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 "Good Company" 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. 30: Good Company

* * *

Take good care of what you've got
My father said to me
As he puffed his pipe and baby B.
He dandled on his knee
Don't fool with fools who'll turn away
Keep all good company
Take care of those you call your own
And keep good company

- "Good Company," Queen

* * *

The rented rowboat docked near a little cottage, a weather beaten blue with white trim and floral curtains. There were a couple of chickens scratching at the gravel and a young cat lazing on the porch. A few herbs sprouted from a small garden bed on the side; the rear housed a shed that appeared to serve as storage and a stable. It was a very homey, private abode - one hundred percent not the sort of place that Baku could imagine Zidane living in. Zidane didn't do cute - he was practical. He was sociable.

But the location was ideal for hiding fugitives, with easy access to both water and land escape routes, yet hidden enough that it wasn't in plain view, even from the lake it sat on, due to the way the trees grew and the shoreline curved. And the very fact that the house looked like someplace Zidane wouldn't live in made it all the more attractive as a hideout.

There was a sign on the door in surprisingly elegant script that read: "Boat Rentals 10 to 3" and "Closed." Baku checked his pocket watch; it was half past ten.

Blank decided to knock on the door anyhow, but there was no response.

"I guess we wait, then?" Marcus asked before following Baku's lead and taking a seat on the porch steps. Blank joined them and idly teased the kitten with a grass stalk to pass the time.

The older man unfolded a well-used map and made some notes on it. No one brought it up while they waited, but considering the relatively limited size of the valley, they'd only put aside a day and a half for the search. Under normal circumstances that would've easily been enough, but since Zidane was likely living incognito, they couldn't exactly go around asking people if they knew him or not. If they couldn't find any sign of him by mid-afternoon or so they would have to head back to Treno empty-handed and rejoin the rest of the troupe to make sure their show would go on as planned.

That wouldn't mean they'd give up. If nothing else, Tantalus was known for being clever, stubborn and persistent. If this trip wasn't successful, surely the next one would be.

* * *

Zidane was normally pretty good about getting back to the house by the time boat rentals were scheduled to be available, but sometimes things in town took a little longer than expected. This time, it was a very special request that had made them late...

Clyde and Millie had announced at the last town meeting that they were engaged to be married. Zidane hadn't been able to stop smiling at the news. Saving a distressed damsel - or even a man, in Zidane's case - from a dragon did wonders in pushing relationships along, it seemed.

In light of the upcoming nuptials, Millie had asked Kuja to create a panel for her bridal train. It was apparently a Cleyran tradition, something that would normally be done by the bride's family or close friends, but Millie only had her sister by her side. In a moment of awkwardness Millie had even offered to pay for the work - after all, she and Molly were the ones who'd encouraged Kuja to make money off of it - but Zidane had suggested that it could be considered a wedding gift instead. And so now they were heading home with a bundle of tulle and a wide assortment of thread and fancy embellishments, with the promise of more to follow.

Kuja was silent as Choco trotted along; he was planning how he wanted to lay out the design for the panel. He wanted to reference the dragon encounter that had ended up bringing the couple together. He wasn't exactly confident that he could pull off something so elaborate and important, but he'd been humbled by the request. Millie could have asked any number of people in town to do this - and undoubtedly there would be others contributing - but she'd chosen him to do the largest panel in the center.

Zidane was quiet for once as well; he couldn't help but wonder what Kuja thought of marriage. Was that something Kuja had considered before? Would he say yes, if Zidane posed the question? Could two men even marry? Zidane was tempted to broach the subject, but given how his last engagement had gone, Kuja would probably take it the wrong way, as he often did. While their relationship seemed to be progressing smoothly enough, they'd fallen into something of a rhythm when it came to lovemaking, which Zidane wanted to break out of, because he didn't want it to become routine or stale. After their last big misunderstanding, where Kuja had mistaken Zidane's concern for sexual disinterest, the former mage had initiated once, a couple days after Zidane had brought it up... but hadn't refused anything at all, no matter what Zidane had asked for or tried.

