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 "A Dozen Red Roses for My Darling" 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. 31: A Dozen Red Roses for My Darling

* * *

Gilgamesh hadn’t really been looking to cash in on a bounty. He’d been hunting for weapons to add to his collection. Armor had never held the same appeal. But when he spotted a sizeable shipment of chest armor and armlets being unloaded in a store, crafted from Grand Dragon bone and scale, it had been unusual enough to catch his interest.

Grand Dragons weren’t commonly hunted since they were tough to bring down without a group. Too young a dragon and the scales and hide were too soft, and while the scales, skin and bones of an old dragon made ideal crafting material, their claws and teeth and venom were also much more developed and dangerous.

Upon closer inspection he noticed this particular shipment had come from Gorge Valley, which ran along the southern edge of the continent. But how had common folk from a nondescript mining and logging area gotten a hold of the raw materials? Even if they’d been lucky enough to come across a recently deceased dragon, it would take more than an ordinary axe or saw to effectively break through the scales. So they had to have some skilled craftsmen around –or possibly a group of hunters powerful enough to take down dragons. And surely powerful warriors had access to powerful weapons…

Well, it wasn’t like he had any particular place to be. Maybe it would be worth his while to make his way south again, taking the scenic route and detouring through the villages dotting the valley on the way to Treno. He had the feeling that there was something interesting to be found…

* * *

It was cutting it closer than Zidane would’ve liked, but he was grateful that the woodworker’s guild had scheduled one final delivery just before the end of the year. Delivery days were his only chance to get out of Nil and while Gorge was only marginally larger, it had a more varied selection of goods thanks to a thriving import and export market.

Kuja’s birthday was just around the corner. Or… something like that. Zidane hoped his lover didn’t mind being assigned a birth date since he didn’t actually have one; by his own admission he’d been "adding on a year in January." So Zidane had settled on January 1st: it made sense with what Kuja had been doing, and frankly Zidane couldn’t wait to celebrate it, so why not do it as soon as possible? If Kuja really didn’t like it maybe they could pick another date together; that would be fine as well, because then it’d be a joint decision.

After helping the woodworkers unload the barge, Zidane split off from the group and headed down the main street of town. He’d spotted a couple of shops before that had caught his interest. One was just a general goods store, slightly larger than the one the Cleyrans ran but just as cluttered with assorted items from all over the continent. The other was a small shop that sold some locally produced goods. Zidane headed towards the latter first, hoping to find something interesting and unique.

Most of the items in the store were utilitarian, which was only to be expected. Though Kuja was a surprisingly practical guy, that wasn’t quite the sort of thing Zidane was looking for. But in a back corner Zidane spotted some bins filled with assorted glass beads and droplets in various sizes. Some of them nearly rivaled gemstones in brilliance and color, and each one was slightly different from the rest. Zidane considered the possibility of turning a unique find some into jewelry, then began digging through the bins.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town – which was a matter of yards, given the town’s size – a discouraged Gilgamesh was giving serious thought to wrapping up his little side trip. Following the trail of the armor, he’d come to Gorge only to discover that the source of the dragon scales had been an even tinier neighboring town and that there was, in fact, no party of dragon hunters with fine weapons. Apparently the old dragon had been a nuisance and somehow the locals had wounded it with traps before figuring out a way to dispatch it.

There probably was no point in browsing the local general store either if the weapons and armor shop hadn’t carried anything of interest, but as was his habit, Gilgamesh headed in that direction; since he was already in town he ought to maximize his trip and have a look around. Maybe they’d have some Tetra Card Master cards that he didn’t have, or something like that.

A minute later Gilgamesh was out of the shop and kicking a pebble down the street. He was sure now, this was a wasted trip. But just as he was about to start heading out of town, something in a small side shop caught his eye.

A tail? It was hardly the most unusual thing he’d seen; he himself had an extra pair of arms. But this particular tail seemed both unique and familiar to him: golden blonde, carried upright and swiveling about like a monkey’s tail behind its crouching owner.

So it was a Genome, then. They were still a rare sight in the Mist Continent. Gilgamesh had met a pair of them on the outskirts of Alexandria and a trio in Treno, wandering aimlessly about like easy marks. He wondered if this one was as clueless as the others.

