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 "Dreamer's Ball" 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. 23: Dreamer's Ball

* * *

Oh take me, take me
Take me to the dreamer's ball
I'll be right on time
And I'll dress so fine
You're gonna love me when you see me
I won't have to worry
Take me, take me
Promise not to wake me 'til it's morning
It's all been true

Oh take me, take me
Take me I'm your plaything now
You make my life worthwhile
With the slightest smile
Or destroy me with the barely perceptible whisper
Gently take me
Remember I'll be dreaming of my baby
At the dreamer's ball

- "Dreamer's Ball," Queen

* * *

Three days after his last trip to town, Zidane figured it was about time to go back again - this time, with Kuja in tow.

The older Genome was still recovering but Zidane saw signs of improvement each day. Kuja had begun walking around the house, even venturing outside from time to time, and did some light housework that was minimally taxing, like folding laundry and making tea. It all seemed rather… dull – he’d even read his book from cover to cover twice during that span – so Zidane figured Kuja would be eager to get out of the house, but when he told Kuja of his plans, the silver-haired man looked at him blankly and answered, “Oh.”

“That’s your answer to a lot of things nowadays,” Zidane pointed out. They were just finishing up breakfast. And as was usual in the morning, Kuja was sluggish and only half-awake and not very hungry. He’d eaten about a third of his food and promptly pushed the rest away. He claimed that he couldn’t stomach that much first thing in the morning, but Zidane always loaded up his plate anyway, knowing that Kuja needed it, even if he didn’t want it.

“What am I supposed to say?”

“How about ‘Sure that sounds great!’ or ‘I don’t know if I’m up to it yet.’ I told you I’d take you with me as long as you were able to go, didn’t I? And you’ve looked better these past few days, so…” Zidane shrugged. He snagged the last slice of toast on the table, right off Kuja’s abandoned plate; they were out of bread, at the very least. “No time like the present.”

Kuja opened his mouth to protest, but he couldn’t think of a good excuse. Yes, he was feeling a bit better overall. Yes, he was bored sitting around the house, with little to do. And at least Zidane had remembered that he’d told him he’d take him the next time he made a supply run.

What Zidane hadn’t remembered, of course, was that Kuja had never agreed to go… except he’d probably figured out by now that Kuja didn’t want to be left behind, not even for a quick trip to get a loaf of bread.

Kuja pushed himself away from the table. He hated it. He shouldn’t have cared whether or not Zidane dragged him along, but he did. And if Zidane had gone without asking him, he would’ve been upset by it. Or angry. Or maybe a little – or a lot - of both.

Zidane followed suit, standing up and hurrying to Kuja’s side, grabbing his arm to stop him from wandering off. “Hey, come on. Do you really not want to go? We can go tomorrow, if that’s better?”

“… No.”

“No to which?”

Kuja shook his head. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to go at all – what if someone recognized him? – but he just couldn’t think of another reason to refuse. “No, we can go.”

“Are you sure?”

Kuja exhaled with a hiss. “I agreed didn’t I?”

“Yeah. Sorry. Thanks.” The thief hugged Kuja briefly, then glanced around, looking for the time. “We need to head out soon then. Do you need help getting ready?”

Kuja was tired of being babysat in everything he tried to do. “No,” he snapped as he went and grabbed his only outfit before disappearing into the bathroom and shutting the door with slightly more force than needed.

Zidane considered following, then thought better of it. The house was too small at times like this; if Kuja wanted some privacy, it was his right to have it.

* * *

After getting ready himself, Zidane went out to check on Choco and to tack him up, then headed back in to see if Kuja had emerged yet. He had, but he didn’t look too happy. He had a brush in one hand and his hair gathered back with another and was spinning around, looking for something.

“Is there only one hair tie in this house?” Kuja asked, eyeing the blonde’s usual neat ponytail.

