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 "Back to the Light" are performed and recorded by Queen and Brian May. 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. 21: Back to the Light

* * *

Far, far from the light
Hear the night creatures call
With a cold breath they howl
All the hollow hours
They're calling you

I'll be there
No matter what you're going through
In the dark I care
I'm holding on, I'm hoping on
It's still the same old me inside

Back to the light
Back to the streets that are paved with gold
Back to the light
Back to the land where the sunshine heals my soul

Deep, deep in the night
When the world fills with tears
And the wind blows
Colder and colder it grows
And the fire dims
With the same old fears

I'll be there
Though maybe you don't hear me babe
I still care
No matter when, I'll still be there
When you make it to the other side
Oh, and I'm going back

Back to the light
Back to the streets that are paved with gold
Back to the light
Going back to the land
Where the sunshine heals my soul

- "Back to the Light," Brian May

* * *

Garland was a fool.

Kuja frowned at the squirming, squalling little creature dangling by its ankles from his grasp. Why his master thought it’d be a good idea to create an infant Genome, Kuja had no idea. Why he’d thought it’d be a good idea to make Kuja the sole caretaker of the helpless thing, that made even less sense.

It was obvious that maturing it in the growth vats like the other Genomes would be far more efficient and sensible. But Garland theorized that a more “natural” maturation process would give this particular Genome – chosen for its superior physical potential – the complex emotions and stability needed to do something that Kuja couldn’t: Trance. And children were supposed to be more malleable, more tractable… more apt to accept commands given to them. The major downside was someone needed to raise it for the many years it would take for it to reach adulthood. And so the task fell on Kuja, as Garland didn’t want to spare time for it and there was no one else capable of carrying out such a complicated task. To make up for Kuja’s lack of knowledge on the matter – like all the other Genomes, he’d been efficiently grown to adolescence in a nutrient bath-filled glass tube – Garland had supplied him with an instructional book along with basic care items, like liquid food and diapers.

Kuja didn’t like it. He wanted no part in taking care of it, tempting as the prospect of grooming him to oppose Garland was. The infant was tiny and pathetic; it couldn’t speak, it couldn’t walk, it couldn’t feed itself. It couldn’t even control its bodily functions; even a normal Genome could manage that! And this baby was supposed to somehow grow up to one day render Kuja obsolete? Ridiculous!

All Kuja had to do was let his hands “slip” and Garland’s new prized project would be nothing more than a still, broken blob of flesh on the hard floor - and if one “slip” didn’t do it, a few more would. But Kuja knew the punishment for that would be severe… Garland could possibly go as far as decommissioning him if he were to do such a thing. So that was not a valid option.

… That didn’t mean Kuja couldn’t fantasize about it though.

It was too tempting standing there with the baby – Garland had named it Zidane – dangling in the air, so Kuja put him on the table as he began crying anew. The silver-haired mage snarled and began pacing as he tried to remember what he’d read on the subject of crying from the book.

It could be anything, really. Zidane could’ve been hungry, tired, needing to relieve himself, or in pain…

Kuja tried to rationally sort through the list. He’d fed Zidane a portion of his assigned liquid diet only a short while ago, so that wasn’t likely to be it. Before that, he’d been sleeping, so being tired probably wasn’t it either. Kuja did a quick check of the diaper – that wasn’t it either. He didn’t have any injuries so it wasn’t pain, was it? Or was he malfunctioning internally?

Unsure of how to check that last point – and not wanting to have to see Garland about it - Kuja picked the baby back up again. Zidane’s cries grew a little more intense. Eyes narrowing, Kuja poked and prodded the baby to see if he could somehow zero in on the location of discomfort, but Zidane just kept wailing nonstop.

“Be silent, you worthless thing,” Kuja hissed, shaking him back and forth. Zidane made a wet, gasping sound, then cried even louder. Grimly, Kuja set him back on the table and began calling upon his magic.

