Dean watched Cas out of the corner of his eye from across Bobby's study as the angel looked through an old tome, trying to figure out what might be killing people on their latest hunt. The angel was shifting in his chair every once in a while, looking uncomfortable. He had been acting kind of weird the whole last week, actually, ever since the first snowfall. It was almost like when Cas had been molting, but it wasn't molting season and Cas' wings had been healthy ever since the feathers had come back in.
When Dean had asked the angel if everything was alright, Cas had snapped at him that, yes, he was fine. Dean had been surprised, and a little worried, but Cas didn't seem to be hurt or anything, so he had let it go for the time being.
Besides, a case had fallen into their laps and he didn't have time to pursue his friend and adopted brother's strange behavior. The last couple weeks, there had been several deaths in a local nature preserve not too far outside of Sioux Falls. Hikers and nature lovers had gone in, only to be found as scraps of jackets and meat and strewn belongings by rangers later. Of course, Dean thought anyone who decided to go out hiking in weather that was this freezing didn't exactly have all their faculties as it was, but still, people were dying, and he really wanted to get an idea into his head as to what the thing they were hunting might be before they went out there and froze their balls off.
"Hey, guys, I think I might have found something," Sam said, coming back into the study with a fresh cup of coffee, a book balanced in his hand. "I was just thinking that, given the geography of the hunt, we may be dealing with something from Native American folklore." He sat beside Cas on the couch. Dean noticed the angel shift slightly but ignored it, simply listening to what Sam had found.
"Most of the killings happened around the general area of a lake and several streams that are connected to it, so I started looking into water monsters and I found this." He turned the book around so that Dean and Bobby could also see what he was talking about. The book showed a strange creature that looked partly like a red furred cat, but with fins and a creepy spiked spine. Not to mention the single eye right below the horn in the center of its forehead.
"What the hell is that?" Dean asked.
"It's called a 'mishibizhiw'," Sam said.
Dean stared at him blankly. "A what?"
Sam shot him a bitchface, but Bobby rolled his eyes and answered for him. "A mishibizhiw—commonly called water panthers—if that's easier for you to work your tongue around. I've heard of 'em. Rufus and I hunted one several years back. Slippery little devils."
"It says they'll prey on pretty much anything that wanders into their vicinity," Sam said, glancing over the book.
"But the lakes and rivers must be frozen out there, at least for the most part," Cas stated. "How is it getting around at all?"
"That's what we're going to have to figure out," Sam said.
Dean groaned. "Do we have any other options?"
Bobby shook his head. "I think Sam might be onto something with this one. It is a local legend, and the cold weather can't be making it happy. With the early winter, it's probably trying to gobble up as much as it can before it goes to ground or whatever it does in the winter when the water freezes over."
"Fine," Dean muttered. "Pack your long underwear." He looked out the window at the white dusted growl and shook his head. "I friggen' hate winter."
Castiel was not feeling too happy with winter either at this point. He sighed as he went to his room to change into warmer clothes and was forced to materialize his wings just for a few minutes so that he could give them a scratch. When they came onto the earthly plane, they appeared huge and clumsier than usual, puffing out instantly in a way that made him sigh.
This had started a couple weeks ago, when the first cold snap had come through and brought snow to Sioux Falls. It seemed that a normal seasonal aviary molt wasn't the only thing he was going to have to deal with now with his more mortal wings, he was also going to have to deal with winter down.
It had started growing in, padding his wings so that they looked honestly ridiculous, like feather dusters. And while, he had to admit they were indeed a lot warmer, the new down coming in had made him itchy and irritable the last week, and Dean and Sam had obviously started to notice. He wasn't sure why he hadn't told them. Maybe because this was not normal—at least not for angels—and he was almost embarrassed at how fluffy his wings looked. He knew Dean would be likely to tease him about them, and he was still getting used to the fact that they had seen his wings at all. He felt like a fledgling again when he had shed his baby down for his first real feathers. It was almost the same reaction a human might have to going through puberty, but worse, because this was completely new ground and he hadn't been warned that something like this would happen.
He dug his fingers angrily into his right wing and then his left, his hand sinking into the feathers further than normal. The wings just felt unwieldy and fat. Some down came loose from his scratching and drifted into his face. He blew it away from his nose, put his wings back to the ethereal plane again, and grabbed some warm clothes, layering up. Even though he didn't feel the cold quite as much as his human companions, he still liked to bundle up as there was something rather comforting about it.