Zidane thought about it. He’d been using towels and things like that to hold Kuja’s hair back when he’d been bedridden. He hadn’t bothered picking up something like a hair ribbon or tie; it just wasn’t high on the priority list. “Um… probably?”

“I’ll just leave it down, then,” Kuja sighed. He usually wore it down. He’d only ever tied it back when it got in the way. But he hadn’t been happy with it for some time now; his body wasn’t the only thing trying to recover from neglect and the effects of traveling and weather damage. Not that styling his hair would really change the impression he’d make, but he was already facing the prospect of going to town with such plain clothing and his face a mess… it would’ve been nice if he could’ve looked like he put some modicum of effort into his appearance.

Zidane was still looking around the room and even peeked in the bathroom. “Hmm, well…” He could always offer his hair tie to Kuja... And then he froze as he realized something; the ribbon that he wore as a necktie would do, wouldn’t it? It was long enough and soft and shiny too. And it wasn’t like he needed it to be considered dressed. He tugged it out from under his shirt collar, then held it up. “Will this do?”

“You don’t need it?”

“Nah.”

Kuja considered it, then gave a single nod. He reached out, intending to take it and tie his hair back himself, but Zidane gestured for him to turn around. After a moment Kuja did so, letting Zidane sweep his hair into a low ponytail. He wasn’t used to having someone brush and stroke his hair, but he did find it enjoyable. Zidane seemed to look for any excuse to touch it as well.

“There. Turn back around?” Zidane smiled at what he saw. “It looks good, if I do say so myself!”

“It’ll do,” Kuja pronounced after checking it in the mirror himself – and after pulling out a few extra strands of his bangs to cover his face. Zidane may not have approved of cosmetics, but Kuja thought a good concealer would’ve done more for hiding the discoloration on his face than his hair could. “I’ll return it to you later,” he added. Zidane had worn that ribbon forever; it must’ve meant something to him. He was a sentimental sort of fellow.

“Don’t worry about it. Use it as long as you need to.”

* * *

Having Choco available was a blessing. Nil’s town square wasn’t too far from the lakeside, but at the same time, walking that distance with blistered feet would’ve been slow going, not to mention painful.

Zidane waved to random people as they rode down the street. There was the woodworker Will and his family on their way to the morning market, and Dorothy, who taught arithmetic twice a week in the town’s lone schoolroom, heading in to prepare for class. Smyt was helping Nanette and Bess unload their wagon of goods – the ladies had a farm on the other side of town that supplied eggs, cheese, and most of the meats eaten locally. Zidane hadn’t talked to the innkeeper Ennis much, but regularly exchanged nods of greeting whenever he went to check the posting board, as the man was working just inside. Ennis’ teenaged son Howard was out sweeping the porch before it was time for class; he watched as they passed by, then turned away, his face flushing a little. And the townsfolk stopped and waved back, all while staring at the familiar-but-unfamiliar face trying to press itself into Zidane’s shoulder, long silver hair flagging behind him; for most of them, this was their first time seeing the most infamous man in town, in person.

Choco came to a stop in front of the bakery, and Zidane slid off before helping Kuja down. Kuja could smell the fresh bread beckoning to him before they even opened the door. The lady behind the counter had her back turned as they walked in, but spun around as soon as she heard the bell.

“Good morning, Zidane,” Sara greeted. Then she noticed the figure behind him, and gasped. “Oh, Mr. Kuja’s awake!”

Kuja’s head jerked up slightly. He couldn’t help but stare at the cheerful woman behind the counter. Zidane had told him that she looked like Garnet, but Kuja didn’t quite agree. She did remind him vaguely of her, if the young queen had had a country cousin… a passing resemblance, nothing more. But she wasn’t any less attractive. Even Kuja couldn’t help but notice she had a more ample bosom than Garnet.

Kuja glanced at Zidane, concerned that the young thief was seeing something more than what was actually there, then turned his attention back to the baker, who was staring right back at him intently. “Have… we met?”

