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 "Keep Passing the Open Windows" 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. 22: Keep Passing the Open Windows

* * *

Do you know what it's like to be alone in this world
When you're down and out on your luck and you're a failure
Wake up screaming in the middle of the night
You think it's all been a waste of time
It's been a bad year
You start believing everything's gonna be alright
Next minute you're down and you're flat on your back
A brand new day is beginning
Get that sunny feeling and you're on your way

Just believe - just keep passing the open windows
Just believe - just keep passing the open windows

Do you know how it feels when you don't have friend
Without a job and no money to spend
You're a stranger
All you think about is suicide
One of these days you're gonna lose the fight
You better keep out of danger - yeah
That same old feeling just keeps burning deep inside You keep telling yourself it's gonna be the end
Oh get yourself together
Things are looking better every day

- "Keep Passing the Open Windows," Queen

* * *

Zidane’s waking thought was, I hope that wasn’t all just a dream.

He looked down at the body curled up against his own, and despite a slight reservation at what he was about to do, poked it in the arm to see if he’d get a reaction.

Kuja murmured and swatted at his hand, but didn’t wake up.

Zidane frowned. It wasn’t much of a reaction. It wasn’t anything different from what he might’ve done when he hadn’t been himself. So Zidane poked him again a couple of times, then pinched him for good measure.

One eye cracked open. "… What?" Kuja growled, looking about as pleased as a Catoblepas woken from its slumber.

Zidane smiled apologetically. Kuja had never been a morning person. "I had to make sure yesterday wasn’t just a dream."

"You’re supposed to pinch yourself, moron," the former mage muttered.

"Hmm, yeah. Sorry."

Kuja grumbled a little more, but closed his eyes and let his head drop back down to Zidane’s chest, before he reconsidered it and rolled over instead.

Zidane sighed at the rejection and sat up, intending to get out of bed, but just as he swung his feet towards the floor, he heard Kuja ask in a small voice, "Where are you going?"

"Gonna get my day started. You can go back to sleep if you want."

Kuja immediately rolled back over, reaching out to snag the hem of Zidane’s shirt. "You’re not going anywhere?"

Zidane cocked his head, not sure why Kuja had suddenly become obsessed with what he was doing. "Well, I usually go to town in the morning. But it’s still too early for that. I was going to fix some breakfast. Want any?"

"Oh." Kuja relaxed slightly into the pillow, then yawned.

Zidane smiled and ruffled Kuja’s hair just a moment, which earned him a growl of disapproval. "Go back to sleep. I’ll make you something to eat later, if you want."

Zidane felt Kuja’s fingers release their hold on his shirt, so he stood up. Kuja just looked up at him a moment, before burying his face in his pillow. "You’ll wake me before you go?" Kuja asked, the words heavily muffled.

"Sure, if you want."

Zidane wasn’t sure if Kuja had intended to go back to sleep, but by the time he sat down to eat his breakfast, he could hear the other man softly snoring.

As the blonde chewed his way through a thick slice of bread topped with honey and fruit, he wondered how long it would be before Kuja could accompany him into town. The older Genome was clearly unhappy at the thought of being left behind, but his health was a real concern. Zidane supposed he could offer to carry Kuja around town, if he really wanted to go, but there was no way he’d suggest it; Kuja was too proud to accept being manhandled like that. Besides, appearances mattered to him. He’d rather stay at home and sulk than be seen bruised and battered and leaning against Zidane for support.

Zidane decided the best way to handle it was to load up on supplies so that he wouldn’t have to make another trip for a few days. Now that he was more settled in the house, he wasn’t needing to pick up nearly as much stuff as he had before.

He took his time eating and working on his grocery list and getting ready, buying Kuja as much time as he could before he had to wake him. He even spent a couple of minutes sitting by the bed and watching Kuja sleep – it was relaxing watching the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, the way his pink lips would part slightly sometimes as he exhaled, the occasional fluttering of silver gilded lashes. Zidane would’ve rather let Kuja continue resting, but he’d promised to wake him before he left, so that was that.

"Kuja. Hey…" Zidane couldn’t resist stroking his fingertips down Kuja’s cheek and along his jaw. "Wake up, beautiful." He cupped Kuja’s chin in his hand and leaned down to kiss him lightly.

Kuja murmured, rubbing his face against Zidane’s hand a moment before his eyebrows wiggled and his eyelids slid open. The haze clouding his blue-gray eyes cleared after a few moments more. "Mm?"

"I’m going to head out in a few minutes. Is there anything I can pick up for you while I’m in town?"

Kuja blinked, processing the question. He had to assume Zidane had picked up enough clothing and toiletries for the both of them – after all he wasn’t lying in bed naked – but beyond basic necessities like that, was there anything else he really needed? "No…?"

