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.
Date: February 3
From: Facilities & Building Management
To: All MacDiarmid Hall Occupants
The unused space in the south wing of the fifth floor is to be converted into a greenhouse and lab space for use of the Biology department.
Construction will begin immediately. During this time, occupants of the fourth and fifth floor can expect some construction noise during business hours. The contractor and builders have been advised to keep interruptions and dust to a minimum, but there may be some effect to your work day. We apologize for any inconvenience.
Construction is scheduled to be completed by April 30. Please do not hesitate to contact our office should you have any queries or concerns.
English Department chair, Dr. Aaron Gabriel stood at the elevator doors, clutching a wrinkled piece of paper in his hand, his knuckles white and trembling with effort. Reaching out his free hand, he pressed the elevator call button angrily. Once, twice, then several times in quick succession. When the elevator failed to arrive at Dr. Gabriel's behest he cursed through his teeth.
"Fuck. Fuck you," he said to the elevator. The elevator was not delaying simply to spite Dr. Gabriel. It was simply very old, and could not be expected to rush like a new, young thing.
Huffing, he pivoted and lurched towards the stairwell, violently whipping the fire door open, then launching himself down the stairs with all the intensity of a prize fighter.
Newt Pulsifer, graduate student, who had never successfully hailed the MacDiarmid elevator in his entire academic career at Tadfield and was thus walking up the stairs from the ground floor, saw Dr. Gabriel's passionate descent and so pressed himself against the stairwell wall and out of the way.
"Good morning, Professor Gabriel," Newt stuttered as the well dressed and carefully coiffed chair dashed past him.
"Whatever," Dr. Gabriel barked back, not even lifting his violet eyes up to the young man who had granted him deference.
Dr. Gabriel exited the stairwell on the second floor and turned right decisively, striding full steam down the hall lined with closed doors and dark wood wainscoting. Seconds later he slowed and came to a full stop. He did an about face and marched in the opposite direction with the same force. But then as before, he drifted to a halt. He suddenly realised that he didn't actually know where he was going.
He put his hands on his hips, furrowed his brow. At that moment, a student had the misfortune of exiting a room to Dr. Gabriel's left.
"You," he said sharply, pointing at her. She froze, wide-eyed and intimidated. "Where is Beelzebub Prince's office?"
The student lifted her hand wordlessly, and pointed towards the end of the hall. Without thanking her Dr. Gabriel strode in the indicated direction, leaving her stunned in his midst.
Finally, he spotted it. A handwritten sign was taped to the door on a piece of printer paper: Dr. Prince, Biology Department Chair . Dr. Gabriel experienced a moment of smug satisfaction at the lack of engraved plaque, choosing to interpret it as a reflection of the department’s prestige. (The real reason for the lack of plaque was that the local engraver was on holiday in Majorca and would complete the job when he and his wife returned.)
He pushed the door open hastily and was met with the startled face of a red-headed administrative assistant.
“Can I help -” she started, before being interrupted by the English Department chair.
“Are they in there?” Dr. Gabriel asked, pointing at the door that lay beyond the administrative assistant.
“Yes, but -” Dr. Gabriel surged past her desk. “You need an appointment!” The administrative assistant called frantically, leaping from her chair to follow him.
Dr. Gabriel opened the door to a darkened office. The shades were drawn. Boxes half unpacked. Along the wall stood a bank of terrariums filled with… bugs. “Yuck.” He said to himself, before turning to the small person behind the desk.
Dr. Beelzebub Prince looked placidly toward the suited interloper, judgmental eyes flicking head-to-toe. They were bathed in the blue light of their computer screen, where they had planned to spend the better part of the work day doing an online crossword puzzle and ignoring emails marked Urgent .
“I’m sorry, Dr. Prince! He just walked right past me!”
Dr. Prince rolled their eyes, and without looking at the administrative assistant replied, “I’ll handle this, Carmine. Go back to your desk.”
Carmine backed out of the office anxiously, and closed the door behind her.
“What do you want?” Dr. Prince snipped at Dr. Gabriel.
Doctors Prince and Gabriel fancied themselves rivals, nemeses, hereditary enemies. Arts versus science. Good against evil. They were even, one might say poetically, physical opposites of one another. Dr. Gabriel was broad-backed and handsome in an American kid of way; had held onto his college rower’s physique when lesser men would have abandoned it years ago. He was the very picture of masculine virility. Dr. Prince on the other hand had the look of a malnourished French war orphan about them, slight and grim and hardened. What they lacked in stature they made up for in a fierce and serious charisma. They took a quiet pride when they heard that students had secretly christened them “Napoleon.”
The truth was, of course, that Dr. Gabriel and Dr. Prince were two sides of the same coin. Different faces, manners, but more alike than either would ever be able to recognize or admit.
Dr. Gabriel flung the piece of paper clutched in his hand at Dr. Prince’s desk. It hung in the air for a moment, then the two Chairs watched in unison as it missed the desk and slipped to the floor. For ten long seconds, a game of chicken ensued between them. Dr. Gabriel lost, reluctantly picking the paper up and decisively pressing it into Dr. Prince’s desktop.
“What,” he hissed out between clenched teeth, “is the meaning of this?”
Dr. Prince leaned forward, scanning the e-mail from Facilities & Building Management. They looked up at Dr. Gabriel over their glasses. “We’re getting a lab.”
Dr. Gabriel scoffed, threw back his head in a sarcastic laugh. “Yes, I can read. You’re taking space in my department.”
Dr. Prince shrugged, their nonchalance fueling Dr. Gabriel’s indignation. “Not my decision.” They turned their attention back to their computer screen and their puzzle.
18 across, 7 letters, starts with A. Children’s card game, also called “President.”
A standoff followed with Dr. Gabriel towering over Dr. Prince, hands on his hips, blowing air out his nose like a bull in the ring.
Dr. Prince acquiesced. “You’re not going to leave, are you? Fine. Sit down. Looking at you is hurting my neck.”
Dr. Gabriel reluctantly slid into the chair across from Dr. Prince, mourning the loss of his higher ground. “What do you mean it’s not your decision ?”
“The Provost made the call on location. It’s for Anthony Crowley’s research.”
“The Provost?” Dr. Gabriel was stunned. Lucas Morningstar was impossible to get a meeting with. A world-renowned geologist and academic who spent most of his time abroad, speaking at conferences and doing God knows what was at Tadfield so little the department chairs had a running joke the man didn’t actually exist. Aaron Gabriel had been trying to get a meeting with him for well over two years, and was rebuffed at every attempt. And now he was gifting a lecturer who had been on the campus for less than a year his own lab?
“The Provost has taken a special interest in Crowley’s work. The research. It’ll bring money in.” Dr. Prince was hesitant to reveal more. Truthfully, the whole debacle had left them slightly embarrassed and at the same time begrudgingly impressed. Crowley had gone over their head and straight to Provost in asking for the lab. Infuriatingly, he had been successful. If Crowley had approached Dr. Prince first they would have shot him down. No way would they put their reputation on the line for someone who wasn’t even an Assistant Professor. Sure, Crowley could teach, play with his trees or whatever in the basement. But his own lab? Dr. Prince wasn’t exactly sure what black magic Crowley had used get the space, or even the meeting.
When Dr. Prince had seen Crowley after the decision had been made, they had quietly demanded: “Do not fuck this up.” Crowley had smiled, nodded. Told them he had no intention of doing so. If it went well, then Dr. Prince would happily take the credit. If not, well, they’d cross that bridge when they came to it.
With the mention of the untouchable Provost the wind had left Dr. Gabriel’s sails. He was diminished. “The fifth floor was supposed to be ours.”
Dr. Prince sighed. “That is almost certainly not my problem.”
“We need that space.”
“For what? To write more papers about Harry Potter? We get it, the Death Eaters are Nazis.” Dr. Prince suppressed a smile. They were enjoying themself.
Dr. Gabriel stood up, a deep vexation creasing lines onto his face. “You don’t even know what the English department does,” he said scornfully.
“Not a hell of a lot if you have time to waste harassing me down here,” Dr. Prince spat back.
Dr. Gabriel opened his mouth to reply, shut it, then rose from where he sat and stormed out.
Oh, thought Beelzebub. This is going to be a riot.
They smiled and turned back to their computer screen. 18 across. A S S H O L E.
At about the same moment that the English Department chair was accosting the Biology Department chair in their office, Crowley was approaching the coffee shop on the ground floor, pleased as anything. His gambit had paid off. He was getting his own lab. A proper one.
Beez was pissed but of course they were. He had circumvented the way things were supposed to be at places like Tadfield. There was a hierarchy, he knew, and he had ignored it in favour of what was most likely to personally grant him success. He was unconventional but he got results. He would get the results. He had promised Morningstar he would.
In his mind’s eye he was constructing his lab - bright, south facing windows, clean stainless steel countertops, a functional eye wash station, verdant greenery on every surface - near sighing with pleasure. As he imagined the possible outcomes that lab would produce, Professor Fell seemed to materialize in front of him. Waiting in line at the coffee shop, Fell stood straight backed with his hands clasped behind him. It was strange, Crowley thought, to see someone waiting without a phone in their hands these days, checking emails or Twitter, sending messages, constantly looking for engagement. Crowley hadn’t seen Fell since their encounter in the courtyard, but he had been on his mind.
He had looked Fell up when getting back to his room after their first encounter. Aziraphale Fell. Bit of a mouthful. He had been published an absolutely staggering number of times. He had books to his name that appeared on syllabuses at universities in every English speaking country across the globe. Google had indexed the introduction of Fell’s magnum opus, Oh that my words were written!: The Bible as Foundation for the Western Literary Tradition and Crowley had attempted to read it, his eyes crossing. Crowley could readily speak at length about the ethical implications of conservation intervention, but Fell’s book was more than he could parse. Frustratingly, beyond the lengthy list of publications, there was a dearth of personal information. Degrees from Tadfield, Harvard, Oxford. English, but Crowley knew that already. That was it. The same low resolution headshot was used on every article.
Fell observed the lobby around him, until his eyes landed on Crowley, and his lips fell into a gentle smile. The recognition made Crowley flush as if the Googling he had done privately, in his room several weeks prior was somehow plain. The botanist willed the pink to leave his pale cheeks with a mild scowl. Blushing: one of the occupational hazards of being a ginger.
“Professor Crowley! How lovely to see you again.” Fell’s voice was laced with a restrained enthusiasm that made something inside Crowley stir. It scratched lightly at his ribcage, tickled.
Crowley swallowed his embarrassment as he joined the queue for coffee behind Fell. “Hiya. Could barely recognize you when you’re not letting students break school rules.” His words were light, teasing, and the second they left his mouth he regretted them. He didn’t know Fell, and he didn’t know how the Professor would interpret the teasing.
A flicker of hesitation played on Fell’s features. “Oh, dear. Yes. That. I do hope I did the right thing.” The professor chewed the inside of his mouth, momentarily lost in thought and unsure.
Shit. “I’d say you did. Not like they were hurting anyone. Just mischief. Fun.” Crowley forced his face into a smile. This was… unlike him. He wasn’t used to trying with people. He wasn’t worried about being liked and didn’t generally put in much of an effort - so what was this anxiety about? He had only exchanged a handful of words with Fell and yet he was trying .
Professor Fell’s lips curved into a tentative smile. “That’s the ticket I suppose. No one getting hurt. If it were anything more nefarious you know I would -”
“Yeah, of course! Of course.” Crowley interrupted, relieved.
They had reached the front of the line. Fell turned to Crowley, made a gesture of deference. “After you, Professor.”
“That’s not necessary. I’m getting coffee for the whole lab.”
“I insist, please. I’m not in any hurry.”
Crowley hesitated then wordlessly accepted Fell’s offer, moving up to the barista and ordering four large coffees. Mindful of Fell’s eyes on him, he tipped more generously than he was typically wont to do.
He watched Fell chat affably with the barista as he placed his order - a single croissant, warmed. Leaning against the cart that housed the milk, coffee stirrers, and other assorted accoutrements, Crowley took the opportunity to get a closer look at Fell in the warm beams of daylight streaming in from MacDiarmid Hall’s front windows. He looked the very textbook definition of a university English professor: brown tweed sport jacket with suede elbow patches, sweater vest, hair messy and in every which direction as if he were much too busy thinking very important thoughts to take a moment to comb it. The bowtie was a nice touch, Crowley thought.
“What’s taking you so long?”
Crowley jumped. Anathema had appeared beside him. “Where the hell did you come from?” He barked. Why was everyone sneaking up on him? Was he going deaf?
“The lab, dummy.”
Professor Fell turned his attention to the pair. Amusement lit up behind his blue-green eyes. (Crowley quietly, privately, subconsciously, catalogued this colour.) “Rush hour,” he joked, in his quiet way.
Silence hung in the air between the three of them, until Crowley got ahead of it and made something of an introduction. “Oh, em, Anathema. This is Professor Aziraphale Fell. Professor, this is Anathema Device, my research assistant.” He realized mid-sentence that Fell had never given Crowley his first name. Crowley had found it himself in his web search.
Fell didn’t appear to recognize this slip up, and extended his hand in greeting to Anathema, who tentatively took it. “Ms. Device, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Her eyes flicked to Crowley for a split second, and Crowley knew her well enough by now to know what she was conveying: what is the deal with this guy?
Releasing her hand Professor Fell continued. “You’re both in the Biology Department I take it? Well, welcome to MacDiarmid Hall! I’m upstairs. English Department.”
“Bible as literature,” Crowley offered, before feeling his brain short circuit. Fell hadn’t told him that either. Not weeks ago, not now. Another one of those fun facts he had looked up himself. Overlooking knowing Fell’s first name was understandable. This was significantly more obvious. He sent a desperate prayer to a god he didn’t believe in that Fell would conveniently forget that fact.
But Fell’s face turned towards Crowley, and it was coloured by a sort of wondrous delight. “That’s right. You know my work?”
Crowley waffled. “Heard of it, yeah. Sort of. Can’t remember where.” A red heat was crawling up his neck.
At that very moment the barista extended a tray of coffees to Crowley. He could’ve kissed her. He accepted them and nodded his thanks, then turned to see Anathema reach out to grab Fell’s forearm.
“What are your opinions on Christian reincarnation?” She asked boldly, eyes wide as a zealot.
The smile didn’t leave Fell’s lips, but his brow furrowed in confusion, or maybe it was concern. “Pardon me?” He responded.
“Don’t answer that!” Crowley yelped, stepping between them. He thrust the tray of coffees into Anathema’s hands. “What’s wrong with you?” He hissed, mortified. “Take these downstairs. I’ll be with you in a mo.”
Anathema took the tray and began to back towards the stairwell that lead to the lab. “Some people,” she started, speaking to Fell and deliberately excluding Crowley, “are afraid of the truth.”
Fell suppressed a laugh. “Indeed they are, dear. It was lovely to meet you.”
The two watched as Anathema backed her way through the fire doors.
“Sorry ‘bout that.” Crowley grimaced. “She’s, em… she’s honestly a great researcher.”
“Oh, I have no doubt of that.” Fell generously offered. “An inquisitive mind, certainly.”
They lingered a moment, neither sure where to direct the conversation. The barista came from behind the counter to hand Fell his pastry, and the thanks Fell offered was nearly beatific. The man was maddeningly serene, or at least it seemed that way. Unflappable.
“Well, we should best get to our work. Knowledge waits for no one.” Fell said.
“Right, yeah. Just, one thing though.” Crowley felt possessed. A little voice in the back of his head was screaming, end the conversation, walk away, do not do this. “I’m not, em, I’m not a professor.”
“Oh?” Fell tilted his head, lips slightly parted.
“I’m just a lecturer. No Ph.D. Just a Masters.”
“Oh.” There was a pause. Aziraphale’s eyes moved from Crowley and the floor, the cogs in his brain turning.
Now you’ve done it, the inner voice reprimanded. You know the way these people are. No doctorate and you’re less than human. Not fit to shine their shoes. Didn’t have to tell him, but of course you did, you bloody masochist. Couldn’t let someone have a modicum of respect for y-
“That’s terribly impressive, you know.”
The monologue in Crowley’s mind slid to a halt at the interruption. His confusion prompted Fell to continue.
“You must have really dazzled someone. They don’t have a lot of lecturers at Tadfield. They like a doctorate, you know, as many letters after the name as possible. If you’re here as a lecturer… well, you must be doing some groundbreaking work.”
Was he blushing? He might be blushing. “Just fooled the right people.” Crowley mumbled. The kindness made him want to leap out of his own skin.
“I don’t know about that,” Fell said softly. As if sensing Crowley’s frantic desire for a change of subject, Fell extracted his antique pocket watch from his breast pocket. “Almost time for class. Need to stop by my office first. Depending on the temperament of the elevator it can be a bit of a hike to the fifth floor.”
Crowley recovered. “Good to know. They’re moving my lab up there.”
The brightness that rose in Fell’s features lit a warm spark in Crowley’s chest. “Are they? That’ll be a nice change of pace. Perhaps we’ll be seeing more of one another.”
“I hope so.” The words were out of Crowley’s mouth before he could stop them. I hope so? For fuck’s sake! What on earth had gotten into him? What demon hell bent on humiliating Crowley had taken control of his vocal chords?
Luckily, Fell was kind enough to ignore the outburst. “What should I call you, then, if not Professor Crowley?”
It took Crowley a moment to collect his scattered thoughts. “Oh, erm, Anthony. No, Crowley. Given name is Anthony, but it’s Crowley, mostly.”
“Well, Crowley,” Fell started, trying the casual moniker on for size. “Have a wonderful day.”
“Yeah, see you.” Crowley shoved his hands in his pocket and attempted to walk to the stairwell in a way that suggested nonchalance to anyone watching. In reality, his heart was knocking about in his ribcage in an absurd way. He felt completely off balance, and unsure of what had come over him.
His initial attraction to Aziraphale Fell had been in his status as an oddity, an anachronistic figure who drew whispers. Crowley had always liked outsiders. He’d always been one himself. The kid who preferred flowers to people. The Council brat making a mark at Cambridge. And so Fell was, at the outset, an undiscovered specimen that he wanted in his collection.
There some something, though, that unnerved Crowley about the professor. Not that he would readily admit it to himself. Not yet. It was the way he lost track of his thoughts when Crowley looked at him, the way Crowley had been moved to speak without carefully calculating each word. Something stirred warm and golden and unfamiliar in the pit of him. He tamped it down. Don’t make it weird , he thought to himself.
He returned to the lab where Anathema was waiting.
“Who was that?”
Newt met Aziraphale at the elevator, winter coat over one arm, and balancing a large tote bag filled with papers that needed to be graded. His cheeks were still pink from the outside, the lenses of his glasses foggy at the edges.
Aziraphale had a look about him as if he had never seen Newt before in his life. In the earliest days of their acquaintance Newt had taken to introducing himself over and over, Aziraphale reassuring him each time, yes dear, I know who you are . It was just Aziraphale’s way, Newt learned. In the moments between words, the man lived internally, head in the metaphorical clouds. Speaking with him drew him back onto earth. He just needed a moment or two to recalibrate as it were.
“Oh, yes. That was Mr. Crowley. Biology department.” The two men boarded the elevator together.
“No, not him!” Newt said as the doors closed with a rumble, tone suggesting that Aziraphale was being purposefully obtuse. “The girl. Or, the woman rather.”
The corner of Aziraphale’s mouth quirked up into a knowing smile. “That was his research assistant. A Miss Anathema Device.”
“Anathema,” Newt said quietly, reverently.
“Mr. Crowley’s lab is moving to the fifth floor. So, I suspect we’ll be seeing more of them,” Aziraphale graciously offered.
The wonder on Newt’s face was plain. “That’ll be nice then,” he said, descending into his imagination.
Aziraphale looked down at the bagged pastry in his hands, mind harkening back to his brief interaction with Anthony Crowley. Something inside him unfurled, just a little. “Yes,” Aziraphale said, mostly to himself. “I think it might be.”
Sorry this took ages! Life has gotten fairly busy for me (I'm in grad school part-time, working full-time and dealing with the daily drudgeries of being an adult) so chapters will be slowgoing - but I'm starting to have fun with this and I'm not abandoning it. Thank you for your kind comments on Chapter 1!
I really enjoyed writing Doctors Prince and Gabriel here. Fun base characters to work with.
From the window of his dorm room, Newt observed the foggy morning and sighed at the sleet coming down before him. He had heard of a university once, in North America – Canada or Minnesota or something. It had underground tunnels for students to get from building to building in the cold winter months. He shivered enviously. For the amount of money Tadfield College pulled in on the regular, one would think they’d spend a little of it improving the insulation in the graduate student residence. Alas, Newt had woken up each morning since October chilled to the bone, regardless of whether or not he had remembered to lay his parka on top of his duvet after a long night of reading.
He pushed his hands deep into the pockets of that well-worn parka as he crossed campus (his mittens lost somewhere in the recesses of his room before December). The snow-rain combo was starting to let up but it was still bitter cold, the wind teasing at his seams, seeking bare skin like a radar missile.
At this hour, he hoped the cafeteria would be largely empty. Only a few early birds making coffee or tea or claiming the most appetizing looking yogurt parfait. He preferred the early mornings, even when he had been up into the wee hours. Newt didn’t really feel like he fit in at Tadfield, and having Fell as his advisor hadn’t exactly helped matters any. The professor wasn’t a man who integrated and could offer no assistance to Newt in that regard. He liked Professor Fell very much in spite of his quirks, but he wouldn’t have minded a friend or two.
Coming round the side of Alumni Centre, about 100 metres in front of him, emerged a figure with long dark hair, clad in a unique plaid mohair coat that had almost certainly been tailored to fit the wearer perfectly. At a distance, Newt caught the barest glimpse of her profile.
He began to sweat immediately. He unzipped the top of his jacket, loosened his scarf.
Anathema of the Biology Department. From the moment he had laid eyes on her, as she had reached out to grab Professor Fell in the MacDiarmid lobby (the first time he had seen anyone touch Fell, it suddenly occurred to him) Newt had been entirely bewitched by her. Understanding that this infatuation was based solely on the composition of her face and the way her hair lay in waves down her back, he had the good sense to be mildly embarrassed by it. He had no idea what she was really like but, oh, he could imagine.
She would be kind and surprisingly funny. She would think Newt kind and surprisingly funny. She would love to ride bicycles and go for weekend walks in the woods. She would enjoy a horror film now and then and would claim not to be scared but at the particularly spooky bits she would slip her damp hand into Newt’s and lean into him, just a little bit and… where had she gone?
He had gotten caught up in fantasy and lost track of her. Oh well. He was nearly at the caf now anyw–
“Are you following me?”
“Ahh! Holy sh–!” She had snuck up beside him silently, keeping his pace. How had she done that? Did she cut through a building, or run around it or–
“I asked are you following me?” Her jaw was clenched and her arms were crossed, the very portrait of discontent.
“What? Yes. I mean no! No!” Newt sputtered, furious at his mixed-up mouth. “No, I’m walking to–”
She cut him off. “Well, don’t!” She cut in front of him and walked out towards the back fields, not at all the direction she had been walking before. She had a large black bag slung over her shoulder, and she hitched it up higher as she marched with head held high towards the woods.
“I wasn’t following you!” He called out. She ignored him. “I was going to the grad caf…” But she was gone now, into the early morning mist.
He exhaled, resigned. I suppose, he thought, there are ways it could have gone worse.
Aziraphale read the letter again. It was the first one he had received in months. Six months to be precise. His fingers drifted over the indentations in the paper left by stiff handwriting. When he had opened the letter he had hoped for news of some sort, but it was more of the same.
Each day that passes grants me more clarity. In my last letter I asked for your forgiveness. It was unfair of me to do so in writing. While I now understand that I am not owed your forgiveness, I do hope I will have the chance sometime soon to sit with you, be with you, be how we used to be. I love you, Aziraphale. We were always so bad at saying that, weren’t we?
He sighed and stowed the letter away in his desk drawer with the rest. He knew he ought to write back, send some sort of acknowledgement. But he wouldn’t. Not today. There was nothing he could think to write.
A muffled sound interrupted the quiet of his office. A steady click-click-click of heels was just audible through the crack of Aziraphale’s near shut door. Someone was climbing the stairwell. Odd, he thought, glancing at the antique clock perched on one of his bookshelves. His official office hours and those of his neighbours had ended earlier, well before the sun had gone down. It was just him up here now and he wasn’t expecting anyone. Newt was unlikely, the boy always planned in advance. Aaron, perhaps? He was known to stalk the halls after dark, to “keep an eye on things,” make sure everything was in its place. He also made a point of spontaneous unexpected inspections masquerading as social visits, and there were few things about this job that Aziraphale looked forward to less.
He watched the door to his office intently as the footsteps came to a halt on the other side, but still jumped in his seat when someone knocked sharply on the door jamb.
“Ah, come in,” he called out, nervously.
The door opened slowly. Long white fingers curled around the edge and into view. “Uh, hiya.”
Crowley. That was a more pleasant surprise than he had been anticipating. They had seen a lot of each other lately. Just in the halls of course, just good morning, alright? There were no deep and meaningful conversations to be had in this brief encounters, yet Aziraphale found himself looking forward to these flashes of familiarity.
To start, it was a novel thing to have a passing acquaintance with someone in another department. In spite of Tadfield College’s small size, the humanities, social sciences, and sciences all kept to their own tribes, more or less. There was very little interdisciplinary mingling as they all asserted their supremacy over each other. It was a tiring sort of dance and Aziraphale’s friendly hellos to Crowley (and Anathema, if she was hovering) felt pleasingly subversive.
Crowley was refreshingly different to the other members of faculty. There was a looseness about him. A casual and clear-eyed manner that was born of having lived and worked in the real world and not spent the better part of his adult life dedicating all his time to writing a doctoral thesis only three people would ever bother to read.
“Wasn’t sure you’d still be in. D’you have a minute?” Crowley asked, entering Aziraphale’s office fully. He was dressed in all black, having left his lab coat behind. He glanced around the room, eyebrows raising.
“Yes, of course. Lovely to see you.” Aziraphale stood, watched at Crowley examined his things. He was used to this, the gawping. He suspected some students came to his office hours just to confirm that the professor’s extensive collection of clutter was real. He took these kinds of things in stride, but when Crowley did it he felt more exposed somehow.
Crowley leaned towards one of the bookshelves, tilting his read to read the spines of the books that perched there. “Bloody hard to find this place,” he murmured.
“I know. Bit out of the way.”
“I’d say. I was up and down the hall a few times before… anyway, doesn’t matter.” He pulled his attention from the books and looked back to Aziraphale. He took a moment, almost as if to remind himself why he’d even come. “Here to see you about a problem.”
A problem? An uncomfortable disappointment settled on the professor’s shoulders. So, this wasn’t a social call. Furthermore, he couldn’t imagine what sort of problem an instructor from the Biology Department could bring to him that he would have any business trying to solve. “Take a seat,” Aziraphale directed, settling into his desk chair again.
Crowley sat in the chair closest to Aziraphale’s desk, his attention wandering back to the bookshelves. His warm brown eyes trailed back and forth, reading titles. He turned his body in the seat to study the artwork that hung on the wall behind him, a pastoral landscape encompassed by a somewhat overbearing gold frame.
In his effort to look more closely at the painting, Crowley’s shirt had ridden up at his waist. The thin slip of bare and pale skin that stretched over his hip bone gleamed, bracketed by the black of his jeans and jumper. Aziraphale’s eyes lingered there a moment while Crowley was turned. He imagined pressing a single finger there, and swallowed.
“I’m sorry, you said there was a problem?” Aziraphale drew himself out of his own tiny reverie. He quietly, internally admonished himself and fixed his gaze firmly on Crowley’s face. This man was a colleague. He had come to Aziraphale with a problem to be solved.
Crowley turned back. The sliver of skin disappeared behind merino wool. “Sorry, yeah. Get distracted easily. Wanted to talk about a student. Adam Young.”
“Yes, bright boy. Bit of a troublemaker too, with the flagpole nonsense.” There had been other events over the years. Adam and his crew on the roof of the library, organizing campus wide snowball fights, an episode where he changed the name of the school wifi network to something cheeky at one point. But all those predated Crowley.
“And he’s your student.” Crowley said. A statement, not a question.
“Yes.” Aziraphale resisted the urge to ask questions in return. He bit his tongue, allowed Crowley to continue.
Aziraphale’s features transmitted confusion. Tadfield students were encouraged to cultivate a wide spectrum of knowledge during their studies, but not into their upper years, and not in such opposing disciplines. Aziraphale searched for clarity. “Is your class a breadth requirement?” He didn’t even know what Crowley taught.
“No. It’s a third year class, like yours,” Crowley said with mild consternation. “Adam’s doing a double major. Biology and English.”
“I admit I didn’t know that.” He had insulted Crowley somehow, he knew. Diminished his work. Perhaps more students were double majoring than he was aware. If he were to look very honestly at himself, he would see that he knew very little of his students beyond their work in class. He knew Adam as a gifted student, thoughtful, willing to grapple with tough questions, push boundaries. He was affable too, ready with a friendly “Hullo Professor!” whenever he crossed Aziraphale on campus. But beyond that he was a mystery.
“He’s not been to my class for a few weeks,” Crowley said, pulling Aziraphale out of his own thoughts.
Aziraphale reflected back to his past few classes. He never took formal attendance. But the students were creatures of habit, always filing in with the same groups, sitting in identical configurations week after week. He searched his memory for his most recent class, and discovered an empty space where Adam usually sat. The week before as well. He couldn’t remember past that. “Nor mine.”
“Aren’t you concerned?” Crowley’s tone wasn’t accusatory but Aziraphale received the question as if it was.
“I–” The truth was he had never been worried. Had never thought twice about Adam’s absence. Had he ought to have been? “Sometimes students just need a bit of a break,” he said unconvincingly. He was unsure on this last part.
“A break for three weeks, though.” There was something of a plea under Crowley’s voice.
“Well…” Aziraphale capitulated. “Perhaps.”
Crowley leaned forward in his chair, rested his elbows on his knees. “I’m new to this, so I don’t know what the norm is or whatever, but I know students aren’t supposed to miss class here without a valid excuse, or a note.”
“They do though, all the time. Most of us just let it go.” Aziraphale shrugged helplessly.
Crowley let out a strangled sort of chuckle and pushed his hair back from his face with both hands. Aziraphale experienced a fleeting moment of distraction where he considered Crowley’s miraculous hair colour. A rich mahogany. Aziraphale wondered what it felt like.
