Washuu popped a large strawberry into Joseph’s mouth, silencing him as he gagged on the fruit. “I’m know, dear, but I’d rather not spend the next couple of hours worrying about what could happen while I’m gone.” Spotting movement behind her, Washuu made a beckoning gesture. “Besides, she’s already arrived and it would be very rude of me to turn her away because you don’t want her here.”
“Hello,” Samui greeted, walking into the room with a smile.
Joseph’s jaw dropped, Anne’s eyes widened to the size of plates, and Falora just blinked in confusion.
Washuu gave each of the shocked children a brief hug. “Have fun, but be good, too! See ya!” With that, and a wave, she stepped into one of her subspace doors and was gone.
“So,” Samui began after a brief silence, “any of you ever played putt-putt?”
“What?” Joseph ventured.
Samui gestured towards the door. “Get your shoes on, and you’ll see what I mean.”
Washuu changed to her full adult height; there was no point in hiding in her ‘Washuu-chan’ mode around Tokimi. Besides, she wanted to talk to her sister about things that were for grown-ups, not little girls who refused to act their age.
Tokimi was waiting for her, seated as always in her extravagant throne room, the one thing that existed within this space. Washuu always found it a bit strange that this was the way Tokimi would decorate the place, but decided not to comment as she remembered the time Tokimi had made a similar remark about Washuu’s lab. Oh, well, to each their own.
“Welcome, sister,” Tokimi began, gesturing for Washuu to sit down on a chair she had conjured, “what brings you here after not speaking to me for two millennia?”
She sure does get to the point, Washuu thought as she obliged. But she is my sister, after all. She put her hands in her lap. “I’m worried about my daughter.”
Tokimi grinned. “Which one?”
The small blue dimpled ball rolled up the hill and dropped into the hole with a loud clatter.
“Finally,” Joseph sighed, writing down his score. He had come so close to catching up to Anne, but that last hole pulled their scores apart again. Falora was still holding steady at par, although steady wasn’t really the world Joseph would use to describe her game so far. She see-sawed back and forth between eye-popping incredible hole-in-ones and devastating off-target wild shots. Joseph was a bit more consistent, but he felt as if the entire golf course had been designed to exploit his weaknesses. Anne did the best of the three children; she went at the game in a calm manner, calculating every shot before its execution. Every once in a while, though, she would get a bit too eager to show off and blow her lead.
Samui returned to the course with the refreshments they had requested, plus a small cup of water for herself. “Drink break, everyone.”
“Thanks, Samui.” Anne set her club against one of the artificial trees and relieved Samui of one of the drinks, and Joseph and Falora soon followed suit. Falora was the quickest to finish, forgoing the straw and cover and practically inhaling her chocolate shake until Joseph was sure that she would drink up the container, too. Joseph would have liked to emulate, but orange soda was too fizzy to drink in one go unless he could let the built-up pressure out with a loud, raucous belch—something he wasn’t about to do in the presence of Anne, Falora, or Samui. So he sipped instead, resting every once in a while so that the bubbles wouldn’t tickle his nose. Anne drank her lemonade at a speed somewhere in between, and then went on to munch at the ice cubes for the rest of the game, much to Joseph’s annoyance.
“This is fun!” Falora exclaimed, picking up her club again as it was her turn, not at all bothered by the sounds of Anne crunching her way through half a cup of ice. “Samui-oneechan, are you sure you don’t want to play?”
Samui nodded, swishing the contents of her cup. “I’m sure.”
Joseph’s turn soon came up again. Anne was starting to get distracting, so he tried to think about something else, like what they would have for dinner. He hadn’t seen Washuu-chan cook, but she didn’t leave Samui any money to order out, either. Maybe Samui made something for them. Joseph wondered what kind of food Samui made, and how it would taste.
Anne tapped her toes. “Come on, Joseph, anytime this century would be nice.”
He closed his eyes and putted.
“All right, let me get this straight.” Tokimi settled into her seat. “You’re that impatient to play grandmother?”
Washuu shook her head. “That’s not the only thing. I’ve already missed out so much of her life already, and this is something I definitely want to be a part of.” She hesitated, uncertain of how to word her concerns. “But—”
“You’re not sure she feels the same way about you,” Tokimi finished for Washuu.
