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 "Keep Yourself Alive" are performed and recorded by Queen. Final Fantasy IX is the creation and property of Square Co., Ltd. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.
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. 13: Keep Yourself Alive

* * *

I was told a million times
Of all the people in my way
How I had to keep on trying
And get better every day
But if I crossed a million rivers
And I rode a million miles
Then I'd still be where I started
Same as when I started

Keep yourself alive, come on, keep yourself alive
Ooh, it'll take you all your time and money
Honey you'll survive

Do you think you're better every day?
No, I just think I'm two steps nearer to my grave

- "Keep Yourself Alive," Queen

* * *

The migrating songbirds soaring through the skies overhead were confirmation that spring was indeed returning to the Outer Continent. Kuja squinted up at the tiny bodies silhouetted against the sun, slightly jealous of the fact that they could fly when he no longer had the option to do so.

His migration would be on foot, a daunting task to be sure, but he’d done as much planning as he could to maximize his odds for success. He had his route through the Outer Continent pretty well mapped out… The Dwarves had been kind enough to give him the location of other outposts further south, one on the edge of the Donna Plains and another in fairly close proximity to Fossil Roo. They’d be convenient for restocking supplies, though he’d have to be cautious and make sure that no Black Mages or Genomes were in the vicinity during his visit.

Everything started off well enough. He made good time getting down the mountain trails, passing the familiar supply depot and starting across the wide expanse of plains while it was still morning. With every step he took, he felt a little more confident that he could do it, that the journey wouldn’t be impossible.

Unfortunately, Kuja's optimism began wearing thin as the day dragged on. By the time he stopped, early in the evening, he was completely fatigued and sweaty and grimy with road dust. His feet were already beginning to blister. He was pleased with the distance he’d managed to cover, but uncertain whether or not he’d be able to keep up his current pace – ten hours of brisk walking a day, with a full backpack, didn’t seem sustainable. He hoped dinner and a good night’s sleep would be enough to help recharge him for the next day.

After setting up camp by an outcropping of rocks, he dined on bread and overly tart berries that he’d picked along the way, then got a fire going for the night, for both safety and warmth. With no one to watch his back and no way of setting up shields or a perimeter alarm spell he was worried that wild beasts might attack him while he slept. But he also had to keep in mind that a fire that was too large or bright would attract undue attention from bandits or otherwise overly curious folk. There probably wasn’t as much risk of that out in the middle of nowhere though.

When it was finally time to turn in for the evening, Kuja quickly realized that the bedroll didn’t provide enough padding to prevent him from feeling every single pebble and ridge in the dirt – and there went his hopes for a "good night’s rest." He hadn’t had to sleep on the ground in years; it was amazing how those old memories sprung forth the moment he lay down.

He rolled onto his back and stared up at the night sky, a sea of the deepest blue, punctuated by the twinkle of diamond lights. It was eternally twilight in Treno, nearly as dark as this; the lights from the city held complete darkness at bay while greedily gobbling up starlight as well.

He remembered coming to in the slums, his head throbbing, with nothing but his name and whatever shredded bits of memory that had survived his master’s purge. The sky had been the only roof over his head - his body and his intellect, his only possessions. But at least he hadn’t remained long in that pathetic position. After awkwardly fumbling his way through those first few intimate encounters, his mind had mended enough for him to understand the situation he was in, to realize that he needed to be choosier with who he lay with, if he were to survive in this new world. So by the time he was introduced to Mr. King, owner of the King Family Auction House and wealthiest man in the city, he’d recognized he’d hit the jackpot, and he’d known what to do. Seducing the man hadn’t been hard at all; worming his way into his business affairs and his subconscious, that had taken a bit more time and effort. But the payout had been worth it.

It had been Mr. King that had refined Kuja's look and mannerisms, to make him as appealing a bargaining chip as possible for his black market dealings. It was amazing what could be rented or purchased or bartered for, as long as the price was right.

