Author's Note: This incorporates elements of the Before the Fall 'Verse stories up until Snow Angel. A cutscene from the 'Verse. Hope you enjoy!
At first, it looked like nothing inasmuch as it did a crumpled mess of trash, for some reason tucked into the zippered front pocket of the frayed black duffel bag they had picked up for Cas from a military surplus store in Minnesota. The furtive glance Castiel shot at Dean as he shoved his hand into the pocket to cram something into it and zipper it as quickly as he could registered in Dean's mind, but he didn't pursue it at the time.
It had been early in their relationship, the "not-a-relationship" phase where Dean was still attempting to convince himself that best-friends-with-benefits was a possibility with a guy who'd already proved he would brave Hell, raze Heaven, and shake the Earth for him, and that he wasn't just as stuck on the nerdy little (not-quite-an) angel as Cas clearly was on him. Cas was just an uptight guy and he frequently looked shifty, Dean admonished himself, when he found himself curious. He let it go when Cas turned back to him with a guardedly hopeful gaze and Dean realized they were alone in a motel room and Cas had no idea yet how to ask for what he wanted.
Much later, as Castiel padded to the shower before Sam could show up, or before they dragged recovery out into something that began edging past friends-with-benefits and into snuggling-the-boyfriend, Dean remembered the look and glanced at the closed bathroom door before dropping to a knee on the threadbare motel carpet. Cas also looked shifty when he was trying not to lie, or get caught in a lie, and his humanity was still shiny and new and Dean's memories of his brief stint as God and the months of deception leading up to it were still raw.
So finding trash in the front pocket was a relief. The new addition was obvious: a book of matches from the bar they'd just left, where he'd spent the night trying to teach Castiel poker, and then got his ass handed to him in darts by the angel. Wasn't terribly surprising: extra book of matches could save your life in the right circumstances, and they'd done a few salt-and-burns with Cas lately, so he wasn't sure what was worth hiding about it. Just in case, he dug farther.
There was also fortune cookie slip from the greasy Chinese delivery they'd gotten in Nebraska, when the three of them had sprawled on and around (with thrown elbows and a generous amount of bitching) the bed better positioned in front of the TV and crash-coursed Castiel on the finer points of American cinema, and Cas had watched Star Wars with rapt attention (Dean cuffed him upside the back of the head when he tried to talk biblical about it) and then fell asleep still upright and fully dressed during Jackie Chan. The food had been crap, the chicken he'd ordered was gelatinous mush, but Cas had shared his noodles and Sam had made snide comments about their "adorableness" until Dean rabbit-punched his brother and turned the volume up.
Crap fortune, too. But hey, whatever, some people liked the stupid little slips of paper, and Dean still thought reading them aloud in Yoda-voice was what made them worth looking at.
There were a few carefully creased and folded away pages from the Gideon Bible he'd trashed in Storm Lake when he gave up on Heavenly Assistance, before Gabriel got off his feathery ass and pulled Castiel back out of Heaven. The pages were crumpled at the edges from hitting the wall, but the stamp, its ink edges soft and bleeding, identified its origins for Dean. He had no time to examine the contents of the pages for significance (not that he'd be able to pick it out: who the hell knew what random significance any portion of the Bible could have to an angel of the Lord) before the shower shut off. He zipped the bag and shoved it back into place with his foot, quickly tugging on the worn sweats that acted as his pajama pants. When Cas emerged tousle-haired from the shower, the dance of how much intimacy was permitted began again, to the inevitable conclusion of ending up wound together in bed once they were asleep, regardless of how much distance was between them when they started, to the amusement of Sam when he returned the next morning and snapped more blackmail pictures with his phone.
Castiel's strange behavior was forgotten for months. It wasn't a threat, and it wasn't even the most obvious of the fallen angel's eccentricities.
Cas never hid the pill bottles, though. Showed no shame in his quickly growing collection of opiates, anti-depressants and . . . whatever else it was he managed to scrape up from their various hospital runs, and whatever he could get from the clerk or maids at any given seedy hotel for a few folded bills he picked up sharking pool and playing darts. That was all out in the open, if the boys cared to look.
(What, are you stoned? Uh. . . generally, yeah. Cas's broken shell mocked Dean from the future.)
It was only that one zippered pocket that remained private.
Dean figured it out after San Antonio. Cast on his leg, swathed in bandages and bored out of his mind, he'd been digging in Cas's bag to steal one of his old t-shirts back. The wardrobes were essentially considered shared between the three men, or at least Dean's clothes were fair game though on Sam his shirts were too short (and it wasn't a fair trade, because no way in hell was Dean going to be caught dead in several of Sam's favorite shirts and he was a frikkin' giant) and on Cas they were too loose (but Dean liked the look of his clothes on Cas, like a constant reminder of who he belonged to). So, with this innocent aim in mind, he'd dragged the bag onto the motel bed with a grunt and bitched about Sam and his stupid 'Ghost Etiquette 101' or whatever he was doing for PISA, and Cas and his stupid dinner runs actually being a run because no way in hell was he driving the car even if Sam hadn't taken it, and remembered only when it became obvious that the front zippered pocket was still possessing of random crap. More, actually.
