A/N: This is the final piece in the story arc of A Little Late and Silence to Silence, which I wrote in 2006. Seven years later and this family still has my heart.
The title Sydus Olorum comes from the St. Malachy O'More FF Challenge by Qoheleth, one of my favorite authors on this site. I signed up for the challenge in 2010. Thank you Qoheleth for your patience and for never giving up on me with the inspiring reminders.
The premise of the challenge is this: St. Malachy O'More wrote short prophetic descriptions of every pope and major antipope from Celestine II to Benedict XVI. Each participant of this challenge is given a prophecy as a title of a new fanfic. So here's my take on Sydus Olorum, which means "the swan's star" or "the swan's constellation." It's the 84th prophecy, and is associated with Pope Clement XI. Kudos to readers who get the connection at the end.
She remembered the day he stopped using ki. She'd just come back from working in the lab, tweaking old inventions and trying to make them halfway useful. A retirement pastime that had become an escape.
She walked into the kitchen and saw him staring stoically down at a bowl of congealed liquid, leftover chowder maybe. The fridge door was still ajar. She went and closed it.
"Want me to heat that for you?" she said, already reaching to take it from him. She paused a second, enough for him to notice that she'd noticed. Her hand hesitantly covered his on the side of the bowl. "Vegeta?"
She stepped closer. He was still strong, still so proud and solid and unbreakable, though the steady loss of muscle mass was evident, and the gravity room had gone unused for months. Not things they ever spoke of.
He didn't answer and kept staring at the cold liquid in the bowl, concentrating with that familiar sharp intent she had seen so many times, most often before things got destroyed. He was trying. He was fighting with all his might behind that mask of relentless focus, and nothing was coming of it. Not one wisp of heat rose from the soup.
Swallowing quietly, she opened the fridge and began taking out the ingredients for a simple meal.
"Just give me a few minutes. I'll toss something together."
He didn't reply, merely set the bowl on the counter and left the room. No curses or explosions, no outburst of rage. Her hand shook as she cracked the eggs. He came back soon after the rice cooker beeped. They ate quietly. She had poured the soup down the drain and cooked something completely different. After he finished, she put her half-eaten plate aside and went to him. He let her wrap her arms around his shoulders and settle in his lap, biting her lip in sad determination.
It had started with late mornings. Usually he woke up at dawn and trained until almost noon. He'd never broken routine more than a day or two before, only when recovering from a particularly grueling spar with Goku or when he'd had to track down one of their kids after an all-night college party.
Then it was the painkillers. She didn't find out for a good while until she spotted one discarded bottle in the trash. It was prescription and he'd finished it in a third of the normal timeframe.
Confronting as usual did no good. Nothing was wrong, he wasn't a weak human, she was being paranoid, it would pass.
It didn't pass, and it was on an afternoon of odd déjà vu that she finally found out what was happening. She went outside to find him when he hadn't shown up for lunch. The gravity was still on but no sounds came from the chamber. A pit of dread opened in her stomach as she broke into a run across the lawn, half-expecting an explosion to knock her off her feet any second. Heart hammering in her chest, she frantically keyed in the code to override the gravity controls and yanked open the door, terrified of what she would find. He was on the floor, the air nearly crushed from his lungs, but he was still breathing, still conscious, still able to grit out a few choice curses as he strained to pick himself up. He'd been fighting to stay alive in 300 times Earth's gravity for nearly an hour.
She sat next to him in the same infirmary bed where she had put him all those years ago. This time he wasn't covered in bandages, at least. There were no flowers on the table and she was too old for this. He owed her the truth and there was no way around it.
It was a fatal disease inherited through generations of Saiyan royalty. One would have thought such an advanced spacefaring race would have figured out how to weed out bad genes in the monarchy. But the Saiyans were firmly against genetic modifications, even to secure the stability of the throne. The rise and fall of each house had depended on strength alone, not the aid of bioengineering. Most Saiyans had died in battle before disease had a chance to claim them anyway.
The Dragonballs would be useless here. Her thoughts raced twenty years in the future to a different timeline where she'd cured a virus no human had ever seen before. Screw Saiyan custom. She could develop a cure for him too. If he died before she was done, she could build a time machine the way her older self had and go back to buy herself more time…and she'd find a way around the diverging timeline paradox so that she could directly affect this universe instead of creating a new one.
