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The Name of the Snake

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Harriet calls him on March 15th. Beware the Ides of March, Aziraphale thinks vaguely. Not that he needs to. He’s already been knifed in the back. Bear with me, he wants to say, to Harriet, to anyone who will listen. My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, and I must pause till it come back to me.

“Hello,” she says. “How is she?”

For a wild moment, Aziraphale thinks she means Nanny, and the female corporation that Crowley has presented to her. It takes him a minute to both remember the sister and summon his gardener’s accent, unused for three months. “Better, thank you,” he says. Then, abruptly, recalling that she might want him to come back to his post, “Er. I mean, worse.”

“Are you in Belfast now?” says Harriet. “No, you can’t be, can you? This is a London number.”

Too late, Aziraphale remembers that he had listed the bookshop number as his emergency contact for the Dowlings’ paperwork, which explains how she knew to dial it. “Ah,” he says. “No, not yet. Just frequent travel at the moment. I’ll be out there soon.”

“Permanently?”

Aziraphale hesitates. Yes is on the tip of his tongue. But if he closes this door, then the Dowlings will hire a new gardener, and for some reason the thought of that smites at his heart, the thought of a stranger in that household, chasing after Warlock and drinking whiskey in the pantry -

As if she senses the direction of his thoughts, Harriet drops her voice. “I know family is important, and of course you should do what you must, but – Warlock misses you, and if I’m being perfectly candid, so does Nanny,” she says. “She hasn’t been the same, over the last few months, you know.”

“Nanny,” Aziraphale repeats. “She’s – still there?”

“Of course,” says Harriet, bewildered. “We couldn’t do without her.”

She keeps talking, but the angel doesn’t hear her. He takes the phone away from his ear and presses it to his chest, trying to make it make sense. It doesn’t, no matter which way he looks at it.

Crowley has been working at the Dowling residence since Christmas. Alone.

Crowley is trying to stop the Apocalypse, without him.

He can hear Harriet talking. He brings the receiver back to his ear. She is still nervously filling the silence, not sure whether she has overstepped.

“ - but overall I think she’s taking it rather badly,” she is saying. “It’s like she doesn’t know quite where she belongs, these days.”

“That does make sense,” Aziraphale hears himself reply. “We, ah. We had a quarrel, before the holiday.”

“I thought that might be the case,” Harriet admits. “I always wondered if – you know. The two of you.”

“It’s always been the two of us,” says Aziraphale. He is startled to discover that it is the most honest thing he has ever said to her.

“Thought so,” says Harriet, but she doesn’t sound pleased about it, only a little sad. “Sometimes those are the ones that can cut us the deepest.”

“Thank you,” Aziraphale says, “but I don’t think she’s the only one at fault,” and he is even more astonished to discover that this is a second truth.

“I think you should talk to her. Pick a place to meet and just, you know. Sort things out.”

“I think," says Aziraphale, stumbling a little bit: over his words, over the idea of it. Something that is either apprehension or longing settles in his gut like a stone. "I think that you might be right.” 

*

They meet at the British Museum, at Aziraphale's suggestion; he had wanted some public location, some external buffer, as if that could slow the decay of their orbit. The futility of this, of course, strikes him the instant Crowley comes through the door. Part of his hair is tied back, leaving the scarlet mane loose around his shoulders and throat; he’s wearing wine-red jeans and a dark, baggy jacket that somehow manages to accentuate how slender he is underneath, how impossibly narrow his hips are. The angel’s mouth is already dry with the wanting of him.

Not promising, he reflects, nervously, and he goes to stand at his side.

They don’t look at each other, but when the demon moves away and ambles into the exhibit halls, he follows. Silently, they pass by everything, the friezes, the sculptures, the delicate Ming china, including a prominent display that Aziraphale thinks might have belonged to him, long ago. He pauses, temporarily distracted by it, and Crowley waits for him, lets him look, hands jammed into his pockets. He says nothing.