“Yeah, you all have an interesting relationship with rules here.”
He had a point, Aziraphale conceded. “Some rules are important,” said Aziraphale in a voice he usually reserved for lecture. “Others are just a bit of bureaucratic overreach, for show. All part of the Tadfield mystique.” He offered Crowley a tight, detached smile.
“Got it,” Crowley replied through his teeth.
A heavy silence settled in Aziraphale’s office. It was a silly argument, he knew. What was the point of having rules that were never meant to be enforced, or (as it often ended up) were enforced for some but not others? In the wake of Crowley’s interrogating, he was chagrined to admit that he had never really questioned this model in the decade he’d been at Tadfield. He’d simply gotten on with it, fell into line.
“I don’t like it though,” Crowley said so quietly Aziraphale wondered if it were something he’d meant to keep to himself.
Crowley shook his head. “Not the rules. Well, don’t like them either if I’m being honest. But I meant the fact that Adam’s gone MIA. He’s a good lad, save the prank business. Does the work, interested. This just doesn’t feel like him. He’s supposed to be assisting in my lab as well but he’s not been showing up.”
“That is troubling.” Aziraphale looked down to his clasped hands. He had always been a hands off professor, keeping very clear boundaries between himself and his students. It had made his life easier over the years but upon further reflection perhaps he had been overzealous in this. Perhaps he had even been negligent. “I suppose I could make some inquiries.”
There was something like victory in Crowley’s expression. “So, a three week absence isn’t normal then.”
“No. It’s not.” Not across the board. Not like this.
“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t off base. I don’t even know who to talk to. Was like pulling teeth to get the Registrar's Office to tell me what other classes Adam was enrolled in. Something about privacy.” Crowley shrugged off the concern.
Knitting his brows together, Aziraphale wracked his brain, searching for the information he would have been given at new faculty orientation some ten years earlier. How best to serve your students , etcetera. “I suspect the Office of Campus Life is who you want. They have a Student Welfare Coordinator. They do check-ups.” He drew his stopwatch from his pocket, referenced it and turned the face to Crowley. “They’ll be closed now but I can go first thing in the morning.”
Crowley waved him off. “No, don’t worry about it. I can.” Then, as an afterthought, “Thanks.”
“No, thank you.” Aziraphale caught Crowley’s eyes. It rankled him that he had come off as careless. He wanted to explain. “Sometimes I get distracted. We have small classes but I’m not always good at taking note of who’s there week after week. I tend to let students to their own devices. I see them as adults, I suppose, when really they’re almost there, but not quite. They still need a little supervision.” He offered a crooked smile, much chagrined.
Nodding, Crowley maintained eye contact. “Do you like teaching?”
Oh. Aziraphale hadn’t expected that. In fact, he didn’t think he had ever been asked that question, not in recent memory. It was commonly held belief for many at Tadfield that no one really enjoyed teaching. It was more a necessary evil. But, “I do. I do like teaching. Very much actually. It’s jolly lovely when they’re keen.” He sighed fondly, eyes roaming around his desk, memories of favourite students (there were always favourites) surfacing in his mind’s eye. “I used to try new techniques. Whatever the new trend in teaching and learning was. Aaron’s always been quite enthusiastic about those. It looks good on grant applications, you see. The newest and shiniest things. I tried them because they were supposed to be good for the students. But, as it turns out I didn’t like any of them and the students didn’t either. It didn’t make any pedagogical sense for what we’re doing. For my classes, I just need to speak with them, give them the opportunity to speak back when inspired. There’s nothing innovative about it but it has worked. You just have to have a conversation with them.”
He looked back to Crowley, who sat frozen across from him, pleasantly stunned. Oh, dear. He had really gone off on a tear. Aziraphale chuckled with nervous embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Crowley. I lost track of myself there a moment.”
“S’alright. Interesting. Don’t know much about this teaching methods stuff. Think I’m doing okay though. They haven’t fired me yet.” Crowley shrugged.
“I’m sure you’re absolutely splendid.”
Crowley tried to mask his discomfort and crossed his arms across his torso, hands gripping his biceps. He cast his gaze about, to the desk, the floor, anywhere but Aziraphale.
Aziraphale recalled Crowley’s reaction from when he had complimented him in the lobby, their last extended conversation before this one. Kindness seemed to make the man’s skin itch.
“Students are a laugh though,” Crowley mumbled.
“The students are lovely.” Aziraphale granted Crowley this change of subject. That was a kindness Aziraphale suspected he could accept. He smiled warmly. “I’d like to say they keep me young, but mostly they make me very tired.”
Crowley laughed in a subdued way, but Aziraphale watched as the tension in his arms subsided.
Aziraphale didn’t believe in chance. Never had. It likely had something to do with the fact that he had spent his entire career searching for meaning in other people’s words, taking nothing for granted. Things happened, he was quite sure, for a reason. Even if (perhaps especially if) that reason was not immediately clear.
There were nearly two hundred instructors at Tadfield. He knew almost none of them beyond the confines of his own discipline, and if he were particularly blessed he could go weeks without actually setting eyes on his own English department peers. Yet he kept running into Crowley.
This might be a bad idea. This might be his ruin, but–
“Would you like a drink? If you don’t have anything else to do, of course.” An invitation. An olive branch. Let’s find the meaning here. Let me look at the source of you.
Crowley looked Aziraphale straight in the face, eyes wide and lips parted. “Uh, no. No plans. Drink sounds… okay. Yeah. Lemme just-” He pulled out his phone and typed madly while Aziraphale rolled his desk chair to the discreet bar cabinet tucked in beside a bookshelf.
The professor extracted a dark green bottle and two crystal tumblers. “Do you drink Scotch?” He asked Crowley, who slipped his phone back into pocket.
“Yeah. Great.” Crowley’s eyes followed the label. “Talisker. Not bad.”
Aziraphale placed the two glasses down on his desk, poured a finger of dark amber liquid into each. “I don’t drink up here alone by myself. Not often, I mean. Please don’t think I’m a lush.”
Crowley released a bark of unselfconscious laughter as he accept the glass Aziraphale pushed towards him. “A lush!” He exclaimed. “Where did you hear that term?”
Aziraphale smiled into his glass, biting back the grin threatening to dominate his face. “Couldn’t tell you.”
CROWLEY: something came up. We can watch game of thrones later. C u tomorrow. (Received 7:04pm)
ANATHEMA: what do you mean something came up??? You never have plans. (Sent 7:05pm)
ANATHEMA: I’m literally the only person you know. (Sent 7:05pm)
ANATHEMA: Wtf. crowley. Anthony. Answer me! (Sent 7:09pm)
ANATHEMA: Whatever I’m watching without you (Sent 7:13pm)
ANATHEMA: ANTHONYYYY (Sent 7:19pm)
The next day, Newt brought him his mail. Enclosed was a handwritten note. The cursive was elegant and slanted long across the page, not what Aziraphale had expected from the Biology instructor at all. It read:
All is well with Adam Young. Went home for a fam emergency, but didn’t tell professors. Will have a chat with him when he returns and will report back.
Thanks for the drink.
Aziraphale went to place it in the recycle bin, but hesitated. He ran his thumb over the edge of the paper, where it was soft from being ripped hastily from a notebook. He folded the message gingerly, and slipped it into his desk drawer.
Chapter 4: April
Content warning for implied mentions of depression and suicide (brief).
“What do you mean it’s out of service?” Crowley put the box he had been carrying down in front of the doors to the lift.
Anathema stood before him, holding her phone, face stricken at the news.
“The button wasn’t responding so I asked around and apparently it stopped working like an hour ago. I called maintenance and they said they’d send someone but it won’t be for a while.”
“Auuuughhhh,” wailed Crowley, head bent back and hands in his hair. Perfect, just bloody perfect. They had spent an entire week boxing up the entire lab, and carefully scheduled the move for this morning. He wanted to be in his new lab now .
“Could we try Campus Movers?” Asked Pepper delicately, circling Crowley widely with a terrarium cradled in her arms.
Anathema shot daggers at Crowley with her dark brown eyes, now flashing nearly black. “We could have if someone wasn’t so insistent he could do it himself!” She turned to Pepper. “They need at least a week’s notice.”
“How was I supposed to know the stupid thing wasn’t going to work?” Crowley whined, giving the doors a half-hearted kick with the toe of his Doc Martens.
Pepper’s eyebrows crept skywards. “It never works,” she muttered.
Crowley snapped to face her. “What was that?”
She rolled her eyes. She knew (much to Crowley’s dismay) that he was all bark and no bite. “I said it never works. Guess we’re taking the stairs. Real thrilled to be a Biology Specialist right now. What a party.” Pepper walked to the stairwell morosely, and pushed through the fire door to make her way up six flights of stairs.
“Some cheek. She’s been spending too much time with you,” Crowley growled at Anathema. He smoothed his hair and squeezed his eyes shut in frustration. “Okay, let’s just… start with the small stuff and then maybe the damned thing will be up and working again by the time we need to take the heavier things up.”
As they made trip after trip up to the fifth floor they were passed by multiple, puzzled looking students. Crowley scowled at each and every one as sweat dripped off his forehead. They gave him a wide berth.
It was on their fourth trip, when Pepper was yelling down from two floors above Crowley that she was " dying! I’m going to die in this stairwell and my mother is going to sue this school! " That the instructor felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Can I help?”
Crowley had been prepared to round on the interloper, snap at them to get out of his way, but he caught himself. First off, he was in no position to be rejecting help from any quarter, and second, it was Newt, Professor Fell’s graduate student, wide eyed and nervous, which as far as Crowley could tell was his default state.
“With the boxes. Seems to be a lot of work.”
“Oh, uh, that’d be stellar, actually. I’ll take this up and meet you in the basement, yeah?”
Newt nodded and headed down as Crowley continued his ascent.
Anathema stood on the next landing, waiting for Crowley. She sniffed as if she had smelt something unpleasant. Her glasses slid down her nose and she struggled to push them back up with both her hands clinging to a box of books. “What did he want?” She asked sharply.
Crowley braced himself for an argument. It had become entirely plain over the past several weeks that the boy was smitten with Anathema, smiling shyly at her as he hovered behind Fell in the hallways, his heart beat nearly visible through his sweater vest. This made sense, of course. Anathema was objectively very nice to look at and had cultivated an air of unavailability. Crowley felt that under most circumstances, Anathema could react to these types of crushes in whatever way she pleased. But right now he was tired, his arms were about to fall off, and his well of patience was just about dry. “He wanted to help. And we’re going to let him.” Anathema opened her mouth to speak but Crowley continued before she could get a word out. “How about you lose the attitude with him, eh? I get that he makes the occasional googly eyes at you but as far as I can tell, he’s been nothing but respectful. So get over yourself a bit, would you?”
Anathema looked down at her box. “Wow,” she muttered.
Crowley relaxed his shoulders, nudged Anathema with his elbow. “Hey, you’re fine. But just save the ice queen act for people who deserve it, at least for today. Alright?” He bent at the knees to try to catch her gaze which she had fixed to the floor. When their eyes met, the corner of his lips quirked up in a small smile.
Her lips twitched. They weren’t good at staying mad at one another. “Yeah, okay.”
The rest of the move proceeded without major incident. Some equipment was simply too delicate, too expensive, too heavy to try to haul up the stairs, even with three people supporting it (Crowley, Anathema, and Newt, as Pepper had begged off claiming she had school work to be done). It would have to wait until the lift was restored. As Crowley and Newt placed the last box they would try to move that day outside the lab, Anathema checked their lists, ensuring nothing had gone missing. They were all glistening with sweat in a way that looked neither healthy nor attractive.
It was at that moment that they were interrupted by a man who blew into the hallway like a cold wind off the sea. He wore a fraying deerstalker and a winter ski-coat with the Tadfield insignia embroidered on the breast. He laid eyes upon the trio and trundled towards them. “Was it one of you,” he started, pulling his mittens off violently, “who put in a request about the lift?”
Anathema stepped forward. “It’s not been working all day.”
The man raised his eyebrows as if this was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. “Nae working? Ah, lass. It’s just been turned off is all.”
A silence immediately descended. Crowley and Anathema looked to one another. They looked to Newt. They all looked at the maintenance worker who regarded them all as idiots.
Crowley cleared his throat, rage barely concealed. “It’s… turned off?”
“Aye,” said the man.
“And who, pray tell, turned it off?” Crowley asked, choking on his words.
The man reared back and put his hands up, defending himself against Crowley’s ire. “Not me, dinnae get a request.”
“Who else has the key?” Asked Anathema, wanting to spare them Crowley’s inevitable outburst.
“For this lift? Oh, just one fella. Cannae remember his name. Big American roaster.”
The colour drained from Newt’s face. There was only one person in this building who could’ve fallen in the category of Big American roaster . “Professor Gabriel,” he squeaked out.
Recognition fluttered across the man’s features. “Aye, that’s it. Gabriel.” He let the English Department chair’s name leave his tongue with an exaggerated and mocking respect, transmitting exactly how highly he regarded the man.
Silence, again. Crowley looked at the floor in front of him, tamped down the white hot anger bubbling up his throat, just for a minute. Through clenched teeth, he hissed, “That is very helpful, Mr…?”
“Shadwell,” Mr. Shadwell supplied.
“Shadwell. Yes. Very helpful. Can you turn it back on, the lift?”
Shadwell shook his head. “No can do. Don’t have my key on me.”
Crowley’s eyes fluttered shut, and a visible red flush climbed up his neck from the collar of his shirt.
Anathema intervened. “Okay, that’s great. Thank you, Mr. Shadwell. We’ll figure it out from here.”
As Mr. Shadwell turned the corner to the main staircase, Anathema gripped both of Crowley’s arms, hoping to stem what would come next.
“He knew we were moving. He knew we were moving today and that tit turned the fucking lift off.”
“I’m going to kill him.”
At this declaration, Newt blanched. “Let’s just all, um, take a breath maybe?”
“You take a breath!” Yelled Crowley. He paced angrily for a moment, both Newt and Anathema granting him space. “This is beyond my paygrade,” he sputtered, heading towards the staircase. “I’m going to talk to Beez.” He shoved the fire door open so hard it slammed against the stairwell wall, and echoed down the hall.
Newt and Anathema looked at each other, wide eyed and nervous, certain they had both just witnessed an escalation in the Tadfield Interdepartmental War of 2019.
It was later in the week, after Crowley had time to cool off (but barely) that he saw Adam Young on campus. The student was trudging across the main square, books pressed to his chest, backpack slung over one shoulder.
It was exam season. Students drifted across the grounds in a catatonic state, sporting thousand-yard stares and tear-stained faces. Professors and teaching assistants read paper after paper, one hypothesis blurring into the next. The end of term was so close they could smell it, so long as they could survive Tadfield Exams Week. The only saving grace was that the weather had been exceptionally agreeable. Less rain than normal, with warm sun burning off the fog each morning earlier and earlier.
Adam hadn’t been present in class for weeks, though he had passed in a final assignment. Crowley suspected that Pepper had been passing on her notes, but he wasn’t certain. Adam was slouched over, the weight of academic work heavy on his shoulders both literally and figuratively.
Crowley jogged towards him, calling his name. “Hey! Adam! Hold on, wait up a minute.”
Adam turned and the look that came upon him when he saw Crowley could only be described as painful humiliation. He grimaced and held his books a little tighter to his front. “Oh, um. Hi Crowley. Alright?”
“What happened? Thought you dropped off the face of the planet.” Crowley was concerned, but his voice betrayed just how frustrated he was with Adam as well. Crowley could live with the not coming to class, he certainly had skipped a fair few of his during his undergrad years and he had done okay for himself relatively, but it was the failing to show as a lab assistant that really riled him. Those positions had been coveted. Excellent hands-on experience with an industry leader for any student who had wanted to get into research. He had thought Adam the perfect fit, and then he had disappeared for half the term with nary a word.
Adam wouldn’t meet his eyes. He kicked at the ground with the toe of his beat up trainer. “Yeah, I… I haven’t been feeling great. I went home for a bit. I’m really sorry.”
Sighing, Crowley placed his hands on his hips. “You can’t just fuck off home and not tell anyone. Not even an e-mail?”
“I know I screwed up. It’s just that…” Adam took a great, shuddering breath and Crowley realized that what he was dealing with wasn’t just a run of the mill cold, or homesickness. “Things feel bad.”
“Okay,” said Crowley, gentler now. He was suddenly very much out of his element. “Bad how?”
Adam looked skyward, as if the clouds held the right combination of words to describe what he was feeling. “The world seems really bad and it feels like I’m wasting time reading books and whatever when the world is like this.”
Oof, thought Crowley. He clasped the back of his neck in discomfort. This was not the kind of conversation he was particularly skilled at. But he knew who was. “This sounds like a philosophical problem. D’you have a few minutes?” He asked.
Adam blinked at him in surprise. “Um, yeah. Don’t have another exam ‘til tomorrow.”
“Come with me, then.”
He and Adam cut back beside the Chapel and up the front stairs into MacDiarmid Hall. They took the elevator to the fifth floor, and headed towards the turret. This was a well worn path now for Crowley, to Fell’s office.
After that first night with Fell, enjoying scotch and the cadence of the professor’s voice, Crowley wondered if it was just a fluke, a one-off. Under the influence of Talisker, he had talked about his work for twenty minutes uninterrupted before catching himself, rattling off an apology and wondering if he should leave.
“No, no. Do go on, my dear. This is fascinating.”
And so he had. Fell had asked questions, prodded Crowley about his goals, his research and his time in the field. Had skillfully and intuitively neglected to ask any questions any personal questions focusing on the professional and esoteric. Even so, Crowley left feeling exposed in a way he rather enjoyed. Three nights later he had returned to Fell’s office with a bottle of wine to replenish Fell’s stores. The professor insisted that he stay, that they try the bottle together. The older man had complimented Crowley on his taste and he chose not to reveal that it was Anathema who had recommended the vintage.
Again, he had stayed in Fell’s office longer than he had planned that night (but for less time than he had wanted) discussing conferences, the progress on the lab. Like before, Crowley did most of the talking. Fell seemed primarily content to listen, make the occasional inquiry to flesh out Crowley’s story or rant.
As Crowley rose to leave that night Fell had said, “This has been very nice. We’ll have to make a habit of it.” Crowley needed no more invitation.
The next week he visited three times. The next, four. If Fell had shown any hesitation, if there had been the merest flicker of annoyance or inconvenience on his face when Crowley knocked on his door, he would have backed off, would have disappeared himself and gone back to curtly nodding at Fell in the hallways. Except each time the professor looked pleasantly surprised. Always ready with some variation of “Crowley! Good to see you. How was your day?” He’d be reaching towards the bar cabinet before Crowley had a chance to get seated.
It was nice. It was sort of cozy.
Each evening as he’d climb the stairs of the turret two at a time, he’d tell himself he was going for the novelty of unfamiliar company. Anathema was probably sick of him hanging around her all the time. Visiting Fell was just something to do, something to break up the days that flowed into one another when you lived and worked on a piece of land smaller than a square mile. It beat driving twenty-five minutes away to the pub and then having a single pint so he could drive himself back safely. And it sure as hell beat drinking alone.
He could tell himself a lot of things if he set his mind to it.
It was after these visits as he slipped between the sheets of his bed in a whiskey tinted haze, when the reality of why Crowley kept going back seeped in at the edges, took advantage of his weakened defenses. It was the way Fell talked to him, like Crowley was interesting and very brilliant and worth being around. Whenever they hit a point in the conversation where Crowley was the least bit reticent, when a whiff of discomfort could be smelled, the professor would skillfully redirect the discussion. Crowley didn’t have to slither his way out of anything.
Fell challenged him though. He refused to hear Crowley engage in self deprecating humour or speak poorly about himself in any way. He was constantly reframing Crowley’s narrative, telling Crowley, more or less, to be gentle with himself. The softness was shocking. It made his bones ache. Crowley wondered if that was what therapy was like.
When Crowley was crossing the bridge between awake and asleep, right before he stepped over to the other side, he would picture Fell’s face, his broad hands. The way his cotton-spun hair curled around his ears. He had memorized the way Fell undid his bowtie with deliberate grace one unseasonably warm night, and opened the top two buttons of his shirt. Crowley’s mouth had watered and he averted his gaze. He had excused himself early that night, unsettled by the involuntary reaction. These memories became sleep sculpted reveries, where those hands carded through Crowley’s hair, those gentle words whispered directly in his ear.
In waking, he would stash these things away, try to convince himself they were dreams, not real. Not real at all.
It was just good company. That was it.
But now, with Adam, this was an entirely different visit. Official. Work related.
Adam trailed Crowley up the curved staircase, and Crowley was relieved to see Fell’s door cracked open. The professor was in. He knocked sharply on the doorframe and pushed the door open without waiting for an answer.
Fell was bent over his desk, ridiculous antique spectacles perched on the end of his nose. He had white gloves on, the kind Crowley had seen experts wear on the Antique Roadshow (not that he had obsessively watched that for a time or anything). He had a book open on his desk, an ancient looking thing that seemed on the edge of falling to pieces. When he looked up at the intrusion, his surprise was genuine. “Oh, Crowley, this is early for you.”
Crowley supposed it was. “Hiya. We’ve got company.” He pushed the door open and stood back, allowing Adam to pass in front of him.
Adam gave a tight smile, shifted his backpack on his shoulder. “Hi Professor.”
“Adam. Dear boy. Come in.” Fell’s concern was obvious. His eyebrows stitched together as he hastily put his book aside, with less care than Crowley would have expected. He slipped the gloves off his fingers, took the glasses off and placed them in the drawer next to him. “Why don’t you both sit down. We were wondering where you had gotten to.”
Adam dropped his rucksack in an unceremonious heap next to the chair closest to the door, and collapsed into in. He avoided Fell’s gaze, choosing instead to stare at his trainers. “I went home for a bit.”
Fell faced Adam, but his eyes glanced over to Crowley, who slipped into his usual chair. His eyes conveyed mild alarm. This was clearly not the Adam he had come to know at Tadfield.
“Is everything alright, Adam?” Fell asked. He leaned forward, clasped his hands in front of him, deadly serious. This version of the professor was not one Crowley had become acquainted with. Authoritative, no hint of fluttering hands or twinkling eyes, no shy smile. Nothing ethereal in the slightest. He was firmly grounded and had taken charge. Crowley had thought Fell might have something of a mystic about him in this interaction, but that was not the case.
Adam leaned back in his chair, folded his arms across his chest. “Yeah.”
“Adam…” Started Crowley, reproachfully. “That’s not how you made it sound when we were outside. Unless there was some seismic shift in your worldview in the last five minutes.”
“Sorry,” Adam sighed. “It’s just. Do you watch the news, Professor?” He looked up now, engaged Fell full-faced and anxious.
Fell didn’t flinch. “Sometimes. I read it, mostly.”
“The news feels bad.” Adam inhaled sharply. “Has it always felt this bad or is this new?”
Fell’s shoulders softened, just a little. “The world has always been a challenging place. I suspect we have access to more information now. The bad things reach us more quickly, and all at once.” His voice was placid, but firm.
There was something of pleading the expression that Adam bestowed on Fell by way of a response.
“But I understand how you’re feeling. The news can feel very bad, overwhelming.”
“Yes!” Adam suddenly sat forward, palms face up in his lap, grasping for what he wanted to say. “I just… I don’t know if I should be here.”
“What do you mean here ?” Crowley said, rejoining the conversation, trying to temper his sudden alarm.
Adam turned to him, slightly indigent. “I don’t mean not alive . I just mean at school. Like I don’t know if I should be at school.”
Crowley sat back in his chair. Put his hands up to Adam, signalling, okay, got it.
Adam looked back to Fell. “Sometimes all this stuff feels like a waste of time.” He gestured pointedly to the stack of papers and books on Fell’s desk. Crowley half expected the professor to take offence, but if he felt even the slightest bit put out from Adam casually calling his life’s work a ‘waste,’ he didn’t show it. His blue eyes remained fixed on the boy. “I feel like I should be trying to help the world or something.”
“And how would you do that?” Fell’s question was sincere.
Adam paused, shrugged as if he didn’t have an answer, but then responded, “I dunno. Volunteering maybe. With like an environmental organization. Or a charity.”
“And have you looked into that?”
For the first time since Crowley had encountered him in the courtyard, the ghost of a smile played on Adam’s lips. He dropped his gaze to his hands. “Yeah. A bit.”
Contemplative, Fell tilted his head. He hummed a bit, thinking. Then he turned his gaze to Crowley, and smiled. He was communicating something to him, Crowley knew, but he wasn’t perceptive enough to pick it up. He bit his lip nervously, which made the corners of Fell’s eyes crinkle in a way that made Crowley’s breath catch.
Fell looked back to Adam, and Crowley exhaled. “Adam, look at me please.” Fell waited until Adam established eye contact once more. “There’s a good lad. Listen to me very carefully. You have always been, up until this juncture at least, an excellent student. You are a very intelligent young man. You’re thoughtful, which is why I suspect the bad things that happen outside the campus grounds affect you so. You are absolutely correct that doing this kind of work can seem futile.”
Crowley raised his eyebrows. Where was Fell going with this?
“The knowledge you gain here is only as good as what you choose to do with it. And so, you must do what serves your heart. That might be to finish your studies, and I hope you will. I have so enjoyed having you in my classroom and I selfishly and sincerely hope that what you choose to do in September is return to Tadfield. You will always have a home here. I think finishing your studies will help equip you with the right tools to make change. But, if it isn’t your choice, if your heart takes you elsewhere, I know you’ll be successful in whatever you do.”
As if Aziraphale had cast a spell, something lifted from Adam, sapped all the tension from his muscles, banished the malaise. He smiled. A real smile.
“You’re a good person, Adam.”
“Thank you, Professor.”
The three sat in silence for a moment, more contented than before. The nervous anxiety that had permeated the space before dispersed.
“So,” started Crowley. “You finish your exams. Then we’ll sort it out. Or you will, whatever. What I mean is we’ll support you.” This talking from his heart thing was something he’d have to work on. “Okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” Adam stood, collected his pack, and turned towards the door.
“You’ll tell us what you decide, won’t you?” Asked Fell. Adam nodded in response. “Good lad. Best of luck on your exams, Mr. Young.”
“Thanks,” Adam replied. He slipped out, closing the door behind him.
The two men waited until the sounds of Adam’s footsteps reached the bottom of the stairwell, and padded out of earshot.
Fell smiled softly at Crowley, and observed him a moment. The biologist restrained himself from crossing his arms, folding in on himself. There was nothing covert about Fell’s look. It wasn’t inappropriate, nothing like that. It was just a strange thing to be studied so openly and without airs. It was the look on the professor’s face that caused the real discomfort. The tenderness in it.
“You were worried about him,” Fell said simply.
Crowley shrugged. “Well, yeah. Bit.”
“You’re very kind, Crowley.”
Crowley looked down, shook his head, waved the words away with a dismissive gesture. Even now, even now when he knew this was Fell’s way, half of Crowley’s soul still leapt from his body and out of the room, down the stairs and away from the building, leaving those kind words behind. The other half wanted to throw himself across the desk, grab Fell’s wrists in his hands, beg. Tell me again, please tell me again.
Every surface in the lab gleamed, stainless steel and white tile. It smelled new, sterile, exquisite. Dr. Prince meandered through the space, dragging their fingers on the edge of the counter, looking out the newly installed south-facing windows, out into the night. They were impressed. The lab was the only construction job on campus that had ever been finished ahead of schedule during their entire career at Tadfield, somehow succeeding in spite of the English department’s deliberate machinations. Losing keys, locking doors, failing to respond to time sensitive e-mails, turning off the bloody lift whenever it suited them. Pathetic.
The Biology department had won. The lab was built, and it would always be a Biology lab, long after all the other repairs were made and classes relocated back to the Sciences building. The English department snobs would have to deal with lab coats and beakers and chemicals in their midst from now until kingdom come. And fuck, Dr. Prince loved it. Even if it hadn’t been their idea.
The door behind them opened, and Dr. Prince turned to see two tall figures enter the room. Dr. Gabriel, looking vexed beyond what Dr. Price thought possible, and the Dean. It had been ages since they’d seen her, the Dean having been so busy, with a tendency to hole up in her office for days at a time and issue all edicts by institutional wide memo.
When the Dean had suggested this meeting Dr. Prince had been confused. The lab was nice, beautiful even, but it wasn’t a new building. It wasn’t named after some ancient benefactor. No great unveiling or ribbon cutting was required.
“Well,” the Dean began, a beatific smile on her lips, opening her arms as if to embrace the space. “Look at what we can accomplish when we put our minds to it. What a gorgeous place for our students. And these windows! Imagine this view in the daytime. Isn’t it spectacular, Dr. Gabriel?” She turned to her companion, who contorted his face into something that suggested a smile.
“Just… great.” He looked around the space, the false smile slipping away as soon as the Dean’s attention was redirected.
The Dean approached Dr. Prince, and for a moment seemed to consider putting her arm around them, then reconsidered, bringing her hands together in front of her instead. “You must be pleased.”
Dr. Gabriel sneered behind the Dean’s back, pulled out his phone and flicked away at the screen distractedly, waiting for the moment the Dean would dismiss him.
“This lab is a wonderful opportunity, don’t you think?” The Dean angled herself so she faced both Chairs.
Dr. Prince smirked. “Absolutely, Madame Dean. Wonderful.”
When Dr. Gabriel failed to respond, the Dean continued, ignoring the distaste emanating off of him. “The perfect opportunity for a new partnership between your departments!”
Dr. Gabriel dropped his phone on the shining tile floor. Dr. Prince coughed.
“Excuse me?” Dr. Prince asked, and the Dean spoke over them.
“As we’ve built this space it’s becoming clear to me that we need to seize opportunities as they present themselves to us. What we have here is the chance to create something truly interdisciplinary. We are shaping our students and sending them out in the world as experts. But I think we can do better than experts. We need our students to be well-rounded. People who can cross party lines, if you catch my meaning. And you do, catch my meaning, don’t you?”
Neither Dr. Prince, nor Dr. Gabriel caught her meaning.
“It’s time for Tadfield to take cross-disciplinary studies to the next level. I want to develop a series of courses that integrate the learning experience in both Biology and in English. I want students from both disciplines to work together in class, to support each other, to learn to speak each other’s languages. We’ll start small. Three courses maybe. Or is that too much? Two. How do we feel about two?”
The Chairs did not feel good about two.
