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Ophidiophobia

Chapter Text

“Blackbeard,” Adam said.

Mr. Crowley snorted.  “Set his beard on fire on at least three separate occasions.”

It was a game they had invented, trying to figure out which historical (or mythical) figures the godfathers had met.  It was raining outside—even in Tadfield, it rained during the day sometimes— and the Them, along with Ms. Device, Mr. Pulsifer, and the godfathers, had gathered in Ms. Device’s sitting room.

Pepper was thinking of asking about Julie d’Aubigny, but was somewhat stymied by the fact that she had no idea how to pronounce it.  It was French, who even knew what the vowels were doing. (Well, presumably the French did.)

Pepper was interested in feminist figures and hellraisers in roughly equal amounts.  She'd also had a book called Reclaiming the Villified Women of Myth and Legend as bedtime reading, which was what you got when your mother taught sociology and women’s studies.  So when the turn came around to her, she thought for a moment and then said, “Eve,” just to see what would happen.

The godfathers exchanged glances.  “Insatiably curious,” Mr. Crowley said.  “Poking her hand down holes, climbing trees, sticking pomegranate pips up her nose just to see what happened.  The thing that baffles me is that one pomegranate pip almost makes sense, and two is confirming a hypothesis, but by the fifth one, the answer is pretty clearly, ‘If you stick a pomegranate pip up your nose, you’ll have a pomegranate pip up your nose.’  Aziraphale had to miracle them out again.”

“I didn’t realize you were there for that,” Mr. Aziraphale said.

“I spied on them for a while.  First rule of temptations, right?”

“They sound like little kids, though,” Brian said, at the same time that Pepper said, “First rule of temptations?”

“They weren’t children,” Mr. Aziraphale said.  “Just extraordinarily naive.” He gave Mr. Crowley a glance.  “Shooting fish in a barrel, really, from your perspective.”

“The first rule of temptations,” Mr. Crowley said, “is, ‘always know what your victim wants.’  Eve wanted to know things. Really, it’s like sticking a tree of Knowing How To Work Things in front of Pulsifer, or a tree of Being Right All The Time in front of Pepper.  Most of the job was done before I arrived.”

If Pepper hadn’t been sitting down, she would have put her hands on her hips in irritation.  She did not either have to be right all the time.  “You’re telling me that you told Eve to eat the apple.”

Mr. Crowley gave her a slightly unsettling smile.

“You, not the Serpent.”

“I am the Serpent,” Mr. Crowley said.

Wensley had said something about Mr. Crowley naming the Serpent’s Eye Nebula after himself, but Pepper had avoided the subject out of an unease that she was unwilling to examine too closely.  “Does that mean that Serpent is just a title? That it doesn’t have anything to do with real snakes?”

Mr. Crowley changed.

It wasn’t like it was in the movies, where shapeshifting made gristly sounds.  It happened silently. Mr. Crowley collapsed down in the chair, and instead, there was a snake.  Black, with a red underside. Huge.

Pepper screamed.  She didn’t mean to.  The scream just ripped its way out.  Without meaning to, she scrambled to her feet on the armchair, as if she was playing ‘the floor is lava’ for infinite stakes, and was about to jump towards the kitchen from the arm of the chair when the chair tilted under her, and she pitched forward and realized she was falling and grabbed onto the standing lamp, which didn’t stop her from falling at all, just meant that the standing lamp was falling with her, and the fact that she was about to hit the floor very hard with broken glass around her was absolutely insignificant next to the fact that there was a snake—

And then she was on her back.  No impact. No crash. No interruption, no blank moment.  Just an instantaneous jump between one moment and the next.  Mr. Aziraphale was kneeling by her side. “Pepper.”

Pepper scrambled backwards, crab-style, making a sound in her throat.

“Pepper.   It’s all right.”

The words didn’t register.  What registered—when she was halfway to the kitchen—was seeing Mr. Crowley standing, in his regular shape, in the middle of the room.

He had long hair now, as if he had forgotten what length his hair was supposed to be.  But he was still definitely him. Not a snake.

Pepper stopped, staring at him.  It took a moment before she could say anything.  The Them were out of their seats, gathering around her, and Ms. Device was offering to help Pepper up, but she didn’t register any of that.  “You’re.” She swallowed. “You’re back.”

“Never went away,” Mr. Crowley said.

“I didn’t know you were scared of snakes,” Brian said, looking rather as if she had revealed that she was actually a llama in disguise.  “I didn’t know you were scared of anything. Except maybe Adam gone all wrong.”

Adam winced.

“One in three people is an ophidiophobe,” Mr. Crowley said, a little distantly.  “In a group this size there was bound to be one. I would have put money on Pulsifer.”

“No, just—startling,” Mr. Pulsifer said.

Belatedly, Pepper realized how her body felt.  Heart, slamming into chest. Stomach knotted. Muscles shaky.  She felt a bit sick.

“It’s all right,” Mr. Aziraphale assured her, looking worried.  “Crowley-as-Serpent has fully the same amount of intelligence as Crowley when he looks human.  There are no extra instincts, or prey drives, or anything of that sort—”

“She hadn’t even thought of that,” Mr. Crowley chided him.

