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Where The Ladder Starts

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"So I had this amazing idea for a new story, you know I've been trying to branch out into original fiction, right? I told you that a few weeks ago, remember? Anyways, it's gonna be a romance, but! But! It's gonna be fantasy! Well, sort of fantasy. See, the one guy is an angel. Not like, fluffy wings and halos and harps sort of angel, but a real Old Testament vengeance-y sort of guy. I need to look up some names. Michael? Nah, overdone. And that movie sucked. But the other guy, he's human. And you see, the angel doesn't really care about people, doesn't really see the point. Sort of like the story about the fall of Lucifer. So God sends the angel to Earth where he has to spend a year as a mortal. Or like, reduced powers. Angel lite. And it's like Terminator, he sort of plummets to the Earth like a meteor and ends up naked somewhere. And this other guy, he's out doing something, and he finds this naked dude in an alley and takes him home. And the story's gonna be about how they have to overcome these huge differences between how they think and you know, the whole angel thing, and…"

"Becky," Sam says. "Breathe."

He hears her pause, can picture it in his head: Becky, hunched over her laptop with a Pepsi in one hand and her cell phone in the other, staring determinedly down at her keyboard and forcing herself to take deep breaths. Sometimes she gets carried away. Sometimes she forgets that not everyone can keep up with the way she thinks, half-skips and pop culture references, sometimes without any apparent rhyme or reason. She forgets that the world revolves at a slower pace than her.

"Sorry," she says; Sam counted five deep breaths, which means that she's more worked up about this idea than she has been about…about anything else she's come up with for the past few months. "I got excited."

"I can hear that. Where are you?"

"I'm waiting for the bus. It's Thursday. Thursday is new comic day."

Ah, Sam thinks, and amends his mental image so that Becky is sitting hunched over a worn notebook instead, a bottle of Pepsi tucked into her tote bag, the phone cradled between her shoulder and cheek. "They released the new volume of Supernatural, huh?"

"Yes! Yes, and it looks amazing and I can't wait to read it!"

"Getting out of the apartment is important," Sam agrees, and carefully shelves the last of the thirteen volumes of Lord Byron. He still has dozens of new orders to comb through, and he needs to mark down a few of the older books and put a price to the newest ones, and he has to remember to call Ash later because he's running out of shelves and he's still got a whole wall that needs to be covered, but…

But he thinks he's getting the hang of this. Running a business. Being alone.

"Sam?"

"Yeah," he says, "Still here." He steps down off his footstool, absently kicking it back into the corner.

"Are you all right? It isn't, you know…a bad day?"

A bad day. A bad day used to be a day when he forgot to set his alarm and was late getting to class. A bad day used to mean a C, rather than a B, on an assignment. A bad day had been him and Dean in the same room, talking about Dad, which had inevitably lead to shouting, and sometimes to half-thrown punches, though more often than not just the yelling, the endless arguments, the disappointment.

Now, a bad day is any day that he wakes up and happens to remember, without preparing himself first, that his fiancée is dead.

"No," he says quickly. "No, it's…fine. I'm fine."

"Are you sure? I can always get the new volume online! Or…or wait until tomorrow to buy it! Do you want me to come over?"

He laughs before he can stop himself, and it's so easy to imagine Becky's startled expression – the absolute wonder at being able to make Sam smile, or even glance her way. From what he knows (and it isn't much, because she's even more private than he is), Becky has never been the type of person to have many friends – not outside of her forums and LiveJournal communities, anyways – and she treats his continued friendship with her the same way a puppy treats a new toy, with a sort of mingled excitement and suspicion, and the vague sense that it can be taken from her at any moment.

Sometimes it hits him, how sad that is. How lonely. But trying to understand how Becky works on more than just a surface level would be attempting to unravel a ball of issues large enough to rival Sam's own, and Becky has hinted, strongly, that he shouldn't try.

"It's okay, Becky," he murmurs. "It's no big deal. Not a bad day, just slow." It's the lunch rush, and no one is going to be coming in to buy books when they could be visiting the Subway across the street, so Sam settles behind the front counter and fishes around in his TO READ pile until he finds a book of poems that he hasn't already memorized cover to cover. Allen Ginsberg. Huh.

"The bus is here! All right, I'm gonna get the new volume and then I'll be right over, okay? Right over!"

