Chapter Fourteen: Dende, the Trials, Stage One: Granite and Glass

A Brief Interlude

*** Trunks came into awareness, and found that he had being.

"Hello, Toronksu," said the Voice, and all else ceased to matter.

"Who are you?" Trunks asked, and wondered if he were floating upside down; as light as his head was feeling this seemed entirely possible.

"I Am," came the Voice, and Trunks asked no more. He became aware of Majesty, of beauty beyond comprehension, of a Justice and Grace and Finality that passed far beyond any meager, mortal idea Trunks had had of the same. And he wept.

"I am ready," he said to the Voice. "Whatever you want of me, I am ready. I love you."

"That is what I have been waiting to hear," came the Voice, and then they began.

***

Dende Gets a New Perspective

Dende stood and gazed about him in awe; this was not at all what he'd expected to find on the other side of the Canopy. Yet, that is undoubtedly where he was.

Behind him the Canopy - somehow a much lighter color in the sunlight - rose majestically out of his sight, sparkling so brightly near the top that he could not look at its peak directly. Dende looked around him at the world, amazed that his eyes remained unhurt by the light, and wondered where he was. Somewhere, off to his left, a bird chirped. And then, when he thought there could possibly be no more shock for him to hold, more came.

"Dende!" said Bulma, and ran lightly up to him. "What are you doing out here?"

Dende fainted.

***

Dende woke up inside the Capsule Corporation. Not, as he had insanely hoped, his own Capsule Corp., but a previous, bustling-with-life version of the one he had spent the past two days in. Before the End. Before the Black came.

Oolong was standing over him when he woke up.

"Ooh," he said. "You're in trouble now. Master Roshi - looks like he's awake."

Kamesennin Mutenroshi made his way over to the bed and stood looking over the downed Namek with cruel scrutiny, as if to ascertain his weaknesses. For reasons he himself did not understand, Dende felt a little afraid.

"Can you understand me, Namek?" asked Roshi carefully, as one would talk to a stranger.

"Well - yes," said Dende, very confused.

"What is your name, young one?" Roshi asked, and Dende blinked.

"I... I'm Dende, Master Roshi." Cripes, he should have known that, even in the "other" timeline he would have known that....

"I told you so, now back away from him," Bulma commanded gently and moved into view with a damp washcloth. "I don't know how you got here, Dende, but it's a bad time. A really bad business, altogether."

Then Bulma was gently cleaning his face and his forehead with the cooling cloth, efficiency and maternal instinct combined in seamless perfection. "Although it looks to me like you've already been through enough. How did you get so dirty, anyway?" She stepped back to admire her handiwork. "Ah," she said. "I knew there had to be green under there somewhere."

Dende tried to sit up. "Ow," he said, putting a hand to his head. Bulma stood there, long hair tied back, hands on her hips; far behind her was Trunks, leaning back against the table with one knee up and his hands resting over it. He was not looking at Dende, but was facing the wall to the right instead. His sword was strapped to his back. He looked very grim.

Oolong and Roshi were inspecting Dende closely - a scrutiny he did not appreciate - but they were alive, and so was everyone else, and now Dende realized something frightening: he could feel sunlight on his face. He looked out the window.

The horizon was populated, untouched, beautiful - and there was no Canopy to be seen.

"What?" he said, staring. An air car hovered by innocently on its way to work. "Where's the Canopy?" Dende said with exasperation, and they all looked at him with puzzlement.

"Canopy?" Bulma said. "What are you talking about?"

"You know..." Dende said. "That big glass thing that was right behind me when you found me."

Bulma looked at him with extreme puzzlement on her face. "There was no big glass thing, Dende," she said softly. "Are you all right? You don't look so well..."

For a moment Dende doubted everything. He doubted the dragonball, he doubted the Black, he doubted the dead world he had seen - especially, he doubted his sanity. Then Reep's voice seemed to speak to him from a distance - or maybe only the center of his mind - Know this, Kami, and stay strong - Trial number one that you must face is an unwinding of realities. Stay, struggle, watch and learn, and above all, remember....

Dende chuckled morosely and rubbed his head; the others stared at him, having heard nothing.

