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 "Scandal" 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. 16: Scandal

* * *

Scandal - now you've left me all the world's gonna know
Hey scandal, they're gonna turn our lives into a freak show
They'll see the heartache, they'll see the love break
They'll hear me pleading, we'll say for God's sakes
Over and over and over again

So let them know when they stare, it's just a private affair
They'll have us hung in the air and tell me what do they care
It's only a life to be twisted and broken

Yes you're breaking my heart again
Scandal - yes it'll all and all happen again
Today the headlines, tomorrow hard times
And no one ever really knows the truth from the lies
And in the end the story deeper must hide
Deeper and deeper and deeper inside

- "Scandal," Queen

* * *

After Zidane stormed out of the dungeon, Beatrix also excused herself from her post. She returned a short time later with a tray of food in hand, along with a second portion for herself so that she wouldn’t have to leave the dungeon for the rest of the night. She’d managed to pick up some things that she thought Kuja would find more manageable, with his swollen face: ripe fruit, a few center slices out of a fresh loaf of bread, and more broth. Even though the man was slated to be executed early the next morning, even though Beatrix would be his executioner, she saw no reason not to see to his needs while he still was alive.

The guards on duty opened the door for her. She went in, saw Kuja lying on the ground with his hair half covering his face, and crouched down next to him. He appeared to be sleeping, but she wasn’t sure. Given the nature of his “discussion” with Zidane just a short while before, it was just as likely that he was brooding as well.

“I brought some dinner,” she said, keeping her voice low in case he really was asleep.

He didn’t stir at all, so she set the plate down and tried lightly tapping him on his arm, but that still didn’t get a reaction. Beatrix frowned. Kuja’s arm had felt cool to the touch, and was trembling faintly. Meanwhile, the extra blankets she’d brought for him were still piled up, unused. She sighed, eyeing them, then after a moment’s thought, began unfolding them and laying them over Kuja.

Unsure of how long he’d continue sleeping for, she left her lantern next to the plate on the floor, so he’d see it no matter what time he woke up.

She stepped back out of the cell, locking the door behind her, nodding at the guards nearby to relieve them of duty for the time being. She pulled over a chair and sat down with no real appetite of her own, so her plate also ended up sitting on the floor.

Beatrix understood justice. She understood revenge. And while she would never accuse her queen of not knowing the difference between the two, it didn’t sit well with her that Kuja’s execution was being done in the name of justice when that wasn’t the whole truth.

She couldn’t stop thinking about the irony of the situation… as Kuja’s executioner she was the one person who’d rivaled him in both fearsome reputation and in body count. But despite Beatrix’s role in the wars, she knew she’d never be punished for her part in the near genocide of the Burmecians and Cleyrans. And neither would any of her troops. She knew well the excuses… “I was just following orders,” “I was only doing what I was told.” But all of them had known exactly what they were doing; the excuses were just that, excuses.

Kuja too had followed orders and done what he was told to do, all while plotting against both his master and his allies behind their backs. He’d emulated Garland by crafting and ruling over his own creations of war, the Black Mages. But given that they’d been created as soulless weapons and had been unaware of the nature of their actions before “awakening,” the surviving Black Mages were in no more danger of being punished for the destruction they doled out than the soldiers of Alexandria.

So while Kuja had been part of the problem, he’d just been one of many cogs in the machine of war. But because he’d alienated everyone and stood alone, because he'd become the common enemy, because of his sheer power... there was no one who would offer excuses or beg for forgiveness for him, other than perhaps Zidane. So Kuja would have to take the fall for everything. And the denizens of the Mist Continent would all feel relieved that finally, evil was getting its just desserts, but there again, that was more about revenge and less about justice. Yet, she wasn’t sure what else could be done. He certainly couldn’t go unpunished. And it wasn’t like a death sentence was unwarranted; some would even say he was getting off easy. But were there really any other options at all? They couldn’t lock him up for the rest of his life… what if he did regain his power? Then what? And Kuja hadn’t wanted that either; he’d said he’d rather die.

