Bakersfield, Early Afternoon

Bakersfield

Early Afternoon

Once more Sasha found himself practically buried under children. Though the collective weight was nothing to him, he staggered to and fro, sending up delighted shouts and squeals as it looked as if he were going to collide with a nearby jaguar-shaped arboreal play structure. Giant spotted leaves closed over its form all at once as the children who had climbed into its hollow insides drew back from their observation posts. Of course, Sasha caught himself just in time. A chorus of giggles rose up around him.

This is quite a park, Sasha had thought to himself when he’d first laid eyes on it.

He’d spent many a spare morning in New York City’s Central Park before the world turned upside down. It was incredible, massive in scope and lined with rows and rows of trees, the well-kept paths and lawns and stone sculptures complementing the natural splendor rather than cutting through it. It was a bastion of peacefulness in the midst of a constantly busy, noisy city, and Sasha liked watching the transformation from urgent purpose to quiescence as New Yorkers stepped into what looked like an entirely different world.

Of course, there was nothing even close to Central Park in Bakersfield, but what Sasha saw was not the careful architecture of planned recreation—what he saw was practically a forest, with a dense collection of trees, branches, and multicolored flowers, guided and woven together by a combination of a steady hand and natural growth. The ground was almost spongy, and coated in the softest grass that yielded easily under Sasha’s feet and slowly rose again once he passed. There were distinct paths, covered by arching branches, but they wound and curved so whimsically that it seemed the trees that lined the path had decided its direction. Despite the sheer volume of arbor, the foliage had grown sparingly—only as decoration, it seemed, no doubt to allow for easier visibility. Where Central Park was like some medieval castle’s expansive garden, this park was like some kind of fairytale kingdom.

The little game that currently found Sasha covered in children had degenerated quickly from the initial game of Hide and Seek Tag. Whenever he found someone, he couldn’t just chase them around and tag them. He had to stomp and growl like some kind of monster, then pick them up once he caught them and pretend to eat them. But, as every child knows, a vicious monster is just asking to be defeated. Two brave souls had dove and clung to his legs, which emboldened more children to leave their hiding spots among the various beast-shaped jungle gyms to tackle or climb him.

Lena was not yet among them. Sasha briefly scanned the area, but he didn’t really expect to find her. She was very good at hiding.

It had been a sad thing to see Lena watching the other children. It had started with her eyeing them playing among the trees’ branches as she showed Sasha around the park. She’d been mostly quiet on the trip there, but that was a thoughtful silence, a silence that told Sasha that she was still digesting the conversations that had come before. But as they entered the park she seemed much more present, more aware. So Sasha decided to fill the silence.

“This place is your favorite, then?”

Lena looked at him and nodded.

“Why’s that?” he prompted.

“Alvaro made it,” Lena replied. “I got to watch him. And I even helped a little.”

Before Sasha could comment, she took a sharp turn away from the playground. Sasha almost lost her behind the foliage that concealed her departure, and he had to stoop and turn sideways to squeeze through the small passage beyond it. But there was indeed a passage there, and it led to a little domed room, of sorts, consisted of more woven branches. The sun shone through on the far end of the “room,” lighting what seemed to be some kind of tree-ladder that led up and out, to the top of the trees, where Lena settled on a comfortable-looking nest of woven branches. It offered an incredible view of the rest of the park.

“This is what I made,” she said once he pulled himself beside her.

Maybe some of the hiding children weren’t close enough to see that Hide and Seek Tag had become Fight the Big, Mean Monster. He straightened and gave an exaggerated roar of defiance, declaring, “You will never defeat me! Your numbers are pitiful! I will feast on you all!” To drive his declaration home, he reached for the boy hanging around his neck and pulled him forth, making loud munching noises after bringing him close to his face. When he was done, he let out a loud, fake belch and set the boy down.

Still no sign of Lena. She was either still hiding or Derrick’s warning had gotten the better of her. Something told Sasha to wait and see.

