The best thing about being back at the bunker was a semi-regular schedule. John could go running, had access to the little gym that Sam and Dean had set up. He could take real showers instead of those awful military showers in the cramped shower on the bus. And Lorne was making his amazing pastries and fluffy omelettes. Life was pretty damn good. Rodney seemed to spend all his time either in the lab analyzing the data he’d gotten from the last few hunts or in the music room with the piano; he had barely said two words to John since his warning on the bus. That was kind of awkward, but John was glad to have a little down time.
Since their next hunt was a werewolf and they’d just caught a kelpie on a new moon, Rodney had agreed the team could take a little rest. Miko, who was apparently the team medic, was glad that John was letting his leg heal up. A week to rest, three weeks leading up to the full moon to prepare for the hunt. Not a big deal.
John had set the deceased Major Mitchell’s hand-knitted gloves and scarf aside as soon as he was back at the Bunker. He’d hoped to distract Lorne by having Lorne send for his guitar and some of his other personal effects, but Lorne was so damn efficient that apparently all it took him was a couple of text messages and John’s guitar was on its way. So John woke extra-early one morning, went for a run with Sam, and then, while Lorne was in the kitchen making something that smelled delicious, John grabbed the box with the gloves and scarf and skedaddled down the hallway to Lorne’s room.
He eased open the door - the room was dark - and cast about for a place to put the box that Lorne would notice but that wouldn’t require John to make a major intrusion on Lorne’s space.
Which was...a mess.
John blinked. There were clothes scattered all over the floor, and shoes, and socks, and...was that a belt? John recognized one of Lorne’s button-down shirts, his waistcoat, his slacks. But he also saw a flannel shirt. A pair of jeans. A familiar dusty work-boot. Sam, or Dean?
John nudged the door open wider and stared. Dean was sprawled across the bed, naked from the waist up (at least), and sleeping. John glanced around the room again, and yes, it was Lorne’s room. Lorne’s art supplies and his painting on the walls -
John stepped back and went to close the door, and Dean was on his feet, buck naked and aiming his Colt .45 right at John.
“Captain, stand down!” John hissed. He hoped no one else was in the hallway behind them.
Dean lowered his gun, grabbed a pillow for some semblance of modesty. “What the hell are you doing? Sir.”
“I was returning the gloves and scarf.” John waggled the box. “Rodney, in typical Rodney insensitivity, gave them to me.”
Dean’s expression sobered. “The ones Mitchell made.”
John swallowed hard, nodded. The pieces were falling into place. Dean constantly ribbing Lorne about his sex life. Lorne being spoken for when he wasn’t before. Lorne not totally freaking out when he saw John wearing a dead man’s winter gear, a dead man he’d been sweet on.
“I’ll just leave these, uh, here.” John levered the box onto a stack of files. “I promise I won’t tell Rodney. Or - or anyone else.”
“I don’t think Sam would understand,” Dean said quietly. Probably because as far as everyone knew, Dean was ruthlessly straight and a relentless skirt-chaser. “And Rodney - after what went down with Mitchell -”
John smiled. “I hope you’re happy.”
Dean’s smile was small but perfectly content. “Evan’s really great.”
A cellphone crackled, on walkie-mode.
“Dean, you better get out of bed,” Lorne said. “Before Sam comes to get you.”
“Better get some clothes on, too,” John said, and grinned. He pulled the door closed and headed back to his own room.
He was dressed in clean clothes and at morning muster at the Map Table when Lorne served up breakfast, which was crepes, strawberries, hand-whipped cream, and sausages.
“Have a nice run?” Lorne smiled at John.
“Yeah, good,” John said.
Sam clapped him on the shoulder. “He keeps a pretty good pace for a gimp.”
“Don’t push yourself too hard too soon,” Miko warned.
Dean dug into his food with gusto. “This is delicious. I’d totally marry you if you cooked like this for me every day. Oh wait, you already do.”
“Lorne is kind enough to share his culinary skills with all of us,” Vala said. “And we all appreciate it very much. Got big plans for your down-time, Lorne?”
“I need to update my journal,” Lorne said, “and Sam, I think you wanted some sketches for yours?”
“If you have the time, but really, take some actual down-time.” Sam smiled. He had dimples. He was beautiful.
John was surrounded by beautiful men, and the only one he wanted didn’t want to be wanted. “What about you?”
“I have a stack of books waiting for me,” Sam said. “Started reading Brandon Sanderson.”
“Nerd,” Dean said affectionately. “Me, I am on my way to mastering Stairway to Heaven on the guitar.” He nudged John. “What have you got in your song catalog?”
“I’m a bit more of the Johnny Cash variety,” John said.
Dean’s eyes lit up. “Can you play Ring of Fire? Because I love that song.” He began to hum, a little tunelessly.
“What about you, John?” Miko asked. “Big plans?”
