Title: The Show Must Go On
Author: bnomiko
Rating: PG-13 / R to R (maybe NC-17)
Pairing(s): eventual Zidane x Kuja
Spoilers: through the end of the game
Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Pain Is So Close to Pleasure" 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. 4: Pain Is So Close to Pleasure

* * *

When your plans go wrong - you turn out the light
But inside of your mind you put up a fight
Where are the answers that we're all searching for
There's nothing in this world to be sure of anymore
Some days you're feeling good, some days you're feeling bad
But if you're feeling happy someone else is always sad
Let the sweetness of love wipe the tears from your face
For better for worse, so let's make the best of the rest of our years

- "Pain Is So Close to Pleasure," Queen

* * *

The last of the snow finally melted as winter lost its grip upon the Outer Continent. Forced, prolonged inactivity obviously didn’t suit Zidane – as soon as it warmed up he began venturing out much more frequently, for longer periods of time, exploring the nearby areas and picking fights with whatever monsters he came across. Kuja on the other hand had never been the athletic nor adventurous type, so he had no desire to join the spry blonde on his trips. He excused himself by saying he didn’t feel up to exploring quite yet and instead sat at home and worried about the future, all while trying not to panic whenever Zidane stayed out a little later than expected.

Truthfully, Kuja wasn’t feeling that bad at all, at least physically, but he was rightfully worried that he’d never fully recover. He still could not use any magic nor any of his other latent abilities, like the telepathy he’d always taken for granted. His last attempt, he’d insisted on trying to heal some minor wounds Zidane had sustained in a scrap with a pair of Trolls. The effort had rendered him unconscious for nearly two days. When he'd finally awakened, Zidane had chewed him out thoroughly before begging him to stop with the magic lest he do some permanent damage, but Kuja had had a hard time agreeing to that. He couldn’t afford to lose his magic when it had been his only defense for so many years, and now that he’d made the whole world his enemy, he needed it more than ever.

But Zidane was probably closer to the truth than he’d realized. Kuja wondered if Garland had done to him that which he’d done to the Black Mages… and if that made it irony or karma? The Black Mages had been animated by the Mist that used to cover parts of Gaia. Their magic drew internally from that same source. The more they used their powers, the faster they wore out. So if he were correct in his assumption, and if Garland had been truthful that he’d die soon, then that had to mean that he didn’t have the life force to spare to power his magic. Even attempting one more low level spell could be enough to kill him. It was a hard truth to stomach, but Kuja bet even Zidane would say that he’d deserved it. That he’d reaped what he’d sowed.

Some days it was hard to keep from being overwhelmed by the reality of the situation. Kuja found himself hastily penning note after note detailing his last wishes, only to throw each and every one of them into the fire, as if by putting the words on paper he’d created a death curse that needed to be expunged. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to dwell on it. He didn’t want Zidane to think he’d given up and to give up on him in turn. But he couldn’t get it out of his head either; there was no fire that could burn away those thoughts completely.

So the mage – now former mage - tried a different tactic. He threw himself into all the previously neglected chores, washing and tailoring their clothes, sweeping up and cleaning up as best he could. They didn’t look any more stylish nor the house any less rundown, but at least they were all a little more presentable and comfortable than before. He even agreed to try his hand at cooking, though he really had no clue what he was doing, and they ended up eating cheese sandwiches more often than not. Kuja was surprised that Zidane didn’t complain about that, and even moreso every time the younger man thanked him for his efforts and happily ate whatever was put in front of him. Kuja wasn’t sure if Zidane was doing it to be polite, but it felt nice, being appreciated just for trying, even if all he was doing was screwing up.

Zidane really did appreciate what Kuja was trying to do, but sometimes he wondered if his smiles were slipping and his anxiety showing through. The whole situation felt awkward. He didn’t want to play house and have Kuja as his docile housewife, greeting him at the door with a kiss whenever he came back with firewood or supplies… though he had to admit he’d gotten used to both the kisses and being greeted upon his return. And Kuja wasn’t exactly docile, not even when he was being more agreeable like he'd been as of late. But it was hard reconciling the man who’d once been powerful enough to destroy entire planets with the one kneeling in front of the bathtub, wringing out the laundry, his long hair neatly tucked under a repurposed handkerchief.

