It was Sam who finally asked, of course.
Gabriel had been with them for three weeks; he’d showed up one night in the motel with an inscrutable expression and information on the raising of Conquest that had been thorough enough that even Dean had grudgingly recognized that he wasn’t just out to have a laugh at their expense again. Sam had given him a Twix he’d bought from the vending machine, and Dean and Castiel had gone out to scope out their next move with their shiny new intel, and that had been that.
From then on he was in and out of the Winchester’s lives, which was almost like usual except for the greater frequency of his visits and the slightly lesser amount of chaos he left in his wake. He traded insults with Dean and teased Sam mercilessly. But he also became a fixture, as solid as Castiel when the need was dire. And with Castiel he was strangely the most human, in his taciturn deference to his younger brother who had known right from wrong before he did. Sam hadn't actually thought Gabriel was physically capable of shame, but it seemed that he was, and that it was an emotion familiar enough to him to actually display it properly.
So Sam asked him, when Dean had gone to bed one night, and the archangel was sprawled on the couch with a beer dangling loosely between his fingers.
“Who are you wearing?”
Gabriel’s grip tightened on the bottle, and then eased back.
“Vessel-wise?” He cocked an eyebrow.
“Yeah. I mean, we’ve met Jimmy Novak, so I was just wondering. Given that you’ve been here so long…have you been keeping that guy alive for thousands of years?”
Gabriel shook his head slowly. “I’ve had several vessels. Some I’ve kept longer than others.”
“And this one?” Sam prompted.
“This one,” Gabriel began, and then he stopped. All of a sudden, something looked different about him, more solid. It was like his ridiculous duality of angel and pagan had found a point of agreement and contact and conviction, and suddenly just coalesced into something altogether different, though just as terrible. He was grave, lost in thought, and oddly taciturn. “This one,” he repeated, as if testing out what to say next in his mind.
Sam waited, acutely aware too late that his question had been far more personal than he had imagined or intended.
“If I stay on earth, after all of this is over,” Gabriel said carefully. “This is the one I’ll keep.”
“Why?” Sam asked.
Gabriel’s answering smile was lopsided. “He asked for me.”
And then the archangel tells him, voice low and at times uneven, of Bastogne.
Gabriel’s sat out of a lot of wars. Hundreds, maybe thousands. He figures the war in Heaven was just about enough. He just doesn’t have any fight left, and certainly not for humanity, of all things.
So he makes sure to be in the Amazon when Rome falls. Alaska when Alexander conquers Asia. Norway when Custer makes his last stand.
Even when the boys of England pour themselves into trenches to drown in their own viscera, he turns away. A whole generation of men gone, and he doesn’t blink.
And then it’s 1945.
The Battle of the Bulge is heavy, wet cold and savage, like an ice-soaked blanket over everything, brutal Belgian weather stabbing at exposed fingers and faces, leeching heat and life. There are so many bodies, all swept over with shrouds of snow. Machine gun fire comes in bursts, and like lightning begetting thunder, cries follow it, shrill and strangled. Puffs of vaporized blood paint the ice-caked trees lurid for mere seconds, before freezing away into the nothingness of the fog. The trees stand like sentinels in the pervading silence, scant cover in oppressive whiteness. This is no place for a battle.
Gabriel walks through it, slowly and invisibly, making no sound, searching.
He’s there because…he can’t even figure out why, entirely. He knows instinctively that he’s been called—prayers come often enough to archangels, particularly in troubled times like these, so he knows what those sound like, even when he’s chosen to ignore them. But this tug of attention is new and different, not the voice of the devout, or even the desperate.
Hell, I’m already sanctioned by that insane-o Catholic man, might as well hedge my bets. You hear me, ya faeries in the dell, ya crazy woodland gods? Hit me with whatever you got, Loki, and maybe I’ll see Faye again.
Gabriel doesn’t know what to think. No one prays to Tricksters, unless they want some chaos or mischief. But this man, hidden in the snow? This man is hedging his bets. He’s laughing about it, too. Gabriel can feel his good-natured cynicism sliding against that infernal human error, hope. He’s seen it so many times in this flawed species, but so rarely has he seen it presented so baldly, in light of the deep shit that surrounds it. Like even the foxhole couldn’t seep the life out of him, so long as he keeps that crooked smile. So he follows from a distance.
He watches Skip Muck.
He leans against the trees in the evening as Skip shows the new kids how it’s done, tallying Easy Company’s many and varied injuries with a sly wit that Gabriel can relate to. The soldier maneuvers through this motley family with an even gait—he’s gotten so lucky so far.
