Author: Mirrordance

Title: Less Traveled By

Summary: High school is hard enough without an absentee father, restless spirits, haunted cars, a missing classmate and a sexual predator on the loose. Then again, the Winchesters never did anything the easy way. Dean is 17 and Sam is 13.

Hi guys,

Whew! The final chapter! Thank you so much to everyone who has been following this story. Extended notes and thanks are at the end of the fic. As always, I look forward to hearing your c & c's; please let me know what you think if you have time :) Without further ado, the conclusion to Less Traveled By:


Less Traveled By

Epilogue

Weeks Later, 1997


"Two choices."

John looked down at the terrified man in front of him, who was all wide, round eyes as he stared up at John, with his wide, round mouth about the barrel of John's gun.

"Bullet goes in," John told him, "Or the truth comes out."

Marcus Tenet is trembling, looking up at John like he was the wrath of god. Muffled sounds come from the man's mouth, incomprehensible with the gun he had to talk around, really, but it didn't take a genius to realize he was asking who the hell John was and why he was there.

John just blinked at him, and pressed the barrel threateningly against the other man's mouth harder. "Two choices. Ten seconds."

Tenet shook his head vigorously, and tears leaked from his eyes.

"Nine..."

There had to be a goddamn different medical definition of 'waking up in a few days' from what the rest of the world could understand, John thought. The doctors told him Dean would wake up after a few days, but if that's what they called the kid's eyes opening and staring at nothing before closing again, that was the extent of what Dean did in the days after the shooting.

Lazy eyes opening, unfocused and roving, just seconds at a time a couple of times each day, before the green gaze made its exit, lids like curtains signaling the end of the show. It was the extent that Dean woke, and the extent that he moved. His body was a pale, limp mass on the bed, just days in but already obviously thinning, even as it paradoxically looked heavier and heavier and more and more immobile.

And speaking of immobile... Sam never leaves his older brother's side outside of the light meal or the bathroom. Kid could be the one growing the bed sores that the nurses try to protect Dean from by turning him once in awhile, what with how much Sam kind of just stayed put and grew roots on the awful chair by Dean's bed.

"...Eight."

The doctors told him, they had social workers and excellent psychologists in the hospital. People who could help Sam now, and Dean too when he's stronger. The youngest looked like he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. John takes it in and nods; he was a vet, and he fucking knew what that meant and what it looked like. But he was Sam's father, and he knew the only thing that could fix him was Dean.

"...Seven."

It was probably the vent, as hospital infections and complications went, but either way, as if getting shot in the chest wasn't enough, his oldest son catches pneumonia days into his admission.

The already-inadequate daily, green-gaze curtain-shows ceased completely, as Dean's body retreated out of such (apparently) lofty ambitions as opening one's eyes and just reverting to trying to fucking breathe first. Nothing was going in the right direction; his oxygen levels were plummeting, but his temperature was rising, and his heart rate was going through the roof. Scans of his chest were all cloudy and wrong, even a layman's eyes could see. Nothing was going right.

"...Six."

Dean was dead weight on his bed, but he wasn't dead, not yet.

Or maybe he was, that one time.

He didn't look any different or any more still, but the machines screamed, shouting that a whole bunch of things had stopped, even if Dean didn't look it. Sam was freaking the fuck out, shaking and crying, saying he just fell asleep for a few minutes and then Dean slipped away. The youngest Winchester's body rattled like he was going to explode into a million different pieces without John holding him together.

But they get Dean back, so it doesn't count.

Sam said it didn't count.

And because the doctors got Dean back, John gets Sam back too, who calms, and steadies, and is coherent again. But he barely sleeps now.

"...Five."

Sam leaves Dean's side for just one occasion.

It was for Annie Huntington's funeral.

Sam leaves the hospital, a somber and surprisingly well-dressed Bobby Singer accompanying him, with much apprehension, practically threatening his older brother with bodily harm and eternal unresting curses if he went anywhere while Sam was away.

Dean flatines again, and of all things right and holy, John is struck with the paralyzing fear that if Dean died here and now, Sam would never forgive John for Dean dying on his watch.

Not on my watch, Dean, he had heard himself begging, And not ever.

Please.

They get him back, and he didn't die, so it doesn't count. And he sure as hell doesn't tell Sam, who returns in just an hour, almost anally exact to the minute. He doesn't tell Sam, because the kid was still wearing Annie Huntington's funeral on his face.

"...Four."

Dean recovers, slowly, and one day the fever breaks, leaving his skin glistening and sweat-slick. His breathing is more erratic, but it was because he was fighting now, his chest rising more forcefully and with more initiative, than the mechanical way the machines just did all the work for him.

The doctors become more confident in taking away some of the more invasive machines, move him to his own room. He opens his eyes again, but this time with more clarity and in minutes at a time, as he stares at Sam or John or Bobby.

"... Three."

He wakes up for real, as in how normal people would define it days after fighting off the worst effects of the pneumonia. He comes to with a shuddering breath as he is turned on his side by a couple of nurses, and the doctors examine the wound beneath the bandages on his chest and the exit wound on his back.

John is there, lowering his face level to Dean's line of sight, as the glazed greens flutter open. Sam is knocked out asleep on the couch, never too far away.

"Easy," he murmured to his son, "You're okay."