“Well, but surely—”

“Fear of snakes isn’t about being eaten, angel.  It’s about me.   My own bespoke phobia, going back to Eden.”

“Yes,” Wensley said, “but since when is Pepper afraid of things?”

Pepper felt even more sick.  “I should go home,” she said, standing up.

“Don’t bother,” Mr. Crowley told her.  “I’m leaving for the day.”

“No, I’m going home.”   He was between her and the front door, so she turned to go to the back one.

“I’ll walk you there,” Mr. Aziraphale offered, and the solicitous tone made Pepper want to throw up.

“No!  Leave me alone!  All of you!”

Pepper fled.

§

The next day was bright, and clear, and warm.  Pepper didn’t join the Them after school. She went home, full of grim purpose, and outfitted herself in wellies and gardening gloves.  Then she found a stick and went out to the creek.

She stepped carefully into the stream, making sure the water wasn’t deep enough to splash her trousers.  Mud sucked at her wellies with every step. She was aware they were slightly too big, and had to be careful not to step out of them.

She turned over a rock, very careful, ready to jump back.

Nothing.

“You won’t find any snakes that way,” Mr. Crowley said, from up on the bank.

Pepper jumped and nearly fell, splashing herself.  To her twisting shame, she realized her heart was beating faster.  “Who says I’m looking for snakes?”

He gave her a heavily ironic look.

“I might not be, you know.”  She wanted her voice to come out strong and somewhat annoyed.  Instead, it sounded high-pitched to her. “I might be looking for frogs.  Or turtles. Or interesting bugs.”

More of the look.

“And anyway, it’s none of your business.”  Pepper made herself turn away from him, struggling to ignore the feeling that she was turning her back on danger, and parted the reeds with her stick.  A dragonfly darted away from her.

She tried not to feel like she was winning at Russian roulette.  The point wasn’t to avoid snakes.  The point was to find one.  She reached down to grab a stone, and then stopped.

“Just so you know,” Pepper said, “magicking up—something—right underneath this rock wouldn’t be funny at all.  Or cool. Or clever.”

“Would I do that?”

“I didn’t say you would.  I just said it wouldn’t be funny.”  Pepper took a deep breath and turned over the rock.  It was heavier than she thought it would be, and she grunted with effort.  When she got it to its tipping point, she stepped back hastily and let it fall.  It splashed mud and water up to her knees.

No snake.

“Of course,” Mr. Crowley said thoughtfully, “if you really did want to find a snake, you would ask someone who knows about them.  Bit funny, not doing that. Almost as if you didn’t want to see one at all.”

“Who says I don’t want to—”

He smirked at her.

Dammit.

“All right.  I’m looking for—for grass snakes, small grass snakes, the kind with yellow behind where their ears ought to be, and I can find one myself so don’t change into one.”

Mr. Crowley’s smile faded.  “You don’t have to.”

“I looked it up,” Pepper said.  “On the internet. How to get rid of—”  She looked away.

“Ophidiophobia.”

“I know what it’s called,” Pepper snapped.  “Anyway, the internet says that part of getting rid of it is exposure therapy.”

“And naturally, you jumped straight to that bit so you could fix it faster.  Why bother?”

“What do you mean, why bother?”

“How often will you have to deal with snakes, anyway?  Just leave it be. That’s what most people do.”

“I am not going to go on being—weird about this,” Pepper told him.

Mr. Crowley was silent for a moment, making a slight odd swaying motion that put Pepper’s back hairs up.  “You realize,” he said meditatively, “that when you decide you can solve this all in one go, by turning over a rock, you’re being just a bit disrespectful to people with mental illnesses.”

Pepper froze.

“A disabled minority.”

Pepper opened her mouth to say, I, and then realized she didn’t know what came after that.

“Not very social justice of you.”[1]

“All right, all right, I get it!”  Pepper took a deep breath. “What do you think I should do?”

“Call an actual psychologist?”

Pepper snorted.  “Not a chance. I’d have to tell them why.”

“Then give me your email address.”

“What good will that do?”

“Snake documentaries,” Mr. Crowley said.  “I’ll find you snake documentaries. Watch them on a screen first, then deal with the real thing.  You can email me with questions, even.”

Pepper felt something unclench in her stomach.  She was ashamed of it. This wasn’t a reprieve, because she wasn’t sentenced to anything bad.  She wanted to do this.

Reprieve or not, she was still going to take it.

 


1Crowley was aware that this argument could be easily pulled apart if someone stepped back and thought about it, but he knew that people rarely step back and think about it. Which was a factor in one of his more devastating modern inventions, the Youtube comment section. [ return to text ]

 

 

Chapter Text

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

Here’s a short video on how to keep snakes as pets.  It’s about seventy percent jawing about appropriate substrate, but there are plenty of shots of a royal python being python-y.  (Note: American video, so they call it a ball python. Same thing.)

Pepper Moonchild[1] <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

Thanks

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

I watched it.  It went okay, I guess.

