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Chosen and Unchosen

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In Soho, in an old bookshop with open hours that were only slightly less complicated than warranties for the latest mobile phones on the market, an angel quietly read as he sat on a worn fainting couch and vaguely noticed that he couldn’t remember feeling this relaxed before.

Six thousand years on Earth and Aziraphale could see in hindsight that he spent most of that time frame in a state of constant anxiety. He worried about Heaven finding his flaws like his indulgence in gluttony and coveting particularly rare and fascinating books. He worried about being a bad angel and not being good enough. And then he worried about them finding about Crowley, about their Arrangement and how cordial that Aziraphale was with his supposed adversary. Or how being cordial became friendship, a title for their relationship that didn’t quite cover it and yet was all that he could risk calling it at the time. He worried about crossing the line and Falling. He worried about Hell punishing Crowley or the demon deciding someday to avoid the cruelty of Hell’s fury with the contents of a thermos that Aziraphale reluctantly gave him. He worried about losing everything that he held to be precious. But mostly Aziraphale worried about what he felt radiating off Crowley, growing stronger with time.

While demons lost the ability when they Fell, angels could sense love. All forms of love. Aziraphale could tell when a location was well-loved and cherished. He could feel the love for treasured belongings. And he could certainly tell when someone loved or was loved by another. Whether that love was a form of friendship, familial, romantic, or unconditional devotion,[1] the angel could sense it.

When Aziraphale first felt the spark of warm affection coming from the demon, he thought that it must be a mistake. That he must have simply picked up something else from his surroundings or misidentified the sensation. The rumors that wove their way through Heaven went against what he sensed on the wall surrounding Eden.

But it was there. And it was there the next time that their paths crossed. And the next.

With each successive encounter, it grew stronger and harder to brush off. At least one demon could feel love. Aziraphale spent so long denying what he was sensing, trying to convince himself that maybe he was getting the type of love mixed up or maybe he had the target of Crowley’s affection wrong or dozens of other excuses. Then it grew too bright and intense for that. Aziraphale truly realized how deeply Crowley felt when he walked onto consecrated ground to help him and even saved the books that he knew the angel treasured, performing a small demonic miracle somewhere that would resist his efforts. But it was also the moment that Aziraphale realized exactly what he felt in return.

He didn’t develop those feelings that night. They’d been there for quite some time. But emotional self-awareness was not Aziraphale’s strong suit.

But even with that new discovery about himself, he couldn’t admit it. He couldn’t allow the idea to even truly form. Because Heaven and Hell would never forgive that level of betrayal and failure. And while he could Fall if he slipped too far, Crowley would face far worse. That was something that the angel could never allow. They needed to maintain plausible deniability. So Aziraphale ignored and pretended that he didn’t notice. He ignored his own emotions and those that he sensed from the demon. He tuned it out, acting as if he didn’t notice the love shining from Crowley like a giant neon sign. It was the safer option for both of them.

But then the Apocalypse nearly happened. Everything was dragged out and exposed for all to see. Heaven and Hell knew. About their relationship, their Arrangement, and that their loyalty and obedience was not as ironclad as assumed. The truth came out and they managed to survive anyway. There was no point in hiding and existing in denial any longer. The realization was both intimidating and overwhelming when it hit Aziraphale, but he also found it rather freeing. They were on their own side now.

That newfound freedom, no longer fearing reprisals after their respective “trials” and no longer communicating only through subtext, was the reason that they could be like this a little over a year later. Aziraphale reading on the fainting couch wouldn’t have been that unusual over the past century or so. But now he could do it with Crowley sprawled along the length of the couch, dozing lightly with his head resting on the angel’s lap while Aziraphale absently ran his fingers through his hair.

It only took one hand to turn a page, after all.

Reaching their current state of affairs was a difficult journey. Six thousand years of glacial-like progress that suddenly accelerated to lightspeed once several obstacles were removed, the change abrupt enough to cause whiplash. But without anything to stop them and without any threat hanging over their heads, Aziraphale didn’t see the point in holding back any longer. He didn’t want to waste any more time. Especially when he could feel Crowley’s intense emotions radiating off him all the time.

But what Aziraphale forgot was that Crowley was a demon. Well, he didn’t forget about him being a demon. He merely forgot one small difference and what it meant.

Demons couldn’t sense love the same way that angels did. The rumors that demons could no longer feel love after they Fell and lost their connection to Her grace were clearly false, but the part about not being able to sense love was accurate. From bits and pieces that Aziraphale gathered over numerous drunken conversations scattered across several centuries, the angel had figured out that their senses had been warped to detect darker things instead. Hate, rage, fear, pain, desperation… All things that would point to a human being vulnerable and open to corruption. But not love. They couldn’t sense its presence any longer.

