No human voices, no birdsong, not even the chittering and chirping of crickets and cicadas broke the silence. The harvest moon loomed low in the sky above, casting its eerie yellow glow over the sleeping world. The blackened face of a forgotten pond was as motionless above as it was below; the fish beneath the surface were as still and quiet as the wide-eyed bullfrogs that stood on the banks. The trees that normally danced and waved their leaves in the passing breeze seemed frozen in the moment, the birds that lived in them huddled in their nests, their unmoving branches extended toward the sky in a perfect imitation of prayer.
For just that moment, that second, that heartbeat, the world held its breath as if in anticipation. There was an expectation, a foreboding sense of dread, an overwhelming sense of the wrongness of nature's split-second of perfection. It was the witching hour on Halloween night, and it felt as though even the bravest of souls knew to stay inside.
The night-black Impala thundered into existence and tore its way down the road, shattering the stillness, scattering screeching birds and chattering insects to the seven winds, sending frogs diving into the water and squirrels scrambling up trees. A fierce gust of wind whipped up from the car's wake battered cattails and prairie grass then continued on, just barely kissing the bottommost leaves of the trees before dying. Dust flew into the air, kicked out of the dirt and rocks that covered the road as the car's tires flew across them.
Inside the car, unaware of the chaos his eruption onto the scene had caused, a father attempted to soothe his child.
"I see them, Daddy," the small child said breathlessly. "They're so pretty."
"Daddy's here, Dean. I've got you."
John Winchester had felt true fear before – almost exactly a year before, when he'd seen his wife's bloodied body burst into flame on the ceiling of baby Sammy's nursery – but he'd worked hard to banish it from his memory. He had to move past it, to focus on what his life had become instead of dwell in the past. He had Dean and Sammy to think of, after all. The boys had been left motherless, and there were times when he thought that Dean had seen her burning that night, though he'd never said so. In all honesty, Dean hadn't said much in the past twelve months.
That was part of the reason the words he was saying were scaring John so badly.
"Tinkerbell," Dean said breathlessly. "Lots of Tinkerbells."
"They're not real, Dean."
He'd lost count of how many times he'd said those words, and of how many times Dean had ignored them. He'd never even tried to keep track how many times he'd brushed the sweat-stickied blond hair out of the glazed green eyes that looked up at him from where his five-year-old son's head was pillowed on his leg. He told himself that he was simply being cautious, that keeping his eyes on the road was necessary, but he knew that wasn't the truth. He knew that road like he knew the sound of his son's breathing, the sound of his own heart pounding in his ears. The road between Sioux Falls and Bobby Singer's house, the road that he drove every morning and again every night, the road that he knew he could drive down blind-drunk without getting lost, because he'd done it more than once.
"So pretty, Daddy," Dean said in a hushed voice.
In truth, John was intentionally avoiding looking at his son. He didn't want to see the flush on the freckled cheeks, reddened by the fever that burned through his small body, causing him to shiver even in the unseasonably warm October night air. He didn't want to see the fake brightness in his eyes, the one that implied delirium had taken control. He didn't want to see the open, innocent and trusting expression, the wide-eyed wonder of a child seeing amazing things for the first time, because those things existed nowhere but in his sickness-addled mind.
"They're not really there, son. Just stay with me, okay? Stay with Daddy."
"Fire fairies," Dean whispered. "Don't you see the smoke?"
"That's not smoke, Dean. That's fog."
"Don't you see the pixies in the trees?"
"Lightning bugs," he said. He took his hand off the wheel just long enough to wipe away the tear that ran down his cheek. "They're just lightning bugs, kiddo."
"Wanna go, Daddy. Wanna go with Mommy."
The little voice sounded so wistful but so certain. John didn't doubt that the boy was seeing his mother in front of him, that she was holding her hand out to him, beckoning him to follow her. Fever-induced hallucinations, that's all they were, but he still didn't like the implications of that.
"You can't have him, Mary," he muttered under his breath. He ran one hand through his short, dark hair, then shook it to restore the circulation that his white-knuckled grip on the wheel had cost him. "Not now. Not yet."
To his son, he said, "You can't go, Dean. You have to stay with Daddy. Sammy needs you."
He was pretty sure that he took the next turn on two wheels, and he knew for a fact that he slid the car sideways. A sharp yank of the wheel brought the Impala back under control.
The street lights out there were scattered widely and only half of them worked, but he wasn't paying any attention to them. They were nothing but streaks of light as he sped past them. Fences, corn fields, wildflowers and soybeans bled into one another, and even if he had been looking at them, he wouldn't have been able to tell where one ended and the next began.
