who/whom is the DEVIL. i stabbeth thee.

and.

warning: there's quite a bit of uncomfortable tense-squatting happening in this chapter because tidy grammar is for chumps and because for plusly, MY ENGLISH ARE BROKEN.

additionally. Science Speak happens herein, approximately none of which is based on any working knowledge of Actual Science. HOORAY!

[F*CK YOU DISCLAIMER I DON'T EVEN NEED YOU.]


chapter seven


Her recent memory includes months of prolonged isolation, first on a claustrophobic alien space ship with a couple knuckleheads who'd spent most of their time sitting on the floor meditating at each other; and then on Namek, where the handful of times she hadn't been outright abandoned by her friends she'd either been fleeing for her life from some eldritch terror of the murky deep, or –by the skin of her teeth—barely managing to bullshit her way out of a hostage situation (ironically thanks to aforementioned eldritch terror), or discovering herself Suddenly Amphibious, or regaining consciousness in the aftermath of her unwitting foray into the slimy-wart aesthetic only to learn that the day's weather forecast had been updated to include titanic storms, extreme tectonic activity, and a slight chance of global apocalypse.

So when she thinks to herself –for what has to be the twelve-zillionth time—that today's been by far the longest in recent memory, she feels justified imagining the gory-gruesomest of bloody revenges against her 'royal' resident; the evil little prick almost murdered one of her employees –out of petulance!

Ultimately, thankfully, he hadn't let her director go 'splat,' even though she's pretty sure he hadn't been bluffing and can't account for why he'd changed his mind at the last minute.

Grateful as she'd been for the freak act of mercy, she'd still very much appreciated the gravity of the situation, and braced herself for the shit-storm to come. And come it certainly had.

She'd spent a harried hour putting out fires with her staff –particularly the HR department, whom she only managed to placate after repeated assurances that her Robotics director'd receive the royal treatment for his trouble (as well as a generous raise, should he choose to stay), and that she'll have a proposal whipped up by week's end regarding the appendage of an In-Case-of-Vegeta-Hissy-Fit Clause to the insurance policies of any and all Capsule Corp personnel whose duties require them to work on the property for any length of time. She'd declined to even consider what this is going to cost the company in pecuniary terms because she didn't have the time to spare for an aneurysm.

In the meantime, she's got her army of administrative assistants out on one of easily six trillion Damage Control assignments, one of which includes regular updates on the status of the traumatized Dr. Lima, who was promptly evacuated from the premises in the aftermath of the Prince's temper tantrum and is now holed up in an executive suite at the finest hospital in the city. She'd also taken great pains to keep this story from leaking to the West City press, because the last thing she needs right now is the media finding out that Capsule Corp is currently harboring the extra-terrestrial fugitive who'd come—not even six months ago!—to wipe out all sentient species on the planet.

Then there'd been the hard part: having to tell Chi Chi that her son'd gone flying off to Kami-only-knows-where, for Piccolo-only-knows-why. Alarmingly, Chi Chi hadn't followed the script and flown into a blind rage, and had instead gone into cool interrogation mode, which Bulma of course had to lie her way through, since the truth was that Gohan'd shown up unexpectedly at Capsule Corp in the wake of her almost-fatal argument with Vegeta and been promptly smacked into a wall hard enough to mangle his arm, and that truth was likely to induce Chi Chi to murder cherished, well-meaning friends with frying pans.

Needless to say, after this bit of breaking news, Chi Chi summarily cancelled breakfast, and spent the next several minutes herding everyone into the plane (having apparently divined –correctly—that Capsule Corp'd be the likeliest place he'd turn up), sniping at Bulma in vicious tones all the while. In spite of the younger woman's paroxysms of Maternal Rage, Bulma'd actually been glad for the rush; she'd had a vested interest in getting back quickly, too.

It's a nearly ten-hour trip home, and though initially she'd intended to switch off with her mom or dad at the halfway point, she found she was far too keyed up to let anyone else take the wheel, and ended up driving all the way back by herself, though Son-kun's wife was not without contribution: with Chi Chi hounding her every thirty seconds to drive faster already, she managed to shave a whole hour from their estimated flight time.