"I think I landed on my head harder than I thought," he said as casually as possible, looking at the dead men around him. For that's what they were - they just didn't know it yet.

"I'd say so," remarked Bulma, scowling out of habit as she chided him. "You fell like a dead man when I saw you. Or when you saw me. How did you get here, anyway? Has something happened on Namek?"

"I don't know," Dende answered truthfully enough. "It was all fine there last I saw it." This, too, was the truth; never mind the fact that he hadn't been there for some thirteen years. Bulma took out a cigarette and began to smoke it.

"Mother, put that out," Trunks commanded quietly from his post at the back, and looked around at Dende for the first time.

He's Vejiita re-born, the Kami thought, looking back at him, but without the sense of humor that made him bearable. Oh, this is bad; this is very bad.

Trunks rose from his semi-reclined position and began to make his way toward Dende. The others moved aside for him without so much as a word.

"What are you doing here, Dende?" he said with a slight challenge. "No space ship of any kind has entered or left this atmosphere, and no one ever learned the secret of Gokuu's teleportation. How did you even come to be here? Tell me!" And somehow he leaned forward without actually leaning forward, pressing intimidation and brute force in Dende's direction as if to scare him half to death.

I was wrong, Dende thought, panicked. He's not Vejiita; he's the Devil.

"Oh Trunks," Bulma came up, the only one in the room apparently unafraid. "Stop that. He's not our enemy." Trunks turned to look at her without smiling.

"And how can you tell who is?" he said, crossing his arms, and with a meaningful glance at Dende walked past her and out of the room.

Bulma watched him go and took a deep drag on her cigarette. Dende realized he had scuttled to the far side of the bed in an attempt to get away from the Devil-Trunks, so he un-hunched himself and moved away from the wall.

"What happened to him?" Dende wondered out loud, and when Bulma turned to answer him he realized how much older she was. Emotionally, not just physically.

Bulma took another puff.

"Long story, Dende-san," she said and shrugged dismissively. "People change; sometimes things change people. Oh, well." She shrugged once more. "Now, are you strong enough to take a bath or do I have to clean you up myself?" Bulma looked as though the idea, while not something she would look forward to, was something she certainly handle doing. If she had to.

Dende smiled.

"Iie, Bulma-san," he said, addressing her respectfully as she had addressed him. "I can bathe myself. I just need some water to drink first, if that's all right. I feel like I haven't had any in a couple of days."

"You don't look like you've slept, either, but we can take care of that," said Bulma, and turned to the wall to her left. "Input command: twenty-four ounce water jug for guest number one," she commanded the blank wall, and moments later a small robotic arm with a large bottle of water in it extended outward and toward the surprised Namek.

He drank thirstily.

A little while after that, he was ensconced in one of the upstairs bedrooms suites, complete with soap, towels, and a fresh change of clothing. He relaxed in the shower, trying to sort things out and studiously ignore the sensations and sounds of Trunks practicing powerful ki blasts just outside this part of the house. Dende allowed himself to reflect only briefly that he would not like to be on the receiving end of one of those blasts; he leaned his forehead against the cool tile and closed his eyes, yearning for the soft bed that awaited him. Exhaustion blessedly numbed his thoughts.

Twenty minutes later, he was sound asleep.

***

Dende awoke feeling refreshed, relaxed, and clean, and thought that these things in and of themselves were enough to prepare him to handle the rest of whatever he had to face. He made his way downstairs slowly, listening in with some amusement to the conversation going on in the breakfast room.

"I'm telling you, I'm old. For Pete's sake, I'm going to be sixty next year!"

"Bulma, you're only as old as you feel - and if you feel anywhere near as good as you look, then honey, you are kicking with youth!" There was a muttered, "let's see if you feel as good as you look" followed by a sharp, quick slap, and Roshi stumbled into view.

"Ah - hi, Dende," he said, a hand up to his reddened cheek. "Maybe you can help me talk some sense into this woman over here. She thinks she's old."

"And ugly," came Bulma's disembodied voice. "Don't forget ugly."

Roshi looked back at Dende, pathetically. "See?" he said. "She won't listen to reason."