First he tried a Cure spell, but that didn’t seem to have much effect. So he tried again, opting for a different approach…

It was hard to concentrate on the spell while being bombarded by such loud, unpleasant noise, but Kuja was relieved when his mind-scanning spell turned up something. It wasn’t easy making sense of an infant’s thoughts, but it seemed Zidane was in discomfort from pressure building up in his abdomen.

There’d been something in the book about babies getting gassy, so Kuja went to look it up. Apparently babies needed to be burped at times, which sounded vile, but anything was better than waiting for Zidane to cry himself to exhaustion, so Kuja followed the instructions given, lifting the infant to his shoulder and supporting his head with one hand while smacking him on the back with his other hand, until there was two noticeable belches, followed by some softer ones, and then… blessed silence.

Disgusted yet relieved, Kuja went to pull the baby off his shoulder and winced as he realized Zidane had somehow grabbed a handful of his hair while he was being burped. Back against his shoulder the baby went, until Kuja could get his hair pulled free, then he dangled Zidane from his outstretched hands again, this time, right side up. “You won’t survive if you don’t learn to take care of yourself, faster,” he scolded Zidane as the infant’s head lolled back. With a sigh, Kuja ended up holding him in the crook of his arm just to keep his head from flopping around, since it seemed to make him start fussing more often than not.

He fully expected the baby to start howling again anyway, just because. Or to wet his diaper or spit up in his face or… something else foul. But Zidane surprised him by staring at him and making contented gurgling sounds, as if Kuja hadn’t just been thinking about killing him minutes earlier.

And that reaction was probably why Zidane was still alive. Not because of the threat of punishment – if Zidane was gone Kuja knew Garland couldn’t afford to get rid of him – and not even because he hoped Zidane would divert some of Garland’s attention away from him. It wasn’t that Kuja needed to be stared at, but just seeing a reaction…

The other Genomes simply stared vacuously in his direction when spoken to. Garland only looked at him to observe him or to check for compliance with commands. Other than the dragon he called Nova, which only passed by the town every once in a while, there wasn’t a single living creature who ever looked at him like he was there at all. Like he mattered at all. Only this tiny infant, who now lay docilely in his arms, blinking sleepily up at him…

* * *

There was no gentle, easy wakening for Kuja. One minute he was drifting along, half-dreaming and half-wondering if it was a dream, the next, he was startled awake by a spasm of pain from his shoulder. Reality and fantasy blurred, and he reflexively tried to draw his arm in, to cradle the baby against his body, fearing he’d drop him, but for some reason, he couldn’t move his limbs. Bewildered, his eyes snapped opened only to baffle him by what he saw.

What? Where…?

Whether his dream had been a true memory or not, that was forgotten for the moment. This bed, this small room… it was all completely unfamiliar to him. There was a window above the bed, covered with a curtain, but he couldn’t reach it to look out. For some reason, he was wound up tightly in some blankets, to the point where he couldn’t seem to free himself, even when he twisted and turned. Only his head was free to move about, though all it could do was look to the left and right.

Kuja couldn’t hold back the whimper that escaped his lips. His first confused thought was that this was Garland’s doing; he was being punished for his misbehavior. But… this wasn’t how Garland normally did things. This wasn’t his assigned room; this didn’t look like any place he’d seen in Bran Bal. And he’d kicked Garland off a cliff on Terra, hadn’t he?

His eyes slid shut as his mind struggled to separate past fears from his present reality. Yes, he was sure of it. Garland was gone. So was all of Terra. He’d seen to that himself.

A sudden flood of images flashed through his thoughts, so quick he could barely process them... The brilliance and warmth of the crystal in Memoria. Zidane plummeting past as he lay prone in the Iifa Tree. An old, decaying house in the mountains and a pair of mismatched Dwarves at an outpost at the foot of the path. The view of Alexandria Castle from the surrounding cliffs, standing out like a sparkling gem amongst a patchwork of green growth and blue water. Dark stone walls and General Beatrix, drawing Save the Queen, the sword’s edge glinting in the flickering gas light.