Then the Genome suddenly straightened up and turned his head, and Gilgamesh slid behind a post just in time to get out of line of sight. There was something about this Genome that was different from the others. For one, he didn’t seem to be out and about with a companion. He also seemed a lot more aware of his surroundings; he’d sensed that Gilgamesh was staring in his direction.

Isn’t that… the guy in the wanted posters? Gilgamesh thought as the Genome shook his head, then knelt back down and began examining beads again. He’d only caught a glimpse of the blonde’s face beneath his hood, but he was pretty sure, it was him – Zidane Tribal. He’d had dealings with the guy a couple times before, over rounds of Tetra Card Master. Gilgamesh didn’t forget the faces of those he’d lost to. Now, that seemed a fortunate thing to recall.

Thrilled at finding a prize worth far more than any run-of-the-mill weapon from a random shop, Gilgamesh quickly headed over to the town’s tavern, taking a table by the window that offered a good view of the town center. He wasn’t sure if Zidane was a resident of the town, just passing through, or what. That was information he’d need, if he hoped to collect the reward.

While Gilgamesh took his time picking at a plate of food, both to blend in and to pass the time, a grinning Zidane finally emerged from the shop he’d been at, then headed over to the general store. The blonde paused to admire something in the store’s window, then disappeared inside.

Gilgamesh congratulated himself for finding such a perfect vantage point… from his seat he had a clear view into the shop itself. He could see Zidane pointing at a cape that was on display and checking out items in a jewelry case. He could even see Zidane counting out some coins for his purchases. Zidane exited the shop with a package tucked under his arm before heading off in the direction of the town’s docks.

Completely unaware of the fact that he’d been spotted, Zidane smiled as he reached into his pocket and fingered a little satin bag within. He must’ve spent a good half-hour looking at beads, trying to find the perfect one. The one that finally caught his eye was a clear droplet with a ribbon of crimson flecked with a tiny amount of gold and silver, swirling through the center like a flame frozen in time. It reminded him instantly of the moment he’d opened his eyes to see Kuja Tranced before him, standing as a wall between him and a dragon.

Maybe it was too simple a gift, just a glass bead on a delicate silver chain, but Zidane didn’t ever remember seeing Kuja wear jewelry, instead preferring ornamentation on his clothing. A necklace hopefully wasn’t too much of a stretch. Even if Kuja didn’t wear it regularly, as long as he reached for it every once in a while, it was good enough.

Zidane’s feet carried him back to the docks, just as some of the woodworkers were beginning to return to the barge as well. Zidane pushed aside his concerns about his lover’s gift and rolled up his sleeves and got back to work, helping to load up emptied delivery crates along with others that were now filled with various crafting materials and tools, or just miscellaneous items that they’d bartered for. Bit by bit, the space that had been cleared out on arrival started to fill back up. By the time they left Gorge a couple of hours later, the barge was almost as fully loaded as when it had arrived.

* * *

Kuja was thankful that Millie’s wedding was scheduled for early summer – even though he was working on the train for her dress whenever he had time, he figured he’d need a few months to finish it, given how complicated the design was. To commemorate what had brought the couple together, he wanted to depict Clyde protecting Millie from a dragon’s attack, all in golden threads and beads and ribbon.

He paused after finishing a line of decorative stitches to stretch a little, glancing out the window for any sign of Zidane’s return. The younger man had gone to help the woodworkers deliver some goods for finishing in the next town. Marquetry boxes needed locking clasps, cabinet doors and carved mirror frames needed glass insets, small vanity items needed to be decorated. Then everything got shipped out from there, sold all over Gaia as "Gorge’s Fine Goods."

Kuja wondered if there was a market for his embroidery outside of their town, but given that it wasn’t safe for him to leave, that was probably a moot point. At least money was no longer much of a concern… the town had given them nearly a quarter of the profits from the sale of materials harvested from the dragon. That sum would help support them for quite a while.

After gently nudging Silky off his thigh, the former mage put aside his work and got up to add more wood to the stove. Cold weather had never agreed with him – magic had been a perfect counter to it, but he had to admit an efficient stove wasn’t a bad substitute when it came to warding off the chill.

