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The Hand-me-downers

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Of all the people you can think of, you would expect the Winchester brothers to have landed on their feet after a thing like that. They always do. Nowadays, that's literal: when gasoline went scarce and credit cards went meaningless, the Impala came off the road and they remembered how to walk. Sam is still trying to convince his brother that one of those newfangled fuel cells will fit under the hood just fine, and Dean is still patiently explaining that there are some things you don't compromise on. They don't even have to make the arguments any more: just a look or an acorn flicked at an unwary head invokes the years of breath they've already wasted.

Dean knows a guy who knows a guy, so they rode to Seattle inside the freight train instead of on top of it. He sat cramped on the dusty steel floor, back to a plastic-wrapped pallet, and listened to restless feet above their heads through the wee hours, the thump of a heel at least proof that nobody had fallen off in the night. And then when they arrived, while the scrawny kids tossed garbage bags full of all their worldly goods down into the cinders by the side of the tracks, the Winchester brothers got off the train and walked. It's what they do. They're good at it now. And anyway, the potholes are ridiculous. Nobody in his right mind would drive a car around here.

They've been in Seattle only a few hours, but they don't waste any time. They trudge through the evening drizzle to find the place they're looking for, and pause at the head of the stairs. It's a bar in a part of the city Dean doesn't recognize from what it was before. The inside is dimly lit with clashing neon, with hyper, gyrating images on the televisions, and he rolls his eyes so hard they hurt. They elbow each other in the ribs and head down the stairs in search of something to drink.

It isn't their scene. Sam flinches at the noise, unused to the number of people, the number of strangers. His shirt is patched too many times, Dean's wool coat too threadbare, both of them too country-ragged and not enough city-ragged. But mostly, they're too old: Dean is forty-two, and he knows his face shows it. Everyone else seems to flit on tiptoe around the room, pierced and taut-skinned and perky. The Winchesters in their heavy boots and plodding steps can't help but be noticed. They hide out at a corner table drinking whisky (neat for Dean, on ice for Sam) to hash out the details of the gossip they've picked up all day, their talk low and coded. They take turns scanning the crowd, automatic, always ready. Dean chuckles to himself about the crazy rumors of a discontented city (mutant dog boy? Seriously?), and takes a swallow of his drink just as Sam stiffens.

"There he is." There's a quaver in Sam's voice. Dean frees his hands and eyeballs for a threat in front of him, but nothing out of the ordinary is going on. Sam reaches without looking and grabs his forearm.

Nerds and weirdoes pace the dim floor, returning to the bar for glowy drinks or clumping together or watching around a pool table in the back. (Of course there's a pool table.) With the click of billiards behind him, Dean Winchester crosses the room and raises a hand to the bartender.

Dean Winchester as he was twenty years ago, skinnier and with all his weight in his shoulders. The coloring is right, the features are right, the length of his stride. His face is smooth and childlike under a ridiculous haircut. He bellies up to the bar, familiar, and smirks at a woman next to him. It's Dean's own smirk.

"It's really him," breathes Sam. They watch as he manufactures intimacy across the sticky surface. A folded bill appears between his fingers and disappears again. The bartender is smiling that way that says she knows his shtick up one side and down the other and is falling for it anyway. The doppelganger smiles back, and even the teeth are the same.

He is heading back across the room with a pitcher of beer in each hand when Sam scrambles to his feet.

"Don't --"

Dean's feeble protest goes unheard. His brother is off already, following that doppelganger to the cluster around the pool table. It's impossible for them not to meet. Sam catches up with him and that young stranger can stop on a dime without spilling a drop from the pitchers in his hands. He makes it look easy. He has an agreeable expression on his face, impersonal, when he turns to Sam.

That expression fades as he listens to Sam speak. The eyebrows jump in disbelief or something cynical. He hands off the pitchers to a dark-haired girl who has circled away warily from the pool table. He shuffles off her concern with a sideways glance and a couple of words. Sam's thumb comes up over his shoulder, pointing back at his brother at the corner table. The doppelganger shifts his weight to see around Sam's big body, and notices Dean for the first time. Any remainder of a smile is wiped off his face all at once.

The rest of the pool table crowd are starting to pay attention. The doppelganger has turned white, dread around the corners of his mouth. His body language is stiff, jerky, uncool. He stares at Dean and Dean stares back and after a little of that Dean lowers his head and spares the kid the shame of it. When he looks up again, Sam is leading the doppelganger to their table.

He slings himself into the offered chair in a sulky way, half athletic performance and half adolescent anger. He leans back and crosses his arms, and only looks at Dean when he thinks he's not being looked at. He's got the collar of his jacket flipped up, like in a music video from 1985.

"This is my brother Dean," Sam says, earnest. "What's your name?"

The doppelganger huffs out a breath. His lips purse to say something else, and then he says, "Alec."

Dean breaks in: "Alec what?"

"Just Alec," he gets back, just as quickly. Dean is sure he himself does not look that stupid when he's scared.

"Then I don't guess you'll tell me your mother's name," he says, as nice as he can.

Alec pauses, flicks his eyes toward Sam for a moment. "Don't have one."

"You don't remember her at all?" Sam asks.

"Don't have one," he repeats.

Dean leans on his elbows to ask, "So how old are you, nineteen? Twenty?"

"I'm street-legal in every jurisdiction," purrs Alec, sweet overtop the mean. Dean would almost swear the boy is for sale, which is a thought that obviously shows on his face. Alec is observing his dismay with something like satisfaction.

Sam has to clear his throat before he can get back to the script. "Are you from here? Did you grow up in the city?"

"No."

Dean mirrors the doppelganger: his posture, his expressions. The kid has one hand on the table. His knuckles aren't thick and scarred and two of them healed crooked, but the hand is otherwise pretty much the same. Similar calluses. He bites his nails, but not all the way to the quick. Dean puts his hand down in front of Alec's, not touching, just to show him.

