'Tis the Season
Summary: Rather unexpectedly, Crowley received a present from the boys. Mid-S12 canon divergent, no pairings.
T'was the season to write clichéd fluffy nonsense based around the holidays. This fic is, by now, quite a bit belated - what was supposed to be a 500 word drabble refused to be contained. Set vaguely in Season 12, after Crowley helps the boys with the hellhound in 12x15 Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell.
(Note on canon-divergence: All my SPN fanfiction diverges from the canon in that I write Rowena as Fergus MacLeod's ex-wife, rather than mother. This is keeping with Mark Sheppard's preference for the characters' relationship, rather than what the SPN writers settled on. I'm not bitter about it – I'm just fixing it. For more, check out #Rowgus on Tumblr.)
Rather unexpectedly, Crowley received a present from the boys. Even though it was the holiday season, and they were standing out in the first flurries of snow, the sudden appearance of a white rectangular box wrapped with a candy-cane red ribbon from the Impala's trunk was a surprise.
Even more, it's intended recipient.
Dean held it out to Crowley like an afterthought, a parting dismissal after he had – once again – helped them save the victim of the week. There had been a lot of that lately, and Crowley made a mental note to take a notable leave of absence. Sam and Cas loitered around the Impala, not quite participating in the offering, but not appearing to disapprove of it either.
"What's this, then?" Crowley asked, eyeing the haphazard job Dean – he presumed – had done wrapping the box, before reaching across the figurative and literal distance that separated the hunter and demon king.
"It's called a gift, Crowley."
Holding the present in one hand and scrutinizing Dean with the other, Crowley calculated the weight of this one-sided exchange, attempting to determine the associated cost with this sudden bout of generosity. Dean looked decidedly uneasy.
"And I supposed it's all the gingerbread-flavored schnapps I have to thank for this? Ask old Moose to dangle some mistletoe, and we can really make the season bright."
But his old tricks weren't enough to make the hunter even roll his eyes. The boys nodded their farewells, hopped in their classy old lady, and rode off with barely a twinge of angst or bromance between them. Crowley huffed, and returned to the privacy of his throne room – where had his court gotten to these days? – to open this most unexpected gift.
There was no admiring the package, with its bent wire ribbon and dollar store gift box. And yet, Crowley sat with a tumbler of scotch and considered the present for quite a while. Anything could be contained within its dimensions. The possibility was almost more pleasing to Crowley than discovering its actual contents.
Dean – and by extension, Sam and Castiel – had given Crowley something. Not begrudgingly. Not out of necessity. And try as he might not to read too much into the gesture, Crowley was loath to open the box and discover the lukewarm regard which surely lay within.
So instead he set to pondering what to give them in return.
Because Crowley believed in a fair exchange – none of his crossroads deals would ever (be able to) claim otherwise – and thus presents would need to be procured for the moose, squirrel and their feathered stick in the mud. He rather enjoyed thinking about the look on each of their faces as they opened their (gorgeously wrapped) boxes to find the perfect gift nestled inside. How shocked they would be, by Crowley's largess and thoughtfulness, by how well he knew them, by how wrong they had been about the man they continued to vilify, no matter the means or extent to which he came to their aid. Oh, how glorious a sight to behold, the shabbiness of their own morality and generosity of spirit revealed in the velvet sweep of Crowley's magnanimity.
The possibilities multiplied, until they became a twirling, tinseled cacophony of delights. An entire library full of the rarest leather-bound books and cracked papyrus scrolls of ancient lore. Trips to luxury resorts in exotic locales, with all the bounties of feasting and flesh. Opal-inlaid pool tables with marble balls and gilded pool sticks. The best pie chef in the world, bespelled and enthralled to slave away in the bunker's kitchen for all eternity.
But all of that depended, of course, on what was inside the box.
Pulsing curiosity and delight eventually won out, and Crowley demanded of himself to stop dithering with the tail of the ribbon and actually unravel the messy bow. A disjointed cascade of stiff satin curled at Crowley's feet, and after a slight hesitation, he lifted the lid of the cardboard box.
