Chapter Twenty One: Transformations

Trunks woke up feeling dazed and with more than a tad stiff - in fact, rather like he'd taken a pummeling and then gone without oxygen for a little while. He sat up.

His hair, longer now for the time he had spent with Jouten, spilled across his shoulders and partly down his back, its already rapid growth accelerated by the very presence of the company he had been keeping. He smiled, at peace, with himself, the world, with everything.

...even though nothing very pretty was going to happen next.

Somewhat shakily, Trunks got to his feet and looked around. As promised, he had been returned to the room from which he had been sucked out - fortunately for him, now sealed off. Well, of course; Jouten would not put him in a losing situation. Jouten was not like that.

Keeping his own ki low and opening his ki sense wide, Trunks walked sedately to the door and peeked out. His father and Gokuu were out there somewhere, Bra most likely with them, and he had to find them all as soon as possible. Them... and a man who called himself Cumber.

Glancing over and wishing briefly that he'd been given permission to mess with their machinery, he slipped out into the hallway, clothing ragged beyond belief, his face clear and pure as an angel's, and exuding death with every calm and solid step.

*

Cumber walked morosely down the hallway of his ship and went about preparing himself for takeoff. This still seemed to him to be more than stupid; it seemed to be a waste of time. To go all the way back to that dead place where the Black had started and pick up a bunch of Nameks when there were plenty of things to be had right here made no sense to him. Ru Sa had insisted that taking any more creatures from this dimension would be too dangerous; telepathic help cries from Nameks and interfering Kaious, he'd said. But they were going to go back in time, which meant that the incident would not have happened yet, and telepathic Nameks would hardly be a problem anyway; it's called drugs. Knock them out and there would be no problem.

Sighing, he turned the corner and froze in shock as he saw Vejiita's son - looking a little different, but very much alive - stepping out of a control room and heading down the hallway. If the boy was aware of him, he gave no sign, and for a good long moment, Cumber stood in complete indecision of what to do.

Option one: go and check in the room to see if the brat damaged any machinery.

Option two: go after said brat and debilitate him before he could do any more damage to any machinery.

Option three:

Cumber never got to flesh out what option three was, because at that exact moment Trunks turned around.

"Hello, Cumber," he said, and his eyes were like torches. "I was just looking for you."

Cumber knew quite well at that point that option three was to turn around and run away as fast as he could. He also knew instinctively that it would be pointless. Whatever power was emanating from that boy could not be outrun.

Afraid of something he could not understand or plainly see, Cumber stood still and waited for the drastically altered Trunks to come for him.

*

At the end of Snake Way, Kaiou-sama suddenly gasped and knocked over the table on which he had been playing chess with Kibito. "He's back?" he said to no one, testing the words on his lips. "He's BACK!! HE'S BACK!! HAHAHA!!" And the blue Kaiou proceeded to jump up from his seat and do a gigue around the overturned table. It seemed there was hope for the universe after all.

*

Interlude 21.1: Coincidence or Conspiracy?

As Trunks approached Cumber and Kaiou-sama danced like an idiot, several other things were happening on different parts of the vessel all at once.

One was that almost everybody on board the ship was taking a nap. It made sense on one level that they would be taking a nap; they had been working very hard to get the time-jump engines online, and the lack of Chive's stabilizing serum made everyone very tired indeed.

However, Parsley was sleeping with them, and Parsley was supposed to be on duty. His sleep in particular meant that for at least thirty minutes Trunks and company roamed the ship unhampered, unmarked - and without Ru Sa's knowledge.

The second thing was that Bra came fully awake the moment her brother set foot in the vessel. Wide-eyed and open mouthed, she very nearly gave into her exuberantly juvenile urge to scream, TRUNKS! at the top of her lungs - but she did not. Bra, you see, had been learning patience. Whatever else Chive may have been, she was a master at the fine art of subtlety.

So instead, Bra did something else.

Clenching her teeth and steeling her little mind, Bra began trying to reach her drug-dazed father, trying to break through the fog and wake him up, get him ready, make him alert. A very nagging feeling of imminent departure had settled heavily on her shoulders.

