Author's Note: Uh. Assuming anyone's still reading this, thank you very much for your patience. Senior theses have a way of kicking one's butt. Many thanks to the people who let me ramble at them about plot points.
Road Less Traveled
Chapter Four: Learning to Fly
Well, the good old days may not return,
And the rocks may melt, and the sea may burn.
- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Deep in the wilderness, a little boy paused in his efforts to start a fire and glanced up at the luminous full moon. Then he utterly failed to turn into a giant rampaging monkey.
If he had known the chaos he was missing, he would have been sorely disappointed.
Gohan had spent quite a lot of time in the middle of nowhere, mostly because his father loved the great outdoors. To be fair, Gohan did too – or at least he did if there was a capsule house nearby and there weren't too many bugs. He liked nature in small doses, thank you very much.
Still, he theoretically knew how to fish, and he supposed he would get a fire started sooner or later. He could probably even get out of this place before winter came and he turned into a kid-shaped popsicle.
For now, however, he was cold and hungry and miserable. This stunk. A lot.
"Stupid aliens," he muttered under his breath. His pile of sticks, carefully ringed by small stones, stubbornly refused to burn. "Stupid spaceship. Stupid fire." He glared at the darkness around him. "Stupid, stupid Piccolo."
The defiance didn't start any fires, but it made him feel a little better. Gohan stuck out his tongue as an afterthought and went back to work.
In the shadows, the aforementioned Piccolo watched and waited.
Chichi believed in bravery, in education, and in bellowing until she got her way. She and her captain disagreed on the value of the first two things, but they saw eye to eye regarding the third.
"What the hell did you think you were doing? You could've got yourself killed!"
The Royal Home Guard's Ginger Town barracks were nearly empty – those Guards who weren't on duty had either gone to break into Avani Gupta's hospital room or found somewhere else to spend the night. It was a matter of self-preservation. No one with an ounce of sense crossed Merrick when he was in that kind of mood.
Chichi, however, clutched her bandaged arm with her good hand and tried to protest. "Captain, you told us to investigate – "
"You almost got a junior Guard killed!" Merrick's voice rose a few decibels. His face was even redder than his hair. "You put Gupta in danger! You were the senior Guard present and it was your responsibility to protect her!"
Half-formed arguments withered and died. Chichi knew her captain. Merrick's rules were idiosyncratic and cynical, but there were some that were never meant to be broken, by Guards or by anyone else. One of those all-important rules was ringing through her head, even louder than her captain's booming voice.
A good Guard did not intentionally put another person in danger. Especially a person they were responsible for. Not if there was any other choice.
She sucked in a quick breath and plunged on. She knew that she had endangered Avani, and nothing she said or did would change that. "Did you read my report?" she asked instead.
"What?" Merrick snapped. "The one about the green man and the ray gun?"
"The one about the aliens who will come here," Chichi elaborated.
Merrick snatched a handful of files off his desk and waved them at her. "I can't submit this crap to my superiors, Mau. They want my head as it is!"
"You don't believe me."
"I do," he said. His voice had fallen to a more normal pitch, and he seemed to age ten years as she watched. "I saw the hole in that corpse, and I saw the wreckage. No hand weapon I know of could've done something like that."
Chichi glanced at the files. "So why won't you submit the report?"
"Because maybe someone else will believe you too, and they'll get delusions of grandeur and send the whole Guard out to get killed, for honor or glory or some bullshit reason like that." He stopped for a moment, folding his arms across his chest. "How much good did you do, Mau? What difference did you make?"
She opened her mouth. Shut it.
Merrick looked at her very strangely, as if he was a disappointed teacher instead of her commanding officer. "Whatever's coming here, it's not your job to fight it. You'll just get in the way."
He turned away to put the files back on his desk, which was why he missed the angry spark that lit in Chichi's eyes. Her voice, however, somehow remained quite steady. "Captain, I need a leave of absence."
"Mau…" Merrick sighed and didn't look at her. "You're a good Guard. Leave it at that."
"I know." He still didn't turn around – just sighed and stared at the paperwork littering his desk. "Go on. You've got your leave. Go get yourself killed."
Chichi let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "I'll go pack."
"Idiot," Merrick muttered, but she was already halfway out of his office. She didn't stop to answer, and he didn't go after her.
