Strangers and Angels
Just as a reminder, this all started right after Faith, so Dean and Sam haven't talked to John yet, in this universe.
The doctor's diagnosis had been pneumonia. While it was serious, he'd been willing to let Dean avoid the hospital. Doctor Jones had given Jo and Sam detailed instructions on the care Dean would need as he healed.
"I'll drop the scrip off at the pharmacy on my way back to the office. You should be able to pick it up later this afternoon, Josephine," the doctor said as she accompanied him to his car. "He's young and strong. He should be fine."
"Thanks, Doc. If you'll send me the bill, I'll…"
"No charge, Josephine."
He looked at her seriously. "Those boys flirt as sweetly with my Sarah as they do any of those high school girls." He smiled. "That's worth a lot."
And Jo understood.
Sam's first morning working the early shift, he'd waited on the doctor and his daughter. Sarah Jones had been born with Down's syndrome, and at 29, was a fixture in the community. She worked as a crossing guard at the local elementary school and ate breakfast with her father at the diner a couple of times a week.
Sarah had been among the first to fall under the spell of the Winchester brothers. Jo had watched with interest as Sam had interacted with Sarah and her father. He'd been unfailingly kind, asking questions and paying close attention to Sarah's rambling conversational style. When breakfast was over, Sam had accepted an enthusiastic hug with what appeared to be genuine pleasure and an open smile.
The Joneses had returned a couple of days later, and Dean had been on duty. Sarah had asked after Sam, clearly disappointed to have missed him. Not to be outdone by his younger brother, Dean had turned on a surprisingly innocent version of the charm he used to such effect. Jo had been startled at the change—his voice lightened and his eyes widened. Even his face altered slightly, edges easing, softening. It had been like he'd lost 5 years, and Jo had been struck by how young he really was. Unaware of Jo's attention, Dean had teased Sarah gently, eliciting giggles and smiles and by the time breakfast was over, Sarah would have been hard-pressed whether to choose Sam or Dean.
Jo had kept an eye on the doctor, too, careful to gauge his reaction. But Rob Jones had not seemed to mind in the least. He'd watched the exchanges with a smile, leaning across the table to listen to his daughter whenever the boys walked off.
Jo looked at the doctor now, and nodded her appreciation.
"I'll check back with y'all tomorrow. But call me if you have any questions." He smiled again. "You can tell Dean that Sarah will be praying for him."
Jo laughed. "Powerful stuff," she said.
"You know it."
When Jo went back into the room, Dean was sitting propped against the headboard. All three of her nephews—having been specifically banned from the room while the doctor was there—had converged on Dean, while Sam sat by, looking a little dazed.
"How did y'all get in here?" She'd only been gone a couple of minutes.
"You said we had to stay away when Dr. Jones was here," Jacob said accusingly.
"He's gone now."
"We brought Dean the DVD player while he's sick," Michael said. For some reason he'd brought the machine over to Dean at the bed and was actually showing it to him.
"I brought him some books, too." Tommy had gotten on the bed and was kneeling next to Dean. He'd placed a small stack of beginning reader chapter books on Dean's lap, and it was toppling slowly over, books sliding across the bed. "Maybe we could …"
"I told him that you'd make him whatever he wants to eat, cuz that's what you do for us and you make really good chicken soup for me when I'm sick and…" Jake was staring up at her, intent on his own contribution.
Jo blinked, struggling to get her bearings. If Sam was dazed, Dean looked nearly catatonic, the energy and enthusiasm of the younger boys overwhelming all three adults.
"Hey, hey, hey," Jo raised her voice to be heard over the noise. She put a hand to her forehead. "Boys, I need you to settle down, OK? Michael, why don't you go put that with the TV? Can you hook it up on your own?"
The chatter subsided, and Jake went to "help" his older brother get the DVD player attached to the television.
"Baby, why don't you hand me those books." She reached out both hands. "And get off the bed, OK?" Tommy slithered down. "Will you put them on the dresser?" She handed the stack of books back to her youngest. "I don't think Dean feels up to reading right now."
