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 "White Queen (As It Began)" 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. 33: White Queen (As It Began)

* * *

So sad her eyes
Smiling dark eyes
So sad her eyes
As it began

- "White Queen (As It Began)," Queen

* * *

It had barely been eight months since Zidane had left Alexandria, had left behind his "Dagger"… but to Garnet, it felt like an eternity had passed. So much had changed between them since she’d last seen him that she wasn’t sure what to say. Foremost in her mind was the simple question that had niggled at her since the moment he’d left: why? Yet now that she had the opportunity to ask, she wasn’t sure if she should. Did she really want to know?

In the face of awkward silence, Zidane was the one to finally break the ice. "It’s good to see you again, Your Majesty Queen Garnet," the blonde offered as a greeting. He punctuated that with a bow, properly showing deference, and Steiner grunted at the fact that at least not all of Zidane’ schooling in decorum had gone to waste.

Garnet wasn’t sure how to respond to that. She couldn’t say that she was happy to see him again, and yet, that hadn’t stopped her from coming down to the dungeon herself. In lieu of answering, her eyes flitted over to Kuja for a moment. The silver-haired man stood in the corner of his cell, his eyes cast down, so still and so silent that she might not even have noticed him if she hadn’t known he was there. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been thin and disheveled, so ready to concede defeat, even as he’d joked in the face of his own demise. Now, he seemed nothing like his old arrogant self, nor his previous defeated self, but like someone who wasn’t quite one or the other. Was this who he really was, or just another "act" he’d picked up?

"I know it’s probably presumptuous of me, but, if possible, I’d like to speak to you, Your Majesty," Zidane said, trying – and succeeding – to pull her attention back towards him. "In private, if possible."

Steiner growled. "You… you hooligan! That you’d ask for such a thing after all that you’ve done! Did you think you’d get off so easily?!" he began sputtering, though he quieted as soon as Garnet held her hand up to silence him.

The queen swallowed a sigh. Regardless if she really wanted to know, she accepted that she was going to get an answer one way or another. "I… will permit it," she finally responded. "But…"

"Your Majesty, this is clearly a most obvious escape plan!" Steiner gasped.

"Now, now." Doctor Tot reached up and tapped Steiner's arm, and the knight managed to swallow further protest with some effort. At least Zidane had made his request properly...

Beatrix glanced over at Kuja before interjecting. "I wouldn’t worry; Zidane wouldn’t dare do anything. Besides, the queen is hardly incapable of defending herself," she added.

Steiner ground his teeth but didn’t argue further.

"I will permit a conversation, but as you are no longer my fiancé it would not be appropriate for me to be seen solely in your company. I will have Captain Steiner accompany us, though I will ask that he maintain a respectable distance. Do you find that acceptable?" Garnet proposed, her voice much stronger and steadier than before.

Zidane barely hesitated. "Yes."

Garnet gave a single nod, then motioned for Steiner to let the younger Genome out of his cell, before glancing in Kuja’s direction again. "General Beatrix, keep an eye on things here. Doctor Tot, thank you for accompanying me, you can return to your regular duties."

The elderly scholar bowed and left, then Steiner stepped forward to collect Zidane. Beatrix stood and saluted as the queen headed back up the stairs, with Steiner following as he shepherded Zidane along. Only after the heavy dungeon doors shut did Beatrix turn back to Kuja to remark, "You wouldn’t happen to know what Zidane’s planning, would you?"

Kuja didn’t respond and instead, sank back onto his haunches in the corner of the cell. Zidane hadn’t told him, and even if he had… The silver-haired man shook his head. He wondered if maybe Zidane really was planning on running for it. He’d be lying if he said he wouldn’t be hurt by that, but even he had to admit, it would be for the best.

But Zidane had promised to stay by his side. The rest of his life, the rest of my life, whatever happens. Zidane had chosen him over his fiancée, over his friends and family. So that meant he wasn’t going to attempt an escape. It was… frustrating. The last thing Kuja wanted was to see Zidane throw away his future… his life… because of a promise.

Meanwhile, Beatrix watched the various emotions chase their way across Kuja’s face, but with his lack of response, she didn’t press for anything else. After a minute, she sat down on a chair across from the cell, and began a silent vigil.

* * *

Though Garnet had granted his request, Zidane figured she’d take him to some place quiet and out of the way like a guard’s room or Doctor Tot’s study. But she knew him well enough to know that Zidane didn’t do well sitting still, so instead she suggested they go for a walk, which Zidane found to be quite agreeable.