And so, while Ru Sa stood in the control room at the other end of the ship, gazing at the stars, his captives were wreaking havoc with his crew and plans. By the time he found out about it, the damage was far too advanced for him to fix.

*

Gokuu could hear Cumber panicking out in the hallway.

"But... but no, you're dead, you're...."

"Shhh," hushed Trunks, and amazingly, Cumber did. "I have not come to kill you," he said quietly, and Cumber blinked.

"Hey," shouted Gokuu. "Hey, what's going on out there?"

"Would you please let Gokuu out of that store room, Cumber?" asked Trunks politely. "I'm afraid I have to insist on it."

Cumber at that point came to the conclusion that he was going insane. "Why... why should I?" he challenged, figuring if he'd gone mad enough to be seeing dead people, then talking to them certainly would make little difference at this point in the game.

"Because it's the right thing to do, and you know it," answered Trunks. "What you're doing now is not working, it's not helping to stop the Black, and it's costing innocent lives in the process. You have to do what you know is right." Trunks moved closer and lowered his tone again. "You have a chance to fix things, Cumber. To make it right before you die. Not many get that chance. It has been given to you. Do not be a fool and throw it away." Trunks took one more step, and Cumber could feel the holy power coming off him. No, not off him - through him.

Trunks had become a direct channel for Jouten.

Cumber found himself bowing. "Yes, sir," he said, looking curiously at the boy. "Right away." And without letting himself think too hard about his decision, he went and opened Gokuu's door.

*

Vejiita was barely stirring when Trunks began to loosen his chains.

"Papa," he said gently, and Vejiita looked up at him through fogged and unfocused eyes.

"Trunks?" he asked in disbelief. Bra's earlier words about his son not being dead but "not there, either" came to mind. They didn't clarify anything, but their validity was certainly confirmed. "Where in hell have you been?" he said - or tried to say; it came out a bit too croaked and slurry for even the enhanced Trunks to completely understand him.

"With Jouten," he said, chafing his father's torn wrists. "If you said what I think you said. He has been making me pure so that I may use the eighth dragonball."

"Been with God? Eighth dragonball? What?" Vejiita was unsure now if this were really happening or if he were hallucinating again. The drugs had been pretty powerful. "What in hell are you yammering about?"

"I think he's feeling better," observed Bra, and Vejiita was about to reply when Gokuu's face swooped down and encompassed his vision.

"Ohayoo!" he intoned cheerfully, and drugged or not, Vejiita tried to smash him.

"Whoa, papa, whoa," said Trunks, chiding gently. "Don't hurt him; he's got a place in this, and a job to do, same as you and I."

"Job..." croaked Vejiita and licked his parched lips. Come to think of it, they tasted fairly salty; dried blood was like that.

"We might want to get him into a tank," intoned Gokuu wisely. "Seeing as we're traveling for a while and all."

"Oh, yes," answered Cumber. "I can arrange that. Ours are super-charged, and he should be fine in a matter of minutes."

"Would somebody tell me what the HELL is going on?" Vejiita shouted relatively clearly.

"We're going on a trip, Vejiita-san," repeated Gokuu. "We're going to find the eighth dragonball!" He exclaimed, and Vejiita felt yet another wave of impressive dizziness wash over his skin. He swayed in his seat.

"The tank should take care of that, too...." Cumber started to say, and Vejiita passed out.

*

In the main control room, a small light switched on in one of the auxiliary control panels indicating the tank's use. It was quite some time before Ru Sa thought to pay it any mind. When he did, however, it was to note with some displeasure the fact that the settings were ideal for a Saiya-jin's body - not Kyuujinshu. Taking his time, Ru Sa began walking down the length of the ship toward the regen room, frowning as he went.

*

On Kaiou's planet, six very concerned individuals crowded behind Kaiou sama and tried to read his mind.

"What's happening now?" Goten demanded loudly, and his brother again hushed him.

