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 "Doing All Right" 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. 18: Doing All Right

* * *

Yesterday my life was in ruin
Now today I know what I'm doing
Got a feeling I should be doing all right
Doing all right

Where will I be this time tomorrow
Jumped in joy or sinking in sorrow
Anyway I should be doing all right
Doing all right

- "Doing All Right," Queen

* * *

Zidane awoke abruptly to find himself in an unfamiliar room, in an unfamiliar bed, next to a familiar, yet motionless body… and immediately felt a wave of panic wash over him.

“Kuja!”

He hurriedly leaned over to do a check on the former mage’s condition. There was no noticeable change one way or another – Kuja’s breathing remained steady, which was a huge relief, but he was still unconscious and his body temperature ran a little high. The bruises that mottled his skin looked more livid under the sunlight filtering through the back window, but at least they didn’t seem to be spreading more than they already had. The amount of swelling was still pretty alarming though, especially on the left side of his face and his upper back. And his feet were still a mess, with spots of fluid having seeped through the bandages Zidane had applied the night before.

Zidane sighed and shook his head. At least Kuja was alive and safe, for now. But it was already past midday, judging by the sun’s position in the sky. And Zidane was in a bind; he didn’t want to risk leaving Kuja alone while he went to check out the town, but on the other hand they desperately needed food, clothing, extra medication and bandages…

He weighed the pros and cons, then decided the trip to town had higher priority. Without those basic supplies, Kuja would not survive. But he had to keep the trip as brief as possible… it was terrifying thinking of what could happen if someone chanced upon Kuja in his current state. Zidane hoped that by riding Choco, he could lessen his travel time and minimize his time away, though he didn’t yet know how far away the town was. Maybe if he locked the door and drew the curtains and even hung the note back on the nail – basically making it look like no one had been in there – no one would think of checking inside the house to see that it was now occupied.

After jotting down a list of everything he needed and doing his best to clean up any evidence of his presence, Zidane grabbed his knapsack, stepped out onto the porch, and called Choco to him. The bird appeared after a minute, looking mostly recovered from the long ride the night before. Zidane smiled as Choco kweh-ed at him.

“Sorry buddy, I know I promised you something good to eat,” Zidane said apologetically. “So I still owe you. But I really need a ride to town, you think you can do that?”

Choco bounced up and down slightly in place, then ran in a tight circle as if to say, “What are we waiting for, let’s go!”

Zidane’s grin broadened. “Thanks,” he told the bird as he swung up onto his back, before urging him into a loping run. He didn’t want to push Choco too hard after last night’s workout, but the longer he was gone, the more he’d worry. He just wanted to get his supplies and hurry back.

* * *

The town ended up being not all that far away, maybe a mile and a half or so. It was a relief finding it so close by, in case he'd had missed something crucial on his shopping list.

It was a very small town though, the sort of place where life moved at a slower pace and everyone knew everyone else. Like most border towns it was anchored by a cluster of buildings centered around intersecting dirt roads, thinning out to farmland dotted by houses. Zidane counted a tavern, a general store, something larger that was probably a town hall or community center, and sure enough, a bakery, amongst the buildings.

Well, first things first. He dismounted, hitched Choco to the railing in front of the bakery, and looked up at the storefront. It was a fairly nondescript two-story, semi-modified house with a small porch and a few low steps. A large picture window showed off a baker’s rack that held a few loaves of bread. The upstairs had smaller windows with homey looking curtains and a fat cat lounging in a basket. Zidane assumed the baker's family lived upstairs, so did that mean he or she was also the mayor?

The door to the shop had a little bell that jingled merrily when Zidane walked in. The Genome’s head swiveled as he took a look around. The place was small: a narrow counter sat perpendicular to the entrance, and additional baker’s racks behind that held a few baked goods. There was a trio of small tables across from the counter. To Zidane’s relief there were no other customers – and apparently no shopkeeper either. But it sure did smell great, and his stomach rumbled as if to remind him of the fact that he hadn’t eaten recently. “Um, hello?”