Permanence and stability would be good for someone like Kuja. That's why Zidane had encouraged him to get a cat, why he'd agreed to adding a proper bedroom to the cottage come spring, when weather allowed it. But Zidane wasn't going to ask him for the "Yes" that really mattered if he couldn't say "No" to anything first.

As they neared the house, Zidane had to push aside worries about marriage and relationships. He frowned; there appeared to be a few people milling about on the porch. The townspeople didn't usually show up until later in the day, if they needed a boat, or they'd mention it to him in advance. So were these travelers then? That would be a rare sight in the tiny town...

Behind him, Zidane felt Kuja tense up. The blonde slowed Choco to a walk, then stopped, still a bit of a distance away from the house. He dropped his hand briefly to reassure himself that his weapons were at his side. "Stay mounted until I give you the all clear, okay?" he mumbled to Kuja as he dismounted.

Kuja grunted softly and stayed put, his hands clutching tightly at the reins.

But Zidane barely made it forward a dozen steps before he suddenly came to a stop... then, with a loud whoop, he ran forward as recognition set in. "Blank! Marcus!"

He collided with Blank and Marcus at the same time, the three of them tumbling, laughing, to the ground. Baku hung back, shaking his head at the enthusiastic reunion, then looked back up at the chocobo and passenger that hadn't budged from their position on the forest path.

To be fair, from Kuja's vantage point, it looked as if Zidane recognized the visitors and was tackling them to give him a chance to escape. Kuja hesitated, unsure if he was mistaken. Even if he did flee, where would he go? What about Silky, and the chickens? He couldn't leave the younger Genome behind either. So he nervously held his position and waited for a signal one way or another.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Zidane stood up and remembered to make a show of wiping his palms on his pants while his tail whirled up in a circular motion behind him. All clear.

Exhaling in relief, Kuja met Zidane halfway, then dismounted and walked the rest of the way to the house where the trio of men waited for them by the porch. Zidane handled introductions; Kuja shook each man's hand in turn. Blank appeared to be the youngest of the three, a slender man shorter than Zidane, with a patchwork of scarred skin and upswept red hair that reminded Kuja of an upside down broom. Marcus was older and about Zidane's height, with an underbite and a blocky build not unlike a bulldog's. And lastly there was the Baku, a hair taller than Kuja but much broader, with porcine features and a bristly beard and mustache.

They moved indoors from there, with Silky leaping up onto the porch railing and then onto Kuja's shoulder for a ride in as well.

Coats and cloaks got hung on hooks by the door, then Zidane invited his family to have a seat at the kitchen table before excusing himself and Kuja so they could unpack their morning purchases. Then, seeing as there weren't enough chairs for everyone, Zidane had Kuja sit as well before he began preparing some snacks and drinks.

Kuja fixed his eyes on the tabletop. He was keenly aware of all the gazes on him... he was used to being stared at, but it never got any more comfortable. Not that he could say anything about it, under the circumstances. He couldn't even paste on a smile and pretend everything was okay. This was Zidane's family; these people... their likes and dislikes... they mattered to Zidane.

They couldn't help but stare - Baku especially. He hadn't gotten a very good look at Kuja's face back then, but he'd seen enough that he could make the comparison. Kuja barely looked any older than before - Genomes apparently didn't age past the cusp of adulthood, or continued aging at a very slow rate. His hair was a lot longer now, but that pale face was nearly the same - not exactly "feminine" perhaps, but fine featured and elegant in a way that wasn't masculine either.

"I guess all those times Ruby browbeat you into doing her hair came in handy, eh?" Blank suddenly commented, noticing the way Kuja's hair was styled with fancy braids pulled back at the temples. He was pretty sure that was Zidane's necktie serving as the ribbon, too.

"I guess," Zidane said with a laugh as he put on some hot water for tea. He had never thought that learning to braid and style hair would be useful, but Kuja really did seem to enjoy having him do so. "So how's Ruby? And Cinna?"

"Oh, she's fine. Still in Alexandria doing her own gig. And we left Cinna in charge of the troupe, so everyone should be good to go once we get back," Blank answered.

Zidane nodded. He was tempted to ask about Garnet, but decided against it. "How are you all doing?"

"Same ol', same ol'. We're booked for a week in Treno," Marcus mentioned.

