The Pulse had been something of a mixed bag for the Winchesters.
It was undeniable that having their criminal records effectively wiped when every database in the country went down was a boon. Since they were widely thought to be dead at the time, it had meant a clean slate for them with human authorities even once the databases started going back up. Nobody could be bothered about a couple of dead supposed mass murderers when they had live criminals to worry about.
Of course, post-Pulse a lot more of those in authority were corrupt and suspicious of strangers even without records, which was also true of a lot of the general people. Many of the small towns Sam and Dean frequented on cases had become almost militantly insular. Even with all their experience at bluffing and fake badges it was still harder to get people to open up and talk to them than it used to be.
Even worse, so many people were desperate for shelter that they were moving into places they'd never have tried to inhabit before. That creepy old cabin in the woods where people disappeared? That house that never sold because it was rumored to be haunted? Suddenly, there were no end of people willing to brave local superstitions for concrete shelter. Dean more than once disgustedly referred to the Pulse as “the dinner bell on an all-you-can-eat monster buffet”.
Still, the Winchesters had survived the apocalypse and they were still alive and still hunting things and saving people. If some things like gas were significantly harder to come by – in terms of availability, expense, or both – nobody was better suited to adapting to make due than they were. They had years of experience of gaining cash and supplies in less traditional ways, after all.
Of course, finding cases has changed since the Pulse, too. So many of the regular newspapers in local towns, and even in bigger cities, went out of business. Plenty had been failing in favor of digital formats to begin with and then the Pulse had been a final death knell for many. Unfortunately, it meant that by the time Sam and Dean found most of their cases, the body count was already mounting pretty high to make a big enough headline for them to see it.
Sam does what he can to keep them as informed as possible, even subscribing to some of the more fringe papers that have survived, like New World Weekly. A lot of it is complete trash, but they do find genuine cases in there now and again. It helps that their knowledge of the lore of what actually exists is good enough to keep them from driving to the other side of the country on wild goose chases involving little gray aliens and bigfoot. Sam almost cancels his subscription when the paper becomes obsessed with stories of genetically engineered assassins created by the government running mad in the streets of Seattle, but the chupacabra in southern California featured in the same issue is all too real.
Of course, Sam regrets only skimming past those articles when dealing with the incoherent babbling of a dying man makes them suddenly pertinent. A call from a fellow hunter had sent them up to deal with a probable haunted house in what used to be one of Chicago's outlying suburbs. It's far enough out from the center of the city to be outside the sector walls at least, which is a relief. The Winchesters have never really been a fan of the bigger cities, and forging the individual passes for each city these days is a complete pain the ass Dean prefers to avoid if at all possible.
Running into the guy is pure accident. The information from the hunter that sent them news of the case combined with Sam's own research make it seem pretty clear the ghosts are almost certainly a trio of sisters murdered horrifically just after the Pulse. The records aren't clear on the reasoning why their neighbors turned on the women, but then, they don't really need to be. Accusations of witchcraft, rumors of stockpiled supplies, being foreign agents – Sam and Dean have seen the aftermath of all of them time and again since the Pulse. Still, records in these days are bad enough that others could have been murdered there, and the only witness they were able to speak to had been a young boy not entirely certain of what he saw. So the brothers plan to check out the house and get enough of a look at the ghosts for themselves to confirm what spirits they're dealing with.
Three is a little dangerous to deal with at once so both brothers are extremely on guard as they enter the creaky old house. Nobody from the town itself will live in the place, but at least six people passing through town have wound up dying after trying to shelter there for the night over the past year. Though the way the townspeople tell it, tens of others have stayed in the house with no violent reaction. It's a mystery Sam would have enjoyed delving into before the Pulse, but with all the people who stayed in the house and lived having long since moved on from the town, it will almost certainly have to remain an unsolved one.
The two of them are so keyed up watching for the ghosts that they almost shoot the man bleeding and groaning behind an overturned and broken table in what used to be a dining room. A second after they realize it's another person in the house with them, it takes only an exchanged look between them to form a new plan. Sam quickly and carefully surrounds the man with a salt circle as Dean keeps watch with the shotgun. Once the barrier's in place, Sam carefully checks the man's injuries. Unfortunately, even if there was a decent hospital left within an hour's drive, Sam's experience assures him the messy ruin of the man's abdomen is beyond medical help.