Beatrix looked back at the cell door, then shook her head, wondering if waiting… thinking… was all she could do until dawn arrived.

Well even if Kuja slept through the rest of the night, she’d see to it that he wasn’t alone. Though he’d likely protest, Steiner would survive one night without her. And when the sun finally rose, she would bring her blade down as swiftly and accurately as she could, and not just for the sake of duty. She owed him that much as a former comrade.

* * *

As urgently as Zidane had fled the castle, he didn’t end up staying away for long.

He’d run all the way out to the grassy plains outside the city, looking for something, anything, to unleash his frustration on, but the local monsters sensed his foul mood and wisely stayed far, far away. The only living thing he came across was Choco, and there was no way he could take his anger out on the friendly bird…

He ended up decimating an old tree stump, turning it into splinters just for the hell of it, until the frantic clash of anger and worry in his mind had begun to ebb. By the time he stumbled away from the mess he’d created, all his excess energy had flown away along with the negative emotions, leaving him feeling utterly drained, but a little more clear headed than before.

What am I doing? he asked himself as he hopped onto Choco and began riding in aimless circles, while continuing to rack his brain for answers. Acting like a fool, that’s what!

He’d yelled at Garnet, then promptly went and argued with Kuja too. Neither one of them had deserved it. But things had been going so well, for it to all suddenly fall apart like that, he’d overreacted and…

Going so well? It wasn’t going well at all! he yelled at himself. He’d made a promise to Kuja, and despite his best intentions, he’d broken it. He’d made a promise to Garnet too, but he’d just shattered that as well. The entire engagement now felt like a farce; he’d just told Garnet that he didn’t care about the wedding, and that was probably the first truthful input he’d given on it since proposing to her. He loved her. But he didn’t want to be a prince or a king… he didn’t want a kingdom or a castle or fancy clothes and meals. The stories he’d loved as a child had made it all sound so easy – rescue the princess, live happily ever after. No one had ever written about how the hero’s life would’ve changed, how he’d miss living a low key, carefree life, how he’d resent being trapped by rules and restrictions, how he might’ve had second thoughts… or how he might’ve fallen for someone else along the way.

And then he’d run off like a coward, because he hadn’t known what else to do. No, that wasn’t it… he’d known what he was facing and he hadn’t like it. But there was no way to outrun the decision he had to make; he had to make a choice - now.

Kuja’s life was on the line – that should’ve made it obvious. But it wasn’t that simple. Even though Zidane accepted that he didn’t want to be king, that perhaps he wasn’t even ready for marriage yet, he knew… if he chose Kuja, he would be closing the door to the life he’d known, forever. He wouldn’t just be losing Garnet or the city that was now his home. He’d probably never see any of his friends again, and possibly not even his family.

But… he’d been ready for that same possibility when he’d gone into the Iifa Basin to retrieve Kuja. There’d been no guarantee that either of them would’ve survived. But he’d jumped in without hesitation anyway, because…

Take care of Kuja.

The thief sighed, throwing back his head and closing his eyes against the bright sky above. Garland’s final words still haunted him. He bet his creator would’ve been disappointed with how things had turned out.

Zidane knew that Kuja hadn’t come to Alexandria to ruin his wedding. He’d come because he didn’t have anyone else to turn to. Something must’ve been wrong, really wrong, for him to risk his life to make the journey. Maybe the house had burned down or the roof had blown off or something. Maybe someone had spotted him and threatened his life. Maybe he really was dying, and this was the only thing he could do so that his last moments wouldn’t be spent alone.

Just do the right thing, Garnet had said.

Zidane let his chin drop, then shook his head. She wasn’t going to agree, but he knew what he had to do… He now understood that when he’d saved Kuja back in the Iifa Tree, he’d also taken on the responsibility of looking after him.