Not a single match was missing from the matchbook. The Bible pages were even more creased than before. The fortune cookie fortune was tightly rolled. And beyond that, other random bits of detritus had joined them. Coasters from bars, a receipt from a tailor's shop, a copy of a written warning they'd gotten in Iowa, and one of the maps that had long been forgotten in the backseat of the Impala, now marked with sigils in places they'd stopped. Crammed into the pocket of the duffel bag, they were simply. . . trash.
Spread out along the bedspread, they were mementos.
He meant to put it away again, before Castiel returned. But the rustling of paper bags outside the motel room, the snikt of the key in the look, took him by surprise without the warning rumble of the Impala first. "The establishment across the street was insistent that I purchase a 'Route 44' and I'm fairly certain they design their cups to be structurally unsound. The Styrofoam bottom. . ."
Splattered with cherry-colored soda, juggling the key and the fast-food bags, Castiel stopped in the doorway and stared at the things spread across the bed, color rising in his cheeks, words cutting short, then wide blue eyes flew to Dean's face in a stare. For a moment, Dean stared back, and his instincts warred with each other. If it were Sam, he'd dive straight into the merciless teasing about what a big damned girl he was. But it was Cas, and Cas was staring at him in clear mortification and embarrassment. He couldn't shove it all back into the bag and act like he hadn't been looking, caught as he was. But he couldn't exactly ask his questions about any of it, because then he was the big damned girl and his ego just couldn't take that right then.
With a swallow, thick as if he was pushing down the entire talk that someday they were going to have to tackle, Dean held up the small slip of fortune cookie wisdom.
"The secret of getting ahead is getting started." Dean recited, in his best Yoda.
"Beer is pronounced Pi Jui, and my lucky numbers are 21, 34, 16, 25, 47, 9." Castiel responded instantly, wetting his chapped lips with his tongue, and it's as if Dean's flippancy freed him from his motionless state. He eased into the room as if trying not to startle a skittish animal, keeping his motions slow and smooth, and he gave dinner preparation his complete attention, without looking at Dean.
"You already knew the Chinese, though, right?" Dean smirked, and as Cas looked away he began gathering up the things from the bed again, folding them into a neat pile on his cast-encased knee.
"I've never ordered a beer in China." Came the non-answer, and Cas set a bacon cheeseburger down on the nightstand beside the bed, gaze flitting over the pile of papers on Dean's knee, before he went for the duffel bag instead, drawing out Dean's evening medications. Dean didn't miss that Cas doled out his own drugs as well, swallowing three pills dry before he addressed the stack on Dean's knee. "I've been meaning to throw those out."
It's casual in a way that Castiel never is, in a way that could only be dishonest, nervous, and damn it Dean hated that.
Hooking the strap of the bag, he dragged it back into his lap and deliberately tucked Castiel's entire stash back into its pocket, zipping it closed again with sense of finality. "Like hell you were."
They ended the evening wound together comfortably, Castiel's arms hooked around Dean's waist, Dean's back to Cas's chest as the hunter shamelessly watched the Doctor Sexy marathon with his broken leg stretched out before him, slouched comfortably and nearly dozing under the effects of the pain medications. Chin rested on Dean's shoulder, Cas nuzzled his nose lightly into the short, soft hair at the nape of Dean's neck, relaxed in a way only drugs and sex brought out of him, his voice a low rumble. "Yǒu yuán qiānlǐ lái xiānghui."
"I knew you spoke Chinese." Dean slurred sleepily, turning slightly in Cas's grip, too lost to pain meds to care that he was using the angel as his pillow now. "'S it mean?"
"It is the dominant language of the planet. And it means wǒ ài nǐ." Cas smiled against him at Dean's incoherent mutter and shifted slightly to make himself comfortable for a night as a recliner and stuck watching Dean's favorite show, drugs making him loose-limbed and free to speak, though not that free. "Rest, Dean. Maybe I'll tell you one day."
He tells Dean a month later, on Christmas, in English. Defiant in his declaration of love.
Dean stumbled out his own love, and then that was it. They simply are, undeniable, their relationship an indisputable fact and the first challenge to it something they knew they could face together.
Withdrawal was still not a picnic for them. Dean watched Castiel struggle through the first few days of it as if it were a battle, as if his body had betrayed him with a growing dependency on anything, on something so distinctly human as addiction. The headaches, the war broadcasting in his head, they went untreated as Cas refused even Tylenol. Dean offered what he could, instead.
Tangled up in each other, he whispered the words again, pressing them into Cas's sweat-drenched skin, rubbing comforting circles on his lover's back as he held him through one of the angel radio broadcasts that took his balance, left him grinding his teeth and clutching his head, breath coming out in harsh bursts from flared nostrils, tears forced out from beneath creased lids. He rumbled reminders that Cas was there, with him, not out fighting the losing war at the side of his brothers and sisters.
