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To Conquer A Grand Estate

Chapter Text

 

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‘A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,

And all went merry as a marriage bell’

 

(Lord Byron, “The Eve of Waterloo”)

 

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Chapter One

Present

 

    The rustling sound of stone and dirt as they crumbled under the weight of Aziraphale's feet was all that could be heard on the rolling hills this fine afternoon, where easily they slid down the slope in response to the lightest of pressures, having been left undisturbed for so long. Aziraphale raced up the slants, the rush of a cool breeze painting his cheeks a light pink shade while a sheen of sweat threatened to break through his downy white curls. It was of no consequence to him what his current state was, for he had been in Derbyshire only two days and already felt that here he could stay for ever. 

    At a break in the slopes was a monolith of smooth stones, outcropping in scatters on the green landscape. When at last he was able, he reached for the outcrop, heaving his body the rest of the way up and catching his breath. And there he reached a clearing, a spot of relative altitude from which he could observe the clean horizon among the pale yellow sun's rays. His breath caught in his throat as he took in the marvelous sight.

    His boot skidded a little ways off to the side as more loose soil was pried from the ground. He caught himself with a gasp, followed by a startled giggle, and turned back to the view.

    Nature and culture, wildness and artifice, in perfect harmony.

    "What are men to rocks and mountains?" whispered he to no one in particular, smelling the sweetness of the distant woods in the air.

    His hands were moving to retrieve the small book, dog-eared at the pages, from within the confines of the coat, when a shrill voice from below called him out from his reverie.

    "Aziraphale Fell! Oh, do be careful! I'll not hear the end of it from your mother if you so much as get a scratch on that face of yours!"

    His response was a mere roll of his eyes. He edged the surface of the outcrop, peering over the slope to spot two figures waiting down below.

    "So much the better," yelled Aziraphale, smiling with mischief. "Then perhaps she'll stop lining up the suitors and leave me in peace."

    "You troublesome young man," replied his Aunt Tracy, though he knew there was no malice in her speech. "You've been outside for so long now. We ought to convene for dinner soon."

    Aziraphale sighed in resignation. While it was true that he had been out nearly the whole day, he had only just discovered this miraculous spot. He took out his timepiece. He had not even noticed at all how much time had passed. With lingering disappointment, he began to step back down the slope, a feat which proved twice as difficult as the journey upward. The loose regolith succumbed easily to the downward force, and his steps down had to be more hurried and pronounced, lest he lose his balance entirely. Resigning himself to the fact that there was no non-ridiculous manner of going about it, Aziraphale turned sideways and hurtled down on small and quick steps, skidding completely on the last couple of feet or so and dreadfully startling Aunt Tracy.

    Beside her stood Uncle Shadwell, her husband. He was not a person of many words unless he was engaged to speak in a topic of his own interest, and he merely gave Aziraphale a grunt in greeting.

    From there, it was a quick ride back to the Rose and Crown inn, though not quick enough for Aunt Tracy to deem an attempt at conversation to be pointless.

    "Dear, I hope you haven't become bored of being left to your lonesome for so long a time," said she, sounding slightly guilty.

    "Not at all. I understand you want to reconnect with your old friends," Aziraphale speedily reassured. "This is your hometown after all, and you were very kind to extend the invitation to me in the first place. I have always wanted to go to the Lakes. A little detour is hardly going to hurt."

    Aunt Tracy gave him a wondrous red-lipped smile. "We're not that far off now, though I should like to visit my old friends first."

    "Then I shall take the rest of the week to experience all the beauty of Lambton."

    "There is one property which I feel would interest you, luv." Her eyes sparkled, growing in eagerness. "Did you know that we're not five miles from Pemberley right now?"

    Aziraphale stiffened on the seat of their hired carriage, feeling a slight hotness to the back of his neck. "Are we indeed?"

    Aunt Tracy nodded, wholly oblivious to his unexpressed struggle. "I have been meaning to come see it again. I was but a small child when I visited last!"

    "Ah." He recollected his smile. "Were you acquainted with the family?"

    Aunt Tracy made a face that seemed to tell him how ridiculous a suggestion that was. "Of course not. We moved in very different circles from the Crowleys." 

