5th November, 766
She was standing under the uncertain November sky, way in the back, the moment Chichi started to wail.
She watched as the other woman fell into the embrace of the Ox King sobbing convulsively, she watched Gohan gingerly rubbing a hand on her back – Bulma folded her arms right over her ribs and stared blankly, biting the inside of her lower lip.
She didn't laugh bitterly, manically as she wanted to; a few people in that small congregation already thought she was mad and she didn't want to give them more ammunition, but she still wondered why Chichi was weeping in such a desolate way, making such an impressive, exaggerated show of despair – it wasn't really Goku the one confined in that box, all alone again and for eternity this time, with no way out.
So Bulma just stood there, jaw clenched, frowning slightly as she watched the coffin descend, and she flinched only when she heard for the first time the sound of the earth hitting the wood. She gnawed her jaw harder, thinking she could sense the shovels of dirt sinking in her stomach, and the earth rising inside her as well as in the grave.
She clamped her eyes shut.
Can you hear me? she thought forcefully.
Are you afraid?
But there was no answer while the earth kept on rising.
Alone at last.
It was pitch dark, and cold when Bulma went back and she could finally think those three words.
The only source of light was in the pinpoints of stars, so bright they could easily hurt the eyes – so bright they were almost like the stars above another clearing, in another time – except those stars from the past were a gift; the stars from the present were white and cold, dazzling as diamonds, and beautiful, but there was no warmth to them, no warmth at all – they felt like the indifference of the universe.
Bulma took a hesitant step forward.
She had screamed at him so much lately – this time she spoke softly, tentatively. As if she could scare him away, as if he might run. Feeling instantaneously stupid, she shook her head, scoffing slightly at herself. The fresh grave was still unmarked, there were only some flowers the gang had left that morning after the burial, and an old picture Krillin had brought, of a young Goku wearing Master Roshi's glasses, a toothy smile and a victory sign for the camera.
She couldn't very well see it now, but she had spent all morning with her stare affixed to it. So she knew.
Bulma sighed. She had forgotten to bring flowers, again – though if she was sure of one thing, it was that he didn't particularly care.
She inhaled and exhaled, deeply this time, trying to center herself – and then she kneeled, slowly, her bones creaking, the knees of her blue jeans getting damp in a heartbeat. She reached with one hand, but she didn't touch the earth right away. She stopped short of a centimeter – as though there was still one last thought between her hand and the earth, one last hope –
A moment later she bowed her head and sank both her hands in the freshly moved soil. It was cold, and humid, and she clenched her fists in it, feeling the tears sting behind her eyes, pushing painfully to get out.
"You're not really in here, are you?" she murmured. "Please, tell me I'm right."
She swallowed. Her voice was squeezed too tight, it hurt, but he didn't answer so she pressed on.
"Say something. Say you're alright."
There was no answer, not a damn sign yet again and Bulma felt that silence rattle in her lungs like cubes of ice. She hung her head, with no other desire than to bang it once, twice, thrice, hard against something. She tried, tried, tried for as long as she could to ignore the feeling spreading in her chest, the feeling of frost and fire mixed together – then she choked on her breath for a moment, failed to catch a new one, the silence knocking the wind out of her and then – a gasp was ripped out of her throat and Bulma finally sobbed out loud – and sobbed and sobbed, burning tears splattering on the soil – at the cold and empty truth that she had been robbed of him forever, that he had been taken away from her completely.
She wasn't going to wake up and hear his voice 'is it breakfast time yet', kiss him good morning in relief – burrow her head under his shoulder, tell him all about the awful nightmare she had had and listen to his sleepy voice murmuring something impossibly silly and wise and fun and reassuring –
A rustle of leaves.
Then – a soft footfall and Bulma raised her head, her shoulders tensing in anticipation, ears straining – she was reminded instantaneously of that long moment in her room, the long moment in the dark – despite everything, she had learned the cadence of his steps, the way he walked like a specter.
She wasn't surprised.
