With great effort, Crowley resisted the urge to throw his phone against the wall. He’d known it was only a matter of time, really, and there was no point scaring the kid. Grinding his teeth, he stalked down the hall to the one room in the apartment he rarely entered and knocked on the door.
“Can I come in?”
He slowly pushed the door open to find Warlock sitting on his bed, staring intently at his tablet while music played quietly. Crowley paused and tilted his head, listening. “ Day at the Races ?” he asked.
Warlock shrugged, and Crowley scratched the back of his neck, wondering how he ought to begin.
“You need something, or did you just want to quiz me on Queen albums?” Warlock asked, and Crowley gave a reluctant smirk before dropping into awkward seriousness again.
“You want to tell me what happened at school today?”
Scrubbing one hand through his hair, Crowley took a deep breath. “I got a call from your history teacher. Mr. Fell.”
“Social studies. They don’t call it history anymore.”
“Whatever. He told me what happened. His side, anyway. I want to hear your side.”
Warlock shrugged. “Fell’s okay. Probably told the truth.”
“Why would you…?”
“ Kid .”
“I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
“It’s only eight-thirty.”
“Whatever.” And Warlock slithered down so that he was lying on his side facing the wall, the tablet propped up in front of him.
“Kid, come on,” Crowley said, frustration seeping into his voice.
He had no tools for this. He wasn't the kid’s father , for fuck’s sake, he was just the uncle who was apparently a little too obviously fond of him when he was little. Fond enough to give his horrible sister the grand idea to send her son to live with him, a bachelor approaching the wrong side of fifty whose domestic talents stopped at raising houseplants.
Gorgeous, verdant houseplants, sure, but a little less complex than an actual human teenager. A human teenager who had been treated like a monster, abandoned by his parents, and sent to another country without so much as a by your leave. A human teenager who was sad and angry and scared and hurting. A human teenager Crowley had no idea how to help.
He could fucking kill Harriet.
Three Months Earlier
“I can’t take this anymore, Tony,” Harriet said, her voice rising on every syllable. “He's such a little monster! He’s rude, he’s irresponsible, he’s reckless, he’s...hell, he’s just like you were at his age. He was suspended three times this year ! I just can’t …”
“Of course you can,” Crowley said, infusing as much reassurance into his voice as he could.
“No. No, I really can’t.”
“You don’t have a choice. He’s your kid, your responsibility. What are you gonna do…”
“Mom, they’re calling my flight.”
“Hattie?” Crowley felt his blood pressure spike. “Where are you?”
“We’re at Heathrow.”
“I told you, Tony. I can’t do this. He’s nothing like me or Tad, he’s...he’s you all over again. Maybe you’ll have better luck.”
“ Me ?” Crowley leapt to his feet. “Are you fucking insane ? You can’t just…”
But Harriet wasn’t listening to him. He could hear muffled sounds, arguing, what sounded like a loudspeaker announcement and then, finally, his sister’s voice again. “He’s on the plane, Tony. He should get to JFK in about seven and a half hours.”
“I- wh- you-” Crowley took a deep breath and tried to calm down, since it wouldn’t do to have a stroke. “You have done some truly horrible things in your life, Harriet, but this is by far the foulest, vilest…”
“If I’m so terrible, Warlock will be better off with you anyway,” Harriet said coldly. “It’s you or a boarding school at this point.”
“If I keep him,” Crowley growled, clutching his phone so tightly he was astonished it was still in one piece, “ if he agrees to stay with me, because he’ll get to make that choice. If I keep him, you’ll never get him back, do you hear me?”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Threatening you ? After the stunt you just pulled? I could have you fucking arrested for this shit!”
“Arrested for what? I sent my son to live with his uncle for a year. Happens all the time.”
“I have to go,” Crowley ground out. “Apparently I have to get ready to host a teenager.”
One panicked trip to IKEA later, Crowley had acquired at least the basics of a teenager’s bedroom: a bed, a desk, a bureau. He figured he’d let Warlock decorate however he wanted - or not. He had wanted to take some time to have a nice relaxing breakdown, but by the time he had everything set up it was time to go to the airport, and then he was standing at the arrivals gate nervously looking for a boy he hadn’t seen in three years.
