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Time to Leave the Garden

Chapter Text

Being part of the good guys meant so much to him. He didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot.

Officer Fell fidgeted with his collar brass, and thanked whoever might be listening that his new locker was tucked back in a corner. It made him less anxious to be starting a new job, still out of his element, but not stranded in the middle of the men’s locker room, adrift in a sea of boisterous bodies—men who already knew each other, drank beer together, were almost entirely from the same small-town-nowhere-county as Paradise Correctional Institution.

Fell, by contrast, was an odd import. Educated, not rowdy, and inclined toward enjoying a ratty tartan blanket and a spot of hot cocoa on a dreary day, he had formerly been a counselor at Eden Youth Rehabilitation Center, which was colloquially referred to as “The Garden” by both its staff and juvenile wards alike. The offer of better pay and better benefits had eventually enticed him to trade in his old business casual attire for the work uniform of a maximum-security prison.

While the other officers joked and pointedly ignored him with their respective cliques, Fell was trying to estimate the best time to go through the rolling gates. The last thing he wanted to do was appear to be running behind, but he was also awkwardly cognizant that nobody else even seemed ready to start their shift. Fell got the distinct impression that being the first one to report to roll call would all but ensure that other officers would ostracize him for years to come.

He settled on being the third man out of the locker room. That seemed normal, right? Not too lackadaisical, not too brown-nosey. Fell was highly intelligent, but sometimes all those unspoken rules of being a human got to be hard for him to track.

Fell found the housing unit to which he was assigned to work as a wing officer. He stood outside the central pod, where he could clearly see another officer and a sergeant sitting and laughing together, and waited to be let in. The sergeant glanced up at him through the glass, and then leaned over and murmured something in the ear of the corrections officer beside him, who all but doubled over in hysterics.

There they were, those pesky, “Did I miss the ‘how to be a human’ class?” rules again: Was he socially expected to knock as though they hadn’t already seen him standing there like an idiot, or should he continue to look like more of an idiot and not knock?

A lanky, ginger-haired man standing in front of a mop bucket, or, quite possibly, a mop bucket with a sentient red mop on a stick, watched intently from the entrance of A-tier. He tilted his head to one side, expression unreadable under dark glasses.

Just as Fell was nervously lifting his hand to try tapping on the glass, the officer in the pod sprang to her feet, opened the heavy door with a paracentric key, and fluidly dropped back in her seat as silently as a cat stalking its prey.

“Um,” Fell cleared his throat tentatively, “hello. I’m your new officer—”

“Fell,” drawled the sergeant. He had a grating, high voice and an off-putting smile that made Fell think he would much prefer it if he shouted and scowled at him. “Welcome. I’m Sgt. Sandal.”

“Uriel,” said the female officer. Her eyes stayed locked on Fell, and the coldness of her gaze did unpleasant things to his stomach. He was instantly grateful that he had only eaten three of the doughnuts in the lobby. “I work B-tier. You were a counselor before this.” It was not a question.

“Indeed I was,” Fell agreed pleasantly, not sure where this was going but already knowing that he was not going to like it.

There was a beat of silence.

It was not the comfortable kind.

“I’m going to do a round,” Uriel stated simply. She let herself out of the pod and tossed the heavy keyset she had been carrying to Sandal so that he could lock the door behind her.

“Unusual choice of career change,” Sandal remarked blandly. “Not the strongest people, counselors.”

“I shall endeavor to make the transition worth your while, sir,” said Fell.

“That will not do.” Sandal’s voice was sickly-sweet, yet somehow still aloof and faraway. “You may call me sergeant. Tell me, Fell, do you know the difference between the words ‘sir’ and ‘sergeant’?”

“Ah, I suppose rather more letters in one, yes?”

Sandal did not seem amused. Nor did he seem to have been listening for a reply at all—more like he was luxuriating in the thrill of listening to himself.

“Someone you call sir sits behind a desk while we’re at war with those derelicts out there.” Sandal gestured vaguely at the tiers of cells seen through the windows of the pod.

Fell bit back the urge to point out that Sandal appeared to be sitting at a sergeant’s desk while his officers were out on wings.

Sandal passed him a set of keys and a bottle of pepper spray. “So on that note,” Sandal switched gears, allowing just a teensy bit more maliciousness to peek through the curtains of his smarmy demeanor, “shouldn’t you be out there working?”

“Of course, sir— Sergeant,” Fell said as he exited the pod. “Right. Jolly good.” Sandal slammed the door behind him.

Fell mentally swore as he walked out onto A-tier. Had he really just said “jolly good”? Was that honestly a thing that happened? He had opened his mouth to address a sergeant who had obviously already decided that Fell was not tough enough to do this job, and the words that his brain had settled on were “jolly good”?

Fell anxiously dragged his fingers through his fleecy blonde curls and prayed that nothing else would go wrong on his first day at work.

Fell enjoyed a good twenty minutes or so, of nothing going wrong.

He was sitting in the officer’s station, pouring over the logbook for the wing, when an inmate approached his open door. “CO, can I grab a roll from you?”

Fell turned for just a moment to pick up a toilet paper roll behind him and absently handed it over, neatly dispensing it into the open palm of a lieutenant.

Fell’s head shot up in surprise, his mouth a perfect “O.”

The square-jawed lieutenant glanced down and gave the young inmate a Look, and the inmate decided that he very urgently had somewhere—anywhere—else to be.

Lt. Gabriel tossed the roll in the air a couple times like he was playing with a ball, before setting it down firmly on the CO’s desk and beaming like he was doing a commercial for Whitestrips. “New recruit!” As he clapped his hands together, tone deepening a notch: “Welcome aboard!”

Sgt. Sandal’s smile was creepy. Lt. Gabriel’s was terrifying.

Fell started thinking about Shark Week.

Fell scrambled to his feet, honoring the white shirt and silver bars in front of him. “Th-thank you most kindly, Lieutenant,” he said.

“Oh, no need to stand on ceremony—you can just call me sir,” said Gabriel, smile almost impossibly widening. He pointed at Fell’s desk. “A little early in your career to be sitting down, don’t you think?”

“Well, um, of course, you’re right, I was actually just, ah, acquainting myself, with the logbook, as it were, seeing, as one does, the way of things he—”

“That’s what end of shift is for, right?” Gabriel pressed on cheerfully. He swept a hand over the logbook, which was shamefully splayed still open. “I mean, just imagine if some inmate were to come up here asking for some nonsense and they could just read what was in there. We would never set ourselves up for something so stupid. Right?”

Fell struck out both hands to snap the book shut. “Forget my own head next,” he gasped.

Gabriel was all too delighted to keep grinding. “Not to mention that you’re like a sitting duck in here. Didn’t even hear me walk in.”

“Yes, no, right,” Fell nodded. He was really running out of words to say. He wished he were by a lake somewhere, feeding some ducks. Just tell me I’m incompetent and get on with it then, this slow death is a nightmare, he thought.

Gabriel clasped Fell’s shoulder, giving it a hearty shake. “You’re not in Eden anymore, sunshine,” he said brightly. “You’re not talking to kiddies about their feelings. This is the real deal! You can do this, tiger!”

Well, which is it, Fell thought glumly, sunshine or tiger?

“Right, right,” Fell sighed.

“I’ll be back!” Lt. Gabriel promised—or threatened, depending on one’s position. And Fell’s position seemed to be at absolute rock bottom of the food chain. Gabriel headed for the door. “Oh, and Fell?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Toilet paper only gets handed out on Tuesdays.” Gabriel winked and disappeared around the corner.

“Good Lord,” Fell grumbled to himself.

“Almost forgot!” Gabriel burst back around, nearly giving Fell an apoplectic fit.

“Ah!! Yes??”

“The gym is open for all staff to use before and after shift. Just thought you might wanna know.” He paused meaningfully. “All right, now give ‘em hell!” And then he was truly, finally gone.

Fell considered, quite seriously, banging his head off a wall until he could forget about that whole interaction. I made a mistake, he told himself, I can’t do this, these people are dreadful, I’m so … soft

“Well,” a voice from behind him interrupted Fell’s downward spiral, and it was the first reasonably friendly-sounding voice he’d heard all day: “that went down like a lead balloon.”

Chapter Text

Fell moaned internally, deep in thought, and turned slightly to look at the back wall of his office: blankets, sheets, bars of soap, rolls of toilet paper, and similar accoutrements. “Toilet paper only gets handed out on Tuesdays,” Fell thought, rolling his eyes. What a joke. He didn’t want to have inmates walk all over him, obviously, but surely there had to be some grey area between that, and being so cruel as to arbitrarily deny a grown man a roll of toilet paper?

Just when he was about to collapse back into his chair (having decided that the idea of not being allowed to sit yet was equally ridiculous as the whole toilet paper thing), he heard the cheery voice of a man leaning against his doorframe. “Well,” said the inmate brightly, “that went down like a lead balloon.”

Fell sighed and took a seat. “Quite, yes, I’m sure you found all that rather comical.”

The other man shrugged. “Hey, don’t worry about it, Gabriel’s a wanker. All of the white hats are, actually. Come to think of it, so is the rest of the staff.” He pondered for a moment. “Device is not so bad, she’s the unit manager, you’ll meet her on Monday. And,” he added teasingly, “I’m sure that you’re different.”

“Well. Thank you for the vote of confidence, ah …”

“Crowley,” said the inmate. He swung his body away from the office (Fell could not in good faith call that “walking”), and Fell figured that was the end of that. Instead, Crowley returned dragging a lightweight plastic chair from the multipurpose room with one hand, and carrying an inmate-safe cup of coffee in the other. He spun the chair so that the front faced away from Fell and sort of half circled it before plopping down in it backwards.

“Those chairs are not meant to leave the multipurpose room,” Fell sniffed. Fell couldn’t believe he could feel himself getting worked up about a chair. He’d been on his unit maybe half an hour, and here was an inmate just poking at him, feeling out if he could get away with little things here and there—or, possibly worse, seeing if the little things were enough to throw Fell off course and put him in a mood.

“I’m your cleaner, there are some privileges that go with that, you won’t get in trouble for letting me sit here,” Crowley said offhandedly. “Do you think I’m lying to you?”

“Obviously,” Fell snarked, “you’re an inmate, that’s what you do.”

“I’ll never lie to get you in trouble, and I’ll never snitch on you, that’s my word,” said Crowley. “And besides, is that any way to ‘establish rapport’?” Crowley mocked the language of Fell’s training. He didn’t need air quotes to make his point. “Didn’t they teach you how to get along with your inmates?”

“Didn’t they teach you how to sit correctly?” Fell remarked wryly.

Crowley flashed a sharp-toothed grin. Would you look at that, the rookie made a funny, he thought. Maybe he won’t be all bad.

The man was certainly charismatic, as much as it troubled Fell to admit. He started to assess the smiling inmate in front of him. Fell couldn’t place why something felt unsettlingly familiar about Crowley. Inmate Crowley hung over the backrest with his arms draped over it looking for all the world like he was made up of nothing but overcooked noodles. (Considering the typical inmate diet, that might have been more or less the case.) His bright red hair was mussed not like he’d slept on it, but like he’d spent a great deal of time artfully arranging it to look like he’d slept on it. Crowley was simultaneously slinky and awkward, but Fell was too struck by how alien he was to read him as anything other than … “cool.”

“That depends,” said Crowley. “Does sitting correctly mean sitting like you’ve got a stick up your ass?” Fell blushed, and Crowley thought, This guy is gonna be a prison guard and he blushes when you say “ass”? Holy hell, this is going to be great.

Something was happening in Crowley’s subconscious. Crowley had, unbeknownst even to him, decided that this was “his” guard. The desire to taunt and torture him, although great, was completely eclipsed by the instinctive urge to protect him if anybody else tried to do the same.

He was just too damn endearing.

Fell, meanwhile, was trying not to smile, but he could feel his facial muscles tightening. It just felt so good to see what looked to be a genuine grin, to have light banter tossed his way instead of insults.

Stop right there, Fell said to himself anxiously. There is nothing genuine about this man, he doesn’t care about you. He is an inmate in a maximum-security prison. Fell remembered a saying from the academy: They weren’t put in here for singing too loud in church.

Crowley looked like his feet hadn’t seen the floor of a church in a long time.

Fell quickly switched tack. “You need to take those off,” he said, gesturing at his own eyes to indicate Crowley’s sunglasses. “You’re not allowed to wear them inside.” Fell was further annoyed to realize that they appeared to be different from the ones sold on commissary. Oh, this is going swimmingly, Fell thought. Any minute now Lt. Gabriel will walk in to find you fraternizing with an inmate, who is sitting in a stolen chair, with contraband, on his face.

Crowley blew on his coffee, although there was no way Crowley had access to water that was particularly hot. Was there? He took a long sip, and when he turned his head to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, Fell saw the little snake tattoo curling alongside his ear. What a pity that he had gone and done that to his face, Fell thought.

“Special permission from medical,” Crowley said sweetly. “Sensitive eyes, you understand.”

“I see,” said Fell. “All right then. Leave them on, and when I look you up in the system later to check your medical notes and I see that you lied to a staff member, then I shall issue the corresponding paperwork.”

Crowley looked incredibly amused, but fond, like he had just acquired a new puppy and was watching it bark at its own reflection. “You know,” he said, “you don’t have to be such a perfect angel here. This place has got far too many problems for you to go stroking out at every little thing.”

Fell didn’t like this feeling of being tested. “Take them off,” he said warningly.

“Well, what do you know,” said Crowley, “my prescription eye drops must be kicking in. Don’t worry, angel, my eyes feel better already.”

“Do not nickname me,” Fell bristled. The puppy in the mirror bared its teeth. “That is utterly inappropriate. You may call me Fell, or CO.”

“Whoo-eee,” said Crowley, “look who’s fresh off his ‘professional boundaries and ethics’ class!”

This time Fell was not entertained.

Crowley smiled a little sadly. “You really don’t remember me, do you?”

Well, that certainly caught Fell’s attention. He wrinkled his brow and leaned back, confused.

Crowley looked into his lap, and let his sunglasses slide down his nose to his hand. He tucked the sunglasses into the shirt pocket of his brown suit, and looked up into Fell’s eyes.

Fell’s lips parted slightly. Crowley had preternaturally golden-hued eyes. Fell was first struck by the indisputable fact that they were magnificently beautiful, that they completely transformed Crowley’s face into something vulnerable and soft, but he forced those thoughts out of his mind. The next thing he thought was that he had only ever seen eyes like that once before …

A scrawny little boy, appearing perpetually underfed and thus forever looking younger than he actually was. A boy who asked so many brilliant questions, that he always seemed older than he really was. A boy who grew his fiery red curls over his eyes so that he wouldn’t get so teased over how unusual they looked (or was it really out of jealousy?). He was obstinate, constantly in mischief, and, well, a brat, but what did you expect? From the first moment AJ Crowley arrived at Eden Youth, his mother never visited, or called, not once. Fell was so young when Crowley was there, still an intern, so he never worked with him one-on-one.

But Fell had one clear memory of him. It was from a field trip to a planetarium, and it was the only time Fell ever witnessed Crowley be still and silent. While the other troubled children and teens made fun of everything and clambered over seats, little AJ sat off to one side, completely captivated by the artificial show.

There were never any stars over Eden Youth. Just the dusty slate grey fog from the street lamps.

“AJ,” Fell said softly.

“Now, now,” Crowley ribbed, “that is utterly inappropriate. You may call me Crowley, or ‘Inmate.’”

And there it is, purred the nasty little voice of shame in the back of Fell’s mind. You were never helping any of them. They all just sort of … disappeared, when they turned eighteen—out of sight, out of mind. But this is where they go next, you gullible fool. They don’t go home. They just get out of criminal high school and move on to criminal college.

Crowley shifted, looking like he’d wounded himself, and said as though he were reading Fell’s mind, “Hey, it’s not your fault that I’m a cock-up.” He twisted his mouth. “Bad genes, maybe. So how is the old Garden, anyway?”

“Same as ever, really,” Fell said, secretly thankful for the change in tone.

Because Fell remembered something else, too, and it was why seeing Crowley instead of any other former resident of Eden now felt like a stab in the gut: The longer little AJ Crowley was housed there, the more his mischief got him in trouble with the techs. And the more he got in trouble with the techs, the quieter and tighter in on himself he became.

And Fell had never even tried to ask him why.

“Well, I’m very glad that you’re all right,” Fell said, measuring each word.

Crowley barked out a laugh. “Oh, yeah, hey,” he said, “look at me. I turned out peachy. Couldn’t have raised me better myself.”

Crowley motioned with his cup in the direction of the officer’s coffee pot behind Fell. “Well? Grab a mug, we’re toasting.”

Fell shook his head and chuckled. “My dear boy, what could we possibly be toasting?”

“Why, your first day on the job, of course,” said Crowley, amber eyes glittering. “And to my graduation.”

Chapter Text

“Seems like you got that new CO pretty wrapped.”

It had been about a month since Officer Fell had taken over A-tier, and as fruity and fastidious as he was, he really wasn’t a bad guard. Now that he was settled in, with no real problems, Sgt. Sandal and Lt. Gabriel mostly stayed off his back. The thing with Fell was, he was consistent. You knew where you stood with him. He never let any stupid little thing slide, but he never made up new rules or acted out personal vendettas, either.

He just, came to work, and did his job.

Crowley had never seen anything quite like it.

“However do you mean?” Crowley sang, light as a feather. He laid on the top bunk of his cell bed with his arms crossed over his chest. Duke, his cellmate for several years, was directly beneath him. He knew that Duke was leering up at a veritable mosaic of magazine cutouts that weren’t exactly taken from the Sears catalog, right under Crowley’s back. (Of course, not all the images were from magazines—some were printouts off of Instagram that Duke had got in the mail. Times were changing.)

Duke laughed. “Come on. You know exactly what I mean. How many hours a day are you even locked in?”

Crowley grinned. He felt a tinge of pride.

But his face dropped when it hit him that he wasn’t feeling pride in his manipulation skills, in a bad job well done.

He felt pride that Fell seemed to like him.

“Nn,” said Crowley out one side of his mouth. “I’m the cleaner,” he tried, but he didn’t sound convinced himself.

“Yeah, right,” scoffed Duke. “Great cleaner. I saw those vents. Any day now Device is gonna come in here and start naming the dust bunnies, come up with some new pet therapy.”

Ms. Device was the unit manager for A-tier. A unit manager was sort of lateral to a sergeant in the chain of command, until administration occasionally sent down memos reminding everyone that sergeants were supposed to answer to unit managers, except that none of that really mattered because nobody read the memos, and nobody was quite sure what it was that a unit manager did—least of all Ms. Device. So, she spent her days coming up with quirky treatment initiatives, like exploring the healing powers of sage-burning and inmate interpretive dance, which the CO’s would immediately get on board with ignoring.

Crowley felt his stomach swirling. He was experiencing emotions, and he was not a fan. He figured the best thing to do would be deflect. “Well, you’re one to talk. At least I don’t have a white hat in my pocket.”

Duke cackled. “You just made my point! At least Lt. Michaels and me have a cooperation. You got this duck all warmed up, looking at you like you built the stars, and what do you do? You sit outside his office, and talk. You listening to me up there? You don’t even sit in his office, because, ooh, you’re not allowed in there. So you hang out in the door. Uncle Tom ass.”

Crowley was rarely at a complete loss for words, but this was one of those times. Duke wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box, he was barely burnt sienna, but he wasn’t wrong, either. Crowley liked spending time talking to Fell, and he wasn’t even up to anything.

Something was unexpectedly pricking the corners of Crowley’s eyes. He had had a sudden vision. Crowley felt a dull ache thinking about a universe where maybe he and Fell could have met under different circumstances. Or even just had more interaction with each other in the Garden. Maybe Crowley could have had an actual friend. Maybe then he would have turned out half decent.

“So come on, you can tell me,” Duke prodded. “What are you playing at?”

“I’m not,” Crowley snarled. “I’m not playing at anything. And you’re the one making it weird right now, not me. What are you, jealous? I mean, where are you going with this?”

Duke grunted. “Just weird is all. Didn’t think it was such a big deal.”

“Well, it is,” he snapped back. Settle the fuck down, Crowley, he thought at himself, what the hell is wrong with you?

“Fine then, don’t tell me,” said Duke, rolling over to sleep. “I can respect a long game.”

 

Fell entered his one-bedroom bachelor pad and secured the chain lock on the chipped wooden door that may or may not have been painted white at some point in time. He was the type to hang his keys on a hook on a plaque mounted beside the door for specifically that purpose, and he carefully arranged his work coat on a wooden hanger inside the closet. He was not a neat freak, as shown by the crooked piles of books springing up around his dingy recliner, but he was a man who believed that there was a right way to do things.

He changed out of his uniform into his softest flannel pajamas, poured himself a Scotch on the rocks (in crystal glassware, naturally; three ice cubes), and grabbed a book of crossword puzzles off of the mantle. The blinds by his chair were cracked and he had a lovely view of the full moon above his window. He had a thought. “Alexa, play Moonlight Sonata,” he smiled as he instructed the device, and he melted into the first few notes that wafted out of the speaker.

Fell started on a new puzzle page, pen in hand. He did not believe in doing his crosswords in pencil. Where would be the challenge in that? is what he would have said, if there had ever been anyone who asked.

As it so happened, there had never been anyone who asked.

Some people, including Fell, go through life blending seamlessly in most social situations, well liked by just about everyone but feeling close to none. Fell was admittedly withdrawn around his prison coworkers, but outside he was pulled to rather different people and places. He was witty, and clever, and he most often tried to be kind, and indeed his acquaintances usually mistook them for being much closer than they actually were. He had tried a few relationships, but ultimately it suited him to be left alone, to reread Mrs Dalloway without interruption, or watch Casablanca for the 241st time (guilty pleasure).

But it would have been nice, to let someone see his inner world.

Furthermore, Fell had worked with juvenile delinquents for almost two decades. Therefore he had gotten topnotch at building walls. You had to be, if you were going to be surrounded by criminals and didn’t want to get too close.

Fell laughed out loud at his crossword: Bohemian (blank), Queen song, 8 letters. Fell remembered making a round at work and stopping to bang on AJ Crowley’s cell door, when Crowley had been blasting Queen, in blatant violation of the housing unit’s rules on reasonable volume levels, Fell had thought. Later, when he’d keyed Crowley out to do night cleaning, Crowley had danced right outside Fell’s office with a mop stick, and subjected Fell to an obnoxious caterwauling serenade of “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy.” Fell hadn’t wanted to laugh, but Crowley always seemed to know how to make him do it. He would have to tell him about the crossword clue tomorrow.

Oh, no.

Fell almost dropped his Scotch, as realization dawned.

Thoughts of his inmate had followed him home.

 

Crowley loved writing grievances.

An inmate grievance was a form to be used whenever an inmate wanted to lodge a formal complaint about things like treatment or policy at Paradise Correctional Institution. It did not matter how petty the problem was, or how many grievances could be traced back to a singular inmate. Every grievance had to be taken in good faith and investigated accordingly.

But Crowley’s favorite thing about grievances was that the staff member saddled with handling them was Lt. Gabriel.

To Lt. Gabriel: On this day, the inmate menu promised that we were each entitled to one (1) chocolate chip muffin, but upon arrival at mealtime, cruelly inflicted upon us was the absurdly pathetic substitute of boxed mix cornbread …

To Lt. Gabriel: As a fellow gentleman of refined tastes and intellect, please allow me to direct your attention to the disturbing lack of V. C. Andrews materials in the prison library …

To Lt. Gabriel: I find it to be a blatant violation of the freedom of religion of incarcerated individuals, that the Church of Satan is in no way represented amongst available chapel services …

To Lt. Gabriel: Be advised, that I, Anthony J. Crowley, inmate #GO-6661, turned 29 years old yesterday, yet you, sir, passed me directly in the yard without so much as wishing this person a happy birthday …

He considered himself to be quite good at writing them.

“Where is he?” Lt. Gabriel fumed, rushing onto the wing and meeting Fell in the middle of his round.

“Who?” Fell asked.

“Your idiot worker!” Gabriel snapped. “That redheaded freak with the face tattoo who looks like he’s on hunger strike!”

Fell pursed his lips. Why did it have to be Crowley who was pissing off a lieutenant, and drawing his attention to A-tier when Fell had been enjoying flying under the radar so much?

Crowley walked up behind Lt. Gabriel without waiting for Fell to call him. “The freak is here,” he said, grinning and arching an eyebrow. “What’s wrong, LT? You’re looking a bit tetchy.”

“You think it’s funny to waste my time?” Gabriel stepped in close to Crowley.

“Would never,” Crowley said innocently. “Whatever do you mean?”

Gabriel brandished a good inch-thick stack of papers. “These ridiculous grievances,” he said, “all signed with a stupid little cartoon snake wearing sunglasses!”

“Hey now,” Crowley said, putting his palms out in front of him. “Ms. Device said, self-expression is vital to my rehabilitation process.”

“‘Rehabilitation,’” Gabriel spat out the word. “There’s no rehabilitating people who did what you did. So go ahead and joke, scumbag, keep dropping grievances that are just filled in with pages from Fifty Shades of Grey, if that’ll distract you long enough to help you sleep at night.”

Now it was Crowley’s turn to step. “Don’t bring my charges into this.” His golden eyes flashed in the harsh overhead lighting.

“Okay, fine,” said Gabriel, “we don’t have to talk about your life before. We can talk about what you are now, which is a lowlife jail janitor.” Gabriel lifted the stack of forms above his head and let them drop, sheets of paper flying. “So do your fucking job and clean up this mess.”

Crowley stood still as a cobra.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Gabriel, “are you deaf, or just really fucking stupid? I want to see you on your knees right now, picking up papers, and if you hurry then maybe I won’t kick your face in while you’re down there.”

Crowley’s fingers twitched at his sides.

Fell calmly injected himself between the pair. “Excuse me, ah, Lieutenant?”

“What, Fell??” Gabriel growled.

“If I may, sir,” said Fell, “since Mr. Crowley here is my worker, I don’t suppose it might make your job easier if I were to take over his punishment from here?”

Gabriel spun on Fell. “Do I look like I need you to intervene on my behalf?”

“No, sir,” said Fell, “not at all. I was only thinking, since you are in clear view of the camera, that perhaps I might be of some assistance? It obviously goes without saying that I shall leave you to it, if you so prefer.”

Gabriel lifted his gaze to the camera behind Fell’s head. “Right,” he said, still seething. “Thanks for looking out. Maybe there’s more to you than I thought,” he mused. “Okay. Good to see that you want to take some control of your unit. Sure.” Gabriel smoothed his dark hair back with both hands. “Just see to it that this gets cleaned up before you do anything else.”

“Yes, sir,” said Fell.

After Gabriel had completely stormed off, Fell gave Crowley a sad little smile. “Looks like some things never change, AJ,” said Fell. “Still stirring the pot.”

“I didn’t need you to do that for me,” Crowley grouched.

“Of course you didn’t,” said Fell. “I’m sure I only did it to assert authority over my wing … if that makes you feel any better.”

“Well, thank you,” said Crowley begrudgingly. He had not met Fell’s eyes yet. He looked up then, and it broke Fell’s heart somewhat to see the shy, embarrassed way that Crowley sank down to start cleaning up the slew of grievances.

Fell dropped down to one knee beside him.

Crowley scrambled back a bit, as though he was afraid of the cameras now—that it might look as if he hurt Fell, or worse, like Fell himself was doing anything untoward. “What are you doing?” he said, sounding a bit scandalized.

Fell blinked. “I’m helping you pick up papers.”

“You’re a CO,” Crowley pointed out.

“Yes, I am aware of that,” Fell said.

“I mean, you don’t have to help me do anything,” Crowley continued.

“I am aware of that, also,” Fell said softly, again peering into those Chartreuse yellow eyes (not the paint color, which is a putrid paltry substitute for the way the liqueur of the same name can be seen to glow inside a dark bar), that showed such depth of emotion that Crowley would never care to admit.

“It’s not even safe,” Crowley said, now more scolding than shocked. “An officer, a rookie, you shouldn’t be giving up your back or bending on your knees.” That protective instinct was rising to the surface, wholly against his will.

“But I helped you out, and you’re not going to let anything happen to me,” Fell said, completely without guile.

Crowley felt like he was about to cry. He focused on staring at the floor as the two men hunted down the scattered sheets.

This place doesn’t deserve anyone like you, angel, thought Crowley. But I’ll protect you from its demons the best I can.

 

“I was thinking,” Fell said one day. You could tell he had been working out this conversation in his head for a while. “You have never told me what you are in for.”

“What I’m ‘in for’??” Crowley cracked up. “Do you even realize what a cop question that just was?”

Fell tutted. “I don’t see what’s so terrible about sounding like a, a cop.”

Crowley ruffled his red hair and beamed. Damn, this idiot always made his day. It occurred to Crowley that he hated Fell’s days off. He tried to imagine a Fell who was out in the world, dressed like a person—probably, oh, who knows, drinking a white chocolate mocha at Starbucks while doing the New York Times crossword.

“You know, you are one of a kind, Fell,” said Crowley indulgently. “You are really something else.”

“I notice you are not answering.”

Crowley kicked back, overcompensating for how uncomfortable he felt inside. “You know you can just look it up,” he mumbled. “You have that computer … thingy.”

“Yes, the DOCNet,” Fell said idly. “But I very much prefer having a vis-à-vis with you, Crowley, exchanging on this … human level, that we share.”

“Ngk,” said Crowley, almost dumping out of his chair. “Human”? “We”? “Okay,” he started slowly, “sure. Although, that is, I mean—it’s a lot.”

Fell looked up from the logbook, slightly mortified. “Oh, my,” he said, “what was I thinking? Of course you don’t have to talk about it.”

“No, no,” Crowley rushed to amend. “I want …”

To have a friend. To feel like somebody cares about me.

To tell you the truth myself.

“… to talk.”

Fell closed the book and smiled encouragingly, letting Crowley know that he had his undivided attention.

“Okay. Right. So,” Crowley was off to a glorious start. Why did he say he wanted to talk about this? “The thing is,” he said, “the thing of it is. Someone was killed. Someone I, loved.” Probably the only person he ever could have said so easily that he loved, he thought. He took a deep breath and let himself feel his chest expand.

“Oh,” Fell gasped, his hand fluttering to his chin, “and you, took revenge? Is that it? I think I can respect that, Crowley, honestly.”

Crowley deflated, something crumpling inside him. Had it really been almost eleven years?

Yes, hissed the devil on his shoulder, and it will never feel any better than this.

“No,” he answered softly. “I wish it was that. No. Something, I did. Caused someone to get killed.” He felt like ripping his hair out at seeing the look of horror on Fell’s face. How are you shocked that I killed someone? Crowley screamed inside his head. Why did you think I was in a max prison?

Fell must have realized how judging he looked, because he quickly rearranged his face. But Crowley had seen. Well, there was no reason not to say now. “A boy,” said Crowley, “a friend.” A kid, his conscience supplied helpfully. “Not like that. I mean, a young friend, just a kid, and he looked up to me. And, there was this gun—no, not ‘this’ gun, my gun—and it went off, accidentally, in my hand, and. Yeah.”

Fell narrowed his eyes, just a little. There was a moment.

“Yeah,” said Crowley. He pointed to himself. “Serving eleven to thirty.”

“I see,” Fell said. Nobody said anything for a while.

Crowley’s shoulders shook from the silence. “He’d be 26 years old now,” he murmured.

“Okay.” Fell paused. “Now—do you wish to tell me what really happened?”

Crowley had been leaning over his knees, and this sat him up like someone had taken him by the throat and slammed him against the wall. “What?”