    Aziraphale could not have been more grateful to find that they had arrived at the inn, where instantly they were approached by a chambermaid.

    "You were not able to claim your post this morning, sir, excuse me." She handed two letters to Aziraphale and promptly left.

    On looking down at what he held in his hand, he was met with two different sets of handwriting, one familiar and the other not. The other was addressed to his uncle, and he handed it to him accordingly.

    A beam broke out on his face upon seeing his own letter. "Finally."

    "What was that, luv?" asked Aunt Tracy, who no doubt was already meaning to pry.

    Aziraphale shook his head, still smiling. "It is only a letter from Anathema. She writes to me from London."

    "Then I suppose you'll want some time alone to read it."

    Aziraphale was about to answer in the affirmative when he was cut off by a series of grumbling noises from his uncle.

    "Is anything the matter, Uncle?" he asked, regarding the man who stood glaring forcefully at his own missive.

    "M'being called back to town," he said. "Have to be back by next week."

    Aunt Tracy took in this news, then turned consolingly to her nephew. "Oh, luv, that's perfectly fine. If we leave Lambton tomorrow, we can still make it to—"

    "No, please, I beg you not to do anything of the sort," replied Aziraphale, though his heart had dropped slightly at the news. "You've already exerted yourself on my part and you still have plenty more friends to visit. We should remain in Lambton as planned then journey straight back."

    "Oh, dear, are you sure?"

    "Absolutely. I'm sure I can find plenty of things to do here." He already thought of his newly discovered spot by the monolith, and hoped that the weather tomorrow would be fine for a walk in the open woods.

    "An angel, you are," said Uncle Shadwell, folding his letter back up without even looking at him. Though Aziraphale knew that this dismissive nature was not to be taken personally, and that he meant it as an earnest compliment.

    "It is no problem at all. My only regret now is that I shall be seeing my mother sooner than planned. She will not be so happy to see me," he said lightly, waving his missive in the air and making his way to the parlour to read Anathema's letter. "I'll see you both at dinner."

 

***

 

    The following morning over breakfast, Aziraphale tucked happily into his rolls when Aunt Tracy spoke of the same subject that he had dreaded hearing about the day before.

    "Aziraphale, I have been thinking. What would you say to a visit at Pemberley today?"

    He wiped his face clean of emotion. "Oh, I am not so sure..."

    "Aren't you the least bit curious to see the house you've been hearing so much about?"

    In all honesty, he was very curious to see the house, but there was not much point to seeing it now, when he feared he would only be entirely unwelcome. Still, he plastered on a nonchalant smile and said, "I find I have grown weary of great houses." 

    "If it was only a fine house I wouldn't want to go there either. But Pemberley has the finest woods in the country, and you are so fond of nature, Aziraphale, I'm sure you'll like it."

    There seemed to be no way to extricate himself from so eager a request made by so dear an aunt. When a maid stepped into the parlour to serve their tea, Aziraphale grabbed her attention and asked: "Excuse me. How far is Pemberley from here?"

    Her face shew instant recognition. "Not five miles away, I believe. Sir."

    "Is the family at home?"

    "No family, sir, just the one master. And no, he's gone off to town for the season. Hasn't been there in two months or so."

    Sensing no more enquiries forthcoming, she curtsied and removed herself from the room. Aziraphale turned to smile at his aunt, and this time it was a genuine one.

    "Well then," said he, rather confidently as he took in the gleeful - if slightly puzzled - expression on her face. "To Pemberley we are to go."

 

***

 

    Their carriage took them off the road in the direction of the grand estate. Along the way they passed through gentle slopes and a flowing stream, the entire path adorned with bright greenery. It was almost the stuff of fairytales, Aziraphale thought. The stuff that he loved to read so much about from various books in his small but prized collection.

    The sight that had greeted him back at the monolith had been a mere nothing compared to this.

    There was a gradual ascent of about half a mile, and at once the woods cleared up, and on the other side of the valley was perched the large stone building that was Pemberley House, crossed at the back by a ridge of woody hills. The stream that they had been following seemed to circle the edifice, but not to an unnatural effect. On the contrary, it appeared the house as well as the grounds had been built to disturb as little of the natural scenery as possible. It blended handsomely in with everything else. The three occupants of the humble carriage grew silent as soon as it all came into view.

