Disclaimer: Dragon Ball Z is owned (to my knowledge) by Akira Toriyama

Disclaimer: Dragon Ball Z is owned (to my knowledge) by Akira Toriyama. I do not profess to know the gentlemen, nor have his permission to use his characters.

Author's Note: Be nice- this is my first Dragon Ball Z storyline. But I'm not new to fanfiction… I've been doing that for years. It's a pretty short story that more or less fits into the Mirai timeline, and is inspired by Demara's beautiful fanart "Untitled." I know, I know… I'm ridiculously late to submit this for the February writing challenge, but I know I wouldn't be able to compete with Lisalu's work anyway, so it's okay. Also, please note that I purposely avoided reading Tinni's story "Regeneration Tank" because of my intention to eventually write a story to the same image. Therefore, any similarities in plot between my story and hers are coincidence. Please e-mail me at Vespera2000@aol.com, to tell me you hate it, love it, like it a little, or whatever. Also, if you're interested in my other work, please visit my own web-site at http://www.geocities.com/tenbaskets/. As of today, there isn't a Dragon Ball Z section yet, but there will be by the end of April. In the meantime, I've got other stories that might hold your attention. © March 2001

Closed

By Vespera

The muffled sound of footsteps tapping against solid concrete echoed in the room. The sound grew in volume, the echo sharper, until the door yawned open.

The light from the hallway silhouetted the figure… feminine, with waves of hair that reached passed her shoulders. She stood at the entrance for a moment, staring into the darkness, before she finally took a step inside.

The automated systems of the small chamber obeyed their programming. No sooner did her foot touch the first tile did the gentle fluorescent lights activate, humming quietly to meet the harmony of the other systems in twenty-four hour operation. The door then slid closed, leaving the woman alone in the cold, sterile laboratory.

Well… not completely alone.

Her feet automatically followed the path they had taken nearly every day for two years. As she passed a table, she deposited her mug of lukewarm coffee just long enough to slip on the sterile white lab coat she kept down there. But the extra material provided little warmth against the clinical chill of the room.

She immediately retrieved her mug, letting the mild warmth comfort her fingers, and she continued on her way.

Her first stop was the basic status system. It was propped against a wall, with a screen large enough for sports fans to watch the Super Bowl comfortably. On it rested an outline, turning slowly, with statistics flashing along the screen intermittedly.

She wasn't surprised. The status hadn't changed since her last visit. In fact, after the first few days, it hardly changed at all.

She kept telling herself it was futile. There was nothing science could do for him.

She left her mug on the computer console and turned her head. Soft blue eyes, warm and deep like the summer sky, fell upon the silhouette buoyed in the thick liquids of the glass and metal chamber. He still wore a breathing mask, despite the fact a single breath hadn't escaped him in two years.

Her gaze slowly swept his entire form. Of course, he was perfect. The regeneration tank had done wonders, healing every wound, mending every bone. The prolonged submersion even managed to wash away the brutal scars on his chest he had always bore… marks of a painful youth that he'd never recovered from.

He was perfect. Face set in its permanent scowl… although much softer than it once was. Skin healthy and tan. Unruly hair, reaching toward the heavens scornfully, swaying gently with the currents. To the whole world, he looked as if he were sleeping.

She knew it was brutal torture. She knew that, every time she stared at his face, a little piece of her half-expected his eyes to suddenly open. As if it were one of her mother's treasured soap operas, where the hero awakens from near-death and falls into the arms of the woman who loves him. Who always loved him. Who never really gave up on him, despite many words to the contrary.

The regeneration tank was a miracle. After years of effort, she managed to construct the magnificent achievement of medical science with only the incomplete data from the remains of Nappa's pod to work with. She had heard of the tanks and their incredible ability from Krillin, who witnessed Goku's restoration on Nameksei. She first took the project on as a hobby… all was more or less quiet after the Garlic Jr. incident not long after Frieza was defeated. She constructed it in preparation for the inevitable- when Son-Kun would return from space and finally battle Vegeta.

Once, her mother had casually asked her whom she was making the tank for… Vegeta or Goku? Given the likely outcome of the Prince versus the legendary Super-Saiyan, it was doubtful Goku had much to worry about.

Bulma had chosen not to answer that question at the time.

