"Need a hand?" said Sam and Jean looked up at him, slightly startled.
"Lord, you made me jump!" she scolded and he looked apologetic.
"Sorry, I'm used to having to move quietly with our line of work." he said with a grin, reflecting how nice it was not to have to hide things for a change.
"I'm sure you do." said Jean, looking worried all over again.
"It's really not that bad." said Sam softly, feeling guilty that they were worrying Jean like this.
She didn't look convinced but patted him on the arm as she stood, appreciating the attempt to make her feel better.
"I think I'm just about done here. Why don't you help me fix us up some tea – I promise I won't make you wear the apron." she said with a devilish grin and Sam laughed.
"Thanks. You know I swear Dean is never gonna let that go. Forty years from now he's gonna be.." Sam stopped, a stricken look appearing on his face as he just realised what he'd said.
Jean saw and felt her stomach clench at the pain in Sam's eyes. Taking hold of his arm firmly but tenderly she literally pulled him along towards the house, knowing that he would want privacy for the conversation they were about to have.
Sam followed almost in a daze and it was only when Jean gently pushed him into a chair in the front room that he realised they were inside. She sat down next to him, taking his hand in hers and squeezing it.
"Come on now. Talk to me." she said gently and Sam was horrified to feel his eyes fill with tears.
"I just don't know how to deal with this. I mean I understand why Dean did it, I'd have done the same if you want the truth, but part of me is still mad at him. How can he not know how important he is to me? How can I think I can just carry on without him, just live my life like nothing happened. I told him, after he admitted he'd made the deal. I asked him what made him think I didn't feel the same way about him that he does about me. And I swear, it's never even occurred to him. I mean, yeah I might have told him once or twice before. When things got bad and I was thinking the worst, and after Dad died when he was feeling so guilty. But it's like it didn't register, any of it. I just want to shake him, you know? But then I want to grab hold of him and never let go. Just the thought of Dean not being here this time next year – I can't even begin to get my head round it. He's my brother, my best friend – he's the only family I have. I can't loose him and I can't bear the thought of what's going to happen to him."
Sam's voice was practically a whisper now, and his voice broke on the final words. Jean reacted instinctively, reaching forward and pulling Sam to her. As he buried his face in her shoulder she felt the way he was shaking and tightened her grip.
"It's alright, Sam. It's ok." she said softly and Sam allowed a few tears to fall. He'd only cried once since Dean had told him, that first night in the bathroom when he'd felt the total and utter terror at what his brother had done kick in. But now in the comfort of Jean's embrace he allowed all his fear and pain to come to the surface.
Dean meanwhile had found Toby in the shed sharpening an axe, the other equipment strewn on the bench testament to his afternoon's work.
"Hey." said Dean and Toby looked up and smiled at him.
"Hey yourself. Enjoy your nap?" he said, sounding amused, and Dean grinned self consciously.
"Yeah, thanks. It was nothing personal you know. We haven't really had much time for sleeping lately."
Toby shook his head. "I'll bet. Well, you know you boys are welcome to stay here as long as you need." he said and Dean smiled.
"We appreciate that. To be honest it feels good to slow down for five minutes. And Sam could do with the rest. He's so determined to find a way out of this deal, I'm just worried he's gonna make himself ill looking for it." said Dean worriedly.
Toby put down the axe and leaned back against the bench.
"Can you blame him? I reckon the idea of what might happen in a year's time is his worst nightmare." he said. Dean sighed and looked at him, his expression a mixture of helplessness and frustration.
"I get that, of course I do. But what am I supposed to do? I can't undo the deal and I wouldn't want to anyway. When he was.." Dean stopped and swallowed, rubbing his hand over his eyes. "When he was gone it was worse than I ever thought it could be. He's all I have, Toby. He's my entire family. It's always been just the two of us and I can't live without that. I just can't."
"And neither can Sam." said Toby softly and Dean closed his eyes briefly, knowing the old man was right.
