Crowley never meant for the boy to use it.
He didn’t. He didn’t. But it’s one of those things humans do, isn’t it? Scribble your number out when you’re leaving, fold the scrap of paper in on itself until the creases are darker than the ink, and, eventually, forget what that particular number was for, and who the person was, and why the number came to you in the first place.
It’s unfortunate that Warlock is a child.
And children, as Crowley well knows, don’t do the same things their adult counterparts do.
(It’s half the reason for the averted apocalypse, after all.)
Warlock doesn’t understand.
This is frustrating.
It’s not like this is normal, either. Warlock’s smart. He doesn’t like showing that off in the same way that some other boys do, but just because he doesn’t participate in class or read a lot it doesn’t mean he isn’t smart. Smart enough to realize that nannies and gardeners don’t tend to disappear on the same day, without any reason or notice. Smart enough to know that neither Nanny Ashtoreth nor Brother Francis are the kind of people to disappear like that. Smart enough to know that trips to the Middle East with family aren’t common, not even for American diplomats.
Especially for them.
There’s something weird going on. Warlock’s certain about that. The confusion on his mother’s face and irritation on his father’s when he asks any of his questions almost confirms it.
It isn’t like he has many friends to talk about his confusion. It isn’t like Warlock has… anybody, really, that he trusts.
So he goes out to the orchards that Brother Francis used to tend, just a few short weeks ago, and lays down on the grass, and stares at the clouds, and thinks.
Fact: Brother Francis and Nanny Ashtoreth knew each other.
(Or at least acted like they did. They’d never come out and said it explicitly, but Nanny Ashtoreth hadn’t known the names of any of the other maids in the house, not even the ones who’d worked for ages longer than her. She’d never even pretended not to know who Brother Francis, though.)
Fact: Warlock met them both when he was six. They’d been very patient with him. They’d never liked anyone else, including his parents, but he’s pretty sure they liked him.
Fact: Both of them could do weird things. Warlock won’t ever forget the time Nanny Ashtoreth yelled at some plants to stop releasing pollen after Warlock had a sneezing fit. Especially when it worked.
Fact: They didn’t say goodbye when they left, but Nanny Ashtoreth left her phone number.
Fact: A week after they left, Warlock’s dad was told to take his family to Megiddo. Warlock’s dad isn’t a very nice man, but he’s protective if nothing else. And Warlock won’t ever forget the way his mother’s knuckles practically glowed in the dark, her hands clenched tight, on the car ride from the plane. There was something wrong in the air that day.
Fact: Warlock can’t find any news about either Nanny Ashtoreth or Brother Francis, not in company records, background checks, or- after he got a bit desperate- LinkedIn.
Who isn’t on LinkedIn these days? How?
Warlock thumbs over the scrap of paper that’s starting to bleed ink. There’s something weird going on. He remembers the man who’d smelled horrible, wearing a dark coat, with hair like silver fluff. He hadn’t been afraid to call him smelly then, but he feels now like he should’ve been. Warlock’s mother had been. The man had puffed up furiously, and the sun- so hot in the desert- had clouded over very briefly, and his mother’s hand had convulsed around his shoulders like she would shove him behind her at one more provocation. But Warlock was even more frightened by the way his parents seemed to forget all about it just a few hours later, when he’d finally worked up the courage to ask about it and they’d looked at him like he was insane.
He’s not insane.
And he’s read Harry Potter. Percy Jackson. Half a hundred other books.
Well, not read. But Nanny Ashtoreth would read them to him before sleeping, and Brother Francis was always happy to sit with him and talk about them the next morning. Warlock isn’t stupid, or insane.
He knows what protection spells look like.
So, Warlock’s special. That isn’t quite so difficult for him to believe. He’s smart and sharp and he likes magic, even if he hasn’t jumped space-time or exploded things with his eyes. Maybe things like that take training. Warlock can accept that. He doesn’t like it, but he can learn to adjust. Switch magic for maths, and he’ll be golden.
