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 "Through the Night" 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. 20: Through the Night

* * *

Tell me something that'll ease my pain
I am living life in vain
Crying doesn't help me anymore
Tell me something that'll ease my mind
I am walking the line
Trying doesn't get me anywhere

I wander through the night
All the stars are shining bright
Searching for a guiding light
I wander through the night

Tell me something 'cause I need to know
Can you teach me how to live
How to understand, how to love and how to give
Anger burns in bitterness and fills me up inside
Can't face it and there's no place I can hide

I wander through the night
All the stars are shining bright
Searching for a guiding light
I wander through the night

- "Through the Night," Queen and Paul Rodgers

* * *

It was probably the closest vote the town had seen on any issue, but in the end, the 51 votes for beat out the 46 against, and so Kuja and Zidane won the right to stay. Sara’s passionate pleas probably had a lot to do with that – she had reminded those present that many of them also had pasts they weren’t proud of, and yet, because they’d been given the chance to change, they were now living peaceful, productive new lives.

A few others had weighed in with more personal stories. Millie and Molly had pointed out that Zidane had been a hero. He’d stood up to the Alexandrian invasion in Burmecia; he’d gone to Cleyra to try and help the people there too. In the end he hadn’t been able to save either city, but he’d saved lives. A man like that surely had to have good reason for wanting to save his old enemy, even if no one else could understand it. And Selvin and Smyt had also seen Kuja in person earlier in the day and vouched for the fact that he wasn’t in any condition to cause anyone any harm. As well respected, long standing members of the community, their opinions carried a lot of weight as well.

Arnett had lent his voice to the opposition. He’d felt it was his duty as mayor to point out all the risks that harboring an extremely dangerous felon would pose to their little village. But when it came down to the vote itself, even he’d voted for letting them stay. It wasn’t like he was getting soft. But he had to admit, his wife certainly had a way with words. Because she believed so strongly that people could change, he wanted to believe in that too. They all did. And maybe that’s what had swung the vote in her favor.

Of course, Arnett wasn’t the only one who’d spoke up against letting the two Genomes stay. The most vocal had been one of the newer residents, the former Burmecian soldier, Clyde. He’d been there during Alexandria’s invasion; he’d seen firsthand the damage Kuja and his Black Mage troops had done. The attack had been so sudden and terrifying that he’d deserted his post and run in fear as the ancient kingdom was reduced to rubble in a matter of hours. He admitted he was a coward, he’d have to live with that flaw the rest of his life, but maybe that was who he was at his core. Some things couldn’t change. And he believed a man like Kuja, who’d smiled while delicately stepping over the broken bodies of his foes, who’d laughed while a building collapsed on screaming masses huddled inside… was someone so despicable, so evil, there was no way he could change either.

Just as Sara’s arguments had captured some votes, Clyde’s warning had won over some of the townspeople as well, to the point that when the results were announced, Clyde and several others stormed out of the town hall. No one stopped them from leaving however. Because no matter how much they disagreed with the results, it was understood, that was how things worked in Nil. And if anyone took it upon themselves to act against the majority decision, they too would likely find themselves voted out of town.

By the next day, things were mostly back to normal. Unaware of how close he’d come to losing his new home, Zidane showed up in town the next morning just as he had the day before, checking the bulletin board and visiting the market, bakery and general store.

Arnett was pleasant and smiling again, a far cry from how he’d been the morning prior. But the people at the market were now running hot and cold – some seemed friendlier than they’d been the day before, others far brusquer. Zidane could understand being stressed by all the little – and big - things in life, so he didn’t worry about it. He had enough on his own plate anyhow. Then he got to the general store, where Clyde glared at him before disappearing upstairs, muttering “Inventory” under his breath as he vanished. This time it was easier for Zidane to shrug off the behavior. Clyde had never been the most gregarious fellow anyhow.

At least the girls were still as nice as ever. They’d gotten some new inventory, so even though Zidane had only planned to get a couple of things, he ended up picking up a book for Kuja – though he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to read it as he was - as well as a basic Tetra Card Master deck for himself, to replace the one he’d left behind in Alexandria.

Clyde reemerged once Zidane had paid and left. He stood by the window, peeking from behind the curtain, and clucked in disapproval as the Genome hopped onto his chocobo and disappeared down the street.

Even though he knew that just a single sentence: “We know what you’ve done” - could drive Zidane and Kuja out of town, he couldn’t say it. He liked this town. He didn’t want to leave. He liked Millie and Molly too, even though they’d voted against him. He’d been slightly disappointed by it, but not surprised… as Cleyrans, they were pacifists by upbringing. But even more than that, they still saw Zidane as the hero of Cleyra, so in gratitude, they were giving him – and Kuja - the benefit of the doubt. He wished he could do the same, but he just couldn’t. He’d be damned if he saw Nil share the same fate as Burmecia.