"Stupid son of a – damnit!" Bulma snatched up the alien eyepiece, scrambled to her feet, and stood poised to chuck the piece of junk out the window. What stopped her wasn't the realization that she would be throwing away valuable information, but rather the fact that she would have to go collect it again and pick sand out of it. That would be another few hours' work right there – something that rather detracted from the satisfaction she would get from throwing the stupid thing around.
After a moment the frustration passed. Suddenly drained, she sank back down beside Roshi's dining table and fumbled for a tangle of wires. Pitching this thing out the window might make her feel better, but it wouldn't get her any closer to figuring out what was going to happen to her world.
There was little sleep to be had at Roshi's small house – not when Cami woke up every half-hour to check and make sure her mother and adopted uncles hadn't disappeared on her. At the moment she was sprawled on Kuririn, clutching the front of his tee shirt and snoring against his shoulder. The martial artist was sitting cross-legged on the floor. Like Bulma, he seemed to have given up on getting any rest.
Which was probably why he took his life into his hands and piped up. "No luck, huh."
Bulma snarled at him.
"Right. Shutting up now." He shifted his grip on Cami, who was probably cutting off the circulation to one of his arms. "Think it's safe to hand her off to Yamcha?"
"Only if you want a tantrum."
Kuririn made a face. "Guess I'm stuck with her."
"Good guess." Bulma sighed and drummed her fingers on the table, glaring at the eyepiece. "This thing has some really delicate circuitry. I can't just go in and hotwire it – and even if I could, I don't know the language or the alphabet. Once I get into the data, I'm going to have to convert it to something I can actually read. Assuming I can get at the data in the first place. Argh!"
Kuririn wisely said nothing – which was just as well, since she wasn't in the mood for helpful or sympathetic comments. Oh, no. She was in the mood to scream at someone.
All boasting and false modesty aside, Bulma knew that she was a genius – not necessarily a scientist like her father was, but certainly a brilliant engineer and inventor. More to the point, she didn't think of the world in same way that most people did. For her, everything had a logical beginning and an end, as well as qualities that could be measured, products that could be synthesized, and effects that could be recreated. She attacked folklore and mythology with electronics and machines – not because she didn't believe, but because she did believe, so intently and so fervently, that she had to make legends work on her own terms.
It said something about her that out of the hundreds of people who had searched for the Dragon Balls, she was one of the only ones who had sat down to build a tracking device. It would never have occurred to her that this was unusual.
So it was particularly frustrating for her to come up a machine that wouldn't behave.
"Maybe you should take a break," Kuririn said. It wasn't a question.
She scrubbed her face, trying to fight off the feeling that she was going too slow and that there was no more time. "I need coffee," she muttered, climbing to her feet.
"Look who's talking." Bulma bit back a yawn and flipped on the kitchen light long enough to dig a couple of mugs out of the cupboard. "There's not much left in the pot. It's going to be sludge."
Kuririn laughed. "I'm gonna need it anyway." He took Bulma's proffered mug with his free hand, making a face at Cami. "I think she's out for the night."
Bulma glanced at her daughter. Like her father, Cami was attempting to hog as much space as possible by sprawling in all directions. She was also drooling, although Bulma felt no need to point this out to Kuririn. Instead she sipped what had to be at least her tenth cup of coffee, her throat catching as she watched Cami snore softly and shift in her sleep. The Son Sprawl, Bulma had uncharitably called it from time to time – and the sight of it now made her miss her family so much that it felt like there was a vise squeezing her heart.
"I wouldn't move her," she muttered from behind the coffee mug. "She looks comfy."
Maybe Kuririn heard something in her voice, because he didn't ask again. Instead he nodded in the direction of the eyepiece. "So have you figured out anything?"
She jumped on the distraction. "Of course I have. I'm a genius, aren't I?" Setting the horrible coffee aside, she picked up the eyepiece and pushed a button beside the tiny viewscreen. "It's a combination radar and transmitter. I can figure that out just by how it's put together."
Kuririn frowned at it. "I don't like the sound of that transmitter part."
"That's what got fried anyway. It shut down after a few minutes." She leaned on the wall, turning the eyepiece over and over in her hands. "As near as I can tell, the radar part of it is designed to pick up some kind of energy signature."
"Like your Dragon Ball radar."
"Probably, but I don't think that's what it's looking for. I doubt it's designed to pick up anything like power plants, either, 'cause anything this sensitive would've overloaded the second it got close to one of the big cities."
