By the time the Folly emerged from hyperspace at Chandrila, John knew he was too late. The Folly’s computer picked up the tell-tale hyperspace distortion immediately upon arrival, and the comm unit was buzzing with emergency transmissions from Hanna City warning people to stay away or stay calm.
“Blast!” John cursed in frustration.
Azazel had already come and gone taking with him exactly twenty-two more hostages.
The Folly’s computer calculated Azazel’s destination. Well, that was funny. Alderaan? That was where Dean’s message said one of the Runes was.
Looked like he was headed to Alderaan one way or the other. What he did there, he’d decide when he arrived.
After finding the Rune on Ryloth, later that night, Sam was sitting by a ringed fire deep in the local cavern system. The ramparts had long been closed to keep out predators, and the lights dimmed aside from ambient fires like theirs, to allow people to sleep. It was probably time to turn in and enjoy the comfortable room Ven’s relatives had prepared for them, after all, Ven’s family had gone to bed long before, but Sam was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Dean walked over, approaching silently from where he’d excused himself to go use his comlink in semi-privacy.
“Any more fires?” Sam asked warily, looking up at Dean as he lowered himself to the ground next to Sam.
“Nope, no more fires since Onderon,” Dean answered. “however, I did hear from Bobby, and he’s been making good progress. He’s got some of those ysali— lizard things to help us create a force-free bubble of protection from Lord Azazel should we encounter him. And,” Dean added, flourishing his hands, “he’s found a guide to take him to the ‘Forceless tree,’ and may have the Rune as soon as tomorrow, probably within two days.”
Sam raised an eyebrow.
“Apparently, you have to go into the jungle on foot, ‘cause some of the predators respond to the resonance and noises made by engines and crash ships. Speeders too," Dean added with a hint of amusement.
“Daaamn,” Sam whistled, scootching up into a sitting position. “That all?”
“That’s all for now,” Dean answered, leaning back on his elbows and turning so his body was parallel to the fire.
“So, I was wondering, d’you think the children’s story…” Sam started.
“Was started by a Marker, or part of their scheme to pass on knowledge?” Dean suggested.
“Makes sense.” Dean shrugged. “It’s a pretty sneaky way to make sure the information is out there and lots of people know it, should the Chosen One or his friends need it,” Dean affirmed.
“But isn’t that kind of risky?” Sam asked. “I mean stories can change over time; some important detail could have been left out.”
Dean chuckled. “You’ve obviously never tried telling a story to a little kid, have you?” he asked rhetorically. “Try it some time. Tell a kid a story once, and then tell it to them again and change a detail—ninety-nine percent of the time they’ll turn on the pouty face and whine ‘you’re not telling it right!’ and go stomp around until you fix it,” Dean said, a big smile stretching across his features.
Sam knew Dean was referring to Sam as a kid, and he couldn’t resist the grin that lightened up his features. He gave Dean a playful shove on the shoulder.
“Hey, hey, ow…” Dean protested, “Watch it, that’s still healing.” They were silent for a moment before Dean continued. “Besides, I’m sure if some detail did get changed, the Force could fix it; and there were clearly other ways to find the info, like the map on Dxun, the coordinates, maybe even one of the other Markers.” Dean hesitated, turning onto his left side and leaning on his arm, being very careful of his shoulder. “You really think the Force did all that?”
Sam thought for a moment. “It felt that way. I think the Jedi in the Protectorate might have used the Force or enlisted the aid of the Force to create it,” Sam concluded.
Dean seemed skeptical.
“Well, after all, if Miss’Ouri’s right, stopping Lord Azazel would be a way for the force to protect itself; maintain balance,” Sam explained.
“It just seems so… extravagant, but I guess if you have five thousand years to prepare…” Dean agreed.
Finally, Sam plucked up the courage to ask the question that had been bothering him since their arrival on Ryloth. “So, what do you think Darth Azazel’s up to? Why did he kidnap those people on Naboo, and what is he doing? Why does he want me? And if we do find our four runes, where are we going to find him?” Sam asked, questions tumbling from his lips without pause as he looked into the flames and flinched at the memory of all the fires the dark Lord of the Sith had caused.
Dean carefully sat up and crossed his legs. “I’ve got a theory about that,” he began.
Sam looked up at him expectantly.