Afterwards, they sit in the cafe, with two slices of angel cake that neither of them can eat. Aziraphale anxiously shreds his into crumbs with the tines of his plastic fork.

And then, abruptly, he sets it aside.

"Tell me why you’re doing this," he says. “The Dowlings, the nanny, this whole conniving plan of yours. And don't talk to me about Glyndbourne and gravlax. Tell me why."

Behind his sunglasses Crowley’s face is still. Then he leans forward and hisses, his teeth bared. “How can you not undersssstand,” he says, the sibilance of his consonants as silky as a freshly whetted knife. The hiss is almost enough to conceal the fact that, beneath its edge, he sounds bitter, and helpless, and lost.

“I don’t,” says Aziraphale frankly. “You have no possible motive to -”

“No motive!” says Crowley. His voice is so loud that he draws looks. "Aziraphale, for G- anyone’s sake. If Armageddon happens, it’s a coin toss as to which one of us dies." He spits it out, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. “But if we can avert it, then you at least will be -”

He stops. Swallows.

"But they'll torture you," the angel says blankly. “For sabotaging your orders.”

The sunglasses angle away from him. "They won't," Crowley says fiercely, and he sounds certain of it. "They won’t.”

The memory of a thermos flashes into Aziraphale’s mind, and the meaning of the word insurance.

He wants to believe him. So badly, he wants to believe him. But the thing that holds him back is the physical presence of Crowley himself. If the demon is being honest, then there is no possible explanation for the way the light catches his hair more than anything else in the room, or how delectable he looks, like this, one ankle hooked over the other knee, almost invitingly. The impulse is even stronger than it was: Aziraphale wants to eat him instead of the angel cake, and it’s unfair.

“I’m not trying to tempt you,” Crowley says furiously, as if he can hear Aziraphale’s thoughts.

He’s lying, the angel thinks miserably, looking away from him. He must be. He still must be.

Crowley makes a noise of great frustration, and drags both hands over his face. Then he fishes the receipt for their meal out of his pocket, and clicks a ballpoint pen.

“We are not going to talk about this,” he says. “Not now, not ever again. Swear to me.”

“What?” says Aziraphale, bewildered.

“I can prove that I’m telling you the truth,” Crowley says, “but you have to swear.”

“I don’t know what you -”

Ssswear to me,” the demon snarls.

Aziraphale hesitates, and then gives his word. Crowley exhales.

“Sssometimes,” he says through his teeth, “you can be a right bastard, you know that?”

And then he begins to draw.

*

It only takes a second for Aziraphale to understand what is happening. Crowley is introducing himself, the old way, the way that permits no secrets between entities. It is a confession. No, it is more than that: it is a surrender.

The ink on the flimsy paper grows livid, black and yet blazing, as he writes the sigil that makes up his name. Aziraphale watches every line with an avid fascination: the harsh downward stroke that means sinner, a dip to the left that means full of doubt, a complex sign that means starlight. Here is the curlicue that means serpentine, snake. And here is the wing, slashed, that means angel, albeit past tense, and a great bold loop that means – that means – worship, devotion, or rather -

He feels all of the air leave him. Crowley clicks the pen again and throws it down, defiantly.

“Oh,” says Aziraphale blankly.

“ ‘Oh,’” Crowley mimics, and his voice is full of hatred.

Except, of course, that “hatred” is not the true name for it.

Aziraphale touches the little piece of paper. Crowley’s nostrils flare, as he watches the angel press a cautious fingertip against the sigil, but he says nothing - which is good, because Aziraphale is still working out how to cope with this. On a ragged, ripped museum receipt, a demon has not only shown his true name to yet another being that could use it against him, but also just confessed to being in love with him.

Crowley is still glaring at him. Softly, Aziraphale says, “You -”

“Nope,” says Crowley, and he stands, or unfolds rather, out of his chair, so rapidly that it squeals against the floor. “You swore. We’re not talking about it.”

Aziraphale cannot silence himself. “You drew that for other demons?” he whispers.