"You mind telling me where you were born?" Dean smirks. "You gotta know that, at least."

"I'm not telling you. Look, if you want me to go with you, you're gonna have to use threats." Alec leans in, frowning. "What are you, exactly?"

Both Winchesters pause for a long time. Sam is silent and miserable. Dean drags his eyes away from his brother and says:

"Well I think it's obvious I'm your father, kid."

All three of them sit at the table, not looking at anything, while that settles in.

The quiet is broken with a small breathy laugh from Alec. "You're wrong." He is relieved, relaxed in his chair for the first time. Dean clears his throat and sets to explaining:

"I don't know if you have eyes, kid, but you might have noticed a certain similarity. Hell, if I didn't know better I'd say you are me from twenty years ago. 'Cept I had a better haircut." With a little pout, Alec puts a hand to his hair. Dean goes on: "I can think of a lot of ways it might have gone, and probably most of them make me look like an asshole. I don't know who it was, and I don't know why she never called, and I don't know why she didn't tell you about me --" and at this, Alec sits up to protest, but Dean waves him off, "-- but that doesn't mean I wouldn't have stuck around if I'd known."

The kid sits there, confused.

"A friend of ours saw you on the street. We came as soon as she called." Sam's fingers twitch, counting. "Had to have been soon after you finished highschool, right? He can't be any older than 22."

Dean chuckles a little. "That's a lot of possibilities."

"You guys," Alec says, "are crazy." He makes to stand, and Sam puts out one long arm and stops him. Not in a forceful way, but his wedding ring clinks off the cheap table like a protest. Alec takes his seat again, frustration all over his face.

"Okay," says Dean, serious again. "Okay. I don't know what your story is, and if you don't want to tell me, that's fine. I'm just saying that, looking at you, looking at me, you don't think it's kind of obvious we're related?"

Alec says nothing. He purses his lips to think. It's a familiar look.

"And my dad always said I looked like Mom, and Mom was dead long before you were born, and Sam was a virgin till way too late --"

"Hey," Sam says, without heat, and Alec swallows a laugh.

"--so you tell me. How else does this work?" He jokes, "You some kind of shapeshifter or something?"

Alec tenses through the shoulders, baffled. "...A what?"

"Don't tell me it's just a coincidence you look exactly like my mugshot at eighteen, because coincidences like that don't happen. So unless you got some kind of ability to copy what I look like, then we're back to the one night stand theory. Anyway, the look on your face when Sam brought you over here, you looked like you were on your way to an execution." Dean leans back, lets that word stew a little. The kid's face turns down into a scowl, mouth opening to object. Dean doesn't let him get a word in edgewise: "And I guess what I'm saying is, even if you don't think you need any family, if you're in trouble, we can be here."

"What makes you think I'm in trouble?" Alec's disdain is a careful pose.

"Maybe you're not." Dean hunches forward, keen. "Maybe I guessed wrong. Maybe you don't need anything or anybody."

Alec doesn't blink.

"Dude, you're freaking him out." Sam sighs, puts his hands on the table. "The last thing we want to do is mess up your life. If you want, we can get out of here and leave you alone."

The look of death Dean shoots him has no effect.

"You can go away and think about it, if you want. Whatever kind of contact, or no contact at all, it's up to you. We'll be in the city at least another week. Give him your phone number, Dean."

Dean reaches into his jacket for a scrap of paper and Alec goes on alert. Both Winchesters freeze at once. Free hand open, and with infinite caution, Dean retrieves a book of matches from his pocket. "I'd ask you for a pen, but I think you'd strangle me," he jokes.

Alec looks down. His hands are gripping the edge of the table, curled like claws. He corrects this behavior, turning it into a handhold so that he can tip his chair onto its two back legs. He forces a smile.

With a pen from his brother, Dean scrawls a string of numbers on the inside of the matchbook. He is methodical, plain. He avoids eye-contact. He tucks the book closed and slides it across the table toward Alec. He withdraws his hand before he is close enough to touch. "Don't need a reason to call. Even after we leave town. Any time."

"We'll go now," adds Sam. "You can go back to your friends and whatever you were doing. You can tell them, I don't know, that we were trying to sell you something."

Alec sets his chair down and fingers the matchbook on the table. "Strip City Deluxe?" he asks, with a chuckle. He seems to be pushing it away, and then it leaps up and disappears into his palm. His face serene, Dean touches his own back pocket to make sure his wallet is still there.

"Guess the public library doesn't give out matchbooks any more."

"Public libraries don't exist any more," Alec corrects him.

Sam eyes the kid and says, "And even when they did, they didn't give out matchbooks." His amusement and Alec's amusement look the same. Dean looks from one to the other and laughs a little.

"I'll think about it," says Alec, standing up. His eyes slide sideways, the intent to throw that matchbook away all over his face.

The Winchester brothers look up at him from where they're seated. They let him walk away, silent. They don't get up to leave until after Alec has rejoined the crowd at the pool table. His friends are trying politely to let him blend back into their loose group.

"Come on," Dean says, and they shake their stiff bones and head up the stairs to the exit. In the drizzle outside, in the clamor of the smelly, aging city, Sam comes to a halt so suddenly that Dean walks right into him.

"Son of a bitch," Sam exclaims to himself. He pats down his pockets. "I think your son stole my wallet."

Dean breathes out through his nose. "Chip off the old block, I guess."

*

"Earth to Alec. Come in, Alec." Original Cindy reaches up and knocks on his head with her knuckles. Alec whirls and is too late to catch her by her hair.

Watching them from the bench, Max laughs outright. They are in Jam Pony, and on time for once, and that is way too early. On the up side, being a genetically engineered super-soldier means that having to be awake at stupid o'clock in the morning is not physically painful the way it is for ordinaries. That doesn't mean Max is feeling particularly chipper as she pulls on her bike gloves for the day. Every squeak of a badly-oiled locker hinge is a wake-up jolt. The packages waiting to be delivered stack high on the countertop as the morning light filters in. It's still cold enough to see breath outside, cold enough to make bike gearshifts cranky, but that's never stopped Normal from the course of business. He's a jerk that way.

