Ventress awoke slowly and painfully.
Waking up. The worst part of any day. Well, only if one had to wake up in the morning. Even late in the morning was okay-but getting up at five thirty was ridiculous. What time was it on Coruscant, anyway? Certainly not too late for Sidious to transmit his message then! They were counting days off, so it wasn't like-
Ventress's thoughts were cut off by a knock on her door. "Ventress, are you awake?" a male voice called. "You should be."
Ventress groaned, and managed to pry one hand free of her tangled sheets. She reached over to the table next to her bed, where she kept her comlink and a few other things that she would need: makeup, a clock, a glass of water, and a small towel. "Yeah, I'm up," Ventress muttered, hoping Dooku could hear her through the door. She reached over to the nightstand, groping blindly for her comlink, and picked it up. The tiny device was blaring her favorite music as loud as it could-Ventress's customized way of waking herself up. She shut off the music, and then just let her entire body go limp again. A muffled groan made its way past the pillows, and Ventress lifted her head only to breathe.
"Hurry up," Dooku continued. "We're going back to Coruscant today, and I won't keep Lord Sidious waiting."
"Yes, master, I'm aware of that," Ventress mumbled tiredly. She slowly pushed herself up onto her elbows, yawning widely. Her jaw cracked as she did so, resulting in a soft expression of pain. "I'm coming." Ventress pushed herself up a bit farther, wriggling her legs underneath her and forcing herself into a semi-upright position. Ventress sighed and rubbed her eyes, trying to rub the sleep out. It wasn't working. Giving up, Ventress pushed her body to the extreme and stood up, forcing her weight into her feet. She took one staggering step, and then took a deep breath and grabbed her outer robe from one of the corner posters on her bed. She wrapped it around herself, using it as a bathrobe, and made her way across the room to the door. As soon as the door opened, she could see Dooku standing there, off to the side, making sure she was up. Ventress gave a another yawn, holding one hand across her chest and the other across her mouth, one holding her robe closed and the other stifling her yawn. Ventress slowly made her way to the bathroom, and set about trying to wake herself up-and clean herself up. Ventress always felt disgusting in the morning: she figured it had something to do with her species' nature. Something she would, also, never know.
The better part of the next fifteen minutes passed Ventress by without registering in her brain at all. The Rattataki woman wasn't too happy about this, but figured as long as she hadn't forgotten anything important, she would live. She checked herself in the mirror one last time, and briefly went over her usual morning routine. Shower, brush her teeth, make sure she didn't have any new tattoos (at least that she didn't remember getting,) put her makeup on, and relieve herself. All of the above, done. Ventress wrapped her robe around herself once more, folding her arms across her chest and making her way back to her bedroom, feeling slightly delirious with sleep. She would perk up after breakfast; Rattatakis might take a while to get started, but kick-starting their metabolism with a good breakfast usually helped. Ventress pushed the door out of the way and walked into her room, pausing to close her eyes and yawn for what must have been the fourteenth time in the last twelve minutes. When Ventress opened her eyes again, though, she wasn't happy about what she saw.
Dooku was standing on the opposite side of her room, positioned with his left side turned to her. Both of his hands were on the edges of a small scrap of paper, burned at the edges and darkened by fire. It held many creases and wrinkles in its glossy surface, evidence of taking a beating of some sort. Clearly, the picture had been through hell, although someone was intent on keeping it alive. The picture was of a small Rattataki female, with one adult female, one teenage female, and one adult male in the picture. The teenage female was holding the small female in her arms. The youngest of the group seemed to be only a few years old; six at the most, Dooku would bet. They all had deep purple eyes; dark, enchanting gazes. Except for the toddler. She had piercing blue eyes that almost looked possessed. But, somehow, these eyes were lit up with happiness, something Dooku had never seen before in the subject of this picture-
"Don't touch that!"
The command was out of her mouth before Ventress could stop it. She was next to Dooku in a second, yanking the paper from his hands and clutching it to her chest. "Don't ever touch this," she growled, taking a step back from him. "Not if your life depends on it, because your life does depend on not touching this, because I don't care how, I will find a way to kill you if you ever touch this again, so don't ever, ever, ever, never touch this!"
Dooku was taken aback at Ventress's outburst. Such blatant disrespect! But, obviously, this picture meant a lot to her. But why? This wasn't a picture of her, was it? Apparently, Dooku's earlier speculations were correct. Her eyes burned with a protective fury, bordering on obsession. But, no matter the passion behind it, Dooku couldn't allow such disrespect to go unpunished. "Don't you ever speak to me like that again young lady," Dooku scolded harshly, dealing Ventress a vicious backhand to the face. "I will not tolerate such disrespect. Didn't I teach you better?!"
