Chapt'r thee Eleven'th
The Bentley bounced wildly along the rutted lane, although even the word "lane" was a generous promotion to give that muddy stretch of barren track. Crowley's BlackBerry seemed to be guiding him towards a large, looming shape, obscured by thin lashings of rain and the dense forest.
He slammed on the brakes with a good deal of force as he saw it for the first time, and almost gasped. A truly mammoth castle towered high above him, its many windows shimmering with soft golden light. Sharp fingerlike spires strained out to grope the heavens (only flat-topped buildings scrape) and, below the great castle's crag was an immense lake that wound lazily through the valley.
The road dipped suddenly and the car swept down it, almost colliding with a colossal pair of wrought-iron gates, whose posts were topped with winged boars. These saluted at Crowley and allowed the gates to swing open by themselves. Crowley stamped down hard on the accelerator and careened up the winding gravel drive with carefree abandon.
The large front doors to the castle loomed towards him and creaked open, hastening to part before that devilish car as it mounted the steps and bounced into the Entrance Hall.
Crowley brought his beloved Bentley to a screaming dead halt and leapt out dramatically, and then proceeded to draw a chalk circle (with additional runes and demonic sigils around the edge) to protect the car from any meddling students.
Anthony J. Crowley's enhanced hearing was unnecessary even to him at that moment, as his destination was obvious. He paused outside the truly colossal gold- and brass-coloured double doors of the Great Hall, smoothed his ties, straightened his shades and fixed a cool smile on his face. Beeblebrox ain't got nuthin' on this.
With a great sweeping motion of his arms, the double doors swung open slowly enough to be considered dramatic without appearing overly-ostentatious. What greeted him behind them was a sight and a half. Four long tables stretched for what seemed an age towards the far end of the Hall, where a fifth table spanned a good portion of the width of the Hall perpendicular to its fellows.
The four House tables were currently empty; the students not yet having arrived from the train1. Most of the teaching staff (at least, those who took regular meals within the Hall) were seated in their usual places at the staff table.
Crowley, employing his natural swaggering gait, allowed his shiny snakeskin shoes to propel him on autopilot to his seat next to a certain blonde teacher who was ducking down in his seat, his face more maroon than could be judged healthy.
He looked at Aziraphale, he looked deeply into those azure eyes, stared into the soul of his opposite number, the words of great joy and longing playing around his tongue in a plenitude of celebration, preparing the great platitudes that, which Crowley would never have been prepared to admit before he was going to say now, fully, with every fibre in his being laid bare for all to see, he would tell his angel exactly what he felt upon seeing him, was what his brain had intended.
"'Sup, 'Zira." Was what his mouth actually said.
Aziraphale suddenly looked rather more hurt than Crowley would have believed the stuffy, bookish figure could ever achieve to look. 'Remorse' is rarely a word that appears in a demon's vocabulary, let alone an actual emotion within the cerebral cortex, but Crowley received a painful pinprick of it in his little grey cells (he didn't posses anything like an aortic pump that could be compared to being responsible for emotions).
"After all we've been through togeth-" the angel whispered, trying to gain some small explanation for the lukewarm greeting he'd received.
"Did I mention that my tax inspector came round last week and confiscated my entire property?" Crowley said loudly, gently tilting his head to the far-off ceiling, which was reflecting the mood of the night sky above.
As the angel spoke his left eye started twitching madly at the mention of the dreaded creatures. "They they they can't hear you; Professor Dumbledore has a written agreement from both Heaven and Hell that the Au-Au-Au-Auditors are f-f-forbidden –" he coughed with embarrassment at his visible nervous tics concerning Auditors and continued in a more sane speech pattern, "- within the castle and grounds, except for our classrooms, naturally." The angel completed somewhat sniffily.
Feeling that a more lively change of subject was required, Crowley attempted to up the anti. "Have you seen this place? It's like Pugin's wet dream!"
"It is rather spectacular." Aziraphale replied, before gesturing towards the table surface laden with its customary gold-and-silver plate and cutlery, "Although the tableware seems somewhat extravagant."
