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 "Crazy Little Thing Called 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. 29: Crazy Little Thing Called Love

* * *

This thing called love, I just can't handle it
This thing called love, I must get round to it
I ain't ready
Crazy little thing called love

- "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," Queen

* * *

Zidane groggily awoke late in the afternoon with a mild headache and a rumbling tummy. He frowned slightly, trying to hang on to the remnants of an extremely pleasant, erotic dream, but as he rolled onto his side it dawned on him that he was naked, the only fabric on his body being some bandages wound around his arm, and that he was now pressed up against Kuja’s equally naked back.

… So it hadn’t been a dream. The Grand Dragon’s attack… Kuja’s Trance, like a flickering flame at dusk… making love in the cottage…

Headache temporarily forgotten, the thief nuzzled Kuja’s hair. It smelled slightly of road dust and sweat as Kuja had practically passed out from exhaustion in the bath earlier, before he’d had a chance to wash his hair. It was just another reminder that what had happened earlier in the day was no dream.

Zidane bit down on his lip. It took all of his willpower to not start fondling Kuja all over. Lovemaking had been even more amazing than he’d thought it would be. Unlike their previous intimate encounter, all frenzied sexual urgency tainted with guilt, this had been a wonderful, glorious exploration of one another’s bodies, an intertwining of desire and trust. Seeing Kuja flushed, his eyes clouded over in passion… feeling his arms and legs embracing him, as their bodies melted against one another… Zidane was sure, Kuja had never been more beautiful.

As much as the younger man wanted to loiter in bed, snuggled up against Kuja’s bare back, he realized that it was nearly evening – they’d slept half the day away. Someone had to think about dinner, especially since they’d missed lunch.

After reluctantly climbing out of bed, Zidane got dressed and wandered over to the kitchen to see what ingredients were on hand for dinner. Thanks to the dragon, they’d left town without getting more supplies. He found a couple of potatoes, half a cabbage, and a little salt pork - would it work if he threw everything in a pot as a soup? Or he recalled a simple, hearty dish Kuja had made before with smashed potatoes and sautéed cabbage. That sounded good. Neither of them had much in the way of culinary experience, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t have tasty meals.

As the young thief began cutting up vegetables, he found himself wondering if he’d ever had to make his own birthday dinner before. But the whole birthday thing seemed a lot less important than before; he’d forgotten about it, until now. In hindsight he wished he hadn’t fussed about it earlier, like a bratty kid. How could he expect Kuja to wish him a happy birthday when the older man had never experienced one of his own before?

At least he had a few months to plan something for Kuja’s birthday. Maybe they could have dinner at the tavern – it wouldn’t be anything fancy, but at least there wouldn’t be dishes to wash after. There’d be a cake too, from Sara’s bakery – honeyed vanilla with strawberry, perhaps? And presents… what would Kuja want? Zidane couldn’t help but quirk a smile at the realization that Kuja had inadvertently given him the best birthday present ever, but that didn’t mean he could make love to Kuja in return and call it a day. The older man liked to read… but books were too predictable; it wasn’t special enough. Clothing? But there wasn’t anything Zidane could buy in this simple little town that Kuja wouldn’t have to tailor and customize… Or maybe he could ask some of the ladies in town for ideas? Even though Kuja was male, he seemed to have more in common with the womenfolk - maybe they could suggest something that Zidane wouldn’t have thought of otherwise?

It was a risk, but Zidane figured he could find something suitable at the shops in Gorge, the next town over. It wasn’t all that much bigger than Nil, but they had different industries, like metalworking and glass blowing. Zidane had been there a couple of times, incognito of course, as he helped the woodworkers guild with transporting goods. They'd normally use their own barge, but bigger shipments went smoother with some help. If he accompanied them again, he could probably get in and out of Gorge without issue, and without piquing Kuja’s curiosity.

Zidane paused in his prepwork and looked over at the bed. Kuja had rolled onto his back, though his face was still mostly turned towards the wall; Zidane could see a pale arm resting on top of the blankets, a pool of moonlight hair, and Silky’s tail draped over the top of the pillow. Zidane didn’t remember seeing her hanging around while he’d been intimate with Kuja; maybe she’d left and come back after they started napping?

