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Give Me Your Illusions

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                                 How long
will
it feel like burning

      --Anne Carson, "lines"



Fraternizing.

The word was acid on his tongue when he went to sleep in 1862, and it's still burning there when he wakes up in 1912. It's burning as he throws off the black sheets and down comforter, which has spectacularly failed to live up to its name, which is fine because he doesn't want comforting. He wants to bite things.

Fraternizing.

Crowley miracles himself up a new set of clothes, not caring if they're fifty years out of date or not, and stumbles out of his flat in search of information and alcohol, not necessarily in that order.

He finds both, often, spends a year catching up on the world. There's a lot to catch up on, and current fashion trends are the least of it. Electricity is a thing now, bloody everywhere. Light bulbs, phonographs, cinematography, automobiles, airplanes. He likes all those. Fast things, dangerous things, distracting things. Clever humans and their clever inventions. Leonardo would've loved airplanes.

He hears about Jack the Ripper and the Moulin Rouge and the Hundred Guineas Club. He reads Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton. Usually he prefers spoken things to the written word but he's in no mood for theatre. Not just now.

He goes to a few concerts, mostly anything modern. He avoids anything by Beethoven. Ragtime comes as a surprise. He watches a lot of silent films, a lot of newsreels. He fills his head with people talking and learning about new things until there's no space for anything else.

Days turn into weeks turn into months, and Crowley starts to feel restless. He considers booking a ticket on the Titanic just for a lark, but can't be arsed. He feels very little when he hears the ship has sunk. Clever humans, but never underestimate the power of an ordinary cock-up. Or of water, in any of its forms. The Flood taught him that one.

Fraternizing.

It takes a year before his feet wander with an insolent slowness towards the bookshop he refuses to acknowledge, like a cat refusing to walk directly or even look at its destination. But the bookshop is closed, and apparently has been closed for some time. A card in the window states simply that the proprietor is out of town and is very sorry he can't oblige you.

Crowley snarls at the card, resists the urge to set it on fire. Fine. He didn't want to see the angel anyway.

Fraternizing.

He's lost count of how many shots of whisky and cups of coffee and occasional meals he's had over the past year. None of them have gotten the taste of it out of his mouth.

Fine.

Crowley leaves London.




A year later finds him in Bosnia occupying himself with causing minor difficulties that really piss people off. He's still interested in cars, not just for their own sake but for their incredible potential for causing irritation. He can't really take credit for traffic jams, sheep have been blocking roads for as long as roads have existed[1], but he takes credit anyway. Hell responds to his report on traffic with a not-so-polite request that he stop fucking about and interfere with European politics instead. Crowley ignores it.

At least, he ignores it for a few days. Then all the roads are cleared so a visiting dignitary can whiz through town a few times. No traffic to play with. When Crowley, out for a spot of coffee, sees the motorcade trying to reverse after a wrong turn of some kind, he absently waves a hand so the cars stall. Two birds, one stone, take that Hellish underlords.

It's more of a surprise to him than the motorcade when a boy at a nearby table stands up and calmly, perfectly, shoots the Archduke and his wife.

The July crisis begins, and months later it's clear that Europe is on the verge of war--not just yet another little scrap between two countries, something bigger. A Great War, splitting the continent, eventually bringing in other continents. It's combat on a level unlike anything ever seen on Earth. Hell awards Crowley with a commendation, his most glowing[2] since the French Revolution. He throws it away and wanders through the killing fields, doing very little except observing, feeling as cold and dead as all the corpses around him. Poor bastards.

He wonders if it's his fault. He wishes he could blame Her for it, while knowing that really this one is all just humanity. Stupid, stupid, wonderful, stupid humanity, who've built clever machines and weapons as well as magical things like light bulbs and film. Such brilliant ways of killing each other efficiently. Hell's got nothing on them.

The taste of fraternizing leaves his mouth for a while. It can't compete with the sick sweet rot reek of the Somme.




By the late 1920s he's in Berlin and reveling in it. Kabarett may have begun in Paris but the Weimar Republic has mastered it, as far as Crowley is concerned. Berlin takes cabaret and gives it teeth, takes all the song and dance and filth and adds biting political satire, social commentary, dark laughter. Nothing is sacred, and that's how Crowley likes it.