Inside was a shirt. A button-down shirt, in dark gray and dusky green plaid. And a note, in Dean's distinctive hand.
In case you haven't noticed, the good guys wear flannel.
All previous imaginings, those bright and glittering, and those tainted with self-justification, vanished from Crowley's thoughts.
He fumbled to slide the lid under the box, opened his mouth to inquire half-formed questions of the empty throne room, stuttered on the first syllables. His eyes roved over the article of clothing contained within the simple wrapping, seeking answers and reassurances within its folds. For a moment, as Crowley released a long breath and felt more than just the tension in his shoulders give way, he could have sworn the heart in his stolen body thudded in time with his thoughts.
Crowley had given up ever receiving acknowledgement from the boys. Given up hope of ever obtaining a place in their small family of broken, resolute heroes. He had accepted that their forgiveness, no matter his attempts, would never be forthcoming. And even if all of that had ever come to pass, Crowley would never have considered himself to be anything other than a demon reluctantly drawn to the light cast by the Winchesters and their angel. Always the dark stain at the edge of their muted brilliance.
But this gift, with its crumbled ribbon and awkward presentation, said otherwise.
Swallowing, Crowley ran a hand over the soft fabric of the shirt. The pale vestige of the tailor comingled with the demon king to consider the weight of the fabric and the quality of the stitching, and found them both wanting. But Crowley didn't care. He had other considerations to contend with.
A gift of such value deserved something equal in return.
Some days later, with the snow drifting in the air like goose feathers, Crowley made his way to the bunker. A mere snap of his fingers could have taken him to the heart of the Winchester's fortified abode. Crowley chose instead to arrive outside, his approach heralded only by the soft crunch of his boots through the drifts. He paused before the door, breathing in the hush and solemnity that fell around him, uncertain how to proceed.
There was still time to turn back.
It would be such an easy thing, to text Dean again and lie that something had come up. That matters of state demanded his attention. Easy to avoid the required vulnerability that lay ahead, the convoluted emotions, the potential for outright rejection. The admittance to doubts and fault and swelling regret. To quiet, grasping hope. He had done it often enough before. Contemplated lowering the edifice of defense raised in the aftermath of the aborted cure, to allow for the frisson of connection with another. It rarely went well. Consistent disparagement by the Winchesters and their angel conjured resentment, and relief. It was a lesson Crowley had spent the entirety of his existence learning – very little came out of love other than more pain.
Crowley breathed out, slowly, dispelling his uncertainties as wisps in the chilly air. Frost glistened on the handle of the bunker door, but it turned easily enough in the cold, unlocked just as Dean had texted it would be. Barring any further hesitation, Crowley stepped into the warmth of the bunker, and hurriedly descended the stairs.
The library was absent any seasonal décor, no hint of holly or sprigs of peppermint to nod at the bustling season just beyond the bunker's doors. A few candles and bundles of vervain and mint, maybe a wreath of meadowsweet, would bring tidings of joy and winter warmth into the stodgy space of scholarly lore and well-oiled weaponry. It certainly would have put Crowley more at ease, but of course he knew the lives the Winchesters' lead rarely allowed for such frivolity.
In light of the gift he had just received, Crowley found that to be a startlingly disagreeable thought.
Sam was milling about in the library, the green and red of his plaid, flannel shirt the only potential nod to holiday merriment. That and the cup of noticeably cold coco on the table, with a layer of film congealing around the discolored mini marshmallows bobbing like waterlogged flotsam against the rim. Crowley had texted ahead to alert the boys to his impending arrival, and Sam had clearly taken up the post of welcoming committee, a decidedly odd choice. The hunter had obviously heard Crowley clang open the bunker door and descend the stairs, and was in the midst of pointless, anxious activity.
With a raising of his brows and familiar clearing of the throat, Sam offered an eager, if still cautious, "Hey."
Then, realizing something about the demon was decidedly different, Sam looked Crowley over, and after a moment, huffed with apparently disbelief and delight.