John started to say, “Not really,” but then his cell phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket and stared at the name on the screen. David Sheppard. Why was Dave calling him? Dave never - John answered. “Hello?”
Rodney swept into the room. “Lorne hates it when people answer their phone at the table.”
“Since when do you care what Lorne hates?” Vala asked.
John rose up and stepped away from the table just as Rodney sat down.
“John.” Dave sounded hoarse. Was he sick?
“Dave, what’s going on?”
“John, you need to come home.”
“It’s about Mom.”
John was in his room, throwing clothes and weapons into an overnight bag. Should he drive? They still needed to replace the sedan after it had drowned in Lake Michigan (Lorne was fretting over the paperwork). He could borrow one of the other cars in the garage, though. But flying would be faster.
“What about Mom? She’s been dead since -” Since John turned twelve.
“You were always better about all of Mom’s - cultural stuff.” Dave kept his voice low.
‘Cultural stuff’. Dave and John had known Mom wasn’t human. Neither of them were quite sure what, if anything, Dad knew, but Dad had always described Mom as beautiful, otherworldly, a dream.
“You mean you look fully human and I don’t,” John said sourly. He’d inherited the Ears and the Sight from Mom. Dave had just inherited her impossibly blue eyes and her ability to know whether anyone was lying. Anyone but John, at any rate.
“This isn’t about what we look like,” Dave hissed. “You remember how Mom had - decorations. Around the house.”
John did. She'd had wall ornaments of finely-crafted silver and gold, or pressed flowers in frames, or herb sachets to make rooms smell nice. He’d wondered, as he grew older, whether they were some kind of elven magic, and he’d never disturbed them. “What about them?”
“Dad’s getting rid of them,” Dave said. “He - he’s met someone new, and she wants to redecorate.”
John paused halfway through folding his shirts. “And you want me to come get some of them before they’re gone?”
“John, Helena threw them away, and - I think she’s unlocked Mom’s ghost.”
“Ghost?” John echoed. He remembered his first encounter with Rodney. Rodney had said ghosts were usually the least of his problems.
“I’ve seen her, John.” Dave’s voice shook. He was afraid. “Her spirit. Roaming the halls. She tried to attack Helena, and I stepped between them, and she threw me down the stairs. I broke my collarbone and I’m really messed up. Dad thinks I tried to attack Helena, because Helena obviously didn't see the ghost, and - John, Kathy and the girls are living in that house. We’re all in danger.”
“Why don’t you just move out?”
“We’re here till the wedding. Dad is insisting, making noise about selling the company if I’m not - tractable.”
John resumed folding shirts. He’d never cared for the family business, but it meant everything to Dave, not just because he took pride in it, but because he wanted to leave something for his girls, who were both incredibly bright.
“Dave, what is it you want me to do?”
“I found Mom’s old journal, but I can’t read it. It’s not in English or any other language anyone knows. I was thinking, if you can read it, because you can See -”
Mom’s journal. John thought it had been buried with her.
“I’ll be on the next flight out,” John said.
“Please. Hurry. Anna and Clara are terrified of sleeping in their own rooms, and -”
There was a knock at the door. John turned. Lorne was holding a lunch box.
“I boxed up some crepes for you. For the road,” Lorne said.
John mouthed Thanks, and Lorne frowned.
“Everything all right?”
“See you soon, Dave. I’ll text you with my flight details.” John hung up.
Lorne raised his eyebrows. “Dave? Your brother? Is everything all right?”
“How do I get rid of a ghost?”
“Pretty simple, really. Find the body the ghost-soul once inhabited, pour salt over the bones, and burn them.” Lorne shrugged. “Why?”
“Just curious. Does - does that mean I have to dig the body up?” John asked.
Lorne nodded. “Yeah. Sometimes you burn the body and the ghost still roams, so you have to burn anything else with the body’s DNA. Lock of hair, nail clippings, whatever.” He stepped closer, brow furrowed. “Seriously, is everything all right?”
“I just found out that my father is getting remarried,” John said. He could lie damn well when he needed to. “And my invitation got lost, since I’ve shifted several postings recently.”
“Oh! Well, offer him our congratulations, and have fun. See you in Cedar City?”
John nodded. “Sure thing.”
Dave looked like hell, but it spoke to just how awful the situation was, that he picked John up at the airport himself instead of sending a driver or pre-paying a cab. He had his arm and shoulder immobilized in a sling, and how he’d driven was a mystery, so John took over the wheel. Dave had bruises mottled and yellow on his cheek and jaw.
“I didn’t know who else to call,” Dave said in a low voice. “I mean, what, do I call the exterminator and tell them the ghost of my dead mother is angry because my father’s new wife is throwing out her personal possessions?”
John did wonder how Lorne got tips on cases. Was there some kind of supernatural emergency hotline?
