Chapter 64- Starlit Musings

The stars twinkled brightly on a canvass of black. The silence seemed peaceful, and for the first time in a long time, it was. Many ships were grounded, others hovered immobile, soldiers stayed on their bases, and weapons were put away.

Little moved. Everyone and everything seemed to be waiting, gratefully counting the moments of stillness that the universe had missed for so long. For the first time in so long, people in Tik and Krimzon territory alike ventured out of their homes to take care of normal daily necessities, without fear, without the constant threat of danger. For the first time, people were able to think of the future, and not just surviving to the next day. And despite the lingering uncertainty of unfinished business, for many people the future looked bright.

On every planet, on every ship, people were taking stock of what they had lost, what they had gained—what they had come to realize was truly important in life.

On planet Luva, one snow-white Loup prince sat deep within an underground fortress. Outside a light snow was falling—one of the last, he was sure, before spring came. He was surrounded by televisions, newspapers, and digital articles detailing the previous days events. His wide, eager eyes devoured every word before him, over and over, dedicating each to memory. In fifty years, he would be able to tell everyone about what happened that day, and he would also tell of the fantastic hunt with Prince Vegeta that had led to planet Luva finally siding with the Krimzon.

He couldn't help but feel a sense of excitement and pride that he had had such a pivotal role in bringing that about. He wondered if one day, his name might be mentioned in one of his treasured history books. Or maybe even a legend, told for centuries. The young man grinned wistfully, as he let his gaze stray back to the TV where images of the fight and celebrations around the universe were being broadcast. Wouldn't that be awesome?

On the wooded paths of Oso, the people were celebrating. The party had lasted through the night, complete with food, dancing, and performing girls with bells and ribbons braided into their thick, dark fur. Lu'cha stared out of the stone palace window at the festivities with a pensive look on his face. Although he was dressed in his best clothes, nothing would detract attention from the vivid scars still brandishing his neck and face—all remnants of his time as Frieza's soldier. It wasn't his appearance that had him so thoughtful though.

In all his days, he would never have expected that the vicious young Saiyan that strutted around Frieza's bases would one day bring peace to all the universe. He supposed that such a thing was rightfully beyond comprehension to anyone who had known the man in his younger years. But now, what a surprise…In a way, he felt guilty. He had never given the other man a second glance, always assuming that one of them at least would not survive until the next year, or that Vegeta, at least, would go rogue and set off on a murderous rampage across the universe. In a way, he hadn't been surprised when Vegeta declared himself the new emperor of the Tik. But watching him give all that power and glory away had floored him.

It was sometimes good to be wrong, but that still didn't erase the lingering guilt he felt at having thought so little of him before.

Lu'cha's wife skittered into the room just then, hurriedly adjusting one last bell on her fur. Their infant cub, strapped securely to her back, was sleeping soundly. "Lu'cha, what are you doing? Hurry up. Papa's waiting." He turned away from the window and frowned at her. She sighed. "I know you don't like festivals, but come just this once. The war is over, and if the whole family isn't there celebrating, it will look bad." Lu'cha let out a sigh, but followed after her. After all, his family could now finally live without the constant threat of war. Things could definitely be worse.

On planet Mantioch, Princess Anastis, was sitting at the head of a wooden table in a windowless, stone room. A handful of the planet's top generals filled the other chairs at the table. The city around the palace was silent, the citizens no doubt anxiously wondering what would become of them. Anastis, normally of a quiet and nervous temperament, sat calmly, confidently listening as the generals finished outlining their plans.

The skies of Mantioch would be aglow that night. Her brother, King Ethward, would fall from his throne, and Anastis would take his place. It would be a new dawn for the Mantisi. Hopefully, she, with the help of her council, would be able to undo all of the damage that Ethward had done since coming to the throne. She had no regrets about what she was about to do. Her only regret was that she hadn't been able to avert the Saiyan's capture all those months ago. She had tried, but having been caught at that point would have brought her secret out into the open. She couldn't have known the damage that one person's death would have done to the Krimzon.

