A/N: So here's the last chapter! It's a little shorter than the others - more of an epilogue I guess! Thanks so much to everyone who's read and everyone who's reviewed! It's always nice to hear from you!
Sam and Dean chorused the name in unison, the boys finally daring to peer up out of their makeshift huddle as the grizzled hunter sauntered casually into view from behind the parked trucks, gait slow and deliberate, as if he had all the time in the world.
Adjusting his ball cap as he wedged a large, battered book that probably weighed more than Sam did under one arm, he clutched a plain earthenware jar to his chest as if it was made of the finest china, thick fingers juggling with what looked like a cork stopper with a metal seal set in the top, which he jammed into the rim of the jar with an audible hiss and a relieved sigh.
"You get it?" Dad asked, turning briefly toward his friend, shoulders tense, hands balled into fists at his sides.
Bobby nodded an affirmative. "Snug as a bug in a rug," he confirmed. "Or a genie in a bottle." He grinned, holding the jar up so that he could inspect his own handiwork.
Dad relaxed visibly, returning Bobby's grin.
"Dad?" Dean stood shakily, pulling Sam up with him and reaffirming his grip on the younger boy's hand – a reflex he had tried to overcome as Sam got older, but seemed an automatic necessity at this precise moment in time.
For once, Sam didn't shrug him off, squeezing back as he inched slightly behind the older boy, gripping his arm with his free hand.
His attention instantly on his sons at the sound of Dean's voice, Dad jogged across the black asphalt toward them, surprising both boys by kneeling in front of them and pulling them into an uncharacteristic hug.
Dean stiffened for a brief instant, before gradually relaxing into his father's embrace, a tentative hand curling around the man's broad shoulder. "You're you now, right?" he asked quietly. "Not that – that – whatever that was?"
Dad held the boys tighter, an arm locked around each of them, face buried in the space between their shoulders. "I was always me," he said carefully, gradually pulling his face away, but not relinquishing his grip on either of them. "It – it just made you think I was different." He knew it was a lame explanation, could see the questions in both boys' eyes, just wasn't sure how to answer them.
"I don't –" Dean began, but Sam silenced him.
"Did you hit Dean?" the younger brother asked, bottom lip protruding slightly.
John frowned before shaking his head. "No," he replied, and Sam could see from the pain that flashed in his father's eyes that he was telling the truth. "He really did fall in gym class. I called your teacher at home before I left tonight, just to check."
"Then why did I think – why did we think we saw –" Dean stumbled, lacking the words to frame the question he really wanted to ask.
"It could alter perception," Dad replied, squinting slightly at his older son. "You know what I mean by that?"
Dean nodded slightly. "Made us see things that weren't really there?"
Dad returned the nod. "Or things that weren't really happening. Made you dream things you shouldn't have been dreaming… Made you think – made you think I wanted to hurt you… Hurt Sammy…" he trailed off, as if unable to complete the sentence.
"We thought you were possessed," Sam said, trying to smile reassuringly, like Dean always did whenever Sam was scared or upset. "We knew you wouldn't hurt us really."
Strangely enough, the reassurance seemed to have the desired effect, and despite the tears welling in his dark eyes, Dad smiled a little. "I'm glad," he said. "I'm glad you didn't think I'd –" He stopped, reading the odd look on his older son's face.
"It was a demon?" Dad got the feeling that wasn't the question Dean really wanted to ask.
"Yes," he replied, regardless.
"You killed its son?" Sam asked.
Dad shook his head vehemently. "No," he said. "His son was sick, dying. A Reaper came to take him – you know what a Reaper does, right?" When both boys nodded, Dad continued, "The demon thought if it possessed the Reaper, Death wouldn't find his son."
"Demons can do that?" Sam sounded awestruck. "Possess Reapers?"
Dad nodded. "Yeah. Or that one could, at any rate. Only it didn't stop at possessing the Reaper. Started using the Reaper's powers to its own ends. Started reaping any soul it saw fit to reap – not just the ones whose time was up. Took a couple of – of my friends. People like me. Upset the balance of things. Drew attention to itself."