“You saw her?” John asked. “It was really Mom?”
Dave nodded. “Yeah. Definitely her.” He stared out the window. “I’d know what she looks like anywhere.”
John could barely remember her face. Faye Sheppard had pretty studiously avoided cameras for all of John’s life - so she could hide her identity, the truth of what she was. Unlike certain breeds of vampires, elves could be caught on camera. Dave was four years younger than John. Why was his memory clearer?
John could remember what her lullabies sounded like, though.
“Dad and Helena are in Fairfax making the last of the wedding arrangements,” Dave said. “Your invitation to the wedding was returned as undeliverable.”
“I was transferred to multiple postings in a short span of time. Not all of my personal effects have caught up with me, so I’m not surprised my mail hasn’t,” John said.
Dave glanced at him. “I heard about the chopper crash.”
“Did you now?”
“Nancy works for Homeland Security. She said you almost ended up in Leavenworth for life.”
“Didn’t disobey a direct order,” John said shortly, which had been his defense up until Major Jackson brought Rodney into his life.
“I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Me too. So, Helena?”
“One of the Boston Brahmin, a Putnam, independently wealthy, not quite old enough to be our mother, not young enough to be our sibling.” Dave huffed. “She’s nice. I like her. She makes Dad smile.”
“Dad knows how to do that?”
“John,” Dave said reprovingly.
“Sorry. If she makes him happy, I guess -”
“She does. And I think Dad should have at least packed away some of Mom’s stuff a long time ago, if not thrown it away. But for Helena to do it - I guess Mom’s spirit -” Dave cut himself off, shook his head. “Never thought I’d say something like that.”
John glanced at him. “Have you sensed Mom’s spirit? Around the house before.”
“No. Not since Helena did her purge. And now - she’s angry, John. At being replaced.”
John couldn’t imagine Mom ever being that angry, that cruel. She’d want Dad to be happy. But Sam had informed him, on his way out the door, that ghosts became angry at being trapped on the mortal plane, that over time their human goodness was stripped away and they were reduced to animal rage and pain, and the only thing to do was put them down.
Put them down. Like rabid dogs.
The Sheppard Estate in Virginia was just as John remembered: sprawling green lawns, a pasture, a fenced corral, the stables. The wound in his calf throbbed at the memory of the kelpie bite. Dave parked the car on the gravel drive out front of the house; one of the staff drivers would pull it into the garage. John carried his own duffel bag into the house, refused the assistance of any of the house maids.
“You’re not wearing your uniform,” Dave observed.
“Not for leave.”
“Your hair is -”
“Vastly overdue for a cut, I know. It’s a bit of an unorthodox post.” John paused at the foot of the stairs, the stairs Dave had been pushed down by their mother’s ghost. “My old room?”
Dave nodded. “Yes. I had the maids make it up for you. Get settled in, then come meet me in my old room. I’ll show you the journal.”
“Okay.” John watched Dave walk away, then ascended the stairs, heart pounding, alert for any sign of a ghost - flickering lights, mice sounds in the walls, sudden drop in temperature. Nothing so far. He’d have to get out the EMF meter.
When he pushed open his old bedroom door, it looked just like it had the last time he’d stayed in it, the summer before he started in college. His bed, one of his Johnny Cash posters, his desk. He wouldn’t be surprised if all his old high school clothes were still in the closet and armoire. He set his duffel bag down beside the bed and knelt, fished out his weapon and the EMF meter. He’d have to borrow one of the shotguns from the ostlers, load some rounds with rock salt.
He jacked his headphones into the EMF meter, tucked it into his pocket, and began a scan of the house in guise of wandering down to the kitchen for a glass of water. There were definite spikes on the landing where Dave had intervened between Helena and Mom’s ghost. His childhood home, which had seemed cold and unfriendly after his mother’s death till the day he left, was downright sinister now, with its pristine fashionable cleanliness.
John regretted getting his smudgy fingerprints on one of the glasses in the kitchen when he went for a drink. As a teenager he’d have thrilled in bucking family decorum by getting a glass himself, by daring to step foot in the kitchen. Now he wanted to get this job done and over with, march his way through an awkward reunion with his estranged father and his new wife, and get back to killing monsters.
Killing monsters made sense. His father remarrying did not.
His mother being an angry ghost made more sense, but John’s world was just a little bit crazier and a little bit bleaker for it.
“You’re not like Daddy.”
The EMF meter shrieked in John’s ear. He swore and spun around, nearly dropped his glass, caught it with inhuman reflexes.
The little girl standing in the doorway wore a pristine white dress and had Dave’s blue eyes and Kathleen’s red hair and Mom’s pointy ears.
“You’re more like me,” she said. She started to lift a hand - to her ear, no doubt - but then let it fall back to her side. “You said a bad word, Uncle John.”