Dean took a shaky breath, “Just remember it’s a theory at this point—I don’t have enough evidence yet,” he cautioned.
Yet, Sam thought. Hmpf. If Dean was risking sharing it with someone, even Sam, that meant he had to be pretty damn sure, theory or not.
“OK, well, we know Darth Azazel is supposed to be trying to free his followers somehow, and we know they’re stuck in a thought bomb, right?” he said, voice low and quiet.
“Right,” Sam nodded.
“Well, I did some research—I’ve been doing a lot of research actually.”
Yeah, Sam had noticed that. His once research-phobic brother had been surreptitiously (and sometimes obviously) pouring over texts and holos and anything he could find on the holonet ever since he’d started researching Sam’s vision about Manaan.
“And,” Dean continued, “with a normal thought bomb, freeing the souls trapped inside isn’t actually all that difficult, comparatively speaking. You need a decently powerful Force user and you need to know where the thing is—which is usually the hard part. After that, it’s pretty simple. You can use the Force to hold open the sphere of dark energy, maybe use a lightsaber to help open it, and then the souls can just float out,” Dean explained, making a floating gesture with his hands as he leaned closer to the fire to be closer to Sam.
“That easy, huh?” Sam shuddered, “That doesn’t sound so secure…. Wait, you said Normal?”
“Yeah, see, that’s what was so wrong about what the Jedi did, or part of it, anyway,” Dean hissed. “Not that creating a thought bomb is so not bad in the first place, but you see they hid the thought bomb in the Dark Side, sealed away for all eternity so no one could possibly free the souls of its victims. That—” Dean held up a finger to illustrate his point, “is what created the unbalance in the Force that let Darth Azazel set up the rest of his plan.”
Sam shuddered, a chill creeping through him that no fire in the galaxy could warm.
“The Force wants to push the thought bomb back into our dimension, but it needs something to open the door. I think what Azazel did to allow himself to come back from being one with the Dark Side, was that he tied himself to something here—imbued a hidden relic with a part of himself before he died. That and his self-sacrifice acted like a tether.”
“Could he do that?” Sam asked incredulous.
“There have been accounts of Jedi separating their souls from their bodies while still alive, either transferring to other vehicles if you will or vacating their bodies and crossing over, without their body first dying. I think it’s possible that a trained Force user could do that with some of themselves, like separate a tiny hint of their Force energy and put it in something else.” Dean explained.
Sam was impressed, his brother was sounding more like Miss’Ouri every day. Whatever doubts or discomfort Dean had about Sam being Force-sensitive seemed to be gone, or were deeply buried. Either way, Dean seemed to have embraced the idea that Sam could feel the Force and that it was going to be a part of their lives, like it or not. Sam thought it might have something to do with what Dean found on their Mom’s holocron.
While Sam’s thoughts started to wander, Dean continued. “The part of himself that was attached to the relic was essentially sleeping…” Dean broke off suddenly, looking down at his crossed feet.
“Is that even possible?” Sam asked. He knew, having met both his mother’s Force-ghost and numerous ‘ordinary’ lost souls he’d met over the years while hunting, that sometimes a person’s essence lingered after death, but separating a part of yourself from your body while still alive, he’d never heard anything like that.
Dean gave him a crooked smile. “Well, I’ll admit separating a part of himself, and only a part, would be a bit of a new trick, but given what else we’ve seen about Azazel, I’d say that shouldn’t be too surprising.” He lowered his eyes and cleared his throat. “But yeah, there’s lots of accounts of well-trained Force users actually separating themselves from their bodies before death. Apparently it’s not that easy, but it can be done, and then the Force user’s non-corporeal form can inhabit other things—droids, computers, other people…” Dean let his voice trail off.
Sam nodded. That was exactly what Azazel had been doing, after all, hopping from body to body, essentially living in other people and using their bodies as if they were his own. Sam wanted to hear more , was eager to hear what Dean thought had happened, but he waited patiently for Dean to continue, not wanting to interrupt Dean’s flow. If he had stopped, it was for a good reason.
“I think that’s what Mom found, what triggered his awakening,” Dean said at last. “In her holocron…”
Sam was now on tenterhooks, as Dean still hadn’t shared much of what he’d found, and Sam had been too preoccupied with first his Force training and fears about his role in the Prophecy and then with the Rune quest to ask.
