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No Righteous Path

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An RAA card shows up in the mail. That's sort of what sets the whole thing off at first. Dean Winchester isn't a fucking RAA member. He's not even fucking old enough. He's not even fucking retired . So why is the goddamn Retired Alpha's Association trying to wine and dine him with the offer of a free year of membership? Fuck them. Fuck them all up the ass. He tears up the envelope, throwing the pieces towards the kitchen trashcan. He's only forty. He's... "only" forty. Huffing a humorless laugh, he bends down to grab the scattered pieces that didn't make it into the trash. He's not that old. Just... not entirely young, either. So says his lower back the second he tries to stand up again a little too quickly. Jesus. He braces both hands against the dip of his spine, stretching back. Everything pops. But it relieves the pressure.

His cell phone rings in his back pocket. He digs it out and answers without even checking the caller ID. "Winchester Roofing and Repairs."

"Name still sucks," Sam says cheerfully. "Even after all these years."

"Your face still sucks," Dean answers with a hint of humor. "Even after all these years."

"Happy Birthday, Dean."

Groaning, he says, "you promised never to wish me a happy birthday ever again."

"So, you're forty today." Sam, as usual, is ignoring him.

"Sam."

"The big four-oh."

"Sammy."

"Solid middle age right there."

"Sam, you're a shithead."

There's a noisy sigh that crackles over the phone. "Are you really depressed about turning forty? I mean, seriously?"

"Nah, not really." Yes, really. And he know he sounds it. He yanks open the door to his salvaged, bright red 1960's fridge, taking out a bottle of water. Then he relents a little. "It doesn't feel like the huge milestone everyone makes it out to be."

"That's because the real milestone is fifty. You developing memory loss already?"

"I hate you so much right now."

Sam's laugh is full bodied. Which is easy for him since he's mated and still in his thirties. Dean's never had the pleasure. Or privilege. "I'm sorry. I can't help teasing. You're too easy of a target. You're not gonna fade out on the party right?"

"I will if you keep calling it a party." He kicks back against the glass counter, drumming his fingers on the cold surface.

"Only the usual suspects, I promise. Same as every year. I won't ruin it by making a huge deal out of it, okay? It's your day."

Dean appreciates that. He and Sam can shit talk all they like, but at the end of the day, his little brother has his back. He knows when teasing becomes pushing, and has never once crossed that line. "Yeah, I'm looking forward to it." He is. He doesn't get out enough. Everyone says so, and though he brushes off those sorts of concerns, he's feeling it, too. But the loneliness spiral is really hard to get out of. Even after having the time now.

"Great. I'll see you in a few hours."

"Yeah. See ya." He hangs up and taps his phone against his thigh, contemplative.

Life hasn't been easy, but it hasn't been all that hard, either. After his mom died, Dean and his dad had worked their asses off to save money to send Sam to the best school he could get into. The kid had been a tireless bookworm. Had wanted to be a lawyer since he was a snot nosed neutral-gendered prepubescent. And was so Alpha stubborn and dedicated even then, that he'd made it to Stanford on a full ride. But California was expensive, tuition paid or not. They made it work as best they could without making Sam take time away from his studies and social life to make part time minimum wage somewhere. Then Dean had finished trade school, John Winchester had died, and Dean had doubled down on the family business to support them.

Every second of overtime, and every spare penny went to Sam's college life. Dean hadn't bothered to try dating or having a personal life, aside from scratching the biological itch every now and then. There honestly hadn't been time, considering he'd made his money charging more than the next guy because he was the only one in town willing to work 24/7/365 on emergency calls. It's what he's known for now, and since he's also one of the best, he can't complain about any of it.

Except now Sam's been out of Stanford for a long time. And Dean hasn't been able to fill the possible spare time with anything else. He's got no hobbies, barely any friends, and very low tolerance for boredom. He's not just known as the handyman and roofer who does after hours emergency calls. He's now also known as the one who never says no. That's why he's often the first choice instead of the last resort.