Alec glares at Cindy. "That hurt, you know." He puts one hand to his head, fussy, to smoothe down his hair. Cindy slips past him and out from among the lockers.

"Walking into walls hurt more, boo." She doesn't even have to eye the wall of flaking red steel right in front of him, just walks away with one dismissive hand in the air.

He does, though, stares puzzled at the lockers he almost bashed into. This is the guy that used to be a trainee assassin? Max pats him on the back with a condescending smile as she stands to go.

"Wait," he mutters. He makes a show of secretive glances over her shoulder while she waits for him to spit it out. He's wearing the same rumpled clothes he wore yesterday. Max cringes at the idea of having to teach him to do laundry. She's pretty sure he should know that kind of stuff by now. Alec asks, "You ever heard of an operative named Chandler Bing?"

If they notice, the milling crowd at the dispatch desk will only see Alec shuffling his hands together, like someone with blisters from new gloves. Max watches up close as he flips through a series of small hard plastic shapes: at least one is a driver's license. His hands do their magic and suddenly the top card is a big, beautiful forgery of a sector pass.

She says, "What kind of a name is Chandler Bing? That's not a real name." She reaches out to grab the pass from him, and he is too fast. He closes his fist around the whole stack.

"Yeah, me neither," he says to himself. While he is distracted, Max grabs again, and pinches his thumb mercilessly till he gives. It's not much of a struggle, really. She fans the pale cards and he puts up an open hand to shield against the curiousity of their bleary coworkers.

Alec has the contents of a wallet: six or eight forms of ID; a folded slip of paper with phone numbers written on it; a couple of small photographs with worn, dulled edges. Max holds the pictures up close to scrutinize. The first is a square snapshot on weird thick paper: just a couple of unfamiliar little girls clowning around with a cat. The second is a picture of Alec, fourteen or fifteen years old, with his arm around the neck of a dark-haired child. She realizes after a second that he's got the child in an inefficient headlock hold. It's a surprise to see him look so... civilian, at that young an age. He's smiling, a-squint in the sun, on the side of an unknown road. The bold and clueless ease of his expression is staggering.

"Who took this?" Max asks, head down. She doesn't want to know if it's going to turn out to be another one of Alec's secret hangups. But he just shrugs his shoulders, and she looks up to that stupid blank expression on his face. He chews on his lower lip and she tries again, "Is whoever took this picture coming after you or something?"

"That's not me," says Alec, knitting his brows.

"Aw, come on."

"Seriously." He shrugs, but he sucks at pretending it doesn't bother him. "I don't know who that is. And anyway, at that age they didn't let me out past the wire unsupervised. There was this one time --"

"Oh," she blurts. If it isn't him, it's his dead twin, of course. Dead almost a year now, and Alec has never shown any interest in him. Alec is incurious about things like that, incurious and untouched, the way a soldier's meant to be. He wasn't sorry to hear that Ben had died; he wasn't sorry they'd never met. It is not possible that he can have found a picture of his own twin by chance.

It's a barrier between them, the dead brother and the history Alec doesn't know. Max works her mouth, and can't bear to say Ben's name aloud. The silence stretches and Alec begins to twitch, fingertips eager to reclaim his loot.

Reluctant, she asks, "Where'd you get this from?"

"Long story," is all Alec says, with a puzzled frown. He plucks the photo from between her fingers.

One of the driver's licenses is from Colorado, with a hologram of snowy mountains in it. Max reads off the name: "Doogie Howser. People name their kids that?" They shake their heads at each other, equally nonplussed. She taps it three or four times: "Is this somebody we need to worry about?"

Alec chuckles to himself. "The military ID says Guy Smiley." He waits for her to find it in her hand, gape at it, strangle a bemused laugh.

"You're just pissed you didn't think that one up yourself." Alec opens his mouth to protest but Max has moved on from names. "Hey, is this that skeeve from the bar?"

The little picture on Guy Smiley's ID is a picture of the man at Crash. The man who scared Alec so badly, the one he went off with and came back from and lied about. Max examines the face in the picture, its angular masculinity, the hidden set of the eyes. He looks like the boy in the worn photo. The man she saw is far too old to have been a boy when Ben was fourteen.

"Yeah, that's him." Alec frowns, hesitates. "Hey, do you think he looks like me?"

"Not really," shrugs Max. She sifts through her memory of him: how he talked to Alec all nervous, shocky and shifting his weight from one foot to the other. How Alec seemed afraid of him, but when he came back to the pool table it was contempt or something ugly. "Isn't he older than this? What's he trying to do, pass himself off as an X?" He is about a decade too old to be part of the X-series; they probably hadn't even cracked the nut of genetic design when Guy Smiley was born. So probably, if he's anything, he's a wannabe. The real question is, how did he know to approach Alec?

"I dunno." Alec doesn't say what Guy Smiley is trying to do. It would be possible to interrogate him, to guilt-trip him or provoke him into a confession, but that would require effort and Max isn't up to it. He's not so dumb he would fail to mention an overt threat to their secrecy, and any other possibility is... not something Max particularly wants to know about. The awkward not-talking thing hangs over them for minute or two, while the other messengers bang in and out of their lockers.

"Well," says Max at last, "at least you know he's an asshole."

Alec grunts, a neutral noise. He plucks the Guy Smiley card out of her fingers, and disappears the whole stack into a pocket inside his jacket. He zips up and adjusts his shoulder satchel and whips up the biggest, most shit-eating grin in the world.

He is clearly psychic. Behind him, Normal is cajoling (okay, threatening) the groggy morning throng. "Bip bip, people," he chirps, a package to be delivered in his hands, and amid the groans Alec and Max head off to find their bikes.