“Crowley,” said Fell, not without a touch of sadness, but the fires of some imagined justice burned in his sharp blue eyes, “you did not accidentally shoot someone.”

Crowley’s jaw dropped. He closed his mouth, opened it again.

“I did,” Crowley breathed. “I would never, you weren’t there, check my docket—”

“I will do no such thing,” said Fell. “I respect you enough to give you the opportunity to tell me yourself. So I ask again—what really happened?”

“‘Respect’—I—you,” Crowley raged, his face white.

“I need you to understand my position here, Crowley,” said Fell gently, and Crowley thought that was the cruelest thing of all: that Fell thought he was being kind. “What you are describing, as you claim it, is involuntary manslaughter, which amounts to five years less one day—for which you would not be confined to a maximum-security facility. So please, you can trust me—what is it that you’re leaving out of the story?”

“And th-that’s how you think it works?” Crowley said, bewildered. “Like-like, like, out of a textbook? You a lawyer now, too? Because how I see it, you’re just a security guard who was a shitty guidance counselor.”

Crowley was mostly used to being accused of lying. He was pretty used to being accused of it when he knew he was telling the truth.

So what? he shouted at himself. You thought he’d be any different? Or that you even deserved different? Why? You’re not even a person to him, you’re an inmate.

Before Fell could respond, Crowley stood up, letting the plastic chair legs clatter around the floor.

“I’ll get on those vents then, CO,” said Crowley. “Let me know if you need anything else done tonight.”

And just like that, Crowley was gone.

Chapter Text

(January 30, 2009)

“Court is now in session, Judge Belle Z. Bub presiding.”

Belle Bub did not look like a woman who urgently held a young man’s life in her hands. In fact, the only thing she was presently doing with her hands was picking at her cuticles. She would never go to the nail salon in the local shopping center again. She did not hate her job, not at all, but she was tired. She was tired of subpar manicures, tired of her daily commute on a highway that seemed designed to be downright demonic during rush hour, and, perhaps more than anything else, she was tired of Eden Youth hoodrats turning eighteen and immediately coming to her court.

“We shall now call the case of the People versus Anthony James Crowley.”

Two words best described Crowley’s outward appearance: shellshocked, and haunted. The last month of his life had been a blur that to him no longer held any meaning, if it were to be argued that his confused and confusing life (for Crowley generally felt that most events happened to him, rather than by his choice) ever had. There were dark circles under his wide lantern-light eyes, and the enormous suit that hung from his skeleton frame looked as though it had been hit with a wrinkle gun.

All Judge Bub could surmise looking at Crowley was that here was a man who had made no attempt to look presentable in the courtroom.

Darlene Dagon, the district attorney, appeared to share Bub’s view, as she sneeringly looked Crowley up and down—making a point to let her gaze linger upon his face tattoo—before addressing the court. “Your Honor and ladies and gentlemen of the jury: the adult defendant before you has been charged with the crime of murder in the third degree. On the morning of December 23rd, at approximately 2 AM, police responded to a gunshot heard in the historic district of Southside. Upon arrival at the scene, police encountered Mr. Crowley, bathed in blood, carrying a .45 caliber handgun, and kneeling over the body of the teenaged decedent in Mr. Crowley’s car.” Dagon paused for dramatic effect. “The victim had been shot square in the chest at point-blank range. The evidence I plan to present will prove to you that the defendant is guilty as charged …”

Crowley couldn’t seem to stop disassociating. He knew how serious this was, he knew he needed to be here, an active participant in the now, but he felt like there was some grey veil separating him from reality and he couldn’t disentangle himself from it.

He scanned the room pitiably for anything familiar. He had no one; his best friend was dead (murdered, hissed the hateful recesses of his mind), he had no relationship with his family, and he was a legal adult, which meant that he was no longer even a name on any counselor’s caseload at Eden Youth Rehabilitation Center. None of them would have come anyway, he thought darkly.

Crowley had one man more or less on his side in the room, and that was his public defender. If Arthur Young had been cast as Willy Loman, it could have been called method acting with zero effort required. At this point in his life, the only thing Young wanted was to make retirement before he could consider driving himself off a bridge.

Darlene Dagon, by contrast, was at the very start of her political career, having been an elected district attorney for barely a year.

Crowley knew that he was doomed.

“… ladies and gentlemen, under the law my client is presumed innocent until proven guilty. You will hear no real evidence during this trial to show that the tragic circumstances of the morning of December 23rd were anything other than the result of an accidental shooting—an involuntary act. The prosecution cannot possibly establish the essential elements to justify such severe sentencing, because they simply do not apply in this case. Anthony Crowley must therefore be found not guilty of murder in the third degree …”

Crowley couldn’t find it in himself to care one way or the other.

“Please stand. Raise your right hand. Do you promise that the testimony you shall give in the case before the court shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

When has “He,” “She,” or “It” ever helped me before? Crowley wondered. “I do.”

“Please state your name.”

“Anthony Crowley.”

“You may be seated.”

“Anthony,” Arthur Young started, “where were you on the night of December 22nd, into the early morning hours of December 23rd?”

 

“Finally, we’re out of the Garden! Merry Christmas to me, suckers!”

 

Young was a gentle man, who was used to walking anxiety attack defendants like Crowley and was good at putting them at ease. Crowley needed gentleness at this time, desperately so, but as a traumatized eighteen-year-old who was not nearly as worldly as he imagined himself to be, he was inclined to mistake Young’s blend of kindness and maturity for competence.

“I was parked outside a pub in Southside with my friend.”

“And this friend, he is the victim in this case?”

“Yes.”

“And how would you have characterized your friendship?”

 

“I’m proud of you, kid,” AJ Crowley said with a broad grin.

“You should be proud, I’m your ‘wayward son,’ remember? You and your shit-ass hippie music. But you really are like a dad to me, seriously.”

 

“I loved him.” Crowley surprised himself, both by earnestly defaulting to the word “loved,” and with the fat teardrops that had landed on his hands in his lap when he said it. “He was my best friend—only friend. W-we’d gone through … you know … a lot.” Crowley chewed his lip. “He looked up to me. For some reason.”

 

Crowley shook his head and laughed like the notion was absurd, but secretly he had never been more pleased. “Yeah? And how does that work? I’m only, like, three years older than you.”

 

The public defender continued. “Can you describe for the court the incident from which these charges arose, in your own words?”

“Okay. Ahh. We were celebrating. Because he had just gotten out of juvie, right? And I had been out, so … we were excited, I mean … this was it, we’d made it, we could hang out like normal people, and get jobs, and get our lives together, and, you know, he was so smart, and … Oh, Go— I’m sorry.”

“Take your time, Anthony, but I do have to say that we are getting away from the subject. Please tell us the facts of that night, when you are ready.”

“Right. Sorry. We were in my car, talking about stuff …”

“Could you define ‘stuff’ for the court, please?”

“The future,” said Crowley. “Getting on with life outside, doing things together, going fishing, maybe.”

“It almost sounds like you had a mentoring relationship.”

 

“It’s got nothing to do with age. Fine, big brother, then. But you’ve done way more for me than my dad ever did. He acts like I don’t even exist.”

 

“Well, I don’t think I’m mentor material, but I tried to be something good in his life. I tried …”

 

“I hear you,” Crowley said with a soft, sad smile. “Your dad’s an asshole. But I’m not sure I’ve ever really done anything for you, just hang out in my piece of shit car and get blasted.”

 

“You cared about the boy’s future.”

“More than anything.”

 

“But that’s my point! You’re there. You’re the only person in my life who’s always been there. And you listen to me, and you don’t make fun of my writing, and you helped me get back at that one tech …”

 

“Tell us more about that night.”

Crowley shivered, even though he was sweating. Why was it so hot in January? What do they have the thermostat set at in this hellhole? “He mentioned wanting to learn how to shoot. I thought I could teach him a little, basic stuff. So I brought out my gun, I let him hold it.”

“Why did you have a gun?”

“Uh, self-protection, I guess.”

 

Crowley narrowed his sun-bright eyes. “To hell with that guy.”

 

“And this was the .45?”

“The Glock, yeah.”

 

“Ha! See? That’s what I’m talking about. You’re so protective. And that was classic, too. His car probably still has glitter all over the seats.”

 

Young gave Crowley a tiny nod of approval, as though he were pleased with him for making it this far. “So what happened next?”

Young was the paternal type, and Crowley sucked up any human decency directed his way like it was oxygen. Which would have been a good thing if it was, because Crowley felt like he was forgetting how to breathe. “I went to take the magazine out for him, so it would be safer, I fu— I messed up, I don’t even know how it happened, it shocked the shi— the hell— the crap out of me, I never meant for … I still don’t understand how …”

“It’s all right, Anthony. Take a moment,” Young said quietly. “Now, what happened when you removed the clip?”

“I took out the magazine, I fumbled for a second … it went off. It misfired in my hand.”

“Anthony, this is very important: at any point in time, did you intend any harm or ill will toward the victim of this incident?”

“No. Never, I would never.”

“Thank you, Anthony. No further questions at this time, Your Honor.”

Judge Bub bounced lightly against the back of her chair, exceedingly bored. “Does the prosecution have any questions?”

“I do, Your Honor.” Dagon didn’t hesitate. “Mr. Crowley … how did you and the deceased know each other?”

“We were in Eden Youth at the same time.”

 

There had been something more than pranks and glitter bombs—something with sharper teeth. Something like a body, slammed into concrete that may or may not have been wet already before skull impact, and aureate eyes that probably could have been beautiful during the day but were terrifying under a moonless night.

But that part was for Crowley alone to know.

 

“Not your first time locked up in there, was it?”

 

Because Crowley had been a lot smaller once, and people much bigger than him had hurt him, and now he liked for people who hurt smaller people to regret their life choices—if he could have anything to do about it.

 

Young interjected from his side of the courtroom: “Your Honor, Anthony Crowley’s juvenile records are inadmissible …”

“It’s fine, I’ll withdraw,” said the prosecutor. “Mr. Crowley—you said that you were celebrating. Was there alcohol involved in the night in question?”

“Yes … we’d been drinking.”

 

“You’re giving me way too much credit. Just don’t go thinking of my dumb ass as some kind of role model.”

 

“Who supplied the alcohol, Mr. Crowley?”

“… I did, ma’am.”

 

“Uh-oh, AJ’s gettin’ down on himself again! Come on, dude, crack open that applejack, we’re supposed to be celebrating here.” They had already polished off a bottle of brandy between them.

 

“And the victim was a minor, yes?”

“Uh, we were both under 21, yeah …”

 

“See, what a crappy influence I am? You never would have been tempted to drink that rot if it weren’t for me.”

 

“But you were over eighteen. Right?”

 

“Works for me, that shit is delicious. Pass it here.”

 

Crowley shifted, unable to get comfortable sitting and knowing that he did not have the luxury of slouching right now. He could not imagine where she could possibly be going with this, and that set his teeth on edge. “Um, I am eighteen, yeah.”

“Serving alcohol to a minor in your vehicle.”

 

Crowley took a long swig before handing over the bottle. “You know,” he said shyly, “this is probably gonna sound stupid. But all that shit our dads never did for us, we can just do for each other now. Like, go fishing, I don’t know, whatever it is that real dads do.”

“Doesn’t sound stupid, my guy. We should go hunting, I always wanted to learn how to shoot.”

 

“I guess, I mean, yes … ?”

 

“I’m bad at it,” Crowley admitted. He reached across to the glovebox. “I would like to get better.”

 

“Mr. Crowley, why does a grown man have a friend who is still a minor?”

 

The dark-haired fifteen-year-old pounded some more of the sugary amber concoction like a professional. “You got a gun with you now?”

 

“What? We knew each other for years, we were both …”

 

Crowley snorted. “You don’t live in my neighborhood and not have a gun with you.” He pulled a black Glock 36 out of the box.

 

“Do you hang out with a lot of minor boys?”

“Fucking excuse me?”

“Objection, Your Honor,” Young leapt in before Crowley could say another word. “This is insinuating, and irrelevant.”

“Sustained—strike this.”

Dagon acted like nothing had happened. “Mr. Crowley, so you were something of a mentor to the victim, then? A ‘big brother’?”

 

“Oh, shit! That looks nice.”

Crowley turned the pistol over in his hand and smiled fondly at it. “Yeah. I’ve never had to use it. Just feel safer having her around. Named her ‘Bentley,’” he snickered. “Closest I’ll ever come to owning one.”

 

Crowley looked warier than ever, and he had no trouble sitting up straight now. He looked poised to strike. “You could say that.”

 

The other boy beamed. “A Glock, AJ?”

 

“Would you say that?”

“Well, I didn’t … I definitely didn’t want him to look up to me.” Crowley felt like his heart was beating much too fast, and his hands were tingling. “I didn’t want him to be like me. But I did want him to feel like he had someone he could depend on.”

“Do you normally make a habit of shooting people who depend on you?” Dagon teased cruelly.

 

Crowley’s eyes twinkled devilishly. “Well, you know, if you’ve gotta shoot something, then shoot it with style.”

 

“Your Honor!” Young snapped. “Objection!”

“Sustained. Ms. Dagon, you’re on thin ice.”

Crowley could barely hear over the blood thumping in his ears. “You … fucking …”

Dagon’s mouth quirked into some semblance of a smile. “I’m sorry, Your Honor. Just to be clear on the incident, though—you were hanging out with a child, in the middle of the night, alone in your car, feeding him alcohol and getting drunk, and you shot him. Did I miss anything?”

 

Crowley appeared thoughtful, looked his friend over affectionately. “Did you … want to try holding it?”

 

Crowley hissed. “You fucking bitch!”

 

“Duh, yeah!”

 

“Mr. Crowley!” Judge Bub glowered menacingly.

“Your Honor,” Young spoke again, “she is obviously trying to agitate him!”

“I’ll agree with you there,” Bub conceded, “and that is the only reason why I am not more seriously considering your client for contempt. Mr. Crowley, you need to check yourself—and Ms. Dagon, make a point here or else move on.”

“Understood, Your Honor.” Dagon changed the subject easily, no need to consider her next move. “Mr. Crowley, you claimed you had a gun for reasons of self-defense. Who did you have a problem with, exactly?”

 

“Okay, well, don’t go touching the trigger,” Crowley said as he handed him the gun. “It is loaded.”

 

“Wait, what? No one …” Crowley was too heated to keep up with this strange new line of questioning.

“You, just, had a gun, for ‘self-defense,’ but you hadn’t done anything to provoke anyone. Got it. I’m assuming you had all the proper licensing, then?”

“Ehh.”

“It’s a simple question, Mr. Crowley, was your firearm properly licensed?”

 

The boy immediately mock-pulled the pistol on Crowley, who promptly placed his hand on the barrel and gingerly guided it down. “Stop. Don’t ever point that at something unless you plan to kill it. Safety rule number one.” But his tone was steady as he spoke, without the slightest hint of fear or mistrust.

 

Crowley sagged in his seat. He felt so small, and a couple months ago he had thought he was a “real adult,” just turned eighteen in November and knew so much, didn’t need anybody to tell him anything because he had it figured out, and now he felt like a scared little boy hiding from an angry tech in the Garden after putting salt in his coffee. “No. I don’t have a license.”

 

“Oh, shit. Right. I’m an idiot, sorry, man, I was playing.”

 

“Imagine that.” Dagon paused meaningfully. “No further questions, Your Honor.”

“The witness is excused. Does the defense rest?”

“One more thing, Your Honor—Anthony, after the gun went off, did you make any attempt to flee the scene?”

“No way,” Crowley said. He was vaguely aware of feeling that he was drowning, and Young had at least tried to throw him a lifejacket. “I stayed with him until the cops came.”

“That will be all, Your Honor.”

 

“Mr. Crowley, is there anything more you want to say before sentencing?”

“Just that, I’m so damn sorry … I know it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t change anything, and I’m not saying it to beg or anything, I don’t care about that, I just have to say it—I miss him every day and I regret it every single day and I don’t know what else to say but I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure you’re not as sorry as the boy’s parents are, Mr. Crowley.”

Crowley’s jaw dropped. He was screaming internally. He was already down, she didn’t have to kick him that hard, but what really tore him apart inside was that he knew all too well just how much the “parents” weren’t sorry. They’re not even fucking here their son is dead and the guy that shot him is on trial and theyrenotevenfuckinghere—

“Anthony Crowley,” Judge Bub began, “the court is convinced that this is a clear case of murder as the jury concluded. I understand your claim that you never had any intention of hurting anyone. Unfortunately for you, malice is independent of intent, and it is malice in this case, not intent, which categorizes murder.

“Mr. Crowley: throughout your life you have consistently exhibited malice in the form of disregard for social duty. Juvenile records are sealed to us, nevertheless this court is well aware that you were a ‘regular,’ so to speak, through the … revolving doors of Eden Youth Rehabilitation Center.

“Furthermore, Mr. Crowley, while intoxicated you used a deadly weapon upon a vital part of the victim’s body and that alone suffices to establish malice, as wanton conduct and recklessness. Understand that this goes beyond negligence; it is borderline sociopathic. What I am trying to tell you is, even if you didn’t ‘mean’ to kill anyone, an act as brazen as this fails to meet the requirements to be considered involuntary. Because in other words, Mr. Crowley, you simply did not care what happened to your victim.”

Crowley’s blood ran cold. This was worse, this was worse, this was so much worse than however much time he got, he couldn’t abide the brittle bones of these words … “No, Your Honor, no, I have never cared about anyone or anything so much—”

“Excuse me, I’m talking, which means you’re done talking. You had your turn to talk.

“Anthony James Crowley, you are hereby found guilty of the following lesser crimes: unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, for which I sentence you to one year of confinement; possessing a firearm without a license, one to three years.

 

“It’s cool,” said Crowley, taking the gun back with an easy smile. “Just, here, I’ll let you have it back, but I want to take the magazine out first—”

 

“And last but not least, and may your soul be forgiven for it—I hereby sentence you to nine to 26 years in prison, for the third-degree murder of Warlock Dowling.”

Chapter Text

Crowley had barely spoken to Fell for nearly a month, and that made Ms. Device’s listless Charlie Brown “holiday trees” that currently dotted A-tier seem that much sadder.

A more jaded officer, one with a few years under his belt, might have told Fell that Crowley was playing a card, that the only reason he wasn’t speaking to Fell was to try to lay a guilt trip on him. That Crowley wanted to leverage their last conversation for favors. But Fell didn’t believe that. For one thing, Crowley must realize that it hardly took a whole month to make Fell feel lousy about that entire exchange. Fell had been keenly reeling from the sudden absence of Crowley outside his office door, with a cup of coffee and an impish grin, since day two of the silent treatment. At that time, Fell had assumed that Crowley would get over the whole thing after three or four days of sulking, tops.

After all, time moves differently for people in prison. When your routine is exactly the same all week, and you spend much of that week locked in a cell, an hour can seem to stretch on for half a day. And when you have next to nothing to keep you excited looking forward, the most minor of objects and events take on great significance. (How else could a security lieutenant entice an inmate to snitch on someone else by offering a bag of chips?) And Fell saw that Crowley did not seem to engage intellectually with any other convicts in particular. So it was logical that Fell thought Crowley would quickly tire of hiding away from Fell’s office.

The reason Fell could not believe Crowley might be playing him, was because Crowley didn’t want anything. He hadn’t come crawling to beg for a new pair of shower slides, or a bite of yellow cake stolen from the officers’ dining, or any other such foolishness. And he definitely wasn’t trying for more out time; quite the opposite, as all Crowley had done all December was hide out in his cell, or go to yard at the scheduled intervals, until it was time to do his cleaning job.

No, it was apparent that Crowley was wounded. It actually baffled Fell a little bit. Had it seriously been so wrong for Fell to just be honest with the man? Fell was surely no lawyer (as Crowley had been quite apt to point out), but he thought he had a basic understanding of how the justice system was supposed to work. So Fell could not accept that an eighteen-year-old boy would just be warehoused away for eleven years over what was clearly described to be an accident.

There were things to which Fell was anxious to put words, things that he could never freely admit to other staff. He liked Crowley, and losing their amicability troubled him on a personal note. It hurt to think that Crowley couldn’t be truthful with him, that he hadn’t felt safe to openly discuss the night of his crime. Fell wondered what he might have said or done to prevent Crowley from feeling safe enough. In truth, Fell knew some things were impossible not to judge, but whatever happened was almost eleven years ago, and it didn’t have to change how Fell interacted with Crowley now. Like Crowley said, Fell could have just looked him up on the DOCNet, but even now Fell hadn’t searched it. It would have felt violating, somehow.

I don’t know what I said or did but it may have been a mistake, Fell thought, and now … I miss him.

Fell wasn’t supposed to be getting attached to inmates, but it was hard to know AJ Crowley—so clever, funny, and kind while always failing to hide it—and not be attached.

One of Fell’s job duties as a wing officer was to maintain the logbook. Fell made two rounds every hour (meant to be sporadic, as opposed to, say, on the half-hour), and then he was to document the times of those rounds. Then, at some point, he had to search two random cells a day (“shakedowns”), mark which cells, and jot down anything of interest. The daily shakedowns were supposed to be brief and basic, not thorough as any investigative search. They were intended to send a message more than anything, to serve as an ongoing reminder that the unit was being carefully monitored, and most days a shakedown did not reveal much worth reporting.

Unfortunately, this would not be one of those days.

“Oh, fuuuck,” Fell breathed, staring down at the envelope in his hand. Fell was not normally the type of man to use that sort of language, but he was no longer operating under normal circumstances.

For the last two months, Fell had managed to more or less avoid searching Anthony Crowley and Heston Duke’s cell. It was the closest Fell ever came to giving preferential treatment. It possibly was not as fair as he typically strived to be, but he was only human, after all. And besides, time had gotten away from him a little, perhaps he was not entirely aware that two whole months had gone without him shaking down a specific cell.

About an hour earlier, Sgt. Sandal had called Fell over the intercom to report to the unit’s central pod.

“Fell, when you were off, Uriel and I noticed something strange about your prior logs,” Sandal had sneered. “Something doesn’t smell right. How is it, that you have lapped back around to checking almost every cell on your tier twice, yet you have managed to never go in your worker’s cell once?”

Fell had grimaced then. He honestly hadn’t realized that this particular habit of his had grown bad enough to call attention. “I shall make certain to search it tonight, before end of shift, I assure you.” (He had already started determining how to give Crowley a subtle heads-up.)

“No,” Sandal had replied, “you will do it now. I don’t want your little pet snake to see it coming. Do it before your tier comes back in from yard.”

And Fell had said, “Yes, Sergeant,” and he had gone back out on his housing unit, and tried to swallow the feeling that he was doing something not right by Crowley. He knew that he was not doing anything wrong; he was doing his job, and furthermore it was wrong to treat Crowley any different from any other inmate. So, he had pulled on a pair of latex gloves and set to work.

But that didn’t mean he had to feel good about it.

Now Fell was standing in the middle of AJ Crowley’s cell, while Crowley was none the wiser out at yard (and Fell was sure this must be part of the monthlong cold shoulder, because Fell knew damn well that skin-and-bones Crowley was not one to happily go to yard during winter), his heart pounding a mile a minute while he took in the appearance of the destroyed manila envelope in his black-gloved hands.

Fell had actually never seen Suboxone before in person.

The opioid buprenorphine, or Suboxone, was highly valued in prisons, Fell knew that. But Fell had no personal recovery experience, and Eden had not had much of a drug and alcohol program. But Fell knew what he was seeing, that much he was certain. Fell had noticed a stack of unmarked envelopes stuffed back on a shelf of the shared desk area in Crowley’s cell, and he had reached for them because those envelopes were not sold on commissary, and so were most likely stolen and hoarded ones that had been meant for interoffice use amongst staff. Inmates liked to nab them when they got the chance because they were sturdy enough to hold a lot of legal mail.

The next thing Fell had seen was that although none of the envelopes had anything written on them or showed other signs of use, the lower flap on all of them was puckered and featured small tears, like they had all been peeled open and then glued back down. Fell’s gut had wrenched with an unwanted sense of familiarity, and he prayed that he would find nothing at all as he reopened one of the damaged flaps.

The tabs were all completely lined with perfect tiny orange squares. They almost looked, rather innocuously, like Listerine Strips.

“Fuck, Crowley,” Fell groaned under his breath. “Fuck fuck fuck. Crowley!”

Fell had never found anything worse than a “stinger” before, used for boiling water in cells (Fell had eventually figured out how Crowley’s instant coffee was always so hot). Yet here he was, holding what Uriel and the rest of those knuckle-draggers (not all of them, mind you—but Uriel’s cronies, most definitely) on the Emergency Response Team would have viewed as a veritable Holy Grail of cell finds. A stinger he could just toss in the trash, pull the unlucky inmate aside with a “Don’t do it again.” This, of course, was nothing like that.

And it just had to be in Crowley’s cell.

 

Fell heard the announcement for yard coming back. “Luck of the devil,” Fell muttered. Fell would have to turn in the contraband to Sgt. Sandal soon, but presently it was locked in a drawer in his office because Fell also had to remain on his tier for the line movement returning. It didn’t make much difference, but Fell wanted to personally let Crowley know what was happening. It felt like the right thing to do, plus he didn’t want Crowley to believe that he was being targeted as a result of not talking to Fell in a month. Crowley was always one of the last inmates to saunter onto the housing unit at his own speed after any given movement, so Fell knew that he’d be able to catch him on his way in.

As inmates filtered into their respective cells, Fell did a round and ensured that the tier was fairly secure. Then he swiftly went back to the office and waited for Crowley to come through the gate. Just as Fell sat down, Crowley appeared, and attempted to duck past the office, with his sunglasses obscuring his face.

“Crowley,” Fell called out, “we need to talk.”

Crowley flinched and made an odd sound that Fell couldn’t decipher, then turned and stood in the doorway to the office. “No,” Fell said quietly, “come inside, please. Pull up a chair.”

At first Crowley made no move, and Fell wondered if Crowley was about to tell him to go fuck himself. But instead, he grabbed a chair from outside the office and joined Fell next to his desk. Crowley gazed down at the floor and said nothing.

Fell remained silent, knowing that Crowley was too restless to tolerate no words between them for long. When Crowley finally spoke, all he said was, “What’s up, CO?”

“Crowley, could we please not do that?” Fell pleaded. “Could you call me Fell? Can you take off those sunglasses and look at me?”

Fell was finally starting to get the full sense of just how injured Crowley was, and it hurt Fell on a spiritual level. Here was not some hardened max inmate who had played con games for eleven years; this was just a golden-eyed vulnerable young man, who had only ever opened up to Fell because some part of Crowley recognized him from his horrible childhood, and Fell had betrayed that.

Crowley slid off his sunglasses with aching deliberation, and peered up into Fell’s eyes. After eight seconds or so of shared silence, Crowley smirked and gave a quick wink. “Is this the part where you apologize?”

Fell laughed, and was stunned by the relief that washed over him. He almost forgot the real reason he called Crowley in.

“Because I missed you,” Crowley confessed. His face softened.

“Crowley,” Fell said gently, “I would be lying if I said I understood how I hurt you. But regardless, I did, and that was never my intention. All I can do is promise to be more careful with my words in the future.”

“Meh,” said Crowley, looking away. “Don’t worry about it. We’re cool.”

Fell took a breath. “We might not be,” he admitted. He watched the muscles in Crowley’s neck stiffen, almost imperceptibly. Crowley had not looked back at him. “I had sergeant’s orders to search your cell today, Crowley.”

Crowley was still frozen in his chair, looking at nothing in particular, but Fell watched the color drain from his face.

“Crowley?” Fell said. “Do you want to tell me what you think I found, before I say it?”

Crowley snapped his head back to look Fell in the eyes and shook his head hurriedly. Then he seemed to regain his sense of cool humor, and said, “Soups with too much MSG in them for human consumption?”

Fell allowed himself a mirthless smile. “I found your envelopes, Crowley.” Fell sighed. He was trying to figure out how to express even half of what he felt without sounding utterly unprofessional. “Crowley, you matter a great deal to me,” was what he eventually settled on saying.

Crowley gasped audibly, and Fell thought he might have seen Crowley’s lower lip quiver. It made Fell wonder how anybody could survive in prison and stay so soft and sweet through it all. Fell thought that his choice of words had been too restrained, but all Anthony Crowley had ever wanted was to matter to someone, so Crowley had felt Fell’s sentiment deep in his bones.

“I mean that, Crowley,” Fell said. “And that’s why I couldn’t just let you be blindsided before I turn them in.”

Crowley practically jumped from his chair. “You didn’t turn them in yet?” he said in amazement.

Fell was taken aback by the split-second change in mood. “Uh,” he said, “no, not yet, I—”

“You don’t have to turn them in!” Crowley begged. “We could, we could forget this ever happened! You could throw them in a dumpster!”

“Oh, Crowley,” Fell said sadly, “you know this is far too serious for me to shirk my responsibilities like that. This is, well, it’s enormous, actually.”

“You don’t understand!” Crowley continued. There was a manic look in his eyes. “I’m coming up on my minimum, I’ll be meeting with the parole board any day now!”

“Crowley,” Fell said, “do you have any idea how it would look if I were to even entertain this conversation?”

“What, what,” Crowley sputtered, “like, like as if I was just manipulating you this whole time, in case something like this came up?”

Fell hadn’t meant that; he had in fact meant how the conversation could potentially make Fell look. Fell narrowed his eyes now. “Well, no, I hadn’t thought of that, until you suggested it, that is …”

Crowley ignored him. “Please, Fell, please, do not turn those envelopes in.”

Fell shook his head. Something had only now occurred to him, and as a result he was more confused than ever. “Crowley, when I turn in those envelopes, Lt. Michaels will order drug tests for you and Duke, and when your results come back negative they shall handle Duke accordingly. You don’t want that for your cellmate, I understand that, but I don’t see how that could possibly impact you with parole.” Fell froze. “Oh,” he said blankly.

“No, no, not ‘oh,’ dammit, Fell! I don’t use fucking drugs, okay??”

“You’re saying you’re going to fail the drug test,” Fell said, sounding disappointed.

“Yes! Now you’re finally getting it!” Crowley made wild, meaningless gestures, as he talked with his hands. “I have no history of drugs, I don’t use drugs, and I’m going to come up hot on a drug test!”

“Crowley!” Fell said, getting just as worked up now. “You’re being ridiculous! Ei-ei-either they’re your drugs, or else you’re going to pass a drug test, there’s no in-between! This will all get sorted out.”

Crowley looked hopelessly terrified. “You really believe that, don’t you?! You think, you just think, you think life is fair like that! You think, there’s good guys, and there’s bad guys, and you’re one of the good guys, and everything you people say is reality!”

Fell pinched the bridge of his nose. He said nothing for what seemed like a long time.

“Crowley,” Fell said, almost too quietly for Crowley to hear. “Every time I think we’re getting somewhere. Every time I think you’re going to be honest with me, and not act like an inmate.”

Crowley slumped down in his chair. He was really on the verge of tears now.

Crowley knew he had been defeated. He put his sunglasses back on, and dropped his head in his hands.

I wonder, angel, thought Crowley (who had secretly never stopped giving Fell the pet name in his mind), how can somebody as clever as you be so stupid?

 

Between the testing and waiting for results, Crowley remained on A-tier for a week. He barely spoke to anyone, least of all his cellmate, and he looked even more gaunt than usual. Crowley had been able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. When has that light ever been anything other than an oncoming train? Crowley thought. He thought he had been in the clear when he turned eighteen, and look how that turned out. Eleven years, he thought, eleven years in this shithole, and now I’m about to spend at least three more. Probably five.

In the end, it was Uriel and Lt. Michaels who came to collect Crowley while he was locked in his cell.