He'd driven that road a thousand times in the past six months, going into town to pick up groceries and supplies. After Mary's death, he'd been lost, searching for answers that no one seemed to have. Then in April, he'd met Bobby Singer at that roadhouse in Nebraska. Bobby had saved his sanity then, and he'd saved his life more than once in the months that followed. He and the boys had been staying with him since May, while Bobby had taught him everything he knew about hunting and killing the monsters that lurked in the darkness.
Monsters like the one that had taken his Mary.
That night had started out like any other, and if not for Bobby's warning about it being Halloween, John wouldn't even have known. It was hard to believe that only a year before Mary had dressed Dean up like a cowboy and John had taken him trick-or-treating while Mary stayed home with the baby handing out candy. It had seemed so innocent, then, just another childhood memory for Dean.
John had thought that the boys deserved some sort of treat for the night, even though going door-to-door was completely out of the question. So he'd taken Dean – Sammy was already asleep in the playpen in the room he and Dean shared – and run into town to buy Tootsie Rolls and Snickers and peanut butter flavored taffy in orange and black wax paper wrappers. They'd been on their way back Bobby's house when Dean turned away from his window.
"Do you see the Elf King, Daddy? Sitting on his horse?"
He'd been waiting for months to hear Dean say more than one or two words at a time. But those words scared him worse than Dean's silence ever had.
"He's talking to me."
He should have been hauling ass to the hospital, not to a ramshackle house in the middle of a salvage yard, but something was telling him that Bobby could help. The hunter he was becoming was battling with the father he was. The father believed his son was sick, that it was something doctors and fancy medicines could fix, but the hunter said that the things Dean was seeing were real and needed to be destroyed. He glanced down at Dean, heard the awe in the little boy's voice as he told him about the fairies and elves dancing on the hood of the car, and felt his heart jump into his throat.
Bobby had better be able to help him.
"They're so pretty, Daddy," Dean said. "Mommy's with them. She wants me to go."
John gripped the steering wheel tighter with one hand and wiped away the tears with the other. Then he rested his free hand on Dean's chest. He had to feel the heartbeat beneath his fingers, had to feel the breath going in and out of his lungs, had to know that his little boy was still with him.
"You're not going anywhere."
He could see Bobby's driveway ahead, at the top of the old gravel road; the light the hung high on the pole at the end of the driveway cast its yellow glow over the dull paint and broken windows of the cars in the yard. They were almost there. Help was less than a quarter of a mile away. They were going to make it.
"You just stay with me, Dean, you hear? I'm gonna make it all better."
"Wait, Daddy, that's … that's not Mommy," Dean whispered. The awe in his voice had been replaced with fear, the trust in his eyes with terror. "It's not Mommy!"
John almost lost control of the car when Dean started thrashing around in his lap. He felt an overwhelming need to reach down and pull his son into his arms, but he couldn't do it. He had to keep both hands on the wheel to stop Dean from knocking them into the ditch at seventy miles an hour. The most he could do was talk and hope that Dean could hear him over all the screaming he was doing.
"Don't you go," he said. "Don't you dare." To the evil things that haunted his son's fevered dreams, John cried out in the darkness. "You can't have him!"
"Not Mommy!" Those were the last words that John could understand. Everything after that was incoherent, as a high-pitched squeal of terror stole Dean's words.
He wanted it to stop – the fever, the pain, the screaming. He just wanted it to stop, because he didn't know how much longer he could listen to it. Already, it pierced his brain and made his ears rattle, and he was starting to feel like it was going to go on forever. He just wanted it to stop.
Until it did.
He slammed the Impala into park in front of Bobby's front door, and he was out of the car and reaching back in for Dean's suddenly limp body before it had completely stopped moving.
"Bobby!" he bellowed toward the darkened windows of the house. "Bobby, help!"
The porch light came on just as the door was thrown open, and Bobby was across the porch before John had reached the bottom of the stairs. Bobby took one look at his friend and the child that hung, limp as a half-stuffed ragdoll, in his father's arms, ran back to the door and opened it wide.
John walked through the foyer and into the living room, then made straight for the battered old couch. He laid Dean down on it gently, propped his head up on one of the long-ago-flattened pillows and covered him with the threadbare quilt that had been draped across the back of it. Even after the months of not talking, the child's silence was unnatural, and as deafeningly loud as his screams in the car had been.
