It was nighttime after her long shift when Charlie found him—the tousle-haired two-year-old sitting cross-legged in ratty footie pajamas practically swallowed by a foot of snow.
It wasn't the first time a child had been abandoned in front of the fire station. It broke her heart every time, but she thought she'd never seen anything so cruel as the scene in front of her:
The blue-eyed toddler held a dead bird in his arms like a teddy bear, chubby cheeks stained with salt from crying. Held it so tight she thought she'd have to pry it from him. Instead, he looked up at her with round, pleading blue eyes, shoving the limp feathers in her face.
"Bowd," he said through sniffles.
She took it from him gingerly, his eyes saying fix it. Not knowing what to do, she held it to her, staring at the broken, lifeless feathers.
She looked back up, reaching out for the boy.
"Come on, sweetheart." she said, trying to use her best calming voice. Hoping not to scare the little one. Hoping he would come.
He sprung forward, almost knocking Charlie over, clinging to her tightly with a trusting expression. His body was warm. He should have been cold. He should have been dead. Instead, the little thing burrowed his messy-haired head in the crook of her neck, stroking the top of the dead pet with a finger.
"Bird," she repeated, finally figuring out what he was trying to say. She looked at the dead thing, wanting to drop it as she looked at its glassy eye. She made a mental note to disinfect everything she'd touched after she'd disposed of it. But she couldn't do it yet as she looked at the young boy's eyes, glued to the thing.
Instead, she wrapped the bird up in a spare newspaper setting it on the seat next to the wiggly toddler.
His eyes went wide when the wings disappeared beneath the print and he wriggled free of the car seat, scrambling to the paper and ripping enough of it to expose the beak and head. He sent her a disapproving glare.
"Bowd," he said, like a scolding.
She buckled him in the car seat, driving slowly, trying to organize her thoughts.
When they reached the house, she grabbed the toddler's small frame easily, hefting him up and shutting the door. As soon as he heard the sound, though, his eyes darted to the newspaper still visible through the window.
"Bowd," he said, reaching an open, chubby hand out. "Bowd."
"I'm sorry angel," she said. "It can't come in. Birds have diseases. It can't come in to the house."
He may not have understood what she was saying, but the ultimate meaning seemed to reach him perfectly; the bird wasn't coming.
The toddler began to cry, big blue eyes looking at her pleadingly, reaching a hand out towards the window, fingers splayed, this time in question:
"Bowd?" he plead softly. And Charlie felt her heart break a second time, almost giving in before she remembered it was a safety hazard.
"I'm sorry sweetheart," she said. Slowly, the toddler resigned himself to his fate, his head dropping to her shoulder, going quiet.
She could feel the tears on her shoulder. She could feel the tremors of him sniffling quietly.
"Shhh," she cooed, "It's all right. I won't leave you."
They walked through the door to muted lights, the soothing sound of Dorothy's voice coming from the library.
"And the little rabbit lived happily ever after."
She turned the corner to see the comforting figures of her wife and adopted son, curled up by the fire, his eyes closed as he fell asleep in her lap.
"He finally fell asleep, the little stinker. Wanted to wait until his firefighter mom got ho—" Dorothy started, then looked up. Her eyes widened in understanding, then her brows furrowed in concern.
"Another one?" she asked, her tone sad as she looked at the small boy's crying form, limp against her shoulder.
Dorothy carried her son over to the entryway, taking in the second tiny boy's shaking form.
"Assholes," Dorothy said.
"Dorothy!" Charlie scolded, giving a pointed look toward the two children.
"What?" Dorothy said without apology. "They are, aren't they precious?" she said talking to the toddler, reaching a hand forward to touch his still-damp hair.
"Bowd," he stuttered before Charlie pulled away.
"Better not touch," she said, "We're both probably infected with bird disease."
Dorothy gave a confused look, but quietly took their son to the room, laying the second two-year-old down for the night.
"Goodnight, Dean," Dorothy said with a kiss, then joined her wife again: "Sounds like it's bath time."
It turned out that giving the new little one a bath proved to be about as challenging as bath time for Dean. But mostly, because the newcomer refused to let Charlie touch the zipper to his pajamas.
"It's alright," she said, over and over again, feeling that it had something to do with the fact that she'd taken his only other possession away and had left it in the car. Realizing this, she said: "I'll give it back. Promise."
Finally, the toddler reluctantly let go of the zipper, giving her a cautious eye.
Round blue eyes looked at her, innocent and trusting.
"How could anyone leave you?" she breathed.
Then, slowly, she pulled down the zipper to his ratty pjs, wishing it didn't look like it had been dragged through the mud before they put it on him. She peeled the cloth off one shoulder, then two, then inhaled sharply.
Because as soon as the little boy's back was exposed, small, black wings unfurled, stretching out away from him, looking glossy in the bathroom light.
Dorothy gasped, too, reaching out a tentative hand, running a finger along a feather. The wing shied away quickly, but the toddler seemed unbothered.
"Bowd," he said, his wings stretching out from him without shame.
They bathed him quickly after that, Dorothy and Charlie exchanging shocked looks back and forth the entire time. Charlie finally held out the towel to pick the little one up, surprised when the toddler stood, his wings shaking off the excess water like a dog would his fur, then practically jumping into her arms.
"Charlie," Dorothy said, holding up the tattered pajamas, displaying the tag.
"Cas," Charlie read the word written in red marker on the white.
"Cas," the little boy repeated, and Charlie smiled. "Is that your name? Cas?"
And, for the first time, the boy smiled back.
Dorothy brought Cas a pair of Dean's pajamas, Charlie thankful when he opted to wear them instead of his old ones.
Finally, after her own shower, they were both warm and dry. The little one yawned, sinking against Charlie as she carried him to Dean's crib, setting the dozing toddler next to her son.
She stood, watching the two of them, her feet still sore from her shift at the firehouse, her emotions raw.
She felt her wife's hands sneak around her, drawing her in.
"My God," said Charlie, as she watched the two little chests, rise and fall.
The room was quiet except for the soothing ticking of the clock and the little breaths in front of them. And yet, Charlie felt anxious. She knew they would have to look around to make sure Cas was really abandoned and wasn't just lost. But, as she thought about the little black wings spanning the boys back, she knew the truth: he was different, and some people just couldn't handle different.
Charlie rubbed her hand along her wife's, caressing her wedding ring, wishing it wasn't true. Wondering how to start this conversation with Dorothy for a second time, knowing that truth. But, as it turned out, Dorothy spoke first:
"You want to keep him, don't you?" she whispered, understandingly.
Charlie smiled. She should have known her wife would know her so well.
"It's ok," Dorothy said, pulling her tighter and kissing her neck. "I do too. Keeping Dean was the best decision we've ever made."
"His wings, though" Charlie started, her voice falling "what is he?"
But, she could feel Dorothy's comforting pull as she whispered matter of factly: "He's a little boy," then, more quietly. "Our little boy, now."
Charlie smiled, looking down at the two small toddlers in the crib, smiling as Dean reached out to his new friend in his sleep, wrapping an arm almost protectively around him.
"Our little bird." Charlie smiled again.
Quietly, the two mothers backed out of the room, shutting the door after pulling out Dean's old baby camera monitor to keep an eye. Exhausted, they fell into bed. Then, just when they were finally spooning with the lights out:
"Shit," Charlie cursed.
"What?" asked Dorothy, "What's wrong?"
Then, turning to face her wife, their noses bumping in the dark, Charlie said in all honesty: "I think we have to buy a bird."
Both woman laughed, kissing until they fell asleep, Charlie drifting into dreams of her wife, her two little boys, and birds.