*

The Winchesters don't come back to Crash, but end up at a different bar, one that's older and shabbier and definitely unlicensed. They give no sign that they know Alec is following them when they duck through a rusted steel door and out of sight, but they aren't surprised when he comes inside half an hour later. They're playing pool, or Dean is while Sam watches, his hand around an unlabeled brown bottle. Dean is playing pool with a blonde woman, and losing to her badly.

Alec watches from the bar for a few minutes. Dean is comfortable with the woman, easy: he doesn't seem to care when she curls her lip at him after sinking a ball. "Don't tell me you're taking up poker," she croons.

This woman is of average height, with a face just old enough he doesn't know how old it is. Her hair is dark gold. She might be here to claim she is Alec's mother. Her body doesn't look like it's had babies, but he isn't sure. He doesn't know very many people who've had babies.

She sees him standing there and at once her eyes widen. Alec is very conscious of the potential for making a scene: he crosses to the pool table at a trot. The Winchesters clue into her body language and turn around to greet him before he arrives. The twin smiles on their faces are genuine.

"Hey, Alec. Meet the lady that found you for us," says Dean, jostling the woman. She takes his rough affection but doesn't smile. She is agile, subtle: Dean moves in her space without objection, but somehow she's never in arm's reach of Sam. Not the reason he's wearing that ring, then. Her neck is tense as Alec approaches her, so he stops before he's too close.

"Sorry if you were lying low," she mumbles. Alec pulls off his wool cap and keeps his face neutral, and after a little while she gives up or decides he's not dangerous. "I'm Jo Harvelle."

"Have we met?" he asks, nonplussed.

"No. You sold one of my people a couple of televisions." She shrugs, that we live in a fucked-up city shrug that Alec recognizes. Smuggler, has to be, and pretty powerful if she's got a crew working for her. "I was just checking up and saw you."

"What," grumbles Alec mildly, "and followed me around?"

"Yeah, a little. I guess I thought you were Dean, at first." She glances from one to the other and back again, as if she's still not sure.

Dean leans on the edge of the table and laughs. "You didn't even know me when I looked like that."

"If you'd looked like that when I knew you," she retorts, "I wouldn't have taken no for an answer."

They all laugh then, all but Alec. He searches one face after another, their nostalgia for a time and place he's never been, and bristles unaccountably. The lines around their eyes and mouths fan and stretch, emphasizing their ages compared to his. He hates the idea of being the junior member of this little gathering. They settle around him, laughed out, and return to the present. Sam sits back, in a way that makes himself smaller and less noticeable than his size would predict. The woman Jo is twirling her cue between her hands.

Dean is on the far side of the table, calculation on his face. He lines up an impossible shot, four five and six all in a row in reverse order, and hits the cue ball with a neat efficiency Alec has never seen before. The balls roll, obedient, into their pockets and Dean stands up to watch. He doesn't even smile, but Sam does. "Oh, now you're just showing off," he chides.

Dean is looking at Alec: that calm, waiting gaze. Alec craves it suddenly and reaches out for Jo's cue without even looking at her. She doesn't fight him for it, just steps out of the way as the two lookalikes stand across from each other at the table. On both their arms, the hair stands on end; Alec can see Dean's pulse throb in his throat. They hold each other's gaze, eyes alike. Of course they will compete. Alec has been half-thinking it since the moment they met.

"All right," says Dean, and sets down his cue. He is unhurried as he gathers the sunk balls and rolls them back on the table. There's a smirk on his face that Alec is hoping to wipe off. He wonders whether to stake money, or whether that would be taken wrong.

They pace around each other, prowling the table, and glance at each other out of the corners of their eyes. They've gotten a few funny looks from the other people in the bar, and are ignoring them.

"It's not about the game," says Dean. Deliberate, he slides the rack into place on the table and lifts it. The balls lie still: his movements are smooth. He wraps an arm around his cue as if it were a support beam, and waits for Alec to break. "You want to pull off a hustle, it's all in the stuff you do off the table."

It is impossible not to showboat. Alec leans in and places his hand on the green baize just so. It's worn a little here and there, the color thinner in some spots than others. Alec assesses the shape of the table's flaws as he settles the cue between thumb and forefinger. He is rearing back to strike when Dean tells him,

"Now see, that right there, that's a tell."

Alec has just enough self-control to stop himself and re-settle his hand before trying again. The balls go rolling, thump into the corner pocket, and Dean is watching him with a smile. "You're picky, about how you set your hand. Shows you're a student of how it's played, that you've got the patience to figure out a consistent stance. You play like that, even if you lose, they'll know you're hustling them."

"Maybe I just like to win," Alec retorts.

Dean paces around the far side of the table while Alec readies for his next shot. He muffs it.

"Got you unsettled, didn't I? You'll need to work on that." Dean is standing there under the vertical lights, forehead aglow and eyes in shadow. "Get somebody to yell at you while you practice. Learn to tune out the noise as much as the words." His face is blameless as he leans in for his first shot. Alec can see the difference in their postures, how a man in his forties carries his weight differently, how much lower his center of gravity is. There's a stiffness in Dean's back, an old injury or just wear and tear, that makes him look vulnerable. But he makes his shot.

"Where'd you learn to play?" Alec asks, as Dean comes back around. It would be impossible to crowd him, the way he moves and the attention he can give the table. Bravado's no good. Verbal distraction might not work either, and Alec will be all out of tricks.

Dean takes his next shot. "Dive bars," he says, punctuating it with the clatter of balls bouncing away from pockets. "Arcade games take quarters, and you get bored with 'em after a while. Pool table's entertainment forever, or till the customers break the cues over each other's heads. You?"

Alec pauses. "Community center?" he says at last.

The balls on the table come to rest without any sinking and Dean nods at him. "You see how I did that? Just shaved a couple degrees off the angle."

