Chapter 1

What am I doing here?

Piccolo glared down at the lights beneath him in marked disgust. Every street stood out in sketched clarity, every streetlight beaming with the brilliance of a dozen stars. Looking up, the former demon was not surprised to find that the brightness of the city sprawled out below made the stars seem much, much dimmer. It was like comparing a candle to a spotlight.

And he didn't like it. Not in the least.

He didn't know why the city made him so uneasy, even when he was floating above it, invisible to the inhabitants below. He didn't need to fear discovery unless someone looked out a window - then again, what could these humans possibly do to him now? It wasn't like it had been when he was younger…he needed to be wary of perhaps four people on the planet as far as power was concerned. Of those four, one would not fight him full out for anything in the world, and one was infirm.

Piccolo growled. It was time to get this over with so he could go back to his mountains. He glanced around slowly like an eagle searching for prey. His eyes locked on a building, one of the tallest in the city. That was it, he was sure.

In a sweep of white cape, he was beside it. For the first time, an interesting question entered his mind: which window was the right one? There must have been hundreds of them, and they all had gauzy gray curtains drawn across them like lids over eyes. Nothing with humans involved could ever be simple, now could it?

Closing his eyes, he opened his mental radar to search for a chi. Immediately, a wave of wavering signals, some stable, some not, some fading, some dying, flitted across his mind like a funeral parade. Appalled, the Namekian grimaced; this was a place for the sick, but he hadn't expected that. Worse, no one chi stood out from the others. He had some sorting to do, and it could very well take a while.

Piccolo began discarding first one, then another in his usual, methodical way. All the while, a nagging feeling had latched onto him and refused to be shaken loose. Always before when he had been looking for this person, he had been relatively easy to find. His chi had always shone out like the sun in a cloudless sky. It shouldn't have been so hard…was he even here?

Yes, he was. Piccolo had finally found a single chi that matched exactly the one he was seeking, but it was only a shadow of the real, genuine power. An unfamiliar emotion, one he did not yet have a name for in spite of the changes he had gone through, washed into him. Snarling, he tried to set it aside - this was business.

There, that was the right window. Another emotion entered the Namekian's heart, but this one he knew: reluctance. He didn't want to look, the same way that a child who has cut his leg avoids looking at the wound. He wanted to turn around, go back to the wilderness. In a few days, that chi would be as high as it had ever been. In a few days, he would be able to laugh at himself for putting too much stock in a strange hunch…

And if that chi never came back up, Son already knew what he had been coming to tell him. There was no reason for him to be weeding through all of these disturbing chis, there was no reason for him to be dangling in the sky outside a hospital at…Piccolo glanced heavenward. Which made him feel absolutely idiotic, for he had already established that he couldn't see the stars. He looked instead at a massive clock that hung a few blocks away… one eighteen in the morning.

That baka's probably sleeping anyway. He sleeps all the time, why should now be any different? He had about made up his mind to leave, had even turned to go. It must be the time I've spent with these people - I'm becoming as irrational and distracted as they are.

A faint sound came to him at that point: a mattress spring creaked. Two heartbeats later, a floorboard moaned in protest. It was coming from his room. Piccolo found himself warring with a combination of frustration and dry amusement. Of course, he would have to be awake. You can set off a rocket next to his pillow, and he'll sleep right through it. Dump him in a lake, and he won't wake up unless you actually hold his head under the water. Kick him - hard - and he'll just mumble something about breakfast. Fly past his window soundlessly in the dead of the night, though, that's another story.

Well, there was no help for it. Easing over the rail of the balcony like fog pouring over a ridge, the Namekian touched down softly. Only his own ears could have detected the faint pad of his leather soles on the concrete. He took a deep breath and stepped forward, sliding the window open and brushing the curtain aside as he would a cloud if he were flying.

The being whom he had heard was indeed awake, as was to be expected. He was standing, which was not to be expected. The man was on his feet, albeit a bit unsteadily. His tail was extended behind him as if in an attempt to counterbalance his weakened body, and one hand rested on the bedpost as if to steady him. His hair was probably the only part that wasn't having any difficulty in supporting itself; it stood up in the same wild crown that Piccolo remembered.

