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 "One Vision" 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. 34: One Vision

* * *

No wrong, no right
I'm gonna tell you there's no black, and no white
No blood, no stain
All we need is (one worldwide vision)

I had a dream when I was young
A dream of sweet illusion
A glimpse of hope and unity
And visions of one sweet union
But a cold wind blows and a dark rain falls
And in my heart, it shows
Look what they've done to my dream, yeah!

One vision
So give me your hands, give me your hearts
I'm ready! There's only one direction
One world and one nation
Yeah, one vision

- "One Vision," Queen

* * *

The next morning, Steiner headed into the dungeon with a basket of fresh biscuits and assorted jams that Quina had put together for the two Genomes. It made no sense to him to serve premium food to prisoners, but Quina was a little too kind for his/her own good.

Beatrix was apparently a little too kind as well, unexpectedly... Kuja and Zidane were sleeping on the pallet in the rear of the cell, wrapped up in an excessive amount of blankets, with Zidane slumped in the corner, cradling Kuja's head in his lap. They looked surprisingly cozy, given the circumstances.

So much for, "I don't even like you," thought Steiner as he stared at them. He wasn't sure if he was more surprised by the fact that the two were somehow lovers, or that everyone was treating them so... nicely. Although either one - or both - could easily be explained if one were to believe that Kuja was magically manipulating things in his favor, but was he capable of such a thing? If he was, why was he sitting in jail? Why bother getting caught and arrested, or risk going through a trial at all?

Beatrix came out of the guard's room to join him in the hallway. She greeted her lover with a toss of her head, then eyed the food he was carrying. "From Quina?"

Steiner looked down at the artfully arranged basket of goodies, then back at their prisoners. "This isn't an inn," Steiner grumbled. "They're not here as guests."

Zidane stirred at the sound of their voices. At first he seemed startled to see his jailers, then he remembered where he was, and why. He gave the pair a slightly awkward smile, then began gently shaking Kuja awake. "Hey, wake up. We have visitors."

Beatrix unlocked the door to let Steiner in, as Kuja finally began stirring. "Breakfast," Steiner announced, as he dropped off the basket.

Zidane nodded a brief thanks at the knight, then smoothed Kuja's hair down since it had gotten mussed up while he'd slept. Kuja rolled onto his back, rubbing his eyes before staring up at Zidane a moment, then his forehead creased as he suddenly remembered they weren't at home, and that they had an audience. He immediately sat up with a hiss, pulling the blanket around himself as a shield.

Zidane put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him, trying his best to reassure him, but all Kuja wanted to do was shrink deeper into the corner, so the blonde decided to fetch the basket and see if he could convince him to eat, at the very least.

"I just cannot understand," Steiner said, watching as Zidane doled out breakfast, sticking a biscuit and pot of jam in front of Kuja even when he held his hands up and shook his head in refusal. "Asking for shared sentencing. Why you left Her Majesty at the altar, to run away with him. Why you came back here after so much time had passed, to propose in the first place!"

Zidane ignored the latter items and instead, addressed the first. "Did the queen make a decision as to my request?"

Steiner scowled. "She said she is nearing a decision, but has not yet decided. She will inform you personally once she does." He took a deep breath, then tried again, wanting to understand, unsure if he ever could... "You and I were companions. We fought side by side to defend this kingdom, to protect the queen, to take him down."

Zidane nodded. That was true. But how could he adequately explain how much things had changed for him since then? "Yes. But I guess it's a little like you and Beatrix. You guys didn't see eye to eye either. And then, things changed."

"What? Beatrix and I were never enemies!" Steiner huffed.

Beatrix suddenly interrupted. "But we were. You stood against me to defend Queen Garnet when her mother would've seen her dead." She paused, then added, "Even before that, we'd always been rivals."

"That's... that's not the same!" Steiner protested.

"Isn't it? Kuja and I were on the same side when we attacked Burmecia," Beatrix pointed out. She sighed softly, flipping a curl back over her shoulder. "I never planned on being friends with you, certainly not anything more than that. But... things changed. People change," she said, remembering Clyde's words to her when he'd ask to come along as a character witness. If even a survivor of Burmecia could find it in him to forgive Kuja, perhaps Zidane's plan wasn't so impossible after all?