Just as he was wondering if he’d got the wrong gate, a flight attendant approached him with a sour look on her face. “Are you Mr. Crawly?” she asked.
“And you’re expecting a young boy?”
“Warlock Dowling. Is he okay?”
“Well,” the young woman bit her lip, “yes. Only, he had a rough flight. All by himself, y’see. He’s waiting just inside the gate...he wasn’t sure you’d be here.”
Crowley felt his heart fracture. “Well, I am.”
“I’ll let him know.” She paused then, looking uncertain. “Look,” she said, “I don’t know what’s going on, and it’s none of my business, but he’s really sad and scared.”
“He’ll be okay.” Crowley hoped he wasn’t lying.
The young woman smiled at him as she left, and when she returned she had his nephew with her, and Crowley felt his heart break further. Warlock kept his gaze trained on the floor, his chin-length hair hanging in his face, and Crowley had to fold his lanky frame down to get him to meet his eyes.
“Hey, kid. Long time no see.”
“You got bags?”
“I helped him get through customs,” the attendant said. “He’s got a trolley just over here.”
“Okay.” He stood and gave her a small smile. “I’ve got it from here, thanks.”
Warlock’s silence continued throughout the process of collecting his bags, searching for Crowley’s car in the car park, and suffering through New York’s traffic. He helped drag his bags into the lift of Crowley’s building and then stood stock-still in the middle of his room.
“So,” Crowley said when he thought he might suffocate from the silence. “This is it. Figured you could do what you want with it.” The kid seemed to shrink. “If...if you want to stay, I mean.”
Ah. A reaction. Warlock looked up at him then, his expression incredulous.
“Look, kid,” Crowley said, stepping in and crouching down to meet his eyes. “I know this wasn’t your call. If you want to go home, I’ll put you on a plane tomorrow, no questions asked. If you want to stay…I’ll be honest, I have no fucking clue what I’m doing here. I’ll screw up a lot, and I might even ruin your childhood, I dunno. But I can tell you this, you’ll always be welcome here. Forever. I’ll never send you away. Got it?”
“I don’t have to register you for school for another month, so you’ve got time, okay? Just...think about it.”
Silence. Crowley fidgeted a little and then finally stood. He was halfway out the door when he heard it.
“Don’t mention it, kid.”
The conference was scheduled for the next day, and Crowley was going in mostly blind. Thanks to Fell he more or less knew what had happened, but he knew so little about American high schools and discipline. Would the headmaster - er, principal - be there? Was suspension on the line? The secretary in the office graciously directed him to Fell’s room, and Crowley took a few deep breaths before making his way up the stairs and down the hall. As he approached, he saw that Warlock was standing just outside the half-open door, looking like a rabbit about to bolt.
“What’s up, kid?” he asked.
“Principal Clark is in there.” Warlock’s eyes were huge. “Mr. Fell said this would be just us.”
Crowley’s jaw clenched. If Fell had lied to the kid…he stepped closer to the door where he could distinguish two voices.
“...if the boy is a potential danger to others…” Clark.
“Warlock is no such thing.” That was Fell. Crowley had been taken aback yesterday by the posh London accent, and he was taken aback again, but for slightly different reasons. “He’s not a menace , Gabriel. He’s a boy, and he needs help. I appreciate your concern, but I have no need of administrative oversight here.”
“I just thought you should know all your options.”
“I have been teaching for more than thirty years,” Fell said dryly. “I am aware of my options, thank you.”
“All the same. Don’t stay too late. You’re not on contract time, y’know.”
“Good night, Gabriel.”
The door swung open and Crowley leapt inelegantly back, but not before Clark spotted him and gave him a large, bright, painfully fake smile. “Hello, there! Mr. Crawly, isn’t it? And Warlock?” He shook his head slightly at the kid. “I hear you’ve been getting into some mischief.”
Warlock shrank back and Crowley nearly bared his teeth.
“Mr. Crowley? So sorry to keep you waiting.” Clark was gently shoved forward and Fell appeared in the doorway. “Won’t you come in? You too, Warlock.”
If Clark’s smile was painfully fake, Fell’s was painfully genuine. Warlock seemed to soften a little and slunk into the room without looking up from the floor, and Crowley began to follow him, but was stopped by Clark’s hand on his shoulder.