Garnet would be hurt by his betrayal, of course. That couldn’t be helped. But in the long run, she’d be okay… maybe even better off, without Zidane as a constant distraction.

She was a strong woman, far stronger than he’d given her credit for. She no longer was in need of rescue. Zidane loved her confidence, but at the same time, he had to admit, some selfish part of him needed to be, well, “needed.”

… A need that taking care of Kuja would fulfill.

Zidane sighed. It had to be more than that – if he just wanted to take care of something, well, even a cat or a plant would do. But he still wasn’t sure just how deep his feelings for Kuja went. He’d never given them a chance before, but now, he wanted to. He was ready to. There’d been a spark of something there… maybe it wasn't too late to resuscitate it and let it grow.

He wasn’t sure if Kuja would accept him any longer, either as a lover or a friend, considering everything that had happened. If that was the case, then Zidane told himself he’d have to accept it, even if it hurt. He probably deserved to get rejected anyhow. But no matter what, he wanted to support Kuja the way he should’ve all along.

He was just left with the little matter of how to pull off the great escape. He turned Choco back towards the direction of the city, suddenly aware that the chocobo could at least provide him transportation out of the area. But how would he get Kuja out of the castle itself? It didn’t seem like there’d be enough time to come up with a plan, and that wasn’t his forte anyhow.

Brute force was out of the question – there were way too many guards and soldiers to get through. Sneaking by was also not going to happen, due to the sheer numbers and the fact that everyone was on high alert… plus there was the whole matter of sneaking Kuja out of the dungeon even if Zidane could sneak himself in. That also killed the idea of disguising himself as a Knight of Pluto to get in, as there was no way he could sneak in a second set of armor inside the first.

Back in Tantalus they often relied on distractions to get a job done. But Zidane was flying solo on this; there wasn’t anyone he could call on for aid or even to bounce ideas off of.

He then thought about setting a small fire in his room, just enough to produce some smoke. That would attract a number of guards, especially if he barricaded the door so that they’d be forced to waste time trying to break in to save him. But Zidane dismissed the idea almost as soon as he’d come up with it. There was a risk that the fire and smoke would spread, putting innocent people in harm’s way. No matter how desperate Zidane was to save Kuja, he wasn’t going to do it by hurting others.

Still struggling to come up with something, Zidane mindlessly tsked at Choco as the bird stretched his neck out to reach some weeds, and then the perfect idea hit him like a ton of bricks.

“Yes! Choco, you’re brilliant!” he yelled, startling the bird.

Sleeping weed! He still had some in his old thieves’ kit. Dried, it resembled any number of culinary herbs that might be found in a pantry; it could also be soaked in anything from syrup to broth to form a potion. Garnet had used it quite effectively in Lindblum in order to sneak out of the castle; how ironic was it that he was now planning to turn her idea against her? Since everyone in Alexandria Castle took meals from the same kitchen, by spiking the castle’s food supply, if it worked, he could simply walk in and out of the dungeon while most everyone slept. And even if a few guards somehow managed to avoid it, he was pretty sure he could take out a few stragglers along the way.

The trickiest part would be measuring out a good amount of herb to use, given that he wasn’t going to be able to control how much each person ingested. Too big of a dosage and diners would fall asleep almost instantly, giving away the fact that their meals were spiked. Too little and they’d end up lethargic but very much awake.

He wished he had more time to plan things out, but a quick glance skyward told him he had to hurry; the castle’s chefs would start putting out dinner for the staff in just a little while.

After saying goodbye to Choco – and promising him a bushel of greens later if he’d remain in the area - Zidane rushed back to his suite, pocketed his pouch of sleeping weed, then headed straight down to the kitchen. Quina and the other cooks greeted him as he walked in. Zidane was suddenly very thankful for the fact that he was a semi-regular visitor there; whenever he was hungry between meals he’d drop in to snag a snack, so no one questioned his presence.