And later, when it had passed and Castiel was left staring out the kitchen window at a white landscape, unconsciously rubbing his hands against his thighs as if to scrub phantom blood off of his palms, Dean frowned at his angel's back until he came up with something else to distract him.
The leather cover of the journal Sam had gotten Cas for Christmas was soft, crackled texture rich beneath his fingertips as he folded Cas's hands around it, dropping the duffel bag onto the table and hauling a chair out for himself. "Okay, so it's been bothering me for like a month. A receipt for a tailor?"
Cas blinked at him as if he was speaking a foreign language, dragged back from far away as Dean dug into the duffel bag, pulling out Castiel's collection again and laying it in front of him. Swallowing, Cas nodded, blue eyes sharpening, and pushed the papers around with his fingertip until he could pluck out the object in question. "You bought me the suit, and then you had it fitted to me. It became mine, one of the first things I had ever possessed. And . . . you looked at me as if I were desirable."
"Yeah, well, you're hot." And then, because he couldn't let a compliment sit untouched. "Dumbass."
"It's sixty degrees inside the. . . "
"Attractive. Stop fishing for compliments, Cas, I know you know that phrase." Dean grinned that he could coax a faint smile and a shrug out of Cas, and he reached over, tucking the receipt for the tailor into the pages of the book, grabbing the next item and holding up the warning citation. "Okay, so the thing in Polk County, same stuff. . . and I said hot there, so . . . "
"Yes. You enjoyed watching me defend you."
"Yeah, yeah. Rub it in why don't you." Rubbing a hand to the back of his neck, Dean tilted his chin to indicate the pile, and finally asked the big question. "Why do you keep all this stuff, Cas? I know you remember it all. You remember everything."
The fallen angel's eyes shifted to the pile, a frown pressing his full lips together again as he considered his words for a long moment. "I have existed for millions of years, Dean. I do remember 'everything.' I have experienced so much as an observer, but I only began to live those experiences when I met you." It's a quiet statement, without the shame such an admission would have brought before the holiday pulled their feelings into the open, made acceptable what had once been taboo. Lifting his gaze from the pile of paper, he looked at Dean with bloodshot blue eyes. "I have nothing to show for millions of years of experience. I have owned nothing, created nothing, touched so little. And in the end, if I am remembered by history, it will not be. . . it will not be in a positive light, Dean."
Reaching out, Dean laced their fingers together on the table, and squeezed Cas's hand gently.
"It would be better if the world forgets me. That is the best I can hope for now, after the atrocities I wrought. This. . ." He rests his free hand atop the pile of papers. "This is proof that I have lived. That the smaller memories are the brighter ones. That a righteous man once thought I could be saved, and that we could change fate. They are also. . . " Cas shrugs again, and squeezes Dean's fingers between his own before gently pulling his hand free, and now he can't look at him. "When I write in the journal, I will write of the world, I will write of what was and will be, how to fight the monsters and how our journey progresses and the truth of history, but I will never write of myself. These are our story, in a language that only we can read, that will live as we live and die in meaning when we are gone. And I am content with that."
Cas was always doing things like that, saying crap that Dean just didn't have a response to. Heartbreaking and hopeful and hopeless and just so damned Cas. That his angel was the sentimental type wasn't a surprise, either. Not really. It'd always been Dean who had trouble with that. Clearing his throat, Dean eyed the pile and dragged the map out of it, spreading it across the table rather than try to answer. Pressing a fingertip onto the map, over a town in Iowa neither would ever forget, he shot a silent question to the angel with a look.
Cas shifted in his seat, sitting up straighter and translated the symbol penned over the city of Storm Lake, the site of a bloody battle and the last act of the angel and the god he had been. "Grace."
Dean planted his finger atop San Antonio, next, and Cas wetted his lips, looking away. His panic attack, Dean's injuries, the creatures who represented everything he never wanted. "Fear."
Another town, another place, a conversation atop the Impala, Dean's arm around him and quiet words. "Comfort."
They are all lessons, simple reminders, key words like "hope" and "loss," the "shame" of New Mexico and the "desire" of Polk County, a map of humanity that Castiel can read and Dean can understand without explanation once translated. Dean watched the angel as he dragged him out of his head and away from the visions and the withdrawal and the pain. Dean never spoke and Castiel translated in single word responses, yet it was perhaps the most revealing a conversation between them could be.
Dean pressed his fingertip to a small dot of Whitefish on the state of Montana, their borrowed cabin and their stolen holiday, watching Castiel intently until the angel looked up at him again. Cas nodded after a moment, and stood to retrieve the pen in the duffel bag and drag the paper map towards him, scrawling a new sigil over their current location, blue eyes bright and clear and hand steady.
Dean translated the new symbol without needing to ask, fixing the shape of it in memory as he did.
Cas dropped the pen on the table as he tugged Dean from his seat, and towards the warmth of the fire and the comfort of the couch, and their last day of solitude given by the storm.
Castiel's memories end up tucked into the pages of the journal, between practical accounts and information of millions of years of knowledge, scraps of paper without explanation that all translate to belonging.