I wanted to ask you.  Are you a person who turns into a snake, or a snake who turns into a person?  And if you’re a snake who turns into a person, does it bother you, seeing snakes kept as pets?

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

Neither.  I’m a demon.  Shape is just an option.

And if kicking off the Cobra Effect didn’t bother me, snakes in cages isn’t going to.  Most of those cobras didn’t come to a good end, you know.

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

What’s the Cobra Effect?

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

It’s what you get when a pack of British idiots start offering bounties on cobras caught in Delhi because snakes frighten them and they don’t know how to cope.  Wasn’t long before the locals worked out that (a) you can make money that way, and (b) breeding your own is significantly easier than tramping through the underbrush with a stick.

Naturally, once the British Raj discovered that the cobras were coming from amateur cobra farms, they decided that dismounting the tiger would be no problem and they cancelled the bounty.  So, just as naturally, the farmers tipped out their bins full of snakes and went on their way, raising the cobra population of Delhi significantly.

 I’m proud of that one.  Of course, it would never have worked if the British had realized that the locals had been dealing with the snakes perfectly well for centuries, but if they were clever about people browner than they were, they wouldn’t be British.

 

§

Brian was treating Pepper differently, and it made her want to grind her teeth.

It wasn’t anything specific.  She couldn’t point to anything.  It just felt like he was being more careful with her.  He sword-fought with her just like normal, but it felt as if he was holding back.

Pepper snarled and got him across the ribs with her wooden sword.

“Owww!” Brian said.  “Ow! Jesus, Pepper!  Ow! Christ!”

“It was an accident,” Pepper said, looking away.  And then, “Maybe if you defended yourself, like usual, it wouldn’t have happened.”

“I did!” Brian protested.

“You did not.   You were treating me like some kind of girly-girl.”   Pepper’s mother said that there was nothing wrong with being a girly-girl and embracing the feminine principle was important.  Pepper thought it was more important to be able to soundly thrash Brian when she really wanted to.

“Was not!”

“It’s because of that stupid thing that happened at Jasmine Cottage.”

“I was just surprised, all right, because I’ve never seen you afraid of something before,” Brian said.  “Except for, well, you know, but I was panicking myself at the time so I didn’t pay attention.  But it doesn’t make things different.”

“Yes, it does!  It’s making you all—all stupid!”

“Who’re you calling stupid, stupid?”

Pepper had thoroughly lost control of the conversation and her temper.  She clenched her fists. “I’m calling you stupid because you think I’m a coward!  Don’t think I can’t beat you up, Brian—”

“Oh yeah?  Oh yeah? You’re always acting tough, right, like you think you’re so much better than everyone else—”

“Maybe I am better than you, because I don’t go around treating people different because—”

“See?  See? I knew it!  Just because you think you’re the best fighter—”

“I am the best fighter!” Pepper yelled, and lunged.

By the time Adam and Wensley got them apart, Pepper had taken an elbow to the face and Brian had taken a fist to the eye.  “I can fix the nosebleed,” Adam said, examining Pepper’s face closely. “Do you want me to fix the nosebleed?”

“I’m fine,” Pepper snarled.

“What’re you being weird about, anyway?”

“Fine!  Since none of you want me around, I’m going!”  Pepper stormed off.

She regretted it before she had gone three yards, but pride kept her going.


1 Pepper had been forbidden to use her last name on her email for reasons of security, so she chose the middle name that made her grind her teeth the least. [ return to text ]

 

Chapter Text

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

Here’s a BBC documentary.  Narration’s a bit overwrought.  I’d watch it with the sound off the first time through; they put in a lot of hissing noises, including places where I can tell the snakes aren’t actually hissing.  Nice pictures though.

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

Thanks.

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

I watched it with the sound off and the subtitles on.  It said snakes are deaf???

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

No ears, sure.  But there’s bone conduction.  If you’ve ever gone into a really loud club, the way the bassline shakes through your body—it’s like that.  Stuff like leaves rustling in the wind, or birds, or voices, you can’t hear any of that. But anything conducted through the ground is extremely clear.  Especially footsteps of all sorts. That’s why you were never going to find a grass snake in the stream on Friday.

And yes, that means that to have a conversation with Eve, I had to wind around her so I could hear her voice.  She never figured out I could have constricted her to death. Possibly that’s the sort of thing Hell meant when they told me “get up there and make trouble,” but I like to think I have more style.

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

So you’re a constrictor

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

I’m not so much a specific kind of serpent as I am the essence of serpent-ness.  I have venom when I want it and I can constrict when I feel like it.

Which frightens you more?  Venomous snakes or constrictors?

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

I don’t know.  Venomous, I guess.  They’re both pretty horrible

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

Don’t apologize to me.  And don’t worry about it.  You do realize that where I come from, “horrible” is a compliment, right?

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

I still shouldn’t have said it.

§

“Mr. Aziraphale?”

“What is it?”  Mr. Aziraphale was using Ms. Device’s kitchen to attempt biscuits, which was honestly a bit of a gamble.  Pepper suspected that Ms. Device put up with it because the kitchen always ended up mysteriously spotless, and miraculous kitchen cleaning was easily worth the price of ingredients.

