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Snakes and Stones (Never Broke My Bones)

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Snakes and Stones (Never Broke My Bones)

            No one wants to say it, but the residents of Dorm A, floor 3, are collectively convinced Aziraphale Fell’s boyfriend does not exist. They feel bad for thinking it, for the most part. Except for Gabriel, who everyone collectively agrees is kind of a dick. But there’s simply no way that a.) Aziraphale managed what all uni freshmen say they’ll do but consistently fail to follow through on – namely staying in love with a high school sweetheart even when you attend universities at least three hours apart, and b.) that his supposed boyfriend looks anything like the picture he has on his phone.

There are a number of schools of thought on the Aziraphale Fell boyfriend situation. The most generous camp assume it’s an internet relationship and the poor lad is being catfished or trolled and that’s really too bad. The least generous assume he’s made this person up whole cloth and he’s just a lonely loser. Somewhere in the middle are the misery lovers who think maybe the person is real but the relationship is all in his poor, deluded head and he’s set to have his heart broken any day now.

Aziraphale’s roommate Newton would very much like to stay out of all the speculation, please and thank you. He privately hopes the boyfriend exists. One, because Gabriel is his and Aziraphale’s suitemate and he’s such a condescending prick to Aziraphale every time the guy answers a text in Gabriel’s presence that Newton wants him to be proven wrong just to make it stop. And two, because if Aziraphale Fell can get a hot boyfriend, then maybe Newton will meet a cute person someday who finds his idiosyncrasies charming instead of massively off-putting.

Aziraphale is a beacon of hope to nerds in argyle everywhere and Newton is rooting for him, he really is.

            It’s all Aziraphale’s fault the rumors started. Sort of. Indirectly. For one thing, Aziraphale always seems to be texting someone. He texts this someone a lot. And Newton knows it’s not him, because Newton’s phone is a flip phone and he has a limited texting plan because anything higher tech tends to spontaneously turn suicidal whenever he’s within spitting distance. He types his papers on a typewriter, it’s that bad.

            Aziraphale is charmed by the typewriter because Aziraphale is one of the weirdest goddamn people Newton has ever met in his life.

            For one thing, he is eighteen goddamn years old and looks like a semi-retired English professor. Not his face, his face is cherubic with white-gold curls and soft eyes and a pleasant smile. But he wears khaki pants that don’t necessarily look worn out so much as lovingly worn in, loafers, and a variety of check print collared shirts, sweater vests, jumpers, and tweed jackets. He could look hipster if he weren’t quite so genuine in everything he ever says and does.

            He knits. He knit Newton a hat when Newton said he didn’t have one. He added a scarf to go with it when Newton “still looked cold” the next day.

            He doesn’t wear hats himself. He carries an umbrella in theory but in practice he forgets it constantly and always comes home in a sodden trenchcoat, looking a little forlorn when there’s a downpour.

            “Why don’t you carry your umbrella more?” Newton had asked after the third time this happened.

            Aziraphale had sighed heavily, “I should, shouldn’t I? I’m just not used to remembering these things myself. Crowley usually reminds me.”

            “Who’s Crowley?” Newton asked innocently.

            Aziraphale brightened like someone dialed a dimmer switch all the way up then kept going. “My boyfriend!” he’d beamed, “You’ve seen his picture in our room, I’m sure?”

            The picture he’s referring to is a snapshot Newton had always assumed was focused on a car – a lovingly restored black vintage Bentley. The kind of heavy, old-fashioned car that makes one think of jazz, moonshine, and Bonnie and Clyde. Sure, there was a person in the picture, leaning sardonically against the hood, wearing black skinny jeans, a black blazer (despite the bright sunlight turning his dark red hair into a halo of flame), and sharp black sunglasses. Newton is not sure how sunglasses can necessarily be ‘sharp’ but these can definitely slice and dice, metaphorically speaking. But Newton always assumed the person was sort of incidental to the car. The person in question is only sort of smiling, after all. And if someone is taking a picture, especially someone you like, you tend to muster up at least an obligatory sort of smile.