"Adelbert, you and I found common ground, a common attraction," the female general continued. "Is it so farfetched to imagine that Zidane and Kuja were able to do the same after everything we've all been through?"

Steiner grumbled. He still didn't get it, or rather... he didn't want to get it. "So now what?"

"Guess it's too late to pretend you didn't find us, eh Rusty?" Zidane commented as he broke off a piece of jam slathered biscuit and pushed it into Kuja's mouth. Zidane wasn't going to let his lover refuse to eat, even if he didn't want it.

The knight frowned. He had been fully onboard with locating the fugitives and bringing them to justice; it was the only thing he could do to help provide a modicum of closure to Garnet's disastrous relationship with Zidane. But now, even he was starting to wish that they hadn't found them. It hadn't made Garnet any happier. And Beatrix didn't seem thrilled to see them in her custody either.

Steiner swallowed a sigh. What was done, was done. They could only move forward. "The trial will likely be tomorrow afternoon," he informed them.

"Best to just get it over with," Kuja muttered, still not looking at his jailers.

"How can you be so... cavalier about it?!" Steiner yelled at them both.

"We're not. But I don't see the point in panicking now, when I knew all along that this was a possibility. I'm just hoping for a chance to plead Kuja's case, and, well... maybe somehow, things will work out," the younger Genome explained with a lopsided grin.

"One day, your luck will run out," Steiner warned, before finally exiting the cell. Zidane snorted but didn't answer back. The blonde had always had been an optimist. No matter the odds, he seemed to have a knack for finding his way out of tight spots. But how would he get out of this one, when his only plan was to tie his fate to Kuja's?

* * *

A couple of hours later, Kuja and Zidane had both settled down with some books that Beatrix had been seen fit to provide, when the doors to the dungeon swung open. Zidane hopped to his feet and headed to the front of the cell, hoping it was Garnet with her decision, but the individuals he saw accompanying the young queen were equal parts familiar and unexpected.

"Good morning, Queen Garnet. And Regent Cid, Lady Hilda and Eiko too!" He gave a quick bow, his training in decorum kicking in.

"That's Lady Eiko to you!" the young Summoner huffed as she ran up to the cell in advance of her adoptive parents, slipping past concerned hands. She looked up at Zidane, confusion flitting across her face.

"You're right. I apologize, Lady Eiko."

Eiko frowned. It had been something of a joke between them, but under the circumstance, it wasn't funny anymore. "Zidane, why are you doing this?" she demanded. She glanced over at Garnet, then leaned to the side just enough to be able to see the silver-haired man sitting in the corner. Her eyes narrowed slightly. "You were so in love with the queen, so why are you with him now?!"

Zidane gave her a sad smile. Eiko was a worldly child, but a child nonetheless... how could he possibly sufficiently explain it to her? He'd gone into his relationship with Garnet with fairy tale dreams and unreasonable expectations. But love wasn't something you could force or dictate; it wasn't an all or nothing, black or white sort of thing. "Because of the same reason - love."

"But... but..." Eiko sputtered.

There was a soft scrape from the back of the cell as Kuja pushed himself to his feet and slowly approached the group. He eyed Eiko a bit warily, then fixed his attention on Hilda.

"It's different when I'm the one behind bars, isn't it?" Kuja said as he wrapped his fingers around said bars. "Enjoying the view?" Although the comment was mostly directed at Hilda, whom he'd held hostage for some seven months, he supposed he owed some of it to Eiko as well, as he'd had her in his custody for two days.

Eiko predictably scrunched up her face and scowled, but Hilda stared back mutely, her face calm, her back straight, every bit the proper lady. Despite the fact that she wasn't answering, she was clearly listening. That very thing was what had made Kuja stay his hand after he'd stolen the airship bearing her name. That, and having an elegant female "companion" to use as a sounding board sure beat spending time in Queen Brahne's often loud and ample presence...

