Title: The Show Must Go On
Author: bnomiko
Rating: PG-13 / R to NC-17
Pairing(s): Zidane x Kuja, Zidane + Dagger, Blank + Marcus
Spoilers: through the end of the game
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.
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. 10: Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)

* * *

When I'm gone
No need to wonder if I ever think of you
The same moon shines
The same wind blows
For both of us, and time is but a paper moon...
Be not gone

Hear my song
Still think of me the way you've come to think of me
The nights grow long
But dreams live on
Just close your pretty eyes and you can be with me...
Dream on

- "Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)," Queen

* * *

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: May 11, 2014