Summary: Weeks have passed since Kuja was rescued from the depths of the Iifa Tree and from the darkness consuming his soul. Now he and his rescuer, once enemy, recover at the abandoned village, Madain Sari. With the battle for control over his own fate momentarily resolved, Kuja struggles to come to terms with feelings and emotions he hasn't felt in years—and some he's never felt before in his life.
This popped into my head after talking to the wonderfully talented Myshu. I played through the game a little bit afterwards and got hit by the inspiration truck. Unfortunately, the inspiration truck has a very specific destination when it runs people over, so I was not able to use my creativity to work on the story Myshu and I talked about (sorry Myshu! Hee hee). But consider this a tribute to you—this is the first thing I've put up in the FFIX section in three years!
Anyway, you read the (horrible) summary, you know what it's basically about (I promise it's a much better read than the summary conveys). A little background noise: this story, of course, assumes that Kuja doesn't die at the Iifa Tree, but it also assumes that the cut scene we see during the ending where Mikoto walks along the roots happens after Zidane and Kuja have escaped. Why? Because I forgot to mention her in the story /palmhand/ Also, it can be considered slashy, if you squint at it the right way, but it's very, very tame (I kept it a PG rating for a reason). Otherwise, you are free to interpret it however you like.
Disclaimer: They aren't mine. A fangirl can only dream. But anything you don't recognize from game canon I made up, so try to keep an open mind. I'm exercising the right to creative license.
Many Days of Rain
The days were growing shorter, now. It was an almost imperceptible change, but Kuja, sitting in the same room for weeks on end, noticed nothing but imperceptible changes—the subtly quickening sunset, the cooling night breeze, the scent of moisture in the air—all these discreet shifts signaled to Kuja two things. One, autumn was on their doorstep and two, he desperately needed to get out more. For the first couple of days after his initial recovery he had enjoyed observing the slight alterations in the world outside his window, but this was getting ridiculous. He wanted to walk underneath the stars, not glimpse them from behind a pane of glass and wood. He wanted to feel the rain caressing his skin—he'd always loved the rain. As much as he'd ever loved anything, anyway.
But he was not ready for the outside world yet. As much as he hated to admit it, he was still weak. Getting out of bed was some days beyond his capability. Walking outside—let alone in the rain—could prove hazardous to his fragile health. For now, his only option was to wait.
Still, even he, the master of patience (he'd waited nearly ten years before setting his world domination plans into motion), was reaching the limits of his endurance with regard to this prolonged faux imprisonment.
That was not to say that he was completely isolated at Madain Sari. Indeed, the only other occupant of the former Summoner's village (save for the pride of moogles) would scarcely let him forget his presence. The tenacity of Zidane Tribal hadn't wavered a bit; he was every bit as dogged and irritating as he remembered from those hazy, hallucinogenic days of domination and power lust. And every bit the compassionate fool—if it hadn't been for Zidane, he wouldn't be alive. Despite everything he'd done to the world, and to Zidane personally, the blonde had refused to give up on him.
Gazing out the window once again, Kuja reflected on those last few months before the culmination of events at the Iifa Tree, the final battle and his struggle to survive amidst the tangle of roots and blood. It had all appeared to him as a dream, not fully there, never at one time: the insatiable need for revenge, the desire for power beyond the comprehension of his maker, the constant drive inside his soul for destruction and war—these things took control over him, willingly perhaps, but once it was done he couldn't undo it. He couldn't say truthfully that he'd had no control over his actions, but he could say that his actions were not dictated by his rational mind. He had not always been that way. He had not always been that monster.
Yet it was no excuse. The people of Gaia would not forgive him on account of a simple case of lapse in sanity. That was why he was here, in the wasteland of ruined buildings and restless souls, a village that had met its demise by his own hand. Here he—mind and body—would find peace again.
The irony did not escape him.
A knock came at the door: Zidane, of course, unless the moogles had taken a sudden interest in him. Kuja did not respond. He didn't need to. The knocking was less of an act of courtesy and more of a warning that entry could not be forestalled short of the occupant's lack of decency. Habitually he glanced over as the door issued a rusty squeal and crept inward, ushering in his blonde "jailer." It was an inappropriate term. Zidane wasn't keeping him here against his will—isolation had been as much his own idea as it had been the boy's—but it helped to ease a little of his frustration.