While they’d sat atop her little hideout, she’d been keeping a firm lid on the energy that every ten-year-old seemed to have, shifting and changing positions or hanging off of branches or fidgeting as she and Sasha switched off asking questions and guessing each others’ thoughts. But every so often her eyes flicked to the children noisily playing Duck-Duck-Goose below them.

It was round three of Twenty Questions when Sasha had finally decided to call her on it.

He’d pointedly glanced at the game in progress before looking back to her. “You know, you don’t have to keep me company. I’m a grown man, I can handle myself.” He thumped his fist against his chest for emphasis.

Lena pinned her gaze on the network of woven branches that had been supporting her. “Twenty Questions is fun,” she said quietly.

“So’s Duck-Duck-Goose,” Sasha pointed out.

Having been properly called on it, Lena rubbed her upper arm uneasily, turning her gaze off to the side. “Derrick says I’m not to play with the other children.”

This had taken Sasha utterly aback. Yes, Derrick was a serious fellow, but he wasn’t entirely humorless. Certainly not enough to needlessly isolate a ten-year-old girl from other people her age. “Why not?”

“Because I’m a Templar,” she mumbled. “I could hurt someone really bad if I got carried away.”

Well, that concern certainly made sense. It didn’t stop it from being sad. Sasha had seen too many children grow up too quickly to sit back and watch it happen again.

It didn’t take long before a solution sprang to mind.

“Ever played Hide and Seek Tag?” he asked.

A puzzled expression overcame Lena’s face. “No.”

Sasha unfolded his legs and made his way to the branch-ladder. “Let’s fix that, then.”

In short order he was beginning his descent. Lena moved to peek over the edge of the opening and peer down at him.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

Sasha paused and looked up at her. “You need lots of players for Hide and Seek Tag to be any fun. You coming?”

“I just said I can’t,” Lena protested.

“I’ll be It,” Sasha explained. “That means all you have to do is hide and not get caught if I find you. Pretty harmless, right?” At Lena’s hesitation, he continued. “Besides, I’m a Templar too,” he let go of a branch with one hand to frame the badge with his fingers, “so that means you won’t accidentally hurt me if things get out of hand.”

Still, she hesitated. He had convinced her enough to consider it, but not to actually follow him.

“I won’t tell Derrick if you won’t,” Sasha added.

It was then that he saw the subtle give of her shoulders and her expression. Sasha gave her a smile and continued his descent.

He was fairly certain that he’d drawn all of the other kids out of hiding by now. Even those who’d been “eaten” had restored themselves to life and tried their hand at helping take him down. It wouldn’t be fair if he kept up like this. He had to die, whether Lena was participating anymore or not.

“There’s just… too many of you!” Sasha cried out desperately.

He staggered, carefully sliding his legs out of the clutches of the children who had clung to his shins, and collapsed to his hands and knees. More let go, giggling, as he began to list and tip to the side, finally collapsing the rest of the way to the ground with a thump and a long, low, dramatic dying groan.

A great cheer went up at the victory. After jumping on him a few times, they left him to find another monster to defeat.

It was then that Sasha saw Lena’s feet approaching him. She stopped short of his outstretched hand. Smart girl. He’d have to find a different opportunity to ambush her with tickles.

“I don’t think that’s how you play Hide and Seek Tag,” she said, humor edging her voice.

“It isn’t?” he asked, slowly rising. “My mistake.”

There it was: the beginnings of a wan little smirk!

“That’s not a smile I see, is it?” Sasha asked, pointing a warning finger at Lena. “That would mean you’re having fun. We can’t have that.”

Despite herself, Lena’s smirk spread a little. But she shook her head, which took the humor away from her expression.

A glimpse! There was hope. Sasha would get a real smile out of her yet.

“OUT OF THE FUCKIN’ WAY, GODDAMMIT!”

The exclamation cut through Sasha’s internal debate. His gaze snapped to the source, which was a gangly teenaged boy with barely darkened peach fuzz on his upper lip, his eyes wild, sprinting with all his might through the park. A surgical mask haphazardly covered his chin, revealing a panting mouth curled downward with fear. Every so often his head snapped to look over his shoulder. A couple of fallen children were in his wake, clearly knocked over. One’s lip was quivering, heralding the beginning of a sob.

