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Serendipity: Shifting the Paradigm

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Paradigm shift; noun
In the field of Philosophy, a radical change in underlying beliefs or theory. Coined by T.S. Kuhn (1922-96), US philosopher of science.

Suggested Listening: The Moody Blues, "Forever Autumn"


Fall was lovely this time of year, mused the lone woman as she half-dragged herself through the forest. Even the constant pain she'd become almost used to couldn't keep her from noticing the carpet of multi-colored leaves beneath her feet, or the curtains and sprays of turning leaves the ancient trees boasted. Ruby red, golden yellow, flame orange, earthy brown…The colors were endless, the shades only limited by the number of leaves.

Pausing at the center of a wide clearing, she took in the sight of the ancient Gingko towering overhead. It had to be hundreds of years old, she reasoned. The thought reminded her of her current plight, though, and a mask of cold indifference fell into place again. She wasn't very old, even by human standards; yet somehow, that ancient behemoth before her was more steadfast and sturdy than she. She'd seen how her family had crumbled under the illness she'd been saddled with, and she had no desire to suffer their fate.

Did that make her a coward…or did it mean simply that she couldn't take the pain anymore?

Taking a seat at the foot of the tree, she gazed solemnly at the burled walnut cane she relied on, now. Smoothing her palm over the silken surface, she took in the impeccable feathering and the ripples of brass and bronze just beneath the surface. The cane's carver was gone, just as she would be, soon.

A lone ant struggled along a root nearby, weighed down by its load and barely able to crawl. A moment later, another ant approached the struggling one, and took up half of its burden. The load lightened, they made the trek to their hill. The woman gazed after them long after they'd vanished, wondering if it would be worth it to try, to find someone to help her along the journey ahead. The wind rustled through the trees overhead, bringing goose bumps to her bare arms.

Steeling her resolve, the woman settled back against the tree's trunk, laying the cherished wooden cane across her lap. Closing her eyes, she thought back to better times, times when life was worth living. Names echoed through her mind in a ceaseless, mournful refrain…Rio, Rowan, Cor, Rick, Randy, Koda, Constanza, Mother….A lone tear fell at the memories that filled her mind…memories of a crumpled station wagon on a rainy night, and a lone necklace lying in a pool of blood on a dusty street.

Was it better to die without trying, or to try, and die regardless? The answer eluded her still.

( * )


Next time: Gohan pushes Piccolo around, Piccolo is surprised, and some light is shed on our mystery woman.

Chapter Text


Suggested Listening: AFI, "The Leaving Song Pt. 2"

First Impressions

"Remind me why I came out here?" Piccolo grumbled as he tailed Gohan, who was slowly flying over a vast forest. "I'm honestly seeing nothing but trees, and sensing nothing but animals."

"That's what's got me worried, Piccolo." Gohan answered seriously, still glancing around below them in worry. "When I ran into you, I had just dropped Goten off at the Briefs' for the weekend, and I'd sensed a small chi on the way that didn't belong in this forest. And now I can't find it..." Gohan's brow was furrowed in worry. He might not know the person, but he'd be devastated if they died on his watch without him being able to do a thing about it. A teenager he might be, but inside, he was still the same scared little kid who fought with all his heart, and failed with the same.

Autumn-clad trees passed by, some old, some young, till they neared a large clearing. Near the center, an ancient ginkgo tree had grown to an enormous size, surrounded by a blanket of its golden, fan-shaped leaves. There, propped against the trunk, rested what appeared to be a person a bit younger than Chi Chi, if that old. The soft breeze filtered through shoulder-length dark brown hair, bronze highlights and burgundy low-lights reflecting the dim sunlight. Dusky, cinnamon hued skin collected shadows in the dappled sunshine of the fading day. Her softly slanted eyes were closed, her head was tilted back, resting on the bark, and her legs lay straight out in front of her, one crossed over the other. She was most likely asleep, Piccolo noted silently. As he followed his student to the ground, though, Piccolo couldn't help but sense that something was off...Something was VERY wrong with the situation.

"Miss?" Gohan asked tentatively. She didn't stir. Just as Gohan was about to panic, Piccolo noticed something lying across her lap, held tightly in her hands.

A cane. A straight walking cane carved of burled walnut, feathered to perfection, with what appeared to be a sturdy, and very heavy-looking steel grip up top.

What had they gotten themselves into?

Gohan noticed the direction of his mentor's stare, and his expression grew grave with understanding. Piccolo melted into the shadows beneath a leaf-laden oak tree, knowing it probably wouldn't go well if the woman awoke and found herself in the company of not only a teenaged boy, but also a big, menacing, green alien. Gohan raised his voice slightly, softening the tone. "Are you all right, Miss?"

"Just get it over with."

Her sudden speech took them by surprise, as did the mild Midwestern twang. Though common in the US, neither had heard it locally. She hadn't opened her eyes, or even flinched. "Pardon?" Gohan asked the strange woman, bewildered. "Get what over with?"

"Take the cane..." she answered calmly, bitterly. "an' crack open my skull." Gohan flinched. She was so angry...but at what? Piccolo wasn't used to such anger coming from women, unless they were like Chi Chi, 18, or Bulma...and something told him she wasn't much like them. He drew a deep breath in through his nose, searching for a telltale trace of pheromones from the woman.

So far he'd been able to keep quiet the peculiar talent that helped him read people so easily; Dende was the only soul who knew, as he'd recognized the signs on his own. The young Kami told him that the ability to read emotions by scent wasn't unheard of among Namekians, though he'd never heard of one as young as Piccolo developing the talent. Fortunately, Dende agreed to keep it quiet; something told Piccolo that if word got out, the local law enforcement would start tailing him like crazy, and if Piccolo valued anything, it was being left in peace.

"Why would I do that?" Gohan asked the woman, the shock wearing off. "I'm here to—"

"—To help me, whatever." Her dark eyes finally opened, and focused on Gohan. She hadn't noticed him skulking in the shadows yet. Halle-Frickin-luiah. "Trust me, you WILL be helpin' me...You'll be savin' me from a life of endless, increasin' pain, and a lonely, agonizin' death. You'll be doin' it 'cause I've ASKED ya to," she sighed, her shoulders slumping slightly.

Gohan stood there, dumbfounded, blinking. Piccolo's expression grew grim. Despite being downwind, he caught not a single whiff that betrayed any emotion other than anger. He did, however, catch the scent of fresh aloe, coffee breath, and the sweet, warm fragrance of vanilla. Something was off with that woman...and whatever it was, it wasn't good. Maybe seeing the son of the Demon King with her own eyes would elicit a reaction, he thought. Silent as the shadows he left, Piccolo stepped into a shaft of sunlight, his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes narrowed in annoyance.

"We're not going to kill you." Gohan startled at his mentor's sudden speech, and looked back at him. "The Briefs can deal with her, Kid. She's not our problem." The woman looked straight at him now, blinking once. So, she knew he was there, after all. For some reason, though, her earth brown eyes showed no surprise—no emotion at all, really—and her scent didn't change a note. The acrid stink of fear was completely absent, though he was well downwind of her.

"That's what I'm tryin' to fix." Her voice was soft, almost forlorn as she looked to a nearby anthill and the tiny crumbs of material rustling as the ants moved around inside. Piccolo's ears perked slightly, to catch what she'd spoken almost to herself.

"What do you mean?" he asked lowly, narrowing his eyes at her. Something was definitely not right.

"I'm already a problem for anyone who gets involved with me, in any fashion…Family, friends, even strangers. I'm a problem what should be corrected...and the only way to correct the problem is to remove me from the equation. 'S the only way it'll work..." She trailed off. Gohan turned to his friend, seemingly horrified that anyone should think of themselves in such a fashion. Piccolo snorted in annoyance.

"Well, whatever you are, we're not killing you." The woman turned to him without decipherable emotion in her empty brown eyes. Piccolo forced back the thought that entered his head at the sight, and attempted a glare. "You're coming with us." The woman stared at him with her empty soulless eyes for a moment longer, then shrugged, and lifted her cane, letting it find its footing in a crook created by two roots. Piccolo turned in the direction of Capsule Corps, looking off into the now cloudy sky. The sun would be setting soon. They had to hurry to deal with that woman, and Gohan had to hurry home, or Chi Chi probably take another whack at killing the Demon King's heir.

She never succeeded in even bruising him, of course, but it was irritating nonetheless…especially since he'd never be able to just shrug it off without taking his frustration out on Egypt's pyramids again…and as much enjoyment he got from freaking out the locals by stacking them on top of each other before he left, they couldn't handle too much more than what he'd already put them through training for the Saiyans' arrival. Of course, if he tried preventing the housewife from attacking, or even remotely defended himself, she'd get hurt…Then, Goku would be after his head. Again. God almighty, he was getting a headache just thinking about it, he realized with a scowl. Sometimes humans just weren't worth the trouble they caused.

Piccolo glanced back upon hearing a gasp of pain. The woman had made it from the ground to a somewhat standing position, and was now leaning stiffly on the trunk of the tree with her eyes clenched shut and her teeth gritted, her breath coming in gasps and pants.

"Miss? Are you all right?" Gohan asked fearfully. A tear began forming in the corner of one eye as she staggered to the ground. She fairly collapsed onto her side, panting in the dry grass. "Miss?!"

"S...Spasm..." she bit out, fighting the urge to curl up into a fetal position. It never helped anything…and it was just plain humiliating to be cowed by the pain like that. She forced her arm back through labored breathing, tugging her dark brown shirt up and placing her hand over a small area on her lower back, toward the middle. "It'll...pass...MIERDA!" she swore, her silent endurance of the pain ending. Her body curled into a quivering ball despite all her attempts to resist the degrading posture.

"Wait...I may be able to help you, Miss." Gohan said gently, moving to crouch behind her. He carefully singed the grass under his palm with a controlled energy burst, and held his palm in the charred remains, warming the skin and muscles. "Where is the pain?"

"D…Don't….bother…" Gohan intuitively tugged her hand away from her back with his cooler one, eyeing the spastic muscle she'd been covering.

"This'll hurt a little, but it will help." he soothed, gently moving his warmed palm from the cinders to her back. Her breath caught, a scream dying in her throat, and that rogue tear threatened to fall as the heat relaxed the muscles. Piccolo watched silently, as her agony slowly faded to pain, and finally, a dull ache. When her breathing regulated again, she tugged her shirt back in place, and began the torturous process of dragging herself to her feet. Her cheek, nearly anointed with a tear only a moment before, was dry. Her eyes showed no sign of their previously watery state. Gohan stood quickly, offering her a hand up.

"Thank you," she admitted quietly, forgoing his help up and using her cane to push off. Her tone showed embarrassment as she tried to reassure him. "You didn't need to do that. They usually just run their course in about a couple minutes when they're that bad. You didn't have to help me." Like Hell, he hadn't, Piccolo thought with a growl, quickly becoming irritated with the woman. She was rude and stubborn…probably proud, too…Never a good combination.

"Are you done, yet?" Piccolo asked, his low voice revealing his irritation at her. Gohan turned back to the young woman with an empathetic smile.

"If you don't mind my carrying you, we can get there pretty quickly."

"My legs ain't broke," she retorted with a glare, limping a few steps. "I can still walk."

"We can see that," Piccolo dismissed bluntly. "We'll get there faster if you don't." Gohan gazed curiously at the glaring contest the two adults were having. Something was up...and he had a vague idea of what it was. It was about time, too, he thought in amusement.

"Actually, come to think of it," he smiled sheepishly at his mentor, glancing pointedly at the darkening horizon. "I've gotta bunch of homework waitin' at home… I'd better go straight there. Can you carry her to Bulma's?" Piccolo scowled at his student, and snorted slightly. Manipulative little punk. He was up to something; Piccolo could practically see the gears working in the boy's head. He approached her, fuming all the way.

"Ma'am, he's going to have to pick you up, okay? If you start hurting, please let him know. Be gentle with her, Piccolo-san,"  Gohan added under his breath, knowing Piccolo would hear him loud and clear. Piccolo huffed, resisting the urge to just throw her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She grimaced as he lifted her, and clutched her cane to her chest, fighting the pain. On the inside, Piccolo was pleased. He could tell she was in pain, and had been in pain since before they arrived, but only the muscle spasm had made her audibly acknowledge it. Even when he picked her up more roughly than he probably should have, she hadn't so much as whimpered. Of course, he'd been practically dismembered before without a single tear…humans were so WEAK.

"Hang on, Ma'am." Gohan grinned, disbelief registering on the woman's face as they lifted off. Rising up toward the clouds, they caught the updraft and took off toward the western edge of the forest. A brief flicker of emotion shone in the woman's dark brown eyes as they passed through a low-lying cloud tinged pink, orange, and silver from the setting sun. In his peripheral vision, Piccolo saw her eyes start to glisten; he silently, begrudgingly prepared himself for a show of sappy tears. Surprisingly, though, those eyes steeled themselves, and every emotion was shuttered safely inside, hidden from prying eyes.

No…she hadn't hidden those emotions he realized grimly, seeing her apathetic mask back in place. She hadn't hidden her emotions at all. She'd beaten them back down...suppressed them to the point of feeling nothing, and revealing nothing…and she'd done it all with an unsettling ease. She was no novice at smothering her ability to feel. He could tell, plain and clear, as though it were scripted across her brow in bright neon lettering.

Despite his discomfort at the expected emotional, teary response to what had to be a wondrous sight to an earthbound human flying for the first time, that emotionless, apathetic gaze made him uneasy…Very uneasy. Humans were emotional creatures by nature—especially the women—and his carefully stoic demeanor was usually met with discomfort and fear. The vast majority of humans feared anything that was different from themselves, or not to their understanding. Yet when he came into the light and approached her without the comforting cloak of shadows hiding his inhumanity from her, she'd shown no shock, fear, or any sign of the usual spazz attack that most people had when they saw him for the first time. It was unreal….There's no way she could have accepted him at first sight…absolutely no freaking way.

There had to be something wrong with that woman…Something was dreadfully wrong.

The two fighters paused in their flight, having reached a good altitude to travel at. The Sons' home was in the exact opposite direction they had to take that woman. "I'll see you tomorrow after school, 'kay, Piccolo?" he grinned. Piccolo simply nodded in affirmation. That boy would have some explaining to do tomorrow…and Piccolo intended to pound some sense into him. This whole situation was simply absurd. Piccolo did not help lost women roaming in the wood. Once had been enough.

While he was still very young, before his showdown with Goku at the Martial Arts tournament, he'd been fighting his father's influence, and trying to find some reason to spare the human race. He hadn't been born with the dark heart of his sire, after all, and even the memories imprinted from his father suggested that humankind could not be all bad. Then he'd found that group of rough characters in pursuit of a stranded motorist, and he'd come to her aid. With them knocked unconscious and no longer a threat, he'd expected her to thank him for saving her. The pepper spray the shrieking woman had doused his eyes with wasn't quite the response he'd expected. Piccolo fought the urge to rub at his eyes…They burned just thinking about it.

"Miss?" Gohan's voice broke Piccolo from his momentary reverie. "We'll come by to check on you tomorrow, if you don't mind." An urge to clobber the boy hit the Namek, twisting his expression into a grimace.

'SHUT UP!' he growled telepathically, warning the kid of his impending demise if he didn't.

"You don't have to," his passenger answered dryly. "Surely you've got better things to do." Piccolo stared at the woman, stunned that she'd just shot the kid down with no remorse. Was she as irritated at him as he was?

"Ah, nonsense," Gohan replied cheerfully. "I got nothin' better to do tomorrow…no school tomorrow!" Gohan turned to take off, but turned back, remembering something. "Hey…we never got your name! Mine's Gohan, and this is Piccolo."

She just stared at him, apathy rolling off of her like mist. She was retreating into herself again. Piccolo could see it as though she'd drawn curtains over her eyes. Seeing that Gohan wasn't moving to leave, she begrudgingly responded. "It's gettin' dark; you'd better get home." Gohan blinked a few times, then smiled wryly, and nodded.

"Well, whatever your name is, 'bye. See you tomorrow." Nothing more was said as he took off for the road to his parents' cabin. Sadness seemed to bleed into the woman's eyes, as she watched him go, and Piccolo could have sworn he heard her sigh. It took longer than before, but her emotionless mask fell back into place as Piccolo resumed his flight to West City.

"You needn't have been rude." Piccolo remarked lowly, keeping one eye on her face, still facing the horizon. "He's just a boy."

"'Just a boy?'" she repeated dryly. "Don't be absurd. He's young, yes, but he's no child—something stole that from him." As her thoughts turned inward, she never noticed Piccolo's reaction to what she'd said—or rather, the knowledge she shouldn't have had. "It's easy enough to not think about strangers you've never met; once you've met them, and know them, it becomes increasingly difficult to let them go. He's kindhearted and a good soul; letting him any closer would be cruel." Her eyes were weary, and he thought he could see pain in their depths. She shivered a bit from the rapidly chilling air, and unconsciously leaned into Piccolo's neck for warmth.

Piccolo silently considered her words as they lifted higher above West City, approaching Capsule Corp as the sun sunk below the horizon. Her words left a sour feeling in his stomach, as did the emptiness of her voice. He knew that even when he left Capsule Corp, she'd still follow him, if only in his thoughts. Her empty eyes would stare back when he closed his, and her dark words would echo in his mind during meditation. He hated someone having so much control over him, especially someone he didn't even know; it was enough to turn his stomach.

Too bad he couldn't blame the stomachache on Chi Chi's cooking this time.



( * )


Next time, Bulma's on the case, Piccolo's antagonistic, Vegeta gets a shock, and our mystery woman opens up.

Chapter Text


Suggested listening: AFI "This Time Imperfect," Relient K "Who I Am Hates Who I've Been"


Bulma squeaked in surprise on twisting to turn on her soldering iron and seeing a very grim Piccolo standing in the open door of her lab about to knock. Something grave must have happened, she realized…He never sought her out, even if the planet was being invaded again! He always suckered one of their friends into playing messenger instead! She swiveled her chair around to face him fully, tilting her head in concern.

"Come on in, Piccolo…What's going on?" He tilted his head in the direction of the door. She warily nodded. He closed it and leaned against the wall with his arms crossed. He cut to the chase, avoiding her inquisitive eyes.

"I met Gohan earlier — He felt like playing hero." Bulma smirked; that sounded like Gohan, alright. "The woman seems uninjured, but I suspect otherwise. Before we left, she collapsed from a spasm in her back. When it passed, I realized how weak she was. She carries a cane." His brow furrowed. "She can barely walk. She has not explained what ails her, but something's crippled her." Bulma arched one immaculate blue eyebrow and waited expectantly. He didn't continue.

"So…Why the grim expression? We'll get her to a hospital or something, and she'll get help. Big deal."

"That's not all…It's…There's something wrong with the woman." He grew increasingly agitated. "Her words make no sense…her eyes make no sense…it's like she's not even there! Gohan insisted we help her, but she blew him off completely…She's got her emotions on such a tight chain I couldn't discern them!" he finished exasperatedly.

On the one hand, Bulma was shocked. While she hadn't exactly had many conversations with Piccolo that didn't involve insults and yelling, or at least bleeding, it had been years since she'd heard him say so many words in one shot! She'd never seen him so confused or disturbed, either. On the other hand, she felt terrible for the mystery woman. She had a hunch about what was going on.

"How about I talk to her, hm?" Bulma offered carefully. "She might be more receptive to talking about it with — no offense meant — one of her own species." To her surprise, he didn't look offended, at all. He looked…flabbergasted.

"She's not afraid of me," he answered slowly, as though questioning her intelligence and his own. Bulma was taken aback; she'd seen how people tended to freak out when they ran into Piccolo. Of course, she couldn't really blame them; he was the spitting image of his father, Demon King Piccolo. "She's showed no signs of fear or anxiety — nothing but irritation!" Bulma considered his words silently, wondering what could cause such a lack of emotion in a person. Unable to think of even one viable possibility, she resolved to meet the woman, if only to gather more information on her. Abandoning her project temporarily, she led Piccolo out of the lab, musing over the tension she detected behind his words.

They found the woman sitting pensively on a bench glider in the garden, where she'd been led by Bulma's mother, Bunny. Rocking slowly, she watched the koi and goldfish glide around the large multi-level pond in front of her. Her weary eyes focused on the largest of the many waterfalls, she let the sounds of the water soothe her restless mind. When Bulma's sneaker displaced a pile of landscaping pebbles, though, her face went cautiously blank. She didn't even make eye contact with the heiress or the man who'd brought her here; ignoring them was easier.

"Hey, there," Bulma greeted in a friendly tone. "Bulma Briefs. Nice to meet you." The barest hint of surprise touched the silent woman's face for but a moment before being swallowed up by her façade. "What's your name?" She sighed a long-suffering sigh, slumping back into the glider as Piccolo settled down to meditate beside a flower bed full of roses. Even as he levitated above the grass, eyes closed in relaxation, his senses were focused intently on the two women upwind of him.

"What's it matter?" the woman almost groused in reply to Bulma's question. "You can' help me, either, so why bother?" Though taken aback by the woman's accent, Bulma kept her expression neutral and her tone calm, her eyes trained on the fish pond as well.

"You never know," she answered casually. "Sometimes we can get the most help from those we least expect it of; I can personally attest to that, as can many of my friends and family." The woman remained silent. "Besides…even if I can't help you, what could it hurt to try? It's worth a shot, right?" Bulma waited patiently as the strange woman mulled over her words, her brown eyes staring through the fish pond. Memories of struggling ants and golden fans echoed through her mind's eye, warring with the bleak emptiness that had smothered everything in its path. Finally, she sighed loudly, slumping against the back of the glider.

"Whatever," the woman answered emotionlessly. "You wanna hear, you'll hear; jus' don't go 'spectin' sunshine, rainbows, and fuzzy kitten tea parties." Bulma stifled her amusement but smirked at hearing a snort from the Namekian in her roses. Anyone who ever doubted Piccolo had a sense of humor clearly underestimated his appreciation for sarcasm.

"Death's a funny thing," the woman stated off-handedly. "For those who lose someone, their world is shaken to bits, and never truly recovers; for those who're taken, though…" she sighed deeply. "their suffering's over. The illness, the pain, the stress and hurt from daily life, it's all over. Death cures all woes, but for the ones it causes, and even those will be finally cured when that person, too, meets their end."

"So is death what you want?" Bulma prodded once the woman had fallen silent. "Are you sure of that? I live with a cantankerous Saiyan who might be willing to oblige, but he might get cranky if you back down after asking him to kill you." Piccolo's shoulders tensed up in anger, as he began to yet again imagine killing the blue haired maniac in as many creative ways as possible. What was she thinking?! She had absolutely no tact and no idea what she was doing! Why had he brought that woman to her, instead of just leaving her in the forest?! Oh, right. Gohan. Gohan was going to get his ass handed to him when they sparred tomorrow.

"If I die or if I don't, it don' matter," the woman answered quietly; Piccolo focused deeply on what she was saying. Her scent had finally changed - he could finally detect pheromones, though they were still weak. The breeze brought a scent of sadness and pain, as well as the perfumes of vanilla and aloe. Along with stale coffee, the two fragrances had filled his lungs on the way from the clearing to Capsule Corp, and he was pretty sure it would take weeks to get them out of his clothes.

"Well, it's your decision," Bulma replied cautiously. "Just remember that whatever's got you down won't always be there." The woman steeled her expression, airs of anger wafting toward Piccolo again.

"Oh, it'll be there alright." She scowled at the gravel. "It'll jus' keep gettin' worse 'til the day it kills me." She heaved a sigh. "I'd just rather not be the' youngest bedbound in the local RCF when I go. I don't wanna live just so I can die young, gnarled and crippled to the extent of needin' oxygen and an IV drip 24/7. I don't wanna be reduced to sponge-baths, surgeries, and bein' unable to even scratch my own ass when it itches." Bulma winced inwardly at the crass description. It appeared the woman was getting this list of dreads from somewhere…or someone…. All the bitterness left the woman's face and voice, and Piccolo noticed her scent change again. Fear and…hope? How did that work? He lowered his head as in thought, parting his eyelids just enough to see the traces of emotion flitting across her face and through her eyes.

"I guess…I wanna live…" she murmured softly, solemnly. "…but not past the point of havin' no reason to live."

Bulma couldn't help staring at the dusky-skinned woman before her. What she'd said made perfect sense to her…and she couldn't have put it better herself. While Bulma mulled that over, the woman threw a quick glance at her, focusing her attention again on the waterfall's relaxing cascade.

"Sierra." Bulma blinked in surprise at the woman's suddenly soft tone.

"Huh?" the brunette relaxed into the glider a little, bringing her arm up to rest along the back.

