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Three Long Mountains and a Wood

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Jensen should have noticed the guy first. Dark, wild hair curling at the base of his neck and as tall as the pine trees Maine was known for, the stranger dwarfed Jensen by a couple of inches and he was no slouch in the height department. And there was a hint of warm sweetness that clung to him, like vanilla or coconut, which Jensen chalked up to his aftershave, because there was no way he was an omega; not with that height and those shoulders. Jensen might have been able to confirm it one way or another as the stranger walked past him, but he would never do that. Although some folks, mostly alphas, weren’t shy about scenting another, he was firmly rooted in the camp who thought it was rude and an invasion of privacy. They weren’t savages, after all, and there was no place for it in today’s culture. Given his line of work, however, Jensen did have access to a majority of his customers’ designations, thanks to their government-issued IDs, although he tried not to focus on them. So, despite the fact that the young guy had piqued his curiosity the moment he had walked through the doors of The Pitch & Roll Pub, he wasn’t the first thing that caught Jensen’s eye. It had been the bouncy, tiny brunette who held his hand that did.

West Bath had a population less than nineteen hundred, meaning strangers were easy to pick out, comprised mostly of the tourist crowd passing through to other towns for autumn leaf peeping or antiquing. The area of Winnegance, where the pub was located, didn’t have much in the way of antiques. There were mostly fishermen and the folks still employed by the Bath Iron Works, despite the reduction in workforce that had occurred a while back. Five years ago, Jensen had settled here and had poured a chunk of his savings into the pub. He was the proud – and silent – partner along with another Navy buddy of the relatively recently refurbished establishment. When Naval Air Station Brunswick had been a casualty of the BRAC campaign, Jensen had been in the middle of his second shore tour there and he decided to take it as a sign, too. He’d fallen in love with the area where though most of the inhabitants were of English descent, they’d had family in the region since the 1600s and liked to simply refer to themselves as Americans. Kim Rhodes, a beta who identified as alpha, had been dating one of the local deputies while she was serving at Brunswick and she had talked the place up so much, Jensen decided to stick around, too. The area and way of life appealed to Jensen, who had grown weary of conflict and wanted a measure of peace and the space to breathe.

And he had found it in Winnegance, for the most part. Mountains and woods in his backyard when he needed to roam and the Atlantic in his front yard. The sea had gotten into his blood and he knew he couldn’t ever live where he didn’t hear its familiar roll and crash. This place seemed like the best of both worlds for him with the added benefit of not being too far from more “cosmopolitan” cities when he needed that kind of a fix. And he couldn’t have had a better business partner than Kim. She had been his ranking officer on his last tour and he admired her strength of character and resilience. Although there had been great strides in acceptance for trans individuals, it was by no means a cakewalk in the military or in civilian life. Couple that with the fact that she was openly involved with another alpha when alpha-alpha mateships and marriage were still considered taboo by a small portion of the country, since hard-core traditionalists argued there was no biological imperative in that kind of a pairing, she had her work cut out for her. That was part of the reason that Jensen accepted her offer to go in on the pub together but only if she would let him remain a silent partner. He didn’t want to be viewed as the de facto owner given that he was a cis alpha and somehow her superior. She’d fought him on it initially, saying that that was like giving in to stereotypes; she was fine with the fight. He argued back saying sometimes it was all right to take the path of least resistance and it would make him feel more comfortable with the situation. He reminded her his feelings mattered, too. They were probably going to have to deal with enough drunken idiots in the course of any given day, so why not preemptively smooth over as many potential blowups as possible?

They’d hemmed and hawed over it for a good, long while (“You know how stubborn us alphas are,” he had said, cuffing her on her shoulder) and finally agreed that Jensen would remain silent, which, she had snorted, would be a first for him. They renovated the two-story brick building, creating an apartment up above, and remodeled the bottom with a long, wooden bar running the length of the rectangular structure on the right and a series of booths along the left. Since the place had some historical significance, but no official recognition, they made sure to keep the exterior as close to original as possible, repairing structural issues only. However, the interior was all rich, honeyed wood with brass fixtures, nets, ropes and a couple of buoys along the wall, all skirting on the side of tasteful and avoiding anything too kitschy when they were finished. Besides the regional microbrews and oaky bourbons they made themselves known for, they decided to focus on local cuisines favoring seafood as well as burgers and a few other mainstays. Nothing too fancy, but filling with respectable portion sizes. DJ was a tremendous cook, surprising both Jensen and Kim when he’d come in answering the ad they’d placed in The Times Record. What was startling about the beta was that he was as skinny as a rail and, considering the delicious and very rich fare he could whip up at a moment’s notice, sometimes with very limited ingredients, someone might have thought he’d never even taken the time to taste his own cooking.  

When he and Kim had decided on a work schedule, with him taking the evening shift behind the bar so that Kim could be on the same rotation as her partner, she had insisted he take the apartment and she’d find another place. He had teased her that with a serious, significant other he didn’t think she’d have to look too hard for a place to lay her head down. She’d smacked him hard and blushed red as a hydrant. But it worked for them. She handled the lunch crowd and he took over in the evenings, and they traded off weekends and holidays. Every once in a while, when things were especially smooth sailing between her and Briana, Kim would tell him he needed to find someone, too. He’d smile and polish another glass with his ever-present bar towel, but wouldn’t say much on the subject.

