Summary: Dean Winchester never ceased to amaze him. It was the most bizarrely inappropriate coping mechanism Crowley had ever seen. Post-S12 AU. COMPLETE.
Part of the One of the Boys series
It was a damp, chilly afternoon in the northern recesses of Washington, in the pinewood forest stretching the length of the Canadian border, and therefore it had taken some time for the kindling at the base of the pyre to light.
Together and yet slightly apart, the Winchesters brothers, a trenchcoated angel and a discomfited demon stood at yet another hunter's funeral pyre. The body of a decent man and dedicated hunter burned, reducing both good intentions and human flaws back to ash and dust. It took hours – burning a full-grown human body was no easy task. But the Winchesters had done this often enough, and were patient throughout the long process. Castiel stood stoic and respectful, honoring this fellow warrior. Crowley slouched at the end of their short line, hands thrust into the depths of his pockets, attempting not to fidget.
Patience was not one of Crowley's virtues, but his uneasiness for this hunter ceremony ran deeper than just a character flaw. These drawn-out moments of communal observance lended themselves to contemplation, and then reflection, which in the months since they closed the Gates of Hell, did not bode well for the abdicated king. Turned out there was quite a bit for Crowley to ruminate over, and very little of it pleasant.
One thing that no one ever mentioned was how much a hunter's pyre smelled like cooked meat. It was obvious, of course. The human body was, as Crowley had often pointed out, just a meat sack full of squishy organs. But he had not previously considered what it was like for the Winchesters to lose a loved one, and then inhale the smoky debris of that life as it slowly roasted. Their mother had burned, then they burned their father, their pseudo-father, countless friends and acquaintances, and less sensitively, corpses serving as ghostly anchors and the occasional nemesis.
It was meant to be an honorable, clean send-off, a final tribute.
It reeked of smoke, crackling flesh, and the rancid tang of iron.
Crowley's stomach did an odd churn, and tentatively he broke the spell of the little group and stepped away. The stench was disquietingly familiar. Without a look back, he trudged to the Impala, waiting along the road just beyond the tree line. Pine and then leather replaced the smell in the air, but Crowley couldn't clear it from his nostrils.
Damn hunters and their rituals that acknowledged the ugly reality of their lives.
Resting against the familiar black chrome, Crowley attempted to distract himself by reflecting on the magnitude of the apostasy that was the former King of Hell, a demon, attending a hunter's funeral pyre.
In the months since Lucifer's final defeat and the subsequent shuttering of the Gates of Hell, time and the road ahead had continued to unravel at its usual, saddled pace. There had been immediate concerns to occupy them: the dissolution of the British Men of Letters' encampment in America; the syphoning off of the Hellspawn's tainted Grace; the deprogramming of the Winchester matriarch. It was a marvel the most recent misadventure had not hatched some additional crisis to dangle malignantly at the end of their weighty to-do list.
There had also been the matter of Hell. Crowley had surprised everyone, including himself, by not balking when the subject was raised. What was left for him there, other than the sour reminder of humiliation and the persistence of furtive attempts at dethronement? Crowley's efforts among his own kind had come to nothing, those black-eyed bastards' inability to grasp the benevolence of his rule still a sore point. He may not have been the bloodthirsty tyrant Hell wanted, but he had been the efficient and resourceful king it had needed to prosper in the aftermath of the aborted apocalypse. Though Crowley had long hated the banality of ruling, he had delighted in the authority it granted him. Spurring that power had only really been possible when Lucifer, and by extension his treacherous minions, had thoroughly trounced his claims of legitimacy.
And a new purpose, wreathed in the falsehood of petty retribution, had been his sole refuge.
Crowley had long considered throwing off the yoke of kingship and tossing his lot in with the Winchesters. A mangled history of miscalculations on his part and distrust on theirs had delayed what he now wondered might have been inevitable since the night in that church so many years ago.
