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 "Love Me Like There's No Tomorrow" 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. 35: Love Me Like There's No Tomorrow

* * *

So, love me like there's no tomorrow
Hold me in your arms, tell me you mean it
This is our last goodbye
And very soon it will be over
But today just love me like there's no tomorrow

- "Love Me Like There's No Tomorrow," Queen

* * *

The Burmecian contingent arrived the next morning via the Red Rose, as she was a larger and swifter ship than anything they had available.

"Thank you for the welcoming party," Freya dryly quipped as she and Fratley exited the airship, flanked by two other Dragon Knights. She'd expected maybe Steiner or Doctor Tot to be there to greet them, but instead it was the general herself, Beatrix. Freya's nose wrinkled slightly. They weren't friends... but they weren't exactly enemies, either. Acquaintances at best, tolerant of each other at worst - that about summed it up.

Beatrix showed no reaction to Freya's comment. Instead, she followed protocol, giving a salute, her fist coming to her chest. "Alexandria welcomes the Burmecian representatives. Thank you for coming, Sir Fratley and Freya."

"Yes, thank you for providing transport to our group," Fratley answered.

Beatrix gave a short nod. "There are guest rooms prepared for your contingent. Would you like to take a little time getting settled first, or would you rather confer with Her Majesty and the other factions before that?"

Freya and Fratley briefly exchanged looks. Then Freya said, "I'd like to talk to Queen Garnet first. Murph and Ross can see to our accommodations."

"Very well." The general motioned to a couple of her soldiers and directed them to take the Dragon Knights to their rooms, before inviting Freya and Fratley to walk with her.

As they made their way to the conference chamber, Freya couldn't resist commenting, "By the way, congratulations for finally catching Kuja. To be honest, I was starting to think he'd completely slipped out of our grasps... after all, he somehow managed to escape your dungeon..."

Beatrix's stride didn't falter. "As a party with a vested interest, it was explained to you, how that happened. It wasn't like he got out on his own."

Freya shook her head vigorously. "Zidane... that fool! What was he thinking?"

That got Beatrix to pause. "You could ask him yourself, if that is what you wish."

Freya shook her head again. Zidane had been her friend. He'd been an ally to both Burmecia and Cleyra. He'd led the campaign to stop Kuja and save Gaia. And yet, Zidane was the same man who'd decided to go after a fallen Kuja in the Iifa Basin, when it would've been more sensible to simply leave the other Genome to the fate he'd earned... the same man who'd decided to walk away from a fiancée and a future as a king, to save Kuja once again from the fate he'd deserved. It made no sense. She didn't want to understand Zidane's logic, if it could be called that.

The trio continued on in silence until they reached the conference room. Freya quickly assessed who was there, and frowned slightly at the realization that she and Fratley were among the last to arrive, as that meant the representatives from the other cities had had time to begin discussions about what they expected out of the upcoming trial. Normally that wouldn't be a concern, but given the personalities of those present, Freya was starting to wonder if anyone had been swayed by calls for mercy.

Nevertheless, she and Fratley showed respect to all of them in turn, starting with a bow to their host, Queen Garnet, then giving greetings to Regent Cid and Lady Hilda, and Mikoto and Mr. 288. They were then shown to their seats at the large round table in the center of the room, after which Beatrix bowed and took her place beside her queen.

"I assume representatives from Treno will be along shortly?" Fratley asked, after assessing the room in the same manner that Freya had.

"Treno will not be sending a delegation. They've agreed to abide by the results of the trial and sentencing," Beatrix announced.

"I see." So we really are the last ones here, Freya mused.

Garnet rose to her feet. "Thank you everyone, for coming despite the short notice. Now that all representatives are accounted for, we can begin preparation for the trial this afternoon. But before we start, I need to make everyone aware that I've agreed to grant Zidane his request for shared sentencing."

"Shared... sentencing?" Freya frowned. She hadn't known about a provision like that in Alexandrian law, but it was obvious enough what it entailed. Though she disagreed with Zidane had done, she really hadn't thought she'd have to consider sentencing him to such a harsh punishment. "Is there no way to refuse such a request?"

"The matter... was already discussed," sighed Steiner.

Freya started. "How did such a thing come to pass?"

The other leaders and representatives all looked at Garnet, who said, "Zidane formally made the request, as was his right. After discussing it with Regent Cid, I decided to grant it." She paused slightly, bracing for the outrage that she knew would come, and added, "And by agreement of the majority, the death penalty is off the table."

