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Species Interaction

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It was supposed to have been a slow day. A girl who was trying to work her way back from a rollerblading injury so that she could still be captain of the swim team come school time was Jensen’s only appointment. Other than that, the rehabilitation center was almost dead. If Jensen hadn’t been trying to get his interning hours in, he probably would’ve been sent home due to lack of work.

It was a surprise when one of the emergency room interns came blasting through the doors of the physical therapy lounge. Erica had splashes of blood on her scrubs, and Jensen’s brain immediately chided her for rushing through the hospital in such an unsanitary state. The hazardous waste teams were going to make the girl’s life living hell, and he could only imagine what her resident was going to say to her.

Then his brain kicked into a higher gear because Erica was well on her way to being the top intern on staff. While Jensen’s physical therapy prowess was nothing to sniff at, the girl was practically a legend already. She knew better than anyone the risks of blood borne pathogens and uncontained blood.

“Jensen!” she practically screeched when she laid eyes on him. Screeching wasn’t something she did, ever. “Why haven’t you answered your page?”

Jensen frowned at her question. The easy answer to that was because the intercom had been on the fritz down in the rehab center. An electrical storm the week before had managed to zap the wing of the hospital that physical therapy resided in. It killed their phones as well as made the speakers in the ceiling highly unreliable.

Their calls had been rerouted to a different area while the technicians worked on getting them back up and running, but they weren’t exactly the highest importance level unit. The people that came for their services weren’t likely to show up without an appointment, and if they needed immediate treatment, they were more in need of their orthopedic surgeon than they guy that stood there making them flex muscles and encouraging them not to give up.

Jensen must’ve taken too long to answer, because Erica was wrapping a, thankfully, clean hand around his arm and attempting to drag him out the door.

“Come on!” She not so nicely encouraged him.

Jensen spared a thought that he at least had better bedside manner than she did even if she was on the track to fame and glory while he was already confirmed to the, ‘loser who couldn’t make his dreams come true,’ road.

“What’s going on?” Jensen asked as he started following her.

“There’s a cherub in the ER who is freaking out. Kid’s wing is broken, and he won’t let us touch him. We’d tranquilize him, but you know how reliable that is, and the last thing we need is a freaking lawsuit for trying to improperly sedate a minor.”

A cherub. Jensen stumbled in his stride before he picked the pace back up. Winged ones were known by many different names around the world. Some called them harpies or angels or demons. Some said that they came from outer space while others swore that they came from the offspring of angels and men. Still others believed that they were an evolutionary throwback to avian ancestors. There were even some that said that they were the children of the Swan Princess’ brothers and that the strongest of them were the offspring of the one who didn’t quite turn back because his shirt wasn’t finished.

The winged ones themselves were rather mute on the subject, but one thing that had become almost universal was the use of ‘cherub’ to describe one of their young. It made sense given that even human children were called ‘cherubic’ though Jensen had never met a kid that he’d willingly give that description to. Even his own niece made him want to plug his ears and hope for rescue.

With the use of cherub becoming common place, the name seraphim had started to follow to describe the adults. As they seemed uninterested in explaining their origins, indeed many speculated that they didn’t even know them, the human world wanted to call them by something other than ‘winged ones.’

Of course, seraphim was just a fancier word for ‘angel’ and sort of a mouthful to always be saying, so the name eventually became shortened to ‘seraph’ as the years passed, and eventually they became known as the seraph race.

All of which had absolutely nothing to do with the current situation.

“What happened?” Jensen asked, his mind racing with ideas about why exactly Erica had come looking for him.

Her brown eyes turned hard with fury as she glanced over at him. “Separatists,” she spat out, “kid was flying with his mother and some jackass shot her. He tried to grab her, but he’s a little thing, Jensen. He didn’t have the wing span to stop her decent, and managed to smack his left wing into a brick building. We’re pretty sure it’s broken, but he’s not letting anybody touch it.”

“What about his mom?”

“In surgery. Her son probably saved her life, at least for the moment.”

“You sure it was separatists and not hunters?” Jensen asked. It happened on occasion. Hunters that had one too many celebratory beers would mistake the fucking gigantic winged creature in the sky for a goose or something and take a shot at it.

“Given the amount of shrapnel in her? It wasn’t some redneck having a date with Johnny Walker.” Erica replied, her mouth smiling while the rest of her didn’t.

Jensen nodded, feeling that sick twist in his stomach that he got anytime that he heard about that sort of senseless violence.

“Okay, but what do you need me for? I can’t help the kid until his wing bones mend, and he needs assistance working on his flight muscles. Even then he isn’t going to be coming here. We’re not licensed for winged care.” Jensen forced himself to speak clinically. It still hurt that he hadn’t been accepted to the academy. It was all he had ever wanted when he was younger.

The Academy of Angelic Care in San Antonio was a training facility to take care of the ‘winged ones.’ There were similar facilities all over the world, but not one of them was easy to get into. They screened their applicants thoroughly before admitting them. There were tests and interviews and background screenings.

If you got in, they tailored your studies to coincide with your greatest strengths. Jensen knew that the preening classes were highly sought after. It was a chance to get in there and really work with the majestic and secretive beings. It was important to the seraph to have help in their preening and while they could help each other, it was said that they preferred the human touch.

Apparently human fingers were better at feeling out where the barbs needed smoothing or quills needed pulling out. They were better for pushing at the oils and helping the downy undercoat molt.

It was prestigious, but Jensen had never aspired to get into those classes. He’d just wanted in period. In truth, he’d have preferred to not get into a preening class. It was too high profile for the likes of him. Getting put into that class would just end in failure. No, he had only ever wanted to get into the academy and take some classes so that he could get a job working with the seraph. And oh how he had tried.

Jensen had been attempting to get into the academy since he was fifteen. Every year he would apply, and every year he’d get a rejection notice. He’d gotten one interview in his sophomore year of college. He remembered being so excited. Even his mother’s soft admonition to not get his hopes up hadn’t been enough to quell his spirits.

Jensen had just known it was his moment. He was meant for the academy. Ever since he could read, he had devoured any book about seraphs that he could get his hands on. He studied their culture and their physiology and had a burning passion to help them. All he needed was that one interview to prove how perfect of a candidate he was.

Jensen didn’t make the cut.

He’d been devastated. He’d been certain that his rabid passion had been what kept him from getting in. There were seraph groupies and nosy reporters who just wanted to get facts and pictures that they could twist to make the seraph look like something that they weren’t.

The interview process, Jensen knew, was made to keep those sorts of people out of the academy. He had to have screwed his own chances by his own enthusiasm and babbling mouth.

He’d never heard of somebody getting a second interview, but he kept applying even as he finished semester after semester of regular, human college. The only reason that he even went into physical therapy in the first place was because it seemed like it would mesh well with the flight muscle studies that the academy taught. When he didn’t get into the high school graduate program, he had wanted to continue in a vein of study that would keep him from being too far behind when he finally got his admissions notice.

What he got instead of that was a degree in sports therapy and an internship at a small hospital on the outskirts of Dallas helping overly enthusiastic sports players recover from stupid, macho injuries and assisting elderly people learn to use their new, steel joints because they couldn’t afford a second intern, and Jensen’s stupid sports degree was going to have to be good enough to help out with the geriatric crowd. Personally, if Jensen were one of his elderly patients, he’d demand his money back for getting a discount intern.

“Because you’re like the dove whisperer,” Erica muttered.

“What?” Jensen asked. He was fairly certain that he had asked a question that Erica was answering, but he’d been too caught up in his own musings, and her comment was sarcastic enough that he could get by with the question without looking like a space cadet.

“Look, you’re like obsessed with the seraph, and our two specialists are in surgery trying to save the kid’s mother. The cherub is freaking out, and his good wing is doing serious damage to our medical equipment. So scrub with me, get your ass to room three, and try to help Mike out, will you?”

Jensen nodded and did as he was told. The face mask and the gloves were odd to put on. He knew the proper way to clean and disinfect, but he’d never had to do it in an emergency before. He wasn’t a doctor or a nurse that was cleared to be in such a place, not really. He was qualified to deal with people who wanted to regain mobility and strengthen muscle, not deal with blood like a surgeon or mental freak outs like a psychologist.

The screeching was evident the moment that he hit the other side of the swinging doors. There weren’t any crashing sounds, but as Jensen actually entered room three, he realized that was because everything that could be knocked down already had been.

“No! No touch!” The cherub cried as his wing flared out towards the doctor in the room.

The child was small, smaller than Jensen had imagined him to be. He was five maybe six years old at the most, and he was terrified. His tiny body was shaking, and his feathers were fluffed out in a clear sign of aggression. Jensen couldn’t imagine such a small seraph trying to keep an adult body aloft.

“Hey, hey now,” Jensen said as he approached calmly. He was desperately trying to remember the last crime drama that he’d watched where the cops had to approach and out of control suspect. Sure, it was Hollywood, but Jensen’s daily problems tended to center around people wanting to give up because it was too painful or too hard. He didn’t exactly have a calming script planned for sheer panic.

“No, no, no, no ,no,” the kid chanted, his tiny chest heaving under his shirt.

 

Jensen inched forward and let his fingers brush against the edge of the cherub’s out flung wing. It snapped closed behind the kid’s back with an audible whoosh, but the noise was overridden by the sound of the child’s pained grunt as the other, damaged wing tried to follow suit.

Jensen frowned and halted his movement for a moment. If the kid hadn’t mastered independent wing movement yet, then he couldn’t be six. There were chances that he wasn’t even five. Some of the seraph were huge, and it was entirely possible that the child was just big for his age.

“I’m Jensen.” Jensen blurted out with the most insane, cheery voice that he could imagine outside of a child’s television program.