The man swayed once like a sailor on an unsteady deck. Rolling his eyes - it was just like Son to over-exert himself in a case like this, he hated hospitals - Piccolo moved forward in time to catch his longtime ally before he toppled. There he got another shock. Saiyans were denser and heavier than humans. Usually, catching one would be jarring. This time, Son didn't seem all that heavy.

Son Goku looked up at him with widened eyes, but he was obviously less surprised to see a seven-foot-tall alien in his room than one would have expected. "Hey, Pic," he said casually, though to Piccolo's sensitive ears his voice sounded a bit strained, "glad you could stop by."

"Hmph. You should be," Piccolo growled. "What were you trying to do, anyway? Give the doctor another nervous breakdown?"

The Saiyan actually chuckled. "You're one to talk - you're the one who broke the skylight last time. Doctor Himegoshi said he'd turn in his degree and take up cab driving if this place didn't settle down soon."

Smirking in spite of himself, the Namekian eased his burden into a sitting position on the hospital bed. "Yeah, well maybe I should break a few more skylights."

"You're not still upset about the green Jell-O, are you?" the Saiyan asked lightly.

"What do you think, baka?" the former demon shot back, raising one eye ridge.

After looking at him for a few seconds, the Saiyan nodded. "You sure hold a grudge a long time, don't you?" His words were cheerfully flippant, which robbed them of any accusation they might have held.

The former demon thought but did not say, Not all grudges, Son. Wiping that thought from his mind with an abrupt mental sweep - he really needed to do some meditating - he said, "You still haven't answered my question."

The Saiyan yawned once before looking at Piccolo quizzically, his rounded eyes heavy with the lack of rest. "Right…what did you ask again?"

With patience born of long practice, the Namekian closed his eyes and started counting. By the time he reached fifteen, he was fairly certain that he could speak calmly again. "I asked you what you were doing."

"Oh." Goku sat up a little straighter, his expression becoming resolute. "I'm going home, Piccolo."

Piccolo stood up, forcibly resisting the temptation to slap himself on the forehead. Here we go again. "Son," he began.

"No." Goku shook his head firmly. "Don't you try and talk me out of it; that won't work this time." He looked up, meeting his taller companion's eyes unflinchingly. "I'm dying, I can feel it. I don't want to die here. I should be at home with my family."

The Namekian blinked. I can't have heard right. Son would never just give up and die. Not from a stupid virus. Then again, it wasn't like the Saiyan to exaggerate except where needles were concerned.

The Saiyan in question was now staring down at the floor. "I'm sorry, Pic. I didn't mean to just blurt it out like that, but I really do want to go home. Chichi had to leave this afternoon since Gohan would be coming home from school and no one had told him where I was yet. I'd call, y 'know, but it's kinda late an' I don't know how the phone works anyway, and somehow I never could remember the number, an' I don't know where the phone book is, and I wouldn't have any idea what area code to use. Actually, I don't know what an area code is, it's just something the operator told me I needed last time I tried calling somebody. Besides, Chichi doesn't have a driver's license, and Ox King says she drives like she's in the Demolition Derby, and…"

Piccolo held up one hand, stopping the flow of words for the moment to give his mind time to catch up. His usually-quick brain had not yet moved beyond one concept - Son was dying. Son Goku. Dying. Son was…Piccolo shook his head hard. Snap out of it! He's not immortal, why is it so hard to accept that he can die? Is it because you couldn't keep him dead and this virus can, or is it just…him?

"Don't be ridiculous. You'll be fine," Piccolo snapped. "All you need is to stay here and rest for a few days, so cut the melodrama."

Goku looked up again, his eyes taking on that look. It was the same look that he had worn in the 23'rd Budokai, the same bloody look that Piccolo had seen time after time, enemy after enemy. Piccolo braced himself mentally for an argument with a stubborn Saiyan. The good news was that Son probably couldn't put up much of a fight in his present condition. For some reason, that bit of knowledge didn't make the Namekian feel much better.