“Can you bless away phobias?”

There was a long pause.  Then Mr. Aziraphale said, “Shouldn’t like to, no.”

“That’s not the same as saying that you can’t.”

“No,” Mr. Aziraphale said, “I suppose it isn’t.”

“I don’t think anything like that would be necessary,” Ms. Device said hastily.  “Pepper why don’t I teach you some relaxation exercises? I’m already teaching Newt—”

The latter sentence was the wrong thing to add if she wanted Pepper to go along with it.  To Pepper’s way of thinking, Mr. Pulsifer was broadly useless. She had to admit that he did respect Ms. Device’s intelligence and cleaned the kitchen as well as cooked now that he had more or less moved in (at least when Ms. Device wasn’t sneakily getting a celestial being to do it instead).  That didn’t mean Pepper wanted to be lumped in with him, in beginner’s lessons. “I’ve known how to meditate since I was five,” she snapped, “It’s rubbish.  A person could be up and doing things.  And it’s up to me to decide whether or not it’s ‘necessary.’”

“Actually, no,” Mr. Aziraphale said.  “It’s up to me to decide whether or not I’m willing to do it.”  He slid on an oven mitt. Pepper wondered if he really needed it.  “And I’m afraid I’m not.”

“Pepper,” Ms. Device said, “come on out here for a moment, will you?”  Pepper followed her sullenly into the sitting room, where Ms. Device turned around, looking intense.  “Listen. How much has your mother told you about mental illness in early European history?”

Ms. Device and Pepper’s mother had struck up a friendship.  Pepper would have thought of it as an unlikely one, but two people who were interested in Causes were bound to find each other in a small village, even if Ms. Device was mad for the environment and Pepper’s mother mostly concentrated on women’s issues.  If Ms. Device had been older, Pepper would have seriously considered trying to get them to date. “They thought it was witches and demons and stuff,” Pepper said, “and people had to beg on the streets.”

“Or sometimes, they thought it was divine intervention.  The word ‘silly’ used to mean crazy, but before that it meant holy.”

Pepper glanced back towards the kitchen, where she could hear Mr. Aziraphale ostentatiously humming Mozart or something similar so that it would be utterly clear that he wasn’t eavesdropping on them.

“Mental illness has always been around, and it’s nearly always been misunderstood.  But that doesn’t mean a supernatural being can’t rip up a human’s mind fairly conclusively if they make a mistake.  Changing a perception here, erasing a memory there, messing with a decision that doesn’t really matter much, all that is high-handed and frequently unfair but ultimately harmless.  Permanent changes aren’t. You’re asking for brain surgery, and my advice is, don’t.”

Pepper swallowed.  “This is important to me,” she said, and her voice came out smaller than she wanted it to.

Ms. Device let out her breath.  “Yes, I know it is, and I think I understand why.  But there are ways to fix it without extreme measures.  I’m sure if you look on the internet—”

“I was trying exposure therapy,” Pepper said, “and I watched the documentary once with the sound off, and then I tried to watch it again with the sound on, and I, I didn’t make it through.  I had to turn it off.” She fought hard against the prickling of tears.  “I felt so bloody stupid.”

“You’re not stupid.  Hey. Stop it.” Ms. Device’s voice was gentle.

Pepper glared at her.  “Stop feeling sorry for me!”

“I’m not.  I promise you, I’m not.  I just—” Ms. Device hesitated.  “I understand putting yourself under a lot of pressure.  I used to give myself nightmares when I was your age.”

“What kind of nightmares?” Pepper asked, unwillingly curious.

“Mostly that Armageddon was coming and I’d forgot how to read.  My whole life was wrapped up with the prophecies. The point is, if you put yourself under too much pressure, the pressure—pushes back?  I really think you should try the meditation again. I can do it with you, if you like. Keep an eye on what your aura is doing.”

The idea of meditation was tedious; the idea of auras was intriguing.  “Is there any witch stuff you can teach me?” she asked.

“In general, or to help with this in particular?  In general, I could teach you a lot about witchcraft.  I specialize in knowledge.  That means I know a lot about different branches of the art.  For this?” Ms. Device wiggled her hand side to side. “I can teach you lucid dreaming, which isn’t exactly witchcraft but helps if you have nightmares after some of your exposure therapy.  I can teach you several different kinds of meditation. Nothing I can teach you will outright change your mind, and I wouldn’t deal in it if it did.  But there are some things.”

“Yeah,” Pepper said, “okay.  That could work. Thanks.”

That was the moment when Mr. Aziraphale came out to announce biscuits.  Pepper wondered if he had been eavesdropping, and then decided she was imagining things.  That was a bit sneaky for an angel, after all.[1]


1 He was, and he had been. [ return to text ]

 

Chapter Text

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

Finally got around to rewatching that one documentary.  Are most snake documentaries like that? I mean, all the scary noises and things, like they’re TRYING to set people off?

Also, I meant to ask last time: can you see in infrared?