He could feel every eye on the room stop to stare at him for a moment, but all of those eyes included the child’s, so he counted it as a win.

“What’s your name?” Jensen asked in the same, chipper tone.

“Momma said not to talk to strangers!” The kid said, stubborn little chin jutting out, eyes blazing with mistrust.

“Well, that’s good. That’s really good that you listen to your mom, but you know you can talk to policemen and doctors, right? You came in with the ambulance and all the policemen, so you know we’re trying to help.”

The kid shook his head. “He’s a bad man!” He accused as he pointed to the doctor in the corner of the room.

“Why is that?” Jensen asked calmly.

“Bad touch! Momma says no bad touch!”

Jensen heard the outraged gasps around him, and fought to keep his own face neutral. Dr. Pollack hadn’t been accused of anything like that ever. He was a children’s rights advocate and a well respected pediatric specialist. While it wasn’t impossible, Jensen could think of much more likely suspects to commit such a crime.

“Okay, where did he touch you?” Jensen asked calmly.

There were angry words that bubbled around them, talk of child councilors and Jensen’s generally unqualified status, but the kid seemed to see him as his only ally in the room as he extended his broken wing a bit and pointed at it while he furled his good wing around and shielded his face from view.
Between the outstretch feathers, Jensen could see the child’s face turn red with shame and tiny tears drip down his face.

“Oh, hey, buddy. It’s okay.” Jensen instantly soothed. According to all the books he’d read, a seraph’s wings were sensitive. They had to be to read the air currents the way that they did, but he’d never heard of them thinking that they were private. Then again, they were infuriatingly mute on the subject most of the time. Even having been known to the general world populace for the last century and a half, they were still a secretive bunch.

Given that a human just tried to kill the boy’s mother, Jensen couldn’t find it in his heart to blame them.

“It’s bad. I’m not supposed to let them touch my fe…feathers.” The boy starts hiccupping as the tears kept coming.

“I know, okay? And you totally shouldn’t do anything that your mom told you not to do, but your wing is broken, and it’s got to hurt, right? Doctors, sometimes they have to touch places that other people shouldn’t because we get hurt there. But they have to touch to fix it.” Jensen explained all the while praying that his faith in Dr. Pollack wasn’t misplaced.

The kid peered out from between his feathers to stare at Jensen, “I want my daddy.”

“I know, buddy. But in the mean time, maybe you can tell me how bad it hurts? We can get another doctor in to look at your wing and maybe make it feel better?”

“Can’t you do it?” The kid whined, new tears coming down his face.

“I’m not a doctor,” Jensen started to say, but the cherub’s wings started fluttering and new tears started coming, so Jensen tacked on, “but I can be right here with you, okay? And if they do anything scary, I’ll make them stop.”

The kid looked at him hard for a moment before nodding his head in agreement.

Jensen wondered when exactly he went into the child care business.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dirk, as it turned out the poor child was named, decided that Jensen was his personal guardian angel. The irony was not lost on anybody in the hospital. Apparently Jensen was big and strong and sent from the heavens to protect the fallen seraphs whose wings needed mending.

It was clearly a story that the child’s parents had told him, and while the others laughed at the idea of Jensen being a guardian angel to a real, live ‘angel,’ Jensen fought the urge to grab a pen and paper to write down the fairy tale to horde away in his own private haven on seraph information.

Child services puttered around them, but left them alone while they waited for Dirk’s father to get in from his out of town business meeting. They kept a careful eye on Jensen’s interaction with the cherub, but there wasn’t much they could do aside from that as Dirk became upset whenever Jensen attempted to leave his side.

They were afraid of a lawsuit, especially after what the cherub had said in the emergency room. Even though he’d quieted down and gotten his wing set with minimal fuss, he was still upset and fretful. Jensen wanted to slap a couple of the workers that hovered around and occasionally asked the kid how he was doing.

How did they think Dirk was doing? The kid had to be traumatized and was in pain. Jensen wasn’t sure he could handle seeing something like that happen to his mother any better than the kid had. In fact, he was certain that he’d be more of a mess. He’d have caved in and succumbed to the shock by now or asked for more painkillers to numb him into a sleep so that he could escape the nightmare.

But little Dirk didn’t. Instead he grabbed hold of Jensen’s hand and recited little childish beliefs and stories of special humans born to be helpmates to their winged brethren.

Jensen wasn’t sure why a seraph would still tell their child such tales when there were humans out there trying to kill them. He wondered about it right up to the moment Dirk’s father showed up. The man was tall, muscular and completely human.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The shooting made the news, but thankfully Jensen’s name didn’t get attached to it. If he had to lead the life of second best failure, he’d like it to stay as anonymous as possible.

The press was calling it a hate crime, which was obvious enough, but more disturbing were the rumblings of it being a planned one. The shooters weren’t waiting around for just any old seraph to fly by. No, they were waiting for Dirk’s mother because she had married a human. More troublesome was that they might not have been aiming for her at all, but the half-breed child flying by her side. Spectators reported her veering suddenly off course, but they swore that it was before they heard the sound of gunfire.

She’d taken a bullet for her child.

Jensen knew that there were humans that mated with seraph. It wasn’t a common practice, but it was more common amongst the humans who went to the academy. Just like any other school or workplace, people become attached to and fall in love with the people that they’re around. It was bound to happen.

It was also one of the reasons that his parents hadn’t been so upset at the death of their son’s dream. They weren’t separatists, but that didn’t mean that they wanted him dragging home a new down comforter that was still, as some people put it, quacking.

As a teenager, Jensen had blamed his parents of keeping him from getting into the academy. It couldn’t be his lack of skills. No, they had to be stopping him from getting admitted.

He recognized his idiocy on the subject now, but at the time he’d been less accustomed to the rejection letters. He supposed it was one part teenage angst and three parts ego, but he had been certain that he was destined for the academy, and any rejection was surely on the part of somebody else’s failure.

As an adult, Jensen realized that maybe he just wasn’t good enough to make the cut.

Maybe the day, as harrowing as it had been, was his way of getting to realize his dream of being able to work with and help a seraph. He might not have gotten to even touch a feather, but he’d made a difference in Dirk’s day, maybe even his life, and Jensen could be proud of that. He could make do with that memory. He was good at that.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The ringing of the telephone woke Jensen from his slumber. It was two weeks after the shooting incident, and he had the next three days off from work. Because of that convenient break, he’d gone out partying the night before with his loser musician friends to celebrate their lives of mediocrity.

Groaning, Jensen grabbed his glasses off the nightstand and slapped them haphazardly on his nose before picking up his cell phone. If it was his mother, Chris was going to owe him fifty bucks. Jensen swore that his mom had radar for when he’d been out partying too hard, and always knew to call him the next morning for maximum effect.

When he looked at the screen, the number wasn’t one he recognized. Hitting the answer he button, he said a cautious and gravelly, “Hello?”

“Jensen Ackles?” the voice on the other end of the line was unbearably chipper.

“Speaking,” Jensen said slowly. If it was a sales call or the blood bank or some damned solicitor, he was going to freak.

“This is Chad from the admissions department at the Academy of Angelic Care,” the voice on the other end droned.

Jensen sat fully up in bed. “You tell that fucker Chris that this isn’t goddamned funny.”

“I… Wow, dude. Your application is old, but I think you should’ve noted that you aren’t a morning person.”

“I mean it. I don’t care how much he paid you. This isn’t funny.”

“Okay, so I’m going to go ahead and jot down that you’re paranoid as well.”

“Whatever. I’m hanging up now. Tell Chris he isn’t going to have that stupidly long, girl hair much longer,” Jensen growled as he hung up the phone.

He really regretted the death of landline phones. Cells just never had that satisfying ‘click’ to them.

Of course, he ended up eating crow when his acceptance letter came in the afternoon mail. It was in an express envelope, and when he called the admissions office, from a phone number he got off the official website, because he’s apparently still that paranoid teenager, it was Chad that answered.

“Admissions, this is Chad.”

“Hi, Chad,” Jensen said awkwardly. It was embarrassing. Jensen had never coped with embarrassment well once in his entire life. He made a point to blend into the wallpaper most of the time. He practiced conversations to have with his patients so he they didn’t make complaints about him, but it took forever or a bottle of tequila for him to open up. Now that he knew that Chad was indeed legitimate, his previous social prowess that allowed him to tell the guy off had evaporated.

“Ahh, Mr. Ackles. I take it you found your coffee machine and humped it?” Chad asked, his voice perking up noticeably.

“I… what?” Jensen squeaked. It had to be a test of some sort, an admissions screening, only what was the right answer? Should he get offended? Should he let it pass? What were they looking for?

“Owww!” Chad bellowed into the phone and consequently Jensen’s ear. “Dude, alright. The dude is ancient. I don’t need to be… Okay, okay… You still there, Mr. Ackles?” Chad’s voice abruptly turned sugary sweet at the end of his monologue.

“Yes?”

“It that a question or a statem… Ow! Mother FU… Of course I’m on mute you douche! You think I’m not a goddamned professional?”

“Mr. uh, Chad?” Jensen chanced asking. He could hear an irritated female voice in the background, but Chad seemed to have finally covered the receiver, so the actual words weren’t making their way through.

After a moment, Chad came back on the line with a put upon and obviously falsely pleasant voice. “So you’ll need to tell me when you can make arrangements to get out here. I’ve got to tell you man, we’re pretty booked on class loads, but if you can make it, summer session starts in a week.”

If it was any other institution, Jensen would hang up, but it wasn’t. Of course, he should give two weeks notice at his job. He should, for that matter, not just walk out on his internship. But he knew a once in a lifetime opportunity when he heard it. The, “I can make it,” came out of his mouth without hesitation.

