Passport to Paradise
They tried to get him to stay with the others, but Alain
refused to be put off. Both Vegeta and Kakarotto both had told him that they
weren't going on an adventure, that there was a chance he may die, but he
refused to be deterred. Eventually Vegeta gave in with a sigh and informed
Kakarotto that ensuring their companion could defend himself was his job.
Kakarotto smirked and informed him that he would be joining them.
After leaving Janan, they spent every morning training before the heat of the day had time to settle in. Vegeta had done such things before as an adolescent, but once he'd reached adulthood he had ceased to train as often. He and Alain both quickly learned that Kakarotto was a demanding taskmaster. He didn't set forth something he knew they could not complete, but he did push them again and again until they finally mastered the move. The end of the first day left Vegeta and Alain sore, though the prince didn't look half as bad as their former guide did. Alain looked as if he would drop dead at any moment.
"I'd planned to spend the evenings in training as well," the teen had said at the end of the first day, "but I don't think you're up to it." Alain had looked at him as if he were crazy and wondered aloud if his body would ever stop hurting. When he received the answer from his trainer that more exercise was the best cure, he collapsed upon the ground with an overly-dramatic groan.
It was little moments like that that helped to keep the darkness at bay. Kakarotto wasn't healed, not by a long shot, but he was slowly getting there. As each day passed, and there was no sign that the barbarians had begun their March of Death, a little more weight was lifted from his shoulders.
By the third day they were well into the swamps. Kakarotto's old village was actually on the farside where the unusable land gave way to grassland, but close enough that they still felt as if they lived within the swamps. After seeing how miserable his two companions were with all of the insects buzzing around, Kakarotto called for a break and went scouting for plants. He gathered up several medicinal-smelling ones and ground them up into a paste that he told Vegeta and Alain to spread over their exposed skin. Mere moments after they did so, they each noticed a significant different in the amount of small winged creatures that were bothering them. Kakarotto informed them that the salve was from an old recipe and all of his people had used on themselves before spending any time outside. The thought of them made him sad (as it often did), but he quickly shoved the feeling aside.
"Are you okay?" Vegeta said quietly while Alain pretended to be preoccupied with making sure there was no clear patch of skin left.
"I will be." He rubbed at his eyes with his sleeve. "Thank you."
After an hour's break they continued onward over the soggy ground that sucked at their boots and threatened to them off completely. In addition to the insects that gathered in giant clouds over the murky water, the stench of decaying plants and animals was intense. After only a few steps into the marshes, Alain had gagged and rushed back out. It took the blunt words of Kakarotto to draw him back in again. To go around the swampland was to add a week onto the journey.
Due to the fact that there were few places where one could stand solidly, Kakarotto temporarily limited training to upper body movement only. He taught them effective ways of blocking and how to penetrate the blocks of their opponents. He had to admit that Alain was really getting the hang of things, much to his relief, and Vegeta was as good at combat as his physique and grace suggested. But he was rather limited in his way of thinking. Back home in his father's castle, his trainers had taught sword fighting and hand-to-hand as two completely separate skills instead of intertwining them together to make them more effective. It was hard for him to use them together as naturally as he used them apart even when doing so might one day save his life. Kakarotto was patient with him. Although he did not know how to use a sword, he forced Vegeta to get used to using his hands and feet while still wielding his weapon. Several embarrassing maneuvers later, he was finally getting the hang of things.
The following day, Kakarotto surprised them by bowing to a tree. He simply stopped walking and turned to the ancient silver maple and bowed in reverence. Upon closer inspection, Vegeta discovered that there were strange markings carved into the tree. They were barely visible due to the effects of time.
"Nohin e Kul," Kakarotto whispered. "Home of the Guardians. My home."
"Not anymore," Vegeta said gently, placing a consoling hand on his shoulder.
Kakarotto stared at the writing that announced the start of Nohin territory, his mind lost in bittersweet memories. "No," he sighed, "not anymore."
It was clear that no one had lived there for a long time. While not as ancient as some of the ruins on the planet, it had the same sense of emptiness and mystery. Kakarotto winced upon entering the village proper, muttering something to himself about lingering spirits. Vegeta and Alain could also feel the weight of the massacre that had taken place four years before.
In one way, Nohin e Kul looked as if its inhabitants had merely stepped out for a moment and would return soon.
They made their way up a wide street that entered into a central square. Most of the buildings faced this square, but there were houses that had been built years after the initial founding that did not. As they passed a small home with yellow curtains in the front windows, Kakarotto paused again. He stared at it as tears pooled in his eyes to trickle down his cheeks. Vegeta knew that the house he now looked upon had been where his lover had lived. After a brief look at Alain, he realized this as well.
Vegeta moved forward slowly to stand beside him. "Do you want to-"
"No. There's no time. If I go in there, I'll just become lost in my memories."
"We can make time. You've never returned here after you found everyone dead. I think you need closure."
He laughed bitterly. "'Closure' won't bring them back."
"But it will bring you back. Since the Fisher's Cove Incident, you've practically given up your identity. If your mother was still alive today, would she even recognize you?"
Behind them, Alain moved away to give them space as quietly as he could. He could sense that the conversation was heading into very troubled waters.
"I did what I had to do to survive. Nothing is more important than protecting the Key, not even my own sanity."
