The stars seemed frozen. There was no way to tell how long they'd been fighting, minutes or hours. Bodies piled up and crunched underfoot. Goku worked his way towards his prince, but it was slow going. A kamehameha cut a swath across the field, only to fill again with more insect soldiers. On their own they were as insignificant as earth insects, but in these numbers they came at him in tidal waves. He'd already transformed but couldn't see any dent in their numbers yet.
An explosion made him look up for a moment. A flash of gold burst out from the center of the invasion, hurling hundreds of Budoven into the air. They rained down on more below them, accompanied by the brittle cracking of their carapaces. The same bright blur flew into the air and stopped, and Vegeta turned to face the army beneath him. They aimed their weapons and shots flew by him, occasionally burning a mark across his clothes but doing little damage. Gathering his ki in his hands, he fired blast after blast into the deepest concentrations of soldiers.
Purple blood gushed up in a fountain towards the sky, charred arms and legs and shattered fragments flying out over the army. High pitched squeals cut off suddenly as his blasts met their targets, shearing off heads as efficiently as a sword.
While Goku was distracted watching, Budoven leaped on top of him, trying to yank him off his feet. Pinchers clamped onto his clothes and hair while more slammed against his back and knocked him forward. With a grunt, he flew up, dragging several Budoven along until he spun in the air, sending them slamming into their ships and bursting apart on impact.
"Good thing they can't fly," he said to himself, taking the chance to look around.
All around the army, his friends were holding the insects back, some easier than others. The humans kept working along the perimeter, falling back several feet as they continuously fired into the swarm. Krillin and Yamcha were about to be overrun until a kamekameha from Goten vaporized half of their enemy. Close by, Trunks skimmed over the insect heads, lopping them off with his sword while trailing explosive ki in his wake.
Farther away, Piccolo and Gohan managed an entire side by themselves, the Namek on the ground while Gohan flew overhead, sending broad blasts of killing ki across the valley much like Vegeta was doing. The Namekian had little compulsion against killing them cut down swaths of Budoven all around him. Opposite them, the androids tended their own side, killing as efficiently as they were programmed to do. That left one more side for the other humans, and as strong as they were, they were beginning to slump and slow down, kept busy dodging the gun shots. To cover more space, Tien had already split into four. Goku sent a blast that cleared much of their own targets, but more came soon to take their place.
Were they even making a dent in their force? Goku looked down and grimaced. There wasn't a spot of green grass left. Everything was covered in purple blood and broken shells, even the ships had been splattered over. On the outskirts of the battle the blood quickly soaked into the ground, but here, closer to the center, it flowed over the saturated earth and made lakes and rivers. Another explosion, and arms and legs rained down around him.
Goku was convinced this was what hell was like. He was coated in blood and he wanted to stop. Why hadn't the Budoven just left? This wasn't like fighting one mad warlord or conqueror or madman. This killing was systemic and constant like a hammer on his brain.
He flew up, blasted a space to buy himself time to leave his portion of the perimeter, and waved Trunks over. Motion with his hands, he was able to tell him to take his place for a moment, and with that edge secured for a moment, he flew towards Vegeta.
He knew something was wrong when he heard the laughter.
His breath caught at the sound of it. Haughty, triumphant, yes, those were all right. That was how Vegeta sounded normally. But now, after so many years, he heard the old tones of sadistic glee from when Vegeta first landed on the planet. From when Vegeta destroyed half an arena of people.
These Budoven, for all their posturing, weren't the real threat. Vicious, world devouring monsters, yes, but even without the Saiyans, earth's warriors could fight them off well enough. Krillin's ki blasts could carry through a dozen of them. The Budoven simply weren't that powerful.
There was only one vicious monster that Goku had to worry about, one he never wanted to fight again. Following the source of the laughter, he flew over a field of broken bodies and pieces of shells so much like the pieces of bones he'd sucked clean. His stomach twisted. Vegeta made no excuses for eating the sentient creatures he'd killed and would have probably devoured humans if he hadn't been defeated.
When he spotted him, Goku froze.