She dried her eyes with a quick, angry swipe of her forearm and found herself wondering what would she have in her brain if she emptied the parts he had insinuated himself into, if there would have been more space for Goku, to remember every single thing, from their first encounter in that exact same forest to every single word, to every small fraction - even the ones that had seemed insignificant at the time - of the moments in which their lives had overlapped onto each other. Was he taking up space she could have filled with sharper, brighter details of Goku's face? With the memory of a particular note in his laugh? There was no way to know and the only sure thing was that all those things were going to be lost – they were going to inexorably dissolve in the back of her mind, no matter what she did or didn't do and she was so mad, so so mad –
"Are you happy now?" she said, driven by nothing more than the insane urge to hurt Vegeta, to punish him for getting in the way and though she meant to bite the words, to spat them out full of hatred, they came out insubstantial and shaky, her voice slow and drawn out.
There was a pause and then the padded noise of his boots on the grass behind her, again. She didn't bother to turn around.
"You don't know what you're talking about."
Vegeta's voice was a furious buzzing instead. Like a swarm of angry bees and Bulma felt some kind of faint, dull, tired surprise in hearing it – she had not been anticipating any kind of talk back and it was satisfying in a way, because then she still knew what hurt, she still knew what blows to strike and Kami help her she couldn't stop, she couldn't stop the sneer stretching on her face.
"Then why don't you tell me," she murmured under her breath. "Why don't you tell me how it is."
This time there was no ready retort, not that she had been expecting one, not really; and they were quiet for so long that she thought that was it, window closed –
Bulma had no other choice but to turn her head, eyes straining in the dim starlight. She had never, ever, in years, heard her name come out of his mouth.
Vegeta was standing there, arms hanging limply by his side, palms loosely open.
"Do you think I will see Kakarot again?" he said flatly, after a moment. "In the afterlife, or whatever?"
Bulma blinked slowly. She turned the question to the earth in front of her, not that she needed to.
"To be honest," she replied just as flatly. "I don't think either of us will."
"Mh," she heard him say after another pause. "That's too bad."
And, with a last glance at the upturned earth, he was gone.
Bulma let him without another word – there was only one voice in the whole universe she wanted to hear, and only two hands she wanted to hold, only two hands that had touched her like nothing ever had before – and it was all gone.
May 5th, 767
Bulma looked up from the tray where she was dutifully arranging newly made appetizers – she glanced up just enough so she could observe those two from afar through hooded eyelids.
Gohan was sitting down on the blanket next to Trunks, indian style, an amused smile on his face. They were playing with wooden alphabet blocks – or rather, Trunks was very busy chewing the corner of a red block while Gohan was arranging them on the lawn, making rows of multicolored cubes in front of him.
"T-U-R-T-L-E" he was saying in a clear voice. "Tur-tle! And that's the turtle," he continued, pointing to Umigame just behind his back. Trunks wasn't sold, though – he kept chewing on his block, a skeptical expression on his round little face and Bulma chuckled to herself and heard Gohan do the same, lightly, as he rearranged the blocks in front of him.
"T-R-U-N-K-S," he enunciated. "Trunks," he said, and leaned forward to tickle Trunks on the belly. The baby cackled with delight and discarded the red block to pick up the T one – he gripped it in his chubby hand, examining it closely for a moment, muttering something in his own unique language, brow furrowed in concentration – then he giggled again and threw the block right into Gohan's forehead.
"Ow! Hey!" Gohan protested. "What did I do to you?
Bulma winced inwardly and was about to sprint towards the pair, but her mother wandered by first, ruffling Gohan's hair, probably apologizing and then bending to pick Trunks up – Bulma watched her as she gently scolded the baby, earning an indignant gurgle in response, then followed her with her eyes as she moved around the garden of Capsule Corp., making small talk, stopping here and there when the other guests pinched Trunks' cheeks or tweaked playfully his nose.
"They seem to have hit it off nicely, huh?" said a voice at Bulma's elbow. "They're acting like brothers already."
Bulma turned and Krillin was walking up to her, munching on something and wearing a crown made of long yellow and purple balloons, all twisted and intertwined together – Bulma snorted. Apparently he had been one of the many victims of the balloon lady. She shook her head and went back to fix the food on the table.
She cleared her throat. "Does Chichi know you've brought him here?"
Krillin made a face and grabbed the wonton Bulma had just put on the tray, stuffing his face with it. "What do you think?" he said eventually, his mouth only half-empty.