He laid his hand lovingly on Dean's head, and he was both amazed and terrified by how hot the child's skin burned. He turned to face Bobby, who hovered nervously behind him.
"He's sick," John said, unnecessarily. "He's so sick."
Bobby looked down at the child that he'd grown so impossibly close to over the summer, and narrowed his eyes. "What kind of sick?"
"High fever," John said. "He's delirious. He started talking in the car, about elves and fairies and seeing Mary, going with Mary, and then he screamed, and he …"
Bobby stepped forward and grabbed John by the shoulders. "In the car? On the road? And he just started talkin' about fairies and his mama?"
John shook his head. "Elves," he said. "He said there was an elf on a horse, standing in the middle of the road. He said it knew his name, and he …" Bobby turned and ran across the room toward one of the half dozen rough-hewn bookcases that he'd built into the walls. "Have you got any Tylenol?" John shouted after him. "Wet washcloths or rubbing alcohol or …?"
"To get his fever down!"
Bobby didn't answer him, and didn't even seem to have heard him. He was busy digging through his books, throwing them to the floor one after another, in search of … something that only he knew.
John never should have gone there. He should have gone straight to the hospital, but he hadn't, and they were stuck. The hospital was in the opposite direction, on the other side of a town that was twenty miles away. This was no supernatural influence; there were no monsters trying to steal his son. Dean was sick and getting sicker. Believing in Bobby had been a mistake.
He'd wasted time that Dean didn't have, and he couldn't afford to waste any more.
He took one more quick look at his son, lying so impossibly still and pale on the couch, and ran into the bathroom in search of something he could use. He could still hear Bobby in the main room, tossing book after book to land with a thud against the hardwood floor, and he shook his head again. His frantic search through shelves and cabinets mirrored the one Bobby was conducting in what passed for his study.
He finally found a handful of washcloths, a small bottle of generic ibuprofen, and a mop bucket. He filled the bucket with the ice-cold water from the bathtub faucet, dropped the washcloths into it, and shoved the pills in his pocket. Just before he turned away, he grabbed the glass from the sink and filled it with water. Then he walked back into the living room. Bobby was hurrying back across the room at the same time, with one of his hundreds of dusty old books open in his hands.
"It won't work, John. You can't save him that way."
"Watch me." John put his supplies on the floor near Dean's head, pulled the coffee table closer to the couch, and sat down. The glass of water he sat on the end table, and he dropped one of the ibuprofen in it to dissolve. He slid his arm behind Dean's shoulders, lifted him up from the couch, and propped him against his chest while he started taking the little boy's shirt off.
"He's not sick," Bobby said. "Not the way you think he is. The Elf King's got him. We've gotta break him loose!"
"What?" The father had won the war with the hunter. He knew that he should listen to what Bobby said. He knew that Halloween was more dangerous than it was innocent, especially to children. He knew that there was no one better equipped or more likely to defeat the supernatural than Bobby was.
But at that moment, with his young son lying so sick on the man's couch while he stood around doing nothing but throwing dusty books on the floor and talking about elves and fairies, he really didn't care. He couldn't stand aside and trust Dean's life to incantations, spells, and mumbo-jumbo. He wasn't ready for that yet.
"He told you he saw it, didn't he? An elf on a horse …"
"He's five! And delirious!"
"Think about it, John. You know this stuff well as I do. Der Erlkönig, the Elf King, ridin' the road at midnight, lookin' for motherless children to join his court."
John had been shaking his head the entire time his brother talked. "But elves are just stories, Bobby. They're not like spirits or demons or witches. You told me they're not real!"
"I've been wrong before," Bobby argued. "It's not an exact science, ya know. We can spend our whole lives believin' something's not real, until we need to kill it."
"No. You tell Dean those stories, too, don't you? Maybe that's where he's getting it. He's delirious. Maybe he's mixing reality up with that cartoon he watched the other night, that Lord of the Elf Kings thing."
"Lord of the Rings."
"I don't care! What I care about is getting him better, and if you're not going to help me with that, then get the hell out of my way!" He lay Dean back down, then started wiping his arms and chest with one of the wet rags. "I've just got to get this fever down, and he'll be fine."
Bobby was shaking his head and staring at the book in his hand. "It won't work, John, I'm tellin' ya. If the Elf King's got his claws in him …"
"There's no such things as elves!"
"Then it won't do no harm if we chase this one off, will it?'
John huffed in frustration, and waved a dismissive hand at his friend. "Do whatever you want," he said. "Just stay out of my way while you're doing it."