More than once, the blonde thought to himself that if he hadn’t met Dagger, hadn’t fallen in love with her, that he might have considered staying with Kuja in their quiet little sanctuary instead. He’d grown comfortable in their life together and worried about what would happen once he left, even if it were only for a short while, like he’d planned. He didn’t know how well Kuja could manage on his own, given his lack of fighting prowess sans magic and the general state of his health. And if anyone were to see him and recognize him – not impossible given that they were a two day’s walk away from the Black Mage Village – and spread the news that he was still alive, it would be a total disaster. Kuja would be lucky if he got away with a sentence of life imprisonment in a dungeon somewhere. Zidane couldn’t let that happen. Not that he thought that Kuja deserved to get away scot free, but executing him wasn’t going to undo the damage that had been done or bring back the lives that had been lost.

But it wasn’t just his desire to protect Kuja that was making Zidane delay his return. It was no longer enough that Kuja "survived"… Zidane wanted him to find happiness too. Not that he hadn’t wanted that before as well, but… that first kiss had really changed things. Zidane no longer thought of Kuja as a brother, and even "friend" was no longer a sufficient term either. Kuja meant more to him than that. He was someone special. And Zidane felt… he felt… well, he supposed he really did like him. Loved him, even - though not that kind of love. That would be impossible. He couldn’t feel that way about another man, and he was in love with Dagger anyhow.

… So why didn’t he didn’t mind kissing the older man and sharing a bed with him even though they didn’t need to do so any longer? Why did he feel compelled to touch his hair or to gather him up into a hug whenever he could? Why did he like stealing glances at him? Why did being with him just feel so comfortable and right?

And what did Kuja think of him? How did he feel? He’d said before that he liked Zidane and of course he’d been the one to initiate the whole kissing thing, but at the same time he’d also claimed that he couldn’t feel love and was only interested in sharing some physical pleasure. Was the silver-haired Genome so desperate for some affection or attention that doing anything with anyone would suffice? Or was he equally confused as Zidane, feeling something but not knowing what to do about it or if he could even find the words to describe it? Zidane didn’t see a point in asking since Kuja rarely gave straight answers. And the younger man wasn’t sure if he wanted to know anyhow. The truth might only complicate things even more.

It was far easier to concentrate instead on the things that he did understand, that he could do something about. Zidane couldn’t even think about leaving Kuja and returning home without first making sure that the former mage could handle getting supplies and defending himself from roaming monsters along the way. And Zidane also needed to consider where he could find Kuja refuge – some place where he’d be safe and welcomed. He couldn’t expect him to stay out here in the middle of nowhere forever. That was no way to live. But it’d take time to weigh all the options…

For the time being, he could at least tackle the first two things on his list. That meant figuring out the best way to disguise Kuja so that he could make trips down to the Dwarven outpost and figuring out what kind of weapons would suit him, perhaps something like a staff or a rod. And although Kuja didn’t have any hand to hand combat experience, Zidane figured it couldn’t be too hard to teach him some basic moves. Kuja was smart. And he had plenty of free time to practice if he’d put down the broom and books once in a while. Zidane didn’t anticipate there’d be any problems with his plans.

* * *

After considering what items the supply outpost had available, Zidane bought a pair of Magician Cloaks as well as a Multina Racket and an Oak Staff. The cloaks would suffice as disguises for the time being – the Dwarves had never seen Kuja during his reign of terror so really the main concern was to keep any traveling Black Mages or Genomes from spotting them, especially if they ended up venturing closer to Conde Petie, which served as a trading hub for all the peoples in the area. And the weapons seemed to be reasonable choices for a beginner to work with. The flimsier, magic bolt flinging racket was ideal for distance attacks – Zidane thought that would feel most natural to Kuja – while the staff was there as backup, in case Kuja was forced into close range combat. The blonde figured that would be the most logical set up for Kuja, but once they’d had their first training session the next morning, he began to wonder if he’d bitten off more than he could chew.