What he doesn’t know is why his protection left.
It’s a cold kind of hurt, the kind that leaves Warlock a little too quiet and a little too angry. He liked Nanny Ashtoreth. He liked Brother Francis. He likes them. They weren’t afraid of telling him things, and treated him better than any of his tutors now.
(Treat me like I’m dumb one more time, thinks Warlock, seething and furious like a twisting, writhing ball of lightning. He glares at his tutor and slouches further. He feels his pen bending in his grip. The paper shriveling up in front of him. He hates this. He hates all of them. Go on, thinks Warlock. I dare you.)
But they left.
They left, and left him with his parents. Warlock doesn’t even know what his abilities are! He doesn’t know what he should be able to do! He doesn’t have anyone he can ask!
He has Nanny Ashtoreth’s number, right, but.
Warlock’s not going to use it. Not when he’s sure she left and he can’t find anything about her current life. Not when she left. He’s not stupid enough or young enough to just- burst back into her life like that. If she left, she’d have a reason for it, and Warlock isn’t going to ask her to come back or even imply it until he knows why she left.
It hurts, though.
Warlock wallows in that for a good three weeks, throwing a fit at his parents and tutors until they finally let him go to the apple orchards by himself instead of studying. He sits there, among grass and dirt and sweet flowers.
He’s munching an apple when he makes the connection.
Warlock survived Megiddo, didn’t he?
That must have been his test. And maybe he didn’t pass it. Maybe that was the end.
Or… maybe he did.
Oh, thinks Warlock. Well. That’s totally different, then, isn’t it?
Maybe that was what Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis were trying to help him with. Training- which explained how weird they were- and protection, too. But they couldn’t protect him forever. He had to grow up, didn’t he? And he did. He has.
But he should know. He should know what to expect. He wants to know.
Except Warlock knows that adults leave him behind. His parents do it all the time, flying off to shiny new cities on fancy planes for glittering parties and tensely whispered conversations. The staff in the house tends to last for a year, two if they’re especially lucky. Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis managed for five years, so Warlock had begun to think they’d stay forever.
He thinks he shouldn’t have been so surprised when they didn’t.
Natural order of things, isn’t it?
(He isn’t afraid of them.
This is a lie.
Warlock thinks about fear, and the way that man in Megiddo had snarled, and all the ways in which they must have protected him over the years. If they could do that, what more can they do? What can they do to him? What guarantee does Warlock have in any of this beyond the memory of an eleven year old boy’s love?
Remember: Warlock isn’t stupid. A lie told enough times sounds like the truth.)
(If Dementors were real, thinks Warlock, his would be Nanny Ashtoreth sneering at him like she sneered at the other staff while Brother Francis cheerfully ignored his very existence. He doesn’t touch Prisoner of Azkaban after that thought. Chucks the book in the bin and doesn’t even bother to regret it.)
Warlock remembers the way Brother Francis would tip his head up when he complained about learning addition or grammar. Now, chin up, lad, he’d said, eyes bluer than any English sky and far warmer. We’ve all got hard things to do, haven’t we?
But why do I have to do it? Warlock had asked, voice perilously close to a whine.
Brother Francis hadn’t smiled patronizingly or cuffed him over the head. He’d frowned thoughtfully. He’d said, One step at a time. It’s addition, then subtraction- and before you know it, you’re doing rocket science. You remember Harry Potter? Book wouldn’t have got anywhere without proper grammar. The smallest things can change the world. And nobody else can do that for you. Not ever.
Warlock remembers that talk bruisingly well, because it came just a week before Brother Francis left. He’s run through that memory more times than he can count.
The words echo through him: nobody else can do that for you.
Fear is not the absence of love. This, too, is a lesson Warlock learns young.
