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 "Action This Day" 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. 32: Action This Day

* * *

This town honey is a dead town
Living in this town honey is a let down
Coming to this town honey is a show down
But there's a heart beat pulse
That keeps on pumping some sunshine ray
Through a crack in the shutter
Or a sight of a light at the end of a tunnel
Still there's a feeling this world is using me

- "Action This Day," Queen

* * *

Beatrix had accepted Steiner’s latest report with her customary neutral expression, though she'd cursed inwardly just as she had each time she'd received a tip on Zidane or Kuja’s location. As Alexandria’s general, she’d meant it when she’d told Zidane that she would not stay her hand should they meet again, yet as she’d once been an ally, she’d held on to the hope that it would never come to that.

The latest piece of information was interesting, to say the least - a sighting from a man who claimed to have known Zidane, yet he didn’t have a precise location. To Beatrix that sounded fishy but Steiner disagreed; he thought the informant was legitimate enough to have written up a contract guaranteeing payment of the reward money should the information provided lead to Zidane or Kuja’s capture. Apparently the informant had been as untrusting of them as Beatrix was of him.

But a tip was a tip, and Beatrix had a job to do. Now she, Steiner, and a select troop of soldiers were on their way to the Gorge Valley, an area near the southern edge of the continent. The informant had reported seeing Zidane in the town of Gorge, but the blonde had apparently been a visitor there, not a resident. Given the size and location of the town, it stood to reason that he was likely living in a neighboring village. The plan was to scour every town in the region for any sign of either Genome. Whether it’d be better or not for it to be a waste of time remained to be seen.

* * *

Howard yawned as he worked on sweeping off the inn’s porch, now that most of the townspeople had come and gone from their customary morning news and gossip exchange on the porch. Life in their small town seemed to always fall into the same old routine; their inn didn't get many visitors and most of those were "regulars" like Smyt's doting old auntie or the seasonal fishermen who passed through from the southern shore. Sometimes he wished something crazy would happen, just to break the monotony… nothing too crazy, though. Like it had been interesting to have Zidane and Kuja show up in town, but he certainly could do without another dragon rampaging around just yards away from the inn.

Just as Howard began on the steps, he heard the footfall of multiple pairs of boots. He glanced up, wondering who could be passing by, but he certainly wasn't expecting to see an entire troop of soldiers marching down the town's dusty main road. He felt a sudden chill run up his spine; they weren’t dragons, but they could be bad news all the same.

Howard ditched the broom on the porch and ran inside, pulling the door closed behind him. "Uh, Dad... there's a lot of soldiers out here!" he yelled.

The teen wasn't the only one startled by the appearance of Alexandrian forces. Someone in the bakery mentioned it to Sara, who immediately darted out the back door of the shop to find Arnett. Clyde stared out warily from the entrance of the general store, while others hustled into the town hall as if seeking cover.

Zidane and Kuja were both in the hall as news spread. Zidane had set up a table to sell some fish he’d caught, while Kuja had disappeared through the side door to do some straightening up in the library. But as soon as the concerned murmurs reached his ears, Zidane abandoned his booth and rushed to the library, trying to remember where the back door of the building was located and hoping that it would prove to be unguarded. He could only hope against hope that he'd heard wrong, that maybe those weren't really Alexandrian soldiers, that they weren't looking around for someone or something. But he wasn't willing to chance it either.

"Kuja, we have to go!" the blonde exclaimed as soon as he got to the library. The older man looked up, books still in his hand. He looked confused at first but then comprehension dawned in his eyes. He gave a grim nod. Zidane winced; he hated that he was having to intrude on Kuja's private sanctuary with such desperate news. He’d try to make it up to him later, if they made it out safely…

"Do you remember where the back exit was?" Zidane asked as they slipped out of the library.

"I think it's by the school rooms?"

Zidane nodded and headed back up the hallway to have a look. Sure enough, there was a door tucked between the two classrooms, forgotten behind some boxes. Zidane quickly cleared a path, frowning all the while. Unfortunately the door was solid wood, with no windows in sight, so there was no way of knowing what - or who - could be on the other side.

"Get ready to run," Zidane warned as he put one hand on the knob while the other drew a dagger and held it ready. He waited for Kuja's answering grunt, then took a breath and threw it open.

