The garden was beautiful.
Of course it was, that was the point. It was a single oasis of goodness and beauty in a world of bleak and shifting evil. The serpent didn't quite understand that logic. Shouldn't the sides have the same amount of ground, at least? It seemed like his lot had a strict advantage, what with all the desert and deep dark waters and wild beasts, et cetera. But he supposed God got the humans, odd and fragile things though they were. The serpent himself had been sent out with one of their forms and it was... odd? He kept forgetting himself and bumping into things, or stubbing his toe (seemed like a design flaw) on errant rocks. Although he supposed his other new form, where the rocks instead poked uncomfortably into his long belly, wasn't much better. Still, the plants were lovely. He spent time lolling in the branches of the trees as they swayed in gentle breezes, and sunning himself on exposed rocks near the waterfall, and overall tried to focus on the present, on his surroundings, soft and peaceful and immediate. It all felt so fake, as if the sky itself would crack open and rain down the wrath of heaven again at any moment. He couldn't keep himself from shuddering at the thought. He could still feel the scorching rains of the War, as if the burns they'd left somehow had migrated to this form as well.
He didn't sleep, but he tried to convince himself that he did.
And through it all, nothing changed. The beautiful breeze stirred beautiful trees, and the sun shone down, and the humans frolicked amongst the various animals and ate fruit and bathed in the waterfall.
All of it was terribly dull, and all of it gave him far, far too much time to think.
There were others here, he knew. He could feel their presence, at the gates, North, South, West and... East.
The fruit was forbidden, God Herself had said so, and She seemed to enjoy that game, as She'd played the same dirty trick on him.
The same thoughts he tried to drown out came back, again and again. Why hadn't he come to see him?
Surely the Principality perched high on the eastern gate could feel the serpent's presence as surely as the serpent could feel his? Unless... he had decided his loyalties. After all, he was still guarding the gate, while the serpent writhed in the dirt and sulfur.
The last look of his face, framed in the rain of holy water, framed by his own wings outstretched and flaming sword in hand, was burned into the serpent's mind.
The worst part was the expression. This had been Before, so it wasn't Aziraphale's face, exactly, but his expression was pure, unadulterated panic. He'd genuinely believed God would be merciful, right until the last moment. And he'd genuinely been terrified when he was so very wrong.
The serpent had known better, and told him so, but somehow, that panic, that surprise, that showed Aziraphale had trusted God's promises over his, stung with acrid betrayal.
Even until the last moments of the War, Aziraphale hadn't trusted him enough to know he was right. Aziraphale, the faithful, faithful to a fault, hadn't had faith in him when it mattered most.
The serpent preferred to watch the sun set rather than rise, fearful of seeing a telltale glint of fire up on the Eastern wall.
He was meant to cause trouble up here, and he knew he would. It was all so pristine, glistening and ordered. She had given them everything, just as She had to the angels above.
Everything except knowledge. Everything except freedom. Everything except choice.
He looked around at the garden, at the glory of it all, at the spray from the waterfall, and the animals, predator and prey and human alike, dancing and praising God, and all the plants, verdant and calm, and the sky, brilliantly blue and gleaming.
And he wanted nothing more than to smash it.
His orders had been to cause some trouble in this new experiment, but this? This would be for him. The humans deserved better than a synthetic paradise. Everyone did.
And if they fell in the process? Well, they would have fallen one way or another, to that trickster god. This way, they fell by choice. This way, if they fell, they jumped.
He had been basking as he considered all this, letting his black scales soak up the sunlight (not one of his stars, by the way. After all, yellow? So tacky). And he watched the humans as they sat together on a rock nearby, giggling with each other.
Suddenly, the smaller one (Eve, he remembered hazily), straightened up and turned to look directly at him, almost through him.
His breath caught, and he froze, eyes locked on hers. They were deep and dark and molten, and they looked right at him, without fear, without loathing, just with warmth.
It had been an achingly long time since anyone, anything, had looked at him like that, with compassion. Nervously, he flicked out his tongue, tasting the air.
Eve giggled, and thought for a moment, before sticking her tongue out at him in return.
In that single moment, the serpent saw what he hadn't seen before. God hadn't taught her that. She'd taught herself that.
These humans, whatever else they were, were inquisitive. They were playful and curious.
