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Golden Handcuffs

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Student Evaluation of Prof. A. Z. Fell - Fourth Year Seminar: English Literature and Christian Liberation Theory
Quality of Teaching: 3/5
Difficulty of Subject Matter: 5/5 
Comments: OK, so as a student Prof. Fell takes a little getting used to. He’s not super organized and you can tell that he’d really rather be doing research then hanging out with a bunch of 22 year olds who are trying to write their thesis, but he is totally brilliant, the smartest prof I ever had at this school. He’s patient with questions and really wants you both to understand and interpret in your own way.  Stop by his office hours (to the coolest office I’ve ever seen in my whole life. It feels like a portal to another world)! But don’t touch anything. You can tell he really loves when students are into the same stuff he is.  All this to say this class is SUPER hard and unless you’re planning on being an English prof, I don’t know if I’d recommend it.

Student Evaluation of Instructor A. J. Crowley - Biodiversity Science and Conservation Biology
Quality of Teaching: 5/5
Difficulty of Subject Matter: 3/5 
Comments: Crowley is amazing! His lectures are so engaging and he uses examples from his field work in class. He’s really funny and sarcastic, and a lot of fun to watch lecture. But DO NOT BE LATE for his class!!! He will embarrass you then kick you out. Some people probably hate that (late people!) but he makes the material so interesting that barely anyone was late anyway. I switched my major after this class because he made me want to be a botanist or a conservation biologist. And I’m not the only one. I’d give him like a 10 out of 5 on teaching if possible because he is just that good. The only downside is that he runs pretty hot and cold and if you catch him on a bad day he can be pretty abrasive and not helpful? Set up a meeting beforehand if you need to talk to him. He’s also so hot (as in face wise) but that’s probably inappropriate to write in a teaching eval!!!

Moving the Biology Department into the basement and first two floors of MacDiarmid Hall, the building that had historically held the English Department was an unorthodox choice by university administration. So much so, that nobody had actually expected it to happen until it did. As movers carried in boxes of biology texts and scientific equipment for the newly retrofitted labs, furious memos were exchanged between rival department chairs, Dr. Beelzebub Prince and Dr. Aaron Gabriel, each jockeying for space and position. Ultimately, these efforts were all for naught. The plan went forward, accompanied by stern e-mails from the Dean circulated widely throughout both departments telling them to play nice (albeit in a more elegant fashion). 

Begrudgingly, the two departments settled into a tentative ceasefire, both very aware of the tensions simmering under the surface. It would not be forever, they told themselves. The renovations and retrofitting of the water-damaged Life Sciences Building, the true home of the interloping department, were due to be finished in a year. Both Doctors Prince and Gabriel soothed themselves with this thought, conveniently neglecting the fact that no construction or renovation project at Tadfield College had been finished on time (or on budget) in at least one hundred years.

It was in these early, unsteady days that Professor Aziraphale Fell first saw him. A man lazily strutting through the main lobby of MacDiarmid Hall to the student-run café, long-limbed and rust-haired, decked out in a lab coat and black jeans so tight they bordered on the inappropriate. Lips were set in a grim line as he ordered from the barista. As he boarded the ancient elevator to get to his office, Aziraphale kept an eye on the man. Brandishing a tray of coffees, the lab-coated man disappeared into the stairwell that lead to the basement. The elevator doors closed, and the image of the striking, unfamiliar man lingered in the Professor’s mind’s eye. 

From a distance, the professor couldn’t place the man’s age. His apparel, including the sunglasses pushed high on his forehead, suggested youth. A graduate student, perhaps? Aziraphale hadn’t gotten a good enough look at the man’s face to make a fair assessment. As Aziraphale got older, he found himself less able to place someone’s age. Everyone under the age of 35 looked like a newborn to him. Green as anything.

From the elevator Aziraphale climbed the final stairwell, the entrance so narrow you could blink and miss it, into the turret of the building. His office was nestled at the very top, far away from student lounges and study areas. Far from everything, really. He understood when he was assigned this office ten years prior that it was meant as a punishment. At first glance the turret seemed a romantic setting, but it was musty with poor ventilation and asbestos in the walls. Not to mention it was near impossible to find. Sticking him up here was the department’s way of relegating him to the margins.