For a moment Zidane felt relief... the door opened up to an alley. There was no one in sight. He drew his off-hand weapon then motioned to Kuja, who slid in behind him as they crept towards the back of the building.

The sun seemed so bright in the crisp blue sky. Improbable as it seemed, perhaps they'd survive this. But the young thief's optimism only lasted as long as it took them to round the turn and walk straight into three Alexandrian soldiers, one of whom immediately cried out an alarm.

Zidane tsked as he immediately dropped into battle stance, as the soldiers drew their swords in response. His tail unconsciously curved itself around Kuja, as if it could somehow provide an extra layer of protection. Zidane didn't want to fight – these soldiers had once been his subjects - but to protect Kuja, he'd do anything.

After quickly assessing the situation, the younger Genome rushed the soldier closest to him, trying to break through. He was outnumbered, but that had never deterred him. His daggers clashed with her blade as he darted in for the attack, seeking an opening. His first swing was parried; so was the second. But the third was swift and powerful enough to force his opponent's sword aside, allowing him to kick it out of her hand. He swung his off-hand around and used the pommel to deliver a knock out blow, then leapt over his fallen foe to take on the other two soldiers as they began circling around, intent on coming at him from both sides.

The pair struck at nearly the same time, an effective move against most opponents, but Zidane was able to block the simultaneous blows, thanks to his twin weapons. He spun quickly, whipping out his tail to trip up the attacker on his right so that he could focus down the one on his left, redirecting her strike away with a dagger. A punch and then a well-placed kick in the midsection floored soldier number two just as soldier number three regained her feet. But before she could slash her sword across Zidane’s unprotected back, there was a loud crack, and Zidane whirled to see that Kuja had broken a broomstick over the helmet of their pursuer - somehow he’d snuck off during the fracas and armed himself with the first thing he’d found. The blonde made a mental note to get Kuja a proper staff - if they made it out of this mess. The broomstick hadn’t been enough to completely knock her out, but he’d managed to stun her, so Zidane followed up with a quick leg sweep, knocking her back down before reaching out for Kuja’s hand to pull him along before she had the chance to regain her wits.

But they only made it a short distance before they realized reinforcements were already closing in around them, pinching in from both sides of the street. Zidane looked back down the alley and saw that that route was blocked off as well…

"That's as far as you'll go," a confident, familiar voice interceded.

Zidane cursed under his breath as the soldiers parted to make way for their general. "Didn't plan on ever crossing paths again," he grumbled. The slim possibility of escape had all but vanished now.

"Unfortunate for you," Beatrix agreed.

The clanking and creaking of well-used armor drew Zidane's attention away from Beatrix for a moment. He glanced back down the alley once again and sighed, finally sheathing his daggers now that all avenues of escape were cut off. "Great, Steiner's here too... How's it going, Rusty?"

The captain grimaced. "Did you really think you'd get away with this?" He looked past Zidane, to the former mage standing silently in his shadow. "You… you WILL pay for your crimes!"

Zidane hesitated, considering all possible courses of action, then gave up his weapons and allowed the soldiers to shackle his wrists without another word. Beatrix also made sure they confiscated a few additional items, like the lock picks in Zidane’s belt pouch – Zidane of course didn’t volunteer that he had a second set hidden in his boots. Kuja got the same treatment, though Steiner took it upon himself to secure the cuffs. But when he put his hand on Kuja’s shoulder and pushed him forward to get him moving, Zidane voiced his protest. "Don’t touch him!"

"Or else what?" Steiner argued.

Zidane got right up in the taller captain’s face. "…Or else maybe I won’t be so cooperative," he snapped back, his tail sticking straight up like an exclamation point.

Steiner rolled his eyes, but Beatrix stepped in before things could escalate further. "Let’s switch; I’ll take Kuja, you take Zidane," she decided, swapping chain leads with Steiner. She met Zidane’s glare and held it until the rage dissipated from the younger Genome’s eyes, then lightly rested her hand on Kuja’s shoulder, waiting to see if he’d start moving on his own at her request.

Kuja continued balking, though. He suddenly turned to Zidane and said, "Wait, Zidane… the cat…"

Zidane stared blankly at him a moment, then frowned and tried to think of what he could possibly say, given the circumstances. "Well, Sara knows she’s there. I’m sure she’ll go get her."