The warmth of that unexpected approval lay gently across Crowley's shoulders. Something snug and toasty curled up inside the once bottomless, gnawing pit inside him and begun to reverberate with a steady, soothing purr. It was an unfamiliar feeling, and Crowley wished he could place this moment and all its accompanying emotions in a snow globe, where he could turn them over and examine them – appreciate them – from a safe distance.
"Sam," he replied, with quiet sincerity. His typical banter felt hollow at the moment, and Crowley was determined not to hide behind it.
Their bond was a strange, suffering creature which Crowley could never quite understand. That they shared blood due to the third trial was immaterial. It was a bond twisted together by memories too painful for either to willingly recall, tinged ever so slightly by the shared experience of torture at Lucifer's hands, and anointed in – from Crowley's end, incomprehensible – affection for Dean Winchester.
For all the immeasurable pain Crowley had caused these three boys over the years, it was Sam who had suffered the worst. Hence why of all of them, he had the most reason to despise Crowley. And the least reason to ever thank the demon for helping them, as Sam had recently, or accept Crowley's presence among them. Or have anything at all to do with a gift of any sort.
And yet, there was every reason to believe Sam had known what that white and red present contained, and the significance of it.
Sam reacted to the use of his name, spoken with earnest intent, as the olive branch it was meant to be, dropping his guard further. They were saved from attempting to make further, awkward conversation by Castiel's timely appearance from further back in the library.
"Crowley," the fallen angel offered, keeping to their apparently collective agreement of one-word greetings. With barely a flutter or flap of that infernal trench coat, Cas made his way over to the opposite side of the table from Sam, fingers hovering just over the table as he went, his face its usual study of mournful consternation.
Though it wasn't possible for the vessel of an angel to age physically, the weight of recent years had left their mark on Castiel, and not entirely for the worse. While Cas' face bore lines of personal hardship and moral compromise, and his gravelly voice carried tones more of resignation than heavenly retribution, Castiel had also developed new dimensions and greater depths through his descent into humanity. Softened edges, broadened perspective, and a greater familiarity with the world's convoluted, often contradictory context had sculpted Castiel into a well-rounded, personable playmate for the Winchester brothers. And while Crowley suspected it would be some eons before he and the angel could ever truly consider themselves friends, he certainly found this weary, companionable Castiel a more likely candidate for empathy and fellowship than the staunch soldier of Heaven from years before.
Not that the angel seemed to consider these glad tidings of reassessment a mutual matter.
Cas stalled halfway down the table.
Crowley fought the urge to throw up every metaphysical defense against the angelic tendrils of perception scrutinizing his physical and incorporeal edges. As much as it grated against his every instinct, he allowed the momentary examination. Something close to fear lurked just below the surface of his forced resignation. Whatever was there for the angel to see, Crowley only hoped it wasn't as warped and monstrous as he feared it might be.
Whatever the angel saw, it clearly both surprised and reassured him. He glanced at Sam before managing a less than eloquent, "Um. Hello."
Sam and Castiel's response was everything Crowley needed to confirm to himself that the gift had come directly and solely from Dean. He could imagine the conversation that had taken place between the three. Sam's disbelief, Castiel's reservations. Dean's insistence, convincing the other two with his usual harsh sentimentality. They had likely relented for the same reason Crowley always surrendered in the face of Dean's raw, blistering certainty. In the moment, those small, personal attainments always seemed like the only thing keeping Dean Winchester from completely falling apart.
For all their considerable and well-earned doubts, still Sam and Castiel were here. They were apparently willing to share hesitant faith in Dean's conviction, in the gift and the note and the covenant they embodied. In Crowley.
It was wretchedly humbling. And frightening.
"Hello yourself, Cas," Crowley replied, with clumsy civility. "I – " The words stumbled about in the back of his throat. He could no longer meet either of their eyes, traced the outline of initials carved into the table instead. Unwanted and inconvenient emotions rose to the surface, and he smothered them in their infancy. Crowley pulled a half-mantle of crossroads confidence around himself, made eye contact with first Castiel and then Sam, and then tumbled headlong into the irreversible. "I know this wasn't either of yours' idea. But I do appreciate the gesture."
