Dean drags himself into the Hollow, his tail straggling behind him like it's too tired to hold itself up. He blinks his wide, green eyes and waits for them to adjust to the dark. There in the back of their little home, Sam lays curled on his side on a pile of dry, flaking maple leaves.
His brother picks up his head and squints at him in the dark, his chestnut fur rising and falling with his labored breaths. Dean runs his paws over his arms, a nervous gesture. His hands are too empty; Sam doesn't even bother asking how it went.
"Sorry, Sammy," he says. Outside, the rain is driving hard and loud against their tree. A flash of lightning makes the Hollow bright as day for a moment, then it all turns black again.
"It's fine, Dean." Sam curls into an even tighter ball. "We'll get by. We always do."
Dean wants to snap at him, tell him that they can't just get by without any food forever. But Dean is tired, and wet, and has done all a squirrel can do for the day. He hunkers down on the leaves next to his sibling, wrapping his sorry, sodden tail around them both. Sam is shivering still.
It was easier when they were a family, when mom and dad were around to keep them warm and safe. But they're not, and that means it's all on Dean. He can still see that black shape coming over the ridge, the black dog licking its chops like a demon before barreling down the slope on the north side of the park with unearthly speed. Their mom hadn't been fast enough; their dad, too fast, running too far ahead, shouting at Dean and Sam to keep going, to not look back. Except dad could never take his own advice. He did look back. And he didn't see the car.
"I'll go out with you in the morning. Maybe we'll find something in the cans," Sam mumbles into Dean's fur.
"Maybe," Dean hedges, but with this rain, they're not likely to get many more humans coming through the park with their honey-sticky granola bar wrappers and crumb-flecked pastry bags. Everyone will stay inside where it's safe. And because it's down to Dean, that's where he wants Sam to stay too; he'll pry himself away from his brother's warmth before the sun comes up, and he'll search for something worth eating. He'll keep Sam fed and alive, even if it kills him.
The nights are getting shorter but the early springtime is cold and lean. The seeds they've hidden away for winter have rotted or gone to sprout, and new food is thin on the ground. But there's still food to be found if they just keep at it. That’s what Dean keeps repeating over and over in his mind, tail fluffed up and restless around his baby brother, even if he knows it’s not that simple. It never is that simple.
Sam is tiny for his age, a young squirrel made even smaller by the way he curls into himself to keep warm, and all Dean can think about is that he has to try harder to give his brother what he needs. He doesn’t care if he has to cut down on his share of food and he’s not scared of going out of his way for the small chance of bringing something home. Sam is his priority and nothing else matters.
Dean is tired and drenched to the bone, his fur barely starting to dry as the rain keeps drop-drop-dropping outside the Hollow. They’re safe here, their teeny tiny home perfect for just the two of them. They don’t need much else to be comfortable in their life, and Dean is grateful for little blessings such as having a place to call their own. It might be hard at times, yes, but at least there’s something there to protect them from the storm, a safe little haven where they can take a breath and try and forget the emptiness in their stomach.
He stretches his paws as he feels Sam shifting, burrowing further into Dean’s side; his little brother is a cuddler and he doesn’t even know it, so far gone that he’s unaware of his surroundings. Dean should really give him hell for it but he can’t help admitting that it’s kind of nice to have his brother this close; a ball of heat with a little snoring problem, that’s what Sammy is.
The wind blows outside and Dean can hear the trees rustling, branches snapping and leaves falling all around them. Maybe, he thinks, all this bad weather will shake up things a bit and he’ll be lucky enough to find some nuts on the forest floor.
Yeah, and maybe one of them will taste like pie.
Dean loves pie. He only had the chance to taste it twice and it had been risky, but it was so worth it. He likes to start each day in the hopes that one unknowing camper will leave a piece of the delicious human food unattended and he’ll be able to scutter up and steal a bit. He’s not picky, he’ll take whatever flavor any day, any time. If someone asked him, though, he’d say that apple pie’s the best. It fucking rocks, and Dean would sell part of his beautiful, fluffy tail to have another bite of it.
Honestly? Right now he’d give up his whole tail for the chance to get his paws on some pie crumbs and bring them back to Sammy.
Sammy would be so happy about it, Dean just knows. In his mind’s eye he can see his brother wagging his tail in anticipation, big hazel eyes open in wonder as Dean spreads the crumbs on the floor between them.
His stomach grumbles and Dean curls himself in an even tighter ball.
Right. No pie, no crumbs, no nothing for tonight. Just like yesterday and the day before.
He huffs a breath and looks at Sam, whose nose is scrunched up as he probably dreams of smelling something real good, whiskers tickling Dean’s cheek.
Tomorrow things will change, Dean’s sure of it. He’ll find something to bring back, even if it means he’ll have to leave the confines of the forest and go into the natural reserve. He has heard stories about it since he was a baby, and as different as they might have been one thing has always been the same.
Over there, there’s food aplenty and nobody is ever, ever hungry.
He manages a few hours of sleep, his eyelids on a hair trigger at the slightest sound: the growl of a passing car engine, the swish of birds as a flock flies low. Dean sniffs the air for that telltale scent of predator, but each time the car rumbles past, the birds keep migrating. The sky is still black when he finally extricates himself from his brother, who snuffles and whines in his sleep. Dean strokes Sammy's soft ear until he settles down, then launches himself out of the hole that forms the Hollow's entrance. He picks his way down the bark carefully, stopping to lay stockstill, flattened against the tree with his ears pricked up, listening for anything out of the ordinary before continuing. He jumps the last few feet to the ground, which is still squishy from the night's rain. The sky is turning a light gray to the east. Dean faces that way and bounds off.
The parkland is quiet, dew-speckled, not even the insects up and humming yet. Dean doesn't see another squirrel, which is fine by him. The last thing Dean needs is a scuffle over food or territory. He's lost enough fur this season.
Dean hops through grassy fields and wooded slopes, over concrete pathways and past the lake where humans sometimes dangle strings for fish. He reaches the blacktop area where the cars would be parked, then races across the main road, his heart hammering in his chest long after he crosses into the woods on the other side. He keeps going, further than he's ever gone, towards the fabled reserve. He just hopes his parents were telling the truth about the place.
The fence stops his progress. It's taller than any human-made thing Dean's ever seen, taller than his home tree, even. Dean squints up at it, silver metal links glinting in the sunrise, a thick coil of wire at the very top. He places his paws on the chain links experimentally, climbs up a few feet in fits and starts, then sees the wayward tree branch caught in the wire. It's shredded, barely hanging onto the fence. Dean balks; those wires mean death. He climbs back down, determined to find another way.
