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Hunters of the Dark Side (Part 2)

Chapter Six

 

John knew something was wrong the moment he Folly dropped out of hyperspace and into the Corellian system. The Tarisian Queen, the large passenger liner the Sith artifact had left Thyferra on was nowhere to be found. John had plotted his hyperspace route to match speed with the slower passenger liner so that he would arrive in system just after it did. He was hoping to get a lock on the distortion again and then wait for the ship to shuttle passengers down to the surface. If John got close enough, he might be able to pick up the more subtle, real-space distortions that Sith objects always gave off. If he got lucky, he’d be able to tell if the relic or the person(s) who had it were indeed going to Corellia or shuttling to one of the other four inhabited planets in the system. 

 

Instead, John emerged to see a system free of the Queen and free of any large passenger ships of any description. “Sithspawn!” he cursed aloud. Something was very, very wrong, he could feel lit. 

 

The Folly’s computer let out a low whine and began displaying words across the screen. “Tarisian Queen dropped out of hyperspace three standard hours after entering hyperspace. Sent hypercom message for help. Repair crew responded from Coruscant. Engines had been sabotaged and hyperdrive motivator damaged. Completed repairs. Queen resumed course and will be in-system in 18 standard hours.”

 

Repair ship from Coruscant? John pondered. “Did the repair ship stay with the Queen as an escort or return to Coruscant?”

 

“Returned to Coruscant. Scheduled to land in twelve standard hours,” the computer supplied.

 

“Blast!” John sighed. It was a diversion. The Sith thing had probably transferred to the repair ship and hitched a ride back to Coruscant. He could wait and confirm, but that would mean cooling his heels in the Corellian system for 18 hours while the Sith artifact could be arriving in the Coruscant system six hours before he could even make a confirmation, and then—if his hunch was right—he’d still have to make the long hyperspace journey to Coruscant while the Sith thing was off exerting its influence on anyone and anything it wanted. Even if he left Corellia for Coruscant now he wouldn’t make it to Coruscant before the repair ship, meaning artifact would still be in the Coruscant system for at least half a day before he could get there. 

 

The computer chimed again and began displaying more information. “The Tarisian Queen contacted Corellian port authorities and indicated that they believed their ship had been sabotaged while in the Polith System. Suspected pirates might be arriving in Corellian system ahead of Queen to intercept and raid as it arrived in system.” 

 

“What?” John asked aloud, incredulous. “Why would they think that? Better yet, why would the Corellian government listen—”

 

“CorSec has orders to intercept and detain all ships inbound from Thyferra on suspected sabotage and piracy. CorSec fighters incoming now,” the computer disclosed hurriedly.

 

“It’s a trap!” John said, falling back in his seat. That was the only possible conclusion. But how could it be a trap? Somehow the Sith—thing must have known John was following it. It must be sentient or influencing something sentient. That was the only explanation. But why would it lure John to Corellia? Well, CorSec was the best planetary defense force in the Galactic Republic. Some thought it was even better than the Republic forces, save for the Jedi. Rumor was CorSec had a few of those working with it too. If John didn’t act fast, he’d be stuck in a Corellian jail until he could figure out how to bust out—with all the special modifications to the Folly, not to mention the less-than-legal hunting paraphernalia he had on board, they’d have enough to bring him up on charges worthy of a stint on Kessel. And he sure as hell didn’t want to be stuck in any Sithbegotten spice mine! Meanwhile the Sith would probably be on Coruscant , where it would have a head start, free to—

 

“Sammy,” John gasped. It was after his son. In twenty four standard hours it would be the twenty-second anniversary of Mary’s death. Like he’d long feared, it looked like Sammy was its target after all. 

 

A klaxon started blaring and red lights began flashing all over the console. 

 

“Sithspit!” John exclaimed.

 

The computer informed him three CorSec fighters had already been scrambled and were on an intercept course. Two more were coming in from aft, where they had been laying in wait farther out in the system.