Somewhere inside them, they wanted more.
And in that moment, the serpent loved them. In that moment, the serpent knew he would give them the world.
Slowly, slowly, eyes fixed on Eve, he crept forward. His heart (a strange sensation), was beating fast enough that he could hear the blood rushing in his ears. Did he dare? After all, the punishment for asking questions had been... he shook himself slightly. No, he reminded himself, focus on the now.
If the humans were under the thumb of God, the only way to free them was inherently risky. But it was also worth everything.
The larger human had wandered off into the forest, but Eve remained where she was, eyes closed and head tipped back into the light, a small smile on her face.
He came up before her, arcing his body back to stand partially upright, "Hello."
Her eyes snapped open, locking on him again with keen interest. "Hello," she said simply.
She opened her mouth briefly, then closed it again, looking as if she was restraining herself from asking something.
"Yes?" the serpent asked, expectantly, almost fearing the question.
"Why do you talk? My husband named the animals that look like you, 'snake', but they don't talk."
The serpent blinked. Full of surprises, these humans. Full of questions. "Do you really want to know that?" he asked, somewhat nervously.
"Oh yes!" Eve said, excitedly. "I want to know lots of things!"
"What kind of things?"
She considered a moment. "Things like... Why's the sky blue?"
"Well-" The serpent realized he really didn't have time to explain particle refraction, but it hardly mattered, because Eve was still chattering, listing things off.
"And why don't the animals eat if we do? Why are we different? Oh! And what's outside the garden?"
That one came like a punch in the gut. "Do... do you want to know what's outside? Because I could... I could tell you," the serpent said, softly, dangerously, almost wishing she wouldn't hear him, but Eve snapped to attention immediately, eyes fixed on his, rapt and breathless.
"Oh please!" She exclaimed, "I'd be ever so grateful!"
The serpent's tongue flickered nervously. This was it, then. Whatever happened to him, these humans, they had a chance.
They could build something new, something Heaven and Hell alike could never dream of. They could be freer than any being ever had before.
“Well,” he said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’”
“We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die,’” she replied, matter-of-factly, and it hurt to hear the certainty, the absolute trust in her voice.
“You will not certainly die.” The serpent sighed. “God knows that when you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
She smiled slightly, hopefully, “Will I know what’s beyond the garden?”
The serpent's tongue flickered anxiously. “Yes.”
She stood, excitedly, then paused for a moment. "You didn't answer my first question."
"Are you a snake?"
"Not... not exactly."
Her eyes lit up at that. "Does that mean you're something new?"
"I suppose so."
"Can I name you? Adam got to name everyone else. He even named me.” She frowned a moment, considering. "Who named him?”
The serpent was taken aback by the request. He supposed she didn't know the significance, yet, of what he'd told her, or she wouldn't be dithering about with this. But, he was oddly touched. "Okay. What's my name?"
"Crawly,” she said, proudly.
Crawly couldn't stop himself from making a face, and she giggled again. "Why?" he asked, a bit incredulously.
"Because it's what you do." And with that, she smiled, got up, and headed for the center of the garden, humming to herself as she went.
“Thank you, Crawly!” she called over her shoulder.
And she went to the center of the garden.
And after she had eaten, and her eyes opened wide, she told Adam.
Crawly had expected she would. He'd seen the way she'd looked at Adam, in a way so achingly familiar.
It made sense, it was only natural for her to want to bring Adam with her, to pass the gift onto him, no matter the danger.
In a way that tasted bitter to Crawly, Adam took the fruit.
The rest seemed to happen in a blur, with God Herself coming down to tell the humans off. Truthfully, Crawly didn’t remember much of it, so blind was his panic. He dug himself deep into the soil, coiled tight, and waited to burn again, trembling slightly in the cool earth.
But nothing happened. He didn’t know how long he waited, tense and dreadful, for the wrath of God.
But when he emerged from the soil, cautiously, anxiously tasting the air, everything appeared as it was. The water still glistened, the birds still sang, the sun still shone. But he could feel the loss, heavy in the air, electric along with the approaching smell of ozone.
Crawly knew this place was over, now. The grand experiment unleashed on the new world. And he knew he should follow. But first. His tongue flickered anxiously once more.
The temptation was too great.
He slithered Eastward, up the wall, warmed by the morning sun, and up onto the palisade.