"I could read to him." Tommy piled the books on the dresser. Jo sent Dean an apologetic look, and he smiled weakly at her.
"Thanks, kiddo," he said hoarsely. "Maybe later."
"'kay." Tommy leaned against Jo, watching Dean uncertainly.
She put an arm around him, stroking a hand over his hair. She smiled down at him.
There was some muttering behind the television, but finally Michael and Jacob managed to get the cables connected correctly. And without a blow-out. Michael brought the remote controls over to Dean, turning both machines on and off from across the room to make sure they would work.
"Here." He handed the controls to Dean.
"Thanks, dude." Dean put the remotes down next to him on the bed. "That's going to save me from Oprah."
"We forgot the movies," Jake suddenly realized. "I'll go…"
"You can bring them later. I think Dean's going to need to rest for awhile. He can call us when he's awake, and then you boys can bring him a few, OK?"
There seemed to be general agreement to this plan.
"Alright, then. Boys, y'all have chores that need to get done, so why don't we let Dean get some sleep."
Michael and Jake raised their hands in farewell, and headed for the door. Tommy moved from his aunt to Dean. He reached out, wrapping his arms around the startled man in the bed.
"I hope you feel better," he said.
Dean leaned forward and returned the hug gingerly. "Thanks," he said softly.
Tommy turned and ran out of the room. "See you later," he called over his shoulder.
Sam's eyes followed Tommy and then went to Jo. She walked over to Dean and sat on the edge of the bed.
"Rest and fluids, the doctor said. I'll pick up the prescription later today."
"How much?" Dean asked.
"I'll add it to the tab," she said, not wanting to get into with him. She was wary of telling the boys that the doctor hadn't charged for the visit. Pride.
She was familiar with that particular sin.
Dean nodded, glancing at Sam, who gave him a wry smile.
"I'm going to get Gatorade and some other things while I'm in town. Do you want anything else?"
There was a pause, and then Sam said, "7-Up and saltines?"
A tired smile lit Dean's face when he looked over at his brother, and he started to laugh weakly.
"Dude, don't," he gasped, breath rattling. A round of coughing tore through him.
Jo reached out to steady Dean, offering him some water. Sam surged forward.
Dean took the glass with a trembling hand as the coughing calmed, shaking his head at his brother.
"It's OK. I'm OK," he whispered, taking small sips.
"I didn't mean…"
Dean rolled his eyes, even as he struggled to suppress the cough he still felt tickling deep in his chest. "I know you didn't, Sammy."
Jo kept a reassuring hand on Dean's shoulder. Wanting to dispel the tension that was suddenly palpable again in the room, Jo ventured, "7-Up and saltines?"
Sam was focused so intently on Dean that he didn't seem to have heard the question. Dean looked at Sam, and when he realized Sam wasn't going to answer, said, "That was Dad's all-purpose remedy whenever we were sick. It got to be kind of a joke."
Dean was trying to redirect Sam's attention. "Right, Sammy?" Dean poked his brother with a finger, breaking Sam's concentration.
"Sorry?" Sam blinked at Dean.
"Remember the time you had chicken pox, Sammy?" Dean asked with surprising gentleness, teasing.
Sam was still staring at his brother, pale, but he smiled as he remembered.
"What happened?" Jo asked.
"You were what, nine, Sammy?" Dean grinned at Jo. "We were staying in this pretty run-down place, while Dad was on a job, and Sammy started getting sick. But we didn't want to tell Dad because things had been really tight and this was the first gig Dad had had for awhile, so I just kept buying box after box of crackers and bottle after bottle of 7-Up and forcing them down Sammy's throat thinking he would get better because that was what Dad always did."
The two brothers were grinning at each other. Jo was a little appalled.
"When did your father figure it out?"
Sam snorted. "When I ralphed 7-Up and saltines all over him one night."
Dean was actually giggling, the wheeze threatening again. "And the bright red welts all over your face may have tipped him off, too."
Sam laughed out loud. "Good times."
Jo stood. "7-Up and crackers coming up."
"Thanks." Dean's eyes were exhausted and he sagged against the pillows again.
