Title: The Show Must Go On
Author: bnomiko
Rating: PG-13 / R to R (maybe NC-17)
Pairing(s): eventual Zidane x Kuja
Spoilers: through the end of the game
Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "I Can’t Live With You" 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. 3: I Can't Live With You

* * *

Yeah, I'm having a hard time
I'm walking a fine line
Between hope and despair
You may think that I don't care
But I traveled a long road to
Get a hold of my sorrow
I tried to catch a dream
But nothing's what it seems
Love is saying baby it's all right
When deep inside you're really petrified
Lover turns to hater
On this escalator

I can't live with you
Yeah, but I can't live without you
I can't breathe - if you stay
But I can't bear you to go away
I don't know what time it is
All I know is I can't live with you

- "I Can’t Live With You," Queen

* * *

Zidane ran and ran until he exhausted himself. By the time he stopped to catch his breath, he couldn’t see any sign of the house at all, not even a curl of smoke from the chimney. The part of the path he’d been sprinting along had obviously lain unused for quite some time, being overgrown with clumps of dead weeds that poked out of the thin layer of late season snow. He wasn’t quite sure where he was, nor how much further the path would go on. Not that it mattered. The sun was already setting. There wasn’t really anywhere else to go but back to the old house he’d been sharing with Kuja.

He finished looking around, then, in the interest of not freezing his tush and tail off on the ice covered boulders, gingerly crouched down to think. Zidane prided himself on being really easy going and tolerant, but Kuja had somehow managed to push him too far. And what sucked even more was the fact that it had happened during the course of a meaningful conversation, one that had given Zidane a new perspective on who Kuja really was. Or at least, that’s what Zidane had thought he’d been seeing…

Had Kuja simply been playing with him, plying him with lies? Zidane considered it a brief moment before dismissing it. No… Although he had no doubt that Kuja was a pretty good actor, there was no mistaking the genuine rawness of the older man’s emotions when he’d said he had returned to Garland to give a then four-year-old Zidane a better chance at escaping. He hadn’t made up that story. He really had sacrificed himself for Zidane’s sake.

But then right on the heels of that came the mess / misunderstanding that had sent Zidane running. He still wasn’t sure how things had gotten so out of control. All he’d been trying to do was to make Kuja feel better, to remind him that he now had a friend he could count on. But Kuja had somehow had misread that as Zidane making a pass at him, and then gotten mad that younger Genome had mislead him. Zidane shook his head. Was it really possible that Kuja didn’t understand the concept of friendship? There was no way he could be that clueless. Surely, at some point… he must’ve befriended someone, somewhere.

But try as he might, Zidane couldn’t remember ever seeing Kuja socializing or being friendly with anyone. He saw other people only as tools to be used, controlled or manipulated, just as he'd been Garland’s tool.

And as much as the blonde hated to admit it, although he’d hugged Kuja as a friend, the reaction his body had had had nothing to do with friendship. So who was the real liar?

… Well, if he HAD to pick a guy to make out with…

Ugh, no way! Why am I even wondering about it? Maybe I really HAVE been stuck out here too long, Zidane yelled at himself in exasperation. But he kind of felt bad for dismissing it so readily too. If that was how Kuja was, well, he couldn’t help it. And it didn’t really change things did it? Hell, they’d been sleeping in the same bed for months now and nothing bad had happened, so as long as Zidane went back and explained himself clearly, they could go on living as they’d been.

But what if Kuja did want more? He hadn’t been opposed to it when he’d thought Zidane had been making a pass at him. He’d even said that he liked Zidane, and not in the friendship sense. The thief didn’t want to hurt Kuja's feelings, but there was no avoiding it – there was just no way they could have a relationship. Zidane still had every intention of returning to Dagger, of finally telling her - clearly - just how he felt. But he couldn’t back to her until he knew Kuja would be okay without him. And yet he’d run off and just left his fellow Genome behind over a stupid misunderstanding… and it was getting darker and colder with each passing minute.