Gabriel likes him, in a passing way. The prayer got his attention, but Skip’s managed to keep it with his flippancy. The Trickster side of Gabriel likes his lightness, and the archangel side likes the friendship that he has with those two brothers-in-arms, Penkala and Malarkey. It reminds him of his own brothers, though Michael and Raphael couldn’t be more different from the wise-cracking and yet frighteningly competent soldiers. The ease of it, though, the comfort and trust—Gabriel feels it like a balm. Despite his constant contact with humans, he hasn’t taken the time to see their camaraderie in a long while, let alone in these conditions.
The prayer lingers between them, a single frail fiber that somehow manages to tie Gabriel to the forest of Bastogne.
But then the shells rain down in the wood outside of Foye. The voice that Gabriel’s been pulling at, pulling to, snaps like a well-worn thread. Gabriel doesn’t have time to look away, doesn’t have time to choose not to care. He’s there in an instant, spiked through with regret he hasn’t felt in a thousand years.
When the archangel reaches the foxhole, Skip’s presence is still hovering at the edge, looking between the mess of shrapnel and flesh and Luz, who’s on his belly staring in shock at the ashen hole.
“Goddamn it!” he shouts, though for all intents and purposes he’s as silent as the snow now. “Fucking move, Luz, you fucking move right now!”
Gabriel reaches out, and if there is curiosity in that touch, well, it’s just the trying circumstances of the whole thing.
Skip starts at the touch, turns. “Who’re you? My ‘follow the light’ guy? Fuck it, I don’t care, get Luz out of here right now!”
Gabriel obeys on instinct, sends a thought to Luz, who drags himself over to Lipton in time for the sergeant to grab him and haul him into his foxhole. He catches sight of a descending shell, it’s trajectory all too clear, and makes a dud of it. When it lands, it doesn’t go off.
Skip flinches and closes his eyes at every volley, and Gabriel stays beside him as it all goes down. Penkala leaves with a reaper without a sound; the reaper is busy, and doesn’t give him a chance to turn around. Skip stays, though, even as his own reaper approaches.
As the sound dies out, and the smoke clears, Skip looks up.
“I guess you’re not a Kraut, at the very least,” he says finally. He’s hoarse, and his eyes are hard.
“Not really,” Gabriel says.
“Well then get me a goddamn cigarette, ‘cause I could really use one.”
Gabriel laughs. It bursts out of him, unexpected, coming out like a cross between a cough and a snort. He wasn’t meaning to. But he snaps his fingers, and then there’s a cigarette in his hand. He offers it.
“You’re kidding me,” Skip says, softening and incredulous, but plucks it out of his fingers. “You got a light, too?”
Gabriel gives him one. Skip, apparition or not, inhales the smoke deeply, and then exhales. “If you can do that, then put me back in my place,” he says. “Penkala too. Call him back here.”
The archangel shakes his head, and finds he doesn’t like doing so. “I can’t save you, not at this point,” he says. “It’s not my place.”
“Oh yeah? Well, you ain’t so helpful then, are you?”
“No,” Gabriel agrees. “Sorry.” He’s surprised to realize that he means it.
“What do you do, then, exactly?” Skip asks. He’s crossing his arms like he still has them, eyes still on the field, looking for Malarkey. Gabriel feels the fierceness of his grief for Penkala, and for their third friend, now left alone. It’s radiating off of his exposed essence, this echo of him that should have left already.
Gabriel could offer his services as a Trickster. But instead he says, “I can give you peace.”
Skip snorts. “Until there’s peace here, I don’t want it,” he says, with a quirked smile. “Joe isn’t the only one wanting Hitler’s head on a platter. I’m tired, sure, but peace? Shit, that’s just cheating.”
Something seizes inside of Gabriel. He hasn’t felt like that in a long time either. He feels like he’s been awed.
And then he thinks to himself that this is why he stayed away, dammit, this is too much and he doesn’t like it. “You are dead, you know,” he manages to point out, but his voice comes out oddly tight.
Skip doesn’t seem to notice. He looks out for the wounded getting loaded onto the truck, making sure they’re all there, and then just shrugs. “Hey, don’t rub it in. What kind of reaper are you?”
“I’m not that, either. She’s your reaper.”
Skip turns, and regards Tessa’s smiling visage. “Damn. You’re almost as pretty as Faye.”
Tessa’s smile widens. “From you, that really is a compliment.” She holds out her hand. “Are you ready to go now?”
Skip looks back at Gabriel. “In a sec. Who the hell are you, then?”
Gabriel makes a slightly theatrical gesture, trying to ease back into character. It’s hard, with everything so raw around him. Another reason why he shouldn’t be here. Perhaps if he was back with the Host, he’d feel more detached, but it’s a choice between a rock and a hard place, and why didn’t he just stay away and ignore this man just like the millions of others? “I’m just what you asked for,” he says, with a stilted bow.