A young lady suddenly hustled in from behind a curtain in the rear of the room. “So sorry… Oh my, a traveler!”

Zidane’s mouth dropped open. Dagger?! No… but she reminded him so much of his ex-fiancée, it was uncanny. This woman had the same heart shaped face, the same wide, expressive dark eyes, the same thick hair. But her hair was a lighter shade of brown and plaited in a loose braid, and her skin a touch darker, with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. The plain cotton blouse, faded blue skirt with rickrack trim, and ditsy floral apron weren’t the sort of things a queen would be caught dead in.

“Mister, can I help you?” she asked, cocking her head as Zidane continued staring at her.

Her casual manner of speaking was different enough to finally snap Zidane out of his stupor. She’s not Dagger, he scolded himself. She just looks a little similar. Not that it matters… I’ve closed the door on that part of my life. “Sorry, you reminded me of someone… And uh, I’m pretty hungry. What’s good?”

She giggled. “Everything! But if you’re wanting something filling, our hand pies make for a good lunch. Though… as it’s a little late in the day, there’s only a couple of potato and cheese ones left…” she said, gesturing at the shelves. “We don’t usually have much of anything by this hour, I’m afraid.”

“That’s fine. Can I get two of those? And a big loaf of bread and two of those muffins back there. And… um, I saw a sign on the house by the lake advertising for a dockmaster… I wanted to apply. Are you the mayor as well?”

“My husband Arnett is the mayor,” Garnet's lookalike replied as she wrapped the order in squares of paper. “Shall I’ll get him for you?”

He was more than a little curious to see what kind of person her husband was. “Please. Oh, and I should’ve asked sooner, but what’s your name, by the way?” he asked, not wanting to keep thinking of her as “Not-Dagger.”

“I’m Sara.” She stuck her hand over the counter. “And you?”

Zidane was so stunned for the second time in minutes that he just gawked at her. Was this some sort of cosmic joke? Garnet’s birth name was Sarah. So not only did this woman look similar but her name was nearly identical as well?

But then he suddenly remembered Garnet fiercely declaring that she couldn’t be “his Dagger” any longer, that she was Garnet Til Alexandros XVII, Queen of Alexandria. As shocked as he’d been when she’d said that, the memory of it now helped him relax a little. Garnet had released any claim she’d had on being “Sarah” a long time ago. And this was just a coincidence, nothing more. It wasn’t like Sara / Sarah was an uncommon name.

He gave Sara an awkward smile in apology, then reached out and shook her hand, before remembering he needed to pay as well. “I’m Zidane. Sorry, I’m just a little scatterbrained today,” he said as he put some coins on the counter.

She giggled again and handed him his purchase, along with some change. “I’ll let him know you’re here about the position,” she said, disappearing through the curtain in the back.

Too hungry to hold back, Zidane pushed one of the potato pies and the bread and muffins into his sack, then tore into the other pie as he waited for the mayor. The pie was so good, the perfect sort of hearty, simple, satisfying food that he craved after putting on a late night show or a running around with his gang after a sneaky heist. He managed to polish off half of it just as the curtain fluttered again and a man came lumbering out to greet him.

“I’m Arnett,” the man said, extending a massive hand, and Zidane tried hard to not choke on a mouthful of bread and potato. The guy was enormous, with little black pebbles for eyes, and hairy, like a bear, with thick, dark sideburns and a mustache.

“You’re the mayor?” Zidane managed to wheeze as Sara came back out. She poured him a cup of water as a courtesy, and he nodded his thanks before taking a few careful sips. He couldn’t help but think about what an odd couple these two made, this delicate flower of a girl and this mountain-like man.

“Yup. You’re here about the dockmaster job?” Arnett asked, looking Zidane up and down as the young Genome quickly packed away his unfinished lunch before offering up his clean hand for a handshake. Arnett wasn’t impressed. Zidane didn’t seem suited for physical work; he was barely more than a kid, with a chest and arms that looked too thin for heavy lifting. He grunted in disapproval. “Think you can handle it, kid?”