Sometimes Kuja would entertain guests, both male and female, at his benefactor’s decadent parties. Oftentimes he’d draw an audience, along with praise for his graceful beauty and willingness to please. He’d smile as if their words and touches pleased him, while memorizing names and faces for blackmail later on. There was so much gossiping and backstabbing, it was hard to keep track of it all, but he did his best, knowing that for Mr. King, information was just another thing to sell to the highest bidder.

Kuja had been grateful for the lessons he’d learned. When it came time to cut himself free – one master had been bad enough; two was intolerable - it hadn’t been hard to manipulate a newer "employee" into repaying Mr. King for all that he’d done for them. Everyone agreed that while it was unfortunate that Mr. King met his end while working on some unstable kid from the slums, it certainly wasn’t unexpected. And how fortunate it was for the estate and the King legacy that the childless Mr. King had recently announced that he had legally adopted the most clever and charming of his assistants, giving him an heir and successor. Of course they all had their suspicions that Kuja had played a role in bringing about his sudden turn of fortune, but no one was stupid enough to say that to his face.

For a moment the former mage wondered what happened to the auction house. It was too profitable, too prestigious, too central to Treno’s image, to have gone to ruin. Maybe once the city council had established that "Mr. Kuja King" of the auction house was the same Kuja who’d wreaked havoc in Alexandria and Burmecia before himself falling in battle, they’d voted that the property had been abandoned and took over ownership. Or perhaps there were different factions still tussling and fighting over control, as certainly there’d been quite a few parties wanting a piece of the business for themselves.

He supposed it didn’t matter anymore; it wasn’t as if he wanted to go back there anyhow. It hadn’t been "home." In the end the auction house had just been a means to an end... but Garland was gone now. No longer did his voice whistle through Kuja’s thoughts like an endless wind. It was dead silent now.

Kuja sighed. He was tired… and he had a long way to go. Despite the cold and discomfort and the lingering stench of those early days in the gutters of Treno, he fell into a deep sleep after only a few minutes of tossing around.

He awoke the next morning with the rising sun serving as unwanted alarm. Blinking back fading dreams, he took stock of his condition, groaning softly as he did so; his muscles were stiff and his back aching. But… he had a schedule to adhere to, so he got up with a sigh, packed his supplies as quickly as he could, and hit the road as the sun began climbing the sky once again.

Miles of yellow earth dotted by newly sprouted grasses and budding brush slowly passed by as Kuja put one foot in front of the other. By the afternoon his legs were starting to throb noticeably and his feet felt leaden. His pack of supplies seemed to be getting heavier by the hour; the straps dug into his shoulders. He was tempted to take a break but he knew if he sat down he’d find it hard to get back up and get moving again, so he paused to sip some water under the shade of a small, sparse tree, then continued to walk on.

A slight movement at the edge of the path caught his eye. Kuja froze in his tracks. There was a creature – some sort of spiny serpent? - peeking out from behind thick bramble. He held his breath as he crept forward an extra step for a closer look. It appeared it had not yet noticed him.

He had a few choices… he could find another route, which would require a bit of backtracking. Or he could try to slip by, taking his chances on the thing being harmless in spite of its impressive spikes, which perhaps functioned as camouflage against the thorny bushes. Or he could face it head on. The first was the safer option, but it would eat up some time. The last… well, the creature wasn’t terribly large. Kuja was pretty sure that even someone with his limited fighting abilities could take it on. But there was no reason to fight if it really posed him no danger…

Decision made, he got a good grip on his staff, just in case, then began creeping past the monster, making sure to keep his eyes trained on it, looking for any sort of threatening movement. The thing just sat there sedately as Kuja inched by, until the moment the cookpot dangling from the backpack caught and clattered against the branch of a dead tree.

The spines bristled and the monster began weaving back and forth. Kuja swore under his breath and swung his staff as hard as he could, hoping to at least stun it, but instead of knocking it out, he heard a very angry roar and a large, lizard-like body rose up from the thicket. Kuja staggered back a few steps. It hadn’t been a snake at all, but the tail of a Dracozombie, a rather hideous beast with tattered, leathery skin that clung in patches over rotten looking flesh. A putrid stench emanated from its toothy maw. It was nothing like his elegant Silver Dragon, though it was almost as large.