Jo leaned over and adjusted the covers around him. "You should rest, sweetheart. Do you want to lie down? Or would you be more comfortable sitting up?" Dean started to slide down, and Jo pulled the blanket up over his shoulders. She smoothed a hand over his hair, and Dean's eyes slid closed.
"I'm almost afraid to ask, but is there anything else?"
"Macaroni and cheese?" Dean asked sleepily.
Dean opened one eye.
"Jake said you'd make me whatever I wanted," he said slyly.
Sam smothered a guffaw, eyes going to Jo.
These two, she thought.
Dear God, she loved them.
"Mac and cheese, it is."
Dean's recovery was a slow, painful process. Between the two of them Jo and Sam kept him hydrated, medicated and in bed for the better part of seven days. The "in bed" part had been the most problematic, especially as the week had progressed. The better he felt, the ornerier Dean had gotten, snapping and snarling at both of them when they'd insisted that he rest.
Jo had been better able to deal with the attitude than Sam, who had been reduced to an almost incoherent rage a couple of times, barely able to keep from strangling his brother while he slept.
Even Jo had resorted to thrusting innocents into the lion's den on a few occasions. Tommy was the easiest to use—primarily because Dean's unlimited patience with the boy seemed to make him immune from the outbursts that resulted from Dean's frustration. Jo had even had Tommy take Dean's temperature one afternoon after he'd bitten her head off for asking about it that morning. Tommy's report had been encouraging. 99.5.
Jo tended to be pretty tolerant of grumpy, sick boys. That tolerance was going to end abruptly when this one's temperature dropped below 99.
"Knock, knock," she tapped gently on the door as she pushed it open.
Tommy and Dean were sitting propped against the headboard, legs crossed at the ankles. Tommy was tucked against Dean's side, and Dean had an arm draped over Tommy's shoulders.
"What are y'all doing?"
"I'm reading." Tommy looked up from the book on his lap.
"Oh, yeah?" Jo walked into the room. "What are you reading?"
"Magic Tree House."
"Ah." Tommy's favorite series.
She looked at Dean. "What do you think?"
"Pretty good," he acknowledged. "Tommy reads a good story."
'Yes, he does. I love it when he reads to me."
"How're you feeling?"
She picked up the thermometer off the bedside table. She held it, looking at him expectantly.
Dean looked down at Tommy, who smiled up at him, climbing onto his knees so that he could watch the procedure. Sighing, Dean tilted his head, giving Jo access to his ear.
The thermometer beeped. 98.7—close enough to normal to free him.
She showed it to him.
Dean gaped. "Really?" He looked at her, eyes wide. "Under 99, right? I'm well, right? I can leave the room now, right?"
She smiled, and Dean poised to spring out of the bed.
"Wait." He froze, brows drawing into a scowl at being thwarted.
"You still need to take it easy."
"I'm fine!" It burst from him almost at a shout. "I don't have a temperature any more! You said…"
Jo pointed a long finger at him. "You best mind that tone with me, Dean Winchester," she said with a snap.
Dean's own mouth closed on a snap as well, shock registering on his features. Tommy was watching solemnly.
"When you're all better, Aunt Jo yells again," he informed Dean.
Dean's eyes went from Tommy to Jo, who was staring at him expressionlessly. "She does?"
Dean eased back onto the bed. Jo could see the restlessness and frustration boiling just under the surface, but he controlled it. "When can I get up?" he asked coldly.
"You're a grown man, Dean. You can get up whenever you want."
He narrowed his eyes at her.
"All I wanted to say was that you're better now, but you're still not at full-strength. You're going to need to be careful not to make yourself sick again." She gave him a level look, and he nodded his understanding.
"And I might add that your brother has taken a lot of crap from you the last couple of days." She raised an eyebrow at him. "He's been pretty patient with you, but be warned that the reservoir is pretty shallow right now." The young man was implicit in her tone.
Dean swallowed, something in his eyes shifting.
He nodded, standing stiffly.
"I'm sorry," he said gruffly, head bowed. He watched her carefully through his eyelashes.
Good Lord, she thought, momentarily distracted. Does he know what that does to a woman? A small smile started on Dean's face, and Jo almost snorted. Of course he does.
