Bakersfield, Late Afternoon

Bakersfield

Late Afternoon

Not a word was spoken between Sasha, Lena, and Johanna. Despite the awkwardness that unasked questions strung though the air, Sasha knew it was better that way. The answers would come eventually.

It was twenty minutes before the now-familiar landscape opened up before them and fruity, flowery, and citrus fragrances mingled in the air pleasantly. What had once been the parking lot to a shopping center was now a vast garden, lined by a wide variety of fruit trees, arranged so that colors shifted through the rainbow in a slow gradient. Movement dotted the garden as people filled their baskets with a variety of flowers, vegetables, fruits, squashes, and roots. Sasha offered a smile and wave to the folks manning various booths that lined the path, covered in salvage, crafts, and piles of freshly picked crop. From what he’d seen, there were no formal arrangements—there were those who favored convenience, those who favored industry, and everyone in between, which meant that, despite being public farmland, there was still a place for a market.

“Home” still had the big, bold letters on it which spelled out “REGENCY,” though the “THEATERS” had been taken down and the signboard which had once featured the names of the latest movies had long since become blank. Faint, mixed strains of music punctuated by tambourine beats or claps or stomps carried through the glass doors that marked the entrance.

As Sasha opened the door for Johanna and Lena, the scent of spices and cooking hit all at once. The lobby, box office, and concessions areas had been converted into a massive cafeteria, with no shortage of volunteers cooking, serving, and cleaning at all hours of the day. Hundreds of people sat on cushions, bowls, utensils, or handfuls of food near their faces as they ate their late lunches in the dull roar of conversation that seemed to constantly suffuse the building.

Sasha had seen it get packed almost from corner to corner at dinnertime, so loud that he could barely hear himself think. His favorite moment was Grace, when silence would fall all at once as Derrick stood and held his arms out, calling for everyone to join hands. It was awe-inspiring. For a moment, everyone was part of a family, a family consisted of thousands of people, all united in mutual gratefulness. Sasha almost felt bad for offering his gratitude to Lady Mokosh, for quietly keeping leftovers to place in the corner of his quarters, for covertly spilling a little of his drink out on his napkin to place outside before drinking it himself.

Upon their entrance, various people set down their dishes and hurried to collect around them, praises, requests, and questions melding together in one constant babble of voices.

This was a routine Sasha was familiar with. He glanced at Johanna. Her gaze swept over the people collected there with a kind of hazy impassiveness, the turning of her head seeming sluggish. He drew himself up to usher people away.

Before he could say anything, though, Lena’s voice pierced through the crowd. “Stay back, please. Johanna’s not feeling well and needs some rest.”

To Sasha’s surprise, most of the crowd obliged, and those that still insisted were quickly hushed by their fellows. The three Templars continued their journey through the lobby, which was punctuated by generous and gracious offerings of food from the kitchen staff, which Lena turned down with well-practiced politeness. Sasha, on the other hand, accepted a couple small samples—he knew how it felt to be on the giving end of gratitude, how important it was for that gratitude to be accepted.

The interruptions dropped off as they crossed into the halls. They passed by theater after theater, almost all of which had been converted to some other purpose. Sasha had been given the grand tour once, guided through each of them and given duties to fulfill. He idly sounded off a couple in his head as he passed: Theater 6, a shelter for homeless youths, assist Alvaro in supervising them Monday and Wednesday mornings, when they help farm; Theater 8, the altar, sweep and mop up after Sunday Mass; Theater 9, the only actual theater, usher people to their seats on Friday movie nights.

The smallest of them, at the very end of the hall, had been converted into modest living quarters for the Templars. The theater seats had long ago been removed, giving room for the five little hut-like buildings circled around a central living space consisted of tables, chairs, cushions, and couches. The huts were sleeping quarters, with walls that were tall but thin and covered only by a canvas, allowing for even small sounds to carry. Not that the lack of privacy mattered all that much—this was the first time Sasha had ever witnessed more than two of them in the living quarters at once. Knights Templar—at least this group—led very busy, industrious lives.

Johanna mounted her spear on her hut’s wall and turned to the life-sized art mannequin across from it and slowly, methodically began doffing her armor and transferring it over.

So that’s what it was for! Sasha had only ever seen it bare, and had even posed it occasionally when the mood had struck him.

Her movements were thick but purposeful, as if she were performing some kind of ritual. It was mesmerizing to watch, done with a sense of grace and… artistry, perhaps? Each piece of armor was handled with great care. There was almost a rhythm to it, as if she were performing them in time with some kind of song or chant. But the cadence was broken as her fingers almost nervelessly fumbled with tightening a gauntlet strap over the mannequin’s forearm. The gauntlet slid off the mannequin and clattered to the floor, tracked a half a moment later by Johanna’s impassive gaze.

