“It’s a Pukwudgie.”
Sam smacks his knee on the underside of the table and his elbow cracks against the back of his chair when he simultaneously jumps and tries to turn toward the sudden voice. “Jesus Christ,” he says.
“Not exactly.” Gabriel smirks at him, hands in his pockets. He saunters over to Sam’s side. “To be completely honest,” he says in a conspiratorial whisper, “I’m way better looking.”
Sam rolls his eyes. Gabriel’s surprise visits have been getting more frequent, and Sam should be used to this crap by now. Dean hardly even swerves when a second angel appears in his back seat. “What did you say it was?” He’s been trying to figure out what’s causing previously mentally stable hikers to jump off a cliff in some state park in Massachusetts; he had figured it was an angry spirit, but apparently not.
“A Pukwudgie. They’re little troll-type guys, generally don’t interact with humans until you mess with ‘em. Then they turn ugly. Not like they were ever attractive to begin with; they’re like part hedgehog, part caricature of British royalty.” Sam raises his eyebrows. “Big nose, big ears, weird, creepy fingers. And they smell terrible. Seriously. Like,” he pauses for a moment to consider, “a thousand week-old McDonalds Filet-o-fish sandwiches. That is, a thousand sandwiches that have been sitting out for one week, not one thousand-week-old sandwich.” He gestures with his hands to illuminate this point.
“Focus, Gabriel.” If he actually gets back on topic, Gabriel will be able to tell them everything they’ll need to know to take care of this creature, no internet research necessary.
Gabriel sticks his tongue out and sits across from Sam. He pulls a lollipop out of an inner pocket of his jacket, but doesn’t unwrap it. Sam knows better than to ask why he’s wearing a jacket in Massachusetts in July, but the sight of it makes him a little uncomfortable in the too-cheap-for-AC hotel room. Gabriel seems done talking, and instead pulls Sam’s legal notepad and a pen across the table. He starts sketching something.
Sam searches for more information on the internet. “So, it says here they’re malevolent tricksters, who, long ago, tried to be helpful to the Wampanoag. But their efforts always backfired, and the Wampanoag got angry, so the Pukwudgies decided to torment them instead.”
“Do what you’re good at,” Gabriel says. Sam snorts. If you’re an archangel who loved playing pranks in Heaven, when you run away, become a trickster god.
“The Wampanoag got frustrated with their mischief so they asked for help from Quant, the wife of Maushop, the local creator giant. Maushop dealt with the problem by collecting up all the Pukwudgies and throwing them all around New England. Literally throwing?” He glances up at Gabriel, who makes a sort of basketball free-throw hand motion.
“Some of them died, but some didn’t, and they made their way back to Massachusetts. Maushop went away after that—that’s kind of a dick move—and when the Pukwudgies returned, they were destructive. They burned down villages, kidnapped children, drove people into the woods and killed them.”
“With spears and knives and arrows, oh my!” Sam doesn’t quite see the humor there.
“And then Maushop sent his sons to take care of the Pukwudgies? What is with this guy? And… the Pukwudgies killed them too, with poison arrows. Man.”
“Kill all the people!” Gabriel says, hoisting the pen in the air above his head. Sam doesn’t even want to know.
“And then they killed Maushop too.”
“Like I said. Little, smelly jerks.” He pushes the notepad toward Sam; on it is a sketch of what Sam assumes is a Pukwudgie. As he’d said, its face has grotesquely exaggerated features; it looks hunched over, in three-quarters profile, paunch hanging almost to its knees, back covered in spines. There are smell lines radiating off of it, and a few flies hovering. Gabriel unwraps the lollipop, rolls the wrapper into a little ball, and flicks it at Sam. Sam bats it out of the way, trying not to give Gabriel the satisfaction of seeing him smile.
“So, how do we get rid of them?”
Gabriel shrugs, lollipop stick twitching in his mouth when he frowns. “You’re not gonna like it.”
“Do we ever like it?”
Gabriel nods in assent. “You have to kill it with its own poison arrow. It’s not going to be easy to get one of those suckers.”
“Is it ever easy?”
