Scene from an Alt!Dimension
Chapter 5: A Strange & Unexpected Sort of Wisdom
Summary: Among the corpses and condemning spires of the battlefield in that alternative reality, Crowley contemplates a strange and unexpected sort of wisdom. And he isn't alone. A year later and a world apart, the former demon is reunited with his favorite flannelled hunter. The penultimate chapter of the alternative Season 13 finale the fandom and characters deserved.
"Perhaps among the ashes, shards and crumbling walls, we may find a strange and unexpected sort of wisdom." – Richard W. Langroad
The battle had come to its desired if unanticipated conclusion. They had won.
In the expanse of wasteland and condemning spires, some crowned with tatters of cloth and bone, Crowley stood breathing shallowing as the last thrum of slaughter faded into eerie calm.
The blind terror and bombardment of the all-encompassing night had given way to an ashen, bleak morning, diluted and grainy, as every morning had been in this discolored reality. Glints of light, like metallic beetle wings, littered the ground, remnants of angelic banishment sigils born by drones into the battle. A reluctant draft swirled the shimmering flecks and ruddy dust around in the haze, the disconcerting stillness of the battlefield tempered by the moans of wounded and dying.
Strewn across the wasteland were mangled forms and crumpled corpses, dark and contorted shapes stagnant in their absence of life. Angels' vessels too, those hollowed out husks of the prostituted devout, victims of predatory divinity. Interwoven charcoal imprints of carbonized wings patterned the valley, like black gossamer lacework stamped into the dirt. They laid across the wrenched entrails and shorn limbs like dusky funeral shrouds.
At Crowley's feet lay his own corpse.
The clotted mass of recalescent flesh and terminated intent slumped on its side in the dirt, mouth and hollow, soot-rimmed eyes agape, another black bulge among the slaughtered. A compounded reiteration of his own dearth and once seemingly innate incorrigibility. It was without form, this thing. Without definition or account. An enigma, a parable to remain untold.
The angel blade protruding from its dark center was an oddly weighted memory. Crowley could feel the blade's phantom in the palm of his hand. In his own gut. The past year stretched thin and taunt between one sort of death and another.
Maintaining his sanity demanded Crowley turn his attention elsewhere.
He focused instead on the flutter of black script on a fragment of paper. It was half-weighted against the errant drafts of air by a sop of blood and slump of skin, rustling and bowing in admiration of what it had just accomplished. That was Crowley's handwriting on the paper, in black, heavy-hearted ink. That was his incantation, cast in Enochian and bludgeoned with the oldest and darkest of humankind's blood magic.
This, all of this, had been Crowley's plan. His plan to decimate the angelic army, to save humankind. And it had worked.
It had worked. All those months of planning, all those nights he and Castiel had hunched together in the flicker of faint candlelight, sketching schematics and talking tactics, sharing frustrations and laughter and in the pale promise of dawn, wondering quietly to each other about a future neither expected to live to see. All of that hope compounded into spellwork and tiny bits of copper wiring with wings. And it had worked. Crowley felt an unsteady sense of triumph, unexpected and hesitant and strange.
To have succeeded. To have succeeded at doing something that, despite the bloodshed it had wrought, had been about doing the right thing. Doing something that might, possibly, be loosely defined as good.
Insignificant, Lucifer had called him. Human.
And Crowley was both of those things. And he was so much more than that. Like the Winchesters caught in the imperium of the apocalypse – and Cas and Bobby and Charlie and Mary and all the others who stumbled and stood back up – each one of them were more than their humanness. They were comprised of broken aspirations and self-destructive tendencies and searing determination. They were each their faults and their better natures.
And now, so was he.
Crowley wasn't merely comprised of moral compromises and a scarred soul, of mistakes and amends made. He was his resourcefulness and his intellect, his tenacity and willpower, his fledgling faith in himself, and ultimately, his motivation to be better. Insignificant and innately flawed, yes. Without demonically-bequeathed authority or prestige. Without powers. Without the Winchesters, even. But not without purpose or direction. Not without worth.
Crowley took a long, stuttering breath, and wiped his face with an ashen coat sleeve, brushing away grime and grit and the tears that had gathered in the corners of his eyes.