Dean's body was trembling, bones rattling beneath sallow ivory skin, the last few days having torn from him – as if it was so easy – the vitality of his tanned young skin, and healthy flesh and muscle. He was white as the sheets, white as the bandages on his wounds, and all these made his eyes stand out stark and glowing as they settled on his father's face.

He licked at his brutally dry lips, and when his voice came out it sounded thin and small, "I'm not..."

John hovered closer to listen.

"I'm not," Dean grunted as the nurses shifted him, "I'm not so... out of it... that I don't... don't know."

John's brows furrowed, "Dean, take it easy, all right? This can wait."

"No," Dean insisted, and he shook his head vigorously, "No- ahhhh!"

He arched a little; the doctor examining him had hit a sore spot, and the grip of the nurses around him tightened.

"Shhh," John soothed, reaching for Dean's arm, finding a space amidst the web of arms that held his son down; he knew Dean would recognize his touch in a mess of others'.

"I know she's dead," Dean finished spitefully, and the tears fell from his burning eyes then, "I know it's 'cos of me."

"Dean," John said, not knowing what else to say, just shaking his head.

"It's 'cos of me," he said again, softer, closing his eyes.

He'd wake up a couple more times after that, saying almost exactly the same thing: "I'm not so out of it that I don't know (but apparently, he was out of it enough to keep forgetting he's said this before); She's dead and it's because of me."

"...Two."

His guilt could eat up all of them whole and alive. It was the dark cloud over Dean's bed, it was all over his face, and it sat heavy in the quiet, hovering and casting a shadow over all of them.

Sam started sleeping after it looked like Dean was recovering, and it was now John;s eldest who kept up the night shift; he said he couldn't sleep, turning the scenarios over and over and over again in his head. Things he would do differently, things he would change.

The Huntingtons come to visit one evening, still in their mourning black but still gracious and effusively apologetic for not having come sooner. John isn't sure if Dean is up for visitors, so he keeps them by the door and comes over to Dean's bed.

From the panicked look on Dean's face, he heard who was at the door and had an answer for John right away.

"Don't let 'em in, dad," he said, voice low, fearing he would be heard. He looked up at his father earnestly, "Don't let 'em in. I can't right now."

"Can't what?" John found himself asking.

"I'll deal with it later," Dean told him dismissively, quickly, "It's my fault, and we all know it, and they're gonna crucify me. I'll man up later, but I can't right now."

"Dean, they're not-"

Dean's breaths were coming in hard and fast, and he started shaking. He coughed, covered up his mouth with a ratty piece of tissue he'd been working on for the last couple hours. He grabbed his father's arm with his other hand and held on like his life depended on it. In many ways, John believed Dean thought so; that his life, it depended on John not letting the Huntingtons in, because the Huntingtons were coming in to punish him. Because in Dean's head, all of this was very clearly his doing.

"Dean-" John stammered, but there was no comforting him now, he knew that. His son's eyes were wild, reflecting a mind sleepless and tortured, and his barely-recovering body was a quaking shell incapable of holding anything more than what he already had on his plate. His hand was still low-fever warm, and he looked small and sick and deathly terrified.

"Okay," John told him quietly, slipping from Dean's grip, and telling the Huntingtons that Dean was asleep and still sick on top of the gunshot wound. They looked disappointed but sympathetic, saying they would just come back.

When John returned to the room, he found Sam sitting on his brother's hospital bed, having moved from his usual seat. Dean was lying on his side, curled slightly toward his younger brother, whose small hand rested over the older one's head. Dean's eyes were closed but he was awake, still had that infernal piece of tissue in hand over his mouth as he coughed softly.

Sam's glassy, lonely eyes met John's. And there was something in his youngest eyes that he'd never seen before: Pity. Just an unimaginable lot of it, focused on the older brother, who for once in his life, just curled up and took it. Sam looked like someone kicked his dog, and Dean, god, did he look like said-kicked-dog or what. They both looked uncharacteristically beaten down, and the sight of it made John's stomach clench and his blood boil.

"... One."

It was that look, that look of Sam's that fueled John's anger, that had him tearing away from the hospital and down the road to Marcus Tenet's house.

He didn't know what he was thinking, but his hands and his feet knew to steer the car that way, and they were all fueled by this anger that was just cooking in his veins. Violence, he knew, were expected and anticipated, not to mention wildly desired, by the fists on the wheel that closed and opened and closed and opened and closed again.

He wanted to get his hands on Duane Viner, the two-bit criminal kidnapper who had killed Annie Huntington and tried to kill Dean. But that good-for-nothing little bitch was protected in fucking prison, wasn't he? Just a couple minutes away, though, was a rat-bastard who was about to get away with murder, begging to meet John's fists. Why the hell not shouldn't he be driving down this road?

He was sick, just sick and tired of these fucks who thought they could get away with hurting others. These conscience-less bastards, who could just go through life after dirtying their goddamn hands with the blood of innocents, not feeling the guilt, not letting it eat and kill them. These pricks can just go on the rest of their lives, while his sons were punishing themselves for failing to protect people.

I'll make him feel all right, John determined, when he broke into Marcus Tenet's house, and snuck into his bedroom and straddled him on the bed, silencing his startled cry by shoving a gun into his mouth. "Two choices: Bullet goes in, or the truth comes out."

The man squirmed and fought, but John was skilled and he thought, even if he wasn't, he sure as hell was determined and would get his way.

"What did you do to Linda Carin?" John asked, menacingly.