Sam's eyebrows shot up into his hairline. He briskly cleared his throat and, smiling uncertainly, glanced to Castiel for assistance.
"Hey, you're here."
Dean appeared from one of the bunker's innumerable tunnels, with a bounce in his step and a beer in hand. The room released a collective sigh of relief, Crowley most of all.
Like moths to a flame, all three of them. Crowley never ceased to notice how a room changed upon Dean's entrance, how tensions eased and a sense of solidarity materialized often from thin air. No matter how broken or embittered the man became, for those around him, Dean Winchester was life personified. Everything good in the world, everything worth fighting for, Dean carried like a torch inside his soul.
Bright enough and valiant enough to save his brother from damnation. Enough to sway an angel to rebel. Enough to restore a spark of humanity in a demon, and have that base, twisted creature actually be thankful for it.
Only Dean Winchester could bestow a measly flannel shirt, and earn everlasting gratitude and loyalty in return.
"And you opened your gift," Dean added, gesturing with the bottle. That sounded suspiciously like genuine affection behind his casual tone.
"Patience never was one of my virtues." Crowley smiled and pulled aside a flap of his new jacket.
The gifted article of clothing hadn't gone with anything he'd owned, of course. He'd had to do a bit of shopping to accommodate, selecting a black canvas jacket with a multitude of pockets. Underneath, he wore the flannel shirt. Unless tortured, bewitched or drunk, Crowley never intended to admit how comfortable his black twill pants and gray cotton, long-sleeved shirt under the flannel really were. He'd rounded out the look with some stylish craftmaster cap-toed boots, the priciest addition to the outfit. And, because it was Dean who had given it to him, Crowley had left the flannel shirt unbuttoned, much as it pained him to do so.
"Not bad," Dean smiled, with a hesitant, hopeful glint in his eyes. "Might even go so far as to say it suits you."
That bright weightlessness surged up inside Crowley, just as it always did when he and Dean teetered towards a moment of shared insight and regard. Moments in which it seemed, for a mere instant, that they might possibly cross over their battered history of betrayals, push past their disparate self-interests, and overcome their individual crippling vulnerabilities to forge something profound and binding between them. They had come so close, more than once. The tantalizing potential seemed always to gleam in the corners of their conversations, voiceless and unheeded.
And so whatever it was between the Righteous Man and the King of Hell remained perpetually beyond what either were willing to risk or sacrifice to achieve it.
Dean could have left it there. He could have left Crowley to flounder – friendless, insoluble in his dual nature bestowed by the interminable third trial – at the edges of family and seasonal mirth. A desolate boy of brimstone and cinders and broken matches, staring through a brightly lit window into a world which he would never share.
Instead, Dean had reached across that chasm of excruciating failures and incomprehensible forgiveness, and waited to see if Crowley could gather the courage to do the same.
Crowley swallowed, meeting Dean's eyes.
"I think," he said, his voice bearing more than its usual huskiness, "I would very much like for that to be true."
Surprise flickered in the lines of Dean's face, then his jaw set with a familiar intensity. From the sidelines, Sam and Castiel shuffled slightly, conferring with each other, an entire negotiation of acknowledgement taking place in an almost imperceptible exchange of glances. Then Dean nodded, once, with a poignancy that felt like a benediction.
And suddenly, Crowley wasn't hedging around the cusp of their indomitable band of brothers any longer. He was a part of it.
Something burst into being inside him. It spread throughout like candles lit in the windows of a darkened house give rise to a warm glow from every fireplace and room; soft music swells, warm meals are served and shared, halls are decked with bows of pine and tinsel, and peals of laughter ring out. Something came alive inside Crowley, and whatever it was, he became certain as never before that there was no going back.
He took a moment to collect himself, hands absently fiddling inside his pockets around the edges of the boxes nestled there.
