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Taking Wing

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Dean rolls his shoulders and spreads his arms, the membrane of his wings stretching under them. He flexes his claws in the branch and lets go, dropping like a stone and gliding out of the fall the moment his wings snap out. The sky is dark with storm clouds and the wind carries the scent of distant rain. He’s going to have to catch his dinner quickly and head back to his family before the rain gets here, or he’ll have a hell of a time finding his way back.

This is new territory; an unfamiliar forest, and his family is only stopping here for a few days (probably not even a whole week) on their migration. They’ve been worked their way south for more than a month now, stopping at one or two places a week. Now they’re following a different route back home to the north, always stopping in places like this. Human campgrounds are a great place to find food. Mosquitoes are attracted by all the bodies; the lights bring fat, juicy moths; and their garbage is nirvana to flies and beetles. It’s a great buffet.

But Dean prefers the hunt. He likes twisting and curving over branches, toes grazing the leaves. There’s a hell of a thrill with chasing down fast flying insects. And the earlier he hunts, the less competition he has. It’s too early in the evening for other bats to be up and about right now. Which means Dean has the whole forest to himself to hunt before he heads back to his family to roost through the coming storm.

It’s a little disappointing that he won’t have the chance to run into any bats tonight. His family arrived earlier today and they’re only planning on staying a handful of days before moving on. Dean always looks forward to when they stop. Getting to meet other bats is fun and he doesn’t often get to have that chance. This is his first migration, after all, but he’s old enough to have gone through two mating seasons - both of which were spent alone in a private roost.

Dean isn’t embarrassed that he’s a mature bat without actual experience. It’s not exactly something that comes up in conversation when he bumps into forest bats. They’re more intrigued by his clothing choices to ask and they don’t really have the time for much talking when they’re hunting. Besides, Dean prefers spending the night with his family. He hunts just before sunset and just after sunrise. There’s less competition from other bats then.

Except that tonight’s hunt is kind of really sucking the big one. The winds for the coming storm are keeping most bugs in their hidey holes. He’s not full enough yet and he’s had to go farther from his family than he normally would to get what little he has. Dean barks out a bolt of sound, ears twitching to catch the echoes that come bouncing back to him. The silvery blur of a beetle blazes across his mind’s eye and Dean grins. Dinner.

It’s fast, but Dean is faster. He drops in on it from above and flips his legs forward, kicking it hard enough to send it spiraling. Dean falls after it, closing his claws around its shell and tearing through its wings. A branch makes the perfect landing place for him to sit and fold over to crack the beetle in half with his fangs, devouring everything before taking off again. With another bug like that, he should be set for the rest of the night.

His craving for the whispery feel of moth wings might be the entire reason he thinks it’s a good idea to chase one even deeper into the forest. The smell of the rain is getting closer and, somewhere in the back of his mind, he vaguely registers that he should turn around and head back to his family. But the moth is right there, darting left and right in his echo vision. He can’t give it up just yet, not when he can practically taste it.

Dean breaks through the trees and pulls up sharply, twisting to glide along a wall of jagged stones as he follows the moth. He remembers being able to see the cliff face from above his family’s resting place when he had soared above the trees earlier. This is much farther than he should be with the storm approaching so quickly; the wind already picking up and whistling through his ears. Mom and Dad are going to worry and Sam will be upset if he’s not back before the rain. But the moth is teasing him and Dean is not going to let it get away.

Besides, he knows they’re going to be here for a few days at the least. If the rain hits, he can always find a place to roost and wait it out. Dean hates flying in the rain. It messes up his echolocation and it’s annoying to fly with wet wings and clothes. He’d rather not have to sit through Mom’s frowns and those little tsk-ing sounds she always make when she has to dry him off.

Without warning, a large gust of wind sweeps up under him, knocking him head over heels. By the time Dean flaps himself right, the moth is long gone and not even his echoes are bringing its silvery shape back to him. Dean curses under his breath and turns to head back. If he hurries, he might have the chance to snap up a few dozen mosquitoes around the campsites before the rain hits.

That thought scratches itself out of his head the moment the first drop of water hits the membrane of his left wing. It starts slow and Dean ducks back under the cover of the trees for what little good it does him when the downpour kicks in a moment later; like a waterfall crashing into his back and driving him down. His blood starts pounding in his ears and Dean folds them tight to his head to keep the water out, squinting through the rain. Echoes are going to be useless in this and he’s fucked six ways from Sunday if he doesn’t land soon. This isn’t something he can even hope to fly in.

He aims for the dark shadow of a branch but overshoots it by a few inches when a gust of wind levees him up before the rain slams him down again. Dean hisses, gritting his teeth and flapping valiantly to stay up. He’ll be damned if he’s going to land on the ground and spend the entire storm drowning in a puddle. The next branch Dean targets nearly catches him in the stomach as the wind throws him to the side, crushing him against the trunk.

A sharp bolt of pain rips from his elbow to his shoulder, aching across his back. Dean shakes it off, ignoring it and pushing off from the trunk before he’s driven into another branch – or worse yet, the ground. It’s a struggle to keep airborne and there’s no way he’s anywhere near his family. He’s barely even aware of where he is. If he keeps flying, he might just end up getting completely lost. A tree, a tree, he needs a tree that won’t kill him if he tries landing.

A shadow, wider than any tree, rises to the right. The wind and the rain is forcing him towards it, but Dean doesn’t know what it is until he’s close enough to see the sheer rocks forming the cliff wall. Hitting the rocks is going to hurt a hell of a lot worse than the tree did. Dean struggles against the wind and the rain, fighting his way back from the wall. But he’s just a small bat and the weather is against him. What the hell is he supposed to do?

His heart soars when he catches sight of a smudge of black against the wall. It’s an opening in the rock – just a crack in the stone, but if he can get in there, it’ll be better than trying to spend the storm shivering in a rain soaked tree. Dean trims his wings and sucks his belly in, keeping his legs out straight as he aims for the crack. It’s bigger than a branch and the moment Dean slips through, he can barely breathe for how relieved he is.

He throws out echoes, watching them paint a silvery picture in his mind of a short tunnel that twists around a bend in the stone before it opens into a cave. It’s smaller than any cave he’s seen before, barely more than a hollow pocket in the stone – though it is bigger than any roost he’s been in. Dean spreads his wings, flapping and skidding his claws across the floor in an effort to stop, for what little good it does him. He’s going too fast and he’s lucky he doesn’t end up flipping forward onto his face. Crashing into the back wall isn’t that great either, though that’s at least partly cushioned by piles of woven grass baskets, bags, and bowls made out of what looks like acorn shells.

The weirdest part of it all is the berries, leaves, and twigs. They tumble out of the baskets, scattering across the floor with every struggling kick Dean makes to try and get himself right side up again. He calls out sound, listening to the echoes and wincing at the mess he’s made. There’s a small fire, nothing but embers at the moment, in a stone lined pit against one wall. All around him, on the walls and hanging from the stalactites, are more bags and herbs drying from braided grass cords.

Dean frowns around the cave, his head spinning as he tries to make sense of what he’s seeing with his eyes and his echoes. The smell doesn’t hit him until he’s already staggered to his feet, claws clicking on the stone floor. It’s the scent of another bat; different than any kind he’s smelled before. It’s not exactly  unpleasant, but it does strike home a realization that turns his stomach inside out. This place belongs to another bat and Dean has pretty much just basically invaded their home.

Fuck. He should get out before this other bat comes back. Maybe he could make it to a tree. He’d rather brave the storm again then piss off some bat that might be bigger and angrier than him. Dean could probably hold his own – he’s rough housed with Sam and Dad, and they’re both bigger than him. But he’s not looking for a fight right now. He just wants a place to stay dry for the rest of the storm.

One step. Dean takes one step before a piece of the ceiling falls in front of him and he damn near swallows his tongue.


 

Castiel enjoys sleeping. His usual roost in his cave is just to the side of his fire pit, tucked behind a stalactite that hides him from the entrance. Since he doesn’t actually have to leave his cave most of the time to get something to eat, he usually likes to sleep in later than the smaller species of bats in this area. The rain had roused him when it first started tonight, but he had no reason to stay awake. There’s plenty of fruit stashed in his cave for him to eat and he did stay up rather late that morning, so he doesn’t feel too bad about returning to sleep.

That makes him all the more annoyed when an unexpected loud crash below wakes him soon after. His heart thrums almost violently in his chest and irritation spreads thick through his head, pushing away the haze of sleep. Someone is in his home and even worse, they’ve woken him. Castiel is unhappy from the moment he rolls his shoulders and parts his wings from around his head.

With a few steps, he’s able to peek around the stalactite and see what’s making so much noise. His exasperation doubles with what he sees. How could such a small bat (a species he’s never seen before, at that) make such a big mess? It’s standing in the middle of what used to be a neatly organized pile of baskets full of fruits and medicinal ingredients. This little intruder looks like he’s fully grown, but he keeps throwing echoes out and they’re wreaking havoc with Castiel’s own as he tries to take in the whole mess below him.

The bat stumbles out of the mess, kicking fruit and scattering baskets. Castiel growls and crawls out from behind the stalactite. He kicks off from the ceiling and spreads his wings in a stretch, flipping in midair to land feet first in front of the bat. Part way through the growl, a yawn hits him and Castiel doesn’t bother smothering it or stopping his stretch, the tips of his wings just shy of touching the walls.

He squints at the bat as he loses his footing and drops onto his tail, staring at him with wide eyes and an open mouth, his wings drawn in tight. Clearly he’s scared and Castiel feels that it’s justified. This is his home and the bat has entered it uninvited and made a mess of things. Serves him right.

Castiel folds his wings and scratches absently at his chest with one thumb while he glares down at the intruder. Now that he’s closer, Castiel can see the tear in the membrane of the little bat’s right wing between his third and fourth fingers, and there’s swelling around the joint at his elbow. He’s hurt – maybe from the storm, maybe from crashing into the cave. The idiot should have been more careful.

The pulse of another’s echolocation washes over him and Castiel rolls his eyes, another yawn cracking his jaw. Mid-yawn, the little bat screeches. It’s a loud, piercing, scared cry and Castiel winces, his own startled screech punching out of him before he can snap his jaw shut. The intruder’s ears flatten against his hair and he gives another loud scream, as if that will do any good with keeping Castiel from approaching.

Castiel shivers and paws at his ears with the fold of his wings, thumbs scraping over them in annoyance. “Shut up you noisy idiot.” He snaps his wing out at the younger bat, hoping to startle him silent. “Some of us were sleeping.”

The bat shudders and flares his wings, trying to look bigger. “What the hell are you?”

“A bat, obviously.”

“Bigger than any bat I’ve ever seen.”

He rolls his eyes and crouches to be on the other bat’s level. “I’m called a flying fox. What are you?”

“Canyon bat.” He shifts and draws his legs up to his chest, pulling away from Castiel. “My family migrated south for a little while and now we’re heading back north for the rest of the year.”

That doesn’t make any sense. Castiel is far enough south that he doesn’t need to migrate, but he knows that the northern bats and birds don’t stay there. They fly south during the winter months. What this little bat just said is the exact opposite of what most species do. Either his entire colony is incredibly stupid, or he’s much more interesting than what meets the eye.

“How nice for you. But that doesn’t explain what you’re doing in my home.”

Wincing, the little bat glances over Castiel’s shoulder toward the front of the cave. “The storm – um – well, it was kind of beating the shit out of me. I was just looking for someplace to wait it out. I didn’t know that it was just this little cave inside.” He gets to his feet and wobbles slightly. “Sorry for bothering you. I’ll be on my way and roost in a tree or something.”

“You’re not going anywhere with that wing.” Castiel frowns and stands too, spreading one wing to cut the bat off from the entrance. As much as he prefers his solitude (he ignores the stab of pain behind his ribs when he thinks about why), he can’t let this little bat try flying with his wounded wing. “Flying will only make it worse.”

The bat frowns at him, eyebrows pinching in confusion. He unfolds his right arm and spreads his fingers, eyeing the membrane and his elbow. “Well, fuck me. I didn’t even notice that. It must have happened when I was thrown into that tree.”

“Sit.” Castiel points with the tip of his wing to a place by the fire pit.

He stares at Castiel for a moment, looking like he wants to object. Castiel expects him to say something but all he does is edge around him, wings curled to his chest. While the bat makes himself comfortable, sitting with his legs crossed and his arm held out to inspect the severity of his wounds, Castiel finds his bundles of grass in the mess he made. He grabs a twig from a stash propped against the wall and breaks it in half before throwing it into the fire. The coals react better to the blades of grass he feeds them, eating away at the stalks until a small flame is flickering around the dry wood. It keeps the cave warm against the damp chill of the storm outside.

As he moves around the cave, picking through the mess the bat made, Castiel is acutely aware of his stare. It’s a weight against his back and he does his best to ignore it, grumbling as he half-heartedly sorts the mess while he looks for the berries and leaves he can use to mix into a healing salve. His ears twitch at the rustling sound of movement and he looks back at the little bat sharply.

“Stay there.”

“I was gonna help you clean up.”

“You’ve done enough.” Castiel waves his arm to silence him as he puts the berries and leaves out of the way and picks up a few hollowed acorns. “I’ve already found what I need. Just lay down and spread out your wing. I’ll be back with water in a moment.”

The rain is heavier than he first thought and it takes a few tries to fill the acorns without completely losing them over the lip of the crack in the stone. He brings the water back to the little bat, who hasn’t moved, though he’s still sitting instead of lying down like Castiel told him to. Apparently this one doesn’t listen so well. It’s the folly of youth. Castiel doesn’t know how old this one is, but he’s most certainly younger than he is.

“I said to lay flat.” He puts the acorns down and frowns at the little bat. “I’m going to clean your wound and I have salves I can make that will help lower the swelling and speed the healing.”

Crinkling his nose, the bat carefully slides down onto his back and spreads his wing out toward the center of the cave. Castiel finds a ball of cotton, one of the few he has left that he traded for with a migrating colony last year, and dips it in the water. He swabs the tear in the membrane and the split in the skin around the little bat’s elbow, cleaning it.

The berries are bitter on his tongue as he chews them, pulping them between his teeth. The moment that he leans over the bat’s arm to dribble it between his lips over the wounds, the little bat recoils with a hiss, his ears flattening to his skull.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Castiel frowns and spits the berry juice into an empty acorn, rubbing an arm across his mouth before he speaks. “Is there a problem?”

“You’re going to spit all over my wound? That’s gross, dude.” His nose crinkles and he shakes his head. “Can’t you just, I dunno, grind it up instead of chewing it?”

“Yes, but chewing is faster and easier.” He sighs and pulls over another empty acorn, dumping a few berries into it while he looks for a rock to use. “But if it grosses you out, I’ll do it this way.”

The little bat does relax a little, but he still watches Castiel warily. “It’s nothing personal, okay? We just met and you didn’t even buy me dinner first.”

“No, it’s understandable.” He bites out with a shrug, ignoring the part of what he said that confuses him. “You don’t want a strange bat’s saliva on you, despite how you’re perfectly comfortable with making a mess of his private roost.” Castiel gives him a flat look as he starts crushing the berries with the rock a little more viciously than necessary, grinding them into a paste inside the acorn.

He ducks his head and his ears flatten again. “Sorry about that.”

When he’s done, Castiel turns back to the little bat to find him licking at the rip in his membrane and the blood beading from a cut on his elbow. He flicks him with the tip of his wing. “Stop that.”

“But it’s what you do with wounds.”

The frustrated huff goes ignored and Castiel hooks his thumb around the edge of the little bat’s wing to pull it flat again. He uses a leaf to spread the paste, folding the same leaf over everything to seal it in place. It’s a slow process but the little bat doesn’t squirm, even when Castiel knows that the berries should be stinging at least a little bit.

A few times while applying the paste, Castiel can’t help glancing over at the little bat – and specifically at his clothes. He’s only ever seen bats wearing bibs and loincloths made of leaves and held together with braided grass or strips of bark. But this little bat is wearing cloth. It covers part of his legs, tucking under and around his tail before going up his back and hooking over his shoulders to attach to a bib. It looks like it’s one solid piece and he’s never seen anything like it before. Castiel supposes that if this little bat lives in the north during the winter, than cloth clothing would provide more warmth to him than leaves – but it’s still very different.

“Are you done?” The little bat twists onto his side to look Castiel in the eye. “Am I allowed to move? I mean, I could help you clean up or I could just – uh – go?”

“You won’t be able to fly with that wing.” Castiel takes the rest of the berry paste to a crack in the floor and uses the last of the water to wash the bowl out. “If you try flying now, you might ruin your wing and cripple yourself.” He doesn’t particularly want the little bat to stay longer, but he can’t send him to what might very well be his death. Castiel can’t do that to another bat. Never again.

The little bat has curled in on himself again when Castiel turns back to him. “How do I know you’re not saying that just to keep me around so you can eat me?”

His lip curls in disgust. “Don’t be ridiculous. I eat fruit.”