"And you did protect it." Vegeta wanted to pull him into his arms and never let go, but had a feeling that any comfort he offered would be refused. "You protected it as long as you could."
"They were able to obtain it anyway. All of my effort meant nothing."
The darkness could no longer be held back. It reared up and washed over them both in one giant wave designed to overwhelm.
"You gave everyone a little more time with their families, their friends, their lovers. If things do go badly, and the barbarians discover the gateway, we can remember the times we had together in our final moments and the end won't seem as bad. But we don't know for sure that the barbarians are capable of finding it. Hell, we don't even know if their intentions are bad despite the lengths they'll go to to get what they want. For many people, the end always justifies the means." The rest of what he said was important, maybe even more so than what he'd said before. "You are going to take the rest of the day to remember. There's nothing at all wrong with doing that. Alain and I will make camp somewhere else and come to get you later. I hope you'll use this time wisely."
Kakarotto bit back the sarcastic comment he started to make and simply nodded.
"Good." Vegeta kissed him softly on the lips. "I love you. Always remember that."
He waited until they were out of sight before turning back to the house, then he took a deep breath and strode up the pathway before he lost his nerve. The spirits were the thickest here.
There was nothing interesting to talk about so neither of them said a word. They scouted around for a building that appeared to be official enough to house the documents Kakarotto was searching for so that he had one less thing to do once he emerged from his old home. Alain found the library, Vegeta found the council house. When they returned to the square to share their findings, they quickly debated over a plan of action. Neither of them could read the language of Kakarotto's people, the Nohin, so they probably would have no idea what they were looking at even if they happened to find it. Instead they decided to set up their bedrolls in the library due to the fact that it had more room to stretch out in and the floorboards were covered in rugs.
The patterns on them were brightly colored and didn't seem to represent anything in nature at first glance, but a closer inspection revealed that the angular shapes were, in fact, people and animals and plants. The designs were almost child-like in nature, but the intricate detail that comprised the borders spoke of maturity.
Vegeta spread out his bed roll, sat down upon it, and stared at the wall. He felt uneasy being in a city where so many people had died needlessly and Kakarotto's increasingly unpredictable moods weren't helping things.
"Vegeta?" Alain's voice trembled very slightly from fear. "Are we going to die?"
"Eventually." He smirked and glanced over at him. The other man was not amused. "All things have to die sometime."
"You know what I mean."
He sobered quickly. "Nothing's guaranteed in life, you know? They could find their paradise tomorrow and kill everyone in this world, or they could never find it. And even if they don't, that doesn't mean that someone else won't come along and do worse things than they did. You can only do the best you can with the amount of time you have to do it in. If it turns out that we only have a week left, then I'll be glad I met you and Kakarotto and that we at least tried to stop the end of the world from happening."
Alain remained silent for a long time just thinking things over. He sat with his back against the wall and with his legs drawn up to his chest as if trying to make himself small enough that no one would be able to find him. "Nothing I have ever been told about Saiya-jin could have prepared me for you two. You're a little cynical and sarcastic at times, but you have a good heart. And Kakarotto..." He trailed off, shaking his head in wonder. "He's just good. There's no other word good enough to describe him. It's like my entire world has changed since I met him, and not just because my hometown was destroyed and my family was killed. When he smiles it's like the day instantly grows brighter." Alain smiled softly to himself, but it faltered when he realized just how worshipful he sounded... and how badly his words might be taken by the man sitting nearby. "Don't get me wrong. I really like him, but not in the same way you do. I mean, I like girls."
The prince smirked at him again. "That's good. I really didn't want to have to kill you."
He laughed loudly for a moment, but it soon tapered off. "You're joking, right?"
Everything was exactly how they'd left it four years ago. Maybe the would-be thieves were able to sense the sorrow of Nohin e Kul and had left to find better prospects. Maybe no one had come across the village in the entire time it had been empty. Kakarotto hoped that the truth was the latter. The village was a sacred burial ground that should not be disturbed by those seeking to desecrate it.
Walking through the house was hard for him, but he still did it. In every room he could vividly remember something special to him. The comfortable central room was where he and his parents had relaxed after a long day of training and working. He and his friends had also spent plenty of time playing in there when the weather was bad. His bedroom at the back of the small house still contained all of his toys and his clothes and his keepsakes like his rock and bird feather collections. Sniffling, Kakarotto picked up a small shirt and wondered how he had ever been able to fit into it. That thought caused the dam to finally burst and the tears to escape down his cheeks. He sat down on the edge of the small bed and cried for his lost innocence.
When he was finished feeling sorry for himself, he left his old home and wandered around the city. He visited the training hall where Master Totepo had pushed him beyond his self-imposed limits and proved to him that anything was possible with a little hard work. In honor of his memory, he took a seat on the woven reed matting on the floor, his legs crossed, and meditated. He wanted to find the courage to stand up to the barbarians and prevent them from bringing about the death of the world. He was only one person yet it seemed to be his responsibility. After all, it was he who'd had the most compatibility with the Key.
His magic may be gone, but his strength was not. As long as there was still breath in his lungs he would still be able to fight, even if it was only in a very small way. To the memories of all those who'd died to defend him, and to the lives of the people who would die by his inaction, he owed that much.
His mind now free from doubt and filled with purpose, Kakarotto got to his feet and looked around the hall one last time.
"Thank you, Master Totepo," he whispered. "Thank you for teaching me to believe in myself.