John stared at her, chest heaving. “I did. I’m sorry. You scared me, uh -”
“Clarabell,” she said. “But people call me Clara. And why did I scare you? You’re bigger than me. And you’re a soldier. Soldiers kill people. You shouldn’t be afraid of anything.”
“I just didn’t expect to see you there, Clara.” John smiled tightly.
“Most people don’t expect to see me,” Clara agreed placidly. “It’s because I’m so small.”
“You’ll grow up tall, I’m sure,” John said.
“Mommy and Daddy are quite tall, it’s true. Daddy’s looking for you.”
“Thanks. I’ll go see him.” John drained his glass and set it in the sink.
“You listen to your music too loud, by the way.” Clara gestured to the earbud dangling from John’s collar where he’d had to yank it out when the EMF meter spiked. “That’s why you didn’t expect me. You didn’t hear me coming.”
John reached into his pocket and switched off the EMF meter. “Right. I’ll remember that. Good seeing you, Clara.” He dodged around her and headed for the stairs. He could feel her gaze burning between his shoulder blades the entire way.
Dave was sitting on the edge of the bed in his old room when John found him. Dave’s room had long been transformed into a guest room with a much larger bed. Judging by the two suitcases in the closet, this was where Dave and Kathy were sleeping.
“Clara’s gotten big,” John said.
Dave glanced up at him. “She found you? I thought she was out with the horses.” He held out a leather journal, just like the ones Sam and Dean and Lorne had. “This is it. Mom’s journal.”
“I thought it was buried with her.” John accepted it reverently, smoothed a hand over its cover.
“Me too, but Helena found it when she was sorting through the contents in the attic. Thought we’d want to keep it. She thinks it’s written in code, like some kind of intra-familial cryptolalia.”
“I thought only twins spoke cryptolalia.” John flipped the journal open - and the ink swam in front of him. He had the same sensation as when he’d been in that changeling den, that the world was hyper-real, that time was dilated and running underwater, fluid but unstable, crystal-clear but rippling, uneven.
“Can you read it?”
John closed the journal quickly, shook his head. “I can’t even look at it.”
Dave frowned. “It’s just - really curvy letters.” He reached for the journal, and John let him have it. He knew Lorne and the rest of the team would be fascinated by it.
“Maybe to you,” John said. “But you and I aren’t the same.”
“Then what do we do?” Dave’s expression was miserable and afraid.
“I learned some things,” John said. “And I know how to get rid of a ghost.”
“Really.” John was pretty sure Dave was assuming John had learned ‘some things’ from their mother. John wasn’t about to dissuade him of the notion.
“What do we have to do?”
“Let me handle it,” John said.
“You’re hurt. I’ve got a handle on this. Just - dismiss the staff early tonight, take Kathy and the girls out to dinner. I should have everything done by the time you get home.”
“Are you sure?”
“You’re my little brother, Davey.”
“We haven’t talked in years.”
“You’re still my brother, even if Dad no longer sees me as his son.”
Dave sighed. “John -”
Dave stood up. “All right. Text me when it’s done.”
Before John lifted even one spadeful of dirt from his mother’s grave, he was prepared. He loaded some shells with rock salt, borrowed a twelve-gauge pump-action from the stables. He found iron filings (iron was inimical to elves) and more salt. He laid a ring of salt around Mom’s grave in the family plot, which was on the edge of the estate near the woods. He had lighter fluid and a lighter, a lamp in case it got dark, his sidearm, two shovels, and a pair of heavy-duty mittens.
Once his protective circle was set and he had his supplies - including a case of Gatorade and some blister bandages - at hand, he set to work. His eyes stung with tears at the first shovelful, and he was sobbing by the time he’d managed to clear a foot of dirt.
His eyes were dry and he was half out of Gatorade by the time he reached the vault protecting the casket. It took some engineering know-how and both shovels to get the vault lid off.
And then he cracked open the coffin itself.
His mother had been dead for twenty-two years. He was prepared for the decay, for the smell, for nothing but bones and rotting cloth.
He wasn’t prepared for her to look like she was sleeping, in a white gown with a white crown of flowers, a single lily clasped to her lifeless breast.
John threw himself back against the dirt wall of the grave, horror clawing its way up his throat. She wasn’t dead, she was just asleep. She was -
He fumbled for his cell phone, hit speed dial randomly.
“What? Shouldn’t you be getting drunk at a wedding right about now? Making toasts that roast your father?” Rodney demanded.
John swallowed hard. “Rodney, I need you to - look up some lore for me.”
“Lore? You’re on down-time. At your father’s wedding.”
“About - elves. When they die on the mortal realm.”
“An elf can only be killed on the mortal realm by beheading or an iron stake through the heart, kind of like a vampire,” Rodney said, without missing a beat. “Why?”