Washuu sighed. “I don’t know if she feels anything for me at all! She never calls and she doesn’t visit unless her job requires her to.”
Tokimi arched an eyebrow. “You expect her to do all of these things?”
“Of course I do! Why shouldn’t I?”
Tokimi rolled her eyes. “Do you really want me to get into that again?”
Joseph held out his bowl. “Seconds, please.”
“Fifths, you mean!” Anne corrected with a touch of disgust. “You’re such a pig!”
“Hey, this is good stuff!” Joseph shot back.
“That doesn’t mean you can eat like you’re from a Third World country!” Anne retorted.
“Don’t worry, I made plenty,” Samui intervened with a smile, adding more potato salad to Joseph’s bowl.
Anne and Joseph exchanged a few rounds of face-making before returning to their food. Meanwhile, Falora just shook her head and continued to eat in silence.
“By the way, Samui, do you have any idea why Washuu-oneechan asked you to take care of us?” Anne asked, giving herself another helping.
“I’ve been wondering the same thing myself. I’m hardly the first person anyone would think of for something like this.” Samui sighed. “I half suspect that this is Washuu-san’s way of telling me that I should consider starting a family.”
Joseph almost choked. “Aren’t you—uh—a little young to have kids?”
Samui looked a bit embarrassed. “It depends on who you ask, I suppose.” She sighed again. “But Washuu-san doesn’t seem to think so, and I don’t really blame her for getting anxious.”
“Why not?” Falora wanted to know.
Samui played with her silverware. “Well, to simplify a very complicated story, I could be technically considered her daughter.”
That got everyone’s attention from the food in a hurry.
“This I definitely want to hear about,” Joseph said.
“Yeah,” Anne agreed. “Washuu-oneechan doesn’t tell us much about herself.”
“If that’s okay with you,” Falora added, looking hesitant.
Samui closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath, then let it out. “All right, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Look at me while I’m talking to you, Washuu,” Tokimi’s voice was starting to gain an impatient edge, and even more so as Washuu reverted to her usual form and refused to make eye contact.
“Why does everybody have to bring that up?” Child-Washuu mumbled.
“I’m just giving you the facts.” Tokimi took a sip from her glass and several deep breaths to calm herself down. It was obvious that she was getting close to losing her temper, and that was the last thing either wanted to happen. “All right, so maybe I’ve gone a bit overboard, but I’m not the only one who feels this way about you.”
“It’s not fair.” the diminutive redhead complained.
Tokimi shrugged. “Life hardly is.”
Washuu bit back the urge to cry. “I knew I should have gone to ask Tsunami instead.”
“Oh, she’d say pretty much the same thing, except she’d be nicer about it.” Tokimi leaned forward. “Come to think of it, I’m sure she’s tried to get across to you that you need less ham-handed ways of interacting with people.”
Washuu was starting to regret initiating this conversation. “Can’t we discuss something else?”
Tokimi shrugged. “You wanted my advice.”
Joseph was the first to comment after Samui finished. “Gee, that is really complicated.”
“But that’s not the same Washuu-chan,” Anne pointed out. “It’s not fair for you to compare them.”
“Of course she isn’t, but I can’t help it.” Samui looked distant. “It terrifies me the way Washuu-san can sometimes act as if there’s no absolute right and wrong. I know that she has her reasons, but that doesn’t mean I can’t disagree with her.” She sighed. “Not to mention I feel like she’s trying to rush me into something I’m not really ready for yet.”
The children jumped as Samui’s cellular phone went off.
Samui answered it on the second ring. “Trunks. Is something wrong?” She frowned as a barrage of panicked words audible to her alone came across the line. “Slow down, I don’t understand a word you’re saying.” She then erased all traces of emotion from her face. “I see. I’ll be there right away.”
“What’s wrong?” Falora asked as Samui hung up with a bit more force than necessary.
“Something’s come up,” was the taut reply. “I have to go.”
“But—” Anne began, perhaps sensing that Samui had held something back.
“You are all old enough to keep yourselves out of trouble,” Samui interrupted, more a statement than a question. “Besides, what would Washuu-san think if she returned and there was nobody here?”
“Probably something similar if you weren’t back by the time she was,” Joseph guessed.
Samui began pulling on her jacket. “She’d understand.”
