Title: The Show Must Go On
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 "Sheer Heart Attack" 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. 27: Sheer Heart Attack
* * *Well you're just 17 and all you want to do is disappear
Sheer heart attack
Sheer heart attack
- "Sheer Heart Attack," Queen
* * *
Kuja had never really cared about Zidane's supply runs or befriending the townspeople, but he suddenly found himself with a pair of reasons to accompany him to town. So while Zidane pitched in with the town's dragon trap, handled the shopping, and sold the occasional smoked fish at the morning market, Kuja split his time between the library and Sara's apartment.
Unlike human babies, the kittens grew up fast. It seemed one week they were helpless, fuzzy sausages, then the next, their eyes were open and they were crawling around on uncoordinated little legs. Then another week or two went by and suddenly they were recognizable as tiny cats.
Despite his initial concerns about letting the former mage wander about his home, after a few weeks, even Arnett got used to the sight of Kuja heading up the stairs in the back of the bakery or passing by on the way to the library. Kuja still wasn't all that good at socializing, but he was polite, and no one had any complaints about the job he was doing straightening up the formerly disorganized library. It was inspiring everyone else to take better care of it too.
His embroidery work was a hit with the ladies as well. Sara loved her new custom Miss Kitty Meow-Meow apron; Kuja had carefully recolored the character to match Cookie the cat, laying down long stitches in shades of orange thread to emulate fur. He'd even copied the character's dress with scraps of pink fabric and a peach ribbon sash. Sara happily showed it off to everyone who came to the bakery. Within two days of it being delivered, Kuja received a half dozen job requests.
Kuja was a little overwhelmed by more than just the response. It was almost unbelievable that four months ago, he'd been awaiting execution, his body and spirit broken. And even after he awoke and began recovering, he'd thought he'd never be useful to anyone for anything again. But now he had things he could do that were valued, and the townspeople treated him like he'd been a fixture in the town for years. Kuja had never thought he'd want to be treated like he was just a regular person, but it wasn't such a bad thing. It almost made him feel safe, though he couldn't completely convince himself to believe that. He figured he should be satisfied just living day-to-day. But he couldn't stop his thoughts from straying towards the future, even though hope was as foreign a concept as safety.
He ended up accepting most of the jobs he'd been offered. It wasn't so much about the money; he just wanted something to help pass the time. He tried not to fixate on it, but he'd be lying if he said he wasn't counting the days until the kittens were old enough to go to their new homes.
* * *
The moment Zidane saw the smile on Kuja's face, he was glad he'd reconsidered and agreed to getting a kitten.
Sara had promised Kuja first pick of the litter. By the time they were weaned and ready for new homes, Kuja was set on which one he wanted. He'd watched them grow up, after all.
"This is the one," he said, eagerly picking up the sole longhaired kitten from the litter for Zidane to see.
Zidane smiled. It didn't surprise him that Kuja had chosen the prettiest kitten in the bunch, creamy white with an orange striped tail and more orange around one ear, and crystalline blue eyes. "She's really pretty."
Kuja nodded and clutched the kitten close. She was pretty, but he hadn't picked her solely for her looks. Of all the kittens, she was the most affectionate, always first to seek him out when he stopped by to visit.
"I knew you'd choose her; she's such a little darling!" Sara exclaimed. She was as happy as Zidane to see Kuja cuddling with the kitten. "Have you thought about names yet?"
Kuja nodded slowly. He'd been tumbling around possible names in his head, but he hadn't wanted to settle on one until the kitten was actually his. Not that he thought Sara was the type of person who'd renege on an agreement, but he couldn't help but be wary of proffered gifts or favors.
He stroked his thumb over the kitten's head, earning a soft purr. The remaining two kittens, used to playing with both Kuja and their sister, tumbled out of their basket and began mock fighting for attention, swatting at each other as they rolled all over the ground.
Kuja chuckled, and Zidane was surprised by it. Not by the fact that he was laughing at the kittens' antics, but by the genuine joy in the sound.
As happy as Zidane was to see Kuja's smile, he wished he was the one that put it there; he wanted to be the one to make him laugh. It meant he needed to work harder and do more, to earn that same reaction himself.