Sam barely manages to make a noise of protest before the line goes dead. He had asked Becky's ex-boyfriend, once, had tried to bring up the subjects of bipolar disorder and ADHD as gently and tastefully as possible, but Chuck had laughed and shook his head. Becky didn't pop pills – Becky self-medicated with caffeine and crashed quietly in secret places, places where she was unlikely to be a bother while she rode out the withdrawal. It wasn't any sort of problem, as far as anyone had ever been able to figure out, and while it kept her solitary, it didn't prevent her from holding a job or picking up groceries or going to see movies on the weekends. Becky was just…Becky.

Sam turns off his cell, then tucks it into his pocket and opens Cosmopolitan Greetings to the title page.

~

Becky cracks her knuckles and then sets her forearms down on the edge of her desk, getting herself comfortable. She has her two-liter bottle of Pepsi in the cup holder next to the printer, and she has her notebooks, all six of them, stacked neatly by the keyboard, within grabbing reach, so that she can flip through and look at the outlines she's made. She has her wrist brace in the bottom drawer of the desk (just in case!), and she has three fourteen-ounce bags of Skittles placed strategically around the base of her chair.

Once upon a time, she types.

No. Too pedestrian. When you start a story with 'once upon a time,' you're either a total noob or a crazy fantastic genius, and Becky is neither.

Highlight. Delete.

It is a truth universally acknowledged…

What is she, a hack? She can do better than quoting Austen, especially considering she isn't doing a re-imagining of the original story. Delete, delete, delete.

When he was young, Jared Wesson had always assumed that it would be his best friend, Jensen, who ended up doing volunteer work. Not for any altruistic reasons, but because Jensen liked getting into trouble, and the consequences had never been severe enough or frequent enough to discourage him. But growing up changed people, and what he had assumed at sixteen had become true at twenty-four – but for him, not for Jensen.

Becky pauses to take a swig of Pepsi, then cautiously lifts up her laptop, wondering where those names had come from. Yeah, she has 'Jared' written down, underlined a few times. She'd been meaning to look it up, do a little more research. But 'Jensen' is a new one.

Jensen Smith, she types, and thinks about how the name looks on the page. "Jensen Smith," she says. It sounds good. "Jared Wesson." Smith and Wesson. She wonders if Sam will think it's an homage to him. That would be nice. Sam is always doing so much to help her – he comes over sometimes and cooks her dinner when she forgets to eat (although she's proud to say that she never forgets to do her shopping!), and he calls every two days, like clockwork, just to talk to her. Even if she's already called him like, fifty times in between. Sam is a good friend. She's lucky to have him.

She scrolls back up to the title page, where the big Working Title glares disapprovingly at her. She types, just beneath it, For Sam.

And then, after some thought, You'll find your angel, too.

It's totally not offensive to dedicate your first slash novel to your straight best friend, right? All she wants is for him to find someone he can be with. Someone to make him forget Jessica. Or move on from her, or whatever the socially accepted term is. She wants him to be happy.

She scrolls back down. She can work on the introduction later. She knows a few writers who do that, just write straight through to the end, but she usually ends up finishing bits and pieces and then sewing them all together.

Plus, she wants to write about the first meeting.

She fits her fingers to the keyboard. Usually, when you encountered a naked man on the streets of Los Angeles, you backed away slowly (if he approached you), or walked away quickly (if he didn't), or, if you weren't in a position to do either of those things, you just ignored it as best you could and filed it away in your 'I live in the city, shit happens' mental folder. Jared, who could be called a good Samaritan on his best days and a little naïve on his worst, did none of those things, and instead of pursuing the sensible option of returning to his apartment and forgetting the incident had ever happened, he did the unthinkable.

He got involved.

~

It's a Friday, and Friday means the evening rush – and by 'rush' Sam means the four or five regulars who come 'round like clockwork for their end of the week literature fix. He has the new Grisham novel arranged in neat piles on the front table, and a few Patterson books leading the way back to the mystery and thriller section, and Sam is all set to ride out the (admittedly minor) wave of customers and then close up for the day.

Or, he would be, if there were customers.

He rests his chin in his palm and stares out the window; outside, the sky is a dark lilac bruise, the billowing heaps of rain clouds obscuring the horizon, and if he concentrates, he imagines that he can smell the rain, how it's almost here, thick and heavy in the air. It's a watercolor still life of Philadelphia in the spring – the only things moving are the cars.

