"Do you think we're nearly there yet?"
The muttered comment from behind made Sam snort, which he then tried to turn into an unconvincing cough as Toby glanced over his shoulder at them. Narrowly avoiding actually choking himself he slowed down a little and glanced sideways when Dean caught up.
Dean gave him an innocent look. "What? I was just asking."
"Uh-huh. Well how about you try having a little patience, since you're not actually five years old."
"Hey, you're one to talk. If I had a dollar for every time I had to answer that question I'd be richer than that geeky computer dude."
"Bill Gates, that's the geeky computer – look, never mind, and don't exaggerate. I wasn't that bad."
Dean shook his head as they carried on walking. "Right, sure you weren't. You're lucky Dad never followed through on his threat to leave you by the side of the road. You owe me for that you know."
Sam rolled his eyes. "I'll just add it to the list, shall I? Anyway, even if I was a little impatient back then at least I had the excuse of being a kid. Unlike those of us that are just stuck there mentally."
Whatever defence Dean had been about to make was cut off as Toby stopped and turned round, waiting for them to reach him.
"Here we are."
Curious, they both stepped forward, looking round as they took in the view.
"Wow, this is really nice." Sam said appreciatively, seeing Dean nod his agreement as he moved further towards the water.
The path they'd just taken had opened out into a clearing with what amounted to a small pebbled beach leading down to the river's edge. A natural bend in the river left it to sweep majestically past them and disappear over what sounded like a fairly substantial waterfall. The water was fast flowing here and the noise of it, whilst fairly loud, was also somehow soothing in a way.
Dean had found a large rock and perched on it, leaning down with one hand to touch the water. Sam wandered over to join him, finding his own rock a few feet away. He resisted the pull of the water though, knowing how cold it would be. Dean didn't seem to mind however and Sam smiled slightly as he watched some of the tension in his brother's shoulders ease away, as if absorbed by the river as it rushed by.
They'd almost forgotten Toby was there until he spoke, his voice quiet but easily loud enough for them to hear even above the noise of the waterfall.
"Been down here more times than I can remember when I've had something on my mind, or when I've just needed somewhere I can take a minute to get my breath back."
Dean's gaze shifted from the river to meet Sam's for a moment, both seeing a flash of mutual understanding. They said nothing though, sensing Toby wasn't finished.
They were right.
"I'm sure you're expecting me to come out with some big old speech, telling you what to do about this fix you've gotten into. But I'm afraid I'm gonna have to disappoint you."
Sam felt his heart sink and he noticed Dean's expression cloud over but before either of them could speak, Toby continued. "Truth is, this whole thing is way beyond my area of expertise. I've sat in my fair share of churches in my time and I've always called myself a believer, even if I wasn't exactly what they'd call god-fearing. But what you boys have seen – the things you've been through – I'm not sure that ties in with any ideas I might have had about how the Almighty works."
"It's alright," Dean interrupted, his voice low and rough. "We didn't come here expecting you and Jean to solve our problems for us. We just thought you deserved to know what had happened. What we'd done."
Toby fixed him with a look, raising one eyebrow. "I appreciate that but did we not already decide that this wasn't your fault? You and Sam weren't the ones calling the shots here, you boys were just doing what you could. Now am I making myself clear on this? Or do I need to start knocking some heads together?"
Dean opened his mouth to say something but the look on Toby's face persuaded him that keeping quiet might be a better life choice. Instead he looked over at Sam, getting a mild glare in return for passing the buck.
Since the glare had no effect, Sam took a deep breath and gave Toby a half smile. "We get what you're saying, and it means a lot to us that you and Jean don't think we're to blame. But it doesn't change the fact that if we'd done things differently, this wouldn't have happened."
