Hi, everyone. I'm so late with this I'm embarrassed. I can't apologize enough, but in my defence it was due to circumstances beyond my control. I had a major computer fail right as I was nearing the end and I lost it all. I was so disgusted I walked away for a little while and then the finale came along and totally blasted me. The result is what I've posted here, and it's pretty much completely different from what I had originally done. I hope that there are some people still interested in how it ends, but I can't blame anyone for wandering away if they have. Also, I should preemptively apologize to anyone who will hate how I've ended the story, which is with a non-ending. I really, really didn't want the conclusion to be influenced by the finale (especially since I always intended this to be completed during the hiatus right after 5.14) and in the end this is the way I decided to spin it. I'd also like to thank everyone one last time for all of the amazing support - all the alerts, favorites, and reviews mean so much to me and you've made writing my first story just an incredible experience. I'm hoping to get more up on here throughout the summer if anyone's interested. Finally, I'd like to dedicate this chapter to Mirrordance, if she doesn't mind: thanks for your lovely PMs, and I'm sorry this didn't get done quickly like you'd hoped (wince).

Special thanks to Katiki for all of her amazing advice! You really helped me out and I can't stress that enough.

On a side note, I am thinking a beta reader is something I probably need. If anyone is at all interested I would be extremely grateful and would love to hear from you!

Again, thanks so much, everyone, for reading this story. It didn't go according to plan and it took a different direction than what I'd expected. But it was fun! I'll shut up now, except for the disclaimer.

Disclaimer: Not mine. The end.

It isn't a reunion held under the best of circumstances but a reunion it is, nonetheless. Sam picks his head up at the sound of coughing, knowing instantly who it is before Dean even stumbles into view with the Burke siblings and four teenagers in tow. Alice points Sam's appropriated gun at the group as they shuffle into the garage. The younger Winchester is equally relieved and devastated: relieved that Dean and everyone else are okay, devastated that they're caught and Dean's really not okay. He can't believe how much worse his brother looks in such a short amount of time.

Dean shuffles into view, passing by Jen's doppelganger. He looks over at it and it smiles smugly at him, obviously pleased. "Hi, sweetheart," he spits. "You really had me going there." He locks eyes with Sam and forces a grin.

"Hey, Sam," the hunter says brightly. "How's it hanging?" He throws Patterson's doppelganger a glare when he sees it standing over the younger Winchester with a gun. "If you so much as touch my brother," Dean warns in a scratchy voice.

Alice pushes Miles to the ground, where he sits cross-legged and meets grim eyes with the younger Winchester. She grabs two rolls of duct tape from a nearby trolley and throws one at Jen's doppelganger. It promptly moves to the group and begins binding their wrists together behind their backs. The students don't struggle, frightened into acquiescence. Tate and Jen stiffen, unsure, and look to Dean. Sam watches as the hunter nods to them and they submit. Alice steps behind Dean, duct tape at the ready.

"Try anything and your brother gets a bullet in the head," she says in a voice plainly meant to be heard by both Winchesters. "Arms behind your back." Dean growls but otherwise allows her to bind his wrists. She wraps the duct tape around one last time before she rips the roll free, yanking roughly on the hunter's arms.

"Before I forget," the demon adds, hand sliding under the fabric of Dean's shirt. The hunter steels himself, grounding his legs into the floor with an impassively cold expression.

Sam catches his brother's eye and he knows that Dean can see the apprehension on his face. The elder Winchester offers a ghost of a smile, eyebrow lifting minutely in an expression meant only for Sam. It's the look Dean always gives him right before the shit is about to hit the fan. It's the same look he got from him when they were kids and Dad busted one of them for pulling some smartass stunt. It's the same look when Dean meets a random pretty face and it's time to get out of there unless he wants to watch Don Juan in action. When they're hunting it's the look he gives him right as he's about to do something really, really stupid and risky. And right now it's pretty much the last thing Sam wants to see on his brother's face. He has no idea what Dean could possibly be thinking.

"I'll just relieve you of this," Alice tells the hunter, withdrawing her hand from the small of his back. She's holding his gun. Dean smiles wryly.

"Whatever you say, bitch," he mutters, stifling a cough into his shoulder.

Alice ignores him, turns to Jen's doppelganger. "Lock them up," she says, gesturing to the Burke siblings and four students as she hands over the gun she's confiscated from Dean. The doppelganger takes it and prods at the nearest hostage, a boy about fifteen.

"Get going," it says roughly, with a shove. The boy stumbles a bit but falls in with the rest of the group, moving to the closest door. It's the door leading to the office with the pile of corpses that Sam now presumes to be Patterson and the mechanics of this shop, stacked up in a rotting heap.

"Not there!" Sam's voice booms in his own ears. He gentles his tone, trying to sound halfway reasonable. "Please. Not in there…with that." He nods emphatically towards the door, his meaning unmistakable. Not in there, with the bodies.

Jen has already walked up close enough to the windows looking into the office. One glance and she stops dead in her tracks, head bowed. She shuts her eyes and Sam can hear her fighting with herself to keep her voice steady. "Don't come any closer," she says in a strained whisper. Tate all but bumps into her and the rest of the group stop in confusion.

"What are you doing?" a boy about seventeen hisses at Jen. "They have guns!" He looks like he's ready to jump out of his skin from fright. Being taller than Jen, he easily peeps over her shoulder through the glass and instantly pales. "Oh, God," he says in a high-pitched moan. A girl begins to weep.

Jen's doppelganger rolls its eyes. "For fuck sakes," it growls, but gestures for them to follow further down the shop. Sam strains his neck to watch as the group is ushered into another room, this one without windows. The doppelganger holds the door open in a mocking manner and gestures grandly for them to enter. Jen is first and it pushes her shoulder as she passes. She manages to keep herself from stumbling and turns to watch the rest of the group enter as she steps inside. The doppelganger reaches in and pulls a chair from out of the room before it shuts the door, wedging it under the doorknob to keep the door jammed shut and rejoins Alice obediently. It's the look that Jen's doppelganger gives the demon and the way it keeps its eyes trained on Alice that brings Sam to the realization out of nowhere.

They're bound to her.

Sam raises an eyebrow and looks to Dean, who purses his lips together tightly in acknowledgement and darts a glance at the door the Burke siblings and the rest of the kids are shut behind. Sam shakes his head minutely, not understanding. Now he's positive that Dean is cooking something up. If only he was in the know as to what exactly that something was. It's not about a question of trust, because he trusts Dean. He does, absolutely. But it makes him worry that he won't be able to watch his older brother's back as well if he doesn't know what Dean's going to do next. Looking at Dean, he can see him shaking and swaying where he stands. The demon is very aware of how sick the hunter is. It's clear that he would be better off sitting but Dean won't back down so he stays on his feet. The demon is clearly enjoying watching him struggle.

"Before you joined us, Dean, Sam and I were just having a conversation about a certain duty he's going to fulfill shortly." Alice looks meaningfully over Dean's shoulder to Sam, and he has to breathe deeply to calm himself, to keep himself from rushing her despite the gun trained on him by an imposter in a tracksuit.

I'm going to be the one that kills you. It's the one thought that keeps the younger Winchester calm and steady as he glares unequivocal daggers at the demon. It's the same thought that's been running through his head in endless litany since it showed its true colours and blinked at him, eyes turning black and malevolent.

Dean snorts. "Duty? You mean letting Lucifer ride him?" His eyes flick to Sam, face grim. Sam returns the look, jaw clenched. "And how did that go?"

"Not as well as I'd like," Alice concedes, coming around to stand in front of Dean. "But that won't matter, not when he gets here."

"So why don't you call him?" Sam challenges. "Get him on up here. The answer is still no."

The demon lifts an eyebrow in suggestion, eyes glinting. "Even if I kill those kids and that lovely young woman if you don't say yes? That's pretty cold, Sam."

"They're dead either way," Dean answers for his brother, drawing the demon's attention back to him. "Whether Lucifer kills them, you kill them, whatever. And it's a pretty sure thing that they all saw their doppelgangers when you ganked them, anyway. So they're cursed for death even if they get out of here alive." His face hardens. "But not unless I kill you, huh? You're the one that summoned them here and planted those coins, which means they're bound to you somehow. So if you die all bets are off and it clears your goons off the table, too. Do I have this right?"