“You can? I mean, you can! Great! I’ll jut, uh, look through your forms here and see what you’re qualified for! Have a great day Mr. Ackles!” Chad sounded strained. Jensen felt it. He wasn’t so sure that he wanted this ‘Chad’ picking out his classes for him, but he’d take what he could get.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jensen Ackles was officially living in a Laundromat. The hospital hadn’t been happy with his sudden departure, and he hadn’t worked up the nerve to tell any of his family members that he quit his job to go to the academy. He lied about getting a better internship in San Antonio in order to stave off their inquiries, but with no job and not a whole lot of savings, he didn’t have much choice in his living arrangements when he couldn’t ask for a handout from his parents.

With all of the colleges in summer session, the dorms were shut down. The students for regular college had snapped up the good, low rent places before Jensen even knew he was going to be attending, and the Academy of Angel Care student center did have any places left to recommend that hadn’t already filled up.

Getting an extension on the repayment periods for his regular student loans had been painful. He’d written more emails and talked to more loan officers than he liked to about his new learning situation, but he’d gotten them to agree that the additional classes were an acceptable and beneficial reason to extend the grace period on his repayment plan.

His only financial redemption was that his new classes were funded by the school itself. Jensen didn’t want to think about the hassle he’d have to go through if he needed to finagle additional student loans in such a short time period.

Unwilling to let his more reputable friends see his new living arrangements, he badgered Chris into helping him move into the nasty one room apartment that he got as a ‘side benefit’ of his new job of managing a Laundromat on the night shift. Chris had lived in worse places, and he owed Jensen for helping him both in and out of said dives.

The plus side of Jensen’s new living space was that he was located in a good part of town. It was mostly little old ladies who had no interest in spending their time doing laundry at night and not dubious teenagers or weird travelers with suspicious looking stains on their blue jeans and flannel shirts.

The downside was that he perpetually smelled of Tide and Downy.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that his magical acceptance had something to do with his interaction with Dirk. For all he knew, it was a token gesture of appreciation that the academy administration never thought he’d accept, but Jensen wasn’t going to let his opportunity pass him by.

If he was a sympathy case, then he was going to be the best damn sympathy student to ever grace the doors of an institution. He’d make them see the professional that he could be. He’d hunker down and not be the spastic teenager that had dreamed of working with the winged ones all of his life.

If he could keep from wanting to throw up, that would also be fantastic, but Jensen had never quite managed that before.

Like a girl, Jensen picked out his outfit carefully before he went to the admissions office. His khaki slacks were perfectly pressed with the cheap iron that was chained to the Laundromat wall. His polo shirt was spotless thanks to the forgotten bottle of stain remover that somebody had left, and his shoes were carefully matched with his belt.

Forgoing his contacts, Jensen grabbed his trusty wire rimmed glasses. If he was in the mood to lie to himself, he’d say that they made him look more studious. The truth of the matter was that he liked being able to hide behind them. His face felt unprotected without them. Eyes were supposed to be the window to the soul, and Jensen liked having a barrier between him and the soul sucking stares of strangers.

If he was honest, he felt amazingly old as he walked across campus. There were older students, sure, but the texts that they were lugging out of the campus book store were obviously advanced texts. Jensen wasn’t going to be in their classes with them. He was going to be in with the teenagers. Some of them weren’t even going to be out of high school yet.

When Jensen reached the admissions office, he was treated to the sight of a blonde haired human dancing in the middle of an empty cubicle to the sound of a commercial jingle.

“CHEEPMART! WE GET THE WORM FOR YOU!!!” the man sang at the top of his lungs along with the radio advertisement.

“Uh, Chad?” Jensen hazarded as he bravely continued to enter the room.

“ACKLES! Dude, you’re finally here! I’ve been waiting all fucking day for you, man!” Chad paused and tilted his head. “And you obviously just got off work. My bad. Retail is a bitch, man, but at least you found work quickly.”

“You, uh, have my schedule?” He asked, his eyes locking on the carpet. It was mortifying to realize that his carefully selected outfit made him look like he worked a checkout line.

“Sure thing!” Chad said as he slapped down a piece of paper in front of Jensen that had a coffee ring on it. “So, I know that you’re not a morning guy and everything, but the only preening session that was left open was the morning class. It starts at five because the bird brains are like, in love with the sun or worms or something. If I were you, I’d just stay up all night and crash afterwards.”

Jensen’s hand froze midway towards reaching for the schedule. “Preening?” He croaked.

Chad made a funny face. “Dude, you look like, white and shit. You okay?”

“I… I’m not… I can’t… Preening?”

“Why do you not look like you’re about to cream your pants for joy? That’s what you guys do. You come in, find out you made the preening list and have spontaneous orgasms.”

Jensen managed a half hearted glare in Chad’s direction. Seriously, where did they find this guy? Was being an asshole an admissions requirement that he’d missed?

“My uncle gave them a discount on the landscaping in exchange for giving me a job.” Chad said.

“Did I…”

“Say something out loud?” Chad finished for him. “No. I just get that look a lot. But seriously, you should be happy with the preening.”

“I’m just. I’m not. That isn’t me,” Jensen settled on saying. He wondered if he was going to have a panic attack. He’d never had one before, and it would be downright mortifying if he had one over a simple class when he hadn’t freaked out over a damaged cherub in an emergency room, but his heart was practically pounding against his ribs.

Chad bent down and pulled a very thick folder out from a drawer. He flipped through a few pages before slapping the worn manila closed again. “Nope. Says right here that you are all about the touchy, feely wing groping. Oh, and you’ll want to talk to your department chair about testing out of some of these beginner level classes. I already took the liberty of putting you into flight muscle care, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t get me in trouble and tested out of the earlier class requirements for that.”

Numbly, Jensen took his schedule and shuffled out of the office. Behind him, he heard Chad start to talk back to the dog food commercial on the radio. He walked outside to a bench and peeked at his class schedule again. Preening was still listed at the top, followed by flight muscle care and a session of wing painting.

Jensen didn’t remember being so overwhelmed by a class schedule since his freshman year at college when he hadn’t known what to expect. But he was an adult now, and he could handle stressful situations. He just had to break things down into manageable pieces.

He had preening class which he wasn’t qualified for and wing painting that he’ll fail miserably at, and then he was enrolled for flight muscle care.

Flight muscle care. Right. Jensen could do that. He’d just… focus on that class and maybe go to preening uncaffeinated. If he wasn’t fully awake, he probably wouldn’t turn into a spaz until after he got out of class. Then he’d have the whole day to convince himself that it wasn’t that bad and it was just his fuzzy morning brain that made the memories seem that way.

And maybe he would pass wing painting by showing an appreciation and understanding of the subject matter. It couldn’t be that much different from art classes in normal schools.

Forcing himself up to his feet, Jensen started trekking to the book store. He needed to get his texts, and then he needed to talk to the grocery store to stock up on whatever bad for him crap was on sale that week. He had a plan. It wasn’t much of a plan, but at least he had one.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The problem with classes that started at five in the morning was that you had to get up earlier than that. Jensen was of the firm opinion that you just didn’t ever set your alarm before five because if you were doing that, you might as well just hang a loser sign outside your door.

Then again, Jensen had been losing at life for all of the years that he could remember, so he didn’t have room to point his finger.

He wasn’t sure if the coffee that he had made to take with him was actually coffee or living tar, but his sleep encrusted eyes managed to stay open as he walked to the campus for his first class. His glasses were perched precariously on the end of his nose. There was no way that he convince his eyes to open far enough to let his contacts in let alone convince his eyeballs that they wanted the little transparent discs sitting on them so early in the morning.

Everybody else at the class was fucking ecstatic to be there. They were jumping and tittering, and their young, excited voices sort of annoyed Jensen. Part of it was because he felt horrible that he wasn’t that way. Even if he had made it into the academy at fifteen, he would never have been them. Jensen Ackles was too reserved for that. He needed planning and plotting and wouldn’t embarrass himself like that unless he had a specifically practiced script to follow.

Just because his life’s ambition had been to get into a program, that didn’t mean he had ever aspired to be a preener. They were too exposed for his tastes. He just wanted to help out with seraph care and maybe get a job working to further integrate their two species together. He’d never thought himself good enough to get into an actual wing care class.

Sure, in his fantasies maybe he got into all of the highly sought after classes and became academy valedictorian and then and got a job working at the seraph consulate in Dallas, but in reality Jensen knew that he was never going to reach such, pardon the pun, heights.

His face was pretty, and his mind was sharp enough, but he needed to know a person before opening up to them. People with reserved natures rarely made it to the top of any profession or field.

Oh, Jensen was good in a crisis because his mind didn’t have a chance to scream at him that he wasn’t in the right spot – that he didn’t belong. His adrenalin would keep his doubts at bay and keep him from reverting to his awkward and aloof behaviors. But crisis situations didn’t happen every day, and if they did, they’d then be normal, and by default Jensen would lose his edge and revert.

He’d gotten notices more than once for poor bedside manner at the therapy center due to his uncommunicative tendencies. He could only imagine what the academy was going to think of him, especially at the hour of the morning they were expecting him to function at.

“Greetings,” the professor said as she came to the front of the classroom. Her wings trailed behind her in a blur of grays and purples and blues, and Jensen had to force away the thought that the coloring was kind of depressing. The last thing he needed to do was insult somebody’s wings.

“Normally, I would start a class with pleasantries and introductions, but the fact of the matter is that preening is not just another subject for you to study. Sharing notes with other students won’t help, and all the studying in the world will do you no good. To be able to tend to the feathers of a seraph, you must have something inside of you. Your touch may differ from another’s but it is your intent, dedication and empathy that guide your success. There are no take backs in this class. There are no extra credit projects. You are constantly going to have to prove yourself, and it is my hope that you do.”

