Title: The Show Must Go On
Author: bnomiko
Rating: PG-13 / R to NC-17
Pairing(s): Zidane x Kuja, Blank + Marcus
Spoilers: through the end of the game
Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "Too Much Love Will Kill You" 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. 7: Too Much Love Will Kill You

* * *

I'm just the pieces of the man I used to be
Too many bitter tears are raining down on me
I'm far away from home
And I've been facing this alone
For much too long
Oh, I feel like no one ever told the truth to me
About growing up and what a struggle it would be
In my tangled state of mind
I've been looking back to find
Where I went wrong

Too much love will kill you
If you can't make up your mind
Torn between the lover
And the love you leave behind
You're headed for disaster
'Cos you never read the signs
Too much love will kill you - every time

- "Too Much Love Will Kill You," Queen

* * *

Zidane wasn’t as small as he used to be. He really was growing up fast. But he was still a child, fitting easily in Kuja’s arms as the silver-haired man threaded through the forest, searching for some sign of humanoid habitation amongst the trees.

Once or twice Kuja looked down at the head of blonde hair nestled under his chin. Zidane was clinging to him tightly but he didn’t seem afraid, never once asking where they were or what was going on. He was too trusting, but maybe that flaw would serve him well, given what Kuja was planning.

Garland had been preparing to start training Zidane. But Kuja thought the child was too small, too delicate both physically and mentally, to endure it. And if he were right then simply, Zidane would not survive.

Why that mattered so much, Kuja wasn’t exactly sure. The boy was, in many ways, his competition, but he was also a companion, the only other Genome with a soul and a will of his own. And he had chosen from the start to attach himself to Kuja, as if the young mage were his parent. His attachment had become so strong in fact that Garland had simply decided to leave Zidane’s care in Kuja’s hands. Kuja hadn't even been eight at the time and had had no experience with either babies or parental care before. It was understandable then that he didn’t handle the inconvenience well – Zidane had to be fed, bathed, cared for at all hours – to the point where Kuja had come close to killing him, but in the end they’d both somehow survived it. Kuja was grateful for that, actually… even if it had only been for a short while, it had been nice to have a warm body that snuggled up to him in bed, to have someone to talk to, who smiled at him when he spoke.

Kuja had never fully understood Garland’s logic in creating a Genome infant in the first place, but it had not been his place to question it. Nor was it his place to argue over training methods or anything else. Although he had been given free will, he was simply expected to do as he was told – arguing against orders or even balking would only earn him punishment. But Kuja could not stand idly by and let Garland have his way, not this time. If he had any say in it, Zidane would never know what it meant to be an Angel of Death.

The forest floor was dappled with light and heavily shaded by the canopy of leaves overhead. Kuja frowned and readjusted his grip on the child in his arms. Maybe he’d been wandering about for too long, or had taxed himself with too much teleporting around streams and fallen logs, but something was off. He felt a little lightheaded, as if he weren’t quite all there. Light and shadow seemed to blur, and he began losing sense of time and direction, but suddenly he stumbled upon a small clearing and there, he finally found what it was he’d been searching for.

There was a burly man pulling a cart loaded with firewood, with some boys of various ages by his side. They were a bit of a rough looking bunch, but the boys seemed adequately cared for, not that Kuja was any sort of expert on the subject. Wanting to make sure his assessment was correct, Kuja reached out with his powers and very lightly skimmed their thoughts. The man fancied himself an actor as well as a gentleman thief, though he was more a common pickpocket than anything else. The boys were orphans the man had taken in as apprentices / accomplices, but they did think favorably of him at least. It seemed that the man treated them like they were his sons.

Kuja put Zidane down. The boy looked up at him with wide eyes and clutched at the hem of his skirt, sensing that something was wrong. Kuja tried to put a calm, pleasant expression on his face as he crouched down to speak to him.

"See that man over there? I want you to go to him and tell him, ‘I am lost, can you please help me?’ Do you understand?" Kuja whispered, trying to keep his directions as easy as possible.

Zidane nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving Kuja’s face.

