Aziraphale wasn’t sure how it happened — what exactly had happened. He would think back on the exact moments as somehow simultaneously happening in slow-motion and entirely too fast to have ever been prevented. One moment the painting was securely in his hands, a smudge on the otherwise flawless frame having been just lovingly wiped away with a handkerchief he always carried. The next it was on the ground at his feet, the glass shattered and the painting behind torn in jagged lines that folded inward, looking like giant chunks had been taken from the artwork. Aziraphale felt the blood drain from his face while his stomach knotted in a heavy way that made him feel like a star had exploded in him.
“Oh F—…. Oh no. Oh goodness what, ahh,” he stammered, taking a small step back from the mess. This was bad, this was very, very bad. He hadn’t meant to break it, of course. He just wanted to polish the frame a little, and now…
A million things ran through his mind at once as he spun to look around him. Luckily, he knew, he was in a small back corner of the library. People didn’t often come to this entire floor let alone this tiny little alcove so chances were good, very very good, that nobody would know what he’d—
A man leaning on the bookshelf three rows from the destroyed painting, his arms crossed with one leg hitched effortlessly over the other, made Aziraphale freeze as his heart jumped into his throat. He wore a facial expression that was two parts amusement and one part sympathy and an ensemble of black on black on dark gray on black that clashed with everything in the room, including Aziraphale’s light beige tweed. “That’s unfortunate,” he said dryly, tipping his head down to eye the guilty party over his sunglasses. He’s wearing sunglasses indoors , Aziraphale thought. Of course he is.
“I—Um… Er.” Aziraphale looked down at the painting and up at the stranger and back again a few times helplessly. “Uhhh.”
“It was an accident,” he blurted the first thing he could think.
“Oh, I can tell that ,” he removed his shoulder from the bookshelf in a way that made it look like an effort, as if he were doing the bookshelf a favor, and took a long step towards Aziraphale and his pile of glass and canvas and wood. “Now I’m just curious what your next move is going to be.”
Aziraphale looked back down at his mess and frowned. “I guess I could explain what happened. But I’m so close to having a permanent position. And I can’t exactly afford to replace it if they ask me to.”
“Mm yeah. Not always the best policy, honesty.”
“But I can’t just leave it like this.”
“Probably also bad.”
“Do you have a single helpful thing to say, or are you just here to torment me?” Aziraphale glared across the shelves. “Who are you, anyway?”
“Anthony J. Crowley.”
“Right. A pleasure, Mr. Crowley — but—”
“Professor Crowley, then, I—”
“Just Crowley is fine.”
Aziraphale stared at him for a silent exasperated moment. “Are you quite done?”
Crowley nodded with almost his full body and a friendly little ‘mmhm.’
“Well then, Crowley ,” he eyed the man sideways through narrowed eyes. “Do you have a single better idea, or are you just here to torment me?”
“I may,” he said, closing the gap between himself and the ruined painting. He picked the whole thing up, nonplussed as a few lingering shards of glass fell out onto the floor, and tilted it to and fro slightly a few times. “Not really worth saving, though, is it?” It was technically nice, Crowley supposed, or it had been a few minutes ago. The colors were soft and dreamy in a way that felt reminiscent of JMW Turner but with an angelic figure and… maybe a sword… It was hard to tell in this condition. Crowley was almost entirely sure this had been the long forgotten work of a student who had graduated years and years ago.
“I liked it,” Aziraphale replied somewhat sheepishly.
“Yeah, huh? Well in that case,” he cracked the rest of the glass unceremoniously, ignoring the surprised yelp from behind him. “You throw out all of this broken glass — no, I don’t know where, that’s a you problem — and I’ll take this,” he had already removed the painting from the frame with expert nimble fingers and was halfway through rolling it up. “And I guess you can either try to sneak this frame out in your bag or find one just like it somewhere else. Luckily it wasn’t that big, yeah?”
“That’s all well and good, but how does it actually help?”
“You replace the glass. I know somebody who can either fix this or make a convincing approximation. It’s back up before anyone notices. And considering this is usually my ‘don’t want to talk to any other people’ corner, I’m assuming nobody will notice forrrrr... a while.”
Aziraphale watched him for a long moment after he finished speaking. “You have a friend—”
“Friend is a strong word.”
“—Who can either repair torn paintings or make convincing forgeries.”
“Well, convincing enough.”
It was a good offer. A very good offer. From someone who he didn’t know who had stumbled upon this disaster by chance. Like divine intervention.
Only, real people didn’t work like that.
“And what do you get out of this?”
Crowley shrugged. “You can owe me one.”
“That’s it? I— Who — I don’t even know you.”
“If you insist, you can buy me lunch, too.”
Aziraphale took a long, exasperated, confused breath. “Yes,” He said, accepting that today wouldn’t begin making sense any time soon. “I suppose that’s fair.”
Aziraphale was pleased when Crowley picked the nice little cafe in town for lunch. It wasn’t terribly popular with students on weekdays so the crowd was light and they found themselves at a table by the large bay window and a picturesque view down the street. He opened the menu and looked it over, but he didn’t need to, he knew what he was ordering as soon as the cafe’s name had been uttered. When the waiter came for their order, Aziraphale rattled off his and waited expectantly for his companion to do the same and nodded, thanking the young man as he finished jotting down their orders and left.
“So,” Crowley picked up his water glass close to the top, as if the condensation would cause him pain. “Do you often hang out in the dustiest corners of the library destroying vaguely biblical paintings?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Azirphale responded quickly. “Not the bit about the destroying vaguely biblical paintings of course, that would get expensive, but the rest.” The smirk he received in response was almost automatic, a tight, fast expression full of impressed amusement and quickly hidden by his water glass. “Do you often hang out in dusty library corners spying on unwitting men?”
The expression stayed. “Corners, yes. Spying, only when something very interesting is going on.”
“I’m interesting, then.”
“Very.” There was a pause, a short one but the silence was loud in Crowley's ears, until Aziraphale let out a little laugh and grinned and reached for his own glass and seemed to relax. Crowley took this as an invitation to continue. "Not exactly a popular corner to linger in — s'why I chose it. Usually there's nobody else there to bother me."
"Oh, I think you'll find I'm very little bother," Aziraphale said automatically, without thinking and then immediately feeling the heat in his face and the look behind his lunch date's dark glasses. "That is to say, It's just a very good spot for reading. I go there because it's quiet."
"Mmhm. Theology department got you hiding?”
Aziraphale paused for a moment. “I don’t believe I told you what department I was in.”
“You didn’t. I’ve seen you around. Was working with your department chair on a joint project… thing. Didn’t go well.”
“Oh. With Gabriel? Yes. He can be…”
“A total twat?”
“A perfectionist,” Aziraphale countered in a tone that was dry but not entirely dismissive. There was a momentary look that Crowley almost missed - a glance to the right and flicker of nervousness. “He’s just-”
“You’re too nice. He’s insufferable. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Well, what about you?” Aziraphale snapped back, feeling indignant and defensive on behalf of his department. “I don’t know anything about you still besides that you may keep questionable company, have been edging in on my reading corner, and are the sort of person who wears sunglasses indoors.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow. “Ask away.”
“All right then. Why are you wearing those in here? It doesn’t strike you as rude?”
“Photophobia—not a phobia, just—”
“Light sensitivity,” Aziraphale finished with a cringe.
