and Sara came out of their home and began herding anyone nearby into the bakery for cover. From the corner of his eye Zidane spotted Millie running out of the town hall towards the general store, trying to make it to her sister’s side. The Genome didn’t even have time to draw breath to yell at her before the dragon leapt and landed just short of the crossroads.

Panicked, Millie stumbled as she tried to run and twist to look at the monster simultaneously. She cried out in pain as her ankle gave way as she fell.

Zidane bolted towards her. "Damn it!" It was a Grand Dragon all right. They’d set a pit trap with spikes and explosives. Zidane had worried that it wouldn’t be enough, or that the dragon would leap over it without an issue. Apparently, he’d been right on the former, but not the latter; ichor dripped from long tears in the beast’s neck and shoulder. But just because it was wounded didn’t mean it'd be any easier to deal with… it was still powerful, and very, very angry.

From inside the general store, Clyde had also seen Millie run… and fall. He’d grabbed the first thing he could find – a hammer - and darted out to try and save her, as if he could fend off a dragon with nothing more than a household tool.

Zidane cursed under his breath; now he had TWO people to save. He dove over a cringing Millie to stand shoulder to shoulder with Clyde as the dragon’s head came barreling down towards them, razor sharp teeth bared. Both men managed to dodge the snapping jaws, then jumped in to retaliate. Clyde swung first, striking the beast with his hammer, but the tool just dented the monster’s scale before boucing off. Zidane had a little better luck; one of his daggers sunk into the dragon’s foreleg, and the other cut open a gash on its chest.

"Grab her and go!" Zidane yelled as he tore his daggers free, then backflipped to avoid the dragon’s answering swipe. As much as he appreciated having someone fighting by his side, Clyde was effectively unarmed, and Millie needed help.

Clyde hesitated just a split second, wanting to argue – he’d run in the face of danger once before, and still couldn’t forgive himself for it - but the blonde was right. Grimacing, Clyde bent down and picked Millie up, then carried her as fast as he could to the general store.

The fleeing pair made for a far more attractive target than a well armed, speedy Genome. The dragon drew its head back, intending to breathe a gout of venom at them, but the wounds in its neck prevented it from doing so. In frustration and rage, it whipped around, sending festival decorations flying as it used its tail as a giant flail to try and smash the pair into the nearby buildings, but Zidane dashed in at the last moment and took the hit instead.

The strike sent the thief flying, tumbling down the road head over heels. He’d gotten his daggers up in time to sever the end of the beast’s tail, lessening the sheer force of the blow, but it had still been enough to stun him on impact.

Zidane managed to right himself out of instinct. But he was seeing double now. He shook his head, trying to clear it, to no avail. Which dragon was the real target?

From the doorway of the inn, Kuja watched nervously as Zidane tried to stand up, only to awkwardly drop back to the ground. He was obviously dazed, shaking his head, swiping ineffectively at empty air with his daggers, while the dragon edged closer, venom welling up on the margin of its claws, as it looked for the best angle of attack.

Zidane wasn’t weak. But a Grand Dragon was more than a match for him, especially like this. Kuja’s fingers dug into the doorframe. If he tried to help, Zidane would be mad, but what other choice did he have? Kuja looked around for a weapon of some sort, anything would do… then he noticed Howard still holding onto the broom he’d been sweeping off the inn’s porch with. It wasn’t a weapon, but it was as close to a staff as he’d find on short notice.

"Sorry," he blurted out as he snatched the broom from Howard’s hands and dashed out the door.

I won’t make it! Kuja thought grimly. He’d never run so fast in his life, but it didn’t seem to be enough. It was like time had slowed, each split second stretching into eternity. If only he could fly again, or teleport… If only he had his magic! But all Kuja could hope for now was to distract the dragon, diverting its attack. It wasn’t because of self preservation, the fact that he couldn’t survive without Zidane’s support. That didn’t matter, nor did the realization that he could possibly lose his life here and now. All that mattered was that he buy Zidane a moment to stand back up and fight, or to run away even, if that’s what it took for him to stay alive.

Kuja’s legs were burning; so was his side. He could hear each labored breath being sucked in and forced back out of his lungs. But suddenly things seemed to blur, and Kuja could swear his feet were moving a little faster than before. He didn’t have time to question it. He could only push forward, willing himself to get there on time.

In the meantime, Zidane came to the realization that flailing around wasn’t doing any good. Crisscrossing his daggers in front of his body, he crouched down defensively, took a deep breath, and shut his eyes a moment, hoping to steady himself even though he knew he didn’t have the luxury of time. It seemed to help a little. Feeling more grounded, he snapped open his eyes just as something blew past his face, kicking up sand. He expected to find a dragon’s maw inches away, but instead…

Crimson… the same intense color as in a fading sunset, a dying fire. He’d never be able to look at that color again without thinking of this moment: Kuja, Tranced, his hair whipping around him as he dug in his heels and squared himself in front of Zidane, trying to ward off a dragon’s swipe with nothing but a broomstick.

As happy as he was to finally have proof of Kuja’s feelings, he never wanted to see Kuja sacrificing himself for him again. The older Genome was already staggering from the blow, the broomstick shattering as easily as a toothpick.

Zidane leapt between Kuja and the dragon, as the monster reared back for another blow, its claws dripping with poison. He could feel power of his own Trance surging through his body, clearing away his dizziness, as he began driving his blades deep into the dragon over and over again, forcing it back.

Zidane held no malice towards the beast. It looked like it was suffering; its claws were worn down, its jade scales dulled to a mottled forest green. One of its wings was folded awkwardly; an old injury, perhaps… No wonder it was so far away from its usual territory; it had probably been struggling to survive, forced to go after easier prey like pigs and chickens. But it also had been attacking the people of this town. It had attacked Kuja. Zidane didn’t regret putting it down.

As the dragon staggered, Zidane hopped back and called upon his Dyne ability, Grand Lethal. His body shimmered briefly as beams of pure energy began pouring forth, striking the dragon repeatedly, stunning it, before Zidane too shot forward, his daggers whirling like a cyclone, until the mighty beast was finally brought to its knees, shuddering and collapsing with a loud thud onto the dirt road.

Foe vanquished, Zidane immediately spun back around to check on Kuja. The taller man was kneeling on the ground, seemingly as dazed as Zidane was earlier, but as the younger Genome extended a hand towards him, Kuja mirrored the movement, reaching for Zidane in turn, only to pause to stare in wonderment at his own arm. His skin was unnaturally pale, even for him, and cast in a reddish glow…

It suddenly occurred to him that the red haze fringing his vision wasn’t blood; he had naturally assumed the worst. Kuja’s fingers went up to his hair. Crimson strands and feathers slid back from his face, then fell back into place as he lowered his arm. He stared up at Zidane, confused.

Zidane closed the distance between them, kneeling to wrap Kuja up in a hug. "You Tranced."

"That’s not possible," Kuja immediately protested, even with the evidence literally in his face.

Zidane pulled back slightly to stroke a hand over Kuja’s hair, admiring the way the various reds shimmered like dancing flames, then kissed him. "I told you, Garland was wrong – you can feel everything, just like everyone else. I mean, is there anything more complex than love?"

Kuja could only wordlessly shake his head as the red began to leech from his hair. Love? What Zidane was talking about? Kuja had been desperate to do something, anything, to defend Zidane, but he hadn’t been useful at all, Trance or no…

As his mood soured, with a sudden flash of light, Kuja returned to normal. Zidane followed suit moments later. He stood up, feeling much more clearheaded and centered than before, and held out a hand.

"Come on, let’s go home. A nap sounds pretty good to me, too."

* * *

Zidane felt a slight bit of guilt in not hanging around to help clean up - after all, he’d left a dragon’s corpse in the middle of the crossroads, plus there was still festival décor to take down – but he figured they’d earned themselves a bit of a reprieve. Besides, there was something more urgent on his mind…

As soon as they got back to the house, Zidane stripped off his shirt and shorts, wanting to make sure he hadn’t taken too much damage from the dragon’s attack. Twisting and turning in front of the bathroom mirror, he noted there were a couple shallow cuts on his arm, a bit of scuffing and bruising here and there, but he’d gotten lucky, none of the damage was bad.

Zidane looked at Kuja. "Better take off your shirt too," he said as the silver-haired man traced the injuries on his companion's arm with his eyes.

"There isn’t anything to see." While Kuja was pretty sure he didn’t have any obvious injuries, both his arms were starting to feel a little stiff from having taken the impact of the dragon’s swipe. He bet he was going to be pretty sore the next morning.

Zidane frowned. "Please. I just want to make sure..."

Kuja sighed and complied, unbuttoning the placket of his top before pulling it off over his head. He wasn’t normally self-conscious, but he always felt a little awkward under Zidane’s sharp gaze.

Finally, Zidane breathed a sigh of relief. He patted Kuja on the chest to give him the all clear, but before the older man could pull away, the thief leaned in to hug him, resting his head on Kuja’s shoulder. "I was so worried. I couldn’t stand the thought of you getting hurt again."

"But it’s okay for you to get killed by a dragon?" Kuja parried back.

Zidane snorted softly. His breath tickled Kuja’s ear, eliciting a tiny shiver. "No, it’s not. You’re right. But I couldn’t sit back and watch a friend get eaten, either." Zidane hesitated, then added, "Thanks… for what you did today."

"Why aren’t you angry? I only got in the way."

Zidane’s jaw dropped open. "You put your life on the line to defend me. Why would that make me mad?!" He shook his head. "Like I said, I was worried. But mad? No way."

Kuja let the matter drop. Instead, he turned his attention to Zidane’s injuries. He couldn’t help but flex his hand a little, wishing for his magic. At least it wasn’t anything that a little ointment and a couple of bandages wouldn’t fix. "We still have some first aid supplies, right?"

Zidane looked at his arm, then nodded. Truthfully he felt fine but he knew Kuja would feel better if he was allowed to tend to the wounds. "They’re in the linen cabinet."

Zidane sat down on the edge of the tub as Kuja fetched the items and began treating the scrapes. His hands were gentle, and Zidane was more than happy to let Kuja take his time, because it wasn’t bad being on the receiving end of someone’s careful ministrations, and the taller man hadn’t put his shirt back on and Zidane appreciated the view. When Kuja was nearly done, Zidane couldn’t resist leaning forward and kissing him on the stomach.

Surprised, Kuja jerked back, almost bumping into the sink in the tight space. "What… what do you think you’re doing?"

"I couldn’t help it," Zidane explained with a slight smile. He reached out and tried to reel Kuja back in, though the former mage twitched away as soon as Zidane's hand grazed the starburst scar on his side. Zidane frowned slightly. He hated that it bothered Kuja so much to let anyone see his scars, never mind touch them.

"You’re really amazing," Zidane said, looking up, trying to convey his sincerity.

Kuja scowled and began looking around for his shirt. "How can you not find this disgusting?"

Zidane had his share of battle scars as well, though nothing near as bad. Fighting the Grand Dragon had added to the total. The blonde gestured at the freshly wrapped areas and asked, "So this is disgusting too?"

"It’s different for you!" Kuja snapped. He finally found his shirt, but Zidane stood up and stopped him from putting it on, pressing up against him until he had Kuja backed up somewhere between the sink and toilet.

"You told me you didn’t find me unattractive. Does that mean you find me attractive, then?" Zidane asked seriously, his voice lower than usual.

Kuja stared at the younger man in front of him, at the golden skin on his bare chest and arms. Like Kuja, Zidane was slightly leaner than other male Genomes, though it didn’t look like he’d ever quite catch up to Kuja in height. But that didn’t mean Zidane didn’t have a nice amount of muscle on his body, especially in his shoulders and biceps, the result of years of training with daggers and acrobatics. And power had always been attractive to Kuja.

Kuja swallowed audibly. Zidane was wearing nothing but underwear. Kuja might as well have been, clad only in the tiny shorts that Zidane liked so much. And Zidane kept touching him: first a hug, then a kiss on the stomach, and repeated attempts to put his hands on his waist…

Kuja suddenly realized that Zidane was getting hard. He felt his own manhood twitch in reaction. It didn’t escape Zidane’s notice; his breathing picked up in response.

Zidane’s eyes traced over Kuja’s lips. "I swore to you, I wouldn’t lay a hand on you until I knew you felt as I do." He leaned in for a kiss, refusing to deepen it until Kuja’s tongue flicked out to touch his. Zidane briefly indulged in swirling his tongue together with Kuja’s before pulling away long enough get out what he needed to say. "I know without a doubt now, you love me too."

Kuja stared at him, his eyes half lidded, his lips moist. He didn’t protest; Zidane took that as a sign to continue. He locked lips with Kuja again, earning a muffled groan, then moved his attention to Kuja’s jaw, peppering the jawline with light kisses as he worked his way up to Kuja’s ear.

Kuja exhaled raggedly as Zidane began sucking lightly on his earlobe. Even though it was such a little thing, he hadn’t felt this sort of pleasure in so long, all his nerves were firing off like crazy. If it weren’t for Zidane holding him up against the wall, his knees might’ve given way.

Realizing the same thing, Zidane slid his leg between Kuja’s, propping him up, as the younger man switched his attention to Kuja’s throat. Kuja’s skin tasted of the slight tang of salt. That didn’t turn off Zidane any – it was just another reminder that the former mage had sprinted over and thrown himself in front of a dragon to save him. Zidane nipped and licked his way down the pale column of skin, his breath gusting in small puffs, then made his way briefly across a collarbone before trailing off at the top of the sternum.

Zidane felt his pulse pick up as he studied Kuja’s chest, at the pale pink nubs that looked like flower buds lying in snow. The blonde touched his tongue to his lips; he wanted to kiss them. But it was going to be hard concentrating on that while holding Kuja up against the wall.

"Want to move over to the bed?"

