Sam Winchester understands what they experienced in purgatory most in the little things. The little things are what reveal the most, he knows. Like when they are in motels, and Dean relishes in the comfort of even the dingiest of beds. It’s in his haughty laugh and his stupid jokes- it’s in his insistence that the crap bed beneath him just has to be a temperpedic that Sam can tell he spent days struggling to rest in the most painful of places. It’s revealed to him when Dean returns from a quick run to the store or from a hustle at the nearest bar, Sam watches Castiel’s face brighten in the reassurance that Dean has returned to their side yet again, the younger brother knows there were too many moments of doubt. That the angel whole-heartily feared that Dean would not return from whatever doom he walked into far too many times for his body not to commit the slump of the shoulders, the sigh of relief, the warmth of his features to muscle-memory.
Dean and Castiel do not share a single moment together in Purgatory. They learn that the realm is not so much a place, but an entity. It makes decisions, it changes courses, it conspires against the threat that walks on its turf. Purgatory is an undead corpse, paradoxically striving to survive. And it is in their separation that the two suffer most. It is in the eerie silence in moments of peace, and the all-consuming panic of dying alone in the moments of calamity. It is in the gradual suspicion that the other is dead, the growing fear that whispers cold breaths upon the heart and chill down to the marrow of their bones. Alive until proven dead is already a mantra to Dean- years of experience and heartache has instructed him in the art of morbid, tongue-in-cheek optimism. But thick, dark blood on tree trunks and shredded bits clothes on the snouts of snarling monsters do little to help the dying embers of hope.
Castiel knows. He knows that Dean is alive, albeit struggling, and he knows that all of Purgatory is on a mission to keep the two apart. He knows that the two trail in circles like Moses, like the legs of a compass- forever connected, but doomed to never touch. Castiel knows that Dean is struggling, but managing. He knows Dean is scared, no matter how violently he would deny it otherwise, and that he misses his car, his brother, the dingy motel beds. Most of all, Castiel knows when Dean is gone. When the abysm of black that hangs above Castiel’s head is ripped open, and a flash of light surges through the skies of Purgatory, Castiel knows Sam has done his job. His endless, pain-staking attempts have finally met success and Dean is, at long last, saved. A mirage of a smile graces his tired, dirtied face only for an instant, before the angel continues to run from beasts with gnashing teeth and bloodied nails.
The angel knows other things- that Dean will find happiness and security, regardless of what may come. He knows that of the two of them, Dean was the one who deserved to leave. He knows he will one day be forgotten- that he will slowly but surely fade from memory. That in moments of peril, the Winchesters may mutter his name or wish for his aid- but the mentioning will end, like they always do for the dead, and his footsteps on Earth will eventually be covered by the walks of others. He knows they are best left moving on, and are capable of facing what may come. And Castiel knows that his demise is not short-coming, but will be drawn out as excruciatingly as possible- and he knows, of course, that such a fate is a just one. One must reap what he has sown. If fallen angels cannot suffer in hell, then Purgatory will be his daily damnation. A continuous reminder of what he did, what he had, and who he lost in his own exclusive fall from grace. He knows no songs will be sung in remembrance of him, and he knows children will not tremble at the mention of his name- he knows he is just a number, simply a solider, a memory that will perish into extinction between two brothers, the only two who knew him. He knows all these horrible, painful things and, most of the time, he feels them to be true. But, all the while and despite the better judgement that berates and tortures him to no end, he secretly hopes he is wrong. He knows that he is not.
But there are things Castiel does not know. He does not know that Dean has long-since forgiven him- that in the moment Dick Roman was killed, and the friend that Dean once knew emerged from the insane disguise he once donned, forgiving was no longer a choice, but a reflex. He does not know how much Sam missed him, or how long the younger Winchester rehearsed the apologies he would say when he saved his brother and the angel from the other world and they were resting happily in his home. He does not know, of course, that Dean’s immediate reaction upon waking in Earth was to ask a bewildered Sam where Castiel was. Castiel does not know how Sam’s face fell in despair, or how Dean’s curses filled the silent, mournful room. He does not know the car trips they made or the sigils they drew, he does not know what the bottles of drunk alcohol looked like when they shimmered under the moonlight that peeked through Dean’s bedroom windows. He does not know. He was not there.
There are things that Dean is confidently sure of, though. He is sure that, when the rituals finally worked, he had deserved them for all the goddamn trouble they had caused. And he knows that, though Castiel did not appear before them in that instant, he was on his way. He knows that the opportunity to make up for lost time is now- and he knows that the days to come will be filled with jokes, laughter, and smiling because he’ll be damned if they don’t deserve it by now. He knows apologies will not be eloquent, but they will be spoken. And Dean knows that there is a whole side to the story of their time in separation that Castiel will need to know.
When the skies implode again, Purgatory begins to fall apart. The black veil that separates the prison of monsters from a flawed but yearned for Earth decays and tears like the ripping of weak and aged lace. Castiel watches, then, as the threads stretch and snap, and the ebony vacancy becomes filled with shimmering stars and churning colors. And when the angel is uplifted, raised from perdition by the hands of a very flawed but very righteous man, Castiel knows he was never cut out to be God- God is all-knowing, the purest definition of right. When he stands at the rubicon between Purgatory and Earth, when he plunges into the light and is rushed to the salvation that waits on the other side, Castiel realizes that he, in fact, does not know everything and that the few things he thinks he knows are quite possibly erroneous.