Across the expanse of splintered remains and tenured lives, washed in the pallor of this anemic world, there was the soft scrunch and shuffle of other survivors of their ragtag opposition reorienting to the reality of their own harsh, persistent existence. As with every battlefield, there were men and women that stumbled about, or clutched at wounds, agog at the simultaneous nearness of their own death and uncertain survival. Some simply sat in the dirt and stared. Some men moved in pairs, one helping the other towards a gathering in the distance that Crowley vaguely surmised was a makeshift medical outfit. Others, miraculously uninjured, ran across the scorched earth, checking pulses, turning over bodies, tending to wounds, directing the benighted, calming the shell-shocked, and comforting the dying.
Almost imperceptible whooshes whispered across the valley, as the fluttering fragments of wings carried an angel away, abandoning their vessels and their archangel-directed mission, and returning to the rotting, bloated abomination that was Heaven. As the celestial colonizers quit their human hosts, the emptied bodies dropped like overripe fruit, indeterminable from the rest of the corpses around them.
Crowley let them go, unfazed. There wasn't anything he could do about it anyway.
And besides, he thought, scanning the heavens for a glimmer of the retreating forms, if the angels ever returned, humankind would be ready for them.
From somewhere behind him and across the soot-stamped field, a rough, familiar voice called his name.
It yanked at Crowley's soul like the pull of things loved but left behind. Of dark nights racing down seemingly endless highways to the roar of an engine and the purr of classic rock, turned down low. Aged whiskey and a course, reluctant friendship. Of heartbreak and a home that had never been his.
Crowley glanced over his shoulder to watch a figure approach out of the settling dust of battle. The hunter moved with his familiar, determined tread, the walk of a man all his life on a mission to combat the forces of darkness in the world, predetermining his success through sheer willpower – and the willingness to sacrifice himself should it come to that. The habitual scowl that dared anyone to deter him from his objective, resolute and weathered. The worn canvas jacket, the faded flannel. The only thing missing was the entourage of a trenchcoated angel and a 1967 Chevy Impala.
Even without them, in any dimension of reality, Crowley would have recognized the approaching, purposeful figure of Dean Winchester.
A sweep of old memories and new emotions came barreling across the battlefield with him. The ambivalence towards an expendable hunter resolving into grudging respect for an obstinate, self-deprecating man as the cure took its hold. That summer on the road, watching everything that was Dean slipping away under the influence of the Mark, Crowley's own self-interests dissolving under genuine concern. Family cares about you. Not what you can do for them. Family's there – through the good, the bad, all of it. The unrelenting finality in Dean's eyes as he thrust the demon blade into Crowley's hand.
The unwilling admiration and the unreciprocated affinity. What Crowley thought had been a fragile, oft-contested friendship, but with his restored soul, he could now clearly see had been an embittered hunter and a self-deluding demon using each other. What he had thought had been an obsessive, twisted affection, but he knew now had been an earnest and ardent desire for connection, for mutual understanding. To Crowley, trapped in a hell of his own making, Dean had embodied the epitome of humanity and its persistent, resounding mandate: to summon whatever dignity and empathy lay within, and carry on.
A year later and a world away, Crowley could not help but be aware of how badly, at the end, he had failed Dean. How succinctly he had fulfilled every suspicion held against him. The enormity of his failure and betrayal tensed in Dean's every step as he approached across the funereal battlefield.
None of that changed how impossibly good it was to see him.
Barely slowing in his approach, Dean sheathed his angel blade within his multitude of layers with one deft movement, and closed the distance between them.
"You son of a bitch."
Crowley braced for a blow. Instead, there was the firm pressure of hands on his shoulders.
Dean pulled Crowley towards him, wrapped his arms around the former demon, and held on. He was a solid press of warmth and weight and weariness, and Crowley could feel the hunter's hands clutching at the fabric of his jacket. Startled, Crowley clumsily returned the embrace.
"Don't you ever do that again," Dean muttered through what sounded like clenched teeth.
For a moment, the arms around him tightened, then the affectionate thump of a hand on his back, before the embrace eased and ended. Dean stepped away.
The day was full of the unexpected.