Sam can't stop himself from smiling when he hears Patterson's doppelganger mutter under its breath. Dean has it right.

"You know what else I think?" Dean continues, a smile playing on his features. "I think if you could have killed those kids, you would have already. You need them alive for now and it has to do with their doppelgangers. What do you think, Sam?"

Sam is more than happy to play along. "I think so, Dean," he answers his brother in a speculative voice. "Maybe it's similar to a shape shifter. They need the kids alive to siphon off of their memories or something."

Alice exchanges brief looks with the doppelgangers, turns to Sam and winks before she knees Dean roughly in the crotch. The elder Winchester grunts in surprise and pain, doubling over in a simultaneous coughing fit. He stays on his feet, though, and manages to glare at the demon as soon as he's able to lift his head while he coughs painfully. Sam growls savagely. "Don't touch my brother!" he shouts even as he gets a foot in his kidney from Patterson's doppelganger for his trouble. The hunter bites back a groan.

"Temper, Sam," the demon that is Alice tsk-tsks, shaking her head. "Still, credit where it's due and all. You're partially right, at least." She runs hands over Dean's legs as she speaks, patting at his ribs and checking along his waist and in his pockets as she searches for any additional weapons. Finding nothing else on the hunter she straightens before continuing, eyes flipping black. "You could have killed me, Dean. If you were prepared that is, which neither you nor your brother appear to be. Sam and your angel friend brought a knife for breaking the doppelganger curse, but no demon-killing knife." Dean shoots Sam an accusative glare, like he had forgotten to roll up the Impala's window overnight during a storm. It's almost enough to make Sam squirm under the blame, except that Dean also neglected to bring the knife and he returns the same look in vindication, which the elder Winchester rolls his eyes at in response.

And this was supposed to be a demon-free hunt. Sam almost finds it funny.

The demon lifts an eyebrow while it crosses its arms, regarding Sam.

"You've got the gist, anyway" it says. "The doppelganger does have access to the memories of the person it's doubling, that much is true. So to that end I've been keeping our friends in the next room alive, yes. Their entire purpose is to shadow the person like an evil twin. No control over it; it's just what they are. They don't have to be gym teachers or horny teenagers. They can be whomever they choose. They're amorphous. And the beauty of it all is their curse. I love that part."

"Then why is Coach Finstock here still kicking around if you've killed Patterson?" Sam queries, nodding up at Patterson's doppelganger.

Alice shrugs noncommittally. "As long as they stay under my service I can give them what they want: the choice to remain and continue living as that person. And that's all they want, really. Just the simple choice – it makes all the difference. So I call them up with some charms, give them a crack at a life as a real live person and then when things run their course we slit their throats and the doppelgangers can move on to the next. And I keep being amused by the bedlam they create." She turns eyes that are glowing with anticipation on the Winchester brothers, jutting a finger under Dean's chin. The hunter straightens in a jerky motion as he tries to twist his head away. He stiffens in revulsion and looks at the demon, disdain pulling the corners of his mouth into a scowl.

"Then you two apes came along," Alice continues. "And that was the deal maker, right there. First, your angelic sidekick made for a pretty good beacon to find you. Then you saved us the time and trouble of finding the old man and the boy by bringing his sister right to us." Alice pats Dean on the shoulder, patronizing. "I really feel like I should be thanking you. I'm sorry to see you're feeling off, Dean. It's your doppelganger, no doubt. It started poking around after I rolled into town and found myself some willing recruits. I can see it's really done quite a number on you. I'm guessing it's made more than one visit by the looks of it. And not only did you bring us the thorns in our sides but you also brought yourselves, the vessels. It's almost poetic. So again, thanks for everything. I know it came at quite the inconvenience for you."

Dean chuckles, mirthless. "So we do all the work while you get all the credit or something?"

"Or something," the demon agrees.

"Well then, you're welcome for the boost to the pay grade," the elder Winchester mutters without enthusiasm. He looks over at Sam casually. The younger Winchester just knows that his brother is going to say something stupid.

"You as bored as I am, Sammy? Not only is this bitch small potatoes – she won't shut the hell up."

The words have barely left Dean's mouth before Alice sneers and kicks the backs of his knees sharply. Unable to keep himself from crumbling to his knees, he is met with a vicious kick to the kidney. He coughs and bends forward, fighting to stay up. Sam tries to rise up onto his knees but feels a restraining hand on his shoulder. Patterson's doppelganger tightens its grip on the hunter and bends down slightly, eyes flashing. "If your ass leaves the ground I shoot the old man," it hisses. "I wouldn't mind doing it, either." Sam's blood is near boiling at seeing his brother's mistreatment but he forces himself to sit back down on his haunches. His heart is pounding so loudly in his ears he can barely hear Miles shouting objections in the background. He twists and flexes his bound wrists desperately, grinding his teeth in frustration. He can't believe he doesn't have a contingency plan, a back door, not even a goddamn escape hatch to spring open. It would be nice if Cas could come back from wherever the hell he was sent and do some smiting or something, anything. Anytime now would be awesome.

Alice bends down close to Dean's face. The hunter is still coughing and heaving desperately. "Small potatoes?" she hisses. "I'm not so sure. From this angle you're the pathetic one. I've heard the buzz. You've lost your spunk, haven't you, Dean?" She draws back and kicks him again. This time Dean collapses all the way to the ground, landing on his shoulder and curling up defensively. He sputters and gasps for air, unable to speak.

"Stop it!" Miles shouts again. "Leave him be, you bloody freak."

Alice stops and raises amused eyes to Miles. She points at herself.

"Me?" she asks. "We're in the same room as Sam and Dean Winchester, and you're calling me the freak?"

"If the shoe fits," Miles responds, bringing himself slowly to a stand. Alice isn't concerned and he manages to make it to his feet unchallenged. The ex-hunter settles his shoulders and fixes the demon with a defiant look.

Alice regards the ex-hunter appraisingly before she pushes Dean into a sitting position, facing the older man. She has her gun casually in hand. "You know, Miles," the demon begins, a smile toying on the receptionist's features. "I may have underestimated you. I certainly never would have taken you for someone who used to hunt but I've got to say you've impressed me: I never thought you'd live this long. I mean, we've had to keep those kids under lock and key just to make sure they don't meet any untimely ends before they've outlived their usefulness. And here you've been walking around in the open despite the doppelganger curse. No car crashes, no gas leaks, fatal heart attacks. And killing your doppelganger? Teaming up with the Winchesters? You've proved that you're resilient, to say the least. You have my grudging respect."

As the demon speaks, Sam feels a growing knot of apprehension in the pit of his stomach. It's when Miles takes a step to the side and Dean eases over onto his back that he understands what's about to happen. Jen's doppelganger is standing next to Alice, between the demon's gun and the ex-hunter while loosely holding onto its own. The muzzle is pointing at the floor, the doppelganger's wrist loose and fingers lax. Miles springs into action, taking advantage of the dropped guard. He leaps forward and crashes into Jen's doppelganger shoulder-first as Dean simultaneously swings his legs out from behind, catching both demon and doppelganger and sending them crashing to the ground. Sam has all of two seconds to throw himself as far away as he can from any path a stray bullet may take. Sure enough, there is the single report of gunfire and a pained, surprised cry immediately after. Heart pounding, Sam cranes his neck from where he has awkwardly belly-flopped to look in Dean's direction. He is immediately met with Dean's grinning face and whips around to look behind him to follow his brother's line of vision and see what has him smiling so wide.

Patterson's doppelganger is yelling loudly, gun lying discarded and forgotten on the ground as it white knuckles its thigh, clawing and grasping. Blood is rapidly blooming through the fabric of its pants. "You bitch!" it screams at Jen's doppelganger.

"Sam, get Tate-" Dean starts to yell, but his voice gives way to a strangled cry and then more coughing as the demon leaps to its feet and Alice's pointed shoe buries itself in the hunter's side.