“Hello there, Crowley!” said Lt. Michaels with a sly smile, self-possessed as always. Lt. Michaels was the kind of woman who commanded control of a room before she even opened her mouth. Her white uniform and polished boots were pristine at all times.

Uriel unlocked the food flap on Crowley’s cell door and let it fall open. “Turn around and raise your wrists to the wicket,” Uriel said. “And do not try to grab me or anything stupid like that.”

“Mr. Crowley won’t try to grab you, Uriel,” Michaels said pleasantly. “I’ve seen his psych profile, you don’t have the right parts to hold his interest.”

Crowley didn’t take the bait. He allowed Uriel to cuff him and seethed silently while she unlocked the cell gate. She guided him out onto the tier.

“Funny she should mention that,” Uriel said to Crowley. “Don’t think your boyfriend in grey will get you any special treatment in here. It’s his day off.”

“Not cute, by the way,” said Michaels. “Lt. Gabriel was in a pretty foul mood when he saw the home movie of the two of you crawling all around the floor together.”

Crowley still managed not to reply, but he could feel his heart rate spike.

“Do you know why we’re escorting you to restrictive housing today, Crowley?” Lt. Michaels asked, in a voice that sounded like Crowley was a child being walked to sit in the corner as punishment for stealing cookies.

“Oh, yeah, I know this one,” said Crowley. “It’s because you’re a lying bitch.”

In response, Uriel bent one of Crowley’s hands into a gooseneck.

“Gahh!!” Crowley gritted out, doubling over. “Why, Officer Uriel, if you wanted to hold my hand, all you had to do was ask.”

Lt. Michaels laughed lightly. She seemed to be genuinely amused. “Oh, Crowley,” she said, “classy as ever. No wonder Duke likes you.”

Crowley looked up. “Duke likes me? Because I gotta say, at this moment—not one of my favorite people.”

Lt. Michaels almost looked fond. “You always were a funny one, Crowley,” she said. “You know, I can be pretty funny, too.”

“Yeah, well,” said Crowley, “looks aren’t everything.”

“No, really! In fact, I’ve got a joke for you: parole scheduled your interview. The date is only two weeks away.

“Think about that one during your ninety days in the hole.”

Chapter Text

Azra Fell was listening to Dooley Wilson sing “As Time Goes By,” for the 243rd time in Fell’s life.

Casablanca is not a complicated film. It wasn’t like Fell noticed something new about it each time he watched it. It was a ritual that helped him to think. Fell kicked back and sank into his old recliner.

He was thinking about Crowley.

Crowley had been off A-tier and down in the hole for a week, which left Fell with no real recourse for checking on how he was doing without drawing undue attention. The first time Fell ever realized he was thinking about Crowley outside of work—in his home, no less—it had disturbed him greatly. It was unethical, he thought, it was unprofessional, he was becoming too close with an inmate. It was the sort of thing that could lead to Fell falling into dangerous territory.

Now Fell wondered if perhaps it was unethical not to think about Crowley. The problem was that something was very wrong at Paradise Correctional Institution, Fell could feel it, and he didn’t know what it was, but it just might have had something to do with bad things happening to Crowley. It would be immoral of Fell to ignore that feeling.

He had already made that mistake once before.

“Let’s see,” Ingrid Bergman said on Fell’s TV, “the last time we met—”

“It was La Belle Aurore,” said Humphrey Bogart.

“How nice,” said Ingrid. “You remembered.”

Fell remembered knowing AJ Crowley at Eden Youth. More importantly, he remembered feeling that something had been tremendously wrong there, too, something that also involved bad things happening to Crowley, and Fell had chosen to not get involved.

How old was AJ then? The words bubbled up nastily in Fell’s mind. Ten? Eleven? Much too young to defend himself.

“I was an intern,” Fell snarled angrily into his Scotch. “I hadn’t even finished my bachelor’s yet. What was I supposed to do?”

You could have talked to him.

You could have treated him like he mattered.

Fell grimaced into his open palm. He was not on the first drink of the night. His cheeks were too numb now to register if any tears were streaming down his face.

AJ Crowley was Azra Fell’s greatest professional regret. Scratch that—he was the greatest regret of Fell’s entire life. Fell had done just fine by stashing that regret high up on a shelf for the past eighteen years, until the day he started working A-tier and had made Crowley take off those sunglasses.

“I remember every detail,” said Humphrey Bogart.

“I’m sorry,” Fell choked out to no one.

On multiple occasions, even back when Crowley hadn’t been speaking to him, Fell had caught Crowley gazing at him with something like puppy love shining in those sphinxlike amber eyes. Transference, Fell thought. He remembers me from when he was a boy, and he has no one from back then, so he’s projecting on me now. Whatever it was, Fell didn’t feel he deserved to have Crowley looking at him with eyes like that.

“So what is this then, what is he supposed to be to me?” Fell wondered aloud. “Am I being punished, or is this some kind of chance to redeem myself?”

Well, that’s up to you, now isn’t it? his mind supplied the answer.

Fell sat with that thought for a moment.

On the screen, Ilsa, Laszlo, and Rick were wishing each other goodnight, for the 243rd time in Fell’s life.

“Goodnight, AJ,” Fell finally muttered, to the ghosts in the room. “Tomorrow’s a new day.”

 

Every day was the same to Anthony Crowley.

Crowley was bad at being bored. He had no tolerance for it. That was why he had begged Sgt. Sandal to give him the janitor job on A-tier a year ago. Sandal had said yes, mostly so Crowley would quit asking (Sandal couldn’t care less which inmates filled what jobs; Crowley doubted he could even tell most of them apart). The officers who worked A-tier had been happy, because as far as they were concerned, they had never seen an inmate work so hard just to tire himself out. Crowley behind bars was a zoo animal that developed stereotypic behaviors. Shove a mister of CLR in his hand, and suddenly his anxious energy proved useful.

He did more than just clean, obviously. Sometimes, he sat in his cell and drew, although he wondered if he was really any good at it. His favorite was working in charcoal combined with bright oil pastels. He liked how the finished product could look like hope and despair all in the same place. One of the best parts of living with Duke, he always left Crowley alone when he got into that creative flow, and he was respectful not to touch Crowley’s art supplies or the finished product. Plus, Duke was the cook of the cell; he could do remarkable things to Ramen.

Duke was dumb, and rude, and he was largely responsible for Crowley’s current predicament, but as far as cellmates go he usually wasn’t that bad.

Crowley was lonely. He missed Duke. 23 hours a day locked in a single cell will do that to a man.

The thought of Fell rose to Crowley’s mind, unbidden.

Crowley missed Fell. That idiot goody two-shoes angel of a guard, he thought, but he couldn’t make himself be angry at him. It actually warmed Crowley’s heart a little to know that Fell still believed in right and wrong, was so sure that he understood how it worked.

Of course he couldn’t stay mad. If Crowley was being 100-percent honest, Uriel had been right on the money to grind him up the way she did. He knew nothing could ever come of it, but he definitely did have a crush. Other inmates had been heard to grumble about Fell’s “pet” inmate. Fine, put a leash on me then, Crowley was not above thinking. Woof, woof.

(Crowley had been in solitary confinement for a week—he had had plenty of time to picture things he’d much rather be doing, or having done to him, for that matter.)

That’s right, it had only been seven days. Crowley was not cut out for this. He had no idea how he was about to survive eleven more weeks of it.

Crowley quit circling like a caged tiger and slid his back down along the wall until he was sitting on the floor, legs splayed out in front of him. Right, eleven weeks to go, he thought. With a parole interview scheduled in one. Technically, parole could order to have Crowley cuffed and escorted to be interviewed, but he knew they wouldn’t. What would be the point, when they were just going to deny him for being locked up for drugs (which I don’t fucking use, he thought bitterly)? They would just skip over his slot and take a long lunch.

Crowley hated everything about his life right now. He hated the way the orange disciplinary segregation jumpsuit clashed with his red hair. He hated the uselessly flexy anti-shank prison pens that were all the restrictive housing unit officers would give to him. And at present, he hated himself most of all.

“Easy job,” he told the beige bricks. “Make your minimum, keep your head down. Nice, straightforward job, eh?” He bumped the back of his skull off the wall again and again while he spoke, not to injure himself, but because that was what passed for entertainment in the hole. “Not the kind of thing any inmate is gonna screw up, right?”

Crowley sprang to his feet with a growl and paced the cell at tortured speed. “Great plan,” he said to some invisible force. Crowley didn’t mean to start praying, but who else was there to talk to? “God, you listening?” He waved his arms like he was trying to flag down a plane on a desert island. “Show me a great plan. You obviously never got around to making one for me, right? Or is this all some kind of test that I’m failing spectacularly?

“Well, hey,” Crowley continued acidically to no one, “at least I can sniff after a hot daddy officer, who probably thinks I’m scum and would never waste a single thought on my bullshit, for three more fucking years instead of just the three months!”

The thought did nothing to make him feel better.

 

“Oh, I’m an asshole,” Fell said to himself, basking in the blue-grey computer screen light.

Fell didn’t know what he could do to help Crowley. In truth, he didn’t know for sure that he should be helping Crowley. All he knew was an indefinable feeling of wrongness within the prison. He couldn’t even classify it as a suspicion, because he didn’t know what he suspected. But he believed that somehow, something unfair was happening, with Crowley’s current situation as a key point.

When Fell first started interning at Eden Youth Rehabilitation Center, he was twenty years old. Initially, he was mostly confined to helping out around the office—making copies, making coffee, that kind of thing. It would be quite a while before he did any actual counseling of juveniles. After a year, the program director started assigning Fell to take boys and girls out on various field trips (in an old white fifteen-person passenger van of questionable street-legality). He guessed Crowley would have been around twelve when he had gone in a group with Fell to the planetarium.

That was the first time Fell really interacted with the child. There had been scrawny AJ Crowley, dressed all in black, going through some kind of goth kid phase with a big honking silver St. Peter’s cross around his neck and sunglasses at night (Fell wanted to know how it was that he could even see), beaming beatifically up at the dome of false stars. It had intrigued Fell to witness Crowley so captivated, because he usually only ever noticed AJ when he was pissing people off.

Fell had joined the boy where he was sitting to the side by himself. “Hey, AJ,” he’d said. “You into this stuff?”

AJ had flashed Fell a broad gap-toothed grin then and nodded unselfconsciously. (Modern-day Crowley had apparently outgrown his sibilant lisp.) “Yeah. What’s up, Azra?” he’d said, momentarily getting stuck on hissing the “Z” sound.

For the next hour, Fell had merely nodded and smiled while AJ Crowley pointed out every constellation he found and told Fell all about them. He’d known his mythology, too, regaling Fell with a plethora of Greek and Roman legends of the sky. Fell had been impressed by AJ’s quick intellect, and it had charmed him to see a boy living in a detention center embrace such a wholesome hobby.

Crowley had liked to play pranks at Eden. He got mischievous when boredom set in. It was all silly stuff, like stapling a tech’s coat sleeves shut. Fell noticed that Crowley’s low-grade chaos was on the whole reserved for the nastiest of techs, especially those who were mean to the younger children. Two buddy-buddy techs in particular, Raven and “Whitey” (nobody ever seemed to remember what Whitey’s real name was), hated Crowley the most. It wasn’t Fell’s job to supervise them, he didn’t really know what went on between techs and children, but he noticed enough to feel uneasy. After the night they had caught AJ stealing apples out of the cafeteria, Fell hadn’t seen AJ come out of his dorm for nearly a week. Back when Fell saw him again, he’d had black circles under his eyes (visible even with the sunglasses), and he had started to develop a peculiar habit of slinking along the walls instead of ever being in the center of the room. Fell remembered thinking that if a child was hungry enough to be stealing fruit, couldn’t they have let that go?

There had been a blizzard the day before AJ finally did venture back out of his room. The night that AJ rejoined the other children, as Raven and Whitey were preparing to leave for the day, they had reached up on top of their lockers to grab their baseball caps, and swung them down on their heads too quickly to notice that they had both been completely hard-packed with snow.

Who had done it remained an unsolved mystery, naturally.

Fell was on DOCNet. He had wanted to see if Crowley had any history of drug use, or prior misconducts. Of course, a lack of drug charges in the past did not prove that Crowley wasn’t bringing Suboxone into the prison now (or using it), but it would help Fell feel better about placing some faith in him. It reassured Fell to see that not only did Crowley have no mention of substance abuse in his record, he had also never been sent to the hole before in eleven years of imprisonment.

But that was not the only thing Fell had seen. Before he’d found that information, Fell had to scan past Crowley’s case summary. And the details of Crowley’s crimes from the arresting officers were exactly as Crowley had described them, that day that Fell had accused him of lying about it.

“I am such an asshole,” Fell repeated, rubbing his temples.

“Knock, knock,” said Officer Newton from the door to Fell’s office. “Did I interrupt you talking to yourself?”

Fell chuckled (but he was prompt to close out the windows on his computer and lock the screen). “My dear boy, that is oftentimes the only way one can get an intelligent conversation around here,” he said. Fell liked Newton. They were both a couple of oddballs—dweebs, by their coworkers’ standards.

Newton cracked a smile. “Well, did you want to take that conversation outside? I’m going around giving reliefs.”

“You know,” Fell said, “I think I could do with a little break.”

Newton took the keys from Fell. “By all means, please,” he said, “take a big one instead. That way I can hide out in here as long as I can before I have to deal with anyone else today.”

Fell laughed. “So you’re telling me to take an extended break? I think I can manage that—at least nothing can go wrong on a break.”




“… you think life is fair like that!”

Fell’s last conversation with Crowley was screaming in his head, louder than a fire alarm.

“You think, there’s good guys, and there’s bad guys, and you’re one of the good guys, and everything you people say is reality!”

Why didn’t I even stop to consider the possibility that he might have been telling me the truth? Fell thought, his heart pounding out of his chest at what he had just overheard.

Worst in Fell’s mind, in retrospect, had to be the last thing he had said to Crowley, before he had turned in to Sgt. Sandal the contraband he found.

“Crowley … Every time I think you’re going to be honest with me, and not act like an inmate.”

You just keep doing wrong by this man, again and again in his life, Fell’s mind shouted at him. He has never had anyone there for him as a constant, not even his mother, and there you are—a constant arbiter of injustice.

And he likes me anyway, Fell thought wonderingly. Or maybe “like” might be the wrong word, but he has no motive for how he always seems to be wanting to talk to me.

He has no reason to light up the way he does when I come in to work.

Fell had thought all of this while he stood in the foyer of the stairwell to A-tier’s floor. He didn’t usually exit the building on his breaks, but Newton had told him to take his time, and Fell thought he could use a cigarette after what he’d read on DOCNet. He wasn’t really much of a smoker, which was why he carried an emergency pack of Parliaments in case of nerves. No actual smoker smoked Parliaments.

It had surprised him when he heard Duke at the top of the stairs. Duke wasn’t a worker with outside clearance, so he should have been on the tier if he wasn’t out at yard. But Fell didn’t really put it past Duke to sneak out for a breather, it wouldn’t have been hard to do, and Duke was a lifer, so what did he care if he got written up for being in an unauthorized area? Nobody visited him, so you couldn’t take that away from him. No matter what Duke did in prison, he didn’t really have much to lose.

Fell had been more concerned to hear Lt. Michaels’ voice. Paradise Correctional Institution was comprised of two buildings of housing units, 1-side and 2-side, connected by a courtyard. In fact, before he had been put into restrictive housing, Crowley had been working toward earning clearance to work out in the courtyard so he could tend the little garden some inmates had started. Fell worked 1-side, so what his housing unit referred to as “A-tier” was technically titled 1-A. For most of Fell’s scheduled shifts, unless either lieutenant was off that day, 1-side “belonged” to Lt. Gabriel, whereas Lt. Michaels performed her rounds on 2-side. Lt. Michaels was also head security lieutenant, so the major exception to the rule was in matters of investigative searching and drug testing.

There was no obvious reason for Duke to be off the tier.

There was no obvious reason for Lt. Michaels to be in the building.

Unless you were Fell, and knew what Fell knew about his inmates, and the contraband he had found on his unit, in which case … it became painfully clear what was happening.

“We can just stick a pin in it for now,” Fell had heard Michaels say, when he had turned the corner after reentering the building through 1-side’s sally port. At first he had been distracted, hoping he didn’t smell too much like smoke, but at this point he froze.

“It’s gonna cause problems if we hold off,” Duke had said. “People don’t wanna wait anymore.”

“Well, I’m terribly sorry for their inconvenience,” Michaels replied sarcastically now, “but if you appreciate staying out of the hole, then you can’t move things right now. The wrong channels might notice, and then they’ll know it was you.”

“You can still run things from inside the hole,” Duke grumbled. “People would just think he was still calling shots from there.”

“That’s ridiculous and you know it,” said Michaels. “He’s not like you, he doesn’t have any connections. Nobody’s going to believe that skinny little faggot could have that much power.”

“Well, it sucks for him,” Duke said, not sounding overly concerned. “I got nothin’ against the queer, he keeps the cell clean. When he’s not smudging charcoal all over the place …”

“It is what it is,” said Michaels. “I never really minded him, either, but it’s not our fault his cocksucker CO couldn’t leave well enough alone.”

Hearing Michaels’ steps, Fell raced back around the corner and slipped inside the officers’ break room. He shakily poured himself a cup of coffee so it might look like he’d always been there, in case anyone would join him. Fortunately, he heard Michaels retreat through the sally port instead.

Fell ran his fists through his white-blonde hair, gritting his teeth so hard that his jaw shook from rage.

What the hell do I do now?

Chapter Text

(February 19, 2008)

Warlock Dowling prowled the boys’ dorm room hallway of Eden Youth Rehabilitation Center as stealthily as a panther stalking its prey. As he approached the door of his target, he crept with his front pressed against the wall, his face a picture of burning intensity. He doesn’t miss a trick—if I make a single sound … thought Warlock, as he regulated his breathing, and inching locked-splayed fingers out toward the doorknob …

“Ha!” Warlock flung the door wide open and pounced into the room.

“Fuck!” Seventeen-year-old AJ Crowley darted up out of bed like a viper. In one miraculously swift motion, he tore off his headphones, thrust his battered old CD-Walkman under the pillow, and was in the doorframe. “Asshole!”

Warlock dropped his backpack to the floor and theatrically knelt in hysterics. “Oh, my God—”

“Don’t bring him into this, this was all you!”

“—you should see your fucking face! Oh, shit, I caught you crying and everything! This is great!”

“I am not crying, asshole,” AJ hissed, wiping at his eyes. “Okay, fine, but—I’ll have you know, these are manly tears! Like, Bruce Willis in Armageddon!”

“Pfffft,” Warlock exhaled. “What do you know about Armageddon?! The last time I caught you holed up in here all emotional like you had your period, you were watching Love Actually!”

“Um, have you watched it?! Have you even seen the sign scene??”

“Yeah, actually, and that guy’s kind of a dick. I mean, he put that chick in a really bad position if you stop and think about it …”

“A dick— no, you know what? We are not gonna discuss this.”

Now it was Warlock’s turn to wipe the tears from his eyes, although those were tears from laughter. He kicked his backpack across the floor to the bunk bed AJ shared with a roommate and flopped down on the bottom. “Oh, man, AJ,” he said, “what would I do without you?”

AJ sat at the foot of the bed and scowled. “I’m sure you’d find somebody else to torture.”

“But it just wouldn’t be the same,” Warlock sang sweetly. AJ fought off having his cheek pinched, not entirely successful. Warlock grinned like a little demon while he fished the CD player out from beneath AJ’s pillow. “So what hippie shit was it this time? You know, 1969 called, they want their music back—”

“Okay, first of all, if you must know, it was ‘One Tin Soldier’ and if that song doesn’t make you cry a little then you are a monster-sorry-I-don’t-make-the-rules and second of all, 1989 called and they want their fucking jokes back!”

Warlock set the CD player to the side and shot up. He looked positively stricken. “Why, AJ,” he whimpered, sounding devastated. “If you think I can remember 1989 then surely that must mean you’ve forgot what day it was …”

AJ snapped up straight, which was an unusual look on him. “Ahh, fuck. It’s your fucking birthday, isn’t it.”

Warlock laughed and spun so his legs were dangling from the bed. “You know it’s fine. I got you something.”

AJ stared. “You know,” he worked out slowly, “that that’s not how birthdays work, right? I mean, I don’t know how they did it in your special ed classes but—”

Warlock cracked AJ on the back of the head as they both laughed. “Ass!” Warlock took a notebook out of his backpack and started thumbing through it. “But no, seriously, I’d rather do something for you than get crap. And it’s a dumb birthday anyway, it’s not like I’m turning sixteen, or 21.”

In spite of himself, AJ couldn’t help but lean over curiously to try to see the notebook pages.

“Yo, back off! I have to put some finishing touches on it!” Warlock said, giving a shove. He pulled a pen out of the notebook coil and turned his back to AJ as he ripped out a page. When he turned back around, he held up a sign: “TO ME, YOU ARE PERFECT.”

AJ lunged to rip the sheet out of Warlock’s hands. “I hate you!”

Warlock cracked up. “Okay, okay, that’s not it. Let me find the real thing.”

Warlock came to a page and looked up at AJ, flicking the long dark hair out of his face. Warlock had a certain look in his ocean black-green eyes that AJ always understood to mean, I’m going to open myself up now, don’t laugh at what you find. AJ shuffled on the bed, peering quietly back into Warlock’s expression in a way that he hoped showed he knew when to be serious, promise.

“I’m on my gay poetry shit again,” Warlock mumbled. “Just warning you.”

AJ nodded solemnly. “It’s not ‘gay,’ Warlock,” AJ said, “I really like the stuff that you write.”

“Well … okay then …” said Warlock cautiously, “if you say it’s not gay … you being the leading authority on gayness and all …”

AJ punched Warlock in the arm.

“Okay, okay!” Warlock laughed, raising his hands to defend himself. “You know, you should really work on not being so homophobic. Geez,” he teased. Warlock tore a sheet out of the notebook and passed it across the bed.

“All right,” AJ said, “let’s see what we got here …”

AJ read.

 

“Serpent of Eden”

AJ:

Don’t say I never gave you anything.

-W. 2008

The serpent lies,
Says he hates the light
But hour gold gentles corpse-grey faces
While he wraps scales round sunset bright

The serpent lies,
Tells you he’s not soft
But in north sky at August dusk,
The snake holds ropes of cloud aloft

The serpent lies
That his heart’s gone cold
With eyes like fallen angel flames,
He basks in his own passion bold

He hides in louder constellations
That is how he plays his part
He lets his bearer play the healer,
But that power pales to his two hearts.

 

“Holy shit,” AJ breathed. He dropped the paper to his lap to look at Warlock.

“Is that, like, good holy shit, or bad holy shit?” Warlock asked, but he was smiling. He had put his heart in AJ’s hands before—he knew it was a safe place to be.

“Good,” said AJ. “Jesus. Nobody ever wrote me anything before.”

Warlock shrugged.

“So—I’m the lying serpent?” AJ said with a little laugh.

“You’re the guy who tells everyone he’s a hardass but cries at Love Actually,” Warlock said wickedly.

“The sign scene, though,” AJ moaned.

“So what do you think??” Warlock egged on.

“I think,” AJ said, as softly as he could muster …

“Yeah?”

“I think … that I had no idea you were so gay for me.”

Warlock scream-laughed and hit AJ, hard, with his pillow.

AJ leaned back. “All right, I’ll be serious! Sorry.” He paused. “I think it’s fucking beautiful, man.” AJ reread it. “Wait a minute. North sky in August … healer, two hearts … Did you write me a poem about fucking Serpens?”

Warlock grinned. “Yeah.”

AJ inhaled sharply. “That’s not even like a major constellation. How did you even remember that story?”

“I remember the shit you tell me,” said Warlock.

“Man,” said AJ. They sat quietly for a minute.

“So I’m the snake,” said AJ.

“It’s supposed to be a compliment, though,” said Warlock. “I dunno. I wanted to do something with your stars, I thought, I’m not gonna write about some shit like Orion that’s real obvious … and, like, you’re snaky, I don’t know. You’re skinny, and you got those funky eyes, and,” Warlock looked serious again. “You know. Snakes get a bad rap.”

“Yeah,” said AJ. “No, I get it. That’s … really cool. I don’t think I ever really thought about snakes like that, that deeply. Huh. Makes sense.” AJ looked contemplative.

“You know what?” AJ said finally. “I think I do have something for your birthday. I know a guy …”

“Yeah?” said Warlock. “For what?”

AJ rubbed a spot on his face, just in front of his right ear. “What do you think about getting tattoos?”

Chapter Text

Monday - One Week to the End of the World Crowley’s Parole Board Hearing

 

Crowley woke up, and immediately wished he didn’t.

He raised a wavering hand to the side of his face, where he lightly touched the small snake tattoo curling alongside his ear. His fingertips dusted it as lightly as one might brush strands of long hair out of a dear friend’s eyes. He had remembered something, and he really wished he hadn’t.

If this were a movie, there might have been a dramatic moment where Crowley flagged down an officer, doing rounds on the restricted unit where Crowley was currently housed. Perhaps Crowley would have been shocked out of slumber by the sound of the wicket on his gate slamming shut after chow was delivered, and then Crowley would race to the door of his single cell, face and palms pressed against the long skinny window while his breath fogged it over, as the words rang out his chest wretchedly: “CO, wait! What date is today??”

It wasn’t a movie. Crowley silently rolled onto his side facing the wall and worked on falling back asleep. It might have been a little gift from Warlock’s ghost, he thought, that at least he was sleeping alone for a change. His body could use the break.

Crowley didn’t need a calendar. He didn’t have to ask.

He always knew when it was December 23rd.

 

On Sunday, Officer Fell had returned to his housing unit following a fifteen-minute break which was really more like thirty, only to stumble upon the head security lieutenant (who was largely responsible for executing investigative searches to find drugs) having a nice, amicable chat with one of Fell’s inmates about selling opiates in prison and blaming somebody else, no big deal.

Except it was even worse than that, because they were talking about blaming his inmate (he might as well admit it to himself, since he could never say it out loud: Crowley was something special to him)—who was in fact already suffering for their sins, down in the hole—and the inmate having the conversation was his inmate’s own cellmate.

If this were a movie, there might have been a dramatic moment where Azra Fell walked right into the security offices at Paradise Correctional Institution, slammed the door wide so that all eyes were on him, including Lt. Michaels’, assumed a heroic pose in the doorway for the ideal amount of time, and marched straight back to her desk as she sat and announced in a strong, steady voice for the world to hear: “Ma’am, you have made a travesty of our profession today, you have committed a vile iniquity against someone who did nothing to deserve it, and I for one will not stand by and allow for it to happen!”

It wasn’t a movie, and that would have been remarkably stupid.

When Fell worked at Eden, he had been too anxious to say when anything seemed out of the ordinary to him. He’d been a young intern then, with no professional pull, and he hadn’t known whether or not he should trust his gut, so he’d buried his nose in business elsewhere and told himself that he was right to stay in his own lane. Now, Fell had only been an officer at PCI for about three and a half months.

Fell had trusted his gut enough to check the DOCNet. He had no intention of sticking his head in the sand this time, especially after hearing Michaels scheming with Duke. But once again he was in the same position of having no pull and getting no respect. Fell hadn’t acted on the issue at hand last night, but it wasn’t because he was not resolved to do the right thing.

It was because he needed to be painstakingly careful.

We all know what the road to hell is paved with …, Fell thought.

What if any plan turned out rash and it backfired and Crowley got hurt somehow out of spite? What if Fell got fired vindictively, and was stripped of all prison clearance, in which case as a civilian with cut ties to the institution he would not even be allowed to call Crowley for a year? If Fell could convince somebody to call on his behalf (and who would?), how long would it be before the phone monitors caught it? And what good would it do anyway if someone could only talk to Crowley over the phone for fifteen minutes at a time? Could Fell become some sort of whistleblower? Of course not, what would they do to Crowley then? No, he needed to stay inside the walls, and he needed to remain calm.

So yes, Fell was onboard to do whatever must be done; there was no doubt in his mind that it was not only the right thing to do, but the only thing he could ever accept from himself, and no less. He just had to figure something out, and fast.

Prisons follow a paramilitary chain of command. Fell was walking a thin line here—a blue one, to be exact. Even though Fell only had a few months on the job, and although certain types of social interactions could throw him for a loop, he was extremely intelligent, and he knew how to read a room.

It broke Fell’s heart to have to think the way he was forced to think now, because a giant part of Fell still wanted to believe in the good guys. He wanted to believe in something lawful and right. But it wasn’t so black and white after all, was it?

For example, when had Crowley ever shown himself to be anything but good and kind?

Fell had seen that prison was a culture, and it was a hard one: you didn’t jump chain of command, and you didn’t “snitch,” even if you knew something was wrong. That was why Fell legitimately feared someone taking petty revenge on Crowley.

Because sometimes he thought he couldn’t tell who was on which sides of the bars.

Fell’s chain of command put him directly under Sgt. Sandal. There was no way the sergeant would ever help him with this, he knew that. Sandal would never go against a lieutenant, and certainly not to the benefit of an inmate. Theoretically, Fell was also beneath Unit Manager Device, but that was more in title than anything. Device had no real decision-making abilities. She’d be on his side, he was sure of it, but then she would be just another powerless person who knew too many details. And anyone who knew anything about all this had the propensity to accidentally cause harm to come to Crowley.

Another jailhouse saying: Three men can keep a secret, if two are dead …

What would happen if I went straight to the Captain? Fell wondered. But he knew the answer, that there was no way he could enter the separate administrative building where the Captain’s and Major’s offices were without being seen walking in, and that would mean tipping his hand to the whole of PCI.

There are no secrets in jail …

Lt. Gabriel.

Fell couldn’t believe it hadn’t been obvious to him from the start. Lt. Gabriel was an asshole, and he hated Crowley, but Fell believed that Gabriel believed in his job. Fell didn’t know how friendly Gabriel was with Michaels, but he would never approve of drugs being smuggled into the facility, right? And Fell, whether Gabriel thought him to be soft or not, was still one of “his” boys, what with Gabriel being the full-time lieutenant on 1-side. But none of that was salient, or at least, none of that would have been enough to suffice on its own.

What was important was that Fell had done a favor (or not really, but he had made it look like one) for Gabriel once, and it was a big one. Fell had prevented a lieutenant from deliberately instigating a fight with an inmate, an excuse to hit an inmate, on camera. Favors were respected in jail, because everyone understood that nothing was free.

It didn’t matter that Fell had really done it for Crowley.

All that matters, Fell thought, is that Gabriel thinks I did it for him.

 

Fell waited until end of shift. He had to be careful; this wasn’t exactly the kind of thing he could do over the phone. He needed to get Lt. Gabriel alone.

He knocked outside the lieutenant’s office. So much for the open door policy, Fell thought.

“Fell,” said Gabriel, motioning him in, “this is a surprise. Shut that behind you.” Gabriel extended an open hand toward the chair across from his desk. “Well? Don’t stand around, it bothers people.”

That was the closest Fell was going to get to an invitation to please, have a seat, make yourself comfortable, he supposed.

Gabriel leaned in with his arms on the desk. “So what brings you in, soldier? Lay it on me.”

Fell was never quite sure how to read Gabriel. The lieutenant was grinning ear to ear, and his tone seemed friendly enough, but the light in his eyes was manically bright, and his jaw was locked tense. He looked like the human personification of road rage.

