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The Judicious Interpretation of Orders

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Aziraphale came downstairs to find a demon knocking frantically on his door. The past couple of centuries, it was getting to be a reasonably common occurrence, although Crowley was usually more civilised about it. Really, what kind of hour did the demon call this?

The perfect hour to show up on his doorstep with an unconscious archangel, apparently.

"Ah, dear ...?" he managed faintly, staring at the short, very badly rumpled figure tossed over Crowley's shoulder. "That's ..."

"An archangel, yes," Crowley chirped back, with the manic cheer of the badly rattled. "Mind if we come in, angel?" He bobbed in place, and gestured around the street with an agitated flutter of his hand. "As opposed to discussing this outside under an open sky with one of Heaven's heavy-hitters unconscious over my shoulder ...?"

Aziraphale blinked, maybe more than a little rattled himself. "Ah, yes. Of course."

He opened the door properly and stepped back, letting the demon come in out of the Amsterdam night (the city had been very good to the both of them, recently, but Crowley probably enjoyed it more, having fun setting up the first ever example of what he called a 'stock exchange', which Aziraphale could only see going in a very devilish direction ... naturally enough). He watched in something close to amazement as Crowley manoeuvred his way in, managing to clonk the archangel's head on the doorjamb in passing, blessing under his breath.

To be honest, he stared. And couldn't stop staring. The archangel, once Crowley had him propped up against the wall, looked ... debauched. Speaking as someone who'd seen Crowley after really letting rip, he recognised the look. Also ... distinctly pagan. In fact ...

"Is that ... is he ... wearing a god?" Aziraphale stared in horrified fascination, crouching down to get a better look while Crowley collapsed on the bottom step of the stairs and got his breath back. Regardless of the fact that he didn't technically need to breathe, which usually meant he was attempting to avoid something. Aziraphale glared up at him until the demon shrugged carefully.

"Don't look at me," Crowley muttered. "I swear, angel, I only just found the bugger. Not every day you stumble across an unconscious archangel in the wake of ..." He grimaced, and looked up. "Dionysus is passing through France at the minute. Full Procession. The works."

"Ah." Yes, well. That would explain ... well, not much of anything, really, but at least the unconsciousness made sense now. Also the distinctly rumpled state. And the smell of ... ahem. Well, the smell, too.

"No idea why he's wearing a god," Crowley went on, waving a shaking hand absently. "No idea why he's knocking around Earth, playing pagan and finding his inner truth in the bottom of Dionysus' cups, either. In fact, no idea why anything, aside from the obvious effects of the all-night party. Gabriel, right? Bit hard to tell, with the god, and the fact I haven't seen any of the buggers up close and personal in ... well, there was the Flood, but I'd rather not remember that one ... Anyway. Gabriel, yes?"

Aziraphale frowned, squinting down, but he already knew. It hadn't exactly been stated outright, or anything, but when Heaven's agent on Earth was asked to maybe keep his eye scanned for a certain archangel, who was ... incognito ... with the requests getting increasingly edgy and vague as time went by ... well, there a number of relatively easy conclusions that could be drawn.

"He's been missing for centuries," he said softly, looking up to meet the demon's narrow, shaky stare. "Not that they've advertised the fact, or anything, but one does get good at inferences in this game, after a while ..." They shared a long, eloquent look. "Why did you pick him up, by the way? I wouldn't have thought ..."

Crowley grimaced expressively. "No idea," he muttered, head dipping. "There was still a bit of a haze in the air, the remnants of the Procession, and ... well, didn't seem ... right, did it, leaving an archangel wiped out on the floor, where bloody anyone could happen on him ..." He very pointedly looked away from the soft smile Aziraphale could feel creeping over his features. "I swear angel, you say one word about true selves ..."

"Wouldn't dream of it, dear." He was not smirking. No. Never that. Though he might, just possibly, be smiling at his friend's bowed head. Might, just possibly, be beaming.

"Anyway," the demon scowled. "Aside from anything else, it'd seriously screw things up for both of us, someone from my side took a chunk out of a dead-to-the-world archangel. I just ... wanted to avoid the mess, that's all."