Zidane frowned as Kuja gave a low moan, his fingers twitching and clutching at the sheets. The younger man washed up, then went to the bed and sat down at the edge of the mattress. He placed his hand over Kuja’s, stroking his thumb over it, as he leaned over slightly to look at his face.

Kuja sat up so abruptly that he narrowly missed headbutting Zidane. Silky let out a small mewl of surprise.

"You okay?" Zidane asked.

Kuja stared back. He was understandably startled to wake up and find Zidane an inch from his face. But more than that, he was surprised to see Zidane there at all…

He looked down at his lap, where his hand – and Zidane’s - had landed. It occurred to him that he wasn’t wearing anything under the blanket. Wasn’t that just like last time? They’d had sex… he’d woken up alone. Zidane had shaken his hand, then picked up his bags, said goodbye, and walked away.

"You’re here," Kuja finally answered, quietly.

"I’m not going anywhere," Zidane said firmly. He usually couldn’t figure out what was on Kuja’s mind, but this time, it was painfully obvious. He also knew that words alone wouldn’t convince his lover – and how wonderful it was to be able think of him that way! – so he drove the point home with a hug. Kuja’s bare skin was so warm; Zidane couldn’t resist nuzzling his cheek against Kuja’s neck and kissing the underside of his jaw, before finally releasing him.

The older man suddenly began chuckling, his shoulders shaking. "Aren’t you going to say goodbye, that you’re going home?" he hoarsely queried.

"’Home’ is where you are… Unless you’re saying you don’t want to be with me, of course," Zidane said, only half joking.

Kuja sighed. He was starting to regret that he’d said anything. How was Zidane not sick of dealing with him and his doubts? Even Kuja himself was tired of it. "I didn’t say that."

"Good! Because it’d suck if my best birthday ever became the worst ever instead," Zidane said with a bright grin.

Kuja frowned slightly. He’d forgotten about the whole birthday thing, but since Zidane had brought it up, he supposed that was his cue to say something. He tried to remember what sorts of things he’d heard others say. "Um… I hope you had a happy birthday… Well, minus the dragon attack, I mean." He winced at how bad that sounded.

The thief’s grin broadened as he went in for another hug. He added a big smooch on the cheek too. No matter how the actual words came out, he appreciated the effort. "Thank you. Minus the dragon, it’s been fantastic."

Kuja nodded. Almost despite himself, he felt better - Zidane’s happiness was that infectious. Plus his hugs – and the fact that he was sitting there calmly instead of looking to leave - were equally reassuring. Kuja reached up to return the hug, though his arms were slightly sore from having staved off a dragon’s strike earlier.

"Are you hungry? I was just starting dinner."

Kuja began shaking his head out of habit, but much to his surprise, he felt his stomach rumble as he pondered the question. "I guess. Want some help?"

Zidane practically hopped off the bed, pulling Kuja along with him. "That’d be great - thanks!"

Kuja allowed it, but when he rose to his feet, naked, Zidane momentarily forgot all about cooking. His face felt hot. He couldn’t help but wonder if Kuja was willing to go another round. The rational part of his brain tried to intervene, pointing out that they’d just made love a few hours ago, that they’d both been exhausted, that maybe Kuja would like to be appreciated for something more than his body. But damn, it was hard to tear his eyes away from such a sight…

"Dinner, right," Zidane muttered lamely. "Gotta make dinner."

"Ask me later, if you want," Kuja said with a sliver of a smile.

Zidane looked up, surprised. Did he hear correctly?

"It’s still your birthday, isn’t it?"

"And when it’s no longer my birthday? Tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that?" Zidane drawled, once he'd gotten over the shock. It felt good to indulge in a little flirtatious banter. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done so with Kuja, if ever.

The older Genome colored slightly. "I’ll consider it."

"Good enough." Zidane laced his fingers with Kuja’s. "I really do love you."

Kuja’s flush deepened.

Zidane raised the hand to his lips and planted a kiss on it, then released it, so his lover could get dressed, if he so chose. Kuja hesitated a moment, then went to the armoire to find a clean outfit.