The climactic face-off between the two Saiya-jin was not meant to be. Not long after his return from Yardratsei, Goku fell ill with a mysterious disease. The tank hadn't been completed yet… though in retrospect it probably wouldn't have made much difference. From the schematics it didn't seem to be able to heal infections as it did injuries.

And after Son-Kun died, all other battles were too brutal to leave any injured. This was the first time she had actually considered using the machine.

She knew he was beyond the help of science… and it frustrated her like nothing else ever could.

He frustrated her like nothing else ever could.

"Damn you," she whispered, resting her hand against the glass, "What the hell was going on in that head of yours?"

She stared at his eyes, reflexively holding her breath as a muscle twitched on his cheek.

But it was her imagination, lead astray by the currents of liquid that slightly distorted her view of him.

His eyes wouldn't open. He couldn't answer the questions that had tormented her for two years… and promised to torment her into the afterlife.

His eyes were closed. Closed… never to open for her. Just like his heart, that he kept closed from her despite all she was willing to share with him.

Closed… just like his mind. She never could assess his motivations, his concerns, his perceptions.

The only clue she ever had into his inner workings was the glimmer in his eyes. His eyes betrayed little… but their smoldering depths gave her some assurance every once in a while that she didn't love and sacrifice in vain.

But even that small comfort was gone.

* * *

Two Years Ago…

The air was filthy. Dust and debris filled aching lungs, tickling his raw throat while burning his sinuses. The overpowering scent of fresh blood hung in the atmosphere, mingling with the older smell of stale blood that dried days ago.

There was once a time when he savored the taste of destruction… the lingering aroma of blood in his nostrils. But those days were long past, and even during the most insane bouts of his life, he never much enjoyed the scent of his own blood.

The blood that poured freely from the gaping wound in his abdomen; the burning gash that nearly severed his right leg just above the knee; the laser wound that laid his left arm lifeless; the slash just above his down-turned brow that turned the world red… it was pointless to count them all.

"Impressive," a gentle voice, void of any feeling whatsoever, stated. "Monkey-Boy's still alive."

A soft sigh. "Not really," the female noted clinically, "I can hear his heart slowing."

Their victim struggled to free himself from the rubble that still trapped the lower half of his body. He vaguely remembered the energy ball that had struck him, sending him mercilessly through the reinforced outer wall of the main building of the Capsule Corporation.

For a moment, he was astounded to find that his body had actually made the structure crumble like dried bread. He had always considered the spacious domes indestructible. They housed Bulma Briefs after all, and her genius could tame even nature.

He couldn't remember how many times his fist had pounded that outer wall. Sometimes in frustration. Sometimes in fury. Sometimes as a threat… but she always knew his threats were empty.

The building housed his memories… the few snips of peace he had experienced during a life filled with disappointment, loss, pain, and struggle. Moments when the faintest glimmers of happiness touched his heart… though he never recognized them as such.

Why did the gods mock him so? Why did they torture him… letting him live a half-life, only to recognize it right before his death?

He had been little more than a walking zombie after Kakarotto's death. Useless, worthless death… the mighty Super-Saiyan crumbling against a microscopic organism that decided to nestle itself within his heart.

What cruel mockery! Vegeta achieved the might of the Super-Saiyan… only after Kakarotto had passed into the afterlife. The achievement was empty, his life was empty. Earth had nothing for him.

Or so he thought.

And now, as he felt his life ebb, his eyes watered for probably the fourth time in his entire life.

No! he roared inwardly, No weakness! Not now!

He forced his eyes open again, staring at the broken concrete and metal.

Buildings and the memories stored within would always crumble. But not the Saiya-jin no Ouji.

Vegeta did his best to chuckle. The drowned wheeze he managed was a far cry from the derisive laughter he was infamous for.

He knew these were his last moments. A good death, he decided.

* * *

The warrior held his breath, his fist clenching with burning frustration as he gazed toward the smoking ruins of Capsule Corporation.

"Kuso!" he growled, his dark eyes falling to his trembling fist, "He's dying!"

He glanced toward his three companions. "We can't let him die like this."

Three eyes narrowed, as two powerful arms folded. "He asked us to let him handle it, Yamucha."

"Asked isn't quite the word," Krillin noted, chewing his lip, "More like 'demanded.' What did he say? 'Get the hell out of my way'?"