 

“I can see that, thanks!” he snapped sarcastically. The ships were coming in so fast he could already make out their checkered pattern against the black backdrop of space. They were trying to box him in, cut off his exit vector. John hastily began flipping levers overhead and punching in a sequence of numbers on the console in front of him. The Folly looked like a relatively sluggish, small freighter, but she was anything but. John had modified it himself, upgrading shields, engines, repulsor lifts, and hyperdrive. Using Mary’s droid designs and Dean’s expert help, he had modified the computer core so it functioned as an investigative droid, a standard ship’s computer, and a ship-based forensics lab. He could match speed with the CorSec fighters, but he lacked their edge in maneuverability and couldn’t do much at all if he had to take the ship into atmosphere. Still, he could flip end-to-end faster and in less space relative space than the fighters could. Plus, those fighters didn’t have onboard hyperdrive, and his navcomp was faster at calculating hyperspace paths than any ship in CorSec’s fleet, so if he could get outside the system before one of the big frigates caught up with him…

 

John looked out the starboard viewport and sure enough, one of the larger, needle-nosed ships was definitely heading his way. If he could get enough distance on the starfighters and get far enough outside the system’s gravity well, he just might have enough time to get away.

 

Quickly formulating a plan and running calculations in his head, John muttered, “Here goes nothing.” He pitched the Folly forward, angling down at a 90 degree angle from the system’s orientation plane. He pushed the sublight engines all the way to their maximum. There were no good exit vectors on this course, but that didn’t really matter just yet.

 

He checked the console’s display. Sure enough, the fighters were already reacting. Their behavior had turned from polite and respectful intercept-and-escort mode to full alert. They were streaking after him now, sending a slew of hails and repeated warnings that John steadfastly ignored. On the up side, the frigate still hadn’t changed course. Good.

 

“Start the chameleon protocol and jam all comm frequencies,” he barked at the computer, receiving a short tweet in the affirmative. The chameleon would send out false transponder data randomly cycling through a list of fake ship IDs, models, and registrations, making it that much harder for pursuing ships to determine the Folly’s true identity, while also making it difficult for any ship outside visual range to track the Folly, get a lock on her, or accurately anticipate her movements. The fighters were too close for it to have much of an effect on them, but at least it would make sure they wouldn’t identify him. John was grateful he hadn’t dropped his guard enough to enter the system broadcasting the Folly’s real transponder data, or they would be in a lot more trouble. “Keep track of all IDs we’re broadcasting,” he told the computer, “make sure to reserve a few to use after we get out of here.” John checked the pursuing ships positions. He had gained a few clicks on the closest of them, but at that moment, the fighter shot a warning volley that sprayed bright green laser light just off the port side of the Folly’s bow. 

 

Good enough, he thought, wrenching the controls, and pulling the Folly through a corkscrew, emerging with the ship pointed at 180 degrees to his entry vector but several clicks below that plane. Dialing a few controls on the navcomp he guestimated a short in-system hyperspace jump that—if it worked, would pop him back at the point reverted to realspace. He would be far enough behind the pursuing ships to avoid them and jump out of system. He was close still close enough to the system’s multiple massive gravity wells that he couldn’t plot a jump, but he was far enough out that if he turned the safeties off and engaged the manual override, he should be able to force the ship into a blind jump for a second or so, which—barring hitting anything along the way (like one of the pursuing ships)—it should get him completely clear enough so that a few more seconds travel at sublight would have him completely outside the grav shadow and free to plot another jump. Still, even with the Folly’s super-fast navcomp, he wouldn’t have time to plan a course that was both safe and would adequately cover his tracks, so he would have to make another semi-blind jump to take him outside the system. Then, he could revert to realspace one more time, and plot an actual course that would take him back to Coruscant swiftly, while also covering his tracks from any would-be pursuers.

 

Thinking of Mary, John pushed the lever forward to engage the hyperdrive. The ship lurched horribly, and the stars blurred to starlines before the ship shuddered back into realspace. Several alarms were blaring—lovely, he thought, noticing the micro-jump had knocked the shields out of alignment. Still, with five more seconds of flying, he would be completely free of the gravity well and his pursuers were now tiny specks in the aft viewport. 

 

John adjusted his trajectory again, aiming on the clearest vector out of the system that should be safe for a blind jump. He engaged the hyperdrive again, punching the lever forward and watching the stars dissolve into the swirling blue of hyperspace. John held his breath, watching the console’s chrono tick of one minute, then two. At two and a half, John had had enough, and quickly pulled the ship back into realspace, much to the warbling relief of the computer.

 

It had worked. The ship was in one piece—he hadn’t hit any other ships or flown into a planet or through a black hole. And there were no signs of his pursuers. Hopefully CorSec would follow protocol and call in Republic help before following him outside the system. Even if they could track him, that would at least buy him more time. Now John just had to figure out where he was and plot a trip back to Coruscant with enough stops to throw any belated pursuers off his trail. He just hoped he could save Sammy from whatever it was the Sith had planned for him. 