Doubt fills the little bat’s face. “Are you sure? I bet I’m pretty tasty.”

“Do you find me appetizing?” Castiel shoots back, stooping to gather some of the berries in the curves of his wings. “You’re as tempting to me as I am to you.”

“But –”

“If you don’t shut up, I will eat you.” He dumps the berries into one of the baskets and spreads his wings to try and look threatening.

The little bat snaps his jaw shut, but he hunches his shoulders and goes red in the face, a hiss passing between his teeth. Clearly he isn’t used to having other bats be dominant over him. Either that or he’s naturally combative and is like this even with the heads of his colony. He’s not listening to Castiel’s directions either, as annoying as that is. The little bat is sitting upright with his back to the wall instead of keeping his wing spread out on the ground like he’s supposed to. At least that is something that Castiel can understand. He wouldn’t prostrate himself in front of a stranger either.

That’s going to make the following even harder. The ache in the little bat’s wing is going to keep him from sleeping later and Castiel has a mix of berries that will help him sleep. The sooner he drinks it, the sooner he’ll sleep and the faster he’ll heal. It will be weird for the bat to sleep through the night, but it will help his wing and it will keep him from annoying Castiel while he finishes cleaning up.

As he picks out the ingredients he needs for the sleeping juice, the little bat watches him through all of it – even the preparation. He balks the moment Castiel holds the acorn out to him, sniffing at the juice.

“What the hell is that?”

“It will help you sleep.” Castiel puts it next to him and turns back to his baskets. There’s still much to clean and he had them organized perfectly before. It will take a while to put them away and at some point he’ll have to stop to eat. He’s not hungry yet, and there’s an apple wrapped in leaves tucked away in a corner that he can have later.

“I’m not drinking that.”

He shrugs and starts picking through the baskets properly. “Then you can be uncomfortable for the rest of the night.”

True to his prediction, the little bat starts shifting and wincing every time he moves his wing within the hour. He doesn’t say anything and it makes it easier for Castiel to focus on sorting his things, reorganizing the baskets, stacking them, and picking through their contents. The mess is a great excuse to sort through everything and find what needs replacing or what he’s running low on.

Once done, Castiel finds his apple and sits across from the little bat. He pulls the leaves from around it and cradles it to his chest while he eats. It’s going to be a big meal, but he’s hungry and it doesn’t matter to him if he eats the whole thing. It’s better than wasting half of it. The little bat watches him with wide eyes the whole time Castiel chews through the apple, eating around the seeds and setting them aside.

“What do you do with those?”

“I bury them in the forest. Other animals will take them or it will help to grow a new tree one day.” He shrugs and gathers them when he’s finished, depositing them in a bag hanging from the wall. Castiel likes to help the other animals and does what he can for them. He might keep his solitude, but he wants to be useful to others. He’s always liked being useful, but now he’s doing his best to make up for his past mistakes.

Turning back to the little bat, Castiel tries to forget the slice of pain in his chest. He’ll focus on his unwanted guest instead. He still needs Castiel’s help. “What’s your name?”

His ears perk forward and a pulse of sound washes over Castiel as the little bat looks him over again. It’s been hours and he probably should have asked this question before. But it didn’t seem an important thing to ask when he was supposed to be sleeping the pain off instead. The little bat sighs and slumps back against the wall again.

“Dean Winchester. You?”

“Castiel”. He crinkles his nose in thought. “You have a very long name.”

“Winchester is the name of my family.” Dean Winchester shrugs and winces, glancing down at his wing. He rolls his shoulder and lifts his arm, rotating it a few times before Castiel flicks his wing at him to stop.

“You mean Winchester is the name of your colony?”

Dean Winchester’s head bounces in a nod. “Yeah, I guess.” He chews his lip for a moment, glancing at the acorn full of the sleeping juice. “How long will I sleep if I drink that?”

“It varies.” Castiel shrugs and adds a few more blades of grass to the fire. He turns his ears, listening to the sound of the rain. “The storm is still going. You would be better off sleeping through it and giving your wing the rest it needs before you can even attempt flying.”

“Promise you won’t eat me?”

He snorts and picks up the acorn, handing it to him. “I promise. Get some sleep, Dean Winchester. I’ll try and wake you after the storm is over.”

Dean Winchester knuckles his eyes and does nothing to muffle a yawn. “It’s Dean. Just call me Dean. The whole thing isn’t necessary, y’know?”

Castiel tilts his head, squinting at him in thought until Dean falls asleep. He’s curled on his side with his wing spread out, shivering slightly. Castiel builds up the fire a little more and watches Dean for the first little while, kneeling next to him to adjusts the leaf over the wound and making sure it stays in place. There’s really only one question in his head right now. How long will this weird little bat be staying with him?


 

Dean can smell the sunshine the moment he wakes up. Cas (Castiel is too long and sounds weird) is hanging above him, wings folded up and around his head. Groggily, Dean sits up and yawns. The ache in his elbow is pretty bad and there’s little needles of pain in his shoulder every time that he moves his arm. Even the membrane hurts whenever it folds between his fingers. Sleeping on the stone floor didn’t help much either. Dean feels aches and pains all up and down his back and sides as he gets to his feet.

Shit. How far into the day is it? His family must be killing themselves with worry. Dad is probably gonna be really angry with him. Mom might be crying, and Sam? Oh man, how scared is Sammy that they might have lost him? Dean always comes back. This is the first that he hasn’t and Sammy’s going to be heartbroken if he doesn’t get back before their stay here is over.

He’s pretty sure that they wouldn’t move on without him. But there’s one doubtful little whisper in the back of his head saying that they would if he took too long getting back. Dean is only a very small part of their family. Why would they stick around for just him? There’s a schedule to keep, after all. They have to be back home by a certain time. Dad knows that time, Dean doesn’t. He didn’t need to know it. Now he kind of wishes that he did.

“You’re awake.”

Cursing, Dean damn near jumps right out of his skin. Holy crap, Cas has a deep voice for such a small creature. Granted, he’s bigger than Dean is. But still. Cas drops from the ceiling, flipping neatly in the air and landing next to Dean. He doesn’t say much, just gestures for Dean to spread his wing so he can carefully peel the leaf off of it. The paste feels dry and itchy and Cas slaps his wing away when he reaches to touch it. Nothing looks all that different to him, but Cas seems satisfied by it.

Dean muffles a yawn and stretches. “How long was I sleeping?”

“You slept most of the day. It’s almost evening.” Cas shrugs and pokes at his elbow with his thumb. “You won’t be able to fly, but try folding your wing.”

He bares his fangs at Cas for the poke. It hurt. Dean folds his wing to his side, but he can’t do it properly. It’s too swollen to bend the way it’s supposed too. He bites back the urge to swear, teeth digging into his bottom lip when pain flares up his arm. Maybe Cas is wrong. Maybe he can fly, but only for short distances? He’s really hungry and flying is just about the only way he can get a decent meal.

Ignoring Cas’s warning, Dean spreads his wings and jumps. He manages to flap a few times before the pain is way too much for him to handle and he drops to the ground. Good thing he wasn’t very high. Nope. Cas was right; there’s no way Dean can fly with this wing. Flying might be out of the question, but Dean can definitely walk and he’s sick of sitting. The cave may not be that big, but it’s plenty of room to stretch his legs.

“You’re an idiot.” Cas huffs, building up the fire again. “I told you that you wouldn’t be able to fly.”

“Well I had to see for myself, didn’t I?” Dean grumbles, pacing back and forth across the cave. “Now I’m going to be hungry until I can actually fly again.”

“I have fruit.” He looks up to see Cas opening one of his baskets and holding out an honest to God berry. “Would you like one?”

His nose crinkles and Dean flicks one of his ears. “I don’t eat fruit.”

Now Cas’s nose crinkles. “I figured you were a bug eater, but I had to be sure.” He rolls his eyes and turns away. “And you called my potion disgusting.”

Dean snorts a laugh and follows Cas as he moves around the cave. “You were going to spit up berry juice on my bleeding wing. How is that not disgusting?”

Cas hisses at him over his shoulder, the membrane of his wings fluttering and his arms twitching as if he’s fighting with himself to keep from spreading them. If there’s one thing Dean knows how to do, it’s get under someone’s skin. And he probably shouldn’t be doing that to the guy who’s helping him. Shit, now he feels bad. He ducks his head and mumbles an apology.

For the first time since Dean crashed in here, Cas actually smiles. It’s small and weak, and it kind of makes it look like he’s trying to make a joke, like he’s trying to make up for hissing at him or something. “Heal quickly or you’ll starve. Or worse, your family will leave you behind.”

If that really was supposed to be a joke, Cas officially sucks at it. At least Cas looks like he knows it. His smile falls and he looks about as bad as Dean feels. He glances back to his basket and his ears flip down, flattening enough that Dean gets the distinct feeling that his words hurt him too.

What if it does take him a week to heal? His family might take off before he can even hope to get back. The sinking feeling is his stomach that Cas might be right leaves Dean feeling sick. He doesn’t like that feeling and anger starts to bubble up. Cas doesn’t know his family. He doesn’t know Mom, Dad or Sam. How would he know that they’d leave?

“I’m sorry, Dean.” Cas mumbles, not even looking at him. “I shouldn’t have – I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to lose your family and how horrible it fe-”

A hot burn of anger flares through Dean’s chest and bursts out of him, interrupting Cas. “My family isn’t yours! They wouldn’t do that to me! They wouldn’t leave me behind!” Maybe he’s trying to convince himself of this as much as he’s trying to convince Cas. “What do you know anyways? You’re a stupid loser loner. You eat dumb fruit and you probably couldn’t catch a bug to save your life.” He gestures sharply with his good wing. “I have to actually work for my food and I have a family who loves me, and they’re not going to leave me behind. They’re not.”

It’s more than a little childish, but Dean still stomps back to the corner by the fire. He’s sulking, and he knows Cas can hear his sniffled attempts not to cry. Dean rubs the knuckles of his thumbs into his eyes, ignoring the sounds of Cas moving around the cave. The only time he looks up is when he hears Cas actually leave.

Great. Dean chased him out of his own damn home. That just makes him feel even worse and he wants to curl up and go back to sleep. Better yet, he wants to go back to his family. He wants to go home and curl against Mom’s chest or nuzzle into Sam’s. No, he can’t think about that right now. It’s just going to make him more upset. What he needs to do is find himself a distraction. But the grumbling of his stomach really isn’t helping much.

Wait, no. He can use that as a distraction! It’s true that most of his meals are usually airborne, but there are all sorts of insect species that don’t fly. And a lot of them like the damp cold of a cave. Dean hadn’t thought about that earlier. He places himself in the middle of the crack leading outside and keeps his back to the breeze. A bolt of sound paints the cave in silver in his mind’s eye and, sure enough, he can just barely make out the wiggling form of different bugs crawling in and around the cracks in the stone.

There are even more when he starts flipping rocks over. Anything Dean finds, he eats. Half the fun in eating bugs is in the chase. This isn’t much fun, but he makes a game out of it by seeing how many he can snap up before they scatter. They may not be the usual kind that he eats, but having something in his belly is better than nothing.

Dean eats until he’s full and sits back besides the fire. Too bad a full belly doesn’t make him feel any better. He still feels sad, and worried, and alone. With his good arm hugging his knees to his chest, Dean rests his chin on them and clicks his claws on the floor.

No way in hell is he going to admit that he’s bored and basically waiting for Cas to come back. And he’s not going to admit that he’s starting to feel more than a little bad about what he said to him. Didn’t Cas say that he knows what it’s like to lose his family? What if that’s why Cas is alone? Damn. Dean fucked up. Cas was nice enough to let him stay here and he’s helping him heal up and everything and Dean just went and punched him in the figurative face.

By the time Cas comes back, Dean has a plan to apologize all built up and ready in his head. It catches on his tongue and his whole face goes hot the moment Cas steps back into the cave. He’s embarrassed. Wow, that doesn’t happen often. He tries to shake it off, but all thoughts of apologizing fly right out of his head when he notices the sweat in Cas’s hair and how hard he’s breathing.

“You okay?”

Cas ignores him. He huffs his way across the cave to grab the acorns before he takes off again. Dean doesn’t have long to be confused. It’s only a few minutes before Cas returns. He sits down next to Dean, sighing like he’s just flown a million wing-beats and holds the acorns out to him, sloshing water over the edges.

“Here, drink these.”

“Thanks.” Dean balances one between his thumb and the curve of his good wing, letting it rest on his knees while he takes small sips.

“You were right.” Cas sighs and scrubs his thumbs through his hair.

He nearly chokes on the water and he coughs a few times. “About what?”

Cas shuffles his wings and rocks in place, making himself comfortable. “Bugs are hard to catch.” He glances at Dean a few times before frowning and looking away, pawing at his ear like he’s embarrassed. “I tried getting you something to eat and I couldn’t catch anything.”

A blush burns through Dean’s cheeks and he ducks his head. “Uh, thanks. It’s okay, though. I kinda cleaned up your cave by eating what I could find in here.”

“Oh?” Cas’s ears perk and Dean feels his echolocation pulse over him as he checks the cave. His nose crinkles, but he gives Dean another small smile when he looks at him again. “That’s still disgusting.”

Dean snorts and flicks water off his thumb at him. “You’re disgusting.”

The smile grows even as Cas adopts an almost insulted expression. “Excuse me? I’ll have you know that I’m very clean.” He shifts onto his knees and spreads his wings, one of his fingers almost catching Dean on the nose. “See these? You won’t find cleaner wings in this forest.”

Laughing, Dean shoves Cas’s wing away and trades his empty acorn for the other. The water is cold and fresh. It might be from a puddle leftover from last night’s storm, or maybe there’s a creek nearby that he didn’t see while he was hunting yesterday.

“I’ll try and catch you something tomorrow.” Cas explains, adding some grass to the dying fire. “I almost caught one, but the problem is getting them from outside to in here without me having to eat it.”

Dean flexes his arm and winces at the pull on the swelling. “Will I be able to fly by tomorrow night?”

“We can try again after sunset.” Cas shrugs and gets out more berries. “We’ll put a new coating on right now, but don’t count on being able to get very far or manage any sort of fancy flying. You might be able to limp to the nearest tree, but if you try for any farther, you could damage your wing.”

It’s the same old story then. Dean sighs and flops onto his back, stretching his wing out for Cas’s weird berry paste and leaf bandage. He’s got the whole night to be cooped up in here and it’s gonna be one hell of an itch under his skin. The night sky is calling to him and it’s kinda killing him not to be out there.

*

Cas isn’t that great with conversation. He kind of just putters around his cave cleaning or ducking out to gather grass so he can make more baskets or reinforce his bags. They do talk, kinda. Dean watches what Cas does and asks questions about why and how, but that’s not very exciting. It’s not really super difficult to figure out how to weave a basket after it’s started.

When the dawn chorus starts, Dean is almost relieved. He spent most of the night not knowing what to talk about with Cas. Now that the birds are chirping, they can both just go to sleep and wait for the night when Dean can try flying again. But first, Dean wants to watch the sunrise. It’s not as easy to walk through the crack-tunnel to the cave entrance, but Dean manages it well enough and Cas follows him too.

He stands behind Dean while he sits on the edge, watching the sun come up behind the trees. It’s going to be a cloudy day, a bank of them rolling in, and there’s a cool breeze already curling into the tunnel mouth. They watch in silence until the sun is above the trees and Dean tilts his head back until he’s looking at Cas upside down.

“I’m sorry.”

Cas looks down at him, his arms crossed over his chest. “For what?”

“You said you knew what it was like to lose your family.” He shrugs and looks down at his lap, picking pieces of dirt and grit off of his overalls. “And all I did was insult you for it.”

“I was attempting a very poor joke. My apologies for it.”

“It was a pretty shitty joke.” Dean snorts a laugh and gets to his feet.

Cas helps him up, making sure he doesn’t lose his footing or something and tumble out into the open. “I’ve never been good at them. My sense of humour has always been skewed, apparently. And it’s been quite some time since I’ve had someone to make a joke with.”

“How come?”

“Your presence hasn’t really disrupted my daily routine, Dean.” Cas shrugs and leads the way back inside. “This is what most days are like for me. But now isn’t the time to talk. You should get some sleep. Flying tonight will be hard on you and you’ll need to be well rested for it.”

Dean frowns down at the floor. He isn’t looking forward to sleeping on it again. It’s cold and hard and he kind of hates it. “Can I sleep up there with you?”

That gets Cas’s attention and he pauses mid-stretch, lowering his wing slowly and folding the membrane to squint at Dean. He glances up to the ceiling and then looks pointedly at Dean’s wing. Yeah, it’ll be harder to get up there with his bum wing, but there’s plenty of divots in the wall for him to get a good enough grip with his thumbs and claws to climb up. He probably won’t be able to use his right arm to climb. But all he needs is Cas’s help to make sure that he doesn’t fall.