“I was just offering to sit in on this meeting,” he said. “Thought you and Azi might like...a more authoritative presence. Just to drive everything home, y’know?”
“I’ve already declined Mr. Clark’s generous offer,” Fell said, his voice hardening. “But of course if you think it best…”
“Nah, I’m good,” Crowley said. “Thanks anyway.”
“Well. I should be in the office for another…”
“Good night , Gabriel.”
Clark finally dropped his hand, and Crowley was free to walk through the door, which Fell politely but firmly shut in Clark’s face.
“Prick,” Crowley said.
Fell gave him a stern look. “Gabriel has his own unique style of leadership, and it works well for most students. I simply don’t think his particular approach is what’s needed in this instance.”
“And what is needed?”
“Well, I’m not quite sure, to be honest. I have a few ideas, but I was hoping the three of us could figure that out together.” He gave another genuine smile and motioned to a corner of his classroom that was lined with bookshelves and armchairs. “Do have a seat.”
Not knowing what else to do, Crowley sat. Warlock leaned against a wall beside him, and together they watched as Fell gathered up some papers from his desk and made his way over to them.
Whatever Crowley had been expecting from a high school social studies teacher, Fell was decidedly not it. For one thing, he was dressed exactly like someone’s stereotype of a teacher: an ugly beige jumper over an eggshell-blue button-down and a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. For another, he’d apparently not sent Warlock to the office yesterday even though the kid had probably deserved it, which meant he was either incredibly patient or incredibly soft - jury was out on which. Maybe both. And for another - and this was completely apropos of nothing and didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things but was worth noting for accuracy’s sake - he was…
He was, quite frankly, gorgeous . His white-blond curls almost looked more like feathers than hair, his twinkling eyes were the exact colour of his shirt, and his smile made Crowley grateful for his sunglasses because he might have gone blind from the sheer brilliance of it. He was a few inches shorter than Crowley and at least a stone heavier, and there was something very soft and warm and inviting about him, and...
Anyway. None of this was remotely important at the moment. It was just something he noticed . Couldn’t help it.
“Now then,” Fell said finally, wiggling a bit as he settled into his seat. “Warlock, have you had a chance to tell your uncle about what happened yesterday?”
“That’s the one that means no,” Crowley said. When Fell raised his eyes at him, Crowley elaborated. “I see those shrugs a lot. Almost like sign language at this point.”
“I see. Warlock, dear boy.” Fell’s focus returned to the kid, and Crowley felt properly chastised. “It really is important that you tell your uncle in your own words what happened. I can give an overview and a bit of context, but it would really be much better for him to hear it from you.”
Warlock looked down at his hands, glanced at Crowley, and then up at the ceiling. “Said some stuff. Told Mr. Fell to screw his assignments, I don’t need any of it, and to leave me alone.”
“That’s what happened when I asked you to switch seats with someone,” Fell said gently. “What had happened before that?”
Warlock scuffed his shoe on the floor. “Does it matter? Shouldn’t talk to teachers like that.”
“Well, I certainly didn’t appreciate your language, especially as I was only trying to help you move to a spot in the room where you could work undisturbed.”
“Yeah.” Warlock’s shoulders hunched up to his ears. “Sorry.”
“I accept your apology, dear boy.” He paused. “But the apology is worthless if a change of behaviour doesn’t follow it, and that’s what we have to talk about tonight.”
This was, hands down, the weirdest fucking parent-teacher conference Crowley had ever been in. True, all of his had been way too many years ago and he’d been a downright terror in school, but he was pretty sure parent-teacher conferences usually involved a lot more...well...parents and teachers talking.
“If you don’t want to tell your uncle what happened to upset you,” Fell was saying now, “would you mind if I told him, and you can correct me if I get it wrong?” Warlock shrugged - the yes shrug this time, Crowley noted. He noted further that Fell seemed to understand it. “Alright,” Fell said. He turned to look at Crowley. “Warlock, as you know, is in my Current Issues class. Yesterday during a class activity about the differences between a democratic republic and a constitutional monarchy, another student insisted that citizens in England were not allowed to vote for their leaders. Warlock set him straight - politely, I might add - and pointed out that he had grown up in London and seen the campaigns.” Fell looked apologetically at Warlock, who was picking at his fingernails. “The other student - ah - well, he told Warlock that if he loved England so much, he should have stayed there.”
