Disclaimer: "The Show Must Go On" and "I Was Born to Love 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.
NOTE: There is a lemon scene at the end of this chapter that has been omitted due to rating. Visit my site (link in profile) for the uncut verison of this chapter.
The Show Must Go On
Ch. 28: I Was Born to Love You
It wasn't like Kuja could simply forgot about Amarant's visit. Even with Zidane's assurance, he couldn't stop worrying – if they'd been spotted by one bounty hunter, surely another would find them. But he'd been looking forward to the end of summer festival for weeks, and now it was here. So he tried his best to bury his fears; he told himself that he wanted to have at least one good memory before they were discovered by someone who'd have no qualms about turning them in to authorities.
The festival started in mid afternoon and ran well into the night. There was an endless amount of food and drink – almost everyone brought a dish or two to share – and games and contests of all sorts. Zidane won 20 Gil for climbing a rope faster than anyone else and another 20 for tossing a dart closest to a bullseye, though he placed just out of the money in the town's Tetra Card Master tournament. Kuja hadn't considered entering anything for the crafting contest, but quick thinking Molly whipped off her headscarf which Kuja had embroidered with bluebirds and entered that for him, so he ended up being rewarded in the end. 80 Gil wasn't much, but he appreciated the recognition… and the fact that there could be more money on the way in the future. Molly and Millie didn't hold back from chiding him for not charging enough for his work when they found out how much he'd been making.
Of course Kuja wasn't there for contests or games or eating. Dancing was what he'd been looking forward to, even though this wasn't the sort of formal event he'd been used to attending. As soon as the music kicked up, he was one of the first people on the dance floor.
Zidane wasn't surprised that Kuja became the most highly requested dance partner of the evening. Dressed in a semi sheer, double layered tunic with bell sleeves reminiscent of his old combat outfit and blue tap shorts, and graceful as a swan, he was dazzling, like a beam of light too bright to stare at, but too radiant to ignore. By the end of the night he'd danced with half the ladies in town and even had a few men extend an invitation as well, though they'd backed off when he refused to give up lead. Other than Zidane, young Howard was the only guy who'd consented to being led, but given that it was the teen's first real dance lesson, that wasn't unexpected.
Zidane hadn't minded stepping aside as Kuja graciously accepted each invitation. Zidane didn't dislike dancing, but it had been a lot more fun watching Kuja enjoying himself, though he couldn't help but be pleased that he was the only one Kuja danced with multiple times - everyone else who'd asked, Kuja had politely turned down.
Zidane had never realized how much the older man loved to dance, given how antisocial he could be at times. It was another thing Zidane had missed, just like Kuja's birth date… It was only now, on the eve of Zidane's own birthday, that the younger Genome realized he'd never gotten that particular piece of information out of his counterpart.
Fiddling with the fasteners on his vest as Kuja took another whirl around the dance floor without him, Zidane wondered if Kuja remembered that tomorrow was Zidane's birthday? He hadn't said a thing about it. Zidane wondered if he should mention it at all. It wasn't like he needed a party or presents or anything like that… he was old enough to not demand such things. Or perhaps he could consider his new outfit a gift of sorts? Kuja had chosen a navy vest, slightly longer the ones the blonde usually wore, and cuffed brown shorts, for the festival. The vest bore Kuja's signature detailwork in the form of small gauge rope tied into nautical knots, couched across the back of the vest and up the front as decorative trim, with knotted toggles to match. But unlike the tailored clothing Zidane had been assigned during his time as Garnet's fiancé, the new outfit didn't feel stuffy or forced. Kuja hadn't changed anything about Zidane's practicality or style, he just gave it a new twist.
But hearing a "Happy Birthday" would be nice, Zidane decided, as well as some open dialogue about the topic. Even without asking, Zidane was pretty sure, no one had ever celebrated Kuja's birthday before.
The song came to an end and Kuja rejoined Zidane on the sidelines. The silver-haired man was a little winded, but smiling. "The next song is the last. Care for one more dance?" He extended his hand.
Rising to his feet, Zidane accepted the invitation. Birthdays could wait. For now, he just wanted to enjoy the final dance of the evening with the one he loved.