But now, she was here to atone. They had a short window of opportunity. Deposing of her brother and his advisors—perhaps the planet's strongest supporters of Tik rule—while Hui was still in power would have been a dangerous task and would have undoubtedly sparked an invasion of the planet. But the Krimzon tended to frown on coups, so such a feat would be difficult to achieve once the Mantioch came under Kurenai's wing. Anastis had little doubt, though, that Kurenai would find her a much more palatable head of state than her brother.

As she watched with a serious gaze her soldiers rise from their chairs, ready to go out and call their troops into attention, Anastis swore that Mantioch would become a jewel in the Krimzon crown once again. She would see to it.

The war had touched so many lives, and for so many, it seemed as if it would never end. Many people had forgotten what peace actually felt like. Now, they had been given the chance to try again. For some it was a time of uncertainty. For many others though, it was a time of hope. The twinkling stars could no longer be confused with the explosions of a battle in space. They were just stars, peaceful and still.

Through the stillness, a lone ship hurdled, silently, inconspicuously.

He was suddenly aware of the pillow that his face was buried in, the sheets tangled up in his legs, the silence of the room. His entire body ached. Everything…places that admittedly had ached before, after other encounters with monstrously powerful beings—or Kakarott on occasion—but places which he was apt to forget in times of peace. He was suddenly aware of just how much he did not want to move.

He inhaled deeply and let it out, content to let himself drift back to sleep. Then he heard the knock.

He couldn't help but groan. He hadn't sensed Goku's Ki outside the door, but now he realized that it must've been Goku who'd awoken him.

"Vegeta?" The knock came again, louder this time. "It's your turn in the control room."

Had it been twelve hours already?

He stretched, feeling his aching muscles pull. He was somewhat less refreshed than he thought he would be.

"Vegeta?" Goku didn't bother knocking again. Vegeta heard a beep, and the door to his room slid open. Had he really forgotten to lock that? He groaned and shoved is face deeper into his pillow.

"Hey, it's your turn at the controls." Goku said, walking in.

"Just let it crash. I don't care."

Goku chuckled. "Oh come on." He gave him a nudge. "You know the ship's on autopilot. But you said yourself that we need someone alert at all times in case Hui…you know…does something."

"I never said that." He lied in a miserable mumble.

"Sure you did." Goku said, nudging him again. "Come on. Get up. It's your turn."

"You're in dangerous territory, Kakarott." Vegeta grumbled into his pillow.

"Seriously." He insisted. "Geez, you're worse than Goten."

With a groan, Vegeta finally, slowly, achingly sat up, rubbing a tired hand over his eyes and then down to his neck.

When he opened his eyes fully, it was to see Goku leaning disturbingly close to him. The room was dim, with only the illumination of the bathroom light—which he had left on—providing any light. It was just enough to see Goku's curious expression.

Vegeta gasped and jumped back a bit, instinctively tugging the sheet along with him.

"So that's it, huh?" Goku said. He stuck out a finger, inching it closer to Vegeta.

Disturbed, Vegeta scooted back until he hit the headboard. With Vegeta having nowhere to retreat to, Goku's finger finally made contact…with something resting on Vegeta's chest.

Vegeta's chest tingled slightly, and Goku quickly pulled his hand back. "What the…!" His eyes were wide with surprise. "It sucks out your energy!"

Vegeta looked down to the source of the tingling to see a glowing blue stone set in a necklace. It all suddenly made sense. No wonder he was so tired…with the stone sucking out his energy before he'd been able to fully recover from the battle…

He lifted the glowing necklace and glowered at it. "Yes. The stone is connected to much of the Tik's technology—technology which is used to control subjects and soldiers and power Meiyochi and Myomoshu. The stone somehow draws on the wearer's energy in order to power all of this."

"Interesting." Goku again took the stone and studied it. "How does the energy get from the stone to all that stuff? It seems impossible."

