And, part two.
The blow connected.
He would have cried, if he could have only found the strength.
Qui-Gon's hope slid to the floor with his body, and shattered on the hardness there. For a moment, he lay still in the wreckage of his faith, simply reeling. Dooku had...hit him? It wasn't enough that he was frightened, and exhausted, and beaten in every sense of the word, but he hit him, too?
And now it had come to this. His nightmare had spun out so widely that it had touched reality, or at least, whatever paltry, twisted bit of it he had left.
"Get up." Dooku's voice. He sounded so strange, like he had a head cold, maybe. It wasn't that, Qui-Gon thought, dizzily. It was something else, a tone he had never heard before in his Master's voice, as addressed to him. Disgust.
He couldn't take it, so he squeezed his eyes shut. The black came as a comfort, like blinds to a frightened animal. His world faded over, muffled, and it was somehow better this way. He felt a hand descend out of nowhere and pull him up by the shoulder. It hurt, but he couldn't bring himself to care about pain anymore. The fatal blow had been struck. Now it was just to the dying.
He kept his eyes closed for the rest of the way, bumping along, half-dragged by Dooku. He shut down as much of himself as he could and still be breathing. The force was gone, and he couldn't see, but the trauma was still pouring in. He could smell the dampness, the lingering stench of the prison even as they moved. He could feel it on his skin. He could hear the slaver, and painfully, painfully Dooku talking back and forth.
It was hard to make sense of the words. Something about a Serenno bank account.
Payment, was the broken realization.
Qui-Gon opened his eyes, but kept them fixed down on his feet, bare and cold on the metal floor. Distantly, he noticed that they were bleeding, cracked open by the constant abuse. At least that explained why simple walking had become so agonizing.
Under his ragged feet, the metal changed to gravel. Dooku was pulling him faster now, and he couldn't keep up for as much as he tried. Time fell forward, and he could smell something like rain. It was getting colder, brighter around him. His chest and his feet hurt, and it was getting hard to breathe. And then they were going up the ramp, into a ship.
Dooku let go, hurrying passed him, through the passenger space and into the lighted cockpit. Qui-Gon stumbled behind in the master's wake, as awkward as any leaf displaced by the wind. He felt lost, horribly disoriented in his new surroundings. He took a stumbling step backward, and then another, until he felt the cold support of a wall against his sore back.
Dooku was bent over the ship's controls, entering coordinates furiously. As if feeling the boy's eyes, he spoke, without turning. "Sit down."
Qui-Gon felt himself slowly slide down the wall, too exhausted to even consider disobeying Dooku's quiet command. He hadn't said it gruffly, or even with his usual authority, but the boy felt inclined to instantly follow the request all the same. Honestly, he didn't mind. At this point, being told point blank what to do was as steadying as the wall behind him. His legs folded under, and he crouched in the darkness, arms wrapped around himself, waiting.
His Master's long fingers were flying across the button display of the cockpit. He could see shadows cast from where Dooku's body crossed the blue light from the screen, sections of light and dark flickering at his feet. The rest of the room around him was black as any midnight. It was just as well, he didn't feel like looking around. It didn't matter what ship this was. It didn't matter why they were here.
A distant fluttering from the ceiling attracted his attention. A pale blue moth, perhaps let in when they had boarded, battered its tiny wings uselessly against the immovable surface. Blearily, Qui-Gon tracked its frenzied movement with tired eyes. The thought came and went like a shallow wave of some distant lake: at least he was with Dooku.
Dooku. He turned to watch the shadows moving with his mentor's profile. Dooku who had hit him, and pretended not to know him, and had frightenedhim so much! He closed his eyes, and sucked gingerly on his lower lip. He could still taste the blood, swirling in his mouth, the distinctive tang of betrayal.
When he opened his eyes again, the clicking of the type had stopped. Dooku was standing framed in the doorway, at the axis of the light and dark, watching. The ominous shadow was over his face now; Qui-Gon couldn't see his expression.
Involuntarily, he cringed. Now it would come.