Zidane let out a low whistle. The view from the rear was just as good. But Kuja had promised to consider it, later. So with a shake of his head, Zidane forced himself to go back to the kitchen, to focus his attention back on cooking. Both of them were hungry; dinner wasn’t going to cook itself!

* * *

Zidane had never given much thought to leaving his kills where they lay. But he normally wasn’t taking down dragons in the center of a small town.

It wasn’t like the townspeople had the option to forget about it though. The carcass was already starting to stink in the late summer heat. When Zidane and Kuja showed up the next morning, almost half the populace was there at the crossroads, swarming over the body of the dragon like busy bees. What exactly were they doing?

"Hmmm…" Zidane began, drawing the attention of a few people.

"Zidane!" someone called out.

And suddenly everyone was turning in the direction of the two Genomes, calling out, "Hey, you’re alive!" and "The heroes are here!" and "Thank you!"

Zidane gave them a lopsided grin, but when he looked over at the older man standing by his side, he noticed Kuja looked slightly stunned. Concerned, Zidane whispered, "What’s wrong?"

"They’re calling me a hero?"

Zidane bumped his shoulder against Kuja’s arm. "Feels good, doesn’t it?"

"… I didn’t do anything."

Zidane sighed. Kuja needed things like that repeated a half dozen times before he’d even consider it as a possible truth. "You jumped in front of a dragon with nothing but a broomstick, just to buy me time! That’s damn heroic in my book."

Kuja’s lips tightened into a thin line. It wasn't like he'd managed to put up a shield or blast the dragon with bolts of damage - from what he could tell all his Trance had afforded him was a little more footspeed. But he refrained from voicing his disappointment, as Sara ran out of the bakery towards them.

"Zidane, Mr. Kuja, I’m so glad you’re okay!" she said. "You left in such a hurry yesterday – we were all so worried!"

"Oh… sorry ‘bout that," Zidane replied. He’d been so fixated on Kuja, wanting to make sure he was all right, that all he’d wanted to do was go home. "And ugh, sorry about the mess I’ve left." He couldn't help wrinkling his nose at the smell.

Sara nodded, though she was only half listening to the answer. She couldn’t help but feel that something had changed between the two men, but she couldn’t put her finger on what exactly it was. All she knew was that they were walking with Choco instead of riding him, and that Zidane was holding on to Kuja’s hand like he couldn’t bear to let go, not even for a moment.

What she didn’t know was that they were walking because Kuja had been too sore to ride, as Choco had such a bouncy stride – walking was a pain too, but more tolerable - and that he’d been too sore because he’d given in to Zidane’s request the previous evening, and again in the morning. Zidane had been understandably upset to find out that he’d been the cause of the discomfort – restraint was something he was going to have to work on, as it’d be far harder to convince Kuja to refuse if he didn’t feel like it.

"So what exactly is everyone doing?" Zidane asked, craning his neck a bit, as Arnett ambled over as well. Though it was obvious the townspeople couldn’t just leave the dragon there, Zidane wasn’t sure how they were planning on disposing of it either. They sure were working fast though, understandably wanting the thing out of the way as quickly as possible.

"The scales, hide and bone will sell - they can be made into armor or tools. The rest, we’re doing the best we can. The meat’s tough, but… want some?" Arnett just shrugged and left it at that.

Zidane had never considered eating dragon, though he was pretty sure Eiko had tried to feed them Oglop before – could dragon be worse? Maybe they could make it into chili? Or would the kitten eat it? Wait, was it even safe to eat? It sure didn't smell great... Zidane shrugged, glanced over at Kuja - who looked straight up queasy - then turned back to the mayor. "I’ll pitch in. What can I help with?"

Arnett eyed the daggers at the thief’s hip. "Considerin’ you had no issue using those yesterday, you’d probably do a better job than anyone at cutting up the scales and stuff. Of course you’d get a share of the proceeds anyhow, seeing as you brought it down in the first place."

Zidane made an affirmative sound; money was good, more money was better. Turning to Kuja, he said, "Can you take care of the shopping today?" It went without saying that he couldn’t imagine Kuja hacking and whacking at a dragon’s dead body any more than he could imagine Sara doing so.

Kuja was quick to agree, anything to get away from the corpse. Zidane grinned and gave Kuja’s a hand a squeeze, before finally letting go.