“Oh, that’s right, you were ill then…” Sara murmured, mostly to herself. She couldn’t stop staring. She’d lived in Nil all her life and was accustomed to the rough, unrefined men that populated the town. She’d never seen anyone like Kuja before; she’d never thought of describing a man as beautiful, though she couldn’t think of any word more suitable. The drawing on the wanted posters really did him no justice. Even though he was weary and thin, with bruising spotting his face and clothes that didn’t seem to suit him, even though he shifted nervously under her scrutiny… he really was beautiful enough to rival even the loveliest of ladies. But while he definitely wasn’t “manly” she didn’t think he looked “girlish” either – was it possible to look like both male and female and yet neither at the same time?

She suddenly realized that she’d gotten distracted to the point of rudeness and that Kuja had even lowered his head in an attempt to hide his face behind a fall of bangs, so she quickly extended her hand over the counter. “I’m sorry, I’m being terribly rude. I’m Sara, it’s nice to meet you.”

Kuja stared at her outstretched hand a moment. Without realizing it, he grimaced slightly. He knew how to lie convincingly, how to trick people, how to exploit their weaknesses, how seduce them. But he didn’t know how to befriend them. Maybe a handshake was a logical place to start? He hesitantly reached out and accepted her hand.

“I hope you don’t mind my saying, but I’m a little jealous. You’re very good looking,” Sara told him.

Kuja wasn’t sure how to respond. Was she propositioning him? Or was it simply a harmless compliment? Did that mean he should he thank her? And why would it make her jealous? He turned to Zidane, trying to gauge his reaction, but Zidane was grinning mindlessly at Sara. Kuja fought the urge to roll his eyes.

The thief was happy that things seemed to be going well, but then he thought about what Sara had said earlier. “Hey, how come he gets a ‘Mister’ and I don’t?”

“Mr. Zidane…” Sara tried. She giggled. “It doesn’t really suit you, does it?”

Zidane pouted a moment, then began nodding in agreement. “Yeah… can’t say I like it. Just plain ol’ Zidane is better.”

Kuja sighed. Now it sounded like the two of them were flirting instead. But before he could say anything – not that he knew what to say, or even if he should say anything - something bumped against his leg and he practically jumped back in surprise.

Zidane spun at the sudden movement. “Kuja?”

The silver-haired man was staring down at his feet. Now over his initial fright, he bent down slightly to get a good look at the culprit. It was fat and orange striped and purring very faintly. “Just a big cat…” He held his hand out but made no attempt to touch the cat, allowing the creature to approach him instead. The cat seemed pleased with his consideration and began rubbing itself against his palm, inviting him to pet it.

“Looks like you’ve made a friend,” Zidane commented, but when he reached out to pet the cat as well, it began backing away, hissing softly, until it was crouching behind the tip of Kuja’s tail. “Hey now, that’s not nice! Look, I have a tail too!” Zidane cried. He waved the appendage at the cat but it swatted at it in disapproval, threatened by the unpredictable way it moved.

Sara leaned over the counter. “That’s Cookie. Sorry, she hasn’t been very friendly with strangers ever since her belly started showing.”

“She seems to like Kuja just fine, and he’s never even been here before!” Zidane huffed.

“Sure looks that way! Mr. Kuja, do you like cats?” she asked. The fact that her pregnant-but-irritable cat liked Kuja was making her even more curious about the man.

He shrugged. He’d never thought about it. But Cookie seemed to be enjoying rubbing against his tail while purring quietly, so he didn’t mind letting her stay there.

While Zidane selected some bread and pastries and continued joking around, Kuja remained standing slightly behind and off to the side. He was starting to feel uneasy being there, watching them. Something about being in a quaint little bakery in a quiet town, with a smiling proprietor that looked vaguely like Queen Garnet, made him nervous. It was like a setting out of a storybook; it didn’t feel real. He was expecting a platoon of Alexandrian soldiers to ambush him at any moment, while Sara acted as a decoy and kept Zidane distracted.