It took Kuja a moment to process the request, and another before he remembered to nod. Zidane backed up a bit, then took Kuja's hand and slowly led him out of the bathroom, as they were both awkwardly stumbling along on bowed legs.

Kuja climbed onto the bed and lay down without further urging, as Silky the kitten took off, disappearing out the window. But despite his calm movements, his expression was a warring combination of anticipation and apprehension.

Zidane tried to reassure Kuja with a smile, even as he tried to figure out how to get both of them naked, without coming across as too over eager. The remaining clothing would come off at some point, he supposed, if he just gave Kuja a reason to take the rest of it off.

Zidane fixed his attention on Kuja’s chest again. He remembered how good it had felt when Kuja had lavished attention on his nipples. He tried to remember what Kuja had done, and did his best to copy it, slowly rolling both pink nubs between his fingers until they were quite stiff, then dipping his head to kiss them before using the tip of his tongue to flick them up and down.

Kuja’s reaction was amazing. He arched his back; he began writhing and gasping. Zidane tried speeding up and slowing down, flicking a bit harder and then easing back a little, in order to figure out what Kuja liked best. Given the sounds that Kuja was making, slow and gentle seemed the way to go. Zidane never realized what a turn on it was to find ways to please his partner. His groin ached for contact, but it was still way too soon…

Zidane’s fingers slid over Kuja’s torso until they reached his left side. As easy as it would be to focus all his attention on sexual pleasure, Zidane was worried about Kuja’s earlier reaction when his hand had brushed by Kuja’s scar.

Unsurprisingly, the older man went completely still. His forehead wrinkled in worry. Since he couldn’t back away he began to sit up as Zidane started to kiss along the margins of the starburst shaped mark. He needed Kuja to understand that all of him was desirable, not just the "flawless" parts.

"Zidane?" Kuja’s voice was so soft, so uncertain.

The blonde lifted his head to firmly state, "It’s not ‘disgusting.’ And even though I hate seeing proof that I’ve hurt you, it also reminds me of how far you’ve come to become who you are now."

Kuja didn’t say it, but the obvious question echoed in his head as he lay back down on the bed. But who am I now?

He could feel Zidane continuing to caress his side. It wasn’t like it hurt, physically… the wounds had healed up and scarred over long ago. And Zidane was being so careful – it was nothing like the first time they’d had sex. But Kuja couldn’t stop himself from reflexively jerking at each touch and kiss. Incidental contact he could ignore, but this… Zidane was asking for too much, if he thought Kuja could wholly change his mindset just like that.

But just as Kuja was about to beg Zidane to stop, Zidane relented and shifted his attention down below Kuja’s waist, kissing his way up and down the inside of the thighs before hooking his fingers into the waistband of Kuja’s shorts. He paused, looking up. "May I?"

Instead of a verbal response, Kuja placed a hand over Zidane’s and guided it down, taking the shorts and undergarment with it, though he quickly clamped both hands over his groin just as it was about to be exposed.

Zidane looked slightly disappointed. Kuja swallowed down the lump in his throat. He couldn’t stop thinking back to the time before, to the look of confused disgust on Zidane’s face as he was confronted with proof of Kuja’s gender, as he rejected him, leaving him sore and alone in the bed.

Kuja’s legs trembled as he drew them up to his chest, exposing his bare ass to Zidane, knowing that intercourse was what the younger Genome was after. But Zidane reached down and put his hands on Kuja’s wrists instead, while saying, "I want to see you, all of you."

Kuja shook his head, but Zidane persisted and wouldn’t let go. Kuja’s face reddened in frustration. Why was Zidane doing this? To humiliate him?

"We’re both men; I understand that." Zidane released one wrist and shifted his hand so that it was barely hovering over Kuja’s overlapped hands. "I won’t turn away again - I mean it."

Kuja made a small sound of protest, but slowly released the iron grip he had on himself. He looked away, not wanting to catch Zidane’s reaction, just in case…

Zidane stroked the inside of Kuja’s thighs in reassurance as he studied his prize. He didn’t know why he’d been so scared before. There was nothing disgusting or threatening about Kuja’s cock. It wasn’t that different from Zidane’s own.

The blonde reached down and gently rested his palm on the semi-firm member, earning a soft whimper. The skin was warm and silky smooth.

Last time, Kuja had used his hands and mouth on him. It had been mind blowingly amazing. Considering how much Kuja had liked it when Zidane had kissed and licked his nipples, it was a good bet that he’d like it too, if Zidane returned the other favor from long ago.

Zidane curled his fingers around the girth and began carefully stroking. Almost immediately it hardened and swelled. Kuja groaned, his legs twitching faintly. Even the tip of his tail curled and trembled.

Zidane considered sticking with a handjob – at least his hands knew what to do – but Kuja deserved more. Zidane wet his lips with a swipe of his tongue. It seemed too large to comfortably put into his mouth, but maybe that was all in his head; Zidane pushed aside that concern and just went for it.

Kuja’s eyelids had slid shut at some point, but as soon as Zidane’s mouth made contact his eyes flew open again. His hips lifted clear off the bed on the first bob. Zidane was amused but not surprised. He’d thought he’d died and gone to heaven when Kuja went down on him, so it was encouraging to know that he could bring about the same reaction.

He’d worried that it would taste funny, but it didn’t. There was a bead of something slippery and salty at the tip; the rest was just hot, firm yet yielding flesh, filling his mouth and pressing against his tongue. He wasn’t sure how far down he needed to go but apparently even halfway was good, given all the little sounds Kuja was making.

Kuja groaned louder and glanced down as Zidane began sucking in earnest. The younger man was clearly inexperienced: he struggled to mind his teeth while maintaining suction, he slobbered all over his hands as he clutched the base of the shaft. But he was trying, and it had been such a long time since someone had tried to make Kuja feel good...

Their eyes met. Kuja’s face reddened as a low moan slipped from his lips. Zidane felt the corners of his mouth twitch upward, even though his mouth was busy. Even though his jaw was getting sore, fast, he found himself enjoying every pulse and twitch of Kuja’s rod, undeniable evidence of his arousal.

Kuja’s eyes were hazed over… he kept making a litany of groaning sounds. His fingers were clutching tightly at the sheets as his hips bucked. "Zi… Zidane, stop," he gasped. His thighs were starting to shake. He wasn’t sure if he could hold on any longer. "Ahh! Ahh, Zidane…"

Zidane ignored it, wanting to draw out Kuja’s pleasure. The silver-haired man was so sexy, caught in the throes of ecstacy…

Kuja’s body suddenly stiffened. He let out a wordless cry, his back arching. Zidane froze as something bittersweet flooded into his mouth. For a moment he was confused, then he understood why Kuja had tried to stop him. He wasn’t exactly sure of what to do, but the logical thing was see to Kuja’s needs first. Zidane resumed licking and stroking, yielding more of the viscous fluid, until Kuja had gone soft in his mouth. It was only then that Zidane drew back to consider his options. What was he supposed to do? Everything in his mouth felt sticky. Was it okay to swallow it? It seemed rude to spit it out.

Kuja’s head rolled on the pillow. He caught Zidane’s eye just as the thief gave a hearty gulp. Tail lashing about behind him, Zidane wiped off his lips and grinned, proud of what he’d done.

Kuja’s forehead wrinkled. "Zidane, did you…?" he began. What could he say? He hadn’t expected Zidane to keep going. He’d been so unused to being touched and teased, he hadn’t been able to hold back. "I… I’m sorry."

"Why? It didn’t feel good?" The blonde tail stilled.

"No, that’s not it! It’s just… it’s… you weren’t disgusted?"

Kuja kept using that word. Zidane didn’t like it. He lay down on top of Kuja, embracing him with his whole body. "I told you, there’s nothing about you that’s ‘disgusting.’ That hasn’t changed."

It was hard to ignore the words that were being whispered in his ear, to shake off the body that was pressing into his. Kuja finally reached up and wrapped his arms around Zidane. He was so very warm.

"Did I do okay?" Zidane asked, rubbing his cheek against Kuja’s neck, as a cat would.

"… Yes."

Zidane chuckled.

Kuja tightened his grip a moment, then let go. But as Zidane began sitting up, Kuja reached out and traced a finger over the swollen mound jutting out from the front of Zidane’s underwear. "I can make you feel good, too."

Zidane gasped. Light as the touch was, it felt electric. "Yeah, I know you can…"

Kuja opened his legs. He figured it was up to him to prepare himself, and that Zidane would want to watch. "Could you get the jar of ointment from the bathroom?"

Zidane nodded eagerly and hopped off the bed. He was back a moment later, completely naked, with jar in hand, but instead of handing it to Kuja he dipped his fingers in instead, coating them with a thick layer of the stuff. "Is it okay if I do it?"

Kuja could only nod, slightly stunned. Zidane was the inexperienced one, but this entire experience was something new for Kuja, too.

As much as Zidane wanted to just get in there, he’d noticed that Kuja was far more responsive to slow and gentle versus hard and fast. It was only now dawning on him that Kuja probably hadn’t enjoyed the experience last time as much as Zidane had. He’d been pretty out of control…

While watching for Kuja’s reaction, Zidane started by sliding one finger inside. Kuja seemed relaxed as Zidane wiggled his finger, as he slowly pulled it out before pushing it in again. There was a little resistance when he added a second finger, the additional digit intertwining with the first, but Kuja didn’t seem uncomfortable; he even murmured encouragement and instructions. But "comfortable" wasn’t Zidane’s aim – he wanted to see Kuja writhing in pleasure, again.

After considering what he could and couldn’t reach, Zidane leaned over and lightly sucked on one of Kuja’s nipples while curling his fingers inside. Kuja’s cock jerked in response. Zidane hid a smile. That was the sort of reaction he’d been hoping for.

By the time he had three fingers in Kuja was all flushed again and moaning, his manhood pulsing in the palm of Zidane’s free hand. Despite Zidane repeatedly reminding himself to take it slow, to be patient, he really didn’t know if he could wait any longer. Even though he’d refrained from touching himself by keeping his hands busy with Kuja, his cock felt super hot and almost painfully hard.

"Kuja… can I… please…"

It took Kuja a few moments to understand what Zidane was stammering. His thoughts were all fuzzy and his skin was super sensitive, like he was tingling all over. But one look at Zidane and it was obvious how much he was trying to hold back this time, instead of pushing his way in like before. The older man smiled. "What are you waiting for?"

Zidane swallowed, hard, as he shifted on the bed until he was positioned with the head of his dick right up against Kuja’s rear opening. He took hold of Kuja’s hips, then slid forward carefully until he breached the entrance. He very nearly came from the sudden tightness enveloping him, wrapping his head and sheath in silken heat, but by going as slow as possible, he managed to hold it in check even as he buried himself fully inside Kuja, before bending down to rest his forehead on Kuja’s shoulder.

For several moments they stayed like that. Zidane was panting like he’d just fought a dragon. He was almost afraid to start moving. He didn’t know it was possible to feel even more aroused than last time… then again, last time, he’d though about nothing but Kuja’s ass. But now, there was no one else in his thoughts, nowhere else he wanted to be. Nothing else mattered but him and Kuja, the heat of their intertwined bodies, the threads of love and trust woven between them, delicate to the point where they were nearly invisible, like a spider’s web, but just as capable of snaring a heart.

Zidane felt Kuja’s legs wrap themselves around his back. His arms came up as well, embracing the younger man. Even his tail found its way around Zidane’s, twining itself around it the way a vine would climb a trellis. Zidane lifted his head and pulled back slightly, enough to catch Kuja’s encouraging nod. Yes, they both were ready… they both wanted this. Zidane stretched slightly to land a kiss on Kuja’s lips before backing away to finally, carefully driving forward once again.

For one divine moment it was as if the whole world started at a single point between his legs, and ended between Kuja’s.

Their bodies threatened to stick to one another as Zidane began thrusting, slowly at first and then picking up to a moderate pace. He resumed stroking Kuja’s cock as well, wanting the former mage to feel as good as he did, hoping to bring him along as he ascended.

Zidane kissed Kuja again and again. His lips were irresistibly soft and moist. Zidane picked up the pace a little more, though he remained mindful of how hard he was pushing things. He could feel Kuja’s nails digging into his back, the way his powerful thighs clenched against his sides. He could hear every breathy moan, every harsh exhale, every slap of skin on skin. His nostrils were filled with Kuja’s scent – nothing like a typical man’s musk, but not flowery like a woman’s fragrance either.

It was impossible to hold back like this; the heat, the tightness, the sounds... months of pent up desire assaulted the younger man from all sides. Zidane felt like every part of his body was set aflame by Kuja, as if they’d discovered a new and novel way to achieve Trance. Zidane kept thrusting, seeking release. His mouth sought Kuja’s once more until their tongues were madly dancing around one another, until Zidane’s final groans of relief and triumph were swallowed by Kuja, as Kuja’s body accepted his essence.

Suddenly feeling like all strength had fled his body, Zidane once again rested his forehead on Kuja’s shoulder. Yes he was tired, but he felt good, so much better than before! He felt… refreshed, like he’d scrubbed away his old expectations to make room for something new and stellar. When the fireworks stopped firing off in his head and he found the strength to move again, he pushed himself up, sitting back a little to look at Kuja, expecting to see the same bliss reflected back, but Kuja’s reddened, dazed face reminded Zidane that he wasn’t quite done yet.

The thief looked down. He was already growing soft but Kuja’s rod was still firm and upright in his hand. He wasn’t sure if Kuja could actually climax again, but he certainly couldn’t leave him like that either. So Zidane reclined beside his lover and began stroking him anew, lightly rubbing his thumb over the head, his free hand experimentally cradling the balls, lightly cupping them.