"Why are you still sitting in the dark?" The sound of his Master's words suddenly cut through the static in his head. "...and, stars, you needn't sit on the ground." Sudden golden light flooded Qui-Gon's vision as Dooku flipped on the lights. Certainly enough, there were cushions, and chairs, and everything. The little moth beat itself blindly into oblivion at suddenly illuminated fixture, offering its body to the glow
Qui-Gon found that he couldn't speak, so he merely looked up at Dooku, squinting in the light.
"Qui-Gon?" Dooku's cloak whispered as he knelt beside him. Eyes gleamed liquid chocolate with rare compassion and Qui-Gon couldn't bear to even look at them.
"Oh, Qui-Gon. Did you doubt my intentions?" Velvet soft and far too close. "Did you think that I would offer you suffering, too?"
Qui-Gon cringed backward, huddling against the wall. He didn't know. He couldn't make sense of any of this. Far off, perhaps he was silly to worry for Dooku's intention. But he had hurt him! Against his back, he could feel the dull throb of the ship's engine as they fired up, sending the ship away from this place.
He felt the soft warmth of Dooku's sigh across his bare skin. He was concentrating on the binders still clamped tightly around Qui-Gon's wrists. "Here," he pawed in his tunic pocket for a moment, and reached out. He still had the key the slaver had given him.
Qui-Gon watched him uncertainly. Dooku seemed to sense his hesitation, for his actions were not with his usual sharp purpose. When he moved it was slowly, almost tenderly, as if freeing a pain-frenzied animal from some cruel hunter's snare. Qui-Gon barely felt his long fingers as they maneuvered the binders to find the lock access, flicking across the thin skin of his wrists. A moment later, with a soft click, the lock released and the binders fell away.
Qui-Gon sat staring down at his hands, cupped in Dooku's, miraculously free of the cuffs for a long moment. The feeling of air where the metal had rubbed for so long was amazing, together sweet and stinging at the same time. His hands tingled slightly with the renewed blood flow, prickling hot needles of life. He looked up at Dooku, tears starting in his eyes.
Dooku's gaze in return was shockingly heartbroken. Then, without warning, or hesitation, Dooku tipped forward, and crushed his arms tightly around the boy.
"Oh child, I'm so sorry."
In that instant, everything between them froze and shattered. Safe clasped inside Dooku's embrace, Qui-Gon finally felt like crying. He clung to him desperately, brokenly, shaking with silent, tearless sobs.
He couldn't remember Dooku ever hugging anyone of his own initiation, let alone him. But he wasn't much in the mood for overanalyzing at this point. He had nothing else to hold on to. It felt so good just to be held for a little while, to feel something warm and soft and real after so much cold nothing. He let his cheek rest against his mentor's chest, he just needed a moment. Up close, skin-to-skin, Dooku smelled good, clean, like vanilla and soap. The scent was so familiar, and it reassured him as much as a force signature. Underneath the disguise and charade was Dooku, the same as he had always been.
Ever the same.
It couldn't last. Dooku pulled back after only a heartbeat, to survey Qui-Gon. "Are you...all right?" Are you whole, his eyes asked.
Qui-Gon nodded, trying to compose himself. He wished he could work his tongue. He wanted to tell Dooku not to worry, that he was strong and capable, not a child. That he hadn't really been terrified by the prospect of being left behind in the cell, that Dooku's playacting hadn't shaken him to the core of his very being.
He would tell him all those things, all those good, hiding lies if he could just remember how.
Dooku was still watching him carefully, seeming almost afraid that he might shatter. "I'm sorry that it...that it had to happen like that. It was the fastest way to get you out that I knew."
Qui-Gon nodded, with absolutely no idea what he was agreeing with
"I tried to warn you through the force, but..." he gestured, rather helplessly. "The chip."
Startled, Qui-Gon reached up, fingering the painful alteration in his cheek. He had almost forgotten it was there, the sting was hardly noticeable after all of the other traumas.
Dooku leaned forward carefully, positioning his thumb and forefinger over the little embedded chip. "I do miss the noise and color from your end." He smiled, painfully. "Let's get this thing out of you, shall we? Or would you like to wait for the Healer's to surgically remove it? Either is fine, it's your preference."