Zidane was used to the way he and his Tantalus brothers had trained, so it hadn’t occurred to him to do things differently with Kuja. After they’d gone through the basics like stance and grip, Zidane figured they could try sparring a little so he could get a better sense of what Kuja’s innate fighting ability was like.

"Okay, I’m gonna make this real easy. I’m going to stand right here, and you swing at me."

One of Kuja’s eyebrows went up. "Um, are you sure…?"

"Of course I’m not going to let you hit me. I just want to see what you can do." Zidane stretched both his arms across his chest, then squared his shoulders and bent his knees a little, bouncing slightly where he stood. "Okay, give it your best shot, whenever you’re ready."

The taller man didn’t look entirely convinced, but after checking that his grip on the weapon was the way Zidane had showed him – firm and balanced, but not so tight that his wrists locked in place – he went ahead and planted his feet and took a swing.

Kuja had seen Zidane in action many times before, but it still amazed him just how fast the younger Genome could move. Zidane instantly dropped into a very low crouch to duck under Kuja’s swing, then immediately unsheathed his daggers, spun them, and swiftly brought the butt ends up into the underside of Kuja’s right arm before he even realized Zidane was retaliating.

The taller man immediately let out a cry, dropped his weapon, and took a step back, his left hand clamping down near the twinging spot on his arm. He looked stunned and stricken. "You hit me?" he yelped. "I can’t believe you did that!"

Zidane rolled his eyes. Kuja’s reaction was a bit much. He’d barely tapped him. "Uh, yeah, monsters aren’t going to stand there and wait their turn to attack you, you know."

"I thought we were just practicing!" Kuja protested.

"We are."

"So shouldn’t you… pull your punches or whatever?"

"I did. We’d be calling you ‘Stumpy’ right now if I’d been serious." Zidane flipped his daggers back around before resheathing them, then waved a few wayward strands of hair out of his face. Kuja took a half step back at the motion, looking betrayed. Zidane sighed. "Suck it up, this is how Tantalus does things. This is how I was trained, you know."

"It’s how I was trained too. That doesn’t mean I want to go through it again!"

Zidane blinked. "Really?"

"What, do you think Garland nicely asked me to go read up on magic and then pat me on my head and sent me on my way?" Kuja spat. His face was getting pretty red, and the tears that had welled up in his eyes right after Zidane had landed his blow were now threatening to spill over. Surely the blonde knew he didn’t have shields anymore. He’d probably never be able to erect them again. There was nothing he could do if Zidane wanted to test his defensive capabilities the way Garland had.

"Well, no, but…" Zidane scratched the back of his head awkwardly. "Sorry, I probably did overdo it. I thought it’d be helpful if we could spar with each other. But you only just started out today, so it’s probably too soon. It wasn’t going to be a fair fight no matter how you look at it."

Kuja just stared at him for a minute, frowning and absentmindedly rubbing his arm. "That’s really how you were trained?" he finally asked in a quiet voice when Zidane stepped up and took a hold of his arm to check if he’d actually done some damage.

Zidane paused to consider the question, then quickly finished his examination of the sore spot. It’d probably bruise a bit, but it wasn’t a big deal. He had held back after all. "Yeah, pretty much. Other than Ruby, it was all boys. We were really rowdy. So Baku’s idea of keeping order was to smack us all in the back of the head every so often but otherwise, he’d just let us beat each other up as we pleased. You learn to dodge pretty fast when there’s only one cookie left and you know everyone’s gonna try to punch you in the face because they want it too. Actually Baku was the worst of the bunch, now that I think about it. He almost always got the last cookie, damn it."

"So I delivered you from Garland and straight into the hands of barbarians, is that what you’re saying?"