“We don’t,” Anne pointed out.
Samui wasted no words as she headed towards the door and put on her shoes. “A—dear friend of mine is very ill, and I need to be with her.” She paused just long enough to give each of the three children a quick hug. “Please give Washuu-san my apologies.”
Trunks was waiting for Samui at the entrance to Capsule Corporation Headquarters.
“How is she?” Samui asked, giving Trunks’s hand a short shake and following him into the reception area.
“Hanging on, but it doesn’t look good.” Trunks made a frustrated, helpless gesture. “They’ve got her hooked up to a respirator now.”
The two of them were met by the doctor as they reached the medical facility.
“She’s awake,” the doctor informed them. “But don’t keep her up too long. She needs more rest.”
Trunks sighed. “She’s been needing more rest for the last ten years,” he muttered to himself, pushing his bangs away from his face before opening the door for Samui.
“Hey, kids! I’m home!” Washuu announced with quite a bit more cheerfulness than she actually felt.
Various sounds of cartoon violence could be heard emanating out of the living room. “Hey, Mom! Welcome back!” Anne’s voice floated from about the same location. “How’s Aunt Tokimi doing?”
“Just fine,” Washuu called back as she removed her shoes, adding to herself under her breath: “but she should get out more often.”
Rounding the corner that separated the entrance from the living room, Washuu found Joseph, Anne, and Falora locked in an intensely competitive round of Super Smash Brothers. The ever-observant Washuu noticed at once that someone was missing. “Where’s Samui?” In about the same short span of time, Washuu jumped to the first obvious conclusion. “You didn’t make her so mad that she left, did you?”
Joseph managed to roll his eyes even though they were more or less glued to the television screen. “Of course not. She got a phone call, went all creepy, then said she had to go.”
“She went to visit a friend of hers in the hospital, I think,” Falora elaborated. “It sounded pretty serious.”
“It certainly would have to be,” Washuu muttered to herself. “She was supposed to stay until you were in bed,” she added at a normal tone, crossing her arms. “And made sure you didn’t play many video games.”
“But it’s the weekend,” Joseph whined. “And we’ve already finished our homework.”
Washuu sighed, making a sign of dismissal. “Let’s not get started on this again.” she couldn’t help hold back a grin when she saw the empty containers sitting on the coffee table. “You guys really liked Samui’s potato salad, huh?”
Anne nodded. “Uh-huh. She took us to play putt-putt, too.”
Washuu smiled even wider. “That sounded like fun.” she sat down next to the children and picked up the fourth controller. “What else did you guys do?”
They chatted well into the night.
Washuu paused at each of the children’s rooms to peek at the sleeping occupants within. Even this many years after they had taken her life and joy from her, she found it difficult to combat the terrors that welled up inside every time she thought of That Day. It would always take her several minutes for her to reassure herself that Joseph, Anne, and Falora were indeed still where they belonged, and that they would continue to doze in their beds when they were out of sight.
But someday, they’ll grow up, Washuu thought, going through the well-rehearsed ritual. And someday, they won’t need me.
In her first attempt to fill the longing in her heart, Washuu had used all the wrong methods, and now Ryouko refused to have anything to do with her. Anne, even though she loved Washuu well enough, was already beginning to show signs of remembering her dark past. Joseph kept nothing more than a respective distance even as a girl. And Falora stayed just for Joseph’s sake, treating Washuu as nothing more than the mother of a friend.
Washuu swallowed the lump in her throat as the familiar fears assaulted her again. Someday, I won’t have anyone to call me “Mama”.
But now, just as she was losing hope, she discovered one more thread, one so thin that it might snap at the lightest touch, yet at the same time capable of becoming a bond that would be indestructible for all eternity. The one problem was that she had no idea how she could make things the way she wanted them, which was why she had sought out Tokimi.
It was easy for Tokimi to condemn; after all, she had no children herself and could therefore become detached from the emotions that cloud such an issue. But Washuu was confident that, if Tokimi ever experienced for herself the trials of motherhood, then her sister would not be so quick to judge.
Stepping back into the living room, Washuu once again made preparations to go out. If opportunity wouldn’t come to her, then she was going to chase it down.
By whatever means necessary.