Crowley looks at his own name on the paper between them and says, as if without meaning to, “What could they do to me, that could be worse than this?”

The angel pushes his own chair back. He doesn’t know what he means to do, but Crowley backs away from him hastily, and then turns and strides from the room.

Aziraphale lets him go, thinking that at this point, it might be an act of mercy.

He looks back at the receipt. Picks up the pen. Horrible suspicion is seeping through him.

He rotates the scrap of paper and writes his own name below Crowley’s. Effortless calligraphy loops together the shapes for guardian, angel, sword, hedonist, and then –

Aziraphale pauses, and then sweeps out the tip of the pen into the same loop that Crowley had drawn. It pledges adoration and devotion; it tells the secret of a being’s heart when it is in another’s keeping. The bell of its arc is wide enough to pass across the shining hoop that Crowley has written, and Aziraphale looks, astonished, at the point of intersection.

His own sigil remains black. It only takes him a moment to understand why, and then, feeling sick, he sets the nub of the pen against the paper and adds a small final sroke, the mark that means he knows that he is loved in return.

It was the missing piece.

On the torn receipt, the ink becomes as brilliant as snow.

Aziraphale takes a deep breath, and pronounces his name.

The sound of it tolls through the museum. All over the cafe, heads turn, and fifty little human souls flare as hot as matches for a moment, in the breath of a wind that speaks without deceit. Wide-eyed, they look at the man-shaped being that sits among them. They listen to him proclaim that he is not a man. And they marvel.

“I love him,” Aziraphale says to them in his own tongue. It’s foolish. In a minute, he will have to make them forget, but right now the storm is moving through him, and in its eye, he cannot be silent. “I do. I do. I do.”

*

The way forward is clear. It is so clear, in fact, that despite the pain and anguish he has caused thus far, Aziraphale is giddy. All he needs to do is tell his secret, and Crowley is saved. To be loved is to have one’s name change again, as it does in the act of loving.

The problem, however, is in the telling.

Crowley doesn’t answer the doorbell. He doesn’t answer the phone. He doesn’t retrieve the note that a miracle manifests into the Bentley (please call, it says. As if he would, now). The angel even appears at the Dowling residence, suited and sans sideburns, and guiltily inquires after their nanny (“A relative of Francis,” he says, “trying to make sure that the two of them are all right,” and Harriet’s eyes go as round as saucers), there is no news.

Finally, Aziraphale, out of patience, out of options, goes back to Crowley’s flat and unlocks it himself with the pass of a hand. He lets himself in, hunts through the labyrinth of halls and rooms. It takes him longer than he would have guessed possible, but eventually he stumbles, quite literally, across Crowley, blinking up at him from the floor, where he appears to have been lying flat on his back, looking up through the leaves of his plants. He is at least a little drunk. Worse, he looks exhausted, a haggard expression that darkens even further when he realizes who it is.

“-dn’t invite you,” he groans, almost unintelligible, and covers his face.

“No, you didn’t,” says Aziraphale, sitting next to him. He hesitates, and then sets a hand over Crowley’s heart.

“Don’t,” says Crowley fiercely, shivering.

“We need to have a conversation,” Aziraphale says.

“Angel, no,” Crowley says. “You swore. We’re not going to talk about it.”

Aziraphale’s voice does not sound like his own.

“I can save you,” he says, “I know how to save you.”

Crowley lifts his scarlet tousled head, and looks at him, shocked, abruptly sober, and the angel leans over him, into him, and kisses him as softly as the snow that had fallen on them in December, that first time, a hush over a silent city.

He is not afraid. He knows, now, that he will not Fall for this after all. There is nothing profane about it. There is only Crowley, disbelieving, clutching at him like someone close to drowning, and Aziraphale clasping the desperate hands as tightly as he knows how.

They don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about it for the better part of an hour. Then, and only then, after they have moved to a different room, a more comfortable bed, does Aziraphale, gasping, whisper the question.