“It’ll be all right, Clyde. You’ll see,” Millie assured him, once Clyde peeled himself away from the window.

“It’ll be too late if I’m right,” Clyde said bitterly, as he headed back upstairs. If it came down to it, he’d run and take the two sisters with him. He wasn’t going to fight a battle he couldn’t win.

* * *

When Zidane left that morning, Kuja had been asleep. But after what had happened the day before, Zidane took the precaution of securing the older man in bed, rolling him up tightly in the blankets and then trussing the whole bundle like a giant roast. As distasteful as it was leaving Kuja tied up like some wild animal – especially in light of the fact that he’d just been freed from a dungeon, where he’d been chained up - it was preferable to letting him loose to “walk” aimlessly around the house. Zidane didn’t want to come back to a broken ankle or worse.

He threw open the front door with his usual “I’m home,” his optimistic side hoping to hear a verbal response in return. But just as before, there was no answer. At least Kuja was still on the bed, though he was awake or… well, moving around a bit, like an undulating caterpillar. Zidane put down his purchases and stepped closer to peer at him.

Kuja’s eyes were closed, his lashes fluttering slightly; he was dreaming, it seemed. Zidane couldn’t help but smile a little in relief and amusement. It was a good thing. An empty shell could only lie there in rest; it took a soul to create dreams. So he really was in there, somewhere…

Kuja had been struggling enough to loosen the ropes binding him. But now that Zidane was home, there was no reason to keep Kuja restrained any longer, so the young thief immediately began undoing the remaining knots. He had barely begun when Kuja started moaning softly.

The smile that had been dancing across Zidane’s lips instantly vanished. Zidane couldn’t help but apologize, even though he knew the words wouldn’t register. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to, but… well, I’ll have you loose in a jiffy.”

In response, Kuja tossed and turned a little more restlessly, before suddenly uttering a single word in a low, pained voice.

“Master…”

The blonde froze, frowning. So it wasn’t a dream, but a nightmare. And all that wriggling wasn’t random movement, but a struggle.

Zidane quickly finished freeing Kuja and waited to see if he’d say anything else, but he didn’t. He kept squirming though, like he was still trying to escape, even though he was no longer bound. Zidane could only guess at what Kuja was remembering. He’d always avoided talking about his time on Terra. What had he gone through during his early years, when he’d been the only Genome with a soul and thus the sole focus of Garland’s attention?

Eventually Kuja’s struggling lessened and he returned to a still slumber, the rumpled state of his clothing and sheets lingering evidence of his nightmare.

Zidane tried to not let his imagination get away from him, but it was hard to keep it from wandering even as he turned away to start making some oatmeal for Kuja. He remembered Kuja mentioning that Garland had trained him in magic by forcing him to heal himself, to defend himself, to fight back. He couldn’t imagine that that had involved anything as mundane as being struck by a fist. What had Garland done, tortured Kuja and then sat back to watch him try to mend the damage? Threatened him with yet more punishment if he couldn’t conjure or control powerful enough spells, knowing full well that the effort was eating away at Kuja’s lifespan? Mikoto had told him that Garland planned to dissect Kuja’s body after he died, then patch it back up like a broken toy, so keeping him in one piece probably hadn’t been much of a concern.

Zidane looked back at the sleeping body on the bed, and sighed heavily. He thought back to Garland’s last words and wondered yet again if his creator had meant for him to save Kuja or to kill him. Given the animosity between the two of them, Zidane was leaning towards the latter. Not that it really mattered… Zidane had obviously decided for himself what he needed to do the moment he jumped in after Kuja. He’d just made a complete mess of everything afterwards, and now Kuja was paying the price for it.

At least the former mage would probably physically recover with few aftereffects; Genomes were designed to be durable and already many of his injuries were looking better, even without the benefit of magical treatment. But inside, something was horribly broken, and Zidane wasn’t sure if he could fix it. The only thing he could do was stay by Kuja’s side and provide whatever support he could, in the hopes that time would indeed heal all wounds.

The water started to simmer on the stove. Zidane stirred in some oats, then, with nothing else demanding his attention at the moment, decided to crawl onto the small bed, wrapping his arms around Kuja and holding him close, warming the limp body with his own. He didn’t know what else to do.

Zidane began stroking Kuja’s hair, an action that had become something of a habit. The familiar feel of the silken strands brought him some small degree of comfort. But this time Kuja shifted in reaction to his touch, rolling over to press his face against Zidane’s shoulder before settling down more towards his chest. It was strange how he was only responsive while asleep, but Zidane was glad for the improvement. He hugged him a little tighter. Even if Kuja was only aware of him on a subconscious level, Zidane knew he had to do all he could to reassure him, to remind him he wasn’t alone any longer.