Alone in the center of the Budoven army, Vegeta moved too fast for human eyes. Only Goku, glowing golden, could follow his movements. Fluid, smooth, clean-Vegeta fought so differently when surrounded. A hand through a Budoven's face, grabbing its spiny carapace and slamming it in a circle breaking other aliens apart until the body shredded apart. Drop to the ground to cushion a glancing blow, sweeping the feet off of the creatures around him, then pushing up into the air to blast handfuls of them away, landing in the spot he'd cleared and dodging a mandible bite. Somehow he knew where each blow was coming and moved with strict efficiency, suffering only minor cuts and bruises.
And then he released a strong burst in a wide circle that swept the creatures back. As the smoke cleared in wisps, he was left catching his breath, eyeing the Budoven that glanced at each other, wondering who would be the first to launch the next assault. It was one thing to lose soldiers in battle. It was another to climb over the corpses of your kind to reach one warrior.
Goku landed beside him. Vegeta's gaze flicked up at him, then back at the ring of Budoven. In the darkness, their carapaces glimmered in the light of the Saiyan's ki.
"How long are we gonna keep this up?" Goku asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Until they're all dead," Vegeta snapped. "They've lost too much to consider turning now. Only a few more hours...maybe..."
Goku heard the fatigue in his voice. So he'd been right. Vegeta had never faced these things by himself. Maybe the fleet was bigger than he'd expected, but there was no way they could keep this up forever. To prove his point, Vegeta flickered back out of the ascended state, using Goku's presence as an opportunity to rest for a moment.
"We can't rest long," Vegeta said. "The humans are only just holding them back. Trunks and the others are doing their best, but they aren't used to this kind of sustained fighting." He growled to himself. "None of you are."
"And you can't do it by yourself," Goku finished his thought for him.
"With Nappa and Raditz, it was hard," Vegeta admitted as frustration filled him. "But we did it twice. If I had either of them now..."
"We're learning what it's like right now," Goku said, forcing optimism into his voice. "We can do this. And if we fuse-"
"Things will never get that desperate," Vegeta growled.
"Just because you don't like the fusion dance..."
"I said never!"
As they argued, they became aware of a low clicking sound. It wasn't loud at first, but as the seconds passed, more and more of the Budoven were clicking their jaws until the Saiyans couldn't hear each other over the dull roar. Goku looked at Vegeta to see if he knew what was happening, and he made out the prince frowning.
"What is it?" he yelled over the roar. "Vegeta, what're they-?"
Lord Wain emerged from the ring of Budoven, much the worse for wear. His cape hung in tatters. One arm was missing from his shoulder, the other from the third segment. His main shell had been cracked and he breathed in choked gasps, clearly in his last few moments, glancing at his soldiers as they fell silent.
"You have no planet of your own," Wain coughed at Vegeta. "Freiza is dead. Why are you fighting us?"
Vegeta shrugged once, wincing and betraying a hidden injury. "This world is mine."
"To sell?" Wain spat blood. "My hive needs it to survive! You're no better than Freiza-"
Wain's head exploded in a ball of ki, splattering the soldiers around him, and his body dropped in a noisy clatter to the ground. Vegeta lowered his hand, smoke still trailing from his fingertips. He was startled by his own reaction, a lightning quick shot drawn by the rage Wain provoked.
"I'm nothing like Freiza," he whispered. "Nothing."
"Vegeta..." Goku breathed.
Seconds passed in silence. All of the Budoven, starting from the center around Wain's body and slowly spreading out through the remaining army, realized that they had lost their leader. Lone insect clicks carried across the field. The Budoven stared at the body, looked at each other, and then at the humans and Saiyans. No hope, they realized. They wouldn't survive this night.
"Well," Vegeta said, taking a deep breath to steady himself, then called out to the remaining Budoven soldiers. "I think I've gotten my second wind. Want to run, or will you all join your dearly departed leader in the dust?"
Please go, Goku thought. I can't believe he's even giving them the chance. Oh please, let them-
One Budoven soldier stepped forward, identical to all the rest. It dropped its gun, and for a moment Goku felt a spike of hope that the killing was done.