    Aunt Tracy was the first who dared to speak. "It is even better than I remember."

    "I'll have to give 'em credit," said Uncle Shadwell.

    Aziraphale was still speechless as the carriage slowed to a stop by the entrance to the House.

    "Imagine being mistress of such a place as this," remarked Aunt Tracy, nudging Aziraphale by her elbow. "It sure must be something!"

    Aziraphale let out a noise that was halfway between a nervous laugh and a choked sob. "I-Indeed! Something."

    Ever the pessimist, Uncle Shadwell spoke as he moved to step off the carriage. "Whoever the Mistress of Pemberley will be, it's highly unlikely that we would know 'em." 



***

 

    After disembarking the carriage, they walked up the path leading to the House and were promptly attended to by the housekeeper. Mrs Reynolds was a woman well into her sixties, and knew the house as well as every bit of history in all its artifacts very thoroughly, for it seemed that she had been in the service of the family for most of her life. They were first led into a grand hall of some sorts as she rattled on about the history of the furnishings. Aziraphale, who was usually well-inclined to listen to such things, found that he could not fix on even a single word.

    Instead he passed each room and corridor with a heavy heart and a sunken stomach. How strange it was to have been so close to residing permanently in Pemberley as opposed to visiting it now as a mere guest, an unwanted visitor who had to lurk his way in, making certain that the master would not perceive him. He could not help the bitter laugh that escaped him as he patted the space on his coat, where inside he had tucked in Anathema's letter, gathering a trace of comfort from it. The laugh was made to cover. He could not allow himself to feel much pain. He had made his choice, and all that was gone in the past. To mull over it could do nothing for him now. To stay rooted to his spot where he should have moved past was the work of imbeciles. To only recognise now the gravity of what he had lost and pave the way for the overtures of regret would be the greatest folly of them all.

    "Aziraphale!" cried his aunt's voice, calling for his attention. "Take a look at these miniatures with us."

    Her voice had been a wakeup call, prying off the clenching tendrils of heaviness in his heart. Had he not made his choice, his aunt and uncle would have been lost on him, as it was certain that Crowley would not have wanted anything to do with them.

    That sobering thought was precisely what he needed to step up to Aunt Tracy's side, where she stood by a glass display case of several miniatures detailing all the house's past and current occupants.

    Mrs Reynolds pointed to the one on the upper left. "This here is Mr Anthony Crowley, the Master of the house." There was a touch of pride to her tone that could not be denied.

    Aunt Tracy leaned in for a closer inspection. "He is very handsome," Turning to Aziraphale, she added, "but then, I've nothing to compare it to. What do you think, luv? Is it a true likeness?"

    Aziraphale stared down at the portrait of copper hair, falling into waves around a slightly more youthful version of the one that was familiar to him. He wore no spectacles in the likeness, and his peculiar brown eyes, bound somewhere in between amber and honey, had been captured to an extreme similarity. 

    "Yes," he said breathlessly, unable to tear his eyes away. "It looks almost exactly like him."

    ‘I assure you,' a voice that sounded very nearly like Crowley's echoed in his mind. ‘There are few people in the world that I find even half as diverting as you are.’

    Mrs Reynolds gasped happily and turned to him. "Does the gentleman know the master?"

    "I only know him a little." In fact, he had just begun to think that he did not know Crowley at all. 

    "Do you not think him handsome?"

    "Y-yes... Extremely so," said Aziraphale, flushing lightly and hoping that none of them would catch onto it. "We met in Hertfordshire only last year."

    "Oh, with Mr Pulsifer, I presume?"

    Aziraphale nodded. "Yes. Him as well."

    "Such great gentlemen they are," said Mrs Reynolds. "And I don't know of a better master than Mr Crowley. You can ask any of the servants and tenants here. He is exceptionally kind, only you must never tell him that or he will be very cross."

    Aziraphale could not but imagine that with utmost clarity. An involuntary huff of amusement escaped him.

    "But I have often heard him to be a proud, standoff-ish man," said Aunt Tracy, in a stroke of indecorum that Aziraphale would have scolded her for, had he not been too distracted in looking at the miniature.