Freya leapt to her feet without even realizing it. "The majority?! That was decided without any Burmecian input!" She drew in a breath, her brain furiously clawing for an argument... "Queen Garnet... you previously sentenced Kuja to death. Why not enact the penalty you'd already given him?"

"I'm commuting that sentence," Garnet answered, then before Freya could sputter more protests, the sovereign held her hand up, asking for a little more time to explain herself. "I let my emotional state influence the previous trial and sentencing. I was so angry that Zidane had lied to me. I rushed the trial and gave in to Kuja's goading." She sighed softly. "I don't want to be like the Alexandrian queens of old, merciless and cruel."

"Merciless and cruel... like Kuja was, when he laid siege to Burmecia? Warriors, civilians... neither was spared. Entire families wiped out, down to the last child!" Freya's fist slammed on the table. Fratley reached over to put his hand on her arm, calming the angry woman slightly. "Survivors are still slowly emerging from hiding. We're still clearing away rubble. It will take years more to rebuild the city."

"Alexandria will continue to aid you as she can," Garnet assured her. Despite Kuja's role in the destruction, it had been Brahne's campaign; Alexandria wasn't blameless.

"As will Lindblum," said Regent Cid in agreement. "If peace is to come to the Mist Continent, it can't come on the back of more war and bloodshed."

The female Dragon Knight snorted and sank back into her seat, stewing. "So this whole trial is just a farce..."

"A farce, no. A formality, perhaps. Kuja and Zidane both agreed to plead guilty," Lady Hilda responded.

"Something to take into account during sentencing," mused Mikoto.

Garnet had already said she was commuting the previous sentence. Cid had talked about peace. Now Mikoto was advocating for leniency. Freya hissed. "Are you all saying they're simply going to go free?"

Mr. 288 shook his head. "Punishment is warranted. But death is too much. That is also the will of the remaining Black Mages."

"If not execution, then what? A fine? A scolding? For the sake of justice, he must be punished harshly!" Freya demanded.

"Justice, or retribution?" Beatrix asked.

Freya's head whipped in Beatrix's direction. Her eyes narrowed until they were slits, barely visible under the brim of her red cap. "You would do well to watch your tongue, General. Or have you forgotten the role you played in the ruin of Burmecia and Cleyra?"

"Then charge me for my crimes and put me on trial!" Beatrix challenged. "I have not forgotten. Neither has he," she stated, the harshness of her voice softening slightly. "He is in the dungeon. If you are so sure of your decision, then why not meet with him? If he is still the monster that you think he is, surely that won't change your vote."

Freya was absolutely seething. Why should she agree to meet him? For that matter, why shouldn't they put Beatrix on trial as well?! "I shouldn't be surprised that you would defend your old partner. Did the two of you compete to see who could rack up the most kills?"

The room fell silent.

"Freya, that's too much," Fratley finally said, quietly.

As her partner's voice of reason cut through her rage, the female Burmecian reluctantly backed down. Even she was starting to feel awkward with all eyes in the room upon her. "I... should not have said that. It was uncalled for."

Beatrix shrugged, brushing her curls back from her shoulder. Unperturbed, she repeated her challenge. "I ask again: will you not meet him? If you are so insistent on seeing someone put to death, should you not look him in the eye before dealing the blow?"

Fratley considered it, then moved his hand on top of Freya's. Reason had to prevail - the Freya he knew was not a coward who'd strike an opponent from behind. "I will come with you, if you wish."

Freya looked at his hand, then studied Fratley's face a moment. Reluctant though she was, he was right... not that she could say no to him, anyhow. She turned back to the assembled group, then rose to her feet. "All right, lead the way, General."

* * *

Steiner accompanied Freya and Fratley as Beatrix led the march to the dungeon. As they approached the first block of cells, the Burmecians could hear the sounds of a familiar childish voice, raised in admonishment. Apparently there was no restriction on visitors?

Freya was a bit startled, to say the least. Maybe Eiko's adoptive parents trusted Zidane, but with only a minimal number of soldiers and Kuja in the same cell, she didn't know how they could be okay with her hanging around the area.

As the quartet got closer they could hear snippets of the conversation, if it could be called that, as Eiko dominated the dialogue. She was apparently asking if Zidane was planning on marrying Kuja, while Vivi questioned if two men really could get married and if so, would that make Kuja Zidane's bride?