"So you stopped it?" Dean asked, a little of the usual hero worship seeping back into his big hazel eyes.
Dad nodded. "Exorcized it," he confirmed. "Sent it back to Hell where it belonged."
"And the Reaper took the demon's son?" Sam asked.
"Yes," Dad confirmed. "As it was supposed to. It was the boy's time. It was natural. It had to happen that way."
"But the demon came back?" Dean asked. "Climbed back out of Hell and came looking for you?"
Dad averted his gaze slightly, studying the black asphalt intently. "Yes," he said with the barest inclination of his head. "Took me a while to figure out what was going on, which demon it was." He grinned then. "I've sent a lot of those evil sons of bitches to Hell in my time. But as soon as it made a move on you guys, I knew. I knew which it was."
"It wanted to hurt you by hurting us," Sam said.
Dad just looked at him. "Something like that," he said.
"If a Reaper came for us," Sam continued earnestly, "would you try to stop it like that demon did?"
Dad didn't answer immediately. "Honestly?" he said, trying to hold his younger son's inquisitive gaze. "I don't know."
"That's not what you said to the demon," Dean pointed out, that odd look in his eyes again.
Dad's attention shifted to the older boy. "No," he said. "That's not what I said to the demon."
"You lied to it."
"No," Dad repeated, shaking his head before looking away again, unable to meet his son's accusative gaze. He shrugged, as uncertain as Dean had ever seen him. "I don't know," he admitted, before looking back up into his son's eyes. "God forbid I should ever be faced with that situation. I honestly don't know what I'd do." He paused, pulling his boys closer and lowering his voice. "You boys know I'd do anything for you, don't you?"
Sam nodded instantly, tightening the grip he had around Dad's neck.
Dean just continued to stare at him, and Dad could see the pain in his eldest son's eyes.
And suddenly he knew the question Dean really wanted to ask.
"When it asked you to choose," the older boy cut him off suddenly, as if he knew what his father was going to say next. He chewed on his lip uncertainly before adding, "When you said –"
"Did you mean it?" Dean was looking right into his father's eyes.
"Did I mean what?" John asked, returning his boy's gaze as levelly as he was able.
Dean took a breath. "That you – that you wanted it to – that you wanted…" Dean trailed off, looking down at his sneakers and trying to fight back the moisture suddenly burning behind his eyelids. "I mean – I'd want you to save Sammy," he added quickly, still not looking up. "If you had to choose."
"Dean?" Dad reached out a finger and caught hold of his older son's chin, lifting his eyes back up toward his father's. "Dean, I was playing for time. I was waiting for Bobby to finish the ritual. The thing was about to kill your brother. I was stalling, I never said… I never meant…" He couldn't finish the sentence, instead choosing to pull the older boy tighter against his chest. "I'd never let anything hurt you, Dean," he whispered in the boy's ear. "You know that."
Dean nodded against his dad's shoulder. "Or Sammy."
It wasn't a question, just a statement of fact, and Dad nodded. "Or Sammy."
"So what happened to the demon?" Sam asked suddenly, pulling away slightly as his curiosity, as always, got the better of him.
Bobby had strolled up to them by this point, and he held the jar out toward the younger boy, giving it a tiny shake as he grinned lopsidedly. "You ever hear of Aladdin, kid?" he asked.
Sam looked up at him with a frown. "Sure," he replied, a little uncertainly.
"You think that whole 'genie in a bottle' thing's just a story?"
Sam shrugged, frown deepening.
"'Genie' is kind of an old word for 'demon,' son," Bobby continued. "Sometimes, demons – or particular types of demon – can be trapped in something like this –" he shook the jar again, "– indefinitely. Bound to it. If you know the right words, the right rituals."
"That's what's in the book?" Dean asked, eyes drawn to the huge tome beneath Bobby's arm.
"Among other things," Bobby replied with a wry smile. "Saved my ass more times than I can remember, this thing has."
"And it can't get out?" Sam asked. "Like it could get out of Hell?"
Bobby exchanged a glance with John then. "No. Not as far as we know."
