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The Will of the Free

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The truth is that you always have a choice. It might not be a good choice. You might not like the options laid out in front of you; hell, you might hate all of them equally. But in the end, you get to pick. It’s that damned free will thing Pastor Jim was always talking about, the thing that differentiates the men from the angels. Angels were God’s first brood, a bunch of holy children who were destined never to choose for themselves, but when God made man, he messed with the programming and gave them all the ability to fuck up any way they wanted. Dean’s been exercising that right day in and day out since before he was old enough to know the difference. Sometimes, he wonders whether it might have been preferable not to have that ugly privilege. Easier, sure. No choice, no struggling with the consequences, because it never could have gone any other way. But he’s not really sure that would have been better. It’s all hypothetical, anyway. Better to wish for a different life. At least that might have happened if he’d been born to a different family, in a different year, or even with some slightly different genetics. But hell, none of that matters, because he is who he is, and he’s only got the one life, and he’s got a whole list of choices, and every once is crappier than the last.

Free will is a length of rope, and God wants you to hang yourself with it.

It doesn’t matter how long he stares at the want ads in the paper. The choices don’t get any more appealing. There are quite a few jobs Dean is quite perfectly capable of, but none of them are good choices to make. A job that is good isn’t necessarily a good job for Dean. For one thing, he needs a job he can start right away, because if he’s gotta wait more than a couple weeks to get paid, the cash he had tucked away for a day as rainy as this one is going to run out, and he can only shark so much pool before someone puts more fists to his face than he can fend off alone. And for another, he needs a job that isn’t gonna ask too many questions about his past, either employment history or personal life, because none of the answers he can give are going to fly with any decent kind of folk. And lastly, (and if you ask Dean’s opinion, this one is the most important), he needs a job that isn’t going to put him in close sniffing range of any particularly aggressive alphas, because bluster and bravado and swagger and a larger build than your average omega will only bluff so far when a good sniff shows his true colors. Regardless of whatever else is at stake, Dean’s pride can’t take another hit like that. Can’t lose another job like that. Dean can’t handle turning tail and running away from another one of those situations, not now, maybe not ever.

Garage is out. He’s more than qualified to do the work, overqualified, really, but the sense-memory of that heavy, musty alpha smell and the attitudes that generally go along with it have him crossing the help wanted ad out before he finishes reading. There’s usually at least one hothead alpha in a place like that. Some stereotypes exist for a reason. It’s just the kind of work that those guys tend to gravitate towards. Guys like that, they don’t care what kind of omega you are, just that you are one, and Dean’s done putting himself in situations where a no needs to be followed up with a threat to be taken seriously. If he punches out every single co-worker who thinks his biology is more important than his opinions, then any sympathy he’s got going for him is gonna run out about as fast as his money does, and then he’s no better off. No, automotive work has too many perils for Dean to take that route, even if he would enjoy the actual work.

If he didn’t have to worry about background checks and references, office work would probably be Dean’s best bet. That’s where you find the most diverse workforces. The air’s such a jumble of alpha, beta, and omega scents, he’d blend in just fine, and any harassment could be dealt with by Human Resources. But “spent the past three years on the road, no fixed address, scamming credit cards and hustling pool" doesn’t really look that great on a resume, so it’s unlikely he’d get an interview.

Come to think of it, that’s going to exclude him from most legitimate work. His best bet is likely going to be finding something less…savory. Something off the books. Something under the table.

The thought is not appealing.

Last time Dean was in a hole-in-the-wall bar, trying to pick the lucky chump who was going to lose all his cash in a game of pool, the guy at the table beside him said he had a pretty mouth. The way his stare slid away from Dean’s eyes to regions due south made it pretty clear what he thought Dean could do with that mouth, if properly motivated, and Dean declined his offer of a drink maybe just a little too fast to avoid drawing attention. The very thought of taking a balding businessman’s cash in exchange for whatever it was he had in mind was enough to turn Dean’s stomach, and even if he wanted the drink he’s not sure he could have kept it down. Sure, there’s great money in that kind of work, and in his travels Dean has met some folks, even some omegas, who have made a decent living at it and not lost a wink of sleep over it. Not Dean though. There’s only room for so many kinds of self-loathing in one man’s brain, and he’ll die before he lets some alpha knot him, especially one he doesn’t know or even like. He’ll fuck betas, gender doesn’t matter, and he’s fooled around with a couple omegas over the years, but he knows it wouldn’t be betas or omegas looking to buy his attention. 