At some point Zidane realized he’d dozed off as well. Or more precisely, he awoke to the smell of burning oatmeal and the sight of Kuja sitting up in bed, staring off into the distance. At least he hadn’t tried standing up. But when Zidane called his name, he showed as little reaction as he had the day before.

Jumping out of bed to yank the burned mess off the stove, the young thief tried to focus on cleaning up instead of wallowing in disappointment. He had to be patient. Kuja was starting to get better; he just needed more time. He’d fully wake up once he was ready. In the meantime, he needed lunch and that, at least, was something in Zidane’s realm of control. He just needed to make sure he didn’t burn it again.

* * *

Adjusting to life as Nil’s dockmaster wasn’t particularly difficult. Zidane learned very quickly that maintaining the property and boats was physically demanding work but he didn’t mind - it certainly beat having to pretend like he cared about royal decorum or the history of the Mist Continent. He didn’t have any complaints about the meager pay either – he’d brought some money with him when he’d fled Alexandria - but he was still grateful for Selvin’s advice that fishing might be a way to supplement his income, if he didn’t have any other marketable skills. It was what the former dockmaster had relied on for extra money; most everyone in town did side jobs to get by. Zidane supposed thieving didn’t count as a “marketable skill,” and since Tantalus had a policy against stealing from anyone but the wealthy anyhow, he’d refrain from it. Besides, he wanted to stay in Nil, if possible… and it’d be pretty obvious who the thief was if money and items coincidentally started vanishing in time with his arrival.

Even though Zidane had gone into the position blind, Smyt and Selvin turned out to be decent teachers, willing to answer questions and even coming over to lend a hand as needed. It turned out that everything but the most crucial tasks had been ignored for months while the town had struggled to fill the position, so even though the dock had been kept in working condition, most of the existing boats were no longer serviceable and had been pulled ashore and simply left there. So there were extensive repairs to be done, wood that needed to be resealed or repainted, missing parts that needed to be replaced, and so on and so forth.

So it wasn’t the easiest of jobs. But on the upside, the work was sporadic, even with all the deferred maintanence and repairs to be done, so Zidane was left with a good amount of free time to use as he pleased. He definitely needed it; every moment he had to spare went to looking after Kuja.

Managing Kuja wasn’t nearly as easy as taking care of a boat, but even that became something of a routine in just a matter of days. Zidane continued to secure Kuja in bed in the morning after seeing to his wounds, so he could run to town for supplies and a bit of gossip. Once he got home, he’d fix Kuja something to eat before securing him again so that he could work outside. On days where the weather was nice, Zidane would bring Kuja out with him, seating him on one of the sling chairs on the porch while he worked on boats through the afternoon. Kuja was in no hurry to wake up, it seemed, but sometimes he’d sit blinking in the filtered sunlight on the porch, and Zidane had to figure the warm spring breeze was doing him some good.

Once the sun began setting, Zidane would head back in and fix dinner for the both of them – something more substantial for himself, and something easy to eat for Kuja – and then spend an hour or so afterwards reading to Kuja, in hopes that his voice would seep into Kuja’s mind and stir his consciousness. Then Zidane would bathe them both before turning in for bed, and as he lay in bed holding the former mage, he’d wonder what the next day held in store for them. Would it be a repeat of the previous day? Would Kuja finally wake up for real? Or would their identities get revealed and their cover blown, forcing them to have to start all over - again?

And then sometimes, just before falling asleep, Zidane would think to himself that although he’d fully expected to miss his old life - he’d expected to miss her - he didn’t, which was strange… When he’d been separated from Kuja, all he could think about was how much he wanted to see him, and worry about whether or not he was he doing all right. Maybe it was because he was so busy trying to take care of Kuja, but he hadn’t really thought about Garnet at all since he’d left. He certainly didn’t feel the need to rush back to her side, and he didn’t regret what he’d done. It wasn’t like he’d seen much of her even after they’d gotten engaged. It was hard missing someone whom he’d spent so little time with, whom he had so little in common with. Not that he had all that much in common with Kuja either, but they’d managed to get along in a way that he and Garnet hadn’t.

When Zidane finally did nod off, his dreams weren’t all that different from where they’d been months ago. His thoughts were filled with Kuja: memories of the time they’d spent together, fantasies about moving forward in their life together. When he had dreams like that, he felt hopeful. Perhaps he and Kuja couldn’t ever have a typical storybook ending, but they could still find happiness together.