The implications of what that would mean for Crowley completely escaped Aziraphale until five months after Armaged-Don’t. And that led to certain misunderstandings and adjustments before they could settle into what they had now.

But then, any type of relationship took some cooperation to create and nurture.

Crowley shifted slightly under Aziraphale’s fingers, pulling the angel briefly from his thoughts and his book. He glanced down at Crowley’s drowsy smile. Even with the sunglasses hiding his eyes, his expression was clear enough. Aziraphale wasn’t the only one more relaxed and at ease than before. He was too comfortable to care about how nice and wonderful Aziraphale found him in that moment.

“Angel?” he murmured sleepily. “Could you… say the thing?”

Five months after the Apoca-Oops, Aziraphale and Crowley were feeding ducks in the park. Not as part of a cover to discuss part of the Arrangement. Merely because they wanted to do it before dinner at the angel’s current favorite sushi restaurant. But when Aziraphale threw a tasty treat towards a particularly greedy drake, the duck abruptly sank with a startled quack.

“Crowley,” he scolded, causing the duck to bob back to the surface and the demon to smirk. Aziraphale shook his head ruefully and said, “Really, my dear, I love you, but do you have to torment the ducks every time we visit?”

He meant it in a gently teasing manner, but Crowley stiffened and made a small sound. As if all the air was driven from his chest at once, something still uncomfortable even if neither of them technically required oxygen. And Crowley stared at him with a shocked and overwhelmed expression, one that Aziraphale couldn’t recognize. His mouth opened and closed a few times without making a sound as the demon wobbled slightly on his feet. Then, after a few moments of struggling, Crowley managed to produce a strained croak.

“Could you… say that again?”

“I mean, I know that you’re not hurting them,” said Aziraphale awkwardly, not certain what was happening, “but dunking them like that is a tad rude.”

“Not that. The… The thing. The thing you said about…” He was breathing a little funny by that point. “Did you… Do you actually…”

Despite what his moments of naïve and foolish decisions might suggest, Aziraphale was actually very intelligent and could occasionally make use of that intelligence. And with that unsteady, choked, and uncharacteristically vulnerable jumble of words, Aziraphale abruptly realized what Crowley was asking. What small and simple phrase left the demon looking like he was on the verge of passing out. Why he seemed so shocked, timidly hopeful, and completely overwhelmed upon hearing those words. And that realization hit Aziraphale with all the gentleness of dumping a bucket of ice water over a sleeping cat.

Demons couldn’t sense love like angels could. That meant that while Aziraphale could tell how much Crowley cared throughout the millennia, even if he tried to ignore it for both of their sakes, Crowley could only go off of what the angel said or did. And while Crowley knew that the angel liked him, there had been enough mixed signals that Crowley never realized that his feelings were reciprocated.

Not until Aziraphale told him just then.

He really could be an idiot sometimes.

Taking his hand and leading Crowley to the closest bench in case he completely collapsed, Aziraphale forced him to sit down next to him and repeated firmly, “I love you. I have for a long time. And before you ask, I don’t mean a general love for all things. I mean a love that is specifically yours and no one else’s. And I should have told you sooner, but I thought that you knew and I’m sorry for that.” He squeezed Crowley’s hand, who was currently gaping like a fish that was yanked out of a tiny pond only to be tossed into a much nicer lake instead of the expected frying pan. “I could sense your love for so long. Constant, warm, and almost blindingly bright sometimes. But I forgot that you couldn’t feel mine in return.”

Crowley was blushing by that point, coughing awkwardly and his posture a bit stiffer than his natural slouch. He would glance towards Aziraphale before looking anywhere except the angel, only to repeat the process a few seconds later. But he didn’t try to pull his hand away.

“I don’t want to make that mistake again. I want you to know how I feel about you,” he continued. “I don’t want you to doubt for a single moment. So if you need to hear me say it, I will. I love you, Crowley.” He smiled warmly. “And I will tell you that any time that you want and as many times as you might need. I promise that I’ll always and happily tell you how much I love you. All you need to do is ask.”

Crowley continued his awkward attempts to look at the angel and not look at him through Aziraphale’s entire promise, practically wiggling on the bench in a way that perfectly balanced his unfamiliarity with this level of emotional directness and a carefully restrained desire for exactly what he was being offered. But Hell and his fellow demons had long since taught him caution when faced with what seemed to be exactly what he wanted. The light at the end of the tunnel could be an oncoming train. The high point of his existence could easily be proceeding a painful fall. While he’d managed to hang onto hope and optimism, experience had left him suspicious of anything that seemed too good to be true.