Qui-Gon inclined his head slightly for his Master to go on. Being without the force was like slow torture to him. He felt not unlike a fish thrown out of breathable, cool marvelous water, and forced to slowly choke on plain air. He didn't know what the chip was doing physically to his body, and he didn't want to. Probably killing off his midiclorians, clotting his veins with their dead, mutilated cell bodies. He shuddered. No, he wanted the thing out. He would feel like himself again when he had the force back. He was so certain.
Dooku seemed to know. He moved without a word, far too quickly for Qui-Gon to realize how exactly he meant to remove the chip. In one swift gouge, he pinched the chip out of the boy's cheek. Blood splashed, Qui-Gon cried out, and in a rush, everything came.
Noise and color. The feeling overwhelmed him. Everything brightened, as if someone had turned up the sharpness on the scene. His body seemed strange, hypersensitive, like he had just stepped from some dark room into a bright white winter snow. Snow-blind. Toppling.
He didn't even think about it, didn't even stop to consider, but grabbed Dooku's mind with everything he had. He was falling, and he sank his mental nails in deep, clinging on with the wild desperation. He heard the Master gasp, raggedly, as Qui-Gon used their bond to break his fall.
"Qui-Gon–" Dooku protested, breathless, fighting.
Qui-Gon only squeezed tighter. The tension was screaming in his ears, a cyclone of power rushing back, tumbling him all at once with crushing force. He was digging into Dooku so hard, but he had to, or be swept away.
He was, Qui-Gon realized, feeling the red fire-flares of pain through the bond he was ravaging. A distant, very cold part of him marveled that he could actually hurt Dooku, if only though the sensitivity the Master had allowed. But the moment passed, and presently, he managed to let go. Dooku flinched backward, holding protectively to the hole Qui-Gon had just torn in his shields.
The storm quieted; the pressure in his head equaled out. He lay still, panting for breath; his Master's spilled thoughts trickling over him like water.
And, the force. It was everything. It breathed with the fragile wing-beats of the moth, it poured out of Dooku like lava flow, it glowed up in his own chest. Dooku moved, and their bond blossomed under his attention. It reminded Qui-Gon of how his hands had felt after the binders had clamped off the blood flow, and the feeling at their removal as the renewed life burned away the numb.
"I'm sorry," he tried to say, but the quiet words were far too soft to hear, so he whispered it into the force. Master, I'm sorry.
Dooku frowned, as if Qui-Gon hadn't just nearly torn his mind in two. "For what?" He was whispering.
Qui-Gon shrugged again, making a conscious effort to actually talk out loud this time. "F-for..." He coughed, struggled, gave up, and reverted back to the force. For causing all of this. For getting captured, and everything. He blinked back new tears. That was the worst of it. You...you had to pay a lot of your money to get me back. I hardly think I'm worth it.
"Stars, child, how could I put a price on you?" Dooku smiled fondly, brushing the boy's hair back with one hand. "Don't be ridiculous. There shall always be currency, but only ever one Qui-Gon Jinn." He carefully squeezed his shoulder, suddenly intense. "You are...worth a lot...to me."
Qui-Gon met his eyes, shyly. Such caressing words from Dooku were rare. The boy could tell he was being particularly gentle because of his half-broken, bleeding condition, but the blatant fondness in his Master's voice warmed his troubled heart and smoothed over his ragged doubts.
In fact, he was starting to feel very calm, almost too calm. He was having a hard time keeping his eyes open, his body felt so weak. Gingerly, Qui-Gon wrapped his arms around himself, shivering slightly. It was getting cold, as the black embrace of space swallowed up their little ship.
A moment later, Qui-Gon felt fabric falling over his shoulders. Dooku's robe, he could tell by the worn softness. Grateful, he nestled inside of it, letting his eyes drift closed, welcoming in the black...
"Qui-Gon." Dooku's voice rumbled and broke the groggy daze. "Don't sleep just yet."
I'm tired...He frowned, his tone almost plaintive as he asked into their bond.
"I know." An affectionate rub in the force, startling and soothing together.
So, why can't I?
"Well," Dooku looked slightly uncomfortable. "For one, you're on the floor."