"Yeah? That's pretty awesome. Still running the same old 'show?'" Zidane asked with a wink. Tantalus was always skilled at helping themselves to "tips." Marcus just smiled, and Zidane answered with one of his own.

"Things are pretty quiet, actually. There's a fat bounty on your heads, but that's about it," Blank threw out casually, as if discussing the weather.

"Yeah, I know. Amarant told me."

"This isn't a bad hideout though," Blank continued. "Didn't even know there was a town here. It's not on any maps."

"I didn't know it was here either," Zidane admitted.

"This town is the stuff of legend. It was originally a den of thieves," Marcus said, recalling what Baku had told them. "Supposedly that's why it's so hidden away."

"Really?" Zidane thought about everyone he'd met in Nil, and couldn't think of anyone who came close to that description, other than himself. "If true, that would've been a long time ago. 'Cause this place is... well, 'normal' as it gets. Pretty quiet most of the time. And the townspeople are nice, friendly folk." He tried to think of what else to add, and shrugged. "It's just a real small town, nothing worth mapping I guess... right, Kuja?" he added, trying to draw his lover into the conversation.

"Hmm, maybe," replied Blank. He glanced at Baku, who'd been silently assessing Kuja the whole time, and, like Kuja, hadn't said a word past the initial greeting. "Boss...?"

Baku finally tore his attention away from Kuja and turned around in his seat to get a good look around the interior of the house. It wasn't hard, considering the cramped quarters. Although it was clean, the stained wood walls, floors and cabinets made the space look even tinier than it was. "You gave up yer queen for this, eh?" Baku asked.

Zidane felt something prickle at that. He wasn't sure if Baku was referring to their living conditions, Kuja, or both. He was suddenly very aware that their bed was in the corner of the room, only feet away; they'd made love there the previous evening. "I couldn't marry her, not when I was in love with someone else," he said, setting the tea kettle down on the stove and stepping closer to Kuja's seat.

An awkward silence descended on the room. The three visitors looked at Kuja, who had flushed a slight pink but otherwise kept his attention fixed on the table, then at Zidane standing behind him, then back down at Kuja.

Finally, Baku broke the stalemate. "And how long did it take ya to figure that out?" the Tantalus leader sighed. They'd all had to put up with Zidane moaning over how he couldn't live without Garnet, back when she'd first prepared to ascend the throne.

Zidane's eyes slid shut a moment. It was still painful to think about how close he'd come to losing Kuja. "Too long." He couldn't help but reach out to place a hand on Kuja's shoulder.

"Wait a sec. Is this why you asked me and Blank if we were together?" Marcus queried.

"Well, uhm... kinda." Zidane scratched his head. It was hard to explain. "I didn't think it was even possible, 'til then..."

"'I want to be with Dagger more than anything!'" Baku squeaked, mimicking what Zidane had said after he'd come back from his year stay on the Outer Continent. "That's what ya said, right? And jus' like that you change yer mind? Bah!"

Zidane just shook his head. There was no point in denying it: that was how he'd felt, once upon a time.

Baku looked back at Kuja and sighed again, heavily. He had to wonder how much of this was on Zidane, and how much of it was on Kuja. But even if Kuja had been leading the blonde on, it took two to tango, as the saying went. "If nothin' else, at least he has a pretty face."

Kuja suddenly lifted his head up and smiled, though as Zidane had learned, that wasn't necessarily a good thing. "Oh, thank you," he replied, a knee jerk reaction with no sincerity behind it. Zidane's free hand tightened into a ball and he sucked in a breath as he prepared to interject before Baku made things worse. It was bad enough that Garnet and the engagement had already been brought up. He didn't want Kuja questioning his own value when he was so much more than a pretty face.

Baku eyed Kuja's expression and snorted. "You're not a half bad actor!" Then he leaned in, almost close enough to brush against Kuja's hair. "Ya know, if ya hadn't run away back then, I'd have taken you in too."

The carefully crafted smile crumbled as quickly as it had appeared. Kuja pushed away from the table abruptly, bumping into Zidane, before standing up and heading out the front door, mumbling under his breath that he needed some fresh air.

Alarmed, Zidane stammered an apology to the room and followed Kuja out the door.