Dean hops along the base of the fence for hundreds of yards, hoping to find some break in the chain, some end to the metal, but it just keeps going uninterrupted. It's getting lighter out; Sam will be awake soon, and Dean had wanted so badly to return with food before he woke.
Dean's almost resigned himself to turning around and heading back to the park, maybe searching for buried seeds along the way as part of a last-ditch effort to feed Sammy, when another glint of metal catches his eye. Sitting on the forest floor, half-concealed by a bush of viburnum, is something like a smaller fence, all wrapped into a square. And sitting inside the chain link box is a pile of soft, sun-yellow corn kernels. Dean can smell them, sweet and crisp.
There's enough there to feed him and Sam for at least a few days, maybe a week. It's more than he'd hoped for, and Dean finds himself pushing open the door of the box without his usual caution. It's not until he's passed through and looks around that he sees the box for what it is: a cage.
He turns to run, but it's too late. The trap door is slamming shut behind him. Dean makes a desperate dive for freedom, but he can't move fast enough. The metal door snaps down right on top of his forearm with a stomach-churning crunch. Dean shrieks in pain, chittering loudly. A flock of turtle doves take flight at the noise, climbing into the sky as one big cloud. Dean bites down on his cries; he can't draw the attention of a predator now. He tries to lift the door, but it only opens from the outside. He's trapped.
Dean's eyes dart along the floor of the cage, looking for anything that he can use, but there's nothing, and his arm is aching in a way that makes him think it might be out of commission. He thinks about Sam, waking up alone in the Hollow and calling, "Dean?" For just a moment, he rests his head against the cold steel of the cage floor and shudders.
He's going to die here, starve with a pile of food sitting just out of reach. Or the human who set this trap will come and snap his neck. Either way, he's dead and Sam is going to be alone.
"I'm sorry, Sammy," Dean whispers.
"Who's Sammy?" a voice asks, and Dean's head whips back up.
Another animal is there, clinging on the other side of the high fence. It's not like anything Dean's ever seen: bright white fur, as white as clouds. Eyes blue like the springtime sky and big as acorn caps. A tiny body, barely larger than Sammy's, scrunched against the chain links, long thin paws grasping it tight.
"What are you?" Dean asks in return.
The animal blinks. "My name is Castiel," he says, and Dean's about to correct him, what, not who, but Castiel continues, pointing at Dean's arm. "That looks painful."
“Yeah, no shit,” Dean mumbles to himself, but aloud he says, “It could be worse.” Normally he'd let the sarcasm fly, but Dean’s not sure if this is an enemy, and he doesn’t want to risk upsetting him. The way the other — a squirrel? another kind of rodent? — looks at him is unnerving though. Big blue eyes never moving from his own, long white tail moving gracefully around him and projecting the scariest shadow on the ground.
Fact is, Dean has always been a loner; him and Sam against the world, that’s been the basic survival rule of his life until now. That gave him the strength to fight for his little family’s well-being and it had also made it pretty easy for him to judge others on a first glance. He has no choice; if he wants to be the kind of big brother his parents always wished he’d be he has to be able to sense where there’s danger and where it's safe to interact with the other animals of the forest.
He has, on occasion, found it useful to pair up with other creatures here and there — some of which he will also go as far as calling friends. Bobby is one of them of course, and as far as Dean’s concerned he considers him almost like a surrogate father.
Bobby — an old, big marmot that Dean remembers being around since he was a little sleepy thing curling in his mother’s tail — has always been there for them. He was his father’s best friend and the one who helped the brothers once they found themselves orphaned and alone in the world.
Dean will never stop being grateful to him for keeping them fed that first long winter. If the old soul hadn’t taken time out of his precious project of building a gigantic dam over the river, Dean didn’t know where he and Sam would be now.
Well, okay, maybe they’d be bunking with Ellen and Jo for a little while, but the two chipmunks already had their fair share of work in trying to steal enough food for themselves from the old Roadhouse pub at the outskirts of the forest — so close to the highway that it was dangerous to venture more than fifty yards away from their tree at risk of being crushed by the oncoming traffic— and they didn’t need any more trouble.
So, long story short, Dean is a good judge of character, and this Castiel, here, is fairly unreadable to him. He keeps staring down at him like Dean’s the most curious creature in the whole wide world, and frustration is quick to build up when you’re helpless and caught into a stupid trap.
“Hey,” he says again, because he doesn’t have time to waste here and the white strange thingy staring at him could very well be his only shot at freedom. “Are you gonna stand there and stare at me all day?“
Castiel doesn’t say anything for a minute, still staring at him with unnatural blue eyes, and Dean tries to focus on them as his vision starts blurring. His arm is getting numb and if he doesn’t hurry up he won’t be able to ever recover from this one, and he can’t risk it. Sammy needs him in one piece, and getting permanently hurt is out of the question.
Finally, after what seems to be entirely too long a time to make a decision —one where someone’s life is at stake too — Castiel scrunches up his nose and scratches down his right ear. He nods, seemingly reaching a conclusion to what had to be a huge dilemma for him, and says:
“I am here to help you. My family heard your cry of distress and I was sent here to see what happened. I shall set you free.”
What a pompous bastard, Dean thinks, and he scoffs with gritted teeth as the wound on his arm sends fiery bolts of pain to his brain.
“I don’t need for you to set me free, you douche. I just need you to open up the cage a bit. I‘ll do the rest by myself and I won’t need to see you again after that.”
Castiel peers through the chain link, his soft face curious. "How do you plan on passing safely through the forest alone with your injury?" he asks.
Dean looks over the small animal once more, allowing the doubt to show on his face. "No offense, but you don't look like you could handle me, let alone a hawk or something." He shakes his head. "And anyway, you're over there on the other side of the fence, so just forget it. You couldn't help me even if you tried."
Castiel's flat, silky tail twitches twice, then his small pink nose twitches, and then he disappears, turning back into the trees behind the fence. Dean watches him go with a sinking heart. So much for his miraculous rescuer.
He tugs his arm again, but it's still stuck, the pain threatening to white out his vision. He's frantic now, beating his free paw against the door in an effort to dislodge it, but it's hopeless. Then another flash of white appears at the corner of his eye. Castiel sits on his haunches on the far side of the fence, this time with a small canvas pouch slung across his back with a lanyard cord.
"What the hell is that?" Dean asks.
Castiel shrugs, eyes fixed to the top of the tall fence looming between them. "The Ranger misplaces things from time to time. I believe this was a coin purse once."
Ranger? Coin? Dean doesn't understand what these things mean, but before he can ask, Castiel is scurrying up a spindly pine near the fence post. He's so small and light, the tree branches barely bend under his weight. He climbs to the very tip-top, swaying in the breeze.