Under the shimmering sky of color and hope, his blue eyes reflect the orbs of light. And the stars gleam back curiously at the angel who made a difference- they are happy, then, to know that they will be watching a family exchange knowings and thoughts and errors. They are happy to watch the human art of love transforming pain into joy. They are happy to watch the Winchester family reunited- happy to watch them embrace. They shine, that night, with a special jubilation just for them.
When Sam first finds the box of radio cassettes, it is hidden safely under a pile of hoarded weapons and tools of the trade in the Impala’s trunk- the signature work of Dean Winchester, no doubt, who stows all things of importance in his baby. And it is only afterward that the Aha!-moment comes when he realizes that Dean paid careful mind to place it where the tattered and bloodied trench-coat once was. When Sam first hears the tapes, however, is much later- and the second a different sort of song plays- a softer one, one that sounds almost akin to the sound of a softly blown saxophone, it is quickly ejected. The radio’s eject button is slammed with a quick ferocity that makes Sam jump and stare at a flushed and mortified Dean in complete shock. He asks, of course, what the song was, why his brother was so adamant about grabbing the tape and throwing it under his seat- Sam is answered only with a gruff demand to shut up.
“They’re mine,” Castiel tells Sam softly, when the two sit alone together in a cheap motel room, waiting for Dean to return with take-out. “I’m afraid Dean wouldn’t want me to tell you much more- he’s adamant about it being kept between us both.”
“When did he make them?” Sam asks, hoping to inquire more about the mysterious collection of music cassettes. There are moments, the Winchesters know, when Castiel behaves more like a child than an angel- and the nervous, guilt-ridden look that Cas gives Sam when he considers the question is nothing if not infantile. Like a child unsure of sharing a sworn secret, battling between the desire to blurt it and the fear of chastisement, Castiel is all nervous glances and shuffling feet.
“I shouldn’t say anything about it,” Cas tells himself more than he does to Sam, “but if I am to say one last thing about them, Dean made them for me after our return.”
Everything shifts, then, and the whirring thoughts are visible in Sam’s face. It’s been half a year, now, since his brother and the angel where ripped out of Purgatory and back into the younger Winchester’s life. Six months, that is, until Sam’s life was put back together and the two most important people in his life came back- safe, sound, but somehow secretly, intimately, changed. Not in how they spoke, that is, or how they carried themselves about- they are the same courageous though flawed, and occasionally unnerving family Sam had known before the attack on Dick Roman. But it is in how they walk, side by side, now- be it intentionally, but most often not- and it is in how they hunt. It is in the way they reach towards one another in times of danger, though they do not touch- not when Sam can see. It is in the way they jest and they grimace. It’s in how Dean is already smiling before Castiel laughs; it is in the way Castiel exhales when Dean breathes in. An unnamable, unspecific change- a fluid transformation of a relationship, ever toiling and swaying between certainty and secrecy. It is the relationship Sam already knows of, and the one he’s never ceased to support.
It then makes sense to Sam, why those tapes exist. Why Dean, he can only imagine, would’ve spent hours upon hours manually recording on cassette tapes an array of songs for Castiel’s sake. Because he knows Dean, and he knows his pride- he’ll never use the douche-ish conveniences of CD’s or iPods. He’ll use the only thing he’s known, he’ll go through as much trouble as it takes, if it’s for the sake of sharing the intimate.
Sam had long decided not to press them. Not to press them about Purgatory, about their relationship, or about the mixed tapes. But eventually Dean explains a few things- small things, short blurbs. He, of course, will always omit the full story. He talks about hunts and monsters and sluggish creeping things, but he will never share mentions of embraces, whispers, or the tears and sweat and blood that fell like rain in the dark depths. And, of course, he never talks about the singing or the humming or the soft coos and stroked hair before the angel passed out or the hunter fell into much deserved sleep. He doesn’t talk about the two exchanging songs like birds, or the melodies Castiel never heard in the car, only first heard in Purgatory- songs about standing beside one another, songs about not taking eyes off each other. Old songs, classic songs, but songs that don’t blast in the Chevy radio for the sake of Dean’s machismo. Castiel did not mind hearing the new songs, then. They made those quiet instances more precious, more crucial to the healing of a once severed bond. And when he receives the gift of that music from Dean in the form of a box full of tapes, he does not mind then, either. Because, by then, he has memorized each word and hearing another voice singing those ballads is always fascinating- albeit, always a bit amiss.
The older brother explains, and sometimes the angel does, too. And when things get more comfortable and hunts are less about principalities and more about the simple monsters that go bump in the night, special attention is paid to the unsaid things. To what to call their relationship (a failed experiment, they’re bond has no name besides ‘profound’) or to wether or not approval is to be gained (a silly inquiry, Sam proves with a roll of the eyes and an ‘oh please.’) And then something miraculous happens- something more out of this world than any encounter Sam had faced; the music starts changing. Slowly, gradually- but it’s there. And it starts with a night on the road, when Dean and his angel think Sam had fallen asleep listening to his iPod. It starts with their shared humming and low murmuring of lyrics in perfect, rehearsed unison- and they don’t see Sam smile and they don’t notice he’s only feigning sleep. But eventually, different songs play- only rarely, and mostly by accident. The songs in those mixed tapes are private ones, one saved only between the two, and Sam does not strive to intrude.
But they’re shared, and things are progressing. And when the cassettes play on while they drive interstate, Sam can’t help but wonder when the day will come when Dean relents and uses iTunes for the first time in his life. Sam isn’t holding his breath, of course, but the angel in the backseat humming and drumming his fingers is living proof that things with his brother can and do sometimes change for the better.