"So what are we supposed to do?" he said, spreading his hands wide in a helpless gesture.
Toby sighed. "Well, first off I reckon you need to understand just how much Sam needs you to believe he can do this. He's not gonna give up on you, just like you wouldn't give up on him. Now you owe it to him not to give up on yourself. I get that you think you can protect him by sacrificing yourself but you gotta understand if you do that you'll be hurting him worse than anything else ever could." he said.
Dean swallowed, feeling deep inside that Toby was speaking the truth but struggling to cope with the idea of changing habits that went back 22 years.
"Sometimes if you believe in something badly enough then it can happen, no matter how impossible it seems. And I'll tell you something else. I'll be damned if that boy doesn't just find that way out for you – I swear I've never seen anyone more determined to do something in my whole life. Believe in Sam and believe in yourself and the rest you can handle. That's what I reckon." he said simply.
"That easy?" said Dean ruefully and Toby grinned.
"Now I don't recall saying it'll be easy. But seems to me like you've dealt with worse and survived. You boys are fighters." he said and Dean ducked his head, blushing at the proud look on Toby's face when he said that.
He sighed. "When you put it like that." he said and Toby grinned, clapping him on the shoulder.
"Atta boy. Now do me a favour and hand me that knife would you? I'm almost done here."
Dean handed him the knife and watched as Toby expertly sharpened it, loosing himself in the rhythmic movements as he mulled over what they'd just discussed.
Inside Sam had finally managed to pull himself together and was wiping his eyes with yet another handkerchief Jean had magically produced from somewhere. He looked embarrassed.
"I'm sorry. I'm not usually like this." he said and Jean shook her head.
"Now you've got nothing to be sorry for, you hear me? Most folks I know would have gone to pieces trying to deal with something like this. You've got nothing to be ashamed of." she scolded gently.
Sam smiled, appreciating the understanding. He was still glad Dean hadn't seen him like that though.
"What are we supposed to do?" he said, unknowingly echoing Dean's question to Toby. Jean thought about it.
"Seems to me you just need to keep doing what you are doing. Working on a way to fix this, being there for each other. Making the most of your time together. I'm not saying that you're not gonna have many more years of that left – I'll be praying that you do. But truth is none of us know how long we've got. The trick is to enjoy every day and that way whatever happens, you won't have any regrets." she said.
Sam sighed. It made sense what she was saying and he'd already known there was no easy answer to all this. He still couldn't help wishing there was a magic wand someone could wave but the reality was they had to deal with this themselves. But he knew Jean was right – he was in danger of becoming so focused on a way out for Dean that he would miss out on all the important stuff. And it was true, even people who weren't facing the dangers they did never knew how long they had.
He smiled at Jean and took a deep breath, trying to compose himself.
"Didn't you want a hand in the kitchen?" he said and Jean smiled.
"Why yes I did. Come on, I'm sure despite what he said earlier your brother could manage some of my cake." she said and Sam laughed as he followed her out into the kitchen.
Sam looked up as the back door opened and Dean and Toby came in, Dean laughing at something Toby had just said. He was just finishing setting the table while Jean made fresh coffee and sliced up some of her fruit cake to go with the sandwiches she'd insisted on making. If nothing else they would be leaving a pound or two heavier than when they arrived.
Dean glanced over at him and grinned.
"No apron today then, Samantha?" he said and Sam gave a long suffering sigh, ignoring the comment.
"Now, Dean, what have I told you about teasing your brother?" said Jean with mock sternness but Dean just carried on grinning as he passed Sam on his way to the bathroom to wash his hands.
Sam whacked him lightly on the shoulder as he went past but truth was he was pleased to see Dean in a lighter mood. He wondered if he'd been talking to Toby the same way he had to Jean.
Well, maybe not quite the same way, he thought, blushing again as he remembered his mortifying breakdown.
Toby washed his hands at the kitchen sink and exchanged a glance with Jean. She nodded slightly and smiled, and he smiled back looking satisfied.