“It… Mom was a Jedi Shadow,” Dean continued with a gulp. “She had a partner in the Antarian Rangers. Her partner… died, because of some relic they found. I think it was the relic Azazel had tied himself to, and that’s how he got called back, woken up. She saw something like… dark energy, smoke coalescing… a ‘wraith’ she called it.”
Just like the prophecy Jess found, Sam thought. It was OK, they had suspected for a while now (and it sounded like Dean had known) that their mother had triggered the Dark Lord’s return. Sam was surprised. He didn’t feel betrayed in the slightest.
“It sucks, Mom was one Jedi taking her job seriously, trying to get rid of dangerous dark relics and disturbances, and she fell into a trap. Betrayed by the Jedi who hid the information about the prophecy that could have told her it was a trap, and then screwed over after it happened and she got suspicious,” Dean added bitterly. “She went to Dantooine because she was trying to avoid leading the wraith to the Chosen One, she thought if she got away from Jedi… But that’s not my point. See, her story, it gave me an idea. From Mom’s recount, it seemed like the wraith didn’t fully manifest until her partner was dead. The partner tried to jump in to save Mom, and then the relic sucked the life out of her.” Dean let the words sink in.
Sam thought, the Sith had died and returned by a mirror of the same act… sacrifice… he’d allowed himself to be killed, then was called back when Mom’s partner sacrificed herself. “So, you think the kidnap victims are going to, what, fuel a thought bomb?” Sam asked, shocked.
Dean gave a pained expression, sitting up straighter, as if he wished it were only as bad as that. “Well, unless those twenty-two people he kidnapped were all Force-sensitive, there’s no way they could fuel a thought bomb. Thought bombs only kill those who touch the force—it was a weapon of Sith against Jedi, after all.
Sam felt his stomach flip nervously, the blood turning to ice in his veins. He shivered in spite of his proximity to the Fire. “What then?” he asked.
“there were sixty-six followers of Lord Azazel killed and trapped in the Thought Bomb. There were three Jedi who actually performed the ritual and made the bomb. One was from Naboo,” Dean let the words hang in the air. “I think he’s taking twenty-two people from each of the Jedi traitors’ home planets to serve as hosts for his followers when he frees them.”
“Do we know what other planets the other two Jedi were from?” Sam asked.
“One was from Alderaan; the other, I don’t know,” Dean shook his head. “But there’s more. I think I know why he wants you.”
Sam stilled and chilled further.
“To power the thought bomb that will bring them back,” Dean supplied, voice quiet and sad.
Sam felt sick. He wanted to run. To hide. To get away, scream ‘no it isn’t true!’—But he couldn’t; he was frozen in place, jaw slack, eyes wide, not remembering how to breathe. Power a thought bomb meant death. His death. Then something occurred to him, a tantalizing detail that seemed like it might fix everything. “But wait, I thought that wasn’t possible. I thought you needed lots of Sith to make one, that’s what Miss’Ouri said!” Sam protested somewhat stupidly.
“Sam, I talked to Miss’Ouri, and she thinks that a talented Sith with a lot of experience could modify the ritual so that the Sith could make a thought bomb that it would only be strong enough to kill one, but that, combined with copying the modifications the Jedi used, would be enough to open a tear, a rift or passage into the Dark Side. The followers’ thought bomb’s natural state is not to be in the Dark Side. It’s even easier than what Azazel did to bring himself back—his natural state was to be part of the Force, but the thought bomb doesn’t belong there. It would be drawn out while the other…” Dean swallowed. “The other would be drawn in,” he finished, voice almost a whisper.
Not just killed, but trapped in the Dark Side for all eternity, actually inside the Force, Sam realized. “What can I do? What do I do? I promise I won’t go with him—maybe I can use the Force to find him? Kill him!” Sam suggested, pleadingly, springing to his feet. Thankfully, Ven’s family had gone to sleep or surely he would have drawn their attention.
“Sam, no. You need to be able to destroy his Soul. Even Miss’Ouri doesn’t know how to do that. Plus—plus, I worry that I might lose you to the Dark Side if you tried,” Dean admitted, sadly.
“You heard Miss’Ouri too! The Force needs to be balanced—” Sam started.