Cas caves when Dean pulls out the puppy eyes that Sam is absolutely awesome at doing. He waits below until Dean’s climbed close enough to the roof for him to flap up himself and help him the rest of the way. It’s warmer near the ceiling and it feels awesome being upside down again. But it’s not the same as the warmth of his roost with his family.

He watches Cas scuttle across the ceiling until he tucks himself into a space behind one of the bigger stalactites in the cave. Dean shuffles his claws in the ceiling, trying to find a good grip. Being left out here all on his own is leaving him feeling all sorts of exposed and he still feels colder than he’d like to be. Steeling himself, Dean carefully crosses the ceiling until he can tuck himself in next to Cas. It gets him a muffled grumble from under Cas’s wing, but at least he doesn’t tell him to move.

Ten minutes later and Dean’s still not comfortable enough to be able to sleep. Cas hasn’t made a peep and he just might be asleep now. He’s kind of jealous. If anything, Dean isn’t even warm enough to sleep - or at least not as warm as he’s used to being with his family. There’s a slight shiver shaking through him and he keeps shuffling in place, trying to get comfortable without jostling Cas too much.

He’s not so great at not doing that.

“Enough!” Cas hisses, unfolding his wings to glare at Dean.

He looks him over before sighing and actually wrapping Dean in his wings. Well, that’s pretty heart stopping. Dean briefly entertains the thought that Cas is going to bite his face off or something equally gruesome for being an annoying little shit, but all Cas does is draw him up against his chest and fold his (stupidly) big wings around him in a cocoon of heat.

“Stop moving and go to sleep.”

Dean couldn’t move even if he wanted to and, surprisingly, he really doesn’t. Cas is warm, comfortable, and he doesn’t stink. That’s a plus in Dean’s book. But he still doesn’t feel as sleepy as he should be. After another few minutes, he lifts his head to get a peek at Cas’s face.

“What happened to your family?”

Cas’s eyes are closed and he doesn’t open them at the question, but a frown line pinches between his eyebrows. “That’s not a bedtime story.”

“Is it sad?”

“Go to sleep, Dean.” He tightens his wings in warning, forcing Dean’s cheek against his chest again. Cas doesn’t sound very happy and Dean figures now would be a great time to start counting ladybugs.


 

Castiel tries to ignore the nervous flutter in his stomach as he hovers in place, watching as Dean launches himself from the cave mouth. Something pulls tight in his chest when Dean drops a few wing lengths before his wings billow and he starts to limp through the air. He circles under Dean, watching him anxiously as he hobbles to the nearest tree. Dean winces the entire way and lets out a loud sigh of relief the moment he sinks his claws into the branch and swings into place under it.

“You can’t go any further than this.” He lands next to Dean and pulls his wing out to inspect the swelling around his elbow. “Spend the night getting some fresh air. If it still hurts when we turn in, I’ll carry you back inside.”

Pouting, Dean shuffles his feet before pulling himself up and crawling on top of the branch to sit on it. “How am I supposed to get anything to eat if I’m stuck on this tree?”

“If you haven’t noticed, it’s infested with caterpillars. I’m sure you can do something about that.”

Dean’s nose crinkles and he looks up at the branches above them where the fuzzy worms are wiggling across the leaves. He licks his lips and gets to his feet slowly. “Fine. I’ll do the forest a service and help you with your caterpillar problem.” Grinning, he glances at Castiel. “Unless you want to watch me eat bugs, you better not stick around.”

That’s an excellent suggestion. Castiel takes wing immediately. It would be too unsettling to watch. The caterpillars are fat and juicy and he shudders, trying not to think about Dean biting into one as he flies back to the cave. He needs to grab a few bags to go stock up on berries. If he’s lucky, he might be able to speak with one of the nearest colonies and see if they’re willing to steal him some more exotic fruits from the tall-walkers. He has little to offer them in exchange, but they’ve been kind to him before.

By the time he returns from his outing, Dean is sitting with his back to the trunk of the tree, legs stretched out along a branch. His stomach is bloated and he grins at Castiel as he flies past with his bags, all of them heavy with berries. “Need some help there, Cas?”

“I’ll be back in a moment.” He circles the tree once. “Are you thirsty?”

“Nah. I drank from the leaves.”

Good. That’s one less thing for him to need to worry about and Castiel returns the bags to the cave. Dean is hanging from the branch when he returns to him, letting his wings hang limply above his head in a forced stretch. He muffles a burp as Castiel catches the next branch over and flips to hang beside him.

“Caterpillars aren’t as satisfying as flyers, but that was a good meal.”

“Disgusting.”

“Says the fruit eater who can’t even catch a bug.” Dean flashes a fanged grin at him, lifting his eyebrows teasingly. “Go on. There’s bugs all over the place. Try and catch one.”

He huffs and looks away. “Why would I waste my time?”

“Because I didn’t get to watch last time and I think it’ll be hilarious.” An elbow catches him in the side, rocking him in place. “Go on, y’big ol’ fruit eater. Show me how it’s done.” He nudges Castiel a few more times. “C’mon. I’m bored. There’s plenty of moon left. Show me your skills.”

With a groan, Castiel lets go of the branch and drops. He opens his mouth and calls sound into the forest around him, listening for the silvery response. The echoes show him beetles, moths, and a whole assortment of insects he has little desire to chase. Glancing over his shoulder, Castiel takes in the amused grin on Dean’s face before he ducks away through the branches to give chase.

Every attempt feels more futile than the last. If he can even manage to catch a bug, Castiel ends up crushing it in his claws. Dean’s laughter echoes through the trees and it’s hard not to focus on it. He has a nice laugh and Castiel doesn’t want to like it. Holding him while they slept was crossing a line. Liking Dean’s laugh is just another. The only thing waiting for him if he keeps doing that is attachment and disappointment. He can’t afford to grow attached to Dean when he knows that as soon as he’s better, Dean will be returning to his family.

Castiel hates the quiet voice in the back of his head whispering hopes that Dean’s colony has already left. If they’ve left him behind, Dean might decide to stay here with him. It would mean not being alone anymore. As much as Castiel tells himself that he likes his solitude, having Dean around has been interesting – despite their short time together.

He’s kept his eyes and ears open during the last few nights for any canyon bats like Dean, but Castiel hasn’t seen anyone with colouring even remotely the same. The native bats in the area hadn’t seen any others either. Castiel can’t imagine that Dean’s colony would be stupid enough to fly close to the the tall-walkers’ area. It would be suicide to stay by them, and it’s the one part of the forest Castiel refuses to fly anywhere near.

“Okay, Cas!” Dean calls through his laughter. “You can stop now.”

Gratefully, Castiel lands next to him with an exhausted sigh. It’s so much easier to eat fruit. “I don’t know how you can stand doing that every night. You look ridiculous. Wouldn’t you rather just sit and eat something sedentary and just as juicy?”

“Dude, no. Half the fun is in the chase!” He laughs again and swings to playfully nudge Castiel with his shoulder. After sleeping against Castiel’s chest, Dean is much more tactile with him. It’s strangely amusing and Castiel is trying his hardest not to reciprocate. “And there’s so much variety! I’ve tasted so many new bugs this summer thanks to the migration. It’s been awesome.”

“What else have you seen?” Castiel shuffles down the branch, out of reach of Dean’s nudging elbows and shoulders. Space. He needs to put space between them before he lets himself be enamored by Dean’s easy smiles.

“Different bats.” Dean looks at him with eyes full of wonder. “And trees, and beasts, and birds. The world is so big, Cas, with so many different things to see. It’s amazing!” His voice drops into a whisper as he turns to stare out at the forest. “I wish I could see it all. I want to go on migrations everywhere.”

Castiel tilts his head. It’s been a very long time since he’s seen anyone as excited about the world as Dean is. It reminds him of his sister and he shakes that thought out of his head. “The world is a very big place. Even if you migrated for your whole life, you’d never see all of it.”

“Yeah? How much have you seen?”

“Not a lot.” He shrugs and looks away, eyes going unfocused as he remembers his own travels. “I lost my family on my first migration. After that, I wandered until I was far enough from that place not to be reminded of them. This was the first place I stopped and I’ve never left it. But I like it here.” He shrugs and folds his wings around himself a little tighter. “There’s a tree on a hill not far from here that lights up like it’s made of silver on a night with a full moon. If you were here longer, it would be something I’d take you to see.”

“That sounds nice.” Dean hums a low note in the back of his throat. “What was your family like?”

He ignores the ache in his chest as he remembers the bright faces of his family before he starts talking about them. The more he talks, the keener Dean looks at him; ears perked and eyes wide. It doesn’t take as much courage as he thought it would to open his mouth and tell Dean about his sister, Anna, and how Dean reminds him of her in some ways. He talks about his cousins and how he was good friends with most of his colony. They were a close group.

Castiel considered them all to be a part of his family and he swallows around the lump that rises in his throat, stuttering to a stop. He wants to continue and tell Dean about what it was like to cling to his mother as a newborn, held in place by a leaf looped under him. Or how exciting it was when the entire colony took to the skies before the sun had fully set. He can’t. The words won’t come to him anymore.

“I’m sorry.” The whisper is closer than he expects and Dean nudges his shoulder again. “I didn’t mean to make you sad.”

“Talking about my colony always makes me sad.” Castiel shakes himself out and ducks his head, a little embarrassed to have been so obviously emotional that even Dean could see it. “I miss my family, but these other bats aren’t so bad to be around – even if they’re bug eaters like you.”

Dean ignores the jab, but a smile crinkles the corners of his lips. “What about others like you? Aren’t they around here too?”

“My kind are further south, but not by much. My colony was forced out of our homes by the tall-walkers when they tore down our forest. We were migrating and looking for a new home when I let –” The words stop on their own. That’s not something he can call Dean – not now, maybe not ever. “After I lost my colony, I decided to stay here. Fruit gets a little scarce during the winter, but it doesn’t get very cold. I’ve been here for a few years now and it’s never snowed.”

A breeze whips through their hair and Dean shuffles even closer. He’s quiet for a few minutes, surveying the forest around them before he looks back to Castiel. “What happened to your family?”

Rather than answer the question, Castiel tucks his chin to his chest and folds his wings over his head. He digs his thumbs into his hair and forces himself to breathe evenly. If he doesn’t think about what happened, he doesn’t have to tell Dean. Castiel hasn’t told anyone about what happened to his family and even though it’s been so long, he’s not sure he’s ready to tell anyone about his mistakes. It’s a sin and he should confess, but solitude has kept his tongue.

After several minutes of silence, Dean clears his throat and pokes Castiel’s elbow. “It’s getting late. Do you want to go back inside now?”

At this point, Castiel will take anything to avoid having a conversation he’s not sure he’ll ever be ready to have. But maybe it would be better to tell Dean. He’s going to be leaving soon. Once he’s gone, he won’t be able to judge Castiel to his face for the errors he’s made. Castiel pushes those thoughts from his mind as he flies beneath Dean on the way back to the cave.

Back inside, Castiel takes his time to mix berries and shredded leaves to make another paste. Another coating might keep Dean’s wing from getting worse after the flying he did tonight. Dean doesn’t hesitate to stretch out his wing when Castiel approaches. He sighs softly and closes his eyes, relaxing as Castiel spreads the paste over the tear in the membrane and the swelling in Dean’s elbow with his thumb. The rip looks smaller and the swelling seems to have gone down a little.

Dean appears to be on the verge of falling asleep right until he opens his eyes when Castiel folds a leaf over his wing to seal the paste in place. His eyes are bright and expectant as he sits up, tucking his other wing close to open up a spot next to him.

Castiel sighs and shakes his head, his heart and stomach sinking as he makes himself comfortable. It’s obvious what he wants. “It’s not a bedtime story, Dean.”

“Good think we’re not going to sleep right now.” Dean grins and folds his legs under him, looking at Castiel expectantly before he’s ears fold slightly and he looks down at his lap. “Seriously, though. If you don’t want to tell me about it, that’s okay. You can just say that.”

Hooking his thumbs together in his lap, Castiel stares at the gentle fire eating away at a twig. For a long time, he doesn’t say anything. He can’t bring himself to. Dean is still too much of a stranger to him, and he’s going to leave as soon as he’s healed. Telling him something so personal would just be another line to cross. It would bring them closer together and that closeness isn’t something that he deserves.

He doesn’t deserve to be close with anyone – not even physically. Clearly Dean is used to being tactile with his family. It didn’t take him long to get comfortable around him and Castiel has missed this feeling. He’s missed a warm body beside his during the day; conversation; laughter; teasing. Castiel’s missed it all and he shouldn’t be this desperate for companionship after how long he’s been used to be alone, and he most definitely should not have let Dean sleep next to him last night.

But even reminding himself of this later while they’re hanging behind the stalactite doesn’t stop him from lifting his wings to allow Dean to shuffle underneath them again. Dean stops shivering and he muffles a yawn against Castiel’s collarbone, mumbling a quiet goodnight that gives Castiel shivers of his own. This is dangerous. Castiel is already growing fond of the little bat and fear starts worming its way into his heart. He’s too close and it’s going to hurt when Dean leaves. He’ll be hurt, he’ll be alone, and he needs to start fighting this now.

Or tomorrow. Or maybe never. There’s every chance that when Dean finds his colony, he’ll find that they’ve suffered the same fate as Castiel’s did. If that happens, he doesn’t want to push Dean away now. He’ll need some place to come back to and Castiel can’t readily welcome him then if he’s already driven him away.

Too many thoughts and emotions are ricocheting through him and Castiel closes his eyes, trying hard not to think. It doesn’t work well and his sleep throughout the day is broken at best.


 

Holy crap, Dean’s wing feels way better tonight. Cas doesn’t look half as worried tonight as he did yesterday but Dean still forces himself not to limp as he flaps from tree to tree. His wing feels good enough that Cas is even willing to let him skim the stream for a drink. He still sticks close to his side, but Dean doesn’t mind. It means he can hear the unhappy huffs Cas makes when he manages to catch a couple insects.

They don’t get to fly very far before Dean absolutely has to land. He doesn’t tell Cas that his elbow is aching, but he thinks he probably knows. Maybe. Either that or the sad look Cas has when he thinks Dean isn’t looking is about something else entirely – not that Dean knows. It might have something to do with how Cas had been gone when Dean woke up at sunset. He was still in the cave, but he was down on the floor and fiddling with his grasses and whatever it is that he does to fill up all his free time.

“I want to find more fruit.” Cas isn’t looking at him again. He’s staring off into the forest. “Are you well enough to make it back to the cave on your own?”

“Yeah, sure. I’m just going to hang out here for a while.” He shrugs and sinks his claws deeper into the bark. “You know, fresh air and everything.”

Cas nods once, a sharp jerky movement before he spreads his wings and drops. He actually flaps off without a word and Dean stares after him, weighing the pros and cons of trying to follow him. If he did that, he’d probably be caught out before he got half a dozen wing-beats. But Dean’s confused, curious, and maybe just a little hurt. It’s like a tiny storm in his chest.

What did he do to upset Cas like this?

He doesn’t think he’ll have that long to think about it, but Cas doesn’t come back for hours. Literally. Dean gets bored halfway through the first and half-limps, half-climbs his way to the top of the tree to watch the stars. The open sky is right above him and Dean can’t stand not being able to go twisting through it. There are bats in the distance, fluttering back and forth above the trees. None of them are by the human’s campsites and his stomach sinks.

What if his family has already left? Did anyone even look for him? Sam probably did, and Mom would have gone with him. If they both went searching, then Dad probably went too. He hasn’t heard them calling for him and Cas never said anything about hearing his name in the woods whenever he’s been out. Maybe they went looking in the wrong direction? He never did tell them where he was going.

By the end of the hour, Dean’s worked himself up into a worried mess and he hates it. Cas pretty much said he’d meet him at the cave, right? Dean would rather be back there, tucked away from the world, than sitting here missing his family and all the things he can’t do because he fucked up his wing. Speaking of, it doesn’t hurt too bad right now. If he’s careful and lands when it starts to hurt, he could probably make it back to the cave without any trouble.

Cas comes back a few hours later carrying bundles of grass on his back. He barely even acknowledges Dean where he’s dying of boredom in the corner. The bastard just throws the bundles down and leaves again. After three trips where he brings back more grass and a couple bags of berries, Dean cuts him off before he can leave again.

“You need help with anything, Cas? I could sort some stuff, build up the fire, help you carry things in?” He’ll do pretty much anything if he means he can stop being bored.

“It’s fine. I’m almost done.”

Almost done. Hah. He brings in one last load of berries before he starts sorting them. Any time Dean wanders over to try and help, Cas gives him this look that radiates ‘don’t touch me’ vibes. Dean doesn’t put up with it for long. It’s not like he asked to be here. If Cas didn’t want him around then he shouldn’t have been so nice and let him stay, or fix him up, or fucking cuddle him while they slept.

He tries not to puff up too much when he finally says something about it. “Dude, what’s up with you?”

Cas shakes his head and turns his back to him. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

Dean huffs through his nose and he’d cross his arms if he could bend his elbow properly. “Really? Coz’ you’re kinda giving me the cold shoulder here.”