“One. We’ll do one. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, yes? Oh, Beelzebub, you know how I get. One idea and I get miles ahead of myself. So, one. One course. Something special. Something no other college has. We could change the face of undergraduate education with fully integrated programs. Students could leave Tadfield with combined special degrees in both sciences and the humanities. Goodness, can you imagine?”
“For September. You can deliver one course for September? It’ll need to go through the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee and Faculty Council for August to get it on the calendar. Not so hard. You’re both so capable.”
“I’m sorry, Madame Dean. You want us to work together? Me? And…” Dr. Gabriel gestured wide and open-palmed at Dr. Prince who curled their lip in disgust. “Them?”
“Whoever else?” Said the Dean, unphased. She swept back to the door, sensible black pumps clicking across the lab floor, and she turned in the doorway, marveling at the lab once more. “I have so much faith in the both of you to do something transcendent. The Provost and I, we are so looking forward to seeing what you can do. Try to blow me away, would you?” And with that, she was gone.
Dr. Gabriel and Dr. Prince stared at one another, dumbstruck. This was an outrage. This was inconceivable. This was Her . It’s what she did. No point being comfortable for long.
Dr. Prince made for the door. Maybe there was some way to plead their case, to beg off of this, but as they emerged out into the hallway, all was quiet. Dr. Gabriel came out behind them.
“This is bullshit,” he muttered. Dr. Prince couldn’t disagree.
At that moment, a thin figure emerged from the turret stairwell, who Dr. Prince recognized immediately by the expensive leather jacket, the red hair pulled into a haphazard bun.
“Crowley?” They said quietly, as the man disappeared down the main staircase, having seen neither Chair at the opposite end of the hall. They looked at their wristwatch. It was nearly ten at night. What the devil had he been doing up wherever that doorway lead? They turned to look up, way up, to Dr. Gabriel. His eyebrows knitted together.
They were both very confused, and very annoyed. It was the first time they had ever been on the same page.
Anathema looked at her watch. “Quitting time,” she declared. The sun was on its way to setting and the lab was painted in an unearthly glow, honeyed and warm. She took a moment to look out over the back campus from the tall windows. These early spring days made her feel new and untethered.
It was different with the students gone. The campus felt sedate, positively pastoral. At first, Anathema wondered if she might hate this: the isolation, the insular nature of Tadfield, but in fact the opposite had been true. After completing her undergrad at Berkeley – still insular, less isolated, and plagued by a surfeit of tech bros – Tadfield was refreshing.
She did miss the students who burst into her office in a panic, who she would calm with essential oils, a little bit of unlicensed reiki. (Crowley had told her to cut that out. She hadn’t.) But she knew the summer would pass quickly enough, and she should enjoy the research time while it lasted.
There was something charged here at Tadfield, something in the soil. Some electric frisson that buzzed at the soles of her feet. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was, exactly. She had taken to packing sacred divining rods, her chalice, some crystals, and disappearing into the woods at odd hours. Kneeling on the mossy forest ground soft with rotting leaves, she’d speak to the trees, the earth. “What are you trying to tell me?” She’d ask aloud, willing some spirit to respond. Alas, she’d had little success. No success really, and she’d ruined several pairs of tights.
The sun reflected pink and blue, golden on the sea at the horizon. How long would it take to walk there, she wondered.
“Hey,” she said, over her shoulder. “You wanna walk down to the ocean? Maybe there’s a beach.”
She turned to Crowley, perched on a stool and hunched over his laptop. “Care for a swim, do you?” He said as he continued to type.
“ Obviously ,” Crowley mocked back, having perfected her tone and inflection several months earlier.
“Just thought it would be something different to do. Let’s go!” She leapt across the lab and wrapped her fingers around the screen of Crowley’s laptop and moved to close it.
“Could you not,” he said, exasperated and pushing her hands away. He focused on the screen, finishing entering the last of the data for the day. “I can’t anyway.”
“What do you have to -” She stopped herself. Why even bother asking? “You have a date.”
That got his attention. Crowley’s eyes flashed and his lips tightened into a thin line. His muscles prickled with tension. “Don’t.”
They had teased each other since the first time they had met. In fact it had become their default mode of communication. Crowley gave her a hard time about her more holistic and celestial based hobbies, and she goaded him about his carefully cultivated laid back persona, where in truth he was anything but. She had never, not once, provoked this kind of reaction, this barely under the surface discomfort. Anathema flushed with shame, the uncomfortable knowledge that she had crossed some invisible line. She hadn’t meant... She hadn’t wanted to...
“I was just joking.”
Crowley stayed stubbornly focused on his screen. “Okay.”
She resisted the urge to get defensive. It was just a joke and you are clearly nursing a giant crush. “I’m sorry,” she said, reluctantly but not untruthfully.
He nodded, and closed his laptop.
“You are hanging out with him though, right?”
Crowley made a quiet humm of confirmation.
Him. Anathema didn’t have to say his name. Professor Fell had taken on a sort of mythical quality to Anathema. Crowley had barely shown enthusiasm for anyone since landing at Tadfield, then suddenly he was gone half the evenings, spirited up into the turret.
“He’s interesting,” Crowley would say with feigned nonchalance. “It’s just something to do. Not a big deal. Better than staring at the TV every night.” Two truths and a lie.
Anathema saw Crowley every day. There had been a shift in him since March, a softening in the way he moved himself through the world. She could see it in the way he would glance over his shoulder towards the stairs to Fell’s office every single time they walked by. Where he’d previously been content to bum around the lab every day until he was on the brink of sleep, he was now possessed by a nervous energy each evening he’d planned to see Fell, flitting around attempting to wrap up the day’s work as soon as possible. Then he’d slip away, ignoring texts. To Anathema it was obvious. Crowley was besotted.
The truth of the matter was that she was jealous. It wasn’t that she had a thing for Crowley because no, absolutely not. She wasn’t entirely sure what her type was, but lanky and cranky scientists fifteen years her senior were not it, thanks. Not to mention the fact that she was not Crowley’s type either for several, but mostly one very specific reason. She had just gotten very used to him being around, to the point where she hadn’t bothered to try to make other friends.
Though she wasn’t the type to be sentimental, she had enjoyed his draping himself across the chairs in her room as they watched shows off her laptop screen. His presence had been certain, and the silence in her room in the evenings was palpable now. She felt replaced.
She was puzzled by Crowley’s reticence to discuss Fell. She had asked questions and he had brushed them off. She didn’t understand the cold reaction to her joke about the date. Unless, she supposed, it was one-sided. That Crowley’s fascination and ardour was unrequited, and that his frequent visits to Fell were an attempt to take whatever meager scraps he could get. That didn’t seem his way, but maybe she didn’t know him that well. People transformed when it came to love, or lust, or infatuation or whatever this thing was that he wouldn’t admit to. People went a bit stupid.
“Do you guys ever go out or do you go to his office every time?”
Crowley eyed her with suspicion. “Office,” he supplied cautiously. “But, he’s actually coming over here tonight. Wanted to see the lab.”
Again with the fake indifference. He wants to come here. No big deal. Not in love with him or anything. Nah. Crowley had spent a large part of the afternoon puttering about, straightening things up. Made sense now.
“Uh huh.” Anathema kept looking at Crowley who studiously avoided eye contact, checking his phone to keep his hands busy.
There were a couple of possibilities. One, that Crowley was deeply into Professor Fell and Professor Fell did not return his affections. Two, that they were already engaged in something, but Fell insisted on keeping it on the downlow for some reason (he was really into the Bible - possibly related?). Or, she wondered, maybe it was three. That she had horribly misread every aspect of this situation and Crowley and Fell were just a couple of guys being pals.
Any reasonable person would have recognized that this was none of their business. But Anathema had never had any interest in reason.
“Maybe I’ll stick around then. Since it’s not a date.”
Crowley tried to mask his immediate desperation with only moderate success. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” He asked, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms. “You must do. Look at you! Go to the pub, make some friends your own age, for Christ’s sake.”
“Gross. No,” she said. “Please? Let me hang out! I’m fun.”
“I am!” She beamed at him. The longer she smiled, the less likely he would be able to say no. They engaged in a brief standoff, she looming over him, grin becoming increasingly maniacal.
“Fine,” he said through clenched teeth. He was annoyed. He’d get over it. She was too curious about what she was going to witness to care much. “Make yourself useful then. Run over to my rooms and grab a bottle of something from the cabinet on the left.” He extracted a set of keys from his pocket and tossed them to her.
Anathema snatched the keys in midair, metal teeth digging into the flesh of her palm. She started towards the door and heard Crowley yell as she pushed it open. “Glasses too.”
As she sped walked across campus to the faculty quarters, Anathema idly wondered if Crowley would find some way to lock her out of the lab before she could return. On second thought, no, he didn’t have the nerve. Plus, she was the one with the booze.
Being fairly familiar with Crowley’s collection of alcohol at this point, Anathema was surprised to find several more bottles of red wine than she was expecting. Good red wine. Was that… it couldn’t be. She picked up the bottle with the yellow label and gasped. A 2005 Château Smith Haut Lafitte Bordeaux. A Château Smith Haut Lafitte was not a casual purchase. Crowley’d been doing his research, and not for her benefit. The only thing they drank together was whatever red they first laid eyes on at the Co-op in town.
Yeah, he was gone on Fell.
In spite of knowing instinctively that this wine was not meant for her in any way, Anathema tucked the bottle under her arm and grabbed another red at random. She closed the cabinet then cast her eyes about the room for glasses. She was about to grab three from the drying rack when she recalculated. She did not have a bag and she was going to schlep two bottles of wine and three wine glasses across campus? Risky move. If she dropped the Château, if she wasted a single drop she would have to run into the forest and never be seen again, otherwise she was fairly certain Crowley would murder her and no jury would convict. Instead, she grabbed the sleeve of plastic cups that she and Crowley had been using when she had swung by to watch Walking Dead.
She raced back across campus, cradling the bottles in her arms, mind swimming. This was not some throwaway crush. No one buys a £120 bottle of wine to drink alone. No one buys a £120 bottle of wine for a platonic buddy. No one she knew, anyway.
The elevator didn’t appear to be responding, so she trundled up the stairs slowly, and made her way back to the lab. Pushing the door open with her hip, she saw immediately that Crowley was no longer alone. Under a bank of plant lights, Crowley was showing Professor Fell some of his specimens, his fingers delicately turning over large flat leaves, his little finger running along the veins of it. He spoke in hushed tones, but his enthusiasm was clear as a bell. The Liguaria variety was one Crowley had brought from central Asia and had been cultivating for years. It was his passion, Anathema had discovered early on. She had caught him talking to it in stern, clipped tones on more than one occasion.
There was a conspicuous space between the two men, made more striking by the way they leaned their heads towards one another, yet lived in reluctance to just take the step, let their bodies be as close as they liked. Fell’s aristocratic hands were clasped behind his back, and while Crowley spoke animatedly about the leaf between his fingers, Fell kept glancing up, from the leaf to Crowley’s face, again and again.
Even from this distance there was something unfamiliar in Fell’s expression, a quality that Anathema had never seen before, though their interactions before now were mostly limited to nodding hello in the hallways. It was a most intense focus on the side of Crowley’s face, the leaf a distraction in his periphery.
She felt like a peeping tom, or like she had stumbled into the wrong hotel room in the midst of someone else’s lovers tryst. The smart thing to do, the polite thing to do, would be to leave the wine here on the counter next to the door, slip out, and allow these two dummies to figure out whatever it was they were doing on their own. Alas…
“I brought wine!” She said brightly, holding up a bottle in each hand with the sleeve of cups pressed up under her arm.
What could she say? No one had ever described her as polite.
Crowley and Fell both turned abruptly, gentle flushes rising on both their cheeks, both slightly flustered as if they had been caught in the act. She grinned broadly.
Fell collected himself, rearranged his features into an expression with which Anathema was more familiar - a serene smile, eyes crinkling at the corners in elegant crow’s feet. He was handsome, if you went in for that sort of thing. Crowley did, apparently, which was a bit of a surprise given his whole aesthetic, but life was a rich tapestry. “Miss Device! Lovely to see you. Crowley mentioned that you would be joining us tonight.” If he was disappointed by Anathema’s appearance, he gave no hint of it.
“Crowley speaks so highly of you. I thought I would see what all the fuss was about.”
“Does he?” Fell glanced back to Crowley, who looked as if he wanted to fly across the lab and strangle Anathema with his bare hands. Crowley, of course, had barely said two words on the topic of Fell or the times they spent together, but Anathema had taken up the responsibility of getting the ball rolling on this thing between them, and this seems as good a way as any.
Crowley opened his mouth to speak, when his eyes flew to the bottle with the yellow label clasped in Anathema’s outstretched hand. “You brought… the Château…” he said breathlessly, and swallowed.
“I did! Excellent taste, by the way.” She turned the bottle and scanned the label again, missing the faltering expression of fondness that flickered across Fell’s face.
“When did you pick that up?” Fell asked Crowley, quietly.
Crowley’s hands grabbed at the back of his neck. He was beside himself. “Er, was in the city last week. Saw it in a shop. Just thought…” He threw up his hands, rubbed one across his face in discomfort.
To Anathema, Fell looked like he was glowing. Crowley looking like he wanted to climb inside himself and never come out.
“Shall we?” She asked, placing the bottles down on one of the tables and taking the sleeve of cups out from under her arm.
The appearance of the cups shifted Crowley’s mood immediately. “P-plastic!” He sputtered, glaring at her again. Anathema wondered how long he’d be angry at her after this night. “We are not going to drink the Château out of plastic cups !” She wasn’t sure when Crowley had started caring about what they drank out of.
Fell chuckled softly. “No, it’s not ideal.”
“Blasphemy is what it is,” said Crowley.
Fell looked to Crowley again, who was laser focused on the plastic cups in Anathema’s hand, as if trying to disintegrate them by sight alone. There was a naked sort of tenderness in his eyes. It made Anathema realize, not for the first time and not for the last, just how much she was intruding. “Let me pop up to my office. I’ll grab some more suitable glassware.”
“Oh, and a corkscrew!” Anathema said as Fell passed, her hands twisting as she mimed opening the wine bottle.
“I’m so sorry,” Crowley called after him.
Fell turned back, just before he passed through the door. “Back in two tics!” He said, smiling.
As the door closed behind Fell, Crowley bounded across the lab and grabbed Anathema by her arms. “Of all the wines in my room what possessed you to bring that one ?” He said, voice wretched.
“You bought it for him,” said Anathema.
He groaned and looked at the floor so Anathema couldn’t see his face. His next words emerged as if they were being dragged from him forcibly. “Yeah, course I did. He mentioned it once. But I didn’t… I wasn’t going to…” He sighed. “I was saving it.”
For what?! Anathema wanted to scream. What moment did Crowley envision himself unearthing this wine during? Tell me what you planned!
Crowley looked up at her, the expression on his face pained, nervous. Afraid. Oh.
She had expected Crowley to be annoyed with her, angry even, for inserting herself into his affairs. She had not, for a moment, expected to feel fear coming off him in waves. “He was excited. You saw that right? The wine made him really happy.” She tried to make herself sound soothing, reassuring. This was not a way they talked to one another.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. Anathema hadn’t convinced herself that she was any good at the comforting thing but Crowley melted in to her a little, the grip on her arms lessened. He inhaled sharply. “I just don’t know if he’s…” He didn’t have a chance to finish the sentence. Fell returned holding three red wine glasses and a corkscrew.
Crowley hastily let go of Anathema and ran his hand through his hair, collecting himself. “Great. Thanks,” he said, taking the glasses from Fell and setting them on the table.
“Shall we?” Asked Fell, brandishing the corkscrew. Crowley and Anathema nodded their ascent and Fell removed the cork with a flourish of his wrist. They watched him pour the wine, and when Anathema reached for her glass he cautioned, “Let it breathe, my dear. Let it breathe a moment.”
In time, they raised their glasses.
“What are we toasting to?” Asked Fell, eyes alight in anticipation.
A pause. “To getting to know one another,” offered Anathema. As Fell took his first sip, Anathema made meaningful eye contact with Crowley.
They settled in for the evening, Fell taking the computer chair, Crowley perched on a workbench stool, and Anathema (much to Crowley’s dismay) lounging across one of the work tables. In the beginning the chat stayed frustratingly surface level, though Anathema suspected her presence was an inhibitor.
She found her patience waning after answering a barrage of questions from Fell about her studies, her undergraduate education, her personal history. He was relentless, allowing her to fill as much air as possible, always ready with another question, anticipating her pauses. It would be easy to let things go on this way, her chattering on with the occasional interjection from Crowley, but that’s not why she was here. She wasn’t the point.
“So I might fly home for a quick visit in August but otherwise I’m here all summer. Did anyone ever tell you that you ask a lot of questions?” Anathema didn’t take a breath between one sentence in the next, blocking Fell’s opportunity to ask her something else. She took a sip of her wine, her third small glass of the Chateau, and enjoyed how stunned Fell looked at the fact that someone had learned his tricks.
“Well, I suppose I might. People like to talk about themselves, and I’m interested.”
“I think,” started Anathema, drinking from her glass again to build anticipation, “that you ask a lot of questions because you don’t want to talk about yourself.”
“Is that so?” Fell asked, looking to Anathema in a sort of wondrous delight, as she had hoped he might.
Crowley snorted from where he sat, one foot tucked underneath him, the other dangling down, just brushing the floor. “Anathema fancies herself a psychologist.”
“Someone has to be able to talk about feelings around here,” she said, narrowing her eyes at her black clad colleague.
Fell laughed, a sort of giggle, that was, Anathema had to admit, quite charming. Crowley had turned back to the Professor, his full attention engaged. He was so obvious, Anathema thought. To her, anyone. Not to everyone, evidently.
“What, darling, would you like to know?” Fell asked her. His voice was rich, grounded, lubricated by the (really very good) wine and her challenge.
She paused. She hadn’t quite gotten this far in her head, and she certainly couldn’t ask what are your intentions with my pal Anthony Crowley?
“What would you be doing if you weren’t in academia?”
“Oh,” he said, cocking his head to the side. “That’s a good question.” He considered this, running his finger around the rim of his now empty glass, which prompted Crowley to stand, open the next bottle. He filled Fell’s glass, and Fell thanked Crowley quietly, who returned to sitting, bottle in hand. There was something in the interaction that felt weighted to Anathema, something significant and private. Fell had to shake himself out of it before he could answer. “Well, I suppose I thought I’d like to be a novelist. But, you know what they say…”
“What do they say?” Asked Crowley, refilling his own glass. He conspicuously did not offer a top up to Anathema.
“They say, those who can’t do, teach,” Fell said ruefully.
“But you write all the time. You’re constantly publishing. Didn’t think there was much more to say ‘bout hundred year old books but you seem decent at figuring it out,” Crowley said in disbelief, leaning forward toward Fell.
“It’s not the same. Writing about someone else’s work, finding meaning there, that’s one thing. Making my own meaning? That’s a more daunting prospect.”
“You’re so clever though. If anyone could do that sort of thing it’d be you.”
Fell looked up at him with softness, gratefulness. Crowley pushed up his sleeves nervously.
“Oh, is that…?” Fell trailed off. His eyes had dropped to Crowley’s forearm, where the head of a snake had been revealed, inked darkly onto pale skin.
“Yeah, uh. Tattoo. Went in for a Scottish flag. Came out with this. Little more than I bargained for.”
Anathema had seen the whole tattoo before, when Crowley had changed shirts in front of her once. (Appropriate professional boundaries? What were they?) The snake was massive, went up Crowley’s arm and curled over his shoulder, wrapped around his back. It was shockingly well done, and suited him, really.
“May I?” Fell asked quietly, extending his hand slightly. His palm opened as if in offering, the fingers just curved, just cupped.
Anathema could see Crowley’s breath hitch. He lowered his arm down, and hovered it a few inches above Fell’s hand. The snake faced towards Fell, unblinking. They did not touch. They both stared at the ink on Crowley’s arm.
And then she could see it in Fell too. The fear. They both stunk of it.
“I’ve not seen this before.”
“Yeah, well, cold out. Long sleeves and all that.”
Crowley twisted his arm so Fell could examine the way the snake wrapped around his elbow, and into his sleeve.
There had not been a moment in this entire evening when Anathema hadn’t been intruding, but she hadn’t felt badly about it until this moment. She had watched them so closely all night. There was, when they forgot she was there, a rich warmth between them, an ease, an understanding. Something comfortable, like they had known each other their whole lives. Yet when the teasing and the confidence fell to the side, there was something delicate. This want constructed of handmade lace. That’s where the fear lived. In those knots and weaving.
Why, though? They were two grown men. Smart! Well, book smart. Plant smart? Not stupid, at any rate. She couldn’t see why they would suspend it like this, like an arm twisting in space above a hand which so clearly, so obviously wanted to touch it.
She’d have to find out. But first -
“This wine is making me sleepy. I’m throwing in the towel.” Anathema hopped off the counter, collected her bag from the stand. Both men had sat up in their seats at her interjection, watched her as she moved. She turned, did a clumsy sort of curtsy. “It’s been lovely getting to know you, Professor.”
“And you, dear.” He followed quickly.
“Crowley,” she said, turning. “Thanks for the wine.” She winked, and as he opened his mouth to snap at her, she was out the door, leaving them in her wake.
What's that? A chapter update in under two weeks? A miracle.
Sorry (not sorry) I keep inserting Anathema into places she does not belong. I love her.
Special thanks to my friend and wine expert, Sean, who was super confused about all the questions I was sending him about wine until he asked me if it was for a fanfic.
Chapter 6: June
Content warning for drug use (nothing bad happens).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Crowley stared at the ceiling, watched the shadows shift and grow darker as the afternoon wore on. He’d been lying in bed for hours by this point, the record he’d been listening to long since ended. He should’ve gotten up to change it but he couldn’t force himself upright. His joints ached. It made him nervous.
He was grateful it was Saturday, that society had mandated Saturdays as acceptable days for avoiding the outside world. He wouldn’t have to log an absence from the lab. No one would notice. He sighed. He sighed again, making it sound a bit more dramatic this time, for no one’s benefit but his own.
These days came and went for Crowley. These stay-in-bed-all-day-and-screw-the-world kind of days. One was fine. One he could get away with, especially on the weekend. Two was manageable. Three was… not great. It hadn’t been three in ages though, he reminded himself. Not since long before Tadfield. So, one was okay. This was fine.
Fell had been away all week on in London. The man refused to carry a mobile phone, and steadfastly did not check his institutional e-mail so Crowley had bid him farewell the previous Friday and hadn’t heard from him since. It was the longest they had gone without speaking or seeing one another since March.
Crowley remembered Fell admonishing him for his mobile use before he left for the train station - “You should get that surgically attached to your hand, for all the time your on it.”
“I’m confirming train times, for you I might add,” Crowley had snapped back with absolutely no heat, but he had shoved the phone in his pocket hurriedly after. This was after an awkward exchange where Crowley had offered several times to drive Fell to the station, and Fell had refused saying he’d already booked a car.
“I won’t trouble you. This is what I always do.”
“Where did you get the idea that you’d be any trouble to me? More the other way around, I think.”
There had been too much truth to it.
Something subtle had shifted between them since the night in the lab, Anathema presiding. It was the first and last time they had drank there. Fell hadn’t asked again and Crowley hadn’t minded terribly. The lab was beautiful and it was his, but it was too cold, proudly uncomfortable.
Fell’s office was like a favourite book, thought Crowley. That is, if Crowley had a favourite book. He couldn’t remember the last book he had read for pleasure. The Hobbit maybe, twenty-something years ago. He smiled at the memory. Yes, it might’ve been the Hobbit.
Fell’s office was like coming back time after time to a book you loved, welcoming, familiar, and compelling all at once. Crowley could sketch the room from memory if he wanted. He could recite the books on every shelf, arrange the detritus that migrated across Fell’s desk without ever actually leaving it. Crowley knew how the chair he always sat in pressed into his body, the way the worn green leather felt under the pads of his fingers. He knew the smell of the space, musty and warm and something of history. The angles of the light through the small window, the feel of the floor under his feet. The sound of Fell breathing.
It felt like home, maybe.
Crowley closed his eyes and rolled over, curled in on himself. He could almost hear Fell if he tried. He could almost feel himself sinking back into the chair, balancing a tumbler of whiskey in his hand, see the dappled early summer light streaming through the window, illuminating Fell’s pens and notebooks like they were something sacred. The could think of these things and it was almost if the ache that had nipped at his heels all week, that had caught up with him this morning was falling behind again.
He nearly jumped out of his skin at the three sharp raps that sounded out from his door. He chased the reverie he’d built around him, sighing when it slipped from his grasp. Takes a lot of energy to establish a daydream that detailed. The raps rang out again.
“Crowley! Come to the door! It’s an emergency.”
Anathema. She had also abandoned him this week. Off to the city for a few nights to see an old classmate. It occurred to him that maybe he was feeling gloomy because his only two regular sources of human contact had fucked off without him, but he felt loyal to his bad mood now regardless of the source.
He swung his legs heavily over the edge of the bed, let his wooden feet clatter to the floor. Pushing himself to standing he tried to shake off the blanket of melancholy. “What’s the emergency?” He called out, voice craggy from underuse. He moved into the sitting room and to the front door. He began speaking as he turned the clunky deadbolt. “Is the emergency that you’re bored?”
He opened the door a crack to find Anathema leaning against the doorframe, smiling like she had a secret. “I got you a present.” She raised her eyebrows, looking immensely pleased with herself.
Crowley leaned his head against the edge of the door and squeezed his eyes shut, tried to bring himself back to the living. “Is it ear plugs so I don’t have to listen to your horrible voice?”
“No,” she said, unphased. “Better. Look.”
He opened his eyes to watch her hand slip into the pocket of her voluminous plaid skirt, and then emerge clasped around… a joint.
He’d never be mean to her ever again. “Oh, you’re brilliant.”
“Can we… now?” He hoped he didn’t sound desperate, manic, ready to leap out of his own corporal body.
She smiled like she had anticipated this. “Grab a sweater, follow me.”
The cloud cover was uneven. The sun made periodic almost appearances, light breaking through the occasional crack in the grey above them. Crowley followed Anathema through the woods behind the back campus, feet pressing into the soft ground between thick roots, reaching out for purchase on rough tree trunks. He had never been back here. He had no idea where she was leading him, but he trusted her.
It was several minutes before they reached the shore, the ocean spread out before them. White capped waves lapped up on the rocks and the heady smell of sea salt filled Crowley’s lungs. Anathema lead him down the shoreline, hopping from rock to rock. He watched as she nearly lost her balance several times, his arms reaching out as if to steady her, as if he weren’t as unsteady as she was. One large stone immediately shifted over onto its side as Anathema’s two feet came full down on it. She screamed and leapt forward to the next rock, then turned back over her shoulder, features bright with delighted surprise.
In that moment, his gratitude for her ran thick like syrup down his throat. He could have choked on it, this love of her presence. For a few unstable seconds tears pricked at the inside corners of his eyes and he gasped shallowly to reel them back in.
“You good?” Anathema called back over her shoulder, realizing Crowley had fallen a few paces behind.
“Yup,” he said back, waving her on, pulling his hoodie closer around him as he followed her path best he could.
She brought him to a point of land where the rocks were rendered smooth from years of wind and battering waves, the trees were at their back, and the expanse of the Atlantic spread out before them. Anathema gathered her skirt in one hand, and precariously lowered herself to sit on a large, polished piece of driftwood that sat at the edge of the narrow, stone littered beach. With a sharp tilt of her head she gestured for Crowley to sit beside her, and he did, pressing his shoulder into hers.
It was colder here on the beach than on campus. He wished he had brought a jacket instead of the flimsy sweatshirt. He pulled the sleeves down over his fingers and was struck with the image of himself as a teenager, dressed basically the exact same way two decades earlier, doing, if he remembered correctly, just about the same thing - smoking in some deserted area away from parents and judgemental eyes. A mirthless chuckle rose from his throat as he thought of his wannabe-rebellious teenaged self. How unimpressed 17-year-old Crowley would be at him living and working at Tadfield College. Nothing will go the way you’ve planned, Crowley thought, relaying the message over twenty years to his younger self. But it won’t all be bad.
He watched as Anathema pulled her small bag into her lap and extracted a cheap plastic lighter. She pulled the joint from her pocket and put it to her lips, fumbled with the lighter. Crowley laughed. “What are you? Ten?”
She thrust the lighter into his lap. “Help,” she said without emotion, lips partially pressed together to keep the joint where it was.
He lit it for her, hand cupped around the small flame to block it from the wind, pressed the lighter back into her palm. He hadn’t smoked in years, gave up cigarettes between his undergrad and Masters (the price more of a barrier than the fact that it was taking years off his life). As for weed, it had been a few years simply because he hadn’t had a connection. He hadn’t known who to talk to anymore. Anathema handed him the joint, the filter damp. He took it, brought it to his lips. Inhaled.
The students must do this stuff. Students always did this stuff, but who would you talk to at a place like Tadfield? Resourceful little buggers. Not like he could talk to the same people.
“When does Dad get back?” Anathema, thinking herself hilarious, had taken to calling Professor Fell Dad . Crowley, much to his consternation, was Mom . She did this primarily to get him worked up. It was very effective.
“I hate that,” he said as he exhaled, gratefulness for this moment taking off any edge he would’ve normally had. He knew the effect wouldn’t be immediate, but the mere sensation of the smoke over his lips quieted his angry bones. “And this weekend, I think. Said he’d be around Monday.”
She acknowledged him with a brief humm, took the joint back between her fingers. They both looked out onto the ocean, leaned into each other hard against the wind. “Are you guys… like…” She wanted to know, so badly, but she didn’t want to put Crowley out by saying it outloud.
He sighed. “No.” He crossed his arms, hugged himself.
“Why not?” It was almost whining. They daren’t look at one another.
Crowley made a strangled little noise that he tried to swallow back down. Deflect, deflect, deflect. “He’s not my type.” He held out his hand for the joint again, and Anathema provided, snorting incredulously.
“Okay. Who’s your type then?”
“Bad boys,” said Crowley, undermining himself by laughing as soon as he finished saying it. He brought the joint to his lips.
“You wish your type was bad boys,” laughed Anathema, teasing and tender. They sat in silence for a beat, letting the sound of the waves fill the space between them. “I just hope…” She stopped, pushing some rocks around with her shoe. “I mean, I hope it’s working for you.”