"I was thinking of calling her Silky," Kuja finally said. He looked over at Zidane, trying to gauge if he had an opinion.
"Silky, huh?" The kitten sure looked soft as silk... Zidane reached his hand out to pet her.
Kuja suddenly realized that he hadn't let Zidane handle the cat yet. What if she didn't like him for some reason or vice versa? Maybe he was being paranoid, but he didn't want to take her home and then find out there was an issue...
"Here." Kuja thrust the kitten at the younger Genome.
She was even softer than Zidane thought she'd be, like a little cloud. Zidane couldn't resist cuddling with her just as Kuja had. "Silky it is, then," he agreed, handing the kitten back.
They'd brought a blanket-lined basket to carry the kitten home. "Do you think she'll miss her family?" Kuja asked hesitantly, as he tucked Silky inside.
Zidane was about to brush it off with a simple, "She'll be fine, she's just a cat," but he stopped himself. Was this the first time Kuja had given thought to the concept of family?
"She probably will, at first. It's a big change for a little cat. But she'll be okay, given a few days," the younger man replied instead.
"And you can bring her over to visit, if you want," Sara added. "The other kittens will be going to new homes around town, but Cookie will always be here."
Kuja nodded, finding some comfort in her offer.
The two Genomes took their new pet straight home. Kuja was relieved to see that his fears were unfounded - Silky's eyes were bright as she explored the cottage. She nibbled on a little food and had some water, then chased after Zidane's tail, pouncing on it like it was one of her siblings as he lashed it back and forth. She played with Kuja's tail as well, though more gently; she had learned previously that he wasn't nearly as keen on having it pawed at.
As much as Zidane wanted to stay in to play with the kitten, he had to get some work done after lunch. He figured it was a good idea for Kuja to spend some time bonding with his new pet anyhow. Apparently it worked, because when the blonde stepped back in for a water break a couple hours later, he found Kuja napping on the bed, his sewing in his lap and Silky asleep on the pillow above his head, her little paws clutching at the feathers atop Kuja's mane.
Zidane had to admit, he was a little jealous. Not only had the kitten gotten Kuja to laugh and smile, but she'd managed to get close enough to sleep by his side after only a few hours. But they sure were cute together...
* * *
Silky accepted Kuja as her person right away; figuring out where Zidane belonged in the scheme of things took her slightly longer. As far as the kitten was concerned, Zidane was something to play with, a swinging tail and not much else. He talked too much and a little too loudly; he distracted Kuja and drew his attention away from her. He scolded her when she bit at his toes or woke him with a "Good morning, feed me!" meow. Well, it wasn't like she wanted to share her bed and her Kuja with him either!
But after a few days of careful observation, Silky decided she could tolerate the younger Genome's presence. Not only was he the source of the fish that went into her food dish, but he took care of Kuja, and Kuja seemed to like it, even if he frowned at Zidane more often than not. Zidane would brush Kuja's hair and make sure he ate and soothe him when he grew restless in his sleep. If Kuja was her person, then surely Zidane was Kuja's?
Zidane hadn't put too much thought into why Silky behaved differently towards him. As long as she was good with Kuja - and she was - that was all he asked for. But he certainly was happier when she'd stopped savaging his tail and toes and moved aside on the bed instead of trying to force herself in between him and Kuja. Apparently at some point she'd decided he was okay, or maybe they'd come to a mutual understanding that Kuja's happiness was what mattered.
Raising a kitten would've been enough to keep Kuja busy, but it was embroidery work that was eating up most of his time. The town's annual end of summer festival was only a couple weeks away, and many of the ladies in town liked to take the opportunity to get new outfits and dress up. Kuja could understand that. It made it hard for him to turn down the requests that had come flooding in. His feelings about Treno remained mixed, but he had enjoyed the festivals there and especially the dancing, though he couldn't remember how long it had been since he'd last indulged.
Silky was his constant "assistant" as he worked. She dug out buried buttons for him, rearranged ribbon and trim from the scrap basket, and clung onto his tail while he concentrated on laying down precise stitches. Zidane was surprised that Kuja hadn't gotten mad enough to toss her out the door. But Silky also warmed Kuja's lap and reminded him to take breaks - sometimes he'd focus so much on what he was doing that he'd lose track of time - and if he felt like talking, she'd listen, without interrupting him, except for the occasional mewl.
