Fic: Underneath The Lantern
Summary Berlin, 1930. Castiel is a foreigner in a city of foreigners. In the midst of a sea of wantonly available boys, Dean is the unavailable enigma.
Notes: For bientot, who has wanted this, or something like it, for months. ♥ This draws heavily from Christopher Isherwood. Title from Lili Marlene.
Berlin, October 1930
Two months Castiel has been in Berlin already, with so far nothing at all to show for it - or nothing, at least, to be recounted to his mother; certainly nothing to gratify a publisher. A desk littered with half-smoked German cigarettes, heavy and blunt and leaking a strong scent of tar, through which the cheap tobacco filters only faintly. Everything is cheap in Berlin these days, however many marks it costs. The beer, pale and tasting of acorns; the music, brassy and perpetually too loud. The girls, all mouths and eyes on their street corners and in the dusky bars on the long main strip. Only the boys are real in Berlin, but Castiel can live with that. Boys, after all, are the reason he came here.
There were other factors, of course. He has no friends here, but everybody is alone in this city: young English girls with voices as reedy as their figures , old Slavic men half-asleep and nodding in shop doorways. Castiel has felt like a foreigner all his life, enough that the idea causes him no anxiety. His boarding house is full beyond capacity with strangers, many of them people of the kind his mother would consider unfit for polite society, but that doesn't worry him either. He set out for the Continent with a suitcase full of clean blank pages, determined to fill them with something worthwhile, and nothing is more conducive to writing than strangeness, some unfamiliar chaos to catalogue. He came here to find things to write about, things beyond the neat straight lines of his prep school - university upbringing, and within hours, he had already located several. The only difficulty has been that some of the most compelling scenes have been unprintable, and those, of course, are the ones he most wishes to pursue. And, after all, he has a year. There is nothing to prevent him from exploring every avenue before he feels obligated to committing anything to paper.
At first, struck by the sheer overwhelming mass of sin that pulsed through the city barely below its skin, Castiel had not been choosy. Boys were boys, lithe and slim and smiling, and here, they are everywhere. In the street, below the windows of the boarding-houses, they set up a nightly chorus of long, low whistles, the sound of it somehow as ethereal as it is wanton. Initially, Castiel ignored it, ground his knuckles into his eyes and waited for the sounds to fade, but having descended once to investigate, there was no return to ignorance. The whistles are commercial signals, the whistlers selling their wares like this as a London greengrocer sells his with his cries of oranges, six for sixpence! It is straightforward, clinical, but the boys smiled so lasciviously that Castiel was taken in, at first, moved by the plaintive note in their voices, their insistent broken English. "Good abend, Mister. Zigarette?"
Castiel gave out a great many cigarettes in that first fortnight; sucked back the smoke from the lips of a great many boys with soft mouths and quick fingers. Once, in the yellow afternoon light, he saw one of his entanglements with his arm around a girl, lips soft against her cheek as they had been against Castiel's not eighteen hours before. It reminded him, perhaps, that this was not real; was only business, but then, he had known that already, and it hadn't mattered, not really. The boys were warm in his arms all the same, attentive, and if their love lay elsewhere, what of it? Castiel loved them for the duration of their trysts, but not beyond, and still it was wonderful. For weeks, it was all he ever could have asked for.
Then he met Dean. It was only by chance, really, that he had strayed anywhere near the vicinity of the bar which was soon to become his regular haunt. Ordinarily, he tended to keep to those parts of the city close to home, which he knew and would soon know as thoroughly as the backs of his own hands. On this night, though, he had felt the wanderlust, feet itching with it as he walked down the broad, dark street, leaves crackling dry underfoot like paper. The main strip of bars he had discounted very quickly as unlikely to yield anything of interest to him, beyond the possibility of an arrest for soliciting, but someone had indicated that there were other, more amenable places in Berlin, if only you knew how to find them. Then he had drawn Castiel a map, tucked it into his pocket with a smile and a wink, and Castiel had laughed, finished his beer that was not good beer, and put the thought out of his head for the time being. There had been other, more pressing matters to attend to.