Dawn is just breaking over the West City skyline when she taxis onto the company lawn –while in the time zone she'd left this morning, it's just getting dark—and she visibly slumps in her seat when it occurs to her that on top of everything else, she's also got a week's worth of jetlag to look forward to. Faaaantastic.

Chi Chi's off in search of her son before Bulma even brings the plane to a complete stop, and Ox is quick to follow, though he assures her he'll be back for the luggage after they find his grandson.

As the Briefs disembark moments later, her mom pulls her aside to ask her if she's alright, which she takes to mean that she looks every bit as frayed at the seams as she feels. She deflects her mother's concern, lies point-blank that she's fine, and isn't surprised when her mom calls 'bullshit' with naught but a fine brow, arched with skepticism. Then, smiling brightly as ever, her mom cups a hand tenderly over her cheek.

"Dear, have you considered that he might just be trying to get your attention?" Bulma blanches, because she hasn't said one word about Vegeta or The Incident all day –so how in the world had her mom perceived the source of her furious agitation? With horror, she revisits an age-old suspicion that her mother actually is psychic, and fumbles out one singularly flimsy-desperate denial.

"What—who said this was about Vegeta?"

"Why, darling. You did, just here and now." It takes her a moment to understand that her mom hadn't ever actually specified which 'he' might be trying to get her attention, another to realize her slip-up, and still another to make sense of the logic that would prompt anyone to believe that Vegeta's treatment of her person is motivated by anything other angry-irritated revulsion. The sly grin slicked across her mother's mouth troubles her. "Boys will be boys, dear, no matter where they're from." Bulma wonders numbly if her mother would have quite the same opinion of Vegeta's behavior toward her if she'd known he'd almost taken a life today just to spite her, and decides hopelessly that yes, she probably would.

At her long-suffering sigh, her mom leans forward and sweeps a quick peck across her forehead, and then dances off after her father, who's already wandered off on his own somewhere.

Putting the off-kilter –albeit strangely uplifting—exchange on the backburner for sanity's sake, she runs by her office, puts on a quick pot of coffee, and calmly packs her tools into an old yellow backpack she finds stuffed into a drawer. Then, she pulls her hair into a crude ponytail –when did it get so long?—and changes into an available set of work clothes, a pair of grease-slick overalls and a Capsule Corp tank top, slung across the back of her chair and wadded up on the sofa, respectively. As she polishes off a couple cups of caffeinated nirvana, she types up a quick memo to all Robotics personnel, giving them the day off and requesting that all questions and grievances be held until the following business day, after she's had the chance to 'negotiate' with their live-in terrorist.

…whom she'd probably better go see pretty soon, lest he come looking for her again –which has empirically involved substantial damage to both the property and to company morale.


Gohan touches down in front of her just as she's crossing the lawn, looking drawn but determined, and implacably certain he's exactly where he needs to be.

"Your mom's lookin' for you, y'know." Gohan skirts his gaze left for a blink, but stays solemnly rooted in place.

She playfully tousles his hair, squats to his level, smiles fondly.

"What's up, kiddo?" She wonders, already well aware he means to follow her into the ship.

"I'm coming with you." He says, his tone brooking no argument.

Unfortunately for him, Bulma's deaf to such tones.

"That's…look, Gohan, I appreciate the offer, but I really think I can handle this by myself." He offers her an incredulous, do-you-really-not-remember-he-almost-killed-that-g uy-a-few-hours-ago look, and doesn't budge. "Okay, fair point."

"I'm coming with you, Bulma." He repeats. She flicks him in the forehead, and gives him a toothy grin when he pouts at her.