“That’s the one. It’s not the only issue—got shit eyes. Ergo—”
“Prescription sunglasses. Yes. Right. I’m so sorry—”
“Stop that,” Crowley dismissed him. “Next question?”
“What department are you in?”
“Science. Biology, mainly. Botany when they bother to offer it.”
“Biology?” Aziraphale blinked. “What on Earth did Gabriel want to collaborate with you on?”
“It was some garden project… thing.”
“Oh of course! I remember that one. It went—”
“Down like a lead balloon?”
“Poorly. Yes. A shame.”
Crowley put his now empty glass down. “We should talk business.” The change of subject was so sudden and that it could have broken necks.
“Ah. About whatever favor you’re going to hold over me?”
“What? No” Crowley made a face. “You’ll know when I want to cash that in because I’ll say, ‘Hey Aziraphale remember that favor you owe me? I figured out what I’d like.’ I meant how I’ll let you know what the plan is, what my guy says about your painting. Stuff like that.”
“Of course,” Aziraphale nodded. “I suppose I could give you my email—or is that a bad idea, being my campus email and a campus… you know… issue. I don’t keep a personal email though. Or—”
“Do you have a phone number?” Crowley said slowly.
Aziraphale grinned at his phone with a giddiness he couldn’t quite explain.
The rest of lunch had been lovely. There had been an awkward moment when their food was brought to the table and Aziraphale realized with a sinking stomach that he had ordered much more than the other man, but then there was nothing. No commentary, no judging looks, there wasn’t even a break in the conversation. They walked the conversation comfortably from minor art forgery to the trials and tribulations of teaching to where they had gotten their various degrees to what they did with their limited free time. Not everything meshed, of course. Crowley didn’t have quite the endurance for novels that Aziraphale had; “Bad eyes. By the time I’m done grading I’m ready to become one with the TV if it means not reading another word.” And Aziraphale’s knowledge of music from this half of the century made Crowley cringe and laugh at the same time. But there was overlap in movies and television and stage productions.
It had been fun, much more fun than Aziraphale had anticipated when he was standing in the library with a destroyed painting at his feet. He hadn’t spent much time with anyone outside of his department in longer than he would like to admit and the change of pace had been welcome. And the company was….
Aziraphale shook his head like a child clearing an etch-a-sketch. Stop it , he told himself. That won’t do.
He was still smiling when he got into his office the next day. His first class wouldn’t be meeting for about an hour and then his office hours weren’t scheudled until two-thirty. That left plenty of time to prepare for the day, get ahead on his lesson plans, maybe even get some light reading done—
“Zira!” Aziraphale cringed inwardly at the sound of his own name behind him.
“Gabriel, good morning,” he swallowed his annoyance and turned with his most welcoming smile. “What can I do for you?”
“What can you do for—? No no no.” He chuckled in a way that made Aziraphale feel like he was being mocked, though he could never put a finger on why. “No, I came in to warn you. There’s been talk of budget cuts.”
“Oh?” Was all Aziraphale had for quite a few seconds. Budget cuts were never good news. Professors found themselves unemployed when budget cuts happened. Professors found themselves unemployed when they weren’t within a few months of earning a permanent teaching position while covering up the fact that they’d smashed a piece of the campus’s art. “Is that so?” he finally landed on.
“It is, yeah,” Gabriel picked a book up off of the deak and flipped through the pages carelessly. Aziraphale grimaced, and silently begged the other man to put down the antique before he ruined any pages or put a crease in the spine. Gabriel shut the book with a loud, bored clap and dropped it perfunctorily onto the desk in the general vicinity of where it had started. “Shouldn’t be a problem for you though, right?”
Aziraphale shook his head, “Oh, no. I couldn’t imagine why it would be.” He took a breath as his phone vibrated loudly on his desk behind him. “Out of curiosity, is this a campus-wide problem, or is it just our dep-”
“No, it’s a few departments. I had the same thought, argue some sort of unfair treatment.” Azirapale was careful to keep his expression neutral, concerned he maybe let an eyebrow go astray for a moment; that was decidedly not what he had been thinking. “But unfortunately no, there’s a bunch of departments in the crosshairs. So make sure you’re at the top of your game. I’d hate for you get this close to your tenure just to get let go.”
“Hah. Yes.” He hoped his voice didn’t sound as stiff and hollow as he felt.
“I wonder if we can just call up some alums and get them to donate.” Gabriel laughed to himself while Aziraphale forced a smile and nodded as his phone buzzed again. “Aren’t you popular this morning.”
“I’m sure it’s just…” he couldn’t think of what it could be. His phone didn’t normally ring at all unless it was work related. “Student emails or something.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to it, then. Remember, top of your game.”
“Yes, of course. Tip top, thank you.”
As soon as he was alone again Aziraphale closed the door to his office and took a deep breath, rubbing the heel of is hand into his forehead and humming anxiously before finally making his way to his desk chair. What bad timing. What truly terrible timing. He picked up his phone, a well out of date flip phone that couldn’t receive an email in its wildest dreams, and checked the notifications.
Crowley - Tue 9:14am
i talked to my guy got a good news bad news situation
And then there was a line of symbols that Aziraphale could only imagine were meant to look like a face. He ignored the hieroglyphs and moved on to the next text.
Crowley - Tue 9:16am
it’s too much to type. lunch again?
It wasn’t lost on Aziraphale that simply calling hadn’t even been touched upon as an option. The thought of having somebody seek out the opportunity to spend time with him twice in as many days made the grin that Gabriel had managed to steal creep back.
Besides, between noon and two-thirty his schedule was entirely clear.
“That would be lovely. My class ends at twelve. - A” he typed back slowly on his worn numbered keys.
Aziraphale eyed his class. There was always one every semester who thought that basic level courses were a perfect time to catch up on sleep. Usually they had the wherewithal to sit in the back.
Not Mr. Young. He sat in the front row and managed to doze off roughly fifty percent of the time. It made sense, Aziraphale supposed. Sometimes students found their way into this class to fill some general credit requirements, and his friend always sat front and center with notes and questions and lectures in reply to the lecture. Naturally, Mr. Young sat next to her. Naturally, Ms. Moonchild was doing quite a bit better in the class.
Aziraphale continued talking to the students as he reached into his old and well loved messenger bag. He kept lecturing as he pulled out a round twin bell alarm clock and twisted one of the knobs on the back, glancing down at the clock’s face and then back to the hall. He swept by the front row, placing the almost cartoonishly old clock on Adam’s desk and nodding to the seat to his left.
“Yes, Pepper. You have something to add.”
He nodded along as she spoke, only half listening as he silently counted down—five… four… three… two…
Adam jump straight up when the alarm went off, his yell drowned out by the laughter of the rest of the lecture hall.
“Mr. Young, you’ve decided to join us just in time to hear about this week’s reading. How convenient for you.”
Aziraphale listed books and pages and excused the class and no sooner did the words leave his mouth than he saw a familiar copper glint walking against the stream of escaping students.
“Professor Crowley,” he grinned, picking his clock off of the desk Adam had evacuated moments earlier.
“I cannot believe you just did that.”
“Oh, this?” he held the offending antique up before sliding it back into his bag. “Sometimes they deserve a little wake up call.”
