Disclaimer:"The Show Must Go On" and "Leaving Home Ain't Easy" 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.
The Show Must Go On
Ch. 2: Leaving Home Ain't Easy
Once again, it was late afternoon by the time Zidane got back from his supply run. It had becoming something of a routine… twice a week, he'd leave for the Dwarven outpost early in the afternoon and come back as the sun began dipping down behind the mountains, bathing the land in a golden glow before the coolness of night came to swallow up the light's warmth.
He shouldered the door open and dumped the provisions on the floor. That too was part of the routine. Come home, toss everything onto the floor, and sort it out later. The first priority was to check in on his housemate, of course.
Much to his relief, he immediately spotted Kuja in the living room, sitting on the sofa by the window. "Honey, I'm home!" he called out cheerily.
"Not sure who you're talking to, but if you wish to converse with an imaginary friend, be my guest," Kuja sourly responded.
Zidane just grinned. He didn't mean to tease his companion, not really, but it made him happy to hear a response, no matter how biting the comments were. Winter was just beginning to loosen its grip and Kuja's condition was improving, though he still had a ways to go. On the surface he looked fine, if slightly worse for wear. And he hadn't had a severe setback since the high fever that had floored him for a couple of days at the onset of winter. But for some reason he hadn't recovered any of his former strength, as if his soul were still dying despite all of Zidane's efforts to save him. So Kuja remained bedridden for the most part, tiring easily and sleeping a lot as a result. And of course magic was still completely beyond him… Zidane had come home three days ago to find the once unstoppable mage passed out on the floor, all because he'd tried to cast a basic Fire spell on the wood in the fireplace.
At least Kuja hadn't been stupid enough to try that again. The older Genome was currently curled up on the sofa with a blanket and a large, weathered looking book.
"What's that?" Zidane asked.
Kuja looked up and gave him a funny look. "It's called a book, Zidane."
Zidane smirked. Along with the weather and Kuja's health, their relationship had improved as well. They could hold a real conversation now. They could even joke around and say stupid things to each other. Zidane found himself increasingly enjoying the time he spent with his fellow Genome. There was a lot he still didn't know about his species, about Garland, about Terra, and he was eager to snap up any little tidbits Kuja let slip his way, though the silver-haired man was still reluctant to talk about those things. Yes, Zidane still missed his friends, but the loneliness that had hung heavily over his head the first couple of months had finally abated now that there was someone to pass the time with. So even though it was finally starting to warm up, he had no plans to move back out of the bedroom they'd been sharing.
Letting loose an exaggerated sigh to match his devil may care smirk, Zidane volleyed back, "I KNOW that. I mean, where did you find it? I don't remember seeing anything like that on the bookshelf."
"It was in the shed out back."
"Oh…" Zidane wasn't sure if he ought to scold Kuja for wandering around outside or congratulate him on feeling well enough to do so, despite the risk of faceplanting in the snow and freezing to death. Though he supposed he wasn't surprised. There really wasn't anything to do around the house and Kuja had blown through the entire shelf of books multiple times already… Maybe that was why he'd asked Zidane to pick up a sewing kit from the outpost, because he was just that bored.
Zidane stepped closer and glanced at the cover of the book again. "Reading up on Eidolons huh? Learned anything new?"
"I'm not doing anything bad," Kuja snapped defensively. "It was just sitting there. And I like reading. I don't see anything wrong with it."
"Hey hey, I wasn't complaining," Zidane said, hands held up defensively. He wasn't surprised to find confirmation that they were holed up in a former Summoner home, probably built by one of the survivors of Kuja's attack some eleven years prior. Ironic then that it was providing them both safety and shelter. Hell, Eiko Carol's family might have lived there at some point… She might've even been born there.
No point in tripping that trap though. Zidane hated having to avoid conversational land mines all the time, but since he'd already stepped on one, he supposed it was up to him to steer the conversation to safer ground. He remembered his friends telling him about the huge library within the Desert Palace, the shelves stretching three floors high, all the way to the ceiling. "You must like reading a lot. The Desert Palace had a library that rivaled Alexandria Castle's, right?"
Kuja nodded, pleased that Zidane had taken note of that. "I had a lot of time on my hands. When I wasn't plotting anything, of course," the mage added with acidic sweetness.