With a heavy sigh, Zidane stood up and began running back up the path.

* * *

It was well into the evening by the time Zidane managed to pick his way back to the house. It was even darker inside than it was outside as the fire in the hearth had burned down to mere embers. Zidane quickly tossed in a few logs and got it going again, then looked around for his brother, though he didn’t have to look far. Kuja was curled up in a ball on the floor next to the sofa, pretty much where Zidane had left him. The blonde crouched down beside him. Kuja refused to look up or acknowledge him.

Zidane sighed softly and reached out to lay a hand on Kuja’s shoulder. The silver-haired man flinched and jerked back as soon as it made contact, but gave no other response. Zidane frowned. "Hey, I know you’re awake. Come on, talk to me."

"Why?" Kuja croaked, refusing to unfurl. Even his tail was curled up defensively around him.

"Please? I don’t want to apologize to the top of your head."

The feathers atop Kuja’s mane quivered a little as he lifted his head a bit, just enough so he could peek out from the barricade formed by his arms. Zidane tilted his head to look at him. He couldn’t be sure, but Kuja’s eyelids looked a little puffy...

"You… came back," Kuja said slowly, his voice still muffled.

Zidane nodded. "Yeah. Listen, I…"

Kuja suddenly gave a dry chuckle. "Ah, I suppose you did leave all your things here."

The younger man sighed again. "Kuja, I’m not going anywhere. You still need my help."

"Your help? I don’t need it. I don’t want anything from you!"

"Do you seriously have to argue with me on every little thing?" Zidane snapped back. Kuja’s mood swings drove him crazier than anything else on Gaia.

Immediately Kuja rolled back up into a tight ball. "Fine then, go away! Leave me alone!" he spat, the words barely discernable once again.

Zidane’s head dropped to his chest. He shouldn’t have lost his temper. He didn’t have the right when he was the one who needed to apologize. He let out a huge sigh. "Okay, let me try that again. I’m sorry. I really am. I shouldn’t have walked off earlier, and I shouldn’t have snapped at you just now. Please, Kuja… forgive me?" Seeing that his words weren’t getting through, the thief decided to try a different tactic. Actions spoke louder than words after all.

He reached out again and rested his hand on Kuja’s hair and began stroking it slowly. He knew Kuja responded to physical contact better than anything else. He just hoped that a few pats on the head would be safe enough and wouldn’t be misconstrued as something else. But after a few seconds, Zidane’s hand stilled. His brow furrowed. Why was Kuja’s hair so cold to the touch?

"Kuja?" Zidane’s hands slid down to firmly rest on the other Genome’s shoulders, then flew down over his arms. It was chilly in the house, yes, but Kuja was even colder, as if he’d been out in the snow or something. Zidane checked him over even more carefully. Kuja’s pants were damp at the knee and ankle. And he was trembling faintly from more than just being upset. "You didn’t go outside did you?"

Kuja finally responded in a low voice. Zidane strained to hear him. "I yelled for you to come back. I said I was sorry. But you didn’t stop. I started to follow, but…"

"You’re gonna make yourself sick again!" Zidane gasped, but he stopped short of making it a lecture and instead hopped to his feet to grab the blanket off the sofa, which he draped over Kuja’s shoulders. Then he disappeared into the bedroom a minute before returning with a pair of socks and pants. "Come on, put these on."

The older man finally looked up and accepted the change of clothing. He didn’t look happy about it, but he went ahead and complied instead of arguing back.

Kuja wasn’t healthy. That was no secret. He must’ve run after Zidane until he’d gotten too tired to go on, then dragged himself back to the house. Zidane’s instinct was to pull him into a hug, but he forced himself to refrain from doing so. The last thing he needed was to complicate things even more when they hadn’t had a chance to clear the air on the previous incident. So instead he sat down on the sofa with the mage and got the blanket around both their shoulders before going back to petting the long silver hair. He even wrapped his tail around Kuja’s, trying to warm that up as well.