Alice is furious. She lifts smoldering eyes to Sam after one last vicious kick. Dean hunches up into himself; he can't do much else.

"Your brother is going to pay dearly for that," she tells the younger Winchester.

"Leave him be," Sam demands sharply. "Touch him again and I'll-"

"You'll what? Drink my blood and vanquish me with your powers? Go right ahead. That's what he wants, anyway. Drink as much as you can and make yourself ready for Lucifer. You'll just be getting your house in order, vessel."

Alice's words crack like a whip. Sam sees his brother flinch slightly at the demon's feet. He's still struggling to recover from the demon's blows and his legs are curled defensively towards his body, unable to protect himself otherwise with his hands duct taped behind his back. Sam can see that Dean's shoulders are shaking as he suppresses a coughing fit. His eyes are rolling, consciousness ebbing away.

The demon smirks down at Dean, satisfied. Then she looks up with a distasteful expression over Sam's shoulder. "Will you stop it with all that bawling? You're worse than the real Patterson was."

The whimpering behind Sam abruptly tapers off. He cautiously turns his head in time to see Patterson's doppelganger begin to slide down the wall. The hands that had been gripping the gunshot wound so tightly were now slackened, revealing bright, pumping blood that is gushing in strong, rhythmic spurts. For one dazed moment Sam allows himself to be curious about the very human-like arterial leak the creature has sprung. Then he remembers the gun.

Shit, shit, shit. Sam had been inexorably inching his way towards his brother, taking advantage of the distraction Patterson's doppelganger was creating, but now he pauses. It's an agonizing choice. He wants to check on his brother more than anything else but the rational part of his brain is whispering hard, irrefutable logic into his inner ear.

The fact of the matter: Sam's hands are tied behind his back.

The truth: He can't do anything to help his brother like this.

The silver lining: There is a gun lying not ten feet away. It won't kill a demon, but it will obviously slow down the doppelgangers. If he can just get to the Impala and get the knife to kill the demon this will all be over.

As surreptitiously as he can, Sam begins to switch directions and begin a slow crawl back towards Patterson's doppelganger, which is gushing blood and already is too far gone to put up much fight. Aside from the odd moan and painful shuffle of feet there isn't much movement. Alice's voice settles like frost over the room.

"If you're going to be that dramatic about it."

The demon calmly lifts the gun in her hand, doesn't blink as she takes quick aim and shoots, striking Patterson's doppelganger in the chest. One last rattling moan and it dies, eyes open and surprised. There is a brief silence that follows until Dean's coughing shatters the quiet. Sam looks on desperately. He can see his brother is holding onto consciousness by the barest of threads, shivering so hard his teeth are chattering noisily.

He's running out of time.

It seems to Sam like that's the story of Dean's life, running out of time. He ran out of time after he made that deal to save Sam's own sorry ass, to bring him back from death. And then he went to hell and he ran out of time down there, too. He broke after thirty unspeakable years. Then he came back top side and what does Sam do? He lies to him, betrays, bloodies his brother. And then he breaks the last seal by doing exactly what he was told not to do. He killed Lilith and started the Apocalypse and they're running out of time. Again.

It's more than Sam can take. He's not going through it again. He's not losing his brother.

The sound of a door opening and closing from the far end of the garage pricks Sam's ears. Alice and Jen's doppelganger hear it also and Sam takes advantage of their turned backs by soundlessly wriggling over to the discarded gun. He rolls onto his side and grasps the gun awkwardly, stuffing it into the small of his back and pulling his shirt over it with his bound hands. He looks up to see Miles watching him silently.

"I was wondering when you'd show up," Alice comments to an approaching figure. Sam groans inwardly.

Tate's doppelganger is standing there.

"Take that," the demon motions to the gun held by Jen's doppelganger, flicks a cold gaze at Sam before she speaks again.

"There is just one small matter to deal with before Lucifer is summoned. Those trifles in that room have served their purpose long enough. Go kill them, please."

Tate pulls his ear away from the door when he can no longer hear the doppelganger's retreating footsteps on the other side. "She's gone," he says in a hushed voice to the group.

"We're going to die," one girl moans, sinking down onto a chair.

"No, we're not," Tate quickly says, eyes running over the room. His heart is racing a hundred miles a minute and he feels like he could piss himself from fright at any given moment but he tries his best to keep it together. It must be the adrenalin, or maybe it's the calming presence of his sister that does it, but somehow he crams his fear into the furthest corner of his brain and refuses to think of anything but the situation at hand. They're in a break room, apparently. There is a round table and some chairs, a couch, a fridge, sink, and cupboards.

Maybe there's something we can use. Even a fucking butter knife is better than nothing. "Weapons," he tells the group. "We need to start looking for weapons."

The eldest teen sneers. "What the fuck are you talking about? Our hands our tied behind our backs. She's right - we're going to die here!" His voice cracks as panic creeps into his tone and one of the girls starts to wail.

"Shut up!" Tate hisses at him. He turns to Jen.

"My left ankle," he says to his sister. "Can you reach it?"

Jen nods, unsure where her brother is going with this. "Tate, what's going on?" The teen has an odd look on his face, a mixture of pale-faced trepidation and urgency. He licks his lips, which she recognizes as his nervous tick. It also means that he's going to tell her something of vital importance.

He doesn't disappoint her.

"Back outside - when we were caught and being brought here," Tate begins, bending his left leg at the knee behind him while Jen awkwardly fumbles at Tate's jean leg, pushing the denim up past his ankle as best she can with her hands tied behind her back. She has to crane her neck over her shoulder to see what she's doing.

"Dean stumbled, or he pretended to anyway. He made it look like he was bumping into me. But he didn't. He slipped me that. She took my gun when she caught us, but she never checked me for anything else. I guess Dean figured that would happen."

Jen manages to pull up Tate's jeans up past his ankle far enough to see for herself what her brother is talking about. It's one of the best looking sights she's seen in a long, long time.

The handle of a knife is sticking out from the top of his sock. Jen lifts grateful, quizzical eyes to her brother and he hastens to explain.

"Dean's doppelganger came to me and gave me that, so it must be important. We need to get it to Dean and Sam."

Jen nods, carefully slides the blade free.

"Don't cut me," Tate admonishes as she starts sawing at the duct tape around his wrists with difficulty. She can't really see what she's doing and it's tough going.

"Same to you," she responds. Admires her little brother, remembering when he was ten and she took him through one of those lame haunted houses they set up every year at the fair and he was so scared he cried. Wonders when he suddenly got so brave.

Feels her heart swell with pride.

It's just as Jen finishes cutting Tate free that the first gunshot is heard. Jen is so startled she drops the knife as one girl screams in fright, sobbing hysterically. Tate pulls the remaining shreds of duct tape off his wrists and wordlessly bends down and picks it up, face grim. Moments later, another shot cracks through the air.

"Do you think-?" Jen breaks off before she finishes the question, and Tate looks up briefly while he works on cutting her free. She tries again.

"What do you think would happen…if?"

"I don't know."

It's all he can manage. It's the hardest lie he's ever had to say. He knows exactly what will happen to them if their prospective rescuers are killed. Even if they managed to escape, they had already seen their doppelgangers and they were still cursed for death. He knows this because he heard them discussing it in hushed voices back at Miles' apartment when they thought he and Jen were asleep on the couch.

But Jen doesn't know that. The thought strikes Tate suddenly and with clarity. He decides right then and there that if by some chance they do get out of here and the curse or whatever it is isn't broken he's not going to tell his sister about it. If death is inevitable for them at least her final days won't be darkened with that knowledge. He thinks briefly of the things that he would want to do in his last days. Getting Jen to come over for a family dinner is on top of the list. Maybe I can even convince her to get along with Dad for more than five minutes. It's the best goodbye he can think of. His heart aches over the thought that he's the only one who would know that it was even a goodbye at all.

It's just as Tate slices through the last of Jen's restraints that the sound of a chair being removed from under the doorknob can be heard, the legs scraping against the cement floor. He doesn't have time to think about what he's doing, just slips behind the door. He watches Jen's face before his view is obstructed from the opening door, the other teens shrinking back in fearful apprehension. His sister's face pales and her eyes widen as a figure steps through. Tate can hardly believe his own ears when he hears his voice speaking to her.