Kuririn propped his chin on his hand – a difficult maneuver, given the four-year-old in his lap. "So is it gonna be able to tell us anything about these aliens?"
Bulma fought the urge to fling the eyepiece out the window again. Instead she flashed a strained, tired smile. "Damned if I know," she said.
Halfway around the world, her son was having his own problems.
By means of some hard work and a lot of swearing, Gohan had managed to get a fire going. He was still hungry and he was still stuck in the middle of nowhere, but at least he wasn't quite as cold.
He was, however, starting to get a bit frightened. The glowing eyes all around him had a lot to do with this.
Something was growling. Something big. Just great.
The little boy scrambled to his feet, clutching the end of a burning stick with both hands. With as much courage as he could muster, he waved his makeshift weapon back and forth, snarling at the eyes for all he was worth.
They didn't seem impressed. Stupid eyes.
"Shows what they know," Gohan muttered. He sat down cross-legged by the fire, still holding the flaming branch. The only sounds were the crackling flames and the distant growling noises.
And his stomach. He hadn't had anything to eat since lunchtime and he was starving.
Gohan scowled into the darkness, locked in the middle of a dilemma. On the one hand, whatever was out there sounded big and dangerous. It probably had claws. Sharp teeth were almost certainly involved. One little kid, alone and mostly unarmed, probably looked like a great midnight snack.
On the other hand, that little kid was really getting hungry.
"What would Daddy do?" he asked the eyes. When images of his father kicking and punching giant scary monsters came to mind, he shook his head. "'Kay. Can't do that." He peered at the eyes again, apparently perplexed, until his entire face suddenly lit up. "Hey! Eyes! What would Mommy do?"
The eyes didn't answer. They didn't run either, which showed just how much they knew about their target. Gohan had never been trained to fight and he didn't have any weapons, but he did have a fire and sticks and rocks. Given the sheer trauma he had managed to inflict on assorted babysitters and preschool teachers, that was more than enough.
Some time later, a hapless dinosaur was going to find itself the victim of an intricately rigged set of booby traps and slingshots. But Gohan decided it didn't need to know that.
Morning found Bulma still laboring over the eyepiece, muttering something incomprehensible about electromagnetic signatures and strangling homicidal aliens with their own hair. Even Roshi gave her a wide berth, and anyone who wanted intact eardrums squeezed into the tiny kitchen for breakfast.
"So what's the plan?" Yamcha asked around a yawn. Puar, who had been perched on his shoulder, squeaked and hung on for dear life.
Kuririn shrugged and fought the urge to yawn himself. "I was gonna take the plane and see if we can track down the Dragon Balls. At least once we figure out what that eyepiece does," he added, glancing in Bulma's direction. She was still grumbling under her breath.
"Huh? What eyepiece?" Cami looked up from her breakfast. The little girl, perched on an empty bit of counter, was probably the only well-rested person in the house.
Yamcha nodded toward her mother. "That one, kiddo. The one you guys found on that alien."
"Oh." Cami sucked on her cereal spoon for a moment, then seemed to lose interest. "Can we go get Gohan after we find all the Dragon Balls?"
Kuririn grimaced. Like Yamcha and Roshi, he had no idea what to tell Cami about her brother. He wanted to get Gohan back just as badly as she did – but he knew what Piccolo was capable of, and there was no way any of them could go up against him in an all-out fight.
Explaining that to Cami didn't seem like a good idea, though. Knowing her, she would wander off and find Piccolo just to see if he was as strong as everyone claimed.
"Here," he said instead, shoving her at the fridge. "Want some more food?"
Cami beamed and set to rummaging, emerging with what looked like half a leftover ham. Dedicated fighter or not, Kuririn wasn't above bribing people in tricky situations – particularly four-year-olds. If it got him a moment's peace, so much the better.
Bulma barged into the kitchen with the eyepiece clutched in one hand, looking much more like her usual smug self. "Ha! While you all were sitting around, I figured this thing out."
Kuririn decided it wasn't in his best interests to point out that she'd only had time to work because Cami had spent half the night snoring in his ear. Instead he moved closer to get a better look at the contraption. "So what's it scan for?"
"Ki!" Bulma crowed. She fitted the eyepiece over her temple and touched the activation switch. Instantly green letters and numbers began to crawl across the screen – too small for Kuririn to read at that distance, but distinct enough for him to know that she had somehow managed to sort out the alphabet.