"I’m sorry. I really am an idiot. I didn’t mean to worry you this much," Zidane said sincerely.

"Who says I was worried?"

Zidane just smiled. "You really do drive me nuts, you know that? But that doesn’t matter. I know I get mad at you, but that’s only 'cause I care about you and worry about you." He paused, then added, "Would it be okay if I hugged you? You’re really cold. It’d help warm you up faster, but… it’s just a hug, okay?"

Kuja shrugged, but went ahead and initiated the hug this time, slinging an arm around Zidane’s shoulders. Zidane hesitated a moment, wondering if anything else would happen, but when the other Genome didn’t try anything, Zidane reached over and pulled Kuja closer, until Kuja leaned his head against Zidane’s and shut his eyes. "I can’t stay mad at you. But I don’t understand you either. You saved my life when you had no reason to at all; you’ve taken care of me for months… even though you have a lovely little canary waiting at home for you. Why would you go to such lengths for someone like me? Why give me another chance?"

No matter how many times Kuja asked, the answer was the same. "Because you wanted to make amends, and I wanted you to have that chance," Zidane automatically replied. Then he paused, thought about it, and added, "And because… I’m your friend. This is what friends do, you know?"

"I don’t know. I haven’t had any."

Zidane swallowed a sigh. He’d wondered about that just a while ago, and now he had his answer. But knowing definitely didn’t make him feel better. "Well, now you know what it’s like to have one, okay?" he finally said.

Kuja snorted tiredly. "You say that, but part of you was interested in what I was offering."

"A wet, sloppy kiss?" Zidane tried joking.

"I was trying to give you what you wanted, because you said you liked me."

"But you understand what I meant now, don’t you?" Zidane waited until Kuja gave a hesitant nod, then added, "Although it’s okay with me if you’re into that sort of thing. I mean, I’m not going to think badly of you just because of that. Just… I’m not one of those people."

"’Those people’…" Kuja tsked softly, then lightly nuzzled Zidane’s hair. He tried not to laugh at the lack of negative reaction. It made no sense that Zidane would complain about a kiss but be fine with cuddling. "One kiss won’t kill you. And honestly… if you haven’t tried it, how can you say you wouldn’t like it? It really makes very little difference if it’s with a guy or a girl, you know. Even moreso if you like women with beards."

Zidane rolled his eyes, though he managed to refrain from pulling back or pushing Kuja away. Even with the fire and the blanket, Kuja wasn’t warming up as fast as Zidane would’ve liked. "What’s with you and wanting to kiss me?"

Kuja smiled, but grew a little more serious. "Even though I don’t understand you, and we get on each other’s nerves more often than not, I’m still grateful you’re here. I’ve never had anyone worry about me. I wanted to do something for you, to thank you, and I figured… Well, it’s not like I have much else to offer you at this time..."

"Saying thanks is enough. I don’t need anything else."

"It’s not," Kuja insisted.

"It is for me. Besides, I can’t imagine kissing someone if I don’t even… like-like them, you know?"

"Why?"

Zidane did pull back at that, just enough to give his fellow Genome a look. "Are you kidding?" he asked incredulously. Kuja could fib at the drop of a hat. He did it so naturally it was impossible to tell half the time if he was being truthful or not.

"It’s not a big deal. It’s quite easy, actually, to do it and make it convincing."

"Of course it’s a big deal! I mean, if you could do that, then…" Zidane just stared at his brother, remembering how he used to dress, flashing so much skin that it’d make a cabaret dancer blush. It was nearly as revealing as some of the Terran clothing Zidane had spied on their fellow Genomes but far, far flashier. And something that had lain in the back of his mind for many weeks suddenly sprung up again. Appearances matter. My attire was chosen for practical reasons. "You couldn’t have… You didn’t, did you…?"

"Didn’t what?" Kuja asked, but when Zidane glanced over at him, it was clear from his expression that he knew exactly what the thief was asking.

"You know what! Quit being difficult."