Zidane held a tray of food in his hands, the contents of a ceramic bowl and a hand-crafted mug still steaming. Kuja made a face and turned away. Gysahl green soup and hot herbal tea. His "gourmet" meal for three straight weeks. He felt like a damned chocobo.
Zidane must have seen the wince—which wasn't surprising as Kuja had made no effort to conceal it. "Hey, don't complain. You'll insult the chef."
Kuja watched him set the tray on the table beside his bed. The familiar odor of earth and diluted spices wafted to greet him and he swallowed heavily, the scent making him vaguely nauseous. "Consider yourself insulted."
Always contrary, Zidane could only grin at the slight. "Is it my fault you're a picky eater?"
"I hardly consider vegetarianism as being picky," Kuja said, taking up his spoon and dipping it in the thin, clear liquid. He let it drop back into the bowl with a wet, empty splash and pushed the entire tray away with a grimace. "Although currently the prospect of consuming the flesh of animals doesn't sound quite so revolting as it normally does."
"Well, you could try some Griffin or Zaghnol meat if you think you could handle it," Zidane offered, still grinning. "I mean, it's not Lindblum premium choice steak or anything, but I like it. Griffins are a bit tough and stringy and sometimes Zaghnol meat can get a little gristly, and always tastes kind of like charcoal, even if you eat it still bleeding—"
The nausea grew in intensity until Kuja could taste that morning's breakfast rising precariously in his throat. "You are a disgusting, ill-mannered, uncultured, and sick-minded child, Zidane. Your complete disregard for civility makes me wonder how these Gaian savages must have raised you. It almost makes we wish I'd kept you with me on Terra. I would have made you into prince."
The image of a well-dressed, acutely groomed Zidane came to mind, in an outfit similar to Kuja's previous attire (which was now regrettably more suited to be used as rags) and his sunshine hair neatly combed. Rather than laugh at the absurdity of it, the idea conjured a feeling foreign to him. It was pleasant, almost like…like….The word escaped him. Kuja had no name to describe the feeling, and it vexed him. Articulation was one of his many talents. How odd to have it fail him now.
Brushing away the troublesome thought, he found that Zidane was grinning, most likely envisioning the very same picture of himself. Kuja wondered if he also felt the strange feeling, but knowing Zidane he doubted it very much—from his understanding of the blonde there were two ways Zidane interpreted things: seriously or comically. Judging from his expression he saw only humor in the idea of himself in traditional Terran garb, and did not sound much bothered by the notion.
"Me, a prince? Hoo, that's rich." He allowed himself a laugh at his own expense, something Kuja had never much understood but very much admired. "Prince Zidane of Bran Bal. What would that make Garland, then? King?"
The old man's name left a bitter taste in his mouth far worse than that of Gysahl green soup. "I'm sure he would not have contested the title, though it would not rightly have belonged to him."
Zidane cocked his head to the side, eyes lighting up with curiosity. "What do you mean?"
Eager to distract himself (and Zidane) from the issue of soup consumption, Kuja said, "Legend tells that Terra once had a king. He was a man of cosmic strength and infinite wisdom, necessary traits for someone who holds sovereignty over an entire planet. Some considered him to be their god."
"He ruled all of Terra?" Kuja nodded. "What happened to him?"
"The same things that happened to all the Terrans. Even kings are not exempt from that." Kuja watched Zidane's face as he seemed to consider something; his eyebrows drew together and his lower lip vanished between his teeth. It was a face he remembered from a time long ago, when Zidane had been nothing more than a baby, and he himself barely into adolescence. It was every bit as endearing as it had been then, he recalled. And there was that feeling again. Different this time, but oddly the same. It felt…
"Hey Kuja," the blonde interrupted the thought. "Do you think there are any Terrans left? I mean, they had Spirit Road and Shimmering Island, right? Do you think any of them came to Gaia before…you know…before it happened?"