The silver-haired man hadn't gone very far. He was sitting on a log that served as a seat by the firepit, shoulders hunched. Zidane silently sat down next to him and began rubbing those tense shoulders, and waited.

Kuja finally looked up, staring out blankly at the lake in front of him, rather than look at Zidane. "I couldn't stay."

It didn't matter if he was referring to the past or the present, or both. "I know."

Kuja glanced at Zidane, then away again. He couldn't say it. He couldn't admit that it might've been nice to have friends or a family, to experience it rather than just reading about it in a book. But he was too old for that now... or maybe he always had been, given that he'd never had a childhood in the first place.

Zidane gave him a light squeeze. "You ever regret it?"

The what-ifs continued to tumble around in Kuja's mind. If he'd been more selfish he could've run away by himself, leaving behind the toddler Zidane in hopes that Garland would've been satisfied with retaining his prized Genome. While that wasn't a likely outcome - Kuja would've been easy enough for Garland to track down - there may have been a sliver of a chance. Or he could've simply done nothing and kept Zidane with him on Terra. That would've at least given him a companion; Garland wouldn't have had reason to strip him of his memories either. "... A little."

"Fair enough."

The former mage went silent again for a good minute. He'd put Zidane ahead of himself before; could he do it again? Maybe it still wasn't too late for the younger man. Surely his family would want to take him with them, if possible. Maybe they could plead to have Zidane's part of the bounty recalled, if Zidane returned with them alone.

But even though the townspeople were nice and friendly... even though the house was in good condition... even though there was no danger of freezing or starving to death... Kuja didn't want a life without Zidane again. Did Zidane feel the same? He'd just told his family that he'd broken off his engagement to be with the one he loved, but if his family objected, would he be able to break off from them too?

Zidane looked over as Kuja broke the silence with a heavy sigh. He could guess what the older man was thinking about though; he probably thought that Tantalus was here to reclaim their wayward child.

"I know it might not seem like it, but they're all good people. They're just a bit... outspoken. And worried about me, I suppose," Zidane said after a moment of thought.

Kuja nodded, though he unconsciously crinkled his forehead in concern. Of course they were good people. Of course they were worried. They were Zidane's family, after all.

"I'll make them understand - this is my life now. And I'm going to do what's right for us," Zidane asserted. "Both of us." He lifted his chin while guiding Kuja's down, to kiss him on the forehead. "There's no way I'd leave you, not after all we've been through together."

"But family is important," Kuja argued, though the way his voice pitched at the end, it nearly sounded like a question.

"Yes. As are you." Zidane smiled. "Besides, I flew the nest already. Baku's not gonna ask me to come back."

That didn't make sense to Kuja, but Zidane seemed so certain of it, he didn't question it. Why wouldn't they want him back?

Seeing the confusion flitting over Kuja's features, Zidane kissed him again, this time on the lips, before rising to his feet. He held his hand out to Kuja. "Shall we head back in? You don't have to talk if you don't want to, but I'd really like to spend a little more time with them before I see them off."

Kuja began reaching out, hesitated, then slowly placed his hand in Zidane's. If the younger Genome really was choosing him over his family, what else could he do but follow him back inside?

* * *

After watching Kuja dash out of the room with Zidane following in short order, Blank took it upon himself to get up and finish preparing the tea. He noticed Zidane had left some pastries on a plate, cut into individual portions; he took them to the table as well, then sat back down. "Guess he didn't like your compliments, Boss," he drawled as he took a bite of an apple pastry.

Baku waved it off. "Psh. We had ta make do with only havin' one girl to play the girl parts most of the time. His looks could've been a real moneymaker for the troupe. At least I only made the mistake of putting you in a dress once, Marcus."

Marcus smiled. He had hated that so much, Baku hadn't even considered it a second time. And he had a sneaking suspicion that despite his appearance, Kuja wouldn't have appreciated being pigeonholed like that either. "He's pretty, sure, but other than that, that guy's nothing like I thought he'd be. Figured he'd be rude or arrogant and downright scary, but he's more like a mouse."

Blank nodded in agreement. "Well the rumor was he lost his powers or something, right? So if that's true, what else can he do but hide?"