Jensen swallowed down the coffee that tried to come back up on him at the instructor’s words. He was going to fail; he was so going to fail.

“With that in mind, please take a look at the model wings around the room. You have the rest of the hour to groom them as best you can.”

As the rest of the students made a mad dash to claim their model, Jensen shrank to the back of the line to just pick whatever was left. It wasn’t going to make a difference one way or the other, and he wasn’t going to get himself injured trying to pick out a dummy.

He could feel the instructor’s eyes on him, and he wished that he actually was a seraph so that he could raise up his wings and cover his blush. Instead he cast his eyes to the floor, rubbed the back of his neck and wished that he was invisible.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

If preening was hard, flight muscles was insanely easy. Then again, Jensen couldn’t brag too much. He’d spent good money on a college degree from a human university to learn how muscles worked and how to manipulate and strengthen them. Seraph physiology was very similar to a human’s, and the muscles that enabled them to fly were no different.

Sure the class was closer to a massage class than anything else, but it was nice to know that he could excel at something. He was trying to put preening out of his mind. He was the only person in the class who had experienced the misfortune of having a synthetic oil gland literally burst open on him.

And hadn’t that just been the best thing ever? His fellow students had laughed their asses off while Jensen tried to wipe the oil off his glasses with some sort of dignity. Even the teacher was laughing as she scribbled down notes in her book.

Jensen could only imagine what it said, no doubt something about his overly aggressive touch and potentially damaging technique. And he wouldn’t blame her. If he had wings, he wouldn’t want himself working on them.

Muscles, sure, Jensen had strong hands and a practiced skill. His specialty was in getting knots loose, but that didn’t always translate into a nice, soft touch. When he’d taken various massage classes to enhance his physical therapy lessons, he’d excelled at deep tissue and more aggressive motions. He doubted anybody would want him rubbing at the delicate base of their quills or trying to smooth tiny barbs back into place with his fingers.

After flight muscle treatment came wing painting, and that was a nightmare. Jensen had no idea how he’d gotten into the class except that there was probably nothing else left open, and the academy was eager to get their charity case student through the program as quickly as possible.

It wasn’t that Jensen wasn’t artistically inclined. He played the guitar and mucked around with his buddies in impromptu jam sessions. He’d done quite well in his acting electives in college and had even gotten accolades in his creative writing classes.

His photography was good even if it tended to have too many close-ups and not enough landscapes for his professors.

Painting just wasn’t his thing. He could copy well enough, but he tended to stare at a blank canvas and pray for inspiration until he couldn’t stand it anymore and just started slinging paint until it came out to look like something vaguely resembling something else.

He couldn’t do that with wings.

Jensen knew what wing art was supposed to be; he just wasn’t the guy that should even be attempting it.

One of Jensen’s favorite books was one that his mother had gotten him when he graduated college. It was a coffee table book of famous wing paintings from around the world. Some of the pictures showed gorgeous landscapes that spread from wingtip to wingtip as the seraph flew. Others were magnificent designs that appeared to be one thing while the feathers nestled together and another when they were flung out.

There were intricate stories that shifted from the underside of wings to the topside, telling their tale in moving pictures. And then there were the painstakingly detailed tip dyes that made it look like there were jewels nestled in amongst the feathers.

All of those masterpieces were applied in just the right way that the seraph wouldn’t be weighted down or inhibited in their flight

As he did a sample piece so that the art instructor could review his level of skill, Jensen’s hand shook.

While the other students laughed and chose bold colors and eye catching designs, Jensen carefully brushed color onto the end of his feathers, tipping their mottled brown ends with deep turquoises, dark crimsons and shiny silvers.

When he put his feathers up to dry, his work looked drab compared to the other examples, and he tried not to be disappointed.

Jensen counseled himself to quit getting his hopes up. Looking at the work of the other students, it was obvious why he had never made the program before. It wasn’t that he was a crazy groupie. It was just that he wasn’t good enough.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The second week of classes had Jensen getting pulled into each and every one of his instructor’s offices. Sam, the preening instructor, quizzed him on his feelings. Oddly enough, she could care less about his embarrassment and seemed to be more interested in his reaction to getting squirted with semi-warm gelatinous oil.

His flight muscle instructor, Sebastian, just wanted to shoot the shit with him for all he could determine. The guy asked him about athletics and personal interests and everything and anything under the sun. Jensen figured the guy was just happy to have a student that knew what he was doing.

His painting instructor just stared at him for a long time. It was creepy. Jensen knew that some of the seraph had unusual ‘powers’ besides flight. They healed faster, and despite what others said, there were a lot of reports about some of them having other gifts that Jensen didn’t believe them all to be urban legends.

He just hoped that the mind reading thing was something told to young human children to scare them into behaving around the winged ones. He liked to keep to himself and that included his thoughts.

Finally, his art instructor spoke, “So, Jensen.”

“Yeah? I mean, uh, yes, Mr. Farlight?”

“You have a very delicate touch with your brush.”

Jensen figured that was a passive aggressive way of telling him he sucked. It seemed that was something an art teacher might use as a teaching tool. “Yeah, I didn’t want to hamper flight movement. I had heard that too much paint can cause the flier to lose loft and agility.”

“Did you now? Where?” Mr. Farlight seemed very interested in Jensen’s words. He leaned forward to look at Jensen some more.

Jensen tried not to squirm and lost the battle of keeping his eyes looking at his professor. They trailed down onto the seraph’s desk, but he managed to keep them from focusing on the hands that he had clasped in his lap.

“I have a book,” Jensen mumbled, feeling the same kind of embarrassed that he always did when admitting what a total wing geek he was to somebody.

“Really? So you had an outside interest in wing painting before this class? Your records don’t indicate that you…”

“NO!” Jensen blurted out. “I mean, uh, I don’t… I have an academic interest, but I never… I didn’t like, practice or anything. I’m a complete amateur at it.” The last thing he needed was his instructor to think that his wretched job was actually the result of practice. His raw ability was pathetic enough on its own.

“I see. So you’ve never given thought to the subject before? You had no preconceived plan in your head as to what you wanted to create?”

“No?” Jensen said. It was a bad answer, artists liked to hear that you had some grand vision or feeling guiding you. “I thought it would look pretty,” was rarely an acceptable admission.

“Hmm,” Mr. Farlight said as he scribbled down a note and closed his file. “That’s all, Mr. Ackles. You may go.”

Jensen shuffled his way out of the man’s office as quietly as possible. He saved freaking out until he got back to his fabric softener scented abode.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To his amazement, Jensen didn’t get any sort of suggestion that he wasn’t cut out for the program. Even though his preening class lost a couple of students who were deemed ‘undedicated,’ Jensen received no admonishments or lectures.

They moved from fake models to personal instructors and live ‘models.’

It seemed odd to him that one class would have such advancement, but he didn’t complain. He didn’t even ask questions. The last thing he wanted was to become known as ‘that difficult student’ who was always questioning the ‘whys’ and never shutting the hell up.

All of the instructors and models were actual couples, and while some of the students showed confusion at the information, Jensen understood it.

Seraphs had problems grooming all of their own feathers. When young, they had their parents help with grooming. It made sense that they would have their spouses or ‘mates’ help them with their preening as they became older. Groomers had to be expensive, and in a sociological aspect, it made sense.

Many mammals showed pack or family grooming habits, and while sentient, seraphs were more mammal than avian. It couldn’t be comfortable having a complete and novice stranger pawing at your feathers. It was a far more personal thing than having your haircut, and no student could be counted on to be a pure professional at the level they were at.

“Now, sometimes, they’re big babies,” Jensen’s personal instructor told him. Her name was Naomi, and she was one of only two human instructors that he had met. Her husband, Simon, was Jensen’s model.

He was a hulking specimen of a seraph, easily dwarfing any of the other winged ones in the room. His pinions were so large that they were longer than Jensen’s forearm.

Jensen had the sneaking suspicion that Simon had been placed with him on purpose. Sam had seemed overly invested as she introduced them. There was that whole non-verbal communication thing going on that Jensen didn’t think he saw happen with the other students and their models. It almost made him wish that he was more coherent so he could observe more, but there wasn’t enough coffee in the world to make him actually want to be fully awake for preening class.

“You can’t let them intimidate you. Ill kept feathers just get more painful the longer that you leave them be. It hurts to unplug a gland or pull out a broken quill, but the alternative is much worse,” Naomi continued as she shoved her delicate hand into Simon’s wing with no small amount of force.

Simon grumbled in response. Naomi’s hand came out with a downy feather that was twisted and bent.

“This,” she said, waving the feather in front of Jensen’s nose, “is what happens when they fly through too much wind and rain. The softer feathers can curl and warp just like your hair, only they don’t ever straighten back the right way. You have to find them and remove them before they become an irritation.”

She gestured to Simon with her other hand, and Jensen took a deep breath before pushing his own hand in.

The thickness of the feathers was much greater than that of the synthetic models that they had been working on. Despite his attempts to be gentle, Jensen had to resort to pushing. Simon grunted and flared out his wings, and Jensen froze for a moment. When neither Simon nor Naomi made any corrections to his technique, he continued.

Finally his fingers found their way through to Simon’s down and began to trace over the individual feathers. He didn’t find any twisted and curled ones, but he did feel a lump.

Jensen didn’t want to feel a lump. That was like the sort of thing that made for television movies were made of:

 

“They found a lump!”

 

“Oh, God, Marcy’s dying!”

 

“Her last wish was to reconcile with Bo!”

 

“We should load her withered and frail body in a car and take her to the seaside to find this guy she had an affair with twenty years ago!”

Only, it would be actually heartbreaking and serious, and Jensen was in the therapy business. He was there to help people regain their life after the tragedy, not inform them of it.

