It tore at Aziraphale, it really did, to know that all of those people had died. But what was he to do? Disobey orders? No. The only thing there was for him to do was soldier on and trust in God. After all, She knew what She was doing.
So, instead of worrying himself discorporated he set about keeping the animals below deck calm. He soothed them with soft noises and angelic presence. He kept predators distracted and fed and kept the prey well away from sharp teeth and sharper claws. He eased the rocking of the ark when the winds picked up a little too much and kept well out of sight of Noah and his family. After all, God hadn’t told them that Aziraphale was also going to be on this trip (insofar that it could be called a “trip”).
They had been afloat for a fortnight so far and the rain had not let up in the slightest, though today’s winds seemed to be less inclined to try and topple the ark than the last few. Pleased with the relative steadiness of the ark, Aziraphale ventured down into the lower decks, considering the pros and cons of trying to get on the hippos’ good side despite their ornery nature. The thought of wishing some ripe fruit into existence to smooth the way occurred to him, but then he’d have to do so for everyone on the floor, and that was asking for trouble. Still, chatting with the mighty beasts would at least pass the time.
He expected a bit of ruckus from the animals when he climbed down the ladder, the humans didn’t often come all the way down here so the animals were used to the quiet and the dark. What Aziraphale didn’t expect was the hushed voice of a young girl.
“Amazing!” Her voice was filled with awe.
Aziraphale froze and strained his angelic hearing to its limits, bringing everything happening just a few pens away into perfect clarity.
“This is hardly the first time you’ve seen me cut bread,” said a voice that was all too familiar and yet unfamiliar. It dripped with amusement and warmth and, dare Aziraphale say, affection. “And keep it down, can’t spook the animals, remember?”
Several other voices quietly agreed.
Silently, Aziraphale crept closer and watched from two pens away, hidden among a herd of beasts of burden, as Crowley passed a moderately sized basket around to dozens- no, at least two hundred children. While the basket itself was big enough to hold an infant comfortably there was no way it was able to hold the sheer amount of bread Aziraphale saw the children pulling from it. None of them took more than a single piece, even the younger ones who looked so hungry and like they wanted nothing more than to give into the greed calling from their empty stomachs. There was a pitcher passed around as well that the children sipped from, clear water dribbled from the chins of the younger, less steady ones, even as their elders tried to help them drink.
He had no idea what to make of this, so Aziraphale decided to do the only thing he could think to do. He showed himself and leveled Crowley with his best curiously angelic look.
Crowley went stock still, like a stone in a garden, and looked up at Aziraphale with eyes wide in shock and no small amount of horror. It was here he realized that Crowley had believed he wouldn’t be caught and now that belief had come crashing down. They both looked at each other, neither of them moving or speaking, the children holding their tongues and anxiously glancing between the two supernatural entities before them. After what felt like hours but had to have been more like merely a minute Crowley spoke.
“Okay, angel, I can explain…”
Hysteria was edging into Crowley’s voice and the children looked so very worried, from toddlers who could only mimic the emotions of those around them to the teenagers who could probably guess what would happen to them once the jig was up, so to speak. Listening and looking at all of them, hearing Crowley’s fear and the quiet whimpering of children and babies alike, Aziraphale decided he didn’t want an explanation just now and aboutfaced. He could come back later, it wasn’t as if Crowley had somewhere else to slink off to with a few hundred kids in tow.
x x x
He walked up to the new children’s pen and cleared his throat. “Crowley, I-”
“Shh!” Crowley hissed urgently.
Blinking in surprise, because Crowley never shushed him, Aziraphale snapped his mouth closed without thinking.
Crowley was sitting by the gate of the pen, holding a tiny baby in his arms that couldn’t have been more than a few months old. They were suckling greedily on a false teet, milk droplets spilling from the corners of their mouth. It was, and there just was no other word for it, adorable. As if he had heard Aziraphale think such a thing, Crowley scowled up at him.
They both remained quiet until the baby had finished drinking. Crowley patted their back until a satisfied burp burbled forth and they cooed serenely off to sleep. When Crowley made no move to deposit the baby into the arms of one of the older children Aziraphale stepped a bit closer and leaned against the post of the opposite side of the open gate.
