BEATING THE ALTERNATIVE UNTIL YOUR HANDS TURN BLOODY

Dean stared down at the cold and congealing remains of the half-eaten bacon hotdog. It sat amidst the chaotic pile of crumpled paper wrappings, tinfoil and empty beer bottles like a mutilated soldier that had been left behind, forgotten in the battlefield. The very sight of it made Dean's stomach churn with nausea.

Death had the strangest taste in food, and that was saying a lot coming from someone like Dean.

The Winchester looked at mess with such intensity that it wouldn't have been the slightest bit surprising if the greasy food remnants suddenly got up and started tap-dancing.

As it was, they just sat there, looking soggy and miserable. Apt companions for the rest of the silent inhabitants of the house.

"Still can't get my head around it all," Bobby's voice, familiar and solid, broke the quietness. The slight touch of incredulity in his tone added to the odd reality of things. "We see a lot of weird thing in our lives, stuff that would make a grown man doubt his sanity... but this..."

Dean answered him with a shoulder shrug and a wince, and Bobby couldn't really tell if the pained gesture had been for what had just happened or life in general.

The situation was messed up enough to make anyone wince. And grimace. And flinch. And possibly scream obscenities until the throat worked no more.

Dean had just winced. It seemed small and somewhat of an understatement... considering.

Instead of giving Bobby his view of events or even a small inkling of what was going on inside his head, Dean just started picking up empty bottles, the soiled paper bags and tinfoil wrappers to throw in the trash. In the quiet house, the crumbling papers sounded almost like crushed bones.

"Death... the pale horse rider himself," Bobby went on, moving to give Dean a hand. It wasn't like there was anyone around to complain about the mess in the kitchen, but it was something to do. "The Grim Reaper, eating crappy food at my table," Bobby said, picking up a piece of meat that had left a large grease stain on the table that kind of looked like a dick. Death had left its mark in that house, in more ways than one.

"He likes it," Dean offered, his voice deep and scratchy, like it had to fight its way out. Weary and tired. Broken.

"He's going to be okay," Bobby let out, stopping his pretense of cleaning up. He had never been all that good at either. "You know that, don't'cha?"

Dean's hands, white knuckling the kitchen sink, seemed to be the only thing keeping him upright at that point. "Yeah, Bobby... I know that."

Bobby wasn't sure if he should be offended by the poor lie or worried that Dean couldn't do better than that. One step closer and Bobby could see the fine tremors that coursed through Dean's body even as he reached out and laid his hand over the young man's shoulder. The similarity with a live wire was so intense that Bobby almost pulled out of the contact, instinct survival until he remembered that it was just Dean

"He's gonna be okay, Dean," Bobby said again, trying to keep all of his doubts out of his voice. "I'm sure of that."

Dean spun around so fast that for a second Bobby thought that he was going to punch him. The older man managed to contain the flinch, telling himself that he was an idiot, that this was the wrong Winchester, that this wasn't soulless Sam, standing above him, ready to plunge a dagger into his heart.

Right now, the only one that Dean was capable of hurting was himself.

"You don't know that, Bobby," Dean whispered, even though his eyes kept screaming for the other man to prove him wrong. "Castiel warned me not to do this; hell! even Crowley said it was a bad idea... and Sam... Sam was so sure that this would kill him..."

"So sure that he was ready to kill me to avoid it," Bobby couldn't help adding. The hurt look in Dean's eyes and the way he lowered his gaze to the floor, as if the stained tiles were more capable of offering support, was painful to watch.

"Maybe they were all right, Bobby... maybe all I did was make things worse for Sam—"

"Now you listen to me boy," Bobby cut in, not letting Dean sink any deeper in all the self-doubt and guilt that he was welling up. "There is no one on this Earth, no angel above or demon bellow that knows your brother better than you! And you know, as well as I do, that Sam couldn't've been allowed to go on as he was... he would've eventually killed the both of us, and who knows how many after that!"

Bobby watched, as Dean's gaze lifted from the floor just high enough to look past the table and beyond the door that led to the basement where Sam still slept. Now that he looked more closely at Dean, Bobby could see how bruised and fragile his eyes looked, looking so much older than his years, older than Death itself. Bobby couldn't help but feel his hackles raise just a little bit higher at the sight.

Sam wasn't the bad guy. He was just the one holding the 'axe'. And it was that image that Bobby could not shake.