Son Gohan, by far the youngest of the assembly, stared at the flaming ruins, reaching out desperately to cling to the fading ki. "We've gotta help!" he shouted, his legs bending as he prepared to spring into action.

A hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Wait," Tenshinhan intoned, peering at the battle, "Gohan, I don't think you should come with us."

The young half-Saiyan blinked in astonishment. "Why? I can handle it!" The boy struggled to contain his burning anger. "I wanna fight!"

Yamucha gazed at him sadly. It was obvious the boy wanted desperately to avenge Piccolo, his mentor and closest friend. It would only make him attack thoughtlessly… and he really was the only chance Earth had.

There was no way the rest of them could defeat the Jinzouningen. Not if Vegeta couldn't manage it.

"Here's the plan," Yamucha decided, "Ten, you and Krillin give us a few minutes by distracting the Jinzouningen. Gohan and I will check on Vegeta. If he's alive, Gohan will take him to Bulma, and I'll join you."

"Agreed," the triclops decided, as he bound into the air. The rest soon followed.

* * *

"KIKOHO!"

The searing triangular energy beam tore through the heavy air at phenomenal speed. Vegeta vaguely felt the intense heat on his skin, but otherwise the brutal attack didn't phase him.

He was tottering on the very edge of oblivion, but he managed to exhale one final thought.

"bakas… leave…"

"Don't try to talk, Vegeta-san," Gohan said gently, his small hand hovering hesitantly above the battered and bloodied Saiya-jin no Ouji.

Yamucha stared down at Vegeta from his full height, eyes narrowed clinically.

This was the man that had somehow weaseled his way into Bulma's heart. He yelled at her, threatened her, bossed her around, insulted her, and yet somehow wound up fathering her child.

And then, the bastard dared to up and leave Bulma with an infant son to raise by herself. After Goku's death, Vegeta left planet Earth, claiming there was nothing for him.

This… asshole had given Bulma so much heartache… but for some inexplicable reason she still loved him.

A monster like this didn't deserve that kind of love.

But, he did come back. He saw Capsule Corporation in danger, and demanded to fight the Jinzouningen alone. Was he really trying to save their lives? It was always hard to tell what Vegeta's intentions were.

It was too late to ask, though. Even Yamucha could tell, not even a senzu could bring him back now. The prince's mighty chest crumbled as the last gush of breath left him.

"Gohan," Yamucha said, his eyes never leaving the bloodied, numb face of his greatest rival, "I want you to go to the hideout. Take him with you."

Gohan looked distressed, his feverish gaze leaping toward Yamucha, then to Vegeta, then to the battle that raged not far from them. "But…"

"GOHAN!" Yamucha shouted, with a rare dose of ire, "I… can't let him die out here like this. Bulma… Bulma needs to know he came back."

The boy stared at the baseball star, his eyes wide with astonishment. "Are you… sure?"

Yamucha nodded grimly. She would want to know. At least it's conclusive. She'll stop staring at the sky at night, wondering if he'll come back.

The warrior then gave the boy a small grin. "Take care of yourself. You're going to be incredibly strong… just like your dad."

Gohan watched his father's friend streak toward the battle, wondering why his last comment almost sounded like… a farewell.

* * *

Bulma swallowed the powerful brew in a single swig, eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep and intense worry.

It had been three hours.

Three hours since Tenshinhan, Gohan, Krillin, and Yamucha left her. Juunanagou and Juuhachigou had decided to launch an attack at the remains of the Capsule Corporation, apparently hoping to wipe out the Red Ribbon Army's corporate rival. Or, perhaps they wanted to fish out the remaining Z-Senshi. As if it weren't enough they had already slaughtered Piccolo and Chaiotzu only days ago.

The Senshi were eager to accept the challenge. Gero's monstrosities had to be defeated. With their primary target long dead, they ran rampant, terrorizing humans wherever they hid. Left unchecked, the hellish twins would raze Earth to the ground in their ceaseless quest for diversion.

But could the Senshi overpower them? It didn't really seem possible. The cyborgs seemed indestructible… and completely free from any weakness. They couldn't even grow tired.

Still, Bulma clung to the hope that she could determine a weakness. They were products of science… therefore she was their Queen.

