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 "Reaching Out" are performed and recorded by Queen and Paul Rodgers. 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. 19: Reaching Out

* * *

Lately I've been hard to reach
I've been too long on my own
Everybody has a private world
Where they can be alone

Are you calling me?
Are you trying to get through?
Are you reaching out for me?
Like I'm reaching out for you

- "Reaching Out," Queen and Paul Rodgers

* * *

Zidane woke up to Kuja’s weight pressing into his chest, and for a sleep-addled moment he thought that the silver-haired man had finally woken, but then it dawned on him that Kuja had only “moved” because he’d been pulled into that position by Zidane’s arms as he slept.

Disappointed, the younger Genome lay back and blinked up at the ceiling a few moments, unsure of what to do next, his hand absentmindedly carding through Kuja’s hair. He’d really been hopeful that Kuja would’ve recovered enough to wake up. Although his injuries were serious, they shouldn’t have been enough to render him completely unresponsive. But maybe he’d misjudged things… maybe there were internal injuries that he hadn’t accounted for, though the healing potions should’ve been enough to help with those, even with Genomes being slightly incompatible with the Gaian elixirs. But anything was better than nothing. Zidane figured he’d pick up some more from the general store later on.

He rolled over, carefully pulling his arm from under the other man’s dead weight, and sat up a little to look him over. Kuja did look a bit better, at least. The swelling on his face was starting to go down, though it was still pretty puffy; the darkest areas were starting to take on a faint green cast at the edges, a sign that the worst had passed. He wasn’t a pretty sight, but somehow… there was still something beautiful about him, even in his battered state. His lips were parted slightly as his breath whistled past his teeth, and Zidane suddenly wanted to lean down and kiss him, so he did just that.

Zidane followed it with a kiss to the forehead too, before pulling back to watch Kuja’s face carefully for any sign of awareness. But there was no change of expression, no twitch of the eyelids… nothing at all. Slightly disappointed, Zidane sat back, shaking his head. It had been too much to hope for, waking him with a kiss. Kuja wasn’t a storybook princess after all.

Well, nothing was going to change if they both just lay there. It was morning, time to get up and get the day started. Zidane carefully arranged Kuja back on his side of the bed, then hopped off to go wash his face and grab a quick bite to eat. He wanted to check out the town’s morning market and of course, the bulletin board, in case anything new got posted.

As soon as Zidane got to town, he hitched Choco in front of the inn and climbed onto the porch. Arnett was there, along with Mopo the Moogle and several townspeople Zidane hadn’t met before. The mayor was standing off to the side, looking at some papers, shaking his head slowly as he began rolling them up.

“Good morning, Arnett,” Zidane hailed the big man. He nodded at the other townsfolk. “Morning, everyone.”

Mopo seemed slightly startled, but gave him a small nod before fluttering off into the inn. The others townspeople tipped their hats or nodded courteously and greeted him with “Morning” in response. Several paused to introduce themselves and to ask him for his name in turn before they left. Zidane noticed that most of the townspeople were heading to the morning market, just as he’d been planning to do.

Zidane was about to turn his attention to the bulletin board when it occurred to him that Arnett was acting a little weird. The mayor had been so friendly yesterday but hadn’t said a word since Zidane walked up; he’d been the only one who hadn’t greeted him at all. He seemed to be focused on twisting the papers in his hand into a tighter and tighter roll…

“Hey, Arnett? Morning…”

Arnett’s gaze drifted up from his hands, then he peered at Zidane’s face searchingly, before finally returning his greeting. “Morning, kid,” he said, without enthusiasm.

“Whatcha got there?” Zidane asked, gesturing at the paper in Arnett’s hands. He was starting to worry…

The mayor paused another moment, before unrolling and holding up one of the sheets. It was a copy of the dockmaster’s job posting, like the one that had been on the door of the lakeside house. “Just taking this down, that’s all…”

Zidane smiled, shrugging off the odd behavior. Maybe Arnett just wasn’t a morning person. Instead of worrying about it, Zidane turned back to the posting board, eyes searching over the papers pinned there.

Most of the papers there showed signs of age; there wasn’t anything new posted. He breathed a tiny sigh of relief, glad to have at least another day of respite. But then he spotted a well weathered wanted poster, left up so long that the paper was yellowed and spotted. It had been scribbled on to the point that the name and original illustration were mostly obscured beneath layers of silly additions, like spectacles and a top hat, but after staring at it long enough, Zidane suddenly realized just who was featured on there.