"You asked my name earlier…It's Sierra. Sierra Daiyu Stone." Piccolo marveled at the change that had come over the woman…Sierra. It was an unusual name, and one he was not familiar with; it had a slightly elegant sound to it, as well, and he wondered about its origin.

"That's a beautiful name…" Bulma smiled. "It really fits you. I'm guessing you're not from around here?"

"Well…not really," she admitted. "'s a long story…an' I'll bet borin'."

"Try me," Bulma replied sincerely. Sierra settled in a little, tossing her layered hair back over her shoulder where it belonged.

"My mother was from the States…Missour-uh, in fact. Some one-horse town where everyone shares the chicken." Piccolo silently smirked at the description. She had an odd sense of humor, that one. "Unfortunately, it's right smack dab in the middle of Tornado Alley…but then again, nearly a third of the country's in the Alley. You knew it'd be a clear day if they blew the sirens on Monday without eminent threat. The testin' got real old, real fast…" she trailed off, then shook her head to clear it…of what, Piccolo had no idea, but her eyes were becoming slightly pained again. "Mum's father was a Hispanic farm worker…we never found anything about her ma's heritage. M' dad was from this part of the world, though…Chinese mom and Japanese dad." Piccolo listened closely; Bulma hesitated, but finally asked,

"Are…they…?" Sierra was silent a moment, trying to collect herself.

"Gone. They're both gone. Been so for a while now."

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to…."

"Started, so might as well finish," Sierra responded quietly. "They'd divorced while my sisters and I were still in school. We went home to Missour-uh with Ma, an' Dad stayed where his remainin' family was: here. We weren't able to visit much, but the three of us ended up settling here." Sierra's voice cracked slightly, pain filling her eyes. "This past May, Ma finally agreed to come visit…She waited too long." Her eyes glistened with tears. "A high-end F-4 took most of the town with it, the day before she was s'posed to catch her plane. She didn' make it." The blue haired heiress felt like pulling the poor woman into a hug…It had to have been a nightmare to go through that, and it obviously still hurt to think about it. Still, she refrained, knowing it mightn't be a welcome gesture. "As for Dad, he was killed in a car wreck on his way home from work this January…Couple'a drunken punks broadsided him when they ran a stoplight." Sierra's face hardened in anger, her unshed tears drying up. "They walked into their jail cells afterward, completely uninjured. Cor and I had to identify our father's body that night; they only got a year sentence, with parole."

Sierra collected herself. "Anyway, Ma and Dad wanted our names to reflect their different backgrounds. Sierra's Spanish…Daiyu's Chinese…flipped 'n roughly translated, they mean 'Black Jade Mountains.' Ma always said they'd named me right, an' not only because they found out Rio and I were on the way during their honeymoon…" Sierra's lips curled into a faint smirk, and she turned laughing eyes to Bulma. "…Dad wanted to name me after one'a Hawaii's volcanoes." Bulma giggled at that.

Unnoticed by the other two, Piccolo mused over her words. The name fit her, he mused begrudgingly. Black Jade was a rare precious mineral…almost as rare as someone who didn't fear him at first sight. As for the second part, she'd seemed completely at ease in the forest, unafraid of her surroundings. Like the mountains, hewn from years and years of erosion into strong, spectacular peaks, she'd obviously been shaped into who she was by the ups and downs of life…Strong and solitary, like the mountains; rare and valuable, like Black Jade. Of course, he thought grimly, he'd not seen her actually angry yet; for all he knew, she might well be explosive like a volcano.

'Hopefully, I'll never find out either way;' with a final mental grumble, he turned his senses back to the blue-haired harpy and the empty-eyed woman he'd brought to her.

 ( * )


"No." Sierra's voice, though still rather flat, startled Bulma. A while ago, she'd suggested they examine the newest flower bed her mother had planted and continued their chat as they walked. The nursery clerk had helped Bunny pick out only 'plants from southern America,' and Bulma was curious of the validity of the statement. Her mother had strange hobbies - hence, the flower beds labeled by country and region - and was quite gullible.

"No?" she questioned, unaware of Piccolo's silent approach. "But you have nowhere to go, nowhere to live!"

"I'm not moving in, Ms. Briefs. That's final."


"Goddammit, Lady!" she snapped back, a startling amount of anger visible in her eyes. "I don' need yer pity, I don' need yer handouts, an' I sure as hell don' need yer help!"

"I never took you for a coward, woman." Piccolo's deep voice rumbled at her shoulder. Though she didn't startle, she turned too quickly, bringing on a spasm in her lower back. He scowled as she stumbled to the nearest bench.

"I'm not...a coward!" she ground out, struggling to conceal the pain and fear. "You have no idea...what I've lived through! No idea...what I've seen! You-"

"You won't accept assistance," he snarled back, all too aware that her pain had finally surfaced in her expression. "Instead of making an effort you're just giving up! Rolling on your back like a cowering mutt, hoping life won't tear you to pieces!"

To his surprise, Sierra's eyes opened in a disdainful, dubious glare; her right hand clenched painfully at the middle of her cane. "Did you, just call me, a bitch?" she asked through gritted teeth, her words surprisingly free of her Midwestern twang.

"If the shoe fits, Woman," he growled back.

Bulma squawked in surprise as the brunette launched herself from the bench, the head of her cane cracking Piccolo in the jaw.

"Oh, Crap," Bulma muttered, backing away as Piccolo turned furious black eyes on Sierra. She hadn't hit him hard enough to do any damage, or even bruise, but the blow ticked him off royally. Bulma darted back inside, hollering for Vegeta.

"No me jodas!" Sierra spat; though he didn't know the language she'd slipped into, Kami's memories proved useful once more. Don't fuck with me? Feh...he was just getting started. "I am NO ONE'S bitch, you-"

"If you're no one's bitch," he interrupted snidely, crossing his arms menacingly. "then prove it! Make an effort! Don't just roll onto your back and cry for Mama!" She flinched, pain filling her eyes before she shut down completely.

"My mother is dead," she answered, her eyes dull and her voice almost monotone from suppressing her emotions. "She wouldn't come even if I bled on her headstone. Whatever I am, I'm not foolish enough to ask for help that won't arrive." Piccolo swore internally; she'd finally shown emotion - fury, sadness, and even a little fear - but she'd shut back down as though he'd never angered her in the first place.

When Bulma skidded into the garden a moment later, Vegeta in tow, Sierra sat before the garden Bulma had mentioned, silently studying a tall purple Echinacea. Piccolo scowled from a distance, seemingly dissecting what had just happened. Seeing Vegeta at the doorway, he stalked over.

"What's the matter, Namek," Vegeta asked snidely. "She's not into slugs?"

"Watch out for the cane." Vegeta's incredulous expression was quite comical.

"And here I thought the woman had inhaled too many fumes again," he muttered, earning a glare from his wife. "Is she stupid, suicidal, what?"

"She doesn't strike me as stupid, and she turned down Bulma's offer of suicide by Saiyan." He glanced warily at the silent brunette. "She doesn't fear me. Something's shut her emotions down so tightly she seems to feel nothing."

"What are you asking, Piccolo?" the prince asked, his voice low with warning.

"Just do what you do best," Piccolo smirked back. Vegeta replied with a sadistic grin and stalked away.

"Goku will be hearing about this," Bulma warned lowly.

"WOMAN!" Vegeta bellowed upon reaching Sierra's bench. "Why is there a human female in the garden?! I warned you not to let anyone near that dirt - I haven't finished burying the last intruder!" Sierra didn't even flinch; Bulma bit her tongue. Noting her lack of response, Vegeta swept into her line of view, forcing her chin up to meet his eyes. "Explain yourself while you still have a tongue," he ordered darkly. She met his glare without hesitation, completely unaffected by his bluster.

"Your wife needs to report that nursery to the authorities." Vegeta just stared at her a moment. He'd threatened her with bodily harm and torture, and told her he'd recently disposed of a body in the garden, yet she was cool as a cucumber!

"WHAT?" He finally managed. She rolled her eyes, pointing the tip of her cane at a healthy green shrub overflowing with clusters of tiny yellow, orange, and red flowers.

"Lantana Camara," she answered matter-of-factly. "Native to South an' Central America, registered as a 'Kill on site' invasive in over fifty countries. It poisons and smothers other plants, takes over their habitat, and spreads like wildfire. The Japanese government outlawed its sale last month. The nursery was probably trying to cut its losses by sellin' the stock anyway, an' needs to be reported." Vegeta gaped, struggling to wrap his head around her reaction. "Nice try, by the way…anyone else might'a been fooled."

"Fooled?!" She shifted in her seat, stretching a crick out of her neck.

"Yeah. Fooled. I'd know if you meant me harm, an' ya just wanted to scare me. Name's Sierra. Yours?" She wasn't at all surprised when he simply turned away and retreated back inside, seemingly in a daze. "Dammit," she mumbled. "Maybe I should'a at least pretended to fall for it…His ego's probably castrated, now. Gotta work on that subtlety." She smiled sadly at the memory of the last time her niece came to her for advice.


"So Aunt Dai," the petite redhead chirped with a wide grin. "This guy asked me out — Peter's a couple years older than me, and so far, he seems nice. He's not pushy, he respects my space, and he hasn't tried anything yet, but I'm still not sure. Mind helpin' a sister out?" Sierra chuckled, ruffling her niece's carrot red hair.

"I'm not your sister, Hon, but I'd be glad to help out, so long as you take the advice I give ya. We meetin' him?" Rowan cringed slightly.

"He's coming by to study shortly…I told him Mom wouldn't be home yet, but he didn't want to wait…hence my concern. I gave him YOUR address…" The older woman was about to reply when a quiet knock sounded from the front door; the fine hairs at the nape of her neck shot to attention. She hadn't even seen him yet, and she already knew he was trouble.

Forcing a polite, disarming smile into place, she shuffled to the door; the burly blond jock on the other side was shorter than her and smelled like he'd been marinating in Axe for weeks. Tapping his foot impatiently, he kept glancing around warily, as though searching for witnesses. She solemnly swore he was up to no good. She faked a cough, pasting her usual 'I already love you, please give me gran'babies' grin in place. The kid startled, but spun about with a wide grin in place…a grin that faltered somewhat when he realized she wasn't Rowan.

"Hi there!" she gushed, wrapping him in a motherly hug. "You must be Pete! Rowan's in the guestroom setting up a table." As she turned to lead the way, she didn't see any obvious warning signs from him. Still, she couldn't shake the feeling he was trouble…and that feeling was never wrong. While he spread his books out on the folding table, eyeing the guest bed curiously, she tugged Rowan to the kitchen under the pretense of fetching snacks. Instead, they ducked out into the backyard, keeping an eye on him through the window; he wandered around the room, scrutinizing the furniture and the various knickknacks on the shelves.

"NOT A CHANCE," Sierra scowled, not letting him out of her sight. "He's trouble — any minute now he's gonna start rifling through drawers, an' his intentions toward YOU are even WORSE." As usual, Rowan was clearly relieved; her bright green eyes betrayed no sadness, though she was clearly VERY ANNOYED.

"Dammit," she swore. "This is bullshit…why does EVERYONE just wanna take advantage of me? I'm not hot, I'm not popular, and I'm CERTAINLY not RICH."

"Roe, you're beautiful, well-mannered, and have a good heart." Sierra sighed, hugging Rowan supportively. "Some people just can't stand seeing goodness in the world, if only because they themselves lack it. Don't let them keep you down."

A moment later, Rowan and Sierra slipped back into the guest room. The opening door made no sound, and revealed Peter rummaging through the nightstand drawer; Sierra pointedly cleared her throat. He turned about fearfully, dropping the book he'd found in it — a Bible in a black leather cover with brass closings.

"THOUGHT SO," Sierra scowled at him, blocking the doorway with her full six-foot frame. "If ya hand it all over before the cops get here, I won't press charges." At first, he seemed to consider refusing. He shot a quick glance at Rowan, who held her cellphone aloft; it wasn't worth it. After piling the stolen items on the bedspread, he followed Rowan to the front door. On the way, Sierra shoved the Bible into his hands. "Somethin' tells me you need this more'n I do, Son. Stay away from my niece."

Despite the iron control she kept over her emotions, her gut still twisted in disgust. She and Rowan had made an agreement long ago that anyone the redhead considered dating or hanging out with on a regular basis should meet Sierra at least once. Since then she had yet to find a single suitor who was trustworthy, and half the friends had turned out to be anything but.

The thieves especially annoyed her, seeing as they easily fell for the bait-prescription bottles full of breath mints, convincing costume jewelry, a locked cashbox weighed down with a paperback — their greed blinded them. Most even chucked the offered book at her as they ran; lucky for them, since it was actually hollowed-out and rigged with identifying ink. Handy having an ex-mercenary as a close friend, really.

'Rowan...' Sierra thought soberly. 'Rio...Cor...How can I ever leave you behind? It's better this way, but how can I actually do it?' Her heart ached at the very thought of never seeing her family again, but her health continued to deteriorate and the very thought of becoming a burden to them appalled her. She'd seen their father, his father, and several of his relatives brought to the brink of helplessness by the same illness she now fought...furthermore, none of them had had back injuries due to a stupid horse good for nothing but fertilizer and glue. That psychotic horse, Felipe, had nearly broken her back when he threw her, and the old injury was making everything so much worse.

"Dear God," she cringed as she stared through a patch of golden coreopsis. Like water dumped in a waterlogged planter, it had all finally sunk in, and like an over-watered flower, she felt ready to drown in it. The plan was simple...and she screwed it up, big time. "Auntie Constanza, if you could only see me now..." It had been several years since she'd seen Conz, but she knew without a doubt what her aunt would think of her.

She'd built a happy, successful life...and she threw it all away over a bad diagnosis without even considering treatment. Her home was up for sale and her belongings were in storage. She'd signed over her share of the nursery she operated with Cordelia and quit by mail without explanation, and her family had no idea where she was, or even if she was alive. She could almost hear her favorite aunt reading her the riot act from under her truck. "The HELL'RE you THINKIN', Dai?!" she'd demand harshly as she fought whatever had fallen off the vehicle this time. "Quit fuckin' WHININ' an' grow a pair a'ready! Yer Mama taught ya better, an' ya ain't too big for a whoopin' yet! -hand me the crescent, will ya?"

There was no way around it...She'd really screwed the pooch this time. She absolutely had to fix this, somehow. Resolved, Sierra heaved herself off the bench and ambled toward Bulma, who was apparently trying to convince Vegeta out of something...something about gravity? Weird, but this was the Briefs family after all.

"Miss Bulma?" she greeted hesitantly, trying to force a reassuring smile. "I meant what I said earlier; I don't need pity or handouts...apparently, though," she cringed. "I do need help. If the offer still stands, would you consider a bargain?" Without further ado, Bulma started chattering about ideas and plans, Sierra adding in whatever she could. As they passed the man meditating above the rose bed, though, she paused and cleared her throat. Piccolo hadn't expected her to approach him, nor had he expected the faint traces of pheromones coming from her despite her emotionless expression.

"What?" he answered lowly. Seeming to catch herself in some unexpected thought, she shook her head as though to clear out cobwebs.

"You were right," she said simply. "Thank you." With that, she limped after Bulma, leaving him silently wondering about her sudden change of heart. Either way, he reminded himself as he settled again, she was clearly more trouble than she was worth.


( * )

Next time: Trunks is a little shit, Sierra nearly croaks, Dende has questions, and Piccolo is SO done with all this.

Chapter Text



Suggested Listening: The Alan Parsons Project, "Eye In the Sky"

3: Different

"See-yah-ra!" Bunny Briefs cooed as the younger woman hobbled into the room. "Yeh're up early today—did yeh sleep well?" Sierra knuckled one shadow-hung eye, scanning the kitchen for a familiar appliance.

"Coffee," she rasped as she all-but collapsed at the counter. "Please…tell me you have coffee." Sure enough Bunny bustled to her side with an empty mug and the freshly brewed carafe.

"Din't sleep so well, huh?" the blonde murmured as Sierra sloshed her mug full to the brim with shaky hands. With the drink sweetened and creamed, she took a long, deep gulp and threaded her fingers through her sleep-tangled hair in a belated attempt to appear less savage.

"Just my back," she admitted. "One spasm after another, all friggin' night, nothin' caffeine an' Advil can't fix." Certain the younger woman would be okay, Bunny returned to supervising the trio of robots making breakfast.

"Well," Bunny said in a syrupy sweet chirp that made Sierra want to cringe; morning people always creeped her out. "Hopefully, that new doctuh can help ya with it—my Bulma says he got you on a new medicine that'll help a lot!" Already through her first cup and pouring another, Sierra answered,

"Yeah, it'll take a while to kick in, though…still can't believe I let'er talk me into acceptin' Capsule Corp insurance benefits—I ain't an employee! All I'm doin' is tutorin' some kid but she's payin' fer my treatment like I'm a tenured manager!" She snorted into her coffee, clearly almost sulking though her expression never changed. "Auntie Constanza'd kick my ass over this if she weren't already dead."

"That's just how my Bulma is, Sweetie...She'd nevah think twice about helpin' a friend, an' money means nuthin' to her!" Without warning a small lavender-haired rocket zipped into the room and over to the fridge.

"Hi Gramma!" Trunks greeted excitedly as he dug through the fridge for a box of juice. "Breakfast ready yet? Dad's getting grumpy." Suddenly realizing that his grandmother wasn't the only other person in the kitchen, he turned to stare at Sierra, who stared right back, curious at the boy's odd hair color. Back in the States, people just didn't come with hair in such vibrant unnatural colors; unless it was dyed, everyone had black, brown, blond, red, grey, or white hair. Here in Japan, though, technicolor hair seemed so common no one even batted an eye. She always assumed it was dyed, but this close she could swear that the boy's hair was natural—full of highlights, lowlights, and mid-tones galore—or if not natural, a better dye job than she knew was even possible. HOW could he have been born with PURPLE HAIR?!

Of course, she reminded herself firmly, one of her closest friends was born with grey hair and she herself was brought to Capsule Corp by a flying teenager and temperamental alien the week before. Compared to THAT, freaky hair wasn't even registering on her weird-o-meter.

"Who're YOU?" Trunks demanded, darting to protectively plant himself between her and his protesting grandmother, instantly dropping into a defensive stance. "Why're you in my kitchen?"

"Trunks Briefs!" Bunny reprimanded in what was, for her, a stern voice; it still came across as pretty darn' ditzy, Sierra mused. "Mind yehr mannuhs…This's Sierra, she's a friend of yeh muthuh's! Sheh'll be livin' with us fer a while!" With his worries calmed, he finally realized something crucial: her ki, or rather, lack thereof.

"Pretty weak, aren't ya?" he laughed at Sierra; the brunette arched one heavy eyebrow as his Grandmother objected shrilly.

"No sugar, Sherlock," she retorted dryly. "I'm kinda crippled, ya know—but don't think I can't whack ya into Kingdom Come if need be…this cane's heavier'n it looks."

Later on, over breakfast, Bulma explained to Trunks what had transpired the day before…and revealed that his Arithmetic grades had dropped far too low and they were forced to take drastic measures. Even as the demi-saiyan protested and whined, Sierra sat silently in the garden, staring through a patch of wilting forget-me-nots, deep in thought. Rio, she thought with an aching heart. Rowan…Cor…I'll get my life back under control, but once I do, how can I ever face you again?

"I DON'T need a TUTOR," Trunks pouted at her across the table; unaffected by his dark glower, Sierra stared him down. Finally, he looked away, choosing instead to glare at his Mathematics book like it had been calling him horrible names.

"Is that so," Sierra retorted blandly, pulling a stack of papers from the file Bulma handed her over lunch. "Your grade card says otherwise." Without even a hint of emotion, she laid the most recent grade report on the table between them. Every class had been aced…every class, that is, except Mathematics. Trunks cringed as she proceeded to lay out several more sheets of paper: three more grade reports, notices from his math teacher, even a few tests he'd failed abysmally. "You have excellent marks in everything but Math, Trunks, but it's nothing to be ashamed of—it just means you need a little help with that course.

"It's not my fault!" he whined. "My teacher's a fusty old grandpa—he's so old he forgets what he's saying every few words!" To his surprise, her mask cracked somewhat: she stared back in what was for her blatant shock.

"Oh, dear Lord," she muttered in disbelief. "Don't tell me your teacher's Watanabe Hisashi!" Trunks' dismayed expression was the only answer she needed. She dragged one callused hand down her face with a groaned, "Dios mio. He should'a been replaced decades ago—he was ancient when I was in school an' just as useless—no wonder you're failing his class!" As Sierra muttered under her breath in the strange language she had a tendency to break into, Trunks' insecurities faded away.

"Then…" he hesitated, not really wanting to voice his words. Words obtain power when they're spoken, after all…so long as they remain unspoken, they cannot be confirmed…but they cannot be denied, either. "…I'm not…stupid?" Startled from her one-sided argument with the file folder, Sierra looked up to her new pupil. Though her once-again-blank expression never cracked, her eyes softened.

"Kiddo" she answered firmly. "You are NOT stupid. The dingle-dorks who kept Watanabe-san on payroll despite rampant dementia are the stupid ones; you're just suffering from a pathetically underqualified teacher. A little help, an' you'll be back on top in no time." Finally, his fears eased, Trunks grinned. "So…will ya work with me? I don't have a degree in mathematics or teaching, but I DID graduate with a major in small business…an' that needs LOTS of math classes." Trunks' answer was a cocky grin and his feet thrown up onto the table, his chair tipped back onto two legs precariously.

"Eh, why not. At least I can rub it in Goten's face when my grades improve and his get worse." Sierra said nothing about the obvious rivalry, but yanked his seat back down with one foot, unimpressed with his posturing. As the afternoon wore on, she and Trunks worked out his strengths and weaknesses and figured out what they needed to focus on most. Later that night she put together a lesson plan even as she wondered when her life became so upside down.

She wasn't a teacher—she was a gardener, a botany shop owner, and nowhere near qualified to be teaching kids! At least, she admitted with a wry smile, she had plenty of experience with them from raising Rowan. That night she drifted into a world of dreams, greeted by a temperamental wrench-hurling brunette, a shy woman with black hair and full, dirt-smeared cheeks, and a young redheaded beauty who was once even more troublesome than Trunks.

A week later

"Sierra-san?" Trunks whined.

"No," she replied dryly, not even looking up from the paper she was grading. She knew without looking that the boy was practically dancing in his seat; she also knew that no one's bladder refilled in a matter of three minutes, five times in a row. She was no amateur at dealing with headstrong children—her niece made sure of THAT.

"But I gotta go!" he whimpered, adding in a shiver and extra wiggle for good measure. Thinking she wouldn't see, he glanced outside again; Goten stood on the lawn waving up at him. When he looked back to his tutor, her unimpressed brown eyes stared back dully.

"You don't gotta go," she corrected. "You WANNA go—You wanna go play an' blow off your lessons, even though you promised you'd stick with them." Trunks deflated, glaring through the notebook before him as though willing the figures and formulas scrawled across the paper to spontaneously combust.

"But…but that's not fair," he mumbled putting as much effort into his puppy dog eyes as possible. One dark brown eyebrow arched to the heavens, the only sign of emotion on Sierra's impassive face.

"Life's not fair, Kiddo. The sooner you finish that page, the sooner you can go play. You're only ten problems short—quit pouting and jus' get it over with." Finally, realizing he was accomplishing absolutely Jack spit, returned to his lessons with a loud grumble. When he finally got outside, he swore to himself, he was going to find the biggest, slimiest slug he could and shove it right down her shirt. "Keep pushin', Sport—I'll gladly add another page." She never turned away from the page before her, somehow knowing what he was thinking. How could she do that, he wondered nervously?

By the time he was finished with his lessons, Goten was already back home and Chi-chi insisted he needed to stay home and work on his own lessons. After yet another wonderful fall day wasted on lessons, his path became clear:

Vengeance. It was time for him to become the teacher, and for Sierra-san to be taught a lesson.

Over the next couple weeks, Trunks took every opportunity to test his tutor's apparent 'sixth sense.' Thus far he could never sneak past her, could never hide his intentions from her, and somehow she always knew when he was hiding something or lying. It wasn't just him, either—she consistently recognized the truth behind his father's blustering tantrums and saw right through his mother's excuses when she came to check on his progress.

After two weeks of tests, hits and misses, and cataloged reactions, the truth was clear. Sierra had a strange inhuman ability to sense things she shouldn't be able to…but the briefer the contact, the less she could sense. If someone simply said something and took off, only in her company for a moment, she seemed unable to get a fix on them—her eyes always grew pinched and squinty, and her brow crinkled in confusion.