"Don't think so, kiddo. Even if my consenting to such an arrangement wouldn't waken your mom's inner-axe murderer –and we both know it would—I'd still ask you to hang back. I'm going in there to try and extend an olive branch, and I think having you along might send the wrong message." To be fair, she herself probably isn't the ideal candidate for brokering peace with the belligerent Prince. She judiciously votes to keep this dispiriting reflection to herself. "Trust me, Gohan. I may not've been too much help back on Namek, but I've got home-field advantage here. I managed to keep him from hurting Lima back there, didn't I?" How exactly she'd done so eludes her, but she doesn't figure admitting as much will inspire confidence in her ability to 'handle' Vegeta. So this, too, she omits from the official record. "And if you can't trust me, then at least trust in Vegeta's own self-interest; he won't hurt me 'til he at least gets what he wants out of me, and that'll be hours from now –plenty of time for me to mend fences. And even if I can't, you'll still be nearby, won't you? If anything happens –and it won't—you're just a few seconds away, right?" He nods once, and his stance loses some of its tension.

"I'll stay close." He promises, resolve yet firm.

"Sounds good." She settles her hand lightly over Gohan's shoulder, briefly flashing back to that terrible moment when he'd shown up out-of-the-blue, when Vegeta'd so thoughtlessly flung him aside –what a mess his arm had been… "Senzu?" She wonders aloud, well-beyond relieved to see the grisly damage undone.

Absurdly, he blushes at the question, as though having his arm put through a shredder were somehow embarrassing.

"Mister Piccolo sent me to Master Karin's to get one." He explains.

"Well, good on Mister Piccolo, then. I shudder to think what your mom would've done to Vegeta if she'd seen your arm earlier. He dodged a massive bullet and doesn't even know it, huh?" Gohan's blush deepens around a sheepish, heart-warming smile, so very like Goku's. "And speaking of your mom –you'd better get inside and let her know you're here before she turns Capsule Corp upside down looking for you."

He swallows thickly, clearly nervous, but turns to go all the same.

"I'll come quick if anything happens!" He throws back over his shoulder.

"You'd better! And good luck!" She returns his wave, and watches him until he disappears around the bend of the house.

He's gonna need a whole helluva lotta luck to get through the next few hours in one piece.

And for that matter –so will she.

She takes a final moment to compose herself, and then makes for the ship.


When she peeks through the ship's window, it's to confirm what she already knows, what Gohan's surprise escort mission had made impossible not to deduce: Vegeta's inside. She makes a passing note that the well's dialed up to 50x, before her attention catches on the Prince's figure, hovering several feet above the ground on the opposite side of the sphere. His arms are locked stiff across his chest, and though his face holds its usual measure of menacing contempt, his eyes are closed, and he's holding completely, perfectly still…which must mean he's meditating. And that...surprises her. She's hardly a stranger to the exercise; all the guys swear by it; she just hadn't figured Vegeta for the type.

He's given no outward indication he knows she's there, though she thinks he probably must know since he always seems to know. She's never been able to sneak up on Son-kun, either, she recalls; even as a tyke, he was always the first to know when someone or something was coming.

…unless of course he was sleeping. Or eating. Or zoning out. On second thought, maybe Goku hasn't ever been as perpetually alert-and-aware as Vegeta. But maybe that's just because Goku hasn't pissed off everyone he's ever met and had to spend his entire life sleeping with one eye open.

Chewing on that reflection, she pulls an electric screwdriver out of her bag, stoops near the entrance, peels off the panel concealing the emergency manual override switchboard, and begins deftly rearranging circuitry. When the low frequency hum of the gravity well tapers tellingly into silence, Bulma hops to her feet and palms the access panel, and shimmies aside to wait for the door to drop.

As she toes into the ship, clutching the straps of her bag in a white-knuckled grip, she sees he hasn't moved from his mid-air hover, but that his eyes are open and trained to her. She knows she can't afford to appear anywhere half as nervous as she feels, but it's all she can do not to shrink in on herself at the precision stillness of the anger in his expression.

It's obvious how little he welcomes her intrusion on his contemplation of the void, so she waves at him with her screwdriver to signal her purpose for coming.

"Hey there." She offers, grinning warily. "One with the universe yet?" Her attempt to lighten the mood splinters into pieces against the force of his contempt. After everything that'd happened, she supposes she should've anticipated he'd be more unpleasant than ever.

He doesn't disappoint.

