Title: The Show Must Go On
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 "Don't Try So Hard" 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/
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The Show Must Go On
Ch. 8: Don't Try So Hard
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If you're searching out for something
Don't try so hard
If you're feeling kind of nothing
Don't try so hard
When your problems seem like mountains
Feel the need to find some answers
You can leave it for another day
Don't try so hard
- "Don't Try So Hard," Queen
* * *After leaving Mikoto's house, Zidane went and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening with Vivi. There was a lot to catch up on - it was amazing how much things had changed in the past year, not just in the Black Mage Village but for everyone on Gaia. Vivi had changed too. Being able to spend time with his own kind, helping them and being helped in turn, had done him a lot of good. He was still smaller than all the other Black Mages – Zidane wasn’t sure if he could ever physically “grow up” - but he was more confident than he used to be, and a lot more talkative. But thankfully, not everything had changed: Vivi was still thoughtful and considerate, a true friend. Despite the hours of conversation, the little Black Mage didn't ask any difficult or probing questions nor did he have anything bad to say about Kuja. He really seemed to be trying to avoid the subject altogether since he knew it wasn’t nice to speak ill of the dead. Zidane felt a little bad about deceiving him, but it was for the best, at least for the time being. He needed to talk to Mr. 288 first before letting Vivi in on the truth of the matter. He needed to know if Kuja stood any chance of a future here. After many rounds of Tetra Card Master – Kuja had never wanted to play – and a delicious dinner, the conversation slowly wound down. Zidane retired to the village’s inn, where he spent a predictably sleepless night. As comfortable as his lodgings were – and they were vastly better than the musty old house and lumpy bed he’d shared with Kuja – he was unable to settle down to restful slumber. Every time he managed to nod off he’d suddenly wake with a start, his arms reaching in vain for the body that should’ve been by his side. But Kuja wasn’t there. It was ridiculous to think that he’d gotten so used to the other man’s presence, but then again, it was their first night apart in almost a year. And even though it was for the best that he’d finally walked away, Zidane couldn’t help but worry. Was Kuja okay? Had he eaten enough for dinner? Was he keeping warm? Even though it wasn’t that cold out the house got a little drafty at times... The thief tossed and turned and fretted over those questions and more, until he finally fell asleep from exhaustion. Long as the night was, morning seemed to arrive all at once, rudely rousing Zidane with a sunbeam straight to the face. The sleepy Genome got up, groaning, intending to close the curtains, but then he thought better of it. Even though it was relatively early, since he was already up, he figured he might as well go and find Mr. 288 - always an early riser – and get his admission over with. Plus doing it so early in the morning meant it was unlikely anyone would overhear any of the conversation they’d be having. The de facto leader of the Black Mages wasn’t hard to find. He was at his usual post at the small hill that served as the town’s cemetery, on the outskirts of the village. He didn’t seem at all surprised to see Zidane there, and Zidane suddenly found himself hoping that Mikoto had changed her mind after all, and negotiated with Mr. 288 for asylum for Kuja. “Good morning,” said Mr. 288. “Good morning,” Zidane echoed in greeting as he joined the man in looking out over the cemetery. Hats and robes and other personal items, secured to the tops of staves and poles, fluttered atop each grave, memorializing the numerous Black Mages who'd "stopped." Zidane found himself starting to count the markers and sighed. He didn’t remember how many there’d been the last time he’d visited the village. How many more graves had been dug in the past year? He thought about what Mikoto had theorized in regards to the Black Mages’ – and Kuja’s – life spans, and mused aloud, “Has it really gotten better?" Mr. 288 took a moment to digest the question, then replied, “Before, we had to dig holes every week. After we began following