“No,” Gabriel concedes, “but you muttonheads do tend to make it extra hard on yourselves. Would it kill you to get even a two-star motel? There’s this thing, maybe you’ve heard of it? Called air conditioning?”
“You’re wearing a jacket and flannel. Do you even feel temperature, anyway?” Sam opens his laptop for something to look at that’s not Gabriel.
“When I choose to.” Gabriel leans into the table a little. “And that sexy v-neck is just making me all hot and bothered, Sammo.”
“Well, try to control yourself,” Sam deadpans.
“I’ll try, but it’s just so hard.”
Sam won’t even dignify that with a response. While he tries to find more information on how to locate the Pukwudgie, Gabriel removes the lollipop from his mouth with a popping noise. He waits until Sam glances up to swipe his tongue across his lips, slightly more lasciviously than is necessary, both stained extra red from the candy.
The door to the room opens; Dean and Castiel seem to be in the midst of an ongoing debate. “It just looks weird, is all I’m saying.”
“These clothes have served me well thus far.”
“Sammy, tell Cas that wearing this trenchcoat thing in the summer is just wrong.”
“It is going to draw attention.” Cas looks as though he’s considering that; Sam figures Dean hadn’t parsed the argument in those terms. He tactfully doesn’t mention that although Cas obviously doesn’t understand what it is to be overheated, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t sweat now. Which, whenever they’re all in the car together, Sam can’t help but notice.
“You, too.” Dean points at Gabriel. “Dress like a human,” which Sam doesn’t think is fair, though the flannel is a little weird.
“Okay, okay, if y’all want me to strip you only have to ask once. Sam.”
Dean rolls his eyes, makes a face. “Please no.”
Gabriel sheds his jacket. Sam had sort of figured that he’d snap and be wearing something completely ridiculous, like a brightly colored Aloha shirt or something, but instead he shrugs out of his jacket and twists to the side to hang it on the back of his chair.
Cas has taken off the trenchcoat and his suit jacket and is sitting on the edge of one of the beds, frowning at his arms. Dean sits down next to him and unbuttons his shirt cuffs as Cas stares at his hands intently. Sam suddenly feels like he’s looking at something private and turns back to his computer screen, clearing his throat. Gabriel crunches the lollipop and wiggles his eyebrows at Sam. Sam thinks that he’s surrounded by crazy people. “So, Gabriel says we’re hunting a Pukwudgie.”
“A what now?”
“They’re little troll guys. Malicious tricksters.” It turns out Gabriel’s lollipop was a blow-pop. He blows a huge pink bubble.
“Sounds familiar,” Dean says pointedly. Gabriel’s bubble pops. Sam had really wanted to avoid this argument; Dean still doesn’t entirely trust Gabriel. Sam doesn’t either, he tells himself, but he can’t examine that train of thought too closely because he’s afraid it’s not quite true. At some point throughout the months of the trickster-archangel-trickster popping into hotel rooms and libraries and diners and Dean’s car, Sam has grown to trust him implicitly, to the point where he doesn’t even double-check the information that Gabriel gives him on what they’re hunting that week. It’s never been wrong.
“Come on, ‘troll’? I’m not that short,” Gabriel complains. “Just because you always see me next to this moose over here…”
“Apparently they have poison arrows, and we’re going to need to steal one to kill it,” Sam continues. He hands the sketch over to Dean, and Dean makes a face at it.
“Poison arrows that I assume it’s going to be using to try to kill us.”
“Awesome. So how are we gonna find this bastard?”
They end up stopping at a Walmart to buy what Dean calls “non-nerd clothes, God, it’s taken you long enough, what, no, I didn’t mean actual God, it’s a friggin’ figure of speech” for Cas; it takes close to three hours for them to get out of there. Gabriel spends most of the time popping into the fitting room when Cas is in various states of undress; Dean gets overly flustered every time it happens and Sam doesn’t even want to know, he’s just glad when they’re in the car on the way to Freetown-Fall River State Forest.
“We should have gotten a leash for him,” Dean mumbled to Sam as they were leaving the store, gesturing at Gabriel. Gabriel was too far away and involved in conversation with Cas to hear them, but he met Sam’s eyes and winked.
