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 "Under Pressure" are performed and recorded by Queen and David Bowie. 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. 17: Under Pressure

* * *

Insanity laughs under pressure we're breaking
Can't we give ourselves one more chance
Why can't we give love that one more chance
Why can't we give love give love give love give love
give love give love give love give love give love
'Cause love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And loves dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure
Under pressure
Pressure

- "Under Pressure," Queen and David Bowie

* * *

Zidane had no clue where he was going. The destination didn’t matter he supposed; north, west, south… anywhere “away” would suffice. He was more concerned about losing any possible pursuers he might’ve had, so even thought it was the dead of night and the light drizzle that had dogged him since the start of his escape had turned into a steady rainfall, he kept backtracking and circling and making as much of a muddy mess of his tracks as possible.

He was getting tired though. His arms were beyond numb. Even Choco was faltering. But the young thief didn’t dare slow down or slacken his hold. Kuja’s life was on the line. Even though his arms felt like they were going to fall off, even though he was so exhausted he wanted to collapse, even though his stomach was growling endlessly and the splash of cold raindrops clouded his eyes, he worried that he had no choice but to keep going.

Zidane spared a glance upwards as they continued down a river, as the forest canopy opened up briefly to the night sky, letting the light of the twin moons through to dance with raindrops on the flowing water. He had no idea how long they’d been on the run for – hours, probably. Would that be enough? It would have to be. With the rain not letting up, his thoughts began turning towards finding shelter.

An abandoned house, like the one he’d found before, would be a godsend. But he wasn’t counting on being lucky enough to find something like that again. Maybe a cave would suffice? Or even a thicket of trees dense enough to provide some protection against the elements?

Zidane suddenly sneezed. He shook his head, frowning as his damp bangs stuck against his skin; he’d wrapped his cloak around Kuja when they’d left the dungeon, both to disguise him and to keep him warm. But even with rainwater dripping onto his face, Kuja hadn’t stirred at all the entire time, and Zidane was growing increasingly concerned. Mind made up, he slowed Choco down, took a good look around, then realized what he thought was just a dark section of rock was actually a natural opening between the cliffs surrounding the valley, easily missed amongst the trees and shadows. He guided the chocobo up and over the bank to take a closer look, then decided to go ahead and head in. It wasn’t like there were many other options at the moment.

He’d been hoping for a cave or outcropping of some sort. He didn’t find any, at least, nothing big enough for anything more than a small animal or maybe, at best, a single person. But he instinctively stayed on the path and was rewarded for his persistence when it opened up into a secluded, forested vale.

He’d never been in this corner of the continent before. He wasn’t sure if the area was even inhabited. But it looked like an ideal hiding spot, and so he decided to continue searching the area for whatever shelter he could find.

When he first spotted the small house and docks on the shore of a tranquil lake, he thought it was a mirage or even a trap, something laid out by a witch to catch unwary children or travelers. It was too convenient; there weren’t any other signs of civilization around. Maybe some crazy hermit lived there? If someone was living there, it’d be rude to bother them in the middle of the night. But he - and Kuja - were in no shape to look a gift house in the… well… door. So after a moment’s hesitation he hid Kuja behind some trees, asked Choco to keep watch over him, and crept up the porch of the house, intending to peek into the windows to see if there was anyone inside.

Zidane nearly sighed in relief at the feel of solid wood beneath his feet – at least the house wasn’t some figment of his imagination! But what surprised him even more was that the front door had a note nailed to it. Curious, Zidane picked it up and squinted at it. The moons’ light was just enough for him to read the short message:

Wanted: dockmaster. Please inquire at the bakery (ask for the mayor).

So the house came with a job? Did that mean it was vacant? And where was this bakery? Zidane took a quick peek in the front window but couldn’t see anything in the dark, then looked past the porch railing to see a shed out back plus a pathway weaving through the trees. Well, that answered that. There was a town somewhere beyond. And while he didn’t know anything about docks or boats or whatever, he was pretty sure he could handle it or at least act like he could handle it, since it was probably all just physical labor. It wasn’t like, pretending to be a prince… He made a face at the reminder.