One step. Another. Warlock is special, and he knows it, and he’s survived the first test even if he hasn’t passed it. He keeps going to the orchards in the afternoons, whether it’s raining or shining. Glares at the trees, shouts at some sunflowers. He splints a bird’s wing once. He waits for some miracles to happen.
Sometimes, he feels like he’s on the edge of it. A word at the tip of his tongue. A breath more, just a little. The barest edge of an idea large enough to break his mind-
But nothing happens.
Did I fail? Am I not special? Is this just- impossible?
He’s Warlock Dowling. He doesn’t fail, not at the things he likes. He won’t fail. He can’t fail.
So it continues: Warlock escapes to fields, to abandoned towers, to dingy alleys. He shouts his way through his parents and scrapes his way through his education and grips, grips, grips at magic the way Nanny Ashtoreth had done, the way Brother Francis had done- seizing it. Swallowing it. You-will-do-as-I-tell-you-or-so-help-you. It isn’t easy. But Warlock is fine with that. He’ll accept not easy if that means he gets what he wants.
He’s Warlock Dowling, and he’s smart, and he’s sharp, and he’s going to become magical if it kills him.
He’s past twelve, almost touching thirteen. His parents are talking about shipping him off to boarding school. Warlock’s fine with that; it means more time by himself and less time trying to hide occult magic from his parents. Less supervision. Maybe he’ll even get to figure out where Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis have gone, outside of the US government’s restrictive internet access.
(The thoughtfulness of a child: he stopped googling them, because they probably wanted to keep a low profile and alerting the US government to their presence was the exact opposite of low profile. They could likely take care of themselves even if the government came after them, but Warlock definitely didn’t want to remind them of the boy they took care of for five years via a gruff, voiceless proxy in a blue suit. It had become habit by that time, so it took a lot more self-control to stop than he’d thought it would. Even now, his fingers know the rhythm of Lilith Ashtoreth on a qwerty keyboard like the beat of a piano.)
It’s supposed to be one last hurrah: his parents take him to Seoul, all three of them together, the week before he’s supposed to leave. They have fun for three hours in a bowling alley with hot fries and his mother’s terrible bowling form, before a call comes in.
There’s a party two nights later. Some ambassador. A whisper about guns, nuclear-something-or-other. Wary silences and meaningful looks. Warlock deduces that it’s something important, and he feels- something.
“I,” says Warlock’s father, with a tactful glance at Warlock. “Ah.”
His mother’s hand comes down on Warlock’s shoulder. “We should go,” she says.
“We came to spend time away from all that- he’s throwing it because I’m here- no need, I think, though of course it’d-”
“It would be rude,” says his mother, squeezing Warlock’s shoulder in a way that he thought should’ve been comforting, “not to go. Warlock doesn’t mind, does he?”
They turn to look at him. His father, his mother, half a dozen other aides. The decision’s already made, of course. Warlock thinks of what Brother Francis would say. I don’t mind, he thinks, but I’m disappointed. What kind of parents are you?
Chasing on the heels of that thought like a stinging knife: Why the fuck did you even have me if all you wanted was to pawn me off the second things get busy?
It’s that thought that strangles his voice. Warlock had known all of this before getting on a plane to Seoul, but something had softened in him when his parents spent the entire flight talking about a proper vacation and all the things they wanted to do with him. This disappointment feels white-hot. Like someone’s taken a cheese grater to his ribs.
He shrugs instead of speaking- he’s certain that if he tried, it’d all spill out, his hurt and anger and loneliness- and picks up a bowling ball. Takes three steps forward. Hurls it at the pins.
They clatter over. All eleven.
It feels, weirdly, like magic.
Who’s he going to tell about his abilities?
His parents? They’ll lock him up faster than he can say magic in a hospital somewhere. His tutors? It’ll take a bit longer, true, but he’ll still end up in a hospital the second they manage to get ahold of his parents. His friends? Don’t make him laugh; it isn’t like he’s got any.
Warlock’s alone in the world.