On this night, there were not. There was only the map from Castiel's pocket, now more reliably engraved upon his brain, and his inexplicable urge to walk and walk until he ended up somewhere. The relevant street was some twenty minutes' walk away, according to the instructions provided with the map, but the yards of pavement seemed to vanish underfoot, leaving Castiel loitering by a row of dimly-lit establishments that spilled out jazz into the road. It was not a clean street, its general air of tarnish only heightened by the impression it gave of grandeur gone to seed, something beautiful fallen into disreputable disrepair. Lamps, tall and sulphurous, burned all along its length. On every building, worked into the greying stone, were once-elaborate facades, complicated heraldic devices embossed into the walls. It might have been a lecherous peer fallen on hard times, this street, with its dirty plaster frontages, gilt lettering peeling slowly and shabbily from the crooked clapboard signs. There was something about it that was sensual and dirty, and Castiel, who had always felt like a brass button hidden among gold ones, adored it immediately.
Much the same could be said of Dean. Oh, not the aspect of dirtied nobility - if anything, Dean gave quite the opposite impression, even upon first sight: something clean and shining, the proverbial diamond glinting like a challenge in its bed of muck. Castiel fell for him, though, as instantly as he had fallen for the street that was his home and his place of business, eyes going wide as he wove his way through the first club's heaving crowd to find him manning the bar. Green eyes, moss-green, bottle-green, and Castiel wanted him immediately. His tongue stuck awkwardly to the roof of his mouth when he made to speak, and Dean's answering laugh had been amused, but not derisive, warm and low and pleasing in his throat.
"Cat got your tongue?" His German was good, far better than Castiel's, but not his first language; or at least, he spoke it with an accent that differed from most of those Castiel had heard in Berlin. Perhaps an immigrant only from some agricultural region, Munich, Freiburg in the distant south. Perhaps an Austrian, or Swiss, or not originally German at all. Castiel hadn't the education or the experience to place the accent, its softer, rounder tones, but he knew that he liked it. There wasn't much about Dean that he hadn't liked on sight.
That was three weeks ago, and since then, Castiel has been back to the bar almost every night, his faithful whistling chorus relegated only to the status of soundtrack. They are as eager as ever to reprise their starring roles in this pantomime of Castiel's life, but Dean - Dean. There is something about him that renders the touch of even the most attractive of the whistlers empty in a way that it never felt before. There is something about him that Castiel needs, that draws him like a moth to a flame that does not burn, but only holds itself tantalisingly out of reach. Dean's origins, his occupation, even, have been no more revealed to Castiel than his body has, and Castiel is becoming more than curious.
Probably, they think he is some insane foreigner, frequenting the place like this to find Dean manning the door or the bar or the dance-floor, tolerant smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Probably, Castiel thinks, he has gone insane. But Dean has made no complaint as yet, not even in the silent language of his shoulders and spine, the tilt of his head and hips, and until he does, Castiel cannot stop. Until then, he can only drift back as if caught in a strong wind, waiting for something he cannot name.
Dean is tall, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped. His forearms swell out from under the rolled-up sleeves of his collarless shirts, and his suspenders stand out by way of being more English than German by design, no leather strap to bracket the two together. Castiel has spanned the shape of him endlessly with his eyes and, later, at home, with his hands in the safety of his mind's eye, tracing over nape and clavicle and breastbone, sliding over muscle to span the neat waist. He has studied him long enough to recognise him anywhere, and tonight Dean is not in any of his habitual places. Tonight, Dean is tucked against the side wall of the building, out of the wind, one leg cocked up so the sole of his boot can fit flat against the brickwork. His head is tipped back, smoke drifting blue from his parted lips in a sinuous curl. His hands are loose, unclenched at his sides, the cigarette held loosely in the corner of his mouth. Castiel has never seen him in the lamplight before - had almost come to see the bar as if Dean were part of it, some fixture not to be removed. Like this, the golden glow picks out yellow echoes in his hair, flecks in his eyes, and Castiel halts at once, breath catching. Like this, in the open, Dean becomes something else, and Castiel cannot simply walk past him. It would be criminal.