I don't mind it. Qui-Gon shrugged, mildly confused. He had slept for weeks chained up against a cold metal wall, the life leeching out of his body, his long, teenaged limbs painfully strained. After all of that, the floor felt...well, absolutely wonderful. Dooku's robe smelled nice, and he liked its comfortable weight over his broken body.
"I mind." Dooku said quietly, ending the matter there. He leaned over, offering an arm somewhat awkwardly. "There's a cot in the next room, come along."
Qui-Gon stared at the proffered arm, not quite sure what to do with it. He finally opted for looping an arm around Dooku's neck and shoulders instead. Dooku hesitated, but adjusted his arms around Qui-Gon, and helped pull him upright. Qui-Gon winced, his bruised ribs shifted with the motion.
"Am I...hurting you?"
Qui-Gon shrugged against him, and together, they hobbled toward the doorway. Glancing down, Dooku noticed the boy's crimson footprints, and wordlessly snagged a medkit off the wall.
He eased him onto the cot, and Qui-Gon sank into the mattress thankfully. It was much more comfortable, he thought, curling up on his side and closing his eyes. The few steps had drained him more thoroughly than he would have thought possible...
"Qui-Gon!" A little shake on his arm brought one blue eye open. "You must stay awake just a little while longer…" Dooku perched on the end of the cot. "Just a little while."
Qui-Gon moaned outright. Master...
"Give me your foot," Dooku tone was no-nonsense, as he bent to access his medkit. When Qui-Gon hesitated, he sighed, and moved to select one himself. The boy flinched at first, he hadn't expected Dooku to go digging for his feet, but he was being reasonably gentle, and Qui-Gon couldn't very well squirm away. He forced himself to hold very still as Dooku bandaged the blood-painted bridge of his left foot. "How did this happen?"
Qui-Gon shrugged, painfully.
Dooku finished the first and picked up the second, pausing to examine the wounds. The cracks were still sticky, oozing blood. He sighed, with pity. "And what happened to your boots?"
I can't remember...
"Any of it?" Dooku frowned, and dabbed at the cuts with bacta. Qui-Gon winced, covering half his face with a hand. The Master looked up, curious and concerned, but didn't pursue the matter. "I'm almost finished."
Somehow, Qui-Gon wasn't encouraged. He groaned, lying back on the cot's thin pillow, and trying to ignore the stinging sensation. He felt the bridge of his foot seal up, as the bandage closed over the cuts. His feet did feel more comfortable, all wrapped up and protected. He wiggled his toes experimentally, checking the tightness. In the meantime, Dooku had moved away, shadow-like, and then pressed something cold into Qui-Gon's hand.
The boy stared down at it, blinking. It was a flask of something.
"Drink up," Dooku murmured, his expression difficult to read.
Qui-Gon paused, and then did so, with the thoughtless faith of any sick child. The stuff was stunningly sweet, and the flavor filled up his mouth and poured into his sinus. He choked, forcing himself to swallow. It was juice of some kind, a kind he knew even, but for some reason it tasted overwhelmingly strong. Sickly. He didn't want it.
"Qui-Gon..." Dooku had lighted again on the cot, closer this time. "It will help your throat."
Qui-Gon didn't think that his current inability to speak had anything to do with the condition of his throat, but Dooku always had a very point-source idea of illness. Something was broken, and one fixed it. There wasn't any subtlety to it. More to please him than anything, he took another cautious sip, holding the moisture on his parched tongue. At least the coolness felt good.
"Are you hungry?" Dooku hovered. "I can make something at the kitchenette..."
Qui-Gon shook his head, a little dully. Everything felt so foggy, surreal. And Dooku was offering to cook? This all had to be some sort of strange, delirious dream. For one, Dooku never cooked, in fact, Qui-Gon had the idea that the Master probably couldn't turn on the oven apparatus, without fishing out an instructional manual. Still, he supposed the thought was kind. But he was too tired, too sick to eat anything.
"Are you sure? It merely seems your previous owner may have neglected to feed you properly..." Dooku's voice softened, and there was a flash of anger from him, grief at the injustice. "...you've got to be hungry..."
Previous owner. Qui-Gon shuddered at the thought, sinking in a little deeper. He had barricaded the memories off in his mind, but the words brought them back, an aftertaste of horror, as distinctive and overpowering as the juice. It was always in his head now, flailing around, ripping at him. The terror. The shame of it all.