And then its segmented back broke open, revealing long clear wings. As it jumped, its wings flapped with a distinctive hum over the army's head and carried it into the night sky.
"Oh shit," Vegeta breathed.
Goku's hope burst like a bubble as every soldier dropped their gun and unfurled their wings, growing into a cloudy swarm. He startled as Vegeta unleashed a gallic gun attack in all directions, cutting through swaths of them as they tried to fly, but their army didn't slow. When Vegeta took to the sky, Goku followed at his heels.
"Don't let them get away!" Vegeta cried, ascending again and following them at top speed.
"What are they doing?" Goku yelled back. He looked over his shoulder to see if anyone had heard them. A handful of the fighters were following, but they were so far back. Trunks and Goten were struggling to keep up at the very edge of the Budoven cloud, and behind them Gohan and Piccolo outshot everyone else, flickering dots of light in the distance.
"They're molting!" Vegeta fired bolt after bolt into their midst, only killing handfuls in the spread out cloud. "They'll burrow in the ground to lay eggs and die."
"But that's good, right?" Goku said, watching the Budoven shrug out of their shells like oversized clothes, shedding their arms and legs. Then their heads began to split down the middle, revealing new faces made of compound eyes and round mouths full of sharp teeth. He recoiled in disgust. They looked like fat flying maggots with fangs.
"Not when they eat everything in sight first!" Vegeta swerved hard to avoid a rush of them as they attacked, burning several down but missing even more. "They'll pick the city clean."
After that, Goku couldn't hear him over the humming wings. He tried to keep close, but the battle forced them farther and farther from each other, twisting and turning to avoid Budoven diving in with fangs bared. Behind them, Goku heard Trunks and Goten yell in surprise as they saw what the Budoven had transformed into. The swarm heard the younger pair and some veered back, intent on making the two into a meal. The sudden shift from a chase to a fight drove Goten and Trunks back to back, using short, sharp bolts to block off attacks as the Budoven swooped in.
It happened in seconds. There were too many to keep track of. A handful slipped past their guard, taking quarter sized bites out of Goten. He yelled as one slammed against his side, tearing away a piece of his gi and the flesh underneath, and Trunks whirled and put his arm around him, shooting up like a rocket and disappearing into the clouds with several Budoven at his heels. A moment later those same Budoven came tumbling out of the sky, their wings frozen and shattered in the upper atmosphere.
Goku breathed a sigh of relief when they appeared again, but from the limp way Goten hung in Trunks' arms, they were out of the fight. Trunks had his hands full just keeping the Budoven from taking another bite out of them. Behind them, Gohan and Piccolo caught up and passed by, taking out armfuls of the swarm and leaving Trunks to finish off the rest.
"They're like flying piranha," Gohan said as they caught up to Goku. "How do we get them before they reach the city?"
"We still have time," Piccolo said. "If we could lure them in-"
"How?" Goku said. He let fly a blast of energy that could no longer wipe out a mass of soldiers now that they weren't bound to the earth. Only a few smoldering bugs dropped out of the sky. "The city's like a buffet. Why would they stay to fight us?"
"What's he doing?" Gohan asked in astonishment.
Goku and Piccolo followed his look.
The swarm was hungry, yes, but they retained enough of their minds to want revenge. Vegeta hovered in the middle of the black cloud, barely visible as he hung in the air, surrounded not by a shield of ki but by wisps that swirled around him like electrons of an atom so fast that they blurred. Having their hated enemy so close and so flimsily defended brought the Budoven closer and closer, snapping and frustrated as the ki burned them down one at a time.
Goku's heart skipped-the Budoven drove themselves into a shark-like frenzy, testing the weakest points of Vegeta's shield. If any of them got inside... Vegeta had curled up with his head slightly bowed and his eyes shut tight. All of his concentration went into maintaining the four or five needle thin spots of ki whirring around him. If a budoven got inside, he'd have to kill it, his concentration would break and the shield would collapse-with all the Budoven crowded around him. The creatures pressed in until they could no longer see him. And yet, the distraction was exaclty what they needed.