Thankful again for his thief’s training, Zidane made short work of the locked front door, then, holding his breath in nervous anticipation of what he’d find, he stepped inside.

The house was really nothing more than a single room, measuring perhaps twenty feet by twenty feet total, including the attached bathroom. Even calling it a cottage was generous. At least there were lamps on hand and some basic furnishings in place: a small bed in one corner, an armoire with some linens, a bookcase, a kitchen table with seating for four, a corner kitchenette with bare cupboards. But overall it looked clean and in good repair and most importantly, was currently unoccupied.

Zidane felt the corners of his mouth twitch upward for the first time that day. Small though it was, it was more than sufficient to house a pair of fugitives on the run for a few weeks or even more.

He hustled back out to retrieve Kuja, pausing only to release Choco for a well-deserved meal by the riverbank. After carrying Kuja up the porch steps and into the cottage, he managed to shut the door behind him with his shoulder before leaning back against it, hard. They were both wet, filthy and exhausted. The bed looked awfully tempting. But Zidane knew if he went to sleep as he was, if he let Kuja sleep like that as well, they’d both end up sick. So as much as he wanted to simply crawl into the bed, he didn’t.

He turned and headed for the bathroom instead.

It seemed like a miracle, but the house had hot water too. Relieved, Zidane carefully sat Kuja up against the wall near the tub, then began filling it with water. A small storage niche had some linens as well, another bonus! Zidane swiftly stripped himself down, then turned his attention back to Kuja to do the same for him. He shook his head sadly; he’d fantasized about touching Kuja again, slowly undressing him… but it wasn’t supposed to be like this. He just hoped the former mage wouldn’t suddenly awaken; it’d probably be shocking for him to find himself being laid bare in a strange house. He’d probably think Zidane was trying to do something unsavory. But it couldn’t be helped if he did… they both needed a good bath.

Kneeling down, the Zidane began peeling back sodden fabric to reveal a very thin body, white skin marred by welts and cuts and bruises. He grimaced. Kuja hadn’t had weight to lose to begin with. And although none of the injuries looked to be permanently debilitating, they were worse looking and more numerous than Zidane had expected. Recovery would take some time. He hoped he could work out some sort of deal with whoever wrote the note on the door; it’d be best if they could stay in one place while Kuja recuperated.

But what the younger man saw when he finally got down to removing the well worn shoes from Kuja’s feet was enough to stun him, like a punch to the gut. Kuja’s feet were severely blistered, the skin red and raw and inflamed all over. His left ankle was swollen too. He must’ve pushed himself hard to get to Alexandria, step by step, day after day, the fading leather offering insufficient protection against weather and terrain. No wonder he’d been so reluctant to stand when Zidane had busted him out of prison. It must’ve been agonizing for him, like walking on needles. And yet despite all of that he’d forced himself to stand, instead of complaining or begging Zidane for help to even make it out of his cell.

It was hard to pull his attention away from Kuja’s wounds, but treating them would have to wait until the next day. Kuja’s skin felt cold and he was starting to shiver noticeably. And Zidane didn’t have the right supplies on hand, and he was just so tired… Putting Kuja in a bed piled with blankets, letting him rest… that was the best thing to do for the moment.

The tub was round and unusually tall, like a big half barrel. Hell, that probably was what it had been once upon a time. It made it tricky to get an unconscious body in and out of it, but Zidane did his best. He got them both cleaned up and dried off as well as he could, then he lifted Kuja onto the bed, trying his best to not put pressure on the bruises, carefully maneuvering him to the side nearest to the back wall before climbing in himself. It was a good thing Zidane didn’t mind the close quarters; the bed really wasn’t built for two. But it was surprisingly comfortable even without nightclothes, and Kuja was finally starting to warm up, his breathing steady… Zidane’s thoughts didn’t make it much further than that before he too was fast asleep.