Zidane scoured his brain for something useful to say. His tail lashed behind him as he scratched his head. “Well, I’ve been on plenty of ships – even airships. Can’t say I ever had to fix one though…”

Arnett roared in laughter. It reminded Zidane a little of Baku’s laugh. “That part, someone can show ya. But it’s not easy work, kid. It takes a man to do a man’s job.”

Zidane frowned slightly. “Okay, so maybe I don’t really know much about boats or docks or whatever. But… I’m not a kid. I’m tougher than I look!”

“Oh yeah? Wanna arm wrestle over it?”

Zidane eyed the mayor’s biceps as the big man flexed for show. The guy was impressively built for sure, but Zidane knew strength was about more than muscles. Though he’d rarely won outright, he used to arm wrestle with his brothers a lot and had often managed a draw or a even a win by acquiesce, despite his usual lack of leverage and pure physical power. Not that that meant he was weak either… just because he wasn’t a muscle-bound hulk didn’t mean he was a pushover. He'd fought his way all through Gaia to Terra and back. Hiding a grin, he rubbed his chin thoughtfully a moment, then shrugged, saying, “What happens if I win?”

“You get the job!”

“And if I lose?”

“HA! Then you don’t.”

“Well, guess I don’t have a choice then.” Zidane planted an elbow on the counter and held up his hand. “Let’s do it.”

If nothing else Arnett admired Zidane’s spunk. “That’s the spirit, kid!” he said as he too planted an elbow onto the counter and locked up grips with the young blonde. “Hun, wanna start the match?”

Sara muttered, “Boys will be boys” under her breath, but smiled and put her hands over the men's locked hands and asked, “Ready?”

Both men nodded, so she let go...

Zidane jumped the gun slightly, as he always did, so he could make the initial push and put Arnett on his heels slightly. He’d always gotten away with it, because he was young and charming enough to fake innocence, as if he hadn’t meant to do it. He wasn’t surprised when Arnett immediately pushed back and evened things up. The mayor really was a strong fellow; those muscles weren’t for show. Zidane knew winning would be difficult the longer the match dragged on, so he immediately played his next card.

“What happens if it’s a stalemate…” Zidane managed to ask between gritted teeth, as their arms shook between them. The big guy was tough all right, but not unbeatable. If Zidane had to he’d Trance. But he held back. That seemed a bit much… he wasn’t trying to rip Arnett’s arm off!

The mayor grunted. He didn’t give an answer… at least not immediately. But Zidane felt his grip slacken a bit and so he let go as well, and as both men straightened up, Arnett broke into a grin and suddenly slapped Zidane heartily on the shoulder.

“Not bad, not bad! To be honest, I didn’t think you stood a chance, with those skinny arms.” Arnett laughed again. “Well, you didn’t win but I don’t care. I like you. You can have the job.”

“Awesome!”

“Lemme warn ya, it doesn’t pay much… we’re a small town, as you can see. Sometimes you’ll get tips, but that’s rare.”

“It comes with the house too. The one the notice was posted on,” Sara added. “I hope that'll work for you…”

“Yup, it’s perfect!” The house was far more important to Zidane than the stipend. He could figure out other ways to earn money if needed. “Though I’ll need someone to give me some tips on what to do though, like you said…”

“Yeah, that’s no problem. A couple folks in town have been pitching in, sharing the work, so they’ll help ya get set up…” Arnett paused, trying to think of what else to mention about the position. “It’s physical work, but it comes and goes. Really slows down in the winter and in bad weather. And… I dunno, old man Raffe handled it for years – he was the one who built the house and the dock - but we’ve never found a good replacement after he stepped down.” Arnett folded his big arms. “This is fair warning though: you better last for more than two months! Don’t go disappearing on us in the middle of the night!”

Zidane tipped his chin again, though he was careful not to make any promises. If all went well, he saw no reason why they wouldn’t stay… but if there were even a hint of trouble, he’d be ready to disappear with Kuja immediately. Having the boats right there was an extra boon, if it came down to escaping by river. “What’s this town called, anyhow?”

