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 "Somebody to Love" 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. 24: Somebody to Love

* * *

Can anybody find me somebody to love?

Each morning I get up I die a little
Can barely stand on my feet
(Take a look at yourself)
Take a look in the mirror and cry (and cry)
Lord, what you're doing to me

I have spent all my years in believing you
But I just can't get no relief, Lord
Somebody (somebody), ooh somebody (somebody)
Can anybody find me somebody to love?

- "Somebody to Love," Queen

* * *

Zidane liked to spend the first few minutes of his morning admiring Kuja as he lay curled up beside him. Wrapped in a cocoon of sleep, he looked relaxed – younger, even… whatever worries wore heavily upon his shoulders were gone, even if only for the night. Deep asleep, he was just a tangle of silver hair and pale skin, next to a loosely clenched hand resting on the pillow.

As nice as it would be to just lounge around and admire the other man all day, Zidane knew he had to get up and get going. Mornings were always busy; there was breakfast to be made and usually a trip to town to squeeze in - though he was skipping that today – and that was all before a day’s labor outside.

After a bit of stretching, Zidane swung his legs out of bed and walked over to the tiny kitchen on the other side of the room. He dug around in the icebox and pantry, trying to figure out what to make for breakfast. They had a couple of eggs and rolls, but he pushed them aside, figuring they’d make a tasty lunch instead. Oatmeal seemed like the easy and obvious choice, at least until Zidane overpoured, spilling groats onto the counter and the floor. Grumbling under his breath, he cleaned up, only to pause just as he was about to dump the spilled oats into the trash bin.

He shook his head. It was too early to be thinking hard - even if it was the best time for it, since it was quiet and the day hadn’t yet yielded any other distractions - but it suddenly occurred to him that whenever he made oatmeal, Kuja never seemed terribly enthusiastic about it. He’d take a few bites, say he wasn’t hungry, and walk away… which frustrated Zidane and led to him giving Kuja an even bigger bowl of the stuff on subsequent days, because Kuja needed to eat up if he was ever going to be healthy again. Zidane’s intentions had been good, but it suddenly occurred to him that perhaps Kuja wasn’t eating because he didn’t like what was on his plate…

Well that’d be silly. If he didn’t like it, wouldn’t he just say so? Zidane reasoned, before remembering that Kuja rarely gave his honest opinion about anything. For a guy who seemed to love the sound of his own voice, he had always revealed surprisingly little.

That was a much bigger issue than uneaten oatmeal: it wasn’t just that Kuja was eating less overall, but he was also talking a lot less than before, truth or lie.

Zidane finished dumping the spilled oats, then put away the rest of the oatmeal while thinking about what meal he could prepare instead. Using up the eggs and bread was an option. But then something else caught his eye, distracting him from making breakfast…

There was a shirt draped over the back of a kitchen chair. Zidane picked it up. It was one of Kuja’s new purchases, which he’d begun embellishing with embroidery. A wreath of delicate twisting vines and leaves were starting to encircle the neckline. It was really well done, precise and eye-catching without being overly ornate. Zidane never knew Kuja was capable – or interested in – doing something like needlework. How had he learned to do it? When had he found time to hone his skills? Zidane doubted Kuja would’ve learned it under Garland’s orders, as it had nothing to do with magic or conquest.

The cropped pants lay neatly folded under where the shirt had been; Kuja had darted in the waist and added in a tail hole, a proper one, with double stitching around the edge. Zidane was impressed, especially since all the sewing had been done in one afternoon. And compared to Zidane’s own solution, which was to rip out enough stitches at the seam to stuff his tail through, Kuja’s handiwork was far more practical and durable.

In addition, Kuja had also started making a sash or something from the bits and pieces in the scrap basket, gray velvet on one side and stiff ribbon on the other. Like everything else, it was expertly done with even stitching that would be the envy of any tailor.