"What's it need to do that for?" Cami asked around a mouthful of ham. "You don't need a buncha machines to find a ki."
"But these aliens might not know that," Kuririn said slowly, a grin spreading across his face. He wasn't about to complain about any weaknesses they could exploit. "Bulma, are you sure that's what this thing does?"
His answer was an indelicate snort. "Of course I'm sure. Look." She tilted her head toward Roshi and touched the side of the eyepiece again. "See? This tells me he has a ki level of 139, and you've got – " She turned toward him and tapped the contraption again. "Ah, here we go. 206."
"You're stronger than Master Roshi," Cami said, sticking her tongue out at the Turtle Hermit. Kuririn decided to keep any comments to himself.
"What kind of range does it have?" Yamcha asked.
Bulma shrugged. "I'm not sure yet. It's picking up someone a long way away with a reading of 329, so as far as I know, the range is infinite."
"That's gotta be Piccolo," Kuririn muttered. "Which direction is that ki in?"
Bulma and Cami pointed simultaneously. "That's where Gohan is too," Cami added, giving all of them a reproachful look. "I can find Gohan and we can tell were the guy who took him is with that thing – and if everybody hangs on to me, we can ride on Kito'un." She folded her arms and tapped her foot, like a miniature version of her mother. "We've gotta rescue him!"
"We need to get the Dragon Balls first," Roshi said, ignoring Cami's glare. "Then we'll see if we ought to rescue your brother."
"Hmm?" Bulma tapped her daughter on the head to get her attention, although she was frowning at the window. "There's something coming this way. Its ki rating is only 54, but it's moving pretty fast." She glanced over her shoulder at Roshi. "I think someone else is flying toward the island."
That someone turned out to be fairly familiar, at least to Bulma. As the entire household piled out onto the sand, the sound of a poorly repaired hoverbike grew louder and louder. A speck appeared in the distance, closing fast, until it turned sharply and braked right at the shoreline, spraying everyone with wet sand and surf.
"Huh?" Cami tugged on Bulma's arm. "I think that's the lady we saw by the spaceship."
It was indeed the same woman, although she had one arm in a sling and was dressed in a blue gi instead of a uniform. Her black hair hung in a long, thick braid down her back. There was a small pack slung over her good shoulder, and a sword and what looked like a giant axe were strapped to either side of her rundown bike.
When she spotted Bulma and Cami, she stopped and blinked at them. "What are you doing here?"
"What're you doing here?" Cami shot back.
"I'm here to train with Master Roshi." The woman shifted her pack and looked around the small island. A hint of uncertainty crept into her voice. "This is the right place, isn't it? I haven't seen him in years."
"It is indeed," Roshi said as he worked his way to the front of the crowd. "And who might you be?"
The woman drew herself up to her full height, such as it was. "I'm Chichi Mau. You trained my father, the Ox-King."
"The Ox-King?" Yamcha didn't look terribly pleased with that news. No doubt he was also remembering their encounter with the giant and the fiery mountain – and now that she knew what to look for, this woman did look a lot like the tiny, helmeted girl Bulma had last seen years ago.
If Chichi remembered either of them, she didn't give any sign. All of her attention was on Roshi. "I know you don't take a lot of students, but I need to train with you anyway."
The Turtle Hermit seemed to consider her. She certainly didn't look very strong, at least as far as Bulma could tell – and while the eyepiece placed her ki level quite a bit above anyone on the nearest islands, it wasn't anywhere near Roshi's, much less Yamcha's or Kuririn's.
Which was why she wasn't at all surprised when Roshi shook his head. "I don't have time for a new student."
"Then make time," Chichi snapped. "Unless you've got the little boy or that giant green man with you, I'm the only one who knows what happened." She jabbed a finger at Bulma and Cami, who eeped and hid behind her mother. "I saw the whole fight. Ask them!"
Bulma rolled her eyes. "Yes, you were there. We don't have time for arguments. I can talk to you about that later."
Chichi plowed on as if she hadn't spoken. "You saw how much damage that fight caused – and that was with only three fighters. So I figure you'll need all the help you can get." She made a motion as if she wanted to fold her arms and had only belatedly remembered that one of them was still in a sling. "And anyway, I'm not going away until you decide to train me. You're just stuck with me."