Sneeringly, "Where's your half-breed bodyguard, bitch?" The epithet stings, more than she cares to admit, and seriously tests her shiny-new resolve to avoid doing or saying anything which might prompt him to finish what he'd started earlier today. Threatening to castrate him with a spanner, for instance, probably isn't the best way to open a dialogue.

"His name's 'Gohan,' and you're damaged if you think I'd willingly lead my best friend's son into a potential confrontation with you." In spite of her wariness, she manages (what she hopes is) a convincingly incisive Look. "And while we're on the subject –you're to go absolutely nowhere near him while he's visiting this week. Capice?"

Cocking his head to one side, he grins like he thinks her Very Stern Directive is just the most precious thing he's ever heard. "You assume you could stop me should I wish otherwise?" The acid amusement of his voice comes dangerously close to sending her flying off the handle all over again –which, she reminds herself hastily, would sorta nix the whole 'olive branch' plan.

She straightens, stiffens, very carefully checks the heat of her temper.

In a firm voice, "I love that little boy, Vegeta, and you couldn't throw a stone here without hitting someone else who loves him just as much or more; between us, you better believe we'd find a way to stop you."

"I believe you'd all die trying." Half-suspecting he's trying to rile her on purpose now and feeling far too emotionally strained to get into it all over again with the ever-cordial Lord Petulant Scumbag, Bulma takes a knee beside the gravity well and begins methodically removing the casing, wordlessly laying the argument aside before it finds legs and runs itself afoul of Vegeta's temper. She's nearly finished unpacking and arranging her tools before it occurs to her that he, too, seems content leaving well enough alone. For now, at least.

And she feels…oddly grateful for the reprieve. With a kind of miserable amusement, it occurs to her that her expectations must've plummeted to abysmal depths indeed, if all Vegeta has to do is manage not to be an unbelievable asshole for five minutes at a time to elicit her gratitude.

Still, there it is, and she supposes she might as well use the goodwill while it's there, to help ease her through what's likely to be one of the most unsavory-repugnant things she'll ever have to do: thank Vegeta. She'd decided on the flight home that she'd have to acknowledge his Good Deed somehow; positive reinforcement's always better than negative –at least according to her mom—and might just throw for him a loop. She has to try.

…but that doesn't mean she has to like it.

Clearing her throat, Bulma chokes back her pride and begins:

"…thank you." She peeks up at him just in time to catch his features hastily shifting out of bald astonishment. "I'm aware you could just as easily have killed my director this morning, and that you're still planning to kill all of us at your earliest convenience, but for what it's worth…thanks for not going through with it, even if it's just for today." Then, more firmly, "You shouldn't have threatened his life in the first place, as per the terms of my continued hospitality, but I…appreciate that you spared his life…when I know how little it would've cost you not to." While his expression blackens over what must seem to him like some seriously misplaced gratitude, she continues, "…and…I'm sorry."

This part, especially, pains her to say, because it's concession, submission, defeat. And she knows he knows it, too. But for the sake of her planet, her people, and her friends, she also knows it bears saying. One of them has to prove they can be the bigger species.

Taking a deep breath, "About what I said, I mean." It takes every ounce of her willpower not to fidget nervously or throw her gaze all over the room, to hold his level glower without dropping her composure all over the floor. "I won't pretend you weren't totally asking for it –because you were—but I still…I shouldn't have said it. I'd never've said anything half as awful to anyone else in the gang—"

"I'm not your damn friend, woman." He snaps, by way of reminding her he's not part of 'the gang,' that he's got no use for her superfluous contrition.

"Obviously." She grits her teeth against the urge to lash out at him. "Still, I had a lotta time to think about it on the way home, and since I'm the one who asked you to stay in the first place, I s'ppose I should be better about taking responsibility for you. If I'm gonna demand your respect, it's only fair I afford you the same. What I said was –" -hurtful, hateful, cruel— "thoughtless. So I guess what I'm saying now is, it won't happen again. Ever. On that, you have my word. In return, I hope you can find it in you to extend me the same courtesy, and refrain from any further…episodes like today."

"If I say no?"