Crowley felt his stomach drop.
“I’m afraid things rather went downhill from there. Warlock didn’t retaliate verbally, not right away, but...things were very tense at his table. I had already talked to the other student and reminded him that all people and viewpoints are welcome in class. They were snippy with each other for the rest of the period - hiding each other’s pencils and closing each other’s laptops, things like that - and I asked Warlock if he would like to move to another table to work. That’s when he had his...well, his outburst.”
“‘msorry,” Warlock muttered. “I didn't...wasn’t you .”
“I know,” Fell said, “but this isn’t the first time you’ve expressed yourself in an inappropriate manner. Remember last week’s incident in Coach Shadwell’s class?”
Shadwell, as far as Crowley was concerned, could fuck right off. He was every teacher Crowley had ever hated, and watched Warlock just a little too suspiciously for his taste. Still, standing in the middle of the gym and screaming “Foosball is the Devil !” was definitely inappropriate, even if it was fucking hilarious. 1
“Okay, so what?” Crowley asked, quite ready to be part of this conversation. “We can’t just have this conversation every time he shoots off at the mouth.”
Fell raised his eyebrows. “No. But we can think of ways to help him express himself in the moment that won’t end up with him in a fight and suspended.”
“A fight? Hang on.” Crowley narrowed his eyes. “Warlock wouldn’t hurt a fly. He might mouth off, but he’d never throw a punch.”
“The teenage brain is a strange and wonderful thing,” Fell said firmly. “It’s creating millions of new neural pathways and preparing the body for adulthood, but it sometimes gets things wrong. Sometimes it perceives threats where there are none, and dictates responses disproportionate to the stimulus. Warlock might never mean to get in a fight, but every creature on earth will lash out if it feels threatened. What we need to do,” and Fell trained his gaze back on Warlock, “is help your brain to understand that you are in no danger here. That you are safe. That even the sometimes hurtful words of your friends - your peers - even your teachers pose no real threat to you.”
“How do we do that ?” Crowley asked, intrigued in spite of himself.
“We start small.” Fell pulled out a laminated piece of paper. “I’ve gone over this with Principal Clark and he’s agreed...tentatively. This is a ‘cool-down pass.’ It authorizes you to go to a predetermined room for a brief cool-down period when you feel angry or overwhelmed. It’s my hope that you will find at least one room in this school that feels safe to you. We can work up from there and help you to feel safe in every room in the building, but this is a start. It should help to remind you that you can control your reactions, and that you don’t have to lash out whenever you feel upset.”
“You can do that?” Crowley interrupted. “Just...he can just leave class whenever he’s angry? Seems like it could backfire.”
Fell smiled. “Well, I trust Warlock to use this pass wisely. Principal Clark’s permission was given very conditionally.” He shared a glance with Warlock. “It’s always best not to test his... mercy . Now then,” Fell pulled out a felt-tip pen and looked expectantly at the kid, “what do you think?”
Warlock shrugged. “Can’t hurt to try, I guess.”
“Good. Is there a particular room we should start with? Any teacher who makes you feel especially safe and welcomed? Ms. Device, perhaps? She’s very popular, I know.”
“Nah,” Warlock grunted. “You.”
Fell blinked, his face blank with surprise. “M-me? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. If. If that’s okay.”
“Oh, my dear boy, it’s more than okay.” Fell beamed at him. “What a wonderful compliment.” Warlock’s face turned red and he hunched so far down in his jacket that he began to resemble a turtle. Crowley was fairly certain he was going to go blind even with his sunglasses on if Fell kept smiling like that. After writing his own name and room number on the pass, Fell set it aside and looked back at Warlock. “I’ll email your teachers after we leave here and inform them of the plan,” he said. Then, finally, he turned to Crowley. “From what you said on the phone, things are going fairly smoothly at home?”
“Yeah. I mean, he gets moody and stuff but he just...sits with his music on and he calms down.” Crowley felt as if a light bulb had gone off over his head. “Could...could that be a thing? Not all the time, obviously, but like, if they’re all working on worksheets or whatever, could he bring an iPod or his phone or something and listen to music if he gets overwhelmed?”