Kuja didn’t know why Zidane was still touching him, still coaxing pleasure from his body, when he’d already gotten what he wanted. Was that the difference between having sex, and making love? But Kuja was happy that Zidane was still by his side, so he wasn’t going to ask, not that he could think of words to say. The best he could do was gasp as waves of pleasure pulsed through his body once again. Like rainfall in a parched desert, it was impossible to hold back the sensations from flooding and overflowing.

Kuja shuddered noticeably, and Zidane knew he was close. Zidane kept going with his hand while wondering if he should try using his mouth again but before he could make up his mind, Kuja gave a groan and his twitching cock began spilling pearlescent drops onto his abdomen in erratic spurts. A few extra dribbles rolled down onto Zidane’s hand, but he continued to stroke intermittently until Kuja’s dick was as limp and languid as the rest of him.

Very well satisfied but rather sticky, Zidane got back up, intent on taking a quick bath. But the moment he rose from bed Kuja’s hand suddenly reached out and snagged his wrist.

Blissful fantasy snapped back to reality. The last time Zidane had seen that look on Kuja’s face was the day he’d walked away from the hideout in the mountains. Yes, Kuja trusted him enough to throw himself in front of a dragon, enough to die for him… but he still couldn’t quite believe that he wouldn’t be abandoned in the end.

Zidane looked back down at his wrist, then, instead of pulling away, he held out his other hand. "I’m going to take a bath. Wanna come with?"

"A bath?" Kuja echoed, his eyebrows knitting. He looked surprised, as if such a thing hadn’t crossed his mind.

Zidane smiled. "And a nap after. I promised you, right?"

Kuja tipped his chin in a nod. The nap was what he was interested in. Or was it the promise of one? He wasn’t sure… Now that Zidane had assured him that he wouldn't leave, now that he'd extended his hand to him, Kuja suddenly felt completely drained.

Zidane leaned down and planted a kiss on Kuja’s forehead. "Sounds good, right?"

Kuja thought about it some more. It didn’t sound bad. He did feel pretty sweaty, now that he thought about it. "Okay."

"Want me to carry you?" Zidane offered with a grin. He knew Kuja hated being carted around like a baby, but Zidane kind of liked the idea of having him in his arms right now…

The silver-haired man frowned. "No." But as he didn’t trust himself to be able to get his legs under himself either, he grabbed onto both of Zidane’s hands and allowed the younger Genome to help him up, until he was finally swaying on his feet at the side of the bed.

Although Kuja had refused to be carried, Zidane couldn’t just leave him to stumble his way to the tub. So he slid an arm around Kuja’s waist to steady him, knowing full well that his hand was resting on the scarred patch. Kuja raised an eyebrow, and Zidane braced for complaint, but the taller man didn’t voice any protest. He even leaned against Zidane a little as they headed to the bath, side by side. Zidane couldn’t stop smiling. Something so small, and yet it felt like as big a victory as lovemaking had been.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- I know it’s a fanfic trope to have Kuja interested in dancing, but it does suit him. One really cool thing that my beta brought up was that proper etiquette in Regency England dictated that a young lady didn't dance with the same partner multiple times unless there was serious interest between the two. I didn’t know that, but it’s the same idea I was going for here, that Kuja wasn’t going to grant anyone but Zidane more than one dance, because he had no interest in anyone else.

- The subplot of Zidane’s birthday was a happy accident. I'd finally sat down and laid out a timeline for the latter half of the story. And then I realized (using the 2018 calendar), that I’d managed to land the end of summer festival on September 8th. It was too wonderfully convenient to pass up, so I went with it, and it ended up working really well, I think.

- For Zidane’s Grand Lethal, I merged the spell effect from FFIX with the Dissidia/Dissidia 012 version as I felt the original was too static for an action scene, but as this is a FFIX story I didn’t want to ignore it completely either.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "I Was Born to Love You" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Zidane groggily awoke late in the afternoon with a mild headache and a rumbling tummy. He frowned slightly, trying to hang on to the remnants of an extremely pleasant, erotic dream, but as he rolled onto his side it dawned on him that he was naked, the only fabric on his body being some bandages wound around his arm, and that he was now pressed up against Kuja’s equally naked back.

… So it hadn’t been a dream. The Grand Dragon’s attack… Kuja’s Trance, like a flickering flame at dusk… making love in the cottage…

Headache temporarily forgotten, the thief nuzzled Kuja’s hair. It smelled slightly of road dust and sweat as Kuja had practically passed out from exhaustion in the bath earlier, before he’d had a chance to wash his hair. It was just another reminder that what had happened earlier in the day was no dream.

Zidane bit down on his lip. It took all of his willpower to not start fondling Kuja all over. Lovemaking had been even more amazing than he’d thought it would be. Unlike their previous intimate encounter, all frenzied sexual urgency tainted with guilt, this had been a wonderful, glorious exploration of one another’s bodies, an intertwining of desire and trust. Seeing Kuja flushed, his eyes clouded over in passion… feeling his arms and legs embracing him, as their bodies melted against one another… Zidane was sure, Kuja had never been more beautiful.

As much as the younger man wanted to loiter in bed, snuggled up against Kuja’s bare back, he realized that it was nearly evening – they’d slept half the day away. Someone had to think about dinner, especially since they’d missed lunch.

After reluctantly climbing out of bed, Zidane got dressed and wandered over to the kitchen to see what ingredients were on hand for dinner. Thanks to the dragon, they’d left town without getting more supplies. He found a couple of potatoes, half a cabbage, and a little salt pork - would it work if he threw everything in a pot as a soup? Or he recalled a simple, hearty dish Kuja had made before with smashed potatoes and sautéed cabbage. That sounded good. Neither of them had much in the way of culinary experience, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t have tasty meals.

As the young thief began cutting up vegetables, he found himself wondering if he’d ever had to make his own birthday dinner before. But the whole birthday thing seemed a lot less important than before; he’d forgotten about it, until now. In hindsight he wished he hadn’t fussed about it earlier, like a bratty kid. How could he expect Kuja to wish him a happy birthday when the older man had never experienced one of his own before?

At least he had a few months to plan something for Kuja’s birthday. Maybe they could have dinner at the tavern – it wouldn’t be anything fancy, but at least there wouldn’t be dishes to wash after. There’d be a cake too, from Sara’s bakery – honeyed vanilla with strawberry, perhaps? And presents… what would Kuja want? Zidane couldn’t help but quirk a smile at the realization that Kuja had inadvertently given him the best birthday present ever, but that didn’t mean he could make love to Kuja in return and call it a day. The older man liked to read… but books were too predictable; it wasn’t special enough. Clothing? But there wasn’t anything Zidane could buy in this simple little town that Kuja wouldn’t have to tailor and customize… Or maybe he could ask some of the ladies in town for ideas? Even though Kuja was male, he seemed to have more in common with the womenfolk - maybe they could suggest something that Zidane wouldn’t have thought of otherwise?

It was a risk, but Zidane figured he could find something suitable at the shops in Gorge, the next town over. It wasn’t all that much bigger than Nil, but they had different industries, like metalworking and glass blowing. Zidane had been there a couple of times, incognito of course, as he helped the woodworkers guild with transporting goods. They'd normally use their own barge, but bigger shipments went smoother with some help. If he accompanied them again, he could probably get in and out of Gorge without issue, and without piquing Kuja’s curiosity.

Zidane paused in his prepwork and looked over at the bed. Kuja had rolled onto his back, though his face was still mostly turned towards the wall; Zidane could see a pale arm resting on top of the blankets, a pool of moonlight hair, and Silky’s tail draped over the top of the pillow. Zidane didn’t remember seeing her hanging around while he’d been intimate with Kuja; maybe she’d left and come back after they started napping?

Zidane frowned as Kuja gave a low moan, his fingers twitching and clutching at the sheets. The younger man washed up, then went to the bed and sat down at the edge of the mattress. He placed his hand over Kuja’s, stroking his thumb over it, as he leaned over slightly to look at his face.

Kuja sat up so abruptly that he narrowly missed headbutting Zidane. Silky let out a small mewl of surprise.

"You okay?" Zidane asked.

Kuja stared back. He was understandably startled to wake up and find Zidane an inch from his face. But more than that, he was surprised to see Zidane there at all…

He looked down at his lap, where his hand – and Zidane’s - had landed. It occurred to him that he wasn’t wearing anything under the blanket. Wasn’t that just like last time? They’d had sex… he’d woken up alone. Zidane had shaken his hand, then picked up his bags, said goodbye, and walked away.

"You’re here," Kuja finally answered, quietly.

"I’m not going anywhere," Zidane said firmly. He usually couldn’t figure out what was on Kuja’s mind, but this time, it was painfully obvious. He also knew that words alone wouldn’t convince his lover – and how wonderful it was to be able think of him that way! – so he drove the point home with a hug. Kuja’s bare skin was so warm; Zidane couldn’t resist nuzzling his cheek against Kuja’s neck and kissing the underside of his jaw, before finally releasing him.

The older man suddenly began chuckling, his shoulders shaking. "Aren’t you going to say goodbye, that you’re going home?" he hoarsely queried.

"’Home’ is where you are… Unless you’re saying you don’t want to be with me, of course," Zidane said, only half joking.

Kuja sighed. He was starting to regret that he’d said anything. How was Zidane not sick of dealing with him and his doubts? Even Kuja himself was tired of it. "I didn’t say that."

"Good! Because it’d suck if my best birthday ever became the worst ever instead," Zidane said with a bright grin.

Kuja frowned slightly. He’d forgotten about the whole birthday thing, but since Zidane had brought it up, he supposed that was his cue to say something. He tried to remember what sorts of things he’d heard others say. "Um… I hope you had a happy birthday… Well, minus the dragon attack, I mean." He winced at how bad that sounded.

The thief’s grin broadened as he went in for another hug. He added a big smooch on the cheek too. No matter how the actual words came out, he appreciated the effort. "Thank you. Minus the dragon, it’s been fantastic."

Kuja nodded. Almost despite himself, he felt better - Zidane’s happiness was that infectious. Plus his hugs – and the fact that he was sitting there calmly instead of looking to leave - were equally reassuring. Kuja reached up to return the hug, though his arms were slightly sore from having staved off a dragon’s strike earlier.

"Are you hungry? I was just starting dinner."

Kuja began shaking his head out of habit, but much to his surprise, he felt his stomach rumble as he pondered the question. "I guess. Want some help?"

Zidane practically hopped off the bed, pulling Kuja along with him. "That’d be great - thanks!"

Kuja allowed it, but when he rose to his feet, naked, Zidane momentarily forgot all about cooking. His face felt hot. He couldn’t help but wonder if Kuja was willing to go another round. The rational part of his brain tried to intervene, pointing out that they’d just made love a few hours ago, that they’d both been exhausted, that maybe Kuja would like to be appreciated for something more than his body. But damn, it was hard to tear his eyes away from such a sight…

"Dinner, right," Zidane muttered lamely. "Gotta make dinner."

"Ask me later, if you want," Kuja said with a sliver of a smile.

Zidane looked up, surprised. Did he hear correctly?

"It’s still your birthday, isn’t it?"

"And when it’s no longer my birthday? Tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that?" Zidane drawled, once he'd gotten over the shock. It felt good to indulge in a little flirtatious banter. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done so with Kuja, if ever.

The older Genome colored slightly. "I’ll consider it."

"Good enough." Zidane laced his fingers with Kuja’s. "I really do love you."

Kuja’s flush deepened.

Zidane raised the hand to his lips and planted a kiss on it, then released it, so his lover could get dressed, if he so chose. Kuja hesitated a moment, then went to the armoire to find a clean outfit.

Zidane let out a low whistle. The view from the rear was just as good. But Kuja had promised to consider it, later. So with a shake of his head, Zidane forced himself to go back to the kitchen, to focus his attention back on cooking. Both of them were hungry; dinner wasn’t going to cook itself!

* * *

Zidane had never given much thought to leaving his kills where they lay. But he normally wasn’t taking down dragons in the center of a small town.

It wasn’t like the townspeople had the option to forget about it though. The carcass was already starting to stink in the late summer heat. When Zidane and Kuja showed up the next morning, almost half the populace was there at the crossroads, swarming over the body of the dragon like busy bees. What exactly were they doing?

"Hmmm…" Zidane began, drawing the attention of a few people.

"Zidane!" someone called out.

And suddenly everyone was turning in the direction of the two Genomes, calling out, "Hey, you’re alive!" and "The heroes are here!" and "Thank you!"

Zidane gave them a lopsided grin, but when he looked over at the older man standing by his side, he noticed Kuja looked slightly stunned. Concerned, Zidane whispered, "What’s wrong?"

"They’re calling me a hero?"

Zidane bumped his shoulder against Kuja’s arm. "Feels good, doesn’t it?"

"… I didn’t do anything."

Zidane sighed. Kuja needed things like that repeated a half dozen times before he’d even consider it as a possible truth. "You jumped in front of a dragon with nothing but a broomstick, just to buy me time! That’s damn heroic in my book."

Kuja’s lips tightened into a thin line. It wasn't like he'd managed to put up a shield or blast the dragon with bolts of damage - from what he could tell all his Trance had afforded him was a little more footspeed. But he refrained from voicing his disappointment, as Sara ran out of the bakery towards them.

"Zidane, Mr. Kuja, I’m so glad you’re okay!" she said. "You left in such a hurry yesterday – we were all so worried!"

"Oh… sorry ‘bout that," Zidane replied. He’d been so fixated on Kuja, wanting to make sure he was all right, that all he’d wanted to do was go home. "And ugh, sorry about the mess I’ve left." He couldn't help wrinkling his nose at the smell.

Sara nodded, though she was only half listening to the answer. She couldn’t help but feel that something had changed between the two men, but she couldn’t put her finger on what exactly it was. All she knew was that they were walking with Choco instead of riding him, and that Zidane was holding on to Kuja’s hand like he couldn’t bear to let go, not even for a moment.

