Sam and Bobby watched in mesmerized fascination as the thick, oozing mist dissipated; through the fading haze they could see Dean's motionless outline becoming more and more manifest; it was only as the haze eventually vanished that he crumpled bonelessly to the floor with a choking grunt.
Shaking themselves out of their stupor, Sam and Bobby dashed over to the sprawled body.
"Dude; hey, Dean, can you hear me?" Sam knelt over his brother; "It's me, Sammy."
Gently patting the side of Dean's slack jaw, Sam smiled in relief as he sighed heavily, and his eyelids fluttered open.
"Yeah dude, it's me, an' Bobby's here too," Sam slid a hand under Dean's neck to help him sit up.
"Hey kid," Bobby smiled, squeezing Dean's shoulder.
Dean stared wordlessly at the two faces above him, eyes completely blank; "y-you're not dead?"
"Uh no," Sam smiled, "we're alive an' kicking thankfully." He glanced across to Bobby and for the first time noticed the broad streaks of grey in the older man's hair and beard; an indicator of the ordeal they had both suffered. His hand instinctively travelled towards his own fringe, fingers nervously threading through the unruly hair.
He hesitated, "what happened? Are you okay?"
Dean blinked hard, "they're all gone Sam. It's all over."
Looking back at Bobby, Sam’s face was a mixture of confusion, fear and joy at having his brother back; he turned back to Dean; "how?"
"I healed them," Dean said matter-of-factly.
"How'd you manage that, son?" Bobby asked patiently.
"Don' know – I just did." Dean looked from Bobby to Sam, he could see they both wanted answers and he had none to give; "they said something about me suffering the way they had suffered with the same blood or somethin'." He shrugged; "don' know."
"Well, what'd ya do?" Bobby coaxed.
Dean shifted uncomfortably, and began to rub his still-aching shoulders. "I just told them I wasn't afraid of them and told them they were good people an' then they got better," He muttered with a shrug. "Then a bright light came down over them and they just vanished. Gone to the better place they should have gone all those hundreds of years ago, I guess."
He hesitated, and a soft smile spread across his face; "that's when the mist went and I came back here."
He looked up at the two bemused men.
"That's why we stopped bein' afraid," added Bobby with a heavy sigh. "Jeez boy, you done your stuff just in time. I tell ya, that was close – My poor ticker ain't gonna forget that in a while!"
"You should have seen them," Dean said sadly; "they were so broken, so bitter and afraid, so infected; in so much pain. They were dying over and over again," he looked up, eyes swimming with tears; "all they wanted was to be released. They didn't want to hurt anyone, they were just spirits of ordinary people – guys like us, little children, moms; good harmless people." He hesitated before attempting to continue; "they were just walking, suffering corpses."
Sam smiled, "but not any more bro’; they're free now, and that's all thanks to you." Dean wiped his eyes; "yeah" he sighed with a watery smile, scanning the panic-room and looking at the mess of smashed eggs smeared across the floor.
He looked up at Bobby, "was that breakfast?"
Later that afternoon, the brothers sat recovering from the morning's traumas. Sprawled out on the couch, Dean revelled in the first beer Sam had allowed him since the rescue. It had been a hard fought victory, and exhausted from all the pleading and sulking, Dean was determined to enjoy the fruits of his labours.
Staring idly at some crappy daytime tv show, Sam sipped his beer and tried hard to ignore the sideways glances that kept coming from his brother.
Eventually he couldn't take it any longer. "OK, out with it" he snapped.
Dean grinned. "Nice highlights, dude."
Sam scowled; "make the most of it smartass, as soon as we leave here the first thing I'm doing is buying a bottle of hair dye."
Over the following two days Dean's recovery progressed smoothly and without incident.
Much to his delight, he regained full use of his hands, and the agonizing stiffness in his shoulders and ribs continued to ease. Even Sam began to back off to give his recovering brother the increasing independence he craved; although old habits died hard …
"Hey, you're back's healing up good bro'."
"Sam, I swear if you look through that shower curtain one more time I'm gonna start swinging!"
Bobby had left the brothers to their own devices, spending the bulk of his time ensconsed in his study with his books, one ear grafted to the phone.
It was on the third morning that he emerged hollow-eyed from the room, stretching and blinking, and strolled into the lounge to find Sam in full bitchface mode with Dean settled on the coach grinning evilly.