"Well, Vegeta," she begins, measuring her sarcasm, "I'll probably just die of shock." He snorts in what she suspects may be something-like-amusement. "I'm not holding you to anything at the moment. Right now, I'm making a gesture. You decide what to do with it." She turns back to the well, stops short, cuts him a sharp-askance glare. "But I'm warning you, pal; no repeat incidents will be tolerated. You almost-or-actually kill anyone else on this planet, and all bets're off. Got it?"

He doesn't respond, only stares at her –looking weirdly as though he's trying to tell her something, which she thinks he might manage better if he opened his mouth and actually freaking spoke to her, but hey, who the hell is she to criticize the Mighty Saiyan Prince's interpersonal failures?

When it doesn't appear as though he intends to stop creepily glowering down at her like he expects her to read his damn mind, Bulma decides the best course of action is to (try to) ignore him, and turns to her task with a fine, anxious quaver that nearly looses her grip on the screwdriver. She drags in a hard, heavy breath, and exhales stony determination to do the job she came to do, so she can Evacuate as soon as freaking possible. Finally, bending at the waist, she reaches out to begin the recalibration surgery –and feels herself being pulled suddenly to her feet, the world a nauseating blur of color and light that upsets her equilibrium and leaves her reeling and unsteady on her feet.

And then, when the world ceases its tipsy twirl, she finds herself staring across an entirely-too-intimate expanse into dark, sleepless eyes, laden with some feral-dangerous derangement she can't begin to decipher. The stark uncertainty of Vegeta's purpose drudges up the white-hot terror she thought she'd left behind somewhere on Namek, and has her jerking back, fighting to escape, but the distance she wins is paltry-pitiful and ultimately meaningless; he's got her wrists in an unbreakable grip, and with the barest insinuating coercion of his fingers against her skin, she's right back where she started.

"Vegeta—!"

"Shut up." He snaps, searching her face for…for what? Just what the actual hell is happening here?

In direct defiance of his terse command, "If anything happens to me, Gohan n' Piccolo are right out—ah!" He furls one hand around the back of her neck, thumb and middle fingers pressing just so into the soft hollows behind her ears; it's stunningly painful for precisely one half of one instant, and then the pressure's gone, and her desperate admonition with it.

And he's closer now –or she is, and his eyes are wild, angry, murderous. And she doesn't know why.

At last perceiving her frustrated ignorance, "You don't even know what you've done." His insight menaces, but mute wonderment underlies the acrimonious veneer, and speaks to surprise, bemusement, sudden indecision.

Semi-hysterically, "I'm sure as shit not turning up the grav if you kill me." A predatory smile is all the answer he offers, and then his fingers whisper with tantalizing suggestion as he draws them down the back of her neck, releasing her.

Or, um, sort of releasing her. He's still got her right hand trapped between them, and he definitely doesn't look like he's got any immediate plans to back off. While he continues to peruse her face for who-the-fuck-knows-what, Bulma's heart-pounding terror finally gives way to adrenaline-fueled wrath, which has her demanding to know just what in freaking hell is going on before she has time to consider the consequences.

Vegeta's only, inexplicable response is to notch up his smirk like he knows something she doesn't, something fascinating and awful and obvious as hell, and his utter refusal to provide anything in the way of an explanation for this psychotic episode burns the remaining fear right out of her. She wonders that she'd been anything other than extremely pissed off in the first place.

Austere and placid-cool, "Let me go." His rejoinder is a warm-calloused thumb skimming up her wrist and sliding the slope of her lifeline, and her heart hops up into her throat because what the fuck is he DOING?

"…or what, Bulma?" The challenge comes in a barbed undertone, her name the sultry-sibilant provocation meant to invite violence and reprisal. Bulma spends an anxious interlude furiously scrambling to reestablish contact with her brain, which is at this crucial moment guilty of some serious duty dereliction.

Swallowing hard, grasping frantically for her mislaid fury, "I'm…I'm too tired for this game right now, Vegeta." She flexes her wrist in his grasp, which is feather-light and still far, far more than enough to hold her in place. He draws her closer yet, his breath a fan of heat against her cheek, and she almost doesn't even hear him over the sound of her heart trying to jump-kick its way out of her chest.