The downside to a small town was, obviously, a very small dating pool. And Jensen definitely had no intention of fouling where he ate. There were one or two people who he had considered as potential mates in the last, five years, but the longer he lived in Winnegance, the more he came to realize they made better friends than anything else. There were the occasional, “ships passing in the night” hookups he indulged in. Had to love the tourist crowd for the variety they presented. At an inch over six feet, a physique honed by years and years of regimented exercise, green eyes and a decent sense of humor, Jensen never lacked for interest. And every couple of months, Jensen would make the trek down to Boston, where he might meet up with one of his few “friends with benefits”. He was always safe and he never, ever knotted anyone. Before he left Texas for the last time to head off to naval aviation school in Pensacola, Jensen had knotted his best friend. They’d both known it was goodbye and it had been beautiful and intense and something he never forgot. And because of that strong connection and the subsequent void he’d ached over after, Jensen vowed to only knot whoever he finally mated and married, if he ever did. He had to protect his heart. So when tall, dark and mysterious had moseyed into his bar, he had definitely perked up. But once he got a gander at the little lady on the stranger’s arm, he was lost hook, line and sinker.

All of three feet tall, she had her daddy’s hair (because there was no way the stranger wasn’t her parent and that meant a pretty beta or omega somewhere in the picture, since only they could give birth). A brunette mop of out-of-control curls framed a pixie face with an upturned nose that was an exact copy of her sire’s. Dressed in clean, but worn, blue jeans and a purple shirt emblazoned with a yellow Pokémon (Jensen was very familiar with the current popularity of the now-virtual creatures. He and Kim had laughed their asses off the first, but not the last, time a tourist had tumbled in Winnegance Creek and trudged mournfully into the bar with a waterlogged iPhone), her round cheeks were pink from some obvious time in the sun. Her father wasn’t quite as stylish, with a couple of shirts layered on over his jeans, which looked genuinely ragged as opposed to fashionably ripped. Even if he hadn’t been a stranger, Jensen would have pegged him as a tourist dressed like that, since they were usually over or underdressed for whatever season they passed through. His daughter giggled quietly at something her father told her, hiding her snickering behind a tiny fist and he smiled in return, stroking her hair affectionately. Jensen tried to appear like he wasn’t staring, despite his unexplainable fascination with the girl.

He liked children just fine; their town had a respectable amount of them and The Pitch & Roll had enough family appeal for the lunch crowd on the weekends that they saw their fair share, but there was something about the fey, little creature that inexplicably softened his heart. If Kim had been around, she would have teased him mercilessly about it, accusing him of really being an omega deep down inside. The endearing child’s parent led her over to one of the many, empty booths (Wednesdays were notoriously slow in the summer, which was one of the reasons Jensen had swapped with Kim when she had a rare chance to have a whole weekday off with Briana) as they were some of the only patrons that afternoon. He watched as the stranger hoisted her up and swung her around onto the tan, leather-covered, padded bench seat and she just about disappeared under the table. Her dad looked around sheepishly, which surprised Jensen because out-of-towners (especially alphas) were often very demanding. He cleared his throat and asked in a quiet voice, “Uh, do you have any booster seats?” And he didn’t meet Jensen’s eyes, acting almost deferential, which was definitely odd.

Jensen wrote off the behavior as politeness, which was always appreciated, grinned and rummaged around under the far end of the bar for the couple of boosters they had on hand, since the little lady was definitely too big for a highchair. “I think we can accommodate you,” he rumbled good-naturedly. “I’ll be right there,” he added before turning to his lone barfly. “You good, Doc?”

Holding up his mostly full bottle of Samuel Adams, he huffed, “Whaddya think, idjit?”

Jensen eyed Jim Beaver’s bottle and smirked, “I think I’m stuck with you for another hour at least. What did Steven do this time?”

Dr. Beaver snorted in his beer. “Don’t get me started. That damn alpha and his pig-headed ways.”

Jensen started to smile wider, knowing how the beta doctor and his alpha butted heads on a weekly basis, but noticed that the stranger had hunched up his shoulders slightly at the mention of “damn alpha” and decided not to egg Jim on like he normally did. Maybe the guy didn’t like to hear his gender disparaged and Jensen respected that. The stranger had no way of knowing about the love and respect that was the bedrock of Jim’s marriage to Steven, the only rabbi in their county. Both men seamlessly ministered to the needs of the community in different ways and were perfectly matched. That didn’t mean that they didn’t get into fantastic rows on a nearly weekly basis that usually ended up in such satisfying sex that Jim’s pheromones choked out anyone sitting on the stool next to him for at least a day or two afterward.

Jensen gave him a curt nod and snagged a couple of menus along with the seat as he walked around the end of the bar. When he got to their booth, he shot the dad a smile as he placed the menus in front of him and turned around to stretch across the table and plop the booster seat down beside the little girl. She squirmed over and tried to get herself situated, but couldn’t manage. Without thinking, Jensen grabbed her under her arms and hauled her carefully over into the seat. He didn’t let go until she was safely settled. Swiping her hand across her forehead, apparently trying to clear her bangs from her eyes and failing, she smiled brightly.

“Thank you, sir,” she chirped up at him in a clear and sweet voice.

“Anytime, little lady,” he replied. Turning to her father he added, “You’ve certainly got a well-mannered daughter there.” But instead of the proud expression he expected to find, the other man clenched his hands into fists like he was trying to restrain himself from lashing out. Jensen had come across his share of territorial alphas in his day and admitted to himself he probably shouldn’t have manhandled the guy’s daughter without permission. But he was acting so protective that he almost came across as an omega, which made no sense. Even if, like Jensen practiced, no one tried to scent out another person’s gender, omegas had a tendency to “leak” theirs unless they were on suppressants. It was how Jensen knew that the girl was an omega, since she was too young for pharmaceutical intervention and had no ability to somewhat curtail her scent like she would eventually be able to as an adult. She smelled like peppermint candies.