As the two men separated, Dean performed an instinctual, rapid assessment of Crowley's condition. His jacket, his second-hand clothes, trailing down to his battered boots and back up. Checking for injuries, no doubt. And attempting to reconcile the demon he had left for dead with the altered man before him.
"You okay?" Dean asked. His stern expression carried concern it in its creases. "Mom told us about the whole turning human thing."
Crowley wondered if Dean could see the last year etched into the lines of his face. He wondered if it were possible to discern those first few months in this ravaged reality, recovering from his self-inflicted wound in a rebel field hospital. Bestowed with an unforgiving conscience. Overcome with guilt, half mad, keening his sorrow and shame. Then stilted and silent, staring into the abyss. Hollowed out by a history of horrors. By nightmares in which he mutilated and tortured and damned, made all the more detestable by the inescapable knowledge of the pleasure he had taken in it at the time. Humanity had flayed him to his core. Every excuse, every rationalization, every denial was stripped away, and left Crowley with only the horror of himself.
That wasn't the sort of thing anyone put behind them. Not fully, not ever. He would bear the scars of both his damnation and salvation for as long as he lived. Some of it was damage that might heal in time, and some was damage that could never heal. Some of that damage was too useful – to Crowley, to the people relying on him – to be allowed to mend. Crowley had taken all that pain and remorse, and the culminating empathy, and forged it into what made him, finally, human. Because that was the only means of living with any of it.
That, Crowley had finally come to realize, was what it meant to be human.
It had been a long, hard, and often lonely road for him to learn something which Dean Winchester had always intrinsically known.
But he was here now.
And he wasn't alone, either. Crowley could see that in Dean's steady, sympathetic gaze.
"I'm coping well enough." He paused, then added, gesturing with a slight tilt of his head to the body beside him, "Though it's rather unsettlingly, slaughtering one's self."
Dean glanced down at the corpse. Then he looked back to Crowley, conviction in his eyes.
"That isn't you, man. That hasn't been you for a long time."
It wasn't forgiveness. But it was as close as he might ever come. Crowley swallowed, hard, and untangled the air that had suddenly knotted in his lungs.
The last lamentation for something flickered, and fell away. Whatever had still bound Crowley to that demonic incarnation, with his self-satisfied smirk and his suave sadism and his derisive apathy – whatever had bound him to who he had been before the cure, before the Winchesters, that deformed, crippled soul – that something shuddered inside Crowley, and snuffed out.
The corpse at his feet resolved its slumbering mass of ambiguity into one of the countless multitude strew across the parched earth.
Around them, the dismantling of the battlefield continued. Limbs of the living straightened the limbs of the dead. A man knelt beside another, his soft wail barely audible above the clamber of men and women stumbling about, calling to each other, searching the skies for that admittance of celestial gleam. The wind shifted, blowing the thin tendrils of smoke from the ruins of the clapboard church in the distance to mingle with the ashen remains of combusted bodies that drifted listlessly overhead.
The sputtering stupor that always staggered after war was sluffing off, and time was rousing itself.
"Look, before anything else happens," Dean continued to hold Crowley's gaze, unflinching. "I need you to know – I'm sorry. For what happened at the rift." He paused, nodding, as if confirming something long considered. "You deserved better than that."
Weary, grief-stricken laughter escaped Crowley. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes. He shook his head, as amused and wounded by the disbelief on Dean's face as he was by the look of commiserative empathy that followed it.
"I didn't, not really. Not after what I did." Crowley hesitated. Forced himself to say it. "All that I did."
Dean looked surprised, but only for a moment. The hunter shuffled his flannelled weight, considered the hesitant swirl of dust between their boots, composed himself.
"I'm not saying that before – that all that didn't happen. Didn't matter. It did, and it does." Dean took a short breath, settled his shoulders. Set his mind to an irrevocable resolution. "But this matters, too. You died for us, Crowley. For the world. When it mattered most, you were there. You had our backs."
"That – " Dean stated, his gaze locked with Crowley's, " – that makes you one of us. Makes you family."
And there it was.