He shrugs and stuffs some berries into a basket before putting it aside. “So?”

And just like that, that tense feeling in his chest explodes and he can feel heat flood his face. He’s not sure if he’s angry or embarrassed over making a mistake in thinking that Cas had reached the level of friend. Outside of his family, Dean doesn’t really have any friends. He huffs and kicks at one of the bundles of grass, earning a glare from Cas.

“So maybe it’s kind of hurting my feelings here, Cas. Y’think of that?” He kicks the grass again, glaring at Cas like it’s a challenge. “I don’t even know what I did wrong!”

As soon as he’s said that, all the fight in Cas evaporates. His shoulders slump and the wide-eyed look he turns to Dean next makes his stomach flip. In that one moment, Cas looks small and alone. That thought hits Dean hard. Alone. Cas talked so much about his family yesterday and the whole time he had that look of longing. Dean’s does the math and puts two and two together. Cas is alone out here. He’s on his own and has been for a long time and he’s going to be alone again the moment Dean leaves.

Maybe he realized that today when he saw how far Dean could fly. Once his wing is healed, he’s going to be out of here and maybe Cas is lonely and he doesn’t want him to leave. But Cas doesn’t have to be alone. If he wants, he could come with him. That would actually be kind of great. So far Dean likes Cas. He’s a little gruff, but he’s like a bug – hard on the outside, squishy on the inside. And Dean’s almost gotten past that hard exterior. If he had more time, he and Cas could probably be pretty great friends.

The urge to invite Cas along with him is on the tip of his tongue. His family would totally take Cas in. He’s not that much bigger than Dean is. He’s just a few inches taller, and it’s his wingspan that’s the biggest thing about him. Cas probably wouldn’t take up much room in his roost either. If Cas is worried about winter or food, that won’t be a problem. There’s always plenty of food back home. Bugs and fruit. Dean’s seen it with his own eyes, so it’s not like Cas will go hungry. It’s nice, warm, safe, and Cas wouldn’t be alone.

Dean knows that Sam would adore Cas because Sam already loves him and he’s cool like that. Mom would love having another son and Dad – well, Dad would probably be the biggest opposition to it. But Mom and Sam can pretty much get him to do anything and if Dean makes it clear that he likes Cas, they probably wouldn’t send him away.

He wants to say it, but he can’t. Not if Cas doesn’t actually like him. Cas shakes his head and looks down at his knees. “I’m sorry, Dean. I – I didn’t sleep very well. I shouldn’t have been so rude. I’m sorry.”

Something pulls tight in Dean’s chest and he frowns at Cas’s back. He shuffles up next to him and Cas immediately sags into his side. Without hesitation, Dean wraps his wings around him. If Cas could do it for him when they sleep, then he can do it right now. Though he’s a little worried that Cas is going to break down and cry or something when he turns into him. He’s never been good with Sammy’s tears, and Mom hasn’t cried a lot, but he hasn’t liked that either.

Cas doesn’t cry. He sighs heavily and leans his weight against Dean’s chest, nuzzling his nose into the front of his overalls. Dean rests his chin on the top of Cas’s head and rubs his thumbs through his hair. It’s a piss poor attempt at grooming, but it’s not like he’s actually trying to clean him. This is just for comfort. And it’s working. A purr starts to rumble in Cas’s throat and Dean gets the distinct feeling that this should be awkward but it doesn’t really feel like that. He likes his family and he’s groomed them before, and he likes Cas – so it’s not weird to groom him too, right?

It’s not even awkward afterward. When Cas finally pulls away, he does duck his head and blush a little, but he doesn’t look upset or anything. Dean’s kinda in the same place, but he’s happy to help Cas mix the paste again. He’s not as dexterous with his left wing and thumb as he is his right, but it’s kinda fun to crush the berries in the acorn bowl with a rock. The paste doesn’t sting anymore when Cas spreads it over the tear and his elbow.

“Sit forward.” Cas nudges Dean’s shoulders and slides in behind him the moment the space is made, his legs stretching out on either side of his hips.

Dean feels like commenting on it because this feels a little weird, but the thought dies away when Cas starts raking his thumbs through his hair. Oh. That feels good. His own purr starts to roll through his chest and Dean can’t help leaning back into him. Shit, it feels awesome to have his hair groomed like this. Not even Mom does it this well. He’s usually in charge of keeping himself clean and it’s kind of a treat when Mom grooms him.

“You being nice to make up for earlier?” He mumbles, tilting his head back against Cas’s shoulder.

Cas doesn’t answer. He does pause, but then he keeps grooming right up until Dean falls asleep. It’s not like he means to, but he’s comfortable, and warm, and the rhythmic pull of thumbs through his hair feels amazing. When Dean wakes up, he’s still wrapped in Cas’s wings and they’re still on the floor. That’s not so surprising. What catches his breath in his throat is Cas’s nose just inches from his.

Their legs are tangled together and Dean doesn’t want to move in case it wakes Cas up. Every breath Cas takes flutters across Dean’s face and he just looks so relaxed. More relaxed than Dean has seen him since he got here. This feels a little weird sleeping with Cas like this, but not like for the reasons it probably should. Sleeping on the floor is the weird bit. Sleeping tangled up with Cas? Not weird at all.

It’s actually kind of nice. Dean slides a little closer and nudges his nose under Cas’s chin. This is good. He likes waking up next to Cas – whether hanging from the ceiling in his wings or sleeping on the floor. Laying with Cas just feels comfortable and nice and Dean is actually really okay with falling back to sleep.

He wakes up to Cas trying to carefully pull his wing out from under him. Dean hums and opens his eyes. “That’s not gonna work.”

“Sorry.” Cas mumbles against his forehead, going still and waiting until Dean sits up. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Dean snorts and helps him up, stretching and muffling a yawn between his teeth. “Was kinda hard not to do. Kudos for the attempt though. You sleep well?”

Cas ducks his head and shuffles his feet, claws clicking on the floor. “I did, thank you. How is your wing feeling? You didn’t sleep on it, but being on the floor couldn’t have helped very much.”

He spreads his wings and flexes his elbow. It feels a hell of a lot better today, almost good as new. When they head out of the cave, it doesn’t even ache by the time they reach the first tree. Cas hangs from a branch and watches him flip and twist. There’s a little twinge in his elbow, but nothing like the last few days. If he tried, he could probably reach the human’s campgrounds at least by morning and look for his family, but Cas has that sad look going again.

Dean’s more observant than he lets on. He knows for a fact that Cas only smiles when he actually looks at him. When he thinks Dean isn’t looking, he’s watching him with sad eyes. Of course he’s doing the math too. Cas knows that if Dean can fly this well now, then he’s going to be leaving soon. And then he’s going to be alone again and Dean is really starting to hate that look on him.

After he eats his fill, Dean flips to hang next to Cas and nudges him with his elbow. “What do you think, huh? It doesn’t hurt a whole lot. Do you think I’ll be able to get to my family by morning?”

Sure enough, Cas’s smile falls the moment he mentions it. “I – yes. You should be well enough to fly to where you last saw your family.” He looks away and ruffles his wings. “I’m not sure you would be able to continue migrating. It might be too much of a strain for your wing.”

“Nah, that won’t be a problem.” He shakes out his wings and lets them hang above his head. His family is good at carrying him when he needs it. “You gonna come with me, Cas?”

“What?” Cas gives him those wide, sad eyes again, only this time they’re full of confusion.

Dean shrugs and tries really hard not to grin at him. “Well, what if my wing isn’t good enough to make it all the way to my family? You’re gonna let me go all by myself?”

Huffing, Cas ruffles his wings and looks away. “I wasn’t planning on it.” He reaches over and knock Dean playfully, the movement all jerky like he hasn’t done it before. “I’m curious to see if your family is as great as you say they are. I want to see the ones who could raise a brat like you.”

Heat floods his cheeks and Dean darts forward to nip at Cas’s wing. It earns him a startled screech and he laughs, dropping from the branch and rolling away before Cas can retaliate. What Cas needs is a distraction right now, and Dean is more than willing to provide – as long as it means not having to see that sad look in Cas’s eyes again.

They chase each other through the branches. Sometimes Dean breaks above the trees to reorient himself and make sure that they’re heading in the right direction. Cas’s big wings make it harder for him to do sharp turns and Dean uses that to his advantage, ducking under and around branches and trees and staying just out of Cas’s reach for as long as Cas lets him before he calls for them to take a rest. And by ‘them’ he always means Dean.

Dean makes sure that after every rest, he does something to make Cas chase after him. It’s the best way to keep him from looking unhappy - and Dean really likes the way Cas smiles when he thinks he’s about to catch him. He’s in the lead when he breaks out into the first campsite.

There aren’t any humans set up in this one, but he can see others through the sparse trees separating the sites and across the dirt road that runs between them. Dean glances back over his shoulder to make sure that Cas is following and he’s more than a little surprised to find that he isn’t. Circling in place, Dean waits, hoping he didn’t completely outrun him, but Cas doesn’t come out of the trees after him.

“Cas?” Dean calls, ducking back under the branches and calling sound into the trees. He finds him tucked against the trunk of a tree out of sight of the camping area. Cas is trembling, breathing hard and doesn’t even lower his wings from around his head when Dean lands next to him. Worry pulls tight in his chest and Dean gently paws at Cas’s wing. “Cas, what’s wrong?”

His wings crack open and Cas stares at him from behind them. “You’re going toward the tall-walkers.”

Realization hits Dean like a punch to the gut. “Wait.” He swallows and tucks his wings against his sides, ignoring the building ache in his elbow. “You mean humans are your tall-walkers?”

Cas frowns and lowers his wings slightly. “What else do you think I meant?”

He shrugs and looks away, shuffling in place and flexing his claws in the bark of the branch. “I dunno. But not them. Humans aren’t all bad, Cas.”

“They are. They are.” The trembling starts again and Cas shakes his head almost violently. “You shouldn’t go near them. No, we can’t go any further.”

“But I have to!” Dean paws at Cas’s wing again. “My family is that way.”

“Your family was crazy to even think of staying near tall-walkers.”

Frowning, Dean shuffles his feet again. “I know where they were staying. We’ll go around the camp to that place, okay? We can avoid the humans completely until we find them.”

Cas agrees, but he still looks unsure. He keeps looking over his shoulder and glancing worriedly toward the camps as they fly around the trees, skirting the edges of the clearings. They’re only part way around it when the sky starts getting brighter. Cas was already flying close enough that it was messing up Dean’s own flight and now he flutters even closer.

“We should head back to the cave, Dean. I don’t like flying in the sun.”

No, it’s too soon. Dean’s not ready to say goodbye to Cas yet. He likes him and he’s never had the chance to get this close to another bat before. And he sure as hell doesn’t want to leave Cas alone. They’re so close to where his family was staying. Just a little further.

He shakes his head and pulls ahead, gesturing mid-flap for Cas to keep following him. “You can stay with me and my family for the day and head back tonight.”

Or Cas could just stay with him and his family forever. Because that would be cool. But Dean’s not sure he could ever be selfish enough to ask Cas to come with him. Cas has a whole cave and a life and everything here – even if it is alone. Just because they’ve become friends doesn’t mean that Cas is going to want to come with him or anything. For all he knows, he could’ve been reading Cas wrong this whole time.

Cas makes a little unhappy noise, but he doesn’t stop following him.

It’s the trees that Dean recognizes first. The way they’re positioned and the twist of the branches. He’d memorized them in his mind’s eye all those nights ago and they overlap in his memory when he barks sound into the trees. This is it! His family was right here. But there’s no one around. Dean can see in all directions through the trees and out into the clearing. It’s just as empty as the trees are.

The whole area is silent except for the humans starting to move around in the other campsites and the birds starting to sing. His stomach sinks and a light, flighty feeling starts filling his chest. It’s getting hard to breathe and Dean’s entire head fills with a mantra that consists of nothing but ‘no’.

His family is gone.

Ignoring Cas’s warning cry, Dean swoops out into the clearing to get a better look. He rises above the trees and flaps circles around the area. He’s sure of it. This is the right place. “Mom! Dad! Sammy!” He swings out over the trees, crossing above the other campsites. “Where are you?!”

He can still smell them in the area, but the scent is fading. They’ve left him. They left him. No, no! They wouldn’t do this to him! They’re his family. Dean can’t stop looking, he can’t stop searching for them. They must be here somewhere. He refuses to give up. They have to be here. Maybe they just moved to a different area?

“Dean!” Cas drops on him from above, claws pricking his skin as he grabbing his shoulders and drags him back into the trees just as a group of humans comes down the path between the sites. “Don’t do that, Dean! They could get you!”

Dean can’t stop trembling. He shakes his head and huddles up against Cas’s chest as his wings fold around him. They left. How could they just – Did they even look for him? He shouldn’t have stayed away so long. He should’ve gone back before. He should’ve –

“We can’t stay here, Dean.” Cas rubs his nose into Dean’s hair, nuzzling it softly. “How is your wing? Do you think you could make it back to the cave?”

He doesn’t want to think about his stupid wing. Sure, his elbow is aching a little, but it’s nothing compared to the pain in his chest. There’s a hollow space behind his ribs and it’s eating away at him. What’s he supposed to do now? Just because he likes Cas doesn’t mean he wants to live out here with him. He wants to be with Sam and Mom and Dad too. He wants to see them and he wants to go home.

It’s a long flight back to the cave and Dean has to follow his echoes the entire way. The sun is too high for him to use his eyes and he wouldn’t be able to see through the tears anyways. Cas doesn’t say anything, but he pulls Dean into the fold of his wings the moment they’re hanging behind the stalactite again. It’s all Dean can do not to fall asleep crying.


 

Castiel doesn’t have the heart to tell Dean that his family is probably dead. He knows what Dean is feeling right now and he hates that he has to suffer through it. Dean should be smiling and laughing, not sitting in the corner, sniffling and hugging his knees while he fiddles with an acorn full of water. It’s a painful twinge behind Castiel’s ribs that Dean has to go through this too.

He sits next to Dean slowly, shuffling his wings to make himself comfortable and give Dean plenty of time to acknowledge that he’s there. With a small hum, Dean leans slightly into his side. That’s enough for him.

“You can stay here and live with me.” Castiel offers quietly. “If you want.”

Dean sniffs and rubs the knuckles of his thumbs into his eyes. He lifts his head and gives Castiel a small smile. “I’d like that.” The smile falters and he ducks his head. “But I want to go after them. They’re heading north and I know where they’re going. I just have to head north. If I follow the roads, I’m sure I’ll find them.”

“What are ‘roads’?” Castiel tilts his head at the foreign word. Dean seems to know a lot of them.

“Hard paths that humans take their vehicles on. Y’know, their big noisy machines with wheels? They drive up and down them to get places since they can’t fly like us. My family was following one and I know I’ll find them if I follow it.” A new ache fills Castiel’s chest at the way Dean looks at him, eyes wide and hopeful. “Do you think my wing is good enough for a long flight like that?”

A heavy disappointment settles in his stomach and Castiel pulls his knees to his chest. A bitter loneliness is burning in his throat and he’s not sure he can meet Dean’s eyes right now. “If you rest often.”

“Will you come with me?”

The question comes as a surprise and Castiel looks back at him sharply. “What?”

Dean’s ears twitch and he rubs his thumb through his hair. He shrugs and chews his bottom lip sheepishly. “I don’t – I mean, it would suck to go alone. It’s gonna be a long trip and I might not make it on my own. And since you know the world better than I do, I just thought – um – maybe you’d want to come with me?”

That would mean leaving his cave for days – maybe even weeks. He would have to go out where the tall-walkers are. In here he’s safe. Out there? Who knows what could happen. Castiel’s stomach turns and he buries his face in his knees. He’s not sure he could do it. How far could they have gotten? Far enough that it would take him and Dean quite some time to catch up, especially if they have to stop for him to feed and for Dean to rest his wing.

Could he live with himself if he lets Dean go off on his own? Dean may not be a newborn, but this is his first migration and he shouldn’t do it alone. He isn’t all that naïve, but Castiel can tell – even in these few days they’ve spent together – that Dean’s knowledge of the world is slim to none. Someone should go with him. If not Castiel, then someone who’ll make sure that he doesn’t do anything stupid like flying near tall-walkers again.

But this forest is safe. Tall-walkers seem to use it for pleasure and have no intention of hurting it. Castiel is being a coward. He’s scared again and this is just like what happened with his own colony. He was too scared to act and he lost them all. If he lets his fear control him again, Dean could die. Could Castiel stand that on his conscience? Could he stand never knowing if Dean survived or not?

“It’s okay, Cas.” Dean whispers, nudging his shoulder. Castiel tries hard not to notice the disappointment he hears in his words. “Just think about it. I’m not gonna leave until tomorrow night anyways.”

