Author's Note: Another chapter for you, lovelies! Think of this chapter as the calm before the storm. And, you know, any feedback you feel like leaving…perfectly fine with me: )
The gardens were a slick, cool grey in the evening rain.
Dooku tipped his head back, letting the rain slip down over his face, trickling off his cheeks like ice water tears. The freshness felt good after his miserable interview with Lasteera. He had acquired at least some information about the unlikely advisor, and Qui-Gon had managed to not get them both killed with his stunts, but it was hard to feel as if he hadn't wasted his time. He stared up into the sky and tried to relax. Sometimes, if he could admit it to himself, Dooku felt as if stress was eating him alive. He could fake calm very well, and he knew that Qui-Gon never suspected, but sometimes he rather felt that he couldn't work these situations out at all, like he would have to sulk back to the Temple and report that he simply couldn't break the case.
Especially on this silly planet, where the native language seemed to be riddles and indistinct bad feelings.
When he felt this way, he often went for long walks to collect himself. Long walks, or short lightsaber duels, whichever opportunity first presented itself.
Currently, Dooku stretched along the thick branch of an orchard tree. It wasn't the most pleasant place to be in a rainstorm, but he was fairly sure his predatory patience would pay off soon enough. Qui-Gon was so absurdly easy to read when he was panicking, and the little note he'd left back in the quarters had probably done the trick.
Dooku yawned, glancing casually down to the garden path below. He could sense Qui-Gon's approach just as clearly as he could feel the boy's crazy hope that he wouldn't be outside on account of the rain. Dooku shook his head. His Padawan ought not to be reasoning about where the ambush would come from, but following the Force.
Below him, Qui-Gon had stopped, clearly beginning to realize he'd come the wrong way. Dooku smiled against the tree as he watched the boy glance wildly around. Qui-Gon was remarkably entertaining to watch when he was about to be leveled. He saw him take a step backward, obviously weighing his chances at running for it. He was certain that the Padawan could sense his presence, but Dooku didn't move until he could see the particular blue of Qui-Gon's eyes looking up into the tree, wide with surprise. Then Dooku dropped.
A green blade twirled upwards to meet his gold one with a crash of static. "Master!"
"Good afternoon," he answered with a wry smile, landing lightly beside Qui-Gon on the pathway. The lightsabers screeched together as Dooku's slid away to tie an elaborate salute in the gray air. "First mark to any lethal zone wins, I should think."
Never one for excessive flourish, Qui-Gon spun off to the side, trying to throw space between himself and Dooku's singing blade. The Master let him twirl. He would take all of the space Qui-Gon wanted to give him. The Makashi Form thrived on air.
"Do you mind if we do this later?" Qui-Gon gritted his teeth, sliding over the cobblestones.
"Why?" Dooku smoothly followed Qui-Gon's motion, as if he were only a reflection in some slick mirror.
"Because--" A backward flip. Dooku blinked and slashed at it.
"–we–" Qui-Gon leapt high to avoid the swing intended to cut out his legs. "–need–" He punctuated with another leap. "-to–" Dooku had driven him back as far as he could go, and Qui-Gon was forced to block across his chest. "–talk!" Their blades met in a cross, green on gold.
"So talk, child!" Dooku grinned disarmingly over the misty, sputtering light.
"Des Lasteera has a secret lab in her closet!" Qui-Gon's voice rose over the angry buzz of their locked sabers. "And Tak and I saw the new Head of the Guard, Zernith, snooping around in there–" The boy paused, pushing helplessly against the crossed blades. "–Master, it's very hard to give a follow-up report when you're trying to behead me..."
"I'm listening," Dooku assured him, lowering his blade fractionally.
"–well, Tak says it's because he and Lasteera are in love, but I think that maybe he's the one who organized Tormarius and the former Head Guard's murders, and perhaps now he has his sights set on Lasteera. Especially if he seems to be paying extra attention to her, it could mean that she's the next target. This Zernith man could be the assassin we're looking for!"