What she didn’t know was that they were walking because Kuja had been too sore to ride, as Choco had such a bouncy stride – walking was a pain too, but more tolerable - and that he’d been too sore because he’d given in to Zidane’s request the previous evening, and again in the morning. Zidane had been understandably upset to find out that he’d been the cause of the discomfort – restraint was something he was going to have to work on, as it’d be far harder to convince Kuja to refuse if he didn’t feel like it.

"So what exactly is everyone doing?" Zidane asked, craning his neck a bit, as Arnett ambled over as well. Though it was obvious the townspeople couldn’t just leave the dragon there, Zidane wasn’t sure how they were planning on disposing of it either. They sure were working fast though, understandably wanting the thing out of the way as quickly as possible.

"The scales, hide and bone will sell - they can be made into armor or tools. The rest, we’re doing the best we can. The meat’s tough, but… want some?" Arnett just shrugged and left it at that.

Zidane had never considered eating dragon, though he was pretty sure Eiko had tried to feed them Oglop before – could dragon be worse? Maybe they could make it into chili? Or would the kitten eat it? Wait, was it even safe to eat? It sure didn't smell great... Zidane shrugged, glanced over at Kuja - who looked straight up queasy - then turned back to the mayor. "I’ll pitch in. What can I help with?"

Arnett eyed the daggers at the thief’s hip. "Considerin’ you had no issue using those yesterday, you’d probably do a better job than anyone at cutting up the scales and stuff. Of course you’d get a share of the proceeds anyhow, seeing as you brought it down in the first place."

Zidane made an affirmative sound; money was good, more money was better. Turning to Kuja, he said, "Can you take care of the shopping today?" It went without saying that he couldn’t imagine Kuja hacking and whacking at a dragon’s dead body any more than he could imagine Sara doing so.

Kuja was quick to agree, anything to get away from the corpse. Zidane grinned and gave Kuja’s a hand a squeeze, before finally letting go.

Unsure of where he should start, Kuja hung around a moment, watching as Zidane hefted his daggers, but as Sara headed back to the bakery he decided to follow her in.

Kuja was only planning to buy a loaf of bread and maybe a pastry or two, but Sara grabbed doubles of everything, putting it on the counter with a smile. The silver-haired man had barely begun raising an questioning eyebrow when Sara said, "It’s on the house today! As a thank you for what you’ve done."

Kuja’s mouth opened, ready to argue, but he didn’t want her scolding him for being contrary as Zidane had earlier, so he let his protests die unspoken. Besides, she was probably talking about Zidane; Kuja just happened to be the one picking up supplies for the both of them. And maybe having a rotting dragon outside was bad for business, so she was happy to be moving goods at all.

Arms full of bread and pastries, Kuja loaded them up on Choco, then headed over to the morning market. He left a while later, burdened with goods, even more confused than when he’d exited the bakery. It wasn’t just Sara. With so many townspeople working outside, the market was half empty, but there were still enough vendors present to push free stuff onto him – assorted fruit and vegetables, a half dozen knit socks, even a pair of young chickens in a cage - and Kuja hadn’t known how to respond other than accepting it all on Zidane's behalf, with mumbled thanks.

The last task was to stop by the general store. Kuja didn’t need anything for himself and didn’t want to have dozens of things gifted to him, but he needed a broom. He’d grabbed it out of Howard’s hands and gotten it smashed by the dragon, so he figured he owed him a replacement.

As he walked in, he nearly collided into Clyde, who’d been heading out to help with the dragon. The ratlike man usually ignored him, so Kuja wasn’t expecting it when Clyde stopped and stared at him, before finally muttering, "Not bad…"

Kuja made a questioning sound, unsure of what that meant, if he’d heard right, but Clyde was already out the door.

"How are you? How’s Zidane?" Molly asked, pulling Kuja’s attention back inside.

Kuja turned around, considering it. Simple questions were the hardest for him to deal with as he wasn’t sure if it was meant to be conversational, or if the asker expected an honest answer. Though it made sense that Molly would be concerned about Zidane after what had happened the day before… "We’re fine." He looked around for Molly’s lookalike sister, who'd nearly become dragon chow. "What about Millie?"

Molly let out a sigh. "She has a sprained ankle, but thanks to Zidane and Clyde, nothing more." She smiled. "And thanks to you, Zidane made it through as well."

Kuja was reminded of the task at hand. "I need a broom."

"I can give you one! What else do you need?"

With a shake of his head, Kuja declined. Choco was already heavily laden, their house was tiny, and the Cleyrans didn’t owe him a thing.

After accepting the broom and remembering to wish Millie a complete recovery, he headed out of the store and across the street to the nondescript inn. Howard was sitting on the porch steps, handing out water to anyone who needed it. He’d already put in an hour or two on the dragon at his father's side, and now he was encouraging others to take breaks as needed, as morning coolness had already given way to summer heat.

Howard looked up, blinking, as Kuja strode up and thrust the broom before him. "Here. Sorry I broke yours yesterday."

"Uh..." Howard intelligently managed, ducking his head even as his hand moved on its own to take the broom. "You... didn't have to do that."

"Take it. The general store gave it to me for free anyhow."

Howard clutched at the broom as if someone had just handed him a bouquet of roses. He wasn't sure what else to say. He couldn't deny that he had a bit of an infatuation with the former mage, but it wasn't like he'd ever planned on confessing to him. And after seeing Kuja dash off to shield Zidane with his own body, he’d had his proof that he was never going to have a chance, so it was for the best that he'd never said a thing. Still, he couldn't stop his face from heating up every time Kuja stood close by or talked to him.

"Thanks," the teen finally mumbled.

Kuja nodded and returned to Choco.

By the time Zidane paused to take a short break, wiping gore off his daggers, the chocobo had a full load secured to his saddle and Kuja was standing next to him, patting his neck, trying to decide if he ought to take everything home or wait for Zidane. The shorter Genome approached, surprised at all the stuff. "What in the…"

"It was free," Kuja explained as Zidane prodded at a log of summer sausage and a massive bunch of carrots. And what was with the chickens??

"Free?"

"To thank you for taking down the dragon."

Zidane nodded. He hadn’t fought the dragon in expectation of a reward, but if that was how the townspeople wanted to thank him, he was grateful for it. He knew Kuja worried about their finances. These supplies would last them for days, weeks even. "Wow, sure nice of everyone. You want to head back then, sort out all this stuff? It isn't going to get any more pleasant here."

Kuja nodded, happy to have an excuse to leave.

* * *

Zidane didn’t get back to the house until late afternoon. It had been hard work, but understandably everyone in town was eager to get the streets cleared as much as possible of the dragon’s corpse. Unfortunately they hadn’t been able to finish, but if everyone was willing to put in the same amount of work the next day, it would probably be enough.

As it was, Zidane was very grateful for the fact that not only was the lakeside cottage over a mile away from the center of town, but also that prevailing winds blew off the lake, instead of towards it.

That didn’t stop Kuja’s nose from wrinkling the moment the shorter Genome arrived home. Zidane gave Kuja an apologetic shrug. He knew the combination of dragon gore on his clothing and summer sweat was pretty bad.

"I’m taking care of dinner if you take a bath right away," Kuja offered.

"What are we having? Chicken?" Zidane joked, thinking back to the caged chickens from earlier in the day.

"If that’s what you want, they’re in the shed with Choco."

Zidane just smiled and shook his head. He knew full well that Kuja wouldn’t have butchered them; he didn’t have it in him to kill things anymore, not even for food. "Nah, it’s fine. So what should we call them then? Lunch and Dinner?"

Frowning, Kuja sighed. "BATH, Zidane."

"Ack, I’m going!" the blonde yelped before disappearing into the bathroom.

In lieu of whole roasted chicken or whatever else Zidane might’ve been fantasizing about, Kuja ended up delivering plates of sausage and potatoes flecked with caramelized onions. Even though hot food on a summer day wasn’t ideal, Zidane was more than happy to tuck in, having done so much physical labor earlier in the day.

Kuja ate at a more leisurely pace once the food had cooled down a bit. He didn’t mind Zidane taking the lion’s share – Kuja found more satisfaction in watching the younger man enjoy the dinner he’d made than eating it himself.

"Ah, that was so good. Thanks, Kuja," Zidane said when he was finally satiated.

"Mmhmm."

Zidane wondered if he shouldn’t have eaten so much. Even as Kuja began clearing the table, he was already starting to feel a hint of sluggishness settling in. Well, it wasn’t like he was planning on making love to Kuja tonight, since he needed time to recover… so maybe it wasn’t a bad thing. Besides, Zidane had at least one more day of dragon duty to look forward to, so it was sensible to rest up a little while he could.

They wrapped up the night as they’d been doing as of late, with Kuja doing some sewing and Zidane reading out loud to him. Bedtime crept up soon enough, and after they both lay down and settled in, Kuja waited silently for Zidane to initiate intimate contact. Zidane stroked his face and kissed him and wished him a good night, but did nothing else.

Kuja was a little confused. The younger man had been so enthusiastic earlier. But it had been a long day… maybe he really was tired? Or maybe he’d decided he preferred it in the morning instead?

But when morning came, Zidane once again made no attempt to approach Kuja for sex. He seemed cheerful enough, hugging and kissing Kuja before urging him to eat breakfast. He didn’t seem any different than before, until he mentioned he’d planned on going to town alone – dragon clean up duty and all that. And Kuja couldn’t think of a good reason why he would need to join him, so he could only watch in silent trepidation as Zidane departed.

It was shaping up to be an even hotter day than the previous one. Yet Kuja felt the occasional cold shiver trickling down his spine as he tidied up around the house. He tried not to think about it, but the harder he tried to push it down, the worse he felt. He had thought things were improving, but now he was worried. Had Zidane tired of him already? Or had Kuja done something to displease him? Was Zidane now trying to put some space between them? Maybe Zidane had pushed for repeated bouts of sex earlier because he’d been trying to figure out a way to make things work, but in the end, he’d found the task too difficult or unpleasant. Kuja shuddered, thinking about how Zidane’s fingers had lingered on his scars… The blonde had claimed that he didn’t find them disgusting, but then, why had he been so fixated on them?

Kuja mulled it over, sighing. Was it possible he was misunderstanding things? Zidane had said he loved him, over and over again. And although Kuja hadn’t been comfortable with the attention being given to his scars, Zidane had kissed and caressed them, saying they reminded him of how far Kuja had come to become who he was now. Did that mean he was now someone who could be… loved?

Right on the heels of that foreign yet warming thought came the familiar doubts: Garland hadn’t designed him that way. And other than Zidane – who was an outlier in every way – Kuja had never gotten close to anyone, had never had anyone call him a friend or loved one… wasn’t that proof of it? He’d been created to be a weapon, nothing more. But perhaps in spite of Garland’s intentions, he could feel, even if he hadn’t known how to put those feelings into words. He disliked being alone but felt uneasy when interacting with other people. He resented direction and routine but struggled to function without them. And every time he’d carried out his master’s orders, something dark and bitter inside had swelled like a tumor as he’d racked up victims, as he’d shattered families and homes. Why, he had wondered, why did those people have something he didn’t? And, more irritatingly, why did it matter? He’d tried to convince himself that it wasn’t important, that he didn’t care, didn’t need it. He’d even told himself that that made him superior, because he didn’t need anyone else. But he had felt all along that something was wrong with him, that he was lacking, and neither ignoring it nor denying it made it go away.

But just as Kuja feared he’d fall apart from so many conflicting thoughts, Silky suddenly bumped against his leg, meowing loudly. The former mage stared down at her, wondering if she had just happened by, or had she somehow noticed his distress? Either way, he was a little grateful for her intrusion – he was so tired of feeling worried all the time. Reaching down to stroke her soft fur, he managed to calm himself enough to reassess the situation. Kuja had told Amarant that he believed in Zidane; he hadn’t been lying about that. Zidane wasn’t like other people, the ones who’d used Kuja or been used in turn. So maybe Zidane didn’t intend to have sex with him again, but he hadn’t given any indication of wanting to leave, either. Kuja could live with that.

He picked up Silky and looked around, trying to figure out what else he could do in the meantime. The house was already pretty tidy; he didn’t have any needlework jobs due soon. And it was hot out. So reading it was, then – it’d help him settle down too. Putting the kitten down on the bed, Kuja fetched a book before rejoining her for what he hoped would be a short wait until Zidane got back.

* * *

If the smell and stains were bad the day before, they were even worse this time. Even though he’d waited hours for Zidane’s return, Kuja was tempted to slam the door in the blonde’s face and tell him to go jump in the lake – he was that caked in "stuff." But the prospect of a soaking wet man dripping his way back into the house was equally unappealing, so rather than shut the door, Kuja held his tongue - and his breath - and stepped aside so Zidane could get by without brushing against him.

At least this time he didn’t have to threaten Zidane to get him in the bathtub – the thief headed straight in without any urging. Kuja stayed out of the way for a few minutes, then decided to head in to fetch the laundry. As disgusting as it was to have to wash gore stained clothing, he was hoping to be able to salvage as much of it as he could.

Kuja frowned as soon as he walked in. Zidane had left his clothes balled up in the sink. Tucking his hair back, the older man went to pick them up, but Zidane called out to him from the tub.

"I’ll take care of it as soon as I’m done in here," said Zidane with an apologetic smile. He was flopped over the edge of the tub like melted butter.

"It’s going to stain," Kuja sighed.

"I hope not. But I don’t need you to clean up after me."

Kuja sagged a little, as if he’d been scolded. If he couldn’t even do some laundry, what could he do?

Zidane noticed his lover’s reaction and waved him over. It was awkward to have a talk in the bathroom, especially since he was wet and naked, but Kuja seemed to have something on his mind, and Zidane had learned that with Kuja, it was better to address things immediately than to wait until it was more convenient.