Unsure of where he should start, Kuja hung around a moment, watching as Zidane hefted his daggers, but as Sara headed back to the bakery he decided to follow her in.

Kuja was only planning to buy a loaf of bread and maybe a pastry or two, but Sara grabbed doubles of everything, putting it on the counter with a smile. The silver-haired man had barely begun raising an questioning eyebrow when Sara said, "It’s on the house today! As a thank you for what you’ve done."

Kuja’s mouth opened, ready to argue, but he didn’t want her scolding him for being contrary as Zidane had earlier, so he let his protests die unspoken. Besides, she was probably talking about Zidane; Kuja just happened to be the one picking up supplies for the both of them. And maybe having a rotting dragon outside was bad for business, so she was happy to be moving goods at all.

Arms full of bread and pastries, Kuja loaded them up on Choco, then headed over to the morning market. He left a while later, burdened with goods, even more confused than when he’d exited the bakery. It wasn’t just Sara. With so many townspeople working outside, the market was half empty, but there were still enough vendors present to push free stuff onto him – assorted fruit and vegetables, a half dozen knit socks, even a pair of young chickens in a cage - and Kuja hadn’t known how to respond other than accepting it all on Zidane's behalf, with mumbled thanks.

The last task was to stop by the general store. Kuja didn’t need anything for himself and didn’t want to have dozens of things gifted to him, but he needed a broom. He’d grabbed it out of Howard’s hands and gotten it smashed by the dragon, so he figured he owed him a replacement.

As he walked in, he nearly collided into Clyde, who’d been heading out to help with the dragon. The ratlike man usually ignored him, so Kuja wasn’t expecting it when Clyde stopped and stared at him, before finally muttering, "Not bad…"

Kuja made a questioning sound, unsure of what that meant, if he’d heard right, but Clyde was already out the door.

"How are you? How’s Zidane?" Molly asked, pulling Kuja’s attention back inside.

Kuja turned around, considering it. Simple questions were the hardest for him to deal with as he wasn’t sure if it was meant to be conversational, or if the asker expected an honest answer. Though it made sense that Molly would be concerned about Zidane after what had happened the day before… "We’re fine." He looked around for Molly’s lookalike sister, who'd nearly become dragon chow. "What about Millie?"

Molly let out a sigh. "She has a sprained ankle, but thanks to Zidane and Clyde, nothing more." She smiled. "And thanks to you, Zidane made it through as well."

Kuja was reminded of the task at hand. "I need a broom."

"I can give you one! What else do you need?"

With a shake of his head, Kuja declined. Choco was already heavily laden, their house was tiny, and the Cleyrans didn’t owe him a thing.

After accepting the broom and remembering to wish Millie a complete recovery, he headed out of the store and across the street to the nondescript inn. Howard was sitting on the porch steps, handing out water to anyone who needed it. He’d already put in an hour or two on the dragon at his father's side, and now he was encouraging others to take breaks as needed, as morning coolness had already given way to summer heat.

Howard looked up, blinking, as Kuja strode up and thrust the broom before him. "Here. Sorry I broke yours yesterday."

"Uh..." Howard intelligently managed, ducking his head even as his hand moved on its own to take the broom. "You... didn't have to do that."

"Take it. The general store gave it to me for free anyhow."

Howard clutched at the broom as if someone had just handed him a bouquet of roses. He wasn't sure what else to say. He couldn't deny that he had a bit of an infatuation with the former mage, but it wasn't like he'd ever planned on confessing to him. And after seeing Kuja dash off to shield Zidane with his own body, he’d had his proof that he was never going to have a chance, so it was for the best that he'd never said a thing. Still, he couldn't stop his face from heating up every time Kuja stood close by or talked to him.

"Thanks," the teen finally mumbled.

Kuja nodded and returned to Choco.

By the time Zidane paused to take a short break, wiping gore off his daggers, the chocobo had a full load secured to his saddle and Kuja was standing next to him, patting his neck, trying to decide if he ought to take everything home or wait for Zidane. The shorter Genome approached, surprised at all the stuff. "What in the…"

"It was free," Kuja explained as Zidane prodded at a log of summer sausage and a massive bunch of carrots. And what was with the chickens??

"Free?"