“If you go after this Sith fueled by hate and fear, don’t you think that’s going to give him an edge on you? Aren’t you worried that if it does work, if you can kill him, that you’ll be tempted to just use the Force—the Dark Side—for everything? Throw it out of balance?” Dean shook his head. “No Sam, it’s too dangerous, and there’s no guarantee you going after him wouldn’t just create an opportunity for him to kill you. It’s too risky, and I’m not going to lose you, not you too. I told you before—”
“Ok, Dean,” Sam reassured, realizing that Dean had a point. He reached out to squeeze his brother’s arm in comfort. “We’ll keep going after the Runes then. If we can get the one on Alderaan and Bobby gets the one on Myrkr, then we go after him?”
“Yeah,” Dean said, shakily, still clearly worked up from his outburst. “If he takes more people—we’ll know. The kidnappings on Naboo made the news. When he gets all sixty-six…”
“That’s what he’s going to do at Ahto City,” Sam realized.
“Yeah,” Dean answered solemnly.
“Well then, let’s get some sleep so that we can head to Alderaan in the morning,” Sam reasoned.
The hyperspace journey from Ryloth had been long and anxiety ridden. Upon leaving Ryloth, they’d learned that Azazel had kidnapped twenty-two people on Chandrila. In hyperspace they had no idea if Azazel had struck again, had no way of knowing if they’d be too late when they arrived.
As the Dream descended into Alderaan’s atmosphere, Dean let out a relieved sigh. Alderaan was famous for its “no questions asked” policy of allowing any and all incoming ships to land, but then again, it was really close to the core, really close to Coruscant and Jedi and RI headquarters, which just raised the chances that they would encounter interference from federal authorities who recognized the ship, even if the Dream was landing under the alias Freedom’s Bounty.
“So,” Dean said turning to Sam as Chevy took over the controls, bringing the ship down to a landing pad at a spaceport on the outskirts of Aldera, Alderaan’s capital city, and home of the Royal Museum. “Do you think we should find a room some place or stay on the Dream?” he asked. Dean had a feeling this hunt was going to take at least a few days to pull off. It wasn’t like they could just stroll on into the Royal Museum and ask for them to hand over Guardian of Souls, or at least the stone at its center. Well, they could, but they certainly wouldn’t be successful, and would likely wind up riding out the apocalypse from the inside of a holding cell or in a spice mine on Kessel.
“I don’t know,” Sam said, swiveling in the co-pilot’s chair and dropping his elbows to his knees, hands clasped loosely in between. “This is a little far out, but maybe it will work?” Sam suggested. “Maybe we should wait until we figure out a plan on how to retrieve the Rune and go from there. Besides, this is Alderaan,” Sam said significantly. “Would we even be able to afford a place any closer to the museum than this?”
“Of course we could, Sammy,” Dean said with a smile. “After you left for school, Dad got took some of your advice.”
Sam looked at Dean blankly, confusion playing across his features.
“We set up some long-term aliases, gave them credit accounts, histories, ident docs, the works. It took a few credits, a bunch of favors, and a lot of time, but it’s much more stable. Any money we make from playing card tournaments, smuggling, doing repairs, or programming, it all goes into one of the ID accounts or into our general account that we use for short term IDs. That means a lot less outright fraud and stealing, and a lot easier time renting a room or getting a legal job when we need it,” Dean explained.
“What?” Sam asked. “You mean my…”
“Tirade about the unnecessary risks of frequent identity theft and credit skimming made an impression on Dad,” Dean admitted with a nod. “I told you Sammy, he does care about you, and he can listen. Just doesn’t always know how to show it.”
“Ok then,” Sam said, surprise still playing across his face as he struggled to process the new information. “We wait to decide if we get a room, but what’s our first step.”
“Well,” Dean said, running his fingers over the console’s controls to fire up the holoprojector. “Guardian of Souls is on display in the Pre-Civil War Art wing on the third floor,” Dean said, as he keyed at 3D wire-frame map of the museum to display on the holo.
“When’d you get that?” Sam asked. That kind of map wasn’t normally available on a museum’s holonet page.
“Called in a few favors the last time I was here,” Dean said absently (not that he was going to tell Sam what kind of favors those had been anytime soon).
Sam snorted, “I can imagine,” he said, sounding vaguely disgusted.