The man beneath him shook his head, struggled some more, started weeping.

"I ain't gonna ask twice," John told him darkly, "But I can tell you again, you got two choices. Bullet goes in, or the truth comes out. Two choices. Ten seconds."

He counted down to one.

A long, garbled reply. John pulled the gun away from the younger man's mouth.

"Say that again," John barked at him.

"It was an accident," Tenet sobbed, "I just got th-th-the car, and I, I was d-driving and I d-didn't see her, all right? I was a kid and I was fucking freaking out, and no one was there to see, so I just picked her up from the ground and sh-sh-shoved her in the t-trunk."

"Where's she now?" John asked.

"Gone, man," Tenet said, "I just... I just dumped her in the lake."

John cocked the gun again, and this time, placed it by Tenet's forehead.

"Put the gun down, Johnny."

He was gonna press the goddamn trigger, he really was.

"What are you doing here, Singer?" John growled at the new arrival, not bothering to turn around but feeling the older hunter's presence behind him, just by the door of Marcus Tenet's bedroom.

"So I get back from a pretty peaceful dinner," Bobby says, tone self-mockingly light, "Only to have Sam tell me you left the hospital 'with that look on your face.'"

"Jesus," John breathed, running a weary hand over said face, as if wiping away 'that look.'

"Pounding bullets into Tenet isn't gonna help anyone," Bobby told him, "'Sides, I thought you told Sam that dealing with him wasn't our job?"

"It's not a hunter's job," John clarified, "But it sure as hell ain't a father's job telling his kid-son it's okay to go fucking vigilante, either, I thought. I was gonna deal with him myself and keep it quiet."

"Well too bad," Bobby said, "'Cos I'm here now and you ain't doing anything that can get you in trouble."

"I got a confession," John said, "We know he's guilty. But there's no body, no evidence, and no case, and the moment we're clear of this place this weasel ain't confessing anything to anyone. I really wouldn't feel bad about pulling the trigger here and now and plugging this little piece of shit."

"Not our fight, Johnny," Bobby said, "I ain't letting you cross that line because you know as well as I do; there's no turning back. Come on, ya idjit, walk away and just have a drink with me."

John's eyes narrowed and he growled in displeasure, even as he asked, "On you?"

"Still wheelin' and dealin'," Bobby said distastefully, "Yeah, jackass. On me."

John nodded shortly and holstered his gun. Marcus Tenet exhaled in relief, which John cut short by hitting him across the face and lowering his mouth down by Tenet's ears.

"You get a pass," John told him, "God knows why. But you had better keep your nose clean or else I come back and I won't be knocking. Have a long miserable life looking over your shoulder, you sonofabitch."


Dean watches the news regularly once he is stronger and more aware, and learns that 'Duane Viner' was an alias for a career criminal who had a long rap sheet but wasn't some freak stalker or sexual predator or anything like that. The Huntingtons were wealthy, he needed money, and he just wanted to kidnap Annie Huntington for ransom. He had nothing whatsoever to do with Linda Carin, whose life was taken by Marcus Tenet years ago, the same way Marcus Tenet had nothing to do with Annie Huntington. The two crimes just intersected in that one car, and then mowed over all of them.

It brought home something that pained Dean so completely; not only did Annie take a bullet for him, he also understood that as a professional criminal, Duane Viner wouldn't have hurt Annie because he needed her for ransom. If Dean had just checked the hero at the door, if he'd just sat still, if he'd just not done anything, chances were that the Huntingtons would be set back a couple million but would still have their daughter alive.

"It's not your fault," Sam told him one night, knowing what he was thinking as they watched television, "You couldn't have known, and you couldn't have just stood there."

Dean shook his head at his brother, said nothing. His chest and his back was still burning, it still hurt to breathe, yes, but maybe there was just nothing to say. He started coughing again, and pressed a tissue over his mouth.

Sam tsked at him and grabbed the ratty piece in Dean's hand, replaced it with a fresh one. He took the soiled tissue to the trash by the fingertips, muttering "Gross-gross-gross" until he got rid of it.

It made Dean smile a little, and though tiny and fast, Sam caught it, made the kid smile a little bit too.

"Got any idea when I'm getting out of here?" Dean asked.

Sam just shook his head, "You're nowhere near well, man. And I heard them say, once you're better, you'd need some rehab too. To regain muscle strength and control, since the bullet ran through a whole bunch of stuff."

"Great," Dean sighed, closing his eyes and pulling his blankets up higher.

"You cold?" Sam asked.

"Whadja think?"

"You're always cold, lately," Sam said, grabbing an extra blanket from one of the closets and settling it over Dean, "But that will get better too."

"How long have I been in here," Dean murmured, "The days look the same."

"A couple of weeks," Sam said after a moment of thought, also surprising himself.

"And you've just been here the whole time," Dean said distastefully.

"I was worried, sue me," Sam retorted, "I guess I uh... I can go back to school soon."

Dean pressed his lips together, looked away thoughtfully, "Yeah?"

"Uh-huh," Sam said affirmatively, "I guess it's about time. I can even get your schoolwork for you, and bring it by here or at rehab every day so you don't get too far behind."

"I'm already too far behind," Dean said, "I'm so far behind I'm out of the races this year, I think. I really don't think I'm gonna make it this year."

"The circumstance are extraordinary and your grades are good," Sam insisted, "God knows how or why. I'm sure the teachers won't be heartless, Dean. We can make arrangements, you won't have to repeat the year and all that."