"Did what?" asks Alec absently, as he takes his turn. Dean waits for him to strike before chuckling,

"Blew the shot, kid. Doesn't take a show, just a little bit wrong at the contact point."

The five sinks into a pocket and the cueball rolls right back to where it started like a dream. "You missed on purpose? What'd you do that for?"

Lines fan out across Dean's temples. "Babe in the woods," he mutters to himself. Then, sardonic: "You actually make a living at this?"

"No," scoffs Alec. "I got a job. This is pocket money and beers."

"Cause if you want to make a living at it, you gotta be willing to lose." Dean leans on his cue, and some subtle change comes over him, indescribable little motions, so that suddenly his ego's on the outside, and Alec's looking at an angry middle-aged braggart, beat down in his day job and looking to win a few back at night. The cue comes up -- it's not even his turn -- and the way it moves in his hands Dean is suddenly just that littlest bit awkward, banging himself in the knee with it, a-fumble between his fingers. He looks like a clueless tool. He's the kind of player Alec would challenge immediately, the kind he'd clean out in about twenty minutes, the kind he would sneer at. It is loathesome, to see Dean turn into someone like that.

"What --" Alec is not sure what he is asking. Dean shuffles off that persona with a grin, his charisma like a beacon in the dim room. Alec suppresses a little shudder on realizing that he likes this strange man named Dean Winchester.

It is his turn, but Alec isn't up to strategizing at the moment. Dean eyes him from the other side of the table, and then he's on his way around. "Hey, whoa. Stick with me, kid." He reaches into Alec's space, puts a hand on his shoulder. As if he has the right, as if Alec can't grab him by the wrist and throw him to the concrete floor. Dean tightens his grip into a squeeze and says, "You looked a little sick, there."

He says it low, not to draw attention or anything, but Sam is already alert and drinks in every pause and gesture. Alec had forgotten he was even there until that moment, and he shakes off both Dean's hand and his concern with brittle irritation.

"Nothing," he mumbles, and then, reclaiming ground, "just freaks me out, what it'll be like when my looks go."

Dean makes an elaborate groan of disgust. Sam cracks up, laughs so hard he has to steady himself on the table, while Jo glances from Dean to Alec and back again with a strange little smile on her face.

"Oh, that was awesome," gasps Sam, one arm across his ribs as if in pain.

Dean flips his brother the bird, and that just makes the laughter louder. "You don't know from ugly, kid. Your turn."

It is Alec's turn. The balls lie still in front of him, the angles obvious, cause and effect and no hidden factors. He leans in to assess the pool table, and struggles to ignore the Winchesters as they heckle one another.

*

They are walking back to Jo's place. It's cold but clear, the stars like little glowy ice-pellets. Up in the sky, late-on in the night, it almost seems like nothing's changed. Too bad you can't see to step over the people sleeping in doorways with your head in the clouds.

Jo walks pretty fast, head down and hands in her pockets. She's been quiet this whole time, just the facts. Still, Dean can't help press her on the details.

"Was it coin silver, or --"

Her answer is curt and dry, like the air. "Sterling."

"You watched it yourself?" Behind him, Dean can feel Sam get uneasy. Of course Sam hates this part.

But Jo doesn't seem to mind that he can't take her word for it. "Got a warehouse boss who knows a thing or two. He did the testing, I watched from a distance. Silver, holy water, binding forms, the guy checks out. I still have the scrying glass back at my place, if you want a look."

Having met the kid, Dean doesn't really need a scrying glass. He knows what he'd see: just a kid, just flesh and sinews, just somebody ordinary. There's no con that long, no con that relies that much on coincidence, and anyway ghouls and beasties just aren't that patient. Jo's been watching him for weeks. Dean's made his peace with it: no supernatural funny business, just the old fashioned kind of funny business. For the hundredth time, he flashes on a pornographic memory: flushed skin and moisture and that smell, sweat slicking them together. It bothers him that he doesn't know who Alec's mother was. In his imagination, he doesn't see a face; it's all carnal without ever being personal.

It's weird to think about that around Jo, what with their awkward not-history. Dean wants to say something nice to her, and can't think of anything that isn't stupid. She's changed since the first time they met: less bravado, more get-on-with-it. She's more like her mother. Even though it's a compliment, Dean has enough sense not to say that out loud.

"God, can you imagine?" Sam busts out suddenly. It's too loud in the night, startling. His breath flies from his mouth like a ghost. "If you'd known? Our whole lives would have been different."

He says it like he just thought of it, but Dean is not that dumb. There's a reason they hardly said ten words to each other the whole forever-long train ride up here. Now that it's sure, now that they've seen the kid and talked with him, the recriminations can legitimately get started. In the darkness, nobody can see Dean roll his eyes.

They walk on, silent, a little tense. Sam is obviously waiting for a response and Dean doesn't have one. "You think?" he says at last.

"Dude, of course. I wouldn't have gone to Stanford if you'd been raising a child."

Between them, Jo gives a grunt. Her boots make satisfying thumps on the uneven pavement. One of the true tragedies of the world almost ending is that women don't bother with heels much any more. (Apparently, they are not much help when running away, or something.) She shrugs her jackets closer around her neck and Dean remembers she has a kid. She is raising a kid. They've seen the pictures in her tiny apartment.

But there won't be any pictures of Alec, not from before however old he is now, unless he's got a stash of his own that he's willing to part with. It's kind of a nice fantasy, to think Dean could have pulled up to some driveway every couple of months and said hello, but fantasy's all it is. Dean would have made a terrible father, and every woman he's ever met has known it. Better for everyone that it worked out this way. Not that Sam wants to hear it.

"If you'd settled down, I wouldn't have fought with Dad so much," Sam goes on. "I wouldn't have gone halfway across the country to get away. And you wouldn't have taken the risks you've taken, if you --"

Sam trails off finally, because he can see the cock-eyed look Dean is giving him or because he's realized how wishful he sounds. Skip Stanford, miss out on demons, avoid the apocalypse -- sure, one kid could do all that, just by being born. No pressure.

