Satan had been seated for approximately five minutes and fifteen seconds when the door to the meeting room opened slightly and something slipped inside.
“Bless it,” one of the Dukes said resignedly, slumping in her chair at the sound of scales over stone, slithering unerringly to the head of the table.
“Wine in this trying time?” her neighbour asked, promptly pulling glass after glass out of their pockets and passing them down the table.
“It’s always got that bloody aftertaste,” she said miserably, watching them fill it to the brim before taking a healthy swig.
“That’s ’cause it’s originally blood, come on, what do you expect? What d’you want me to do, use water?”
“Hello, Crowley,” Satan said, ignoring everyone and everything else with aplomb. His voice might have become slightly gentler than it had previously been when addressing the room. In fact, if anyone was feeling blunt or particularly unattached to their current body, they might even call it crooning. Nobody was feeling blunt.
“Lord, please,” Mammon said, but it was already too late, the snake was sliding determinedly into Satan’s lap and curling up for what looked to be a good long sulk.
“My poor serpent,” Satan said, tipping the snake’s chin up to tickle it. “Thwarted again, hmm?”
The snake hissed miserably.
“Everybody out,” Satan said.
“The budget!” Mammon wailed.
“The departmental reorganiszation!” Beelzebub complained, demonstrating a 10/10 ‘if only looks could kill’ expression. Face pressed into Satan’s indulgent palm, it slid right off the snake’s scales.
“The office party!” Asmodeus howled.
“Cancelled if you don’t get out,” Satan said without looking up.
“Lord, you can’t coddle the blazzted sznake every time a scheme goezz wrong!” Beelzebub insisted. Around the table glasses flew to mouths and were drained with gulping haste under the assumption that either the glasses or their owners might not exist for much longer and they should probably get as drunk as they could manage in the meantime.
“Can I not?”
Beelzebub stilled, eyes darting to their table companions. There were things they could say to Satan he would allow from no other but there were still limits, and in company was not the time to push them.
“Ten minute break,” they announced, slamming their hands on the table and glaring everyone into resentful but ready to leave submission.
“If that is what you need to tell yourselves,” Satan said absently, clicking his tongue as the snake refused to look at him.
“Hour break,” Beelzebub amended, staring down the room and daring anyone to say something. They shot a glance back at Satan. “If it pleasezz you, Lord.”
“Yes, yes, whatever,” Satan said, waving a hand absently. “Out you go.”
“Does this happen often?” someone murmured, barely audible among the grumbling stampede of exiting demons.
“Only every time the boss is around for longer than five minutes.”
“How does Crowley always know? How? This is the first time in twenty years He’s even been about!”
Satan waited until the door had closed with an ominous slam and the comparisons of various reptile-skinning methods could no longer be heard, then sighed. “What did he do this time?”
The snake hissed.
“That bad, was it? When you’re ready, then,” Satan said, leaning back in his chair and running a hand idly down the snake’s back.
There were no visible clocks in the meeting room. There was, however, the barely audible off-beat ticking of one that was perpetually nearing its end and never quite stopping. The original intent had been to keep meetings short by prompting the desire to escape as quickly as possible, but it instead ended up making every one feel like they lasted eternities, even without Hell's tenuous grasp of relative time. The eventual conclusion had been to cut meetings down to the smallest number necessary to keep Hell semi-functional, considered by most who had to endure them to be an adequate trade-off.
Eventually, the snake uncurled slightly.
“Are you ready to talk now?” Satan said, sounding as if he didn’t mind an answer either way. “Or shall I guess? Let me see… you made a very careful suggestion about doing something together some time, just something friends might do, no pressure, and he turned you down flat. Not just flat – absently, as if he had no idea what you were really asking, with some little dig about your demonic status just to salt the cut. How am I doing?”
“It’s not like that,” Crowley muttered. His voice was different in his first shape, difficult to hear for non-occult beings. Weaker for the lack of appropriate structures to support the spoken word – he'd grown too used to the physical, allowed it to limit him – and at the same time clearer for the paring back to the essentials, before Babel – before bodies.