It’s fine. He’s fine.
He’s been fine this long, hasn’t he? It’ll do for another couple years.
Warlock sighs as his parents go out again. The hotel’s fancy; made for high-ranking diplomats and billionaires or whatever. The telly’s wider than he is tall, and the carpet’s probably thick enough to swallow Warlock whole like some sort of shaggy, expensive quicksand. He rolls over on the bed and bites down on one of the pillows just to see if silk tastes any different in South Korea.
People spill into the room.
Warlock sits up with a shout- this is his room, they should all know not to be in here- when there’s a distant pop-pop, and two of the people still running into the room kind of just… collapse.
He slithers off the bed and rolls under it, making sure to breathe through his mouth instead of through his nose at all the dust. Someone else screams, wet and rasping, and he thinks he can hear a woman crying. There’s something red spreading over the carpet, like ink through water, but darker.
“Where’s the boy?” a man snarls, accent thick and rough.
Somebody yelps. “I don’t know! I don’t know!” Warlock thinks it’s his history tutor- he sounds both terrified and in pain. “Please- please-”
The smallest things can change the world.
He’s shaking. This shouldn’t be possible. But it’s happening.
He’s Warlock Dowling, and he’s not normal, and he’s got to show that off now or never.
He clambers out from under the bed and straightens up, shaking hard enough to make his teeth clatter. Somebody seizes his shoulder, a Secret Service agent that Warlock knows. He lets himself relax a little.
Then the agent leans down and says, frighteningly quiet: “You’re going to walk downstairs with me. And don’t bother screaming for help. You see those two there?”
The two who were gunned down at the door. A man and a woman; the woman’s got long red hair, and it’s damped down by the blood running down her back. The man’s black suit means the blood isn’t visible on his body, but there’s a dark pool around him that’s growing by the second.
“Yes,” whispers Warlock.
Get up, he thinks, so hard his head starts to hurt. Get up, get up, get up! You have to-
“Good,” murmurs the agent. Agent, decides Warlock. That’s his name. That’s what Warlock’s going to call him. “If you scream, I’ll hurt other people just as bad as I hurt them. We don’t want that, do we?”
“Right. You got him, then, Grater?”
The man with the rough accent nods. He’s large, hulking. Bald. Shaved, though, Warlock notes, with a hysterical tinge to his thoughts, and not natural.
He remembers Megiddo. He’d been afraid then, too. But he’d survived, hadn’t he? And it’s clear that these people all think he’s dumb. Self-absorbed. That’s fine; Warlock is selfish, but he has to be. Claiming any attention from his parents feels like clawing at limestone for chalk. You’ll get it, but not near enough worth the effort made. But while Warlock may be selfish, he’s not anywhere near as dumb as most people assume.
When you assume, he thinks wickedly, you make an ass out of you and me.
Though in this case it’s going to be you. Just. You.
“Please don’t take him,” says another of his tutors- his history one, who’s holding his shoulder like someone’s wrenched it badly. “He’s just a boy, he doesn’t-”
“Shut up,” snarls Agent, and Warlock’s tutor does, paling and shrinking back.
Warlock swallows. He imagines himself as Nanny Ashtoreth- straight-spined, unfaltering gaze. Low, steady voice. She wouldn’t flinch. She wouldn’t hesitate. There’s five other people in Warlock’s room, and if he can get Agent and everyone outside before anyone else gets hurt…
“D’you shave your head?” he asks, turning to the accented man- Grater, Agent had called him- and blinking up at him. “I heard that that’s why most men start shaving their heads. ‘Cause they start going bald, but don’t want people to know. So if you cut it all off, nobody knows if it’s a choice or natural.”
“Shut up,” growls Grater, guiding him out of the room.
Warlock prattles on but checks behind him, and Agent’s following them. Locks the door, but that’s fine; his phone’s under his pillow. The rest of the staff shouldn’t have any issue getting help. So that leaves- just him.