Dean looked up; "see Sammy, the grey stuff suits Bobby 'cos he's old anyway."
Bobby reached down and cuffed Dean across the back of the head. "I might be old, but I've discovered what was so special about your smug ass that you healed the spirit." He folded his arms; "D’y wanna hear it, or ya gonna sit there making smart comments?"
Sam snorted; "yeah, c'mon Bobby; it'll make a change to hear someone talking sense." He turned and glared at Dean.
Dean grinned back at his brother; "yeah, me an' the bride of Frankenstein here are all ears."
Bobby sighed and sat down. "Well, it's been a goddamn marathon, "but with a few good London contacts who know their way around the territory, we've managed to piece it all together."
"Now, Dean, did you say that the spirits said something about suffering from the same blood?"
"Yeah," Dean replied, "I didn't get what that means;" he thought for a moment, "it don't mean I've got the plague does it?"
Bobby shook his head; "moron!"
"I think they mean you suffered 'at the hands of the same blood'." He corrected.
He was met with two blank faces.
"We think that means that the hunter who bound the spirit to the ring and ferret man hunter that locked you up were both part of the same bloodline as the witch who cursed those poor sonsofbitches originally".
He paused to see if he was making any inroads into his audience, and continued. "It seems witchcraft ran in the family until around the time of the witch hunts throughout Europe in the 16th century. Then they changed sides to save their skins and became hunters. Not very popular with both sides though, as you can imagine; the practitioners of dark magic despised them – saw them as traitors and other hunters never really trusted or accepted them."
Dean nodded thoughtfully, "that would explain how the hunter who bound the spirit a hundred years ago knew about the original witch's spell so well".
Bobby nodded in agreement, "yeah, and it seems he bound another spell into the ring too. One that I missed…"
The brothers glanced at each other, then back to Bobby.
"The spell said that if ever a member of the bloodline should be harmed or killed by a supernatural force or another hunter, the spirit would be released; free of the ring and free of the house."
Bobby shrugged, "a sort of insurance, I suppose;" he grunted, "other hunters knew the spirit's reputation and would never take the risk of having it roaming free."
Of course, I didn't know this, so when I wasted ferret man, shortly afterwards the spell kicked in – thankfully after I'd got it in the curse box."
Bobby smiled; "you both know the rest."
He looked at Dean, "so you suffered at the hands of the same bloodline as those poor spirits; that was their redemption. You could empathise with them, and that made you the key to freeing and healing their spirits."
Dean looked up at Bobby and frowned; "it's an insult to say that I suffered the same as them. What I went through is nothing; can't even begin to compare with what they suffered for centuries and centuries."
Bobby smiled; "kid, you know as well as I do; magic doesn't work in shades of grey. You suffered, they suffered. That's all."
Sam spoke up, "anyway, what does it matter? You saved them, you healed the spirit; it's all over. No-one else is going to get hurt and it's all because of you."
Dean sighed, "Yeah, but …"
"But nuthin', boy," snapped Bobby; "you did this, an' it was all down to you defying those two sonsofbitches, so quit whining an' take some friggin' credit for once!"
Sam looked at his brother; "better do as he says, dude; Bobby's far more scary than that spirit."
Dean smiled wickedly, "yeah, specially with the highlights."
It was another week before Sam and Bobby deemed that Dean was well enough to hit the road, and parting, although never easy, was harder than usual on this occasion.
The three men stood in the yard, Dean leaning against his baby's gleaming black hood.
"Right, Bobby, me and Cruella are hitting the road," he smiled, offering Bobby his hand; Bobby took the offered hand and pulled Dean into a hug. "Look after yourself son;" he whispered, "you take care of that back, ya hear?"
Dean grinned, "you got it Bobby, an' thanks for everything."
"It's me who should thank you," smiled Bobby.
Dean frowned, "don't start that again, otherwise I'm gonna hurl!"
Bobby leaned across and hugged Sam tightly as Dean stood, looking on awkwardly and fidgeting. He looked at his watch; "hey you two; are you done yet, or do I need to get myself measured up for a bridesmaids dress?"
Bobby grinned, slapping Sam on the back, "go on, get outta here ya pair o' idjits."