Dean took a deep breath and coughed it out, shaking his head again, "I really don't wanna get into this now with you, Sammy."

"I think I know what you're worried about."

"Sam-" Dean warned him.

"No," Sam argued, "You're gonna get this into your thick skull. You're not gonna walk in there with people thinking any less of you, Dean. You're a victim, same as Annie. She died, you made it, that's that."

"Shut up, Sam!" Dean yelled at him, ending it in another cough that softened Sam's tone but did nothing to ease his resolve.

"No one's gonna think it's your fault, Dean."

"It doesn't matter if they think it or not!" Dean retorted, "It's my fault, Sam. It's my fault. It's fucking bad enough she takes a bullet with my name on it, man, but if I'd just... if I'd just stopped, if I'd just... I don't know. I don't know, Sam. If I never walked into her life she'd be alive. That's all I can think. Her family will hate me, her friends, everyone... she probably hates me, up where all the nice dead people go."

"She doesn't hate you, Dean," Sam said, "She liked you. A lot. And she wouldn't have taken the bullet if she didn't think you deserved her sacrifice."

"It doesn't matter," Dean said after a long moment, "She's dead, and that's on me, Sam. It's on me, it's on all over me."


Sam was this close to telling his brother he'd been, in many ways, adored by Annie. But he stopped short, wondering if it would hurt his brother more. Dean's problem was that he felt unworthy of the sacrifice or the love of others, and undeserving of forgiveness. It was like a death-spiral, how that cycle of guilt just went on down and faster. Unworthy, so at fault. At fault, and so unforgivable. And down and deep and faster it went.

And even if he didn't feel he was at fault for Annie's death, there was also the undeniable loss of a friend, especially when they had so few to begin with. Sam knew that Dean didn't have to love Annie back for her absence to hurt. He just had to care a little, and Dean's other problem was that he tended to care a lot.

Sam, like their father, finds himself turning away visitors at Dean's stubborn insistence. But the inexhaustible Cherry does leave pie, and Sam takes it as a good sign that Dean actually eats some of it.

"See?" Sam told him one day, "I told you, no one thinks it's your fault."

"And I told you," Dean snapped at him, "It doesn't matter what they think. I just know what I know."

But Sam knew it did matter, it always mattered. As a matter of fact, it mattered now more than ever after the Winchesters have had a taste of people's trust and love and admiration.

Dean started getting stronger and consequently, the hospital started being less lax with imposing the visiting hours on the Winchesters. Dean having been so near-death had granted the Winchesters concessions the hospital could no longer provide.

With little else to do and the work mounting, Sam went back to school. The first few days were odd, because he found that without Annie, he didn't know if he was still friends with her friends.

But they still tended to wave him over to join them, and would still sit with him and talk with him. It was just like before except darker and slower, because Dean and Annie weren't there. But he went on and they went on, the planets kept on turning, and he himself still shone. There was still a life to be had here, out in the light.


The thing with hospitals, Dean reflected glumly, is that after the fear and the shock and the hurt that brought you in there is eased by the relief of eventual healing, there's a lot of boredom between then and freedom.

He was asleep most of the time but unquestionably getting better, and he knew he was near to being released when his father brought in his homework.

"Seriously?" Dean asked John when he dropped a massive envelope on his swiveling dining table, "Dad, come on."

"Get to reading, Dean," John told him, "You have a lot of school to catch up on."

They've both been here before, there was no denying that. But the ending was different, as Dean pushed the envelope away.

"No."

John's face pinched, "Dean, you're well enough to do this, and you might as well start-"

"But what's it all for, dad?" Dean countered, "Seriously, I'm not being a smart-ass here. It's an honest-to-god question, old man. What's it all for?"

"A high school education is the minimum you need to function in this world-"

Dean rolled back his eyes, "I can read, I can write, I can talk, I can do math and chemistry and physics and I can run rings around you on all of them. You can do better than this, dad. What. Is. It. All. For."

"I don't have to explain myself on this," John told him tersely, "Get to w-"

"No," Dean argued, "You can't use the drill-sergeant bit on me on this, dad. Play fair, and answer me, please. Please, dad. I don't wanna go back there, so you gotta give me a good reason why I need this when I know everything I need to know to do what I have to do as a hunter. Unless you're telling me, what? I'm headed to college? I'm gonna need more education so I can one day run a fucking bank? What's it for?"

Dean searched his father's face, realized that the question perplexed the older man too.

"I don't wanna go back there," Dean pleaded, "You can't make me, dad. I can't look them all in the eye while know what I know: that she died and it's my fault. The only way you can get me back in there is if there's a good reason why. I need you to give me that reason, dad. If you're gonna make me go back there, I need you to do that. And I seldom ask you for anything but I'm asking now."

"You won't always be a hunter," John said, it sounded like it was getting wrenched out of him, "You gotta give yourself a chance to be something else."

Dean just snorted, "You honestly think that? If I get my high school diploma, and ditch you and Sam for college, you'd let me, right? You'd up and say, 'I'm proud of you, son' or 'Go get 'em tiger.' Right? That's how that scenario's gonna go?"

John stared at him, "After we kill the thing that hurt your mother-"

"After," Dean scoffed, "After we kill the thing that hurt mom-"

"Your mother would have my ass if you didn't at least finish high school," John cut the mockery, finally, and maybe that was it, and maybe that was all.