"Hmph. What does it matter to you? Don’t try to pretend to be noble. Sex is merely another way to wrest power."

"It does matter! I couldn’t imagine doing something like that without at least really, really liking the other person."

The silver-haired man sighed dramatically, as if he were dealing with a child. "Would you have preferred that I simply killed them all instead?"

"That’s not funny! Kuja…"

"No, what’s funny is you thinking poorly of me for using what I easily have at my disposal to engage in a common activity that benefits both parties."

Zidane had never heard of lovemaking being described so clinically and… verbosely before. "Benefits?"

"I usually am quite good at whatever I set my mind to," Kuja sniffed, offended. "Besides, you only gain their confidence if you can first satisfy their desires, whatever they may be."

Kuja hadn’t mentioned feeling love, desire, or even pleasure. "But… why? Why would you go to such lengths?" the younger man asked.

"I wasn’t nearly as powerful as you think, not when I first began my campaign here. Let me remind you, I couldn’t even enter Trance until recently. What did you think I was collecting Eidolons for? Why did I need an army of Black Mages? I needed power, and lots of it. So while I honed my magic I also learned to persuade, to manipulate… and if a silver tongue weren’t enough to do the trick, well, there was always the body that came with it." Kuja paused in his rambling to catch his breath, then added, "It really did turn out to be the simplest and most effective route in many cases."

Zidane frowned, but stayed silent as he thought back on Kuja’s earlier, tasteless joke… and then his mind went to a bad, bad place. "Please don’t tell me… Queen Brahne…" he gasped out, shaking his head as if that’d dislodge the mental image of his brother making romantic moves on Dagger’s rather… generously sized mother.

Kuja glared at that but didn’t answer. Zidane wasn’t sure if he ought to be relieved or not. Either the other Genome was offended at his presumption, or he really had gone through with it and didn’t want to remember that he’d resorted to such a measure.

"Never mind. Don’t answer that." Zidane reached up to rub at his forehead. Kuja’s brand of logic never failed to give him a headache. "Okay, I get that you don’t respect anyone else. But how could you do that to yourself?"

Kuja’s face darkened a moment, then grew thoughtful. He opened his mouth to speak but seemed to be struggling to find the right words. "Why did Garland give me… us - free will if we weren’t supposed to use it? But free will meant nothing when I was tethered on a leash like a dog." He sighed. Considering the amount of time he’d spent carefully plotting his master’s demise, he’d never gotten to enjoy his hard won freedom. Even in death, Garland had managed to cast one last noose around his neck. He still couldn’t shake the feeling that Death was always a half step behind him and ready to wrap cold hands around his throat.

"In the end, it’s my body and my decision to use it however I please," the older Genome finally managed to croak, swallowing hard.

"I guess," Zidane mumbled as he leaned back against Kuja a little, before reaching over for a strand of hair to play with. He didn’t know why, but it was kind of relaxing, just stroking Kuja’s hair. "You should be a little nicer to yourself though."

Kuja just laughed, though it wasn’t a happy sound. "I’ve only ever been nice to myself." He glanced at Zidane and shrugged. "But at least you don’t have to worry about it anymore. No one on Gaia is going to fall for the ‘charms’ of a beat up, washed up, former Angel of Death. Even you don’t want me, and you’re the only person who can even tolerate being in my presence."

"Don’t say that."

"Well it’s true, isn’t it? You won’t even let me show you some gratitude… you’d rather run off and freeze to death out in the snow, you dolt."

"Geez, I said I’m sorry you know," Zidane grumbled. "Look, what can I do to make it up to you?" He regretted saying that as soon as the words were out of his mouth though, because Kuja instantly turned and began eyeing him critically. "Um…"

"Let me try it, just once. If you truly hate it, I’ll never ask to do it again."

Zidane made a face. But he’d kind of talked himself into a corner, and they both knew it. And he really did feel bad about running off earlier instead of just sticking around to talk things through. If something had happened to him, it would’ve been a death sentence for Kuja too.