"What’s wrong?" Zidane asked once Kuja close enough to touch. He only managed to resist grabbing Kuja’s hand due to the fact that his hand was dripping wet, and Kuja’s wasn’t.

"It’s… nothing," Kuja replied. It was a completely unconvincing lie.

Zidane went ahead and took hold of Kuja’s hand, knowing he was either going to get hissed at, flat out rejected, or both. Kuja did grumble his complaint, but at least he didn’t pull away. "I know you better than that," Zidane said.

Kuja stared at his younger counterpart, then began worrying his lower lip between his teeth. "Is sex with me… just no good?"

"WHAT?" Zidane gasped, suddenly sitting up a lot straighter. That was the last thing he’d expected to hear. "Why would you think that? Kuja… it’s better than great, seriously!"

"But you didn’t do anything this morning, or the night before."

Zidane’s jaw dropped slightly. "You were sore. I was trying to be considerate, holding back. I didn’t want it to get worse."

Kuja shook his head. Did it matter if he’d been sore or not? But he supposed Zidane wouldn’t be okay with ignoring that…

"You didn’t think… I left you here today because I was trying to leave, did you?"

"No. Well… no." It was true that the silver-haired man had had his doubts, but in the end he’d believed Zidane would stay.

Zidane’s eyes searched over Kuja’s face, as if trying to tease out the truth, and then he smiled. "Believe me, you wouldn’t have wanted to come. It was even worse than yesterday! But good news is, we got it all cleaned up… well, as much as we possibly could."

Kuja grimaced slightly. No, he wouldn’t have wanted to accompany Zidane under those circumstances.

"Besides, lovemaking isn’t something that’s… on a fixed schedule. I want you, maybe a little too much for your own good! But this isn’t a one way street. You could try initiating too, you know, if you ever felt like it," the thief suggested.

The only times Kuja had ever initiated were when he had a target he wanted to make use of, or when he needed some amusement to pass the time. Zidane didn’t fit either criteria. Nor was he the best performance-wise, being a little clumsy and inexperienced. But somehow, that didn’t matter, not when Zidane focused on him like he was the most special person in the universe. Not when Zidane was so surprisingly gentle, so careful, so considerate, no matter if he was dealing with Kuja’s scars or his genitals or even the faint whispers of emotions that Kuja could barely describe, nevermind put a name to.

"On the other hand," Zidane continued, since Kuja wasn’t replying, "if there’s times you don’t feel up to it, just say so. I won’t be mad. I get it. I mean, like right now… I’m really beat. So even if you wanted to, even if I wanted to, I don’t know if I can."

"Oh," Kuja blurted out. He felt his face flush as he realized that that left him slightly disappointed. For some reason, he just wanted to touch Zidane, even if it was just something as simple as holding hands.

Zidane’s smile was sympathetic. "Sorry." He rolled his shoulders, then sank back down a little in the hot water, trying to soak away some of the ache in his muscles. But he couldn’t let go of Kuja’s hand, nor turn away, either. Now that Kuja had stopped masking over his feelings, the way that emotions openly played across his face was fascinating. Worry, confusion, desire… Zidane couldn’t help but want to respond to them all.

The former mage finally pulled his hand away but stayed where he was, thinking. Maybe Zidane didn’t want to have sex at the moment, but there were other forms of physical contact that would likely be more welcome…

Decided, Kuja flexed his fingers, and asked, "Would a shoulder massage be okay?" He wasn’t the best masseuse, but he figured Zidane could talk him through it, if need be.

Pleasantly surprised, Zidane perked back up. "That would be great!"

After pausing to pull off his shirt and tie his hair back as much as he could, Kuja took his place behind Zidane and began kneading the bunched up muscles in his shoulders. At first he wasn’t sure if it was doing any good. Zidane was all hard, lean muscle; it was tough getting in there and working it loose. But eventually his fingers and palms began sinking in, and it was obvious Zidane was enjoying it too, his head lolling back as he sighed.

"Thanks," Zidane mumbled. He lifted one hand out of the water then, after letting it drip dry a bit, cupped Kuja’s cheek. "Wanna nap afterwards?"

Kuja leaned into the palm of Zidane’s hand. "Okay." For once, he didn’t feel the desire to have an afternoon nap, but the thought of just lying together for a while made him feel warm and cozy inside, just as a fluffy blanket would.

But then he caught a whiff of something that had to be addressed, something that wasn’t nice or comfy like a nap. "But you’re taking care of the laundry first, right?"

Zidane made a face. "Ugh. Yeah, I did say I would. Do I have to do it now?" He managed to put a slight whine into that last word, like a child would.

Kuja sighed. "Later… would be fine."

Zidane smiled angelically as Kuja resumed the massage. The bath water was starting to cool down, but he wanted to enjoy being spoiled for just a little longer.

* * *

A few weeks after Amarant had "agreed" to deliver Zidane’s message to Tantalus, the bounty hunter reached the regency of Lindblum. He certainly could have gotten there sooner, but he was a man who worked on his own schedule, and with as big a favor as this was, it wasn’t something that Zidane could complain about, if he’d ever been so inclined.

Amarant had only been there once or twice, but the city was well organized and it was easy enough to find his way to the Air Cabs, then the Theater District, and finally, the big clock tower ithat served as home base of the infamous Tantalus Theater Troupe.

He walked up to the door and rapped on it. The slit panel slid open; all Amarant could see was some red hair.

"Well, a familiar face…" said a male voice. The door swung open a moment later. "Come on in."

With his superior height, all Amarant could see of the man before him was thick hair jutting out of a leather headband. Even when Blank tilted his face up, Amarant could barely make out his eyes.

"Amarant, right?"

The big man nodded. "I have a message for Baku."

"Is that so?" Blank’s grin widened, though he made no attempt to pry for further information. He’d find out soon enough.

Baku was in the large central room, along with several other members of the group. Apparently they'd been working on a play, as there were costumes and props strewn about. Amarant parked himself by a wall and silently waited until there was a lull in the conversation, then gave Baku a grunt and a nod. Baku returned the nod before excusing himself, gesturing to Amarant to follow him.

They ended up going down a narrow hallway to a small private office cluttered with scripts and posters; organized chaos seemed the norm in Tantalus. Baku shoved the heavy door shut and leaned against it for good measure. "All right, let’s hear it," he said without preamble.

Amarant was equally direct. "Zidane said he’s doing fine and not to worry about him."

"That’s it, eh?" Baku scratched his head. "Was he alone?"

Amarant’s lips twitched. He didn’t respond. That was all the answer the Tantalus leader needed.

Baku snorted. "Figures. Ah well, whatever..."

They fell into silence a moment, then Amarant spoke up again, his voice low and rumbling in the quiet of the room. "I won’t be headed back to Nil any time soon, so if you have a message for him, deliver it yourself." He crossed his arms, almost defiantly. Yes, it was risky divulging that information to anyone, but this man had raised Zidane. And by telling him, Amarant was washing his hands of the whole mess. It was Baku’s problem, now.

"Nil, you say." The hidden town of thieves, the name barely even whispered in legends… Baku had thought Nil was just that, a legend, but apparently, he’d been wrong. He chuckled; just what kind of thief was he, to have never found it?

Amarant grinned. "What, haven’t toured your way through Gorge Valley before? I’d suggest catching a boat ride, easiest way to get around."

Baku took a minute to map out things in his head. With the bits of info Amarant had fed him, he had a decent idea of where to start looking. "We’re due in Treno at the end of the month. I suppose a detour wouldn’t put us too far behind…"

Amarant shrugged, done giving his input. It wasn’t like he was getting paid for it. He’d done what he’d come to do, and that was that.

With nothing left to discuss, Baku stepped away from the door and yanked it open. "Thanks fer stopping by."

"Sure."

Blank glanced up as Amarant suddenly reappeared in the central room, striding to the exit before disappearing just as swiftly. Baku walked in a moment later, rejoining the group as if nothing interesting had happened.

"Everything okay, Boss…?" Marcus prompted after a few awkward moments had passed. Everyone was curious about the visitor and what news he'd brought, but no one else had been willing to say a thing.

"What? No, it’s not okay… we have a big performance coming up and not a lot of time to work on it!" Baku grumbled, waving off the question. But as everyone started moving off to get back on task, he added under his breath, just loud enough for Marcus and Blank to hear, "Plus there’s the side trip to plan, too."

Marcus and Blank exchanged a quick look. "Boss?"

"Go dig up whatever maps we have of the Mist Continent, the southern parts at least."

They didn’t need any further explanation than that. The pair immediately ran off to comply, excited about the prospect of reuniting with their "little bro" soon.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- It's convenient in video games that corpses of fallen enemies just despawn after a while, but I wanted to add a little reality in that bodies don't just vanish after a few minutes, and a huge beast killed in the middle of a town would be a huge nuisance. I sure wouldn't want to eat rotting dragon chili, but it was the first thing that popped into my head when I was trying to figure out what to do with a dead dragon. Really not sure how you'd clear it all out, actually... At least Kuja was reasonable in declining the offer of dragon meat!

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

The rented rowboat docked near a little cottage, a weather beaten blue with white trim and floral curtains. There were a couple of chickens scratching at the gravel and a young cat lazing on the porch. A few herbs sprouted from a small garden bed on the side; the rear housed a shed that appeared to serve as storage and a stable. It was a very homey, private abode - one hundred percent not the sort of place that Baku could imagine Zidane living in. Zidane didn’t do cute - he was practical. He was sociable.

But the location was ideal for hiding fugitives, with easy access to both water and land escape routes, yet hidden enough that it wasn’t in plain view, even from the lake it sat on, due to the way the trees grew and the shoreline curved. And the very fact that the house looked like someplace Zidane wouldn’t live in made it all the more attractive as a hideout.

There was a sign on the door in surprisingly elegant script that read: "Boat Rentals 10 to 3" and "Closed." Baku checked his pocket watch; it was half past ten.

Blank decided to knock on the door anyhow, but there was no response.

"I guess we wait, then?" Marcus asked before following Baku’s lead and taking a seat on the porch steps. Blank joined them and idly teased the kitten with a grass stalk to pass the time.

The older man unfolded a well-used map and made some notes on it. No one brought it up while they waited, but considering the relatively limited size of the valley, they’d only put aside a day and a half for the search. Under normal circumstances that would’ve easily been enough, but since Zidane was likely living incognito, they couldn't exactly go around asking people if they knew him or not. If they couldn’t find any sign of him by mid-afternoon or so they would have to head back to Treno empty-handed and rejoin the rest of the troupe to make sure their show would go on as planned.

That wouldn’t mean they’d give up. If nothing else, Tantalus was known for being clever, stubborn and persistent. If this trip wasn’t successful, surely the next one would be.

* * *

Zidane was normally pretty good about getting back to the house by the time boat rentals were scheduled to be available, but sometimes things in town took a little longer than expected. This time, it was a very special request that had made them late…

Clyde and Millie had announced at the last town meeting that they were engaged to be married. Zidane hadn’t been able to stop smiling at the news. Saving a distressed damsel – or even a man, in Zidane’s case - from a dragon did wonders in pushing relationships along, it seemed.

In light of the upcoming nuptials, Millie had asked Kuja to create a panel for her bridal train. It was apparently a Cleyran tradition, something that would normally be done by the bride’s family or close friends, but Millie only had her sister by her side. In a moment of awkwardness Millie had even offered to pay for the work – after all, she and Molly were the ones who’d encouraged Kuja to make money off of it – but Zidane had suggested that it could be considered a wedding gift instead. And so now they were heading home with a bundle of tulle and a wide assortment of thread and fancy embellishments, with the promise of more to follow.

Kuja was silent as Choco trotted along; he was planning how he wanted to lay out the design for the panel. He wanted to reference the dragon encounter that had ended up bringing the couple together. He wasn’t exactly confident that he could pull off something so elaborate and important, but he’d been humbled by the request. Millie could have asked any number of people in town to do this - and undoubtedly there would be others contributing - but she’d chosen him to do the largest panel in the center.

Zidane was quiet for once as well; he couldn’t help but wonder what Kuja thought of marriage. Was that something Kuja had considered before? Would he say yes, if Zidane posed the question? Could two men even marry? Zidane was tempted to broach the subject, but given how his last engagement had gone, Kuja would probably take it the wrong way, as he often did. While their relationship seemed to be progressing smoothly enough, they’d fallen into something of a rhythm when it came to lovemaking, which Zidane wanted to break out of, because he didn’t want it to become routine or stale. After their last big misunderstanding, where Kuja had mistaken Zidane’s concern for sexual disinterest, the former mage had initiated once, a couple days after Zidane had brought it up… but hadn’t refused anything at all, no matter what Zidane had asked for or tried.

Permanence and stability would be good for someone like Kuja. That’s why Zidane had encouraged him to get a cat, why he’d agreed to adding a proper bedroom to the cottage come spring, when weather allowed it. But Zidane wasn’t going to ask him for the "Yes" that really mattered if he couldn’t say "No" to anything first.

As they neared the house, Zidane had to push aside worries about marriage and relationships. He frowned; there appeared to be a few people milling about on the porch. The townspeople didn’t usually show up until later in the day, if they needed a boat, or they’d mention it to him in advance. So were these travelers then? That would be a rare sight in the tiny town…

Behind him, Zidane felt Kuja tense up. The blonde slowed Choco to a walk, then stopped, still a bit of a distance away from the house. He dropped his hand briefly to reassure himself that his weapons were at his side. "Stay mounted until I give you the all clear, okay?" he mumbled to Kuja as he dismounted.

Kuja grunted softly and stayed put, his hands clutching tightly at the reins.

But Zidane barely made it forward a dozen steps before he suddenly came to a stop… then, with a loud whoop, he ran forward as recognition set in. "Blank! Marcus!"