There was a saying that one should let sleeping dragons lie. Unfortunately this one was quite awake now. And Kuja doubted he could beat it hard enough to make it to go back to "sleep."

At the height of his power, a single spell would’ve easily reduced the monster to ashes. But now, all Kuja's hands could do was swing around a staff ineffectively. So he chose another option – he turned tail and ran.

Kuja wasn’t nearly as athletic as Zidane. Sitting in a cabin hadn’t done a thing to improve his cardiovascular conditioning. But adrenaline provided an amazingly effective boost. The Dracozombie gave chase, crashing through the bramble, but the silver-haired Genome darted just out of its reach, relying on speed he didn’t even know he had. He instinctively used his tail for balance, allowing him to make tight turns through the increasingly thick brush. Thorns tore at his cloak and threatened to dislodge his pack of supplies, which swayed and thudded against his back, but somehow he managed to keep both his footing and his belongings as he put enough distance between himself and the dragon, to end the pursuit.

Skidding to a halt by some rocks, the former mage panted for breath, his lungs working overtime, his legs shaking. He wondered if it was too late to turn back to the safety of the old house, but he was a good two days away, and there was nothing left for him there anyhow. He had no choice but to forge ahead.

* * *

The entire city of Alexandria was in a celebratory mood. There were visitors pouring in from all over Gaia; some were acquaintances, but many were simply well wishers wanting to be part of the big event.

Very few of them realized Prince Zidane was in their midst, making his way back to the castle, skirting the edge of the crowds with a heavy cloak drawn tightly over his all-too-obvious garb so that he wouldn’t draw attention. He too was enjoying the revelry and the citizens’ high spirits – it had put a smile on his face and a bouquet in his hand. The flowers had been given to him by an elderly florist with sharp eyes who’d recognized him when he’d paused by her stand; she'd insistently pressed the gift into his palm so he’d have something nice to present to his fiancée when he returned home. He hoped they’d be enough to get him out of the doghouse in case he got caught sneaking back in.

He still continued to have the occasional, nagging doubt about marrying Dagger, but figured they’d go away completely once they were husband and wife. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that everything really was going pretty smoothly, and that it’d be awesome to see all his friends again once the special day arrived. Having second thoughts… that really probably was just a combination of pre-wedding nerves and worry over Kuja, as he hadn’t gotten any recent updates on how the other Genome was doing. The last message Mikoto had sent simply said, "The package is on its way south." He chuckled as he wondered what type of wedding gift she had sent, considering concepts like love and marriage were that something she - and the rest of the Genomes – were still grappling with.

There was no doubt about what Tantalus would offer as their present. The entire group was already in Alexandria – they’d gotten there almost three weeks early in order to work on a special stage show for the celebration. Zidane had just gone to visit them, hoping to get a sneak preview and maybe even lend a hand if he could, but Blank had told him, "No peeking!" and booted Zidane off the ship.

He kicked at a pebble in his path as he headed towards the boat dock that provided passage across the castle moat. He was glad the wedding was making everyone happy, but he wished there was more he could do to contribute. He wanted to help out, even if he really didn’t know that much about what went into a wedding… that was just a part of who he was. But he was barely able to get a word in edgewise on anything; everyone else "knew best," like the gardeners supplying the flowers, the cooks planning the reception meal, the tailors crafting the clothes.

Pushing back his hood, Zidane nodded at the guards stationed at the dock. They immediately bowed before him, then hurried to prepare a gondola for immediate crossing.

Once on the other side, Zidane pulled off his cloak and tried to find a place to stash it, to make it less obvious that he’d gone out. He headed through the garden since he knew of a few good hiding spots in the back, but with the wedding so close the grounds were full of workers buzzing around busily, pruning bushes, gathering flowers, bedecking everything in ribbons. Part of the reception would take place in the garden, so it obviously had to look just as spectacular as the rest of the castle.