Sighing, Zidane put the clothing back down. He was going to give himself a headache, but the obvious question bothered him: what else had he missed? He knew that Kuja liked the rain and loved to read, and that maybe he wasn’t fond of oatmeal, that clothing and fashion was of interest him, and that he… that he…

The blonde frowned, suddenly disappointed in himself. Was he really that clueless about the person that he loved? Had it never occurred to him to ask Kuja about his likes and dislikes, about his hobbies, about his dreams? What did Kuja fantasize about? What made him laugh… and had he ever heard Kuja genuinely laugh? What songs made him want to get up and sing or dance? Heck, what was his favorite color? His favorite foods?

Zidane didn’t doubt his feelings for Kuja, nor did he doubt Kuja's capacity to love. But that didn't mean it had to be him. Zidane wondered if he’d messed up one too many times to make things right between them.

It wasn’t like Kuja wasn’t desirable, or… experienced. He had to know there were plenty of fish in the sea. Maybe he preferred women. Maybe he preferred taller, older men. Zidane frowned. If he truly loved Kuja, he ought to be willing to let him go, if that was what was best for him. How could he not, when all he wished for was Kuja's happiness? But… he didn’t want Kuja to choose anyone else; he wanted Kuja to want only him!

Even when Zidane had been engaged to Garnet, he’d felt a nagging possessiveness over Kuja. Even when he’d thought it was impossible, he’d desired him, longed for him. But what had Kuja thought of him during their time apart? Undoubtedly he’d missed Zidane as a companion, as a friend… but had that been enough to drive him to make the difficult journey from the Outer Continent to Alexandria?

Zidane glanced at the bed, then walked back over to it. Kuja was still sleeping, though he’d rolled over so there was nothing to look at but the back of his head. Zidane carefully sat down on the mattress, caught between the desire to hug him and the understanding that he ought to let him sleep. The younger man felt stupid and selfish. Being in love wasn’t enough, he realized. He had to prove to Kuja that he was worthy of him, that he was ready for a relationship, that he was reliable and trustworthy and mature… basically all the things he hadn’t been. He’d never given Kuja a reason to choose him over someone else; he’d never done anything to win his heart. He could wish and hope all that he wanted, could tell Kuja he loved him over and over, but in the end, it had to be Kuja’s decision… even if that meant Zidane was left heartbroken.

Zidane stood back up and, after another glance at his sleeping companion, went and fetched the eggs along with the oatmeal, along with a couple of small pots for boiling water. They needed to have a good talk, he decided, even if he had to force the issue a little. Or more precisely, Zidane figured he needed to learn to listen to what was being said – and what was being left unsaid. He didn’t want to do it on an empty stomach though.

* * *

Kuja awoke to the smell of various foods mingling in the cool morning air. He propped himself up, rubbing at his eyes, wondering why Zidane appeared to be cooking up a storm on the small potbelly stove. Was the thief that hungry or was it so late that Kuja had missed breakfast altogether?

"Good morning!" Zidane called out in greeting.

Kuja considered it, then glanced at the pot in Zidane’s hand before simply nodding in return.

"Oh, this is for me," Zidane said, waving the pot slightly in the air, though internally, he was cheering at himself for having figured out that Kuja wasn’t keen on oatmeal. "I’m making hard boiled eggs and warmed rolls for you. Hope that’s okay?"

Kuja couldn’t quite hide his surprise. "Oh?"

"It’ll be ready in a little bit, so no hurry," Zidane said, flashing a confident smile, knowing that the other man would probably laze around in bed at least a few minutes more.

Kuja grunted and made no immediate effort to get up.

Zidane was beaming by the time Kuja made it to the table for breakfast. The younger Genome had managed to time things perfectly, so that the eggs were properly cooled while the rolls were warm and toasty. He added a dish of butter and crocks of jam and honey to the table as well, as he wasn’t sure what Kuja liked best with his bread.

They began eating in silence – Zidane too preoccupied with trying to observe Kuja’s eating habits to start up conversation, and Kuja pondering the possible reasons behind Zidane’s decision to make two different meals. Were they out of oatmeal or something? If that was the case, Kuja was surprised Zidane didn’t shove the remaining oatmeal at him, since he’d always seemed determined to make the older man eat as much of it as possible. Maybe the eggs and bread needed to be used up? But there was enough for both of them, so why did Zidane go through the effort of making oatmeal as well?