"No, I think not," Kuja said with some certainty. He'd never read about such a thing—and if there was no mention of a Terran migration in his vast library, then it probably hadn't happened (or at the very least, wasn't documented). Zidane did not appear satisfied by his succinct answer.
"Why not? I mean, we did it, me and the others. I've even been twice, right? When you dropped me off here? And the island has been around for centuries, not to mention the fact that the Terrans were pretty damn smart, so they could've made the trip."
"Even if they had, they'd be long dead by now," Kuja said, eyeing the tray out of his peripheral vision. The soup had stopped steaming. "Besides, the decline of Terra was not an immediate occurrence. It happened slowly over many years, and for years many Terrans were convinced they could save their home. Unbeknownst to them, their efforts were only accelerating the world's deterioration. By the time they realized that there was no hope of resuscitating the planet, it was too late. There was no choice but to follow Garland's plan and put their souls into stasis. If their souls had, somehow, made the journey across Spirit Road, then they would have gone to the Iifa Tree and back into the cycle."
Zidane stood still for a moment, soaking it in. Then, lamely, he concluded, "Oh."
"Why did you want to know, anyway?" Kuja studied him, scanning for signs that Zidane might know something he didn't—a rare feat. But Zidane just shrugged, a hapless grin across his lips.
"Just curious," he said, and Kuja knew there was nothing but honesty behind the statement. "And I wanted to see how much you would talk to me. When we first got here, getting you to talk was like pulling teeth."
"You'll have to forgive me if I had…other things on my mind more pressing than initiating friendly conversation," Kuja said, directing his gaze out the window. It was nearly dark now. The gray clouds hung low over the horizon, blotting out the sunset's fading colors. It would probably rain tonight, like that first night they spent in Madain Sari. Those were dark days, the mornings and nights following his rescue.
He could only remember them in clips and fragments—Zidane hauling him out of the bowels of the tree, Zidane carrying him across barren wastelands (smudges of brown in his swimming vision) and dense forests (smudges of green), Zidane lying him in a bed, Zidane telling him not to die—throughout it all, Zidane had been there. At first, Kuja had resented…no, detested his presence. He'd hated the younger genome for his interference. He'd been ready to die, wanted to, even, and Zidane had barred him from that release. In those first few days, life was every bit the hell he had imagined for himself, only worse because he knew he hadn't actually died, and wouldn't be allowed to die so long as Zidane was there. He'd hurt everywhere, inside and out (he remembered there being a lot of blood and to this day the acrid taste of potions lingered on his tongue). He hadn't even tried to use magic to heal his wounds (not at first, at least). Even if he'd been strong enough to call the power, he wouldn't have: he hadn't wanted the hurt to end that way. He'd wanted it to end with death. He'd refused food. He'd fought treatment. He'd let himself wither away until his desire was within arm's reach, until his desire was reaching for him.
Zidane had bargained with him, pleaded with him, beggedhim not to go. Every day, he'd been there, just talking. Kuja couldn't recall much of what was said—stories, meaningless blather, speeches made to inspire, the usual Zidane rhetoric. He never spoke in return (Zidane's attempts to get him to do so were, indeed, "like pulling teeth"). It had meant little to him. They'd been enemies a short while ago. He'd tried to destroy the world—not just the world, but the Crystal itself! The source of all life. He was the enemy, the scourge of mankind. He was worthless. How could Zidane care about something like him?
His tears had proved his sincerity. Kuja was unsure if Zidane knew that he'd been watching him that night, clutching the sheets and crying soundlessly, shoulders heaving with the effort to keep quiet. They never talked about it. But it was the turning point for Kuja. No one had ever cried for him before. So he fought, struggled, and wrestled with the death he had so efficiently wrought for himself; he'd fought until the very effort nearly took his life anyway.
A week ago, when he awoke from a deep slumber, he'd still hurt physically, but inside he felt different. A part of him had awakened that he'd not felt in nearly thirteen years. It was small, buried deep, but with each day, each conversation with Zidane, it grew and blossomed. For the first time in a long time, he was starting to feel…whole again.
Not that he would admit this to Zidane, who would probably interpret it as a product of his divine intervention. Kuja didn't want to feel any more indebted to him than he already was, after all.