If it was anyone else offering, if anyone else had suggested that his angel might someday love him back, he wouldn’t trust it for a second. But this was Aziraphale saying the words. And with the angel, he often left himself more vulnerable and yet found himself safer. If there was anyone in the universe that he could trust this much, it would be Aziraphale.

And he wouldn’t lie to Crowley about this. That level of cruelty could easily come from Hell, Heaven, or humanity, but never from his angel.

“Angel, you know that… all of this seems rather sudden. At least from where I’m standing.” Crowley glanced down and corrected, “Sitting.”

“Too fast?” asked Aziraphale.

Crowley was always the one who pushed the boundaries. The Arrangement was proof of that.  Testing, questioning, suggesting, and slithering his way forward. He was the one who kept their relationship changing and growing closer, progressing by the tiniest increments as the angel slowly gave ground. But there was still a cautiousness to his efforts. He didn’t want to risk hurting Aziraphale or pulling him too close to the edge of Falling. Crowley was patient and understanding about his limits even as he pressed against them. He took it slow because that’s what his angel needed.

But this time, Aziraphale was the one taking the lead. He was the one pulling them into new territory. He was the one offering more than the demon could ever bring himself to hope for.

Taking an unsteady breath and tightening his grip on the angel’s hand, Crowley shook his head and said roughly, “No. Not too fast. Just give me a minute to catch up with…”

“With me loving you?”

“Ngk.”

“For longer than I realized. And in more ways than I can describe. But I’m willing to try,” assured Aziraphale. “I may not always remember to say it on my own, but I do love you. And there’s no reason to hide or wait any longer. We’re on our own side now.”

The bright and shining love from Crowley seemed to grow a little stronger, perhaps a little more confident. A fresh wave of affection radiated off the demon. The sensation returned the warm smile to Aziraphale’s face.

After a few moments, Crowley said, “You know, if you honestly plan to say… say the thing anytime that I ask, I’ll probably make you say it at the most annoying moments possible, right?”

“I wouldn’t expect anything different, my dear.”

And while Crowley did try to pester the angel occasionally, asking while Aziraphale was talking to someone else or when he was distracted or when he was busy, he would also ask in calmer moments. When he honestly wanted to hear the words. No matter how many times that Aziraphale told him, the demon always brightened at the reassurance. And the angel kept his promise to always tell him.

Which meant when Crowley asked if he could say it, the demon half-asleep on his lap, Aziraphale already knew what he wanted to hear.

Perfectly manicured nails running lightly along Crowley’s scalp, Aziraphale smiled and said, “Of course, my dear. Always.” His fingers paused in their efforts long enough to let him trace the curves of the snake design on Crowley’s temple. “I love you.”

He shifted under the angel’s hand, the sleepy grin widening a fraction and Aziraphale felt the familiar love radiating from the demon brighten a little more. Both the words and the calming touch seemed to be reducing him to a state of near bliss. The sheer difference between his current state and the last six thousand years proved that, even with his normal façade, Crowley hadn’t been this relaxed in a long time. And Aziraphale couldn’t help basking in the glow of his affection in return.

Lifting his head slightly from the angel’s lap, Crowley asked, “Again?”

Aziraphale paused briefly to slip a bookmark between the pages and set the book aside. Then he turned his full attention to the demon.

“I love you,” he said, speaking each word slowly and firmly.

With a breathy chuckle, Crowley asked, “One more time?”

The tone might be lightly teasing and casual, but Aziraphale treated the request seriously. He ran his fingers through the demon’s hair once more before cupping his head with both hands, pulling Crowley up as Aziraphale leaned over.

“Crowley,” he said before pressing a gentle kiss to his forehead. “I love you.”

And there was the smallest hint of a blush and quiet inhale that the angel was expecting from him. For all that he’d loved and wanted this for longer than either would admit, the demon still grew a little flustered when his love was returned. As if he still couldn’t believe that it was possible for Aziraphale to love him back.

He could understand it. Aziraphale didn’t know what he’d done to earn Crowley’s unwavering and constant love. Perhaps the original spark that he felt so long ago was the love of dawning friendship and admiration. And that friendship remained, a sturdy foundation at the core. But now his love was composed of so many different forms of love woven together like a beautiful tapestry. Bright, beautiful, warm, and beyond human description or labels. Some days, Aziraphale couldn’t understand how Crowley could feel so strongly or what the angel did to deserve it.  

But regardless of anything else, they were both happier like this.

In many ways, not much had changed between them. Even kissing wasn’t completely new. Depending on the time and place, it could be part of a standard greeting for certain cultures. But now they didn’t have any reason to hide or hesitate. Everything was in the open. And that made a difference.