Eventually, the twin abominations would realize it.

The scientist desperately clung to two basic beliefs that kept her working despite heavy exhaustion and nearly overwhelming despair.

One… she would never crumble. No matter how bad the situation became, it could always get worse. Nothing was insurmountable… all she needed was enough time and enough caffeine to develop a method to attain victory.

Two… she was a warrior. Sure, no one else saw her as such, but she'd be damned if she'd sit back on her laurels and expect someone else to save her.

She was fully capable of defending herself, and defending her baby, thankyouverymuch.

Screw Vegeta. She didn't need him, just like he didn't need her. Hell, if he didn't think she was worth sticking around for, then that's just fine with her.

Bulma exhaled sharply, closing her eyes and letting the rage seep into her heart once again.

It struck back from time to time. The first week after he'd left, she'd been an emotional wreck. Too depressed to get out of bed half the time, the only thing that gave her some comfort was her beautiful baby.

The next two months had been more volatile. She cursed the arrogant, selfish, obnoxious Saiya-jin no Ouji with every hurtful word she could imagine. How dare he leave Bulma Briefs? Who the hell did he think he was?

The rage simmered eventually, and then the numbness settled in. For three full weeks she didn't even mention his name. She didn't allude to him, or even think about him. At least, that's what she told her friends.

She never told anyone about the mute wishes she'd make, while humming a melody to lull Trunks to sleep. She never hinted at the time she spent gazing out the window, wondering absently whether he'd found fulfillment somewhere.

The numbness carried with it a passive sadness… far less intense than the depression his departure had first inspired.

Before, she felt sorry for herself, and how low the proud and beautiful Bulma Briefs had fallen. She had given herself to a man, heart and soul, only for him to tell her it didn't matter in the least.

But she resolved that issue. She would move on.

She only rarely felt sorry for herself anymore. She felt sorry for Vegeta… a man so locked within himself he couldn't find anything to live for.

How would it feel to be so emotionally closed? It was hard for her to even fathom.

Her anger faded months ago… but when the cyborgs attacked, she began using her anger to fuel her work.

Anger was an excellent motivation.

It wasn't true anger, persé. It was forced… to keep her working to find some solution to the current crisis.

She let her anger fester. Sure, it wouldn't be good for her health in the long run, but if she didn't figure out how to stop the Jinzouningen soon, she wouldn't have a "long run" to worry about.

She let it fester. If Vegeta won't protect me and Trunks, then fine! Who needs him? I'll show him how "weak" and "stupid" I am!

It was then, while she directed her attention inward to fan the fires of fury, that she felt… it.

It was difficult to describe. A chill swept her, pooling in her chest painfully. It almost felt as if her soul had liquefied, pouring its entire volume into one organ.

She jumped at the foreign sensation, her hand clutching her chest above her heart. Her eyes were wide, moistening with tears she didn't understand.

One word thoughtlessly rolled off her tongue. "Vegeta…"

Galvanized by… something, Bulma lurched from her desk and raced down the winding tunnels of the subterranean hideaway.

* * *

"Gohan! Oh my baby!"

Gohan felt the air being crushed from his lungs as he found himself trapped in the powerful arms of a panicking mother.

Chichi sobbed desperately into his hair, her body trembling as she squeezed her child with all her might.

Her panic had been pure torture. During the long hours since the Z-Senshi slipped out of the complex without her knowledge, all she could do was knit.

She needed to keep her mind occupied. Otherwise, all she could see was all the horrible, bloody, torturous deaths her little baby could be facing at that very moment.

"M…mommy," Gohan croaked.

The broken tone in her son's voice sent a shiver through the woman. She backed away, steadying herself on her knees to take in his appearance. When she first saw him, she was too overjoyed by the fact that he was alive to assess him properly.

The boy was covered in blood… but otherwise there wasn't a scratch on him. Not even his deep orange gi, worn in honor of his father, was torn.

The blood wasn't his own… and the thick, rich stains now covered Chichi's dress as well.

Fresh tears flooded her dark eyes as she stared into the hollow gaze of her son.

He was barely functioning. He must've gotten back to the hideout purely by autopilot, and now his mind was shutting down.

Chichi gathered him into her arms, steeling herself for her son. "What happened, Gohan-kun?"

