Kakarot was… disappointed. From the air he could see Gohan fast asleep on Dende's lap. Sure, Dende was awake, but he wasn't a warrior. What if Vegeta came by? Had they been planning on staying out here until Frieza came? What had Gohan been thinking?
Kakarot landed with a deliberate thud, ready to scold his son as he had never needed to in his life.
But Gohan surged to his feet before the noise of his landing had even died away. Still half-asleep, the boy's hands filled with ki, his feet wide in a ready, protective stance. Though imperfect, Gohan's guard was solid enough that it could not be easily ignored. The scolding died on Kakarot's lips.
Blinking blearily, Gohan's stance eased as he realized who had landed in front of him.
"Hi, dad—" he began, but Kakarot made as though to grab Dende, and quick as thought Gohan swatted his hand away with an arm block. Now Kakarot reached for Gohan, and Gohan batted him away with his other hand, expression turning grim. Kakarot slid inside Gohan's guard, parting his ki like water, and in Gohan's sudden panic he raised his hands and shot a ki blast straight at Kakarot's chest.
It was warm, but not scalding. Gohan had put all his intention into force rather than heat, and Kakarot felt himself being pushed back. He could have resisted, but he was surprised at how much effort it would have taken. Instead, he let himself be pushed, then rushed forward again, only to find Gohan leaping at him, harrying him with kicks to his head and shoulders. He blocked them, grabbing Gohan's foot at an opportune moment and swinging him down at the ground, softening the blow as much as he could.
That proved to be a mistake. Gohan stopped himself inches from the ground and wrenched his foot out of Kakarot's hand, spinning sideways in midair and using his momentum to slide tackle Kakarot's legs out from under him. Kakarot landed flat on his back. Immediately he tensed to flip to his feet again, but Gohan had already leaped into the air and was coming down with both feet to stomp him into the dust.
Kakarot had two choices, as he saw it: let his son bring the full weight of his body and ki down on his stomach and try to bear it (a painful prospect), or try to stop him with a ki blast: one that would need to be strong enough to actually hurt him, since going easy on him did not seem to be working. Unsure of exactly how durable his son was (or his stomach, for that matter; Gohan had gotten strong) Kakarot, as he often did, chose option C: he flared briefly into Kaio-ken and rolled out of the way, hopping to his feet as soon as he was clear.
"Stop!" Dende was sobbing, kneeling on the ground in terror. "Please, stop! I'll go back, just stop fighting!"
Kakarot ignored him. He looked at Gohan, chest heaving. "Why is this so important to you?" he asked.
Gohan gritted his teeth against the tears that began to fall. "Because I couldn't protect anyone! When Nappa was going to kill mom, I couldn't do anything to stop him. He would have killed her if you hadn't saved her. And then Vegeta came, and he fought us and he killed all those people and I still wasn't strong enough!" Gohan hiccupped a sob, and then angrily scrubbed his tears away. "Dende just wants to protect his family, and I know exactly how he feels. Even if all I can do is make sure he can help, I want— I have to do it." He glowered at his father, his hands clenching into tiny fists. "And I won't let you stop me."
When Kakarot had handed Gohan to Gine before heading off to the world of the dead, his son had been little more than a baby. Only a year later, this boy in front of him was practically another person entirely. It was one thing to hear about Gohan's efforts on the battlefield, after the fact and second hand. It was quite another to witness his son's indomitable spirit, and have it leveled at him.
"Your mom's gonna kill you, you know," he said with a grin. Gohan's face slowly lit up as he realized what this meant.
"You won't tell them where we are?"
"No, because I'm staying here with you." Kakarot folded his arms sternly over his chest. "If Vegeta had been the one to find you he wouldn't have gone so easy on you."
"He did find us," Gohan told him as he helped Dende to stand. The young Namekian looked rapidly back and forth between them, eyes wide. Kakarot uncrossed his arms in alarm.
"What did he do?"
"Nothing," Gohan said, but his tone implied it had been an unpleasant nothing. "He promised he wouldn't hurt anybody, and he's keeping his word."
Kakarot gave a surprised grunt. Gohan took Dende's hand and held it, but he was frowning at the ground.
"Dad?" he said. Kakarot tilted his head. Gohan's frown deepened. "Grandma always said Saiyans were bad, but she said you and me were different because we were raised on Earth."
"Yeah," Kakarot said warily.
"But I started wondering… Grandma wasn't raised on Earth. She was raised with other Saiyans. Why is she the only one that's different?"
Kakarot and Dende looked at each other. It was not an exchange between two people sharing a moment of silent understanding. Both were looking at the other for clarification, context. Neither of them found what they were looking for. Kakarot looked back at his son, frowning as well.
"Well, that's because your grandma's special," he said. Gohan looked up finally, about to say something that died on his lips as soon as he met his father's eyes. He shook his head minutely, then tried again.
"Yes, but why? If Saiyans are inherently bad, then it shouldn't matter how they're raised. And if they're bad because of how they're raised, why is grandma the only good one when she was raised the same way?"
The feeling that this boy wasn't quite the son he remembered intensified. Kakarot took in a breath to speak, but someone landed near them and they all turned to look.
"What, are we playing sardines?" Krillin chuckled. "Chi Chi's going to be so mad."
She was, and Gine was hardly less angry, but she let Chi Chi do the yelling.
Gohan took his medicine like a man, head bowed but shoulders straight as his mother ripped him a new one. Then it was Kakarot's turn, and he was sheepish and tried to wiggle out of it and got even more of a mouthful than his son had. Then she turned to Dende, and her fire banked somewhat. She stood, arms folded, and studied him for a moment before sighing.