Skip pauses, and then says. “No shit. Make me an offer then, hot shot.”
The archangel muses for a moment, making Tessa impatient. She is very busy, after all.
“I’ll give your goodbyes, if you give me your skin,” he says, after a moment. He could use a new vessel anyway, and Skip's suited. And hell, he’s a Trickster; he’s not giving anything for free, even to someone he happens to like.
Skip raises an eyebrow. “Right. I should’ve known pagan gods would be creepy.”
“He’s technically not—” Tessa starts.
Gabriel silences her with a look. He says, “It’s my offer, take it or leave it. If you don’t care for it, Tessa will bring you to where you belong.”
Skip purses his lips. “Let me give my goodbyes,” he says slowly, “And see that Malarkey lives through this. Winters too—he’s a good man, and he needs to, for all our sakes.”
Gabriel shouldn’t agree. Malarkey is one thing; the reapers aren’t scheduled to take him for a long while yet. But Winters…Winters has been testing the line ever since he got to the front. That sort of devotion to his men buys nothing but one conclusion. He’s due.
But Skip is unbowed, even in death. And Skip is funny. Even in war, he’s funny. He’d asked for a Trickster at death’s door, despite the rosary now reduced to fragments in the foxhole. He’d hedged his bets, and Gabriel found himself on both ends of them. They were a matched pair if Gabriel ever saw one.
“You have my word,” Gabriel hears himself say.
Tessa shakes her head in disapproval. “I’ll be seeing you later then, Warren,” she says to Skip. She looks at Gabriel. “You’re towing a fine line.”
Gabriel nods. He agrees completely. A part of him he thought long dead is swinging violently between panic of consequences and conviction of compassion. For once, it’s the Trickster part of him that holds steady.
Tessa seems to study him for a long moment, and then when he doesn’t move to change his mind, sighs and fades off. She doesn’t have time for debate. There’s another cry of Medic! and she’s gone to deal with its collateral.
Skip regards Gabriel as the archangel drops into the foxhole. “You can actually put that mess back together?” he asks.
“Sure,” Gabriel replies. “Just like a puzzle. And I’m good at improvising for missing pieces.”
He leaves behind enough for there to be a burial, and at Skip’s request, the rosary. The rest he pulls together with newborn sinews and muscle and bone, and before he takes it he pushes Skip in.
Skip studies whole hands, thawed feet and starched clothes, and huffs laughter. “Fucking insane,” he mutters. He looks up at Gabriel. “And I can’t just go back now?”
“I’m changing Fate for you already,” Gabriel replies. “Take what you can get.”
Sam stared at him. “Did you do it?” he asked. “Did you do what you promised?”
Gabriel nodded, slowly. “Of course. He talked to Faye and his family in their dreams. And Malarkey and Winters lived through the war. Malarkey still wonders how he managed it. Then again, a lot of them do.”
What he didn't say was how far he'd receded back into his new vessel once he'd navigated into Skip's family's consciousnesses, how he curled back and looked away, because couldn't bear to hear what Skip chose to say as his last words. He also didn't say how he let Skip drag him around in those first few months, all over Europe to check on Easy in the last throes of the war. He didn't say that he suspected Winters spotted them, just once, and that under any other circumstance he would have wiped the former CO's memory, but that time he just didn't.
He didn't mention how Skip was the first to know his heavenly name since he'd left Heaven, almost seventy years before he'd admitted it to the Winchesters, because instead of accusations and disavowals, Skip had just laughed and called him a sleeper agent. Gabriel hadn't known how right he would be.
“Is he still in there?” Sam asked.
“No. He didn’t deserve that, being tugged around for all eternity. But I liked him. After the war was over, I sent him home with Tessa. Now it’s just me in here.”
He looked almost lonely when he admitted it.
Sam cocked his head. He had the sudden realization that if it weren’t for that lone soldier, blown to bits in a foxhole in Belgium, Gabriel probably wouldn’t be here, helping at the end of the world. Skip Muck had chipped away a bit of Gabriel’s isolation and alienation, enough that Gabriel carried his body with him like a remembrance and memoriam, and would continue to do so for as long as he could.
He felt small, in the wake of that vast and terrible time and that single soldier among many. Small, but lucky.
A few days later, Dean looked over at his brother and raised an eyebrow. “Since when do you read war history?”
Sam looked up. There were piles of books around him, as usual, but mixed in with the spell books and newspaper clippings were books with bindings that said Winters, Webster, Ambrose. “It’s interesting, is all.”
Dean tilted his head to read a computer printout. “Who’s Warren Muck?”
Sam smiled crookedly. “A good man.”