Sam tries asking the man what he's doing in the house and what he saw, wanting him to describe the ghosts which he and Dean came here to see but still haven't gotten a glimpse of. It's in vain, though, because when the man finally notices Sam's efforts to get his attention and looks up, he only has eyes for Dean.
“You! I know that face, your flawed DNA. Trying to fix … junk. Nothing but junk. Manticore … should have gotten a refund.” Despite that he's holding his own bloody side together, the man's voice oozes contempt.
“Hey! What the hell is your problem, dude?” Dean's expression is a strange mix of offended outrage and confusion. It'd be almost funny to Sam if he didn't have the nagging sense of having heard the word Manticore before.
“What's Manticore?” Sam asks.
“Manticore,” the man breathes out, fearfully. Looking at Sam for the first time he asks desperately, “How do you know about Manticore?”
The man's eyes roll back into his head before Sam can respond, and he thinks the guy is dying right then. He's not, he's just unresponsive to anything else outside his own head as he continues to mutter under his breath about holograms and traps and clones. He's probably delirious. Sam does try to make him comfortable and coax out further coherence, but it only takes another fifteen minutes before he finally dies for real. He says nothing else to the Winchesters in that time and the ghosts don't make a single appearance during the wait.
There's not a high chance of the town's police force bothering to come up here tonight, but old habits to avoid getting caught die hard. Dean is in favor of just burning the bodies in the cemetery and hoping for the best. “C'mon, Sam. I trust your research. You say nobody else died here, it's probably them.”
“It's not like records since the Pulse are all that complete, Dean. Who knows how many people could have died here?”
“Look, man. Do you really want to stay up here all night and hope they show and we don't get caught? Or have to wait for this town's cops to find the body and then wait some more for them to get done with whatever passes for investigation around here before we can finish this case? That one kid said he saw three women, and one of them he recognized from the picture his gran had.”
Sam sighs. “He said he wasn't that sure, Dean.”
Still, Dean has a point, and he wants to get back to his notes to see if he can place the word Manticore. So they head directly for the cemetery, since it's still fairly early so far as night hours go. After they dig up the three graves and go back to what passes for a motel in this settlement for cold showers, Sam sits down with his notes and papers, spreading them out around him on the bed. Finally, he finds one of the most recent editions of New World Weekly and the reference clicks into place.
“Hey Dean?” Sam waits for Dean to pull his attention away from the television enough to hmm in acknowledgment, “Manticore is that place in Seattle all the tabloids are frothing over. The secret government genetic engineering project gone wrong? What do you think it means that guy was talking about it and your DNA?”
“I think that guy was delirious and maybe crazy to start with, man,” Dean says quickly from his seat on the room's other bed. “Is that seriously what you're hitting the research over? Are you that bored, Sam?”
“Yeah, the guy was out of it, but you don't think we should look into this?”
“This? What this? Some crazy guy who probably reads the same tabloids you do ranting nonsense? You don't think maybe we should keep our focus on actual cases? It's not like we haven't had enough of them lately. But maybe you want to try chasing your hairy cousin bigfoot next instead?”
Briefly, Sam has the impulse to chuck his pen at Dean, but he suppresses it in favor of simply muttering “Jerk” in his brother's direction. Actually throwing something would probably result in a wrestling match that would put his papers all out of order and he doesn't feel like dealing with that tonight.
Sam does go ahead and research another case for them, but he doesn't let the strange encounter go, either. He reads back over the articles he'd skimmed in the first place, but this time comparing the sensationalist language with actual incident reports he accesses from Seattle that simply don't match up. They do, however, lead him to mentions of a local journalist in Seattle who has been broadcasting anonymously and positively about the transgenics for several months. The guy calls himself Eyes Only, and Sam ultimately figures getting in touch with him is their best bet to figure out what is actually real about Manticore – and what, if anything, it has to do with Dean.
Of course that's a plan easier formulated than actually put into practice. The guy has clearly put a lot of money and expertise into avoiding being tracked down, and Sam can't blame him considering the various reporting on local corruption in Seattle he's done. It's understandable, but incredibly frustrating. Finally, when they're three cases down the road and he's lost count of how many attempts he's made to track the guy, Sam throws in the towel and calls up Charlie.