Chichi was never gentle. Her voice always rang with frustration, fury, or impatience at the least. Life had been hard, and it had taken its toll on her spirit.

But she could be nurturing. Her baby needed that.

"Kami…" he groaned, "no, Kami's dead. They… they're all dead."

Chichi froze.

"Gods… I… I c…couldn't…" he sputtered… "couldn't… couldn't… help. All dead… gods, no… all of them."

He pushed against his mother, his face trembling as he tried desperately to fight back the shock in order to communicate. "I couldn't… save him either."

Chichi was still frozen, overwhelming grief striking her full force. She only barely heard the rest of her son's story.

She watched blankly as Gohan returned to the entrance, and walked into the dark tunnel that led to the surface. She heard him struggling, and rose as he reappeared.

She gasped, her stomach tightening sickly as she realized the burden her son carried.

"Oh Kami," she groaned, closing her eyes tightly, "Oh Bulma…"

* * *

Bulma rounded the corner, heart pounding against her chest as if fighting to free itself from her ribcage. But when she saw them, she froze in her tracks.

She couldn't see too clearly. Chichi was obstructing her view, her back to her as she tended to a very still form lying prone on the floor. Gohan stood a few feet away, rivers of tears trickling down his cheek, mixing with blood and grime as they tracked down his skin.

"Vegeta!"

Both Sons turned, and watched as Bulma frantically raced to them, shoving Chichi aside with force neither thought the scientist was capable of. Chichi watched mutely as Bulma quickly checked all vitals.

"Bulma," Chichi whispered, lying her hand on the other woman's shoulder, "I'm-"

"Out of my way!" Bulma screeched, pushing Chichi from her. She firmly planted her hands on his chest, careful to avoid the rather large hole that punched through his stomach, and began pushing against his ribs.

"Come on," she mouthed, inhaling deeply. She followed up the thrusts by crushing her lips to his, forcing air into his battered, useless lungs.

Chichi rose to her feet, schooling her face to remain calm in the face of her friend's hysteria. "Bulma!" she said sternly, "He's already dead."

"No! Dammit, he's too stubborn to die!"

Bulma stood up, pulling on her hair frantically. "The tank! We'll put him in the tank!"

Chichi's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "But I thought it's not finished-"

"I haven't managed to program it for human or demi-Saiyan DNA," Bulma admitted, neurons firing, "but it's preprogrammed for full blooded Saiya-jin. It'll work on him."

Chichi watched, her heart aching as Bulma leaned over Vegeta, her finger grazing his cracked, bluish lips. "You baka," she croaked weakly, "always depending on me to patch you up. Even though you don't deserve it…"

Bulma leaned further, pulling his dead weight upon her shoulder. Her knees buckled against his compact weight, but she struggled to pull him up.

On the verge of even more tears, Chichi touched Bulma's chin, lifting the older woman's liquid gaze to meet her own. "Prepare the tank," she advised, "I'll carry him down."

Bulma grinned gratefully, transferring the weight to the stronger woman. Chichi managed to brace his weight without too much difficulty, and fixed Gohan, who stood silent in the corner, with a piercing gaze.

"Gohan," she ordered, "clean yourself up. I'll be right back."

Something in her "Mother-tone" demanded obedience in the well-mannered child. Even though he barely held on to conscious thought, he managed to nod.

"Hai," he whispered, and slowly disappeared down the hall.

Chichi watched her son, the ache in her heart stabbing as she glanced sidelong at the face of the man she bore on her shoulders.

"What the hell are you doing here?" she sighed, as she began to follow Bulma to one of the lower research levels, "You've only made things worse."

* * *

Bulma stared at the thick glass, now tinged green. The healing liquid filled the cylinder to a brim, causing rivers of thick blood to snake out of his many wounds.

The filters would remove the blood, and the liquid, saturated with replicated DNA, would help the body by reconstructing the lost bone and tissue.

"There's nothing more you can do now," Chichi noted, leaning against the door post, "You really need to get some sleep. Check on him in the morning… the tank will do all it can."

Bulma ignored Chichi's advice. Her gaze shifted to the peaceful visage of the man within.

Her heart lifted.. she could already see the damage was less severe than she thought at first. He didn't look so bad now that the blood and grime was wiped away, and the smaller wounds were already beginning to knit.