The time's gone now. So much that he's missed out on, plenty he isn't even aware of. He's not bitter about it, but he is a bit regretful. He has a healthy savings, good reputation, spectacular home. But there's no one else here. He hasn't got a pet since he's not around to take care of it. He hasn't decorated much beyond the necessities, since what's the point when he's never home? And... he's never had a mate. He's always scoffed at the questions about his bachelorhood. Blown it off as the least of his worries. Never made a priority of it because most people always say it'll happen when it happens. It's foolish; too romance movie. And it hasn't happened. And it's more depressing than he had anticipated.

He'd taken it for granted in his teens and twenties, of course. There's no rush. Forming bonds takes time, but when you're young and energetic, it seems like time's the one thing you have too much of.

In his thirties, he'd started to feel the twinge whenever he thought about it. Anxiety that it might not ever happen for him. That he's starting to get closer to his ability to mate waning in middle age. But he'd always had an excuse to put it off.

Now he's suddenly waking up graying with an aching back. He blinked and now he's forty.

And today on his birthday, he's standing barefoot in his kitchen angry at the RAA for sending him a retirement letter because he hasn't spent enough time taking the passing of the years seriously. He's alone. He's lonely. And he's never going to find a mate now. He'll never bond. He'll never know what any of that is like. For a brief moment, he lets himself wallow. Then, he chugs the bottle of water and shakes himself out of his funk. Bonding isn't the be-all, end-all. He's a modern alpha. He doesn't need to mate to be happy. If love is in the cards for him, a companion would be enough. Someone else who can't bond, perhaps. Just someone to share the rest of his life with before he blinks and he's on his deathbed. That would be plenty.

***

Books are the most amazing things in the whole entire world. They look good, smell good, never change. They tell the same stories over and over. And even though sometimes there are new things to discover in the old books, they're comforting in their consistency. Castiel Novak likes them the best in the way that they change meaning as he grows older. Old importance fades away to bring backgrounds forward. He loves it. The Hero's Journey, the great romances, the famous characters. Stories live forever and endure when the rest of the world doesn't and won't. He'd known this was his calling since he'd learned about the tragedy of the Library of Alexandria in elementary school. He'd actually cried about it. That had put the nail in his solid life track.

The thought used to be more comforting before he turned forty. Now it's a little ominous.

Or maybe it's the storm outside from the unusually warm weather making him melancholy. His brother insists he's too sensitive to any and all changes. It makes little sense, but also sometimes, like today, lots of sense. He looks up from his annotated Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and squints out the window over his oak desk to the steady rain that's been falling all day. His therapist once mentioned that he had something like Seasonal Affective Disorder, but that's never seemed quite right to him. He does often get depressed during the gloomy months, but he's always been mildly depressed, and a lack of sunshine exacerbates it, and then it snows, and snow makes him happy. The summer is too hot to keep his spirits up all the time, spring kills his allergies, but maybe it's a little bit like that.

Really, it's probably the books. He's teaching Russian literature this semester, and those folks never know how to be cheerful. Glancing at the clock, he realizes he's wasted an entire day with Dostoevsky, save for his brief time in the UK with Carroll now, and that has to stop. He's had worse than Russia, though.

He pushes up from his high-backed desk chair, stretching his arms up over his head. Had he forgotten to eat today? He glances at his desk for clues. There's an empty coffee cup that's left a light brown ring on a stack of printed papers. A small salad plate. Oh, right. He'd eaten breakfast. Two croissants with raspberry preserves. Lunch? Probably not, if he can't remember and there's no mess still left. He digs around the pages and notebooks for his cell phone to order a pizza then remembers that it's after midnight. Maybe the lunch meat hasn't gone bad and he can just make a sandwich. He shuffles out of the office downstairs to the kitchen, yawning, and opens the fridge. Suddenly, it feels like too much trouble to make anything. Bed is the better option. He's weary to his bones.

He'll do better tomorrow. After he has string cheese. And an apple. He pushes himself up onto the granite of the kitchen island and eats his snacks while swinging his feet idly and thinking that he should put himself forward at the university to teach the elective literature course on fairy tales next year.

***

Sucking in a deep breath and pasting on his cheekiest grin, Dean shoves into Sam's house without knocking and storms straight towards the living room. The family's all there. "No one's drowned out there?" he booms with all the good-natured cheer he can muster. "Good to see y'all."

They family's all here, and as they drown him in hugs and firm pats on the back, he does indeed start to feel much more authentic in his humor.