"I'm not gonna be 'fine,' Pic, and you know it. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here."

That comment brought him up short. It was true. Even the former Demon King couldn't deny it. However, before he could rally a defense, Son Goku spoke again: "Piccolo," he began, "if you don't help me, I swear I'll get there on my own somehow."

Apparently, Son sensed that Piccolo was going to argue, for he played his trump card. It was the other look. Sometimes Piccolo swore that Goku had learned it from Gohan, sometimes the other way around. That look had done things that no amount of threats, dangers, or armies could have done. Alternately appearing on those two, it had gotten Piccolo dragged through unspeakable horrors, Frieza and driving tests included. It had gotten him sent to the far corners of the earth and had brought him back again, and had even pulled him from darkness - him, the incorruptible evil, the demon Ma Junia.

And when he saw Goku's eyes soften into 'the look,' he knew that he had lost the battle. There was no point in fighting it any longer.

Piccolo smirked, crossing his arms and tilting his head to the left. "You know, I might just stand here and watch you try. Seeing you flop around on the floor for a while might make this whole miserable trip worth my time."

Much to the Namekian's surprise, Son Goku wasn't fooled in the least. He simply grinned the same lopsided grin that almost always followed 'the look.'

"Stop gloating," Piccolo growled, lifting the Saiyan the same way he might have lifted a young child, trying not to be taken aback by how limp he was. "The only reason I'm doing this is to avoid more of your incoherent explanations."

"Sure, Pic, I understand," the Saiyan murmured. He sounded tired, as if talking alone had drained him of his energy. By the time Piccolo reached the window, his passenger was snoring softly, his head lolled against one of Piccolo's shoulder pads. The Namekian hesitated a moment before plunging out into the night. I could just leave him here. He doesn't need to know. In the morning, he'd think it all a very strange dream.

No, the time when he could have done something like that was long past. Whether he would admit it to anyone else or not, Son had grown on him in much the same way that Gohan had so long ago. With a last glance around the room, a last testing of the air with delicate green nostrils, a last listen for any strange footsteps, the former demon launched himself into the darkness, not bothering to close the window behind him. These hospitals should develop a better security system if they actually expect to keep their patients.

* * *

It had snowed on Mt. Paozo, Piccolo noted. The whole area was coated in a shallow layer of powdery whiteness. As far as the Namekian was concerned, snow was the single most miserable thing nature had come up with. Snow made one cold, wet, and blind if the light was right.

He landed softly at the very edge of the clearing in which the Son house lay. This was from habit more than anything else; if he wanted to visit Gohan, then it was usually best if Chichi didn't see him right away. If he wanted to spar with Goku, it was best that she not see him at all. Therefore, whenever he came he would land in some inconspicuous place and wait for someone to pick up on his chi.

The clearing was dark. No light came from the house. That meant that everyone was asleep or at least feigning it convincingly. It was up to him, then.

Piccolo took a step forward. Son chose that moment to stir, something escaping his dreams through his lips. The Namekian halted his progress, staring down at the Saiyan. Goku was smiling softly, clutching at his mantle with one hand as a child might - as one child had actually done. An unaccountable lump lodged itself into Piccolo's throat as he tightened his grip marginally, holding his former enemy a bit closer. Perhaps, he rationalized, it was the Namekian version of maternal instinct. After all, Namek parents had to fulfill both roles. If so, the instinct was errant. Son was what, twelve years older than he was?

Then again, maybe he was just being soft. He had trouble telling the difference anymore. "We're here," he said gruffly to break his own silence. Any sound would weigh lighter on his ears than Son's heartbeat, which was so much softer than it had been only weeks ago.

Suprisingly, this comment actually woke Goku up. The Saiyan stirred, his eyes opening. "Already?"

"Whattaya mean "already?" We've been flying for the past two hours. Isn't that long enough?"

