Dean Winchester had never believed in second chances. His life so far had been a (not terribly interesting) mishmash of bad choices, rotten luck, and youthful indiscretions. But Dean was no longer youthful, his luck was about to change, and when it mattered, when it really mattered, Dean would discover that sometimes you have to make your own second chance.
Dean was a first class, grade-A bartender. He mixed a mean margarita with the perfect proportion of lime to Jose, his bar top was always polished to a mirror sheen, and he had a manner of listening to the patrons who fill his barstools that was magnetic, instinctively understanding when to nod in sympathy and when to offer sage advice.
Most of the time, Dean loved his work. He had been fortunate enough, if you were the glass half-full type, to inherit Joe's from his father after the old man passed away, his big gruff heart finally giving out a few ticks shy of his sixtieth birthday. Dean had spent his twenties wandering in and out of life as a day laborer, taking the odd construction job, working on a fishing vessel for a time when he ventured too close to the ocean on an errant spring break week, and for a brief, truly happy period when he was twenty-five, as a mechanic in a shop that specialized in exotic restorations.
Then John died, and Sam was in the last, brutal throes of law school, and there was no one else. The choice may have been Dean's to make, but Dean had never actually had a choice; let the old man's pub die with him, or continue the legacy and finally settle down in one place.
He couldn't have been more proud the day he watched Sammy graduate from Stanford Law, unless you counted the day they had hung the freshly painted Winchester Law Firm sign under the awning in front of Sam's tiny office in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. That Sam could have taken his gargantuan brain to any corner of the country and found success, but chose instead to dig his roots deeper in the town they grew up in, well, it was humbling. Dean was also happy to have a pair of extra hands on busy weekends at the pub, and until Sam's practice took off, Sam was only too happy to have the extra income.
Dean had Sam, and Sam had Dean, and even though they would have families of their own some day and live separate, full lives, there was something to be said for remembering your beginnings and keeping perspective.
Right now, all six foot four inches of that perspective was swatting Dean's ass with a thin white dishcloth, breaking into his sentimental reverie.
"Ow, asshole," Dean grumbled, rubbing the stinging patch of skin over his left cheek.
"Take a picture, it would last longer, you big creeper." Sam rolled his eyes at Dean, but frowned too, nodding his head in the direction of the barstool in front of Dean. The barstool currently occupied by a man wearing a bemused expression, having watched the exchange with interest.
Dean flushed, wondering how long he had been staring at the stranger, without really seeing him. He slung his own dishtowel over his shoulder and let his most cheeky, dimpled grin alight his face. This was the grin good tips were made of; it had been rumored that when Dean Winchester fully turned on the charm there was not a living, breathing body on the planet –male or female– who could resist him.
He leaned one elbow on the bar and got his first really good look at his new customer in the dim overhead fluorescents. The most impossibly blue eyes Dean had ever seen gazed solemnly back at him and his grin faltered as he sucked a breath between his teeth. Holy shit.
He recovered quickly, and slapped the bar. "What can I get for you tonight?"
The man cocked an eyebrow, distracting Dean again when his elegant fingertips began to drum against the shining surface beneath his arms.
Dean was a sucker for nice hands.
He dragged his eyes back to the man's face and mentally shook himself. He should probably get some quality time with his mattress tonight; he was losing it.
"Whatever's on tap, thanks." The deep rasp of the voice carried easily over the pub noise, a surprising contrast to the man's appearance. He was a strange mix, those pretty eyes paired with a strong, masculine jaw line.
Dean realized that he was staring, mind wandering again, when the man's fingers faltered in their staccato tapping. Dean slapped the bar once more, causing the man seated in the next stool to jump. He hastily grabbed a clean mug from the shelf behind him and strode purposefully down the bar to the tap the farthest from his new customer. Technically, sure, he had to pass two perfectly good taps to do so, but Dean suddenly needed the extra breathing room.
"Wow, what is with you tonight?" Sam hissed as he squeezed behind Dean to grab a handful of maraschino cherries.
Dean grunted in reply and carried the mug back to its intended target. He slid a paper napkin next to it on the bar, waving his hand at the bills held up in exchange. "On the house," he said, grinning again, this one genuine and friendly. "Welcome to Joe's."