Ok, so maybe the embarrassment showed a little bit and Sam had figured it out. Sometimes the job required a little charm to pull off, and if that charm led to bedding one of the tour planners, he wasn’t going to say no, especially if it got him some favors after the fact. Anyway, that kind of situation couldn’t be farther from the present, so Dean pushed ahead, shrugging off the embarrassment as quickly as possible. “The painting I was dealing with was located right—here,” Dean said, pointing to the inner wall at the start of a long hallway just before the hallway opened up into a large rectangular gallery with vaulted ceilings. “So Guardian of Souls is on the wall across from it, right here,” he pointed to the appropriate location a spot on the wall the outside of the display room shared with the hallway. “It kind of straddles the space between the hallway and the gallery… something about the light being best for viewing it there,” Dean explained.
“You sure they haven’t moved it?” Sam asked, concernedly.
“Yep,” Dean replied, as he keyed up the museum’s holonet page, displaying a listing of famous works housed in that floor and wing, a picture of Guardian of Souls, the Rune now patently obvious at its center, hanging in the location Dean had described was featured on the page. “Checked it on our way in. No major construction projects in the last three years any where near that wing, so the map should be good too,” Dean added.
“Well, how’d you pull it off last time?” Sam asked expectantly.
Dean gave his brother a scathing look. “Sam, I was cleansing a haunted painting, not defacing and stealing one of the most famous works of art in the galaxy. All I had to do was stand there and admire the painting for long enough to get all the incantations done, draw a few strategically placed sigils in invisible ink when the droids weren’t there and the holocams were blocked, it wasn’t really that hard. Especially since people were kind of distracted by the piece behind me.”
“Ok, ok,” Sam said, holding up his hands in surrender. “I get your point, so what then?”
Dean switched off the holo and the holonet connection. “We case it. Tonight right before closing. Just show up as tourists, spend some time appreciating the art, and stay a little after we’re supposed to, see what they’re security’s like, response time, procedures, you know the drill.”
“We either pretend we didn’t realize they’d called closing or we say we’re lost,” Sam supplied.
“Yep,” Dean agreed.
“What’s the local time?” Sam asked as Chevy chirped to let them know the ship engines were set down and their berth was secure and paid for the next week.
“Sixteen twenty,” Dean said checking the chrono. “Museum closes at eighteen hundred. Best go put on our best tourist clothes and head over there.”
An hour and thirty-five minutes later, Sam and Dean were standing on the third floor of the Pre-Civil War Art wing wearing near identical clothes—trim-fitting pants tucked into knee-high boots with button-up shirts and military-cut jackets. Sam’s hair was carefully parted, smoothed, and tucked behind his ears the way he’d worn it for work, back before the fire… before everything went to hell.
It wasn’t exactly tourist wear, but then again neither Sam nor Dean owned any obnoxiously colored floral-print shirts or baggy shorts. Plus, they were probably more convincing and non-threatening if they looked like non-descript, clean-cut young men. Dean called it “standard undercover gear,” and Sam was pretty sure that was an accurate description, considering he’d seen some people on Coruscant he knew were Republic agents wearing pretty much the same thing while undercover.
They were unarmed or mostly unarmed anyway. The museum had active scanners at all entrances that would detect blasters as well as most scanners, cameras, and metallic knives. Sam was surprised at how naked he felt. After years of walking around nearly unarmed on Coruscant, Sam had fallen back into the swing of strapping blasters to his person quite easily. The lack of hosters under his jacket and on his thigh were making him itchy.
At least he knew they weren’t completely defenseless. Dean had a small ceramic knife in his left boot. It was undetectable by most weapons scanners and therefore was very, very illegal (not to mention lethal). Dean also had a passive scanner designed as a personal listening device. Since those were allowed into the museum, they’d been able to smuggle it in. They also both had modified comlinks. Sam’s carried a detachable coated duraplast cylinder of pressurized sleeping gas, while Dean's had a similar cylinder filled with camo gas. Sam also had a slicing pad should they need to do any hasty lock-picking.
It would have been nice to have Chevy there, but the museum had a no droids (other than their own) policy. At least she was available on a secure channel and could fly in and rescue their asses if necessary.