He shifted his gaze to Cid. This was his first time actually meeting him. Though Hilda hadn't been much more talkative back then, Kuja had learned that she had been running away in anger over infidelity issues, which was why the Hilda Garde I had been so easy to snatch. He wondered if he should throw that in the man's face... His lips began to curl into a mocking smile.

"Kuja, don't..." Zidane warned.

Kuja's eyes flashed like lightning brewing in stormy skies. "Why not? I kidnapped her, didn't I? Your little friend too. Or did you forget those facts when you said you wanted to share in my sentence?" the taller Genome snapped back.

"Of course I remember. But I also know, you regret it now."

Kuja tsked under his breath. "Even so, what good is apologizing when no one's going to buy it?" Out of the corner of his eye he caught Hilda's expression soften very slightly, almost imperceptibly. Kuja scowled, then pushed away from the bars, spun on his heels, and stalked back to his seat in the corner.

Zidane sighed as Kuja sulked, even going so far as to wrap a blanket back around his shoulders, as if that shielded him from everyone's eyes. But just as he was about to ask Garnet if she'd made her decision, Eiko's voice cut in once again.

"How do you know if you don't try?" the girl asked, rolling her eyes. Wasn't Kuja an adult? Getting no response, Eiko emphatically added, "Don't be a child."

For a split second, everyone outside the cell froze, as if Kuja was about to call down Flare Star and roast all of them for the offense, but the former mage didn't seem to notice or care.

"Eiko!" Hilda admonished, when she was able to find her voice again.

"But it's true! Even when I was little I knew that if I did something and then learned that it was wrong, that I needed to say, 'I'm sorry,' and not do it again."

The blanket twitched, but Kuja didn't answer.

"It's not always that easy," Cid mused aloud, after an awkward moment's silence. "Sometimes, my dear Eiko, even that isn't enough."

"But it doesn't hurt to try, does it?" Eiko answered. She turned her attention from the lumpy blanket to Zidane, to see if the blonde Genome agreed.

Zidane gave her a thin smile. "No, it doesn't. But..." and he turned to look in Kuja's direction, then shook his head. "Regent Cid has a good point. It's not always easy."

"I know that! But if you really mean it, you should say it, even if you don't think anyone's gonna listen! Even if that means you have to say it over and over," Eiko huffed. She just didn't get it. Even if Kuja wasn't sorry about everything he'd done, he could at least try to say something about the things he was sorry about... if there were things he was sorry about. "I was okay with you choosing Queen Garnet over me, but I'm not okay that you left her to be with someone who doesn't even have the manners to say, 'I'm sorry.'"

Kuja hesitantly peeked out and over his shoulder. He had no interest in being needled by a child, but at the same time, it wasn't like he could say or do anything to stop her. Perhaps she had a point though... that it didn't hurt to try. It wasn't like he had anything to lose. Even pride was something that he'd discarded as useless.

"So if I were to apologize to you, right now, you would accept it, just like that?" he finally breathed, before he could think better of it and stop himself.

"Only if you really mean it," Eiko said solemnly. "Not just because you're hoping we'll forget what you've done. But if you're sorry, you should say so. It'll make you feel better too."

"Is that so...?" Kuja had never thought about it that way. How many times had he mumbled words of apology to Garland, to try and placate him, having no clue what he was supposed to be sorry for in the first place?

Even his early years on Gaia hadn't taught him much more than that. He'd learned from his time in Treno, as a pawn in bored noble's games, and in Alexandria's court, that bowing your head was just part of an act, and that if you had enough power or influence, it was completely optional. It was only after he'd fallen and had begun his recovery in Nil that he'd gotten to see a different side of people, one he'd never given thought to before...

He rose to his feet again, then padded over to the bars, looking down at the girl. Eiko, to her credit, met his gaze without flinching at all. He took in a breath and said, "I... am sorry for having kidnapped you, and for having treated your life with complete disregard while you were in my custody." Even Kuja couldn't help but wince at how stiff he sounded, but despite his doubts he soldiered on. "I also apologize for the destruction of your home town so many years ago."