“Nil.” Arnett paused, waiting for a reaction, but Zidane just stared back at him. “Well, we’re not on most maps, so I wouldn’t be surprised if ya hadn’t heard of it. Folks only seem to end up here by accident.”

The town name did sound vaguely familiar, but Zidane couldn’t recall where he might’ve heard it, so he let it go. “Yeah, I guess that’s how I ended up here – was trying to get out of the storm. But I like it so far; it’s peaceful.”

Both Arnett and Sara seemed proud of that observation.

“By the way, is there a doctor around here?” Zidane asked, focusing again on his list of to-dos.

“No,” Sara replied. “There’s one a few towns over, I think, if you’re really needing it…” She couldn’t help but look him over for injuries.

“Ah, it’s not for me,” Zidane reassured her. “Um, I have a… companion. He’s unwell.”

“We’re a little isolated here, hence the boats. The nearest town is Gorge, on the very far side of the lake, but it’s not much bigger than Nil. But if you follow the stream past that a ways, there’s a bigger town, Jidor. That’s where the doctor would be,” Arnett noted.

Zidane shut his eyes a moment. A doctor would be fantastic, but he was wary of leaving town, and especially of going to a bigger one, where news traveled faster and there were more eyes to spot wanted criminals. Since Kuja was in no immediate danger, for now it was probably best to lie low and just treat him with whatever potions and medicines were available.

“There’s a general store kitty-corner from here. They usually have some medicines in stock. I don’t know if that’ll be enough to help your companion, though,” Sara said.

“Thank you, I figured that would be a good place to start.”

Zidane hefted his knapsack onto his shoulder and said a quick goodbye to his new acquaintances, promising to be back the next day for more baked goods, then headed across the street to the general store.

Like the bakery, the general store sat in a modest, two-story building, but instead of a cat in the window, there was an elderly woman smiling down at him. He flashed a smile at her in return before stepping inside, where he was immediately struck by just how small and cramped the shop was. Goods were stacked in piles and heaped on shelves and hung off racks all the way up to the ceiling. There was a little of everything: foodstuffs, clothing, housewares, tools, even some pieces of furniture like chairs and a daybed. There were even items crammed onto the counter, spilling out of baskets, and on the stairs beyond that lead to the upstairs apartment.

Besides the clutter, the other thing Zidane noticed right away was that the shop was staffed by Burmecians. And that made him a little nervous. Kuja had led troops of Black Mages into the heart of Burmecia during Alexandria’s siege of the kingdom. There was a chance that the shop workers would raise a ruckus if they happened to spot him. But Zidane realized he’d have to worry about that later, if and when it happened. Right now, he needed supplies, a lot of them. And it wasn’t like there was another general store in town.

“Hello. Can I help you find something?” one of the Burmecian women asked from behind the counter as Zidane stood in the middle of the store, swiveling his head around. She had her head cocked and was looking him over from head to toe. Visitors were apparently quite rare in this neck of the woods, and it wouldn't be surprising if they'd never seen a Genome before either.

“Hi. Yeah, help would be great. I’m new to this town and I need a whole bunch of stuff,” Zidane said lamely. He was going to be stuck in the shop a while if it was left up to him to dig through all the piles of goods.

“Do you have a list?”

“I do.” Zidane unfolded it and handed it to her. She looked at it, nodding, and then handed it off to her nearly identical companion.

“My, this is a lot! But I think we have most of what you need,” the second Burmecian woman said. She looked towards the stairs in the back. “Clyde! We need your help!” she yelled, and a rather sullen looking young Burmecian man wandered in. “Can you pull down the bins up there?” she asked, waving the list in his direction.

Clyde stared at the paper, then went to get a ladder to begin filling Zidane’s order.

Zidane watched him go, then turned back to the women. “I’m Zidane by the way. You are…?”

