He'd lived too long with the tense control, the constant razor's-edge awareness of each and every movement of his body. He'd had to constantly remind himself how fragile were the bodies of the human woman and half-human baby (the child of his body!) who shared his living space. A careless motion that seemed innocuous to him, or a flare of temper manifesting itself as ki, could destroy them as easily as crushing a blade of grass.
Once, he had been a creature of anger, burning himself up like a flame in the endless blackness of space. Anger and hatred were his twin comforts and companions. He cared nothing for anything else; he had shared the glory of battle with Nappa and Raditz, but those two were dull-witted savages who meant no more to him than the cold stars in the sky. In the dark, secret part of his heart, he nurtured a fierce hatred of Freeza -- for enslaving him, for breaking his pride and making him a servant, he told himself, unable to comprehend anything more important than himself. The destruction of his homeworld at Freeza's hands was an abstraction and something that he could not understand, and he did not try, for whenever he tried to think of it, his thoughts slipped away like starships vanishing into the nighttime sky of an alien world. Sometimes he would lose himself entirely at those moments, waking hours or days later to find that he'd gone on a sort of emotional autopilot, searing entire worlds clean of life, and surviving only because Nappa or Raditz or one of the other soldiers had dragged him onto their escape vessel after he'd collapsed, senseless, in the midst of devastation. Hatred was the wave that bore him up, and anger the source of his strength. He lived every moment expecting to die -- with one part of him numb, senseless; and the other part determined to live no matter what, even if the cost was measured in uncounted billions of lives.
And then ... something had happened ...
He had lost. For the first time since being enslaved by Freeza, he had lost a fight. He had lost to a third-class saiyajin, a low-born warrior who should not have even been fit to be his servant. He had lost, and he had been forced to confront his own death -- in the form of a sword borne in the hands of, not even a saiyajin, but a human, a member of a pathetic servant-race. And worst of all -- the human, at Kakarrot's order, had let him live.
He had burned away the shame with anger, hot anger at Freeza, at Kakarrot, at the universe. Or tried to. Yet sometimes he felt that he really had died at that moment when Kuririn spared his life on Earth. Something in him had certainly died. He'd killed scores of Nameks in search of the dragon balls, but he wasn't able to yield completely to the thrill of watching their bodies burn beneath his ki-blasts. Their deaths were now means to an end: at first gathering the dragon balls, and then trying to destroy Freeza. The ability he'd once had, to lose himself entirely in the rush of rage, appeared to have vanished on that planet, that damned planet, that worthless planet Earth.
He could no longer seek release in anger. He could no longer escape himself. He was trapped with his pride in his own skull. He had channeled his pent-up fury into the quest to defeat Kakarrot -- no, to destroy Kakarrot! To kill him! No defeat could ever salve his wounded pride. But why did that explanation ring false in his own ears ...
And then Kakarrot had done the unthinkable. He'd died, at the hands of someone other than Vegeta. And Vegeta was left with his fury -- fury at Kakarrot himself? or at Kakarrot's killer? it didn't matter, it didn't matter ... left with fury and nothing else. Nothing else. Nothing ...
Nothing but a woman who loved him, and a child who carried his blood. Bulma, Trunks ...
No, he didn't want to think about them! He let the rush of anger wash away their names and carry him away, as it had once been able to do as he stood on scorched planets and committed genocide in Freeza's name. This was just another planet. Just another place to be destroyed.
It didn't matter. It didn't matter. It didn't matter.
He let the anger make rational thought impossible. The only thing that mattered was hurting Kakarrot. Destroying Kakarrot. Destroying him forever ...
This was the gift that Babidi had given him. The gift of anger, the ability to lose himself in it, the thing he thought he had lost.
"We shouldn't be doing this!"
Kakarrot's voice, ragged with desperation. He tried to drive that voice away, drown it in pain and blood.
But why didn't you kill him, whispered his internal voice, struggling to be heard over the anger. You had him helpless at your feet, but you only chained him to the cliff -- why?
To hurt him! he snarled back at the voice inside himself. It wasn't enough yet! Not enough pain! No amount of pain I could inflict on that peasant could possibly be good enough!