            “Oh, that’s…I thought that was a picture of a car.”

            “Yes, that’s his Bentley. He’s rather obnoxiously proud of it,” and Aziraphale had rolled his eyes and Newton assumed that would be the end of what amounted to just one of those odd little conversations that pop up between two young people whom student housing has unceremoniously shoved together.

            Newton would be wrong.

            Apparently once Aziraphale realizes Newton isn’t going to fly into a homophobic fit or tell him to shut up about his personal life, he starts to pepper references to Crowley into nearly every conversation. Just lots of little things like “oh Crowley loves black coffee” or “Crowley’s sulking because they killed his favorite character on this terrible show he watches – ” or when they’re picking up groceries and wander through the florist section – “I don’t suppose you can ship plants, can you? Crowley would just love this orchid…”

            Newton doesn’t mind, he really doesn’t. He thinks it’s kind of nice, even.

            Of course then they’re at one of those ridiculous ‘hall bonding events’ Campus Life makes their RA throw every other week and someone overhears Aziraphale mention Crowley. The conversation that follows will near-exactly match every other subsequent conversation Newton witnesses regarding the mysterious Crowley, so the exact dialogue is lost to him but it always follows a roughly similar pattern:

            Random Bystander: “Who’s Crowley?”

            Aziraphale: “My boyfriend!”

            Random Bystander: *looks at Newton expectantly*

            Newton: “Not me, he doesn’t go here.”

            Aziraphale: “He doesn’t live in the area, we mostly text.”

            Random Bystander: “OhI see.”

            Then they shoot a pitying look over Aziraphale’s head as if to say to Newton: ‘What a poor gullible bastard; nice of you to let him believe in his probably-not-a-real-person boyfriend.’ Or they shoot a chastising look over Aziraphale’s head as if to say to Newton: ‘Really? You let this poor gullible bastard be strung along by a potential internet predator? For shame!’. Either way, Newton wishes Aziraphale were taller and less…extremely Aziraphale.

            Because no matter which way you slice it, Aziraphale is a genuinely sweet person. He bakes cookies in the communal kitchen and leaves them out in the floor common area during midterms. His side of their shared dorm room is basically a disaster zone full of heaps of books, sweaters, loose papers, and even more books, but he keeps it all contained on his side of their cramped room and tries not to allow his books to colonize the suite common area too badly. He’s not tidy but he is clean and he doesn’t go out and party like the fourth member of their four person suite (who Newton met once then never saw again, leading him to believe either Gabriel has murdered him and very effectively hid the body, or he’s just a monster of a party animal – Newton leans toward the latter because every few days the suite common area with be trashedin the morning when they all wake up and Gabriel will be bitchy instead of pompous because sleeping on the couch while hisroommate…entertains…messes up his back.)

            Aziraphale may have a weird name and the fashion sense of a great-grandpa who still refers to World War II as ‘The War’ as if there were never any others, but he’s a genuinely nice person.

            He even feeds the ducks on campus. Albeit, Newton is fairly certain the ducks have some kind of mafia shake-down operation in place because he has seen them bully visiting high schoolers into giving up the bread on their sandwiches, reducing them down to pathetic hungry teenagers eating lunch meat and wilted lettuce with their fingers while the triumphant waterfowl feast on the carcasses of their dignity. And bread.

            But Aziraphale buys stale bread specifically forthe ducks, which seems to shame them into good behavior for a solid twelve hours after a feeding, so he’s probably a force for good or possibly a kindly eldritch horror, all things considered.

            So while Newton doesn’t know if he actually thinks the elusive Crowley is a real person, he’s more than willing to believe in his existence out of spite and a misplaced need to protect his roommate from hostile speculation.

            Then Aziraphale gets drunk.

            Newton knows exactly how this happened, but it doesn’t really make him feel any better so he decides he’s going to unilaterally forget all the antecedents leading up to this moment and focus on fixing what he and a bottle or three of merlot have broken.

