Beta: Alpha and beta was the inimitable and invaluable miscellanium.
Author notes: This is the sequel to a previously posted story, Honorable Enterprise, which was more exclusively Dean&Cas-focused. It is recommended that you read that first, but all you need to know from it is that Castiel pulled Dean out of Hell before he broke, and got kicked out of the Host for his trouble.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
-Yeats, 'the stolen child'
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Sam returned from a supply run to find Dean and Castiel arguing. Again. Possibly still. The uninitiated might not have recognized it as an argument-Dean would make an imperative statement, which Cas would then genuinely or deliberately misunderstand. Lather, rinse, repeat. Sam listened with amused exasperation as he unpacked bags into various shelves and cupboards; it was the same type of disagreement as it had been for a day now. Castiel hadn't figured out what all he could still do, but the things that worked best, or at all, seemed to be those rituals that involved blood. While the angel didn't mind cutting and re-opening slices up and down his limbs for the purpose of making Bobby's house and the Impala as impenetrable as possible, Dean objected.
Bobby shot Sam a wry look as he claimed a bottle before it hit the shelf. "How you likin' the view from the peanut gallery?"
It was useless to prevaricate with Bobby, so Sam snorted. "Different. Not sure if it's any better, though."
The old hunter huffed in agreement and retreated to an uncontested zone of the house as Sam grabbed the last bag and ventured into the living room. Both combatants turned to look, and he held up the bag like a shield. "Here, Dean."
"Yes." Dean shifted the plastic handles as he pulled out the container of motor oil and checked it. Dropping it back in the bag, he scowled decisively at Castiel. "I'm going to go pamper my baby. Try not to damage yourself while I'm gone."
Cas cocked his head and returned the stare blandly. Dean narrowed his eyes but continued out, muttering darkly to himself. Sam grinned; it was great to have someone else around to help mess with Dean's head. He thumped the smaller man lightly on the shoulder and nodded back towards the kitchen. "I got that honey and oil you requested. They didn't have much of a selection, but I got you one of the bigger jars instead of the little bear-bottle...they didn't have extra-virgin olive oil so I got the regular, is that cool?"
"The virginity of the oil is not an issue," Castiel assured him, already heading towards his objective with single-mindedness. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it." Sam took a few minutes to straighten up some books that had fallen victim to Dean's pacing. The way Castiel could get him worked up was really almost beautiful, and Sam appreciated it with the knowledgeable eye of a younger brother. When the place looked a little less frazzled, he went to check on what the angel was up to.
"Hey, Castiel, was there anyth-" he stopped just inside the kitchen door, his jaw slightly dropped. He couldn't continue forward; the way was blocked by a wall of feathers. "Holy...woah." He blinked and tried to determine exactly what he was looking at, but his eyes refused to fix on the wing clearly. "Dude, am I really seeing this?"
"An angel's physicality is paradoxical," Cas replied from somewhere beyond the curtain of wing.
Sam considered that; it didn't make much sense, but then neither had Dean's attempts to explain girls in junior high. Some things are just not meant for man to know. He shrugged, and crouched down awkwardly to pass under the wing. When he came up he started a little to find himself even with the soles of the angel's bare feet. Cas had somehow come to the conclusion that sitting was something that was done on any horizontal surface, and had taken to perching on counter tops and chair backs, possibly to equalize the height differential. Right now he was seated cross-legged on the table, doing something to his left wing.
By looking at it out of the corner of his eye, Sam thought he could almost pin down what he was seeing. Castiel's right wing was unfurled, spreading back and around to pass in front of the door; the other was half-folded, bending it down to where he could grasp the leading edge. He was carefully working his fingers through the feathers, and as Sam watched he saw him dip up something from the bowl set beside his knee. Curiosity piqued, Sam moved closer to peer into the bowl. "This is what you needed the oil and honey for? What are you doing exactly? Um, if that's not a rude question."
"It's fine," Castiel said, and tilted the wingtips forward. Cas had a kind of careless physicality about him, a vaguely unsettling awkwardness with his form that at best was like a teenager after his first growth spurt, and at worst was straight into uncanny valley territory. This particular gesture was about equal to Dean-space-invasion on the spectrum. Sam was trying to work around the half-there-ness of the wings to inspect the feathers, which were gold-brown-black and translucent. He tuned back in to hear; "...the effects of the kinds of burn remedies humans use now."
"Wait, what?" He tossed his hair out of his eyes and peered at Castiel in concern. "They're burned?"
"Yes," Cas said. He might be much good at gestures and expressions, but he was very skilled with vocal tone; that particular 'yes' meant 'obviously, although clearly it's not obvious to humans, and I am a little bit annoyed and a little bit charmed by your lack of perception'. It was a very obnoxious 'yes', and one that had so far been almost exclusively given to Dean.
Sam tilted his head and squinted, almost cross-eyed. "Can I help?"
Castiel looked at him, nearly expressionless; but the wings flexed a little, and his eyes softened. "Yes."
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Castiel preferred to deal with the more severely burned parts himself, so Sam sat folded into one of Bobby's kitchen chairs, carefully rubbing the sticky-slick mixture into any blackened feathers. Some of them were half charred-away, the edges ragged, and the hunter felt a little worse each time Cas gave a nearly-invisible flinch. "You know," he said softly, "If we'd known about this we could have helped you sooner. Dean's done a pretty good job patching up the rest of you, right? I mean, this has to have been hurting you, paradoxical or no."
"I do know." The angel gave Sam one of his slanted sideways glances-they were trying to teach him human-normal levels of eye contact, but so far there weren't many levels between the one where he appeared to be trying to read something printed on your retinas and the one where he was conscious of your existence but didn't deem it worthy of interest. This current attempt was an acceptable approximation. "I have the ability to read men's hearts, but not their minds. Even though I may understand how Dean feels and believes, those things are often not reflected predictably by his words and actions."
"He's got his own special brand of logic." Sam quirked a half smile and shrugged one shoulder, gently smoothing the ragged edge of a primary. "It's pretty internally consistent, but not easy for an outsider to get a grip on. This is one you would need help with even if you were human, man."
"That was my suspicion." Cas gave up on 'etiquette' and gave Sam the retina-reading stare again. "He is both irked and pleased to deal with my...what he calls 'emo cutting'. He is a guardian, a caretaker, and even when he is feeling particularly fucked up in the head it is a comfort to him to fulfill his purpose."
Sam simultaneously winced at the profanity-he would never get used to an angel swearing casually-and nodded. "Yeah."
"There is only one situation in my experience when he does not feel better for the chance to give aid. When he believes that he is at fault for the harm. Your physical state resulting from your distress at his absence he takes as his personal responsibility."
"Yeah, well." Sam stretched his neck and scowled a little. "Dean needs to learn that people are responsible for their own actions. I'm not a kid any more."
"Dean has a..." Castiel frowned, taking on what Sam had privately dubbed his 'Loading, please wait' face, the one that appeared whenever he was trying to pull out one specific piece of information from the vast library that was his headspace. "...He has an inferiority complex," the angel finished, and Sam choked on a laugh because if Cas was good at anything it was understatement. Castiel's brow creased in puzzlement at that reaction, his head tilting, but he continued on; "His energies are often directed outwards, to the detriment of his own well-being."
Sam hummed faintly in agreement, and even though Cas said he didn't read minds, still kept his head down and eyes averted. He was thinking about the hellfire-burnt nearly-real feathers beneath his hands, and the stitched and re-stitched scars that crawled up the angel's arms. They were revealed by the worn t-shirt he was wearing, one of the ones Dean had retired years ago because his own scars were attracting too much attention when revealed by short sleeves; there was a reason for their duffel bags full of button-downs.
Dean's arms were completely whole now. He had come back entirely unmarked, and questions put to Cas were answered-or not answered-in evasively vague terms. In his more whimsical moments, Sam was half-convinced that Dean's old wounds had not been healed, but merely transferred to his brother's guardian angel. Dean was cheerfully scornful of whimsical thoughts and Castiel gravely attentive, but Sam kept this particular notion carefully to himself.
They worked in companionable silence for nearly half an hour, and the bowl was almost empty when Castiel suddenly froze; the wing Sam was working on twitched out of his grasp and lifted tensely. "Demon," Cas said abruptly, and before Sam had a chance to do more than open his mouth the angel grabbed his shoulder tightly and with a rustle of wings they were outside.
Sam stumbled to get his footing, mentally and physically. He took in the fact that they were outside now, near the Impala, and with a gasp that was almost a snarl he hurled himself forward; for Dean was on the ground, fighting to keep a skinny woman away from his throat. He didn't look up as Sam reached his side, but caught the woman a cracking blow across the face that dazed her enough for Sam to yank her loose. If he had been in doubt about the woman's nature, the pitch-black eyes that met his own ended the suspense. She shrieked and yanked away with her whole body, and it was only because the host was frail and the demon seemed to be in incomplete control that he was able to keep her contained.
Dean scrambled to his feet and made for the trunk of the car, wrenching it open and digging through the weaponry as Sam strained to hold on. "What took you so long?" he griped.
"How did it get through the wards?" Sam asked breathlessly.
"How the hell should I know? One minute it's all clear, next-hey, woah!" His protests were aimed towards Cas, who was approaching Sam and his captive with empty hands and a disconcerting lack of caution. "Slow the fuck down!" Dean bellowed, and Sam found time to be glad that it was someone else on the end of that reprimand.
Castiel ignored him-naturally-and pressed the heel of his hand into the demon's forehead. It stiffened in Sam's arms and he felt it twitch, in a way that had nothing to do with the muscles of the host. Then it came back to life and started fighting with increased rage. "Hold on," Cas said calmly, and Sam didn't have time to brace himself before the three of them were suddenly standing on Bobby's porch.
...on the devil's trap on Bobby's porch. With a relieved shout, Sam pushed himself away and out of the thing's reach. It ignored him, however, still fighting with muscle-tearing fervor to reach Castiel. Dean pounded over and up the steps, skidding to a halt just as Bobby appeared, wielding the demon-killing knife and a bottle of Jack with equal detached professionalism. "The hell is that and how'd it get here?"
"Maybe we should ask it," Dean said darkly, and hefted his flask of holy water. Castiel, however, stilled his arm without looking away from the demon.
"It would do you no good. It is not one of the common demons you are familiar with; it was never human, and could not speak if it wanted to. I have never seen one take a human host before." He took a half-step closer, watching with interest as it quivered with the intensity of its efforts to reach him. "It is a tracker, something like a hell-hound; it could not sense us with the sigils I inscribed, but perhaps it caught my scent. They have a taste for angels."
"Fine, no talking. Can I kill it?"
Bobby nodded in agreement with Dean's question, and hefted the knife demonstratively. "Normal demons are bad enough, but this one's givin' me the creeps."
"You could, but you should not. I believe the host may yet live."
"Fuck. Sam...?" Sam nodded back at Dean and began to recite from memory;
"Regna terrae, cantate Deo, psallite Domino qui fertis super caelum..."
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All hunters spend an inconvenient amount of time dealing with distraught civilians, and this time it was Bobby who took the sobbing woman inside with his arm around her and a soothing litany of reassurances. He did, however, leave with a glare over his shoulder that indicated that he knew they were going to have a discussion and he damn well better be let in on the conclusions.
Castiel's wings were still out, or manifested, or whatever you call it when a human-shaped angel has almost-visible wings; Sam waited for Dean's commentary, privately laying odds as to whether this would lead to a nickname of 'feathers' or a comment about someone ringing a bell, Clarence. Strangely, it never came. Dean punched Cas lightly on the shoulder, said "I need a drink," and went in, seemingly without ever noticing the conspicuous extra limbs. As Sam followed Cas in, he ducked his head and spoke to him quietly.
"Why can't he see your wings?"
Cas stopped and gave Sam the X-ray eyes again. "They shouldn't be visible. You can still see them?"
"Kind of, yeah." Castiel's brow furrowed, and the wings faded entirely out of existence. "Okay, now I can't. Is something wrong?"
"Perhaps. Certain people, special people, can see our true forms, but I had not anticipated that you would be one of them. It is unusual."
Sam made a face and nudged the angel back into motion. "Yeah, well, wouldn't be the first time I've seen things other people couldn't."
"That is true," Castiel said, like this was a far more significant statement than Sam had intended it to be, and allowed himself to be led.
The kitchen was currently a trauma center slash safe house, probably slash bar, so they settled in the living room. Well, Cas settled, lying along the back of the sofa with his hands folded under his chin. Sam paced, and Dean lounged in a chair with an air of nonchalance that was fooling nobody.
"Okay, first off, how in the fuck did you two appear out of nowhere?"
Dean leaned forward in the chair and leveled an incredulous glare. "You want to run that one by me again?"
"I did not run, I flew. You might perhaps say that I teleported. I was too weak to do so previously, and I still was not sure that it would work."
"Huh." Dean did one of his facial shrugs. "At least you don't have to bleed for this one."
"Perhaps not. As it is, fifty yards seems to be the upper end of my range."
"Better than I can do." Dean suddenly straightened, looking indignant. "Hey, you teleported out when you sensed it with your angel Spidey-sense, right? Why couldn't you notice it until AFTER it had jumped me?"
"It is difficult to explain." Cas shifted a little, freeing one hand to shape something out in the air. "Imagine being in the middle of a twenty-car pileup and trying to hear the sound of a single shard of glass hitting the ground. For the moment, that's how easy it is for me to focus on one evil presence." It was kind of a weird metaphor until you remembered that three of Cas' six days on earth had been spent in a scrap yard.
Sam shoved his hair out of his face and made a 'hold on a second' gesture. "Okay, you said that thing had to track you by scent, right? And it was weird that it took a human host?"
"Yes. Although less 'weird' than previously unheard of."
"Right, yeah, my point is...what the hell was it doing close enough to get your scent if it couldn't track us psychically? Did someone send it after you?"
"I don't know." Cas sat up and spun to sit with his feet propped on the arm of the sofa. Sam noticed that his bare feet were now streaked with dirt and made a mental note to point out the new shoes in his room. "When Azazel caused the gate to be opened there were many demons released, but there were none of this type set free. They are generally only pulled from the pit by what you would call a heavy hitter, and only for a specific purpose. If the demon Lilith were trying to free Lucifer they would be one of the resources on which she might call, but that cannot happen while the first seal is still unbroken."
"The first what now?" Dean interjected.
"Seal. When Lucifer was imprisoned his cage was fastened with 600 seals, 66 of which must be broken in order for the door to open." Castiel shrugged; it was his best non-verbal gesture, and the shift of thin shoulders under Dean's old Marine-surplus tee made him momentarily look almost young. "The first seal is the spilling of blood in hell by the hand of a righteous man. You did not break, and so neither did the seal."
"Go team righteous. What does all that mean for us?"
"Probably nothing. Since the first is intact, all the others are safe as well. I do not believe the demons will try that strategy again."
"But, uh, it's not Dean specifically, right?" Sam jammed his hands in his pockets and gave an apologetic shrug. "Any righteous man would do. Maybe that's what they released the tracker for? To find another one?"
"Generally speaking," Cas said dryly, "When given the opportunity to sell his soul to a demon, a righteous man says no."
"Always did know I was special," Dean said, and there was such a tangle of emotions under his voice that Sam had to fight back a shudder. "I say again: What now?"
The 'what now' debate lasted far longer than it should have as they chased their tails around and around the same scant facts. Fortunately, Bobby came in after putting the former host in the guest bedroom and cut to the chase. "You need to find a demon and interrogate it, find an angel and interrogate it, or get in touch with a psychic. I got some suggestions if you want a psychic."
"But I have a psychic," Dean said airily. "Hey, Sam, what are the bad guys planning?"
"It doesn't work like that, Dean," Sam returned. "Jerk."
"There are some of my old comrades that would probably be willing to give us some information," Castiel interrupted. "The problem, of course, is that the sigils protect us from all angels rather than just those that wish us harm. We would probably have to perform a summoning ritual, and that would attract far too much attention."
There was an awkward moment of silence as they tried without success to think of some point they hadn't already gone over multiple times.
Bobby rolled his eyes at all of them. "Well, if you get sick of flapping your traps, I got a case you might could look into. I wasn't sure you would be up to a case yet, Dean, but if you're up to being a pain in my ass you can damn well get out of my hair and look into a bunch of weird drownings."
"Weird how?" Dean shoved Cas's feet away and thudded down into the couch. "Drownings are usually a ghost or a nix, right? Just salt'n'burn or shoot it full of iron."
"Weird in that it doesn't look like a ghost, and a nix usually lures someone to its lake or stream and drowns 'em there. These guys are getting drowned in bathtubs and sinks."
Dean tilted his head back to give Cas a look, then shot Sam a grin before laying his hand on his chest and affecting a pompous look. "Parting is such sweet sorrow. I'll bring the bullets if you bring the flamethrower."
"I call shotgun," Sam replied firmly, and Castiel frowned and leaned forward to catch Dean's eye.
"I thought he had the flamethrower?"
As it turned out, Cas had no objection to the back seat. Thank God.
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The first hour in the car was pretty quiet. They briefly checked with Castiel to see what he knew about nix, but for the most part Metallica was the only sound.
The second hour, it occurred to Sam to twist in his seat and ask Castiel about a Sanskrit protection ritual that had always confused him.
The third hour, Dean abruptly pulled into a diner's parking lot, glared as Sam's butt hit the dash (he'd been sitting backwards for some time now), and informed them in no uncertain terms that they were paying for his lunch and if they continued to be this nerdy on their return to the Impala they could fucking well ride in the trunk.
"This nerdiness could save your life, Dean," Sam pointed out as he unfolded himself from the car and pulled the seat forward so Cas could get out.
"No, it won't, because I'll damn well kill myself if I have to listen to the Bobbsey Twins of sociolinguistics again for more than five minutes at a time." His gruffness was sabotaged by the way he absently tugged Castiel's jacket straight and then herded them both towards the entrance. "Speaking of hara-kiri worthy moments, Cas, so help me, if you make the waitress bring you crayons again..."
"I needed to show you the glyph visually," he protested. "Wax-suspended pigments are not ideal but they are effective."
"Yeah, well, Sammy's probably got an entire office-supply store packed away in his man-purse; I think you'll be covered for all your emergency drawing needs."
"Bitch all you like about my messenger bag," Sam said with aloofness, "But I've got a sawed-off and three knives in here. And a laptop. And spare protective amulets. And-"
"Okay, Mary Poppins, we're all very impressed. Now shut up and let me introduce Cas to the glory that is rhubarb pie."
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Castiel was willing to admit that rhubarb pie was indeed one of the perks of humanity. Scientific testing at the table demonstrated that if Dean wasn't serious about putting them in the trunk he was reaching the end of his tolerance for geeking out, so on their return to the Impala Sam apportioned out books to himself and Castiel and settled in to look for anything useful on drownings.
(He was pretty sure that Cas was correcting errors in a valuable Latin manuscript, in pen, but the changes were sure to be accurate and likely to be useful so he pushed down his dismay and let him scribe. At least handwriting was among the odd grab bag of human things that the angel was mysteriously good at. Sam had seen notes featuring both Dean's careless scrawl and a neat script that was nearly calligraphy, so the 'edits' had that going for them.)
In a way it was just like old times; Dean in the driver's seat, Sam in shotgun, off on the family business. But even quiet and nearly motionless, the presence of Castiel in the back seat shifted the dynamic in ways that Sam was still trying to get a grip on. Dean was still...Dean, but then there were lots of different Deans. Dean the obedient soldier, Dean the bossy big brother, Dean with one year to live. He was outwardly relaxed, without the manic edge of deep denial, but there was a persistent twitchy tenseness underlying his every movement.
Which made sense. Since he'd just got out of hell (Dean was in hell, he sold his soul, oh God) and they still didn't know all the whys and wherefores.
Cas was much harder to read, and no just because Sam had known him for six days rather than twenty-six years. The angel wore his body like Sam wore his FBI suits, something that fit perfectly well but just didn't feel natural. Some of his emotions and reactions were utterly invisible, and others he didn't hide even as well as a child would. With Dean, he varied between calm superiority and wide-eyed curiosity; for an expert people-reader like Dean, his unpredictability was alternately infuriating and fascinating. Sam was pretty sure that when Dean was old and senile he would still be aware of his little brother as soon as he was in proximity, but now that subconscious regard was also bent towards Castiel. Which was a little bit off-putting, and a little bit of a relief. Whereas Cas noticed everything, with a focus that was unnerving, but when he was talking with Dean his regard was aimed at that one target with such intensity that it made onlookers a little nervous.
Maybe that was the center of the strange change in dynamics; before, it had been big brother and little brother, and no matter how much Sam resented it at times there was no budging Dean from his self-imposed position at the front of the lines. Castiel was a week old yet older than civilization, unthreatened by Dean's mother-henning and perfectly willing to take charge if he thought the elder Winchester needed something.
Sam grinned to himself, and Dean's ever-present attention made him flick his eyes sideways and raise his brows in question. "Something funny?"
"Other than your face?" Sam said easily and Dean rolled his eyes and returned to the road, while in the rear-view mirror Cas' gaze flicked up briefly before returning to his book defacement.
So. Dean's first real friend was a semi-fallen angel with a thing for felt-tip markers and rhubarb pie.
That was kind of sad and kind of heart-warming and, mostly, typical.
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The town was called Rabbit Shuffle, and judging by the amount of signs featuring it the residents had decided that they were proud of that name, dammit, and if you didn't like it then screw you. Dean found it so hilarious that Sam was forced to take the lead in witness interviews, lest his brother insult or offend everyone they encountered. Cas proved to be really good at intimidating recalcitrant witnesses and totally horrific at soothing the traumatized ones, so Dean dragged him down Lapine Pike (still snickering) to try and hone in on anything evil in the area.
"I am not a dowsing rod," Castiel said, a little offended. Dean ignored him and gave Sam a half-assed salute as they left.
Based on statements from friends and family and an outdated map, Sam had pretty much settled on the small lake a half-mile west of town for the home territory of the nix-which it basically had to be, from descriptions and evidence. As to why it had such an atypical MO, nothing.
Sam sat scrunched into a corner booth of Little Joe's Sandwich Tree, which was a diner by any other name, and scribbled notes in his own cramped but neat hand. He'd loosened the tie but kept it on, and even with the jacket slung across the back of the booth he was feeling overheated and ready for the others to show up so they could solve this thing. He looked up when the bell on the door tinkled and raised a hand to them briefly as they walked in. "Hey, guys. Any luck?"
Before they could reply, there was a shriek from the kitchen; Dean bolted for the swinging door, Cas right behind, as Sam fought his way free of the booth and followed, cursing the restrictions of his current cover that left him mostly unarmed. He slammed through the door and almost collided with Dean's back, only staying upright by windmilling his arms and thinking stable thoughts. Dean was holding off a nix with a pair of saltshakers and belligerence; the creature was in its human form, a tall dark man with greenish hair, and inky black eyes showed why the saltshakers were helping at all.
"What kind of demon is this? You can't usually possess a water spirit," Sam hissed urgently to Castiel, who was standing off to the side in front of Little Joe and the teenage waitress.
"Difficult to explain. It's a hive mind; this is one of the lesser orders."
"Any time you want to help me get rid of it, just speak up," Dean growled.
"Fire would work. Also holy water."
"Okay." Sam inched towards the stove and reached for a kettle of water. "Okay. Does anyone have a rosary?"
Dean grunted a negative, Castiel didn't even have a driver's license, and Little Joe shrugged awkwardly. "We're Baptists."
Castiel reached past Sam and touched one finger to the surface of the water. "Emundetur res impura," he said.
That wasn't like any ritual Sam had used, but the water looked 'bright' to him in the way holy water usually did and the nix was starting to move again, so he shrugged and tossed the contents of the pot over its head. It shrieked like a kettle going off, the first sound out of it, and disappeared.
"That went well," Dean said.
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The lake certainly didn't look like a wellspring of murderous evil. It looked about like you'd expect a lake outside a town called Rabbit Shuffle to look.
"You sure this is the right place?" Dean asked, and Sam rolled his eyes.
"It is the right place," Castiel affirmed grimly. He waded into the lake's edge and crouched down to peer into it, apparently unfazed by the murky water seeping through his jeans. "I can sense them."
With exquisitely unfortunate timing, something rose out of the water and flung the angel through the air.
"The fuck!" Dean shouted angrily, and jerked forward; he was stopped by the fact that Cas, although damp and spluttering, was obviously okay; and also by the fact that this particular demonic water sprite was pretty damn enormous. Sam had to look up at it, and that didn't happen very often.
Its voice was harsh in satisfaction, a steam hiss: "The stench of Hell is still strong on you."
Sam wavered slightly, looking towards his brother; Dean remained focused, and merely smirked at the statement. "You sayin' I stink?"
From his position in the shallows Cas said something in his own language; his voice was breathless and his movements squelched, but the results were dramatic. The possessed creature flinched, then screamed as the water around its legs bubbled. From the depths of the lake there rose an answering dopplered wail as slick green bodies surfaced and disappeared. After a breath, two, Dean stepped forward and put a consecrated iron round through the creature's right eye, where it sank in with a wet splat. Maybe it was that, or whatever Cas had done, or both, but it collapsed in on itself and disappeared, leaving nothing but a film of algae on the water's surface.
The Winchesters exchanged wide-eyed looks. Dean let the smoking muzzle of his gun droop towards the ground and raised his eyebrows. "That it?"
"What did he DO?" Sam replied with wonder. They both looked for the being in question, and found him crumpled like a pile of dirty laundry in the water; Dean swore, dropping his pistol in the leaf litter and charging forward to haul the dripping angel out. Sam approached more cautiously and stood over them as his brother checked for signs of life, adjusting his grip on the machete and watching both lake and woods.
"Cas? Come on, buddy, thought you were more bird than fish." Castiel started to reply, but stopped to cough up dirty water. Dean's eyes closed briefly with a wave of relief that Sam felt as well, and he gripped the back of Cas' neck and gave him a gentle puppy-shake. "Another lesson in mortal life; breathe air, drink water. What the hell'd you do?"
Sam crouched awkwardly at the shoreline and hovered his hand over the surface. His mouth dropped open slightly and he turned to give the other two an incredulous stare. "Dude. He sanctified the whole damn lake!"
"It can't be both damned and sanctified," Castiel pointed out, his voice more gravelly than ever, and dragged himself to his feet with Dean's aid. "It was a, uh, long shot. I'm glad you killed the hive-head while it was weakened."
Sam nodded in vigorous agreement, and Dean rolled his eyes expressively. "Well, long shots all round, then. Here's to having some good luck for a change. Maybe save bulk manufacture of holy water for emergencies, though, Cas...you look kinda green."
"I think that is the pond scum," Cas said evenly, but his nose crinkled a little in a well-restrained expression of fastidious dismay. Dean snickered at him.
"How are you finding the lot of a guardian angel so far, Kemosabe?"
Castiel frowned at that, and stopped moving as the effort to find an appropriate description took up all his processing power. A fat drop of water slipped into his eye and he shook it away. "Muddy," he finally said unhappily.
Likely it was partly release of tension but there had to be a reference in there that Sam wasn't getting, because Dean absolutely howled with laughter, like Sam hadn't heard him laugh in years. He folded almost in half, one arm around his stomach, and leaned against a tree for support as he cackled helplessly.
Sam found himself grinning as well, unable to resist the infectious glee in the sound. He shrugged cheerfully at Cas, sliding his blade into its scabbard. "It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it." Cas nodded in reply, and-yes, he was actually smiling. It was almost as mirage-like as the glimpse of wings in the corner of Sam's vision, but it was definitely there, and it made him look more like a human than a drowned rat. The younger Winchester decided to ignore Dean's renewed chortling and gave the angel a brief but firm hug.
"Whoo. Okay. Cas, don't let Sam induct you with his girly-woah, woah, woah!"
Sam bent down to wash his hands in the holy water of the lake, grinning again as Dean explained to the angel in no uncertain terms that he could just suck it up and deal with wet clothes because he wasn't taking them off before he had replacements on hand and a closed door to change behind, and no, this isn't being girly, it's a manly and understandable aversion to being exposed to Castiel's lily-white ass-
The discussion behind him blended in with the tentative sound of local wildlife coming out of hiding; nobody was injured, and even if they still didn't know what was going on they had done some good here today.
"Sam! Come on, the angel can't tolerate a little water, so we've gotta get going before he gets the sniffles. Speaking of, button up your damn jacket, it's freakin' cold out here."
Sam buttoned up his jacket, feeling warmer already; for the first time since his brother bought him back, he began to think that things might actually turn out okay.