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

* * *

Here we stand or here we fall
History won't care at all
Make the bed, light the light
Lady mercy won't be home tonight

Rich or poor or famous for
Your truth it's all the same - oh no, oh no
Oh lock your door but rain is pouring
Through your window pane - oh no, yeah
Baby now your struggle's all vain

What the hell we fighting for?
Ah, just surrender and it won't hurt at all
You just got time to say your prayers
Eh, while you're waiting for the hammer to hammer to fall

- "Hammer to Fall," Queen

* * *

Very few people paid attention to the shuffling, hooded man making his way through the crowd. They only looked over long enough to make sure they weren’t going to accidentally brush up against him, to wrinkle their noses in disgust at how filthy he was.

It couldn’t be helped. If Kuja could’ve safely managed it, he would’ve gotten a room at an inn at some point in his journey – a bath, clean clothes, and a nice bed would’ve done wonders for his appearance and his well being. But there was one advantage about looking like a beggar… people were actively avoiding him, as if he were invisible. He never thought he’d be so happy to be ignored, but it was working in his favor this time.

That didn’t mean he was going to let his guard down of course. There were townspeople everywhere and many soldiers out and about as well; he’d never seen the streets of Alexandria so crowded in his life. Something was going on, though he didn’t know what it was yet. It wasn’t the queen’s birthday or the anniversary of the kingdom’s founding. But there were flowers and billowing ribbons festooning the street lamps and flagpoles and the citizens seemed very upbeat and excited.

It wasn’t until he reached the central town square that he realized just how poorly timed his arrival was. A booth by the inn was hawking memorabilia dedicated to the upcoming royal wedding – Zidane’s upcoming royal wedding. Kuja couldn’t help but shake his head at the tchotchkes being sold: coins stamped with Dagger and Zidane’s profiles, decorative plates with the wedding date over a painting of Alexandria Castle, handkerchiefs with the couple’s initials – until the vendor hissed at him and waved him off.

He slowly hobbled away, at a loss for what to do next. No wonder Zidane had forgotten about him. The younger man had gotten exactly what he’d longed for: the promise of marriage to a beautiful queen, with plenty of friends and family around to lend their support. It was the perfect “happily ever after” to end a fairy tale… except that in stories, the bad guy should’ve been thoroughly vanquished, not rescued by the hero to end up wandering about the streets of a city he’d lain waste to.

Kuja knew it’d be for the best if he just turned around and left, but he had nowhere else to go. And he still wanted to see Zidane – even if he had no reason to do so now, he’d come all this way… but he had no idea how to get near the castle without arousing suspicion.

Weary and distracted by his dilemma and by the general din of the crowd, he didn’t really notice the group of local children playing tag and hide-and-go-seek among the booths crowding the square. And kids being kids, the youngsters were more caught up in their game than watching where they were going. A collision was inevitable.

Kuja managed to stay upright after the first child bounced off of him; she’d spotted him at the last moment and hit the brakes instead of plowing into him at full speed. But the second child who’d been chasing after her had been too focused on his target to notice Kuja before it was too late.

The former mage was sent stumbling into a stand laden with fruit, his heavy backpack pulling him further off balance, until he ended up landing on his rear, with bruised fruit rolling around on the cobblestones. The kid ended up in a similar position, looking just as startled as the stand’s owner.

A woman came running out of a nearby shop, her head swiveling between the fallen Genome and the fruit vendor and the shocked kids. “Sam, what did you do?” she scolded the boy.

“We were just playing, Mama,” the boy mumbled, ducking his head.

“Playing, and paying no mind to anything around you even though the streets are this crowded?” The woman quickly pulled her son to his feet. She shook her head at all the ruined produce – she’d have to compensate her neighbor for it – then looked back over at the vendor and the unkempt silver-haired man on the ground.

“I’m sorry,” the boy said before being shooed into his home by his mother.

Kuja waved the woman off before she made a bigger deal out of the situation. He didn’t care about the apology. He just wanted to get out of there. All the ruckus had drawn a lot of attention, and he didn’t realize until after several seconds that his hood had somehow gotten pulled back, exposing his hair and face to the crowd.

He kept his head down as he scrambled to cover up again, struggling with the cloak which had gotten all tangled up around the backpack. He needed to get covered up and get out of there before someone recognized him.