"You’re done?" Zidane asked when Kuja finally pushed his plate away. He’d eaten one egg and three-quarters of the bread. Zidane also noted that the honey had gotten the most use out of the condiments, though a little of the jam had been used as well.

Kuja nodded.

"Did I make too much? I tried to not overload the plate. Or was it not to your liking?"

Kuja hesitated, unsure why Zidane was asking, wavering between answering the questions and just brushing it off. "I’m not that hungry in the morning, that’s all."

"You don’t get hungry later on, either," Zidane pointed out. He paused, wondering if Kuja would take that as a complaint. Already the other man’s jaw was tightening up. Zidane sighed. The last thing he wanted was for Kuja to get upset and stop responding. "I wasn’t criticizing. I just worry about you, that’s all. I’ve never seen anyone eat so little before. If it’s because of the foods I’m getting, or it’s just my cooking, I wish you’d tell me. I won’t get offended!"

Kuja dropped his chin a little. He didn’t know what to say. Zidane was right though; even Kuja knew he ought to eat more, but ever since they’d reunited… no, even before that, his appetite had gone. Maybe it was because of the lean winter months, where he’d had no choice but to cut back on the size and frequency of meals. Maybe it was because traveling – and imprisonment – and nearly being executed - had been so hard on him.

He suddenly didn’t want to be at the table anymore, with Zidane’s concerned eyes searching over his face. Kuja pushed away, standing up, muttering a quiet "Thank you" for the meal, but before he could make his escape, Zidane stood up and grabbed his wrist.

"Wait. Talk to me, please. I want to know…" the blonde began before trailing off. There were so many things he could finish that thought with. "I want to make you happy. But I don’t know what you like, what you dislike… I mean, I know that you like reading and tea and maybe chocobos and cats, but I didn’t know that you enjoyed needlework or that you don’t like oatmeal and maybe you don’t like eggs and toast either?" Zidane rambled.

Kuja made a face. What was Zidane babbling about? Chocobos and cats? Besides, breakfast had been acceptable… certainly a good alternative to the usual offering. "I told you, I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t dislike it."

"That’s it?"

"Yes."

"But you didn’t say you liked it, either."

Kuja rolled his eyes. "It was fine. I know I have to eat."

"But it was better than the oatmeal at least?" Zidane prodded, determined to get something out of the exchange.

"You feed me better than Garland did, are you happy?" Kuja hissed, tired of the whole conversation. "What do you want me to say?"

Zidane’s hold on Kuja slackened momentarily, then tightened again. "Garland? What does Garland have to do with… Did he serve oatmeal for breakfast too?" the blonde asked, genuinely confused.

Kuja squirmed a little, then admitted, "Not oatmeal. Something similar. Every day, for almost every meal." He seemed to deflate with each word.

Zidane nodded slowly. So every time he put a bowl of oatmeal down for breakfast – or anything similar - he had inadvertently reminded Kuja of those times.

"Some days I couldn’t bring myself to eat; it made me feel sick to even think about it," Kuja added, barely loud enough for Zidane’s ears. The former mage wasn’t sure why he’d voiced that aloud, but part of him wanted Zidane to understand, even while the rest of him doubted that that would mean anything to Zidane.

The young thief nodded again. As terrible as that was to hear, the important part was that Kuja was confiding in him, even if just a bit. Zidane was about to stammer an apology to reassure him that things were different now, but it occurred to him that that wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t change things. And Kuja was sick of his apologies. What would help would be figuring out what Kuja wanted to eat, so that he would eat, instead of making him explain why he didn’t like certain foods.

Zidane slackened his hold on Kuja’s arm, but didn’t let go. Instead he let his hand slide down until he could gently grip Kuja’s. "Thanks for telling me. I won’t buy any more, or at least, I won’t put any in front of you. Or does it bother you if I eat it?"

"That… I don’t care."

Zidane searched Kuja’s expression carefully to try and decipher more out of "I don’t care," but Kuja ducked his head, doing his best to avoid Zidane’s prodding gaze, so Zidane backed off, sitting back down at the table and motioning for Kuja to do the same. The former mage relaxed slightly, but didn’t take a seat; he was undecided whether he wanted to continue conversing, or take flight.

