----- Aperio I (Henry‘s POV – Lebanon, Kansas; 17th September 1956) -----
Henry Winchester tensed at the bottom of the stairs, listening hard for the footfalls from above. He wasn't supposed to be questing around down in the vast bunker storerooms, but ever since he had been made a full member of the Men of Letters, such curiosity had repeatedly got him into trouble. His father had called it "The Winchester Curse". Well, his father wasn't around to admonish him about such things any more, and - if anything - the Winchester Curse was to blame for that, as well. That should have been the proverbial cautionary tale for Henry, but he simply couldn't help himself.
When nobody came down the stairs behind him, and he didn't hear his name called out, Henry continued to advance into the darkness. The rooms were stacked high with impossible quantities of old forgotten treasures, archived here after the Men of Letters had established the Lebanon bunker 15 years ago: ancient boxes carved with sigils, antique masks and urns, beautiful statues that probably contained the spirits of woodland goddesses. Henry made sure to touch nothing, licking his lips as he edged between the boxes, crawling deeper into the darkness.
Knowing he was getting close to the opposite wall, Henry carefully reached his hand out toward the raw brick. He felt the cool surface radiate toward him, just before his fingertips settled on it. Taking deep, slow breaths, and counting his heartbeats in between each of them, he felt his way along the wall, going deeper than he ever had before.
Suddenly the room was filled with all too much noise, a deep rumbling; loud, with an underlying screech to it that surely someone must have heard from upstairs. A gust of cold, stale air choked his lungs, and Henry froze like he was one of the statues. For a moment nothing moved, not even a dust mote, and then a soft, beautifully sad female voice came calling out of the darkness.
"Is there someone there?"
Nothing moved, certainly not Henry. He wasn't alone down here. He didn't recognize the woman's voice, but he supposed there was a possibility that she could be some sort of creature, abandoned down here in the dark with the other relics. Something that wasn't supposed to be let out, or disturbed for fear that it might escape.
Knowing the kind of things he'd seen, the kind of things the Men of Letters dealt with, that possibility was more likely than any other, and yet when no sound of approaching footfalls came from the chamber above him, and no further sound came from ahead, Henry pushed on into the darkness. Needing light, he reached inside his blazer pocket for the silver zippo lighter his wife had bought him as a birthday gift, and the candle that he'd brought down for exactly this purpose. Tiny sparks kicked off the flint, temporarily blinding him as he lit the taper's wick. Holding the taper slightly behind him, he squinted like a baby owl into the darkness.
She was half hidden behind stacked boxes, her black hair falling in lovely black ringlets that hid her face from him. For a moment, Henry thought that she was angled away from him, but then she turned her head in his direction briefly, and he saw pain in her heart-shaped face as she tried to look at him. The single candle must have been impossibly bright, he supposed, to someone who had been left down in the dark.
In the small, cramped antechamber, Henry glanced around for somewhere safe to put his candle, deciding to rest it on one of the tin boxes. Desperate to return his eyes to the concealed woman, he melted wax onto the surface of the tin box, before placing the base of the taper deep into it, holding it steady for torturous seconds so that the wax could cool. By the time he looked back across the room, he was practically blind from staring into the flame again, while the woman’s eyes had begun to adjust to the change. She looked at him with stunning blue eyes, with such abject focus that he thought for a moment she was looking straight into his soul. Maybe, he considered - a chill prickling the back of his neck - she was.
It took real effort to look away from those eyes. When he did, Henry quickly felt ashamed of his distraction, for she was clearly naked, bound on what looked like a white cross, and protected from lechery only by the fact that assorted boxes had been stacked around her. It gave the appearance of her being just another piece of supernatural detritus picked up over the years, only to be stored away unwanted when her usefulness had ended.
Immediately, Henry drew closer, not with the intention of revealing her body - the thought never even crossed his mind - but to free her from the indignity of storage. He broke the boxes down, without glancing at her, and found at her feet a white sheet which looked like it had fallen there at some point, perhaps from some previous person covering her body. He gathered it, briskly, and reached up, awkwardly tying the corners of the sheet together at the back of her neck, then carefully pulling out the black strands of hair that he had accidentally wound into the knot.
He shouldn't have been so close to her, not knowing what she was, or why she was bound here, but Henry was sure he felt a responsibility to ensure her comfort, considering he could not offer to let her go, or take her down. Only when he was done, did he again look at her, putting a safe distance of several paces between them again.
Her skin was pale, freckled in places. An aquiline nose and perfect white teeth finished a face which - in Henry's opinion - was quite the most beautiful face he'd ever seen. Past the gold colored cuffs engraved with strange symbols were slender hands--no claws or fur in sight. She could have been a nymph, or Aphrodite herself, were it not for the fact that Henry recognized the symbols which bound her. They were Enochian. This woman was an angel; there was no question.
For a moment, Henry really couldn't wrap his tongue around anything resembling words. Angels were in the lore that he had been taught, of course, but the Men of Letters had intelligence that suggested that angels had no interest in what was happening on Earth, unless it involved rogue members of their own kind. So long as they were not summoned, they intended to stay out of everything, including the demon threat. Henry found that immensely selfish - what use were angels if not to fight demons? - but the thought of angelic aloofness didn't even cross his mind when face to face with one; certainly not one that the Men of Letters had bound, and stacked away in a basement like so much garbage.
Instead he felt guilty, and just a little heartbroken. She looked so sad, so obviously lonely, that he wished nothing more than to set her free then and there. But he couldn't. The rules simply wouldn't allow it. As far as the Men of Letters were concerned, even as non-combatants, angels were still monsters, no different from anything else that they fought or exterminated.
