It’s not that they were wrong. Because he had finally accepted that, while they were not his kin, they were his family.
For whom he had - for whom he would - for whom he will always lay down his life.
Because in forty five sunrises and sunsets void of Sam and Dean, it became clear to Castiel that nothing in his world mattered as much as the Winchesters.
But that declaration - it didn’t belong to them. It belonged to him.
All those times Castiel had thrown himself in harm’s way, all those times he’d faced Death for no reason other than to buy the Righteous Man a few precious seconds - in his whole time spent alongside the two hunters, he’d never really admitted to his motives.
Never ventured to say the three words with which Dean’s kind were so enamored. The sentiment - it was difficult for the angel to make sense of. In some eight and a half years, Castiel had never named the profound bond for what it was.
But this time, through gritted teeth and lacerated lips, as excruciating pain gnawed at his gut, as he felt the life leak right out of him, this time, Castiel found the strength to own the elusive phrase.
I love you.
Maybe it’s the last vestige of his angelic nature.
Maybe it’s the clarity that comes with being so close to death.
Maybe it’s nothing more than the connection between two souls focused solely on the other.
But in the wake of those words, Castiel can see - hear - feel every thought passing through Dean Winchester’s mind.
An exercise in doubting it could possibly be true.
Because Dean surveys through all the reasons he’s sure he must be unlovable.
Every bottle of whiskey in which he’d drowned his sorrows - every broken chair he’d made a victim of his rage.
Every lie he’d ever told - every promise he’d ever broken.
Every time he’d dared to look into the mirror and couldn’t stomach the man he’d seen looking back at him.
The face of every person he’s gotten killed.
Every monster he hasn’t managed to slay. Every mistake he’s made.
Because the words have barely made their way out of Castiel’s punctured lungs when Dean’s giving him every but he can come up with.
It is only a few seconds but it is not a short list. He’s had years of practice convincing himself he’s broken beyond repair.
And so with what he believes could be his last breath, Castiel offers a clarification.
I love all of you.
All of you, Dean.
Every single shard I stitched back together after I pulled you from the depths of Hell.
Every aspect of your being.
Every precious part.
All of you.
Dean had a habit of misunderstanding Castiel.
But in that moment, in the small glance the two share, his meaning - its abundant and profound truth - is clear.
During freshman year of college I roomed with my cousin and our friend Dan. The three of us happened to be quite the marijuana enthusiasts and enjoyed smoking…a lot. As great a luxury cannabis is, it wasn’t cheap, especially to three college kids. So naturally, when we wanted to smoke together we’d all chip in an equal sized nug so no one ended up getting short-changed and to obviously save a little cash here and there. As time went on, Dan began to run out of money due to his constant smoking. No money=no weed. So what went from rolling a spliffs everyday suddenly became smashing bowls and scraping resin off the shards of glass and mixing it with tobacco to get high. In our very small and cramped room, I had a mason jar filled with a baggie of my weed hidden in a spot that NO ONE (I thought) knew about. After class one day, I wanted to sit back and enjoy a smoke when I pulled my stash out of the hiding spot to find that the weed was missing. Instantly, I knew Dan did the dirty deed. My cousin wasn’t struggling too bad financially at the time so it couldn’t have been him. But before I pointed any fingers, I decided to wait it out and be 100% positive.