“Washuu.” Trunks floundered for the right honorific as he found himself facing an adult-sized Washuu, a rare sight indeed.
Hotaru came to the rescue. “Please come in.”
With a nod, Washuu strode through the door. “Lead the way.”
As they wound their way through the various corridors, Hotaru and Trunks filled Washuu in on what had happened: Bulma, by her own admission suffering from coughing fits at night, checked herself in with the doctor a bit earlier than her periodic health examinations warranted.
“We all thought this was just another temporary thing; Mom hadn’t been feeling too well lately, and she was in and out of the hospital a lot, but each time she bounced back just fine.”
The doctor, suspecting something more than a mere cold, ordered a biopsy above Bulma’s protests. The diagnosis: cancer of the lung, malignant.
“I shouldn’t have been surprised. Mom smoked at least a pack a day since Dad died, more when she was working on her projects. But I guess I was so used to seeing her around that it never occurred to me that one day I might have to adjust to having her—gone.”
Even the most optimistic outlook gave Bulma six months to live. She didn’t waste any time in getting the final preparations ready.
“I wasn’t sure who I was mad at more, Mom because she had lied about how sick she was, or myself because I was too afraid of thinking about losing her to admit that the warning signs had been there all along. But after she called the lawyers, there couldn’t be any more pretending from anybody, because it was too obvious that she was slipping away. And then today…”
Today, Bulma had stopped breathing. The rapid response of the intensive care unit ensured that her lease on life was extended a bit more, but the damage was already done. At the moment, machines helped relieve some of the work that Bulma’s cancer-invaded lungs should have been doing.
“I should have handled it better, if only for Samui’s sake. But when it happened, the only thing I could think was that my mother was dying. After that, I just lost it.” Trunks sighed, then slowed to a stop as he approached one of the doors. “We’re here.”
Samui didn’t so much as blink as Washuu entered the room. “How did you know I was here?”
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what could have gotten you so upset that you walked out of babysitting my daughter,” Washuu replied, taking a seat next to Samui and placing a hand on top of hers, which was in turn nestled in Bulma’s tentative grasp. “And Trunks helped with explaining what was going on, too.”
“She’s dying,” Samui said with a sort of flippant casualness that anyone else would have misinterpreted. “What else is there to explain?”
“Nothing,” Washuu agreed, wrapping her other arm around Samui’s shoulder. “Nothing at all.”
No reaction from Samui either way. “I—I don’t want her to die.” she finally said.
Momentary panic seized Washuu as she groped for the right words. What should she say? What could she? No doubt her own cavalier facade as “Washuu-chan” wouldn’t be appropriate here. On the other hand, neither was spouting syrupy platitudes, not when they tended to raise even more questions. A few more eternities of silence passed before Washuu decided to rely on her instincts and blurt out the first thing that came to her mind. “I know.”
“You can help her, can’t you?” Samui’s voice began to quiver. “If anybody knows how to make her better, it’s you, right?”
“No,” Bulma interjected with surprising firmness before Washuu could even consider replying.
Samui stared hard at Bulma, her expression a mixture of betrayal and fear. “Don’t you want us any more?”
Bulma’s eyes softened as she reached up to touch Samui’s face. “Of course I do.”
Bulma sighed, drawing in a raspy breath. “I’m—tired.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry,” Bulma mouthed, her body going limp as she sunk into unconsciousness.
Washuu kep Samui from leaping to her feet. “It’s all right. She’s only needs sleep.”
Samui strained against Washuu’s grasp. “Chi-Chi died. Shelly was murdered. Now Bulma is giving up on life.” With an almost vicious twist, Samui tried to yank herself free, to no avail. “I won’t let her go, too.”
Washuu was saved from an all-out wrestling war as Trunks, who up until this point stood in the doorway, stepped in and put a hand on Samui’s shoulder. “That’s enough, Samui.”
With a strangled cry, Samui broke free and fled from the room. Trunks watched her go, his watery blue eyes clouding by the tears that were forming in them.
Hotaru peeked into the room. “It’s happened again, hasn’t it?” She asked, stepping in and pulling Trunks close to her. Nodding, Trunks wrapped an arm around Hotaru’s body, and for a moment it seemed that she was bearing the whole of his being on her small frame.