Heaven and Hell were keeping their distance after the failed executions. Adam might technically still have powers even after denying Satan and their connection, but he’d locked away most of it from his conscious control and Aziraphale and Crowley drove down to Tadfield every month or so to check on him the same way that they would send letters to another child. No one was carefully scrutinizing their every move, waiting for a mistake or a hint of disloyalty. The only side that they belonged to was their own. The world was safe from outside destruction. Everything was going well and the future looked bright.

Perhaps it was overly optimistic, but Aziraphale would almost call it perfect.

 


 

The whiteness was shredding his nerves, ratcheting up his anxiety to almost painful levels.

White walls, white floor, white ceiling, white desk and chair made of what vaguely seemed like a metallic material, and white paper stacked and waiting for him. Even his semi-translucent form was dressed in white, his essence taking on the familiar shape that he wore for six thousand years even after they denied him his corporeal body to make escape more difficult.[2] The quill in his hand, because Heaven refused to give him anything more modern to use, was made from a white feather so similar to those on his wings. White surrounded him, the lack of color uniform and unbroken except for the ink and the writing on the paper. Even shadows refused to interrupt the whiteness.

Whiteness everywhere.

The whiteness was almost blinding and suffocating, pressing down on him in a way that he couldn’t describe. At times, his vision seemed to turn strange and filled with unexpected colors and his hearing filled with high pitched ringing. Hallucinations concocted by the mind to fill the numbing and unending lack of normal stimuli. It wasn’t too bad at first. But it was too constant and for too long. He wasn’t even certain how long that he’d been trapped. And there was nothing else in the room. Only the endless white and the black words that moved across the pages.

There weren’t even sounds. The other angels put him in the silent room to “think about his mistakes without any distractions,” as Gabriel explained in what was meant to be an encouraging voice. A large room with distant walls and high ceilings. No windows and no doors, the only one vanishing seamlessly once Gabriel left. And as soon as it was sealed closed, Aziraphale couldn’t use any powers within the room.

His abilities came from Heaven. He drew power down from Heaven with every miracle. And he was technically in Heaven, so it should have been easy. But something about the space blocked him. He was cut off from everything outside the walls and couldn’t draw on any power for a single miracle.

The silence was unnatural, just like the lack of shadows. The room wouldn’t let him hear a single sound, just as it wouldn’t let him move further than a couple meters away from the desk regardless of how hard he tried to run or fly. He couldn’t reach the walls or ceiling just as he couldn’t hear the rustle of paper, the scratching of the quill, or his own voice when Aziraphale shouted uselessly. Smashing the furniture against the floor was equally useless: not a single noise produced and they always returned to their normal state as soon as he let go, undamaged and whole. He couldn’t even hear a heartbeat because they took his physical body.

The other angels didn’t understand exactly what they were doing was technically a form of torture. They realized that having an angel immune to hellfire would be an asset too useful to dispose of casually and decided that guilt would be the best way to bring him back to their side. They only needed to use time and guilt to force him to be obedient again. They had plenty of both. But none of them could understand exactly what they were doing by trapping him in the bright, white, and silent room.

Earth was never silent. Not like this. There were birds, insects, and other animals wandering around Eden from the start. There was the sound of the wind rustling the trees, rumbling thunder, falling rain, and running water ranging from trickling brooks to ocean waves. Later there were humans talking, moving, creating, and living their lives at breathtaking speeds. And then there were the inventions and machines that they gradually filled the world with. From distant cricket chirps to the traffic that moved constantly along the streets of London, there was always noise. Aziraphale couldn’t remember the last time that he heard complete and utter silence. Not like this.

But the other angels didn’t understand. They couldn’t understand the concept of sensory deprivation. Cutting off nearly all forms of stimuli could cause mental harm. Not as quickly or as intensely as it would affect a human, but Aziraphale was human enough after six thousand years among them that it was taking its toll.

He’d tried to escape. He couldn’t reach the walls or ceiling of the room, couldn’t use a miracle to get out, and he couldn’t even smash his way through the floor using the desk. Aziraphale eventually came to the unfortunate realization that he wouldn’t be able to leave without outside help. He knew that Gabriel and the other angels would keep him in the white and silent room, tucked away and forgotten by everyone as his mind tried to unravel from anxiety, lack of stimuli, and overwhelming worry. And the only way they would let him out is if he did exactly what Gabriel told him right before locking Aziraphale away.

Besides, it was the only thing that he could do to distract himself from his stressful surroundings.

The stack of paper didn’t look nearly as thick as it actually was. Six thousand years of reports should have been much taller. But it maintained the same height regardless how many pages that he went through. And the finished copies disappeared as soon as he set them aside. He didn’t know how many that he’d corrected or how many were left. There was nothing to judge his progress by, just as there was nothing to indicate the passage of time. But he kept writing because he needed to get out as soon as possible.

