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The kid sidles up to the bar, looks up at her through his lashes, and orders a beer in a voice laden with easy charm. She hands him a bottle and calls him "sugar," her own Texas charm turning on of its own accord, but her gut is churning and she's doing a mental double-take. If Meredith didn’t know better, she’d think this was the kid brother Nathan was always talking about; he reminds her so much of him.

Of course he isn’t— the kid's freckled where Nathan was smooth even tan, sandy-haired instead of Nathan's dark brown, bears no resemblance to the photo of the baby’s Uncle Peter that Nathan once showed her—but in the twelve years she's spent tending bar since the fire, different bars, different cities, Meredith's never met a kid who reminds her so much of Nathan. It's in the way he carries himself, settled cocky on the barstool, fingers curling loose around the green glass neck of the bottle. This kid is lonely, but he’d do anything to protect his own. She knows because Nathan was the same way. Fifteen years ago, it made Meredith weak in the knees.

It still does.

It's a slow night, as Wednesdays tend to be, just a couple of guys at the pool table and a small group down at the other end of the bar. The lighting makes the worn wood of the walls and furniture shine golden. Meredith’s working alone. She does and doesn't make a show of wiping down vacant tables and restocking the bowls of peanuts. She deals with the group down at the other end. She gets the kid another beer and props her elbows on the bar in front of him.

"So, uh--"

"Dean."

"So, Dean, what brings you 'round about these parts?"

"Just passin' through." His body language doesn't change but she sees the edge around his eyes, hears the message of back off, I don't want to talk about it loud and clear. Nathan had been different, talked through a few beers about Christmas break with his whole family, visiting his mom's sister with his mom and kid brother, eleven years old, such a good kid, so smart and sweet. Dad coming down next week, closer to Christmas, 'cause he's so busy. And Meredith, renting a tiny apartment, was stricken by the love she saw in this boy, how this boy had a future. Hell, she was barely old enough to be waitressing in a bar let alone bartending, but the owner'd seen the bruises on her arms: she had to get out and tending bar paid better, so there she was. And here she is. Different city, different bar, same story.

"And what about you, uh--"

"Meredith."

"Meredith. He repeats it slow, savoring it, voice pitched lower than Nathan’s but otherwise exactly the same. “Well, Meredith, what's a pretty woman like you doin' workin' in a place like this?"

She feels her mouth tighten reflexively, pursing, pulling down at the corners. Meredith hates that question, even when it's coming from a mouth as pretty as Dean's. Dangerous territory for a situation like this; she's felt Dean eyeing her and she wasn't exactly subtle about eyeing him, either, the pull of his lips around the bottle, his forearm where his flannel sleeve's rolled up. Hell, Meredith's there to listen, not talk. What the hell's she supposed to say? I got pregnant at nineteen, I had a daughter who died, I've just been killing time and now it's all gone?

"Only job where I can smoke when I want." Her half-smile feels forced. She sees Dean read it and switch gears.

“Yeah, I know about that,” he says, launching into some story about… something. The curve of his lips means more than the words they’re forming; the timbre of his voice means more than what it conveys. She watches more than listens; they both know where this is going.

Meredith keeps half an eye on the other patrons of the bar as his story segues into another. She nods and laughs softly at all the right parts. When the group at the other end of the bar flags her, she says “I’ll be right back” in her sultriest voice, looking back over her shoulder at him as she walks down there. It’s been long enough since she felt this way to really appreciate it, but not so long she’s forgotten what to do.

At closing time, Dean’s the only one left in the bar. He waits while she closes up, helps put the chairs up on top of the tables. She locks the door from the outside and when she turns to leave he’s right there, in her space like he belongs. She wonders how she missed the arm braced right by her head, but doesn’t dwell on it. She smiles. “Hello,” she says.

“Hi,” he smiles back, then leans in and kisses her.

It’s soft and he pulls back almost immediately, searching her eyes. “Just checking,” he says, and then kisses her for real. He knows what he’s doing, and when he pulls back again they’re both breathless. “My apartment’s two blocks from here.”

He finds her hand and links their fingers. “Lead the way.”

She knows he’ll be gone in the morning. Nathan was.

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