“If you want us to leave,” the father said lowly, “we’ll go.”

“What?” Jensen blurted out, mystified that it had spun out of control that rapidly. “Why would you think that?” This guy was making no sense and then it dawned on him that maybe he thought Jensen was being a smart-ass or condescending about his omega child. Granted, omegas made up a smaller percentage of the population, but he was no bigot about it. That didn’t change the fact that a lot of people still were, and as the latest presidential race was starting to pick up steam, Jensen couldn’t deny the heated rhetoric between the Republican alpha, who was campaigning on an extremely traditional platform, and the Democratic, progressive, omega nominee had started to get nasty. This guy didn’t know any different with regards to Jensen, which is why he backpedaled right away.

Jensen held up his hands, palms outward. “Now why in the world would I want to chase off two perfectly good, paying customers? Especially one so pretty,” he added with a wink to the little girl, who had gotten tense as soon as her daddy had spoken up. She’d been picked on before, of that Jensen was certain, judging by the way she shrank down at the first sign of trouble.

Her father met Jensen’s gaze for the first time, his strangely colored eyes hiding behind hair as unruly as his daughter’s and Jensen had the odd desire to know exactly what color they were. He stared at Jensen and Jensen returned the gaze unflinchingly until the other man (a fairly young man, now that Jensen had a closer look) dropped his gaze.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I-I misunderstood you, I think.” He sucked his lower lip into his mouth and bit it to hold it in place. Jensen recognized the stress response and didn’t like it one bit.

“No need to apologize,” Jensen tried to smooth things over. “Now, since I know you two would be fools to not eat here, can I get you both something to drink while you take a gander at the menu? And are you waiting for anyone else?” Jensen hoped not, despite their crossed wires.

The younger man smiled demurely and passed over one menu to his daughter, which surprised Jensen. He guessed she couldn’t be more than five, but apparently her dad thought she could handle reading a menu all on her own. “It’s just us,” the man confirmed and Jensen gave a little, mental fist-pump over that bit of information. “I’ll take a glass of water and Jamie will have a glass of milk.” As soon as the word “milk” was out of his mouth, the little girl – Jamie, Jensen corrected himself, and he thought the name suited her perfectly – scrunched up her face. Jensen knew she was aiming for petulant, but she only looked damn adorable.

“Does it have to be milk again?” she sighed dramatically after the last word and Jensen bit the inside of his cheek, sure his undercutting her father’s mandate by laughing would not earn him any points with the man.

“Jamie Lillian Padalecki, I think you know the answer to that one,” he corrected her. If he’d pulled out the middle name that fast, Jensen guessed the milk issue must have been a recurring one.

“Yes, Mommy,” she replied quickly and studied her menu seriously.

Mommy.

The answer had been staring him right in the face all along, but Jensen hadn’t been able to wrap his head around the idea that such a tall guy was actually an omega, despite the subtle wafts of sweetness. Now that he knew, however, Jensen couldn’t help but eye the man’s clothing with dawning comprehension. He had layered his shirts probably not because he wanted to in the humid, summertime air, but because it helped hide what Jensen suspected must be a deceptively lean frame. Most omegas tended to be shorter than alphas and betas – it was simply how their genes ran – and almost all of them were slender, which arrogant alphas and some betas mistook for weakness. But omegas’ strengths were geared toward reproduction. Not only were they the only gender that could give birth to multiple litters (betas typically were able to carry only once, if that), they had a fierce, protective nature and were devoted to their offspring. It was one of the reasons that Jensen had always admired omegas and fantasized about falling in love with someone who turned out to be one, filling his house with love and, if they were lucky, children. He sometimes felt dirty about it, like he was playing into the stereotype of a domineering alpha wanting a protective, fertile omega to mate with, but he couldn't deny his attraction to their strengths. He supported all genders and definitely believed there were hurtful, damaging categorizations that needed to go and he didn’t want to think of himself as part of the problem, tamping down his desires.

Suppressants, for example, gave omegas some freedoms that their biology denied them. Not only did they help mask the naturally attractive aroma they exuded, which too many piggish alphas always pointed their fingers at when rape cases were brought before the courts, as though that was an indication of the omega “asking for it”, but gave them control over their reproductive organs, allowing thoughtful choices regarding offspring and consensual sex. They also helped temper heats, which were hard on omegas given how fertile they were, and freed them from being a slave to their biology. And there were pheromone sprays available that mimicked all of the genders’ scents, which allowed some the ability to match the gender they identified with. But these medical options were not universally accepted or available to everyone. Hardened traditionalists regarded these options as abominations, defying the natural order, while progressives pointed to them as the natural evolution of an enlightened society that embraced and harnessed the scientific knowledge they possessed. Over the last eight years, it had certainly appeared the country was headed in what Jensen believed was the right track under their current, beta president. Marriage between alphas and omegas had finally become a reality, which guaranteed the omega spouse additional rights and protections that a mateship did not. And it was about time, Jensen thought, considering alphas and betas had been allowed to marry since the legal concept was introduced centuries before. Suppressants had become easily accessible and, almost more importantly, affordable once the President had made sure Congressional committees had taken the big-name pharmaceutical companies to task over price gouging. But with the current election, and the growing support for the hardline, traditionalist Republican nominee, there were a lot of people growing anxious. And Jensen knew he was looking at two of them right now.