“You hungry, Zidane?” Quina asked as the Genome began looking around for finished dishes to spike.

Zidane stared at his friend, then realized what a good opportunity he’d been handed. “Sure am. Um… well, what’s ready to eat? Besides bread I mean…”

“Salad good and ready! But you no like. How about potato? Or soup almost done…”

The huge, open pot of soup looked like the perfect target – it was the sort of staple that would appeal to busy guards and soldiers. “The soup looks good. Mind if I have a taste?”

Delighted at Zidane's show of interest, the Qu nodded and fished out a big spoon to give him a taste. “You like? Not sure if done-done…” he/she asked as Zidane made a show of enjoying it. It really was pretty good, but more importantly, it had a strong, meaty flavor that would easily hide any “addition” to it.

“Oh wow, it’s really great! I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Can I get a bowl to go?”

“Yes! So glad you like!”

As Quina went to get a bowl, Zidane sneakily dumped about half the bag of sleeping weed into the soup, giving it a quick stir with the ladle. The herb immediately disappeared into the thickened liquid. He hoped he’d put in enough to do the trick…

“I no give too much or you no eat dinner!” Quina said once he/she came back, even as he/she ladled Zidane a good-sized portion.

The young thief accepted it with a grin. “Thanks a bunch! Gonna take it to go… see ya!” he said before disappearing out the rear door and heading back up to his room.

After making sure the doors were securely locked behind him, Zidane dumped the doctored soup, then began rummaging through his armoire and dresser, figuring out what he needed to take with him and what could be left behind. The first thing that had to go was his fussy prince’s garb – he wouldn’t miss it at all. His old adventuring outfit was in the back of the cabinet. It felt a little nostalgic, putting on the sleeveless shirt with its ruffled collar, the leather-trimmed vest, the slightly baggy blue pants.

It was a little harder to unclasp and put aside the gold and gemstone pendant which he’d worn constantly for the last few months. Although it wasn’t his style, it had been Garnet’s engagement gift to him. He would’ve liked to keep it as a memento, but that wasn’t right… he was breaking off the engagement so he had no right to it. And he didn’t want a reminder of what he was leaving behind. He refused to keep living like that: constantly looking back, wondering what could have been, wondering if he should’ve decided differently. He’d made his choice now and he was going to stick with it, come hell or high water.

He drew his blue silk tie around his neck, then belted on the sheath for his daggers. He filled a small rucksack with a change of clothing, some bandages and medicine, and his thieves’ kit, sans sleeping weed. He tied a pouch with a little bit of coin onto his belt. The last thing he fished out was the sooty brown cloak he’d worn on stage the day he proposed to Garnet. He frowned as he fingered the fabric a moment, wishing he had another option, but it would have to do; he needed something of a disguise, and it would also keep him warm as he sought to make his way out of the city. But still, he should’ve known that it would be impossible to erase all reminder of his time with her…

He had to leave her a note. She’d never forgive him, so there was no point in asking for that, but he had to explain himself… Maybe, someday, she’d at least come to understand why he had to do what he was about to do. And if not, well, at the very least he wanted her to know, it wasn’t her fault.

My Dearest Dagger,

I’m so sorry. I wish I could be a man worthy of you but I guess Steiner was right; I’m just a no-good scoundrel. And you deserve so much better. But just as you can’t be “Dagger” for me, I can’t be a fairy tale prince, even for you. I thought I could, if I simply tried hard enough, but in the end, I couldn’t become someone that I’m not.

You really are one of the most important people in my life. But so is Kuja. I wish I’d told you about him from the start. I don’t know why I didn’t, honestly. Maybe I thought I could “fix” everything myself but instead all I did was make it a lot worse.

You told me to do the right thing. And you’re right, that’s what I’ve got to do. I can’t sit back and let him die. I have to save him. I really don’t know where we’ll go or what will happen from here on out, but I’m willing to take my chances.