"Of course," Aziraphale said, still smiling, but he did understand. Keeping both sides as reasonably happy as possible was a full time job, these days. "Perfectly right, though. They may not be all that happy with him right now, if the tone of the requests is anything to go by, but if anyone else were to ..."

"Yeah." Crowley made a face. The demon really did have the most expressive features, this corporation around. "And no-one sane wants to be in range of that expression of displeasure." He paused, looked the crumpled figure over contempatively. "So, what are we going to do with him, then? I suppose you could report him, let Upstairs handle it, but ..."

"Yes," Aziraphale finished softly. "It doesn't seem ... quite right, does it?"

"Seems cheap, siccing the bureaucracy on someone like that," the demon muttered, hunching in on himself and rubbing one shoulder uneasily. Aziraphale had noticed he tended to do that sometimes, when the subject came up. "Besides. He's wearing a sodding god. I'm gonna go out on a limb, here, and guess he maybe didn't want to be found." He paused, and asked hesitantly: "Heaven must be having a hell of a century, for an archangel to up and leave ...?"

"A number of centuries, now," Aziraphale said quietly, reaching out instinctively to push the archangel's hair out of his mouth, tucking it gently behind his ear. "The orders have been getting increasingly ... well. They've required a bit more ... creative interpretation, recently." He smiled, faintly. "Oh, and if anyone should ask, dear? You've spent the last few decades increasing aetheric disruption around my communication channels, alright?"

Crowley blinked languidly at him. "I have? Good for me. How have I been doing that, then?"

Aziraphale grinned a little. "I've been mostly going with the old 'demonic summoning ritual in the immediate vicinity' idea. Though I doubt it'll hold up much longer. They've gotten some wunderkind named Castiel to up the warding on the channels. I've had a look, and it could probably keep a clear line if someone pulled the full Rite of AshkEnte two feet away." He pulled a face of his own. "They ever let that kid down here properly, I've a suspicion he's going to be dangerous."

"Good to know," Crowley said dryly. "Nice of you to tell me about this after it's too late for me to profit by it, by the way. I could have done a lot with a report on direct interference with angelic affairs."

"Sorry, dear," he said, genuinely. "I've been a bit distracted lately." He looked down, took in again the worrying sight of an archangel propped unconscious in his hall. "So ... getting back to our friend here?"

Crowley shrugged. "Gonna take him awhile to wake up after playing with Dionysus, archangelic constitution or no. Don't know how the god he's wearing will play into that, but either way. He's gonna be out until at least tomorrow morning. I guess we could ... I mean, he'll be safe here, more or less, right? What I figured, when I brought him?"

Aziraphale blinked. "You want to wait for him to wake up?"

"Er. Well, no. Not ... exactly." The demon offered him a queasy smile. "I was more thinking maybe you could wait until he woke up. Since he's nominally on your side, and all?"

Aziraphale rather felt the look he gave the demon then more than adequately expressed his opinion of that suggestion. "You found him, dear," he reminded, smiling grimly. "I'm sure he'd quite like to know how he got here, and I wouldn't be much use there, would I ...?"

"But ... angel, on the lam or no, he's an archangel, and I'm ... look, the last time I was within a continent of one of these guys, there were smitings being tossed around like confetti ... and I should just shut up, shouldn't I?"

"If you'd be so kind." A little tart, maybe, but rather justified, he felt. "I'll make the chocolate. Be a dear, lie him in on the guest bed before you come get yours?"

"... Right." Muttering under his breath, including a number of things that even Bacchanalian revelers might have have balked at, Crowley heaved himself back to his feet. Pulling the archangel awkwardly back over his shoulder, he shot Aziraphale an eloquent glare, and staggered up the stairs. Knocking the archangel's head on just about every doorjamb on the way, too. Rather pointedly, Aziraphale thought.

He smiled, just a little, and went to put on the chocolate.

---

The night passed well enough. The chocolate was the best from the Spanish court, which Aziraphale had managed to get his hands on by decidedly nefarious means, but considered it a small enough indulgence not to count. Crowley, once he'd started spiking it liberally, had relaxed enough not to keep looking over his shoulder at the ceiling, which improved conversation considerably. All in all, not bad for an evening that started with a demon and an unconscious archangel arriving at his door.