Even though Bobby was perfectly aware that this was none of the boys' fault, there was only so much that he could rationalize and forgive after seeing that dagger falling so close to his heart. After the dagger of disappointment had been plunged so deeply and so mercilessly inside his chest.

If Dean hadn't shown up, out of nowhere, in the nick of time, that metaphorical dagger wouldn't be the only one making Bobby bleed that day...

"You heard how he was screaming, Bobby," Dean pointed out, moving from the sink to the now clean table where he dropped heavily into an empty chair. His thumb managed to find a glob of some dried up, fossilized piece of food from god knows how many weeks ago. He scraped and scraped at it, like the survival of Mankind depended on it. "It was worse than when he was coming down from the demon blood... it was worse than the last time I did something like this..."

Dean drifted off, probably lost in the memories of another time, another bad page in the history of the Winchesters and that panic room of Bobby's. Had he known better, Bobby never would have built the damn thing in the first place.

"What if he wakes up and there's nothing left of Sam? What if Death's wall doesn't stick and all of those memories of Hell come rushing back as soon as Sam opens his eyes?" Dean looked at Bobby, eyes pleading and desperate. Honest and laid bare in such a way that made it hard to look at. "Bobby... I can't deal with Sam remembering all the awful things that they do to souls downstairs... the way they rip you app—what if he doesn't wake up at all?"

Bobby really, really wished that he had all the answers. Hell! he would settle for having just one, but the truth was, they'd had no other choice and what would come, would come. Until then, all they could do was try to keep their heads above the water as the waves hit them.

"Still beats the hell out of the alternative, son," Bobby eventually said, gently, knowing that, before Death dropped by with his change of heart, Dean had been considering the grim alternative just as much as Bobby had.

Looking worn out and beat up, Dean folded his arms and let his head rest on the table. If Dean's shoulders were to suddenly start shaking as he quietly sobbed, Bobby wasn't sure what he would do.

Luckily for him, Dean seemed more intent on resting his weary head than anything else. Bobby had no idea when he'd last slept.

Plus, there was no telling just what kind of toll playing Death-for-a-day had taken on the boy. Dean was a strong man, stronger than most, given the kind of life he'd lived, but everyone had their breaking point and for Dean, Bobby knew, it ended and began with Sam. It wasn't like they had a textbook for these things...

And then there was the small detail of how exactly Dean had managed to summon Death. As far as Bobby was aware, only the dead could see reapers... maybe it worked different with their boss...

"He was functioning, Bobby... he was living his life," Dean offered, his voice muffled by his shirt, speech slurring in almost sleep.

Bobby wondered, idly, if he'd still be able to carry the young man from the table chair to the couch. It'd been close to two decades since he'd last put that theory to the test and Dean had only been a scrawny teen at the time.

"No, Dean... that wasn't living," Bobby whispered, forcing the image of that cold hard-hearted version of Sam away from his mind. "Just 'cause something has a pulse, don't mean it's livin'. Sam was surviving, until us or some other hunter put him out of his misery. And what Death did, what you accomplished... no matter what happens next, it's still better than what was before. If nothing else, you managed to pull Sam's soul out of that cage. That's gotta worth somethin'."

Bobby waited, hoping that his words would have some effect on the older Winchester, watching the rise and fall of Dean's shoulders as he breathed, face hidden by his arms. The steady rhythm of rest, juxtaposed to an otherwise chaotic life. An uncertain future.

Truth of the matter was that whatever happened next, Sam was going to need Dean, not Bobby, to help him back to his feet. The only thing that Bobby could do to help was take care of Dean and make sure that he was there for that.

"Dean?" Bobby ventured, thinking that maybe the young man had finally given in to exhaustion. "Dean, you asleep?"

"I don't think I can move, Bobby," Dean whispered, his breath ragged and pain filled even to Bobby's ears.

"What's wrong?" Bobby asked, moving closer, letting him know that he wasn't alone. He was close enough now to see the beads of sweat and the lines of pain as Dean forced his head up to look at him.

"Kin' of sore... and nauseous," Dean mumbled, closing his eyes against a new wave of pain.

Bobby's eyes widened to an impossible size, his mind going over all the things that could be wrong. All his brain kept coming back to was the fact that humans aren't suppose to be angels of death. "Sore?" he found himself asking, needing details.

Dean shifted in the chair and for a minute Bobby thought he was going to end up on the floor.

"I think—" Dean stopped, confusion clouding his gaze as he struggled to get a chest full of air and visibly failing. "—I was kin' of in—a car crash earlier and—"

Bobby barely had time to process the 'hows' and the 'what the hells' before Dean's eyes rolled into the back of his head and he finally did what Bobby had feared for the past minute.