The man hesitated but pocketed his money, nodding a mussed, dark head once in Dean's direction before taking his beer and sliding off the stool. Before he disappeared into the crowd, Dean was treated to a brief view of trim hips and a pale, fitted button down. It was a good look, Dean mused. But not really Joe's normal clientele. He wondered what had brought the man here, before losing the fledgling spark of interest to the raucous catcalls of a group of bridesmaids, who begged Dean for a song and a round of jello shots.
Dean obliged the girls their shots, even allowing one or two off his abs (flat front trousers and button-downs quickly forgotten, and besides, Sam's pinched expression of disgust tickled him). He drew the line at a song, though, his guitar tucked safely away in the back. Another night, he promised, lying.
He never gave the man another thought. So he didn't see the hot blue gaze that followed him as he worked the bar, serious eyes trained on the black t-shirt as it was pushed high under Dean's armpits to allow room for shot glasses and eager lips. Dean didn't see how the man excused himself not long afterward, abandoning the pouting females seated in the booth with him, or how he disappeared into the dark night, alone.
The second time Dean found the man on his barstool, he was paying full attention. The guy's hair was still dark and messy, his eyes still just as blue, and tonight he had the addition of a dark stubble shadowing his firm jaw. But just as before, the rest of him was neat as a pin, right down to the crisp, starched look of his shirt, as though it had been freshly plucked from a dry cleaner's bag.
Dean raised his eyebrows at him, gesturing to the tap.
The man nodded, and seemed surprised that Dean remembered.
Dean felt a little thrill at exactly how much he remembered about that first night as he filled the mug, watching the amber liquid as it rolled out of the spout and into the glass, focusing carefully on the angle to prevent too much foam. And maybe to prevent Dean's gaze from wandering back to his patron unnecessarily.
He remembered, for example, how appealing he had found the incongruousness of the man's conservative, stuffy clothing in conjunction with the bed hair that spiked at odd angles. And how his dress shirt had had a slight sheen in the overhead lights. Dean carefully set the mug in front of his new customer and took a chance, leaning down on an elbow.
An eyebrow quirked up, this time accompanied by an inquisitive head tilt. The man's long fingers toyed with the handle on the mug. "So."
Dean grinned. "You're not from around here, are you?"
The man chuckled softly at the extremely lame opener and the tension bled away. Dean allowed himself to enjoy, briefly, the way the man's eyes crinkled at the edge when he laughed.
"No, I'm not. I'm in town to catalog an archaeological dig not far from here." He took a sip of his beer, eyes intense and steady on Dean's face.
Dean tried not to squirm under the scrutiny. He vaguely remembered reading something about an important Native American find outside of Lawrence, in the tall grass prairies. He should really pay more attention to the local news. He wiped his hands on the apron tied at his waist and held one out in welcome. "Dean Winchester."
"Castiel Novak. Pleased to meet you, Dean."
The man's grasp was firm and warm in his hand, and he had the name of an angel, Dean mused, before realizing he had yet to let go. He pulled away abruptly, and felt his neck burn. Dammit. He glanced at Castiel, but thankfully his discomfit seemed to have gone unnoticed. He rubbed the back of his neck anyway, willing the telltale blush away. "Interesting name," he muttered, then wished he had held his tongue.
Castiel just smiled, though, and raised his glass in salute. "My mother," he said, as his only explanation. Dean could tell there was most definitely more to that story, and wondered if he would be privy to it at some point. "And you're not Joe," Castiel commented, nodding his head in the direction of the neon sign hanging above the bar.
"Ahh, no," Dean shrugged. "To be perfectly honest, I don't even know who Joe is, or if there ever was a Joe, I mean, other than my brother's scrawny wife." He gestured wide, encompassing the room with a sweep of his hands. "My dad left me the bar, and he owned it his whole life. As far as I know, it was always just…Joe's."
Dean looked wistful at the end of his declaration and Castiel bowed his head once in deference. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, understanding there was loss there, without needing to be told.
Dean nodded his acceptance, and found his throat strangely tight. "So," he said again, maybe a bit too loudly. "How goes the archaeology business?" He dug a white rag from his back pocket and began polishing the already shining bar top just for something to do with his hands. The fact was he had plenty to do behind the scenes: jot down last night's deposit in his accounting logbook, open and sort the fruits before tonight's rush. It was ladies night, so there would be plenty of fruity drinks with umbrellas to serve up.
Instead he found himself leaning on the bar, wiping lazy circles a few inches from where Castiel's forearm now rested.