Zidane smiled. "Okay. Well if you do think of anything, I can pick it up the next time I make a trip." He paused a second, thinking, then added, "Do you want me to fix you something to eat before I go?"

Kuja still wasn’t hungry at all, even though he knew he ought to eat. "No."

"There’s some bread on the counter, in case you change your mind. Can you walk that far?"

Kuja eyed the kitchen, then turned back to Zidane. "Are you saying I can’t make it ten feet?"

It was more like fifteen feet, but Zidane saw no reason to point that out. "No, I’m saying that I worry about you. That’s all."

The former mage grunted. Despite his indignant protests, he wasn’t sure if he could make it to the other end of the room, even though it was only a few yards away.

Zidane sighed. He wondered if he ought to go at all, but he had to, or else they’d be eating nothing but bread the rest of the day. And Kuja needed something more substantial than that if he was going to regain his strength.

"I have to go," he said, kissing Kuja on the forehead before he got up and walked to the door. "I should only be gone an hour or so."

Kuja just shrugged. He didn’t have anything else to say. What did Zidane want, to hear him say goodbye? To hear him beg him to stay?

Zidane left. A minute passed, and then another. Kuja frowned. He turned to stare at the closed door and wondered if he should’ve asked Zidane to take him with him. He shook his head, hating how weak his body felt, and how weak his resolve had gotten as well.

With a groan, he flopped back down on the bed and stared up at the beams of the ceiling a moment before glancing over at the window. It still didn’t feel real, being here. Being alive. It was unbelievable that Zidane had managed to sneak him out of the dungeon, after having drugged the majority of the castle staff with sleeping weed and talking his way past Beatrix. At least that’s how Zidane had explained it when he’d sat down to answer Kuja’s questions last night immediately after dinner.

Kuja hadn’t contested Zidane’s story or his motives. If Zidane was deluded enough to think he’d fallen in love with a man who’d once been his mortal enemy, then maybe he would’ve been crazy enough to pull off a stunt like that too.

Zidane had also had some questions of his own. He’d inquired if Kuja had managed to remember anything from the past few weeks, and at that, Kuja had felt obligated to reveal that he occasionally suffered from episodes where he’d lose awareness, and that they’d been happening with some frequency since Zidane had left for the Mist Continent. Well, that was what he meant at least. He’d put it far more bluntly, saying, "I lose awareness sometimes, like my mind has forgotten how to function. It’s just something that happens off and on; it’s been like that much of my life."

Zidane had looked distressed upon hearing that. "Really? That’s terrible! I didn’t know…"

"I guess Garland figured he could be sloppy when he created me, since I wasn’t meant to last anyhow," Kuja had curtly replied.

"I don’t think that’s the case at all. Everyone has their breaking point, no matter how strong they are…"

"Or how weak?" Kuja had spat. He hadn’t wanted to hear that from Zidane, who’d recovered in no time at all when Garland had tried to purge his mind. As if he’d needed more proof that Zidane was the superior Genome. "At least none of my ‘episodes’ were quite as severe back in the mountains, or maybe I would’ve frozen to death there. Maybe that wouldn’t have been so terrible though. It certainly would’ve been better than starving to death."

"Don’t say that!" Zidane had snapped, but after that they’d both let the subject drop - Zidane, because he’d been truly disturbed by what he’d just learned, and Kuja, because he’d gotten the younger man riled up and that somehow made him feel a bit better.

Kuja still didn’t understand how Zidane could’ve walked away from his fiancée when she’d been the only thing he’d thought about and talked about for an entire year. He’d said he’d done it because Kuja had become more important to him, but they’d been apart for months – how did that make sense? Though there was a saying: absence makes the heart grow fonder. So maybe Zidane had begun missing Kuja to the point that he’d started confusing it with something like love…? Didn’t that mean that now that he was away from Garnet once again, that he’d start missing – and "loving" her – once again?

Irritated, Kuja sat up and swept the curtain aside.

The back of the cottage faced a shed that looked to be nearly as large as the house itself. Tall trees gracefully laced the area with shade. There weren’t any other houses or buildings in sight, only some rocky cliffs.

Kuja sighed, letting the curtain fall back into place. Even after Zidane had explained what had happened and where they now were, it was still hard to remember that he was no longer alone, trapped in that old house in the northern mountains.

But… what if Zidane didn’t come back, again? What if he’d realized his mistake, and went back to her?

Kuja suddenly felt his stomach lurch. Zidane was just going to town for an hour or so, to pick up supplies, Kuja told himself. That wasn’t anything unreasonable. Kuja wanted to believe that. Zidane had gone on supply runs all the time back in the mountains; he’d always returned from those.