He let out a heavy sigh. "I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… argh, fine! Just once, Kuja. And you gotta give me your word on it."

"Just once, but only if you hate it."

The blonde stared at the older man’s mouth, at the satisfied smirk pulling at the corners. "Believe me, I’m not planning on liking it. And you’d better not try and slip me some tongue or anything weird like that."

Kuja chuckled, but responded in a gentle tone, "Just close your eyes. You don’t even have to kiss back if you don’t want to, so just relax." He leaned in and nuzzled Zidane’s hair again, then quickly gave it a light kiss as well. "That of course didn’t count. It was just a warm up."

"Fine, whatever." Though Zidane still had his doubts, he’d given his assent, so he would follow through with it though really, he just wanted to get it over with. He shifted over so that they now sat facing one another, then squeezed his eyes closed. He licked his lips in nervous anticipation, half expecting Kuja to just dive in with reckless enthusiasm… but that didn’t happen.

This is absolutely crazy, Zidane thought, feeling one of Kuja’s hands lightly grip his shoulder while the other cupped his cheek. He wondered what Dagger would think if she were to find out. Well, she’d probably flip out over the fact that Kuja was still alive more than anything. So relatively speaking, a single kiss would be at most only a minor problem. Except maybe for the fact that he’d never gotten the chance to kiss her ye…

The lips that suddenly pressed against his were unexpectedly soft, plush even. Zidane was surprised. He thought it’d be disgusting, being kissed by a man. He thought Kuja would smell and taste of sweat or something nasty like that. But… well, the initial impression wasn’t bad. Maybe Kuja was right. Maybe it wasn’t all that different from kissing a girl.

Kuja began rubbing small circles against Zidane’s cheek with his thumb. His mouth started moving against Zidane’s as well – not too forcefully, but with just enough heat and pressure to coax a similar response. He was a damn good kisser – unhurried and focused and gentle, confident in his technique but not pushy or overbearing. Zidane found his lips parting slightly to breathe in Kuja’s breath before massaging them against Kuja’s mouth in return. His tongue darted out briefly to taste Kuja's lips.

There was a soft, breathy moan. Zidane wasn’t sure who’d made the sound. It didn’t really matter. All he knew was by the time he pulled back for a much needed gulp of air, one of his hands had knotted itself around a handful of long, silky hair. His face felt a little hot. He raised a hand to his mouth in surprise, his mind suddenly clearing when he felt how moist his lips were, the realization of what he’d done slapping him back into reality.

Kuja on the other hand didn’t look flustered at all. He had a maddeningly triumphant smile on his face, like a cat that’d just eaten a canary. Out of the corner of his eye, Zidane could see a silvery tail tip flicking about. "See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?" Kuja purred. He paused a second, and Zidane suddenly knew what was coming next. "So can we do it again?"

The thief groaned. "No!"

"But you said…"

Zidane groaned again. He knew he shouldn’t have given in! Now Kuja would never quit asking or pushing for more. "Not now, okay? I’m… I’m still trying to figure out how this all happened."

"Does it matter? I enjoyed it. You did too."

"Okay, I’m willing to admit it wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. But that doesn’t mean…" and Zidane hesitated, trying to think of the best way to explain without hurting the other Genome’s feelings. "Kuja, can I ask you something? It’s really important."

The Cheshire Cat grin softened into a genuine smile that warmed even the normally cold slate in Kuja’s eyes. "Of course. Anything."

Zidane sighed. He didn’t want to see that smile fade, but at the same time, he felt it was best to just tell the mage the truth now instead of letting him hang on to false hope. "Kuja… are you in love with me?" he asked quietly.

A silver eyebrow twitched and then went up. "What are you talking about?"