"Don't be an idiot!" Dean yells up at him. "The wire! It's sharp, you won't make it!" As crazy as this guy is, Dean doesn't want to see him sliced into white ribbons.
Instead of answering, Castiel launches himself into the air. Dean watches, horrified, but then—then something happens. Castiel flings his arms and legs wide, and he's flying through the air, soaring over the top of the fence and dropping gently toward a far tree. He lands on a high branch, leaping down through the pine needles until he reaches the ground, then runs over to Dean's cage.
"How—? What did you do?" Dean demands, his mouth hanging open.
Castiel blinks at him with those big blue eyes. "I'm a flying squirrel," he says, like someone might say water is wet. He noses around in the underbrush and snaps a forked twig off a bush.
"You can fly," Dean says flatly.
"Glide, to be precise." Cas carries the twig over to the cage door and examines the mechanism. "My kind have lived in the preserve for many generations. The other animals, the big cats and otters and such, are kept in their pens, but we are free to roam the fence-land. The Ranger set these traps to stop gophers from digging under the fence, but sometimes innocents are caught as well."
Explains the white fur, Dean thinks. Decades of breeding with no predators was sure to produce some weird offspring that wouldn't last a minute in the park. "So you've done this before?" he asks. "Left the preserve to help some poor sap?"
Castiel shakes his head. "This is the first time I've gone beyond the fence. I was very pleased to have been chosen. It's an honor. And you have not yet told me who you are, or what you're doing here, or who Sammy is." He jams the twig into the trap's metal links and hoists the door slowly. Dean grimaces at the throbbing pain in his arm that starts as the pressure lifts.
"Sammy's my brother. Younger, not littermate. Food got scarce, so here I am. I'm Dean, by the way."
Castiel props the twig in the dirt to keep the door open and helps Dean to his feet. Dean keeps his sore arm close to his chest, shying away when Cas reaches for it.
"Let me see, Dean," Castiel huffs, and takes the limb gently between his paws. "No blood, that is fortunate. Can you walk?"
Dean takes a tentative hop on three legs. "Yeah, but not much," he grunts.
"One moment." Castiel scurries to the back of the cage, where the corn is still piled in a golden pyramid. He stuffs six kernels into his pouch and cinches it up again. "We'll go slow; we can't aggravate your injury. Which direction is your home territory?"
"West," Dean says.
Castiel nods, pleased. "Sunset-ward. I've often wondered what it's like there." He fiddles with his pouch for a moment, suddenly shy from his admission. Then he slings the pack over his shoulders and huddles up close to Dean's side. "Here. Lean on me. We can move faster that way."
Dean's about to protest, to tell the weird little albino or whatever he is about personal space, but Castiel's body is soft and warm, his fur like silk, and it does help to use him as a crutch. They step out of the cage together, taking slow, careful hops.
"You're not scared?" Dean asks after a long bout of silence. "Of what might happen to you outside the preserve? It's not like where you live. You could get eaten by a stray cat or something."
Castiel frowns in a thoughtful way before answering. "I'm aware of the dangers. But I'm not afraid for myself. I'm here to save you, Dean. That's what's important."
Dean's paw slips on a slick pebble, and for a moment he loses his balance, but Cas' flat white tail entwines with his own bushy gray one, and he finds his feet.
"Oh," Dean pants. "Okay." Their tails tighten together on instinct.
Castiel seems to be turning pink under his pale fur. He looks away, into the woods. He doesn't release Dean's tail, and they continue on.
Dean has to give it to the guy, Castiel is strong. And not normal strong, either. For something as small as this little thing he’s at least twice as strong as Dean, and Dean has been training all his life to keep in shape.
They move like one bizarre animal, most of Dean’s weight supported by Castiel. Once or twice Dean’s paw slips or he gets a sudden spasm in his arm, but Castiel’s grip on him is firm, a solid presence that reassures him.
"Come on, Dean," Castiel tells him. "It can't be much farther."
His confidence grates on Dean's frayed nerves. "How would you know?" Dean snaps. "You don't have any clue what the world is like outside your little bubble, do you? Damn it, with that fur of yours, we may as well have painted targets on our backs. A predator can probably see you from miles away."
Cas bristles, his fur standing on end, but he only says, "If we're attacked, I will deal with it. Try to concentrate on moving."
"You'll deal with it?" Dean chitters. "You'll run. You'll have to. I'm a sitting duck, Cas."
The smaller squirrel trains his bright eyes on Dean, wide and soft. "You're not a duck, you're a squirrel, and you're walking, not sitting. I should ask, did you hurt your head as well?"
"You idiot—" But Dean's protests are cut off by a yowl from the bushes to the right. A stray cat, black and tatter-eared, barrels out of the underbrush, its sharp claws bared. Dean hates the cats almost as much as the dogs; they're mean and nasty and will fight anything they can find. Normally he'd run, but he can't. He freezes, his injured arm throbbing.
"Get down!" Castiel shouts, shoving his entire weight into Dean's side, rolling with him into a shallow depression under a rotting tree limb on the forest floor. The cat's paw swipes after them, barely missing Cas' flat tail. The predator snarls and spits.
The tree limb shakes. It won't stay put for long, not with the cat ramming against it. "Go! Run!" Dean orders, but Cas stands his ground, inexplicably rooting around in his little pouch. "What are you waiting for?" Dean cries.
Cas pulls out a long, thin strip of dried meat, beef jerky, from the smell of it, and flings it into the dirt. The cat stops its hissing, bends to sniff at the meat, and takes it between its jaws to gnaw on it. As Dean and Cas watch, the cat pads away, worrying its prize between its needle-like teeth.
"That was...." Dean trails off. He turns to the white squirrel, who's panting for breath, wide-eyed and staring at Dean. "That was amazing. How did you—?"
"I've been saving it. I thought it might be useful." Cas is still shaking from the adrenaline of the attack. "Most predators will take food freely given rather than exert energy for the kill."
He holds a paw out to Dean, and Dean takes it after only a moment's hesitation. Castiel helps him back on his feet, guiding him out of their shallow shelter and onto the path. They resume their strange posture, Dean leaning heavily against him.
"Good work, Cas," Dean says after they've walked a few hundred yards. Cas' whiskers twitch back and forth with nervous energy, and the smaller squirrel won't meet his gaze. "What?" Dean asks.
"I like how you call me Cas," he says. "I've never had a nickname before."
"Hey, get us home in one piece," Dean says, "and I'll call you Cas all you want."
The going is slow, but Dean doesn't mind as long as he's leaning against Cas' warm side. Dean chatters on about his park, his friends, his awesome little brother, and everything else he can think of to fill the quiet, and eventually they reach the Hollow.