"No idea. Maybe Kurenai can explain it."

"You're really going to give it to her?" Goku asked. "The power to control the whole universe…?"

Vegeta blinked, noting the off tone in Goku's voice. He snatched the necklace back. Then, suddenly feeling awkward sitting naked in bed before his fellow Saiyan, he climbed out and made his way toward the washer where he'd left his clothes. Noting with some small joy that the washer had also dried his clothes, he began tugging on his pants.

"The stone…" Goku's voice drew his attention a moment later. "It…it brings out the evil in you."

"Kakarrot…" How long was this clown going to pester him? He was awake and getting ready to take his shift. Seriously, what else did he want? "You have no evil in you as far as I've heard. And how would you even know that?" Pants on, he turned to find his shirt.

"Well, I've never wanted to rule the universe…until I touched that stone." Goku said pensively.

"Good thing you're not wearing it then." Vegeta grumbled, fiddling with his shirt to turn it right side in.

"I'm serious, Vegeta." Goku said, coming closer again and grabbing the stone, causing Vegeta to pause with his arms in his sleeves. Vegeta turned a glare on Goku, but suddenly he saw it. There was an odd, untamed sort of look in Goku's eyes that wasn't usually there. His eyes were fixated on the stone, and Vegeta could see his jaw clench. A moment later, he jerked his hand away. "Don't you feel it?" He asked, as Vegeta finally pulled his shirt on. "It's like it talks to you. In your head…tells you that you're powerful enough to rule everything. That you should rule everything…that things would be better that way."

"Kakarott." Vegeta snapped, and then once he was sure he had Goku's attention, said, annunciating carefully. "It is a rock." He stepped back as Goku's hand again strayed upward toward the stone. "Hands off." He said, smacking Goku's hand away. "How the hell did you get that long of a message from it anyway, if you only touched it for two seconds?"

But in reality, Vegeta knew he was right. He had felt that euphoric feeling of power the minute he'd put the stone on. The stone itself drained his energy, but why would he need the energy to fight as long as he could control everything by simply wearing it? No wonder Hui became the way he was.

Furrowing his eyebrows, he tried to brush past Goku. Goku, however snatched his arm. "Vegeta…" His voice was testy now. "If that stone is making me want to rule the universe…how…is it making you feel?"

"Kakarott…" Vegeta's voice was warning.

"I'm serious. We both know that you have a…let's say 'a history'. I just want to make sure that you're not going to really declare yourself Emperor."

"Kakarott, the stone does just as you say. It makes you feel as though you have the power to bring the universe under your control. I however, have never had any desire to bring it under my own control for the good of the universe. You are also right in noting that I have a history of conquering. However, given that history, I also have the practice of controlling that urge." He slapped Goku's hand off his arm. "So hands off!"

"Vegeta…" Goku called after him as he made his way down the hallway.

Vegeta didn't pause. He just called back over his shoulder. "But by all means, if I start taking over the universe, feel free to kill me."

Goku chuckled. "Well, I probably wouldn't kill you. I might just break the stone." He laced his fingers behind his head. "I wonder if Kurenai will feel the same thing once she puts it on."

Vegeta stopped in his tracks, his bare feet almost squeaking to a stop on the sleek tiled floor. Suddenly, scenes were returning to him—a wrinkled, old face with seemingly blind eyes, and a hungry gaze. So many times, he'd seen that devilish old woman seem positively ravenous. Every time Vegeta had surprised her with his abilities, every time the woman had seen the power she wielded through him, she had seemed so…so…hmm. He couldn't think of the word.

"Vegeta?" Goku's voice brought him back to the present, and he realized that Goku was standing next to him.

"Kakarott, didn't you wake me up so that I could relieve you of control room duty? Go away, and go to sleep."

"Nah. I think I'll stay up." He cocked his head. "But why'd you suddenly stop."