"She'd want you to finish high school," John said quietly, "She'd want you to finish."

Dean closed his eyes in defeat, and he felt himself trembling, "Don't use that card, dad. Play fair, I said."

"It's all I got to play with," John admitted, "Listen, Dean. You're almost done with school, see? Just a little bit more. You don't even have to go back to this one. We can go somewhere else."

"I won't get the breaks from other schools from my absences here," Dean said, "If I transfer, I'd have to start the year over and you know it. You can't make me go, dad. I know what I need to know, right? I already know what I need to know to be what I'm gonna be: a hunter, just like you."

"I'd be doing you an injustice if I let you do this, son," John confessed. "I can't."

"Well it's not up to you anymore," Dean said quietly, "I don't... I don't understand the rules out there, dad. I'm not made for that life, this normal thing with all the crazy people doing all sorts of shit to each other. I don't get it, I don't get any of it. I can't fit in, I'm the wrong fucked-up shape, and I screwed up. I can't go back. I won't go back."


The school year ends, and this is the only time Dean finally gets clearance from his doctors and his family to drive, and the only time he finds the guts to call up Jed Huntington's office for an appointment.

Like before he barely gets through the secretary, who tells him the next free time Mr. Huntington had was in a month. He gives his name, though, and in ten minutes he's got reserved parking on the tallest building in town and an executive assistant leading him up to the boss' offices at the top floor.

The burly man walks over to him, and he looked thinner and older, and the hug he gives Dean is less emphatic. He never thought he'd miss the bone-crushing affection of it, but he did.

"I'm happy to see you on your feet, Dean," Jed told him, "They said you got complications."

Oh, he's got complications all right.

"I'm good now," Dean assured him, "Done with rehab too and everything. We were uh... my family and I, we're pulling up roots again, and I guess I just... I never had the chance to..."

"Margie and I understood completely," Jed told him as he scrambled for words, "You were injured, and then sick. Your condolences were with us, Dean, make no mistake."

"It's not just that," Dean said, averting his eyes, "It's not just that. I've uh... I've filed the reports with the cops, and the DA got our statements and stuff so you gotta know what really happened out there by now, just... just not from me. And I think I owe you that."

"You don't owe us anything, Dean-"

"I owe you everything," Dean countered him breathlessly, and there was this lump in his throat. It was the first time his soul hurt so badly it manifested physically, because it was just killing his throat, he couldn't work around it.

"Your daughter," Dean stammered, "Annie. She died for me, and she died 'cos of me. None of this would have happened if I just stayed still and never walked into your life. I'm sorry." He swiped angrily at the tears welling in his eyes, "God, I'm so sorry."

Jed stared at him for a long time, his own throat working around whatever was lodged in there, lumps and words and maybe anger but maybe forgiveness too.

"There's nothing to be sorry for, Dean," he said tightly, finally, "And I don't think it's gonna change your mind but I'm gonna tell you why. I find it hard to dislike this kid who tried his darndest and risked his own life – twice – to save my daughter. It doesn't matter that the man who tried to take her was just a kidnapper and that he wouldn't have hurt her. You couldn't have known that then. All you could have known was that someone was taking her away, and you couldn't stand for that. It could have been me, defending her, it could have been me, unknowingly getting her killed. It really could have been me. More than that, though... I find it hard to dislike a kid my daughter would take a bullet for. This whole situation... it gets too complex, and we can both get lost in it forever. But sometimes it's simple too, and that is all: I can't hate a man my daughter would die for. I can't hate you, Dean."

Dean is running his hand over his face, again and again, like he could take it off and take everything that he was feeling off. He didn't do too well with generosity and kindness and forgiveness. It was screwed up but he was self-aware enough to know that. He went in here with a script in his head, in a story that ended with him getting yelled at and punched and thrown out the door. But here he was, being consoled by the man who arguably needed more consoling. Again, it just brought home what he'd known all along; he didn't understand this world, not at all.

"That said," Jed cleared his throat, "Are you well enough to be back in school now?"

Dean pressed his lips together, tried to find the strength to lie and say yes, that he was back in school. He wanted to assure Jed that he wasn't wasting the life Annie had given him, that Annie had given up for him. But he couldn't lie to this man, right? He couldn't...

"No," he shook his head, "I'm not."

"But you are going back to school," Jed clarified, "Wherever it is you and your family are moving to."

Lie, goddamnit, just lie.

"Yes," Dean said, and it was like pulling teeth, not wanting to lie, but finding no better recourse because really, how could he tell the man in front of him that I'm not going back to school, but I'm not wasting the life she gave me, I promise. You'd have less to fear in the dark with me out there. I promise. I'm not wasting the life she gave me.

"Good," Jed brightened, "Good."

Dean nodded, "I uh... I should go. You're probably busy. Your secretary told me, before she knew who I was, that your next free ten minutes is a month from now."

"Busy is good," Jed said, "Busy takes my mind off of things."

"I'll see you around, Mr. Huntington," Dean said, "And you know... if you could just say what I said to the Mrs."

"Of course," Jed said, shaking Dean's hand, "Good luck out there, boy. Bright things, right? Bright things for you?"

Dean nodded numbly, "Yeah. Bright things."

The End.