 

John’s stomach lurched with the fear of losing his son. He had already driven the boy away from home… yes, he was willing to admit that. But he had only wanted to keep him safe, instead, John seemed to have driven him into the waiting maw of the enemy… and he didn’t even know exactly who or what that enemy was.

 

Ten minutes later, hands shaking with adrenaline and sweat pooling on his brow from the exertion of making quick repairs to the ships shield generators, the navcomp had calculated a three-part course to Coruscant, and John was ready to get underway. As he punched in the hyperdrive one more time, he just hoped he could get to Coruscant in time.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Sam knew the moment they reached the apartment building that something was wrong.  Even through the haze of inebriation thanks to too much Whyrren’s Reserve and Lum, he could tell that the place had been disturbed. Half-hating that his instincts were still so keen, half-grateful that it meant he wouldn’t be walking in on a possible burglar unawares, he put his hand on the access panel to open the door, making sure he was between Jess and Ven (who was returning for a “nightcap”) and whatever or whomever was on the other side of the door. He didn’t say anything though, didn’t want to alarm them in case it was Mrs. Tanaka’s cat from upstairs having somehow slipped her way in from the balcony again.

 

With a moment’s hesitation, Sam opened the door to find the last thing—ok make that the second-to-last thing—he had ever expected to see. His brother Dean was seated on Sam’s couch, looking comfortable with Dean’s droid Chevy standing by his side.

 

Jess gasped and Ven exclaimed from behind him, but Sam ignored their momentary shock. “Dean, what are you doing here?” he demanded.

 

“Sammy, long time no see, is that any way to greet your brother?” Dean said with a smile, but Sam could tell it was fake. Even after over four years without seeing his brother and more than two since their last awkward holocom conversation in which Sam had suggested Dean not call him anymore, he still knew his brother. And something was very, very wrong. Dean was worried, tense. Sam could almost feel the stress and concern rolling off of Dean in waves. Chevy seemed nervous too, not quite staying still, instead fidgeting, almost vibrating, making barely perceptible little twitches on her treads while she struggled to stay in place.

 

“Wait, Dean, your brother?” Jess asked, surprised, stepping around Sam and into the apartment. 

 

Dean turned a surprised leer towards her, and Sam remembered that she was still in that ridiculously cut Support Corps uniform.

 

“Brother?” Ven added, slipping in around Sam on his other side.

 

Dean stayed on the couch looking adorably innocent (or make that infuriatingly innocent). “So, Sammy, you gonna introduce us?” Dean asked.

 

Clearing his throat and trying to maintain composure, Sam stepped forward, letting the door slide shut behind him. “Jess, Ven, this is my brother Dean; Dean my girlfriend Jess and my good friend Ven,” Sam concluded.

 

Dean did stand then, he was almost surprised to see, and shook Jess’s and Ven’s hands in turn. “Pleased to meet you both,” Dean said. “I just need to borrow Sam for a moment.”

 

“Dean, why ever you’re here, just say it. If you’re going to have the nerve to break into my apartment—into Jess’s and my apartment—and disturb our evening and our friend, then please have the decency to tell us all why you’re here,” Sam said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

 

Jess turned to him and gave him a kind of funny look, but he squeezed her hand in reassurance, trying to shoot her a look that said “my brother is such a pain.” As long as they didn’t come out of this situation with Jess or Ven understanding just how abnormally dysfunctional Sam’s family was, he’d be thrilled.

 

“Ok,” Dean said, “Dad’s missing.”

 

“So?” Sam said. “He’s not exactly fine upstanding Republic citizen of the year. And his job’s not exactly stable,” Sam snorted. “You sure he didn’t just make an unexpected pit stop somewhere for a Sabacc game, or pick up a new gig and not tell you?” Sam said, trying to avoid talking about the specifics of his father’s work in front of his friends as much as possible. As far as they knew, his dad was a freighter captain with a gambling habit and a less-than stable employment history.

 

Dean gave Sam a frank, assessing look, then let out a long sigh. “I haven’t seen Dad in a month, and I just got a priority message from Bobby that you need to see,” Dean explained solemnly.

 

Feeling a resurgence of the panicky wrongness he’d felt when he’d first seen Dean sitting on the couch, Sam dropped all pretense and turned to Jess apologetically. “Babe, this could be serious. I don’t really get along well with my family, but I think I need to hear this out.”