Sam coughed in that irritatingly endearing way of his. "So, um…"
"Who else wants a drink?" Dean asked, easing away the magnitude of the moment. His smile said everything not contained within his casual inquiry, an unbridled cheer billowing up from that singularly unspoiled place somewhere deep within.
Now or never, it seemed.
"A glass of something barrel-aged with notes of cloves and caramel wouldn't go unappreciated," Crowley replied with more of his usual smoothness, "But first," he stepped closer to the table, almost abashed with delight that the other three moved in as well, "as expressing gratitude isn't something I am particularly good at, perhaps instead of embarrassing myself and everyone else, you will accept a little something in return?"
Enjoying the raising of eyebrows and trading of looks between the Winchesters and angel, Crowley brought forth the smaller of the two gifts.
It was a lustrous gilded chest, finely cracked with age, the edges bound in intricately stamped leather binding wrought with archaic script, which fit easily in the palm of his hand. It had seemed too handsome to mar with wrapping, so Crowley had merely taped one of those tiny, synthetic bows on the top of the chest. It's red, plastic incandescence was comical on top of the plainly priceless artifact.
With a smirk wavering between provocative and sincere, Crowley held the present in his palm out to Castiel.
The angel frowned, his lips parting in obvious deliberation. But then, he reached out and gingerly plucked the box from Crowley's hand. He held it between three fingers, turning it this way and that. Crowley particularly enjoyed watching the angel operate the tiny clasp. The box squeaked open on delicate, centuries-old hinges to reveal the thumb-sized scroll within.
"It's a spell," Crowley explained before the befuddled angel could question him. He pointed at the miniscule scratchings of script as Castiel unrolled the length of parchment. "You might need to brush up on your Aramaic to work it properly. But see there? It says 'the palate of creation.' This part there –
'bestow upon the devout.' Though, personally, I think 'entice and enrapt the gourmet' would have been more poetic. Just follow this little recipe here and you should be good to go."
"Hold up, wait a second," Dean broke in. "Just what does this dollhouse-sized spell do, exactly?"
"It could potentially give me the ability to taste and enjoy food." Castiel replied in wonder, scrutinizing the faded writing. "Crowley," he looked up with something approaching appreciation in his eyes. "Where did you get this?"
"How did you even know to go looking for it?" Sam added, with markedly little suspicion.
"Come now, Cas. We spent how many weeks together on the road, hunting down Lucifer? I know we didn't exactly engage in long, fruitful ruminations on the meaning of life or discuss the understated genius of Jackson Publick, but it was impossible not to notice your star-crossed craving for every cinna-swirled bonbon and deep-fried stick of lard we passed along the way. I tapped a contact of mine with access to the Nag Hammadi codices in Cairo, asked him to do some browsing of gnostic papyrus. That led on a Dan Brown-worthy treasure hunt for this particular strip of vellum, prepared from only the finest still-born calf fetus" – he enjoyed watching Dean's face crinkle in disgust and Sam hastily withdraw from lurking over Cas' shoulder – "and inked in gold-dusted, urine-enriched bone char, to give it that extra special repugnancy. As best I can tell, the archangel Gabriel used the exact same spell to conjure up that infamous sweet tooth of his. Just do me the favor of not wasting it entirely on philistine delights such as" he couldn't help but scoff, "peanut butter and jelly."
Castiel's mouth did a charming rendition of an indecisive clam before he turned those pearly blue eyes on Crowley, and blinked dumbly. "Thank you," he managed at last. "This was…very thoughtful of you, Crowley."
"I'm pleased you like it."
In truth, pleased didn't begin to cover it. Everything Crowley had expected from this attempt at reciprocity fell short of the reality. It felt decidedly good to do something nice for Castiel. There was the matter of Crowley having recently spared the angel's life by destroying the spellwork on Michael's lance – and, regrettably, the lance in the process – but that had been an act of begrudging necessity, hardly unconditional. Castiel was essential for the cohesion and functionality of Team Free Will, Dean in particular. And as much as Crowley had needed Lucifer dead, he needed – wanted – Castiel alive more. And if indulging in epicurean pursuits made the ascetic angel a little more tolerable, than Crowley was more than happy to oblige him.