Mikoto’s advice, it slowed to a few per month. In the last two months, we’ve only had to dig one." "Wow, so Mikoto was right.” Zidane knew he ought to be glad to get confirmation of that, but he still felt uneasy. “But then, it still hasn't stopped it completely..." Mr. 288 shook his head. "No. But we understand now; life is not eternal. One must be content… with what one has been given." Zidane nodded. “That’s a pretty good attitude to have.” It was a mindset Kuja didn’t have of course, though it was too abrupt to simply blurt out the truth. “Kuja… didn’t think that way,” he ended up saying, hoping to work the conversation towards that direction. “While I do not like the way he treated us, I think I understand, a little. It is the nature of all living things to do what they can to ensure their own survival.” There was a pause, then Mr. 288 slowly turned so that he fully faced Zidane, fixing his glowing gaze on the Genome. “He’s alive, isn’t he?” “Wha…” “Kuja isn’t dead.” “How… how’d you know?” Zidane asked even as his brain pointed out to him that if Mikoto had spoken up on Kuja’s behalf, then of course Mr. 288 would know. “Did Mikoto…?” Mr. 288 shook his head again. “I would have assumed you found your way here after he had passed, but you never confirmed that. Nor did you seem to be in mourning. Even though you were once enemies, I though you would’ve become friendly over the last several months.” “Friendly, yeah…” and then some. Zidane swallowed, quickly pushing that memory aside. “Yeah, you’re right.” Then he pursed his lips a little and let out a short whistle. “Wow, no pulling the wool over your eyes, huh?” The man certainly was sharp – no wonder he was respected by the other Black Mages as a sage and a leader. Mr. 288’s eyes brightened slightly. He might’ve been smiling at the compliment or frowning at the truth – it was hard to tell. Zidane took in a deep breath. “Um, so… there’s something I need to ask you then.” “I’m sorry, Zidane. I have to say no,” Mr. 288 said gravely. “But I didn’t even ask the question yet!” the blonde protested. “He cannot come here. Isn’t that what you wanted to ask?” Zidane gaped at the other man as he frantically tried to think of a good argument to persuade him to change his mind. “But he’s changed! He can’t hurt you anymore. He really can’t…” he began sputtering. Mr. 288 nodded. As a Black Mage he understood; the price they’d paid for their power had been great. And now he had confirmation that Kuja was facing the same grim penalty. “If you say so, then I do not doubt you,” he reassured Zidane. “But… his being here would be difficult for us.” “You are still afraid of him.” It wasn’t a question. “… Yes, we are. A little. Do you think that is unreasonable?” Zidane tried to think of what he could say in response to that – he wasn’t sure if there was anything he could say - but then Mr. 288 turned away and looked back out over the graveyard, at the many monuments dotting the grassy knoll. “We were created to be weapons just as he was. But when we gained awareness we realized we had a choice. He chose differently,” the Black Mage leader murmured. “He… he didn’t feel like he had a choice,” Zidane pointed out bitterly. He began worrying his lower lip between his teeth. He hated having to make the correlation, but he felt he had to. “There was a time when many of the Black Mages strayed down the wrong path as well.” “Yes, you are correct. And that is why he cannot come here. If something like that were to happen again…” Mr. 288 looked back at Zidane a moment before letting the rest of the thought go. The Black Mages were no longer weapons. They would never be again. “We want to build peaceful relations with the cities and countries on the other continents. Kuja’s mere presence would be problematic,” he explained, hoping that Zidane would understand. “Ah…” It was impossible to keep arguing. It felt unfair, but Mr. 288 was right; the Black Mage Village was still pretty isolated. If they wanted to open trade and communication with the other cities, having Kuja there would be a complication. And the Black Mages themselves still feared him. It wasn’t going to work out here, no matter what. “I am sorry. I would help you with anything else, but this…” “Yeah, I think I get it now. Though… um, can I ask you for something else then?” Zidane asked. The other man nodded once, his pointed hat tipping forth. “Please don’t tell anyone that he’s alive. Right now it’s just you, me and Mikoto