 

“It’s ok,” Jess said, leaning forward to capture Sam’s mouth in a kiss. 

 

Sam could almost hear Ven’s eye roll, and was surprised to not hear a catcall coming from his brother. 

 

“How about I get us some of that hot chocolate you like so much. Ven can give me a hand,” Jess said affectionately. “Right Ven?” she added, turning to face their friend, her eyes apologetic for the excessive PDA.

 

“Sure,” Ven said. “Nice to meet you,” he said to Dean again, and then walked with Jess the few meters over to their kitchen. 

 

Dean was looking at Sam expectantly, and Sam let out a sigh. Bad thing about an open floor plan was there weren’t many places you could go for privacy ‘cept the ‘fresher and the bedroom.  “Dean, you and Chevy care to join me on the balcony?” Sam asked.

 

“Sure,” Dean said, rising to follow. 

 

Chevy stopped twitching in place and trundled after them.

 

Sam led his brother and droid down the hall away from the kitchen, passing the bathroom and ‘fresher doors and unlocking the door at the end which led to the balcony. There was access to the balcony from Sam and Jess’s bedroom as well, but he didn’t feel comfortable taking his brother through his private space. It was weird enough having Dean here in his new life. It felt strained, forced, like pieces of two different puzzles being jammed together and made to fit even though they really, really didn’t.

 

“So what’s going on,” Sam asked Dean, when they were on the balcony and the door had closed behind them, worry seeping through in his voice.

 

Dean shifted his weight from foot to foot clearly uncomfortable under Sam’s scrutiny. Finally, leaning back against the exterior wall of the apartment—the solid durasteel panel, Sam noted, not the transparisteel of either of the sliding doors, probably because that would make him feel too exposed—Dean let out a long sigh. “It started a while ago. I’m not sure when, exactly, but I got the sense that Dad was working on something, something really big and not telling me,” Dean began.

 

“I thought it might just be because we’ve been working separately a lot recently,” Dean admitted.

 

Sam felt his eyes go wide with surprise. When he’d last been part of the “family business,” as John Winchester so fondly called it, neither he nor Dean had ever been allowed to hunt alone. But then again, that was when Dean was a few months younger than Sam was now, so it figured that things had changed.

 

“Yeah, dude, I hunt alone. I also play cards alone. Smuggle alone. Get mechanic gigs alone. I’m twenty-six, in case you didn’t know. There’s a hole lot of being alone,” Dean said with a hint of bitterness.

 

Chevy gave an offended squeak.

 

“Sorry girl, not totally alone. You’re always there, and I appreciate your company,” Dean said affectionately, patting the little droid’s domed head.

 

Sam felt really shitty in spite himself. He really didn’t want to think about his brother and Chevy out there in the universe all alone. Part of why he’d left (a small part, if he was honest, but it was there) was that he really thought his dad and brother would get along much better as a family of two without him there. Huh, maybe he should have listened to Dean a little bit more. Still probably wouldn’t have changed his mind. Sam was proud of his degree, and thrilled with the opportunity to study law and work with Senators, but it just might have made him keep in touch a little more… or at the very least think twice about telling his brother to stop contacting him.

 

“Anyway, I hoped it was just because it was an ongoing thing—something that would take awhile to solve—and he didn’t want to tie up both of us in case something came up. But,” Dean twisted his fingers together nervously, “I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else Dad wasn’t telling me.

 

“Then about a month ago, Dad and I split up. He got a message from someone, I wasn’t sure who, and said he had to go investigate something, and we set up a rendezvous on Nar Shaddaa. I finished up the job I was working on. Went to Nar Shaddaa, played a few Sabacc and Pazaak tournaments and waited for Dad to show. First he was a day late, then a week, then two. I skipped a meeting with Bobby to trade parts for the Dream, I put in holocalls to the Folly. Nothing. Finally, I had to leave to take a job on Tatooine that I couldn’t put off any longer. I wrapped that up, and came here. It’s been a month since I last heard anything from him.” Dean paused as if to let the words sink in. “Then today, just before I let myself in,” Dean said with an admiring tone that suggested Sam’s security measures—standard and supernatural—had met with his approval. “I got a priority message from Bobby. 

 

“Turns out, he’s the guy who sent Dad the original message that he went running off, and then after the fact, Bobby put two and two together and figured out the other thing Dad was hiding from me was related. He tried to call Dad, couldn’t reach him, realized it might have to do something with why I missed our appointment and didn’t stop by when I was on Tatooine—”

 

Sam let out a surprised gasp. Dean had to be freaked if he’d go all the way out to Tatooine and not say ‘hi’ to Bobby.