Zidane simply shook his head and kissed Kuja’s arm. Just that small gesture caused him to visibly relax, just a little. The blonde hid his growing smile. It was cute that Kuja was worried that he’d done the wrong thing in taking him from Terra. But he was wrong if he thought Zidane was complaining. "It sounds worse than it was. We're pretty much family, you know? We weren’t really going to hurt one another. We were just trying to toughen each other up."

"So that’s what you were trying to do? Toughen me up?"

"Kinda. But it was underhanded, not telling you that I might hit back."

"I see… Well, it’s not like Garland warned me either. I’m pretty sure that’s why I picked up white magic much faster than black," Kuja said casually, though he still looked like he was going to flee if Zidane so much as looked at his daggers again.

Zidane stared at him. Kuja had this amazing way of verbally punching him right in the gut sometimes. The thief hadn’t realized… hadn’t thought that his actions would be taken that way. His Tantalus brothers would’ve called what he’d done tough love, but Kuja seemed to see it as the prelude to a torture session. Garland’s training methods must’ve been beyond brutal, though as always, Kuja refused to say anything more about it.

"Hey, come on. It’s not like that. I’m not trying to hurt you. You know that." Zidane ran his fingers through the ends of Kuja’s hair, then very gently tugged on a strand until Kuja lowered his chin to look at him. The blonde quickly took advantage of that to rise up on his toes and kiss Kuja on the mouth, but this time, a kiss wasn’t enough to smooth out the worried crease on Kuja’s forehead. "I’ll come up with a different way to train, okay?" Zidane promised. "Maybe I can just have you knock me around a bit or something instead."

"I don’t want to do that either! If I wouldn’t like it, why would I want to inflict that on you instead?"

"Believe me, if I can’t absorb or parry your blows, I’m doing something wrong," Zidane reminded him, though he was touched that Kuja didn’t want to risk the possibility of harming him. It made him feel even guiltier about the cheap shot he’d taken. "Or I guess we could just pick a tree or something to use as a training dummy."

"What, you have a vendetta against trees now?" Kuja snapped. As soon as the words were out he shook his head and took a breath to steady himself. He didn’t want to get upset. The younger Genome was trying to fix things. He wasn’t going to use force to make Kuja perform; he’d given his word on that. And so far he’d had a pretty good track record of keeping his promises. "No, that’s fine. Whatever you think is best."

Surprisingly Zidane humored him. "How about a dead tree then? Or a rock? Rocks don’t have feelings last I checked. Though… well, we’d probably break your staff if we went that route." He shrugged, struggling to keep his expression neutral. But it was kind of funny, seeing Kuja go from a planet destroyer – and he’d felled quite a number of trees on Terra before finally blowing it up – to an apparent tree hugger. Just another indication of how much he’d changed since his fall. "Dead tree it is then. I’ve seen a few of them scattered around."

Kuja didn’t feel like training anymore, but he didn’t say so. But Zidane must’ve gotten that vibe off of him anyhow, because instead of continuing the discussion, he switched subjects. "Hey, so what’s for lunch?"

"Lunch?"

"Yeah, you know… usually you’d be making sandwiches or something right about now."

"Oh." Kuja was frankly sick to death of sandwiches but it wasn’t like he could complain when he was the one that kept making them. "Sorry, I didn’t think about it," he mumbled as he tried to reroute his thoughts towards a culinary direction. Didn’t Zidane pick up a ham the day before? Or was it more cheese?

"Hmm, that’s okay. Want me to make lunch then instead?"

Kuja stared at him. Was Zidane offering because he wanted to make up for earlier? Was it really okay to let him do that, or was he being selfish in wanting more reassurance that Zidane’s apology had been genuine. "If you want…" he finally replied, still unsure as to what the right answer was.

"Okay then." And Zidane stooped to pick up Kuja’s staff, handed it to him, then offered Kuja his hand so they could walk back together. The taller man accepted. "But honestly, you make better sandwiches," Zidane added with a smile.