Concrete and asphalt gave way to weeds under Samui’s fleeting steps, and civilization yielded to the untamed wilds that pecked at its edges. Soon she was far from the ordered chaos of man and well into the chaotic order of nature. Her feet hurt from the thorns that sprung up in her stumbling path, her arms hurt from the branches that whipped past as she crashed through them, and her face hurt from the tears that stung her eyes but refused to pour forth, yet she kept going. The pain in her flesh was trivial compared to the pain in her soul.
Death had never been a stranger to her. Often—more often than she liked—she had stared It in the face, and It grinned back. Often—much more often than she wished—she fed those insatiable jaws, staining her hands with blood. Often—far more often than she could bear—she fought Its teeth for the ones she loved, but It never relinquished Its hold. This time, as Death’s icy breath were once again sending chills down her back, she had no more strength to do anything but run.
She escaped with no set direction; the thoughts that remained in her head were those of blind instinct, the desperate need to get away. Her body complied with ease, for it had been made to stalk and chase and run down. But now, she was the prey instead of the hunter, recoiling from the stark facts that she knew to be true but could not admit.
All her life, she had sought an explanation for this apparent anomaly in an otherwise understandable world, but never found an answer that satisfied her. Science only offered endless treatises on thermodynamics, free radicals, and cell apotheosis—in other words, the details that went into how, but not why. Religion employed all sorts of strange metaphors—”passed away”, “fell asleep”, “went to his fathers”—that just served to confuse the issue even more. Her own experience taught her that when it came to shuffling off the mortal coil, humans were efficient at it to a frightening degree.
A moment later, everything came to a crashing halt as Samui’s leg buckled under her. She rolled as her body hit the ground, coming to a hard stop as she bounced several times.
A not quite awake Joseph trudged into the kitchen, where Anne and Falora were having breakfast. “Whtmst?”
Anne looked at her watch. “Uh, five minutes to eight.”
This got Joseph out of his semiconscious state in a hurry. “What? That’s almost time for school! Why didn’t anybody wake me?”
“We tried,” Falora explained, looking embarrassed. “But you wouldn’t budge, and we couldn’t find Washuu-chan to help, either.”
Joseph turned to look at the passageway that led to Washuu-chan’s subspace laboratory, but the door was closed and the large red light in the middle of it blinked. This meant that the small scientist was working on her experiments again. Joseph suppressed the urge to run away screaming as the tiny part of his waking mind brought forth several hair-raising images concerning the nature of said experiments. “I feel bad for whoever’s in there with her.”
“Whomever,” Anne corrected.
With a shrug, Joseph headed over to the table and poured himself a bowl of cereal. “Whatever.”
Falora gave the door one more look before returning to her own meal. “I hope she doesn’t keep herself locked up all day.”
Washuu pushed the stray hairs out of her face with one hand and poured herself a fifth cup of espresso with the other. Downing the cup in one gulp, Washuu stretched and let the caffeine settle a bit before going back to check on her patient once more. Taking a glance at the time as she passed one of the myriad clocks she placed throughout the lab, Washuu debated whether or not to make sure Joseph had gotten out of bed or not, but decided against it. Although Samui had not yet shown any signs of waking, Washuu wasn’t going to take any chances.
Samui was still lying unconscious on the examination table, and without careful examination one might even think her to be dead. Streaks of red crisscrossed her body wherever her skin was exposed to the wilds she had barged through, the bottoms of her feet were just about rubbed raw from the pounding they had taken, and who knows what else might have gotten bruised, dislocated, or perhaps even broken. It was a small comfort that so far all of Samui’s injuries seemed to be superficial; Washuu, fearing an adverse reaction, didn’t probe any further.
Before Washuu could ponder on the irony of the situation, the artificial rush was over and Washu found herself battling a biological clock that had been deprived of sleep for almost two days—the night before the visit to Tokimi had been spent in restless insomnia—and losing. Her eyes were already drooping as she fumbled for more caffeine, and closed before she could bring the cup to her lips.
The sound of Samui’s phone going off blasted all traces of sleepiness from Washuu’s mind. She didn’t need to look at the tiny screen to know who was calling, and why.
Bulma Briefs of dimension #B0E4FF was dying.
It took Washuu another full five seconds to come to her decision.
She pressed the power button and held it until the phone turned off.