Climbing a tree with one paw out of service is something Dean doesn’t look forward to doing ever again. He and his new acquaintance must make a ridiculous sight as Castiel tries to drag him slowly but surely all the way up to his little house; when they finally stumble inside Dean is so happy he forgets any pang of humiliation he may have felt.
The happiness lasts all of two seconds, though, and suddenly he’s on his back staring up into a pair of huge, concerned eyes as Sammy paws all over him in his worry.
“Dean! What the hell happened to you? Where did you go? I woke up and you weren’t there and—and who’s this???”
Sam, excitable little bastard that he his, abandons Dean on the ground in favor of circling around Castiel, not daring to get closer but curious about him nonetheless. Leave it to his brother to forget all about Dean’s possible injury to indulge in his freaky curiosity.
Castiel in the meantime stands stock-still under the scrutiny, keeping his eyes on Dean like he hasn’t suddenly become the focus of a young, hyperactive squirrel. It is quite unsettling, the way Cas seems to not pay attention to anything but Dean since they met, but Dean chalks it up to the fact that the poor guy never met anyone outside his own family in all his life.
Dean coughs and grits his teeth as he rights himself on his paws again, massaging his arm and trying to regain the breath that was knocked out of him when Sam tackled him, and smiles.
“I’m okay, Sam, if you’re still concerned about me...and this—this is Castiel. He helped me out of a tricky situation at the reserve.”
At that, Sam stops jumping around Castiel and turns abruptly toward Dean.
“The reserve? What—Dean, what were you doing over there? You know how dangerous it is to go that far into the forest, what were you thinking? What happened? Were you attacked, did you—”
“—have a fight? You know what they say about that place, right? That the barrier is—
“—magic or something and it can fry animals as big as foxes and what about me? What would I do if—”
“Sammy, stop it!”
“I said shut it.”
“Shht—” He makes a circular motion with his uninjured arm and Sam finally quiets down. Dean loves his little brother to death and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for him, but as adorable as he is while sleeping he can be a pretty big pain in the ass when he gets worried. Also, he pulls the funniest bitchfaces, and he’s currently sporting Dean’s favorite. Nose scrunched all the way up, whiskers vibrating and big, light brown ears pointing his way like they’re ready to send bitch-vibes and slap him in the face. To top it off, his tail is ridiculously fluffed and curling at the end, ready to hit whoever might endanger his big brother.
Yeah, Sammy is really something.
“Sam, everything is okay. I went over there to find some food—” Dean moves his arm again to shut down his brother’s latest attempt to talk “—you know we need it. So, I went there and got caught in a trap; my arm was injured and I couldn’t get out on my own. Cas—hm, Castiel heard me and he helped me out. Sam, meet Castiel. Castiel, this is Sammy.”
Castiel drags his eyes away from Dean and looks solemnly Sam’s way.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Sam. Your brother talked about you a great deal on our way here.”
Sam nods and grins at Cas.
“Really? I bet he said I’m awesome.”
“Actually y—” Castiel begins, but Dean is fast to interrupt.
“I told him what a royal pain in the ass you are, you idiot.”
Castiel seems to want to object to that, but Sam smiles in his brother’s direction and changes the subject.
“So...Castiel. Thank you for saving my brother’s sorry ass. Knowing him he didn’t say anything to you, but really, thank you.”
Castiel nods once and looks at Dean for a second, blue eyes boring into his.
“You’re welcome, Sam. Your brother deserved to be saved.”
Dean shuffles his feet, tail curling behind him in a nervous gesture. He doesn’t like the way Castiel says that like he just knows Dean; like he is sure Dean didn’t deserve to die today in such a horrible way. He knows Cas saved him because his family sent him to, but still. The way he seemed to just click with Dean, taking half his weight on himself and dragging him back home, it's a bit too much for Dean to process.
Castiel could have let him out of that trap and left him in the forest to his own devices, and yet here he is now at the other side of the forest, alone and away from his family, and only for Dean’s sake.
Dean lowers his head before he does something stupid like blushing under the weight of such a realization, and he tunes into the others’ conversation.
“—kind of squirrel are you? I’ve never seen anything like you before! Your fur is white and, dude! What is it that you have under your arms?”
Sam’s enthusiasm is almost embarrassing, really, and Dean feels it is his duty to help the poor guy and just shut his brother up.
“Sam, leave him alone!”
“I’m a flying squirrel, Sam,” Cas says proudly, puffing his chest out and straightening up his ears. He doesn’t even acknowledge Dean this time (and that hurts a little, if Dean's honest with himself) and keeps going. “I’m part of a big family, bred and raised in the reserve. The color of my coat is unusual, yes, and it is kind of frowned upon by my peers, but I do not mind it that much.”
“Dude,” Sam says, awed. “Your color is awesome! And you can glide from tree to tree too, right?”
Castiel looks at Dean for a second, something like a smile in his eyes, and says “Yes.”
"All right, okay, enough with the third degree, Sam," Dean grunts, sitting on his haunches to examine his bad arm.
"Yes, Sam," Cas says. "We need to set your brother's arm so it will heal properly. Can you please go fetch a small, straight stick, about this long?" Castiel holds his paws an inch or so apart. "And some fresh grasses, long ones."
"Sure!" Sam says at the same moment Dean barks, "No way!"
"Sammy ain't going out there alone," Dean tells Cas. "There are humans out there, and their dogs, and anything could happen, and I won't let him get—"
"Dean." Castiel soothes a paw down Dean's ruffled back. "Sam will stay close to the Hollow. If there is danger, he will come directly home, won't you, Sam?"
"Yeah. Of course." Sam's little tail flicks in excitement. "I want to help, Dean." And he's so earnest with his big hazel eyes and long face; Dean sighs and lays down on the pile of leaves, resigned.
"Just watch your ass and get back here pronto."
"Absolutely!" Sam scurries out of the hole in the tree, his nails scratching down the bark until the sound fades in the distance.
Cas shrugs off his pouch and opens it, holding out a fat kernel of corn for Dean. "You should eat. Keep up your strength."
"Thanks," Dean says, and takes the food awkwardly in one hand. He tries to nibble at the corn with one good paw, but he can't keep it steady. Cas reaches for it, takes it in both of his paws, and holds it to Dean's mouth.
"Here. Eat," Cas directs, and Dean lets the white squirrel feed him, taking tiny bites as if to make it last longer. He chews and watches Cas, who sits next to him, calm and quiet.
Dean is hungry, unbelievably so, and he can’t remember the last time he could sit down and enjoy a meal. He savors each little bite, rolling the small pieces of kernel around his tongue before swallowing them. His belly rumbles with contentment and he hums happily as he chews, closing his eyes to better concentrate on the taste.
