The storm clouds were gathering, and the ark reared up against the sky like a pregnant rhino.
As a matter of fact, the rhino was pregnant, and it, along with the egrets who had managed to lay three eggs, and a capybara that had started to look as if it might have been on its last legs, was throwing everything out of order.
The animals were meant to come two by two, and nowhere in the holy command did it say anything about babies or widows. It was leading to all sorts of questions about species integrity, unfair advantages, and overpopulation of some very narrow niches. In the middle of Noah's shouted pleas for understanding and clarity, Aziraphale slipped away, because after all, there was nothing to be done.
Six days, and the water was coming. It did not care about proper pairs, genetic diversity or anyone who didn't happen to be standing on a jolly big fuck-off boat.
No point in hiding it when there was no one to hide it from. He was the only angel on Earth for the moment, and for perhaps the first time, he felt glad of it. Aziraphale was glad the others were snug up in Heaven, because who knew what he would do or say if he came across one of them now, especially after Crawley's little stunt a few days ago.
That's more the kind of thing you'd expect my lot to do.
It had felt like a corruption of some kind, like throwing a bad apple in the barrel to spoil the lot or adding just that drop of ammonia into chlorine to make chlorine gas. However, he had looked at the demon and found that Crawley wasn't looking at him or even at the ark up on the mountain. Instead he was looking at the people around them, the people who, if the great plan was followed, would all be under water in a week's time.
Aziraphale had been trying very hard not to look at them, but when Crawley looked, he looked, and then he saw all their faces, all their individual faces, and hadn't Saraquael been so proud of that particular algorithm?
“No two alike!” Saraquael had said excitedly at the design meeting. “No repeats, ever, just purely unique, all the way out!”
Purely unique, Aziraphale thought, staring around at all those dear and different faces that would never come again, and something in the vicinity of his stomach lurched.
That vaguely nauseated feeling had stayed with him after Crawley slunk away, and even as the event came on, even as he knew that that meant that God's will was approaching and that by definition everything was running as it should, it didn't let up. He didn't want to be on an ark filled with fractious animals and terrified humans, so, angelic privilege, he slipped away.
The area around Mount Ararat was famous for apricots. As Aziraphale walked among the perfumed groves, he held out his hand and the trees he touched went from blossom to fruit with a delighted shiver. It was a sullen kind of rebellion, to spend miracles so frivolously. It was as if he were declaring to the world that the people who weren't on the ark still deserved something good, something precious and divine.
It's just fruit, he told himself savagely when the act started to comfort him. What the bloody use is it?
No one would know, or care. This would all be gone with the rest in-
Aziraphale stopped, startled by soft voices just over the rise. The moon was set, an unlucky time for anyone but warlocks and thieves to be out, but for some reason, he did not think the voices belonged to either. Curious in spite of himself, he went invisible and came up over the rise.
“-so, you know, it would just be fabulous, don't you think?” Crawley was saying.
He stood across the fire from a middle-aged woman who was staring at him with undisguised suspicion. She wore a charm carved from the jaw of an ox to ward off evil, but the large stick in her hand suggested that she had other means of warding off evil if the charm failed. A tiny baby goat slumbered at her feet, incurious about the strange things that were going on around it.
“No, that doesn't sound fabulous at all,” she said. “Excuse me if I am a little suspicious.”
“Look, what do you want?” Crawley asked testily. “Do you want gold? I can give you enough to make you a queen in Nineveh if there's anything left of Nineveh after this. You'd like being a queen, I can tell. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone had to do as you said?”
“Everyone already does what I say,” the woman said. “I'm the one that knows how to get a stuck kid out of a goat. That goes a long way, you know.”
Crawley looked at her blankly.
“And gold doesn't. We're still on barter here.”
“Of course you are,” Crawley groaned. “All right, not gold. How about babies? Uh, strong sons, beautiful daughters, or vice versa. If you want, I can give you a hundred...”
It was a temptation, Aziraphale realized. A little strange that Crawley was tempting those doomed to die in such a short while, but maybe that was the point, to collect souls that wouldn't have time to redeem themselves. However, it didn't seem to be going as well as Crawley's reputation might have suggested.
The woman stared at him with undisguised horror, taking a tighter grip on her stick.
“Twice was enough for me!” she exclaimed. “How are you so bad at this?”
“I have been doing this since before you lot knew what sex was,” Crawley said, a little shrill. “I am bloody fantastic at this!”
“No, you're not!” said the woman, shaking her stick at him. “And I am not building your rotten little boats in the middle of kidding season, when half the village is down the cough and-”
Aziraphale's brain was not human. It was not constrained by the limits imposed by eighty-six billion neurons or a mere nine hundred trillion synapses. Instead, it was a vast and terrible thing, capable of processing an entire universe's worth of truth and coming up with a picture of what it all meant. He knew that it wasn't possible to save everyone from the deluge, knew it like migrating birds knew true north. It was impossible.
The people of this broad valley. The river and marshes thick with tall reeds and cattails. The right miracles here and there to aid them...
The answer came back: maybe.
His heart trembled with grief and with doubt. It wasn't sure. It wasn't everyone.
Then he heard the woman give Crawley a solid thump with the stick (apparently he had offered her beauty, and that went over poorly), and Crawley was still talking, almost pleading, and Aziraphale made his decision.
All right, let's see if I can do the voice without a warm-up...
BE YE NOT AFRAID.
A light, colder than fire, brighter than the stars, flooded the area where women and demon were stood, and they both gasped in shock, stepping back from each other like toddlers caught fighting.
“What the holy fuck-!” shouted Crawley, and the woman took a better grip on her stick even as she stared up at the flaming apricot branch in wide-eyed terror.