Bobby ran out of the house, but was back in less than a minute. John pretended that he didn't see the horseshoes in his hands, and he didn't ask what they were for, not even when Bobby put them under the corners of the couch. Like he'd said, it wouldn't do any harm. Of course, it wouldn't do any good, either, and what John really needed was some help.
"Mary," he whispered to himself. "Please, Mary. Don't take him. Help me."
The smell of lemons cut through the air in the room, and John spared just a second from his ministrations to wonder where, exactly, Bobby kept all of the things he was putting on that table. He was squeezing lemons, burning leaves of some sort, and … melting butter in a pan on the stove? What the hell?
Dean still hadn't stirred, but John kept wiping him down. One washcloth had been placed permanently on his forehead, and when it got warm from the contact with the little boy's skin, John would trade it with another from the bucket. He kept wiping and swapping, wiping and swapping, until seconds became minutes became half an hour.
He didn't even realize how much time had passed until he saw Bobby's hand, filled with some sort of foul-smelling glop, lowering toward Dean's forehead. John grabbed his wrist.
"What are you doing?"
"You tried it your way, John, and nothin's changin'. Now we're doin' it mine."
He looked down at Dean, and he couldn't deny the truth of Bobby's words. Dean wasn't getting any better, even after John had managed to get the glass of dissolved ibuprofen down his throat. If anything, he looked worse than he had when they'd gotten there.
His bright green eyes were closed, sunken, and circled with dark purple smudges. His cheeks were flushed a brighter red than they had been, but the rest of him was pale, so deathly pale, and he was breathing so slowly. John had done everything he could, everything he remembered Mary doing when Dean was sick, but none of it was working. It was already one in the morning, he was exhausted, and he couldn't think of anything else to try. They'd been there long enough to have made it to the hospital twice over, but after what had happened the last time, he was terrified of putting Dean in the car again.
And there was always the chance that Bobby was right. More than a chance, if he was honest about it. If he'd learned anything in the past year, it was that the evil sons-of-bitches they hunted were always ready to claim another victim. What if Bobby could stop Dean from becoming one? What if he was right and elves were real after all? What harm could there be in trying?
He gave Bobby a weak, half-hearted smile and let go of his wrist.
"These elves, they ain't like the cute little things you see in movies. They're scary, nasty bastards. They've got a thing for kids, and there's no way to kill 'em. But you can banish 'em, and that's what I'm gonna do."
Bobby moved quickly, using the goop in his hand to draw some sort of symbol on Dean's forehead. It started as a basic diamond shape, but at the top, where the lines crossed, they kept going. Those lines rose higher and turned back in, until they almost formed an upside-down triangle on top of the diamond. He didn't connect those lines, though, leaving a gap across the top.
John had no idea what it was, but Bobby seemed to know it very well. When he was done with that, he got another handful of the stinky mush and drew the same symbol on Dean's chest, right above his heart, and then again on the opposite side. The whole time, he mumbled to himself in a language that John didn't recognize but that sounded a lot like German.
Finally, Bobby stood back up, straightened his back, and wiped his hand with one of John's discarded rags.
"Now what?" John asked.
Bobby walked in to the kitchen and pulled out his coffee pot. "Now we wait."
They didn't have to wait very long. Bobby was just handing him the first cup of freshly-brewed coffee when John noticed that Dean's eyelids were fluttering. The flush that had been so scarily red only ten minutes earlier had faded to a dull pink, and the dark circles were already starting to disappear from under his eyes.
"Dean?" John couldn't stop himself from shaking the child's shoulder lightly, just like he couldn't stop the huge smile that crossed his face when those beautiful green eyes opened and looked up at him in confusion. "Hey, big guy."
"Daddy?" The voice was shaky, maybe a little hoarse, but there was no fear in it.
"You okay?" John asked.
Dean nodded and snuggled further down under the quilt, his head sinking deeper into the pillow. "Sleepy," he said. "Bad dreams."
"Hey, Dean, listen, buddy …"
Bobby's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Let him sleep," he said. "He's fine now. He won't remember a thing come mornin'."
John nodded wordlessly and watched in wonder as his son fell back into a deep, deep sleep. Then he turned toward Bobby, a smile of gratitude plain on his face. "It's gone for good?" John asked. "It won't come back?"
Bobby glanced out the window, and for a second, John thought he saw fear in his eyes. Then those eyes narrowed in the closest thing to hatred John had ever seen, but when he turned back to John, Bobby's only expression was a tight smile.
"It's gone, and it ain't gettin' back in," he said simply. "And Dean's gonna be fine. That's all that matters."