He told her the cold facts. He would be dead within a year. Maybe a year and a half at most. For all her genius, she wouldn't have enough time to develop anything.
So she'd have to build the time machine. But how long would that take? Fifteen years? She might be dead by then too.
She should have studied the time machine when Trunks had come back all those years ago. She should have taken it apart and noted every detail of the mechanics. And the vaccine he had brought back for Goku, she should have looked at that too. The disease wasn't the same, but it would have taught her something about Saiyan immunology. The faint regret she'd felt every now and then for not satisfying her scientific curiosity now bloomed into full despair.
"We're going to have to tell Trunks and Bra. And we only have a year. Vegeta, we have no time. There's absolutely no—"
"I'm not just going to sit here and take it. There has to be a way to cure it, there has to be something we can—"
"Bulma. Stop." The command was soft and final.
She sat beside him on the bed and clasped his hand hard. No tears came to her eyes. It wasn't the time for that yet. She was still in that place between clouded disbelief and determination to fix it all singlehandedly.
"I'll figure something out. I always have," she said stubbornly.
He said nothing, merely watching her in that distant, knowing way that made the pit in her stomach widen to a chasm. Disbelief gave way to anger then, over the fact that he, of all people, had already given up.
The anger fueled four furious weeks in the medical labs, working with the best researchers she could gather on such short notice. It was hope against hope. Human technology could do nothing for a Saiyan genetic disease when they didn't even have a proper understanding of Saiyan biology.
Disbelief turned to denial. Denial turned to bitterness. She'd always thought she'd be able to take his death better than he'd take hers. But now that it was actually looming on the calendar, the unfairness of it shadowed all their interactions. Every time she looked at him or something marked by his presence – his space on their bed, the gravity chamber, the bath towels, the shoes at the door, the overstocked fridge – she imagined all of it gone, empty, and began to miss him even when he was right beside her.
They fought like they hadn't fought in a very long time, regressing to their thirties. She couldn't let him out of her sight and he couldn't stand her sentimentality. He wanted to stop talking about it altogether, as if the mere mention of the disease would make him weak. She couldn't stop talking about it and begged him not to shut her out. If this was going to be his last year of life, she wouldn't have him spend it in reclusion. They had to tell their children. He refused to.
One night he threatened to move out. He had already packed his essential belongings. Her first impulse was to lock the bedroom door behind her and scream at him for abandoning her when there was so little time left. But the cold, bone-deep weariness of his demeanor killed that instinct before she could start.
"I'm sorry," she said, still standing far from him, at the doorway. Suddenly she felt just as tired as he was, weeks of frenetic energy evaporating from her limbs. She leaned against the frame and fought the rising lump in her throat. "I'm sorry. I've been stupid and I'll stop. Please don't leave."
He stared at her levelly for a good while. Then he set the capsule of his belongings on the bedstand, on her side of the bed. The coiled tension seemed to lift from his shoulders and he sat down on the bed, still watching her intently. He'd really expected her to fight him. Maybe to give himself an excuse to escape and be rid of her. She brushed the accusing thought away. He had accepted her apology and he wasn't leaving.
"Thirty two years," he said. "Thirty two years and you've hardly changed."
"I'm a graying old woman. I can't keep up with you anymore." Her hands were trembling against the doorframe. "And I'm scared. I've never been this scared before, Vegeta."
He shifted a bit to the side, and she went to sit beside him. She looked down at her idle hands, her bare feet lined with veins and age.
"I know you don't want to talk about it. After today, whenever you want me to shut up, I will. It's killing me but I know I have to deal with it. I know it won't be that long. I don't have that many years to go either, especially since I still smoke sometimes when you're not looking." A low chuckle from beside her. He knew, of course. "But it's hard, you know. It's really hard to imagine you not being here. Our life together has always been crazy and now I have to get used to something normal."
"It's hard to imagine you not being there to nag at me when I get to that realm of fools in the clouds. I'll have to get used to peace and quiet," he said, the first joke she'd heard from him since he'd fallen sick.