Pushing up the sleeves of his dark Henley past his muscled forearms, Jensen smiled broadly. “One water and a glass of milk,” he struggled to keep a straight face at the picture Jamie made with her tiny nose wrinkled, “for the little lady.” The young man shot him a grateful smile with his wide, petal-pink lips and Jensen felt his knees weaken when he saw the hint of twin dimples peek out. He was screwed.

“We’ve got two lunch specials today,” he said, fishing for a way to linger at their table. Pointing to the chalkboard behind the bar, he elaborated, “The lobster roll is a classic – fresh caught by yours truly, sweet and served on a warm, buttery roll with a splash of our homemade mayo. We had some prime rib leftover from last night’s dinner menu, so I highly recommend the Rib ‘More Than A Sandwich’ sandwich. Nice shavings served warm with smoked cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and horseradish mayo. Both come with our famous, bacon-dusted fries and a garlic pickle spear.”

Jamie’s mother glanced over Jensen’s shoulder to study the board. “Thank you,” he exhaled and because Jensen thought he might be making the man uncomfortable with the way he had stuck around, he ducked his head, gave the little girl a quick wink and returned to his usual spot behind the bar. He got them their beverages and had to hide another chuckle at the put-upon sigh Jamie made at the sight of the dreaded milk. Jim was still taking his sweet time with his Rebel Rouser IPA (and Steven must seriously be in the doghouse for him to stick around this long), so Jensen slid over another basket of peanuts for him and went back to polishing the bar. Years of keeping gear spit-shined and gleaming made the task soothing and the repetitive motions were something he could get lost in. In fact, he got lost enough that Jim cleared his throat and jerked his head back to the booth to get his attention. Jensen was surprised that ten minutes had come and gone, more than enough time for those two to make their lunch choices. He tucked the end of the towel in his back pocket and went back to their booth. Both of them had their menus open and laid flat on the table, clearly waiting for him to return, but the young guy hadn’t made a sound. Wherever they called home, he figured, they weren’t treated too well to stay silent like that.

“Sorry about that, folks,” Jensen led with an apology. “I didn’t know you were ready.”

“It’s my fault,” Jamie’s mother corrected him quickly. “I should have spoken up.”

And Jensen wanted to frown, because, no, it was not his fault. It was all on Jensen for not paying attention to his customers (although he was unwilling to admit he might have lost track of time daydreaming about having an omega and family of his own). But he was afraid if he made any kind of disapproving face, the guy sitting in front of him would probably misconstrue it and think it was directed at him. Accordingly, Jensen grinned easily and pulled out his order pad. “What did you decide on?”

Clearing her throat, Jamie smiled and Jensen spotted traces of her mother’s dimples in that sweet face. “I would like to have,” she began and then returned her attention back to the menu. With one finger, she carefully traced it under her choice. “I would like to have,” she said again, “the Amazing Grilled Cheese, made with Pineland Farm’s cheddar on Sorelia’s bread.” She stumbled on the baker’s name, but not by much.

“That’s a great choice,” he told her, jotting it down on his pad.

“It’s served,” she continued to read the description carefully, “with the house’s creamy coleslaw, pickles and golden fries from Green Thumb Farms potatoes finished with bacon dust.” When she was was done, she raised her face to her mother, who smiled warmly and gave her a “thumbs up”. He glanced nervously at Jensen then, maybe afraid he’d be irked with her unnecessary recitation. Jensen smiled easily at him, hoping it was clear he was fine with the girl practicing her impressive reading skills with their menu.

“Got all that,” he added seriously, when he noticed Jamie was now looking at him half-worried, half excited. “And you, sir?”

“I’ll have the Seasonal Salad,” he started, pausing long enough for his daughter to find the item on the menu. When she did, she dragged her little finger along, sounding out the words as her mother listed all it’s ingredients as well as all the options for dressing before telling Jensen he’d have the balsamic vinaigrette. Jensen kept his pen poised, but the other man fiddled anxiously with the menu before closing it. “That’s it,” he finished sheepishly.

Jensen picked up the menus and promised them their food would be up in a few minutes. When he got back to the kitchen, he noticed the guy surreptitiously check his wallet and that decided it for Jensen. He gave DJ the order and tacked on a rib sandwich with extra fries. When he checked on Jim, the beta was giving him a sly smile.

“What?” Jensen asked.

The town doctor took a long swig of his beer, but didn’t say a word. He simply kept up that infuriating grin. “Oh, why don’t you go home to your husband?” Jensen huffed, swinging his towel over his shoulder.

“And here I didn’t think there was such a thing as a free lunch anymore,” Jim drawled, setting down his suddenly empty bottle. He dug several bills out of his wallet and placed them on the bar beside the peanuts. He tugged the brim of his battered, Red Sox cap at Jensen, gave one appraising look at the mother and daughter before winking at Jensen, and sauntered out.

Jensen scrubbed furiously at the ring of condensation Jim’s bottle had left behind on the bar since the doctor categorically refused to use a coaster and tried not to question where the need to make sure that guy ate a decent meal came from. He was pulling a rack of glasses out of the dishwasher when DJ rang the little bell in the serving hatch, letting him know his order was up. Jensen easily swung the heavy rack to the side and grabbed his towel to wipe at his damp hands before he touched the plates. He caught Jamie’s mother looking his way and he nodded to him. The younger man whipped his head back toward his daughter, who was animatedly talking with both her mouth and her hands and oblivious to the fact that she had lost her mother’s attention for a brief moment. Jensen quirked an eyebrow, wondering what that was about.