"Well of course he wouldn't be a bride! They'd be... husband one and husband two," the young Summoner insisted, with a dismissive wave as she'd seen her adoptive mother do. Actually she wasn't sure at all, but she sure wasn't going to let Vivi know that. Vivi was nodding at her, so he was clearly buying into it, but then the pair noticed who was approaching.

"Oh, Freya, did you come to see Zidane too?" Vivi asked.

Zidane flashed a lopsided smile at the Burmecians. "Hey Freya, Fratley, how's it going?"

Don't smile at me like nothing's wrong, thought Freya. She simply snorted in response instead, her eyes seeking out the other figure in the cell.

Kuja was sitting towards the back corner, wise enough to remain silent for the moment as he eyed her back.

After a brief staredown, Freya tsked under her breath and turned to Eiko. "Does Regent Cid know you're down here?"

Eiko thought about it, then answered, "Father didn't say I couldn't be down here."

"It's fine," said Beatrix. "She's capable enough. And there's guards - and Vivi too - if you're that concerned about her safety."

Freya sighed at how dismissive Beatrix was, then refocused on Eiko. "Anyhow, yes I'm here to see Zidane, so if it's okay, can you and Vivi leave for a little bit? We have adult things to discuss."

Eiko blinked up at her. "You can say adult things around me," she said in as serious a tone as she could manage.

Steiner blanched. "Lady Eiko, please... let me escort you back for now."

The young Summoner considered it, then said, "Well, if you insist. We'll come back later, Zidane. Kuja. Vivi, let's go."

Freya waited until she heard the heavy doors close behind the departing trio before turning back to Zidane. "You do love causing trouble, don't you?" she sighed like a disappointed auntie.

"Wasn't trying to," Zidane said, slightly sheepish.

She turned her attention on the other Genome in the cell. Now that she was here, facing him, the thousand insults that had sat ready on her tongue seemed to twist and tie themselves into a knotted ball, leaving her unsure of what to say, if anything. Maybe he was the one that needed to do the talking. "You. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

Kuja's eyes partially lowered towards the ground. "I'm sorry."

Freya seethed. She didn't want his apology. She really didn't care if he was repentant at all. "Your actions led directly to the deaths of thousands of people. The near genocide of the Summoners. The destruction of Burmecia, of Cleyra. Severe damage to both Lindblum and Alexandria. The destruction of your own home world."

"Yes," Kuja admitted, sounding defeated. He hesitated, then further explained, "That girl... er, Eiko, said I should try apologizing. But I know it doesn't change or fix anything."

"So why bother? Why pretend?" Freya hissed.

The former mage shrugged, slightly. "But... I am sorry."

"... I knew this was a waste of time," Freya muttered, turning her glare on Beatrix. "What is this supposed to accomplish?"

"What's a death sentence supposed to accomplish?" Beatrix volleyed. "It would not change anything. Burmecia would still need to be rebuilt; the survivors would still struggle to find their future."

"Except there'd be no future for him - no, us," Zidane cut in.

"Just as he took away the futures of all those that he killed, directly or indirectly?" Freya growled.

"But he's changed. Me too. Same with Beatrix, Garnet... even EIko and VIvi. Can you really say you're the same person you were a year ago, or two, three years ago?" Zidane challenged. "Can you really say you haven't done things you've regretted, and wished you could take them back? But that's not possible... all we can do is learn from our mistakes, resolve to not make them again, and become someone better so we can move on."

Before Freya could think of a retort, they were all distracted by the sound of multiple footfalls approaching, and Freya turned to see Steiner, a Burmecian male, and a young woman who resembled Garnet, but with lighter hair and a smattering of freckles, coming down the stairs.

Zidane's surprise was genuine. "Sara? And Clyde? What are you doing here?"

"We came as character witnesses for your trial. We ran into Sir Steiner," and Sara motioned at the knight, "and he said it'd be alright if we came to visit." She omitted the fact that there was nothing accidental about the "run in" - Steiner had gone to their rooms and asked if they wanted to talk to the imprisoned Genomes.

"I see. You happened to run into Steiner..." Beatrix said, just loud enough for her lover to hear. It earned her a glimpse of a flushed face, before Steiner ducked his head and coughed.