Vegeta furrowed his eyebrows, wondering just how much he should divulge. When he'd made his deal with Kurenai, he hadn't known just what the key to the Tauran Empire was. Now that he knew, it seemed too dangerous. But going back on the deal would mean…

He'd have to think about this, but Goku didn't need to know. He decided to keep it to himself for now. "No reason." He said, easily, and then turned and continued on down the hallway.

The door behind him slid open, causing Vegeta to tear his eyes away from the muted sports game he had been disinterestedly following. Thankfully, after the first half hour, Goku had gotten bored of sitting with him, and had taken off to explore the ship. Vegeta had been on his own in blissful silence since then.

"I've been told that I'm supposed to take a turn in the control room." Midori walked in, her freshly-shined shoes clicking on the floor. She'd clearly found the clothes washer as well. She'd abandoned her armor, and was only wearing the black undershirt and pants. Her hair was freshly braided as well.

Vegeta glanced at the clock on the wall. He didn't remember what time he'd come in, but it certainly felt like he'd been in that room forever.

She stopped a few feet inside the doorway and studied him. With his feet propped on the control panel and arms crossed loosely over his chest, he was the image of boredom.

"Ugh." The energy seemed to drain out of her. "I haven't had to do this since I was a cadet. I'd forgotten how boring it is." She came over, and dropped into the chair beside him. "Is this really necessary?"

Vegeta shrugged one shoulder, and nodded over to the screen showing surveillance footage of the room Hui was locked in.

She followed his gaze, and then leaned closer for a better look. "What's he doing in there?"

"Absolutely. Nothing." Vegeta said, finally dropping his feet from the control panel and swiveling around. Rising from his chair, he stretched grandly, rolling his sore shoulders and neck.

Midori huffed at the show. "Is it really that draining?" She asked wryly.

He tensed and spun toward her. "Huh?" His hand instinctively rose toward the pendant tucked beneath his shirt before he forced it back down.

Lucky for him, she was no longer looking at him. "Nothing. It just seems like sitting in a chair for four hours shouldn't be so tough considering you defeated a megalomaniac bent on ruling the universe yesterday."

"You're the one whining about being here. Not me."

She rolled her eyes and he turned away. He had only made it two steps when Midori's voice sounded again. "Have you seen the news?"

He looked back over his shoulder with an annoyed expression. "You know I haven't." He huffed.

Midori shot him an exasperated glance, and then turned to the control panel. Rapidly typing something, she motioned him over. A moment later, a news site flickered to life on one of the screens. Vegeta recognized it to be the Krimzon's most respected newspaper—not that he ever read any of them.

He sighed out loud in annoyance at the sight before him. The huge headline, "HUI DEFEATED!" written in all-caps, was not unexpected.

The story appeared to be hideously long, no doubt recounting the highlights of the fight and a history of the decade-long struggle against the emperor. He was sure that as details slowly leaked out about his stint as spy embedded in the Tik right under Hui's nose, he would be making front pages for a long time to come. With any luck, though, the universe would soon get sick of hearing about him and go on with their lives.

It was the picture used to illustrate the occurrence that really bugged him though. Seriously, where did people get these pictures?

In a full-color photo, was Vegeta, still shimmering from the after-effects of the illusion spell he'd used to hide his true identity. He was soaking wet, covered in blood, mud, and rain. The eye patch was the only thing remaining from his disguise as Nox.

He was holding a scythe, aiming it only slightly to the right of whoever was holding the camera. He looked like positively deadly.

"Read the article itself." Midori prompted, guessing rightly that he hadn't read the first word of it.

Rolling his eyes in anticipation of the tediousness that was to come, he obeyed. From the very first paragraph his annoyance doubled. The allusions made in the article were not things he hadn't heard before, but it would be nice if the news actually reported on the facts for once instead of speculation and sensationalized gossip.