The teenager’s glove-covered hands forcefully shoved a little girl—no older than six—out of his path, sending her slamming hard into a nearby tree truck.

It had been a long time since Sasha felt anger’s spark. It brought fire to his hands and Devchuska’s call to his ears. As he clenched his fists, they closed around her, and a familiar, comforting weight settled underneath his fingers.

In a half-instant he stood and flung her straight out into the path of the rampage, holding her steady.

As predicted, the teenager slammed into to the ground as his feet kept going where his face didn’t. A surprised grunt, suddenly smashed between gravity and ground, whooshed out of his lungs. Before he could realize what hit him, Sasha let Devchuska slide until her head thumped against his hand, let her go with the other, and seized a large handful of shirt, lifting the boy off his feet.

“What’s the hurry, huh?” Sasha asked, trying to keep his tone to a more conversational level of growling.

The boy blinked the stars from his eyes and struggled to focus on Sasha’s face. “Whuh…” They flicked to his badge.

In short order, panic overtook him. The boy grabbed at Sasha’s hands, futilely attempting to pry free from his grasp. His gloves were speckled with various colors of spraypaint and smelled heavily of aerosol. Once it was clear that there was no escape, he flung a terrified look over his shoulder.

As if prompted, there was a clanking of metal on metal, with the cadence of footsteps. It seemed to be coming from the entrance to the park.

“Let me go, man!” The boy’s maturing voice cracked into a pathetic, desperate-sounding squeak. “She’s gonna kill me!”

Sasha began to regret listening to Devchuska. All she ever wanted was to smash things. Not that he’d smashed the boy, or ever would, for that matter. Clearly, in his anger, he’d almost forgotten who was the brains of this operation. Next time he’d use his arm to clothesline someone.

The clanking drew closer at a very fast pace, accompanied by the distinctive buzz and crackle of electricity.

“Who’s going to kill you?” His words no longer came out as a growl. He lowered the boy a little.

“That crazy bitch!” The teenager gave Sasha a look of pure pleading, tears welling in his eyes. If Sasha hadn’t lifted him off his feet, he’d doubtlessly be kneeling by now. “Let me go, please!”

“You shouldn’t have committed a crime if you weren’t prepared to face the consequences.”

The voice, though calm and level, resounded through the park, sending a slight shiver through the trees as if a thunderstorm had struck some distance away. The eyes that weren’t already turned toward the scene could no longer resist its draw as a figure emerged from around the path’s corner.

“Ohshitohshitohshit,” the teenager whimpered, looking over his shoulder, his voice now one long squeak.

Armored footsteps thumped on the loamy ground—the soft grass seemed reluctant to recover after they passed as if it feared being stepped on again. Electricity crawled over gauntlet, pauldron, and red cross painted over breastplate in agitation, snapping into the air every so often. Hard, gray eyes reflected the jagged white-blue lines, even as they were fixed on the boy in Sasha’s hands.

Sasha had seen Johanna like this only once before, and that had involved Titanspawn. Instinctively, he turned the side not currently holding the boy towards her. It wasn’t until he’d finished his rotation that he realized Devchuska was at the forefront instead, issuing her silent threats.

This didn’t escape Johanna. She slowed to a stop and fixed Sasha with a steady look.

“Your help is appreciated, Sasha,” she said, her voice still level. “Release the criminal into my custody and I will see to his punishment.” She held out a gauntleted hand.

“NO!” shrieked the boy. “PLEASE!”

Punishment. Sasha lowered the boy further, but made no move to release him. “Punishment” wasn’t “sentence.”

He glanced at the teenager, then gave Johanna a puzzled look, motioning to him with Devchuska’s head. “What’d he do?”

“Nothing, man, I didn’t do shit!”

Almost immediately, Johanna stepped forward, lowering her hand and clenching her fist. Her eyes narrowed on the teenager. Little tongues of lightning crackled around her gauntlet.