Freya wasn't paying attention to what the Alexandrians were doing; her eyes were fixed on Clyde as he dipped his head in a slight bow. "I greet the Dragon Knights Freya and Sir Fratley," he said.

He didn't look familiar, but she wondered if they'd met in passing. "Young man, do I know you?"

Clyde shook his head. "I'm Clyde Roussel. I had dreamt of being a Dragon Knight one day, but never made it past being a rank-and-file soldier."

Zidane started. "Wait, Clyde... I thought you were Cleyran? But Millie and Molly said..." If he had known about Clyde's origins, he wouldn't have risked bringing Kuja into town!

"... They're Cleyran." The rat-like man sighed. "You assumed I was, too, and I never bothered to... no, actually, the truth is, I didn't want you to know. Because I was a coward..."

"Then, do you know who that man is?" Freya asked, gesturing at Kuja.

Clyde gathered his courage and straightened up. "Yes."

"So much for your 'character witness,'" Freya scoffed under her breath.

"I know who he is and what he's done. And what he did was help save the town from a dragon's attack," Clyde clarified.

"I didn't do anything," Kuja half-heartedly protested. No matter what the townspeople claimed, Zidane was the hero, not him. He'd been nothing more than dragon bait.

"I saw your bravery when you ran in front of a dragon and fended off its blow with just a broomstick. If I had been half as brave back in Burmecia..."

"You would've simply been another casualty," Kuja said flatly.

Clyde frowned slightly. It had been his duty to die, if necessary, in protection of his country. Instead, he'd tucked his tail between his legs and run away. He'd been determined to not see such a thing happen again. But when the dragon had stormed through Nil, the best he could manage was to grab Millie and escape to safety. Still, he had to admit to himself, that was already more than he'd accomplished in Burmecia. He hadn't done much damage to the dragon, but even he'd managed to land a blow on it.

"I admit I voted to kick you both out of town," Clyde began. "I even considered scaring you out myself, my own fate in Nil be damned. But if you hadn't been there, both of you... I would've lost my home yet again." He shook his head, and glanced at Beatrix before turning back to Freya. "Ma'am... Freya... we've all made mistakes. But people can change. I believe I have. And I believe he has, too." He chuckled, then added under his breath, "My Cleyran bride-to-be will be most distraught if Kuja is unable to complete the main panel of her veil."

Freya cocked an eyebrow under the brim of her hat, then folded her arms. "Let's say he has changed, just like you claim. What's to stop him from changing back to how he was before?"

Zidane was the one to answer. "Garnet asked me the same thing. So I can only give you the same answer: I'd stop him myself, at the cost of my own life, if that's what it took."

"I find that unlikely," Freya scoffed.

"I was prepared for just that when I went after him in the Iifa Basin, if it had turned out to all be a trick. He understands that that hasn't changed." Zidane turned to look at Kuja. "It's not because I don't believe in him. It's because I love him that I won't let him fall into madness and despair again," he said pointedly, his blue eyes bright with the intensity of his declaration.

A pink flush colored Kuja's cheekbones, and he ducked his head slightly, though out of the corner of his eye, he could see Zidane smiling in understanding. As crazy as it sounded, he felt safer hearing that Zidane would stop him at any cost if he went mad again. No one had ever cared enough to consider that he had never wanted to be a weapon in the first place...

After a hesitant pause, Kuja shyly looked past everyone to ask Sara, "Since you're here, where's Silky?"

Zidane couldn't help but widen his grin at hearing Kuja inquiring about his kitten.

Despite the uncertainty of the situation, Sara managed a smile. "Arnett is watching over all your animals, so don't worry about them!"

"Thank goodness..." Kuja sighed. At least Silky and the birds would be okay, even if he didn't make it back...

Beatrix turned from watching Kuja to studying Freya's expression, what little there was to read. The Burmecian woman kept a straight face, but the general could see a hint of wavering in her eyes. Fratley was a little easier to figure out - he rubbed his chin and looked thoughtful. He noticed the direction of Beatrix's gaze, then said, "Freya, I do think we have much to think about."

"Do we?"

Fratley gave a small nod. "Shall we take a walk?"

Freya thought about it a moment, then agreed to it. As much as she hated to admit it, she was starting to have some doubts. Fratley would help her sort things out, she was sure of it.

* * *

The two Burmecians found themselves in a quiet garden by the side of the castle, with no one around except for a few guards patrolling the far perimeter. It was a perfect place for a quiet stroll... or a private chat.