John reached out. His mother’s hand was cold even through the gardening glove. He nudged it aside, and - there. An iron stake through her chest, beneath her peacefully-clasped hands and that impossibly blooming lily.
“What if you pull the iron stake out?”
“You wouldn’t leave it in. It’s a useful reusable weapon.” Rodney sounded irritated. “And even if you did, pulling it out wouldn’t bring the elf back to life.”
John’s eyes filled with tears again. “Okay. Thanks. Gotta go. Toasts to make.” He closed his phone, pocketed it. Silenced it. Then he emptied poured iron filings into the casket, followed by salt. His hands shook, and he sobbed as he poured lighter fluid into the casket. But he couldn’t light it, so he closed the lid, doused the lid in lighter fluid, and climbed out of the grave.
He stared down at the casket for a long, long time. Then reached into his pocket, drew the little disposable lighter, lit it. Dropped it into the grave.
And stepped back while his mother’s body burned and burned and burned. The massive heat from the flames did nothing to stave off the chill that settled into John’s bones.
When the casket was ash, John shoved the vault lid back into place and filled the grave as quickly as he could.
He replaced all the gear he’d borrowed, limbs feeling leaden, and texted Dave as he headed back to the house from the stables. He showered and was wearing clean clothes by the time Dave and Kathy returned. They put the girls to bed - carried both sleeping children into the house from the car - and Dave came to stand in John’s doorway.
“Is it done?”
“Do I want to know what you did?”
“No point. No one will ever need to do it again. Not around here.”
Dave studied John. John was sure he looked a wreck, between the physical exhaustion of digging up a casket and the emotional exhaustion of dispatching with his own mother’s ghost. “Thanks, John. Good night.”
“Good night, Dave. Tux fittings tomorrow?”
Dave nodded. “Tomorrow. Sleep well, dream well.”
It was something their mother had always said.
Dave left, and John closed the door, turned out the light, curled beneath the covers and closed his eyes. The flickering, curling script from his mother’s journal danced behind his eyelids as he tried to sleep.
He was almost unconscious when a scream pierced the night. Clara.
John was on his feet, gun in hand, without thinking. He burst out of his room and sprinted down the hallway to Clara’s room.
Where the ghostly form of a woman - a female elf - danced in the doorway, shrieking and reaching for Clara.
John ejected the clip from his gun, snatched an iron bullet from the top of the magazine, and threw it at the spirit. It dissolved, re-formed in the hallway behind John.
“Stay away from her,” John snarled.
The spirit spun around, eyes glowing red, and screamed at him.
John slammed the clip back into the gun and took aim, but then Dave and Kathy burst out of their bedroom. Kathy screamed.
Dave shouted, “John, you said it was done!”
The spirit wasn’t Mom. A female elf, yes. Mom, no. The face was all wrong. John would know. He’d seen Mom’s face recently.
John said, “Get down!”
Dave tackled Kathy to the floor, and John fired a round through the spirit. It dissolved. John scooped up Clara, went into the bedroom, grabbed Anna, and shouted for Dave and Kathy to follow him. He dashed for the kitchen, set down both girls - they were crying - and tore through the cupboards until he found it. Salt. He made a circle, put both girls in it. He made another circle, and when Dave and Kathy arrived, he ordered them into it, ordered them not to break the line.
Kathy was sobbing and Dave was terrified, but they obeyed.
John made a third circle of salt, armed himself with a cast iron skillet, and fished his phone out of his pocket. He hit speed dial.
Dean answered Lorne’s phone. “This is Winchester.”
“I need you. Now.”
“I’m trapped in a house with a pissed-off ghost. I salted and burned a body, but it was the wrong body. I’m in over my head. Get here, now.”
“Evan says you’re in Virginia.”
“Get on a plane and get over here. I’ll buy the damn tickets. But I needed you here yesterday.”
“That’s an order, Captain.”
“Yes sir, Major Sheppard, sir.” There wasn’t an ounce of sarcasm in Dean’s tone. “Lorne, get up, let’s go.”
“John, what’s going on?” Dave demanded.
“Stay in that circle,” John said, “and don’t move. Not till daylight. I called for backup.”
“Backup?” Dave echoed.
John nodded. He called the airlines and ordered five tickets on the next flight from Lawrence to Arlington, made them in his teammates’ names, paid with his own damn card.
Anna and Clara fell back asleep, crying quietly, clinging to each other in the safety of the salt circle. Kathy eventually cried herself to sleep. Dave dozed, but John didn’t dare sleep. He called all the staff, gave them the day off. The fewer witnesses to this, the better. He even remembered to call and reschedule the tux fittings.
As soon as the sun rose, John roused Dave and Kathy, helped them put the girls to bed, and then he crashed, skillet still in hand.
John pulled open the door.
