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 "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.
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. 11: Long Away

* * *

You might believe in heaven
I would not care to say
For every star in heaven
There's a sad soul here today
Wake up in the morning with a good face
Stare at the moon all day
Lonely as a whisper on a star chase
Does anyone care anyway
For all the prayers in heaven
So much of life's this way

Did we leave our way behind us
Such a long long way behind us
Who knows when, now who knows where
Where the light of day will find us?

- "Long Away," Queen

* * *

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: December 31, 2014