He gathered their food onto a tray and brought it over. Jamie, who was still talking a mile a minute, swinging her legs as fast as her lips moved, lit up when she saw her extra-gooey sandwich. When he sat the tray down, Jensen might have flexed his forearms more than was strictly necessary and cut his gaze to the side to see what the guy’s reaction was and Jensen wasn’t disappointed. The omega dropped his eyes and his face flushed a fetching rose that bled all the way down his long throat. But that color drained away as quickly as it had appeared when Jensen placed the rib sandwich in front of him.

“Oh-oh, no,” he stammered. “I’m really sorry, but there’s been a mistake.”

“No mistake,” Jensen was quick to reassure him. Tossing his head to one side, Jensen explained, “the lunch ‘rush’,” he laughed, indicating the empty pub, “is over and if you don’t help me out, I’m going to be stuck with food that’s only going to go to waste otherwise. Seriously,” he added as he placed the guy’s salad off to the side, making sure the sandwich was front and center. “If you two need anything else, give me a holler.” And he retreated before Jamie’s mother could come up with another reason why he couldn’t possibly accept the meal.

For the entirety of their lunch, Jensen made sure to keep himself busy behind the bar. That position gave him ample opportunity to observe them discreetly. Jamie’s mother had initially hesitated over the meal, spearing forkfuls of his salad instead, which was very tasty and locally sourced, but the alpha couldn’t hide his grin when the man caved in and took his first bite of the sandwich. Jensen had spent most of yesterday cooking the prime rib himself; he knew it was damn good, but seeing how Jamie’s mother appreciated it made him very pleased.

Watching them, Jensen was impressed with the subtle way the young omega (because Jensen would definitely have to card him if he ordered alcohol) kept his daughter on track. It was clear by her chatter that Jamie was a lively, outgoing child in the right environment, who could go off on any tangent. She was fascinated by the fishing net tacked on the wall near their booth and the colorful buoys that dangled overhead. Her mother indulged that curiosity, fed it even, judging by the way he talked with his hands as much as she did, but he managed to get her to eat most of her meal without harping or nagging. And Jensen chuckled as she drained the despised milk, nodding at something her mother said and looking around the bar, not realizing her glass was empty.

As he brought up the last crate of microbrews (and if he had brought up two more than necessary for Kim just to make certain she didn’t have to deal with it herself that night, she didn’t need to know), when he caught the young guy watching him. Jensen tried not to act like he noticed, but his chest puffed up almost against his will. He was only an alpha at the end of the day. Knowing someone he was attracted to was potentially returning the favor was a heady thing. He was trying to figure out how to approach the young man, maybe ask if they would pass back through Winnegance after they got done with whatever vacation they were taking, when a pair of alphas came into the pub. And when Jensen saw who it was, it took a herculean effort not to roll his eyes.

Ben Cotton and Callum Rennie were regulars, but not the kind that Jensen was grateful to have. Both alphas used to work at the Bath Iron Works, but had been laid off late last year. Under the current administration, led by their beta president, the country’s need for naval ships had dropped off significantly, which was only a natural progression considering there were far fewer military confrontations that involved the U.S. While most of the country, including the armed forces, were grateful for the peaceful direction their nation had taken, there were some casualties. And the Bath Iron Works, in business since 1884 making both private and military vessels, had been a mainstay employer for over a century. The layoffs in the last three years had hurt the community, and resentment had been building quietly ever since. The downside of a bar was that that “quiet desperation” tended to become less quiet as the evening wore on. And ever since the race for president had narrowed down to the final two choices, with the traditional alpha promising to restore economic prosperity to the nation, folks like Ben and Callum were counting on a return to their glory days. And they weren’t shy about sharing their opinions.

They were grumbling about something between themselves as they flung open the door, but as soon as they spotted the mother and child, they both narrowed their gaze and made a show of scenting the air as they passed their booth. Ben, in his early forties, but still imposing with two inches on Jensen, sharp, blue eyes and wavy, brunet hair he combed up and away from his broad forehead, kind of hovered over the young omega and Jensen didn’t like the way it made Jamie’s mother round his shoulder in an attempt to disappear.

“What do you fellows want?” he asked assertively, exuding territorial alpha in his tone, knowing they’d be forced to respond to the challenge.

Ben stared at the omega a beat longer before he sauntered over to the bar and dropped down with comfortable familiarity onto one of the stools. Callum, a decade older than Ben, loitered at the table longer, and Jensen didn’t miss the subtle way the omega started to slide across the curved bench to get closer to his daughter.

“I haven’t got all day, Callum,” Jensen called out to him.

Shorter than his friend by half a foot, Callum’s blond hair was grayer these days, and his mustache and goatee were solid silver. He fixed the mother with a harsh glare before finally joining his partner in crime at the bar.

“Looks like you do to me,” he countered easily and Jensen heard the distinctive cadence in his speech that the Canadian hadn’t manage to lose despite having lived in Maine for a couple of decades. “Nothing but a pair of – ” he started and Jensen’s nostrils immediately flared, alpha pheromones rolling off of him. He wasn’t going to stand for the pair being disparaged, even if they were only passing through.

“You were saying,” Jensen growled, leaning across the bar with his broad shoulders to glare at the other alpha.