“Darling, it’s always like that,” Satan said.
“It should stop hurting at some point, right?” Crowley complained, rearing up to stare into Satan’s eyes, as if his expression would give him anything other than what Satan wanted it to. “How many times can I hear the same thing without getting used to it?”
“When you stop caring, yes, it will stop hurting,” Satan said. “Or so I’ve heard. Can you stop, Crowley?”
“No,” Crowley sighed. “It’s just--”
“The constant regurgitating of the party line? The dismissal of your thoughts and feelings? Oh,” Satan said, voice shedding its layers to slide into Aziraphale’s, “you have those? Really? A fiend like you?”
“Okay,” Crowley said, “Okay--”
“He’s an angel, Crowley,” Satan said, and the gentleness in his voice stung more than his pity ever could. “You can’t expect anything from an angel. They’ve all seen what happens when you step out of line. They have to be better than us or they might just remember that we are the same stock.”
And if God could throw away the brightest star in the heavens, he did not say, how could any angel truly believe they would never meet the same fate? If they faltered, if they doubted, they questioned the Great Plan, and if they questioned –
The Adversary had been beloved once. It was why he dared to raise his voice.
“Things are different on Earth, yes, of course.”
“They can be,” Crowley insisted.
“‘And as above so on the earth also; for the likeness of that which is in the firmament is on the earth,’” Satan said. “The war has gone cold, it has not ceased. You would not have him Fall, would you, Crowley?”
Crowley did not answer, turning his head away. Satan cupped his face and brought it back round to face him, carefully brushing warm fingers across the scales around his eyes. “It was a kindness to give you eyes that find it difficult to weep.”
Crowley hissed irritably, embarrassed, shaking off his hands and curling up again, petulant. Satan laughed quietly and scratched the vulnerable spot just behind his head to see him sink deeper into his own coils.
“I know you are fond of your little isles – except the one to the west, and you are never going to live that down –”
“Promised we’d never talk about that,” Crowley said, unable as ever to stop himself from responding to the needling, a faint hint of an accusing whine in his voice.
“I wonder what it’s like to be forsworn, I’m sure I have no idea,” Satan said blandly, and didn’t miss Crowley’s barely stifled snort. “Do you want me to assign you somewhere else for a few decades, Crowley? See if absence really does make the heart grow fonder?”
“No, lord,” Crowley said, carefully not too quick. “Never worked before, has it? Anyway, I’ve still got some projects on the go. You know a temp wouldn't get them.”
“Did I give you a commendation for that orbital motorway yet? I had the paperwork at some point, I’m sure.”
“You did, lord.”
“Would another one cheer you up? I’m sure you’ve done something recently to deserve it. We can backdate if not.”
Snakes cannot roll their eyes. Snake-shaped demons, on the other hand, can give the impression of it.
“Just thought you might like the reminder that I appreciate you,” Satan said. “More cunning than all the beasts of the field, aren’t you, my wily little serpent. Yes you are,” he crooned, and his voice was Aziraphale's again. “My dear, clever Crowley.”
It was embarrassing, frankly, the way he melted into Satan’s suddenly manicured hands, but the litany of praise didn’t stop so Crowley couldn’t bring himself to care.
“Look how lovely your scales are! Did you shed recently, my dear? You look very sharp.”
Satan’s wings would never be feathered again, he couldn’t conceal the damnation in his scent, but his familiar clothes were well-loved, stretched and worn in all the right places, and his voice full of that audible fondness Crowley treasured, developed over millennia. He could believe it to be true, if only for the duration.
“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing,” Aziraphale murmured, stroking his bared throat even as Crowley tensed at the thought of Aziraphale considering himself nothing. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things...”
He stopped, staring into the distance until Crowley nudged him carefully and he began petting him again as if he had never paused at all, mouth curling up with bitter amusement as he said, “Love never fails.”
Very rarely Satan could be kind: he didn’t bother to point out they were obviously proof otherwise.