The sun had almost set and the first few stars were showing in the summer sky. The evening shadows were growing longer across the Briefs family's compound. Everything was still; the Capsule Corp staff had all gone home hours ago. There was no sound outside except for the buzzing of crickets and the occasional swish of a distant car.
Vegeta stood in the darkening corridor, leaning one arm against the wall and frowning as he fought to keep his balance. His head was spinning and his vision was blurring. His whole body ached so badly that it hurt to breathe - and his limbs felt as heavy as lead. Trying to think clearly was like trying to push through thick mud. He took his hand off the cool wall and held it over his tired eyes in an attempt to focus his mind.
After waking up to find himself in a human hospital that morning, the prince was absolutely determined to push through this day. He couldn't lose any more training time - not now. But his body still hadn't fully healed after the gravity room explosion from the day before - and now, with the night drawing in, his recent injuries seemed to be catching up with him again. He glared at the closed door in front of him. This evening's training session was not going to be easy.
"Vegeta?" Bulma called out quietly as she opened the door to her room. She had been taking advantage of the few peaceful hours at the end of the day to proof-read one of her physics papers when she suddenly wondered if she could hear someone outside. It didn't take a brilliant scientist like her to guess who it was; nobody else ever interrupted her at this time of day.
"Vegeta, is that you? Are you alright?"
"Of course I am. Mind your own business, woman."
"Hm. Chirpy as ever, I see. Well then, what's up? What's so important that it can't wait until tomorrow morning?"
"The training bots you built yesterday are not fit for purpose. There must be a glitch in their computer programming - they are not functioning correctly. Go and fix them. Now."
"A glitch - in one of my programs? Not a chance! In case you'd forgotten, buster, I'm a genius - the most gifted engineer on this planet. You must have broken them somehow, you dork."
That kind of remark usually got the proud prince all riled up - but this time his scowl just deepened. "I don't have time for this, weakling. You say you're a genius? Fine. How would you like to become a dead genius? It will happen if you don't shut the hell up and do as I tell you."
Bulma was surprised. She'd grown accustomed to exchanging insults with the prince, but that kind of blunt put-down wasn't his usual style. She caught the tiredness in his voice and looked at him with concern. It was hard to see him clearly in the dim light, but she could tell that he was leaning against the wall and breathing with difficulty.
"Woman, don't you have anything better to do than stand there squinting at me? I'm not one of your damned schematics. Go and fix those training bots and stop wasting my time."
Bulma couldn't help smiling wryly. Even though he was clearly exhausted, the prince was still trying to act like his usual formidable self - except he was so drained of energy that he couldn't put up much of a fight. It was obvious that he desperately needed to rest - but she would have to act very carefully if she wanted to coax him into lying down. She knew Vegeta's pride wouldn't allow him to admit to any perceived weakness, no matter what the circumstances. If he knew what she was planning he would summon up every last ounce of his willpower and march straight back downstairs to carry on training. She would lose her chance - and he would end up back in the hospital.
"Ok, Ok - enough already. No need to be so rude, Mr Grouchy Pants. Sheesh." she retorted. It was probably best to keep talking, she decided. Act normal and try to keep him distracted. "You know, for someone who claims to be royalty, you're not exactly Prince Charming. Would it kill you to be civil for once? Forget about all this combat training - I should sign you up for etiquette lessons. I'd be doing the world a favour."
Bulma took a few steps towards the prince. She wasn't certain how he would react to what she was about to try, but she knew she had to do something soon. Vegeta looked ready to collapse at any moment. She took a deep breath to steel herself, and then - completely nonchalantly, as though it was the most normal thing in the world to do - she took him by the arm and led him gently towards her bed.
"Hell, with my wealth of practical experience, I could start my own specialist finishing school," she joked. "Basic Manners for Obnoxious Saiyans, a Beginner's Course - Lesson Number One: How Not to Offend Your Hostess. You could be my star pupil."