"There's no concept of time in heaven. Maybe the time before I die and join you will only feel like a few minutes."
"I plan to enjoy the reprieve, however short it is."
She bit her lip, trying to laugh and not cry. "I love you too, asshole."
They sat quietly for a bit longer, the silence like a cease fire between trenches.
"I'll go along with however you want to do it," she began, "but we need to tell the kids."
"I'll tell them when the time is right. Don't fuss about it."
She wanted to ask when, to tell him it wasn't fair to keep them waiting. But she stopped herself, knowing she would have to start yielding as she'd promised. She couldn't control everything. And it wasn't a question of control when it came to dying. It was about dealing with today, and tomorrow only when it became today.
In the end, she didn't disable the gravity chamber or take apart the training robots. He still went in there daily and trained to maintain his strength. She had to take up work at the company again to put distance between them, to get away from the constant worry that he'd get careless and die in an accident. Her old staff were surprised and pleased to see her, but she made sure Trunks didn't get wind of it. Vegeta didn't want to tell him yet, though their daughter already knew and had moved back in with them. It was grossly unfair to their son, but he would not budge on the issue. Most of his reasons were absurd, and only one was somewhat convincing.
Trunks was struggling on many fronts as CEO and President of Capsule Corp, and hardly had time for family or his own personal life. She suspected he might be purposely distancing himself from them, and her in particular, in an attempt to define himself outside the shadow of her legacy. It was difficult, being the third generation in the most successful family business in history. Harder than when she'd taken up the mantle from her father.
"I could tell Trunks," Bra said one night at dinner, bringing up the forbidden subject without preamble. There was no trace of tension on Vegeta's face, and Bulma almost felt jealous that their daughter could so easily break his rules without setting him off. Still, he made them wait until he finished eating to hear his answer.
"How do you think he would take it, coming from you?" was all he had to say. Bra frowned down at her food. Bulma stood up and started clearing away the empty dishes. She didn't want to be seen as a proponent of either side.
"Well, Dad, considering how long you've kept him out of the loop, he'll be mad at all of us anyway. Maybe you most of all."
"Then so be it. It's not your concern."
"Come on, you're being unreas—"
"This discussion is over. When and how I speak to your brother is my decision. I don't need anyone else to get involved." He stood and left the room, not looking at Bulma as he passed her.
Bra was still seated, stewing silently. Bulma took a cleaning cloth and started wiping down the table.
"Are you going to finish that?" she asked, gesturing at her daughter's plate.
Bra shook her head, that familiar stubborn glare directed at empty air. Bulma cleared the rest of the table and sighed as she opened the dishwasher.
"Sweetie…" she said softly, wondering if Vegeta was out of earshot. The man could hear static on a radio from across the compound. "Come outside with me after I finish up here."
They drove out to the suburbs where her parents had lived out their retirement before they had passed away. The roads were winding and dimly lit, the darkness punctuated every few minutes by the high beams of a car going in the opposite direction.
"I should have spent more time with you guys," Bra said quietly. It was almost an apology. She was speaking of when she had gone off to college on the other side of the world, escaping the overprotectiveness of her father and, like Trunks, the shadow of fame and glamour of her mother. She had settled in Europe after graduating and visited once a year at most.
"You're here now and that's what matters," Bulma said. She harbored no ill feelings toward her daughter's actions. They had spoken enough on the phone over the years, and Bra still treated her as a confidante. Vegeta, on the other hand, had grown colder toward Bra on her rare visits. Her distance from them had affected him, though he would never admit to it. In a few quick years their father-daughter bond had withered, that special relationship that Trunks had so envied dwindling to a few short conversations a year without any substance.
"I wish I'd done things differently," Bra went on. "I could have stayed at West Capital or at least come back sooner. I could have visited more often. I could have made an effort to do things he likes."
"Food and fighting. That's all he likes," Bulma said dryly.
"I should have trained with him. That's probably the biggest thing that separated us. I just never bothered. I knew he was disappointed but I didn't do anything about it."
"He knew you had different priorities. He didn't expect you to be like Trunks."
"He expected me to be at least somewhat 'Saiyan' though. I never was. I never even tried."