He collided with Blank and Marcus at the same time, the three of them tumbling, laughing, to the ground. Baku hung back, shaking his head at the enthusiastic reunion, then looked back up at the chocobo and passenger that hadn’t budged from their position on the forest path.

To be fair, from Kuja’s vantage point, it looked as if Zidane recognized the visitors and was tackling them to give him a chance to escape. Kuja hesitated, unsure if he was mistaken. Even if he did flee, where would he go? What about Silky, and the chickens? He couldn’t leave the younger Genome behind either. So he nervously held his position and waited for a signal one way or another.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Zidane stood up and remembered to make a show of wiping his palms on his pants while his tail whirled up in a circular motion behind him. All clear.

Exhaling in relief, Kuja met Zidane halfway, then dismounted and walked the rest of the way to the house where the trio of men waited for them by the porch. Zidane handled introductions; Kuja shook each man’s hand in turn. Blank appeared to be the youngest of the three, a slender man shorter than Zidane, with a patchwork of scarred skin and upswept red hair that reminded Kuja of an upside down broom. Marcus was older and about Zidane’s height, with an underbite and a blocky build not unlike a bulldog’s. And lastly there was the Baku, a hair taller than Kuja but much broader, with porcine features and a bristly beard and mustache.

They moved indoors from there, with Silky leaping up onto the porch railing and then onto Kuja’s shoulder for a ride in as well.

Coats and cloaks got hung on hooks by the door, then Zidane invited his family to have a seat at the kitchen table before excusing himself and Kuja so they could unpack their morning purchases. Then, seeing as there weren’t enough chairs for everyone, Zidane had Kuja sit as well before he began preparing some snacks and drinks.

Kuja fixed his eyes on the tabletop. He was keenly aware of all the gazes on him… he was used to being stared at, but it never got any more comfortable. Not that he could say anything about it, under the circumstances. He couldn’t even paste on a smile and pretend everything was okay. This was Zidane’s family; these people… their likes and dislikes… they mattered to Zidane.

They couldn’t help but stare - Baku especially. He hadn’t gotten a very good look at Kuja’s face back then, but he’d seen enough that he could make the comparison. Kuja barely looked any older than before – Genomes apparently didn’t age past the cusp of adulthood, or continued aging at a very slow rate. His hair was a lot longer now, but that pale face was nearly the same – not exactly "feminine" perhaps, but fine featured and elegant in a way that wasn’t masculine either.

"I guess all those times Ruby browbeat you into doing her hair came in handy, eh?" Blank suddenly commented, noticing the way Kuja’s hair was styled with fancy braids pulled back at the temples. He was pretty sure that was Zidane’s necktie serving as the ribbon, too.

"I guess," Zidane said with a laugh as he put on some hot water for tea. He had never thought that learning to braid and style hair would be useful, but Kuja really did seem to enjoy having him do so. "So how’s Ruby? And Cinna?"

"Oh, she’s fine. Still in Alexandria doing her own gig. And we left Cinna in charge of the troupe, so everyone should be good to go once we get back," Blank answered.

Zidane nodded. He was tempted to ask about Garnet, but decided against it. "How are you all doing?"

"Same ol’, same ol’. We’re booked for a week in Treno," Marcus mentioned.

"Yeah? That’s pretty awesome. Still running the same old ‘show?’" Zidane asked with a wink. Tantalus was always skilled at helping themselves to "tips." Marcus just smiled, and Zidane answered with one of his own.

"Things are pretty quiet, actually. There’s a fat bounty on your heads, but that’s about it," Blank threw out casually, as if discussing the weather.

"Yeah, I know. Amarant told me."

"This isn’t a bad hideout though," Blank continued. "Didn’t even know there was a town here. It’s not on any maps."

"I didn’t know it was here either," Zidane admitted.

"This town is the stuff of legend. It was originally a den of thieves," Marcus said, recalling what Baku had told them. "Supposedly that’s why it’s so hidden away."

"Really?" Zidane thought about everyone he’d met in Nil, and couldn’t think of anyone who came close to that description, other than himself. "If true, that would’ve been a long time ago. ‘Cause this place is… well, ‘normal’ as it gets. Pretty quiet most of the time. And the townspeople are nice, friendly folk." He tried to think of what else to add, and shrugged. "It’s just a real small town, nothing worth mapping I guess… right, Kuja?" he added, trying to draw his lover into the conversation.

"Hmm, maybe," replied Blank. He glanced at Baku, who’d been silently assessing Kuja the whole time, and, like Kuja, hadn’t said a word past the initial greeting. "Boss…?"

Baku finally tore his attention away from Kuja and turned around in his seat to get a good look around the interior of the house. It wasn’t hard, considering the cramped quarters. Although it was clean, the stained wood walls, floors and cabinets made the space look even tinier than it was. "You gave up yer queen for this, eh?" Baku asked.

Zidane felt something prickle at that. He wasn’t sure if Baku was referring to their living conditions, Kuja, or both. He was suddenly very aware that their bed was in the corner of the room, only feet away; they’d made love there the previous evening. "I couldn’t marry her, not when I was in love with someone else," he said, setting the teakettle down on the stove and stepping closer to Kuja’s seat.

An awkward silence descended on the room. The three visitors looked at Kuja, who had flushed a slight pink but otherwise kept his attention fixed on the table, then at Zidane standing behind him, then back down at Kuja.

Finally, Baku broke the stalemate. "And how long did it take ya to figure that out?" the Tantalus leader sighed. They’d all had to put up with Zidane moaning over how he couldn’t live without Garnet, back when she’d first prepared to ascend the throne.

Zidane’s eyes slid shut a moment. It was still painful to think about how close he’d come to losing Kuja. "Too long." He couldn’t help but reach out to place a hand on Kuja’s shoulder.

"Wait a sec. Is this why you asked me and Blank if we were together?" Marcus queried.

"Well, uhm… kinda." Zidane scratched his head. It was hard to explain. "I didn’t think it was even possible, ‘til then…"

"’I want to be with Dagger more than anything!’" Baku squeaked, mimicking what Zidane had said after he’d come back from his year stay on the Outer Continent. "That’s what ya said, right? And jus’ like that you change yer mind? Bah!"

Zidane just shook his head. There was no point in denying it: that was how he’d felt, once upon a time.

Baku looked back at Kuja and sighed again, heavily. He had to wonder how much of this was on Zidane, and how much of it was on Kuja. But even if Kuja had been leading the blonde on, it took two to tango, as the saying went. "If nothin’ else, at least he has a pretty face."

Kuja suddenly lifted his head up and smiled, though as Zidane had learned, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. "Oh, thank you," he replied, a knee jerk reaction with no sincerity behind it. Zidane’s free hand tightened into a ball and he sucked in a breath as he prepared to interject before Baku made things worse. It was bad enough that Garnet and the engagement had already been brought up. He didn’t want Kuja questioning his own value when he was so much more than a pretty face.

Baku eyed Kuja’s expression and snorted. "You’re not a half bad actor!" Then he leaned in, almost close enough to brush against Kuja’s hair. "Ya know, if ya hadn’t run away back then, I’d have taken you in too."

The carefully crafted smile crumbled as quickly as it had appeared. Kuja pushed away from the table abruptly, bumping into Zidane, before standing up and heading out the front door, mumbling under his breath that he needed some fresh air.

Alarmed, Zidane stammered an apology to the room and followed Kuja out the door.

The silver-haired man hadn’t gone very far. He was sitting on a log that served as a seat by the firepit, shoulders hunched. Zidane silently sat down next to him and began rubbing those tense shoulders, and waited.

Kuja finally looked up, staring out blankly at the lake in front of him, rather than look at Zidane. "I couldn’t stay."

It didn’t matter if he was referring to the past or the present, or both. "I know."

Kuja glanced at Zidane, then away again. He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t admit that it might’ve been nice to have friends or a family, to experience it rather than just reading about it in a book. But he was too old for that now… or maybe he always had been, given that he’d never had a childhood in the first place.

Zidane gave him a light squeeze. "You ever regret it?"

The what-ifs continued to tumble around in Kuja’s mind. If he’d been more selfish he could’ve run away by himself, leaving behind the toddler Zidane in hopes that Garland would’ve been satisfied with retaining his prized Genome. While that wasn’t a likely outcome – Kuja would’ve been easy enough for Garland to track down – there may have been a sliver of a chance. Or he could’ve simply done nothing and kept Zidane with him on Terra. That would’ve at least given him a companion; Garland wouldn’t have had reason to strip him of his memories either. "… A little."

"Fair enough."

The former mage went silent again for a good minute. He’d put Zidane ahead of himself before; could he do it again? Maybe it still wasn’t too late for the younger man. Surely his family would want to take him with them, if possible. Maybe they could plead to have Zidane’s part of the bounty recalled, if Zidane returned with them alone.

But even though the townspeople were nice and friendly… even though the house was in good condition… even though there was no danger of freezing or starving to death… Kuja didn’t want a life without Zidane again. Did Zidane feel the same? He’d just told his family that he’d broken off his engagement to be with the one he loved, but if his family objected, would he be able to break off from them too?

Zidane looked over as Kuja broke the silence with a heavy sigh. He could guess what the older man was thinking about though; he probably thought that Tantalus was here to reclaim their wayward child.

"I know it might not seem like it, but they’re all good people. They’re just a bit… outspoken. And worried about me, I suppose," Zidane said after a moment of thought.

Kuja nodded, though he unconsciously crinkled his forehead in concern. Of course they were good people. Of course they were worried. They were Zidane’s family, after all.

"I’ll make them understand - this is my life now. And I’m going to do what’s right for us," Zidane asserted. "Both of us." He lifted his chin while guiding Kuja’s down, to kiss him on the forehead. "There’s no way I’d leave you, not after all we’ve been through together."

"But family is important," Kuja argued, though the way his voice pitched at the end, it nearly sounded like a question.

"Yes. As are you." Zidane smiled. "Besides, I flew the nest already. Baku’s not gonna ask me to come back."

That didn’t make sense to Kuja, but Zidane seemed so certain of it, he didn’t question it. Why wouldn’t they want him back?

Seeing the confusion flitting over Kuja’s features, Zidane kissed him again, this time on the lips, before rising to his feet. He held his hand out to Kuja. "Shall we head back in? You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but I’d really like to spend a little more time with them before I see them off."

Kuja began reaching out, hesitated, then slowly placed his hand in Zidane’s. If the younger Genome really was choosing him over his family, what else could he do but follow him back inside?

* * *

After watching Kuja dash out of the room with Zidane following in short order, Blank took it upon himself to get up and finish preparing the tea. He noticed Zidane had left some pastries on a plate, cut into individual portions; he took them to the table as well, then sat back down. "Guess he didn’t like your compliments, Boss," he drawled as he took a bite of an apple pastry.

Baku waved it off. "Psh. We had ta make do with only havin’ one girl to play the girl parts most of the time. His looks could've been a real moneymaker for the troupe. At least I only made the mistake of putting you in a dress once, Marcus."

Marcus smiled. He had hated that so much, Baku hadn’t even considered it a second time. And he had a sneaking suspicion that despite his appearance, Kuja wouldn’t have appreciated being pigeonholed like that either. "He’s pretty, sure, but other than that, that guy’s nothing like I thought he’d be. Figured he’d be rude or arrogant and downright scary, but he’s more like a mouse."

Blank nodded in agreement. "Well the rumor was he lost his powers or something, right? So if that’s true, what else can he do but hide?"

"Bro, you sound like you feel sorry for him."

Blank shrugged at his partner. Like the other kids Baku had picked up, he’d been orphaned. He couldn’t remember anything from back then; he’d been barely more than a baby, found in the aftermath of a house fire with a mottling of burns. Despite the medical care he’d needed, Baku hadn’t been deterred from taking him in. "I just know we’re lucky that we had a home, a place to belong. Did he ever have that? Going by what we know about the Genomes, maybe he didn’t feel he had any choice but to leave Zidane here."

Marcus grunted in agreement. Though he was a little more wary of Kuja and his intentions, he understood what Blank meant… He’d survived off trash and a bit of pickpocketing, living on the streets for longer than he’d been aware. Luck and hope had been foreign notions, until the day he tried to pick Baku’s pocket. "So now what?" he wondered aloud.

"I guess we give that guy the benefit of the doubt… maybe try and get to know him a little more, I dunno. ‘Cause I don’t think Zidane’s gonna change his mind, not this time," Blank replied. He’d kept an eye on their little brother’s expression earlier as they sat around and talked. Although Zidane had been puttering around the kitchen and chatting away like nothing had changed, his eyes had sought out Kuja the whole time.

"Can’t get ta know him if he ain’t talkin’," Baku pointed out, just as the door swung open and the two Genomes stepped in, hand in hand. "Well look who’s back."

Zidane gave his family an apologetic smile as he guided Kuja back over to the seat he’d abandoned earlier. Silky had snuck onto it in his absence, but Zidane gently shooed her away so that Kuja could sit back down. Noticing that their guests had already poured the tea and brought over the snacks, Zidane planted himself behind Kuja’s chair, his hands coming to rest on the other Genome’s shoulders as Silky leapt up to claim a seat on Kuja’s lap.

"Give me some credit. Kuja’s not just a pretty face. I wouldn’t be with him if that’s all there was to it," Zidane said.

Baku waved it off. "Now now, I didn’t say it like that."

"You only implied it, Boss," Marcus pointed out. "But still, for you to take off like that, less than a week before the wedding… that’s really something."

"I wish I’d handled it differently - but it was the right thing to do. I don’t regret it," Zidane asserted.

Blank shrugged. Like Marcus, he still didn’t get it, but Zidane’s words reinforced what he'd said earlier, that the blonde was dead set on being with Kuja, for better or for worse. Speaking of whom… "That’s a nice cat. I assume it’s yours, Kuja?"

Zidane’s eyebrow twitched upward. It was the first time any of their visitors had referred to Kuja by name. Even Amarant had only called him "you," though they’d spoken briefly.