Bulma sat Vegeta down and carefully pulled off his boots, gloves and shirt, calmly chatting away the entire time. Vegeta didn't acknowledge her words or offer any in reply - he just gazed at his discarded clothes confusedly. He looked dazed. Bulma wondered if he was completely aware of his surroundings. He seemed so worn out that he probably wasn't fully conscious. He still resisted when she tried to lie him down, though. Whether he was acting out of instinct or habit, she couldn't tell. Then he muttered something in another language - probably Saiyan, she thought - and shakily tried to stand up again.
"Hey - wait a minute - not so fast there, mister.' she said as she put both hands on his shoulders to keep him on the bed. 'You just stay put for now, Ok? It's not time to get up just yet." Bulma rolled her eyes. This was so typical of Vegeta. For heaven's sake, couldn't the man ever just relax? His whole body practically thrummed with tension - he was wound up like a spring.
"Vegeta, come on. Work with me here. Just take it easy and try to chill out. Trust me on this one - I'm not joking any more. You really, really need to rest now. Just for a little while. Please."
Without thinking about what she was doing, she ran her hands from his shoulders down his arms and back again. It seemed to work. At least now he wasn't trying to go anywhere. She kept running her hands slowly up and down his arms for a few moments - then she moved to sit behind him and started stroking his back. She heard Vegeta's breath catch - and for an instant she was worried that she'd startled him out of his daze - but then, when she ran one hand up his spine, buried her fingers in his hair and began massaging his scalp, the prince exhaled deeply and his body swayed forwards. Without saying another word, Bulma guided his head down onto a pillow, pulled his legs up onto the bed and carried on rubbing his back.
Vegeta blinked slowly. For some mysterious reason he seemed to be lying down. His thoughts were so clouded he wasn't sure whether he was dreaming or not. A tiny voice at the back of his mind was wearily pointing out how very odd this situation was. He was the Prince of the Saiyans, dammit. He was a battle-hardened warrior, a professional killer, he was feared and despised by billions of souls throughout hundreds of galaxies - the last survivor of a lethal race from a planet millions of light years away. And here he was, on Earth of all places, in a quiet suburban house in a peaceful town, lying in a human woman's bed. And not just any human woman, either; that blue haired loudmouthed vixen who'd been insulting him shamelessly for months.
'Who could have predicted this?' he thought to himself as his eyes slid closed. The woman was kneading his shoulders at the base of his neck, easing the tension out of his sore muscles with smooth, soothing strokes. He kept his eyes closed and focused on the sensation of her warm hands against his skin. It felt amazing. He ought to be training right now - but perhaps he would stay where he was for just a minute longer.
He shouldn't be letting her do this, the voice at the back of his mind scolded him as he drowsily breathed in the scent from her pillow. She smelled so luscious - like nobody he had ever met before. It was inexplicable. The woman was supremely irritating. She shouted at him constantly, she routinely contradicted him, she had the audacity to disobey his commands - and, worst of all, she stubbornly refused to be afraid of him. Vegeta had grown up travelling from one galaxy to the next - he had encountered countless alien civilisations - and he was convinced that this human woman was the most infuriating female ever known to man. And yet… in his entire life he couldn't remember ever letting anyone touch him like this. It didn't make any sense.
Of course, it was extremely foolish of him to let his guard down. He ought to know better. But the woman's skilled hands were sending waves of pleasure coursing through his tired body. Oh God, it was good. When she worked her way down to the base of his spine and then swept her hands up his sides and over his ribs he had to bite his lip to stifle a low moan.
Vegeta was struggling to stay conscious. He felt like his head was full of cotton wool. The voice at the back of his mind was still doggedly objecting. He shouldn't be lying here like this when he had so much work to do. He couldn't afford to waste a single minute. He had to keep pushing himself, no matter what it cost him. He had to keep training. And this woman - this extraordinary, beautiful woman - why was she doing this? She couldn't possibly be under any illusions about his character. She must have heard about his terrible past from her pathetic human friends. Everyone knew all about the evil things he'd done. She shouldn't be here right now, the voice pointed out - and neither should he.