Unfortunately, around (and possibly because of) sunrise, the archangel declined to stay unconscious, and it was back to square one.

The first they heard of it was a terrible thump from the upstairs bedroom, the kind of thump you get when a limp and badly hungover body rolls out of the bed and hits the floor, followed by a moan of anguish straight from the depths of Hell, or at least the aftermath of one of Dionysus' parties. They both winced in unwilling sympathy. Oh, yes. A hangover of truly godly proportions. They remembered all too well.

"On the upside, he's not likely to be an immediate threat, not in that condition," Crowley muttered, standing up and moving to put on a fresh pot of chocolate, and fishing around the cupboards for a tankard to put the water in. Aziraphale smiled at him, and ambled over to the medicine cabinet, and the hangover cure a lovely witch had given him back in the eighth century. Not that it'd do much, but it would make the world just slightly less oppressive, and the taste should serve as a fine distraction from misery, which he suspected was most of the point.

By the time the archangel had pulled enough wits about him to make it to his feet, and shamble clumsily down the stairs, they had a place all ready for him, with a pot of chocolate, a pint of water, and a very old cup containing a queasily brown-looking concoction. Crowley had kept sneaking worried looks at it, and treating the cup as if it contained something on the order of holy water, or Ogden's finest. Aziraphale had had to keep hiding his smile.

"Mpfff. Wha? Who?" Gabriel leaned desperately on the doorjamb, and Aziraphale had to hurriedly stiffle a giggle. Oh, he did look unwell. Also, mildly concussed, and angel or no, Aziraphale was not going to mention how that one came about.

"Sit down, dear," he said, once he'd managed to straighten his face. "Just here. There's water, you'll want that, and chocolate, but first ..." He proffered the bubbling cup, and watched Gabriel's face go green, and Crowley's vacillate between fellow-feeling and gleeful amusement. "You'll want to drink this, first."

"Nuh-uh!" Gabriel shook his head vehemently, and immediately regretted it, one hand flying to cradle his temple. "Uggghhhh!"

"Trust us, we know," Crowley commented, mouth twitching terribly. "And it is as bad as it looks. Believe me, it's as bad as it looks. But ..."

"But everything good for you has its price," Aziraphale finished primly, and did his absolute best not to laugh at the expression on the archangel's face. If looks could kill ... actually, if Gabriel was properly himself, that might actually be a concern, but as it stood ...

"'m not drinkin' that!"

Aziraphale let an eyebrow twitch, and a hint of ice enter his tone. "Well, if you want to continue to have the hangover from hell, I'm sure you can be my guest, dear. I'm only trying to help, after all, but if you'd rather suffer, I'm sure I can't stop you."

He'd never mention it, certainly since Crowley was already clapping his hands over his mouth, but that was more or less exactly what the witch had said to him. He'd even done his best to emulate her tone, since the woman had had a gift for guilt-inducing like none he'd ever seen, and it worked wonders ... Such as an archangel, green and glaring fit to kill, grabbing the cup clumsily from his hand, breathing deep and horrified, and downing the entire thing in one desperate gulp.

His face slowly went from green to white to near-translucent, his eyes going wide and glassy. And then he ran for the scullery, made it just in time, and proceeded to rather spectacularly throw up, which Aziraphale suspected was the rest of the point.

"There, dear," he said quietly, coming up to rub the archangel's back sympathetically, and hand him the tankard of water. Gabriel looked up at him in mute suffering, and a certain degree of battered hatred, and Aziraphale smiled gently down at him. "Normally we'd just heal you, or get you to sober yourself up before it hit, but Dionysus' brew takes a little more effort, I'm afraid."

"Like a month curled up under a rock at least a decade away from civilisation," Crowley commiserated, handing over a cup of chocolate in his turn. "For the taste," he said, and grimaced in sympathy.

Gabriel stared at the pair of them. Slowly, his brain actually waking up some, enough to realise what they were, if not necessarily who, and Aziraphale saw Crowley's hands curl silently into fists, the demon balanced warily to run if he had to. Oh, yes. This was the dangerous part.