In point of fact, closing the Gates of Hell had been an easy task, once the planning was in place. Dean and Sam had appeared to find relief and confidence in being proactive, for once. The last few months of hunting down escaped demons had occupied the majority of their time, and Crowley was surprised to the extent he felt lulled into a sense of belonging and purpose with the Winchesters and their wayward angel.
Crowley only hoped the next stage, whatever that entailed, involved fewer pyres.
After a while, Dean came and joined him, leaning against the side of the car. "You alright?"
Despite the solemnity of the afternoon, the eldest Winchester seemed in good if subdued spirits. It was somewhat odd to see Dean even moderately at peace with himself. In all the time Crowley had known him, there had always been something eating at the hunter, an anguished apprehension burdening the still-young man's shoulders. It was fair to say they had all changed, perhaps for the better, in the last few months.
Where was the Winchester's self-absorbed, internalized drama when the demon needed a wound to salt and thus provide distraction?
Crowley wanted to tell him to bugger off, or mock Dean for leaving the pyre before it burned down. He felt a half twinge of guilt himself for not showing the full respect due. They'd only worked with the other hunter briefly, but he had been competent and sincere, and unaware of Crowley's previous allegiances, their exchanges had been hemmed with comradery. A fine hunter, and likely a good man.
They had burned quite a lot of those, in Crowley's time as one of the boys.
The first time had been awkward, and Crowley had spent the entire ritual hanging back, bouncing on the balls of his oxfords, eyes darting from Dean to Sam to Cas and back again. He was unfamiliar with this type of ritualized grief. The hunter and magic user they had burned that first time had been killed fighting off another demon, one of the few that escaped before they closed the Gates. Crowley had known her only briefly. He hadn't been able to see then the courage and dedication displayed, only the end result. At the time, he had thought her death deserved for the seemingly foolish way she had handled the case.
He had accepted the cold shoulder the boys had shown him during that ritual. Now permanently on their side or not, he was still a demon, and one of his kind had killed one of theirs.
Didn't help he handled the situation poorly. He had meant well, really he had, offering to light the pyre with Hellfire. But his tone was too casual, too flippant. One look from the boys, and Crowley had bit down on his tongue. The suggestion was blasphemous, however well-intentioned it might have been, and anathema to everything they stood for.
Thinking of the body of the man laid out on this pyre, charring in the heat of the flames, Crowley understood. His previous callousness tasted of bitter smoke.
Strange to think how far he had come in the last few months. Living every day with the Winchesters, occasionally hunting with them, seeing the world through their eyes, Crowley's perspective had shifted. Losing people in a fight that was quickly becoming his fight, his purpose in the absence of all preceding loyalties.
Gone was his ability to disassociate from others' sacrifices. Gone was his flippancy, his self-aggrandizing, his fine suits. Gone were Crowley's self-motivated interests, replaced with something strange and without name.
"I will be," he replied to Dean's question, knowing it was a lie, not wanting to look weak or susceptible to petty human emotion. Not wanting to worry his friend.
"You're, uh, looking a little pale."
Crowley squinted, watching the silhouettes of Sam and Cas outlined by the fire. And he considered telling Dean what could never be said aloud.
That the smell of burning flesh took him back to Hell. Back to the heat, and the pain, and the utter darkness of it.
There were times, out in the world, when Crowley was caught off-guard by a whiff of smoke from meat cooking, and he was suddenly back on the rack. He was strapped down, vulnerable and raw, humiliated and desperate in the hands of his captors. Smelling the reek of his own body being devoured by flames, the skin charring and peeling away. Blood vessels bursting, fat popping, bones cracking, searing and interminable.
But it's not the pain that turns a bright, ethereal soul into the oily smoke of a demon. It is the hopelessness that accompanies the endlessness of it.
That was something Dean would understand, something he could sympathize with. But for all the time the elder Winchester had spent as an apprentice to the rack during his own sojourn in Hell, Dean had not been as adroit at torturing souls as Crowley had been before his ascension to the throne.