Castiel nods, but he doesn’t look at Dean when he stands. He doesn’t want to see his wide eyes or freckled nose, or how his ears will be drooping because he’s unhappy with Castiel’s answer. There are other things he could be doing now, or at least things he could be doing while he thinks. He needs a new bag and there’s plenty of grass to weave one.

Dean doesn’t say much else the rest of the night. He sits quietly in the corner, watching as Castiel braids grass to form the loops of the bag that will go around his neck and legs. It will hang under his belly and if he threads the neck loop through another at the top, it will be held closed while he flies. Castiel doesn’t realize until he’s finished that he made the main pouch much larger than anything he needs for gathering.

At Dean’s first yawn, Castiel sets the weaving aside, satisfied with the results. He barely needs more than a gesture for Dean to follow him to the ceiling. Castiel knows that he can’t let Dean go alone. If not because of his conscience than because of the pull he feels in his chest when he looks at him. It’s the urge to protect him and it’s partly why he still wraps his wings around Dean the moment bumps his nose against Castiel’s shoulder. He tries not to think that tonight might be the last time he’ll feel the warmth of another body against his own.

*

Dean shuffles awkwardly next to the entrance for a few minutes, opening and closing his mouth as if he’s not sure what to say. He continues to glance at him and Castiel knows what’s happening. This is when Dean is going to tell him that he’s leaving, knowing that Castiel will be alone when he’s gone. Will he think Castiel a coward if he doesn’t go with him?

“Um –” After clearing his throat, Dean shakes out his wings. “I guess I’ll be going now.” His smile is strained; more pained than anything else. “Bye Cas.”

Before Castiel can say or do anything in return, Dean is gone. Castiel stands next to the baskets he’s spent his years weaving and maintaining and hates them. Anger sears through his veins and he rips the lids from them. He won’t let Dean end up like his colony. He won’t. And if Dean finds his colony dead, he shouldn’t be alone when it happens.

He stuffs the bag he weaved yesterday, shoving as many berries into it as it will hold. He can still eat when they rest, but there’s no guarantee that there will be food for him along the entire journey. Bugs are everywhere, but fruit isn’t so easy to find. Castiel dumps dirt and stones on the fire, putting it out while he hops on one foot, trying to put the bag on properly.

Dean’s scent is still on the breeze when Castiel breaks from the cave. He flaps hard, membrane billowing between his fingers with the wind. It’s not long before his echoes bring back the now familiar shape of Dean, flapping listlessly ahead of him.

The moment Castiel drops in next to him, Dean flashes a wide grin over the curve of his wing. “I was  wondering how long it would take you to get your shit together.”

Castiel can’t tell if he feels ashamed for taking so long or pleased that Dean isn’t upset with him. “You knew I was coming?”

“Hoping, more like.” He flips a loop over and around Castiel, laughing happily before he settles just ahead of him and throws smiles over his shoulder. “Thanks, Cas. I’m glad you’re coming along.”

They reserve their energy less for talking and more for flying. Castiel may know the area better, but Dean knows where they’re going. He leads the way past the tall-walkers’ area to a hard, grey river that cuts through the trees. This must be the ‘road’ that Dean mentioned before. His heart lurches and Castiel swings back under the cover of the trees as one of the tall-walkers’ machines rumbles by.

“Just stay out of their way and you’ll be fine.” Dean calls back to him, circling over the road. “C’mon, Cas. We just follow this and we’ll catch up to my family in no time.”

He waits for Dean to join him in the trees before he answers him. “Do we have to fly near it? Can’t we keep it on our left and still follow it from under the trees?”

Dean’s mouth twists and he shakes his head. “It’ll take us longer if we have to weave through the trees. Why don’t we fly above them?”

“That’s too dangerous.” Castiel shakes his head too and looks over his shoulder at the open air above the canopy. “There are hawks and owls out here that wouldn’t hesitate to attack two bats flying in the open. It’s fine if you’re in a colony, but not on our own like this.”

“Seriously?” Dean’s jaw almost drops and he looks around them wildly, calling sound into the trees. “That’s not cool of them.” He frowns, brow pinching in thought before he smiles again. “We’ll do it your way. Under the canopy and through the trees.”

It’s nice to know that he’s still the same weird little bat that Castiel met a few days ago. But the danger of owls and hawks is common knowledge and Castiel frowns at Dean’s back as he follows him. If his family wanted to keep Dean safe, they should have taught this to him as a newborn. It’s unusual and he wonders what else Dean doesn’t know.

As they fly, Dean takes the chance to eat. Every time he snaps up a bug, Castiel can’t help wrinkling his nose at the crunch of their shells and he tries not to notice the juice that dribbles down Dean’s chin. There’s always a flutter of worry through his chest when Dean dives for the ground long before they come across a stream. The last thing he needs is for a fox or a wolf to grab Dean out of mid-air because he was foolish enough to fly so low.

It’s a mystery to him why Dean doesn’t have the same fears as he does. From where Castiel is, it’s almost as if Dean doesn’t know anything about the rules of the forest. How sheltered of a life did he live before this migration? He said it was his first, but he looks older than that. He should’ve had at least two by now, shouldn’t he?

“Dean!” Castiel calls out, swooping in next to him as Dean rises from the stream.  “How old are you?”

“A couple years?” Dean shrugs and drops suddenly as he risks using the curve of one wing to wipe his face quickly in mid-flight. “I’ve had two pretty lonely mating seasons, if you want to count it that way. Or a couple winters. I don’t really pay attention to it, I guess. Why?”

“I was just curious.” He shakes his head and twists out of the way to glide around a tree before returning to Dean’s side.

The age difference between them isn’t as great as he thought it was. Castiel is only a few years older than him. That makes it all the stranger that Dean doesn’t know something that Castiel would consider the most basic information taught to a newborn. It’s practically unheard of. If anything, it makes him all the more curious about meeting Dean’s family (if they’re still alive). What kind of bats are they to have raised Dean with such a large gap in his knowledge?

There are so many things that Dean needs to know and Castiel resolves himself to teach him everything. It should be strange that he feels so protective of Dean, but he’s the first friend that Castiel has had in a very long time. He doesn’t want anything bad to happen to him. That protectiveness is a burn in his chest whenever Castiel lets himself look at Dean, taking in the carefree way he soars through the forest.

*

“Why do you think this would be a safe place to roost for the day?” Castiel gestures at the hollow he’s hanging above.

Dean rolls his eyes and drops his arms, wings hanging limp above his head. “I don’t know, Cas. I’m tired and my elbow hurts. Can’t we just go inside and go to sleep?” He yawns, not even bothering to cover his mouth as he does so.

“Once you answer the question. What makes this a safe roost?”

“Because it’s empty?” He shrugs again and fixes Castiel with a tired squint. “Any scents are old and stale, so nobody else is using it as a nest right now?”

Castiel nods, satisfied. “Exactly. And where else would you consider sleeping if you aren’t able to find an empty hollow for the day?”

“I literally do not care, Cas.” Dean grumbles and drops to the branch below, flipping to land on his feet. He stumbles into the hollow and Castiel follows behind him. “If you’re gonna get all preachy about how to live in a forest properly, could you wait until I’ve actually had some frikken sleep?”

“It’s important that you know these things, Dean.” Castiel sighs and slips his bag off, putting it to one side of the little hollow. There’s barely enough room for the both of them to move comfortably. “An alternative to a roost like this is a dense cluster of branches where you can be hidden by the leaves.”

Dean shudders through another yawn and pushes his way into Castiel’s personal space. “Yeah, okay. Whatever. Good to know.” He all but shoves Castiel down against the back of the hollow, tucking himself against his chest without a second thought, regardless of the warm night air. “Go to sleep, Cas.”

Hesitantly, Castiel folds his wings around Dean again. This shouldn’t be necessary outside the cave. Dean isn’t shivering here, but he still makes himself comfortable against Castiel’s chest and muffles a yawn against his throat. Any irritation that he had at Dean’s poor attention to his lessons deflates and Castiel sighs, relaxing slowly. He’ll just have to try again tomorrow.

*

“I spy with my little eye something that is…” Dean nearly twists himself upside down while he looks all around them. “Purple!”

“Flowers.” Castiel sighs, not even turning his head to check. He’d spotted them already while keeping his eyes out for any berries he could add to the nearly empty bag hanging under his stomach. “Dean, I don’t understand the point of this game.”

He throws his head back and laughs as he flies circles around Castiel. “It’s for fun, Cas! To keep ourselves entertained because just flying is boring.”

“How are you bored?” It’s a concept Castiel can barely understand. Back at the cave, there was always something for him to do. And out here in the open there’s so much he needs to be alert about. His mind can wander, but his senses are focused – always listening, always looking for any kind of threat.

“Whatever.” Dean snorts and somersaults over a branch, launching off from it to flip through the air. “You figured it out, so it’s your turn now. C’mon!”

Castiel rolls his eyes again and glances around them. “Brown.”

“Y’gotta say the whole thing!”

He exaggerates his sigh and pins Dean with an unamused glare. “I spy with my little eye something that is brown. There, are you happy?”

“Very.” Dean’s amusement shines in both his eyes and his smile. “But, seriously Cas, you’ve used brown every single time. And it’s still the same. For the love of all things delicious, could you pick something besides tree bark?”

A smile of his own twitches in the corners of Castiel’s lips. “You’re incorrect. Try again.”

Dean’s smile falls. It’s almost comical the way he looks around them, eyes wide and echoes bouncing off every surface as he tries to search out what it was. The chances of him guessing are slim to none. Castiel doubts that Dean noticed the brown rabbit hopping towards its burrow already more than a dozen wing-beats behind them now. This so called game is much more fun when Castiel is the one winning.

*

Castiel shifts his feet, flexing his claws in the bark. The loamy scent after the fresh rain during the day is doing nothing to help calm his nerves. They’ve been travelling for days and this is the first time they’ve come across another area where the tall-walkers have set up cloth homes or ones that move on what Dean called ‘wheels’.

Yesterday they had passed a bright and noisy collection of ‘buildings’ that Dean explained was a ‘city’. He has no idea where Dean gets all his words, but Castiel trusts he wouldn’t be making them up. Thankfully, Dean hadn’t wanted to stop there to look for his family. He was intent on finding places like this. These ‘campsites’, as he calls them.

His excitement at finding this one had been exultant, but now Dean’s calls for his family aren’t quite so loud. Castiel is trying his best not to be worried about the tall-walkers sleeping below. Dean doesn’t seem concerned with them. According to him, the owls pose more of a threat right now. But it’s hard for Castiel to keep his eyes on the sky and the ground.

He would prefer being at Dean’s side right now, but he can’t. It’s not like he didn’t try, but he can’t. Castiel hates himself for a being a coward, but even the thought of going out in the open by tall-walkers is making him tremble while he’s hidden from them. The only time he moves is when Dean flies into a different area. As long as he has Dean within sights, Castiel can tolerate letting him ignore his cries for him to return to the safety of the trees.

The branch bounces when Dean lands, swinging into place underneath it. Immediately he folds his wings over his head and shudders against Castiel’s side. “They’re not here, Cas. They’re not here.”

Without hesitation Castiel folds him in his wings. “I’m sorry, Dean.” He whispers, pressing his nose into his soft membrane. “Do you want to continue to the next place?”

“No.” He sniffs and unfolds his wings slightly, enough to peek at Castiel from under them. “Let’s find someplace to spend the night. I don’t want to fly right now.”

Castiel had already spotted a hollow earlier. It’s small, but empty and he takes Dean to it. Dean curls against Castiel’s chest immeditaely, wrapped in both their wings. He goes limp and sniffs quietly every so often while Castiel combs through his hair. The last thing he wants is for Dean to cry through the night. His spirit must have taken quite a hit after this.

Once the purring starts, Castiel nudges Dean’s temple with his nose. “What do you want to do now?”

“Keep going.” Dean answers immediately, lifting his head. “Home is north and I’ll know it when I see it. We just have to keep following the road. If my family isn’t here, they’ll be at the next one, or the next, or I’ll find them at home.”

Fantastic. That news keeps Castiel awake long after Dean has fallen asleep under his wings. The further they go, the farther they’ll get from his home. He’s not particularly comfortable with that. It’s already been a few days. How much farther will they have to go? If he’s not careful, winter might come before he can return home – and that’s one season that Castiel wouldn’t be able to handle. The snow would take away his food source.

If they find Dean’s family, Castiel has no doubt that Dean will choose to stay with them. It’s the entire reason that they’re on this whole trip right now. And there is little chance that Dean’s colony would accept Castiel as one of their own. Dean hasn’t even asked if Castiel would consider staying - should the offer be made to him.

But now that he’s thought of it, Castiel can’t stop thinking about it. Dean says that his home is warm. If it’s warm throughout the winter, does that mean there’ll be food for him too? Would it be feasible for Castiel to stay? What if Dean did ask him to? Would Castiel be able to leave his new friend, likely never to see him again, and make the long trip back home on his own?

The fact that he doesn’t have an answer for those questions scares him.


 “Bats!”

Dean comes crashing back into his head from his thoughts. He doesn’t want to admit it out loud because Cas will just worry about him or ask if he wants to turn around and go back, but Dean’s worried. Holy shit, is he worried. With every wing-beat he wonders if he’s even going in the right direction. He wonders if he’ll recognize the city if they ever reach it. Dean doubts his memories of the route they took south and they weren’t going home the same way anyways.

Cas, for his part, doesn’t look like he’s got the same worries Dean does. His only concern is their safety. He’s always aware of everything going on around them and he won’t let Dean land until he’s done a thorough inspection of the trees. Another thing Dean won’t admit out loud is that he finds it kind of endearing. Whenever Cas gets worried about something, his eyes get all wide and it’s actually a little cute.

Before he can even ask what bats have to do with anything, his question is answered. Between one blink and the next, the air around them is filled with bats. It’s a churning mess of wings and echoes and Dean twists and weaves out of the way, calling out sound when he’s not sure his eyes can keep up with the mass of bodies.

As soon as he breaks through to the other side, he grabs a branch with his claws and thumbs. His heart is pounding a million wing-beats a minute inside his chest and he can’t believe he didn’t even notice the approaching colony. Holy crap, that was a rush! He waits until he’s more or less calmed down before he laughs and turns to Cas.  

“Hey, Cas, where do you thi–” Dean stops and stares at the empty space next to him. Besides the bats that are breaking away from the main colony to hunt, there’s no one else around.

Cas is gone.

Without thinking, Dean throws himself from the branch and wheels back into the other colony. No one seems all that surprised to see him. There are a few curious looks from bats he streaks past, but Dean doesn’t have the time to stop and talk to them. He needs to find Cas. He needs to. How is he supposed to keep searching for his family without him? It would be too lonely and it sends a chill down his spine right to the base of his tail to even think about going on without him.

There are too many voices around him to pick out Cas’s, and he doubts Cas would be able to hear him with his tiny, pointed ears. Dean’s are bigger and better and that’s how he’s going to find Cas. He’s going to listen for the one thing his ears can hear better than voices. Echoes. Closing his eyes, Dean focuses on the pulses of sound pitched higher than the voices of the colony around him. His own echoes keep him from running into anything, but Dean’s listening for the one pitch that’s different from the others. It’s the one set of echoes that he’s grown familiar with over the last week and a half and those will take him to Cas.

Once he’s sure he has it, Dean follows. It’s not like it’ll be horrible if he’s wrong. He could always try again. But Dean’s positive the echoes he’s locked on are Cas’s. They have to be. His heart feels like it’s going to break his ribs when he soars out of the group again and there’s a familiar shape hanging from under a branch, surrounded by at least a dozen of the smaller species around them right now.

Dean barely manages to sink his claws into the branch himself before he crashes into Cas. His wings are significantly shorter than Cas’s, but it doesn’t stop him from wrapping them around him and burying his face against the nearest part of him he can reach. “Don’t do that again, Cas!”

There’s a huff against his ear and Cas spreads his wings to knock Dean’s away. “You’re the one who disappeared!” He’s frowning at him, but Dean’s pretty sure there’s a blush in Cas’s cheeks and (if he’s not mistaken) that’s a smile in Cas’s eyes. Good. He’s happy to see Dean too.

“I kept going straight. Where did you go, huh?” He shoves Cas lightly in the chest. “I thought you were right behind me and then I had to come and find you!”

“How thoughtful of you.” Cas rolls his eyes and quickly presses his thumb against Dean’s lips when he opens his mouth to say something back. “You’re making a scene. If you’re not aware yet, we’re not alone right now.”

Of course he’s aware that there are other bats watching them from the branches all around them. Dean just doesn’t care. Cas is his priority here. Everyone else can watch if they want, but he was worried and a little scared and maybe a little hurt that Cas doesn’t even look like he was upset that Dean had disappeared too.

“My apologies.” Cas turns back to the female hanging next to him. “This is my companion, Dean Winchester. As I was saying before he interrupted – we’re just passing through.”