“Zidane?” The two ladies exchanged glances. “The same Zidane who helped the Cleyrans during Alexandria’s siege?” the first woman asked.

“You’re from Cleyra?” That was almost worse in a way. Burmecia had been devastated during the war; Cleyra had been destroyed outright. The only “good” thing about this piece of news was that Cleyrans wouldn’t recognize Kuja outright – he hadn’t taken part in the attack on Cleyra himself. But he had provided Brahne with the weapon she’d used to destroy the city.

Zidane scrutinized them further. He tried to remember if he’d seen them before, but to be frank, Burmecians and Cleyrans all sort of looked alike to him. The only difference he could see between the two ladies was that one had slightly longer hair than the other. Otherwise, they pretty much looked identical to one another, as well as all their kin.

“Yes, my sister and I are Cleyran. I’m Molly and she’s Millie,” the first woman, the one with longer hair, said. “And the fellow from earlier is Clyde.”

Zidane nodded slowly. “Yeah, I was there during the attack. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.” He couldn’t help but recall that there’d been few survivors from Cleyra.

“It’s all right. You did more for our people than we could’ve expected,” Millie said gently.

“None of us would’ve made it out of there without your help,” Molly added.

There was an awkward pause.

“So how’d you end up here? This is pretty far from the northern lands,” Zidane noted, switching up the conversation as Clyde walked back in with a tall ladder which he set against the wall. The young Genome didn’t want to dwell on a past that couldn’t be changed, and doubted the Cleyrans wanted to mope over their lost home either.

“Our people were scattered far and wide. We didn’t know where to go, so we just kept moving. We met Clyde along the way and well… our feet, and the river, landed us here,” Molly said.

“We’re grateful to have ended up here. The elderly lady who owns this store gave us work and a place to stay. We’ve been treated well by everyone in town,” Millie added. “But how did you find your way here?”

“Well… it’s a long story. But I made some stupid decisions, finally realized what an idiot I am, and now here I am, trying to start over and make things right,” Zidane replied, after some thought. It was an accurate summary, but it barely touched on all the things that had happened.

Millie nodded sagely. It was a common enough story around town. Maybe it was simply a matter of location, maybe something greater and more inexplicable than that, but Nil seemed to attract people who’d seen hard times, who didn’t have anywhere else to go, who needed a fresh start. “I wish you luck then.”

They stood around and made more small talk as Zidane began picking out some items, piling them on the crowded counter and then onto a cleared off spot on the floor, all while wondering how he was going to get it all back to the house. Even with Choco’s help a second trip would probably be unavoidable.

Millie and Molly’s chatter wasn’t unpleasant. It was the sort of semi informative gossip that women in a small town made. Zidane picked up a few useful tidbits. The old lady upstairs had three sons, two of whom had become traveling merchants that supplied the general store with goods from all over the continent, so if he wanted to procure something specific, he need only ask. And yes, the large building on the corner was the town hall, and thus served as everything from a schoolhouse to a morning market for everything from fresh eggs and vegetables, to all sorts of handmade wares from local craftsmen. The tavern on the other corner rarely had guests, but the gruff innkeeper did offer a basic lunch, if you weren’t choosy about what you got, along with a regular dinner menu. The tavern’s porch was also a gathering place of sorts in the early morning and late afternoon, as it was the usual haunt of the town’s mail Moogle, Mopo, as well as the location of the posting board for news and announcements. Zidane made a note of checking it later, in case news of Kuja’s escape popped up.

Unlike the ladies Clyde didn’t have much to say, but he did help Zidane bundle things up and loaded onto Choco. He even offered to help carry some of it to the lakeside house, but Zidane declined. He didn’t want to have visitors quite yet. He’d just have to come back and get the other things later.

It was late afternoon by the time Zidane returned to the house with all his supplies. He wished he’d gotten back sooner but he was pretty pleased with how the day had gone: not only had he secured a place to stay along with necessary supplies, but he’d even landed a job and the approval of the mayor. He figured he could spend the evening putting things in order, but the priority now was treating Kuja’s injuries and getting some water and medicine into his system.