"Bro, you sound like you feel sorry for him."

Blank shrugged at his partner. Like the other kids Baku had picked up, he'd been orphaned. He couldn't remember anything from back then; he'd been barely more than a baby, found in the aftermath of a house fire with a mottling of burns. Despite the medical care he'd needed, Baku hadn't been deterred from taking him in. "I just know we're lucky that we had a home, a place to belong. Did he ever have that? Going by what we know about the Genomes, maybe he didn't feel he had any choice but to leave Zidane here."

Marcus grunted in agreement. Though he was a little more wary of Kuja and his intentions, he understood what Blank meant... He'd survived off trash and a bit of pickpocketing, living on the streets for longer than he'd been aware. Luck and hope had been foreign notions, until the day he tried to pick Baku's pocket. "So now what?" he wondered aloud.

"I guess we give that guy the benefit of the doubt... maybe try and get to know him a little more, I dunno. 'Cause I don't think Zidane's gonna change his mind, not this time," Blank replied. He'd kept an eye on their little brother's expression earlier as they sat around and talked. Although Zidane had been puttering around the kitchen and chatting away like nothing had changed, his eyes had sought out Kuja the whole time.

"Can't get ta know him if he ain't talkin'," Baku pointed out, just as the door swung open and the two Genomes stepped in, hand in hand. "Well look who's back."

Zidane gave his family an apologetic smile as he guided Kuja back over to the seat he'd abandoned earlier. Silky had snuck onto it in his absence, but Zidane gently shooed her away so that Kuja could sit back down. Noticing that their guests had already poured the tea and brought over the snacks, Zidane planted himself behind Kuja's chair, his hands coming to rest on the other Genome's shoulders as Silky leapt up to claim a seat on Kuja's lap.

"Give me some credit. Kuja's not just a pretty face. I wouldn't be with him if that's all there was to it," Zidane said.

Baku waved it off. "Now now, I didn't say it like that."

"You only implied it, Boss," Marcus pointed out. "But still, for you to take off like that, less than a week before the wedding... that's really something."

"I wish I'd handled it differently - but it was the right thing to do. I don't regret it," Zidane asserted.

Blank shrugged. Like Marcus, he still didn't get it, but Zidane's words reinforced what he'd said earlier, that the blonde was dead set on being with Kuja, for better or for worse. Speaking of whom... "That's a nice cat. I assume it's yours, Kuja?"

Zidane's eyebrow twitched upward. It was the first time any of their visitors had referred to Kuja by name. Even Amarant had only called him "you," though they'd spoken briefly.

Kuja glanced at Blank, surprised that he'd been addressed directly. "Yes." He paused, considered it, then added, "Her name is Silky."

"She's very pretty. And friendly."

Kuja nodded, liking the compliments, then, after another slight hesitation, asked, "Do you like cats?"

Blank smiled and gave an answering nod. He didn't like or dislike cats in particular, but getting Kuja to say more than one word to him felt like a real triumph. "It wouldn't be practical to have one in the troupe though... we travel too much."

Kuja frowned. It wasn't practical for him to have a pet either, but Zidane had insisted it'd be good for him. "Maybe she's an inconvenience. But even if we have to leave here, I can't just leave her behind."

"We won't," Zidane promised.

Blank watched them in silence. Despite what he'd said earlier, he'd known it had also been a possibility that Kuja had seen Zidane as a burden, the way his own family must've, but that no longer seemed likely. If Kuja was this upset over the thought of leaving a cat behind, how had he felt when he'd left Zidane with Baku?

He glanced over at Baku, afraid that the Tantalus leader would voice the obvious, but in a rare show of understanding - or perhaps he was distracted by his own thoughts - Baku didn't say a word.

Blank quirked a smile. Kuja had barely said two words, but Blank found that he rather liked him. He wasn't exactly a mouse, like Marcus had called him... he was quiet and nervous, but there was the sense that somewhere inside, lay a stronger core. More importantly, he seemed a good match for Zidane, who was a pretty self-sufficient and practical guy, but also impetuous; he needed an anchor to tether him during the worst of his impulses, one with enough slack to still allow him to fly. And this lifestyle, simple as it was, suited Zidane way better than the stuffy grandeur of a royal court.