"Repeat what I just told you to say."

Zidane did as he was told, reciting the line word for word, his childish voice making it sound believable. Kuja was satisfied.

"Good. I will stay here and make sure everything goes to plan. And Zidane… if he asks you to go with him, do so. Understand?"

The kid nodded again.

"Good. Now go," the mage said. Zidane took a few steps forward, then balked and began turning back. Kuja tsked softly at him. "Get going." He reached out and gave the child a shove.

After a short pause, Zidane did as he was told, and the man reacted as Kuja had predicted – although he seemed surprised to see such a young child wandering about in the forest and even looked around a bit suspiciously, he knelt down almost immediately to speak to him. He even patted the child on the head as Zidane did his best to answer his questions, before picking him up and putting him on the cart. Kuja let go of the breath he’d been holding in, relieved, though he didn’t move. He needed to see the man take Zidane away, before he’d be able to make himself leave.

It was all working out. It almost seemed too good to be true. But as the cart began rolling away Zidane suddenly began looking around, his face scrunching up, and Kuja knew what was about to happen. He began rising to his feet, intending to beat a hasty retreat if he had to, just as Zidane burst into tears and began shrilly crying out, "Kuja! Kuja!"

The man began looking around again, then after tersely instructing the oldest boy to keep an eye on the others, began marching in the direction Zidane was trying to escape towards.

Kuja spun on his heel and fled as swiftly as he could. He could hear a gruff voice chasing after him, telling him to stop, interspersed with Zidane’s cries. Small branches tore at Kuja’s shoulder length hair and his feet seemed to trip over every exposed root, but he didn’t stop and instead ran even faster. He could still hear Zidane screaming his name, though his voice seemed to be growing smaller and more distant with every step.

Kuja put his head down and kept sprinting until he could no longer hear anything except his own ragged breaths and the pounding of his heart, until he’d completely lost himself in the forest, swallowed up by the shadows cast by the looming trees.

Had he done the right thing? Would that man really take care of Zidane? And would Zidane ever understand why he’d done it? He was so young still… maybe he’d just forget about everything: Terra, Garland… Kuja too. It would probably be for the best if that happened. At least now, he had a chance…

Kuja awoke, disoriented, to the sting of tears in the corner of his eyes. He’d had that dream before – or was it an old memory? He almost wished he knew for certain, but maybe it was better not knowing. Maybe Garland had been telling the truth, that he’d thrown Zidane away on Gaia out of jealousy. After all, he’d dreamed that before as well. Or maybe neither one was the truth? He would never know for certain; he couldn’t trust his own memory on what had happened back then because Garland had done something to scramble everything up when he’d been searching for some clue of Zidane’s whereabouts… It had been bad enough that Kuja had more or less forgotten about Zidane, seeing him only as a whisper in easily forgotten dreams, until they’d met again, so many years later. Even now, there were still a few gaps he couldn’t quite fill in…

And on that subject, where was Zidane anyhow? Suddenly nervous, Kuja called out to him, fearful that the thief had already snuck off, but then a familiar voice answered back and Kuja looked over to see a shaggy blonde head pop into view.

Zidane was sitting on the floor, already fully dressed, stuffing the very last of his things into his packs for his trip. Normally the older man liked taking his time waking up and getting up, but seeing that Zidane was on the verge of leaving, Kuja was startled into sitting up so quickly that his head spun for a moment.

Zidane glanced over, then turned back to his bags. "Morning. Hope I didn’t wake you," he said, pretending to focus on his task. Truth was, he didn’t have anything left to pack, but it was hard to even look in Kuja’s direction at the moment, considering the sheets were sliding off to reveal bare shoulders and chest. All the proof of just how messed up things had become was right there in front of him. In the end, he hadn’t gone back to the bedroom and hadn’t been able to sleep a wink on the sofa either, tossing and turning with all guilt and anger rampaging through his head. It had been an unforgettable experience… and an unforgivable one as well. The only thing he’d decided for sure was that he’d never let something like that happen again – even though some small, insistent part of him almost wanted it to - and that Dagger would never know.