"An interesting theory, to be sure." Dooku murmured neutrally, breaking the cross and swiping at Qui-Gon's head again.
"You think I'm wrong?" Qui-Gon ducked, somewhat breathlessly now, his braid flying around his head. His chest moved with each ragged inhale, and his eyes were sharp. Dooku could clearly see the vague annoyance forming in his Padawan's features, although his expression still seemed calm.
"I didn't say that."
"But I'm not right?"
"I don't know, Qui-Gon!" Stars, the child was so sensitive sometimes! Never mind the fact that his little story was based entirely on hearsay and circumstance; there was not much they could really do about it until this Zernith man made another move. And people were telling Qui-Gon silly stories all the time. Gossip was hardly a startling development. "It's simply a theory. An interesting one, as I said. Now tighten up, you're embarrassingly sloppy today!"
"It's because I'm trying to have a conversation with you!" Qui-Gon panted, springing away from the rosebush he had backed into.
"You need to learn to better multitask!" Dooku grimaced at the thorny crunch.
"What should we do, then?"
"About the mission!"
"Listen. Wait. See. Trust ourselves, and the Force." Dooku saw Qui-Gon's sigh written over his young features, and it made him smile, in spite of himself. "--what we always do, Learner."
There was a pause, where the only conversation was the kissing song of their lightsabers: a spattering argument high on the blades and a clatter-retort of boots on slick stones. The pair crossed the gardens, moving between the raindrops, back and forth.
"You're slipping," Dooku commented conversationally as Qui-Gon ducked to avoid losing his head. The beam of golden light barely missed the boy, and he stumbled backward into a puddle with a splash.
It had become rather starkly apparent that Qui-Gon was losing by now. That in itself wasn't terribly unusual, he often lost; Dooku was one of the best swordsmen in the Temple. But usually he didn't lose so quickly. He was out of practice. Dooku grimaced. Qui-Gon's style had always been far more random and unreliable than the Master would have preferred, but at least he tended to trust his companionable Living Force well enough. He seldom worried about defensive strategy in his sparring; taking a battle moment by moment. He let Dooku plot and whirl around him, and then when he wasn't expecting it, lashed out, trying to catch him by surprise. The technique worked well enough for Qui-Gon in Temple tournaments. Only Dooku was seldom surprised, and his ruthless play could drag out long beyond the point where Qui-Gon's spastic energy gave out.
"You're lucky this is only practice. It would be only too easy for me to strike you down right here." Dooku's dancing blade pushed Qui-Gon further backwards. As his apprentice gave up more ground, he moved in for the kill. He had chosen this spot specifically, as it would more benefit his form than Qui-Gon's. Qui-Gon needed leverage to get his foolish leaps and flips going, and a predominately flat garden kept him grounded.
"Your skills have degenerated since we last fought." Dooku nudged Qui-Gon back with a precise jab as the boy bounced all too close to his comfort zone of space. Dooku liked a little verbal sparring to go with his strikes and thrusts. Plus, it always threw Qui-Gon off.
Qui-Gon's face tightened and his next strike went wildly off to the side. The boy was starting to tire, and he knew it. His weakening attack was not enough to counter Dooku's precise dissection.
"Perhaps I ought to take off your feet," Dooku swiped at Qui-Gon's knees with his blade, and the boy was forced to leap backwards to avoid a burn. Footwork!—always a tricky point with a teenaged boy! "You don't seem to be needing them much in your sparring…"
Qui-Gon let his flip carry him over a clutch of rose bushes and onto the next path. The plant barrier gave him a few seconds to catch his breath and regain his fighting composure. But the next moment, Dooku had made the jump too, landing beside his apprentice. Qui-Gon whirled.
"You're letting me get to you, child." Dooku grinned offhandedly, pausing. He could almost see the holes opening up in Qui-Gon's defenses; deliberate punctures marked by his comments. It was disconcertingly easy for Dooku to follow the fault lines in his apprentice to a crack. His expression grew more serious. "Clear your mind!"