Truly, it would be a beautiful wedding, fit for a queen – a perfect fantasy. He couldn’t complain. But for some reason, he couldn’t find the sense of excitement and anticipation that he knew ought to be in his heart. He felt… distant, almost. Like he was looking at a stage set for a play he wasn’t part of, even though this was what he’d wanted…

His thoughts turned to Kuja, as usual. He realized he’d never asked Kuja about where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do, even though it was Kuja’s life, his future. Realistically… they’d both known that the choice wasn’t Kuja’s to make. Finding a new home for the former mage would be a difficult enough task; it was asking for too much to have a pick of options as well. But wasn’t that a little like what Zidane was experiencing now? Here he was, the groom, the future king… and he barely had any say in his own wedding.

It was a good thing everyone was so busy; no one seemed to have noticed Zidane standing there, spacing out. He finally shook himself out of his distraction. Weddings were happy things; he didn’t know why he was moping over minor details when the important one – marrying the girl of his dreams – was all that really mattered.

Thinking he’d gotten away having snuck out, the blonde was just about to turn and head for a side entrance when suddenly someone tugged at the end of his ponytail. He whipped around in surprise. "Woah, you scared me!"

Dagger gave her fiancé a slight smile. "Sorry. You didn’t seem to hear me when I called to you."

"Oh… I was just admiring the garden. Stop and smell the roses and all that." He inhaled exaggeratedly to get his point across.

Dagger giggled softly. She knew she ought to scold him for having ditched his lessons – again – especially without notifying anyone, but for the sake of harmony before the wedding , she didn’t want to argue about it anymore, especially since it seemed Zidane had been trying harder as of late. At least, Doctor Tot hadn’t complained about absences or tardiness the past week, not until this morning. Besides, with Tantalus in town, it was very likely that Zidane had simply gone to visit with family.

She reached out to finger his hair again, cocking her head in thought. "It’s getting pretty long, isn’t it?"

Zidane started to pull away before stopping himself. Kuja had told him the longer length suited him; he hadn’t cut it since then. But Dagger was his fiancée… and it wasn’t like it really mattered if Kuja liked his hair or not… "I guess. Should I trim it or something?"

She held her thumb and forefinger apart a few inches, then moved them a little closer together, then rethought it and moved them further apart again. "A little bit. It would make it look neater, don’t you think? Especially for the wedding."

Zidane shrugged. "Sure." If that was what she wanted, then he had no issue with it. It was only hair after all.

Then he remembered he was still holding the bouquet. He thrust it into her face before it fully sunk in just how weird it was to be giving her flowers, wildflowers at that, while standing in the royal garden, surrounded by carefully tended roses. Even Dagger, in her pristine white ruffled dress, looked just like a blossoming rose. "Um… here. I just wanted to say, I’m sorry for wandering off again…" he blurted out.

She smiled brightly as she accepted his offering. "Thank you!" And after looking around to ensure that not too many pairs of eyes were upon them, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek as a reward. "I know you’ve been trying a lot harder with your lessons lately, so I’m not mad. Just make sure you let someone know that you’re going to see your family next time, okay?"

Sometimes Zidane wasn’t sure if he was gaining a mother or a wife. But as she wasn’t upset, he smartly held his tongue and grinned lopsidedly at her instead.

He was spared the task of coming up with something else to say as heavy footsteps came tromping up to join them, accompanied by the rusty squeak of old armor hinges. Zidane turned his grin at the new arrival. "Hey, Steiner."

The knight made an exasperated sound at the casual greeting, but managed to pull himself together enough to bow and say, "Good afternoon, Prince Zidane. My apologies, Your Majesty, if this is a bad time, but the Red Rose is back in port and ready for your final inspection."

Dagger gave Zidane an apologetic look. What had once been her mother’s personal ship had been renovated twice, first into a steam-powered airship, and then just recently into a combination seaworthy cruiser and airship, thanks to Regent Cid’s technological know how. And soon, it would be taking them away on their honeymoon… they’d be traveling all over Gaia for a couple of weeks. Zidane already had one stop that he planned on making…

Zidane nodded at her, releasing his fiancée from any obligation she might’ve felt towards staying in the garden with him. Dagger smiled in return and promised to see him later at dinner before walking off with Steiner, leaving Zidane alone in the garden once again.

