Disclaimer: I don't own DB/Z/GT.  I called Toriyama-san and offered to buy the rights to it, but he politely declined. 

A/N: Though I love Kuriin & #18, Piccolo still remains my absolute, #1 favourite character.  I've wondered for a long time how he would have reacted to falling behind the Saiyajins (in strength, not in character, no matter what he says).  Piccolo's pride is what makes me admire him so much, so I thought I'd write an introspective story dealing with his feelings on being "third in line."

Third in Line

I didn't even phase him. 

Short, sharp fangs were bared in a snarl of disbelief and self-directed belittlement.  Muscled eyebrow ridges pulled together in a horrific scowl above closed eyes, below a white and purple turban.  

I threw all my most powerful attacks at him, and all he did was laugh and bat me away like a child's toy . . .

A white, pulsing glow surrounded the figure who sat cross-legged in the air.  A few errant insects were drawn to the light, only to spark and die as though electrocuted in a heat lamp, and they fluttered, unnoticed, to the ground. 

How did this happen?  When did I make the transformation from the strongest fighter on Earth to a mere sideshow attraction?  Where did I go wrong? 

Piccolo's eyes snapped open viciously, and he raised his energy so suddenly that the trees around him were eradicated in a ten-metre radius.  An expression that could have been regret flickered across his face as he regarded the charred stumps surrounding him.  "Cell," he growled, low in his throat. 

His eyes narrowed as he remembered the events of the final battle with Cell.  Piccolo's only thoughts had been of Gohan, his mind taken with the crazy desire to protect, or at the very least, to die with honour with his best friend.  

I don't know why I thought I could do it . . . protect Gohan, I mean.  Cell was obviously so far above us . . .

Piccolo shook his head violently as the memories began to flood him.  The forest around him seemed to shimmer, coalescing into a parched desert, with rocky cliffs and fallen boulders . . . and the clash of gigantic blasts in the centre as two powerful fighters battled for dominance. 

Piccolo's eyes burned as he stared at the battlefield, refusing to blink in case he missed something.  His thoughts swirled around in his brain, bumping into each other with such chaotic frenzy that it was almost painful, until finally one thing came to mind.  "Gohan . . ." he muttered. 

Everything became clear, yet at the same time was still as muddy as the bottom of Piccolo's river.  The only thing he could think of was that he had to protect Gohan -- had to help him, had to do everything he could to make sure the boy would make it through this battle.  Even if he died. 

All the confusion burst forth in a blaze of decision, and Piccolo scowled.  "I'm coming, Gohan!" he powered up and flew into the air. 

Piccolo's fist clenched so tightly that his taloned fingers bit into his palm. 

I was stupid, to think I could do anything.  I'd seen Cell fight before.  I'd even battled him, in his first stage, and he almost killed me then.  How could I have been so deluded? 

He snarled, but his anger wasn't directed at the now-departed Cell -- it was pointed at himself. 

I've spent my entire life trying to become stronger.  From the moment of my birth I was obsessed with my power.  Even after I became allied with Son and began training Gohan, I was still one of the strongest of Earth's protectors, second only to Son.  Piccolo grimaced.  Then the Saiyajins came, and made a laughingstock of me.  I had killed Radditsu, yes, but only because Son sacrificed himself.  A year later I was killed by that fool Nappa, and ever since then Vegeta has been ahead of me.  Son always was, darn him, but all of a sudden there was another one standing in my way and laughing. 

Piccolo closed his eyes and struggled to control himself, fighting the urge to blow something to smithereens.  

But even with Son and Vegeta, I was right behind them, sometimes not too far away.  For years, I was able to keep up with Son, to be right up there with him, fighting his battles and even helping him when he fell.  Battle after battle we fought together, and each time Son admitted he needed my help.  I was always the one to fight alone, weakening the enemy so Son could come in for the final blow.  For so long I was a required part of Earth's defendants, and I was foolish to believe that would last forever. 