He supposed he should view his newly acquired winter wings in the same way, but he hadn't chosen to have them like that. It was just another humiliating reminder that he wasn't a full-fledged angel anymore. Just something caught in between angel and human.
He was startled by a knock on his door.
"Cas, you coming or what?" Dean called.
Cas gritted his teeth as he buttoned the last button on his flannel shirt. "I'm coming," he growled. "Just give me a second."
He grabbed a heavy coat and his bag and yanked the door open, pushing past Dean on his way out. He knew the elder Winchester was watching him with raised eyebrows. He just couldn't seem to help being irritable. His wings constantly itching did that to him.
The four hunters piled into Bobby's truck. Dean had already been adamant that he was not driving his Baby out to the woods in this weather so Bobby had offered to drive. The truck would do better on the icy roads anyway.
Castiel sat in the back with Sam, feeling confined. Even though his wings were incorporeal, they still felt spacially bigger than normal which made him shift a lot, trying to find a position where he didn't feel cramped and claustrophobic.
Sam was looking over a trail map, marked with all the killings. "Most of the bodies were found within a two mile radius surrounding this one lake here. That's got to be this thing's territory.
"But what about the most recent killings?" Dean asked, turning around in the seat to point to two more Xs that had been marked, further downstream. "Maybe it's moving to a new location."
Sam shrugged. "It's possible."
"Maybe you and Cas can hit up the original hunting ground and Bobby and I will explore further downstream," Dean said, glancing over at Castiel, who had shifted slightly again in order to scratch at the perpetually itchy spot between his shoulder blades that he felt when his wings were immaterial. "You good with that, Cas?"
"Yes, fine, whatever," the angel snapped.
Sam looked over at him too, and Bobby glanced in the review mirror.
"Are you okay, man?" Sam asked him.
"Yes, I'm fine, stop asking me, please!" Castiel growled, and then realized that was probably the worst thing he could have said. He sighed and tried again. "I really am okay. I'm just…cold."
Dean narrowed his eyes, not looking like he was buying it, but nodded all the same. "Yeah, I get that. I hate this weather too."
Sam's gaze lingered on Cas a little longer, making the angel feel uncomfortable, but the younger Winchester finally said, "Yeah, we can split up for this one. That way if it makes a run for it downstream, you'll be down there to stop it."
"They are pretty ornery," Bobby commented. "Luckily you can get away with normal weapons to kill them."
"That's one thing to be thankful for," Dean sighed, glaring out the window at the snow. "Maybe we can get this over quickly then."
They pulled into the visitor parking at the trailhead and, thankfully, there were no other cars out there that day.
"Looks like people finally got the memo," Dean muttered as he pulled gloves on and checked over his gun. "Stay home when it's this friggin' cold out!"
It was cold. Castiel found himself unconsciously wrapping his incorporeal wings around his body to protect him from the chill wind that was whipping around. Maybe they would come in handy after all.
Sam pulled a skull cap over his hair and rubbed his gloved hands together briskly before taking up a hunting knife and his own gun which he loaded into a thigh holster for easier access than stashing it under all his layers. Castiel also holstered a pistol and slipped his angel blade into his sleeve as usual.
"You all ready?" Bobby asked.
"Let's get this over with," Dean grunted and started off toward the trailhead.
They tramped their way through the snow toward the lake they were heading for, and found the river quickly enough. It was almost all frozen over, only a few trickles of water visible because it was constantly flowing. Normally, Castiel would have thought this was a beautiful sight, but the cold was causing his wings to instinctively puff up even more, irritating the new down and causing him to roll his shoulders.
"Alright," Bobby said, checking over his shotgun. "Sam, you and Cas head further upriver. Dean and I will stay around here and check around the places the other killings took place."
Sam nodded and Castiel followed him as they continued their march through the snow.
"Hey, Cas," Sam said after a few minutes and Castiel looked over at the hunter, his breath making clouds in the freezing air. "You're doing okay lately, right?"
Castiel refrained from sighing. "Yes, Sam. I'm fine."
Sam twisted his mouth into a wry smile. "I'm sorry to keep asking you that. It's just, you've been a little…well…irritable. I just wanted to make sure you were feeling okay. Your wings aren't bothering you again, are they?"
Castiel slumped, ready to tell Sam why, because it was stupid to have kept it from him and the others for so long anyway, and, really, he didn't want them to come to the conclusion that it was something worse, but at that moment there was a growl and a streak of red flew by, starkly contrasting the snow.