The Genome took in a deep breath of fragrant spring air, then after a last look around, headed back into the castle to find his tutor.

He had to admit, he felt a little lonely. It was ironic… Here he was, days before his wedding, surrounded by friends and family, but he felt more alone than he had with only Kuja by his side. It wasn’t like Kuja had been the best of company either, he’d been injured and ill-tempered part of the time and oddly evasive the rest. In the year Zidane had spent in the company of the other man, he really hadn’t learned all that much about him.

But even though Dagger was everything Zidane could’ve hoped for in a girl, even thought Zidane loved her and she loved him back, she was always so busy. And in those few moments of free time that she did have, there were so many restrictions on what they could and couldn’t do. He couldn’t take her out to lunch in a park or for a walk through town, and he definitely couldn’t spend the night in her room. That would change once they were husband and wife, of course. But Zidane was starting to wonder if that would be enough? It wasn’t like lovemaking was a magic pill that made everything perfect. That was something he’d learned the hard way.

He’d thought that getting married would fix everything. But now he saw that it wouldn’t be that simple. Still, he’d committed himself to that course of action. It had to work; he’d give his all to see it through.

* * *

Kuja was grateful his journey through Fossil Roo proved to be slightly less problematic than the opening leg, if far more disgusting. The Gargants were placid creatures, giant subterranean crickets that could cover great distances and unfortunately happened to smell of mildew. Unsurprisingly, the tunnels they called home reeked of the same odor. Kuja wondered if he’d ever get the stench out of his hair and clothing.

He dreamt about soaking in a bathtub full of sudsy water. He wished for soft rays of sunlight and a gentle, fresh breeze. Instead, he was greeted by a wet, unappealing, sight… Fossil Roo emptied out into a swamp. And the gray skies above threatened to add even more moisture to the mix; he could almost smell the rain, even with the swampy stench that wafted up from the boggy ground.

He normally loved the rain, not because he liked being wet, but because of the memories… It had been raining in Treno his first day on Gaia. As cold and miserable as he'd been, huddled on the streets, he’d had his first taste of freedom. The steady patter of raindrops and the sheer distance from Terra had muted Garland’s voice in his head to a faint whisper. He'd been free to make his own decisions, his own mistakes, even if it all was only an illusion.

And as silly as it sounded, even the slums had looked a little better after the rain had washed away some of the filth. The cobblestones and glass windowpanes glittered under the sputtering streetlights, while across the canals, the nobles’ district glowed even brighter with the promise of wealth and prosperity.

More recently, though just as significant… it had been raining the day he’d finally gotten proof that the unlikely specter of a little baby Genome who’d haunted his dreams was in fact, real… and no longer a child, but very nearly an adult. The sheer unexpectedness of the whole situation had caused Kuja to stay his hand, sparing both Zidane and his companions, on a day where they could’ve very easily perished, just as hundreds of soldiers in Burmecia had.

Of course, at the time, they’d been enemies… technically. But even though they’d fought one another, Kuja really hadn’t wanted to kill Zidane, no matter how much he’d threatened to do so, no matter how often Zidane had gotten in the way of his plans. Actually, the former mage had looked forward to their clashes. Every chance meeting, every battle, uncovered a little more of Kuja’s forgotten past, solidifying those shaky memories. It was a shame that not all of it could be recovered.

Kuja tried to tell himself that that was for the best, though. As far as he could tell, there hadn’t been anything worth remembering from that time beyond those few moments with Zidane. Surely nothing of importance had been lost…

The rain finally began to fall, softly at first, then in bigger drops that plunked onto Kuja's hood before sliding heavily off the side. Kuja tried tightening the cloak about his body and face, but gusts of wind managed to blow wayward droplets onto his skin and clothing.