            Midterms just ended and everyone is looking a little haggard. Even Gabriel, who has to drag himself out to go jogging morning and night instead of prancing off spouting suggestions that they ‘hit the gym instead of the books’ sometime the way he usually does.  Grades are trickling in over the course of the week and Newton has finally received confirmation that their fourth suitemate is alive when he has a drunken shouting match with Gabriel, who forces him to sleep it off on the couch instead of monopolizing the bedroom. Newton hides in his and Aziraphale’s room until the coast is clear. When he asks Gabriel later, his suitemate grunts and says “Somebody decided celebrating grades needed to happen at two pm,” he’d pinned Newton with a Look, “It is NOT five o’clock somewhere anywhere near this room.”

            Newton had just nodded and beat a hasty retreat.

            Then Aziraphale learns he failed an ethics of philosophy test.

            Newton has no idea who in their right mind looked at Aziraphale, who, despite his geriatric wardrobe, looks like he wandered out of a renaissance painting of seraphim and cherubim and might not even be legal to drive, much less drink, and thought “Yes, I’ll sell this baby-faced child three bottles of expensive red wine”. But obviously someone did because Aziraphale shows up with all three bottles and a look of grim determination and says “Let’s get drunk” at five pm and when Gabriel goes to protest Newton hits him with a couch cushion and says “Shut up, it’ll literally 5 o’clock right here.”

            Now, Newton knows Aziraphale is intelligent. He’s intelligent in the way spelling bee champs are intelligent. He is a walking, talking information repository. He can debate ethics for days and he has take out menus for every restaurant in a five-block radius memorized. Newton initially simply cannot fathom the notion that Aziraphale Fell managed to fail any kind of test in his life, ever, period.

            Then he actually sees the test.

            “You should make a complaint about this,” Newton says, looking up from all the red marks to see Aziraphale chug a red solo cup full of wine while Gabriel looks on in horrified consternation.

            “Do you ever think about the intelligence of whales?” Aziraphale says vaguely in response.

            Newt stares imploringly at Gabriel, mouthing ‘help!’ at him. Gabriel just sort of shrugs and downs his own wine, eyes still fixed on their bleary-eyed roommate.

            “Seriously, Az,” Newton says, “this test was graded unfairly. Just because you disagree with the professor’s personal interpretation of the text doesn’t mean your arguments are unsound!” Newton isn’t a philosophy student. He’s a math major. But even he can see that this amount of red ink spilled on an essay response this well-constructed is patently unfair.

            “It’s immaterial,” Aziraphale waves off Newton’s concern, pouring himself another slug of wine.

            “Gabriel,” Newton hisses at him, but their suitemate seems to have decided that being a supportive friend in this instance means matching Aziraphale drink for drink and he’s staring off into the distance too.

            “Whales have no drive. No sense of mission or purpose. I like sharks. Always moving forward. No retreat! No surrender! Victory or annihilation!” 

            “Gabriel!” Newton complains just as Aziraphale makes a cry of distress and begins passionately advocating for whales.

            Newton gives up, tables the topic of unfair grading for a time when Aziraphale is less distressed and pulls up ‘Planet Earth’ on Netflix. It seems to be what the people want, because both Aziraphale and Gabriel cheer for this new development, Gabriel yelling “Yeah! Circle of life, hooo-RAH!” and Aziraphale clapping delightedly, chirping “Dolphins!”

            Newton rests his forehead on the coffee table and resigns himself to being sober for the rest of the night.

            An hour or two later Gabriel is snoring and Aziraphale has flopped from the couch to the floor and is resting his head on Newton’s shoulder, sniffling as the credits roll.

            “I miss Crowley,” Aziraphale says, his voice very soft and very small. “He makes me feel like it’s worth trying again when I fail.”

            And that’s what cinches it for Newton. He doesn’t need any kind of evidence anymore. Crowley has to be real.

            “We could call him?” Newton offers, tentatively. It’s gotten late but not too late, and if Aziraphale’s texting is anything to go by, Crowley will probably respond eventually, even if they just leave a message tonight.

            Aziraphale sniffles again. He’s not a terribly imposing figure in the day-to-day, but his personality takes up space in a unique way, blanketing everything around him in a strange, almost grandmotherly sort of tenderness and light.