"Is that so?" Kuja sighed once he’d gotten his bearings. It sure sounded like Zidane had been trying to sneak off without even saying goodbye…

"You looked like you needed the rest, that’s all," Zidane replied. Then he tacked on, "It wasn’t like I was going to leave without saying goodbye," as if he’d managed to read that much from Kuja’s mind. The former mage frowned at the prospect.

Kuja took a moment to compose himself as best he could, pulling the wrinkled sheets around his naked body and combing his fingers through tangled hair. He wanted a bath badly, but couldn’t risk running off to take one, lest Zidane disappeared. But he figured he probably looked like hell at the moment and certainly, felt like it too. He was still sore, though it had dwindled to a manageable dull twinge, just like he’d figured it would. Ignoring the pain, he forced himself out of bed and onto his feet. "Anything I can help with?" he asked, shuffling over a few steps. He didn’t really mean it. But anything was better than sitting there in silence.

Zidane gave him another glance. He wished Kuja would put some clothes on at least. It was horribly distracting; he couldn’t stop himself from remembering the feel of the body that lay beneath. "Thanks, but I’m good." Zidane gave the bag he’d been working on a pat, then stood up. "Actually… I think that’s everything. Um… and… so you want to have breakfast, or something?"

Kuja shut his eyes a moment. It was painfully awkward, trying to pretend like everything was fine, like it was just another morning, when it wasn’t. "I’m not really hungry…" Then he took a deep breath, and took the plunge. "Zidane… about last night…"

"Well I’m not hungry either so guess I better get going huh?" the younger man quickly blurted out in a huge rush.

"Um… I guess?"

They both stood there uncomfortably staring at the floor, then Zidane shifted forward a step. With departure imminent, it would be normal to want to go in for a hug, but that didn’t seem right – it was too much physical contact, especially with Kuja’s current lack of dress. Zidane ended up extending his hand for a handshake, and the result had to be one of the most awkward handshakes in the history of Gaia.

"I’ll come get you as soon as I can. So take care of yourself, okay?" Zidane said as their hands separated.

Kuja nodded slowly, then pulled his hand back until it disappeared under the sheets. It was strange… he felt numb, to the point where he hadn’t even registered the handshake. He’d confirmed that it had happened with his own eyes, but it was almost like he’d been a spectator, and not a participant.

There wasn’t anything else to talk about, with the obvious subject now dropped. Zidane managed a small smile, picked up his bags and slung them over his shoulders, and Kuja followed him as far as the front door. He leaned against the door frame, watching silently as Zidane went and got Choco and loaded his supplies onto the bird’s back, then jumped up himself.

Say something! a small voice screamed in Kuja’s mind, and he opened his mouth to speak, but he didn’t know what to say. And even if he did, it was probably too late for it anyhow.

Zidane looked back briefly once he was mounted. His eyes flickered across Kuja’s face, and what he was seeing, Kuja didn’t know, but whatever it was, it made Zidane add, "Well, I guess this is goodbye then," as Choco stomped his feet, eager to get moving.

"… Farewell, Zidane."

That was what Kuja had said at the Iifa Tree, when he’d been prepared to die alone. Zidane couldn’t leave it at that. "Don’t say it like that. I’ll see you later, I promise."

Zidane waited for Kuja to reply with a nod before he finally turned and began heading off, Choco stirring up a bit of dust with each step.

There was no good reason to remain standing there in nothing more than a sheet, but Kuja felt as if he couldn’t move, not until Zidane was completely out of sight, though it seemed the morning light was swallowing up both bird and rider far faster than Kuja would’ve liked.

From some distance away, Zidane looked back one more time before the house disappeared completely from view. It was weird; he’d lived there for nearly a year and had never thought of it as "home," but at the same time, he was going to miss it a little, weather worn roof and lumpy sofa and all. But most of all, he was going to miss Kuja, in spite of everything that had happened. Zidane could just barely make out the figure still standing in the doorway, a silent, white shape, almost like a ghost. Given that Kuja’s devastated departing expression was already beginning to haunt Zidane, that seemed an appropriate comparison, but Zidane steeled himself and kept going. He’d be back soon. He’d promised to return, after all.