It didn’t matter that he didn’t agree. Kuja couldn’t stop himself from coloring slightly at the compliment. "Flattery won’t get you fed any faster."

"I know. But I just wanted to tell you that. Everyone’s good at something, right?"

"And bad at something else?" Kuja asked, looking at the staff in his hand.

"Pssh. I guarantee you’ll be a pro in no time with that thing. Trust me," the thief said confidently.

Kuja didn’t argue back, though it still felt weird to be carrying a weapon. It didn’t seem to want to settle into his hand. But it was easier to go along with Zidane’s idea than to try and find a reason to disagree.

* * *

Well, I take it back. So much for it being easy to teach an old dog new tricks…

Zidane sighed heavily. After a week or so of training, he was beginning to wonder if Kuja was a hopeless case after all. Even a six-year-old Eiko had been more adept at fighting, and she had been trying to hit things with a flute. A flute. At least she could kill oglops with it. Kuja probably couldn’t even manage that.

"Sometimes I think you’re not even trying," Zidane said, frustrated, watching as Kuja flailed at the training dummy he’d set up, which was simply a half rotten tree trunk girded by a moth eaten rug and some curtains from the house. "I’d say you hit like a girl, but I’ve seen how much damage Freya and Beatrix can do, and I’m not dumb enough to insult them like that."

Kuja stopped and took a few moments to catch his breath. A couple strands of hair had escaped the high ponytail he'd tied his hair in and stuck to his flushed, sweaty skin, and Zidane immediately felt bad for thinking Kuja hadn’t been giving it his all. "I can’t help it. I’m not any good at it, and my hands hurt!"

Zidane just nodded after a second’s thought. Kuja was right; it seemed melee weapons didn’t agree with him at all. His palms had blistered badly by the second day of training. He now wore gloves to protect his hands; other than his shoes, they’d been the only things usable from his old, flashy outfit. So at least he wasn’t earning new blisters, but the existing ones had to be a bit painful still.

Though… what Kuja said was only a partial truth. Not that he was going to tell Zidane that. The silver-haired Genome wanted to learn how to fight because he knew he needed to, but at the same time, he worried that if he got too good at it that Zidane would leave even sooner, thinking that Kuja would be fine and able to take care of himself. He wondered if he was somehow holding himself back or even sabotaging himself with thoughts like that?

Not that Kuja wanted to rely on Zidane or anything. He hadn’t ever relied on anyone. He could take care of himself just fine, as he’d done all his life. He didn’t need the younger man at all…

Except, it was nice having someone to talk to. It was nice having someone who would ask him how he felt and meant it, someone who’d kiss him and hug him and lay beside to him night after night without demanding anything in return.

It was almost like a fairy tale. And that’s all it was – a fantasy, an illusion. Kuja knew it wouldn’t last much longer no matter how much he tried to extend it. As the days grew longer Zidane spoke more and more about Alexandria and Lindblum, about how much he missed Dagger and his Tantalus brothers, about how worried he was that something had happened to someone and he wasn’t able to be there for them. Kuja didn’t want Zidane to go, but at the same time, he couldn’t ask him to stay. He owed him that much.

"Hey, are you listening?" Zidane’s loud voice bullied its way through Kuja’s brooding thoughts.

The former mage blinked and looked over to see Zidane approaching him, hand extended. "What?"

"I said, I shouldn’t have said what I said. I didn’t mean… that is, I know you’re trying, but you’ve gotten sloppier the last five minutes or so." He exhaled and tried again. "Are you really that tired?"

Kuja slowly nodded.