Bulma came around the corner, still wearing her apron. "I AM old, I AM ugly, and don't you try to tell me otherwise. Dende, you can tell this perverted old goat that he's just really desperate because he doesn't get out enough and that's why he still thinks I'm attractive. Go on, tell him."

Dende looked at them both and started laughing. It felt good - and more than a little strange.

"Well," he said. "I have to admit, Bulma, that from what I've seen you are an amazingly preserved woman - you still seem to possess those features which women of the human persuasion envy - but I'm afraid I can't really be the judge of whether you're attractive to the alternate sex or not."

They both blinked at him, and from behind them in the kitchen came a booming, joyfully masculine voice, full of vigor and vim.

"Indeed you can't, little Namek," he chuckled. "Now come around the corner and let me see you. I can't quite, from here."

Dende came down the steps to see who was laughing in the kitchenette, but he thought he already knew.

It was Mr. Satan.

The once proud hero was wheel-chair bound - more than that, for he could barely hold his own head up on his neck - but his expression was still powerful and jubilant, his bearing somehow still strong - in spite of what the androids had done to him. Bee sat by his side, panting and happy. Dende thought he could actually see the dog smiling.

"Dende, is it? I didn't have the pleasure of meeting you before - but Roshi and the others told me all about you. It's a pleasure, young sir, to make your acquaintance." Mr. Satan somehow bowed in honor without actually moving at all. Dende smiled.

"It's good to see - uh, meet you, Mr. Satan."

"And you knew his name how?" asked Trunks, making Dende jump. He hadn't noticed the young man leaning in the doorway. His arms crossed and his eyes keen, Trunks looked only slightly less wary than the day before. Dende somehow doubted very much that he'd be getting an apology.

"And who doesn't know Mr. Satan, Trunks?" he answered evenly, strong but not challenging. "Do you really think we Nameks have totally abandoned the events on Earth simply because we're not here anymore? You must think very little of us, Toronksu." He said, throwing Trunks' proper name in just for effect.

The young man nodded. "Yes," he said. "That's true. I was short-changing you. I apologize."

Dende blinked.

"Now, that's better," said Bulma, highly pleased, and started to say something else when an insistent beeping sound erupted from the back part of the kitchen.

"My cake!" she exclaimed and raced back there, grabbing potholders as she went; Dende thought he could detect a slight odor of burnt chocolate something. Roshi made some sort of comment to Oolong, and Oolong laughed; Mr. Satan laughed just for good company's sake, and even Trunks cracked a weary smile.

It was all so normal and well and good that Dende felt his heart was going to break into pieces and tear itself bit by bit from his throat.

"I'm going back to the lab today," Trunks said, and all laughter suddenly ceased. Roshi looked at him sternly.

"Does your mother approve of this?" he said testily, in the tones of one expecting to be obeyed.

"No," Trunks said, and looked back.

"Do I approve of what?" said Bulma, walking in and removing her potholders as she came. "What? What's going on?"

"Your fool of a son is going back to that laboratory again," said Roshi, and all but pointed an accusing finger at him. Trunks was unresponsive.

Bulma turned to him, her face weary with concern.

"Trunks - after the last fiasco? Who knows what else might be down there?"

Trunks did not move. "But that's why I have to go," he said. "And this time, if another mess like Super 13 comes after me, I'll have a recourse." He turned to Dende. "Because the Namek's coming with me."

This was met with utter silence, and no one - not even Dende - knew quite what to say. "Dende has healing powers, mother," Trunks said kindly - and perhaps condescendingly. "If he's there with me, there won't be anything I can't handle."

Dende squinted his eyes slightly and psychically perused the boy; at rest, and not powered up, his power level was somewhere in the low 40 millions.

Dende couldn't restrain a low whistle.

"What?" asked Trunks, turning those granite eyes to him, and Dende swallowed. "Your power," he said. "It's much higher than..." he'd wanted to say "The other Trunks," but that would cause so many questions and enhance so many problems he didn't even want to think about it. So instead, after a hardly noticeable pause, said, "than even your father's when he died. Uh, so I've been given to understand."