The article did give details of the battle, and also made note of the long war to date. The underlying narrative, however, was something else: Kurenai's relationship with Vegeta. The Empress had picked him, protected, him, sheltered him, trained him, taught him magic and negotiations, and over time, had given him more and more responsibilities and freedom. Vegeta had come into the empire as a parolee, under the supervision of Kurenai's right hand, Midori. However, in a short time, that had changed. Vegeta was no longer just a parolee under Midori's supervision. He became her equal as well. He had been treated with the same deference as Midori everywhere he went, and then he had surpassed her, the article went on, both in influence and in Kurenai's favor. As the cherry on the cake, it had been Vegeta who had brought about Hui's downfall, not Midori.

And in the end, Vegeta had declared himself an equal of Kurenai.

So, the article went on, Vegeta may have won his freedom, but was the Empress really ready to let him go? An anonymous source had suggested that Kurenai may try to reel Vegeta back into her empire by offering him Midori's place as heir apparent.

He rolled his eyes as he finally came to the end of the article. "Garbage with no real substance or logical train of thought. I can only conclude that since everyone in the universe was watching the fight live yesterday, they needed something even more sensational to sell papers this morning. As far as this anonymous source goes, with both of us gone, Kurenai isn't likely to be discussing anything as important as succession with anybody." He concluded, before looking at her. "Since when do you put stock in rumors and gossip anyway?"

She was sitting, twisted to the side, legs crossed, and a pensive, uncertain look on her face.

He frowned. "What, are you mad at me or something?" He asked. "I can never tell."

Her pensive expression disappeared for a moment before she looked up at him again. "If she asked you…would you accept?"

He raised an eyebrow. "And take your place?" He goaded.

She turned her eyes away.

The oddly vulnerable look that came over her face just then made him want to turn and bolt for the door. He nearly did, but she began speaking again.

"I don't…I don't want this anymore." She said. "I don't know if I ever did. I'm not really empress material."

"Kurenai's going to live for another 500 years at least." He said in an odd, uncomfortable attempt at comfort. "Her race possesses…"

"Yes, extreme longevity relative to other races," She said. "But…I don't—"

He interrupted her. "Well this is something you're going to have to figure out for yourself, because I'm out."

She laughed, a miserable half-grin forming on her face. "Isn't this crazy. People—people on this ship even—would kill for this opportunity, and neither of us want it."

"Those who would kill for it don't understand the responsibility of it. Unless you're a despot, it's more work than pleasure."

She nodded. "Does that make me selfish then?" She asked with the pensive tone back in her voice. "To not want it?"

He shrugged.

She fell silent once again, and he inched nervously toward the door, hoping to escape before she began speaking again.

That mission was failed from the beginning. She never intended to let him get anywhere. He had just reached for the panel beside the door when she spoke up. "What would you do?"

"Just say 'no'."

She sent him an annoyed expression. "I'm serious. You're a strategist, aren't you?"

He furrowed his eyebrows. "Not for things like this."

"Could you at least try to help me out?"

He sighed, and moved to lean against the wall. He thought for a moment before finally speaking. "If I were looking to escape from the responsibility of ruling an empire, but not have the empire fall apart, I would…create assembly to rule it in my stead. The Krimzon Empire is already halfway there. From what I understand of the system, it already has branches of government and checks and balances. The alliance with the Galaxy Police is whole other factor. But…as it is, the place of the empress in the empire is both the empire's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. There's a reason Kurenai hardly ever leaves her palace. If she's killed, the whole empire would dissolve into chaos."

Midori nodded thoughtfully as if she had known that deep down all along, but was only now taking the time to think about it.

"The universe is simply too big to have any one person in charge of it anyway." He continued. "The most sensible option would be to have a forum where representatives from each planet in the alliance can govern, while also maintaining the bureaucracy, police, and judiciary as separate checks on their power. That way killing any one person will not cause chaos, planets would be forced to learn to work with each other, and I would be able to live off the riches in my treasury without having any real duties."

Midori was silent for a moment before looking up to meet his eyes. "What you're talking's called 'democracy.' I know the concept."