Queen Garnet had sentenced him to death. Zidane had too, in a way, by leaving him behind, but Kuja had stubbornly refused to release his hold on life. How ironic that he’d ended up being dragged to the executioner by Zidane himself after all of that…

Was this all an illusion then? The last, lingering gasps of a dying mind? He’d remembered reading that at the moment of death, one’s whole life would flash before one’s eyes. Or had that moment already passed? Was it already over, but some stubborn fragment of his soul couldn’t accept it?

Then why did his body hurt? How could he feel physical pain, if he was dead? Or was this his punishment – eternal damnation – the price he’d pay for the sins he’d committed in life? He’d never believed in concepts like gods or hell, but if anyone deserved to suffer forever for what they’d done, he’d be an obvious candidate.

He struggled against the sheets some more, then cried out in surprise when he noticed the door in the far corner swinging open. Who was his tormentor? The former queen, Brahne? His old “employer,” Mr. King? One of his other countless, nameless victims? His eyes snapped shut of their own volition, but that didn’t stop the footsteps from rushing over towards him. Cringing, Kuja forced them open again, only to see a very familiar face looming over his.

Stormy blue-gray eyes locked with bright aqua blue. Zidane was as surprised to see Kuja awake, as Kuja was to see him. “Kuja… are you really…? Oh, thank gods! It’s okay. It’ll be okay.” Zidane immediately began untying the ropes that bound the former mage, quickly as possible. “I’m so sorry about this, I just couldn’t leave you wandering around.”

Kuja just stared up at him. What was he talking about? And why was he there? He wasn’t dead. And he didn’t have time to be tormenting him. He was supposed to be getting married; he was going to be king. Or… was it really him? Could it be someone masquerading as the young thief? But it sure sounded like him…

“Kuja? You… you can understand me, right?” Zidane asked. Kuja was awake, wasn’t he? His eyes were following him; they weren’t glazed over anymore, but wide and worried. So why wasn’t he responding?

“… Zidane?”

“Yeah.” The blonde grinned slightly in relief and finished undoing the ropes. “There. Sorry… I didn’t want to tie you up, but you’d taken to sleepwalking or something like that.”

Sleepwalking? What? Kuja’s brow furrowed. “Did Garland send you? Or am I dead?”

“Huh? Kuja, Garland’s long gone, and you’re alive...” Then Zidane remembered Kuja mumbling at Garland in his sleep, and he sank onto the bed, wondering what Kuja had remembered. Or more importantly, what he might’ve forgotten… “Kuja, what’s the last thing you remember?”

Kuja searched his memory for the last thing that seemed real. That would be… the execution? He wasn’t sure. “Beatrix...”

“Beatrix?” Zidane scratched his head. Well, she had been there, yes. “Not me?”

“You aren’t real. But I remember her drawing her sword. And… and…”

“I’m not real?” Zidane wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He was sitting on the bed, his weight depressing the edge of the mattress; he’d just untied Kuja as well. Zidane leaned a little closer to the other Genome, until he had his hands planted on either side of Kuja’s body. “If I’m not real, why are you talking to me then?”

Instead of answering, Kuja clamed up and looked away, as if to prove that there really wasn’t anyone there.

“If I’m not real, how could I do this?” the blonde asked, as he reached out and lightly touched Kuja’s cheek, causing Kuja to flinch as if he’d been slapped instead.

“It’s another dream, then - or a nightmare. Just a dream... It must be, otherwise, you wouldn’t be here,” Kuja mumbled, refusing to look back at Zidane.

“… Ouch.” But Zidane figured he deserved that.

“Maybe I’ll die in my sleep. That wouldn’t be so bad. It’d be for the best, I think. I won’t have to wake up again. I don’t want to,” Kuja continued muttering to himself.