Ventress took the blow without a sound. Her head snapped sharply to the left, and a harsh snap reverberated throughout the room. Ventress gave no sign, though, that the sting of the strike had ever even caressed her cheek. She said nothing; instead, she held Dooku in her possessed glare for a moment, staring right down into his eyes and searching through them, as if pawing through his irises to find a direct path to his soul. And, for a moment, Dooku feared she had found it. For a moment, he could swear she was rifling through his memories, sorting out his thoughts, laying bare his emotions-
Dooku dismissed the thought, shaking his head in wonder. Those eyes…was that even natural?
"What does that picture mean to you, Ventress?" he suddenly asked, turning his head away from Ventress. His eyes found the top of her dresser again, searching through the sparse personal touches Ventress had put into the place. There were only two other pictures on the dresser: one was of a teenage female Rattataki, presumably the same one as in the other picture. She was dressed in Jedi robes, and was hugging a young girl tightly. The other picture was one of a male who looked human, and was wearing Jedi robes as well.
"This is the last thing I have," she said softly, after a long pause, "to remember them by. My parents…my sister…and myself." Ventress closed her eyes and shook her head, taking another step back. "I-I'm so sorry, I just…I can't let this go. I know you wouldn't do anything with it, you wouldn't hurt it, but still…it means more to me than life itself. They say a picture is worth a thousand words?" Ventress lifted her head, gazing out the window over her bed. "What about a thousand stars? How about a thousand planets? A thousand systems? A thousand galaxies? I would kill for this lone picture, because it's my entire life, gone from me before, finally in solid form."
Dooku slowly nodded. "But, beware exactly how much you would do for just this one picture," he said sternly, picking up the one of the female Jedi. "Attachment is a grave mistake many of us make. Never sacrifice a thousand…just to save one."
"Understood, my master," Ventress whispered, bowing deeply to Dooku, trying to show her remorse. She moved back to the dresser, replacing the picture on top of it, between the other two pictures. She glanced over at Dooku, who was studying the picture of the female Jedi.
"A friend?" he asked.
"No," Ventress answered, shaking her head. "My sister." She paused, placing her hands over her face and taking a deep breath. She then remover hands from his pale visage, letting them fall to her sides. "She was discovered as a baby, and taken to the Temple on Coruscant. She was on a mission to Rattatak one time, and found us…she figured it out just by how the Force wove between us. The patterns were the same, she said, and told us her name. My parents…they had named her Isis. She kept that name throughout her career." Ventress raised a single hand to her eyes, rubbing them as if fighting tears. "We made her take off the robes…just this once…for the picture. And then, we got one with her in the robes…right before she left." Ventress sadly shook her head, averting her eyes from the framed picture. "We never saw her again." Her voice broke at the end, and she was forced to stop and calm herself. A sudden barrage of emotions washed over her, causing the sting of tears to prick at the backs of her eyes. Ventress fought, though: she was used to forcing down tears. "We got news that she had died…the day she was supposed to be coming back. For my sixteenth birthday. That was the day I got the news she died. And then, my parents were killed…" Something like a masochistic chuckle escaped Ventress's throat, tainted by tears and poisoned by forbidden emotion. "Some birthday, huh? And sixteen…that's like, the age for us. Sixteen, you can drive a speeder unsupervised, at any time, you can drive a starship, you can start drinking, your parents typically let you start dating then…you're allowed to join the army. You're allowed to do basically anything. Own weapons. Play cards. Get a job. Drop out of school. Whatever." Ventress laughed again. "Or take vengeance for deaths. That was my birthday present to myself. I killed them all. Every last damn one of them. The warlords that took the lives of my parents. I killed them all.
"And, while I was doing that, as I was taking the life of the very last of the scumbags, the one who did it personally, the one who put that blaster to their heads and pulled the trigger-I realized something." Ventress finally tore her gaze away from the window, swinging her head back around to stare at Dooku. "There's something funny about death. Watching the life drain out of an animal's eyes. The satisfaction that you have won something for yourself. The pride that you can be feared now. How much we can enjoy it, while the very last death we experience, we hate beyond all compare. And then, I realized something else-while there is a lot of emotion in death, there is also none. What sentient being with any emotions could ever slowly strangle a man to death, while he begs for his life beneath you? And then, when you finally just give up, getting bored, and just put him out of his misery, the same way he killed your parents-you become something truly different. You're never the same after taking a life. It just gets easy after the first one. The first one haunts you forever. And then…then, all the faces become the same. All their screams blend into one. The blood that splatters over her hands is from the same person, and yet a hundred different people. You don't even have to try. You can alter the universe forever with the twitch of a finger. All the lives disrupted. Everyone thrown into turmoil. These people had lives. They had jobs. They had friends. They had families. And you took that. You turned everyone else's lives upside down for your own stinking revenge. How petty is that? And yet…and yet, we all do it, in one way or another.