Dean shifts uncomfortably and looks around at all the other bats. Surprisingly, there’s more than one breed sitting or hanging from the branches. Some of the females have their chests covered with grass and leaf bibs, and others are only wearing little leaf loincloths like Cas. He has the most trouble looking at them – feeling a blush heat his cheeks all the way to his ears before he looks back to Cas and not-quite-at the other female.

“You’re welcome to stay with our colony, if you’d like. We’re a mix up of the lost and the alone.” She explains, gesturing around them.

“We can’t.” It’s not all that proper for him to just cut in on the conversation like that, but he doesn’t want Cas to start thinking that he could stay with this colony. Well, he could, but not yet. Not until he’s helped Dean get back to his family and not until Dean’s asked him to stay. “We’ve gotta go.”

The female gives Dean a hard look and he ducks his head, folding his wings in tight to hide himself behind Cas just a little bit more. She just shakes her head and smiles. “The offer is open to you if you boys want it. And you can stay with us for the night. The sun will be up in a little while and you’ll be safer during the day with us.”

Cas turns back to Dean, tilting his head in thought. “What do you think, Dean?”

He thinks that he wants to keep going. The less time they’re flying, the farther his family gets. But his wing aches, and Cas looks just as tired as he does. They probably won’t even make it that far by sunrise, so they might as well, right?

“Why not?” Dean shrugs.

“Good. You boys get something to eat and find a place to roost. This grove of trees is ours for the night.” She nods and spreads her wings, dropping from the branch in the same motion, though she flips to flap in place. “If you need anything, just shout. Someone will be able to find me.”

“Thank you.” Cas dips his head and Dean copies him. Once she’s flown off, he glances at Dean. “Her name is Ellen, in case you were wondering. And I asked if they had seen any other colonies around lately.” He pauses and shuffles his feet, the bark under his claws cracking slightly. “They haven’t.”

Well, that’s good to know. Dean shrugs and looks around at the other bats. Some of them have taken off too, and some are still watching them. “Are they migrating too?”

“Yeah, we are.”

He looks up to find a blonde bat hanging from the branch above them. Her hair reminds Dean of Mom and the pinch in his chest from the other day only gets worse. He misses them so much.

The blonde bat grins and hops down next to him. “We’re on our way to our hibernacula. It’s a little early in the season for it, but Mom always likes to head out earlier so we can find more lost ones en route. You two aren’t lost, are you?”

“No, we’re not.” Dean says it with more force than he means to. He glances back at Cas as he starts fiddling with his berry pouch. He’ll have to ask him what the heck a hibernacula is later. It’s probably something to do with hibernating, but he won’t know for sure until he asks Cas. “So, you’re Ellen’s daughter?”

“You can call me Jo.” She shrugs and ruffles her wings. “There’s a creek just a little ways from here with plenty of bugs around it. Wanna come with?”

Cas looks up from his berries, squinting at Jo slightly before he looks at Dean. “You can go. I want to find fresh berries and I need to reinforce the bag.”

“Yeah, okay. I’ll catch up in a sec. I just wanna talk to Cas about something.”

Jo waves at a few others still hanging around and they take off as a group, leaving Dean alone with Cas. He’s looking at Dean with that squint and head tilt again, like he’s trying to pick apart his brain without actually asking any questions. It gets under Dean’s skin, but in a good way.

“What’s a hibernacula?” Dean asks and winces. He knows Cas is going to think he’s weird for not knowing this, but he might as well get it over with right away.

Yup. There’s that extra squinty look he’s gotten used to seeing since they met. Cas has gone from brain-picking to are-you-an-alien in no time flat. “You’ve got to be joking, Dean.”

“I’m not.”

“It’s the roost where colonies migrate to for hibernation through the winter months. Every bat knows this.” Cas’s frown just gets deeper and more concerned. “How do you not know?”

Dean shrugs and shuffles his feet, flexing his wings as if he’s about to take off. “I’ve never had to hibernate before, okay?”

“But you live in the north!”

“Yeah, but my family’s home is warm all year round.” He doesn’t like this topic anymore. It’s making his chest hurt. At the confused frown Cas gives him, Dean just shrugs and forces a smile. “A guy’s gotta have his secrets, Cas. You got your big secret about your colony and I’ve got mine.”

He takes off before Cas can question him about it further. It’s not like Dean’s actively keeping any secrets, but he kind of wants his home to be a surprise for Cas. At this rate, they might end up just having to (hopefully) go straight for that to find his family.

At the creek, Dean eats and drinks his fill with Jo. She introduces him to a few friends of hers. There’s Meg, a gray bat; Kevin, a spotted bat with ears bigger than his head; and Charlie, an eastern red bat with the reddest hair Dean has ever seen. The majority of the colony are brown bats, like Jo and Ellen, but it was a small colony to start and they just kept picking up strays along the way.

They all follow him back to the tree where he’d last seen Cas - and he’s still there. He’s sitting on the branch with his back against the trunk and his bag in his lap, weaving new strands of grass into it. Cas barely looks up when Dean takes to roosting right above his head, but he does glance around at the others starting to fill the tree around them. They’re gathering in pairs and groups, whispers filling the air.

“You almost done, Cas?”

“Yes. I’ll be ready to go to sleep soon. I found a blackberry bush and I’ll refill the bag tomorrow before we set out again.” He finally looks up. “Did you get enough to eat?”

He snorts and lets his arms hang above his head, wing tips tickling Cas’s ears. “Y’know I never do. I could eat until I explode and I’d still want more.”

Cas’s ear twitches and he paws at it with the bend of his wing. “Don’t be annoying. I’ll be done in a minute and we can sleep then.”

“I’m not sleepy ye-” A loud whistle interrupts him and Dean twists around, pelting sound into the trees and listening to the echoes that come back. Charlie has the tips of her thumbs between her lips and she’s whistling loudly while Jo waves her wings at him. “What do they want?”

“I assume it’s for you to go over and roost with them for the night.” Cas shrugs and goes back to his weaving. “They’re probably going to tell stories until they fall asleep. You should join them. You might actually learn something.”

Dean huffs and flicks the tip of his wing against the side of Cas’s head. “You’ll come over when you’re done, right?” There’s a weird pressure in his chest pressing in around his lungs and he shoves the idea out of his head that Cas won’t want to sleep with him tonight. It goes away the moment Cas promises he’ll be over as soon as his bag is finished.

When he moves to join the others, Dean makes sure that he leaves plenty of room beside him for Cas. “Are you guys really going to tell stories?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” Meg laughs, shaking out her dark wings. “It’s not like we have anything better to do before the sun comes up. How about it, freckles? You got any good stories to tell?”

He’s got plenty, but he’s heard them all before. If he has to admit it to himself, Dean’s would rather hear about what they consider to be interesting. “Nah, not really. What’ve you got?”

“That depends, what have you heard?” Charlie grins brightly, swinging from side to side in excitement. She’s clearly not going to sleep any time soon. “Do you know the one about the bat who fell in love with the moon? The tragedy of the tall-walkers? Or what about the legends of Nike?”

“Who’s Nike?”

There’s a snort of surprise from behind him and he turns to find a bigger bat hanging quietly between the leaves. His wings are different, white fur blending into the dark membrane. Dean frowns and squints at him. “Y’got a problem?”

“Dean, this is Benny.” Jo gestures between them. “He’s a hoary bat. Benny, Dean is a canyon bat and he’s travelling with a flying fox.”

“The big fella picking berries? Interesting.” Benny grins, talking with a Southern accent. Dean’s never heard a bat speak with one before. He shrugs off Dean’s squint and hops to the same branch. “Y’can stop looking at me like that, brother. It’s just funny to hear that you ain’t ever heard of Nike before.”

The branch bobs again and the hairs on the back of Dean’s neck stand up with the presence of someone behind him. He tenses immediately and glances over his shoulder, relaxing when he sees that it’s Cas. His bag is hanging off a twig behind him and he’s got this kind of fond smile on his lips.

“Don’t be surprised.” Cas tucks his wings around himself and looks around at the group. “There’s quite a bit that Dean doesn’t know. I believe he’s led a rather sheltered life thus far.” When Dean turns a glare on him, his grin only gets bigger. “Nike is the goddess who brought bats into the world.”

Now this is a story that he needs to hear. Everyone turns to Charlie and she puffs up, pleased to have their attention. She spreads her wings and starts talking. “In the beginning, there was only day. Nike, the first bat – the only bat – was forced to fly blind because her eyes could not take the brightness of the sun. She was unhappy with the way of the world and having to see it in the painted silver of her echoes. Tired of never being able to see the details of the real world, Nike spread her wings and covered the sky.”

Dean bites back the ‘impossible’ on his tongue. If Nike is supposedly their goddess, it would be beyond stupid for him to interrupt and call them out on how unlikely it is that a bat would be big enough to do that. He wraps his arms and wings around himself tighter and sighs away the yawn in the back of his throat.

Charlie’s eyes are bright and enthusiastic as she continues. “With the sun hidden, Nike could finally see the world for what it was. And she saw that she was alone.”

Next to her, Kevin’s long ears twitch and he spreads his wings to block Charlie from view. “Nike didn’t want to be the only one of her kind. It was a lonely existence; seeing the birds and the beasts but no bats. So she opened her mouth and started to sing. Nike sang sound into shape and with the power of her voice, she gave birth to every breed we know today.”

Shoving his wings away, Charlie frowns at Kevin and turns back to the group. “Every night, Nike spreads her wings to give us our chance to fly. During the day, she sleeps in the clouds. The thunder her snores; the wind her breath; the rain her tears.”

She continues talking about all the things that bats owe to Nike. Kevin likes to interrupt, but Dean’s stopped paying attention. After his fifth yawn in as many minutes, his jaw cracks with the last one and he shakes himself out, bumping shoulders with Cas. He does it twice more before Cas gets the hint and parts his wings long enough for Dean to shuffle inside. The steady stream of whispered stories stutters to a stop for a moment, but Dean ignores it. There’s Cas’s warm wings and familiar scent all around him and that’s more than enough reason for him to close his eyes, tuck his cheek to Cas’s shoulder, and fall asleep.

*

“Hey, Dean-o!” Meg swoops in front of him, cutting him off and snapping up the moth he’d been chasing. She grins at him, part of the wing fluttering between her teeth before it’s gone. “Where’s your other half?”

She must mean Cas, and he’s out collecting his berries before they take off again. With the sun just set, everyone is feeding before heading out. But after stealing his moth, there’s no way Dean’s going to tell her a damn thing. He shrugs and turns away from her, calling out a bolt of sound in search of something else to eat. There are plenty of bugs to choose from, but it’s Jo, Charlie and Kevin winging their way over that catches Dean’s attention.

They all land in the same tree. Kevin hangs from the branch above where Jo and Charlie are sitting, kicking their feet in the open air as Charlie waves him over. “We thought we weren’t going to catch you before you left.”

“What’s up guys?” Dean lands on the branch beside them, shuffling over when Meg drops down next to him with the same smug grin.

Kevin’s ears twitch and his nose crinkles when all the girls turn to look up at him. “I’m not saying it.” He looks pointedly at Charlie. “You say it.”

“No way. Meg’s the one who wants to know.” She flares her wing in Meg’s direction. “You say it.”

“Fine.” She huffs and tosses her dark hair over her shoulder. After a second of gathering herself, she turns to Dean. “What’s it like having a mate that’s bigger than you?”

Dean’s brain decides that right now is a good time to stop working. He blinks a few times, looks at the gathered group individually, and then stares at Meg. He would bet all his shiny rocks and precious possessions back home that he looks stupid. Really stupid. His mouth is open and everything. And the only sound that comes out is a dumb sounding; “Huh?”

“Your mate. Mr. Tall and Handsome? The fruit eater.” Meg makes a vague gesture with her wing and looks toward Charlie. “What’s his name? Cas?” Charlie nods and she continues. “He’s bigger than you. What’s it like?”

See, even with an explanation this still doesn’t make any sense to Dean. It also doesn’t make much sense why he can feel his cheeks getting warm and his chest is suddenly three sizes too small for his lungs. He wraps his wings around himself tightly and shakes his head. “Cas isn’t my mate.”

Jo snorts loudly, covering a laugh. “But you were sleeping in his wings! The only bats who do that are newborns with their mothers, and mated pairs.”

“Yeah, well, Cas isn’t my mate.” He shakes his head again. This isn’t exactly a bad thing or anything. It’s just really caught him by surprise since it’s not something he’s thought about – or maybe would ever have thought about. He’s just been happy to have a friend and be close to someone while he’s separated from his family.

“Then why –”

“Because when we met it was in a cave and it was colder than I’m used to, okay?” Dean shrugs and looks around, hoping Cas is going to come back soon and save him from having to keep talking. “It was cold and I kept shivering and it was bothering Cas, so he kinda just wrapped me up to keep me warm.”

Meg’s grin only gets wider. “But you’re not in the cave anymore.”

“So? It’s still comfortable.” He snaps, turning away from her. “Y’done with your questions? I wanna eat some more before Cas comes back.”

“Wait!” Jo hops from her branch to his. She flicks her ears forward and tilts her head. “Does this mean that you’re both free? Mom said Cas is cute and she’s been alone since Dad died. I was wondering if you could put in a good word for her?”

The idea is immediately unappealing to him for a variety of reasons, none of which Dean stops to examine. “I could, but Cas is helping me back to my family. We’ve gotta keep heading north.”

Her bottom lip sticks out in a pout and Jo turns a glare on Charlie when she giggles. She huffs and gives Dean a wide-eyed almost pleading look. “Or you could stick around? We’d love to have you.”

If Dean didn’t know better, he’d say that Jo wants them to stay not because she wants to give Ellen a chance with Cas, but because she wants a chance with him. Is this what it’s like to be flirted with? Why doesn’t Dean like it as much as he thought he would? It’s nice and all, but he wants to find his family and he wants Cas to go with him.

“Sorry.” He shakes his head and gives her a weak smile. “We have to go. My family needs to know I’m okay and I need to find them.”

“Isn’t there anything we can do to change your mind?”

Dean shakes his head again. As much as he likes the bats he’s met in this colony, he wants his family. He misses them and they deserve to know that he’s okay. It must be killing Sammy to not know what happened to him. All Mom and Dad would be able to tell him is that Dean got lost during the storm and never came back. They wouldn’t tell him that he was dead. They wouldn’t. Right?

“Excuse me.” Cas’s voice cuts through his thoughts and he has to bite back a happy sigh. Should he be this relieved that Cas showed up?

Everyone turns to look at Cas as he lands on the branch next to them, standing instead of hanging. It’s always easier for him to stand when he’s wearing the bag. His carrying bag looks ridiculous when it’s so stuffed with berries, but Dean’s used to seeing it that way. He doesn’t like the little giggle Meg makes before she covers her mouth with the bend of her wing.

Cas barely spares her a glance. “I’m ready to go when you are, Dean.”

“I can eat on the fly.” Dean rolls his shoulders and spreads his wings. “It was nice meeting you guys. If you’re ever up north, you should look us – me – up. Good luck with the rest of your migration!”

Jo pouts through everyone’s goodbyes, but she waves when Dean takes off with Cas. He looks back and does a few fun flips to get a laugh out of them before they’re out of sight. Cas waves, but that’s it. He’s pointed north and there’s nothing stopping him from flapping away. Dean follows, swinging out from him long enough to make sure that the road is still on their left. As long as they keep following that, he’s sure he’s going to find his family.

Too bad he can’t keep his mind focused on them. No matter how long they fly, all of Dean’s thoughts keep circling back to Cas and, ultimately, what Meg had asked. Is it really that weird that he and Cas cuddle up when they’re sleeping? Dean doesn’t think so, but then again, he’s not all that keen on what the hell other bats are thinking. For him, it’s been totally normal to fall asleep with Sam and Mom all the time. Heck, once he even fell asleep with Dad. But he’d never consider any of them mates.

Wait. Does that mean he would consider Cas a mate? He doesn’t know much about mates, but he’s pretty sure they kiss. Mom and Dad are mates and they kiss. If Cas was his mate, would he have to kiss him? Would he want to kiss Cas? It’s not all that surprising when he decides that he doesn’t mind the thought of it. In fact, if given the chance, he’s pretty sure he’d like to give it a try.

It’s not a bad thought, really. When Dean imagines hooking his thumbs around Cas’s neck and pulling him in for a kiss – noses bumping, lips touching – his heart makes a funny little flipping feeling. His lungs feel like they’re too big, but it feels good. He likes the feeling and the more the thinks about it, the more he really wants to give kissing Cas a try.

But would Cas want to kiss him? Dean knows for a fact that Cas likes him. He wouldn’t have let Dean stay in his cave with him if he didn’t. Cas wouldn’t wrap him in his wings every night, or be making this crazy long journey with him if he didn’t at least like Dean in some way. But does Cas like him enough – or in that way – to want to kiss him? Has Cas thought about kissing him?

By sunrise, Dean hates Meg for asking those stupid questions. It’s all he could think about through the night and it’s stupid and pointless and he shouldn’t be hung up on it because he and Cas are just friends. He doesn’t have a whole lot of those and there’s nothing to make him think that Cas wants to be anything more than that. Hell, Dean’s not even sure if Cas is even going to want to stay with him when he asks for him to stay with the family.