"That doesn't mean he loves you any less. He's always felt close to you—"
"We stopped being close a long time ago!" she snapped, anger flashing in her eyes. Bulma slowed down subconsciously though the road ahead was straight for a mile or so.
"We have a year left. Make it count," Bulma said simply, tossing aside all sugarcoating. "He still loves you more than anything. Just you being here will make it better for him."
"But what about…" she trailed off, frowning. "I'll do everything I can to be there for him, to care for him and make up for all those years of nothing. I will. But Mom, what about…what about us? We're going to lose him. He's going to die and he won't come back…"
Bulma slowed further and stopped the car on the side of the country road, at the edge of a large meadow. It was dark now but there were myriad stars above them, and there seemed to be no one around for miles. She held her daughter's hand firmly and felt it tremble. They got out of the car and walked across the grass, her arm around her daughter's shoulders.
"It's okay," she said as Bra started crying. The sadness of it all struck her like a dead weight then and she bit her lip hard to keep it together. "I know…I know exactly how you feel. It hurts every day and it's going to be hard. I know."
"I just wish we could talk about it. I wish he'd just open up and talk to us about it. How he feels and how he'll miss us too and…God, it used to be so easy to just say anything to him. I could tell him I loved him and he'd let me, he didn't care. Now I'm so afraid to say anything…"
"Don't be afraid. He loves you. He loves you just as much as before. Just tell him. You have nothing to lose." They stopped walking and she hugged her daughter tight, just like when she'd been a little girl. "You know your father though. He doesn't voice things that he can show through actions. He's happy that you're back. Maybe you've been away too long and can't see it, but I know he's happy. You coming back to us is the best thing that's happened to both of us in a while."
"I'm sorry, Mom. I'm sorry…" she said softly into her shoulder. Bulma stroked her daughter's hair and took in all her guilt and regret over past selfishness, and prayed that sometime before it was too late, her husband would be the one holding her and listening like this.
She had thought they had no trust issues left after thirty two years together. She kept reminding herself of that on the nights he was extra distant, when his eyes held a look she didn't recognize. Perhaps there was no one alive who could still recognize it.
An honorable death for a Saiyan was death in battle. It was the rule for all their race. Those past their fighting prime sought out ever more dangerous battles, testing their right to live on until they were killed by a stronger warrior. The kings of Vegetasei challenged their children. Most did not have to do it more than once.
Over the years she had learned many of the folk tales surrounding his dead race, either directly from him or from eavesdropping on the bedtime stories he told Bra. One particular story now came back to her every day he put off the inevitable conversation with their son.
It was an ancient tale, outdating the reign of Vegeta's bloodline. There was a king whose strength was legendary, who had led their people for over a hundred years. When he grew old and was ready to die, he challenged his firstborn in the age-old ritual that was both an official transfer of power and a rite of passage for crown princes. But instead of defeating his father and claiming the throne, the heir lost the battle and his life. The king then challenged his secondborn. He too lost and died at his father's hand. Then came the third, fourth, and so on until the king had killed all of his children except one, the youngest.
The story had distressed Bra to no end, doubly so because it had no conclusion. Instead, it posed a question: what should the king do? It was a rare philosophical challenge to a race of warriors who, on the surface, thought more with their fists than with their minds and hearts. But as Bulma had come to realize over the years, the dilemma posed by the parable sat at the core of Saiyan identity.
The days ticked on. From her computer at the office, she checked the usage stats of the gravity chamber daily, watching the numbers dwindle both in terms of hours and intensity. One day they stopped altogether. Another week passed, and another. Bra told her that Vegeta was still going into the room but no longer turned the machine on. Then he started leaving home during the day, coming back in time for dinner or to slip into bed beside her. She thought of a thousand scenarios, forcibly overlaid with the unspoken trust built up over thirty two years. She picked up the phone a dozen times to call her oldest friend and his greatest rival, but never finished dialing.
One night she stayed up waiting. It was midnight when Bra came into their bedroom and waited with her. She called his cell phone, fighting against the sinking feeling in her stomach when there was no answer. She called their son, also to no avail. When it was past 1 AM she finally called Goku. His sleepy, well-meaning answer made her heart drop into her heels.