“You’re telling me. Once I lobbed a plant at a sleeper. Just psssssth waaahhhhwww,” he mimed a throw and an explosion with his arms before shoving his hands back into his pockets. “It was fine. Kid was dirty to start with.”
“How are you still teaching?” Aziraphale squinted.
“Nnneghhh?” Crowley started to shrug but stopped short with a nervous look over the blonde’s shoulder. “You uh… good to go right now?”
“Almost, just collecting my—”
“Aziraphale. How was your class?”
He turned and smiled warmly as Michael approached, a few books stacked in their arms. “Good. Very good. What will you be covering to—”
“Professor Crowley,” their attention already off of Aziraphale and whatever question he had been about to finish. “What are you doing here?”
Crowley’s lips were pursed and pressed flat, his shoulders raised slightly, almost defensively. “Just picking up your coworker here for a hot date. You know how it goes,” he said dryly.
Michael gave no reply, instead turning their attention to Aziraphale who in turn turned with wide eyes to look at Crowley.
“Well! As he said, off to lunch. We have things to discuss—work related things—so we’ll be on our way. Have a great class!”
“That was awkward,” Crowley said as the door to the lecture hall fell shut behind them.
“Why would you say that?!”
“That we were going on a—” Aziraphale looked around and lowered his voice to a harsh whisper, “—a date.”
“Oh. I thought it’d be funny.”
“Ah. Well, apologies.”
“I could get in a lot of trouble.”
“How?” Crowley made a face, one eyebrow jotting upward.
“You know. There are rules.” Crowley looked perplexed. “About not dating other faculty members?”
“Yeah those are—aren’t there—You guys follow that rule?”
“Yes of course.” Aziraphale felt like he was explaining how often water tended to be wet.
“We don’t. I’m pretty sure most of the other departments don’t really… enforce it. You’ll be fine.”
Aziraphale made an exasperated noise and tightened up his jaw.
“You’re not getting fired over a joke, I promise.”
“You seriously even follow that one, huh? You’re like a perfect angel,” Crowley said as he lead the way to the darkest, oldest car in the parking lot.
“Is—I am not. —This is yours?” Aziraphale pointed as Crowley clicked his key into the door lock. The argument shelved at least for the moment.
“No. Stole it.”
“Really, Crowley,” Aziraphale rolled his eyes but the smallest smile gave him away.
“Of course it’s mine, angel. Get in.”
“That… wasn’t too much to type,” Aziraphale said, putting down his cup.
“It was not.”
“You said we should get lunch because it was too much to type.”
“That may have been a wiley ploy to get you to come with me to lunch again,” Crowley smile was boyish and crooked and Aziraphale was impressed by how expressive he could be with his eyes hidden.
The painting was destroyed, that was the bad news. It was destroyed and couldn’t be repaired. But it could be replaced. Unfortunately it would take a couple of weeks, but within the month they would have a reasonable replica for the library. And with any luck nobody would set foot back there before then.
“Well, lucky for you,” Aziraphale said, “I’ll always accept an invitation to lunch with nice company.” Crowley’s expression didn’t change as much as deepen, an eyebrow raising in interest as his smile shifted to the right in a way that made Aziraphale feel his face get hot. “And,” he continued feeling a little awkward and very seen, “Your text couldn’t have come at a better time, if I’m being honest.”
“It’s nothing, really. Gabriel was just letting me know about funding issues when you —”
“It’s going on all over campus, looks like. Rumor I heard is that they’re talking about getting rid of entire departments,” Crowley said matter of factly.
“Are… Are they?”
“That’s what they say.” He had a calmness that could have only come with knowing that his position was safe.
“Oh.” Aziraphale looked down for a moment in panic. It hadn’t been a secret that the theology department had been waning in popularity lately. Prospective students chose other, more specialized universities.
“You okay?” Crowley asked gently.
Aziraphale didn’t respond, thinking about how if he were being very honest, the department hadn’t done anything different in a few years now and was starting to feel stale. Maybe—
“Hey, angel,” Crowley tried again, reaching over the table to wave a hand in front of his face. “You okay in there?”
“Oh, um… Yes. Absolutely fine. Tip top.”
Crowley pursed his lips and tapped on the table a few times in concern, but Aziraphale didn’t wait for him to press any further.
“It’s cold out there, isn’t it?”
He squinted a little at this, not that it could be seen through his glasses. Changing the topic to the weather ? But Crowley could take a hint and complain about the cold for a few minutes. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s terrible. I’m looking forward to summer.”
The students gossiped. The students always gossiped, but if he was being very honest, Aziraphale knew they were nothing compared to the staff. The other professors, the TAs… they talked and that was, as Hamlet would say, the rub.
But maybe in this one specific case they could have kept it to themselves , Aziraphale thought, more praying than hoping as he knocked on Gabriel’s office door. Maybe just this once Michael could have not taken the opportunity to speak to Gabriel about Crowley’s little joke two hours earlier. That would be nice.
“Come on in,” his chipper voice called back and Aziraphale closed his eyes and took a deep breath before daring to turn the knob.
“Aziraphale,” Gabriel clasped his hands on top of his desk and leaned forward just slightly. “I didn’t expect to see you again today. Please, come in, close the door.
He didn’t want to, but he complied, quietly shutting the door behind him and taking a seat across the desk; finding himself staring at the perfectly polished “Department Chair” name plate that sat between them. Gabriel’s office almost physically hurt to look at for too long. The giant window behind him let in an amount of sunlight that should have been impossible, and on its own that would have been lovely. Aziraphale could imagine pulling a plush chair and a small table under Gabriel’s window and reading an entire book in one sitting. But Gabriel’s vision for his office had been a little different. A very simple white desk sat centered before the window with an abstract mirrored sculpture sitting in the corner. Besides that the office was empty, almost sterile, and felt almost singularly designed to reflect as much light as possible directly into the eyes of whoever was unlucky enough to be sitting in the seat on the far side of the desk.
“I—,” Aziraphale started, but the rest disappeared, the sound lost and spoken over.
“Michael tells me you’re fraternizing with Professor Crowley.”
“Oh, yes. We met the other day. He seems—”
“He’s a bad egg,” Gabriel said shortly and with a finality that made Aziraphale swallow and brought him back to vague memories of being scolded by his parents. “I wouldn't want you to get mixed up with someone like that. Especially with the looming cuts.”
“Yes. That’s actually—”
“And you definitely wouldn’t want anyone to think anything salacious was going on,” he continued, paying no mind to what was being said on the other side of the desk. “That would be very bad for you, with the rules as they are.”
“Yes. No. I—” Aziraphale floundered. This isn’t what he wanted to talk with Gabriel about. This was the last thing he would ever want to talk with Gabriel about. “That is, we’re just friends. He’s helping me a bit of a project—a personal project, nothing interesting.”
Gabriel’s response was a long hum and shallow nod. “You should be more careful with who you choose to associate with.” Aziraphale nodded with a dry mouth, not entirely sure what he was agreeing with but inwardly begging that it would move the conversation forward, away from this topic. “So what can I help you with today, Aziraphale?”
“Yes!” He nodded again, more enthusiastically this time, clapping his hands together. “Regarding our conversation earlier about the budgetary concerns.”
“And you stepping up your game.”
“Right. Just so.” He was immediately feeling deflated again, that hasn't even last a single minute. “I heard a rumor today that—”
“You know what they say about rumors.”