All that waiting, testing, and scheming led up to this moment, Trunks reminded himself seriously; backing down would mean it was all pointless. Sierra sat in the kitchen at the counter, staring down a cup of coffee, lost in thought. He was due to catch the bus in only a few moments, and his father was napping. Out back, he sensed two familiar chi signatures, the owners clearly engaged in heavy training. Finally, he was ready; he dashed into the kitchen at dizzying speed.

"Sierra-san!" he called out as he snatched his lunch kit off the counter. "Dad needs some water an' towels, can you take'em out to the training room? Don't wanna miss the bus—Thanks, bye!" From the first word to the last he never took so much as a single breath. When he zipped back out the door, he knew Sierra was staring after him in confusion, that confused crinkle in her forehead proof that she couldn't get a read on him. The stage was set—all he had to do was wait for her to spring the trap herself.

Back in the kitchen, Sierra stared after Trunks, bewildered by his odd behavior, but more by what she sensed from him. DECEIT. Why did he want to deceive her? What was he being deceitful about? She had a feeling, but the more she thought about it, the more she knew she would just have to risk it—if Vegeta really did request water and towels and she refused to bring them, it would greatly annoy him. She annoyed him enough as it was, what with her odd ability to see right through him. If Vegeta didn't send Trunks with that message…well, obviously it was a trap, but she couldn't pick up any specifics.

"He's been watching me," she realized aloud, halfway between paranoid and angry. "He's been digging for blind spots this whole time, just to pull one over on me! But why?" Though she was hurt by the boy's willful deceit, she knew there was only one thing to do:

Spring the trap and hope it was merely a childish prank.

"DODGE!" Piccolo shouted at Gohan, increasingly frustrated with his teenage pupil. "Don't just stand there, move your ass!"

"I'm—UH!—trying, Piccolo-san!" Gohan grunted, wildly dancing around the minefield of exploding energy blasts filling the gravity chamber. "It's way harder with—"

"Quit whining and just do it!" the unusually crotchety Namek cut him off, sending another fleet of energy mines into the fray. Gohan responded with a loud 'ACK' and increased his efforts to not wind up a scorch mark. As the duo sparred and argued between explosions, neither noticed a slightly hesitant knocking at the door to the gravity chamber.

"You know," Gohan pointed out with a cheeky grin as he slung a Masenko blast at his sensei. "If you'd just TALK to her, you might not be so GRUMPY." A slash of one clawed green hand rendered the Masenko harmless.

"I am NOT GRUMPY!" Piccolo snapped back. "I'm ALWAYS LIKE THIS!"

"Yeah," Gohan snickered, easily evading the chi blasts his sensei was now wildly flinging at him…missing every time. "So you're not affected at all, huh? Then why're ya missing?" A seldom seen evil grin manifested on Piccolo's face. Gohan flinched, backing away a little. "Uhh…Piccolo…san?"

"Who said I missed?" A feeling of Deja Vu swept over Gohan; in defeat, he glanced upward. Sure enough, every blast that had 'missed' him now hung around him in a blazing golden minefield, all rocketing toward him at breakneck speed.

"Oh, come on!" was all he got out. Wave after wave of energy blasts slammed into his body, exploding in painful bursts. By the time it was all over, he slumped on the tiled floor, almost pouting up at his teacher as his clothing smoked. "You seriously 17'ed me, Piccolo-san? REALLY?"

"You've got a lot to learn, Kid," Piccolo smirked, offering him a hand. "First and foremost—"

Their conversation was cut short by a sudden loud shriek from the chamber door—the OPEN door—where Sierra now sprawled across the tiles on her stomach. At her sides, a pile of towels and a jug of water lay scattered, suggesting her purpose. They never heard the door open, and how could she have gotten so far into the gravity chamber? She should have been plastered to the floor the moment she crossed the threshold, but there she lay a good yard and a half from the door.

"What the—" Gohan darted over to the shrieking woman and glanced outside the door. "There's something greasy all over the steps—she must've slipped! Piccolo-san, we—" The rest of Gohan's frantic ramblings fell on deaf ears; Piccolo watched the frustrating woman intently, stunned.

She was trying to get out on her own; not once did a plea for help cross her lips, even as she screamed in agony at the drastically increased gravity. Even as the damaged muscles in her back froze up and her worn joints creaked and ground, she dug her nails into every available crevice in the tiles, fighting to drag herself back to the door. In between his confusion at her stubbornness and his suspicion at why she was there in the first place, something became very, very clear to him.

Sierra was only a woman—just another puny, helpless human woman—but she had a fighter's spirit.

"PICCOLO!" Gohan shouted, breaking him from his thoughts. "Something's wrong!" The Namekian warrior whipped his head around to the display on the wall, and sure enough, the numbers were steadily, rapidly rising. 300…350…400…450…500! As the numbers climbed higher and higher, even Piccolo and Gohan found themselves collapsing to the tiles, pinned to their knees by the skyrocketing gravity. 600…650…800…They had to do something—Trunks told them about the glitch last week, but also warned that there wasn't really a way to reset the chamber from inside.

Wait…. Piccolo thought frantically. Trunks knew about the glitch because of Vegeta. How would Vegeta shut off the malfunctioning machine? He and Gohan apparently arrived at the same conclusion at the same time; twin Masenko blasts bored through the control panel and the power box by the door with an ungodly squeal of ki on metal.

Just as suddenly as it rose, the gravity plummeted. Over by the doorway, Sierra's adrenaline-fueled strength finally gave out. Shock set in, dulling the pain just the slightest bit. A violent cough burned its way up her throat—a splash of crimson splattered the tiles—the world tipped and turned, leaving her clinging to the floor as though she'd fall to the ceiling. As the world blurred around her, shouts and gruff warnings echoed left and right.

She's bleeding internally! a deep, muddled voice cried as two powerful arms lifted her into a surprisingly gentle hold. Her head lolled, finding a comfortable resting place in a fold of pristine white cloth that smelled of greenery and spring water. Wind blew her hair in her face, blew strands of it through the sticky blood coating her lips and chin. The last thing that registered before her world faded into an ink black void was an impression of worried black eyes and an October blue sky.

Whispers broke the silence first, followed by concerned murmurs. Sierra fought to focus on her surroundings, fought to trudge through the murky blackness back to the light.

What happened?

Someone sent her to the gravity chamber to deliver towels and water…after splashing oil all over the steps. The machinery went haywire and she flew right into the middle of it! She's lucky she didn't hit her head.

LUCKY?! That infernal machine could have KILLED HER! The stubborn woman wouldn't just stay still, no, she HAD to FIGHT IT! She's LUCKY to be ALIVE!

Guys, there's no need for fighting…she's healed and should be waking soon.

As the voices became clearer, a bright blue sky faded into view. She recognized two of the voices—Gohan and Piccolo—but the third she'd never heard before. For the moment she couldn't care less…she hurt all over and felt like she just ran a marathon with three broken limbs and half her vital organs, but she'd never seen such a view of the sky. No buildings to block it out, no power lines or cell towers, there weren't even any trees to be seen…just bright October blue littered with a sea of mackerel scale clouds.

"Miss?" Gohan asked hesitating at her side. "Miss, are you okay?" She stared unblinkingly up at the sky, still not fully aware of the world around her.

"Sierra," a low, graveled voice greeted her; finally back to her senses, she blinked to clear the clouds from her mind and cautiously glanced around her. Gohan crouched beside her, his eyes wet with worry. Piccolo stood nearby, arms crossed and the sun at his back. He really knew how to cut an intimidating presence, she thought dryly, wincing from the sunlight he wasn't completely blocking. Beside her shoulder knelt another person, someone she didn't know.

The bottom dropped out of her stomach as her intuition filled in the blanks; images and phrases whirled through her thoughts in a frenzied dance. Guardian, the impressions sang to her. Healer, Kami, Protector, Defender, Ruler! Finally, they stilled, leaving only one final word to burn in her mind in frightening reverence: Deity.

Her dark brown eyes, full to the brim with fear, slowly drifted to meet the eyes of the unknown person. Dende grinned down at her, clearly excited to meet someone new. "Hi, I'm Dende!" he greeted cheerfully.

Overload. Her eyes rolled up in her head, and she fainted dead away. Somewhat hurt, the still youthful guardian turned to Gohan for answers, but the other teen was bewildered. "What in the world…?" the demi-saiyan mumbled as Dende gently checked Sierra's pulse. "She didn't even so much as blink when she met Piccolo-san, but she met you and fainted." Dende studied her unconscious body silently, searching his memory for answers. On a hunch, he tugged her loose clothing aside, searching her neck, shoulders, and head for something he didn't find. Without even a word of explanation to his bewildered companions, he rolled her over and yanked her shirt up and down in the back, searching there as well.

"No marks," he muttered aloud, resituating her and her clothing. "She's not Elemental…but still…it's like she knew who I am! I heard whispers of thought not my own—how could she have known?"

"Wait, wait, backup," Gohan protested as Piccolo shot Dende a serious frown; the two Nameks communicated silently a moment, one filtering through memories from Kami, the other his own. "Elemental? What's that?" Dende shook his head, staring down at Sierra with a serious expression.

"Explanation will have to wait," he answered, his voice firm. "I have some reading to do—no mere mortal would be capable of what I think she just did. She has secrets, and I fear what they mean for us—all of us." With a rueful smile and parting wave, he took his leave, retreating to the Lookout's massive library. "She'll wake soon, Friends…be cautious of her, she may still be sore."

No sooner had Dende vanished among the dark hallways of the Lookout, Sierra groaned and rolled onto her side in a fetal position. "Oh, My HEAD," she rasped, her usually thick Midwestern twang slightly warped. "Infierno sangrienta…did anyone get the number on that bus?" Gohan and Piccolo exchanged a dubious glance.

"Bus?" Gohan finally asked. "What bus? The gravity room blew up with you in it—there was no bus." With a long stream of grunts, hisses, flinches, and halted movements, she pushed herself into a sitting position.

"I was afraid'a that," she admitted. "So, seeing as I'm no longer having weird dreams about sittin' on clouds an' talkin' to gods, can—" Her sarcastic remark trailed off in horror at the sight before her: a straight shot across the lookout's tiled platform, and Mister Popo watering one of his many gardens. The always cheerful djinn waved at her, smiling in welcome.

'Humans are so fragile,' Piccolo thought darkly, watching her impassive mask fall into place as her emotions were stamped out like guttering flames. 'The slightest change and they lose their minds—the tiniest proof that the world extends beyond their insipid little lives and they need a mental vacation.' How did he ever believe Sierra might be any different?

Later that night, Sierra sat bundled up in a recliner in one of Capsule Corp's parlors, a book laid out in her lap and two quilts bundled up around her. After being nearly killed by scientifically magnified gravity, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey was just what the doctor ordered: simple, humorous, and a reminder that a person's perception can make all the difference. Of course, the letter from her friend Dakota tucked into the cover didn't hurt. Dakota taught her years before that there was more to the world than she could see. After finding herself face to face with a deity, a djinn, and a floating palace in the clouds, to read about Koda mis-timing a pyrotechnics display and singing her hair was NOTHING. The mental image it provoked—perpetually staticky grey hair charred and frizzy with soot and ash—made her shake her head, almost unable to contain her snickers.

About an hour passed with no changes or even movement. Every now and then, she fought the urge to glance over at the green-skinned warrior hovering lotus style in the corner. She was resting, she was safe, so why was he still here when he was clearly annoyed with her? –not that she knew WHY he was annoyed with her….

Glad she could finally relax, she reached for the cup of black tea on the end table but froze in place as a twinge of pain shot up her spine. She eased her arm back to her book almost sulking. If that was the consequence, tea didn't sound too good after all.

Just as a shuffling neared the door, she glanced up expectantly; sure enough, Bulma was hauling Trunks in by the collar. Not a trace of Sierra's amusement reached her blank expression, even as the young boy was plopped down on a footstool before her chair with a rather ridiculous pout. "This had BETTER be good," Bulma demanded of him, furious beyond words. No one spoke, Trunks avoiding all eye-contact, glaring sourly at the carpet. "TRUNKS BRIE—"

"Ms. Briefs?" Sierra interrupted passively. "If I may?" Bulma wrestled with her decision for a moment, then nodded, stepping back. "Trunks, you an' I both know you set me up. You an' I both know your father didn't call me to the 'training room,' that you slathered grease all along the steps I was sent up, an' that I could be seriously hurt."

She fixed him with a serious stare, his eyes finally meeting hers. "You may realize I suspected the trap before I even sprung it—" His eyes widened in disbelief. "—or not. Do you know why I didn't confront you or your mother about it? Why I simply walked right into it, knowing I might get hurt?" He shook his head, finally showing something other than anger. "Because I hoped you would do the right thing—that your conscience would kick in, that you'd confess and warn me instead of standing in the bushes laughing."

"You skipped school?!" Bulma swore; a warning look from Sierra silenced her, and she paced before the couch, fuming.

"Piccolo-san," Sierra asked dully, "You said my injuries were extensive. Would you care to enlighten Trunks just how far this…prank…went?" Sure enough, Piccolo shot Trunks a stern glare.

"Humans are fragile, Kid," he swore. "It's a miracle she's not dead—Dende says she was hemorrhaging internally—she could have bled to death on the inside over your petty grudge." He didn't expect it, Trunks being Vegeta's son and having a major chip on his shoulder for his age, but Piccolo knew the knowledge disturbed him. The boy's eyes widened fearfully, his shoulder's drew tight, and his lip quivered just the slightest bit.

"I…" he protested weakly. "I didn't—! I wouldn't—!" A single sharp look from Sierra silenced him.

"Trunks," she stated lowly, "I am very, very disappointed in you. I believed I was tutoring an intelligent, warm-hearted young man who simply had trouble with one subject. Now, I don't know what to think. Should I trust you now? CAN I trust you?" The moment his eyes watered, Sierra knew her words were having an effect; it wasn't surprising, really, since she'd perfected them on a certain headstrong niece.

"I'm sorry!" Trunks cried, launching himself at her. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry! Puh-Please don't h-hate me!" As he buried himself in her shoulder crying, Bulma met her eyes in stunned disbelief; though her expression never changed, Sierra winked back at his mother over his lavender hair.

'Guilt trip,' she mouthed at the other woman as she rubbed the crying boy's back. 'Never fails.' Bulma rolled her eyes, responding with a 'whatever' gesture. "A'right now," she told Trunks, carefully prying off the death grip he had on her neck. "I'm alright, and I forgive you—you can stop crying." As sobs faded to sniffles, he clambered off of her lap to perch on his footstool again. "You're not getting off scot-free, Kiddo…This all stemmed from hating your lessons, and the punishment fits the crime: from now on, you're to spend an extra hour every day on your lessons, and now you have to study on weekends whether you have homework or not."

"BUT—!" Trunks objected shrilly.

"—And you're to be extra kind and helpful to Sierra-san for the rest of the day, starting with handing her that cup of tea!" Bulma added, heedless of the faint surprise in Sierra's eyes. "She's sick, Trunks, and she hurts all the time from it; this incident might set back her recovery! I'm very, very disappointed in you, and I expected better."

Trunks stared through the floor, torn between two reactions. He was angry about the punishment, angry that his workload was increased, angry that his mother ordered him to practically wait on his tutor hand and foot. On the other hand, he was ashamed—ashamed that he hurt her so badly just for following his mom's orders. She WAS there to help with his lessons, he admitted begrudgingly. A sudden hiss ripped him from his thoughts; the older woman cringed in pain, her shoulders tight from trying to suppress it. Leaning the recliner back clearly triggered a muscle spasm in her back.

"Yes, Mom," Trunks mumbled, avoiding everyone's eyes. "I'll go heat your tea up, Sierra-san." His mother's eyes followed him as he left, surely wondering at his unexpected manners. The thoughts going through his head would floor her. If not for his childish grudge, Sierra wouldn't be hurting right now; if he were truly sorry, which he was, he would accept the punishment without complaint. Firmly, he reminded himself not to make the same mistake again…next time, who knew who would get hurt, and how badly?

Back in the parlor, Bulma bustled over to the recliner but halted in her tracks when every shred of pain abruptly fled Sierra's face. "Do you need something for that?" the heiress asked softly. "I can go get the muscle relaxer Dr. Fleet ordered." Though her face remained blank, the odd woman chuckled under her breath.

"No need…like I said, guilt trip works every time." Piccolo rolled his shuttered eyes; the manipulative woman faked a spasm to remind Trunks of the value of humility?


( * )

Chapter Text


Suggested Listening: The Rasmus "Chill," Linkin Park "What I've Done," Green Day "Still Breathing"

Lessons Learned and Bridges Burned

Any other day of the year, the Lookout was still and serene – an ivory tower above the insanity of the fast-paced world below – but not this day. This day, the marble halls echoed with crashes and non-explicit oaths in a foreign tongue, all emanating from the sanctuary's impressive library.

Over a week ago, Piccolo and Gohan brought a strange woman to the Lookout—a human woman in critical condition from what sounded like a training mishap—and for lack of a better phrase, Dende picked up some very strange vibes from her. Somehow she knew who he was, or, rather, what he was; strange unheard whispers on the very edge of Dende's senses told her what she should never have known. Once Piccolo and Gohan left with the dazed woman in tow Dende threw himself into finding answers. His first hypothesis, that she might be an Elemental, was dashed by the absence of any identifying markings, but apparently only Willow Clan Elementals were marked. After seven full days of increasingly frustrated searching, Dende was no closer to an answer than the day Sierra nearly bled to death at his feet.

Initially, Mister Popo was hesitant to intrude no matter what horrible crashing noises he heard; after all, Dende-Kami was a very busy guardian and surely he had everything under control.* A sudden panicked squawk dashed that belief to bits, though, and the Djinn rushed to his master's rescue. At first, the nervous Namekian felt sure the latest mountain of books was truly about to come crashing down on his head. When nothing happened, he hazarded a wary peek up through his elbow. Several centuries worth of texts – logs and journals kept by many previous Kami of the Lookout – hovered overhead courtesy of his perpetually cheerful assistant. With a sigh of relief, Dende gave him a sheepish wave.

"Thanks, Mister Popo," he greeted as the other effortlessly banished each text back to its original spot without so much as lifting a finger. "I thought I was a goner!"

"You should be more careful, Dende-Kami," Popo admonished cheerfully. Exhausted from his long search, Dende trudged over to his favorite armchair and slumped into the overstuffed cushions, his mind spinning from the fruitless searching. "Something has been troubling you." The young Kami gave the Djinn a weak smile and tugged at his neck sheepishly.

"It's that woman Piccolo-san brought by," he admitted softly. "I can't figure out how she knew me—how could she possibly know me, Mister Popo?" Dende's bare eyebrows pinched tightly together, his dark eyes searching the shelves for any logs or journals he'd missed. "My first thought was elemental—there are people on Earth who are born with extraordinary abilities based in the five elements, and a spirit-based elemental ability would explain what happened…but she's unmarked! I found no evidence of any such markings—no moles, no birthmarks, not even a freckle!" Suddenly his eyes flew wide open. "Wait—she had a mole by her upper lip, didn't she?" Popo gave him a slightly condescending smile and hovered to reach a high shelf Dende hadn't checked yet.

"To every rule," he reminded approaching with a sizable tome, "there are exceptions. Humans, especially, are full of such exceptions. The young lady is not elemental." Dende's shoulders visibly drooped at the statement; if anyone would know, though, it was Mister Popo, the assistant to every Kami who came before Dende. "Perhaps she simply has extra sensory perception? It does occur on occasion."

"ESP?" Dende parroted back in surprise. "I…guess she could…anything's possible, right?"

"When the Human race is involved," Mister Popo affirmed with his trademark grin, "anything is truly possible." Both jumped at a sudden shout outside the Lookout, exchanged a worried glance, and took off to investigate. Piccolo paced the tiles muttering to himself, every now and then glancing sharply over the side to the world below, only to start swearing under his breath anew.

"What's wrong, Piccolo-san?" Dende asked only to receive a venomous snarl back.

"What's wrong?!" Piccolo snapped back as Dende inched away, glancing awkwardly at Popo. "That damn woman's wrong!" As the older Namekian launched into a loud tirade about Sierra's latest misstep—something about throwing her back out by insisting on helping Bulma with groceries—Dende struggled to hold back the smile pulling at his lips. As much as he supposedly detested the human woman, Piccolo sure spent a lot of time complaining about her…and he wasn't normally the sort to waste time on people he despised.

The warrior doth protest too much.

Like so many times before, Sierra found her eyes drawn to the window—or, rather, the inexplicable sudden bursts of movement in the skies outside that window. As she'd met Bulma for coffee on the top floor of Capsule Corps, she couldn't believe that she was seeing anything significant when her eyes caught movement; surely it was only birds.

"Those boys are sure impressive, huh?" Bulma commented knowingly. Sierra's empty brown eyes met hers, seemingly void of any reaction.

"Boys?" the Latina asked in her slight monotone. "Whadda you mean?" The heiress glanced pointedly out the window.

"That's Trunks and Goten training out there. I'm surprised you can keep track of their movement—most of the time, I can't keep up with them for the life of me." Sierra looked back to the window, considering the brief glimpses of movement with a skeptical frown. "It's a lot to get used to, huh?"

"Yeah," she admitted into her coffee. "I've lived here several years now but I'm still gettin' used to the technicolor hair an' flyin' cars…flyin' people an' aliens is pushin' it. 'Til my folks moved to Gingertown, the strangest thing I'd ever seen was Dakota—that pyro was born with grey hair, but she wears it well."

On a lonesome highway at the other end of the continent, a battered grey VW microbus rattled down the road hauling a long moving trailer behind it. In the cab, an off-key voice wailing "Bark at the Moon" suddenly cut off in a loud sneeze. "Ah, dammit," Dakota swore sniffling, her grey eyes leaving the road. For a moment she rooted through the console with only one eye on the road. Wait…didn't she move the tissue box to the glovebox?

A loud blaring horn cut her search short; realizing she'd drifted into the other lane, she swerved back into her own and sent the driver of the SUV a sheepish grin behind her long spiky grey bangs. Perhaps because she had snot-nose, he simply flipped her off and gunned the engine. "Yeah, yeah, go fuck yourself," Dakota grumbled at the unhearing driver and finally locating the tissue box under the front edge of her seat. Of course, she remembered swiping her nose clean, she'd moved them there so she could reach them easier. "Damn Hummer-lover—probably compensating for tiny man-bits." Resolving to put the driver's manners out of her head, she swept her spiky bangs back behind her ears with a manic grin. "All this sneezin's gettin' annoying—people need'a stop talkin'bout how awesome I am when I ain't around t'agree!"

The garden was full of life and beauty, and to anyone else, it would be a calming, cheerful place to relax. Sierra wasn't 'anyone else,' though…instead of relaxing her, it was a glaring reminder of the long list of mistakes she made which led her there.

Rio…Rowan…Cor…their names were evermore on her mind in moments like this, their presence a taunting reminder of her failures. Those women, after all, were her family—the only family she had left—and she shut them out without a backward glance. Now she knew the truth, that she was suffering from depression and struggling under her ever-worsening back problems and joint pain, but it didn't make her feel any less of an idiot. She'd make it up to her family someday—someday they might forgive her for shutting them out and running off—but in the meantime, she needed to at least let them know she was still alive.

The phone buzzed against her ear, a harsh sound amidst the birdsong overhead. Seriously, she thought wryly, only the Briefs family were hardcore enough to import songbirds for an indoor garden. Finally, the ringing ended in a disconnect tone. She pulled back to study the screen in disbelief, that disbelief falling to dread. The botany shop's phone was out? When she still worked there, it never lapsed…surely the shop wasn't closed…was it? Shaking off her worries she speed-dialed another number—the cellphone number of her sister and the co-owner of the shop.

In the otherwise cheerful garden, the somber Latina sat silently, an endlessly ringing phone her only companion.

A fixer-upper outside the outskirts of Ginger Town

When her cell phone began to ring, Cordelia Stone knew for sure it was bad news. After all, she reasoned knuckling one bloodshot blue eye, when you're broke, unemployed, and still dealing with the aftermath of having your uninsured shop go up in flames, all you ever got was bad news. Sweeping her long, curly black hair out of her face, she stared down at the cracked smartphone on the coffee table. It was hard to determine the ID photo between the spider web of lines crisscrossing the screen, but she knew the number by heart.

Sierra. She winced, instinctively backing away from the device. Her older sister Sierra was alive, somehow, and trying to reach her. Perhaps something happened…perhaps she was hurt, lost, even dying and needed help! Perhaps—Cor cut herself off, steeling her nerves.