Jody and Donna, Bobby and Ellen, Jo and Sam, Charlie and Gilda; everyone with an "and." At least they've all been together long enough that it doesn't even matter anymore. In fact, Dean can't picture any of them without their "ands." It's comforting, in its own way.

And there's beer. Lots of beer. Bobby at the grill. He's set a tarp up over it, hovering over the burgers in his poncho, like it's nothing. A little rain be damned when there's grilling to be done. Ellen shoving Bobby away from the grill to dry off for a few minutes. Jody shoving Ellen away from the grill because she always lets things burn. Salad. What the fuck? Goddammit, Sam. At his birthday? It's practically a sin. Lettuce. Seriously. What the fuck. But there's also potato salad. Which is a better kind of salad. And Dean might not admit it out loud, but Jo's homemade caesar dressing is the shit .

"You look tired, boy," Ellen says when they're setting the table with the loaded dishes. "You been getting enough sleep since never?"

"I get my four hours," Dean answers. It's the same thing between them every time. It's Ellen's way of asking if he's all right and his way of saying that yes, he is. He usually gets more than four hours these days, though, so it's all good.

"Did you turn your damn phone off?" Bobby grumps as he wanders by with the coleslaw. "No emergency calls ruining your party this year."

Making a whole show of it to please Bobby, since he owes his surrogate father everything after John's death, he takes his cell phone out of his back pocket and turns it off. "See? Totally off."

Sam thumps him on the back hard enough to slosh his beer and make him cough. "Good for you. You're finally growing up."

"Fuck off."

"Language," Jo admonishes, carrying in the grilled hot dogs. Donna is hot on her tail with the burgers a minute later.

During the first part of the dinner, it's the usual rounds of telling Dean he needs to cut down his hours to what a normal person works, has he been seeing anyone lately, would it kill him to buy a new pair of jeans every now and then.

Good stuff.

Then they're all drinking more and laughing more. Dean feels his chest loosen for the first time since probably this time last year. Fuck, he's been lonely. So lonely. And he resents how he only notices it during his birthday. It'll get better. This year will get better. He's forty. He's got nothing else to lose.

The feeling comes and goes until he departs the party near midnight, collapsing into bed the second his clothes are off, snoring softly.

It's like he's only been asleep for a single second when his cell phone rings on the nightstand. He'd remembered to turn it on, and he really shouldn't have. But he always remembers and sometimes that sucks. He pats it towards himself and swipes it on. "Winchester Roofing and Repairs, this is Dean Winchester speaking." Luckily he's been saying that same damn thing for twenty years, so it's complete autopilot.

"Yes, hello," a tight, low voice says in a very quick and panicked way, "My name is Castiel Novak. Are you really twenty-four hours? I have a huge emergency! There's water pouring from my ceiling all over my books. I need someone now!"

He says is all so quickly and so loudly that Dean can't quite process it. He's not awake enough to be screamed at. Is he still dreaming? "What?" he mutters into the phone.

"My books!" The attractive voice yells, full-on freaking out now. "Are you, or are you not a twenty-four hour emergency roofing and repair service?! I need help now !"

Dean sits up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "Yeah," he mumbles. "Yeah, I am. Sorry, man. Gimme a second to wake up. Haven't had a late call in ages."

There are a few heaving breaths on the other end of the line, and Dean bites his bottom lip in an effort not to smile at the man obviously trying to calm himself down. "Forgive me. I usually don't yell. But this is very serious. My roof is leaking all over my livelihood."

Dean slips out of the bed, pulling on his jeans one-handed already. "Okay, I'm getting ready right now. Just stay calm and give me the details. Where's the leak?"

"Over my office library."

"Attic?"

"Yes."

Dean sighs, taking a minute to move the phone away and pull his shirt over his head. "That means the leak on the roof is probably pretty significant. Can you text me your address? Where do you live?"

"Peachtree and Pine. In the historic district."

"I know it," Dean assures him, grabbing his socks out of the dresser. "I can be there in fifteen minutes. If you've got a bucket or bowl, put it under the worst of the leak. Towels for the rest."

"Thank you," the man breathes. "I can't thank you enough." He truly sounds it.