As the wind caught the smoke from the pyre and carried it to the two men, Crowley was enveloped in the rancid odors that accompany the physical act of torture. He could see and smell and taste the blood that covered every surface, including his suit. There was the weight of the iron rod in his hand, the char of flesh as it made contact. The once sweet cries of agony, inhuman bleating as the suffering intensified, whispered prayers for release in the aftermath. The tang and grit that rolled in his mouth, a nectar headier than any wine, so that the demon had licked and smacked its lips as the soul cried out again. Bits of skin peeling away in wisp-thin layers; sensitive strands of nerves meeting the razor's edge; the occasional brutish refinement of a cudgel against bone – it had all been so immensely orgasmic.
Once, the smell of blacking flesh had been an aphrodisiac, an appetizer that ignited a smoldering hunger in Crowley.
Now, it was all he could do not to retch.
Dean, standing beside him in the open air of the world, far away from the metastasized putridity of Hell, shuffled his flannelled weight, waiting for a response.
This was not something to which Crowley could ever give voice. It had taken years not only for the demon to come to terms with himself, and acknowledge that what he wanted from the Winchesters and Castiel was something suspiciously like friendship, but even more effort in the last few months to acquire their trust and a place in their little, broken family. Every day, every moment, he battled internally against the very thing that had once delighted in the suffering of his friends. To give voice to this, to recognize aloud that he had once reveled in the depravity that haunted his patchwork conscience would be to undo everything.
The thought was nearly as unbearable as the stench of the pyre.
"I'm fine," Crowley snapped, hoping a touch of familiar choler would dissuade further conversation. "It's just the smell."
Dean stared at the demon for a long time, arms crossed, head cocked. His expression, like he was attempting to stare beyond Crowley's human countenance to his perversely semi-restored essence, was out of place on the elder Winchester's face. It smacked more of Castiel, and this only served to aggravate the demon further.
Mother of Sin help them all, if the four of them were slowly merging into a single being.
"Yeah, I get that. I smell it in my dreams sometimes." Dean's low voice caught the demon off-guard. "That smell, it's everywhere, man. I even smell it when I'm awake, half the time. Get used to it, because it never goes away."
Crowley opened his mouth, looked for something to say. Couldn't think of anything.
Dean leaned back against the Impala, side by side with the other, and stared off into the woods. The pyre had begun to burn down. "Sammy says it reminds him of the Cage. The way his own flesh and bone burned, all those months he was in there with Lucifer."
This time, the lurch inside of Crowley was undeniable. He knew what it was like to be the devil's plaything, to receive his full and talented attention. That Sam shared this experience as well hadn't served to bridge the chasm between them. But the image of the young man Crowley had come to admire writhing under Lucifer's skilled hands brought to bear an awkward rush of protectiveness, as well as pride. To have withstood that deserved more credit than Crowley had previously given it.
Dean gave no sign he had noticed Crowley's rigidity in light of his comment.
"Cas, he said it reminds him of the creation of the world. Don't know exactly what that means. Pretty sure I don't wanna ask."
Crowley silently concurred.
"Reminds me of cheeseburgers."
It was a long moment before Crowley realized the hunter was serious. He turned and eyed his friend, who continued to watch the smoke now wafting beyond the tree line.
For the first time, he wondered just how much of his temporarily demonic nature Dean had retained. The Dean Winchester Crowley knew – thought he knew – would never liken the smell emitted by the funeral pyre of anyone to something as base as an overly industrialized food stuff. It went beyond crass, stumbling headlong into sacrilegious.
It made Crowley's little gaff with Hellfire look innocuously naïve.
"The bloody hell you on about?" He demanded, his only partially feigned irritation from moments before now verging on an apoplectic rampage.
Underneath it, an unwelcome voice whispered that Crowley shouldn't be surprised. Wasn't he accompanied by the pale shade of his own indifference and past cruelties? Was Dean the harbinger of Crowley's own emerging humanity, eternally tethered to the pit of Hell and all it contained?