that know. And I get that you’re afraid of him, but honest, he really won’t come here or do anything to you ever again. So please, don’t hurt him,” Zidane said in a rush, trying to get everything out before Mr. 288 could launch a counter argument. He hoped he hadn’t made a mistake in confiding in the man in the first place. After several seconds of silence Mr. 288 tapped his staff on the ground, once. “You have my word. We Black Mages will not search for, harm or punish Kuja for what occurred in the past, for despite everything, he is still our creator, and we are grateful for the lives we have,” he swore. “We only wish to live in peace, nothing more.” Zidane sighed heavily. He held out his hand to seal the deal. “Thank you. It’s a relief, hearing that.” Mr. 288 accepted the handshake. “I do hope… that you find some place that will suit your needs.” Zidane’s thoughts were already racing towards Lindblum… Tantalus’ home and his as well. “Yeah, I think I know just the place. But I’ll need to head to the Mist Continent first…” He wondered how rough the ride would be over the seas via Choco, or would it be better to take the underground route through Fossil Roo? “Ah, that, we can help with. The Invincible is available, if you should need it.” The blonde thought the warship would’ve been permanently grounded, given the massive destruction it had caused, but apparently the villagers had found some use for it after all. “Really? I didn’t think anyone would want to keep it around.” “With help from the Genomes and the humans of Lindblum, it has been disarmed, though it remains the fastest ship on Gaia. It is now a very reliable cargo vessel. It can deliver you to your destination as well.” Zidane nodded. As with Kuja and the Black Mages, perhaps things were never as cut and dry as they first seemed. Kuja was no longer an Angel of Death; the Black Mages were no longer mindless puppets, expendable tools of war. Even the Invincible had changed to serve a new purpose, one it had never been designed for. And it really was fitting in a way: the ship that had first brought him to Gaia, that had served as a lifeline for the Genomes, would be the one to bring him back home. “Thanks, that’ll be a great help. And, well… though I don’t want to do anything that would mess up your schedules, when’s the next flight to the Mist Continent supposed to be?” Zidane asked. The Black Mage’s eyes flickered again. This time, Zidane was pretty sure it was a reaction of amusement. “I assume you want to be reunited with your friends as quickly as possible. It will not cause us great inconvenience if you wish to leave today.” Zidane smiled. “Yeah, no time like the present!” While he would’ve loved to stay and spend more time with Vivi and Mikoto, he really was looking forward to seeing his family again. And he wanted to get the whole matter with Kuja resolved as well; it was weighing on him more heavily than he would’ve liked. “But I do want to say some goodbyes before I go.” “I understand. I will have the crew assemble later this morning, will that be sufficient?” “Yes, thanks!” They shook hands again, then Zidane bade Mr. 288 goodbye and headed back to the inn. It was still relatively early, too early to go to see Vivi or Mikoto to say goodbye. He told himself he ought to try and get a little sleep before the flight, though he realized he was probably too wired to nap. But he lay down on the bed anyhow and simply stared up at the ceiling, smiling at the realization that he was finally heading home. * * * The Invincible was still as swift as Zidane remembered. Even though they departed from the Black Mage Village just past mid-morning, by the afternoon, they were already at Lindblum’s Falcon’s Gate, waiting for permission to dock. As soon as they were secured in the city’s massive airship dock Zidane thanked the crew of Genomes and Black Mages before unloading Choco and taking off. After releasing his feathered companion at the main gates – Choco was just too big to be left wandering about the streets of the city – Zidane headed for the restored air cabs that served as the main form of transit between the city’s four districts. The theater district that sat above the Falcon’s Gate was his destination; he just hoped that Tantalus was around. He’d be more than a little disappointed if he waltzed in to make his grand reappearance, only to find out they were out traveling for shows or something. The city appeared to be mostly recovered