Eiko had smiled slightly in encouragement after the first sentence, but cocked her head a bit at the second. "Well, to be fair, I wasn't even born yet when Madain Sari was attacked. So that..." and she glanced at Garnet, "you can save that for someone who was there. But for the rest... thank you."

Kuja bowed his head briefly. He wondered if he was supposed to be feeling better yet, or if he had to apologize a lot more for that to happen. The latter, most likely. It wasn't like there was a shortage of people he had to make amends to.

He sighed heavily, figuring he might as well try and address the rest of the room while he was at it. He turned his eyes to Cid and Hilda, standing behind their adopted daughter. "I'm sorry for having kidnapped you, Lady, and for keeping you in my custody against your will for seven months. And for having stolen your ship. And to your regency... although I did not take part in the siege, I was the one who provided the means for Brahne to attack." He swallowed, wondering if that was sufficient. It seemed too little when he considered the length of time that he'd held onto Hilda, and the overall damage done to Lindblum.

Hilda made a small humming sound, and then said, "I thank you for that."

It had been too much to hope for to hear the words, "I forgive you," but Kuja didn't really have the expectation that he'd be forgiven. Being acknowledged for making the effort was a start, at least.

Kuja steeled himself and sought out Garnet next. She didn't meet his eyes, but it wasn't because she couldn't stand to look at him - she had a lot to think about, and not a lot of time to settle on a decision.

She was tired of misery, from the endless bloody wars that had punctured the fragile periods of peace in the Mist Continent, to the betrayal she'd felt when Zidane had walked away from her to save Kuja instead. Was retaliation the only answer? No; history had proven repeatedly how foolish and shortsighted a response that was - over a dozen wars had been fought between Lindblum and Alexandria alone; Cleyra and Burmecia had completely severed ties after their civil wars. Garnet had long decided that she would be the kind of monarch that would pursue peace, not power, and not war. She wanted to move on, both as an individual and as the figurehead of her country, even if that meant accepting her former enemy and granting him forgiveness. She was under no illusion that it'd be easy, but it wasn't like executing Kuja would change anything anyhow - nothing lost would suddenly be recovered; Zidane would never come back to her side to be her king. It would not bring back either of her mothers, nor her fathers.

Unaware of all that was going on in Garnet's mind, Kuja swallowed nervously. He'd tried voicing his regret to her before, had offered her his life in exchange for his misdeeds. Looking back on it, he didn't think he'd done a very good job of that. But before he could finish compiling a list in his head of all the ways he'd wronged her, the young queen said, "Uncle Cid, I think there's something we need to discuss."

"Regarding the upcoming trial?" Cid asked. Zidane perked up at that, and leaned against the bars, staring expectantly at Garnet, but did not interrupt.

"Yes. I would like your input, Uncle," said Garnet. Seeing Zidane's interest, she added, "There is a decision I need to make today."

The blonde inclined his head, accepting her answer. He had hoped that she had already made her decision, but it was at least encouraging that she was continuing to give it serious consideration.

After the queen and the Lindblum contingent departed, Zidane turned back to Kuja and smiled. "You did a good thing just now."

"Not enough for forgiveness," the silver-haired man replied, worry written all over his face.

"No, but that's all right. It's a bit much to expect to be forgiven just like that, just because you apologized. But it's a start."

Kuja sighed. Zidane was right, but it wasn't like he had much time to be changing anyone's minds. It didn't sit well to know that the trial was scheduled for the following afternoon. What was he supposed to do, pass messages through Beatrix and hope for a more favorable response?

Shaking his head, he flopped back onto the pallet and picked up the book he'd been reading, but left it in his lap, unopened. He was too nervous to be reading, but didn't know what else he could do at the moment.

Zidane took a seat next to Kuja and put his hand on the cover. "Want me to read it to you instead?"

Kuja nodded wordlessly, and handed it over. Zidane put his arm around his lover's shoulders before flipping the book open to where he'd last left off.