Jo keeps her mouth shut. Dean had forgotten how good she is at that, at just not saying anything and watching what's going on. They walk on without anybody saying anything for a while. "Well," Sam adds, slow, "things would have been different."

Dean makes a noise and changes the subject. "Dad would have gone apeshit."

They can all laugh at that, little bright coals of sound in the crisp air. The noise is enough to send the rats scurrying down the alley ahead of them.

"Dad would have loved Alec," Sam asserts, and he turns so his eyes glint off some distant light-source, full of shine. "He'd have been pissed at you, but he'd have loved Alec."

He's in the middle of turning away so he won't have to look at his brother when a shadow flashes across Dean's line of vision. Almost without thinking he assesses the threat: human-sized, not-human-shaped. His awareness of Sam's mood falls away and he peers into the dark while he feels himself down for weapons. Jo brushes against him, just forearm-to-forearm to identify her proximity. Her knife is open in her hand and ready.

They stalk down the alley towards the shadow. Sam behind them pulls his hands out of his pockets and stumbles along, rusty. He carries no weapon, and probably isn't that much use in a fight any more except for his size. But he hasn't forgotten everything: his tread is light on the tar and his posture stealthy as he slides up behind Dean and stares into the dim. "What did you see?" he asks at a whisper. Dean shushes him with a hand. The flash of Jo's fingers provides a plan of attack, and with that old smooth teamwork they round the corner at the ready.

It's a narrow street, not much more than an alley, but with just enough light for good sightlines. Huddled against the brick on the far side of the street, some strange shape turns their way, eyes a-glow. They are orange eyes, like a cat or a possum in the night, orange eyes in a masked human face. The shape is far too large to be a possum, a soda bottle clutched to its chest. Dean feels the hot tickle on his neck of Sam's startled breath.

There is only just that moment of surprise on both sides. Dean opens his mouth to shout and the creature is gone, galloping on all fours down the street, tight against the sides of buildings. Its back is sinous and slinking in a way that definitely isn't human. It darts under a lit window and reveals its bushy tail, mottled tawny and brown. It is wearing frayed gray sweat pants and some kind of jacket. They listen as it flees into the darkness, its claws clicking against the pavement, and it's gone.

The soda bottle rolls discarded on the tar. Jo breathes out long. She seems less shocked than she should be. She closes her knife and tucks it away, tidy.

The face of that thing, the narrow nose and the flare of its skull and the Lone Ranger mask around the eyes. "So," Dean forces out, as he tucks his gun back into his jeans, "City's got a real raccoon problem, huh?"

Sam is standing there with his mouth open. It's pretty funny. Jo doesn't laugh. "I guess so," she says, and shrugs.

*

It's kind of neat to be able to say that at least one of his friends lives in a real house. Alec isn't really sure he'd call Joshua a friend (although he doesn't know what else to call him), and the house is... well, it's a house. Abandoned and full of dusty crap, but Joshua at least doesn't have anybody thumping on his walls when he plays the radio at 4am. Alec takes the steep front steps double-time.

"Hey Rover," he calls, as he lets himself in. "Special delivery."

"Special?" The response comes from the back room: of course, Joshua is painting. His high, querulous voice is so weird compared to his huge shape.

Alec paces back towards the kitchen with the grocery sack balanced on one hip. "Okay, regular delivery," he admits with a grin. "Max had a thing, so she asked me to swing by."

The wave of his shaggy hair preceding -- it's kind of a miracle he hasn't tangled some damn thing in that mane and had to have it cut off -- Joshua spins around. A big smile splits his face and he drops his palette with a clatter. "You owe her bigtime!"

"She told you that, did she? Okay, what do we got." Alec pulls a bunch of stuff from the sack, stuff with like leaves and green tassels. "Are these carrots? I think these are carrots. Do you even eat carrots?"

"I eat everything," says Joshua, and wipes one hand on his shirt before grabbing the leafy thing. In his big, clawed mitt, it looks like a funny little green brush with an orange handle. He bites off an inch of carrot with a resounding chunk and chews with his mouth open. Alec pauses in the middle of sorting out the weird stuff from the real food, like chips, to watch Joshua amble around his kitchen. The ceilings are high enough for him, so he doesn't look entirely out of place. Alec notes his height compared to the back door, and realizes that Joshua is only an inch or two taller than Sam Winchester.

The similarity bugs him. It makes Sam seem weirder, or Joshua less weird. Alec devotes himself to putting the groceries away. The dishes are clean and stacked neatly in the cabinets, all the food organized and with the labels turned the same way. Like the kitchens he's seen on TV, and not at all like Alec's own kitchen. Which is more of a liquor cabinet with a few boxes of cereal.

"Hey Alec?" Joshua has eaten the carrot all the way down to the stump, and is sniffing at the green tassels on the end. "You think I could paint with this?"

"I dunno," Alec tells him. "You paint with, like, rags and stuff, right? You can paint with carrots if you want to. You're the artist."

Joshua spins the green carrot-top. Its sharp, woody smell fills the room between them. "Music is art, too," he says at last.

Alec shrugs him off. "Can't paint with a piano."

"Oh!" Joshua's hands go up, and he tosses the carrot-top over his shoulder. "Piano! I found things inside."

There's a brief cringey moment in Alec's head of imagining Joshua at the badly-tuned upright in the basement, his big hands plonking away at the keys as he howls his own accompaniment. And then he's over it. Joshua lives in his own house -- anyway, his by squatter's rights -- so he can make whatever terrible music he wants. But when Joshua takes Alec's hand he isn't leading him down the stairs, just back into the living room where the easel is set up. Against the bookshelves, he's leaned ten or twenty pieces of stiff paper: photographs. Portraits, from a long time ago. People sitting stiff, with carefully neutral expressions on their faces. The easel in front of them has a rough approximation of a face outlined in sepia-brown.