"The way you’ve been acting… I like you, you’re my friend, but… this… what we just did, isn’t going to change things," Zidane quickly blurted out. "I love Dagger; you know that. And one day, I’m gonna go back to her and tell her how I feel and ask her to marry me." He took a deep breath, mentally cringing in anticipation of the inevitable explosion, and looked back up. Kuja was staring at him as if he were try to decipher an impossible puzzle. Zidane stared back, trying to figure out what that look meant. Had he been too blunt still? "Um, are you okay? I didn’t mean to be so forward, but I didn’t want you to misunderstand…"

Another half minute passed before Kuja finally made a move, waving his hand dismissively in the air to break the unintentional stalemate. The smile on his face had reverted back to that of a predatory cat, broad and full of teeth. "How sweet of you! I appreciate your concern. But don’t worry, you can’t break my heart or anything. Love is impossible for someone like me."

"That’s not true."

"Of course it is. Didn’t Garland tell you? I’m not capable of experiencing emotions of that complexity," Kuja chided him. "If I could, why wouldn’t I have Tranced a lot sooner, and on my own?"

Zidane shook his head sadly. While he couldn’t explain the latter, he didn’t believe the former at all. And he’d learned by now that when Kuja sounded that cheerful, that glib, he was really only trying to avoid facing how he really felt.

Sometimes Zidane almost missed how Kuja was when he’d first woken up after being rescued from the Iifa Tree, when he’d been in too much pain to try and hide what he was thinking and feeling. Not that he wanted Kuja hurting like that again, but he missed the honesty. They got along far better now, but it almost felt like their friendship was built on a bed of pretty lies.

"Somewhere, there’s gotta be someone that’s right for you too. And I hope you find them someday and live happily with them," Zidane mumbled. Even he wasn’t convinced with what he was saying, nor could he muster up the false conviction needed to make it sound better. "But… I’m not that person. I can’t be. And I didn’t want you getting your hopes up or anything, so that’s why…"

Kuja snorted. "What hopes? I only figured, with your reputation as a ladies man and all, that you would be a fairly skilled kisser. I wanted to see for myself if that were true. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to partake in a little physical enjoyment every now and then right?"

Zidane scratched his head. He supposed Kuja had a point. The kiss had been better than the blonde had anticipated, and they both obviously were gluttons for physical contact. "I guess not."

The silver tail began lashing about once more. "So does that mean we can kiss again?"

Zidane stopped to think about it some more. He couldn’t take his eyes off Kuja’s face, at the eagerness there, at the slight hint of anxiety that put a fine crease in his brow. He instantly wanted to soothe it away. "Don’t push it – don’t ask for anything more, you got that? – and, well, maybe I’ll agree to it once in a while."

Kuja’s eyes lit up. "Really?"

Zidane nodded. Seeing the older Genome so happy made him feel good too, and he now felt a lot more optimistic about his decision. Maybe it really would be okay, as long as he made sure the boundaries were clearly defined. As long as he enforced them. "Yeah, really."

"Then how about right now?"

"See, you’re being pushy again," Zidane scolded, but he couldn’t help but laugh when Kuja gave him a slight pout. He really was as cute as a girl sometimes. Zidane couldn’t resist giving him a quick peck because of it. He just hoped that’d be enough to tide him over for the time being. He really didn’t feel like doing more at the moment. "There, better?"

"Well, it’ll do for now," Kuja said, but he seemed satisfied. He even snuggled up against Zidane with a contented sigh, their earlier dispute all but forgotten.

Zidane wrapped his arms around the taller man, relieved he was finally warmed back up and resting comfortably. But even as he held Kuja the younger man forced himself to focus on Dagger for a moment instead. He felt a little uneasy every time her face flashed through his mind. He did love her. He missed her. He hoped she’d forgive him for everything he’d screwed up: for worrying her by diving back into the Iifa Basin, for staying behind to nurse Kuja back to health. For kissing Kuja when he hadn’t even kissed her, when he hadn’t ever told her how much he needed her in his life. He wanted his old life back, but he’d gotten used to his life with Kuja too. He just didn’t know if he could reconcile the two…

And although he had warned Kuja not to fall in love with him, he wasn’t sure if the warning had come too late… or if Kuja had been his intended target in the first place.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

June 21, 2012