"I thought I felt Vegeta and Trunks sparring earlier. Been a while, huh?"
She could see the blood splattered on their clothes even in the dark, and the disgusted gasp from her daughter meant she could smell it as well. They were both moving, though Vegeta's feet were almost dragging, his slumped figure supported by their son. The sight would have touched her heart if she didn't want to strangle them both at the same time.
Bra rushed to her father's other side and helped hold him up, glaring at Trunks with the accusatory force of an all-out tirade. In the half hour it took to get them inside and settled in the infirmary, no one spoke more than the necessary clinical instructions. Bulma sat at her husband's bedside and stared hard into his eyes, then at their son's guilty face. The only thing stopping her from screaming loud enough to wake the dead was the testament on both their faces to a definitive answer to the parable.
"You're both idiots," Bra broke the silence softly. The venom had dissipated somewhere, and she drew her brother into a rough hug, then kissed her father's bruised face. "Such pigheaded, impossible idiots."
Bulma didn't realize she was crying until Trunks was holding her and wiping tears from her face with medical gauze.
"I'm sorry," he said into her hair, "I'm so sorry."
"Did you…did you at least have a nice dinner? Please tell me Messina's is still standing," she managed to choke out, her hands trembling against her son's back.
There was a moment's pause before father and son shared a low revealing chuckle. Bra started laughing after that, and Bulma joined in with an ungainly snort.
"Yes, that overrated establishment is still intact," Vegeta rasped, and reached for her hand in a rare gesture. As their fingers touched she felt her heart finally return to its normal seat in her chest after hours of terrifying displacement.
"That's good," she laughed shakily. Her thumb traced a familiar path around the old scars on his knuckles. "It's been a long time. I could make a reservation for next week. If Trunks isn't too busy."
Their son shook his head. "I've got time. I'll always have time for you guys. I'm…I'm sorry I've been so out of it…like I just dropped out of the family. I promise I'll make it up to you—"
"Still so melodramatic, Trunks. Some things never change." Bra rolled her eyes and traded a smirk with her father. "But I am glad you finally pulled your head out of your ass."
"Still Daddy's little girl," Trunks said in mock jealousy. "Some things really don't change."
"Trunks," Bulma said with all the warmth and warning of the major chewing-out he deserved, "welcome home."
It was like a game of Tetris gone wrong, the different ways that they grieved all cutting into each other at the wrong angles. Bra was quietly accepting, her self-anger withdrawn into some invisible place. She spent as much time as she could with her father but intuitively knew when to leave him alone. All the things that she could have done and the things she would miss, and the things he would miss in her life – she accepted all of it as the natural present, and didn't try to speed up her life on his behalf.
Trunks was the opposite. He wore his anxiety and guilt on his sleeve. Whatever heart-to-heart they'd had on that bloody night, he was still mired in doubt and regret, placing all sorts of undue blame on his own shoulders. He could have been a better son in a thousand ways, regardless of how shitty of a father Vegeta had been. If only he'd tried harder, been more perceptive and persistent, if he'd kept in touch and prioritized his family above work, maybe Vegeta would have trusted him enough to tell him earlier instead of waiting an entire year. He was hardly able to concentrate on his job and she had to step in to cover for him on several Mondays. Nerve-wracked perfectionist as he was, he refused to take extended leave or see a counselor.
As for herself, she didn't know how to define how she felt. It changed day to day and week to week as the hourglass neared its end. Whenever she thought she'd come to terms with it, some small thing would send her mind careening sideways into a stage of grief she thought had passed. The lack of training clothes in the laundry. A passing glance of her parents' last photo together in the living room. The quiet click of the bathroom door when he went in there at night to cough and spit up blood, not wanting her to hear. The ding of the microwave when she heated the leftovers.
The lab was her outlet, but she wondered what his would be now that he no longer trained. There was always that fear that one of these days when he left the house he wouldn't come back, that she'd get a call from the Son household with the news she so dreaded. But she trusted he wouldn't do that to her, and that Goku would at least refuse if Vegeta challenged him. If he wanted to go early, it would have happened with their son that night.