"Trunks is telling them about the eighth dragonball," the Kaiou answered shortly, and fell silent again. He sighed. "It seems that Jouten did not tell Trunks any more about all of this than he told Rou Kaioushin."

"Which was?" asked Goten, and this time Tenshinhan shushed him.

"That Trunks has to somehow get hold of the eighth dragonball to stop the advance of the Black. He didn't tell anybody anything else!" the Kaiou voiced, sounding a bit frustrated.

"And NOT telling people things is all of a sudden BAD?" jabbed Bulma, who was still ticked at not being told Trunks had disappeared in the first place.

"Hush," said Kaiou sama, and concentrated some more. "Gah," he said. "I'm getting interference. Something is getting in the way of a clear transmission... Oooh, darn it!" He straightened up again, morosely quitting his telepathic spying for the moment.

"I can see nothing either, Kaiou," said Kaioushin, who had been doing observation of his own. He, too, closed the connection.

"So... this means what again?" asked Goten, and Gregory sighed.

"Show respect to the Kaiou of the galaxy," he squeaked, and Goten turned a playfully vicious grin on him that sent him flying back two or three feet.

Kaiou sama sighed. "We won't know what happens now until that inter...." the Kaiou stopped. Blinked. "What?" he asked of nobody, raising his voice. "WHAT? What happened?"

"What, what?" somebody echoed behind him, and the Kaiou put his head in his hands. "Oh, no... all hope is lost... that's it... all is lost..." and he began to weep.

"Kaiou," said Kaioushin softly. "What did you see?"

"An explosion," Kaiou responded dryly. "The ship is gone. They are all gone."

Dead silence met this statement. It seemed there was nothing more to say.

*

"This really is quite advanced technology," informed Cumber as he carefully placed Vejiita in the tank, completely unaware of the danger coming down the hallway toward them. "And you Saiyans tend to heal fairly quickly anyway. I give him ten minutes. No more."

Gokuu settled down beside the tank, looking curiously at Trunks. "So what are we doing again?" he asked in unconscious imitation of Goten, and Trunks sighed wearily. His father had been right; too much time spent with Gokuu would do that to anybody.

"We need to somehow find the eighth dragonball. I'm not sure where it is or what it does, what it summons, or anything. I only know that only one who is pure of heart can use it - and that no mortal can be that pure of heart."

"So Jouten is being pure for you," Cumber finished for him meditatively, his expression observant and interested.

"Something like that," answered Trunks, and would say no more.

"But Trunks," said Bra. "There aren't any more dragonballs. At all."

"There is one more," said Trunks patiently. "I don't know where it is. I was told to ask you two - Cumber and Son Gokuu. Apparently," he added with a wry smile, "while willing to help out a bit, Jouten will never be willing to give us all the answers."

"Well... it was the eighth dragonball that made Dende disappear," offered Gokuu, and Trunks nodded.

"Yes," he said. "But where does that leave us? I still don't know where to look. All I know is that he - in Jouten's words - was 'placed with the others.'"

Cumber wrinkled his brow in thought. "The others," he repeated, and Trunks nodded again, his eyes riveted to his father's floating form in the tank.

"The others," Trunks reiterated, and Vejiita stirred ever so slightly.

"Hmmm," Cumber mused, and for a moment his expression grew sharp and bright as his more than adequate brain went to work. "I wonder if he meant the other Nameks."

Gokuu blinked. "You mean the Namek elders that were taken from the planet Namek?" he asked.

"None other," said Cumber with a strange mixture of satisfaction and guilt. "We... they... took all the healers from one village and transported them to an alternate timeline - one in which you and Vejiita were dead and Trunks was the only warrior left. It was also where the Black originated, as did the Junsei Aion - the 'perfect iron' - which is the only defense against it."

"Mirai no Trunks," Gokuu said with some surprise, and Vejiita bubbled more noticeably.

"Wow," said Cumber, checking the readings. "He's... recovering a lot faster than he should be."

"Oh, that's because he's genetically superior," Gokuu said casually. "Descendent of the original Super Saiyan, or something."