He sat back down and resumed staring out the window. It was almost impossible to believe that one year ago, he’d been trapped in an old house that was falling apart, in danger of freezing to death with barely enough food or firewood to sustain himself. He’d spent countless hours staring at the blank white wilderness, searching in vain for any sign of Zidane’s return. He’d been sure his fate was to die alone and forgotten. And now… he was comfortably warm in a cozy little house. He had a pet cat and plenty to eat and customers who paid him for honest work. And even though he still found himself looking out the window as he waited for Zidane, he no longer doubted that the younger man would come back. Because even though Zidane had broken his promise to him… even though Kuja had thought he could never trust him again… things had changed. Zidane had chosen him over his fiancée, over his friends… He’d proclaimed to his family that he intended to be with Kuja for the rest of his life. No one had ever done anything like that for him before.

As if rewarding him for his faith, there was some movement outside; Kuja brushed aside the curtains enough to see some of the woodworkers leaving the docks. They were all people he knew, but Kuja was accustomed to being cautious, so he stayed put and waited for Zidane to finish up outside.

The thief was whistling happily when he finally strolled through the door. He was in a very good mood – not only did he have Kuja’s birthday gift in the inner pocket of his vest, but the day’s work had paid well, enough to help pay for a very nice velvet cloak for Kuja, which he immediately delivered with a flourish.

"What’s this?" Kuja asked as Zidane draped the cloak over his shoulders.

"I know it’s been getting pretty chilly in the mornings, and the cloak you’ve been using wasn’t cutting it anymore," Zidane replied. "I saw this in a store window and figured you’d like it."

Kuja’s mouth opened in surprise, but any protest he might’ve had died unspoken on his tongue. Zidane looked so pleased with himself; Kuja didn’t want to upset him by implying that he didn’t appreciate being given something nice. It wasn’t like he hadn’t received presents before – it was a common tactic to curry one’s favor. But Zidane wasn’t like everyone else… he’d simply noticed that Kuja had been a little cold and decided to do something about it.

"It must’ve been expensive," Kuja ended up saying instead as he fingered the plush blue-violet fabric. He knew quality materials when he saw them.

Zidane waved it off. "If it’s for you it’s fine. Just a ‘thank you’ would suffice..."

"Thank you," Kuja replied, sinking into the soft fabric. It really was warmer than the one he had.

"… And maybe a kiss," the blonde added with a grin, figuring that was a suitable reward.

Kuja answered with a small smile of his own, then obliged with a kiss on the cheek, then another on the lips. It certainly wasn’t a bad price to pay, and Zidane rewarded him with a hug as well on top of everything.

"So warm," Kuja murmured. Whether it was because of the cloak or the hug, he wasn't sure.

Zidane chuckled in his ear. "Glad you like it!"

Kuja shivered slightly, and was left wondering why. He certainly wasn’t cold anymore, but every time Zidane did something unexpected like this, he felt a weird tingle shoot through him. His happiness… made Zidane happy. And the reverse was true, too. Kuja still didn’t get it – it was simply too foreign to him – but maybe that was what made Zidane… special.

* * *

Steiner sighed as he headed down to the castle’s main gate. Despite the big reward that had been offered for information leading to Zidane and Kuja’s capture – or because of it – they’d unfortunately gotten nothing but a bunch of false leads in the past seven months. It was starting to look like the two Genomes were going to get away scot-free.

It didn’t help that all the Genomes except Kuja tended to look similar. He supposed it was understandable that a random male Genome could be mistaken for the one-time Prince of Alexandria. But even though they’d revised the posters, it was difficult describing and illustrating the difference between Zidane and his brethren.

So Steiner really had no illusion that this next claimant had any valid information. Still, it was his job to check out each lead, a task he held pride in as Beatrix no longer had the time or the interest in continuing what she considered a fruitless pursuit.

The first thing he noticed when he arrived at the guard’s post was that the figure waiting for him looked oddly familiar. It wasn’t like he’d ever met anyone else before with four arms…

"You… you’re Garganesh! I should’ve known better than to think there’d be an actual lead," Steiner growled as he walked into the room.

"It’s Gilgamesh," Gilgamesh clarified. "And my info is the real deal… There’s a reward, after all."

"As if I could trust you, you scoundrel!" Steiner exclaimed. The man was a thief, a con artist, a gambler… "’Thick as thieves,’ they say. As if you’d turn in another of your ilk."

"That Zidane fella is no brother of mine."