"To thank you for taking down the dragon."

Zidane nodded. He hadn’t fought the dragon in expectation of a reward, but if that was how the townspeople wanted to thank him, he was grateful for it. He knew Kuja worried about their finances. These supplies would last them for days, weeks even. "Wow, sure nice of everyone. You want to head back then, sort out all this stuff? It isn't going to get any more pleasant here."

Kuja nodded, happy to have an excuse to leave.

* * *

Zidane didn’t get back to the house until late afternoon. It had been hard work, but understandably everyone in town was eager to get the streets cleared as much as possible of the dragon’s corpse. Unfortunately they hadn’t been able to finish, but if everyone was willing to put in the same amount of work the next day, it would probably be enough.

As it was, Zidane was very grateful for the fact that not only was the lakeside cottage over a mile away from the center of town, but also that prevailing winds blew off the lake, instead of towards it.

That didn’t stop Kuja’s nose from wrinkling the moment the shorter Genome arrived home. Zidane gave Kuja an apologetic shrug. He knew the combination of dragon gore on his clothing and summer sweat was pretty bad.

"I’m taking care of dinner if you take a bath right away," Kuja offered.

"What are we having? Chicken?" Zidane joked, thinking back to the caged chickens from earlier in the day.

"If that’s what you want, they’re in the shed with Choco."

Zidane just smiled and shook his head. He knew full well that Kuja wouldn’t have butchered them; he didn’t have it in him to kill things anymore, not even for food. "Nah, it’s fine. So what should we call them then? Lunch and Dinner?"

Frowning, Kuja sighed. "BATH, Zidane."

"Ack, I’m going!" the blonde yelped before disappearing into the bathroom.

In lieu of whole roasted chicken or whatever else Zidane might’ve been fantasizing about, Kuja ended up delivering plates of sausage and potatoes flecked with caramelized onions. Even though hot food on a summer day wasn’t ideal, Zidane was more than happy to tuck in, having done so much physical labor earlier in the day.

Kuja ate at a more leisurely pace once the food had cooled down a bit. He didn’t mind Zidane taking the lion’s share – Kuja found more satisfaction in watching the younger man enjoy the dinner he’d made than eating it himself.

"Ah, that was so good. Thanks, Kuja," Zidane said when he was finally satiated.

"Mmhmm."

Zidane wondered if he shouldn’t have eaten so much. Even as Kuja began clearing the table, he was already starting to feel a hint of sluggishness settling in. Well, it wasn’t like he was planning on making love to Kuja tonight, since he needed time to recover… so maybe it wasn’t a bad thing. Besides, Zidane had at least one more day of dragon duty to look forward to, so it was sensible to rest up a little while he could.

They wrapped up the night as they’d been doing as of late, with Kuja doing some sewing and Zidane reading out loud to him. Bedtime crept up soon enough, and after they both lay down and settled in, Kuja waited silently for Zidane to initiate intimate contact. Zidane stroked his face and kissed him and wished him a good night, but did nothing else.

Kuja was a little confused. The younger man had been so enthusiastic earlier. But it had been a long day… maybe he really was tired? Or maybe he’d decided he preferred it in the morning instead?

But when morning came, Zidane once again made no attempt to approach Kuja for sex. He seemed cheerful enough, hugging and kissing Kuja before urging him to eat breakfast. He didn’t seem any different than before, until he mentioned he’d planned on going to town alone – dragon clean up duty and all that. And Kuja couldn’t think of a good reason why he would need to join him, so he could only watch in silent trepidation as Zidane departed.

It was shaping up to be an even hotter day than the previous one. Yet Kuja felt the occasional cold shiver trickling down his spine as he tidied up around the house. He tried not to think about it, but the harder he tried to push it down, the worse he felt. He had thought things were improving, but now he was worried. Had Zidane tired of him already? Or had Kuja done something to displease him? Was Zidane now trying to put some space between them? Maybe Zidane had pushed for repeated bouts of sex earlier because he’d been trying to figure out a way to make things work, but in the end, he’d found the task too difficult or unpleasant. Kuja shuddered, thinking about how Zidane’s fingers had lingered on his scars… The blonde had claimed that he didn’t find them disgusting, but then, why had he been so fixated on them?