Castiel grimaced in reply. "Dirty."
Dean laughed. "Yeah, I suppose it is. Still, that's pretty cool. I've never seen a real archaeology site before, outside of the History Channel, I mean."
"Would you like to," Castiel asked, surprising them both if the expression on his face was any indication.
Dean's hands stilled. "Yeah," he said enthusiastically, before he had time to think. "I mean," he hesitated, shifting his weight from one foot to the next. "I have to work tonight," he trailed off. "Obviously."
Castiel took another sip. "Obviously," he inclined his head, and Dean had the sneaking suspicion he was trying to hide a smile in his beer. "What are you doing tomorrow morning?"
Dean groaned inwardly. He would be lucky if he left the bar before three a.m., and then he would turn around and come right back by two or three in the afternoon to work on inventory before opening for the five o'clock crowd. But he heard himself saying, "Not a damn thing," instead.
"Pick you up here? About ten?" Castiel slid a five-dollar bill under his empty mug before standing to go.
"Sure," Dean exhaled, and laid a steadying hand against the bar. What the hell just happened?
He was stuck in his musing, still staring after Castiel's retreating form when Jo appeared at his elbow and prodded him sharp in the ribs. He jumped a foot.
"Jesus, Jo, you scared the shit outta me," he gasped, barely catching himself before he clutched a hand to his chest like a little girl.
"What was Professor Novak doing in here," she asked gesturing toward the door.
He stared dumbly at her until she rolled her eyes. "Earth to Dean, have you been sampling the merchandising again? What's the matter with you?" She snapped her fingers in front of his face and he swatted her hand away before stalking behind her to pick up the tub of clean mugs that needed to be stacked on the bar shelves.
"He was spaced out all last night too," Sam said, bending over to tap a quick kiss to his wife's lips as he swung behind the bar. "If I didn't know better, I'd say he was smitten."
Dean snorted, tucking thoughts of the handsome stranger away for the time being. "And I told Dad I wanted a brother."
He may have been older, but he was still quick enough to dodge the headlock that swiftly loomed over him, at least until Sam decided to cheat and use one obnoxiously long leg to pin Dean against the bar. He and Sam wrestled for control for a moment before Jo smacked both of them upside the head as she made her way to the storeroom. Just like that, Dean's night was suddenly brighter.
And if he watched the crowded bar extra close that night for another glimpse of messy dark hair, he would never admit it.
It was much later when it finally dawned on him what Joanna had actually said. In fact, it was so late Dean was already on his way home, paused at a red light when he remembered her words and dragged his phone out of his hip pocket to tap out a text.
Professor Novak? Professor of what? He huffed in frustration when the light turned green and he had to slide the phone back in his pocket. It vibrated shortly after, and he nudged the gas perhaps a little more than he normally would to get to his driveway. He was almost home.
He pulled the phone out again before turning off the key, and read her reply. Professor of Archaeology I guess? He's visiting adjunct at KU this semester.
Dean tapped out Oh but realized he had nothing further to add. He smirked, knowing how much his brother's wife hated single word replies, and hit "send".
He didn't have long to wait. He had barely unlocked his front door before the phone was buzzing in his hand. Dean Winchester you're pissing me off. How do you know Professor Novak? Are you trying to get in his pants?
Dean stumbled as he crossed his threshold. Goddamn Sammy and his goddamn overactive imagination. He was not gay. Oh my God.
No, Joanna Beth, I'm not trying to "get into his pants". Barely know the guy. He hit send but immediately typed out another text. Tell my brother he's an asshole. G'night.
He turned his phone off so he wouldn't hear Jo's reply. Silly woman would keep him up all night if he let her. She was a fiendish texter while he could barely chicken peck out a few choice words. Although now that Jo had taken it upon herself to set up his dictionary, his phone was starting to recognize commonly used words and phrases and he didn't look like such a moron anymore. His vocabulary might also be improving, although he'd never admit that to Jo.
He peeled his black tee off and dropped it in the laundry basket behind the bathroom door, then turned on the shower. As he soaped his hair and let the hot water sluice the smoke and bar smell from his body, he wondered what the hell kind of vocabulary he was going to have to make use of to converse with a professor.
"Fuck," he swore under his breath. But even so, he couldn't tamp down the little thrill of excitement he felt about the next day.