"It ends here for you."

Tate peers around the edge of the door and sees himself standing there. From his vantage point he can see what Jen doesn't: a gun tucked into the small of its back. Fear curdles his stomach and his mouth goes dry as he understands what the doppelganger means to do.

This can't happen. It can't end like this.

He's moving before he realizes it. It's at that moment the doppelganger's hand stops reaching for its gun. "Where's the boy?" it asks suddenly.

And turns around right as Tate rushes headlong into it, burying the knife deep in its belly. Its eyes widen in shocked disbelief. Tate can see himself in those eyes, can see he's wearing the same expression. He's not sure who's pantomiming whom; it's beyond surreal. After a moment Tate is able to shake himself out of it and he slowly withdraws the knife. The second he does, the doppelganger begins to crumble from the feet up, collapsing in on itself. Moments later all that is left is a pile of dust, leaving Tate standing there with the knife still gripped in his hand. The room is eerily silent, everyone transfixed by the abrupt shock of what just happened. Tate isn't sure how he expected to feel about killing the doppelganger but he doesn't feel good. There was no choice; it had to be done. But that didn't make it any easier. It had felt exactly like how it must feel to sink a knife into human flesh, and the thought fills Tate's mouth with sour bile. He turns and retches, barely missing his own feet. Jen is there instantly, rubbing his back. When he's done he wipes his mouth and looks at her, realization dawning on his face. The doppelganger really was his exact double, right down to the clothes it was wearing. He looks at the door.

"I know how to get the knife to Sam and Dean." If they're still alive.

Jen watches as he stoops and picks up the gun left behind by the doppelganger. Her mouth drops open in horror as she comprehends his intentions.

"No, Tate," she says, slowly shaking her head. "No, you can't. I won't let you do this. This is crazy. Crazier than crazy – it's completely insane."

"And that's why it's gonna work, Jen," Tate insists. "We have maybe two seconds before they come in wondering why it hasn't started shooting us yet. Please. Trust me?"

Jen hates it, but she concedes defeat after a breathless pause. He's right. They have about zero other options besides certain death. Tate can see it in Jen's eyes the exact moment she gives in. He gives her a grateful, fearful look and tries his best to smile. The one she returns him is equally shaky. Wordlessly, Tate points the gun at the couch and discharges it, one bullet for each person.

Tate's out the door before either of them can change their minds.

Sam watches, horrified, as Tate's doppelganger takes the gun from Jen's and turns to the door leading to the siblings and the rest of the group.

"Wait, stop. You don't have to do this," Sam pleads, looking to Alice and the doppelganger alternately but eliciting a response from neither. It's Miles who is spurred into action and makes a move as though to follow after Tate's double. In two strides, Jen's doppelganger is standing directly in front of him.

"Go back and sit down," it tells him, pointing.

Miles responds with a head butt.

Stunned, the doppelganger drop to its knees and the ex-hunter steps around it. "You and what gun?" he grumbles. He makes it all of three steps before it gets back to its feet and charges at him with a yell. Miles turns around, but not fast enough to anticipate an attack, especially with his hands bound.

"Miles!" Sam yells, doesn't have enough time for a more explicit warning. He's aware of Dean trying to raise his head off the floor to see what's going on but he can't focus on his older brother right at this second. He can only watch as Jen's doppelganger pulls out Castiel's knife and stabs Miles in the chest, powerless to do anything else.

"I don't need a gun," it hisses and yanks out the blade. "This doesn't just kill doppelgangers, you know." Miles falls to the floor; after two breaths Sam can hear a wet gurgling. Then nothing.

Sam is positively enraged, so angry he's literally seeing red. "You're going to pay for that," he promises, straining against his bonds. He glances at his brother, but Dean's passed out. The deepening blue of his lips squelches any comfort the younger Winchester would have taken from the fact that at least his brother didn't see Miles die. Sam turns his attention back to Miles' body, the pool of blood inexorably growing. Seeing it spread is like a confirmation for Sam: it's too late for Miles, but not for his brother. Not yet. He may have failed Tate, Jen, and those kids, but he can still save Dean. He focuses on that and steels himself for the sound of gunshots, knowing that no matter how hard he can try nothing will prepare him for them, what they mean. He holds his breath.

And continues to wait.

After a few incredulous moments he dares to exhale. Even Alice and Jen's doppelganger are silent in anticipation, the only sound the rough sawing of Dean's breathing. Still nothing happens.

Sam takes the opportunity to rise to his knees and begin making his way to his unconscious brother. Alice turns to him, eyes flashing dangerously.

"What are you doing?"

Sam doesn't pause, just keeps moving forward. "I'm going to check on my brother. You going to shoot me? Shoot me, then. But I don't think that would make Lucifer too happy." He makes it to Dean, bends down and searches his brother's face for signs of revival.

"Dean? Are you with me?"

Dean's eyes flutter and open slowly. Breath a hoarse wheeze, voice a weak croak. The most wonderful sounds Sam's ever heard.


"Yeah, Dean. It's me. I need you to hold on just a little bit longer, okay?"

Dean's forehead pinches. "Coach…Finstock? Was I dreaming…or did you really say that?"

Sam can't keep himself from smiling. Of course Dean would pick that out amidst everything going on. He shouldn't be this happy under these circumstances.

"Uh, yeah."

"That make you...Scott Howard?"

"No, Dean. That's you – Michael J. Fox is short."

Dean chuckles weakly until he spots Miles' body lying in a pool of blood nearby. His face darkens and his eyes move to Alice, making sure she's distracted before he whispers to his brother.

"Sam, you have to get to Tate and-" he tries to say more but he's cut off by a coughing fit. Sam is about to press his brother to continue when his attention is drawn back to Alice.

"Go check and see what's taking so long," she tells Jen's doppelganger, but before it can comply the long awaited gunshots come and moments later the door opens and Tate's doppelganger steps out.

"Well?" the demon queries, a hard edge in her voice. "What's the problem? What took you so long?"

"There was no problem," the doppelganger assures. "They're dead."

Sam opens his mouth to snarl something but is interrupted by another fit of coughing from Dean, curled on his side and gasping like a fish out of water. Pretty soon the coughing morphs into choking and it sounds like he's not breathing at all. Sam can't keep his alarm under control, and he bends desperately over his brother, peering into his face.

"Dean. Dean! Can you hear me? Breathe for me, man."

Dean's struggling to keep glassy eyes open, but he manages to obey his brother and sucks in a lungful of air. With Sam's face pushed up inches away from Dean's he can feel the heat of his brother's fever, see the tiny flecks of blood on his lips and chin. He forgets himself in his concern and unconsciously uses his body as a shield between Dean and everyone else, putting his back towards them. It's when Jen's doppelganger speaks that he realizes his mistake.

"He's got a gun!"

Sam pauses, mentally curses himself. His shirt must have ridden up as he was bending over.

"I've got it," Tate's doppelganger says and strides forward, pushing Sam to a fully seated position on the floor, angling him back to facing Alice and Jen's doppelganger. Sam winces as he feels fingers brush over the broken skin on his wrists, rubbed raw from trying to loosen the duct tape.

He is completely unprepared for the feeling of cold metal being tucked into the back of his jeans. A knife. Sam quickly glances up, understanding.

It's Tate. He almost can't believe it. Hope surges in his gut, blooming in his stomach.

Tate risks eye contact with Sam, manages to mouth two words before he turns back to face the demon. Use it.

Sam plans to. He has no idea where this knife could have come from, but at this point he's not going to worry about that detail. Obviously it's important if Tate was out here risking himself like this. He feels a surge of regret that the poor kid had to walk right past Miles' body even as he thanks God (wherever he may be) that he did.

Dean lapses into unconsciousness again, body slackening. Sam's heart is racing along with his mind. He has to do something, and soon. It's then that Jen's doppelganger focuses in on Tate. It opens its mouth and says something that makes the hunter's heart sink.

"What is that? Is that a…string around your neck?"

Alice instantly swivels her attention towards Tate, a hard expression on her face. "What?" she asks icily.