Kuja sighed. He wished they’d just show up and take him away and get the whole thing over with. The ending of his story was inevitable. These people that Zidane wanted him to play friends with would eventually find out who he was and turn him in. Kuja couldn’t even blame them; any reasonable person would do the same under those circumstances. He’d mentioned it to Zidane earlier that morning; the younger man had said he was being paranoid. But it was easier being paranoid than to pretend that everything was okay, like he was safe and cared for, when that was just a momentary illusion.

“…berry or apricot? Kuja?”

The former mage started, finally scaring Cookie away. Zidane and Sara were both staring at him now. “What?”

“Danish?” Zidane pointed at the display case. “Strawberry or apricot?”

Kuja shifted on his feet. They were already starting to hurt a little. “Um, you pick.”

“One of each, then,” Zidane ordered. “And that should do it. Unless there’s anything you want, Kuja?”

Kuja shook his head. He still hadn’t fully regained his appetite, so he really didn’t care what Zidane was putting in front of him. Eating felt like an obligation now.

Zidane and Sara said their goodbyes – Kuja gave her a nod instead - then Zidane led the way out of the bakery, grabbing Choco before deciding to diagonally cross the intersection to hitch the bird to the front of the general store instead. There was the morning market and the inn to visit as well, but the general store took priority, since Zidane figured Kuja was probably more eager to get some new clothes or personal goods than anything else. If that meant they missed the market, they could just try again the next day.

Clyde was outside tidying up the porch, but as soon as he noticed who was approaching, his eyes darkened; he didn’t even bother trying to make an excuse before vanishing inside and up the stairs. Zidane was used to the man disappearing when he stopped by; Kuja didn’t know who he was so he didn’t question it either. But unbeknownst to them, Clyde hadn’t really left. Concerned over Kuja’s appearance, he stayed in the stairwell with his ears pricked, ready to run out to try and save Millie and Molly if needed, but otherwise not wanting to have anything to do with the pair of Genomes.

“Well then…” Zidane began. The ladies were both standing behind the counter, shoulder to shoulder, smiling politely as always, but neither came forward to offer their assistance. Although they’d both voted to let Zidane and Kuja stay in their tiny burg, that didn’t mean they knew how to interact with the former mage. It was a little scary, coming face-to-face with him for the first time. Should they talk to him like a normal customer? Would he bother acknowledging them? Or did he expect “commoners” to bow and grovel before him? He didn’t look very imposing… but then again, he didn’t have to be. Reputation alone was enough to make everyone a little cautious.

Their hesitation didn’t really register with Zidane. He was familiar enough with the shop now to no longer need assistance. He looked over at Kuja instead. “I wasn’t sure what you’d want or need. I’m sure there’s some stuff I missed.”

Zidane might’ve been there enough to know where most things were, but Kuja found it a little overwhelming. There was some vague sense of organization to the general store, but it was also more chaotic and random than the older Genome would’ve liked.

Clothing was the obvious thing to start with. Kuja plucked at the fabric of his shirt. Other than the plain items he currently wore, he only had some sleepwear; he supposed it made sense since he’d been bedridden for weeks and awake, mere days.

He found himself standing undecided between two racks of clothing. One rack held women’s clothing, mostly dresses; the other side was for men. He obligingly turned to the men’s rack but immediately frowned at the baggy, boring-but-functional choices – overalls, cargo pants like the ones Zidane was wearing, button-up shirts, formless pullovers. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to choose – when he was living with Zidane before, he’d worn old, oversized men’s clothing because that was what the blonde had given him to wear. Zidane hadn’t asked him if he’d wanted something different and Kuja hadn’t cared enough to say anything about it. But before that, Kuja had usually worn things that were a lot more showy - even feminine - by most standards. He’d done it to draw – and keep - attention. But now… he wasn’t sure if attention was a good thing. And he had to wonder, did Zidane have a preference? He hadn’t cared for the cosmetics that Kuja used to wear.