Bulma glared a little at Krillin's lack of etiquette, then let out a non-committal grunt. "I think she's the last person on Earth I want to get in trouble with."
"No, I know!" Krillin said quickly. "But I just thought the kid could use a distraction, you know… some company aside from Piccolo and the books. Which, by the way, he brought along because he wanted to ask you something about I don't know what, but he's too shy."
Bulma frowned, but before she could say that Gohan taking a break from his life wasn't what she was objecting to, Master Roshi walked up to the table, noisily chugging on his drink. He too was sporting a crown of balloons on his head, red and green, and he looked way too comfortable in it, Bulma thought as she observed him warily.
Roshi clicked his tongue. "I knew I should have brought my own beer," he said, nevertheless helping himself with another glass of punch. Bulma narrowed her eyes to slits.
"I'm sorry, what were you expecting?" she snapped. "This is a child's birthday party."
Under the crown, Master Roshi's glasses glinted in the sunlight. "Then why's Yamcha lurking around dressed as a clown?" he said.
Bulma's eyes flashed in outrage. "Ugh, it's all my mother's fault! I didn't want a clown, I was very clear!" she said in a voice high-pitched enough that Krillin and Master Roshi had to lean back a little in order to salvage their eardrums. "Hmpf! It hardly matters anyway, Trunks won't remember any of this."
"The rest of us will," Roshi replied over the rim of his glass and Bulma growled.
"Or," she started, turning around, "I could always hit you really hard on the h – AAAAAH!" Bulma jumped out of her skin so hard she sent the tray she was holding flying up in the air. Krillin hurriedly saved a couple of flying chicken wings while Bulma put a hand on her chest and stared daggers at the poor, barely-recognizable-beneath-the-white-face-paint Yamcha. "Kami, Yamcha, you scared the hell out of me! Damn!"
Yamcha scowled and hastily took off the bright red curly wig waving it in Bulma's face. "Hey, next year get your own clown!" he said defensively. "I'm not doing this again!"
"Nobody wants you to," Krillin said between bites at his chicken wing and Bulma growled again, distinctly feeling a vein pop on her forehead –
"Fine, stop whining like little girls, all of you!" she yelled. "You know what, I've had it! I'm bringing the cake out and then you can all get out of my face!" she said, twirling on her heels with a huff and marching towards the house.
"Sorry!" Krillin called after her. "Thank you for this day, Bulma!"
"Yeah, we love you!"
"Did she just flip us off?"
"I thought this was a child's party."
"Whatever, are you eating that?"
Bulma quickly stalked inside, not sure if she wanted to laugh or to bump the heads of her idiot friends together, two at a time – then she chuckled in bemusement at the thought of Yamcha… poor guy. He must really care about them, about Trunks; and, probably, he had really been put in a corner by her cheerful but unstoppable mother – Bulma shook her head and laughed again under her breath.
It was so hard to believe she was already about to lit the first, little blue candle for Trunks. Actually it was hard to believe time had had the guts to go by at all, but – it had; in flashes and gulps. Looking back, she could hardly remember any of those months – life just happened and then went away, on and on, in a one-way line, the only possible way.
She was about to round the corner to the kitchen when she spotted him with the corner of one eye and she pulled on the brakes. She breathed hard and stood there for a moment, mulling over it –
"Hey, Gohan!" she called eventually, hooking her head around the doorframe of her living room.
The kid jumped a little, then he turned from the window to look at her.
"Hey..." he said with a small smile and Bulma felt her jaw tighten on its own accord around her own smile.
"Listen, I wanted to thank you… you're being very patient with Trunks," she said, making her way into the room. "I know it's hard to tell, but he really likes you," she added with a wink.
"Ah, I know, I like him too," Gohan said, another docile smile, a little shrug. "We made friends."
Bulma nodded slowly, her smile melting into something fond, her eyes flickering, and for a moment it was as though the two of them were sharing a gentle secret about that little purple-haired toddler with the perennial stink eye. She sighed. "Krillin said you wanted me to take a look at your homework."
"Oh, hem, yeah, I mean… I brought my stuff," Gohan said, nodding toward a blue backpack abandoned on the floor next to the couch. "But it's fine, you don't have to."