The spell bag from Miles. With a growing sense of dread, Sam watches Jen's doppelganger step forward. He starts when he feels a tentative touch at the small of his back, the sensation of the knife being withdrawn. He risks a quick look over his shoulder and meets eyes with Dean. The older Winchester purses his lips and gets to work on the duct tape binding Sam's wrists. Despite the difficult reach caused by his own bound hands, Dean quickly cuts through with practiced strokes. Sam silently flexes his newly freed wrists a couple of times, taking the knife from Dean and drawing his legs up under him, waiting for the right moment.

It comes sooner than he thinks. Alice and Jen's doppelganger are paying him and Dean no attention at all, focused solely on Tate.

"You," Jen's doppelganger hisses and steps forward even closer to the kid, Castiel's knife clutched in hand. "What have you done?"

Tate's face pales. "Stay back," he stammers uncertainly, lifting his gun. The doppelganger smirks and takes another step.

"You think you have it in you to shoot your own sister?" it mocks. "Can you really do it?"

"I can do it."

The voice is a shock. Suddenly Miles is there, a vision of blood, wrapping his arms around Jen's doppelganger and grabbing Cas' knife from behind. With one deft thrust the ex-hunter buries it to the hilt in the doppelganger's body, which burns up into ash with a shriek. In an instant it's over. It's as shocking as it is sudden.

Miles remains rooted to the spot, swaying. Sam can't stop himself from gaping, nearly unable to believe his eyes. The man must be more dead than alive; he's covered in his own gore. For a brief moment Sam sees the same hunter he saw eighteen years ago in Bobby's kitchen. It's like Sam is eight all over again, looking at the man who returned his Dad back safe and sound after a hunt gone bad. Sam sees Nick Harris, the Nick Harris before he lost his son.

The ex-hunter's back is turned to him and he can't see the older man's expression, but Sam is sure that he's smiling, at peace like maybe he's thinking of Riley. He can see Tate's face, can see the spread of emotions that play across it. A moment later the sound of a gunshot booms loudly and Miles' body flinches before sagging to the ground, boneless. Tate looks at the body, stricken, before lifting tear filled eyes to Alice. The demon's gun is still raised, shifting away from Miles to Tate.

"Did you really think you could get away with it?" Her voice is ice and steel.

"Did you actually think you could save yourself and your sister? You know it's pointless, don't you?"

"It's not pointless." Sam can hear the faint quaver in the teen's voice. Then Tate pulls the trigger of his gun without warning. He hits Alice in the shoulder but the demon doesn't so much as wince. She glances down at the wound without concern as the first trickle of blood leaks through her clothing.

The demon throws her head back and laughs. "Oh, Tate," she sighs. "I don't know what these Winchesters have been filling your head with but I can assure you that yes, it is." The demon's eyes narrow. "You and your sister are going to die. Just like everyone else. But between you and me," she adds, stepping closer, "I wouldn't be overly upset about it. Things are going to get kind of bad for the human population really soon. I could be doing you a favor in the end."

Alice levels the gun at Tate's chest.

Tate squeezes his eyes shut, blocking out the sight of the gun pointing right in his face. His stomach is a block of ice and he's sure his heart has stopped. He thinks of Jen in that room behind him, ear pressed to the door. He's not going to scream. He waits for the boom of the gun, waits for pain and blinding nothingness.


The voice is rough and deep. Tate's eyes snap open to see Alice spin around. Dean is there, swinging a crowbar. There is the sound of contact, of bone snapping as the hunter connects with her forearm and breaks it. The gun flies out of Alice's fingers and clatters across the floor, skidding to a stop out of reach.

Tate is so close he could tap Alice on the shoulder, but he can't do anything, can't bring himself to intervene as he watches Dean and her struggle. He's suddenly devoid of any bravery he thought he had earlier. He's rooted to the spot by confusion.

Why didn't the gunshot bother her? He can see Patterson's doppelganger, dead from a gunshot wound, slumped against the wall. Suddenly, Tate understands that Alice is something really, really bad. Worse than a doppelganger. There is so much more to this that he doesn't know.

Stunned, the teen watches as Alice throws her good arm out and suddenly Dean is flying through the air. The hunter slams into the wall and lands in a heap, unmoving. It's then that she realizes that something is wrong and she spins, looking for Sam.

There is the sound of something rushing past Tate. He can almost feel the air stir as it flies past. There is a thunk and a moment of suspension; everything is stilled. Tate is aware of the minute things: a dust mote sparkling in midair, the tang of blood lacing the air, a muscle twitching under his right eye. The way Alice's body has jerked and gone still, hands falling to her sides.

Then, movement. Out of the corner of his eye Tate can see Sam straightening, grimly smiling.

"Dean's right," the hunter says in a soft, sure voice. "You are small potatoes."

Alice looks down and stares dumbly at the knife sticking out of her chest, right over her heart. She barely has time to scream before she seems to implode with some internal fire. There is a brief flash and her body falls to the ground, quite dead.

It's all over so fast. That's what Tate can't get over. After all this time, after getting attacked by his doppelganger and threatened by Patterson's to running away and hiding out with Miles and Jen. All those lost hours and hours of sleep, worrying about his parents, his friends. Wondering if anyone he knew was safe. If maybe he was somehow to blame for any danger they could potentially be in.

And then Sam and Dean show up. Suddenly things are moving so fast his head is spinning. It's like he's been caught up in this whirlwind of circumstances way beyond his control and the brothers and Miles are the only things keeping he and Jen from being swept away.

Miles. It's more than Tate can think about but he can't get it out of his mind. He can't stop thinking about it: the thing that looked liked his sister coming at him while he tries to pull the trigger, tries to get his brain to process that this isn't really Jen he's about to shoot. Then Miles is there, wrapping his blood soaked arms around her, grabbing the handle of that knife she's holding and thrusting it in.

Miles. Standing in front of him after the body crumbles into dust. All Tate can do is stare back in bewildered amazement. He can still see the expression, the look of tranquility on the man's face. Like he's done something he'd set out to do a long, long time ago. He looks satisfied. And then there's the sound of the gun, deafening in his ears, and he almost feels the bullet himself. It's not the way Miles drops to the floor like a sack, dead before he hits the ground, that he can't stop replaying in his mind. It's the way Miles smiles at Tate the moment before Alice shoots him, like he's trying to assure him that what's happening isn't so bad. That it's okay.

Looking at Miles' body, it all becomes too much. Miles is really dead. He's really standing in a pool of his blood. There really is a bunch of kids with their hands tied behind their backs in that room behind him, and everyone is really safe now. He's relieved beyond measure, flooded with gratefulness and disbelief. He's overwhelmed by the plaintive urge to lie down and cry, like a baby. And that doesn't sound so bad, maybe.

Tate is barely aware that he's falling as his eyes roll up in his head. He definitely doesn't feel himself hit the ground.

Sam sees Tate faint but he doesn't dwell on it beyond that. He'll be fine. The younger Winchester rushes to his brother, stepping over the demon's remains. He's still shocked that the knife Tate slipped him had actually killed Alice and that his gamble had paid off. Again, he doesn't spend too much time dwelling on it, will marvel on it later. He doesn't have the time right now. Less than five minutes ago Sam was bound and at the mercy of the Alice and the doppelgangers. Less than five minutes ago Dean was conscious. Sam is painfully aware that time is slipping though his fingers, time that he can't afford to get away on him. Dean is a crumple of limbs and he hasn't stirred since he was flung by the demon. Sam gently feels his limbs, straightening them, as he goes through the motions of checking his brother for critical injuries. Finding none, he pats his brother's cheek gently. Dean's simultaneously burning up and shaking like he's been dunked in a frozen lake. Sam can't remember the last time he's ever seen his brother this sick. His lips are blue and Sam can hear the wet rattle of his lungs.

He needs a hospital. Right now.

But what about those kids? And Tate and Jen? He'll need to do something with them, at least for the time being until he knows the coast is clear and he can let them return home. He settles on hiding them in a hotel room until he can get Dean the care he so urgently needs. He needs to get Tate up and everyone moving.

It's then that he feels a hand on his shoulder.