"Tell me, master-have you ever though about this? Do you remember your first kill? Do you remember the first time you ever saw death, by your hands or someone else's? Does it haunt you like it haunts me? This makeup, this paint-it all hides the dark circles under my eyes. I don't sleep anymore. The nightmares of the ones I've killed torment me, bringing me agony and many sleepless nights. And so, I hide it. You think I don't care anymore-well, you're wrong. I remember every life I've ever taken, even if they all blend into one. And I still keep count. You want to know the number? Well, I can tell you right now: one thousand four hundred eighty six. That's how many human and humanoid lives I've stolen. And I remember each and every one of them, and they remember me. 'Remember the name,' he once said, as he took the life of my father. 'So you can tell the gatekeeper of hell who sent you.' I laughed when I heard that, from his buddies at the bar. I shot them, too. Bastards. Sons of bitches. They laughed over my parents' bodies-
"So I laughed over theirs."
Dooku was thoroughly astonished by this new side of Ventress. Her horrifying tale managed to hit even him right in the heart. And she was right-he did think she didn't care anymore. She right about it all-the deep readings into death, the simple emotions felt when one killed, the act of doing so-it was terrifying, how she knew all this, and she was close to thirty-five years his junior.
And she had killed far more than he.
Dooku didn't keep count, but he knew he hadn't killed anywhere near a thousand, or Ventress's figure. She was a truly morbid woman, though, to have taken so many lives so quickly. And to see so much of it in such a short period of time? Dooku might be more powerful than Ventress, but right now, he felt a little shiver go down his spine if he even crossed those shocking blue eyes.
"And then, he found me."
Ventress reached over and picked up the last picture on her dresser, the picture of the male Jedi. "Ky Narec. You were probably his friend, since you were once in the Order. But, he was killed by warlords, too: new ones, elected in to replace the old ones. I slaughtered all of them in one hell of a bloodbath when they killed him, and this time, I took over. To prevent it from happening again. I am fear. I am the queen of a blood-soaked planet and an architect of genocide. I have helped to crack the galaxy in half with this war and conquered every enemy I have ever faced—including death. (1) And now, death will come to any of those who dare oppose me. May the Force help their souls, because there won't be much of that left when I'm done with that, either."
This time, a much larger shiver ran down Dooku's spine. Ventress was like a rabid acklay! Except much faster, and much more graceful, and…much more…deadly…Dooku briefly pondered over whether or not he had ever expressed to Ventress how glad he was that they weren't enemies. Because he got the feeling that if she couldn't kill him, she would arrange for him to be locked inside a very small cage with a very hungry Bull Rancor, unconscious and covered in steak juice.
"You're something of a warlord yourself, then," he said slowly, trying to shake it off. It really wasn't working. "Isn't that ironic, that you've become the very thing you swore to destroy?"
Ventress gave a snicker of laughter at this. "Me? Hardly. I've changed sides so many times I don't even know who the good guys are anymore. All I know is, you're the best person to be working for right now, and your offer suited my needs. That's all I needed. So, if I get a better offer, who knows, I might just take off. But, hey, that's how the ball rolls, eh?" Ventress replaced the pictures on the dresser, arranging them perfectly and acting so nonchalant Dooku almost took a step back. He made a mental not to himself never to infuriate Ventress again. Because even if he beat her, he wasn't sure he could beat an unchained rancor with no lightsaber and Ventress on the other side.
"Hey, do we have food?"
Another one of her "moments." It was completely random, inappropriate for the discussion at hand, and it threw him for one hell of a loop. Dooku shook off this comment, though, and answered,
"We have cereal, I think."
Ventress paused for a moment, seemingly thinking. As she though, her long nails drummed against the dresser with an eerie staccato rhythm. "I'll use Jawa Juice."
Dooku stared. "You're going to use an alcoholic drink in place of bantha milk?" he repeated, just to make sure he had her right. Ventress nodded, and stepped away from the dresser.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get dressed."