"Eh, I must have been asleep." Son Goku sat up a bit straighter, looking toward the house. Another small, lopsided smile curved his lips.

"You realize," Piccolo growled, eyes narrowing, "that your wife is going to throw a vase or something at me the minute I walk through that door."

Goku laughed softly, though it turned into a cough somewhere along the line. "Hai, sorry about that."

The former demon started for the door again. Something in him said that it was now or never, but how could he begin? "Son, I've been meaning to tell you something."

The Saiyan regarded him intently.

"If you ever bring it up again, I'll deny it to the end, understand?"

Goku nodded, though it looked as if he was fighting back another grin.

Piccolo looked away, still finding it easier to speak to someone indirectly. "You…have an amazing child, Son Goku. Even I can see that." They were on the doorstep now. All that remained was to knock.

"I know that, Pic."

Continuing was even harder than Piccolo had thought it would be. "It seems to me that the acorn didn't fall as far from the tree as I used to think." There, it was done.

He gaze was still pointedly averted, so he couldn't tell what Son's facial expression might have been, but he did hear his words: "Your acorn did."

Piccolo shook his head, another smirk lighting his features. "No it didn't. Someone little brat came along and replanted it."

Goku chuckled again. "Yeah, I guess that's true."

Shifting his grip on his passenger, Piccolo cast one of the Saiyan's arms around his shoulders, supporting him with an arm around his torso. Son was now standing - supported, but standing. One green hand lifted, pounding the door once. The knock was hard enough to set the door rattling on its hinges, but not hard enough to crack the wood. "This conversation never happened."

Son Goku winked. "Right, consider it forgotten."

Unfortunately, both of them had forgotten something else, one small-but-ever-so-crucial detail. The door opened outward.

"Goku!" A voice cried as the door swung fully open, or it would have had it not collided solidly with Piccolo about halfway. A thud resounded across the clearing. It didn't really hurt, but it certainly wasn't pleasant. Piccolo bit his tongue - hard - to keep from swearing.

That thud drew her attention to him. "Piccolo! What are you doing dragging him out here at this hour of the night! Especially without a sweater and in his condition! You should know better than that! I…"

Goku waved one hand - the one that wasn't around Piccolo's shoulders - dismissively. "This was my idea, Chichi. Pic didn't want to do it."

The woman looked at her husband somewhat suspiciously. "Why?"

Goku shrugged, nearly losing his balance. "Eh, you know, I hate hospitals." The Saiyan then looked up at Piccolo from beneath his wild bangs, his meaning clear: you keep my secret, and I'll keep yours. "Can we come in?" Son asked, once again employing 'the look.'

Chichi actually smiled. "Well, there's no point in sending you back." She turned around and started walking. "Piccolo, if you would please bring him in here - I think that putting him on the couch would be easier than hauling him upstairs."

The Namekian complied after spending a few seconds making sure that he wasn't going to faint. Seeing his surprise, Son whispered, "She's really a nice person, Piccolo. You just have to get to know her."

Piccolo didn't respond. He simply deposited Son on the couch and stepped back.

"I'm going to fix some tea. Make yourself at home." Chichi's voice, coming in from the kitchen, wasn't overly friendly but wasn't openly hostile either. No matter, it was time for him to go.

"Goodbye, Son," he said softly, finding it suddenly very hard to speak. It was too hot in the house after being out in the wind, the walls were too close.

"Will you be back?" Goku asked, his eyes half-lidded.

Piccolo shrugged. "I might stop by tomorrow. You'd better still be alive." With that, he turned and swept silently out the door. This time, he was careful to close the door behind him. It was so warm in there - no point in letting the cold air in. He lifted into the sky more slowly than usual, turning toward the south. He was flying away. He wondered why it felt like a desertion.

A faint tingling at the corners of his eyes caught his attention. It was the wind, it couldn't have been anything else. Certainly it hadn't been the sight of one solitary set of footprints across the snow-coated yard where there were usually two. It couldn't have been that.

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