Dejected, Dean throws the newspaper down on the wobbly table in his shitty motel room. His eyes slide to the water stain on the ceiling, trying to decide if it looks more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man or a rodent of unusual size. He settles on the Marshmallow Man, if only because the edges are all kinda squishy and amorphous, but it’s only a temporary distraction. He has a choice to make, and the fact that he doesn’t like any of his options doesn’t make that any less true. Technically speaking, he could choose not to choose, but the consequences there are worse than any of the options he’s identified at this stage of the game. He’s gotta make a choice.

Dean chooses to get drunk.

It’s not a good choice, but it is one that makes him feel less weighed down by the ugliness of his current situation. He throws a beat-up leather jacket on over his red and blue plaid shirt, stuffs his wallet into the pocket of his jeans, and heads out of the motel to track down the liquor store he knows he drove past when he got here a few days ago. It was off to the left, he’s pretty sure of that, but everything else is vague enough not to count for much. Dean sets out on an aimless wander. He’ll find a liquor store eventually.

~*~

The sun has crept below the horizon by the time he’s en route home, bathing the various greys of the urban landscape in dusky light. It’s not a familiar neighborhood, but Dean knows it well enough to let his feet guide him and not think too closely on his chosen path. Really, all neighborhoods are unfamiliar these days. It’s been so long since Dean stayed anywhere long enough to leave a mark, he’s gotten out of the habit of letting places leave a mark on him in return. A few weeks here, a month there. He spent three and a half months in one place about a year back, and that made his skin itch so bad he was worried the decrepit apartment he’d rented, “fully” furnished, had bedbugs or something. But it was just the wanderlust setting in, driving him to put the town behind him and get back to where nobody would be able to recognize him by name or face or, god forbid, scent. As soon as someone starts getting familiar, that’s usually a good sign that Dean has overstayed his welcome.

This time though, Dean wants it to be different. Literally nothing about his experience says there’s any reason to believe it even can be, but he’s so tired, and his body aches for a bit of respite. It doesn’t even have to be permanent, just less temporary. Six months. That’s the goal. Stay somewhere long enough for roots to start forming, and see how he feels about ripping them up. Maybe he won’t even make it that long. Maybe he can’t anymore. But the weariness demands it, and he knows he can’t live out of a duffle bag forever, so he’s got to try.

Tomorrow though, because tonight he’s got a bottle of Jack for company, and Jack gets jealous when he tries to focus on other things. Tonight, it’s sweet oblivion by way of Tennessee sour mash.

Instinctively, Dean knows he’s about two blocks from his motel, but the route he’s taken has put him on a street he’s never been down before. It’s a bit nicer than the part of town Dean’s staying in, the part of town it’s backed right up against, and it feels very, very out of place. There’s a couple of shops with nice window displays behind their plate glass, but Dean can see the roll cages stored away for the day, ready to slam into place any minute now to protect that nice clean glass from people like Dean. A coffee shop, already locked tight and dark except for a lone light fixture, sits on the corner. Not one of those chain deals, just some mom and pop thing, and he bets it’s nectar of the gods compared to the sludge he’s been getting from the gas station since he staggered into town. Maybe when he’s got a few spare bucks, he’ll have to poke his head in, see if it’s any good. After he finds a job.

After.

As he stares in the window of the coffee shop, trying to decide if he could don an apron and sling lattes well enough to keep a job there (on the off chance they even had one to offer), the wind changes and Dean catches a sweet scent, something warm and soothing. He can’t quite put his finger on what it is, but the curiosity instantly becomes more enthralling than the thought of a career as a barista, so he turns on his heel and seeks the source of the smell. Nose in the air, he walks into the wind, catching notes of cinnamon on the breeze.

Without quite knowing what to expect, Dean finds himself standing outside a bakery with a sign above the door proclaiming it Lafitte’s. The neon says it’s closed, but there’s still lights on inside. He can see someone working behind the counter, a veritable bear of a man, but he moves with a lightness that makes Dean curious.

That curiosity turns to intrigue when he notices the help wanted sign in the window.