His breath caught, briefly, as he caught sight of the angel at the gate. Even now, wringing his hands anxiously, brow furrowed in worry, he was glorious. Not the new body (who cared about that?), but his aura, his sheer presence, his glory, as it were, sucked the air from Crawly’s lungs and, unintentionally, he hissed in surprise as the familiar presence washed over him, welcome and warm as the rising sun. He had just wanted a glance, he wasn’t- he wasn’t ready to speak to the angel yet, but his hiss had startled Aziraphale, and he was turning, and before Crawly could duck back down the wall, Aziraphale’s eyes, like piercing shards of the new sky, locked onto his.
They were bright and worried and wary and blank. They showed no recognition.
“Sorry. What was that?” The angel asked.
Too late now. Crawly hated being on the ground for this conversation. Humans were one thing, but he needed to face this with at least a bit of remaining dignity. As he willed himself into his human form, his thoughts raced as to what to say. What does one even say in a situation like this? A joke maybe?
His mouth was dry, but he cleared his throat, and as nonchalantly as he could muster, went for it, “I said, ‘That went down like a lead balloon.’”
The angel seemed distracted, “Oh. Yes, it did, rather.”
Aziraphale gazed down off the wall, to where Adam and Eve were setting out, biting his lip. Crawly heard himself speaking before he thought about it, desperate to get those blue eyes to see him, even if for a moment, “Bit of an overreaction, if you ask me. First offence and everything. And I can’t see what’s so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil, anyway.”
This was a test. Crawly knew it. It was mean-spirited of him, it was unfair, he knew, but he had to know. Crawly had said it as casually as possible, but his pulse quickened to hear the angel’s response, his take on this whole situation. Did he have regret? Fear? Mercy? Was he sorry? Did he miss Crawly? Did he miss Crawly like Crawly missed him?
“It must be bad,” Aziraphale turned towards him, and for a moment, just a blessed moment, it felt like one of their jokes, from Before, when Crawly would talk him round in circles until the angel was laughing nearly uncontrollably. But he realized, with a cold, clammy feeling sinking into his stomach, that this wasn’t like that. It wasn't a game. The angel didn't know him. This was a genuine question. The angel couldn’t lie to him, he wouldn’t, right? Not about this. Not about anything. But here he was, looking expectantly at Crawly, all his politeness that he’d reserved for strangers and outsiders and others, reserved for anyone at all except Crawly, was now directed fully at the serpent, and he suddenly felt very, very small under the broad blue sky above. All this flashed through Crawly’s mind in an instant, but he kept his face a mask of impassive interest. He wouldn’t give God the satisfaction of knowing how much this hurt. He wouldn’t let Her hear him scream, like he had the first time She’d burned him.
“Crawly,” he supplied, helpfully, rolling his new name around on his tongue for the first time.
“Crawly.” Aziraphale repeated, dubiously, and turned back towards the humans, “Anyway, it must be bad, otherwise you wouldn’t have tempted them into it.”
“They just said, ‘Get up there and make some trouble.’”
“Obviously. You’re a demon. It’s what you do.” The angel’s voice betrayed no blame, simply a statement of fact. As if he were discussing why the trees grew upward or why birds flew. It was, as far as Aziraphale was concerned, simply the nature of things. That, in and of itself, crushed Crawly further. Here Aziraphale was, brilliant and kind and glorious, simply spouting God’s propaganda again. Simply accepting what he’d been told. Not asking questions.
Crawly looked away from Aziraphale’s face and joined him in watching the humans slowly trek into the distance. He gathered his courage, and prodded the angel, seeing if there was anything left of that old spirit who he had known before, or if God Herself had killed him. Not him, Crawly couldn’t help but think, somewhat desperately, I understand I needed to be made an example of, but please, not him.
He heard himself rambling again, searching for any reaction, any familiarity in the angel beside him, “Not very subtle of the Almighty, though. Fruit tree in the middle of a garden, with a ‘don’t touch’ sign. I mean, why not put it on top of a high mountain? Or-Or the moon? Makes you wonder what God’s really planning.”
There was a moment before Aziraphale responded in which Crowley thought it might be like Before, when Aziraphale would, however hesitantly, allow himself to be curious, in that mischievous way of his. In which he would allow himself to be more than what he was supposed to be.