"And just what 'game' do you imagine we're playing, woman?" She isn't prepared for the flash of heat that shudders through her at the gruff iniquity of his interrogation; the effect is potent and visceral-electric, explosive and undeniable, and comes attached to an insultingly unceremonious revelation of the Horrible-No-Good-Very-Extremely-Bad variety: she's attracted to Vegeta.

Vegeta, her serial-murdering houseguest from outer space.

She can't pretend she's qualified to assume she knows what the Prince is thinking; just because she could cut the sexual tension with a knife doesn't mean he's got any clue what's playing out here. Though she often forgets, she's slowly learning to appreciate the irreconcilable magnitude of their difference; his behavioral cues are predicated on a life replete with violence and destruction, death and revenge. He probably doesn't even realize what he's doing.

right?

Just as she's entertaining the (horrifying!) possibility that Vegeta might –in his own sinister-terrifying way—perhaps be coming on to her, confusion flickers into his expression, and in the next instant, he's shoving her away, dismissive. Then, disdainfully, without a word, he vanishes, before her very eyes.

When it finally registers that he's actually gone, she sinks to her knees with shaking hand pressed over pounding heart.

…the hell…?


Later that same morning, Bulma stutter-steps at the threshold of the kitchen, startled to see Vegeta, smug-as-you-please, inhaling food at the table. She'd been so sure that, following the events of –her gaze flicks left for the wall clock—just under four hours ago, it'd be days or more before she saw him again.

…clearly, she wouldn't be so lucky.

She hasn't had enough time yet to rationalize her adult-type feelings for the Prince, and she'd kind of been counting on him to put a few continents' worth of separation between them for the next week or so. Or to at least have the courtesy to avoid her like the plague!

She distracts herself with Happy Thoughts of the possible compromise she'd struck before all the…proximity happened, and neatly steals into the kitchen with her heart in her throat. Vegeta doesn't even toss her a glance –which is totally going to piss her off once the relief runs its course.

For now, however, she's perfectly content to share his silence; either he's consciously ignoring her or too preoccupied stuffing his face to bother with such trifles as acknowledging her existence, and either way, he's not insulting or annoying her (-or unexpectedly grabbing her and…and insinuating at her), so this's a welcome treat she intends to make the most of.

As she ducks into the refrigerator to retrieve an apple, she sneaks a peek over her shoulder at Vegeta, expecting him to be focused exclusively on the food in front of him; instead, she finds him glaring up at her, and when their eyes meet she almost glances away, strangely self-conscious, until she remembers she can't let this sicko have the satisfaction of thinking he's won anything and forces herself to hold his angry gaze, to let him know she only looks away when she does because she's good and ready to. (On a related note, the Dire Urgency of her good-readiness has zippo-nadda-nothing to do with the nervous tension cork-screwing low in her gut, which in turn is in no way, shape, or form the product of whatever thoughts she may or may not have entertained on the matter of Vegeta, staring at her. Intently. Again.)

The ensuing silence is nerve-wracking; for its duration, she refuses to so much as look up at the Prince, whose eyes she feels positive are still riveted to her person.

Out of nowhere, "My armor, woman. Any progress?" The oppressive weight of his gaze slides away as suddenly as it'd settled, and she just as quickly decides there's no point reading into anything where this muscle-brained lunatic's concerned; nevertheless, it takes a moment for the tension to ebb, time she uses to wonder at the relative harmlessness of his question.

Then, teasingly, "Why, that sounds an awful lot like you asking for something, Prince Vegeta. But of course I must be imagining things, since you 'don't ask for anything'—"

"Forget it." He snaps, and she giggles at him.