"Silly me, I forgot that in Heaven you eat cheese rolls off cardboard plates and drank reconstituted fish bits in polystyrene cups." The demon responded with more than a small hint of irony in his voice.
"We do indeed, ever since The Boss started all those cutbacks. So I've been told by Gabriel. Apparently now the only time they eat to excess is during Lent. Cosmic sympathy, or something." Aziraphale said without registering the demon's sarcasm.
Crowley chose this moment to turn his head to the empty chair next to his. "Glad I'm not the only one late."
"I think you're in my seat, Alistair," Said a voice that was all too familiar.
Crowley banged his head on the table several times whilst moaning, "Oh dear god no! Why are you here? Why? Of all the places in time and space, why here? Whenever you show up there's something weird going on! What is it this time? Flesh-eating lizards? Pirate Zombie Ninja Robots? Intelligent quicksand?"
"Technically, there's always something weird going on somewhere; but as it happens I simply like the food, and as the newly-appointed school psychonomist2 I am entitled to eat said food with impunity." Nostradamus (for it was he) sat down in the vacant seat, leaned over towards the demon and whispered "Actually I'm here for 'Zira, I've noticed that lately he's seemed…unbalanced."
Crowley nodded and looked again at the angel, whom now he noticed, was wearing a somewhat glassy expression on his cherubic countenance. He was about ask more, but the doors of the Great Hall, which had closed, were now opening ceremoniously and the students began to pour in to the massive space, chattering and laughing, looking forwards to a fresh new year of study (or at least, that's what the teachers preferred to imagine).
To his left he noticed a small squat dumpy-looking woman in a hideous pink woolly cardigan, who he was sure wasn't sitting there when he'd last looked at the space. He felt a rush of hatred, malice and venomous cruelty ooze from her in a deadly effervescence. It was this feeling (and the awful fashion statement) that suddenly brought him to release who she was. She was that Umbridge woman, the Minister for Magic's Permanent Secretary, or whatever equivalent these wizards called it. Umbridge looked for allthe world like a fat stuffed toad, as she stared grimly out over the Hall, her eyes washing over each youthful face, studying it as a frog might calculate the best flies to gobble up with its long sticky tongue.
Professor Dumbledore, looking as resplendent as ever in his magnificent purple velvet robes, rose to his feet and ushered with his hands, the students back into theirs, and began his speech. "My friends, old and new, welcome to another year at Hogwarts! Another turn of the orbital clock, filled with laughter, life, hope, tears, tragedies, comedies, heartbreak, backache, headache and sponge cake! And perhaps some studying might happen as well if we're-"(Here he gestured towards the teaching staff) "- fortunate! As I'm sure you have gathered, we have some new faces not only among the students, but also in our teaching arrangement. Although our curriculum will continue much as it did before, a few alterations have been made."
The headmaster paused to allow the predicted ripple of befuddlement and confusion time to mature and dissipate before continuing. "From the beginning of term, Muggle Study classes as taught by Professor Burbage, are completely cancelled –" Dumbledore paused as another wave of discord rocketed around the Great Hall. The Slytherin table gave rise to a great susurrus of approval.
"-and is to be replaced by our new Non-Magical Studies Faculty, chaired by the good Professor Burbage. Non-Magical studies are to become compulsory for everyone, and in addition to OWLs you will study GCSEs, the Muggle equivalent. A-Levels, however, like NEWTs, are purely at the mercy of your own whim. To assist Professor Burbage we have three new teachers, Professor Crowley, Professor Aziraphale and Dr Malheur-"
(Dumbledore gestured to the demon, the angel, and the…cat-person, whose appearance was causing a small stir) there was yet another pause to allow the students processing time until hush once more descended (distinctly the words "those Muggle nutters who cut people open" floated around the hall several times) "-to whom I am sure you will give a warm Hogwarts welcome. Our next new teacher is Professor Umbridge, who will be filling the vacant post of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Now, Quidditch tryouts-"
"Hem hem." Came the silly simpering little cough that had irritated the angel and the demon at harry Potter's hearing rang once more within their ears. Dumbledore, ever gracious, looked enquiringly at Umbridge, and then sat down, allowing her to claim the floor.