So I guess this is goodbye, then. I’m going to miss everyone, but I’ll miss you most of all. I’ll always love you.

He signed his name at the bottom, not that there was any question as to who had penned the letter, folded it in half, then placed it in the edge of the bed, knowing that Garnet was sure to see it as soon as she stepped into the room. The engagement pendant went on top, like a glinting beacon.

Finally ready to depart, Zidane sat down to wait for the drug to take effect, knowing there was nothing more he could do other than hope for the best. He ended up staring out the window, watching the sun set. It seemed to be lingering in the sky quite stubbornly, as if time had crawled to a near standstill, but ever so gradually, the sky changed from soft blue to burnt orange and faded violet, to a stormy deeper blue similar to the color of Kuja’s eyes.

At some point a guard knocked on the door, announcing that dinner was ready, but Zidane sent him away, claiming he didn’t feel hungry. He kept waiting, until the gray-purple skies became an inky backdrop for the moons and stars, then, noticing the absence of footfalls from the constantly patrolling guards, Zidane opened the doors and quietly crept out.

At first he didn’t see anyone, but then he realized the motionless shadow at the end of the hall was a guard, slumped on the floor, apparently asleep. He cautiously approached him...

“Hey, you okay?” he asked, leaning in closely, pretending to strike up conversation while testing if the man really was out cold.

No response at all. He couldn’t believe it… had it really worked? Emboldened, he turned the corner and spotted a pair of soldiers. Only one was awake but clearly losing the fight against the drug; her eyelids were drooping and she was leaning back heavily against the wall by her partner.

Zidane hurried back to his room, grabbed his weapons, pack and cloak, then, after scouting out the grounds below his window, went right over the balcony. He figured that the road less taken was still the safer route, since there was no guarantee that all the soldiers and guards were equally affected.

Once he was safely on the ground, he headed for the dungeon, sprinting between patches of shadow to minimize the possibility of exposure. But there really was no one around… at least no one lucid enough to effectively stop him; Zidane couldn’t believe his amazing luck. It felt like even the gods were encouraging his efforts.

Kuja’s cell was unguarded; there was a chair sitting outside, but no one in sight, not even a sleeping soldier. But Zidane didn’t drop his guard. He picked the lock as quickly and quietly as he could, grateful that his skills hadn’t deteriorated too much during his stay at the castle, then rushed inside while softly calling out to Kuja.

The silver-haired Genome lay on the floor, bundled under some blankets. He didn’t respond. Zidane noticed the food tray and lantern nearby. He wondered if Kuja had possibly ingested some of the doctored soup. If so, it’d be a little tricky to get him out as Zidane needed his hands free to respond if a fight did break out, but he figured his determination would give him the strength he needed to pull it off, if it came down to that.

Kuja was chained to the wall by his ankle; his wrists were shackled as well. Zidane undid the bindings as quickly as he could, then tried shaking Kuja awake, hoping that maybe he could rouse him enough to at least avoid having to carry him out the whole way.

“Wake up. Come on, wake up, we have to get out of here,” Zidane muttered, alternating between squeezing Kuja’s shoulders and lightly patting his face. It was hard to see in the dim light, but the former mage looked a bit bruised up, so Zidane tried to be as gentle as possible. “Kuja, please…”

Kuja suddenly lurched awake, then collapsed back onto the floor, shuddering, as his body remembered just how badly injured it was. Zidane held onto him, supporting him, whispering his name, until the trembling slowed.

“It’ll be all right,” Zidane said, as he helped Kuja sit up a bit. He gently stroked his fingertips down one side of Kuja’s face, trying his best to avoid the bruised areas, which turned out to be worse than he first thought. Even the areas that weren’t discolored from bruising were puffy and tacky to the touch. Zidane wished he could give the older man more time to recover, since it looked like he needed it, but he couldn’t risk any delays. He had no clue when the effects of the sleeping weed would start wearing off. “Do you think you can get up? Can you walk?”