A few warning drops spatter the pavement outside, as if in answer to his thoughts. No one is going to be coming in when it's raining – that's what the Barnes & Noble downtown is for, with the reading section and the coffee bar. Sam blows a strand of hair from his eyes (Jesus fuck, he really needs a haircut, but it just…hasn't been on his to-do list), then gets up and flips the sign on the front door to Closed!. He carefully empties the register, bills neatly folded into an envelope to be dropped off at the bank, coins left to be used as change. He draws the blinds down, blocking out the misty evening light. He locks the back door, and then gathers up his jacket, his duffle of books he still wants to read (the fun part of owning your own shop - unsold books at the end of each month). Friday evening has been slow, which means he needs to open early in the morning – it always amazes him, that there are so many tourists in Philadelphia, but there are, and a small, independent bookshop like Sam's draws their attention on the weekends.

He locks the front door behind him, and then steps out into the damp night.

It isn't pouring, not yet, but it's threatening to – the clouds are like angry sores in the sky, and Sam flips his collar against the damp. He left his Cavalier in the car park on Sansom Street – Five Star Parking was closer, but he'd been in a hurry, and he would have had to wait, so now he has to walk a few blocks just so that he can drive home. Living in the city is exciting, sometimes, but the aggravation makes it seem ten times worse than it actually is.

He's just turning off of Chestnut when he hears the groan.

It's barely there – like hearing the shadow of a noise, and Sam almost ignores it. The aggravations of living in Philly don't just extend to the traffic and the parking. He thinks there might be a bar nearby (he doesn't go out, so he isn't sure), so maybe it's just some poor drunk weaving his way home.

The streets seem emptier than they should be. The rain starts coming down in bullet-sized drops, heavy and oppressive. Sam flicks water from the curve of his nose, and then, cursing himself for about five different kinds of an idiot, he leaves the relative safety of the well-lit street and steps into the dark space between buildings, not quite an alley, but close - a narrow crack in the electric lights and the flashy storefronts, snug between a Mexican restaurant and a Salvation Army.

"Hello?" He says, because that's probably what a lot of people say, right before they're mugged. Jesus Christ, he's an idiot. "Is someone there?"

But that's definitely the sound of someone in pain.

You're going to regret this, a voice in his head informs him – it sounds uncomfortably like Dean. Sam shakes it off, and dares to get close enough that he can see the shape of shoulders, hunched against the rain. Bare shoulders. He makes a noise that's probably remarkably similar in register to like, a Chihuahua or a dolphin or something, and the shoulders shift, and yeah, it's a guy. A guy who's shirtless in the rain. A guy with…fuck, with scrapes all up and down his arms and what looks like the mother of all knots forming on his right temple. Sam shoulders his bag of books (effectiveness in a fight: four, if he can swing it hard enough), squatting a few feet away from the dude. It's hard to tell, what with the rain and the…the blood, but Sam thinks he's probably in his thirties. He doesn't look that much older.

"Hey," he says softly, and brown eyes wobble into focus, honing in on Sam's face. They stare at each other for what has to be at least a minute. And really, that color isn't…brown, not really. It's way too rich. It's like…scotch or bourbon, some kind of cask-aged alcohol that tastes like cedar and chocolate. It's almost amber.

Then the guy leans to the side and pukes into a storm drain, and Sam thinks he remembers something about head wounds making you nauseous. The rain sluices over his neck and back, soaking his hair, washing blood from his skin – Sam catches a glimpse of a dark shape across the blades of his shoulders. More blood, probably. Someone did a number on this guy.

"Okay," he says, and sort of crab walks a little closer, wincing when the guy wipes the back of his hand across his mouth, smearing blood across his lips and cheek. He spits, and then tilts his head up into the rain, swaying a little. Close up, Sam can see that his arms aren't the only things that have been through hell – it looks like someone took a fucking baseball bat to the guy's chest and sides. He's wearing black dress pants, the kind that you have professionally laundered because your work is too important to ignore even for a half-hour of ironing. The pockets are turned inside out.

Sam fumbles in his own pocket for his cell phone. "I'm gonna call nine-one-one," he tells the guy. He gets another groan in response; Sam mashes his fingers against the buttons, and wonders why, in a city full of people who hurt and get hurt every single day, this one half-naked, helpless, soaking wet dude is the one that's tugging at Sam's heartstrings.