Zidane slapped his hands on Kuja’s shoulders and rubbed them briefly, his fingers digging into the muscles for a quick yet effective massage. Kuja groaned, his head rolling a little, his arms going slack at his side. Zidane chuckled and patted him on the back, making a mental note to give Kuja a more thorough massage later since it looked like he could use it. "All right, go ahead and take a break then. And hand me your staff. I want to try giving it a whirl since I haven’t had much practice with one. But make sure you watch what I’m doing, okay? The way I hold the staff, the way I extend my body into each strike, how I position my feet…"

A break sounded more than good. Kuja had been whacking at the tree for a good half-hour and all his muscles were protesting, though the mini rubdown had helped soothe the ache a tiny bit. It didn’t help that he’d put in the same amount of work the day before. And the day before that. And so on and so forth.

He handed Zidane the staff and quietly thanked him, before retreating to a relatively shady spot nearby so he could watch Zidane go through his paces on the training dummy.

What Zidane lacked in magical ability he more than made up for physically. He was far more powerful than his relatively slight build would indicate, and flexible and agile as well. Kuja’s best blows hadn’t done more than scuff up the cloth padding tied around the tree; Zidane’s opening blows were already hitting much harder and faster than that. Once he’d gotten warmed up, he really turned it on. The thief even added in all sorts of extra moves, ducking and dodging as if he were beset by multiple opponents, though nothing was done for the sake of being showy. His movements were deliberate and precise, elegant in their efficiency.

Kuja knew he was supposed to be taking notes on technique and positioning, but he found his mind wandering as the gently rising heat of day lulled him into a sort of daydream state. His eyes wandered over the clean lines of Zidane’s body, taking in the way his muscles bunched and stretched as he moved. The silver-haired man was even fascinated by the way Zidane’s golden tail whipped around as a counterbalance. Sometimes the sunlight would catch on it just so and make it look like it was glowing white for a split second, as if Zidane were on the verge of Trancing. And even though Kuja didn’t like being reminded that that was the one thing he’d never managed on his own, he thought he wouldn’t mind seeing Zidane Tranced again, just to admire the surge in his power.

As Zidane had no reason to Trance, he continued his practice session as he was. Kuja felt his eyelids gradually growing heavier. He shifted his weight so that he was leaning against the smoothest part of the large rock at his back and laced his hands over his stomach. His body was sore and he wanted very much to take a bath, but at least the spring warmth was pleasant, especially after the long and cold winter. Birds were chirping off in the distance, their songs punctuated by the rhythmic thwacks of Zidane’s strikes.

He hadn’t planned to nap, but regardless of intention, he ended up nodding off at some point. He wasn’t sure how long he was out for, but when he awoke, Zidane was no longer trying to demolish the training dummy and instead stood before him, head cocked, his shadow falling over Kuja’s mostly prone form like a blanket.

Kuja looked up, blinking. The blonde had taken his shirt off; he was sweaty and his chest heaved with each breath. Kuja couldn’t help but continue to stare even as he told himself that Zidane wasn’t his type at all: too short, babyfaced, simpleminded… Then again, those same traits had made him an unlikely hero as well. That, and the whole "Angel of Death raised by thieves" bit. But Zidane had performed admirably as the hero, hadn’t he?

And it wasn’t like Kuja really had a type. He’d never thought about it. It hadn’t mattered before. But he supposed if he had to pick, he’d go for a cute girl, not too young of course, with wide eyes and waves in her hair. Or maybe an older, elegant lady, poised and well spoken, with tasteful clothing that’d skim her curves. Or even a young man, not too muscular but not skinny either, with dark hair to contrast his own. Or a blonde would be okay too, since gold and silver would play nicely off one another… a blonde with blue eyes, an athletic build, and sunkissed skin.

Kuja facepalmed. I just described Zidane, didn’t I?

"What’s up?" Zidane asked as he flopped gracelessly onto the ground. He placed Kuja’s staff on the ground between them. When Kuja didn’t answer, Zidane just shrugged and pulled his hair tie loose from his ponytail before shaking out his sweat darkened locks. His hair was getting pretty long and scraggly, though it didn’t seem to bother him one bit. "Have a good nap?" he added with a smirk.

Kuja found himself reflexively running his fingers through his own long hair, though part of him wanted to reach out and touch Zidane’s instead. It probably wouldn’t hurt for him to get a trim as well, though the additional length wasn’t as noticeable on his hip length hair. "Can you pick up some shears next supply run?"