They've rarely spoken. It occurs to Castiel sometimes, in his dark nights of the soul, that while Dean has become, to him, some epic phantasm in his mind, some masterpiece of perfection, Dean almost certainly does not know his name - may not even recall him at all. Sometimes, the thought seizes him up with shyness, making him duck his head and back away before he can summon enough German for small-talk. He is better now than he was, but he is susceptible to nerves even when speaking English, and Dean has the capacity to leave him feeling very unworthy. Tonight, though, the nerves are overwhelmed by this strange new force, the thrill and the rush of the unknown. Dean is out of doors, like an animal freed from its cage, a lion unbound, and Castiel feels suddenly as strong as Daniel. For the most part, it is adrenaline, he knows, but adrenal energy is courage all the same. It, this, is a gift-horse, and Castiel has no intention of looking it in the mouth.
Up close, in the chemical light of the lamp, Dean appears unearthly, the lines of his face cut stark and fine. Castiel swallows, catches his eye, and Dean, to his gratification, throws him a lazy smile; rolls his head against the bricks to follow Castiel's movements. He doesn't say anything, but Castiel never expected him to. The end of his cigarette glows red at the end of an impressively long tail of ash. Castiel smiles back, ignoring the leap of his stomach, and settles himself against the bricks by Dean's side.
"Abend," Dean says, the word sounding strange and new in his dark brown, cane sugar voice. From here, he is, if possible, even more beautiful, the first button open on his shirt, the hollow of his throat a dark curve inside it. Castiel aches to follow it with his fingers; trace his mouth over the tendon after. Luckily, Castiel is well in practice at keeping such inappropriate urges concealed, and his voice when he responds is perfectly steady.
"Abend." His German, he thinks, is improving. He says the word, half-consciously, as Dean does, a little flat on the a, round on the e where usually it would be curt, elided. "Not working tonight?"
A snort, at that, that catches in Dean's chest, makes it swell with laughter. It is painfully endearing, in the literal way that leaves Castiel aching a little. "Oh," Dean protests, "I'm always working." He always speaks to Castiel in German, never in the broken English the street boys usually try him in, mish-mashes of sound. Perhaps he simply knows no English at all; perhaps - and this is Castiel's preferred belief - it is a conscious choice, a disinclination to patronise. Perversely, he enjoys the way Dean makes him struggle, accent unfamiliar as well as language, but the meaning like a pearl to be netted at the end of it.
"On break, then?" Castiel says. Dean shakes his head a little, laughing.
"That's "break" like my leg," he points out. His voice is warm, its intent clearly only helpfulness, and Castiel makes a note of it. Ordinarily, he would have been scarlet at such a correction, but Dean is different, somehow. Dean makes things all right.
"You have free time?" Castiel tries, and this time he is rewarded by an expansive nod, Dean's arm curving upward at the cusp of it to take his cigarette between his fingers, stub it out against the bricks behind his head.
"Half an hour," Dean says, one hand going to his pocket for another cigarette. Castiel can see the outline of the box, square and predictable in his flannels. Dean quirks a smile. "You're early."
"I'm - early?" Castiel blinks slowly; re-runs the words in his head as if to ensure that they mean what he thinks they mean. He is fairly sure that they do, but - "How do you mean - I'm early?"
A shrug. Dean is fumbling a cigarette out of its box, now, and half his attention is on task. "I mean you're early. You come here every night, and usually not until later - you're an hour earlier than usual today, at least." He glances up sharply, as if he could feel the weight of Castiel's surprise even without having seen it. "You come here every day for weeks, and you think I wouldn't remember you by now? Really?"
"I," Castiel says, lamely. Now he is flustered. "There must be more people than me who come here every day, surely." God, he hopes there are. Now that Dean has said it, it does sound insane, to come back day after day like a madman, repeating the same sequence of events endlessly and expecting different results.