He's only a little jealous that it only takes her a day to call him back with the number of a Logan Cale, who is either Eyes Only's main contact with the world or the man himself. Then there's just the additional small problem of what to actually say to the man. Maybe it's all the time spent with Dean, but in the end, Sam decides to just wing it.
The phone rings and is picked up, a man's voice giving a noncommittal hello on the other end. Sam swallows hard and says, “Uh, hi. I need to speak to Eyes Only about transgenics.”
“Who is this and how did you get this number?”
“My name is Sam Winchester and a friend thought you might be able to help me.”
“I might be able to get word to Eyes Only or set up a meet, but you're going to have to give me more details about who you are and what you want.”
“Okay. Look, I, uh, I heard some of the crazy stories coming out of Seattle about transgenics. I didn't really believe any of it. But a couple of weeks ago, we ran into this guy who saw my brother and started ranting about DNA and Manticore. I just need to know if he was crazy, or if – I don't know what. The one thing the tabloids and Eyes Only broadcasts seem to agree on is that there are transgenics that look like normal people.”
“That was all this person said? He mentioned Manticore after he saw your brother?”
“He was dying, maybe he was hallucinating or just raving, I don't know for sure. But he said – he said he knew my brother's face. That Manticore should have gotten a refund on his DNA.”
There's a sigh on the other end of the phone. “The Manticore files that I've seen don't have donor's names or photos in them. The best I could do for you is if you get me a picture of your brother, I could get it to Terminal City and see if any of the transgenics there recognize his features. I have to ask, though, what are you going to do if there is a transgenic out there with your brother's face?”
Sam sucks in a breath, harshly. He hadn't really thought that far ahead, he was just following where his curiosity lead up to this point. “I – I don't know? Meet him, I guess? I hadn't really thought – wow.”
“Is the number you're calling from a good one to get back to you? I'm making no promises here, Sam. I may not find anything. Or I may find a transgenic who isn't interested in meeting you after the way most of them have been treated by the people of Seattle. But send me a picture and I'll see what I can do.”
“Okay, yeah. You can call me back at this number – and I understand. Thanks.”
As he hits the end call button on his phone, Sam almost jumps at the voice from behind him. “So what was that about?”
Oh. Dean's back. Sam should probably tell him about this.
Alec is surprised to get a message from Mole that Logan wants him to drop by Joshua's house. As the siege around the walls of Terminal City has stretched on, a lot of the populace has lost interest, but it's still not particularly safe to make extra trips out into the city. Not only that, but Max's five minute lie about her relationship with Alec has had a far more chilling effect on Logan and Alec's relationship than Max and Logan's. Still, Logan has done his best to help out the transgenics when he can, so Alec isn't adverse to returning a favor now and then.
Alec lets himself in and heads for the room Logan's got his new cobbled together computer setup assembled in. He leans against the doorjamb, watching Logan shuffle papers about for a minute before coughing to announce his presence. Logan immediately calls him into the room without even turning away from his rig, saying, “Alec. I've got something you need to see.”
Alec saunters over to stand behind Logan's computer chair and for a fraction of a second, Alec thinks the picture that appears on the screen is of him. Which is confusing as to why Logan would have pictures of him and find them important until he realizes it isn't actually him. He's never worn his hair that way or owned a jacket like that, and before he can worry that it's a picture of Ben (surely even Manticore can't heal a broken neck), he notices the tiny lines around the eyes and how the other man has broadened in the face and shoulders with years Ben wouldn't have either. The more he looks, the more little differences he sees.
“Logan, where did you get – who the hell is that?”
“That's Dean Winchester. His brother called me earlier today, saying the two of them had run into somebody who recognized his face from Manticore and asking for help from Eyes Only.”
“Help with what? He's obviously not me, so nobody should be after them. What, does his brother need an organ transplant or something? Because, grateful as I am for the DNA, I'm not interested in being harvested for parts.”
Logan just shakes his head at Alec's color commentary and answers earnestly. “Help finding you. I got the impression he was curious and he said he wanted to meet you.”
“Right. Well, here's an idea: give them Ben's file instead. That should shut any curiosity they have down pretty fast.”