He turned back to Arnett. “Arnett the Bear; a 25,000 Gil reward?”

The big man snorted. A sudden smirk tugged at his lips for just a moment. “What, you gonna bring me in?”

Even if he wasn’t a wanted man himself, Zidane wouldn’t have considered doing that. But he was curious as to why the notice was there at all. The promised reward was certainly substantial. “What did you do?”

“Does it matter?” Arnett gruffly shot back.

“Guess not.”

Arnett followed Zidane’s gaze back to the poster. “There’s no point in taking it down. Everyone in town knows who I am.” He sighed, realizing that here was one person who didn’t know. “I was drunk and in a bar fight. It was an accident. But one guy ended up dead and the other one crippled. The second guy, he was the son of some Treno noble. So it goes. And so here I am.”

For a moment Zidane wanted to confess what he’d done, because if anyone could possibly understand, it would be another wanted man, but he couldn’t risk the possibility of exposing Kuja to danger, so he kept his trap shut. But Arnett was looking at him expectantly, waiting for a response, and so Zidane told him, “Of course I won’t turn you in. I think you really are sorry that it happened; you didn’t mean to hurt those guys like that.”

“Is that so?”

Zidane shrugged. “I trust my instincts. I know you’re not a bad guy. You wouldn’t be mayor - or Sara’s husband - if you were.”

Arnett snorted. He wished he could say the same. His instincts had told him Zidane was a good person – that’s why he’d offered him the dockmaster’s position upon their initial meeting – but now he worried that he’d been too hasty in giving Zidane his trust. “Yeah, well… thanks.”

Zidane gave him a slight smile. “Don’t worry about it.” Things still felt awkward between them but that was to be expected, given the subject matter and all. It was probably something that Arnett had to explain every time someone new moved into town, even if he wanted to just put it all behind him.

They both stood there a moment, struggling for something to say, but before the silence got too stifling, Zidane broke the stalemate, saying, “Well I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m still getting things set up in the house, so I guess I better get going.”

Arnett grunted. “Ah, yes. See ya then.”

“See ya!” Zidane returned, before bounding down the steps and running across the street.

Arnett watched him leave while shaking his head slowly, and then headed back to the bakery, wondering how he was going to break the news to his wife.

* * *

The door to the bakery jingled as Arnett returned. Sara was helping a customer but looked up and smiled; upon seeing her husband’s serious expression, the smile faded slightly, and she gave a tilt of her chin. He needed to talk; she’d listen. Although Arnett had been elected mayor it was no secret around town that Sara had a lot of influence over him. If it hadn’t been for the fact that she was more interested in baking than town policies, she would’ve made a fine mayor herself.

“What is it?” she asked Arnett once the customer had left and they’d retreated to the back room for some privacy.

“This.” Arnett unrolled the remaining papers he’d been holding on to, the ones he hadn’t shown Zidane, slapped down a sheet tray and a rolling pin to hold them flat, and stepped back. “Remember how Zidane said he was here with a ‘companion?’”

Sara stared at the two wanted posters, the back of her hand coming up to rest against her mouth, as if she were holding back a cry of disbelief. She recognized the town’s newly hired dockmaster as one of the fugitives, wanted for aiding in the escape of a dangerous criminal mastermind named Kuja. And the second poster detailed this Kuja’s many exploits; he was wanted for murder in Treno, for partaking in the razing of Burmecia, for providing weaponry used in the destruction of Cleyra and the siege of Lindblum, for kidnapping royalty, and for attacking Alexandria and killing its former queen with his powerful magics. It also had side and portrait illustrations of the Genome’s somewhat feminine face and descriptions of his distinguishing features – long silver hair topped by a cascade of feathers, a silver tail that was usually kept hidden, a large starburst scar on his left side – as well as the promise of an unheard of reward of 500,000 Gil for information leading to his capture. That was more than enough for the common man to never have to work a day in his life again, and then some!

“But if they came here… surely they’re seeking refuge…” Sara began saying, though even she sounded like she couldn’t believe what she was suggesting. “Zidane didn’t seem like a bad person…”

“Except he’s helping someone who is!” Arnett insisted, jabbing a finger at Kuja’s face on the poster. “There’s no way they can stay. What if this guy gets pissed off at something and decides ta wipe out the entire town?”