Kuja mulled it over, sighing. Was it possible he was misunderstanding things? Zidane had said he loved him, over and over again. And although Kuja hadn’t been comfortable with the attention being given to his scars, Zidane had kissed and caressed them, saying they reminded him of how far Kuja had come to become who he was now. Did that mean he was now someone who could be… loved?

Right on the heels of that foreign yet warming thought came the familiar doubts: Garland hadn’t designed him that way. And other than Zidane – who was an outlier in every way – Kuja had never gotten close to anyone, had never had anyone call him a friend or loved one… wasn’t that proof of it? He’d been created to be a weapon, nothing more. But perhaps in spite of Garland’s intentions, he could feel, even if he hadn’t known how to put those feelings into words. He disliked being alone but felt uneasy when interacting with other people. He resented direction and routine but struggled to function without them. And every time he’d carried out his master’s orders, something dark and bitter inside had swelled like a tumor as he’d racked up victims, as he’d shattered families and homes. Why, he had wondered, why did those people have something he didn’t? And, more irritatingly, why did it matter? He’d tried to convince himself that it wasn’t important, that he didn’t care, didn’t need it. He’d even told himself that that made him superior, because he didn’t need anyone else. But he had felt all along that something was wrong with him, that he was lacking, and neither ignoring it nor denying it made it go away.

But just as Kuja feared he’d fall apart from so many conflicting thoughts, Silky suddenly bumped against his leg, meowing loudly. The former mage stared down at her, wondering if she had just happened by, or had she somehow noticed his distress? Either way, he was a little grateful for her intrusion – he was so tired of feeling worried all the time. Reaching down to stroke her soft fur, he managed to calm himself enough to reassess the situation. Kuja had told Amarant that he believed in Zidane; he hadn’t been lying about that. Zidane wasn’t like other people, the ones who’d used Kuja or been used in turn. So maybe Zidane didn’t intend to have sex with him again, but he hadn’t given any indication of wanting to leave, either. Kuja could live with that.

He picked up Silky and looked around, trying to figure out what else he could do in the meantime. The house was already pretty tidy; he didn’t have any needlework jobs due soon. And it was hot out. So reading it was, then – it’d help him settle down too. Putting the kitten down on the bed, Kuja fetched a book before rejoining her for what he hoped would be a short wait until Zidane got back.

* * *

If the smell and stains were bad the day before, they were even worse this time. Even though he’d waited hours for Zidane’s return, Kuja was tempted to slam the door in the blonde’s face and tell him to go jump in the lake – he was that caked in "stuff." But the prospect of a soaking wet man dripping his way back into the house was equally unappealing, so rather than shut the door, Kuja held his tongue - and his breath - and stepped aside so Zidane could get by without brushing against him.

At least this time he didn’t have to threaten Zidane to get him in the bathtub – the thief headed straight in without any urging. Kuja stayed out of the way for a few minutes, then decided to head in to fetch the laundry. As disgusting as it was to have to wash gore stained clothing, he was hoping to be able to salvage as much of it as he could.

Kuja frowned as soon as he walked in. Zidane had left his clothes balled up in the sink. Tucking his hair back, the older man went to pick them up, but Zidane called out to him from the tub.

"I’ll take care of it as soon as I’m done in here," said Zidane with an apologetic smile. He was flopped over the edge of the tub like melted butter.

"It’s going to stain," Kuja sighed.

"I hope not. But I don’t need you to clean up after me."

Kuja sagged a little, as if he’d been scolded. If he couldn’t even do some laundry, what could he do?

Zidane noticed his lover’s reaction and waved him over. It was awkward to have a talk in the bathroom, especially since he was wet and naked, but Kuja seemed to have something on his mind, and Zidane had learned that with Kuja, it was better to address things immediately than to wait until it was more convenient.

"What’s wrong?" Zidane asked once Kuja close enough to touch. He only managed to resist grabbing Kuja’s hand due to the fact that his hand was dripping wet, and Kuja’s wasn’t.

"It’s… nothing," Kuja replied. It was a completely unconvincing lie.

Zidane went ahead and took hold of Kuja’s hand, knowing he was either going to get hissed at, flat out rejected, or both. Kuja did grumble his complaint, but at least he didn’t pull away. "I know you better than that," Zidane said.