But just as he managed to get his hood back on, a hand touched his shoulder and a voice said, “Pardon me…”

He glanced up, then looked away, trying to tamp down a sudden sense of panic. It was a pair of Alexandrian soldiers. The younger of the pair had a concerned expression; the older surveyed the scene with beetling brows. He wasn’t sure if they’d seen the accident and were simply checking in on him, or if they’d seen his face...

He shook his head and got back up, wincing as he did so. The fall hadn’t been too bad, but his blistered feet protested at having to bear weight again.

The younger soldier stopped him. “Here,” she said, bending down to pick up Kuja’s supply sack. Kuja didn’t know what to say. She was trying to help. The kindness was unexpected. So was the stroke of luck; she hadn’t recognized him.

Breathing a sigh of relief, he gave the soldier a nod of gratitude, shouldered his supplies, and began walking away. But he didn’t get more than a few feet before another hand landed on his arm, forcing him to spin around.

“Sergeant?” the younger soldier gasped.

Her frowning partner pulled back the hood of Kuja’s cloak, wanting to see his face. She hadn’t gotten a good look at him earlier but had felt a nagging sense of unease since seeing that fall of long, silver hair. Kuja tried to pull away, ducking his head down, but it was too late. As soon as she uncovered the feathers crowning his mane, her unease turned into alarm. She grabbed a fist full of hair and forced him to lift his head. “This… how is this possible? But it has to be…”

“Sergeant?”

The woman’s hand tightened on Kuja’s arm like a vice. She let go of his hair to draw her sword with the other. “Kuja - the fiend who killed Queen Brahne and then attacked Alexandria itself!”

A murmur rippled through the crowd, though the younger soldier looked a little unconvinced. She’d heard tales about the former queen’s confidant of course. But this thin, dirty beggar didn’t look like he had the strength to kill a fly, never mind commit murder and mayhem. “Are you sure? I thought he was dead!”

The older soldier held her sword up against Kuja’s throat and backed him up against the wall, watching him carefully for any sign of resistance. He seemed weak, but she was sure his bedraggled appearance was disguise – she wouldn’t be so easily fooled. “I haven’t forgotten this face. I was there that day when he attacked Queen Brahne’s fleet. I watched my comrades die. And I was on duty the night he laid siege to the city. So many have suffered because of this one man,” she spat, pressing her sword against his neck until it drew a thin line of blood. “Do you have anything to say, you monster?!”

Kuja responded with a faint smile, but said nothing.

The older soldier hissed and glanced at her comrade. As much as she wanted to kill him where he stood, that would be a privilege for the queen to grant. “Quickly, report this to the castle!”

“Yes, Sergeant!” And the younger soldier ran off as the nervous buzz in the crowd continued to grow.

The older soldier frowned. The streets were so packed, it was going to be tough trying to keep the civilians out of harm’s way. The spark of panic in the air was spreading like wildfire; some people were trying to get away and starting to push back against the throng. Others were more curious than sensible, wanting to catch a glimpse of the infamous criminal.

With her partner gone, all the remaining soldier could do was hold Kuja in place at sword point while barking at the crowd to stay back and disperse slowly. At first it seemed to work; people began backing away. But suddenly a projectile came flying from somewhere in the crowd and the soldier barely managed to sidestep in time to avoid an apple as it smashed into the brick wall behind Kuja.

“I bet he’s here to kill the prince and the queen!” one voice cried out.

“We won’t let you, you bastard!” another man yelled, and another piece of fruit was hurled, this time finding its mark on Kuja’s shoulder. The former mage grunted but made no attempt to fight back.

Suddenly the crowd was emboldened. Following the man’s lead, others began picking up whatever they could find – fruit mostly, along with small rocks – and began hurling them at Kuja along with insults and threats like “Kill him!” The soldier shouted back at the throng, trying to maintain order, but under the barrage even she had to duck and then run for cover for her own safety.

Kuja cringed against the wall as the angry mob descended upon him. Without magic to turn to, he tried to shield his head with his arms, grateful that that was even an option - Garland had kept him physically restrained during shield strengthening exercises until he’d gotten good enough with defensive spells to stop multiple projectiles. But at least Garland hadn’t been trying to kill him. Kuja spared a glance up at the sword-like crystalline spire of the castle, rising high above the rooftops, glistening like a beacon. He wondered if he’d meet his end here and now, once again failing to achieve his goal even though it was nearly within his reach.