“And if we threaten to turn him in he might do the same,” Sara pointed out. “Besides, who would be willing to do it? How many in this town are wanted for one charge or another? I don’t want to see you hauled away, nor any of our friends or neighbors. No one wants to see an army come marching in here; it would be a disaster, perhaps a risk even greater than allowing him to stay.”

“We could ask them to leave. Tell Zidane he’s lost the job. Maybe give them some money to go away. It’s not like we haven’t made people leave before.”

“Only when they squandered the opportunity they’d been given.” Sara’s lips tightened; Arnett braced himself for a lecture. “My grandfather founded this town because he realized there’s no place to go for those with troubled pasts, those who just don’t fit in… This town has always been about second chances.”

“This isn’t the sort of man who deserves a second chance!”

“That’s what my grandfather was told, everywhere he went. He’d been a thief for so long, no one thought he could turn a new leaf. And wasn’t it the same for you? You had nowhere else to go; your own brother tried to turn you in. But when you came here I believed you when you said that you hadn’t meant to hurt anyone and just needed a chance to prove it. And so you have; I know you haven’t raised a hand in anger nor even touched a drop of liquor since then.”

Arnett couldn’t deny that. He’d appreciated everything Sara had done for him. But he disagreed with his wife; his situation and Kuja’s were nothing alike, no matter how passionately she argued otherwise. Arnett wanted nothing to do with a monster powerful enough to wipe out an entire city by himself. “I know. And I’m grateful you believed in me. But this…” He shook his head. “It’s the town that matters. And the town has a right ta know.”

“Yes, you’re right. We need to call an emergency town meeting. We need to hear everyone’s opinions; let the majority decide...”

“Aye.”

Sara nodded, then hesitated a little longer before asking, “But before that, will you come with me to meet him?”

Arnett stared at his wife as her request began sinking in. “Oh no… no you don’t! I’m not letting ya anywhere near that man, not until I’m convinced it’s safe. And don’t think I’ll be easily convinced!”

“You’ll protect me, I know you will,” she said earnestly.

“Sara…”

“We have to meet him. You know that. How else can we judge if he’s changed or not?”

Arnett shook his head, but he was already thinking about how he could do just that, while protecting his wife and himself as much as possible. Perhaps he could grab some of the other townspeople, the biggest, toughest guys, and show up under the pretense of teaching Zidane about boat maintenance? It wasn’t a stretch at all; wasn’t Zidane expecting help and education on that front already? “All right, all right. But I want to bring a few others along, just in case.” He paused, thinking of his many friends and neighbors. He needed guys that were brave and strong, in case they had a fight on their hands. They had to be levelheaded too, and not afraid to disagree with him or Sara if they felt either was wrong in their assessment. “I’ll talk to Smyt and Selvin about it.”

Sara nodded. Smyt was the town’s blacksmith, a barrel-chested retired mercenary with sharp eyes. Selvin didn’t have Smyt’s fighting experience, but his arms were just as big; he could cut and split lumber faster than even the native born lumberjacks in the area, though he’d once been a con artist. But as tough as both men were, they were also well respected for being even tempered and fair.

The bell to the storefront suddenly jingled, and both Arnett and Sara turned and peeked out from behind the shop curtain. Immediately recognizing the customer, Sara smiled and waved at her, and after nodding at Arnett again, went out to take her order. Neither had said it, but both were in agreement… they were relieved it hadn’t been Zidane. They weren’t ready to confront him just yet.

* * *

The morning market had been worth the visit. Zidane honestly couldn’t remember the names of all the people who’d introduced themselves to him, but it had been nice feeling that sense of community even though he was still very new to the town. The market itself was a real gem too; even though Nil was such a tiny village, there were plenty of skilled craftspeople and the farmers’ stalls overflowed with the local bounty; Zidane had picked up an assortment of vegetables to make soup with, figuring that that would be good for Kuja’s recovery, along with thick wool socks to help protect his feet.

After stopping by the general store for more medical supplies, Zidane hurried back to the little cottage on the lake. He opened the door with an upbeat “I’m back!” even though he knew he’d get no reply, but what he saw when he walked in was almost as good as hearing a shouted “Welcome home!” in return.

Kuja… was sitting up in bed. He was leaning against the wall, his hair half covering his face, his shoulders trembling slightly with each breath, but he was up.