Still, the question could not contain itself. It scratched at the insides of her mind, a gray itch in the numbness of each night. She shifted in bed, tracing the familiar curve of his shoulder beside her. It rose and fell with undisturbed regularity, no attacks of coughing tonight. She stared, half-seeing, until she felt a change in his breathing. He was awake.
"There's something I have to ask you," she whispered.
He didn't turn, but his hand shifted to his hip, where she could reach it.
"If…if you want to go. Will you tell me?"
A shift in the fabric over his back. The tension she hadn't realized was there seemed to dissipate from his shoulders.
"That's an absurd question." This close, she could feel the soft rumble of his voice. "You realize I will be seeing you again in a few years, permanently this time. And the last thing I want is to have to put up with an eternal grudge from you."
She swallowed the knot in her throat, fingers still intertwined with his.
"Wow." She tried for sarcasm but doubted it was coming through. "That might be one of the sweetest things you've ever said to me."
"Go to sleep, woman." He was trying for annoyance, but was just as poor in delivery as she was. "Your intelligence is declining with age."
She huffed and turned onto her back, feeling the needling static of blood returning to the neglected side of her body. "Goodnight, you heartless jerk."
The sound of a smile. "Goodnight, old hag."
It was an old ritual of theirs, one they hadn't observed in years. She'd forgotten about it since the sickness, but the sky was clear tonight and the air crisp and cool. She sat up on the roof waiting, swathed comfortably in a thermal blanket. The path to the stars seemed shortest on these nights.
The first time they'd done this, they'd been a hairline fracture away from separating for good. The aftermath of Majin Buu hadn't all been sunshine and instant forgiveness. She'd kept the anger inside for their son's sake, only baring it in full force when she had found him alone on the roof, blankly watching the stars in an unspoken invitation for a settling of accounts.
He'd taken her fury and condemnation without a word, giving no defense. Without a hard target, her rage bled to serrated pain, then to fear and finally to weariness. In the end she was tired of this broken sham of a relationship, tired of his coldness and rejection, tired of his neglect of their son, just tired.
When she had nothing more to say, she followed his gaze up into the distance, to some invisible place in the sky, as if there were answers there for how this would end.
"If you want me to leave, I'll leave," he had said. The first time she had ever heard an apology from him, as indistinct as it was. She waited for more, but that was it.
"Where would you go?" she had asked him.
His silence had been answer enough.
They had stood side by side for an unmeasured time as she realized he was not searching for anything in the stars, only remembering something that was no longer there. The decision she needed to make gradually slid to one side of the knife's edge. His future was as blank as the void he was staring into.
Forgiveness was the most unnatural of acts, a series of small deaths over the following days as she didn't tell him to leave and he didn't bring it up again. The roof became their meeting place and the private altar where she gave up the grievances she had harbored for nearly a decade. At some point he had begun to talk, to tell her about his life, tracing a path across stars both visible and invisible. Each night it was different. Sometimes a recounting of a battle. Sometimes the color of different moons and the height of the horizon. Sometimes a lingering smell or taste of a planet that no longer existed, brought to an end by his own hands.
She had nothing more to put on the altar the night he told her of his homeworld. There, hundreds of lightyears beyond the Cygnus constellation, above the black hole and its blue companion star, was where Vegetasei had been. That was the void he had looked for on every world he had visited, in a thousand different skies.
The time for pity was long past, and it had never been part of their relationship anyway. He had not been asking for pity or sympathy, or even a second chance. He had simply told her these things as a man who had no place in the universe but was open to finding it for the first time, as a blank slate, as a history of weariness to be left behind and begun anew.
They had begun anew that night, and through the years the roof had remained their meeting place where they listened, most of the time to companionable silence, but really to each other.
Tonight, she lay down beside him, listening. His heartbeat was steady, slow, and she felt the texture of each breath he took. She spread the blanket over them both, and for a fleeting moment she missed the halo of ki he used to summon for her. But now there was less distance between them, and it grew continuously smaller as their time drew short. A month, perhaps. For once she was grateful for the lack of numerical certainty. No moment was more or less precious than the next.
"Tell me something you remember," she said softly.
Their gazes were joined far in the distance, on a familiar window lightyears away. Memory was the most natural of acts, and she listened with unhurried imagination as he began.