Fell's eyes twinkled. “That is an excellent idea,” he said. 2 “I can’t speak for all of my colleagues, but I’ll put out some feelers and see if we can’t get a waiver for headphone usage - at the teacher’s discretion, obviously.” He looked back at Warlock. “You would have to be very responsible, Warlock, and not wear them during lectures or when a teacher asks for your attention.”
“Yeah,” Warlock said, his eyes looking somewhat less haunted. “Yeah, I can do that.”
“Wonderful.” Fell beamed again, and Crowley swore the temperature in the room rose a few degrees. “I’ll let everyone know what we’ve decided tonight, and I’ll be in touch if anything changes.” He swept them both with his smile. “Thank you so much for coming in tonight. I know it can’t have been very exciting for either of you, but I think we’ve made some real progress.”
Not exciting? Okay, maybe not in the traditional sense, but Crowley had never met anyone like Fell and that was a bit of an adventure all on its own. “So what about yesterday, then?” Crowley said. “Does he need to serve a detention, or…?”
“Oh, no,” Fell said, standing and shuffling his papers together. “I’m far more interested in addressing the cause of a behaviour than the behaviour itself. He’s already apologized, I’ve accepted, and we’ve come up with a plan that will prevent the behaviour being repeated. Besides,” he shot Crowley a sly smile that did truly unfortunate things to Crowley’s nervous system, “he had to stay at school after hours and trade small-talk with Principal Clark. What punishment could I devise that would be worse?”
“Right. Okay. So. We’re done here?”
“We are, unless you have something more.”
Crowley hesitated, then fished his keys out of his pocket and tossed them to his nephew. “Go start the car, kid.”
“If she’s moved one quarter of an inch when I get down there, you’ll be grounded for a month.”
Warlock bolted for the door as if afraid his uncle would change his mind. When he was gone, Crowley turned to Fell. “Look, Mr. Fell…”
“My name. Please call me Aziraphale. Only students call me Mr. Fell. What can I do for you?”
“Um. Right. So...has Warlock told you why he’s living with me and not his parents?”
“No.” Aziraphale (God, the name really did suit him better than Fell) looked troubled. “He’s never mentioned...and he’s perfectly within his rights not to tell me, obviously. I hope everything is…”
“Everything is shite because they’re shitty parents who sent their kid away because they couldn’t handle him. I didn’t even know people did that anymore. Just, fsskt, oh, you got suspended, let all the frogs loose in the bio lab, off to your mad uncle’s with you!”
“I take it you’re the mad uncle.”
“Well, the weird one anyway.”
“And you don’t have children of your own?”
Crowley started to snicker, but he was brought up short by the vaguely familiar something in the tone of Aziraphale’s voice. Something he hadn’t heard in ages , and if he was right… “Fuck, no. Confirmed bachelor, that’s what I am.”
Aziraphale’s lips pressed into a prim expression that was absolutely adorable . “Kindly watch your language in my classroom.” He shuffled papers around on his desk and glanced over at Crowley and...okay, yeah, that was definitely a once-over, and Crowley resisted the urge to preen. “Well, all things considered, Warlock is doing very well. He seems very fond of you.”
“Yeah, I’m fond of him too. He’s a good kid, just...y’know.”
There was another stretch of silence and Crowley decided to do a little fishing of his own. “So...should probably get down there before the kid decides to leave me here, grounding or no grounding. And somebody’s probably waiting for you.” Mmm, yes, really nailed that one - just the right amount of casual curiosity.
Aziraphale looked fully at him, his eyes widening a smidge, and then back at his desk with the smallest of smiles. “Oh, yes, no doubt Oscar is wild with worry.”
Shit . “Erm…”
“It...it was a bit of a joke?” Aziraphale looked nervous. “Oscar...Wilde?”
“Oh. Ha. Right.”
“Bit out of practice with the jokes.” Aziraphale closed the briefcase he’d been packing and straightened. “I spend most of my time with people who still think flatulence is the highest form of comedy.”
Crowley laughed outright and earned another little smile as he held the door open for the teacher. “Did you say you’ve been doing this for thirty years?”
“Oh yes. Sometimes it feels like thirty centuries.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale’s brow furrowed. “Teaching and parenting are vastly different, you know. I wouldn’t presume to…”
“You’ve got to know more than I do. Come on. Your best piece of advice.”