When Stone Botany Shoppe opened, she and Sierra shared the job equally according to their skills. Sierra managed the finances, hard decisions, advertising and customer service, and Cordelia managed the plant care, stocking, upkeep, and custom floral arrangements. Under their care, the establishment was a success and they were even looking to expand their services. Then Sierra started acting strangely…she couldn't handle physical tasks, she kept throwing out her back, and she started spacing out during the bookkeeping. Worst yet, she forgot to mail in their last quarterly insurance payment and their coverage lapsed without so much as a reminder or warning from the company.

Then, as if everything else wasn't going to pot, she vanished…just stopped showing up to work. A week later, Cor got a letter of resignation from her and a notarized document signing over all shares in the property, business, and any and all future profits. Sierra's twin sister, Susana-Ria, went nearly out of her mind trying to find her twin, and Rio's daughter Rowan was left picking up the pieces.

At first, Cordelia was horrified by Sierra's vanishing act and intent on finding her, dragging her home, and at the very least boxing her ears. When an electrical fire broke out in the shop next to theirs and spread to every building on the block, Cordelia gave up caring. If she was honest with herself, she still didn't care…and that lack of caring should concern her.

At her knee, Ralph Barfallonyou—a rather scruffy German Shepherd-Irish Wolfhound mix—whimpered and pawed at the already worn sofa. "Don't gimme that look," Cor argued as his expressive pointed ears went from flat to upright, to half and half, and started over again. She pointed feebly at the phone, well aware he couldn't comprehend her reasons. "Dai made her choices—she made her bed—I ain't gonna lie in it with'er! She's a big girl, Ralphie, I'm not—"

Without warning, the oversized lapdog leapt up onto the sofa next to her and crawled over her lap, nudging her round cheeks insistently. Just like that, all the wind was sucked out of her sails. Choking up, she wrapped her arms around his neck and cried. "Dai," she whimpered into Ralph's smelly fur. "What'd I do wrong? Why'd you have to leave?"

On the table, the phone finally went to voicemail; on the other end of the line, the broken caller realized yet another truth she shouldn't be able to. Something happened to their shop, and Cordelia was left alone to shoulder the burden. If she ever forgave her, it wouldn't be anytime soon.

He—Hello? Dende startled at the sudden voice—tentative, soft, and incredibly feminine—and glanced every which way to find the speaker. Only when he found himself completely alone in the Lookout's library did he remember the obvious. He was the Earth's (still somewhat new and very overwhelmed) guardian, and unlike on planet Namek, Earth's inhabitants often sought the guidance of their guardian, whether or not they knew just what he was.

Sometimes these people called simply for 'God;' sometimes they specifically asked for 'the kami of Earth' or 'the guardian of Earth.' More often than not, though, those who sought his help were completely oblivious, felt pretty silly for asking for help from a being that may or may not be a flying pile of spaghetti, and only turned to him because they had nowhere else to turn.

Feeling sure this was another such instance, Dende hurried outside to the edge of the Lookout to locate the caller…and, of course, to get a clearer signal. Unfortunately, while a Namekian's ears seemed large enough to receive satellite broadcasts from galaxies away, they were about as helpful in that manner as a tinfoil hat.

Are…are you there…um…Kami-sama? The speaker mumbled to herself, clearly feeling like an imbecile for speaking to thin air, and Dende followed the faint grumbles like an invisible trail of breadcrumbs. It is Kami, right? Mama said I shouldn't call ya Kami, that I should call ya God…but you're not really God, are ya? That'd be just weird as heck…I mean of all the planets you could become God of, ya got stuck with this one—I'd want a refund.

As she rambled on and he searched the masses of souls for hers, Dende found himself vividly picturing the girl calling for him, filling in the blanks with details supplied by his imagination. She was young—probably pre-pubescent—and had big, innocent eyes. He imagined a sweet heart-shaped face framed with soft curly blonde hair tied in bows, and a dainty childish figure clad in some frilly pink dress.

This's stupid, the soul sighed in defeat. I'm wasting my time…you probably can't hear me anyway, even if you're there. At moments like this, Dende loved his job more than anything…after all, part of his job involved bringing hope and comfort to those who cried out for it. With practiced ease, he closed his eyes, reached out to the soul in need, and sent forth a small psychic 'nudge.' That nudge manifested differently with each soul. Some experienced a sudden feeling of comfort and warmth, some felt as though some unseen person had clasped a supportive hand on their shoulder. Reportedly, there were even instances when that 'nudge' manifested instead as unexplained anomalies in their environment—pages turning in a book, unexplained footsteps or whispers, sometimes even the apparition of a lost loved one—but Earthlings loved to talk, and Dende suspected many of these 'occurrences' were exaggerated.

WHA?! He could practically see the cherubic child's wide-eyed expression as she received the sign she needed; he wondered how her version of the psychic comfort manifested. I did NOT have that radio on – an' why the heck did it start playing "Broken Hallelujah?" I mean, if it was a hymn, I'd get that, but that was Leonard Cohen's version—that ain't exactly a good case for divine guidance! Dende gaped down at the world below, speechless. Huh…maybe those reports of bizarre phenomenon weren't so exaggerated. Well, one thing's for sure…if that's your way'a provin' you're there, ya got a weird sense'a humor—I like ya! Oh, how precious…

Without warning, the young guardian's every thought ground to a sudden screeching halt. He finally found the soul calling for him…and she looked nothing like he'd imagined. No chubby-cheeked child, she was nearly a woman—a senior in high school despite her endearing naivety and unfiltered speech—and she looked every bit the adult, if a little too thin and petite. Long, sleek carrot red hair spilled from her high ponytail, side-set spikey bangs brushing thin eyebrows. Big, guileless eyes—greener than grass, almost as green as the guardians verdant skin—stared warily at the radio as though expecting it to suddenly start belting out something even more sarcastic.

As he studied the woman-child kneeling beside her unkempt bed, the history hidden in her soul filled in the blanks. She was a sickly child unexpected to survive infancy, and though she was nearly eighteen, she was still weaker than her peers. Her mother was still a child herself when the precocious redhead was conceived—barely sixteen and in an illicit relationship with a much older man with a long criminal record. The little redhead had a rough start in life and still had it rough…and recently, she found herself with nowhere else to turn.

She was…she was lovely…this was not good. Sweat broke out on Dende's brow as he waited for the redhead to speak again; she didn't disappoint. "Well," she mumbled aloud staring down at the messy sheets of her twin bed with an incredulous expression. "Uh…my name's Rowan…but ya probably already knew that, didn't ya?" Rowan…the name was English in origin, he recalled distantly—maybe a reference to a species of tree? "It's about my aunt…an' my mom…" She shook her head, her shapely face twisted in irritation. "Aw, Hell, to be honest, my whole family's screwed right now."

Tell me, he urged silently, careful to only send her comfort, not insistence. Tell me how I can help you.

"Things haven't been the same since Gram'pa died," Rowan admitted weakly, her eyes downcast. "Then Gra'ma died too…Mom started backsliding again. Usually Aunt Dai's there to pick up the pieces and get Mom back on track…but she's missing." Green eyes watering, Rowan choked up. "Aunt Dai's missing, Kami-sama—we don't even know if she's still alive…an' Auntie Cor's given up entirely…please, we need your help—we need your guidance!"

As if he wasn't already surprised enough by her deceptively mature appearance, Rowan threw him for a loop again; an image of a familiar woman filled his mind, broadcasted to him by the hopes, prayers, and wishes of a loving niece. Rowan's Aunt Dai was the very woman Dende healed not that long ago…Sierra Daiyu Stone. The woman who nearly bled out at his feet was the redhead's missing aunt!

What to do…what to do, what to do! Dende found himself pacing restlessly, sweat beading on his skin and his heavy cloth habit becoming unbearably constrictive. He wanted nothing more than to tell the young woman the truth—that her aunt was alive, if not well, and that he was keeping an eye on her—but such communication was taboo! If every mortal who cried to him for answers GOT those answers, they would begin relying on him for everything—even things they were completely capable of doing for themselves! What to do…what to do…

At the very edge of the Lookout, he came to a sudden stop, his senses tuned to the young woman still pouring her heart out in hopes he heard her. "Please, Kami-sama," she whispered, her wide eyes locked on the radio, hoping for a sign from the silent appliance.

Dende stared down at Rowan, silently taking in the sight of her—from the shadows under her eyes to the messy state of her hair. 'The rules' stated that he couldn't answer questions asked of him, that he couldn't interfere with the people of earth finding their own paths. Until this particular earthling begged him for help, he had never even known the answers to their questions. 'The rules' forbade direct, intentional interaction with mortals…but the young redhead was counting on him for comfort…she had nowhere else to turn…and technically, he'd already interfered by healing her aunt...

Screw the rules. Focusing with all his might and ignoring that little voice in his head that insisted he was playing with fire, Dende looked in on the radio stations she might pick up. Finding one that would work, he reached out another, stronger psychic nudge, this time aimed directly at the radio in Rowan's bedroom. Just like before, the appliance came to life, this time broadcasting something more appropriate for an answer.

'Cause I'm still breathing, 'cause I'm still breathing on my own! My head's above the rain and roses, making my way, away—my way to you.

Rowan stared at the radio in disbelief as the song ended and a commercial break came on. She knew that song—knew the rest of the lyrics—and above all, she knew it was her answer. "Alive?" she whispered aloud, her verdant eyes tearing up. "Dai's…alive…?" The redhead choked up, whispering her thanks, and promising to stay strong until her aunt showed up again. Dende broke the rules—for the first time since he took the job, he broke the rules—but he couldn't yet find it in him to regret it.

"Some rules are meant to be broken." The sudden remark made Dende spin about to face Mister Popo.

"H-How did you—?!" he stammered, a flash of muddy red streaking across his cheeks. Popo just gave another of his awkward, vacuous smiles.

"Some rules," he elaborated slowly, "are not absolute—they are meant to be broken when the time calls for it. Your job as Kami is to determine when those rules are to be broken, and when they are to be kept." Without another word, the djinn strolled off toward the garden, leaving Dende completely stunned. He wasn't in trouble…he hadn't done anything wrong…His face split in a big, toothy grin, he turned back to the edge, seeking out Rowan's aunt amongst the rest of the mortals below.

Sometimes he really, really loved his job…moments like this one made up for everything he had to sacrifice for it.

So now you've met a couple more of the major players in this story, and a few more minor faces, too. The question is which is which? ;)


Chapter Text

You'll finally get to see all three main original characters as of this one! One last quick note regarding original character nicknames—most commonly used are in bold: Sierra Daiyu Stone – Dai, Susana-Ria Midori Stone – Rio, or Sue at work, Rowan Akane Stone – Roe, and Cordelia Celeste Stone – Cor.

Suggested Listening: Toad the Wet Sprocket "Something to Say," Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness "High Dive," Demi Lovato, "Heart Attack"

Humans are Amusing

The sky always seemed so much clearer up on the Lookout. Not for the first time, Dende found himself in awe of the planet he now called home—amazed by whatever strangeness made the sky the color he always associated with grass. Staring up into the endless, cloudless blue, he wondered about many things—the state of the world, what foul villain was sure to arrive in time and shatter its peace, a lovely young woman with vibrant red hair—

Dende froze, realizing where his unguarded thoughts led him. Several days had passed since the girl called Rowan first contacted him and pried Sierra's continued existence out of him. He didn't regret telling her that the somber woman was still alive—didn't regret breaking the Kami's vow of non-interference—but he never expected that short contact to have any long-term impact. He never expected to find himself wondering about her, or if she'd managed to keep his admission a secret.

"Hey, Dende!" Gohan's cheerful greeting startled a squawk from the young guardian, and he whipped about to greet the unexpected company with wide eyes.

"I didn't do anything!" Dende swore vehemently, then realized such a statement would only make Gohan more suspicious. "Uh…have you seen what's going on in the White House?" he asked hoping to deflect attention. "It's getting good—I'm gonna pop some popcorn later!" Unfortunately, this explanation didn't help much—Gohan still stared at him like he was being weird. 'What,' the young Namek wondered rubbing his neck and turning back to the world below, 'am I the only one who watches the world for entertainment? Oh…right. Yeah.'

"Is this a bad time?" Gohan asked him, smiling as widely as ever as though the young guardian didn't just confess to watching humanity like a sideshow.

"Nah," Dende answered dragging one hand across his scalp awkwardly. "One day's just like the rest up here…" …except for the day he broke the rules to comfort a spunky redhead, that is. "What do you need?" …because the warriors of Earth only ever came to him when they needed something.

"You remember Sierra, right?" Gohan asked ambling up to stand beside him at the edge of the lookout. "We brought her here after Vegeta's gravity room nearly killed her?"

"Yes, I remember." Dende looked up at the taller teen curiously. "I sensed something wrong with her—physically, that is—something wouldn't let her heal all the way."

"Rheumatoid arthritis," Gohan admitted softly. "Bulma told me the other day—the diagnosis is still pretty new."

"Arthritis? She's pretty young for that—she can't be past her thirties, right?" Dende shook his head, struggling to wrap his head around what he heard. "Age aside, arthritis is a normal part of growing older—it wouldn't interfere with healing!"

"Osteoarthritis is normal for older people, yeah," Gohan agreed grimly. "Sierra's got Rheumatoid Arthritis…it's an autoimmune disorder." He met Dende's eyes, his own betraying pity in amounts that would infuriate the Latina. "Her own immune system is attacking the cartilage in her joints like it's a foreign entity, like a bacteria or infection. She told me it runs in her family—that it crippled her father and his father before him."

"An autoimmune disorder," Dende repeated slowly as though testing the words, rubbing his chin in thought. "Her immune system's in overdrive, attacking healthy tissue…yeah, that might be why my chi-healing didn't take care of everything." He glanced back up at his taller friend. "—but you didn't come by just to talk about that, did you?" Gohan laughed, gave a stereotypical Son grin and neck grab, and shrugged.

"Ya got me," he teased scruffing his fingers through his short black hair. "Bulma noticed after you healed her that Sierra had a week or two of better mobility—she didn't hurt as much and she didn't have any of those muscle spasms in her back. I'm sure it's because of your healing." Called it—he never came by unless needed something. "Would you be willing to—"

"I'd be happy to, Gohan," Dende answered brightly instead of voicing his disappointment. Maybe a routine visit would mean he'd have company more often—company other than his admittedly creepy djinn assistant or a grumpy older Namek. "Bring her by once a week, I'll heal what I can, and we'll see if her condition improves." Gohan gave a loud, awkward laugh, backing away from the edge.

"Boy, am I glad you agreed!" he admitted somewhat shrilly. Dende gave a deadpan expression.

"You brought her just in case, didn't you?" The non-question was answered with a sheepish smile. "All right…let's get this over with."

From the moment Gohan began explaining the plan to her, Sierra watched Dende nervously, which made Dende even more nervous. When Gohan told her the plan was to help her hurt less—the explanation delivered in a perfectly non-judgmental non-patronizing manner—that nervousness fell aside, replaced with outrage. Even with her voice and eyes as sharp as knives, though, her face was remarkably blank.

"I don't need your help!" she argued harshly. "I'm gettin' along just—"

"Woman," Piccolo snapped from the doorway. "Just go with it." Dende turned to greet the other Namekian in disbelief; when did he arrive? "You're not fooling anyone—You're in pain and it's affecting those around you."

Naturally, that remark set her off; right before Dende's eyes, the unaffected expression fell away, replaced by a still pretty weak scowl. As the two adults bickered—one lashing out at the other with her cane and spouting oaths and insults in a foreign tongue, the other dodging and firing back with their own—Dende and Gohan grinned behind their hands. The warrior doth protest too much…and so doth the lady.

It was a Friday like any other Friday at Capsule Corps. Fall was nearly over and the days were growing cold.

Upstairs in his room, Trunks tipped his chair back and chewed his pencil. He had studying to do—Mom's orders, even though it was the weekend of a cookout—but daydreaming was so much more fun. Sierra-san was a tough teacher—their tutoring sessions were absolutely miserable and Trunks often found himself arguing with the older woman over the amount of homework she gave him. Despite it, though, the proof was in the pudding: his grades were improving.

Trunks' mind clearly wandered away from the problems decking the sheet before him, but his tutor let it slide. Something was on its way…something was about to happen. She didn't know what, or how she knew, but she could feel it in her very bones, like a storm building on the horizon.

Trunks' found himself distracted by memories—memories of his Mohawk-clad surrogate brother. He hadn't heard from Tapion in a couple of years, but the elder had promised to come back when he could. At first, he dropped by every year or so to check on Trunks, refuel, and admit no, he still hadn't found whichever corner of the universe his little brother was sent to. The last visit was over a year ago—much longer a wait than usual—and Trunks wondered what might have happened.

Tapion was lots of fun to hang out with but he tended to be too serious. He handled that sword with great skill until he gifted it to Trunks, and he never talked down to him. It seemed when one became an adult, they forgot what it was like to be a kid and began treating kids precisely how they once hated to be treated; Tapion never forgot, never treated Trunks like a baby, and always had time for him. Though he was still a child, Trunks could tell that Tapion was lonely—lonely in a way that even finding his brother couldn't fix. Of course, the alien would never admit it and would never consider putting his own happiness ahead of seeking his lost brother. After all, what good was a time machine if he couldn't use it to spare Minotia's life in the past?

Suddenly, a sound Trunks hadn't heard in years manifested out in the front yard—a loud, low, undulating whir. Trunks leapt to his feet and rushed to the window, pressing his nose and hands against the glass to see if his suspicions were right. They WERE! Bubbling over with joy, he bolted from his room, down the stairs, and out to the front lawn, all without ever hearing Sierra's reprimands.

The Latina never spoke—she knew this was what she sensed before, and knew better than to intervene.

"He's back, Mom!" Trunks yelled as he ran. "Tapion's back! It's him, he's finally here!" Out on the front lawn, Bulma followed Trunks to greet their wayward friend. Trunks was surprised, though…Tapion wasn't alone. He'd brought a boy with him…a boy with hair almost the same pink as fresh salmon, and bright turquoise eyes. Minotia. He clung to Tapion's sleeve excitedly, trying to see everything at once in the way little boys do.

"Tapion, you're back!" Bulma greeted, shaking his hand. "I take it you had a safe trip through time?"

"We certainly did, Ms. Briefs," he answered. "That is one remarkable machine you built…It made it home on fumes!" The two chuckled over that a moment, then Tapion led the smaller version of himself forward. "This is my brother." She nodded and leaned over gripping one knee to shake the boy's hand.

"You must be Minotia!" she smiled. "Your big brother has told us all about you….I'm glad you were able to come back with him. Where's…" She looked over her shoulder. "Trunks, don't be rude. Come say hi." Hesitantly, Trunks inched forward. "This is my son, Trunks Briefs. I'm sure you two will get along quite well." The two boys sized each other up silently.

"Your hair is pink." Trunks stated flatly, eyeing the boy's Mohawk critically.

"Yeah?" Minotia retorted, crossing his arms stoically. "Well, you're named after underwear." The two adults gaped at the boys' bad manners, with Bulma trying to figure out where she'd gone wrong. The standoff came to a halt with Trunks breaking into a face-splitting grin.

"I like you. We'll get along great." Minotia grinned back, and the two took to chasing each other around the yard. Bewildered at the boys' odd behavior, Bulma and Tapion shrugged, laughing the incident off.

"Oh!" Bulma squeaked. "I almost forgot! We've got a cookout planned tomorrow—the whole gang will be here! You and Minotia absolutely must join us, you'll have a blast!"

"Well, we wouldn't want to intrude…" Tapion mumbled, rubbing his neck nervously. "I don't exactly have the best record with your friends…"

"Nonsense! They'll welcome you with open arms, just as they would any friend of ours." Tapion still seemed hesitant. "There'll be shish kabobs…" she added in a singsong tone. That got his attention. "…And Trunks' friends Goten and Marron will be here, too, so Minotia will have friends to play with…." If the 'shish kabobs' part hadn't made up his mind, that last bit definitely did.

"If you're sure it won't be a problem," he consented.

"Great! I'll drop by the market and pick up another crate of steaks. There'll be several Saiyans there, after all, so if there isn't a surplus of food, us normal people just might starve!" she laughed. "You wanna come along and carry stuff?"

His eyes darted past her; Minotia was now playing catch with Trunks, using an oddly shaped brown ball. As he watched the boys, Bulma's mother Bunny pranced out to the yard with a tray of lemonade for the boys. "Hi, Tapion! Welcome home!" she called out, waving. Home…that word sounded so innocent coming from Bunny. To him though, it brought a warmth in his heart he hadn't expected. He'd hadn't had a home in years…now he had one again.

"Minotia!" he hollered over to the boys. His little brother skipped over toward him, and he crouched down to the boy's eye level. "I'm gonna go help Ms. Briefs run some errands real quick. Would you like to stay and play with Trunks while we're gone?" Minotia nodded enthusiastically. "Okay then. Just make sure you mind your manners, respect Trunks' grandparents, and don't roughhouse too much. Love yah, Min." He embraced the boy affectionately.

"Love you too, Tay," Minotia answered, hugging him tightly. Ruffling Minotia's hair, Tapion stood and watched the game resume with vigor. He turned to Bulma with a smile that told her he was ready to leave. Bulma called out a love you and goodbye to Trunks, leading Tapion to her air car.

"How can you get him to say it back?" she asked once they were on the road.

"Say what?" he blinked.

"Trunks is so much like his father…" her expression darkened at the thought. "He won't stand for being hugged, he gets embarrassed when I tell him I love him, and he never says it back…" she trailed off.

"Well," Tapion answered honestly. "it might just be a phase he's going through. Minotia and I have always been close, from the day he was born. I was seventeen when Dad died, and Minotia wasn't born for another three months." Funny how it no longer hurt to voice those words…maybe time really did heal all wounds. "Mum worked long hours to keep us fed and sheltered, and I ended up taking a weekend job as well, so we could pay the bills and dodn't have to hire a child-keeper. I had to grow up pretty quickly, and sometimes I felt bitter and standoffish because of it…it never lasted long, though." A pause hung in the air—courtesy of the air car's door catching his sash and his grumbled oaths in freeing it.

"As for Minotia returning the hugs and such," he finished once his clothes were free, "we hadn't seen each other since the day we were locked in the music boxes and sent to opposite end of the universe." He fidgeted with the seatbelt nervously. "We didn't bid each other goodbye that before we were parted…forever, as we realized too late. That's been my one big regret since you all released me from the music box two years ago…never taking the chance to tell him how much he meant to me. I'm guessing he felt the same way, too, because he still says it back."

Silence filled the car for a few moments, and Tapion turned to Bulma to ensure he hadn't said the wrong thing and upset her. Instead, she was just staring at him with a rather unsettling smile. "You really are such a good brother," she sighed turning back to the road. "Minotia is lucky to have you." Nothing further was said as she pulled the aircar into a space along the street.

Almost as soon as he opened the car door, his sensitive ears were hit with loud, cacophonic racket from the body shop across the street from the meat market. As Bulma walked up the sidewalk to the market door, his eyes remained fixed on the auto shop. Sweet Sue's Body Shop, the sign over the front door declared proudly. We speak 'Car' so you don't have to! How strange…he wasn't aware cars were sentient enough to speak!

Bulma noticed his gaze and patted his shoulder. "They'll probably need a few minutes to pack the crate. Why don't you have a look around?" Not needing to be told twice, Tapion wandered across the street—nearly winding up a hood ornament in the process—and up to a part of the shop left open to the air outside. As he approached, the din halted, and he could hear music playing over the speakers on the walls.

'But you make me wanna act like a girl—paint my nails and wear perfume, for you, make me so nervous, that I just can't hold your hand!'

A rather tall woman in brown coveralls danced over to a long, flat broom propped up in the corner. Retrieving it, she swept the bay floor free of dirt and debris while singing along. "Ya make me glow, but I cover up, won' let it show, so I'm puttin' my defenses up 'cause I don' wanna fall in love. If I ever did that, I think I'd have a heart attack! I think I'd have a heart attack! I think I'd have a heart attack!"

Her voice wasn't that bad, Tapion thought with a wry smile. It was lower in pitch than Bulma's with an unusual accent he'd never heard before...The combination was quite pleasant. She wasn't bad on the eyes, either. Her honey-brown hair was a little past shoulder length, plaited into a simple braid, with a flashy pink paisley scarf over the crown. He also noticed the figure that wouldn't quit, the line of steel studs and rings decking both ears, and the dark green eyes that flashed in amusement.

The music continued with the lovely brunette in accompaniment and she exchanged the broom for a bucket of soapy water, a large sponge, and a squeegee. Without preamble, she started washing the well-maintained Hybrid occupying aarea of the bay with a grate and drain built into the floor. Dancing in place, she scrubbed the vehicle down with the soapy water, not caring a whit that she was getting almost as much soap on herself as she was on the car.