    "Others see him as such," replied Mrs Reynolds, seemingly unaffected by her bristling remark. "But I have known him since he was four years old, and though he has gotten himself into a fair bit of trouble, and most times he talks without thinking, he's grown to be a just landlord and master."

    A few ways beyond Crowley's miniature was another one that held a face also familiar to Aziraphale. Mrs Reynolds noticed the departure of his attention, and moved to explain. "This is Adam Young."

    Aziraphale stared at the much younger face that was set in the portrait, recalling how the same boyish smile had greeted him on his walk to Netherfield. "I was under the impression that Adam is of Mr Pulsifer's relation rather than Mr Crowley's. What's his likeness doing here?"

    "He is, sir. He's Mr Pulsifer's cousin. An orphan," Mrs Reynolds explained. "There seems to be a curse on that family, parents always dying off young. Mr Pulsifer himself was only seventeen when he came to his inheritance."

    "How terrible!" cried Aunt Tracy.

    "Indeed," said Mrs Reynolds solemnly. "He was very lost at the time, had no idea the first thing about acquiring an estate. Lucky for him, Mr Crowley, being six years his senior, took him in and mentored him. When little Adam lost his parents, my master did not second guess taking him under his wing as well. And he is so very fond of the boy. He takes a keen interest in his education."

    Aziraphale felt a stirring in his chest. "I had no idea the boy means so much to him.”

    "And the feeling is evidently mutual. These days, you'll see him hanging more around Mr Crowley than his own cousin." She hesitated a little, then blurted out, "He has even told me once that he plans on making Adam his heir."

    Aunt Tracy's jaw dropped promptly. "What an incredibly fortunate child!"

    "Oh, but I told him that it is a long way off until Adam comes of age, and he should wait until Pemberley gets a mistress, that they might come to decide on it together."

    ‘You wound me, Angel.'

    Aziraphale felt his heart drop several feet. "Does... does Mr Crowley have any plans of marrying?"

    The three guests all looked to the housekeeper, waiting for her reply.

    She shook her head. "He is very stubborn on that front. I don't think the thought has ever even occurred to him. Anyone who is able to catch his eye must be a truly exceptional creature, for he hardly takes a look at anyone, despite his numerous admirers."

    'You told me that you wanted passion. Desire. To be loved in abundance. I can give you all that and more, if you will only let me - ' 

    Aziraphale turned away from the glass case and moved towards the stairs. "Have we not seen everything there is to see on this floor?"

    Mrs Reynolds returned to her usual cheeriness, moving ahead of the group. "Yes, of course. Let us go to the upper rooms."

 

***

 

    Down several more places in the House they went, through more drawing rooms and dining halls and picture galleries. At one point, Aziraphale had marveled at a music room which contained a handsome pianoforte.

    "It is newly purchased," Mrs Reynolds had said. 

    "Does Mr Crowley play?" Aunt Tracy had asked.

    "No, it is for the boy Adam. He is very fond of music and dancing. The master, not much so."

    Having now toured every room the House had to offer, Mrs Reynolds surrendered them to the care of the head gardener, and through the grounds did they weave their way at once. It was at this point that fatigue had begun to catch up to the two elders and they slowed their walk, keeping to the main path by the House. The open air brought a rushing feeling to Aziraphale's senses, and he excused himself by the side of the stream so that he may explore a little on his own. 

    With the downstream direction as his guide, he trod on the banks with a soberness to his step, breathing deeply the clean air that was brought to him so readily, in such a way that air simply did not do back in his home at Longbourn. 

    It was difficult to reconcile the recent accounts he had heard of Crowley with the ones he perceived himself from almost a year ago. Though he could not deny that it made at least some sense. It was apparent, now more than ever, how many persons there were whose happiness was held in Crowley's hands. That these people, servants and wards and tenants alike, found mutual satisfaction and gratification at being in his service only esteemed him greatly in Aziraphale's eyes. If their more recent run-in at Kent were to prove anything, it was that Aziraphale may have been gravely mistaken about his first impression of Crowley.