“That entire departments may be in jeopardy of being eliminated.”
“Where did you hear that?”
Aziraphale winced as he tried to come up with an answer without conjuring Crowley’s name back into the conversation. “Friends,” he landed on, lamely.
“Friends.” Gabriel repeated before standing and walking around to the other side of the desk, looming with a smile that would have been less menacing if it had been a scowl. “Listen, Aziraphale. I think you may be getting a little worked up over nothing.”
“I just thought, if this was true maybe there would be something I—we could do to help protect our own interests a little. Fundraising, or a letter writing campaign, or—”
“Do you really think any of that would do anything?”
“I… really don’t know,” Aziraphale said quietly.
Gabriel chuckled and clamped a hand down on Aziraphale’s shoulder. “The best thing you can do is get your work done, stay out of trouble, and be more careful who you go on ‘hot lunch dates’ with. Understood?”
“Yes,” he breathed as Gabriel removed the hand from his shoulder.
There was a smile and a nod and a “Have a good day" that Aziraphale knew actually meant, “You’re dismissed,” and he was back in the hallway, releasing a breath he thought he may have been holding the entire time he was in Gabriel’s office.
He dragged his feet a little back to his own office feeling disheartened and small and unsure of what to believe and even less sure of his future.
The week had been quiet. Aziraphale ran through lesson planning and grading and lecturing almost automatically, like a dance that he had long since memorized the moves to. He could read papers and listen to classroom conversations and take a few moments to not think too hard about his crumbling professional life or his ill advised social prospects.
The flip phone buzzed on his home office's desk, threatening to dance itself into the now empty Saturday morning mug of cocoa Aziraphale had prepared as a grading-papers-while-under-an-avalanche-of-stress treat to himself.
‘Speak of the devil,’ he thought, taking an extra few silent seconds before putting the papers down, tucking the red pen behind his ear and reaching for his phone.
He hadn’t been avoiding Crowley for the last few days. They had been chatting in texts, making small talk, discussing television shows they both kept up on, surface level conversations and complaints about work and students, a faux heated disagreement over stew’s hypothetical status as a soup. But Aziraphale had made a concerned effort to keep it light. He avoided talking about the theology department or especially Gabriel, and he politely sidestepped both new invitations to spend time together that had come up since their second lunch.
He wanted to accept the offers; coffee had sounded lovely and he had been interested in seeing that film at the small indie theater in town. But Gabriel’s little chat still echoed in his head and Aziraphale hated that he had allowed that man the real estate in his mind. Still, he wouldn’t be evicted.
A picture accompanied the text this time showing the park full of booths and banners under the early afternoon sky.
Crowley - Sat 12:03pm
some sort of fair at the park. Wanna meet me down here?
Aziraphale bit his lip. He couldn’t avoid this forever and he enjoyed spending time with Crowley.
He happened to also enjoy having a job.
“I’m grading papers right now. Perhaps a rain check? -A,” he typed back before putting the phone back on the table with a click.
The pen was hardly back in his hand when it buzzed again.
Crowley - Sat 12:04pm
come on you can grade tomorrow. Or tonight. Plenty of time
Aziraphale typed out a few words and then pressed delete repeatedly to try again. Nothing sounded right. The phone vibrated in his hands while he worked on draft number four.
Crowley - Sat 12:10pm
come on angel get out of the house. I’ll buy you a churro.
Now that’s tempting, Aziraphale thought.
Crowley - Sat 12:10pm
:( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :(
Crowley finished tapping out a row of sad faces and was about to send a dozen ice cream emojis when the text bubble popped up on the other side of the screen.
Aziraphale - Sat 12:11pm
All right. You win. I’m on my way.
When Aziraphale made it to the park Crowley was cradling about a dozen churros. “Told you,” he said, holding out the bundle in his arms.
“Um. Thank you,” Aziraphale took one, his grin betraying him for just a moment. “Shall we?”
The fair was small, a collection of art vendors and games and snack booths. It looked like there would be a local band performing soon and the two made an effort to walk generally in the opposite direction.
“So why are you avoiding me?” Crowley said after a few minutes.
“I’m not—” Aziraphale avoided looking directly to his left. “I wouldn’t… The very thought.”
“You’re a terrible liar.”
“You are, angel. You really, really are.”
There was a pause as Aziraphale tried to ward off the approaching wave of guilt. “I apologize.”
“What in the hell for? You don’t need to be sorry for not wanting to see me. I was just wondering what’d brought it on. Luckily I figured out that you can be bribed with pastries,” he motioned at the remaining churros.
“Hah. Yes. And you still have that favor to cash in.”
“That’s true, yeah,” Crowley said slowly. “But I also happen to enjoy spending time with you.”
Aziraphale looked at the ground for a few moments, the quiet between them growing louder with every second “It’s not you,” he said finally, slowly. “I’ve enjoyed spending time with you, too. It’s just… I had a conversation with Gabriel after lunch, and—”
“And he was… I don’t want to say threatening regarding us spending too much time together... but he was less than encouraging, I should say. And I really like my job, Crowley.”
“Ahha.” Crowly’s expression was hard to read but Aziraphale couldn’t help notice his eyebrows dip for just a moment. “I can leave you alone if y’want.”
“No, I don’t want that either.”
“It’s not against the rules to have friends,” Crowley said a little experimentally.
“And that’s what we are.” He continued, waiting for Aziraphale to jump in with a contrary word. “I just won’t joke at any of those wankers about taking you on dates anymore.”
“That seems equitable,” Aziraphale smiled. “Friends, then.”
“So what did Gabriel have to say that had you so spooked? Besides that I’m evil incarnate and to be avoided at all holy costs.”
“It wasn’t anything quite like that,” Aziraphale chuckled. “He did say that you’re a ‘bad egg,’ I believe. And that people may think something salacious was going on.” Crowley laughed at this and Aziraphale turned to look at him as he grinned. “I don’t know what reputation you have, my dear boy, but it precedes you.”
“Just so. But he was also not entirely…” Aziraphale struggled to find the right word, “forthcoming regarding the possibility that the department could just...go away.”
Crowley made a vague sound in his throat and nodded as Aziraphale blew out a breath and stared straight ahead in thought.
“I’m considering going to the dean and trying to speak directly to her—see if there’s anything I can do to save my department. Have you heard anything else?”
Crowley shook his head. “Not in the last few days. But I can keep my ear to the ground if you’d like.”
“I’d appreciate that, yes. Thank you.”
“Sure,” Crowley shrugged.
Aziraphale wasn’t paying attention and didn’t hear his own name being called two, three, four times now. He was holding his flipped open phone and looking down at the screen with a toothy grin that would have earned him a series of sideways glances and judgemental questions near the classrooms he frequented if any of his coworkers actually saw him. But outside and halfway to the library nobody paid him any mind.
“Aziraphale!” the voice tried again as he pressed send and blinked in recognition before immediately slamming shut his phone and shoving it into his pocket before turning.
“Oh!” It was just Anathema. “Hello my dear. How can I help you?”
“I’ve been trying to get your attention for a while!” she breathed, catching up with him finally. “I wanted to talk to you about something. You busy right now?”
“I’m, um… meeting somebody at the library in a little bit, but I have a few minutes to spare. Is everything all right?”