The thud of a heavy body against the boarded floor was like the gong that Bobby had been waiting to sound for him to spring into action.

"Damn id'jit!" Bobby found himself sharing with a house where no one would answer him back. One Winchester was unconscious, IV drip making sure he stayed alive, locked in Bobby's panic room; the other was sprawled at Bobby's feet like an old rag, apparently having been in an accident even though Bobby knew for a fact that the Impala hadn't moved from the same spot since that morning.

After making sure that the kid was just unconscious, and not flat lining at his feet, Bobby searched Dean's body for any sign of injury. He hadn't been limping, so that pretty much ruled out his legs; he hadn't been showing any particular red flags of a head injury, even though Bobby was well aware of how tricky those could be, often not showing any signs up until days after the fact.

The culprit, however, was easy to guess as soon as Bobby raised Dean's shirt and took one long gander at the angry bruising there. It looked all too fresh and recent, in all its too large, too black and too purple glory, marring a big chunk of the boy's ribcage.

"Damn id'jit," Bobby whispered, more empathy than anger now, as his fingers gently probed the young man's ribs and abdomen, looking for broken bones or any signs of internal bleeding.

Eyes closed, Bobby was surprised to find himself praying that there wasn't any internal bleeding. It was a tricky thing, to be hoping for the best when what you do for a living is hunt evil, dark things.

And yet, there he was, trying to bend reality and reason so that he wouldn't risk losing Dean one more time.

Fortune, however, seemed to be on reason's side for the time being, and Bobby let out a breath of relief as the worst that his fingers found were three broken ribs and a cracked one. Painful as hell, and enough to make Bobby wonder how the hell had Dean been keeping himself on his feet all this time. But just broken bones.

It sure still beat the alternative.

By the time Bobby managed to drag Dean's sorry ass to the couch and pull him more or less onto it, the older man was sweating and seeing white spots.

Either he was getting too old for this, or Dean needed to seriously consider becoming a smaller man... like maybe five feet long and possibly less than a hundred pounds. Bobby could deal with a hundred pounds person without breaking a sweat; his problem was giants. Definitely giants, not age.

After getting the young man settled, Bobby went about binding those broken ribs as best he could without jarring Dean too much. It was a task that he'd performed too many times for it to not come easily to him.

It had to be deeply wrong at some cosmic level the way that Bobby knew how each broken bone felt under his hands when it came to the Winchester boys.

Satisfied that Dean would rest more easily now, Bobby got up, ignoring the way in which his joints complained and whined at the movement, and went to check on Sam.

Opening the vault door and finding Sam under the unplanned spotlight of the giant fan in the ceiling, Bobby was suddenly reminded of the tale of sleeping beauty.

Of course, there was no possible comparison between a fragile and nubile sleeping princess and the almost six and a half foot jumbo sleeping on the small cot in the center of the room and drooling all over Bobby's pillows. And there certainly wouldn't be any prince charming that would try to kiss Sam awake and lived to tell the tale.

No, it was the unfairness of it all that struck Bobby. The way Sam, like the princess, had no choice in being who he was and how he had been punished for that his whole life. This... this was only one more apple in the box of crappy things that had been shoved down Sam's throat.

Or, more recently, a soul for an apple. And Death sure filled well the part of the wicked witch.

Reassuring himself that Sam was merely catching up on more than a year of missed sleep, Bobby returned to Dean.

It would figure that in the middle of this all, Bobby would be the one spending the night channeling Florence Nightingale. Still he made a detour to the linen closet to fetch a warm blanket to cover Dean.

The young hunter was still out, obviously trying to compete with his brother for the sleeping beauty position. Bobby shook his head; he was spending way too much time inside... his brain was starting to grow mold if he had that much fairy tales inside it.

Bobby was just considering whether or not to remove Dean's boots, weighing the costs of possibly waking him against the desire to make him more comfortable, when Dean broke all illusions of a quiet night by coughing.

The sound brought a chill up Bobby's back. It wasn't a cold kind of cough; it wasn't even a I've-been-smoking-behind-your-back-again kind of cough. It was an 'I'm choking' kind of cough, and given how many ribs Dean had managed to break, Bobby had a pretty good idea on what Dean was choking on.