* * *

General Beatrix spent most of the night cleaning up the mess Zidane’s little escape plan had created. The vast majority of the soldiers and guards in the castle had taken a dose of the sleeping weed; those that had been least affected, along with the few that had skipped the meal or at least, the doctored soup, had to be reassigned to cover the most essential positions. Everyone else that had been drugged, from the lowest private to the castle’s cooks themselves to even the queen, had to be seen safely to their quarters to sleep off the effects.

By the time everyone had been accounted for and attended to, the sun was already painting the margins of the sky a coppery orange hue. Beatrix managed to fight back a yawn. For her, sleep would have to come later. As general of Alexandria, she was expected to oversee all matters affecting the castle and the city until the queen was ready to resume her duties.

Normally she would’ve had Steiner at her side, supporting her, but he’d eaten quite a lot of soup at dinner and so was deeply asleep. She’d scold him later for it. For now though, it wasn’t bad, having things so quiet. The silence suited her mood.

She wasn’t looking forward to the long, chaotic day ahead. There’d be many people asking questions - some in hushed whispers, others in loud wails - about the disappearance of the prince, about the cancellation of the wedding, about what had happened to the terrible criminal Kuja. There’d be confusion and disappointment and fear and anger too.

She’d already decided on her explanation for what had happened, one that wasn’t the truth and yet not completely a lie either. Kuja had escaped because she’d been busy scrambling to get things back in order as soldier after soldier had fallen asleep. That sort of failing was bad enough to earn her a harsh reprimand or punishment, because she was supposed to make sure such things would not occur, and yet Beatrix was sure that nothing would happen to her. Queen Garnet just wasn’t that type of person, a ruler who’d cruelly punish someone for an oversight, even if that person had failed her before. She’d let the story stand, even if it felt a little off to her, because there was no way to disprove it, and because she would want to believe that she hadn’t been betrayed by yet another close to her.

But… it was a sort of betrayal. Nothing like what Zidane had pulled, but still...

Beatrix didn’t feel guilty about it though. She was a little surprised by that. For once, she’d done what she’d felt was right, instead of just blindly, mindlessly following orders – that was the difference. She could live with that. It was strangely liberating, even with the weight of truth settling on her conscience.

Hours passed and the sleeping castle inhabitants finally began rousing, one after another. It was a relief to all that the sleeping drug proved harmless… it had been more of an inconvenience than anything.

Beatrix was in the middle of reorganizing schedules and coverage when she was summoned to the queen’s chambers. Without hesitation she stood up and went, only pausing in front of a mirror long enough to make sure she still looked alert and presentable, before announcing her arrival at Garnet’s room.

The queen sat on the bench at the foot of her bed, dressed rather simply in a white blouse and long blue skirt, clutching a note and a gold pendant in her hands. She turned when Beatrix walked in, and the general immediately noticed that Garnet’s eyes were shimmering with dampness, but the young monarch was bravely holding back any tears that wanted to well up.

Steiner on the other hand, had apparently not been as successful. His eyes were big and moist and his nose red. He paced restlessly back and forth, his gauntleted hands occasionally flapping like clumsy birds as he wailed, “My poor, poor Queen Garnet! I cannot believe… why, if I see that hooligan again, I’ll…!”

“Adelbert,” Beatrix admonished, sighing. She rarely used his first name publicly, but his hysterics weren’t helping, and it was only the three of them in the room. But she was a little relieved to see him awake and, well, being himself.

He gave her a look like he was going to burst into tears all over again, but then with visible effort – quivering chin and all – he stopped and straightened up and did his best to imitate a statue at his queen’s side.

“Your Majesty, we will not think any less of you if you need to cry,” Beatrix told Garnet, gently as she could.

Garnet managed a weak smile that faded almost as quickly as it had appeared. “You’ve seen his letter then,” she said, her fingers reflexively tightening around the sheet of paper.

“No. I don’t have to. I’ve pieced together what has happened.”