He rolled his eyes. "Then apply it. What do you need my help for?"

She smiled a bit. "Minus that last part of your sugestion, which I'm going to graciously take as a joke…You would have made a good ruler." She said suddenly, and her voice was sincere. "It's a shame that…"

He looked away, an uncomfortable warmness forming on his cheeks and in his throat. How had this conversation turned into this? Was she drunk or something? Or had she just determined that while she had him in close quarters, she would get back at him for all those times he'd taunted her.

He turned an annoyed scowl back to her, but upon seeing the open earnestness on her face, he realized that she was not just trying to torture him. "You can wipe that pity off your face." He grumbled. "Because you're wrong. I would have been a terrible ruler." He said, but there was no modesty in his voice. "For the same reason Hui was a terrible leader. He didn't have the life experience and empathy to understand his people or to create a system in which they can live harmoniously together. I, like him, thought that the universe should revolve around me, and had I been a ruler, I would likely have made it do so." He stuck his nose in the air. "And I still might, if you and Kurenai annoy me too much."

Midori bit her lip for a moment before chuckling slightly. "Yeah, I could see that happening."

He rolled his eyes and turned toward the door.

"Vegeta." She called after him. He looked back to her.

She dropped her eyes for a moment before looking up at him. "Thank you for…saving me, and…well, basically for putting an end to this madness."

He nodded, an odd feeling forming in his chest. He had to get out of there. "I'm going check on Hui." He said, and with that, he left.

Although he'd forgotten what room Midori said she'd locked Hui in, the spoiled emperor was easy enough to find. He just needed follow the darkest Ki on the ship. He momentarily doubted whether his decision to visit Hui right now was a good idea, but before he knew it, he found himself in front of the door to Hui's makeshift holding cell.

There was no going back now. Without announcing his arrival, he opened the door, flipping on the lights and stepping inside. Hui was slumped against the wall, but his head shot up as Vegeta entered.

He fixed Vegeta with a nervous stare.

Vegeta simply stared back, silently, wondering why exactly he'd come here except to escape Midori's emotional spew.

It was Vegeta who spoke first. "How's the nose?" He asked, noticing the dried streaks of blood on Hui's face.

Hui glanced nervously to the side before mumbling. "Broken. It hurts. Everything hurts." Silence fell in the room for a moment before Hui spoke again. "What's going to happen to me?"

"You're going to be stuck in a prison, somewhere far away from civilization, and will likely have no contact with anyone but the prison guards for the rest of your life." Or at least that's the arrangement that Kurenai told him of a few hours ago when she'd called. "An escort of Krimzon ships will be meeting us in a few hours. You will stay with us until we part ways. Then they will take you on to whatever deserted planet they've managed to find."

Hui paled, and a miserable look settled on his face. "That's not very fair."

"Well the other option is execution, but the Krimzon would make that clean and quick." Vegeta met his eyes before saying. "That wouldn't be very fair to the people you have slowly and horrifically murdered over the past few years."

"So this is about punishment." Hui pouted. "Not rehabilitation?"

Vegeta snorted. "I believe the consensus is that you are past the point of rehabilitation."

Hui furrowed his eyebrows, and his legendary temper flickered to life. Clearly the idea of a lifetime in prison was making him rethink his fear of death. "It's a wonder they didn't come to the same conclusion about you. You've probably killed more people than I ever did."

The mere thought that that could very well be true made Vegeta's blood run cold. Still, he responded. "There is little distinction between killing someone and ordering them killed. You are just as guilty."

Hui slumped down more. "Is that all you came here for?" He asked, pulling his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. "To tell me that I'm going to be miserable for the rest of my life?"

"No." Vegeta said, and suddenly, he was speaking before his thoughts formed fully in his head. "I wanted to know if you felt any different now that you're not wearing the pendant."

"The pendant?" Hui narrowed his eyes, studying Vegeta. "Ohh. I see. I thought you looked tired. It's the stone." A malicious grin formed on his face. "It runs off your power. Controlling a whole empire takes a lot of energy." He cocked his head. "But I had a lot of energy to spare. Clearly you don't."