When the mob ran out of fruit and rocks they ran in, tearing away the backpack which had provided Kuja with a modicum of cover, and began using their fists and feet, punching and kicking at the huddled figure on the ground. Someone grabbed a broomstick and smashed him on the upper back with it. Another man ran in with a utility knife, brandishing it right in Kuja’s face. The silver-haired man held his breath in fearful anticipation, but suddenly something knocked the blade away and drove back the rest of his assailants as well.

Kuja hadn’t realized he’d squeezed his eyes shut after that moment, but as the crowd fell silent he opened them again. There was someone looming over him, someone clad in pristine white. He blinked up at her, straining to see through the dirt and blood smeared all over his face. But despite his predicament, it didn’t stop the corners of his mouth from twitching upwards in recognition. It was good to see a familiar face, even hers.

“The ‘Rose of May.’ Or was it ‘Beatrix who felled a hundred knights?’ I could never remember which you preferred,” he rasped. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to do anything. He tried to sit up, not wanting to crawl before her like a dog, but it was so painful…

Beatrix frowned. If there’d been any doubts as to the man’s identity, they were wiped out as soon as he opened his mouth. “I suppose tales of your demise were premature. You have guts, showing your face around here again. Did you really think you’d make it past my watch?”

“Well… I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try.”

She snorted in mild amusement. She’d never liked him, never trusted him, but she had to admit, he had a way with words. She turned to the soldiers behind her. “Take him into custody. And be careful; he’s a wily one.”

As a couple of soldiers secured Kuja’s wrists behind his back and pulled him to his feet, the restless crowd began jeering.

“Just kill him now, where he stands!” one person yelled.

“He doesn’t deserve to live for even a minute longer!” another added.

“Her Majesty will decide his fate,” Beatrix declared loudly. Then her good eye sharpened. “Or do you wish to challenge me on this?”

If Kuja was infamous throughout the lands, so was Beatrix. No one was stupid enough to stand up to her, and she knew it. The mob quieted back down and began dispersing. She smirked.

“Let’s go,” she told her troops. With a toss of her hair she began leading the way back toward the castle.

Kuja had to be pushed along to keep up. Every time his steps faltered, someone jabbed him or jerked on his arm, causing twinges of pain to spark through his torso. And the open sores on his feet made it feel like he was walking on glass. But in some ways he was getting exactly what he wanted, even if this wasn’t the route that he’d hoped for. As long as he got to see Zidane again, then nothing else mattered. It wasn’t like he had anything planned beyond that moment anyhow.

* * *

News of Kuja’s presence spread swiftly throughout the castle. As Beatrix took the prisoner down to the dungeon, Dagger – accompanied by Steiner and Doctor Tot – went to find Zidane, to get some answers.

Understandably, the young queen was beyond furious – she’d thought the nightmares of the past were behind her, that there would finally be peace and calm through the whole of Gaia. And she was saddened as well, having to learn that Zidane had lied to her, having to find out such a thing less than a week before their wedding…

Zidane had been waiting in the study for Doctor Tot, unaware of all the commotion in the castle. He was a little bored. Doctor Tot had always been very punctual, so it was unusual to be left watching the clock, awaiting his arrival. If anything, it was usually Zidane that kept Doctor Tot waiting. The Genome wondered if maybe his tutor was trying to teach him a lesson in the importance of scheduling? Or maybe he thought he’d need the extra time to finish writing a summary on trends gleaned from a decade’s worth of commodities reports.

Suddenly the door swung open, and Zidane nearly fell over, as he’d been mindlessly rocking his chair up on its back legs. Swiftly recovering his balance, he looked over, surprised to see Dagger and Steiner standing alongside his mentor. His lovely fiancée was scowling at him.

Zidane rose to his feet, looking from one face to the next. No one looked particularly happy to see him. “Uh… what’s up?”

Dagger quietly asked Steiner to shut the door behind them, then – knowing that no one else but the four of them would be privy to what was about to happen - turned to her fiancé, took a deep, slow breath… and exploded.

