Dean is twelve when he first opens that book. They are alone at some crappy motel, Dad is gone hunting. Sammy is long asleep, and Dean takes the book he had earlier borrowed from the lobby. It's heavy as a brick, some pages are crumpled, but still wonderfully glossy.
The title reads "Birds of North America."
He is nearly ashamed of himself for being such a nerd, but the minute he starts the book he forgets about everything. At first, he is just flipping through the pages, looking at the bright colorful pictures of birds. They are blue and gray and yellow and dappled, incredibly different, sometimes funny, sometimes cute. He isn’t reading more than the names of them; not trying to remember them either.
He has never been that much interested in birds—in fact, he hasn’t been interested at all. The endless element they live in is hostile and scary to him, and he hopes he won’t ever have to go up to the skies. While he goes on with the book, he wonders why of all creatures he is looking at the things that fly.
It’s well after midnight that he finds himself studying the anatomy of wings and whispering the weird names of feather layers. He is amazed at how thorough and logical they are, created the way to both use and fight the wind. He’d never thought of birds as of something perfect, but now that he looks at their wings, it’s getting clear how wrong he was. The birds are fantastic, but their wings are more than marvelous, they are a piece of art.
When his family leaves the motel, Dean wraps the book into one of his old plaid shirts and hides it at the very bottom of his duffle bag.
He can't wait until they arrive into the next town. With the book hidden under his t-shirt so no one can see it, he goes to the bathroom, locks himself in and continues to read. This time he is not in such a hurry, so he does not skip the text anymore. He learns how birds nest and breed but the most exciting part is for him is how they hunt. At some point Dean thinks it would be nice to teach them to hunt something else than mice—they’d be stooping straight down from the sky like an invisible lethal weapon. That could be a great deal.
There are many surprising facts, though. Dean has never known birds can molt, but now he does. The diagrams showing the molting gaps between the feathers make him a little sad, and he eagerly turns the page to find out if it hurts. He is strangely relieved to read it doesn’t, but later that evening, when he is already in bed, he remembers all the feathers on the ground that he had seen as a kid. Birds are strong and able to fly, Dean thinks, but still so vulnerable. Almost like humans.
At fifteen, Dean is even more rapt. Now when he is outside in the daylight, he occasionally looks up spotting the winged silhouettes. He defines the species of each quite easily but never tells anyone. He can’t really explain why he is keeping it secret even from Sam—maybe because loving birds looks too girlish, or maybe because it's Sam who is considered a smart ass Winchester, not Dean.
He also starts waiting for summers to come, as he knows it's the molting season and there are definitely some nice soft feathers to be seen around everywhere in the wild. He notices them now—sticking out from the grass like small flags indicating the trail—and sometimes gathers the rarest or beautiful. The collection he owns (seventeen pieces so far) is stored inside the book, squeezed between the last page and the cover. Some notes he's taken himself on birds behavior and a couple pictures he's drawn are there too.
Without a single wing beat, "Birds of North America" have traveled across the US at least five times. And they have also outlived two plaid shirts.
Fourteen years later, he is standing in the barn, dazzled, fascinated and unbelieving. He barely hears the man in front of him saying, "You have no faith." But then he can only stare with his mouth open, as the huge black wings behind the man stretch off wide, nearly touching the ornamented walls.
The wings have gaps.
Dean recognizes them immediately. The pictures from his favorite book flash in his mind and the missing feathers make his heart race.
"You're molting," he says, and before he can stop himself, the next words break loose, "how come you're molting in September?"
The man looks at him in a visible surprise. "What?"
Dean instantly feels awkward, this man is not a bird, he is—what was it he said? Castiel, the Angel of the Lord, right. Whatever.
"Look ..." It takes all Dean's control to fight the urge to touch the black wings. He is curious as hell if the feathers feel the same as birds'. "Look, not for nothing, but ... are you okay? 'Cause your wings aren't."
Castiel frowns. "Why do you ask?"