Pushing to finish his projects on time, Kuja got so busy that he couldn't even find time to read at night, so Zidane read aloud to him while Kuja's hands kept on task. It worked out surprisingly well - after all, Zidane had been an actor; he had a knack for telling stories. And listening to the thief weave a tale as they sat side by side helped Kuja remain focused. The silver-haired man was able to deliver his final batch of orders with three days to spare. That gave him enough time to work on embellishing outfits for himself and Zidane.
That was Kuja's sole focus as he sat with his kitten and his needlework in the shade of the porch in the afternoon. Zidane was checking his fishing lines in between cleaning out the shed that served as Choco's home. Both were accustomed to their routine as of late; neither gave much thought to the crunching of boots on the gravel heralding the arrival of a guest.
"Huh... well, this is unexpected..." a deep male voice rumbled.
Zidane shook back his bangs and began turning around. "Hey, what can I do for..." He froze once he caught sight of the man's familiar face and distinct shock of red dreadlocks, then immediately swung his head towards the porch. "GET INSIDE!" he yelled, as he started running towards the house.
Kuja's head jerked up at the urgency in Zidane's voice. It took him a moment to register what Zidane had said, another to recognize the man in the road behind him. Kuja scooped up Silky with one hand as he scrambled to his feet, rushing into the house and slamming the door shut behind him.
As soon as the former mage disappeared, Zidane spun back around. "Amarant! Boy it's been a while, hasn't it? How have you been?" But Zidane could barely focus on his one-time adventuring companion; his eyes darted around as he searched for a weapon, and to determine just how many opponents he'd be facing, if it came down to that. He cursed himself under his breath for having left his daggers inside - they'd gotten in his way as he worked, so he'd stopped carrying them at his hip. After a while he'd stopped bringing them outside altogether.
"You can't possibly think I didn't see him," Amarant replied, his arms crossing.
Zidane sighed. In a hand to hand battle, he wasn't sure how effective he'd be against a seasoned pugilist. At least Amarant appeared to be alone... "What are you doing here?"
Amarant shrugged. "Passing through. Needed a boat. I didn't expect to find a runaway prince and the world's most wanted man." He unfolded his arms and shifted his weight slightly forward.
Zidane's lips lifted in a feral sneer as he squared himself directly in front of the house. "I'm not a prince anymore. And you go inside over my dead body."
"You wanna fight? Well, suit yourself. But like I said, I just need a boat."
"I can't just let you leave, either. There's a price on his head, right?"
"On yours too."
Zidane shrugged that off. He'd figured that was the case. "And you're a bounty hunter. All that money, and to be a hero too... It has to be irresistible."
Amarant thoughtfully rubbed at his beard, then crossed his arms again. It was true, he had a decision to make. Although he was a bounty hunter, he only did it because it seemed to suit him. He'd never had any real interest in money - he only needed enough to get by. And he preferred anonymity to recognition. "If I told you I wasn't gonna haul your ass in, would you believe me?"
"What about Kuja?"
"Who?" Amarant smirked.
Zidane shook his head. "Give me your word," he tersely demanded. "You won't take us in, and you won't tell anyone you saw us either." It seemed like a longshot, but Amarant adhered to a strict personal code of honor. If he swore he wouldn't turn them in, he'd abide by it, no matter how crazy the request was.
Amarant grunted. He'd joked about it just a moment earlier, but to actually promise to not turn in either fugitive... "Now, you know that's not my style. I'm gonna decide what I'm gonna do." If it was only Zidane, it wouldn't be an issue, but Kuja was a whole other matter.
Zidane relaxed slightly. It wasn't a yes, but it wasn't a no, either. "Fair enough," he said, straightening up. He'd fallen into his battle stance without thinking. "Want something to drink?"
Of course Amarant had heard all about Zidane dosing everyone in Alexandria Castle with sleeping weed. He wondered if the thief would try to pull the same trick twice. But Zidane had to know he wasn't going to fall for it. "Whatever."
Zidane smiled slightly, before turning and heading towards the house.