Kuja stared at his younger counterpart, then began worrying his lower lip between his teeth. "Is sex with me… just no good?"

"WHAT?" Zidane gasped, suddenly sitting up a lot straighter. That was the last thing he’d expected to hear. "Why would you think that? Kuja… it’s better than great, seriously!"

"But you didn’t do anything this morning, or the night before."

Zidane’s jaw dropped slightly. "You were sore. I was trying to be considerate, holding back. I didn’t want it to get worse."

Kuja shook his head. Did it matter if he’d been sore or not? But he supposed Zidane wouldn’t be okay with ignoring that…

"You didn’t think… I left you here today because I was trying to leave, did you?"

"No. Well… no." It was true that the silver-haired man had had his doubts, but in the end he’d believed Zidane would stay.

Zidane’s eyes searched over Kuja’s face, as if trying to tease out the truth, and then he smiled. "Believe me, you wouldn’t have wanted to come. It was even worse than yesterday! But good news is, we got it all cleaned up… well, as much as we possibly could."

Kuja grimaced slightly. No, he wouldn’t have wanted to accompany Zidane under those circumstances.

"Besides, lovemaking isn’t something that’s… on a fixed schedule. I want you, maybe a little too much for your own good! But this isn’t a one way street. You could try initiating too, you know, if you ever felt like it," the thief suggested.

The only times Kuja had ever initiated were when he had a target he wanted to make use of, or when he needed some amusement to pass the time. Zidane didn’t fit either criteria. Nor was he the best performance-wise, being a little clumsy and inexperienced. But somehow, that didn’t matter, not when Zidane focused on him like he was the most special person in the universe. Not when Zidane was so surprisingly gentle, so careful, so considerate, no matter if he was dealing with Kuja’s scars or his genitals or even the faint whispers of emotions that Kuja could barely describe, nevermind put a name to.

"On the other hand," Zidane continued, since Kuja wasn’t replying, "if there’s times you don’t feel up to it, just say so. I won’t be mad. I get it. I mean, like right now… I’m really beat. So even if you wanted to, even if *I* wanted to, I don’t know if I can."

"Oh," Kuja blurted out. He felt his face flush as he realized that that left him slightly disappointed. For some reason, he just wanted to touch Zidane, even if it was just something as simple as holding hands.

Zidane’s smile was sympathetic. "Sorry." He rolled his shoulders, then sank back down a little in the hot water, trying to soak away some of the ache in his muscles. But he couldn’t let go of Kuja’s hand, nor turn away, either. Now that Kuja had stopped masking over his feelings, the way that emotions openly played across his face was fascinating. Worry, confusion, desire… Zidane couldn’t help but want to respond to them all.

The former mage finally pulled his hand away but stayed where he was, thinking. Maybe Zidane didn’t want to have sex at the moment, but there were other forms of physical contact that would likely be more welcome…

Decided, Kuja flexed his fingers, and asked, "Would a shoulder massage be okay?" He wasn’t the best masseuse, but he figured Zidane could talk him through it, if need be.

Pleasantly surprised, Zidane perked back up. "That would be great!"

After pausing to pull off his shirt and tie his hair back as much as he could, Kuja took his place behind Zidane and began kneading the bunched up muscles in his shoulders. At first he wasn’t sure if it was doing any good. Zidane was all hard, lean muscle; it was tough getting in there and working it loose. But eventually his fingers and palms began sinking in, and it was obvious Zidane was enjoying it too, his head lolling back as he sighed.

"Thanks," Zidane mumbled. He lifted one hand out of the water then, after letting it drip dry a bit, cupped Kuja’s cheek. "Wanna nap afterwards?"

Kuja leaned into the palm of Zidane’s hand. "Okay." For once, he didn’t feel the desire to have an afternoon nap, but the thought of just lying together for a while made him feel warm and cozy inside, just as a fluffy blanket would.

But then he caught a whiff of something that had to be addressed, something that wasn’t nice or comfy like a nap. "But you’re taking care of the laundry first, right?"

Zidane made a face. "Ugh. Yeah, I did say I would. Do I have to do it now?" He managed to put a slight whine into that last word, like a child would.