Sam looks up, relieved. The angel is looking down, face drawn with concern. Cas hunkers down, touching Dean on the shoulder. "You take him to the hospital; I'll deal with everyone else. I'll take them home." It's as though the angel has read his mind, and Sam nearly slumps with the relief of being able to share the burden with someone.

"It's good to see you, Cas," Sam tells the angel. And it is. "Better late than never."

Cas nods once. "I'm sorry I couldn't get back sooner." The angel straightens and moves to Tate. He stoops and touches the teen's forehead briefly; Tate's eyes fly open and he shoots up as though a bucket of water has just been thrown on him. The teen looks around wildly, making inarticulate sounds. Then he sees Cas and relaxes.

"How-? When did you-?" Tate can't complete a sentence to save his life but he doesn't get much of a chance, either. Jen is suddenly there, throwing her arms around Tate's shoulders, sobbing. Behind them are the four high school students, cautiously making their way into the garage. It can't be helped; they see Miles' corpse. Sam has to block out the sounds of dismay he can hear them making. He focuses instead on the most important thing: getting Dean out of here.

Sam slings his brother's arm around his shoulders, heaves them both up. Dean moans but otherwise doesn't make much sound, doesn't wake. His body is blazing hot, blasting Sam with sickly heat, and his head lolls against Sam's shoulder, slackly unconscious. He takes a second to balance himself, steadies Dean against him. The elder Winchester moans again, coughs.

"It's okay, Dean," Sam murmurs urgently. "I gotcha. What do you say we get out of here, huh? Go find a nice hospital." He hitches Dean up again. His older brother's knees are like overcooked noodles and they won't support his weight. He turns to Castiel.

"What are you going to do? About them?"

The angel looks to the Burke siblings and the other teens in turn before answering. He fixes Sam with a steady look.

"You've killed the one who summoned the doppelgangers here, that means you've broken the curse. It is safe for them to return home now, the doppelgangers impersonating them will have been destroyed." The angel holds his breath a moment, and Sam understands.

"I'm waiting for the 'but,' here, Cas." Sam tells the angel.

The angel's voice and expression are frank, direct. He answers Sam without so much as blinking. "But," he concedes, "it's too dangerous for them to leave here with their memories intact. It could make them targets for more doppelgangers. I'm going to erase their memories from the moment of their abduction on. I can do that much, but I can't fill the holes this will create with false recollections. It will just be a blank spot in their memory."

Sam thinks it over briefly and nods. It's definitely a reasonable action. He looks over at Tate, Jen, and the kids. They are obviously shaken, and all things considering why wouldn't they be? Miles' bloodied body is in full view, and Sam knows that the ex hunter would never have wanted to add to their trauma like this. Not to mention being hauled off by their exact replica, tied up and shut away. Yeah, erasing their memory would definitely be for the best, even if it will create unexplainable gaps in their memories.

"Okay," Sam tells the angel.

"But then we won't remember you guys, right?" Tate's voice is quiet, hesitant. He's looking back and forth at Cas and the younger Winchester. "Jen and me, we won't remember you guys or any of it. That means Miles, too. I won't remember how he rescued me and brought us in to his apartment and watched over us. Protected us. I'll just remember him as…Miles, the janitor at my school." Tate breaks off and shakes his head. Tears fill his eyes and he brushes them away furiously.

Sam feels Dean shift slightly as Tate speaks. He's not sure how much of what the teen said was actually understood by his older brother, but he knows what Dean would have said if he were able. It's the same thing that he would say himself. It's also what Miles would have said if he had survived.

"That's how he wants you to remember him, Tate. He would never have wanted you to find out who he really was or what he used to do, because that could only mean that you were in danger somehow."

He manages to smile at Tate, despite how wearied he feels. He reflects hollowly on how losing people has stopped shocking him by now; it only adds to the constant ache he's carrying. It's all part of the burden he and Dean shoulder. This one goes on the yoke, too.

"For what it's worth, Tate, we won't forget about you. We won't forget what you did." Sam looks to the teen's sister, standing with her hand on her brother's shoulder. "You saved her, you know. You saved us, too." He motions to Dean, slumped against Sam and fully unconscious again. "Thank you, Tate."

Tate nods, subdued, as Jen hugs him.

Sam turns to Cas. "The bodies," he says, indicating the room with the corpses. And then there's Patterson's doppelganger, which for some reason didn't dissolve into dust like the others. Is it because it was shot with a normal gun and not killed with a supernatural weapon? If Sam wasn't in such a hurry that would have been an interesting theory to consider. Then he remembers something, something important that he said to Miles the other night.

"Cas, Miles' body. We need to burn it. I promised him a hunter's burial and I need to give it to him."

The angel nods without a flicker of hesitation. "I can keep it somewhere safe in the meantime. Just go, Sam. Don't worry."

It's a little funny. Sam's been worrying since he was little and he found out what his family does for a living. He takes the advice with a grain of salt, but it's a genuine gesture when he reaches out and clasps Cas' shoulder.

"Thanks, Cas." Sam looks over the angel's shoulder and meets eyes with Tate and Jen.

Tate smiles tremulously. "So, uh. This is it, huh?"

"Yeah," Sam agrees quietly. "I think so."

Tate nods, suddenly awkward.

"I don't know what to say. 'Thanks' seems kind of weak."

"Thanks is fine," Sam returns the smile, feels slightly uplifted. "Take care of yourself. And your sister." There's not much else he can say so he adjusts Dean again and starts walking, heading for the Impala.

Dean stirs slightly, tries to lift his head. He doesn't quite manage but he's awake enough to speak in a voice little more than a breathy wheeze.


"Yeah, Dean?"

"You get…the bitch?"

"I got her, Dean."

Coughing, then. "That's good…good." Then he laughs, or at least Sam thinks it's a laugh. It comes out as a thin whistle of air. "That...pigsticker of a knife actually worked?" Dean has to stop and pull more air into his struggling lungs before he manages to gasp out, "Where…we going?"

"To a doctor. Like you promised."

Dean doesn't answer right away and Sam thinks that maybe he's slipped back under. He's surprised when his older brother speaks up again, sighing.

"A promise…is a promise, I guess."

Sam smiles wryly.

"Yes, it is."

Sam burns Miles' body the next day.

True to his word, Cas had hidden the ex hunter's body. In the Minnesota woods. Although Sam absolutely hates the thought of leaving Dean alone in the hospital he allows Cas to zap him to Miles. He had managed to wait until his brother was stabilized but he couldn't put it off any longer out of respect to the ex hunter. The pyre was already thoughtfully built by the angel and together he and Sam watch in silence as the fire consumes its offering.

It feels strange to Sam, to be doing this with Castiel. He tries not to think about when he and Dean burned Dad's body, tries to ignore how strange it feels to be standing here doing this with someone other than his brother.

The younger Winchester reaches into his pocket, pulls out the spell bags Miles had made for Jen and Tate and throws them into the flames. He tries to think of something to say in memory of this man who protected another person's life with his dying breath.

He thinks of saying to the fire and the bundled shape inside it that it was a good death. Then he thinks better of it. He knows it's not true. For a hunter, there's no such thing as a good way to die.

You just die.

It's another two days before Dean even opens his eyes. More time would have been nice but it's enough for Sam. Their insurance is so transparent it has holes, and it's only a matter of time before they get busted. He has to get Dean out of here. Breaking out of hospitals proves to be much easier when you are in the company of someone like Cas. Dean's way too out of it to protest to being zapped; within minutes they are speeding away from the hospital.

Cas glances over at Dean, wrapped in blankets and propped up in the back of the Impala. Lying down on his back is out of the question because it makes breathing too difficult. The blue tinge has left his lips but he's still incredibly ill. The mountain of antibiotics he's on can attest to that.

"Are you sure that it's wise to move him so far?" the angel queries, looking back to Sam. Sam flicks a quick look in the rearview mirror at his brother, fast asleep, before he answers.

"Not really," he confesses. "But Dean wasn't kidding earlier when he said that we were on our last credit card. I barely have enough gas money to make it to Bobby's as it is. We can't afford a hotel, definitely not as long as Dean would need. Bobby has connections; he knows how to get more meds if we need them. Besides," Sam rubs his face in a characteristically Dean-like way before he continues, "I think it would be best for Dean if he woke up in a familiar place. Don't you?"