from Brahne’s siege. The theater district, which had been decimated during the attack, looked as good as it ever had. All the rubble was gone; broken stairs and walkways had been repaired, and citizens were once again patronizing the area. The old clock tower that served as Tantalus’ base had also been restored, mostly… it still looked a bit shabby and dated, but Baku had always preferred it “well worn.” It seemed some things never changed. Upon reaching the door to his old home, Zidane paused and took a deep breath. Now that he was there he couldn’t think of anything cool or witty to say in greeting. He wondered if everyone had assumed he’d died in the Iifa Basin. Maybe they’d think he was a ghost or something; maybe he’d be able to give them a good scare. That would be momentarily amusing at least. Oh well, let’s do this. He exhaled, walked up the stairs, and pushed open the heavy wooden doors. “Hi everyone, I’m home!” Zidane cried out. All conversation dropped off as everyone in the hideout turned to stare at him. Marcus, Cinna and Baku were seated at the large table in the center of the room. Judging by the messy pile of books and papers it looked like they’d been flipping through some scripts, probably trying to decide on the next play they’d be bringing to the stage. Blank had been leaning against the wall but pushed away from it to quickly walk over and clap his hands on Zidane’s shoulders, grinning broadly at his “little brother.” Baku’s loud, sudden sneeze shattered the silence. He put down the scripts he’d been shuffling through and cleared his throat. “Well well, if it isn’t Zidane. What are you doing here?” Zidane gawked at the man who’d raised him for a good several seconds before yelling back, “What do you mean what am I doing here!? What kind of greeting is that? Sheesh!” “The kid has a point. He has been gone for a year, Boss,” Marcus said coolly, rocking back in his chair a bit. He gave Zidane a toothy grin that rivaled Blank’s, but unlike his “bro” made no attempt to get up, as if it were no big deal for a family member to stroll in through the front door after a year’s absence. “Welcome home, kiddo,” Blank added, finally granting Zidane the words he’d been waiting to hear. He gave the Genome’s hair a good ruffle, earning him a light swat to the hand. Zidane didn’t mind the show of affection, but he wasn’t a kid anymore and didn’t want to be treated as such, especially since he was now taller than Blank by an extra inch or two. Blank wasn’t so easily deterred though and ruffled the blonde locks again, much to Zidane’s dismay. Almost immediately they began tussling with one another. “Home, bah! He ain’t Tantalus anymore, so why are ya here instead of running off to see your princess?” Baku asked. “’Cause maybe I wanted to come and see you all and let you know I was alive?” Zidane huffed, pushing Blank off as the redhead tried to put him in a headlock. Blank chuckled. Truth was, they’d all been worried about Zidane. The younger man had been gone so long, it really had felt like he was never coming back. But Baku wasn’t ever going to admit to that; it’d ruin his tough guy image. And the other members of Tantalus mirrored that attitude. “Yeah, but we all knew you were fine. You wouldn’t go down so easily.” “We figured you just wanted… a vacation, or something!” Cinna cheerfully added. “A vacation?!” Several heads nodded. “The thought of proposing marriage is enough to make many a man want to run for the hills. And you’d be proposing to a queen, no less!” Marcus clarified. “Don’t be stupid, I want to be with Dagger more than anything!” Zidane yelled back. He was no coward! “Well then, what are ya waiting for?” Baku demanded. “I… just have to figure out how I wanna pop the question. It’s a big deal, you know? I figured maybe you guys could help.” That was met with more nodding, which was reassuring. But then before the blonde could get too happy about their agreement, Kuja’s image flashed through his mind again, so strongly that it almost seemed that he were standing there in the room with everyone. Zidane frowned, faltering a little. “And, well, there’s something else I have to take care of too, something important… Boss, I need to talk to you.” “Hmm? Okay then, spit it out.” “… In private. Please,” Zidane added, a little more urgently. After Mr. 288’s earlier rejection of Kuja, he really needed Baku to agree to take in the older Genome. Yes, Zidane wanted to be with Dagger more than