Zidane thought back to the Desert Palace again. The name was fitting – it was a huge, palatial estate, surpassing even the Grand Castle of Lindblum and Alexandria Castle in opulent splendor. But for such a tremendous building, it had been surprisingly empty, occupied by some monsters and not much else. "It must've been pretty boring there otherwise, huh?"
"Why'd you live there then? I mean, I know you had a way of getting back and forth, but it was still awfully out of the way."
"It was convenient precisely because it was 'out of the way'."
"So you really didn't think of it as home?"
"It was… a pretty cage. A place to put books, artwork… guests. Whatever caught my fancy," Kuja said with an unapologetic smile.
Zidane rolled his eyes at the jab. "So Alexandria or Treno were more to your taste then?"
Kuja just shrugged. He had no idea why Zidane was asking. It seemed he was missing the point entirely. "'Home' is a foreign concept when you're stuck on an alien world, don't you think?"
The thief scratched his head. "Well, you say that, but I still consider Lindblum my hometown, even if I wasn't born there."
Zidane wondered if he was ready to step on another trap, though there was one thing he'd been dying to find out since he'd first met Garland. It seemed the perfect time to ask, if he was willing to risk it. As much as he liked getting to know Kuja, things like home and friends and family were weighing more and more on him as of late. "Um… do you mind if I ask you something else?"
"You enjoy the sound of your own voice entirely too much," Kuja complained, but still he shut the book, putting it aside with a sigh. "As if I could stop you."
"Haha, real funny. So, well… uh," and Zidane began mindlessly tracing a pattern on the floor with his foot, "why Lindblum?"
"Why Lindblum what?"
"Why'd you take me to Lindblum and leave me there, when I was little?"
There was no answer. No sound even, as if they'd both held their breaths for a few heartbeats. Kuja shifted slightly on the sofa, and the creaking of the wood frame seemed as loud as a crash in the silence. Zidane looked up from where he'd been studying the worn rug to see his brother staring off into space. "Kuja?"
The mage turned to blink at Zidane, and the blonde was struck by the somewhat confused, somewhat haunted look in those slate blue eyes. "Why do you think?" Kuja finally responded, his voice flat.
"Garland said… he told me that you'd left me on Gaia because you felt threatened by me, by my potential."
"And you believed him?"
"Well…" Zidane briefly scratched the back of his head. "It kinda made sense at the time. And it wasn't like I could ask you, until now."
Kuja huffed. "Maybe he thought that that was the truth. It wasn't like he asked me to explain myself, nor did he care. Or maybe he's just a chronic liar... Unless you think he only lied to me about one little thing, that I'm not really going to drop dead any day now?" he asked bitterly.
"You know I don't believe that. But I think he didn't understand his own creations as well as he'd thought. The Black Mages didn't turn out the way you'd intended either…"
"Thanks for the reminder."
Zidane let it drop. It wasn't fair for him to throw Kuja's past transgressions in his face every time they started arguing. The last time he'd done it – while they were fighting about who ought to be doing the cooking, of all things – Kuja had gotten all worked up and barricaded himself in the bathroom while yelling that he was worthless and deserved to die. Zidane had been tempted to kick the door in but he'd been sick of catering to Kuja's hissyfits, so instead he'd sat outside the bathroom for over an hour, waiting for Kuja to get over himself, before the mage had finally, sulkily, crawled out. Zidane so didn't want a repeat of that. All the drama was exhausting. He knew that the other Genome was sorry about the things he'd done. It didn't help anyone or anything to remind him of his many misdeeds; all it did was make him to beat himself up over it.
"So why'd you do it then?" Zidane finally asked. He wanted to know the reason, because now that he thought about it, Garland's assumption didn't make much sense. If Kuja had truly been jealous of him or hated him, wouldn't he have simply killed him and been done with it?
"Oh, I don't know," Kuja sighed. "Why do you think?"
Zidane scowled. "Just tell me!"
"What's the point? I've lied to you as much as Garland has. What if I just lied to you again?" Kuja threw back.
Zidane shut his eyes a moment. It was so easy for his fellow Genome to push his buttons, but he knew if he didn't take the bait, Kuja would calm down too, and talk. Maybe he was trying to avoid the topic for some reason…?
"You won't," Zidane insisted. "Not now, not ever again. Not to me."
Kuja frowned, blinking owlishly. He hadn't expected the younger man to say something like that. How could he be so sure when even Kuja himself didn't know if he could hold up to such an expectation?
"Please. I want to know," Zidane said softly. "Even if Garland was right, that's okay too. I won't hold it against you, you know."