Gingerly, Jensen pushed against the lump harder, praying that he was incorrect in what he was feeling. The good news was that he was, indeed, mistaken.

The bad news was that it was a clogged oil gland, and it had no problem spurting through Simon’s thick feathers to squirt Jensen in the face.

The classroom erupted into laughter, and Jensen turned his predictable shade of red before Naomi handed him a towel that he promptly hid his face behind.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When Jensen showed up for flight muscle care still looking embarrassed, his instructor took one look at him and dragged him off to the faculty offices to shoot the breeze. They talked about nothing important at all, and it felt good to finally have a conversation that didn’t revolve around school.

After that day, it became a regular habit. Sebastian would send the other students off to study then would summarily drag Jensen off to his office to discuss politics, weather and cars.

At first, Jensen was concerned about appearances, but then the other summer faculty started joining in. It was weirdly friendly and sort of touching how much of an interest they showed in him as a person.

He wondered if maybe it was just because he wasn’t as young as the other students, and they were excited to have a new adult around. He didn’t pry too hard into their intentions. Despite the fact that they were teaching mundane college subjects that Jensen had long since completed and passed, they were still faculty at the academy. Their opinion of him could be important in the rest of his life.

After a while, he could even pretend that they weren’t making notes about him when they thought he wasn’t looking.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When Jensen showed up for flight muscle care still looking embarrassed, his instructor took one look at him and dragged him off to the faculty offices to shoot the breeze. They talked about nothing important at all, and it felt good to finally have a conversation that didn’t revolve around school.

After that day, it became a regular habit. Sebastian would send the other students off to study then would summarily drag Jensen off to his office to discuss politics, weather and cars.

At first, Jensen was concerned about appearances, but then the other summer faculty started joining in. It was weirdly friendly and sort of touching how much of an interest they showed in him as a person.

He wondered if maybe it was just because he wasn’t as young as the other students, and they were excited to have a new adult around. He didn’t pry too hard into their intentions. Despite the fact that they were teaching mundane college subjects that Jensen had long since completed and passed, they were still faculty at the academy. Their opinion of him could be important in the rest of his life.

After a while, he could even pretend that they weren’t making notes about him when they thought he wasn’t looking.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“Look, Jared. I won’t deny that Jensen’s a bit different from the other potentials.” Sam started out, her low voice rumbling in soothing tones.

“How different?” Jared asked suspiciously. It wasn’t that he was against different. Most days he was all for it. He had the honor of being the only person to actively admit that they liked Chad the admissions guy who had his job because his uncle blackmailed the school when he ran across some records on a student’s sexual preference.

They were damning pieces of paper if all you were interested in was educating a few enthusiastic humans on the appropriate treatment of their winged counterparts. They were essential pieces of knowledge if you were trying to find a mate. It wasn’t exactly advisable to start trying to match people up if one of the people in question wasn’t ever going to be sexually attracted to the other.

Sam shuffled a few papers at the top of the stack nervously. There were a lot of papers there, and Jared had the bad feeling that they weren’t comprised of several different potential mates.

“Is all of that his?” Jared asked. He didn’t bother keeping his tone mild or his face from getting just a touch of horror to it.

“There were some… issues with his earlier applications.” Sam hedged.

“What’d he do, try to put them in novel form? The kid looks like he bleeds words.”

“Well, he’d be a good match for you then, wouldn’t he? You seem to have enough of them dribbling out of you at all hours of the day.” Sam shot back.

Jared frowned and fiddled with his hands. He couldn’t exactly deny her accusations. He’d never been known to keep his mouth shut. His parents said he came out of the womb squalling and never shut up.

“And,” Sam hesitated again, “I wouldn’t exactly call him ‘kid’ if I were you.”

“Well, of course he’s an adult by now, but…”

“No, Jared. He’s older than you.”

“What? By how many months?”

“Forty-eight-ish?” Sam told him.

“Four years? But that’s… Sam, I’m not sure that this is a good idea. I’m looking for someone who is a good match. You know, fun and, and…”

“Jared, you’re young, but you’re already practically coming apart at the seams. I know that you’re energetic, and the last thing in the world that I want to do is hamper you. But I think that rejecting Jensen is a horrible idea on so many levels that, that…” Sam grunted to finish her sentence and slapped an overly thick folder down in front of Jared.

“Look,” she said as she dropped another folder on top of the first, “I’m not going to lie. We almost, almost royally screwed the pooch on this one. Do you know how many times he tried to get in here? How many times some idiot denied his entrance? How many people are getting fired, reprimanded and demoted over him?”

“A lot?” Jared guessed, his mouth not knowing whether to dip into a confused frown or an amused grin over Sam’s dramatics.

“He wasn’t in class a day, hell, an hour before he was practically oozing, ‘Mate me now! Take me to your nest and tickle me with your feathers!’”

Honestly? That sounded pretty kinky to Jared, but he didn’t vet mates for a living. Despite his many talents, he was always meant for other things. He came from a long, diversified line of seraphs and humans. His blood was strong, not diluted of its humanity like so many of his kind.

His people have been working to undo the damage that their forefathers brought down upon them. Separating from the humans, not breeding with them had started to cause damage to their genes over time.

It wasn’t inbreeding, not really. The gene pool was large enough, it just hadn’t had any human blood added to it in so long that mates could no longer soothe the needs of the gifted, and their wings began to suffer for it.

It had become so bad that many lost the ability to fly as their glands refused to open to the fingers of another, and their flight feathers became brittle and hard. There was unhappiness and pain, and they had been forced to admit that centuries of hiding had been their own undoing.

Jared’s family line had gone from outcasts to visionaries at the end of the prior century. They had never given up the practice of seeking out human mates, difficult as it was to steal them away from their human families. It had kept their lineage strong, and their human born or sired offspring were proven to have the touch of comfort that was desirable in any mate.

Jensen’s humanity certainly didn’t scare Jared like it would some of his peers. He knew that they worried about not being able to share flight with their mate or their mates being disturbed by their slight physiological differences, but that’s what the institutes were charged with discovering back when they were established.

They’re there to separate out the helpful humans from the ones that were born to be lovers. Some humans would make fine allies in the world that would never make good partners in a marriage, and the academies have been around long enough to be good at what they do. They’re good at letting in enough humans that nobody ever catches on to their real purpose.

It’s a desirable side benefit that there were more humans out in the world that knew how to aid a seraph in an emergency, but all of the academies in the world were really just established to find willing mates. They’re glorified matchmaking services.

Although Jared was still young, he had been looking for a mate for a while now - since he was sixteen to be exact. The instant he was declared old enough to begin his search, he went off to sign up for the match making services that the academies offered. He had met many potential mates. None of them had ever worked out.

“So basically what you’re telling me is that he’s desperate, and I’m desperate, so we’ll make a good match?” Jared finally asked her.

Sam glared at him. “I’m saying that you’re very well matched for each other. You both have been trying to get into the program since you first turned old enough, and you both have had rotten luck at achieving your goals. Your temperaments would be good together, and your interests are similar.”

“Great. We can be rejected losers together then.”

“Don’t be an idiot. I’m telling you that he’s perfect, and you’re about to ignore him because you think that there is something wrong with him. You’re writing him off because he’s too old, and you’re being foolish. You’re being as stupid as those idiots who wouldn’t admit him when he was younger! Why if it weren’t for your fellow fools, you’d have no chance with him. He’d have been snapped up like a…”

Jared raised his hands in surrender. “Okay, you’ve convinced me. I’ll give him a try. Just don’t make me promise for a second go ‘round, okay? You know that I’m more partial to females, remember?”

Sam snorted in derision. “Yeah, I’ll try to remember that one. I’ll even mention it during the wedding toasts.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jared wasn’t expecting much when he went to his campus visit for Jensen. He had been to them before, and the spark just had never appeared with any of his potential mates. He’d actually been to more than his fair share of arranged meet and greets, but each one had left him unmated and worse: uninterested.

At first, he had tried to keep going with the arranged meetings. Not all of his kind felt the tugging of bonding at the first meeting, and he had thought that maybe he would be the type to grow to love his mate. His blood did carry a higher than average percentage of human blood in it. There was always the chance that his natural instincts weren’t working like they should, but after his fifteenth potential mate fell through, he just had to admit that he wasn’t going to be easily matched.

Having so many failed arrangements wasn’t normal. His mother liked to think that it was because he was special, and some of the mating councilors somewhat shared her opinion. They tended to bandy words around that half implied that Jared’s blood wasn’t pure enough seraph to mate with a human and half implied that his superior bloodline led him to be pickier than his counterparts.

In his mind, all the experts were mostly confused. He figured that maybe he was just too hard to please. Like somehow his overall gentle and easy going nature had to have an offside somewhere, and it happened to fall out into his love life.

At times, Jared had been half tempted to go to more traditional methods to find his mate. After all, his family had been doing it for generations before he came along. There was the chance that his instincts were missing the chase of it all or the forbidden nature of flying off with his chosen human to woo his mate without the interruptions of civilized life around them.

Jared doubted that Sam’s latest pick would be anything different, but a couple of more times with the approved modern methods wouldn’t hurt. Desperation looked good on nobody, and resorting to old methods would be nothing but desperate. His generation was already starting to call it “Dating by Stockholm,” and Jared didn’t disagree with them. Human psyches were different from the seraph’s minds, and he had no desire to bring pain to his future mate.

Plus there was that whole inconvenient issue of abduction charges and the illegality of it. Not that Jared would actually take a human against his or her will; he’d certainly discuss it with his intended first. But that went straight back to the academies, because how else was he supposed to get to know somebody well enough to know if he or she was willing to be wooed by him?