"You're a demon," the archangel said, accusingly, as if Crowley had been the one to hand him dreadful concoctions that made him throw up. Aziraphale could feel his eyes narrow dangerously.

"Yes, he is," he said softly. "And he's also the one who picked your unconscious body off the ground where anyone could have found it, and brought you to where he thought you'd be safe." Raising his voice enough to be painful to the still-fragile archangel, pointedly vicious. "So the very least you could do in return, Gabriel, is keep a civil tongue in your oh-so-aching head!"

"Uhhhhh," the archangel whimpered, pressing a hand to said head, and Crowley looked over at Aziraphale in frank admiration.

"You can be a real bastard sometimes, can't you, angel?" the demon observed, golden eyes hot and appreciative, and Aziraphale dipped his head around his tiny smile.

"If I have occasion," he demurred, still glaring at the archangel. "But really, I simply have no interest in starting a fight today, and would be very grateful if other people did the same."

Gabriel looked at him crosseyed, still clutching his head. "If I agree, will you stop yelling at me? At least until the person trying to pry my head open goes away again?"

Aziraphale smiled at him. "Go sit down and drink your water," he said, kindly. "It should fade soon enough. That brew is awful, but it does work."

"Chocolate's in the pot," Crowley nodded. "You'll eventually get rid of the taste, too." He grinned, snakelike. "In about a year or so, you might even be able to feel your tongue again."

The archangel looked between them, sick and sore and squinty-eyed with suspicion, and then he said, with the air of one pronouncing a great revelation: "You two are psychotic, you know that? Angel, demon, whatever. You're psychotic!"

Aziraphale patted him on the shoulder. "Yes, dear. But you do get used to it." He beamed, still deliberately and savagely cheerful, and Gabriel sank his head with a groan into the tankard.

"Psychotic," he mumbled, almost entirely to himself. "Definitely psychotic."

---

The archangel did perk up a bit after a while. Specifically, after roughly half a gallon of water, two pots of chocolate, six sweet rolls, and an orange. The orange had been mostly Crowley handing the nearest object to hand over, just to see if he'd eat it. Gabriel was probably rather lucky it had been nearer than the pat of butter, as Aziraphale didn't think that would have sat well on a hungover stomach.

"So," Gabriel said at last, watching them watching him with a wary, almost stunned expression, like a fish thrown suddenly onto land. "Guessing you know who I am, then?"

"Archangels not being something I usually fall over after a long night?" Crowley asked drily. "You were drinking Dionysus' stuff, archangel. As in, the Dionysian Mysteries? Reaching your true self, releasing all earthly constraints? You're bloody lucky you didn't set the damn sky on fire! If you were going for incognito, you missed it by a small bloody continent!"

"Stop yelling," Gabriel hissed, as slit-eyed as the demon, touching his temple gingerly. "I don't need some demon telling me what I should and shouldn't have done, thanks all the same!"

"Nevertheless," Aziraphale interrupted, heavily. "Crowley does have a point, dear. Heaven has been looking for you, you know. Or at least, letting it be known, in certain circles, that they might like you to be found. I don't know why you left, but if you wanted to stay gone, that may not have been ..."

He trailed off, voice dying slightly as Gabriel turned to look at him with eyes that were suddenly chips of hazel ice, and grace that had suddenly woken up as if from a long nap. Aziraphale swallowed, just faintly.

"So," the archangel said, voice toneless and cold. "When's the garrison arriving, then?"

Aziraphale blinked at him. A lot. And then he slid his eyes sideways, taking in the demon sitting happy as a clam at his table (though not so happy now, with a potentially explosive archangel sitting beside him), and back again.

"It was ... considered," he said, very, very carefully. "An archangel is not something either Crowley or I could really handle by ourselves, should things turn ..." He stopped that thought, considering how close it looked to coming true, and went on: "But we felt that reporting the incident, when we know nothing of what happened to you or why you're here, might be ... unwise. Our respective superiors have proven ... rash, in the past, and perhaps unwilling to account for the situation ... on the ground, as it were."