"Sam," Castiel said, holding out a hand to stop the younger Winchester and allowing his blade to slide out of his sleeve into his other hand.
"I saw it," the younger Winchester said, pulling his gun out of its holster.
"The lake's up ahead, that must be where it went." Castiel said, nodding toward the vast expanse of ice that waited beyond a rock outcropping and trees.
"Let's go check it out."
At least they would be able to see the creature in the snow. Castiel could tell this was not its natural habitat in the winter. He just wondered how it had gotten the drop on so many people. But then, he realized that most people didn't go out into the woods suspecting much more than bears and the occasional wildcat.
"Cas, there!" Sam said, gripping the angel's shoulder and pointing toward the rocks where there looked to be a cave of some sort, and a streak of red fur sliding into it. Sam started toward it, but Castiel held him back.
"Be careful, this is the first freeze of the year, so the lake's probably not completely safe," he cautioned.
Sam nodded in agreement, and held both his gun and knife at the ready. Cautiously, the two approached the cave, tense, and ready for the creature to leap out at them.
Inevitably, it did, snarling like a panther, and launching itself at them. Sam got off a shot, but the creature had already leapt past.
"Cas, cut it off!" Sam called, but Castiel was already moving to do just that but the strange water panther seemed to have another idea and doubled back toward Sam.
"Sam get down!" Castiel cried as he saw the thing readying to leap.
Sam flung himself out of the way and brought his gun up again, running after the water panther, trying to get a good shot.
"Wait!" Castiel cried with sudden realization.
He saw what was happening, but too late. Sam also seemed to realize how far onto the lake he had gone in his pursuit, and tried to skid to a halt, only to fall to his knees, on the slippery surface. Castiel stopped at the edge of the frozen lake, and aimed his pistol at the retreating creature. He let off a shot, but the water panther slipped across the ice and disappeared into the hole it had made for itself like a seal.
"Sam," Castiel called, turning his attention back to his friend who was still on his hands and knees on the ice. "Are you alright?"
Sam took a moment to answer, looking down between his hands. "Yeah, I'm…I think I'm good. I just gotta—" An ominous cracking sound echoed across the ice and Castiel's breath caught in his throat as he watched hairline fractures begin on the frozen lake, branching out from Sam's weight. The hunter stopped breathing, eyes going wide with panic.
"Sam, don't move," Castiel nearly pleaded, and, thinking quickly, started to take off his coat. "Just hold on, I'll try to pull you back."
He approached the lake as closely as he dared, stepping onto the more frozen edge, and swung the coat as far as he could toward Sam. It was several feet short, but the younger Winchester could still reach it, and he did so, grasping the hem with a trembling hand, every move almost agonizingly slow. But he finally grabbed onto it, and Castiel heaved a sigh of relief.
"Okay, Sam, just lie on your stomach carefully, and I'll pull you back," the angel said.
Sam carefully lowered himself onto his belly to disperse his weight. The ice creaked again as he moved, but it stopped once he was flat. "Okay," he breathed.
Castiel took hold of the coat firmly and began to slowly pull Sam toward him, back to the safety of the shore.
It was then that the ice under Sam exploded upward. The hunter gasped as clawed paws grabbed his leg and yanked him viciously into the water.
"Sam!" Castiel shouted, and just barely lunged forward to grab Sam's wrist before the hunter completely disappeared through the hole in the ice.
"Cas!" Sam gasped out, spluttering on water as he cried out in pain, trying to fight against the hold that the beast had on him. "Ung, help me!"
Castiel lunged forward onto his stomach and grabbed Sam's other flailing wrist, just as the younger Winchester was jerked under the water completely. Castiel slid forward, but managed to hook one foot around a root to anchor himself, and gave a final heave, managing to get back onto his knees and hauled Sam out of the hole and away from the beast's grasp.
Sam gasped and choked weakly as he was yanked from the water, his left leg torn up and bleeding from the creature's teeth and claws. The water panther itself disappeared under the ice again, obviously angry at being deprived of its newest meal. Castiel hoped it would stay away for the time being, at least until he saw to Sam.
And Sam was in bad shape. He may not have been in the water for more than a minute, but he was soaking wet and was already shaking profusely. Castiel half dragged, half carried him away from the lake and over to a rock outcropping that would thankfully help shelter them from the wind. He settled the younger Winchester against the rocks and hurriedly retrieved his coat from the bank before returning to Sam.
"Sam, can you hear me?" he demanded, as Sam's head lolled to one side, knocking slightly against the rock from his convulsive shivering.
"Y-y-yes," Sam replied, teeth chattering so much he couldn't get much more out. Castiel knew he had to act fast to preserve what little body heat Sam had left. He kicked himself for not bringing along blankets and an extra change of clothes, knowing the type of case they would be on.
Instead, he simply stripped Sam of his upper layers and bundled him into his own coat which was a little wet from the rescue, but not nearly as waterlogged as Sam's. That would have to do for now. They could get Sam some dry pants when they got back to Bobby's truck.
Bobby and Dean. Castiel should call them. But, no, his phone had been in his jacket. He fumbled in the pocket, but found it was in one of the only parts of the coat that had been soaked. His phone was waterlogged and wouldn't turn on. He cursed.
"Do-don't w-w-worry," Sam forced from between his chattering teeth. "Th-they'll'ave h-heard the g-guns-shots."
Castiel knew Sam was right. Besides, he had more to worry about right now. Like stopping the bleeding in Sam's leg.
"You're right, they shouldn't be too long," Castiel assured him as he shrugged out of his flannel too, and started to tear up the shirt into bandages. The cold air was biting at him now, though he knew it wasn't affecting him as much as Sam who trembled and shook so hard it was hard for Castiel to even bandage his leg, and the angel was worried he would simply bite off his tongue.
He finished quickly, knowing they would have to worry about the wounds and their severity later. He knew that the beast hadn't hit an artery, and that was enough for now. He had bound it, and slowed the bleeding. Now he had to keep Sam warm.
"Sam, I'm sorry," Castiel sighed as he settled next to the younger Winchester, pressing in close to share what body heat he had. He took the rest of his shirt and started to briskly dry Sam's wet hair with it. "I should have gotten you off the ice sooner."
Sam shook his head. "'s'okay," he chattered. "Crap h-happens."
Once Castiel had done what he could with Sam's hair, he brisked his hands up and down Sam's arms and chest hoping to get some blood flowing, but the younger man still shuddered uncontrollably and Castiel bit his lip. Even he was feeling the cold, but at least he had his wings to protect him a little more. Sam only had his coat and wet jeans.
A thought suddenly occurred to Castiel then, and he decided it was time to set aside his embarrassment about his wings and use them for what they were meant to be used for.
"Sam, I'm going to try something," he said, and shifted away from the younger Winchester so he could manifest his wings. Luckily the thermal undershirt he had put on was one of his that had the wing slits in it, so he was able to keep at least one layer on when he had his wings corporeal.
He bit his lip as his huge, and oddly puffy wings appeared, and Sam's eyes opened wide for the first time.
"C-Cas, your w-wings," Sam managed to get out.
Castiel turned his eyes down. "Yes, they've…grown some down for the winter, it seems. It's ridiculous, really."
Sam shook his head as Castiel settled behind the younger Winchester, easing Sam back against his chest. "Th-they're great," he murmured.
Castiel had to give a small smile at that. "Well, I hope they help." He wrapped them around himself and Sam like a cocoon, and instantly felt a difference in the air between their bodies. He had to admit, it was warm and comfortable. His wings cut out about ninety-nine percent of the wind-chill and kept their body heat enclosed in the small space.
Castiel plumped his feathers up as he had watched birds do in the winter, allowing the down to give him even more insulation and while he still thought his wings looked ridiculous, as fluffy as they were, he was seriously grateful for them now.
Sam seemed to be too. He still shuddered, but he breathed a sigh of relief in the newfound warmth and carefully pulled his knees up to his chest, curling his tall frame closer to the angel's smaller one, ducking his head to rest his freezing cheek against the arm of one of Castiel's wings. "They're g-great, Cas. Th-thanks."
Castiel resumed rubbing Sam's arms and chest, still trying to restore bloodflow. "Well, I'm glad they're good for something."
That was the scene Dean and Bobby stumbled across as they finally made their way to meet with the missing members of their party.
"What the hell happened, I've been calling!" Dean demanded, before he stopped short and took in the sight before him. Castiel huddled with his younger brother beneath a pair of ridiculously fluffy wings.
"Sammy? Cas?" Dean demanded.
"What happened to you idjits?" Bobby followed up.
"The mishibizhiw dragged Sam thorough the ice," Castiel said tiredly. "We weren't able to kill it."
"Don't worry, we got it," Dean said, already crouching next to them. "Is Sam okay? Sammy?"
"M'alright," Sam murmured, only half awake. Castiel had been trying his best to keep him awake, but the last few minutes had been hard.
"He's freezing and wet," Castiel countered grimly. "We need to get him back to the car and into some dry clothes."
"Balls," Bobby muttered.
That was when Dean seemed to notice Castiel's wings and he stopped to do a double take. "Whoa, dude, are your wings, like…fluffier or something?"
Castiel gave an exasperated sigh. "Yes, okay? It appears I have grown winter down. My wings are very…fluffy."
Dean sat back on his heels. "Is that why you've been so bitchy the last couple weeks? You've been growing winter down?"
Castiel looked away, embarrassed. "Yes."
"Why didn't you tell us?" Dean demanded. "We've been worried."
"Because they look ridiculous," Castiel snapped self-consciously. "Like giant fluffy…feather dusters."
Dean smirked, making Castiel only angrier but the hunter just shook his head. "Cas, man, you don't need to be so sensitive. It's just natural, right? Besides, it looks like they came in handy."
Castiel had to admit Dean was right about that. Sam had stopped suffering from everything but the most minute shudders and shouldn't be in danger of hypothermia now as long as they were able to get him back to the truck soon enough.
"I guess you're right," he said with some reluctance.
"I'm always right," Dean said with a smirk, and reached out to cup the side of Sam's face, causing his eyes to flutter. "Come on kiddo, it's time to get you warmed up."
It wasn't an easy trip back to the trailhead. Sam couldn't walk very well with his wounded and frozen legs so he had to lean on Dean and Castiel, and the angel kept one of his wings firmly wrapped around he younger Winchester to help fight off the chill. He only hoped that there wouldn't be any rangers around to see his wings.
But they got back to the truck without complications and Bobby instantly started the vehicle and cranked up the heat. Dean rummaged through their duffle bag and helped Sam change into dry, warm clothes, before taping some cursory gauze over his wounds, and bundling him up into the back seat with a pile of blankets.
"Those should hold you until we get back to Bobby's house," Dean told his younger brother, as he patted his shoulder through the copious blankets. "We'll stop for some coffee on our way."
Castiel climbed back into the backseat beside Sam as Bobby started on the way back home. Castiel glanced over at the younger Winchester, looking like a pile of blankets with a damp head sticking out of them. But he looked okay otherwise, and they would clean and stitch his wounds up once they got back to Bobby's place. They had been lucky it hadn't been worse, and that Sam hadn't been wounded more severely on top of the hypothermia.
Castiel also decided that he was starting to become more accustomed with his new winter wings. It helped that they had helped save his friend's life.
They picked up hot cups of coffee from a fast food drive through once they got back to town and then got back to Bobby's within a couple hours. Castiel helped Dean get Sam into the house and up to his bed where they patched him up before letting him sleep. The younger Winchester was exhausted, but Dean still piled blankets on top of him. Sam rolled his eyes, but seemed grateful all the same.
"Thanks again, Cas," Sam said with a genuine smile. "And you don't need to be embarrassed about your wings. I know it's new to you, but they really don't look ridiculous."
Castiel offered a small smile. "I think I'm becoming more fond of them. They are warm."
"Yeah, maybe after you molt those you can make a down jacket out of them," Dean said, only half joking.
Castiel glared at him, and Sam rolled his eyes.
"Dean, come on," his younger brother said.
"What? What else are you gonna do with them?" Dean demanded.
Castiel just shook his head and turned to Sam. "Get some rest."
"Let us know if you need anything," Dean added and they left the younger man to sleep off the ordeal.
"You know I'm just joking, right?" Dean asked Castiel as they went downstairs to the kitchen for some more coffee. "I still think your wings kickass. Feather dusters or not."
Castiel materialized his wings and used one to smack Dean not-too-lightly in the face. Dean gave a muffled yelp, and spit out a several down fluffs that had stuck in his mouth. Castiel smirked.
"Alright, fine," Dean muttered and went to make the coffee. "I'll shut up."
That night, Castiel curled up in his circular bed nest, and materialized his wings for the first time in weeks and used them to cover himself with. He drifted off happily, lulled by their soft warmth and decided that they definitely weren't so bad after all.