It was a daunting task, so while he didn’t have high hopes for Sam’s latest suggestion, he figured that it was still better than his alternative options.

When Jared walked into the early morning preening class, there were many students milling around. He ignored them in favor of scanning over the room for an older face. If Jensen didn’t work out, he wasn’t going to waste much time at the academy. There was always the chance that he’d want to bond and mate with one of the other potentials, but experience had taught him that such a chance was a slim one.

“Jared,” Sam cooed as she came up to him. She was smiling and endearing. Jared was not used to her being anything other than forthright and blunt. She was a nice person, but kissing ass had never been her specialty.

“Where is he?” Jared asked as he looked around the room again. There was a chance that he could’ve missed Jensen, but it was doubtful. His eyesight was beyond human perfection. His body was genetically hardwired to see things clearly from a distance and absorb details as he flew through the skies at a rapid rate. Unless Jensen looked significantly younger than his stated age, he wasn’t in the room.

“Running late,” Sam said, a trace of her usual sarcasm and irony making it into her weirdly chipper tone.

“Late?” Jared asked skeptically. He hoped his tone implied that he wasn’t looking for the absent minded mate. If Jensen couldn’t even make it to an important class on time, how was Jared supposed to even consider taking him for the mate that he would rely on?

Sam swatted him on his, according to some, overly muscled arm. “Don’t be that way. Jensen always makes it before class starts. He’s just… not a morning person.”

Jared arched both eyebrows at that.

“Don’t give me that superior ‘Early Bird’ crap either, Jared Padalecki. You know full well that not all seraph rise with the sun, and Jensen isn’t late. He’s just not early.”

“You said the words, ‘running late.’ When is running late not actually being late?” Jared asked, his face showing his displeasure and doubt.

“When late looks like that,” Sam said with a tilt of her head.

Jared’s eyes scanned over the man that had just entered. He was carrying a beat up thermos; the dazed look on his face told Jared that coffee had to be what is inside of the container. If it wasn’t coffee, then it should be. But Jensen’s early morning caffeine preferences weren’t truly what caught Jared’s interest. The rest of Jensen was what made Jared take notice.

Jensen was attractive. Even as unpleasant and surly looking as his face was in its sleep deprived state, it was still handsome. Jared’s eyes could make out the color of Jensen’s and the fine lines that were already starting to develop around them. His mouth was pouty, the effect made worse when Jensen blew into the mouthpiece on his overly large thermos. Jared doubted that the beverage inside was actually still hot. From the slightly glazed look that Jensen’s sporting, the safer bet seemed to be that blowing was just a reflex that was developed by a guy who was never awake enough in the mornings to judge the temperature of his own drink.

Once his eyes gave up perusing Jensen’s face, they raked quickly over the human’s form, and Jared had to admit that the rest of the package was very nice. In fact, he hated himself just a little for having a momentary fantasy about Jensen wrapping those legs around him while he flew them somewhere. It was ten kinds of clichéd weirdness, and Jared liked to think of himself as being above the fantasy levels of a teenage girl. Human or seraph, they’re all about the romantic flights and the wing sex.

“So do you want to go meet him, or should I give him a break and let him sleep through class today?” Sam asked smugly.

Jared glared at her and said, “What about his normal class partner?”

“Simon and Naomi were more than willing to not be here today. They didn’t want to distract Jensen from bonding with you,” Sam told him.

“That’s very presumptive,” Jared said with a scowl.

“It’s very accurate given the way that you’re leering at the poor guy. Am I going to have to remind you that you cannot just pick him up and take him away to your nest?” Sam’s voice was self-satisfied, and Jared resisted the urge to say something mean to her, settling for a pout instead.

“I know better than to just abduct an unsuspecting human in this day and age,” Jared informed her.

“So long as you remember that a suspecting human falls under that rule as well,” Sam told him as she started to lead him over to Jensen’s work station.

Jensen blinked up at them when they got closer. Jared smiled at him gently, but the warm look didn’t really get him anywhere. Jensen just sort of blinked at him with the most adorable look of confusion on his face.

“Sam?” Jensen asked, his voice rough from something. Hopefully not giving a blow job, because Jared wasn’t in the mood to scare off any interlopers, but he would if it meant snagging Jensen and taking him off to nest.

“This is Jared,” Sam told Jensen, oblivious to Jared’s perverted mind wandering.

Jensen held his hand out in greeting, and Jared shook it. Jensen’s hand was warm and strong. His fingers curled just right around Jared’s hand. It didn’t take much effort to imagine them pushing into Jared’s wings. The thought made Jared grin and then blush because he was already thinking naughty thoughts, and Jensen just looked confused. It wasn’t fair to be planning out their entire future when Jensen didn’t look like he even remembered Jared’s name yet.

“What happened to Simon?” Jensen asked as he disengaged his hand from Jared’s grip and returned his gaze to Sam.

“He and Naomi had a business trip come up, and Jared here was generous enough to volunteer to step in,” Sam lied smoothly.

Jared grinned harder as he moved to get himself back into Jensen’s line of sight. “Actually, I’m here as a fulltime lab rat. I was supposed to start next year, but when this opportunity came up, I figured that I might as well start early, you know?”

Sam snorted next to Jared, but he ignored the knowing look in her eye. Volunteering for fulltime duty was code for declaring intent to woo. Being a live subject for all of a potential’s classes automatically ensured you time with your intended. The wooing subject didn’t always work out, but that was probably a good thing. It kept humans from actually figuring out the whole courting process.

Jared was hoping that his relationship with Jensen wasn’t going to fall into the ‘didn’t work out’ statistic. He’d take all the ribbing in the world from Sam if Jensen turned out to be the one. Jared’s instincts were insisting that it was so, but there was always the chance that Jensen would reject him. All Jared could do was pray that wouldn’t happen if for no other reason than his own health and wellbeing.

Seraph were not meant to be alone, and Jared’s feathers were already starting to lose their shine from his fretful plucking. It was self-destructive behavior at its best, but Jared had never met an unmated adult seraph who didn’t start to destroy his own feathers. It was a biological need to display one’s failure on the outside. Modern psychology didn’t work as well on a winged one as it did on humans.

Jensen’s smile turned a tight and brittle at Jared’s words. “Really? Who’s the lucky student?”

Jared looked back at him for a moment, certain that befuddlement was displayed on his face. Then it struck him that Jensen didn’t immediately assume that he was Jared’s training partner. Younger humans might have, but Jensen was obviously wary. Or worse, he just assumed he wasn’t good enough to be assigned a live partner for all of his classes.

Sam cleared her throat and smiled at Jensen gently. “That would be you, Honey.”

“But,” Jensen’s eyes darted back and forth between Sam and Jared like he thought one of them was going to bite him.

“Of course if you’d rather I pick somebody else…”Jared suggested. He didn’t really think that Jensen would reject him within minutes of meeting him, but even so the words burned coming out of his mouth.

“No! I mean, I just… I haven’t exactly been here long, and there are other students who you might work better with. I’m kind of here on a last minute kind of deal.” Jensen’s face was twisted in worry and sincerity. He honestly believed that he wasn’t a good choice for Jared’s partner.

Jared would be lying if he said that the expression didn’t make something protective and tender well up inside of him. He wanted to buy Jensen coffee and cuddle him and take him off to Home Depot to pick out a color scheme to decorate their nest with.

He was just a tad smitten.

“Well that puts us in the same boat, right? Non-traditionalists all the way,” Jared replied with an easy grin. He’d been told it makes him look sexy. From the expression on the human’s face, all it did for Jensen was confuse him. Jared made a mental note that he was going to have to buy a very nice espresso machine for their nest if he ever expected coherence in the early morning from his mate.

Sam harrumphed and fake coughed into her hand. Jared scowled at her to let her know that her amusement at his expense was not appreciated, but the look she gave him back told him she didn’t care. She said her goodbyes, and while Jensen began setting up his workstation, she turned around to mouth, ‘I Told You So.’

Jared cheerfully flipped her off.

“So, uh,” Jensen paused as he wound the perching chair up a little higher to adjust for Jared’s height.

“Yes?”

“Look, this might seem a bit rude, but do you have any trouble with clogged pores? Because, I’ve got to tell you, I’m not a fan of the exploding oil ducts. Not that I won’t do them, but wing grease is a bitch to get off my glasses, and it smears and streaks and…”

“And it’s usually kind of icky?” Jared finished for him.

“Yeah,” Jensen agreed.

“Well I can’t promise that I won’t ever get one, but I’d guess that it isn’t a problem with my wings right now. They’re kind of, well, let’s just say they’re not in the best shape,” Jared said as he turned around and sat down on the stool.

He flared his wings out a bit, and he did his best to ignore Jensen’s intake of breath. He knew that his wings weren’t a pretty sight. They weren’t anywhere near their normal range of colors, but that was hardly their worst problem.

His feathers were broken in some spots and woefully thin in others, only his down keeping him from looking like a plucked chicken. It wasn’t poor grooming. While a mate was best for preening, there were enough places that Jared could go for treatment while he searched for the person that he could share intimacy with.

 

But Jared’s problems weren’t in finding acceptable substitutes. They were in finding an acceptable mate. For a guy who was liked by almost everybody, he’d had a rough time finding ‘the one.’ He had been drawn to plenty, but his relationships always ended the same way – in rejection.

As much as seraph were biologically compelled to interbreed freely with their human counterparts, their psychological makeup was never going to be identical. All the counseling in the world couldn’t get rid of certain characteristics, and getting rejected by several different potential mates tended to take a toll.

Jared never thought he’d be a ‘plucker.’ For one thing, it just had never seemed to fit his personality traits. For another, everybody expected him to mate early. His powers were strong and in need of mating, and he’d been made well aware of that fact since he was a little cherub. He’d never resented his biological needs like some of his peers. He’d relished in the thought that he was destined to mate and had eagerly awaited the day that he would find his life’s companion.