As tempting as it was to jump him from behind, Amarant would no sooner do that than go back on his word. And Zidane knew it. The redhead snorted to himself; he'd been neatly caught in a trap, it seemed.
In the meantime, Kuja tried to calm himself down as he stood with his back against the locked door, his heart thumping loudly. His thoughts swirled in a thousand directions.
He'd recognized the man outside; undoubtedly the man had recognized him as well. Kuja didn't remember his name, but he knew he'd been one of Zidane's companions who'd fought to stop him during his reign of terror.
It didn't matter that he wasn't that person anymore. No one who'd fought against him would ever be able to see him as anything but the monstrous Angel of Death. No one except Zidane, and he was an idiot, a fool...
No... it wasn't Zidane's fault. Kuja was just upset, with himself... He couldn't believe he'd gotten so complacent as to not notice a possible opponent walking right up to the house. He'd been lulled into a false hope; he'd started to believe that he could safely live in this little town... or be allowed to live at all. But that had been a fantasy. The reality was, he'd made the whole world his enemy and would one day have to pay the price for that. That wouldn't change no matter how hard he tried to pretend to live a normal life.
Kuja clutched Silky tighter against his chest. Sara would've never let him take the kitten if she'd known who he was. She would've never asked him to embroider her apron, or even let him into her bakery. No matter how friendly she seemed, she and the rest of the townspeople were acquaintances, not friends. And this wasn't "home"; the house was just a temporary shelter. But seeing what life might've been like, if someone had done for him as he'd done for Zidane... it wasn't such a bad thing. He'd thought it would only leave a lingering bitterness, but there was a slight warmth too. Even though this was just a brief glimpse into the life he might've led, he was glad to have gotten to experience it at all.
Suddenly, it occurred to him that there was a possibility that Zidane would leave with the other man. He and Zidane were friends, weren't they? They'd traveled together, fought together, watched out for one another... Maybe the other man figured that if he could lure Zidane away, it would both protect Zidane and make Kuja an easy target to be picked off later.
But... Zidane wouldn't do that, would he? He'd told Kuja again and again that he loved him, that he wanted him, that he wanted to live with him. He wouldn't have done that, if he intended to leave again... right?
Kuja risked a peek out the window. Both Zidane and the visitor were standing outside, apparently squaring off. At least, Zidane was in something similar to his usual battle stance... his torso lowered, his weight shifted forward on the balls of his feet, his tail held high for balance. But he usually carried his daggers crossed behind his back...
Kuja turned, his eyes sweeping around the room. It took him a moment to spot the pair of sheathed daggers under the small ledge behind the door. He put down Silky and picked up the weapons, still unsure of his next move. Was Zidane really intending to fight? And could he do so unarmed? The other man was big, muscular, and undeterred by Zidane's threatening pose. But if Kuja went outside - with or without weapons in his hands - surely he'd draw the visitor's attention. Though... maybe that was a good thing? Zidane would have no problem beating a distracted opponent.
The former mage shook his head. If he kept thinking about it he'd probably change his mind, so before that could happen he mustered up his courage and threw the door open.
From the way both Zidane's and Amarant's eyes widened, it was obvious that neither man had expected Kuja's sudden emergence.
"Here," Kuja said, thrusting Zidane's daggers at him.
Zidane looked at the daggers, then back up at Kuja. His blue-gray eyes betrayed his uncertainty. Zidane almost wanted to scold him for having come out of hiding, but it meant more to him that Kuja had noticed that he was unarmed and had decided to do something about it. "Thanks..."
Zidane slowly belted his weapons around his waist while trying to figure out whether or not he should introduce the two men to one another. What was the proper etiquette for reintroducing former enemies? Was there even such a thing?
"Kuja, could you go get the lemonade?" the younger Genome finally settled on asking.
"Lemonade?" Kuja echoed, startled. He'd been distracted, obviously... it was uncomfortable being stared at by the bounty hunter, but at least the man hadn't made a move towards him. Was Zidane telling him to go away? But then why had he asked for lemonade? Or was he reading too much into it? Maybe Zidane was trying to be hospitable to his friend, nothing more... He risked a glance at Zidane and received a small smile of reassurance. "Uh, okay..."
