Serendipity: Shifting the Paradigm

BY : Ghost-of-a-Chance
Category: Dragon Ball Z > AU - Alternate Universe
Dragon prints: 1213
Disclaimer: I don't own DBZ, any of its characters/devices, or any books/movies/song mentioned; no money is being made from this story. I DO own my OCs...and a very fat cat named "Heifer."

A few incidents of Japanese dialogue; I've put them in bold/italics so they stand out, otherwise English as usual. I know I'm not the most consistent with formatting and I apologize for that, but I do try. Also, about midway through this chapter there's a little bouncing back and forth between two locations during a conversation. Ordinarily I try to avoid that. In this case I wanted to dive deep into both Rowan and Dende's perspectives, and putting it all into one scene would have involved some major head-hopping. I hope this doesn't trip anyone up.

This is the last chapter I have already written, so you're up-to-date with the other sites!

Suggested Listening: Green Day "21 Guns," Cage the Elephant "Skin and Bones," King's X "The Burning Down," Toad the Wet Sprocket "Dam Would Break"


11: Quicksilver and Slow Blues

There's a saying about bringing trouble with you–specifically, that one should refrain whenever possible—but evidence suggested that was yet another thing Goku managed to reach adulthood without ever learning. This was the only explanation Mister Popo could come up with for the fussy tangle that blinked into existence on the Lookout's eastern terrace. In hopes he was misunderstanding the sight, Popo mentally cataloged the visitors:

One male Saiyan in light blue shorts - protesting his intentions and trying not to hurt his thrashing captive. One half-Saiyan teenager wearing lounge pants and a white undershirt - silent, mortified, and trying to avoid notice. One human girl dressed in a sleeveless top and boxers with a worn floral yukata for modesty - shooting glares at the other three but otherwise behaving herself. Lastly, one human woman, dressed in blue pajamas patterned with waves and islands with coconut trees - fighting with everything she had, cursing and shouting unintelligibly, and making a complete spectacle of herself. That teenage female looked...familiar...

...nope. Despite Goku's reputation, this wasn't his fault. Popo shook his head and turned back to the unconscious guardian he'd just tucked into bed. Dende was treading a dangerous path for a guardian…but discussion would come later. For now, there greet.

"What the— OW! Hey, that—!"

"Steel plate, asshole!"

"Mom! Chill! He's not gonna hurt us – an' your plate's titanium , you're gonna break his face!"

"Serves th' fucker right fer kitnappin' us! Why?! Rat-Bastard sent you?! Huh?!"

Already the normally unflappable djinn regretted leaving the silence of the sanctuary—the adult female was crass, obnoxious, and oblivious, and the volume and pitch of her voice made his ears ring. Right before his eyes, the girl—Rowan, he recalled—pried her mother's hands away from Goku's throat and blocked her knee from impacting his groin. Goku's eyes were still watering from the woman's backward-headbutt, but it was clear neither human had any idea who, or what, they were dealing with; if they knew, they wouldn't have bothered fighting or defending for the sheer futility of it all. It was almost amusing.

"I trust you had a safe journey." Predictably, the humans and Saiyans froze, and the entire Lookout fell into ear-ringing silence. Finally, blessed silence. Until…

"Who the hell are you?!" Again, the human woman. Popo sighed, shook his head, and prepared himself for the oncoming assault on his pointed ears.

Rio and Rowan's Duplex

This wasn't the first time Kuikku Silver came face-to-face with Robert Biers, the Stone family's personal boogeyman. Every time, he hoped the fight would be more satisfying; every time, he was disappointed no matter how much damage he managed to cause. This time around, at least Biers' injuries were worth reporting. Cracked ribs. A fractured collarbone. Two black eyes, one with possible fractures above and below it. One through-and-through bullet wound in the left foot, bleeding profusely and causing quite the limp. Best of all – at least, in Kuikku's opinion – the idiot pulled a knife on him. After the scars Robert left on Rowan's arm, Kuikku wasn't about to let the cad flee armed; he stabbed the sicko right in the ass cheek for that one. Needless to say, the felon wouldn't make it very far on foot.

At least the girls were protected. As he bent to dig a bullet from the lawn, a sigh burst from Kuikku's lungs with the force of a gunshot; he didn't evade capture (or erasure ) all these years by forgetting to police his brass.

The dog— right, Biers kicked the neighbors' pet to silence it. A quick look revealed an elderly Shiba Inu cowering behind the low fence, visibly lamed. "Yasha?" he read off the ID tag, then shook his head. "Yeah," he deadpanned, "that definitely looks like a demonic dog. " He picked Yasha up with no demonic resistance whatsoever, carried her to the front door, and knocked, hiding his face under the wide brim of his hat. In no time, the door opened, and a man in his sixties appeared in the doorframe.

"May I help—Yasha!"