Yet, even he had been allowed his brief moment of victory.  Before his second battle with Artificial Human #17, Piccolo had united with his half-father, Kami.  The union had made him ten times stronger than any of the warriors on Earth, leaving Son, Mirai no Trunks, and even Vegeta far behind.  His lips curved up in a bittersweet smile as he remembered the power that coursed through his veins the first time he had tested his newfound strength.  Knowing he was stronger than all the other fighters on Earth combined had been an exhilarating experience.  For once, Piccolo understood how Son must feel. 

His inner demons began eating away at him again, not allowing Piccolo even this small triumph. 

All right, so at one point I was stronger than Son.  So was Tenshinhan in his day, and Vegeta, and others.  It's a stupid thing to gloat about, as if I were a child who'd won a prize at a ring-toss booth in a county fair.  I didn't even get that long to cackle over my victory -- within a day, Cell nearly killed me.  Two days after that, Son, Vegeta, Trunks . . . even Gohan was stronger than I.  After a brief battle with #17, I was again reduced to the secondary warrior. 

Piccolo shuddered, feeling a deep sense of shame.  He'd tried to help Gohan, of course, throwing blasts at Cell in a desperate attempt to distract him long enough for Gohan to get an edge.  Masenko, Special Beam Cannon . . . all Piccolo's special moves had been no more than annoying insect bites to the monster.  

And my attacks did no more than those of Kuririn, Tenshinhan, or Yamucha.  They're strong for Earthlings, but I'd always considered it a given that my strength was a cut above theirs.  Every time we battled together, I could tell the humans looked up to me to give Son the assistance he needed to win . . . and for years, I was able to.  But not this time.  I couldn't do any more damage than those humans could.  I managed to keep going longer than they, but it made no difference in the long run.  It doesn't matter that the wasp is however many times more powerful than a gnat -- both of them can be slapped away without a second thought.  Somehow, my power has been reduced to that of a has-been.  Now, Gohan is a thousand times stronger than I'll ever be! 

It had always been somewhat of a consolation to Piccolo, to train the son of the world's most powerful fighter.  To know that Son's offspring was dependent on him for coaching and teaching, was a way for Piccolo to convince himself that this butter-soft world still needed him somehow.  Gohan's innocent way of looking up to him helped Piccolo to believe that he might still have something to offer the Earth.  Now, even that was taken away. 

Gohan doesn't need me anymore.  If Son admitted there was nothing he could teach him, certainly there is nothing left that I may give the boy.  His power surprised everyone -- even me -- and now he stands above us, on a plateau I doubt anyone will reach.  I am still the third-strongest on this planet, after him and Vegeta, but the space between us is so great that the title leaves much to be desired.  It's like comparing a house cat to a lion! 

His pointed, green ears heard the sound of someone flying his way, and Piccolo identified the life energy as that of Gohan.  He grimaced.  I'm not sure I can handle talking to him right now . . .

But Gohan seemed completely unaware of the shift in power as the black-haired boy dropped to the ground by his mentor and friend.  "Hey, Piccolo!" he greeted him boisterously, the hereditary Son grin lighting up his face.  Piccolo didn't smile back.  "Wanna' spar with me?"

The words hit Piccolo like a lance through the heart.  Sparring . . . even a few weeks ago he would have accepted the offer gladly, using the playful fighting to give Gohan pointers, help the child become a stronger warrior.  But that was in the past.  "I don't think so, Gohan."

The boy's face fell.  "Why not?  Don't you like me anymore?"

"Don't be stupid," Piccolo chided.  "I just meant that . . ." he paused, then decided there was no point to hedging.  "Well, you're much stronger than any of us now.  What do you need to spar with me for?"

Gohan rocked back on his heels, surprised.  "Huh?  Because I want to!  Besides, I used to spar with you when you were a hundred times stronger than I was.  So what if things are a little different now?  You're still my sensei."