Kuja glanced at Blank, surprised that he’d been addressed directly. "Yes." He paused, considered it, then added, "Her name is Silky."

"She’s very pretty. And friendly."

Kuja nodded, liking the compliments, then, after another slight hesitation, asked, "Do you like cats?"

Blank smiled and gave an answering nod. He didn’t like or dislike cats in particular, but getting Kuja to say more than one word to him felt like a real triumph. "It wouldn’t be practical to have one in the troupe though… we travel too much."

Kuja frowned. It wasn’t practical for him to have a pet either, but Zidane had insisted it’d be good for him. "Maybe she’s an inconvenience. But even if we have to leave here, I can’t just leave her behind."

"We won’t," Zidane promised.

Blank watched them in silence. Despite what he’d said earlier, he’d known it had also been a possibility that Kuja had seen Zidane as a burden, the way his own family must've, but that no longer seemed likely. If Kuja was this upset over the thought of leaving a cat behind, how had he felt when he’d left Zidane with Baku?

He glanced over at Baku, afraid that the Tantalus leader would voice the obvious, but in a rare show of understanding – or perhaps he was distracted by his own thoughts - Baku didn’t say a word.

Blank quirked a smile. Kuja had barely said two words, but Blank found that he rather liked him. He wasn’t exactly a mouse, like Marcus had called him… he was quiet and nervous, but there was the sense that somewhere inside, lay a stronger core. More importantly, he seemed a good match for Zidane, who was a pretty self-sufficient and practical guy, but also impetuous; he needed an anchor to tether him during the worst of his impulses, one with enough slack to still allow him to fly. And this lifestyle, simple as it was, suited Zidane way better than the stuffy grandeur of a royal court.

"What about the chickens out front?" Marcus suddenly asked, his tone light and only half-serious. "Are they dinner? Or you gonna take them with you too, if it comes to it?"

"They sure look tasty, don’t they?" Zidane replied, trying – and failing - to hide a smile. He and Kuja had been going back and forth on it for days. Lunch and Dinner had stuck as names; it was the only thing he’d managed to win on.

"No, they don’t!" Kuja immediately protested, visions of Tantalus chowing down on a roast chicken dinner dancing in his head. "Zidane…"

Zidane smoothed down his lover’s hair and kissed him atop his head. "Sorry, I was just teasing. It’ll be fine; we’d take them too, or at least drop them off with someone in town, if push came to shove."

Marcus’ eyebrows knit together. "Wait, really? You’re not going to eat them?"

"Well… there’ll be eggs at least?" Zidane shrugged. "Whatever makes Kuja happy."

Marcus shot an incredulous look at Zidane, then at Kuja. Was he hearing right? The guy who had destroyed a whole kingdom, a whole planet, couldn’t bring himself to eat a couple of chickens, just because they were living in his yard? "I don’t get you at all," he said to Kuja.

"They’re our chickens…" Kuja explained, though even he was aware that that wasn’t much of an explanation. It wasn’t like he didn’t eat meat. Zidane caught rabbits and fish; they bought ham and sometimes even processed chickens from the morning market. But it was different in this case. He’d felt the same hesitation when it came to the little bird he’d been treating back at the abandoned shack.

Marcus just shook his head and let the matter drop. They were only chickens to him, but to Kuja, they were pets, just like the cat. Even though Marcus had never had pets, like Blank, he could understand the desire to bond with someone or something. It wasn’t exactly like a family, but there were similarities.

Baku had fallen silent again during Kuja’s interaction with Blank and Marcus but the details hadn’t escaped his attention. He could see that the two younger Tantalus members were starting to warm up to the former mage, and he wasn’t exactly sure whether that was a good thing or not. He had no problem giving Kuja the benefit of the doubt; it wasn’t like his own hands were squeaky clean. But he wasn’t convinced that things could work out in the long run – reality wasn’t always kind. What if Kuja got caught? What if he regained his powers - along with his ambitions - and decided to go back to his old ways? Plus Zidane had never expressed an interest in men before… did he really understand what that meant? The last thing he wanted was to see a heartbroken Zidane trying to beg his way back into Tantalus after another relationship fiasco.

"So ya think this is a serious relationship? Sounds to me like yer just playing house. And if things don’t work out, what then? Yer gonna come cryin’ back to me, that’s what!" Baku said sternly. He had to take the hard line with Zidane. The young thief needed to understand, needed to show some responsibility. If Zidane could only whine and complain in response, he’d deserve a smack upside the head at the very least. And if worse came to worse, Baku had no qualms about reporting Kuja’s whereabouts to the appropriate parties in exchange for protection for Zidane.

Zidane straightened up. He could feel Kuja shifting nervously under his hands. He gave him a quick, reassuring squeeze, but kept his hold loose enough so that Kuja knew he could leave if he felt too overwhelmed. "This isn’t a game. I intend to be with Kuja for as long as he’ll have me. The rest of his life, the rest of my life, whatever happens… that’s how serious I am."

"And ya think that’s love? Isn’t this just more of you feelin’ guilty ‘cuz ya owe him?"

That, at least, was something Zidane felt confident in addressing. "Guilt wouldn’t explain my desire for him."

Kuja’s face colored as he sank down in his seat, as if he was trying to vanish. Even without looking up to confirm he knew everyone’s eyes were on him again.

Zidane quirked a smile. He probably could’ve expressed that another way. "I’m attracted to him" could’ve sufficed. But that wasn’t quite the same, was it? He wanted to hold Kuja, to love him, to feel his weight pressing against his side at night and wake up with his arms around him each morning. He longed to dance with him at Millie and Clyde’s wedding, at the next town festival… and at many more events, for years to come.

Baku rolled his eyes at Zidane’s lovestruck grin, though the motion was hidden behind his goggles, before he turned his attention back to the former mage sinking in his seat. "And you… what’s with that reaction? Ya tellin’ me you never been with anyone else before?"

"Of course I have!" Kuja blurted out defensively before he could stop himself. He’d been miffed that his ability to seduce and manipulate people would be in question. But now he realized, he shouldn’t have taken the bait… That wasn’t exactly something to brag about, to Zidane’s "father" of all people.

Baku pressed on. "So why Zidane? Why not someone else? Or is this ‘cuz ya don’t have anywhere else ta go?"

"That’s not it…" Kuja protested, though he couldn’t deny there was some truth in that. He didn’t have anywhere else to go, but that wasn’t why he stayed, why he’d jumped in front of a dragon. He’d done that because… "He’s not someone I can replace." He tightened his lips, unable to… no, not wanting to - explain it further. Things like Zidane stroking his hair and kissing him on the forehead, even all the stupid questions like what Kuja’s favorite color was and how he wanted his eggs, that was between the two of them. Even if Baku was Zidane’s family, it wasn’t for him to know. Nor did Baku need to know of Kuja’s foolish fantasy, that it was Zidane who made him wonder if a future was a possibility, even though he’d long since given up on hope.

"Oh? But you had no problem leavin’ him before."

Kuja’s breath hitched slightly. "I didn’t want him to become like me." His gaze slid down, then sideways. "I’d like to think, I did the right thing."

Baku’s eyes widened slightly as he watched Kuja’s expression soften, the saddest, sweetest smile gracing his lips. It made him look even younger than when the older man had first gotten a glimpse of him, all those years ago.

"Gods, are you…" Baku began, before he managed to catch himself. He had almost asked Kuja if he really was in love with Zidane, as impossible as that seemed, but he didn’t need to hear it in words when Kuja had already given him the answer.

With a long, drawn out exhaled sigh, Baku leaned back in his chair to stare up at the ceiling. He was still pretty sure that this wouldn’t work out in the long run. But all relationships had an element of chance to them. And there was no guarantee things would be any better for them if they were apart. So if their feelings were mutual, then, who was he to stand in the way?

Kuja started as Baku began guffawing loudly. It was just as startling when the burly man rocked forward in his seat to plant his large hand on top of Kuja’s head and begin ruffling his hair.

"Ahh, I really wish I’d picked you up back then…" Baku said when he finally withdrew, satisfied, as a scowling Kuja tried to finger comb his hair back into some semblance of style. At least he was no longer wallowing in whatever funk all the questioning had put him in.

Zidane couldn’t help but chuckle. Kuja sure didn’t look happy, but since Baku had treated Kuja like he was just one of the kids in Tantalus, that meant he approved of him. "Here, I’ll fix it for you real quick," he told Kuja, gesturing at the bathroom. He’d take the opportunity to explain to Kuja that things seemed to be smoothed over with Baku now too.

They emerged a couple of minutes later, with Kuja’s hair now braided just on one side with the ribbon tied slightly below the ear. Blank nodded in approval. "Now that Kuja looks perfect again, is there some place we can grab lunch before we go? The snack earlier was great, but we’ve had a long day already."

Zidane frowned. "You have to leave so soon?"

"Well you know how it is. The show must go on, in Treno. We only had a little time to spare to look for you," Marcus explained, pushing away from the table and standing up. "We need to get back to the rendezvous spot this afternoon, and it’s on the other side of the valley."

Zidane nodded, then tried to remember if anyone in town had reserved a boat for use later in the day. He was pretty sure his schedule was free and clear. "I guess we can have lunch at the tavern in town then. It’s only about a 20 minute walk away."

"Sure, sounds good," Blank said as he stood up as well, with Baku following suit at his own pace.

"Lead the way!" Baku barked as he pointed at the door.

Kuja was the first one out, followed by the trio of visitors. Zidane took up the rear so he could lock up the house, then he ran to catch up with Kuja and grab hold of his hand. He felt wonderfully giddy, hearing three sets of footsteps falling in pace behind him, bantering back when a joke was thrown his way, swinging his hand with Kuja’s as they walked side by side. Though he hadn’t needed his family’s approval to have a relationship with Kuja, he hadn’t realized how much he’d wanted it, even though he was no longer a kid and no longer under Baku’s roof. It just felt good knowing they were okay with it.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

- With this chapter, I’m all caught up cross-posting to AO3!

- I feel a little bad for leaving Cinna out of the scene but I didn't have a role for him to play in this chapter, plus someone had to be in charge of Tantalus during Baku's absence. Ruby would've been interesting here as well, but in the game she'd pretty much struck off on her own, so it wouldn't make any sense for her to appear here. Other than Baku the one guy I absolutely had to have present was Blank because he's not only the one Zidane's probably closest to, but he's also the most level headed guy in the group, and Baku seems to value his input more than any of the other members.

- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!

Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Good Company" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.

Chapter Text

Gilgamesh hadn’t really been looking to cash in on a bounty. He’d been hunting for weapons to add to his collection. Armor had never held the same appeal. But when he spotted a sizeable shipment of chest armor and armlets being unloaded in a store, crafted from Grand Dragon bone and scale, it had been unusual enough to catch his interest.

Grand Dragons weren’t commonly hunted since they were tough to bring down without a group. Too young a dragon and the scales and hide were too soft, and while the scales, skin and bones of an old dragon made ideal crafting material, their claws and teeth and venom were also much more developed and dangerous.

Upon closer inspection he noticed this particular shipment had come from Gorge Valley, which ran along the southern edge of the continent. But how had common folk from a nondescript mining and logging area gotten a hold of the raw materials? Even if they’d been lucky enough to come across a recently deceased dragon, it would take more than an ordinary axe or saw to effectively break through the scales. So they had to have some skilled craftsmen around –or possibly a group of hunters powerful enough to take down dragons. And surely powerful warriors had access to powerful weapons…

Well, it wasn’t like he had any particular place to be. Maybe it would be worth his while to make his way south again, taking the scenic route and detouring through the villages dotting the valley on the way to Treno. He had the feeling that there was something interesting to be found…

* * *

It was cutting it closer than Zidane would’ve liked, but he was grateful that the woodworker’s guild had scheduled one final delivery just before the end of the year. Delivery days were his only chance to get out of Nil and while Gorge was only marginally larger, it had a more varied selection of goods thanks to a thriving import and export market.

Kuja’s birthday was just around the corner. Or… something like that. Zidane hoped his lover didn’t mind being assigned a birth date since he didn’t actually have one; by his own admission he’d been "adding on a year in January." So Zidane had settled on January 1st: it made sense with what Kuja had been doing, and frankly Zidane couldn’t wait to celebrate it, so why not do it as soon as possible? If Kuja really didn’t like it maybe they could pick another date together; that would be fine as well, because then it’d be a joint decision.

After helping the woodworkers unload the barge, Zidane split off from the group and headed down the main street of town. He’d spotted a couple of shops before that had caught his interest. One was just a general goods store, slightly larger than the one the Cleyrans ran but just as cluttered with assorted items from all over the continent. The other was a small shop that sold some locally produced goods. Zidane headed towards the latter first, hoping to find something interesting and unique.

Most of the items in the store were utilitarian, which was only to be expected. Though Kuja was a surprisingly practical guy, that wasn’t quite the sort of thing Zidane was looking for. But in a back corner Zidane spotted some bins filled with assorted glass beads and droplets in various sizes. Some of them nearly rivaled gemstones in brilliance and color, and each one was slightly different from the rest. Zidane considered the possibility of turning a unique find some into jewelry, then began digging through the bins.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town – which was a matter of yards, given the town’s size – a discouraged Gilgamesh was giving serious thought to wrapping up his little side trip. Following the trail of the armor, he’d come to Gorge only to discover that the source of the dragon scales had been an even tinier neighboring town and that there was, in fact, no party of dragon hunters with fine weapons. Apparently the old dragon had been a nuisance and somehow the locals had wounded it with traps before figuring out a way to dispatch it.

There probably was no point in browsing the local general store either if the weapons and armor shop hadn’t carried anything of interest, but as was his habit, Gilgamesh headed in that direction; since he was already in town he ought to maximize his trip and have a look around. Maybe they’d have some Tetra Card Master cards that he didn’t have, or something like that.