With only one good eye – and even that was now too swollen to be fully usable - Kuja tried to focus on the face hovering over his. He was sure he was hallucinating; it looked like Zidane and sounded like Zidane but that was impossible, Zidane didn’t want to see him. Frustrated, Kuja switched to processing what was being asked of him. He wasn’t sure if he could get up anymore, but the last time he’d said something to Zidane – assuming that really was Zidane there beside him – the younger Genome had told him he should’ve left him behind in the Iifa Tree. So in lieu of a verbal response, Kuja tried to push himself up, grunting as he did so. Bruises and lacerations mingled with general muscle soreness from the long journey; his feet were a mass of blisters. But the strong arms that had been holding him lent him their support, bracing him, until he somehow managed to get upright.

“Good.” Zidane pulled one of Kuja’s arms over his shoulders. The other went around his waist. “Ready? We’ve got to get going, okay?”

Kuja bit back a cry of agony as Zidane started hustling him out of the cell. He’d already been in pain but the sudden movement set all his injuries ablaze. He wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to keep on his feet, but his legs tried their best to keep up as Zidane guided him down the corridor.

The lamp lit walls and floors looked like an endless grayish blur. Kuja tried to concentrate on just keeping his feet shuffling forward, but he was really starting to fade. He still didn’t know where he was being taken. Was it dawn already? And why was Zidane there, and not Beatrix or a gaggle of castle guards? Had Zidane decided to do the deed himself? Or maybe he was dreaming, but the pain was too real... Nothing made any sense, but he was afraid to ask what was going on, as if voicing his confusion would somehow warp his perception even more.

“Why doesn’t this surprise me?” an all-too-familiar female voice said from the shadows.

Zidane stopped, spinning around, trying to place where Beatrix was, cursing inwardly at the fact that the most formidable member of Alexandria’s army was the one person who’d somehow overcome the effects of the sleeping drug.

He suddenly heard the soft hiss of a sword being drawn behind him and he whirled around, forced to release his hold on Kuja in order to respond in kind. Kuja fell against the wall and then dropped to his knees; he no longer had the strength to stand without support.

“Sorry,” Zidane whispered. He wished he’d had the luxury of setting Kuja down more gently, but dealing with Beatrix was going to require all his attention. He crossed his daggers behind his back and shifted into a defensive posture in front of Kuja as the general stepped out of the shadows, the razor sharp edge of Save the Queen glinting in the flickering light.

“You intend to fight me?” Beatrix asked, eyeing Zidane’s daggers, her voice steady and confident.

“I don’t want to, but I will. I’m going to protect him, even if it means my life… or yours,” Zidane warned.

“That’s quite the change in attitude from a few hours ago.” Beatrix sounded mildly amused. She looked past Zidane, at the former mage slumped against the wall. Kuja looked pretty bad; his bruises had continued darkening, and a cold sweat had broken out on his brow. If nothing was done for him, he might very well pass away even without her having to raise her sword. Frankly she was surprised that he was even conscious, though from the sound of his labored breathing and the way he was wobbling, even seated, he wouldn’t remain that way for long. So she called out to him.

Kuja lifted his head with effort, managing to push past the fog clouding his mind long enough to focus momentarily on Beatrix and the bared blade in her hands. So Zidane really was delivering me for execution... he thought. Maybe it was for the best though; at least Zidane would be there at the end… Feeling himself fading fast, he managed to give the blonde one last look before passing out.

Startled, Zidane began to reach for Kuja, but he stopped himself, forcing his attention back onto Beatrix.

“Hey, how come you’re not drugged?” Zidane asked, searching for some sort of opening. He wondered if she’d ingested any of it at all, or had she somehow proven resistant to the herb’s effects?

“Why? What did you do?” Beatrix queried, her voice sharpening slightly.

“I… put sleeping weed in tonight’s dinner?”