After all these years, it was not the honor Crowley had long expected it would be. That he had to give up everything, that he had to abruptly and generously conclude his own long road to redemption so that the boys might continue their own story. That he had to die to earn that appellation. That nothing short of complete subjugation to the Winchesters and their cause was enough to earn a posthumous place among the worthy and well-remembered. How typically blind and arrogant of them. What a dubious distinction it was to be welcomed into their ranks.
The Winchesters got people they claimed to care about killed. Sacrificial lambs, all the rest of them, while the Winchesters had a history of selfishly putting the world at risk to save each other. They consistently made poor choices and failed as the heroes the world needed them to be, as Crowley and all the other poor, damned souls – human and demon and monster and angel and everything that existed in their reality – needed them to be. They were flawed and unerringly human. Like the people they saved. And the people they cared about. The ones that loved them in equal measure, that had their backs. That were equally flawed – and better for it. That failed as the Winchesters failed. Those were the ones the Winchesters called family.
And so yes, maybe now Crowley was one of them after all.
He laughed softly at himself – at them both – and shook his head.
"What that makes me," Crowley replied with a raised brow and a smile tinged with his old, teasing manner, "is just another reckless, soft in the head, ill-fated idiot."
For a moment, Dean wore the same grim, intense expression. Then the lines around his mouth bowed outward. He dipped his head and smiled, a sincere smile that crinkled the crow's feet around his eyes, that bore away some of the heartache and age etched into his face. That let a little light shine through. Crowley felt a grin of his own crack through the grime and the years. The relief that he had barricaded behind disbelief - that they had won the battle, that he had survived this broken reality, been reunited with the Winchesters, that he had survived all those centuries of darkness to find his way here, to this – finally crashed over Crowley. He could feel the ground under his feet, the blood and dirt caked under his fingernails, the endless possibilities opening up before him. A chuckle coughed itself out of his chest and into the dusty air.
Dean and Crowley had both been victims and villains of their own making. They had been monsters and gods in their own right. They had both saved the world, more than once. But they were neither of them any those things here and now. Just two bruised, resolute, world-weary men standing in the middle of a battlefield, sharing a laugh at their own expense.
"I'm sorry," The words left Crowley like speaking them was the most natural thing in the world. Like he hadn't carried them like a burden in the tattered remains of his soul all these years. "Dean. I am – I am so sorry. For all of it."
"Yeah," Dean rasped, "Me too."
For a moment, the two men just stood, smiling sadly at one another. All the damage they had done to each other over the years. Not just Crowley and Dean – Sam and Cas, as well. How often they could have destroyed each other. Had failed each other, in all the ways that mattered. And how, in their own meager ways, had somehow managed to save one another as well.
That wise man, whoever he was, had certainly been right about what it meant to be family.
In an attempt to get his emotions under control, Crowley turned his attention to the carnival of carnage scattered around them in all directions. The regrettably familiar smell of death was beginning to settle along with the draft and dust, the fully risen sun bathing the battleground a pallid, feral grey.
"The others obviously all survived as well. Else you wouldn't be standing here either." That was a given. The moment he had seen Dean, Crowley had known that Sam and Cas, and Mother Mary, had all made it through the night. Crowley had never really doubted that they would. No, he had reserved his concern for the well-being of others.
In the distance, at the base of the cliff walls, there was the soft flutter of something white and clean. Tents, under which to tend the wounded and house the dying. Like scattered motes of brindled light, men and women trudged towards the stark field hospital arising out of the dirt. Bandages were being boiled, plugs pulled on crocks of prepared poultices and ointments. Triage had begun in earnest, a mess of intestines stuffed back into abdomens, limbs lobbed off to spare the life, bodies burned bloody and raw and beyond healing. Likely reapers, if there were any left in this reality, walked among them. As did this world's Castiel.
They had not spoken much on the mad rush to reach the wastelands. Crowley had clung to the side of the truck bed in irritated anticipation, tapping out a steady rhythm and twisting thoughts around in his mind. He had attended himself to the details of what lay ahead: the operation of the spell-wielding drones, their hastily draw battle plans, how best to utilize their miniscule margin of surprise. Attempting to ignore the fact they were all rushing directly towards what was most likely some – if not all – of their doom. How the men and women in the truck bed with him would soon be carcasses strewn across the dirt. Maybe his own heaped beside them.