Or because ... you don't want to watch him die ... to be the instrument of his death ...?
"We shouldn't be doing this, Vegeta! We are responsible for the release of Majin Buu!"
Shut up -- shut up, Kakarrot! Vegeta gave himself to the anger, let it take him. "Why should I care?" he snarled, smashing his fists into that hated face. "That has nothing to do with our fight!"
"He'll kill everyone!" Kakarrot screamed at him. "Everyone! Bulma! Trunks!"
Those names again ... he didn't want names. There were no names in the hot stream of anger. There was nothing ... nothing but himself ...
"Shut up!" he screamed, hardly aware that he'd spoken aloud, flinging himself at Kakarrot, launching an onslaught of wild attacks completely unlike his usual cool, controlled assaults. The anger was a jagged thing now, slashing at him, shredding him -- and under it was the darkness, the great well of despair that he could not allow himself to fall into, for he would never survive and the only important thing was, had always been, survival. "I allowed Babidi to take control of me to free me from that -- from that damned weakness! I don't care what happens to anyone!"
Just like before. Just like before. Just like ...
He threw a wild punch, which Kakarrot easily blocked, and spun to face him.
Vegeta recoiled from those penetrating blue Super-Saiyajin eyes.
"You're lying!" Kakarrot screamed again, and punched him as he stood, unable to move for reasons he still could not, through the mask of his anger, understand. The force of the blow knocked him backwards and plowed him head-first into the ground, shattering the hard, baked-clay earth.
Vegeta winced and opened his eyes to see Kakarrot straightening, bloody and battered, with ki-fire flaring around him. Kakarrot's eyes still held him as he lay trying to recover his strength, to pull together the fragments of his hatred -- and over it all, he could feel the distant, malevolent ki of Majin Buu.
Hatred. Anger. Vegeta allowed it to strengthen his limbs as he sat up, gasping and glaring through blurred vision at the glowing figure in front of him.
"You didn't completely sell your soul," Kakarrot said.
Vegeta stood up and spat out a mouthful of blood. He met Kakarrot's eyes. He couldn't look away. Yet somehow those eyes were forcing himself to look back into himself -- into the pit of his soul that he had spent his entire life trying to escape.
Because of Kakarrot ... and that damned woman and her brat ... he was stuck with himself. The release of anger was denied him. Even Babidi's charms could not help him. He had no choice but to live with himself ... and that was unbearable.
Unless he could become a person that he could live with.
Shame. It was shame that forced him to speak ... shame at himself.
"All right." Vegeta forced out the words through his clenched teeth. "We're only putting off this fight ... it looks like you're so worried about Majin Buu that you wouldn't be able to concentrate on our fight anyway."
"Vegeta!" Kakarrot's face changed in an instant, from menacing to open and wondering. He could do that -- he had few emotional barriers, and needed none. His soul wasn't something that he had to guard.
Vegeta sought for his hatred of Kakarrot, his jealousy. He couldn't seem to find it ... instead he found his hatred of himself.
He wanted the anger back, but it was beyond his reach now. He knew what he had to do, and he held out his hand to Kakarrot, forcing himself to meet those open, trusting blue-green eyes.
"Give me a senzu," he ordered, walking towards Kakarrot. He did not take his eyes off his ... enemy? "We've both used up a lot of energy in the fight," he explained, walking forward without pausing.
"Right." Kakarrot fumbled for the belt pouch that held the remaining senzu, turning away from Vegeta.
Turning his back.
Vegeta walked towards him. He gripped one hand with the other, forming a double fist. At least he no longer had to look into Kakarrot's eyes.
"If we work together, I'm sure we can defeat Majin Buu!" Kakarrot went on happily, pulling out the senzu pouch.
No, Kakarrot. This is not your fight.
Vegeta raised his hands. There had never been much honor in his style of fighting, as the humans figured honor. He had struck many enemies from behind, sometimes to wound, sometimes to kill. Yet he realized to his amazement that he had rarely done anything harder than this betrayal of trust.
He struck Kakarrot across the back of the neck with force calculated to incapacitate, but not to kill.