"There you go again, getting all pensive on me. Can't you hold a conversation without going into introspective brooding mode?"
Kuja only caught the tail end of that (much to his annoyance), but heard enough to know that Zidane was teasing him again. A retort working its way to his lips, he paused when he saw that the blonde was holding his side tenderly. His affable smile didn't fool Kuja; underneath his shirt were layers and coils of bandages not unlike the ones wrapped around his own body. It was easy to forget, what with the blonde's easy going disposition and selfless nature, that he hadn't managed to get through his ordeal unscathed.
"Are you in pain?" Kuja asked, ignoring the good-humored gibe. Zidane quickly moved his hand.
"Huh? Oh, no, I'm all right. Just sore. Playing sick nurse to you is a pretty taxing job! Maybe if you weren't such a big baby I'd have more time to sleep at night."
It was meant to be another light-hearted attempt at taunting him, but Kuja caught a glimpse of truth in the joke. "You haven't been neglecting your health to look after me, have you?"
Zidane didn't bat an eye, but his tail lashed out behind him, whipping around his ankles in a manner that betrayed the blonde's otherwise outward calm. "Nope, not at all. I'm fitter than a Gimme Cat in Lindblum's treasure vaults."
As he had a tail himself, Kuja was very accustomed to the fact that the furry appendage basically had a mind of its own, and was very impractical when trying to lie. It was why he'd hidden his all those years (magic was a wonderful thing). "When was the last time you changed your bandages, then?"
The was a very suspicious (and very guilty) silence. Kuja nodded.
"Come on, Kuja, don't—"
Effectively cowed, Zidane obeyed, taking a seat on the lumpy mattress. Kuja started by unraveling the linen strips around the boy's right arm, nimble fingers making quick work of the tight knots. As he peeled more and more layers off, the fabric went from white to a rusty reddish brown—sometimes splotched with a brighter shade of red. Clucking his tongue in disapproval, he gently unwound the last dressing, revealing an nasty vertical tear across Zidane's forearm. The cut wasn't very deep, but it was long and very obviously poorly cared for. Dried blood stuck to the edges of the wound, the same copper color that stained the bandages, and the gash itself was puffy and swollen.
Kuja could only imagine what the deeper, more serious wounds across his back and chest looked like. Without trying to conceal the hard note in his voice, he said, "Take off your shirt, please. I need to see if you've been behaving as foolishly as I think you have."
Zidane tried to parley with him. "I was going to change them later. I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay first." In a practiced maneuver, he stuck out his lower lip ever so slightly, raised his eyebrows, and pouted at him with wide, doleful eyes not unlike a kicked puppy.
"Your shirt, Zidane," Kuja said. Unfortunately for the blonde, he had developed an immunity to that look in their earlier days back in Bran Bal (although, Zidane, he was sure, had no memory of this). Cursing under his breath, Zidane gingerly stripped off the oversized shirt (it was "on loan" from a charitable dwarf in Conde Petie), and Kuja set to work on the impressive set of bandages wound around his upper body like some bizarre holiday gift. Once everything had been untied and untangled, and a mound of soiled linens lay piled on the sheets, Kuja only had one thing to say.
"Zidane, you moron."
The boy hung his head. "It's better than it looks. I've had worse."
"That very well may be, but barring some form of head trauma it should not have made you think this sort of reckless behavior was acceptable." Kuja studied the series of gashes across Zidane's upper body, all souvenirs from their escape from the Iifa Tree. They were red, raw, and inflamed; Kuja could only guess how long this neglect had been going on. A ring of bruises around the boy's ribs made him wonder how badly Zidane was really injured.
Though he kept up an air of anger and disappointment, Kuja was worried. "You let this go on far too long, Zidane. Promise me you'll take better care of yourself in the future."
"Aww, Kuja, that's so sweet. I didn't know you cared." Zidane grinned at him over his shoulder. Always teasing. Always with the jokes.
He didn't return the sentiment. "Promise me."
The jester's grin melted into gentle smile. Zidane nodded. "I promise."