"What about the chickens out front?" Marcus suddenly asked, his tone light and only half-serious. "Are they dinner? Or you gonna take them with you too, if it comes to it?"

"They sure look tasty, don't they?" Zidane replied, trying - and failing - to hide a smile. He and Kuja had been going back and forth on it for days. Lunch and Dinner had stuck as names; it was the only thing he'd managed to win on.

"No, they don't!" Kuja immediately protested, visions of Tantalus chowing down on a roast chicken dinner dancing in his head. "Zidane..."

Zidane smoothed down his lover's hair and kissed him atop his head. "Sorry, I was just teasing. It'll be fine; we'd take them too, or at least drop them off with someone in town, if push came to shove."

Marcus' eyebrows knit together. "Wait, really? You're not going to eat them?"

"Well... there'll be eggs at least?" Zidane shrugged. "Whatever makes Kuja happy."

Marcus shot an incredulous look at Zidane, then at Kuja. Was he hearing right? The guy who had destroyed a whole kingdom, a whole planet, couldn't bring himself to eat a couple of chickens, just because they were living in his yard? "I don't get you at all," he said to Kuja.

"They're our chickens..." Kuja explained, though even he was aware that that wasn't much of an explanation. It wasn't like he didn't eat meat. Zidane caught rabbits and fish; they bought ham and sometimes even processed chickens from the morning market. But it was different in this case. He'd felt the same hesitation when it came to the little bird he'd been treating back at the abandoned shack.

Marcus just shook his head and let the matter drop. They were only chickens to him, but to Kuja, they were pets, just like the cat. Even though Marcus had never had pets, like Blank, he could understand the desire to bond with someone or something. It wasn't exactly like a family, but there were similarities.

Baku had fallen silent again during Kuja's interaction with Blank and Marcus but the details hadn't escaped his attention. He could see that the two younger Tantalus members were starting to warm up to the former mage, and he wasn't exactly sure whether that was a good thing or not. He had no problem giving Kuja the benefit of the doubt; it wasn't like his own hands were squeaky clean. But he wasn't convinced that things could work out in the long run - reality wasn't always kind. What if Kuja got caught? What if he regained his powers - along with his ambitions - and decided to go back to his old ways? Plus Zidane had never expressed an interest in men before... did he really understand what that meant? The last thing he wanted was to see a heartbroken Zidane trying to beg his way back into Tantalus after another relationship fiasco.

"So ya think this is a serious relationship? Sounds to me like yer just playing house. And if things don't work out, what then? Yer gonna come cryin' back to me, that's what!" Baku said sternly. He had to take the hard line with Zidane. The young thief needed to understand, needed to show some responsibility. If Zidane could only whine and complain in response, he'd deserve a smack upside the head at the very least. And if worse came to worse, Baku had no qualms about reporting Kuja's whereabouts to the appropriate parties in exchange for protection for Zidane.

Zidane straightened up. He could feel Kuja shifting nervously under his hands. He gave him a quick, reassuring squeeze, but kept his hold loose enough so that Kuja knew he could leave if he felt too overwhelmed. "This isn't a game. I intend to be with Kuja for as long as he'll have me. The rest of his life, the rest of my life, whatever happens... that's how serious I am."

"And ya think that's love? Isn't this just more of you feelin' guilty 'cuz ya owe him?"

That, at least, was something Zidane felt confident in addressing. "Guilt wouldn't explain my desire for him."

Kuja's face colored as he sank down in his seat, as if he was trying to vanish. Even without looking up to confirm he knew everyone's eyes were on him again.

Zidane quirked a smile. He probably could've expressed that another way. "I'm attracted to him" could've sufficed. But that wasn't quite the same, was it? He wanted to hold Kuja, to love him, to feel his weight pressing against his side at night and wake up with his arms around him each morning. He longed to dance with him at Millie and Clyde's wedding, at the next town festival... and at many more events, for years to come.

Baku rolled his eyes at Zidane's lovestruck grin, though the motion was hidden behind his goggles, before he turned his attention back to the former mage sinking in his seat. "And you... what's with that reaction? Ya tellin' me you never been with anyone else before?"

