Author's Note: This fic is written for and dedicated to Laurie. Because I owe her a thousand and one fics, and I promised her I would write her another Qui-whumping fic someday, because she's been sick lately and needs cheering, but mostly because she is the greatest.
Off of that, this is a little darker than my usual mushfic. I'll give it a stronger rating. I was also playing with perspectives for this, it will be a two-part fic, the first being in Dooku's POV, the second in Quig's, and separated at the point of contact. Um, in other words: Whoosh. :D
It was a terrible, terrible place.
The narrow hallway sloped down deeper into the stillness. Around him, metal closed in from all sides, stifling out light, fresh air, anything that might suggest life. There were no allowances made for living things here. The very recycled air itself was laced with death. Distant echoes of pain blurred bloody smudges, fingerprints of violence all over the force. This was a slave cell block.
And somewhere down here, Master Dooku was certain, was Qui-Gon Jinn.
He could feel him, even still. Even after everything. The reflection Qui-Gon cast into the clearness of the force had always been distinct, from the time he was that little boy charming flowers in the Temple gardens to now, smothered under pain, and shame, and darkness.
The darkness. Dooku could taste it like a lingering kiss, sultry, clinging.
He must mind his steps in this place.
Striding an arms-length in front of him was the cell-keeper: a sinewy, reptilian male of the Sussil species. Dooku could see the greyish-brown scales of his back glinting faintly in the oily light. Sussili were disgusting creatures in their own right, horribly cold-blooded and unnaturally mannered things. But this specimen was particularly offensive. This creature in front of him was Tsarmir 'ya: infamous slaver in these parts. And far worse yet, this slaving reptile had his child somewhere locked away in this meat fair.
Dooku followed the slave master further down into the cells, quietly. Smoldering.
How he ached to slice it into serpent mince right here. But Dooku rather prided himself on his ability to recognize that some battles were better won without immediately lightsabering those who stood in the way of true justice. Sometimes, missions required a dab of finesse.
And, anyway, he really wanted Qui-Gon back. Preferably whole.
So, cut to the charade. He would play the snake's little game.
His lightsaber was back on the ship. It had been difficult to leave it there, far more difficult than he had imagined. Without its steady weight at his hip, he felt as if he might get carried away, anchorless.
But it was far, far worse imagining what would happen to the boy he had sworn his very lifeblood to protect if this rescue failed. Slavers, this group in particular, were merciless. More damning yet, they knew Qui-Gon was Jedi. That made everything so much harder, so much crueler for the boy.
Officially, or, as much as it concerned the mission, the Council, and the records, Qui-Gon Jinn was already dead. Dooku knew of Masters, sane, logical, brilliant Masters in the Order who had been faced with similar situations: a Padawan taken by slavers, or pirates, who had simply walked away. Who had called it the will of the force, and grieved, but walked away. But that wasn't going to work, not with Qui-Gon.
This would be brutal, and difficult, perhaps, but not impossible. Not for him. There was possibly no one else in the Order who might have been able to pull this act off, but Dooku knew that he could do it more than he knew anything. Another Jedi would hesitate, wonder about the unifying force, the meaning behind it. Dooku would act as he must. Sometimes, being jaded was as much a blessing as a curse. In this instance, it was going to save Qui-Gon's life.
It wasn't going to be easy. Nothing worth having in life ever was. And Qui-Gon, he had decided, was thoroughly worth having.
Tsarmir stopped, abruptly. The hall had emptied into a foyer of sorts, where a lone guard stood. The slaver nodded, once, and the guard moved away to retrieve something from the next room. Then he turned to watch Dooku, snake eyes gleaming dully.
Suddenly aggressive, Dooku curled his lip. Disgusting reptile.
A heartbeat of silence passed, or maybe it was a lifetime, before the guard dragged out a weakly struggling boy. "Here!"
Dooku felt his body stiffen, but kept the same cool look of disdain on his face. It was certainly Qui-Gon, he didn't even need to stretch out through the force. One glance was enough. The young Jedi looked all the worse for his ordeal, visibly bruised and limping, but alive, if only barely.
His face was so closed, so dead.
No, he had a part to play.
Qui-Gon looked up quite suddenly, his dark blue eyes flaring up with hope, recognizing his Master. Dooku had to speak up quickly for fear the boy might blow his cover. "And what is this supposed to be, Tsarmir?"
Tsarmir looked as offended as his crocodilian features would allow. "Jedi boy!" He snorted out through his scaled twin nostrils. "What does the Count mean by this?" He rapped out something to his guard, and the man tossed him a familiar slim cylinder. "Don't even recognize Jedi?"
Dooku shrugged, adopting a slightly bemused expression as he raked a look over Qui-Gon, who stood by, trembling and confused in his bare feet. "I mean no offense to your most esteemed trade, Tsarmir, but..." he paused, deliberately glancing at Qui-Gon again and shaking his head. "I hardly think you have a Jedi here. I am a connoisseur, a collector. Do not play me for a common idiot. You cannot sell me sand and call it spice."