Zidane immediately rushed to his side, dropping his purchases on the floor along the way. “Kuja, thank the gods! You really scared me for a while there,” he said as he flung an arm around the other man’s neck, hugging him carefully.

Kuja didn’t say anything, nor did he make any attempt to return the hug. Zidane sighed against his hair.

“You’re mad at me, aren’t you? I can’t blame ya. I know I let you down. I’m so sorry. But I promise, it’ll be different now…” Zidane rattled off, before realizing he was still not getting any response, not even a quickening of breath. He pulled back a bit, brushing away some of Kuja’s hair to try and get a read on his mood. But he still wasn’t saying anything… He wasn’t even looking at the younger Genome, really – it was more like he was staring ahead, blankly. The eyes that usually resembled a brewing thunderstorm were instead featureless gray skies, set in a mask of broken porcelain.

Zidane felt a chill run down his spine. Something was terribly wrong… “Kuja? What is it? What’s wrong?”

More blank staring accompanied by the occasional slow blink.

It was probably a bad idea to shake the silver-haired man, given his injuries, but Zidane couldn’t help it, though he was careful to not shake him too hard. Why wasn’t Kuja responding at all? He wasn’t the silent treatment type of guy, no matter how angry he got. “Come on, this isn’t funny! Kuja, say something - anything! I don’t even care if you want to yell at me, I can take it!”

Kuja blinked. His lips parted. And then he finally spoke. “Some... thing,” he rasped.

“Huh? Kuja?”

Kuja fell silent again. Zidane tried to figure out what he’d meant, what had triggered that. He thought about what he’d said moments earlier…

“Say something?” Zidane tried again.

Dead silence.

“Kuja, say something!” Zidane yelled, frightened and frustrated.

“Something,” Kuja parroted, with some effort.

Zidane sat back on the bed, feeling like the air had suddenly been knocked from his lungs. He suddenly remembered being in Bran Bal, surrounded by his soulless, mindless brethren who could only act on orders given to them. Worthless dolls, Kuja had called them; he’d wanted nothing to do with them. He’d refused to be compared to them, had even hidden away his tail as if to deny what he was – and Zidane didn’t doubt that that had factored into his decision to keep it under cover, but now…

This can’t be real – Kuja can’t… he couldn’t have…

The younger Genome thought of all the times he’d talked to his older counterpart, how Kuja would dance around the truth, pretending like nothing was ever out of his control. He remembered all the times when they’d argued, how Kuja would snap at him or mock him or say things that would incense him even more. He’d give anything to have him do any of those things, right now. But Kuja continued to sit there, silent and still … and it was just so very wrong.

Zidane shuddered, sick to his stomach. He remembered Garland’s final words to Kuja. And too, he remembered all the times that Kuja had annoyed him by saying he was dying. Zidane remembered having gotten mad at him, telling him to stop talking like that, that he couldn’t possibly be dying…

Had he been wrong all along? It was only now dawning on him that perhaps Garland hadn’t been talking about death in a physical sense. Mikoto had said that Garland had planned on using Kuja’s body after he died. Had that been the old man’s intention then, for Kuja’s soul to burn out and fade away, leaving an empty husk behind?

But living bodies weren’t meant to exist without a soul. The surviving Black Mages and Genomes were proof of that. Zidane knew that much, though he wasn’t sure how that worked. So maybe… there was still a chance that Kuja could be revived from this state, somehow…?

Zidane’s hands balled into tight fists. He had to try. Hope was the only thing he had to hold on to. He’d thrown away everything else to save the man he’d fallen in love with, and he wasn’t going to surrender to despair, no matter how bleak the outlook. It wasn’t in his nature to give up, just as it wasn’t in Kuja’s either. After all, Kuja had managed to survive falling out of Memoria and through the Iifa Tree after being bombarded by their strongest attacks; he’d managed to survive being dragged out of said tree as it thrashed beneath their feet, even with his grievous wounds. He’d survived a winter alone in a decaying dwelling in a forgotten mountain pass, with only a few Dwarves for company. He couldn’t possibly give in and die so easily.

The problem was, the blonde didn’t know what he could do, other than make sure Kuja’s body was well cared for. He wished he could get in contact with Mikoto, to get her advice, but it was too risky to contact her via Mognet, and there was no way he could visit her or take Kuja up to see her.