The Padawan did not reply, but his strained expression lighted fractionally. He took a breath and somersaulted over Dooku's head.
Dooku laughed as he whirled to face him. "Your acrobatics won't save you," but when he struck again, Qui-Gon had already moved. Now he would try to take this fight into the air, and in doing so, force Dooku out of his element. The boy bounded onto the narrow ledge of an ornamental fountain, his eyes flashing and bright with challenge.
Dooku bowed, grinned, and followed. He landed neatly on the ledge, one arm stretched for balance, his lightsaber held loosely at his side. "Now what?"
He saw momentary blankness in the Padawan's eyes, and attacked. His lightsaber was a golden blur, looping the chaos of defeat around the wobbling apprentice. This had been a poor match from the beginning, and it would be better to end it and start again. It was time to land a killing blow.
Qui-Gon slipped a little on the ledge, and Dooku felt a thrust of exhilaration, even before his blade swung down to deliver a fatal neck-touch. But when he struck, Qui-Gon wasn't there.
There was a splash, and a hot neon flash of Force-warning before Dooku realized Qui-Gon had slipped down into the fountain itself, and was grabbing a hold on his leg. He could feel the tightness of the boy's grip, along with the resolute sense from him that was not quite over yet. And then Qui-Gon yanked. Hard.
Dooku had a split-second to deactivate his saber, and contemplate with mingled horror and admiration the sheer audacity of the move before he toppled straight into the fountain.
He hadn't hit the water before he was groping for his Padawan's throat. Dooku hadn't wanted it to come down to unarmed combat, but Qui-Gon had chosen the route. A few seconds of struggle gave way when the boy slipped free, slick and squirming as a salamander. He kicked off from Dooku, and went for his own lightsaber. To his misfortune, however, the activator gave one dismal, mechanical whimper, and promptly shorted out from its earlier contact with the water. Qui-Gon stared down at it, blinking water back incredulously.
Dooku snorted, and flicked his own saber back up, pushing himself smoothly to his feet. Water streamed off his clothes in rivulets, and he twitched his head, shaking droplets from his ponytail before advancing on Qui-Gon. His smile was grim. "Clever, child. Except now you're lacking a weapon, and you've drenched us both." The vindictive emphasis Dooku lavished on the latter half of the statement was slightly chilling.
All the same, Qui-Gon was smiling in the sort of devil-may-care, wild way that usually he did when he knew he was up against a wall, and managed to look vaguely at ease, even as he cast about desperately for a new weapon. As if of its own accord, a long garden rake sailed out of the air and into Qui-Gon's waiting hands. He brandished it with decided flair. "Not quite!"
Dooku raised an eyebrow. Ridiculous. "Your choice, then." He spun his saber, and stepped forward.
Qui-Gon splashed backward, ducking around the ascending pools of the fountain. He clutched the rake, even as Dooku advanced, waving it at him in a vaguely threatening manner. "I...think you're underestimating my abilities with this thing!"
Dooku rumbled a little laugh, steadily following Qui-Gon's circles around the fountain center. "Are you going to weed me, then?" He plunged forward with his lightsaber just as Qui-Gon brought the rake up horizontally to block. The laser cut cleanly through the wooden handle, leaving the younger Jedi with two pieces and yet again, no weapon.
Dooku sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his free hand. "Thoroughly amusing, Padawan, but give it up." The tip of his lightsaber danced golden lights on Qui-Gon's throat. "Do you fold, or must I go through the tiresome process of actually leaving a burn?" The Master watched his student consider. It wasn't that Dooku wouldn't hurt Qui-Gon, or deliberately cause him pain to teach a lesson, but the idea of marking an unarmed, defeated enemy simply for technicality seemed unsporting.
He saw him gulp, and lowered his blade slightly. "Well?"
Qui-Gon promptly hurled the pieces of his broken rake at Dooku and tackled him.