January 27, 2011


Afterword


Contents

I. The Main Theme: Divergence

II. This Crazy Hybrid Case Fic

III. The Characters

IV. Massive Thanks and Responses

V. Preview: Ever This Day 4: Angel of God


I. The Main Theme: Divergence

It will be apparent to some that the title, Less Traveled By, is borrowed from Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken: "...Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by..."

The fic is basically about the Winchesters standing at a crossing, a point where choices had to be made and roads had to be chosen. This is why in the end, the case they were working on was both a natural and a supernatural one; I wanted them to be heavily exposed to both, like the guy in the poem looking down the road as far as he can to see what's there and where it could go, an exposure which made the choices after that much more informed and that much richer.

This exposure to the two roads manifested itself through themes of pairs, dualities, and dichotomies that I tried to put all across the fic:

(1) Linda Carin's case vs. Annie Huntington's case – this tension represents a supernatural case (Linda's) and a normal criminal case (Annie's);

(2) Peace vs. Justice – when John is torn between handling a case the supernatural way, or leaving it to the authorities;

(3) The Supernatural vs. the Natural World – note how the Winchesters were being dragged into the normal, and how they were dragging Annie Huntington into the supernatural;

(4) John Winchester vs. Jed Huntington – representing very particular parenting styles, again in accordance with being a father enmeshed in the supernatural and one in the more worldly; and

(5) Dean vs. Sam – ultimately where the fic leads to, would be the choices of the brothers in what they are pursuing: Dean shuns the normal, and Sam decides he could still be part of the natural world, both choices not necessarily less right or more noble than the other.

I'm not sure if the pairs-thing came across, but I hope after reading this author's note, it would be more apparent and fun to note :)

II. This Crazy Hybrid Case-Fic

I was a little bit apprehensive about this as a case-fic. I was thinking, man, people would think it's a ridiculous stretch if it were both a supernatural case and a normal, criminal case. But I just couldn't let it go... and I really tried my best to justify how this could happen, haha:

(1) Murphy's Law – which should also be another term for Winchester Luck (or Lack Thereof); if it can go wrong, it will; and

(2) Law of Supply and Demand – car with a bad history up for a cheap, quick sale meets two-bit criminal who wants to use it on a kidnapping and then just toss it. Someone wants to sell, someone wants to buy, easy as pie, haha.

I know it's a stretch, but I hope it's not too crazy. Again, I wanted to portray an intersection between the natural and the supernatural.

III. The Characters

Dean

I think I often fall short on depicting his complexity; I've always said that I am a Dean-girl who enjoys writing about Sam more, haha, and this might have shown on this fic. His depiction here is certainly more straightforward than his younger brother's, I think.

The core characterization centered around one of the fandom's most favorite topics: What had kept Dean from finishing high school? After School Special seemed to put him on a fairly-reckless scholarly track, but he went regularly, didn't he? And he certainly was reasonably smart. So what happened? What suddenly shifted? And aside from his own personal choices, how could the scholarly-oriented Sam have let his older brother quit? Or even their father who, while being incredibly focused on hunting, I could also imagine as someone who would make his eldest son finish high school at the minimum?

Less Traveled By is my take on this question. Deciding not to finish high school at the final stretch was Dean's final turning away from the normal, natural world. It wasn't just about school anymore, but his inability to feel like he fit in it or that it fit his life. I thought he had to be completely 'misshapen' to not want to finish high school with so little left of it: he felt he failed at normal, his timing was off (symbolized by his having been left behind by his class), he didn't understand the rules the same way he understood the supernatural. These factors moved his personal choice. As for Sam and his father miraculously shutting up and giving him exactly what he wanted... I thought he had to seem spectacularly vulnerable and at the same time unshakably determined for them to support his decision, instances that I think Less Traveled By also provided.

Sam

As I mentioned as far back as the first chapter, one of the driving forces behind the writing of Less Traveled By is that while I find season 6 Sam compelling, I miss 'Sammy' too, haha, and I hope I managed to convey that characterization in this fic. Smart, driven, assertive, precocious but compassionate, Sam as we know and love him, in the teenager-incarnation he didn't exactly completely shake even as he got older in seasons 1-5. I wanted him to be a little bit adolescent-surly, a little bit moody, sometimes prim, sometimes oblivious.

Less Traveled By, is in my eye, a coming-of-age story (as I find most pre-series pieces would be), and is about two developments on this character: (1) the stirrings of his rebellion against his father; and more importantly, (2) Why dream up law school? We know from After School Special that his eyes were opened by his teacher to other possibilities for his future, and that he was a good writer. But why law school? My version of an answer is that Sam eventually going away to Stanford Law wasn't just about escape, but also about pursuit. He wasn't just running away from the hard hunting life, he was addressing the problems of the world in his own way. His father chose the hunt and so did his older brother, but he chose the law in a similarly informed and conscientious capacity; it's not a less moral job, there are also human monsters, and sometimes they got away, so sometimes you needed natural-world warriors too.

John

Fans seem to be very conflicted about this character; but love him or hate him, he's certainly compelling and all over the fandom. I always try to depict a balance between his love for his sons, his single-mindedness in the hunt, his sense of responsibility for others, and his inalienable negligence of his family. These are a lot of responsibilities, after all, and there's just one of the guy to go around, haha. Seriously though... I hope Less Traveled By was fair to this character. I don't think there's any question of whether or not he loves his kids, it's just always a question of how large his blinders are, haha... there are just some things he doesn't see right away.