"She will live." Kuikku carefully passed the dog to her owner. "There was an attempted home invasion next door. She tried to scare off the intruder. She needs to see a veterinarian; her leg may be broken." Being a rational sort, Kuikku expected the old man to be relieved that his precious demon dog was alive and would make a swift recovery. Instead…

"This is terrible! We have a fixed income – we have no money for a bill!"

'What's that English phrase again?' Kuikku wondered as the husband's wife appeared behind him and began wailing along with her husband. When the dog started howling along with them, Kuikku brought one fur-covered hand up to his face and rubbed over his eyebrows. 'Right... no good deed goes unpunished.' "Get a hold of yourselves! I'll make you a deal!"

Almost half an hour later–half an hour full of crying from the couple and their mutt, and three barely restrained outbursts from Kuikku–he left the dog to its unbalanced owners. Escape cost more than he expected; what sort of people would demand to work off a debt they did nothing to earn? Even worse, what kind of people would insist on working off that debt when they could barely manage to keep up with their household chores? Idiots like this were why Kuikku joined the Red Ribbon Army, to begin with...but why he left it...that was a story for another time. For now, he needed to disappear.

Beneath his feet, the pavement gleamed with freshly fallen rain; overhead, the moon peered through the clouds at the human spectacle below. As he made his way from the Stones' home, Kuikku reached up to his collar and tapped the tiny device hidden there. "Did you get all that?"

"Tell me you didn't give those doddering old bats your real address!" a voice demanded from an unseen device fitted to his ear. Kuikku rolled his eyes and turned a corner.

"I didn't survive that psychotic commander and the fallout just to be hunted down for paying a bill, Nikkeru," he scoffed. "I gave them your information." The voice on the other end audibly seethed, and he could just imagine the look on the younger man's face. Vivid red hair sticking up in every direction, dark grey eyes narrowed to flinty slits, unshaven jaw clenched and squared—it was a face the younger brother often wore around him. "Oh, that's right!" he commented with feigned innocence. "You're going by Nick now, aren't you?" Nick snorted, a sound that came out more like static over the microphone, but he didn't rise to the bait. Of course...the youngest always had to be the mature one in their family. "Relax, little brother." Kuikku ducked around yet another corner and vanished into an alley; moments later, he emerged in the alley behind the Stones' duplex and let himself into the small yard. "You requested my help, I accepted. The situation is handled. If the Rat Bastard comes back, he won't know what hit him."

"Why doesn't that make me feel any better?" Nick grumbled, but he didn't lecture him about possibly plotting the murder of Rio's nemesis. Considering Nick once attempted such himself, he wouldn't have a leg to stand on.

Jimmying the lock on the back door was easier than he hoped; while Robert Biers was no ex-mercenary, even he could get that lock open with a well-placed kick. Kuikku scowled. Maybe even a bash from a rock would accomplish the job. He needed to replace that lock with something sturdier; for now, he locked the door behind him, fastened the neglected deadbolt, and shoved a chair under the doorknob. The girls weren't home—if Robert broke in, he'd find himself in a whole new world of pain.

With his brother still on the line, Kuikku cleared the house quickly, checking for intruders behind every corner, in every closet, and under every bed; instead, he found Rio and Rowan's luggage, packed and waiting by their bedroom doors. The place was trashed - broken glass littered the floor, and the furniture was flung about like a herd of bulls went through. Stranger still, Rowan's smartphone lay on her desk with an alarming number of missed calls from a familiar number. What teenager was ever away from their phone? "They're not here but there's no sign of a struggle," he lied through his teeth. "They probably left for takeout or something." All the strangeness he witnessed through the windows while beating Robert to a bloody pulp made him inclined to believe Rio and her daughter were safe...and if they weren't, telling Nick would only send him into a tailspin.

The phone in his hands began blasting an irritating pop number he vaguely recognized from either Rowan's or her mother's childhood. "Tell the psychic brat they're safe—she's blowing up the kid's phone. If she comes looking for them, we'll have a mess." Nick agreed, then a long silence stretched between them. Finally…

"Be careful, Ku."

"I always am."

The phone went silent, and so did his earwig. The house was void of threats, but thunder in the distance warned of more rain incoming. As the first falling drops began to mingle with the puddles in the street, Kuikku flipped the front room's lumpy sofa back on its feet and made himself comfortable on it. Combat boot-clad feet propped up on one arm and his head pillowed on the other, he pulled his hat down over his face and settled in to rest. He couldn't know if or when Rio and Rowan would return, but the least he could do was guard their home until that time.

Five minutes later, he was fast asleep.

The Lookout

Most mortals, when confronted with proof of so-called divine intervention, only grew noisier. They protested, they argued, they rejoiced, wept, and offered prayers and exaltation—it was enough to give any god or guardian a headache. Not these mortals. Rowan stared at Mister Popo, stared at the marble tiles beneath her bare feet, stared at the endless night beyond the gleam of the torches in the Lookout's garden, and in between each turn, slowly shook her head as if lost. The adult woman—now known to him as the girl's mother Rio—was dead silent, eyes wide and gaping mouth alternately opening and closing as if in imitation of a carp in a pond. At least now they knew why they were brought to this forbidden place.