“I’ve counted six holocams with line of sight on the Rune,” Sam said under his breath to Dean. They were standing shoulder-to-shoulder front to back, Sam appearing to be studying the formerly haunted painting of a young Jedi Knight (clearly Corellian if the green robes were anything to go by),while Dean was facing the mosaic of the Maranai mountains at sunset that hung to the left of Guardian of Souls.
“Seven,” Dean corrected, quietly. “There’s one in Guardian’s nameplate that I found the hard way last time I was here,” Dean said. “I double-checked and they haven’t moved it.”
“You get picked up?” Sam asked. ‘Cause if Dean had already had a run-in with security here and he got recognized that would be a big problem.
“No, I just had to explain why I was so enamored with a portrait of a Jedi that’s been dead for over four thousand years,” Dean said uncomfortably. “Turned out the security guard’s daughter was studying Jedi history at the university. I had to talk my way through a thirty-five minute conversation with no prep… Apparently hunters make really convincing history grad students,” Dean added.
Sam couldn’t restrain a snort. “Yeah, I stopped taking history at the University after I got into an argument with one of the profs about the accuracy of his description of the events leading up to the Ruusan Reformation,” Sam chuckled. “That was how I met Jess,” he added, feeling the cold tug of loss pulling at his heart, but willing it away, pushing it down. He couldn’t afford to break down or wallow in the past. Not here and not now.
“Droid rotation every five minutes,” Dean added. “I ran a passive scan on those MSEs,” he said referring to the small service droids that scurried among people’s feet periodically, carefully dodging patrons and displays. “They’re modified, equipped with stunners. Same with the protocol droids.”
“Just stun?” Sam asked quietly, surprised and relieved that they didn’t have anything more lethal. Not that getting hit with a stun blast wasn’t likely to land your ass in custody, but at least it wouldn’t kill you.
“We’re on Alderaan, Sam,” Dean almost whined. “What were you expecting, an enclision grid? They’ll defend themselves if pushed, but they’re not gonna be aggressors, and they’re sure as hell aren’t going to go around shooting museum patrons, even if they do have sticky fingers,” he muttered.
“Point taken,” Said, allowing the flow of people to shift him to the side a few feet so that he was now sort of straddling the corner between the gallery and the hall. “What’s the theme of this gallery anyway?” he asked, commenting at last at the seemingly eclectic collection of art. There were sculptures, painting, wood carvings, mosaics, mixed media, even glass and light art, and aside from it’s age, he hadn’t been able to discern any commonalities.
“Jedi art,” Dean said, sounding a little surprised that Sam didn’t know.
“Oh,” Sam said, taking a closer look at the glass sculpture that sprawled along the gallery wall in front of him resembling a forest of seaweed. Looking down at the caption, he recognized the name of a fairly well-known Jedi Master who had fought in the Jedi Civil War. “Huh,” I didn’t know so many Jedi were artists,” he admitted, thinking of the amazingly detailed map Sian Nunb had drawn for them. He had crap for artistic skills; guess it wasn’t something that went along with Force sensitivity.
“You feeling inadequate, Sammy?” Dean quipped quietly.
Just then a quiet, soothing chime sounded, followed by a pleasant alto female voice reciting in Basic, “The time is now sixteen hundred hours, and the Royal Museum is now closed. Please make your way to the nearest exit. Thank you for your patronage.” The chime sounded again, and the message repeated in a handful of other common languages.
Sam and Dean allowed themselves to be buffeted a little ways along the hall leading away from the gallery by the press of other patrons exiting, but they stayed close to the walls, not so close they would press against paintings and set off any alarms, but enough so that they somewhat inconspicuously stayed out of the way. Sam pretending to take frantic notes about the art on a piece of flimsi, and Dean appearing to consult a holo map he had loaded onto an ordinary datapad.
“You timing?” Dean asked, brushing shoulders with Sam.
“Yeah,” Sam said, chancing a quick glance at his wrist chrono. “You?”
“Yep, let’s make sure our times match,” Dean responded.
Sam shifted from foot to foot, trying to keep Guardian of Souls in sight. They really needed to know what motion or pressure sensors there were on the art. Were there bio-tagging systems that would track anyone who touched the artwork or who lifted it off the wall? Did the pieces have individual tracking devices that would announce their location to some centralized security system? Sure, they could find out, but it would take time. Days, maybe weeks of surveillance, research, strategic slicing… and Sam wasn’t so sure they had that time to spare. What if? He thought.