"So what do you like to eat then? I don’t know what your favorite foods are…" Zidane tried again, trying to steer the conversation into safer waters.

"My favorite food?"

"Yeah. You know, what do you want to eat more than anything on the planet? It can be one thing, or a whole dish, or a whole bunch of things."

Kuja thought about it a moment. Certainly there were things he preferred, but he couldn’t say that there were one or two things that he coveted above all. "I don’t have one."

"Really? But everyone has at least one!"

Kuja shrugged.

Zidane wasn’t deterred. "Maybe I can help you figure it out then. Do you like things that are sweet, salty or sour?"

Salty was out. Between the other two… "Sweet, I suppose."

"Okay. Sweet as in like, fruit, candy, pastry…?"

"Not candy; that’s too sweet. And plain fruit is dull."

"Cake, pies, cookies…?"

"Those are the only options?"

"They’re not – if there’s something else that’s more appealing, you can pick that instead. I’m just trying to give you some ideas."

Kuja mulled it over. "The bakery in town wasn’t bad."

"Anything in particular? I think Sara does apple, peach, berry…"

"I liked the strawberry pastry you got last time."

Zidane frowned slightly. The day before, he had gotten both apricot and strawberry danishes, and he’d ended up eating the majority of the strawberry one since Kuja hadn’t said a thing about liking one more than the other. "So Sara’s strawberry danish would be a favorite food?" Zidane asked hopefully. He’d happily buy a million of them, if that was what it took to get Kuja to eat.

Kuja shrugged. Saying it was a favorite seemed a bit much when he’d only eaten it once. "I wouldn’t mind eating it again."

"And honey, what about that? I know you said you don’t like anything too sweet, but maybe some honey on top of fruit?" Zidane hadn’t forgotten that Kuja had gravitated towards the honey as a condiment for his rolls. "Because you said plain fruit is boring…"

"Mm, that wouldn’t be bad either."

Zidane flashed a grin like he’d won a major victory. Before he’d gotten to know him, he’d thought of Kuja as the sort of guy who never shut up, endlessly talking about himself and making up stories. But in reality he was pretty reticent, as if he feared being punished for voicing an honest opinion, as if any revelation would be used against him, even if it was only about a pastry or some fruit.

Building on his momentum, Zidane turned his attention to the altered clothing on the spare chair. "By the way, I like the embroidery you’re adding to your new outfit. It’s really well done! I didn’t know you liked doing that sort of thing."

Kuja blinked, as if he’d only just remembered that he’d been working on that all yesterday afternoon. "I don’t really… well, that is, I don’t mind, but…" and he exhaled before sighing, "I just wanted to look a little nicer. Right now, I…" He trailed off, leaving the rest unsaid, but he couldn’t stop himself from running his fingers over the faint scar under his eye.

Zidane immediately snatched Kuja’s free hand, stopping him from picking at the scarred area. "Hey now… no one even notices that. It’s barely visible. It doesn’t bother me at all, other than the fact that it bothers you."

Kuja made a clicking sound in disagreement as he tried to pull away, but Zidane tightened his hold a tiny bit to prevent him from escaping.

He’d always thought of Kuja as vain, arrogant; he hadn’t realized how fragile his confidence was. Kuja could only fret over imperfections; he couldn’t see himself the way Zidane saw him, the way that the townspeople had gazed at him, struck by his beauty. He didn’t realize that something as simple as his smile, a hint of self-assurance, would do far more to make him shine than any outfit ever could.

And Zidane suddenly came to another sobering realization: Kuja was severely depressed. It wasn’t just about his looks. Just as Garnet had been rendered mute by shock, guilt and depression after Kuja had turned her own Eidolon, Bahamut, on the city of Alexandria, Kuja was now suffering in a similar way. He hadn’t lost his voice, but he had no appetite, no energy. His mind had been slipping in and out of awareness, as if that was the only outlet, the only way he could cope. He certainly had reason to be depressed… he’d lost nearly everything that defined who he was – his flawless appearance yes, but also his power, his social status, his carefully crafted plans for the future. He only had his life left… and even that had nearly been torn away from him.