Fell hurried to edit the script he’d created in his mind. He had intended to come straight out with the conversation he overheard between Michaels and Duke, but suddenly he knew that was not the correct course of action. “Okay, well, ahem, sir, you see, the thing is,” Fell stuttered—to buy time. How the hell did I believe it would be a good idea to talk to a lieutenant about another lieutenant? Fell thought with mounting panic. I am so stupid. He is going to take Michaels’ side no matter what. Fell devised his plan B on the spot: “It’s about one of my inmates,” he said. “Duke, Heston, ah, he’s in cell—”

“I know who Duke is,” Gabriel said calmly. “Go on.”

“I think,” Fell said, “well, it’s possible— Actually, I think I’m getting ahead of myself. The inmate Crowley—”

“Is this about Duke or Crowley,” Gabriel interrupted flatly.

“Duke. Er, both.” Fell took a deep breath. Get it together, he warned himself. Get a poker face on. “Okay,” he said. “What I suspect is, well …” Fell paused, then barreled through the next bit: “I don’t believe the drugs were Crowley’s, sir. What if they were Duke’s? I mean—hypothetically speaking.”

Gabriel was laser-focused on Fell. Fell caught an odd quirk at the corner of Gabriel’s mouth, wondered what it meant. “Crowley failed the drug test,” Gabriel said simply.

“Yes, but, ah … what if there was a mixup? With the test results? Could that possibility be … investigated?”

Gabriel sat silent as a stone for what felt to Fell like a long time but was probably only six seconds. “Well,” he said, “the person who leads investigations is Lt. Michaels. And the person who oversees drug testing … is Lt. Michaels.” Gabriel shifted back into his seat. “Are you saying she mixed up the results?”

“N-n-n-not intentionally! I’m saying”—Fell could feel the redness rising in his face—“mistakes can and do happen … do they not?”

For a second Fell gathered that Gabriel might just punch him in the mouth. Fell wasn’t sure what had resulted in this level of hostility being aimed his way.

Much to Fell’s surprise, though, Gabriel instead let out a long, loud sigh, and all of that too-bright wrath seemed to exit his body. Gabriel flopped back into his chair. He briefly glanced up, then lazily dropped his head to one shoulder to look at Fell side-eyed. “You know,” said Gabriel, lowering his voice, “I would like to hate you—all things considered. But we’re short-staffed, and you’re not the worst officer.”

“Uh, thank you?”

Gabriel ignored him. “So I’d really rather you not traipse into my office to draw attention to yourself like this … when I could really just do you the favor of looking the other way.”

Fell was sincerely lost. “Sir?”

“I mean,” Gabriel continued on cryptically, “you haven’t really been here long enough to have any excuse, but on the other hand I’m shocked you lasted this long. We all need to cope, with this job. Understand?”

“I don’t,” Fell admitted, but an oncoming sense of dread was knotting throughout his stomach.

“We got guys here, the minute they clock out, they go get drunk until it’s time to come back. We got guys, they go home, they kick the dog, they beat their wives … all because they never figured out how to do their eight and just leave it at the gate.” Gabriel looked Fell up and down meaningfully. “So if you want to get yourself taken care of in the mop closet from time to time, you go do what you gotta do. But I’m not letting the guy out of the hole early for you.”

“What?!” Fell said, stunned. “Good God, I think you have the wrong idea!”

Gabriel stared at something interesting on the ceiling. “Look, everyone knows what Anthony Crowley’s all about. Why do you think we stashed a short-timer with a lifer.”

Fell paled with horror. “I’m sure I don’t follow.”

Everything you ever believed about justice is a lie, Fell thought to himself. Literally everything you ever believed is wrong.

“Oh, I’m sure that you do,” said Gabriel. “You just don’t want to picture your pet cheating on you. Which, by the way, gross, but—whatever floats your boat. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

Fell’s hand dropped from his mouth; in truth, he didn’t know how long he’d been holding it there. “I’m not— No. What, what you just said about his cell assignment,” Fell said, eyes wide, “th-that’s incredibly illegal—in addition to how unforgivably immoral it is.”

Gabriel shot up in his chair, and Fell was amazed how it was possible that he could appear to be righteously angry in spite of everything. “Wow, you really are a naïve little ball of sunshine, aren’t you, Fell?”

“He’s not a bargaining chip,” Fell growled, rising to his feet. The flames of fury flickering over his initial disgust were beginning to consume him. “He’s a human being.”

“Don’t you start that shit with me, sweetheart!” Gabriel snapped as he stood up. He was standing over his desk, and Fell could see that he was gripping the lip of it so tightly that his knuckles were whitening. “You’re the one in here negotiating for a thing that basically amounts to a redheaded Fleshlight!”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?!” Fell cried.

“What’s wrong with me?!” Gabriel shouted. “Do you even know how many of us there are, versus how many of them? I don’t know—3,000 maximum-security inmates, to maybe, 275 guys at most? Guys wearing the same fucking uniform as you are? You ever think about that? That means that we only go home because they let us. If they rioted tomorrow, we wouldn’t stand a chance. Do you ever think about what my fucking job is??”

“Your job is not to hurt people!” Fell said, his fists balled at his sides.

“No, you’re right, it’s not,” Gabriel said. “My job is to get your stupid ass out of here in one piece. So if you don’t get your head stomped in and a razor through your throat because a guy who’s got nothing to lose had a good time in his cell last night, that’s called the greater fucking good. And YOU’RE WELCOME, by the way.

“Now get your fucking ‘hypotheticals’ out of my office.”

Chapter Text

Tuesday - Six Days to Crowley’s Parole Board Hearing

 

The instant he woke up, Fell latched onto his cell phone and called the administrative offices at Paradise Correctional Institution. The meeting with Lt. Gabriel had only made the situation more dire, but he did not regret uncovering what he had learned. And he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to find a higher authority which would hear him out. He was prepared to take this scandal all the way to the top.

The number rang and rang for what seemed to be an inordinate amount of time. Eventually, an operator picked up. “Answering service,” was all she said, by way of greeting.

“Put me through to Matt Tron, the Captain, please,” Fell said brusquely.

The operator didn’t respond. Fell wasn’t sure if he had been disconnected, or if he was being silently patched through. Correctional agencies aren’t exactly renowned for their customer service. Fell was just about to hang up and try again when, after what felt like forever, he heard a distant shuffling noise.

“Gabriel,” the answering voice said.

Fell hung up in a panic. Fuck! he thought. The word had been making its way more and more into his vocabulary the last few months, or at least his inner dialogue.

Fell’s iPhone started singing Si tu n'étais pas là.

There was no use in not answering, Fell knew. When he had pressed those ten numbers, he had essentially dumped gasoline on a fire.

It was a restricted number, like all calls from the facility. Fell accepted the call and held his breath.

“Fell,” said Lt. Gabriel on the other end of the line, “here I thought they hired you because at least you were brainy or something. Now I come to find, that you don’t know prisons have caller ID, or that administrative buildings aren’t open on Christmas Eve.” Fell could grasp how Gabriel was in fact restraining himself on a work phone; Fell could perfectly pinpoint where all the fuckings would have been peppered in those sentences otherwise.

What have I done, Fell thought.

Low-level officers, sergeants, and lieutenants were essential to the running of the prison, and so they had to rotate staff 365 days a year. Higher staff in the chain of command worked more akin to bank hours—if banks also allowed tellers to slip out the back on comp leave some nights, anyway. An unanswered call to the Captain would thus be rerouted to the next available rung down the ladder.

A lieutenant.

It was pure stupid luck that Fell was off today and tomorrow. If he had been on the original roster, he never could have convinced them to let him have off Christmas Eve through Christmas. Those days had just happened to fall on his schedule group’s regular days off this year.

Fell wasn’t much for family. He had no partner or children of whom to speak. He was an only child. Sometimes he felt like he’d just hatched from an egg one day and raised himself. He didn’t believe his mother and father had ever been abusive to him or anything, they just hadn’t been … anything. Fell didn’t know why his parents decided to have him, but he was distinctly aware from an extremely early age that neither of them seemed to like children that much. He would never admit to even a therapist that he cared enough to have not forgotten, but one of his earliest memories was of holding out a wrinkled flower (well, a weed) in his baby-fat fingers to his mother, who, without looking up from the novel she was reading, had said, “Whatever it is, I don’t care.”

That was why Fell had wanted to work with juveniles in the first place. He didn’t have much of a paternal instinct per se, but he wanted to care where nobody else had. Unfortunately, his lack of any caring model was also what made it so difficult at times for him to navigate emotionally demanding experiences like the ones he had encountered in Eden.

The point of that long story is: Fell had more or less forgotten that family holidays like Christmas were even a thing to other people.

Fell hung up without saying a word.

 

Fell had been drinking solidly for the last six hours.

He’d broken into the Dewar’s. Fell drinking Dewar’s was never a great sign. It meant that he wanted to get blasted out of his mind, so quality was not an issue. He poured a glass, sat back in his chair to settle in for the long haul, and, because he was really committed to torturing himself tonight, started off with “Fairytale of New York” on the speaker system.

Fell was getting impressively maudlin in that rich way that only a drunk man truly can. His hands were going to be fucking tied all through the next day. What else could he do? Storm the prison, maneuver the razor wire, dodge the bullets which would inevitably rain down from the tower? Well, it was fun to imagine, he had to admit. Then what? Break into the hole, perform an extraordinary rescue? Toss all seventy pounds soaking wet of Crowley over one shoulder as he made their escape?

Why did he have to care this much?

There were some selfish thoughts in there as well. The drunker Fell became, the more he thought about the connotations of him not even noticing the time of year well enough to remember when an office building would most certainly be closed.

He wasn’t religious, so it wasn’t the whole him failing to respect baby Jesus factor bringing him down. It was more the principle of the thing, combined with the crushing realization that he had turned 38 this year, and apparently didn’t matter to anyone.

Fell was certain he’d been all right with that before this year. Hadn’t he? Or were you just ignoring how much it hurt? he asked himself. He thought he’d moved beyond dwelling on it, anyway. He hadn’t considered it lately because there hadn’t been anyone he wanted to let know him. Now, for the first time in recent memory, someone had cracked him wide open, and that someone was an inmate at his job where he was meant to remain a neutral, unattached guard.

Fell was pretty sure he was broken in human relationships. His last romantic effort had only managed three months, and that had been nearly a year ago. Once again it was somehow his fault; he was too cold, that was what they always told him, he was passionless, why was he missing something, et cetera, et cetera … He never put up a false front. Fell was a man who meant what he said and said what he meant, and ironically that was why he was such an enigma to people. Others wanted things he didn’t, but when he laid that right out on the table they took it as a challenge to change him.

He didn’t know why he was so sure of it, but he knew—Crowley would never try to change him.

“I wish I knew him,” he said to the empty room, with no lights or tree. “I wish I could have met him differently.”

Maybe the holiday wasn’t especially important to Fell, but it hit him like an anvil to suddenly picture Crowley in the hole on Christmas Day. He’d have a pair of shower shoes, his jumpsuit, and a safety toothbrush, and not much else. He could visualize in his mind’s eye how Crowley would have a single white hospital sheet wrapped around those boney shoulders, watching the snowflakes flutter outside his window in a grim parody of the kind of boy Norman Rockwell might have painted.

And he’d be so cold.

Fell couldn’t do a goddamn thing to help him until Thursday at the earliest. At least now that Gabriel was onto him, there was nothing to hold him back from just brazenly striding right into admin and demanding to see somebody with the power to change things.

“He thinks no one cares,” Fell slurred to the next Dewar’s bottle he poured. He had been listening to the song of ice tinkling in his glass while he pondered, but somewhere along the way he had gotten past the point of retrieving more ice. “He doesn’t even know woss goin’ on. Jus’ thinks I put him back on’a shelf for another whatever-number years.”

How did it get to be 8 PM?

“Hang in there,” Fell said, to a Crowley who was not there.

“Jus’, hang in there, please. You matter.”

Consciousness was merciful, as it slipped away.

 

“Gabriel—if you’re calling me on Christmas Eve with my family just to tell me poker is canceled on Friday, I will kill you when I see you,” the voice said affably.

“Shelly,” Gabriel laughed. “How’s my favorite lieutenant?”

“I don’t know,” said Michaels, “how are you, you narcissistic bastard?” There was no bite to it. There was no romance in it, either, but this locker room banter stretched miles beyond friendship; this was the talk of two people who had worked beside one another in the same special kind of hell for quite a long time—people who had seen and survived things together.

“Oh, poker is canceled—but that’s not why I’m calling.

“I’m calling because I think I might have a little Christmas present for you.”

 

Wednesday - Five Days to Crowley’s Parole Board Hearing

 

Again: as far as cellmates go, Duke wasn’t that bad.

Usually.

Crowley regretted thinking a couple days ago that at least he was getting a break from Duke. Okay, so they were having “marital problems,” bickering more after Fell started, but Duke had still kept him safe for years. Now Crowley was starving for human contact, and specifically, starving to be touched.

Crowley had learned a long time ago, at least as far back as Eden, that relationships with other people were inherently transactional. He didn’t belabor that fact, or allow it to bring him down from the ragged-edged cloud of optimism which still empowered him to survive. Simply, someone acted kindly toward you, and you appreciated it and all, but you knew you owed them—quid pro quo. Some people could pay others back with money, or with some sort of power. But Crowley had only ever had one thing to his name, and luckily he had always managed to find someone who wanted to use it.

That’s right, I find them, he thought. He didn’t know how, but he knew it had to be his own fault. It was as if he had a flashing neon light over his head, a big “open” sign, and the hours listed were “Up to You.”

Crowley had never learned any of this, but the way he’d been treated by the world for 29 years had imparted some very real effects on his body—dopamine production, corticosteroids, all that neat stuff that trauma loves to poke. If any part of his mind had screamed that he hated having to do something, it might have been drowned out by his own physiological addiction to stimulation.

A body was a cheap price to pay for some emotional stability, and more importantly, for whatever Crowley thought love was.

Also, decent people took decent care of their things. They kept them safe.

Between eleven years as a child neglected by his family, seven years in juvenile detention, and eleven years in prison, Crowley profoundly valued feeling safe, even if he knew it was only ever temporary.

Four years ago, Crowley had the worst cellmate he had ever had at PCI. His name was Lucius, and Crowley would have guessed that Lucius was at least thirty years older than him. Crowley didn’t mind playing rough, but he drew the line at sadism. That defeated the whole purpose of having a celly (not that it was a choice whether or not to have one), if they were the reason you were unsafe.

Crowley had known Duke by reputation only, as a shot caller serving life. Duke didn’t go out of his way to bother anyone who didn’t bother him first, and his cellmate had recently been released. Since he had some power in the prison, they hadn’t filled the empty bed immediately. They wouldn’t have let him have a “single suite” indefinitely, and there were probably limits to who he could request for a cellmate, but let’s just say his opinions were taken under careful consideration.

One day when Lucius skipped chow to stay in bed, Duke had sidled into the seat directly across from Crowley. Duke had never sat down to eat with him before. Crowley was wearing his sunglasses at the table, and the guard had been too apathetic to say anything about it. Crowley had held his breath then, not knowing what to expect.

Finally, Duke had said, “What do you tell a cellmate that’s got two black eyes?”

Crowley had just stared. “I don’t know, what?”

“Nothin’,” he’d said, “you already done told him twice.”

In spite of everything, Crowley had bitten back a laugh.

Duke had observed Crowley for a moment. Then he’d made a gesture which indicated Crowley’s sunglasses and said, “Take them off.”

Crowley started to feel sick then, but he pushed it down. His sunglasses had always been more than a fashion statement to him. They made him feel a little less obviously penetrable. But he knew an order that he shouldn’t refuse when he heard it, so he’d done as he was told, exposing what little of his black eye had not already been visible from behind the lenses and in particular the deep dark gash below his brow, royal purple bleeding into jaundice yellow.

Duke had said nothing at first. Then, gruffly, “He shouldn’t be bangin’ you up around the eyes. You’ve got pretty eyes.”

Crowley’s ears had perked at the tenor of that. “Pretty”? He hadn’t realized this might be an opening to negotiations. He’d measured possible replies, then ventured, “You think I’m pretty?”

Duke had grunted. “Don’t lay it on so thick, kid,” he’d said, “I can see right through it, not to mention I’m not gay.”

“Sorry,” Crowley had said quickly.

“Which means,” Duke had continued, “I don’t ask for a lot. You follow?”

Crowley had nodded; he definitely followed.

“Keep your mouth shut about anything you see comin’ and going out of my cell. Keep your area clean, I hate slobs. You’re going to get worked out—four times a month at most. I’m nice like that, rapists make me sick. Stay off the bottom bunk. The white hats already know you’re moving in.” And that had been that, as Duke got up to dump his tray. “Device has got the cell agreement, sign it before she goes for the day.”

Crowley had stopped him then from leaving. “Wait … Heston?”

“What, kid.”

Crowley had always been taught, if something sounded too good to be true, it probably was.

Duke pretty much ran A-tier. Nobody was fucking with his things. He was not too much older than Crowley. It really sounded like he was not into beating his cellmate, or at least the face. He only expected rent from Crowley once a week, but also, he was not at all bad-looking, so Crowley thought more often than that would be great, just saying.

To AJ Crowley, he was practically a knight on a white steed.

So Crowley hadn’t been able to help himself; he had to ask: “Why do you care? About …” Then he’d put his sunglasses back on, instead of saying the rest of that sentence out loud.

Duke had just shrugged as he walked away. “Dunno,” he’d said, “just think that ain’t no way to treat a lady.”

They’d been together ever since.

Crowley reckoned it was the first “real” relationship he’d ever had.

 

Crowley drifted awake long enough to see that it was snowing outside his window.

He watched, and the light bouncing off the flakes appeared as stars in his eyes, and for whatever reason, he found himself metaphysically prodding at God, the Universe, whatever might listen to the silent pleas of the kind of guy who had ended up in an orange jumpsuit.

(Oddly enough, Crowley actually prayed a lot more than what he thought of as “really” prayer. To him, praying was something other people did.)

Let Duke be happy today. I’m pissed that I’m in here, but it’s not like he did it on purpose. It’s more Michaels’ fault if anything. I’m really realizing stuck here alone how I wasn’t appreciating him enough anymore. You know in four years the guy never so much as slapped me? I don’t wanna lose that.

Especially if I’m not getting out now.

Crowley leaned in to look at a snowflake that had landed directly on the pane of glass, took in its structure as it slowly melted away. Wished he could memorize its pattern, say to it, hey, somebody noticed you, you weren’t for nothing.

Take care of Fell. He’s such a good guy, I don’t know how I know that when I only know him from in here but I just do, okay? And I know he’s off, I know his schedule. So whatever nice stuff he’s doing with his family, just, I don’t know, make it extra special for him today. Jesus, that sounded corny in my head.

I know he’s not thinking about an inmate out there but … the thing is, I seriously don’t care. I don’t need anything back from him.

I just want him to be happy.

After all, it’s Christmas.

 

Fell was puttering around with what might have been the worst daylong hangover of his life, hands down. And if he had one more cup of coffee to try and shake it, he would just be sickly jittery on top of everything else. And he could still remember the night before, so he couldn’t even make up his mind whether or not it had been worth it.

He needed to go outside.

He’d been inside the apartment now for, what? It wouldn’t be farfetched to say literally 48 hours. The bit where lying in bed makes you feel better instead of worse had long since come and gone, he knew that much.

Brush teeth. Real pants. Fresh air. Had to force himself, it was for his own good.

A Chinese food place might be open on Christmas.

Fell trudged on down to his beloved 1984 diesel Rabbit and was more than a little caught off guard by a bulging white regular envelope stuck underneath a wiper. It had no name on it, and the sight of it sent his world spinning.

Fell ripped it off the windshield and tore it open.

A little creamy white chunk of foodstuff, barely a sliver, wrapped in Saran Wrap.

There is a peculiar talent that inmates and therefore, by extension, prison guards, are phenomenally brilliant at. It is not the sort of skill you advertise on a CV.

It is the ability to send a message which, to the recipient, is blatantly—undeniably—beyond a shadow of a doubt, intended as a threat, but would look in writing or otherwise reported as if it were harmless, even silly, and maybe you are just a crazy person for ever thinking that it could have been a threat, wherever did you get an idea like that from, and how do you know who it came from anyway, maybe some neighborhood kids were just being dumb, and again do you realize how crazy you look for ever thinking any different?

Fell unfolded the typed note, barely bigger than an index card, unaddressed, unsigned. It read:

Merry Christmas!

Have a snack, on me.

Fell made a brutalized growling sound from deep within his gut and whipped the tiny package down as hard as he could into the freshly fallen snow.

We all know what animal eats cheese. Don't we?

Chapter Text

Thursday - Four Days to Crowley’s Parole Board Hearing

 

Fell whipped his white Rabbit into the first available spot and stomped up the steps to the PCI administration headquarters. Fell’s keycard to enter the actual prison was useless here, so he proceeded to rattle loudly on the steel bars of the glass doors until the agitated secretary opened them up. “We don’t let anyone in until 8,” she said, trying to shut the door, “it says right on the sign.”

Fell stopped her from closing it all the way. “Well, that’s exactly the point, madam,” he said tersely. “It’s 8:03.”

The woman sighed. It’s too early for this, she thought. The secretary looked first at the clock on the wall over her desk, slid her phone out of her pocket to clandestinely check the time on its lock screen, and then reverted her eyes one last time to the clock on the wall, as if willing one or both times to disagree. “Whatever,” she said eventually. “ID?”

Fell showed his badge and was let into the lobby.

“Who’s expecting you?” she asked.

Fell hadn’t actually thought of that part. “Er, he’s not—expecting me, that is,” he said. Then Fell gathered all his resolve into one place, and said, “I’m here to see the Captain, and I am not exiting the building until he grants an audience with me.”

The woman rolled her eyes and gestured at a row of chairs along the wall. “Take a seat,” she said, sitting back at her desk and making a call from the office line. “Hey, Matt,” she said blandly. “There’s a CO out here to see you, he doesn’t have an appointment. No, I don’t— Hey, why are you here again?” she asked Fell, cupping the receiver with one hand.

“Young lady, the current conditions inside the facility are deplorably unethical and inhumane, and lives are literally at stake if the situation is not rectified posthaste!”

The secretary stared, slowly removing her hand from the phone. “Yeah, he’s from the union, sounds like they’re out of coffee in the break room again.”

“What? No!” Fell sputtered. “This is an emergency of the highest order! I demand—”

Captain Matt Tron stepped into view in the hallway and adjusted his tie. “Good morning, Officer! What are we demanding, exactly?”

 

“Unbelievable,” Lt. Gabriel muttered darkly to himself. He parked his Escalade in the empty spot next to Fell’s car. What a piece of shit, he thought, eyeing the old VW haughtily.

Gabriel peered in mild amusement down at the footprints in the light dusting of snow on the macadam, leading directly from Fell’s car to the office building around the corner. “This hug-a-thug just doesn’t know when to quit, does he?”

 

Fell wrung his hands while he frenetically paced Captain Tron’s office. “Forgive me,” he said, “I’m just trying to collect my thoughts here before I launch into anything.”

“No worries,” said Tron from behind the desk. He was an older man, with yellow-white hair, slack cheeks, and kind eyes but a tired smile. He was playing at unbending paperclips while Fell calmed himself down. “You’re that new hire who used to be a counselor, yes?”

“Yes, well,” said Fell, “I’ve been here a few months now, but I am newer.”

“Believe me,” Tron chuckled, “you’re going to be the ‘new guy’ until you have at least three years in. It’s nothing personal, it’s just not your average job.”

“You can say that again,” Fell grumbled.

“‘It’s just not your average job’! Ha, sorry. Couldn’t resist,” said Captain Tron.

Yeesh, thought Fell.

“Please,” said Tron, “have a seat, I insist. Try to relax. And tell me, what’s got you so worked up?”

Fell collapsed into the chair with an exasperated moan. “I barely know where to start,” he said. “I don’t even know if you’re going to believe me, but I don’t know what other options I may have at this point.”

“Well, just try me,” Tron said cheerily. “I think you’ll find I’m a very easy guy to talk to. How was your Christmas, by the way?”

“Great, just great,” Fell murmured. His paranoia was kicking into high gear. It did seem easy to talk to Tron, almost too easy. From the way he was welcomed immediately into the office, to how friendly the older gentleman was behaving now, Fell could only wonder what was the catch. Nothing else had been easy up to this meeting. “Sir,” he said, “there are certain things going on inside the institution which are utterly reprehensible.”

“Oh, I would expect so,” said Tron. He had moved on from breaking paperclips to repeatedly clicking a pen. “It is a prison, after all.”

“I don’t mean on the inmates’ end,” Fell said miserably.

 

“Shell,” Gabriel said into his phone. “I swung by work early to scope out what the deal is.”

“So what do you have for me?” Michaels chirped on the other end of the line.

“Well, nothing yet,” said Gabriel, leaning over his dash. “But he is here, and he is definitely in admin. I’m going to go move my car to where I can see him when he comes out.” Gabriel paused, arching an eyebrow curiously. “Shell. This is about more than just jamming up his punk boyfriend, isn’t it?”

There was a colossal stretch of silence.

“Gabe, we’ve known each other a long time.”

“Of course,” said Gabriel.

“Do you really want to know the whole story?” Michaels asked obliquely.

Gabriel pondered those words for a moment.

“Nope,” he said finally. “I don’t want to know a damn thing.”

 

Tron leaned back in his seat. He looked troubled, but more the degree of troubled you might expect from someone who just ordered a Coke at a diner and was told they only serve Pepsi. He tented his fingers, looking at a spot on the wall past Fell’s head. “So let me get this straight,” he said. He swiveled to make eye contact. “And to be clear, young man, I am not saying I don’t believe you. It’s just a lot to take in.”

“It most certainly is,” Fell agreed, pursing his lips.

“You’re saying, that Lt. Michaels … our head of security … is conspiring with a life-serving inmate to bring drugs inside the jail,” Tron spelled out slowly.

Fell sucked in his breath and felt his temperature drop, because hearing it in someone else’s words like that only highlighted how ridiculous it sounded if you didn’t know it was true. They hadn’t even gotten to the most outrageous parts of the story yet.

“And that furthermore,” Tron continued, looking thoughtful, “when you discovered these drugs in that inmate’s cell, they collaborated to pin the blame on that inmate’s cellmate.”

Although he had originally decided he had nothing left to lose either way, Fell was now wondering just how big of a gamble had he taken by confiding in this man. He nodded.

“Phew,” said Tron, punctuating the sound with a tiny head shake, “young man, that is quite the story.”

Fell exhaled. “I’m afraid that’s not the worst of it, sir.”

 

Lt. Michaels entered through the sally port to 1-side and started climbing the stairs to A-tier, the same staircase where Fell had heard her talking with Duke on that fated day which had helped set this chain of events into motion. She stopped at a reflective window to pat down her perfect pompadour, not a brunette strand out of place. Then Michaels walked up to the central pod for tiers 1-A and 1-B, where Sgt. Sandal was sitting inside, and rapped delicately on the glass.

 

Tron was incredulous. “Are you saying, like sanctioned prison rapes?” he said, drawing out the sentence for added effect.

Fell shuddered to hear it put bluntly like that, then desperately tried to block out the mental images that it wrought of Crowley, because he knew that if he thought about things that could have happened to Crowley so far that he was liable to explode, and he could not risk that.

“Fell,” said Tron, “are you absolutely positive that you did not misinterpret what Lt. Gabriel said?”

Grinding his teeth, Fell worked to rein in his smoldering temper. “There was no misinterpreting what he said.”

“Well,” said Tron a little sadly, “I don’t think you’re going to like what I’m about to say.”

 

Sgt. Sandal keyed open the heavy door to the central pod and gave a little bow as Lt. Michaels brushed by him. As he locked the door behind them, she stood over the control panel and looked out on the tiers.

“Lt. Michaels,” Sandal purred cloyingly. “To what do I owe the honor, you visiting 1-side?”

Michaels smirked, and looked down at the panel. She ran her slender fingers along it, stroking the many switches and knobs lovingly, then stopped to hover for an instant over the round red button used to sound the alarm in case of fights. Then she placed both palms down on the edge of the panel and leaned in ever so slightly to consider the housing units as they were seen through the thick panel of glass in the pod.

“I need a favor,” she said.

 

“No,” Fell said coldly, “I am not going to just ‘drop it.’”

“Listen,” said Tron, not unkindly, “I understand where you are coming from. I do! I think it’s commendable, actually. Good work. Well done.” He sighed, giving Fell a tight-lipped smile.

“Fell,” said Tron, “this is a fantastic potential career. It’s good money, excellent benefits, plenty of room for advancement … all you need to do is not rock the boat. You are actually doing so much more work than we need for you to do.”

Fell narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t about work.”

“Then what is it about?” Tron asked. “You know,” he said, “I know your AJ. I’ve worked here a long time. I know a lot of these guys … You get to know them over the years, you build rapport with them. You’ll find that out as you go. He’s a good one, actually—good kid, sad story, hard worker.”

That’s when Fell understood why it had been so easy right from the start to talk to Tron.

Because Tron played good cop. And he played it with decades’ worth of experience.

“Then how can you accept what’s happening to him?” Fell said, shaking his head, most horrified by this juncture by how little horror he felt.

“Fell,” said Tron, “AJ Crowley is not like you and me—in a lot of ways, believe me. These Eden kids grow up a certain kind of way; I feel bad, it’s not their fault. And I’m not going to get too graphic with you about AJ in particular, but I can tell you, that if you brought Anthony Crowley in here right now, and asked him if he was being raped—he would tell you no.

“And that’s a fact.”

 

“And what might that be?” Sandal asked smarmily. “Your wish is my command.”

 

“Go back to work, Fell,” Tron said gently. “Leave it alone. Don’t put any paperwork in on two lieutenants. It will make your life a living hell here, and it won’t change anything. I’ll even put in a good word for you: tell Gabriel, hey—yeah, he came in here, but we had a nice chat, I explained some things to him, and he promises to stay in his own lane from now on.”

Fell hissed in a breath.

“So Anthony Crowley spends a couple more years in here than he originally signed up for. He’s not changing the world if he gets out.” Tron looked around, leaned in. He gave Fell an indulgent grandfatherly sort of smile. “Because here’s the thing about all the cute little wide-eyed AJ’s out there: You’re not going to tender-loving-care them into Rhodes scholars and Nobel Peace winners.

“Believe me when I say—the world needs ditch-diggers, too.”

 

“Copy that, m’lady. Shall I instruct Uriel to do the same?” Sandal asked.

Michaels snapped up straight and creased her brow (as much as the Botox would allow). She looked to be puzzling over something with many different variables, something she must have previously forgotten to consider.

“No,” she said at last, “… no.” Then she resumed her aloof but easygoing smile. “Let’s consider this our little secret.”

 

“How dare you,” Fell snarled. “I want to speak to the Major. Right. Fucking. Now.”

“Fell,” said Tron, “you have already completely sidestepped your appropriate chain of command by talking with me. Besides, what is said to me is said to the Major, I’ll see sure to that.”

Both of them were suddenly startled by a female voice coming from the hallway.

“That’s enough of that now, Matt,” it called in a pleasant tone.

Fell and Tron stood respectfully as the Major walked into the room.

“Now,” she said, “what is this all about?”

 

“Just remember,” said Michaels, “no matter what happens on A-tier tomorrow …

“You do not see it.”

Chapter Text

(October 31, 2008)

There was no moon in the sky, and the zombies were out in full effect.

Raven Sable was having the time of his life. He was handsomely fit, in his prime at the expectant age of 25, and he had just number-closed the 7 Deadly Zins brand ambassador girl at the last bar on the Halloween zombie pub crawl. His work schedule gave him off every other weekend from his gig as a clinical technician at the Eden Youth Rehabilitation Center, and this was his Friday to get bombed beyond belief.