Callum shifted uneasily where he sat. “Doesn’t look like you’ve got more than a pair of flatlanders,” he finally spat out, “so I don’t see what your hurry is.”

Jensen leaned back, pleased that Callum hadn’t made things any uglier than he already had. “Listen to you,” Jensen chuckled mirthlessly, “talking like a native.”

“Been here longer than you,” Ben piped up.

“True enough,” Jensen drawled, “but that don’t make you any more of a Downeaster than it does me. You know how it goes. If you aren’t born here, you’re not a Mainer. I think you two qualify for the illustrious title of ‘From Away’, same as me.”

“Whatever,” Ben groused. “I came here to catch a buzz on. Now, are you going to oblige us or not?”

“You boys planning on driving anywhere today?” Jensen asked. He took his job seriously and while he might sell alcohol, he did his best to be responsible about it. “Not going out on the water, are you?”

Not that it would be much of a loss, he thought to himself.

“No, Jensen,” Callum snapped. Staring at him, he gave Jensen a mean grin. “You identifying as omega these days with all the mothering? Is it catching here now?” Ben knocked his shoulder against Callum’s and they laughed at their stupid joke. Jensen was glad Kim wasn’t around to hear their nasty, transgender digs.

“You’re lucky I’m not an omega,” Jensen shot back and from the corner of his eye, he caught Jamie’s mother turning in his direction, “because if I was, I probably wouldn't put up with you two at all.”

“Like an omega could do anything,” Callum scoffed. “We’re alphas.”

Jensen knew there was no way to end this amiably; he made the decision to redirect and retreat since it would spare the two in the booth any more of the alphas’ malicious rumblings. He pulled out a couple of shot glasses and held up a bottle of Jägermeister.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Ben grinned as Jensen poured them each a serving before grabbing a pair of King Titus porters. Jensen got them settled and then casually went to check on his diners.

He was sad to note that the little family’s spirited conversation had all but died since the alphas had blustered in. Jamie was sitting demurely in her seat and her mother hadn’t regained his former posture. Whatever hopes Jensen had of them returning died then and there. But he pasted on a cheerful face and clapped his hands together.

“Can I tempt either of you with some dessert?”

Jamie didn’t lift up her head. Her mother shook his ruefully, giving Jensen a tantalizing glimpse at the taut skin of his neck, and asked, “Could we have the check please?”

Jensen was disappointed but not surprised. The young man probably felt trapped, what with three alphas (two openly prejudiced) in the place with his daughter. Without meaning to check, Jensen hadn’t missed the lack of a mating bite on the omega’s neck when he had asked for the bill. Given the young man’s hesitancy around Jensen, he figured there would be even less of a chance of a ring on his finger. When he handed over the bill, Jensen only saw bare skin on his long, slender fingers. He was sure the two were on their own.

“I’m just gonna wrap up your leftovers,” he offered as Jamie’s mother reached for his wallet. “You two might want to snack in the car later.” The omega furrowed his brow when Jensen suggested that and he didn’t miss how much the look resembled his daughter when told she had to have milk to drink. Jensen gathered up their dishes and took them back into the kitchen. DJ was getting the food prep area ready for the evening customers, who tended to mostly crave fried snacks with their brews. Jensen snapped together two, waxy takeout boxes and took care of their food. And if he added another rib sandwich to the guy’s box and topped up Jamie’s fries in hers, no one was the wiser.

Jensen sat the white boxes down on their table. Jamie was wiggling around in her seat, ready to leave. Rather than make the same mistake twice, Jensen grabbed the table, lifted it up and moved it back a foot. That gave her mother enough room to easily get her out of the booster seat himself and set her on the floor. The omega flashed him a rare smile and Jensen knew he was definitely screwed when he thought seeing it was like watching the sun coming out from behind a cloud bank.

Jamie brushed her hair out of her eyes and looked up at Jensen. “You’re not as tall as Mommy,” she remarked matter-of-factly while Jensen was sliding the table back into place. She crooked her finger and motioned him closer and he obliged by leaning down. “But you’re a better cook than he is,” she whispered loudly. From behind him, he didn’t miss Ben and Callum cackling about “mommy”.

“I wish I could take all the credit,” Jensen said with enough volume to drown out the idiots’ voices, “but I have a helper in the kitchen. I’ll bet if your mommy had the same one, you’d think his cooking was just as good.”

“Hmm,” she said thoughtfully, tapping her finger against her pointed chin. Jensen chuckled and handed the boxes to her mother. The omega’s smile fluttered briefly when he must have noticed the containers were heavier than expected. He flipped his head in an effort to get his bangs out of his eyes and Jensen was once again struck by how similar he was to his daughter. Marginally more successful at clearing away his hair than she was, he studied Jensen with a mixture of curiosity and something Jensen couldn’t name. It did give Jensen the opportunity to actually see his eyes and they were mesmerizing. Not just green or blue like he had first thought, they also had splashes of gold in them. They reminded Jensen of the sea.

“Thank you,” he murmured to Jensen, raising the boxes slightly. If he hadn’t been standing right beside him, Jensen didn’t think he would have heard him. The omega was clearly trying not to draw any unnecessary attention to himself or his child.  He held out his hand and Jamie readily grasped it, her little fingers disappearing in her mother’s protective hold. Jensen decided to see them out, given how uncomfortable the young man was. He stayed on the side closest to the bar and walked them to the door. Swinging it open, Jensen forgot himself as he placed his other hand on the small of the omega’s back, guiding him outside.