There is where all the rebels gather, the out-of-sorts, the queers, the ones who don't fit in and don't give a fuck that they don't fit in. They get together to perform and watch each other perform, to be sarcastic about the world around them and then sing and drink and shag until daylight. Crowley grows her hair to a waving chin length, makes a skintight dress and heels, and spends her nights at all the nightclubs watching humans do delicious sinful things to each other like they don't care they won't live forever. Sometimes she joins in, because it's always cold these days and why not? She won't live forever either, even if she does a better job of it than they do.

Sometimes fraternizing whispers at her and she hisses back at in her mind, because she's made it true: here and now she has plenty of people to fraternize with. The taste in her mouth now is cigarettes and schnapps or brandy, and sometimes someone else's mouth, someone else standing between her legs and pushing her against a wall or table, biting at her neck hard, hard, to leave marks, leave bruises. Or sometimes she switches and finds someone to push against a wall herself, himself. Sometimes he bends and takes a cock in his mouth, the heavy weight of it leaving no space for anything else, not words or memories or burning aside from body heat and lust. A few times she takes an ice-blonde singer or raven-haired dancer to bed and tongues at their quims until they're wordless, not screaming a name because Crowley never gives anyone a name to scream. He lets no one inside, in any sense. It's all about mouths and it all stops at the back of the throat.

He doesn't want anything that yields or is kind, which is easily managed. They're all thin, all slowly dying from vice and cocaine and poverty, but they all raise hell and look at the world and spit on it. Girls dress as boys and vice-versa and both and neither and Crowley does the same, changes himself, herself, themself, a moth flitting from one flame to another looking for something that will scorch him. There's nothing of softness here, only gallows humour and sharp edges, and he fits in like a needle among pins.

There are moments of stunning beauty, gold in the refuse. A boy much too young to be here, fourteen at best, stands on a poorly lit stage with glitter on his face and ten extra years in his eyes and sings "Après un Rêve" so delicately glass could break to hear it. Crowley's nails dig into his own thighs as he listens, semi-circles left on the stretch of skin revealed above his black gartered stockings.

The boy finds him later, offers to fuck him for a few marks. Crowley shakes his head, his heart still in his throat. For a while he'd managed to forget he had one, but he remembers it now. As the boy walks away Crowley waves a hand, confers a dark blessing. There's no saving him, there's no saving anyone here, and what does Crowley know about saving anyone? But the kid will have some luck for a while, at least.

Crowley spends the rest of that night sitting by the river looking out at the city, the small fire from his ever-burning cigarette the only light near him.

The Depression returns, ripples outward in waves of desperation as the economy fails, the country making restitutions for its sins of the Great War while growing steadily more angry and resentful about it. "Mein Kampf" is given for free to every newly wedded couple, while Hitler's speeches grow wilder and more wrathful. The Weimar Republic shifts into Nazi Germany. Crowley isn't the only one who tastes another war in the air. Some react by throwing themselves even more into frantic hedonism, others leave, others...disappear. Just disappear. Eventually people stop talking about it.

Crowley makes himself look a little more respectable, spends more time out and about by daylight, pays more attention to the streets that surround the gutters. He sees bricks thrown through windows, slurs painted on walls, a man with a friend wearing the wrong style of hat suddenly attacked with savage ferocity by passers-by. Anyone can tell a Jew by their clothes, the Jews control all the fashion houses. Why not? They've been here for generations, the German Jews, they're woven all through the fabric of society. The fashion houses, lawyers, artists, merchants.

No one steps in to help. They clutch their coats and hurry on, looking away.

After it's done Crowley walks over, helps the pair to their feet, speaks a few carefully-chosen words to them in the language of Abraham--who he remembers, though he doesn't mention that--before continuing in the local language, the local accents. The men thank him with feeling, invite him to come to synagogue with them. He politely refuses, sends them off with a futile suggestion that they stay safe. He knows they won't. You can't stay safe with an avalanche falling towards you, not even if you see it coming.

Crowley's been cold ever since the Somme, but now he realizes that he's tired, too.

He makes himself an Englishman's suit and hat, and goes back to London.




A week later, Crowley is in love.

It wasn't intentional, much less expected. He figured he should get himself a car, why not, everyone else has one these days and public transportation is a faff anyway. No big deal. He just wandered into a dealership looking for the latest whatever.

Then he sees it. It's vaguely possible birds and hearts circle around his head like in one of those cartoons they have now, and he doesn't even care.

A Bentley. The Bentley.

Black and shiny, a few years off the production line but still new. He stares at it, walks around, caresses the dark metal with his hand. When the dealer joins him, Crowley pays cash without making any attempt at bargaining or even looking at the price. The dealer looks almost insulted by this lack of courtesy, but the stack of fifty-pound notes apparently assuages him enough that he hands over the keys with only a perfunctory comment.