It had stung at first, but in spite of inauspicious beginnings Aziraphale had grown fond of the space. He brought in mountains of books and antique furniture and paintings. These small and many relics, paired with the remote location and Aziraphale’s sartorial choices (which could generously be called dated ) gave the space a sort of magic quality. In little time the office had found its way into campus urban legend.

“Fell let me take a nap in his office after a panic attack and I graduated the year with a 4.0.”

“I went to Professor Fell’s office hours and the next day I got into my top choice graduate school.”

“I touched a book on Fell’s shelf and he wasn’t happy about it but I think I was briefly possessed by the ghost of Oscar Wilde!”

Perhaps it was magic, a little, in the way that peculiar, hidden places are. Or maybe it was Professor Fell himself, with his 1940s era coats, gold pocket watch, and gentle detached manner. The way he still accepted and encouraged hand-written work. His whispered revelations on the nature of God and art in class that sent students frantically typing, hoping to capture every word. How it was not uncommon to see him walking on the shoulder of the road, late at night, destination unknown. 

Aziraphale was vaguely aware of this lore. He understood that students had developed theories about him, whispered when he appeared in courtyards and lecture halls. He didn’t mind it. If anyone had asked him, he would have quietly admitted that he enjoyed it. Students needed things to fill their free hours after all, especially on a campus like that of Tadfield, where one could feel a bit stranded far as the school was from any proper town. To make up stories about a quiet, strange professor seemed a rite of passage.

Tadfield was an isolated school, far from any city and near the sparsely populated, craggy south-western Scottish coast. Buttressed by farmers’ fields and protected woodlands, one could just make out the sound of the surf lapping up against land in the rural silence. The school’s seclusion was seen as a benefit by parents, a way for students to focus on knowledge, to ruminate on great ideas without distraction. For students in their first few months, it was an inconvenience, but the intense and heady friendships Tadfield fostered soon changed minds. A Tadfield Friend was a forever ally.

What it lacked in the international name recognition touted by Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham, it made up for in the way Tadfield College was whispered with a knowing significance in upper class dining rooms throughout the country. The name aroused a weighted reverence in the well-to-do few other schools could inspire. It felt something of a secret. 

Driving down the long country lane that led to campus, visitors would see stately stone buildings emerge from the fog. There was nothing that suggested modernity here. No shiny new glass buildings bought with alumni donations. No flashy visitors’ centre. Only weathered rubble masonry, cobbled pavestones, a chapel at the head of the main courtyard, steeple rising high above the students running from class to class below.

To be a Tadfield graduate was to find oneself in the rarefied world of decision makers and society leaders. To be a Tadfield professor was to live with the unspoken acknowledgment that you were among the storied few deemed worthy. For Aziraphale, the offer of a Tadfield Professorship fifteen years ago had been a dream. He could not say that he had been courted by Tadfield, but that wasn’t a knock on him in particular. No one was courted by Tadfield. One was simply asked, and one said yes. 

Aziraphale’s appointment meant that he was seen as a leader in his field, if not the leader. He published at a frantic pace without (it was widely agreed) sacrificing quality or depth of thought. When does he sleep? His contemporaries asked. No one could hazard a guess. At each and every one of his previous appointments, at schools both large and small in the United Kingdom and abroad, Professor Fell remained aloof and unknowable. He was friendly, charming even when engaged in conversation, but stubbornly devoted to his solitude. 

Entering his office, Aziraphale felt the door come to a stop against a leaning tower of bound leather books, not quite opening all the way. He picked up the large manila envelope propped up beside the door. His mail. Newt left it for him every day, the dear, knowing Aziraphale had little desire nor inclination to make the trip to the lounge to check his post box. The professor was aware he had a university e-mail account, of course. One had to these days. But he had never so much as tried to log in to it. He shuffled sideways through the half open door and let it fall softly against the door jamb, the latch not closing completely. 