Steiner snorted. Somehow he wasn’t all that surprised to learn that a thief would sell out another thief without a thought. Anything for money. "How can you be sure it was him anyhow, and not some random Genome? They all look similar enough to be siblings."

"But I remembered him, enough to know it was him for sure," Gilgamesh insisted. He hesitated, then added, "He was out shopping. Bought some nice things, jewelry and a cloak. Seemed to be doing pretty well for himself."

Steiner grit his teeth, but paused to consider the information Gilgamesh was baiting him with. "And… there wasn’t anyone else with him?"

"No one with silver hair," Gilgamesh replied with a sliver of a smile.

"So where was he??" Steiner demanded, taking a half step closer, his armor clanking with the movement.

Gilgamesh licked his lips, unable to completely hide his nervousness – it had been a risk coming here, but the reward had been too big to pass up. "Hey now… you pay, I talk, right?"

Steiner grunted. "Only if your information pans out."

"Well… ah…." Gilgamesh frowned. He knew his lead was solid - well, as solid as it could be, given that he didn’t have Zidane’s exact location. But if he gave up that information without some coin going the other way, what guarantee did he have that this other man wouldn’t take the reward for himself?

"As Captain of the Knights of Pluto and as a man of honor, you have my word: if you provide information leading to the capture of the fugitives Zidane and Kuja, the kingdom of Alexandria will pay the promised reward," Steiner said, figuring correctly that a con man wasn’t going to trust someone to not con him in return.

Gilgamesh looked around the room. There were a pair of knights standing at attention at the entrance, but neither had said a thing since asking him to wait for an audience with Sir Steiner. Would they be good enough – or willing enough - as witnesses, if Steiner didn’t stay true to his word? "Erm… can I get that in writing?"

Steiner sighed heavily. "Will a letter stating the same, signed by myself and General Beatrix, suffice?"

Gilgamesh considered it. He almost wanted to demand the queen’s signature as well, though the general of Alexandria was certainly the next best thing. He knew of the general’s reputation, as did everyone else on the continent - she was not a woman to be trifled with. Supposedly she’d single-handedly killed one hundred opponents in a single battle! And then it occurred to him that he’d perhaps overplayed his hand… now that he’d convinced Steiner that he had a lead, there was no way the fearsome General Beatrix would let him walk away without shaking every last bit of the information out of him, one way or another.

The four-armed man swallowed hard, then extended one hand. "It’s a deal then."

Steiner pushed aside his distaste for hooligans and accepted the handshake. He still wasn’t sure just how good the promised information was, but for the sake of bringing two fugitives to justice, he was willing to make a deal with the devil himself.

* * *

On the first morning of the new year, Zidane couldn’t help but wake up early in anticipation of Kuja’s birthday. Normally he’d get up and prepare breakfast, but on a special day like this, he was going to change it up and take Kuja out, which meant he could give in to his desire to stay in bed and watch Kuja as he slept.

Despite the fact that Zidane thought he did a pretty good job keeping the cottage warm and toasty through the night, Kuja was burrowed into the nest of blankets - just his upper face and the bridge of his nose was visible; everything else was buried under the sheets. It was ridiculously cute, though Kuja would hiss at him if he ever said so. Zidane was tempted to peel back an inch or two, but then he thought of something far better and dove under the covers instead.

Kuja’s body woke well before his mind did. One minute he was dreaming of nothing in particular, the next, his eyes were snapping open in confusion even as his body arced and twisted on its own. It took him several seconds to register what was happening, and seemingly just as long to make his arm move to lift up the blanket.

Zidane’s lips detached from Kuja’s cock with a pop. "Good morning!" Zidane chirped, smiling brightly, before he resumed sucking.

Kuja’s brow wrinkled. He still couldn’t figure out if he was dreaming or not. But, it felt too real… and he couldn’t think of a reason to question what Zidane was doing. It wasn’t like sex in the morning was something unusual for them, but Zidane never woke him up just to ask for it. The silver-haired man grunted, then let the sheets drift back down.

It wasn’t the worst way to start the morning, Kuja decided as he came with a soft gasp. He waited for Zidane to get on top of him and continue what he’d started, then frowned slightly when the younger Genome emerged to lie down by his side instead.

Zidane quickly wiped off his lips with the back of his hand, then grinned. "Happy birthday!"