"I've studied birds, you know. Just like an amateur, but anyway, I'm pretty sure it's not normal," Dean waves impatiently, "some feathers are missing and I can see the alula broken, or maybe both, and—"
Now Castiel is obviously angry. His face freezes, eyes get cold, and his low voice sounds dry and menacing when he speaks.
"I dragged you out of Hell, Dean."
"And it wasn't easy."
"So this is because of me?"
Castiel's unreadable face softens at that, and he stares at Dean for a good minute before he says, "This is not your fault, Dean, you shouldn't be blaming yourself. It's angels' prerogative to care about humans, and not the reverse."
Dean disagrees but does not argue. Not yet. He thinks about the wings. Even in their present condition, they look gorgeous and strong, so he wonders how they look in their movement. It was a long way that Castiel took him, up or down or wherever, but Dean does not remember any second of it. Is it possible, that he was flying with Castiel?
"Tell me how it feels," he asks, "to fly."
"Did you hear what I just said, Dean?"
"Yes. Actually no, but ... C'mon, tell me. Do you fly like a bird?"
"No. Much faster."
"Really? How much? Like a falcon? They're the fastest."
Dean breathes out, too startled to speak.
Shortly later, after Dean carelessly swears that later on, he'll pay his full attention to the work he's about to do, they sit on a bench outside the barn. Nobody is there to watch them, and Dean is a little sorry that Castiel has hidden his wings. Dean is still thinking of them, so he repeats his question.
"You can't see an angel flying, Dean," Castiel says after a long pause. "The speed is beyond human understanding."
"But do you feel the wind and everything? Rain? Sun?"
"Hardly. We just know our destination and reach it."
"Everywhere? No matter how far?"
"No matter. There are larger concerns."
Dean falls silent for a moment. "It must hurt," he guesses, "with your feathers gone. How do you heal that? Take some angelic medicine? Holy calcium?"
Dean waits for him to elaborate, but nothing follows. "May I see them again? Your wings?" Castiel rolls his eyes, and Dean adds, "Please. They are, uh, wonderful."
"Flattery won't help, Dean."
He doesn't get the idea, Dean thinks, the value. Of course, it's not him who's been seeing wings only in books of far above.
"No, I mean ... It's like getting inside real USS Enterprise after watching Star Trek for twenty years."
Castiel gives it a thought. "I don't know what a USS Enterprise is," he says, "but in this analogy, it sounds quite important to you."
"Damn right. It—" Suspecting too much detail would do no better, Dean cuts off. "It is."
Castiel turns away with a puzzled, slightly confused look as if trying to interpret the words he just heard. Waiting, Dean watches his nape and neck, and a rigid back under the trenchcoat. No trace of the wings, but Dean knows they are there. Somewhere.
Dean's eyes fail to register when it happens. He just sees the moonlight darken abruptly as if blinded by something huge, and Castiel's wings spread wide behind him.
They are not a shadow this time. The wings are all real, alive, feathery, and sending breaths of the wind to Dean's face. Too impatient to wait any longer, he lifts his hand, and still stops in midway, not sure, if he is allowed to touch them. Castiel's nod is barely noticeable, but Dean takes it as yes and leans closer.
The wing in his hands does resemble a bird's but none in particular. Dean can't see well in the dark, but he is sure the color is glossy black, shiny around the core. Best color ever, if you ask him. He takes a step ahead and gently runs his fingers through the feathers, careful to avoid the molting gaps. Although each feather is smooth and tender, together they form a thick, solid but agile structure, able to soar up with any burden. As Dean follows the wing edge with his fingertips, some odd sense starts whirling in his stomach, and ultimately he finds himself hands deep in these soft feathers with his cheek chafing them. The wings feel so incredibly weird under his fingers and face—followed by all human body beyond, arms, legs ... Everything. Dean forces himself to stop imagining what that everything may possibly include.
Castiel slightly shivers, and light feathers tremble in Dean's hands. He worriedly jerks back. "What? That hurts?"
Castiel turns his head and tilts it aside. His bleary, unfocused eyes meet Dean's.
"No. I find that pleasant. You may continue, Dean."
And so Dean does.