With two very dangerous, very armed men.
Oh, God. He’s stupid. Very stupid.
But Warlock remembers Nanny Ashtoreth. Brother Francis. Megiddo. The weight on his tongue when he stood in front of his window during a lightning storm, electric and rich, a word he had no name for. A power he could not name. Warlock knows, somewhere down deep in his marrow: there is more to this world than the things he sees.
He muses over it even as he’s bundled downstairs, thrust into a van, driven away. Warlock’s not strong enough to just disappear them. He doesn’t know them well enough to really do anything. He’s just a boy.
But he’s got an imagination.
Fine, thinks Warlock, squeezing his eyes shut. Fine. So if I can’t change what I know is reality, I can-
He won’t be able to change their guns to toys. He won’t be able to remove himself from the van.
But he can think up a way to save himself.
A small thing.
Reach out to the universe and wish it up, so fierce it tugs in his chest.
Warlock constructs the vision in his mind: a cell, narrow cot, scratchy blanket.
Window with slats over it.
And tucked in the corner: a phone. The old kind. So old it looks practically useless. Nobody’s noticed it in years. There’s dust all over it. But there’s a wire running into the wall and a dialtone when he picks it up. Warlock lets the rest of it slip away, and focuses on the phone. Imagines it until he can feel cold plastic against his fingers, the coiled, tough wires. Doesn’t even matter where it is. But it should be there.
They stop. There’s a garage, concrete and cold. Warlock stumbles over to where Agent and Grater lead him. He doesn’t need anything at all. Doesn’t need to be snarky or loud or think of anything but a-
A door clangs shut behind him.
Warlock fists his hands in the fabric of his pajamas and breathes.
Then slowly, trembling, he opens his eyes.
There. Right there.
An adult might wonder whether the phone has an international line. An adult might think up another half-dozen obstacles that become obstacles only because they think of them. A child?
A child swans through life, secure in their own self-importance. They know who they are. What they are, what they ever were, and what they’ll become. A child swans through life, and life bends around them.
(There’s a sort of magic in belief, and a sort of magic in trust, and a sort of magic in faith.
Put together, it starts to look a lot like a miracle.)
His fingers tremble as he lifts it up.
As he dials a number that feels stamped against his eyelids, black and stark.
There’s silence for too long, and then a voice that’s raspier than Warlock remembers says, “Hello?”
Something’s choking up his throat. Like he’d felt with his parents in that bowling alley, but hotter. Stronger. It’s been more than a year. Warlock feels-
“Nanny?” asks Warlock, quivering hard enough to make him afraid of dropping the phone.
There’s another silence, a beat too long to be natural. “Warlock?” asks Nanny Ashtoreth, sounding utterly flabbergasted. “What’re you doing up at three in the- no, nevermind that. Is everything alright?”
“No,” says Warlock, hiccuping a little under a sudden onslaught of tears. “I need your help. I’ve been- kidnapped. I think they’re going to hurt me.”
I’m sorry I couldn’t save myself.
I know you left for a reason.
“Kidnapped?” asks Nanny Ashtoreth. She doesn’t sound surprised any longer; her voice is a bit lower. A bit lower, and a lot scarier. “Where are you?”
“Um.” Warlock swallows. “Well, I was in Seoul. I think I’m still close by. But-”
“Breathe,” orders Nanny Ashtoreth. “And close your eyes. Step away from the phone- don’t hang up!- just set it down. It’s going to be alright. You did the right thing, calling me. You’re going to be okay. Now all you have to do is breathe.”
How does she know that Warlock’s chest feels like it’s been crushed in on itself? How does she know what’s going to help?
Warlock stumbles backwards from the phone, lets it fall to the ground. He can feel all the terror from the past couple hours start to settle in on him like a blanket made of crow’s feathers. He feels slimy. Disgusting. Too young to save himself, much less the whole world. No, not too young. Too stupid. What had he done? Spoken to a man with a gun? Let himself be taken away without any fight whatsoever? Useless, useless, useless.