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

People like being afraid.  Always have done. I’ll find you more snake fancier videos.

And, yes, when I’m a snake, I can see in infrared, except that it doesn’t feel a thing like seeing.  It’s a whole separate sense. Like smell and taste to humans, maybe. I never did figure out the difference between smell and taste, even when I look human.

§

“I’m sorry for beating you up,” Pepper muttered to Brian, finally.

“You didn’t beat me up, it was a draw.”   He looked away.  “Yeah, it’s okay.  I might have been treating you differently.  I wasn’t thinking about it. I did try to think a bit about whether I’d said some things, you know, that would mess you up.”

“Things like what?” Pepper asked.

Brian looked down at his hands.  “It’s just that I love snakes, okay?  And I was wondering if I’d ever gone on about them, and if I’d made you uncomfortable.”

Pepper gritted her teeth.  “If I’m uncomfortable, I can bloody well deal myself.”

“I know that!  I was just wondering, that’s all.  There’s no law against wondering.”

“Yeah, well—don’t.”

They were silent for a moment.

“Why do you love snakes?” Pepper asked finally.

“Because they can unhinge their whole jaw to eat something as big as their head,” Brian said promptly.

“Okay, yeah, you would.”  Brian had always had a passion for things that were mildly grotesque.  When he broke his leg attempting to jump from his bedroom window to the maple tree, they had all been treated to a blow-by-blow description of how purple it had turned by the time he got to A&E.

In retrospect, that jump wasn’t something that an eight-year-old should have been able to make.  The fact that Adam had gone first and made it anyway . . . she probably shouldn’t suggest that it was some early powers leaking through, Pepper thought.  No point in getting Adam feeling guilty about the incident.

“Should’ve known,” Pepper went on.  “If it’s slimy or sticky or a bit nasty, you’ll always be at least a little interested.”

“Snakes aren’t slimy, though.”

“Are too.”

“No, Marcus Fetterly has one, I touched it once.  They’re sort of dry and smooth. And they feel kind of muscle-y.  Like maybe they don’t have any body fat or something.” 

Pepper glanced consideringly up the hill to where Mr. Crowley was helping Adam and Wensley set up a catapult.  “Well, that bit fits,” she admitted.

“When you think about it, nothing else with scales is slimy.  Lizards aren’t. Unless you find them under a damp log. Turtles aren’t.  Dinosaurs probably weren’t.”

“Dinosaurs had feathers,” Pepper objected.

“I expect some of them had scales,” Brian said.  “I expect some of them had scales because they have to be where dragon stories come from because the Earth is young enough that dinosaurs and cavemen had to be a thing at the same time, which means that they had scales and some of them probably breathed fire.”

That was surprisingly well-reasoned.  “Maybe,” Pepper said, “we should try to dig up a dinosaur.”

“Around here?”

“You find seashell fossils in the chalk.  It only stands to reason there would be something bigger along to eat all the seashells.  Maybe a plesiosaur. We should try to figure out where it’s got to.”

§

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

More pet owner instructional videos.  Much less sensationalism in these.  Should suit you better. I won’t find you another documentary like the last one.

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

Did Ms. Device snitch on me?  That I didn’t watch that one all the way through?

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

No, but it wasn’t hard to tell.  I’ve been paying attention to humans for a long time.[1]

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

Did you follow Eve after she left the garden?

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

Some.  I also explored the world.  Not all of it, obviously, but the bits I could do on foot without getting too bored.  Parts of Africa and the Middle East.

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

The Garden of Eden is in Africa?

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

It’s not really anywhere on Earth anymore.  It exists outside ordinary reality, outside time, and I don’t know how to get back there.  Aziraphale might, but neither of us would want to try it. Last thing I heard, they’d filled Aziraphale's guard post with a couple of cherubim.  (Note: has nothing to do with babies with wings. These are heavy hitters with absolutely no sense of humor. Think American Secret Service.)

When it was on Earth, it was in Africa, yeah.

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

If the Garden of Eden was in Africa, what color was Eve?

Anthony Crowley <gardeningserpent@gmail.com>

to: Pepper

You resemble her a lot, actually.  Similar skin color, similar hair. 

Pepper Moonchild <pepperforgalacticqueen@gmail.com>

to: Anthony

I KNEW IT

TAKE THAT EUROCENTRIC PATRIARCHY

TAKE THAT YOU STUPID ILLUSTRATED BIBLE MAKERS


1 By which he meant that Aziraphale had told him. [ return to text ]

 

Chapter Text

In retrospect, Pepper should have waited more than a month to talk to Marcus Fetterly.

She did the videos, and they helped.  She practiced relaxation with Ms. Device, and found herself interested in lots of different aspects of witchcraft.  She even shared a few lessons with Mr. Pulsifer, who was trying to learn how to regulate his aura so that he could touch a mobile without setting it to Moscow time and Icelandic language settings (at a minimum).  So far, he was diligent, determined, and bloody hopeless at it.

But it was all starting to feel like getting nowhere, which was why, one October day, Pepper pulled Marcus aside after class.  “I hear you’ve got a snake,” she said. “I want to see the snake.”