The failure. That had been the hardest part to bury. He was panting, now, he realized. Strange that it should be so hard to breathe, all of the sudden.
Dooku captured his hand, and he must have sensed the inner turmoil, because his voice was laced with concern. "Calm down."
He was tempted to flail away.
Louder, this time. "Qui-Gon, easy!" The Master sounded strangely desperate. The boy couldn't bring himself to care. He could feel his grief filling up the room. He didn't mean to, it was just too big for him to hold, too heavy. Even with the force, his body was too weak. Everything was sliding away.
There was a bump on his mind, a soft nuzzle, as if something wanted in.
"Listen to me. Let me tell you what's going to happen." Dooku still had his hand tightly, and Qui-Gon wasn't sure if holding it was a gesture of comfort, or if he was merely unwillingly to let him go. With Dooku, it might go either way. "It's going to be all right. Breathe. You've got to stabilize some before passing out on me...I don't want you going into shock..."
Shock, yes. Qui-Gon tried his best to breathe. Shock wouldn't do... Dooku was still nosing into him through the force, nudging into his mind. The pad of his thumb absently rubbed circles across the boy's knuckles. Qui-Gon let him inside. He didn't have anything left to hide.
"And you can get some rest, and by then, we'll be home, won't we? Merely eight hours to Coruscant. It isn't so bad, child. We'll make this right." The thumb again, across the flat of his hand. The motion was oddly soothing. He tried to focus in on Dooku's words.
"You shouldn't have to spend too long in the healers. You might even be out in time for the Master/Padawan team tournaments. Does that sound..." Dooku paused, unsure. "...fun?"
It did, Qui-Gon thought, watching his Master's thumb rub patterns. He had never heard Dooku ask about the amount of fun involved in an activity before, either.
"We're going to do very well, I should think." Still talking, still stroking. "Of course, they'll most likely pair us down a level, to accommodate your injuries, but that will only make it more of a sport. Probably someone like your friend Clee Rhara, and her mentor." A pause, mostly to check that Qui-Gon was still awake and listening. "Your Ataru style will do well against her...she fancies Form I, doesn't she?"
Qui-Gon nodded, tiredly.
"I believe I remember from the last games. Just mind that you don't get too polite, and keep out of her striking zone. A good fencer learns to use distance. Mind, if you were using Makashi, I would tell you to play her like a trout, but for your form, just keep up and out of the way until she dries up her energy. Mm, well, we can talk about it at length later."
It seemed Dooku's voice should be fading out to his sleepy ears, but it was getting stronger, more real, and Qui-Gon couldn't fathom why. He wouldn't have thought much about it, except that Dooku, in clearer color than ever, was starting to sway slightly. It wasn't his vision this time. Dooku was trembling.
Qui-Gon frowned. "Master?"
Yes, Dooku definitely looked pale, and his eyes were dull compared to their earlier frenzied brightness. Even as he talked, they had a muddy, glossy look that seemed to indicate his mind was elsewhere. And Qui-Gon suddenly noticed that he was feeling much better, all of the sudden. The icy, terrified pain was still lurking, but it had been pressed back into place by some invisible hand. His shoulders, such a nest of agony moments ago, felt looser, warmer. The whole of him seemed to be uncurling, for no particular reason. He could breathe again.
And then, with a blinding start, he realized it was Dooku.
A knowing smile. "Are you feeling better?"
He didn't know how Dooku had managed to fed him so much energy in such a short amount of time, but like any rapid loss of a vital, he imagined it wasn't good for the Master. Dooku was looking deathly pale, circles under his eyes. Qui-Gon wondered when the last time he had slept. Stop, he tried to say, but to little effect. Qui-Gon shook the connection, and it fell apart into static.
Dooku started, and then gave him a tired smile. "All right. I suppose if you're strong enough to push me away, you're strong enough for me to leave you alone." A mild poke in the force. "Now you may have your well-deserved sleep." He smiled, turning and flicking off the lights with a motion.
"Don't leave." The words tumbled out before he could stop them, a confession into the dark room.