They had to get up early the next morning. Everyone in town had signed up to help with some aspect of the festival. Zidane and Kuja were no exception; they'd volunteered to help dismantle decorations and clean up around the town square the morning after.
In retrospect, it hadn't been the best idea. Kuja was tired from all the dancing the night before and protested when Zidane tried to rouse him.
Zidane persisted. "It's just for one morning. You can take a nap this afternoon if it'll help."
Kuja grumbled but pushed himself up as Silky climbed onto the bed to greet him. His hair was sticking out in places as he'd gone to bed while it was still damp; he looked nothing like the confident, graceful beauty who'd stolen the spotlight the night before. Zidane couldn't help but chuckle at the contrast, earning him a dirty look. He shrugged and smiled apologetically before grabbing the hairbrush. At least Kuja was awake now.
They had a quick breakfast of warmed rolls, then headed into town. There were already plenty of people tidying up by the time they arrived. Ennis, who was overseeing the clean up, asked the two Genomes to start taking down the decorative banners ringing the downtown square. It made sense given that Zidane had won the rope climbing contest the night before.
They got to work, with Zidane scaling the poles to unhook the banners and lowering them down to Kuja, before winding them up for storage. It went on for several minutes before Zidane could no longer hold back from saying something.
"You know… it's my birthday today. In case you forgot," Zidane said, once he was back on the ground.
Kuja looked up from the banner he was folding. It wasn't like he didn't know what a birthday was. It was something Gaians liked to celebrate, with a party and presents. But just because Zidane had been raised on Gaia didn't mean he was like everyone else on the planet… "You don't have a birthday. Genomes were created, not born." He paused, then added a little snidely, "In case you forgot."
"Still, there's a day that I… uh, gained awareness, right? Isn't that pretty much the same?"
"If that's how you want to see it."
Mildly irritated, Zidane huffed, putting a hand on his hip. "Well then, how do you know when you're another year older?"
Ever since Kuja had learned about his mortality, he'd tried to avoid thinking about that, as if by avoiding it, he could somehow stem the passage of time. "I add a year in January," he wearily replied.
"January, huh? What day?"
Kuja frowned. It was only January because that was the start of the year; that was all. It wasn't like he'd been given a Gaian calendar when he'd gained awareness to know the exact date or even the month. Time, days… they hadn't much meaning back then. "Just 'January.'"
Zidane thought back to where he'd been the previous January, and the one before that. He scowled faintly. Last January, he'd gotten engaged. The previous one, Kuja had been bedridden, recovering from his defeat in Memoria. There'd been no opportunity for celebrating a birthday or anything of the sort, even if Zidane had known about it.
The thief set his jaw. "This year… I'll make sure you get a birthday party for sure."
This time, Kuja couldn't keep it from slipping out. "Why, so I can remember how much closer I am to dying?"
Zidane winced, not only at the bitter words, but at the flash of pain in Kuja's eyes. "Kuja, that's not… it's about celebrating life."
The former mage pursed his lips, ready to keep arguing, but it seemed a waste of breath to try and do so. In the grand scheme of things, it was utterly unimportant. Given how much his life had changed in the course of four months, who knew what it would look like in another four? Maybe someone would catch him and throw him in prison. Maybe Zidane would finally get tired of dealing with him and leave again. Or maybe he'd be dead and that'd be that.
"Is that the issue? You feel slighted because you wanted a party?" Kuja asked instead. They'd just attended a festival the night before… wasn't that close enough?
"No. I just… I hoped you'd wish me a happy birthday or something."
"I want to know that you're thinking about me," Zidane said with a slight smile.
Kuja sighed heavily. What did that even mean? But before he could say anything, there was a booming, rumbling sound somewhere in the distance. Both Genomes turned their heads slightly, trying to figure out what it was, but they didn't hear anything else.
Zidane climbed up another pole, using his tail to steady himself as he began pulling down some streamers. He was only up there a minute when he heard another sound, this time, a little closer. He surveyed the street below and noticed everyone else staring in the same direction. Squinting, Zidane used his perch to try and get a glimpse of what could've caused it, but all he could see was a cloud of dust slowly rising up towards the sky.