Logan's eyebrows go up behind his glasses. “You're not interested in meeting your family? Max always -”
Alec snorts. “Yeah, well, I'm not Max, in case you somehow hadn't noticed. Some random ordinary that got conned into giving Manticore a DNA sample has nothing to do with me. Unless,” Alec fakes pausing to think, “hey, did they mention if they were rich? Because if there's an inheritance at stake here, I could definitely manage to pretend some interest.”
Logan's expression is clearly exasperated, but Alec hasn't pushed him to the point of irritation yet. “I'll be sure to ask,” he says, his dry tone clearly conveying the opposite. Then more earnestly, Logan adds, “Alec, are you sure you don't want to at least meet them? They may be able to help. Get supplies for Terminal City, or if we could show that the transgenic donors are just regular people -”
“C'mon, Logan, are you kidding me? First you tell me I should think of these guys as family and then you want me to drag them into this whole mess? With the mobs and White and all the exciting mortal danger? The best thing I can do for them is pretend they never called, and we both know it. Was that all you wanted?”
Of course Alec should have known anything he talked to Logan about would get back to Max. One thing Logan was definitely right about, Max had some very strong and very odd ideas about family. Which was how he ended up being badgered into sneaking out of Seattle with her and Logan to go meet Sam and Dean Winchester in North Bend. It required all too much time climbing through sewers and over buildings for his taste.
He was already sure it was a bad idea when they all got into Logan's car, but by the fifth time Max has smacked him for fidgeting, he's really starting to regret it for real. They're waiting at a little local cafe that Logan says was picked out by the Winchesters, but there's no sign of them for long enough that Alec is starting to suspect they aren't coming.
Which, despite not actually wanting to meet them, not really, is oddly disappointing to him in a way he doesn't quite understand. He still thinks it's probably best for the ordinaries to realize they don't want to get mixed up with transgenics, but they could at least have been considerate enough to come to that conclusion before Alec went to the trouble of sneaking out of Seattle. He brightens inwardly when he realizes this will at least be a great opportunity for an epic I-told-you-so to Max and Logan he won't have to feel bad about. That could be fun, especially if he finds just the right way to rub it in.
His contemplation of the perfect phrasing to make Max steam is interrupted by the growl of a large engine. He's almost too lost in admiring the classic car the noise belongs to for it to register that the two large men getting out of it have to be the Winchesters. There's no mistaking them, not with Dean's face being such a clear template for his own.
He watches them enter the diner, realizing he's staring but not quite able to stop. Of course, as soon as the two of them are in view of the table where the three of them are sitting, they're staring back just as much. There's a long moment of silence even after the two men reach their table and Alec gets poked in the ribs by Max again when he starts fidgeting under the weight of their combined attention. Neither Logan nor Max had ever been able to give him a real answer about why this meeting was actually necessary.
Something about Max's nudge seems to startle them out of their trance and the tall guy that doesn't look like him finally speaks, talking directly to Logan, holding out a large hand for the man to shake. “Hi. I'm Sam Winchester and this is my brother Dean. You must be Logan, and …?”
“Right. This is Max, and the one you're here to meet is Alec.”
“Alec,” both brothers say his name at the exact same moment and turn back to looking at him. It's weird and it gives him that uncomfortable science experiment feeling he hasn't missed at all from Manticore.
Then suddenly Dean chuckles and swings himself into a seat next to Alec. “Awkward.”
“So, hi. I'm Dean,” he says, offering Alec a hand. A silver ring glints on one finger as Alec mentally shrugs and shakes his DNA donor's hand. “C'mon, Sammy, stop looming over everybody and sit down.”
“It's Sam,” the taller man says in clear exasperation, his face scrunched up in annoyance. He does what his brother suggests and sits down anyway, though.
The only thing Alec really wants to say to them is to ask what the hell they want with him anyway, but he's pretty sure that's sufficiently lacking in tact that Max will punch him for real if he does. The Winchesters aren't saying anything further themselves, so he turns to Max for help, but she's too busy looking back and forth between he and Dean and just gives him a wide-eyed look at his questioning glance.
Logan, thankfully, comes through with his knowledge of how to make adequate small talk and breaks the lengthening silence. “So where are you two from?”