Sam stepped about ten centimeters from the wall and bent his knees a little, bringing his height level with Dean’s. Dean’s body now blocked Sam from a few of the cameras and his distance from the wall made brought him out of the Guardian’s camera’s line of site. He was probably still showing up on at least two cams, but hopefully what he was doing wouldn’t look too alarming.
Surreptitiously he checking to either side to make sure no one was watching him. Nearly all the patrons were gone at this point, just the occasional straggler walking through, looking lost or walking slowly, trying to admire more art on their way out. Sam closed his eyes, let out a long slow breath and listened. He could hear the quiet thrum of the air recirculators, the rhythmic exhale of his own breathing, the steady thump of Dean’s heart, then more, the buzz of the electric lights overhead, the pulse of the wiring in the walls, the silent whirr of the holocams. Then, reaching out like Miss’Ouri had trained him, he extended his senses to take in the room around him.
There, he could sense a pressure sensor in the painting across from the Rune and knew it would send off a silent alarm if the contacts were pressed together for longer than point oh-three seconds or if the painting was jostled with more than five dines of force. There was a tracking device too, embedded in the painting’s frame, he could feel the signal it gave off, reporting the painting’s location. He couldn’t sense anything that would tag someone if they touched the painting. He also was surprised to note, that the hallway had no active laser scanners although the gallery had a pair of variable grids with emitters at point five and one-point-five meters off the ground. The emitters were not turned on yet, nor were they charging up. Interesting.
Turning his attention to Guardian of Souls, Sam was disappointed to feel the same sensors and tracking device the other painting had had. But then he felt something else, a funny tickling tug in the force that grabbed his attention. It seemed to center at the Rune itself, and Sam soon realized that while it appeared to blend perfectly, the Rune was indeed separate from the rest of the piece. Of course, Sam said. It made perfect sense. The other Runes had been surrounded by various Force-based sensing devices, and while they appeared to be held securely in their environments, easily released when his hands had touched them.
He could sense the same with this Rune. It would scan him with the Force when he touched the rune, and if he passed, it would simply fall free into his hand. So, assuming they could get in here when people weren’t looking, avoid the laser grid in the gallery (or… all the galleries, Sam realized as he stretched his senses out further), divert the cameras, avoid the droids, and not trip the sensors attached to the parts of Guardian of Souls that weren’t the Rune… they’d be home free. That might actually be doable.
Sam was reeling his senses back in and was about to tell Dean what he’d figured out, when he sensed a presence approaching. Sithspit! Sam thought. He could tell it was a guard.
“Dean, we got incoming,” he murmured opening his eyes, and casually shifting his body so that he was now looking intently at the same map as Dean. He could hear the guard’s footsteps approaching from the gallery.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, are you aware the museum is closed?” A male voice boomed, almost making Sam jump.
They both started to turn towards the voice, Sam turning a little faster, his best ‘innocent’ smile on, his eyes big and wide, “Sorry, sir, my brother and I seem to be a little lost—” Sam’s voice broke off when he got a look at the guard.
Dean raised his head too, surprised by Sam stopping, but smoothly picking up the slack. “We came in by the Modern Republic wing,” Dean said, referring to the wing farthest from their current location, “and we were trying to figure out how to get back—” Dean broke off as well when his eyes met the guard standing before him.
There, dressed in the simple, insignia-laden gray jacket and matching pants of the Royal Museum’s security force, hair trimmed and clean shaven stood…
“Dad?” Sam asked not believing his eyes, shocked at how small and child-like his voice sounded.
“Dad,” Dean whispered, sounding more sure of himself.
Sam started to take a step towards his father. Bad blood between them or no, he was going to greet his father properly, but then he remembered the cameras at the same time John mouthed the word and Dean tugged on his sleeve.
“What are you doing here?” Sam asked instead.
“Well, I got your brother’s message,” John said quietly. “And I finally thought it would be a good time for me to try to help. I … uh, was tracking…”
“Darth Azazel?” Dean supplied quietly. He was standing stock still at Sam’s side, and Sam could feel the conflict, the tug of war between relief and desperate frustration rolling off of Dean.
“Yeah,” John said. “It wasn’t going well, so I decided to try go help out here. Figured getting this one wouldn’t be easy.”