"Oh thank you, headmaster," said Umbridge (in a truly revoltingly high-pitched voice that would have been better suited to a girl of nine from 1930) as if she hadn't just interrupted one of the most powerful wizards on the planet, and went on, "for that very kind introduction. As I look across at all your smiling little faces, I am certain that we all, each and every one of us, become the greatest of friends over the next year. The Minister for Magic has asked me to tell you that certain…" and her voice trailed off into a very long-winded and dull speech involving salubrious phrases and a great deal of sesquipedalian loquaciousness. It seemed that only Professor Dumbledore, Dr Nostradamus Malheur and student Hermione Granger (seated at the Gryffindor table with her friends Harry Potter and Ron Weasley) appeared to be paying at the end of her lecture. Crowley had tried to follow what she was driving at, due to Hell's prerogative to always Know Thine Enemy, but he lost interest after two minutes. Aziraphale had lapsed into a spooky torpor of mad serenity a few minutes beforehand.
He elbowed Nostradamus in the ribs "how can you-?" but he was shushed into irritated silence. Only after Umbridge was finished did that cat deign to speak.
"That was the biggest pile of horse eggs I have ever had to sit through, and I've been to lectures at Unseen University AND the Aperture Science Laboratories field day. But it was useful, apparently this Ministry of Magic is poking its nose in where it isn't wanted…hmmmm." He paused for thought, as Dumbledore finished the remainder of his speech. "…and now, the time for talk is over. Time to mput our mouths to the purpose for which they serve us best, let the feast begin!" With a flourish of his wand that created shimmering sparks in the air, food seemed to magically appear on all the serving dishes lining the centres of the tables at once.
Everyone tucked in with great gusto, and Aziraphale, having eaten too much sherry trifle, was propped up by Crowley and Nostradamus as they half-dragged him out of the Hall. They were escorted by Dumbledore himself to the Sixth Floor, outside two doors, both opposite each other. One for Crowley and one for the inebriated angel, who was now softly crooning "Mrs Worthington3". They deposited him inside on a bed within an inner chamber, and closed the main office door behind them.
"I will bid you goodnight Professor Crowley, and good luck tomorrow!" said Dumbledore, his blue eyes twinkling benevolently, "And now, Dr Malheur, I will take you to your office, it is on the second floor, just by the…"
Crowley breathed a sigh of relief as they trailed away into the distance, glad that that crazy psychonomist was at least some good measure of distance away from his own lodgings. He stepped into his office and discovered it had been furnished to resemble his London flat. He smiled in approval and began to torment the unsuspecting and innocent aspidistra sitting in a nearby corner, a small smile playing about his lips.
This year was going to be fun…
A/N: I am sincerely sorry for the great gap in between this installment and the last. A lot's been going on in my personal life and I regret I haven't had as much time to devote to this fanfic as I'd hoped. A special mention goes to someone close to my heart who gave me the new second name for my character Nostradamus – originally his name was Nostradamus Iggma, as in: Dr N. Iggma or "enigma". Since when my significant other first read this and didn't know Nos's surname he thought that "Malheur" would be appropriate. So there we have it, "Malheur" which is loose French for "bad moment" is rather appropriate. (I posted this at the bottom so as not to disturb my [hopefully] eager audience.)
1 ZDZ: Although Aziraphale, being a member of staff, had been flown from the Hogsmeade train station via broomstick in order to be seated in the Great Hall when the students filed in. Even Hogwarts has to keep up appearances.
2 ZDZ: A combination of psychologist, psychoanalyst, psychotherapist, psychometrist and tailor. No-one ever dares to ask what he does with the laser-guided automatic scissors.
3 ZDZ: Alas, not as raunchy as it might first sound. I checked. Or rather, Mr Morely-Eddington did.