            Now he just seems small. And sad.

            So Newton says “Give me your phone,” despite the risks inherent in Newton Pulsifer making any kind of physical contact with an electronic device more complex than a toaster. It’s already unlocked and the background image is of course a photo of the watermark from an original Shakespeare folio lit up from behind because of course it is.

            He goes to contacts and finds ‘Crowley’. There aren’t hearts or nicknames or any of the lovey-dovey nonsense generally associated with high school romance. There’s not even an indication of whether or not this is a person’s first or last name. There’s just ‘Crowley’ in plain black lettering.

            Newton presses the ‘call’ button and hands it over before his hands can somehow curse the phone into nonexistence or something.

            Aziraphale takes the gadget with clumsy fingers and presses it against his ear. He’s still slumped against Newton because apparently they are now the soppy drunk kind of friends, but that’s really fine. Once someone knits you a hat and scarf just because you looked a bit chilly, you kind of have to accept that you’re sort of close now.

            Newton expects the call to click over to an answering machine, but a drawling voice picks up on the second ring. “Bit late for you to call, angel, everything alright?”

            Oh fuck. Newton hadn’t doubted the existence of the mysterious Crowley since Aziraphale got weepy drunk, but it’s still a little disconcerting to put a voice to a name and reputation.

            “Not really but I don’t want to talk about it,” Aziraphale slurs.

            “You been drinking?”

            “Maybe a little. Lovely Merlot, bit pricey, though. And Gabriel drank most of it.”

            “What a prick.”

            “He’s not so bad.”

            “Says you.”

            “Says me.”

            A pause. Newton is definitely starting to feel weird about eavesdropping, however unintentional.

            “Whatdoyou want to talk about, angel?” says the drawling voice, soft and somehow kind despite the sardonic tilt to the words.

            “Talk to me about dolphins,” Aziraphale says, “I’ve just been watching a special.”

            “Alright then.”

            And Newton falls asleep to his weird roommate drunkenly slurring about the intelligence of dolphins to his actually-a-real-person boyfriend on the floor of their suite’s living room.

            The next morning Azirphale is (entirely unfairly) completely un-hungover and full of righteous indignation over the unfairness of the test’s grading scale. He marches off to lodge a complain, Gabriel in tow, because Gabriel always likes a good fight, and Newton trailing behind because he feels weirdly responsible for the two weirdos he lives with.

            The grade is re-evaluated.

            Newton gets a message from a blocked number saying “This is Crowley, you’re the newt, right?”

            Newton texts back “Newton Pulsifer, can I help you?”

            He gets a string of blank boxes that are probably emojis that don’t translate onto Newton’s flip phone’s text interface and “Bloody hell, if I asked you for your birthdate and social security number you’d probably give them to me, wouldn’t you?”

            Newton doesn’t know what to say to that so he just sends back “I have limited texting on my plan. Keep it short pls?”

            “Look about for Aziraphale. Text me if he needs me,” is all Newton gets in response.

            He sends back “Sure, of course,” and receives a blank box that probably started life as some sort of affirmative emoji.

            Gabriel is either less of a dick the more you get to know him, or, like a creeping vine you start to just see his bad qualities at something giving your crumbling Victorian manor house ‘character’. He is, at the very least, less of a dick about Aziraphale’s possibly-nonexistent-except-Newton-knows-he-does-exist-and-likes-emojis-too-much boyfriend. The rest of Dormitory Building A, floor 3’s residents have not had this wine-and-BBC-fueled change of heart and continue to quietly patronize Aziraphale whenever he brings up Crowley.

            Which is a lot.

            It’s not obnoxious, really, it’s just a million tiny references that trigger the same rainbow of pitying to condescending expressions from everyone in his audience except for Newton, who knows Crowley is a real person that occasionally sends Newton weird, out-of-context and vaguely threatening memes, and Gabriel, who seems to have decided that delusional or not, he will defend Aziraphale with his life.

            And then Halloween weekend happens.