~

"Rikbiel, okay? They call me Rikbiel." The man's mouth was pulled into a frown, the sort of severe expression that Jared had gotten used to, growing up with Jensen – except usually it wasn't directed at him. Nor was it usually worn by a guy standing naked in an alley between a Taco Bell and a store that sold vintage t-shirts. Jared caught his gaze drifting, and then forced himself to look Rikbiel – and what kind of name was Rikbiel, anyways? – in the eye.

"Um," Jared said. "All right, Rik – Rich. Can I just call you Rich? I think you might be confused."

"I wish I was confused," Rich said. There was a low, growling snarl in his voice that was doing things, vaguely uncomfortable things, to Jared's stomach. "Believe me, the last thing I want to be doing is throwing myself on the mercy of some idiot mud-monkey."

Jared had the feeling that he should probably take offense, but it wasn't said like an insult, not exactly. Just…like it was a fact. And he guessed, if he looked at it objectively, humans were primates, and the Earth was, you know. Covered in dirt.

He could hear Jensen's voice scolding him: 'You are almost disturbingly well-adjusted.'

"So you're an angel," Jared said. He purposefully didn't add on the second half of that thought, 'Or you think you're an angel.'

"That's what I've been telling you." Rich looked down at himself, still scowling, like what he was seeing didn't live up to his expectations. Everything looked in fine shape to Jared, but he had a thing for short guys anyways. The curse (or blessing) of being tall.

Becky pauses, gnawing on her bottom lip. She wasn't sure when she had decided that Jared was going to be tall. Like, Sam-tall? Sam is like, a skyscraper compared to her, though. Compared to most people.

Six feet, three inches. That's a nice number. It's one inch shorter than Sam. And three is half of six! Becky makes a note in her character outline.

~

"Sammy? It's Dean. Just calling to say, uh…Hi, I guess. And to tell you that I'm…I'm coming home. I know it's been a while since we talked, but I…"

A cough. Someone murmuring in the background, low and soothing.

"I've missed you. Fallujah is really fucking hot, dude, and there's like a billion different mosques here. You like religious shit – " Muffled scolding. "No, I'm not calling mosques shit, Jesus Christ. Um. I took pictures for you. And I bought you this little, like, I dunno. Some kind of rug. I think it's for praying on. My friend said that if you liked pictures, you'd like the rug, too, so blame him.

"Uh, that reminds me. I kinda brought my friend back with me. His girlfriend – fuck, Cas, fine – his roommate kicked him out when he said he was going to enlist, so he's staying with me for a while. Plane arrives in Philly at two on the twenty-ninth, all right? I mean, if you can't come and see us, that's cool. Just…call me back, Sam. Let me know how you're doing."

End of message.

~

"Everything," Sam repeats, and the nurse stares at him like he might be an idiot. Maybe he is. "I mean…everything?"

"No wallet," the nurse repeats. "No business cards, no phone, no identifying tattoos, nothing."

"But you said that he knows his name."

"He knows a name," she corrects. She told Sam her name not even ten minutes ago – he can't remember it. "Says his name is Gabriel, but that could just as easily be something he heard while he was laying in that alley. Head trauma does funny things to you, sometimes."

She levels Sam with a gaze that he suspects would be 'suspiciously hostile' on anyone else, but this woman is young, for all that she's wearing at the edges, and Sam can still see streaks of bright red fading from her ponytail. He can't find it in himself to be intimidated by this girl who's most likely just graduated from nursing school.

"He's been asking for you," she says, after a long moment of contrary silence. Sam stares.

"For me?

"For the 'guy who brought him in,' yes."

"If he's been asking for me, I can go in and see him, right?"

The nurse shrugs. "If it's that important to you. I'll tell you right now, though, he's probably homeless. Maybe crazy. You don't have any reason to stay."

He doesn't, he really doesn't. He's done his civic duty, he's…Jesus, he's given his whole evening up to this guy, making sure he got to the hospital okay, filling out forms for him, and then sitting in the waiting room for like two freaking hours while doctors poked and prodded at the guy's head and basically said 'We have no idea what's wrong with him.'

Which is an exaggeration, because he has a concussion. Obviously. Some sort of…of trauma-induced amnesia. Sam's no doctor, but even he can see that much is true.

Amnesia. His life has officially become a soap opera.

"What room is he in," he says, and the nurse blows a strand of hair from her eyes.

"Two-oh-four," she says reluctantly.