Crowley's never driven in his life, but that hardly matters. The engine revs when he turns the key and he happily growls back, and then they're off.

He spends two weeks doing nothing but driving around the British Isles, sometimes speeding like the demon he is and sometimes going slow, looking around. The Lake District, the Highlands in Scotland, the Welsh coastline. Green pastures filled with more blessed sheep who wander over to block the roads.

When he finally drives back into London it's with a surprising, pleasant sense of coming home, the first time he's felt the sensation in...he's not actually sure how long. At least seventy years.

Seventy years.

He drives past the bookshop, and if there's an unpleasant tang of fraternizing he just swallows over it. It doesn't sting the way it did, or maybe he's just used to it now. Besides, he just wants to...to check. That's all. To see if it's still shut, the windows cobwebbed and dark. Just in case.

It isn't. The windows are warmly lit, and an attempted customer walks out the door looking disgruntled. Crowley stops his car for a moment across the street, just watching the building for a minute, not sure if the hard thumping in his chest is relief or wariness, or anything else.

The door opens again. Crowley drives off before he can see who it is. Just in case.

The Bentley purrs for him. Oddly, it helps.




Crowley goes back to work.

Not the spiteful malingering of the past few decades, but real work. There's so much to work with, and after the past few decades he finds himself itching for things to do. He does nothing to help the Nazis, and fortunately he doesn't need to; there's more than enough evil happening for Hell to care what parts of it Crowley has his fingers in.

He gets his fingers in all sorts of things: temptations great and small, gambling, black market deals. Gang warfare takes off, and Crowley hops between them all with the ease of a chameleon, slinking into the Maltese Messina gang one day and tagging along with the cockneys the next. Another week sees him playing with fraud. He encourages one man to claim compensation for a lost home more than once, and maybe he encourages a little too hard because the guy makes nineteen claims in three months before getting caught. Crowley laughs and silently toasts him in the pub when he hears the news.

He begins to make a name for himself.

He literally makes a name for himself, pulling Anthony out of nowhere[3] when someone demands over and over and over to know his first name. Originally it's just to shut the guy up, but Crowley finds he rather likes it. He sticks a J in the middle for style and wears the name with the same cocked pride he wears his hat.

Before long, Anthony J. Crowley has a Reputation. He knows people. He knows how to find things, whether you want the sorts of foods rationing has made impossible to get or you want a doctor who'll issue you with a false military exemption certificate. Forged clothing coupons, extra petrol, a family heirloom looted off a relative who happened to be in the Café de Paris the day the bomb hit but which simply must be recovered? You want Mr. Crowley, a voice in the pub whispers when money is exchanged. Buggered if I know how he does it, but he can tell you where to go.

Most of it is a trick, of course. Finding things and people isn't hard when you don't need to sleep, understand every language spoken around you and have no qualms about eavesdropping, are very unlikely to get killed, and can fling around frivolous miracles with abandon as a last resort. Hell's behind on the paperwork for another few decades at least, and even when they catch up on it all they'll find is a font of wickedness, exactly as they like.

He doesn't take on every job he's offered. He still won't work with Nazis, irritating buggers, and when he gets word of a few of the local spies scouting around for information he refuses to meet with them and thinks no more of it. Until one of his competitors, trying to sting his pride, lets slide that they've found what they're looking for thanks to him. Books of prophecy, would you believe it, who would know where to find shit like that? But he did, because he knew of a peculiar old bookshop run by a peculiar feller, over in Soho...

Crowley is not a violent person even in these times, but it turns out sometimes you get inspired. And he can make threats with the best of them. It's easier to make tell me what I want to know or I'll pluck out your eyeballs and feed them to you sound believable when you've actually seen that done a few times, albeit from a healthy distance.

He gets the story. It's exactly what he expects. Before long he has all the details, a meeting place, a time, a charming tale about spies and double-agents and an angel who still can't recognize guile when it's smiling up at him.

Crowley lets the idiot go, and thinks.

He doesn't think of fraternizing. Instead he thinks of the taste of oysters, salt and brine as they slid down his throat. Fancy running into you here! Still a demon, then?

He hears a quiet boyish voice singing "Après un Rêve," sweet as a nightingale. I gave it away. Oh, I so hope I didn't do the wrong thing.

He remembers a wing stretching over his head to shield him from the rain. You're lucky I was in the area. I suppose I am.

Crowley swears under his breath, and goes to a church.