She shook her head at him.
"You're forgiven," she said blandly. "Try that with your brother, please?"
Dean's head came up, a grin splitting his thin face. "Do I have to say the actual words?" he asked her.
"Yes," she said emphatically, at least partially for the benefit of the small ears attached to the other boy in the room.
Dean shrugged and started for the door. "Where is Sam?"
"Next door, I think."
He was almost past her when he paused, turning awkwardly. He took a step to her, and hesitantly put his arms around her. "Thank you," he said softly.
Jo, accustomed to sudden, unpredictable hugs from the males around her, didn't miss a beat. She returned the embrace, careful not to hold on too long.
"You're welcome, sweetheart," she said, brushing a light kiss against his cheek. "I'm glad you're feeling better."
When he pulled away, Dean stopped, meeting Jo's eyes with a shy, aching look that almost took her breath away, it was so filled with emotion and longing. She was staggered.
But before she could react, Dean's eyes dropped and he ducked his head, quickly leaving the room.
Overwhelmed, Jo stood frozen, putting an unsteady hand to her heart.
"Mama?" A light touch on her elbow.
"Yeah, baby?" She shook herself and dropped her hand to the bright head next to her.
"Can Dean and Sam live with us forever?"
Jo felt her throat tighten painfully.
"That would be nice, wouldn't it?" she said, her voice thick, smiling down at Tommy. "But, honey, I don't think they can. They have a daddy and a life that they're going to want to get back to eventually."
"I don't want them to go." His voice was muffled, face pressed into her waist.
"I know, baby. I don't either."
She held him, rubbing her hand over his back. They stood still until Tommy moved restlessly.
"Help me strip the bed, pumpkin-head?" She took his chin in her hand and gave a gentle shake.
Dean opened the door and walked into the room. Sam was sitting on the floor, carefully painting the baseboard.
Sam turned. "Hey!" His face registered first pleasure, then worry, then disapproval as he looked up at his brother.
"What are you doing? Does Jo know you're out of bed?" He was struggling to his feet, a frown darkening his features.
Dean took a couple of steps back, raising his hands. "Dude, relax. She knows. She sprung me."
"Really?" Pleasure again. Then suspicion. "Really?"
"Yeah, man. My temp's under 99. I'm clear."
"Dude!" Sam crossed the space between them in two long strides. "That's awesome!"
"Yeah." Dean leaned away, eyeing his brother suspiciously. His hands stayed up. "You're not going to try to hug me or anything?"
"Nah." Sam rocked back. But he was grinning like an idiot. "That's just really great news."
"Yeah," Dean said a little abashedly. He stepped to the side and looked around the room. "Sam, you've done a great job."
Sam beamed. "Yeah. Well. Without you around to get in my way…"
Dean grinned at him. He walked across the room, taking in the changes and the improvements. He stopped at the bookshelves. Sam joined him.
"We made a good team on those," Dean said.
"Don't kid yourself. You did a great job on those," Sam said. He smiled as he turned to his brother. "I just did what you drew."
Amazingly, Dean felt his face grow hot at the praise from Sam. He shook his head. "You're the one who…"
Sam laughed, clapping a hand on Dean's shoulder. "… did nothing," he finished. "They were your plans, Dean. I just executed them." He smiled over at his brother. "Jo's been really pleased with how things turned out."
Sam gave his brother's shoulder a firm squeeze and dropped his hand. He walked back to his previous position. Long legs folded under him as he dropped to the floor.
"You should go over and look at 13. We just need to put the carpet in and then move the furniture back in, and we'll be done." Sam looked over his shoulder at Dean.
"That close." Dean said it quietly.
Sam shrugged. "Pretty much." He scanned the room they were in. "I give this one another couple of days."
Dean nodded. He trailed after Sam, coming to a stop next to him. He lowered himself slowly to the floor.
"You OK?" Sam asked.
"Yeah," Dean said. "Just, you know, checking on your work." Dean was tired already and that sucked.
Sam nodded, eyeing Dean speculatively. The slightly concerned look, tempered by a smirk told Dean that Sam suspected the truth.