Eventually, Rowan broke the silence. "I...I don't understand." She ran her fingers through her hair as if to straighten the tangles, shook her head again, and turned lost puppy eyes to Popo. "Why did Kami-sama send for us? Why protect us?" Wary green eyes lit on Rio's frozen expression then skittered away again—as if the girl should be ashamed for seeking comfort from Earth's Kami! "I never asked for protection—all I asked for was the courage an' strength to handle this myself!" Rio's eyes hardened and landed on Rowan's; the girl flinched and turned to cringe at an unfortunate flower.

"You wanted to handle things yourself?" Goku grinned at the very thought. Rowan's eyes darted from side to side in discomfort, then she nodded. "That's probably why he wanted to help you. The gods help those who help themselves, right?"

"Of course I wanted to handle things myself!" she protested. "Askin' others to fix my problems isn't my style – I won't just sit on my laurels an' wait for rescue! Easy's a four-letter cussword an' I don't take the easy way out of anything!" A gentle brain-duster from behind cut off her rant.

"Quit posturing." Rio hugged her chastised daughter to her side, all irritation from before forgotten in favor of tough love. "You're still not too big for a whoopin'." Gohan shot his father an embarrassed glance; Goku grabbed at the back of his head, snickering. Rio snorted and rolled her eyes. "Oh, shut up."

Up above the garden, an unseen entity watched the goings-on with a mix of horror and fascination. Fingers white-knuckled on the stone balustrade, spine straight and shoulders set, Dende soaked in all the new details about the human girl who wouldn't ask for help - all the fascinating, intriguing, nerve-wracking little details no longer obfuscated by the atmosphere. This close, he could see it all. The traces of gold and scarlet in her hair and freckles spattered across her skin like stars... The tired shadows under her eyes, and a weary softness in her expression... The tight, stubborn curve of her chin, and the smooth slope of...of her...neck….

Nope. Dende scrunched his eyes shut and shook his head in hopes of banishing the impure thoughts filling it. This was decidedly one of his worst ideas to date! He turned to study Rowan's mother, hoping he'd find her just as fascinating—maybe it was a matter of being excited to meet new people? Instead, the minute his eyes focused on the first part of Rio that they could comfortably settle on—her eyes—a tangible sense of dread drove him to look away. ...maybe Rio was just... scary? He chanced another look and found her scowling at Goku. Yeah…he'd go with she's scary.

"What do you plan to do now?" Dende managed to not leap into the air and scramble like a child caught sneaking cookies from the jar, but just barely.

"M-Mister Popo!" he greeted and stepped away from the balustrade. "What's—"

"You summoned them here," Popo cut him off. "Now—what will you do with them? We cannot be sure how long they will require shelter, or when it will be safe for them to return home. The child has her schooling and the mother is employed...and because they had no warning, they aren't prepared for any sort of stay. What will you have me do now?"

With every word, Dende felt more and more like something a farmer would scrape off their shoes after a day in the fields. Suitably cowed, he looked out over the edge of the Lookout, seeking out and then focusing in on that shabby duplex. From the safety of the shadowed balcony, he searched the rooms one by one, from baggage stacked outside the bedrooms to the broken glass littering the kitchen's age-stained linoleum floor. "It looks like they packed for a trip." It was no defense, but at least it solved one problem. "I guess they were leaving in the morning…?" The snoring stranger on the sofa earned a double-take, but the hat and duster identified the sleeping human as the man who fought off Rowan's father in the street. Nothing was damaged–outside the damage his untrained powers wrought on the appliances and fixtures—and there was no sign of a break-in, so this person must be a trusted friend. "There's someone staying at their house - he could help!"

Popo followed his young charge's eyes and shook his head. "I recognize that man. He can protect their home, but he cannot protect them openly without risking capture." Dende's fledgling hope deflated, and his spine followed.…?

"Maybe…" He swallowed thickly and prayed to his gods that Popo wouldn't murder him. "Maybe...they could —until it's safe to go home, I mean." Popo considered the idea in complete silence—a warning sign for impending murder if Dende ever saw one!—then he nodded.

"If that is your wish, it can be done." Wait. What?! "We can work out the details later. For now, there are two mortal women below; they're tired and frightened, and they need to rest. It might be unwise to allow yourself to be seen, so I will take care of them during their stay." At first, Dende thought that was the end of it—after all his fear of Popo's reactions and harsh words, he was worried for nothing! Instead of berating Dende for his lapses in judgment or deeming him unfit for the role of Kami his ageless teacher shuffled to the door with his hands behind his back! But...then he stopped in the doorway, turned back to stare at Dende out of the corner of one large, vacuous eye, and dashed the young guardian's relief to pieces. "It is not the Kamis' job to solve mortal problems. Allowing these two women to stay here is taboo enough; interfering with their assailant's fate would lead you down a path to destruction."