Throwing all concern of decorum out the window, she stomped forward, barreling right into Zidane, shoving him hard enough to force him to take a half step back. For a split second she paused, taken aback by her own behavior, before remembering what had happened that had driven her to hunt down Zidane in the first place. “I can’t believe you lied – to me! WHY?! Why would you do such a thing?”

“Huh? What are you talking about? I have no idea what’s going on, I swear...”

“KUJA,” she spat out bitterly. “He’s alive. He’s here. You said he was dead!”

A thousand thoughts collided in Zidane’s head, all at once: the wedding… the fairytale ending he’d dreamed of; his attraction to Kuja competing against his love for Dagger; the planned pardon. He looked helplessly at the two men silently shadowing the queen – they looked nearly as confused as he - then back at Dagger. “How’d you…” he began, then the rest of her words sank in. “Wait, he’s here??”

“Yes!” she hissed.

Zidane’s mouth dropped open and he stared at her as he struggled to find the right thing to say. What should he do? Confess? That was a given. Beg for mercy on Kuja’s behalf? Would that even do any good?

“Can I see him?” he ended up blurting out.

Dagger stomped her foot, exasperated. “You really don’t have anything to say for yourself? Like… ‘I’m sorry, I lied,’ or ‘I honestly thought he was dead but he somehow rose from the grave to haunt me, because he’s just that kind of monster…’”

“He’s not! He’s changed. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have tried to protect…” His voice dropped off, as he realized he’d been defending Kuja rather than reassuring Dagger; her eyes were flashing at him like a lightning storm. He shook his head and started over again, his voice dropping. “Yeah, I’m sorry. I did lie. Of course I knew he was alive. I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t know how…”

“Were you ever going to tell me? What else are you hiding from me?”

“I was! I was going to tell you,” he assured her while pointedly ignoring the second question, as there was no way he could ever admit to her that he’d slept with Kuja.

“When?!”

Zidane’s tail swished about nervously. “… After the wedding?”

“Why? What would that accomplish?”

Zidane inhaled and held his breath. All the other plans he’d made for Kuja’s future had flown the coop at one point or another. And now, his last, best plan to save the former mage was dead in the water too. There was no way he’d be allowed to pardon Kuja himself now, so the only chance he had was to try and convince Dagger to do it. He steeled himself for the inevitable backlash, then pushed his words out in a rush. “Please… give him a chance. I promise you, he’s really different now. He’s lost all his powers; he can’t hurt anyone ever again. He only wants to live a quiet life now, nothing more.”

“What about the wedding?!” She was infuriated that Zidane seemed to only be thinking about Kuja. Then it dawned on her that perhaps he hadn’t proposed to her out of love, but for Kuja’s sake… that maybe he thought if he buttered her up enough, she’d happily, stupidly go along with his suggestion to let Kuja go unpunished. But… Zidane wasn’t that kind of person, was he?

“Dagger, please! I’m begging you to spare him.”

“… So you never wanted to marry me in the first place…” she said, her voice catching a little. It hurt, having to suffer yet another betrayal at the hands of someone she loved. At least with her mother… it hadn’t really been her fault. Kuja had timed his appearance perfectly; he’d crept his way through the wounds left by her husband’s death and gotten into Brahne’s head, twisting her, until she was no longer recognizable as the kind monarch who'd once been so beloved by her people.

She wondered if this too was Kuja’s doing? Had Kuja worked his influence on Zidane during the year they’d spent together? Maybe this was his revenge on her, for her role in ruining his plans. It always came back to that wicked man, didn’t it… he was the catalyst for everything bad that had ever happened to her!

“Wha? No, I do - really! That’s all I ever wanted, since I was a kid. But… I wouldn’t even be here today, as I am, if it weren’t for Kuja. I owe him big time. He saved me from becoming someone like him. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

Dagger looked like she was considering it, and for a moment Zidane thought she’d hear him out, but then she turned to Steiner and said, “Sir Steiner, until the day of the wedding, Prince Zidane is not to leave his rooms without accompaniment, not even for lessons or meals.”

“No! Please… at least let me go see him,” Zidane moaned, but his plea was drowned out by Steiner’s alarmed voice.