It’s unspoken that Dean and Cas will follow one trail and Sam and Gabriel will follow the other. Gabriel has never actually accompanied them on a hunt; whether he knows the hunt will go better with two teams and really wants to help, or whether he just has nowhere more interesting to be, Sam neither knows nor cares. It’s helpful to have him around, and Sam is honestly grateful to be away from whatever weird thing is or isn’t happening between his brother and Cas.
As though reading his mind (and maybe he is), Gabriel says, “So, our brothers seem to be getting a little cozy, you think—”
“Don’t even. I don’t want to think about it.”
“Okay, okay.” Gabriel holds his hands up in surrender. “Just promise me we won’t spend this whole hunt staring at each other in awkward, heterosexually panicked silence.”
“I think we’ve already won that battle.”
The sun is setting but Sam doesn’t need to turn his flashlight on yet; most of the suicides had seemed to happen around this time of day, according to grieving family members and coroners’ reports. Sam figures that their chances of running across the Pukwudgie are, statistically, pretty low. But he reminds himself they are working with Winchester luck, or lack thereof.
After a moment of following the trail, Gabriel starts talking again. “Is this seriously all you bozos do? Research all day and schlep around the woods all night, distracted only when I deign to grace you with my scintillating company and handsome face?”
Sam shrugs. “Sometimes we schlep around towns or cities.”
“Sustained only by greasy diner food and self-righteousness. No wonder you try to sacrifice yourselves every chance you get.”
“What, we do not try to—”
“Stuff it, sasquatch.” Gabriel turns to level a gaze at Sam, stopping and putting a hand on Sam’s chest to stop him. “And you came back to it, too,” he says, more seriously than Sam was expecting, brow furrowed. Sam suddenly and vehemently does not want to be having this conversation. “What the hell for?”
“I thought I could get away from it, but it just followed me.”
“Not an answer,” Gabriel responds immediately.
“You’d think you, of all people, would understand! You left Heaven but you couldn’t get away from your family’s crap either.” Sam is a little worried that he’s pissed Gabriel off and is in for a smiting, but Gabriel just looks at him for a long moment. Then some emotion flickers across his face, something Sam almost wants to peg as approval or pride. Gabriel turns and starts walking again.
“All I’m saying is, get out more.”
“Maybe you hadn’t noticed, but we are ‘out’ right now.”
“Jerk,” Sam replies, without even thinking.
“I’m pretty sure you’re the first person who’s ever called an archangel a jerk.”
“Come on, none of the thousands of people you’ve pranked as the trickster have ever called you a jerk?”
“Ah ah ah.” Gabriel holds up a hand. “They called a trickster a jerk. Gods are jerks all the time, that’s normal. But you just called an archangel a jerk.”
“I called a jerk a jerk.” Sam glances over at Gabriel. “Now who’s being a bitch?”
Gabriel laughs. “Touché, Winchester.”
Sam turns that conversation over in his mind for a while. How much does Gabriel separate his trickster self from his archangel self? He seems less touchy about his angelic identity now than he was a month ago, and certainly less than he was when they first trapped him in a ring of holy fire and he admitted, as if it wounded him, who he was.
Sam glances over when he notices that Gabriel has stopped and is kneeling, examining the ground. “What’s up?”
“My spidey senses are picking up some ‘wudge.” Gabriel wiggles his fingers to demonstrate, then points away from the trail. “This way, kemosabe.”
Sam rolls his shoulders. “Hi-ho, Silver,” he says, drawing Ruby’s knife.
The light is beginning to fade in earnest now, the shadows are obscuring his vision and Sam will need to use the flashlight soon. The underbrush is thick and green and he occasionally loses sight of Gabriel. Gabriel is quiet as he ducks tree branches and picks a path around plants. He looks just as comfortable tracking a malevolent creature in a forest as he does lounging on Sam’s bed in a motel room or smiling at a waitress and ordering a giant ice cream sundae at a diner. When he stops Sam almost runs into him.