“I’d told him to do the right thing,” Garnet said, staring at her hands. “The right thing, apparently, was to take him and leave.” Her lips tightened; she didn’t even want to say either of the Genomes’ names.

“Your Majesty, just give the word, and the Knights of Pluto will immediately begin pursuit,” Steiner offered, his voice still a bit raw and shaky.

“You think it’ll be easy to track them, after so many hours, especially with the rain this morning? Any tracks they’d left would have washed away,” Beatrix countered, shaking her head. “They’re long gone, Steiner. We have no clue where they might’ve gone. And we're in no shape to dedicate resources to a blind pursuit.”

“We can start by questioning that bunch of thieves he calls a family!” Steiner growled in frustration. He pounded a fist in his open palm. “Something must be done! Are we really letting that villain get away? And how did he manage to escape under your watch, anyhow?”

“Captain,” Garnet said sharply, ending the brewing argument before it began. She could see Beatrix puffing up a little. The general had too much pride to take an insult like that, even from her lover… especially from her lover. “I don’t doubt that General Beatrix had her hands full with the guards on duty falling asleep, along with the majority of the castle staff.”

The general bowed her head slightly. She didn’t need the queen to stick up for her, but Garnet’s assumption was right in line with the explanation Beatrix had prepared, so it was convenient to simply go along with it.

“Ah… My apologies, Queen Garnet, Bea… General…” Steiner stammered, bowing.

Beatrix relaxed back into her usual stance, her face calm once again. She also bowed to Garnet in silent apology.

The queen turned back to her knight. “Also, I consider Marcus and Cinna and Blank amongst my friends. I will not allow you to harass or interrogate them like they’re criminals,” she added. “If you have anything you must ask them, please treat them with respect and I’m sure they’ll be happy to assist you in any way they can.”

Slightly cowed, Steiner lowered his head momentarily, but then he spoke up again, though he minded his words and tone a little more carefully. “At the very least, we should put out wanted posters immediately. That way, no matter where they hide, they’ll be flushed out sooner or later.”

Garnet mulled it over. It wasn’t a bad suggestion; she saw no reason to object. It would at least reassure the people that something was being done, that neither Kuja nor Zidane would be able to just waltz back into the country. “Agreed. Sir Steiner, can you please see to that? There should still be some old wanted posters in the archives…” she trailed off, before clearing her throat. “Well, they can be used as reference,” she managed to finish.

Steiner perked up a little, now that he had a task to focus on. “Yes, Your Majesty! Then, by your leave…”

Garnet nodded.

After Steiner left, Beatrix automatically turned to follow, but stopped when Garnet suddenly said in a small voice, “I know it’s wrong, but… a very small part of me is relieved that he’s gone. That sounds awful, doesn’t it?”

Beatrix turned back around. She wasn’t sure if “he” referred to Zidane or Kuja, though she was pretty sure it was the former. “My Queen?”

“He was my fiancé. But it never felt like he wanted to be here, or maybe he felt like he didn’t belong. And I didn’t know how to make it better…” Garnet looked back out the window, thinking of the difficult times she’d seen and how she’d sometimes wished she could’ve flown away from it all, even though this was exactly where she belonged. In a way she was a little envious of Zidane having managed to escape from it all, even though it came at her expense. “Even if Kuja hadn’t come… it wasn’t going to be happily ever after, was it? Even though he said that he loved me,” she continued musing aloud.

“I cannot say, Your Majesty.”

Garnet’s eyes sought the blue sky that stretched endlessly above. The world was a wide, open space. If Zidane and Kuja truly wanted to disappear, even posting rewards for their capture would do no good – there were many places far beyond the reach of her influence. “I wish I could ask him. But at the same time… I hope we don’t find them, even though I just told Steiner to post wanted posters.”

Beatrix nodded. Garnet had found it distasteful having to sentence Kuja to execution. There was no way she’d be okay with doing the same to Zidane, even if the punishment was justified.