Kakarrot froze, gasping, and pitched slowly forward, his golden hair shading back into black. He hit the ground hard, and lay still. The pouch slipped from his limp fingers, and rolled across the barren sand.
"Even you had to let down your guard when you got tired," Vegeta told the unconscious saiyajin.
He bent over and picked up the senzu, feeling the energy rush back into him as he swallowed it. For a moment he stood, staring down at Kakarrot's limp body.
"I let Majin Buu escape," he said at last. "I'll take care of it."
This isn't your fight, Kakarrot. It is mine. It has always been mine. I am the prince of the saiyajin and I will not allow a third-class peasant to fight my battles for me.
"I can finish the fight with you after that," he added, and smiled faintly ...
"If I'm still alive."
Was it just Goku's imagination, or had Vegeta's eyes flickered at his words?
"You're lying!" he cried again, and struck out with all his force. He expected Vegeta to sidestep the blow, but instead, his fist slammed into Vegeta's face. He felt bones grind and the saiyajin prince was flung to the ground, where he lay for a moment, breathing hard.
"You didn't completely sell your soul," Goku said, and watched the prince climb slowly back to his feet, glaring coldly at Goku. The wordless defiance told him as much as the wild nature of Vegeta's attacks -- how easily the other saiyajin had allowed himself to be goaded by reminders of his mate and son.
Vegeta glared at Goku. And Goku looked back. Telepathy with other people had never really worked for him except for that one time on Namek, with Kuririn, but still he tried desperately to telegraph what he knew to be true:
You are not evil, Vegeta. You are not what you used to be. I've been watching you, these seven years. You do care about your family ... about the Earth.
"All right," Vegeta said.
Goku's heart clenched. It couldn't ... could he really ...?
"We're only putting off this fight ... it looks like you're so worried about Majin Buu that you wouldn't be able to concentrate on our fight anyway."
"Vegeta!" Goku cried, breaking into a grin he could not control. He had been right. All along, he had been right.
"Give me a senzu," Vegeta snapped, walking towards Goku. "We've both used up a lot of energy in the fight," he added.
"Right." Goku reached for the senzu pouch, looking down as he freed it from his belt. He couldn't believe that his last, desperate attempt to reach Vegeta had worked. "If we work together, I'm sure we can defeat Majin Buu!"
Vegeta didn't answer. And Goku had just registered the feeling of Vegeta's ki suddenly flaring right behind his back -- but he didn't raise his personal shields, it was only Vegeta, and he trusted Vegeta --
Something slammed into the nerve center at the base of his skull with the force of a pile-driver.
Goku gasped in shock as he felt his body crumpling.
Odd how many things he had a chance to feel before he hit the ground and plunged into blackness. Astonishment ... betrayal ... fear that he, in his naivete, had doomed his family, doomed the world ...
... and something that he could not explain, a conviction that he hadn't been wrong, that somehow there was more to Vegeta's betrayal than hate or vengeance.
I was right about you, Vegeta. I know I was right. I STILL trust you.
That was his last thought and then a wave of blackness folded around him.
Vegeta suppressed the irrational urge to check Kakarrot for a pulse (he'd been dead for seven years; how much pulse could he have?) and walked towards Babidi's spaceship. A dry desert wind streamed back his golden hair as he reached out his saiyajin senses, trying to form a mental image of the surrounding battlefield, a ki-picture of who was alive and who was not.
He could feel Majin Buu's ki, strange and pulsating, like nothing he'd ever felt before. He could feel Kaio-shin's ki, wavering weakly, and Babidi's.
He could not feel Gohan's. Not at all.
Vegeta raised his eyes to the sky. "I will not forgive myself for this," he said aloud, very quietly. A promise, and a reminder.
He did not expect to survive the coming fight. He could not explain to himself why he walked forward anyway, walking into death. The old Vegeta, the person he used to be, would never have done that.
But the old Vegeta had not survived his first meeting with ...
He spoke aloud, hardly aware that he had done so, looking over his shoulder one last time at the younger saiyajin lying as if dead upon the barren plain.
Vegeta's mouth half-opened, then closed. There were many things he wanted to say.
But part of life was living with regrets.
Or dying with them.
He turned away from Kakarrot, and walked forward to meet his fate.