 

“And so he sent me a message to fill me in on what Dad’s been hiding from me. From us,” Dean said, voice hitching. “It’s fires Sam. Like the ones that killed mom.  And they’re happening all over. One even happened on Coruscant. And it gets worse.”

 

“Worse?” Sam croaked. He had no memory of his mother. She’d died when he was a baby, but he’d always been terrified of his father’s and brother’s descriptions of how she’d died—when they were drunk enough or sad enough to share it with him, it wasn’t a topic their family discussed easily.

 

“Let me show you,” Dean said. Then to Chevy, “Chevy, you mind showing Sam Bobby’s message?”

 

Chevy hooted in agreement, and powered up her holoprojector, the blue-ish projection beam springing to life in front of her.

 

Sam was greeted by the one-quarter size image of their old family friend and surrogate uncle, Bobby Singer. Sam hadn’t seen Bobby in a little over four years, but he looked pretty much the same. Maybe a few more gray hairs, but mostly just tired and weighed down, like the burden of his message was almost too much to bear.

 

Dean, Bobby’s image began, his voice solemn. He was standing still facing the holocam the seriousness of his demeanor coming through even at this diminutive size. I’ve got to tell you something about the hunt your daddy’s on, he sighed. I shouldn’t have kept this from you, but—and I know it’s no excuse—at the time I didn’t know the whole story.

 

About a month ago I got word of a fire on Commenor. Bobby’s image sighed again, hanging his head, unable to face the camera. A fire like the one that killed your momma. Damn thing started in the ceiling of a kid’s nursery, the night the kid was exactly six months old, and the mother died. Everything burned—too hot; stuff that shouldn’t’a melted did… it was just like on Dantooine. I thought it might be the same thing that killed your mother, that John might want to follow up on it himself. So he took the job and went and investigated. I didn’t hear anything from him until I hear about another fire. Same circumstances; this one on Coruscant. Then John called me up again and started asking questions about all these other systems on specific dates. I don’t think he meant to, but he let slip something about a hyperspace disturbance he’d tracked.

 

Bobby raised his face to meet the camera again as he shook his head. I did the search he wanted, found evidence of fires going back six months. I passed it on, asked him what he wanted it for, and he didn’t say. 

 

That was a little over two weeks ago, right before you postponed our meeting, Dean. I haven’t heard from him since, and I’m guessing since I haven’t seen you, you haven’t seen or heard from him either.

 

Dean, I’m really sorry. I never would’a sent the information to him or asked him to look into that blasted fire if I’d known he’d go off on some damn fool crusade. What I’m trying to say is, after I checked the dates and places for fires, I checked up on hyperspace disturbances. Turns out two of my contacts were able to confirm that there were strange hyperspace readings—the kind that usually accompany Sith artifacts—right around the dates of those fires. I think your Daddy was tracking is before I ever sent him after that fire. Whatever it is, it’s big, it’s burning lots of people, lots of homes, it’s been doing it for at least the last six months, and it’s related to the Sith, and I think your daddy’s gone after it on his own.

 

Bobby’s image fidgeted with something in front of him, probably the controls on the holocam before he said, I’m really sorry Dean, just please, give me a call. I’m worried about your dad, but I don’t want you running off alone after him too. If we put our heads together, maybe we can figure out where he’s hiding.

 

The recording came to an end, and Chevy powered her holoprojector down.

 

For a few seconds, all Sam could think of were the nightmares he’d been having. Nightmares of fire. That vague sense of impending doom hanging over him the way it used to whenever a hunt was about to go really bad.

 

“Thanks, Chevy,” Dean said to her affectionately, before looking up at Sam. “Sam, Dad started tracking something six months ago. He didn’t tell me what it was, and I didn’t ask because I… trusted him. Now it sounds like whatever killed Mom,” Dean’s voice hitched, “is back, and it’s killing other people. And Dad’s after it, and no one has seen or heard from him in over two weeks.” Dean let out a big sigh. “I know you don’t want to have anything to do with us, but this affects you too. Dad’s missing, and there’s something out there… it came after us once, could come after us again.”