Cumber nodded. "Yes, I know - the line of Vejiita prided themselves on that fact. But.... heh. First time I ever saw one in a regen tank."

"So the other Nameks are in the other Trunks' world," Trunks mused, bringing the topic smoothly back around as Cumber made preparations for draining.

"Yes," said Cumber slyly, smiling a bit as he worked. "And that, incidentally, is where we are headed now."

"We are," said Trunks, not really surprised. "Jouten's timing is perfect. How wonderful."

"So we go, possibly find Dende and the eighth dragonball - and then so what? What does that mean?" asked Bra, sounding much more articulate and comprehensive than was normal for her. At the moment, however, nobody noticed.

"Then I... pick it up and see what happens," answered Trunks with a slight shrug. "I don't know how to use it." He did not sound entirely upset. Cumber looked at him.

"Jouten has really affected you," he observed, and Trunks merely nodded, content to say no more. "And this extra dragonball, when in your hands, is supposed to do something about the Black?"

Trunks shrugged again. "It's what I'm supposed to do," he answered shortly, and left it at that. He was not about to try to explain the sense of destiny Jouten had given him. He knew they would not understand.

Bra looked at him keenly. "I think it will help," she announced, and Trunks turned his burning eyes to look at her.

"Why do you say that?" he asked, but he did not have the chance to answer. Just then, Vejiita's tank finished draining, and the prince began pounding insistently on the inside of the glass, waiting for someone to let him out.

Cumber did so. "The Black is not to be trifled with," he said as Vejiita stepped out of the tank, slipping slightly on regen fluid. "I doubt your extra ball will be of any use."

Trunks merely shrugged and waited for his father to speak.

"Somebody had better tell me what is going on right now," Vejiita announced quietly and dangerously, "or I am going to blow you all to hell."

Bra smiled. "Yup," she said. "He's all better."

Vejiita glared.

And as they explained to Vejiita the very little bit that they knew, Parsley awakened from his nap and walked into the hall where the good guys had been not five minutes before, making his way to the control room, passing Ru Sa with a nod as he went. It was time to make the jump to the alternate time line.

*

GOT to get that thing fixed, Parsley thought to himself as he walked down the hall and away from the regen room. The directional coordinator in the main controls STILL wasn't working right, even though he and Chive had been fiddling with it for months. Sometimes, things were just too stubborn for their own good.

Bah, he thought derisively, and nodded to Ru Sa as he passed. The captain looked very focused about something and only barely responded.

Well, fine, Parsley thought, miffed and a bit put off because it would take an innumerable amount of tweaking to get this ship exactly where Ru Sa wanted it to go when he wanted to go there and nobody even cared

Thinking miserably that no one understood the drudgery of techie life, Parsley proceeded to the control room and started to mess with the controls.

Ru Sa continued past him, intent only on the strange telepathic signals he was getting from the regen room. It was odd, really; he thought that just for a moment, he'd sensed…

But no. That was impossible. Gokuu could not be loose and in the regen room, because that would mean that somebody had to have let him out, and that…

Would mean treason.

Ru SA frowned and continued on his way, tensing preparatorily for battle. Somebody, it seemed, was going to get squashed.

*

Bra was listening to the adult's conversation when she felt a very familiar presence tug on her subconscious; she suddenly stiffened and hissed.

Vejiita saw his daughter exhaling sharply through clenched teeth and knew immediately what was wrong. "Hide!" he ordered, not too loudly. "Some one's coming!"

"What?" started Gokuu "How do you...."

"Not NOW, Kakarotto! Move!"

Not fast enough. The door slid open and Ru Sa was standing there, looking not at all happy. Before he could get the chance to react to seeing four very unhampered Saiyans and Cumber sitting in the regen room congenially shooting the breeze, Vejiita was on him.

"Tried to kill my son, you BASTARD!" he roared, and the two were gone and fighting in the hallway before anybody else could react, either.

"Papa!" Shouted Trunks in warning, but it was too late; the damage was being done. Was, in fact, raging down the hallway and short-circuiting any uncovered control panel it happened to pass. Within minutes, everyone on the ship was awake.