Trunks nodded, not impressed with familial comparisons to his own ability. "And Son Gokuu's and Son Gohan's, and Piccolo's, and Tenshinhan's... I know, I know. What's your point?" he said, and this time there was something slightly challenging in his gaze, as if he did, after all, know how ludicrous it was that he could so overpower almost everybody with his half-bred genes, and that his secret, whatever it was, would not be breached by anyone - especially not some half-pint Namek without a spaceship.

Bulma intervened. "Dende… Trunks, are you sure this is a good idea? I just don't like it..."

Dende turned to her. "What happened? What is this Super 13 you're talking about?"

Bulma sighed, and for just the briefest of moments looked almost her age. Almost.

"I found this book..."

"You might as well show it to him, mother," Trunks said, still leaning casually against the doorframe. "If I'm going to take him with me - and I am - then he needs to know everything." Bulma nodded, put the potholders down, and retreated momentarily from the room.

"You have no idea how important you are, Dende," said Trunks quietly, and Dende was surprised to turn and find those chiseled blue eyes on him once more. "Now if only we could convince the divine hierarchy up there to make you Kami, then everything would be all right again," he said, and although there was nothing remotely funny about this remark, Trunks threw back his head, revealing perfect teeth, and laughed and laughed and laughed. Dende stared at him, not quite aware that his mouth was open.

Trunks didn't know; he wasn't making a secret joke. Nor was he mad. There was such a wealth of deep-rooted bitterness there that something as odd as Dende (of all people) being the Kami of a dying world with no dragonballs would strike him as hysterically funny. So in the freedom of embittered youth, he laughed.

Bulma came back in with a large, reddish, leather-bound book in her hands. She kept her glance on Trunks sidelong as she gave the book to Dende.

The thing was heavy; he almost dropped it.

"What is this?" Dende asked as Trunks' guffaws finally tapered. "It's… very heavy." Bad is what flickered through his mind, but he couldn't reveal that he could sense that; especially after a joke like this one, Dende being Kami in the "other" world would probably make for some bad relations indeed, indeed.

"It's some sort of log book or journal kept by Dr. Gero," she said simply, and Dende dropped the thing as though it were possessed. Stupe, he told himself. The Black didn't come from this. But there was something wrong about it just the same, and Dende found himself loathe to bend over and pick it up.

"I got it, Namek," said Trunks, and bent easily to retrieve it. Dende observed the broad musculature of his back and wondered - briefly - why it was that Trunks wasn't married.

Then he wondered how he knew that.

Trunks stood up and handed the book back to Dende, fixing him with cold, intelligent eyes that were somehow still amused - and Dende thought he knew the answer to that question. In fact, he rather suspected that there were plenty of women who would run screaming from eyes like those.

"Um... thanks," he said, and turned to Bulma for clarification.

"I found that book in, of all places, a back-lot sale," she said, taking a seat beside Mr. Satan at the table. The room was sunny, fresh-aired and clean, and at such odds with the present conversation that Dende felt unreality wash over him a second time.

"I go on scavenger hunts, of a sort," Bulma explained. "Ever since they got the barter/monetary combo system working again two years ago, it's been extremely profitable to me. I'll go and check out different leads, different areas, and if I find something I like - or more usually, something I need - then I just trade for it. You'd never believe how much money and junk I ended up with after my parents died. Anyway, I found this in a weird old sale for this guy's collection of books. There it was, just sitting there - and it was only 200 dollars. Don't flinch; you don't understand the way money is these days. 200 is nothing. You can imagine my surprise when I opened it up and discovered what it was." She shifted in her chair, putting weight on one hip and then another, until she found a more comfortable position.

"Anyway," she continued. "What we found in there was indicative of more trouble to come - more than just the androids 17 and 18, anyway. I was surprised to see stuff in there about me - and about us, you, and others, and all sorts of info you'd never believe. Do you know at one point Gero even kept a record of how many times Yamucha was unfaithful to me?" She chuckled wryly, required to make some kind of response that wasn't tears. Trunks took a step protectively toward her, his face slightly softened with concern.

And Dende forgave him for much.