The slaver waved the lightsaber in front of Dooku as if to entice him. "The Count is mistaken! Look at this, the Jedi's own weapon as proof!"
Dooku smiled patronizingly. He plucked the saber from Tsarmir's claws, taking a moment to inspect it. It was ironic, to play as if he had seen it for the first time, when he and Qui-Gon had spent hours agonizing over every minute detail of the design. It had so much of the boy etched into it that it was almost painful. He turned it over, slowly. "This is merely a trinket." He declared finally, casting the weapon aside. "And that..." he gestured at Qui-Gon. "...is only a boy. Tell me, aren't the Jedi fabled to be somewhat less...pathetic than that?"
Tsarmir was literally hissing now. He seized Qui-Gon by the arm, yanking him forward and throwing him at Dooku's feet. The boy went down hard, wincing slightly as he smashed against the ground. He coughed some, and then curled up in his Master's shadow, hardly seeming aware that his life was being bartered with. "What does the Count make of this, then!" He pointed a claw at Qui-Gon.
Dooku raised an eyebrow at Tsarmir, and then looked down at Qui-Gon. "What are you off about now?" Behind his forced indifference, his heart was breaking. The child was so broken. He carefully reached out through the bond they had worked so hard to develop.
There was only static from his Padawan's end.
"Proof." Tsarmir flicked another claw out, pointing at Qui-Gon's head. "Behind the right ear."
Another sigh. "All right then, let's have a look at you." Dooku murmured, crouching down to Qui-Gon's level, and reaching out to inspect the boy's face. He traced over Qui-Gon's hollowed cheekbones with one long finger, and the Padawan tilted his head to the side obediently, his eyes filled once again with trembling hope. "What am I supposed to be looking at, Tsarmir?"
"The braid, Count! Is it not the braid of the Jedi Padawan?"
Dooku shrugged, his eyes flicking briefly to the braid hanging down Qui-Gon's naked shoulder, and then back to his bruised face. "It's merely a braid. A lot of cultures have them." He rubbed his thumb against a rough cut on the Padawan's cheek. Qui-Gon gasped softly, jerking back at the pain. Dooku frowned. "I'm slightly more interested in this in his cheek. An implant of some kind, is it?"
"It is a funny little chip of technology, no? Got it off space pirates. Blocks 'ta Jedi powers, cheaper, much better than drugs."
So that was why Qui-Gon wasn't using the force. He hadn't gotten Dooku's warnings and explanations; he was completely blind to it. Dooku felt his insides echo with horror, but kept his air of clinical coolness as he inspected the mark. "Barbaric, yet efficient. I've never seen one before."
"Always quality, Count." Tsarmir gave a hissing laugh.
Dooku laughed along rather humorlessly. Abruptly, he pulled away from Qui-Gon and swept to his feet. "All right. I'll give you thirty thousand."
"He's how old, what... fourteen? Fifteen? That's fair, double his age, a decent price for something in this condition." He waved dismissively at Qui-Gon.
Tsarmir snarled in irritation. "He is Jedi, he bring me maybe fifty-five thousand on Tatooine!"
"Ah, but we aren't on Tatooine now, are we? From the looks of things, he wouldn't even survive the trip." He rolled his eyes. "What about the chip, then?"
"The data chip, in his cheek. It's a pretty little piece of technology, isn't it? I'd like to have a look at it. I'll have it for three thousand."
"No deal. It stays in the boy's cheek. Buy the boy, Count can cut it out of his face on his own time."
Qui-Gon winced audibly at that. So, he was listening. At least that meant he wasn't in shock.
"Back to this?" Dooku clicked his tongue softly. "Thirty-five thousand."
"No." Dooku snorted. "It's a half-dead human boy. Don't try to con me, don't you know who I am?"
"Count is mistaken. Other customers would pay much better for such...such.." Tsarmir gestured at Qui-Gon's pitifully crumpled form. "...such a fine slave. Forty-five, and that is as low as we go."
"Your price is both extravagant and insulting." He paused. Now he had to do it. He had backed himself up into a corner with this, and he had to face the resolution. This all had to seem realistic, and in reality, no buyer would take Tsarmir's price. If he didn't give a little, the slaver would be suspicious. So he turned away. "If that is your lowest, then I shall take my business elsewhere." He turned away.
Tsarmir would make a deal. He knew it. Dooku started walking back the way he had come, back toward the tunnel. He could tell the despicable lizard's brain was fizzling over this; in reality, the slaver had to get rid of Qui-Gon soon, and the inner Rim was terrible for slaving business. He would cut a deal, any minute now...
He continued down the hall way.
And then he heard it. The downfall. A soft, child-like, incredulous voice. A voice of a boy who knew he was being left behind, and couldn't understand why. Qui-Gon's voice.
The query was barely whispered, but it echoed horribly in Dooku's chest. He stopped, shocked into stillness, listening to the silent sound of his plan crumbling around that quiet word. Now it came, now everything would click in the slavers mind, and they were both dead.