There had been a moment when, as they jumped out of the truck at the edge of the battlefield, Castiel had grabbed his arm, wished him well. And Crowley had feared it was meant as goodbye.
"Don't bloody well think you're getting rid of me that easy."
Castiel had quirked a grin, slapped him on the shoulder, and joined the fray.
Crowley hardly knew what to make of the fact they had both survived. Only grateful. And very, very tired.
"Yeah, we all made it through. Don't know how the hell that happened, but – " Dean eyed the alternative at Crowley's feet. "Hey, I'll take the win."
Crowley licked dry lips, reached down to grasp the angel blade lodged in the wet black of the corpse. It came loose with a ripe sucking sound.
"Not so good for those that didn't make it."
Dean took in the butchery that abounded, the sundered sleeves of skin that once contained convictions and concepts made flesh, now burst and leaking into the dirt. Crowley stepped to his side, wiping the angel blade off on his leg as he went, and joined the hunter in surveying the wasteland.
For two men who have been demons, who have seen the worst of what the world had to offer, this should have been paltry in comparison. But it wasn't.
"It isn't over," Crowley muttered darkly. "Michael is still out there. Loose in our world, I'm guessing, from what I glimpsed in that church."
"It's never over," Dean replied, weary but resolved. "Come on," he dusted off his hands, nodded his head at the smoldering ruins in the distance. "Sam headed back to the church. Looking to see if…"
If their nephilim had returned. If Michael had left something small, overlooked, that would provide insight into the spell used to open the rift. If there was some grace that remained somewhere, enough to open another rift, get them home. If there was even the most remote glimmer of hope.
If there was, the Winchesters would find it.
Dean and Crowley fell in step together, and headed for the church.
It had been almost a century since Crowley had walked across a battlefield like this one. Where bodies by the hundreds lay scattered, some souls dead before they hit the ground, others trampled under the feet of their comrades, still others gasping their last breaths even as Dean and Crowley passed them by. And not since his first human lifetime, the memories hazy and distorted by Hell, had the bodies been those of people he might actually know.
Again and again, he caught sight of a face of a friend, someone with whom he had shared a drink, or the warmth of a fire, or a game of chess during the past year. Again and again, Crowley stopped – and Dean with him – to offer comfort or close a pair of clouded eyes, or call for a medic from the white, bustling tents in the distance. He could not simply walk across the valley, across corpses, as if he were above all this, apart from it. Not anymore. The people who had died here – in the night, in the coming hours – were not mere bricks in his road, their lives only chapters in his own story. Crowley refused to pretend that he, and the Winchesters, hadn't played a role in bringing about all this slaughter.
However necessary all this bloodshed and death might have been to throw off the yoke of Heaven, that didn't make it any less abhorrent.
If there had been lingering wanton destruction in Crowley, the urge to mangle or maim, the bulging lust of a torturer skilled and happy in his craft, he had spent what remained of that here. If there had been a quiet rage within him – at himself, the Winchesters, the world – he had allowed that free reign during the fight, until that too had faded in the deafening roar of smothered sound that was the wasteland in the wake of battle.
He would have liked to believe that this would be the last time he would participate in this sort of carnage. That those days were behind him now. But Crowley was nothing if not a realist.
They were still some ways away from the smoldering remains of the church when Dean nudged him and pointed ahead. "Hey."
In the distance, on the other side of the cratered walls, Crowley could make out vague figures. Mary and Cas. And Sam, carrying something in one hand, something that glinted in the grey light. With his limited human vision, Crowley didn't understand what he was seeing until there was a shout, a sudden scuffle.
"Sam!" Dean shouted, as a body dropped to the dirt.
Almost as one, Dean and Crowley ran.
I had intended this to be the last chapter of this series. But the emotional resonance of the chapter felt both insular and complete without the final scene. So even though I have grave doubts about posting this separately and dragging the series out any longer than necessary, it also feels right to do so. This chapter is the emotional heart of this work. It is the reason I wrote any of it. And it lived up to all my expectations. I hope, after a year and a half of waiting, it lives up to all of yours as well.
Thank you all for reading, and for your long patience between chapters. I absolutely promise the next chapter is the last.