“The wedding? Your Majesty, you can’t be thinking of marrying this… this dirty scoundrel after all he’s done!” the knight blurted out, unable to hold his tongue at the thought of his beloved monarch tying herself down to some lying, no-good, fugitive hiding thief! He was so angry that he was shaking, but all that did was make his armor rattle like an empty tin can.

Dagger held back a sigh. “It’s what the people have been waiting for. How can I take that away from them, letting them down with less than a week to spare?” she replied, her tone cool and carefully controlled. She couldn’t let the hurt show. She wouldn’t give in to despair. She was the queen; she had to maintain composure no matter what. It was her duty. Even with her relationship falling to pieces, she had to continue being the steadfast pillar at the core of her kingdom.

“Your Majesty, it would be advisable to consider postponing the wedding at the very least,” Doctor Tot said, trying to appeal to reason since Steiner’s emotional entreaty hadn’t worked.

“Too much effort and planning has gone into it. Even postponing it a week would cause problems,” Dagger parried. “Guests have already come. Food and flowers, ordered…”

Zidane was horrified that all anyone was talking about was the wedding, when a man’s life was on the line. “Dagger, I’ll do anything, anything at all, to make all this up to you. I love you – that’s no lie. But please, I’m begging… if you have any love for me at all, don’t hurt him.”

“Stop it! I can’t be your ‘Dagger,’ not in this!” she lashed out. Then she paused, lifted her chin and set her jaw. “I am Garnet Til Alexandros XVII, Queen of Alexandria. My duty is to my kingdom and my people. And I’ve seen the damage this man has caused, the families he's shattered, the many lives he's taken away. I've seen the fear in the citizens’ eyes at the very mention of his name. So for the sake of my country, I cannot grant you your request. Alexandria will see Kuja tried and sentenced for his crimes.”

Zidane made a pained sound and began pacing a few steps, before looking back at his fiancée, if he could even call her that any longer. “I don’t get it. When I said I was going back for him at the Iifa Basin, you supported me. You told me to go on and do it. And now you want to put him in prison, or worse?”

“I told you to go because we thought he was dying… It was a courtesy. I didn’t want you to regret it, not getting the chance to say goodbye. If I had known that this would’ve been the result...”

“So now you won’t even let me see him? You want me to keep me locked in my room like I was a criminal too. Because even if I gave you my word now, you don’t trust me anymore, do you?”

Her eyes narrowed. Zidane had some gumption, to ask her such a thing. She’d been so happy when he had returned to her, when he’d proposed so dramatically… she’d dreamt about their wedding day, swept up in all the excitement, fantasizing about their future. But the entire time he’d been lying to her. He hadn’t trusted her. So how could he expect her to ever trust him again?

“You said that you love me. But this entire time, I’ve only heard concern for Kuja’s wellbeing in your voice,” Garnet said dourly, before turning and exiting the room.

* * *

Kuja wasn’t surprised when he was pushed into the darkest, dankest cell at the bottom of the dungeon. Even though he was in such poor condition, Beatrix was taking no chances. In some ways he was flattered… she considered him so clever and scheming that she wasn’t going to risk all this being part of some elaborate ruse to get into the castle.

After the soldiers finished shackling Kuja’s ankle to the back wall – his wrists were still secured behind his back - Beatrix ordered her troops to accompany her out for further orders. Then she and all the soldiers stepped out of the cell, the heavily reinforced door slamming shut behind them.

Sitting in near darkness – the only light came from the gas lamps in the hallway filtering through a tiny window in the door - Kuja strained to hear Beatrix’s muffled commands and wondered if he was going to be left to rot in the cell. But before he could get himself too worked up over the thought of dying alone in the darkness, he dismissed it. It wasn’t Beatrix’s style, so unless the queen ordered it, the chances of him being starved to death were pretty slim. More likely they’d hang him or behead him. He wasn’t sure. During his time in Alexandria under Brahne’s rule, he couldn’t recall attending any formal executions. But for someone like him, there was no punishment more suitable.

Well, regardless of his fate, there was nothing he could do about it now. At least it’d be over soon.