Correcting. That’s what Gabriel told him to do. Go through every report that Aziraphale ever submitted and correct them. The Archangel’s logic was that being faced with all his lies and “betrayal” would reduce the principality to a regretful and guilt-stricken soldier, obedient and eager to atone. And he had a specific way that he wanted the reports to be corrected.

A family was healed of illness and a general blessing was delivered upon the household” was the original report that he submitted ages ago. But now Aziraphale wrote “The Principality Aziraphale was ordered to heal a family of illness and deliver a general blessing upon the household, but the Principality Aziraphale failed in his duty and betrayed Heaven by not fulfilling that order correctly. The Principality Aziraphale allowed the demon known as Crowley to tempt him into disobedience and the demon known as Crowley performed the tasks for unknown evil purposes. The Principality Aziraphale will atone for his mistakes and will be loyal and obedient to all future orders, never straying from the path of good again. The demon known as Crowley will no longer be a factor, unable to tempt or deceive the Principality Aziraphale because Hell does not share Heaven’s kindness, grace, and forgiveness.

Every report that Aziraphale ever submitted, they wanted him to correct them and admit if Crowley was involved or even if he was present. And he had to write exactly the way that Gabriel instructed or else the words disappeared when he finished.

He hated it. Aziraphale hated the words that he was writing, twisting the facts until it painted a cruel picture. He hated the silence, the whiteness, the helplessness and the feeling of being trapped. But as bad as it was, the worst part was knowing that this was nothing compared to what was undoubtedly happening to Crowley.

Crowley was in Hell’s hands. And Aziraphale might not have quite the imagination as his demon, but his mind could conjure plenty of horrible possibilities. Heaven might try to pull their rogue angel back into the fold, to attempt to make him into an asset for the war that they desperately wanted, but Aziraphale knew that Hell would be brutal. They wanted to make him suffer. And while Heaven and Hell remained fooled regarding their “invulnerability” to hellfire and holy water, that would only prevent attempts to execute the demon. There were still ways to make someone suffer without destroying them with holy water.

And the angel knew that Crowley was suffering. Hell didn’t give out rude notes. They didn’t put traitors in a quiet corner and tell them to write lines. And every moment that Aziraphale was trapped, Crowley was in danger.

He wrote, hating every word on the endless pages. Aziraphale wrote because it kept him sane, it gave him purpose, and because he needed to get out and he’d tried every other way to escape. He wrote because it was the only thing that he could do.

He needed out. He would do whatever they wanted. He would endure it. As long as it got him out. Once he finished, they would let him out of the silent, white, and horrible room and he would find him. He would find Crowley.

Even if he couldn’t produce a single sound, Aziraphale kept silently begging Crowley to hold on and that he would find him. He would reach him somehow.

 


 

Crowley didn’t know where the pack of demons had spawned from. They had simply appeared without warning all around them, angry and vicious. Black and red eyes gleamed from faintly human-looking figures, the scent of fresh sulfur and brimstone too strong to ignore. The demons had clearly come straight from Hell, itching for a fight.

And then there was no time to think further.

Dark figures dashed forwards, slashing at him with occult blades. Most were on the ground, but a few had pulled out their wings to gain the advantage of flight. They were everywhere around him. And all of them were intent on tearing him apart. Crowley couldn’t escape them all.

But most of his attention was on the pale shape that he could only catch short glimpses of after the mob of demons separated them. A single speck of white in the dark crowd. Like a dove trapped within a murder of crows.

“Aziraphale!” he shouted desperately, exposing his own wings and trying to reach him.

Rough hands grabbed at him, pulling out dark feathers in painful bunches. Scratches and cuts appeared on him whenever he couldn’t dodge fast enough. And he was already tired before the fight began for some reason. The other demons dragged him back to the ground, battering and beating at him. But Crowley kept clawing his way forward. And his eyes never left the white shape weaving through the dark mass.

“Aziraphale!”

He had to reach him. That single thought pounded in his head like a drum. He had to reach his angel. Pain and fear for his own safety were left far behind. Crowley could only see Aziraphale in danger, flashes of white barely glimpsed through the crowd of attacking demons. And every instinct in him screamed that he needed to reach his angel now.

Crowley tore his way past a few more of the demons, ignoring the feeling of slime and grime as he shoved at them. Then there was a break in the crowd and he could finally see Aziraphale’s face. Crowley met his eyes, watching the angel’s worried expression relax a fractional amount and smiling a little in return. For a moment, Crowley felt a spark of hope.

Then a pair of demons tackled Crowley to the ground, pulling and twisting his wings in painful directions. A snarl of pain was all that he could manage as the wind was knocked out of him. And he lost sight of Aziraphale.