* * *

The pair of Genomes were mostly left to their own devices until lunch, in the form of generous bowls of stew and a plate of warm cookies, was delivered and consumed. Other than soldiers reporting in for shifts, no one else came down until mid-afternoon, when three more familiar faces from the past made an appearance: Mikoto, Vivi and Mr. 288. Zidane stood up to greet them, opting to open with a bow as he'd done with the Lindblum contingent, though he kept it shallow and quick this time.

"Mikoto, how have you been?" the thief asked as he straightened up.

"Hello, Zidane." Her voice was pretty much as monotone as before, but there was curiosity in her eyes. She turned her attention to the other man silently studying her from the rear of the cell. "Hello, Kuja. We finally meet."

"You're the third Angel of Death?" Kuja queried, though he knew better than to assume that just because this girl looked young and innocent, that she was no danger to him. "You were created to replace me."

Mikoto's head tilted slightly. "I suppose that is true, though I was never activated as an agent of destruction." She paused a moment, assessing both the tension in Kuja's body as well as the direction of his thoughts, then added, "I have no intention to bring you harm."

"Yet here you are, presumably to take part in my trial," Kuja was quick to point out.

"As representative for the Genomes, yes."

Kuja frowned. He'd destroyed their home world, but he wasn't really sorry for it either. Surely his "brethren" had to resent that, although... he wasn't really sure if they were capable of such a thing.

"For having displaced the Genomes, I..." he began awkwardly. What was the proper thing to say, when you wanted to be forgiven, and yet, did not regret your actions?

"Kuja... what you did was wrong. But you gave us all one thing: hope. We were all created for the wrong reason, but you alone defied our fate. We do not want to forget this." She gestured to the two robed figures standing nearby. "You did not create the Black Mages for the right reason either, but..."

"... But we're still grateful to be alive," the taller of the Black Mages said.

Kuja stared at Mr. 288, then glanced back at Mikoto. Hope? Gratitude? He hadn't done anything for those reasons. He'd been trying to survive, nothing more.

"If you hadn't rebelled, the Black Mages would've never existed. And the Genomes would have continued on with no souls, no choice, no future. It may not have been your intention, but you gave us those things." Mikoto shrugged slightly. "As far as a 'home,' the Black Mages have been very accommodating, and the Village has been more than adequate. We are pleased."

It still didn't make sense. If they didn't want him dead, then... "Then why are you here?"

Mikoto blinked at him. She had explained, though perhaps not clearly enough for the former mage's liking. "To represent the Genomes in your trial."

Kuja grumbled, shaking his head. He knew that Garland had seen fit to give her a soul, but to him, she sounded as blank as a typical mindless Genome. He looked back at the Black Mages. "And I assume the same holds true for you?"

Mr. 288 inclined his head, but Vivi was the one that took a small step forward, his eyes shifting from Kuja to Zidane and back. Finally he fixed them on Zidane. "Why did you lie to me? I thought we were friends," he said in a small voice.

"We are! And I didn't mean to. It's just..." Zidane shrugged helplessly, his arms flopping down at his sides. "It was just easier for me to go along with your assumption. Or so I thought." He sighed. "Vivi, I'm sorry. I was afraid..."

"You were afraid?" The smaller Black Mage took another step closer, his eyes glowing a bit brighter.

Zidane's voice dropped as if he were sharing a secret. "Yeah. I wanted to get back to Garnet, but I wanted to protect Kuja too. I really made a mess of things."

Vivi silently digested that, then said, "'I just wanna protect the people I'm with. Doesn't matter whether I can or not. It's what I believe in.'"

The younger male Genome cocked his head. "... Sounds familiar..."

"That's what you told me when we were in Madain Sari," Vivi replied.

Zidane stared at his friend, then nodded. Yes, now that he thought about it, he did remember saying that, back when Vivi was still struggling to come to terms with the concepts of life and death, and what it meant to live. Back when the Black Mages could do nothing but die in droves, either as weapons of war, or as newly born souls who could only huddle together in refuge.

Vivi seemed to be thinking along the same lines. "You also taught me that life doesn't last forever. That's why we have to help each other and live life to the fullest," he continued. His eyes flicked back to Kuja. "The Black Mages in the village had escaped there in hopes of living in peace, no matter how long or short their lives would be. But you still saw them as nothing but puppets. You tricked them into helping you!"