As he takes the last bite his lips brush Cas’ paws; he hears the other squirrel’s sharp inhale of breath at the contact and he opens his eyes wide, suddenly embarrassed. Castiel is looking at him, staring with his mouth hanging slightly open, and Dean can see his whiskers trembling nervously.
“Erm—” Dean knows he should say something; make a joke or just start a conversation to avoid this little awkward moment. But all he can do is stare back at Castiel, marveling at the insane blue of his big round eyes and the faint blush he can see rising on his soft cheeks.
It seems to Dean that the whole forest has gone quiet around them, the faint sounds coming from outside his little home disappearing in favor of the noise his heart is making. It’s a thump-thump-beat that brings blood rushing through his ears and it only gets worse when Castiel moves a fraction towards him and raises a paw to his mouth.
Dean is ready to do something epically stupid like lick the tip of Cas’ paw, brush his tongue along the white, white fur and pretend it was a mistake, but he stops himself right on time as he feels a gentle touch around his whiskers.
“Crumbs,” Castiel says and though it’s thrown matter-of-factly in the space between them, it comes out hushed, like it’s a special word that holds the secrets of the universe.
Dean sniffs, nose scrunching up and body filling with the clean smell of Castiel, and stays silent. He doesn’t trust himself not to say something that could potentially endanger his masculinity or scare Castiel away, and he’s glad when Castiel continues.
“Would you like another one?” he says, like it’s the most normal thing in the world for him to keep feeding Dean, taking up the physical space that’s normally reserved for Sammy’s smaller form.
Deans nods weakly and belatedly remembers to grow a pair and says, “You should have one too, they’re awesome.”
Castiel smiles and cants his head to the side, surprised at Dean’s suggestion.
“I don’t eat that,” he says, like it’s a known fact.
“Uh?” And no, it doesn’t come out as stupid as it sounds. “What do you mean, you don’t eat that? You don’t like corn?”
“I wouldn’t know, I’ve never tasted it.”
Dean scoffs and sits more heavily on his haunches, putting some distance between them.
“Dude, how’s that even possible?" He thinks of the abundance of corn-cobs following summer picnics, the hot days of plenty. "What do you usually hunt for when you look for food?”
“I do not need to hunt for food,” he says calmly, like he’s explaining things to a kit, and Dean would feel offended if he wasn’t thinking about how curious of an assertion that is.
“You do not need to hunt for food,” he repeats slowly, and he can’t really blame the guy for nodding along encouragingly because he really must sound stupid by now. He can almost picture the confusion that painted all over his face because seriously? Who doesn’t need to hunt for his own food?
“Yes, Dean. The Ranger at the preserve gives us all we need to survive. He feeds us a mixture of nuts, fruit, and seeds all year long so we’re never left wanting.”
There’s something in the way Castiel chooses his words that has Dean wondering, and he asks “The Ranger?”
“Yes.” Castiel nods solemnly before continuing, “He’s the one that takes care of all the creatures in the reserve. He looks out for us and He protects us from the dangers lurking in the forest.”
"That's impossible," Dean grunts, arranging his legs underneath his body on his nest of leaves. "Things like that don't happen."
"They do where I'm from," Cas says. He tilts his head, regarding the other squirrel with something like hurt in his eyes. "You don't believe me?"
"No, I'm not calling you a liar, it's just—why would you have some big, mysterious protector when me and Sam and all the other schmucks in the world have to deal with strays and predators and—"
"Even the strays and the predators are just trying to survive and raise their offspring," Cas says with maddening calm. "The Ranger reminds us of this constantly."
"Sure, the Ranger, not like you have to worry about anything in your—" Dean shifts, putting too much weight on his forearm, and hisses in pain. Cas is there in an instant, holding his injured arm steady between his paws. Dean sees the pads on his hands and fingers, soft and pink, and looks away.
"I don't know why life is so different for you, Dean. I know it must seem very unfair that I do not lack for food or shelter. But if it comforts you at all, there are other things I have been denied because of what I am," Cas says in a low voice.
"What you are?" Dean asks. He didn't mean to sound like such an asshole, accusing Cas of having it easy when he doesn't really know anything about the guy. And now Cas looks so sad, his face lined with the shadows of the Hollow, and Dean is about to reach out and clasp his good hand around Cas' and ask what he means. But Sammy chooses that moment to bound into the tree, his mouth stuffed with grasses and twigs. Cas drops Dean's arm quickly, as if he had been doing something wrong.
"I wasn't sure which was the straightest, so I just brought them all back," Sam babbles, setting out the sticks on the Hollow's floor. "So what are these for, anyway? How will this help Dean's arm?"
Cas selects a perfectly formed twig and a length of sweetgrass. "I'm going to bind his arm so it heals correctly," he says, snapping the stick in two over his knee. "I've seen the Ranger do this many times for the elderly deer that graze in the far field."
"Elderly deer?" Sam shoots Dean a questioning look. Dean shrugs; it's true, for them, that phrase is an oxymoron.
"Cas comes from a weird place," he explains.
"Oh." Sam digests this for a moment, then brightens. "That's really cool, though. You knowing all this stuff, I mean."
Cas braces Dean's arm between the two twigs and wraps the strand of grass around and around from his wrist to elbow. "I have tried to prepare myself as best I could for this mission," he says. He glances up at Dean, catching his eye briefly before looking back down at his work. "Though I suppose there are some things one can never prepare for."
Dean watches Cas as he ties the grass in a knot and releases his arm. Sam is still chattering away, wondering if old deer go gray like old humans do, and whether or not Cas can go gray when he's already white, and a million other things. It's all a blurry buzz in the background. Dean can feel his eyelids drooping; it feels like he's been awake for days.
"You should get some rest," Cas says, and Dean's already curling onto his side in the crackling leaves. "I will take care of Sam, don't worry."
Dean remembers mumbling something like assent before drifting off to sleep.
It’s always the same. It’s dark and he’s running and all he can hear is his mother’s last scream dying in the distance.
Always the same and yet ever different. This time it’s just him; no Dad shouting for them to run, no Sammy to look out for. Dean is glad; deep into his mind he knows this is not real but the fact that he’s spared the sight of Sammy’s scared face is a blessing on its own.
He runs and runs, crossing the road, jumping to the other side and sidestepping rocks and roots on his way to who knows where. His paws hurt with the force of digging through the earth, muscles burning with effort to speed away, hide himself and make it out of this mess alive.
It’s always the same. It’s been raining all night and he hopes against hope that the sweet smell of rotting leaves will be enough to cover his tracks. He knows the beast is not far behind, running to get to him and snap him in half like his mother.