For his part, Castiel continued to inspect the roll of precious parchment and the little golden chest with painfully studious curiosity.
Crowley reached into a pocket of his jacket and pulled out the second and last package, swathed in exceptionally tailored giftwrapping. The print was of a patchwork quilt, some blocks boasting red and black plaid, others stamped with the distinct figure of a moose. Sam huffed good naturedly as the demon handed over the flat, rectangular object.
Inside was a plain, black journal.
"Fancy didn't strike me as your style, Moo – " Crowley caught himself. " – Sam."
"Umm. Thanks." The lesser of the Winchester brothers laughed uncertainly as he set aside the thoughtfully themed wrapping paper to take up the unremarkable journal in both hands. Crowley watched coyly as the hunter thumbed through the empty, ruled pages from back to front, as some bookworms were wont to do, before revealing the eloquent script and carefully copied ideographs recorded in the first handful of pages.
Dean and Cas crowded around on either side, attempting to surreptitiously get a peek.
Crowley decided to give the fledgling Men of Letters a full minute to fumble about before offering edification. He bobbed on his toes, practically buoyant with piteous anticipation.
"This is from the Book of the Damned," Dean interjected, pointing at something on the page.
Bloody Hell. Was it too much to ask that even his well-meaning schemes avoid being entirely undermined by these amateur theologians? Crowley sighed with weary affection, entirely unable to summon his usual ire.
"A very particular page from the Book of the Damned. When that sweetheart, Agnes, took up her little crusade against the darkness of the world, and set to work on compiling her compendium of reversing curses, she didn't go about it half-heartedly. It really does seem to contain a means of undoing just about every sort of damnation. Fascinating, when you think about it."
Though the thought hadn't quite crossed his mind before, at least not with such clarity, Crowley wondered now if the Book of the Damned – in possession of the Vatican for at least part of its history, though long before that bloody priest, Thompson, developed his little purification ritual – didn't contain some variation on the cure for demons. Sister Agnus' precognition may have driven her to madness and eventually to be burned at the stake, but perhaps she had also seen through that veil of darkness. Perhaps she had looked past the corruption and depredation of demons, and seen souls within, writhing in self-imposed torment, desperate and abandoned.
Certainly, she had seen the anguish of children such as Sam, their damnation engineered before their first breath.
"And, when you think about it," he continued pensively, "what is the corrupting of newborn, human souls with demon blood, other than just another kind of curse?"
The Winchesters and Castiel stared at him.
"What-what the hell are you saying?" Dean demanded, the crash of painful memories against a bulwark of suppression and hope evident in his face. "What the hell is this, Crowley?"
"It's a cure," Sam breathed, running his fingers over the lines as he read the translation. Crowley watched the play of emotions across the hunter's face, recognizing and empathizing with the equally matched forces of longing and dismissal. That part of Sam's story was long over, seemingly insignificant compared to what the boy – the man – had accomplished. And yet, as Crowley well knew, the experiences that shaped a person, no matter how regulated to the past, never quite faded entirely into obscurity.
"How did you manage this?" Castiel inquired, leaning over Sam's shoulder and leafing through the handful of pages. "The Book of the Damned is not easy to decipher, and likely warded against demonic interference."
And that was absolutely everything Crowley planned on saying regarding his ex-wife's assistance in the matter. T'was the season and all that, but she hadn't exactly done either Fergus or the Winchesters this favor – or helped him put Lucifer back in the Cage, where he belonged – out of the kindness of her non-existent heart. There had been a great deal of screeching and spellcasting and vulgarity and references to the possession of particular pig organs, and Crowley had decided well into the first round of negotiations with that quarrelsome, sharp-tongued witch that the less the boys knew about her involvement – and his own misguided actions regarding Lucifer – the better.
"In all likelihood, there isn't a single drop of demon blood left in you. But you and I both know," Crowley caught Sam's eye, and made sure the weight behind his words was evident, "just because that's the case, it doesn't mean you don't still feel the effects."