Dende didn't even wonder how Popo recognized the temptation in his heart; he'd learned early on in his training that the djinn was far more perceptive than his eyes and expression ever let on. Finally, he got his wish—Mister Popo was actually telling him what to do, or rather, what not to do, instead of waiting for him to figure it out on his own—but now, it felt like a punishment. Defeated, Dende crossed his arms along the railing and slouched on them, and looked out over the goings-on below. True to her warning before, Rowan was grilling Gohan about how he was connected to the Earth's guardian. Dende sighed, and he felt the weight of that breath all the way from the tips of his antennae down to his slipper-clad feet. "I just…" Another sigh; could he sound more pathetic? "I just don't want to see her hurt...not after everything she's already been through...she's suffered more than her fair share in this life."

Silence answered him—a silence more tense than awkward, and almost painful—then Mister Popo's shoulders fell. "Do not allow your judgment to become clouded," he pleaded, then vanished into the darkness beyond the doorway.

In the inky darkness of the sanctuary below—far enough from Dende's room to go unheard but close enough to reach him in moments should an emergency arise—a familiar pair of eyes met Popo's between the shadows. For Dende to not notice this visitor's dampened chi spoke of just how badly the boy exhausted himself trying to make his voice heard on the mortal plane. "Dende-Kami is bound by the laws of the Kami," Popo reminded the visitor, "but you are not Kami. You are bound by no rules but your own. What you choose to do is your choice, and your choice alone."

"You're as cryptic as ever," Piccolo scoffed and turned to stare out over the tiled expanse beyond. "I pity Dende." A comical scene filled the courtyard with noise, starring a human woman and her teenage daughter, Goku, and Gohan. Gohan's face, it seemed, just kept getting redder with every word out of the other teenager's mouth. The humans, though entirely foreign to his eyes, bore a vague resemblance to another stubborn, obnoxious human woman. Something about the shape of the girl's eyes and chin, perhaps, or maybe the full curves of her mother's lips and hips, reminded him of another human with similar traits. Even with no obvious resemblance on the surface, the similarities in their ki was proof enough; these two humans were in some way related to that aggravating woman hiding from the world in Bulma's guest room.

All at once, Piccolo realized he spent too long in his own thoughts and never countered the djinn's insinuation. "It's bad enough they're here to begin with; I'm not solving their problems for them." Unbidden, he recalled that other human woman—the rage in her eyes that day in the garden, and the way her voice cracked when she screamed at him. When he found her, Sierra was a dried-up husk of a human waiting for her end, but the months under Bulma's care had been good to her. She was still weak—helpless and infuriatingly stubborn despite it—but she was growing stronger. "I don't save weaklings from the consequences of their choices," he insisted to Popo, but for the life of him, he couldn't decide which of them he was trying to convince.

In the amount of time it took to settle affairs and make plans, Goku could have flown around the world more times than he had fingers and toes. During that time, it was decided that Rowan and Rio would stay at the Lookout until it was deemed safe for them to return home. Goku would collect them from the Lookout in the morning and drop them off at Rio's shop in West City, and from there, Gohan and Rowan would take a bus to school for the day. Each afternoon, Gohan would drop Rowan off at her mother's shop for her shift, then Goku would take them both back to the Lookout after closing time. In hindsight, Rowan felt like she should have appreciated the unstructured slacking from other times they hid from her other parent; more than that, she felt horrible for burdening these complete strangers despite their insistence.

Overwhelmed by the noise, stress, and the sheer number of strangers seeing her in a vulnerable state, Rio shut down before everything was settled and schlepped her cranky self into Popo's garden to decompress. That left Rowan to manage the issue of picking up their luggage with Goku's help, and that led to her current predicament: convincing the overgrown monkey that she didn't need help carrying her own luggage. A forgotten item in the kitchen led her downstairs, and the sight in her living room eased her frustration. Over-sized hat, old canvas duster, worn brown combat boots, and absolutely no respect for the furniture—there was only one person that lump on the couch could be. He wasn't hurt.

"It's okay." She ducked around Goku and took the rest of the stairs two at a time. "He's a friend." Right before Goku's eyes, she yanked off the intruder's hat, tossed it on the kotatsu, and cleared her throat. "Wake up, ya rotten mooch."

Kuikku woke with a snort that transitioned into a chest-deep rumble then erupted into a sort of hissing strangled yawn through gritted teeth; his eyes pried open in a bleary threatening glare, but that faded into unveiled concern when he recognized Rowan. Suddenly wide awake, he lurched upright and, in the space of a second, his silver eyes ran the gamut of every window, door, and shadowy corner in his line of sight in search of threats—everything but the stairs behind him. When no danger appeared, he checked Rowan from head to toe, turning her hands to examine her knuckles and turning her head to check for bruises. Finally, content that she was safe and unharmed, he sighed through his nose. "What are you doing here, Kid?" he rasped. "The Rat Bastard is loose – it isn't safe."