            Newton walks into their suite, head spinning from too much calculus all at once (can you overdose on limits? Newton thinks so. The limit exists. He’s hit it; he’s hit it so hard his face is probably turned inside out), clutching his fifth espresso of the day, hoping he can just collapse face-first into his bunk and forget the next twenty-four hours. Of course the one time he walks backwards into the room, popping the door open with his hip because he’s got a death grip on his books, his coffee, and his calculator, is the time that something completely unexpected happens.

            “What on earth are you doing?” asks a strange voice from somewhere behind him and Newton, over-caffeinated and jumpy as a rabbit on crack, manages to startle so badly he slams his head on the doorframe, slams the door itself on his foot, and drops everything in his arms on the floor, except for his coffee, which he drops on himself, giving his chest a minor burn while he’s at it. When he eventually hits the ground he decides to just stay there until the room stops spinning.

            He closes his eyes briefly only to open them to find The Most Beautiful Girl in the World peering down at him along with a vaguely familiar guy who’s dressed in various shades of black and grey, yet somehow manages to look kind of like a rockstar everyone’s vaguely familiar with but can’t name, and wearing sunglasses indoors, which makes him look kind of like a pretentious jerk.

            The Most Beautiful Girl in the World is wearing flowy, high-waisted bohemian pants with black designs printed on a blue background and a black knit halter-top.  She is also wearing round, slightly hipster-y glasses with black plastic frames that somehow manage to make her more attractive rather than less. Her cloud of black hair is half pulled up in a sloppy bun and her skin is golden brown and perfect. Newton wonders if he’s hallucinating.

            “Look what you did,” the guy in the sunglasses says.

            “I didn’t do anything,” The Most Beautiful Girl in the World huffs.

            “Well I hope this one’s the one nobody likes, then,” sunglasses guy says.

            “I hope I’m not the one nobody likes,” Newton slurs. He’s pretty sure he formed words somewhere along the line there.

            “Should we get him off the floor?” The Most Beautiful Girl in the World asks.

            “Don’t look at me,” glasses guy huffs, “You’re the one who’s all about the natural healing crystal stuff.” He makes a vague hand gesture as if to encompass the entire field of herbal supplements and perhaps organic chemistry and geology as well.

            “Well his pupils are roughly the same size, so I’m guessing it’s not a concussion.”

            “Guessing, Anathema?”

            The Most Beautiful Girl in the World has a name! Newton feels blessed. Also quite headachy.

            Of course Gabriel turns up and nearly trips over him because Gabriel ruins everything. Although in this situation his bluster and blithe assumption that he knows everything ever worth knowing is actually helpful, because he’s certified in First Aid and can actually tell if Newton is broken beyond repair.

            It turns out he isn’t, which is really for the best.

            They excavate him from under his heap of books and help him limp over to the couch where Gabriel presents him with a couple of ice packs and some asprin and tells him not to be such a klutz.

            When Gabriel wanders off to the kitchenette, presumably to do Gabriel things like drink green protein shakes; Anathema and the guy in the sunglasses converge on Newton.

            “Congrats, Anthony, you managed to break the roommate,” Anathema sits on the coffee table, crossing her legs and smirking up at her friend.

            “You’re the one who startled him,” the guy – Anthony? – scoffs.

            “You’re the one who insisted we drive up here for Halloweekend.”

            “I wanted to come up for the weekend. Youwanted to tag along to visit your nutty grandmother.”

            “Her name is Agnes Nutter, she’s not actually nutty,” Anathema protests with the sound of someone following the script of a well-tread argument.

            “Your grandma is Professor Nutter? The history professor?” Newt asks, feeling more than a little shell-shocked, “She and Professor Shadwell in the math department hate each other,” he giggles because even a grown man can giggle after a head injury he decides, “It’s awesome,” he pauses and thinks, sobering, “She scares me, though.”

            Anthony peers down at him through dark lenses and says, “I hope you’re more sensible when Anathema hasn’t bashed you over the head with a doorframe.”

            “I didn’t bash him over the head!” Anathema protests just in time for the door to open again.