“I, um, well . . .”  Marcus seemed to be making calculations.  “Not today, I have, um, I have a thing. Next Tuesday.  We’ll do it next Tuesday.”

“Great,” Pepper said.

On Tuesday, she thought she was coming down with a stomach virus before realizing that it was just nerves.  She didn’t eat much lunch. Everyone else was getting together at Jasmine Cottage and Pepper badly wanted to tell Marcus that she had something else to do instead.  But she met Marcus after school.

Marcus lived close to Pepper, although they had never been friends.  His house was similar, although his mother made more of a project out of the garden than Pepper’s mother had ever done with hers.  Pepper found herself noting incidental details as if they could delay the inevitable. Dark brown sofa. Silvery standing lamps. Stairs up to Marcus’s room.

“My snake,” Marcus said.  “It’s, um, it’s a golden viper.  They’re from South America, really poisonous.  I won’t make you touch it if you don’t want to.”

“I just want to see it,” Pepper said.  She strongly suspected there wasn’t such a thing as a golden viper, and if there was, Marcus’s mum and dad wouldn’t let him have one.

“It killed the last owner,” Marcus went on, just confirming Pepper’s opinion that he was entirely full of bullshit.  “They were going to put it down, but I’m an experienced snake handler, so they let me take it.”

“What’s their name?” Pepper said.

Marcus pushed open the door to his room, which was festooned with biohazard tape and a sign saying Keep Out Mum That Means You.  Pepper was sympathetic to the need to keep mums out of one’s room, but she thought that the biohazard tape was overdoing it.

The inside of the room was absolutely crammed with stuff.   Marcus had a television of his own, and a game system, and stacks upon stacks of video games, and a desk with a computer on it, and big speakers attached to the computers, and a tank holding a snake.

Nearby, there was a carrier tank holding a live mouse, but that wasn’t what Pepper focused on.  She couldn’t look away from the snake. Yellow and white, unblinking, lying on the bottom of the tank—

The tank.

The tank was all wrong.

“You can’t keep a snake like that,” Pepper objected.  “He’s on fishtank gravel.”   She recalled the various snake fancier videos.  “And he doesn’t have anywhere to hide, and the tank is dirty—you’ve been letting him crawl around in his own poo, you can’t keep an animal like that!”

Marcus looked like she had cut him off at the knees.  “What?”

“It’s cruel,” Pepper objected.

“It’s not cruel, it’d eat you as soon as look at you!”

Pepper was almost certain the snake was a regular sort of pet snake.  Almost. The bit that wasn’t sure was making her heart slam into her chest.  She thought she might throw up. “You’re a liar,” she told him. “You’re a liar, and you shouldn’t be a pet owner.”

“What the hell do you know about it?”  And now Marcus’s poleaxed expression was replaced by anger.

“More than you, apparently!”

“Well—well, you can just shut it!  It’s my snake, I’ll do what I like with it—”

“It shouldn’t be allowed!” Pepper said.

“What’re you going to do about it?  You’re just a girl! You’re too scared to touch it!  You’d faint if you had to watch it eat a mouse! You’re stupid, and useless, and—”

Pepper felt as if rage were lifting the top off her head.  It almost overwhelmed the fear. “Watch me, arsehole.”

She skinned out of her shirt—it meant Marcus was seeing her training bra, and that would have made her burn with shame if the anger weren’t carrying her—and pulled the screen off the snake tank, and reached in with the shirt over her hand.  Grabbed the snake.

She almost dropped it just from feeling it move.  But it didn’t seem to be attacking her. Sort of scrunching together into a ball, instead.  Pepper wrapped the shirt around the animal, and held it away from herself, and bolted out the door.  Down the stairs, and out onto the street, shirtless and hot-faced and desperately aware that her rage might not last long enough.

She was holding a snake.

She was holding a snake.

She was holding a snake.

She couldn’t do this.  Any minute, she was going to scream, and throw the snake, and collapse.

She navigated to Jasmine Cottage more by instinct than by sight.  Burst in the door, ignored Ms. Device’s exclamation of surprise, and said, “Someone else deal with this,” shoved her wiggling bundle into Mr. Pulsifer’s hands and bolted toward the armchair.

“What is,” Mr. Pulsifer started, and then, “Oh, dear.”

“Wait, you had a snake?” Wensley blurted.

Pepper collapsed into the armchair.  She suddenly had a shirt again, long-sleeved and flannel and some sort of light-colored tartan, which told her which of the godfathers had been responsible.  She didn’t care right now.

“Why did you have a snake though?” Wensley persisted.

“He wasn’t.”  There were tears on her face.  “He wasn’t, wasn’t keeping her right.  On gravel.   He didn’t care, he kept calling him it, you don’t call your pets it.   It was wrong.”

“That was,” Brian started.

“Shut up, Brian, I already know I’m a coward, I don’t need you going and telling me.  I don’t need—” Sobs overwhelmed her, and Pepper put her face in her hands.  “I am so—so—”

“That,” Brian interrupted, “was fucking badass.”