Kuja's chin dipped. "I won't deny it. I created you to be tools so I saw no reason not to use you as such." He shrugged slightly. "Well, to be fair, I viewed everyone as tools back then... At the time, I did not value any life but my own." There was an awkward moment of silence, then he added, "I am sorry for having deceived you, and for having created you, ironically, with the same sort of fatal flaw as my own."

Vivi took that in, then continued on, his expression unreadable. "I really hated you. But now you're Zidane's..." and he hesitated as he tried his best to figure out exactly what Kuja was, "... important person. I can't say I understand it, but if that's how Zidane feels..."

"Don't force yourself," Kuja said in a low voice. "If you can't forgive me, I don't blame you." He hesitated, then added, "I wouldn't have forgiven Garland even if he had asked for it. Just as I made you to be used, Garland made the Genomes to be used."

"And in turn, Garland was created by the Terrans for their use," Mikoto mused.

"You resented them both because they reminded you of yourself," Zidane said. He'd realized it quite a while ago, but had never voiced it.

Kuja's expression soured. "No. Well, maybe. I don't know." He hesitated, trying to decide which, if any, of those were true. Finally, he settled on one. "... Maybe?" He shook his head as if that would somehow provide more clarity.

Mr. 288's voice cut into the conversation. "We may have similarities, but we're not the same," he told Kuja. "You may not be able to forgive, but we Black Mages can."

Kuja blinked. "Forgive?"

"We had discussed it before coming here, and everyone in the village voted on the issue. It was decided that, assuming you showed remorse and a desire to change, we would show you mercy, because we do not want to continue this chain of resentment. As I told Zidane before, all we want is to be allowed to live the rest of our lives peacefully, nothing more," Mr. 288 explained.

"You... forgive me?" Kuja repeated. He sounded baffled, like a man trying to speak a language he was unfamiliar with. He looked over at Zidane - the only other person who'd ever outright forgiven him - then back at the trio on the other side of the bars. His eyes settled on the smallest of the three. "And you... Vivi, was it? You also agreed to this?"

Vivi's eyes flickered down a moment, then back up. "I voted against it. Mr. 288 and Mikoto voted in favor. But... I do agree that this was the fairest way for us all to make a decision. It gave every one of us the right to express our opinion, equally. So I support the village's decision, even if it is not my own."

Zidane looked slightly disappointed to hear that, because Vivi had been a very important friend, but he had a right to his opinion and he wasn't going to say anything against that.

Unnoticed by the discussion participants, Beatrix had been eavesdropping on the conversation with growing interest. Once she had heard what she'd hoped to hear - confirmation that the Black Mages and Genomes would not be asking for a death sentence - she'd quickly penned a message for her liege, then gave it to a trusted lieutenant to deliver immediately.

So just as conversation started to run dry, and the Black Mage Village representatives were saying goodbye and good luck to Zidane, several footsteps could be heard marching down the stairs to the dungeon, and Queen Garnet made another appearance.

There was a brief flurry of bowing and nodding, then Garnet said, "I have come to a decision. Zidane, I will grant you your request for shared sentencing," she announced, omitting the fact that it was Beatrix's report that had finally swayed her, along with Cid's agreement that Lindblum would also not seek a death penalty. Once she'd known for certain that the majority of the factions slated to participate in the trial weren't seeking a fatal result, she was willing to do as Zidane had asked.

"Thank you so much!" Zidane exclaimed, ignoring Kuja's hiss of frustration. Even if Kuja was mad... even if he didn't want to talk to the younger Genome ever again... as long as Kuja was alive, Zidane could endure the rest.

Garnet answered with a graceful nod, before inviting Mikoto, Vivi and Mr. 288 to accompany her back to the castle, to help her solidify her trial plan. She was thankful for Lindblum's support, and the Black Mage Village's likemindedness, and even the willingness of Treno, which had agreed to abide by the majority decision of the joint court, whatever it may be. But she was anticipating an uphill battle against the Burmecian contingent, due to arrive the next day.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

November 30, 2020