The door to the front office swung open theatrically; a younger woman in matching oil-spattered and car wax-smeared coveralls swept into the bay to lend a hand. Aside from her pale freckled skin and the sleek carrot-colored hair pulled into a ponytail, she bore a striking resemblance to the other, older woman…surely, though, surely they weren't mother and daughter and co-workers! Come to think of it, though, Tapion didn't see any other employees or vehicles whatsoever. Was it after hours? The younger woman set to work on the opposite side of the vehicle, singing the next verse in a lilting, sweet voice that held just a hint of the twang that flavored the other's voice so strongly. The brunette joined in for the final verse with a matching mischievous grin.

"The feelings got lost in my lungs—They're burning, I'd rather be numb and there's no one else to blame. So scared I take off and I run—I'm flying too close to the sun and I burst into flames! You make me glow, but I cover up, won't let it show. So I'm puttin' my defenses up 'cause I don't wanna fall in love. If I ever did that, I think I'd have a heart attack!"

The song faded out as the two women cracked each other up with random goofy faces then burst into giggles. The redhead flicked soap off the hood at the older brunette, who picked up one of the soapy sponges and prepared to fling it in retaliation. She halted, though, having finally noticed Tapion leaning against the lamp post just outside the bay. A shy smile crossed her face before she forced a professionally friendly one in its place and tossed the nearly airborne sponge into the bucket of water. "Can we help you Sir?" she asked sweetly. "We closed 'bout twenty minutes ago, but if you've got an emergency, I'm sure we can work something out…"

Suddenly shy, Tapion couldn't meet her gaze anymore. Eyes glued to the sidewalk, he felt his cheeks heat up in embarrassment at being caught watching them. All they were doing was goofing off, but he felt like a pervert. "No, thanks. I'm…just passing through. Good day." Without further ado, he rushed back over to the meat market to wait for Bulma. The friendly brunette was lovely—just the sort of woman his mother would have wanted for him—but what good would ever come of them meeting? What could he possibly hope to offer her, even if she wasn't married? He was so much older than her, thanks to his time in the music box, and the Briefs family aside, he had way too much baggage for anyone to want him around. He was a jaded warrior—a man in a world and time not his own—even without knowing her, Tapion was sure she deserved better.

As Tapion fought that internal battle and waited for Bulma, Susana-Ria started hosing off the hybrid and the dirty, soapy floor while Rowan put away the cleaning supplies. The whole time, Rowan watched her mother, curious at the almost dreamy expression on the older woman's face. With the vehicle completely cleaned up and drying, Rio commenced shutting the place down while Rowan changed out of her wet coveralls in the locker room.

Later on, as they drove home, Rowan cleared her throat expectantly. "What?" Rio asked innocently.

"I saw that," Rowan remarked dryly.

"Saw what?" Rio protested with a sarcastic glare. "That light wasn't turned yet."

"I saw how you were eyeing that guy with the Mohawk, Mom," Rowan answered smugly; her mother heaved an exasperated sigh. Of course, it couldn't be about running a red light…here it came... "So, what do you think?" Rio scowled, shook her head, and refused to budge.

"Rowan…" The look her daughter shot her could have frightened a pathological liar into telling the truth. "Fine. He's cute, but he's way too young. Besides, ya know I'm not 'n the market. The Rat Bastard was more 'n enough for one lifetime, thank you very much; I'm ain't makin' that mistake again."

As every time before, Rowan realized sulkily, it all boiled down to the psychotic asshole who fathered her. Granted, Robert Biers was a nightmare and a half, but he was safely behind bars again—surely her mother could move past that one mistake! Still, she reminded herself silently, at least Rio was finally able to smile even though her twin was still technically missing…Rowan wasn't sure about it, but she had the feeling 'Kami told me she's safe' would go over about as well as Botulism at a birthday party. "Too young, too old, too tall, too short, too scary, too boring…" Rowan grumbled then turned to glare out the window. "Why don't I just set you up with a mirror and get it over with?"


Chapter Text

 Suggested Listening: Survivor "Can't Getcha Offa My Mind," Seether "Sympathetic," RUSH "Emotion Detector"

6: The Mask Slips

 Up on the Kamis' Lookout

The onset of winter brought with it new challenges for the solemn Latina Gohan brought into his odd little family. Two months ago, Dende agreed to give Sierra weekly healing treatments to help halt the damage being wrought against her joints. After a single month of weekly treatments, the evidence was clear…her deteriorating health was improving, and other than the aches caused by the cold weather, she wasn't hurting nearly as much as before.

It started out Gohan would bring her by in the evening, stay long enough for Dende to heal her then for a short chat afterward, then take her back to Capsule Corps around dusk. With the days getting shorter and the nights getting colder, though, they agreed on a new routine—Gohan now brought Sierra up to the Lookout before school, Dende stretched out the healing treatments over the day and spent some time trying to help her acclimate to her new reality, then Gohan would come pick her up after school. Dende didn't mind the new schedule much. Healing Sierra wasn't really increasing the amount of time he got to spend with Gohan, but at least he had company—Sierra was a tad odd and difficult to read, but she wasn't unfriendly.

Sierra still wasn't sure what to make of the whole strange situation. Aliens and technicolor hair were hard enough to comprehend. Flying people and time travel was even harder to accept. An alien kami guarding the whole planet and a floating palace in the sky? That was pushing it. Granted, that alien kami was a kid—frankly, an adorable kid who somewhat reminded her of a goofier, more innocent version of her niece Rowan—but every time she was around him, she struggled under the weight of the warnings her intuition bombarded her with.

Don't look him in the eyes—it's disrespectful! Bow before you speak! Address him as Kami-sama—to address him as anything else is rude! Keep your distance from him—he's too powerful and sacred to be sullied with the presence of mortals!* Not for the first time, Sierra wondered how much of her intuition was valid and how much was complete and utter nonsense. Everything she was picking up regarding the young guardian told her she was far beneath him, merely a bug to tread upon if he so chose…her eyes, however, told her he enjoyed popcorn with extra butter and usually wound up wearing some of it.- Standing silently in the open doorway to the throne room she scrutinized the young guardian sitting cross-legged at the edge of the Lookout, popcorn bowl in hand and butter smeared all along his arm and chin. As so often, he was clearly enjoying the spectacle of humanity below them.

He made no sense…but was that really such a bad thing? If she were honest with herself, Sierra felt torn by her thoughts. Everything she'd learned about Dende in these trips told her he was approachable, friendly, and more mortal than deity. While this comforted her, it also worried her; was it really a good idea to entrust the world to a sheltered alien teenager? The question, though unspoken, made Sierra draw up short. Was it really a better idea to trust the world to a human mortal? Humanity was far from flawless and prone to the worst sort of vices and flaws…perhaps it was better to be protected by a naïve alien than a wise human.

Below the Lookout, the world turned onward with no notice of the teenage kami keeping watch from above. It was the very nature of time to always move forward—to never stop for man or gods—but sometimes that endless forward march grew wearisome to those left out. Shaking off his ruminations like a pesky mosquito buzzing in his ear, Dende shoved another handful of popcorn in his mouth, sucking the butter off of his sticky fingers afterward.

Life on the Lookout could be tiresome at times. There was still much he hadn't learned about the sanctuary, still hidden rooms and unlocked doors to be found if he chose to investigate, and the library rivaled the lost collection in Alexandria. Still, Dende was a bit more mortal than previous kami—he was young and distractible, and frankly, wished they could at least get TV reception up there. Alas, it was impossible, so he settled for the next best thing…watching the swarm of earthlings going about their droll lives, creating drama and obstacles to overcome, and silently rooting for those who showed themselves worthy.

Worthiness was a rare quality in mortals, sad to say, and for that reason, it always stunned him to find it. Recently, he found a rare mortal who was more than worthy—pure of heart and unfiltered in speech. Rowan…the memory of the cheeky redhead brought a faint blush to Dende's cheeks, a thin streak of red setting off the deep green of his skin. He really shouldn't be thinking about her so often, he reprimanded himself silently; he shouldn't be continually tempted to check on her, to hone in on her chi and seek her out among the countless others under his care. After all, she hadn't called out for him since the first contact. Alas, temptation was even harder to fight once you'd repeatedly fought it and lost every time.

After how many times he sneakily checked on her it was ridiculously easy to find her, and as every time before, the very sight of her made him grin like an idiot. Standing on her unmade bed in a tank top and underwear, she belted out the lyrics of an unfamiliar song into a spiky pink hairbrush while dancing like a fool. Big green eyes closed, pink-painted lips wide and grinning, hips shaking and head bopping, the goofy teenager hammed it up. Blissfully ignorant of anyone watching her, she roughly ran her fingers through her tousled red hair in imitation of some glamourous rock star then tossed her head from side to side in an almost head-banging movement.

"Break the news out - I've got to get out!" Rowan sang at the top of her lungs. "Whoa-ho, I'm feelin' better now!" Dende choked, face turning bright purple from struggling to contain his laughter.- "The world's done shakin', the world's done shakin', the world's done shakin' me down! The world's done shakin', the world's done shakin', the world's done shakin' me down!"**

"That cloud must be hilarious." Startled from his thoughts, Dende eeped at the sudden remark at his side and scrambled back from the edge spilling some of his popcorn on the way. Sometime between his decision to check on Rowan and her outlandish dance-routine, Sierra had approached and taken up a seat nearby, and apparently spent some time staring at him unnoticed.

"Uh…cloud?" Dende attempted with a forced, high-pitched laugh. Fortunately, he was able to prevent a recurrence of the last time someone caught him thinking about Rowan; if Sierra did, indeed, have ESP, she was likely to see right through his blurted insistence of innocence. The eccentric redhead wasn't just any mortal, either—she was Sierra's niece, and if Sierra ever found out he was watching Rowan—in her underwear, no less!—she'd—she'd— Dende forcibly silenced that train of thought and stuffed another handful of popcorn in his mouth to buy time. She didn't seem amused by his stalling—not that he could ever detect much emotion on her face—and once he'd chewed and swallowed, he asked, "What cloud?" Never taking his eyes off of her, he cautiously scooted back toward his previous spot.

Sierra rolled her eyes at the openly fearful behavior; did he think she'd try to bite him or something? That was Rio's territory, not hers—Sierra may resemble their mother most, but in temperament, she was more like their father. "You've been sittin' here a while now," she explained slowly, her words completely untouched by any discernible emphasis or emotion. "I figured you were cloud-watchin' until you started turning purple and snorting." Dark brown eyes glanced out at the clouds beyond, then back to the stunned alien beside her, and she shrugged. "Wanna fill me in?"

For a moment, Dende hesitated, carefully arranging his words before they could spill out and embarrass him. "I wasn't watching clouds," he admitted with a sheepish grin and reached up to rub his scalp awkwardly. "I was watching people. With enough training, you can sense and even see people all over the world from here…by focusing on their chi, their spirit, you can hone in on the people themselves and watch them live their lives out." He winced, turning back to the world below with a faint blush—again, more red than purple. -

"That's your job, huh?" Sierra remarked softly, also turning to the skyline. No matter how hard she tried, though, all she saw was clouds. "You're the Kami of Earth, so I figured you were a sort of ruler from on high - a deity of sorts." Again, she fixed her eyes on the fidgeting alien teenager. "Are you more of a guardian, then?"

"Yeah," Dende shrugged and held out the bowl of popcorn for her, and gave a dorky grin when she scooped up a handful of kernels to nibble on. "I'm a guardian—I'm here to protect and watch over the earth, to monitor the goings-on and bring peace and guidance to those who need it." He set aside the bowl and leaned back on his palms, letting his legs and slipper-clad feet dangle over the edge. "That's not why I'm over here, though—I can do all that from inside, but here, I can just watch."


"We don't get a lot of visitors up here." The truth of the admission faded his smile, and though she never let on, Sierra regretted it. "Other than Mister Popo, and sometimes Piccolo, I'm usually by myself up here. People never come visit, they just come when they need something from us." His words were true—she could sense the verity in them as clearly as she could sense his loneliness—but what she couldn't understand was why she couldn't pick up any real bitterness from him. If what she'd seen of the Lookout so far was to be believed, then people-watching might just be one of the only pastimes a guardian could pursue.

"It must be wonderful," she remarked softly, solemnly. "Bein' able to see anyone an' anything without ever havin' to leave, that is." Jarred from his thoughts, Dende turned to her, wide-eyed in surprise. "Loneliness is a heavy burden to bear…but responsibility can be even heavier when others take advantage." When she met his eyes again, suddenly silent, the guardian experienced an unexpected realization of his own: she understood. The reasons and story behind it, he didn't know, but Sierra Stone knew what it was like to be lonely, to be responsible for the lives and happiness of others, and most of all, to be sought out only in times of turmoil and ignored when times were good. Her expression hadn't changed, not in the slightest, but he knew without a doubt she understood. That understanding prompted him to reach out—to offer the sort of comfort she'd never ask him for.

"You have family down there, don't you?" he asked with a gentle smile; she nodded, staring blankly through the cloud cover. "You mentioned that you cut all ties with your loved ones but you've said nothing about trying to rebuild those bridges. Do you plan to?"

"I didn't," she admitted in an almost-whisper. "I planned to die in the woods—I had no intention of ever going back. It was foolish, I realize that now, but at the time…" She fell silent, shaking her head with a scoff. "At the time I was sure I was making the right decision…Everyone always relied on me for everything an' the moment I started failing—started getting' too sick to accomplish anything—they took to blamin' me for my inability to solve their problems like usual. Only…only Rowan stayed the same…she was the only one who understood, offered help instead of demanding answers." For the first time that day, a tiny crack developed in Sierra's cold, blank mask; behind it, Dende could see hurt, sorrow, and anger.

"Rowan?" Dende echoed hopefully.

"My niece," Sierra explained, fondness narrowing her eyes. "She's a handful but she's our lil' miracle. Of everyone I cut ties with when I left, leavin' her was hardest of all." The silence stretched between them, and the weary Latina began to wonder if she overstepped some unexpected boundary. A sudden brush of skin on hers—soft fingertips pressed to her temple—startled her from her thoughts and she looked up at the young Namekian sitting beside her.

"You need to check on them," he explained with a small smile. "One at a time, picture the people you left behind—visualize them as clearly as you can, tell me their names, and I'll help you find them." She hesitated, glancing down over the unknowing world with a nervousness that never showed. "You haven't yet learned to sense the people below, but with my help, you will see them as I do."

It took a moment more of consideration, then she nodded. She knew exactly who to start with… "Rio," she murmured thinking hard about all the little things that made Rio who she was. "Susana-Ria Midori Stone—she's my twin sister, younger by mere minutes but I've always had to be the 'big sister' to'er." She shook off the bitterness associated with that realization, instead focusing on the good.

As Sierra told him about her sister, Dende silently searched the world below for someone who fit the description in her mind's eye. It wasn't hard to find her, not for an accomplished people-watcher, and he quickly located the quirky mechanic amidst the souls below. "Close your eyes…is this her?" He carefully projected to Sierra the images he was picking up—a tall woman in grubby clothes and a backward ballcap. Alone in a small, cluttered garage in a suburb of West City, she was bent almost double, buried up to the shoulders in the engine of an old air-car up on cinderblocks.

"Cómo en—yes, it is her!"~ Sierra's eyes flew open in naked astonishment and she stared back at Dende. This, he realized with pride, was the most emotion he'd ever seen from her in a day—hurt, sorrow, anger, affection, shock—her softly-rounded face wasn't very expressive and she had a strange knack for keeping it almost completely impassive, but now, he was sure with enough time he could learn to read her regardless. "That's Rio's house—she's been fixin' up that air-car for months, it'll be Rowan's graduation gift next Spring!"

As Rio Stone went about her business below, unaware she had an audience, Sierra screwed her eyes shut again to quietly soak in the sight shared with her, contemplating Rio's silence and odd behavior. Most people would never notice the little signs—the nuances and hints the other woman's behavior held—but to Sierra, who had been with Rio even from the moment of conception, they told a very plain story. The garage was silent, not blasting with music—Rio was troubled. She wasn't swearing, wasn't even grumbling aloud about the machine she was working on—she was lost in her thoughts. Softened green eyes and drooping brows betrayed sorrow and her tightly-drawn shoulders were a sign of fear and worry. The signs were clear…her absence was taking its toll on Rio but the other woman still hadn't given up hope that Sierra would come home.

"You don't look much alike," Dende remarked curiously, taking in the other woman's long honey-brown braid and her lean, feminine build and silently comparing it to Sierra's. "You said you're twins?"

"Fraternal twins, not identical," Sierra explained with a shrug. "Inside, Rio's more like Ma, but she always looked more like Dad—same hair an' eyes, lighter skin than Ma's, an' she's always had the kind of figure that kills. I'm more like our Dad in temperament but look just like Ma—dark skin, hair, an' eyes, more thick-set than svelte…" She shrugged opening her eyes again to meet Dende's. "It doesn't bother me, honestly…after her massive screw-up, Cor an' I never really cared about finding partners. Cordelia's our sister," she added on realizing he probably didn't know who "Cor" was.

"I hope I'm not overstepping here…" Dende turned back to seek out the next in line—a soul he already knew about. "You're talking about Rowan, aren't you? –about what led to her being born?" Sierra's dark eyes were guarded now.

"You've done your homework I see," she remarked slowly, her face impassive and her voice even more so. "Rio made a big mistake—a mistake I cautioned her away from, that nearly got her killed, and created an unwed teenage mother. I suppose it's not unusual that you'd know already—you probably saw it happen, didn't you?"

"No, I'm still new at this," he insisted honestly. "I've only been guardian here a few years now and I don't intentionally snoop on things that happened before my time." His senses tuned to Rowan again, he indicated for Sierra to close her eyes and cautiously sent her a vision of Rowan, thankful the spunky redhead put pants on since he lost sight of her. Now, though, he could see something he didn't see before. Lines of deep red peeked out from the sleeve of her tank top - lines of crimson ink swirled around the meat of her left bicep in a design he couldn't quite make out. Rowan...she had a tattoo?! The very idea boggled Dende's mind, but then again, how well did he really know the redhead? He'd only been stal—keeping an eye on her for a month or so!

"As Kami, I am responsible for the people of Earth," he explained to Sierra intent on putting Rowan's tattooed skin out of his mind. "Sometimes those people call to me for comfort or answers. Only days after I met you, Rowan reached out to me for help, told me her aunt was missing and asked for guidance." Sierra opened her eyes again, taking in his chagrined smile. "Imagine my surprise when that aunt turned out to be you. I only know some of your family's past regarding Rowan, and only what she unknowingly shared with me…humans aren't often accustomed to communicating by telepathy and when their thoughts are picked up, they tend to accidentally overshare."

Sierra said nothing, carefully studying his countenance and waiting for her intuition to warn her about him. To her surprise, she got no warnings whatsoever—she knew Dende wasn't telling her something, knew that he was more familiar with Rowan than he was letting on, but she also knew he had no ulterior motives toward her.

After so many years of checking on Rowan's friends, peers, and admirers, she was used to knowing with a single glance that her target was dangerous—that they didn't have Rowan's best interests in mind and often even wanted to use or harm her. Now…now she stared down a young man presumably Rowan's age—an alien, granted, but a teenager nonetheless, and one who had been fighting a blush ever since Rowan was brought up. Clearly uncomfortable with her naked scrutiny, Dende broke eye contact, staring off the side of the Lookout, likely focusing on the lovely young redhead dutifully tidying up her room.

Dende was a kami—the Guardian of the Earth—but he was watching her niece with soft eyes that betrayed no ill-intent. After so many years of protecting Rowan from those who might harm her, it boggled Sierra's mind to find herself facing down one who admired Rowan but wanted absolutely nothing from her in return. "She's grown beautiful, has she not?" the Latina remarked carefully watching for his response; sure enough, a faint hint of purple bloomed in Dende's cheeks before he cleared his throat and settled his thoughts.

"Well," he admitted with a sheepish smile, "I'm Namekian—a lot of humans tend to look alike to us, it's not easy to pick out small variations when you're overwhelmed by how different you look." He met her eyes finally, nervous but honest. "There haven't been any female Namekians since long before my time—I wouldn't even begin to know what they'd look like. I can't imagine they'd look like your niece...but if they did, then they were surely beautiful."

"Congratulations, Kami-sama." Sierra's airy comment startled him, but no more so than the faint tilt of her lips. "Rowan is my world—there's nothin' I wouldn't do to protect her from those who would harm her…but it seems you're not among them." Dende stared at the older woman in disbelief, mouth agape and eyes wide like a fish in a net. She…she wasn't horrified? She wasn't going to yell at him, to berate him for even having the audacity to see her niece as more than just another helpless mortal in his care?! His own brother, Scargo, was more than a little disturbed by Dende's obvious soft spot for the human woman, and as of their last contact, actually suggested he was perverse for it! …of course, Sierra was human. His race was entirely male but hers had two genders—it probably didn't strike her as odd, if only because she was used seeing male-female attraction.-

The Latina crawled to her feet with a soft, quiet grunt of pain, ending up half-stooped and clutching her back. "We can check on the others another time," Dende offered quickly taking his own feet as well. Gently shooing her hand away from the previously injured portion of her back, he gathered healing chi in his hands and soothed the strained muscles. "Perhaps next time I should offer you a chair."

"It was worth it," Sierra admitted softly, relaxing under the warmth soaking into her bones. Chi-healing, she found, was much more pleasant and comfortable than the usual methods of treatment she'd experienced. No cold hands digging into her aching joints, no colder needles shooting fire through her veins, no foul-tasting pills getting lodged in her throat and triggering her gag reflex. Instead, it was warm, soothing, and sent a fuzzy, fluttering sensation through her muscles until they cramped from the inevitable. She wasn't just injured, though—her own body was injuring itself, her own immune system attacking healthy tissue, and inevitably, it also attacked the warm healing energy trying to undo the damage. As always, Dende let his energy fade and pulled away before her immune system could muster an attack and cause her more pain.

He wasn't human…but did it really matter? He'd done nothing but help her, consistently tried to comfort her no matter how distant she was and how much she and Piccolo lashed out at each other. Dende was gentle, kind, and though he was blatantly inhuman, Sierra knew that he would never hurt her or her family...just like she knew from the very start that Piccolo wouldn't hurt her unless she gave him reason to.

"I'll be honest, here." Dende grinned as he led the way back inside the Lookout where it was warmer. "I'm kind of waiting for you to yell at me like you do Piccolo." Sierra rolled her eyes as she strode through the door he held open for her.

"Should I yell at you?" she asked vaguely. "You've been spyin' on my niece, but I know you mean'er no harm." Dende sputtered at the accusation but fell into sheepish silence at the tease in her eyes. He was, indeed, learning to read her, little by little—learning to connect the faint changes in her face with the less-faint changes in her speech and fill in the blanks. "Besides. I yell at Piccolo because he's un pendejo arrogante who needs un buen puto to straighten out his attitude."~~ Her face was still remarkably impassive, but the fire in Sierra's eyes and the suddenly gutteral turn to her speech told Dende what she said wasn't exactly complimentary. He held his silence as she continued ahead, ducking into the small room reserved for her, presumably for a nap or to read.

"I don't mind you keepin' an eye on Rowan," the Latina added idling in the open doorway with a pointed warning stare. "Especially with her father up for parole again, soon. From now on, make sure she has pants on before guardian-stalking her." The click of the door latch was quiet and non-threatening, but for that very reason, it made Dende's heart hammer in his ribcage. Surely…no, she couldn't have known he accidentally saw her niece in her underwear! Maybe—maybe Rowan had a habit of going around without pants?! Maybe she just assumed he might have seen her pantsless?! Oh geez…his deer-in-the-headlights stare had to have convinced her of his guilt!

"Man oh man," Dende muttered hurrying down the hall to the library. "That woman's terrifying!"

"What'd she do this time?" Piccolo's sudden demand made Dende shriek in surprise, but that surprise faded into dread.

"Uh…" He scrambled for some way of explaining himself without admitting she caught him "guardian-stalking" her niece. Then it hit him—a horrible, awful, completely dangerous idea, the kind often followed by "hold my beer" and then a hospital visit. "She—she said something I didn't understand," he explained, poised to run for safety once Piccolo's suspicion was diverted into fury. "She called you a…what was it? Un pendejo arrogante who needs un buen puto?"

Sure enough, the hastily-formed plan worked—the memories of the previous guardian told Piccolo exactly what the snide Latina said about him, and he was not happy! Dende ducked to the side as Piccolo stormed down the hallway toward Sierra's room, nearly purple with rage and clearly intent on demanding answers—answers he wouldn't get. Some things, Dende realized with a grin, really never did change. Piccolo had a nasty temper, Sierra was completely unimpressed by it, and they would never pass up an opportunity to engage in a shouting match.