His father thinks that of him. His mother thinks that of him. Everyone- his tutors, the staff- thinks that of him. He’s useless and will grow up to be useless and yes it’s easy to live down to their expectations but that doesn’t mean he wants it to be broadcast to the one person he’s always-
Warlock’s eyes are wide open, and so he sees Nanny Ashtoreth emerge out of the phone receiver like a black-smoked ghost. He chokes and then swallows and then gulps down one more desperate mouthful of air. Warlock might have believed in magic, but there’s a difference between belief and knowledge. He swipes at his face and his hands feel damp.
“Nanny?” he asks, still kind of unsure.
Nanny Ashtoreth blinks at him, then down at whatever she’s wearing, and grimaces. She snaps her fingers and suddenly she’s dressed in something far more like the woman Warlock had known, even if it isn’t the same. Slacks instead of a skirt. A shorter blouse, all tucked in and formal. No heels, as far as Warlock can see, and certainly no makeup.
All black, though.
The similarity crunches in Warlock’s chest. The similarity, the difference. He watches as she approaches him, and kneels, and wipes at his tears with cool hands.
“Warlock,” she says, and it sounds gentle. “Can you tell me what happened here?”
There’s an ugly scraping sound and the door to the room opens. Grater stomps inside, looking infuriated. Nanny Ashtoreth shifts on her feet so she’s still kneeling but has Warlock behind her. Her glasses glint in the shaft of light from the window.
“Ah,” she says. “No need for you to explain, Warlock. Stay behind me.”
“Who the fuck’re you, then?” asks Grater, bringing around a knife instead of his gun. It shines, but not quite so bright as Nanny’s glasses.
“I’m his- caretaker,” says Nanny Ashtoreth. She gets up and must make an expression, because though Warlock cannot see her face, he can see Grater’s. The man goes the color of curd that hasn’t properly had time to ferment. “And also, your worst nightmare. Why don’t you tell me what you had planned with Warlock?”
“Don’t bother,” says an eerily familiar voice. “He’s not the boss.”
Warlock frowns, twisting out from behind Nanny Ashtoreth to see a man in a white suit dragging Agent into the room by his ear. It doesn’t seem to matter that Agent’s almost a foot taller than the man, or that he’s got body armor and a gun strapped to his back. There’s a wild, helpless look in his eyes that makes Warlock feel viciously pleased.
“Azira- Francis,” says Nanny Ashtoreth, sharply displeased. “I had it under control!”
“Yes, well, what was I to think when you jumped through a phone line like some Duke of Hell was after you again?” The man releases Agent, and glares back at Nanny. “And then I find out you went to South Korea!”
“Warlock’s life was on the line-”
“-and I’m not telling you not to go, but some warning would be nice, wouldn’t it-”
“-I’m not nice, you-”
“Brother Francis?” asks Warlock uncertainly.
The man in the white suit jumps a little. He turns to see Warlock, and the ire in his face fades almost instantly.
“Oh, my poor boy,” he says. “I’m so sorry we had to meet again like this.”
“Had something else planned, did you?” snipes Nanny Ashtoreth.
Brother Francis shoots her a quelling sort of glare, before he looks back at Warlock. “You look cold. Would you like a coat? Or some hot cocoa?”
“I don’t understand,” says Warlock faintly. “What happened to your teeth?
Nanny Ashtoreth barks out a laugh. Brother Francis winces. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” he says. “Why don’t you come outside with me? We’ll have some tea, and we can talk. Let- ah, Nanny Ashtoreth get some answers out of these two.”
Nanny does look a little scary, especially now. Her hair’s cropped short, close to her skull, and the long line of her neck and sharp angles of her face look more than a little like they could frighten the life out of unsuspecting people. But still, Nanny’s Nanny; can she really match up to two men with really, really big guns?