“If John always puts us up in such nice B&B’s,” Vala was saying, “we should take private jobs from him more often.”
“Glad you made it,” John said.
“How did you find this place?” Lorne asked. “It must be so expensive. I’m sure we can write some of this off.”
Rodney looked John up and down. “This is the house where you grew up, isn’t it?”
“One of them.” John stepped aside to let them in. “There are guest rooms, but none of the maids are here, so none of them are made up -”
“You look exhausted. Show me to the linen closet, I’ll take care of it. Dean, you handle breakfast.” Lorne clapped John on the shoulder. “We’re here now. Relax. We’ll help.”
“Thank you.” John avoided Rodney’s gaze, showed them to the guest rooms. It took him and Lorne a moment to figure out where the linen closet was. Dean found the kitchen easily enough. After Lorne, Dean was the best cook.
“One of the houses you grew up in?” Rodney asked quietly. “You never said.”
“You never asked.”
“Why would I ask?”
“You wouldn’t. You’re not sweet on me,” John said flatly.
Rodney sighed, heaved his overnight bag onto the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. “John -”
“Sorry, Rodney. It was a rough night.”
“Does this have anything to do with you asking me about killing elves on the mortal plane?”
“But Lorne said you attempted a salt-and-burn and purified the wrong corpse.” Rodney’s gaze was piercing.
Purifying a corpse? Was that what they called it? John nodded again. “Yeah.”
“Explain what’s going on.”
“Let’s wait till we have everyone,” John said. “That way we don’t have to repeat ourselves.”
Down in the kitchen, Dean was serving up cheesy scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, and orange juice. Lorne was helping him, admiring the kitchen features and appliances all the while. Dave, Kathy, and the girls shuffled into the kitchen in bathrobes, eyes wide.
“Dave, Kathy, Anna, Clara, this is my team from my Air Force posting - Dr. Rodney McKay, Dr. Miko Kusanagi, Vala Mal Doran, civilian contractors. Captain Dean Winchester, United States Marines, Captain Evan Lorne, US Air Force retired, and Lieutenant Sam Winchester, US Air Force.”
“Marines?” Dave asked.
“Like I said, it’s an unorthodox posting. They’re here to help. So, how about we eat breakfast? Kathy, why don’t you take the girls to your mother’s for the day? I’ll probably need Dave.”
Kathy, huddled close to Dave’s side, nodded.
Breakfast was delicious, which cheered the girls up considerably. Then Kathy shuffled them upstairs to get dressed. Sam and Vala washed the dishes, and John and Dave went to get cleaned up and dressed as well.
Dave walked Kathy and the girls to the door, kissed them, told them he’d call when it was time to come back, wished them fun times with their grandmother.
As soon as the door was closed, he said, “What the hell is going on?”
“Funny.” Rodney stood in the foyer. “I was about to ask the same thing. When you left, you told us it was to attend your father’s wedding. But you asked both Lorne and Sam questions about how to get rid of a malevolent ghost, and when you called Lorne, you told him your salt and burn had gone wrong.”
Dave raised his eyebrows. “Your coworkers know about ghosts?”
“We hunt ghosts,” Rodney said. “But it’s classified.”
Dave looked between John and Rodney and back again. “I need a drink.”
Everyone gathered in the drawing room, and John poured whiskey for whoever wanted it. Dave sank into one of the armchairs, hands shaking.
“Tell us,” Sam said, in his best soothing, sympathetic interviewer voice. “What happened. From the beginning.”
Dave, because he didn’t know any better, only told them about how Dad’s fiancee had decided to throw out Mom’s old things, and Mom had suddenly appeared as a malevolent spirit when she hadn’t been any type of spirit before. The others reached the same conclusion John had, that Mom’s spirit was angry about the disrespect to her possessions - and her family’s memory of her.
“So you salted and burned your own mother.” Dean eyed John.
Dave choked on his drink. “You did what?”
Rodney stared at John over the rim of his crystal whiskey tumbler. “That doesn’t explain why you called and asked me about killing elves on the mortal plane.”
Dave actually snorted whiskey out of his nose, had to fish in his pocket for a handkerchief. While he choked and spluttered, Miko dashed to the kitchen for a glass of water.
“Your friends don’t know,” Dave said, once he could speak again.
Rodney’s gaze was laser-intense as he looked John up and down, measuring. Then he said, “That’s why you smelled different from the others. You’re not fully human.”
Everyone but Lorne inhaled sharply in surprise.
“Half elf,” Lorne said.
Rodney slewed him a glance. “You knew?”
“The ears,” Lorne said easily. “Also -” He tapped the side of his face, nearest his glass eye.
John could feel all his teammates staring at his ears.
“Now that you mention it,” Dean began.
“My mother’s corpse,” John said. “I added iron to the salt, to be safe. Fae and iron -”
“Wise choice,” Lorne said.
