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The Name of the Snake

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"What do you mean by blue? Describe it."

I struggled for a moment, failed. "So blue is a name?"

"It is a word. Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men… But a word is nothing but a painting of a fire. A name is the fire itself."

My head was swimming by this point. "I still don't understand."

He laid a hand on my shoulder. "Using words to talk of words is like using a pencil to draw a picture of itself, on itself. Impossible. Confusing. Frustrating." He lifted his hands high above his head as if stretching for the sky. "But there are other ways to understanding!" he shouted, laughing like a child. He threw both arms to the cloudless arch of sky above us, still laughing. "Look!" he shouted, tilting his head back. "Blue! Blue! Blue!”

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

*

It is teatime, sometime in the mid-1800s, on a perfectly ordinary Wednesday, when Aziraphale realizes that he does not know his name.

Not the obvious one, not Aziraphale, of course not that. He is not likely to lose four syllables, signifying little except for the obvious Hebrew and Islamic roots, largely dull as an old coin. That flat signage is static, a badge he has worn for thousands of years. No. What eludes his grasp is his true name, the one that takes almost a full minute to pronounce, in a tongue that mortals may not speak.

He knew what it was, of course. He still knows how to say it, the long phrases in a sacred tongue - but as he pronounces it over his kettle, frowning, teaspoon in hand, he knows that it no longer fits him.

Which means that it must have changed.

Names can be like that. They are often fickle, especially in the language of angels, which tells of things as they are, and most of the time, what they are is ephemeral. It stands to reason, then, that to speak of them truly requires a dynamic, shifting, changing description.

But it is still very strange. Angels’ names are not ephemeral. Angels are carved out of metaphysical limestone. He has not heard of one changing before.

It is baffling.

It is also incredibly frustrating.

By now the tea is forgotten. Aziraphale finds himself wandering down into his glorious new bookshop, pacing through the shelves as if the human texts might hold answers. He repeats the name, twice more, hoping that it might suddenly ring true. Twice more, it fails to kindle.

At last, he tries to draw it. Taking the chalk out of his desk drawer, he furtively rolls back the rug, leaving a space to sketch the insignia. Here is the slash that means sword, the arc that means angel, the sharp corner that means guardian. Here is the piece that he recognizes in himself and hates, the little curl that says hungry, hedonist, desire, that is the root of so many tiny woes: his love of opulence, his passion for more books, his craving for good wine and decadent food.

But when he finishes writing it all out, he can see that it’s not quite right. It looks like him; it should be correct. But no lines of fire ignite the chalk, and when he says it aloud, again, testing it, he doesn’t feel the answering reverberation inside him, like the tolling of a bell.

Aziraphale frowns. He says it once more, a fifth time, enunciating the holy syllables that should add up to his own self.

But it doesn’t work. His atoms don’t thrill to it. He is a stodgy bookseller in a shop, and if he contains multitudes, they are folded up as demurely as pages might be into a leather spine.

He exhales. It doesn’t matter that much, really, he tells himself. Angels stopped using their true names long ago, when it became clear that there was a new opposing force in the universe. Unlike human words, which have only ever been shadows, a true name has power, and therefore may be exploited (and Aziraphale remembers, with a pang, the afternoon that he had met a snake in a garden and asked its name, and it had looked panicked and said Crawly. That was the moment that he had begun to understand that things had well and truly changed).

It’s a shame, really, because the old way was better. An introduction, then, was a revealing of one’s self, a total parting of the curtain to show the entity entire.

It makes Aziraphale sad, to know that he is now veiled even to himself.

*

It’s not the sort of thing you can talk about, either, which makes it worse. Aziraphale tries to imagine going to another angel and describing the problem, and fails. They would turn their blank and brilliant eyes on him and whisper to each other. If the name of the Guardian of the Eastern Gate has changed, does that mean he has Fallen? (He has not. His Grace still courses through him like breath, thank goodness.)

No. He doesn’t think he will ever tell them. It might come out many, many years from now, when the trumpets call and the Host is summoned by name to assemble, but, well, he can’t worry about that yet. There will be enough going on that it won’t matter, at that point. Probably. Definitely.

For the time being, the only person he would even dream of discussing this with is Crowley – Crowley, who changes and tweaks and trims his human name the way that some people cultivate bonsai. Aziraphale wonders, frequently, what underlying desire or fear goads him into making the little changes, but doesn’t dare ask. It seems very personal; surely if he wanted to address it, he would. Aziraphale isn’t going to press the matter.

He thinks, now, that perhaps he could confess this to him: the fact that his true name has metamorphosed and, apparently, flown away. He doesn’t think Crowley would laugh at him. In fact, he thinks that if anyone would understand, it would be him.

But this is something they have never talked about.