Kuja turned to the other rack. He hesitantly fingered an off-white boatneck tunic with a drop waist and elbow length sleeves. It wasn’t too fussy or girly, yet still more visually interesting than anything in the men’s section.

“It suits you, somehow,” Zidane said from behind his shoulder.

Kuja looked over, mildly surprised. “It doesn’t bother you?”

“Should it?”

Kuja looked back at the shirt. “I don’t know,” he said, unsure if they were still talking about clothes.

“You should get whatever you like,” Zidane said, smiling.

No one had ever said anything like that to Kuja, and meant it. It should’ve made him happy. Instead, he shifted uneasily. Was this what real freedom felt like? He wasn’t sure if it suited him.

“Are you going to try on a skirt too? Though I don’t know if pink flowers are your thing,” Zidane commented, grinning. But seeing the other man immediately frown in response, he quickly backpedaled. “Hey, it was just a question!”

Kuja shook his head and went to put the shirt back. He wasn’t sure if Zidane had been joking or not; on Terra, skirts were assigned attire for both genders. Kuja had worn something similar to that the majority of his life. But he’d never tried on anything like the lace-trimmed, country floral skirts that seemed de rigueur in rural towns. Was Zidane trying to tell him something? After all, pants weren’t something that happened until they’d started living together. Surely, that had to be Zidane indicating his preference…

But before Kuja could turn away the younger man grabbed the top that had been returned to the rack and held it up again, eyeing it carefully. “Kuja, I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t care what you wear. Well, I mean… I care. But you should get whatever you feel comfortable with.” He thrust the shirt at Kuja, who accepted it back after a moment’s pause.

So Zidane cared but he didn’t care? Kuja’s head was spinning at the contradiction, but he didn’t ask for clarification. He figured he’d just have to keep an eye out for any tells Zidane gave, and make his selections based off of that.

Kuja turned back to the women’s rack. He pulled out a second top, sleeveless and fitted through the chest, with a fluttery, flared hem. Then he figured since he was pulling tops from that section, why not go ahead and try on some bottoms too? It wasn’t like skirts were the only option; there were a few pairs of pants and shorts available there as well, and at a glance it seemed like they’d work with the shape of his body better than anything in the men’s section. He grabbed a pair of cropped red pants that looked like they’d probably fit, and some little black shorts too, when he noticed Zidane’s eyebrow twitch as he skimmed by it on the rack.

“If you want to try anything on, we have a dressing room here,” Millie called from the other side of the store as she indicated a little makeshift cubby with a curtain drawn over it. She’d been curious about the items Kuja had picked up – or more precisely, the section he’d been shopping from - and he looked so uncertain…

Kuja clutched the items to his chest, unsure if he wanted her to see what he’d chosen, but Zidane came to his side and said, “You should try them on. The ladies here can do some tailoring if needed.”

Kuja figured he could do that himself, but he headed to the dressing room without further protest. He supposed it was better to know for sure that Zidane was okay with what he’d chosen than to buy blindly and hope for the best.

The first top was comfortably loose but not baggy. The cropped pants fit around his hips well, but the waist was too big. He could easily wrap his tail around his waist and still button the pants up with room to spare. The former mage sighed as he regarded his reflection. He supposed he’d have to settle for belting the pants up for the time being. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so thin.

“You doing okay?” Zidane asked from the other side of the curtain. “Let me see.”

“Just a minute.” The older Genome swapped the first outfit out for the second, then he checked the mirror again before frowning at it once more. He didn’t have a chest to fill out the top as intended but it didn’t look bad once he adjusted the lacing in the back. The shorts were a lot shorter than he’d expected, barely peeking out from under the hem of the shirt; the obvious scars on his thighs were left exposed. And frankly it was still a bit too cool to consider wearing the outfit out. But something told him that Zidane might like it, even if Kuja himself wasn’t sure, so he went ahead and drew the curtain back to get Zidane’s opinion. “… Well?”