Moving delicately between teetering piles of books and academic journals, he placed his bag on the floor and his envelope of mail on the clear space at the centre of his desk. He took off his wool coat and hung it on the coat rack. The cold January mist still clung to the fabric. He placed his hat on a second hook and slid into his desk chair. From the mail envelope he withdrew two late assignments (for which he had granted extensions), a memo from the Chair, and a handwritten note from Newt.

Hello Professor Fell - I need to postpone our lunch meeting. My computer crashed and I need to take it into town to the shop. I forgot to back-up my thesis! I’ll drop by this afternoon to reschedule. Sincerest apologies, N. Pulsifer.

Aziraphale’s eyes rolled involuntarily. This was the third time this had happened. Technical difficulties were preoccupying far too much of his graduate student’s time.

Dropping Newt’s note in the bin, he reviewed the memo.

TO: English Department
FROM: Dr. A. Gabriel

** Do not circulate further. **


I have received word from on high (the Dean’s Office) that bookings for the seminar rooms on the third floor are now to be shared with the Biology department. This is obviously not a sustainable plan and I will be fighting back on your behalf at the upcoming Faculty Council meeting. 

It is non-negotiable that the third floor remain the sole domain of the English Department. Proceed as normal in the booking of spaces and forward any issues you encounter to me.

Yours in words and letters,
Professor Aaron Gabriel, Ph.D.

Aziraphale sniffed. He didn’t particularly understand the territorial desire for the third floor. The rooms were among the most uninspired on campus, the result of an ill considered renovation in the 1970s that stripped the rooms of any character they had. He only had Newt book them for classes when every other conceivable space was in use. They were barely a week into the new department inhabiting the building’s lower levels and Aziraphale felt that they were gearing themselves up for a wholly unnecessary war. Shaking his head slightly, and shifting his focus to the most recent issue of the Cambridge Quarterly, the professor let the memo slip into the bin.

Flipping open to the table of contents, his mind suddenly flickered back to the form of the red-headed stranger who had caught his attention that morning. He smiled to himself absentmindedly, as the image left as quickly as it had been conjured.

Anthony Crowley pushed open the door to the lab with his hip, balancing the tray of coffees carefully. 

“Thank you!” His research assistant Anathema called, rising from her place above a microscope and taking the tray from his hands. “You should take a look at this.” She said, gesturing with her elbow towards her work station. He nodded curtly and approached.

The laboratory was in a state. Boxes everywhere, no furniture laid out in a way that made sense. The windows up high on the wall barely let in any light. From the first moment he’d seen it, Crowley knew the space would be of little use. He had some leverage with the Provost and he was going to call in a favour when the time was right. At least get a lab on ground level with some southern light. There was no way he could do the work he had been brought here to do in these conditions.

Crowley had only been at Tadfield for five months. It had been an unconventional choice. When colleagues and contacts had inquired about the change in surprise, Crowley had claimed Tadfield had asked so many damned times he got tired of saying no. The corporate world had been good to him and he had been loathe to leave it. For years, pharmaceutical companies had kept his lifestyle generously funded. While it was far from lavish, he knew it was a luxury that few other botanists could boast. 

He had travelled the world looking for flora that had never been closely examined by anyone else, playing the role of an amateur anthropologist, taking notes of what plants local populations were using and why. Crowley was a shapeshifter and a nomad, unattached to any place and any person. His dedication to his work and his keen eye for the undiscovered on the jungle floor, had led to a reputation that he secretly suspected gave him too much credit. 

The truth of his choice to join Tadfield lay in his desire to go beyond what he could do in the field, and to face the failure that came to him so often in his dreams.

Coming to Tadfield and living in staff quarters was the first time he had felt tethered since completing his Masters. He was unsure if he had made the right choice. He resented the office politics, the administrative demands. He had absolutely no interest in playing the academia game and trying to publish work. There was also the obvious issue of his, ahem, professional and academic deficiency. That missing piece that lead senior Professors to look down their noses at him, to talk about him as if he were illiterate. 

But there were parts he liked. The students were good fun. A special few were quite dedicated, and he had asked them to be lab assistants. Pepper and Warlock were here now, working. Adam, who was in Crowley’s estimation the most gifted, had failed to appear in the lab at his scheduled time, and the annoyance Crowley had first felt upon that realization caught in his throat. Why put in the work to train someone if he couldn’t ever be arsed to show up?