"Family pictures," says Joshua, and points. The one at his-eye level is a woman with her hair up in a big cloud around her head, a cameo at her throat. "Father's family, from way long ago."

"Yeah, they're pretty old," Alec mumbles. He stuffs his hands into his pockets, and doesn't look too carefully. "You found 'em inside the piano?"

"Lots and lots." Joshua grabs up his palette, a little plate of grays and browns and blacks and a dollop of startling white. He dashes back into the kitchen, and leaves Alec alone with the staring crowd. Their weird pale eyes accuse him from across the room till he turns his back. When Joshua returns, he's got another carrot. Its greens go into the brown paint, just a little bit, and then he dabs little delicate clouds above the temples of his painting.

"Hey, that's pretty good," Alec tells him. It's only a minute or two before the painted face starts to look like the woman in the photo, or at least like an outline of her. "So... you think they're Doctor Sandeman's family?"

"His piano, his family," Joshua says over his shoulder. He is wrapped up in the painting now; he'll probably forget to eat again till sundown. Alec thinks about mentioning that the piano might not be his, that anybody could have moved their crap in here in the last 20 years, but decides against it.

He's done his duty, and all the food's put away in the kitchen. Alec can leave now, and go make some money instead of standing around like a piece of furniture. He listens as Joshua hums to himself, toneless, big nostrils flaring and blowing air at the fine pattern of paint. Alec blurts, "So how come you call him your dad? Sandeman, I mean?"

Joshua pauses and steps away from the easel to see what progress he's made. Absently, he takes a bite of the carrot in his hand. "I'm his son. He's my father."

"But, like, how'd you know?" Alec frets at how that sounds. "Was he just some guy that was always around, or?"

Joshua turns all the way around, that hangdog face of his serious, maybe a little reverential. "Kept me safe. No barcode."

Alec touches the back of his neck. No barcode, but with a face that says science experiment all over it. Alec's pretty sure he got the better end of that bargain. He keeps his features neutral and after a minute Joshua goes back to his painting.

"You should tell Max," he says, over his shoulder. "Somebody's in the sewers."

"Somebody?" asks Alec.

Those big, flanneled shoulders shrug: Joshua isn't exactly the best guard dog in the world. "Saw somebody climbing out, down the corner. I tried to say hi and they ran. Guess I'm too ugly."

"I dunno, dude. Size alone could scare off a lot of people." With a low curdle in his gut that Max calls a conscience and he calls indigestion, Alec finds himself asking, "Josh, hey Josh, you haven't been out during the day, have you?"

Joshua blows his hair back over his shoulder, and dabs again at the canvas. "Don't go out in daylight. No freaks."

Right. No freaks. And the truth is, well, he is a freak. The long slope of his nose, the split in the middle of his upper lip, his jowls, the occasional drool: he's a six-and-a-half foot tall golden retriever. That talks. You don't get much freakier than that, not among the ordinaries. Alec doesn't know what the lizard-types and the rat-types and the bird-types have done, the ones that survived. Gone to ground in the wilderness, maybe. He's never troubled himself to find out.

He doesn't have to. He looks human. That was supposed to make things easier.

*

Dean won't wear a hat. He and Sam have argued about it for a while, and haven't convinced each other. They split up in front of their borrowed apartment with the issue still unresolved, or rather, with Sam still trying to change his brother's mind and Dean digging in his heels as usual.

"The whole point of surveillance is that you don't look like the mirror image of your target," Sam hisses, and stuffs his hands into his pockets against the late-morning chill.

"It's not surveillance," Dean corrects him. He has a look of distaste on his face. "I'm just looking out for him." And with that, he drops his chin and flips up the collar of his coat, and steps out into the rain. Sam stands under the eaves for a few minutes, watching him go, and sighs.

If he won't wear a hat in Rocky Mountain snow, of course he won't wear one just for a disguise. His stride isn't quite as obviously cocky as usual, though, and he hunches against the weather. As the street crowd swirls around him, shuffling garbage bags and scarred Tupperware against the cold deluge, he almost blends in.

Sam settles his rabbitskin cap down to his own eyebrows, and gets to wandering within the sector. The marketplace is promising, a gaggle of vans and tables under a corrugated tin roof: maybe a warehouse Before, or maybe it was assembled piecemeal since then. There is no obvious order to the salespeople, not even any clear rows for ease of traffic, but everybody seems to know where to go. Raw meat for sale next to pairs of gray tube socks, folded carefully, and the next table after that is soaps and lotions Rose will love. The shoppers are all kinds, old and young, carefully stowing their purchases in string bags or overcoat pockets. There are no children: either it's a neighborhood good enough for a school, or it's a neighborhood bad enough that children aren't allowed outside at all.

The gossip is thick in the air. Sam listens avidly while he stares at goods so rare back home he hardly knows what to offer for them. To linger at the corner of a table is to pick up wild stories of crocodiles in the sewers and assassinations of impertinent journalists. No, not crocodiles; lumbering man-beasts without human speech. No, not in the sewers, but rising up to walk the streets after dark, and steal away children. A vendor of spare bicycle parts swears he has seen with his own eyes a man-sized wolf in a business suit walk down Hanscom Street in broad daylight. Strange times, they repeat, one after another: strange times, end times. Sam wants to laugh, and doesn't. Houses have blown up; mysterious fires somewhere south of the city; rumors of new identity cards to prove you belong in Seattle. He nods at each spiralling speculation doled out over the merchandise at no more cost than the price of breath.

It is a mistake, that nod. The conversation pauses abruptly, and all eyes rest on him before darting away. A bald man in an apron mumbles something in a foreign language -- Chinese? Sam isn't sure -- and the salespeople launch into an impassioned discussion about how transport costs drive up prices. They're very apologetic to one another. They don't get bored with the topic till Sam takes a hint and moves on.