Bobby

If there was one character I may have been unfair to in Less Traveled By, I think it was just the sheer 'utility' of Bobby here. I didn't show any development or depth at all. But I needed him in there for John to have a sounding board, and to make John's characterization richer. In many ways I thought about Bobby's depiction in this fic as the angel on John's right shoulder, or the physical embodiment of his better-self, the man who could have been the boys' dad if he wasn't running on overdrive all the time. The series uses him very practically too, I think, depicting him as the guy brought in mid-epi or toward the end with the phone calls and the rescues and the answers, so I didn't think it veered too far away from what we're all used to.

The Original Characters

I think it's always a challenge bringing in OCs in fanfiction, so how I tried to do it to keep people engaged is that the fic was never in their perspective, and their scenes were always in some reference to the main characters. Despite these limitations, I still hope that you found them at the very least tolerable, and hopefully somewhat likable too. The worst that could happen is they end up feeling imposing or frivolous, which I hope was not the case.

This was one of the biggest challenges I had in writing the fic, and one of the reasons why I agonized, say around Chapter 10, about writing that Annie had a crush on Dean. I thought, and you have to admit this wouldn't be beyond us fans, haha, that some readers would groan and say, oh no, romance, haha. So I just tried to be as careful as possible, and I hope that came across. This is a story about our boys, but the characters on the periphery are always around to help us tell that story better. I really hope I managed to stay on this track.

IV. Massive Thanks and Responses

Thanks to all who read, alert-ed, favoriote-d and especially all who reviewed Less Traveled By. I know you all shared your time with me, which I value profoundly!

This is the first time I've ever ever crossed the 150-review mark for a Supernatural fic so I really really wanted to thank everyone who made the time and effort to review Less Traveled By. I know everyone is busy, but I was just especially touched by people helping me out by sharing their thoughts and providing encouragement. I always say this is the only income we get from writing here, haha, and so reviewers: Thank you for feeding me and keeping this fic alive to its final conclusion.

Below you will find your names in alphabetical order, but I kind of have poor vision (and likely poor alphabetizing skills too haha) so if I missed anyone, call me out on it, as I firmly believe that everyone who reviews deserves a hearty shout out :) Lots of love to:

A Girl, Adorereading, AlecDeanFan, alwaysateen, AmyNY, Anne1013, apester, apieceofcake, Aranna Undomiel, AuntTora, Bartlebead, borgmama1of5, Beatlesfan90/Britt, Blume, BranchSuper, BreezyFlow, Calamity Jim, CeCe Away, Creative Spark, Cushion, deangirl1, Death-Muncher, dreamlitnight, dstrbd child, dk-joy, Etrixan, fifimom, Ghostwriter, Grecian, Haylia Jones, Heartless BytchhakaHelenBach1, Hjalmar, I'mcalledZorro, Iritllan, JustShyOfMe, Karone, Evertree, Katiki, The Kritty, leahk80, lilykep, Lisa Paris, lizard971, lobita, lotchness

magoghair, Marlowe97, Mayhem21/Thalia013, masondixon, Maz101, McB, mcmario, Meggin Lane, The Metronome Maven, michallev, Mischa Kitsune, moira4eku, monkeymuse, NongPradu, penless, PhoenixDragonDreamer/Mandy, Psychee, Rosetta Brunestud, sassafras224, Scanilla, SerpahimXII, Slinky-and-theBloddyWands, Suicidal Queen, Tari Roo, teal-lover, Viper-67, Von, winjen, xXMistressMadHatterXx, zoeysgirl, and zuimar! :)

V. The Next Project: Ever This Day Chapter 4, Angel of God

Ever This Day is a series of one-shots of Dean as seen through the eyes of Castiel. I've posted three stand-alone chapters on this fic on fanfiction . net already, and am working on the fourth one, entitled Angel of God. Some of you may be aware that these one-shots are some of my personal favorites of all time; I think they are some of my best work (though not necessarily the most popular, they have allowed me to be at my most experimental, philosophical and theological, haha) so if you have time, give them a shot :)

Below, you will find a summary and a preview of the fourth installment, which may or may not be posted, like all these low-commitment previews of mine, haha. Seriously though, a lot of things are going on in my life right now, I've been contemplating fandom retirement, and I'm just hoping I can still get any fanwork done at this point or at some point soon, because the only time I have to write is when I should be asleep, haha. Anyway, for your consideration:

Title: Angel of God

Summary: After Free to Be You and Me. As the search for God continues, Castiel comes upon what he first thought to be a fairly simple solution – Let Dean die and wait for God to intervene, or let Dean die and make him look for God in Heaven. Either way it comes down to letting Dean die, and it is a loss much harder to bear than he anticipated.

" " "

Preview

" " "

Castiel watched the hunter's hunched back, as he picked up apples on all fours on the grounds of the massive orchard. He had a sack with him made out of burlap, a third of the way full. He would reach out for an apple, consider it, and then either toss it into the sack or back on the ground.

"Hello Dean," he finally makes his presence known.

Dean is unsurprised this time; dreams tended to be like that, where unexpected things made sense just being around. The hunter just looks up at him, and then rises to his feet as he dusts his hands on his weather-worn jeans, "Cas, I'm kinda busy."

"Picking apples," Castiel said.

"No, keeping myself from being annoyed," Dean snapped, "But yeah, that too."

"Why are you picking apples?" the angel asked.