Zidane wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but the outfit was far better than anything he could’ve imagined. The tiny shorts clung to Kuja’s hips and the top skimmed his torso just right. “Wow, that’s really… that’s…” he stammered, struggling to form a proper compliment without sounding like an overly possessive would-be boyfriend. The outfit was really flattering, but not in an overtly sexual way like his old outfit.

“You don’t like it,” Kuja finished for him as he began shrinking back into the dressing room. Out of the corner of his eye he could see both of the Cleyran ladies staring at him as well. What did they think, seeing him looking like that?

It wasn’t about vanity. Well, not all about vanity… In Kuja’s experience, people didn’t bother wasting time on things they didn’t consider attractive. Would anyone have spoken to him or even stopped to consider him when he’d sat cowering in that alleyway, if they hadn’t liked his face, his body? It had been the first lesson he’d learned on Gaia; he’d never forgotten it.

“I do! Just… if you wear it around town, you’re going to have to fight off a ton of admirers!” Zidane explained with a laugh.

“Admirers…” Kuja repeated flatly, thinking of what he was seeing when he looked in the mirror: a bruised face, dull hair the color of tarnished silver, a mix of scars, both old and new.

Zidane thought that that had been a good compliment, so he wasn’t sure why Kuja seemed so down, even moreso than before. He’d been moody and despondent ever since he’d woken up in Nil, but it wasn’t getting better like Zidane thought it would. “Kuja?”

The former mage shuffled his feet; they were starting to noticeably hurt, a steady, throbbing sort of pain. And he was getting tired. He didn’t want to stand around and argue. “Should I get it or not?” he sighed.

“Only if you like it. If you don’t, well… don’t buy it just because I liked it.”

Kuja didn’t say anything else before disappearing back behind the curtain. A minute later he emerged and just as silently, handed everything over to Zidane.

“All good?” Zidane asked, trying to encourage the other man with a gentle smile.

Kuja simply nodded and kept looking around while Zidane took the items to the counter. He really just wanted to go back to the house and lie down for a while, but since they most likely wouldn’t be coming back for a few days, he ought to make sure he grabbed whatever he could possibly need.

A couple of books wouldn’t be bad. The store didn’t have much of a selection though, and the ones they did have were scattered around the shop, many of them wedged under other items as if they were only valued as display stands. Kuja managed to dig up a volume of poetry but that was the only one of interest to him. He headed to the counter to add to their stack of purchases, then something else caught his eye – a half smushed basket of sewing notions, sitting tucked amongst some dishware by the register. It contained embroidered ribbons, bits of fabric, a handful of assorted beads and baubles. It wasn’t like he loved sewing but he was sufficiently proficient at it; he figured wouldn’t take much time or effort to add some trim to his new clothes, to spruce them up to suit his taste.

“See something you want?” Zidane asked. He wasn’t sure what Kuja was looking for, but at least he seemed interested in something for once.

Kuja merely grunted and kept digging.

“That’s where the basket went!” Molly exclaimed when she saw what he was focused on. Like her sister, she hadn’t said much if anything the entire time the two Genomes had been in the shop, but she just couldn’t get over the fact that Kuja was nothing like the fearsome monster Clyde had warned them about. Instead, all she’d seen was a quiet, withdrawn young man with a pretty face and a slight build, nursing an assortment of injuries.

“Do you sew?” Millie asked, her interest piqued as well.

Kuja’s head bobbed slightly. He did, a little. He glanced up at the sisters as his fingers stilled on a swath of velvet and a length of ribbon. They were Cleyran, not Burmecian, but their people all looked the same to him. And they all had the right to claim vengeance against him, for the role he’d played in the destruction of both cities. He swallowed hard, his head drooping back down.