At least while screaming at Piccolo, Sierra wasn't hiding her feelings; at least while bellowing at Sierra, Piccolo wasn't denying his own.

( * )



* Sierra's intuition regarding the Kamis – It's not mentioned much in DBZ, but the guardian we knew as "Kami" wasn't the first Kami of Earth—he was only the most recent until Dende, and from what we've seen, among the more laid-back guardians. For that reason it can be assumed that previous Kamis may have been more distant and strict regarding protocol – unlike Dende's predescessor who had a bit of a goofy side. THAT is what Sierra was picking up, impressions left by previous guardians who weren't so laid-back as Dende and Kami.

- Namek Blood – Nameks and Food – Nameks and Gender – There are bound to be some folks confused by some of this and crying foul about it. We've all run into them before, people who whine about writers deviating from the canon, but they tend to ignore just how flawed the canon IS. Toriyama is, and has always been, INCREDIBLY forgetful regarding his series. (IE, forgetting about Lunch until the end of DBZ, forgetting that Kid Piccolo munched on fish, making Nameks bleed red, purple, AND green, etc.) Normally I use a mish-mash of the Anime, Manga, and occasionally add onto what's been left out of canon. Later on, I'll be compiling canon-headcanon explanations for those and future canon-deviations in my forum for anyone left spinning and confused. (I get long-winded and the story-notes can already get long.) Once I've got the page going, I'll post a link when issues pop up.

** This is what happens when I listen to too much alternative while getting pumped up for writing, LOL! "Better Now" by Collective Soul.

~ Cómo en… - Spanish, roughly "How on…?" as in "How on earth is that possible?"

~~ "He's un pendejo arrogante who needs un buen puto to straighten out his attitude."– Spanish and English. Un pendejo arrogante – an arrogant asshole. Un buen puto – Reportedly 'a good fucking.' Sierra's less than impressed with Piccolo's attitude toward her, so she's saying 'he needs to get laid so he's not such a bitch all the time.'

For anyone curious, I'm including a character workup of Rowan so you'll have an idea what she looks like - a 'profile pic' if you would, created using an online customization thingamabob, Sketchbook, and PicsArt.



Chapter Text

Piccolo and Sierra, "Hiding and Denying"


Check out the official "Shifting the Paradigm" playlist!

Suggested Listening: Rush "Emotion Detector"


Another beautiful day was dawning in West City. The singing of winter birds filled the chilled air, dim sunlight warmed the streets, and mackerel scale clouds offered a teasing possibility of snow later on. Sierra felt an intense desire to murder all of it.

Morning. Why did she decide to handle today's errands in the morning? She hated mornings, hated the bright light, the noisy racket of the waking city, and most of all, she hated the deafening buzz of an entire population mentally bitching about having to get up for work. With a heavy, frustrated sigh, she knuckled one sore, gritty eye, soaking in the warm perfume of her coffee. Why must her intuition always be sharper after waking up? Why did she have to suffer her fellow humans' idiocy even more than usual just because she needed sleep? As always, she had no answers, so she just turned back to her shopping list.

A high-pitched squeal rang out in the hallway triggering a wince; not a moment later, a blur with salmon-colored hair streaked into the kitchen giggling the whole way. Once she'd thrown off the dizzy spell the sprinting child triggered she noticed another arrival—much taller and leaner with darker hair and embarrassed green eyes. Tapion, she recognized greeting him with a nod, the inexplicably young alien Bulma took in a while back. Sierra still couldn't understand how he seemed so young and so old all at the same time. He was yet another person in this strange household who made no sense to her.

"Good morning," Tapion greeted sheepishly guiding his energetic younger brother to sit at the counter. Minotia eagerly clambered up on one of the high barstools and was soon practically vibrating in his seat. Oh, to have that kind of energy again… "I trust you slept well?" For a moment, all Sierra could do was blink at the older alien, her face even more blank than usual and her eyes focused somewhere behind him. He winced, visibly nervous; she physically shook off her daze.

"I'm fine," she insisted simply then paused for another gulp of coffee. "He's fine. It's morning. I'm always like this in the morning. Mornings need to die."

"I…didn't ask if you were fine…?" Confused, he filled the tea kettle at the sink and put it on to boil. "I just—"

"If I've told'im once, I've told'im a thousand times," Sierra replied as though reciting something, her voice practically monotone. "Ya don't run around like a lunatic inside, an' you've gotta keep your voice down when others might be sleepin'. She looks like she's got a headache—all the noise is prob'bly makin' it worse. I should apologize. Wait, how'd she know what I was thinkin'? Did she seriously read my mind? I feel violated." Once it hit her what she picked up from him last, her eyes widened and she ducked her head to down another gulp of coffee. "Sorry," she mumbled glaring down into her empty cup. "I can't exactly turn that off even when I haven't just woken up, but relaying what I receive without permission is just rude. No offense…?"

"None taken," Tapion answered with a weak smile and passed her the coffee carafe. "I keep forgetting you can sense things…it just catches a person off-guard."

"So does wakin' up hearing Bulma brooding about Vegeta's snoring all the way across the compound," Sierra added gratefully topping off her mug. "Normally the Briefs' rooms are far enough from mine I don't twig to'em, but my…uh…" Her brows pinched together as she searched for the right word. "My range? Yeah, that works—my range of twenty-some yards explodes to twenty-some-odd MILES when I first wake up, an' it takes time to normalize again…'bout an hour, actually."

Tapion looked lost so she tried again. "Think of it like bein' able to easily hear the person next to you whispering versus hearin' a butterfly sneeze in Hong Kong…a really loud butterfly…with an incredibly annoying sneeze…while it's scrapin' its nails on a chalkboard." For a moment, all Tapion could manage was staring at her blankly, loaf of bread in hand, the fridge door wide open and his deep green eyes nearly as wide. "They're out'a jelly," Sierra pointed out to break the ice, "but Bulma's got some fancy organic peanut butter that's great on toast. That'll work, right?" He blinked, glanced inside the fridge door, and cautiously collected the jar of peanut butter.

"I really don't understand this ability of yours," he remarked cautiously, adding a jug of orange juice and a couple apples to his load.

"That makes two of us," Sierra muttered back. For a while, the two brothers conversed quietly, Tapion putting together a simple and light breakfast, and Sierra double-checked her shopping list. A short while later someone set a plate down in front of her—sliced apples and peanut-buttered toast—and a tall glass of orange juice. Blinking in surprise, she looked up at the man across from her; Tapion wore a teasing smile, one eyebrow arched. "Thanks," she said attempting to smile; it came out more like a cringe but he seemed to understand. "You didn't make much—I figured it was just you two. Plus I already ate." She answered his incredulous stare by holding up a crumb-decked paper towel smeared with peanut butter.

"So that's how you knew about the jam." Tapion chuckled shaking his head. "Well, you fooled me." He glanced down, silently considering the plate he set up for Sierra, then his little brother's plate. "We…don't eat much," he admitted carefully sliding most of the plate's contents onto his brother's plate and pouring them both a cup of hot green tea. "It's been a long time since we've both had a regular three square meals a day—longer than you'd believe—and our appetites haven't quite picked up yet." That, Sierra decided with a smile that never surfaced, would be changing soon…hopefully starting tomorrow. "I really appreciate you helping my brother with his studies, Miss Stone," Tapion remarked, eager to change the subject to something less loaded. "How's his progress?"

Sierra gave a half-shrug, her eyes brightening just a bit. "Minotia's a bright one," she answered reaching over to ruffle the boy's ever-fluffy Mohawk; on noticing Tapion's horrified cringe and sensing Minotia's embarrassment, she diverted at the last moment and gingerly patted him on the back. Strange…she saw Tapion petting the younger's hair all the time, and once in a while she even caught Minotia tugging on his older brother's bangs, but otherwise, hair seemed to be off-limits to them—theirs and everyone else's. Maybe their culture had some sort of thing about hair? If it was a culture thing, she sympathized with them for the discomfort; after all, she and her two sisters existed in a constant state of culture-shock with the country they made their home in, even years after they left the US. Where were they from, anyway? Anytime her intuition tried to fill in the gaps, she just heard "coconuts," and that couldn't possibly be right.

"He's even brighter than my niece Rowan was at that age," she continued in hopes of clearing the tension. "If he keeps working as hard as he has been, by the time the next fall semester starts up, he should be ready to enroll in a regular school—Trunks' an' Goten's would prob'ly be best."

Still a little uncomfortable over the barely-averted taboo, Tapion was caught off-guard. "What? Why's that?"

"Well," Sierra muttered glancing sidelong at the boy already focused on his toast again. "I'm not speakin' for all of humanity, seein' as we're not all the same but in my experience kids tend to be little shits." Minotia perked up at the unfamiliar word, instantly curious; Tapion shot him a warning frown.

"If I ever hear that come out of your mouth," he warned the younger sternly, "you're not sitting for a week." Sierra winced, realizing she slipped up. The young boy wasn't her niece—he wasn't raised by a single mother who cursed like a sailor, an aunt who could tell exactly what sort of trouble he was plotting and called him on it, another aunt who was halfway unstable and thought they were all off their rockers, and a grandmother with a bad habit of leaving knives lying around willy-nilly.

"Sorry," she mumbled into her coffee. "Make that 'ill-mannered miniature terrorists.' Better?" Tapion gave a husky chuckle at the mental image and nodded. "My sisters an' I had to change schools a lot after our parents divorced," Sierra explained. "Ma stayed in the US an' Dad came back to Japan—the custody arrangements had us bouncing back and forth every year. Rio an' I are pretty dissimilar on the surface but there's enough resemblance for people to realize we're siblings; Cor looks nothin' like us so she always suffered the most hazing. It's common for new kids to get harassed, but when the new kid's visibly different even from their own family it's even worse…an' from what I've seen, Asian schools tend to be even more cliquish than US ones, prob'ly because of the deeply-ingrained distrust of foreigners." Realizing she was rambling, she cut herself off with a head shake and returned to her point. "Minotia an' I've been getting' him caught up to his peers, so he should be able to test into the same grade as Trunks and Goten, and having a couple local kids on his side should deter the worst."

The conversation lagged. Tapion silently considered her warning and contemplated the possibility of Minotia being bullied just for being different. During the war with the Kashvar he feared for his brother's future, then when they were separated, sent to opposite ends of the universe, he feared for Minotia's life. Now the young boy's future was looking bright and his life was unthreatened…now Tapion worried for his happiness in this new world that so reluctantly took them in.

A sudden movement startled him from his thoughts—the spout of the tea kettle clinked against the rim of his cup, his confusing companion topping off his cup. "Thanks," he said lifting the full cup in salute. He wasn't sure of it, but something about the softening of her eyes made him think she smiled back at him. "What've you got planned today?"

"Errands," she answered blandly topping off Minotia's cup as well and giving the boy a teasing wink. "Mostly grocery shopping, gotta hit a couple of the specialty shops Downtown." She turned the list toward him and he glanced over it, carefully picking through for words he recognized. Even if he couldn't read it all there was still a lot there—how on earth would she manage to carry everything on the list, especially with her back and joints in the condition they were? Unbidden, he recalled something else Downtown—a familiar noisy establishment that promised to facilitate communication between cars and their owners. Even more reluctantly, he recalled the sight that continually drew him back to that establishment—a spunky high-class woman with big green eyes… He cut himself off. A married woman, he reminded himself viciously, forcing himself to picture the rows of piercings lining the outer edges of her ears. Married and rich. Not available. Still…

"Could you use a hand?" he offered with a hesitant smile. He only wanted to help—it had nothing to do with the pretty shop owner—right? "Bulma's been teaching me to drive and I could use the practice. And, well, not to mention…" He pointedly glanced over at his younger brother; Minotia was already bored with the grownup conversation and fidgeting in his seat even more than before. The little guy looked like a tiny fluffy-haired bundle of repressed energy about to burst. "Cabin fever," Tapion mouthed to Sierra in explanation, and she nodded in complete understanding. Being winter, it was too cold for Minotia and Trunks to spend a lot of time playing outside, and that cut back on the boys' opportunities to work off their boundless energy.

"Good point," Sierra whispered almost conspiratorially then at regular volume added, "I'd love the company an' was plannin' on hittin' the sweet shop on the way back. How soon can you be ready?" Sure enough, Minotia's sea-green eyes widened and fixed on her in excitement.

"Did you say sweets?" he asked with a big toothy grin. Tapion laughed low in his chest, and right before Sierra's eyes, he reached across the counter and ruffled the boy's hair.

Sweet Sue's Body Shop was more than just a car repair business. It was a place of raucous laughter, good music, and equality. In a world where mechanics tended to mislead, overcharge, and talk down to women, many female car owners were reluctant to take their vehicle in for work without dragging along a man to run interference. 'Sue's' was owned and operated by a woman, and staffed by mostly women; they refused to put up with the gender-bias in the car industry and their business flourished because of it.

Normally, the shop was loud and full of energy; this wasn't a normal day, however. It was winter break—the first winter break since Rowan's aunt Sierra went missing—and the holidays were right around the corner. The normally spunky redhead tried to focus on her task, another detail job on a completed repair, but her mind kept wandering. Wax on—where was Aunt Dai? Wax off—would she come home for Christmas? Polish fender—why hadn't she shown up yet? Spray mirror—Kami told her Sierra was still alive, but she hadn't asked again lately; what if something happened?

The last song faded out over the radio, replaced by a mystical, synthesizer-heavy tune. The rippling notes, based loosely on a bright pentatonic scale, sent the fine hair on Rowan's bare arms standing on end. It felt, she realized sadly, like a familiar hand smudging black grease off her cheek or smoothing a dusting of flour from her stubborn hair.

 'When we lift the covers from our feelings
We expose our insecure spots.
Trust is just as rare as devotion -
Forgive us our cynical thoughts.
If we need too much attention,
Not content with being cool,
We must throw ourselves wide open
And start acting like a fool.'

Across the bay, Rio stilled, bent over the front bumper of a newer model SUV with a whining-slash-humming transmission; in open dread, she craned her neck to catch the song over the speakers.

'If we need too much approval
Then the cuts can seem too cruel.'

There was no doubt—she knew that song. "Tomorrow's Friday," Rowan muttered into the windshield of her project. Rio's eyes slid closed, pained.

"Family Friday," the older woman elaborated earning a glum nod. "I miss'er too, Roe…I miss'er too." Rowan said nothing, but to her mother, that nothing spoke volumes of something. Rio steeled her nerves, forcing herself to remember what Sierra's absence was doing to their family. They were falling apart—Rowan was falling apart—and that infuriated Rio beyond reason. Anger, after all, was a safer alternative than the worry and fear she would otherwise fall prey to. "Twila!" she shouted toward the office. A moment later, the bubbly blonde receptionist swept out into the bay, big blue eyes practically sparkling; the very sight made Rio feel even crankier. "Turn that off." Twila halted, confused. "…please?" the mechanic added under her breath, glancing pointedly over at Rowan.

"I thought you liked this one," Twila protested softly.

"Yeah," Rio admitted gruffly, "but my sister loves it. If she weren't still being a pouting child, we'd all be gathering tomorrow to stuff ourselves silly."

"Family Friday," Rowan explained when her mother fell silent. "On the first Friday of every month, our family gathered at someone's home for a special meal, never fail, no matter how rough things got. With Aunt Dai gone…" She, too, fell silent.

"You gals haven't gathered since she went missing?" Twila summed up in open concern; the mother and daughter nodded. "Have you still heard nothing? Maybe…maybe she's…"

"Oh, she's alive alright," Rio cut her off shortly. "When she took off, she dumped a key in our mail-slot—a key to a storage unit with instructions on how to deal with her crap. By the time we made it out there, she'd changed her mind an' the lock." Twila cringed. "She's alive a'right, the sulking twat, an' she's gonna get my boot up'er backside when she finally comes crawlin' back." Twila backed away from her seething employer, glancing nervously to Rowan; the younger woman held a hand up to her head and twirled it in a 'yeah, she's crazy' gesture.

"Right," Twila mumbled hustling out of the room, "change the song, got it." As her high heels clacked noisily away, Rowan turned to her mother with an openly scolding expression.

"It's okay to admit you're scared, Mom," she insisted low enough the other mechanic wouldn't hear. "I'm scared for her too. Your sister's missing, your twin sister—no one's expectin' you to be strong." Rio shot her a warning glare, one honey-brown eyebrow arched up to the edge of her loud pink hair scarf.

"Do you think she's dead?" she demanded.

"I know she isn't," Rowan protested.

"Same here. You're her niece but I'm her sister—I don't need the friggin' twin thing to know she's sulking. Besides," she grumbled returning to the transmission, "as her sibling, it's my job to kick'er ass when she needs it."

"No cursing at work!" The way-too-cheerful reminder from the front office make Rio and Rowan turn beet red, the first from embarrassment and the second from trying not to laugh. "That's a Zeni for the swear jar, Sue!" Rio uttered a barely intelligible snarl then, face pinched in a scowl, shouted to the office,

"Ass ain't a curse! It's a donkey!" Twila gave a derisive 'uh-huh, right.' "Fine! My job's to remind'er she's out of line, that work for ya?!" Twila's response—a laughing 'yep!'—drew another growl from the cantankerous mechanic. "She's gonna get that swear jar jammed up'er ass at this rate," she grumbled over at Rowan.

"That's two Zeni! Do I hear three?"

 In the future, Sierra realized grimly, she needed to find another butcher who sold bulk steak. Normally this one was her go-to—the most meat for the best price in all of West City—but it was situated right across the street from an all-too-familiar body shop. Before her sudden flight, this was convenient, an encouragement to stop in and harass her sister and niece while out running errands. Now that sister was cursing a blessed blue streak about Twila's 'swear jar' and peppering those curses with Sierra's name and threats of bodily harm. If that wasn't a threat to Sierra's safety, she didn't know what was. Thus, here she stood almost cowering in the corner of the meat market, nervously watching out the window while the butcher filled her order.

"Wait," she muttered glancing around the small shop and counting the mohawks. "Where's Tapion?" Minotia pointed out the window at the body-shop with a sheepish smile; the bottom fell out of her stomach. Tapion stood outside the door, leaning against a lamppost and pretending not to watch the goings-on of the body-shop, an amused and somewhat dorky grin tugging at his lips. She face-palmed; that poor kid had no idea what he was getting into. Determined to at least warn him, she rapped on the window, startling him half out of his skin.

"Sorry," Tapion muttered as he ducked through the door, his cheeks nearly matching his hair. "I got distracted."

"I can see that," Sierra deadpanned. "So. Did you manage to satisfy your curiosity or need I make you eat my cane?" He cringed, easily recognizing her warning and protective stance. "They're my family," she explained bluntly before he could get the question out. "The gorgeous redhead's my niece Rowan; the cussing heathen's my sister Rio."

"You're hiding from them, aren't you?" he asked dryly.

"Damn straight. You should hear what's not comin' out of'er mouth." Opting against reminding her to tone down the swearing around Minotia, he glanced warily back to the shop—or more specifically the kerchief-clad brunette arguing vehemently with a blonde bombshell in high heels.

Rio—the lovely woman's name was Rio. Funny, though, he'd never seen her behaving so belligerently before. In all the times he'd found himself in Downtown and stopped to watch the shop's occupants a while—purely out of boredom and curiosity, of course—he'd seen all sorts of sides to the lovely mechanic. He saw her start sponge-fights with her daughter, crack her head on car hoods, drop heavy tools on her feet without flinching, and trade hand tools with other mechanics by throwing them. He'd heard her laugh, complain, curse, and sing, and once he even heard her cry out in fear for reasons which eluded him. This was the first time he'd ever seen her mad enough to spit, and the sight bewildered him. "So that's why you volunteered for hauling groceries—you felt like gawkin' at my niece."

"Wh-WHAT?!" he sputtered whipping about to face her in disgust. "That child?! Don't be absurd, she's young enough to be my—" He cut himself off, recognizing the smug look on her face. "You knew I wasn't watching her," he accused.

"After what led to her birth," Sierra answered airily, "it's better to make certain. We never expected Rowan's father to do everything he's done, and not one of us would risk making that mistake again. Rio couldn't handle a repeat." Sobering, he turned back to the window, gazing into the shop through the gaps in the traffic. "We three sisters all have different strengths," Sierra remarked coming to stand beside him. "Cordelia has a heart of gold under all the crazy and she could make a rock burst into bloom. I'm stubborn an' independent an' smart enough to know that's not always a good thing. Rio got the most valued gifts of all, though." She turned to fix a serious eye on Tapion. "She's strong an' resilient, an' she never stays down long…and she's beautiful."

"She is that," Tapion admitted softly, his hand lifting to press against the glass. "She's also off-limits…and even if she wasn't, she's out of my league." This statement confused Sierra but she opted to not dig for answers; that was, after all, almost as rude as speaking someone's personal thoughts aloud without permission.

"It's nothing personal," she pointed out lightly. "If Rio won't talk to ya, it's because you don't have ovaries—she doesn't trust men." He fixed an incredulous stare on her. "There's no harm in looking, Tapion, so long as you keep out of sight…and definitely out of throwing range." Right before their eyes, the other mechanic on duty—a tall, well-muscled woman with a black pixie cut—shouted something. Rio snatched up a socket wrench from her cart and threw it right at her coworker like a knife—the other caught it mid-air and flashed Rio a grin and a thumbs-up gesture—Rowan cheered the toss, holding up an imaginary scorecard and proclaiming the throw a '10 for accuracy.'

"Throwing range," Tapion winced watching the hilarity unfold. "Right."

The trio shuffled back to the loaner aircar weighed down with enough meat and produce to feed at least fifty humans…or, in this case, five Saiyans. The sheer volume of food astounded Minotia, who responded by gleefully asking his brother and tutor all manner of questions about the Saiyans, all the while grinning. The longer Sierra and Tapion worked to jam everything into the trunk, the more obvious the problem became: a familiar prickling feeling on the back of her neck, coupled with a sharp pain in her chest and jaw. She visually scanned their surroundings, searching for answers, and sure enough, she found them.

Two adult females, both petite and elegant, both with sleek black hair and almond-shaped eyes nearly as dark. Locals, Sierra realized without a doubt - even if they were blonde, blue-eyed, and could have passed for Californians, their body language and the lilt of their speech left no doubt. They stood on the sidewalk outside a local eatery, openly staring at Minotia and Tapion.


Sierra saw where this was going and she didn't like it. "This is wrong," the taller woman hissed to her friend, hiding her bad manners behind the supposed language barrier. Please. Maybe Mandarin would have worked but Japanese? They were in Japan for cripe's sake—how could anyone make it as far in this city as Sierra and her family did without knowing the local lingo? "Those two are aliens! They shouldn't be here! How dare they stand there laughing like their very presence isn't an insult to this city?! We have too many aliens here as it is!" The last vehement impression stopped Sierra cold.

"Hush!" the shorter woman warned her companion, visibly uncomfortable. "They might hear you!"

"Let them hear—they won't understand anyway, right? That woman—" She paused for a derisive sniff. "She is Gaijin. She won't understand us and the aliens are no better." Gaijin. The word—spat like an insult—brought a tic to Sierra's left eye; if only she wasn't used to this sort of bullshit by now. Something had to be done.

One moment Tapion was struggling to wedge a bag of whole pineapples into the last open space in the trunk. The next he heard Sierra whisper something to Minotia: get in the car. Concerned, he studied their surroundings as his little brother clambered into the back seat and buckled up; two women stalked toward them, the taller one with hard eyes and the shorter embarrassed.

A sharp reprimand tore Tapion's attention away from the approaching threat—a reprimand he only recognized as such by the volume and tone as the words were entirely foreign to him. "Dios mío, no puedo creerlo!"^ Sierra fired at him at a dizzying speed, jabbing a finger accusingly at the piled boxes stuffed into the trunk. "Yo pensó que deje la cocina prendida! Senora Briefs me va a matar!"^ she finished off with a rather vehement snarl that looked entirely out of place on her face—a face that rarely showed much in the way of emotion. He couldn't help wondering if she accomplished the expression by trying to smile.

Bewildered and slightly horrified as the confusing woman continued unabated in her undecipherable rant, Tapion looked around for explanation but found none; instead, he noticed that the two women were stopped in their tracks, cringing openly. The strangers exchanged a glance, visibly sharing a wordless conversation, then stalked over to them.

"Hey! Back…off!" the taller one ordered scowling at Sierra; as she expected, the elegant aggressor spoke forcibly slowly as though trying to make a child understand her. "He did…nothing…wrong! Go…home!" Sierra stared her down, noticing with silent pride that the shorter was gently holding Tapion by the shoulder as though trying to comfort him. That one had some heart, even if she lacked balls. "Sure…he's an alien…but that…is not…his…fault!"