She hadn’t realized that that’s what had happened, but it made sense. If the situation weren’t so serious, she might even have found it funny. “I see… Well luckily for me, I took my meal early, as I planned on staying down here the entire evening. You can imagine my surprise however, when my soldiers inexplicably started to fall asleep at their posts after dinner, all around the same time.”

A slight smile flitted across Zidane’s lips for just a second. “I was hoping you’d be one of them.”

“Unlucky for you, then,” Beatrix noted. She tossed her curls over her shoulder, smirked, and added, “May I remind you, you’ve never bested me in combat before.”

“Yeah, you’re right. But maybe this time will be different,” Zidane said, shifting his weight lightly on the balls of his feet. The tip of his tail flicked out from under his cloak and arched over his back. It began glowing and turning pinkish. “I won’t know ‘til I try.”

Beatrix wasn’t afraid of facing Zidane, even if he fully Tranced – actually, she thought that would make it interesting - but she’d had no intention of fighting him in the first place. If anything, she was grateful for Zidane’s interference… by him pulling off his escape plan, he’d given her a convenient out. She hadn’t wanted to take Kuja’s life; now she wouldn’t have to.

She looked back once again at Kuja’s unconscious form lying awkwardly against the wall like a sack of flour, then relaxed until she’d dropped out of her fighting stance. “It’s a shame we’ll never find out then.” She slid her sword back into its scabbard.

Zidane straightened up slightly as well, his tail changing back to its normal golden hue, though he wasn’t so quick to put his daggers away. “You’re letting us go?” he asked incredulously.

“I never saw you come though here. And I better not see you again,” she warned him, steel in her voice. Zidane’s eyes widened as the implication of her words sank in. She smirked again, knowing full well that what she was doing amounted to treason, but she also knew that no one would challenge her assertion that she’d been incapacitated by the doctored food.

The young thief stood still a moment, trying to decide whether or not to believe her, then he too put his weapons away, sighing in relief. It wasn’t so much that he trusted her, but he knew she’d abide by the knight’s code of honor and would not strike him from behind. He turned around to check on Kuja.

“You’re really choosing him over the queen… over your ‘Dagger,’” Beatrix said from behind Zidane’s shoulder.

“He needs me,” Zidane replied as he got his arms under the taller man and carefully picked him up, tucking Kuja’s head against his shoulder so that it wouldn’t flop backwards.

“So does she.”

“No, not like this. Besides, she has you, and she has Steiner. I was never going to be anything more than an actor playing dress up as king.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Beatrix sighed.

“Yeah… but there’s nothing more I can do for her. I can’t even tell her goodbye to her face.” Zidane paused, then a bitter smile touched his lips. “I shouldn’t have come back at all; if only I’d known how things would’ve turned out… But, that’s hindsight for ya.”

“Yes. And I hope I won’t regret my decision here as well. But be warned: I will not stay my hand a second time. You are both now enemies of Alexandria, and of the other city-states that have treatied with Alexandria,” Beatrix declared.

“Yeah, I figured.” Zidane took a half step back. “Well… take care of her. And farewell. We won’t meet again.”

Beatrix gave him a slight nod.

Zidane returned the gesture. Then he readjusted his grip on the limp bundle in his arms before turning and walking away.

Beatrix stood and watched until the shadows swallowed them, until the footsteps faded and the door creaked open and slammed shut in final punctuation. Then, knowing there was no one there to bear witness, she threw out a quick salute, her fist thumping against her chest, her heels clicking together. She felt sorry for her queen, and had already begun mentally preparing herself to offer what support she could, but still… she wished them well. And she truly hoped she’d never see them again, as she had every intention of following through on her threat should their paths cross again.

With no reason to remain on guard duty in the dungeon, Beatrix began heading upstairs as well, curious to see just how extensive the damage was from Zidane’s little plan. He may have been a lousy prince, but he’d turned out to be a better thief than she’d given him credit for.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

December 20, 2015