* * *

When Zidane had been living with Kuja, all he could think about was Dagger, Tantalus, going home. And now that he was on his way back to the life he’d left behind, all he could think about… was Kuja.

He found himself stopping Choco from time to time as they made their way south. It was ridiculous… they’d only been apart for a few hours; the urge to turn around and return to Kuja’s side was that strong. But Zidane talked himself out of it each time. He figured it was guilt – for leaving, for having had sex with him – that was thrusting Kuja to the forefront of his thoughts. So he told himself to push past that. He had other obligations now, not just Kuja. He had to let his friends know that he was okay, that he’d survived the Iifa Tree. And he wanted to see Dagger badly, though he didn’t know how he was going to face her after what had transpired the night before.

Scattered thoughts notwithstanding, the trip to the Black Mage Village went smoothly, and by mid-afternoon Zidane had cleared the Dead Forest. Upon arriving at the village, he immediately noticed that it had gotten quite a bit larger since he’d last seen it… the influx of a few hundred Genomes certainly had affected the town’s growth.

As Zidane made his way down the village’s main road, gathering a number of curious glances along the way, he also began noticing the telltale signs of individuality emerging amongst his formerly soulless brethren. Some of them had adopted the Black Mage wardrobe: long dark coats, ballooned trousers, the ubiquitous pointed hats. Others had taken advantage of trade with the Dwarves and were dressed in a hodgepodge of colorful, sturdy woven fabrics. Their hairstyles were varied now as well… Zidane spied ponytails and braids on some, buzzcuts on others, and he thought he even saw a mohawk in the distance.

"Wow, I bet Garland would’ve flipped if he’d walked into Bran Bal and seen this," Zidane joked to himself. "It’d be like a rebellion or something."

"In a way, that is what it is," came a female voice from behind him. Zidane whipped around to see a familiar, pink clad Genome walking up to him with a short Black Mage in tow. A huge grin spread across Zidane’s face as he jumped off Choco’s back to greet them.

"Mikoto! And VIVI!" he yelled, immediately running over to hug his friend. It was such a relief to see him… As much as Zidane hadn’t wanted to think about it, it had been a real possibility that Vivi could’ve "stopped" some time during his absence. But the little guy was really there, and he hadn’t changed at all.

"Zidane, I can’t believe you’re here! I mean, Mikoto said you were all right, but…" Vivi faltered a little, trying to contain his emotions. But he couldn’t stop the tears of relief that started welling up. "It’s been so long!"

Zidane smiled, then hugged Vivi a little tighter. "Yeah, I know. I’m sorry, buddy. I didn’t mean to be gone so long!"

"I know. We were just so worried! Dagger, er, Queen Garnet most of all…"

Zidane released Vivi and nodded. He knew that. But it felt so good seeing Vivi and Mikoto that a lot of his anxiety was ebbing away. And now some of the other Black Mages and Genomes were congregating around them as well. While Zidane would be lying if he said he could remember meeting them all, he did recognize a few of them. He gave the group a smile and a wave, and received nods and smiles in return.

"So how are you, Zidane?" Mikoto asked.

Zidane turned to her. She’d grown up a bit more in the past year and now looked like a teenager. He couldn’t resist hugging her too, then picked her up as well and spun her around. Vivi laughed. Mikoto didn’t look nearly as entertained. "I’m good! How’s life treating you, ‘little sister?'"

"It’s fine, when it’s not spinning around."

Zidane grinned broadly and put her down. She’d grown up, but her personality hadn’t changed one bit.

"Where’s Kuja?" she asked as soon as her feet were solidly back on the ground.

Boy, she’s not cutting me any slack! Zidane thought. He knew she’d ask about him sooner or later. But Vivi was standing right there and had suddenly tensed up, and the rest of the Black Mages were starting to whisper to one another. Zidane hadn’t been ready to deal with a discussion about Kuja yet and could only think of alleviating their concerns as quickly as possible. "Don’t worry, he can’t hurt you anymore. I promise," he assured the lot.