“You tell me,” Anathema said a little quietly. “I’ve been hearing rumors from your part of campus that make me worry about you.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale said shortly. “Yes. Honestly I wish I could clear anything up for you but my department chair isn’t telling me anything.”
“It could be nothing,” she said, reaching into the brown messenger bag that hung from her shoulder, checking the time on her phone and then dropping it back where she’d found it. “What I’m hearing isn’t promising, unfortunately. But I may have some good news.”
“That would be more than welcome right now,” Aziraphale said bitterly.
“It looks like we’ll be celebrating a retirement at the end of the semester, leaving a few literature classes professorless.” She eyed him expectantly, smiling.
“I’m not sure I’m qualified,” Aziraphale started, flattered but taken aback at the suggestion. “I don’t have a doctorate in—”
“Not yet. There have been exceptions for people who are in the process of pursuing the degree.”
“But I’m not—”
“You could be though. People like you around here, you know your department is in trouble, why not get ahead of it?” Aziraphale’s lips flattened in uncertainty but Anathema ignored the face he was making. “Besides, can you really say you’ve enjoyed the department since the new chair stepped in? Because I haven’t heard a single person outside of his little clique with anything nice to say.”
“I—” Aziraphale’s mind couldn’t agree on one thought for more than a moment at a time; it felt like learning to swim in choppy water in the middle of the night while someone yelled contradictory instructions through a megaphone. “I’ll have to think about it, Anathema. But thank you for thinking of me.”
“Think about it,” she said, more of a command than agreement. “I’m pretty sure you’d be more qualified to teach some of this material than anyone else on campus and I can put you in front of the right people, but I don’t know when the opening is going to become public knowledge. Okay?”
“Yes. Okay. Thank you,” he repeated. “I will certainly think about it.”
She said goodbye and went back in the direction she had come from and left Aziraphale alone again with his thoughts and some mild shock. He would never not be amazed by Anathema’s uncanny ability to know everything that was going on on campus at all times.
And a transfer had never even occurred to him.
She is never wrong, though , he thought to himself as he quietly continued his walk to the library. About anything.
But a transfer would be a lot of additional work, and he truly did enjoy what he did… even if some of the members of his department were difficult sometimes.
He ran through their conversation and her offer. The general concept of sharing his favorite books with students was promising, perhaps even motivating. He thought about how to learn more about the troubles in his own department and how to alleviate them and what he would say to the dean if he got a chance to speak with her as he got to the library and climbed the stairs and made it to his favorite quiet corner. When he finally arrived, mind still running from one thought to the other, Aziraphale dropped his bag on the ground with a gentle thud and let himself fall into the weathered velvet chair.
It had obviously been a well loved chair once, either this part of the library had been more popular once upon a time, or more realistically, it had previously lived in a place that received more foot traffic. But now it was soft and worn and frumpy in a way that Aziraphale relished.
He checked the time before tucking his watch back into its pocket and leaned back, allowing himself to relax for the first time since stepping on campus this morning. He had a few minutes to himself, a perfect opportunity to take his mind off of the theology department and Anathema's potential transfer and Gabriel and read for—
“Aziraphale,” Gabriel’s voice made him involuntarily draw his shoulders up to his ears. “What a surprise. What are you doing up here?”
“Er—Hello. I like to come here and read sometimes, it’s quiet. What are you—do you come up here often?”
“Here? No,” Gabrial guffawed. “I’m just here for this,” he held up a rust colored hardcover and spun it in a little show. “Say—” Aziraphale glanced past Gabriel and down the row of bookshelves, wishing he would leave before this run-in had an opportunity to get even more awkward. Instead he kept talking. “—wasn’t there a painting there before?”
He pointed past where Aziraphale was sitting at the wall as Aziraphale watched Crowley saunter down the line of shelves and stop mid-step when he saw what was going on. He had headphones in and couldn’t have heard what he was walking into, but he clearly recognized the man who’s back he was seeing and the expression on Aziraphale’s face. Crowley silently pointed at Gabriel’s back and grimaced as Aziraphale eyed him for just a moment before bringing his eye contact back up to meet his department chair’s.
“Was there?” He tried to keep his voice carefully flat, but instead the words came out as a squeek as Crowley darted between the bookshelves in his periphery. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“I’m sure there was.” Gabriel’s voice was low and certain and inquisitive as if he were trying to solve a mystery.
“Perhaps they have decided to put up a new piece or paint the walls and—”
Gabriel shook his head and pulled his attention away from the suspiciously blank wall with a snap and sudden indifference. “Well, I’m sure it’s just out for detailing or whatever you do with paintings. Enjoy your reading, Aziraphale.”
And without waiting for a reply he was gone, leaving Aziraphale with a quiet farewell and a heartbeat that he only now realized could probably be heard from across campus.
“That was something,” Crowley chirped, stepping out from between two shlelves much closer to Aziraphale than he had entered.
“That was terrifying,” Aziraphale corrected him. “He could have seen you and I would have gotten another lecture—and he was almost onto us regarding the painting—”
“Yeah, but he’s not, is he?” Crowley countered, walking to the window and pointing at the blinds. “You mind?”
“Not at all,” Aziraphale responded, not quite sure what he was agreeing to and not quite caring.
Crowley pulled on the drawstring as their small corner of the library became noticeably darker. He pulled the dark glasses away from his eyes and hooked one arm on the front of his shirt before returning to where Aziraphale was allowing himself to get comfortable again, taking a seat on the equally worn ottoman.
“Besides that near miss with heart palpitations, how have you been?” Crowley asked as he popped open a gray glasses case and flicked open the pair inside; standard clear glasses, rectangular and spotless where the dark pair were round and very well loved.
“Good, all things considered,” Aziraphale nodded, turning towards his friend. “I had—” He stopped suddenly, staring at Crowley’s face for a few long moments.
“You’re not wearing your glasses— the dark ones I mean; I’ve never seen them!”
“Oh,” Crowley paused in self-consciousness. “I suppose not. It’s usually too bright, so—”
He shut his mouth when Aziraphale leaned in to see their color—honey brown with gold flecks that would tragically be strikingly beautiful in the light.
“Ngnn... Are you …” he tried, awkwardly.
“Oh! I’m so sorry. Popped into your personal space, didn’t I?” Aziraphale pulled himself back into his seat, hoping this lighting would make it difficult to see the redness in his face.
“It’s—yeah—no. It’s not—Don’t worry about it.”
“You have nice eyes.”
The consecutive seconds of quiet between them became almost painful before Aziraphale forced himself to ignore the embarrassment and attempt to continue the conversation. “I had an interesting chat with a friend of mine on the way here.”
“Oh yeah?” Crowley glanced in his direction and then away again.
“She—Anathema—sweet girl, very smart, knows everything that’s going on around campus somehow. She mentioned that there will be an opening in literature and that I may be able to make myself eligible. Should my department implode, that is.”
“That’s good news!” Crowley got up and slid the ottoman over slightly to face Aziraphale again. “Are you going to apply?”
“I don’t know,” Aziraphale said slowly. “There’s quite a number of factors. My department may shake out just fine. I would need to have a relevant doctorate to qualify, or at least be in the process of pursuing it. She thinks she could give me a leg up, so to speak—have me talk to the right people. But it would be a lot of work and I don’t want to commit to this and have my current position stay secure after all.”