“Crowley,” he said, voice a near silent whisper. “What is all of this?”
“Evil,” Crowley answered quietly. Simply.
“... evil?” Aziraphale asked, not understanding.
Crowley rolled his eyes dramatically. “Obviously, angel,” he whispered, the sound more like the hiss of a snake moving through dry grass than a voice. “These kids are clearly capable of terrible feats of evil if the Almighty wants them all dead so badly,” he explained. “So, if I save all their lives not only am I saving future seeds of discord, I’m going against the Almighty Herself.”
He punctuated his explanation with a huff and a nod, pleased with his reasoning. Then he began to eye Aziraphale.
Not that Aziraphale would ever admit it, he could scarcely admit it to himself at the best of times, but he felt an extreme swell of affection towards Crowley well up in his chest. He knew this wasn’t really about undermining the Almighty or the Ineffable Plan. He remembered how shocked and properly horrified Crowley had been when Aziraphale had told him that everyone aside from Noah and his family were going to be drowned. He could still see the look of desperate disbelief as understanding came upon the demon that God was going to kill hundreds of thousands of people, thousands of children who had never had the chance to choose right from wrong, to even know better.
“I see,” Aziraphale said, surprised that he was able to keep his voice even. “Makes perfect sense.”
The baby fussed mildly in Crowley’s arms until he bounced them gently and cooed at them. “Being very evil here,” he insisted. Neither of them were sure who he was trying to convince.
“Terribly dastardly. I’m very evil.”
“Yes, of course you are.”
Aziraphale could almost laugh. It was a weight off his shoulders to see the children here, safe and cared for. He hadn’t wanted them to perish. This was only a small fraction of the children that had lived among the locals, but this was better than nothing. He hoped that Crowley was proud of the lives he had saved instead of regretting the ones he had failed to rescue.
Suddenly, there was a shift in Crowley’s demeanor. He was back to eyeing Aziraphale suspiciously, golden eyes aglow with an ember of hellfire. Aziraphale stood a little straighter. He could almost see Crowley’s wings on the celestial plane, curling over his back, protective of the baby in his arms.
“You’re not going to try to throw them all overboard, are you?” he asked, voice low and dark. There was no hiss, but it gave the same sensation of a rattlesnake rattling its tail. “Because I will fight you, angel.”
Never before had Aziraphale felt in danger around Crowley or like he might need to defend himself. They might have been hereditary enemies, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be civil around one another, and they often were (more or less). But the way Crowley was glaring at him and the way the menace was rolling off of him in waves sent an unpleasant chill down Aziraphale’s back. If his mind hadn’t been made before it certainly was now.
Besides, it wasn’t a fight Aziraphale would win. He heart wouldn’t be in it.
“No. No!” he insisted. “You’ve clearly outwitted me, you wily serpent. I know when I’ve been bested, and I’ll accept my defeat with grace. Besides, there’s more than enough to do around here with taking care of all of the animals and whatnot, I haven’t got time to fuss about with you. Nothing to be done this time, I’m afraid.”
He did his best to sound honest and put out. He must have managed because Crowley quickly turned his head away to hide something that Aziraphale suspected were tears in his eyes.
“Y-yes,” he said, voice threatening to crack even at such a low whisper. “I’m very wily. And evil. And don’t you ever forget it.”
With a soft smile that he knew Crowley couldn’t see Aziraphale turned and left.
He didn’t go back down into the lower decks, able to sense that a few extra miracles were being performed to keep the animals clean and happy now that the secret was out. He made enough of a fuss by the top of the ladder about the ark coming to land and Noah being on his way down to collect the animals. The scurrying of little feet and hushed voices was enough for Aziraphale to know that they’d all be well hidden before Noah brought them ashore.
It would be near a century before Aziraphale and Crowley crossed paths again, and when they did they would not mention the ark at all. Not the animals, not Noah, not the children. But they would both always know. Know that deep, deep down Crowley was just a little bit good when it came to certain things, and Aziraphale was just enough of a bastard to look the other way.