He reached out, still holding Sam's gaze, and tapped the spine of the book.
"This is should you ever decide you want to be sure."
"But there's a cost, right?" Dean sounded worn, like a man encountering a war thought to be long won about to break out on a new front. "With magic like this, especially from the Book of the Damned, there's always a cost."
"No doubt there is," Crowley agreed. "Everything contained within the Book about this particular curse is there, in the journal. It's up to Sam, should the time come, if it's worth it."
Sam held the journal pressed closed in his hands, like a book of hymns better left unsung. It could not be easy, that fearful unknowing.
That, too, was something Crowley was becoming intimately, uncomfortably familiar with – existing in that gray space of self-ignorance and reluctant acceptance. Because there really wasn't any way to know, was there? How much cursed or purified blood remained in either of them, how much that external force might potentially influence their choices, or actions, or values? Or to know how much one might still be blinded, controlled – bound – by what had once seemed like the soft crush of numbing darkness and indifference. Impossible to know which version of the self truly was the self, without giving into one promised cure or another.
And therein lay the value of free will, in all its fragile glory. After family, the Winchesters held its worth above all else. They had defied the grand plans of the divine in the name of free will. They had fought to save one another from its loss, and had preferred death to its absence. When he had understood nothing else about the Winchesters and Castiel, Crowley had understood that. It was only in coming to appreciate his own agency – or its absence – after the cure that Crowley had been able to look at Sam, and Dean and Cas, and see fellow beings worthy of more than his mockery and manipulation.
There was no greater gift Crowley could think to offer Sam than the potential to fully regain that autonomy, and to be certain of its permanence.
Sam smiled sadly, sudden affinity reflected in his eyes. "Thank you, Crowley. This is…" he searched for words, laughed huskily, gave up. "Thank you."
"You're quite welcome, Sam."
There it was again, that gleam of something enigmatic inside him. That small part of himself, stumbling out of the darkness of a snowstorm, into the warmth and light of hearth and home. It was awkward, and painful. After so long without whatever this was, Crowley knew that later he would be battered and sore. But he persisted, onwards, towards the bright, merry, twinkling lights that comprised the precious, enduring remnants of his soul.
"It doesn't even come close," Crowley said softly, raising his eyes to meet first Sam's, then Castiel's, and finally Dean's, each in their turn, with complete sincerity, "This spell or that one. Nothing I could giftwrap or give any of you would ever come anywhere close to what's owed. To truly express how much I have come to – " he paused, waiting for his courage to fail. It didn't. The words still had to be coaxed out of him. "To appreciate and admire each of you."
Nothing would ever be enough for that. Enough to say how much Crowley respected these three boys, how much he had come to care for them, ached for them and their every loss or hard-won, bloody and often compromised victory. Nothing would ever be enough to say thank you, or apologize, or dull the wearisome ache of the wounds each bore.
"Yeah, well," Dean replied, his own humanity burning brightly in his eyes, "No gift ever does."
Crowley felt the weight of that flannel shirt. He felt, in that four-cornered family, embraced, and accepted.
When Crowley had opened that slightly crumpled box with its battered ribbon, and seen what lay within, he had known, intrinsically, what he would offer in return. With that gift, Dean had conveyed his willingness to bestow on Crowley everything that brave, broken man had to give another person – his loyalty, his friendship, even his life, should it come to that.
Through endless sacrifice and loss, Dean had earned the relinquishing of his burdens. He deserved an end to the violence and the misery, the heartbreak, and the self-doubt. For the butchery and the bloodshed to be over, for the winter of despair that had been Dean Winchester's entire life to give way to warmth and cheer.
Crowley couldn't give Dean that, not in its entirety. The existence of the supernatural, with all its wonders and horrors, was as natural and as necessary as the rest of the world. He could not do away with all monsters or ghosts or curses. With angels or ill-crafted destinies or divine plans.
What he could do away with wouldn't give Dean the peace he deserved, but it would offer respite.
"As I said, I'm not much for sentimentality." Crowley tipped his head and smiled with self-deprecation. Then he raised his eyes and met Dean's. "So I hope my closing the Gates of Hell can serve well enough in that regard."