"Oh boy, here we go," said Gokuu, and powered up to super Saiyan level three.

*

Parsley had not yet completed configuring the controls when the explosion happened in the hallway. And since he had left the door open - no need to close it, there was hardly any danger - the radius of the blast caught him bodily and slammed him into the control panel with a force much too strong for the ordinary steel casing to take. It shorted as well, and with no warning at all, the entire ship jumped - jerked, really, into an alternate reality with severe damage done and very little hope of return.

For everyone on board, everything went black.

***

Interlude 21.2: Dende: Education

Dende could not believe his luck. It was his third game in a row, and once again, he had a royal flush.

"Flush!" he announced, revealing his cards to the others with a flourish that was perhaps not quite kami-like.

Roshi sighed. "I'm out," he conceded, and dropped his cards on the table.

"Aw, not again," whined Oolong, and pushed over his pile of chips with a miserable resignation that would have put a hound dog to shame. Dende merely chuckled at them.

"Guys," he said for the third time. "Keep your chips. I can't eat them."

Oolong smuggled one off the table and crunched into it. "Heh. Your loss." Shrimp chips were Oolong's favorite. Among other things.

Roshi sighed and pushed back from the table. "Well, that does it for me," he said, and slowly stood. "These old bones are going to go take a nap." He nodded congenially at his fellow poker players and, without further ado, walked away.

"And my favorite program is coming on," Oolong offered and also rose to leave, taking the shrimp chips with him, and Dende was alone.

He sat in the folding chair for a little while, looking up at the blue sky, across at the far, cloud-wreathed mountains, and sighed.

Gone. It was all gone. Or it soon would be, as soon as the Black got a hold of it. The very idea that everything he was seeing now, everything he could hear - the birds, the generators, occasional snatches of traffic and construction from Satan City - would be gone without a trace and far beyond recovery was more sad that he anything he felt he should have to bear. He looked at the mountains again, lost in his own miserable thoughts, and feeling much less than adequate to handle whatever had been handed to him. Only half-aware of what he was doing, Dende rose from his seat and started to walk.

He was very deep in thought, trying to solve his problems, and going over the riddle that was Reality, the Black, Gero, and Cabbage over and over again; so deep, in fact, that what started out as a simple jaunt around the Capsule Corporation became something more before he was even aware that he had left the compound. By the time he was aware that he had left it, he was squarely pointed in the direction of the mountains.

"Eeeh," he said, looking around and wondering why Trunks hadn't caught him yet. "That's... quite a walk." He looked down at his feet, curious and a bit amused. "Where do you think you're taking me?" he asked of them, and that's when the air car pulled up behind him.

"Need a ride?" asked somebody who was the spitting image of the Ox King.

Dende blinked. He was off the grounds, Trunks hadn't found him, and his instinct seemed to be trying to get him to go someplace, so...

Heh. Why not? he asked himself, and peeked with a smile in the window at the large driver. "You going to the mountains?" we wondered, scanning the man as best he could to detect intentions, good or bad.

The man - a relation of the Ox King's, surely - smiled back. "Sure thing," he said. "I'm headed that way now. Hop in, my odd green friend, and I'll give you the ride of your life."

Dende blinked a little at the man's strange wording; however, his intentions - which were very easy to see, the man was no good at blocking at all - were merely nothing more than a friendly urge combined with curiously about Dende himself. Smiling, Dende accepted the offer and climbed in, even though "the ride of your life" made very little sense to him.

- and then they were speeding toward the far-off mountains at such a suicidal pace that Dende knew exactly what had been meant by that phrase.

They reached the mountains in less than ten minutes.

Trunks, meanwhile, was off having adventures of his own.

*

For Bulma it had started out being such a nice day.

It was true that she was tired after the night before - hell, everybody was - but Akeno Cabbage-san was more than making up for it. Not only was he a faithful assistant and unafraid to climb creepy mountains with her in the dark, it also turned out he had more than a rudimentary knowledge of physics. He was, in fact, brilliant.