He slid back to the ground and handed Kuja the streamers he'd managed to take down. "Something's kicking up a lot of dust over there…" Zidane began saying, then the rumbling of an enraged howl rolled in like thunder following a lightning strike.
"What was that?!" Molly gasped. She'd been setting up for a clearance sale at the general store, but the sound had been loud enough and strange enough to catch everyone's attention, no matter how busy they were. Even those who were indoors poked their heads out in confusion.
One moment Zidane was pondering that exact same thing, and then the dust cloud grew ominously closer and it hit him all at once. "The trap must've gone off! But, the dragon…"
There was another roar, louder and closer than before, and Zidane gritted his teeth as the town square erupted in pandemonium. Everyone had come to the same realization: the trap hadn't worked. And now the dragon that had been terrorizing the area was clawing its way down the road and straight into the heart of town. Some people immediately darted for cover indoors, while others froze in place, both fearful and curious, wanting to catch a glimpse of the beast even though it was obviously a risky thing to do.
Zidane ran towards the town hall, as many of the townspeople had congregated just outside the doors. "Don't stand there gawking! Get inside!" Zidane ordered. He'd already unsheathed his daggers, determined to take the fight to the dragon. He spun around to make sure Kuja was somewhere safe as well, and was relieved to see the silver-haired man peeking out from the doorway of the inn.
People were still running around, looking for loved ones, seeking shelter. Arnett and Sara came out of their home and began herding anyone nearby into the bakery for cover. From the corner of his eye Zidane spotted Millie running out of the town hall towards the general store, trying to make it to her sister's side. The Genome didn't even have time to draw breath to yell at her before the dragon leapt and landed just short of the crossroads.
Panicked, Millie stumbled as she tried to run and twist to look at the monster simultaneously. She cried out in pain as her ankle gave way as she fell.
Zidane bolted towards her. "Damn it!" It was a Grand Dragon all right. They'd set a pit trap with spikes and explosives. Zidane had worried that it wouldn't be enough, or that the dragon would leap over it without an issue. Apparently, he'd been right on the former, but not the latter; ichor dripped from long tears in the beast's neck and shoulder. But just because it was wounded didn't mean it'd be any easier to deal with… it was still powerful, and very, very angry.
From inside the general store, Clyde had also seen Millie run… and fall. He'd grabbed the first thing he could find – a hammer - and darted out to try and save her, as if he could fend off a dragon with nothing more than a household tool.
Zidane cursed under his breath; now he had TWO people to save. He dove over a cringing Millie to stand shoulder to shoulder with Clyde as the dragon's head came barreling down towards them, razor sharp teeth bared. Both men managed to dodge the snapping jaws, then jumped in to retaliate. Clyde swung first, striking the beast with his hammer, but the tool just dented the monster's scale before boucing off. Zidane had a little better luck; one of his daggers sunk into the dragon's foreleg, and the other cut open a gash on its chest.
"Grab her and go!" Zidane yelled as he tore his daggers free, then backflipped to avoid the dragon's answering swipe. As much as he appreciated having someone fighting by his side, Clyde was effectively unarmed, and Millie needed help.
Clyde hesitated just a split second, wanting to argue – he'd run in the face of danger once before, and still couldn't forgive himself for it - but the blonde was right. Grimacing, Clyde bent down and picked Millie up, then carried her as fast as he could to the general store.
The fleeing pair made for a far more attractive target than a well armed, speedy Genome. The dragon drew its head back, intending to breathe a gout of venom at them, but the wounds in its neck prevented it from doing so. In frustration and rage, it whipped around, sending festival decorations flying as it used its tail as a giant flail to try and smash the pair into the nearby buildings, but Zidane dashed in at the last moment and took the hit instead.
The strike sent the thief flying, tumbling down the road head over heels. He'd gotten his daggers up in time to sever the end of the beast's tail, lessening the sheer force of the blow, but it had still been enough to stun him on impact.
Zidane managed to right himself out of instinct. But he was seeing double now. He shook his head, trying to clear it, to no avail. Which dragon was the real target?
From the doorway of the inn, Kuja watched nervously as Zidane tried to stand up, only to awkwardly drop back to the ground. He was obviously dazed, shaking his head, swiping ineffectively at empty air with his daggers, while the dragon edged closer, venom welling up on the margin of its claws, as it looked for the best angle of attack.