Dean opened his mouth to form a reply, but no sound emerged.
Instead, the intense and poignant expression on his face melted, first into astonishment and reluctant hope, but then into something else. Something which resonated with the same emotion that had been filling every dark crevice and half-healed heartbreak inside Crowley since he opened that poorly wrapped package and found within it his sole salvation.
"You're – you're offering to close the Gates of Hell?"
"I am making a promise," Crowley replied softly, "It will take a few more days to make the necessary preparations. After all demons currently topside are lured into Hell, and we have extracted any resources or items which might be of use in the future, and once my personal affairs are in order, seeing as after this my powers will be rather limited," he paused.
Crowley thought, not for the first time, about everything that would need to be arranged, the dangers involved. And everything he would be leaving behind. And had no regrets.
Not with that look of solemn, awed gratitude on Dean's face.
"Then we will close the Gates." He promised. "And they will remained closed, forever. Besides," Crowley forced himself to shrug, greedily gathering up the approbation that hung heavy in the air and stuffing it along with his hands into the pockets of his jacket, then rocking back on his heels, grinning smartly. "It would be an utter embarrassment for the King of Hell to go around wearing flannel."
Dean laughed then, or maybe it was simply a burst of wonderment, a bark of rough emotion that couldn't be contained. His smile trembled, and he shook his head, as if to clear his ears from the caroling of bells.
"Damn it, Crowley," Dean muttered, words he had spoken often enough, but which rang now with an unfamiliar warmth. "What the hell am I supposed to say to something like this?"
"I'm told," Crowley replied smoothly, "the proper response is to say thank you."
The hunter chuckled. Dean looked to Sam, who dipped his head in agreement, and then to Castiel. Mute assent passed between them, an entire history of comradery and contradictions evident in the crease of crows' feet, the tilt of a head, the very frisson between them. It was an exchange, in just that order, that Crowley had witnessed countless times before. Except now, Dean looked from Castiel to Crowley, the fourth and final member to be counted amongst them.
It was everything he had ever wanted.
"Thank – " Dean began. But Crowley raised a hand to stop him.
There was nothing for it but to say the words. Say the words and properly express the profound gratitude about to burst forth from inside. And hope that Dean, and Sam and Cas, could hear behind it everything Crowley could not yet bring himself to say. Maybe, another time, another bright, glittering season, when the past with all its mistakes was further behind them, and that future, in which suddenly that little boy of brimstone and broken matches, might share.
But for now, this would hopefully be enough.
"Thank you," Crowley said, something suspiciously wet in the corners of his eyes. Something burning, softly, inside. "Thank you for the shirt."
Dean just smiled.
The bunker was entirely lacking in seasonal décor. No music played, no string of lights or delicate ornaments hung along the shelves. But that room was filled with bright smiles and good cheer, and for just a little while, that was enough to keep out the monsters and the darkness. Dean poured them each a glass of something amber and finely aged. Then together, all four boys raised a glass.
To the season, and to flannel, and to family.
The wrapping for Sam's gift is actually available for purchase from a Spoonflower artist. Just type 'moose' into Spoonflower's search box, and you'll know it when you see it. And I couldn't work it into the text itself, but I would like it known that Juliet, Crowley's hellhound pup, is decidedly something Crowley would not be leaving behind when he closed the Gates.
Though my favorite holiday tale is Charles Dicken's The Christmas Carol, in which family and love light a spark within even the dimmest of souls, Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Matchstick Girl is painfully poignant, and thus completely unforgettable. While I had always hoped for a Christmas Carol ending for Crowley, his was the same fate as the matchstick girl – finding the briefest respite in the stuttering glow of the Winchester's light, only to be left to die out in the cold. Even though this was meant to be a fluff piece, I couldn't help but include a reference to the little matchstick girl and her ties to the little tailor-turned-demon boy. Love can be a difficult thing to come by, and 'tis the season to breathe life into that flame and share its warmth with everyone you know.