"Ehh?" Kuja mumbled, even as his brain woke up enough to point out that it was the first day of January. Did that mean Zidane considered this his "birthday?"

"I promised I’d make sure to celebrate your birthday this year, remember?" Zidane couldn’t resist reaching out to lightly cup Kuja’s face.

"Birthday?" Kuja murmured, leaning into the touch, his eyes sliding shut. If the blonde had said something like that, the older man couldn’t recall. But the words warmed him, just as Zidane’s gentle touch did. As nice as it had been to wake up awash in sexual pleasure, he almost craved this type of contact more.

Seeing Kuja’s contented expression, Zidane wanted to kiss him, but considering what he’d been doing with his mouth just a minute ago, he figured it was best to refrain. Instead, he began cheerfully ticking off all the things he’d had planned for the day. "I thought we’d have breakfast in town and maybe some lunch too. And I know it’s chilly, but I figured we could go out on the lake for a little bit – I’d be doing all the rowing of course…" He stopped himself as he realized it was better if he didn’t reveal every detail. "There’s a few other surprises along the way. And of course, if there’s anything else you want to do, just say so! It’s your day."

Kuja didn’t say anything. He was leaning pretty heavily against Zidane’s palm, his breathing evening out.

"Oh geez…" Zidane murmured softly, though he was more amused than anything. Although he’d told Kuja to do whatever he wanted for his birthday, he hadn’t anticipated that going back to sleep was what Kuja wanted…

Kuja finally woke up on his own a little while later, feeling refreshed. He was surprised to not see breakfast on the table but before he had the chance to ask, some of what Zidane had said earlier filtered in to his consciousness, and he found himself asking, "We’re eating in town?"

"Yup! But before that… I have something for you." Zidane pulled an item out of his pocket, reached out for Kuja’s hand, and pressed a small satin bag into it. "Happy birthday!"

The necklace tumbled onto Kuja’s palm. It was pretty, but the former mage was a little baffled as to why Zidane gave it to him. He rarely wore jewelry, for one, and he rarely wore anything red.

His confusion must’ve been obvious, because Zidane suddenly said, "I guess I was being a little self indulgent. The color and pattern in the glass reminded me of your Trance."

"Oh…" Kuja had never thought of that as something Zidane would want to celebrate. Even though Trance had given him the speed and strength to throw himself between the younger man and a dragon, it had also once augmented his power enough to destroy their home world.

"If you don’t like it, I’ll get you something else, whatever you want…" Zidane quickly replied, but Kuja interrupted him.

"It’s not that. I’m just surprised… that you’d want a reminder of my Trance," Kuja observed as he held up the pendant so it caught a little of the morning light.

"Yeah. Absolutely."

"Because of the incident with the dragon?"

Zidane quirked a smile. "Sort of. More like, because of what it made me realize."

Kuja’s head tilted slightly in thought. Zidane had said that Trance proved Garland was wrong, that Kuja could feel complex emotions… emotions like love. It still seemed too improbable to believe, but he couldn’t deny that it had landed him in Zidane’s embrace.

"Shall I put it on?" Zidane offered. He still wasn’t sure if he’d chosen poorly, but maybe Kuja would change his mind if he tried it on.

Kuja nodded. Zidane took the necklace back, then swept long silver hair aside to affix the clasp. Kuja headed over to the armoire to admire himself in the narrow mirror there; Zidane trailed behind him, smiling at how the glass bead seemed to glow against Kuja’s pale skin.

"It’s pretty," Kuja said, looking down, as he traced over the pendant with his fingers; each shift of light or movement made the red swirl come alive, like a flickering flame. The slight weight of it on his chest was comforting too. He suddenly realized that it didn’t matter that this wasn’t something he’d have bought for himself - Zidane had chosen it with him in mind. "Thank you," he added, remembering their conversation from before, when Zidane had gifted him the velvet cape.

Zidane’s smile was bright as the sun. "You’re welcome."

Kuja returned the smile, then went and got ready for the day. Just before heading out he took one last look at the mirror, then tucked the pendant into his shirt. Part of him wanted to keep it out, showing it off as proof of Zidane’s feelings for him. But a bigger part of him wanted to keep it just between the two of them, at least for the day.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

June 28, 2019