Zidane reached out and pulled Kuja into his arms again, for a moment. The weight and warmth of his body provided a small amount of reassurance. “I won’t give up. Don’t you dare quit on me either,” Zidane whispered, knowing that he’d get no response.

Reluctantly, he had to let go in order to retrieve the supplies he’d bought, leaving Kuja sitting on the bed like a beautiful, fragile doll. Zidane needed to get him fed; he needed to get more potions in his system. Those were the only things the thief could think of to try and make things better. He had to do something, because he couldn’t stand the helpless feeling that was beginning to weigh upon him.

* * *

Vegetable soup turned out to be a bad idea.

At first Zidane tried feeding Kuja directly, unsure if the other man could manage to feed himself. But after Kuja obediently swallowed several spoonfuls of broth without issue, Zidane decided to take a chance and go for it, handing him the spoon and telling him, “Kuja, eat the soup with this spoon,” while watching to see what would happen. If Kuja could handle eating by himself, that would be one less thing to worry about.

Kuja’s arm lowered and the spoon splashed into the bowl, sending liquid sloshing over the rim. Zidane winced. But then Kuja picked it back up and lifted it to his mouth and swallowed, and then repeated the motion, and Zidane felt a little better, even though Kuja’s blank expression never changed the entire time. Zidane could even hear his stomach gurgling desperately in hunger, but Kuja ate methodically without any urgency or interest.

The swelling on the former mage’s face made it impossible for him to chew easily, so broth began dribbling out the left side of his mouth once he reached the chunks of vegetables towards the bottom. It didn’t slow him down any, but he was getting soup all over himself and the tabletop. Zidane patiently wiped away the excess as well as he could, as he tried to think of what type of dishes would be easier to eat. Maybe something creamy or soft, like custard or mashed potatoes, though Zidane didn’t know how to make the former and had used up ingredients for the latter already, which meant another trip to town was imminent.

At least it hadn’t taken long to figure out most of the quirks of Kuja’s condition. Kuja needed to be addressed directly before he’d accept a command. And they had to be worded as simply and precisely as possible – he’d do exactly as told, no more, no less. But on the upside, at least he knew his own name. At least he knew what things like “eat” and “spoon” were, without having to have them defined. At least he had control of his basic functions; he wasn’t going to suddenly forget to breathe or blink.

But… he was prone to suddenly nodding off – for example, he’d fallen asleep mid-meal - and once he awoke, he had no memory of what he’d been doing, so he’d simply sit there and stare at the empty air in front of his face, awaiting instruction. And he kept trying to stand up, even though his feet and ankle were in no condition for walking. Why he kept doing that, Zidane wasn’t sure; it was the only thing he did on his own, without being told to. Zidane wasn’t sure what he could do to about it, other than be quick about picking him up so that he wouldn’t do more damage to himself. At least it wasn’t a problem carrying him about the small house.

And although it was a small relief that Kuja didn’t seem to be suffering or in pain from his injuries, it also meant he was more careless than he ought to be. Which meant Zidane had to be more careful instead, though that was a lesson he had to learn the hard way.

Zidane had thought it would be all right to let Kuja wash his face off in the sink after the soup debacle, while he filled the tub for a medicated foot bath. He’d made sure the water temperature was running warm, then instructed Kuja to lather and rinse his face off before handing him a bar of soap and a washcloth. Everything had seemed fine at first and so Zidane turned his attention back to the tub, but when he’d looked back, Kuja had mindlessly scrubbed his face to the point that the scarred skin under his eye had split and begun welling blood. It had been hard for Zidane to stop himself from screaming at him, but he knew it’d do no good, so instead of getting mad, he’d just cursed himself under his breath while treating the wound the best he could.

Zidane was in the middle of replacing the bandages on Kuja’s feet when he heard footsteps marching up the porch steps, followed by knocking at the door. For a moment he simply froze, unsure of what to do first – he needed to hide Kuja, he needed to shoo off whoever was at the door. He needed to think of a believable story in case either one of those things didn’t happen as planned. And he needed a pseudonym for Kuja, in case that was something that came up…

Zidane stared at the figure on the bed. He could call him… Jaku? It wasn’t exactly creative, but it was good enough. And a story… Jaku was his friend; they’d been traveling, hunting monsters, and then they’d gotten lost and Jaku had fallen ill and that’s how they’d ended up in Nil. Zidane made a face. It was bad enough that he couldn’t reveal Kuja’s name; it was almost worse that he kept referring to him as a friend or companion when that wasn’t what he was at all… or at least, Zidane hoped for more. But he wasn’t sure how anyone would react to that revelation either.