Rowan said nothing. Instead, she gave an impatient sigh and pointedly held her arms out as if demanding a hug. Kuikku rolled his eyes and begrudgingly held up a finger, then stiffened when she ducked right past it and hugged him instead. "It's good to see you, Uncle Quick," Rowan professed into his shoulder, then let him go. "I'm just here for our bags."

Now Goku recognized the man, and for the first time, he felt a little wary of the two humans Dende sent him to fetch. Anyone who harbored former Red Ribbon Army officers and greeted them like family merited caution. "What is it with you Stone women and butchering names? My name is Kuikku, not Quick." Kuikku grumbled, but it held no fire. "And who's your guard dog?" With that, he turned and stared right at the midway point of the staircase – or, more specifically, Goku watching from the shadows there. Goku made his way down the last of the stairs, and when he reached the ground floor, Kuikku grimaced. "Seriously?" He turned to poke Rowan in the shoulder then jabbed the same accusing finger at Goku. "You're running with this clown now? He nearly got me killed."

"That was your own fault, Colonel Silver." For the first time since he and his son materialized in the hallway and scared Rowan and her mother half to death, Goku actually looked dangerous. "I didn't make you join the Red Ribbon Army," he added with a cocky smirk. "I just gave you a reason to quit."

A tense silence fell over the living room—both men silently assessing one another and ready to react at the first sign of a threat—then as suddenly as it began, it ended. Goku grinned and grabbed at his neck; Kuikku scoffed and shook his head. Kuikku braced his hands on his knees to stand, then loped into the kitchen to raid the fridge. "So." Goku ducked aside to let Rowan head back upstairs to throw together a bag of school clothes and stood halfway up the steps. "How exactly did your family fall in with Colonel Silver?"

A carefree laugh echoed in her bedroom. "Mom, Auntie Dai, and Auntie Cordelia were all in the same grade as Nick Silver, Quicker's younger brother."

"Kuikku!" the former mercenary hollered from the kitchen.

"Ah, stuff it ya old coot!" Rowan shouted back. "You know you love me!"

"Debatable," Kuikku retorted; the sound of a jar crashing to the floor followed, accompanied by a curse in what Rowan suspected was Mandarin. Goku leaned against the wall, snickering.

"Nick's been a family friend for years," Rowan explained more softly, intent on only Goku hearing. "When…" She fell short, grabbed her tattooed shoulder in reflex, then stiffened her upper lip in a forced smile. "Well, when you've got a vengeful stalker after you and your daughter, it never hurts having a merc on call."

"Ex -merc!" Kuikku corrected again, this time around a mouthful of half-chewed something-or-other. Rowan passed Goku the last bag and rolled her eyes at her "uncle's" attitude. Only moments later, she ducked into the kitchen to bid her goodbyes to the man Goku once took out with a single punch. From the living room, Goku listened as the two spoke softly. Kuikku extracted promise after promise about what Rowan was to do and not to do to stay safe. Rowan, in return, ordered him to keep an eye out for her aunt Dai, "say hi to Violet for us," and write up a list of everything he cleaned them out of so they could replace it. "Because no way are you going to not eat us out of house and home," she teased, then dragged him in for a final hug.

Kuikku followed her upstairs to see them off, and this time, Goku greeted him with a confident smirk. "I'm glad you straightened out," he told the older man. He was tempted to add that his capacity for mercy was dwindling, but something in the other man's tired grey eyes stopped him. Kuikku looked down at Rowan, sighed, then gave a lopsided shrug that suggested going straight was the only option he could accept. As Goku and Rowan piled all of the luggage on their arms, shoulders, and backs, and they awkwardly linked arms, Kuikku returned to the couch and flopped down in a heap. By the time his hat fell over his eyes again, the duplex was still and silent, and void of any breathing but his own.

Having loved ones to protect made a hell of an incentive for keeping his nose clean.

Rowan started out the night on comfortable, familiar territory. She picked at dinner at her dated kitchen table, brushed her teeth at the chipped bathroom sink, set the alarm on the fancy clock radio Dakota gave her for her sixteenth birthday, and she laid down to sleep in her comfortably lumpy bed. Now Rowan stood outside an impossible place—an ancient stone temple floating in the sky—flanked by two people's worth of luggage and only able to carry half of it on her own. Even after interrogating the other boy—her classmate, though she recalled little beyond his surname, his girlfriend, and their friend circle—she knew little more than she did when he appeared in her hallway. Now Son Gohan was gone and his father with him, and the stress, fear, tension, and anticipation of the day seemed to hit Rowan all at once. In this impossible place, she was left to tread water alone; the world was the same as it always was, but she couldn't shake the feeling that everything had changed.

The shuffle of bare feet on stone drew her attention to her left. In the garden, a familiar shape emerged from the shadows cast by the neatly arranged palm trees. Shadows and salt traces ringed Rio's eyes, and her skin was an unnatural blend of flushed and sickly pale; how like her it was to fight like a wild dog during a crisis only to fall apart once it was all over.And she fell apart alone. Why couldn't she ever ask for help when she needed it?