“What am I looking for?” He asked Anathema, remembering himself and leaning over her microscope. He reached back and re-tied his wavy hair in a bun, pulling the strands that had come loose out of his face.

“You’ll know if you just look.”

He shot her a sharp glance, before acquiescing and looking through the lens. He watched cells dance across the petri dish, waiting. And then… “Oh, alright.” The cells from their specimen appeared to be decreasing after interacting with the compound they had been experimenting with. 

“That’s something, right?” Anathema asked, sipping her coffee and hovering at Crowley’s shoulder, as he adjusted the lens distance.

“It’s not nothing,” he offered. He looked up and Anathema was smiling.

“It’s the labradorite!” She said brightly, gesturing to the iridescent stone perched at the corner of her work station.

Crowley unfurled himself to full height. “It’s not your bloody crystals,” he responded. “I told you to keep those out of here.”

She was unfazed by his tone. “We were getting nowhere until I brought it in. Are you carrying that agate that I gave you?”

“What do you think?” He drank his coffee, noted that his lab assistants were no longer working but instead trying to covertly overhear the conversation.

“If you kept it on you I bet you’d be less stressed. Less cranky. Then all your lab assistants would show up.”

“How,” he started, looking her dead in the face, “are you both so brilliant, but also completely off your trolley?”

She shrugged. It was infuriating how much he liked her.

Crossing campus to his quarters after dark, Crowley’s shoulders crept towards his ears. His jacket wasn’t much for Scottish winter weather, some slim cut thing he had picked up in London that was obviously made for looking at rather than for protecting against the elements. He was aware that he should get a more suitable one, but his stubborn nature didn’t allow it. Plus, the jacket looked really nice.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a small group of students, gathered at the base of the flagpole bearing the collegiate flag. He slowed his saunter to a full stop and watched them. They were huddled in a small circle, whispering conspiratorially. Finally, under the direction of one student in a dark hooded jacket, one young man climbed up on the shoulders of another, and tried to grasp the rope holding up the flag.

“That time of year again, I see.”

Crowley jumped. He hadn’t heard anyone come up beside him. The voice was southern, impossibly posh. He turned his head to the side to see a man who looked like he had walked off the set of a BBC period drama. Immaculately tailored camel coat, matching fedora, and a light tartan scarf. His skin was an almost unearthly pale, though the cold had rendered the tips of the man’s nose and ears pink. Short white curls escaped the rim of his hat. If Crowley had been less of a skeptic, he might have thought the man a ghost. “Uh,” Crowley said, not intelligently.

The man glanced Crowley’s way, a smile playing on his lips. His blue-green eyes had a brightness behind them in spite of the darkness overhead. “Oh, you must be new. It’s a traditional prank. After Christmas break warring factions of students try to see who can be the first to capture the Tadfield sigil from the flagpole. Not allowed of course. Any student caught can expect some privileges revoked, but we do love a tradition around here.”

Crowley’s gaze lingered on the man next to him, his pale face displaying a muted delight as he took in the misbehaviour on display in front of them. The botanist had never been one to easily startle, but something about this man shook him. Was it the clothes that suggested that Crowley had inadvertently stepped back in time? Perhaps the accent that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Queen’s table, so different from Crowley’s own (a sort of Scottish lilt that suggested an upbringing on a council estate). It was both those things, but what it was most of all was the calm and wondrous energy radiating from him. As if he were faintly glowing. Anathema would have called this an aura. But Anathema was a kook, and he’d rather be caught dead than admitting she was on to something.

“I suppose we should intervene,” the man said, a smile on his voice. “Lest the groundskeeper come across them instead.” The man moved in front of Crowley, and Crowley followed, unsure of what else to do. They moved forward in the courtyard together. Their shoes scuffling quietly on the pavestones.

“Good evening!” The man said, clearly and calmly into the night. 

The students response was immediate and frantic. ‘Shit!” Yelped one, clamoring down the shoulders of the other, as they prepared to make a run for it. The hooded one turned to face them and immediately stopped his retreat. He sighed, and pulled his hood down, revealing shiny dark blond curls. Adam Young, the very same who had failed to appear in the lab that morning. He looked to the man in front of Crowley, mock serious. “You’ve caught us.”