Mom, he thinks. He wants to stop and curl himself into a corner, disappear and forget it all, but even if Sam’s not here now, he knows Sam is somewhere else and he will need him from now on.
His feet hurt, front paws a mess of blood and dirt as he tries to think about a safe place where he could hide. The Hollow is too far and too empty to get back to, the absence of Mom and Dad something he’s not ready to face yet.
He can’t do anything but run.
Yard after yard and he feels his body giving up, the strain so great not even the adrenaline rush can do much anymore. Little by little he slows down, hopelessness gripping him tight as he thinks of Sammy. He hopes he’s fine, he hopes he’s hidden in another dream where they’re all together and nothing bad ever happened.
It starts raining again and his tail comes up to cover what little it can of his head, ears falling flat as he looks around him to take stock of his surroundings.
Lightning cracks the sky open and he sees something on his left glinting in the dark, something he’s never seen before. It looks like a box, a metal cage perhaps, and he’s so tired and scared he doesn’t even think twice about it as he makes a last ditch effort and runs towards it. Anything is better than running through what looks like the beginnings of a storm, not knowing where you’re going and with zero hope of making it out alive.
He runs inside, sitting in a corner as he licks his ruffled fur. He’s drenched and cold, shivering in fear as he finally realizes that he’s trapped. His head falls forwards and he wants to cry, wants his Mama next to him and he doesn’t even care that he’s acting like a baby. He is a baby, young and inexperienced and so, so angry, a thousand screams dying in his throat as he asks himself why would this happen to them.
“Dean,” he hears, and it’s a familiar voice that he can’t quite place. Soft and soothing, whispering from close by.
He sobs and cries harder, because he must be hallucinating. He’s alone and helpless and—
“Dean,” he hears again. The voice is firmer this time, but warm, and he can almost feel a phantom touch to his head.
He tries to speak but he can’t find his voice; it's buried somewhere in his sorrow as he tries to force himself out of this place with the sheer force of his mind.
He curls himself into a tighter ball, and there’s the pressure of a tail that’s not his own wrapping all around him, soft and caring.
He’s not alone, there’s someone else here that he can’t see and he tries to force himself to move, to run away because this — this cannot be good, this cannot be safe; he opens his eyes and he’s ready to finally, finally scream and—
A beat, then another, and as he forces the thump-thump-thump of his heart down his throat, Dean starts breathing again.
The other squirrel is peering directly into his face, tail wrapped around Dean, holding him the way he sometimes holds Sammy at night. Dean sits up at the thought, suddenly wide awake. It's pitch dark, and the familiar warmth of his little brother is missing from his side. "Sam?"
Cas nods into the shadows on the other side of the Hollow, where Sammy lays sprawled out on his back, his belly round, rising and falling with his snores. "I may have allowed him to eat more than was prudent," Cas confesses.
Dean stares at Sam and huffs a laugh. "Kid's never had a food coma before," he whispers, remembering those seasons of plenty when he was a kit and his parents were still alive.
Castiel's paws tug at Dean, drawing him back down to the bed of leaves. Dean can smell their fresh sweetness; they're new, still green. Cas must have replaced them while Dean was sleeping. He feels ridiculous, being coddled by this tiny squirrel, wrapped in the warmth of his little tail. "I'm fine," Dean grunts.
"You need rest," Cas insists. "You...nightmared."
Dean's never heard that word before; he's never talked about the sleep-terrors to anyone, but it sounds like it fits. His throat is still thick with sleep and residual fear from nightmaring.
"I miss them," he says quietly, muffled into Cas' soft white fur. Cas doesn't ask who he means. He must know, one look around the Hollow and he can see what's missing.
Castiel strokes his ears, chirping soft nonsense for Dean. They huddle close, and Dean tells himself it's for warmth or safety, but he can't deny how nice it feels to be curled up beside Cas, to be taken care of for a change. He wonders if Cas will return to the preserve in the morning. Maybe, if the rain keeps up, he'll stay a few days more.
Dean drifts into an easier sleep, his nose burrowed against Castiel's neck, the other squirrel's face pressed against his chest.
Dawn comes sooner than Dean expects; one minute he's dozing off, the next the sunlight is slanting through the entrance of their Hollow, hitting him right in the eyes. Dean yawns and smacks his mouth open and closed, checking on the others as he wakes. Sam hasn't moved an inch, and Cas is still cuddled close, his fur rising and falling with his deep breathing. Dean stays like that for a long moment, his bushy tail curled over Castiel's back, before shaking him with his good paw.
"Cas, wake up."
"Hm?" Castiel's wide blue eyes blink open. "Dean." He rubs his paws over his sleepy face. "Is it morning already?"
"Yeah." Dean glances at the sliver of blue, cloudless sky he can see from his nest. "Weather looks good," he says in a glum voice. "So. You probably want to get back to your family, your kits, whatever." The idea of Cas having a mate, safe and waiting for him in their own nest, makes his fur stand on end.
Cas only frowns. "My—? Oh, no, I'm not permitted to breed. My family would never allow it."
"Huh?" Dean's tail tightens around Castiel on instinct. "But—why?"
Cas pulls away from the warmth of Dean's chest and gestures down his own torso, indicating the long expanse of white fur. "I told you before, my coloring is not ideal. I can't pass it down to another generation."
"But you're strong! Like, really strong," Dean counters. "And smart, and brave, kind of insanely brave. Isn't that enough?" It's weird, but Dean can feel himself getting angry on Cas' behalf, hating these elder squirrels he's never even met for punishing Cas like this.
Cas rests his head on Dean's chest again, seemingly content to stay there a moment longer. "It makes no difference to me," he says. "I am—I am very like the two snakes the Ranger keeps in the glass case, or the herons that nest on the edge of our swamp."
"What do you mean?" Dean frowns, puzzling over how Cas is like a snake or bird. He's quick, and he can fly, sort of, but what does that have to do with...?
"I do not seek a female," Cas says plainly. The words hang in the air for a moment, and then Castiel untangles his limbs and tail from Dean and rises to his feet. "At any rate, I do not need to return immediately. I'd like to see your arm healed first." His eyes fix on the Hollow floor.
Dean recognizes the change of subject for what it is: as a means to avoid any awkwardness; but he doesn’t understand why Castiel would feel the need to do it.
He has to admit that he feels a bit embarrassed at the other squirrel’s admission, but he wouldn’t be able to say why. He doesn’t really care about other’s choices in the matter, and though he’s always had little escapades with squirrels that happened to be of the female persuasion, he’s never really ruled the other option as out of the question. Granted, he never really thought about it at all, but that doesn’t mean he ever thought of it as wrong.