"They've set us up with rooms." Rowan said nothing of her mother's raspy voice or the tremors in the hand that lit on her shoulder for a reassuring squeeze; her guilt at being away while her mother picked herself up went equally ignored. With far more care than it needed, Rio gathered up half the luggage plus another bag and turned to lead the way. "C'mon, Baby."

If not for the circumstances, Rowan was sure the Lookout must be a place where one can feel only at ease. The breeze smelt sweet and floral this far above the world's pollutants, and the only sound to be heard was the tone of unseen wind chimes from the garden. Despite the worries of the night, she couldn't help wondering what it must be like during the day. If she sat on the tiles at the very edge and looked out toward the horizon, how far would she see? If she lay on her back in the garden and stared up at the sky, would she see clouds above, or was the temple above the highest clouds? Intrigued as she was, these were questions for another time.

Just as Rowan left the light of the torches and breached the shadow cast by the temple's tallest spire, she stilled. What…? Who…? She turned, peering into the darkness in search of the source of the goosebumps breaking out on her skin. Silent—still—for all she could see, she and her mother were the only occupants of the temple up and about. Still…

Her eyes lit on a dim glow halfway up the side of the temple—a balcony with flowing white curtains backlit from behind. Not a soul to be seen, not a voice to be heard, but still, her very skin insisted something was there...or perhaps, was there very recently but there no longer.

Why did she feel like she was being watched?

"Kami-sama...can you hear me?" No voice answered Rowan this time, but she knew her call was heard; the air in her spartan guest room grew heavy with the smell of ozone and ichor, and a soft tone almost like white noise reverberated in the silence. She felt ridiculous praying to the unseen Kami in their own residence, but the odds of being allowed an audience with them weren't in her favor. "I just…" Her knees hurt – this floor was unadorned stone, not the fluffy shag carpet she was used to. Perhaps what she felt needed to be said...really... didn't need to be–

A nervous breath, not from her own lungs—a sound like the rustle of heavy, draping clothing—then… "I...hear you." Resigned—tired—dejected—was this how all gods sounded, or just the poor sucker responsible for Earth? Rowan managed to keep the remark from passing her lips, but a breathy chuckle told her that 'Kami' heard it anyway. The familiarity of the occurrence told her without a doubt... Kami was psychic. Wonderful. All this time, she'd been muttering to herself like a lunatic for nothing.

The night wind carried a perfume of gardenia and distant rain through the balcony curtains; overhead, the moon shone down on Popo's garden and cast long shadows behind the extinguished torches. Dende stood on his dark balcony in silence, searching the sky for answers while berating himself for providing the same to the human whose voice whispered to him from a guest room.

"I never asked you to save us." A sort of rustling followed Rowan's reminder as if she were shifting on her feet...or if she chose to contact him as before, on her knees. The way earthlings bowed and scraped before their gods and Kami never made any sense to him. Then again, as a child, he witnessed the Immortal Dragon Porunga rise above Namek's darkened landscape, and underneath that blitzing sky, he did the very same. Still, the stone floors here weren't comfortable to walk on barefoot, much less kneel on. "Thank you for helping us anyway...and for allowing us to stay here." Rowan cleared her throat as if hoping to ward off a feeling of awkwardness; Dende was tempted to ask if it worked but refrained. His entire life felt awkward.

"You needed the help." He could make himself heard without ever speaking, but to this confusing human, he spoke aloud in a hushed tone somewhere between a whisper and a confession. Above, the light of some distant star winked at him as if acknowledging the joke his life was becoming. He sighed and leaned down against the balustrade, pulling at the tense muscles in his neck as the scent of gardenia filled his head. "People never stop asking me to solve their problems for them," he admitted like it was some guilty secret. "Most of them don't really need the help, they just want their hands held." He glanced to the south wing, spying the gleam of another window's light shining on the tiles outside; for just a moment, Dende fancied that maybe he wasn't the only one on the Lookout who was lonely enough to stare at the sky and talk to people he couldn't see. "You seem to believe needing help makes you weak."

"I was raised to work my butt off for what I want." A small, self-deprecating laugh punctuated her admission, but this time, he couldn't sense what she was thinking. "My Aunt Dai and Auntie Cordelia started a botany shop together; my mom never graduated high school but she earned her equivalent and co-owns a car repair shop. Their dad started a restaurant fresh out of culinary college and built it into a five star chain, and my Grandma was a self-employed woodworker. If it's worth having, it's worth working hard for; if someone holds my hand the whole time, how will I ever manage when I'm on my own?" A small, crooked smile crossed his face at the determination bleeding through her mini-rant. "...but...this time, I really did need help. Thank you for everything you've done for my family. I won't take it for granted."