Their grip on him was firm, undoubtedly causing bruises, but it wasn’t enough to stop him. Crowley shifted into his serpentine form, forcing the change as quickly as possible, and they lost their hold as skin, torn clothes, and feathers were replaced by scales. Fangs sank into foul flesh as he struck out at them. Again. And again. At anything that came within range as he slithered.

Then he was human-shaped again, the change in shape just as sudden. Crowley was panting as he tackled another demon and kept going. The cuts burned and his body ached, but he kept going.

He couldn’t see his angel. He couldn’t see Aziraphale.

Eyes wide, Crowley scanned the dark mob of demons desperately. He couldn’t risk staying still, but he had to find him. He was in danger. He had—

There!

Horror stabbed through him as Crowley spotted a thick knot of demons clumped together. Attacking something in the center. Someone.

He dove desperately into the thick of it, grabbing and shoving the other demons away. Crowley barely noticed as they attacked him in return. They tried to tear him away, but they never had a chance once he spotted a limp hand and a pale coat sleeve.

Aziraphale!” he screamed, sore wings flaring out and slamming the other demons away.

Then it was silent. Crowley could only hear his own exhausted panting, his human-shaped body falling back on human behavior because he didn’t have the energy to do otherwise. The other demons were gone. He didn’t know where they went and the question seemed to flutter out of his thoughts before he could care. Crowley collapsed roughly to his knees next to a pale and still figure.

Dark stains. Crowley stared at the dark stains ruining his angel’s waistcoat and shirt. Wounds left by occult blades. Weapons forged to kill beings who weren’t limited to physical bodies, crafted to hurt on deeper levels. He knew what he was seeing and what it meant.

He tried to bury that realization.

Cupping Aziraphale’s slack face, pushing down the panic and desperation clawing at his chest, Crowley whispered, “Angel, look at me. I need you to open your eyes.”

He was shaking as he brushed back Aziraphale’s short hair, trying to coax out a response. His eyes burned and his chest ached sharply. He pulled his angel into his arms, cradling him close. Trying to pretend that he was wrong.

“Don’t do this to me,” he said with a ragged voice. “I know you’re a bit of a bas—” Crowley choked on the words and tears, shaking his head. “You can’t do this. You can’t. I’m supposed to protect you. I’m supposed to…”

Crowley barely noticed the ache and exhaustion of his body. All he could feel was the heavy weight in his arms and the sensation of something deep inside him cracking.

“Angel, could you… could you say the thing?” he asked, grasping desperately for anything that might work. “You promised, remember? I’m asking right now. Please say it. Please.”

He hugged the limp figure against his chest, trying to sense something. Anything. A speck of the angelic grace that he’d followed for six thousand years. Even the smallest sign would be enough.

He was supposed to protect Aziraphale. Crowley always kept him safe. Whether that meant reassuring him that handing over that sword was the right thing or dropping a bomb on the heads of a bunch of Nazis, Crowley always protected his angel. Because even before he recognized the feelings for what they were, he loved Aziraphale. But this time, he’d failed. And that knowledge felt like knives twisting in his guts.

It hurt. More than having Her grace and love taken away because he couldn’t stop asking questions. More than Falling.

“Please say it,” he whispered. “I’m begging you. Please say anything, Aziraphale. Please… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

And the last of his denial and hope crumbled, letting sorrow, loss, and grief wash over him like a tsunami. Crowley collapsed, clinging to his angel’s lifeless body. Tears streaked down his face unhindered. Something vital had been ripped out of him, leaving a ragged and agonizing hole where Aziraphale should have been. All the soft warmness that his angel sparked in him, his love, felt jagged and sharp as it sliced into him.

Loving someone meant letting that love be a part of you. Loving someone for six thousand years, letting those emotions grow and twine deeper like ivy until that love was buried into every corner of your essence, meant that it was part of the very architecture of your soul. But it also meant that when the person you love so deeply is torn away, it’s the equivalent of ripping out half the support columns, multiple load-bearing walls, huge chunks of the foundation, and even some of the door frames. You’re left with an unstable ruin on the verge of collapse.

Grief for what he’d lost mixed with guilt. It was his fault, whispered the thoughts in the back of his mind. Crowley didn’t reach him in time. Too weak, too slow, too useless to protect the most important thing in his existence. And that failure hurt.

It was the burning bookshop all over again. They took him. His best friend. His angel. Aziraphale. He was gone and Crowley couldn’t bring him back. And there was no convenient Armageddon ready to end the demon’s pain. No thermos of holy water to make it stop.

Holy water would be a soothing balm for the agony tearing Crowley apart.

Why?” he croaked, shaking with barely controlled sobs as he turned his face upwards. “Why him? Because of Your plan? Or because of me? Wasn’t Falling enough? Don’t take him to punish me.” Struggling through the tears and sorrow, Crowley begged, “Give him back. Take me. Not my angel. Not him.”