Zidane noticed Kuja’s growing discomfort and spoke up in his stead, just so they could leave. He put a hand on Kuja’s shoulder, feeling his muscles twitch as the contact jolted him back into reality, before asking, “How much for these?” He indicated the items in Kuja’s hand even as Kuja tried to back away, as if he’d suddenly changed his mind about getting supplies and would rather just go without.

“Oh, well…” Millie shrugged her shoulders and explained, “It’s all scraps, leftovers from sewing jobs. I’m not exactly sure what’s in there.”

“I misplaced the basket. It’s just something I keep around when working. But if you want it, you can have everything in there,” Molly added.

“Thanks! That’s really nice of you ladies. Here, Kuja,” Zidane said, with his hand extended.

Flushing slightly, Kuja handed him the basket. He felt bad for accepting free goods from people he’d wronged. It made him almost want to confess to who he was, even though that would make Zidane mad. And he wasn’t sure why, but he felt a little silly too for wanting to make his clothes look nicer when it wouldn’t do anything to change the body wearing them. Clothes make the man, the saying went, but they couldn’t make him a better person.

By the time the ladies were done ringing up their purchases, all Kuja wanted was to get out of there and get off his feet. He didn’t notice Clyde watching balefully from the shop’s porch window as he joined Choco in waiting for Zidane to load up their purchases. As soon as the blonde was done with that task, he gave Kuja a hand up, and the former mage let out a loud groan of relief as his feet got their first reprieve in an hour.

Zidane’s brow furrowed in concern. He’d noticed that Kuja was hurting, but he hadn’t realized how much. He’d been thinking about asking him if he’d like to stay in town for lunch, but that sounded like a bad idea now.

He’d been a little worried that Kuja wouldn’t be up to making the trip at all, but he’d seemed to be handling it all right… at least, he hadn’t made a sound in complaint. But then again, he hadn’t complained either when Zidane had hustled him along in the dungeon, even though his feet had been bleeding right through his socks…

Mind made up, Zidane firmly said, “I think it’s time we head home,” and he swung up onto Choco right behind Kuja. He didn’t like to overburden their friendly, reliable mount, but he wanted to get home as soon as possible.

Kuja didn’t say anything, but he relaxed a little against Zidane as they made their way back down the road towards the lakeside house. The town's road quickly gave way to a rougher, rockier path that then softened with grass and greenery before reaching the lake.

Zidane carried in the supplies while shadowing Kuja up the steps and into the house. The blonde wasn’t at all surprised when the older man kicked off his shoes and sank onto the bed, flopping onto his back with a wide yawn.

“Lemme put this stuff down, then I want to check your feet,” Zidane said as he began unpacking their bags, hurrying around and making smaller piles to sort through later.

Kuja grunted drowsily. A short trip to town shouldn’t have worn him out so much, but he was still recuperating from his injuries and the aftereffects of a sleepless night; he’d stressed himself out worrying that the trip wouldn’t go well, that something terrible was bound to happen. And then nothing at all had happened, and he wasn’t even sure if he was relieved or annoyed that Zidane had been right.

His head didn’t feel right on the pillow; he’d forgotten, his hair was still tied back. Kuja supposed Zidane wanted the ribbon returned, so he reached up and tugged until it came loose in his hand, and then, too tired to do anything else, he waited.

By the time Zidane got over to the bed to take a look at Kuja, the former mage was already drifting in and out of sleep. He was barely aware of Zidane inspecting the couple of spots where fluid had seeped into his socks, of Zidane removing said socks, of him carefully cleaning the wounds and applying ointment, of him gently massaging his way up Kuja’s calves, working out the knots in those muscles. He didn’t really register Zidane removing the ribbon from his hand and placing it on the little ledge above the bed, nor Zidane kissing him on the forehead before pulling the sheets up. By the time Zidane stepped away to begin cleaning up around the house, Kuja had completely surrendered to exhaustion.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

September 15, 2016