"So, what are you thinking?" Fratley asked as Freya feigned interest in some flowering bushes.

She sighed heavily. "Am I really supposed to pretend nothing happened?"

Fratley sank onto a stone bench, and gestured for Freya to join him. When she remained standing, he said, "I still can't remember who I was before I lost my memory. But I know I would be quite distressed if I learned that I had done things that caused others to seek my life - how would I answer those accusations?"

"You are not the type of man who would've done such things!"

He shrugged. "I can neither prove nor disprove that."

Freya finally sat down. She put a hand on his knee. "But I believe it. I know you better than anyone."

Fratley gave her a thin smile. "Ahh... isn't that Zidane's argument as well?"

Freya grunted. "... Except it is a known and proven fact that Kuja is guilty of the things he's been accused of."

"Yes. And yet, that young friend of yours has bet his life on the belief that that man has changed."

"He's an idiot! He's always been an idiot!" Freya huffed. Then, almost to herself, she muttered, "Does Zidane really think I'm going to let him have his way, just because we were friends?"

Fratley tilted his head slightly. "Are you no longer friends?"

"I'm sure he still thinks of me that way, but that's just how he is."

"I notice you didn't answer the question."

Freya opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came out. Her hand came up instead to cover her face, and then she shook her head. "I... don't know," she admitted. "For those who perished in Burmecia, I know what must be done. But for myself... I don't want to lose another friend." She hesitated, then said in a small voice, "What should I do? What can I do?"

"What do you want to do?"

Freya sighed, slumping slightly. She'd never considered herself a leader, but circumstances dictated otherwise. She had to be one of the pillars that carried the future of her country, but here, now, with no one else around but her lover, she couldn't keep up her strength any longer. "When Zidane first came back, I was just happy to know that he'd survived the Iifa Basin. But when he disappeared with Kuja, just before the wedding... while I felt badly for Garnet of course, part of me hoped that that would be the last time we'd see them - I never intended to take up the chase for a madman yet again."

Fratley mulled it over. "Would you be satisfied if that was the outcome here? For the two of them to simply disappear?"

Her hands tightened into fists. "But we did find them. How can I pretend otherwise?"

"I am not advocating that they simply go free, without punishment. Lady Hilda mentioned that both Genomes agreed to plead guilty. So the result of the trial is already known. But the sentencing is another matter. Would you be comfortable with exile?"

Freya shut her eyes. "You're advocating mercy as well, then."

Fratley folded his arms and leaned back. "I tried to come into this with an open mind. After hearing from the other factions, I cannot help but wonder... perhaps the Cleyrans had the right idea. Is it finally time to put an end to all the conflict? How much war has this blood-soaked land seen? Generations... centuries... And what did all that strife yield? Burmecia is in ruins, her populace scattered to the winds. Even her young prince has no interest in taking his rightful place on the throne. We are a people teetering on the brink. What more can we afford to lose?"

Freya swallowed. She had no answer for that.

"I believe our ancestors will forgive us for looking forward, instead of miring ourselves in obsessive vengeance over past wrongs," Fratley continued. "But..." and he reached out and gently laid his hand on Freya's arm, as she opened her eyes to look at him, "the question is, can you accept that?"

She sighed, then gave a slow nod. No, she didn't have to like it. But, she supposed, she could live with it...

* * *

The trial itself went swiftly. As previously agreed, Zidane and Kuja both pled guilty to their respective accusations, speeding things along to the sentencing phase. Kuja had tacked another apology to his guilty plea - though it would've been more appropriate to save it for the sentencing phase that followed, no one could find fault with it.

Once the podium was opened up to the general audience, Sara and Clyde had their chance to make a case for leniency, and although Tantalus did not issue any statement, the fact that the entire group had shown up in support spoke volumes - Cid, of course, had tipped them off. No one present spoke up to ask for a harsher sentence.

As the faction representatives departed to the conference room to deliberate, Beatrix even permitted the Genomes to visit with their supporters, though they had to remain with her behind the divider that separated them from the gallery.

Zidane was his normal, optimistic self - he genuinely believed that things would work out - but Kuja was even more withdrawn than usual. He hung back, barely speaking to anyone, his tail dangling limply behind him. Zidane tried his best to include him in the conversation, but didn't push for it too hard; after all, given how the silver-haired man's first trial had gone, it was understandable that he'd be nervous. To try and reassure him without being too overt, Zidane kept his tail loosely wrapped around Kuja's the entire time, squeezing it gently every time he felt the older Genome tensing up.