"So it can't come after us again?" Dean asked uncertainly, glancing from Bobby to his dad.
Dad brushed a gentle hand through his son's short hair. "No," he assured him. "It won't come after us again."
The boys gazed at the jar clutched to Bobby's chest in awed silence for a few seconds, before Sam suddenly piped up, "Lia! She's okay, right? You didn't shoot her? Dad? We saw you shoot her…"
Dad ruffled Sam's curls with a smile. "Lia's fine. She's just a bit – confused."
"The demon possessed her, right?" Dean asked.
Dad nodded, and Bobby added, "Poor kid can't remember a thing after she pulled into that truck stop in Ankeny."
Dean's eyes widened. "You were following us?"
"No," Dad said, seeing the brief flash of indignant anger in his boy's eyes. "No, we were following the demon."
"You can do that?" Sam asked, brow scrunching.
"Sometimes," Bobby replied. "Depends on the demon."
Dean shifted from one foot to the other. "Why didn't you come get us?" he asked. "Why didn't you come get us when that guy in the blue van –"
Dad frowned. "What guy?"
"When Lia picked us up," Sam explained. "There was this guy. Tried to pull us into his van."
Bobby shook his head. "There was no guy," he said. "Just Lia in that god-awful pink contraption of hers."
Dean glanced at Sam, whose brow scrunched up still further. "But we saw –"
"The demon made us see that," Dean interrupted, suddenly understanding. "To make us trust Lia."
Sam nodded slowly, light dawning in his wide eyes as he caught on. "So we'd go with her," he said. "Wow, that's kinda clever when you think about it."
"Kinda sneaky," Dean amended. He looked up at Dad then. "But she's gonna be okay?"
"Oh yeah," Bobby answered for his friend. "I left her sitting in her car with a bottle of water and a couple of Advil. She's gonna have a killer headache, but apart from that, she'll be fine. Pretty much like that guy."
A sudden groan behind them reminded the boys of the presence of the old trucker, who right now was sitting propped up against one of the wheels of his eighteen-wheeler, clutching his head and screwing his eyes tightly shut. "Wow, that was some tequila," he muttered through clenched teeth, trying to work up the strength to open his eyes, but thinking better of it, and merely slumping back into unconsciousness before Bobby or Dad could ask after his welfare.
"Demonic possession can certainly take it out of a guy," Bobby muttered, chuckling softly.
Dean glanced nervously back at the jar still clutched in the hunter's hand. "You're sure that thing can't get back out?" he asked. "'Cause when it was in Lia, it was asking us all sorts of questions – about Dad, and his friends, and where you all live and what you do and –"
Dad gently traced the rough pad of his thumb over the bruise purpling his son's cheek, drawing the older boy's attention back to his father. "It can't get back out," he said, looking Dean straight in the eye, no soft soap, no empty reassurances. "We're as sure as we can be."
Dean nodded, taking a deep breath. "Okay then," he said steadily, leaning a little further into Dad's shoulder.
Sam chose that moment to yawn none-too-subtly, and Dad's smile widened. "I think it's time we got you guys home to bed," he said. "You've got school in the morning."
Both boys' eyes widened in affronted surprise.
"Daaaad…!" Sam whined. "We just helped you fight off a demon!"
"Yeah, cut us some slack, Dad," Dean added, voice regaining a little of its usual confidence. "After all, you did kinda use us as demon bait. I'd say you owe us a day off school at least."
"And I'd say you owe me twenty bucks," Dad informed his older son, grinning lopsidedly as he slowly got to his feet, a hand on each boy's shoulder as he steered them back in the direction of the waiting Impala. "And a Hershey bar."
"Jeez," Dean sighed, curling his fingers around his dad's as they rested lightly on his shoulder. "Good job I didn't take the beer, too…"
Again, thanks to everyone who's given me such lovely feedback! I loved all your guesses about what was going on with John, who Lia was and who had come to the rescue at the end! I actually wrote this before WIAWSNB so I hope the 'Genie' reference works out okay! Thanks again!