"You missed a spot," Dean said, pointing.
Dean's phone rang just as they were starting dinner. It startled everyone, and while there was a muttered, "No phones at the dinner table," from one of the boys, the look Jo gave him was one of surprise, not censure.
"Sorry," he mumbled, digging into his pocket. He only kept it with him out of habit; it hadn't rung in days. He glanced at the caller ID. Not a number he recognized. He looked over at Sam, who was watching him quizzically.
"Excuse me," Dean said, getting up from the table.
"Dad?" Dean's voice cracked. "Are you OK? Where are you?" He heard the sound of a chair being pushed back and over, and Sam was suddenly at his side.
"Is he alright?" Sam, anxious beside him.
"I'm fine, Dean. Where are you boys? Why aren't you in Flagstaff?"
"I sent you coordinates a week ago. Why haven't you…?"
"Coordinates…?" Dean looked at Sam, whose face flamed.
"I forgot," he whispered. "You were sick, I just…"
Dean shook his head at his brother, a range of emotions churning inside—embarrassment that his illness had caused them to fail their father, frustration that Sam had let it, understanding at why Sam had, and, underneath it all, a pit of realization that their time here was over.
"Dad, I'm sorry, we…"
"Goddamn it, Dean! If I can't count on you two to follow orders and go where I tell you to go, people are going to die. Do you understand that?"
"Yes, sir." Dean's head went down. He rubbed a tired hand over his eyes as his father continued to berate him. "Yes, sir, I know." He glanced over at Sam.
Sam's eyes had narrowed as he listened to Dean's responses to the harsh, angry voice he could hear coming through the line.
"Tell him you were sick," he demanded. Dean jerked his head, rejecting that idea. "Tell him I was sick then," he said. "He should know that we didn't just ignore him, Dean. Don't let him yell at you for something that wasn't your fault." Sam's fierce whisper thrummed with frustration—with their father, with Dean himself.
Dean felt stretched between the two of them, unable to live up to either of their expectations or demands. He let both of their voices roll over him, waiting for a break when he could get the conversation back to the matter at hand. Flagstaff.
Suddenly, the phone was snatched from his hand. "Sam!"
"Dean was sick, OK, Dad? It's my fault we're not where we're supposed to be." Sam's voice was getting louder, deepening in his anger. "The coordinates came, Dean was coughing his freaking lungs up, and I forgot! OK? I forgot!" Sam was in full yell now, heedless of Dean's attempts to calm him. Dean reached around Sam, getting a grip on the phone while Sam was focused on John.
It didn't take much to wrest the cell out of his brother's hand. Sam was apparently distracted enough by the opportunity to scream at their father one more time that he didn't put up much of a fight. But the activity still left Dean breathless. And on the verge of a coughing fit.
"Dad, I'm sorry, he…"
"You were sick?" John's tone had changed radically. "It must have been bad, if you were willing to admit it." His father said wryly, but there was worry there as well. Damn Sam.
"I'm fine," Dean said, with a glare at his brother, who matched him with one of his own.
"What was it? Are you OK?"
"It wasn't anything, Dad…"
"It was pneumonia," Sam said loudly, trying to speak into the phone his brother was holding. "And it was bad."
Dean elbowed Sam sharply in the gut, smiling grimly at the grunt of pain behind him. He shouldered his younger brother aside.
"Dad, really. I'm OK now. I'm sorry we didn't get there. We can go. We'll leave tomorrow."
"I've already taken care of it."
Dean felt the blow like a punch. "Dad, I'm sorry."
"Dean," John's voice was pitched low. "Son, it's not your fault. You were sick. That happens." There was a long pause, and Dean tried to figure out what response was expected of him. "Put your brother back on the phone." Nothing evidently.
"Now, Dean." Dean's jaw tightened, but he handed the phone to his brother.
Face wary, Sam took it.
Sam's eyes went to the floor immediately. "Yeah." Pause. "Yeah." Pause. "Me, too." His face lost its tight, angry look, and as he continued to listen, his eyes came up to Dean's.