 

Part of Sam was shocked and terrified. Dad’s missing; the thing that killed Mom is back, kept running through his head, triggering the same paralyzing fear Sam had felt every time his father disappeared or left on a hunting trip when he was a child. Each and every time, he’d felt vulnerable, frightened, never sure if he was going to see his father again, or if well-meaning Republic officials were going to snatch him up and he’d never see his family again.

 

The other part of Sam was angry, resentful. This was exactly, why he’d left! He wanted freedom from all the damn waiting and worrying, the constant living in fear. This was the kind of bantha fodder that gave him nightmares about his girlfriend dying. And now Dean had gone and dragged him back into it against his wishes. 

 

Unfortunately, the angry side won out, at least initially. “Dean, what the hell do you want from me, huh? I’m not exactly part of the family anymore. Hell, I don’t even remember Mom. Dad doesn’t consider me his son anymore, so why should I care about him? He goes missing ‘cause you’re too chickenshit to ask him what he’s researching, that’s your problem, not mine,” Sam spat, angry. “What are you even doing here anyway?”

 

Dean’s emotions flashed across his face in rapid fire. For a split second, Sam saw the pain and rejection, the isolation and self-loathing, the feeling of failure and disappointment, the burden Dean carried on his shoulders, color draining from his face. Dean pulled his mask back in place almost as fast, assuming a blank, disinterested guise. 

 

“Fine Sam, if that’s how you feel, you know, I’m sorry for bothering you.” Dean’s words were measured, even, the only give away the flare of his nostrils. “I just thought you might care that your family’s in danger, ‘cause last I checked, we don’t have much family. I also thought you might want to know, ‘cause this thing could come after you or me or anyone. And I also didn’t want to do this alone. Thought you might still care enough about me to help me out, help me find Dad,” he continued. “But, you know what,” he gave a sarcastic laugh. “I guess… I don’t know what I was thinking. Sorry for wasting your damn time, Sam,” he said with finality and turned back towards the balcony door, reaching to open it with one hand while beckoning to Chevy with the other.

 

Sam felt his adrenaline drain and a blush of shame wash across his face. “Dean, wait.”

 

Dean didn’t stop.

 

“Dean,” Sam said, reaching out to pull his brother off the door, and flipping Dean around, with more force than was probably necessary, slamming Dean up against the durasteel panel on the other side of the door with a reverberating ‘bang.’ “I’m sorry,” Sam said, shaking. “That was … I’m an idiot. I do care about you. A lot. And Dad’s still Dad. But, I… I went to college so I could get away from this stuff, have a normal life, I just…”

 

“Didn’t expect for it to show up on your doorstep,” Dean finished eyes downcast.

 

“Yeah,” Sam agreed. “Dad still pushes my buttons sometimes.”

 

“Ya think?” Dean snorted, finally meeting Sam’s eyes.

 

It was Sam’s turn to hang his head in embarrassment “Yeah. Look. I’ve got an internship, working for a Senator, I can’t just up and leave,” Sam explained.

 

Dean started to wriggle out of his grasp, clearly tuning out, expecting to get another rejection, just more polite.

 

“No, wait, just hear me out. I can’t up and leave, but you and Chevy are welcome to stay here for a while if you want, use the University’s libraries or the other archives, maybe it will help you find a lead. And I can probably finagle a couple of days off, maybe take a long weekend and help you out if you do find something,” Sam offered, partially to his own surprise.

 

“Seriously?” Dean asked warily.

 

“Seriously,” Sam said, stepping back and releasing Dean. “Why don’t you and Chevy come in and have some hot chocolate with Ven and Jess. Good to see you, man,” Sam added, opening the door to head back inside.

 

“You too,” Dean answered. As they walked back towards the living room and kitchen area, Jess and Ven’s slightly drunken voices drifting back towards them, he asked, “So what did you tell them Dad does?”

 

“He’s a freighter pilot with a gambling problem,” Sam said.

 

“And me?” Dean said. 

 

Sam smiled. “Freelance systems designer,” Sam admitted.

 

“Gee, thanks, Sammy. That’s not entirely a lie, and you didn’t make me out to be some kind of scoundrel,” Dean said with genuine appreciation.

 

“Just be glad it explains why you’d be able to break in and show up on our couch,” Sam muttered as the rejoined Jess and Ven.

 

They sat down on the couch, drinking the hot chocolate Jess and Ven had prepared and sharing stories. 

 

Sam did his best to explain to Jess that he might have to leave for a couple of days to check out someplace his Dad had disappeared to, finding it hard to develop an excuse that would mesh with the falsified history he’d created, periodically sending glares in Dean’s direction to get him to keep his mouth shut.