Crowley blinked at him and Aziraphale found that he couldn’t quite place the expression he was seeing now—how many times had he received this exact look and not known what it actually looked like behind those lenses.
“You should apply for it!” Crowley said suddenly.
“Oh,” Aziraphale looked down with a small smile. “Yes, Anathema said so as well. It would be quite a lot of work, though. Not to mention a waste of my time and theirs if theology—”
“No, angel, I mean you should go for it regardless. Transfer to a new department, get away from those people.”
“I like my job, Crowley,” he said with a quiet finality. “Very much. I don’t want to start a new one if I don’t have to.”
“It wouldn’t be a new—You’d just be teaching something different. And you wouldn’t have Gabriel breathing down your neck all the time.”
“Gabriel isn’t so bad.” It was a lie and Aziraphale knew it, but the response was automatic and defensive.
Crowley narrowed his eyes and pulled his lips into a very tight, flat frown. “I just watched how you are around him. He scares the hell out of you, and he knows it.”
“And then there’s the matter of needing the degree,” Aziraphale ignored his assessment.
“It would be a lot of work, yes, but—”
“It is a lot of work. Heaven knows how long it would take me to finish the degree while teaching.”
“Finish?” Crowley cocked his head a little. “Finish as in start-and-also-finish, or as in you’ve already started and now you only need to finish?”
Aziraphale winced, caught. “The latter. I put it on pause a few years ago and just never… Well, I suppose I never got back around to it.”
Crowley sputtered in disbelief for a few moments. “Just—just do it!” he finally let out. You know you’d be happier.”
“I don’t know that.”
“Well I know you’d be happier.”
“With all due respect, Crowley, you haven’t known me long enough to make those sort of presumptions,” Aziraphale said, clasping his hands together tightly in his lap and looking forward and away from his companion.
Crowley shut his mouth and watched as Aziraphale’s expression and posture stiffened and his words cut him out completely. He stayed silent for a few moments and then nodded twice before standing and reaching for his glasses.
“I have office hours soon,” he said, slipping the glasses back over his eyes. “I’ll see you.”
And in just a few long strides he was gone again.
It had taken three phone calls, two emails, and a physical visit, but Aziraphale finally managed to secure a meeting with Dean Goddard. He’d arrived at her office ten minutes early, let the dean’s assistant know he had arrived with a pleasant tone that he hoped would say ‘Hello I am very polite but I am also very serious about actually seeing her today, thank you,’ sat down, and cracked open a book he had bought days earlier.
He was dismayed to find that the words wouldn’t be read.
Individually every word made sense, but together they were gibberish. He would finish a paragraph, realize he hadn’t actually absorbed a single thought and try again with much the same outcome. Aziraphale closed the book and placed it gently on his lap and took a breath. He was familiar with anxiety, but it had never interfered with his ability to enjoy reading before. This was unacceptable. This was intolerable. This would have to be fixed.
He glanced at his phone, still a few minutes before his meeting was scheduled. Still no new notifications. Aziraphale pursed his lips and sighed.
Crowley hadn’t said a word since the library on Monday. And now Aziraphale faced his last responsibility on campus before the weekend without so much as a hello. A small voice deep down yelled that he should apologize, that his friend was speaking from a place of support and encouragement and love…
But he had been presumptuous and insistant and he wouldn’t listen. There were factors. Aziraphale couldn’t just change paths at the drop of a hat. He had been with his department for years, surely commitment and loyalty meant something. Anathema’s offer was good, it was very good and the temptation Aziraphale felt to call her immediately was nagging and real.
But there was a lot to consider. And he had to at least try to salvage his current home.
He just wished Crowley would understand that.
Aziraphale tucked his phone back into its pocket and drummed his fingers on the unread book, sadly. He probably could have reached out himself, instead of waiting for his friend to say something. But where would he even start?
“The dean is ready for you now.”
“Thank you,” Aziraphale stood and nodded and entered the office as Dean Goddard smiled and stood and held out a hand to shake his.
“Hello! Please, sit down. I’m sorry you had such trouble scheduling this meeting.”
“Oh, no trouble at all. I know you must be busy.”
“I am, yes,” she nodded looking tired and maybe a touch overwhelmed, but never losing the cheerfulness. “I don’t have very much time, unfortunately, I have another meeting in about twenty minutes.”
“That should be fine, I don’t think I should take very long.”
“Great.” She rested her arms on her desk and laced her fingers together. “What can I help you with, professor?”
Aziraphale took a breath. “Well, ma’am, there have been rumors going around campus… budget cuts and what not.”
“Oh. Yes,” she said simply as her expression melted. Her smile remained intact, but her eyes looked sadder now.
“And,” Aziraphale continued. “I heard that here’s the possibility that entire departments could be disbanding. I’m afraid mine may be in danger and I wanted to know what I—what we could do to keep ourselves off of the short list. If there were fundraising opportunities, or—”
“What department are you in? I’m sure It’s in the notes on my calendar, but If you wouldn’t mind just reminding me.”
She was typing and clicking through her computer and Aziraphale couldn’t see the screen from where he sat, but he recognized the tone of her voice. It wasn’t promising.
“I... “ She bounced a finger on her desk a few times, the quiet taptaptap almost rhythmic. “I don’t have fantastic news for you, unfortunately.”
“I see,” Aziraphale felt his shoulders fall slightly.
“But if I’m being completely honest, I’m surprised you had to come to me about this at all. It looks like quite a few other members of your department have been… well, I don’t want to say abandoning ship. But making arrangements.”
“Oh?” He blinked in confusion. What arrangements could they be making? They didn’t know anything. Gabriel said that he didn’t know anything.
“I can’t be too specific with you, you understand, but there are at least four others members of your department we’ve received reference calls about. In just the last few days. Granted, this isn’t entirely public news yet, we haven’t officially announced to the faculty at large or the students yet but as you’ve said, rumors. If there were a sizeable donation or a massive student demonstration some things may be shuffled around. But as it stands now…”
“Oh.” Aziraphale repeated. She offered her regrets that the news couldn’t be better and he politely deflected, his brain running mostly on autopilot as the meeting finished winding down. He stood, numb and hurt as his mind raced from one thought to another and then back again. “Thank you for your time.”
Crowley would have resented working this late on Friday afternoons if it weren’t his favorite class. Nobody signed up for advanced botany by accident, so there was relatively little skipping or sleeping and sometimes, sometimes a student would even be moved enough by the subject matter to engage a little. Plus, Crowley enjoyed talking about plants.
The door in the back of the room silently swinging open caught his eye, and he watched as a figure walked in and quietly placed themselves on a vacant stool in the back corner of the room. Crowley continued the lecture and moved onto the reading for the weekend and a less than gentle reminder about lab times before dismissing the class an entire two minutes early. He leaned on the class facing desk with his arms crossed as his students siphoned out and as the very latecomer sat still in the seat they had claimed.
“You need something?” Crowley asked when the door swung shut behind the last student.
“I… yes.” Aziraphale stood and started down the row of long lab benches. “I am having an absolutely terrible week, and I was hoping you’d join me for a drink?”
He could feel Crowley’s eyes even through their armor and the silence between them felt like a year instead of a few moments. “Department stuff?” he asked finally. Aziraphale nodded and Crowley shook his head in disbelief. “I don’t understand you. You’re so clever, why are you so stupid when it comes to them?”
“I’m not—I just wanted them to be different than they are, I suppose.”