"Can't be worse than Launch," Yamcha muttered under his breath. Bulma didn't bother to hide her smirk.
Roshi, however, was considering Chichi carefully. "You saw the fight?"
"That's what I've been saying, isn't it?" Her face lit up, as if she had just spotted an inroad. "How about I tell you what I know, and then we can talk about training? Deal?"
Bulma butted in. "Deal," she said. She wanted to know exactly what had happened to Goku – and if she got to talk to this Chichi sooner instead of later, so much the better. "Come inside. I'm not talking out here."
She didn't miss the way Chichi's face split into a wide, relieved grin. Apparently the younger woman wasn't quite as self-assured as she liked to think. If nothing else, it made Bulma like her a little better.
"That's it, I think." Chichi sat back on her heels, frowning down at the pad of paper open in front of her. There was a simple diagram sketched out on it, with marks and arrows to indicate how Goku and his fellow fighters had moved. It wasn't a terribly good sketch, but Merrick had emphasized quick communication, not artistic ability.
Master Roshi ripped the diagram off the pad and sat back to examine it carefully. This left Chichi under the intense focus of everyone else – three adults, a little girl, a cat, and a pig. If they were trying to put her at ease, this wasn't the way to do it.
"You don't remember anything else?" the blue-haired woman – Bulma – asked after a moment. She had been scribbling down notes on another piece of paper as Chichi had recounted what she remembered of the fight.
Chichi shook her head. "I was in a crater, remember?"
The little girl planted her hands flat on the table and hauled herself up so her face was level with Chichi's. "Did Gohan really blow up the spaceship?"
"Forget the spaceship," the man named Kuririn said. "Did you hear what he did to that alien?"
"That's not too surprising," Bulma said, glancing up from her notes. "Remember how strong Goku was?"
Kuririn nodded. "Yeah, but he was fourteen and he'd been trained some already. Gohan's only four. And he hasn't had any training, right?"
"Oh." Bulma ran a hand over her face. "Great. Just great. At least that explains why Piccolo took him."
Chichi looked from one to the other. "This doesn't bother you? He's four! He shouldn't be training – he should be in school!"
Yamcha gave her a sour look. "Are you gonna go tell Piccolo that?"
"Maybe I will!" she snapped, planting her good hand on her hip. "I can't believe you haven't gone to get him yet. Some fighters you are."
She received a trio of murderous looks, but then someone cleared his throat and the united front of Bulma, Kuririn and Yamcha was distracted.
There was a man standing in the doorway – a short, squat little man with shaggy black hair and a long sword. He gave her an uncomprehending look before surveying the rest of the people in the room. "Tien and Chaotzu aren't here?"
Kuririn completely ignored his question. "Hey, aren't you that guy from Karin Tower?"
The man gave him a withering look. "Of course I am, idiot. Kami wants all of you to meet him at the tower – Tien and Chaotzu too."
This seemed to make as little sense to everyone else as it did to Chichi. "Why does he want us to do that?"
"So he can train you. What else?" The man stopped and frowned directly at Chichi. "Who's that?"
"I'm Master Roshi's new student," Chichi said. If this got her glares from most of the people in the room – well, she could just ignore that.
The man rolled his eyes. "Whatever. You'd better come too, then. Don't take forever." Piece said, he turned and left without another word.
Master Roshi, turned an unreadable stare at Chichi. "Since when are you my student?"
"I'm supposed to come with you people to this tower, aren't I? So I ought to be trained." It wasn't the best argument and Chichi knew it, but she figured desperation entitled her to a little bit of trickery. Merrick's words were still ringing through her head.
She wasn't going to get in the way anymore. Not a year from now. Not ever.
The Turtle Hermit just sighed at her. "We'll talk about this later. Kuririn, Yamcha, you should get going."
Yamcha jerked a thumb in Chichi's direction. "What about her?" "Better bring her with you." He paused for a moment, and something about the expression on his face – some thinning of the mouth or the lines around the eyes – made Chichi wonder just how old he really was. "Kuririn?" he said at last.
Kuririn blinked. "Huh?"
"If her brother could do that kind of damage to this alien untrained…" Master Roshi sighed. "Take Cami. She needs to be trained, too."
It was strange. What stood out in Chichi's memories of that moment wasn't the peculiarity of the situation, nor the fact that she was, in fact, in far over her head. No, what she remembered later was stunned, stricken expression on Bulma's face.