Worse than dead.
His mind buzzed idly. For once, Dooku simply couldn't think of anything to say or do.
But the fallout didn't come. Tsarmeer snapped, but not in the way Dooku had been expecting. If the slaver had even properly heard, he evidently hadn't understood the tremendous consequence of Qui-Gon's word. He hadn't seen an undercover Jedi in the midst of buying back his Padawan out of the slave trade. To him, all he knew was he had lost a deal. And the slave had spoken without permission.
"What is this! The boy has been warned that we do not speak in front of 'ta customers!"
"'ta boy wants reminders!" There came a soft cry of pain, followed by a thump.
Oh, this wasn't happening. Dooku kept walking.
This was why the other Master's didn't go back, he thought, distantly.
There followed another cry, and another, as the slaver took out his financial frustrations on the little Jedi. The Master stopped moving, without really thinking about it. He squeezed his eyes closed, but the sounds continued. His voice shook quietly. "You-you're going to kill him."
Tsarmir continued on, heedless.
"Tsarmir, what is the bloody point of a dead slave?" He started back, attempting his former dry, sarcastic tone, but it came out sounding pitiful. And Qui-Gon didn't look like he was going to last through much more of this... "I think you're making a costly mistake, my friend."
As there came no reply, Dooku something in him break. Cold anger swelled up in him, and with it, power. Rage always made him calm, confident. It crested over, an icy torrent, and he forced all of his influence into the one word. "Stop."
Somehow, it was enough. Tsarmir hissed and turned on him. "What!"
Qui-Gon was curled tightly up against the floor. Blood trickled down his shoulders, and when he moved, Dooku could see clusters of bruises purpling the boy's chest and sides. Inwardly, he groaned. He couldn't quite tell in this light, but it looked almost like internal fractures. That was all Qui-Gon needed now, to be coughing on shards of his ribs in addition to all of this.
"Fine," he sighed, closing his eyes as if this pained him, trying to hide the urgency he felt. "Look, I admit, you've put me in a bind. My..." he rolled his eyes. "my mistress had her heart set on getting a little human servant boy, I'll give you the forty-five."
Tsarmir looked at him, unblinking.
Dooku did realize how pitiful this sounded, really, he did. "I…want this one."
The seconds of silence passed, tension-laded, before Tsarmir made an odd sort of cackle, a triumphant look in his green-glass eyes. "Forty–five? Count is not as clever as he looks, no?" He glanced at Qui-Gon, panting on the ground, and then at Dooku, as if waiting for some kind of a catch. "Count really wants 'ta boy----this one? Deal, then."
Dooku breathed out through his nose. "Deal." He stood there a moment, feeling suddenly awkward. He really didn't have a plan, after this. Transfer funds from the Serenno account. Get Qui-Gon out. "Can you...get him up to my ship?"
Tsarmir snorted, tossing his head in amusement. "Boy belongs to the Count now, Count can manage that." He handed him the electrojabber.
Dooku looked at it blankly, an empty sort of feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Ah, right." he murmured, stepping over toward Qui-Gon.
Tsarmir watched silently.
He met the slitted eyes with coldness. He would do what he must. Dooku turned, nudging Qui-Gon in the shoulder with the blunt end. "Get up."
"I am your Master now." He told him, softly. The boy wouldn't look him in the eye. "You shall do what I say, when I say it, is that clear?"
Qui-Gon said nothing, simply shivering on the floor, as if about to shatter.
Dooku poked him with the pole. "I said, is that clear!"
Qui-Gon nodded miserably, silent tears slowly leaking down his face.
"Then get up!"
Dooku was afraid for a moment that he would just lay there, motionless, and he would be forced to take more desperate measures, but finally Qui-Gon pushed himself up with his hands. They started toward the corridor.
Tsarmir's flat reptile eyes were on him, narrowed. He could feel his flesh starting to betray him with tiny, almost indiscernible tremors through his hands, arms. They would be expecting a Master to try to rescue the boy, if they really thought that Qui-Gon was a Jedi apprentice. He didn't have his saber with him. If this broke down, they were both far worse than dead.
Qui-Gon was so weak; he kept falling all over himself.
"Keep up." Dooku's heart was starting to race. They were so close.
Tsarmir glanced between the apprentice and the master, seeming in better spirits now that a deal had been made. "'ta Count must learn to be more forceful."
Dooku glared. Qui-Gon stumbled behind him. "I told you, keep up." he growled softly, convincingly, he hoped.
It has got to be done well, if it's to be done at all. Dooku felt Qui-Gon trip on the lead again, and knew it was time. He didn't want to hit him in the chest as his ribs looked at best precarious from the beatings, and an internal injury would cause all sorts of nasty complications. No...it would have to be...
This was going to destroy him.
His nerves, already stretched thin, tightened to breaking point.
As Qui-Gon stumbled to his feet, Dooku backhanded him in the face.
The blow connected.