 

It was light-hearted, fun, playful conversation, and in spite of Dean and Chevy being there, it felt normal. Sam felt like the spectre of doom that had been hanging over his head while on the balcony had receded, and he was a happy, carefree, normal guy again.

 

Until Chevy gave off the alarm that would change his life forever. Sam never did remember what happened after that, but that was the last moment of his life as he’d known it—as a hunter or a normal guy.

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

Finally, after so long, so much waiting, he was here, revealing himself to the Chosen One, planting the seeds of what would grow into a beautiful relationship.

 

Yes, he could feel the Chosen One’s anger, his wrath and hatred for Azazel as the apartment began to burn. Beautiful, beautiful wrath, and the Chosen One was so full of it, it came naturally to him, lurking inside every injury and insult and trial and tribulation of his life. 

 

Ahh, the plan was working so well. Azazel hadn’t counted on the Chosen One meeting someone whose area of study could be so… dangerous to this, but no bother.  Lord Azazel could kill two birds with one stone, or two threats with one fire, he thought allowing himself a gleeful chuckle. 

 

Now, if only he could figure out what to do about that pesky, ordinary brother. Azazel felt the fire build within him, looking at where Dean Winchester was cowering near the window. Yes, yes this was going to be so much fun!

 

~~~

 

“Jess! Jess,” Sam screamed in anguish as Dean pulled him from the blaze. “Jess, Nooooooo!” He could still see her hair billowing in the vortex that swept the inferno higher and brighter. It was as if the flames emanated from her, yet her body was as yet untouched. He could see her frozen in place, pinned to the ceiling, blood dripping, face caught in a wide-eyed plea for salvation, rescue, but he couldn’t reach her. He hadn’t been able to move, he couldn’t get to her no matter what he tried. The man with the yellow eyes had frozen him. He was using the Force, Sam’s brain supplied, but he couldn’t really comprehend what that meant.  

 

Sam could feel the heat distantly. He knew that he should be burned, they should all be burned standing this close, the fire was so hot the air shimmered, and Sam could see the walls melting around them. That was impossible. The apartment was made of durasteel. There were (true) stories of smugglers hiding ships built from durasteel in the outer layers of gas giants or flying them so close to a star that the gravimetric nearly tore them apart, but even then the ships never meltedHow was this possible? We should be burned alive. We should all be burned alive, like Jess. Then maybe this would be OK

 

Sam’s thoughts grew morbid again and he felt himself resisting the hands that pulled relentlessly at him, dragging him who knows where. All he knew that his future, his lover, the woman he was going to ask to be his wife, was on fire, dead, lost, crumbling to dust and ash in front of his eyes, and he wanted nothing but to join her. He had been wrong. So wrong to think that he could escape his past. He had known deep down that it would catch up with him. 

 

The dreams and the fears had been growing stronger, he had known, but he had dismissed them. Ignored them. Acted like his past was a bad dream. And for his arrogance, his future had paid the price.  Jess had paid the price. She was innocent; she loved him; she trusted him; and he had killed her. Sam was certain that he was responsible for her death just as sure as if he had set the fire himself. What will I tell her parents? How could they ever forgive me? Why would anyone forgive me? Why would I want to forgive myself?

 

The fire in front of him gave a sickening popping, sputtering sound, and the building groaned. He was vaguely aware that someone was talking, it sounded like Dean and Ven. But what they were saying didn’t register. Sam couldn’t care. He heard something whirring and the smell of ozone, closer and then something clattering to the ground. But Sam’s attention was riveted by the scene in front of him. One more sputtering pop, and then suddenly Jess was turning to flame, flame so bright it seared his retinas, and he was sure he would have the after image of his lover on fire whenever he closed his eyes for days to come… if he survived that long. Then she was turning to ash. Crumbling until there was nothing left, big chunks of her sloughing off, leaving black, charred, jagged holes where her features should have been. 

 

Over the sound of the flames could hear something making a horrible wailing, keening sound that reminded him vaguely of the death throes of a mortally wounded kath hound on Dantooine. His throat felt raw, almost bloody, and only then did he realize the cries were his own.

 

Through the flames he saw yellow eyes meet his then turn away, turn towards someone over his right shoulder. He realized now that the hands had left him; there were figures behind him moving, desperately shifting things, trying to figure out how to get them all out of the conflagration through what had once been one of the floor-to-ceiling transparisteel windows overlooking the apartment complex’s communal garden a level below. He understood it all without really hearing; he didn’t know how. 

 