Bulma made a no-nonsense face. "Come on, give it here, buddy," she said and she whistled as a moment later she took the heavy book from Gohan's reluctant hands." Advanced Physics!" she exclaimed, actually impressed at Gohan's level. He was barely ten – they might be onto the next genius of the gang, she thought – it was incredible. "Well, let's show those professors how it's done!" she said with enthusiasm, as she eased herself into the couch. Gohan laughed meekly and sat next to her as she randomly flipped the book open on her knees. Something slipped out, maybe a bookmark, and she caught it instinctively.
She hadn't been excepting that – to hold between her fingers the picture of a little kid in sunglasses that were too big for his face, a smile also too big, fingers in a cheeky victory sign –
She gasped softly.
She hadn't been looking for this. Not that day, not in any other day.
"I found it at Kame House earlier, Master Roshi said I could keep it," Gohan explained quietly while she slowly brushed the pad of her thumb on the photographic paper. "He was so tiny," he continued in a breathy whisper.
Bulma blinked two, three, four times in quick progression.
"Yeah, he was," she said at last, lightly. "And think about it, he was older than you are now when this picture was taken." She sighed and put the picture between the cover and the first page. She looked up with a taut smile. "Crazy, huh?"
"I guess so."
Gohan's head was bent, eyes downcast in deep thought. Bulma's smile felt frozen on her face – and the pain catapulted itself back. The sharp agony she thought she had been able to delete in the same way she had pushed away Goku's face, in the same way she had deliberately kept him away, never, ever letting herself think about him – she had built a cage for Goku in her heart and she wasn't going to let him out, not even to look at him.
Sometimes, if she let her guard down, some things managed to slip through. A laugh, the glint of sunlight in his eyes, a glimmer of orange and blue. Whatever it was, whenever it happened, she just pushed harder and moved on with her life, in the damn but comfortable limbo she had created for herself.
She didn't want to have that conversation with Gohan, with anyone for that matter – she really, really didn't want to be in that position, she was just trying to be mature, she just wanted to be a good friend, to help with homework –
And Gohan – Gohan was just this super smart and super sweet kid who was slumping, his shoulders sagging, not quite crying but sniffling quietly while she watched in fear, icy fear at her inadequacy. But it didn't have to be that hard, it could very well be easy – she could push again. She could flee.
She could stay.
"What are you thinking?" she prompted, gently nudging him with a shoulder.
Gohan just sniffled again, harder this time – while her heart skipped, Bulma discovered that sometimes a kind gesture was all it took to break the dam.
"I…" Gohan started, his lower lip quivering, "I just… I miss him…"
Bulma pulled Gohan to her without a second thought.
"Oh, Gohan," she breathed. She wrapped the kid in her arms and hugged him tightly, so tightly, saying over and over again, "I know. I know, I know."
There were never dreams either. She had searched for him at the beginning – but he just wasn't there.
She'd told herself it was his doing, that it wasn't just her subconscious' fault. He was the one making himself impossible to find and maybe, hopefully, he was trying to help, to save her – because maybe he knew, as well as she did, that if she'd been able to be with Goku in her dreams, she would happily have gone to sleep without ever waking up. He was gone and that was all there was to it, the sooner she'd learn to make do without him the better, but still – the truth was –
"…every day…" she murmured.
And she let Gohan weep quietly in her arms, for she didn't know how much time.
"It's just – it's just…" he hiccupped eventually, "I promised… to be strong, for my mom… and that I wouldn't cry, but – I'm scared… I'm nothing like him…"
Bulma sighed, she shook her head a little.
"You don't have to be," she said, trying to keep her voice as calm as she could. "You are you, Gohan. And hey, it's okay to be scared sometimes –
– you take your time and cry and get scared," she continued, her voice hoarse and soft, "And then I promise that one day you'll wake up and you won't be scared anymore. You'll be happy that your dad lived instead of sad that he died."
"How?" Gohan whimpered. "When?"
"You'll get there. We will. But… it's up to us, you know? We have to allow that to ourselves."
Before her voice could break completely, Bulma gently disentangled Gohan from her embrace and gave him an affectionate glare. "Okay?"