“Down!” is all Gabriel says, and Sam obeys instinctually, dropping to a crouch with his hands flat on the ground. He looks up and Gabriel has a six-inch-long arrow in one hand. “It found us,” he tells Sam with a wry little smile.
Sam is very much aware that they are at a serious disadvantage. They’re unfamiliar with the forest (Sam doesn’t even know where the path is), the light is fading rapidly, and they somehow need—
“Oh,” Sam says, standing. They now have the arrow that they need to kill the creature. Gabriel flashes him a cheesy smile. “That was… much easier than I was led to expect. So, how are we supposed to find it?”
“Give it a minute. It’ll find us.”
“Awesome, I look forward to getting caught off guard by a smelly, two-foot-tall troll monster again in the near future.”
“Calm your tits, Edna St. Vincent Bitchay.”
Sam snorts in a truly unbecoming way. “Seriously, an Edna St. Vincent Millay joke? Who are you?”
“The handsome, brilliant trickster god and archangel who’s probably going to end up saving your ass before the night is out?”
Before Sam can come up with a suitable answer, he hears a branch crack and something appears a few feet in front of them. It’s a little over two feet tall and looks exactly like Gabriel’s sketch. Its human features could be a weird caricature, done only in shades of gray: it has huge ears, a misshapen nose, and large, drooping lips. The Pukwudgie grimaces at them. In one hand it holds a spear.
“Ew,” Gabriel says, just as Sam is hit with a wave of its stench. It smells strongly of organic decay.
The Pukwudgie growls and attacks. It launches itself at Sam, who tries to stab at it with the knife while protecting his face from its spear with his left arm. It twists out of the way of the knife, nicking his arm, and Gabriel almost casually hits it in the side of the neck as it drops back to the ground. Its fingers clutch at his shirt sleeve and tear diagonal strips into the fabric, then it falls to the forest floor with a thud and Sam realizes Gabriel had had the arrow in his hand when he hit it. The arrow juts out of the creature’s neck.
Gabriel prods at the Pukwudgie with the toe of his boot. It twitches, then lies still. After a moment, it shrivels, ending up looking almost mummified in a matter of seconds. Gabriel looks at Sam and shrugs.
“That was easy.”
Sam looks around, wary. “Are there more? Do they usually…”
“They’re solitary. Don’t worry, Sam-I-am, I’m the only supernatural weirdo you’re going to be dealing with now.” Gabriel grabs Sam’s arm to examine the cut. It’s shallow, probably not even going to need stitches, when they get back to the car Sam will just—as Sam watches, Gabriel heals it. His arm is tingling, and Gabriel’s hands are fever-warm on Sam’s skin, and when Gabriel looks at him he’s smirking and his eyes are golden in the dusk. “You’re hanging with an archangel, there are perks. Now let’s get back to our bros before they eye-fuck each other into oblivion.”
“Ugh, no more references to Dean having sex, I’m pretty sure my lifetime quota was filled before I turned 18.” Sam flicks on the flashlight and shines it around. “Please tell me you know where the trail is.”
“Sam, please, archangel.” Gabriel points to his face. “Come on.”
After about thirty seconds, Gabriel is unable to remain silent, and he starts telling a story about some businessman he pranked a few years ago. The guy had been sexually harassing women, mostly his employees, and Gabriel had worked some magic on him so that every time he did something inappropriate, he grew a little more feminine. When Gabriel finally finds the trail, he’s describing, in detail, the horror the businessman felt the first time he was catcalled. Sam doesn’t want to approve of Gabriel’s pranks, but he can’t help laughing.
“And let me guess, you were the catcaller, weren’t you?”
“Oh, Sammy, it really touches me how well you know me.” Gabriel brings a hand up to cup Sam’s chin and Sam bats it away; the torn material of Gabriel’s shirtsleeve falls to the side. Before Gabriel can react, Sam grabs his wrist.
“What is that?” Sam shines the flashlight on Gabriel’s arm and slips his thumb under the torn fabric, pushing it away so he can see the dark markings on Gabriel’s skin.
Gabriel grumbles and tries to twist his arm away, but he doesn’t use any power and Sam doesn’t let go. “I was young, it seemed pretty badass at the time.”