"To translate," Crowley cut in, watching the archangel nervously. "They don't know their arses from their elbows, and if there's anything going on here besides an archangel getting off his tits on pagan wine, then they're probably not the best people to deal with it. So, on the grounds that what they don't know won't hurt us ... we didn't tell them. You're clear for a while yet, stupid stunts notwithstanding. All clear, and in a non-smiting direction?"

Gabriel blinked at them some more, eyes skipping from face to face as if searching for the lie, and then he relaxed a little, slumping back down in his seat. "You know, I'd pay good money to see you say that to the likes of Zachariah," he grinned, watching them slightly more easily. "And it wasn't a stupid stunt," he muttered, childishly sullen that they kept giving out to him. "I just wanted ... It wasn't supposed to go that far, but I just wanted to touch ..."

"To touch Heaven again," Crowley said, very quietly, watching the archangel with softer eyes. Gabriel looked up at him in shock, and the demon shrugged carefully, avoiding Aziraphale's eyes. "Dionysus takes you to a place where you're a purer, more primal being. For us ... I mean, for angels, and people that used to be angels ... it's like going home. Just for a moment. It's like being home."

"Crowley," Aziraphale said, very gently, reaching out to touch the demon's hand. Crowley shrugged him off, but carefully, flicking an almost-grateful look in his direction for a second.

"Angel says you've been gone for a couple centuries," the demon went on softly, to the stunned archangel. "And for whatever reason, you don't want to go back. Or can't. But that doesn't stop ... Why do you think so many demons hang around the Procession? It's not for the free orgies, or the rumours of darker things. It's for ... it's for that. That brief touch of ... what you used to be."

"Which is why," Aziraphale added, still so gently, looking at them both. "Why it was a very risky thing you did, Gabriel. You left yourself vulnerable, and in a place where both angels and demons could find you, where they were likely to be. I don't wish to stress this too much, but whatever you may think of us, you really are lucky Crowley was the one to find you."

Gabriel blinked at him. "Yeah, alright," he muttered, but he was still looking at them more softly. "That ... home thing. Is that ... Is that the reason for ...?" He gestured between them, waving helplessly.

"Our little Arrangement?" Aziraphale asked, oh, so innocently, and smiled. "It's simply a matter of practicality. As I'm sure you've seen by now, life down here is, unfortunately, not quite as simple as those Above and Below might like it to be. It ... became apparent that, in the interests of better furthering our respective goals, and the goals of our superiors, it might be necessary to pool our resources, and sacrifice some lesser actions in order to persue the greater."

Gabriel stared at him for a minute, then slanted a disbelieving look at Crowley. "He can go on like that for a while, can't he?"

The demon grinned. "He's an angel. He does justifications like nobody's business. Sort of necessary, the job he's in."

"And it's not for yours?" the archangel asked, amused.

Crowley grimaced. "Evil doesn't need justifications. Evil just needs an excuse. And the ability to grovel like there's no tomorrow, since if you get it wrong, there very well might not be." He smiled queasily. "Things on my end tend to be more ... dramatically phrased ... than on his. It's still mostly just a matter of figuring out what parts of the orders are actually practical, and doing them so spectacularly that they don't notice the bits you left out so much."

"And for the bits that aren't practical that can't be glossed over so easily, a matter of having a decent enemy to blame the failure on," Aziraphale added with a smile, saluting Crowley with his cup. "A demon as wily as the Serpent is useful in that regard."

"And an angel as capable as you," his demon grinned back, returning the gesture. "Thwarting demon wiles since Eden, with a reputation as smart as they come. Terribly handy to have around, that."

Gabriel looked between them. "Quite the mutual appreciation society you've got going," he noted drily. "I don't suppose either of you have actually noticed that you're enemies? Or supposed to be, anyway."

Aziraphale frowned at him, a certain degree of ice still sitting in his gut, biting his lip consideringly. "If that question was asked in ... an official capacity, despite your apparent renegade status ...?" he mused, carefully. Gabriel turned to look at him, one eyebrow raised and a smirk on his face that wouldn't have looked out of place on Crowley, and Aziraphale had the sudden idea that whoever the god Gabriel happened to be wearing was, he was almost certainly a trickster.

"And if it was?" the archangel purred. Probably for vengeance. Probably just to unsettle them in turn. Probably.