They ended up in the castle gardens. It was just private enough that it would be unlikely anyone else would see or overhear anything, but still open enough that it felt like it could almost be two old friends just catching up on news, if one were to ignore the scowling captain of the guard following behind the pair.

Neither one said anything as they began walking, side by side. Garnet figured it was up to Zidane to start talking, since he was the one who had made the request in the first place; Zidane meanwhile was trying to think of how to best begin. He stared at his feet as he shuffled along, then finally lifted his head to glance over at her, before pasting a smile on his face and saying, "You look nice. Not as dressy as before, but more… authoritative, I guess?" She was attired in a fitted navy jacket with scalloped edges and a pearl white skirt that flared out slightly as she walked.

She was a little surprised at the compliment. After looking him over as well, she said, "You look a little more mature as well.. And I see you decided to grow your hair out again."

"Thanks. Yeah, Kuj… er, it looks better longer…"

She pressed her lips together instead of jumping on that obvious opening. But she couldn’t help but wonder… just what was going on between the two Genomes? She could fully believe that Zidane would throw himself into harm’s way to save a friend, but there seemed to be more at play than that. The way they’d been hugging in the dungeon before they’d jumped and separated seemed almost like something secret lovers would do, not friends.

"Ahem. Well, it’s been a pretty mild winter so far, hasn’t it?" said Zidane, fumbling his way through more small talk.

Garnet frowned. "Yes. But I can’t imagine that is what you wanted to talk to me about." They weren’t there to chit chat, so she figured she’d get the obvious question out of the way, though she could guess what was coming. Zidane was probably going to beg her to spare Kuja’s life, even though the decision was no longer solely in her hands.

"Ah, yeah." He scratched the back of his head briefly, then stated, "I want… to invoke the right to shared sentencing. No matter what happens, I want the same punishment that Kuja gets."

Garnet blinked, amazed Zidane even knew about that. Of all the random things to possibly remember from his history lessons… It was an archaic law, a "merciful" allowance from the distant past, when conflict and strife was the norm and monarchs ruled with iron fists. "You can’t do that!"

"Why not?"

Garnet tried to remember the specific details. "It can only be invoked by spouses, or a parent and child."

"… Or by special exemption granted by the royal family," Zidane added after a brief pause. He had momentarily considered arguing that Kuja could almost be considered his "spouse" though they hadn’t ever talked about the possibility of getting married. Or maybe he could make a case that Kuja was a parental figure of sorts, since he’d raised Zidane during his infancy. But neither one of those were accurate, and the blonde didn’t want to resort to arguing over semantics.

Garnet was exasperated. Despite all the times he’d played hooky, all his grousing and griping, he really had been paying attention to Doctor Tot’s lessons… "Zidane, no! Do you realize that it’s the harsher of the sentences that applies? That means if he is sentenced to death, so are you!"

"Yes, I’m aware. But I made a promise to him once, and I broke it. I don’t want to break another."

Garnet shook her head. She’d always known that Zidane would do almost anything to help someone, but to go as far as to die for a promise? "I don’t understand… what’s driving you to go so far for him?"

"I promised him that I’d be by his side for the rest of his life." There was a steel and urgency in his voice that she’d never quite heard before. "Even if it’s just one more day, one more year, or more… I will do anything to see it through."

Garnet inelegantly gawked at him, stunned into silence. The only word she could utter was, "Why?"

Zidane had thought he wouldn’t be able to tell her, but sometimes, only the truth would do. If nothing else, he did owe her proper closure. He took a deep breath, then firmly, completely shut and locked the door to his past. "Because… I love him."

Garnet’s feet abruptly stopped moving on their own. She stared intently at him a long moment – obviously, she was shocked by the words, but more than that, she was confounded by the fact that she’d somehow suspected it all along. She started to say something, rethought it, and then tried again. It took three tries for her to finally choke out, "For how long?"

Zidane wished they were still walking. He traced mindless circles on the footpath with his toe, only just now realizing that this garden was the same one that had been slated as their wedding reception site. He then tilted his head back until his bangs slid away from his forehead. "Since before I came back, I guess."

"Before you came back…" the young queen mused softly. "Before you proposed marriage to me?"