Sam heads for the stairs – the elevators are full of people with canes and crutches and walkers, and he doesn't want to wait for them to shuffle to the side so that he can fit in the cars with them. He takes the steps two at a time, and bursts into room 204 like he's…what? Like he's expecting something awful. Like he'll step over the threshold and he'll see Gabriel (and that might not even be his real name) like, on fire. Struggling weakly against a prowler who's climbed in through the third floor window. Yeah, that's exactly what he's imagining. Disaster.

But it's just a white room, and a small man lying in a bed. He looks…better, maybe. The huge knot that had been decorating his skull has been covered with about a half-inch of layered bandages, and the scrapes up and down his forearms, probably from where he'd been thrown to the ground, have been taped over with gauze.

There's a neat row of stitches on his left arm. Sam stares at them. He counts six. He fell out of a tree when he was ten, broke his wrist and banged his head and needed thirteen stitches – so six aren't that bad.

The guy – Gabriel – turns his head towards the door, and…and his eyes aren't just brown, like Sam had thought. Cleaned up, and out of the darkness of the alley, they're damn near gold. Sam's breath catches somewhere in his throat, and he exhales shakily as Gabriel examines him.

"They," he says, and his voice cracks, so he coughs until talking feels normal again. "They, uh, told me that you were asking for me. I'm Sam. Sam Winchester."

Gabriel tilts his head. "You're the only thing that's familiar, right now."

Sam takes a halting step forward and then, when Gabriel doesn't immediately object, he drops down into the visitor's chair next to the bed. Gabriel reaches for the pitcher of water on the little table next to him, the plastic cup, and Sam nearly trips over himself trying to get it ready first. Gabriel smiles like it's the most amusing thing he's seen all day. It probably is.

"I'm brain-damaged, not an invalid," he says, and Sam watches him pour his own water, hands a little unsteady, but he covers it well.

"They keep telling me I don't have any identification," he complains. "I know my own goddamn name. Not…" His brows furrow. "Not much more than that, but I know my name."

"Gabriel," Sam says.

"That's me."

Sam studies him, this unassuming man, all tans and honey-golds against the mint green hospital sheets. He looks as desperately out of place as Sam feels. There's a clipboard, attached to the foot of his bed – Sam leans over to pick it up, flipping through what little information they've managed to collect. Gabriel is approximately thirty-seven or thirty-eight. He weighs a hundred and ninety-six pounds. Aside from the amnesia and the physical injuries, there isn't anything wrong with him. He's a perfectly healthy, ordinary human being, and he just…

He doesn't have anywhere to go.

"They're going through some kind of database," Gabriel says, like he can read Sam's mind, or maybe just his expression, but either way it's…disconcerting. Jess had been able to do that. "Looking for my picture or my stats or…something. Missing person reports."

Sam puts the clipboard down. "Has there been any luck?"

"Nah. But it hasn't even been a day yet. Something'll turn up."

But Gabriel doesn't look so sure. Sam scoots his chair a little closer, resting his elbows on his knees. Gabriel slants a glance at him, at the way Sam folds himself into the chair like he's trying to become smaller, and Sam's always done that, ever since he hit his growth spurt at fourteen and suddenly he was ducking his head whenever he got onto the school bus in the morning. He read an article, once, about how people are genetically hard-wired to respond favorably to tall guys – that men who are six foot get better jobs, bigger raises, and hotter women on a regular basis. He thinks some of that might be bullshit, though, because he's looking at Gabriel and he can't see any reasons why those sorts of things would be denied to him.

"So they're…what, going to keep you here until they figure out who you are?"

"I guess. I don't have anywhere else to go, do I? But I'll probably only be here for a few days. A week, at most."

Optimism is all well and good, but then there's placing your faith in a gaggle of largely dissatisfied nurses, and Sam doesn't think that's going to end well.

"Anyways," Gabriel continues. "I just wanted to say thanks, again. For everything you've done. Not a lot of…"

"You could stay with me," Sam blurts out. Too fast. It was way too fast and all Gabriel will have heard was a slur of consonants and he'll just look at Sam, sort of not comprehending, and Sam will flee the room because holy crap, awkward. You don't just invite some strange dude to come and stay at your apartment. You don't. Well, maybe Dean would, but not Sam. Never Sam.

Gabriel's mouth closes, the soft click of his teeth loud in the room. He swallows. Sam very carefully averts his eyes.

"That sounds…" Gabriel sways to the right, towards Sam. "That's…you mean it?"