"Yes, he is alien." The two women openly gaped at Sierra, dark eyes wide in shock at hearing her reply in their own tongue; they exchanged a stunned glance before turning back to her again. She stared the aggressor down, her theatrical scowl replaced with her usual nearly blank expression with the addition of an arched eyebrow. Granted, her Japanese was more stiff and awkward than Rio's, but she knew she was getting her point across. "He is your neighbor, friend of Mrs. Briefs. Next time you feel like judging him, remember to mind your Face."** Tapion repeatedly glanced from the two women to Sierra and back again, completely lost. She, on the other hand, felt a bit smug for having read them properly; they had, indeed, assumed she didn't speak their language.

The taller woman scowled accusingly down at her. "You understand us?!" she spat in perfectly natural Japanese. "How dare you eavesdrop and accuse me of poor manners!"

"Of course I understand," Sierra replied with a no-nonsense shrug. "I am from Ginger Town. I was not intentionally listening in – your voice is not as quiet as you think it is." The taller woman seethed, embarrassed at being caught off-guard, then opened her mouth to fire off another protest. "Oh right," Sierra added offhandedly, this time in English, "You thought I was being cruel? I told him I left the stove on."

The shorter woman snorted into her hands, trying and failing to hide her giggles. Her taller friend, finally, was quiet—all anger and disgust gone from her eyes and only surprise and confusion remaining. Tapion turned bewildered eyes to Sierra as she eased the trunk closed and made her way to the passenger seat. "What a beautiful sound," she remarked as he folded himself into the driver's seat.

"What sound?" he asked blankly.

"You didn't hear it?" she teased as he carefully backed out of their parking space; the two strangers still stood on the sidewalk, the taller blatantly staring at them even now. "It was halfway between an earth-shattering rumble an' birdsong—the sound of a paradigm shifting an' a mind opening." For a time, Tapion focused on the road, every now and then shooting sideways glance at her.

"I think I understand now." His remark was sudden but not unexpected, and she gave a slight head-tilt in encouragement. "This whole time, I thought you were slipping when that happens—that you get so upset you lapse into your native language or something. You aren't…are you." It wasn't a question.

"My native language is English," Sierra replied with a hint of tease, "same with the rest of my family. I took Spanish in school because my Gran'pa wasn't a native English speaker an' did slip when he was stressed, an' in the US, you're more likely to need Spanish translation than French, German, or any of the other options on offer. I started on Japanese classes when my parents started talking divorce in case they opted for shared custody." A faint snort of laughter bubbled up her throat. "I don't lapse—when that happens, it's happening because I intentionally switched. If people don't realize you're griping about them, they tend to be more uncomfortable than angry at you, and they're too awkward to confront you over your lapse of manners."

"You hide your bad manners behind words others won't understand?" Her only answer was another eye-smirk. "That doesn't explain why you led those two women to think you wouldn't understand them."

"You can blame my father for that," she shrugged, glancing up into the rear-view mirror; Minotia was dozing off, apparently worn out from the excitement of the day. Of course, the massive sugar rush from their visit to the sweet shop probably left him a bit worn out, too. Kids. "When I was a child, he read to me about a great philosopher—a man named Socrates who worked to right the ignorance of others by revealing that ignorance to them. Socrates would ask for a person's reasoning for their belief, pick it apart and show them where it was flawed, apply that flawed reasoning to other topics to prove it was flawed, then piddle off knowing he managed a hard day's work."

"You were trying to follow that example?"

"Of course not," she deadpanned. "Socrates was sentenced to death because he drove people insane. I didn't try to convince that woman she was wrong—I behaved in a manner she expected, let her make a fool of herself, then when she was comfortable, I yanked that high horse right out from under her ass." Tapion glanced nervously up to the mirror to make sure Minotia wasn't learning anymore new words. "She's probably not entirely convinced," Sierra continued saying nothing of his concern. "It's not an easy thing to change a mind, after all, but I know she'll be thinking about it for some time. Maybe she'll start to wonder if she may have been wrong." For a time, the only sounds in the car were from the road, traffic, and Minotia's soft breathing.

"Those women weren't picking a fight with you." Sierra stilled at the solemn tone of Tapion's voice. "I could see it in their eyes and in yours—they were staring at usyou weren't their concern."

"No," Sierra admitted as the car eased to a stop at a red light, "I was just an irritant - the aliens in their city were their real concern. Apparently, West City has a problem with alien invasions or something…naturally, some people are going to assume all aliens are like the ones who invade, never realizing their city is protected by aliens." He glanced over, his eyes unreadable.

"You did that to take their attention off of us," he confirmed softly and glanced up in the mirror to check on his brother again—still snoozing. "You didn't have to do that."

"You see that boy back there?" she countered glancing pointedly over her shoulder at Minotia. "This is his world now, and it's a world full of possibilities and adventure. Someday he'll start seeing the dark sides of everything an' he'll have to rely on his own strength to keep himself from falling. For now, he's young—he's just a child. If given the choice between butting my nose in where it doesn't belong an' watching that sweet smile fade, I know what my choice would be, every time." Tapion studied her silently, searching her face for any sign of deception and finding none. "The light's green," she added without ever breaking eye contact.

Her sudden comment—accompanied by an arched eyebrow—startled him from his scrutiny. Sure enough, the light was green and a series of loud honks were blaring behind their car. "Thanks," he muttered correcting his oversight with a sheepish smile. It was echoed with another in her eyes, but this time that smile came with a faint twitch of her lips.

"Anytime, Starman. Anytime."

Hours later, the groceries were put away, much of the prep-work for tomorrow's dinner was complete, and Sierra was holed up in her bathroom looking for relief. Even after wrangling a hand from some of the Capsule Corp. cooking-bots, Sierra was exhausted, stiff, and sore—so sore she felt like she went five rounds with a ten-foot-tall sumo wrestler on steroids. She just wasn't used to the sort of work that went into huge family meals anymore…her body was just too deteriorated to manage it all without protesting every moment. Even so, she refused to give up, refused to call it off. At least Tapion and Minotia volunteered to help out tomorrow and she had access to a few of the Briefs' cooking bots; any bit of work she could delegate was a bit of work that wouldn't wear her joints to uselessness.

She left her life behind—abandoned all hope, expecting to find a peaceful death in the autumn-clad forest outside of town. Instead, she found another family, a family who had yet to demand anything of her, offered her the job tutoring Trunks because she insisted on not freeloading, and only ever asked what they could do to help her. Thanks to them, she was hurting less and the onset of her illness was slowing; thanks to them, she had a second chance to do things right. These strange, impossible, wonderful people took her in—they helped her, they sheltered her, and they put up with her unreadability, questionable manners, and disturbing knack for seeing right through them, and all without ever expecting a single word of thanks.

They wouldn't get that word—tomorrow, they'd get something better—something much more tangible and far less trivial. Tomorrow, after all, was Family Friday, and she couldn't wait to show them her gratitude; sometimes, when words get in the way, the best way to express one's gratitude is through the stomachs of those you'd thank. Tomorrow…ah, she reminded herself scattering a couple handfuls of Epsom salts in the bottom of the filling tub, but that would be tomorrow. Tonight she was hurting far more than usual due to all the running around and prep-work she muscled through, on top of her usual chores.

The cursory pre-bath scrub over with and the deep oval-shaped soaking tub slowly filling, she took a moment to ground herself. Standing before the tall mirror, she forced herself to take in everything it reflected—stooped posture, wide hips and slight paunch, silver stretchmarks along her dusky breasts and soft sides. She turned, contemplating the traces of once-thick scar tissue barely visible above her full rear—those scars on her lower back were from the long-ago hernia operation intended to repair her back injury. All the surgery accomplished, however, was tangling up her nerves and permanently scarring her muscles. Again, she turned to face the mirror, her eyes drifting up to meet their reflections.

"Sierra," she addressed herself, contemplating the whole image. "That's you…yer not perfect an' yer not impressive…yer broken an' weak…" Realizing where the supposed grounding was going, she stilled herself with a stern glare. "Yer broken but still strong—you've survived worse'n this an' you'll survive even more. You'll continue to heal, an' you'll thrive, even if it takes yer last breath."

Breath…the word was so innocuous but it brought with it a memory: the Kamis' Lookout, a sinus migraine, and a crotchety, arrogant Namekian warrior. As miserable as she was, she didn't even bother taunting him with hidden insults that time; she just outright called him a whiny bitch and told to "go get laid before people start throwing chocolate." In the moment between her suggestive jab and the bellowed protest sure to follow, Piccolo's lungs heaved in his attempts to center himself, his narrow nostrils flaring in fury. That small movement, merely a widening of airways, sparked an inexplicable reaction—the Namekian stilled, all his fire fizzling out and leaving his face practically as blank as hers. Her fun ruined by his refusal to fight back, she stalked through her door and locked herself in the small room Dende offered for her use.

Shortly afterward a hesitant tapping sounded at her door. By the time she reached the doorway, the cause was gone. Only a tray on the floor proved anyone was ever there – a teacup, a small steaming tea kettle, and an infuser of loose leaf tea with written instructions in jagged, nearly illegible writing. The tea, she came to find out, tasted noxious but it wiped her headache out completely, along with the sinus trouble causing it. Dende had no idea what she was talking about and Mr. Popo wouldn't say a word. That left only one possible culprit but it made no sense. Even now, she couldn't quite see Piccolo capable of anything more than begrudgingly tolerating her. Still, the memory remained the same—a deep breath, a start, then an obvious expression of "Oh!" If he was responsible for the tray - for helping her without being asked - she would find it very difficult to despise him like she felt she should.

Forcing her mind off of that memory—and especially off of the way he kept at least thirty yards between them when Gohan came to take her home, nodding in an almost respectful farewell—she looked down at her reflection again. "This is yer fault," she accused jabbing a finger into her lower belly somewhere in the region of her uterus. "This all because'a you an' yer damn hormones. You're fixed, you're not supposed to be distracted by men, even men who can take what I throw at'em an' dish it right back in spades. Your…fault," she finished off with two more stout pokes; her body's only response was a faint jiggle reminding her she wasn't quite as thin as she once was.

Finally, the tub was full. After tossing in an extra palmful of Epsom salts and a small white clump of powder, she gingerly lifted one leg over the side of the deep square tub to test the water. The movement made her hip grind in its socket and her back tighten, triggering a pained hiss; she leaned on the wide tiled rim of the tub for support while she waited for the ache to fade.

Okay, she decided with a quiet whimper, maybe she needed to rethink this. Careful of her still-screaming back and pelvis, she stooped down to sit on the wide ledge—so far, so good—lifted first one leg over and lowered it into the water—then repeated the process with the other. A short wait later, she eased herself off the ledge and slowly sank into the steaming water—water smelling like sweet vanilla thanks to the bath bomb.

A groan halfway between bliss and agony ripped from her lungs at the heat sinking into her weary, aching bones; with every passing moment, she could feel her joints loosen up and the spasm in her back weakened. Still, something wasn't working out—the tub was too compact to stretch out in, like all other tubs she'd seen in this country, but sitting to soak was putting pressure on her hips. Perhaps…hm, maybe. Carefully, she squirmed around in the tub trying to find a more comfortable position. Finally, she found it—sprawled on her belly along the tub's raised seat, both legs bent upwards and her feet and ankles sticking up out of the water, her arms folded along the edge of the tub, and her head pillowed on them. This position was highly undignified and if anyone were to barge in they'd wind up getting an eyeful of her generous backside, but for the most part, the sorest bits were underwater. Besides, she was soaking for her health; who could honestly care about dignity when immersed in steaming scented water?

Finally relaxing, Sierra reached for the bath-stool beside the tub and collected her phone from the seat. A moment later her favorite music streaming app was pulled up and a much-beloved song filled the small tiled room with clear synthesized notes. She thought of her family—of her niece and sisters and her mother and father, both now lost. She remembered Rio's furious tantrum in the body shop, remembered every silent cry that never left her sister's lips.

She thought of her new family, too. Gohan—at first glance, he was naïve, but he possessed an inner strength that contradicted that impression. Dende—he was young but bore the weight of the world on his shoulders…and he was determined to figure her out when even she didn't understand herself. Tapion and Minotia—the two brothers were even more out-of-place in this world than she was in this country, and she could sense that she would soon be seeing much more of them. The Briefs family—they took her in, gave her shelter, and no matter how bristly she got or how often she unintentionally bruised Vegeta's ego, they insisted on encouraging her and supporting her. Piccolo

Piccolo. Of all the new names and faces she was slowly figuring out, that one still confused her, the owner a puzzle she struggled to untangle. Of all the people in her new circle, he was the only one she was consistently unable to get an accurate reading on. His thoughts were his own and his expression betrayed his feelings as little as her own did, but she doubted that was for the same reason she was unreadable. Unless she stifled her emotions, a defensive habit developed after years of dealing with Rio and Cordelia's drama, she felt everything—hurt, happiness, fear, anger, all those irritating human emotions—she felt them as deeply as any other but they rarely made it to the surface. She simply wasn't very expressive, cursed with near-constant 'resting bitch-face.' Then there was that irritating bit about how smiles tended to come out as cringes...

Piccolo was equal parts confusing and infuriating, and her inability to read him drove her up the wall. He didn't pity her and he obviously didn't like her; on the surface, he seemed entirely indifferent to everyone and everything, and perhaps that was why she felt so determined to razz him at every opportunity. Then again, there might be another reason - remembered impressions that still tickled from the recesses of her memory. Worried black eyes—strong, careful arms with rough skin—soft, warm fabric that smelled like spring—

No, she insisted silently, she was being ridiculous. Sure, his personality was just the sort she tended to be drawn to in friends. His serious nature and sobriety triggered behaviors she rarely indulged in - behaviors like starting fights, teasing people, and being an absolute smartass just to get a rise out of him. In that way, she realized, she was very much like her Auntie Constanza; the main difference was she didn't prank people to kingdom come, she just insulted them.

Perhaps someday Sierra and Piccolo could grow a little closer, maybe they might even become friends, but more than that was off the table. She sighed. More…that was always off the table, no matter whom she considered. She wouldn't make Rio's mistake; she wouldn't let her family suffer because her need to be needed outweighed her right to be respected. Love was a four-letter curse word—she wouldn't spread that sort of crap around her life any more than she would spread fresh manure on her kitchen table.

The song was almost over—how long did she spend lost in thought? She shook her head, the very tips of her sleek brown hair trailing across the surface of the water with the movement.

Right to the heart of the matter -
Right to the beautiful part.
Illusions are painfully shattered
Right where discovery starts -
in the secret wells of emotion
buried deep in our hearts.

Lost in the fragrant steam and the warmth of the bath, she gave her worries to the words spilling from her lips.

"Feelings run high…"



^ "Dios mío, no puedo creerlo! Yo pensó que deje la cocina prendida! Senora Briefs me va a matar!"- I just can't believe it, I think I left the stove on - Mrs. Briefs is going to kill me! (No, she didn't actually leave the stove on, she was making a point.)

* Gaijin – According to my research, essentially this is a Japanese term used for non-Japanese and foreigners – a way of saying someone is "other" rather than "us." Because of Japan's exclusionist culture and borderline xenophobia, many non-Japanese consider the term to be incredibly rude, bordering on a racial slur. Just as many people, however, insist that it's entirely harmless and not meant in offense, and some consider it a compliment. (Historically, it's been used to allude to the wealth and power of westerners and their businesses.) That all said, there's a more polite term – gaikokujin – which is considered neutral and formal, and used more commonly. In this scene, the rude woman is clearly not using the term without intending offense, considering her body language and tone, and Sierra quickly picked up on that.

** There's a good possibility I've gotten this off a little, but my research supports this – if anyone with solid non-anime experience with the Japanese culture notices I've made an error, please do let me know and I'll correct it. The concept of 'Face' is central to Asian culture, similar to the Western concept of 'Self' – Westerners tend to focus more on their own self-respect and the opinions of those who matter to them, while Asian cultures put more emphasis on the respect of others. In this case, Sierra's reminding the woman to 'be polite to avoid losing the respect of others.' Lastly, I recently read an article stating that on average poor manners in public are becoming much more common in Japan. Normally the woman's rant would be more likely to be witnessed in 'rude countries' like the US, but in every country, there are people who refuse to let manners and courtesy get in the way of their attitudes. -_-'

Both sets of lyrics are from RUSH "Emotion Detector."



Chapter Text

Trigger warnings for this chapter: some violent imagery, references to abuse, spoilers for later seasons of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z: Wrath of the Dragon.

Suggested Listening: RUSH "Open Secrets," Toad the Wet Sprocket "Come Down," Linkin Park "Easier to Run"

8: Failure and Family

Screams fill the air – the terrified pleas of a city in peril. Thunder follows the screams – not, not thunder, concussions, something large and heavy impacting the ground. Tremors shudder through the earth as a sea of color floods the fractured streets. In every direction the view is the same – bright-haired Konatsians running for their lives, the dead left behind with the dying.

An unearthly bellowing deafens – the Nightmare spreads its wings under the crimson sky – all hope is lost.

As always, the first sense to return was sensation itself—pain from stiff joints, pressure from gritted teeth, soreness from heaving lungs and a pant-raspy throat. After that sense returned others quickly followed—first the sound of his own hoarse breathing and emasculating whimpers, then the light perfume of citrus, nutmeg, and lavender potpourri, and the sour taste of his own morning breath. Finally, his salt-crusted eyes pried open and the final sense returned—moonlight shone through the windows, painting the room silver between the shadows.

For a moment, it was all Tapion could do to just exist. The nightmare—no, memory—still ran rampant through his mind just as it did every time it troubled his sleep. Half-expecting the towering monstrosity to pop out of the shadows and stomp on him, he scanned the room from the safety of the cushioned window-seat he folded himself into just hours before. Only stuffed animals lurked in the dark corners—no breath befouled the air but his own—Hirudegarn, the monster in his past, was still in the past and only memories remained. He slumped over feeling smaller than ever before. Memories…how could anyone defeat an assailant that stalked them from the grave?

His breathing settling, he pried his fingers loose from the soft fabric of his tunic and brushed his sleep-rumpled hair out of his eyes. As so often before, the cold metal at the back of his skull gave him pause. The golden bands he and his brother wore marked them as destined for the service—if the Kashvar hadn't brought their war to Konats, Tapion and Minotia would still have become warriors, albeit when each reached their majority. Minotia. A shaky breath rattled in his lungs as he focused on the bed just within reach—or, rather, the spiky pink hair peeking up beyond the colorfully striped comforter. No whimpers or cries met Tapion's ears; Minotia was several years his junior, still a child thanks to their time in the music boxes, but the elder was the one plagued by nightmares. How that realization made him cringe.

He carefully unfolded himself from the window-seat, grimacing at the stiffness in his back and knees, and crept out the door. He stopped by Trunks' room on the way to the kitchen, more out of habit than because he worried for the boy's safety, but quickly found himself in the kitchen. Just through the doorway, one bare foot frozen on the black and white checkered tile, he froze; he wasn't the only person driven from their rest in the night.

The woman slumped over at the counter was an enigma to Tapion but at the least she wasn't a threat. Sierra wasn't a morning person—she always staggered from her quarters early looking halfway between dead and demonic and had an peculiar habit of sending murderous glares at the morning sun. It wasn't morning now, being barely past three AM and long before dawn, but she looked like she ran a marathon just to reach the cup of tea steaming before her.

Without warning, she stiffened. She turned to warily regard him over her shoulder, unable to lift her eyes any further than his knees, then glanced pointedly at the still-steaming kettle and a second – empty – cup waiting for him. Without ever asking, he knew she picked up his nightmare just like she picked up so many of his other thoughts and feelings. The fact made his blood boil with anger. He was used to his anger at the Kashvar, at the demon they raised, and at himself for still falling prey to old fears, but now he had a new target—he was angry that the scars still tormenting him were yet again affecting others. Despite the rage, humiliation, and exhaustion at riot in his mind, he joined the other at the counter and slumped down on the barstool opposite her. It wasn't her fault she could hear what he wished to keep hidden, nor was it his fault she was woken by his nightmares; what was, simply was.

Sierra said nothing—she just poured him a cup of dark tea smelling strongly of spices, nudged the sugar jar toward him, and brooded into her mug. Normally silence was something Tapion appreciated but this silence was painful in its awkwardness. With a heavy, frustrated sigh he dug his fingertips into the deep crease between his eyebrows in hopes of warding off the building headache. "Say something," he prompted halfway between a whisper and a grumble.

For a while, Sierra refused—she just stared into her tea, furtively glancing up at him while she searched for words whivhwould be honest but hopefully not offensive. "Apparently," she finally attempted under her breath, "I've been an even bigger ass than usual lately." Tapion's clenched eyes opened and fixed on her in confusion. Wait…was she…yes, if his eyes didn't deceive him, the apples of her cheeks seemed a bit ruddier than usual under the dark bags framing her eyes. She cringed, avoiding his eyes.

"The man who brought me here – Piccolo – he called me a coward," she confessed. "He saw what I didn't want to see—that I was throwin' everything away instead of facin' my problems head on. I decked'im an' went the whole you dunno what I've been through route. If what I've picked up from you an' the others so far is accurate with him as well…" She faltered, grimacing down into her tea. "Well, if that's the case I've got some crow to start munchin' on. –I was mistaken and need to swallow my pride," she quickly clarified when his confusion registered. He considered her explanation in silence; in the time since he met her she'd never once responded the way he expected her to and it never failed to surprise him. No pointless reassurances—no degrading sympathy—no empty promises that time could heal all wounds—now more than ever he wondered how much she drew from her bizarre intuition and how much she drew from experience.

"You don't know Piccolo's story?" he asked once he succeeded in connecting a face to the name. True, he and the much taller man were both aliens living on earth but the major similarities ended there; other than a few brief encounters and run-ins while in the company of the Briefs family, Tapion knew nothing of Piccolo besides his temper and standoffish behavior.

"I see you don't know it either," Sierra sighed in response to his inner musings—musings which, were, as usual, broadcast to her without regard for his wishes for privacy or hers for peace. "I've lived with this—this ability my whole life…it's rare I find anyone I have trouble reading. People are open books to me—Bulma an' Vegeta read like x-rated comic books, Gohan's barely over a five-k word-count, even you an' Dende are somewhere between Jane Austen an' Voltaire. Piccolo…"

She trailed off and shook her head, scrying in her tea for answers. "Piccolo's closed off even to my senses," she admitted. "It's like I'm tryin' to tune an old radio in an underground bunker—every now'n then something slips through—a word, a sentence, maybe even a strong feeling—but otherwise there's only static." A frustrated huff sent her bangs fluttering and she gulped down a drag of tea. "Normally the feelings an' thoughts of others are aggravatingly clear—they register at levels between a whisper an' a scream, an' some're just deafening." A laugh rattled in her chest, more bitter than amused, but her expression never changed and her dark eyes still looked empty and tired. "It's ironic, really…I've finally encountered someone who doesn't wantonly bludgeon me with his internal monologue an' I'm too exasperated to just appreciate the silence."

There it was again—Sierra's unsettling ability to send an otherwise meaningful conversation into a long, awkward silence. …or was that him? Tapion cringed, glancing out the window over the kitchen sink. Dawn was still a long way off but a cold, murky grey clung to the horizon—light pollution from the heart of West City, he imagined. His thoughts wandered as he finally took a sip of the tea his companion poured him—sweet, spicy, and rich, with some earthy undertones and notes of citrus. It was a delightful blend, quite different from the strong, syrupy canned coffee Trunks and Goten once brought him.

Those nights squatting in the abandoned bunker seemed so long ago…why couldn't he move beyond the past? He and Minotia lived and the demon once sealed within them was vanquished…so why did he still feel as though their time together was about to come to an end? Why did he still wake in a cold sweat, lungs burning and heart racing, sure if he opened his eyes he'd find himself alone in the midst of a ruined city full of dead? Why could he still only sleep if Minotia was in arm's reach? Why could he not shake the habit of eating little, sleeping less, and always watching for the threat sure to come? Hadn't he and his brother suffered enough for one lifetime? Hadn't this strange new family—the people who took them in without question—suffered enough over his failures?

At first, Sierra held her tongue—she watched as Tapion drifted deeper and deeper into his own thoughts, every regret, fear, resentment, and dread plain in his deep green eyes and even plainer in the impressions projected to her at an ever-increasing volume. Finally, the onslaught became too much for her to handle; she took a chance, hoping he wouldn't feel violated. "Forgive me for sayin' this, but you're kinda shouting." Her muttered words startled him out of his head and back into the moment. "What you're worried about—that the rest blame you for whatever those memories relate to—the worry's unfounded."