“So you’re posing as a security guard?” Sam asked, incredulous.
“No, actually I am a security guard. Started last week. Get off at nineteen thirty tonight. Great thing about being the new guy, they put you on all different shifts. Good opportunity to check out the security at all different times of day. Damn handy to have keys and passwords and controls for everything, too,” John added quietly.
There was a moment of silence, as the three Winchesters took in each other’s presence. It had now been four and a half standard years since they had all been in the same place, and back then, Sam recalled, everyone but Dean had been screaming. The juxtaposition was striking.
“Sam,” John sighed, features contrite. “I’m sorry about our fight, I… I only wanted to protect you, and I thought giving you an ultimatum would make you stay. It… this was exactly what I was afraid of. Something coming after my boys…” he said voice haunted.
Sam felt torn, part of him still feeling the burning frustration and hostility towards his father, anger for kicking him out, for forcing him to choose, for not understanding who Sam was or why he needed to go to school to be normal… something he now realized he never had been nor could be. But there was also the relief. The security, sense of home, sense of family, that John’s presence triggered in Sam. And after so long of drifting, searching, listing to finally be together… Sam felt safe for the first time in so long.
“Dad, I’m sorry we fought, but I needed to go…” Sam started.
“Uh, guys, this reunion is great and all, but shouldn’t we be having this conversation somewhere else, like when dad’s off-duty and we’re not standing… here… in… oh shit…” Dean’s voice trailed off.
Sam sensed the reason for Dean’s reaction a moment before the man spoke.
“Mister Cade,” a deep male voice called from the direction of the gallery, “is there a problem?”
Sam watched with awe as his father’s presence transformed from that of a world-weary, relieved father to that of the consummate professional security guard. John turned from Sam and Dean to face the man who had spoken. Sam saw the man was tall and white-haired and was wearing a similar uniform to John’s but with an additional patch of insignia. Probably some sort of superior great, Sam thought with apprehension.
“No problem Mister Retrac,” John said with a broad smile. “These two boys are just lost and I was trying to help them figure their way out. They came in over by Modern Republic and got turned around. Wanted to know if they could get back over there easily from the outside if they went out one of the exits over here,” John lied smoothly, his demeanor amused, relaxed pleasant. “I would have been escorting them back out to Modern Republic, but this one,” he hooked his thumb over his shoulder at Sam, “was freaking out that they were going to be in some kind of trouble for not exiting fast enough,” John added with a chuckle.
The white-haired man, Mr. Retrac, presumably, gave an amused smile, and said, “Ah, kids. Well, ok then, John, you go ahead and escort them back to Modern Republic and I’ll finish the walk-through of Pre-Civ.” He gave John a pleasant nod, and smiled at Sam and Dean. “If you don’t mind doing the checkout over at Modern Republic, why don’t you just leave from over there, it’s ok if you clock out a few minutes early. Winters is already here to relieve you.”
“Thanks, sir, I appreciate it,” John said with a sincere smile to Mr. Retrac’s retreating back. Turning back to Sam and Dean, still in character, he added, “this way, gentlemen,” holding out his hand in the direction of the gallery and motioning for them to follow him.
They walked through hall after hall gallery after gallery, up one floor, and down two, over a glass-encased sky bridge that spanned a sprawling garden complex, and then down another two floors to the exit. Neither Sam nor Dean dared speak until they were entering the wing that announced itself as “Art of the Modern Republic.”
“So, Dad,” Sam started quietly, still wary of any listening devices that might be recording their conversation. “Can we meet up with you somewhere after this?”
“Sure, Sam. If you boys don’t mind waiting outside for me, I just have to do a few things in here, and I should be ready to go in a quarter hour. I can take you back to my place.”
“Your place?” Dean asked.
“Rented a one-bedroom with a big living room halfway between here and the spaceport,” John explained.
“Can you give me the address?” Dean asked. “I wanna have Chevy meet us there. She’s on the Dream,” he added.
“Five twenty-seven Aldera Way southwest, number T4,” John muttered under his breath as he opened the now-locked door to the outside. “Just wait on the park benches a block southwest. I’ll meet you,” he added. Then, in character with a smile, “Good day to you, boys, thanks for your patronage.”
Master Post | Part 15 | Part 17