Dean's an open-minded guy, and he firmly believes that when it comes to liking someone nothing really matters, because they could be taken away from you at a moment’s notice.
He's had his experiences, whenever he can lower his guard and relax a little. Sometimes it’s just a night, sometimes a couple more; once, it almost lasted for two whole weeks.
Yeah, Dean still remembers Cassie with fondness, her chocolate fur warm and fluffy next to him as they laid together in the summer grass looking at the stars, sharing a nut or two and talking nonsense. She was sweet, and beautiful and smart.
It didn’t last, of course. Sammy was, and always will be, his priority, and Cassie asked things of him he wasn’t ready to give. She wasn’t too brokenhearted over it, understanding him whereas other people wouldn’t have.
So even though Dean never really had a particular interest in a male mate, he finds the long term commitment more objectionable than anything else.
He’s just not mating material, he guesses, and that’s all.
He realizes he must have lost himself inside his own thoughts when he feels a timid paw tapping on his shoulder, and he raises his head to find Cas’ eyes open wide, concern clouding them with shadows Dean doesn’t like one bit.
“Dean, is everything okay?” he says, and from the way he keeps his distance putting a foot or so between them Dean can guess where this is going.
“Yeah, of course it is,” he says, trying to reassure Cas with a small smile.
“I apologize if what I said made you uncomfortable. I tend to overstep social boundaries too often — or so my family says. Then again I’ve only ever interacted with my family and they don’t really know about my preferences, even if I suspect they might have guessed by now, but—” Castiel starts blabbering and Dean is quick to puts his good hand on Cas’ arm, forcing him to look into Dean’s eyes and stop.
“Cas — Dude, take a breath. You didn’t say anything wrong, relax! What you like is your own business. It doesn’t concern me. I don’t care.”
Castiel takes a deep breath at that and looks down, avoiding Dean’s stare; something like a smile but not quite is curling his lips and his tail shakes in what could be embarrassment as well as nervousness. He takes another step back and looks away from Dean, to the side where the Hollow opens towards the forest.
“Yes. Yes of course. I—I didn’t mean to imply—”
Dean stills at the softness of Cas’ voice, tail curling as he feels his neck prickling under the onslaught of a blush creeping up his cheeks.
“—Err,” he tries to speak, suddenly unable to look at Castiel as he understands the meaning of that broken sentence, and he looks up, shuffling his feet as he wills the ground to open and swallow him whole.
Castiel seems to understand the awkwardness of the situation and coughs, suddenly business-like.
“Anyway, I think it would be best to take a look at your arm, see if it’s healing properly. What do you think?”
"Sure," Dean rasps out. "Fine." He holds out his arm, wrapped in its splint and bindings, for Cas' inspection.
As Cas unties the grasses from his arm, he frowns in concentration, completely absorbed by his task. It gives Dean a chance to watch him without that unnerving stare burrowing into his own eyes. He thinks about how it must feel, to leave the only home you've ever known, how easy it would be, if you have so much to give, to want to give it to the first creature you met. Dean wants to set Cas straight on this, before it gets weird.
"Look," he says, "I would be a shitty mate. I've got Sammy to worry about and I don't—"
Cas looks up at him then, his eyes huge with anger, something Dean's never seen before on him. His mouth is set in a grim line, his paw tightens on Dean's injured arm, not enough to hurt, just enough to remind him who's holding it.
"You walked into that cage for your brother, not yourself or your own hunger, and that is worth more than you can ever imagine. Our worlds may be very different, Dean, but neither have much room for selfless acts. So don't you dare tell me you would be a disappointing mate. No one could ever be disappointed by what's inside your heart."
Dean swallows, and Cas' eyes soften by degrees until he drops his gaze back to Dean's arm. "Does this hurt?" he asks in a small voice, prodding at Dean's elbow.
"Not much," Dean says, still staring down at the top of Cas' snowy head.
"Can you bend it?"
Dean does, slowly and with only a bit of shooting pain in his shoulder. "Feels okay. Think I can put some weight on it?"
"Try walking a few paces," Cas suggests, wrapping the dried grasses into a ball in his paws.
The first step hurts—a lot—but Dean keeps at it until he can limp along in a lopsided hop. Sam comes to just as Dean finishes a circuit of the Hollow.
"Feeling better?" Sam asks, his face keen and hopeful.
"Tons." Dean ruffles his sibling's ears, grinning wide for him. "Up for a quick check of the cans?"
"You bet," Sammy chirps. He turns to Castiel, who is silent on the far side of the nest. "Want to come, Cas?"
"I—" Cas glances at Dean, who gives a shrug of one shoulder. "Yes. I would like that."
They leave the tree together, Cas sticking close to Dean's side in case his arm fails him during the climb down, despite the fact that Dean is absolutely positive he will not fall. Still, he doesn't tell Cas to quit his hovering, just lets him tail him like a shadow.
The nearest trash can is situated between the lake and the jogging path, prime territory. Dean leaps to the lip of the can and peers inside. "Looks like breakfast," Dean calls down to Sammy and Cas. The orange-and-pink paper bag at the bottom still smells of grease and butter. Dean's tail flips and twitches. "Okay, guys, give me two minutes—" Dean looks over his shoulder and finds the ground below completely devoid of little brothers and mysterious albinos. Panic squeezes his chest. "Guys?"
His eyes dart over the rolling parkland until they find two shapes scurrying into the distance, one chestnut and one a blur of white.
"Guys!" Dean barks, scuttling down the trash can and taking off after them. Normally he'd be able to catch up in no time, but with his damn arm hurting like it does, he can't even keep Sam and Cas in sight. They disappear over a hill and Dean has no choice but to plod along after them as fast as he can manage.
When he finally finds them, they're sprawled out gracelessly beneath an empty wooden picnic table. Sam is flat on his stomach, gasping with laughter, and Cas is smiling to himself like he's trying to hold in a similar reaction. He's holding something behind his back.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Dean screeches. "I'm going to kick both of your—"
"Sorry," Sam hiccups. "We didn't mean to leave you behind. But when was saw those humans drop this, we had to move fast."
"Drop what?" Dean growls, and Cas presents him with the thing he's been hiding: a fat chunk of pie, its flaking crust a golden brown, the dollop of filling oozing, flecked with cinnamon and smelling like autumn.
"Sam told me it was your favorite," Cas explains.
The look of awe on Dean's face must be something, because Sam erupts into new peels of laughter. Once he calms down enough, they all perch in a row on the edge of the picnic table and nibble at their share. Dean eats with his eyes closed, savoring each morsel.
"Oh man," he moans around a mouthful, "this is even better than I remember."
"It's even better than you described," Sam adds, chewing happily.