"Unfounded," he scoffed into his tea, and cringed at how bitter and raspy his voice came out. "Right."

"So's that one," Sierra retorted poking him soundly in the arm, then emptied the last of the tea into his mug. "You're embarrassed at how antisocial an' rude ya were when you first arrived here but you've forgotten something important." He looked up, meeting her eyes with one eyebrow arched in challenge. "Most folks are grumpy when they're suffering exhaustion an' stress," she reminded rolling her eyes. "You managed to stay awake for several days straight without killing anyone. If I've gotta go even a night without sleepin', someone's gonna die, an' it's gonna be a closed-coffin funeral if there's enough left for a funeral. From the sound of it, you held yourself together pretty well."

"You call death threats and temper tantrums holding it together?" he grumbled.

"Everyone's an asshole when they're sleep-deprived," she insisted with a shrug. "Heck, I can be an asshole when I'm well-rested. Compared to me, you're a pocketful'a sunshine." Despite Sierra's cursing – a habit he still wasn't very comfortable with but was quickly learning to ignore – he gave a husky snicker at the mental image.

"I find it hard to see how anyone could collect sunshine in their pocket," he rasped, "and even harder to comprehend what I might have in common with it, but it must be entertaining to attempt it. I suspect mind-altering substances must be involved?" For once he could see emotion in Sierra's expression—she practically deflated right before his eyes.

"If there was ever any doubt you're not from earth, that cinched it," she muttered. Suddenly, her eyes went blank, her gaze distant, and her shoulders stiffened; the very picture of alertness, she turned in her seat to stare off down the hallway. Her eyes darted from one portion of the wall to the next as though seeking the source of a sound Tapion couldn't hear. Finally, she found what she sought, flinched, and turned to address him again.

"It's your brother," she explained softly. "He's havin' a nightmare—a nasty one—he needs you." As Tapion lurched from his chair she glanced back in the direction of Minotia's bedroom again; he paused, worried she might pick up something else and he'd miss it. "I'm getting a name but it's garbled—something like Haru da…Oh, right," she trailed off getting her answer from Tapion. She winced at a particularly violent image drifting from the boy's dreams—how could any child handle such violent night terrors?—but forced on what she hoped would resemble a reassuring smile. It probably came out more like a cringe. "Don't worry about the mess, I've got it. Go be a brother."

As he rushed back to Minotia's room, countless questions writhed in the depths of Tapion's brain, accompanied by the phrase that caught him off-guard. Go…be a brother? Most people would have focused on action—go comfort Minotia or go take care of him—Sierra focused on the relationship instead. He couldn't shake the feeling that this was a tell—proof she, too, was once in the position of defending a sibling against their own fears. Rio couldn't handle a repeat the tired woman told him the day before, and now he understood. Demons, after all, weren't only monsters capable of leveling entire planets; sometimes they were deadly mistakes that came back to haunt those who made them.

What sort of deadly mistake could drive a grown woman to hide from her only family?

Capsule Corp, a little after 5pm

It wasn't entirely unheard of for the whole gang to congregate at the Briefs' West City mansion for a gathering; nor, since the gang included several Saiyans, was it unexpected for said gatherings to center around food. Even so, this gathering was highly suspicious.

Only about half of the group was there—Goku and his family, Piccolo and Dende, and the Briefs family were the only people who showed up. With no idea why they were summoned, the group scattered through the Briefs' indoor garden, the two eldest Saiyans stalking the mostly empty buffet tables like a pair of black-eyed buzzards. The appetizers laid out looked delicious, but to a hungry Saiyan, there was just no point in the small finger-foods.

From a familiar seat near a bed of roses, Piccolo scrutinized the people he shared the garden with and considered those absent. For a moment, the two alien brothers were there—the Konatsians Tapion and Minotia—but the moment they recognized the warriors crowded into the garden, the elder bolted toward the kitchen, hauling the younger along with him. Even stranger, that aggravating woman—Sierra—was conspicuously absent. She lived at Capsule Corp now as Bulma's guest and Trunks' tutor so Piccolo expected to have to deal with her at this gathering; instead, she was nowhere to be found. –not that that was a bad thing, of course, Piccolo reminded himself with a forced scowl. He just knew the woman too well—she was sure to be causing trouble wherever she might be, whether that 'trouble' was baiting someone into a fight, pushing herself too hard out of stubbornness, or risking her damn life to prove a point…again.

That settled it—he needed to go find that bullheaded lunatic and drag her away from whatever hazardous situation she built herself. If not, Bulma would have his head when it blew up all over her. His mind made up, Piccolo stalked out of the garden in search of Sierra, refusing to ask himself why he wasn't just sending Gohan to do the dirty work.

When a big family meal is in the makings, the kitchen is the source of all the excitement; that said, Capsule Corp's kitchen was rarely guilty of being exciting. Energetic music set the soundtrack to a much louder cacophony – clanging pans, sizzling meat, beeping machinery and monotone complaints from a few robotic assistants 'borrowed' from Bulma's lab – amidst the frenzy, Sierra was in her element. The sounds, the smells, the blistering humidity filling the air—if there was anything she missed more than her family, it was the organized chaos of preparing their big monthly dinner. Family Friday—a day for the Stone women to gather, talk like a real family, and gorge themselves on comfort food while pretending they weren't silently waiting for the next big fight to start. Sierra would never admit it, but the burning in her eyes had nothing to do with mincing scallions and everything to do with missing memories.

"Really, it's true!" Minotia's shrill insistence tore her from her thoughts. The two brothers showed up almost an hour before wanting to help and were left in charge of the rice-cookers. Tapion slouched at the counter, chin propped on his palm, and a humoring grin on his face.

"Really, Min?" he teased mid hair-ruffle. "Some alien bug ate an entire city and tried to take over the world and no one remembers it? Tell me another."

"No, really!" the younger whined. "Trunks told me all about it – this Cell bug abz-orbed Ginger Town then – then it held a tourney-ment – and that's how Goku died! Again! Stuff like that happens all the time here and people just forget!" Tapion's retort died on his lips at Sierra's unusually blank expression.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"I just realized how my family's managed to survive this long," she answered shaking her head. "Sheer dumb luck an' unplanned vacations." Before he could get out another question, Sierra answered it. "My family lived in Ginger Town until I graduated college; one year we got home from vacation an' the place was deserted, but a few days later everythin' was back to normal. Before that, aliens apparently landed an' tried to blow up the planet – we were seein' Ma in America – an' before that, some demon-type creature took over the country an' was working on the world while we were still livin' in Muh-ZUR-ruh!" She scoffed and scraped the minced scallions into a skillet already full of frying rice. "Every time disaster strikes," she summed up as she tossed the contents, "the whole family's out'a town. Tell me that's not freaky."

"I'd call it lucky," Tapion countered pointedly. "The odds of unplanned vacations coinciding with major disasters—"

His words faded into a vague buzz as Sierra's mind wandered. Sure, the official story was that their many sudden trips were unplanned vacations but the truth was anything but. They weren't relaxing…they were hiding. They had forewarning after all, but their warning was more to do with past mistakes than present attacks. She closed her eyes and took a moment to steady her breathing, all the while recalling vividly a sight from her worst nightmares: a tall concrete stoop and a burly man atop the steps, and a much younger woman sprawled motionless on the sidewalk in a rapidly spreading pool of blood.

A gentle hand on her shoulder tore her from the memory; Tapion stood just beside her, lanky arm outstretched and big green eyes worried. "I'm fine," Sierra muttered and went to turn the rice again only to find it burnt to the skillet. The alien beside her arched an eyebrow at her and glanced pointedly at the charred mess in the skillet.

"Tell that to your rice," he suggested with a wry smile. Sierra rolled her eyes and passed the skillet to the nearest bot for disposal, quickly descending on the last platter of tofu. Tapion snatched it right from her hands and set it aside, facing her defiantly. "You're upset," he insisted leaning back against the counter. "You don't have to be a mind-reader to see that." Sierra stared him down a moment as if daring him to demand answers then turned to a pan of simmering beef chunks. She couldn't recall hearing it, but from what she picked up, he sent Minotia out of the room sometime after the rice started charring. Just as well – the memory in her mind was one no child should ever have to form.

"No choice is without consequences," she sighed when it became clear Tapion wasn't going to drop it.

"I assume you're not referring to burning food," the alien deadpanned. Sierra snorted in agreement.

"My sister—Rio—" She faltered. "She made a poor choice when we were young…it eventually tore our family apart. Ever since, that choice routinely comes back to threaten us when—" She cut herself off with a mental shake; that was too personal to share with someone she didn't know well…yet. "We rarely get more than a week's warning and when we do, we have to run. For those times to coincide with disasters and attacks is concerning but it's still just that – a coincidence." Tapion crossed his arms over his chest, waiting patiently for her to continue. She silently turned the beef chunks, poking them to judge their tenderness. Carnita beef, she admitted if only to herself, was supposed to fall apart under pressure; humans were expected to keep it together. Perhaps that was why she clammed up under stress? Even as she wondered, she felt ridiculous—folks weren't food.

"I take it this decision your sister made was a mistake?" Tapion prompted lowly.

"A deadly mistake," Sierra agreed meeting his eyes askance—guarded if not aggressive. "The consequences nearly killed her. We've all made our own choices since then—Rio chose not to move on, Cordelia chose to shut us out, and I—" She cut herself off and shoved the last statement deep down where it couldn't escape. I chose to throw everything away because I couldn't regain what I lost. She tried again. "Stone is known for being resilient but a single crack can render it useless," she admitted. "I'm no better, no worse than anyone else—the same choices available to others are also available to me—but it's not worth the risk of breaking when my family is already broken."

Between the racket of the working bots, a silent tension filled the kitchen. Tapion leaned against the counter, arms crossed, thinking over her words at length; Sierra avoided his eyes, trying to pretend she wasn't picking up every damned word of that thinking. She chose to push everyone away because she wasn't strong enough to keep them together. The accuracy of the statement threw her for a loop; it took practically no time for him to figure her out. She winced, oblivious to their unseen eavesdropper. "Rowan tells me my poker face is next to none," she grumbled at Tapion, "but here we are, you've seen right through it."

Tapion smiled, avoiding Piccolo's eyes. "This coming from a person who can read minds," he answered Sierra as the Namekian slipped away without a word.

The dinner party was winding down by the time Sierra finally emerged from the kitchen. The moment the garden's occupants noticed their hostess, a loud cheer rang out. Arms full of the final platter – fried sesame tofu with hokkien noodles and crispy snow peas in peanut sauce – she froze in the doorway, eyes wide, face blank, and terribly uncomfortable. It took a while to brush off the well-wishes and gratitude of the warriors and their families, and even longer to safely lay down her burden on the tables. By the time she was free, the only thing she wanted was to go hide in the kitchen with a cup of hot tea; instead, her eyes were drawn by a familiar flowerbed, followed by her feet.

Sometime she really should remind Bulma that Lantana was an invasive species; for now, though, she was content to admire the blossoms fading from red to yellow. Was it really only a couple months since she first arrived here? Was it really only a couple months since she gave up, fell apart, dug her own grave, picked herself up, then threw herself headlong into clawing her way back to the surface? Even lost in thought, she still heard the soft footsteps approaching from behind.

"Remembering mistakes?" Piccolo. The husky tease sent a rather aggravating flutter through Sierra's gut – a fluttering she stubbornly blamed on indigestion. A stomachache, after all, was easier to remedy than the malady she truly suspected.

"Of course," she responded with an arched eyebrow. "I should'a clocked you in the teeth instead." Deep, barely audible laughter rumbled somewhere in Piccolo's ribcage and his thin lips parted in a curve too toothy to be a smirk but too feral to be a grin. One long pointed canine crept into view and the fluttering in Sierra's gut rapidly transitioned into an entirely too familiar churning sensation; this one, she admitted only to herself, could never be mistaken as indigestion. She needed her head checked.

She ducked her head, turning to stare through the droopy Echinacea blooms in hopes of hiding her possibly impending flush. Sure, she was questioning her own sanity rather than the precise variety of Echinacea but the giant pointy-eared pain-in-her-ass didn't need to know that. Despite the thoughts running amuck in her flustered hormonal brain – or, perhaps because of them? – her nostrils flared, soaking in a calming and familiar scent from a half-formed memory. Spring water, ichor, rich soil, and greenery. The being beside her was clearly not from this planet, but underneath honest and undisguised sweat he smelled like her favorite parts of nature. 'Stop it,' she ordered her rioting hormones. 'No sniffin' the alien.'

"You're welcome." This being startled from her thoughts was becoming frustrating. She turned blank eyes to the set a head or so above hers…and froze. This, after all, was the first time she managed to pull more than a vague feeling from Piccolo. You know what I mean you stubborn woman, he grumbled at her from the privacy of his thoughts. Quit putting on as though you fed a whole pack of Saiyans for no reason and just say it. She blinked, breath stilled in her lungs. 'Thank you.' It's that simple. Just say it.

For the second time in a single day, someone saw right through Sierra's stifled reactions and blank mask, and she wasn't quite sure how to feel about that. She wasn't used to being understood, let alone being read with the ease of a light novel. Stranger still, Piccolo broke the eye contact first, a trace of deeper, warmer green quickly glancing across his high cheekbones. He…understood? He…he was being civil? She expected something else entirely – condescension and snide remarks if not complete dismissal – but the only sarcasm she heard was intentionally left unspoken.

Sierra glanced over the plate still gingerly balanced on one massive clawed hand and cataloged the remnants on it. Teriyaki and 'brown' sauce—traces of broccoli, carrot, roast corn, and rice—a few shreds of chicken and a barely touched yeast roll—no sign of any cheese, sour cream, beef, or cream sauce. Mentally she compared these to what she saw on Dende's plate before. Namekians, it seemed, were partial to fruits and vegetables, preferred lean meats over heavy, and they probably weren't crazy about pastries, dairy, or spicy dishes. Strange considering what she picked up from Dende before – "We don't eat, we just need water…so why am I hungry?" Of course, even the hardiest of plants needed fertilizing, and what was a living creature but a glorified houseplant with more complex emotions?

"You may find the sesame tofu, fried plantains, and roast onions to your liking," she suggested without emphasis. "They're sweet and savory rather than spicy." Piccolo shot her an incredulous glance, chin raised at her audacity; how could she resist? "They won't cure headaches but they taste better than your nasty tea."

Though his lips remained stiff, the savage grin from before reappeared in his dark eyes, and accompanying it was an even more uncivilized fluttering in her stomach. Such occurrences always led to ruin—they led Rio to ruin!—so why wasn't she afraid? Why wasn't she running? The flowerbed had no answer.

The party was over, the guests dispersed, and the army of borrowed bots scouring the kitchen. All in all, Bulma considered the party a success; perhaps, she wondered through a sip of hot tea, this tradition was one worth claiming for her own loved ones. Across the pond from her, Trunks' enigmatic Asian-American tutor slumped on the glider savoring her own tea. "Questions are more likely to be answered if they are first asked," Sierra pointed out without ever looking at her. Right…Bulma was still getting used to having a psychic living in her home, whatever that meant exactly. She shifted in place on the cushioned lounger.

"You're a talented cook," she said with a weak smile. "Were you trained, or are you self-taught?"

"Neither." Sierra gave an indifferent lopsided shrug. "That's not what you're wondering, though." She glanced over for permission, received a nod, then continued, "Your memory isn't mistaken—the dishes were the same."

"It didn't hit me before." Bulma carefully studied the other woman's blank expression in hopes of discerning her reaction. "Your last name is Stone…you prepared signature dishes from the House of Stones, and I highly doubt the owner would have willingly shared those recipes with someone they didn't trust."

Sierra sighed through her nose, eyes locked on the distant flower bed – or, rather, the tall purple Echinacea. Droopy daisies, her Auntie Constanza always called them, or Coneflowers. They grew wild in the grassy meadows of her home state – tall stalks capped with gracefully draping petals which fluttered and swayed in the breeze like dancers in flowing skirts. Here, in the Briefs' enclosed garden, those daisies would never dance; the artificial air circulation wasn't strong enough. "He wouldn't," she said finally, eyes never leaving the distant specks of color. "Stone Takahiro, the founder and owner of the House of Stones, was my father. After his death, the restaurant went to his second wife, Makoto."

His second wife…even roughly fourteen years later, Sierra still found it hard to call Makoto by her rightful title of "stepmother." Makoto was sweet and gentle, petite and pale, soft-spoken and polite to a fault—she was everything Sierra's mother Evita was not. The three daughters torn between the two marriages often wondered if those characteristics had any bearing on Takahiro's second marriage succeeding where the first failed. Sierra paused to collect her thoughts. This was all water under the bridge, Takahiro's infidelity and the subsequent divorce included, and it had no bearing on Bulma's question. "Dad," she attempted, faltered, then shifted to the name he'd preferred in life, "Tousan taught me everything he could, then left me his personal recipe box. He wanted me to take over when he retired but it didn't happen." Bulma shot her a curious glance and Sierra responded with a crooked cringe-smile. "I opened a flower shop instead."

Whatever happened to the botany shop? Why wouldn't Cordelia answer her calls? No matter how many times Sierra called, the youngest Stone sister refused to answer the phone. Perhaps it was time to try again. Even Cordelia Tomasa Stone couldn't shut her out forever; eventually Cor's compulsive need to blame everyone for everything would drive her to answer the phone if only to unleash holy Hell on Sierra for running away. ...not that she didn't deserve it.

"You've made progress." Bulma's remark received a vague nod in reply. "When Gohan found you, you could barely walk; tonight you prepared enough food to feed a small army."

"I'll pay for it, too," Sierra deadpanned. "Probably gonna be limping for a couple days while my muscles unclench." Then again, putting it like that made her sound ungrateful. "I could barely even cook for myself when this all started, though, so it's definitely an improvement. Don't see how I'll ever repay you."

The silence filling the garden now was a comfortable one—an opportunity for quiet reflection between two women fast becoming friends of a sort. Still, all silences are eventually broken and this one was no exception. "Have you contacted your family yet?" Sierra's lazy rocking stilled, eyes hardening. "They're sure to be worried about you," Bulma amended.

"Rio, you've got to be more careful. Rowan's depending on you, you can't just stop taking your med—"

"Don' you go tellin' me how to raise my kid! I know what I'm doin'!"

"Do you even hear yourself right now? You're—"

"Fuck off, Dai! When have you ever heard me?! Yer so fuckin' special— too fuckin' special to dirty yer hands with me or my problems! When've ya ever listened to me?!"

Sierra shuddered at the memory, all the while cursing herself for the involuntary reaction. Rio Stone needed constant, careful handling, and had needed it since her accident, but what of Sierra? Rio had a right to make her own decisions and voice her opinions but what of Sierra's right to feel hurt, her right to protect herself from…from what? After several years of similar (and much worse) fights—mild disagreements which rapidly escalated to one-sided screaming matches and thrown objects—Sierra still couldn't quite bring herself to name what she was trying to escape. Rio depended on her…toxic or not, how could Sierra let her down? How could she let Rio down, when Rio's condition was partly her fault?

"No," she answered at last, "not yet. This's the first time Rio's ever had to actually be a bleedin' grownup; considerin' the tantrum I saw yesterday she's still not gettin' it." Her fingers clenched painfully on the side of her tea mug and her breath caught in her throat. Hide it—conceal it—shove it so far down no one can read it! If you smother it, you'll still feel it, but no one can see! Hide it! But…why? She had allies now—people who might understand instead of blame her. Hiding, too, was part of what led to her intended but averted death in the autumn-clad forest; locking her emotions away from prying eyes led her to the gingko tree she chose as her headstone. If Piccolo and Gohan hadn't intervened, she might still be there, those busy ants cleaning her bones as the winter sun bleached them. Perhaps

"Sometimes Vegeta takes off without much warning." Bulma's words came completely out of left field; Sierra's grip on the ceramic mug loosened and her eyes met the impossibly blue eyes of her hostess. "He may be gone a few days or a few weeks…once he was even gone an entire month." Bulma broke eye contact, staring into the murky green dregs of her tea. "I used to hate him for it," she confessed, "then I realized the connection."

"He hasn't acclimated to this world very well," Sierra realized aloud. "He leaves when the stress becomes too much?"

"Because he knows he'll take it out on us." Sierra's eyes widened then darted away, seeking yet again the tiny lavender blobs across the garden. "Don't get me wrong, he's a wonderful man—a prince among men," she added with a secretive smile, "but he's still Saiyan. His temper is something you never want to encounter and his fuse is short. When he leaves for training, it's not because he resents me or Trunks—he's fighting himself to protect us from the part of him we could never tame." Bulma fell silent, leaning into the lounger's tall back and settling in for a wait. If living with Vegeta taught her anything, it was to be patient when people wouldn't speak.

Sierra thought it over a moment, considering the pros and cons and the other woman's unintentionally broadcast internal commentary. Perhaps…it was worth the risk… "Vegeta leaves to protect you," she countered slowly and evenly. "If he didn't…if he refused to take responsibility for his…temper…" She sucked in a deep, measured breath through her nose and exhaled it through her teeth, her knuckles clenching anew. "If he…hurt you…would you…leave?"

"Vegeta has hurt me before," Bulma answered without a trace of humor, "but never on purpose, and he's always made up for it. Unintentional hurt I can forgive but intentional? That's something else entirely, something I'd never tolerate." The heiress waited for a response; Sierra brooded into her empty cup. "Hurting someone on purpose is abuse, Sierra."

There was that word—the word Sierra refused to acknowledge, and refused even more to connect with her family. "Rio has lessons to learn," she explained instead of confirming or denying Bulma's point. "She's gotta figure out why I left before I return…or…" Her knuckles crackled; she forcibly set aside the ceramic tea mug and carefully folded her hands in her lap. Words mean nothing. THAT word means nothing. Hide it—Smother it. "I'm…I'm not strong enough to go back," she whispered as if to herself, eyes shimmering. "Gotta leech out the poison first or it'll spread…" Coughing to clear her throat, Sierra steeled herself against her own feelings; with practiced ease, the invisible veil dropped down over her eyes, guarding the emotions inside from being seen from without.

This time, the air between the two women was uncomfortable—prickly with meaning Bulma didn't care to examine—and she didn't feel comfortable breaking it. They sat in silence a while longer, long enough for the garden's automated lights to begin dimming and the humidity to rise. As small electric luminaries and lanterns flared to life along the walkways and unseen crickets began an out-of-season symphony, Sierra stared off into the distance.

Even as darkness settled and the colors faded from sight, her sight never left the distant "Southern America" flowerbed—the brick-bordered patch full of flame-hued Lantana and unnaturally still Coneflowers. Lantana. Why was she so bothered by it? Normally invasive species didn't bother her so much, so why did this one bother her? Honestly, she was surprised the showy bush hadn't already taken over the—

Wait. Her breath caught in her throat. That was why it upset her. Lantana was beautiful but noxious – it poisoned the soil, choked out weaker plants, and spread like a pandemic wherever the berries were scattered. Members of the Echinacea family were simple in appearance but hardy and some species were valued medicinals. Beauty over simplicity—aggression over endurance—control over comfort.

When incompatible plants were pitted against one another, the end result was always the same: the more aggressive species would thrive and the other would fade away. One way or another, one of them had to go. Must it really be the same with people?


*The Briefs family has an indoor garden - I haven't noted this before, but this feature is directly based in the early-to-middle episodes of Dragon Ball. The garden first shows up when Bulma brings Goku to her parents' home. It's shown as a very large space with countless flowerbeds, grass lawn, several sizable trees, and many different species of 'strays' taken in by Doctor Briefs...including a couple dinosaurs. Since the garden has been around since Goku and Bulma's childhood we can assume improvements and expansions have been made over the years.

*Dishes - Sierra was trained by a professional chef (her father) and holds claim to three nations/ethnicities: Asian from her father and Latin American/American from her mother. The different dishes noted reflect those three sides of her.

*Living creatures are basically houseplants but with more complex emotions - I have no blippin' idea where this came from, I just see it EVERYWHERE. At this point searching out the origin is taking backseat to posting this chapter. If/When I find the answer, I'll update it here, or if you know, feel free to let me know so I can give credit.

*Echinacea/Coneflower/Droopy-Daisy - These are, as mentioned, all names for the same plant - Echinacea purpurea or more commonly Eastern purple coneflower. The last name (Droopy-Daisy) is generally used for varieties with long petals which drape downward. These flowers are common in grassy areas of the Missouri Ozarks, especially the Ozark Plains. The plant is sometimes used in folk remedies and herbal medicine and often used for strengthening the immune system/treating cold and flu symptoms. Echinacea tea, in particular, is one of the more pleasant home remedies for symptoms caused by respiratory issues.