And just the same, he knew with terrible, absolute certainty what the man with the yellow eyes was going to do. Sam sensed the figure’s intent a second before he acted, and that was all it took. The man was going to burn Dean. Not Dean. No. Never. Sam had lost Jess, and he regardless of whether he cared for his own life, he wouldn’t let the one remaining person who he truly loved die. Not because of him, and not for any reason. 

 

“No,” Sam said aloud, his voice blank, neutral, but certain. He felt his right arm lift up, straight in front of him with his hand raised upwards, palms facing out. His body was moving of its own accord, instinctively knowing what to do. 

 

Three milliseconds before the flames burst forth Sam understood that they wouldn’t hurt him. Two milliseconds before, he realized he didn’t care; he was going to protect them all. One millisecond before, he felt something unlock in his brain and then deep within his soul, lock after lock opening, walls falling, and then suddenly something was rushing through him, gathered in from all around, from the building, from the air, from the garden below, it came to him and left him, through the palm of his hand thrusting inexorably outward to form a giant, invisible, impenetrable wall. The next millisecond, the fire surged out, rushing forward in a wall, with two tendrils whipping out like an advance guard to strike at Sam’s brother and friend behind them, while at the same moment, Sam felt Dean and Ven turn from the now-open window to see the fire and gasp out in shock and throw themselves to the floor in a desperate bid for protection. Then the fire hit the invisible wall and arced outwards, up and around, burning and melting everything in its path, but unable to push through. 

 

“You can’t have him. You can’t have either of them. I won’t let you,” Sam said, his voice cracking from his abused vocal chords in a dark, threatening growl. He sensed surprise and then pleasure from the yellow-eyed man who stood still, untouched in the fire. Then he realized that the figure was not a man. It was something old, dark, evil, Sith an unnamed voice in the back of Sam’s mind supplied, sending involuntary shivers down his spine. 

 

The invisible wall shook when Sam shook, and he strengthened his resolve to not let it through. Realization rushed through Sam and he was filled with disgust, bile rising in his throat and nearly making him choke. Snippets of his childhood lessons came to him in his father’s voice. Sith were almost pure evil, an order of dark Jedi and their acolytes who followed the teachings of some old extinct race that had once ruled the galaxy with an iron fist. Millennia ago the new Sith had risen up and nearly destroyed first the Republic and then the Jedi order itself. A Sith had just destroyed his life and killed his girlfriend and was now trying to kill his brother. 

 

Rage rose in Sam, boiling like acid and burning like fire through his veins. Without realizing it the wall changed, instead of protecting them, it curled inwards, surrounding the vortex and starving the flame of oxygen while pushing in, squeezing and crushing the flames back in on the yellow-eyed figure. 

 

Sam felt the figure’s fear, or maybe it wasn’t the yellow-eyed thing’s fear, but the fear of whomever had once owned it’s body and who was still trapped inside. Sam stuttered in his resolve, not wanting to harm an innocent even if the man’s body was currently playing host to pure evil. But then the Sith laughed, and pushed out again, using the oxygen that had returned to the flames when Sam relaxed his grip, and thrust them forwards with even more force than before. Sam sensed the painful death the Sith wanted to inflict on Dean, realizing it had been the same unfathomable pain Jess had experienced just moments before. 

 

At the same time, Sam thought he heard a desperate plea from whomever had once controlled the Sith’s body, begging Sam to make it stop. The rage and anger returned anew, burning hotter and stronger than before. Feeling no conflict this time, Sam pushed out with the wall again, bringing it around the Sith and forcing the flames in on it. The figure began to burn, flames glowing nearly as bright as Jess’s had before she had turned to ash. 

 

Then the fire was sputtering out, wind rushing in to fill the vacuum Sam had created, and Sam was lost, collapsing from the exertion of what he had just done, every muscle screaming in agony at the raw power he had channeled through it, his brain starving for oxygen, but all the while feeling glee at watching the thing that had destroyed his lover—his life—crumble to ash. But just before he blacked out, Sam felt something twisted and evil—the Sith—gloating in triumphant glee, and Sam swore that out of the corner of his eye he saw a dark, smoky shadow separating itself from the charred ash-pile and flowing out a distant melted window on the breeze. Then the blackness consumed Sam, and he knew no more.

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