Reality decided it was going to reward his positive outlook by being a bitch to him. He’d tried to make it work with several humans and a few of his fellow seraph. And he’d gotten rebuffed and dumped more times than statistics deemed normal.

It was prime fodder for personal angst and pain. His stress levels were through the roof, and Sam hadn’t been kidding when she said he was coming undone. His failure to mate combined with the power growing inside of him created a maelstrom of emotions. He wasn’t good enough and some primal instinct urged him to mark his outside to show what was inside of him.

At first, his body did the work for him. His feathers dulled no matter how many times or how carefully he had them groomed. He even bought expensive manmade oils to smooth into them, but they didn’t work.

Then they started to itch. It was an unbearable, constant feeling that was only assuaged by plucking them out. Feather after feather came out until he was left with unattractive bald patches and a slew of doctor’s appointments that couldn’t pinpoint a physical cause because there wasn’t one.

Psychologists couldn’t help. It was an instinct. Some left over need to eliminate himself from the gene pool by displaying his inner turmoil to anybody who bothered to pay him heed. If he ignored the urge to pull, they’d start falling out on their own, so it was better to at least have a choice of what got plucked. He’d seen test cases where the seraph left their wings alone. The feathers would fall out in giant clumps, sometimes during flight. It was nasty.

Most days, Jared didn’t think about it. He managed to train himself to leave enough feathers so that he could fly, and determinedly kept putting himself out there to find that one who would be his mate. He didn’t think about what could happen if his body decided that he wasn’t removing enough feathers. That reality was just too grim for his taste.

If Jared had known what it felt like to lay eyes on ‘the one,’ he would have spared himself some stress and a lot of turmoil. What he felt when he looked at Jensen was nowhere near what he had felt when he tried to be with the others. With them there had always been a question or a doubt. With Jensen, he didn’t feel the slightest twinge of uncertainty.

Of course, that also meant that Jared’s future beloved was faced with a less than stellar view of Jared’s wings. It was hardly acceptable mating plumage. It was disgraceful, ratty and ragged and any other ‘r’ word that could possibly describe something unsightly.

“Been making pillows?” Jensen joked softly.

Jared snorted, and his wings flared out a little despite himself. Jensen didn’t give him a chance for a comeback though. He just shoved his fingers into Jared’s plumage and began stroking at the base of the feathers. His fingers were deft as they searched out broken quills that hadn’t quite been pulled out right and massaged at areas where Jared had over-plucked. His touch was nothing short of pleasurable, and Jared had to fight to keep back a moan.

“Feel okay?” Jensen asked, his fingers halting their movement.

“Yeah, great actually,” Jared managed to choke out.

“You sure?” Jensen sounded skeptical.

“Absolutely,” Jared told him.

It was a lie. It didn’t feel good, it felt awesome. There was a reason that seraph volunteers brought their mates with them to the training classes. A good preening could easily become sexual for the one whose wings were getting treated. It was a simple biological response that sometimes couldn’t be helped.

Humans thought that the mates were there to help provide instruction. Most times they were there to alleviate guilt on the part of their partner. They could easily maneuver an unwitting human’s hands away from erogenous zones as well as be there with their partner should they become aroused.

Jared had heard it compared to the differences between a professional massage and an erotic one, but it was hard to draw the line when the humans weren’t exactly in on the loop.

Jensen’s hands had started to move again, spreading oils down to the tips of Jared’s feathers and fluffing gently at the exposed down to keep it from curling in on itself.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but this looks pretty bad back here,” Jensen said after a while.

“I know,” Jared agreed easily.

“You, uh, catch something?” Jensen asked gently, “Or, you know, was there some sort of… thing? A thing like somebody was, uh…”

Jared choked on his own laughter. “Jensen, seriously. I’m not an abused little angel. It’s a normal reaction to undue stress.”

“Like a bird?” Jensen sounded dubious about Jared’s answer.

Jared sighed, “I’m not a bird.”

“No! No, I mean. I know that. I’m pretty good on the whole physiology thing. I just didn’t realize that you would do that,” Jensen babbled, his fingers clenching and unclenching in Jared’s wings.

“Well we do. It’s not common, but it happens. And before you ask, I’m not actually abusing myself. It’s different from what humans go through.”

“Doesn’t look different,” Jensen told him.

Jared tried not to roll his eyes, because it was a good sign that Jensen was already invested in his wellbeing. Even if it was just an indicator that Jensen was a good person, it was still a plus in his favor.

“It is. Trust me. I know the root of it, and so does my doctor. The only thing I have to worry about is if it gets too severe. I’m not a self-destructive guy.”

“Okay,” Jensen took a deep breath, “okay, but I want you to know that I’ll listen if you want to talk.”

Jared grinned a little. “Good. I like talking.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

That Jared liked talking was an understatement. Jensen had never heard so much happy chatter come out of somebody. Oh, he had heard the sheer volume of words come out of his sister’s teenage mouth, but that was usually peppered with snotty teen girl remarks and endless gossip.

Jared’s chatter was bubbly and positive. All through preening, Jared chitchatted about whatever popped into his head. It was almost like he wanted Jensen to know all about him even though they’d just met. Even if his wings looked like they’d had a cat go after them, he didn’t seem to be in any sort of mental peril.

Not that Jensen was an expert on psychological workings to know, but Jared hadn’t denied that anything had happened, and he didn’t know the guy well enough to call bullshit on his explanations about his aggressive treatment towards his wings.

The rest of Jared’s body was in fantastic shape, and that Jensen could attest to with some surety. For the first time in forever, he actually spent time in the flight muscle care class instead of shooting the breeze in the professor’s lounge. It was weird because his professor had almost seemed giddy about Jensen spending time doing something that he was basically ready to teach the class on. In Jensen’s mind, it would’ve made more sense to pair Jared up with another student, but the faculty all seemed adamant that Jared work only with one student. It was apparently ‘just the way things work around here.’

All of the good tables were taken, and it was sort of hilarious to see Jared cram his huge frame on an old style and not that comfortable looking model. But the table did its job well enough. It got Jared into the right position so that he could droop his wings over his arms and shoulders and expose as much of his back to Jensen as possible.

His muscles were strong and a touch on the tense side, but certainly not abused. There was a little pulling on his left flank, and Jensen did his best not to comment on that. It was obviously caused because of the extra exertion from some missing flight feathers.

Somehow he didn’t think that lecturing Jared about it would do any good, and he didn’t want to alienate the guy. It was an honor to be selected for a committed training partner, and Jensen wasn’t going to mess that up. He might have gotten into school as a pity case, but he’d obviously impressed somebody enough with his work.

Unless, of course, Jared was just there as a spy to figure out some way to expel Jensen without causing a ruckus. That made more sense. All of the notes that the faculty had taken weren’t sufficient, so they put some poor kid at Jensen’s mercy with instructions to report anything suspicious.

The thought both angered and saddened Jensen, and he took a moment to center himself before he started to work on Jared’s muscles.

His touch was heavy when he started in Jared’s back. It was a result of not having gotten all of the irritation out of his own system, but the seraph made happy grunting noises so Jensen knew that he wasn’t hurting his partner.

After a few moments, Jared’s wings started stretching and his feathers fluffed out. It would have been a beautiful sight if not for the missing patches, and Jensen had to call on all his professionalism to ignore the stares of the other students. They had already been curious enough when Jensen actually showed up to attend class. He didn’t need them snooping into Jared’s business, and acknowledging their stares might scare off the less abrasive, but it could also create a confrontation with those who hadn’t the sense to be ashamed at the gawking.

The last thing Jensen needed was more stress in his life from getting into an argument with some snot nosed kid that had gotten into the academy on his first try. More than that, he didn’t want Jared to have more attention focused on him than necessary. Jensen had known the pain of being that awkward teenager that was the first to have a serious acne breakout in high school. Even though he matured into a man that most people would call handsome or even sexy, the stares and whispers of his classmates are all too easy to remember. He can easily imagine how much worse it would be to have people talk about something that they perceived to be your fault instead of just plain biology giving you the finger.

Jensen felt oddly protective of the younger seraph. Obviously Jared was an adult, but while his wings were well taken care of aside from the obvious missing feathers, his body carried a lot of tension for somebody of his age. The tension and missing plumage seemed to indicate some unusual stress, and Jensen knew all about stress. Especially the kind that family and loved ones just couldn’t understand because to them, your life was pretty good.

Jensen decided that it was some sort of odd kinship that he felt towards Jared. He could remember being the weird outsider when he was working on his human physical therapy degree. He could remember the stares from his classmates and even the occasional jab of species bigotry whispered behind his back. There were salacious comments made about his sexuality that were made worse by the fact that he wasn’t entirely certain that they weren’t true.

While the stares of his classmates weren’t the kind that Jensen had faced in college, the feeling of being watched and judged was familiar enough. He could tell by the way that Jared’s muscles kept tensing and twitching that Jared didn’t like being stared at. Who would? His own sister would hate to be seen having a bad hair day, and Jared’s wings were so much worse even if, ironically, his hair was actually quite nice.

Gently, Jensen traced his fingers around the places where Jared’s wings melded into the smooth skin of his back. Jared whimpered at the touch right before the skin on the back of his neck flushed red.

Jensen chuckled a little before saying, “It’s normal.”

Jared groaned in an unhappy way, and instead of trying to bury his face in his arms like a human would, his whole right wing stretched up to cover his head. Jensen suspected he would’ve buried in it if it was possible at the angle he was lying at.

“It’s mortifying,” came Jared’s muffled response.

“That too,” Jensen agreed. “But still, it’s normal. You’re in distress, it feels good, and you appear to be in otherwise good health.”