"University training," was his casual explanation, waving his hand to indicate "the time before" - before the androids, etc.; such a story was not uncommon. However, Bulma had to admit that she found it more than odd; that Cabbage-san, who had supposedly had university training some fifteen years ago, should be so up-to-date in his knowledge and experience.

Cabbage, however, didn't seem to find anything unusual at all.

"Of course," he said calmly when informed about the properties of Junsei Aion, as if it made perfect sense and had been written in the sky for anybody to see. Bulma was slightly nonplused.

"Do you know how many years it took me to figure all that out?" she'd hissed, and Cabbage changed tactics directly.

"And yet not one worry line on your face," he'd said with a smile, obviously altering the subject, and she, as usual, let him. If there was one thing Cabbage was best at, it was peace making. Bulma smiled back - although she had not yet and never would flirt with him.

It seemed her capacity for that had died with Vejiita.

"Stay for dinner," she insisted, to be polite. He had already stayed for breakfast and lunch. Dinner would hardly be a problem.

Unfortunately, it was after dinner that the slip-up came.

Roshi, Oolong, and Dende were out back playing poker, so that was all right; Cabbage was listening to Mozart and commenting on the mental benefits thereof. And Bulma was chattering about her day.

"... And the jeep needed refueling again, but that's not really a surprise because steep slopes can really take it out of your car..." She went on like that for a while, and then Trunks innocently remarked, "Yes, the mountains are a real drain on the engines this time of year."

Bulma missed Cabbage's warning look.

"Oh, you bet," she said blithely, "especially on the northern slopes." She kept talking, uninterrupted, and for a long while Cabbage believed that they might have gotten away with it.

Wrong.

Trunks was merely waiting for his mother, whom he DID respect, to stop talking.

"So you went to the lab again anyway," he observed, and Bulma fell silent.

"Yes, I did," she said, and glared him down.

"You were safe? No accidents?" he asked, and Bulma blinked curiously.

"Yes, we were safe," she answered. "There were no problems of any kind at all." Trunks nodded once.

"Well, that's all right then," he said, surprising both Bulma and Cabbage. Bulma stared at him curiously for a moment, then continued her speech, eyes not quite leaving him for a long while.

Trunks, for his part, was inscrutable.

Later on, while Dende, Roshi, and Oolong were still playing their game, Trunks took his leave of everybody and went on a trip to Gero's lab; well - what was left of it. He had been in the place enough times, and he wanted to see if he could figure out what Bulma could have taken judging by where she had been digging.

He was very surprised to find a group of what were apparently Saiyans already there digging amongst the wreckage.

Trunks charged and they scattered like birds, disappearing every time he lost direct eye contact with them. Within mere seconds, all had were gone.

Trunks stood protectively over the mound of dirt and rock, ready to defend what was left of Gero's lab from anybody or anything that came next. He stood for a long while until his instinct allowed him to relax.

By that time, Dende had already reached the mountains - and as far as Trunks was concerned, disappeared without so much as a trace.

*

Dende hopped gratefully out of the air car - which, he realized happily though belatedly, meant no trail for Trunks to follow - and turned to thank the Ox-king look-a-like.

The man waved off his thanks with a smile.

"Now, don't start," he said warmly. "You and I both know there is no way you would have gotten to the mountains in time without my help."

Dende didn't know how to reply to that, so he muttered some more thanks and backed away, and that's when it fully hit him who he had been riding with this entire time.

"Ox King?" he said quietly, and the big man smiled.

"Thought you could use some help, Dende," he replied, and Dende's eyes about fell out of his head.

Ghosts have cars? was the only coherent thought that would, at the moment, anchor in his brain.

Ox King grew serious. "Now, you have a job to do. Don't let us down. Everybody - and I do mean everybody - is counting on you." He smiled, a little sadly this time, and waved. "Farewell, Dende-san," he said, and then vanished - poof - right before Dende's eyes.

The Namek stood still for a moment more, staring at the place where the Ox King had been.