"Perfect!" Gohan yelled as the last stragglers moved away from them and focused on Vegeta. "Dad-"
"Way ahead of you," Goku said.
Together they pulled their hands to their sides, drawing together a double kamehameha attack. They had to aim to either side of Vegeta, shifting their hands a few inches as they lined up their shots.
"Be careful not to hit him," Goku said just before letting go. "He's dead exhausted, even though he won't admit it."
"Got it," Gohan nodded, and then they screamed their attack.
Gold light tore through the Budoven, disintegrating most of the swarm instantly. Some tumbled out of the sky in pieces, and the stench of burned shells filled hte air until the breeze took it away. In the clear, Vegeta continued to hover safe within his ki. He didn't seem to notice that they were safe again, and his eyes were closed amidst the handful of Budoven left bumbling in confused circles that Piccolo moved to sweep up.
As Gohan joined Piccolo's side, Goku flew close to Vegeta, waiting for him to lower his ki and increasingly concerned when it stayed swirling around him.
"Vegeta?" he asked, glancing around to make sure they were alone. "Can you hear me? They're gone now."
Worried now, Goku grit his teeth and reached through the ki, wincing as it grazed him. It wasn't strong enough to injure him, though it stung as it swept over his skin. He grasped Vegeta's shoulders and shook him once. As if in a daze, Vegeta blinked and met his looked, his eyes empty and emotionless.
"They're dead," Goku said helpfully. "Gohan and Piccolo are cleaning up the last ones. We did it-"
Of all the reactions he expected, a battle cry and a blast in his face was not one of them. It stung only a little more than the shield still spinning around Vegeta, but it was followed by a flurry of ki bolts that drove him backwards more out of surprise than anything else. He raised his arms in an X block and deflected the bolts up to the sky.
He sensed Gohan and Piccolo coming towards them, but he waved them off with a shake of his head. He didn't want this fight to escalate, and he was confident that he could win any fight against Vegeta. His brow furrowed. Especially when Vegeta wasn't powering up at all.
In fact, he seemed limited to the most basic ki blasts, strong in themselves but nothing Goku couldn't shrug off. What worried him was the furious look of Vegeta's eyes, the rage and pride coupled together that he hadn't seen in decades. Taken with Vegeta's suddenly lower strength, Goku suspected that the other Saiyan wasn't glowing gold not because he was exhausted, but because he didn't remember that he could. At the edge of his senses, Vegeta's emotions tumbled in a blind panic, driving towards Goku in sheer desperation and clinging to him like a lifeline in a windstorm.
"I was right," he said, deflecting another handful of bolts, then another as his easy block fueled Vegeta's panic. "This was too much, even for you."
The others were coming-Krillin, Tien, Gohan and the rest. Goku was sure they'd felt Vegeta's attacks and thought there were still Budoven around. He steeled himself. If they got here while Vegeta was still panicking, he wasn't sure what would happen.
Certain that this would make things worse before making it better, he rushed up on Vegeta and put his arms around him, crushing him close. The prince screamed, his voice muffled in Goku's clothes, and he thrashed, kick, flailed and bit-Goku winced at the fangs digging into his arm and remembered that Vegeta didn't mind fighting dirty.
He held him like stone, letting Vegeta wear himself out and opening himself to the ongoing shriek in his head. At least neither of them could turn golden. Goku didn't think he could fight, not with the wail in Vegeta's thoughts. Jumbled, confusing the present for the past, the empty sky suddenly filled with a legion of monstrous insects, the skittery hum of their wings drowning out sound and making his teeth vibrate. Sharp teeth raked his skin, biting away mouthfuls, and the blood became a feeding frenzy as the Budoven tried to dive close. The smell of charred carapaces and blood filled the air.
Goku squeezed his eyes shut. No. They were not on an other planet. They were on Earth. They were safe. The only thing flying close were their allies, and he willed Vegeta to understand.
Long minutes passed. As Vegeta slowly realized that nothing was biting him to shreds, that he wasn't being eaten alive, he stopped hyperventilating and breathed in deep shuddering gasps. He relaxed, and Goku felt the strange sensation of a tail wrapping around his waist. A moment went by before he understood that Vegeta's phantom pain from his severed tail had bled into Goku's mind.