            “See, he flinched, you traumatized him,” Anthony is saying, gesturing to Newton. He’s cut off, though when a new voice interrupts.

            “Crowley, darling, I’ll be very cross with you if you came all this way up here just to terrorize my roommate. He’s not one of your plants, you know.”

            Newton had thought, between the calculus, the blow to the head, the door to the foot, the coffee to the neck, and the appearance of Anthony of the Dark Sunglasses and Anathema, the Most Beautiful Girl in the World, he had experienced enough shocks for one day. Turning his head in time to see Aziraphale Fell standing in the doorway, a smile bright enough to power a small country, staring tenderly at Anthony of the Dark Sunglasses is enough to tell him that no, just like in calculus, there is no limit to the number of bizarre occurrences one day can hold.

            “That’s why he looked so damn familiar,” he mumbles to himself as he watches what had seemed like a pretty cool if a little rude and aloof person transform into a snarky puddle of sunglasses-wearing goo at the sight of Newton’s frumpy roommate.

            Aziraphale is beaming, there’s no other way to describe it; it’s like he’s a searchlight on a lighthouse and Crowley – which must be a last name – is the ship following the light home. Aziraphale becomes the second person to drop everything he’s holding in the doorway to their suite because in two seconds his arms are full of what must be his boyfriend – who definitely is real.

            They hug first, which tugs on something somewhere near where Newton thinks heartstrings would be, were he to have any. They wrap around each other like survivors from some terrible disaster finally finding each other in the aftermath. Like two people who haven’t seen each other for years – or one person finally coming home after a long stay abroad.

            They don’t kiss until after they’ve clung to each other for several long seconds and it’s not the typical sloppy, hormonal nonsense you see from eighteen year olds, but there’s something indescribably tender in how they come together that has Newton looking away, feeling like he needs to give them a moment to be in their own little bubble.

            Of course Gabriel ruins it because that’s Gabriel job in this friendship.

            Apparently he turns around just in time to catch the smooching part of the proceedings, because he drops his kale protein shake thing on the ground and practically shouts, “Holy shit, he’s real!”

            Aziraphale goes to spring away from his boyfriend, but Crowley just wraps both arms around his shoulders like a petulant python, squishing Aziraphale down so his head rests on Crowley’s chest, allowing the other boy to rest his chin on a head of white gold curls as he glares at Gabriel.

            “Of course I’m bloody real you prat.”

            “Crowley, be nice.”

            “No.”

            “Yes.”

            “No.”

            “Please?”

            “Fine. Of course I’m real you…chimpanzee.”

            Aziraphale sighs. “I’ll take what I can get.”

            “Chimpanzees have been documented to eat the young of rival groups.”

            Aziraphale beams again, “You did watch the nature special!”

            Gabriel goes to object to being associated with cannibalistic monkeys until Anathema throws up her hands and says, “Does anyone manage to keep ahold of anything in this dorm? Books? Coffee? Weird kale drinks? A train of thought?”

            Gabriel busies himself mopping up spilled liquid kale and Newton goes to clean up his coffee only to be shoved back onto the sofa. “Not you,” Anathema tells him, “You’re bruised.”

            “How many people don’t believe I exist?” Crowley asks in the doorway.

            “I’m sure no – ” Aziraphale begins, only to be cut off by Gabriel and a reluctant Newton.

            “Everyone.”

            Something firms in Crowley’s posture and he spins around, dragging Aziraphale with him, “Time to knock on everyone’s doors and scare the hell out of them.”

            “Crowley – ” Aziraphale tries to put up a token protest but his eyes are glinting with vicious humor.

            “It’s the spirit of the season, angel!” Crowley declares, sweeping out of the room, Aziraphale huffing and laughing in his wake.

            Anathema and Newton look at each other.

            “I know I’m injured and all, but I think I could get Professor Shadwell to cross your Grandma’s path this afternoon if you wanted to see them fight,” Newton offers. He’s still feeling more sore about the calculus lecture that turned his brain inside out than he does about the incident with the door.

            Anathema smiles and Newton is reminded again that she’s the Most Beautiful Girl in the World. “Sounds good to me.”