“No need to worry,” says Brother Francis, and he wraps an arm about Warlock’s shoulders that somehow warms him up straight from the inside. “Nanny Ashtoreth’s rather good at taking care of herself. Now, I really do think I should get you some cocoa-”
“Chocolate,” says Warlock firmly, even as he’s herded out of the room. “Hot chocolate. With cinnamon. And, and- marshmallows.”
“I think,” says Brother Francis warmly, “we’ll be able to work something out.”
Brother Francis is Aziraphale, who’s an actual angel. Nanny Ashtoreth is Crowley, who’s an actual demon. They both thought he was the Antichrist and spent five years trying to make him love the world so he didn’t destroy it. Only it turned out he wasn’t the Antichrist, he was just-
He sips the hot chocolate slowly.
“So,” he says testing out the syllables on his tongue, “I amen’t special?”
“Am not,” corrects Brother Francis. No, Aziraphale-the-angel. “And, no, thankfully, you’re not.”
“Don’t listen to the stupid angel, Warlock,” says Nanny- Crowley. Who looks so much cooler now that she isn’t wearing those stupid hats. She swans into the room and swings into a seat with enough force that Warlock almost expects her to topple over until she doesn’t. “You are special. Who else has had an angel and a demon as their caretaker?”
No one. That kind of helps the stone in his stomach. But still…
“I can’t do the magic, though, right?”
“I’ve shown you the magic you can-”
“-not the kind you can do,” Warlock interrupts Aziraphale’s manically cheerful retort. “You’re- you mean tricks. Not the other kind. Not making people not hurt others. Not getting trees to unbloom. Not- I don’t know- getting grass stains out of white trousers.” He swallows around the lump in his throat. “I couldn’t save some of them. Father’s staff. And I can’t, that’s what you’re telling me, right? I can’t practice. This- I can’t do it.”
“No, Warlock,” says Crowley, leaning forward and hovering a hand over his wrist before letting it fall. “It is… rather impossible.”
But it hadn’t been! Warlock’s certain of it!
“Everything I did,” he says, faltering, “was what? An accident?”
Aziraphale purses his lips. “Let’s call it a giant coincidence of the universe.”
“Oh.” That’s all?
Crowley looks more sympathetic. “You’re a smart boy, Warlock. I’m sure you understand.”
More sympathetic, but still assuming Warlock’s normal. The words you’re a smart boy feel warm, but not warm enough. Like a candle in the middle of a snowstorm. Too little, too late.
“But. There isn’t a chance?” Warlock strives to keep his voice from going desperate. “That I’m- um. Different?”
He slurps at the hot chocolate and focuses on it to keep from shivering apart.
“Warlock,” says Crowley, very quietly, getting off the chair and kneeling before Warlock. “You are human. Wholly human. And that’s what Aziraphale was trying to tell you, in his own messed up way: that isn’t a bad thing to be. You’ve got more than enough all by yourself without trying to become one of us.”
“But I don’t want to be human,” says Warlock. How can neither of them understand? They’ve been with him so long! It shouldn’t be this difficult to just- explain. “I don’t want to learn maths, or be polite to adults who think I’m stupid, or sit through another boring dinner. I just want to be myself. And not have to care about what anybody else thinks.”
“You think we don’t care about anybody else?” asks Aziraphale, looking startled.
Warlock spreads his hands helplessly. He’d known that adults could be dumb, but he hadn’t thought these two would be like that, too.
“You had the weirdest teeth I’ve ever seen on anyone,” says Warlock, duh all but implied. “Honestly. The other staff made so much fun of you. And everyone thought Nanny had, like, some skeletons buried somewhere.” Crowley’s eyebrow rises, and Warlock clarifies: “Literal skeletons. Not, like, the metaphorical kind.”
“Oh,” says Aziraphale a little faintly. “Well, isn’t that a surprise. I thought we’d rather carried the acting off well.”