Satisfied, Kuja didn't allow himself to dwell on the exchange. That unfamiliar feeling was stirring in his chest again—he didn't understand why it happened on and off like that—why it only happened when he was talking to Zidane. He didn't like it at all. It was a pleasant enough feeling, but not knowing what it was and what it meant made him uneasy. He'd lost control over his emotions once before and had almost destroyed everything.
He brushed aside these anxieties (for now) and pushed his sleeves up around his elbows. "I suppose it's my turn to fix you up, then."
"Not with magic," Zidane said sharply, eyes flashing. "You aren't strong enough yet."
"I'm aware of that," Kuja returned, a flare of indignation igniting in him. He knew his limits—he wasn't about to try the magic again until he was more or less fully recovered. Zidane's mothering was getting a little invasive, especially since the boy wasn't exactly setting a model example. He gestured to the impromptu medical supplies on the long bench against the wall: a pile of clean bandages, a clay pitcher, and a wide rimmed bowl.
Zidane followed his gaze and nodded in approval. "I'll get them." He rose stiffly and collected the bandages, dropping them on the bed, then poured a small amount of water from the pitcher into the shallow bowl and sat it on Kuja's lap.
"I should get one of the moogles to do this," he said, hesitantly taking his seat. "You really need to be resting."
"I've rested enough," Kuja said shortly, soaking a linen strip in the water and wringing it out thoroughly. "Now let me do this or I'll cast a silence spell on you."
"I thought we agreed you wouldn't use magic!"
"Zidane, I was joking."
"Joking? You? Wow, you really must be getting better! I don't think I've ever heard you—ahh! Ouch!"
"You brought this on yourself," Kuja reminded him, continuing to bathe one of the shallower cuts with the damp clothe, though he took care to be a bit gentler in his ministrations. He worked in silence; for once Zidane respected the quiet, although Kuja found himself wishing that the blonde would start up another silly conversation—he much preferred the boy's lighthearted teasing to the muffled hisses of pain that escaped him whenever the rag swept over a more tender area.
Minutes later he had finished cleaning and rewrapping all the cuts, and Zidane once again bore a striking resemblance to a mummy. He ran his hand over the bandages covering his arm, and grinned in appreciation. "This is a pretty good dressing. Much better than the moogles. They always tie the knots too tight! 'Stop squirming, kupo!' Sadists, all of them." He pantomimed punting a small object across the room—a small, white something with a red pom-pom, Kuja assumed, and he couldn't help it. A grin spread its way across his lips—a genuine expression of mirth. How long had it been since he'd smiled? Had it really been so long?
Overcome momentarily by the purity of his emotions, he bowed his head. "Thank you, Zidane." It was the first time he'd said it. His throat closed; he couldn't say it all (thank you for making me smile, thank you for taking care of me, thank you for not giving up on me, thank you for saving me) but he hoped that the simplicity of those two words could convey everything he had to be grateful about. He looked the blonde in the eyes and repeated it for good measure. "Thank you."
Zidane reacted with the proper mix of embarrassment and pride. His cheeks flushed pink and he scratched his head bashfully, but he was beaming. "Any time, Kuja. I'm gonna go get a fire started. You get some rest, okay?"
The smile was fading, but the feeling remained. Kuja liked this one; he felt warm, content. Welcome. He'd never felt so at home as he did in the tiny, broken shack with its badly patched roof and cracked walls. He nodded and Zidane opened the door to leave. With the blonde's back turned, Kuja's gaze fell on the tray of uneaten food on his bedside table, and he smirked. He'd won that battle without even trying.
Zidane poked his head back in. "Oh, and Kuja?"
"Eat your soup."
I blame typographical errors on my lack of a beta and my poor proof-reading skills. My brain has an auto-correct function. Thanks for your patience.
It's supposed to be a one-shot, but I've got a few ideas swimming around in my head that may be good enough for another couple chapters or so (as the title might imply—maybe I did that subconsciously?). I don't know. What do you guys think? If it continues, it'll be KujaxZidane. Hope that doesn't dissuade anyone from leaving a review. /wink/
Written because I was tired of seeing dead Kuja/depressingly angsty, death obsessed Kuja. There is hope for the silver haired bishounen. Let us rejoice.