But he’d also said he’d be back in a couple of months…

Kuja threw himself out of bed, bracing himself against the wall as his legs began failing him. Gritting his teeth, he stood there, hanging on until his limbs stopped quaking so much. Following the line of the wall, past the bathroom and along the kitchen counters, he struggled towards the front door.

Kuja took one step out the door before he remembered that he had nothing on his feet but socks, and with his feet as tender as they were, he couldn’t risk going much further like that. But he spotted some slippers Zidane had left by the door; they were too small to be comfortable, but they’d suffice for the time being.

The view from the front of the cottage was about as non-revealing as the one from the back window – there was no sign of town or any other dwellings - except now Kuja could clearly see the docks and the long expanse of lakefront that flanked the dockmaster’s abode. A meandering path tramped down between some trees was very likely the road into town, but all Kuja could see from his vantage point was water, rocks and greenery.

Most people would’ve said the cottage was cozy, that the location was idyllic and peaceful. And while Kuja had to admit the house - tiny though it was - was in far better condition than the last one, he still felt that same sense of isolation that he had before. It wasn’t that he’d ever been that sociable, really… although he’d been very good at gracefully navigating his way through various social situations, the reality was most people grated on his nerves. Often he’d preferred the company of his books. But at the same time, he couldn’t stand being completely alone, to the point where he could accept almost anyone as a companion. Even Zidane.

Kuja frowned. He’d told Zidane yesterday that he didn’t trust him, that he didn’t like him. He hadn’t been exaggerating on the former, but perhaps a bit on the latter. Even though Zidane had let him down, Kuja couldn’t bring himself to hate him. Maybe it was because Zidane had shown him some degree of kindness, more than anyone else ever had; maybe it was because he had no other option, with the rest of the world wanting him dead.

Come to think of it… Zidane had said Nil was quite small, barely a blip on the map. So why did they need a dock and someone to maintain it? Maybe the boats were the main mode of transport in and out of town. If so, wasn’t it risky living in such a location? What if a traveler happened by and spotted them? Or even the townspeople… surely they had access to Mognet, even in a sleepy backwater burg like Nil. Sooner or later someone would figure out who they were, and then…?

Zidane just didn’t think sometimes… or even most of the time. He was reckless, relying too much on sheer dumb luck. But everything always seemed to work out just fine for him in the end. Kuja resented that. He’d struggled for everything he’d ever had, and even then, it hadn’t been enough. The freedom he’d longed for, the power he’d accumulated through years of training, the social status he’d curried… all he had left now was his life, and even that was in constant danger of being snuffed out. It made no sense that Zidane would want to be linked to someone like that, someone who could only get him in trouble, who couldn’t even properly respond to his desires or needs… someone who only knew how to destroy and failed at everything else...

Kuja staggered forward a few feet, then stumbled and dropped onto his knees. He’d felt dizzy; it was like something was suddenly clouding his vision. He couldn’t seem to get back up. He didn’t know if something was wrong with him, or if it was just a side effect of his poor health. Was he still in danger of dying? How ironic that would be… to suddenly drop dead after all that had happened. What would Zidane think of that? And speaking of Zidane… where was he? He’d said he’d be back in an hour or so, but surely it’d been an hour already.

It was getting harder to breathe. The sun was too bright, too hot. Kuja tried to brace himself upright to catch his breath, but when that failed, he half crawled, half dragged himself to the nearest patch of shade, taking refuge there in hopes that the spell would soon pass.

* * *

True to his word, Zidane had only stayed in town long enough to run his errands, though now that Kuja was awake, there were extra things that the blonde figured he’d ought to pick up.

After loading his purchases onto Choco, he swung by the inn just to make sure the posting board remained clear of bad news, then headed home. It was a nice spring day, and with Choco cheerily jogging along at a good clip and songbirds singing in accompaniment, Zidane was feeling upbeat… that was, until they were very nearly at the house, and Zidane spotted an unexpected figure curled up under the shade of a tree.

Shocked, Zidane immediately urged Choco into a run before flinging himself off the bird’s back as they reached the clearing in front of the house.

"Kuja! Why are you out here?" Zidane yelped as he sprinted up to the man kneeling on the ground. Kuja’s hunched posture indicated illness or injury; his tail lay limply in the dust. Had he hurt himself somehow, and only managed to barely crawl past the door before collapsing? Or was it something worse? Zidane suddenly couldn’t get out of his head what Kuja had told him last night about his "episodes." He remembered staring at Kuja’s conscious-yet-unconscious body, wondering if something had broken inside… To now know that that was what had happened, Zidane had to admit, he was scared. If it happened again, would he be able to pull Kuja out of it once more? Or would he finally slip through Zidane’s grasp, accepting death as the price for escape?