“But the ghost last night - it wasn’t our mother.”
Dave frowned. “Yes it was. I saw her -”
“It’s the ghost of an elf,” John said tightly, “but not our mother.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I know what Mom looks like. When I opened the casket, she - it was like she was asleep. There was an iron stake through her heart, but -”
“Dad said she died in a car crash.” Dave narrowed his eyes.
“If she was pierced by cold steel,” Vala said carefully, “that could have mortally wounded her. The iron stake might have been a mercy.”
“Any other elves in the family?” Rodney asked.
John shrugged helplessly. “Presumably our mother’s family, but she didn’t talk about them much, and I don’t recall ever meeting them.”
Rodney glanced at Lorne, who shook his head. “I’ve never heard of a supernatural creature having a ghost - that’s purely human, as far as I know. Even though humans haven’t cornered the market on souls.”
Vala said, “You say this ghost started attacking only after this Helena woman removed your mother’s belongings. Which ones?”
“Helena’s been boxing things up for weeks, but her last phase was to redecorate the house, so she moved a lot of Mom’s old decorations,” Dave said. “Why?”
Vala caught Lorne’s gaze. “What if they weren’t just decorations?”
“What do you mean?” John asked, but Lorne nodded.
He asked, “Do you have pictures of these decorations?”
“Aw, John, you were such an adorable wee lad.” Vala peered at the photo of John, all of five years old, in an uncomfortable suit, posing with the rest of the family in front of the fireplace.
“It’s a wonder anyone believed you were human as a child,” Rodney murmured.
Miko pointed to something above the mantelpiece. “Look at that.”
“Mom liked to keep dry herbs around the house so it smelled nice.” Dave was still sipping whiskey, but his hands had stopped shaking, and he’d surrendered the photo albums easily enough. “She had them in every house.”
“Not just nice-smelling,” Miko said. “These are all purifying herbs. What else did your stepmother remove from the house?”
“Not our stepmother,” John said, and even Dave wrinkled his nose. “Our father’s new wife, maybe. Our stepmother, no.”
Dave reached out, flipped through several pages to an annual spring photo of the family. Mom had insisted there be one official family photo for each of the four seasons. In this picture, John was about nine, Dave was about four.
“That silver filigree on the wall.” Lorne pointed. “It’s an elven warding charm.”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “Since when do you know elven warding charms?”
“I did some research, once I realized what John was,” Lorne said easily. “When I saw how the changelings reacted to him that one time in Wyoming, I figured other Fair Folk might be drawn to him, so knowing some magic to defend against them would be useful.”
“Changelings?” Dave asked.
“Classified,” Rodney said dismissively.
And then Vala said, “Wait.”
“What?” Miko asked.
Vala stood up, began to pace. “Only humans can have ghosts, correct? Other creatures have souls, but only humans leave ghosts.”
Dean rolled his eyes. “Preaching to the choir, here.”
“What if - what if Faye Sheppard was a changeling?” Vala asked.
John said, tightly, “My mother was not a changeling.”
“I don’t mean like the creature.” Vala’s words were picking up speed. “I mean like an actual elven child traded for a human child. After all, no one else seemed to notice what was different about her.”
“She cast glamours,” John said. He could cast one in a pinch. They’d saved his life in covert ops a couple of times.
“Right, but when she met your father, who comes from a very prestigious family, she wasn’t some kind of orphan or waif. Surely his parents would have ensured her pedigree was appropriate. She went to university -”
“Vasser,” Dave broke in.
“And she had connections. Elven magic is good, but it’s fleeting, illusory. Wouldn’t have held up in the mortal realm of iron and steel for long.” Vala’s eyes were bright with the fever of discovery. “What if she took the place of an actual human, grew up in her life, married Patrick Sheppard?”
Dean caught on. “Then the ghost is of the human she replaced.”
“Yes,” Vala said. “The ghost is of the human child who would have died. Your mother must have known this and placed wards around all of her homes to keep her and her family safe, and now that those wards have been removed -”
“How the hell do we find a human child who was taken by elves?” Dave demanded.
“Going into the elven realms sucks,” Dean said. “And at the time I thought I was being abducted by aliens.”
“If the ghost is haunting this house, though,” John said, “then wouldn’t at least part of its body have to be here? To anchor it to this realm and this building. DNA, right? That’s what anchors a ghost.”
“DNA?” Dave echoed. “What does DNA have to do with magic?”
“Magic is just science we don’t understand yet,” Rodney said absently. His gaze was distant while he thought quickly. “Lorne, have Sheppard Junior help you identify all the wards the late Mother Sheppard had on the house. Those might help us pin-point the source of the spirit. We need to sweep the house with the EMF meters.”
“Do you have any of your mother’s other personal effects?” Lorne asked Dave. “If she had a lock of hair or -”
Dave stood up slowly. He was pale, expression bleak. “I kept some of her stuff. Let me show you.”