Beatrix’s eyebrow lifted. "Cat?"

"And Choco. And the chickens?!" Kuja added, the worry evident in his voice. He swallowed, hard. This was why he hadn’t wanted animals in the first place, why he hadn’t wanted to get to know the townspeople or get comfortable in the little house. He’d known he couldn’t outrun his fate forever. He’d known that at some point, his pursuers would catch up, and the last thing he’d wanted was to leave behind regrets, or to involve anyone or anything else.

Beatrix’s second eyebrow lifted to join the first. Was Kuja running a farm? The general paused, knowing full well she didn’t have to be agreeable, but there were things that a bit of understanding accomplished far better than brute force. She said in a low voice, "If you believe someone in this town is willing to look after your… animals, or other things, I will arrange for it before we leave."

Kuja stared at her, almost incredulous. He considered it, realizing that there was no other option at this time, so when Beatrix tapped his shoulder again, he finally began taking halting steps forward.

But they hadn’t made it more than a few strides before a new ruckus arose behind the soldiers, causing Steiner to turn to see what it was. "Now what’s the commotion??"

"Sir, there’s townspeople protesting. They said we have no authority here," someone reported from the rear.

Steiner snorted. "Authority? We’re apprehending criminals wanted through the whole of Gaia!"

Beatrix shook her head. "This whole valley is an autonomous area." She turned to the reporting soldiers. "Is there a mayor or town council we can confer with? I am willing to discuss the matter."

The message was passed along, then Beatrix and Steiner found themselves facing off against a group of townspeople centered by a massive bear of a man and a woman that bore a passing resemblance to Queen Garnet.

"I’m the mayor, Arnett," the big man said gruffly.

Beatrix gave a slight nod. "I’m General Beatrix of Alexandria."

Arnett paused, then very carefully returned the nod. "Your reputation precedes you, General." No one missed the fact that the corner of Beatrix’s mouth curled up for a moment upon hearing that.

"I’m Captain Steiner, of the Knights of Pluto of Alexandria," Steiner introduced himself. He cleared his throat and added, "Mayor, I know you weren’t aware of this, but these are extremely dangerous fugitives who’ve been hiding out in your town."

Sara and Arnett traded glances, then the mayor admitted, "We knew full well who they were. 500,000 Gil on Kuja’s head fer attacking your country, killing the former queen, right?" Seeing Zidane gape at him, he added, "This may be a backwater town, but we’re not THAT clueless. We still get the news out here, ya know."

"But… if you knew, why didn’t you kick us out?" Zidane sputtered. He couldn't help but remember how relieved he'd been when they'd first taken shelter here, when he'd truly believed that the townspeople had no clue who they were.

"We put it to a town vote. You just barely won the right to stay, provided ya didn’t cause trouble. I hafta admit I had my doubts back then, but you two proved me wrong," Arnett explained.

Zidane could only shake his head in disbelief. A vote? Who would vote to let them stay, knowing who they were and what they had done? "I can’t say I understand, but… thank you."

Arnett snorted. "If you should thank anyone, thank Sara. She’s the one who championed your cause."

Zidane turned to see Sara smiling at him. "If someone sincerely wants a second chance, I believe they should have it. Nil’s been called a den of thieves, but it’s really just a place for people who don’t have anywhere else to belong." She set her gaze on Steiner and Beatrix. "They’ve done so much for us. Mr. Kuja and Zidane even slayed a rampaging dragon to protect this town. You can’t just take them away!"

"If you’re aware of the nature of their crimes then you know they must answer for them, even if they haven’t caused trouble here," Steiner argued back. His eyes narrowed as he studied Arnett, trying to place the face, then recognition dawned on him – another wanted man! No wonder he was trying so hard to defend his fellow criminal. "You should be grateful we’re not here to bring anyone else to justice, Mayor."

Arnett growled, but Sara’s touch stopped him from advancing forward. She turned back to Steiner, swept her arms out, and boldly stated, "We won’t let you take them." Her husband joined hands with her as several other townspeople moved closer in behind them. No one was armed, but a couple of men began rolling up their sleeves and flexing their fingers. "Are you really going to try and arrest everyone here? This isn’t Alexandria, you can’t just barge in here and do whatever you want!"