Jensen blinked at the afternoon light. That was his only regret with their pub – there weren’t enough windows to let in the natural light. Working mostly evenings, he tended to forget about that. Realizing where he had placed his hand, he was embarrassed by his forwardness and he yanked it back, using it to shield his eyes instead.

“Beautiful day for a drive,” he remarked clumsily, still shocked at himself.

“Yeah,” Jamie’s mother agreed without conviction, apparently as startled by the unsolicited contact as Jensen was.

“You have spots!” Jamie declared, tickled with her discovery.

“Jamie Lillian,” the omega corrected her, “what have I told you about thinking before you say something?”

“Sorry, Mommy,” she apologized, before adding, “but he does.”

While Jensen certainly didn’t want to undermine her mother, he hated the thought that her mother lived in a world where he had to teach his child to be so very careful. Realizing he was crossing a line, he still said, “You’re sure right about that. I’m covered in freckles.”

Sensing she had an ally, Jamie pronounced, “My spots are bigger than yours, but I don’t have many.”

“No?” he wondered.

She whipped her head back and forth. “Nope. I’ve just got the one here,” she pointed to the side of her nose, “like Mommy.”

And Jensen hadn’t missed the few moles scattered over the younger man’s face, since he found them attractive.

“But he’s got them on his body, too,” she added helpfully.

“Jamie,” the omega hissed, but his whole face had grown crimson.

Jamie’s reveal affected Jensen almost the same way. He felt his cheeks getting hot as he tried really hard not to picture where else her mother might have beauty marks on him.

“Wow,” Jamie breathed. “I can really see your spots now.”

Jensen kind of wanted to crawl under a rock. He’d always hated his freckles, having been teased about them relentlessly as a child and as an adult. And when he blushed, they only stood out more. He was vaguely aware of the omega trying to hustle her away, but Jamie was rooted to the spot.

“I like them a lot,” she declared. “They’re really pretty. Don’t you think so, Mommy?” she asked, turning to her mother for confirmation.

The omega was beet red at this point. “I think they’re very nice,” he mumbled, not meeting Jensen’s eye. At least he hadn’t laughed at Jensen. That was something, he consoled himself. An alpha covered in freckles like a little kid.

Jamie nodded, curls bouncing as she did. “Me, too. They make you different,” she told Jensen seriously. “And different is good. Mommy says we’re all different, but that only means we’re all special. Not better and not worse than anybody else. U-something. What was that word again?”

 “Unique,” he repeated for her and, despite his clear embarrassment, her mother smiled fondly at his daughter. “That’s right, baby. None of us are better or worse for the ways we’re different from each other. It’s just the way we’re made.”

“Unique,” Jamie repeated and then sighed like she had over the milk. “So many words,” she commiserated with Jensen and he laughed with her.

“So many,” he agreed. “But it looks like you’ve got a mommy who knows them all,” he pointed out.

“He does,” she beamed and swung her mother’s arm. “He can’t cook like you, but he knows all the words.”

Jensen dared to glance at the young omega then. He was still trying to entice his daughter to their car, but he was also peeking at Jensen through the safe cover of his bangs and Jensen wasn’t sure how to interpret the look he was sending his way. He hoped he hadn’t gone too far in indulging the man’s daughter, but he didn’t know. If he scented the air, he’d at least have an idea how the other man felt, but Jensen wouldn’t cross that line with a stranger.

“If you pass by this way again,” he finally said awkwardly, “maybe you might consider stopping in.”

Jamie’s mother did that thing again where he furrowed his brows and a strange pattern of wrinkles appeared between them. Jensen was overcome with the insane urge to rub his thumb there and smooth them away. He kind of held his breath, curious if the other man might offer something in reply.

But whatever he might have said was lost when Jamie tugged insistently on his hand, anxious to cross the street now that they were on the move. Jensen resigned himself to never seeing the family again and raised his hand up, calling out, “Travel safe.”

Nodding to himself, he let the door slam behind him as he re-entered the pub. Ben and Callum were apparently too caught up in their shots and beer to pay much attention to him, which was probably for the best, because there was no way Jensen would tolerate their crap in the mood he was in. The place was rather lifeless with the strangers’ departure and he was all too aware of how dim it had become inside. He walked over to their table and had to sadly smile at the pile of bills and coins the young man had left. He didn’t bother to count it. He trusted that the omega had not only left enough to cover their tab, but had unnecessarily cleaned out his wallet to make sure Jensen had a fair tip. When he pocketed the money, he noticed some writing on the bill that wasn’t his.

Lifting it up, he saw the lettering was in the unsteady hand of a child.

“Thank you, Mister, for the GREAT lunch.” “Great” was underlined twice.

And there was a smiley face at the end as well as a “J2”.

J2?

The little girl’s name was Jamie, but there was no other J in either her middle or last name, so the only conclusion Jensen drew was that her mother’s name began with J as well.

Jay, he thought, picturing the dimples and the sweet, shy smile he’d gotten a glimpse of. It suited him. At least he had a name to remember him by, he mused, tucking the receipt into his own wallet. He wiped down their table with a wistful smile.

*****

Jensen made sure to roust Ben and Callum, both very much with a buzz on, before Kim’s shift was set to start. There was no way he wanted her to have to deal with either of them in the condition they were in. By the time she all but floated into the pub, they were long gone and some of their favorite regulars had already started their evening libations.

Jensen smirked as he folded up his towel. “Somebody’s in a good mood,” he told her as she was tying on her apron.