"Is there anything else I can do?" said Sam and Jean shook her head.
"No thank you, dear. Why don't you sit down? I'm just about done here."
Sam did as he was told and a few minutes later Dean came back in, sitting down next to Sam. He looked at him, noticing the very slight tell-tale redness round Sam's eyes. No one else would probably have spotted it but he did. He frowned and Sam realised he was being scrutinised, blushing again when he saw the frown. He knew Dean had somehow guessed what had happened.
He should have known – he never had been able to get anything past his brother.
He gave a slight shake of his head and smiled to show he was ok. Dean wasn't entirely put off but he could wait until later to talk to Sam about it, when they had a bit more privacy.
At that moment Jean came over, carrying two large plates with the sandwiches and cake on them. Toby followed carrying the coffee pot.
Dean groaned. "I swear I eat one more thing, I won't be able to move." he said.
Sam rolled his eyes.
"He says that now but you watch him manage to find space in a second." he said.
"Hey! You make it sound like I'm always eating." said Dean and Sam grinned.
"I just tell it like I see it, man." he said.
"Boys!" said Jean sternly and they both turned to her, looking like naughty children. She struggled to keep a straight face as they both tried to look innocent. Toby winked at them behind Jean and put the coffee pot down.
"I'm sure the both of you can manage a sandwich or two, isn't that right?" he said, amused. They both grinned.
"We'll do our best." said Dean and Sam nodded.
Half an hour later they had indeed both managed to polish off some sandwiches and a slice of cake each. Jean once again refused their offer to help clear up and instead shooed them outside to enjoy the warm evening.
The sun had long since set but the sky was still pale blue in places, darkening into a deep blue through which hundreds of stars were beginning to shine. It was cool but not cold and as they sat down Dean took a deep breath, relaxing as he looked up at the twinkling sky. They sat there in silence for a moment, listening to the sounds of the garden and the woods that surrounded the house, and the quiet murmur of Jean and Toby as they talked in the kitchen.
"So, are you ok?" said Dean quietly and Sam jumped a little. He glanced over at his brother and saw Dean's gaze was still fixed on the sky but he knew regardless of that he had his full attention.
"Yeah, I'm ok." he said and found that for the first time since Cold Oak he actually meant it.
Dean heard the truth of the statement and figured that if Sam wanted to keep what happened earlier to himself then he could live with that. As long as whatever it was had helped, which appeared to be the case.
"What about you?"
Dean did glance at him now and flashed him the trademark Dean Winchester grin.
"You know me, Sam – I'm always ok." he said and Sam's expression told him exactly how much he believed that statement.
He held his hand up, forestalling any comment.
"I'm serious, Dude – I'm ok. Really."
Sam studied him for a minute before nodding, seemingly satisfied with what he saw in Dean's face.
"Ok. Guess it was a good idea, dropping by." he said and Dean leant his head back again, now he wasn't being scrutinised.
"Yeah, it was. We should try and keep in touch better. Maybe call now and then." he said.
Neither of them voiced the fact that they didn't have that many people to keep in touch with these days. In fact the list was just four people and that included Jean and Toby. But it was better than nothing and there was something about knowing this place was here, that could come to take time out and gather themselves whenever they needed to, that they would always be welcome, that warmed both of them.
And it meant even more now they didn't have to hide what they did.
Sam knew Dean wouldn't be up for an in-depth discussion about what had happened or what was to come, but he wanted to say something. Taking advantage of Dean's relaxed mood he took a deep breath and went for it.
"There's something I wanna say, while we're here, so just listen for a second ok? I'm not gonna go over the whole thing about how I'm gonna get you out of this deal, because we've already done that. I meant what I said and I know you're worried about me failing and how I'm gonna cope with that, but it's not gonna be an issue. Because I won't fail – just like you didn't fail to save me. But I do wanna say this. I don't wanna waste the next year, Dean. Not because it's gonna be your last but because none of us know when our time might be up. With what we do, we know that better than anyone. We wasted so much time already, especially when I was at Stanford, and I don't wanna waste anymore. What we do next, how we deal with all this, that doesn't matter. What matters is that we do it together."