The strangest thing, he realized with a sudden start, was that she didn't even look afraid. She didn't beg with him to set her free, or ask him questions that she presumably already knew the answers to. If she was an angel, then she knew who he was, and might even be able to read his thoughts.
"It's Henry, isn't it?" she asked, confirming his suspicions. "My name is Castiel."
He swallowed hard. Now he knew her name, he felt even more guilty that he couldn't help her. He flicked his gaze away toward the exit.
"I should go. They'll be looking for me soon..."
For the briefest moment, he thought he did see fear in her expression. Certainly there was a twinge of it in her voice. "Please don't."
The guilt did its job. Henry stared at his feet instead.
"Please," Castiel continued, softly. "I've been trapped down here for so long. I haven't heard another voice in... in years."
Henry had no real conception of what that meant, not knowing that angels spoke to each other always, or that Castiel had been severed from that connection when she was bound by the Men of Letters. But he could understand the concept of long silences, and loneliness, and could empathize with how long and empty those years must have felt. It made him feel quite awful for even considering leaving.
"I can't stay for long," Henry said, diplomatically. "I shouldn't be down here. I don't have clearance."
"Then just stay as long as you can," Castiel pressed. "I can tell you when the others are coming, but please... Please stay."
The desperation in her voice soaked into Henry's chest, tightening it with emotion. He edged a little closer again. An angel couldn't possibly hurt him, and she was bound, paralyzed behind the sigils on the cuffs. Henry's brow furrowed with concern.
"How long have you been... How long have you been trapped down here?"
"Fourteen years, two hundred seven days, eleven hours and twelve minutes."
The specificity of her reply surprised him. Henry supposed she must have counted every second. It matched up, more or less, with the opening of the Lebanon chapter house.
"And nobody has spoken to you in all that time?"
Castiel hesitated, clearly wondering whether to implicate another person in the same rule breaking as Henry was party to. "There was one man who visited for a while. He taught me to play chess." She nodded to a dark corner of the chamber, where Henry now saw there was an old chair, and a chess board resting askew against it. "He was very old, and frail; I suppose he must now be dead."
Henry wondered if he'd even met the man she was speaking about, then dismissed it. It didn't matter who had come down to talk to her, only that she hadn't spent quite so long on her own as fifteen years.
"We can play, if you like?"
"I'd like that," she answered. "Some other time. I would like to know more about you, Henry."
Henry briefly considered challenging her on the suggestion that he would risk coming down here again, but very quickly had to acknowledge that she wasn't wrong. He was intrigued by her, and in some ways it felt like a pleasant secret, something he could keep to himself which could harm no one. She had a soft, kind voice, and he already liked her company far more than the jostling Boy's Club that made up the majority of his colleagues.
"What do you want to know?" he asked.
There was a long pause, as Castiel thought about her question. "I suppose... What kind of weather do you like the best?"
The question was unexpected. Henry had expected something questing, or deeply personal. The weather? It was like she was reading from a rulebook concerning how to structure small talk.
"Is that really what you wanted to ask? About the weather?"
"Yes," she answered, firmly. "Should there be a reason why not?"
"No," Henry stammered. "It's just... The weather. It's not the most interesting thing about me."
"Then tell me that," Castiel suggested.
Henry was flummoxed. He faltered, suddenly incapable of thinking of anything about himself that could be considered remotely interesting. The weather would have been an easier topic to start with. He went back to Castiel's first question.
"I suppose I like the rain," Henry said. His uncertainty gained some focus, however, as he fixed on the idea. "I like the smell of the earth once the rain has started to soak in deep, when everything is verdant and thriving. It smells like life."
As he spoke, Castiel took on a glazed look, so Henry continued, treading carefully, watching her daydream with utter fascination.
"I like to stand under a tall tree, or on the porch, so that I may watch the rain fall around me without feeling a drop on my head. I like to close my eyes and just listen to the sound the raindrops make falling all around me. John loves the rain too; always has. He likes to jump in all the puddles. Drives his mother crazy coming in covered head to toe in mud."
Castiel's eyes refocused. There was a distinct curiosity in her attention now.
"You have a child?"
"A son," Henry answered, wondering when the conversation had turned so personal after all. Had she done that on purpose, to get information about his family? Of course not. What could she do, shackled down here? But he still felt immensely protective of John. The idea that he might endanger his life just because some monster made tempting company...
"I don't mean either of you any harm," Castiel said, addressing Henry's rising insecurities directly, and only making him more paranoid.
"I can't know that for sure." Henry felt defensive now; trapped. "What if you--"
Castiel interrupted him.
"You have to go," she said, her voice rough. He could have sworn that she was disappointed, but she was also urgent--pressing. "Go now."
Henry didn't even feel like he had the chance to reassure her that he'd be back. She seemed so convinced that he should leave - and straight away - that he rushed out the door without a word. No sooner was he out of the basement did Patrick appear, looking grim and flustered.
"Where the hell have you been, Henry? Joseph has a solution to the clotting problem. He wants you to take a look at it."
But Henry was thinking of the angel he'd left in the basement, the candle he'd forgotten which would burn down to nothing and then go out, leaving her in lonely darkness all over again. He cursed himself for getting defensive. She'd just wanted to know more about him. The thought of a little drizzle was probably the most exciting thing to cross her mind for more than a decade.
And John? Well, John was the most interesting thing about Henry Winchester. His son; his little boy; his legacy.