“Maybe,” she blushed, adding to the already rosy color she had when she entered.

“You two spend some time on the water?” Jensen remarked, noting her color.

“Nope,” Kim answered, adding an annoying pop to the “p”.

Jensen faced the wall and let his head fall with a dull thunk against it. “I do not need to know,” he moaned. And he really didn’t want to hear about her sexual antics today of all days.

“If you got yourself a partner,” she whispered as she walked by him, “you wouldn't need to live vicariously through me.”

Jensen groaned and ducked into the kitchen, meaning to disappear up the back stairs to his place. He definitely couldn't handle smug and satisfied Kim after the day he had. But before he could make his getaway, she caught him by their dry goods storeroom.

“Hey, you never said anything about my hair,” she teased, shaking her locks out in front of him.

Jensen placed his hands on his hips and pretended to inspect it. “Definitely not regulation,” he finally admitted.

She slugged him in the bicep, grinning when he winced at the strength behind the gesture. “Not all of us keep it high and tight like you,” she teased. Jensen had to admit, it was still odd to see Kim with hair past her chin, but the cut suited her face.

“The purple is a nice touch,” he conceded.

She fingered the amethyst streaks. “Needed to jazz things up a little.”

“Different is good,” Jensen replied, parroting Jamie’s words from earlier.

“Exactly,” Kim agreed. “But before you go,” she continued, grabbing ahold of Jensen’s arm, “did you hear the news?”

In a town of less than two thousand, there was never much in the way of news. “Must have missed it,” he said, half-eager to make his exit.

To your empty apartment, an annoying voice reminded him. Not a home.

“The old Callahan place sold,” Kim told him breathlessly.

There were very few, new additions to the town. As a matter of fact, she and Jensen were still the most recent arrivals and had barely graduated from “Year Round Summer Folk” to “From Away”, the highest pinnacle anyone not born in Maine could hope to achieve, after five years.

“Huh.”

“Huh?” she groused. “Is that all you have to say when I come bearing the news that our illustrious town’s population has increased by two? That’s like a whole point one percent.”

“Has Briana alerted the media yet or is she leaving that to you?” Jensen teased.

“Ass,” Kim groused, hitting him again.

“Ow. Keep that up and I’m going to have to file a workers’ comp claim, alpha,” he moaned, rubbing his arm.

“Do you want the 4-1-1 or not?”

Jensen knew she was dying to share whatever tidbit Briana must have told her about the newcomers. “Hit me,” he sighed and then twisted away before she could do just that again.

“I guess the Hyde School was finally able to hire a new teacher. English Lit and French, so they can offer that language in addition to Spanish,” she informed him.

“The prep school in Bath?” Jensen was familiar with the place. Touted itself as a very inclusive kind of learning environment. He thought they were a little too earthy crunchy in the way they graded their students with monthly “check in’s”, but it was a decent facility and the only college preparatory school in the county. “Isn’t that mostly a boarding school? Why isn’t the teacher living in one of their dorms?”

Kim shuffled closer, giving DJ a quick smile and a wave when he looked up from the stove. “Apparently, they were afraid their young, impressionable students might not be able to control themselves living in close proximity to an unmated omega,” she said in a low, conspiratorial tone, “especially with a kid. So much for progressive, huh?” she added and didn’t bother to hide her disgust.

An unmated omega with a child. It couldn't be.

“So instead of providing housing, she had to find it on her own?” Jensen asked, using his pronouns very carefully.

“Not ‘she’,” Kim corrected him, “he. Briana swung by yesterday when he and his daughter arrived so that she could welcome him to the town properly. She said he was a nervous fella, but sweet as can be. And she could not stop going on and on about his daughter. Said she was the spitting image of her mother and talked about a mile a minute. And he’s apparently taller than you, which I find hard to believe seeing as you’re almost a giant.”

Jensen mouth dried out. Jamie and Jay. It had to be.

“You didn’t happen to catch their names, did you?” he croaked.

Kim had already started to walk away. “It was definitely a mouthful,” she chuckled, leaning around DJ to steal a fry from a basket of them mixed with fried clams. He squawked at her and slapped away her hands. “Pada-something,” she chewed thoughtfully. “Jared and Jamie Pada-something.”

Jared. Jared Padalecki.

“Whelp, back to the salt mines. Thanks, doll,” she stood on tiptoes, planting a kiss on Jensen’s cheek, “for a wonderful day off. Hope it wasn't too miserable for ya here.” And she grabbed the basket of fried goodies to take to the patron out front.

Half in a daze, Jensen mulled over the bombshell Kim had inadvertently dropped in his lap as he marched up the stairs. It did sort of explain why the omega had given him such an odd look when he left. He probably figured the word was already out about him, seeing how small the town was, and Jensen was giving him the bum’s rush out of the pub with his “have a good trip” and “maybe you’ll come back someday” shtick like it was code for “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out”, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

He flicked on the light when he reached his apartment. It was as neat as a pin, a place for everything and everything in its place. Not for the first time, he wondered what it would be like to come home to someone. Maybe there would be some clutter on the coffee table; a toy or two scattered on the floor. And, most importantly, someone waiting for him who was happy to see him and eager to share his day with Jensen and hear how his had been in turn.

Flopping down onto his oversized, leather couch, Jensen dragged his fingers through his short, light-brown hair. When he pictured someone waiting for him, now all he saw were dimples and wide smiles. He dropped his head back and sighed loudly.

He was so screwed.