Zidane wasn't weak. But a Grand Dragon was more than a match for him, especially like this. Kuja's fingers dug into the doorframe. If he tried to help, Zidane would be mad, but what other choice did he have? Kuja looked around for a weapon of some sort, anything would do… then he noticed Howard still holding onto the broom he'd been sweeping off the inn's porch with. It wasn't a weapon, but it was as close to a staff as he'd find on short notice.
"Sorry," he blurted out as he snatched the broom from Howard's hands and dashed out the door.
I won't make it! Kuja thought grimly. He'd never run so fast in his life, but it didn't seem to be enough. It was like time had slowed, each split second stretching into eternity. If only he could fly again, or teleport… If only he had his magic! But all Kuja could hope for now was to distract the dragon, diverting its attack. It wasn't because of self preservation, the fact that he couldn't survive without Zidane's support. That didn't matter, nor did the realization that he could possibly lose his life here and now. All that mattered was that he buy Zidane a moment to stand back up and fight, or to run away even, if that's what it took for him to stay alive.
Kuja's legs were burning; so was his side. He could hear each labored breath being sucked in and forced back out of his lungs. But suddenly things seemed to blur, and Kuja could swear his feet were moving a little faster than before. He didn't have time to question it. He could only push forward, willing himself to get there on time.
In the meantime, Zidane came to the realization that flailing around wasn't doing any good. Crisscrossing his daggers in front of his body, he crouched down defensively, took a deep breath, and shut his eyes a moment, hoping to steady himself even though he knew he didn't have the luxury of time. It seemed to help a little. Feeling more grounded, he snapped open his eyes just as something blew past his face, kicking up sand. He expected to find a dragon's maw inches away, but instead…
Crimson… the same intense color as in a fading sunset, a dying fire. He'd never be able to look at that color again without thinking of this moment: Kuja, Tranced, his hair whipping around him as he dug in his heels and squared himself in front of Zidane, trying to ward off a dragon's swipe with nothing but a broomstick.
As happy as he was to finally have proof of Kuja's feelings, he never wanted to see Kuja sacrificing himself for him again. The older Genome was already staggering from the blow, the broomstick shattering as easily as a toothpick.
Zidane leapt between Kuja and the dragon, as the monster reared back for another blow, its claws dripping with poison. He could feel power of his own Trance surging through his body, clearing away his dizziness, as he began driving his blades deep into the dragon over and over again, forcing it back.
Zidane held no malice towards the beast. It looked like it was suffering; its claws were worn down, its jade scales dulled to a mottled forest green. One of its wings was folded awkwardly; an old injury, perhaps… No wonder it was so far away from its usual territory; it had probably been struggling to survive, forced to go after easier prey like pigs and chickens. But it also had been attacking the people of this town. It had attacked Kuja. Zidane didn't regret putting it down.
As the dragon staggered, Zidane hopped back and called upon his Dyne ability, Grand Lethal. His body shimmered briefly as beams of pure energy began pouring forth, striking the dragon repeatedly, stunning it, before Zidane too shot forward, his daggers whirling like a cyclone, until the mighty beast was finally brought to its knees, shuddering and collapsing with a loud thud onto the dirt road.
Foe vanquished, Zidane immediately spun back around to check on Kuja. The taller man was kneeling on the ground, seemingly as dazed as Zidane was earlier, but as the younger Genome extended a hand towards him, Kuja mirrored the movement, reaching for Zidane in turn, only to pause to stare in wonderment at his own arm. His skin was unnaturally pale, even for him, and cast in a reddish glow…
It suddenly occurred to him that the red haze fringing his vision wasn't blood; he had naturally assumed the worst. Kuja's fingers went up to his hair. Crimson strands and feathers slid back from his face, then fell back into place as he lowered his arm. He stared up at Zidane, confused.
Zidane closed the distance between them, kneeling to wrap Kuja up in a hug. "You Tranced."
"That's not possible," Kuja immediately protested, even with the evidence literally in his face.