The person at the door knocked again, and a familiar voice called out, “Zidane?”

Sara. It was Sara. Zidane wasn’t sure if he ought to be relieved or mortified. She was a nice lady; maybe she’d understand, if he told her? But what if he did that and her reaction was to run screaming for her husband, and he in turn roused a mob to come lynch them?

“Zidane, are you there?” she asked. He could hear her tapping lightly at the windowpanes, but he’d drawn the curtains, so he was sure she couldn’t see in… or could she see the vague outline of him and Kuja sitting on the bed? Maybe if he held still enough, he could pretend they weren’t there?

A few seconds passed. Zidane held his breath. “I think he’s on the bed. Maybe he’s taking a nap?” he heard her say to someone else.

“Zidane, wake up!” Arnett bellowed. “I brought a few fellas to teach ya about maintaining the boats!”

Oh. Arnett was there too. He wasn’t going to buy that Zidane wasn’t at home, not after what Sara had just said.

“Um, just a sec!” Zidane called back. He quickly turned to Kuja, trying to figure out what to do with him. Hiding him under some pillows and blankets seemed the best option at the moment, so he whispered, “Kuja, lay down. Stay here a minute, okay?”

Once the other man did as told, Zidane quickly pulled some blankets over him, then arranged pillows in a sort of haphazard wall against his side, and then, satisfied that he was about as well disguised as could be, Zidane slid off the bed and headed for the door. On the way over he grabbed his daggers and strapped them around his waist – he didn’t want to fight, but if it came to that, he would…

Zidane unlocked the door and opened it just enough to allow himself to slip through, immediately pulling it closed behind him. When he turned around, he had a grin pasted on his face for the guests on his porch. Sara was over by the kitchen window. Arnett and two other men stood closer to the door.

Sara gave him a small smile once he made his appearance. “Well, hello, sleepyhead!”

It was easiest to go along with her assumption. “Yeah, you got me. Sorry about that,” Zidane said.

Arnett grunted, then gestured to the pair behind him. “This is Smyt and Selvin, they’ve been pitching in with the boats the last few months, whenever they could. Figured they could teach you a thing or two about ‘em, since you said you needed some help.”

“Oh, great! Nice to meet you, I’m Zidane,” the young thief introduced himself, reaching out to shake their hands. He was inches away from clasping Selvin’s hand when a loud thud from inside the house drew everyone’s attention.

“What was that?” Selvin asked, but Zidane was already in motion, darting for the door, his eyes wide with fear.

He didn’t have the opportunity to slam the door shut behind him, not with everyone practically standing in the doorway, peering in… and not with what had happened inside that required his immediate attention.

Zidane rushed to Kuja’s side. Somehow, for some reason, he’d fallen off the bed and onto the floor and was now scrambling around, trying to stand up, but each time he tried to get his feet under himself he left smears of blood on the floorboards. One ankle was bound in a splint; it didn’t stop him from scraping it against the floor in an attempt to bear weight on it.

“Kuja, stop it! Stop moving!” Zidane hissed, forgetting all about the fake name he’d come up with, not that Kuja would’ve responded to it anyhow. But at least his blurted command had the desired effect. Kuja stilled to lie placidly on the floor. He was breathing hard, but other than that, showed no sign that he’d been thrashing around just a moment earlier. Zidane shook his head, not realizing that when he’d told Kuja to stay on the bed, that he’d specified “a minute” – and that the older Genome had taken that literally.

Sara suddenly appeared at Zidane’s side, having rushed past the wall of men in front of her to offer her assistance. She was horrified by what she’d just witnessed. The town had seen its share of people in terrible shape: frightened young runaways, refugees of war, escaped convicts bearing scuffs from shackles, but never had she seen a man in such dire condition. It wasn’t just that Kuja was covered in injuries, but he seemed disoriented, or worse, oblivious to that fact. His eyes were completely blank. “What’s wrong with him? Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Sara!” Arnett took a step forward, intending to pull his wife back to relative safety behind him, but she shook her head, refusing to budge, her eyes pleading for understanding. She had such a soft heart… but wasn’t that what he loved most about her? He sighed, unable to deny her anything. He looked at the wounded man on the floor, then at Zidane. “Need a hand?”