Toby sighed. "Maybe. But I still say you had your hands tied and nothing's gonna change my mind on that. But all this is besides the point; I brought you two here because I reckon it wouldn't hurt to be reminded why you're still out there fighting. Ever since you boys landed on our doorstep, me and Jean have known you were different. Special. And I'm not talking about any god-given-destiny, I'm talking about who you are. What's inside. Do you think we make a habit of adopting every stray that comes our way? Trust me, you two are the first ones we've invited to become part of the family and we didn't even have to think twice about doing it."
Dean grinned at that and Sam felt his own lips twitch even as the warmth of Toby's words sank in.
Grinning a little himself, Toby leaned back against an old tree stump, making himself comfortable before he carried on. "Fact is we knew there was more to your story than met the eye from day one, which is partly why we weren't as shocked as you were expecting us to be when you finally told us what you did for a living. See, we already knew you had kind hearts and brave souls, so the fact you were out there putting your lives on the line and fighting evil that most folks don't even realise exists, well that just confirmed what we'd already suspected. As for the rest of it, I reckon Jean hit the nail on the head when she told you she'd like a few words with these angels of yours, or even the lord himself. Cos if anyone's behaved badly and done the wrong thing here, it sure isn't the two of you."
Dean ducked his head, embarrassed, and Sam could feel his own face getting hot at the glowing way Toby was describing them.
Seeing their reactions Toby shook his head, his expression a mixture of fond exasperation. "If you could see yourselves right now. I swear I've never known two people less able to take credit where it's due than you boys."
Dean cleared his throat, flashing Toby a lopsided smile. "Hey, it's not that we don't appreciate what you're saying but we're not as heroic as you're making us out to be. The way you put it we should be sitting on top of horses wearing suits of armour and riding around rescuing damsels in distress. Although actually that does sound pretty good."
Sam kicked a well aimed rock in his brother's direction, ignoring the indignant 'Hey!' when it connected. "What Dean was trying to say is that we're not blameless in all this, not by a long shot. And some of the things we've done, they're not things to be proud of. Whatever way you look at it."
Toby shrugged. "I ain't saying you're lily-white, none of us are. But you do your best and you take on more than anyone should have to, trying to protect the whole world. Especially since the world hasn't exactly given much back."
They couldn't really argue with the blunt words but neither of them were comfortable with the pedestal the couple apparently had them on.
Keenly aware of that, Toby took pity on them and decided to get on with the rest of what he had to say. "You may or may not agree with the way Jean and I look at things but I'm gonna tell you something else now, and this I reckon is something you need to keep in mind when you're taking on Lucifer and his minions. What we also noticed, first time we ever met you, was how well the two of you worked as a team. That bond you've got, that's your greatest weapon in all this and I know sometimes it's the first thing to get overlooked in the heat of the moment. I've watched you both struggle plenty in the past and most of those times it's been because you were trying to handle things alone. Now I know you usually do it for the best of reasons, to protect one another, but even you have to admit that's partly what contributed to you boys accidentally opening hell's gate."
Silence greeted Toby's statement but as they exchanged glances both of them knew he was right. It was a conclusion they'd already come to on their own, just unfortunately only with hindsight.
His expression softened as he watched them. "I'm not saying this to make you feel bad, I'm just trying to make sure that this time around you remember the lesson. If there's any way you're going to fight this, and win, it's going to be by doing it as a team. Every one of us makes mistakes, the trick is to learn from them. And to try not to repeat them."
Dean nodded, even before he finished speaking. "We know, and we have learnt. Really."
Sam nodded too, part of him still unable to stop wishing he could have accepted this particular lesson a long time ago and saved both of them a lot of grief.
Not to mention avoiding triggering the end of the world.
Toby seemed satisfied with their responses and straightened up. "Anyway, I'm sure you've had enough of listening to my voice so I'm gonna leave you here to enjoy some quiet time. Just come back when you're ready."
With that he disappeared back into the trees and along the path before they could even respond. Left alone, with only the sound of the river for company, they eyed each other a little warily.
It was Sam who broke the silence first, as usual. "So?"