Dean, though, does not look as if he is about to pass judgment as he casually lights his second cigarette, drawing on it hard as he waits for it to take. These German cigarettes always require a hard pull, Castiel notes idly, as he watches. The thickness of the tar, perhaps, requiring more effort before the air can penetrate. He wishes, suddenly and with fervour, that he had brought his own with him. It's lonely in the thin evening air without a mouthful of smoke to keep all the stupid things he wants to say from spilling out.
Dean catches his eye, and, as if he knew, he withdraws his cigarette at the end of his drag, holds it out for Castiel to take. "Here," he says, brief and easy, and then, "Not like you, there aren't."
Castiel blinks at him slowly as he takes the cigarette, lifts it distractedly to his mouth. "Hmm?"
"You said," Dean clarifies, "you bet there were more people than you that come every day. And I'm saying, sure, there are, but there aren't any others much worth remembering." He tips his head back against the wall; parts his lips so the tail-end tendrils of his lungful of smoke leak out into the darkness. "You finished with that?"
Castiel's heart is beating a tarantella in his chest, fingers gone tight around the cigarette, and Dean's request, thrown so lazily, casually onto the end of - that - takes him almost by surprise. "Oh," he says, and realises abruptly that he has failed to inhale properly, what with all of this - the fact that Dean thinks him worth remembering, and the fact that he can't help but read into it. "No," he says, apologetically. "Just a second."
Beside him, Dean is watching, now, fixed and unabashed, and his mouth curls upward at the corners. "Normally," he says, "I only get stalked by older men who hope I'm for rent." He scuffs the heel of his boot against the brickwork, drawing forth a shower of red dust. Castiel chokes on his drag; swallows what he has more as if it is liquid than anything else, and gives up the cigarette as a bad job.
"I wasn't hoping that," he puts in, hurriedly, holding out the cigarette for Dean to take. It's true, although Castiel only really registers how true as he says it. How pleased he is that Dean is not like the boys in the downtown streets, his perfect mouth and hands on ready sale to the highest bidder. On sale, even, to those who hadn't much to bid at all. He has wondered, of course - a shockingly large number of the most unlikely people in Berlin seem to be somehow on the game - but not until this moment had he realised how absolutely he hoped Dean was out of it. He doesn't want Dean like that, like business. Even if it means he can never have him at all.
Dean rolls his shoulders, takes the cigarette. "I know," he says, low and thoughtful. His eyes make a brisk, thorough pass over Castiel's face, and Castiel wonders what it is in him that Dean is seeing. How Dean can have seen something Castiel has only just recognised to be there. "That's why you're different."
"Only that?" Castiel says. The moment the words are out of his mouth, he cannot for the life of him understand what made him ask them, brusque and forward as they sound. His fingers curl into the palms of his hands in embarrassment, but Dean, beside him, seems entirely unbothered.
"Well," he says, around the circumference of the cigarette, "not only. There's your face, too." And the smile that follows that remark is most definitely, undeniably, a smirk. Castiel feels the aftershock of it heat him from the groin outward. His cheeks feel suddenly flush with it.
"Oh," he mumbles, turning his attention to the ground as if it had become abruptly interesting. "Mmm."
He is not going to ask. He is not. If Dean has anything he would like to say, then he will surely say it unprompted. Dean isn't one of those street boys, there to be bought for his opinion as well as his body, and Dean is already saying more than Castiel has heard from him in weeks of nightly devotions.
"And you're shy," Dean puts in slyly. "That's unusual, too."
There is something about his voice that seems to get everywhere, seeking out the secret places in Castiel that nobody has ever reached, prying him open and settling inside. Castiel closes his eyes, breathes through the comforting fug of tobacco, the extraordinary smell of the street, like beer and oranges. "You're unusual," he says, stumbling a little over the word. He doesn't look at Dean, preferring to stare at his shoes instead, as if it will help. As if it will prevent the overwhelming sense-presence of Dean from taking him slowly over from inside. "You're not from Berlin."