“Yes, I’m afraid I have, Mr. Young. But very good effort.” 

Crowley looked between the two of them. Perhaps Adam had a more significant reputation than he was aware of.

“They keep moving the ropes higher. Need a ladder I think.”

“If it were easy, it wouldn’t be much fun, would it?”

“No, Professor.” Adam said, before suddenly noticing Crowley behind the other man. “Oh, fu-” He caught himself. “Shoot. Sorry about this morning, Crowley. Had a bit of a lie in.”

Crowley gave his head a shake, momentarily surprised that he was still present here, part of the conversation. “Yeah, we can talk about that tomorrow while you’re hand cleaning about a thousand glass specimen slides.” He hoped his voice sounded more steady than he felt.

The Professor looked to Crowley, a bemused smile playing on his lips before turning back to face the students. “Well, what are we to do about this?” He asked them. Crowley wasn’t sure if he meant it to be rhetorical or not.

“Please don’t report us,” called the bespectacled student behind Adam, pathetically pushing up his glasses on his face and clasping his hands in front of him as if in desperate prayer.

“Please, Professor Fell. We won’t try it again.” Adam took on the begging now, albeit, with more dignity. 

Professor Fell released a quiet, breathy laugh into the night. Crowley could see the burst of steam rise in front of his face. “Oh, Mr. Young, we both know that isn’t true.” The four students were frozen in place, not breathing, waiting for the Professor’s verdict. “But, for the sake of all of our evenings, I simply suggest you endeavour to not allow myself or Professor… Crowley, was it?” Fell turned to Crowley for confirmation, who nodded, eyes wide. Not the right time to correct him on the finer details. “Yes, you should work to make sure not to put Professor Crowley or myself in this position again. How does that sound?”

The students sagged in relief, laughter colouring their faces.

“Get a wiggle on, now would you? Back to your rooms. Any more lollygagging about and you’ll have us all in the Dean’s office. You know she hates to be disturbed at this hour.”

Adam bowed to the Professor, in a way that Crowley first thought was in mockery, but the look on Adam’s face suggested respect. “Thank you, Professor, and Crowley.” The other students called out their thanks as they turned heel and ran back behind the administration building, and hopefully back to their dorms.

Professor Fell turned back to Crowley, his cheeks pink with suppressed laughter. “They’ll be back at it tomorrow, I expect.” 

“I dunno ‘bout that. You put the fear of God into them, from where I’m standing.” Crowley said, sarcastically but without much bite. He felt, finally, as if he were back in his body. Back in the smoother, snarkier version of himself where he was more comfortable. Armed and at the ready. 

Fell chuckled in a self deprecating way, tilted his head. “I’m a bit of a soft touch,” he murmured, looking over Crowley as if he had seen him for the first time. “I won’t keep you, Professor. Have a lovely evening.” Without waiting for a reply, the Professor tipped his hat in a way Crowley had only ever seen happen in old movies, and strode towards the main entrance to campus, disappearing into the January fog.

Professor Fell. Allowing students to break campus rules without even the suggestion of consequences was not the attitude Crowley had become accustomed to at Tadfield. When he had learned of all the regulations that dictated life on this odd little campus he had found them repressive, still did. But it had been impressed upon him that these rules were the cornerstone of Tadfield’s reputation. And this Professor had encountered a group of students flouting more than a few of them and had told them to be sneakier about it.

Crowley liked that. He liked that the man looked like the most uptight person alive but was, as he had said, a soft touch. He was weird

Crowley stared into the space where the Professor had faded into the night, willing him to emerge again and make a formal introduction.

With a bite of regret, Crowley wondered if what he had said to Fell had been unkind. He knew he had the tendency to be sharp around the edges, closed off. That was fine for most people. He wasn’t interested in them. He wasn’t really interested in being chummy or having pals or the social niceties that came along with being around humans and not just plants.

But he liked weird. He’d have to look Fell up. Just, you know, for the sake of curiosity.

Crowley took one last long look at the space the Professor had stood, then turned and retreated to the staff quarters.