The look Sam was giving him told Dean that his brother really wasn't in the mood and he held his hands up in surrender, before he decided to throw him in the river or start kicking more rocks his way. "Alright, alright, don't get your panties in a wad. Look, it's not like we hadn't already worked all this out for ourselves so I don't see that we really need to sit here and analyse the whole thing to death."
"Of course you don't." Sam said, dryly.
Dean rolled his eyes. "Thank you, Dr Phil. Like I was saying, Toby didn't tell us anything we didn't already know so it seems to me we should just be grateful that he and Jean aren't chasing us out of here with pitchforks for starting the Apocalypse and leave it at that."
Sam sighed. "Fine. Just as long as we make sure that we don't go forgetting what he said later down the line. Even you've got to admit, we have a habit of repeating our mistakes and it's done us no favours so far."
"I said that already, didn't I? Geez, I'll have it tattooed on my forehead if it'll really make you feel better but can we please drop it now?"
Knowing how to quit while he was ahead Sam mimed zipping his mouth shut, jumping backwards with a yelp shortly after when Dean splashed freezing cold water at him to get his own back.
By the time they returned to the house they were both wet enough that it looked like they'd been caught in a downpour. When Jean saw them she said nothing, simply shaking her head at their sheepish expressions and handing them a towel each. Having dried – and changed – they sat down to what looked like enough food to feed the five thousand. Sam had to give up with some still left on his plate but he wasn't surprised that Dean managed not only to finish his, but that his face lit up when Jean casually mentioned while she was clearing the table the cherry pie she'd cooked that afternoon.
Banned from helping out with the washing up when they eventually finished eating, they were carrying mugs of fresh coffee out to the front porch when Dean suddenly stopped dead in the hallway. Before Sam could ask what was wrong he'd veered right, stepping through the partially open door and into the lounge.
Sam followed, frowning, but when he saw what had grabbed his brother's attention his eyes widened.
Sitting on the long mantelpiece above the fire, next to the carved eagle they'd given the couple and that still had pride of place, was a simple wooden photo frame. Inside it, protected by glass that was so clean it practically sparkled, was the reason for them both standing there open mouthed.
As Dean stared he wondered who had taken it, since he didn't recall seeing anyone with a camera. Then again, he had to admit he'd been concentrating on other things at the time, like getting actual air in his lungs.
Whoever the photographer was they'd captured perfectly the moment Sam had managed to overpower him after the friendly snowman building competition had descended into chaos. He could almost hear the ear splitting yell that had accompanied the utterly triumphant grin on Sam's face as he'd shovelled handfuls of snow down Dean's back. His own face was a mixture of shock at the sudden coldness and outright laughter at his brother. To one side - just in shot - Chris and Nathan were doubled over clearly both gasping for air, while in the background Christopher and Thomas were watching with almost adult expressions while the so-called grown ups made complete fools of themselves.
Sam could feel his lips twitching as he recalled the moment and the sheer joy of being able to do something as normal as mess about in the snow and have fun, for once. As he studied the photograph he found himself wishing that they had the time to stick around to see Chris and Nathan again, and their families, but on the other hand he wasn't sure he'd be able to keep up the charade this time, knowing what they did about what the future might hold.
Pushing aside the thoughts he nudged Dean with his shoulder. "Well at least we've got proof that I beat you that time."
Dean raised an eyebrow. "Are you kidding me? The only reason you had the advantage was because I was laughing so hard at the goofy look on your face when you were chasing after me."
"I did not have a goofy look on my face."
"Oh trust me, you did. Why do you think Chris and Nathan are laughing their asses off as well?"
"Maybe because they just watched you get yours handed to you?"
Dean snorted. "Dream on, Sammy."
Sam gave up, instead gesturing to the picture with one hand. "I can't believe they have this up here. It makes me feel even worse that we never kept in touch after we left."
Dean sobered, rubbing the back of his neck as he shifted his gaze from the picture to meet Sam's. "I know, but what's done is done. Least we came back in the end."
Sam grimaced. "Yeah, although they'd probably have preferred it if we weren't dropping by to announce the end of the world."