Nobody even posts those things anymore, do they? Obviously, someone does, because he’s looking at one, but it seems like one of those things that is far too good, too coincidental, to actually be any good. He stares at it, black text on white cardboard, for so long that it wouldn’t be a surprise to find his eyes boring holes in the thing, trying to sort out the mysteries of the universe as they pertain to job applications. He’s almost entirely talked himself out of even asking about the job, you know, tomorrow, when they’re open for business, and nearly ready to turn around and go home, when the lock on the door clicks open. Dean startles, jumping back a few paces before he catches himself, but it’s beyond habit to keep himself out of grabbing distance of strangers at this point. It’s become an instinct. Maybe one day Dean will live a soft enough life to warrant breaking himself of the habit, but he doubts it.

“You lookin’ for work?” asks the man who is too light on his feet for his size, a cap now donning his head and his chef’s jacket exchanged for a navy blue peacoat.

“I don’t know shit about baking,” Dean replies, the exact opposite of what a clever person would say in his shoes.

“Job’s a baker’s assistant,” the man replies in an accent that marks him as Cajun. “Don’t gotta know shit about shit, just do what I tell ya.”

“Then yeah,” Dean replies. “I’m lookin.” There’s still heavy skepticism, and why wouldn’t there be, but it’s the closest thing to a solid lead he’s had since he landed here, so it’s worth pursuing.

“Well I guess we’d better schedule you an interview then.”

“I got nothin’ but free time,” Dean informs him. “Just tell me when.”

The Cajun laughs. “If you and Jack Daniels got nowhere better to be, you come on inside right now and we can have a chat over a slice of pie.”

Dean hesitates. He doesn’t know this guy from a hole in the wall, and he’s easily big enough that Dean doubts his ability to hold his own in a fight. With the way the smells of the bakery waft around and cling to his skin, it’s hard to tell what he is other than big, but with his size it wouldn’t be a stretch to find out he’s an alpha. If Dean’s right about that, he’ll be off the street and inside the bakery before he knows for sure, and by then it’ll be too late. The Cajun eyes him almost as warily for a moment, but something changes and his expression softens into a broad grin.

“Well hell, where are my manners?” He extends a hand in greeting, his smile and tone warm enough that Dean finds them disarming. “Name’s Benjamin Lafitte. You can call me Benny.”

“Dean Winchester,” he replies, shaking Benny’s massive hand. Benny’s grip is as strong as the rest of him looks, but rather than frightening Dean, it puts him at ease. He’s at a loss for why until he notices it, the smell of cinnamon and apples tickling his nose without a hint of anything sinister hiding behind it. If he breathes deeply, he can pick out just a slight note of old leather, but nothing else. Nothing alpha.

“Wouldn’t have pegged you for omega,” Benny says, leading him inside, “but you smell like you’re scared enough to bolt and all I done is be bigger’n you, and I don’t even have an alpha nose to pick up on that, so I’m betting I’m not the only one who misread the situation.”

“That obvious huh?” Dean mutters, shrugging out of his jacket. He hasn’t had a lot of proper job interviews in his life but he’s betting that wearing flannel and asking pointed questions about someone’s gender designation are both entirely off the table in polite circles.

“Just a bit.” Benny laughs though, and it’s not unkind, so Dean tries to be less self-conscious about it. “Tell you what. I’ll grab some pie and a couple of glasses, and we can just have a chat over food and drink like folks used to, and we’ll see what’s what.” Dean nods assent, grabbing a chair at one of the little tables in the open part of the bakery, and waits for Benny to return.

The place is impeccably clean but also entirely boring. It’s decorated in soft blues and eggshell white, the tables and chairs wrought iron like you’d see on some rich asshole’s patio, and not much else. With a name like Lafitte’s Dean was expecting some stuffy Parisian bakery with French pastries his uncultured tongue could neither pronounce of nor properly appreciate the complex flavors of, but that just means he’s oh for two on assumptions about Benny so far.

“Sorry the chairs ain’t that comfy,” Benny offers when he returns. There’s a pair of short glasses in one hand, a few cubes of ice in each, and a plate with two slices of pie in the other. He sets the glasses down on the table and pulls a second plate out from under the first, then pushes one of the slices onto it with a fork, offering it to Dean. Dean mumbles appreciation and twists the cap off the bottle of Jack, pouring a careful measure into each glass, not entirely enthused about giving his potential future employer any ideas about his drinking habits.

“They’re fine,” Dean assures him.