Kuja headed back to the house, making only a slight detour to collect the embroidery work he'd left outside. Zidane waited at the bottom of the porch steps until the taller Genome was inside, then positioned himself by the entrance while pointing at the further of the two chairs on the stoop. "Welcome to our humble abode. Have a seat."
Amarant squeezed by, then stopped in front of the chair. Kuja had been sitting there earlier, apparently sewing, while playing with a kitten. Amarant shook his head before sitting down. It was almost impossible to believe that the quiet man inside the house, fetching lemonade, was the same monster that had singlehandedly destroyed Terra and terrorized all of Gaia.
"You really are unbelievable," Amarant said as Zidane perched himself in the other chair.
"How's Garnet? Have you seen her recently?"
Amarant crossed his arms. He'd shown up for the wedding and left disappointed, like everyone else. He hadn't been back since. Wasn't the answer obvious? "You're asking me? How do you think she's doing??"
"It's not like I wanted to leave her at the altar!" Zidane protested before hesitating, unsure of just how much he ought to reveal. He'd been in love with Garnet. He was in love with Kuja. But it wouldn't be truthful to call Kuja his lover, not yet... though to deny that he had feelings for him was just as much a lie.
As Zidane continued debating over how to best explain things, the door opened and Kuja came back out with two glasses of juice, which he placed on the small table. Figuring it was easier to show how he felt rather than explain, Zidane grabbed hold of Kuja's arm before he could straighten back up and landed a kiss on his cheek. Kuja turned to stare at him in disbelief, so Zidane added a quick peck on the lips as well. Kuja's face turned an interesting shade of red before he disappeared back into the house.
Amarant was silent for a long minute. Zidane picked up his lemonade and began sipping at it while waiting for a reaction; he wished he could better see the bounty hunter's eyes under his thick shock of dreadlocks.
"You're completely crazy, always doing whatever the hell you want," Amarant ended up grumbling. He stared at his glass, then picked it up and took an experimental gulp. It wasn't bad. More importantly, it didn't taste off, though he knew sleeping weed was hard to detect.
"I used to think that, too. But I get it now; the things I say and do have consequences."
"Isn't that obvious?"
Zidane smiled sheepishly. "Well, yeah, but I'd always found ways to avoid having to deal with it."
Amarant snorted. He'd had first hand experience with that; Zidane and his buddies had robbed a mansion under his watch - which irony of all ironies, had been Kuja's estate - and Amarant had ended up taking the fall for it.
"I'm not proud of what I did," Zidane continued. "I probably shouldn't have gone back to Alexandria in the first place; I sure as heck shouldn't have proposed marriage! But I'm doing the right thing now, and that's what matters. I haven't been this sure of myself since the moment I decided to jump back into the Iifa Basin after our battle against Necron."
Amarant remembered how insistent Zidane had been in going after Kuja. And how he'd insisted on going alone. "Just how long has this been... no, never mind, I don't want to know," he muttered. He really didn't. Romantic relationships were complicated enough without the added mess of a love triangle, if it could be called that. After all, what kind of love triangle involved a "hero," a princess, and a common enemy?
They fell into silence again. Amarant nursed his drink while thinking about consequences, decisions... It would be easy enough to pretend like he hadn't run into Zidane and Kuja, if that was what he decided on. He barely kept in contact with the others in the group anyhow. But the problem was, was that the right thing to do? What if Kuja was playing them all for suckers - not that tricking Zidane was hard - and laying low until he had time to put his plans into action again? Saving the world was a tall task and not one Amarant cared to repeat. He hadn't wanted to do it the first time, but he'd owed Zidane...
Amarant suddenly brought up his fist and knocked on the frame of the window overlooking the porch. He could see the curtain in one corner peel back. "Hey, come on out, you..."
Startled, Zidane jumped to his feet. "What are you doing?"
"Just needed a refill," Amarant said calmly. He held up his nearly empty glass.
Zidane sputtered in protest, but the door creaked open a moment later and Kuja stepped out, carafe in hand. The former mage had been listening in; he wasn't at all surprised that he was being called out. It hadn't sounded like Zidane had gotten any closer to figuring out a way to resolve things.