Before Sasha could offer to help, though, he heard, “Sasha.” Lena’s whisper was as faint as the sound of a cat’s tail swishing just over the floor. It felt almost as if it were right next to his ear, despite her being across the room.

“Hmm?” he asked. Though he kept his voice low, there was no way he could be as quiet as her.

“Stop staring,” she whispered.

“I wasn’t staring,” he replied, looking to Lena. He opened his mouth, ready to explain—it was like watching a baby bird hatch from its egg, you see—

“I can hear you, Mr. Petrov,” said Johanna, not turning to face him.

Sasha turned towards her again, but realized what he was doing and picked a spot on a wall away from her. “I was just observing,” he defended. “Forgive me—you see, it’s like watching a baby bir—”

“It’s fine. Had I thought you would mind me undressing in front of you, I would’ve gone to my room.”

Her words were followed by a brief, almost airy chuckle. It sounded like it had her voice, but Sasha was unsure. He abandoned his spot on the wall to search her expression for any sign of humor.

There wasn’t a time since he met her that it wasn’t framed by her helm. Now, though… he could see the full shape of her surprisingly round face, which got wider in the middle before squaring off at the jaw and meeting at a round chin. The gray in her eyes stood out more without the metal, among the gently rosy cheeks and surprisingly long blonde hair.

She gave no indication of mirth—indeed, she gave no indication that she had said anything at all, strapping her pauldrons to the shoulders of the dummy before finally undoing the catches on her breastplate.

“I must ask a favor of you, Mr. Petrov,” she said.

Sasha straightened a little. “Sure. What do you need?”

She tilted her chin over her shoulder slowly, her hooded eyes turned to look sidelong at him.

“Please report my absence to Sheriff Giron. And then…” she began. Then she paused a moment. The following hesitation was thick, almost painful, and was too long, as if time were slowed for her but no one else. “And then, if you have a spare moment, please go to Beale Library and give the east wall a fresh coat of paint.”

Lena shifted forward suddenly. “But Johanna, that’s the mural we made with Devin!”

Her eyelids flickered a little, but her expression stayed mostly slack. “I know.”

Sasha adjusted himself to face her more directly. “Are you sure you want me to do this?”

“Yes,” she said quietly, unmoving. “Yes, it must be you.”

That Sasha wasn’t expecting. He wanted to be certain that she wanted it done, not that she wanted him to do it.

“Why?” demanded Lena.

“He’s taken Devin’s room, is assisting us as any other Templar would, and even wears Devin’s badge. It’s appropriate that he should wipe the Beale Library wall clean.”

Oh. No wonder she had hardly said more than two words to him until now. He glanced at his badge uneasily.

Lena offered no response, though the air around her burned with protest. Clearly she hadn’t meant the question that way either, but she couldn’t bring herself to correct Johanna.

“Will you do it, Mr. Petrov?” Johanna asked.

He looked up to find her facing him again. Johanna seemed much, much smaller without all that metal on, though she was by no means a small woman. Lacking the helmet, she stood perhaps just a half-a-head shorter than Sasha and had a very solid build, with broad shoulders, a trim waist, thick, muscled legs, and strong-looking hands. The simple off-white tunic and black leggings seemed odd on her, about as odd as the dummy seemed garbed in her armor. It made her seem so soft, and the dummy so rigid.

“You sure you don’t want to think on this for a while?” he asked. Perhaps when her mind wasn’t addled by whatever drug she had taken.

“I have. I nearly destroyed that boy for defacing it.” Her shoulders rose and fell as she took a deep breath. “That’s not justice. That’s a grievous sin.” Another pause followed. “Devin would rather I destroy the mural.” Her eyelids flickered again, slowly, as if she were fighting to keep awake. “So… please, Sasha.” It was unnerving, how, through the fog of listlessness that coated her plea, Sasha could feel its importance.

Lena’s mouth twisted as she tried to hold back her own plea. She sent a beseeching look to Sasha that twisted his guts.

Despite himself, Sasha nodded.

“Thank you.” Johanna turned away. “I’ll be in my room.”

After the door closed behind her, there was a silence strung tight with the tension of mixed emotions and uncertainty. This was one that Sasha couldn’t let be.

“Lena…”

She didn’t look at him.

“I’ll stay,” she mumbled. “You can go.”

His guts twisted further. There was nothing he wanted more than to draw her close, wrap her in a great, big, warm hug. But he didn’t think it would help much in this case. In fact, he wasn’t sure what would. Usually he was better about that.