He could not wait to not remember a second of it.

Raven’s buddies had started falling off one by one not long after midnight. The old crew just didn’t shut them down anymore the way they had only three or four years ago. Some of them had Saturday college classes in the morning, others had girlfriends who ordered them home. Some just weren’t into risking the hangover. Raven ended up being the last man standing.

You were never truly alone in a pub crawl, though. The corners outside bars were teeming with ghoulish gallivanters smudged with white face paint and fake blood. Raven staggered out onto the street, answering the theatrical undead moans of strangers who (through the miracle of alcohol) were best friends for one night, with an eager “wooo” of his own.

Occasionally, Raven had the profoundly creepy feeling of being watched, possibly even followed, but how else was one supposed to feel on a gloomy autumn night surrounded by monsters?

Raven hadn’t realized how badly he needed to piss until it started to pour down rain. Rain will do that to you when you’re drunk (both of those things: remind you that you need to empty your bladder, and also decide to pour down on you). He was already lagging behind the group, since he drunkenly struggled to light a cigarette and missed the timer for the crosswalk. Fuck it, he thought. Why bother running? He would catch up with them eventually, or he was fine drinking on his own, making new best friends for the next couple hours.

The quiet was a nice interlude, actually. It dropped a semicolon seamlessly in the sentence of the night. There were no bars in the middle of the stretch of block he walked now, so nobody was around. It was kind of relaxing. He could see his breath on the air, and he watched as the streaks of rain pooled black and iridescent on the city streets. It was oddly romantic in a way. And after enjoying this calming breather from the action, he’d be right back at the party. It was a glorious night.

Raven eventually came upon a covered alleyway between a flower shop and a tattoo parlor, both establishments that would obviously be empty at this late hour, and decided that was just as good a spot as any to relieve himself. He hugged his arms across his leather jacket against the chill and headed back toward the dumpster to hide between it and the walls behind the buildings. His white undershirt was speckled with crayon-red special effects blood, and the night and the rain were coming together to cool it all to a much more believable sanguine hue. He flicked the remains from his cigarette and started unbuckling his belt.

Raven never saw it coming.

A flash of dripping wet hair colored claret by the falling rain and the humming low light of the alleyway swooped in from Raven’s right, plastering Raven’s left side to the wall beside him with a muffled thud. Raven’s alcohol-slowed brain responded just in time to tense his whole body inward, minimizing the preliminary impact of muscle and bone on brick. “What the fuck!” he shouted.

Raven pushed off the wall and angled himself so he could slide in front of Crowley coming in from the left, and as Crowley shot his arms around Raven’s neck from behind, Raven wrenched sharply with a vile grunt and slammed Crowley’s back in the same wall Raven had just escaped.

Raven somehow managed to register that Crowley was impressively silent in taking that first blow. The eerie quiet in the face of being struck reminded him of …

“AJ,” Raven snarled. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!”

Crowley ignored him. Crowley knew a thing or two about where his strengths were and weren’t, and Raven had at least forty pounds on him. As Raven arched his back and continuously ground Crowley into the soaked slabs behind him, Crowley tucked his head in behind Raven’s left ear and let his whole body go limp except for the vise grip of his boney forearms slotted beneath Raven’s chin. Raven dug his fingernails into Crowley’s arms, but he could only batter Crowley’s back against the bricks for so long before the crushing dead weight on his windpipe became unbearable.

“What’s a matter, Raven?” Crowley growled in his ear. “Can’t breathe? Having trouble breathing, buddy? I wouldn’t know how that feels, right?”

Seizing for breath, Raven released one of Crowley’s arms and used his own broader frame to his advantage by reaching all the way to Crowley’s left shoulder instead. Crowley cried out as Raven dug his right thumb into the pressure point connecting Crowley’s armpit to the front of his chest, and when Crowley was forced to relax his arms around Raven’s neck as a result, Raven leveraged his weight off that tender spot so he could spin and face Crowley nose-to-nose.

Raven bared his teeth. “Is that what this is about?” he snapped. “Man, how fucken long ago was that?? Man, let it go! Whitey doesn’t even work in the Garden anymore!”

“Oh, like you’re so fucking innocent?” Crowley hissed. “Why? Because he went first? Because he did it more? Is that it?”

It was hard to gauge where Crowley’s close-fitted black shirt stopped and the dark of the early morning hours began, but Raven successfully found enough fabric with his fists to lift Crowley back into the wall. Still gripping the skinny boy’s front, Raven lifted his right elbow into a tight “V” and cracked Crowley from ear to chin, one way and the next upon followthrough, first in toward Raven’s body, then out.

Raven safely held Crowley out in a helpless position for the time being, so he spoke: “What is this about?! It’s been years!”

“Years for me. Years since you did anything to me,” Crowley bit off the words.

Crowley had no respect to a “fair” fight. Had it been fair when Raven was nineteen and Crowley was twelve? Crowley spat in Raven’s face, and although Raven didn’t stumble too far back blinded, he was surprised enough by it to lose proper footing. Raven made up for it by throwing a right hook, but Crowley was cleverer than Raven anticipated; instead of backing out of range into the wall, Crowley closed the gap between them with a low growl. He dodged the punch and shot in low so his head was flush against Raven’s waist.

“You skinny psycho faggot!” Raven yelled.

Crowley crashing into Raven’s center of gravity chucked Raven back into a fall, but short of allowing Crowley to land on top of him, Raven spun and flung both men onto their hands and knees.

Raven’s fatal mistake was in miscalculating his landing. He came down hard on his right palm on a beer bottle that had been left in the alley, and he watched it shatter between his fingers as though in slow motion. Raven screamed as the glittering glass exploded into shrapnel beneath him, and, self-thwarted from being able to hold himself up, found his face smeared into the blacktop.

“What did you do to Warlock??” Crowley roared.

Ahh, shit. Raven felt like his blood had froze in midstream. It was a deadlier situation than he had thought. It was one thing if Crowley was seeking vengeance for himself, but a whole other ballgame if he thought he was protecting that little runt who followed him around. “ShitAJ—nothing! I didn’t do shit to that kid!”

Both men scrambled to make it to their feet, but Raven’s newest injuries were a dangerous distraction, and Crowley was already fast in general.

“I took his stupid notebook,” Raven confessed in a rush, hands up. “I took his notebook, and I told him if I caught him out again after curfew I’d kick his ass. But I didn’t, I didn’t touch him! Jesus, AJ, I’m serious!”

Crowley sprang and drove a deep right uppercut into Raven’s gut, sending Raven flying before he tripped onto his back. Crowley dropped to sitting on Raven’s belly and pinned Raven’s waist between his lean thighs.

Crowley backhanded Raven beneath him, hard. “See, that’s how you slap bitches,” Crowley said, “and you’re lying like a little bitch!”

“AJ,” Raven cried, “I swear to God, that’s all that happened!”

“God isn’t listening to you,” Crowley said nastily, his eyes gleaming manic gold, “so you better swear to me. Swear you never touched him.”

“I swear!” Raven yelled.

Raven tried to sit up, and Crowley dumped an elbow on top of his head which sent his skull smashing into the ground. Before Raven could latch onto any part of Crowley, Crowley twisted up a thick fistful of black hair in his left hand and simultaneously shoved the meat of his other palm into Raven’s sternum. Raven swung pathetically, but could barely connect past the space Crowley had created between their bodies.

Crowley had the more muscular man pinned using only two legs, one hand, and pure spite.

“You’re going to give it back to him,” Crowley gnashed out. “You’re going to give him back his notebook, and if you ripped out a single page I’ll rip off your dick.”

“Man, look at you,” Raven babbled, “I’m impressed, man, you turned out good, skinny kid like you? It was for the best, right? It was—”

“Did you just say, like, as if you guys helped me out? Like it toughened me up or something? Wrong fucking thing to say, man—”

“You’ll go to jail!” Raven screamed. “So you got, you got, what—a month left of being seventeen? They’ll still try you as an adult, don’t fucking kill me, holy shit …”

As he yanked on Raven’s hair, Crowley let go of Raven’s chest and delivered two ruinous punches to Raven’s lip, both of his fists traveling in the same direction to assist Raven’s skull to the slick concrete below not once but twice.

“Quit and I won’t kill you,” Crowley growled low. “Go in on Monday and quit and I won’t fucking kill you.”

“I-will-I-will-I-will, please, I swear, oh, God, my head, please …”

Raven was not trying to grab Crowley anymore, only raising his hands to defend his face through hysterical bursts of ugly sobs.

Raven had always been a good-looking man.

Emphasis on “had.”

It was hard to tell which parts of the black mess of Raven’s face were his mangled mouth, or ground-in alley grit and grime. A shard of glass dangled from his septum. Crowley stood. He knew the fight was over.

Raven shakingly shuffled up onto his knees, his whole body hunched in on itself, instinctively trying to make himself small. He couldn’t meet Crowley’s flashing whiskey-colored eyes above him. Raven gently clung onto Crowley’s black jeans, too dark and wet with rain to betray any bloodstains, and, heaving like a hurt child, climbed up the denim until he was literally hanging off Crowley’s belt. He was not trying to stand; he was supplicating.

Begging.

Raven had no way of knowing it, especially in his current state, but had he any strength left to his name, he might have been able to flip the script on the fight in this very moment.

Because to Crowley, looking down and seeing a bloodied, bawling boy pleading from a position on his knees, eyes level with Crowley’s zipper, hurt him more than any punch. For a heavy, thick, confusing instant of forgetting where he was and what he was doing, Crowley actually had the urge to gather Raven up into his arms and tell him it was over, Crowley wasn’t that man, please, you’re safe now, don’t cry, I would never—

But Raven would.

When Raven was finally certain that Crowley would not hit him again, he released the front of Crowley’s jeans with a keening howl, and it was all he could do to cradle one wristful of glass-popped flesh in his other hand, and tremble alone until dawn.

 

Many years later, lying on his cot at Paradise Correctional Institution, his face freshly battered in by his cellmate, Crowley would suffer the following thought:

If I had just killed him that night and gone to jail like I deserved … Warlock would still be alive.

Chapter Text

Friday - Three Days to Crowley’s Parole Board Hearing

 

Crowley awoke to catcalls, but for once they weren’t directed at him.

“Hey, sexy!” came from another cell. “You here to visit me?”

Crowley heard the clack-clack of perfectly kept dress shoes (he could practically hear the gloss). The sound stopped in front of a certain cell, and Crowley instantly became aware of a tense atmosphere of hushed reverence which uncoiled at length, until it seemed to permeate the entire unit.

“Are we done?” asked a stern female voice.

“Yes, ma’am,” murmured the addressed inmate. It was the same one who had been yelling a moment ago, but he sounded like a different man now: awed, and more than a little ashamed.

Crowley rubbed sleep from his eyes and made his way to his cell door, intrigued. The woman’s voice was not one he recognized. He angled his face to try to see who it was, his tattoo pressed against the glass, and he jumped back, startled, when he found she was already standing there, unexpected and quiet as a ghost.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Crowley,” she said.

Crowley stopped himself from saying anything right off the bat. Of course his name was on the door tag above his cell, but this woman spoke as if she knew him. He looked in her eyes, and was struck by the uncanny sensation that she did know him, that here was a woman who could look at him and see him. He wasn’t sure he liked it. Stranger still, he couldn’t seem to grab hold of a solid image of her eyes. Were they green? Hazel? The light was never quite right to reveal the whole truth of them.

He broke off his gaze and looked then at her white hat, and was plummeted back down to earth when he noticed the gold oak leaves adorning it. He had never seen her before in person, but you didn’t listen in on guards for eleven years and not pick up on some things, such as specific symbols that mattered to their world and what they meant. He backed up some more. “Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said soberly. “… Major,” he corrected himself.

She had a beautiful smile, and it was somehow both comforting and chilly all at once. “I’ve been hearing a lot about you,” she said.

 

Crowley had gotten stripped out of his orange jumpsuit into the regular browns of general population, and he had sneakers instead of slides now, but other than that, everything to his name still needed to be brought up from the property room. He didn’t even have any pairs of sunglasses yet. He had only been in the hole for eleven days, yet it still felt bizarre to be walking out onto the harshly lit tier full of other inmates.

I’m going to see the parole board in three days, he thought, eyes wide with childlike wonder. And the Major is going to vouch that she doesn’t believe I should have been in the hole. He still didn’t understand it, nor did he unquestionably have faith in it. The Major had not been clear on what had changed. She had indicated that other staff had come to her on his behalf, yet she had kept who, exactly, a secret. Well, the only one who likes me in here is Fell, Crowley thought to himself.

It didn’t make any sense. Fell had only been a CO since that autumn, and now he had the Major’s ear? He would have had to have gone so far above and beyond to get her to acknowledge his existence. The timeframe also didn’t compute; it would have meant that Fell was working to save Crowley while he was off on Christmas break.

Logically it couldn’t have been Fell.

The only other support Crowley had was Duke.

That’s it, Crowley thought. Duke must have bargained with Michaels somehow. Crowley wondered how he could have pulled it off, and furthermore, what must Michaels have told the Major?

Crowley could feel his bright expression blooming from cheek to ruddy cheek, the flush rising from his neck, as he walked up to see Fell. He had known that he missed Fell, but it was overwhelming to have his body betray how much. Fell closed the logbook on his desk and stood when Crowley arrived at his door, and Crowley thought he might be blinded by that perfect smile.

“Well, well, well,” said Crowley with a cheesy grin, “didja miss me?”

Fell laughed, and Crowley was stunned to see that it almost looked like he was blushing right back at him. Don’t read too much into it, he scolded himself.

Fell’s lips parted, and he looked like he was determining how much might be appropriate to say out loud. “I did,” he confessed. “This job is … very different when you’re not around.” Fell paused. He picked up his mug of coffee, swirling it in a polite little “cheers” gesture as though making a nod to the first day they spoke.

“You can come right out and say it, angel, just admit that you’re in love with me, too,” Crowley said, perfectly timing it with Fell’s sip. He figured now was as good a time as any to sneak in how Fell made him feel, especially if he could only ever get away with it under the guise of a joke. Crowley burst out laughing when Fell nearly had to spit his drink right back into his cup.

“Oh, hilarious!” Fell choked, fanning his face to distract from the pain of having swallowed some hot drink wrong.

“Just reminding you what you’ve been missing,” Crowley said, with a sharp-toothed smirk and a wink.

He knows it’s because of me that they released him from the hole, Fell thought. He must know, or why else would he have made a joke like that? Fell decided that it was a good thing, both for Crowley to know that Fell did indeed have his back, and for the two of them to play it safe by never mentioning it out loud.

Fell’s coughing fit died out as laughter, and he shook his head from side to side. “I did miss you,” he said, and Crowley’s heart might have skipped a beat from the way Fell’s sincerity reached those twinkling blue eyes. “Let’s get you situated, though,” Fell continued, handing Crowley a stack of linens.

“Got it,” said Crowley. “I’ll just go put these in my cell.”

“Crowley,” Fell called before he could go, “your cell is A-66 now.”

Crowley had started to walk away, but now he turned and blanched. “What?”

“Your cell,” Fell repeated, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, “you’re moving into cell 66.”

“I don’t understand,” said Crowley, “did Duke move out of 13?”

“What? No,” Fell said, utterly confused. “Duke has a new cellmate.”

Crowley opened up his mouth, but no words came.

“Crowley,” said Fell, shaking his head slightly, “you were originally sentenced to ninety days, you know they won’t hold an empty bed that long. Besides, you can’t live with Duke after what happened.” Was Tron right? Fell wondered. Perhaps Duke never touched him?

Crowley shivered as he gaped up at A-66. “So that’s still Lucius’s cell.”

“Indeed it is,” said Fell, now more puzzled than before. “Lucius didn’t have a cellmate. You needed a cell.”

“Right, right,” Crowley agreed, looking ill. “Okay. Sure.

“Uh, I’ll just get moved into my cell then.”

Fell stared as he watched Crowley hurry away with his head down. Huh, he thought, and here I expected him to be a lot happier about me getting him out of the hole.

Fell realized uneasily that his feelings were hurt.

 

Duke laid on his stiff plastic mattress with his arms crossed on his chest and his face contorted grimly. He was idly walking his feet up the bottom of the bunk above him, occasionally arching from his core to press hard on the metal in a bored fashion. Finally, the interloper above him squeaked out, “Are you just going to keep kicking my bed all the time?”

“Get out of my cell,” Duke said simply.

The dayroom was open for games and TV for the next couple hours. The young blonde inmate leapt off the top bunk and was out the cell gate onto the tier like a shot.

“That’s better,” Duke said to himself. “That’s AJ’s bed anyway.”

As if on cue, Duke heard a wonderfully familiar voice which was somehow both gravelly and soft at the same time, coming from out on the housing unit. “Uh, I’ll just get moved into my cell then,” it said.

Duke sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He stood and scoped out his teeth in the little mirror that was stuck to the wall with toothpaste over the sink. Duke didn’t know how to label whatever Crowley was to him; he didn’t know if they ever would have become “friends” outside of prison. He knew one thing, though: he’d had an AJ for four years. Some people had never had a dog for four years.

So yeah, he told himself, Crowley was definitely the gay one, not him, obviously—but could you really blame Duke for getting a little attached?

Duke stepped out on the tier to see Crowley dropping his sheets, blankets, and pillow off at his new cell upstairs. Crowley came back out of the cell, fidgeting with his hands and looking about the unit worriedly. He flicked his hair prettily out of his eyes (Duke had told him to grow it out like that; it fell past his shoulders), unaware of anyone watching, and the cinnamon strands shone like flaming stars under the ceiling lights. Then he looked down at the unit floor below and his nervous expression lit up in a beaming smile of relief when he caught eyes with Duke.

The redhead half-jogged down the stairs, trying not to look like he was rushing as he rushed to get to his former cellmate. Duke backed into the mop closet, which was open for chemical refills to be dropped off, and motioned for Crowley to follow.

Crowley grinned and flung his arms around Duke’s neck in the back of the closet. “Okay, okay,” Duke chuckled, pulling Crowley off of him. “Geez, eager little thing, aren’t ya?”

Crowley climbed right back up and buried his face in Duke’s neck, and Duke could only laugh and go with it. It was like having an Irish Setter puppy. AJ was infectious.

Besides, it wasn’t like anybody would have had the balls to say a damn thing about it to Duke.

“I would have sent notes to you,” Crowley mumbled against Duke. “I didn’t know who to give them to.”

“All right,” Duke said (gently, according to his standards) and backed out of Crowley’s arms, “enough of that. It’s all right, kid.”

Crowley’s face darkened, and he dropped his hands to his hips. “You already replaced me anyway,” he said plaintively.

Here we go, Duke thought. If anyone had ever asked Duke if he missed living with a woman while he was in prison, he would have said, no, because he had Anthony Crowley. “You have got to know that wasn’t up to me,” he said.

“No?” Crowley tested, looking hurt.

“Of course not.” Duke rolled his eyes while he shook his head, but he was clearly fond.

“I’m dead meat, you know,” Crowley said, sad but resigned.

“What? What are you talking about?” asked Duke, who genuinely had no idea.

“They’re housing me with Lucius.” Crowley was suddenly aware of tears threatening to burst from the corners of his eyes. “I’m done for. He’ll kill me. He never got over you taking me.”

Duke whined. “Dammit … if it’s not one thing, it’s another … Look, I’ll figure something out, okay? You’re not going to die. Promise.”

Crowley looked at the floor, his lower lip quivering.

“Hey, hey,” said Duke, “that’s enough. Got it?” He resisted the urge to affectionately chuck Crowley under the chin.

Crowley bit his lip, still looking down, and nodded weakly.

“They couldn’t have waited one more day to send you back?” Duke grumbled bitterly to no one in particular.

“What’s that?” Crowley raised his amber eyes to look at Duke, eyebrows knitted up.

“It’s just— shit, kid,” Duke said, shaking his head broadly. “Shit’s gonna go down today. I don’t like you being here today. You could get hurt.”

Crowley looked confused. “I trust you to not let me get hurt,” he shared openly.

“I’m involved in this,” Duke muttered. “I can’t keep an eye on you. You’re gonna have to stay in your cell today.”

“What?! No! I just told you, it’s Lucius’s cell—”

“Come on, AJ—one day,” Duke moaned, frustrated now. “I’m serious! You’re gonna have to, I don’t know, be brave today—take it on the chin today. Because it might get worse out here.”

Crowley truly looked like he might cry.

Duke sighed. “Okay,” he said. He appeared to be making up his mind about something. “Okay. While we’re in here …”

Crowley started to bend down on his knees.

“What are you— not that! Get the hell up!” Duke threw his arms up in frustration.

Crowley blinked, stood hesitantly, holding onto one arm dropped by his side.

“C’mere,” Duke murmured, dipping his fingers into Crowley’s mess of red curls on either side of his face.

Crowley forgot how to move or breathe, as Duke kissed him sweetly.

On the mouth.

“Oh, my God,” Crowley whispered elatedly. Then, beginning to panic: “Oh, my God. You’re dying!”

Duke smacked his own forehead. “I’m not dying!” he groaned. “I just … Look. I’m probably going to the hole today. Like I said, shit’s gonna go down. So, you gotta take care of yourself, okay? You gotta be tough. None of this weepy shit all the time.”

Crowley bit the inside of his cheek and nodded fiercely. Then he moved in close again, this time under Duke’s chin, his lips close to his throat. Duke did not seem to consider pulling him off or backing away. “I don’t want you to go to the hole the same day I come back,” he complained.

Duke petted Crowley’s hair. “Yeah, well, I’m not thrilled about it, either, but I don’t have a say in this one. I got orders. It’s … work-related.” Then he let go and carefully angled Crowley away so they were no longer touching. “Just, stay in your cell, please.” Duke frowned seriously, and there was something in his face that Crowley did not recognize or know how to read, despite having lived together for so long.

Crowley nodded slowly, with a pout that was rather becoming, Duke had to admit.

“All right,” Duke said, “let’s get the hell out of this closet.”

 

Fell hadn’t been pleased when Sgt. Sandal hired Duke to be the new cleaner, but Crowley was in the hole at the time, and somebody had to do it. Inmates who got out of the hole were not allowed to resume prior employment, ostensibly to complete their punishment. Fell knew it was less than professional that he wanted Crowley to clean again solely so he could spend more time with him; he figured he ought to be glad to have Crowley back at all. Besides, Duke did a decent job at cleaning.

Duke had never given Fell any problem, but Fell hated having Duke for a worker, not only because Duke had seemed so blasé about Crowley’s undeserved fall, or because Fell feared he might have preyed on Crowley, but also because he assumed Lt. Michaels had been integral to him receiving the job. It only made sense if she was running a con game with an inmate, that she would want that inmate to have more freedom to move about the jail.

The chem department of maintenance had dropped off various color-coded cleaners, diluted for safety’s sake, and Fell was required to watch Duke refill the soap tanks in the mop closet. A guard always had to observe the process in order to prevent workers from stealing too much of the product for cleaning their own cells. If Fell chose to ignore it when Duke splashed a couple meager ounces of Simple Green into an empty washed-out peanut butter jar, that was Fell’s business. He didn’t want the individual cells to be disgusting any more than the inmates who lived in them did.

Once Crowley was inside his cell, Duke had returned to the closet with Fell to get to work. He stood in front of the back wall of heavy-duty soap dispensers and funneled the appropriate colors into the corresponding jugs. Duke capped the last container, then appeared to be examining something hanging in the upper left-hand corner of the room.

“Is something wrong, Duke?” Fell asked tentatively.

“That broomstick,” Duke grumbled.

“Oh, yes,” Fell said, looking a bit guilty. “I suppose it broke, so the officer on the other shift merely patched it together with masking tape rather than trading it in.”

“You can’t leave it like that,” said Duke. “Even if you weren’t there when it got broke. Lt. Gabriel would have your ass if he saw it.”

Fell was impressed. Duke hadn’t told him anything he didn’t already know, but he mentally noted that Duke had offered up some helpful observation without being asked. Maybe Fell’s view of Duke as a human being had been too harsh at times on account of his … entrepreneurial activities.

Duke lifted the damaged item off the wall. “See,” he demonstrated, bending it apart carefully over one knee, “you dunt even have to peel the tape back. So now you got two dangerous weapons on your hands, not even just one.”

“You’re quite right,” Fell acquiesced. “And thank you.” He held out a hand to take the jagged wooden shards, and walked straight back into the closet.

 

They say in prison that you will always hear a fight before you see it.

Crowley sat alone in his cell, doodling on the desk surface, bored and yet still happy to be holding a real pen again. He was interrupted by an explosive commotion coming from the floor below. Crowley sprang to his feet, and scuttered to grab hold of the tier railing and lean over it. His glittering eyes scanned the unit for clues to what was happening. Other inmates remained seated soaking up out time, four men to every steel octagonal table amidst miscellaneous books and games.

His gaze darted from table to table, and his heart sank when he could not discern the source of the clamor. Then it dawned on him that about half of the men downstairs had turned casually in their seats to all face the same way. The other half continued to play cards and listen to music and pretend as if they didn’t hear anything, but those who were nosey enough were all staring in the direction of …

The mop closet.

Worse to Crowley, not a single inmate was standing. None of them were tightening their shoelaces, either, which could indicate that someone’s buddy was in the fight and so they were getting ready to jump in if the situation got bad enough. The men below were curious, naturally, and maybe some were vaguely concerned, but absolutely nobody was considering getting involved.

And that could only ever mean one thing: A guard was being assaulted.

Heads shot up as Crowley flew down the stairs to the lower level and maneuvered tables like an agility course. One man stood and said, “AJ, I wouldn’t—,” but Crowley had already blown past him. Crowley ran so hard that he nearly passed by the closet altogether, but he grabbed hold of the doorframe and essentially threw his body inside.

Fell’s head was tilted away and his back was to the wall on the right side of the closet, his hips and legs planing out at odd angles while he scrambled to achieve a fully upright position. Crowley’s throat tightened up when he saw that Fell was bleeding profusely, down his cheek like scarlet tears, from a gash splitting his left temple. It was blatant that he was severely disoriented. Fell instinctively swung his left arm defensively, and it was through sheer dumb luck that he actually managed to connect and strike the wooden shank from Duke’s hands. It clattered noisily across the floor to Crowley, who pounced down and caught it.

Crowley snapped back up to standing and planted his feet shoulder-width apart in time to see Duke, whose eyes were glued to Fell’s jaw, violently twist his hips and tear his left arm back to prepare to throw a solid open-palmed hook. Duke knew what he was doing: the progressive hits to alternating sides of Fell’s skull might not kill him, but they would knock him out.

Take a moment to consider how skinny Anthony Crowley is.

Now, remember how fast Crowley is.

Crowley was inside the action like a bolt of lightning parting the sky. He gripped the makeshift weapon in his fists and summoned every fiber of strength in his lithe body as he took a baseball bat swing to the back of Duke’s head. The shock of being hit there temporarily whited out Duke’s vision, and his full weight stumbled into the wall of industrial-weight soap containers, which subsequently toppled and struck Duke and Fell about the heads and shoulders.

Both men were very much out cold.

The last thing Duke thought before he went unconscious was something along the lines of, Damn, kid—I didn’t know you had it in ya.

Crowley was sobbing, but he never knew it.

He skidded out of the closet in view of the central pod and started yelling and waving his arms at the sergeant. Most of the inmates had already gone back in their cells, the jailhouse equivalent of a cartoon animal folding its arms behind its back and whistling innocently while it sneaks away. Crowley resorted to unabashedly jumping up and down.

Sgt. Sandal, who stood at the glass, looked up from his steaming cup of coffee …

And waved.

“You … fucking …” Crowley exhaled, wrenching his hair in his hands before ducking back inside the closet.

Crowley landed on his knees and heaved one of the massive soap containers off of Fell so he could tear his officer radio from his shirt. Crowley stuttered with the buttons; it was so ingrained in the mind of the inmate to think that touching a radio was an unforgivable offense that even now he had to overcome anxiety that came with that. He keyed up the mic and shouted into it, “Code Red on 1-A, Fell to all units: Code Red on 1-A …” Crowley threw the radio like it was a bomb about to go off and set about removing as many jugs from on top of Fell and Duke as he could lift. Fell’s cut was still a red mess (as it so often goes with head wounds), and Crowley’s shirt was spattered with blood as he crawled and did his damndest to free up the two men beneath him.

For one bewildering moment it did not register with Crowley why the wind had been knocked out of him, but then he understood that Uriel and four other members of the Emergency Response Team had dogpiled on him coming in so fast that all six of them had gotten smashed into the wall with Crowley on the bottom. Oh, Crowley thought—seeing the blood which trailed across the concrete, connecting him to two unconscious bodies, one of whom was a uniformed officer whose radio had been stolen—this looks bad, doesn’t it?

He had stayed out of the hole for three hours.

Chapter Text

Earlier that same day …

 

“Oh, come on,” Anathema Device grumbled to her tarot cards. “The Tower, twice now? Really?” Chaos. Destruction.

She leaned back in her desk chair and reshuffled. Third time’s a charm, right? But before she could pull a card, her office phone rang. “Device,” she answered.

“Anathema Device! It’s me—”

“Major!” Device was so taken aback, that she unintentionally cut the other woman off before she could even get out her name. The Major rarely had reason to call inside the jail, and she had next to no dealings with unit managers on the whole. “Well, good afternoon, ma’am, how are you?”

“I’m lovely, Ms. Device, thank you. Yourself?”

“Fine, thanks—what can I do for you?”

The cadence of the Major’s voice, the few times Device had ever heard it, always struck her as somehow the audio equivalent to the Mona Lisa’s smile. “I had a very unusual visit to my office yesterday,” the Major teased. “Tell me—what do you think about this new Officer Fell?”

Device paused. “I haven’t had any issues with him,” she said cautiously.

“He’s not in any kind of trouble, Anathema,” said the Major, “you don’t have to be so overly careful. Just, honest opinion—how do you feel about him?”

“Ohh,” said Device. “Thank you, ma’am, I’m sure he’s a nice guy and all, but I’m not interested—”

The Major laughed, and it sounded like fairy lights scraping the inside of a Mason jar. “No, no, no. Nothing so gauche, I assure you,” she said. “How about this then: what are your thoughts on inmate Anthony Crowley?”

Device gaped at her phone and was grateful the Major could not see her face. That was a non sequitur if ever she heard one. The Major had said it all so quickly as though she thought Fell and Crowley were one and the same. Device felt guilty, like this was some kind of test and she should have known to study for it. “I’ve never had a problem with Crowley,” she said truthfully. “In fact, I was stunned that he went to the hole.”

“Now that’s interesting,” said the Major. “Tell me about that.”

“I’m not sure what to tell you about it,” Device admitted. “It’s just that—well, he’s coming up on his minimum, he never turned up hot on any random drug test in the past …” Device struggled with what she wanted to say; it was always an iffy thing, vouching for an inmate, especially to one’s superior, but something compelled her to keep going. “He’s a good inmate. And, yeah, that’s an oxymoron, I get that, but—he is.” Device paused. “He cleans my office for me … with me in here, obviously, so I’m around him, he’s opened up to me a little. Plus I had to go through his psych file, to give the 10-4 that it was safe to put him in the hole …” Device let out a weary sigh. “I know,” she said, “I know that every guy in here has a sob story, but …”

Device halted herself. It was on the tip of her tongue to say something highly controversial for prison staff to say of an inmate, especially for female staff to say of any male inmate, since it would be so easy to unfairly twist the words. It was the sort of thing that might go completely unnoticed, marked harmless by any civilian who’d never been inside a jail, but bore vastly different weight in the culture of corrections.

Idly, to have something to do with her hands, Device plucked a card from the deck on her desk. She held it up:

Justice.