“You’ve been quiet today.” Cas points out, wiping some berry juice from his mouth. He’s looking at Dean with that curious head-tilt-squint thing that he does and Dean feels that twist behind his ribs again. “Is something wrong, Dean?”

“Nuh-uh.” He shakes his head and folds his wings around himself tightly. “Just been thinking.”

“About that colony?”

Cas is more observant than he ought to be. “Kinda.” Dean shrugs and tucks his wings higher, almost covering his head. “Forget about it. We should just sleep.”

Without being asked, Cas folds his wings around him. His scent only makes that tight feeling in Dean’s chest get worse. Not bad worse, just – not better. He shifts and tries to get comfortable, but a whole night of thinking about kissing Cas and having him as a mate doesn’t really make for calm thoughts when he’s literally surrounded by him. It’s hard not to be ridiculously aware of every place where he and Cas are touching.

“Stop wiggling, Dean.” Cas huffs, ruffling his hair. “If you don’t settle down and sleep, then you can go and hang on your own for the night so I can.”

“I can’t stop thinking.” Dean mumbles into the curve of his wing, lowering them so he can see Cas in the shadows under his massive wings. “I can’t stop thinking about some of the things that Meg and the others said.”

Cas pulls back enough to let a crack of light through his wings. “Which thing? They said quite a bit.”

“The thing about us.”

A frown pinches between his eyebrows. “What?”

Dean shakes his head and shuffles closer, hiding his face against Cas’s neck. Maybe if he doesn’t look at him and just tries to pretend nothing happened, he might be able to sleep. “Never mind. Sorry. Just go to sleep now.”

*

After another night of flying with his head full of all the thoughts he’s trying really hard not to have, Dean gives up. He’s sick of thinking about the what-ifs for the second night in a row. When they land for the day and Cas is finished picking his berries, Dean sucks it up. His heart is beating against his ribs like butterfly wings, but it doesn’t stop him from pushing into Cas’s personal space the moment he’s finished hanging his berry bag on a twig.

Cas gets out the first bit of his question – Dean’s name – before he’s cut off. It’s hard to talk when you’re being kissed. Dean knows it’s not the best kiss in the world. All he’s doing is pressing his mouth against Cas’s, but it’s a kiss and something in the back of his head is satisfied with it. Except that Cas doesn’t kiss back. He’s stock still and staring at Dean with wide, confused eyes when he finally steps back.

Dean holds his breath and waits to see what Cas is going to do.

First, his ears fold down - like he’s disappointed. Cas doesn’t look angry, but he doesn’t look happy either, his whole face pinched in a frown. Shaking his head slowly, Cas spreads his wings and drops from the branch. Dean’s heart drops with him. Shit, did he scare Cas off with that kiss? All he wanted to know was what it would be like. He didn’t mean anything else by it, did he?

Thankfully, Cas doesn’t go far. He only goes over a few branches before he tucks himself against the trunk. Dean opens his mouth, but no words are coming out. What is he supposed to say? An apology feels in order, but now that Cas is already all the way over there, it feels a little late for that.

The breeze is cool and Dean shivers in it. Even pressing against the trunk of the tree does nothing to help warm him up. It’s too hard to sleep when his head is full of unanswered questions and his heart is heavy with the worry that he might’ve just really messed up everything he and Cas had going. They’re good friends. He likes being friends with Cas. But is that enough for Cas to want to stay with him when they find his family? Because he wants Cas to stay.

Dean doesn’t want to say goodbye, and he absolutely does not want to know how bad it’s going to hurt if Cas decides to return to his cave.

That whole storm of worry in his chest keeps him from sleeping most of the night. He can’t keep himself from glancing to the branch where Cas is. It’s even harder not to wonder if Cas is asleep too or if he’s thinking about leaving on his own at sunset. To be honest, Dean’s scared out of his pants of falling asleep and waking up to find out that Cas left without saying goodbye.

In the evening, Cas is still there. He hasn’t touched his bag and he hasn’t mentioned wanting to find a bush where he could pick some more fresh ones. He’s just sitting on the branch with his feet dangling over the edge, staring off into the forest. Dean doesn’t like the look on his face. It’s carefully schooled to look like Cas isn’t thinking about anything, but he can tell in the little twitches of his ears that Cas is thinking a lot. His brain is probably going a million wing-beats a minute and Dean doesn’t know what the hell to do now.

Maybe now is a good time to apologize.

Dean crawls up onto the same branch as Cas and shuffles down it until he can sit beside him. Cas barely even blinks and that is so not a good sign, probably. It doesn’t stop Dean from what he’s got to do. He messed up and Mom always said you have to own up to your mistakes. That doesn’t stop him from hooking his thumbs together in his lap, twisting one around the other nervously.

“I’m sorry.” He should get bonus points for not blurting it out like an embarrassed newborn.

For his part, Cas still barely reacts. The most that Dean sees is him tightening his thumbs over his knees. But he does take a deep breath and finally actually look at Dean. Too bad his question sends Dean’s stomach plummeting to the forest floor. “Why did you kiss me?”

He can feel a blush start to crawl up his neck and Dean has to fight himself not to look away. “The other bats – Meg and Jo and Charlie – they called you my mate because of how we sleep. But you’re not my mate, because mates kiss and stuff, right? We don’t do that.” One shoulder twitches in a shrug and Dean caves, eyes dropping to his thumbs in his lap. “I’ve never kissed someone before and I wanted to know what it would be like to kiss you so I just – I just did it.”

Dean sneaks a side glance at Cas and a tingle skitters down his spine at the shadow of pain flickering over Cas’s face. He lifts his head quickly, a red hot worry searing through his chest. Did he make Cas look like that? “Was it that bad? I mean, I thought it was okay and I kind of liked it. I could’ve done better if I wasn’t so nervous, but I –”

“Don’t kiss anyone without their consent, Dean.” Cas sighs. His shoulders slump a little more and he looks away. “You’re supposed to ask someone before you kiss them.”

Yeah, he can see how that would be important. Dean’s pretty sure he wouldn’t have liked it if Jo would’ve just kissed him. Dammit! How stupid could he be? He acted like an idiot newborn when he should know better.

“I’m sorry.” Another question weighs on the back of his tongue and it’s out before Dean can stop it. “Does that mean that if I ask first, I can do it again?”


 

Castiel liked the kiss. It was clumsy, inexperienced – though he doesn’t have anything to compare it too - and despite the surprising unexpectedness of it, Castiel had liked it. There had been a certain endearing quality to it, once he got past the annoyance of being kissed without his consent.

This is a problem.

Dean has found another line and it’s one Castiel hadn’t thought to consider. If he allows this change to the physical aspect of their relationship, there is nothing but heartbreak down that path. How many times must he remind himself that he and Dean can’t get any closer than this? He can’t allow himself to get anymore attached, especially if he has any plans to return home once they either find Dean’s family or Dean gives them up for lost.

Not that it matters anyway. This isn’t a line he’s even able to cross. And Dean should know that. If Dean is going to entertain thoughts of being his mate, then Dean should know just what all of that would entail. And making this decision is terrifying. Castiel’s wings are trembling so slightly he’s not even sure that Dean can see it.

He shakes his head, unable to look at Dean when he answers his question. “I’m not capable of being a mate, Dean.”

The confusion in Dean’s voice is expected. “Why?”

If only the answer were as simple as the question. “I can’t love.”

“You can’t… What?” There’s a pause long enough to pique Castiel’s curiosity and he finally allows himself to look, taking in the thoughtful way Dean tilts his head. “Does this have something to do with your colony, Cas?”

He flinches at the question, drawing his wings in tighter. Dean is more perceptive than Castiel had anticipated. Though he supposes it’s better that Dean figures things like that out on his own. It’s less painful than Castiel having to explain it all. But this is a good thing. Castiel has been alone for so long and Dean is the first creature he’s come to trust in years. If he was to tell this story to anyone, he would want it to be Dean.

Now he only hopes that Dean won’t think less of him when he finds out the monster that Castiel truly is.

With a deep breath, Castiel starts his story. “I’ve been alone for a long time, Dean.” He can’t bear to look at him while he talks. “Like you, I was separated from my family – though not by accident, but by choice. My sister and I were exploring ahead of our colony after we had found a nice grove full of fruit that could feed us for a long time. The colony was already settled down for the day, but we weren’t tired and we wanted to see all around what could very well be our new home.”

The memories, though old, still feel fresh in his mind. Like a wound that won’t heal. “There were other groves in neat, orderly lines all around the one we had settled in. That should have been a warning. Anna, my sister, thought it was weird but I was the one who told her to ignore it.” Castiel has never regretted his words more than he does those.

“Everything was fine until we saw the flying-machine. It was big and loud and it was releasing clouds over the groves further down the line from the one our colony was settled in.” His throat feels like it’s closing up and his chest clenches painfully. He forces himself to continue. “I had a bad feeling about the flying-machine. I didn’t like it and neither did Anna.”

For the first time since he started talking, Dean interrupts. “Why?”

“We had heard stories.” Castiel shrugs and glances at him. “When you migrate, it’s not uncommon to run into other colonies, or lone travelers, and they all have stories. There are hundreds of legends about how the tall-walkers decimate our colonies with their poisons and weapons. They tear down our trees and take our caves as their own.”

Dean’s shoulder slump slightly and he frowns. “That… sucks.”

“Aptly put.” He wants to smile to put Dean at ease, but his mouth doesn’t want to comply.

A wry smirk twists Dean’s lip and he gestures with one wing. “Shut up and keep talking.”

“You just contradicted yourself.”

“Keep telling the story, Cas!” Dean flicks the tip of his wing against Castiel’s leg and leans in closer. “What happened after the flying-machine? What did you and Anna do?”

But Castiel doesn’t want to keep talking. This small break is welcome. Reliving his old memories always leaves Castiel feeling sick and hollow inside. He wishes he could stop now and they could just keep flying. If Dean wasn’t looking at him with wide, attentive eyes, it would be so much easier to end the story here.

Castiel looks away again, his chin dipping to his chest. “I ran. I was young, foolish, and terrified. The flying-machine was going to fly right over the grove our entire colony was in. Anna and I were exploring the next line over, out of its path. We would have been safe, but Anna –” He sucks in a sharp, shuddering breath. “Anna insisted that we go back for our colony. She said – she said we needed to warn them.”

He shakes his head and squeezes his eyes shut. “It was the middle of the morning and everyone was supposed to be sleeping. We had stayed up later, wanting to explore without Mother berating us for it.” His thumbs dig into the bark of the branch until they hurt. “Anna – Anna said we had to wake them – warn them – but I was too scared.”

The trembling starts and there’s nothing Castiel can do to stop it or the tears that sting behind his eyes. “I watched the flying-machine drop its cloud over the grove where my entire colony was sleeping – where Anna had gone back to warn them.”

Dean’s wing brushes over his back in a gentle touch. “What was the cloud?”

Poison.” Castiel spits in a sob. “Anna was lost the moment she went back for them.” He shakes his head violently and slumps forward to hide his face in the bend of his wings. “I was a coward! And then – then  I was alone.”

“How did you know it was poison?” Heat presses against his side as Dean shuffles closer.

He sniffs and lifts his head, blinking away the tears and grabbing at the chance to stop reliving the worst day of his life. “For someone who wants to hear this story, you interrupt quite a bit.” But turning his attention to Dean doesn’t help. His blind devotion to his family plays a large part in why Castiel has followed him this far from his home – and it reminds him so much of Anna that it hurts to think about.

Dean’s nose crinkles above a wry smile. “But how –”

“I didn’t know for certain at first.” Castiel shrugs and leans his weight into Dean’s side, taking what little comfort he can from him before Dean decides he’s not worth comforting. “I waited and waited. I don’t know for how long – long enough to fall asleep.” He shakes his head and tries to separate the events from the emotions of those memories, but there’s no use. His heart still aches, remembering what it felt like to wake up alone. “No one ever came out of that grove.”

“They all died?” Dean asks in a whisper.

Castiel’s tremors start again and he hides his face in his wings. “Every single one of them. I – I flew around the grove countless time. I looked for anyone who might have made it out, but no one – It was so quiet. No birds, no beasts, no bats. Nothing. I – I wasn’t even a whole year old yet and I was alone.” And he deserved it.

“I knew they were going to die. I knew it the moment I saw the flying-machine.” His words come faster, angrier. “I was too scared to help them. Too scared to warn them. I was a faster flyer than Anna. If it had been me, I might have saved  them. But I didn’t. I did nothing – I didn’t –”

“But are you sure they’re dead? I mean, you didn’t actually see any bodies, right?” Dean sounds forcibly optimistic and his smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Maybe they’re still out there?”

He knows they’re not. Castiel didn’t want to remember that moment specifically and he’d refrained from mentioning it so far. His bottom lip trembles and Castiel presses his lips together tightly to make it stop as he shakes his head. “They’re dead.” He’d seen it with his own eyes. The bodies littering the floor of the grove; the lifeless eyes and crooked wings.

What kind of monster must Dean think he is now? It’s obvious that Castiel isn’t capable of loving anyone. He clearly didn’t love his family enough to overcome the fear of the poison. Anna did. Anna always cared so much about everyone and everything. And he – he doesn’t deserve Dean’s friendship or anything else he could offer him. Not after allowing his whole colony to die.

It’s quiet between them for a while. Castiel expects Dean to pull away once he’s figured it out. He doesn’t expect Dean to pull him closer. “Is that why you’ve been living on your own?”

“What?” That isn’t the question he was expecting and he looks at Dean again, frowning in confusion at the open, honest curiosity on his face and the sympathy in his eyes.

“You live alone because you don’t want to get close to anyone again, right?” Dean shrugs and squeezes his wing around Castiel’s shoulders. “Losing everyone you cared about hurt you and you’re afraid of getting hurt again. That’s totally understandable, Cas.”

He knows the words Dean is speaking. They’re clear and concise and the sentences they form are logical, but Castiel doesn’t understand them. How could Dean hear that story and not think him a monster? How could he discard how Castiel had been a coward only to dig down to the root of his fears and insecurities so quickly? Doesn’t he blame him for what happened?

But Dean’s easy smile is warm and Castiel wants to sink into it. If Dean is still willing to accept him, then Castiel isn’t going to question it further. That might actually chase Dean away and he isn’t sure he could bear losing him too.

The smile that graces his own lips feels out of place, but Castiel forces it to stay there as he reaches over to ruffle Dean’s hair between his ears. “You seem so sure of yourself for someone so young.”

Dean huffs and pulls away to run his thumbs through his hair to set it right again. “I’m not young!”

“So you say. Yet this is your first migration.” Maybe teasing Dean a little will lighten the moment.

His eyebrows pinch together in an exasperated frown. “Do I hafta remind you again that I’ve had two mating seasons already? Just coz’ I haven’t actually mated with anyone doesn’t mean I’m a newborn!”

Castiel hums and leans back on his wings. “I still find that hard to believe.”

“Oh, screw you, Cas!” Dean darts forward, nearly shoving Castiel from the branch.

This is exactly the distraction that Castiel needs to move past his memories and forget about this moment too. All he needs right now is the knowledge that Dean knows. He knows and he’s still here beside him, smiling and laughing as Castiel pushes him back only to receive a sharp nip on the curve of his wing for his troubles.

When the laughter dies down and they sit comfortably beside each other again, their attention turns to the stars they can see through the branches above them. The stars have always given Castiel clarity and he realizes now that Dean is right. He’d rather be alone than love someone and risk the chance of losing them again. But that doesn’t change that the guilt weighing on him is immeasurable.

The distraction didn’t work. Castiel can feel the tears sting his eyes again and he draws his wings over his face, shielding himself from the world. Dean makes a curious noise next to him and paws gently at the membrane of his wing.

“Cas, you okay?”

“I didn’t even say goodbye.” He shakes his head and a new wave of tears makes his words tremble. “I didn’t even go in to check for survivors. I never told my parents I loved them, and I never said goodbye.  I just – all I did was watch. I watched them die!” His breaths are coming in great, wracking sobs – each one more painful than the last. “If I loved them – If I loved – I would’ve tried to save them. I would’ve tried to at least say goodbye.”

Dean’s wings fold around him. They’re shorter than his own, but Dean presses as close as he can, wrapping Castiel in his wings as best as possible. “Listen, Cas. Listen to me, okay? The poison would’ve killed you too. You’re alive because you were smart and you stayed away. It sucks that you lost everyone, but you’re here and you’re alive because of it and –”

He stutters to a stop for a moment and Castiel can feel him take a deep breath. “If you’d gone in to try and save them, you wouldn’t be here now. I would never have met you and I gotta tell you something - that would suck. A lot. I don’t wanna think about what it would be like if we’d never met, okay?”