Kuja lay limp in bed against the wall, just as Zidane had left him hours earlier. At least his condition remained stable, but it was a little discouraging that he hadn’t regained consciousness. The younger man carefully moved Kuja into the middle of the bed, then laid out a good amount of bandages, ointments, potions, and clean water and towels before pulling back the covers and getting to work.

It was hard looking at Kuja’s injuries, not just because they looked so painful, but each one was a reminder of his broken promise, of his failure to protect the former mage. Even though he hadn’t inflicted any of the wounds himself, he felt responsible, even more than he had after the events in Memoria, when Kuja had borne wounds from Zidane’s attacks. He’d gotten what he’d deserved back then. But this... this should never have happened.

Zidane started with Kuja’s feet, working slowly and carefully, soaking off the old bandages, washing and drying the affected areas thoroughly, and then gently working medicated cream into the blistered skin before rewrapping it all in loose layers of gauze. He felt over Kuja’s swollen ankle and decided that it was probably a sprain and that immobilizing it would be the best course of action; he’d have to split some wood later for a suitable splint. Moving past that, Zidane continued working his way up over the other Genome’s body, checking over each and every injury. Cuts got washed out with soap and received a light swipe of ointment as needed. Welts and bruises were examined and the worst of the lot got warm compresses to increase circulation and hopefully speed along healing.

Other than the blisters on Kuja’s feet, the massive bruise on his face was the most concerning injury. The skin was so swollen and tender that Kuja’s left eye was reduced to a sunken slit and one side of his lips had ballooned up like a plump pillow. And now that Zidane was carefully looking over the entire contusion, he could see the skin had split slightly under the eye socket and at the left corner of the mouth. He cleaned those as well as he could, then used some bandages with adhesive to hold the edges together in hopes that they’d heal more cleanly, as he knew Kuja was sensitive about his appearance.

With that thought in mind, Zidane even took time to carefully untangle and brush out Kuja’s hair after he’d gotten a couple of potions and a glass of water down Kuja’s throat, one mouthful at a time. Kuja wouldn’t appreciate it while unconscious, but Zidane didn’t want him waking up to find even the smallest detail neglected in some way. And besides, he’d had such beautiful hair… it was a shame to neglect it when it took only a little effort and attention to make it shine again.

Once he’d done all he could for the other Genome, Zidane sat down to eat a quick dinner before going out to check on Choco and chop some firewood, chipping off some suitable pieces for a splint. And then just as he’d planned, he spent the rest of the evening tidying up, putting things away, and generally turning the house into a comfortable home before checking in on Kuja one last time, then turning in for the night himself.

He curled up against Kuja’s side, a little amused and yet somewhat saddened too at how quickly he’d gotten used to sharing a bed with Kuja once again. He felt much more comfortable now than he’d been in a long time, even though he was far away from everyone and everything he’d known. It was almost funny how life had ended up circling around and repeating itself, as if even time was trying to hammer a point home. Some twenty months ago he’d dragged Kuja’s injured, unconscious body to an abandoned house and waited for him to recover. And now, he’d just finished dragging Kuja’s injured, unconscious body to an abandoned house, and was waiting for him to recover. At least this time he’d chosen a house in much better condition, with a town nearby. At least this time, he had no other destination in mind, no other goal… At least this time, he knew what he wanted.

With a sigh, Zidane snuggled even closer against Kuja, draping his tail over Kuja’s leg, lightly resting his hand on the other man’s chest so he could feel the gentle pulse of his heartbeat. It reminded him of the time back when they were living in the shack in the mountain pass, when he’d lain next to a feverish Kuja, only to wake up to blue-gray eyes glaring at him. Maybe it was too much to hope for a repeat of that - well, minus the glaring – but Zidane was an optimist by nature. He saw no reason why Kuja wouldn’t wake up soon. And then maybe – after he apologized, after they talked things through – they could pick up where they’d left off. He just wanted things to go back to how they were.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

March 7, 2016