Vegeta did his best to ignore the snub, but he did send a murderous glare to the younger man. Hui, suddenly seemed to remember how much he feared Vegeta before, for he paled and slunk back toward the wall.

"Does it affect your mind?" Vegeta asked after a moment. The tantalizing feeling that he could control the universe if he so chose was certainly a tempting one. It nudged him on as if calling him to cut the nice guy act and accept his true destiny as ruler of the universe.

Hui did not relax his tense posture, but he did furrow his eyebrows at the question. "My mind? What do you mean?"

"Does it make you feel like you need to conquer when you put it on?"

Hui cocked his head. "I don't know." He replied, and when Vegeta took a threatening step toward him, he hurried to clarify. "I haven't taken it off in twelve years."

Vegeta frowned. There was no reason to believe that that wasn't the truth. In fact, now that he thought about it, it wouldn't have made any sense for Hui to ever take it off. There were so many more questions that Vegeta wanted to ask. So much that he wanted to know. But he suddenly really wanted to be out of this room, and away from Hui.

With one parting glance at Hui, he abruptly turned on his heel and left. After being sure to lock the door behind him, he turned and headed off down the hall.

Now, he had more questions than he had answers. Had Hui somehow left part of his spirit within the stone? Was that where this lust for power was coming from? Or had the stone somehow shaped Hui? There was no way to know. That was far too technical and philosophical a question for him, and he only had two weeks before he was supposed to hand this off to Kurenai.

He scowled. His conversation with Hui had been even worse with his conversation with Midori. It seemed like he just couldn't win. He needed to get back to his room before he was forced to talk with anyone else.

"Hey Vegeta."

Vegeta couldn't help letting out a groan of annoyance at the terrible timing and the high-pitched voice behind him. He turned slightly to see Goku poking his head out of a doorway and looking at him with a cheerful expression.

"Where you going? Krillin found a deck of cards in the kitchen. Wanna play?"

Vegeta closed his eyes, trying to fight off the migraine that was forming. This ship was entirely too small. "No." He grumbled, and headed off down the hall. If his raging thoughts allowed it, he would like to get a few more hours sleep. When he awoke, perhaps he would have a clearer idea of what to do about the mess he'd unwittingly created.

The festivities on Iro were finally seeming to quiet down. A few groups were still partying, drinking, eating, and celebrating in general. But for the most part, the late afternoon streets were quiet. Although life had continued as normal—schools had been open and work had gone on as usual—those who had families on Iro, had gone straight back home afterwards to spend time with their loved ones. Others were in their favorite restaurants and pubs, enjoying the victorious atmosphere in the company of good friends.

High above the quiet streets, the Empress Kurenai's circular throne room was quiet. The room was cast in bright red light, courtesy of the evening sky. Kurenai couldn't help the victorious smirk that had worked its way onto her face. She only wished that one of her aides was here to share in her humor. The Mantisi king, Ethward, the very man who had turned traitor to the Krimzon and handed Vegeta as prisoner over to Hui, had been deposed. By his own sister. Apparently, she had been conspiring against him for months. Who knew?

Kurenai couldn't help but be amused at Ethward's just desserts being handed to him so coldly by his own blood.

She would have to do some research on this Anastis too, she realized. The woman had apparently made it a habit to be ignored, and Kurenai found that she knew surprisingly little about her. Perhaps Midori could do that while she was sitting bored in control room duty. It would at least keep the woman from calling every hour and asking when the Krimzon ships would be there, and if they would have fresh clothes.

Kurenai was suddenly ripped from her amused thoughts by a loud bang. The large doors to Kurenai's throne room had been suddenly thrown open by a blast of psychic power. They slammed back against the walls, catching Kurenai off guard and causing her to drop the stack of papers in her hand into her lap. The news of the coup on Mantioch forgotten, Kurenai focused her attention on the tiny storm that had just appeared in her throne room.