How can Dean be so sure of this? How does he know that if Castiel had gone back, he wouldn’t have been fast enough to warn them in time? How does Dean not see that he’s a horrible bat and he doesn’t deserve to be close to anyone again? What if it’s true and Castiel isn’t able to love anyone again? What if he turns his back on them like he did his family?

Dean’s so sure about everything. He honestly believes that his family is still alive, and that they didn’t leave him behind on purpose. He’s convinced that they’re missing him and that he needs to return to them. If he could, Dean would probably follow them forever.

Where does his confidence – his devotion – come from? It’s something that Castiel feels he’s been lacking for a very long time. This blind faith Dean has is admirable, if not a little enviable. It’s one of the things Castiel likes about him most.


 

Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no, no. Holy shit. This is bad. This is really bad. Cas’s colony – his whole family – was killed by tall-walkers and their poisons. Dean already knows that tall-walkers are humans, which means the flying-machine was a plane and the poison cloud was probably pesticides. This is bad and Dean has this horrible sinking feeling that it’s going to cause so many problems later.

But later is later and that means he can focus on other things at the moment. Right now Cas is crying. He’s always been so sad since Dean met him, but he’s never seen Cas cry. This is scary and it’s digging into Dean’s chest. He hates it. No matter how hard he holds him, he’s pretty sure he’s not going to be able to make Cas stop. But he can comfort him in the same ways that Mom has done for him before.

Dean gathers Cas against his chest and nuzzles his nose into his hair. He rubs his thumbs through it too, grooming him until the soft sniffling finally stops. What is he supposed to say to help him? Cas doesn’t look like he’s expecting anything from him, but Dean wants to do something more than this. He wants to say something, but he doesn’t know what to say and maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay to just touch and hold and wait.

Finally, Cas calms down enough that he’s not shaking under Dean’s wings. When he lifts his head, his eyes and nose are red, but he looks grateful. He looks relieved. Dean gives him a small smile back, and he’s right behind Cas when they take to the air again.

Is it terrible of him to want to be Cas’s new family? He wants to asks Cas to stay with him and his family when they find them. That’s a question he can’t ask before then. Cas needs to meet his family first. He won’t be able to make the decision to stay until then anyways. And there’s a hollow pit in Dean’s stomach full of fear that Cas is going to turn tail and leave the moment he sees them.

This requires precision and careful planning.

The planning starts with stories. Over the next few days, Dean talks. He tells Cas about how warm Mom is and that no matter how big Dean gets, she’s happy to let him fall asleep on her. Dad’s the same. He’s fine with carrying Dean around too when he’s tired, but he can tell when Dean is just being lazy and won’t let him do it. And Sam is the greatest to play games with – especially with playing tag. It’s hilarious because Sam is slow and clumsy. He may be bigger than Dean, but he’s never been able to catch him.

Cas listens with the ghost of a smile and his ears pricked forward.

Dean makes sure to go on as much as verbally possible about the food. That’s a surefire way to catch Cas’s attention. All year round there are bugs for Dean to eat – so many that sometimes he doesn’t even have to hunt for them. Sure, that’s not what Cas wants to hear, but he’s definitely paying attention whenever Dean strategically mentions always seeing a variety of fresh fruit around. That little show of interest Cas has gives Dean hope – a fragile little bubble that he protects inside his ribs.

“And my roost, Cas!” He flips a loop around him excitedly. “It’s the greatest! It’s all mine and it’s big and cozy – so warm! I never have to hibernate.” Cas always looks doubtful when he says that, but Dean shrugs it off. If he can get Cas to come home with him, he’ll understand. “Have you ever seen snow?”

“No.”

“It’s amazing. I bet you’d love it.” Dean grins at the memories of playing with Sam. All the times that he’s knocked snow off branches onto him and all the things they’ve made with it. “You can do so much! And you won’t be too cold or freeze to death or anything as long as you’re careful and don’t stay outside for too long.”

Cas nods his head and gives him that little smile again. “Eyes forward, Dean.”

He quickly banks to the side, rolling around the trunk of a tree with bare inches to spare. Whenever Dean starts talking enthusiastically, he keeps forgetting to pay attention to where he’s going. Cas is the one who keeps them on course next to the road and makes sure Dean doesn’t accidentally fly into any trees. Once was more than enough for his liking. But Cas always has that small smile whenever he gives him a warning. It’s tiny, and fond, and Dean’s thoughts stutter whenever he catches sight of it. His heart does this funny little thing where it buzzes like a honeybee in his chest while his stomach flutters like when he freefalls.

Dean doesn’t know what to name that feeling, but he likes to think that it’s related to hope.

When (and it’s going to be a when, not an if) they find his family, he hopes Cas’s answer is a yes – yes, he’ll stay with Dean. Thinking about that makes his heart do that thing again even though he’s firmly focused on thinking about his family. He’s trying to stay positive and remind himself that he will find them – even if Cas doesn’t look as sure.

*

With every campsite that they pass over, Dean’s spirits keep getting lower. He hasn’t caught even so much as a whiff of his family anywhere near them every time they stop. Dean knows for a fact that his family will only stop at human campsites and when they’re not there, it feels like a small piece of him withers up and falls away. Cas doesn’t really understand why his family does what they do, but Dean can’t really explain it with words. That’s something that Cas needs to see for himself.

But at this rate, they might end up going all the way home before they find his family. If that’s what ends up happening, Dean hopes that he’ll be able to recognize the right city. His home is on the edge of a big human city and he’s seen it from the sky plenty of times. But all the human cities look the same to him. It’s entirely possible that he’s going to fly right past it. They’ve already passed a whole bunch of them and smaller communities, but none of them felt right.

What if none of them ever feel right? Or what if they’re on the wrong route? Mom is spontaneous enough for a route change to happen. She could convince Dad to do it if she really wanted. And if Dean’s missed them, he might never get home.

It’s an upsetting circle of thoughts that makes it hard for him to talk about how great his family is. Which is kind of detrimental to his whole plan to get Cas to love his family before they find them. That’s what Dean thought at first, but whenever he starts getting too quiet, Cas gives him a little boost to his hope-bubble. He swoops in close and goads Dean into a game of tag, or he’ll actually start asking questions about his family.

Cas’s interest is encouraging. It kinda makes Dean think that maybe Cas really is starting to like his family. If that’s what’s happening and it’s not just Cas trying to boost his moods after another failed campsite, then all Dean needs now is for him to meet everyone. There’s zero doubt in his mind that Mom, Dad, and Sammy would absolutely love Cas. And when that happens, maybe Cas will stay.

And if he stays, maybe he’ll let Dean kiss him again.

*

“You’re really going to take the time to bathe now, Cas?” Dean huffs and flexes his fingers, pulling the membrane between them tight. “We should be flying and catching up.”

“I haven’t had a proper bath in weeks, Dean. Rain and tongue baths aren’t sufficient and I can’t take this anymore.” Cas shoves his bag against Dean’s chest and he scrambles to hold it together before anything falls out. “Be happy I’m going to be using the gathered dew on the leaves instead of insisting that we find a creek where you can be lookout.”

He sticks his tongue out at the back of Cas’s head as he turns away and drops from the branch, flipping to land on the one beneath them. Dean watches him right up until Cas pulls off his little leafy loincloth. His cheeks burn and he whips around to face the other direction so fast that his claws nearly lose their grip on the bark. Duh, of course Cas would give himself a wipe-down-shower-bath naked. That’s the logical thing, but it didn’t even clue in and how frikken stupid can he –

“Would you like to bathe too, Dean? A tongue bath will only get you so clean.”

Sweet what’s-her-face-bat-Goddess. Is this really happening? This can’t be happening. Why is this happening to him? Is Cas really that clueless? How was kissing him and point blank saying it to his face that he wants to do it again not enough for Cas to realize that them being naked and slippery together is not a good thing? Well, no, it’s a good thing. It’s a very good thing if the mental pictures in Dean’s head have anything to say about it.

“Dean?”

He shakes his head. “No, no, it’s okay. Nope. I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”

This better not be a regular thing with Cas because Dean might actually go crazy before they ever find his family. He’s been holding off on asking for another kiss since Cas told him about his family. It just didn’t seem like the appropriate thing to do, though he’s really wanted to ask for one pretty much every morning when they go to sleep.

Maybe Cas just forgot about the kiss or that Dean wanted to do it again. He did have that huge emotional breakdown thing, so it’s totally understandable if he forgot after that. Or maybe he thinks that Dean secretly agrees with him about being incapable of love because of what happened to his colony. Oh shit! Is that what Cas thinks? That’s the exact opposite of what Dean wants.

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, so frikken dumb.

“Cas, how long are you going to take?”

“Not long. I’ll just be another few minutes and then I’ll have to make another cover.”

Dean takes a deep breath and steels himself for what he’s going to stay next. “Yeah, about that. You think maybe next time you could warn me before you get buck naked?” Cas needs to know that the little attraction he started feeling after that kiss is still here and growing.

Cas takes a moment to answer. His voice is pitched softer and he sounds worried. “Did I offend you? I know some bats are more conservative, but I didn’t know you were one. I’m sorry, I didn’t think –”

“No, shit, no, Cas. That’s fine. I’m all for nakedness, trust me.” He shakes his head and squeezes the bag hard enough that he’s probably making jam out of the berries inside. “It’s just you being naked that you should warn me about first.”

“Why?” Now he just sounds confused.

“Because – because –” Why does he have to be the one to explain this? Cas is the one who told him that he should ask first before kissing. Shouldn’t he already know about all this? “Because it’s not helping the whole wanting to kiss you situation, okay?”

Dean gets silence as his answer, but he can hear Cas behind him; the splash of water, the rustle of leaves and the whisper of his wings while he’s moving. He nearly jumps out of his skin and falls from the branch when Cas reaches up and touches his shoulder.

“I’m ready to go.”

When he turns around, Cas’s face is red. Not a little blush or red cheeks from a particularly cold wind, but actually red. It’s dark and almost all the way up to his hairline and he can barely make eye contact as Dean hands the bag over. He can’t help but feel like he fucked something up again between them when they take off and spend the rest of the night in silence.

Except that Cas still folds him in his wings when they bunk down for the day in an abandoned squirrel nest and whispers “Sleep well, Dean.” into his hair.

*

“I don’t like flying during the day.”

That’s the fourth time today that Cas has told him that. “I know, I know.” He glances over his shoulder to make sure that Cas is still following him. “We’re almost there and then we can rest, okay?”

There had been a human sign not long ago when they’d crossed over the road that boasted about another campground being up ahead. Cas had wanted to roost the moment the sun started coming up, but Dean wouldn’t hear of it. They’re so close to this campsite and what if his family is there? What if they leave while he and Cas are sleeping or before they manage to get there after they wake up?

He can’t take that chance.

Another yawn cracks Cas’s jaw and he squints at Dean through a frown. “You’re not going to want to sleep when we get there. You’re going to want to look for them and I’m tired, Dean.”

“I know, I’m sorry. Just a little farther, okay?” It’s a bit dickish of him, but Dean pulls out the wide, hopeful eyes shtick. “You can find a roost for the day while I scout out the area. You don’t have to look with me, okay?”

“Don’t say that.” Cas sighs and gives himself a shake, wobbling in mid-air. “I want to be there when you find them. I just don’t understand how you’re not as exhausted as I am.”

The thing is, Dean is tired. But that sign gave him a burst of adrenaline. A part of him can’t help thinking – or hoping – that this could be it. If his family is here, he could introduce Cas and finally ask him to stay. If Dean had human fingers, he’d cross them while hoping Cas’s answer will be yes.

“You’re the best, Cas.” Dean flaps close enough that he can brush his claws over Cas’s back in a light touch as he passes over him. “You can be the little spoon tonight.”

“I still don’t understand that term no matter how many times you explain it.” He shakes his head but gives Dean a small smile. “How is that a reward for allowing you to keep me awake well past when I should be sleeping?”

“I could kiss you if you’d rather have that.”

Colour creeps into Cas’s cheeks and he looks away. He doesn’t say anything, but Dean considers that progress. He’s thought about that a lot over the last few days and during all that, something occurred to him. Cas never said he didn’t like the one kiss they’ve had. All he did was tell Dean that he shouldn’t do it without asking first. And every time he’s asked since, Cas hasn’t actually said ‘no’.

It’s semantics, but Dean clings to it and lets that boost his little hope-bubble. He won’t do anything unless Cas says he can, so hope is really all he has right now – for a lot of things.

It’s not much longer before they reach the edge of the campground. While Cas sticks to the trees, Dean doesn’t hesitate to swing out into the open air above the first site. With the sun above the forest now, it’s harder for Dean to see. It’s too bright for his eyes and even in the world of details, he still has trouble seeing everything when he has to squint so much. This would be easier if it was just a little earlier – or better yet, if it was early evening.

While he flaps back and forth above the campsites, the early risers of the humans are all puttering around slowly. The ones staying in tents are making their way up the paths to the communal bathrooms. There are a few bulky campers pulled into some sites, but most of those are quiet with maybe one or two people stretching their legs outside.

Dean knows Cas hates it when he’s out in the open like this – especially with humans walking around below – but if he misses seeing them, he stands a better chance of them seeing him out here than if he was hidden between the trees. Of course, his family could totally be sleeping. In which case what he’s doing right now is pretty damn pointless.

“Do you see them?” Cas calls out, hovering just at the edge of the site that Dean is flapping over now. He glances toward Cas and his heart sinks as he shakes his head. Cas’s worried frown turns sad and he tilts his head to gesture over his shoulder. “I saw a hollow we can sleep in.”

This sucks. Dean had really been hoping that this would be where he’d find his family. There’s a bitter taste of sadness on the back of his tongue as he trims his wings and tilts to skim towards Cas. Maybe he’ll feel better this evening after he’s slept and had something to eat. Then they can head out again for another long flight to the next campground, and the next, and the next, and every campground that has ever existed.

Maybe – maybe he should give up. Would Cas be upset to have come this far only for Dean to want to turn back now? He’s not sure how many more disappointments he can take. Dean feels like he’s going to be sick. His stomach keeps twisting and curling in on itself and he can feel the sting of tears behind his eyes. No. He can’t cry again. He can’t. He –

“Dean?”

Dean’s almost to where Cas is waiting. He can see him clearly and his lips aren’t moving. And that’s not Cas’s voice anyways. Someone else is calling his name and Dean’s pretty damn sure he recognizes that voice. It’s a messy thing trying to stop in mid-air. Dean flares his wings, pin-wheeling to stop and turn without banking like he should. That voice. It’s – but how did he miss –?

“Mom! Dad! I think it’s Dean!”

His heart starts pounding fit to burst right out of his chest and Dean’s having trouble breathing, looking every which way because that’s Sam’s voice. That is, without a doubt, his brother’s voice. But where the hell are they?

“Dean, what’s wrong?” Now that is Cas’s voice and it’s all pitched down with worry.

“I heard them!”

“Your family?” Cas perks up, sounding more awake than he has all morning. “Are you sure? I don’t hear anyone. Where are they?”

There! Sammy’s running up the dirt road between the sites, waving his arms above his head. Mom and Dad aren’t far behind him, coming out of one of the sites that Dean had passed over. It had a camper tucked under the trees and Dean didn’t think it looked like theirs. But he’s never seen it from the outside in the full light of the morning. By now he’d be sleeping in his roost inside.

Dean whoops and flies a tight spiral before flapping toward them, already tilting into a dive. “It’s them, Cas, it’s them! We found them!”

He’s too happy to finally see Sam and his stupid floppy hair that Dad hates and Mom loves to remember the one thing he never explicitly told Cas about his family. When Cas’s claws catch him around his shoulders and dig into his skin, the first thought through Dean’s head is confusion – why is Cas stopping him? Cas is muttering a string of ‘no’s as he drags Dean back to the trees and Dean fights him through ever flap.

“Dammit, Cas! Let me go! It’s my family!”

Cas drops them on a thick branch, fumbling to pin Dean to the trunk before he can push his way past to get airborne again. “Don’t be ridiculous, Dean! Those are tall-walkers! You can’t –”

“I know!” Dean shoves at him, but Cas’s wings are bigger and he’s stronger than Dean is. “Cas, I’m a pet. My family is humans. They’ve always been human!”

The struggling stops almost immediately. Cas recoils like he’s been burned and Dean can barely keep up with the emotions that flash across his face – pain, horror, betrayal – before Cas is gone. He throws himself from the branch and dives away into the forest faster than Dean can react. Realization hits him like a punch to the gut and Dean’s stomach seizes.

Cas didn’t know. Dean never, not once, told him that his family were talk-walkers. He should’ve said something after Cas shared his deepest, darkest secret with him – but he didn’t. That betrayed look makes sense and Dean has never been more torn about what to do in his life.

Mom, Dad and Sammy are calling for him and running across the sites, waking up the rest of the campers in the process. He’s missed them so much and he wants to go to them – but Cas. He’s Dean’s best friend now – hell, he’s practically family too.

It’s physically painful for him to turn away from his family and go after Cas, but Dean can’t just let things end like this.