Sam was hoping that somehow Dean would magically get better once the demon was dead but deep down he knew that this wouldn't be the case. Alice had nothing to do with Dean's severe bout of pneumonia. It was all his doppelganger. Although he couldn't directly blame it for trying to warn Castiel and help Dean and Tate by bringing them the knife it had definitely put the older Winchester through the gears. The doctors had looked at Sam with accusation, asking why it had taken so long to get his brother the medical attention he was so clearly in dire need of. Sam can't even bring himself to think about how little time they had told him his brother would have had if he had gone any further without assistance. Even now, after a few days of being pumped with drugs and fluids intravenously, Dean's sicker than Sam can ever remember him being. He sleeps but it's not a restful kind of sleep. His breathing is all kinds of screwed up, panty and shallow. He still has a raging fever. Not as high as when he arrived at the hospital and he was pushing 105 degrees, but it's still a legitimate cause for concern and Sam has been pulling over frequently to check on it. Every few seconds the elder Winchester coughs and he's muttering and twitching, delirious.

If Cas has an argument against Sam's plan he doesn't voice it. He doesn't offer help when Dean becomes restless, thrashing in his sleep and crying out, knowing that this is one thing Sam prefers to do without help. He looks on while the hunter tends to his brother, giving him water and his pills, checking his temperature with their newly acquired thermometer. The last reading makes Sam frown, and when he starts the Impala up again he is definitely driving faster than he was moments earlier. His knuckles are white from gripping the steering wheel.

They drive on in silence for a long time before Sam speaks again.

"Cas? Dean's doppelganger came to you and warned you about the danger. It gave Dean and Tate some special kind of knife that kills doppelgangers and demons. Why did it help us? You said you had a theory."

The angel shifts, uneasy. "I'm not sure if this is something you want to hear, Sam."

Sam lifts an eyebrow, considering. "Probably not," he agrees. Waits for Cas to continue.

The angel does, with a sigh.

"Sam," he begins, "I know that Dean didn't give you any specific details of hell and what it did to him, or what Alastair made him do."

Sam waits for Cas to continue, his chest tightening up.

"I know Dean told you that he did terrible things to the souls he tortured when he got off the rack. And he's right, he did. Unimaginable acts, Sam. Things that you could never dream of. The pain that was inflicted on him, what he inflicted onto others," the angel's eyes fix him with an unwavering stare, "words can't describe."

Sam knows this. He knows it. He wakes up knowing it every single day. But he knows it most of all whenever he watches Dean sleeping, because his brother has never once slept through the night since he came back from there. He never used to move around while he dreams but now he does. He struggles and shouts in the dead of night, bolting upright in bed with wide, frightened eyes and drenched in sweat. It was unsettling at first for Sam when his brother would abruptly drag him from his sleep with his yells. Now it's the norm. That is to say, it's the norm when Dean actually does go to sleep at all. Countless times Sam has gone to bed while Dean was still awake to find his brother still up and about the next morning. Sam knows it's because of hell, because of what Dean saw and endured. What Dean did.

"You think Dean's time in hell has something to do with it?" Sam asks. Castiel nods once, affirmatively.

"Your brother has done something unusual, Sam. He's gone to hell and come back. That is…unheard of. It makes Dean's situation with his doppelganger unique. If a doppelganger is supposed to be the opposite of its original, either bad or good, what does one do with a good person who has gone to hell and done terrible things like Dean has?"

Sam understands what Castiel is saying. Dean, whose MO has always been saving people, is not like any other person out there. After he broke in hell he wasn't Dean at all anymore. All the pain and agony he doled out, the torture he committed: it wasn't him. Not really, anyway. So what does a doppelganger do with that? How can it mirror something like that?

"So it defected," Sam mused out loud. "The doppelganger crossed the floor and joined the other side, since that's what Dean did in hell. So while good Dean goes bad, bad Dean goes good. Opposite actions."

Cas pauses before responding. "That's what I would have done, if I were Dean's doppelganger."

Sam mulls it over. He doesn't have a counter explanation so he accepts Castiel's theory. Then he asks the question he doesn't want to ask before he can stop himself.

"So then, what about my doppelganger? Where's it been in all this?" He's not sure if doppelgangers can have kin or not, if it works that way, but Sam finds it an uncomfortable thought if it does. "Even if it's my evil twin, don't you think it would have come around?"

Sam doesn't want to think about it. He does anyway: if Sam's doppelganger didn't get itself involved in this what could that possibly mean? If it's Sam's opposite and thus his evil twin, why didn't it try to stop Dean's doppelganger from helping them? Could it possibly mean that Sam's doppelganger never got involved because it wasn't evil in the first place? Then that would mean-

No, Winchester. Get a grip on yourself. Sam gives his head a rough shake. He's not evil. He's not. He's not saying yes to Lucifer.

Castiel's voice snaps Sam out of his thoughts.

"I don't think you have a doppelganger, Sam. I believe it's for the same reason: you're unique. You have demon blood in you, you're Lucifer's vessel. No doppelganger can replicate that."

"You're not just saying that to make me feel better, are you?" Sam jokes weakly. He feels washed out and hung to dry. And extremely grateful for the small comfort Castiel has just given him.

The angel frowns. "I don't understand how my saying something can make you feel better. Are you unwell?"

Sam actually manages to laugh. It feels amazing.

It's been a long drive.

Sam has had to pull over more times than he can count. Once during a particularly nasty storm because Dean had started coughing and couldn't stop, not even after his face purpled from lack of air. Sam had pulled over and climbed into the back seat, pounding on his brother's back until something dislodged in Dean's throat and he began to breathe. But with the return of his ability to draw in air came his gag reflex and Dean had to lean out of the opened car door and vomit. Sam felt as ineffectual as he had during the hunt and he could only watch his brother get sicker. All he could do was put his hand between Dean's shoulder blades, feeling the fever pouring off of him, and wait for the heaving to stop. When it finally did Dean was so exhausted he didn't fight Sam as the younger brother pulled him back inside the car and rearranged the blankets around him. He was unconscious before Sam could crack a new bottle of water, and it was a struggle to rouse the elder Winchester enough to drink. After that, Dean slept like the dead for the rest of the drive.

Bobby opens the door before Sam has time to knock, backing up his wheelchair to give room for entrance into his house. He and Cas have Dean between them, each with an arm slung across their shoulders. Bobby looks them all up and down.

"Christ, Sam. You guys look terrible. Especially him." The hunter gestures to Dean, who is too far gone to know what's going on. If it weren't for Sam and Cas holding him up the hunter would be prostrate on the floor. There is a note of contained emotion in Bobby's voice that Sam does not miss. He instantly feels safe, like he can let his guard down.

He feels likes he's come home.

"It's good to see you too, Bobby," he says warmly, eyes pricking with heat.

It's the worst part of it all, waiting for Dean to come back to him.

Dean hasn't really come fully awake in the three days they've been at Bobby's, and Sam hasn't moved from his brother's side. He's aware of Bobby silently wheeling into the room from time to time, checking up on them. He's also aware that Castiel has left, off searching for God again or something like that. But mostly Sam just sits and watches, waiting for some indication that Dean needs something. He gives his brother his antibiotics and Tylenol like clockwork, forcing Dean to drink when he's not lucid enough to take fluids without coercion. He spoons soup into his brother's mouth and waits patiently for some sign of revival. Even when Dean does rouse somewhat he can't keep his eyes open for more than two seconds. He's not strong enough to talk, either.

Like right now, for example. Sam puts the tray supporting the barely touched soup off to the side, leans over his brother. As he slides his hand under Dean's head, supporting him as he brings the glass of water to his lips, the elder Winchester cracks his eyes open.

Sam smiles, gentles his voice to barely above a whisper.

"Hey," he says softly. "How are you feeling?" He gives Dean a drink and lowers his head back down on the pillow and grips his brother's hand. His skin feels dry and much too hot, and he presses the back of his own hand against Dean's cheek and neck, testing.