After an unknown number of minutes ticked by, Kuja turned, slid his tail out of Zidane's grasp and sat back down to slump on the bench. He couldn't take the chatter and everyone's forced smiles anymore. He wasn't sure how much time had passed since deliberations had begun, but it felt like hours. He knew Zidane had only been trying to help him feel better, but every touch and squeeze was just another reminder that their fates were linked - if he was sentenced to death, he'd be dragging Zidane down with him. If he hadn't already deserved an eternity in damnation for his actions on Gaia, he'd definitely deserve it for causing the death of the one person he wanted to protect above all others.

He knotted his hands in his hair, barely aware of Zidane's concerned voice asking if he was okay, not hearing Beatrix order an underling to bring a glass of water. So he was caught slightly off guard when Zidane bent down and pressed the cool glass against his cheek.

"Hey. Here, take a few sips, okay? You're super pale right now," the blonde whispered, just loud enough for Kuja to hear, before straightening back up.

Kuja shakily accepted the glass and took a drink, but started as he suddenly remembered there was an entire audience behind them. But Zidane had positioned himself to block off most everyone's view, to give Kuja at least a modicum of privacy.

Slightly dazed, Kuja blinked up at his lover and almost immediately, flushed over the thought of just how stupid it was to be worried about the embarrassment of having a breakdown in front of everyone, when his life was on the line. "I'm... sorry. I'm okay," he said, trying to push away from Zidane a bit. But the younger man responded by wrapping an arm around Kuja and pulling him against his chest.

"No, you're not, but no one would expect you to be." Zidane sighed softly. "Now, I really, truly believe that somehow, things will work out. But, if they don't... Do you remember my promise to you? No matter what happens, I'll be by your side."

"I don't... want..."

"Yes, you do. Look, if this really is it, let's at least be honest with each other."

Kuja frowned against Zidane's shirt. Being honest with Zidane wasn't the hard part. Kuja wasn't sure if he could be honest with himself...

He didn't want to die. And he most certainly didn't want Zidane to die. But more than all of that... Kuja didn't want to die alone. It was an awful realization. Even though Zidane had demanded to share in Kuja's fate, it felt like betrayal to actually ask him to go through with it. But to refuse it was also a sort of betrayal.

If the situation was reversed, Kuja wondered if he could ever forgive Zidane if the younger Genome insisted on dying alone in order to protect him. He didn't know if he could survive that. Maybe that would be the worst punishment of all - to be alive yet left behind, with no recourse but to continue to live on, lest the other's sacrifice be in vain?

But before he had the chance to make up his mind on how he should handle Zidane's request for honesty, there was a sudden commotion as Steiner announced the return of the council - a decision had been made. And the former mage panicked as he realized, this really could be his last chance to say something...

Beatrix nudged Kuja to stand up as the faction leaders began filing into the chamber. He was rather unsteady but managed to do so on his own, but once he was up he suddenly swung his attention to Zidane and blurted out, "You'll... stay with me?" It wasn't exactly what he'd meant to ask. But saying, "You'll die with me?" only accounted for the worst possible result. As much as Kuja didn't believe anything better was possible, he knew Zidane did... and leaving that possibility open made it just a little more probable.

"Yes. Forever," Zidane promised.

Kuja tried to swallow down the lump in his throat, but it wouldn't budge. He went to nod instead, but at the last moment decided that that wasn't sufficient an answer and reached out to lace his fingers with Zidane's instead.

Zidane's answering smile was brilliant.

Kuja flushed slightly - if that was to be his last moment of happiness, then he was content. He tore his attention away from his lover to look up at the council that would decide their fates. He straightened up, ready to face the outcome, no matter what it was. But his hands were starting to sweat and his teeth ached from how tightly his jaw was clenching, even as he tried to force himself to relax.

"The council was unable to come to an unanimous decision," Garnet began, eliciting a few soft gasps from the spectators. "However, we are in agreement that the varied sentences are in fact compatible with one another, so all parties present have signed off their acceptance of such." She took a breath, pausing for just a moment, then, with everyone in attendance hanging on to her next words, she said," Zidane Tribal and Kuja, you are hereby sentenced to indefinite exile from the kingdom of Alexandria."