Everything else – or nearly everything else – has been fair game. They have lent their tongues to things as radical as theological questions, the human penchant for depravity, and their own strategies to further the Arrangement. Intimate topics, those, including an evening when Crowley had explained at length how to carry out a seduction for him and Aziraphale, bright red, had asked several delicate questions about female anatomy. The answering grin had shown nearly all of Crowley’s teeth, and he had answered, and they had found a pad of paper, and sketches had happened, and when Aziraphale had looked up at him, he had found those yellow eyes lingering on his mouth -

So, then. This is the truth of it. There are only three topics that they both shy away from, which are: true names (until now, anyway); the reason for Crowley’s Fall (fine, good, he doesn’t want to know); and the name for this, whatever this thing is, that has grown up between them like ivy.

Perhaps the strength of his feelings in that regard should not be surprising, the angel reflects. After all, this is the demon credited with the original temptation. Small wonder, then, that he is himself rather tempting.

He has never turned the full force of his powers on Aziraphale, for which the angel is very grateful. They have always worked together as colleagues, or friendly acquaintances, and nothing more, which means that, over the millennia, Aziraphale has been able to hold himself back from all manner of sins. When Crowley’s hair was long and garnet-bright and needing a good brushing, Aziraphale never so much as touched it. When he appeared in garters that showed off his trim legs at the Globe, Aziraphale allowed himself a glance and nothing more.

It’s quite the accomplishment, actually. His pretended indifference has gone on for nearly six thousand years now. In the Roman baths, over oysters in the shell, in a tent during the Crusades – hundreds of times over, they have lounged side by side, with Crowley passing him towels or tiny forks or wine, and ignoring the tiny catch of Aziraphale’s breath at his touch.

He would like to be proud of this resistance, as a display of peerless mental fortitude, perhaps, but he knows that congratulating himself would be no better than lying. If Crowley wanted to ensnare him – really wanted to, and really tried – he doesn’t think he would be able to withstand it.

There is something slightly terrifying about that. Or, well, more than slightly. The demon has some strange power over him, almost as much as he would have if he knew Aziraphale’s true name.

The notion is sobering. Aziraphale, considering it, pauses for a moment. For an insane moment, in this fresh embarrassment of having lost it, he wonders if Crowley does know his name after all, and could teach it to him.

But of course, that is a silly thought. They don’t know each other, not like that. The risk of torment and destruction, at the hands of someone from a technically opposing side, is too high. The snake of Eden had called himself Crawly, and the angel in white had called himself Aziraphale, and that is how they have gone on together, through the long years.

He does wish he knew Crowley’s true name. It’s idle curiosity, but, of course, it is equally impossible.

Maybe they could talk about it, though. At least. At last.

Aziraphale is still nerving himself up to the idea when, to his surprise, in the months that follow, Crowley airs the forbidden topic first.

*

The year is 1862. They are meeting in St. James’ Park – itself such a hilarious moniker, Aziraphale thinks, for a place that should be spoken of with a tongue that could laud it properly: place of meetings, light on the water, lungs of a city. “St. James.” Honestly, whatever would the humans think of next?

His thoughts are interrupted by Crowley saying, “I need a favor,” and handing him a paper inked with a very specific request.

Aziraphale reads it twice. He stands there, feeling the balm of the sunlight, listening to the ducks, holding a scrap of paper that asks him for death. The combination is so incongruous that he feels like he might be sick.

“Out of the question,” he says at last.

Crowley doesn’t look at him. “Why not?”

“It would destroy you.” How could anyone request this? “I’m not bringing you a suicide pill.”

“That’s not -” the demon snaps, and then all the fire sighs out of him; Aziraphale sees it extinguish. “I want insurance,” he says, very softly.

“For what?”

“For if – if it all goes pear-shaped.”

The angel looks at him intently. He is holding himself very still, staring out at the water. On this brilliant morning, he has dressed himself almost defiantly in dark colors, as if to clash with the warm summer hues of the world on purpose, but he is not completely successful: the light anoints his red hair, his red sideburns, his red lips, and softens him.

You would be warm, in my arms, Aziraphale thinks, and the thinking of it is like a betrayal.

“No,” he says. “Absolutely not.”

Crowley is quiet for a minute, and then he says, “Aziraphale.” The use of his English name instead of “angel” is unusual in and of itself, but his companion notes that he deliberately over-pronounces it, with excessive care to each syllable. “ ‘S a nice name, that. Good choice, for everyday wear. I never told you.”

“Crowley,” Aziraphale begins, feeling suddenly afraid.

“Funny though,” Crowley says. “I’ve known you for six thousand years, and I don’t know your true name.” For the first time, he turns his head. “Isn’t that odd? Shouldn’t I know it, after all this time?”

They look at each other. Aziraphale’s nausea is stronger than ever. How painfully stupid of him, to think they could ever discuss this. He cannot find the correct thing to say. He doesn’t know how to admit to this demon that he couldn’t answer truthfully even if he wanted to.

“Wise of you,” Crowley says, looking away again. “You probably don’t even know the kinds of things that can be done, if someone has that kind of power over you. Do you?” He doesn’t wait for a reply. “Believe me when I say that Hell knows.”

The angel's mouth is very dry. “What kinds of -”

“You can’t run away from them, if they can call you, you know,” says Crowley. He sounds distant now. “You can be summoned, you can be bound. Or they can make you do things; that’s another fun one.”