“You tried,” offers Warlock.
Crowley shakes her head. “I know people your age want to feel different, Warlock. I do understand. But there’s another name for different.”
Aziraphale folds his fingers together on the table. “Lonely,” he says quietly. “And that is a cold feeling, love. One of the coldest things in the world. In the universe.”
“You think I’m not lonely now?” Warlock challenges fiercely. Aziraphale and Crowley exchange an alarmed look, and Warlock deflates a little. “Okay. Fine. I get it. ‘M sorry for asking you to come.”
“Never be sorry for that,” says Crowley immediately. “I- we- were very glad to come. If ever you need anything we’ll be here. I promise you that, Warlock.”
The hot flush of shame in his belly itches. He wants very much to leave, and hide in his room all by himself, and never look anyone in the eye ever again.
So he’s not special.
It’ll become fine, even if it isn’t now.
He just needs some time to himself. He looks up, and catches Crowley making a face at Aziraphale that makes the itching sensation in his belly worse. Warlock pauses for a beat, then forces himself into a yawn that turns real halfway through: it feels like it nearly dislocates his jaw.
“Warlock,” says Aziraphale, in his almost-gentle voice.
The pity makes him even more nauseous.
“‘M tired,” he says, and there’s a note in his voice that wobbles awfully, but Warlock thinks he’s got away with it. Crowley’s face doesn’t twist, at least, or look any different. “Can I go home now?”
After a moment, Crowley nods. She gets up and scoops him into her arms, ignoring his mush-mouthed sound of protest. Warlock can see Aziraphale moving behind them, setting the kitchen back to the way it was before, and then sliding into the front of the car Crowley had passed Warlock into. He really is tired; Warlock lets the world dissolve into splashes of color beneath his lowered lashes.
Then he hears Crowley say to Aziraphale in a low voice, “Did you know the phone had exactly twenty seconds longer on it than he used to call me?”
“No,” says Aziraphale just as lowly, before hesitating. “What does that mean?”
“Old phone,” says Crowley impatiently. “Landline. Prepaid. Previous owners had the minutes almost used up, probably decided to ditch it when they moved out. Chances of that happening would be…”
“International call, too,” muses Aziraphale. “If he was trying to call you. And that it wasn’t unplugged by a phone company, that the phone wasn’t damaged- chances are probably- well- minuscule.”
For a long moment, neither of them say anything.
“We’ve never raised anyone before,” whispers Aziraphale. “What if-”
“Coincidence,” says Crowley loudly, before she lowers her voice. “No way. We’d have heard if something like that were possible.”
“Yes,” says Aziraphale, unconvincingly. “You must be right.”
Behind them, eyes still shut tight, Warlock smiles, a flame of hope blazing in his chest once more.
“Call me,” says Crowley when they reach Warlock’s hotel, hands like a band of steel on Warlock’s shoulders. “Whenever you need anything. I will come. We both will.”
“Okay,” says Warlock. He takes the sheet with a scrawled number and folds it into his pajamas. Swallows. “Thanks.”
“Anytime, my dear boy,” murmurs Aziraphale.
“I,” says Warlock, wiping suddenly clammy hands on his shirt. He gathers his courage. “If you’re wrong ‘bout my abilities,” he says defiantly, looking up at Aziraphale bullishly, “I’ll call you. Tell you.”
“We’ll help you through it if that’s the case,” says Aziraphale, bowing his head a little.
“I’m not gonna call to ask for your help,” says Warlock, “I’m gonna want to brag, innit?”
Crowley laughs, loud and piercing, fog wrapping around her thrown-back head. Aziraphale looks startled, but not unpleasantly so. Warlock grins shyly at them both and turns away. Jams his fingers in his pockets and heads back to the hotel swarming with diplomats and policemen, lies forming on his tongue, warmth in his chest that feels both foreign and familiar.
Home, he thinks, and it rings, rings, rings of truth.