"'Cos I'm baking a pie, that's why!" Dean retorted as if it was the most obvious thing in the world before he could think, and just before his face crumpled, "Oh, man. I'm dreaming, aren't I?"

Castiel opened his palms up to the hunter in acquiescence, "But this would be one of my favorite settings, for your dreams."

"How many have you-" Dean stammered, "You know what? I don't wanna know. What are you doing here, man?" he made as if to go back to apple-picking before he checked himself, and just shoved his hands into his pockets.

"I need to speak to you about something," Castiel said, "And this is the one place where your reaper could not follow."

"My... my reaper?" Dean asked, and one of his hands flew to his chest, just over his heart, in fleeting remembrance.

"What was the last thing you remember before this place?" Castiel asked him.

"I was in the motel," Dean said carefully as he thought, brows furrowing, "I was tired and I fell asleep, I think. I woke up later and... and everything..." he gasped, fell to his knees because the memory of the pain suddenly seemed accessible, as if he would wake back to reality and the pain would just be there, right beneath a thin, thin curtain-

"Stay with me," Castiel told him quietly, squatting in front of him and pressing two fingers to his forehead. Awake in the real world, the touch would have made him fall asleep, but in the world of dreams, it kept him here.

"Everything hurt," Dean said, voice strained, looking at the angel searchingly, "Felt like I was burning. I couldn't breathe, I could barely move. I called for help."

"You were taken to the hospital in an ambulance," Castiel told him, "There is a violent infection from a wound you caught in some hunt or other. Nothing unnatural about it; you have been lax, your blood is poisoned, and it has now gone on into your heart."

"You were saying..." Dean pressed fingers over his eyes, "You were saying I had a reaper on me. You're saying I'm dying."

He was taking it better than Castiel expected.

"Yes," Castiel confirmed, "I have heard about it in my travels, but now I know for sure."

Dean sighed, "And who's been yapping about that?"

"A couple of reapers," Castiel enumerated, "There's one with a particular interest in your acquisition - unfinished business, I've come to understand. She told me you would know. The information was the same from the few angels who would still dare to speak with me... so you see, I have heard about this from here and there."

"Great," Dean breathed, "That's just fantastic. So no use being around the hospital then, huh?"

"I would not say so," Castiel told him, "It eases your pain by magnitudes."

"That's a relief," Dean scoffed, looking away from the angel, remembering the strands of hurt he had just tasted, unbearable even in their relative distance from where he was.

"Sam's gonna kill me when I die," Dean reflected with a wince, "I got this cut on my arm a couple of days back, then I was just on this shit-dirty hunt. I think I picked up a bug from there, I'd be surprised if I didn't. Arm's been hurting like a sonofabitch, and I guess whatever hit me's in the blood now, like you said. The ticker's been feeling all funny and I'm not an idiot, I usually know when I'm out of my league. But I guess I made the call a little too late, huh?"

"Yes," Castiel conceded before adding, "But we are on the cusp of a magnificent opportunity."

Dean blinked at that, before actually laughing, "Well at least one of us is happy."

"Don't you think," Castiel began, "That if you died, and God meant you for other things, that He would come, and intervene? To try and right things?"

"I've died before," Dean said with a grunt, "I'm pretty sure he let it happen every time."

"And yet here you are," Castiel said, "And things are notably different now: you have a job to do, a role to play. You are Michael's vessel, you are the righteous man who can fix things. Better still, that we'd know to look. If He brought you back again, we'd know somehow. Besides, if He does not stop your death here, maybe you can look for Him, in Heaven."

"Why are you bothering asking me anyway?" Dean asked, "If I'm dying, I'm dying, right? It might as well be useful for something so sure, yeah, I'll play along. Not like I have a choice, do I?"

Castiel pressed his lips together in thought.

"Cas?" Dean pressed, "I mean I don't have any choice here, right? Not like you can heal me but you'd rather not and you're asking me if I could please just die instead?"

"I can't heal you," Castiel said gravely, "I am cut off."

"So why are you bothering asking me?" Dean insisted.

"Because I mean to watch," Castiel replied, "Very closely."

Dean paused, let the idea sink in for a long moment. It would be a long, drawn-out, painful, ugly death and they both knew it. Castiel would hear his fevered, ravenous ranting and raving and crying, would watch as he spewed out breath and sweat and tears and blood and disease.

"Fair enough," Dean said finally, "How long do I have?"

"A few days," Castiel answered.

"You think I'm coming back though, right?" Dean asked, brows furrowing, "You think god will come in and save the day and spare the vessel. I won't be like... dead-dead. Like, forever-dead."

"I believe so..." the angel hesitated.

"Cas," Dean told him, eyes piercing, "Level with me here, all right? Please. What I'm really asking you is this: should I call my brother and say goodbye?"

Castiel stared at him for a long moment, before answering, "I have faith that He will intervene, or at worst, welcome you in Heaven."

"Faith," Dean grumbled, "Fan-fricking-tastic. Because it works every freaking time after all, right? I mean of course it's gonna work today, it's gonna work today because we really need it this time, not like the other times when noooo, we were asking for help but we were just making that shit up. Today's the day god is gonna answer. Out of all the days we've ever asked for help, today's gonna be the day-"

Castiel stepped out of Dean's dreams.

TO (MAYBE) BE CONTINUED...

C&C's welcome as always and 'til the next post!