He started toward the EXIT sign, which probably hadn’t been lit in years. But its light was replaced by the shine of an idea, suddenly switched on.

Sasha took off his badge, examining it. It was a simple thing, cast from metal and perfectly circular, with a raised cross painted with a coat of shiny red lacquer. He turned it over in his hand. On the back was a sturdy pin and a single word engraved in an elegant font: Benevolentia.

He turned back to Lena, who was moving to a nearby chair, stepped in front of her, and crouched to catch her gaze.

“Trade you,” he said, holding the badge out to her.

A slight frown curled her mouth and creased her brow.

“But I’m—”

“Humilitas,” Sasha said, keeping his voice low. “I know that. You know that. Alvaro, Johanna, and Derrick know that. It’s already in your heart. That’s a lot closer than next to your heart, which is the closest a badge can get. The space is better reserved for a part of Devin, don’t you think?”

Lena looked up at him, the light of hope on her face and in her eyes, all tight with concerted constraint. Then she turned down to her shirt, quickly removing her badge, then held it out to Sasha. The moment the trade was done, Lena pinned Benevolentia to the newly empty space, releasing it gingerly, as if it would fall off if she let go. Once it proved secure, she flung her arms around Sasha’s neck, burying her face deeper in his shoulder as her grip tightened. No sooner did Sasha wrap his own arms around her that he felt his shoulder growing wet.

“Awww, hey, little mouse,” he murmured, rubbing her back, “it’s all right. You’ll be okay.”

A long silence followed, hardly broken by soft sniffles and gentle, muffled gasps. He drew her with him as he slowly shifted from his crouch to sitting cross-legged on the floor.

After a while, Sasha felt her trembling calm and her arms loosen.

“Sasha?” He could feel her speaking into his shoulder.

“Mmm?”

“When are you gonna… ?” Though she trailed off, Sasha caught her meaning anyway.

He considered this a moment. He was planning on going right away, but Derrick would no doubt want them gathered for dinner soon. “I’m thinking after dinner.”

Lena looked up at him, wiping her nose with the back of a hand. Red rimmed her eyes, edged her nose, and blotched her cheeks. “Can I come?”

“Of course,” Sasha said.

The little mouse unwrapped her arms and pulled away.

“Thanks, Sasha,” she murmured.

“Pfft, it’s nothing.” He paused. It was worth another shot.“Though I’m running pretty low on friendly gestures. I might have to steal some food off your plate. And maybe even some dessert, too.”

A smile grew, unexpected but genuine, rounding her cheeks. She tilted her chin down and away, looking at the ground, as if to shield Sasha from the full force of it.

It was like another gong rang through his bones, this time struck squarely below his sternum. He knew that smile, down to its tinge of melancholy, the way the hair fell over her eyes (even if the color didn’t quite match up), and the gentle light it brought to her face, even as it stole the blood from his.

“Dievai,” Sasha breathed.

Lena’s smile faded as quickly as it had appeared, in favor of wariness. “What?”

Sasha couldn’t say anything as he searched her face for a response. Suddenly they were familiar features. The shape of the eyes, the mouth, the chin, the nose, the somber tilt of the brows, the slight, square edge of the jaw.

It couldn’t be true. It just couldn’t be. Lord Father, let it not be true, because, if it was…

Thickening resolve tipped Sasha’s internal equilibrium, the harmony that sang through his bones so often that he had forgotten it could be upset. This was a gross transgression of the cosmic law, of his Lord Father’s final ruling; it had to be set to rights so that the balance might begin to be tipped back into place. Everything told him so, from his burning pulse, pounding like the hammering of hot metal, to the vision of the yellow sign with blue lettering, to the nightmare that had been shared with him only a few hours ago.

No. He would not—could not—do that to her. She was family—and she had lost so much already to their Lord Father’s sentence. And Sasha could not stand the thought of being the one to steal away her smiles—her hope—for eternity.

“For a minute, you reminded me of someone I knew,” he explained after a moment of searching for words, once his throat was freed by his thoughts.

Lena furrowed her brow.

“Your sister?” she asked.

Her intuition cut through him.

“Yeah,” Sasha replied, his throat tight once more.

“I hope you find her again,” Lena said.

For a moment Sasha couldn’t respond. The words he ended up choosing were so simple they seemed almost obscene. “Me too.” Quickly he cleared his throat, rose, and pinned the heretofore forgotten Humiltas badge to his wet shirt. “I’m gonna go help serve dinner. You coming?”

Bakersfield, Late Afternoon

God-Touched Nut_Meg