Zidane wondered why he hadn’t noticed sooner, just how bad things had gotten. He hadn’t noticed with Garnet either; he’d needed Eiko to tell him. Was he really so self centered that he couldn’t see the suffering of those around him? Or had he been so sheltered that it hadn’t occurred to him that someone could be so lonely, so despondent, that they’d simply shut down?

It suddenly felt too awkward to have the conversation at the kitchen table, especially since Kuja hadn’t sat back down. So Zidane stood up instead, and, after considering his options – and how he wished they had a cozy sofa right now! – backed up until they were up against the bed, pulling Kuja down with him to sit on the floor against the mattress.

Carefully wrapping his arms around Kuja’s shoulders, Zidane gave him a squeeze and said, "I wish you could see just how special, how beautiful, you are to me."

Kuja immediately tried to push Zidane off, though the younger man had braced himself, expecting it. "You’re as blind as you are stupid. I’m worthless, useless… even moreso than before! All I can do now is sit and wait for someone to catch and imprison me again, or until you come to your senses and realize that you should’ve left me in the Iifa Tree, like you said. Either way, the end result will be the same: I’ll be alone, and then it’ll be all over," Kuja yelled.

It was the same old thing they’d argued about back in the rundown house, just with a twist. Zidane had heard it enough by now that he didn’t take the bait. "It doesn’t have to be that way. You could try living. Isn’t that what you told me in the Iifa Tree? You finally realized what it means to live… but you were wrong when you said it’s too late. It's not! You still have a lot of life to live, and I’m going to make sure you make the most of it. You’re not alone anymore, Kuja; I’m here, and I’m not leaving you again."

Kuja suddenly let out a single, short laugh. Zidane braced himself for what would come next. "Beatrix did ask me why I hadn’t simply killed myself. I probably should have."

Zidane nearly screamed the older man’s name to stop him from continuing down that line of thought, but instead, he held back, realizing yelling wasn’t going to help anything. There was so much pain in Kuja’s voice; he deserved a proper response… "You didn’t, because you wanted to see me again, even though I’d broken my promise. You trusted me, and I took it for granted. Something so precious, and I just squandered it." Zidane shook his head slowly, blonde ponytail swaying. "I know I hurt you badly. I can’t blame you for saying you can’t trust me anymore, that you don’t even like me anymore. But if I earned your trust once, maybe I can do it again. And if I can manage that, maybe the next step isn’t impossible either."

Kuja didn’t respond. At least he wasn’t still trying to pull away. He just sat there, stiff as a board, but Zidane could tell that he was listening to each and every word.

"It might take months, even years… but I’m gonna try my best. It’s worth it, if it’s for you. That doesn’t mean I’m going to force you to love me, though… If in the end, you just can’t reciprocate my feelings… if I’m simply not the one for you, I’ll still be here, supporting you, as a friend."

Kuja remained silent. He wasn’t sure what he ought to say. Zidane was so adamant that he wanted to be in a relationship with him, but it wasn’t that simple. They were in no position to be thinking about forging a relationship; survival took priority. And more importantly, had Zidane forgotten? Even though Kuja had bought clothing intended for women, nothing was going to change the fact that he was a man. Kuja was certain that Zidane would run away again once he was confronted with physical proof of that fact.

"Of course now that I’ve said all that, it just occurred to me that I don't know if you actually prefer men or women. Or if you find someone like me attractive," Zidane said with a grin, but his eyes were serious. "If I hadn’t screwed it all up, would you have been interested in going out with me?"

Kuja trembled slightly at how close Zidane’s question came to his own thoughts. He honestly didn’t know if he had a preference; no one had asked about that before. When it came to sex, it only mattered if they liked his face and parts of his body, not the other way around. "I don’t know. I never had a choice before. But… " He remembered that warm spring day, in the mountains, when a shirtless Zidane had woken him after letting loose on a target dummy... how the sun had glinted off his golden skin, his eyes a brighter blue than even the cloudless sky. "I don't find you... unattractive," Kuja confessed. He looked away, his face turning a little pink even as a lump formed in his throat.