“No… but thanks. I’ve got this.” Zidane gathered Kuja into his arms, then lifted him back onto the bed. He stuffed a towel under his feet to keep him from bleeding all over the sheets, then shook his head over the mess Kuja had made. The blood would come off the floor easily enough, but how would he explain things to Arnett and Sara and the other townspeople?

Zidane turned to the quartet standing behind him. “Um… this is Kuja. He’s my…” he trailed off, struggling for the right thing to say. At least no one had come flying angrily at him upon hearing the name. Maybe there was a chance that things would work out okay? Maybe this town was too small and remote to get the news, or maybe Garnet had decided against pursuing them. Or… maybe things would all fall apart the next day. But he couldn’t worry about that now. For the time being, he just had to offer some sort of explanation, because everyone was looking at Kuja like he was crazy or contagious or something.

“He’s your…?” Sara prompted.

“He’s… the most important person in my life. But I was stupid and didn’t understand… no, I couldn’t accept it, until it was almost too late. I left him behind, he tried to follow, and he ended up getting hurt. Now all I can do is try my best to take care of him, even though I don’t know if he’ll recover.” Zidane looked up at the faces before him, noticing they were all still glancing at one another with some degree of discomfort. “Please, I’ll do anything to stay here. I’ll be the best, hardest working dockmaster you’ve ever had! Just don’t make us leave. He won’t survive…”

Sara wanted to reassure him, but she couldn’t promise anything, not yet. She looked at her husband again, as if to say, “See, they really do need our help.”

Arnett looked at his friends. He’d told them the real reason they were paying a visit to the little house by the docks, but now they were looking at him like they were starting to buy into Zidane’s sob story as well. Zidane didn’t seem to realize yet that they all knew his true identity; it seemed he was assuming that because he’d fallen for another man, that he’d be asked to leave because of that. Arnett shook his head, then motioned to Sara, Smyt and Selvin to follow him outside.

“As you know, I intend to have the town vote on this matter tonight. But for now… I want to know, what do you two think?” Arnett asked his friends once they were outside and well out of Zidane’s earshot. He already knew Sara’s opinion on the matter, so there was no point in asking her to weigh in again.

“I know that that’s a dangerous man in there. But he certainly didn’t look that way, did he? He looked pitiful,” Selvin said thoughtfully.

“Pitiful? He was a complete wreck,” Smyt clarified. “I came here ready for a fight, but that fella looks like he’s already been through quite enough of them. Unless it’s all an act…”

“Would you let yourself get beaten up that badly, as an ‘act?’” Selvin shot back. “Believe me, that was no act – I would know. He was bleeding all over the floor in there. He didn’t even seem to realize it.”

“They really are wanting nothing but shelter,” Sara opined, ignoring her husband’s frown. The other two men nodded at her after a moment’s thought.

“Certainly does seem that way,” Smyt added agreeably.

Sensing the tide turning, Arnett shook his head slowly and said, “We’ll see what happens tonight, but for now… I guess I’ll go back in and tell Zidane that we’ll come back tomorrow, since he clearly won’t want to be outside working on boats when he has other things he needs to take care of.”

The mayor headed back up the stairs and into the house. Predictably Zidane was sitting on the bed, with Kuja’s feet in his lap as he dabbed ointment on the torn up skin, though his hands stilled as soon as he noticed Arnett. For his part, Kuja stared straight up at the ceiling and made no sound.

“It doesn’t matter to me who ya wanna to be with. You wouldn’t be the only ones like that in this town, I’ll tell ya that much,” Arnett began, and immediately Zidane’s shoulders relaxed a little. “Anyhow, seein’ as this is a bad time for you, Selvin and Smyt agreed ta come back out tomorrow to work with ya, if that sounds good?”

Zidane gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you so much!”

Arnett nodded. After the way Zidane had begged and pleaded to be allowed to stay, the mayor felt a tiny bit of guilt for not telling him the truth, that there was no guarantee that the other men would show up to help him the next day, depending on the town meeting results. But then again, it wasn’t like Zidane was telling them the truth about who he was, about who Kuja was. So they were at something of a stalemate. But Arnett could live with that for now. He’d wait and see what the majority decided before worrying about his next move.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

April 12, 2016