Dean grins away his sleepiness. "Get a move on so there's not more water damage. I'll be there soon. Text me the address," he reiterates before hanging up while the man is in the middle of thanking him again. His lower back protests when he bends down to pull his socks on and he groans. "I'm too old for this shit."

***

Castiel does as Winchester asked and drapes towels over his shelves as well as he can, though they soak through almost immediately. Not this. Not now. This is the best part of him. It can't be ruined. It'll take a fortune to restore them, if they can even be salvaged at all. Oh, God. He prays fervently that Dean Winchester is a good and fast as he promises. He busies himself removing all the books he can while he waits.

Fifteen minutes later, his doorbell rings. He rushes to the front door and throws it open. There's a rumpled man on his porch holding an armful of blue tarps, and Castiel hopes it's Winchester, because the alternative is that he's letting a burglar into his home. "Please help, quickly," he says, hustling Dean inside, slamming the door, and shoving him towards the library.

"Where's the damn fire," Dean mutters, but allows himself to be pushed where he's needed.

Shit, wow, he's never seen so many books outside of a library before. And they all look and smell so old. He can suddenly see the emergency. "Okay," he says louder. "Help me with the tarps here. We'll cover the shelves and I'll put some drip pans in the attic." He's mastered the art of talking while he works, so he does just that, unfurling the tarps with a snap and handing one off to Castiel. "Too dangerous to go up on the roof to see how bad it is in the dark, so I'll come back tomorrow and take care of the rest."

"Thank you," Castiel breathes. "Thank you, thank you, thank you." He rushes forward to drape his tarp over the rest of the shelves. Soon enough, his precious collection is safe from further damage and Dean is shaking water off of his arms.

"Where's the access to the attic?" he asks, bending over to pick up the large bucket with several drip pans nested inside of it. Castiel gestures towards the stairs, guiding Dean up to the second floor. "You got any box fans or anything? I forgot mine since I was rushing to get here."

"Oh," Castiel says. "Actually... hmm... yes, I do. I think."

"Good." He reaches over his head to pull on the string and bring the attic's ladder down. It shrieks with rusty protest, and for the millionth time since he's climbed one of these rickety bastards, Dean hopes it doesn't collapse and make him break his neck. "Grab whatever fans you got and set 'em in the library. Dry out the place for the night. I'll bring my dehumidifier tomorrow as well, so you don't get mildew or mold or anything." Then he's up the ladder with the bucket to find the source of the leak.

Castiel remains downstairs, staring up the ladder like a deer in headlights. His initial panic was slapped right off his face the second Dean had reached over his head to pull down the ladder. Initially, he'd been struck dumb by the man's tanned skin and softly defined abs when his t-shirt had ridden up, but when he'd pulled the ladder down, the changing air current had wafted some compelling pheromones right at him. Alpha, definitely. Unmated, certainly. Dizzyingly outdoorsy, perfectly. He smells... nostalgic. Like summer-warm grass and dandelions. Castiel's grandmother used to make dandelion wine ages ago, and the scent of the handyman brought it all back in a heady rush.

"Goodness," Castiel whispers, unable to break his gaze away from the attic access, though Dean's disappeared from view in the dim light of the single bulb up there. Dean. Right. He'd said something about fans. Fans! Of course. To dry out the library. Castiel puffs out a hard breath from his nose to clear away the tempting pheromones, and goes to his bedroom to scrounge in the back of the walk-in closet, where he's almost positive he's got a couple of box fans from when the air conditioner had broken last summer, leaving him in misery for five days before it could be repaired. He hopes they still work.

In the attic, Dean is carefully placing the large bucket below the worst of the leak, and the drip pans around it for the smaller ones. Then he sets to securing the last tarp up on the underside of the roof as flush as possible to hopefully prevent too much more damage since the forecast is calling for heavy rain until mid-morning.

But for the first time ever, he's less focused on the damage than the man who'd been shouting him awake at two in the morning. The omega . He hadn't noticed the pheromones at first in the library, thinking it was all simply the rustic scent of the place. But then they'd moved into the narrow hallway, and Castiel had stood close while he'd pulled down the attic access ladder, and... Dean had felt a twinge. The old books and cedar smell had been coming from Castiel. Stirring him with some kind of sense memory of a library he doesn't really recall, too-sweet coffee, and reading off quiz questions he couldn't even begin to understand about everything under the sun to Sam while the kid studied his ass off for the SAT's. It had been the happiest summer of his life, helping his little brother. Seeing firsthand how smart he was. How easily he was gonna get to Stanford and become a big shot lawyer.