"You!" Tiny feet stomped across her sleek floor, leaving ripples of dark blue, anguished energy in their wake.

Kurenai had been expecting this, but she had to admit that she'd been caught off guard by the timing. How did this tiny woman get past all of her security again?

The purple-haired kid that trotted in after her was a quick answer to her question.

"How could you?!" Kurenai had only encountered this small woman once or twice, but she'd known immediately who she was. And she'd known what she was here for.

"I…" It was rare that the Krimzon Empress, Kurenai Kali, found herself at a loss for words, but the sheer anguish in the other woman's aura took her aback. The magic floor was a deep blue under her tiny feet, and her aura was dark and turbulent.

Kurenai turned her eyes to Trunks, still in his school uniform, standing somewhat nervously behind his tiny aunt. The boy averted his eyes quickly. He had learned from their first encounter of Kurenai's telepathic powers, and since then, he had had trouble looking her in the eye. Kurenai didn't have time to wonder if he was hiding something though. The small woman before her was demanding her undivided attention. Kurenai supposed that it was the least she could do in these circumstances to grant her that.

"You promised him that you would not put him in harm's way." The woman's voice was surprisingly livid considering her strange, doll-like appearance. "You promised that you would not let anyone take revenge against Vegeta on him! And then you sent him straight into the most dangerous situation imaginable disguised as Vegeta!"

"I am sorry." Kurenai tried, retrieving her papers and placing them on the small table beside her throne.

"No you're not!" Gure shouted. Bright red splotches had appeared on her normally-white cheeks. "Everything has worked out perfectly for you. What is Tarble's sacrifice to you? He's just another pawn you ordered about for your own benefit. You lied to him! You knew this could happen, and you sent him anyway. He was never meant to survive."

"I could not have known for certain that he would be killed." Kurenai said. "That was out of my hands. I can tell you though that he had no illusions of what his mission was. He knew exactly where he was going when he left this planet. He is a hero. We should honor—"

"You can't absolve yourself of all blame in this." Gure cut her off.

"I will make reparations…" Kurenai began.

"I don't want your money! You have taken the most precious thing I had, and you won't even admit that it's your fault! I will tell everyone what you did! What you are. Every news channel, and magazine." Gure continued. "You're a witch! A selfish, evil witch, and I hope the spirits of Tarble and all the others you've sent to their deaths haunt your sleep." The tiny woman didn't give Kurenai the chance to respond. With that final curse, she turned on her heel and strode out of the room.

Trunks blinked at his aunt's retreating form. He sent a glance to Kurenai as if worried that she might strike her down for disrespect. Seeing the truly regretful and chastised look on Kurenai's face, however, he merely bowed deeply. "I…apologize…" He said politely, but with little sincerity.

"No." Kurenai interrupted. "She's right." She nodded toward the doors that had just swung closed. "Go after her before she gets swept up by my security."

Trunks stiffened as if he'd forgotten about that prospect, and hurriedly nodded,. A minute later, he was running out of the room.

Kurenai stood alone in her empty throne room. Her amusement at the small victory the coup on Mantioch had afforded her was all but forgotten in the face of such pain and heartfelt criticism. Tarble's little wife had been right. The war had ended in victory for the Krimzon Empire, but for many of its people, the cost had been too great. It was hard not to wonder if, in war, there was such a thing as a victory at all.

A/N: I hope you enjoyed that. I've been trying to update every two weeks, but it just never seems to happen. As I'm sure all of you have guessed at this point, there are only a few more chapters until this officially wraps up. I am planning to write a few one shots to fill in some gaps and flesh out a few things that could have used a bit more detail in the story, but given how hectic my schedule has been lately, we won't be seeing those for a while.

As always though, thank you all so much for all of your support, and for taking the time to review the last chapter (and all the ones before it). I really appreciate the support and advice you've given me. You've all made me a better writer.