“Thank you,” Lorne said, all sincerity and sympathy. He and Vala gathered up the photo albums and followed Dave out of the room.
“My EMF meter is in my room,” John said.
Rodney nodded. “Good.”
John was headed to his room when Lorne caught him on the stairs. He was holding Mom’s journal.
“Dave gave this to me, thought maybe I’d be able to read it,” Lorne said. “He said it’s all gibberish to him but it gave you a headache. Do you know what’s in it?”
“It’s just my mother’s journal. Could be full of elven magic, could be a log of what she had for breakfast all her life. Can you read it?”
“No, but I’d be interested in a scan of it, so I can learn to read it,” Lorne said.
“I’m sure after all this Dave wouldn’t mind letting us borrow it.” John shrugged.
“John,” Lorne said softly, “this journal is bound with human skin.”
John recoiled sharply. “You - you don’t think -”
“Let me scan it. Then we can salt and burn it.”
“But my mother -”
“Elven magic, like a lot of deep magic, can require blood and flesh sacrifices.”
“Sure,” John said. “Scan it. In the meantime, I’d better do what Rodney says.”
Lorne clasped him on the shoulder. “I’m sorry. And - thank you.”
John frowned. “For what?”
“Dean told me.”
“Right. Well - don’t hurt him. Or whatever.”
“I would never,” Lorne said solemnly.
John headed up to his room, and Lorne went his own way.
“You mean we spent the entire day wandering around John’s ridiculously large childhood home and all we have to do is burn that book?” Dean stared at the journal in Lorne’s hands.
“The readings we took are useful for furthering the interests of science,” Rodney said loftily.
“I made a scan of all of its pages,” Lorne said, “so John and Dave can preserve its contents. But let’s start with this, unless you found anything different?”
Miko and Sam shook their heads.
They had the little bonfire beside Mom’s grave. John listened to the flames crackle and pop, stood beside Dave with a hand on his shoulder. The rest of the team was arrayed on the other side of the bonfire a respectful distance away. They’d let John pour the salt and iron, let Dave do the honors with the fire.
“What now?” Dave asked in a low voice.
“We wait the night, see if the ghost reappears,” John said. “And when it doesn’t, you call Kathy and the girls back. My team goes back to HQ to prep for the next mission. You and I get fitted for tuxes and stand up for Dad at his wedding, and life goes on.”
“Were you ever going to tell me?” Dave asked.
“About my highly-classified new posting? No. You know that. Nancy learned that the hard way.”
“About how much you knew about Mom.”
“I thought you didn’t know much,” John said quietly. “But I suppose you deserve to know. And you might need to know. Clara is -”
“I’ve heard great power skips generations.”
“Mom didn’t have great power.”
“Mom was a full-blooded elf who survived on the mortal realm for decades, a realm that was poisonous to her by its very infrastructure.”
“She was -”
“Being poisoned by degrees, yes, that’s what Lorne thinks.”
“She loved us. She stayed for us. Was too weak to survive the car crash.”
Dave clasped John’s hand tightly, and they said nothing till the fire burned down. Dean and Sam salted the ashes and placed them in a simple urn. The real Faye Eliot Sheppard deserved a proper burial.
Once the urn was buried and marked with a simple cross, the rest of John’s team headed inside.
John and Dave left a dozen forget-me-nots on their mother’s grave, and together they walked back to the house.
The ghost didn’t come that night. John’s team departed in the morning, and Dave’s family returned.
John and Dave wore forget-me-nots in their buttonholes at their father’s wedding, and the day after, John was on his way back to the bunker to reunite with his team.
The others greeted him warmly. Lorne had a plate of hot food waiting. Sam, Dean, and Miko gave him the choice of video games or movies, and when he picked movies, Vala let him have the remote control.
Rodney was nowhere to be seen. In the music room, Dean said.
After the food and the movie and a few rounds of video games, John excused himself, and the others let him go with little protest, sympathy still shining in their eyes.
John just happened to be waiting when Rodney emerged from the music room.
“Are you stalking me?” Rodney asked.
John nodded at the door. “Lorne says my guitar arrived while I was gone.”
“Oh. Right. Have fun, or whatever it is you types do with your guitars.” Rodney started to walk away.
“What?” He didn’t stop.
John asked, “Is it because I’m a man, or because I’m not fully human?”
Rodney paused. “You’re still on active duty, so I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I saw the flowers you left on my mother’s grave. You’re sweeter than you realize.” John slipped into the music room and made for his guitar, not wanting to hear Rodney’s answer. He played music well into the night, tried to recreate some of the songs he’d heard his mother sing, but it was impossible. Finally, he strummed some familiar chords and sang about walking the line, and he wondered what lines he’d been walking - and crossing.