Zidane pulled back slightly to stroke a hand over Kuja's hair, admiring the way the various reds shimmered like dancing flames, then kissed him. "I told you, Garland was wrong – you can feel everything, just like everyone else. I mean, is there anything more complex than love?"
Kuja could only wordlessly shake his head as the red began to leech from his hair. Love? What Zidane was talking about? Kuja had been desperate to do something, anything, to defend Zidane, but he hadn't been useful at all, Trance or no…
As his mood soured, with a sudden flash of light, Kuja returned to normal. Zidane followed suit moments later. He stood up, feeling much more clearheaded and centered than before, and held out a hand.
"Come on, let's go home. A nap sounds pretty good to me, too."
Zidane felt a slight bit of guilt in not hanging around to help clean up - after all, he'd left a dragon's corpse in the middle of the crossroads, plus there was still festival décor to take down – but he figured they'd earned themselves a bit of a reprieve. Besides, there was something more urgent on his mind…
As soon as they got back to the house, Zidane stripped off his shirt and shorts, wanting to make sure he hadn't taken too much damage from the dragon's attack. Twisting and turning in front of the bathroom mirror, he noted there were a couple shallow cuts on his arm, a bit of scuffing and bruising here and there, but he'd gotten lucky, none of the damage was bad.
Zidane looked at Kuja. "Better take off your shirt too," he said as the silver-haired man traced the injuries on his companion's arm with his eyes.
"There isn't anything to see." While Kuja was pretty sure he didn't have any obvious injuries, both his arms were starting to feel a little stiff from having taken the impact of the dragon's swipe. He bet he was going to be pretty sore the next morning.
Zidane frowned. "Please. I just want to make sure..."
Kuja sighed and complied, unbuttoning the placket of his top before pulling it off over his head. He wasn't normally self-conscious, but he always felt a little awkward under Zidane's sharp gaze.
Finally, Zidane breathed a sigh of relief. He patted Kuja on the chest to give him the all clear, but before the older man could pull away, the thief leaned in to hug him, resting his head on Kuja's shoulder. "I was so worried. I couldn't stand the thought of you getting hurt again."
"But it's okay for you to get killed by a dragon?" Kuja parried back.
Zidane snorted softly. His breath tickled Kuja's ear, eliciting a tiny shiver. "No, it's not. You're right. But I couldn't sit back and watch a friend get eaten, either." Zidane hesitated, then added, "Thanks… for what you did today."
"Why aren't you angry? I only got in the way."
Zidane's jaw dropped open. "You put your life on the line to defend me. Why would that make me mad?!" He shook his head. "Like I said, I was worried. But mad? No way."
Kuja let the matter drop. Instead, he turned his attention to Zidane's injuries. He couldn't help but flex his hand a little, wishing for his magic. At least it wasn't anything that a little ointment and a couple of bandages wouldn't fix. "We still have some first aid supplies, right?"
Zidane looked at his arm, then nodded. Truthfully he felt fine but he knew Kuja would feel better if he was allowed to tend to the wounds. "They're in the linen cabinet."
Zidane sat down on the edge of the tub as Kuja fetched the items and began treating the scrapes. His hands were gentle, and Zidane was more than happy to let Kuja take his time, because it wasn't bad being on the receiving end of someone's careful ministrations, and the taller man hadn't put his shirt back on and Zidane appreciated the view. When Kuja was nearly done, Zidane couldn't resist leaning forward and kissing him on the stomach.
Surprised, Kuja jerked back, almost bumping into the sink in the tight space. "What… what do you think you're doing?"
"I couldn't help it," Zidane explained with a slight smile. He reached out and tried to reel Kuja back in, though the former mage twitched away as soon as Zidane's hand grazed the starburst scar on his side. Zidane frowned slightly. He hated that it bothered Kuja so much to let anyone see his scars, never mind touch them.
"You're really amazing," Zidane said, looking up, trying to convey his sincerity.
Kuja scowled and began looking around for his shirt. "How can you not find this disgusting?"
Zidane had his share of battle scars as well, though nothing near as bad. Fighting the Grand Dragon had added to the total. The blonde gestured at the freshly wrapped areas and asked, "So this is disgusting too?"
"It's different for you!" Kuja snapped. He finally found his shirt, but Zidane stood up and stopped him from putting it on, pressing up against him until he had Kuja backed up somewhere between the sink and toilet.