Sam shrugs, helplessly, and Gabriel's eyes narrow. "Is this because you feel…responsible, or some bullshit like that? I mean, there's a dozen different forms you have to fill out, and for all you know I snore or sleepwalk or I'm some kind of serial killer…"

"It just feels right," Sam says. And it does. God help him, but it does.

~

"Hey, Sam! This is Becky – I don't know what's going on? But you said to call you later and so I called but you didn't answer so this is me calling you again, just in case. Is everything okay? Do you want me to come over? Or would that be me smothering you? I'm sorry if I'm being smothering! I just want to make sure that you're okay and I want to talk about my book! Oh my god, it's gonna be a book, Sam! Right now I'm writing a part where Jared – that's the human – takes the angel into his apartment for the first time! I'm really excited about this so I'm gonna go take some deep breaths and then I'll call you later, all right? Goodnight, Sam!"

End of message.


"Hey, Sam, it's Sarah…Sarah Blake, from the art gallery? I know you said you're interested in cubism, so I thought I'd give you a call and let you know that our new display is going to have some Severini pieces in it. We'll be opening on the twenty-ninth…and, maybe after, we could go and grab some coffee. There's that little café down the street we could go to. So just…call me back and let me know, all right? Goodbye."

Message deleted.

~

"So this is my apartment," Sam says. He tosses his keys into the little bowl by the front door, hangs his coat up on the rack (a present from Becky, who had told him, in all seriousness, that "A home isn't a home until it has a coat rack"), and then turns, half afraid of what he's going to see on Gabriel's face. The pants he'd been wearing (now carted off to some police station, somewhere, or the hospital trash, he doesn't know) had been…not fancy, but nice. Dressy. Sam doesn't think he even owns dressy outfits, anymore. When Jess had died, he had only packed what he absolutely needed – jeans, shirts, his laptop, his books, and then he had fled California, utterly and completely sure that he was never going back.

Thinking about Jess, even in passing, is enough to send a spike of longing and sadness through him, fierce enough to steal his breath.

Gabriel looks at him like maybe he understands. Or maybe he doesn't see it at all.

"It's nice," he says, no hint of guile or mockery, and something in Sam's chest…eases. He realizes, with interest, that he hadn't felt this way when he first showed his apartment to Becky.

Becky, he supposes, is the sort of person he had never felt the need to impress in the first place. She's straightforward and simple and all she needs is a place to put her laptop and a cup to hold her soda. He likes people like Becky, even if he's never going to be one of them.

"It isn't much," he says, and watches Gabriel pluck at the clothes Sam had lent him. The hospital had provided a shirt, and pants, but they had been itchy and too small, and Gabriel had looked so freaking forlorn about it that Sam had driven home in order to shuffle through his closet until he found something that would at least be warm, if not exactly tailored to Gabriel's frame. Now he's practically swimming in an old Stanford hoodie and a pair of Dean's sweatpants that Sam had forgotten he'd stolen, and for whatever reason the overall 'college chic' look…suits him.

Or maybe Sam's just projecting, because it's been a long time since he's seen anyone wandering around in his clothes, and even if this isn't Jess, it's someone.

"No, really," Gabriel says. He brushes past Sam on his way to examine the couch, Sam's tiny, shitty television, the shelves and shelves of books that cover almost every wall. Thankfully, he doesn't comment immediately on how much of a nerd Sam is. "It's really homey. It's…I dunno. I get the feeling that I don't have this. This sort of…comfortable place."

Gabriel tilts his head, a deep scowl line appearing between his brows. Just by looking at him, Sam can tell that Gabriel feels things deeper than other people do – joys and sorrows, both. There's that angry furrow, of course, but Sam's also noticed that the laugh lines at the corner of his eyes are just as deep. Like he doesn't know how to exist without feeling everything to the fullest extent.

Sam is glad that Dean isn't here. Dean would say something stupid like 'He probably cries after sex' and Sam would be struck dumb with the image of it. Dean has always been good at making him see things he doesn't want to see.

While Gabriel explores, Sam drifts into the kitchen, checking his answering machine and scowling when – speak of the devil – he hears Dean's voice. He rakes through his brain, and no, he isn't doing anything on the twenty-ninth, and besides, even if he were, Dean is coming back. And not only that, but he's coming to Philadelphia, instead of Lawrence, and Sam knows that Dean hates Pennsylvania, hates the humidity and the press of people. He could have chosen to go straight back to Lawrence, but instead he's coming here, to see Sam. With his friend, apparently, but Sam can't tell much from the scattered murmuring he can hear on the message.