"I'm all right, Trunks," she said quietly, and turned back to Dende. "Well anyway, Gero mentioned all sorts of things in this book - which he kept and wrote in merely because he liked the smell - and some of them struck me as things that ought to be checked out. For one thing, he spoke of 'the Deeper lab' - he had the word 'deeper' capitalized - as if it were a real, living thing that existed underneath his present laboratory." She paused for breath, looking proud. "And so I checked it out."

"Which was very foolish of you alone," Roshi said, and at the same time Trunks spouted, "Which was very foolish of you, mother." Dende blinked.

"So you can see what these bakas think of me," Bulma added, jerking her thumb in their general direction. "But I went anyway. And you'd never believe what I found."

She leaned forward, her eyes bright and her face young, and Dende thought that he could guess just how attractive humans of the opposite sex would find her.

"I found secrets," she said with a passion. "And secrets are all I did find - sources of how to make artificial sunlight - important because for a good three years we were without it after 17 blew up Mt. Fuji - secrets regarding food, regarding water, regarding the texture of the earth..." Bulma threw back her head and laughed. "Gero had managed to accumulate secrets and reasons for observations wondered about for centuries - and he'd done it in the weirdest of ways."

She leaned back, still looking cocky - but a little scared too, and Dende noticed.

"He had found a way to extract memory from dead people," she said in a low voice, and even though there was nothing sudden about what she said Dende jumped.

"From... dead people?" he said after her, somewhat disturbed.

"Dead people," Bulma repeated, and something about her grin made Dende hope that she was kidding.

She wasn't.

"She found secrets and I found trouble," Trunks interjected stoically. "I take three steps into the lab and Mr. Big, Purple, and Ugly decides to make an acquaintance."

"It was android 13," Bulma said. "He'd somehow fused himself with... I don't know, with stuff, and marched into the world with one hell of a vendetta. And Trunks took him head on."

Bulma sounded both proud and frightened of her son; and even though she loved him fiercely, Dende supposed she was. "The weird thing was, it seemed like he was ordered not to hurt me - or something. I couldn't quite understand..." and she looked to Trunks for verification.

"It didn't choose to harm her," Trunks said, his watchful eyes riveted on his mother, and there was suspicion mixed with love in there, oh yes there was, and Dende began to wonder if forgiveness could be taken back. "It was like the thing was actually programmed not to hurt her."

Bulma met his gaze, not quite defiant, but definitely weary. "It was. It was just like that. The thing just looked at me and... and moved on."

There was uncomfortable silence for a moment, and Dende cleared his throat.

"I'm sorry if there's some sort of inconvenience here..." he started with no clear idea of what he was saying to dispel that awful silence, and Mr. Satan saved his hide.

"They found other things down there," he said quietly, and the awesome authority in his voice drew all eyes to his solemn gaze. "Other things that weren't nearly so nice as Super Android 13; isn't that right, Bee?" Bee cheerfully nodded and yelped, as though in agreement, then continued panting and gazing around the room. Dende looked curiously at Bulma.

"Well, we found... come on. Let me show you what we found." She rose and led him down the hall and out the door (the sunshine was so bright) and across the lawn into her lab. She fiddled at a cabinet for one moment, then came back onto the lawn, holding something up for his inspection; it looked like ordinary glass.

"Just plain glass, ne?" Bulma said, and to demonstrate this took it in her hands and snapped the chunk in half. "Very fragile at this width, too. Trunks? Would you be so kind to demonstrate its more unusual properties?" Trunks nodded marginally, and Bulma threw one of the chunks into the air.

"Move," was all the warning Dende got, and then Trunks came alive, Trunks became the warrior, he of the lightening reflexes and terrifying visage as he shot ki out of his hands in what seemed a prodigious amount, totally consuming the glass.

Dende eyed him carefully, noting how Trunks was concentrating not to increase his power but to contain it... and worried, for one moment, what might happen someday should he be unable or unwilling to do that.

"The glass chunk, as you can see, is fully caught in his blast; he's using some slight telepathic abilities in the form of a net to hold it in place so it doesn't get away."

To hold what in place? Dende had to wonder. Nothing could have survived what Trunks was putting it through, in any form. Just as abruptly as he'd started, Trunks stopped - and was standing there, arms crossed Vejiita-style, as though nothing had happened.