He shut his eyes, too tired to want to stay awake, but in too much pain to be able to nap. It didn’t help that he couldn’t even sit comfortably; with his wrists shackled and his back and arms bruised, he couldn’t lean against the wall or lie down. And there was only a thin blanket and a bit of musty straw for bedding, not that he could manipulate any of it with his hands behind his back. He ended up crouching against the back wall, his legs throbbing, with an unbruised section of his forehead and one shoulder resting up against the cold stone. He wondered if he had suffered any broken bones from the beating he’d taken. It didn’t seem like it, but he was in no position to tell. It was just an unfortunate fact… he was built to endure, but felt pain all the same. What was the point of being able to physically survive such assaults if it only meant prolonged suffering?

A bunch of footsteps marched by the door. Then the keys jangled in the lock and the door swung open once again, creaking on rusty hinges.

It was Beatrix, of course. Kuja silently swallowed down the disappointment that it wasn’t Zidane. At least she had food; she was carrying a plate and a large mug, which she sat down on the ground. He was a little surprised to that she was choosing to handle such a mundane task herself, but then again, none of the other soldiers had the confidence to calmly remain in his presence, even though he was in chains.

“I’ll release your wrists so you can eat,” she told him.

Kuja didn’t – or couldn’t - get up, so she knelt down and undid the wrist shackles.

She hadn’t brought much, just a lump of brown bread and an apple. But Kuja was so hungry, he didn’t complain – he just began tearing into it, even though it hurt to chew. The cup held a bit of warm broth, which was an unexpected surprise. It helped the bread go down a lot easier.

Beatrix silently stood watch as Kuja ate, noticing that he had to struggle to get through each bite, since his left cheek and the side of his mouth were starting to swell and discolor. She made a mental note to bring him something easier to eat for dinner.

Once he’d finished, she put the cuffs back on but assured him she’d be back shortly.

Left alone in the dark again, Kuja zoned out. He might have fallen asleep, though he wasn’t sure of it; it could’ve been another episode even. Either way, it seemed Beatrix had only left for a moment, and then suddenly she was back again, this time with a lot more items.

She dropped a bucket of water and a washcloth on the cell floor, along with a towel and clean shirt and pants. She then freed his wrists before stepping back. “Make yourself presentable so that I may bring you before the queen.”

“Are you going to give me a bath?” he asked in a not very innocent fashion.

His flirtatious nature grated on her. It was almost worse that he was doing it while bruised and filthy, caked in dirt from traveling and blood from the beating he’d taken. “No. You give yourself a bath.”

He chuckled softly, then, realizing Beatrix wasn’t budging until he complied, began slowly stripping off his shirt.

She took a few steps back to give him the illusion of privacy as Kuja turned his back to her and did the same, though he knew full well that she wasn’t going to take her eyes off him for a second. Even in the dim light, she could see newer scrapes and bruises upon bruises on his pale, skinny body, along with some older scars. The angry mob had done quite a number on him. So apparently had a fall through a massive tree.

He was grunting softly in pain as he strained to reach his back, as battered muscles protested and nubby cloth scraped against open wounds. Beatrix watched him struggle for a minute, then called a little magic into her palm. “This isn’t much, but it should help,” she told him as she approached and pressed a Cure spell into him. The healing magic seemed to improve his condition a bit, though not as much as she thought it would. She recalled him telling her once upon a time that he had a high resistance to foreign magics; it seemed that he’d been truthful about that.

He sighed and glanced at her over his shoulder. It had been so long since his body had felt the flow of magic... he couldn’t help but enjoy it, despite his predicament. “Thank you. But you shouldn’t be wasting magic on someone you’re going to hang tomorrow, you know.”

She snorted. “Tomorrow is tomorrow. I’m only dealing with the here and now.”

“Is that so? You’re being a lot nicer than I expected, General.”

“Don’t kid yourself. If the queen ordered me to strangle you right now with my bare hands, I would do so without hesitation.”

“Yes, I know. You always were better about taking orders than I.”

Beatrix scowled at how he managed to compliment and insult her in the same breath.

A smile touched his lips when he realized she had no retort. He continued on, trying to score another point. “Since you’re being nice ‘here and now,’ could you bring a few more blankets as well?”

“Just hurry and get cleaned up,” she snarled. Her patience had its limits and he was sorely testing the boundaries.