They weren’t great at sincerity, either of them. They weren’t good at open and naked kindness, those things that obviously said you’re my person here and it’s important to me that you’re happy . They had always been very good at building barriers close around them. Surface level stuff with everyone. It worked because they moved around, never spent time getting to know anyone that closely. Now, though, there were both here, on this shoreline, in the lab, in Anathema’s room, in Crowley’s car, and the constant closeness meant barriers were hard to maintain. Everyday, a little more peeled away, leaving something raw and red, delicate.
He liked her, very much.
“It’s good,” he said. “It’s good.”
They settled into a companionable silence, relishing the high, bathing in it.
“I wanna braid your hair.”
“What?” Crowley turned to Anathema, wide eyed and smirking. “No!”
“Yes. I’ll do it nice.” She reached around him to move him in front of her.
It must have been a spectacular strain they had just smoked, because Crowley let her. Let her guide him in front of her, settle him down on the cold and rocky ground with his back against her skirts. He let her gently remove the tie holding his hair in a bun and run her fingers through it. It felt… nice actually. The sensation of her nails scratching lightly at his scalp, the gentle tug at the hair on his temples. He ignored the damp seeping into the seat of his jeans and closed his eyes, let her do what she wanted. It was an exquisite kind of comfort, when he could allow someone else to take the wheel, trust they’d drive safe.
“There,” she said, triumphantly and gently all at once. “I like it.”
He reached back and his fingers traced the braid she’d made from the crown of his head. “I feel like a teenage girl. Who really likes horses. Named Alisha or Jessie or something.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was going for.” She stood, her knees bumping into his arms. “Let’s go.”
He looked up at her, squinted. “Where?”
“Just to wander.” She disentangled herself from him and walked back towards the woods. He scrambled to his feet and followed.
She walked away from the direction they came and through a thicket of trees. It was several minutes until he could see a break in the distance, a clearing up ahead. They walked up to the edge of it together.
It wasn’t just a clearing. It was the garden of a stately country home, with rose bushes, overgrown hedges, strategically placed paving stones. It gently sloped down to a large, a very large stone home. Smoke unfurled from the chimney. It was hemmed in on either side by trees and brush. Birch and ash , Crowley thought. An apple tree.
The pair of them stood, staring, taking in the scene of the secluded manor for longer than they would’ve normally, but everything felt a little left of centre at the moment. What was normal or appropriate was not at the forefront of either of their minds. If it had been, they might have taken off when they saw the back door to the patio open, realized that they were essentially trespassing onto someone else’s land. If either of them had had the clarity of mind to merely glance at the house and continue with their exploring, they wouldn’t have seen that the resident who emerged from the grand house was Professor Fell, and they wouldn’t have heard him call out, bemused: “Crowley? Anathema? Is that you?”
Aziraphale put the kettle on the stove, opened the cupboard, pulled out the tin of tea bags. Only three left. He’d make a note. He hadn’t been to the shops in ages and things were getting dire.
The trip to London had been long. It was always long and conferences were tiresome and he had stopped going on the second day so he could wander neighbourhoods instead. Soho and Kensington and Westminster. Southbank was better than he remembered it. He liked the city, he always forgot that after a stretch away. He liked the anonymity, the constant distraction. The theatre. He had taken himself to a new production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and had been delighted by it. He had thought to himself that Crowley would like this. He thought about how Crowley had told him that he wasn’t much for theatre, but this was a funny one, and Crowley would like it.
Walking back to his hotel he let himself imagine that he’d take a second London trip later in the summer. Suggest Crowley tag along. It wouldn’t be absurd, would it? They wouldn’t have to spend every moment together. Aziraphale wouldn’t mind of course, to spend every moment together. But Crowley would surely have other things to do. More interesting things than to accompany Aziraphale everywhere he went, book shops and French restaurants and galleries. Crowley would like record shops, dive bars, concerts maybe. They could find common ground in gardens and parks, perhaps. Though if Crowley asked him to a dive bar he might go. Would go.
He’d bring Crowley to the theatre, take him for dinner, insist it was on him. At the end of the night, maybe Crowley would ask is this a date and Aziraphale would answer, if you’d like it to be, it is . He didn’t let himself get further than that. It was a pipe dream. He and Crowley drank together. They were friends.
He missed Crowley in a way that was constant. It rang in his ears. How quickly Crowley had become part of his routine, part of his weekly rituals. How quickly he had come to rely on his presence. His easy charm rubbed off on Aziraphale and filled his lungs with something lighter than air.
The kettle whistled, shook him out of his reverie. As he poured the hot water into the teapot he glanced out the window over the sink, out over the garden. He froze when he saw two figures at the edge of the wood. A bit spooky, but it wasn’t all that uncommon to see people back there. They tended to wander up from the path on the shore. Aziraphale narrowed his eyes. There was something familiar about them.
At that moment the cloud cover overhead broke and a beam of sunlight came down over the garden. Aziraphale could see a glint of red hair, sun reflecting off of round glasses. He put down the kettle and walked quickly to the back doors, eager to catch them if it was indeed who he thought it was.
“Crowley? Anathema? Is that you?” He called out, half outside of the house, half in it, French door open onto the patio.
“Er, hi. We were just…” Crowley made some sort of shrugging gesture and looked towards Anathema.
“Walking!” She supplied. “On the beach. But we went into the woods. Then into your yard.”
“We didn’t know it was your house,” called Crowley.
There was something just slightly off about them. Just slightly delayed.
“Well, why don’t you come in, instead of standing back there in the thicket?”
There was a pause as the pair looked to one another, had some sort of silent conversation that Aziraphale couldn’t parse, that ended as Anathema strode down the hill toward Aziraphale. Crowley jogged to catch up.
Aziraphale stepped outside to hold the door open for them. “Do come in,” he offered as they passed him. Crowley nodded at Aziraphale as he walked in, more sheepish than he had been in months, avoiding Aziraphale’s eyes.
He closed the door behind them, watched as the two took in the kitchen, with its wide aga and low wooden beams. The rough hewn table stood to the side surrounded by six chairs.
“Tea?” He asked.
“Mite tidier than your office, if you don’t mind me saying,” said Crowley, scanning shelves, running his finger along the countertop.
Aziraphale laughed. “Yes, well-”
As if on cue, a melodic voice rang out from one room over. “If that’s it, love, I’ll be heading home. The linens have all been changed out and the mail’s on the table by the door. D’you need anything else?” Marjorie stuck her head into the room, and her eyes widened at the scene in front of her. “Where did they come from?”
“Colleagues. Wandered in on a hike. Crowley, Anathema, this is Ms. Marjorie Potts. She takes care of the grounds and the house. Does an awful lot when I’m not here.”
“I run the show,” Marjorie said, winking at Aziraphale. She offered her hand for quick, pleasant handshakes with the two interlopers.
“I’ll be going then, if you’re happy.”
“Yes, Marjorie, thank you kindly.”
Anathema stepped forward. “Actually, I’ve just realized I have to do something back at school. Could you show me which way to take on the road to walk there?”
Marjorie brightened, though she was always quite bright. “I can do you one better, sweetheart. I can give you a lift.”
“You’re not staying?” Asked Crowley, voice stubbornly neutral.
“No. Remembered a thing.”
“What about you?” Aziraphale turned to Crowley. “Do you also have a thing?” He hoped the tone of his voice conveyed that he was very aware that Anathema most likely did not have A Thing.
“No. Nope. No thing.”
An awkward silence lingered for several seconds, before Marjorie took responsibility for ending it. “Well, I’m happy we all got that sorted out. Come with me, love. I’ll get you back to Tadfield.”
Anathema waggled her fingers at the men as she left in a way Aziraphale hadn’t seen her do before. She was an odd duck. He supposed nothing was quite off the table with her.
He turned back to Crowley, they stood in silence for a moment as the sound of Marjorie’s car starting and leaving the property hummed in the background.
“Tea?” Aziraphale offered a second time, for lack of anything else to say.
“Yes,” said Crowley, evidently grateful for something to do with his hands that had been picking relentlessly at the edges of his sleeves.
“You keep that up,” Aziraphale started, pouring tea into two mugs he’d retrieved from the cupboards, “You’ll pull your sleeves right off.”
“Oh, uh. Yeah.” Crowley stopped, shoved his hands in his shallow pockets.
That surprised Aziraphale, a bit. He expected some witty comeback, some joke about Aziraphale’s own sartorial preferences, but Crowley’s eyes kept drifting around the room, unfocused. Strange.
“Would you like a tour?” Asked Aziraphale, startling Crowley from his distraction. “It’s not that exciting, but you’ve not been here before and-”
“Yeah. Tour’d be good.”
Crowley was looking right at him now, but still seemed unfocused.
“Are you quite alright?”
“Yup. Yeah. Perfect. Let’s do this tour.” Crowley turned and went through the doorway from where Marjorie had entered, as if he himself were leading the tour. Aziraphale followed, almost walking into Crowley, who had halted just inside the next room, marvelling.
“Reception room,” explained Aziraphale, uselessly. The room was crowded with furniture. Three overstuffed leather couches. Bookshelves upon bookshelves. A massive stone hearth with a small fire at its base..
“Nice,” muttered Crowley.
Aziraphale moved past him, over to the stairs. “Entrance is through there,” he said, gesturing through the next archway, “and the bedrooms are up here.”
“Can I see?” Asked Crowley, suddenly clear eyed.
“Oh, hmm. Yes, of course. Follow me.” Aziraphale climbed the stairs, waiting for Crowley to follow. As the taller man caught up, Aziraphale tapped the overhang going up the stairs. “Watch your head.”
They reached the landing, and Aziraphale found himself shy. He gestured vaguely at the door to his left. “That’s my room, then there’s a guest bed down the hall and a room that’s ostensibly my study but I never use it. Usually at the school. Water closet here, should you need it.”
Crowley moved past Aziraphale, leaned into Aziraphale’s bedroom with his hands braced on the doorframe. If he went in Aziraphale would follow. If he sat on Aziraphale’s bed, Aziraphale would do the same. If-
“Smaller than I thought it would be.”
He’d thought about it? “Well, this would have been the servants’ quarters at one point. Early twentieth century. Not for years though. Certainly not since it’s been just me. There’s another wing that I don’t use at all.”
“Huh,” said Crowley, looking back to Aziraphale, removing his body from the bedroom. Aziraphale tamped down the disappointment that threatened to make a place in his chest. “Another wing. When did you come here?”
“It’s a family home actually. So, I’ve been coming here for summers all my life. Moved in year round when I started at Tadfield.”
Crowley’s eyes widened and his mouth formed a small circle. “Family home, very posh.”
Aziraphale raised his shoulders in a gentle shrug. He didn’t like to give out this information, though he was sure people could smell it on him.
“Does it have one of those ridiculous names, like rich peoples’ homes do? Orchard House, or, or Downton Abbey or something like that?” A small smile played on Crowley’s lips. Here he was now, teasing him.
Aziraphale smiled, tried to lean into it. “As a matter of fact, it does.”
Crowley’s face held as if he meant to laugh, but he had been caught off guard. His light brown eyes shone with a muted delight. “Does that…” He inhaled deeply. “Does that make you the angel, then?”
It was Aziraphale’s turn to be caught off guard. “Oh, I don’t… well… hardly. You know, we forgot our tea. Probably getting cold. After you.” He gestured down the stairs, for Crowley to proceed him. “Watch your-”
“Head! Got it. Thanks, angel.” Crowley ducked under the overhang, and returned to the ground floor reception room. Aziraphale could’ve swallowed his tongue.
The brief drive with Marjorie had been nice. The older woman chattered away, allowed Anathema to sit quietly. They had passed the place on the road where Crowley and Anathema had driven past Fell once, late into the evening. Crowley had reversed the car, pulled up beside the professor and offered him a ride. Fell politely declined, said he liked the walk, helped him come down at the end of the day.
They had hypothesized then that he was walking home even though they couldn’t recall seeing any home within walking distance. Fell’s home had been well back off the road, driveway sheltered by trees. Additionally, neither of them had anticipated Fell to be in a home of that size. Crowley had been discomfited by the fact that Fell walked on a street with no lights. “He’s going to be hit by a car,” he muttered worriedly, glancing into the rear view mirror as Fell faded into the night.
Anathema considered asking Marjorie questions about the professor. Does he live there on his own? Does he have people over? Does he have any sort of sex dungeon in the basement? But her jaw felt tight. She kept her mouth shut.
After Marjorie deposited her at Tadfeild’s front gates, she made a beeline for the grad caf, suddenly starving. The cafeteria, nearly empty now, was housed in the great hall off the Alumni Centre. It was grander than it had any right to be, with vaulted ceilings, sigils and coats of arms on the walls, portraits of former provosts at the head. It was old hat to her now, though. At this moment, she was primarily interested in the buffet.
She grabbed a bowl, filled it with quinoa, falafel, tzatziki. She slipped three cookies into her pocket and looked for a place to sit.
With all the tables that lay empty, it was no surprise how startled Newt looked when she settled in across from him as he finished his meal. Anathema had warmed up to Newt, slowly but surely. She appreciated the graceless charm of his bad jokes and visible nerves. There was something doe-eyed and innocent about him. She wanted to call him Bambi.
“Oh, uh. Hello.”
“Hi,” she responded, digging in. She was getting quinoa on the table. He watched her, dumbstruck. “What’s Fell’s deal?”
“His deal. Like,” she searched for a euphemism, came up empty handed. “Does he like men?”
Newt laughed, a real genuine laugh and rubbed his forehead. “Honestly, I don’t know. He’s never mentioned seeing anyone to me. I think he’s a bit of a monk in that regard.”
“So, he’s never made a pass at you or anything?”
“What? I… no. Christ. Never. Did someone say something?”
“No, I just–”
“Because if anything the man worships at the altar of proper decorum. He wouldn’t dream of–”
“I get it.”
“He’s really professional.”
“I’ve not even been to his house.”
Anathema swallowed. “I have.”
Newt looked like she had slapped him. “What? When?”
“Just like, half hour ago.” She waved in a general direction, as if to indicate over there .
“Went for a walk with Crowley. We just sort of came upon it.”
Newt leaned back in his seat, stared at his tray. “Wow.”
“Yeah.” She finished the last of her food, watched him consider this information.
Here they were, two sidekicks without their protagonists. It was hard not to feel sometimes, that she and Newt weren’t just supporting players to their bosses’ grand narrative. So much of her life revolved around Crowley, and she suspected it was the same of Newt and Fell. She lost track of her own story sometimes. It would be nice, she thought, to be the centre of her own universe.
“Are you doing anything tonight?” She asked, pushing her tray to the side.
Newt looked up to her, something of hope on his face. “Anathema, I am never doing anything tonight.”
She pulled a cookie out of her pocket and broke it in two. Handed him half, which he eagerly accepted. “Do you want to watch a movie or something?”
“Yeah. I do,” he said immediately, grinning at her. This man had absolutely no chill. In the past she had felt a bit embarrassed for him, but something had changed. She was tired of barriers, sick of unspoken rules, of pretension for pretension’s sake.
And at a minimum, she needed more friends than Crowley.
“Okay,” she said.
“Okay,” he replied.
“Do you ever eat? Or just drink? There’s nothing to you.” Aziraphale stood by the stove stirring a pot of pasta in boiling water. He had asked Crowley to stay for dinner and Crowley had agreed. Aziraphale looked sideways at him, sprawled out as he was on a kitchen chair, a glass of wine dangling from his fingertips.
The pale wrist that extended from his hoodie faintly glowed in the evening light. Or perhaps Aziraphale was imagining it. That was also a distinct possibility.
Crowley mused, set his glass down on the table. He wrapped his arms around himself unconsciously, and Aziraphale silently cursed himself for making Crowley uncomfortable. “I’m not big on food,” he started. “I eat, mind, I just do it to keep me moving. Don’t get excited about it.”
“Ah,” said Aziraphale, “I don’t have that problem, obviously.” He tugged at his jumper a moment, then moved to drain the pasta in the colander in the sink. He was soft, yes. Well padded. It did not bother him most of the time. He did wonder occasionally, given recent company, if things would somehow be different if he lost a little weight. But it wouldn’t change anything. Not really. He knew very well that his appearance didn’t have any bearing on his own choices.
“You’re, you’re fine,” said Crowley, in a strangled sort of way. He picked up his wine immediately. Took a generous gulp of it, his Adam’s apple bobbing.
Aziraphale coughed out a laugh, deposited the drained pasta into the pot of sauce. “Well, thank you. And, ah, so are you. I don’t mean to say… I shouldn’t have brought it up. Let’s move on.” There wasn’t really a way to say I love how you look casually.
They ate quietly, Aziraphale occasionally apologizing for the quality of the food ( “I’m not a bad cook usually, there just wasn’t much left in the pantry” ), and Crowley shushing him ( “Cut it out. I’m not complaining” ).
They left the dishes in the sink and retired to the reception room, Crowley sinking into a plush sofa while Aziraphale stoked the fire. It got cool at night, and the sun was resting on the horizon, settling in before it slipped into darkness. Aziraphale looked back over his shoulder as he knelt by the hearth. Crowley had drawn his legs up on the sofa and let his head rest on the arm. They were nearly done their second bottle of wine. He’d dip down into the cellar for a third at some point.
“You don’t drive,” said Crowley, voice wine-soft and dark.
Aziraphale braced himself on the floor and pushed himself up, feeling his age, feeling the drink. “No, I don’t. Never have, actually.” He backed into the other sofa, enjoying the warmth of the fire and Crowley within arm’s reach, even if he never intended to close the gap. “I prefer being driven, I suppose. Or the train.”
“I can always take you somewhere. Anywhere you want to go.”
Aziraphale could only look at him them out of the corner of his eye, faced the fire instead. “Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.”
All at once the room felt thick. His throat was tight. He needed to dispel it, to clear the air.
“I like what you’ve done with your hair, by the way. Do they call that a French braid?”
That did it. Crowley’s face split into a grimace and he sat up, clawed at the braid at the back of his head. “Shit. Forgot about this stupid thing. All Anathema’s fault. She’s so–” He trailed off into muttering, clumsy hands pulling at the hair tie.
“No, don’t do that. It suits you.” Aziraphale laughed, drank more wine.
Crowley rolled his eyes. “It absolutely does not.” He was finally successful, tearing off the hair tie and dismantling the braid, letting his hair locked into waves fall over his shoulder. The light from the fire caught it, complimented the gold and strawberry strands, lit them up like flame itself.
That just made things worse (better), more distracting. Aziraphale didn’t turn back to the fire this time. He watched crowley’s long fingers comb through the hair, freeing it from knots and tangles. Watched his brow furrow and his eyes in shadow. His concave chest and the sleeves of his sweater. Aziraphale thought back to the tattoo, which he had only caught glimpses of since that first time. Where did it end?
He wanted to run his hand over it, feel the life of Crowley in it. He wanted so bloody much it was banging at his sternum, begging to be released.
“You’ll stay tonight, won’t you?” The words were out before he knew what he was doing, and Crowley looked up, hands freezing mid-comb. Aziraphale panicked, absolutely, undeniably panicked. His heart ripped free of his chest, leaving hollow-chested fear in its place. “We, ah, we’ve drank a bit. You don’t have your car. Getting a taxi out here is impossible.” He was gasping for air. “The spare room is all made up. Marjorie made up the room.”
He held perfectly still. Tried to balance himself. Forced his anxiety down, lower and lower. Could Crowley see this happening inside of him? Something Aziraphale couldn’t place played out on Crowley’s sharp features. The younger man settled into a neutral expression.
“Makes sense, I guess. I’ll get out of your hair come morning.”
Aziraphale wanted to say No need. No need to leave. Stay with me as long as you want. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. Instead, he said “I’ll get another bottle,” and rose from his place on the couch.
As he left the room, his eyes met the short stack of mail that Marjorie had brought in, and the envelope on top. That familiar stationary, the unmistakable handwriting. He looked back over his shoulder. Crowley was staring into the fire, hands clutched to his empty glass of wine. Aziraphale grabbed the letter, opened it on his way.
In the dim light of the cellar in front of the rack of wine, he read the words: I might come home, if you’d let me.
They were done, maybe. Probably. Nearly. It had been grueling before they had mutually agreed to move all communication to e-mail. Still painful, but they got to spend considerably less time in each other’s presence, which they both counted as a benefit.
What Drs Prince and Gabriel had landed on for their joint course was an overview of Scottish literature as it pertained to the country’s landscape. Students would read the classics, then do field work on the land, with a goal of understanding how the landscape is changed by human intervention, and how the land limited human development. They were both privately very pleased with how it turned out, and how quickly.
Dr. Prince, though typically not concerned with any deadlines that had not been set by themself, was eager to send the proposal to the Dean, get the glory for a job well done early on, use it as leverage for more funding in the Fall term, hire another professor. That made the current status of the project all the more infuriating. They had left it with Dr. Gabriel to finalize the language in the syllabus, define the learning outcomes, describe the assessment tools for the literature end of things. They had told him to have it done four days ago, but all they had received was radio silence.
They had asked Carmine to call his office once an hour to no avail. E-mails went unanswered. Earlier in the day they had even left their office and climbed to the fifth floor to knock on Dr. Gabriel’s door. No answer.
They tried to distract themselves with budget work, something they’d normally pass off to the Associate Chair but they wanted something easy, where they could express their frustrations in brutal cuts. Oh, you think you’re going to a conference in Singapore do you? Not this year, Professor Ligur. What’s that Crowley? You think you need even more new equipment in your flashy new lab? No bloody chance. Slash, slash, slash.
When they were done it was dark out and the weight on their shoulders, while not lifted, had shifted. And Christ, they needed a smoke.
They left their office and moved outside to their usual spot, out by the back of the athletic centre next to the pool. The smell of the chlorine was almost overpowering here. They loved it.
As Dr. Prince lit up, a tall figure passed in the night in front of them.
“Oi! Excuse me!” They yelled, and the figure stuttered to a stop.
Dr. Gabriel drew back his head and looked to the sky. “Oh, come on,” he complained in a stage whisper into the night.
“Where the hell have you been? Where’s the fucking syllabus I was promised?”
He turned, took a few steps towards them. “Listen, I’m dealing with some personal stuff.”
Dr. Prince scoffed, then took a drag of their cigarette. “Are we now? Are we dealing with some personal stuff? Couldn’t be you’re trying to fuck me over or anything, could it?”
“I’m not–” He placed a hand on his hip, rubbed his face with his other palm. “I… can I have one of those?” He pointed at the cigarette dangling from Dr. Prince’s fingers.
As much as they hated him, as much as they never wanted to lay eyes on him ever again, they could not deny a man a cigarette. It was a code, and perhaps the only one they actually lived by. They withdrew one from the package in their back pocket, held it out to him. He took it, hand gentle with gratitude, though they both know he would never lower himself to saying thank you. He bent down as they lit the cigarette for him.
He inhaled deeply, and let the smoke cloud around him. “I’m not trying to fuck you over. My girlfriend left me. I’ve been distracted.”
“I do not give one single, solitary fuck about your private life,” said Dr. Prince.
Dr. Gabriel trudged forward, as if he hadn’t heard them. “She got an offer from Harvard.”
Dr. Prince and Dr. Gabriel rolled their eyes in tandem. Fucking Harvard. “Pay a great wad a money for marketing,” spat Dr. Prince.
Dr. Gabriel rounded on them, held his palms up in disbelief. “Right?! Get the same goddamned effect by buying a crimson sweatshirt in the Boston airport.”
Dr. Prince laughed, in spite of themself. He was right.
“Anyway. She’s moving out. It’s been eating up my time. I’ll have the stuff you need by the end of the week.”
It wasn’t sorry , it would never be sorry. Neither of them was the type. But it was good enough.
They smoked together in silence. There was something on Dr. Gabriel’s face, a sadness welling up from under the casual indifference he’d been trying to project. It came in waves and he reigned it back in, time after time.
A tickle caught in the back of Dr. Prince’s throat. It scratched and itched and fuck off! They wanted to rip their own throat out instead of offering anything but – “Sometimes the stuff of human life is ugly. It stinks.”
Dr. Gabriel looked at them, eyebrows raised, surprised more than anything. “Okay?”
“Take a few extra days, if you need them. Not urgent.” They threw their cigarette butt to the ground, tamped it down with their heel.
He coughed. “I don’t need them.”
Dr. Prince rolled their eyes. “Whatever. I don’t care. ‘Night, Aaron.” They stalked off into the night, before hearing behind them, just loud enough to reach them-
I'd like to be clear that Harvard is indeed a very good school, but top research universities are surprisingly insecure about name recognition.
This was a long one. June's a busy month. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
Chapter 7: July
They had said goodnight on the landing between the two rooms. There had been something of an apology on Fell’s face. For what, Crowley didn’t want to hazard a guess. Fell had fed him, was sheltering him. He couldn’t ask for more. It haunted him as he slunk down the hall. He looked back in Fell’s direction as he turned into the spare room, but the professor had already entered his bedroom, had turned on the light.
The door was shut, but not latched. It sat just inside the frame. Just like his office, when he was in. At Tadfield it meant I am here and you are welcome to enter . Crowley didn’t know if that language extended to Fell’s home.
The white sheets of the spare bed were cool on his skin, shiny with wear in places but soft with age. In the dark he ran the flat of his palm across them, committing the sensation to memory.
He thought he’d fall asleep immediately, given all the energy he had spent just keeping it the fuck together for the last several hours. Instead, he was firing on all cylinders. Key in the ignition. Go go go.
You’ll stay tonight, won’t you? Jesus Christ. Jesus fucking Christ. What would Crowley have said if Aziraphale hadn’t kept talking, hadn’t spent time explaining away the request? He wouldn’t have said anything. His vocal cords would’ve given up the ghost. But he might’ve put down his wine, slid across the sofa, moved down to the floor, and pressed his desperate face into Fell’s lap.
He had missed Fell in a way he couldn’t remember missing anyone. He had craved his presence so much it made him sick. When he saw Fell come out from his kitchen when he and Anathema stood dumbstruck in the trees, he had wondered if it were real. If he hadn’t conjured Fell from the weight of his want. Maybe in his altered state he had somehow wandered into another dimension, one where everything Crowley desired manifested in front of him, where reality spoiled him. But if that had been the case Anathema would have just faded away (sorry, pal, but you’re not the point, not right now) and it would have been just him and Fell. And they would be closer, closer and Crowley would be on his knees and Fell would look down at him and smile in that way that made Crowley’s heart launch into a violent symphony and he’d say something like “aren’t you good? Aren’t you wonderful” and oh my fucking God stop doing this to yourself.
Crowley pushed his face into his pillow, briefly considered suffocating himself.
He hauled the handmade quilt up and around his shoulders, even though he barely needed it. The fire had done its job earlier. The room was warm. Three deep breaths. He couldn’t think about those things if he wanted to sleep. Especially with Fell just down the hall.
Was Fell awake too? Staring at the shadows on his wall with blue-green eyes, wondering if Crowley was asleep yet? Crowley could get up. He could get up, pad down the hall, knock on the door that would swing inwards on its hinges. He’d ask for a painkiller, lie about a headache. They’d see one another in the dark, and stop. Stop it you bloody idiot.
The knowledge that he could do it nearly drove him mad.
This thing he felt wasn’t entirely one sided. This was more than work mates. More than friends. It had to be. Fell extended invitations to him but Crowley couldn’t figure out where the invitation ended. He was here because Fell wanted him here. Crowley knew that. But the mere possibility that Fell might not want anything but this, might not want Crowley in quite the same way that Crowley wanted him was enough to keep him planted.
If there were the barest chance that Fell might turn him away, that Crowley could spoil this thing that they had created together, then it wasn’t worth the risk. He would want and want and want until there was nothing left of him, and whatever he was offered, it would have to be enough.
Eventually, he fell into a fitful sleep. By the time he awoke Fell was up, showered, dressed. The bright light of morning disinfected anything that lingered from the night before. Things felt cleaner, less charged. They had walked to Tadfield for breakfast because Fell’s cupboards were empty. And that, as they said, was that.
It was back to their regularly scheduled programming. Crowley visiting Fell in his office. Wine. Whiskey if they were both in the right mood. Teasing and chats and next year’s curriculum.
One night, when it was warm and neither of them had bothered with jackets, they made to say goodnight by the front gates.
“Sleep well, Crowley,” said Fell, nodding. His eyes met Crowley’s and lingered, searched.
He felt absolutely unbearably seen for a moment, with just that glance. Without knowing he was doing it Crowley took a step forward. At his side, his hands balled into fists and released. Fell didn’t move. Crowley stopped breathing.
Then he lost his nerve. “Yeah, ‘night angel.”
He spun on his heel and walked away, forced himself not to look back. When he got back to his room he called Anathema. The phone rang once, twice.
“Hey, I was just gunna text y-”
“I’m, uhh, fuck.”
Anathema paused. “What’s up? Are you… good?”
“Okay. Do you want me to come over?”
“I’m in love with him.” His breathing was ragged. He clutched at the front of his shirt, leaned back against his door, head tipping back to bang against it lightly.
“Oh, Crowley,” she said, the genuine sympathy in her voice more than he could stand. “I know.”
He let out a long groan. “It’s horrible.”
“Do you want me to come over there? Two minutes.”
“No, no. I’m fine.”
There was a long pause, and a long annoyed sigh from Anathema’s end. “I’m coming over.”
They watched movies mostly. Leaned up against the wall against the bed in Anathema or Newt’s room and picked something from Netflix while scarfing down cookies spirited away from the caf, in defiance of the rules to not take food out. But today, to celebrate the nice weather, they had driven into town in Newt’s little blue car that sounded like it was just barely holding on to life.
The pair had picked out a bench in the sunny square, and watched tourists and townspeople go by. Newt had bought them ice creams, and it was a race to finish before the melted remnants dripped down their hands. It was unseasonably warm and they had shed their outer layers to let the sun meet their skin.
Newt’s eyes were glued to a set of parents navigating a toddler’s tantrum by the fountain where they had been trying to take a family photo. He had been, for the last ten minutes, quite studiously avoiding Anathema’s eye contact, which he knew she had noticed, and didn’t like. She was the most forthright person Newt had come to know. For someone who once occupied a place of rather exciting mystery to him she was decidedly unmysterious. She always told him what she thought, for better or for worse. Now, he was aiming to try on her honesty and openness for size, but as the moment had come upon him, he found himself clamming up.