The piece of glass dropped to the ground unharmed.

"What?!?" exclaimed Dende, rushing over to where it had fallen.

"Go ahead; touch it, it's not even warm," said Trunks, and Dende did, and it was not.

"How... Trunks, how did you hold it in one place like that?"

"I learned the trick from Bojack's group," Trunks said, and now Dende could see that he was a little tired. The mental strain that had put on him was not good. "I don't do it as easily as Bujin and the others, but I can do it."

"We don't know what this glass is - yet - or how it works," said Bulma, "but Gero only took whatever theory he used to concoct this stuff only so far. I'm going to find out what he did and perfect it. I just have this feeling we're going to be needing it," she said as if to herself, and shook her head as though waking from a dream. "Well, come on inside," she ordered. "I'll tell you what was inside that glass, and you can tell us just what you plan to do all day."

This last part was addressed to Trunks, not Dende.

Interesting.

They all went inside and had some brunch - sans the burnt birthday cake - and celebrated Roshi's birthday long and hard before going about the rest of their day. Dende went with Trunks to the lab site, feeling extremely unprepared for whatever was to follow.

***

The Deeper - as Bulma and Trunks had begun calling it thanks to Gero's book - was much more like something out of an old black and white horror movie than Dende had expected. Under the original lab site, which Trunks had destroyed so long ago first thing upon coming back to his own timeline, was a cave. Not just a cave; it was a cavern.

The thing stretched up and out of sight, huge beyond belief, only slightly damp and shaped in weird and fantastical ways. Dende had to admit that if it had not been quite so creepy it would have been beautiful.

"Come on," said Trunks, holding aloft the bluish lantern Bulma had given him, and made his way further into the cavern of dark blue rock. Glowing in the light of a lantern of his own, Dende followed.

Signs of a hasty retreat were everywhere; it seemed that Gero - or whomever had been using this last - had basically just tried to scoop all necessary materials into a bag and run, and be damned anything that was accidentally left behind. There was a noise and Dende jumped. He turned back to find Trunks - truly frightening in the odd light and shadow - smiling at him.

"Creepy, isn't it?" he said with amusement, and turned and began making his way further into the laboratory.

"What exactly are we looking for again?" asked Dende, wondering why he'd ever agreed to come along in the first place.

"I don't know," admitted Trunks, rummaging. "Mother will come down here soon enough though, and I promised it would be safe by the time she got here."

"Ah," said Dende, looking around. "Promised whom?"

Trunks didn't answer, and Dende did not feel the need to push.

Going over to what looked like a huge medicine cabinet complete with its own sink, Dende began rummaging around as well; might as well try to do something useful as long as he was here. He found... shards... of something strange and, picking one up, turned to ask Trunks about them.

"Trunks, what's..."

"PUT THAT DOWN!" Trunks roared, and Dende had just enough presence of mind to keep from dropping the thing on the floor. Instead, shaking, he laid it on the counter behind him. Trunks stormed over - his expression making Dende very glad that this anger was not directed at him - and swept all the shards, which looked like black, smoky glass, to the floor. A ki blast later, they were gone. Trunks looked at him with what was definite relief.

"Let me see your hands," he said, but his tone said that he expected whatever he was looking for to not be there. Dende obediently held them up. Trunks leaned forward in the strange bluish lantern light and nodded. "You're clean," he said, and went back to his rummaging.

"Let me guess," Dende said and leaned back against the now cleaned counter. "That was bits of the thing that oozed and then dried up when you killed it."

"Right-o," agreed Trunks sardonically, and Dende sighed. "So it could have sucked me dry? Just like that?"

"Just like that," Trunks agreed once more, and Dende turned to face the cabinet behind him again.

"That thing - that was behind the glass - it just drained by touch?" Trunks didn't answer, which Dende took for a yes. "There was no indication as to what it was?"

Trunks sighed and turned, still squatting. "No," he said. "No record of it; nothing. Just that quicksilver black shape, writhing and twisting like smoke with eyes behind the glass. We don't know if somebody made it, if Gero caught it, if somebody entirely unrelated caught the thing and put it down here for safekeeping. All we know is that the poor fool working with mother accidentally broke the glass and the sucker was on him - all over him, like an amoeba - before he could even get the chance to scream. When it moved off him, there was almost nothing left - he was so weak, he could barely breathe on his own. And the only reason the thing moved off him at all is because it hated light and mother ran up shouting and waving her lantern like mad and it... well, it went away. Until I came looking for it."