He sighed again. As much as he enjoyed needling her, he couldn’t afford to drive away the one person who was treating him with some modicum of respect. She could’ve just tossed him a bowl of gruel and told him to put his face in it; she could’ve just thrown buckets of cold water at him until he smelled passable. And he didn’t have the energy to spare to continue bantering with her anyhow. He tried to focus on getting himself cleaned up instead, because there was a good chance that Zidane would also be present in the throne room – and Kuja still had a tiny bit of pride left, enough to want to show a brave, and hopefully clean, face.

Once he had finished wiping himself down, he dressed himself in the clean, plain shirt provided, then waited for Beatrix to secure his wrists behind his back once again before she unchained his ankle so that he could pull the pants on too. She couldn’t help but notice his tail for the first time as he threaded it down a pant leg. It seemed that he was still in the habit of hiding it, even though everyone now knew he was a Genome.

After looking him over, she was satisfied that he was about as presentable as he could be under the circumstances, and urged him to his feet. At her signal several guards, members of the Knights of Pluto, marched into the cell to provide escort to the throne room at the crown of the castle.

“A trial isn’t really necessary, is it? We both know what’s going to happen,” Kuja said to Beatrix as they began making their way out of the bowels of the dungeon, up a seemingly endless flight of stone steps. He kept his voice low, so that the guards surrounding them wouldn’t whip around and tell him to shut his mouth, though none of them dared rebuke him if Beatrix didn’t do so first. Though the men weren’t under her direct command, the general was still the highest ranked individual outside of the royal family… they accepted her orders without question.

“You don’t know that for sure,” she responded. He was limping badly, slowing down their procession quite a bit, but considering his condition, she didn’t push the pace, even though the knights kept glancing back at her to make sure everything was all right.

He managed a half smile. “Yes, I do. Certainly you can’t tell me that a man like me deserves any mercy.”

It wasn’t that Kuja was innocent – far from it. But it wasn’t as if he’d acted alone. Regardless of the fact that he’d been the voice whispering in Brahne’s ear, no one in Alexandria – save the then-Princess Garnet - had stopped to question the queen’s sudden interest in conquest and war. All of Alexandria’s military might had been mobilized, without complaint or hesitation; Beatrix herself had led troops into Burmecia and Cleyra. She’d shed as much blood as he had. But no one was putting her on trial or demanding that she pay for her role in the war. Kuja, it seemed, would be carrying the blame for all their misdeeds.

“Perhaps not,” Beatrix finally agreed. “But Queen Garnet is not Queen Brahne. She might be swayed, if you watch your words. Or you could try to appeal to the prince to speak on your behalf. You are allowed to mount a defense; the queen will take that into consideration.”

Beatrix wasn’t wrong in thinking that the young queen had a big heart; she did. But then again, Beatrix hadn’t been present for the disastrous argument with Zidane just an hour prior. She’d only heard from Steiner in passing that the queen was looking to speak to Zidane, as soon as possible.

“Ahh… so he’ll be there,” Kuja murmured.

“Prince Zidane? I would assume so. Why?” She kept the question light, but focused carefully on his answer; she had to know if Kuja had any intention of harming Zidane. Although the younger Genome wasn’t her king yet, he would be very soon… and she would protect him if need be, just as she would the queen.

Kuja’s reaction wasn’t at all as she expected. At the sound of Zidane’s name, he suddenly stopped mid-stride, and looked away. Beatrix gave him a slight nudge to get him moving again.

“I wanted to ask him…” Kuja began hesitantly before trailing off. “I just wanted to know…” Then he shook his head, leaving whatever it was that he’d been thinking, in the dust. “It doesn’t really matter, I suppose,” he said wearily, looking down at his feet. “It won’t make a difference, now.”

She didn’t like that he didn’t give her a straight answer. He never did. But… she trusted her instincts. And she just knew… Kuja was no threat, at least, not in the conventional sense. He wasn’t feigning his powerlessness. But something had compelled him to walk into the lion’s den, even though he must’ve known it was unlikely he’d escape unscathed.

Kuja remained silent the rest of the way. He barely even looked up when they reached the throne room. But when the knights finally pushed open the double doors and General Beatrix bowed to the queen and then announced that she’d brought the prisoner, Kuja tentatively lifted his head, eyes darting all around, before letting his chin drop again with a silent sigh.

Zidane wasn’t there. He wasn’t attending the trial.

* * *

Author’s Notes: September 24, 2015