“_That_ is a lie,” she said. Though her voice was low, it continued to boom through the trees.

Sasha turned away from her further. As if just realizing what she was doing, she stepped back and straightened.

“He defaced Beale Library,” she reported. Though Sasha could tell she was trying to keep her voice level, he couldn’t help but notice the venom spat out alongside the word “defaced.”

“I’s just expressing myself!”

Lightning arced from pauldron to pauldron. Before Sasha could react, Johanna stepped forward again, lowering her chin to fix the teenager’s gaze to hers.

“Please tell me what you’d hoped to express,” she growled, “with the crude outline of male genitals spraypainted all over a mural by my fallen brother who’s not even three weeks dead.”

Every last little bit of defiance fled from the boy under the dagger-filled glare. “Tomas dared me to do it!” he sobbed.

Sasha brought Devchuska across his forearm and gently urged Johanna back, careful to touch her armor only with Devchuska’s neck. Though he could handle a good shock, he wasn’t sure if the boy could. She straightened and lifted her chin, not budging. Her lips pressed into a flat line.

“Am I to charge you with obstruction of justice, then?” she asked.

“I’m just a little confused by all the…” Sasha made a vague motion towards the electricity snapping around Johanna. “It makes it look like it’s personal, is all.” She squared her shoulders and took in a breath. But before Johanna could defend herself, he continued. “He admitted to guilt. So what’s his sentence?”

“I’m confused about why this concerns you, Mr. Petrov,” Johanna replied. Electricity snapped where her words didn’t, dispelling all illusion of a level tone.

Sasha hadn’t realized he’d forgotten about Lena until she stepped forward from behind him. She splayed her small hand upon Johanna’s breastplate. The dancing electricity focused suddenly on her, crackling rapidly down her forearm. She hardly seemed to notice.

“Johanna,” she said, her tone thick with the gravity of ritual, belying her girl’s voice. “Do not be wise in your own eyes…”

Johanna’s eyelids fluttered. “… Fear the Lord and shun evil.” The electricity dissipated in mere moments.

Almost as if of their own accord, Johanna’s fingers dove into a small leather pouch, then brought something up to her mouth, concealed by the gauntlet. Whatever it was, she swallowed it and bowed her head, concealing her expression.

“Let him go,” Johanna told Sasha, not looking up.

Sasha glanced at the boy, dubious. “Looks like your lucky day.”

Keeping his eyes on Johanna and Devchuska at the ready, Sasha set the kid down, but didn’t let him go. He’d still knowingly vandalized public property, after all. And a library, of all places! Sending him on his way meant that he’d gotten away with it—even if he’d been through what was probably the most frightening experience of his life so far, judging by the tears and snot still spilling down his face. It might set a precedent.

Sasha caught the gaze of one of the gathered mothers.

“What’s your name, miss?” he asked.

“J-Julia. Julia Dittburn.”

He offered her a reassuring smile, which seemed to get her to relax a little. “Julia. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Sasha. Please can you do me a favor?”

The woman warily inclined her head a little.

“Take Mr. Free Expression here to the northern construction site. Tell Derrick that he has a new helper.” She nodded. He gave the boy a steady look. “Maybe you’ll learn firsthand why construction workers deserve to see prettier art on their buildings.” He released the kid. “I’ll be back to check up on you bright and early every day for the next two weeks, got it?”

The teenager wiped the back of his gloved hand across his nose and nodded. Once he disappeared from view alongside Julia, a resigned—and relieved—air settled over Johanna, releasing the tight muscles in her face. She scanned over the gathered crowd of stunned parents and frightened children before sighing and turning her gaze to the ground.

“Forgive me,” murmured Johanna, seemingly to no one in particular. “I forgot myself.”

Lena stepped closer and gave her a hug. Gently, Johanna wrapped her armor-plated arms around the girl.

“It’s okay,” Lena whispered. After pulling away, she looked at Sasha. “We should go back home now.”

Bakersfield, Early Afternoon

God-Touched Nut_Meg