Kuja topped off Amarant's glass, then waited for the other man to say something. He couldn't clearly see Amarant's eyes, but the bounty hunter was obviously assessing him, so he stood there, awaiting judgement.
"So you actually like this idiot?" Amarant finally asked, gesturing at Zidane.
Kuja hesitated. Old habits were hard to break, especially ones that he'd relied on for his survival. His first inclination was to say whatever he thought the other person wanted to hear... or to claim the exact opposite and make them mad. But he bet this guy was testing him to see if he was trustworthy or not.
"I... don't know." Kuja bit down on his lip. Zidane was staring at him now as well. "But I think... I can count on him, a little."
Zidane's eyes widened. Was that an admission of trust? Even if just a tiny bit...
"Someone you can count on, hmm?" Amarant rolled that thought around. Zidane was an idiot for sure. But he was surprisingly reliable too, and a far better judge of people than almost anyone Amarant could think of. He was probably right in this case... there wasn't a single thing about the silver-haired man that felt dangerous or deceitful, unlike before.
Several seconds ticked by. Kuja held his breath, waiting for another question or a verdict, but Amarant just drank his lemonade and didn't say anything.
"Oh, speaking of which... are you planning to pass by Lindblum any time soon?" Zidane suddenly asked.
"Think you could deliver a message for me?" Zidane continued with a wheedling grin.
"What? Why would I? You won't even rent me a boat."
"But you're not turning us in, right?" Zidane stared pointedly at him.
The bounty hunter shook his head and groaned. He was going to catch hell if anyone ever found out, but the two people who could tattle on him would be in even bigger trouble, if it came down to that. "Oh no... you're not getting me involved in this mess," he declared. "You aren't worth my time and effort." It was a complete and utter lie, but he had his pride. There was no honor in taking in a defenseless mark, nothing to be gained but some Gil. And despite all the craziness, Zidane was one of the few people he counted as a friend, and he wasn't going to sell him out.
Both Genomes relaxed visibly.
"Well then, if on the off chance you do happen to pass by the theater district in Lindblum, could you stop in and tell Baku that I'm doing fine and not to worry 'bout me?" Zidane requested.
"Yeah, pretty much... I would've sent it via Mognet but I figured that was too risky."
Amarant smirked. He didn't promise anything - after all, he had no clue where he'd be headed next - but he didn't have an issue with passing on the message either, as long as it wasn't out of his way...
The blonde let the matter drop; he knew Amarant would deliver the message the next time he was in that neck of the woods. Maybe he'd even pass along some additional information, if pressed for it, but that was up to Baku. Zidane understood that Baku might not want to get Tantalus involved, so if that was the case, the less he knew, the better. But at least he'd have confirmation that Zidane was alive and well.
After Amarant polished off his drink, Kuja offered another refill but Amarant declined. The silver-haired man nodded politely at him and then returned to the house while Amarant accompanied Zidane to the dock to get a boat. Zidane gave him instructions on how to dock it at the next town for easy return or retrieval, then said goodbye before sending his friend on his way.
Kuja came out and rejoined Zidane at the dock as Amarant's borrowed rowboat disappeared around the curved shoreline of the lake. "You're really not going with him? He's your friend..."
"So are you."
Kuja didn't reply to that. He knew Zidane was hoping for more. He just didn't know how much he could offer. At times even friendship felt like too much of a stretch. Instead, he ended up asking, "What was his name, anyhow?"
"Ahh?" Zidane stared at Kuja, then began chuckling. He'd forgotten... he hadn't introduced them. He supposed he should've. It was unlikely that Kuja had bothered catching the names of everyone who'd fought against him. "That was Amarant Coral, the bounty hunter."
"Not a very good one if he's willing to just walk away," Kuja said, a touch of uncertainty in his voice.
"He's a good guy. He won't turn us in. I trust him, as much as I trust you," Zidane said with a warm smile.
Obviously Zidane was thinking about what Kuja had said earlier. Kuja flushed at the memory, not knowing what else to say. But it hadn't been a lie. He wasn't sure when - or how - it had happened, but little by little, he'd started believing in Zidane again. And if Zidane swore that this friend of his wouldn't betray him, then Kuja could only trust in Zidane's faith too.
* * *
December 25, 2017