“So what happened?” Crowley made no effort to move from his slouch against the desk as Aziraphale instinctively clasped his hands behind his back and rocked back on his heels slightly.
“I’d rather not—Maybe in a day or two I’ll be in a mind to discuss it. I just need a moment I think. But that drink?”
Crowley pulled himself up to stand at his full height. “Unfortunately, I’ve got plans tonight, angel.”
Airaphale nodded. “Yes. Tomorrow would be perfect.”
The first thing Aziraphale did when he woke up on Saturday was call Anathema.
“I thought for certain I would be hearing from you yesterday,” she said instead of good morning or hello or how are you this fine day. “But I’m glad to hear that you’ve come around. Email me all of your stuff and I’ll start talking to people on my end.” They had discussed some of the finer details and what Aziraphael could feasibly expect to get done by Monday at which point Anathema was promised a good cup of coffee somewhere where they could sit down and discuss this in person.
She hung up fewer than twenty minutes later and Aziraphale consulted the checklist he had made for himself while they spoke with a little disquiet. It was possible to get back into a doctorate program, of course. He had put his studies on hold with good standing and an ideal relationship with his advisor and the administrators and his work had always been exemplary.
But leaving and then coming back, especially given the somewhat desperate circumstances, made his stomach contract in embarrassment and apprehension. Still, it has to be done , he told himself.
He powered up his computer, a slightly out of date desktop model that he had refused to upgrade five years ago, and began draft one of many carefully worded emails he would write that day.
It was hours later when he clicked send on his final draft of his final email and powered down the entire machine, refusing to even look at his inbox for the rest of the night, and picked up his phone.
It was late, almost dusk now, and he hadn’t heard from Crowley all day. Were they not getting that drink after all?
He tapped out the start of a friendly ‘hello how are you?’ when the phone rang in his hands.
“Good evening.” he said into the receiver. “I was just about to send you a text message.”
“Good timing then,” Crowley’s voice came back through. “What are you doing right now?”
“Um… nothing. I just finished some work, but not a thing now.”
“Perfect,” Crowley said. “How do you feel about some stargazing?”
“Stargazing?” Aziraphale repeated, not sure if he’d misheard or just misunderstood.
“Yeah, stargazing. Looking at stars. It’s a ridiculously clear night and it would be a shame to waste it, and I know, I know, this sounds like a weird romantic thing to do but no, I swear, stargazing as friends. Friendly stargazing. Like friends do.”
Aziraphale wasn’t sure if Crowley had left room to breath the entire time he was speaking. “That could be nice,” he finally said after a short, dubious pause.
“I know you said you wanted to get a drink, and I have some wine. So, stars and wine. Like friends.”
“That sounds nice, Crowley,” he repeated reassuringly. “When would you like to go?”
“Now? I’m pulling onto your street now. So now.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale went to his sitting room window and moved a curtain to the side to see the Bentley making its way down his street. “So you are. I’ll be out in a moment.”
It had been a long drive and when Aziraphale had pointed that fact out Crowley scoffed a little, his glasses pushed up to his forehead and replaced with the rectangular pellucid ones as the sun had finished setting. “Of course it is. We need to get away from all of the light pollution and the university. You need it dark to see the good stuff.”
Aziraphale shrugged and shuffled through the collection of music in the car, picking a CD by cover art more than name and hoping for the best. Crowley smiled when Queen came through the speakers. Aziraphale was just pleased that it was something he somewhat recognized.
When Crowley stopped the Bentley they were indeed in darkness. They were in a field, far from anything save for grass and crickets and a road that Aziraphale was frankly surprised the car was able to make it down.
Crowley left his headlights on and reached into the backseat before dropping a bundle into Aziraphale’s lap. “You set that up, I need to—”
“What is this?”
“Blanket—unless you want to sit in the dirt. No? Didn’t think so. And the aforementioned wine. Bad news, I didn’t bring any glasses. Good news, I did remember a corkscrew. You set that up somewhere up there,” he pointed ahead of the car where the headlights were still illuminating. “While I set up the telescope.”
“Telescope?” Aziraphale asked mostly to himself as the door shut.
He’d smoothed out the blanket and managed to open the bottle in the awkward lighting of the headlights while Crowley wrestled an expensive looking telescope out of the back and next to where the blanket had been set up. It stood almost four feet tall with an optical tube that looked like it may have been almost a foot across, glossy black paint and silver knobs that probably used to be much shinier new than they were now. Aziraphale watched him look through the lens and make adjustments and look through again while humming for a few minutes as a smile took over his entire face. Aziraphale wasn’t sure what he had expected, but this couldn’t have been further from it.
“I didn’t know you were this into stargazing,” He said, taking a swig from the wine he’d been put in charge of.
“Yeah” Crowley replied distractedly as he finished fine-tuning the equipment in front of him. “Astronomy is a hobby of mine. Was studying it for a while.”
“Why did you stop?”
Crowley shrugged and motioned at the telescope, “It’s set up. I found Mercury, but it’ll be disappearing behind a cloud soon, so hurry up.” Aziraphale stood and closed the space between them, handing Crowley the opened wine bottle before putting his eye to the eyepiece.
“I couldn’t get degrees in everything, so something had to go. This is good as a hobby, looks impressive at least.”
“That’s true,” Aziraphale shrugged pulling back from the telescope. “I’m glad you could share it with me.”
“Did you see it?”
He handed the wine back and returned to repositioning and adjusting the telescope. “You never told me what made your week so crappy.”
“Besides you walking out on me?”
Crowley stood up and looked back at him for a moment. “Y-Yeah. Besides that.”
“I had a meeting with the dean,” He paused and collected his thoughts and drank more wine. “Unless there’s some sort of act of god, my department is being dissolved and there’s not really anything I can do about it.”
“I’m sorry, Aziraphale,” he finished adjusting the telescope and turned back to his friend. “At least you know now.”
“Well, that’s the other bit. It seems that everyone knew but me and had started applying for other positions weeks ago. I haven’t had a chance to confront any of them about it. Perhaps I won’t. Did you find something new?”
Crowley nodded. “Uranus, yes. It’s less impressive to look at since it’s so far away, but—what’s your plan, then?”
Aziraphale shrugged, looking at the tiny shimmering speck against the dark sky. “I’m working on that.”
“You want some fun facts about that planet?”
“Yes.” Aziraphale said sincerely. “I would absolutely love them.”
“This is—this wasn’t what I expected at all,” Aziraphale grinned, as Crowley put the last piece of the telescope in the car and sat next to him on the blanket. He leaned back on his elbows and continued to admire the sky as Aziraphale spoke.
“I said non romantic friendly stargazing, and I meant it. You were here to learn about space… And drink wine.”
“Mmhm. Can I… wait...—” He slid himself across the blanket, closer to Crowley. “Can I tell you something?”
“I sort of hate my job. Or… no. I like my job. I just hate everyone I work with,” he reasoned out slowly, with a quiet little laugh.
“I know, angel.”
Aziraphale reached out to his left and picked up Crowley’s hand in his with a grin and the tiniest hiccup. “And I—your hand is cold. And I liked this.”
Crowley’s smile was soft and measured, carefully subdued, but barely. “I did too,” he said. “But I should get you home, it’s late.” He stood and reached out the other hand in case Aziraphale wanted both to get back up.