“What’s up with you?” Anathema asked, as if cued by some unseen director. He turned to her as she licked a long line of melted ice cream off her hand in a way that wasn’t entirely becoming, but he liked it anyway. He liked everything about her really. Her frequently messy hair, the fact that she was unapologetically bossy, and that she read his aura without being asked. She was tough, and smart, and so pretty. He liked her so, so much.
They weren’t dating, not exactly. Newt had held her hand a few times and she hadn’t made a move to pull away. In one truly unforgettable moment she had laid her head on his shoulder while they were watching Doctor Who. He thought he might have had a heart attack, but he was still alive and so was she and now they were on this bench and they were going to have a conversation.
“Well, you see…” He cleared his throat. His ice cream was melting. “I’ve been thinking about, um…”
“Do you need a napkin? I’m going to get some napkins.” Anathema started to rise and he reached out with his free, clean hand to keep her in place.
“No, I’m good, just let me… let me just say some stuff.”
She angled her body towards him and narrowed her eyes. She raised a well maintained eyebrow and licked her ice cream again.
He chuckled. He really liked her. “I really like you,” he said, and his blood pressure immediately spiked.
“I like you too,” she replied, sincere maybe, if he was reading her right.
“No, like as more than a friend.”
She scoffed. “I know, dummy. Me too.”
“Okay, just checking.” He broke eye contact and leaned back against the bench. He felt her follow suit beside him, leaning into him just a little. And now for the hard part. The really hard part. The part he was proper embarrassed by. It should be easy, this whole thing. You like a girl, she likes you back. You have an ice cream then make out in a hay field or something. Well, he didn’t know about that last bit. That was the problem. “I wanted to mention, um, I wanted to mention that I’ve never actually really dated anyone. I’ve never had a girlfriend.” Newt went quite pink, and the sun had nothing to do with it.
“Oh,” she said, sounding like she was surprised but trying to hide it. He cringed.
“And that’s not all.” Did he sound defeated already? “I haven’t even kissed anyone. A whole quarter century on this dumb planet and I haven’t kissed anyone who wasn’t related to me… no, that came out wrong. Not like romantically, I mean like-”
“Hey, stop, it’s okay. I know what you mean.”
Newt sighed and looked at his hands, sticky from the ice cream. He wished he had some good explanation for why he was twenty-five years old with absolutely no dating experience under his belt, outside his friend Gemma in the fourth grade who called him her boyfriend for a week before she had moved on to one of the members of Westlife. The fact was that it had just never really come to pass. He was a passive lad, too passive maybe, and no one had inspired anything different in him. No woman, no man, until Anathema.
“Don’t feel bad about it, okay? It’s not a big deal. Not to me.”
He turned to her and Anathema was looking at him, serious. “No?”
“No. As long as my dating history doesn’t bother you.”
“No, oh my God, no!” He turned full towards her. Then he laughed. “I figure there should only be one of us as woefully inexperienced as, well, as me.”
Anathema looked at him for a long, weighted moment. Then quite suddenly she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his, chaste and dry and tasting quite distinctly of chocolate ice cream. She drew back and Newt’s mouth dropped open.
“There. Now you’re just inexperienced. Not woefully inexperienced.”
It was the best moment of his entire stupid life.
“You know, Crowley, I know being a lecturer can be a bit precarious. Well, I’m sorry, very precarious, but it’s not necessarily an unenviable position to be in.”
Crowley looked up over his glass of whiskey, a twelve year old Highland Park that a grateful student had left for him at the end of the term. He and Fell had spent the better part of the evening finding the bottom of it and things had all gone a bit amber tinted at this point. Fell had brought up the topic of employment quite unprompted, and it felt like a mild whiplash, this rapid switch of topics. Just seconds before they had been discussing the meteor shower that was supposed to happen in August, and how Tadfield was the perfect place to observe it, given the low levels of light pollution. Crowley had been about to suggest they watch it together, maybe on Aziraphale’s back patio? When Fell had changed the topic to employment conditions.
“Better than retail, I guess,” Crowley shrugged, slightly annoyed. “But compared to tenure-”
Fell cut him off. “No that’s what I mean. Compared to tenure. Tenure is… we’re all shooting for it. We see it as a safe place, a sanctuary, but then there are the expectations. You see, it’s like, well, it's like a pair of golden handcuffs. The gold gives you a considerable amount of power, to study what you like, teach what you like more or less. The pay is very good. Benefits, of course. But the pressure to publish is immense and then you are bound to this place for the rest of your career. That's the handcuffs. I suppose you could change schools but it’s just not done. You,” he looked up at Crowley, placed his glass on his desk. “You can go wherever you like.”
“Yeah, well, they can also send me away at any minute.”
“They won’t, though.”
“But they can.”
Fell sighed, softly hiccupped. “Perhaps it’s a bit of a Freedom From and Freedom To dichotomy. What I really mean to say is that I envy your flexibility. I feel very bound to this place. Its rules and its ways and I wish that I didn’t always.” His eyes lingered on Crowley, then looked past him. He reached out and picked up a pen from his desk, rolled it between his fingers.
He was saying something more, Crowley knew. It was about tenure and Tadfield but it also very much wasn’t. He didn’t know how to engage with it. In spite of the amount of booze coursing through his veins he didn’t feel brave enough to tell Fell to stop speaking in metaphor. “Well, at least they aren’t sending you on field trips.”
Fell’s brow furrowed. “Field trips?”
“Prince is sending me on a mission for their new duel-department class, or whatever. Find some notable Scottish landscapes that they can take students to see. That will be relevant to class material. I, I don’t know. They just told me today.”
“Surely they can use the computer for that.”
“Do you mean the internet?” Crowley laughed.
“You know what I mean.” Fell looked pained and amused at the same time. “What does this mission entail?”
“Er, driving around to places of note. Seeing if it relates to any of the class material. Can it accommodate a class of twenty students? That sort of thing. Maybe they just want to get rid of me for a couple weeks. I dunno. They’re paying for mileage and lodging and there’s a per diem so I don’t really care at this point.” Crowley took a drink of his whiskey, watched Fell process this information.
Fell coughed. “Two weeks is awhile to be away.”
Huh. That was an interesting take away. “I haven’t been away since winter hols. I’m not bound like you, Professor, I’m not obligated to attend all those conferences in far-flung locales. Real hardship, that.”
Crowley looked up and Fell was looking right at him, stricken. “What?” He asked, wondering if his mild barb had wounded Fell in his whisky weakened state.
“I’ve just… I’ve just realized… have I never told you to call me by name?”
“No.” He felt the breath catch in his throat. He had always called Fell Professor , if he called him anything at all. Crowley had given Fell permission to use his name on their second encounter, and Fell had done so since, and liberally. He even used “Anthony” on occasion, usually in a reprimanding tone when Crowley made a joke that Fell considered particularly distasteful. But not once since they had started this ritual had Fell suggested Crowley call him by his first name. Initially, Crowley told himself that Fell was just old fashioned. A quieter, more bitter voice whispered it was because of Fell’s position, that Crowley wasn’t cut out to use his name. Eventually he stopped thinking about it. Until right now.
Fell squared himself in his chair, looked at Crowley hard, harder than he should be able to given how drunk he almost certainly was. “Oh, my dear boy. Use my name.”
Crowley could’ve choked. My dear boy. The endearment struck him, set off fireworks at the crown of his head, let sparks settle on his shoulders. Instantaneously, his heart doubled its pace. He was going to have a heart attack. He was going to die of a heart attack here in Fell’s office and it would have been worth it to hear Fell use those words to speak of him. Dear. Boy. Crowley mouthed, best he could, “Okay.”
Fell leaned forward, unblinking. “Use my name.”
Crowley shuddered. “Aziraphale.” He was made of heat, infrared.
He was clutching the pen so tightly his knuckles had gone white. If it had been some flimsy plastic thing and not metal plated he might have snapped it right in two. Aziraphale let out the slightest exhale, and loosened his fingers on the pen. Then - drat, damn, bugger - the pen slipped from his fingers, hit the edge of the desk and rolled underneath. He reluctantly broke eye contact with Crowley, feared that the moment may have curdled between them. “Ah,” he started, rolling his eyes lightly at himself. “Clumsy fingers.” He rolled his chair back, intending to bend over, retrieve it, when -
“I’ve got it,” Crowley said. He unfolded himself from the chair which had become his, on which he had perched upon more evenings than not since March, and disappeared onto the floor behind the desk.
Immediately, Aziraphale knew he should have insisted that no , Crowley should stay where he was. That the pen was right here, right at his feet and he could just bend here at the waist and… But he didn’t. He craned his neck to the side, watched as Crowley crawled on his hands and knees through the open part of the desk, reached out for the gold ballpoint between Aziraphale’s feet. He made a study of Crowley’s wiry biceps, the snake tattoo that curled around his right forearm. If Aziraphale had been anything of an artist he’d have captured Crowley on canvas ages ago. The lines of him, right angles and sharp edges in need of softening. He imagined his hands around Crowley’s bony wrists, pressing his thumbs into Crowley’s palms, holding them down above red hair spread wildly on soft sheets.
The corner of Crowley’s lips quirked up as he clasped the pen between his fingers. He was drunk, they were both drunk. His eyes examined the pen as he drew up to his knees and sat on his heels on the other side of the desk, and in front of Aziraphale. “Here,” he said, voice breathy with the suggestion of laughter as he moved to hand the pen back to the professor. His expression changed abruptly when he laid eyes on Aziraphale’s face. The laughing stopped, the smile slipped away.
Something thick stirred deep in Aziraphale as he looked down into Crowley’s golden eyes, his upturned face. This most exquisite perspective.
He reached out slowly, and took the pen from Crowley’s outstretched hand. Their fingers brushed, and Aziraphale lingered when Crowley didn’t pull his hand away. The cold metal of the pen contrasted with Crowley’s skin, hot like the barrel of a freshly fired gun. They had never touched before. Never so much as a handshake.
Crowley’s whole body spasmed so slightly, as if he had anticipated it, had tried to restrain it. A sound emerged from his mouth, a little click from his throat that he tried to swallow. “Ngk.”
Aziraphale smiled, just a little. Crowley was still now but it vibrated off of him. Want. An excruciating want that met Aziraphale’s, that surprised him even though he had sensed it before. It had never been so present, so open. It had never been on its knees in front of him, eyes messy with naked pleading.
If you could see yourself, Aziraphale wanted to say, but couldn’t, his tongue turned to lead behind his teeth. Maybe you would understand how you seem like a weapon, designed specifically to take me down.
Slowly, deliberately, he placed the pen on the desk. His eyes never left those of the kneeling man. Crowley’s hand held in space for a moment, then drifted to the edge of Aziraphale’s chair, to the outside of his thigh, a sliver of air between them.
The stillness of the two of them in that holding pattern contrasted with the rapid fire of Aziraphale’s heart, the violent constriction of his lungs. The ache he had lived with became more acute, more urgent. It was impossible not to act on.
He made a choice, if one could call it that. But it wasn’t conscious. There was no voice inside Aziraphale’s head that spoke to him and said now you will take your hand, you will cup his chin, you will drag your thumb along that jawline that you could render from stone. You will shift in your seat because the mere sensation of your skin touching his skin will start to make a mess of you. His eyes will look like begging, like a fervent prayer, and they will make you want to give him everything (sacrifice everything you own on the golden altar of that gaze). You will be grateful, so grateful, that his eyelids flutter shut when you draw the pad of your thumb across his soft lower lip, and press lightly. You will moan because you need to, because you can’t not moan. Because your body cannot hold it all. And at your most weak, when you have forgotten what resolve is and that you ever had it, you will gently slip your thumb into his mouth, and press it onto his ready tongue. Your fingers will curl under his chin and you will marvel at how pliant he is, how willing. How ready he is to offer himself to you.
No there wasn’t a voice. But it was what Aziraphale did.
Crowley’s eyes opened at the intrusion, but he didn’t pull away. He stayed, like Aziraphale knew he would. His sharp teeth came down to press lightly on the skin of Aziraphale’s thumb. His lips made a seal. Crowley moaned and Aziraphale could feel the tremor of it in the furnace of his supplicant’s mouth.
Crowley was beautiful. Aziraphale had known it from the moment he saw him. Not only in feature but in his unlikely grace, his sharp mind. Aziraphale wanted to possess him in a way he knew wasn’t allowed.
Crowley’s fingertips wrapped around Aziraphale’s calf, right under his knee.
This was almost too much. Aziraphale was certain that Crowley could hear the roar of his heart, beating so hard it threatened to escape his chest. His breathing was ragged.
He would lose control now, would drive his hands through that sumptuous red hair and pull Crowley to him, would crush their mouths together. He would shove his hands under Crowley’s shirt, feel his skin, leave marks on those perfect hips. He would -
A door slammed, somewhere. Not far away. Foot steps.
Both men startled. Aziraphale withdrew his thumb as if he had been burned. Crowley removed his hand from the professor’s leg, held it to his heart.
They were drunk. They were very drunk. This had never stopped being a bad idea.
“Go,” said Aziraphale, suddenly very focused on his desk, touching papers at random, breathing hard. He felt as if he had run up several flights of stairs. He felt… oh, fuck.
“What?” Crowley was still on his knees, a wounded creature.
Aziraphale couldn’t look at him. One glance at those limpet eyes and he knew he would be done for. “You need to go. Go.”
In his peripheral vision, he could see Crowley open his mouth to speak, then swallow the words back down. He rose, stumbled over to the door with a frantic air. In the last moment before he left, he turned back to Aziraphale with one beseeching look, and Aziraphale turned his head away with a sharp intake of breath. He couldn’t bear the want there, couldn’t stand it in himself.
The door clicked shut. He was alone again.
Crowley is out the door and down the stairs. As he exits the turret he senses a presence to his left but he does not have his wits about him. He cannot look. In no world could he stand still long enough to wait for the elevator and so he rushes into the stairwell, bounds down the stairs. He crosses the lobby in long strides and is out of the doors. It should be less stifling outside but it isn’t. He wants to run. He wants to fling his body forward through space at a speed previously unknown to man so the pace of his feet hitting the ground matches the furious beating of his heart. He is on fire. He is in flames.
His hands were shaking and he gripped the edge of his desk to steady them. It wasn’t much good. It wasn’t just his hands. His shoulders shuddered. Aziraphale clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from nervously chattering. It seemed his whole system was in overdrive, overwhelmed by what had just happened between them.
Crowley, there, in front of him. Ready. It was the fullness of it that he hadn’t anticipated. How his desire would match that of the younger man’s in a flash. A mere touch had added gasoline to the bonfire.
He looked at his hand, the one that had cradled Crowley’s chin. The thumb that had entered his mouth. It was still wet with him. Evidence that it had happened, that Aziraphale had not imagined it. Aziraphale brought his hand to his lips and his breath skipped. With a deliberate slowness, he bit down on his thumb, on the place where Crowley’s teeth had met his skin. It was real. It had all been real.
He needed to go to him
And he realized, with a great ache, that he didn’t actually know what Crowley’s room number was. He was in the staff quarters, yes, but where? What floor? Would it be in the staff directory? He cursed himself for not carrying a mobile. Situations like this was why they were invented, he suspected.
When he rose from his desk to start his search, to head in the direction of the staff quarters and hope that he’d formulate a strategy of finding Crowley along the way there was an aggressive knock on his door. Not Crowley’s knock.
This was suboptimal. Aziraphale sat again, to mask the situation that had come to pass mere moments earlier, and with great regret dried his thumb on his pants. “Ah, come in?”
The door opened, and Dr. Gabriel entered, smiling in a way that did not reach his eyes. It was nighttime, and this did not make a lick of sense.
“Aziraphale. Good timing! I saw your company as he was on his way out. Fraternising with the enemy, are we?”
Aziraphale swallowed. He wished he had had more than thirty seconds to gather himself, to bring himself back to earth, but he’d have to make due with half measure. At least, he thought, he didn’t have to pretend he and Aaron were great friends. They both knew where they stood professionally, and personally too. “Enemy. That’s rather dramatic, don’t you think?”
Gabriel chuckled cooly and sat, and not in the chair Crowley had so recently vacated for which Aziraphale was silently grateful. “Maybe. But we should be thoughtful before we spill any secrets to our esteemed colleagues in the Biology department.”
“Secrets? You’d think we were living in war times,” Aziraphale said, joking with only a hint of humour in his voice. He looked over to his bar cart. “Can I get you a drink?” He didn’t like Aaron but Aziraphale wasn’t an animal, he’d offer the man a drink. Plus, he could use another whisky for his nerves. The glass would give him something to hold in his useless hands.
“No thanks. On a cleanse,” Gabriel said. His eyes flicked down Aziraphale’s seated form. “You should try it sometime. Good for you.”
He didn’t flinch. A shallow wound. He’d recover. He let himself imagine what Crowley would say. Something like Cleanses are for idiots who don’t know they have livers. “Surely you’re not making a late night call to discuss the benefits of alternative health and wellness practices.”
“Right you are! You’re a sharp one.” Gabriel’s expression could only be described as shrewd. He was patronizing Aziraphale, talking down. “What I’m here to talk about is your attendance at departmental meetings. Or, sorry, I should say your lack of attendance.”
Aziraphale squeezed his eyes shut a moment, gripped and ungripped his hands, willed himself to sober up. There was entirely too much alcohol in his system for this conversation. At the very least he was feeling calmer. The burning of his thumb had subsided to a dull tingle. “Yes, sorry.”
“Sorry? Aziraphale. Please.” The smile, or the facsimile of one had disappeared from Aaron’s lips and had been replaced with unmasked frustration. “Every term, we have the same talk. You don’t show up to meetings which means you don’t stay up to date on policy, and I know you don’t read your e-mail.”
“Newt keeps me up to date.”
“Who?” Before Aziraphale could answer, Aaron waved him off. “I don’t care. What I’m getting at is that year after year you continue to defy the requests of the department. We have standards at Tadfield. This department has standards, Professor.”
Aaron had dropped Aziraphale’s name and had shifted back to titles. He was properly angry now, but as he always had he held it close to his person in a way that made him feel dangerous.
Dr. Gabriel had always made Aziraphale nervous. With his height and aggressively square jaw and his Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy. His sinister cheer and love of meetings. And so Aziraphale had avoided him, moreso since he’d become chair of the department. He always wondered what it would be like if he had the nerve to argue back when Aaron went on one of the crusades, but he never would’ve counted bravery among his traits. He had always been something of a coward. “To what standards,” he said quietly, “are you referring?”
Gabriel leaned forward in his seat. “You’ve not given an exam for any of your classes for four years and you haven’t failed a student for three.”
Aziraphale raised his finger, curved it into a soft point for emphasis. “Exams don’t work with the way I structure my courses, and no student of mine has deserved a failing grade.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. No student has failed your course? With that material?”
“If they come to my classroom they know what they’re in for and they work hard. If I think things are going sideways for them I make sure they connect with their advisor. My classes aren’t a cakewalk, Professor, but the students work hard. They do good work.”
Gabriel didn’t break eye contact, but leaned back in the chair again, more comfortable than Aziraphale liked. “Suppose that were true. Suppose that for three years you had classes full of Tadfield’s finest. Fine. The exam though. You need to offer exams.”
“For this type of material? Exams don’t let them show what they’ve learned.” Aziraphale had slid into pleading and he hated himself for it. His face felt warm. He wanted Aaron gone. He wanted to find Crowley.
“Maybe I should just, oh, I don’t know, assign you the introductory course in September?”
Aziraphale couldn’t hide his shock. Assigning a tenured professor with nineteen years of teaching experience and his publishing history the first year course would be such an obvious insult he’d have trouble showing his face. Well, he wouldn’t, but the punishment would be so obvious he might as well walk around campus with a scarlet I upon his chest for Insubordination. He suddenly felt extremely, painfully sober.
“Actually, you know what, Aziraphale? I think you’re overdue for a sabbatical.”
They froze, eyes locked together, blue-green and violet.
“I don’t need a sabbatical.” It was true he hadn’t take one for six years, but he was happy to put it off until the next big question hit him. The kind of thing he’d actually want to leave the school for, to research and bury himself in.
“Yeah, but I need you to have a sabbatical. I’m really fucking tired of having to fudge our metrics because you won’t do as your told. You’re tenured. Fine. We’re stuck together. But I need to have a year off from this shit.”
Aziraphale didn’t move. For the briefest moment he allowed himself to feel sympathy for Aaron. Not enough to back down, or to offer an exam when it wasn’t pedagogically sound, but just enough to feel a little guilty about the whole ordeal. Then he remembered that he was essentially being exiled and he stopped.
Aaron sighed. “September to September. Sabbatical. It would be great if you did some research but frankly I don’t care.” He stood, brushed his trousers free of non-existent dust, straightened his sport coat. “I’ll get the paperwork ready. Drop by my office by the end of the week to sign it?” A directive phrased like a question.
Aziraphale nodded weakly, at a loss for words.
Dr. Gabriel clapped his hands, smug and smiling once more. “Great! Great talk. Glad I caught you.”
He left and Aziraphale felt quite blindsighted.
He had meant to go to Crowley, he had. There had been nothing he had wanted to do more, but then everything had shifted and he was confronted with his own banishment. He was in no state to find Crowley, apologize for telling him to go, even though the timing had in the end been for the best. Had Gabriel walked in on them, well, it would’ve been more spoiled than it already was.
Aziraphale walked home in a daze, realizing part way there that he had left his house keys in his office, and had to double back and get them. It was after midnight by the time he got back.
He shuffled into the kitchen to make himself a strong cup of tea, eyed the phone on the wall, illuminated dimly by the single light on above the range. In times of stress and uncertainty he found the dark comforting. As the kettle came to a boil the conversation with Gabriel receded, and what remained was Crowley.
He remembered Crowley’s hand on the back of his leg, tentative and scared and needy in the most delicious way. His incredible eyes. How had Aziraphale never really seen them before? So light they were almost gold. There was something base about them, serpentine. He needed to see him. He needed to sort this out.
Aziraphale picked up the phone from the wall. Still corded, he couldn’t go far, couldn’t pace out anxious nerves. As he began to dial Crowley’s number, his hand tremored. What in God’s name would he say? I am so terribly sorry that I put my thumb in your mouth when I really should have kissed you. I probably should have kissed you some time ago but I’m rather slow on these things.
He held the phone to his ear, and shot a little prayer heavenwards. His minor benediction was cut off by Crowley’s voicemail message, which sounded before the phone had even rung. Aziraphale wasn’t sure if that meant that Crowley’s phone was dead or if he had rejected the call.
The second possibility made him nauseated.
He placed the phone back on the receiver, pulled at his fingers nervously. Resigned to the fact that he would not be sleeping that night, he collected his tea from the counter, and moved to the living room, where he would spend the better part of the night staring at the same page of a book, not absorbing anything.
In the morning, he walked to work plagued by the insomnia of the night before. He hadn’t even bothered to change. He needed to get to his office, drop off his things, then figure out where Crowley was located. Or maybe he would check the lab. He knew how Crowley loved his work, how his lab was his sanctuary.
The elevator in MacDiarmid Hall granted him the mercy of actually coming when it was called. He didn’t know if he could’ve handled the stairs otherwise. He walked to the turret, went up the stairs, came around the curve and…
Crowley was perched on the step in front of Fell’s office in the clothes he had worn yesterday, rumpled from wear. Hair had escaped his usual bun, and hung around his face in messy strands. He was pale, almost gaunt, dark circles etched under his eyes. He looked, for lack of a better word, wrecked. If Aziraphale had bothered to look in the mirror before he left the house, he suspected he would look much the same.
At the sound of Aziraphale’s footsteps, Crowley looked up. Expression unplaceable. They looked at one another for a moment, neither wanting to be the first to speak, to make the choice.
“Aziraphale.” Crowley sounded like he had lost his voice. He roughly cleared his throat, winced at the scrape of it.
“I think you should come on my drive with me.”
Of all the things that Aziraphale had imagined that Crowley might say, this was not one of them. He said nothing, stunned stupid.
“Some of it anyway. You could take the train to Inverness. I could pick you up. Do the Highlands.”
“We need to get out of here, Aziraphale.”
From having never used Aziraphale’s name to using it twice in under a minute. His heart was full and aching.
“Whaddya say? Little trip. Get some air.”
Aziraphale inhaled sharply. “Yes, alright.”
Crowley’s surprise was obvious. “What?”
“I’ve never been to the Highlands.” Something was overflowing in him. Something sweet and startling. He wanted this. He wanted Crowley and denying himself had never made much sense, now that he thought of it. He had done so because he thought becoming romantically involved with a colleague was an ill advised move, and evidenced by other workplace break-ups he'd been witness to over the years. Two people who once were engaged in a passionate love affair now sniping at each other during faculty meetings. There were other concerns of course, but since he had so clearly been advised to fuck right off from Tadfield less than twelve hours earlier, well, those reasons didn't seem as pertinent at this particular moment.
“Never? Never been to the… you’ve lived in Scotland how long?” Crowley sputtered, both indignant and obviously pleased. He stood, so much lighter now.
“It’s a travesty, I know. Lucky I have you here to set me straight.”
Crowley snorted out a laugh.
“You look like you could use a rest. Why don’t you take the morning off, then we’ll talk about when this drive will be.”
He smiled. Crowley smiled and Aziraphale wanted to bottle it. Crowley took a few steps, moved to pass Aziraphale on the narrow stairs, but Aziraphale grabbed the crook of his thin arm, and Crowley froze.
His thumb made a small circle on Crowley’s arm, pressed on the soft, clammy skin inside his elbow. Aziraphale’s stomach did somersaults. How could this little thing feel so, so huge? He leaned in so his face was next to Crowley’s, and whispered “I should’ve come after you last night.” Crowley shivered, and Aziraphale gave his arm a quick squeeze.
“You should’ve,” Crowley murmured.
Aziraphale drew back, expecting melancholy then, but something sparked behind Crowley’s eyes and he smirked. “I’ll see you later then?”
Aziraphale released Crowley, and watched him descend the stairs.
Chapter 8: August: (I) Tadfield to Durness
I'm thrilled by how much everyone enjoyed last week's chapter. Thanks so much for your kind words/feedback!
I was doing fairly well with my plan to do one chapter a month with this story, until now. August got away from me in a big way. Please enjoy this variation on a theme, and rest well knowing you won't be waiting a full week for parts II and III.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Crowley bent over his laptop, eyes gritty from staring at spreadsheets for hours upon hours. He needed to get this squared away, otherwise he’d leave Anathema with a mess. He didn’t love the idea of leaving the lab for ten days in the hands of someone else, but if it had to be anyone…
“It sucks that one of us has to stay here. I could’ve gone with you. Seen the Highlands.” Anathema was supposed to be reviewing Crowley’s list of tasks for when he’d be away, but she’d apparently lost interest. She leaned against the stainless steel workbench by the south window, evening sky going a shocking shade of orange behind her.
“You’re young. You have time,” Crowley said, distracted by the screen in front of him. He closed one spreadsheet and opened the document with several pages of instructions on plant care. He needed to make sure he didn’t miss anything. Students would be back at class just days after he returned and he wouldn’t have time to play catchup.
“It’s not me I’m worried about, dingus. You’re gonna get up in those hills alone and brood in the moors for days. It’s going to be depressing. I bet you’ll write a bunch of sad, bad poetry in your diary.”
His eyes flicked up to her slight form, leaned forward and ready to spar with him. He bit his tongue to swallow a laugh. “Yeah, maybe.”
“You’re being weird.”
Crowley looked up to her again, her brown eyes narrowed in suspicion. “I’m not.”
“You’re going soft. What’s going on?”
“Nothing!” He stared at his screen, knew he’d give himself away more than he had already if he dared look at her again.
Suddenly she was right there, hauling the computer chair back from his desk on its wheels and standing between him and the laptop. He scrambled to grab hold of the edge of the desk and she blocked him. “Anthony J. Crowley. I come from a long line of very nosy women. I know when something is up. I need you to tell me.”
“I’m your boss!” He cried. “And it’d do you well to remember that!”
“I think we passed the point of no return on having a normal boss-employee relationship a long time ago.” She leaned over him, gripped his biceps in her little hands. Jesus, why was she so strong? “Crowley, your bullshit sustains me. Please tell me your secrets.”
Having friends was a nightmare sometimes. He sighed. She was winning. “Well…” The words got scrambled up his chest and he let out a strange little cough. His face went pink.
She released him, leaned back. “Oh, this is going to be good.”
“Shut up. I won’t tell you if… if you keep being yourself.”
She laughed, zipped her lips shut with pinched fingers.
“I won’t be alone. In the highlands. I won’t be alone.” He was nearly giddy. It was embarrassing. He swallowed the waver in his voice down, pressed his lips together.
Anathema had a full body reaction. He eyes widened and she clapped her hands together, squirming in the air. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “When? What happened? I demand that you tell me everything.”
“Help me wrap up here and I will.” Bribery. The perfect motivation tool.
Anathema spun, skirt swirling around her, and started clearing up the remnants of the day’s experiment.
“I understand you’re spending quite a bit of time with Miss Device.”
Newt looked up from where he was packing Fell’s books, wrapping each one in a clean white, square piece of cotton and organizing them in boxes. He had been recruited to pack up Fell’s office in the wake of his sabbatical announcement. Newt was the kind of person who was often recruited for things like helping one’s friends move, but he didn’t mind this particularly. He had finally begun to write his dissertation and was enjoying getting a start on finding new and creative ways to procrastinate. Besides the packing, he had washed the walls of his bedroom and watched an entire season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Anathema.
The packing process had been a methodical and quiet affair, with Fell getting distracted whenever he would unearth some relic he hadn’t seen for years. “Oh,” he’d say so quietly Newt could barely hear him. “Would you look at this.” Except he wouldn’t move and he didn’t really want Newt to look at anything. He’d take the book or manuscript or journal to his desk, put on his glasses, then the packing would stop for an hour or ninety minutes. It wasn’t a particularly efficient operation.
So, this question was new and completely unexpected. Fell was smiling, eyes friendly and curious. His eyes were friendly and curious most of the time but primarily about academic matters.
“Uh, yeah. I have been.” Newt still couldn’t believe his luck with the arrangement. Anathema was quite happy to move at the pace he liked and felt most comfortable with (lots of handholding, and some excellent kissing, if you asked him which Fell had not).
“And how is that going?”
A second question. This was now, officially, the most personal conversation he and Fell had ever had. “Fantastic, actually,” Newt said without guile. It was, to him. Most likely to Anathema too, he thought. She didn’t seem the type to do something she wasn’t quite enjoying for any length of time.