There was a short pause.  Adam and Wensley’s faces, Pepper realized as she lifted her face from her hands, were showing awed agreement with Brian.

“Er,” Mr. Pulsifer said, “I’d very much like to know what sort of snake I’m holding, actually.”

“A filthy, mistreated one,” Mr. Crowley said.

“Yes,” Mr. Pulsifer said, “but I’d like to know if the snake I am holding is poisonous.”

“Venomous,” Mr. Crowley corrected.

“Dear,” Mr. Aziraphale said.

“All right, all right.  No, she isn’t. She’s a royal python.  One of the domestic color morphs. I don’t keep up with what breeders are doing so I don’t know which one.”[1]

Pepper looked at her hands.  They weren’t shaking noticeably less from knowing that.  “Python,” she gulped. “I thought—probably python. Wasn’t sure.  He kept lying to me. Trying to scare me.” She looked up at the rest of them, blinking to keep her vision clear.  Adam and Brian still looked awed. Pepper didn’t think they had anything to look awed about. “Kept thinking—kept thinking it would bite me.  Maybe it really was a viper.  I bundled it in my shirt but I kept thinking—”

“No serpent born is going to harm you,” Mr. Crowley said, and made a vague motion towards her.  Mr. Aziraphale and Ms. Device both looked at him sharply, and even though she couldn’t feel anything, Pepper thought he might have Done Something.  “It’s a good thing you’re grumpy, arrogant, self-righteous, and stupid as a brick about your own weaknesses, otherwise you’d be enough of a paragon to be really annoying.”  He grabbed one of Ms. Device’s dining room chairs and moved over near the armchair.  “Everyone out, I have to talk to Pepper.”

They hesitated—particularly Adam and Ms. Device—but they filed out.  In the kitchen, Pepper could hear Brian and Mr. Pulsifer talking about washing the snake.

Mr. Crowley put the chair in front of Pepper and sat on it wrong.  “Listen,” he said, “you don’t have to remember this.”

“What?”

“This isn’t a movie.  Facing your fear doesn’t make it magically melt away.  Sometimes it makes it worse. So, if you want, you can forget this, and go back to watching videos.  Adam and the others would fill you in on what happened here, so you would know you were brave, but the experience itself would be gone.”

“I don’t want to . . .”  Pepper trailed off, uncertain what she didn’t want.

“I wouldn’t do it without your agreement.  But you don’t have to know that.  I could tell you I just did it, and you’d never have to worry that you backed down from something.”

“I would never trust you again, if you did that,” Pepper protested.

He shrugged a shoulder.  “Humans who trust me generally get what’s coming to them, and then some.  Eve did.”

Underneath the shakiness, Pepper felt a spark of ire light.  She encouraged it. It felt good. “You are really stupid, do you know that?”  She didn’t wait for his reply. “The whole point of doing this, of getting used to snakes, is so that I can be around you and not be touchy.  You think I would be putting myself through this for animals that I never have to see?  You think I would put myself through any of this if I didn’t have a friend who is a snake?”   She was shouting, now.  “Maybe you have enough cool demon friends that you can afford to throw away a friendship by doing stupid stuff, but I care about my friends, and—”

Mr. Crowley leaned forward as Adam peeked around the corner, drawn by the commotion.  Pepper shrank back automatically, and then hated herself for the motion. “I’m not going to touch you,” Mr. Crowley said.  “Although, if it helps, I don’t feel like a snake. Pepper, it was just an offer. You don’t have to take it.”

“Good,” Pepper said, steaming, “because you can take your ‘offer,’ and—and—”  She couldn’t think of a sufficiently strong suggestion. Probably the grown-ups had some excellent curse words for this situation.

“What offer?” Adam said, moving into the room.

“He wanted me to forget all this.”

“You’re a hero, though,” Adam objected.

“More than once, I should think,” Mr. Aziraphale said, coming back into the room behind him.  The private conference seemed to be over.

Pepper was glad.  She didn’t want to admit it, but she had thought about it.  Thought about doing it.

Thought about sacrificing a friendship so she’d feel better.

Maybe she should feel proud of herself for resisting the temptation, but instead, she was just shaky.  Just like she should feel proud of herself for rescuing an animal that was being abused, but she had a breakdown instead.

Heroism, perhaps, was not always as straightforward as stabbing the living incarnation of violence.

“You realize,” Mr. Crowley said, “that if you went to a psychologist now, you wouldn’t have anything to prove.  They and you would know perfectly well that you can bludgeon the ophidophobia down when you have to. You wouldn’t be going for courage so much as a way to manage without the bludgeoning.”

He was, Pepper thought, trying to tempt her again.

That didn’t necessarily mean he was wrong.  This time.

“I’ll think about it,” she said.

§

“I’m still trying to figure out what to name her,” Brian said.  “I thought of Heidi, because hiding is mostly what she does, but then I thought p’rhaps Fettucini Alfredo.”

“Ophelia,” Mr. Crowley suggested.

“Why Ophelia?”

“It means snake.  Also she got screwed over by an arsehole.”