Here, Trunks grew meditative, but still cocky, reminding Dende of when Vejiita would proudly reiterated a kill. "I stood in the middle of the cavern and charged up, being careful not to let too much ki show - it has its own light, you know - and waited until it came to me. And then, I killed it." Trunks said this with the subdued passion of a confident lover remembering a tryst, and Dende shuddered.

"You don't have much in the way of challenge around here, do you?" he said quietly, trying to picture in his mind a fibrous, smoky thing that would break into brittle chunks of smoky glass and spray everywhere when hit.

"Not any more," said Trunks with - regret? Relief? - Dende was not sure. He didn't want to be sure.

"I'm sorry for you Trunks," Dende said, not planning to say anything but used to his mouth working on its own by now. "To have lived through so much - and gained so little."

Trunks looked up at him and for the first time his eyes were not guarded; for the first time he saw a hint of who the young man used to be. "I..." and he couldn't say anymore. Instead, he looked down and laughed ruefully. "That guy - the one the monster got - was one of mother's would-be lovers, did you know that? She's had plenty of them; men that come in, come along, wanting to be with her, to be in her - I think it was easier for them when they had a 'fatherhood for the child' angle to work on, but I never liked them. I never liked any of them. Not that it mattered..." He looked up at Dende, his eyes haunted. "Mother never wanted any of them. She never got over my father, not even when somebody - I think it was Roshi - callously pointed out to her that he probably just wanted her to make a brat like Gokuu's and not because he loved her at all."

He sighed deeply and stood. "I learned otherwise when I was there; papa is capable of love. Was capable. And I have to wonder what he ever showed mother, because she's still connected with him to this day. Once - and only once - I caught her on the anniversary of papa's death, drunk as a sailor on good saki, and she told me through her tears that no man could ever mean as much to her - even though she really, truly doubted that it was the other way around. At least," he said, looking at Dende - his face was sharp now, watchful, but Dende was entranced in the story and did not notice - "that way it wasn't a complete failure. At least, in that room - the what's-it-called room - I got to know my father a little better and to know I could trust him. Which is more than I can say for most."

Dende nodded, sighing. "Yes," he said without thinking. "The room of Spirit and Time." Trunks smiled wickedly.

"Gotcha," he said quietly, and with no more warning than that suddenly slammed into Dende and knocked him into the far wall.

"Liar!" he screamed, pressing Dende into unforgiving rock, cutting off his air, making him pass out before he even had a chance to defend.

***

Dende woke up with the worst headache he'd ever had in his life.

"Ungh," he said, and tried to sit up. Being trussed up like a turkey made this rather difficult, so he lay still. Light from the lantern by his head played against the uneven walls.

"Trunks?" he asked weakly, figuring that the boy - correction, man - probably hadn't just left him down here to rot. At least, he should have had the decency to tell Dende what he was in hack for.

"Trunks?" he called a little louder, and was surprised when Bulma answered him.

"He's not here, Dende," she said sadly, and came into the light. "He went to fight the thing he released by bringing you down here."

Dende tried to sit up again and found that he could; he just wasn't very comfortable doing it. "What are you talking about?" he said, and Bulma sighed very deeply.

"When he slammed you into the wall over there, he... cracked something. More of this damned glass. And something got loose." She laughed shrilly, and Dende wondered for a moment if she could have come unhinged.

"I think he was keeping demons down here, that's what I think. What do you think?" she asked, and laughed brittley again.

Dende was scared now; whatever Bulma had seen, it had quite obviously scared the crap out of her, and to top it off, he was still tied - which meant that he was still held in suspicion of evils unknown.

"What did I do to get that kind of response from him?" Dende asked innocently, and she turned to him with an odd smile.

"Oh, Dende," she said sadly. "Why didn't you just tell us you were from the other timeline and be done with it? That would have been so much easier." Dende stared.