Kuja wrung his hands, something Zidane noted simply because he'd never seen the mage do that before, as he seemingly tried to make up his mind about something. Maybe he wanted to reveal the truth but didn't know how… or he feared how it would be received. Zidane reached out and lightly touched Kuja's shoulder, seeking to reassure him. Kuja started at the contact but didn't pull away.
"I didn't always hate him," the silver-haired man began hesitantly. He looked for his brother's reaction - in this case, a nod of acknowledgement - before going on. "In the beginning I tried to do everything he expected of me. But he was never satisfied. I didn't understand why. I didn't know… he wasn't ever going to accept me no matter what I did. After all I was a test subject, a defect, and he was going to get what use he could out of me before discarding me."
Kuja continued on. "What was so wrong with me? Did I sound insincere when I called him 'Master?' Did I not grovel fast enough or long enough for his liking? Or did he decide I wasn't worth keeping just because some fluke in my genetic programming gave me the wrong hair color, the wrong eye color?" Kuja reached up and twined a few long strands of hair around a finger, then yanked, hard. "I can't help this, you know. I didn't ask to be made like this."
Zidane shook his head slowly as his hand tightened on Kuja's arm of its own accord. He didn't have an answer. But at the same time, he couldn't stop the mental image that cropped up of Garland walking though the labs of Bran Bal, examining the Genomes growing in the capsules, stopping before Kuja's capsule and calculating whether he should simply dispose of the aberration within or keep it around to experiment on.
"If only I'd been created second… It must've been nice, being the beloved hero," Kuja sighed, but Zidane didn't fall for the trap. As wistful as it had sounded, the blonde knew it was a dig at him. Kuja wasn't going to stop baiting him just because they were on friendly terms now.
"Your canary is quite the catch, isn't she?" Kuja went on in his usual singsong way, as if nothing were amiss. "The rest of the bunch were rather ragtag though, but I suppose that couldn't be helped. Though perhaps the little Summoner girl has potential…"
It was one thing for Zidane to let an insult directed at him slide off his back. He wasn't nearly so forgiving when it came to his friends. "Hey, lay off! You don't get to pick on them anymore. They're all good people… and they're my friends."
Kuja snorted dismissively and flipped his hair back off his shoulders. He looked smug, his earlier sadness momentarily eclipsed by the satisfaction of getting a rise out of his brother.
Hearing the mage talking like that, his tone wavering between pained bitterness and fake cheer, Zidane understood why Garland had thought Kuja had hated him enough to abandon him on Gaia. It was pretty sad… though Kuja had never been anything but an adult, just like a child seeking a parent's affections, he had wanted his master's approval. He'd wanted recognition and praise. Instead he'd been used as a tool, with the knowledge hanging over him that he'd be replaced when he was no longer good enough. No, Kuja hadn't been totally truthful when he'd said he hadn't dumped Zidane on Gaia out of jealousy – there had to be some element of that in there – but even though he could've just killed Zidane and been done with it, he hadn't. So the truth had to lie somewhere between the two extremes. Kuja himself probably didn't really know his own reasons.
But there was one thing Zidane had figured out. Garland had been wrong about Kuja, and not just about his reasons for taking Zidane away and leaving him on Gaia. Their creator had derided Kuja for being inferior because he couldn't achieve Trance due to his inability to experience the complex emotions needed to fuel the change. But it wasn't that Kuja was incapable of experiencing them. Clearly, he had feelings like anyone else with a soul. But he had no clue what to do with them or how to control them, fluctuating wildly between moods all the time. It made him an unstable mess – dangerous and flippant, narcissistic and petty, yet childish and sad and deeply insecure. And Zidane was now the one stuck dealing with the fallout.
"You still didn't answer my question, you know," Zidane finally pointed out, after another minute of silence. He wasn't sure if Kuja had purposely evaded it again, or if he'd gotten caught up in himself as usual and completely forgotten about it.
Kuja glanced at him and began fidgeting again. "Oh, that. Well… honestly, I'm not sure why I did it. But that's not what you were hoping to hear, is it?"
The silver-haired man suddenly stood up and began pacing, his tail lashing about behind him. "Was I trying to save you? I knew he'd planned on starting your 'training' soon. Or maybe I didn't care about that at all; maybe I was only trying to save myself, by removing you from the equation. Or… maybe I just wanted to make Garland mad. I seemed to be good at that."