Gohan dazedly rubbed the tears away from his eyes and gave a shaky nod of his head. "Okay…"
Bulma nodded. She got up from the couch and offered her hand. "Come on, let's help Trunks to blow the candle out and then we can eat the cake. Chocolate," she added with a wink.
"Wow, Bulma, way to bring the mood down all over again!"
Bulma twirled on her feet in time to watch Yamcha – who seemed to have mercifully abandoned the red wig for the time being – and Krillin making their way in the living room and she didn't lose any time, she immediately sent Yamcha a suspicious glare.
"What are you saying, smart mouth?" she asked with a smirk. "Don't listen to him Gohan! For everybody's information, I'm very good at baking!"
Yamcha widened his eyes. "Uh, Gohan don't trust her!" he said animatedly. "I did, once, and it did not end well!"
Gohan huffed an uncertain laugh. "What…?"
"What are you even talking about?" Bulma said with an impatient roll of her eyes.
"Don't you remember the rice cake massacre of 749?" Yamcha said incredulously.
"As a matter of fact, I do not!"
"What about the rice cake massacre?" Krillin interjected. "I want to know too!"
"Oh, shut up!" Bulma yelled. "I didn't make Trunks' cake, happy now?"
Yamcha raised his eyebrows under the white makeup. "Very. But anyway," he said, turning to Krillin and Gohan. "It was the year 749 –
"…when, one day…"
"No no no no! Gohan, Krillin cover your ears –
"…Bulma woke up and decided that she could…"
"…It's an ORDER!"
Bulma finished pouring some of her favorite white into the glass; then she hoisted her legs onto the table and tipped her chair back a little, to better look at the sky.
The night was foggy and humid, a classic of West City in May but a few brave and lonely stars could still be seen if she squinted hard enough. She stretched her arms lazily above her head, long ribbons of smoke uncurling from the cigarette between her fingers. The multicolored balloons from Trunks' party were still hanging from every tree of the garden – and Bulma closed her eyes tightly against a sudden, invasive memory.
Damn balloon lady, she thought morosely, exhaling long and slow towards the sky. She opened her eyes and watched the white cloud rising thick and then progressively becoming thinner and weaker until it dissipated completely and the sky was back in her field of view and she stared, thinking about brighter stars and loathing what was inside her head since her talk with Gohan.
Fresh air and still waters. Laughs. Shrieks of excitement.
"So you were keeping the good stuff from Master Roshi, huh?"
Bulma shot her head towards the voice and scoffed lightly.
"Of course I was, I wasn't born yesterday!" she called in response, watching as Krillin walked up to her. The relief that was washing over her at the welcome distraction felt overwhelming, so overwhelming that she felt the need to play it down at the best of her possibilities. She scowled a bit – not totally stern, not totally playful. "On second thought, scratch that," she added dryly and Krillin giggled nervously. "What's up, I thought everyone had left."
"Yeah, it's only me," Krillin said, as he finally caught up and came to stand next to her, shuffling his feet. He was fidgeting, Bulma noticed and she narrowed her eyes, slowly drawing from her cigarette.
"Are you going to just stand there judging me?" she asked at last and Krillin chuckled again.
"Hey, I never do!" he exclaimed, holding his hands up.
"Pfft. Here!" she said briskly and she passed him what was meant to be her glass of wine – then she grabbed the bottle and held it up with an amused face – the glass and the bottle clinked together with a merry chime.
They sat together in silence; Bulma finished the cigarette slowly, quietly enjoying every long drag. She was surprisingly starting to relax – the buzzing in her head was easing off, the tension in her chest slackening a little bit as the balloons slowly went back to be just balloons – the tree behind them was just a tree and it was more than she could hope for, she told herself –
Then Krillin cleared his throat.
"I just wanted to tell you – I meant what I said earlier, you know," he said, peering into his glass. Bulma raised her eyebrows in question. "Thank you for today. It was fun, we all needed it."
Bulma shrugged. "Yeah, it…" she started, then she paused, trying to think of something clever to say, but nothing came up. "…yeah."
Lame. She sighed, she was starting to get restless – a volatile energy was creeping back into her nerves with violence, like an electrical charge and she concentrated on fishing another cigarette from the package, on lightning it – so she didn't have to focus entirely on Krillin, on what she knew he was going to say. She said nothing – since that was what she wanted in the first place. To sit and think of nothing.