Just when Rowan started feeling like an idiot, she got an answer—a distant hum of agreement. Kami, it seemed, wasn't the most talkative sort. Then again, it could be the late hour. "Kami-sama?" she attempted before her nerves could fail her. "I…I mean it. I won't let you down...and...I'd like to thank you in's only polite, after all."

She could hear the Kami's breath catch in their lungs as surely as if they were right next to her. After a moment of sharp, quick breathing and muted footsteps, the Kami spoke again. "That' incredibly bad idea." It was hard to not take that personally, but Rowan had lots of practice at not being offended; even without her mother's nasty temper, dealing with Cordelia and their father could toughen anyone's skin. "You shouldn't see me—it wouldn't—" The Kami's breathing quickened and shallowed, and the sound of rustling fabric broke through again. Just as suddenly as it all began, everything went silent and still again, then, "You cannot see me, Rowan Stone. Please understand."

When she first called to this Kami , she imagined them through the cultural filters of a teenager raised in an only-Christian-on-holidays-otherwise-fuck-religion household. She ascribed no appearance or gender to the Kami, only infinite age, wisdom, and power. Hearing them now, far from the static of the mortal world, what she heard told her she was wrong about so many things. Male. Kami-sama sounded like a young man—possibly close to her age if her perception of his voice was accurate—but his voice spoke of a burden far beyond his age, whatever that age was. "I can probably handle more than you might think," she countered, "but if you feel I shouldn't see you, then I'll respect your wishes. After everything you've done for us, pushing you for more would be ungrateful."

A pause. A deep breath, then a slow sigh. Despite all the headaches Sierra suffered for it, sometimes Rowan would give her left ovary to have her Aunt Sierra's penchant for reading minds from a distance; not like the cranky little blobs were good for anything but ruining her life every month. "Thank you...Rowan." The soothing white noise faded away, and with it, the smell of ozone and ichor.

Someday in the distant future, Rowan would look back on this night and remember what it was like to be addressed by an unseen guardian by name. She'd remember the smell of gardenia and damp verdant air on the wind from the tiny window, the melody of the chimes in the garden, the stiff and burning cold of the flagstones under her knees, and the flecks of dried blood she would find there in the morning light. Rowan would remember and marvel anew at the guardian confiding in her, admitting his confusion and conflict, and all this after sending someone to her rescue without ever being asked. Through the haze which always befalls memories, she'd recall the time she exchanged words with the guardian of the Earth with the ease only youth imparts. Wondrous things tend to lose their wonder the more often they occur, though, so by the time she looked back on this night, the impossibility would be what impressed her the least.

For now, another problem had her full attention. In the dark, cavernous bedroom, perched on the bed in a puddle of moonlight from the small, high window, Rowan stared at the screen of her cellphone...or rather the notification of over twenty missed calls, all from the same number— Sierra's number .

Her stomach roiled like she made a poor choice at the sushi bar. Her skin prickled and crawled, and her hair stood on end. Her throat caught—her lungs ached—her breathing quickened and grew tremulous—her eyes burned, but even through the stinging ripples filling her vision, the truth was obvious. Sierra was alive...and she was worried about them. True, Kami-sama told her before that Sierra still lived, but this proved—oh, how she hoped!—that Sierra was safe, she loved them, and she was worried sick about them.

At least, that's what the evidence before Rowan suggested; she didn't think her heart could take it if she was mistaken. Hopeful, fearful, she navigated through familiar settings, chose a contact, and waited...and waited...and cursed the colorful spinning wheel on the screen and waited even longer. After what felt like a lifetime, the wheel vanished and left behind another notification: video call accepted.

At first, all Rowan could see was a pristine white ceiling with recessed track lighting and a few loose strands of dark brown hair. The longer she waited, though, the more the phone tilted and the more she could see. A line of smooth blue cabinets with cut glass knobs...the gleaming front of a restaurant-sized stainless steel fridge...more dark hair, frizzy from mistreatment, a noticeably broad forehead with dusky skin and new wrinkles... A moment later, she could finally see the whole picture. That skin was slightly sallow, and the cheeks, hollowed; shadows fought crows' feet for dominance under the woman's bloodshot eyes. Rowan's free hand flew up to cover her mouth, and her eyes stung. After all the waiting, after all the planning of what to say when she would finally find Sierra Daiyu Stone again, what came out of Rowan's mouth?

"You really are sick!"

The Briefs Family Residence

It started out simple enough. Minotia had a nightmare and couldn't fall back asleep, so Tapion carried him downstairs for a glass of warm milk. The light on in the kitchen, however, indicated 'simple ' wasn't on the menu for the night.

Collapsed on the impeccably tiled kitchen floor with a shattered mug by her side was Sierra. Her knees were turned outward, and her cellphone hung slack in her hand, and she stared down at the screen with an expression somewhere between fear and heartbreak. Tapion set Minotia on his feet and motioned him back down the hall a few feet, and watched. He couldn't hear what was said between Sierra and the girl on the other end of the phone before they disconnected the call. In fact, he couldn't be sure he heard Sierra's voice if she spoke at all, and he was thankful for it. As much as it took to wring any emotion from that woman, he shuddered to think of what it would take to literally bring her to her knees.