Dean looked at him and swallowed. Credit where it was due, he'd been expecting something much more Oprah than this and he appreciated the fact Sam knew him well enough to know how far he could take it. And what he'd said did make sense. Dean wasn't sure he could bring himself to believe completely that Sam would save him – he just couldn't risk getting his hopes up that much only to have to face the reality when the time came – but he did believe Sam would do everything possible and that was enough. In fact it meant more to Dean than he was ever going to admit, just how determined his brother was.
"You're my big brother. There is NOTHING I wouldn't do for you."
Those words had stayed with him and he had a feeling they always would, however long always might be. After everything that happened – the distance between them when Sam had left to forge his own path, the words the Yellow Eyed Demon had spoken in the cabin about how little his family needed him. Those words, spoken so matter of factly by Sam, washed away all of that.
But he was right. They couldn't spend each day worrying about what may or may not happen in the future. He'd done that from the moment John had whispered in his ear what might happen with Sam one day, and he knew he couldn't live another year like that one. And whether this was to be his last year or not, it made sense to appreciate every moment of it. Because you really did never know what was around the corner. Especially when you were a Winchester.
"Alright." he said and Sam blinked at him then shook his head. It was typical. He would always make a heartfelt speech, using the best words he could think of to get his point across, and his brother would always respond with a one word answer and a look that said the girly discussion was over.
He briefly found himself wondering what Oprah or Dr Phil would ever do if confronted with Dean Winchester and his ability to narrow everything down to a single word and a look.
Dean saw the exasperated expression and raised his eyebrows.
"What? I agreed with you, Sam." he said.
"Yeah, I know." said Sam and now the exasperation seemed to have turned to fond amusement. Dean shifted and went back to looking at the sky. Sometimes he really didn't understand how that brain of Sam's worked.
They sat out there for a while, until the sky was completely dark and the air had taken on a distinct chill. They didn't have anything to say and they just enjoyed watching the stars in companionable silence. When Dean yawned Sam made the first move, getting up and suggesting they turn in for the night. Dean pointed out that the days Sam was so keen to make the most of would be pretty short if he was gonna start fussing and trying to take control. Sam just replied that it wouldn't hurt Dean to actually listen to him for a change and quit being so stubborn.
Dean muttered under his breath but did as he was asked anyway and Sam made sure to hide his grin as Dean walked past him to go inside.
Jean and Toby were just going to bed themselves. Jean had been keeping a discreet eye on them and had been pleased to see how relaxed they looked sitting outside. She knew they'd be back on the road in the morning and although she wished they could stay longer, she now knew they had a job to do and that they wouldn't allow themselves to put that off.
She really was very proud to know these boys.
Both of them were asleep within minutes despite the time they'd spent sleeping earlier. Sam woke first the next morning and showered quietly. He went downstairs and found Toby sitting at the table, coffee already made and a paper in his hand.
"Mornin' Sam." he said, pouring him a cup as he sat down.
"Morning." said Sam, wrapping his hands round the warm mug and appreciating the aroma of real coffee.
"Dean still asleep?"
"I think I heard him get up as I came down." said Sam, taking his first sip.
Toby nodded. "I take it you'll be wanting to get back on the road after breakfast?" he said and Sam looked apologetic.
"Yeah. I wish we could stay longer but we've got work to do." he said.
"I understand. Just you remember you can come back here anytime you need to. Don't go waiting for an invitation, cos you boys don't need one. You understand?" he said and Sam nodded, touched.
"And if ever you need anything you just call. I meant it. I can't rightly say we'd know how to help with what you two deal with, but we'll always do whatever we can."
"Thanks. We really appreciate that. And thank you for not freaking out with what we told you. That means a lot." said Sam and Toby just waved his hand.