But sometimes the dreams would turn sour, and he’d be racked by guilt, seeing Kuja’s sad face as he left him behind, or worse, he’d remember the stupid argument they’d had in the dungeon. Why had he been so cruel, telling Kuja that he should’ve left him behind in the Iifa Tree? He hadn’t meant it. But he’d been upset and he’d wanted Kuja to hurt too, so he’d opened his mouth and spoke without thinking.

And sometimes his soured dreams would fully deteriorate into nightmares. More than once he dreamt that he’d been too late, that Kuja had already been executed by the time he'd gone down into the dungeon to see him. Or that he’d gone back to the mountain house to retrieve him, only to find that Kuja had passed during his absence. After a nightmare like that, it was a relief to wake up and find Kuja warm and breathing beside him; it didn’t matter that he still wasn’t himself yet, only that he was alive.

* * *

Unlike Zidane, Kuja didn’t sleep – or do anything else - with any set schedule. But something had changed in him. When he was physically awake, his mind stayed shut down. But when his body was resting – which was the majority of the time, as he was still recovering from his ordeal - his consciousness stirred, floating through a sea of memories, unaware of reality beyond the most vague of sensations.

As Kuja lay dreaming, he swore he could hear someone softly calling his name. And then a gentle hand would caress his hair, occasionally drifting down to trace the line of his cheek and jaw, as a light kiss flitted across his forehead. It was such an unfamiliar sensation… but at the same time, he thought he’d experienced it before. He just couldn’t remember how long ago it had been, or whom the voice, hand and lips belonged to. All he knew was, he didn’t want it to end. He was warm and content, wrapped in sunbeams and lulled by heartbeats; he didn’t want to wake up, not if it meant losing those ghostly traces of affection. All his life he’d longed for a bit of kindness, some small sign that he was wanted, even though he’d never been able to put those feelings into words. Even though he’d never had the luxury of thinking about it.

But as he drifted a little closer to awareness, memories of pain suddenly arose, swelling like a wave, swallowing him. Harsh images assaulted him; sound and sensations bombarded him – too many, all at once. He remembered the same kind voice who called his name promising that he’d come back for him, then yelling that he should’ve left him behind to die after all. He remembered being alone and so very cold, and how his feet had stung from miles of marching; his side had burned too, when he’d torn himself open falling through the branches of the Iifa Tree. He remembered struggling to gain his freedom by trampling on thousands of lives, then watching it all slip out of his hands as Garland got the last laugh on him. He remembered having to bow down to people he didn’t like or respect, and spreading his legs for people whose names he couldn’t recall, smiling fixedly even though he wanted to vomit as they groped him with sweaty hands. He remembered his memories burning away as if they were on fire, then waking on the streets of Treno, the rain dripping relentlessly as he tried to recall… He remembered being trapped in a tiny, plain room in a village of silent dolls who were nothing like him, except for the one tiny Genome who was, but then… He remembered cowering every time his master called for him, because it hurt to have to train in magic, because he was never good enough, because it didn’t matter if he was awake when it was time to collect tissue and fluid samples, only that he held still…

Frightened and overwhelmed, he’d sink back into the dark nothing of unconsciousness, just as he’d done when he was much younger, when he’d been Garland’s only test subject.

He would’ve liked to stay that way forever, preferring oblivion to pain, but his body never allowed his mind to take refuge for long – it wanted to live, even if the rest of him had stopped caring…

The silver-haired Genome abruptly sat up in bed, his eyes flickering open.

The sudden movement woke Zidane as well. Groggy, Zidane stretched and scratched himself before glancing at the window to confirm that it was indeed morning, though just barely. And then it dawned on him that Kuja was the one who had woken him.

“Good morning, Kuja,” Zidane said, yawning.

And… nothing but silence...

Zidane grunted. He was saddened, but not surprised, by the lack of response. “Damn, it’s awfully early. Mind if I sleep a little longer?” He paused, trying to think, then added, “Kuja, lie back down. It’s okay if you don’t want to sleep, just lie here with me.”

Kuja did as he was told, but as Zidane cradled him, he realized, the older man’s skin was slightly tacky, like he’d been sweating. His breathing was a little faster than usual, and uneven, too. Had he been woken up by a nightmare?

Zidane sighed. Given his choice between a completely unresponsive Kuja and one that at least showed some signs of life, he’d happily take the latter. But that didn’t mean he didn’t feel helpless in face of Kuja’s pain. He rubbed his cheek against the top of Kuja’s head while slowly massaging his arms, his back, whatever else he could reach. He didn’t know if anything he did was getting through to him, but he had to try. He had to give Kuja reason to want to wake up.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

May 6, 2016