"No," Dean agrees, immediate, but then he pauses, and Castiel is suddenly sure that he will get no more. "And neither are you, so that's something else we have in common." Anyone else would have appended English?, half a question, but really a statement, to the end of that remark, but Dean does not - doesn't even seem to be manfully restraining himself from doing so. Castiel feels the same perverse sense of pleasure at that as from Dean's continued reluctance to address him in English, his German never altering for the foreign ear. He can't help the smile that inches its insidious way onto his face, pulling at his mouth, forcing him to glance over sidelong at Dean, though he knows it will undo him.
"Oh? What else do we have in common?"
A pause. Dean's face seems suddenly very close, its features at once shadowed and sharp by the lamplight, everything about him cast faintly gold. He looks, Castiel thinks, like one of the better Dutch paintings, a chiaroscuro of light and shade, his every aspect like a creation of the artist, too perfectly rendered to be only of God's making. Castiel knows he ought to look away from him - knows that he has stared, is staring too long; that he should not be able to smell the tang of Dean's cologne beneath the scent of his cigarettes, the smoke still blossoming out of his mouth like a slender white flower. He should not be able to see, as he is seeing now, the faint shimmer of damp on the inside of Dean's lower lip, licking the inner swell of it as Castiel would like to lick it. Dean is very close to him, and he is very close to Dean. He ought to move away, but it is as if he is transfixed. Dean has had this effect on him from the start.
It is almost shocking, after all his thoughts of kissing, that Dean should take him so by surprise when he leans in to press his mouth to Castiel's, just barely, mouthing at his parted lips. But then, he has spent many years wanting to kiss people who never, never would have turned and indulged him, hand coming up to cup Castiel's jaw as Dean's is doing, large and gentle, holding him steady as he presses close. His daydreams do not usually culminate in moments like this one, breath hitching out of him on a gasp as Dean takes his lower lip between his own and suckles at it, drawing the blood tingling to the surface; pulls back momentarily to seal his mouth over Castiel's again, licking at the seam. He kisses very precisely, but there's something under that, a slow-building warmth that sparks an answering heat, unwise and unasked-for, between Castiel's legs; something dirty about the way Dean's tongue strokes flat over Castiel's, licks over his teeth. When he pulls away, the air is chill on the wetness of Castiel's open mouth, his kiss-swollen lips, and his eyes seem curiously unwilling to open again, the pupils so blown he can feel it. "Dean," he murmurs, soft, and reaches out a hand to grip Dean's wrist. "What - "
"Hey," Dean says, laughing, but his hand turns in Castiel's all the same, gripping it for a moment reassuringly. "Hey, I have to get back to work. Okay?"
Castiel blinks into alertness, the lines of Dean's face blurring at the edges until they swim back into focus. His heart is rushing frantic as high water in his chest, pounding against the fragile cage of his ribs. "Yes," he manages, although he doesn't mean it - can't mean it, after that, Dean's mouth and his hands; wondering what he meant by their having that in common. But Dean needs to go, and Castiel has no intention of being responsible for keeping him late. "I - yes."
Dean inclines his head; walks languid and loose to the corner of the building. When he reaches it, he pauses, turns, half-smiling. "Don't stop coming, Castiel, okay?"
Castiel opens his mouth, and his jaw feels rusty at the joint, saliva pooled under his tongue. Like this, Dean is beautiful, a strong silhouette, and Castiel couldn't leave off visiting him for the life of him. Even if he never got more than this, a moment in the lamplight with someone whose enigma is the deepest mine of source material he's ever come across. "No," he says, "I won't. Promise, Dean. I won't."
Dean tosses him a smile and nods, and with that, he is gone, disappeared behind the shadow of the building's ornate cornerpiece. It isn't until Castiel is moving, taking shell-shocked stock of himself, that he realises that Dean had addressed him by name, when he has no memory of ever having provided it.
And that, of course, seals it. No decent writer ought ever to walk away from a mystery. He takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and follows Dean into the club.