Somehow it would’ve been easier if she’d screamed that. But to hear the question posed in a hurt whisper… Zidane could only shake his head and say, "I didn’t plan to fall in love with him. It just… happened." He shrugged. Even he wasn’t sure where the magical turning point had been: when had "friend" been replaced by "lover?" It wasn’t because they’d had sex. But somewhere, somehow… something had changed for Zidane.

"Then why did you leave him and come back here, to us? You could’ve stayed with him, wherever you were, and no one would’ve been the wiser."

"I know. But I was in denial. I thought it was impossible for me to be with him. I thought I belonged here, because… that’s how the story's supposed to end, right?"

Garnet thought back to the day that Zidane had vanished, to the note that he’d left behind. She’d only read it once, but that had been enough to embed it in her mind, along with the sensation of numbing sadness mixed with a tinge of relief. It wasn’t going to be happily ever after, was it? Even though he said that he loved me... "And after all that, you would’ve married me anyhow?"

Zidane’s lips twitched upward. "Yeah, I guess I would’ve."

"What kind of idiot does that?"

He pointed at himself. "This kind of idiot." The faint half smile grew a tiny bit more. "Besides, part of me still loves you, and always will. You truly were the girl of my dreams."

Garnet took a deep breath, her eyes sliding shut as she tried to steady herself, but she couldn’t quite stop the tears from starting to welling up. Despite her efforts, a single one escaped and slowly made its way down her cheek. He’d said as much in his goodbye letter, but she hadn’t known whether or not to believe it, until now.

Zidane began reaching out reflexively to comfort her, but stopped himself. He no longer had the right to do so. All he could do was own up to his mistakes and give her the truth if she wanted it. He glanced back behind them to see a scowling Steiner glaring daggers at him, before letting his hands drop completely to his sides.

"If… I had let him go at that time, would you have stayed?" Garnet asked.

Zidane gave it some careful consideration. "Yeah, probably. As stupid as it sounds, I would’ve felt obligated to. So I wasn’t going to back out, even though by that point, I’d realized I wasn’t cut out to be king."

"I knew you weren’t really happy," she finally admitted in a soft voice. "But I had hoped it would get better once you got used to it. And… I had to think about my obligations to my country, as well."

"Yeah. And I totally get that."

She nodded, and began walking again, albeit at a slower pace than before.

"But, it still would’ve been a death sentence for him if things had gone that way," Zidane added as he matched her stride once again.

"Why?"

"There were days where it felt like… he was fading away. Like he was gonna die because he’d forgotten he wanted to live and didn’t know what else to do." The blonde lifted his hands helplessly, then let them drop once again. "I never realized… I wasn’t sure about it until it was almost too late, just how wrong Garland was. Kuja can feel everything just as you or I can. But he never realized that because he didn’t have anyone – no friends, no family - to show him what it meant to be cared for or loved."

The young queen nodded slowly. "That is sad, having to live like that."

"I would’ve ended up just like him if he hadn’t brought me to Gaia. He really did save me! I know that doesn’t undo the bad things he’s done, but at least it proves there’s good inside him. He deserves another chance."

Garnet couldn’t claim that she didn’t understand at all, given what Queen Brahne had done. Despite the atrocities she’d committed in Burmecia, Cleyra and Lindblum, in the end, many Alexandrians still remembered her as the kind and beloved queen she once had been. "But… what if he hasn’t changed?"

"Then I will stop him myself, with my own hands, even if it costs me my life," Zidane answered without hesitation. Of course he’d thought about it. He’d known that was a possibility the moment he’d gone after Kuja in the Iifa Basin, that maybe it all had been a trap, that maybe Kuja couldn’t change. But he had.

Garnet didn’t contest that. Instead, she said, "As for your earlier request, I’ll give it some consideration. But there’s only so many allowances I can make. As you’re aware, Zidane, while the trial will be held here, under Alexandria’s jurisdiction, Burmecia and Lindblum will also be participating as equals. Very likely the Black Mage Village as well."

"So I’ve heard."

Garnet seemed uneasy at how lightly Zidane seemed to be taking her warning. "While Regent Cid should be amenable, Burmecia, and the Black Mages… I can’t guarantee they’ll agree to your request."

"Do they really need to? As the trial is under Alexandrian jurisdiction, isn’t it ultimately your decision?"