Sensei: teacher, mentor . . . master.  Piccolo repressed a snort.  Was he really?  Did someone who had nothing more to teach his student still count as an instructor?  He thought not.  "Thanks for the vote of confidence.  How's it feel to be the strongest warrior in the universe?"

"Not like you'd think it would," Gohan admitted.  "I don't feel any different.  But hey, why are you asking me?  You were way stronger than I was before I went in the Room of Spirit and Time.  Even Dad and Vegeta wouldn't've been able to touch you!"

"Key phrase here is 'was'," Piccolo grunted.  Unlike many of Earth's enemies, Piccolo did not entertain false notions of his power.  "Face it, Gohan, I'm no good to the Earth anymore.  Our enemies just keep getting stronger, and soon I won't be able to keep up at all.  You know it, and I know it."

Gohan's expression was aghast as he regarded his friend with wide, black eyes.  "You're not serious!  You aren't giving up fighting like Yamucha is, are you?"

Piccolo sighed.  "No.  I'll stick around.  I'm addicted to battle, even if I lose.  I'll hang in there and hope that someday the Earth will need me again."

The boy's lip quivered, and for a second he came dangerously close to crying.  "B-but . . . the Earth does need you!  You train just as hard as Dad and Vegeta ever did, you'll get right back up there!"

A contemptuous snort passed the Nameksejin's lips.  "Really.  If Vegeta has his way, when his son grows up Trunks will become every bit as powerful as you are, perhaps more.  You know just as well as I do that Vegeta won't rest until his son is almost as strong as he is.  That will be just another person ahead of me."

And if the child I sense beginning to grow in your mother's womb has anywhere near the potential you had, Gohan, I'll be left behind even more.

"It's not strength that makes the difference," Gohan declared fiercely, glaring.  "It's determination, and perseverance, and . . . and . . . and all those other things you taught me!  Start listening to you own teachings, Piccolo," he shook himself, mustered up a shy smile.  "And you're still my best friend.  I don't care if I'm an ascended Super Saiyajin or . . . or whatever I am.  You're still my teacher!"

A rare smile touched Piccolo's face, and he rested a hand on Gohan's shoulder.  How the child had changed from the snivelling infant with the runny nose and soft, unused muscles . . . "I guess so, kid.  If you want to spar, I'm up for it.  I'll bet I can still give you a few broken bones."

A grin spread across Gohan's face, and Piccolo knew the boy was fighting the impulse to wrap him in a bear hug.  But the funny thing was, if he had done it, Piccolo wouldn't have really cared.  "Yeah!  Let's go!"

As they flew into the air, Piccolo let out a small sigh.  I may not be the strongest anymore, but Gohan's right.  It isn't just about raw power . . . it's about how hard you fight.  Son and I were outclassed in strength by many enemies, but since we didn't give up, we still managed to win.

He shook his head and powered up, watching with pride as Gohan flared first to Super Saiyajin, then to the level beyond.

All right, so Gohan's strength has left me behind just as his father's did.  I won't be defeated . . . I'm still going to train, and fight, and if any more enemies threaten my planet, I'll give them a run for their money!  

Piccolo smiled tightly as he and Gohan began their match.  He might only be a house cat to a lion, but this was one house cat that wouldn't creep into a corner to lick its wounds . . . and even cats had claws, fangs, and the ability to kill.  He'd keep fighting till the end of his days, until his life was spent. 

I'm still Piccolo, and this is still my planet.  The Saiyajins may be stronger than I, but that makes no difference -- I'm just going to have to work harder to keep up.  And by Son's memory, I will!  I will not be reduced to a spectator's role in the protection of this planet and my allies. 

Suddenly Gohan yelled in pain as Piccolo's fist drilled into his stomach, and the boy called a timeout as he clutched his midsection, scrunching his eyes shut to keep back the tears.  "Gosh, Piccolo, sir," he gasped, "Didja' have to hit so hard?  I'd forgotten what a tough sparring partner you are!"

A smirk crossed Piccolo's face.  Well what do you know, he thought, I've still got it