Zidane’s show of kindness and concern was painful, and Kuja didn’t know why. No one else had ever cared about what he wanted or listened to his requests, even if it was just him complaining about oatmeal. So he’d kept everyone at arm’s distance, pushed their buttons, driven them away. He’d never let them closer than that… except for Zidane. And then Zidane had hurt him in a way that even Garland couldn’t have – a hurt so sharp, so deep, it made him wish that he’d died instead. Was he really willing to go through that again?

Kuja swallowed and glanced back at Zidane. "I know you prefer women. But no matter what I look like, I’m a man, too. Can you honestly accept that?"

Zidane’s response was immediate and firm. "Yes."

With quaking limbs, Kuja guided one of Zidane’s hands down to his groin, and held it there. "That’s not going away no matter what I’m wearing."

What Kuja didn’t know was that Zidane had already asked himself that very question while the former mage had been unconscious. After all he’d been taking care of him; he’d had plenty of opportunity to take a good look at Kuja’s body while he slept. He’d figured it was better to do that than wait for Kuja to awaken and see his expression; he wanted to make absolutely sure that he wouldn’t avert his eyes again. And he hadn’t – there wasn’t anything scary or gross about it. He wondered why he was so scared of it before. Kuja was a man, Zidane loved him - it was that simple. Zidane only wished he'd realized that earlier – what he would give to redo their first time! But all he could do now was think about what needed to change for them to find a future together.

It wasn’t yet the right time for that though. Zidane could feel Kuja’s body heat radiating through the fabric of his pants. It took all of the younger man’s willpower to keep his fingers relaxed and still. Already his mind was trying to run away from him with thoughts of Kuja aroused and tossing about on the bed, or writhing on the floor while Zidane peeled off his clothing to taste every inch of skin that lay beneath…

"I know… I won’t run away again," Zidane said gently. "I want you, you don’t even know how badly! But I also promised you I wasn’t going to lay my hands on you until the time was right." Despite his words, he didn’t withdraw immediately, knowing that Kuja would see that as a rejection.

Instead, Zidane lifted his free hand to Kuja’s cheek and cupped it in his palm. "I won’t settle for anything less than your heart, and neither should you. You deserve to be loved, and to be in love in turn. I know I haven’t won you over yet. But if you give me the chance, I swear to you… I’ll give you all the love you’ve ever wanted, and then some." He finally let his other hand shift off Kuja’s groin, so that he could hold Kuja’s hand instead.

Kuja lowered his eyes again, and then, gave the slightest of nods. The thought of giving his heart to someone - whatever that meant – sounded frightening, but he wanted so badly to believe that someone could want him, that he was worthy of being… loved… That he too could feel that way someday. It wasn’t like he had anything left to lose. If Zidane betrayed him again, he doubted he’d survive long enough to care about what happened afterwards.

"Thanks," Zidane murmured, pressing his forehead lightly against Kuja’s shoulder. "I know I still have a long way to go to prove myself to you. But I’ll make you happy, no matter what it takes."

They probably could’ve sat there in relative silence for several minutes, even an hour, but there was a sudden sharp sound at the door, causing Kuja to practically jump off the floor. Zidane immediately got up to investigate, dusting himself off as he went, casually eyeballing his daggers to confirm that they were still hanging near the entrance while hoping, as always, that this wasn’t an occasion where they’d be needed.

It turned out to be Ennis asking about a boat. Zidane apologized for forgetting that he'd reserved it days ago, let him know he’d be right out to take care of it, then turned and smiled at Kuja. "Sorry, I gotta take care of this. But it’ll be quick. I’ll be right back." He waited for Kuja to nod at him before slipping out the door, nearly bumping into Ennis and Howard, who'd both been peering into the little house out of curiosity.

For the first time in a long time, Kuja didn’t feel the urge to chase after Zidane. He didn’t even look out the window to confirm that he was there. He wasn’t sure if that meant he’d been convinced by the thief’s promises – fear and doubt always seemed ready to claw its way into his mind - but when he flexed his fingers slightly, he could still feel the lingering warmth of Zidane’s hand in his.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

December 26, 2016