anything, but there was no way he could think about that without getting the matter of Kuja’s placement squared away first. For a moment it looked as if Baku was going to be pigheaded and not agree to it, but finally the large man inclined his head. “All right, all right, I’ll hear ya out.” Then he waved his hand at the others in the room. “Out with you lot - and take the scripts with ya! Go practice outside ‘til Zidane’s done with whatever it is he has ta say.” “Geez, the kid just got back and already we’re being booted out before we’ve had the chance to grill him over what he’s been doing this past year,” Marcus grumbled as he grabbed a sheaf of paper and stood up. He slung his arm around Blank’s shoulders and began herding him out of the room. Blank leaned into Marcus a little and laughed. “We can grill him later. Right, Zidane?” “Uh, sure,” Zidane mumbled, momentarily distracted. Strange… he’d always known Marcus and Blank were close, but had they always been that close? It felt like there was something going on… or was he reading too much into it? “We’ll hold you to that!” Cinna added before chasing after the other two as they left the room. He didn’t seem to think that anything was amiss. “Hey, wait up!” Zidane remained silent until he could no longer hear the departing footsteps before turning his attention back to Baku. He wondered if he should tell Baku to sit down first, but then decided to just give it to him straight. “I need to ask for a big favor.” Baku sighed heavily, folding his burly arms. He had a bad feeling he knew where Zidane was heading with an opener like that. It wasn’t like the young thief to have gone missing for so many months for no reason. “Lemme guess. You weren’t the only one who wouldn’t go down so easily,” he said gruffly, echoing Blank’s words from earlier. Zidane nodded, and decided to pull out a chair and sit down. This was either going to be one hell of a long conversation, or over and done with in a flash. Either way, he wanted to make sure he was ready for whatever Baku’s reaction might be. The blonde took a deep breath, then decided to just go for it. It was always best to be as direct as possible with Baku; he didn’t put up with bull from anyone. “Kuja needs a place to stay…” Zidane began. “And?” “BOSS…” “So ya thought you’d come here and ask me? Hmm… ” And Baku began stroking his beard and pacing, looking rather thoughtful, and for a moment Zidane thought he’d found the solution to his problem, just like that. But then the older man opened his mouth again and sent Zidane’s hopes crashing. “Nope, I won’t do it.” “Wha? Well, why not?” It really had seemed for a second that the Tantalus leader had been considering it, so what had stopped him? If it was about all the bad things Kuja had done, he was pretty sure he could convince Baku that the former mage had changed… Baku eyed his adopted son critically. “Zidane, ya can’t go passing off your problems onto others, ya know?” “Wha… I’m not trying to pass off my problems, I’m just trying to find Kuja a home!” “He’s not a stray kitten. You can’t just drop him off wherever ya please.” “He just needs a place to live! Anywhere, I don’t care!” Zidane cried out in frustration. This wasn’t how he’d thought the conversation would go at all. “So it’d be good ‘nough if I were to lock him up on the Prima Vista II and throw him bread every few days? That ain’t living, Zidane.” Baku sighed. “Geez, yer such a kid. I’d thought you’d grown up a bit more by now.” “I’m not asking you to take him in for free. I’m sure he’d help out, earn his keep…” Zidane grumbled. “Oh? Doin’ what? I couldn’t even have him scrub the decks!” Baku argued back. He stopped to scratch the back of his head, then said, “Look, I guess ya don’t know, but there’s a huge bounty on his head. From Burmecia, Alexandria, Lindblum… even Treno.” “Treno too?” Well, there went another possibility, though the young thief didn’t understand why a city-state that had been unaffected by Kuja’s campaign was in on the bounty hunt too. Maybe they were just following the lead of all the other cities? “Yeah. Something about bein’ wanted for the murder of a Mr. King, who’d owned the auction house…” Zidane made a face. Well yes, there was that… Kuja had even admitted to it during a conversation at one point, though he’d said the man deserved it. As usual, he hadn’t explained anything past that… but one way or another, he’d managed to gain control of the most lucrative business in Treno.