Kuja was right, it hadn't been what he'd wanted to hear, but Zidane still felt some relief. It appeared that he understood his brother more than he used to, although he still wasn't completely buying the explanation. "It sounds like it was a little bit of everything..."
"Maybe…" Kuja shrugged in an exaggerated manner, ending that portion of the conversation, then continued on in a silky smooth voice, "Master Garland had been so displeased when I'd gotten back. There was no point in hiding it… who else would've done it? I didn't tell him where I'd left you though, not that it mattered… By the time he'd taken the Invincible to check the forests around Lindblum, you were long gone."
"Wait, if you didn't tell him, how did he know that I was around Lindblum?"
"That's a silly question, isn't it? There's plenty of ways to obtain information." Kuja tapped an index finger on the side of his head, then went on. "Be grateful he hadn't anyone else to send after you and was unwilling to risk revealing himself, or he might've found you."
"But… why did you go back? You could've just stayed on Gaia, in Lindblum, with me. Baku would have taken us both in, I'm sure."
"And what else, pray tell, would've kept Garland's attention long enough to buy time to ensure your escape?" Kuja suddenly snapped, a slight sob catching in his throat. He tried in vain to cover it up with a cough, then continued on in a more subdued voice, "Besides, he could track me far easier than you. So there was no choice, was there?"
Zidane sucked in a breath. He knew it… his brother really had wanted to save him from sharing his fate as Garland's puppet, despite all his claims to the contrary, despite the jealousy that kept rearing its head like a venomous snake.
"Kuja… what did he do to you?" Zidane whispered, thinking back to the time when he'd stupidly gone to confront Garland on his own and barely escaped being turned into an empty vessel. He still wasn't sure what Garland had done to try and purge his consciousness, and he didn't think he wanted to know. To know that his brother had shackled himself to the master he hated just to give him a shot at the freedom he'd so desperately craved was horrifying.
The mage's eyes narrowed slightly. "Once I had sufficiently recovered, he threw me out of Terra and banned me from returning," he replied, both answering and evading the question at the same time. "That didn't stop him from giving me orders and trying to ensure my obedience, but at least it meant I wouldn't be back in his lab."
Zidane couldn't help it. He stepped forward, threw his arms around Kuja and squeezed, hard. Though it was true that Kuja was guilty of many misdeeds, how different would things have been if someone had done for him what he'd done for Zidane? It shouldn't have taken 25 years for someone to care enough to offer him a helping hand.
Kuja jerked in surprise before cautiously relaxing into the embrace a little. He wasn't sure what Zidane wanted from him, so he figured it was best to wait and see what would happen. Zidane was starting to stroke his back slowly, as if he were a cat, and so it only felt natural for Kuja to turn his head and rub his cheek against Zidane's golden hair. It felt nice, being held by the younger Genome. He had a powerful, athletic body, though it was slim and compact too, and large hands that were surprisingly gentle. He was warm as a ray of sunshine. Kuja hesitantly began rubbing Zidane's back in return and was rewarded with a faint, contented sigh.
They stayed like that for a minute or two until Kuja broke the comfortable silence with a soft laugh. "You were always like this, even when you were little."
Zidane's hand stilled and he reluctantly pulled away to look up at his brother quizzically. "What do you mean?"
"You liked grabbing on to me however you could – by my leg, my tail, my clothes – and you'd hang on tightly and wouldn't let go. I'm not sure why you singled me out though..."
That was the first time he'd heard anything about what he'd been like as a baby. Kuja had always avoided the subject before. It made Zidane curious as to what life was like in Bran Bal. His only early childhood memory was a blue light, nothing more. Though at least the answer to Kuja's question was obvious. "Maybe it's because I liked you, then."
"Is that so?" Kuja's eyes were beginning to glimmer beneath heavy lids. "Do you still like me now?"
Kuja grinned. "Good. I like you too," he purred, pursing his lips as he gripped Zidane's shoulders and pulled him closer.
The blonde was so stunned by the turn of events that he barely managed to turn his head in time to avoid a mouth on mouth collision. "Wha… what are you doing?" he gasped as Kuja's lips glanced off his cheekbone.
"You said you liked me, didn't you? And I like you."
Zidane quirked an eyebrow. "Yeah, but not like… like-like," he lamely protested. Great, now he sounded like a two-year-old. It was hard concentrating on vocabulary though when he could still feel Kuja's warm breath gusting against his cheek. He shivered slightly.