The second one is from Becky, and he listens with half an ear as she talks. He'll remember to call her, later. Becky is usually pretty good about giving him his own space, but only when he asks for it. She isn't very good at picking up social cues.

The third message gets deleted – the number isn't one he recognizes – as Gabriel wanders into the kitchen. He has essentially given himself the whole tour: Sam's apartment consists of the hallway that houses the bathroom, his bedroom, the living room, and the kitchen. There isn't much more to it than that.

"I like this place," Gabriel says. He's taken his shoes and socks off, and the weirdly delicate arch of his feet draws Sam's attention for a half-second. It probably says a lot about what kind of person Gabriel is, that he feels comfortable enough to walk barefoot around an apartment that isn't his, around a man he's just met. But Sam doesn't know a lot about that kind of stuff.

"Sam." He sounds hesitant. "Could you…help me with these bandages?" Gabriel gestures towards the ones that are wrapped around his head. Sam doesn't quite understand them – it's a lump, not a gaping wound – but he understands the desire to get them off. So he steps forward, careful to avoid Gabriel's bare feet, and pulls at the hospital tape until it gives way with a sound like Velcro. He unwinds the bandages, Gabriel blinking serenely in the direction of his collarbone, until he has them all balled up in his palm, a little sweaty, a few spots of blood here and there. Gabriel's right temple is covered with a deep, purple-black bruise, but the swelling has gone down. It looks…well. It looks worse than before, but Sam knows it's in the process of healing.

"Thanks," Gabriel says, and takes the bandages from Sam's suddenly limp hands. "Is there somewhere I can throw these out?"

Sam nearly breaks his neck showing Gabriel the trash can under the sink, and Gabriel just looks at him, amused and maybe a little bit mocking, and Sam's okay with that, really, because he knows he probably looks like a huge idiot. It isn't really an insult if it's the truth.

"You try really hard," Gabriel notes as he tosses the bandages in the garbage. "More than most people."

Sam squints at him. "How do you mean?"

"Just…with everything. You don't know me. All you know are my circumstances, and you're still falling over yourself trying to make me…I don't know. At home."

"I want you to be comfortable," Sam protests, and Gabriel snorts.

"Yeah, like I said, I get the feeling that 'comfortable' isn't something I'm used to."

And that makes Sam sadder than it should. Because Gabriel is just some guy, and he'll probably be gone within the week, back to whatever life is waiting for him. He's probably married. Maybe he even has kids.

So Sam shouldn't get too attached. After all, it isn't like this is destiny or anything. Real life isn't like Becky's stories – peoples' soul mates don't just fall naked out of the sky.

~

So this is living the dream, for humans," Rich said. He kicked the side of Jared's couch, and Jared would have snapped at him, except that couch was like a hundred years old and Jensen had kicked it and punched it and fallen on it so many times that Jared was starting to believe it was a Highlander. There was no other explanation for why it hadn't collapsed yet.

"Home sweet home," Jared said. He carefully moved his shitty coffee table out of the way, and then made a detour to the hall closet in order to drag out his air mattress. Sometimes Jensen needed a place to crash when he wasn't doing so well. Rich watched him the whole time, sort of vaguely suspicious but also…Jared wasn't sure, but that might have been fascination.

He kept picking at the stupid novelty hoodie Jared had gotten him, 'Proud Student of the Toronto Institute of Technology,' which left the word 'TIT' smeared in huge, block letters across Rich's chest. The sweatpants that he had hurriedly bought for him were about two sizes too big, and Rich was practically swimming in them. Jared eyed the smooth curve of an exposed hip, then swallowed and turned back to the air mattress. Where was the damn pump?

"So," he said conversationally. "Assuming that you're, you know, not some crazy homeless guy who's waiting to kill me in my sleep tonight…And assuming that everything you've said is true…why all this?" He gestured vaguely around his apartment. "The whole 'becoming human' thing."

"It's punishment," Rich said. "For lacking…compassion. Empathy. You've heard about the Fall of Lucifer?"

"Uh-huh." Jared had gone to church as a kid, mostly with his family, sometimes with Jensen's. Jensen, however, had never been particularly religious. "God told the angels to respect humanity and love them as they would love Him, and Lucifer threw a tantrum because he didn't like the new baby in the house."