“Oh, uh, our parents were from Laurence, Kansas originally. But we've moved around a lot. We're not really from anywhere, anymore,” Sam answers.
“The Pulse changed things for a lot of people,” Logan offers sympathetically.
“Right. The Pulse,” Sam answers awkwardly, and Alec is sure he's lying, but has no idea why, or what about.
“So what do you do, moving around so much?”
“Oh, you know. Odd jobs. Helping people out here and there, whatever is available.”
The conversation doesn't get less stilted from there. The Winchesters answers about who they are and what they do are evasive, and they're clearly carefully trying to figure out how to ask about Alec without asking about anything that might be awkward, like Manticore or the current anti-transgenic climate in Seattle – so his whole life, basically. It's a relief for all of them when they order food and it arrives to give everyone an excuse for distraction.
Things don't have a chance to get awkward again after the food, though. As Sam and Logan are still finishing up, a group of people pushes through the doors from the back of the diner, all of their attention focused on their table. They really don't look happy and Alec stiffens even before one of them hisses, “Knew I recognized them. Coming in here like this, as if we wouldn't notice.”
Alec stands, and gets ready to put himself between the group and the ordinaries, feeling Max at his side doing the same. There had been footage of Max on the news, but it was grainy and didn't really have any real view of her face. They'd thought it would be safe enough to come to this meeting since they've had no issues moving supplies around Seattle. Apparently not.
The brothers are looking at the group with apprehension, and Alec makes a promise to himself that nothing is going to happen to them for wanting to come and meet him. As dumb as it was. He's so sure he knows what's going on that he almost misses it when a different member of the group spits out, “Freakin' Winchesters,” before opening his mouth wide to show a set of needle sharp fangs descending.
Suddenly, Alec realizes he doesn't know what's going on at all. He's never seen anything from Manticore like this before, yet there are a lot of them - but what else could they be? Why would transgenics be after the Winchesters, though, who had claimed to have only learned of Alec recently and seemed like harmless ordinaries? He glances at Sam and Dean and realizes they don't look either confused or surprised, just resigned. Dean sees his look, and cryptically says, “Guess it's a good thing you're probably not squeamish, kid. Beheading is the only thing that works.”
He then turns an assessing gaze on Max and Logan, and addresses the latter. “Get them to safety,” indicating the small family at a table across the room with a jerk of his head, the only other people in the diner in the middle of the afternoon. Alec agrees with the assessment to protect the civilians. Logan opens his mouth to ask questions or argue, but before he can get a word out, suddenly the angry group is moving towards them. Not transgenic fast, but more fast than humans should be able to move.
Alec doesn't have time to even try and get between them and the Winchesters before one of them is attacking him, and fiercely enough he doesn't have time to worry about anybody else. It only takes a few moments to realize that these men? creatures? are not transgenics. Not quite as strong or fast as Alec is, and the one he's fighting shakes off blows that should have broken bones. It also keeps trying to bite him. Finally he gets its head twisted around to an angle that really should kill it, but he just seems to be pissing the thing off. Having it at least pinned for the moment, he looks up and Dean's cryptic words to him suddenly make more sense. The Winchesters seem to have acquired large knives from the kitchen at some point, and Alec watches slightly astonished as Sam deftly avoids and blocks blows from one of the creatures and then swings the weapon in a deadly arc – Okay, beheading. Check.
Before Alec can decide whether or not he's okay with trying to rip the thing's head off, Dean's suddenly beside him with his knife. “Last one,” he says cheerfully, before lopping the head off.
Dean pats him on the shoulder before straightening up and asking the room at large, “Everybody okay? You get that family out? Nobody swallowed any blood, right?”
“Yes, but what were those -”
Dean holds up a hand to stop Logan's questions. “Vampires, but we should probably get out of here first.”
“Hold up!” Max starts angrily, but then the sound of a distant siren spooks them all.
“Seriously, follow us back to our motel. We'll explain. The real story this time,” Sam promises.
They do, and the Winchesters do. If it hadn't been for how obviously the – vampires, seriously? - were unlike anything he'd ever encountered before, Alec never would have believed any of it. As it stands, he'll never hear the word freak quite the same way again. The weirdness of his life before is nothing compared to some of the turns things take after he meets the Winchesters.