Kuja sighed. "Later… would be fine."

Zidane smiled angelically as Kuja resumed the massage. The bath water was starting to cool down, but he wanted to enjoy being spoiled for just a little longer.

* * *

A few weeks after Amarant had "agreed" to deliver Zidane’s message to Tantalus, the bounty hunter reached the regency of Lindblum. He certainly could have gotten there sooner, but he was a man who worked on his own schedule, and with as big a favor as this was, it wasn’t something that Zidane could complain about, if he’d ever been so inclined.

Amarant had only been there once or twice, but the city was well organized and it was easy enough to find his way to the Air Cabs, then the Theater District, and finally, the big clock tower ithat served as home base of the infamous Tantalus Theater Troupe.

He walked up to the door and rapped on it. The slit panel slid open; all Amarant could see was some red hair.

"Well, a familiar face…" said a male voice. The door swung open a moment later. "Come on in."

With his superior height, all Amarant could see of the man before him was thick hair jutting out of a leather headband. Even when Blank tilted his face up, Amarant could barely make out his eyes.

"Amarant, right?"

The big man nodded. "I have a message for Baku."

"Is that so?" Blank’s grin widened, though he made no attempt to pry for further information. He’d find out soon enough.

Baku was in the large central room, along with several other members of the group. Apparently they'd been working on a play, as there were costumes and props strewn about. Amarant parked himself by a wall and silently waited until there was a lull in the conversation, then gave Baku a grunt and a nod. Baku returned the nod before excusing himself, gesturing to Amarant to follow him.

They ended up going down a narrow hallway to a small private office cluttered with scripts and posters; organized chaos seemed the norm in Tantalus. Baku shoved the heavy door shut and leaned against it for good measure. "All right, let’s hear it," he said without preamble.

Amarant was equally direct. "Zidane said he’s doing fine and not to worry about him."

"That’s it, eh?" Baku scratched his head. "Was he alone?"

Amarant’s lips twitched. He didn’t respond. That was all the answer the Tantalus leader needed.

Baku snorted. "Figures. Ah well, whatever..."

They fell into silence a moment, then Amarant spoke up again, his voice low and rumbling in the quiet of the room. "I won’t be headed back to Nil any time soon, so if you have a message for him, deliver it yourself." He crossed his arms, almost defiantly. Yes, it was risky divulging that information to anyone, but this man had raised Zidane. And by telling him, Amarant was washing his hands of the whole mess. It was Baku’s problem, now.

"Nil, you say." The hidden town of thieves, the name barely even whispered in legends… Baku had thought Nil was just that, a legend, but apparently, he’d been wrong. He chuckled; just what kind of thief was he, to have never found it?

Amarant grinned. "What, haven’t toured your way through Gorge Valley before? I’d suggest catching a boat ride, easiest way to get around."

Baku took a minute to map out things in his head. With the bits of info Amarant had fed him, he had a decent idea of where to start looking. "We’re due in Treno at the end of the month. I suppose a detour wouldn’t put us too far behind…"

Amarant shrugged, done giving his input. It wasn’t like he was getting paid for it. He’d done what he’d come to do, and that was that.

With nothing left to discuss, Baku stepped away from the door and yanked it open. "Thanks fer stopping by."

"Sure."

Blank glanced up as Amarant suddenly reappeared in the central room, striding to the exit before disappearing just as swiftly. Baku walked in a moment later, rejoining the group as if nothing interesting had happened.

"Everything okay, Boss…?" Marcus prompted after a few awkward moments had passed. Everyone was curious about the visitor and what news he'd brought, but no one else had been willing to say a thing.

"What? No, it’s not okay… we have a big performance coming up and not a lot of time to work on it!" Baku grumbled, waving off the question. But as everyone started moving off to get back on task, he added under his breath, just loud enough for Marcus and Blank to hear, "Plus there’s the side trip to plan, too."

Marcus and Blank exchanged a quick look. "Boss?"

"Go dig up whatever maps we have of the Mist Continent, the southern parts at least."

They didn’t need any further explanation than that. The pair immediately ran off to comply, excited about the prospect of reuniting with their "little bro" soon.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

October 15, 2018