They were on the edge of the Dip, sitting on a log.  Mr. Crowley had bought Brian an extensive, and expensive, snake habitat, most of which Pepper was familiar with from the videos Mr. Crowley had sent her.

Pepper thought it was sort of funny.  She had a psychologist now, a cushiony middle-aged woman named Debbie Chantharath.  And some of the material she had found Pepper had been the same snake-fancier videos.   Of course, she had some other ideas about what to do, including talking about the Marcus Fetterly Incident, but the point was, Pepper hadn’t been handling it that badly on her own.  Mostly. Somewhat.

“Whatever you do,” Pepper said, “don’t name her anything all danger-y.  I think that was Marcus Fetterly’s problem. He wanted to own something badass and dangerous.  He forgot that she was a living thing. Or maybe never cared.”

“His friends,” Brian said, “say that he bragged to them about how he was going to feed her a live mouse and make you cry, only you punched him and took his snake away and now he looks like an idiot.  And his parents won’t buy him another snake, because this one cost too much anyway.”

“Good,” Pepper said.  “Only I didn’t punch him.”  She thought about it. “Maybe I should have punched him.”

“Take credit for it anyway,” Mr. Crowley advised.

Pepper nodded.  After a moment, she said, “I’m having trouble explaining to my psychologist why I went over to Marcus’s house in the first place.  She knows I was trying to cure the ophidiophobia, but she doesn’t know why. I’ve got to think of something plausible.”

“Pride,” Mr. Crowley said promptly.  “You saw a serpent, you screamed in front of your friends, you felt humiliated.  You threw yourself into making sure it would never happen again. Half-true lies are the best ones.”

“It is not—”   Pepper took a deep breath.  “Maybe—about a third true.  Is that what you thought it was, all along?”

“No,” Mr. Crowley said.

“Are you just saying that because you’re embarrassed that you can still be surprised by a human kid after six thousand years?”

He glared at her.  Pepper decided to count it as her point.

“It wasn’t just friendship,” Pepper said.  “It was also political, sort of.  It’s like—Eve was right. When the patriarchy withholds knowledge from you, the proper thing is to go get it.  And I don’t know exactly how much you helped, because the way you describe her, she would have probably done it eventually anyway, but you were there, and you did help some, so it follows that you did the right thing too.  Even though you sort of represented a patriarchy yourself.  That means that ophidiophobia is a tool of the oppressive state.  A tool of the oppressive—something.”

Mr. Crowley snorted.  “Can’t be a patriarchy, demons and angels don’t have gender unless we feel like it.  Hell is a deimocracy.”

“Rule by demons?” Brian said.  “I’d think that was sort of—taken as read.”

“Not demon, deimos.  Greek word for dread.  Government by the most dreaded.”

Pepper privately thought that Hell probably was a patriarchy if Satan had made a big deal about being Adam’s dad (which he wasn’t), but it was hard to say because Adam didn’t like to talk about it too much.  “Ophidiophobia is still propaganda or something, though,” she said. “And I don’t want to give in to propaganda.”

“There’s the pride again,” Mr. Crowley observed.

Pepper rolled her eyes.

“If Hell is a deimocracy,” Brian said, “what’s Heaven?”

“Considering that it’s effectively ruled by Gabriel and the other Archangels?  I’d say a phallarchy. If you quote that to Aziraphale, be sure to say I said it, because otherwise, he’ll tut about your language.”  He was quiet for a moment. “And then there’s God, and literally God only knows what’s going on there.”

“I don’t really fancy either, in terms of an afterlife,” Pepper said.  “I’m going to figure out something else.”

Mr. Crowley gave her an amused look.  “Something else?”

“I don’t know what it’s going to be, yet,” Pepper said.  “I’m still working on that.”

“Maybe Adam could make it,” Brian suggested.

“Yes, but I want it to be egalitarian.  You can’t run an egalitary . . . ish . . . thingy, on the basis of one guy is the most powerful person on the planet.”

“How do you run an egalitary-ish thingy,” Brian wondered, “if Heaven or Hell decide to get cross?”

“Well, then we probably need Adam.”

Mr. Crowley’s amused look was turning more and more into a pleased sort of amused look.

He was, Pepper thought, genuinely happy to be here.  Sometimes with him it was hard to tell—he had an edge to him that frequently read as irritation—but not right now.

He was sitting a careful length away, on the log, which probably helped, but Pepper’s skin wasn’t crawling.  She definitely didn’t want to see him turn into a snake again, and sometimes the way he moved got to her, but she was better—if not where every snake was concerned, then with him in particular.

It probably hadn’t been rescuing Marcus’s snake that did it.  It was probably just friendship. Talking. Having normal, or at least normally weird, conversations about afterlifes and pets and calling his partner’s boss a prick in Greek (or possibly Latin).

Power of friendship stuff was cheesy beyond belief, but right now, Pepper didn’t really mind.


1 Albino, as it happened. In snakes, albinism doesn’t make the snake pure white, and so albino royal pythons are mottled white and yellow. This is a pretty decent image.
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