One moment, Kuja was upright; the next, he was on the ground, looking both surprised and dazed, as a few voices from the gallery called out their concern. He had steeled himself to accept whatever fate was thrown his way - execution, torture, life imprisonment - so why had his knees given out at something as forgiving as exile?

Zidane immediately crouched beside him. Seeing that Kuja was physically all right, just stunned, he managed to get the shaken former mage back up on his feet with a little extra help from Beatrix. Zidane ended up putting his arm around Kuja's waist to give him both physical and emotional support, so he could remain upright, no matter what else was said.

Seeing that both Genomes appeared stable enough to continue, Garnet nodded and continued on. "Burmecia, your decision?"

Freya shut her eyes momentarily, took a deep breath, and announced, "Burmecia also sentences the guilty parties to indefinite exile. On to Lindblum..."

Regent Cid cleared his throat. "The regency of Lindblum sentences Zidane and Kuja to provisional exile. Permission must be obtained from the regency prior to any visits."

The excited murmurs from the Tantalus members grew loud enough that Steiner had to call for order before they continued on.

Mikoto spoke for both the Black Mages and the Genomes. "The Genomes and the Black Mages of the Black Mage Village, call for a provisional exile as well." Then her voice softened slightly from its usual dry monotone, and she added, "Kuja, Zidane... I do hope that one day in the future you'll come visit. But, we'd like prior notice so we can inform the populace before your arrival." She managed a thin smile, then turned back to Garnet and nodded.

"Treno is absent but had previously agreed to abide by the sentence handed out by this court. In light of the fact that we could not agree on a single punishment, the two of you will either be indefinitely or provisionally exiled from Treno... For the time being, assume at the very least that you must obtain permission from the ruling council of Treno if you should decide to travel there. Once we have feedback from Treno, an official sentence will be sent to you via Mognet."

"Zidane Tribal and Kuja, do you understand and agree to abide by these sentences?" Steiner intoned.

"Yes, we do," Zidane replied. He couldn't hide the relief from his face. It wasn't just that their lives were spared, but they no longer had to live in hiding. He would even be allowed to visit his family from time to time. "Thank you all for your mercy!"

"We will not meet again," Freya said curtly. She stood up and briskly walked out as Zidane turned to accept the congratulations of his friends and family. Fratley followed her a moment later. The rest of the council remained seated as Beatrix unlatched the gate to allow the two Genomes to reunite with everyone in the gallery. Cid looked fairly pleased, as did Mikoto and Mr. 288, but Garnet was a bit wistful. Although she'd already accepted that things had ended between her and Zidane, it was still bittersweet, seeing him again. Seeing him move on. Knowing it was unlikely that they'd ever meet again, and the last thing she'd have to tell him was... to check the mail??

"When you are ready to go, Beatrix will escort you to the Red Rose," the young queen said over the din in the room. "May the winds speed your journey home," she added, a little more gently.

Zidane gave her a winsome smile and tipped his head in a nod, while Kuja gave a formal bow in acknowledgement and gratitude, as she too rose and exited the chamber, with Steiner in tow. The former mage didn't straighten back up until the door shut behind them.

Zidane turned to Kuja. "Ready to go home?"

"Home..." Kuja had never thought of Nil as home. Or was it that he'd been too afraid to grow attached, having never felt like he'd truly belonged anywhere before?

He looked at Sara's glowing face, at Clyde's sterner-but-friendly visage. He thought about all the people he'd become acquainted with that hadn't been able to make the trip - Arnett, Millie, Molly, Howard... He missed Silky, and the chickens and Choco, the tiny town library, and the little vegetable garden outside the lakeside cottage. Was that what "home" was?

His gaze fell to the blonde at his side. Kuja had heard the saying "home is where the heart is" before, but it had never made sense to him - what did a house have to do with one's feelings? But now he understood... as much as he liked the people in town, as much as he cared for his pets, as comfortable as they'd been in the cozy little house... none of it would've been "home" if not for Zidane. If that was where his heart had come to rest, he could think of no better place.

"Yes, let's go home," Kuja agreed, a small smile slipping out, as he loosely curled his tail around Zidane's.

Zidane couldn't resist pulling Kuja closer for a quick but heartfelt kiss, then, ignoring the chorus of cheering around them, he escorted his lover to the main exit and together, they walked out, hand in hand.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

January 19, 2022