“Well,” said Fell, moving to continue his task of sorting documents. “That sounds lovely. She seems a very nice young woman.”
Newt hesitated, book in hand. “Are you looking forward to your trip?”
Fell didn’t look up from his papers but Newt could see the flush reach his cheeks. The only thing Fell had told him about the following week was that he was going away and that he hoped he could have the office packed up before he went so it could get a thorough cleaning. Anathema had generously filled him in on the rest of the details.
“Yes, I am. It’ll be splendid to get away for awhile. Stretch my legs a bit, as it were.” He exhaled and fell silent. The two men returned their focus to the project at hand.
Even through his sabbatical, Fell had agreed to continue to act as Newt’s supervisor as he didn’t plan on being far. “You can drive out to my place, a little break in campus life for you.” Newt had been relieved that he hadn’t been passed off to the sadistic Professor Sandalphon or the cold and unpredictable Professor Uriel. Fell was a good supervisor, engaged and interested in his work, and Newt, from day one, had found his presence calming. In the past several weeks there had been just the slightest shift to him.
Fell had seemed, above all, very happy. Newt wished him the best of luck.
Crowley leaned against the hood of his car, crossing and uncrossing his arms, periodically drumming his fingers on the shiny black paint. The train wasn’t late, but Crowley was early, and the discomfort of waiting was the same.
He had no idea of how this was going to go.
The last several days had been spent driving along the east coast, with a brief stop off in Dundee to see his sister and her exceptionally sticky children. He glanced down at his fingers clasped around his arm. His niece had suggested at one point that he let her paint his nails and he had refused until she looked up at him with wide, sad eyes and he had immediately relented. (Weak spot for kids but God forbid anyone find out.) This was how each of his fingers came to be graced with black nail polish. She’d done, he had to concede, a fairly good job of it. Surprising dexterity for a nine year old.
He had meant to swing into a chemist and get some nail polish remover before getting to Inverness but the look had grown on him. He wondered what Fell, sorry, Aziraphale would think of it. Wondered what the dark nails would look like curled into white-blond hair. Crowley shifted against the car, cleared his throat as if to clear the daydream.
He’d taken notes for Dr. Prince along the first part of the trip, snapshots on his phone, but if he was being entirely honest, he’d been driven to distraction almost the whole time. The solo half of this trip was intended to be a chance to get some real work done, maybe even collect some samples for himself. Instead, save the visit with his sister’s family, he’d moped around for most of it wishing Aziraphale was there as well.
In the weeks between that night in Aziraphale’s office, and the subsequent invitation on the trip, they’d barely seen anything of one another. Crowley had been in the lab all hours, wanting everything perfect, wanting to not have to give it a second thought while he drove through the highlands, Aziraphale in the passenger seat. Aziraphale had been focused on his own project which he had stayed mum about, but had taken to coming by the lab before he headed home at the end of the day to see how things were going and to ask about trip details.
They hadn’t, to Crowley’s great disappointment, touched since. But things had changed, all the same. In every new interaction they found space for both more ease and more tension, which Crowley didn’t even know was possible until he was living in the midst of it. The words came easier, more casually. They laughed without hesitation. At the same time, each moment they spent in each other’s presence felt weighted with some unspoken meaning. It was delicious as much as it was mad making.
Crowley had half expected during that time for Aziraphale to change his mind about the trip, but he never did. He never expressed a single reservation, so Crowley could imagine he didn’t harbour a single one. But he must have. Even Crowley had reservations, chief among them that his going from zero to sixty would spoil this whole thing. That Aziraphale would get sick of him somewhere around Ullapool and would insist on leaving. And on and on and on and there he was.
Emerging from the station with his coat over his arm, worn but expensive looking leather weekender clutched in his hand. Their eyes met, and Crowley’s chest swelled with something that felt an awful lot like euphoria. He pushed himself to standing and restrained himself from jogging to Aziraphale, as if walking at a relaxed pace could mask his eagerness.
“Hiya,” he called, and Fell’s smile could’ve knocked him dead.
“Hello Crowley,” he said, voice soft and easy.
There was a beat of awkwardness, where they both wondered how they should greet each other now, how they should be this far north of Tadfield. Crowley swallowed and reached down to take Aziraphale’s bag. Their fingers met on the handle, and if he hadn’t been prepared for it his knees might’ve gone out. He rolled his eyes at himself internally, for this Jane Austen-esque nonsense. It was 2019, not regency times.
“I’ve got to move the car from the waiting area, and then we can have lunch. Walk around. That sound okay?” Crowley didn’t recognize his own voice. Who was this deferential little bugger? Anathema was right, he was going soft. Moreso in a place where no one knew them.
“My dear boy,” Aziraphale said, eyes sparkling, “that sounds superb.”
He knew, he knew what that did to Crowley and he liked it. He was grateful for the glasses, for the cool breeze that calmed the rush of heat to his face. “Superb,” he mocked back in Fell’s southern timbre, which gained Crowley a bark of laughter in reply.
They were off.
Aziraphale loved Inverness, just as Crowley had expected him to. The historic buildings, the river that ran through. Crowley casually indicated a bookshop on a side street, tried to play off like he hadn’t scoped it out in advance. Upon entering, Aziraphale called him out almost immediately. As he stared up at the two floors of vintage books crammed tight onto shelves and strewn in piles just waiting to be excavated by someone with an expert eye, Aziraphale reached out and touched Crowley’s arm.
“You scoundrel,” he said, and Crowley’s heart nearly burst. “How did you find this when I had no idea.”
Crowley shrugged. “Just thought you might like it.”
He followed Aziraphale around the shop for ninety minutes, indulging him as much as possible, until he mentioned that they had better get on the road if they wanted to get to Durness by nightfall.
It was an effort to drive slowly through the Highlands along the A838. Crowley had driven the single-track road before, but it was Aziraphale’s first time and it was crucial that he had the time to take it in. In spite of it being the end of the high season, the road was mercifully light on traffic, and he pulled over frequently to allow Aziraphale to properly marvel.
Most of the drive was more quiet than Crowley anticipated, with Aziraphale engrossed with the passing landscape, green hills and lavender heather, grey clouds hanging low in the sky and caressing hilltops. Every so often Aziraphale would point out some lodge or home on the far side of a lake, sheltered by the valleys. It was a spectacular scene when Crowley took his eyes off the road a second to look at it, the wonder in Aziraphale's eyes, his mouth relaxed and slightly open, awed by the world that passed them by.
It was nightfall when they reached Durness. One could hear the roar of the ocean over the cliff’s edge, and Crowley pulled in to a single story inn on the edge of the village.
“This is us,” he said, backing into a parking space with practiced ease.
He collected their keys, two rooms. Crowley offered Aziraphale one and he took it without comment.
Over dinner, Aziraphale had a proposition. “How about we try not drinking over the next few days? I think it may be instructive for us to be as clear minded as possible.”
He’d practiced this little speech, Crowley could tell. Aziraphale had practiced it and so Crowley wanted to believe he had a good reason for it. But it caused Crowley pause. Whiskey or wine had been a constant companion in so many, nearly all of their interactions. He knew how he felt about Aziraphale, felt it when he was startlingly sober, and at every place along the spectrum. There was a fear that maybe Aziraphale didn’t quite know how he felt about Crowley, that he needed to test the limits of this arrangement without any liquid courage. Crowley was sure. Maybe Aziraphale wasn’t.
But he needed to find out.
“Alright, let’s give it a go, then.”
They stood in front of the two doors, side by side, and Crowley felt very much like he had that night on the landing between Aziraphale’s bedroom and the spare, saying goodnight while wishing very desperately not to say goodnight. Fell’s hand was on the doorknob. He hesitated.
“Thank you,” he said, breathy and sleep-haunted. The kind of tone that made Crowley want to burrow into it, stay all winter. “This has been the loveliest day, and you’ve been exceptional company.”
Crowley nodded, worried if he said anything else that it would upset the balance, offend Fell somehow, even though he knew logically that they were well past that. He slid his key into the door but paused when he saw Aziraphale had outstretched his hand (the same hand that had cupped his face, had squeezed his arm). Crowley took it in his, and Aziraphale’s thumb (the same thumb that had passed his lips) slid over his fingers. It was warm and impossibly soft.
Then Aziraphale drew Crowley’s hand to his face and pressed it to his lips. Not in a kiss, exactly. Aziraphale’s face didn’t move except that his eyes fluttered shut for a brief moment that left Crowley feeling as if he were invading his privacy. When his eyes opened he took a great breath and lowered Crowley’s pale hand but didn’t release it. “I like the nail polish.”
Crowley realized he’d been holding his breath. “My niece did it.”
“She has excellent taste,” he replied. “And that’s not teasing. I do like it.”
“Thank you.” He wanted Aziraphale to kiss him. He wanted, needed Fell to make the next move.
Fell gently released Crowley’s hand. “Good night, my dear. Sleep well.”
Crowley swallowed his disappointment. “‘Night.” He opened his room and went in before what he was feeling played plain on his face.
They weren’t that much further north than Tadfield, all things considered, but it felt like the sun rose earlier here, snuck under the curtains and served as an urgent wake-up call. Aziraphale had barely slept with Crowley on the other side of the wall, had cursed himself for not speaking openly, for leaving the younger man without, and without explanation. He showered quickly and dressed, more casually now. No waistcoat, no jacket. Just slacks and a shirt rumpled from being folded in his bag.
Wet curls still clinging to the back of his neck, he knocked on Crowley’s door. To his surprise, Crowley answered immediately, hand pulling a shirt on over his front as if he were just finishing getting dressed. Aziraphale’s eyes lingered on the sliver of skin above the waistband of his black jeans.
“What do you say we go see that cave you mentioned before the tourists descend. Shoe Cave? Or something.”
Crowley chuckled. “Smoo. Smoo Cave, and alright. Let’s stop by the lobby to figure out what the coffee situation is first.”
The situation was that there was no coffee in the lobby quite yet, and so the pair walked over to the cave site without, breathing in the briny sea air while they went. The wind was damp and not warm, but not cold either. Goosebumps rose on Aziraphale’s forearms but it wasn’t entirely climate related.
Crowley went first down the long wooden stairs. The site was deserted, and without people milling about the cave’s enormity, the blackness of it was all the more impressive. It echoed back against the ocean, a low rumble filling the space. Leading Aziraphale further into the rock formation, Crowley showed him the waterfall in the back, cascading into the cave from a hole open to the grey sky above. The crash of the water filled the space, reverberated over them. Aziraphale could feel it vibrate in his chest.
“It’s freshwater,” Crowley yelled over the heavy din, slipping into the role of tour guide.
They stood side by side on the little wooden bridge that crossed over the stream, watched the water run down.
“I hope you can forgive me. I’m, I’m quite slow,” Fell yelled over the sound in a blast, unable to keep it inside of him any longer. Something had been shaken free by the rushing water, the isolation.
Crowley turned, eyebrows knitted together in confusion. “What?” He yelled back, leaning in close to hear Aziraphale.
Fell’s hands twisted and tore at one another. “I move very slowly at these sorts of things, Crowley. It’s not because… don’t think for a second that it’s because…” Aziraphale lost his nerve, trailed off. Then cool hands encircled his, held tight to calm them. Aziraphale looked up and Crowley had pushed his sunglasses up on his head, was looking right at him.
“I’m going to need you to choose a sentence and finish it,” Crowley yelled over the water. His face was inches from Aziraphale. So close.
Aziraphale took a deep breath. “I know my hesitating must feel baffling but it’s not because I don’t want you.” There it was, outside of him, between them. Real and loud and right bloody there. “I want you very much, I’m just slow. Old fashioned, maybe. Or just old.”
Crowley smirked. “You’re not old.”
Aziraphale laughed. Of all the things to take away.
“I want you too, in case it wasn’t obvious. And I’ll wait.”
The smallest grimace came to Aziraphale’s lips and he tried to bite it back. “I can’t ask you to do something like that.”
“You didn’t ask, so you’re in the clear. I’ll do it anyway.”
Crowley’s miraculous eyes. His perfect mouth. His hair and neck and every part of him, right here, right in front of him and offering himself. It was breathtaking, in the truest spirit of the word.
Aziraphale withdrew his hands from Crowley’s and placed them on Crowley’s hips. His stomach was performing some sort of gymnastics routine and he was profoundly thankful that for once in his life he hadn’t eaten breakfast. He resisted pulling Crowley’s body to his, he needed to pace himself. One thing at a time lest his soul leave his body entirely.
He tilted his head up and Crowley was there, waiting for him as he promised he’d be. “You must tell me if I do something you don’t like.”
Crowley’s lips curved into a pained sort of exasperated smile. “That’s not possible. For starters you haven’t even done anything!” He draped his long arms over Aziraphale’s soft shoulders, and the weight of them was exquisite.
“Can I kiss you?” Asked Aziraphale.
“I wish you would!”
They were both going to be hoarse before they left this place.
Aziraphale leaned forward and kissed him. Softly, feeling the heat of Crowley’s breath on his lips. His heart hammered in his ears. Crowley could surely hear it, even with the waterfall, even in this tunnel of white noise. There was no sound louder than the rapid patter of his heart beating. He parted his lips and Crowley eagerly followed. The kiss deepened and Aziraphale moaned, his fingers grasped Crowley’s hips a little harder. Crowley’s fingertips shifted to dig into Aziraphale’s shoulder in response.
Then he took a step back, dropped his grip on Crowley, touched his own lips absentmindedly. “If we do any more of that I’ll be a mess,” he called.
Crowley’s face went on a journey from surprised to resigned to amused. He took his sunglasses off, ran his fingers through his hair furiously. “I’d like to see that some time. You a mess. Must be a rare sight.”
They faced one another, both panting shallowly.
Crowley shrugged and laughed dryly. “Let’s get something for breakfast and hit the road.”
Aziraphale nodded, smiled when Crowley slung his arm over his shoulder as they walked.
“This okay?” He asked close and intimate in Azriaphale’s ear as they moved towards the stairs, away from the waterfall and away from the roar of water.
“Yes, my darling. It’s lovely.”
Crowley grinned and his lips grazed Aziraphale’s temple. His heart picked up its pace again, and would stay there.
When Crowley was a child, his grandmother once took him and his sister to the beach. A rare trip. Didn't get the beach every day. He was young enough that there was nothing more thrilling, and he hadn't yet learned to fear the sea like all adults seemed to, always full of warning and wariness whenever the children got close.
He and his sister threw themselves into the swell of the waves, screaming in delight as the water broke over them, soaked them through. Then the water caught him, pulled him under, tossed him around like some piece of kelp. Somersaulting in the tow, he was gloriously and terrifyingly weightless. But then his face broke through the surface and he gasped cold ocean air into his lungs. His eyes met his sister's and his laugh came out as a scream. He had never felt joy like that. He had never been so excited and so scared and so fucking happy.
That's what this feels like. That's what Aziraphale feels like.
Chapter 9: August: (II) Durness to Fort William
Please take note of the rating change! We'll be earning the E this chapter so please either buckle in or bail as you see fit.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The western coast was spectacular. God’s country in every sense of the term. Rolling hills and craggy cliffs. Sheep wandering about along the roadside. Occasionally the sun would break through the clouds and they’d be blessed with snippets of blue sky and beams of sunlight that painted the landscape in brilliant hues. They stopped at beaches and small towns, nature trails where they observed bumblebees landing on thistles. Crowley would wade into the bramble to take notes and pictures for Dr. Prince, though he knew there was no way they’d send students up this far. He had to at least pretend he was doing some work, pretend his whole self wasn’t deeply wrapped up in the man who sat to his left, leaning forward to peer out the window and make increasingly verbose exclamations over the beauty of the world that passed them by.
In one brilliant moment the clouds had parted above them like the Red Sea and the azure of the sky exposed itself, wide and bare. They were high in the hills of the Applecross peninsula and Crowley’s chest felt as if it had been opened up on squeaky hinges, breathing properly for the first time in ages. When they came around a curve, it became quite clear that there was something, several somethings blocking the route.
“Oh!” Cried Aziraphale, reaching over to grab Crowley’s arm, and he hit the break. Then they began to laugh.
Cows. Shaggy, lumbering things the colour of iron mud. Some grazing at the edges, others as sprawled out as cows could possibly be, sunning themselves on the asphalt, impeding further progress. They looked lazily towards Crowley’s car, not a care in the world.
“Can we get out?” Aziraphale asked, not taking his eyes off the herd.
“Oh, no. They’re incredibly dangerous. Surprised that big one over there with the massive horns hasn’t charged us.”
Aziraphale looked at Crowley in surprise. “Really?”
“No,” Crowley looked sideways at Aziraphale and smirked, then put the car into park. “They’re moody as anything, but they’re not dangerous.” Aziraphale had the grace to laugh at himself, and followed Crowley out of the car and into the road.
They stood and watched the cows who watched them back, both wary and aggressively disinterested all at once.
“So, there’s nothing to be done? We just have to wait here until they decide to carry on?”
Crowley nodded. “We are at their mercy.”
“Well,” said Aziraphale, a light giggle under his voice that made Crowley’s stomach do a funny little flip. “Let’s hope we don’t lose our reservation at the inn as a result of bovine intervention.” He then, quite charmingly, had a good laugh at his own not very good joke.
He laughed through his teeth, glancing between the cows and Crowley, hands firmly planted on his hips. Proud of himself for a terrible pun. And Christ, did Crowley love him then. This ridiculous man with eyes bright and the sun on his fine, cotton-spun hair. He could watch Aziraphale for days like this, happy and unburdened, making jokes about cows and stranded here with no one else. No one else in the world but them, and about twelve or so cows as an audience.
The herd eventually cleared the road, and the pair made it to the inn in time to catch dinner. They sat close together in the crowded pub, the only place to eat that late for miles, and picked over fish and chips, a passable steak and salad. Crowley pushed around the last few chips on his plate, staring at the ketchup smear. They’d fallen silent for a few minutes, and he wondered if now was the moment. He could probably choose to never tell Aziraphale this story, and Aziraphale would never ask. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested in Crowley’s past. He had asked plenty of questions about Crowley’s sister, his niece and nephew. He knew lots about Crowley’s time working in Asia and the Middle East. But from the beginning it was like he could sense Crowley’s more sensitive places, and gave them a wide berth.
Was this for Crowley’s benefit or his own? Was it because he was scared of what he would find there? Did he simply want to let Crowley to broach these subjects in his own time? Crowley willed the answer to reveal itself before him like Anathema’s stupid tea leaves, except in ketchup he supposed.
“You’ve gone somewhere.”
Crowley shook his head, looked up. “Hmm?”
“You were very much in your head for a few minutes. What were you thinking about?”
Nothing was on the tip of his tongue. Nothing, just worn out from driving. But Aziraphale had asked. He had noticed something different and had asked an open question and if that wasn’t a sign, then what was?
“I was thinking that I never told you why I never got a Ph.D.” The pub was loud, chairs screeching from being moved about, men yelling over one another about football scores and the weather. Weary travellers who had had one pint too many.
Aziraphale leaned in closer to hear him. Not enough that it would be especially intimate to an outsider, but enough that Crowley could speak normally, not raise his voice. “You didn’t. Would you like to?”
Fell was using his Professor voice. Crowley wanted to be annoyed but instead he was soothed. He took a deep breath. One, two, three, four, five. Exhaled. One, two, three, four, five.
“I was accepted into a doctoral program. University of British Columbia. I started and it was hard but for a few months I did alright. Kept on top of things, anyway. But then, ah.” His throat clicked shut. He desperately wished that he hadn’t agreed to forgo alcohol on this leg of the trip. His fingers itched to hold a glass full of something amber and heady that would nip at his throat, distract him. Something that would loosen him up. “It got harder and harder to go. And I want to tell you what changed but I don’t know what it was. One day I could do it and then I couldn’t. I couldn’t remember appointments and classes, and when I could I didn’t go. Stayed in bed. Didn’t pick up the phone. Just the idea of going into the lab, or Jesus, teaching, it was too much.”
“Oh, Crowley.” Aziraphale’s hand discreetly reached out to touch Crowley’s lower back, fingers circling the places where the small hills of his spine rose from under his skin. The heat of his fingers, even through Crowley’s shirt, spurred him forward.
“My supervisor was useless and just assumed that I couldn’t hack it. And maybe I couldn’t.”
“Don’t say that.”
“But maybe I couldn’t. It doesn’t matter now. The point is I fell apart less than a year in and the academy essentially told me to fuck off. Then, then a professor came out of the woodwork. He wasn’t even one of mine. Not even the same department. But people talk and he heard about me and he figured it out.
“He came to me when I was a wreck. Just useless. And he said he heard I could do good work - where, I don’t know - and to call him when I was feeling ready to try again. I’ve still no idea why he did it. He’s an asshole. He just said he knew what I was going through.
“So, I went to my sister’s for a year. Called him when I felt like I could walk again. He got me work. He was the one who recommended me for the Tadfield job, eventually.” Crowley paused, considering whether or not to release the next piece of information, then pressed onward. “Morningstar.”
Aziraphale drew back a bit, genuinely surprised. “The Provost?”
“Yeah. Said he thought I’d be a good fit.” There was a pause. Crowley had nowhere else to go with this history.
“Well, you’re very intelligent. Very impressive. You know so much about the world around you.”
Crowley looked up into Aziraphale’s eyes. He had half expected, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, for Fell to write him off at this point, see a bright red stamp that screamed FAILURE forever embedded across his forehead. He pictured Aziraphale recoiling, bidding Crowley good night. Yet he was still here, still close. The palm of his hand still flat on Crowley’s back.
“My dear, you’re hardly the first person to not finish a doctorate. The world is full of half finished dissertations. It’s hardly a measure of your intelligence and how capable you are. You tell me things about your work that I couldn’t even begin to understand but I know that the work is important. Not least of all because Lucas Morningstar threw his weight around to get you on staff. I’ve not spoken to the man for more than fifteen seconds but I know his reputation and I know he’s serious, and uncompromising and he wouldn’t have brought you to Tadfield if he didn’t think you could deliver.”
Crowley wanted to crawl into Aziraphale’s lap, beg him to talk more, to keep talking.
“I fell apart. It could happen again.”
Fell chewed his lip a moment, considered this. “I can’t tell you it won’t. But I can tell you if it does you’re not going to be in a country far away from the people who know you. You’ve people on your side this time, Crowley. You won’t be alone.”
“I wish you’d kiss me again.” Crowley’s admission was met with a smile so bright from Aziraphale he was briefly blinded.
“Can I help you gents with anything else?” The server leaned over to clear their plates.
Both men leaned back in their chairs in a jolt, and Aziraphale’s hand dropped from Crowley’s lower back, leaving him with a sense of real loss.
“Just the bill. Thank you.” She left and Aziraphale looked back to Crowley. “Let’s turn in then, shall we?”
They went to their rooms, two, booked in advance, he hadn’t wanted to presume, hadn’t wanted to try his luck. Come in with me, Crowley wanted to say. Just to lie down. We don’t have to do anything. I’ll move at your pace, slow as you like. Instead he said “Good night. Thanks for dinner.”
Aziraphale paused outside his door. His head cocked to the side and he held his hand up, beckoning Crowley. “Come here a moment, won’t you?”
Crowley dropped his bag, moved to Fell in three quick steps. Later he would redden at his obvious eagerness, his desire plain as day. He willed Aziraphale to ask him in. To ask him for anything.
Aziraphale placed his own bag on the floor and faced Crowley, then wrapped his arms around the younger man’s slim waist. In Crowley’s ear so only he could hear, he said, “Thank you for telling me about British Columbia. I know that couldn’t have been an easy thing.” It would have been reassuring or calming had it not been the first time Aziraphale held his body against his, if Crowley couldn’t feel the heat of him down his front.
He wrapped his arms around Fell’s shoulders and held as tight as he dared. It was a hug, they were hugging. And Crowley historically didn’t go for this sort of thing but he now knew what it was like to have Aziraphale against him, to be held in his arms, to feel hot breath on his neck. He swallowed a moan.
There was so much he wanted. For Aziraphale to hold him like this for hours and tell him all the ways in which he was somehow worthy. To be kissed until his lips were bruised. To be absolutely and completely fucked into the mattress and be made a sweating, gasping mess. Everything all at once. Sweet and soft and hard and desperate.
Aziraphale pressed a kiss to the place below Crowley’s ear and then his cheek. He lifted the back of Crowley’s shirt just a little, just enough that his finger tips could brush the bare skin there above his belt. The man was a tease and Crowley wanted to make some pithy comment but his voice was missing in action. All he could do was want. Want and wait for Aziraphale to catch up.
His lips slid to the corner of Crowley’s mouth, then Crowley couldn’t wait, turned to kiss him. Brief, and like the first time it made Crowley’s vision blur at the edges, made steam come out his ears like a cartoon character. Aziraphale’s lips were petal soft and gentle. If Aziraphale was feeling even a fraction of what Crowley was feeling he didn’t understand why he wouldn’t just pull Crowley into his room, abandon their bags in the hallway. Disappear from the rest of the world.
But Fell pulled back and Crowley followed his lips a moment, then relented. He said he’d wait. He promised. If he pushed too much, at all, Aziraphale might back off or change his mind. Decide that Crowley was indeed far too much and too much trouble.
In Fell’s eyes there was a message that Crowley couldn’t read. “We should turn in. You need your sleep. You must be exhausted from the driving.” Crowley was exhausted from the driving but he would trade a good night’s sleep, any sleep he’d ever get again to follow Fell into his room. Aziraphale’s hands left Crowley’s body, and he whispered a good night, was gone behind the door with uneven burgundy paint.
Crowley retreated to his room, splashed his face with water. When that didn’t work, he took matters into his own hands.
They left early the next morning for a quick trip to the Isle of Skye. It was lousy with tourists and they spent more time sitting in traffic than actually seeing anything. They had a quick, overpriced lunch in Portree and then attempted a stop to see the Fairy Pools, but with the tour groups and traffic jams it felt more like a second rate amusement park. “Better when I was a kid,” Crowley grumbled as they slipped back into the car.
“It was lovely, my dear,” offered Aziraphale, reaching over to rub the back of Crowley’s hand reassuringly.
Crowley’s upper back was tense as he tried to turn around on the narrow road, head back to the mainland. He cursed under his breath several times, car crawling as teens zipped in front, not looking to see what was headed directly towards them. Fell stayed quiet, correctly assessing that the most calming thing for Crowley to do was simply to get out of the place that had made him a raw nerve.
When they crossed the bridge off the island, Aziraphale’s hand reached over and caressed the back of Crowley’s neck, fingers circling in gentle ministrations on the tense muscles there. “There,” came his quiet voice over the centre console, almost tickling Crowley’s ears. “Is that better?”
Crowley sighed, pushed himself back into Aziraphale’s palm, and nodded.
When Aziraphale made to pull his hand away, Crowley said “No,” and his ears burned red. He hadn’t meant to, but Aziraphale’s hand cradling his head, chasing the stress away, he wanted it.
“No? Alright then.”
Aziraphale’s warm, soft hand returned, and when Crowley glanced over to him, he was grinning.
In Fort William Crowley finally admitted that he hadn’t actually booked rooms this far ahead and his anxiety ratcheted up again. “Everyone stops here, it’s going to be bloody impossible. We’re going to have to sleep in the car.”
They were weaving through the winding streets, up hills and around sharp curves, eyeing signs on bed and breakfasts to see if anyone had a vacancy on offer when Fell spoke. “Would it be easier, you think, if we got one room?”
Crowley’s mouth went dry. “One room?” He couldn’t look at Aziraphale for fear of crashing the car. “Might be.”
They found one room. The place was out of the way and crummy and the hostess didn’t seem terribly impressed with them until Aziraphale told her they were on a work trip from Tadfield College. Her eyebrows raised. “Tadfield! My cousin’s boy went there. He’s smart as anything.”
The room featured two narrow twin beds pushed against either wall. Scratchy and dated duvets. A small TV fixed to the wall in the corner. Everything was a different shade of brown, and yet each individual item managed to clash with the one next to it. They kept telling one another it was just a place to sleep, didn’t have to be fancy.
Fell left to grab something for them to eat and Crowley showered. With the hot water running over his shoulders in the cramped shower stall he grimaced thinking of the room where they had landed. This was not what he imagined for their first night in the same room. He wanted to take Aziraphale somewhere more befitting of his character. The Ritz, or some other posh hotel. A gorgeous dining room and a suite with a king sized bed and pristine white sheets. Room service, some kind of view maybe. He wanted Aziraphale to feel cared for, and he wanted Aziraphale to take care of him in turn.
It was all so saccharine and he was disgusting in want of it.
He was stepping out of the shower when he heard the door open and shut, the crinkle of a plastic bag, the dull thump of Fell slipping off his shoes, letting them fall to the carpeted floor. Crowley grabbed a towel, hastily wrapped it around his waist. He hadn’t bothered to close the bathroom door. He thought Aziraphale would be longer, and the fan didn’t work and he didn’t want to steam the bathroom up.
When he looked up, Aziraphale was looking at him, mouth slack and eyes blazing. “Hello,” he said, somehow neutrally, as if this wasn’t brand new ground they’d just inadvertently broken.
“Uh, sorry,” said Crowley, clutching the cheap towel tight around his waist. His hair was wet on his shoulders, rivulets of rapidly cooling water ran down his spine. “Didn’t think, uh, that you’d be back so soon. Let me just get dressed and –”
“No,” said Aziraphale, not neutrally at all, the furthest thing from neutral. It was a demand, and they both immediately knew it. After a beat he took a step back, shook his head just a little. “So sorry. You do what you like.”
Aziraphale’s chest rose and fell under his linen shirt, open at the collar. Crowley stared at the soft dip at the base of his throat and walked forward, swallowed thickly. “I’d like to do what you want me to do.”
Aziraphale had to turn away a moment, blinking rapidly, bringing his hand to his mouth. He’s composing himself, thought Crowley, as goosebumps raised on his own skin, in direct response to his own boldness. He watched Aziraphale stitch himself together before he undid completely. It was a strange sort of power, knowing how quickly you could take someone apart at the seams.
He placed the bag he was holding down on the nightstand then sat back on one of the beds. His face turned up to Crowley, flush and hopeful and maybe a little scared too. “Come here, my darling.” It sounded more like a request this time - please, do this for me - and Crowley loved him for it.
Still soaking wet, Crowley took three tentative steps towards Aziraphale, who extended his hand to him. Crowley took it, other hand still clutching the towel to his waist. Aziraphale guided Crowley in front of him, standing between his spread thighs. Crowley looked down at the top of Aziraphale’s head, the slope of his shoulders, and was deeply grateful he had put Aziraphale in the driver’s seat, because he had forgotten how to move his body.