"What are you saying…" Steiner began, but then more and more people stepped up, arms extended like Sara’s, making something of a human wall to fence in the Alexandrian forces.

Steiner’s face was red as he began ordering people to move, but the crowd wouldn’t budge. Frustrated, his hand went to his sword, intending to threaten them into compliance, but Beatrix decided to step in and resolve the matter herself.

"I applaud your bravery, but if you’re aware of my reputation, then you know this is a futile gesture," she stated, casually flipping a curl of hair over her shoulder before lightly resting her hand on her belt, near the hilt of her famous weapon. As the crowd exchanged nervous looks and worried whispers, she signaled to a pair of her soldiers to take Kuja’s lead, then turned back to address the gathered townspeople. "I personally give my word that these men will receive a fair trial. In addition, I will have transport arranged for any character witnesses who wish to step forward, if we’re allowed to pass."

Everyone shifted nervously, but they knew they weren’t going to get a better offer from the fearsome general – she was going to get what she was after, one way or another. With the stalemate finally broken, a gap opened in the crowd. Steiner, the soldiers, and the pair of cuffed Genomes were allowed to pass through, though Beatrix instructed them to halt before continuing on. She turned back to the gathered townspeople. "Also Kuja mentioned something about animals, including chickens and a cat – is there someone here who would be able to see to them?"

"Yes," Sara immediately volunteered. "Mr. Kuja, don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of everything!"

As the Alexandrian forces began heading back to their airship with prisoners in tow, Beatrix stayed behind to wrap things up. She was a little surprised at how many people were asking to attend the trial as character witnesses or just as moral support, especially when it became evident that a few of them were wanted for various criminal charges themselves.

In the end Beatrix decided the best witnesses would be Sara and Clyde – Sara because of her passion and the fact that she seemed to have gotten the closest to Kuja and Zidane, and Clyde for the obvious fact that he should’ve hated Kuja the most, yet still wanted to testify in his favor. The Burmecian had even glared at Beatrix when he’d approached to give her his information, and she couldn’t help but ask if he’d been there the day his country had fallen.

"I was," Clyde ground out. "And I know full well what he did, and… what you did, General."

Beatrix didn’t take the bait. She was well aware that her reputation was a double-edged sword: many people respected her… and many more despised her. Any survivor of the destruction of Burmecia was well within their rights to hate her and Kuja. "But you’re willing to testify on his behalf," she clarified. In the back of her mind she wondered if it was a ploy, an act of revenge; it would be awful for Kuja if this fellow got up on the stand and provided testimony against him.

"Yes, I am."

Beatrix snorted softly. "I admit, I’m surprised."

Clyde thought about it. "Minds change. People change. I learned that much," he finally replied.

Beatrix nodded and pencilled Clyde in for a spot on the stand.

With his wife slated to attend the trial in Alexandria, Arnett agreed to look after the animals and the lakeside cottage. There wasn’t much else he could do to help while stuck in Nil. Unlike Sara he wasn’t all that optimistic that their defense of Kuja and Zidane would be successful – after all, Kuja had done some very despicable things – but, if they somehow pulled it off, Arnett wanted to make sure they still had a home to come back to.

* * *

The trip back to Alexandria took only a couple of hours. Sara stood at the railing to watch as the Red Rose descended onto the sea and docked in the port just outside Alexandria Castle, a fascinating experience for her, as not only had she never been on an airship before, she’d only been to Alexandria once, many years ago.

It was a pity that she wasn’t there for sightseeing. Maybe someday, when she wasn’t fighting for the lives of her friends, she’d come back and do just that. She leaned over the railing, the scent of sea spray sharp in her nostrils as she tried to catch a glimpse of the two Genomes, but more soldiers arrived at the dock, and she wasn’t able to say or do anything as they were quickly taken away.

Clyde came out to join her by the railing. He couldn’t help but comment, "I can’t believe I’ve come to Alexandria, the country that destroyed mine, to lend support to a man who also took part in that destruction…"

"It doesn’t do any good to hold onto grudges. In the end, nothing changes," Sara said sadly.

Clyde could only nod. Sara was right, but even he had surprised himself by speaking up and stepping forward. It wasn’t even so much that he’d forgiven Kuja… but when Kuja had thrown himself in between Zidane and the dragon without any thought for his own safety, Clyde had thought about how much he’d wished for courage like that on the day of Burmecia’s destruction. Letting go of his hatred felt a little like letting go of his own guilt.