“Kuja, you’re not dreaming. Like I said, this is real,” Zidane said gently, even though he was starting to get frustrated – not with Kuja, but with just how messy things had become. Zidane was glad to see him awake, but he hadn’t expected Kuja to be so disoriented and now, he had no clue how he was supposed to get through to him.

But Zidane had managed to inadvertently say something to get the former mage’s attention. “You’re a liar! I won’t be fooled again,” he snapped, shoving at Zidane, his expression shifting from angry to surprised when his hands made contact with a solid body.

Zidane sat back on his haunches, unsure of what to say. It was ironic that Kuja of all people would call someone out for lying… but maybe he’d only been treating others the way he’d been treated. Because despite Kuja’s confusion about almost everything else, he was right about one thing: Zidane hadn’t kept his word. He’d promised Kuja that he’d find him safe harbor and deliver him there. He’d failed miserably.

“You’re right. I broke my promise,” the young thief admitted. “I didn’t intend to, but… I made some bad decisions. I really screwed things up. I’m so sorry.”

“You’re sorry…” No one had ever apologized to Kuja before, not for anything that mattered. He should’ve been pleased to receive an apology. He should’ve smiled and pretended like he was happy to do so. Instead, he felt rage boiling up inside him. He struggled to suppress it, telling himself that if Zidane was being even a tiny bit truthful, he couldn’t afford to be pushing him away - but he just couldn’t.

“You’re sorry?” Kuja spat. It had been so cold in the shack that he’d struggled to fall asleep, his body shivering uncontrollably as he’d fretted that he wouldn’t wake again the next morning. It had been so painful and exhausting, staggering towards Alexandria on blistered, bloodied feet; it had felt as though he’d been walking on shards of glass. He’d been terrified when the angry mob had surrounded him, bombarding him with whatever they had on hand – fruit, trash, rocks. And Zidane was sorry??

“Kuja, please… hear me out.”

Kuja suddenly began laughing. “What choice do I have?” Even though he was no longer tied down, he could tell, he didn’t even have the strength to get up, never mind leave.

It was the same sort of laugh that Zidane had heard back in the dungeon. There wasn’t anything happy about it – not then, and not now. In fact, Kuja looked close to tears. But last time, Zidane had let his own frustration get the best of him, and he’d said something he now regretted…

This time, he leaned down and wrapped his arms around Kuja and hugged him. “It’ll be okay, I swear. Just listen, please…”

Kuja froze for a split second, before he suddenly began thrashing around. “No! It’s not okay! I don’t believe you!” he yelled hoarsely as the tears he’d been holding back finally spilled over.

It was sort of a blessing that Kuja was still weak from the three weeks or so that he’d been bedridden, otherwise Zidane would’ve had to use more strength to hold him down, at the risk of hurting him. As it was, he was still a handful. Zidane ended up clutching him against his body while grimacing at his own poor choice of words. Obviously Kuja didn’t want to hear any more of his promises. Maybe he didn’t want to hear anything from him at all. But Zidane had to try.

“I really wanted to go back and get you – I thought about it every single day, even in my sleep! – but I was scared. Because I felt something for you that I thought… couldn’t be possible. So I tried to convince myself that I was wrong, that I was just confused. I tried to force myself to follow the script I had in my head of how my life was supposed to be. But I was only lying to myself, to Dagger, to you… Believe me, I never intended to hurt you, or to break my promise to you! In fact, I was only going to go through with the wedding because the only thing I could think of to protect you was to pardon you once I became king,” the younger man rattled off, rapid fire, before pulling back slightly to see if his explanation had any effect.

Kuja didn’t give any indication that he’d heard any of it. He was sobbing to the point that he could barely remember to breathe, his shoulders shaking hard as he gulped in air, only to resume crying again.

Zidane frowned. Garnet had managed to look pretty even while crying. But there was nothing attractive about the way Kuja cried. His face was all scrunched up and his nose was running and the tears seemed endless, like he’d been holding in so much sadness for so long, he could no longer stop it from bursting forth. It was so raw and painful, even Zidane’s chest hurt from it.