Aziraphale’s fine hands moved to where Crowley held his towel closed, and Crowley’s hand tremored. Then instead of taking the towel away like he had thought he would, Aziraphale pulled it tight, tucked it in and secured it. “There we are. That’ll stay put.”
An unexpected, but undoubtedly tender gesture. Crowley looked down into Fell’s eyes, and they flashed with lust and something else too, something softer and contained. In spite of this encounter’s abrupt beginning, there was nothing frenzied there. The steady calm emanating from the seated man landed on Crowley’s skin, seeped in. He could stand still now. He wasn’t afraid his knees would fail him, that he would crumple to a pile at Aziraphale’s feet.
Crowley allowed blue-green eyes to trail over his form, then Aziraphale’s hands came up to hold his bare hips.
He’d been touched before. Plenty of times. Not as much as some people seemed to think he had, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t done some stuff. He knew what he liked, or at least he thought he did. But all of that seemed like another life now, like a story written about someone else. Some unnamed ancestor buried in a churchyard in a village he’d been to once.
There had been a life before Fell had touched him. First in his office, but even that was - it had felt like an accident, like neither one of them were in control of their bodies. There was life before Fell touched him and a life after his hand had first played on Crowley’s lips, and then there was right now. And they both knew exactly what they were doing. He’d never forget this shitty room in this unimpressive town, the air cool on his wet skin. The furious burn where Aziraphale touched him with a studied reverence. How could a touch like this not leave marks? How could a touch like this not leave evidence that Aziraphale had been there?
Aziraphale’s hands slid up Crowley’s torso, and his thumb circled, then gently rolled over Crowley’s nipple. The ache between his legs that had been present since the moment that Fell had impulsively told Crowley to not get dressed manifested itself in a way that the towel could no longer conceal. For a moment he almost tried to hide it, and he suppressed self-deprecating laughter. There was no real point in hiding these things anymore, yet those impulses, the ones that told him that things could still go sideways and he should have some protection had not left him.
The palms of Aziraphale’s hands slid down Crowley’s back and came to rest on his ass, and he pulled Crowley forward and kissed his stomach. There was a sharp intake of breath, from both of them maybe, and Crowley brought his hands to the nape of Azirphale’s neck, let himself feel the blond curls between his fingertips for the first time. Perfect. Everything felt perfect. The downy hair, soft lips and hot breath on his skin.
Fell’s hands moved to the back of Crowley’s thighs, pulled him forward. “Come closer now, darling. Yes, like that.” He pulled Crowley into his lap, straddling his seated form. The opening of the towel split over Crowley’s leg, only just covering him. His last shred of decency, as it were. Fell ran his broad hands over Crowley’s thighs, massaging the muscle. Their faces were almost even now, Crowley perched just a little higher by virtue of being in Fell’s lap.
Aziraphale’s eyes met his and it felt like a miracle. Water into wine, faith healing in some backwater revival tent. And Crowley submitted to it, leaned forward and kissed Aziraphale, properly, slipping his tongue past his lips, alert for resistance, for signs to slow down but mercifully coming up empty.
His hips bucked into Aziraphale, the most wonderful friction, and he carded his fingers through Aziraphale’s hair. Sharp teeth nipped at his bottom lip and then his hands were scrabbling at Aziraphale’s buttons, fingers clumsy and suddenly thick. Aziraphale drew back, taking tremoring hands in his. He was panting quietly, cheeks flush.
“Not yet,” he said. He brought Crowley’s fingers to his lips and kissed them.
Crowley whined. “I’ve got a tea towel on and you still look like you’re dressed for church.”
“Church? Without a necktie? I should hope not.” They laughed, and there was something delicious and sort of profound about laughing like this, as keyed up as he was. It was a reminder that there was more than this, that this aching want was built of more than just their bodies basest desires. When was the last time he kissed someone that he really and truly liked? He didn’t want to think about that now. He only wanted this.
Crowley leaned in to kiss Aziraphale again, whispered “Bossy,” onto his lips.
He could feel Aziraphale grinning into the kiss. “Am I?” He kissed Crowley once more, as if putting a period on a sentence. “I think you like it.”
And just like that the laughter had left the space around them.
“Do you like it?” Aziraphale was unsure now, unsteady. He was checking in, and there’s something paternal, no, professorial about it.
“Yeah,” responded Crowley, in a tone that suggested that this news surprised him, though it shouldn’t. He knew by now what Aziraphale did to him, what he turned him into.
Aziraphale took Crowley’s chin in his hand, so much like that time in his office. Held it still and steady. “What else do you like?”
Crowley couldn’t find words anymore. He stammered and stuttered and settled on, “You. I like you.” I love you, he wanted to say. I love you and I need your hands on me always .
Aziraphale ran his hand up Crowley’s thigh and his fingers dipped under the towel. “Do you like this?” Crowley made a noise he thought sounded affirmative, but then Aziraphale was clarifying. “Yes or no, Crowley.”
“Yes,” he panted out.
Christ. Crowley had to fight to keep his eyes from rolling back in his head. He ground his hips into Aziraphale and for the first time felt him, hard in his trousers, just beneath him. Aziraphale slipped his hand under the towel completely, and Crowley gasped as his fingers wrapped around Crowley’s length.
“Do you like this? Yes or no.”
“Good.” And he began to stroke Crowley languidly, and he could barely stand it.
Fell was still holding Crowley’s chin between his fingers, their faces so close they were almost touching. He seemed calm, but when Crowley would whimper or keen or mutter “Fuck, Aziraphale - God, fuck” something broke on his features, a telltale sign that he was affected as much as Crowley, that he was coming undone.
“Do you know how long I’ve wanted you, just like this? In my lap, in my hand?” A breath caught in Crowley’s throat. He bucked up into Aziraphale’s gentle grip. “For so long, my darling. I’ve wanted to make you feel so good. Does this feel good?”
Crowley was certain he’d never been this hard in his whole forsaken life. “Yeah.”
“Yes,” corrected Aziraphale.
“Yes,” Crowley repeated, and he wanted to smile but then Aziraphale swept his thumb across Crowley’s leaking head there was no space in his brain for a sense of humour. “Yes, yes,” he hissed out, closing his eyes.
“Ah, ah. Open your eyes, Crowley. Look at me, please.” Crowley pried his eyes open and Aziraphale looked desperate, almost as far gone as he was sure he did. “You’re gorgeous, my darling. I love your cock in my hand. I love how good you’ve been for me. You love doing what you’re told, don’t you?”
Aziraphale was not the kind of man who asked rhetorical questions. “Yes,” Crowley exhaled.
“Come for me,” Aziraphale said. “Come for me, Crowley, I want to see you.”
And Crowley came, hard, coating Aziraphale’s fingers, the towel, Aziraphale’s shirt. He choked out Aziraphale’s name, sputtering it into the hot crook of his neck. Everything went blindingly bright then hazy, hazy as Aziraphale stroked him through it.
When he was spent, empty, he pushed his forehead into Aziraphale’s shoulder. Aziraphale, with the hand that was not tucked between them, rubbed Crowley’s neck, his shoulder.
“Good Lord,” he whispered, hot into Crowley’s ear. “You’re exquisite, do you know that? You are, without question, the most lovely thing I’ve ever laid eyes on, that I’ve ever touched.”
After five minutes Aziraphale asked Crowley to sit beside him as he got himself off, the mess of Crowley all over his palm. He was still dressed, trousers pushed down the barest amount. He didn’t let Crowley touch him – “I won’t last, darling, I’ll be done before I’m in your hand” – and Crowley wanted Aziraphale’s thick cock in his mouth, deep in the back of his throat. He wanted to choke on it and be told he was good. When Aziraphale finished, making beautiful high pitched noises that were better than any sound Crowley had heard in his life, they kissed. It felt like nothing else had ever mattered.
Crowley showered again, rinsed his own come off his thighs. Aziraphale went next, and emerged from the bathroom in a t-shirt and long, flannel pants.
“It’s August,” laughed Crowley, who had slipped on clean boxers but nothing else.
Aziraphale shrugged. “Just what I’m used to.”
He pulled back the duvet and turned to Crowley. “I know it’ll be quite cozy, but do you think you might like to sleep next to me?”
For so long, well, for as long as he’d known him, Aziraphale had been hard to read. Crowley had enjoyed his company immensely, of course. Wouldn’t have gone back time and time again to the office in the turret if he didn’t love every second. But he thought that somehow, Aziraphale had known him from the beginning. He saw right through him. Crowley felt known.
In pieces, over the past few weeks, Aziraphale had revealed himself to Crowley. Aziraphale had a few, one might say, control issues. He wanted to be in full control of his faculties at all times. He was nervous of oblivion, much more hesitant to submit himself to it than Crowley was. And yet, this request, this quiet invitation to lie next to him was unarguably vulnerable, as sleeping always was. He had framed it around Crowley’s wants, but it was Crowley’s turn to see through him now. It was no small thing to put your body next to someone else’s and go voluntarily unconscious.
“Yeah, yes,” responded Crowley, Aziraphale’s clear relief striking him in the chest.
They left the other bed untouched, and Crowley slid between the sheets, next to Aziraphale. Aziraphale was right. It was cozy, but he didn’t mind. There was no way he was going to complain about being pressed up against Aziraphale with nowhere else to go.
He reached up and smoothed his palm across Aziraphale’s forehead, gently pushed his hair back. “Alright, angel? Not too fast for you?”
Aziraphale captured Crowley’s wrist in his hand, pressed his lips to his palm. “No, my dear. This is just right.”
They fell asleep in a tangle of limbs, both spent.
Sorry about the cow joke.
Chapter 10: August: (III) Fort William to Tadfield
A large portion of this chapter is rated E.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Aziraphale awoke to Crowley’s nose pressed into the space under his ear, one long leg slung over his hips. The world was soft at the edges with sleep, and Crowley’s breath was hot and shallow on his neck. Even though the mattress was less than ideal and he knew his back would punish him for it later, he couldn’t remember ever waking up more content than he was at this moment.
His fingers lazily played with loose strands of Crowley’s hair, tangled from rubbing up against the sheets. Crowley sighed, and pressed a sleepy kiss into Aziraphale’s skin. In receiving it something surged inside him, a feeling that his body had not been built to accommodate this kind of quiet glory.
He hadn’t slept next to anyone in years and years (and years and years). Being who he was, fussy and particular and devoted to his own routine, he worried he might spend the night fidgeting and wishing Crowley were in the other bed, worried that maybe this type of closeness wasn’t what he was really after. But that hadn’t happened. Each time he stirred it was to bring Crowley closer, to feel the other man on as many points of his body as he could. As if to ground him, to remind himself this is real. Crowley is next to you, and this is real.
Crowley tilted his head up, eyes heavy-lidded and smile tired. “Morning, angel.”
That sleepy greeting, that golden gaze, the way the light creeping through the curtain cut across his cheekbones. It all worked together to turn a key inside Aziraphale, to open the door to a room he hadn’t known was there. There was space, wasn’t there? There was room for it.
Aziraphale was in love.
ANATHEMA: Text me when you get signal
CROWLEY: hey. Everything ok at the lab?
ANATHEMA: ya no problems. How’s your trip going???
CROWLEY: good :)
ANATHEMA: That’s it? Good?!?!?
ANATHEMA: and is dad having a good time?
ANATHEMA: or should I say
CROWLEY: have called the police on you
CROWLEY: for being a great bloody pervert
ANATHEMA: I’ll take that as a yes!
Upon arrival in Skipness, they understood why Anathema had suggested a detour off what would’ve been considered the typical route. It was beautiful in a hushed way. The proximity to water, the charming homes, the winding road that cut across the peninsula. There was nothing flashy about any one of these features on their own, but combined with the disappearance of the clouds and the brilliant blue of the sky above, it was the kind of lovely that embraced you, had a way of making you feel like you were on your way home.
The signs on the roadside proclaimed Skipness Castle was growing near.
“Would you like to stop?” Asked Crowley. “Anathema mentioned it was decent, as far as castles go.”
“Why not? We have the time, don’t we?”
Crowley parked in a small, tree shaded lot just off the road, and together they walked through the redstone gates up a winding unpaved path. It was startlingly quiet for the middle of the day. The only sound the distant rolling of the surf, the wind blowing through the tall trees that lined the route on either side, and the soft padding of their soles on the pressed dirt. They passed no one.
It rose in front of them. Ruins, but quite incredibly intact. A tower and sturdy walls made of the same brick and stone they’d seen in outbuildings on their way up.
“That’s not bad,” said Crowley coming to a stop, trying to sound less impressed than he was. He’d seen plenty of castles. Scotland and all, but this seemed better. It felt better.
They approached slowly, opening the wooden gate that surrounded the site. Aziraphale stopped to read the board of historical information, but Crowley moved under the high arch and into the courtyard that was open to the sky above. He walked to the dead centre, closed his eyes, and turned his face to the sun.
It was gloriously warm, warmer than it had any right to be, even though it was August. He loved the heat. Had loved Thailand and India and Jordan when he had worked there. For once in his life he hadn’t woken up with feet and hands so cold his nails were blue. Though, they hadn’t been last night, now that he thought about it. He’d woken up warm, wrapped around Aziraphale. An electric blanket of a man.
“Isn’t this something?”
Crowley turned towards Aziraphale’s voice and opened his eyes. He watched him marvel, a wondrous delight on his face. Aziraphale’s endless capacity to be captivated was admirable. He always made Crowley feel supremely interesting, and it was genuine as far as he could tell. Nothing was mundane to him.
“Let’s go up the tower,” Crowley said, heading in the direction of the wooden staircase. He wanted to extend this visit, find all the things that Aziraphale could possibly be impressed with.
“Are we allowed?” Aziraphale watched Crowley stalk across the grass.
“Only one way to find out!”
Much to Aziraphale’s relief, the tower was open to visitors. No break in was required.
They wandered through the well maintained rooms, all empty and deserted. Their footsteps echoed off the wooden floorboards.
“It’s a bit spooky,” said Aziraphale, dragging his fingers across the sandstone walls.
“I like it. Big spooky fan, me.”
Crowley climbed the stairwell further and found open access to the top of the walls. “Angel,” he called down the stairs. “Get up here.” He held the door open, let the breeze in.
Aziraphale came up slowly, shallowly panting. Crowley let him pass.
“Oh, this is wonderful, Crowley.”
He walked out further onto the wall, Crowley watching his every step. Aziraphale brought his hand to his forehead to shelter his eyes from the sun, looked out towards the sea. The wind pushed his curls about. The sunshine lit him up against the stone.
Crowley’s heart throbbed in its fullness. This life felt like it belonged to someone else. How did a miserable git like him, all bone and sinew and maladaptive feelings get sunshine like this? They’d banned things for making a person feel this good. Being this happy was vaguely embarrassing for him, it struggled for position beside his deeply ingrained cynicism. How could one be joyfully in love when the world was what it was? But the world wasn’t anything to him, not right now. Just the sea and the wall and Aziraphale.
He slipped his phone out from his back pocket, and took a picture of Aziraphale there, sun beating off his broad shoulders and linen shirt. His happiest moment, right there in the cloud.
He walked to where Aziraphale stood, and wrapped his arms around Aziraphale from behind, burying his face into the soft shoulder in front of him.
“Oh,” came Aziraphale’s fond response. “Hello, you.” He took one of Crowley’s hands in his and pressed a kiss to his fingers.
To just stand there, to not be rushed. To look at the impossibly green grass leading down to the water. To be standing on a fucking castle with a man who made Crowley feel like he is made of something beautiful and good. What stupid luck. What an embarrassment of goddamned riches.
The inn was unremarkable, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t pay attention to the room. They barely took in the features - the sloppily applied tartan wallpaper, the faded arm chair in the corner with the arms rubbed clean, the reproduction wall art depicting some made-up farmhouse somewhere. Neither one of them saw it.
They tumbled into the room, hands on one another, clutching at each others’ clothes as if some unseen hand was trying to force them apart, and they needed the other to live.
Aziraphale had said he moved slowly. It wasn’t a line, not at the time. Aziraphale had thought he’d need it. Slow had always meant safe. But there was no danger here, not with Crowley. The time for slow was over.
Crowley wanted him. It radiated from him all the time. In the car, on their brief unhurried hikes, over dinner. Each time Crowley looked at him was a gift, some reward that he did not deserve but that he was powerless to turn away from. And why would he have wanted to? Who was he to deny this perfect, perfect creature? Who was he to deny himself?
Now, his hands knew what Crowley felt like. They had traced the curve of his muscles, the ridges where his bones pressed into his skin. He had felt Crowley’s cock spasm against the soft skin of his palm, seen his sharp features tense and release in response. He was waiting for it to be too fast, but it never was.
Crowley had him against the wall, hands grabbing at Aziraphale’s sides, breath catching. Guttural little whimpers fell over his lips and into Aziraphale’s mouth. He drank them in, savoured them, let them roll over his tongue. Delicious. Aziraphale wanted to devour him, swallow him whole.
He reached down and pulled Crowley’s shirt off over his head, breaking the kiss before bringing their lips back together, nipping at the flesh of Crowley’s lower lip. He grabbed at the thick leather of Crowley’s belt, the buckle cool against his fingertips, and undid it roughly. He backed Crowley onto the bed as he undid the button of his jeans. Crowley lowered himself down and Aziraphale peeled his jeans and pants off together, helping shift the tight, clinging fabric down.
“These really are,” said Aziraphale, laughing under his breath as he flung the now shed clothing to the side, “entirely indecent.”
“Kind of the point.”
Crowley pushed himself back up onto the bed and reclined, resplendent, legs spread and breathing hard.
Aziraphale’s heart stopped. Time stopped. The blood in his veins was heat, could burn him from the inside out. Didn’t matter. Not a lick. He’d burn for this a thousand times over. Don’t you dare forget this, you old fool. “Take your hair down.”
Crowley obeyed without comment, reaching one hand back and freeing the curtain of hair from its customary messy bun at the back of his neck. He slipped the hair tie around his wrist and smiled up at Aziraphale again, wicked.
“Jesus Christ,” Aziraphale whispered out, suddenly hoarse, suddenly unable to get air into his lungs. The black ink snake trailing across Crowley’s parchment pale skin was so striking, Aziraphale couldn’t imagine him without it. His red cock flush and twitching on his stomach. He must have been good in another life, must have been a saint for God to have given him this moment alone. “I love looking at you,” he said nakedly, not satisfied to leave it unspoken.
The smile on Crowley’s lip softened, his eyes too. “Yeah?”
“Can I see you too?”
Aziraphale inhaled sharply, nerves making an abrupt late appearance. Last night had been spontaneous, of the moment. He had surprised himself then, at how bold he’d been and how centered. He was surprising himself now. Who was this man who had a being like Crowley in the palm of his hand? Crowley’s body, a work of art come to life in front of him in real time was not meant for men like him - a stuffy, middle-aged hermit from a bygone age who had basically given up on anything but the life he had wandered into. How could Crowley, of all people, of all men, want to see him?
He had hesitated too long. Crowley crawled over to Aziraphale and came up on his knees, took the older man’s shoulders so gently in his hands.
“Hi. What’s happening?” Crowley’s eyes were all worry and want.
Aziraphale brought his hands to cradle Crowley’s face. Kissed him. Wanted to banish that worry away. “It’s just been awhile, that’s all.” It wasn’t the whole truth, but it wasn’t a lie either.
Crowley mirrored Aziraphale, touching his face, his thumbs ghosting over Aziraphale’s cheeks. “We don’t have to… we can stay just as we are, if that’s what you want.”
“It’s not. I -” Aziraphale searched for his words in the inferno of Crowley’s eyes. He was scared, yes, but the time had passed to let himself be ruled by fear. This was not a fear that had protected him. He had told himself it had for years and now the evidence that he’d been wrong was staring him in the face. The fear had built walls around him, had left him stranded in his own lonely psyche. The only thing that the fear had served, in the end, was the list of publications under his name. And the greatest worth to all of those, Aziraphale thought, was that it brought him to Tadfield College at a time when Anthony Crowley was also at Tadfield College. The work had brought him to this very instant. The walls had served their purpose. He didn’t need them anymore.
“I just needed a moment.” He began to undo the buttons of his shirt, stopped. “Perhaps you’d like to do this.”
Crowley smiled a quiet kind of smile, smoothed Aziraphale’s unruly curls behind his ears. “If you like.”
“I would, my dear. Very much.”
Long fingers took over the work of his shirt. With each button he undid, Crowley kissed the alabaster skin that was exposed, licked the sparse patch of hair on Aziraphale’s chest.
He looked up at Aziraphale. “Okay?” He asked.
“More than,” Aziraphale responded, heady and breathless.
Aziraphale closed his eyes, gave himself permission to do nothing but experience this, to accept the sweetness from Crowley’s lips, the feather light touches of his tongue. His hands fisted in Crowley’s hair. It was wonderfully thick and soft. He loved the way it looked woven between his fingers, a perfect handful.
When Crowley reached the swell of his soft stomach, Aziraphale heard him moan, felt him press his face into him. He licked into Aziraphale’s navel and his hands ghosted over his skin, fluttering over his softest parts.
“Fuck, Aziraphale.” Crowley spoke to himself in reverent whispers as he moved on to undoing Aziraphale’s trousers. Then he paused again. “Okay?”
And they were in it now, on the very wave of it, and Aziraphale was more than okay. “Yes, my darling. Please.”
His zipper undone, trousers off. “Fuck me. Fuck me,” whispered Crowley, not asking, but praying.
Crowley slid his hands under Aziraphale’s shirt, pushed it off his shoulders. Then, there they were.
Moaning his name, Crowley leaned in to kiss him, hot and desperate. One hand with chipped black nails roamed down Aziraphale’s front. It lingered at the base of his belly until Crowley whispered, “Angel? Do you want-”
And Crowley took Aziraphale’s cock into his gentle hand, stroking so lightly that Aziraphale thought he could be imagining it. But he wasn’t. Crowley was right there with him, and their foreheads were pressed together and Aziraphale had an iron grip on the back of Crowley’s neck.
“More,” he said, so husky and dark he surprised himself, barely knew the voice coming from his chest. Crowley’s hand tightened and he smiled at Aziraphale’s gasp, his moan of pleasure.
“Like this? Tell me what you want.” Crowley was looking into his eyes, orbs of gold searching, pleading.
His mouth went dry, and a shiver ran from the crown of his head to his base, electric with anticipation of the next words formed by his lips. “I want your mouth.”
Crowley’s hand stopped moving. The air crackled, sparked.
“I want you to take me in your mouth and as far back in that gorgeous throat as you can manage. If you like.”
“Yeah,” said Crowley, tongue darting out to lick his lips. “Yes.”
I’d like to do what you want me to do. The moment the words had left Crowley’s mouth they had been tattooed on the inside of Aziraphale’s ribs, pressed against his heart. It was a revelation, as much as a request. Crowley trusted him, he trusted him so much that he would allow Aziraphale this power over him. What a privilege to have it, to hold it to his chest.
“Good.” Aziraphale reached past Crowley, grabbed a pillow from the head of the bed, then sat at its edge. He parted his thighs, and leaned over to place the pillow on the floor between his feet. “On your knees,” he said, but Crowley was already off the bed, sliding to his knees on the white pillowcase.
Oh, he was stunning like this, upturned face, eyes glazed. Instruction did something to Crowley, for him. Aziraphale could sense the deep satisfaction it gave him, to hand over the decision making to someone else for a short time. His neuroses dissolved and he became the barest version of himself. It was revealing. It was intoxicating.
He dug his fingers into Crowley’s hair at the nape of his neck, guided Crowley’s lips to his, kissed him. Everything about Crowley was soft now, and he let breathy little moans pass his lips. Aziraphale palmed his cock with his free hand.
He drew Crowley back from him. “I’ll tell you when.” Crowley nodded and sat back on his heels. Those eyes, fatally ready. With a few focused and centring breaths he steadied himself in his hand, squeezing slightly at the base. Making this last, with the mere presence of Crowley between his knees enough to finish him off, would take an extraordinary amount of effort. “Now, darling. Now, please.”
Aziraphale would never forget Crowley’s next movements. The image would forever come to him unbidden at the most inconvenient of times, and without exception, he would have to excuse himself from whatever situation he happened to be in. With practiced ease, Crowley pulled the hair tie off his wrist and pulled his hair back off his face. Then his lips curved into the softest smile, and he folded his arms behind his back, cupping each elbow with the opposite hand.
His back was reflected in the mirror on the wall, Crowley folded up like a most elegant package. Right angles and clean lines. And when he was satisfied that Aziraphale had seen him, really seen him, he leaned forward and parted his lips.
Crowley allowed Aziraphale to guide himself in, past spit wet lips, and he was like a silk purse. His heart stuttered to a stop then took off sprinting as Crowley received him, moaning. The vibrations wracked through him and he thought he might shake apart at the sensation.
So many things in so much of his life had not been as he’d imagined them. Either the payoff was quieter, or looked nothing at all like what he’d dreamed. But this, though, this was something else entirely. He had scarcely allowed himself to picture this until he’d had Crowley on his knees once, there in his office. To play out the beats of this fantasy would’ve been too painful if there were scant possibility it wouldn’t happen. Before that night in his office, with the pen and his thumb, he would get up the point where their hands would brush, their knees would knock under a table, one of them would lean is as they were saying good night and then he would put a stop to it, pull the pin off the record. To go further when there was no chance would have been self-imposed torture.
After though, after Crowley had come to him quite literally on hands and knees and showed him what he would do, Aziraphale wrapped his own fist tight around his length as he lay in bed, whispered his most secret longings to the empty room, and pictured this. This exactly.
But it was better. It was so much better than any scenario Aziraphale could’ve ever cooked up on his own. The threads that have always held his external self together were so close to coming undone by this man on his knees. The last vestiges of whatever made him an even, reasonable man had slipped away and it is he who should be at Crowley’s feet, asking, offering. I will give you everything. I will give you every piece of me if you want it.
Crowley’s mouth was slick and hot and his tongue was made of velvet. “You are so good, Crowley. Your mouth, Christ, your mouth.” The whimpers from between his legs make his hips shudder, and he went on. “You’re perfect, did you know that? Every blessed part of you. And you are so, so good. You take me so well, darling.”
Crowley’s hands came from behind his back, breaking his pose. He anchored one set of fingers into Aziraphale’s thigh, grabbed Aziraphale’s hand with the other and pressed it to the back of his head. Aziraphale indulged him this, not that it was a trial to, not that Crowley hadn’t just shown him what Aziraphale himself wanted.
Starstruck eyes peered up at Aziraphale and his fingers gripped Crowley’s hair instinctively. His hips bucked forward and he pressed into the back of Crowley’s throat. From his knees Crowley keened, pressed his fingers into Aziraphale’s leg so hard they’d probably bruise.
“You like that,” Aziraphale whispered. “You like when I tell you how good you are when I fuck your lovely little mouth.” If he were less turned on and more than seconds away from orgasm he might’ve been embarrassed by the words coming out of his mouth. He might have been embarrased if Crowley didn’t moan around him, something that could have been ‘fuck’ or maybe even ‘please.’ If Crowley didn’t wrap his hand around his own stiff cock and stroke it two, three times, more.
He fucked into Crowley’s mouth one more time and that was it. That was all he could take. With a heated gasp he came and he could feel Crowley swallow around him. Thinking he might not live if that happened again he pulled Crowley off him by his hair. Crowley mewled and took a great grasping breath of air as Aziraphale finished all over his lips and chin.
Aziraphale shuddered with the effort of it, used his own hand to eke out every last bit of himself, and marveled at the sight of what he’d done. Wet and glistening, pearlescent as it coated Crowley’s skin.
“Can I?” Crowley asked, his voice nearly gone. “Can I?”
“Can you…?” Aziraphale was not sharp. He was spent and it took him a moment to realize that Crowley was still hard and fucking his own hand and “Yes, of course. Yes, darling.”
With the permission he asked for, Crowley’s eyes closed tight and he rode his climax out, leaning back hard into Aziraphale’s hand. The ecstasy that coloured his features turned Aziraphale over inside, replaced every part of him with something new.
When Crowley opened his eyes, Aziraphale wanted to say something, anything, but there were no words he could string together to encompass the enormity of this. He was a man who had spent his whole life specializing in words, and now they had failed. There was nothing for this. There was no written or spoken language that could translate how this felt.
They sat together in silence, Crowley’s face pressed into Aziraphale’s thigh, until it was no longer comfortable, until they both acknowledged that they could use a shower. And so reluctantly, they disentangled, set forth to set things back to normal.
It wasn’t terribly late but they were both exhausted. Too full and wrung out all at once. They slipped between the sheets, and Crowley folded himself into Aziraphale’s arm, much like the night before. He trailed lazy kisses down Aziraphale’s jaw.
“Why didn’t you want us to drink on the trip?” He asked, the approach of sleep slurring his words.
Aziraphale turned his face to press a kiss to Crowley’s forehead, and closed his eyes. “I needed to know that you wanted this. That I wasn’t just bullying you into it.”
Crowley’s chest jumped in a snort of laughter. “Angel, you couldn’t bully a lamb.”
They laughed together, and fell asleep.
They were both a bit melancholy to be driving back to Tadfield, but neither wanted to say it. They wanted to stretch this love drunk period as far as it could possibly go. The drive took several hours, and they spent most of it in companionable silence, Aziraphale’s hand resting alternatively on Crowley’s knee or the back of his neck.
With about thirty minutes left in their trip, Aziraphale quite deliberately cleared his throat. “There’s something that I’ve put off mentioning to you, but now seems as good a time as any.” He withdrew his hand where it had been resting on Crowley’s knee, caressing gentle circles into the joint, and began to turn down his sleeves from where they had been rolled up.
Crowley felt his whole body tense up, his breath alter its pattern. Watching Aziraphale roll down his sleeves looked like an unwelcome bookend. “Christ, you’re not married are you? Some wife locked up in the other wing, Jane Eyre style?” His laughter was a shield. He wanted to make it sound like this was the most patently absurd thing, as if there wasn’t a secret fear that lived in him that Fell had a partner lurking somewhere.
“Oh, do you like the Brontes?” Aziraphale asked.
“Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte.”
“No, I just-” Was this obfuscation purposeful or was it that literary references were a genuine distraction? “Haven’t read it. I just know there’s a wife locked in an attic in that one. What was it you wanted to tell me?”