“Well then,” Benny says, taking one of the glasses and sniffing the liquor, “why don’t you go ahead and tell me a bit about yourself.”

“I uh,” Dean starts, pausing to clear the frog in his throat. Where to begin? What does he even have to say for himself? . Best to just speak carefully and not volunteer too much. “I mostly work with my hands. Labor, you know? Done mechanical work, construction. Stuff like that. Never really done much baking but I do appreciate a good pie.”

“I didn’t ask you about your work,” Benny says gently before Dean can continue. “Mostly I’m interested in who you are, brother.”

This is unlike any job interview Dean has ever had. “Not much to tell,” Dean says, and they both know it’s a lie.

“Humour me,” Benny presses, and despite the fact that he’s volunteered no information whatsoever, the welcoming smile on Benny’s face gives Dean the impression that he’s doing alright here. Rather than trying to analyze how that could possibly be, Dean takes a sip of his drink and gives it a shot.

“Been through a rough patch over the last couple of years. Nothing particularly exciting, just life throwing lemons, but it’s hit me hard. What I got right now is pretty much my car, a duffel bag, and a give ‘em hell attitude. Not a great place to be, but I’m above ground, and that ain’t half bad.” It’s a pitiful attempt at sounding positive, and it’s a spin he doesn’t really feel, but it’s a whole lot more palatable than I’ve got nothing to live for except for the fact that I don’t actually want to be dead.

“Where’s home?” Benny asks, pushing the pie at Dean across the table. Does he look like he needs to be fed or something? He’s not trying to throw together a pity party here, and he sure as hell doesn’t want Benny thinking he’s worse off than he actually is. Dean takes a bite of the pie, still warm, and hums happily at the sweet explosion of cinnamon on his tongue, the tender apples, the perfectly flaky crust.

“Kansas, originally,” Dean replies when he’s done chewing. “But I haven’t been back there in years and I have no plans on going back any time soon. Nothing there for me now.”

“And how long are you here for? You sound like a guy without much in the way of roots.”

“You’re not wrong,” Dean tells him, wary but honest. “I don’t know how long I’m here for, but I want it to be long enough to matter. Find something worth doing, maybe put some roots down. I don’t know. I’m tired of drifting.” It’s the most he’s opened up to anyone in…hell, he doesn’t know. A long time, anyway.

Benny eats his pie quietly, not asking any more questions, and it unsettles Dean. Maybe that was the wrong answer. Maybe honesty was the wrong course of action. Dean tries to think of something clever or useful to say, but he can’t get enough of a read on the big guy to figure it out, so he stops trying and eats his pie. At least if he doesn’t get a job out of this, he can say he got some pie. And really, apples and cinnamon pair pretty well with a glass of whiskey, so what’s he got to complain about?

Forks clatter on plates as they finish eating, and Dean’s about to apologize for wasting Benny’s time when the man smiles at him, reaching a hand across the table.

“We’re closed on Monday, so you show up at eight and I’ll show you the ropes. It ain’t easy work, and on days the bakery’s open I’m gonna need you here at ungodly hours to get shit baked, but I got a good feelin’ about you, Dean.”

Dean stares at his hand like it’s got three heads, confused for a long moment until the words catch up to him. “You mean, you’re hiring me?”

“That’s the general idea, yeah,” Benny says with a laugh. Dean shakes his hand, still more than a little confused.

“But I don’t…”

“Don’t matter. I know what I’m lookin’ for in an employee, and it ain’t someone who already thinks they know more about baking than I do. I like you, Dean. I don’t know you that well, but I like you, and I think I’m gonna get to know you. So you show up at eight on Monday, and we’ll see how well you can work your way around a kitchen. Get on out of here now, I should be getting home. But I’ll see you Monday.”

“Yes, sir,” Dean replies automatically, more elated than he has any right to be. He doesn’t even know how much Benny’s paying him, but it’s automatically gonna be more than not working is doing for him, and if he gets to eat any of what he bakes, ever, then it will officially be the best job he’s ever had. He grabs his jacket and the bottle of Jack, no longer looking to drink himself into oblivion, and turns for the door.

“Oh, and Dean?”

“Yeah?” Dean replies, turning back around.

“You call me sir again, I’ll smack you so hard your head spins.”

“You got it, Benny,” Dean replies with a grin. Apparently, going out for a drink was the right choice.