MAHLAH, DAUGHTER OF TIRZAH. YOU HAVE BEEN FOUND WORTHY.
“Um... I'm pretty sure I'm not...” she hazarded, less like someone who thought she was wasn't worthy than someone who learned a long time ago that being worthy was another way of saying stuck holding the bag.
NO, NO MISTAKES HERE. VERY SURE OF OURSELVES. YOURS IS THE MISSION, AND YOURS IS THE GLORY.
“The... glory of building boats.”
YES. MANY BOATS. ALL THE BOATS. AS MANY BOATS AS CAN BE MADE.
“Can't someone else...”
NO. GREAT IS OUR NEED, AND GREAT IS OUR FURY! DO NOT DEFY US!
Mahlah flinched at that, cringing a little, and Aziraphale felt a sting of guilt. He didn't want to bully her into building boats any more than she wanted to build boats, but he was smart enough to know that one was better than the other.
YOU WILL HAVE HELP, IN THE FORM OF THE DEMON BY YOUR SIDE AND ONE OTHER. YOU WILL NOT BE ALONE.
Mahlah eyed Crawley dubiously, who looked faintly offended.
“How about a bunch of professional boat builders from Byblos?” she said hopefully. “That would be helpful.”
NO. THIS IS YOUR MISSION. THIS IS YOUR GLORY.
WHAT WE SAID EARLIER. ER. BE NOT AFRAID. WE MEANT IT. WE'RE HERE FOR YOU.
The burning apricot branch went out, the holy light went dark, and Mahlah turned to Crawley with an accusing stare.
“Don't look at me,” Crawley said. “You had best get started. I'll be along to help shortly.”
She muttered something under her breath that likely didn't bear repeating, but threw the sleepily protesting kid over her shoulders and walked off into the darkness. Aziraphale gave it a slow count of ten and went visible again.
“You!” Crawley said in genuine surprise.
“Me,” Aziraphale agreed, and then he stumbled.
He would have hit the flinty ground face-first if Crawley hadn't been there, grabbing him by the shoulders and holding him steady. For a moment, all Aziraphale could feel was a moment of pure warmth and gratitude before sense reasserted himself. This was a demon, this was the Enemy, and he straightened up and wobbled back out of Crawley's grasp.
“You all right?” Crawley asked cautiously. “You don't look all that steady.”
“Fine, I'm fine,” Aziraphale said, his voice a little high. “Just fine. You know, just an everyday thwarting of the will of God. Just me, going against the great plan, assuming I know better than the Almighty!”
His breath was coming too fast, his heart was beating out of his chest, and his thoughts, unlimited and vast, were pinging to the edges of known space and ricocheting back to him with the force of asteroids. It felt as if his skin was on fire, and he could still feel the warmth of Crawley's hands on his shoulders, and how good that had been, and oh God, was this how sex felt? Was this sex? Had he somehow managed to have sex with a demon while subverting the will of the Alpha and the Omega-?
“Hey. Hey, hold still. Let me look at you.”
Crawley laid his hands on either side of Aziraphale's face, holding him still. His touch was firm, but not painful, and by the light of the dying fire, his slit eyes glowed gold.
Oh, how lovely, Aziraphale thought.
“That's right, angel, calm down. Just look into my eyes... good, and now look up, as high as you can without moving your head... very good.”
Crawley's hands moved fast, from Aziraphale's face to combing through his hair to feeling along his hairline and just under the collar of his tunic. Aziraphale yelped a little when Crawley pulled up the hem of his robe to reveal his sandals, but he dropped it again almost immediately, nodding with an authoritative air.
“No scales, no weird eye stuff, no hooves, and you don't smell at all like sulfur. I'd say you're good.”
“I'm not...” Aziraphale trailed off, wondering if it was somehow impolite to speak of such things to someone who had suffered it.
“Fallen? Doesn't look like it. Seems like you're just fine.”
Aziraphale let out a breath of relief, pressing his hand over his chest where his heart was just beginning to slow down.
“I'm sorry-” he started, but Crawley was already dousing the fire and packing up his scanty belongings.
“We should get a move on,” he said, and Aziraphale blinked at him.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you were the one who promised the human we'd help,” he said. “Me, I was just hoping to tempt her into doing it herself, and then I'd pop off for a bit of a break somewhere the water wasn't rising. I've heard the place that's going to be Tokyo is pretty nice this time of year.”
“Were you just going to leave?” asked Aziraphale, a little outraged without knowing why.
Crawley raised an eyebrow at him.
“Weren't you? Angels mostly just do the announcements. They don't usually stay to get their hands dirty.”
“Well, no, I suppose not...”
“But you told her that I was going to help, me and 'one other.' I presume that's you unless you're hoping that big purple-eyed fuck was going to come down?”
Aziraphale choked back a laugh. Surely that was only because he was hysterical and not because he privately thought the Archangel Gabriel was just a tiny bit of a prick.
“No... I suppose I didn't.”
“You don't have to,” Crawley said, his voice too innocent. “I mean, I'm going. I'm involved now. But you don't have to do anything you don't want to, I guess. I bet she doesn't even remember that 'one other' was promised. You probably wouldn't even make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, would you?”
Aziraphale gave Crawley a long, level look.
“Are you seriously trying to tempt an angel into helping and saving lives?”
Crawley's look was instantly disgusted and shocked.
“What? Me? No, absolutely not! That's not what I- oh, oh blessed hell, seriously? No, I was not!”
“Of course not,” Aziraphale said. “Angels don't subvert the will of God, and demons don't tempt people into good acts.”
Crawley looked a little uncertain, but he nodded.
“Right. Glad we got that settled.”
They paused. The sun was coming up. Five days until the flood.
“Well,” Crawley said. “Shall we?”
“I suppose we shall.”