"Then I would say that I am using Crowley, and have been using him for centuries," Aziraphale said softly. "I would say that I have bound him to me, and forced him unknowing into acts of kindness, turning a demon against his will and his wits to Heaven's cause, not in redemption, but simply to further our goals on Earth. I would say that he is my enemy, that he has always been my enemy, but that I have found a way to use him even against himself."

"And I would say," his demon answered, equally quiet. "That I have fooled the angel into thinking he has me cornered, pinned writhing beneath his sandal, and while he forces me, I am slowly poisoning him, tempting him, luring him into sin while his eyes are cast to Heaven, while he thinks me his tool. That the more confident he grows with me, the more I lead him astray, in the finest traditions of Hell. That he is my enemy, and I shall have him."

"Should any of our superiors ask," Aziraphale smiled, bright and hard and terrible. "I would say we are having a race, my enemy and I. To see who shall break the other first, and tumble them from their purpose and their place. Whether the Serpent, or I, shall prove the better at the other's game, the most true."

"And winner or loser," Crowley whispered. "Whether it is his cause that breaks me, or mine him, that I shall have tempted an angel regardless, and wounded his heel as I fell."

Gabriel stared between them, white-faced and aghast, and Aziraphale saw suddenly the archangel that had fled Heaven, the Messenger who had cast aside his Trumpet, and, as suddenly, as fully, he saw why. He saw the bitterness, the hatred for this spell of enmity, the horror in an archangel's eyes as he looked between an angel and a demon, and thought them enemies.

"That is what I would say," he said quietly, waiting until Gabriel looked at him once more, waiting until the archangel saw what was within him. "It is not, necessarily, the truth."

"Isn't it?" Gabriel rasped, harsh and sick. "Won't it be, in the end? When one side has to win or the other? Won't you be enemies then?" His mouth twisted, his grace roiling in old, desperate fear, desperate disgust. "What happens, when one of you has to win?"

Aziraphale looked at Crowley, caught his demon's eye. Caught the bleakness in the golden darkness, and the determination.

"If Heaven wins," he said, so softly, and caught his demon's hand. "If Heaven wins, and there is no forgiveness to be had ... I will crush you beneath my sandal. Before any other can touch you. I will destroy you."

"And should Hell win," Crowley answered. "I will poison your heel, angel, and hold you as you fall." He smiled, lopsided and wry, and said the words like an oath. So serious, and things were never usually so serious between them, hadn't been in a long time, but some things ... some things deserved an oath, a promise due. Some things deserved to be held seriously.

"Heaven won't be like you," Gabriel whispered, broken and ruined. "They don't work ... they think things are simple. They think things are black and white. It's just enemies, to them. If they win ... If anyone wins ... Then everybody loses. Brothers, worlds. No matter who wins. Everyone loses."

Aziraphale bit his lip, holding his demon's gaze, watching a renegade archangel, an archangel lost to Heaven for this, so simple, so terrible of reasons, out of the corner of his eye. He bit his lip, and thought, and when he was done, he reached out carefully, and took Gabriel's hand, as he had already taken Crowley's.

"Then perhaps," he said quietly, "it is our purpose to see to it that no-one wins. Or, more properly ... that no-one should lose."

Crowley grinned at him, sweet and sickly and whitely determined. "And how do we do that, then?" he asked, cheerful to the gallows, and Aziraphale had to smile at him. Had to hold him close.

"By the judicious interpretation of orders," he said, feeling oddly light. "By the complicity of enemies, and the proper understanding of how a world works, and the spectacular obeying of only those orders that best suit our higher purpose."

"In other words," his demon smiled. "Exactly what we've been doing so far."

"Well, dear," he said, smiling gently, looking to Gabriel who didn't know yet what it meant. "Perhaps it was part of the Plan all along. You know, ineff-"

"Ineffa-bloody-ble," Crowley laughed, and squeezed his hand, patted the bewildered archangel on the shoulder. "And another round of Dionysian wine for the lot of us, before I'll see fit to ever say the word again."

"Yes, dear," Aziraphale smiled, and poured Gabriel another cup. "As you say. Ineffable."