1: The Demon King
New Earth, in the shadow of Mt. Paozu
Sunset painted Mt. Paozu in shades of scarlet and crimson, and the sprawling forest around it hung heavy with shadows. Piccolo remembered the sight well though he'd never seen this particular version of it. He spent much of his youth on Old Earth in that very forest beneath that very mountain, maddeningly close to his nemesis but distant enough to evade notice. So many years were wasted in plotting, planning, training, and failing to exact his revenge on the boy who murdered his father…even more, however, were wasted in running from that boy's estranged half-sister.
Somewhere along the line, Piccolo must have taken a wrong turn. He'd been so sure this forest was uninhabited—that he'd be able to live here without being hunted down again—but the black-haired girl child watching him across the fire was proof that his certainty was misplaced.
She seemed no older than he was, but the weariness in her dark purple eyes didn't match the youthful roundness of her face. Like that annoying brat who killed his father, she had a tail like an ape's, but hers was scruffy and black and clearly less dexterous. On the other side of the fire, she poked the embers with an already charred stick then checked the skewered fish and roots roasting over the flames.
"Who are you?" He'd asked once before, but she hadn't answered, choosing to hold the silence. "Why aren't you running away?" As though he hadn't said a word, she collected the roasting food and passed him the larger share.
"Eat," she said simply—the first words he'd heard her utter. "You're no threat to anyone sick and starving." Despite the admittedly awful taste of the roasted roots and burned fish, Piccolo gorged himself on the meager fare; if he'd realized fish tasted better cooked, he would never have pushed himself to the point of starvation to avoid the taste. "My name is Aubergine. Ka—uh—Go-ku calls me Aubrey. You can, too, if you want." Piccolo sniffed in disapproval.
"Never. I'm gonna kill that bastard—stay out'a my way or I'll kill you, too." The black-haired child arched one dark eyebrow at him and gave a skeptical snort.
"We'll see about that, Demon—perhaps you'll be more impressive without your ribs showing."
That one meeting in the forest led to several more, some by accident, some by design, and every time, Piccolo had to remind himself that Aubergine was the enemy—the sister of the brat who orphaned him. No matter how he tried, though, he couldn't quite connect the two siblings in his mind.
If not for their shared father, they'd have had nothing in common. Goku was rambunctious, naïve, and rather stupid, and had no qualms whatsoever about showing off his appalling strength. Aubrey was solitary, bristly, and an odd combination of passionate and cold, and she seemed content to simply go about her life without any contact with the outside world. She couldn't stomach violence—the first time they sparred, she landed only one punch then promptly vomited on his shoes—and until a cold April morning, he'd believed her to be a weakling without any sort of drive.
Many months had come and gone since Piccolo met Goku's sister in the forest near Mt. Paozu, and still she lived. The young demon had many excuses for her continued existence—she was feeding him, she wasn't a threat, she didn't seem to give two spits about Goku's fate—but those excuses never really felt right. Sure, she fed him, but hadn't his father killed people just for the lolz? Would his father have allowed her to live simply because she wasn't a threat? Was she really weaving an intricate deception, convincing him she wasn't a threat, and biding her time, intent on betraying him at the first opportunity? He had no answers. It was easier to be heartless on an empty stomach, and despite constant death threats, she still insisted on feeding him. Despite her stubborn refusal to fear him and her repeated attempts to poison him with her cooking, he still let her do so.
A series of loud cracks echoed through the forest, emanating from the dugout shelter Aubergine called home. If Piccolo hadn't been in the area, training, he might not have heard, and if he wasn't hungry, he wouldn't have investigated. It had absolutely nothing to do with concern for the infuriating brat—he couldn't care less if some crazy hunter shot her or a wild animal made a snack out of her! …but if she died, she wouldn't be feeding him anymore. Her cooking could kill lesser beings, granted, but it was better than starving, and he didn't look forward to starving again. That knowledge alone propelled him through the forest in search of the racket, and when he reached it, he skidded to a halt.
Aubergine stood silently beside a pile of stripped tree trunks and an even larger pile of split timbers. Right before his eyes, the girl he'd thought weaker than a baby bird grabbed a tree trunk, hurled it straight up in the air, and with several precise kicks, shattered it into timber. Piccolo stared in disbelief as the lumber fell neatly onto the pile she'd already broken up. He missed the moment her eyes fell on him, her lungs heaving from exertion and her flushed skin damp with sweat.
"Tired of living in a hole," she explained, the sudden comment startling him from his thoughts. She seemed completely unaffected by either his belief that she was weak or his shock at being forced to reconsider that belief. "Figured I'd build a shack."