Words failed him completely, his throat too tight for the words to squeeze past. But the broken prayer continued.

Help Aziraphale. Mercy, please. Just this once.

But any answer that She might give, he could not hear. Grief, sorrow, guilt, and absolute hopelessness blocked out everything else. His entire world shrank until all that was left was the weight in his arms, the emptiness where angelic grace should be, and the visceral agony consuming him. Hell itself couldn’t have found a crueler torture.

That hazy thought, barely coherent or conscious, pressed a little harder. Crowley… was missing something. It slipped through his fingers, loss and heartache moving in to fill the space. And when part of him tried to pursue that stray and fading thought, it seemed to tear at him with claws and teeth. New pain to his mind to add to agony already in place. But he… couldn’t… let it… go…

Where… was he… Didn’t… notice his… surroundings…

Painful, hazy, and straining consciousness, hurting itself trying to follow the loose thread, stumbled as Crowley abruptly found his arms empty.

Where did…? He was holding something. Wasn’t he? Why was he gasping for air, like he’d been running? Or sobbing. Why did grief and sorrow weigh him down? He didn’t remember anything happening, but the emotions didn’t fade.

Crowley forced himself to his feet, exhausted and sore. Why? He glanced down. Everything seemed intact, though he felt like he should see cuts and ruined clothes. And his body seemed to ache.

Why did he feel so bad? So physically and emotionally drained? Aching on so many different levels? The questions kept trying to form, but would then flow away like water. He shook his head, trying to banish the weird feeling.

Then movement caught his eye and his head snapped up.

Crowley didn’t know where the pack of demons had spawned from. They had simply appeared without warning all around them, angry and vicious. Black and red eyes gleamed from faintly human-looking figures, the scent of fresh sulfur and brimstone too strong to ignore. The demons had clearly come straight from Hell, itching for a fight.

And then there was no time to think further.

Dark figures dashed forwards, slashing at him with occult blades. Most were on the ground, but a few had pulled out their wings to gain the advantage of flight. They were everywhere around him. And all of them were intent on tearing him apart. Crowley couldn’t escape them all.

But most of his attention was on the pale shape that he could only catch short glimpses of after the mob of demons separated them. A single speck of white in the dark crowd. Like a dove trapped within a murder of crows.

“Aziraphale!” he shouted desperately.

And once more, Crowley raced forward, unaware that this was not the first time that he’d experienced this and similar nightmarish scenarios nor would it be the last. And he did not realize that with each successful loop, he hurt himself further as he tried to tear his way out of a fiction fueled by his own imagination and made less progress towards the truth each time.

 


 

Hastur lurked outside the thick door, smirking at the pain, anguish, and distress radiating out from the room. This particular hallway in Hell wasn’t technically considered to be part of the Head Office, though it was connected by a narrow staircase and some back corridors. It was one corner of the building that wasn’t completely packed with demons. No one bothered to come down unless they had to since there wasn’t much to see and nothing much to do. The only ones who had a purpose to visit the long, dark, and dank hallway of rooms were demons assigned to the Soul Torture Department and most them operated outside of the Head Office where the human souls were handled.

For the moment, Hastur had the entire Annex to himself.

Hastur wasn’t a fan of the Annex. He was a traditionalist. He liked torturing human souls the same way that he preferred to tempt and corrupt them. Individually. Personally. There was a craftsmanship to doing things the same way that they’d been done for thousands of years.

But some human souls were stubborn. They resisted more traditional methods. It was frustrating until Malphas came up with a possible way to “soften them up a little” and he and Ose created the Annex.[3]

A dozen rooms behind thick metal doors, the metal glowing red in places from powerful wards and sigils. While occult and ethereal entities could directly influence humans and their souls to an extent, such as hypnotizing, teleporting, healing, controlling, and so on, that took concentration and personal attention that could be better used elsewhere.[4] It was far easier and more efficient to put the power into the room itself and let it work on whoever was placed inside.

And the spells crafted into the metal of the doors and the very walls of the chambers were designed for a specific purpose: to trap a soul in endless looping illusions of their strongest and most painful fears. The trapped souls powered the spell, their imagination shaping and strengthening it. They couldn’t break out because the only way was to break themselves. Each nightmarish loop felt completely real in every way and when the victim’s pain reached its peak or began to wan, the loop would begin again while the trapped soul didn’t remember the previous one. Each loop was like the first time. Only the emotional and mental exhaustion and pain accumulated. A week inside and even the most troublesome human souls would be weakened and vulnerable to traditional torture again. Not even the most stubborn or resistant humans could withstand a visit to the Annex.