Kuja looked up, blinking, eyes wide. He seemed a little dazed, as if he’d lost track of time. "You’re back…"

Still worried but greatly relieved at having gotten a response, Zidane crouched down and hugged the former mage, squeezing a little harder than he’d intended, as Choco came up to them both and began lightly nibbling at Kuja’s hair. "Of course. I told you, I was just going for supplies. I came right back as soon as I could."

Kuja shook his head slowly, the strange fuzziness clearing away almost as quickly as it had struck. He reached up and gently but firmly pushed the chocobo away, then tried to do the same with Zidane as well, but the young thief refused to let go.

"Did you really think I was trying to ditch you? Would I have busted you out of prison and brought you all the way out here… would I have spent weeks nursing you back to health, just to dump you as soon as you woke up?" Zidane demanded.

Kuja’s lips tightened. "I don’t know. I didn’t say that!" he protested. But he had been thinking it; he couldn’t help it, even though he’d known it wasn’t logical, even without Zidane pointing it out.

Zidane frowned. He didn’t want to see Kuja upset. But he’d had to say it; Kuja was acting like he’d been abandoned – again. The careless words Zidane had uttered in the dungeon… the promise he’d thoughtlessly broken… the scars left by those actions were just as real as the ones marring Kuja’s body. The younger Genome didn’t know if he could mend the damage he’d done, but he was determined to give it his all.

"I’m sorry. I know I still need to prove myself to you. I won’t ever hurt you like that again," Zidane murmured into Kuja’s hair. "I love you."

"Is that supposed to be an improvement over yesterday’s ‘I think I love you?’ What could you possibly even like about me?" Kuja laughed bitterly. "So you think you’ve developed feelings for me. You used to have them for her. You’ll change your mind again next week, or the week after."

Zidane’s lips pursed. Had he said it like that? He’d been nervous when he’d confessed… It wasn’t because he was uncertain about what he wanted though. For the first time in a long time, he was sure of how he felt – and he'd dreaded the thought of being rejected. But Kuja couldn’t see into his head or his heart – he didn’t know how much Zidane had wrestled against his confusion before he’d finally accepted that what he felt for Kuja was real.

The blonde stood back up, brushing a bit of grass off his pants. There wasn’t anything more he could do at the moment to win over Kuja, but that didn’t mean he’d given up. He’d just have to tell him he loved him over and over; he’d have to prove himself again and again, until even Kuja couldn’t deny it anymore. "Let’s go in and have lunch, okay? And when I make another trip in a couple of days, if you feel up to it, come with me."

And with that, Zidane offered Kuja a hand up. He could’ve just picked him up and carried him back into the house, but he knew Kuja would resent that. Besides, he’d made it this far under his own power…

Kuja tsked, refusing to take hold of the hand. "… Come with you? Don’t be stupid. If I go into town, I’ll be recognized immediately. I’ll be killed!"

"No, you won’t. I promise."

"How ridiculous! How can you say such a thing?"

"Because some of the townspeople have already met you. You just don’t remember. You were having that ‘episode’ thing, you know?"

Kuja was so surprised, he couldn’t even think of a response. He nervously smoothed his hair back with one hand. Zidane had let people in to see him while he was injured? While he wasn’t of right mind? Was one of them a doctor or something?

"They were here to give me a hand with the boats. It couldn’t be helped. But they were really nice about it – when they saw I had my hands full taking care of you, they said they’d come back later when I wasn’t so busy. And they did."

"You let… they didn’t…" Kuja stuttered. He frowned, not wanting to think about what else might have happened while his body lay there unaware. He tried switching to another topic instead. "Isn’t there a Moogle here? Does news not travel?"

"There is, but…" Zidane shrugged. "I was worried about it at first, but it’s been weeks now and nothing’s happened. Maybe it’s just a matter of time, but for now, at least, we’re safe."

The former mage sighed. It sounded too good to be true. Even Zidane’s amazing luck could only hold out for so long.

"I like it here. I think we could be happy here, you know? But that doesn’t mean I’ve let my guard down. If we have to run, I’m ready."

Kuja finally reached up and took hold of Zidane’s hand and let him pull him to his feet. Zidane wrapped his arm around Kuja’s waist as well, once he was up, to provide extra support. Kuja didn’t protest as they slowly made their way back to the house. Even if this was just another temporary hideout - or even a passing "relationship" - it was fine. It wasn’t like he had any expectation that things would work out for him in the long run.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

July 24, 2016