"A lot better." He listened for a moment. "He's still coughing some, and he gets tired pretty easily." Dean felt his ears get hot. God DAMN, it! He took a menacing step toward his brother, but Sam fended him off with an upraised hand and a serious expression.
"Yes, sir." Pause. "No, sir." A longer pause. "Yes, sir, I will."
Sam handed the phone back to Dean.
Dean took it with a scowl.
"You boys stay put for a few more days. Until you're completely well."
"Do you hear me, Dean?"
Dean could actually hear the amusement in his father's voice at the petulance Dean had been unable to suppress. "Be smart, kiddo. If you're not a hundred percent, you're putting yourself and your brother in danger. You know that."
Dean sighed. "Yeah."
"I'll call in a couple of days."
And he was gone.
Slowly, Dean closed his cell phone.
"Did he say where…?"
Dean cut him off. "No," he said sharply and headed back into the kitchen.
Four sets of eyes followed the Winchester brothers from the mudroom to the table.
"Everything alright?" Jo asked gently.
Dean nodded as he sat down. "Sorry to interrupt dinner."
Sam had trailed behind and just picked up his plate and took it to the counter.
"I'm not very hungry," he said. Dean started eating.
Jo's eyes went from one to the other. "That's fine, honey. I'll put in the fridge if you want it later."
Sam nodded, eyes on Dean. "Thanks," he said softly. "Good-night."
Dean felt his shoulders tighten when the door shut behind his brother. He knew the entire family was watching him, but he ignored them, willing no one to ask him a question.
"Why was Sam yelling?" Tommy asked tremulously.
"Tommy." Dean saw her shake her head at her youngest nephew before sending Dean an apologetic smile.
Dean shrugged, returning his attention to his meal.
He ate like an automaton, determined to get through dinner as if nothing was wrong.
But even as he moved his fork from plate to mouth in a steady rhythm, he could feel his control starting to slip.
The humiliation of having his weakness exposed to his father, Sam's anger and disapproval, his father's distance, the lingering effects of his illness, and the knowledge that he and Sam would be leaving soon, combined with the concerned sympathy of the four people sitting around the table, watching him worriedly, was about to undo him completely.
He knew, he knew, that if Jo said anything at all, he'd be finished. But retreat seemed too obvious, so he held his ground, intent on finishing his meal and maintaining some sort of dignity before he slunk off to lick his wounds.
Dinner was finished in complete silence until the boys, getting up slowly to clear the table were dismissed by their aunt.
"I'll get the dishes tonight, boys. Go on upstairs."
Dean continued to sit, eyes fixed on his now empty plate, but unable to move even as the boys clattered out of the kitchen without a word.
Jo stood, picking up her plate. She was still for a long moment.
"Give me a hand?"
Dean brought his head up, meeting her eyes, feeling the emotion he was trying to hold back begin to force its way free. But she just smiled, holding out a plate to him. He swallowed hard as he took it from her.
They worked without speaking, and Dean felt the tension start to ease, listening to the pieces of whatever tune Jo was singing under her breath, the sounds of the kids upstairs, the hum of the ancient refrigerator. There was comfort in taking care of the every day things, in working beside someone, in doing something as simple as the dishes. Dean felt himself settle. Normal, he thought in wonder. Safe.
After they finished, Dean pulled Sam's plate out of the fridge. "I'll take this to him."
She turned away from sink, drying her hands in a gesture that suddenly reminded Dean of that first night in her kitchen.
"Can I do anything?" she asked. There was worry in her gaze and what he'd begun to recognize as love. The phone conversation she'd overheard clearly concerned her.
Dean shook his head. "No." He took a deep breath. "Thanks, though." He paused. "That was Dad."
She looked at him. "I figured."
"What gave it away?" He couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
"Sam's yelling was pretty clear," she said wryly. "Is…" she hesitated, "Is you dad OK?"
His eyes met hers and then shifted way. "Yeah, he's fine." And then apologetically, "It's complicated."
Jo nodded, letting it go, and Dean was grateful for the understanding.
"We're going to have to leave soon," he said softly.