A shack, she'd called it, but by the time it was done, it was more log cabin than shack. Over the years, that first cabin was replaced several times with increasingly larger and more efficient versions of the first though the basic design remained the same. Stone-paved floors were kept covered in a multitude of furs, hides, and rugs. The split logs of the outside were sealed with pitch and tar and thick clumps of moss grew between each log. Sheets of slate protected the roof. Even the windows—random bits of salvaged glass cemented together into mosaic panels more practical than attractive—were constant from home to home.
One more constant was the large wooden sofa in the front room, a sofa Piccolo spent many a cold night tucked into. Piccolo kept up his insistences for many years—stubbornly insisted that she was only alive because he saw no point in killing her, and even more stubbornly insisted that he didn't need her help, much less her friendship. Still, she continued to leave her door unlocked, continued to smirk knowingly when he crept through complaining of the cold or the rain, gave him the larger portion of every meal she cooked, and left it on the back stoop if he refused it. If not for her, he probably would have starved to death long before Goku ever became aware of his existence.
A plume of smoke danced over the distant treetops. Even at this distance, Piccolo knew Aubergine's horrendous cooking was the source of the smoke; as so often before, the thought made his stomach growl in hunger and turn in nausea all in the same breath. He'd been dead for ten years, though, and they hadn't spoken in much longer…could she have possibly learned to cook in that amount of time? He didn't hold out much hope. Regardless of the horrors that awaited him, he turned his toes toward the smoke and followed the stench of burning fish.
"You're not gonna give up on Goku, are you?" Aubergine's voice stilled him in his tracks, and he stood silently considering her question. He was no longer a child—though he couldn't explain it, three years of training himself to death had made him mature physically if not mentally. Aubrey was starting to mature outwardly as well, and he suspected she would appear a teenager to the world. He knew the truth, though…she was older than she looked despite her understated bust and unimpressive lack of curves. With every passing season, Piccolo found himself more and more distracted by her, and with every passing day, he halfheartedly contemplated calling off his vendetta against her brother.
"Never," he finally answered, the now husky tone of his voice making her eyes avoid his and her cheeks flush slightly. "He killed my father—he's the reason I exist, the reason I've suffered in this world—I cannot let that go—I won't let it go—and nothing you say will change that!" Dark purple eyes hesitantly met his, their owner almost sad.
"I was sent here to protect him—to keep him safe," she reminded softly. "If I allow you to harm him, how can I face our father in the afterlife?" Piccolo scoffed, staring venomously out the bottle glass window facing Goku's home.
"How can I face mine if I let the brat live?" For a moment, Aubergine stared out the same window contemplating a plume of smoke in the distance. When had family ever done her any good? When had family been anything more than an impediment? Bardock was her father, but he sentenced her to life on Earth—Raditz was her brother, but he treated her like an outsider in their home—Kakarot was her brother, too, and the brother she'd sworn her life to protect…and he left her behind without so much as a goodbye, all to seek adventure with a stranger.
"Let me talk to him, Piccolo," she asked without turning from the smoke in the distance. "Maybe I can reach him…maybe neither of us need greet our fathers in shame."
A week later, Piccolo found her bruised and bloodied from taking her frustrations out on an innocent grove of trees, her eyes wild and her teeth bared in anger and hurt. She gave up everything to protect that selfish little brat—gave up her entire life to protect his!—and he forgot about her entirely. After years of wasting time on a brother who didn't understand her Aubergine was through…why protect family who won't do the same?
The reek of burnt fish stung Piccolo's nose but the acrid stench was as comforting as it was dreadful. It brought to mind memories both good and bad—memories of snowy nights in the cabin, summer mornings by the river, long sparring sessions in the fields, occasions when Aubergine's fried fish came right back up seconds after swallowing—why, he wondered not for the first time, did he focus so much on pushing the eccentric woman away? Why was he so insistent that they remain at arms' length even after she renounced her duties to her brother and declared she 'didn't care anymore?'
Some memories with her, Piccolo looked back on with a smile, others a cringe or a scowl, but the worst of them left him cursing himself like never before. After all, he'd decided over time, he ruined everything—why expect himself to not ruin the friendship he'd always needed most?
"I don't understand." Piccolo refused to acknowledge Aubergine though she reached out for him. Many years had passed since he met the half-breed hermit and almost as many since he and the half-breed finally gave in to the tension between them. Many a time they'd sparred in the fields only to wind up down in the dirt clawing at each other's clothing and rutting like animals. Piccolo knew she cared for him more than she would admit; that was alright, though, because he felt the same way.
The years had been good to him. He grew stronger, faster, and wiser than his father ever was. He made friends, made mistakes, made choices, and made promises—enemies turned to allies, allies to comrades, and a few of those comrades even became friends. The years changed him, and he sometimes wondered if for better or for worse. Though he once wanted nothing more than to destroy or enslave the world, he instead saved it—many times—and would continue to save it until he breathed his last.