Garnet’s lashes fluttered back down. She looked at the letter and pendant in her hand, then slowly placed them on the bench beside her. She twisted her engagement ring off as well, dropping it on top of the other items, before turning to address Beatrix again. “Thank you for listening. You may go, General.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” And the general saluted and bowed before stepping out of the room, carefully shutting the door behind her. The young queen needed time to mourn, to gather her thoughts, to start planning out her next steps. Until then, Beatrix intended to do everything she could to help her in running the kingdom.

She was just heading back down to her usual post when she ran into Mikoto, who’d apparently been waiting for her by the castle’s entrance. It was a little startling to see her, mainly because she looked so similar to Zidane, if Zidane lacked all but the most basic of facial expressions…

Beatrix wondered why the young Genome was there, and then it dawned on her that a number of important wedding guests were due to arrive this day and next. She frowned. Word would not spread fast enough to stop most of them from making the trip. She was not looking forward to having to explain, over and over, why the wedding was cancelled, nor having to apologize for the inconvenience and wasted time. But she’d do it as many times as she needed to, without complaint – Garnet had enough to deal with already, without the addition of sympathetic or confused guests to the mix.

But Mikoto was staring at her expectantly, as if she already knew...

“Shall I tell you where they are?” Mikoto asked quietly, getting right to the point, not even bothering with a greeting other than a slight tilt of her head.

Beatrix stared back, suddenly remembering that Mikoto could track Zidane, at the very least… and perhaps Kuja as well? Had she known he’d survived, then? The general stepped closer, her thoughts continuing to spin in different directions. Part of her wanted to lay blame at Mikoto’s feet, for having kept Kuja’s survival a secret, but that wasn’t fair to the girl when Zidane might’ve done something to convince her to keep her mouth shut. Another part of her wanted to take the information that Mikoto was offering and run with it; she’d be hailed as a hero if she apprehended the escapees. But Beatrix did neither. She would always carry out her queen’s orders to the letter, there was no question about that, but anything beyond that…

“No, don’t. Or I’ll be forced to act on that information,” Beatrix murmured, just loud enough for Mikoto’s ears. She paused, still thinking, then added, “Who else knows you can do this?”

“Zidane.”

“Is that why you came to me? Because I already knew…”

Mikoto’s head tilted a little more. “Yes. Did I do the right thing?”

“That depends on what you consider as ‘the right thing.’”

“I don’t want to tell you where they are. But I didn’t want to wait to be asked either.”

Beatrix relaxed. It seemed they were in agreement, then. “Good. Don’t say anything more. We never had this conversation, understand?”

Unlike Zidane, Mikoto was highly intelligent. She was nodding. But also unlike Zidane, she didn’t have much in the way of social skills. Beatrix was a little concerned that maybe the young Genome misunderstood what she meant, but before she could clarify, Mikoto looked at her and said, “It’s too bad… I was looking forward to the wedding.”

“As were we all,” Beatrix muttered. There was no point in mentioning that, just like Garnet, part of her felt relieved… Although it was terrible seeing her queen’s heart broken, perhaps, in the long run, this really was for the best.

“I’ve never attended one before,” Mikoto added a bit wistfully.

Beatrix shrugged. She hadn’t attended many weddings herself. As a career soldier, it wasn’t really something she thought about, even though she was currently in a relationship; it wasn’t like Steiner was likely to propose any time soon.

“Perhaps yours will be next?” Mikoto asked conversationally, as if Beatrix hadn’t just been thinking contrary to that.

The general smirked, but she went ahead and took the bait. “If that happens, I’ll be sure to invite you.”

Satisfied with the answer, Mikoto nodded. “If that happens, I’ll look forward to it,” she said, before excusing herself to go inform the rest of the Genomes and Black Mages that had accompanied her of the latest news.

Beatrix watched her go, then shook her head. She supposed it made sense that Mikoto didn’t understand… Getting married, even getting a relationship to progress to that point, wasn’t an easy thing. Zidane and Garnet were proof of that. It was only in storybooks that “happily ever after” was the obvious and inevitable ending.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

February 7, 2016