The biggest downside was that none of the demons could witness the torture behind the door. Hastur would have loved to see what brutal and cruel torment that Crowley was suffering. He personally hoped that it involved having his wings torn from his body and his skin peeled off slowly. Hastur would have happily tried it in person on the Serpent.

But he wasn’t in charge of devising a punishment. Not after the failed executions and everyone needing a moment to consider their options. It took a couple years of debate, but it was the best plan that they could come up with. At least it was better than whatever nonsense that Heaven finally decided on for their rebellious angel.

If they couldn’t destroy the traitor in a public and painful method, they could at least imprison and torture him in a particularly unique fashion.

The pain and desperation that Hastur sensed through the door dimmed briefly, signaling the end of loop and the start of another. They weren’t completely certain of the effects that the rooms might have on a demon as opposed to a human soul. They just stripped him of his physical body and tossed him in, a bit like an experiment. Human souls and the essences of angels and demons weren’t exactly the same, after all. Human souls couldn’t be destroyed, not by holy water nor hellfire. A week in the nightmarish loops could leave a human soul mentally fragile and vulnerable, unable to resist further.

Crowley had already been trapped for nearly two months.

Hastur pushed himself away from the wall. He couldn’t stay there all the time. And it wasn’t as if he wouldn’t be able to come back and bask in Crowley’s suffering later. Unlike every other door along the hallway of the Annex, there were no door latches on his prison. Only a lock, the sole key in Beelzebub’s possession. The traitor wasn’t going anywhere. Hastur had all the time in the universe to enjoy his pain.

But if they ever decided to drag Crowley out for a few sessions of old-fashioned torture, Hastur wanted to be there to witness it. And not just because he was a traditionalist. One of the side effects of opening the door and interrupting the spell was the memories of all the previous loops would return at once. All those memories of suffering hitting at the same time could really take it out of a human soul. A final overwhelming blow as a parting gift from the Annex.

And considering how many loops that he’d already gone through, Hastur and a few other demons thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if they hit Crowley at the same time. Would he go insane? Would his mind crumble under the pressure, leaving him as a barely-aware shell of his former self? Or would he shatter on a more fundamental level? Maybe Hastur would find out if a demon’s essence could be destroyed by that much strain. Nobody knew, but it they wanted to find out, who better to try it on than the traitor who disrupted the apocalypse and who melted Ligur? If holy water didn’t do the job, Hastur could at least entertain the possibility that Crowley might rip himself apart or extinguish himself painfully somehow.

But any fun experiments along those lines would have to wait. They probably wouldn’t even consider dragging Crowley out and shaking up his torture schedule for at least a couple centuries at a minimum. For now, all Crowley had to look forward to was yet another loop.

“Have fun, Crawly,” he said with a sneer before walking back down the hall.

Things to do. Human souls to corrupt. He would visit the Annex again soon enough.

 


 

In America, in the home of an ambassador who abruptly moved his family back into the country two years ago, a thirteen-year-old boy sat up suddenly in his bed, breathing hard and blinking back the prickling of tears.

 


 

1 The ancient Greeks had separate words to describe these different forms of love. Philia, storge, eros, agape… None of these forms of love were considered lesser and all were important. Unfortunately, the English language just squashed them all together with the same word. But what can you expect with a language that gives off the impression that it mugs other languages in dark alleyways and goes through their pockets for random verbs? [ ]

2 Not impossible though. The Not-Quite-End-Of-Times had proven that much. Aziraphale was one of the first angels to figure out that possession was not only possible for them, but also wouldn’t cause them to Fall. Assuming that the human was willing and open to such things, of course. But lacking a physical body of his own would at least hinder him if he managed to make it that far. [ ]

3 It was the closest thing that most demons ever got to being creative, though an outside source was responsible for Malphas’s uncharacteristic moment of imagination. The inspiration actually came from a misfiled and unsigned memo that Malphas found that said, in shaky and wine-stained handwriting, “Humans are better at torturing themselves than we ever will be. No demon could come up with half the things they do to themselves on their own.” By sending the note during his week-long bender after glimpsing exactly what was happening during the Spanish Inquisition, Crowley managed to invent all the problems of drunk dialing someone before the creation of the telephone. [ ]

4 Demons and angels, however, could not use their abilities directly on each other. Not unless their target directly allows it and made themselves that vulnerable on purpose. An angel could not hypnotize a demon, a demon could not teleport an angel away, and an angel could not even heal another angel unless their patient allowed them. Otherwise Crowley’s faceoff against Ligur and Hastur in his flat might have gone differently if they could have used demonic miracles against him directly. The only exceptions to such a rule would be a particularly powerful demon or angel, one in a position of high authority, being able to influence those under their command and only within their own domain. Yet another reason why Armageddon was intended to take place on Earth. [ ]