“May I say it?”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Crowley pants into his ear. By now, his voice is also raw, his breaths also coming ragged and harsh. Their faces are inches apart, and the angel, pulling back a little, observes that the question has changed his eyes, leaving them wide and yellow and bright as a harvest moon.

So Aziraphale says his own name instead. He lays the syllables out like a vespers, the herald of a late but no less precious communion. He tells it all, the sword of justice, the guardian instincts, even the embarrassing, persistent, hungry hedonism, and when he gets to the part that means that he is also head over heels in love, the demon cries out and presses his face into the skin of Aziraphale’s throat.

He finishes quietly, with the piece that means he knows it is reciprocated, the piece that must now also finish Crowley’s name.

“Do you understand?” he says gently, touching the sweat-slick temple like a benediction. “This is the escape. They don’t know your name, Crowley. I have rewritten you.”

There is no answer, and for his own sake as well as the demon’s, the angel pretends not to notice the wet streaming heat of his damned tears.

*

Dawn comes stealing into the room, and Aziraphale is conscious of it, insofar as it changes the shadows on a sleeping demon’s face. He brushes the hair back, contemplatively, considering the months and years that will follow this moment. Soon a nanny will be expected on the grounds of the Dowling estate. Soon a gardener will have been absent for too long.

At last, he sighs, and kisses the soft lips, which curl downward in annoyance. One eye cracks open, showing a sliver of yellow light.

“ ‘S too early, angel,” the demon says, cranky. “Go back to sleep.”

Aziraphale has not slept, but that doesn’t seem relevant at the moment. He says, “You know I need to apologize to you.”

“Bollocks to that,” says Crowley, and the yellow light is extinguished.

Aziraphale chooses to ignore this. He runs a hand through Crowley’s hair again, a spill of wine over the pillow.

“I do,” he says. “I think I forgot that part, last night.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”

“Come again?” says Crowley wickedly.

“I'm sorry,” Aziraphale repeats, refusing to let it be a jest. “For all of it. For hurting you. For thinking you would ever agree to hurt me. Forgive me.”

The demon frowns without opening his eyes. “Nothing to forgive,” he mutters at last.

“Of course there is.”

“Then fine, sure, I do.” Crowley’s eyes are still closed. When he speaks again, his voice is even softer. “But, for the record? I would die before I agreed to something like that.”

“I know,” says Aziraphale, and says it again in their own language, for good measure. I know.

“Well,” says Crowley gruffly. “As long as you know.”

“Anyway, that’s not going to happen,” Aziraphale says, forcing jolliness.

“Oh, yes? And why is that?”

He tells the demon precisely why, in the language of angels.

Because we are going to save the world.

This is not as profound as he wants it to be. Future tense is tricky, in their old pure tongue, and the statement does not reverberate through him the way that it would if it were already true. But saying it fills him with hope, and he can see from the flicker across Crowley’s face that in this, as in everything, now, he is not alone.

He inclines his head again, tasting Crowley’s mouth, until the other finally groans into wakefulness and drags a hand across his face, trying to hide the fact that he is moved. When he glares up from the pillow, Aziraphale is prepared for the balefulness of the expression, and is already smiling at him.

“There you are,” he says softly. “Good morning.”

“No,” Crowley protests. “No morning cheer. No snuggling in bed. This isn’t some sappy TV series that requires a touching morning-after scene. I have standards.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Anthony J. Crowley,” says Aziraphale, kissing his brow. His fingers are still wound in that hair that is as red as sin, as red as blood, as red as a still-beating heart. Moving the strands aside, he sets his lips by the demon’s ear, and whispers, “By the way, have I ever told you how much I love your name?”

Ugh,” says Crowley, and he mashes his face into his pillow, very nearly quickly enough to hide his answering smile. Muffled, he says, “You are intolerable.”

“I was only paying you a compliment,” Aziraphale says, all wide-eyed innocence, and he doesn’t stop laughing until Crowley finds a way to make him.