Finally the fear faded away. Vegeta slipped against him and Goku tightened his hold around his waist, holding him so he didn't drop out of the sky.
"You okay?" he asked.
Vegeta nodded vaguely, glancing at the clouds to make sure nothing was hiding or flying just out of sight. Noticing that he was being held, he drew up enough reserves to keep himself aloft so that Goku could relax his bruising grip.
"Sorry," he murmured.
"Are you sure?" Goku asked. "I've never seen you react like that."
"I'm fine," Vegeta said in his usual harsh voice, but he didn't pull away and he didn't glare. "Tired. Just tired."
"Right," Goku said, letting his disbelief color his voice, but he didn't press. The fight was over and-
Already knowing what he would see, Goku looked around himself. Gohan and Piccolo hovered nearby in concern, and if it had just been them, it would have been fine. They knew about each other's trysts, after all. But it seemed that every other fighter had had gathered around, ready to finish off a triumphant battle. And instead they found their planet's champion utterly tarnished. There was no mistaking the way he held Vegeta or the way the prince clung to him.
Krillin was the first to speak, tentatively asking if he was all right, as if he wasn't seeing what he thought he was seeing. Goku sighed and shook his head. He didn't want to spend time on this, not when Vegeta was spent and he desperately wanted to know that his other son was fine.
"I'm sorry, Krillin," Goku said. "But I'll have to explain it later. Right now I've got to get us both home."
He touched his fingertips to his forehead, concentrating for a moment and ignoring the rushed questions, and vanished, reappearing at the medical wing of the Capsule Corps compound. Mainly for experimental use, it still had all the accoutrements of a real hospital with the added bonus of taking baseline Saiyan physiology into account. Trunks was already there with Goten up on one of the beds, ignoring his complaining and making him lay down when Goten tried to sit up.
"I'm fine," Goten said, watching him fiddle with the controls of various monitors. "Why'd you give me a senzu if you didn't think it would do anything?"
"Just shut up and lie still," Trunks snapped. "I wanna make sure."
When Vegeta heard their voices, his head snapped up and he smiled in relief to see the both. Trunks smiled back, assured that he would at least be all right if he wasn't already.
"Is he okay?" Trunks asked, pushing Goten back on the bed with one hand splayed on his chest.
"I'm fine," Vegeta growled, trying to slip away and finding Goku's hand firmly around the back of his neck. "Kakarrot..."
"Oh, you've got a bad case of Gotenitis," Trunks said, and glared at Goten for good measure.
"I'm really not hurt anymore," Goten said even though he knew Trunks wasn't listening.
"Were you guys bit bad?" Trunks asked Goku.
"Not really," Goku said. "I was hoping you had a spare senzu bean or two. We're both pretty run down."
"Sure," Trunks said. "Goten...stay."
Narrowing his eyes, Goten turned his head and refused to look at him. "Woof."
He went to the desk in the back of the room and opened one of the drawers, pulling out a small jar with a handful of senzu. He flipped two beans to Goku, who caught them and handed one off while swallowing his. Vegeta took his and ate it, leaning against Goten's bed to catch his breath. He eyed the young half-Saiyan, noting that despite his grumblings, Goten remained in bed.
"You were bitten badly," he said, motioning at the blood on the mattress and paper covering.
"Yeah," Goten said grudgingly. "I can't believe I passed out. I feel like such a wimp."
"Don't," Vegeta said. "Even Freiza was reluctant to fight a whole swarm. You've faced something most people don't see and live to tell about."
Goten shivered. "It just felt so frustrating. I couldn't barely hit them and they were everywhere. It was like being surrounded by sharks."
"It was a feeding frenzy," Trunks said and nodded. "And we were the main course."
"That was a stroke of genius," Goku said, "leading them up into the atmosphere like that."
"That wasn't genius," Trunks admitted. "It was luck. I wasn't even thinking about freezing them. I just wanted to get Goten out of there and the only safe way was up."