"Ghosts do not have cars," he insisted aloud, and blinked. "I guess he was... given one to help me out. That's... very strange." Instead of pondering that for the rest of the night (which he could have easily done), he started walking up the mountain's steep slope. He still was unsure where his feet wanted him to go, but after a minor miracle like that, Dende was not about to gainsay anything.

There were some things one just didn't argue with.

*

By the time Dende found the cave, the sun had almost disappeared completely behind the horizon. There was barely enough light to see the cave itself, much less the inside of it.

Of course, this was not a problem for Dende.

Summoning what little ki and godly powers he had, Dende began to glow - an ability he had not dared to show to Trunks in Gero's lab - and walked in.

It had seemed, coming up the mountain, that there was one particular spot that was drawing him. Calling to him, almost, and it was without doubt inside this cave. Inside this mountain.

The cool dampness of the cave was refreshing after his long hike, and at first he was just able to relax in it, observing the coloration of the stone and quality of the mineral formations. The place had an odd feel to it, one that characterized those few areas on earth where man had never or only rarely set foot. It grew darker, damper, cooler - and then, it changed.

The subtlety of the change and its flavor therein were so delicate as to at first escape Dende's notice entirely. He only gradually became aware of it, and when he did he was not entirely sure what it meant. The quality of the air was different; it became, rather than merely cool, the slightly tainted air of a place that has been breathed in - though not much - for a very long time. Secondly, he became aware of the movement. Although he was walking on solid earth, rock that had been part of the backbone of the world since there was a world, he could not escape the creepy feeling that he was actually walking on... something. Alive.

Something very like a huge snake.

Dende stopped walking.

"Hello?" he called suddenly and frighteningly aware of the third thing that had changed in this darkness: awareness.

Something in this cave was definitely aware.

"Hello," something answered back, and Dende started to shudder. It was a female voice - and powerful and old beyond belief. It also seemed to be coming not from any one point, but from all around him. Dende wondered if he should say anything else.

"You are here to learn," said the voice, deep and resonant and so far past merely "beautiful" that Dende knew he could never listen to another music with complete satisfaction again. For it WAS music. Somehow.

"What are you?" he asked quietly, suddenly aware of how squeaky and grating his own voice was in comparison to this.

"I am Gai," said the voice. "I am the third dragon. The Last Resource. I am the Answer for Victory." And the entire cave around him seemed to shift, to move gracefully according to some inner rhythm.

"Gai," said Dende, and translated her name in his head. "Song of victory." Yes, that fit. As she - this third dragon - seemed to throb with sleepy awareness and power of sound all around him, he thought it fit very well. "What are you doing here?" he asked, and it was a long moment before he got an answer.

"Waiting," Gai responded, and Dende nearly kicked himself. He was forgetting how to talk to dragons.

"What are you waiting for, oh Gai the beautiful?" he asked. Flattery always worked with dragons.

"I wait for the pure of heart," she said, her voice making Dende shiver with joy in places he didn't know he could shiver. "That one must be pure before Jouten, worthy beyond his own self, cleansed by a will higher than his own. That one... must have the last dragonball." And she fell silent.

Dende stood in shock for at least a minute. "Who... could be that pure?" he asked, almost desperately.

"I know of no one," said the dragon, and Dende knew without asking that that statement included the now dead Gokuu - dead in this world, anyway. Swallowing once, he sighed deeply and decided it was more than high time he got back. But one more question before he left...

"What needs to be done with the last dragonball when the... pure one holds it?"

The dragon laughed, and Dende's entire being floated with the sound. "Nothing - merely give to that one the ball, and he will know what to do." And something... changed.

Dende blinked. How it had happened, he did not know - but he was back in a regular cave again. Just a cave. Nothing more. Turning, he could actually make out the cave entrance some distance behind him.

Outside, the sun had long since gone down, and the stars seemed to glitter like perfect diamonds against the deep, deep blue of the sky. It was beautiful, peaceful - and far past curfew.

Boy, was he ever going to catch it when he got home.

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