“Yes, well.” Aziraphale looked out the passenger side window and Crowley’s heart climbed into his throat. “I’m going on sabbatical.” He sounded miserable.
“When did that happen?” This had been the first Crowley had heard of it. Sabbaticals were planned in advance, that much he knew, and there was usually travel and a lot of time away from the school. And now breathing was getting difficult.
“A few weeks ago. Not my choice, mind you.” His voice was falsely casual, like there was a fire in the next room but he was trying to assure Crowley that it was just a little warm.
“What does that mean, not your choice?”
“The Chair felt it was time for me to take a little break.”
“What the -” Crowley clenched his teeth, shot a sharp exhale out through his nose. “Why would you let that prick tell you what to do?”
“And why are you just telling me now?” He couldn’t drive and have this conversation. He flicked on the turning light and pulled over on the next side road, shifted the car into park.
Aziraphale looked past him, over his shoulder, like he was trying to engage but couldn’t quite make it. “I didn’t want you to fret.”
“I don’t fret,” said Crowley, pushing a wild hand through his hair.
“Alright, well, it’s not for you to worry about.”
“How is it not…?” He might choke. “Where will you be going?”
Aziraphale finally looked at him, straight on. Brows over his blue eyes knit together in confusion. “Going?”
“People go away on sabbatical. They don’t just hang around.”
“Oh, Crowley,” Aziraphale said as he reached out to take Crowley’s hand. He resisted the urge to jerk it away. “I’m not going anywhere. If I had something I was working on, then I suppose I might do some research travel but it’s all been so sudden. I’ll just be at the house.”
Okay, that was good. He wasn’t leaving. He wasn’t telling Crowley beautiful things in a hotel room then abandoning him the next day. But this didn’t make sense. His fingers wrapped around Aziraphale’s and he took a breath, steadying himself. “Help me out here, because I’m not getting this. Gabriel has put you on sabbatical with basically no notice, to do nothing?”
Aziraphale gave a gentle shrug.
“Do you want to go on sabbatical?”
“No, of course not, but-”
“Then why didn’t you do something?” He was surprised at the strength of his own question, the anger underneath it.
Aziraphale leaned back in his seat, away from Crowley, withdrew his hand. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, in a small squeak.
“It does matter, and I don’t get why you’re so fucking passive.” A heavy, uncomfortable quiet flooded the car.
Aziraphale cleared his throat. “Am I? Passive.”
Something hadn’t shattered exactly, but there was a crack that hadn’t been there before. Crowley thought about how they had only ever had a real conversation because it was Crowley who had noticed that Adam had gone missing in action, how it was Crowley that kept going back, that it was Crowley who crawled on his knees to Aziraphale and Crowley who proposed this fucking trip. “Yeah, a bit. Sometimes,” he said in as even a voice as he could muster.
Aziraphale’s fingers fluttered to his lips, a nervous gesture Crowley hadn’t seen for weeks. “I see.”
“I just-” Whatever thought he had floated away. His stomach curdled. “It’s not fair. To you, I mean. It’s not fair.”
Aziraphale sighed. “Life is frequently unfair, darling. I’d daresay you know that well.”
Darling. That took the edge off, just a little. Was this a fight they’d just had? Aziraphale would have probably described it as a heated discussion. Maybe that was right. Crowley didn’t know. All he knew was that it was rotten and he hated it.
He said nothing, but turned the car back on, and continued driving back to Tadfield.
The discomfort was so tangible he could smell it. It was ugly stuff. He debated apologizing, but for what? Telling the man he loved to want more for himself?
The front drive of the College came into view and Crowley passed it.
“Crowley, you don’t have to take me all the way. I can walk,” came the deflated voice beside him.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Crowley responded, equally empty.
They came to Aziraphale’s driveway, and Crowley pulled in. As they came up to the front door, movement caught his eye, and he stopped the car abruptly. There was someone on the steps. Someone with a suitcase.
“Aziraphale?” The other man looked up from his lap where he had been staring for the past ten minutes. “Who’s that?”
Aziraphale looked up and his face blanched. His mouth dropped open. “Oh dear.”
The person, the woman walked down the steps and towards the car. Oh God. Oh God, he did have a secret wife.
Aziraphale’s pained face looked over to Crowley, grimaced. “How would you feel about meeting my sister?”
Excuse me while I toot my own horn, but that text exchange is the funniest thing I've ever written, will ever write. I should just shut this sucker down now.
The trip Aziraphale and Crowley take in August mirrors (in route) the first vacation my partner and I took together three years ago. Durness and Smoo Cave, being annoyed on the Isle of Skye, last minute accommodations in Fort William. (We also had a crummy room with two twin beds but instead of doing anything sexy we ate crisps and watched an X-men movie.) Skipness was the highlight of our trip. Scotland is a spectacular country.
There may be an extended break between this chapter and the next as I work on some other projects, think two to three weeks. Thanks for sticking with me so far. I'll be back soon.
Chapter 11: September
Allusions to homophobia and family rejection in this chapter, as an FYI.
London, September 2010
“That’s the last of them.” Margaret, or Michael, rather, came into the parlour, the heels of her low black pumps clicking on the hardwood. There were dark purple circles under her eyes, the only colour to her otherwise unadorned face. Aziraphale had been avoiding mirrors but suspected he looked much the same.
They were twelve hours out from burying their father.
The wake had lasted hours. Aziraphale had shook so many hands, accepted so many condolences that one had melted into the next. He couldn’t remember a single person he had spoken to, save Barney, his father’s solicitor, who promised he’d call about the will in a day or so.
He’d left Michael to usher the last of the guests out, and was making a half-hearted effort at cleaning up, collecting glasses and stacking small plates that were lingering on every surface. Why, he wondered, had they not hired people to do this? The answer of course was that Michael thought that kind of thing frivolous. She believed very much in doing the work, any work, herself.
She joined Aziraphale in the tidying, placing half empty wine glasses on a tray she’d brought with her. “Did Barney say when we can all meet?”
Aziraphale felt too tired to speak. “Ah, no. Said he’d call. But I can ring him to set something up. If you need to get back to... back home.”
She nodded. “Please. They said I could take time but I don’t like to be away.”
Of course she didn’t.
“We’ll sell this place, do you think?” It seemed a little early for this kind of talk. Their father’s body was barely cold, but Michael was practical. Always maddeningly practical. He knew the way she thought. They’d have to have this conversation soon enough and so why not now. It wasn’t like either of them had been close to Father anyway. It had been their mother who had been the one who tried, and it had been nearly a decade now, since she’d be gone. “Unless,” Michael said, pausing in the doorframe, “you think you might like to hold on to it. In the case that you had a family or anything.”
Aziraphale bit his tongue. “I think we can safely let that go.”
“Is that right?” She stood frozen in the doorway. An ice statue, as cool and transparent as she’d ever been. “There’s still time, Az.”
He bristled at the childhood nickname. If it had been anyone else, a cousin, a friend, that type of sentiment could be read as support, of reassurance. There’s time for you, if you want it. You’re only 39. You’re not too old. Someone will love you. But from Michael it was an hourglass with an ulterior motive.
“We’ll sell the townhouse,” was all he said. This was their father’s house. Aziraphale wasn’t in the city enough to justify holding on to it, and Michael, well, Michael had made her choice. He turned away from her, searching the room for more things to pick up, more things to keep his hands busy. He could feel her, lingering.
“If you don’t have a family then that’s it for the Fells. You know that, don’t you?”
He squeezed his eyes shut. Bit back his instinctive response. Perhaps you should have thought of that before you became a bloody nun. “Is ‘the family name’ of that great concern to you?”
“Would you let our legacy go, just like that? Like it’s nothing? Surely with Father gone you’ve thought about it.”
“Thought about what?” Say it. Say it out loud. Tell me what this is really about.
“About finding a wife. About having children. About passing on the name.”
He could feel the blood rushing to his face and thrumming in his ears. His heart leapt to his throat, threatened to suffocate him. “You know,” was all he could say. “You know.” And she did, she did know.
It was Michael who had caught him at seventeen with his tongue in his friend Henry’s mouth at the summer house out by Tadfield. Michael who promised not to tell their parents when at twenty-four, he had called her winedrunk and in tears because the first man he had thought he loved had told him that he was getting married. And she hadn’t been sympathetic, not exactly. It wasn’t really her way. She was pragmatic. She told him to get himself together, and to not let their parents know. But she hadn’t hated him. She thought him ridiculous, but not wrong .
Time had passed, and they had grown and gone to school. Earned matching degrees in religion and theology. At the end, he had chosen academia, and she had chosen the church, the Catholic church, bafflingly enough. The most orthodox she dared to go. And Margaret became Sister Michael, and the small distance that had always been between them widened into a gulf. He had never really known her maybe. He did not know her now.
“It wouldn’t be hard. To find someone. A woman.”
Ludicrous, this was completely ludicrous. He spun around to look at her, his hands planted on his waist, the picture of indignation. “Do you understand what you are suggesting that to do?”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, I can hardly do anything about it.”
He wanted to strangle her. “And why not? Why can’t you leave the order, find a husband? Have a few children with hyphenated names?”
The tray she carried shook, trembled in her furious hands. “You’d ask me to give up my faith?”
“You’re asking me to give up my soul!” His voice had climbed an octave, a new and panicked register. He loosened his black tie. Black. They had just buried their father. He hated how she could incite him like this. Made him not himself.
“Oh,” she spat. “You’ve always been so dramatic.” They glared at one another, two cyclones of anger and distrust. “Give up your soul? Where is he, Aziraphale? Your man?”
Cruel. Cruel. There was no one, there had been no one for some time and she knew. He said nothing. Seethed.
“You and I both know that unless he walks right up to you, introduces himself as the love of your sodding life then it’s never going to happen. You’ve always been so,” she tilted her head, searched for the word then landed on it, delivered it with bared teeth, “passive.” Turning on her heel, she disappeared into the kitchen, tray rattling.
She knew him. She saw him and she knew him and she had his number. He had waited for things to fall into his lap his whole life and because of who he was, who his family was, it had largely gone his way. Love had been harder though. He had waited. He kept waiting. But no one had come to him. He was an unremarkable man, what could he expect?
The next day they would speak to Barney. They would sell the London home. Aziraphale would go back to Tadfield and Michael would go back to the convent or wherever the hell she was living. They would talk about the will, and then they wouldn’t talk at all.
He let himself sit back on the sofa, and covered his face with his hands.
Passive. Here sat an unremarkable and passive man.
Tadfield, Present Day
“How would you feel about meeting my sister?”
Crowley wasn’t going to have much of a choice by the looks of it. Aziraphale’s sister, a sister he had never mentioned, never once alluded to in all the times Crowley had mentioned his own sister, was approaching the car, and was bending over to peer in the passenger side window.
She was taller than Aziraphale, though not by much, Same pale skin, blue eyes. Brown hair shorn short. There was a tentative, nervous smile on her lips and then Crowley could see it, that she and Aziraphale were made of the same stuff. She raised her hand and tapped on the car window with her knuckles, and in a voice muffled by the closed door, simply said, “Hello.”
Crowley scrambled for the power window switch on his side, as Aziraphale failed to make a single move. The window came down and Aziraphale looked up at her, and she at him. For the first time, Crowley saw something of anger playing on Aziraphale’s face. Suppressed, yes, but a tension in his features, the clench and release of his jaw under his soft cheek.
“I wasn’t expecting you,” said Aziraphale in a way that made Crowley shiver, and not in the fun way. It was clipped and cold and bemused.
“I did send a letter. But I suppose it may have been mislaid.”
“Perhaps. You might have been standing there a very long time. I’ve been away.”
The sister, Aziraphale’s sister looked into the back seat at their bags, then, for the first time, across to the man in the driver’s seat. “I see that. Hello.” Crowley was caught off guard by the creases at the corners of her eyes, the very slight upturn of the tip of her nose. More Aziraphale.
“Uh, er, hi,” he said back, unsure if he should engage more.
“Oh, Christ. I’m sorry.” Aziraphale apologized to Crowley. He did not apologize to his sister. His sad eyes lingered for a moment and then he made an effort of shaking himself free of it. “This is Michael.” And then, lamely, “She’s my sister.”
Crowley nodded at the woman, raised his fingers from where they were gripping the steering wheel in a lacklustre wave.
“And this–” Aziraphale was talking to Michael now, but still turned to him, and Crowley was watching him make a decision. He was watching Aziraphale tally up a pros and cons list, weigh all the possible outcomes, search for the right choice, the best one. He was gripped by a sudden fear that Aziraphale would call him a colleague, and they were just back from a little work trip and –
Aziraphale reached out to the side of Crowley’s face, his hand hovering in the air for one excruciating second, and then pushed his red hair behind his ear, cupped the back of his head. “This is Crowley.” His thumb swept over Crowley’s cheekbone and Crowley could’ve forgotten that Michael was bent over, staring at them. He nearly forgot that they had had a snit in the car scarcely thirty minutes ago.
“Well, I, I’m pleased to meet you, Crowley.” They both turned to face her, stiff, but smiling.
“Uh, yeah.” That was all he could manage. Aziraphale’s hand was still on his cheek, was sliding down to squeeze his shoulder. It was heavy and warm and and threw him off balance.
“I’ll meet you at the door, Michael. Just, give me a moment.”
“Right, of course. I’ll just, right. Bye, then.” She addressed her farewell to Crowley, then meandered back to the door, hands clasped behind her back.
Aziraphale turned to Crowley and slid his hand off Crowley’s arm, returned it to his lap. “I’d have you in but I think–”
“Do you have any other family I should know about or is that it? Brothers? Nieces? Nephews? Third cousins with a mysterious past who hold the key to the family fortune?” With Aziraphale having removed his hand, Crowley’s brain was back somewhere at 80%, enough that he could be properly annoyed at what had just gone down.
Aziraphale sighed and scrubbed his face. “I suppose I deserve that. No, just the sister. Some distant cousins but they’re not… not a factor. And I haven’t…” He sighed again, and his voice went a bit desperate. “I haven’t spoken to her in years. I didn’t quite think I was going to see her again, if I’m being quite honest.”
Crowley nodded. “Yeah, okay.” At some point you have to tell me things , he wanted to say. If what we’re doing is going to be a real thing, you can’t always be an enigma. Unless, came a painful and hesitant realization, this wasn’t a real thing. Unless it only worked when they were in the bubble of holidaying well away from Tadfied and the details of real life. He swallowed and looked out of the windshield.
“Can I call you tonight?” Aziraphale asked.
Again, Crowley nodded. “Alright. Only if you want to.”
“I want to. I want you to come in, but I need to sort out why she’s shown up.”
Aziraphale was watching him. “Alright then, Crowley. I’ll call you. Later.” He cleared his throat. “I enjoyed our trip.”
“Me too,” replied Crowley, glancing over at Aziraphale’s anxious hands.
Then Aziraphale was out of the car and he fetched his bag from the back seat. Crowley pulled away before he could see Aziraphale turning back to watch him go. He felt, very distinctly, like something had been spoiled.
Anathema’s phone vibrated from where it was plugged in on her shelf, rousing her from sleep. Mashing her glasses back on, she groped in the general vicinity of the buzzing, finally finding her phone with a dull slap. Pulling it over close to her face, the screen lit up with a text from Crowley.
She unlocked her phone to respond when it vibrated with a second message.
“Christ, give me a minute,” she murmured to the phone.
Newt stirred from his nap next to her, wiping sleep from his eyes. “Wha?” He said.
“Just a text.” She typed a response back and sent it.
Within seconds, there was a knock at the door. “It’s me,” came Crowley’s muffled voice from the other side.
She rolled off the bed, straightened her shirt. “How long have you been standing there, you freak?” She called, opening the door on the last word. Crowley leaned against the doorway, arms crossed and features gaunt. “Woah. You good?”
His eyes flicked over her. “Your hair is a mess.”
She touched it. It was. “I missed you too,” she spit back. He was deflecting.
Kicking at the floor with the toe of his boot, he looked minorly chagrined for the first time since she had known him. “Er, can I come in?”
Anathema opened the door and Crowley moved in, a whirlwind of anxious nerves, only to freeze when he saw Newt, who in his infinite wisdom was already bent over, lacing up his shoes.
“Oh, er, didn’t realize you had company.”
“Just leaving, mate. No worries.” On his way out he kissed Anathema on the side of the head. “See you in a bit,” he said, as he disappeared down the hall. She closed the door behind him.
“What happened?” She asked, and Crowley shrugged, turned away from her. “No, don’t do that. You woke me up from a nap. What happened?”
He folded himself down onto the bed, closed his eyes. “We had a fight.”
Talk about the end of a honeymoon period. From the moment Crowley had picked Fell up in Inverness she had basically stopped hearing from him. No questions about the lab, no requests for pictures of the plants only to receive criticism in response that she must be going easy on them. It had been radio silence. She had assumed things were going well. “When? About what?”
“On the drive back. He didn’t… he doesn’t tell me anything.”
That was not news. “You knew that though.”
Crowley’s eyes flashed up at her, all annoyance. “Can you be on my side for thirty seconds, or is that too hard?”
This wasn’t his usual tetchiness. There was a wounded quality to his words, and he had come to her because she was his only other person. Time to recalibrate. “I’m sorry. What did you fight about?”
“He’s going on sabbatical and he didn’t tell me! He’s being forced on break.”
“Oh, right. That sucks.”
Crowley’s mouth dropped open. “You knew?”
Oops. “Newt told me.”
“You knew and you didn’t tell me?”
“I assumed he did!” She made a wide gesture with her arms, open palm sweeping in what she thought was the direction of Fell’s house.
“No, he only told me on our way back. Ninety minutes ago or something.”
“And!” He started, winding himself up. “And he’s got a sister! And she was at the house!”
“That’s a lot.” She felt useless. Not knowing what else to do, she sat down on the bed beside him.
“I’m in love with him, and he can’t even be bothered to tell me he’s on sabbatical or that he’s got a sister until he doesn’t have a choice.” He buried his face in his hands, leaning over his knees.
It wasn’t often that Anathema felt overcome with urges, but when she was, she made a point to give in to them. She wrapped her arm around Crowley’s shoulder and pulled him so he fell sideways into her lap. Quite miraculously he let her, failing to pitch in any snarky remarks about her being a sap. Her arm slipped around his chest and she set her chin on his boney shoulder. “Oh, buddy. I get the feeling he’s maybe not great at this. Not great at saying stuff.” Not great at saying stuff. She was one to talk.
Crowley sniffed. “He just lets things happen to him. If I hadn’t pushed him, if I hadn’t asked him on this trip then nothing would’ve ever happened.”
At this juncture, Anathema realized she didn’t actually know what had happened on the trip. She could guess, though. Crowley showing up, as wrecked as she’d ever seen him? He’d gotten something only to have it taken away. “That’s a stupid thought exercise because you can’t know the alternate version. He went on the trip with you. You got to spend some time together. You got into a fight at the end. Was he mad at you?”
She could feel Crowley bristle through his back when she mentioned a fight, then settle into a sigh. “Well, no. He just said he had some stuff to manage with his sis.”
“Hmm,” said Anathema. She held him close to her. “Did, um, did you have a good time otherwise?”
Crowley buried his face in the crook of her arm. “Yeah.”
His hot breath on her arm. A sad laugh. “Really good.”
“Good.” She hugged him tighter. She wasn’t sure when they decided this was who they were, people who hugged and who were nice to one another, but she didn’t hate it.
And so, in the midst of some emotional turmoil, the school year began anew. New students flooded on to campus, wandering into rooms they had no business wandering into, administration dealing with the mostly harmless pranks played by those in upper years. It was easy enough to fall into a routine again, teaching and lab work and office hours. Warlock and Pepper were back for another year as Research Assistants so he couldn’t have been that bad the first time round, and he liked his new students, a smart, engaged bunch who were actually halfway prepared for the first class.
In crossing the campus back to staff quarters one evening, he saw Pepper striding along beside a familiar golden head.
“Crowley!” Adam’s hand was raised in greeting. The pair stopped and waiting for Crowley to reach them.
“Hiya, nice to see you back.” Crowley smiled. It was good to see him.
“‘Nice to see you back?’ When I walked into your lab you made a hideous face at me and said ‘You again?’” Pepper pulled her rucksack over her shoulder and crinkled her nose as Adam laughed.
“Yeah, well,” Crowley would ignore that. He turned back to Adam. “How’ve you been?” An innocuous enough question he hoped. He had no idea what Pepper knew.
“Good. Yeah, pretty good actually. Needed a break I guess.” He shrugged in a way that Crowley knew was supposed to suggest nonchalance. He knew better, of course, but he’d let Adam have this.
“We all do, sometimes.” There was an awkward silence and Crowley rocked back on his heels with his hands pressed in his pockets. “I’ll see you folks around.” He started off when Adam called back to him.
“Oh, uh, Crowley? I dropped by Professor Fell’s office yesterday and it was empty.” The unspoken question in his voice was, is everything okay ?
“On sabbatical, but not far.”
“Tell him I say hi.”
Crowley nodded. “Will do.”
Adam and Pepper looked at each other. Knowingly? Jesus, did everyone know? This campus was too small.
It was after dinner when Crowley’s phone rang. The screen lit up with the picture Crowley had taken of Aziraphale on the wall at Skipness Castle. He sat up from where he was lying in bed, exhausted from just the truncated first week back to class. His fingers scrabbled over the screen. He was slightly embarrassed at the clear desperation in his movements but there was no one here to see him. Aziraphale had called each night since they’d exchanged awkward goodbyes in front of Angel’s Roost, but Crowley hadn’t yet managed to shed how precarious it felt.
“Hello?” He said, breathlessly.
“Oh, good. Hello. Thought you might be out with Anathema on a Friday evening. Glad I didn’t miss you.” Aziraphale sounded tired, absolutely wrung out.
“Nope. Didn’t miss me.”
He could hear Aziraphale’s quiet breathing on the other end of the line. “How was your day?”
“Fine.” Terrible. I miss you. Come here. Ask me to come to you. Is it ruined?
“I think, Crowley, I think I owe you an apology.”
“Nah,” Crowley said automatically, even though he did think he was very much owed an apology. He had hoped, in fact, that he would’ve gotten some version of an apology several days ago. But his conversations with Aziraphale had been short and distracted, the older man’s mind clearly in several places at once. And it frustrated him, it did, because this was not how this was supposed to go. It was supposed to be smooth sailing after they’d gotten over the hurdle of actually touching one another. It was supposed to be easy now.
“I do.” Surer now, and serious. “I should’ve mentioned the sabbatical before the trip. I realize that now. I thought I was doing you a favour but clearly, I wasn’t.”
“Okay,” said Crowley, lying back on his pillow, blinking in the dim room.
“And about Michael, she and I hadn’t spoken for a long time. Seven years, or so. I didn’t much think she warranted a mention. But she’s here, as you know, and we’ve been talking.”
“Okay,” said Crowley again, not knowing what sort of response Aziraphale was after.
“I, oh, well. If you’re not doing anything, maybe you’d like to come here. For the night if you like. I’d like to speak to you properly, in person. If you don’t that’s fine too, I under–”
“I’ll come.” Crowley was already out of bed, pushing his feet into shoes. He grabbed his duffle bag with the hand not pressing the phone to his ear and moved into the bathroom, grabbing his toothbrush.
“Oh, good.” That was a relief on Aziraphale’s voice. Genuine relief. He could see Aziraphale smiling, sitting at the kitchen table, cord of the phone curled around his hand.
“Yeah, I’ll come now. If that works.”
“Please. Yes, I’ll see you soon.”
Aziraphale was on the steps when Crowley pulled up, waiting for him. Even from the car he could sense the anxiety seeping from Aziraphale’s pores. For a brief but unsettling moment he wondered if Aziraphale had called him out here just to break things off, but he had asked Crowley to stay the night hadn’t he? He’d wanted him here.
He got out of the car and Aziraphale came down to meet him. “Michael’s still here,” he said, and Crowley knew where the anxiety was born from. “Few more days, yet, but things are fine. She’s been spending a lot of time in the other wing. Rather dusty on that end but she says she’s reminiscing.”
It had been four days since they’d seen one another, but Aziraphale wasn’t making moves to touch him, and Crowley followed his lead.
“She won’t be miffed that I’m here?” Crowley asked, hovering by the car.
“No, no she won’t. Not at all, actually.” Aziraphale went somewhere, looking back at the house, lost in some memory. “And even if she did, it’s my house. Legally, at any rate. Why don’t you, ah, come in.”
The uncomfortable space lingered between them, stayed like a bad smell. Crowley followed Aziraphale into the kitchen.
“I suspect you’ve eaten?” Crowley nodded. “Oh, good. Tea, then? Biscuits. I actually have something to eat here at the moment, mercifully.”
Crowley took a seat and watched Aziraphale putter. He knew he needed something to do with his soft, nervous hands. He wished that the air would clear on its own, didn’t know what the solution was.
As the kettle boiled, soft footsteps padded out from behind him.
“Oh, dear. That was quick. Hello.”
He turned and Aziraphale’s sister was there, coming out of the cellar. She had a bottle of wine in her hand and was sweeping the dust off the label.
“So sorry to interrupt. Just checking out the inventory. Az, do you mind if I have this?” She turned the bottle towards them. “Pinot noir. Not your favourite.”
Aziraphale squinted over. “No, and that’s a ghastly vintage, so consider it yours.”
She smiled. “Thank you. I’ll take it over to my room, leave you to it. Crowley, lovely to see you again. Night night.” And she slipped out through the reception room.
“Ta,” Aziraphale called after her, his attention returned to the tea.
Crowley looked back to Aziraphale, drew himself up in the chair. “That was… not what I was expecting based on Tuesday’s introduction.” The two of them had seemed downright chummy. She might have even been wearing Aziraphale’s clothes, based on how they hung off of her. Also, Az?
Aziraphale gave a wry little chuckle. “No, well, when you have it out for four days you run out of steam, after awhile. It’s harder to be mad when you’re very tired.” He touched the teapot, the milk, sugar and cups in quick succession. Turning and adjusting to no real end. “It’s been, ah, complicated for Michael and I, in recent years. Did you know she was a nun?”
“I didn’t know she existed until this week so, no, I didn’t know she was a nun.” But that was a piece of this, wasn’t it? Suddenly part of Aziraphale’s story came slightly more into focus. A disapproving family, a judgemental sister. He held a pang of sympathy for the man beside his own hurt of not knowing, of not feeling trusted.
“No, I suppose not. She’s not anymore. A nun. She left the order.”
“Why’s that?” If Aziraphale was going to be forthcoming, Crowley knew he’d have to be coaxed.
“She fell in love.” Aziraphale laughed then, rubbed his hand over his face and finally turned his body to Crowley. “With someone named Mary.”
Crowley’s eyes widened and his mouth. “A living woman or the virgin mother?”
“Ha!” Aziraphale let out one bark of laughter then swallowed the rest, his eyes darting to the doorway. He lowered his voice a little. “I asked the same thing. But it’s a woman, as real as you and I.” He turned back to pour the tea, muttered quietly to himself. “Wonders never cease.”
The plate of biscuits were set beside Crowley. Two cups of tea, but Aziraphale stayed standing, and the atmosphere in the room shifted again. Aziraphale stood in front of Crowley, finger tapping on the table as he sighed. “I started this on the phone, but I didn’t do a good job of it.”
They looked at one another. The house creaked around them, settling. Then Aziraphale, bracing himself on the table, got down to his knees.
Crowley had begun to reach for his cup, but his hand faltered, came down to the table. “What’s this?” He asked, eyes glued to Aziraphale’s face. If this was some sort of ill timed proposal he didn’t know what he’d do.
“An apology. If you’ll have it.”
Oh, okay. This felt… strange. Not bad, no, just strange for Aziraphale to be on his knees in front of him. “You don’t have to, em, be on the floor,” said Crowley, leaning towards him.
“On the contrary, my darling, I think it’s only fitting, seeing as how you…” He let out a little anxious breath. “In my office, when I knew. You were on your knees.”
The room was suddenly, unbearably warm.
“You have always been so good to me. Better than I deserve, I suspect. So generous, and trusting. And I–” His voice caught and he looked down at the floor, collected himself. “I haven’t afforded you the same. It’s been nothing to do with you and everything to do with the fact that I haven’t been with anyone in this way for a long time. Well, you know. I’ve not even had friends really. Not close ones. May I touch you?” Aziraphale had been holding his hands in front of him, waiting for permission Crowley hadn’t known he’d had to give.
He nodded, and Aziraphale took his hands gently, held them to his chest. “There are many things I should have told you. I have been needlessly withholding. I know that it’s hurt you, and I’m sorry. I am so very sorry. Can you forgive me?”
It was as sincere an apology as he thought he’d gotten in his whole life, and he was a bit stunned. He couldn’t quite find the words to meet Aziraphale’s, which had been so well considered.
“I’m not owed it, and I know that. I also know how I feel about you.” His thumb ran over Crowley’s sharp and shaking knuckles. “I am not ready for this to end. I don’t want it to end. I will be better. I promise. No more secrets.”
Crowley looked into his eyes and saw that Aziraphale didn’t know that Crowley loved him, didn’t know that forgiveness was guaranteed the moment Aziraphale’s knees hit the tile floor. “I forgive you,” he said, fingers teasing at the collar of Aziraphale’s jumper.
Aziraphale’s face split into a grin. He brought Crowley’s hands to his lips, kissed his knuckles, palms, the underside of his wrists. Then Crowley pulled his hands away and draped them over Aziraphale’s soft shoulders, leaned in to kiss him, soft, tentative. He felt hands on his thighs and it was good, this making up. Good not to feel conflicted about it.
“Good apology, by the way,” Crowley murmured onto Aziraphale’s lips. “Well done.”
Aziraphale leaned back, let out a relieved laugh. “Well, Michael’s delivered several of them over the past few days so I’ve been picking up a few things.” He placed one hand on the table, and the other on Crowley’s knee, levering himself up with a muted grunt. “Knees,” he muttered, rolling his eyes. “Old.”
“Not old,” replied Crowley, taking Aziraphale’s hand in his as he stood.
Taking the cup of rapidly cooling tea to his lips, Aziraphale shot Crowley a sidelong smile with narrowed eyes. “Charmer.” A sip. “Will you stay tonight?”
Crowley took a biscuit off the plate, bit into it. “Yeah.”
Aziraphale reached over and brushed a crumb off Crowley’s lip. “Perfect.”