"Why are you crying?" As lost in thought as Tapion was, he only noticed Minotia had slipped past him when the boy settled on the floor beside Sierra. As if startling out of a waking dream, she blinked several times to dispel the watering in her eyes and tried to compose herself. For once, the smile she forced in place didn't look like a cringe; were happiness, sorrow, and stress so deeply intertwined for this woman that she could only smile when her heart hurt?

"I'm...I'm fine." Instead of meeting Minotia's inquisitive eyes, she focused on turning her phone off then wiping the screen on her lavender nightshirt. "That was my niece, Rowan. Something…" She paused as if searching for a way to explain the problem without frightening the boy. "Something scary happened but she's safe now." Her breath caught, and her eyes shimmered. "She's safe," she repeated as if trying to convince herself, "that's what matters."

Minotia reached out and patted her knee, smiling the way only a child can smile. With a brother like Tapion, recognizing the signs of someone hiding their feelings was second nature. "Mrs. Briefs says grownups get sad too, Miss See-rah. It's okay." The impact was instantaneous. Sierra froze. Her eyes fixed on the boy, wide and distraught, and her lips clamped together in a way that made deep wrinkles furrow from the corners of her mouth upward. A harsh, raspy, nasal sound split the silence of the kitchen—broken gasping breaths from lungs paralyzed by grief. Then, the last straw: Minotia held out his arms, both offering and requesting a hug.

Far above the world, a broken woman and a cracked teenager both lay in borrowed beds, trying to sleep and failing to even doze. In the Briefs' kitchen, another broken woman sat on the floor in a puddle of cold tea. Strangled and hoarse, she outright wept for the first time since receiving news of her mother's disappearance the year before. Because she couldn't hug her niece, she hugged the sweet alien child who reminded her that adults, too, could cry, and doing so didn't make her weak.

On her other side, Minotia's older brother rubbed her back and strayed off into his own thoughts. Tapion watched her, but his eyes were unfocused, lost somewhere in the frizzy tangles of her dark brown hair. As she cried—deep, gut-wrenching sobs that hurt his ears and bowed her back—he thought back over everything he had learned about her and everything he had observed. She had come a long way from the intimidatingly blank woman she was when they first met, and he was glad to call her a friend. Still, he couldn't quite figure her out. She was strong—or was she weak? She was broken, yes, but she was mending. She would give anything for her family, just as he would, but had she finally found her limit of self-sacrifice? She ran away— why did she run away? Why put her family through the fear and worry they must feel over her absence? Rowan —Sierra told him about her before, and the girl's mother Rio, and their sister Cordelia. Over the last several months, it seemed she could talk of little else but her family. She spoke of Cordelia with regret and of Rowan with pride; when the topic turned to Rio, she generally fell silent, locked her emotions away behind that blank mask of hers, and changed the subject.

"Stone is known for being resilient but a single crack can render it useless," she told him before. "It's not worth the risk of breaking when my family is already broken." What could break a family to the extent hers was broken? More importantly, what would it take to fix it?



*Yasha – The neighbors' dog's name reportedly means "female demon" in Japanese. The name literally just popped into my head randomly when sketching out the notes for this chapter and stuck; I had no idea it actually meant anything!

*Kuikku, Nikkeru, & Sutaarinngu Silver - Not everyone watched or read Dragon Ball before graduating onto the events of Dragon Ball Z, and those folks won't recognize the name Silver OR realize that I've fiddled about with it. Canon: Colonel Silver was the first member of the Red Ribbon Army Goku encountered; Goku beat him with a single punch. Silver pursued Goku all across the region and pissed Goku off royally. In the end, he failed to subdue Goku or retrieve Goku's Dragon Balls and the RRA's leader had him executed for failure. In the Anime, Silver begged for a second chance and they didn't show him being dragged off for execution; later on, you can see a head of hair and clothing identical to Silver's but only for a moment. Despite this, he wasn't present when Goku stormed the RRA and his face never appeared again. Well, my horny teenage ass thought Silver was a beefcake (...he's STILL a beefcake) so I subscribe to a different theory. Silver was granted one more chance on the condition that he would die if he failed again...instead, he vanished and was fed info by another disillusioned member of the RRA, Colonel Violet. When the RRA fell, Violet fled and joined him in living off the grid.
Now, headcanons aside, I've played with Silver's background and basics. His (non-canon) name is Kuikku, which is Japanese for Quick; he has a younger brother named Nikkeru, ("nickel") and their father's name is Sutaarinngu. ("Sterling.") You can see the trend, I'm sure. Nikkeru (or Nick) is the same age as Rio and Sierra and they're very close. Sutaarinngu is chief of the Ginger Town Police department; every time Rowan's father is up for parole, Sutaarinngu breaks protocol by warning their family; his colleagues, fortunately, are too afraid of Kuikku to report this.

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