    But he did not wish to think of what had happened in Kent. Particularly not when in a place as stunning as Pemberley. In Crowley's perfect home, to recall the bitterness of what had passed between them seemed almost like sacrilege. Here he would only roam the grounds and admire, to bask in the offerings of nature, the touches where he could feel Crowley’s lingering presence. Here he would ruminate some short hours and pass the time in silent repentance.

    When he was confident that he had gotten some distance away, Aziraphale pulled out the letter from his coat. He had already read the words at least ten times over, but the inclination to read them again grew even further the longer he stayed in Pemberley.

 

    My dearest friend,

   

    You will not believe all that has happened this past week! I hardly even know where to begin, but be assured that nothing terrible has taken place. The very opposite of it, in fact.

    You see, Newt has finally come to see me. Aziraphale, he still loves me. Has never stopped loving me, even. It seems too good to be true. According to him, he had not even known of my presence in London these past few months. Only when Mr Crowley visited him and told him where to find me did he at once set out to do so. For that, we are indebted to him.

    He is still an arse, though. But I suppose he is much more tolerable to me now.

    My family cannot be happier for me. We are to be married soon, and I hope to see you at the wedding. Even if you do have to endure Mr Crowley's presence for a short while longer. Unfortunately there isn't much we can do about him being Newt's most intimate friend. But I know that for my sake, Aziraphale, you will suffer through a lot of things. 

    (You know I'd do the same for you, right?)

    I know we haven't talked in a long while, but it is only because I am not used to you not being right by my own home. We have been so very rarely apart, and now that I am to be married I fear we will be separated for even longer periods of time. But do still visit me! And check on my mother from time to time. I know I won't be that far away, but being esteemed witch-mistress of Netherfield will certainly keep me busy. You have yet to tell me about your trip to Kent. Was Mr Sandalphon just as repulsive as he had been the first time? And did you meet the notorious Honourable patron? You should have written to me every day, Aziraphale. I'm sure you would have made sport of them, and even if they were only dull, ordinary creatures, you'd have found a way to ridicule them all the same. Everything you say is so entertaining. I live for your stories, and I have gone without them for far too long.

    I am so indescribably happy. All this is so unprecedented. You know that I never really cared much for things like marriage. You, who have always been the kinder and more romantic of the two of us, are infinitely more deserving. If only I could see you half as happy and settled as I am - whether that happiness may be found in a man, a pretty little cottage, or an extensive library. Whatever form that happiness may come in, I sincerely hope that it will all be granted to you very soon.

    You must give me every detail of your journey when you return from your little tour of the North. I am to leave for Brighton tomorrow, but I'll be settled back at the Lodge soon, and will there remain until I am to remove to Netherfield. I suppose we shall meet each other there.

    Write to me as soon as you can.

 

    Your most brilliant and faithful friend,

    ANATHEMA DEVICE

 

    Aziraphale had just gotten to the end of the letter when he noticed that he had veered slightly off his intended course. The stream that he had been following now stood several feet away, and in its place by his feet was an embankment of muddy soil blanketed by soft grass. He squinted against the rays of afternoon sun that peeked through the canopy, walking onwards onto a gleaming expanse of still water. 

    As he had expected, there was a lake to be found in the nearby distance. So scenic was the handsome sight that the movement coming from one side of the lake did not register to him at first. He took a few steps closer, eager to immortalise the sun's reflection off the surface of the water, when a sudden noise snapped him out of his reverie.

    His eyes flitted off to the source of the noise, upon where he found a saddled horse waiting peacefully by the bank. Now who could have left their horse unattended in such a strange spot? His musings were halted by the movement of an approaching figure.

    In the growing clarity that only diminishing distance could provide, Aziraphale had instantly recognised the form that was, in fact, making its way towards him. The hair of copper red had been an instant betrayal, the distinct saunter of the hips even more so. But it was only when Crowley had gotten close enough that he realised the Master of Pemberley had just resurfaced from the very lake he had been admiring. With his bare eyes narrowed and focused entirely on himself, Crowley walked with his thin muslin shirt clinging to every dip and curve of his chiseled chest, baring much more than what could be considered decent. Aziraphale struggled to tear his eyes off the sight of darkened nubs, just barely visible through the translucent material. He took in a panicked gasp as heat flared all over his neck, flooding his cheeks and causing a dizziness to his head. He willed - no, forced - himself to look up into Crowley's face.