That's what Castiel smells like. Knowledge and books and an underlying... something . Unmated and maybe even alone. Probably alone. Just like Dean. He hadn't smelled even the faintest hint of anyone else in his rush through the house, and Dean's been blessed with a freaking spider sense for pheromones. He knows just from the slight whiff that Castiel is single and hasn't lived with anyone for at least a month or two in this beautiful historic house. The realization stirs him. Castiel doesn't have an "and." He shouldn't feel happy about that. No, he's not. It's only... It makes him feel less lonely and alone in the world. That ain't nothing.

Castiel's voice floats up, breaking him out of his reverie a few minutes later. "Mr. Winchester? Do you have enough drip pans? I have other buckets. How bad is it?"

Dean breathes in deeply like he always needs to in order to steel himself to smile, but it somehow feels a little easier this time. He leans towards the opening and pokes his head out to find Castiel holding onto the bottom of the ladder and staring up. Dean's breath punches out of his lungs. He should have paid more attention before because this omega smells like home and looks like a dream. Wide blue eyes, framed by laugh lines and heavy lids. A firm, muscular build for such a self-proclaimed bookworm, dark brown hair, and of course the melodious voice.

"You were right to call me, man. It's a mess. You definitely need my services. It looks like the roof's been building up to a waterfall for some time. There's a lot of old water damage up here."

Castiel leans forward and taps his forehead against the ladder, slumping his shoulders. "I never noticed."

"We haven't had a lot of rain lately," Dean says reasonably. "And since you've got an attic, you may not have noticed until now, anyway. But I can fix it, so don't worry. I've done what I can do for tonight, though."

"I appreciate it."

Dean shrugs. "Coming down, now." He swings his legs over the gap to the stairs. Castiel is standing closer than necessary once he hits the floor, and Dean tries his best not to look, hearing a short intake of breath. Is... the guy's scenting him? He almost fails to suppress a shiver. Reminds himself to be professional.

Then Castiel steps away, which is a relief and a bummer. "I'm very sorry to have called you out so late. Yelled at you, too." He watches Dean close the attic, then leads him back to the library to process the damage.

Dean arranges the fans in the best places for maximum airflow. Afterwards, he helps Castiel carry the soaked towels to the laundry room. "It's not a problem. I'm not as young as I used to be, so waking up's a little harder, but I don't mind helping people like you who get in a bind. Emergencies don't just happen during business hours." He winces at how much he sounds like his father.

Castiel smiles, though. "That's very understanding and professional. Thank you. Should I pay you for your services tonight, or wait until the job is completed?"

Trailing Castiel to the front door, Dean says, "I'll make you an estimate tomorrow. You can pay in installments during each stage of the repairs, or wait until a final bill. Either way works for me."

"That will work nicely." He reaches around Dean and opens the door. "Tomorrow is Saturday. Are you sure you want to work on the weekend?"

"Haven't got much else to do," Dean admits. "Don't worry about it. First thing we'll have to do is dry everything up and make sure there's no lasting damage to your library and the ceiling. Then I'll assess the attic. Pick up the supplies. If we can get the roof covered properly, I'll take off Sunday and be back Monday, early. What time works for you tomorrow?"

"I'm usually done with my morning run and ready by nine. Is that too late?"

"Nah," Dean assures him with an easy, professional smile. "Don't mind sleeping in a little."

Castiel holds out his hand. Dean shakes it firmly, thrilling at the small jolt of electricity up his arm. "See you tomorrow, Mr. Novak."

"Castiel, please," he corrects. "See you tomorrow Mr. Winchester."

He gives in to the impulse to give the omega a flirty wink. "Dean."

"Dean." His name sounds like a warm smile in Castiel's mouth.

On his way back to the car, Dean wonders how it is he doesn't mind being up at 2:30 am, in the middle of a thunderstorm. He can't wait to keep figuring it out.