Title: The Show Must Go On
Author: bnomiko
Rating: PG-13 to R (maybe NC-17)
Pairing(s): eventual Zidane x Kuja
Spoilers: through the end of the game
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.
Summary: "Take care of Kuja." Zidane wondered if he’d misunderstood what Garland had meant by that. A canon inspired tumble through the events at the end of the game and beyond, hitting Kuja’s issues along the way.
Archived at: http://www.phenixsol.com/Miko/FF/

* * *

The Show Must Go On

Ch. 1: The Show Must Go On

* * *

Empty spaces, what are we waiting for
Abandoned places, I guess we know the score
On and on, does anybody know what we are looking for
Another hero, another mindless crime
Behind the curtain in the pantomime
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore

The show must go on, The show must go on
Inside my heart is breaking
My make-up may be flaking, but my smile... still stays on

Whatever happens I'll leave it all to chance
Another heartache, another failed romance
On and on, does anybody know what we are living for
I guess I'm learning (I'm learning)
I must be warmer now
I'll soon be turning (turning, turning) round the corner now
Outside the dawn is breaking
But inside in the dark I'm aching to be free

My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies
Fairy tales of yesterday will grow but never die
I can fly, my friends

The show must go on, yeah yeah
The show must go on, go on, go on
I'll face it with a grin
I'm never giving in, on with the show

I'll top the bill, I'll overkill
I have to find the will to carry on
On with the, on wïth the show

The show must go on, go on, go on...

- "The Show Must Go On," Queen

* * *

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:

April 27, 2012