"Is he… dead?" Vivi asked.

"He’s…" And Zidane paused, trying to think of what he could say to make things right. Then Vivi suddenly hugged him again.

"I’m sorry. You don’t have to talk about it right now if you don’t want to. I know… he mattered to you."

"Eh?" Zidane blinked, realizing quickly that Vivi had misunderstood his pause for something else. "No… well…" Gods, how do I explain it to him?

"Zidane, why don’t you come to my house for some tea, just the two of us?" Mikoto suddenly offered, and when Zidane looked over at her, she lifted an eyebrow slightly and he realized… she knew. So he accepted her invitation, handing Choco off to some villagers who were eager to introduce him to their own Bobby Corwen, and followed her back to her hut, wondering the whole while what it was that she wanted to say to him.

* * *

"So… how is Kuja?" Mikoto queried as soon as she’d shut the front door. She pointed to the kitchen table and Zidane sat down as the young woman began rummaging around the kitchen.

"Well, he’s okay, I guess… How’d you know he was alive?" Zidane asked while he glanced around at the tidy abode. The Genomes might’ve been displaying individuality in their clothing, but for the sake of ease of construction, they all lived in little round huts identical to the ones the Black Mages lived in. And like the Black Mages, they were probably living two or three to a house as well. He wondered what Mikoto’s housemates were like…

"I can track either one of you no matter where you are. That was one of the reasons for my creation."

"Was that so that Garland could find me when the time came?"

"Yes." She walked away from the stove and sat down across from Zidane. "So why have you come here now, alone?"

Zidane struggled to find an answer. Mikoto was so direct, so straightforward, unlike Kuja. Zidane had gotten so used to dealing with Kuja’s evasiveness that it was a little hard to switch gears and take Mikoto’s question at face value. "Well, I wanted to get back to my friends and stuff on the Mist Continent. And if possible, I thought that maybe Kuja could come live here. It’d be good for him if he could be with his own people, I think."

"The Invincible is here, if you require transport. As for the other matter…" Mikoto looked away briefly, uncharacteristically hesitant. "I have no objection. I believe the other Genomes would have no objection either. But the Black Mages… You’d need to talk to Mr. 288, at the very least. And to Vivi as well."

Zidane had kind of anticipated that, but at the same time, he had been hoping to skip past that part. "I see… But, you’re right. Though I admit I’m a little surprised that you don’t think the other Genomes would have a problem with it, considering what happened to Terra and all."

Mikoto pursed her lips a little. "Even though Kuja destroyed our world, we do not think of him as an enemy. We know that Kuja was not a good person. What he did was wrong. But he gave us one thing: hope. We were all created for the wrong reason, but he alone defied our fate. We have not forgotten that."

Zidane scratched his head. Mikoto made Kuja sound almost heroic or something. "Will you come with me to talk to Mr. 288 then?"

"If you’d like. However, I can not make a case to the Black Mages for Kuja coming here. The cause is yours, not mine."

It sounded cold, but she was only being truthful. And, Zidane suddenly remembered, she’d never met Kuja. She didn’t know him beyond his name and the one good thing he’d inadvertently done. She couldn’t say that he’d changed, that he was a better person now. Only Zidane knew that.

"Yeah… I guess you’re right. It is up to me… I’m just glad Mr. 288 is still around; I know he’ll at least hear me out." Then Zidane paused, realizing that he hadn’t really counted on there being many Black Mages around to protest Kuja’s possible arrival. But he had spotted plenty of them in the village. How had so many of them survived when Kuja had designed them to be disposable, when they’d been dropping like flies before that?

"Hey, so you figured out a way to keep the Black Mages from… er, ‘stopping?’ That’s fantastic! How’d you do it?"