The last time Kuja had snapped, he’d expelled his rage outward and ended up destroying his home world. He’d cried then too, though no one had stuck around to witness it. But now, without his magic, without any other outlets, all he could do was wail helplessly.

Feeling just as helpless and unsure of what he could possibly do to make things right, Zidane shuffled back until he was sitting up against the headboard, and simply held Kuja, stroking his hair, while the other Genome clung to his shirt and soaked it. He’d hoped for a better reaction; he’d thought that Kuja would at least give him the chance to properly apologize. But he tried to remain optimistic… At least Kuja had woken up. That was the important thing. His soul hadn’t died. And his body was on the mend. From all indications he’d recover pretty well, physically. Apologies and explanations, those could wait until later.

After a few minutes Zidane realized that Kuja had grown quiet and still. Worried, he cocked his head and looked down to find that Kuja had managed to exhaust himself and had fallen asleep. His breathing was somewhat labored – no doubt he was congested from all the crying – but otherwise he seemed to be at peace, for the moment.

Zidane was tempted to stay by Kuja’s side, but he’d been in the middle of doing some repairs to one of the boats when he’d come in for a drink of water. He really didn’t want to leave things a mess outside; at the very least, he had to clean up. So he carefully pried Kuja’s fingers off his shirt and lay the former mage down, tucking the blankets loosely around his body after considering – and dismissing – the necessity of tying him up again. Hopefully the next time Kuja awoke, he’d be at least lucid enough to realize he needed help to get up.

* * *

The next time Kuja awoke, it was a few hours later, in the early evening.

His first thought was that the heartbeats thudding softly in his ear were an echo of his, not someone else’s. His second was that his pillow was firmer and warmer than he’d expected. His third, he really had to use the bathroom…

He sat up, clutching at his head as a wave of dizziness struck him, and suddenly, his thoughts cleared and his earlier show of weakness came back to him in a huge, shameful rush. He’d clung to Zidane’s shirt and cried and cried, far harder than he’d thought possible, until he’d lost consciousness…

“Kuja? How are you feeling?”

The older Genome spared a glance to his right. Zidane had been lying beside him in bed – apparently he’d been said “pillow” - but he was sitting up now as well. Why was he still there? Kuja remembered getting mad and snapping at him, struggling against him, sobbing all over him… Maybe Zidane stayed simply because he’d enjoyed seeing his former enemy brought down to such a state. But then why would he be lying in bed with him?

However there was nothing but concern in Zidane’s eyes as he carefully reached out to touch Kuja’s cheek, then moved up to Kuja’s forehead, as if checking for a fever.

This time, Kuja didn’t twitch away, though it was more out of fear that any motion would make his head feel worse.

“Bathroom,” Kuja managed between gritted teeth, once Zidane’s hand moved away.

“Ah, okay.” Zidane slid off the bed, then turned around and scooped Kuja up in his arms. The surprise in Kuja’s eyes gave away the fact that he hadn’t expected help, either in getting up or making it to the bathroom.

“No way I’m letting you walk right now,” Zidane said firmly as he set Kuja down in front of the toilet.

Kuja wasn’t sure if he ought to point out that he didn’t appreciate the level of attention that Zidane was giving him, considering the situation, though at the same time, he doubted he could’ve made it to the bathroom without crawling. Even standing up was a strain. His legs felt so weak, he feared they would give out at any moment and send him tumbling to the ground, but Zidane had his hands firmly planted on his back and the side of his hip to help keep him upright so that that wouldn’t happen. Kuja frowned. Zidane’s steady hands should have felt reassuring, but they didn’t. If Kuja leaned into them, and Zidane pulled away, if he suddenly left… Kuja would be left to fall alone.

He tried not to think about it and concentrated instead on the task at hand.