And yet, for some reason, here they both were. And somehow he knew the woman wouldn't try to hurt him. He didn't know why - he was just certain of it. And the room was dark and quiet and calm - and the bed was warm and comfortable - and her gentle hands running over his aching back felt so blissfully good. And he was so, so tired. He yawned. He would only stay a minute longer, then he would go back to his training. Just one minute longer.
'This really should not be happening,' the thought floated vaguely through his weary mind as his breathing slowed and his body gradually relaxed. 'I must be going crazy,' he mused as he drifted deeper towards sleep. 'But the strange thing is, I don't seem to mind at all.'
Bulma came back to herself with a start. Her thoughts had wandered while she'd been rubbing Vegeta's back. She didn't know how long she'd been daydreaming - it could have been minutes or hours. She looked down at him and smiled. Vegeta, the Prince of the Saiyans - elite assassin, ruthlessly disciplined soldier and general all-round tough guy - was sound asleep. Totally out cold. Man, she was good.
She paused when she suddenly realised what she'd been doing. 'Wow. Hang on a minute. How exactly did I get to this point?' a tiny voice at the back of her mind asked. 'Last time I checked, I had my life all planned out with no surprises in store for me - and the next thing I know, I have an alien prince from another universe asleep in my bed. What are the odds?'
Vegeta shifted slightly in his sleep and murmured something incoherent - in Saiyan again, she guessed. She ran her fingers gently through his hair. That seemed to calm him; he settled down again.
'And not just any alien prince, either,' she added to herself as she carried on stroking his jet black hair, 'that rude, stubborn, arrogant jerk who's been bossing me around shamelessly for months.' She chuckled to herself. His Royal Highness was going to be royally pissed off when he woke up and realised what had happened.
She paused to study his face as he slept. In spite of all the time she'd spent around him over the last few months, she'd never had the opportunity to really look him over until now. Even when he'd been in the hospital yesterday there had been a breathing mask covering his face. Now he was lying on his front with one arm laid in front of his head on the pillow - as though he was instinctively shielding himself in his sleep. Her eyes drank in his bronzed skin, his dark eyelashes, his strong jaw line and perfect cheekbones. His breathing was steady and slow. His lips were very slightly parted. 'Hot damn,' she thought to herself. She had to admit it: he was breathtakingly handsome. She rolled her eyes again. 'Why do the good looking men always have to be assholes?' she wondered with a quiet laugh.
She realised this was the first time she'd ever seen his face completely relaxed. Normally he wore a constant scowl - of concentration, or anger, or else - her eyes travelled down to the bandages wrapped around his arms and torso - or else a scowl of pain. She studied his sleeping body carefully while her fingertips absent-mindedly trailed across his powerful shoulders, over his strong arms and along the muscles in his back. 'Geez, does this man have muscles.' It was obvious that his body had been honed through a lifetime of incredibly hard physical work. She remembered the glimpses she had caught of him while they had been on Namek. Even from far away he had radiated strength and power.
She bit her lip. From up close, she could see he was covered in scars. They criss-crossed his shoulders, his back, his arms - even his hands. Some were very light - they were probably from old wounds that had faded years ago - but others looked much more recent. Some of them looked like they could have been fatal. Bulma frowned as she tried to imagine how anyone could have received so many painful injuries. What dreadful experiences had this man endured? She shuddered. It didn't bear thinking about. Not right now.
'Why me?' the tiny voice at the back of her mind chipped in. 'There are plenty of perfectly normal men on this planet. Nice guys; safe, low maintenance, stress free guys. Humans, for crying out loud. Why, out of all the men in the whole wide world, am I falling in love with this one? A socially maladjusted egomaniac with a massive chip on his shoulder, a near-suicidal work ethic, and a temper that would make Genghis Khan look like the Dalai Llama.'
Bulma sighed as she turned off the table lamp and carefully tucked her blankets around the prince's sleeping form. Yep, it was definitely a funny old world - no doubt about it. The way things were turning out, she certainly didn't seem to be destined for a simple or easy life.
"I must be going crazy," she murmured to herself as she bent down to kiss her prince lightly on the cheek. "But the strange thing is, I don't seem to mind at all."