Chaos broke loose in the fountain. Dooku's saber came sweeping downward to strike away at Qui-Gon's attack, but with all the suicidal glory of a last ditch effort, the boy ducked under it, and grabbed Dooku's knees. There was another topple, and a splash, and some attempted throttling, before finally Dooku ended up pinning his apprentice to the side of the fountain, one hand corkscrewing a pressure point in Qui-Gon's neck, the other bending back a thumb.
"I fold!" Qui-Gon's face was very red, but he was grinning, even as Dooku released him with a splash.
The Master shook his head, spraying water lightly, and stepped neatly from the fountain, gathering his drenched dignity around him like a cloak. "We're…we're certainly done here. We ought to get back up to the Palace before things run amuck in our absence." He hesitated, and then turned to offer his soggy Padawan a hand out of the fountain.
Qui-Gon took it, much too good-natured to hold resentment over the particularly brutal nature of their battle. Of course, there was a comfortable level of normal antagonism and competition at which they both functioned and interacted, so it might have just as well been that Qui-Gon was used to it, more than anything. Still. He was such a rare creature, and Dooku couldn't help but feel a tiny stab of fondness, as the boy replied, smiling, "Yes, Master."
Dooku paused to give his apprentice a careful once-over, shading his eyes from the misty rain. "Ah. I got you."
"Oh." Qui-Gon twisted around to look at his shoulder, which sported a fresh burn.
"Let me see." Dooku pursed his lips, frowning at the wound.
"No, I...ah–" Qui-Gon shooed him off defensively. "Don't touch it!"
"Oh, for the stars. You didn't even notice until I said something!"
"It's just a little mark." The boy scampered up the path a way, out of his mentor's reach. "I'm only happy you remembered to turn your saber settings down, this time."
Dooku made a soft noise of scorn. "You always bring that up. I thought we had agreed to never speak of it again. How many times must I apologize before you cease to hold it over me?"
"A few more, yet!" Qui-Gon threw back, merrily.
"Mm, you're confined to the quarters for the rest of the afternoon, then."
"I—are you serious?" Qui-Gon had stopped skipping about the path, and turned, looking back at his Master rather dismally.
"Does it seem the sort of thing I would joke about?"
"I..." Qui-Gon gulped. "You're…you're confining me for reminding you that you nearly killed me, once?"
"No," Dooku answered smoothly, wringing excess water from his sleeves. "I'm confining you for cheeking me. And for ruining my earlier espionage with Lasteera. And for breaking that rake; you know, that was property of the Great Palace of Trisstar, and you cannot go about flinging the property of sovereign planets into my lightsaber. It leaves a bad impression."
"But I was going to go eat. I'm absolutely starving." Qui-Gon complained, flopping down on the soggy ground somewhat rebelliously.
Dooku looked down disdainfully for a long moment, before he could stand it no longer, and launched into lecture. "Qui-Gon, you're in training to become a Jedi, for the merciless stars! It is high time you learned to do things yourself. It may come as a shock to you, but I'm not always going to be around to feed you–"
"You don't feed me now!"
"–like some...squawking...squalling bird nestling! You must learn to..."
Qui-Gon interrupted him with a mournful, and yet, perfectly pitched 'peep.'
Dooku glared, until he could take it no longer, and had to turn away to hide a smile. He managed to keep his voice even and icy, though, shaking his head a little. "You're acting like a child."
"I know. I'm sorry." He sounded rather defeated now.
Dooku reached up, plucking a few pears from one of the orchard trees growing over the pathway, and tossing them into his apprentice's lap. Then, with a brief hesitation, he bent to sit beside him. It occurred to him, out of nowhere, that Qui-Gon was a child.
"The election ceremony is tonight." Dooku stated, after a moment of sitting in silence. "A masquerade ball. If your theory about this assassin proves true, that may be when he will strike."
Qui-Gon looked up from his pear. "Do you think so?"
"Mm. We'll see." He paused, and then smiled. "And there will be refreshments."
Qui-Gon laughed, and the aura of the Force around them seemed, somehow, more content.