When he was done, Kuja managed to shuffle over a few feet to the sink to wash his hands, shrugging off Zidane who still insisted on following close behind, making protesting sounds. Although the older man’s feet hurt, the pain was bearable – just an overall soreness instead of sharp, cutting jabs of hurt. It helped that his reflection was distracting him as well. He couldn’t help but stare at what he saw in the small mirror over the sink – his face looked pinched and his hair was in disarray. There was a scar under his left eye, amidst the ugly yellow bruising around the socket. And if this was what his face looked like, he could only imagine what lay beneath his clothes.

His nose and eyes were puffy and red from crying. He splashed some cold water on his face, hoping to at least reduce the redness, though he doubted it would make it look any better. He hid a sigh as he dabbed his face dry. One thing was for certain, Zidane wasn’t sticking around just to look at a mug like his.

After Kuja confirmed he was done, Zidane picked him up again and carried him back out to the main room. The blonde looked towards the bed a moment, then over at the small kitchen table before heading over to the latter. He deposited Kuja in one of the wooden chairs, then went to the stove, glad he’d had the foresight to put a simple stew on the stove before Kuja had woken up. “I bet you’re hungry. Dinner’s almost ready, I think.”

Kuja put his hand on his stomach but didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure if he was, though he was pretty certain he needed to eat regardless of how he felt. He’d always been slender through the waist but was beyond skinny at this point.

Zidane took Kuja’s silence as a yes. He briefly checked on the contents of the pot, prodding at a chunk of potato, then at a piece of meat. It needed longer, from the looks of it… the meat would be far better if it was more tender.

The blonde turned away from the stove, then hesitated. Normally he would’ve gone straight back to the dining table and sat down for a conversation, but Kuja wasn’t being very talkative. So as something of a peace offering, Zidane went over to the mostly empty bookcase, picked up the book he’d been reading aloud to Kuja during the past few weeks, and placed it on the table in front of the silent silver-haired man.

Kuja glanced at the cover, then up at Zidane, questioningly.

Zidane explained, “I know you like to read so I picked it up at the store. I’d been reading it to you, when you weren’t… well, but I don’t know if any of it got through. Did it?”

After flipping briefly through the pages, Kuja was pretty sure he’d read the story before but wasn’t sure if his memory of it was from way back when, or more recently… Frowning slightly at his uncertainty, he looked back up at Zidane again, then cocked his head slightly. “You cut your hair,” he observed.

“Hmm?” Zidane straightened up, fingering the end of his ponytail before remembering that yes, he had cut it for the wedding, at Garnet’s request. “Ah, yeah, Dagger said she thought it looked better shorter. But I’ll grow it back out. You liked it longer, right?”

Kuja gave a half-hearted shrug. He didn’t see what difference his preferences made.

Zidane smiled slightly. He let his hand drift down, until it was lightly resting on Kuja’s head. “You have such beautiful hair. I’m glad you’ve left it long.”

“I shouldn’t have. I should’ve disguised myself better,” Kuja sighed, suddenly angry at himself for having tried to walk to Alexandria in the first place. It had been a bad idea, and he’d understood that, but… he hadn’t known what else to do.

“Maybe. Maybe not. It wouldn’t have made a difference if someone like Beatrix saw you anyway.”

Kuja grunted.

Encouraged by the fact that Kuja was conversing with him at all, Zidane figured it was a good a time as any to try apologizing again. He sat down and laced his fingers together, resting his chin on them, as his tail began swaying rhythmically behind him. “Listen… I don’t blame you for being mad at me. I know I messed up, badly. And I know you’ve had it rough – probably far worse than I could ever imagine. But I’m trying my best to set things right. I really am sorry, Kuja. I didn’t intend to be away for so long. I really did think I could find some place where you could live in safety, but I was being naïve, I guess. And I certainly didn’t mean what I said in the dungeon; I don’t regret rescuing you from the Iifa Basin. I don’t regret the year we spent together. Because then I would’ve never gotten to know you, to, uh…”

Zidane unlaced his fingers, reached out, and captured Kuja’s hand in one of his own. Such long, slender fingers… not as delicate as a woman’s, but just as elegant. Zidane longed to kiss them, but he refrained. He wanted to do this properly, though Kuja was just looking at him suspiciously.