Zidane stared at the older man a moment, at the silver hair he was fingering. "Oh, heh. Yeah, I guess we could both use a trim. But I don’t need scissors for that!" The thief quickly pulled out one of his daggers, bent forward at the waist, and began cheerfully hacking at his bangs, much to Kuja’s horror.

"Don’t do that! It’s going to look like a mess!" Kuja yelped, expecting at any moment to hear a "Whoops!" and see a large chunk of hair – or an ear – go flying.

Zidane straightened back up slightly. All his hacking hadn’t made much of a difference to his overall look. His bangs were just shorter. "Why? This is how I always cut it."

"But… it’s uncivilized!"

Zidane just laughed. Being out in the sun with the dirt and bugs, getting in a good workout, and bantering with Kuja… it all put him in a very good mood.

"Besides, I didn’t say it looked bad. The longer length suits you," Kuja muttered.

The younger Genome tried to imagine himself letting it all grow out, until he had a lion’s mane of gold hair. "Really? But I’d end up looking like you, wouldn’t I?" Zidane joked as he reached out to play with Kuja’s ponytailed hair. Kuja immediately shifted away; he didn’t want sweaty hands making contact with his hair, even though he was in need of a bath himself. Zidane grinned and shrugged it off. "Aww, I was just kidding. We don’t look alike anyhow."

Zidane however did look like all the other Genomes. Sometimes Kuja wished he did as well. Not that he didn’t appreciate what his appearance had done for him, but it wasn’t always a good idea to stand out. He’d be recognized no matter where he went, unless he dyed his hair and tail Genome blonde and plucked out the feathers down to the quill. "Is that a good or a bad thing?" he said, more to himself than anything.

"Well, I don’t think Dagger would like it if we did."

Kuja made a face. He was tired of hearing her name over and over, as if he needed a reminder that Zidane was chomping at the bit to go "home." "And what about me? Where am I supposed to go? Or am I to live here as a hermit for the rest of my life, however short it might be?"

"Huh? Hey now, stop that! Look, you’re doing a lot better now. You’re not going to suddenly die."

"I might as well! It’s better than staying here by myself!"

Zidane frowned. But despite the subject, he didn’t lose his cool for once. "I didn’t want to say anything earlier – because I can’t promise anything, okay? – but I’ve been thinking about it, you know? I was going to talk to Mikoto and see if the Black Mages would let you live in their village. Or… and this is a long shot, mind you, but maybe if I gave her some time, Dagger might agree to pardon you. And then you could come to Alexandria and live with us. That wouldn’t be so bad, right?"

A pardon. What kind of queen would pardon the criminal mastermind who’d wiped out half her city, who’d killed both her birth parents and her foster mother? "You must be crazy – why would she? There isn’t a soul on this planet that would agree to that!"

"How can you be sure if you don’t try?"

Kuja simply shook his head. Zidane was totally unrealistic. He was going to be sorely disappointed someday when reality slapped him upside the head. He’d simply been lucky so far, that was all. But some small part of Kuja wanted to believe in him… And he quickly squashed that down. He didn’t do well with rejection or disappointment.

"I’ll find you some place to go. Believe me," Zidane said firmly, not realizing how much Kuja was struggling with it already.

Kuja picked up his staff and jumped to his feet. His body felt stiff and a bit sluggish, but he tried his best to hide it. "I assume you’re done," he said flatly as he pointed at the training dummy. It was still intact, though much more beaten up than before.

"What? Oh, that. Yeah, I guess…"

He could do it. He had to. Kuja knew he wouldn’t be able to rely on Zidane forever, and now it was sounding like he didn’t have much time to pick up the skills he’d need to survive. "I guess I better get in some more practice then," he said, and before Zidane could get in another word, he stalked off, ignoring the pain in his hands as they curled tight around the staff.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

July 16, 2012