She could only shake her head. She knew full well he was trying to talk her into approving his request, in hopes that his friendship with Cid, Freya and Vivi would be enough pull him through this. But even without the specter of shared sentencing, she had to ask herself, could she ever truly forgive Kuja for his crimes? What if he was the one who’d pushed Zidane into making such a request in the first place? Or… was this truly Zidane’s idea? What would Zidane do if she didn’t agree? What would happen if she did, and the consensus was a death sentence? Could she live with herself if she had to sacrifice Zidane along with Kuja for the sake of peace and resolution? What was the right thing to do, as a queen? As an individual? It was almost easier analyzing what the people of Alexandria would expect from her, what her allies would want, rather than examining her own feelings on the matter…

"You’ve put me… in quite a position. I’ll have to sleep on it," Garnet finally said, begrudgingly.

Zidane nodded, an apologetic half smile on his face. "Thanks… for hearing me out. And, I’m sorry. I know I’ve put you in a difficult situation… again."

Garnet tried to respond in kind, but couldn’t manage to do so.

They continued to walk on for a bit longer, but neither one could think of anything more to add. Their faltering steps finally carried them to the end of the stone path they were on, where Zidane turned and said, "Well, I guess it’s time I go back to my cell, then."

Garnet could only nod. She signaled to Steiner that it was time to head back, but then after a moment’s consideration, decided to trail behind the pair as Steiner escorted her former fiance away. The talk she’d had with Zidane was a start… but if she truly wanted more insight on Kuja, there was only one good way to get it.

* * *

General Beatrix was immediately on her feet, saluting, the moment the trio returned to the dungeon. She wasn’t sure if it was a good or bad thing that they hadn’t been gone too long. Steiner guided Zidane past her and went to open the door of his cell, when Garnet’s voice rang out. "Wait…"

Steiner had stopped just short of shoving the blonde back into the chamber. "Your Majesty?"

She still wasn’t sure what the right course of action was. She still needed time to think. But Zidane’s declaration of his feelings, of his intention to share in Kuja’s punishment, stuck with her. She had to know…

"Zidane, would you rather be in the same cell?" The question didn’t quite come out as she’d intended, but it was pretty clear what she meant.

From the back corner where he sat, Kuja lifted his head, eyeing his captors in wary confusion.

Zidane looked surprised for a moment, then relief washed across his face and he nodded. "Yes. Thank you."

Steiner grumbled something about undeserved favors under his breath, but went ahead and walked Zidane over to Kuja’s door and waited for Beatrix to unlock it.

With a small smile playing across his face, Zidane actually pulled away from Steiner to head on in, wanting to hug Kuja, wanting to assure him that things would be okay… or as close to it as he could manage under the circumstances.

The silver-haired man uncurled enough to allow Zidane to embrace him, as Garnet looked on in silence, her eyes narrowing slightly. Zidane seemed happy about his change in accommodations, but Kuja looked stiff and unsure, and didn’t return Zidane’s hug. She sighed, silently. "Your request… I will inform you of my decision tomorrow, though I can’t guarantee a time."

Kuja’s head tilted back slightly. He gave Zidane an inquiring look. When Zidane suddenly didn’t want to meet his gaze, the former mage asked aloud, "Request?"

When Zidane didn’t answer, Garnet took the initiative and said, "Zidane invoked the right to shared sentencing, but that would require I grant a special exemption." She wanted to see how would Kuja react. It bothered her that this could all be a ploy. In some ways, it bothered her even more that perhaps it wasn’t…

Beatrix turned to stare at her queen, her brows arched in surprise. At the same time, Kuja looked momentarily confused, then pulled away enough to fix Zidane with a look, as if trying to tease the truth out of him.

"… What did you do?" Kuja hissed, rising to his feet, suddenly looking far more alive than he had been this whole time.

"It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it," Zidane said, trying to keep up a reassuring grin.

"Don’t worry about it?" Kuja repeated, his voice pitching up. He rolled the queen’s words around his head a little longer, then with some effort, pushed Zidane away. "You asked to share in MY sentence?"

"I promised to stay by your side, no matter what," Zidane said, trying to pull his lover back into his arms.

"That’s stupid! You’d die just to fulfill a promise?" the mage spat back.

"Absolutely."

Kuja shook his head, then suddenly bellowed, "Are you an idiot?!" He shoved at Zidane again, harder than before, enough to send the younger man stumbling back a stride. "I did not bring you to Gaia for you to sacrifice yourself for me!"

"But it’s okay for you to sacrifice yourself for me?" Zidane argued back.

"YES!"