That, to her, was an obnoxiously loud signal that she owed it to Crowley, to say what she was thinking out loud.

“… AJ Crowley has no business being as sweet as he is,” said Device, “as good a person as he is … after everything that’s happened to him.

“That’s all I have to say.”

There was a pregnant pause on the other end, and Device wondered if she had said too much after all. Great, Device thought wryly, that’s just great, now she thinks I’m sleeping with my cleaner because I stuck up for him a little …

“Thank you, Anathema,” the Major said kindly at last. “You’ve been a great help. I’m going to be having Anthony Crowley escorted back to 1-A.”

 

After the assault …

 

Fell had believed, that Gabriel believed in his job.

Fell had been right. He and Gabriel just had different perspectives on what their job was.

When an officer is sent out injured from work, a supervisor has to go to the hospital with them. Gabriel drove his Escalade close behind the ambulance which currently contained a knocked-out Officer Fell, who was being transported from the Paradise Correctional Institution to the emergency room, while unconscious inmate Duke, Heston was being treated at a medical housing unit onsite.

That skinny little scumfuck, Gabriel fumed in his mind. Fell turned the whole damn jail against himself trying to get that piece of ass inmate out of the hole, and look how he pays him back for it.

Contrary to what one might expect, Gabriel did not particularly hate Fell, no more than he hated any other staff who happened to be exceptionally stupid in Gabriel’s eyes.

Here are some things Lt. Gabriel believed in:

The institution—the uniform—and getting everyone in the uniform home safe from the institution.

Fell wasn’t a “bad” person, Gabriel thought. He just didn’t understand the world yet. A lot of rookies came in that way. Oh, sure, Gabriel didn’t like him. But the thing was, that was irrelevant; people were rotten, Gabriel had worked in the system long enough to come to terms with that, and in that regard it didn’t matter if they were guards or inmates, but what did matter was that you remembered which side you were on. As Gabriel saw it, all those bleeding-heart types wanted to complicate things with shades of grey, and talk of “prisoners’ rights” this, and “bad apples” that, when the reality was much simpler, more black and white: “us,” versus “them.” Gabriel figured, that if Fell survived his head trauma, maybe he wouldn’t be such a useless moron anymore.

Now he knew what all inmates were really like.

Maybe he’d walk away a wiser man.

If he survived.

“Fuck!” Gabriel shouted, banging his fists off of the steering wheel as he stopped behind the ambulance at a red light.

When Gabriel had caught wind that the Major was releasing Anthony Crowley from the hole pending some sort of investigation, his first thought had been, That bitch has been working in the administration building too long. She was out of touch. That was what happened to people who didn’t spend time inside the jail anymore, as far as Gabriel could tell. They got soft.

This is all her fault, Gabriel decided. She thought that little cocksucker deserved a second chance, because he was a “nonviolent” offender. What a joke. If there was one thing of which Lt. Gabriel was absolutely positive in his career, it was that an inmate who had never assaulted a guard just hadn’t had a good enough opportunity yet.

And then he had heard Fell call the Code Red over the radio, and he had wanted to put his fist through the drywall, because some inmate-lover whose office had central heating had just put one of his guards (an idiot guard but a guard nonetheless) in the hospital. Fell had been so hurt, or scared, or both, that Gabriel noticed it barely even sounded like him in the call.

Gabriel was doing the math in his head: First, Anthony Crowley returns to unit 1-A. He sees that his pet guard, has replaced him as mop closet boyfriend with none other than the cellmate whose wife Crowley had been. Crowley flies into a jealous rage, and he gets the upper hand because he had the element of surprise.

It was so obvious that it would almost be comical if it hadn’t resulted in a beaten and bloodied officer.

Lt. Gabriel knew one thing, though: he looked forward to the day that Anthony Crowley would pay for this.

 

Saturday - Two Days to Crowley’s Parole Board Hearing

 

Lt. Michaels was roused out of bed by the pale rays of sunlight flooding through her wooden blinds. As she started her morning routine, she saw that one of the text messages she had gotten overnight was more delightful than all the rest:

Lt Douche :D > At ER with numbnuts here, ASSAULT…………….!!!! Fill u in when u get back tomorrow. Scumbag went to hole

Michaels slipped a Le Creuset mug under her Keurig, and popped in a Starbucks Breakfast Blend. She played dumb: Just got this. Which numbnuts are we talking about, douchebag

Lt Douche :D > Fell

> Figured but we work with a lot of them. Sorry to hear

Lt Douche :D > Noone deserves that. But u sleep with dogs u get fleas. All these jealous boytoys

Michaels snorted. She tried to decide what was funnier, the idea that Duke would ever fuck Fell (no way Fell was topping), or the thought of calling Duke a “boytoy.”

Lt Douche :D > Can’t fill u in afterall. Cap says have to report back to ducking hospital. Will u live if u don’t see my smiling face
Lt Douche :D > I mean ducking
Lt Douche :D > Ducking
Lt Douche :D > I HATE THIS PHONE
Lt Douche :D > Trying so hard to not make a joke about filling u in

Michaels choked on a laugh while she distractedly thumped her demanding cat (who must be into BDSM or something, because the rougher she petted him the worse he clung to her) and checked Facebook for the day.

She didn’t even care that it was her Monday. Today was going to be great.

 

It’s been mentioned that correctional institutions are not so much known for customer service.

They also, and this would appear to be universal, have indisputably lousy interoffice communication.

Part of that boils down to the nature of the job. Working in a maximum-security prison with 3,000 potentially violent inmates does not lend itself to much free time to sit around reading and sending emails. If Lt. Michaels had checked her email as soon as she got in to work, she might have seen that she had misinterpreted a vitally important part of Gabriel’s text messages: namely, which “scumbag” was sent to the hole.

Duke was supposed to go to the hole. He was supposed to go to the hole, because unit managers have a certain amount of indirect clout over misconduct hearings, sentencing sanctions, and housing arrangements, and lieutenants have direct power over unit managers. In Michaels’ many years of experience at PCI, Duke was probably the only inmate she had ever met who wasn’t, at the end of the day, just another snitch. And as a head of security, she would know that all the rest were snitches, for the right price.

The plan was, keep the details of the arrangement between Michaels and Duke—trust Sgt. Sandal with one key directive but no actual information (also, specifically an order which would most incriminate him, if he was ever brainless enough to say anything)—send Duke to the hole—and get Duke right back out of the hole. That last bit was dependent on picking a plot (she had several ideas, she hadn’t committed yet) that would call Fell’s integrity into question, at which time the head security lieutenant would work with the inmate she had determined knew the most about it, by making a deal to release him from the hole pending investigation. Then, Michaels would lean on UM Device to expedite Duke’s hearing and dismiss it. Restrictive housing was full, which meant the officers were laying “boats” down on the floor to house two men to a cell, so until Michaels was able to free Duke, she would ensure in the meantime that Device housed him in the hole with Crowley.

Michaels knew it was gross, and Duke always tried to play to her like it wasn’t a thing, but Michaels was content to throw Duke a bone (no pun intended). He was only supposed to be in the hole for a couple days anyway, why not make it a romantic getaway from the hubbub of the housing unit while they were at it? She figured he’d earned it.

Fell had to go. Michaels wasn’t picking on him for being a rat; she would never waste valuable time and energy on something so petty.

Lt. Michaels had grown accustomed to her lifestyle, but it was bigger than that now. It wasn’t about some friendly rivalry with Gabriel anymore (three weeks after he got the Escalade: “How the fuck did you afford a Range Rover?!” “You like that color, Gabey? That’s custom”).

It wasn’t Michelle Michaels’ fault that she had been born to parents trashy enough to name her that. It wasn’t her fault that her dirtbag brother Rafe was in and out of county. And it wasn’t her niece’s fault, either. The girl was going to go to a good school if Michaels had anything to do with it, and some upstart rookie was not about to change that.

Michaels was like Gabriel, in that she knew a thing or two about the greater good. Inmates who got their dope, were inmates who slept through the day and didn’t hurt officers. And inmates who bought their dope off of Duke, were inmates who gave Michaels, and the people whose lives mattered to her, a better shot. All she had to do was remove Fell from the equation before he could do any permanent damage running his mouth, and the little bastard would even get a paid vacation out of the deal when he went out on workers’ comp.

And stayed on it until he found a job more suited to his personality. Like Easter Bunny at the mall.

How could anything ever be more justified?

All those factors and more were tucked in the back of Michaels’ mind as she entered Device’s office.

“Lt. Michaels,” Device said. “Nice to see you.” (That was a lie. Everything about Michaels’ aura rubbed Device the wrong way.)

“Good to be here,” said Michaels sweetly, sitting gracefully in one of the chairs.

Michaels had closed the door behind her when she came in, and that didn’t strike Device as an auspicious start to whatever was about to happen. Between the Major calling her yesterday, and now the 2-side lieutenant dropping by unannounced, it had been a weird week indeed.

“Unfortunately,” said Michaels, “this is not a social call.” She arranged her face into a pained expression. “I’m here because of the incident on 1-A yesterday.”

“It’s terrible,” said Device. “You wouldn’t expect such a nice guy to have a problem with an inmate like that.” You wouldn’t expect anyone to have a problem with Crowley like that, she tacked on silently.

“You should always expect anyone to have a problem with any inmate like that, Ms. Device … They don’t care how well you treat them.”

Device bit the inside of her mouth, then offered diplomatically, “Well, nobody saw it coming, I can tell you that much.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” Michaels said sadly. “Perhaps this could have been avoided, if anyone had caught what was going on sooner.”

Device’s skin prickled. She arched her eyebrows. “Oh?”

“We”—Who’s “we,” thought Device, do you have a little mouse in your pocket?—“have reason to suspect there were questionable activities afoot with Officer Fell, sorry to say.”

Device leaned back in her seat, nonplussed. “Wow,” she said, “but, I guess nothing should really shock me in this place anymore.” She paused. “Fell, though? Really?”

“Afraid so,” said Michaels, looking deeply disappointed. At last she said, “That’s why I wanted to speak to you about the inmate in the hole. It seems he’s been caught up in a rather unfair situation …”

“Hold on,” said Device. Pieces of a puzzle were coming together in her mind. “This is about why the Major called yesterday, isn’t it?”

Michaels wasn’t expecting that. She hesitated, then covered it with, “I am only at liberty to discuss so much. I’m sure you understand.”

“No, of course,” said Device. Her tone and demeanor had done a 180 in terms of now being favorable toward Michaels, since she knew the situation was so urgent that the Major herself was working with her. That changed everything. Here was Michaels actually trying to do the right thing, not just being a pompous ass in Device’s office while she was trying to work. “Although, I have to say,” said Device, “this actually kind of makes more sense. It's crazy, though, right?”

Michaels’ face did not betray that she had realized she had no idea what was going on. “Well, yes,” said Michaels. She faked a laugh, shrugged with her palms up to indicate something like can you believe this shit? “I mean—which part of it, am I right?”

Device leaned on one hand and shook her head, baffled. “This is so sad,” she said, and she sincerely meant it. “Poor Crowley. I knew he would never just attack someone for no reason.”

Meanwhile, in Michaels’ mind, she was imagining herself screaming and destroying Device’s office with a sledgehammer.

“The whole situation is truly awful,” Michaels replied serenely.

“Well, count me in,” said Device. “I’ll help any way that I can.”

“I knew you would say that,” said Michaels with a smile. Her mind was racing to come up with a new idea. “We’ll find a way to make this right. Do you still have Crowley’s file on hand, by chance, or would you have to get it out?”

“Hadn’t even gotten around to putting it away from the last time he was in the hole,” Device admitted, shifting the mess of papers on her desk around in a way that apparently made sense to her. She picked up a manila folder and handed it to Michaels.

Michaels gave the pages inside Crowley’s file folder a perfunctory flip. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was going to do with it yet, as plan B was just beginning to solidify in the mold. “Thank you, Ms. Device. You’ve been very helpful. I take it I can return to security with this then, give it back to you at a later date?”

“Absolutely,” Device said with a nod. “I hope you can find something in there that will help him.”

“Oh,” said Michaels, “I’m sure I can find a way to make it useful.”

 

Michaels stormed into her office, locked the door behind her, and hurled Crowley’s inmate file across her desk. “Now what??” she snapped at no one. She shot back around to her computer and pulled up her work email. As always, it was a cascade of garbage: PCI baseball tryouts; staff bus trip to the casino; this week’s cafeteria menu …

Delete, Delete, Delete

She never would have even found it, if she hadn’t been looking for it: Crowley, A. inmate #GO-6661 released from restrictive housing … in another email: assaulted staff the same day … in another: Crowley’s new housing assignment in the hole … immediately followed by some CO selling Girl Scout cookies for their kid, We’re already out of Thin Mints so hurry up and get your orders in … (She made a note of that one.)

Michaels flopped down in her chair and let out an aggravated moan, then started sweeping up the loose pages that had slipped out of Crowley’s file onto her desk. She couldn’t even leverage his interview date, because he would know they were just going to deny him for drugs and assault anyway, regardless of whether or not she could get him out of the hole in time. This is pointless, she thought. I don’t know why I even took it. If I could just get him to make a statement against Fell—but he’s squeaky clean, never even been written up before, there’s nothing in here I can use, all the little whackjob has is psych notes—

Well, hold on now.

Michaels scanned the last page she held in her hand.

Now that was interesting.

Maybe this hadn’t been such a pointless exercise after all.

Chapter Text

NAME: Anthony J. Crowley
DOB: 11/06/1990
Examiner: Marjorie Potts, M.D.

 

(Keep latest impression on top of notes -MP)

(Do not transpose into DSM-V pls, thx -MP)

Diagnostic Impression:

Axis I:        Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, 309.81; Generalized Anxiety Disorder, 300.01
Axis II:       None, v71.09
Axis III:      None reported at this time
Axis IV:      Severity of psychosocial stressors: Severe
Axis V:       Current GAF: 45
                  Highest GAF in the last year: 45

 

DATE OF EVALUATION: 03/15/2009
Place of Evaluation: Paradise Correctional Institution

 

Informants: The identified client, Anthony Crowley

 

Psychiatric Assessment:

Anthony Crowley is an eighteen-year-old Caucasian male who currently resides at Paradise Correctional Institution. He previously resided at Eden Youth Rehabilitation Center. He alleges that he served out six consecutive sentences there from the time he was eleven years old, and was last released on his eighteenth birthday. When asked the reason for this, he states that this was because of convictions primarily for theft. This is a young man who utilizes humor as a coping mechanism as evidenced by his statement, “Didn’t you ever see Aladdin? ‘Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat.’” His prior permanent residence was with his mother. His mother’s name is Lilith Crowley.

Anthony Crowley comes to the attention of this interviewer today as per prison intake procedure, however it will be supported in this report that Anthony is in need of real ongoing treatment and observation.

Anthony is an intelligent, articulate young man. Speech is spontaneous and coherent, with appropriate rate, rhythm, and modulation. Thought processes are goal-directed and reveal no evidence of a thought disorder as there are no hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid ideation.

On cognitive exam, he is oriented to time, place, and person. Immediate, recent, and remote memory functions appear to be intact. He does have some marginal insight for his problems, but his judgment is somewhat immature and impulsive. He impresses me as a clever, but anxious, high-strung young man.

Anthony Crowley is an inmate at Paradise Correctional Institution consecutively serving nine to 26 years for third-degree murder, one to three years for possessing a firearm without a license, and one year for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. Details of the incident have been entered into DOCNet. As it relates to his psychiatric wellbeing, Anthony maintains that the third-degree murder of his self-reported best friend, a young man called Warlock, was an involuntary shooting caused by an accidental discharge while Anthony was showing his unlicensed handgun to Warlock. Anthony appears to be remorseful, and he becomes tearful when asked about Warlock or the incident.

Anthony’s education past the age of ten was almost entirely received at the facilities at Eden Youth, and as such he was placed solely according to age rather than intellectual ability. This is unfortunate, as he appears to be of above average intelligence and could have benefited from some form of gifted programming. When asked about his grades as a juvenile, Anthony becomes agitated as evidenced by continuously shifting his seated position and he states, “I got A’s or I got D’s, it’s like there was no in-between.” He says that Art and Earth/Space Science were his favorite subjects. His least favorite subject was Algebra, because, he states, “When will you ever use it? At least with geometry you can get better at playing pool.” He shares that he had a tendency to question or possibly even correct his teachers and he maintains that they behaved hostilely toward him as a result.

Anthony Crowley states that he does not know the identity of his biological father, however he alleges that when he was a young boy he discovered an old love letter addressed to his mother signed only “Sam” while he was hiding in her closet. This anecdote may be worth mentioning for a couple reasons: a) he is set in his belief that “Sam” must have been his father, and b) he alleges he was specifically hiding from his mother at this time as she was intoxicated. Based on this single letter from his “father,” Anthony appears to have built up this “Sam” character into a sort of “guardian angel” in his mind from a time when he lacked any real proper guardian.

This young man notes that he is unaware of the current whereabouts of his mother. He assumes that she is still alive as he has not heard otherwise. Without being prompted as to how that makes him feel, he offers, “If she didn’t want me, I don’t need her.” His verbiage is telling as at several points throughout the interview he assured this examiner that he does not “need” her; he never once states that he does not want her in his life. Assuming Lilith Crowley is alive, she is allegedly thirty-five years of age.

Anthony describes his mother as having a history of alcohol and substance abuse. He alleges that on at least two separate occasions during his childhood she offered him a smoked substance and stated along the lines of, “Why would you make me have to do this alone? What kind of a son are you?” He states that both times she ultimately did not share the unknown substance and instead broke down crying and apologizing to the child. He understandably states that he was both afraid for her and of her. Anthony states that drug use was common in his neighborhood growing up and he in large part chose not to partake because he witnessed his mother’s addiction firsthand. He again tries to make light of a serious subject here by saying, “I did exactly one thing right [in his life].” He describes clearly growing up in poverty. He describes a history of food insecurity in his childhood. He states that he hated his mother’s boyfriends. He refuses to elaborate why.

Data reviewed showed that during Anthony Crowley’s time at Eden Youth several reports were made by counselors expressing concerns over Anthony’s actions and behaviors. Counselors noted that Anthony had incidents where he would get bullied by his peers. Anthony states that the bullying when he was very young was focused on his physical appearance. Anthony has wavy red hair and most unusual amber-colored eyes. He alleges that he was set apart as a redhead and also because of his rare eye color; the color is attractive but startling and as such it stands to reason that it would attract the cruel nature so often observed in children. He jokes here about being a “soulless ginger.” The word “soulless” seems to trigger something in him, he becomes serious and states that sometimes he was taunted as being “something evil” on account of his strange eyes. It would appear that this bothers him even to this day.

Anthony goes on to state that as he grew and entered puberty, the bullying became more sexually harassing in nature, revolving on presumptions about Anthony of homosexuality. He states that he was small for his age as a child. Therefore, as a result of being seen as both effeminate and weak and thus desiring to quell that image, Anthony alleges that he would initiate physical fights in response to verbal teasing. Data reviewed reflected that Anthony was often punished for fighting with other children. Said data failed to suggest reasoning for the aggressive behavior. One does come away with the impression that no one ever asked him why.

Anthony casually makes some troubling remarks about his treatment at the hands of Eden Youth staff. Likely resulting from his aforementioned childhood poverty and food insecurity, Anthony states that he had a habit of taking and hoarding food items. Anthony tells of a time when he was caught stealing apples from the kitchen to share with friends in Eden. He states that he was caught by two orderlies (“technicians” in the parlance of Eden Youth) and physically disciplined. He seems to be minimizing, that he was “just gripped up a little.” His affect is agitated as he says this and there is a disconnect between his words and his outward appearance.

Counselors at Eden Youth also reported incidents where Anthony would apparently engage in self-harmful behavior. He admits to a period of time between the ages of thirteen and fifteen during which he would privately hurt himself physically. He becomes embarrassed and blushes (his fair complexion betrays this) when discussing this. He says it was “stupid” and that he does not know why he did it. He tells of punching himself, banging his wrists off objects until they were bruised, and at least one time throwing himself down a flight of stairs. He apologizes multiple times during this discussion. When I ask him why he apologizes, he states, “Because it was stupid, and I feel stupid for getting upset now.” When asked if he ever felt suicidal, Anthony Crowley states that he never wanted to be dead, but he would have liked to stop existing.

Anthony Crowley presents as a handsome young man appearing his stated eighteen years of age, or possibly a little younger. He came to the interview wearing standard prison “browns,” however this interviewer can discern that he exhibits good hygiene, and that he wore his uniform correctly (shirt tucked in, pants not cuffed up, etc.) with a clean white undershirt, not worn through, visible at the neck, and black sneakers. His striking red hair is long enough to frame his face and the top half is pulled back into a loose bun. One can see that this is a young man who cares about his appearance. He has a small but dramatic facial tattoo of a black snake next to his right ear. There are no other visible tattoos or piercings. He denied any suicidal ideation at this time. He denied any homicidal ideation at this time.

Anthony Crowley is a candidate for restrictive housing if necessary. Anthony Crowley is a candidate for any and all uses of force if necessary. (DISREGARD!! See tagged later reports -MP)

 

Strengths:

His intelligence
His verbal skills
His likable personality

 

Stressors:

Current incarceration
Previous juvenile incarceration, relative lack of a childhood
Relative abandonment by his mother and father
Having witnessed his mother using hard drugs in front of him
Being picked on and bullied as a child
His history of problematic peer interactions

 

Many pages later …

 

Today was the first time Anthony opened up about his sexual or romantic history. One hopes that he can continue to become progressively more comfortable in the interview setting until he feels he can discuss any aspect of his life to his benefit. Anthony details a rather lengthy history of intimate partner relationships with both boys his own age as well as considerably older men, however it remains unclear if his many varied paramours always mutually agreed that their arrangements could be called “relationships.” He appears proud of his many “notches in the bedpost,” so to speak, and this interviewer is of the opinion that this is merely a façade for more negative and painful emotions on the subject.

When asked when did he realize he was gay or bisexual, Anthony becomes confused and denies that he is. He states, “I mean, I don’t know. I know what I’m good at, but it’s like I never got a chance to learn what I like.” He states this casually as if unaware what a chilling statement it is. However, when asked to elaborate, sadly, Anthony ends the interview.

Anthony Crowley at best displays a tenuous understanding of his own sexuality, and at worst might actually appear to exhibit certain classic hallmarks of childhood sexual trauma. Anthony is notably at risk of sexual victimization in a maximum-security prison setting, and in the professional opinion of this examiner, that fact must be taken under careful consideration when making housing arrangements for this young man.

 

Pages later …

 

I am pleased to report that in my professional opinion, Anthony displayed a major breakthrough during our meeting today. While again discussing Anthony’s past promiscuous behaviors, Anthony insightfully states that he has a pattern of forming emotional attachments to paramours too quickly out of fear of abandonment, and becoming sexually involved regardless of his own wants or needs for the intended purpose of demonstrating his value to intimate partners. He states that he wishes he did not “fall in love” so fast or so often. He states that he wishes he had more to offer a partner beyond sexual favors. This is a young man who has likely never received any type of affection which was unconditional. This is also a young man who struggles with tragically low self-esteem under a veneer of swagger.

Anthony’s insights today lend themselves to the creation of a new individual recovery plan for this young man. Anthony states that he is willing to …

 

Flipping ahead …

 

Anthony asks if I can prescribe a sleep aid for him. He alleges that he has “always” had nightmares. He refuses to elaborate at this time. Anthony has never mentioned nightmares before this session, and if this is indeed more than drug-seeking behavior (I do not believe that to be his M.O. but the possibility must always be considered), then this examiner is not particularly keen on “slapping a bandage” over the problem, as it were.

I will add permissions to Anthony Crowley’s chart to administer 50 mg of Vistaril at bedtime. Nothing stronger will be permitted at this time.

Anthony is not satisfied with this compromise. Anthony alleges that …

 

Let’s keep reading, shall we? …

 

Anthony floored this examiner today (there is no other word for it) when he entered the office, sat down, and bluntly stated, “I’m ready to tell you about my abuse.” (On a personal note: This interviewer had stopped trying to subtly open the door to this topic months ago, as I’ve suspected abuse for some time now. This is a fascinating young man, to have evidently waited for just that time to completely bust down the door entirely.)

Anthony alleges that he was abused by two orderlies during his time living at Eden Youth Rehabilitation Center. Reviewing past notes reflects this interviewer’s original concerns that Anthony had formerly minimized the details of his treatment by Eden Youth staff. Anthony confirms that the accused are the same two orderlies from earlier reports. He refuses to name the accused. When asked why he wants to discuss this today, Anthony states, “I don’t want it anymore. I don’t want the nightmares. Sometimes I go back to it even when I’m awake.”

Anthony has frequently struck this interviewer as displaying signs of hypervigilance, but as always this is a difficult symptom to assess in such a dangerous environment as prison, where everyone is wise to be “hypervigilant” to an extent. He describes another feeling that, “Sometimes I’m suddenly apart from everyone else. They keep talking like nothing’s happened, but they’re not real or I’m not real anymore and you can’t talk about it or they’ll think you’re crazy. Suddenly I’m in here [he indicates his head] and something is separating me from them out there.” He describes another feeling that, “I’ll be someplace loud, like a bar, and everything’s fine until suddenly it isn’t and then I’ll just leave and not tell people why.”

This is a young man who has never been psychiatrically hospitalized. He has never been diagnosed before coming to prison. He has never received outpatient therapy. He has never been referred to a partial hospitalization program. It appears he has been living with severe mental health effects without any assistance for quite a long time.

Anthony alleges that he was abused for years by two male staff at Eden Youth beginning after he was caught stealing food. He states that the men took turns striking him on the torso with closed fists throughout that first night. He states that the beating persisted specifically because he would not stop trying to fight back. Anthony states that he was eleven and the orderlies were young adult men and he knew even at that age that he could not beat them, but he was too defiant to give up trying. He insists for this reason that he shares much of the blame for the abuse. Anthony says that the staff members told him, “You’re doing this to yourself. Just stay down and it’s over.” Anthony states that he kept getting back up because of his pride.

Anthony states that he avoided all staff at Eden Youth for about a week after the first beating. He states that he then decided to aggravate the two orderlies as much as he could and “get back” at them. He estimates that he was beat at least once every two weeks to start. His abusers allegedly worked rotating shifts, and Anthony says he received the worst abuse when they were both assigned to work overnight together. Anthony says they would then pull him out of his dorm bed in the middle of the night and escort him to an empty pole barn which was used for recreation and other daytime activities. He says that the abuse escalated in severity and length over time. He is adamant in blaming himself throughout the interview because he says he never backed down or begged them to stop. This interviewer believes that this is in part a coping mechanism for this young man to give himself some illusion of control over the past situation.

Anthony states that his attackers eventually graduated to beating him with belts since he was not responding as they apparently wanted by punches and strikes. He says that they were careful to mostly restrict marks and bruises to his torso area. Anthony states that this period coincided with the time when his peers started bullying him about sexual orientation. He says that his abusers must have overheard the other children bullying him because they started to say the same things during his abuse. Anthony states that at this time, he started meeting them at the pole barn at night instead of waiting to be dragged there. When asked why, he says, “Because they called me a pussy, it was like showing them, this is how not afraid of you I am.”

Anthony says that the abuse became sexual at this point in time. Anthony appears “checked out” of the interview here; when asked if he would like to stop, Anthony says, “No, I never told anyone, please let me finish.” We did take a short break at this time, without concluding the interview.

Anthony states that the first time the two staff members found him waiting at the pole barn, one of them said something to the other to the effect of, “See that, he really is a fag, he couldn’t wait to see us.” Anthony alleges that this was the first incident of these two staff members committing involuntary deviate sexual intercourse upon this child. He alleges that the acts continued ongoing for a number of years. He estimates that the abuse stopped when he was sixteen, but he states that he is unsure of this because he never felt safe enough to believe that it was truly over. He states that when one perpetrator quit his job at Eden Youth, the other staff member stopped interacting with Anthony completely.

Anthony states that about one year into the sexual abuse, he was again more frequently beaten with belts on top of the rapes. He states that he had stopped vocalizing much during the abuse at this time. He describes feeling desensitized. At this point in the interview, Anthony becomes pale and is visibly shaking. He again refuses to stop the interview when the choice is offered. Anthony states that his abusers introduced a choking element into the abuse at this time. This is the first point in the story where Anthony becomes tearful. He remains tearful for the remainder of the interview. It is clear that he is most affected by this part of the story. He states that at this time his abusers started using a belt to restrict Anthony’s breathing while he was being otherwise sexually violated. He says that they did this because they felt they had failed to “break” him with beatings or rapes alone. Out of respect for this young man, this examiner chooses to quote his audio verbatim at this time, rather than doing him the disservice of trying to paraphrase such a devastating confession:

“When they hit me I fought back. When they fucked me I wouldn’t cry. But it was on my neck. Do you hear me? It was on my fucking neck. They won. I begged. I begged them, I begged them to do whatever they wanted, please, I’ll be your slave, just, please, let me breathe again, let me breathe. I thought I was going to die. It was my fault. Everything they said about me was right, I was queer, I was weak, it was my fault, I begged for it … I just didn’t want to die.”

Anthony vividly describes his intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares as per the above statements. His mental health effects all revolve around a distinct fear of feeling like he is unable to breathe. This is a young man who acknowledges that he will not even tolerate a turtleneck or scarf touching his neck, because, he states, “I will lose my fucking mind.”

This is an extremely important point to stress in a correctional setting. As previously noted, Anthony Crowley is a candidate for restrictive housing as needed because he is in no way psychotic or apparently a direct harm to himself. However, this page is tagged to draw attention to the fact that Anthony Crowley is NOT a candidate for every level on the force continuum. One must understand that what may be considered a “soft” technique in dealing with one inmate, is not an ethical option for handling this sensitive young man. I simply cannot emphasize enough how inhumane it would be to trigger this individual whenever it could be avoidable.

Anthony Crowley does not strike this interviewer as a threat to staff in any way, however the allowance must always be made that any inmate in a maximum-security prison is potentially dangerous. That said, as a medical professional I am compelled to note the most serious contraindications so as to try to reduce harm to my fellow man.

Therefore, barring any unlikely catastrophe such as an assault or riot—it is the professional stance of Paradise psychiatric staff that no quantity of chemical agent designed to restrict breath and induce panic (oleoresin capsicum; “pepper spray”) is approved for use on inmate Anthony Crowley.

Chapter Text

Earlier that same day …

 

Fell’s pale lashes fluttered open.

He was curled in a hospital bed. That was to be expected, he decided, based on what of Friday was still fresh in his memory. He had an IV, which he supposed he also could have expected, if for no reason other than to keep him hydrated while he slept. The air in the room was nippy, he could feel the chill from the clear liquid dispensed by the drip as it spread under his skin, and the chintzy knit blanket tugged around him did next to nothing to dispel the cold. In spite of the physical temperature, however, and the sterile appearance of the room, he was surprised to recognize that there was a solicitous warmth surrounding him.

The next thing to catch him by surprise was the voice.

“Well,” said a soft croak. It was coming from a lean, familiar figure, which was soaking up all the sunlight raining in the window to the left of Fell’s bed. Fell whipped his head on his crunchy plastic pillow to face the sound, and winced when the wound on his temple complained at being jarred. “Look who’s finally decided to rejoin the land of the living,” said the figure, an affectionate smile to be heard in the voice.

“Crowley!” Fell sat up much too quickly for a bruised body that was still waking up to tolerate well, and Crowley rushed to grab the large remote hanging off the cot and hold down the button that raised the back of Fell’s bed until it supported him. Fell stared in amazement. Crowley dropped the remote and landed back against the wall in his grimy grey hospital chair, stretching his arms along the windowsill.