“Do they call you?” Aziraphale whispers. Has he just never guessed that, in the years between meetings, Crowley has been suffering?

“What?” says Crowley sharply. “No, of course not. No one can,” he adds with a flash of pride, as his companion breathes a quiet sigh of relief. “My name changed, so. There’s not a soul that knows it now. But if anyone ever finds it out...”

He doesn’t finish the sentence. The implications are there, of course, but Aziraphale won’t think of them until later, much later. Currently, he is too distracted.

“It changed,” he repeats. He is amazed, and yet it makes sense: of course Crowley’s soul is as dynamic as his own. “Oh, Crowley, but – how did you know what it became?”

Crowley is still looking at the water. “I just knew,” he says, and his voice is quiet, now. He seems to be remembering something. “I think I knew the second it happened.”

This is not helpful at all.

*

Crowley’s voice sounds wrong, when he calls, late one evening near the turn of the millennia. “We need to talk,” he says, and Aziraphale frowns. The voice on the line is tight and angry, and he wonders – he wonders if -

His original guess is wrong. It’s cataclysmic, yes, but on a universal scale, and not a personal one. Armageddon has been set into motion.

They meet in the park, the same park in which they had met a hundred and fifty years previous, just after Aziraphale lost his name. Crowley is languid beside him on the bench, the tension in his voice gone without trace. He talks casually of Glyndbourne, and gravlax, and Aziraphale matches his tone. As if the end of the world was nothing more than something you might read about in the papers, and then you could simply fold them up and put them away, and get on with your day.

“I have an idea,” Crowley says, as they climb the stairs to his Bentley. “We can do something.”

“No,” says Aziraphale immediately.

He’s not interested, not in this. This isn’t the Arrangement, but something more sordid. This is going against the Great Plan itself.

Crowley isn’t willing to hear the word No, though. He is determined, and, for the first time that Aziraphale can remember, he is exerting more than a little infernal power to at least get the angel to listen to him. Aziraphale finds himself agreeing to lunch – lunch sounds, suddenly, like an absolutely delightful idea – and then to drinking, and before he knows quite what is happening he is opening a fourth bottle of his reserve of Chateauneuf du Pape.

They are a mess, by then. They are weaving in and out of English and their old, true language, to describe dolphins and the ancient Kraken and Stephen Sondheim, the man who sets loneliness to music. It’s all well and good until Crowley also speaks the true name of eternity, lighting up the entire bookshop, and sending sudden fear through Aziraphale like an arrow. They are being horribly cavalier, saying these things. They don’t know who may be listening.

He sobers up. Crowley follows suit, but it solves nothing. The demon comes crowding into his personal space with renewed determination. They can raise the Antichrist to be neutral, he says. They can be godfathers. As if this is enough to entice him.

“Godfathers,” Aziraphale says, looking up into those yellow eyes. He feels horribly weak, almost pinned by them. His protest is feeble, but no less true: “Crowley, no. I’ll – I’ll be damned.”

it’s not flippant. It’s literal. If he works to sabotage the Divine Plan, he will definitely Fall.

“I don’t think so,” Crowley says urgently. “Not if you’re just thwarting me. That could be part of the Divine Plan, too, couldn’t it? You see a wile, you thwart. Am I right?”

“How do I know this isn’t just part of Hell’s plan?” Aziraphale demands. “They recruited you to deliver the baby, didn’t they?”

Crowley leans back. Complicated emotions flicker over his face. He likely doesn’t remember that he isn’t wearing sunglasses. “That’s the only piece I swore to,” Crowley says. “Getting him in place. Setting things in motion. As far as I’m concerned, this is a loophole in the contract.”

“The contract,” Aziraphale says with sudden horror, and Crowley is silent, unwilling to elaborate, visibly aware that the admission was a mistake.

But the angel can’t let this go. “You signed your true name.”

The yellow eyes dart away from his. “Yes,” Crowley says at last. “I did.”

And Aziraphale sees, as plain as day, that the demon had had no choice in the matter.

He wants so badly to ask about it. Crowley had been so terrified of this happening, two hundred years ago, and now it has. It must be agony, to know that his name is in the palm of the hand of Hell.

Pity strangles him, clouding his judgment. He isn’t sure what to do. He cannot solve this problem on his own; he has nothing to offer but his condolences.

But – that’s not quite true, is it? He can help to foil Armageddon. He can grant the demon’s one request.

“Please,” Crowley says softly, and that is all it takes.

Aziraphale makes the vow in their own language.

I will help you, if it is in my power.

When the demon is gone, he stands and smooths his waistcoat with shaking hands, trying to justify the impulsive decision to himself. The windows of the bookshop quiver, with a noise of rattling glass, when he can’t, and gives up, and says a name that he hasn’t said in many, many years: omniscient, omnipotent, almighty, benevolent God.

It is like a prayer and a question together. He wants to ask if this is what She intends. If working to rear the Antichrist is something he can be damned for, after all.

He knows he has called Her correctly; his soul lights like a torch, hearing Her true name said. But though She must hear him, She is silent.