Not really having an argument against that, Dean had led the way out of the room to their original destination.
The next morning, after the best night's sleep since they'd last stayed there, Jean had done her level best to feed them till they were fit to burst. Sam found himself contemplating travelling to Bobby's in sweatpants, since his jeans were feeling at least a size smaller than they'd been when he put them on earlier.
Having loaded the car with yet more food, some of it admittedly for Bobby, it was finally been time to go. The night before Jean had stood over them as they'd written out their new cell phone numbers, plus Bobby's home number just in case. They'd endured the ten minute lecture on what would happen if they dared to not keep in touch this time in stoic silence, answering with a twin "yes, Ma'am" when she was done.
Now they stood on the porch ready to leave, all of them trying to pretend that there wasn't a chance this really might be their last visit to what was rapidly becoming as much of a home as the Impala or Bobby's house.
Jean sniffed, straightening her shoulders resolutely. "Well, you boys had better get going. I'm not going to say goodbye, because I know you'll be dropping in again as soon as you can. You just take care of yourselves until then, you hear me?"
They both nodded and she quickly hugged them tightly, stepping back and folding her arms as she fought the urge to just keep them there where she knew they'd be safe.
Toby had said all he needed to say down by the river, so he simply shook their hands held their gazes for a moment, trying to convey the faith that he had in them.
Dean was the one to move first, uncomfortable as always with the emotion that hung thickly in the air. Giving the couple a quick smile he hurried round the Impala and got in, waiting impatiently for Sam to join him.
As they pulled away they waved until they were out of sight. Heading along the driveway he saw Sam pulling something out of his pocket and glanced across.
He frowned when Sam opened the glove box but when he saw what was being tucked into the corner, where it would be visible every time they opened it, he shook his head. "You couldn't resist, could you?"
Sam shrugged. "It's not like we actually have that many photos of us and we definitely don't have one as recent as this." he said, staring for a moment before he shut it again.
When he'd quietly asked Jean if she had a copy of the photo she'd smiled and fetched it from a kitchen drawer straight away. At his surprised look she'd told him that she'd asked Jenny – who it turned out was the mystery photographer, courtesy of her cell phone – for two copies when she'd first shown it to her. Sam hadn't been sure what was making the lump in his throat bigger then, the fact the photo had pride of place amongst other pictures of their children and grandchildren, or the fact Jean had been so sure at the time that they'd be back again to collect their own copy.
Dean meanwhile was considering what Toby had said as he reached out to switch on the radio.
It wasn't exactly a new revelation, at least to him, but it had been interesting to hear an outsider's view of his and Sam's relationship, and to know that it was so obvious to everyone that their best strength came in working together.
Finally settling on a station he was happy with he glanced over at his brother again, returning the smile Sam gave him.
Maybe in retrospect they had needed the reminder though, of what they were doing this for. Because when it came down to it what had been captured in that photograph, that's what it was all about.
And whether it was the kind that came with blood or the kind that came through choice, that was reason enough to keep fighting.
Whatever was to come.
A/N So there we are.
I hope everyone enjoyed the last chapter and that the (few) people who wanted Jean & Toby to return see it as a fitting 'ending' to their story. Even though I know now what happened in the season finale I didn't reference anything about it here simply because this was set much earlier in S5. I've no idea what will happen in S6, but maybe however it ends it will leave open the possibility that someday in the future the boys do go back to visit Jean & Toby again. I guess I'll be leaving that part up to your imagination..
I'm not going to take up anymore of people's time but I do just want to thank anyone who has read and reviewed this, or any of my other stories over the past four years.
As for 'Supernatural', despite my reservations about the story arc (and at times the writing in certain episodes) I remain an avid fan, especially of the characters themselves. Given how long I've spent trying to write using their voices I think I shall always have a soft spot for them long after the show eventually ends.
All that remains then is for me to say goodbye and wish everyone all the best. As the saying goes, 'That's all she wrote'…