There was the cunningly sharp and intelligent grin, chiseled into an angular freckled face, set beneath a pair of dark glasses. “Oh,” he played, smile softening, “I forgot, you like them off.” He removed his sunglasses and set them on the sill. When he beamed at Fell again, his naked eyes were like twin stars in the early morning, and the sun backlit his hair so that the red was flooded with fire.

“I brought you chocolates,” Crowley said, as if that explained any of what was going on. He shook a brown rectangular box by his ear, and that made Fell notice that he was in fact hungry, not that he would have said no to sweets either way. Crowley looked happy, and undeniably handsome, and free, and he was wearing real clothes (all black, of course), and Fell could feel fat tears rising behind his own blown-wide eyes.

“Oh, and by the way,” Crowley said, something shivering in his voice like he was bracing himself for a blow, “I’m pretty sure you can call me AJ now. Unless that’s too fast for you, or something.”

“AJ,” Fell said. Those syllables were sweet-tasting and soft in his mouth as one plump marshmallow soaked up with cocoa. “What on earth happened?”

“Heston assaulted you,” Crowley said with a frown. “Remember? You might have forgot, you got hit on the head pretty hard. But,” he perked up, sounding proud, “I saved your ass.”

“No, no,” said Fell. “I remember Duke hitting me, and it’s blurry but I believe I was still aware when you ran in.” His blue eyes spilling over with tears distracted him, and he wiped the wet away with the back of his hand.

“Hey now,” whispered Crowley, leaning forward and placing one hand on the bed. Fell resisted the urge to grab it; he would have to wait until later to interrogate what that instinct signified. “Don’t cry. You’re safe.”

“But I mean, what happened?” Fell continued. “How on earth are you here, with me, right now?”

“Oh,” Crowley said. The corners of his mouth pitched down forlornly. “I was sorta hoping you wouldn’t ask me that.” Crowley tilted his head, wistful eyes like honey holding Fell captive.

“Because,” AJ said, “now that you’re questioning it, you’re probably gonna wake up.”

 

“Fuck!” It was the first thing Fell said when he truly did open his eyes. “That,” he said for nobody, “was a dirty rotten trick.”

“What was?” puzzled a deep, masculine voice.

Fell twisted his neck to look at the row of chairs under the window to his left, aching his head as he did so. There was nobody there, and the clouds beyond the glass were gloomy.

“Other way, numbnuts,” said Lt. Gabriel.

Fell tried to ignore the gaping disappointed hole in his chest as he turned to view the lieutenant. Gabriel was sitting along the wall by the head of the bed to Fell’s right, meaning that Fell had to put strain on his bruised neck in order to have any proper conversation with him. Gabriel sat with his ankle on one knee, an elbow on the other and his head in that hand, looking for all the world like he was out to prove that somebody really could die from boredom. He was in uniform, except for his hat off, which he was spinning casually on a finger.

“Wow,” said Fell, “how long have I been out?”

Gabriel sighed. He set the hat in his lap and sat up respectfully, putting both feet on the floor. “You’ve been in a coma for the last three years,” he declared solemnly.

“Good Lord!” Fell shot up in bed. “Are you—”

“You’re an idiot,” said Gabriel. “It’s Saturday.”

Fell groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose, and flopped back down on the bed.

“You were in and out last night,” Gabriel said. “You only slept this long because they have you on the fun meds. Nobody stays knocked out long in real life without getting brain damage. Although, from what I’ve seen, you might have gotten to that point all on your own.”

“Is this why you’re here?” Fell snarked. “To make me feel better?”

“I’m here,” Gabriel said, a touch seriously, “because I had orders to check in on you, and because, believe it or not, I like for my guys to not get fucking killed.

“Even if it would have been your own fault,” Gabriel drawled at last.

“How do you figure that?” Fell snapped. “I got attacked by a cleaner, who I didn’t even hire, while I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing.”

“Ugh,” said Gabriel, “you are so ridiculous. You got attacked by your girlfriend in brown.” Gabriel rolled his eyes, dramatically rolling his head back right along with them. “I hope you at least learned your lesson.”

“I have no idea to whom you could be referring,” Fell huffed, looking away to intently study a rust-colored stain on the drop ceiling.

“You know,” said Gabriel, “not only do you know exactly who I mean, but—you know, that I know that you know who I mean.”

Fell grimaced but said nothing.

“Crowley,” Gabriel accused. “There, now you don’t have to throw yourself under the bus by being the one to say it.”

Fell sat up again, the full weight of something sinking in. “Crowley,” he said, “was the one who rescued me. If we’re going to talk about Crowley—”

“Holy hell!” said Gabriel. “Are you really that delusional, or is the guy part Hoover on his mom’s side or something??”

“Heavens, you’re disgusting,” Fell groused, fluffing up the back of his white-blonde hair, which was plastered down from sleep.

Gabriel sneered. “Careful, sweetheart,” he pronounced, “you’re hardly in any position yourself to call anyone else disgusting.” He shook his head. “Why would you defend him now? He fucking assaulted you.”

Fell propped himself up on his elbows and tried to meet Gabriel’s glare, pushing past his body’s sore protestations. “Because he didn’t do it,” Fell said. “He didn’t assault me, Duke did.”

Gabriel moaned in his irritation. “Duke was out right along with you. Crowley jumped both of you. Look, you need to get over whatever this is.” Gabriel flipped his hat onto his head to punctuate the point. “We’ve had guys into pretty weird shit, it’s not like anybody ‘normal’ takes this job. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ fine, whatever, but don’t make it out in your head to be more than it is. They don’t care about you.” He pressed his palms into his knees as he got up.

“Consider this a vacation,” Gabriel said. “You go out injured from a fight, you’re covered to sit at home for a long time.” Gabriel gave a lazy half-wave behind himself as he was leaving the room. “Use this time to get your fucking priorities straight.”

Fell sighed, tightening his hospital blanket around himself, and wondered how it was possible to feel so lonely when he was usually so comfortable with being alone.

 

Sunday - The Day Before Crowley’s Parole Board Hearing

 

Lt. Michaels was smart. After learning what she had about Crowley from Anathema Device the day before, and then scouring through emails to glean any further information about the respective circumstances of Duke, Fell, and Crowley following the events of Friday, she made it a point to visit Duke in medical housing the earliest she could.

Duke, it must be said, was living his best life. As far as he was concerned, Crowley had done him a favor. He was starting to think he should get hurt more often.

The pretty young nurse in hot pink scrubs was currently making sympathetic noises to Duke’s regaling her with the brave and stunning tale of how he had survived a completely unprovoked attack, while she counted out some neat pills for him into a paper cup. “That’s so scary,” she said, handing him the pills and a tiny cup of water. “And you don’t even remember how it happened?”

Duke hesitated. Duke was also smart, at least in the ways that mattered most in prison. Duke “didn’t remember” what happened, because Duke didn’t know what the story was; Duke didn’t know what the story was, because Lt. Michaels hadn’t told him what it was yet. “I’m sure it’ll come to me soon,” he said at last, flashing the young nurse a tragically put-upon smile. He tossed back the pills and water, and as he returned the empty cups to her, his fingers accidentally-on-purpose grazed her knuckles. She giggled.

“Well,” said the nurse, “all that matters is that you’re all right. I’ll be back in another hour to check on you.”

Duke sat unthreateningly on his mattress, peering up at her with his hands folded in his lap. “Anybody ever tell you you got beautiful eyes?”

The nurse laughed. She made a shooing gesture with one hand, and pretended to try to hide her blushing behind the other as she backed out through the cell gate. “Oh,” she said in amusement, “you are just too good to be in here!”

“Oh, he’s good,” Lt. Michaels drolled to the young lady who was about to bump into her. “He’s the paragon of virtue.”

“Oh, gosh, I am so sorry!” said the young lady, almost tripping over herself at the sight of the lieutenant who had been standing directly behind her.

“It’s fine,” Michaels assured her with disinterest. “I’m going to be in here with Duke for a while. Just letting you know I’m on the unit.”

“Yes, of course,” said the nurse. “Let me know if you need anything!”

Michaels watched her scurry away to continue her rounds. “I certainly won’t be letting you know if I need a spare brain cell,” Michaels muttered to herself. Michaels swung the round metal seat out from the wall and sat backwards on it, dropping a folder of various forms on top of the steel desk. “Hi!” she said to Duke, in a show of blatantly phony enthusiasm.

Duke made an irritable sound and crossed his arms. “You’re so mean,” he complained. “That’s my future ex-wife you’re bein’ nasty to.”

“You’d forget about your prison wife that fast?” Michaels asked wryly, arching an eyebrow.

“Dunno what you’re talkin’ about,” Duke grumbled. He kicked his legs up on the bed and leaned against the wall, arms still closing himself off to the energy in the room.

Michaels leaned back as well with her elbows behind her on the desk, and crossed her legs, demonstrating her unusual level of comfortability around Duke. She did that sometimes, especially when Duke was in a mood: assume a vulnerable position on purpose, when he knew that she was intelligent and experienced enough to know that she was dropping her shield. The way she sat now said, look, I know we can never fully trust one another, but I need you to know that you really are different to me from the rest of them. He read that, and he couldn’t help but soften toward her. His arms dropped to his lap.

“Anyway, what’d you call me a minute ago when you came in? Some kinda parrot gone?” Duke said, regarding her suspiciously.

“It wasn’t an insult,” Michaels murmured, looking over her fingernails, “just a lie.”

“Ah,” said Duke. “Well, that’s all right then.”

Michaels dropped her hand, eyes scanning up purposefully. Apropos of nothing, an evil grin started to stretch across her features. She snorted, then let herself laugh out loud.

“What?” Duke said defensively.

“You got knocked out,” said Michaels, the full realization finally hitting her, “by Anthony Crowley.”

“Oh, you little …”

“Anthony—fucking—Crowley.” Lt. Michaels was, simply put, losing her shit.

Duke pouted. “Sure, I’m feeling better, thanks for asking!”

Michaels wiped off a fake tear. “I promise I didn’t come by here to torment you,” she said.

Duke looked dubious. He shifted back up to sitting on the bed.

Michaels switched her crossed legs. “First of all,” she said, and her tone was serious, perhaps even apologetic, “how do you want me to handle him, anyway?” Michaels watched as Duke’s eyes cast around the room. For all her joking, she was aware that the treatment of Anthony Crowley was possibly the only subject that ever seemed to make Duke nervous, and she reserved some empathy for that, or at least when it suited her to do so.

“Is there a right answer to that question?” Duke was giving her a side-eyed dirty look.

Michaels shrugged. “It doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “Let me explain our options.” She paused, thinking before she spoke. “Fell is out injured, which is all well and good, but he will keep poking and making calls until he ends up getting me fired—and that’s if I’m lucky, and the prison chooses not to press charges. I’m obviously not about to let that happen. I need you to write a statement against Fell. We are going to say that he was bringing drugs into the jail.”

“Right,” said Duke. That part was obvious to him. Not least of all because Fell had found Suboxone in Duke’s cell in the first place, and “finding” narcotics was exactly the sort of thing dumb guards who brought drugs in for inmates did when they wanted to look good for their bosses. It played perfectly well into the story.

“The next part of the statement we can work out together, just so long as we both agree on it,” Michaels went on. “If you admit to going after Fell, then the story is that he roped you into selling for him and you wanted out of the arrangement, and then Crowley heard the fight and jumped in to help you.” She paused.

“That story sucks,” said Duke. “What’s the other one?”

“Well,” she said, “the other story is that you blame Crowley.”

Duke groaned, rubbing his head.

“I know you don’t really like doing it, but it wouldn’t be the first time,” Michaels pointed out. Duke didn’t think that was terribly helpful, or fair, to throw back at him. “He was selling, he attacked Fell. Or, you were selling—he attacked Fell. Or whatever, I don’t fucking care. I just need to know.”

Duke was silent.

“Duke,” Michaels said, as gently as she knew how (and she more or less meant it, Duke was the only inmate for whom she held any endearment), “he’s not getting out. His interview was supposed to be tomorrow. Whatever happens now, it’s not your fault.”

Duke mulled that over. “That also means,” he mumbled, “that he’s staying in here, with me.”

Michaels sat stock-still. She gathered from Duke’s tone that he was not concerned about animosity from a fellow inmate; the unspoken part of that statement was that Duke wanted Crowley in here, with him. She hadn’t expected that attitude, nor did she necessarily count it as a positive or a negative at this time. She merely found it interesting. She might have been squirreling away information for future reference, a mental note, Duke cares about Crowley considerably more than you thought he did.

“I’ll cop to it all,” he said finally, with a heavy shrug. “I’m never getting out anyway. And it’s a lot more believable to say that I did it. But that’s the other thing,” said Duke, “who’s going to believe my statement against a CO anyway?”

“Nobody,” said Michaels shortly. “Not on its own merit. Your statement exists solely to corroborate Crowley’s.”

Duke started cracking up at that. “Oh, you’ve lost your damn mind!” he said. “You’ll never get AJ to make a statement against Fell. You forget how I got hurt already? That kid is crazy about me, and he still beat the shit out of me to save that guard. He’s hot for him.” Duke sniffed. “Personally, I don’t see the appeal.”

“Just write your statement,” said Michaels, sliding a form out of the folder and pulling a black pen from her shirt pocket. “You let me worry about the rest.”

 

When the white hats had pressured Device to cell Crowley and Duke together four years ago, she had remained angry at herself for caving for a long time. Aside from the subtle threats made to her livelihood, her superiors had also appealed to her caring nature by saying that Crowley would ultimately be safer under Duke’s watchful eye. As much as she hated to admit, it seemed over the years that they had been right, after a fashion. Since moving Crowley in with Duke, Device had never seen Crowley beaten once, and without a doubt she could not say the same thing about the time prior.

Over the course of her career, Device had learned that nothing was black and white in jail. Sometimes up was down. She could not keep her inmates safe from harm on all sides … but she could do her best to minimize harm.

That was why Device had always maintained mixed emotions about Crowley and Duke living together. While he cleaned her office, Crowley had on occasion raved about having Duke for a cellmate. She saw it as a sort of Stockholm syndrome. Of course it had been problematic to initially hand Crowley over to Duke. Crowley was in no way prepared to defend himself against such a predator, neither physically nor emotionally. Crowley was a trauma survivor, Device knew that, and that left him exceptionally open to abuse.

If that sounds cut and dried, consider this: Crowley is a grown man.

Device understood that there was a whole other layer to the issue of making housing arrangements for Anthony Crowley, which was that as much as Device’s heart bled for him, she still had no right to define his reality. He was not a child, nor was he a danger to himself. He was entitled to make his own choices, including those that might appear to be wrong, and he was entitled to love Duke all he wanted, even if that “love” came with a heavy helping of codependency. Device refused to retraumatize Crowley by stripping him of his autonomy.

Begrudgingly, Device acknowledged that Duke really did seem to treat it as his job to safeguard Crowley from all outside violence and bullying. Also, based on her limited understanding of what Michaels had told her, it would seem that both Crowley and Duke were under siege by corrupt staff. Now Crowley was in the hole because he had defended his cellmate and himself from an officer. It was so scandalous, that neither one of them was at liberty of confiding in or leaning on anybody but each other.

(As an aside: Lt. Michaels probably could not have put the seeds of such a conspiracy theory in the minds of any other staff than Anathema Device. Device ate that stuff up with a spoon.)

After all that self-debate, Device determined that she was willing to house Crowley and Duke together again—but only upon leaving the decision in Crowley’s hands, and Crowley’s hands alone.

The officer in restrictive housing set a plastic chair for Device in front of Crowley’s cell and keyed open the wicket flap. She was friendly, letting him know that, no, thank you, but she really would prefer to talk to Crowley by herself, and by the time that the young man had returned to his unit pod, a pair of beautiful golden eyes were already looking out at Device through the slot in the heavy cell door. There was a long and thin rectangle of glass higher up on the gate, but it was only through the wicket that they could really have any longer, more intimate conversation.

“Ms. Device!” he said, and he sounded so moved that it broke her heart to imagine that this nanoscopic crumb of human contact would be the highlight of Crowley’s day.

She leaned in, hoping that the smile she had for him would be reflected in her friendly brown eyes. “Hey, Crowley,” she said. “How are you holding up?”

“No place I’d rather be,” he quipped.

“I’m sure,” she said, chuckling. “But, I wanted to speak with you about what place you might want to be next, after you get out of the hole.”

Crowley said nothing, and Device could tell he was hanging on her every word.

Device went ahead and said what she came there to say: “How would you like to live with Duke again?”

She heard a sharp inhalation of breath, which she assumed meant that he was about to say no. She was right on the tip of apologizing for even making the suggestion, when instead he asked her, “Would they really let me do that after everything that happened?”

Device figured that he was referring to the general awareness of his relationship (she didn’t know if it was more appropriate to call it a relationship, or a “relationship”) with Duke, and what all that entailed, and so she said, “Only if you wanted to.”

Crowley was confounded. He assumed, since he was the one who had attacked Duke, and no one was ever going to believe why, that Device must have gone to Duke first and asked him the same question in reverse. Device drew back respectfully from the door slot when she noticed the tears springing from Crowley’s eyes. Device knew that he was clearly crying at the injustice of being confined to the hole for having done the right thing. For Crowley’s part, he was near weeping when he realized that Duke’s feelings for him ran so deep that Duke had already forgiven him without question. Crowley thought of their shared kiss in the mop closet.

“Of course I do,” Crowley said, his voice cracking. “Of course I want him back.”

 

Needless to say, after his conversation with Fell yesterday, Lt. Gabriel was not in the greatest mood.

He was back to working his regular shift inside the prison, and he had decided that if Fell wanted to spout stupidity, like that Crowley had swooped in like Prince Charming to answer Fell’s damsel in distress routine, then Gabriel needed to get any remaining reports that had not already been appropriately submitted about what actually happened Friday. That was why he was currently storming medical housing as if it was the beaches at Normandy, only armed with a couple loose sheets of paper as opposed to a Thompson gun.

Gabriel found a nurse in the hallway. “Which cell is Duke, Heston in?” he asked. “I need to talk to him.”

“Well, isn’t he just Mister Popular today?” said the nurse. “He’s in 3-cell.” She started to walk away.

“Wait.” Lt. Gabriel stopped her. “What does that mean? ‘Mister Popular’ how?”

“Oh, well, the lady lieutenant,” said the nurse. “You know, the classy one. She was just here to see him about an hour ago.”

Gabriel let out a little wail as he continued down the hall. What the hell, Shelly, he thought. First thing you do the second you start shift is be a busybody on my side of the jail and make me look bad? Everyone wanted to get on his nerves this week, it seemed. Gabriel buzzed himself into the third cell of the medical housing unit, or MHU-3. Duke, who had been lying on the bed, spun around into sitting with both feet on the floor.

Lt. Gabriel slapped the papers in his hand down on the steel desk dramatically, then swung the metal chair out from the wall so he could sit. “How’s my favorite inmate,” he said rather than asked, in greeting.

Duke grunted noncommittally. “Been better, been worse,” he said.

Gabriel and Duke were mostly neutral to each other, and just the adequate amount of suspicious. “Could always be worse,” Gabriel said. Their conversations always exuded the feel of professional-grade small talk, born from decades’ worth of officer-inmate relations where you amicably chatter on with each other without ever saying a damn thing. Gabriel removed the pen from his shirt and tap-tap-tapped it on the paperwork he brought. “Just need a statement from you about Friday, is all. Then I’ll leave you alone.” He offered that final sentence up like a gift.

Duke furrowed his brow and looked askance at the forms. “First tell me why you people need two,” he said. “I already gave one to Michaels.”

Gabriel’s mouth parted open. He could feel the heat traveling up his neck and burning his ears red.

Everyone really was out to piss him off lately, weren’t they?

“Lt. Michaels took a statement from you about the fight on Friday?” Gabriel asked, wanting to make sure he understood correctly. She wasn’t even working that day, he thought. He was more than a little annoyed; he felt undermined.

“Mm,” said Duke, which wasn’t a no, which meant it was a yes.

Gabriel drove his thumb into the pulsing point between his eyebrows. He was getting a migraine.

 

Lt. Gabriel didn’t think anyone else could annoy him any more than the last two days.

He was wrong.

Anathema Device was startled at her desk when Lt. Gabriel suddenly flung the office door as wide as it went. He banged it shut behind him. Device could see that he was gritting his teeth so hard that his jaw shook, as he clutched a printout of an email in one fist. Device figured she was looking at the color your aura went right before you died from a brain aneurysm.

“Tell me something, Device,” he fumed, “has everyone but me been taking crazy pills today?”

“Hey!” said Device, putting her hands up. “Don’t come for my crystals group like that! These guys could benefit from a little more amethyst—”

“Not your fucking rocks club,” Gabriel snapped. He held up the crumpled sheet of paper he was carrying and waved it. “What the hell is this?”

“Well,” said Device, “from here, it looks like a proposal form for a cell agreement.”

“Not just any cell agreement,” Gabriel said, slamming it down on her desk. “This is the cell agreement you sent me a half-hour ago, suggesting we put Anthony Crowley back with the same guy he beat up—which, by the way, even if that wasn’t completely insane, could never happen anyway, because at this rate Crowley is never getting out of the hole!”

Device regarded Gabriel with distrust evident on her face. Either Gabriel was in on things with Fell, or, he was a clueless prick who had no idea what was going on right under his nose.

Device assumed it must be the latter.

“Maybe you should talk to Lt. Michaels,” Device said cagily.

“No,” said Gabriel, “I’m talking to you right now, and as your direct supervisor I am giving you an order to fill me in on why 1-side is upside down!”

Device sighed. She really didn’t want to be in the middle of some weird lieutenant-to-lieutenant sexual tension thing, but he did have every institutional right to order her to tell him what he wanted to know. “Okay, fine,” she said. She took a deep breath. “Crowley is probably getting out of the hole soon. Michaels is working on it.”

Gabriel gawked at Device like she had two heads, then barked out an incredulous laugh. “Right,” he said, “Michaels is helping an inmate who attacked an officer get out of the hole. And then I’m taking him to McDonald’s!”

“I’m serious, LT,” Device said desperately, with a shrug. Gabriel could not get a read that Device was knowingly lying to him, so he said nothing. “It’s something to do with dirty staff, and Fell blaming something on Crowley.”

Gabriel shot Device a look, and fell in the chair across from her so fast that it was as though someone had kicked his feet out from under him. “You can’t possibly believe something that stupid,” he said.

“You’re defending him?” Device hadn’t accounted on that.

“Not really,” said Gabriel, “but I’m not taking an inmate’s side, either.”

“Well, I’m just going off what your head of security told me,” said Device.

Gabriel scratched his scalp, shaking his head back and forth. “I don’t know what’s going on here,” he said, “and I don’t know if I want to know. But I do know one thing. The idea that Fell would ever blame anything on Crowley, might just be the dumbest thing I’ve heard all year. They’re like the gay Romeo and Juliet.” He bent forward, catching eye contact with Device and holding it. “Because let me tell you something: Right now, Fell is laid up in a hospital bed, insisting that Crowley saved his life.”

Silence hung in the air between them.

Gabriel’s disgust was palpable. He got up to leave. “I don’t want to be involved. House your convicts however you want,” he said, as he was walking out the door. “I really couldn’t care less if they kill each other.”

 

Device paced her office, trying to make heads or tails of her last conversation with Lt. Gabriel. Gabriel had been in the hospital with Fell the day before, so Gabriel was honestly the one in the best position to know what Fell was saying. He didn’t like Fell, so he wouldn’t be lying for him. Why would Fell say Crowley saved his life? Unless Crowley was in on a scheme with Fell, but then why would Michaels be trying to free Crowley from the hole?

She stopped walking to take out her frustration on kicking at a scuff mark on the floor tile. Then she considered the various documents scattered on her desk, and picked up CO Uriel’s report of the Friday fight:

On the above date and approximate time, while assigned to housing unit 1-B, this Officer noticed inmate Crowley, Anthony #GO-6661 on 1-A standing outside the janitorial closet on said unit, waving his arms. This Officer then saw I/M Crowley run in the closet. Shortly after that, I heard CO Fell call a Code Red over the radio. I could not see CO Fell anywhere from my vantage point on the adjacent tier, so I responded to the closet on 1-A. At that time, I saw …

Device frowned. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with Uriel’s reporting, yet something was bothering her and she couldn’t pinpoint what it was. She reread the first paragraph over again.

Why did it take Fell so long to call the Code Red?

Whatever happened inside the mop closet went on for so long that Crowley waved his arms around to try to get someone’s attention, finally gave up on that, and went in the closet himself, and Fell still hadn’t made the call immediately after Crowley came in. Device pondered the implications of that. An officer’s first and foremost line of defense in their day-to-day artillery is always their radio, that was one of the first things a cadet learns.

He was already unconscious, Device realized. Crowley made the radio call.

It came as no surprise to Device that Crowley would help anyone in need. But what did it mean, if Crowley had been put in the position to have to do that in the first place?

Well, for one thing, thought Device, it means that Duke was conscious by the time Crowley got there. Duke and Fell couldn’t have knocked each other out at the exact same time. And if Fell had been antagonizing Duke like Michaels suggests, then Duke should have escaped the closet as soon as he could. Device flopped down in her desk chair and scrunched up her face. She felt like there was an answer hanging right out of reach, and she kept feeling its threads between her fingers but they slipped away each time. She decided to try something else.

Device pulled up the shared folder on her ancient office computer. She rooted around the subfolders of camera from A-tier, clips automatically organized in the system by dates and times. Then she found a segment named with the time closest to that on Uriel’s report, and she opened it to play.

After a brief instant of watching video, Device’s jaw dropped.

“Holy fucking shit.”

 

Device pounded on the glass of the central pod until a scowling Sgt. Sandal opened it up to her. Before he could get in any wise remarks, she swept into the room and rounded on him. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” she said.

Sandal froze. “What are you talking about?”

“You saw,” she growled, stepping right into his personal space and pointing square at his chest, “on Friday. You saw Anthony Crowley, trying to show you there was an emergency on the unit, and you stood there and drank your coffee.” Device’s body shook from concentrated rage, and when she saw red now, it wasn’t anyone’s aura.

“Prove it,” said Sandal.

“It’s on video,” said Device, “and you’re so arrogant, that instead of pretending like you don’t see anything, you wave at him!”

All the color drained out of Sandal’s face. Well, that’s that, he thought. He wasn’t one to go down with someone else’s ship: “I was just doing what I was told.”

“Who told you to ignore a fight?!”

“That’s a matter of security,” he said airily.

Device switched tack. “I want to speak to Uriel,” she said. “I want to hear from Uriel exactly what happened that day.”

Sandal sneered. “Can’t help you there,” he said. “She’s dealing with a situation down in the hole.”

“That’s bullshit,” said Device. “I would have heard an emergency over the radio.” Device stomped to the back of the pod, checking for Uriel on break.

“Maybe it wasn’t for you to hear!” Sandal called from up front.

Device saw the shadow tool board in the back of the pod. If Uriel was out on a backup call, it should be missing items. It held everything an officer might need in a fight: cuffs, belts, batons, stun guns …

“Where’s all your spray?” Device shouted.

Sandal stepped back to where she could see him, and he shrugged. “They told her to bring it.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Device. She didn’t know why, but she was beginning to panic. “Why would she leave everything else? She didn’t even take the shield with her. There are other options, you’re supposed to exhaust … you can’t skip straight to chems, it’s inhumane …”

Sandal rolled his eyes. “Oh, too bad, so sad,” he scoffed. “Why don’t you go write a letter to the editor about the poor inmates?”

Device’s sight tracked down to the yellow safe on the floor beneath the shadow board. It stood open, and empty. She gasped.

No spray is pleasant. But some products have such a high rating of Scoville Heat Units, that …

Well.

Hunters use them on bear attacks.

“Where’s your fucking riot control spray?!” Device shrieked.

“I told you,” said Sandal, “they wanted her to bring everything. I don’t ask questions. Go back to your … whatever it is that you do. You don’t work security!”

Security.

Device understood.

Michaels never did give that file back, did she?

“Oh, my God,” Device sobbed, as she ran out of the room.

 

Lt. Michaels strolled into the restrictive housing unit pod with Officer Uriel marching not far behind. The young man who was working the hole stood respectfully, and was jolted by the massive black duffel bag that Uriel slung up onto the countertop. It was partially unzipped, and the clinking canisters inside it peeked out from under the unsettling rubber hose attachment on top.

“I’m sorry you lugged that down here,” said the officer, scratching the back of his neck. “We would have gladly given you anything you needed.”

“Thank you, Officer,” said Lt. Michaels. She smiled like the sharp silver edges of the bars on her collar. “This is easier for inventory tracking, and besides,” she said, “we have very special product needs.

“I’m here to have a chat with inmate Crowley,” she said, looking out on the unit. “Uriel will remain on standby in here unless I require her assistance. Please restrict your rounds for the time being unless absolutely necessary.”

Lt. Michaels let herself out. Device’s plastic chair from earlier was still against the wall across from the row of cells, and she slid it in front of Crowley’s door. Michaels sat down and unlocked the wicket flap with her lieutenant’s keyset. Crowley, over the moon to have company twice in one day, skidded on his knees to the slot in the door. “Ms. Device, you came ba— oh,” he said. “Um. Lt. Michaels?” Whatever was happening, Crowley knew it couldn’t be good. Michaels could only see his amber eyes, but she assumed from the quirk of muscles that he was arching an eyebrow.

“Hello, Crowley,” she said smoothly.

“Uh. Hi.”

He was such a soft, nervous thing. Michaels almost felt bad for him. “How are you today?”

Crowley narrowed his eyes, and darted them back and forth behind the cell door as if to say that the beige empty room held nothing to make today any different from any other day. “Fabulous,” he said.

“Crowley, let me cut right to the chase,” said Michaels, and Crowley agreed that he would like nothing more from her. “I’m here because I need your help.”

He shifted to sit more comfortably, and as his head bobbed, Michaels caught the light shining off his sardonic smile. “Well, you’re gonna have to swing by Home Depot and hire a coupla those guys who stand outside,” Crowley snarked. “I can’t really mow your lawn or wash your car or anything from in here.”

Michaels laughed, and she let the smile reach her cool grey eyes. “No labor, no heavy lifting. Just pen to paper.” Crowley gazed back but said nothing. “You see, your boyfriend has been giving me a lot of grief,” said Michaels. “And I can’t have it continue.”

Crowley’s expression was thrown. “Since when does Heston give you any problems?”

“Not Duke,” she said, “your officer friend.” Michaels leaned forward. “You know,” she said confidentially, “the one who got you to violently attack your old cellmate, after everything Duke’s done for you?”

Crowley winced. “No clue who you’re talking about,” he mumbled. She almost didn’t catch those words, the way his mouth was set under the flap.

“Good,” said Michaels, “I’m glad.” She gave Crowley a nod of approval. “Then you won’t mind writing this statement for me.”

“What?” said Crowley.

“I need a statement,” said Michaels, “to the effect that Officer Fell was bringing drugs into Paradise.” Crowley laughed. “I’m not done,” said Michaels. “Fell used his control as staff over inmates to pressure Duke into selling for him, which resulted in Duke assaulting him when he wanted out of the agreement, and you ran in to help Duke.” She grinned. “Well, you’re quite the heroic little rascal, aren’t you?”

Crowley snorted. “You know nobody would ever believe that Duke was afraid of Fell, right?” Of course he wasn’t going to write it regardless, but Michaels didn’t need to know how strongly he felt about it.