"Oh, don't get your panties in a wad. I'm joking." He remains determinedly shut down. Rolling her eyes, "Such a baby. Yes, I've made some progress with your armor." Pause. "Sort of." He levels a brow at her, which she reads as leave to continue. "I've thrown together a couple mock-ups with roughly equivalent compressive strength and impact resistance, but there's a major sticking point with manufacturing any material of comparably dense elasticity –the 'sticking point' being that we can't because it's impossible." At his blank look, she qualifies, "For now, anyway. Obviously I'll figure something out sooner or later, but for the moment, we're still very much in the clunky First Prototype phase. "

"Hn." Even this colorless response is more than she expects (it's more of a reaction than anyone else in the senshi's ever bothered to give when she gets technical), and dares her to hope –almost certainly in vain—that he might be willing to indulge her curiosity on a peripheral subject.

"Mind you, I'm about to get creative with the thermoforming process, which –assuming my calculations are as spectacularly correct as they always are—I'm confident'll be just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, as I've yet to invent the machinery capable of realizing it, my creative vision's pretty much on hold, at least 'til I've had the chance to implement a few of my more stunningly brilliant ideas. Which makes timeframe the caveat, actually. It could be well into fall before I get the next round of prototypes up for trial and review, and by then Son-kun'll already've been back for two, maybe three months –and who even knows how viable the next batch'll be?" She segues smoothly from Bump to Set—"It's only been –what, like, a week since you loaned me your armor and you're already asking for a progress report? Are you really willing to wait another three months for the possibility that I'll have a serviceable reproduction ready-for-action?" And from Set to Spike—"My experience with your patience –the limits of which you've made repeatedly and emphatically clear—has me figuring it's in everyone's best interest to expedite this process as much as possible, though I'm not sure that's in the cards…" Clearing her throat, "Unless…" His glance is sharp, seeking, and she can tell he knows she's baiting him. She fully expects him not to bite.

And…he doesn't, not exactly. He drops his eyes to his noodles and remains obstinately quiet. But he makes no attempt to head her off, either, to silence or dismiss her.

Well-aware by now that tiptoeing around the point is absolutely not the way to go with this guy, she cuts right to the chase:

"I don't suppose if I asked nicely, you'd tell me anything about 'Cold Space,' would you?" It's a term Gohan had used at dinner the other night, to recount to her the sparingly few –if academically fascinating—details of the 'galactic empire' Freeza allegedly ruled over. Gohan's intelligence on the matter is also second-hand, though, pieced together from remarks thrown around by the various baddies they'd faced on Namek.

She wants more information, from a direct source.

Of course she'd been curious before, but Gohan's revelatory report had given her curiosity a rabid, unquenchable thirst. An empire spanning galaxies means countless alien worlds, filled with all manner of doubtlessly remarkable alien technology; the possibilities are literally endless, and Bulma's willing to try anything to know what's out there.

Vegeta looks up mid-slurp, eyes sharp over the bowl's bright rim. He looks…hunted.

"No." He says, tone flat.

Too curious to give up and let the –clearly sensitive—issue lie, she changes tack.

"It's just, since everyone was flying around wearing the stuff on Namek, I figured your armor has to be something on the order of standard issue out there, and I thought if I could get a hold of someone out there who knew a bit more about the particulars, I could maybe speed up production a bit, and possibly even churn out the next batch in time to make our second round of wishes –which, you'll recall, is in a little under three days. So, see, I was wondering whether or not you might've stashed one of those beepy eyepiece things somewhere so you could keep in touch with…er, all your…uh, old alien pals?" It sounds just as absurd out loud as it had in her head: Vegeta, with 'pals?' That seems about as likely as Oolong swearing off underwear theft.

Sternly, "I have no such sentimental attachments." She doesn't linger on the gimlet warning in his eyes as he clips off a confirmation of her suspicion.

"Oh, c'mon. Believe me when I tell you how fully aware I am of your unpleasantness, but surely, surely you haven't burned all your bridges; there must be someone out there who's wondering what ol' Veggie's up to." He shovels something recently dead and still bleeding into his face, refusing to respond.

By sheer force of will, she successfully tamps down the impulse to stab him in the face with a fork, and presses on.