"If you don't start feeling better soon I'm going to have to take you back to the hospital," Sam threatens good naturedly, but he can't keep the worry from seeping into his voice. "So if you don't shape up I'm going to haul your heavy ass back out to the car and we're going for a drive. And you don't want that, do you?"

Dean's already fallen asleep long before Sam finishes talking. The younger Winchester sighs and sits back down again.

"Just get better. Okay, Dean?"

That night proves to be the worst since arriving back at Bobby's. Sam's sleeping on a cot by Dean's bed on Bobby's insistence, because in his words "there's no sense having one idjit watch the other idjit sleep when they both could be getting some rest." Sam has to admit that he can't argue. He drove straight from Seattle to Bobby's porch and if he never sees a can of Red Bull again it will be way too soon. It's difficult for Sam to sleep, despite how tired he is. Instead, he lies on his back and stares up at the ceiling, listening to Dean's labored breathing.

He doesn't know how long he lies there in that same position; he isn't even aware of falling asleep. But obviously he managed to do precisely that because suddenly he's being jerked awake by Dean's ragged shouts. He's up and by Dean's bedside in an instant, a tangle of limbs and sheets as he throws himself off the cot. His brother is thrashing around, shouting but not making any sense. He doesn't stop when Sam grabs him by the shoulders and pins him to the mattress; the younger Winchester flinches at how burning hot his brother is.

"Dean! Dean, wake up! Come on!" But Dean is lost in his nightmare, delirious. A stray fist lands a glancing blow on Sam's jaw and he's so surprised he nearly lets go, seeing stars for a brief moment.

"Good Lord," Bobby's voice cuts above the noise as he comes into the room, reaching out from his wheelchair and catching Dean's wrists. "I thought someone was murdering the boy." By now Dean is winding down, exhausted, and his body goes lax.


Sam looks down and sees with relief that Dean is awake and looking right up at him. He and Bobby release their grip. Sam reaches for the glass of water on the bedside table, cupping the back of Dean's head. His brother is definitely burning up again and Sam looks over at Bobby and can see the older man is thinking the same thing. He looks back down at Dean, smiles reassuringly as he gets his brother to drink.

"Well, I hope that wasn't a sex dream," Sam lamely kids. He sets the glass down and feels Dean's forehead before his brother turns his face away in protest.

"Sammy, you have to say no. Or I have to say yes. That's what I said to me, five years from now. I don't want Famine to be right, Sammy. Please."

Dean's voice breaks off and he begins murmuring to himself, a stream of words, sounds that aren't connected to each other. But Sam doesn't need to hear what Dean's saying to know what he's dreaming about because he's got the same memory replaying in his head.

You can smirk and joke and lie to your brother, lie to yourself. But not to me. I can see inside you, Dean. I can see how broken you are, how defeated. You can't win and you know it. But you just keep fighting, just…keep going through the motions. You're not hungry, Dean, because inside you're already dead.

"Say the word and we'll head straight to the hospital, Sam," Bobby says gently, interrupting Sam's dismal thoughts. "To hell with worrying about the fake insurance. It's your call."

Sam nods dumbly. He can't process anything right now. He knows that Bobby is waiting for him to answer but he can't formulate any kind of response. He's back in that diner again and he can see Dean struggling while Famine's demons restrain him. He can hear the Horseman's words ringing in his ears. He wonders numbly if maybe Famine meant for Sam to hear him say those things to Dean, if it was all part of the plan. Chip away at both brothers simultaneously. Strike at one and you strike the other.


Sam won't stand for it. He's not about to let him or Dean get played this way. They aren't going to pit brother against brother, not anymore.

Sam turns to Bobby.

"You know anyone who can get their hands on some oxygen? Or stronger meds? Maybe someone medically trained that makes house calls?"

Bobby pauses, considering.

"I'm sure I could call in a couple of favors."

Sam nods. "Okay, then."

He turns back to his brother.

Waking up has definitely got to be his least favorite activity. It's difficult going; his head is pounding and the light hurts his eyes. Dean comes around to the sound of someone breathing in his ear. Heavy, congested, annoying wheezes and he wants to tell Sam to take a Benadryl if his allergies are that frigging bad. There must be a store near the hotel where he can get some if he needs.

When he opens his eyes, however, he is suddenly aware of two things.

One. He isn't in a hotel room. He's in Bobby's spare bedroom. Two. It's not Sam's hoarse breathing that's annoying the piss out of him; it's his own.

Oh, and three. He feels like crap.

Sam is there, hovering. Dean wants to snark something about his extremely close proximity but he sees the look of intense relief on his brother's face and it's enough to shut him up. Besides, he has the feeling that they came close to something really bad happening. Then he remembers-

"Tate!" Dean says suddenly. The force he puts behind his voice makes him wince and cough breathlessly, which does nothing to relax his brother. His hands are all over Dean, prodding and pulling, adjusting him into a slight sitting position.

"There," Sam says, patting at the blankets covering Dean like he's a frigging baby. "That better?"

Again, Dean passes on the opportunity for a smartass comment because yes, it is better. Sam pulls his chair closer and sits down.

"How are you feeling? Is your chest still really sore?"

Dean thinks about the question for a moment before he shakes his head. Sam exhales.

"Okay, good. You were complaining about that earlier. It's not a good sign." Dean must have a what the hell? look on his face because Sam supplies the answer before he even asks the question. "You have pneumonia in both your lungs. It got really bad for a bit back there. You're still pretty sick, too, so take it easy, okay?"

Dean's not going to argue with Sam on that one. He doesn't have the energy even if he wanted to. He's already falling asleep and he's been awake for all of two minutes. Awesome.

Sam can tell that he's fading so he keeps his explanation brief.

"Tate and Jen are fine. So are the missing kids. I don't know if you remember this or not but it was a demon behind it all."

Dean remembers now that Sam's helping his memory along. It all feels hazy and seems so faraway from now and not only mere days ago. He knows he's smiling because he can feel his chapped lips crack as he does.

"Nice demon-free hunt I found us, huh?"

Sam returns the smile. He looks wan and tired but overjoyed.

"Yeah. Way to go, jerk."


"Just go to sleep, Dean."

Dean already is.

He relapses the next day, but his fever doesn't climb quite as high as it had before, when things got desperate and Bobby apparently had brought in some outside help and got a friend to secure some medical supplies. Dean's not sure how many days ago that was nor does he care. All he knows is that he won't admit it if pressed but the oxygen is a lifesaver, and most likely literally, too.

He remembers bits and pieces, like tossing and turning on the bed and feeling like he'd been shoved in an oven. He remembers Sam's cool hands on him, steadying him, holding the bucket for him when he coughs too hard and throws up from the effort. He remembers sleeping in intermittent batches of time and never knowing if it was morning or afternoon when he was awake. He aches all the way from his scalp to his toes. He can hear voices, Sam and Bobby. It soothes him to know that they're nearby and he relaxes again into a deep sleep.

When he comes awake again next it's to the sound of Sam talking. Dean keeps his eyes closed and listens. It takes a moment before he realizes that it's him his brother is addressing. His face and neck is being dabbed with a wet cloth.

"I know you don't want to talk about this," Sam is saying. "But I don't care. You didn't see yourself, Dean. You didn't see how sick you were. But I did. I saw. And maybe I should have gotten it in writing from one of the doctors because I know you won't take it seriously when I tell you – but you could have died. It was close, Dean. And it was getting kinda hairy for a while there. It still is, but you're getting better." There's a pause as Sam takes a deep breath and exhales shakily. "You're getting better," he repeats.

"I know I'd never get you to admit it, but Famine got to you. I saw your face; he got under your skin. And I'm telling you, Dean, that it's not true. None of it. You can win, we're going to win. You're not broken." There's a soft chuckle. "You're screwed as hell, but you're not broken. And you're not dead inside. I promise you that you're very much alive. I know because Bobby and I have been working our asses off keeping you that way." There's the sound of a chair pushing back and scraping against the floor. The wet cloth disappears. A small brush of air as the bedroom door opens.

"You're also not asleep."

The soft click as the door closes behind Sam.


A/N: Thanks for sticking this through. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Until next time...