"I'm not your parent, so I can't scold you," she said. "But you're my son's friend and I worry about your safety."
She tilted her head to look at the Grand Elder, with whom she had formed an unexpected bond in the short time their children had been missing.
"Dende," he said softly. "Come here, my son."
As bravely as Gohan, Dende stepped up beside his father. The Grand Elder regarded him impassively for a long moment, long enough that Dende grew antsy, began fidgeting, then burst out,
"Grand Elder, why did you unlock my healing powers if not to have me use them when it's important? I know hiding was wrong but I don't care. I'd do it again!"
He thrust out his chin defiantly, but only for a moment. He seemed to grow embarrassed and tucked his chin against his chest, staring at the floor, but he did not retract his words. Nail coughed and turned his face away. Gine thought he might be smiling. The Grand Elder did smile, though it was sad.
"You are correct, Dende. To possess gifts and not use them is selfishness. Forgive me my selfishness for wanting you safe."
Tears welled up and spilled over Dende's cheeks almost instantly. He floated up and grabbed the Grand Elder's hand in his tiny one.
"I forgive you," he warbled. "I'm sorry I made you worry. Please forgive me!"
The Grand Elder forgave him. Gine slid her eyes away from this effusion of familial love and saw Gohan leaning against his mother's hip, her fingers absently combing his hair. Her eyes moved to Kakarot, who was looking at his wife and son with a pleased, proprietary air. The three of them formed a beautiful, perfect tableau— but a closed one. Loneliness, black and airless, welled up inside her as quickly as Dende's tears, until she was choking on it. Where was her baby, leaning against her side, hair under her fingers? When had he gotten so old?
When had she?
And then there he was. Kakarot had sidled up to her while she'd been distracted by despair and was grinning at her sideways. He was taller than her but still somehow gave the impression that he thought she was bigger than him, like a dog that hasn't realized it's not a puppy anymore.
"Ain't he cute?" he murmured. "You think the old timer would let us borrow him? Gohan's never had a best friend before."
His thoughts mirrored hers from a few days ago so closely that her ugly ruminations broke like a plate and vanished. She laughed, and reached up and dug her fingers into his hair.
"You're always going to be my baby," she said.
"I know," he said, smiling, but the words didn't make her as happy as she thought they would.
They all felt it, all at once.
It was hours later, after a meal and some quiet, subdued conversation. All that had been left to do was wait and stew in terrified boredom— but now it seemed the wait was over.
Krillin gave a surprised cry and leapt to his feet. Kakarot sucked in a breath, and Gohan held Dende's hand tighter. Even the Grand Elder was frowning.
Chi Chi looked the fiercest, staring up at the sky with her hands balled into fists.
"That's him?" she said. "That's the one that killed all the Saiyans?"
Gine swallowed around the ashes in her mouth. "Yes."
Chi Chi's voice was steel. "Well, he ain't going to kill any more."
"Gohan, get Dende to safety," Kakarot ordered.
He grabbed Dende's hand and pulled him out of the building, but before any of them could move they heard both boys cry out. All of them rushed outside to find two figures, each holding a struggling child.
Zarbon tossed a lock of hair out of his face and smiled politely.
"If you would all be so kind as to inform us of the whereabouts of the Saiyan Prince Vegeta, I'm sure we can find a way to bring this to a peaceful conclusion."
Dodoria rearranged Dende in his arms like a bag of groceries. "What he said."
"Gohan!" Chi Chi cried.
"Is one of them Frieza?" Kakarot asked Gine in a low growl. Gine shook her head.
"Zarbon and Dodoria. They're his right hand men, so he can't be far behind."
Kakarot scoffed. "They don't look that strong."
"Bardock told me that one can transform." Gine nodded at Zarbon. "So be careful."
Dodoria cocked his head.
"Bardock?" She saw him notice the tail around her waist. "Hey, you're a Saiyan. How come you're not dead?"
Gine felt black satisfaction as she said, "Frieza didn't get all of us."
"No no no." Dodoria shook his head like he was trying to dislodge a fly. "I already killed all of Bardock's crew before that." He chuckled. "Probably why he went all crazy at the end."
Gine's ears began to ring.
She whispered, "What?"
Dodoria counted on his fingers. "Yeah, let's see, there was the chick, and that big fat guy," (Zarbon snorted,) "the one with the scars and the... other one."
"Selipa," Gine whispered. "Panbukin. Totapo. Toma."
"Yeah, that was their names. I killed them all dead. How'd I miss you?"
Selipa, laughing. "Don't be stupid, girl. I don't want your sloppy seconds. I don't want you here at all."
Totapo, silently sharing his food.
Panbukin, checking her power level on his scouter every few seconds to see if it had changed and laughing when it hadn't.
Toma, looking worried. "You know people are starting to talk. Don't you think you should do him a favor and just leave?"
Bardock. Bloodied and serious, standing in the kitchen, telling her to get their son to safety. Had he known his crew was dead at that point? Had he been running on fumes and grief, or had he died not knowing their fate?
"Ah, well, guess I'll get to it now," Dodoria said. "I wonder how many more survived."
"Bardock certainly didn't." Zarbon laughed.
"Friezaaaa!" Dodoria mocked. "What did he think he was gonna do, kill Frieza by himself?"
They both laughed.
The ringing in Gine's ears grew louder.
Gently, she eased Gohan out of Zarbon's arms, plucked Dende from Dodoria's, set them down next to Kakarot, and then positioned herself between the two lackeys, all before anyone had even realized she'd moved. She closed her eyes, feeling where they were, feeling how weak they were, and savored it, just for a moment. Then she thrust out her hands, one to either side.
"This is for Bardock," she whispered, and vaporized them.