"He would have loved it," Krillin continued softly and it became apparent that his needs were different from Bulma's. "To be honest – to be honest, I was half-expecting to see him drop down from the sky, to attack the buffet or something. Sometimes… sometimes I really have a hard time believing it really happened."
Despite herself, Bulma turned her head to look at him. Lucky you, she was thinking. But something told her it wasn't the right thing to say. It was the right thing in her mind, but not what Krillin wanted – needed – to hear; so she just shook her head, listlessly dragging on her cigarette.
Krillin smile was rueful. "I mean, it's freaking nuts, it makes no sense right?" he said. "I know it's true only when I look at Gohan. That was – that was some pretty wise stuff you've told him, by the way."
Bulma shook her head, scoffing. She shook her head – she shook her head against the crisp but pleasant tickle of the wind on her cheeks, a wind from the mountains – and against the gentle glow of the fire scalding her skin as she remembered –
"Yeah, it was," she said grimly, and even she was surprised at the bitterness in her voice. "Too bad they weren't my words."
Krillin made that face, as if he didn't quite believe what she was saying – Bulma wasn't going to insist, she wasn't about to explain. She couldn't. She knew Krillin meant well, she knew he was just being a friend and she knew he just needed a friend in turn; she knew he always tried his best to understand her. It wasn't his fault if he couldn't – he always meant well, she had learned that, and it was all she could do to restrain herself and be as kind to him as he was to her.
Krillin downed the last of the bubbly white wine in his glass. "Well, I'm off," he said, getting up. "Thank you for the drink."
Bulma gave a distracted nod of her head – then she felt Krillin's hand clasp her shoulder.
"What?" she said, turning slightly on the chair. Krillin's expression was pinched – he said nothing for a moment and Bulma's eyes widened in alarm – was… was he alright? Was he having a stroke? Oh Kami, he was, wasn't he –
She opened her mouth. "Krill –
"Nobody's perfect, you know."
Bulma blinked, taken aback. "Yeah, I'm not following," she said, a little wary, and Krillin raised his eyebrows.
"You should cut yourself some slack," he elaborated. "You're a good friend, and a good person."
Bulma blinked again. And again. Then – she smiled genuinely.
"You too, Krillin," she said at last. "Now go – I think I've seen plenty of your face lately," she finished with a smirk, but Krillin had become fluent enough in her – he replied with a grin and a thumbs-up, then he charged on his knees and shoot up, quickly disappearing in the sky.
Bulma squinted up at the night one last time, then she turned and walked back to the house. It was late and she needed to check on Trunks anyway, she told herself as she got inside – she hastily closed the door behind her and hurried up the stairs – so she never saw the first fireflies of the year coming out around the garden in tiny teeny specks of yellow light.
May 14th, 767
The scouter was beeping loudly – she was almost there.
Bulma's hands slipped on the steering wheel of her plane and she gripped it more forcefully, cursing – the whole aircraft shook violently anyway and Bulma growled – great idea flying in the middle of a sandstorm. No, really, good job, she told herself as she stubbornly tried to steady the vehicle, her heart pounding at the rhythm of a weird, controlled panic.
The scouter shrilled in her ears and she took a deep, steadying breath in preparation of the landing.
She went down in a spiral, an abrupt descent that made her head spin and her ears burst painfully; she pushed a few buttons and the landing gear was lowered - for less than a second she was able to catch a glimpse of the desert landscape violently blown by the wind - then it was over with a jarring bang.
Bulma slowly squinted her eyes open - she quickly checked if everything was in its place; arms – check, legs – check; head – check. She didn't have much time to lose – she unfastened the belt, grabbed the still beeping scouter and got out of the cockpit.
A soon as she did, she had to cover her mouth and nose with an arm – the wind up in the canyon was devastating, so much that she was having a hard time keeping her eyes open – but she had to; she cursed again as she took a quick peek at the scouter in her hand; then, keeping her head down she sprinted in what she hoped was the right direction.
But of course it was the right direction –
"Hey!" she yelled at the top of her lungs. "HEY!"
"So you found me," he said, not bothering to turn around. His voice was indecipherable, something impossible, between anger and disinterest. "Congratulations."