"That's one way of putting it." When Jared cast his gaze back, Rich's mouth was curled in an almost-smile. "Let's just say…Lucifer and I agreed on a lot of things. But I love my Father. I don't have to like His decisions, but I'll respect them."

"Ah," Jared said. "So you are going to kill me in my sleep. Good to know."

He shivered as a sensation like fingertips ghosted across the back of his neck, but when he looked up again, Rich was examining the picture on the wall, of him and Jensen and Jensen's weird, possibly-an-alien friend, Misha. Jared liked Misha. It was entirely probable that the guy was the lovechild of Janis Joplin and Ted Nugent, and he was definitely a lunatic, but in a way where you didn't really mind, because he knew a lot of cool things. Like how to turn a coconut into a bong, and how to hotwire a car, and how to take apart a .40 caliber Glock 22 and then put it back together again in eight minutes or less.

"I won't be killing anyone tonight," Rich said softly. "Least of all you. You're my…" He hesitated, mulling over something, before settling on "…host."

Jared smacked the side of the air pump, humming in satisfaction as it rumbled to life. "Well. That's good to know."

Becky closes out of the Wikipedia page on water pipes, and then takes a sip of Pepsi. Her phone vibrates against her hip; she makes certain that the cap is screwed on tight before she sets her soda down and answers it.

"Hello? Ohmygod, Sam! You didn't call back right away, so I was kinda worried! You…wait, what? What happened?"

Becky listens as Sam explains, and then scrolls back up to the first meeting scene in her story, where Jared finds Rikbiel in the alley. She stares at it for a long, long moment.

"No, I'm still here," she says. "That's just kinda…weird, I guess. Half-naked guy in an alley." She wants to say that it's really, really similar to what she's written, but she knows Sam believes in coincidences, and she doesn't, and he'll just tell her that sometimes the world is stupid and inconvenient that way. Sometimes real life mirrors fiction and it doesn't even mean anything.

She secretly thinks Sam is wrong, but she's never going to tell him that. He's had a hard enough life already. From what she's gleaned, his dad wasn't too happy about him going to college instead of joining the army or…or whatever branch the Winchesters were a part of. The Navy? She can ask later. But not now. Sam sounds like he doesn't really want to answer questions right now so much as he wants to ask them.

"I still have some of Chuck's clothes," she agrees slowly. And then, "Um, yeah. I can bring them over. But Chuck was really tiny, are you sure…? Like, how much? Okay…No, the pants will probably be a little long, but I think they'll fit. Yeah. I'll bring them over in the morning, will that be soon enough?" Sam babbles bewildered thanks into her ear, and then he hangs up. Becky holds out her phone and stares at it.

Then she drags out her notebook, and writes in the margins of Rikbiel's character sheet: 5'7"

~

Inbox: 3 messages

Re: 27th

From: Dean Winchester <nexthefner123@yahoo.com> View Contact
To: Sam Winchester <pietynorwit09@yahoo.com>

rug7843.jpg

hey Sammy got ur message. Cas says i should send u a pic of the rug just 2 make sure u like it. it looks like any other rug 2 me but Cas says that the patterns might not agree with u or some shit like that i dunno.

looking forward 2 seeing u. i know it's been a long time and i know i was angry at dad's funeral but u weren't there and i was and it was hard, but dad said he stopped being angry @ u a long time ago.

Cas says i should get all of this off my chest and also he is watching me type this so it's sort of a hostage situation if you get my drghuv

Sam, my name is Castiel Novak and I was assigned to Dean's unit in Fallujah and we grew to be quite close. Your brother is very eager to be home and he is looking forward to mending your relationship. I hope you do not mind my presence in his life. – Castiel

Inbox: 2 messages

Novel!

From: Becky Rosen <morethanbrothers@gmail.com> View Contact
To: Sam Winchester <pietynorwit09@yahoo.com>

epicromance.doc

Omg omg omg it's reached 9,000 WORDS and I haven't even gotten to the romance-y parts yet! These characters are SO MUCH FUN!

So I was wondering if you wouldn't mind looking over what I've got so far and letting me know about spelling/grammar errors and weird sentences and things like that. I used to ask Chuck to beta for me but slash wasn't his thing. You never seem to mind when I discuss it with you though. If you don't want to just let me know and I can send it to the girl who betas my fic!

How's your new houseguest doing? Is he cute? I'm gonna get a glimpse of him eventually!

Ask him if he likes SPN!

- Becky <3