He looked Kuja right in the eyes and said, “Kuja, I think I’m in love with you.”

Kuja frowned. “Oh.” Now it made sense… sort of. Zidane knew he was an easy lay; Queen Garnet, on the other hand, had likely refused his advances and maybe he’d grown tired of waiting for her. Zidane should’ve known better though. Flattery or trickery wasn’t necessary. He only needed to point out that Kuja owed him for saving him, and he’d be able to get what he was after.

“’Oh?’ That’s it?” Zidane asked, disappointed. He hadn’t really expected Kuja to reciprocate just like that, but “Oh” was such a non-answer… “I understand if maybe you’re not sure how you feel yet, or you need some time to think about it, or, well… something like that…” he trailed off. Even he wasn’t sure what he was asking for anymore. It was weird to think about it, but proposing to Garnet had been slightly easier in comparison. At least in that case, there was only the possibility of a “yes” or a “no.”

“What do you want me to say?”

Zidane shrugged. “Well, what do you think of it?”

Kuja really wasn’t interested in answering, but it was just awkward leaving things as they were. He yanked his hand out of Zidane’s grasp. “You’re wasting your time. I’m not capable of reciprocating your feelings.”

“Maybe not right now, but if you give me a chance…”

“Are you stupid? I wasn’t designed that way, that should be obvious by now.”

Zidane frowned.

Kuja rolled his eyes and made a dismissive wave of his hand. “I know what this is all about. I don’t mind. You don’t have to pretend to like me or whatever.”

“What?”

Kuja’s lips twisted. He looked over at the bed. “I’ll let you do it right now, if you want.”

“What?” Zidane followed the direction of Kuja’s gaze, then blushed slightly. “No, that’s not what I…”

“Hmph. I figured as much. I must look like hell right now.” He felt like hell too, though he didn’t think that mattered. “Well, now or later, it’s all the same to me,” Kuja added.

“You don’t. Look like hell, I mean.” Zidane sighed heavily as he gathered his thoughts. “I want you, I really do. But this isn’t about sex. Well, I mean… let me put it this way - as much as I want you, I only want to make love to you. So until I know you feel the same as I do, I swear, to you and to myself, that I’m not going to make that move on you.”

The older man sighed as well. Sex, lovemaking…. he had no use for that sort of wordplay. “I guess you’ll be waiting for the rest of your life then, or until you find someone else to pique your interest.”

“No, I don’t think so. You’re the only one that matters to me.”

“Aren’t we the eternal optimist?” Kuja asked in his singsong voice, the one that made Zidane worry about what crazy thing was going to come out of his mouth next. “Here’s some news for you: I don’t trust you. I don’t even like you.”

That hurt. Kuja had said earlier that he no longer believed in him, but Zidane hadn’t realized that things had deteriorated so badly that he’d go as far as to say that he disliked him. Not that it was undeserved, but still… “Come on, you don’t mean that.”

“I certainly do.”

Zidane reached out for Kuja’s hand again, persisting even when the former mage tried to pull away. Kuja ended up relenting with a tsk and a slight frown. In a half pleading, half hopeful tone, Zidane said, “I know I let you down; I know I’m going to have to work extra hard to regain your trust. But no matter what, I want to stay by your side – even if you decide you don’t want us to be anything more than friends. All I ask is that you give me one more chance to prove myself to you.”

Kuja didn’t answer. But he didn’t pull away again either. That didn’t mean he agreed though; he’d been burned far too many times to want to risk opening himself up to something like that again. At the same time, he knew he wasn’t in any sort of position to be choosy about the help being offered. Zidane must’ve known it too. Kuja could barely walk; he didn’t even know where they were! If he cared at all about his survival – and at the moment, he wasn’t sure if he did, truth be told - then he’d have to give Zidane the chance he was asking for.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

June 8, 2016