The Master paused in the doorway, staring in shock. "What?"
"Don't go," Qui-Gon voice broke horribly, as he swallowed back a sob. "Please? I couldn't bear it, not again."
Dooku, to his surprise, was smiling. Genuinely smiling, not merely his usual amused, all-purpose smirk. "You're talking, child."
Qui-Gon blinked. He was. It felt strange, raw, like something had shifted inside of him. But the desperation remained. He didn't know what had made him finally speak up, but all that mattered at the moment was whether or not he had to stay by himself in this dark room. "You won't, will you? I was so afraid..." His voice broke. "You won't...leave, like before?"
"No." Dooku sighed softly. When he spoke again, his voice was hesitant, but deeply serious. "Qui-Gon. I wouldn't have ever left you in that horrible place. Not ever."
Relief coursed through the boy, but with it shame. He was such a child, making Dooku sit up with him like a toddler frightened by a nightmare. What must his clever, serious Master think of him now? It wasn't a parent he was doing this to, it was Dooku, brilliant, keen, cold Dooku: Yoda's comrade, one of the most respected Jedi Masters in the Temple. The elegant Master who should have never taken him.
And now he was probably thinking Qui-Gon doubted his rescuing abilities, judging from the look of shock on his face. Qui-Gon buried his face halfway in a hand, moaning softly. "Sorry. I didn't mean to...to imply..."
Dooku's face pinched suddenly with realized grief, and maybe it was how tired, how drained he was that made him look so deeply hurt. A touch of the force confirmed it wasn't an illusion, he was so deep in the other's aura that Qui-Gon could feel the pain blossom as if it were his own. Dooku's voice sounded strained. "Didn't you know that?"
Qui-Gon swallowed. He couldn't understand why Dooku looked so shattered. "I never doubted your ability to rescue me, Master." His voice was so hoarse, he could hardly recognize it as his own.
"No..." Dooku murmured, taking a step closer. "...you doubted me."
There was silence. Qui-Gon burrowed miserably into his bedding, unable to look at him anymore. Yes. It was true, and he couldn't take it back. Dooku would feel the lie. He hadn't been afraid that Dooku wouldn't be able to get him out, he had been afraid Dooku wouldn't want to get him out. That he was too much of a hassle for him. A mistake.
He breathed out pain onto his pillow.
Through the force he could feel the Master was still awkwardly standing in the middle of the little room, weakened, reeling, flickering emotions like candlelight. Surely, he would leave any moment.
Tears started anew in his eyes. After everything, the fate of his original mission, the shame of being captured, enslaved, miserably beaten, he had failed Dooku in spirit. He could understand the Master's pain, empathize with it. If they didn't have trust between them, what did they have?
Abruptly, Qui-Gon heard a soft creak, and felt the mattress dip under him. He had moved. The boy peeked one eye out, to catch a glimpse of Dooku drawing his legs up against his chest, curled at the foot of the cot like an oversized house cat. Qui-Gon blinked in surprise, balling up to make room. Dooku was staying?
Carefully, moving only a small space at a time, he reached through the force toward his mentor. Dooku felt warm and loose on the end of his cot, if not lingering with sadness. Everything was dulled, however, and he could sense how tired he was, and how drained his stores of energy were. He certainly didn't feel like he was about to move.
In fact, Dooku had gone completely still. Qui-Gon could feel the other's mind shutting down, cycling off functions systematically like a droid. For a horrible moment, Qui-Gon thought there was something dreadfully wrong with his Master, as he felt his mind darken and close. But then Dooku yawned. With a little start, he realized there wasn't anything the matter with him, he was just...sleepy. His aura was shimmering drowsily. Qui-Gon watched, distantly fascinated. He had never really seen Dooku fall asleep naturally. He usually just sank deep into meditation.
The boy was starting to get sucked into the orbit of Dooku's exhaustion, his own physical weakness weighing down on him. It wasn't a bad feeling, with his consciousness went his worries, his fears, the pain...
He closed his eyes, drifting off into rambling briars of thought, the mingled half-dream and hazy bliss that always came before deep sleep. Somewhere nearby, he heard Dooku mumble, his voice rough with the same drowsy softness.
"We'll make it right."