“Well, there’s more to fear than being physically intimidated, Crowley,” said Michaels. “A CO has an incredible amount of power over an inmate’s quality of life. Wouldn’t you agree,” she said, “that mental and emotional abuse can be a lot scarier than brute strength?”

Crowley stayed silent.

Michaels dropped her tone to something caring and conspiratorial. “Crowley,” she said, “a statement like this would get you to your hearing tomorrow. You never wanted to injure anyone, but you couldn’t allow your friend to get hurt.”

Crowley’s face dropped, because that was exactly what had happened, only not the way Michaels meant, and nobody could believe it. “Even if you would come through for me like that,” said Crowley, “parole would still deny me for coming up hot on a phony drug test. Which, by the way,” he added, “was because of you.”

Michaels was starting to lose her thin veneer of angelic tranquility. “You know what else has been because of me?” she said. “Everything you have in here. Because everything Duke has in here, is because of me. The little gifts he gets you, art supplies? The food that’s better than the slop they serve here? The way he has any power at all to keep you safe? All me,” she said. Crowley looked away guiltily. “So I think you could do one small favor for me, one time,” she said.

Crowley looked back at her. “Why do you want to hurt Fell?”

Michaels paused, weighing how much she had to share with Crowley in order to possibly win him over. She determined that he would trust her more if she gave him a taste of honesty. “He might not even know he’s doing it,” she said, “but he might very well make me lose my job.”

“You probably should have thought of that before you started selling drugs,” Crowley said.

 

Meanwhile, in a certain security office, a certain lieutenant’s pettiness had gotten the best of him.

Lt. Gabriel reread Duke’s statement in his hands.

“What in the actual fuck is this?”

 

Michaels gritted her teeth, then reeled in her rage. “Let me ask you something,” she said quietly. “Why do you care about him so much?”

Crowley’s jaw dropped, because he really wasn’t in touch with his feelings well enough to formulate a response to that. He remembered one of the first things he said to Fell the day they met: I’ll never lie to get you in trouble, and I’ll never snitch on you, that’s my word. “I just do,” he said, “and it would be wrong.” He looked at a spot on the floor.

“Do you think he cares about you this much?” Michaels asked sadly. “Do you think he clocks out of here and goes home to his family and spares a second’s thought on you?”

No, thought Crowley. “That doesn’t matter,” he said lamely, with a shake of his head.

“Why, Crowley?” she asked. “Why don’t you matter just as much as he does?” Crowley’s head shot up to look at her. “I know a lot about you, Anthony,” she said, switching gears. “Life has been very cruel to you.” He looked away, but that left his ear pressed to the flap for her. He wordlessly let his body collapse enough to lean his shoulder against the heavy cell door. “He worked there, didn’t he?” she said. “Eden?” She couldn’t see if he nodded. “How old were you when he started there, Anthony?” she said.

“AJ,” Crowley mumbled.

“Pardon?”

“Nobody calls me Anthony,” he said under his breath, but she still heard him.

“How old were you when Fell started working there, AJ?” she said, driving over his attempt at deflection.

“… Eleven,” he said.

“Wow,” said Michaels tenderly, her voice patting salve over a wound, “you remember exactly what age you were. A lot must have happened then.” He didn’t answer her; that was her answer. “Did he care about you back then?” He shifted, she only had the side of his neck now, but she saw the tendons working there. He held a sob in his throat.

“He didn’t know about it,” Crowley tried weakly. Stop reminding me that he didn’t care, he thought.

“You know what I think, AJ?” Michaels said. “I think it’s pretty sick.” Crowley shuffled back to sitting so his yellow eyes glowed out at her, as always too curious to not hear the why of that statement. “He’s got you so twisted up in caught feelings that you’re sitting in a cell defending him … and when you met, you were a child, and he was a grown man who let you get hurt.”

“Can we talk about something else?” AJ Crowley pleaded. She’s so soft, thought the most traitorous pieces of his broken self, SHE wouldn’t have let that happen to you, she’s so … mom-shaped.

Michaels ignored him. “Because it benefited him in the end, didn’t it?” Crowley’s eyes widened a little. Michaels’ eyebrows raised in the middle like she was about to cry for him. “Look at you now,” she choked, brushing the outside of the wicket with her fingertips, and Crowley dropped his face closer to the steel flap, as though seeking that soothing touch on his cheek. “You’ve worked with therapists, AJ,” she said. “Tell me, did any of them ever explain to you what ‘grooming’ means?”

“Oh,” Crowley said, snapping up straight, “get fucked.” He was almost successful in sounding as though no part of him might believe her. You always were an idiot when it came to putting your faith in the right people, his mind hissed nastily. How do you know he’s any different from the others?

Lt. Michaels made a grating sound. That approach hadn’t worked. She leaned back and unsnapped a holster on her duty belt. Over the sound of his own racing heart, Crowley tried to listen for what she was doing. He heard a sound like a baby rattle being shaken above a crib, and he instantly knew that it was an aerosol can. The noise went through him like a straight blade. His spine went rigid in response.

“What are you doing with that?” Crowley said.

Michaels laughed. “Nothing,” she said. “I’m not doing anything with this weak stuff. I just wanted to see how long it took you to figure out what it was.” She sounded morbidly fascinated. “But you knew right away, didn’t you?”

“Nope,” Crowley bluffed, “what is it?” Crowley knew. It was the sound from every officer’s fist as they dove headlong into a fight. It was the sound that meant that if Crowley had the bad luck to be in the same room as that fight, that the blowback of chemicals would glue waxy remnants of constant clinging prickling hot anxiety to his hair and skin for a week.

She shook the can again, and Crowley hated himself for shrinking away from the door. “Looks like you already know what it is,” she said.

Duke got sprayed sometimes, part and parcel of running things and occasionally having to remind other inmates that, look here, assholes, just because I have it cushy here doesn’t mean that I can’t and won’t beat the living shit out of you if you start with me. Duke was oblivious to spray effects by now. Crowley, on the other hand, could hardly handle the secondhand fumes that rose off Duke’s body two hours after medical tried to hose the stuff off him. Crowley would circle the cell, climbing the walls, while Duke, for his part, tried to talk him through it. Then Crowley would cry that he couldn’t breathe, that he needed out of the cell, and Duke (who only didn’t want for Crowley to piss off a guard and make things harder on himself) would tell him what any guard would inevitably say: You can talk, that means you can breathe.

“Please,” said Crowley. He stood up off the floor and shivered. “I’m saying please here. Don’t make that sound.”

“I don’t think it’s the sound you have a problem with,” Michaels said idly, reading the label. “Or the burn, even. I think it’s the choking part.” Crowley’s shoulders shook at the thought. “I think it does something to your … neck.”

Crowley froze … but he didn’t feel like ice. He felt like something hollow, like iron pipes abandoned in winter. “Why are you doing this?” he said.

“I don’t want to,” Michaels said mildly. “It’s not like I go home and fantasize about ways to torture you. But I’m not getting fired, either. Not when all it would take to prevent that is you writing words on a piece of paper. And then you don’t have to get sprayed, and we’re both happy.”

Crowley remembered what Judge Bub had said to him, eleven years ago: “Mr. Crowley, you simply did not care what happened to your victim.” Lt. Michaels didn’t hate Crowley. She just didn’t care what happened to him. Somehow that scared him more.

“I’m so sorry, kid,” Duke had said to Crowley once, after Duke had brought another day’s worth of spray cloud wafting into the cell. “I hope they dunt ever do this to you. Because I know you, and the worst for you won’t be the hurt, it’ll be how they make it to put you in here.” He had tapped the side of his head. “Your brain can be really mean to you.

“You’re your own worst enemy, kid,” Duke had said.

“You’re being your own worst enemy right now,” said Lt. Michaels.

Crowley closed his eyes and took a deep breath, figuring it was the last good breath he was going to get for a while. He made a decision, one with which he could have peace in the end. “I’m not going to lie for you,” he said. “So come on, let’s get this over with, go on and spray that can into my cell.”

Michaels’ neck and ears burned red with wrath. “I guess you weren’t paying attention to me before,” she snapped. “I told you, I’m not doing anything with this weak shit.” She stood up and put the can back in the holster. Crowley stared. They had a clear view of each other through the window on the cell door now, and Crowley watched as she twisted her body toward the pod and raised one arm. “Uriel!” she shouted. “Bring busting spray for a cell extraction!”

 

There was only one mobile line for any true emergency. Either her phone was turned off, or someone else was trying to call at the same time.

 

“Major—this is Anathema Device—”

 

“Major, this is Lt. Gabriel from 1-side 1400 shift …”

 

“I know it’s Sunday night—you know I would never call your cell unless it was an absolute emergency-but-it-is …”

 

“You know I normally never call your emergency line …”

 

“… something is really wrong here …”

 

“… but the thing is I don’t know how early you check your emails on Monday mornings, so I just wanted to touch base with you first …”

 

“I don’t understand exactly what is going on, but I think somebody is about to hurt Anthony Crowley very badly … and I don’t know what to do …”

 

“It looks like you’re probably about to be receiving an attachment in the form of a statement from an inmate Duke, Heston; against an Officer Fell … That’s the guard who went out hurt Friday …”

 

“As soon as I hang up here I’m gonna go down to the hole to see if there’s anything I can do to stop it, but I just thought—”

 

“Anyway, this individual is making some pretty serious allegations against staff, so I just thought …”

 

“If you get this—please, ma’am—”

 

“… if you get the chance, please give me a call to discuss, my office extension is …”

 

“We really need you here tonight.”

 

Crowley’s world stopped.

No, that wasn’t quite right, it didn’t stop. It slowed. But it wasn’t fluid slow motion, more like stop-motion. Reality was a cartoon flip book, and the uncaring god scanning the pages was pausing. On. Every. Page. But even so, Crowley couldn’t keep up with what was happening, because as soon as his brain translated a frame into shapes that meant anything, that page was gone and his existence restarted. And the edges of every page frayed white, and his skin was white, and were those really his hands?

It was a panic attack.

“Fucking do what she wants!” shouted a neighboring cell. Nobody, officer or inmate, wanted to live and work in the lingering effects of a busted cell. Hell, far-off units with a shared vent system didn’t want what was about to happen next. Crowley backed into the wall. His forehead felt clammy. His palms tingled, his teeth tingled, the back of his skull was heavy …

Fun fact about less-than-lethal weapons such as chemical sprays: You’re not allowed to call them non-lethal, because on occasion, that will get you sued.

To be fair, though, the chemicals probably aren’t what kills you. You just have a heart attack.

Probably. The science is still out on that.

“What, what—” Crowley tried to say, not that he knew he was saying anything. He flattened himself against the wall, or he would be flat against the wall, if parts of him weren’t shaking so forcefully that he could never keep his entire body in one place.

Officer Uriel ran over to Lt. Michaels’ side with what looked like a thirty-pound silver and blue fire extinguisher, hooked to a lengthy hose extension that she had spiraled over one shoulder. Under her other arm she carried two gas masks. “Crowley,” Lt. Michaels yelled through the glass, “you can still change your mind. This isn’t pleasant for me. I’m going to have a lot of paperwork to do for it. How about we call the whole thing off and you just do what I ask?”

“I, I,” said Crowley, tears streaming down his face. He slid to the floor.

Lt. Michaels was an expert in security, not psychology. If she had known anything about psychology, she might have left Crowley to think on his options for the night, given him another chance tomorrow. She didn’t know anything about psychology, which was why she honestly thought Crowley could answer her if he wanted. As it stood, she thought he was just being a dick. Michaels grabbed one of the gas masks from Uriel and started to strap it on. “Okay, let’s go,” she said.

Uriel’s face was a question mark. She was unwinding the hose off her arm, but with great deliberation. She looked at the cell window, then back at Michaels. Uriel had been called in to do a cell extraction. A cell extraction would indicate that an inmate was injuring himself in his cell, or obstructing an officer’s view into the cell, or—or something. One did not bust a cell with chemicals and extract an inmate for crying in the corner.

“What, Uriel??” Michaels roared.

Everyone knows that it’s a corrections officer’s job to obey orders, but most civilians don’t know what that really means: it is a direct order of an officer’s oath, to question any order which may be unethical. That is, an officer was occasionally under orders to disobey orders. If Uriel didn’t care about Crowley, she still cared about being a good and proper soldier. She served an institution, and an oath, not a particular lieutenant. So you could say, Officer Uriel was short-circuiting. “Ma’am,” said Uriel, “with all due respect … what is the reasoning behind this extraction?”

Michaels did a double take, then glared at Uriel. “I brought you here for a reason,” she barked. “Because I trusted you. That’s why I posted you on standby instead of using the officer already on the unit. Because I thought you were a good officer. Are you going to refuse an order?”

Uriel looked through the glass, she looked at Anthony Crowley. He was a boy on his knees, and he was resigned to his fate, and he wasn’t crying anymore, or struggling, just staring. He wasn’t looking at anything that was outside of himself. Uriel had seen that face before, many times. She’d seen it during her last combat tour. “I am a good officer, ma’am,” she said. “And that’s why I don’t think I can do this.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Michaels snarled. “Now’s the time you choose for character development? Do I have to do everything around here?” Michaels snatched the heavy drum away from Uriel and slid the hose through her hands until the opening met with her palm.

“Holy shit,” said Uriel, who had just realized that this really was about to happen, and she scrambled to get her gas mask on in time. Michaels snaked the hose through the wicket of Crowley’s cell and started to release a steady hiss of pressurized gas.

Let’s talk about pepper spray. No, not the shit hanging from your keychain. Let’s talk about law enforcement-grade, prison riot control, pepper spray.

It’s just spray, right? So it’s a little spicy? No big deal, right? You like Indian food.

Uriel turned to the side and doubled over, sneezing knives, and felt searchingly for the spot where her mask was not fully sealed. “We have to stop, we can’t, they’ll see—”

You don’t feel anything at first, you think it’s not working, and then you feel everything all at once.

Kiss a ghost pepper. Bite it. Let the juices run over the sides of your mouth. No, don’t swallow it. Just pack your throat with a bushel of them. That’s it, just like that. One. By. One.

Ignore the blood coming from your nose.

You will only wish that you were dead

It will end it will end it will end it will end, Crowley’s semi-rational mind reads in strobing lights.

Wrongwrwrong, his lizard brain answers, she has the spray she has she has the spray it will go as long as as long as she wants this this is your life now this the rest of your life this is

His eyes are clenched shut which doesn’t keep the fire out of them and his vision is black except no it’s not because he can see he can see Eden and he is kneeling and there     is     a belt

It’s notreal it willend

pray

When you finally throw up, it pours from your nostrils, too, and still no part of you gets air.

“Get it together!” Michaels screamed at Uriel. “Fix your fucking mask! Don’t freak out on me, we’re fine, not a single camera faces into these cells!”

“You’re right,” said the Major.

Michaels whirled around so fast that her face nearly slammed off the handheld camcorder.

“But this one does.”

Chapter Text

The Major wasn’t the Major all the time. Sometimes she was a woman, sitting in her kitchen at home, eating a delicious burrito. She was putting her favorite hot sauce on it. It gave it a little kick.

On the other hand, the Major was always on call.

Her work cell vibrated on the counter next to her, and she glanced at it.

It was a really good burrito.

She was always on call.

The Major reached a decision, and idly stretched to pick up the phone. Her emergency response time to the institution in uniform was fifteen to twenty minutes, maybe ten at this late hour, so she figured she had time to eat. Then she noticed that she had received not one but two voicemails, which almost never happened on that line. She listened.

Well. That was neat.

The day after Christmas, rookie Officer Azra Fell had made a distinct impression on the Major when he had entered her office building and demanded to speak to first the Captain, and then her. He had then alleged that head of security Lt. Michaels was selling drugs in the prison, and that furthermore she had faked a positive test result in order to frame an inmate named Anthony Crowley. The Major would not order an investigation of a lieutenant based on hearsay, but she had been intrigued enough to release Crowley from restrictive housing.

An inmate could be innocent until proven guilty in her eyes; a lieutenant would not be guilty until proven innocent.

Fell had successfully argued for Crowley’s release back into general population, and Crowley had assaulted Fell a few hours later. These things happened. Fell was doing fine in the hospital, Lt. Gabriel had reported to her.

Lt. Gabriel …

Unit Manager Device and Lt. Gabriel were two 1-side staff, as different as any two staff could be from each other, with no obvious motivations in common. Yet here were two voicemails on the Major’s phone, one in defense of Officer Fell, the other in defense of inmate Crowley. What was so special about those two? It was interesting that Device was calling on Crowley’s behalf, because Device liked Crowley, and the Major liked Device enough to value her opinion. It was interesting that Gabriel was calling on Fell’s behalf, because Gabriel had indicated to the Major that he did not like Fell, which lent a whole other type of value to his concerns.

The Major plunked her burrito into Tupperware and went to get dressed.

Whatever was happening, it apparently wasn’t going to get resolved without “Mom”’s intervention.

 

“Out in the city, in the cold world outside, I don’t want pity, just a safe place to hide …”

The Major turned up the radio as she drove. Then she frowned, because the Major was a big believer in signs.

“I can’t take it if you see me cry, I long for peace before I die …”

“Anthony Crowley,” the Major said to her dashboard, “has it really gotten to be that bad?”

 

Anathema Device and the restrictive housing unit officer were already standing when the Major walked in, and it was clear they had been going at each other’s throats now for a while. “Major!” said Device. “He won’t let me go out there—”

“It isn’t safe and there were orders to stay in here!”

“—can’t you see what’s happening?!”

“Ms. Device,” said the Major, in a voice that grounded Device immediately, “you are exactly where I needed you to be, and I thank you for that. Call an ambulance, tell them what you know, since right now you know a lot more than I do.” She said that as serenely as she might have told her to call for a pizza. Device raced for the phone. “And you,” the Major said to the officer, “I need your handheld from the back, and if you have any more gas masks that would be wonderful, and when Ms. Device gets off the phone, call up to control and inform them that a bus is en route to enter the grounds per unit 42.”

It had taken 22 seconds for the Major to take control of the situation.

The officer rushed to get her the items she requested, then hesitated to hold up the gas mask. “Ma’am,” he said, “I don’t think you want to go out there, if you need—”

The Major plucked the mask out of his hands and started to put it on.

“Thank you, Officer,” she said, “but this is my prison.”

 

Lt. Michaels could have fainted.

“But this one does,” said the Major, indicating the camera in her hand. Her tone was mild and even.

Lt. Michaels opened her mouth to speak, not that the Major could see that through her mask.

“Michelle Michaels,” said the Major, “do not say a word until you shut off that gas and remove the hose from Anthony Crowley’s cell.” The red recording light continued to blink.

Terror-struck, Lt. Michaels hooked her arm under the hose and fumbled with the valve on the massive canister while jerking the rubber attachment out through the door slot.

“You are lucky, Michelle Michaels,” said the Major, “that I am not a woman who makes emotionally based decisions in highly charged situations.”

Every time the Major said her name, Lt. Michaels imagined she had been stabbed in the chest with an icicle, and she could not for the life of her understand why.

“If I was,” the Major continued, “I would order it that you have no right to be wearing that mask right now.” Michaels shivered. “Now, give your lieutenant’s keyset over to Officer Uriel, so that we can provide some assistance to this hurt young man.”

And in that moment, hearing the Major address CO Uriel by her title, while stripping Michaels of her keys, Michaels realized why her name in the Major’s mouth brought her such pain. It was because it didn’t matter that Michaels had yet to be investigated.

In the Major’s mind, Michelle Michaels had already dropped from her rank, and there was no rising back up after falling.

As Uriel unlocked the hulking cell door and pushed it aside, Anathema Device ran out of the pod, apparently having broken past the unit officer. She made it about a third of the way down the tier to Crowley’s cell before her mistake caught up to her and her knees buckled, bringing her down hard on the concrete.

The Major watched this event unfurl with a dim curiosity, then turned back to look at not-a-lieutenant Michaels. “I’m going to be needing that mask after all,” she said.

When Michaels made no move, the Major thrusted her finger in Device’s direction and upped the urgency righteously: “Did I stutter? Give her your mask and then get in the fucking pod!” Michaels bolted to do as she was told.

The Major slid the handheld into one of the deep pockets of her uniform pants and headed to the back of the cell, where AJ Crowley was spiraled in on himself tight as a snail shell. “I know, Crowley,” the Major said in his ear, as he fought off her trying to guide him by the shoulders through the cell opening where the air was heaviest with gas, “but if I put a mask on you now when your face is already coated it would make it even worse.”

Crowley made a sound that might have been the word “can’t,” or might have just been the letter “C.”

“Yes, you’re very brave,” said the Major agreeably. “I need you to walk through the hottest part for me now,” she said. “That’s what I need you to do.

“Because I know you can handle it.”

Crowley slipped through the cell door and instantly crashed into a wall of the tier, scrambling at brick with his nails and leaving streaks of orange liquid fire where he fell. Uriel grabbed Crowley under the arm and struggled to keep him standing, while the Major caught his other side. Device, masked now, ran to meet them halfway to the pod. “Here,” said the Major to Device, handing off Crowley’s arm to her, “take him, I’ll walk Michaels out and head to control.” Device slung Crowley’s arm around her shoulders just before the Major would have let him drop. Device watched in disbelief as the Major rounded out of sight, moved on to the next thing that needed to be done as though utterly unfazed.

Device jerked toward the pod. “Whoa, whoa,” said Uriel roughly. “He’s still an inmate, you can’t take him in there. Here,” Uriel nodded to an alcove on the tier but behind the pod and helped Device move him to the floor there. “It should be a little less contaminated with the pod blocking like that, and it’s close to where the EMTs will be coming through. You stay here with him.” Uriel hesitated. “I’ll bring you a couple blankets,” she grumbled reluctantly.

Device arranged herself on the floor beside him and looked up in surprise. “But he’s roasting!” she said.

“Just trust me,” said Uriel. “He’ll want them eventually.” She paused. “They always want something soft eventually.” She disappeared into the pod.

Device didn’t care how it looked, or if it could possibly be deemed “unprofessional.” She gathered Crowley into her arms, the whole orange-soaked mucus-drenched blinded disaster of him, and his quiet whimpers turned to howling sobs as his hands found her shirt and he burrowed against her. She held him there, and she tried not to think about the fact that, even through her mask, his red hair scorched her like hellfire.

 

Fell sat on his laptop, on the wooden bench along the wall at Starbucks, white chocolate mocha in a grande “for here” mug growing cold by his hand. He was searching hiring sites. New year, new life, he thought. For all intents and purposes, Azra Fell was a corrections officer at Paradise Correctional Institution. He was liable to remain on the payroll tax free for months to come; such was the irony of the system, that he was getting paid higher than ever to not convince a doctor to clear him to return to duty.

Well, it makes sense, he thought. There were probably people at work who thought he made a much better employee by not being there.

Fell paused to take a sip of his mocha, then set it down and put his elbow on the table. He held his head regretfully in one hand and shut his eyes, exhaling silently. He was thinking about AJ Crowley, as he so often did these days, and specifically imagining how toxic he believed he had been to Crowley off and on these past eighteen years. Officer Newton was the one and only friendly contact Fell kept at the prison, and they texted back and forth during Fell’s time out. Fell knew that Michaels had “resigned.” He knew that Crowley was out, after the Major herself had stepped in to have the parole board reschedule his hearing. But also, the knowledge of it decaying the edges of a wound in his soul, Fell knew about what Crowley had gone through in the hole back in December.

Fell dragged his hand down his face, resting it over his mouth and chin as he looked up through the window of the coffeeshop, rays of sunshine filtering in like in that dream he had in the hospital. Any other guard, Fell thought, would have performed a quick, basic cell check and left those envelopes alone. He removed his hand from his mouth and lowered it to grasp himself by the shoulder, forcing himself to look away from the window. Or they would have just gotten rid of them, instead of being so by the book, Fell thought bitterly. After all, the prison was a place that had long banned the book, and burned it to boot. Michaels pulled the trigger on Crowley, Fell thought, but it’s my fault she had to put any bullets in the gun.

And now Fell would never see him again to apologize. Fell supposed that was for the best, as long as Crowley was free to live a happy life now. It would be self-serving of Fell to try to find Crowley, not that he would have succeeded in doing so. Fell picked some pink crystal sprinkles off the whipped cream on his drink and set them on a napkin, busywork to distract himself from his looming self-hatred.

“How’d I know I’d find you in one of these places?” said a voice from above. “I mean, granted it’s the third one I checked, but considering it’s a Starbucks that means I only had to walk three blocks—”

“Crowley!” Fell shut his laptop and shot up from his seat so fast that he would have toppled a lighter table. “Good Lord, it’s really you!” Crowley was wearing those infernal sunglasses, and carrying a sleeved cup that he set on the table next to Fell’s mug. There was no awkward are-we-people-who-shake-hands? sort of lie. They came together in a tight hug. It lasted long enough that it probably should have been uncomfortable, but was not (not to them, anyway). When they released each other, Fell’s hands trailed off of Crowley’s arms like he could reassure himself that way that Crowley was real.

“I,” Fell started, “I’m so at a loss for what to say that I almost offered to get you a drink, when I’m looking right at your drink.” He chuckled at himself. “Let me guess,” he said, “espresso, black as your wardrobe.”

Crowley grinned as they both sat. “I’m not as cool as you think I am,” he said. “It’s a chai.”

“I don’t see what’s uncool about that,” said Fell, but even as he was saying the words he was realizing that he was no authority on coolness, never had been, never would be, and here, delightfully, was Crowley, who had never seemed to mind.

“Well, also, I lied,” said Crowley. “It’s salted caramel.”

Fell’s eyes were wide as a cat’s when it sees a Christmas tree. Then, as they sat in easy silence, his joy started to fade. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I need to say that before anything else, I’ve wanted so badly an opportunity to say it …”

Crowley furrowed his brow. “For what?”

“For everything,” said Fell. Fell didn’t understand the full horror of Crowley’s experience, but if Newton’s texts were to be believed, then Fell never would be able to understand. Crowley knew then, of course he did, that Fell was talking about the night with the spray, but he said nothing, and hoped that his cool demeanor could communicate without words that he wanted no apology. “If I had listened to you after I searched your cell,” Fell said, “none of it would have happened …”

“You’re being ridiculous,” said Crowley, but with affection. “You did a good job. You could just as easily blame everyone before you who didn’t do their job, for setting the stage. And besides,” he said, picking up his cup and almost making as though he could hide behind it, “none of this would have happened, either.” He made a tiny gesture in the space between them.

Fell’s heart ached. “Surely you cannot mean that,” he said. “To go through all that, for five minutes with me, while you don’t drink espresso.”

“So any future minutes are off the table, then?” Crowley asked smartly.

Now it was Fell’s turn to coyly hide by sipping his drink. “So,” he said, changing the subject, “… do I still call you Crowley?”

Crowley kicked his legs out under the table and briefly looked at his shoes. “No,” he said, “I think, in some alternate universe, that I’d really like that.” He rolled his eyes at the silliness of that thought, then turned serious. “But I’ve spent eleven years being ‘Inmate Crowley.’ No more.”

“You could reclaim it,” said Fell, not to be pushy, only pointing out that there could be more than one perspective.

“True,” the other man said, “maybe someday I will—but right now, I think I’d like the chance to give AJ a happy life.”

If Fell’s heart ached before, it broke wide open now. He raised his mug, gave it a little swirl. “To you, AJ,” he said gently. “To a new year, and a new life.” AJ beamed. It did not clink when they tapped cardboard to ceramic, but the sentiment remained the same nonetheless. They drank to the toast.

“Don’t think,” said AJ, “that I’m about to start calling you Azra, angel.”

Fell laughed. “You actually remember calling me that, on my first day on the unit?”

“How could I forget,” said AJ, “when I never stopped thinking it?”

Fell sat stunned, feeling the pink creeping up his neck. That was a lot of emotion to unpack, not here, not right now. He changed the subject again: “Where are you staying?”

AJ pretended to be interested in looking at an ugly art print on the wall. “Halfway house,” he said offhandedly, “near Eden.”

Fell’s jaw dropped. “My dear boy,” he said, “why would you go back to that neighborhood?”

AJ shrugged. “Home plan,” he said, “Can’t get paroled out without a place to go.”

“Well, yes, of course I know that,” said Fell. “Why not stay with a family member?” AJ picked at the sticker on his cup. “An aunt, a cousin … anyone … ?” AJ gave a quick little shake of his head, avoiding looking at Fell’s face. Fell bit inside his cheek, just to feel something other than sorrow. “Stay with me,” he said, before he could have time to change his mind.

AJ’s head shot up in shock. “Angel, that’s not why I looked for you. I wasn’t trying to—”

“I know you weren’t,” said Fell. “Stay with me.” He leaned in. “Please.”

AJ smiled edgily, jaw trembling. “Don’t you think your side is gonna have a problem with that?”

Fell shook his head, then nodded in the direction of his laptop. “I was working on my résumé when you came in,” he said. “I’m not going back there. I want no part of that place.”

AJ sucked in his lips and quickly pressed his palm against his eyes, pushing his sunglasses up. After recomposing himself for a moment, he got up and moved to settle in on the bench by Fell’s side. He took off his glasses and folded them, setting them close to Fell’s mug on the table.

Fell froze, confused and a little concerned, and when those amber eyes with no set boundaries stared into him, he physically could not look away. “AJ, what—” AJ draped his arms around Fell’s neck, and Fell, startled, snatched AJ’s wrists, but applied no pressure as he moved back and drew their hands up between their beating chests.

“You don’t … ?” AJ said, puzzled. Then, he looked humiliated. “I thought—I don’t know what I was thinking, I’m so stupid, of course you’d never be interested in that, fuck, I’m sorry …” AJ turned his head away, and Fell wondered how it was that he had ever judged AJ’s tattoo negatively in the past, AJ was so beautiful, the whole of him.

“Oh, dear,” said Fell, smiling softly, “if you think I could never be interested, or that I never once thought about it, then I might not be able to live with you after all … because even with my years of counseling experience, I’m afraid I’m rather ill-equipped to live with a certifiably insane person.” AJ burst out laughing, then shook his head like he was trying to shake off a need to cry.

“But AJ,” murmured Fell, foreheads close, “what I’m not interested in, is adding my name to an unforgivably long list of people who’ve done you very wrong.”

AJ made a helpless choking sound.

“And I don’t know,” said Fell further, lowering his tone, “if this is a thing that you want to do, or a thing that you think you’re supposed to do when someone helps you.”

AJ wouldn’t let Fell see his eyes now, but his shoulders were quaking. “I think I want to,” he offered weakly.

“Look at me, AJ,” said Fell, keeping AJ’s hands in his. AJ looked up and away, the rims of his eyes red. “That doesn’t work for me,” Fell said. “Thinking you might want to doesn’t work for me.” He placed his hand on AJ’s cheek. “So that’s not how this story is going to start. We’re going to start by making sure you live someplace safe. And we’re going to find out who this AJ person is, and what he likes, and eventually what you might want to do for work and things like that but first things first is easing you into coping with just life outside an institution.”

“Oof,” said AJ, laughing nervously and rubbing his eyes, “I don’t know why I’m crying in the Starbucks right now.”

Fell didn’t understand the reference, but AJ made himself laugh, and that made him smile. “I think,” Fell said, “it might be because it’s been a long time since you’ve had a real friend.”

It had been a long time: eleven years.

“Oh, man,” said AJ, still trying to circumvent the conversation’s heavy weight, but at least he was gazing straight on into Fell’s eyes now. “You’re making me a weepy mess.” AJ shook his head, looking smitten. “This is what you’re going to be living with,” he teased. “If you’re letting me hang around until I’m less of a basket case, then you might just be putting up with me for a long time.”

“AJ,” Fell said, “we have all the time in the world.”