    "Aziraphale?" 

    “They told me you weren't home!" Aziraphale all but whined, gnawing on his lip as a fretful expression overtook his features. He wrung his hands over his stomach, such as he did whenever he was nervous, and shifted his weight on either foot, slowly inching them backwards, readying for a speedy retreat. "If I had only known - I would not have come at all. My, ah, my apologies. I did not mean to impose.”

    He could not bear to look at the softness in those golden eyes. He felt that he did not deserve it. He bowed his head, resolved to stare at his own feet instead.

    "Don't apologise,” said Crowley, and his tone was softer than Aziraphale had ever heard it. "I am surprised to see you, but you are always welcome here. I trust your parents are in good health?"

    Aziraphale nodded his head, still looking down. Pleasantries, of course. Crowley would be remiss in his duties as a responsible host if he had outright thrown Aziraphale out of his property.

    "I am in Derbyshire with my aunt and uncle. My aunt grew up nearby, she invited me to come along on their trip,” he rushed to explain, willing himself not to flush any further. This was so dreadfully embarrassing. What must Crowley think of him? To follow their recent interaction with such a stealthy visit - it must appear as though he’d intentionally thrown himself in his way!

    He awaited the taunting, the ready remark of snideness and mischief that Crowley had always brought with him whenever he ran into Aziraphale.

    "And where are you staying?" he asked instead, with the same softness to his tone.

    "In Lambton, at the Rose and Crown." Each word he uttered was squeezed out from his chest. "She - my aunt, I mean - was very insistent on... on seeing Pemberley, and so I... had no choice.”

    "Of course," returned Crowley. And if Aziraphale was not mistaken, he almost sounded awfully shy. "You're welcome to tour the grounds as you please. Is, uh, everything to your liking?"

    Aziraphale gave him a pained smile. "Yes. Very much so." He bit his lip, hesitating for a moment before he blurted out. "You have a very beautiful home and I am truly honoured to be seeing it myself."

    To his credit, Crowley looked to be just as much pained as he was. 

    "And I... I trust your family is in good health?"

    Aziraphale decided to spare him the necessity of pointing out that he had just posed this very question. "Yes, sir. Excellent health."

    "Well, I—" Crowley paused and, as though only realising his state of undress, coloured a very bright shade. "Oh - I, uh... I'm very sorry about—”

    "No, you don't—!" Aziraphale cut himself off. What was he supposed to say? 'You do not have to apologise for being half-naked in your own home'? "That is to say, I am truly sorry to intrude. I really did not know that you would be here."

    "I have just returned, actually. I wasn't meant to be here until tomorrow, but urgent business from my steward called me back early. No one knew I was coming."

    Aziraphale silently cursed his unfortunate luck. If only he had appeased his aunt’s request a day earlier, they could both have been spared this awkward encounter.

    "You have just come from London?" Thank him, you insufferable mutton-head, he chided himself. Thank him for what he did for Anathema, your dearest friend.

    But how can you be so presumptuous as to think that he did that for you? His own friend's happiness had been involved as well, after all.

    Crowley nodded. "I have been in and out of town these past few months. But I... Aziraphale, can I see you..."

    Against his will, Aziraphale's eyes flicked up momentarily to meet his. "Yes?"

    "Just... No, wait. Excuse me for a moment."

    With a hurried bow, Crowley stooped down and gathered his dry waistcoat and overcoat into his arms and rushed past Aziraphale in the direction of the House.

    Aziraphale released a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding and felt the strongest urge to faint.

    "The man himself, I presume?" came Aunt Tracy's voice as she approached with her husband.

    His pulse could not seem to return to its normal speed. He had no willingness to speak, so he nodded slowly instead.

    "He is very handsome indeed," said she, with a slight lilt of interest to her tone, earning a grunt from her husband. "If only a great deal underdressed."

    Aziraphale sucked in a heaving gasp, his arms flailing wildly as he spun back on his heel. When at last he found his voice, it came out as an awfully grating squeak to his ears.

    "We must leave this place at once!"