"Okay, so maybe you don't have a way to get in touch with anyone. How would ya' feel about maybe helping me map out a major interstellar commercial route instead? Preferably somewhere not embroiled in whatever post-Freeza fallout's happening out there. We've got Namek's…or-er what…used to be Namek's coordinates plotted into our databases, and star maps of all the intervening space between here and there, thanks to the data we retrieved from Son-kun's trip. So we've got a reference point of sorts, but beyond that what we've got is a bunch of anonymous space." He tears all the flesh from a leg of turkey in a single pull, as usual offering naught in the way of response. Glossing right over his rudeness, "I'm willing to wager that our navigation systems here, when we break 'em down to the math, aren't so totally different from whatever systems you're used to; all I'd need you to do is give me a run-down of the basic method, and then maybe help me get a vector on—"

"I'm not a damn navigator, woman." He boldly meets her gaze, his voice is steady; so she doesn't know quite why she's immediately sure she's been served an untruth.

Opting for logic instead of pique, "No, I know that. But you came here to Earth in those little one-man pods, after presumably having gotten yourself around in similar fashion plenty of times before that –I can't imagine you don't have some navigational know-how." He snorts, but doesn't argue the point. "I can guide you through what I need, and I promise it won't take too much of your oh-so-valuable time…"

He's pretending to ignore her again, so they enter a brief lull, with Vegeta knocking back a glass of water, half a bowl of noodles, and a dozen or more pieces of sushi, while she manages only two, angry-contemplative bites of her apple.

Cajolingly, "This is partly for your benefit, too, y'know. Maybe you aren't aware, but there're some seriously tricky mechanics involved in getting your armor to accommodate sudden, radical changes in mass—you try to go all giant were-monkey in the prototypes we've got now, and those puppies'll snap right off—"

There's something terrifying in his expression that stops her cold, something primal and –wounded, somehow, and she winces when she realizes she's probably just hit a huge, throbbing nerve.

Somehow, she'd forgotten –the elastic properties of the armor are moot now, because Vegeta can no longer transform.

Because Vegeta no longer has a tail.

She hates herself for the stab of instinctive pity; he'd lost the damn thing because he'd come here with the express purpose of Complete Annhilation,* after all. Earth dispensed her lesson at considerable personal cost to the dispossessed Prince; still, Bulma feels –as she always has—the price was fair.

And yet…she sees now that he'd lost something by far more precious than the tail itself; the twisted anger of his expression reveals the incalculable tragedy of a loss of self, of an identity shorn of its most essential component. Perhaps she's underestimated Son-kun's decision to keep the Prince alive, after all; for the first time, she can see it not simply for the mercy she'd always assumed, but also for devastating punishment.

For reasons she chooses not to dwell on, she feels just awful for her inadvertent injury, and makes an unintended offer to mitigate her guilt:

"If you'd like, I can have a working prototype ready for you in the next couple days; it won't have any frills, but for your purposes, it'll do in a pinch."

Suspicious and clearly unwilling to reap the rewards of her pity –"Why?" He asks her pointedly.

"Why offer you a potential advantage, you mean?" Just as pointedly, but without yesterday's malice, "Because you're the one who's going to need it."


*phrase lifted right outta the man-tacular minds of TeamFourStar.

and.

the bad news is that i'm now fully aware that i have Zero Control over what's being written as i write it. the GOOD news, otoh, is that i'm now also definitelydefinitely sure i know where this story's going, as well as exactly how it's getting there, which isn't something i could've said, like, fifteen minutes ago, so.

progress…?

next chapter: vegeta's never gonna steal that f*cking spaceship, is he...?

[finally. there's some veggie introspection on all the proximity scheduled for an upcoming chapter. probably the same chapter in which he's slated to brutally dismember an old acquaintance. HOORAY!]

to lilian: kami knows a whole helluva lot less than he thinks/pretends he does, but with only his once-evil Other Half to call him on his bullsh*t, there's really no convincing him he's not just making educated guesses. to answer your question -no, i'm pretty sure kami's none-the-wiser about bulma's Accidental Telepathy; still, watching an unrepentant destroyer of worlds inexplicably save a life has to tip him off that Something's Afoot. (thankyouthankyou for you lovely reviews, you gorgeous darling, you.)