Cheeseburgers. The person he respected more than any other in all the world, the one man Crowley considered above his innately human faults, capable of divine goodness, worthy of respect and sacrifice and happily ever after – the one soul in all creation Crowley might possibly be willing to admit he felt something resembling that unspeakable emotion – watched a body of a fellow soldier burn, and experienced that same seething, ugly sensation of hunger somewhere within himself.
Helpless empathy mingled with loathing roiled within him at the mere possibility.
Dean didn't turn to look at him. "Yeah," he forced the word out in a breath. "Burgers. When they're charred just right, not too pink. Still juicy in the center."
He glanced over at Crowley, and must have seen the shock and condemnation on the demon's face. In response, Dean merely raised an eyebrow. "Don't you think?"
When this didn't elicit a response, Dean didn't seem overly concerned.
"This job that we do? Hunting monsters, saving souls? You can't do it if you can't stand the ugly parts that go along with it. This," he uncrossed his arms, motioned towards the pyre, "this is one of those parts. And, man, I wish we didn't have to do it. If you said I never had to light another pyre again, for anybody ever, I would call you a liar, but inside, I would be singing hallelujah."
Dean met Crowley's eyes, and held them.
"You gonna let the smell of fire and smoke drag you back down into the Pit? Or you gonna say 'screw it,' pick your sorry ass up, live as much as you can while you can, and keep on fighting?" Dean broke the contact, looking off to the distance. "Cheeseburgers, Crowley. That's what that smells like."
Dean Winchester never ceased to amaze him. It was the most bizarrely inappropriate coping mechanism Crowley had ever witnessed.
As it often does with the Winchesters, clarity gave way to pity, and then admiration.
Every time Dean ate a cheeseburger, it was in joyful resistance. It was Dean fighting back against the darkness that threatened to drag him down: the depression, the guilt, the loss, the memories of damnation and death and everything else.
Crowley had no idea where young Dean's love of cheeseburgers had been born. Perhaps, given his Spartan upbringing, it was a rare treat for a family on a shoestring budget. Perhaps it was something he had shared with his otherwise neglectful parent, the infamous John Winchester. Maybe it was somehow connected with some mythologized nostalgia that even Dean couldn't quite place, a happier time scrapbooked together with glossy images of cars, the sounds of classic rock, and the unobtainable promise made by homemade pies.
Whatever it was, wherever it had come from, like every other part of Dean Winchester's life, even the simple joy of a cheeseburger became infected with unimaginable anguish.
And in typical Winchester fashion, Dean had taken the blow, and kept on fighting. The stupid lunkhead had taken one of the worst aspects of his life, forcibly intertwined with a simple, readily available pleasure, and given the finger in exchange. Because that's what these incredibly heroic, utterly damaged boys did: they kicked it in the ass.
That hunger Dean felt, it wasn't for the dark deeds conjured up by the reeking stench of burning flesh. It was for life.
As the two stood silently, waiting for the other half of their little family to join them, Crowley contemplated this new revelation. Dean was right – the smell of the pyre would never fully dissipate. It would linger, in his clothes and hair, in the leather seats of the Impala. The smokiness would be there in every glass of scotch and every gentle brush of his demonic essence against his vessel's tongue. It would permeate Crowley's thoughts, and like sulfur would linger after the reformed demon everywhere he went.
Like Hell, and the unspeakable things he had done, that stench would always be there.
It became a matter of whether that smell would represent unrelenting remorse and unforgivable acts, or loss and the pyre on which all good deeds find their final tribute, or in something as simple as a cheeseburger.
Dean was watching him out of the corner of his eye, but Crowley wasn't bothered by it. As it turns out, some moments of contemplation, no matter how burdened, are easier in empathetic company. Slowly, Crowley took a long, deep inhalation.
When the pyre was entirely ash, the four took their usual places in the Impala, and set off down the road.
Thank you for reading. Reviews are most welcome.