"Like-like? What does that even mean?"
Zidane felt his face flushing. "Uh… never mind."
Perplexed, Kuja frowned slightly, then tried again to reel Zidane in. The shorter Genome froze momentarily in disbelief before pushing away with a hiss. "Okay, seriously, it's not funny anymore!"
"You're right, it's not. What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Me? Uh, hello? You're a guy? I'm a guy?"
Kuja rolled his eyes. "So?"
"So why are you trying to kiss me?"
"You tell me. You started this!"
Zidane was flabbergasted. "I started this?"
"You grabbed me first. And you said you liked me," Kuja said flatly.
The blonde stared at his hands helplessly a moment, as if they'd betrayed him by wandering where they shouldn't have. He didn't remember doing anything inappropriate… "It was a hug. Just a hug. And I don't like you like that. I mean, you're not even a girl!"
"Thanks for noticing. I'm glad I don't have to take my pants off to prove it this time."
"What? What does that… No, I mean… Damn, I don't even know what I mean anymore," Zidane stammered. He was starting to get confused. If Kuja had been a girl, would he have turned his head or pushed him away? Or would he have been receptive to his… er, her advances? What about Dagger?
Meanwhile Kuja just continued to stand there, scowling.
Zidane stared back. Even when angry, Kuja really did have a beautiful face. And… Zidane had no idea why he'd just thought that. "Why doesn't it bother you?"
"Why would it?"
Zidane frowned and took a half step back to look Kuja up and down. Genomes seemed to default to an androgynous or even slightly feminine build regardless of their gender, and Kuja was no exception. He was built like, well… a flat chested girl. He even had a tiny waist and curved hips like a woman would have, though his baggy clothing was obscuring that at the moment.
"Excuse me for being repulsive," Kuja said, shifting uneasily under the sudden scrutiny, pushing back limp bangs and smoothing down his ill-fitting shirt, as if a few adjustments would magically improve Zidane's perception of him. As if that were the problem.
The thief sighed. Kuja may have been many things, but repulsive was not one of them. "Believe me, you're not. It's just… well, we're both guys."
"And I'm not into that!" Zidane yelled, louder than he'd intended.
Kuja jerked back, eyes narrowed. "You need to be more honest with yourself, Zidane," he snarled, taking in the younger man's flushed cheeks and the slight bulge in his pants. "But I get it now… This was all a mistake. You're just confused. You didn't mean what you did or said."
Zidane noticed what Kuja was looking at and immediately began squirming helplessly, trying to will it to go away. He couldn't believe what his body was doing… what the hell was going on? He sucked in a breath to continue arguing, decided against it, then abruptly turned tail and fled the house, ignoring Kuja's cry of, "Where are you going?" The blonde thought he had to be going crazy, stuck out in some gods forsaken wasteland with Kuja for months. That was the only explanation for it. He wasn't attracted to the older Genome, damn it!
- I liked the scene after Zidane and co. rescue Lady Hilda because of her revelation that Kuja told her all his plans (that, and Hilda scolding / threatening Cid amused me greatly). There's two ways to interpret this, I suppose. One is Hilda's theory, that Kuja's so egotistical that he figured even if someone knew of his plans, there was no way of stopping him. But I don't think that's a complete explanation… Kuja's a pretty smart guy (and not the Riddler), so I don't see why he'd go babbling to Hilda just to stroke his ego. The other possibility, the one I think is the main reason, is that he's so lonely that he resorted to talking to his prisoner, for lack of anyone else to talk to. Logically he should've just killed her or something if all he wanted was her airship (Hilda says that she didn't believe her abduction was part of his plan) – it's not like he had any qualms about killing people off - but since she was a good listener, he didn't mind dragging her around with him.
- One of the mental hurdles I had to overcome when I first started writing this story is the fact that I see Zidane as straight… mostly. He clearly loves the ladies; gone unchallenged, he'd happily chase skirt for the rest of his life. I didn't want to flip a switch and make him magically, exclusively gay. But I think (assuming you buy that he'd have some previously unexplored inclination to some degree of bisexuality) he could be open minded to possibilities and change as well. And I think Kuja's androgynous enough in both appearance and mannerism to kind of sneak in under the radar and shake up Zidane's perceptions enough to allow for something to develop. Well... at least I'm not asking Zidane to make eyes at Steiner? : )
- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews, as always, are appreciated!