"How... how did you know?"

Bulma shrugged. "An easy test; slight difference in DNA because you're not as old as Dende should be, even though you are obviously him; therefore, the other timeline was really the only logical explanation. The only one that fit all the facts, anyway. And you'd better be glad that Trunks isn't as much of a killer as his father was, or you'd already be dead," she chided, and Dende felt inclined to disagree. It must have shown on his face, because Bulma continued.

"He didn't kill you, baka; he didn't even want to fight you. He just wanted to keep me - to keep us all - safe, and here you come with lies that a two-year-old could see through and no decent explanation for your appearance. Our Dende could not have known that he and Vejiita spent a year in the room of Spirit and Time."

Dende mentally kicked himself. Ah - of course. Caught up in the real pain of Trunks' story, he had missed the obvious lead-in and walked right into the trap.

Somehow, he doubted Reep would be making songs up about this one.

"But that's not the worst," she said dimly. "I don't know what you released, but somehow when you slammed into the wall, it cracked. And another little room appeared, hidden behind the rock. And out came this." She held up her hand and showed him a large, black, oddly pointed seed.

"It grows," she said. "Oh kami, it grows. It's already almost completely overgrown Satan City, and Trunks is only barely able to keep up with it - but he is, and he's winning. Slowly. Oh, kami!" she said and buried her face in her hands, weeping unashamedly.

Dende stared at her for a while, unable to comfort her as he wished because he was still tied. "Bulma..." he said quietly.

"Hush," came a voice behind her, and Trunks walked into the light. He was begrimed from head to foot, and looked extremely weary. But as he placed a comforting hand on his mother's shoulder, the look he gave Dende was no longer at all suspicious or guarded. It was, in fact, very sorry.

"You can untie him now, mother," he said, and then moved forward to do it himself when Bulma remained unresponsive. "I'm sorry, Dende," he said. "If you'd just told us..."

"You would have had too many questions, Trunks," Dende said. "Not that I did a good job of answering any of them anyway." He chuckled morosely.

"It's all gone up there, mother," Trunks said. "All the vines. And now, I think I'm going to take Roshi's advice and get you out of here, and then blow this place up." Bulma looked up, horrified.

"But... no! There's so much more to discover here, so much more to find..."

"And you're going to have to figure it out on your own," Trunks said quietly, once again placing a hand on her shoulder and catching her gaze. "Whatever else is here, it's going to stay unfound."

She stared blankly at him for a minute, and then nodded curtly and turned away. Without another word, Trunks picked them both up around the waist and flew away.

Twenty minutes later he was back; he hovered in the air in the midst of the cavern, concentrating, allowing himself to do what he never did in populated areas: he charged up to his full potential of ki.

His hair gold and erect and lightening sparkling all around him, Trunks screamed and sent out an area blast equivalent in its power - though not its extent - to a nuclear bomb, and brought the cavern down around him and destroyed everything.

Bulma watched from a distance, unhappy. Previously unnoticeable frown lines traced their way from the corners of her mouth down to her chin. "Unnecessary," she muttered, watching the dust clouds rise in the wake of the destruction. "Premature."

Dende looked around at the buildings literally torn to pieces within minutes of the bizarre plant getting loose above ground, and had to disagree. "I don't know about that, Bulma. I don't know about that at all."

Something about her unwillingness to agree with him disturbed Dende, and he felt he needed to add a warning.

"Don't do anything stupid, Bulma-chan," he said, and she turned on him with the attitude and speed of an adder.

"Don't you call me that!" she shouted. "I am not a 'chan' anymore, and I haven't been for years. You will address me as 'san' and your elder or you will not address me at all!" Then she turned away.

Dende blinked. She had such anger about this - such regret. This was not good, not good at all. He could make out Trunks now, flying toward them and so covered in dust that he looked like a ghost.

"It's done, mother," Trunks said. "We're going home now." Picking them both up once more, he flew away.

From the ground, some small distance away, strange black eyes watched them; strange minds processed their thoughts and actions and deeds, and recorded all the information to take back to their leader and king: the Grand General Ru Sa.

***

To the IndexTo Chapter Fifteen To The Previous Chapter