Mikoto got up a moment to pour two cups of strong tea, then brought them back, a thoughtful look on her face as she began explaining. "I had a hypothesis based on what I knew of Garland’s design philosophy. Magic is indeed powerful, but it has a major drawback: it is not an infinite resource. It taxes the wielder; black magic, doubly so. Kuja understood that, and yet he seems to have believed himself immune to it, because he was designed to last longer. But he was wrong." Mikoto shook her head a brief moment. "I digress. Like Kuja, the Black Mages were created to be powerful, at the expense of their own lives. Logically then, if they were to refrain from using magic, they would live much longer lives."

"So… they’re not really Black Mages anymore, then," the thief couldn’t resist joking.

"Honestly, Zidane…"

"Then the same ‘fix’ would apply to Kuja?" Zidane mused, remembering all the times the older Genome had moaned that he was on the verge of dying.

"Correct. If he refrains from taxing himself further, he should not expire within the timeframe Garland had set for him."

Zidane breathed a sigh of relief and took a sip of his drink, but before he could get too comfortable Mikoto went on, her voice growing somber as if she had something weighing on her conscience. "But even if he had realized the truth about his own mortality, he would not have survived beyond Garland’s need of him. As the third Angel of Death, I was also intended as a failsafe against Kuja, to terminate him on command, and to return the body to Garland."

"What?!" Zidane yelped, nearly spitting out a mouthful of tea. How could she say that so casually? "Why??"

"Garland wanted to dissect him, to study the defects in his physical make up. Assuming the body was still viable after that, it would have most likely been reused as an empty vessel," Mikoto explained.

Zidane was horrified. No one deserved a fate like that. Had Kuja known that that was Garland’s eventual plan for him? Was that why he’d been so desperate to break free? "He’s not defective, and he certainly deserves better than to be treated like some sort of broken machine!" Zidane yelled. "Don’t you dare touch him!"

"I have no intention of doing anything to him now that both Garland and Terra are gone."

Zidane shook his head angrily. Before the conversation had taken a turn for the worse, he’d been thinking about asking Mikoto if she’d consider going and checking in on Kuja in his stead, but that didn’t seem right any longer.

Mikoto’s expression softened a little. "I did not mean to upset you. I… merely wanted to explain some things to you. Be assured I hold no ill will towards Kuja and do not wish him any harm. And if I had no other obligations I would have offered to go to his side in your stead. But there are things that I must do for this town, for the people here. They need guidance, support, representation. I believe… this is my purpose now."

Zidane slowly sat back down; he hadn’t realized he’d leapt to his feet in outrage. "Yeah… yeah, you’re right. Sorry... for yelling at you like that. It was just hard to hear..." He suddenly stopped, Garland’s last words to him echoing through his head. "Take care of Kuja," huh? So the old man really had meant for him to kill Kuja then. And he’d nearly gone through with it… he’d had every intention of killing the other Genome during the battle in Memoria, if that’s what it took to save the world he considered home.

"It is impossible to know for certain what Garland had intended. Perhaps, in the end, even he regretted how Kuja’s life had turned out. For he had the opportunity to order me to kill Kuja if you and your friends were unable to do so, but he did not." She shrugged, then added, "If you think about something that strongly, yes, it is the same to me as if you had yelled it out loud."

Zidane snorted. He’d always been curious about Mikoto’s powers. He supposed that answered that, then. But she had brought up an interesting point. Even though Kuja had created them, he’d resented the Black Mages for reminding him of what he was – a mere tool, a disposable weapon. Had Garland felt the same, resenting the life he’d created because it reminded him of the reason behind his own existence? "And if he had, at that point…?"

"I don’t know," Mikoto admitted. "Would I have killed Kuja to save the world I was created to destroy, the world which has now become our home? I can only say I am glad I did not have to make that decision." And then she put a finger to her lip, her brow creasing. "But to this day, I wonder… Kuja got to the crystal well before you did. Why did he not destroy it when he had the opportunity, if that was his goal? Or had that not been his intention in the first place?"

"What do you mean? Why else would he have gone there?"

"He thought he was dying. He knew you would follow."