Sam looks at Gabriel’s face. “Let me see?”
Gabriel heaves a long-suffering sigh and starts unbuttoning his shirt. “Seriously, those puppy eyes are a weapon, you should be careful with that.” He hands his flannel overshirt to Sam, then peels off the t-shirt he was wearing under it, and Sam just stares at him.
Gabriel’s upper body is covered in tattoos. They’re dark blue, almost black, and unfold from his wrists up to his neck and across his chest. They look ancient, is the first thought that Sam has when he examines them. Most of the markings are intricate, curling lines, some twisted into knots, similar to traditional Celtic designs but somehow rougher and less refined. Some of the lines are intertwined with animals or people, or just have ends that look like paws, gripping their own borders. Sam can’t help but step closer. There is what looks like a wolf stretching from Gabriel’s ribs almost to his shoulder, jaws open, the lines of its fur curling into themselves almost delicately.
“That’s Fenris,” Gabriel says, something like love coloring his voice. Sam puts the pieces together and suddenly feels dizzy.
“You’re… you’re Loki.” Sam wants to pass a hand over his face but he’s holding the flashlight in one hand and Gabriel’s shirt in the other. “Holy fuck,” he says weakly.
“Wait, seriously, you barely blinked when you found out that I was the archangel Gabriel, but I bust out this Norse crap and all of a sudden you have the vapors?”
“Uh. Sorry?” Sam doesn’t know why he’s so shocked about all of this. He tries to shake himself out of it.
Gabriel looks at him, and smiles, a different type of smile than he usually gives Sam, and Sam can’t quite figure out what the hell is going on in his life right now. “We should probably get going. Brothers eye-fucking and all that.” He pulls his t-shirt back on, but the lines that curl and twist down his arms are still visible and he spends a moment staring at them, as though he hasn’t in a long time, before he holds a hand out to Sam. Sam belatedly realizes he’s still holding Gabriel’s shirt.
Gabriel shrugs; they start walking again. “Honestly, I never pay that much attention to them.”
“What? They’re amazing,” Sam says without thinking.
“Aww, Sammy, you really do like me.”
“I like your tattoos. Ass.”
“My tattoos and my ass?”
“Forget I said anything,” Sam says, but he can’t stop sneaking glances over at Gabriel and imagining the blue-black patterns shifting over his pale skin.
Sam hears Black Sabbath before they can see the car.
“Sammy! Finally,” Dean says. He and Cas are sitting on the hood of the car. Paranoid is blasting. Sam can’t bring himself to give a fuck about disturbing the serene natural environment. “We were about to send a search party out looking for you.” His tone is light but Sam can hear the worry underlying his voice.
“We found the Pukwudgie,” Sam says.
“And I stabbed it!” Gabriel smiles. “Thus valiantly saving probably at least five hippies from throwing themselves off of cliffs. You’re welcome.”
Gabriel spends the entire car ride back to the hotel alternately complaining about car travel and discussing it like it’s a novelty, which Sam figures for him it is. Sam can’t stop thinking about his tattoos, what might be branches or roots near his left wrist, the little snarling animal face on one bicep, the blank circle opposite the wolf’s head that must be the sun.
When they get back to the motel, Dean decides to take Cas to a bar to try to get him laid. Again. “I think he assumes that because Cas has less angelic mojo and, now, a t-shirt, he’ll somehow not be awkward,” Sam says as Dean pulls Cas out the door. Cas shoots a pained look at Sam and Gabriel. Gabriel gives him finger guns and winks.
“Go get ‘em, tiger!” The door closes and he sighs. “When will your brother realize that the only person who’s gonna swipe Cas’s v-card is him?”
“Gabriel. One more word about my brother and Cas.” Sam doesn’t actually know how to threaten Gabriel, but he’ll think of something. He half-heartedly channel surfs. Gabriel offers him a bowl of popcorn that definitely hadn’t existed three seconds ago.
Sam really does just like watching LA Ink, but when he stops on it, Gabriel clears his throat obnoxiously. “Subtle, Sampants, reeeeeeally subtle. You know, you could try just asking.”