"Not luck," Vegeta corrected him. "Training. You did it without thinking because your fighting style is ingrained in you now."
Trunks smiled at the rare praise. It was matter of fact and unadorned, but Vegeta never praised him unless he truly meant it. Each time he did so was carefully preserved in Trunks' memory.
"Did you wanna do a quick check up?" he offered. "Just to make sure you're okay? The senzu doesn't really treat mental fatigue that well, and that was a super long fight."
"Not as long as some," Vegeta said, shaking his head. "We're all right."
Vegeta started out of the medical wing, waving away Goku's hand, but he held one hand over his eyes to shield them from the light and he swayed slightly on his feet. Goku shared a long suffering look with Trunks and went after him, putting an arm around his shoulders to hold him steady.
"Idiot," Vegeta murmured. "Let go. Do you want someone to see?"
"Kind of late for that," Goku said.
Halting in the middle of the corridor, Vegeta looked up at him with wide eyes.
"You don't remember?" Goku half smiled. "You zoned out of it after we killed the Budoven around you, and when I tried to snap you out of it, you attacked me."
"I...did?" Vegeta touched the spot between his eyes as if he had a headache. "I don't remember that. I thought..."
"I finally got you settled, but by then almost everyone else was there and the way I was holding you was kind of obvious." Goku tilted his head and let that subject drop. "Sure you don't wanna go back inside? I'm kinda worried you might start hallucinating again."
"No," Vegeta said but without any heat in his voice. "I've had flashbacks before, just never that strong."
"What was it?"
"I...," Vegeta paused and glanced down the hall. The hour was late, or early, but the alien threat had most of the workers wide awake and moving around the compound. "Not here. I don't want anyone to hear."
Thinking the other Saiyan would take him upstairs to his room, Goku was surprised when Vegeta turned and went outside into the garden, watching the sky quietly. Goku didn't mention that someone might fly by and notice them. He came up behind Vegeta and stood close, letting Vegeta lean back and rest his head on Goku's shoulder.
Gray light filtered across the sky as the sun sat just below the horizon, swallowing the stars. Vegeta was grateful for that at least. He'd never had the chance to ask Nappa if they could see Saiya from Earth. He doubted it, but sometimes the uncertainty twisted in him.
"So what happened?" Goku asked. "What did you flash back to?"
"The same thing that happened to Goten," Vegeta said. "We were fighting over a planet we'd just purged, and when we'd killed enough of them, they suddenly molted and charged at me."
"You panicked?" Goku asked.
"I was fourteen," Vegeta said defensively. "I'd never fought anything like that before. I curled up defensively like that and waited for them to burn up when they hit my ki. Nappa and Radditz had to..." He sighed in irritation with himself. "They had to coax me out."
The one thing Vegeta never had to worry about when confessing to Kakarrot, especially about serious and embarrassing things he'd rather not think about, was that Kakarrot didn't laugh. He didn't try to joke or make Vegeta feel better except to put his hands on his shoulders and hold him.
"You're tired," Goku said. "Sleep?"
Vegeta shook his head. He already had plenty of nightmares. He wasn't about to sleep until the memories weren't so raw.
"Stay with me," he said.
It was a request camouflaged as an order. He half expected Goku to apologize and excuse himself to try to explain this relationship with his friends. It made sense. He was all right now and didn't need babysitting. Goku had to talk to his friends and-
Vegeta was so surprised he forgot to mask it. "Really?"
"Sure," Goku grinned. "You need me."
Goku let his hands drop to circle Vegeta's waist, resting his chin on his shoulder. He nuzzled the other Saiyan's cheek, pleased that Vegeta fidgeted but didn't push him off. The morning breeze was uncomfortably cool, and Goku's warm breath made him shiver.
You need me. Vegeta frowned. The idea rankled badly. If he'd had his tail, it would have puffed in irritation. Needing someone made him vulnerable, weak. Soft. And Kakarrot was such a moron, a soft-hearted fool-it would be the height of stupidity to trust him.
Vegeta closed his eyes and sighed. Kakarrot's stupidity was rubbing off on him.