But then Aziraphale simply said, “Best not to speculate. It’s all part of the Great Plan. It’s not for us to understand. It’s… ineffable.”
"The Great Plan’s 'ineffable?'” The words came out more angrily than Crawly intended. The plan, so far, wasn't ineffable, it was cruel.
But maybe it was ineffable to Aziraphale, who couldn't, who wouldn’t, understand cruelty, even now. Crawly's heart fluttered, and he tried hard to clamp down on it. This was not the angel he had known. This was a stranger, and just as Aziraphale seemed to not remember him, Crawly seemed to remember an entirely different Aziraphale.
The angel looked slightly offended at Crawly’s incredulity. “Exactly. And you can’t second-guess ineffability. There’s Right and there’s Wrong. If you do Wrong when you’re told to do Right, you deserve to be punished.”
So that was it, then.
The answer Crawly needed, to the question he was too afraid to ask, that sat at the tip of his tongue, at the corners of his eyes, begging, do you, of all people, think what they did to me was just? Do you too think me so evil as to deserve this? Crawly shuffled his wretched wings miserably.
The angel seemed completely unaware of the heartache he had just wrought, “I don’t like the look of that weather,” he commented, a bit worried.
Crawly’s eyes refocused, and saw clouds gathering on the horizon. The scent of ozone was strong, and static crackled in the dry desert air. It was getting rather dark as the clouds overtook the sun. No matter, they’d be just fine with Aziraphale’s swor-
Crawly snapped his head around, staring directly at Aziraphale. “Didn’t you have a flaming sword?”
The angel shuffled uncomfortably, but Crawly pushed, “You did. It was flaming like anything. What happened to it?”
Aziraphale mumbled something noncommittal, wringing his hands nervously.
Crawly rocked back on his heels, disappointed. He couldn’t resist taking the inevitable jab at this new not-Aziraphale. “Lost it already, have you?
The angel looked down at his feet, and the tips of his ears turned bright pink, as he mumbled, barely audible, “I gave it away.”
Now Crawly was paying attention, and he felt his pupils dilate and his eyebrows raise nearly to his hairline as he heard himself say, incredulously, “You what?"
Now the angel was flustered, in that familiar way when they used to joke, and Crawly couldn’t keep the grin from spreading across his face as the angel tried, spluttering, to justify himself, “I gave it away! They looked so miserable! And there are vicious animals, and it’s going to be cold out there, and she’s expecting already, and I said, here you go, flaming sword, don’t thank me, and don’t let the sun go down on you here…”
Aziraphale’s voice trailed off, until he said, quietly, almost plaintively, “I do hope I didn’t do the wrong thing.”
A hint of acid tinged Crawly’s voice as he replied, thinking of this new-Aziraphale, “You’re an angel. I don’t think you can do the wrong thing.”
“Oh, thank you. It’s been bothering me,” Aziraphale gushed, with the first genuine warmth of the conversation, and there it was again, a glimpse, a fleeting second when everything was okay again, and it was them against the world again, and it was going to be okay. But Crawly frowned. What if he’d done the right thing in the garden? That he was simply playing pawn to God yet again?
Without thinking, he found himself confiding his fears aloud. “I’ve been worrying too. What if I did the right thing, with the whole eat-the-apple business? A demon can get into a lot of trouble for doing the right thing.” It felt so much like old times, for just a second, that Crawly couldn’t help himself, and he grinned a toothy grin, “Funny if we both got it wrong, eh? If I did the good thing and you did the bad one.”
The angel’s expression turned icy yet again, and he replied, somewhat sullenly, “No. Not funny at all.”
Crawly shook himself slightly. He needed to remember where he was. This was not Heaven. This was not his angel. It was a whole new world, he tried to convince himself, full of opportunity. But all he could feel was a profound sense of loss.
As if She was mocking him, at that moment the downpour broke, and for the first time in this new land, the sky wept.
It wept upon the earth and upon the walls, and upon the plants and all the beasts of land and sea and sky and those who crawled upon the ground.
It wept upon the whole world, except for one being. Seemingly without thinking, Aziraphale had thrown up his wing to shield Crawly from the rain. And seemingly without thinking, Crawly felt as if dawn had just broken over a broken land, and perhaps the shadows did not seem so long after all.