"You told me you didn't find me unattractive. Does that mean you find me attractive, then?" Zidane asked seriously, his voice lower than usual.
Kuja stared at the younger man in front of him, at the golden skin on his bare chest and arms. Like Kuja, Zidane was slightly leaner than other male Genomes, though it didn't look like he'd ever quite catch up to Kuja in height. But that didn't mean Zidane didn't have a nice amount of muscle on his body, especially in his shoulders and biceps, the result of years of training with daggers and acrobatics. And power had always been attractive to Kuja.
Kuja swallowed audibly. Zidane was wearing nothing but underwear. Kuja might as well have been, clad only in the tiny shorts that Zidane liked so much. And Zidane kept touching him: first a hug, then a kiss on the stomach, and repeated attempts to put his hands on his waist…
(LEMON OMITTED – see notes below)
Very well satisfied but rather sticky, Zidane got back up, intent on taking a quick bath. But the moment he rose from bed Kuja's hand suddenly reached out and snagged his wrist.
Blissful fantasy snapped back to reality. The last time Zidane had seen that look on Kuja's face was the day he'd walked away from the hideout in the mountains. Yes, Kuja trusted him enough to throw himself in front of a dragon, enough to die for him… but he still couldn't quite believe that he wouldn't be abandoned in the end.
Zidane looked back down at his wrist, then, instead of pulling away, he held out his other hand. "I'm going to take a bath. Wanna come with?"
"A bath?" Kuja echoed, his eyebrows knitting. He looked surprised, as if such a thing hadn't crossed his mind.
Zidane smiled. "And a nap after. I promised you, right?"
Kuja tipped his chin in a nod. The nap was what he was interested in. Or was it the promise of one? He wasn't sure… Now that Zidane had assured him that he wouldn't leave, now that he'd extended his hand to him, Kuja suddenly felt completely drained.
Zidane leaned down and planted a kiss on Kuja's forehead. "Sounds good, right?"
Kuja thought about it some more. It didn't sound bad. He did feel pretty sweaty, now that he thought about it. "Okay."
"Want me to carry you?" Zidane offered with a grin. He knew Kuja hated being carted around like a baby, but Zidane kind of liked the idea of having him in his arms right now…
The silver-haired man frowned. "No." But as he didn't trust himself to be able to get his legs under himself either, he grabbed onto both of Zidane's hands and allowed the younger Genome to help him up, until he was finally swaying on his feet at the side of the bed.
Although Kuja had refused to be carried, Zidane couldn't just leave him to stumble his way to the tub. So he slid an arm around Kuja's waist to steady him, knowing full well that his hand was resting on the scarred patch. Kuja raised an eyebrow, and Zidane braced for complaint, but the taller man didn't voice any protest. He even leaned against Zidane a little as they headed to the bath, side by side. Zidane couldn't stop smiling. Something so small, and yet it felt like as big a victory as lovemaking had been.
- Once again, the lemon scene was cut due to mature content, as per ffnet rules. It gets impossible to sanitize past a certain point, so I omit the whole scene rather than delete half the text. The full chapter is available on my site (link in profile) for mature readers. Thanks for understanding.
- I know it's a fanfic trope to have Kuja interested in dancing, but it does suit him. One really cool thing that my beta brought up was that proper etiquette in Regency England dictated that a young lady didn't dance with the same partner multiple times unless there was serious interest between the two. I didn't know that, but it's the same idea I was going for here, that Kuja wasn't going to grant anyone but Zidane more than one dance, because he had no interest in anyone else.
- The subplot of Zidane's birthday was a happy accident. I'd finally sat down and laid out a timeline for the latter half of the story. And then I realized (using this year's calendar), that I'd managed to land the end of summer festival on September 8th. It was too wonderfully convenient to pass up, so I went with it, and it ended up working really well, I think.
- For Zidane's Grand Lethal, I merged the spell effect from FFIX with the Dissidia/Dissidia 012 version as I felt the original was too static for an action scene, but as this is a FFIX story I didn't want to ignore it completely either.
- Thanks again to Nenya85 for beta work. Reviews are appreciated!