He needed to find shelter but a swamp was definitely not where he wanted to be stopping. He felt exposed to more than just the elements - established pathways of well-worn stone and planks of wood told him that the swamp was inhabited. If he recalled correctly, the swamps were home to those curious creatures called the Qu. Zidane’s circle of friends included one; it would be a disaster to run into her/him here.

Thankfully the swamp wasn’t too expansive and what inhabitants there might have been, were absent. Kuja headed towards the south until boggy marsh yielded to lightly wooded grasslands which offered marginally better cover and far better footing, finally setting up camp under a few larger trees which offered the best shelter he was going to get for the time being.

He would’ve liked to keep going. It wasn’t that late in the day yet, and he needed to keep pushing if he wanted to get anywhere anytime soon. But all those days spent trying to find his way underground had left him disoriented. And slogging through the sticky muck had sapped away what little energy he had left. His leg muscles kept twitching and jerking, and the blisters on his feet stung from all the moisture that had seeped into his boots.

He also needed to think about his next course of action, now that he’d made it to the Mist Continent. The risk of being recognized was now far greater, so he had to choose his path carefully. He knew if he kept heading south he’d end up in Lindblum, Zidane’s "hometown." But even though Zidane had likely stopped by there to visit, it was far more probable that he was now in Alexandria, further to the northeast. Going there would be the biggest risk of all – there was a good chance he’d get discovered, no matter how careful he was. But if he wanted to find Zidane – and wasn’t that why he’d come? - then he had no choice but to take that chance.

Decision made, Kuja put away his map and compass and hunkered down in his bedroll, trying to ward off the increasingly heavy rain and chill. His stomach complained that he’d skipped dinner but he was too tired to want to eat and was running low on supplies anyhow. The last decent meal he’d had had come from a trio of prospectors down in Fossil Roo, who’d, after establishing that Kuja wasn’t there to muscle in on their claim, had been nice enough to give him a bit of their lunch along with directions on finding a way out. Kuja appreciated their help, but more than that, he was just glad that the tunnels were so dimly lit that they hadn’t gotten a good look at him.

He told himself as he nodded off that he’d make up for the missed meal the next day, along with the miles that he should’ve covered, even if he wasn’t sure if he could manage either.

By the time he awoke the next morning, the sun was up and the sky clear, as if it hadn’t been dismal and wet the night before. Kuja hoped it was a good omen – he needed something to help carry him through the rest of the journey. But although the weather was cooperating his body wasn’t. He was so stiff that it was a struggle to even stand, but he gritted his teeth and used his staff to help push himself upright. He took a few shaky, experimental steps, then sighed at himself. How was he going to manage ten hours of walking when he could barely keep on his feet?

It was a good thing he was used to lying to himself. He tried to keep his mind busy with stories or even random nonsense, so he’d "forget" just how slow he was moving. With some effort he wrung out as much residual rainwater as he could from his bedroll and clothing, then packed them up with the rest of his things. When he finally finished, he hefted his pack – which seemed to be getting heavier by the day, even as his supplies dwindled – onto his back, and staggered from the campsite.

He wasn’t sure how many days it’d take to get to Alexandria; he was pretty sure though that he was more than halfway to his destination. At least the weather remained consistently pleasant through the rest of the day… and the days that followed. With the rise and fall of the sun he could keep track of time once again. So every time he felt himself faltering he told himself it’d be just one more day. He’d only have to climb one last hill or ford one last river… And then as the days piled on, he told himself, it’d be just another hour, just one or two more steps… Anything was fine as long as he kept moving forward, no matter how slowly.

And then… it really was one last step that took him to the edge of the bluffs overlooking the beautiful city of Alexandria, shimmering like a mirage amongst the trees and rivers of the valley. Kuja couldn’t help but laugh in disbelief – he’d made it! He was so relieved that it felt like his body had gone completely numb; he had to look down to make sure he was still standing. The realization that somehow, he was, was enough to make him want to give in, and so he did, tugging his arms free of his backpack and letting it drop heavily onto the ground before he collapsed against it, exhausted and exhilarated. But as happy as he was to have reached his destination, he knew the trickiest part of his journey still lay ahead…

* * *

Author's Notes:

August 3, 2015