The word echoed its way through the stone halls. Kuja’s jaw suddenly snapped shut, as if even he could not believe what had just come from his mouth. He backed off a half step, suddenly looking cornered, as if he wanted to be anywhere but where he was at the moment…

"Kuja, it’s all right. It’ll be all right," Zidane said softly, reaching out for him again.

The former mage twitched. He backed up again, out of the range of Zidane’s arms. Then he remembered: the young queen was there, silently watching the argument. His head whipped in Garnet’s direction. "You can reject his request, can’t you? Do it! What is there to think about?"

"You bastard, how dare you speak to Her Majesty in such a manner!" Steiner snarled. He began reaching for his sword, but Beatrix held out her arm to tell him that that was enough… for now. Her own hand fell to her weapon, but she made no attempt to unsheathe it, just yet.

"I told Zidane I’d take it into consideration, and so I shall," Garnet said firmly, wielding words like a weapon. Strangely, it was the first time she’d truly felt like she had any sway over Kuja, even if she was still undecided as to what the right course of action would be. "As I stated, my decision will be made known tomorrow."

Kuja seemed almost as stunned by her confidence as he’d been by Zidane’s "great plan." "I refuse. I have that right," he volleyed, his voice cracking despite all his efforts to regain calm and control. He could care less about what happened to him; he figured he wasn’t meant to live long in the first place. But to take Zidane down with him… that was something unforgivable.

Garnet parried that with ease. "If I grant special exemption, I have full control over the terms of said exemption. Your consent isn’t required."

Kuja swallowed, hard. He looked back at Zidane, standing there patiently, his hands still open in an offer of comfort. The older Genome felt his throat tighten until he had to gasp for air – the already hopeless situation was growing bleaker by the moment. But as soon as he caught his breath, laughter began bubbling up, until it spilled uncontrollably forth. "Ha… ahahaha… Fine then - if you want so badly to die with me, go ahead! Why should I stop you? I don’t care!"

Zidane grimaced. This was way too reminiscent of the last time they’d been in this same dungeon, when Kuja had mocked Zidane and pushed his buttons until the younger man had fled in anger. But Zidane knew better now; Kuja was lashing out in a desperate, misguided attempt at protecting his lover, pushing him away as if that would push him out of the line of danger too.

The young thief couldn’t help but glance over his shoulder at their captors. It seemed too much to hope for, for them to understand. Steiner was glaring openly at Kuja, Garnet had a slightly perplexed, yet thoughtful expression, while Beatrix’s attention was fixed on her monarch’s reaction.

Zidane sighed, and turned back to Kuja, closing the gap between them. "Kuja, don’t. It’ll be okay," he said again, as he tried once more to hug him. Kuja would’ve side stepped it again, but he was only a stride or two out of the back corner of the cell, so there really was nowhere else to go. "You aren’t alone."

The laughter abruptly stopped, replaced by a hitching of breath as a whole rainbow of emotions washed over Kuja’s face. "Let go, stupid! Idiot!" the silver-haired man finally growled, but Zidane refused to comply and in fact, squeezed even tighter as he pressed his face against Kuja’s shoulder.

"I love you," Zidane mumbled. Though most of the phrase was muffled against Kuja’s neck, Zidane had said it loud enough so their jailers several feet away could hear it too.

Kuja struggled even harder. "Shut up, I don’t even like you!" he hissed, but there was no conviction in his voice. Even Steiner snorted in disbelief at what he was witnessing.

Garnet had seen enough, and turned to leave. Steiner was quick to follow her lead, while Beatrix remained behind to guard the pair. It was painful, watching Zidane trying to comfort Kuja while Kuja did everything he could to pretend like he didn’t care, like none of this mattered to him, when his earlier response to Zidane’s question about sacrificing himself still rung in Garnet’s ears. She still didn’t know what she was going to do about Zidane’s request. But she was less and less convinced that execution was the answer.

But what, then, was the right thing to do? She’d once forced Zidane to confront that question, and it had driven him into escaping into the night with Kuja in tow. Now, it was her turn to face that same question…

She was glad she had decided to call in the other kingdoms and city-states for the trial. She could ask Steiner and Beatrix for advice; she could consult with her uncle and Freya and Mikoto and Vivi. She didn’t have to make the decision all by herself like she had before. That, she hoped, would at least be enough to let her sleep through the night, so she could be confident in answering Zidane tomorrow.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

April 17, 2020