A minute later Gilgamesh was out of the shop and kicking a pebble down the street. He was sure now, this was a wasted trip. But just as he was about to start heading out of town, something in a small side shop caught his eye.

A tail? It was hardly the most unusual thing he’d seen; he himself had an extra pair of arms. But this particular tail seemed both unique and familiar to him: golden blonde, carried upright and swiveling about like a monkey’s tail behind its crouching owner.

So it was a Genome, then. They were still a rare sight in the Mist Continent. Gilgamesh had met a pair of them on the outskirts of Alexandria and a trio in Treno, wandering aimlessly about like easy marks. He wondered if this one was as clueless as the others.

Then the Genome suddenly straightened up and turned his head, and Gilgamesh slid behind a post just in time to get out of line of sight. There was something about this Genome that was different from the others. For one, he didn’t seem to be out and about with a companion. He also seemed a lot more aware of his surroundings; he’d sensed that Gilgamesh was staring in his direction.

Isn’t that… the guy in the wanted posters? Gilgamesh thought as the Genome shook his head, then knelt back down and began examining beads again. He’d only caught a glimpse of the blonde’s face beneath his hood, but he was pretty sure, it was him – Zidane Tribal. He’d had dealings with the guy a couple times before, over rounds of Tetra Card Master. Gilgamesh didn’t forget the faces of those he’d lost to. Now, that seemed a fortunate thing to recall.

Thrilled at finding a prize worth far more than any run-of-the-mill weapon from a random shop, Gilgamesh quickly headed over to the town’s tavern, taking a table by the window that offered a good view of the town center. He wasn’t sure if Zidane was a resident of the town, just passing through, or what. That was information he’d need, if he hoped to collect the reward.

While Gilgamesh took his time picking at a plate of food, both to blend in and to pass the time, a grinning Zidane finally emerged from the shop he’d been at, then headed over to the general store. The blonde paused to admire something in the store’s window, then disappeared inside.

Gilgamesh congratulated himself for finding such a perfect vantage point… from his seat he had a clear view into the shop itself. He could see Zidane pointing at a cape that was on display and checking out items in a jewelry case. He could even see Zidane counting out some coins for his purchases. Zidane exited the shop with a package tucked under his arm before heading off in the direction of the town’s docks.

Completely unaware of the fact that he’d been spotted, Zidane smiled as he reached into his pocket and fingered a little satin bag within. He must’ve spent a good half-hour looking at beads, trying to find the perfect one. The one that finally caught his eye was a clear droplet with a ribbon of crimson flecked with a tiny amount of gold and silver, swirling through the center like a flame frozen in time. It reminded him instantly of the moment he’d opened his eyes to see Kuja Tranced before him, standing as a wall between him and a dragon.

Maybe it was too simple a gift, just a glass bead on a delicate silver chain, but Zidane didn’t ever remember seeing Kuja wear jewelry, instead preferring ornamentation on his clothing. A necklace hopefully wasn’t too much of a stretch. Even if Kuja didn’t wear it regularly, as long as he reached for it every once in a while, it was good enough.

Zidane’s feet carried him back to the docks, just as some of the woodworkers were beginning to return to the barge as well. Zidane pushed aside his concerns about his lover’s gift and rolled up his sleeves and got back to work, helping to load up emptied delivery crates along with others that were now filled with various crafting materials and tools, or just miscellaneous items that they’d bartered for. Bit by bit, the space that had been cleared out on arrival started to fill back up. By the time they left Gorge a couple of hours later, the barge was almost as fully loaded as when it had arrived.

* * *

Kuja was thankful that Millie’s wedding was scheduled for early summer – even though he was working on the train for her dress whenever he had time, he figured he’d need a few months to finish it, given how complicated the design was. To commemorate what had brought the couple together, he wanted to depict Clyde protecting Millie from a dragon’s attack, all in golden threads and beads and ribbon.

He paused after finishing a line of decorative stitches to stretch a little, glancing out the window for any sign of Zidane’s return. The younger man had gone to help the woodworkers deliver some goods for finishing in the next town. Marquetry boxes needed locking clasps, cabinet doors and carved mirror frames needed glass insets, small vanity items needed to be decorated. Then everything got shipped out from there, sold all over Gaia as "Gorge’s Fine Goods."

Kuja wondered if there was a market for his embroidery outside of their town, but given that it wasn’t safe for him to leave, that was probably a moot point. At least money was no longer much of a concern… the town had given them nearly a quarter of the profits from the sale of materials harvested from the dragon. That sum would help support them for quite a while.

After gently nudging Silky off his thigh, the former mage put aside his work and got up to add more wood to the stove. Cold weather had never agreed with him – magic had been a perfect counter to it, but he had to admit an efficient stove wasn’t a bad substitute when it came to warding off the chill.

He sat back down and resumed staring out the window. It was almost impossible to believe that one year ago, he’d been trapped in an old house that was falling apart, in danger of freezing to death with barely enough food or firewood to sustain himself. He’d spent countless hours staring at the blank white wilderness, searching in vain for any sign of Zidane’s return. He’d been sure his fate was to die alone and forgotten. And now… he was comfortably warm in a cozy little house. He had a pet cat and plenty to eat and customers who paid him for honest work. And even though he still found himself looking out the window as he waited for Zidane, he no longer doubted that the younger man would come back. Because even though Zidane had broken his promise to him… even though Kuja had thought he could never trust him again… things had changed. Zidane had chosen him over his fiancée, over his friends… He’d proclaimed to his family that he intended to be with Kuja for the rest of his life. No one had ever done anything like that for him before.

As if rewarding him for his faith, there was some movement outside; Kuja brushed aside the curtains enough to see some of the woodworkers leaving the docks. They were all people he knew, but Kuja was accustomed to being cautious, so he stayed put and waited for Zidane to finish up outside.

The thief was whistling happily when he finally strolled through the door. He was in a very good mood – not only did he have Kuja’s birthday gift in the inner pocket of his vest, but the day’s work had paid well, enough to help pay for a very nice velvet cloak for Kuja, which he immediately delivered with a flourish.

"What’s this?" Kuja asked as Zidane draped the cloak over his shoulders.

"I know it’s been getting pretty chilly in the mornings, and the cloak you’ve been using wasn’t cutting it anymore," Zidane replied. "I saw this in a store window and figured you’d like it."

Kuja’s mouth opened in surprise, but any protest he might’ve had died unspoken on his tongue. Zidane looked so pleased with himself; Kuja didn’t want to upset him by implying that he didn’t appreciate being given something nice. It wasn’t like he hadn’t received presents before – it was a common tactic to curry one’s favor. But Zidane wasn’t like everyone else… he’d simply noticed that Kuja had been a little cold and decided to do something about it.

"It must’ve been expensive," Kuja ended up saying instead as he fingered the plush blue-violet fabric. He knew quality materials when he saw them.

Zidane waved it off. "If it’s for you it’s fine. Just a ‘thank you’ would suffice..."

"Thank you," Kuja replied, sinking into the soft fabric. It really was warmer than the one he had.

"… And maybe a kiss," the blonde added with a grin, figuring that was a suitable reward.

Kuja answered with a small smile of his own, then obliged with a kiss on the cheek, then another on the lips. It certainly wasn’t a bad price to pay, and Zidane rewarded him with a hug as well on top of everything.

"So warm," Kuja murmured. Whether it was because of the cloak or the hug, he wasn't sure.

Zidane chuckled in his ear. "Glad you like it!"

Kuja shivered slightly, and was left wondering why. He certainly wasn’t cold anymore, but every time Zidane did something unexpected like this, he felt a weird tingle shoot through him. His happiness… made Zidane happy. And the reverse was true, too. Kuja still didn’t get it – it was simply too foreign to him – but maybe that was what made Zidane… special.

* * *

Steiner sighed as he headed down to the castle’s main gate. Despite the big reward that had been offered for information leading to Zidane and Kuja’s capture – or because of it – they’d unfortunately gotten nothing but a bunch of false leads in the past seven months. It was starting to look like the two Genomes were going to get away scot-free.

It didn’t help that all the Genomes except Kuja tended to look similar. He supposed it was understandable that a random male Genome could be mistaken for the one-time Prince of Alexandria. But even though they’d revised the posters, it was difficult describing and illustrating the difference between Zidane and his brethren.

So Steiner really had no illusion that this next claimant had any valid information. Still, it was his job to check out each lead, a task he held pride in as Beatrix no longer had the time or the interest in continuing what she considered a fruitless pursuit.

The first thing he noticed when he arrived at the guard’s post was that the figure waiting for him looked oddly familiar. It wasn’t like he’d ever met anyone else before with four arms…

"You… you’re Garganesh! I should’ve known better than to think there’d be an actual lead," Steiner growled as he walked into the room.

"It’s Gilgamesh," Gilgamesh clarified. "And my info is the real deal… There’s a reward, after all."

"As if I could trust you, you scoundrel!" Steiner exclaimed. The man was a thief, a con artist, a gambler… "’Thick as thieves,’ they say. As if you’d turn in another of your ilk."

"That Zidane fella is no brother of mine."

Steiner snorted. Somehow he wasn’t all that surprised to learn that a thief would sell out another thief without a thought. Anything for money. "How can you be sure it was him anyhow, and not some random Genome? They all look similar enough to be siblings."

"But I remembered him, enough to know it was him for sure," Gilgamesh insisted. He hesitated, then added, "He was out shopping. Bought some nice things, jewelry and a cloak. Seemed to be doing pretty well for himself."

Steiner grit his teeth, but paused to consider the information Gilgamesh was baiting him with. "And… there wasn’t anyone else with him?"

"No one with silver hair," Gilgamesh replied with a sliver of a smile.

"So where was he??" Steiner demanded, taking a half step closer, his armor clanking with the movement.

Gilgamesh licked his lips, unable to completely hide his nervousness – it had been a risk coming here, but the reward had been too big to pass up. "Hey now… you pay, I talk, right?"

Steiner grunted. "Only if your information pans out."

"Well… ah…." Gilgamesh frowned. He knew his lead was solid - well, as solid as it could be, given that he didn’t have Zidane’s exact location. But if he gave up that information without some coin going the other way, what guarantee did he have that this other man wouldn’t take the reward for himself?

"As Captain of the Knights of Pluto and as a man of honor, you have my word: if you provide information leading to the capture of the fugitives Zidane and Kuja, the kingdom of Alexandria will pay the promised reward," Steiner said, figuring correctly that a con man wasn’t going to trust someone to not con him in return.

Gilgamesh looked around the room. There were a pair of knights standing at attention at the entrance, but neither had said a thing since asking him to wait for an audience with Sir Steiner. Would they be good enough – or willing enough - as witnesses, if Steiner didn’t stay true to his word? "Erm… can I get that in writing?"

Steiner sighed heavily. "Will a letter stating the same, signed by myself and General Beatrix, suffice?"

Gilgamesh considered it. He almost wanted to demand the queen’s signature as well, though the general of Alexandria was certainly the next best thing. He knew of the general’s reputation, as did everyone else on the continent - she was not a woman to be trifled with. Supposedly she’d single-handedly killed one hundred opponents in a single battle! And then it occurred to him that he’d perhaps overplayed his hand… now that he’d convinced Steiner that he had a lead, there was no way the fearsome General Beatrix would let him walk away without shaking every last bit of the information out of him, one way or another.

The four-armed man swallowed hard, then extended one hand. "It’s a deal then."

Steiner pushed aside his distaste for hooligans and accepted the handshake. He still wasn’t sure just how good the promised information was, but for the sake of bringing two fugitives to justice, he was willing to make a deal with the devil himself.

* * *

On the first morning of the new year, Zidane couldn’t help but wake up early in anticipation of Kuja’s birthday. Normally he’d get up and prepare breakfast, but on a special day like this, he was going to change it up and take Kuja out, which meant he could give in to his desire to stay in bed and watch Kuja as he slept.

Despite the fact that Zidane thought he did a pretty good job keeping the cottage warm and toasty through the night, Kuja was burrowed into the nest of blankets - just his upper face and the bridge of his nose was visible; everything else was buried under the sheets. It was ridiculously cute, though Kuja would hiss at him if he ever said so. Zidane was tempted to peel back an inch or two, but then he thought of something far better and dove under the covers instead.

Kuja’s body woke well before his mind did. One minute he was dreaming of nothing in particular, the next, his eyes were snapping open in confusion even as his body arced and twisted on its own. It took him several seconds to register what was happening, and seemingly just as long to make his arm move to lift up the blanket.

Zidane’s lips detached from Kuja’s cock with a pop. "Good morning!" Zidane chirped, smiling brightly, before he resumed sucking.

Kuja’s brow wrinkled. He still couldn’t figure out if he was dreaming or not. But, it felt too real… and he couldn’t think of a reason to question what Zidane was doing. It wasn’t like sex in the morning was something unusual for them, but Zidane never woke him up just to ask for it. The silver-haired man grunted, then let the sheets drift back down.

It wasn’t the worst way to start the morning, Kuja decided as he came with a soft gasp. He waited for Zidane to get on top of him and continue what he’d started, then frowned slightly when the younger Genome emerged to lie down by his side instead.

Zidane quickly wiped off his lips with the back of his hand, then grinned. "Happy birthday!"

"Ehh?" Kuja mumbled, even as his brain woke up enough to point out that it was the first day of January. Did that mean Zidane considered this his "birthday?"

"I promised I’d make sure to celebrate your birthday this year, remember?" Zidane couldn’t resist reaching out to lightly cup Kuja’s face.

"Birthday?" Kuja murmured, leaning into the touch, his eyes sliding shut. If the blonde had said something like that, the older man couldn’t recall. But the words warmed him, just as Zidane’s gentle touch did. As nice as it had been to wake up awash in sexual ple