“You sound like a doctor,” Jared accused as his wing dropped and his tomato red face peered back over his shoulder.

“I’m close enough to one.” Jensen said dismissively as he began to work on Jared’s muscles again, this time tracing over the ones that ran away from his wings and curved to attach along the sides of his ribs.

The muscles were thin and wiry. Barely perceptible to the eye when they flexed under the skin of even the fittest seraph, they were there nonetheless. Their tiny fibers enabled a seraph to take flight from a standstill on a busy street instead of having to scale something to gain loft. It was a physiological wonder how so small a muscle group could provide such strength, and Jensen had spent hours of his childhood watching television specials and reading books trying to understand them.

Jensen had only ever felt a mockup of the muscles before. His human college had barely covered the physiology of flight muscles, and the hospital that he had been interning at had referred all seraph cases away to academy trained therapists. He knew the structure of the muscles intimately, had known it since he first studied anatomy in high school, but it was different to feel the real thing.

“You’re really good at that,” Jared moaned, although the moan wasn’t one of pleasure so much as drowsy contentment. For a second, Jensen had an odd desire to hear the mortifying whimper of Jared’s earlier arousal, before he stamped down on such an inappropriate desire with a ruthless zeal. That kind of thinking went beyond unprofessional into the seriously creepy zone, especially when he had just met the guy.

Still, once Jensen’s inappropriate urge was dealt with, the fact that Jared had gone from tense and strung out to practically being a puddle in such a short time was sort of funny.

“You falling asleep on me?” Jensen asked not bothering to hide the amusement in his voice.

“Mmmhhhmmm,” Jared replied.

“I’m not going to try to drag your giant carcass to wing painting if you fall asleep. I might be big for a human, but I couldn’t carry your body let alone your wing weight. I don’t care how light weight your bone structure is to enable flight,” Jensen half told and half scolded him.

“You callin’ me fat?” Jared slurred.

“Depends, is there any fat left on your body that I could actually find?” Jensen shot back.

Jared didn’t verbally respond, but the wiggle he did with his ass was answer enough.

Jensen didn’t bother passing up the obvious invitation and swatted Jared’s behind. The seraph let out a yelp that was so far from indignant that it wouldn’t have been allowed on a soap opera as acting.

“You’re an abusive human,” Jared accused.

“And you’re a liar. That felt like solid muscle down there.”

Jared turned to look over his shoulder at Jensen, grinned and wiggled his eyebrows. “Why thank you, Mr. Ackles.”

Jensen rolled his eyes and pushed at Jared’s shoulder to get him to settle back down. “At least you’re awake now.”

“I am,” Jared agreed.

Jensen worked for a while in silence before pronouncing Jared done. A quick look at the clock showed that class wasn’t due to stop for another ten minutes, so he kept stroking over his work to look busy. Just standing there would be awkward, and Jared didn’t seem to be complaining.

“Do you want to be a doctor?” Jared asked softly.

“Why do you ask that?” Jensen asked back.

“Because you’re in the program, and a lot of humans want in the program so that they can get a better certification or study us. Not,” Jared spat out quickly, “that there is anything wrong with that. Not in an academic sense and not a, you know, creepy scientist way. Like, if you don’t study humans and their biology and psychology, you can’t help them, right?”

Frowning, Jensen nodded and paused the movement of his hands. Then he realized that Jared couldn’t exactly see him nod, so he opened his mouth to speak.

“I understand what you’re saying,” he started out with, “and I agree with you. But if you’re asking about me specifically, I can’t tell you why I wanted so badly to be here. I’ve got some vague goals and ambitions, sure, but I just always wanted to be here, you know?”

“Yeah,” Jared replied. Jensen wasn’t sure if it was an agreement or just an acknowledgment, but there didn’t seem to be any judgment in the tone.

“What about you?” Jensen asked as he once again started tracing the lines of Jared’s muscles.

“Me? I don’t know. I’m kind of searching right now. We don’t really… God this sounds stupid, but we don’t really choose a career path until we’re mated, you know? We need to be at one with our spouse before our path is clear because we can’t be at odds with each other or something.”

Jared’s shoulders shrugged, but the line of the muscles around them tensed. It was a clear sign that Jared was waiting for Jensen to pass sentence on his words. It was odd that Jared would care so much about what Jensen thought, but then again, he wasn’t exactly in the place to be pointing fingers. He’d been trying way too hard to please all of his instructors and all of the staff since he’d gotten admitted to the academy. He’d spent the whole time trying to prove his worth to them.

Clearing his throat, Jensen said, “I thought I read something about that once, but you know how psychologists are. There was this whole debate sort of thing, and it’s hard to know what is truth and what isn’t.”

“Yeah, well, it’s true. It’s just some nice weird thing that goes on in our brains along with obsessive an freaky feather plucking,” Jared said with a bitter tone.

Jensen was saved from commenting by the class ending.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Although Jared had admittedly held low expectations for Jensen, he had always had the ability to acknowledge when he was wrong. It wasn’t a seraph thing. No, his species, or breed of human depending on what philosopher you were talking to, had the same problem with confessing error that any old human did. It was just a Jared thing. He’d never seen the purpose in denying his incorrect assumptions.

After the massage Jensen had given him, complete with concession that Jensen also was uncertain of his true path, Jared was cheerfully taking the blame for his stubborn preconceptions. Jensen was awesome. He was pretty and talented and intelligent. That and his hands were the hands of a god. Between preening and muscle care, Jared felt better than he had in ages. Possibly better than he ever had, but there were parts of his early childhood that he couldn’t remember any more than anybody else could, so he couldn’t state it with absolute certainty.

Wing painting was Jensen’s last class of the day, and Jared felt a pang of sorrow as he followed the human along the school hallways. As much as he’d like to sweep Jensen off his feet and take him off to start nesting somewhere, there was no doubt in his mind that the overture would be unappreciated.

It was too soon, by human standards, to begin talk of mating. It was even too soon to try to wheedle some additional time out of Jensen’s schedule for a cup of coffee. Even if Jensen was the kind of human who believed in love at first sight and was apt to throw caution to the wind, their society dictated that they wait an appropriate amount of time before having a second meeting.

Part of Jared bemoaned the loss of the old days. Back then it would have been acceptable to abduct your one and fly them off to your nest to begin wooing them. A seraph was rarely mistaken when they made the decision of mating. There could be doubt and concern before the decision was made, but after that it was only the deluded or psychotic who would take an unfit and ultimately unwilling human to nest with. The problems had always come from the friends and families of the human mate, and those problems had only intensified with the integration of their two societies.

It was, after all, hard to hide away with your beloved when your nest’s location was located in the city directory.

Idly, Jared wandered around Jensen’s work station as the human pulled out his painting supplies. The feathers on display over Jensen’s workstation were lightly tinted. They weren’t the extravagant pieces of art that some humans could produce, but what Jared saw warmed his heart more than any inspired work of art ever could.

Over and over again, Jensen had picked out colors from Jared’s family crest. There were even some patterns that were reminiscent of the symbols of his clan. Even if Jared hadn’t already been sure of his intent to pursue Jensen, the paintings would have sealed the deal.

It didn’t matter that Jensen’s talents clearly did not lie in painting. The rest of him was perfect just as it was.

“So I was thinking,” Jensen started, “that we should just do a little experimenting right now. I’m not the absolute best at this, and I don’t want to do something to unbalance your flight load.”

Jared turned away from the display pieces to quirk an amused eyebrow at Jensen. “You think that a little paint is going to unbalance me? Do I look like I’m ninety and need a good updraft to get me off the ground?”

Jensen blushed and shrugged, but he didn’t open his mouth to take back the insult or correct Jared’s assumption.

Instead he said, “Look, your muscles are tight from compensating for the missing feathers, and I don’t like the idea of causing them more stress. It’s maybe a physical therapist thing, but I don’t think I should be sacrificing your health and comfort for my personal studies. Besides, I don’t know about how vain you are, but I’m not all that good at this. I’ll probably end up painting arrows to your bald spots.”

Jared’s wings flared out of their own accord. “They aren’t bald, they’re just… thinned.”

“Yeah, and that’s what Uncle Mort said about his male pattern baldness at the last family reunion,” Jensen teased back.

Jared didn’t respond at first, and Jensen’s face started to turn an unflattering shade of red. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I just, sometimes my mouth runs ahead of me, and I say the wrong things.”

Finally, Jared allowed himself to smile back at Jensen. To add effect, he flared out his pitiful wings and posed like some runway supermodel in Paris.

“It’s okay,” he said, all fake bravado and ego, “I know that I’m awesome.”

“You fucker,” Jensen accused as he turned around to fiddle with his paints again, “I thought I’d really upset you.”

“Fair game for the rubdown you gave me earlier. Thought I was going to die of embarrassment, man.”

“That was not my fault,” Jensen told him. “You, on the other hand, did that on purpose.”

“Yeah, yeah I did. You were adorable, by the way. Red’s a good color on you,” Jared said as he swaggered over to plop down on the stool provided for him.

He heard Jensen groan and drag some supplies around and mutter something about immature college boys all being the same.

“Alright, change of plans. You are getting chartreuse stickmen all over your wings. It’ll be modern expressionism of cavemen paintings.” Jensen threatened as he tugged at Jared to position him.

Jared glanced over his shoulder to see that Jensen truly was armed with the threatened color of paint, and a very large paintbrush. The human’s face was set stoically, but the edges of his eye and mouth were twitching, obviously trying to fight back the beginning of a smile.

It was a challenge, and Jared might be smitten, but he was also a guy. He wasn’t about to throw in the towel.

“Bring it, Shorty,” he taunted. After all, he could always stop on the way home to get some paint remover.