This new foe, however, made that last breath seem right around the corner. Cell was unlike anything he'd ever fought before, and even if he could convince that bastard Kami to join with him again, Piccolo doubted he could beat the bug. Chances were he'd die in the battle but he'd go down fighting…and when that time came, he wanted Aubergine as far away from him as possible. It was hard enough dying in the arms of the young pupil who befriended him; dying in the arms of the woman he loved would be unbearable.
"What's not to understand?" he sneered instead of admitting his fears. "I'm done—I'm sick of your bullshit, your whining, and your hypocrisy! You can fight but you won't," he snarled at her, inwardly wincing when she flinched away. "Cell could take over the world for all you care, so long as you don't have to fight! For God's sake, you wouldn't even fight to save your own brother!"
Though the accusation was unfounded, it hit home. Tears welled in Aubrey's eyes; she shook her head in silent denial. She'd never given up on her brother, no matter what she told Piccolo—if she'd given up, she would never have stayed so close to the Son household, would never have shown up every time Earth's strongest gathered to offer her healing hands. "Piccolo…" He left without another word, hating himself every step of the way.
The cabin was mere yards away now, and the burned fish stench was stronger than ever. All around him, Piccolo could see evidence that things had changed. The grass was overgrown because her goats were left wandering about instead of staked to leads in the overgrown grass. Her chickens and geese were looking fatter than ever and surrounded by several hatchings' worth of chicks and goslings—evidence she rarely took advantage of the eggs and meat. The cabin's unique windows were caked with dirt, the roof was missing tiles, the front door stood ajar but there was no cat or dog snoring on the sunny stoop…this was not the way he remembered her living. Fearing the worst, that she was hurt or even dead, he scanned for threats and darted to the cabin's front lawn.
She was alive. Through a window formed from what looked like soda bottle bottoms, he could see the half-breed woman standing before a pot-bellied wood stove staring into space. Her hair was long overdue for a trim, the longest bits gathered into a thin tail at her neck, and the rest was more ragged than he'd ever seen. The cloudy violet eye nearest him was hung with shadows and stared vacantly through the fish slowly turning to cinders in the frying pan. Traces of salt shone from her scarred and slightly hollowed cheek. Only twice before had he seen her shed tears and both times, it was his doing…surely, he reasoned bitterly, these tears were his fault as well.
Something happened in the time he'd been gone, and from the looks of it, it wasn't anything good. What happened to her? Why was she letting the place go when she'd been so proud of it before? Perhaps it was his ego talking, but Piccolo couldn't help but wonder if this happened because he left her alone, defenseless, and friendless in a world she'd never wanted to call her own. At the time it'd seemed the right thing to do—the only thing to do—but that certainty had long faded into disgust with himself.
He should have known the crazy woman wouldn't listen! He'd warned her away—pushed her away—heartlessly murdered her faith in him and fed her a pack of lies, all to keep her safe…but she showed up anyway. When Earth's defenders gathered to face off against Cell in his demented tournament, they found Aubergine waiting with an exceptionally sour look on her face. Before Piccolo could get a single word out, she stalked away from the group, leaped up onto one of the tall monoliths lining the edges of the arena, and stubbornly ignored him. Despite her attitude, he followed her—she dove off and took flight, he followed her—even as the arena faded away behind them, he still followed her. Finally, he tired of following…it was time to lead.
"Aubrey!" The nickname—the name she'd offered and he'd refused to use even once—startled her. She ground to a sudden halt mid-air, slowly drifting down to the ground again. She turned to acknowledge him, shaking in both anger and hurt, and seemingly oblivious to the tears streaking down her cheeks.
"Fuck you, demon-scum!" she shrieked back at him even as he lit down and stalked toward her. She had known for years that he wasn't a demon—had learned shortly after he did that he was, in fact, as alien to the planet as she was—but in her rage, it was the only thing she could put into words.
"What are you doing here, Woman?!" Piccolo demanded harshly; she went to bury her fist in his jaw and he grabbed her wrist, squeezing until she cried out in pain.
"What—I've always—done!" she ground out with venom in her eyes. "I'm fighting for my home!" His grip loosened, she wrenched herself free and threw punch after punch at him. "I can fight!—I do fight!—I sit on the sidelines, I patch your asses up, and I watch you go right back out again every single time! There's more to fighting than breaking bones—I fight by healing them!" Time and time again her fists rained down on his chest and shoulders, her breath shuddering into frantic sobbing.
When the impacts ceased to sting and she seemed more intent on grabbing him than hitting him, Piccolo caught her fists and waited for her to calm down. He'd never seen her so worked up before—more often than not, she seemed to not care about anything enough to lose control—and in seeing it now, he knew for certain he went too far. "I hate you," she croaked even as her fingers dug into his tunic and her knees grew weak and wobbly. "I hate you, Piccolo! I'll never forgive you for this—never!"
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