"It should take about two weeks," Bulma hypothesized, "That'll give the tank enough time to patch up all the organs."

Chichi remained silent, staring at her friend. Bulma's narrow shoulders shook violently, and cold sweat beaded on her brow. Tears gathered in her eyes, spilling over onto her cheeks, but she made no move to wipe them, or even acknowledge them.

Her entire focus was centered on Vegeta's closed eyes.

Chichi sighed again, reflecting for a brief moment on the devastating blow they had suffered that day. She couldn't bring herself to tell Bulma that everyone else was dead as well. She was far too fragile and irrational to deal with anything more at the moment.

Moved by the deep compassion that could only stem from a true understanding, Chichi walked across the room. She draped a white lab coat over Bulma's quivering body, and patted her shoulders.

"Maybe you should stay here, in case his condition changes," Chichi said delicately, "I'll go check on Trunks, and fix dinner."

Bulma rested her hand atop her friend's. "Thanks."

Chichi nodded, and quietly left.

Once the echo of Chichi's shoes died, Bulma closed her eyes tightly, squeezing the tears out of their ducts.

"Why?" she whispered, shaking her head in stubborn denial, "Why did you leave me? Do you honestly think I'm not worthy of you? Or… or were you… afraid of something? Afraid of me?"

She waited for a solid minute. No response.

"I could kept a secret, you know," she continued faintly, "You could've opened up to me. I wouldn't hurt your pride… not really. Your pride is… my pride."

A faint grin tugged on her lips, and she leaned her forehead against the glass. "I love you. I don't remember if I ever said that out loud. But I thought you knew it. I thought you felt the same… or at least the Saiyan equivalent. I wonder what that would be? Not affection. Concern, maybe? Desire, definitely… but I know there's more than just sex between us. Value? I suppose that would be it. I thought you valued me, at least.

"But you do value me, don't you? I wasn't sure after you left… but you came back. You fought the Jinzouningen. It… it couldn't have been merely for the challenge. You left the planet, so you couldn't have even heard of them until you came back. So you returned for other reasons."

She was rambling now. Somewhere, in some deep, dark part of her consciousness, she knew she was rambling. She knew she was talking to someone who couldn't hear. She knew that, despite the incredible capabilities of the regeneration tank, it couldn't resurrect the dead.

Chichi's words did hit some part of Bulma's psyche. She had merely chosen to ignore it for now.

She wouldn't crumble. Given enough time and enough caffeine, she could make anything happen.

She'd given Vegeta the time he needed. He had returned… and he had returned for her.

No matter how much she wanted him to, however… he couldn't verify it.

She also knew that he died for her.

She hiccuped, trying to restrain the tears but failing miserably. The lump rose in her throat, blocking air and forcing her burning eyes to release their moisture, her pained chest to draw in air.

What started as a few tears rapidly became a torrent of sorrow. Denial could only go so far.

She slid to the ground, her body quaking as she released her pain in a long, agonized, rolling sob. Her forehead remained pressed to the glass, her hand tightening into a fist against the cool, smooth tank surface.

* * *

After over two years, she still couldn't bring herself to bury him.

The tank had restored him to physical perfection. It was incredible how… alive he looked. His skin had recovered from its deathly pallor. Every burn, bruise, or even scratch had faded.

She was the Queen of Science. She managed to restore his physical self. She was certain every part of him was in working order. The heart would beat, the lungs would inflate, the neurons would fire, and the body would respond.

But she couldn't restore the spark of life that made a lump of cells a living, breathing man.

His soul is gone. Either in Heaven, Hell, or wherever cold, arrogant, yet heroic men wound up.

"You still owe me answers," she reminded the corpse, "And I'll get them… even if I have to jump off Snake Way to wind up in Hell. You're not getting away from me."

She exhaled slowly, glancing at her wristwatch. Little Trunks would be cranky if he didn't get his supper on time. It was time to get back to her life.

She tenderly touched her lips to the glass.

"Call me crazy," she whispered against the glass, a small smirk on her face, "but you're just too beautiful to cover with dirt."

She then walked away. She dropped the lab coat on the table she always left it on, and strode out of the laboratory.

The door yawned closed behind her.

El Fin