Dean slipped behind the wheel and slammed the door as Sam climbed in beside him; he fired up the engine and the Impala gave a roar of delight at his touch.
Finally, they pulled away, leaving Bobby standing on the doorstep smiling sadly as he watched his family leave.
They had been driving for several hours, passing through a number of small, forgettable towns despite Sam's pleas to stop; Dean was enjoying the feeling of his baby's wheel beneath his fingers and the wind in his hair far too much.
They eventually stopped when, and only when, Dean felt hungry enough to consider doing so; and as they explored the dismal little town they had arrived in Sam spied a drug store, disappearing inside before Dean had a chance to protest.
Leaning idly against a derelict outbuilding outside the drug store, Dean tucked into a bag of candy. He smiled to himself as he thought there was no way on Earth he was going to accompany a man looking for hair dye into a store. Relaxing and chomping noisily on his candy, he watched the world go by; enjoying his new found freedom after the stifling confinement of the last few days.
Tipping the last few sweets into his mouth, he screwed the bag into a ball and began scanning the street for a trashcan.
All the sights and sounds of the busy street washed over him; a hubbub of white noise against a backdrop of shop-frontages, cars and crowds; he regarded the throngs of people walking by with glazed detachment until two people caught his eye.
An elegantly dressed woman walked past, her stylish sandy hair brushing the collar of her crisp black jacket; the curves of her fitted jeans and heeled boots drawing Dean's admiring attention. She led a little blonde girl by the hand; skipping happily alongside her mother, the pretty little thing tightly hugged a toy dog and gazed curiously up at Dean with big grey eyes. He smiled down at her, giving a playful wink, as they passed.
The woman turned; a warm smile playing on her high-cheeked face. He looked into her grey eyes, and his heart froze.
Stunned, he stood in an unblinking daze as he watched the pair walk past, shaking his head in confusion as he dwelt on that face. No, it can't be … It must be all those painkillers Sam's been shoving down me. He continued watching as the two figures walked away, until the woman turned again and looked back at him with a beckoning smile.
Against his better judgement, he began to follow them through the busy main street; threading his way through the crowds, never losing sight of them. He watched intently as the woman led the little girl into a side road.
"Hey?" He called, trying to keep his voice light so as not to scare the woman or her daughter. When she stopped and turned to face him, Dean instantly saw there was no fear in her grey eyes, just an affectionate warmth.
Dean approached them slowly. "A-are you …?"
The woman smiled, and looked deep into Dean's eyes; "thank you, my friend," she whispered. Reaching up, she gently laid a palm against the side of Dean's face, and gradually, her striking grey eyes drifted from his, fixing on a spot somewhere behind him.
He turned to look, but there was nothing to see; puzzled, he turned back, but the woman and her child were gone.
Now he really was bewildered; was he seeing things or was that really the woman from within the spirit?
He shrugged and decided to head back towards the drug store; Sam must have chosen which stupid shade of black or brown or whatever he wanted to be by now.
As he walked back towards the main street, he could hear a commotion, and turning into main street, he saw a crowd of people around the spot where he had just been standing. As he approached them, Sam burst from the crowd and dashed towards him, his face a wide-eyed mask of panic.
He ran up to Dean and pulled him into a hug, "Dean, thank God, I thought I'd lost you again."
Dean squirmed out of the hug; "okay, calm down dude, I only went for a walk," he gasped. Heck, this day was getting weirder by the minute.
"No," Sam gulped frantically, pointing back up the street. "Right where I left you standing; look, a storm drain collapsed, the whole side of the building collapsed into the hole." They both stared at the half buried pile of rubble; a haze of thick, choking dust floating around it. "You would have been right there - where it came down. "Dean," he choked, "I thought you were under all that; you would have been dead for sure."
Dean stared open mouthed at the pile of rubble, the flurry of activity around it, the wailing sirens, the milling crowds. He turned back to Sam, wide eyed and speechless. Sam carefully shook his shoulder; "hey, what's wrong dude, you look like you've seen a ghost."
Snapping back into alertness, Dean gathered his wits and smiled back at his brother; "seen one, saved by one…"
Sam frowned, "Uh?"
Dean chuckled, looking back towards the little side road; "never mind," he grinned, slapping Sam hard on the back.
"C'mon bitch, I'm hungry, I want that burger you promised me."