"Uh, doesn’t that sound a bit extreme? Going to such lengths just so…" …just so he wouldn’t die alone, his brain finished for him, but Zidane couldn’t make himself say it. Then again, this was Kuja they were talking about. And Mikoto did have a point – Kuja had been waiting there for them, floating before the crystal, his face paler than usual, wreathed in hair and feathers red as blood. Zidane had assumed Kuja had waited because he’d wanted witnesses to his moment of triumph, wanted to make sure that the small band of heroes who dared to stand against him were the ones who died first. He hadn’t considered the other possibility until much later, but somewhere along the way, he’d forgotten all about it again.

The thief groaned. Now that he was thinking about it, he remembered too his reaction that day - he’d called Kuja a coward and told him to go die by himself.

"Look, can we talk about something else?" he muttered. "And why are you so concerned anyhow? It almost sounds like you want me to go back to him or something." All this talk about Kuja dying made him want to do just that. It was crazy… he hadn’t even been gone a day!

"I am not suggesting that you forget your friends and tether yourself to his side," Mikoto said. Then she added softly, "It means a great deal that we are free to choose our own destinies. Regardless of how it happened, that was the freedom he granted us, a freedom he never truly experienced himself."

"He will have it soon. I promised him I’d go back and get him as soon as I could find him safe haven," Zidane swore.

Mikoto gave a curt nod, satisfied, then asked, "So, will you be staying here for the night at least?" and Zidane stared blankly at her for several seconds before realizing she’d done exactly as he’d asked, dropping the subject.

"I’d planned to, though I really miss Dagger…" He trailed off. That sounded so flimsy and selfish after all the things Mikoto had said. He certainly had a lot to think about. "But, I would like to spend some time with Vivi. We have a lot of catching up to do."

"Yes."

Zidane paused, thinking if there was anything else he needed to ask Mikoto about, and then it dawned on him. "Say… can you check in on Kuja from here? You said you could track us…"

Mikoto shook her head. "The distance is too great. I only have the vague sense that he is alive, somewhere to the north… nothing more."

"Rats!"

"… But in your absence I can try to monitor him that much at least. Would that help you rest easier?"

Zidane gave a small sigh. Even though it wasn’t what he’d been hoping for it was certainly better than nothing, and Mikoto had been kind to offer. "Yeah, it would. Thanks a lot! You’re really amazing!"

She smiled a bit shyly at the praise, and Zidane smiled back. He suddenly realized that beneath the calm, cool surface was a nice girl who was trying her best to help those around her, even though it was a real challenge. She just wasn’t good at showing her emotions. Zidane had been feeling sorry for himself, feeling the responsibility of Kuja’s well being bearing down on him like a stone weight. But Mikoto had a lot on her shoulders too, and she wasn’t complaining at all.

He got up and went around the table and hugged her for the second time that day, noting that, like Kuja, she seemed a little confused by the display of affection. But she didn’t push him away or question it, and merely quietly commented, "I think I still have much to learn."

"That’s just how life is." I guess there’s things I still need to learn too… he told himself as he resolved to be a little more like Mikoto – less complaining, more self reliance - when it came to handling difficult situations.

Mikoto nodded.

"Oh, and thanks for the tea, by the way. It’s delicious."

Mikoto nodded again. "I’m glad. And you are welcome to stay for dinner as well, though beyond that… I must inform you, there’s no spare room…"

"I figured as much, and I wasn’t planning on imposing…" Zidane replied. "You have housemates, right?"

"Yes."

"And you all get along?"

"Yes."

"So… what are they like? Are they funny, interesting, nice..."

"They’re Genomes..."

Zidane laughed. It was such a Mikoto thing to say. But more than that, he was starting to feel a little more relaxed now that they’d sailed clear of the hard part of the conversation. Kuja was still on his mind of course, but having Mikoto’s reassurance was helping to take the edge off of his worry. And he liked having the chance to talk to her, to get to know her, too. He bet Kuja would like her as well. Zidane could hardly wait to introduce them to each other. If everything worked out, they’d get to meet pretty soon. It was just a matter of convincing the Black Mages to give Kuja a second chance, and Zidane was optimistic that they would.

* * *

Author’s Notes:

March 27, 2013