... Besides, Kuja was working on the main panel of Millie's bridal train. Clyde didn't want to let his fiancée down with a missing panel, or missing wedding guests.

Eventually Sara and Clyde were escorted to guest rooms and told to relax and make themselves comfortable – the trial wouldn’t begin for another two days, as this time, Garnet planned to involve the other kingdoms and city-states that had been affected. The rooms were quite nice and Sara knew she had no reason to complain, but it felt impossible to relax when it was obvious that Zidane and Kuja were elsewhere in the castle as prisoners.

* * *

Down in the dungeon, the only thing Kuja could think of to be grateful for was the fact that he and Zidane were being housed on the upper levels of the castle dungeon, where the cells were a little larger and more open, compared to the claustrophobic, dreary lower cells. If he was going to be executed anyhow, at least he wasn’t going to have to spend his last hours in the dark, alone.

They were in adjacent cells with bars instead of walls separating them, so it was almost like they were together, except they weren’t. Kuja didn’t know if they were allowed to talk to each other, or if they should hide in the corners to plan out their defense, or if he simply should wallow in misery… so he went with the third option, planting himself on the bench in back of the cell and hugging his legs to his chest. But Zidane was still upbeat somehow, even after he’d asked if they could be in the same cell and Beatrix had rejected it with a snort of disbelief. He’d asked too if he could talk to Garnet, but Steiner had been adamant that that was an even more impossible request.

"Kuja, come over here," Zidane called out in a low voice once most of the soldiers had departed. He was sitting in the closest back corner of his cell, his arms sticking through the bars, beckoning to his lover.

The former mage glanced at the remaining guards, but they were busy pretending not to notice they were conversing. Sighing, he slipped off the bench and crouched down in the back corner of the room, the stone floor cold and hard under his rear.

Zidane did his best to hug Kuja to him, though it was awkward with iron bars in the way. "We’ll get through this, I know we will," the blonde said softly. "I have a plan…"

Kuja tsked under his breath. "A plan? I was supposed to be executed months ago. Unless you have a fantastic escape plan, that’ll be the only future for me."

Zidane frowned slightly. Escape was a possibility, though unlikely… at best it was a remote backup plan. And Zidane wasn’t counting on that anyhow. "Beatrix said we’d get a fair trial; I’m hoping some people will be willing to speak up in our defense."

"A fair trial? Like the one I had before? What difference would it make even if someone was willing to testify for us? Even if they overlook the fact that you broke me out of prison, it still doesn’t undo the atrocities I committed. Nothing will change that, not regret, not apologies, not the passage of time," Kuja said, his voice growing sadder with each word.

"But you heard what Steiner said, right? They’ll be calling in Lindblum, Burmecia, maybe Treno and the Black Mage Village as well, for this. So maybe not everyone will be ready or able to forgive you, but they’ll have to come to a consensus. And that’s what I’m counting on…"

Kuja could only roll his eyes at Zidane’s blinding optimism. Did he really think that those other countries would be any more forgiving than Alexandria? He knew for a fact that the Burmecians would want him dead; he’d left victims in Treno as well. And while he hadn’t been part of the attack on Lindblum, he had kidnapped and held hostage the regent’s wife. Never mind what the Black Mages must think of him, as he’d inadvertently created them to share his fate, just disposable tools.

"Just trust me on this… I know what I’m doing," Zidane reassured him, as they heard the heavy dungeon door open and close at the end of the hall. He craned his neck to see who was coming, then suddenly let go of Kuja, stood up and bowed.

Confused, Kuja looked over his shoulder in the same direction Zidane was facing, then leapt to his feet, startled to see Queen Garnet herself standing there, flanked by a scowling Steiner and Doctor Tot. Hadn’t Steiner said there was no way she’d come? But yet, there she was…

He glanced at Zidane and saw the hint of a smile on his face, and with a sinking feeling, suddenly worried about what ridiculous plan the younger man had to be plotting. After all his original plan had been to marry the queen and gain the power to pardon him for his crimes… what crazy stunt would he try to pull off this time to buy them their freedom?

* * *

Author’s Notes:

October 30, 2019