Other people in the marketplace notice him now, where they had not before. He catches frowns and hoods raised quickly into place and more than one person pale and frightened. Sam has never lived in a police state before. It takes him a moment to realize that he has been pegged as a government agent or a spy. The absurdity of it is quickly overwhelmed by the crowd's contagious unease. He turns to leave, and discovers he has tucked his chin into his collar, head down: he's pretty sure that his reason for staying hid has got all theirs beat, hands down.

Sam is pacing his way toward the exit when he catches a familiar sharp whiff. Alert, he hones in on a little cart half-out in the drizzle but doing a healthy business anyway. It's a dilapidated establishment, like an outhouse lashed to a tricycle, but the dark little woman inside is taking in cash and handing out steaming cups of -- Sam steps into line.

When his turn comes, he blurts his request like the bumpkin he's become: "Do you have coffee?"

The woman's disbelief creases her face and sets her braids tinkling around her ears. "Babe, what part of the city you think you're in?"

"Oh." Sam lets his shoulders deflate.

"But what I do have --" she interrupts his hopelessness, "-- is the finest chicory you can grow in the west, roasted and ground just like coffee. Pick you right up, add a little corn syrup and you can't tell the difference. Eight bucks a cup, five if you bring back the mug, discount if you can pay in Loonies." She flips her scarf back around her neck, at ease, waiting for him to be won over.

It doesn't take long. Sam shells out eight dollars and gets a chipped mug (that says Virginia is for Lovers) full almost to spilling with greasy dark liquid. He stands beside the cart and takes his first sip. It's bitter and sour, like chewing on twigs, not really like coffee at all, but he husbands the cup close to his face, inhaling the steam with gusto.

He settles on the spalled brick stoop of a shuttered building and nurses his fake-coffee for a good twenty minutes before it's gone. Intent on the last drops, he does not notice he is being observed until a slim body steps up in front of him. It's a young woman with a bicycle, middling height, her dark brown hair loose all over her shoulders. The frown on her face is not impersonal. Sam looks up at her for a long moment.

"Yes?" he asks at last.

She glares down at him. "Guy Smiley, I presume?"

Blinking, Sam makes the connection. Pert chin and wide lips, prominent eyes. He has seen this face before. He struggles to interpret her open hostility. "You're one of Alec's friends. From the bar."

"Max." Her mouth moves in an expression that isn't a smile. Her bicycle is between them, not in an ostentatious way, but in a way that makes clear that it's a barrier. She knows how to defend herself. "I don't know who you are, though."

Sam pinks a little, hesitating. "I'm Sam Winchester. Can I have my wallet back?"

Max says nothing. Sam has considerable practice with waiting out a conversation, except that his practice is with Dean, who only ever lasts about a minute. He gives in first.

"That's really my name. I'm not here running a scam or looking to get anything from Alec. The reason I'm here is because I'm his uncle."

Max freezes, even her ribcage unnaturally still. Sam glances around them, alert to the scrutiny they might be garnering. After a few moments, she gathers herself and puts on a sarcastic face to ask, "How are you so sure?"

He shakes his head. "You and him both. The way you dismiss it, it's like it's absurd to even think he has a father."

"Cause he doesn't?" Max retorts, hipshot. But she has her back to the crowd, and can't see Dean striding towards them from the closest sector checkpoint. Sam examines her face, the little puckers of distrust at her mouth, while his brother crosses the street. At just the right moment, he shifts to make room for Dean, who slides past a startled Max and settles on the stoop.

It's supposed to be a funny moment, but Max's shock is horrified rather than comical. Sam mumbles out the punchline: "Whatever you say, kid."

Dean gives her his dazzling smile and nudges Sam with an elbow. "What, d'you find coffee in this godforsaken place?"

"Who are you?" she demands. Her voice has become loud, her posture openly hostile. People will notice, in a moment.

Dean guesses quickly what's going on. "Use your inside voice, girl. Alec sent you?"

"No," she spits, sulky.

"Touchy."

Max is still staring. She makes an awkward pretense that she isn't, and then forgets all over again and openly looks over Dean from head to toe. Whatever she sees, she is near to crying. Dean lets it go on for a while, long enough he swipes Sam's mug and runs his finger along the inside for a taste of the fake coffee. "God, that crap's worse than 7-11 used to be. Listen, if you see him, tell him we said Hi."

"I'm not his secretary."

"Max," Sam cuts in. "We're just trying to be --"

"What do you want from him?" Her grip on her handlebars is tight, forearms a-tremble. Sam can't tell whether it's fear or fury or both.

"From Alec?" Dean hands the mug back to Sam and scratches his jaw. "I don't know. I guess I just wanted, you know, I got a son I didn't even know about, I wanted to hear how his life turned out. If there's anything I can do for him."

"Do for him," Max repeats, in disbelief.

"I don't know, teach him how to tie his shoes. I can tell he's good with his hands. This kind of place, I hope he already knows how to take care of himself. You his girlfriend?"

"No."

"Oh. Well, if he needs help in that department I can definitely give him a few pointers." Dean chuckles low, and Sam takes the opportunity to smack him on the back of his head.

"This is crazy." One gloved hand flies up and Max wishes away the whole conversation with a flutter of her fingers.

Sam hunches forward to ask, "Is it? Is it really so crazy?" They frown, Sam and Dean in unison at this woman standing above them, while she frowns back. "If you saw someone who was obviously your kin just walking down the street, just passing right in front of you and doesn't recognize you, wouldn't you say something?"

Max doesn't have a retort ready. Her brown eyes are wide, hurt.

"He's got plenty of reason to be pissed at me," Dean adds, with a philosophical shrug. "He doesn't want to talk to me, nothing I can do about that. But if he needs anything --"

"Don't you know?" Sam demands. "That's what families do. Help each other out, without expecting to get paid for it."

"I know that," Max tells him, indignant.