Sam tries to protest, but it’s just for show, and Gabriel knows it. He sheds his clothes the same way he did before, unbuttoning the flannel shirt casually. He peels his t-shirt off with a sinuous stretch and Sam watches as his pale skin and dark tattoos are revealed. Because he’s sitting next to Sam, when he leans forward Sam finally sees his back, and without thinking puts his hand on Gabriel’s skin. He feels Gabriel’s muscles tense slightly under his fingertips but he doesn’t pull his hand away.
On Gabriel’s upper back is Yggdrasil. Gabriel edges forward a little on the bed and more light slants across his back, highlighting not only the inked lines but the slopes and planes of the muscles under his skin. The tree’s branches and roots are short and stylized, but there are details hidden among the lines: a squirrel, an eagle, two stags whose antlers look like the branches, a dark curl around the roots that almost looks like part of the tree. Sam lets his fingers trace the snake.
“Jormungandr.” The accent into which Gabriel slips to say the name is foreign and the syllables roll across his tongue lazily. His skin is warm under Sam’s hand.
Sam wants to ask about Fenris and Jormungandr and Hel (and wasn’t there that weird horse thing, too? But Sam definitely does NOT want to know about that) but he doesn’t know how to broach the topic with Gabriel; he doesn’t know what’s happened to them and he doesn’t want to press a sensitive subject and drive Gabriel away.
“Liking what you see?” Gabriel asks, but a layer of levity is missing. Sam is breathing too fast. His mouth is dry.
The TV is still on in the background and a burst of sound from a commercial slaps Sam into self-consciousness. What the hell is he doing, pawing at an ancient, phenomenally powerful god—not to mention archangel—like he’s some pretty girl Sam met at a bar? He draws back a little too quickly, removing his hand, almost wanting to clear his throat to gain distance.
“They’re, uh. Your tattoos are really beautiful,” he stutters.
Gabriel looks at him out of the corners of his eyes, without turning his head. His irises are golden. “Thank you, Sam Winchester.” It’s weird; Sam doesn’t think Gabriel has ever used his full name before.
Sam thinks about names as he tries to focus on LA Ink. “Do you mind that we call you Gabriel?”
“You can call me Gabe if you can’t deal with so many syllables.”
“No, I mean, thanks, but, it must be weird hearing your real name so much after centuries of hiding.”
Gabriel turns his whole body to face Sam. He looks surprised and confused and, Sam thinks, a little pleased. “I have greatly overestimated your self-absorption.”
Sam laughs a little uncomfortably. “Um. Thanks? I mean, I’m pretty sure that it’s better that Dean thinks of you as an angel than as a trickster, but if you’re not comfortable with being reminded of everything that’s associated with it...” He doesn’t really know where he’s going with this, only that it’s suddenly important that he addresses the issue. Gabriel is still shirtless and looking at him, and Sam isn’t sure where to focus his eyes.
“Gabriel’s fine when you say it,” Gabriel says with a strange smile. Sam is left with the feeling that his question wasn’t entirely answered, but Gabriel turns back to lean against the headboard of the bed, effectively ending the conversation.
Sam awakens with a start when Dean and Cas stumble back into the room. “But how’m I gonna get my baby in the morning?”
“Dean, you have no offspring,” Cas says too carefully, slurring the last word a little. Sam is unused to seeing him without his suit and trenchcoat, much less drunk. Gabriel is gone.
“Y’know what I mean.” Dean throws himself onto his bed face-first. Cas stands in the middle of the room, swaying a little, staring at Dean. “Be careful, Cas,” Dean mumbles into the comforter. “Buzzed flying is drunk flying.”
“I hate you both,” Sam says, just as Cas disappears with a flutter of wings. Dean lets out a little snore. Sam goes to brush his teeth and suddenly, irrationally thinks about dark tattoos sprawling across pale skin. When he falls into bed again, just before he turns out the light, he notices a dark red flannel shirt partly tucked under the other pillow.
If, the next morning as they are packing to leave, Sam carefully folds the shirt and puts it in his bag, nobody has to know.