"Goddamit, kid!" Bobby let out. Blanket dropped to the floor, forgotten, he raced to get Dean into a seated position before he managed to drown himself in blood. The tell-tale dribble of a red, thin line escaping the corner of Dean's mouth, was all the confirmation Bobby needed to be sure that fate had kicked them in the butt again. "What the hell happened to you out there?"

Green eyes popped opened, still too out of it to conjure up any mask to hide his fear, the sheer panic of waking up without being able to take a breath. In absence of words, Dean's fists curled around Bobby's jacket like the thick wool was the only thing keeping him alive. In reality, it was a piss-poor life preserver made of threadbare material; a perfect reflection of just how Bobby felt at the moment.

"He saved twenty-seven lives," a deep, almost guttural voice, answered Bobby's rhetorical question. More useless words, and not at all the answer that Bobby had been looking for, but they were the only words that anyone could speak at the time.

Dean couldn't draw a breath to tell them how scared he was, how he could feel himself dying; Bobby couldn't move far enough to grab a phone and call an ambulance, particularly when he knew that help would only arrive too late.

The older man didn't needed to turn around to know who had spoken. Humans wouldn't pass his guard dogs unnoticed, monsters would have a hard time going through his protections. Also, the flapping of wings had been a big give-away.

"Help him. Now!" Bobby blared. He didn't stop for a second to consider and ponder the ramifications of ordering around a being that, for all purposes, could blink him out of existence. He'd been there; done that.

Bobby also knew that there was no need to tell the angel what to do. They both knew all too well that the angel's perfect-timed arrival was precisely for that purpose.

"Dean made a mistake," Castiel went on, ignoring Bobby's words as he neared the gasping man. Dean looked at him with a mix of despair and helplessness. "And the man who paid for that mistake with his happiness, had decided to take his own life along with twenty six others, riding on a bus."

Bobby refused to let go of Dean even as Castiel knelt in front of them, long trench coat dragging through the dust filled floor like soaked wings that seemed too heavy to lift.

Dean was barely conscious of what was going on around him, but he would've laughed at the solemn way in which Castiel reached out to touch him.

"Cass..." Dean mouthed without sound or strength behind it. Beads of blood and sweat rolled equally fast across his chin and neck and Bobby could feel him shaking under his embrace. It was impossible to tell if Dean was asking the angel to hurry up, or begging him to leave him be. Knowing Dean, it was probably the later, even if he had no strength left to push away.

Castiel laid his hand over Dean's eyes, feeling the long lashes fluttering against his palm.

"Even though he knew that he was forfeiting his bet with Death, and therefore, Sam's soul, Dean saved all of those people by crashing the grief stricken man's car," the angel said, his pale blue eyes finally meeting Bobby's, even as he covered Dean's. "After all I warned him not to do it, why does he ignores my advice by risks everything for twenty-seven strangers?"

Bobby had no idea what the angel was doing, but holding Dean up as he was, the older man could feel the angel's actions. He could feel Dean's tension gradually ebbing away; he could feel the strain abandoning his chest as he finally managed to pull in a lung full of air; he could see it in the way color was slowly returning to Dean's cheeks.

"If you need me to answer that question for you," Bobby said when finally felt like his own throat could be trusted with a little more than anxious gasps, "then you don't know him at all."

Castiel got to his feet, tilting his head sideways and looking at the sleeping form in Bobby's arms. "I know why he did it. It is who Dean is," he simply said. "What I don't understand is why risk the situation in the first place at all? Why go through the trouble of killing himself and making deals with Death to save an irreparable soul, and then risk it all for one doomed child? Or a group of strangers who, in the grand scheme of things, were of no importance and who would be going to a better place had that car collided with their bus?"

Bobby leaned back against the couch. Somehow, Dean's legs had ended up stretched across his and the older man couldn't find the stamina or will to push them aside to get up. He filed the 'killing himself' for later, when Dean was better and Sam was awake and well, and looked at angel.

Castiel claimed that he knew Dean, but, even after everything, he still couldn't understand the man, still couldn't see the high moral codes that guided Dean even in death as much as in life and that were as much part of him as the freckles on his cheeks. It seemed that with his new status in Heaven, the angel had forgotten the true value of all human life.

It would be like trying to convince a salmon that there was no point in swimming against the current.

"Because it beats the alternative, Castiel," the older man said, not bothering to erase the confused look from the angel's face and pulling the blanket over him and Dean. "It sure beats the alternative."

The end


As always, one huge thank you to my beta-reader, the talented Jackfan2! Thank you so much for your input and delicious addictions :))))