“Look, I know he did some awful things. I’m not saying he didn’t. But he’s not a bad person. He’s really changed. He just needs someone to give him a chance,” Zidane tried again.“Even if you think that way, others won’t agree. And I told ya before: my boys come first. If I wasn’t willin’ to risk Tantalus for a princess, I certainly won’t be riskin’ Tantalus to shelter the world’s most wanted criminal, ya know?” Zidane did remember. He also remembered that Baku had ended up sending Blank to lend a hand with Dagger’s rescue. He smirked slightly at his adoptive father, as if calling him out on his bluff, and Baku roared back, “Don’t push your luck boy, I ain’t doin’ that again! This isn’t yer pretty little queen yer askin’ me to save!” “But…!” “Ya can’t even give me a good reason why I should. ‘He just needs a chance. He just needs a place ta stay.’ Bah!” “But… I promised I’d find him place to live. I can’t stop worrying about it. I need to find him a home, or I don’t know what I’ll do,” Zidane said desperately. “That’s it?” Baku probed. Zidane suddenly wondered what, if anything, was showing in his expression. “… And because… when I was little, I think he was trying to help me, bringing me here. So I owe him. I have to do this for him.” Baku seemed to be mulling it over again. Then he suddenly blurted out, “Silver hair and a silver tail, right? A pretty face, like a girl? That sound like him?” “Huh? How’d you…” When had Baku seen Kuja before? Or… “Is there something you aren’t telling me?” Baku rubbed his beard a few moments more before he seemed to make up his mind about something. Very carefully he said, “You cried for him for days after we picked you up in the forest.” Zidane was floored. Baku had met Kuja back then?! He’d never said a word about it, even though Zidane had asked many, many times about what had happened that day. “…. Why didn’t you tell me about that? Do you know how hard I tried to find out anything I could about my past?!” “Yeah, you ran away from home because of it, ya dummy! I wasn’t gonna let ya do that again! B’sides… I thought it was for tha’ best that you’d forgotten.” Seeing Zidane’s doubtful expression, Baku explained, “Look, I’d thought he was a woman – your mother or somethin’. And the way he was dressed, I thought mebbe… he was a ‘working girl’ and that’s why he was lookin’ ta get rid of ya. Why would I want ya to find out somethin’ like that? I didn’t want ya go back to some dame who’d dumped you in a forest.” … Except Kuja hadn’t “dumped” him. Baku’s story was undeniable proof of that. Kuja really had tried to save Zidane from sharing his fate, just like the younger Genome had thought. But Kuja didn’t know that. He couldn’t remember; his memories had been damaged by whatever Garland had done to him after he’d gone back to Terra, intent on shielding his younger counterpart even if it meant sacrificing himself. It made Zidane want to leave Lindblum and run back to Kuja to tell him the truth, because he deserved to know. He might have done a lot of bad things since that day, things that the world would never forgive him for, but for a moment, he truly had been a hero. The blonde looked back up at Baku. “When did you realize… no, when did you think that maybe… that the Kuja I was trying to stop was the same as the guy you saw that day? Didn’t you think that…” Zidane sucked in a deep breath, trying unsuccessfully to quell his rising anger, then spat out, “Damn it, I could’ve killed him without ever knowing who he was!” “Yeah, mebbe, though I wasn’t sure it was the same guy, ‘til now. But in tha end, would it have changed anything if I’d told ya? If that’s what you were gonna hafta do, that’s what you were gonna hafta do, right?” Baku said stonily. It hurt to hear that, even if Zidane grudgingly admitted that it was the truth. Even if he had known who Kuja was, he still would’ve gone to Memoria and confronted him, fighting against him or even killing him, if that was what it took to stop his mad schemes. Everyone’s lives… the whole world… all of existence, didn’t deserve to be destroyed just because Kuja was unhappy. Just because Kuja had been so scared and alone that he’d snapped under the unbearable pressure… Zidane squeezed his eyes shut. It wasn’t fair at all, not to either one of them, that things had ended up the way they did, but there was no point in moping over the past. Baku had taught him that much. All he could do was make every effort to change their future, to find Kuja someplace where he could live in safety and peace. “Now then… ya feel like you owe him, ya wanna look out for him, protect him… yer gonna have to do it yourself. That’s what a man does. That’s what a Tantalus does. Or have you forgotten about that?” “Yeah, I know. You’re right,” Zidane sighed. And he did have a backup plan that would allow him to do just that. Problem was, he was uncertain if Dagger would agree to it. He had already considered asking her if he could bring Kuja to Alexandria as his backup-backup plan, but knowing now that Kuja had a price on his head, it seemed impossible. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t try to persuade her. Perhaps it hadn’t even been her idea at all? Maybe she had merely followed the lead of the other city-states, or maybe it was a suggestion from Beatrix or Steiner. Those certainly were likely possibilities… Regardless… he knew he’d have to proceed with caution. He’d just have to time it right. And to think, he had thought proposing to her would be the difficult part! * * * Kuja cocked his head and wondered if he’d already lost his mind after only a single day alone. But there it was again – a light tapping at the front door. It seemed too good to be true, but Kuja was sure now he wasn’t hearing things. His first, hopeful thought was that it was good news: Zidane had come back! Maybe the Black Mages had agreed to allow him to live in their village. Or maybe… he'd come back, just because? But as soon as those thoughts popped into Kuja’s head, something else occurred to him. If it was Zidane at the door, why didn’t he just come in? He knew the front door didn’t lock. Was something wrong? Maybe the thief hadn’t made it very far before having a nasty encounter with some monsters, and now he needed help. … Or, possibly, was there someone else at the door? Without backup, Kuja knew he had to be cautious. His opponent could be as innocent as a lost traveler, or as dangerous as a bounty hunter. And although Zidane had taught the former mage how to fight, Kuja wasn’t as proficient with his weapons as he would’ve liked; it didn’t feel as natural to him as the magic he could no longer use. He quietly crept under the window and over to where his staff was leaning against the wall, taking it in hand while running through his battle prep checklist. Licking his lips anxiously, he stood, readjusted his grip on his weapon to ensure he had it just right, and then in a single swift move stepped forward and threw open the door, his right arm poised to strike… but the only thing he managed to accomplish was to startle a small bird which quickly tried to take wing, only to crash a few feet away. Perplexed, the silver-haired man stuck his head out and quickly looked around, but there was no sign anyone had been at the house. It appeared that it had simply been the bird pecking around the front door, and in his anxiousness he’d mistaken that for someone knocking. After another glance around the front porch – he wasn’t so careless as to completely let his guard down – Kuja breathed a small sigh of relief and lowered his staff. He looked back over at the bird, his curiosity piqued. The little gray ball of feathers was sitting on the ground at the bottom of the steps, puffed up and eyeing him warily. It fluttered its wings again when the Genome ventured forth and got too close for its liking, but the effort was weak and only stirred up a little dust. Kuja leaned over and carefully picked it up, lifting it for a quick look over. One of its wings had streaks of blood on it; possibly it was broken as well. Maybe a hungry hawk had tried to make a meal of it. Otherwise it seemed healthy, fat even; the birds in the region were already preparing for the migration south for the winter. If Zidane had been there Kuja bet he’d say that it looked tasty, that they ought to roast it for dinner, tiny as it was. But Kuja felt a little bad for it. Once fall was in full swing, the rest of the flock would fly south. The unfortunate members that got delayed, whether by lack of food or injuries, would be left behind to die once the snow fell. That was the way of the world: the strong lived while the weak perished. Kuja believed in that too, had had it driven into his skull, but that didn’t mean it had always felt right. He’d tamed a silver dragon under similar circumstances. He’d found her near Bran Bal with a badly injured wing and had decided to try and heal her back to full health. At the time he’d told himself he was only doing it to hone his white magic; he had no concept of “pet” or “companion.” But the beast he’d named Nova had proven to be far more useful than target practice. She’d followed him to Gaia after he’d been banished from Terra; though it had taken some time for them to reunite, she’d proven valuable as both transport and watchdog after that. It was strange. Maybe he’d been too preoccupied with self-pity, or perhaps he hadn’t wanted to face the truth, but he really hadn’t thought about her since Memoria. The last command he’d given her was to stop anyone who was pursuing him; she had done just that, and more. And yet he’d never done anything to reward her for her loyalty, never given her reason to obey. But from what Zidane had told him, hundreds of silver dragons, the last vestiges of the great numbers that had once filled Terra’s skies, had rallied to launch a kamikaze attack on the Invincible. And after they’d fallen and the ship had been the verge of breaking through, one lone surviving dragon had swept in and made a last stand: undoubtedly Nova, following through on her master’s orders to the bitter end… Kuja looked back down at the bird sitting in his cupped hand. The little creature would never be even a fraction as useful as a dragon; it could never be a weapon or a shield. And Kuja couldn’t use magic to heal it; the best he could do was to treat its wounds and keep it warm and fed while it healed naturally. Perhaps… it really would be best to turn it into dinner. But if it really wanted to live, then Kuja though perhaps it should get that chance.
Pressing the bird lightly against his chest so that it wouldn’t thrash around and slip out of his grasp, Kuja headed back to the house. On his way in, he paused to look at the doorpost. Zidane had marked it up to keep track of the passing days. Kuja carefully added a notch of his own, then stepped back inside and shut the door.* * * Author’s Notes: