Author's note This is the third story in the Woods 'verse, and is set in Season 4, directly after the events of On the Head of a Pin.

Disclaimer All recognizable characters/settings belong to their creators. The stories listed here are transformative works, from which I've made/am making no financial profit.

Warnings Language; references/allusions to torture and non-con.

1. Damage

The john is thirtyish, give or take. He blows on his fingers, flutters long thick eyelashes, stamps his feet on the snowy soil to keep his shoes from freezing to the ground.

He keeps shooting nervous glances back up to the main road, and his caution means the dance has been a slow one; covetous glances for the last three nights, as he hovers at the top of the alleyway, fleeting eye contact and a shy smile just for him, to say he's special, to draw him in. And now here he is, finally close enough to touch. And he is special, he might be the one where all the others weren't, might match up to the long treasured, hazy image of that face, filed away in a mental scrapbook of memories.

"I never did this before," the man mutters. "I don't pay for it." Even so, he looks at his shoes, toes the slushy earth. "How much?"

It's a business transaction, no tiptoeing around it, no dinner and a movie, no getting to know each other. But if he's the one, then they had a past, and that means they can have a future.

"Blowjob's twenty-five, a ride's thirty-five or forty bareback. Off the menu starts at fifty."

"Fifty?" His reply is high-pitched, nervous. "I only have thirty-five."

"Well then. For you, off the menu is thirty-five." Smile, enticing, low voice, promising. "I can make you feel like you never felt before. You want to try something new? Get it dirty like you never did before? I can make it real good."

More skittish glances at late night drinkers lurching past the top of the alleyway, and he's taking a few steps back towards the street.

No, come back. Be him.

"I have somewhere we can go. It's not too far… it's private. Clean. Just me and my cat. You can do whatever you like, everything your woman won't let you do…"

The john glances back, unsure. "And it's close by?"

"Five-minute walk, boy. You up for it? You want to do all those things you feel guilty for dreaming about? Put it where it's never been? Hurt me good? All for just thirty-five bucks…"

Backing away, slow steps, head canted to the side, innocent. The hook is right there in his cheek, got that boy good, and he might be the one. And if he isn't, it's meat for dinner tonight.

"I'm going to make you scream," the john blurts out, and his eyes go wide with astonishment at his own nerve.

Smile, slow, tongue curling up to lick lips, slow steps back into the shadows, whispering. "I'm going to make you scream too… I'm going to do things to you that you never even heard of."

The deputy clearly has better things to do on a Monday night than drive around looking for whoever beat some drunk to within an inch of his life and robbed him. He grunts a few comments about Dean's blood alcohol level and casts enough distracted glances at his wristwatch that Sam wants to rip it off his arm and feed it to him whole, even as he breathes a mental sigh of relief for small towns where local law enforcement is at home in bed by nine. In the circumstances, he thinks, his brother being written off as a deadbeat rolled in the parking lot is a win, because they can damn well do without the cops sniffing about.

Sam feels old beyond his years as a doctor who looks sixteen at the most, or at the very least fresh out of medical school, chatters on with the bright-eyed enthusiasm of youth about disc-like fingertip marks, linear fingernail scratches, petechial hemorrhage, bruising of the strap muscles, lateral compression of the larynx, severe dyspnea. She perks up even more for the punchline, which is that the hyoid bone, whatever the hell that is, is undamaged, and that's a good thing, before concluding with a flourish that Dean was strangled.

"Manually, not with a ligature," she chirps animatedly. "And it's a good job they went for the trachea and larynx, since that's a slower method that requires considerably more pressure to achieve a hypoxic state in the brain."

Sam smiles weakly as she cheerfully sees the bright side: that someone got there in the nick of to prevent his brother's larynx from being crushed to a pulp, and his airway closing up so rapidly he would likely have asphyxiated before they even got him in the car, maybe even before Sam finished playing with Alastair.

"I'm so glad I was on call," the woman witters on. "You usually have to be a forensic pathologist to see laryngeal injuries secondary to manual strangulation. We otolaryngologists usually aren't that lucky."

Not just Dean's lucky day then, Sam thinks wearily.

"We've set his nose and relocated his jaw. We went in through the nostrils and realigned it all, and there's some antibiotic packing up there in case of infection. The jaw went back in nicely and looks pretty stable, but he's looking at soft foods for the next few weeks, and he'll need to support it when—"

She breaks off, shoots a look over to the doorway, and Sam follows her gaze, feels his tension amp up even higher when he sees who is hovering in the doorway. "It's okay," he forces out through gritted teeth. "He's a friend."

"He'll need to support it when he yawns, or it could pop out again," the woman continues, and somewhere under the thrill of achievement, the still-tantalizing effervescence of her blood inside him, and his dull fear for his brother, Sam notes that she's practically devouring Castiel with her eyes as he walks around the top of the bed to sit opposite them. He smirks inwardly. Junkless.

"If that's a problem, we can bandage underneath the jaw and up around the top of his head. Sir?"

Blinking at her, Sam flaps his lips for a second before he catches up. "I'm sorry… if what's a problem?"

"His jaw," she says. "If it pops out."

"It could pop out?" Sam echoes her idiotically, and can hardly blame her for the flash of irritation in her eyes.

"Yes… if he yawns too widely. Like I said," she repeats slowly, because she just heard the stoopid bell clang. "We can bandage under it and up over his head if that becomes an issue. He'll need to be careful."

Trying to rein back some degree of authority, Sam clears his throat. "And when will he wake up?"

"He's sedated at the moment… there's a lot of swelling in his throat, hence the tube. We'll be taking that out later, once the swelling around his larynx reduces." She jots something down in the chart, hooks it back on the end of Dean's bed. "Oh, and nothing too hot either, he has some lacerations as well as the crush damage to the larynx, and hot drinks and foods will be uncomfortable for him."

Sam nods, and all the while he's casting glances beyond the woman, beyond his brother too, to the other side of the bed, where Castiel is miles away, meditating or something.

As soon as the woman leaves, Sam blurts it out. "Are you going to tell him?"

The angel turns his head, and like he always does when he falls under Castiel's remote blue gaze, Sam feels a momentary chill deep down. It's the icy reminder that although Castiel wears a man, he is an otherworldly creature, something from another dimension. Alien is the word that springs to mind more than angelic; it's in the perfectly level set of Castiel's head, his ramrod posture, his serenity, his cool detachment from everything and everyone but Sam's brother, because Dean is the one Castiel looks to, and explains to, and raises his voice to, and narrows his eyes at. Dean is the only one who matters, and Sam is just along for the ride, only important insofar as his connection to Dean. Dean, who doesn't even fucking believe, and the usual spark of bitterness flares bright as Sam thinks it.

He stares it out for as long as he can, but he can't keep it up. He thinks maybe Castiel doesn't even need to blink, so he's damn well cheating anyway. "You could make him better, heal him," he dares again, even though the angel has already shot that one down in flames, even though his own rage has gone off the boil, lost in warm satisfaction at the fact he achieved what they all wanted to and couldn't, the boy with demon blood doing the Lord's work. It's vindication, maybe even incontrovertible proof that the angels bet on the wrong Winchester in this particular race, and that maybe God has work for him.

Castiel stares back at Sam, his features as impassive as always. "I'm not permitted to intercede. In any case, the exorcism weakened me."

The response isn't challenging, might even be mild, and Sam takes advantage, snapping, "Even more?" He shakes his head in disbelief, and yeah, maybe he laces it with something that might be disdain as he recalls the last time the angel went up against Alastair. "You let that low-level scum get the jump on you again? I thought you guys were warriors of God?"

"The Host is weakened by its recent losses," Castiel replies evenly. "And I was somewhat distracted by my fears for your brother."

Sam doesn't know for sure if there's a subtext there or not, but he shuts out the voice in his head that reminds him he wasn't distracted from Alastair one iota, that he barely looked at Dean's crumpled body on the ground while he toyed with the demon, that he tuned out his brother's labored wheezing like it was white noise, didn't even call Dean's name. Take out the threat first, he thinks. It was strategy, pure and simple, and he steadies his voice. "Well then, maybe a warning might have been in order before you beamed my brother into the same room as that thing. You knew, you knew Dean wasn't up to it. So it's a tad late to be saying that you and your feathered friends aren't up to it either. And more to the point, Dean said no."

Castiel considers Sam for a moment, tilts his head. "And yet he agreed."

It's as neutral, as placid as ever, and Sam bristles. "Well, what emotional fucking blackmail did you pull to get your way? Because he didn't want revenge." And out of the blue it flits through Sam's mind, Lilith's head on a plate, bloody, Dean's deflated, disappointed expression in response. On it heels comes the uncomfortable feeling that his own obsessive need for payback, for retribution, is pissing all over his brother's anxiety and fear. Dean said no, he thinks, just like Dean has said no to him, with his eyes, with his words, and finally with his fists; and how fucking ironic it is that he expects an angel of the Lord to respect his brother's wishes when he won't do it himself.

He buries it, heaps sand on it to soak up his acid deception before it burns, keeps going even though the words ring hollow, and he thinks maybe Castiel knows it. "He didn't want to do this. He didn't want to go back to doing that, being that. Which means that he did this for you. And you can tell that prick Uriel that if he—"

"Uriel is dead."

That pulls Sam up short, even shuts him up, albeit briefly. "The angel killer?" he says, once it computes. "Alastair said it's not Lilith, and I think he was telling the truth."

"It was Uriel," Castiel confirms, and to give him some credit, Sam thinks he may even sound apologetic as he continues. "He was working against us, working to undermine the Host and free Lucifer. He broke the trap and set Alastair free to torture your brother anew."

It may well be the most the angel has ever said directly to Sam since the first time they met, and Sam pushes violently up, the chair tipping over and crashing to the floor behind him. On the bed, Dean shifts uneasily at the noise, frowning and making small, hurt sounds that score Sam's nerves, because he doesn't know, he doesn't know anymore whether he's mad at his brother or mad because of his brother, because Dean isn't fighting any more. His sudden irritation is like a barrier thrown up in that split second of acknowledging that he's so fucking angry at Dean's fearfulness, because he doesn't want to think it might be cowardice; so fucking angry that he doesn't know where it begins and where it ends.

Sam can't even bring himself to reach out, to touch, to comfort, as Dean twitches and mutters, fists flexing restlessly. And Castiel looks from him to Dean, back and forth, and now he might even look anxious, his eyes widening and his frame tensing. And finally he lifts his hand from where it rests on his knee, drifts it up, and tentatively lays it over Dean's.

Dean curls his fingers around Castiel's, falls still immediately. The line between his eyes relaxes, and the low beep of the monitor slows down again.

Sam keeps his voice under control even as it turns venomous. "Aside from the fact that someone you trusted loosed that monster on my brother, this, all of it, could have been avoided if you had bothered to listen to him, and see what was staring you in the face, you sanctimonious prick," he says. "Dean isn't what he was, he's damaged, in ways you can't begin to know. But I know, because I know him."

Castiel has been gazing at his hand where it rests on Dean's, but now he looks up. "I know how damaged your brother is, and why," he says softly.

His eyes flicker away then, but not before Sam sees a glimmer of something that is unsettlingly like the look of appalled dread he sees in Dean's eyes sometimes, when he startles awake from his memories. It's fleeting, it's transient, it's gone when the angel meets Sam's gaze again, and maybe it was nothing more than a figment of his imagination.

"I was there. I saw him."

Sam huffs, derisive. "Well, it's a pity you didn't see your buddy Uriel sneaking around behind your back. If you had, none of this would have happened."

Castiel contemplates Sam for a few seconds before he speaks again. "That's not what I was referring to."

For a second Sam is confused, wonders what the angel means. When he gets it, it's like a gut punch, it blows the air out of him, winds him thoroughly, and he has to take a minute to walk his mind through the twisted, warped symmetry they present: the one who effectively damned his brother to Hell and failed to redeem him, and the one who shared the horror with Dean and was his salvation, squaring up to each other over the shell that remains. It makes Sam wants to sink his fist somewhere, and he runs with the feeling. "I got what you needed from that bastard within five minutes," he says. "So this test, or whatever the fuck it was, could have been avoided." He stabs a finger down onto the bed, still riding high on his anger even if he knows he's in danger of pushing the angel too far. "Look at him," he hisses. "Look at him. You think he needs this? You should have taken me with you, not him. I'm stronger now, I can make all the difference in this fight. I'm the one you—"

"Your method was extremely effective, Sam," Castiel cuts in, his tone acidic. "Your abilities seem to have advanced. Considerably."

The angel is still unruffled, apparently composed, but it's all in his eyes. They laser into Sam now, making him feel pinned in place, making him feel uncomfortably like Castiel is sizing him up, considering, gauging, appraising; wondering just what Sam did to reach the point where he can accelerate from zero to sixty in five seconds flat. Sam is suddenly aware of static prickling in the atmosphere, dancing through him, sending the hairs on the back of his neck standing proud; and for all Castiel's stillness, Sam can't help feeling that the angel is poised to detonate and blow him to kingdom come.

Castiel still has his hand placed over Dean's, and Sam could swear there is provocation in that protective gesture, that he's being baited. But in a fraction of a second the balance of power in the conversation has changed, and Sam ignores the bait, if that's even what this is. He sighs, bends to pick up his chair, and slumps into it. "I couldn't just stand there," he says. "I had to do something. As far as I could see he was ganking you, and Dean… Jesus. Dean." And Sam does reach out then, grasps his brother's other hand in his, runs his thumb over knuckles grazed and split when Dean tried to defend himself. He tries not to dwell on the worry shadowing his brother's face back in the motel room before he vanished, Dean's pain-fogged delirium as he tried to suck in air through his broken nose and ruined throat on the drive to the hospital.

Movement from opposite interrupts Sam's reverie, and he glances up to see Castiel discreetly removing his hand from Dean's, resting it back on his knee. The angel is still looking at Sam, and even if the freeze has gone from his eyes, they are as eloquent as they were a few hours before, when he looked from Alastair's crumpled, ravaged meatsuit to Sam and the message was a confused mix of awe and distaste, fascination and fear, because Castiel saw, Sam knows he did. He saw the exhilaration, the satisfaction, the pleasure, the rush, the kill, the power; saw Sam Winchester bursting out of his skin in sheer glee at what he could do with this insidious black beast at his center.

Now the stare is a reminder that suggests Castiel is suspicious, that makes it abundantly clear Castiel is concerned, that tells Sam in no uncertain terms that he needs to try to make the angel understand. "What am I supposed to do?" he mutters. "You're telling us this is the end of the world, and it's the only real weapon we have. It's in me, and there's nothing I can do about it except try to do some good with it. Give me a chance. Please."

Time suspends itself for an endless second in that relentless gaze, and Sam blinks first, like always. "And he's my brother," he says softly. "I love him, and I'm keeping him in this world. I'll do whatever I have to do. Whatever it takes. And I don't give a damn what you think of me for it, Castiel, and I don't care what you and your God do about it."

Sam glances up to Dean's drawn, gray face, anxious even in sleep, and he feels ashamed for the anger, for the impatience that still bubbles inside him, feels his heart twist and curl in misery at the bruises, the cuts, the sorrow that seeps from Dean even though his brother isn't even conscious or aware. "Why do you even need him for this fight?" he whispers. "Can't you just leave him be. Leave him in peace. Doesn't he deserve that?" He slants his eyes across to the angel. "He's a good man, and he's suffered enough."

Castiel blinks first this time. "It's not my decision, Sam. And I am sorry for that."

It's one of those crisply cold nights that bounces moonbeams up off the frost and snow, all black ice shining, the kind of lonely, empty night that needs a fifties film-noir voiceover and Richard Widmark in a fedora, running numbers for the mob; the kind of night with a thousand eyes that exists outside the bright lights and picture windows of an Edward Hopper diner.

Hudak's breath freezes as she exhales, and just like it always has since that day it hung suspended in the air before she swung an iron chain through something that wasn't possible, the mist that puffs out ahead of her sends a reflexive buzz of fear up and down her spine. Her boots crunch on ice crystals, like bone fragments, as she gingerly picks her way across the street to the small huddle under the trees. Duluth, duh, she thinks, apropos of nothing. "I should have picked Sarasota," she mutters under her breath.

"Looks like another one, Katie. It ain't pretty, so brace yourself."

Hudak grimaces as she peers down over the big man's shoulder. "That's… thorough."

The man nods. "Face sliced clean off, like the others. Looks like it'll be dental records again if anyone shows up to report him missing."

She has a strong stomach, can usually hold onto its contents, but Hudak feels acid flare hotly in her gullet, has to put her hand up to her mouth and look away for a second. The body looks to be a young guy like the others. What's left of him, and she studiously avoids looking above his neck, the fleeting glimpse of exposed, lidless eyeballs and bared teeth set against glistening red and glowing ivory enough to last her a lifetime. She gestures towards his ruined chest. "No heart?"

"You got it. Jonesie put his hand in and rummaged some for it, but nada," the man says. He sniggers at the face Hudak pulls, and pushes up with a groan, grabbing her arm for support. "Help an old guy up, Katie. Yep, looks to be the same MO, so we're guessing no heart."

"You know, Coop, shedding a few pounds would help your knees," Hudak says offhandedly. "So. I think we can safely assume this isn't a suicide. CSI on their way? Medical examiner?"

"Yeah." The man pulls his coat tighter around him. "Jesus. My ass is freezing off out here, and I need a cigarette. Let's wait in the car."

He ferrets in his pocket as they walk, pulls out a pack of Camels, lights up and inhales deeply, puffs out a smoke circle.

Hudak clears her throat critically. "You know, Coop, quitting that habit would help your—"

"It calms me down," he parries, because this is a routine they both have down-pat now. Blowing out another lungful of smoke that wafts away on the breeze, he shakes his head. "Who would do something like that to another human being?" he ponders. "It's like some kind of monster's had at him. Werewolf or something."

The word gives Hudak an uncomfortable, edgy feeling, like a bone-deep itch she can't scratch, and she gives her friend a hard stare. "Do you believe in things like that, Coop?"

He clicks his tongue. "Don't need werewolves when we got people, Katie," he says. "People are the biggest monsters of all. You should know that, all those body parts the Feds found up at the old Bender place."

She can't stop the shiver the name engenders, has to focus on thinking past jars of teeth, past depravity and evil and things that can't be, past burns, and bites, and beartraps, past scars, and suffering, and tears, past the charnel pit. Past the Winchesters. But it isn't easy. "Werewolves do take the heart, you know," she muses quietly.

Coop scoots his eyebrows up. "Werewolves take the heart?" he scoffs. "Don't tell me you believe that crap, Katie."

Hudak shrugs. "Too much X-Files, Coop." She gestures across the road, to where a streetlamp feebly lights the mouth of an alleyway leading off the main street. "Think any of the hookers might have seen whoever dumped the vic?"

He shakes his head. "Checked it out, nobody there. Too cold even for the ladies tonight." His eyes wander as he opens the car door. "Diner's just opening," he gestures. "Coffee and donuts would be good." He winks. "It's your turn."

Hudak rolls her eyes, but she turns and starts walking, tries to ignore the feeling she's had since the first body turned up, the feeling that she's missing something. "The Werewolf Killer," she throws back over her shoulder. "The press is going to love that, Coop. Might even get you that promotion. Just think how many man hours we'd have wasted trying to whiteboard a snappy nickname for this guy without you here."

Ruby has this habit of wrapping herself around Sam after they fuck, like all of her limbs are prehensile monkey tails that entwine themselves up his legs and torso, like this is somehow real, like they're teens in the first flush of love, like it's serious instead of what it is. Whatever that is. When Sam tries to untangle himself, she digs her nails in to grip his flesh, and he knows his brother would say she had her claws in deep like the cat she is.

She's doing it now as she whispers, "Tell me again," from under the cloud of hair spread across his chest. "Tell me about Alastair."

Sam smiles, because even three days later the thrill still fizzes through his veins, turns his blood into the best vintage champagne. "I've told you a hundred times," he murmurs. "Isn't it getting old yet?"

Her hands wander up and down his belly, sending shivers dancing across his skin.

"Nope, it's not old," she purrs. "It's foreplay."

Sam he feels the cool, moist trail of her tongue across his hip, and his dick twitches. "Bastard never saw what hit him," he mutters. "I had him up against that wall…" He groans as her fingers close around him. "Jesus. Lower. No… to the right." Fuck.

"What did you do then?" she teases, and her hand is strong and sure, like always. "Did you squeeze… real… tight…"

She is tiny on top of him, her eyes dancing, and Sam gives himself to the sensations. "I had him pinned… and I reached for him…uh… and squeezed the sonofabitch, and—"

"You pulled him," she hisses into his skin, and his eyes slam shut as his hands tangle in her wrong-color hair. "You held him tight and you pulled him."

"Harder," Sam chokes out as she works. "Had him tight… tighter. And I pulled… more, it took… more than that, ripped, ripped it out of him… Ruby. Uh… Ruby. Ruby."

She is laughing as he cries out and convulses into her hand, and as he pants it down, she stares at him and smiles. "I guess I just ganked little Sammy."

"Bitch," Sam tells her.

Smirking, she replies, "Jerk."

She doesn't know, can't possibly know the significance of the exchange, and it always gives Sam a chill when she says it, the weird, wrong appropriation of his brother's odd term of endearment. He ignores it, reaches to pull the sheet up over him as she stretches luxuriantly.

"My favorite part is when he has your brother's wingman hanging up on the meathook," she says. "Alastair had style, I'll give him that."

And that's a bridge too far, and Sam tells her so. "I don't need to hear crap like that from you, Ruby," he snaps. "That prick tortured my brother to death over and over for thirty years." He makes his voice cold and hard, and he sees something like doubt flicker in her eyes. "Do you think that was stylish? Do you think he did it with panache, and flair? Do you think my brother hung there from his hooks thinking how fucking dashing Alastair looked while he was being flayed alive?"

Ruby rolls off of him, and she's silent for a moment. "I'm sorry, Sam," she ventures then, her tone cautious. "It just came out… he's an angel, there's a needle there, you know? Like the Bloods and the Crips. I didn't mean to… about Dean. I didn't think."

Sam huffs. "Well, think next time."

She nods, shifts closer. "I thought Dean wasn't saying much about Hell."

"He doesn't say it," Sam mutters. "He screams it. When he dreams."

Ruby nods, and her eyes are warm with sympathy. "It must be hard for you," she says earnestly. "To see him so broken. Weak. It's good that you can protect him… that you're stronger. He needs that now, Sam. Especially if Castiel isn't up to the job."

Sam nods and she starts rubbing circles on his chest.

"He needs you to be strong," she whispers. "He needs you to keep getting stronger, to protect him, to protect the seals. It's good that you're doing this for him, Sam. He's lucky to have you."

Some small part of Sam likes to remind Ruby that he controls this thing they have.