"Of course I have!" Kuja blurted out defensively before he could stop himself. He'd been miffed that his ability to seduce and manipulate people would be in question. But now he realized, he shouldn't have taken the bait... That wasn't exactly something to brag about, to Zidane's "father" of all people.

Baku pressed on. "So why Zidane? Why not someone else? Or is this 'cuz ya don't have anywhere else ta go?"

"That's not it..." Kuja protested, though he couldn't deny there was some truth in that. He didn't have anywhere else to go, but that wasn't why he stayed, why he'd jumped in front of a dragon. He'd done that because... "He's not someone I can replace." He tightened his lips, unable to... no, not wanting to - explain it further. Things like Zidane stroking his hair and kissing him on the forehead, even all the stupid questions like what Kuja's favorite color was and how he wanted his eggs, that was between the two of them. Even if Baku was Zidane's family, it wasn't for him to know. Nor did Baku need to know of Kuja's foolish fantasy, that it was Zidane who made him wonder if a future was a possibility, even though he'd long since given up on hope.

"Oh? But you had no problem leavin' him before."

Kuja's breath hitched slightly. "I didn't want him to become like me." His gaze slid down, then sideways. "I'd like to think, I did the right thing."

Baku's eyes widened slightly as he watched Kuja's expression soften, the saddest, sweetest smile gracing his lips. It made him look even younger than when the older man had first gotten a glimpse of him, all those years ago.

"Gods, are you..." Baku began, before he managed to catch himself. He had almost asked Kuja if he really was in love with Zidane, as impossible as that seemed, but he didn't need to hear it in words when Kuja had already given him the answer.

With a long, drawn out exhaled sigh, Baku leaned back in his chair to stare up at the ceiling. He was still pretty sure that this wouldn't work out in the long run. But all relationships had an element of chance to them. And there was no guarantee things would be any better for them if they were apart. So if their feelings were mutual, then, who was he to stand in the way?

Kuja started as Baku began guffawing loudly. It was just as startling when the burly man rocked forward in his seat to plant his large hand on top of Kuja's head and begin ruffling his hair.

"Ahh, I really wish I'd picked you up back then..." Baku said when he finally withdrew, satisfied, as a scowling Kuja tried to finger comb his hair back into some semblance of style. At least he was no longer wallowing in whatever funk all the questioning had put him in.

Zidane couldn't help but chuckle. Kuja sure didn't look happy, but since Baku had treated Kuja like he was just one of the kids in Tantalus, that meant he approved of him. "Here, I'll fix it for you real quick," he told Kuja, gesturing at the bathroom. He'd take the opportunity to explain to Kuja that things seemed to be smoothed over with Baku now too.

They emerged a couple of minutes later, with Kuja's hair now braided just on one side with the ribbon tied slightly below the ear. Blank nodded in approval. "Now that Kuja looks perfect again, is there some place we can grab lunch before we go? The snack earlier was great, but we've had a long day already."

Zidane frowned. "You have to leave so soon?"

"Well you know how it is. The show must go on, in Treno. We only had a little time to spare to look for you," Marcus explained, pushing away from the table and standing up. "We need to get back to the rendezvous spot this afternoon, and it's on the other side of the valley."

Zidane nodded, then tried to remember if anyone in town had reserved a boat for use later in the day. He was pretty sure his schedule was free and clear. "I guess we can have lunch at the tavern in town then. It's only about a 20 minute walk away."

"Sure, sounds good," Blank said as he stood up as well, with Baku following suit at his own pace.

"Lead the way!" Baku barked as he pointed at the door.

Kuja was the first one out, followed by the trio of visitors. Zidane took up the rear so he could lock up the house, then he ran to catch up with Kuja and grab hold of his hand. He felt wonderfully giddy, hearing three sets of footsteps falling in pace behind him, bantering back when a joke was thrown his way, swinging his hand with Kuja's as they walked side by side. Though he hadn't needed his family's approval to have a relationship with Kuja, he hadn't realized how much he'd wanted it, even though he was no longer a kid and no longer under Baku's roof. It just felt good knowing they were okay with it.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

February 8, 2019