Their silence grew as soft and cool as the rain. Qui-Gon gnawed the core of his pear, and watched Dooku meticulously pick spots off of his own with a fingernail. A distant noise, like a humming, rushing of ghost-static could now be heard, just faintly over the rain. Qui-Gon perked up.
"What's that sound?"
Dooku looked up from his pear. He paused, tipping his head back to look up into the sky, as if the answer were contained there. The rain trickled melancholy off his cheeks, and his voice was uncharacteristically soft as he finally replied. "The river."
It was the second time in a week that Qui-Gon had to dress up for an event that he did not particularly wish to go to, and it wore on the haphazard young man depressingly. After stripping out of his soaked set of tunics, he had brooded around the quarters for the entirety of the afternoon, wearing his dress tunics out of laundry necessity. It wasn't that they really limited much of his mobility, being of Jedi make, but the principle of the thing bothered Qui-Gon. He wanted to stretch out and run, and move, and being locked indoors with nothing to do but sit about in dress tunics and watch Dooku alternatively stare at nothing, or reread documents on his datapad could not be good for him.
Presently, Dooku exhaled, tossed the datapad aside, and left for his own room, presumably to find his own dress tunics. This occasion—for lack of a better word, Qui-Gon thought darkly—was supposed to be attended with some kind of mask or costume. Trisstar tradition had dictated that the festivities before election day were to be carried out in disguise; a merry nod to the freedom of the secret ballot.
Qui-Gon had firmly decided that he was going as himself. It wasn't as if he was voting, and anyway, the Jedi were to be there for security. Blending in with the other party-goers was not exactly the effect they were hoping to achieve, he reasoned. Besides, he didn't have a mask, unless he wanted to cut up a bed linen, and then Dooku would certainly saber him for further vandalizing Trisstar royal property. And he didn't want to look silly, either. Masks!
The Padawan was amusing (and terrifying) himself by picturing Dooku's face, upon learning of an imagined sheet-destruction, when the man himself appeared in the hallway once more, dressed to go. Qui-Gon was forced to do a double-take.
He had actually dressed up.
It was all somewhat surreal, and yet, Qui-Gon had to admit, he had never seen Dooku looking so grand. The eternal, short black cape was back, fixed at his white throat with some intricate silver clasp. Somehow, through means fair or foul, Dooku had procured an elaborate black mask, which fitted over his nose and eyes and gave him a look that was thoroughly gallant and roguishly disreputable. His boots seemed absurdly shiny.
Qui-Gon blinked at him for a few moments, and then finally found his voice. "What…what are you dressed as?"
For all his regalia, the Master seemed unruffled. Swishing his cape, he turned, meeting Qui-Gon's bright eyes with dignity. "Ah, I am simply going as the Count Dooku of Serenno."
Qui-Gon laughed appreciatively, looking over Dooku's costume again and nodding. "Count Dooku...oh, that's a really good one, Master. You know, you look like you could be a Count. Did you just come up with that just now?"
"Ah-" Dooku paused in his lofty-cape-swishing to stare at Qui-Gon. "Qui-Gon. You...you do know that's really my title, don't you?"
"Count Dooku. On Serenno I'm...heir...to..." He sighed, trailing off at the uncomprehending look in Qui-Gon's eyes. "Never mind. What are you going as?"
He hastily tried to explain an abridged version of the logic he'd used for his lack of a costume, but it was very difficult to take his generally stoic Master seriously when he looked so…brilliantly mad. Eventually, Dooku cut off his dithering excuses, and hustled him out the door; he was very intent on not being late this time.
They went through the gardens, without any spying interludes this time, although Qui-Gon still had the disconcerting feeling that they were being watched. The hallway where Tormarius had died had been discretely closed off, blocked by bright panels displaying the smiling, benevolent face of the Monarch. The scorch marks were hidden by elaborate rugs.
Qui-Gon had scarcely a moment to contemplate the irony of this before they swept inside the Great Hall. The boy rather lost his breath.
And I know; I win for the most awkward stopping place ever. : )