Dooku exited Ventress's room in a bit of a fog. This new, deeper, more malicious, calculating, cold side of Ventress was something Dooku had never seen before, not in all his years of working with the woman. He slowly made his way to the kitchen, down the hall from the bedrooms. He collapsed in a seat at the table, letting one arm fall across the table and the other prop up his forehead, resting on his elbow. He really needed some coffee…and he needed to re-establish who exactly the dominant in their relationship was. He was the alpha of the pack-Ventress was his beta, he supposed. The zeta…? Well, it was just the two of them, so Dooku supposed the zetas would be anyone he told to do something, whether it was a Jedi to back down, or a droid to fix his starship. Dooku was used to being in control, but Ventress's little apocalypse in the bedroom had severed undermined his control of himself, leaving him to wonder and question and ponder and doubt. He was wondering how much control he really had over her. Did she still respect him? Did she still defer to him? Oh, she was good at playing mind games. Dooku needed to play, then, too. This was a game, he supposed, and the winner got to be the head of the pack.
Ventress emerged from her cave, fully dressed and seemingly ignorant of what had just transpired between the two of them. She was dressed rather conservatively, for once, wearing her usual floor-length skirt and a long-sleeved top. This top was cut wide around her neck, dropping down to reveal the smallest shadow of her cleavage, but then swooping right back up again to cover it. The shirt covered her back, and her stomach. Dooku had to say, he was impressed. He was probably going to be brutally slaughtered for it if he ever said it out loud, but…Ventress usually dressed like a slut. He was certain that there was some unspoken mutual understanding of that, between them, but neither ever voiced it. It bordered on inappropriate. Ha, bordered. It was more like taunting the line of decency.
Ventress found a clean bowl, poured her breakfast into it from bottle and box alike, and sat down across from Dooku to eat. Dooku stared in disgust, disbelieving that Ventress was really eating corn flakes soaked in Jawa juice. (2)
"I usually don't resort to petty fixes like alcohol to make me forget," she was saying, "But this might take the edge off. Or so I hope it. It takes almost a full barrel to get a Rattataki drunk, and two for a Zeltron. Those dolts don't even know what drunk is. Their bodies remove alcohol faster than they can drink it. It's almost disgusting."
"So is that," Dooku said simply, still staring at Ventress's poor excuse for breakfast.
"You don't have to eat it."
Dooku sighed, shaking his head. Ventress might be nearing twenty-seven, but it didn't mean she wasn't still a teenager at heart. "I'm not hungry anyway," Dooku said, trying to regain the upper hand. Here she was again, not outright disrespecting him, but threatening him with such. She had the situation completely in her control. "Some coffee would be lovely, though." (3)
Ventress wordlessly stood up, moving to the coffee maker and pouring some grounds in. She left it with some boiling water, and came back to her breakfast without another word. Dooku was relieved; she still knew exactly who was boss, and she wasn't challenging him any time soon. Still, this would need to be reinforced, maybe even spoken about, if Ventress continued like this. Dooku wasn't about to start losing sleep over her. She already caused him as much drama as he had gotten when he left the Jedi Order. Add in her female hormones and PMS, and it was just the cherry on top of a wonderful mix of female angst. Dooku had to wonder what it was like to have one's body rule their decisions.
"You take it black?"
Ventress was standing up again, a steaming mug in her hands. Dooku nodded, and she came back to the table, paused next to Dooku to set down the mug, and then returned to her seat. She ate the rest of her breakfast silently, seemingly uninterested in whatever was going on around her. Not like there was much to focus on: Dooku was slowly sipping his coffee, trying to wake himself up a bit more, and the only other thing that had even happened was a stray bird flying into the window.
When she finished with her disgusting lump of mush, Ventress stood up, dumped the dishes in the sink, and then announced that she was going to make sure she had everything prepared for meeting Darth Sidious. Dooku wasn't sure if she just need an excuse to get out of the room, or if she really did need to check.
Either way, he wasn't any closer to figuring her out. And possible, he had even travelled backwards a few steps.
A/N: Well, this started out as something else entirely, but when my fingers hit the keyboard, the muses decided on something else. It was at the encouragement of a reviewer, Isis the Sphinx, that I sat down and continued this, so go thank her. Cookies for reviewers.
(1) This is an actual quote from Ventress, beginning with "I am fear" and ending with the little number. I got it from Wookieepedia.
(2) I know next to nothing about Star Wars food. So, breakfast cereal for the win.
(3) See above note. XP I know nothing about these whacked-up little details that everyone else in this fandom seems to know!!