Cas sniffs at the pie in his hands, licking it with the tip of his tiny pink tongue. "I've never had human food before. It's quite delicious." Dean watches him eat in his delicate way, a warm hurt building in his chest.
Sammy wolfs down his pie first, then turns to Dean. "Can I go roll in the clover?" he asks, pointing at a nearby patch. Dean's heart twinges again. It's good to see that Sammy's still a kid.
"Yeah, stay close," Dean says, and Sam bounds off. Dean watches him go with a grin plastered to his face and sticky apple filling all over his paws. He sets to licking them clean and looks over at Cas, who is watching him with the same intense look he gave the pie.
"What?" Dean asks, mid-lick.
Castiel stands straighter on his hind legs, his face determined and serious. "Come back with me," he says.
"Huh?" Dean squints in confusion. "Back where?"
"To the reserve. Both you and Sam." Cas nods in the direction of Dean's brother, who's playing in the clover patch. "You would be safe. Well-fed. Protected." He looks down at his paws in his lap. "With me. If you wish."
"Oh." Dean stares at Castiel, then looks down at where Sammy is snuffling in the grass. Sam could be this carefree every day, he thinks, if only they lived in the reserve. But... "How? Would the Ranger even let us stay there? What about your family? Something tells me they don't like the outside world much. They'd be cool with it?"
"I—they—I don't know." Cas pulls at his velvet ear. "Perhaps they wouldn't care. Or I could hide you. Or—"
"Hey." Dean reaches over and lays a paw on Cas' soft back. "Cas. It's okay. We—I can't. It would be too risky to walk in there without knowing what might happen. To all of us." He bites his lip and watches the other squirrel slump in his own skin, looking smaller by the minute.
"I'm sorry," Cas finally says. He turns and jumps from the table into a graceful glide. Dean watches him hit the ground running eastward. He hesitates for a second, then calls down to Sammy.
"Hey! Head back to the Hollow, all right? I'll be home soon."
"Are you and Cas going foraging?" Sam calls back.
"Yeah, something like that," Dean mutters, and climbs back to the ground to follow the white squirrel. "Cas, wait up!"
He finds Cas sitting in a high branch of a scrub pine, just a wisp of white hidden in the green needles. Dean can't climb out on such a flimsy branch, but he clutches the bark of the trunk and says, "Shouldn't go into the woods alone without your bag of tricks. Little pale thing like you? Too dangerous." He means it as a joke, because if Cas can do anything it's take care of himself, but Cas doesn't even crack a smile. Just keeps staring over the treetops to the east.
"Hey, maybe we can think this through," Dean tries again. "I would take you up on this living in paradise thing if I knew Sammy would be safe. Can you talk to the, what do you call them, elders? Ask them if—?"
"They would drive you out of the fence-land," Castiel says softly. "Or have you killed. You were right; they distrust outsiders, and they are very secretive. When they sent me to help you, what they really wanted was for me to usher you away from our home as quickly as possible. They would never welcome you and Sam. And as for the Ranger, who knows what He might do? I don't pretend to understand Him." His head hangs low. "It was foolish of me to suggest it."
Dean watches him for a moment, then jerks his head to the side. "Come on. I want to show you something."
Castiel looks doubtful, so Dean steps on the thin branch to give it a shake. "Let's go." He bounces Cas up and down. "Race you to the bottom." Which is a stupid thing to say, of course, because between his arm and Cas' flying, it's not even close. Castiel waits for him on the forest floor, and Dean nudges him south, toward the lakefront.
They walk over the rolling hills of the park, dotted here and there with trees and water fountains and benches. It's quiet, a beautiful day, but humans are few and far between. One jogs by with wires stuffed in her ears. Another sits on a bench flinging bread crumbs at pigeons and gulls. When the human sees Cas and Dean, she tosses a crust of bread their way, and they share it before walking on.
Finally, they reach the top of the hill and Dean grins at Cas' sharp intake of breath. The garden stretches out below, masses of lush bushes, red and yellow tulips, tiny blue flowers shaped like bells on a string, sweet-smelling lilac and mint, all laid out in orderly beds.
"What is this place?" Castiel breathes.
"Thought you'd like it." Dean hops a few paces down the hill. "The humans keep it like this, who knows why. Because it's pretty, I guess."
"It's amazing." Cas follows Dean into the flower beds, where they brush against waxy leaves and fat, colorful blooms, pollen dusting their coats gold. "There's nothing like this at the reserve," Cas says. "Everything there is supposed to appear natural."
"Well, sometimes natural is ugly," Dean snorts. He plucks a mint leaf from a nearby stalk and nibbles on it for a moment. Cas turns around and around in a circle, seemingly unable to take it all in. "Come here," Dean laughs, and pulls him down to sit beneath a clump of white and pink flowers.
They curl together like they had in the Hollow, except this time they're not sleeping, and their tails twist around each other like those snakes Cas had mentioned. Dean chitters wordlessly into the scruff of Cas' neck, and Cas cleans a streak of pollen from Dean's face with a quick swipe of his tongue. Then, flushing again, Cas looks away.
"For all the terrible things that can happen in your world," he says, "it can be very beautiful."
"Yeah. Never thought about it that way." Dean nuzzles at Cas' soft ear, and the other squirrel goes still as a statue, a little ceramic garden sculpture. "Cas," Dean says, "do you like it enough to stay here?"
"Stay?" Cas whips his head back and blinks up at Dean.
"With me. And Sam. It won't be easy, I won't lie. You'll have to be careful, looking the way you do. But if you were my family, Cas, I would—I'd do everything I could to keep you safe."
"Your family?" Those big blue eyes are only getting bigger.
"If you still think I'd be a decent mate," Dean manages, unsure for the first time that Cas will go for this. He closes his eyes and inhales the soft scent of Castiel's fur, nuzzling along his neck and jaw. The white squirrel trembles against him like a bird.
"Dean," Cas says, burrowing closer. "Are you sure? We could never have offspring, we—"
"We have Sam. That's plenty." Dean wraps his tail tighter around the shaking squirrel. "Plus, that doesn't mean we can't keep trying to breed." He grins.
Castiel rolls him through a stand of ferns, Dean laughing the entire way.
Two human parkgoers walk through the garden hand-in-hand. One says to her companion, "Oh, look at those two squirrels fighting! Do you think they'll hurt each other?"
"Don't worry," the other female says. "They're just playing."
Both humans tip their heads to the side, watching the ball of white and gray fluff more closely. Their eyes widen at the same moment.
"Oh!" they say, and hurry off before anyone else can come along and accuse them of further perversion.
brokentoy: I'm sorry but we couldn't help ourselves.