“Alright.” Aziraphale sighed as he led Crowley down the stairs. “I’ll say this: never make any promises you can’t keep. You have his love already, but love is easy. It grows on its own. Trust takes time and effort, you have to build it. You’ll occasionally slip up, but if you acknowledge your mistakes and keep your word, you’ll be off to a good start.” They had reached the front doors and Aziraphale paused, turning to face him. “Any other questions?”
Yeah. Care to go for a drink sometime? The words were on the tip of his tongue, but he bit them back. Aziraphale was handsome, kind, brilliant - and his nephew’s teacher . Asking him out would be a catastrophically bad idea. “Nah.”
“If you think of any, you can reach me by email or telephone,” Aziraphale said, producing a card, and Crowley’s heart, completely against his better judgment, fluttered as he took it. Sure, it was a work number, but it was a number nonetheless. He was holding the contact information of the most intriguing person he’d met in years, and he hadn’t even had to ask.
“Right. Okay.” They had reached his car, and Crowley was floundering for something else to say when Aziraphale gasped.
“Goodness, is that your car?”
Crowley grinned. “Yep. Had her shipped over from England, couldn’t bear to leave her behind.” The fully restored 1933 Bentley was his prized possession and quite possibly the love of his life. Sleek and black and shining, she looked as if she had just rolled off the line, with one small exception.
“Are those...bullet hole decals?” Aziraphale asked, his voice deepening as he tried to suppress laughter. “Warlock’s touch, I presume.”
“Erm. No.” Crowley felt his ears go red. “Found ‘em at a petrol station.”
“I see.” Aziraphale swept him with a rather appraising glance and Crowley prayed the colour wasn’t spreading down his neck. “Why not just buy an Aston Martin and be done with it?”
Crowley was about to respond with something extremely witty when the blare of the car’s horn nearly made him jump out of his skin.
“Oi!” He turned to glare at his nephew - he was exceptionally good at glaring through sunglasses.
“I’m hungry! ” Warlock shouted back, grinning unapologetically.
“Ugh, guess I’d better go feed the gremlin,” Crowley grumbled at a giggling Aziraphale. Inspiration struck. “You could, uh...join us. If you like.”
“I’m afraid I can’t,” Aziraphale said gently, his expression dimming a little. “And I really must be going. Good night, Mr. Crowley.” He gave Warlock a final wave and turned to walk away.
“Just Crowley!” Crowley called after him, earning himself another smile before Aziraphale disappeared around the corner of the building.
He finally approached the Bentley, waving at Warlock to scoot across the seat, and peeled out of the car park. With his nephew in the car he tried to keep the speeding to a minimum, but he’d always had a lead foot and old habits were hard to break. Besides, the kid loved it.
“Nice guy,” Crowley remarked. “See why you like him.”
“What were you guys talking about?” Warlock asked.
“How I can not screw this up,” Crowley said (mostly) honestly. “Let’s be honest, I’m not off to a great start.”
“It’s not your fault that I do stupid shit,” Warlock slumped a little in his seat. “I get so mad and then I just...maybe Mom’s right. Maybe I’m just bad.”
“Whoa, kid, come on. Your mum also thinks I’m a loser. Do I look like a loser to you?”
“You look like a mobster.”
“But not a loser?”
“Exactly. So your mum...she’s a smart lady, but she’s not right about everything. You’re not bad, kid. Weren’t we just talking about your brain and stuff? And how we’re going to teach it to...think better?” Warlock shrugged. “So we’ll work on it. Nobody’s all good or all bad. It’s all about choices.”
There was silence in the car for a few seconds, but Warlock had something on his mind. “Did you like Mr. Fell?” he asked.
“Uh.” Crowley’s hands flexed on the steering wheel. “Like I said. Nice guy.”
“You were smiling at him.”
“You don’t smile at anybody.”
“Sure I do. I smile at you.” He turned a fierce, toothy snarl on his nephew.
“Wow, thanks for the nightmares. So...you did like him?”
Crowley sighed. “Yeah, okay? I liked him. What do you care?”
Warlock shrugged and turned to look out the window, his curiosity apparently satisfied, and Crowley decided that a special treat was in order. McDonald’s it was.