“You’re in a shape to drive?” he asked with a bit of a wobble as he took advantage of both offered hands.
Crowley wasn’t surprised when Aziraphale slept the entire ride home.
Anathema’s coffee order sounded undrinkable to Aziraphale, a list of ingredients and substitutions that he could hardly make sense of, let alone keep track of or even consider drinking. He ordered a simple drink off of the standard menu and a slice of pound cake and waited for his coffee date to bring up their business.
“Rumor has it you’re seeing someone,” she said instead from behind a large steaming mug.
“Does it now?”
“Mmhm. Apparently you and a certain bio professor are very cute together.”
“We’re friends,” Aziraphale said quickly. It had only been a couple of weeks, a handful of lunches, some relaxed coffee meet-ups, a few walks around campus, and one strictly platonic excursion to look at stars and drink wine in the middle of nowhere. On second thought, he supposed he could see what she was talking about. “Professor Crowley is helping me with a project and it turns out we have a bit in common— and this isn’t what we’re here to talk about.”
“No,” Anathema agreed. “But I like seeing my friends happy.”
“Yes. Well. I’m getting closer to it, I believe.”
“Good. And I may have more good news for you. How likely is it that you’ll get back into your doctorate program?”
Aziraphale grinned and speared a piece of cake. “It’s looking rather promising, I think. I remain on good terms with everyone and if I am accepted, the method in which I would be wouldn’t be entirely on the up-and-up, so to speak. But everyone whose opinion matters seems open to having me continue with the program. I should know for certain later this week.”
“That’s good! I’ll get after the department chair to bring you in for an interview this week. Remind me what your schedule looks like?”
The door to Gabriel’s office was closed but the little sign with his office hours indicated that he should be in there.
Aziraphale stared at the door and considered for the fourteenth time in as many minutes if he should knock and let his current chair know that he would be, with any luck, moving on in a few months. That he knew this wouldn’t matter because the department was folding soon anyway. That he knew that Gabriel had already moved on and left Aziraphale to fall under the wheels of the metaphorical bus.
He knew it wouldn’t change anything or bring him any peace, but a small voice told him to ask Gabriel why. Why he’d treated Aziraphale the way he had, what he had done to earn the department chair’s derision, why he had been the only one to not know what was going on.
But he knew it wouldn’t matter.
The soft vibration in his breast pocket stole his attention back from his circuitous thought process.
Crowley - Thu 2:17pm
Painting is done! I’ll pick it up today. library tomorrow after classes?
Aziraphale looked back up at Gabriel’s scheduled office hours once more before turning and continuing the trip down the hall towards his own office and typing out his reply.
“This is cause for celebration.”
Aziraphale’s smile was was infectious and radiant as he examined the new painting hanging in place where the old one had been a little more than a month earlier. The resemblance was striking, perhaps even perfect.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Crowley said.
“Dinner, perhaps? You choose the restaurant.”
“Happy to. Sushi?”
Aziraphale adjusted the strap on his messenger bag as they left their quiet library corner. “Oh, yes!”
“Would you like to come in?”
Crowley smirked, glasses hanging from his shirt in the dark. “What will they say at work on Monday?”
Aziraphale ignored the commentary with little more than a puckish smile. “I have some wine I’ve been saving for nothing in particular, so—oh.”
“Oh?” Crowley watched as Aziraphale searched for his phone and popped it open, the glow from the screen illuminating wide eyes and pursed lips.
“I apparently need to check my email right away,” he finally said as he shut the phone.
“Is that a good thing?”
“I don’t know. A drink?”
“Yeah, why not...”
Crowley followed Aziraphale inside and up the stairs, balking the entire time at how warm and cozy and full his house was. Bookshelves lined most of the walls and every conceivable horizontal inch was full. Most shelves held straight lines of matching series and collections but some had small vases or statues or a few very old looking book ends. The lights were soft and warm, like a room illuminated by a fireplace, and the woodtone browns and deep colors of the books with muted gold accents and filigree made the entire house feel cozy and safe.
“Do you live in a bookshop ?”
"Heavens, no. Bookshops sell their collections." Aziraphale chuckled. “But I like to read.”
“Is this a first edition?!”
“It is. You have a good eye.”
“I don’t, they’re both bad. But all the same, this is impressive.”
Aziraphale disappeared through a doorway while Crowley ran a finger down some especially interesting hardcover spines and a moment later the light inside the room came to life. Crowley followed.
“My computer is going to take a moment to turn on, if you want to wait outside," Aziraphale motioned at a glass door leading to a small balcony off of his office. "I’ll be with you in one mo— Oh, I forgot the wine. I’ll be with you in a few moments. This shouldn’t be long.”
Crowley nodded and walked out onto the balcony and sat on the ground, ignoring the chairs and letting his legs hang past the bars of the railing. It was a nice night, a little cool perhaps, but he had layers and some of the stars were visible from here.
Aziraphale reappeared a few minutes later, handing off one of the glasses he held and taking a seat to Crowley’s right, close enough for their shoulders to touch.
“So what was it?” Crowley asked as he accepted his wine glass.
“Good news, I’ll tell you in a moment. Can I ask a very forward question?”
“I—Yeah, I guess. Why not?”
Aziraphale took a long quiet sip before speaking again. “Do you like me or are you just a flirty sort of person?”
Crowley felt his face get warm as his mouth involuntarily made sounds that were decidedly not words.
“It’s all right,” Aziraphale said after a few seconds of sputtering. “I’m liking our friendship the way it is—I just wasn’t sure if—”
“I like you.”
There was another short quiet sip before Aziraphale put his glass next to him and reached for Crowley’s hand. “More good news, then.”
“So, uh. What—” Crowley wasn’t sure what to acknowledge first. “What was the email you had to check?”
“I start my new position next semester.”
“That’s—” he stopped when Aziraphale’s head rested on his shoulder.
“I like you, too.”
Aziraphale was busy most of the time these days. Crowley couldn’t take it personally, of course. Teaching and grading and office hours on top of his own classwork left very little recreational time, but they had managed to carve out a routine over the last two years. And in just a few weeks Aziraphale would hopefully be done with one of those things.
Crowley kept his fingers mentally crossed as he made dinner and checked the time and found the nice plates that Aziraphale said he would use for special occasions but never touched and anxiously waited for the front door to open. His earliest day this semester was Aziraphale’s latest and while it left him plenty of time for preparation, it also left him with plenty of time to second guess himself and worry in a way that not even the loudest music would help.
The door opened and shut as Aziraphale called a greeting into the house.
“In here! Dinner’s ready,” Crowley yelled back over his speakers.
Aziraphale appeared a moment later, putting his bag down on one of the extra chairs before taking a moment to examine the table settings with curious eyes. “The nice china?”
“Yes. Sit,” Crowley motioned at the table while lowering the volume on music that had been screaming through the first floor and then starting an entirely new playlist.
“What are you up to?” Aziraphale asked as he sat in his usual chair, smiling and reaching for the wine glass that was filled and waiting for him.
“I’ve been thinking,” Crowley started, trying to sound nonchalaunt but feeling tense and nervous. “You remember how you owe me that favor?”
“From two years ago? Really, dear?”
“Yes, that’s the one. I unnfff” he reached into a pocket before walking to the table and kneeling in front of Aziraphale. “Well, angel, I thought of what I’d like."