"I know." He could see that she still had questions, but she didn't ask. She wouldn't expect answers of him that somehow she knew he wouldn't or couldn't give.
They looked at each other for a long moment.
Dean nodded. "Good-night."
The morning they left was crisp and clear.
Sam slammed the trunk of the Impala, and Jo handed him a huge brown paper bag.
She cleared her throat. "I, uh, made y'all some food for the road."
Sam opened the top and peered in, walking toward the front of the car. "Wow." He stopped by the passenger door and grinned at her in amazement. "Jo, this is wonderful. Thank you."
He rolled the top of the bag down, putting it on the front seat. He turned toward her and stepped forward, engulfing her in a hug. "Thank you so much for everything," he said.
Jo clung to him for a moment. She sniffed as she stepped away.
"Take care of your brother," she said softly.
He nodded, eyes serious. "I will."
Jo looked over at Dean, watching him say good-bye to her nephews. He shook hands with Michael, slapping him on the back, making the boy laugh with some quiet comment.
Next came Jacob. Jake stood next to his older brother, and he, too, held out his hand for Dean to shake. Dean took it, shaking it firmly before he pulled the boy in for a brief hug, ruffling his hair and punching him playfully. Jacob emerged, flustered, but laughing, shoving at Dean.
There was no handshake for Tommy who threw his arms around Dean, burying his face in Dean's jacket. Dean crouched down next to the boy, putting himself at eye level with Tommy. He talked softly, just for Tommy, who listened with his head bowed. Tommy tilted forward, putting his arms around Dean's neck, and Jo could see the emotion on Dean's face as he pulled the boy close. He stood, still holding Tommy, adjusting the weight in his arms as he walked over to Jo and Sam.
"I've got something attached to my neck, Sam, can you see what it is?" Dean's arms came from around Tommy, who continued to cling to Dean, legs dangling. Jo heard a snort of laughter buried in Dean's shoulder.
"Dude, that's serious," Sam reached out, hands under Tommy's arm pits. "Let me see what I can do." And he dug in his fingers, tickling.
Tommy released with a shriek, and Sam tossed him high, swinging him around and throwing him over his shoulder. "There. That's got it." Tommy continued to giggle as Sam moved to the other boys, hands around Tommy's ankles, lowering him slowly to the ground over his back.
"They're going to miss you two," Jo said with a smile.
Dean looked at her for a long moment, struggling with what to say. He fought the urge to say something quippy, something that would help him re-establish distance. But he couldn't get out the words.
Dean felt the ache in the back of his throat and tried to clear it. "They're cool kids."
Jo nodded, watching him, eyes soft.
"You're a good man, Dean Winchester," she said quietly.
Dean's breath caught in his throat as Jo reached out a hand, pressing her palm gently against his cheek. "Your mother would be proud."
To his horror, Dean felt tears start behind his eyelids. Reading the look on his face, Jo laughed out loud, her own tears falling, and she pulled him into a hard, fierce hug.
"You and Sam will always have a home here," she whispered. She tightened her embrace around him. "You remember that, Dean. Always."
Dean pressed his face into her neck, nodding.
"Thank you." His voice was rough, tight with emotion. He took a moment, and then put his hands on her shoulders, moving her gently away. He smiled at her—not one of the smiles she'd seen from him before, guarded or cocky or smug. This smile was genuine, open and warm. And it was beautiful to behold.
Sam asked it quietly behind him, the three boys moving close to Jo even as Sam joined his brother.
Sam and Dean climbed into the car, Dean behind the steering wheel, Sam folding long legs into the passenger seat. They both rolled down their windows. Dean put the car in reverse, backing out of the parking space. Slowly, Dean straightened the car, pointing the nose toward the open road. He stopped, looking over at Sam, who was talking to the boys, teasing them as he leaned partially out the window. Sam turned back to his brother, and caught Dean's glance. He nodded.
"Y'all stand back," Sam said, pushing at Jacob and Tommy who were running next to the car, fingers trailing along the side. He lifted a hand to Jo, standing with an arm around Michael a few yards away.
They raised their hands as well, and with one last glance, Dean put the car in drive and pulled away.