"You told us the truth, that's all. Ain't nothing difficult about accepting the truth. We should be thanking you – I know it can't be easy, knowing who to trust. But we won't ever give you cause to regret giving that trust, that I can promise." he said seriously.
Sam smiled. "We already know that." he said, knowing he meant it.
Toby nodded, satisfied, and at that moment Dean came in. Sam noticed how much better he looked and he was grateful how much difference just 24 hours spent with Jean and Toby could make. He knew he looked and felt much better himself – they'd both really needed this.
"Morning." said Dean, clapping Sam on the shoulder as he sat down next to him. Toby filled his mug with the last of the coffee and got up to make some more.
"You sleep ok?" said Sam and Dean nodded.
"Hell yeah. I swear if all motels had those beds I'd be a happy man." he said, but they both knew it had nothing to do with the beds really and everything to do with the location.
Before he could reply Jean joined them. She quickly set to making them breakfast and despite what they'd said the night before, they both found they were more than able to finish every last bite. They chatted about ordinary things, having said everything they needed or wanted to say about hunting and deals the day before. When they were done they insisted on clearing up this time, Dean daring Sam to make any kind of comment as he washed while Sam dried.
Sam just smirked and stored up the mental image for ammunition at a later date.
Preferably when there were no weapons in reach.
Once they were done they reluctantly agreed they really did need to get back on the road. Dean grabbed their bags while Jean handed Sam enough packages of food to keep them going for the next week. Dean's eyes lit up as usual when he saw them and Jean laughed as he kissed her on the cheek and asked if she'd made any food for Sam.
They loaded up the Impala and then it was time to say goodbye again. Jean steeled herself, determined she wouldn't make it harder for them. She held both of them tightly though and when she stood back her eyes were glistening despite her best efforts.
"Now, don't you leave it as long this time, you hear? You've got our number so I expect a phone call now and then alright?" she said.
Dean grinned. "We promise." he said and she managed a watery smile.
"And you let your brother take care of you sometimes, you understand? You're not doing this on your own, Dean." she said, and he knew she was including herself and Toby in that statement.
He swallowed. "I understand – I'll do my best." he said and Jean nodded.
As Dean walked round the other side to shake hands with Toby, Jean leant in and spoke so only Sam could hear her.
"You give me a call if you ever need to talk – doesn't matter when or where. You know where I'll be." she whispered and Sam nodded gratefully.
"I will." he whispered back.
Toby took Dean's hand in a firm grip, holding on to it for a second.
"You take care of yourself, you hear? And don't forget what I said."
"I won't. Thanks, for everything." said Dean and Toby clapped him on the shoulder.
Sam had walked round to join them and he too shook Toby's hand now.
"Sam. You look after yourself too, and keep an eye on this one." he said, indicating Dean.
Dean rolled his eyes but Sam nodded and although he was grinning the "Yes, sir." that he gave was completely serious.
Knowing they couldn't put it off any longer they got into the car. Toby and Jean stepped back and Dean turned on the engine, turning her round so she was facing the driveway. They both wound their windows down and stuck their heads out to wave at the old couple one more time.
Jean and Toby stood there waving back until the tail lights of the Impala disappeared completely. Jean sighed and Toby put his arm round her shoulders, squeezing gently.
"They'll be ok. They'll take care of each other." he said and Jean sighed.
"I know. I just wish there was more we could do."
As they turned and went back into the house she smiled suddenly.
"We'll invite them for Thanksgiving. That's only six months away and we can introduce them to everyone else." she said, happy with the plans that were forming in her mind already.
"Sounds good to me." said Toby. He glanced back in the direction Dean and Sam had just gone one last time as he closed the screen door.
He may not have known them all that long, but he had a feeling the Winchesters were used to beating the odds. They'd do it again – he was practically certain of that. Because when even death couldn't break the bond they had, he was damn sure nothing else could.
He smiled to himself. They'd be seeing the boys again of that he had no doubt. And until then? They'd keep them in their prayers and in their hearts.
Because that's what family did.