Bakersfield, Late Evening

Bakersfield

Late Evening

“Why would you want to go to Dis?” Candace asked, her tone thick with incredulity.

Sasha shrugged with one shoulder. The other was occupied with helping his hand hold a couch up overhead.

“Alvaro invited me.”

“Of course he did.” Candace sighed and turned her eyes to the sky before returning to sweeping the spot where the couch had been. “All right, what do you wanna know?”

“Anything I should,” Sasha said. “So far I’m just a step above a tourist. I don’t even know how to get there.”

For a thoughtful moment, Candace was silent.

“Well, I could explain everything to you, but it would take all night. Long story short, Dis is in the heart of the city, which still very much belongs to the Disciples. And that’s a place a tourist shouldn’t really be wandering through. Not that we get tourists.” She looked at Sasha with an appraising eye. “I mean, you’d probably be okay, even if you weren’t a Templar. The only people who’d want to tussle with you are the sorts that would rather…” her eyes flicked him down and up, “polish your weapon than draw one on you.” After a slightly uncomfortable pause, she added, “Though you might want to take your badge off, if you Templars can even do that.”

Sasha nodded. “Attract too much attention?”

Candace pointed at him and clicked her tongue in the affirmative. “You got it.” She quickly finished up her sweeping. “Some people take it as a personal challenge to corrupt a Templar. Or think that you’re all secretly fellow sinners. Though I suppose it won’t matter once people start to recognize you around here.”

She stepped back, prompting Sasha to put the couch back down in its original position. As he did, he felt her appraising look. After a brief moment of silence, she spoke up.

“You’re gonna need different clothes.” With that, she turned, edged around the counter, and replaced the broom in its corner.

He looked down at his outfit, then back to Candace, a half-smirk growing on his face. “I take it I don’t meet the night club dress code, then?”

Candace let out a little bark of laughter. Though it had a healthy sardonic dosage, it was just as tiny as she was. It was too cute to be cynical.

“That shade of blue is for Los Diablos Azules.” Candace paused in removing her apron as she realized she’d have to elaborate. “Err. A gang. They’ve been mostly wiped out by MaMa’s Boys, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be mistaken for one of them.”

Sasha regarded his shirt. “Awww, but this color complements my eyes.”

“And makes you look less vascular,” Candace agreed, giving him a playful smirk.

He straightened, crossed his arms, and lifted his chin in exaggerated offense. “I’m not vascular. I’m ruddy. I could wear red if I wanted to.”

This elicited an eyeroll from the little woman. She vaulted over the counter. “You’ll want to avoid red anyway.”

“Los Diablos Rojos?” Sasha asked.

Candace laughed a little. “Right idea.”

“So what can I wear?”

The serious look of consideration that overcame her expression told Sasha just how limited his options were. That wasn’t a good sign. His wardrobe consisted of the worn-out, ten-year-old, holey t-shirt and jeans he’d had when he first arrived, and a few other sets of clothing and accessories that had been gifted to him from various people around Bakersfield.

“Well, it would help if I could see what you have.” Candace scanned the empty Starbucks briefly. “We’re done here anyway, and the book I have waiting for me at home isn’t going anywhere, so…” Her eyes settled on Sasha. She gave him a smirk. “Let’s play dress-up!”


Dress-up thankfully did not result in having to go naked. But, as Candace tried to continue her instruction on what to avoid, she found that there was a lot of vital information that she knew too instinctively to talk about. So dress-up resulted in Sasha helping Candace pick out an outfit suitable for a tour guide to the Bakersfield night life.

She’d had many more options, of course. It had been a long time since Sasha had been subjected to the sheer magnitude of variety in a woman’s wardrobe. In a way it was nice. It was reminiscent of times past, in the right-side-up world, of a smile which curled the lips’ edges down a little before they curled up as if more of it were being reserved for later, of a form which settled so perfectly against him, of a very particular scent of hair and a very particular warmth.

Once they had crossed through the unofficial, unmarked, unspoken barrier that separated the Templars’ Bakersfield and Central Bakersfield, Sasha’s tour guide looked around at the cityscape as they walked side-by-side through the street. Throughout their trip she’d pointed out landmarks and offered anecdotes with the renewed enthusiasm of someone who was browsing through a photo album of cherished childhood memories.

Sasha listened, of course. But he spent most of his time quietly scanning the streets—dimly lit by sconces attached to the outsides of buildings—and watching the people who occupied them. There was conversation, there was laughter, there was a distinct sense of comfort and familiarity among them, just as there was during the day. Still, there were skulking shadows and alleys blanketed by darkness that even his keen senses couldn’t pierce through. He couldn’t even see the full resplendence of Radegast’s starry cloak stretch across the sky, as if the thick shadows around the city had hidden its inhabitants from the stars as it would its shame.

But, as they crossed an open expanse of street, Chors’ light brushed his skin, like some kind of reassuring touch. Though he knew her place in the sky was empty, just the memory helped… the vision of her smile, so fresh on his mind now—how would it change once he found her again?

“Ohmaigawd, Candy!” cried a woman’s voice.

The source of the cry was a woman notably taller than Candace, with earthy-colored skin and chin-length hair styled to suggestively cover one side of her smoky eyes and full lips. She was clad in pointed heels, a woven, tight skirt that barely reached mid-thigh, and what looked to be a sheer, layered shawl as a top, shifting easily over the silhouette underneath.

Candace’s jaw dropped. “Ollie?”

Heels tapped frantically on the pavement and the woman collided with her in a clattering of jewelry. After a couple moments of their half-dance, half-embrace, Candace pulled away.

“I thought I’d never see your cute little ass around here again!” The other woman—Ollie—gave said ass a tap with the back of her hand. “I mean, Kendall said you’d become a nun or somethin’.”

“Tell him I’m not that cliché,” Candace retorted. “I became a barista.”

Ollie tilted her head some, sending her dangly earrings glittering, her expression giving way to puzzlement. “But why?”

“I like coffee.” Candace shrugged noncommittally. “And it gives me time to do stuff like read, sculpt, cook. Stuff I never knew I liked to do before I started doing it.”

There was a lot she was holding back yet. A slight guardedness strung the air, wedging distance between Candace and Ollie. And Sasha wasn’t the only one who sensed it. Some of Ollie’s prior high energy faded.

She nodded to him. “So who’s tall, dark, and handsome here, huh?”

Candace turned to look up at Sasha. “Friend of mine. Sasha, this is Ollie.”

Sasha gave Candace a pointed look. “See? She called me dark, not vascular.”

Ollie turned another look of puzzlement to Candace.

Candace simply rolled her eyes and suppressed a smirk. “Ignore him, he’s weird.”

“Oh.” Ollie paused before giving Sasha a smirk of mischief that was almost a mirror to Candace’s. With the smoky eyes and the dark red lipstick, however, it had a very different effect. “It’s okay. I like weird. Weird can be a very good time.”

Sasha rubbed the back of his neck and looked towards Candace helplessly. “Ah…” That was one thing he had no idea how to politely extricate himself from without clumsily changing the topic. And why wasn’t Candace saying anything? She was just watching, shifted back on her rear leg, arms crossed.

Ollie looked between them and her smile broadened. She took a step forward, resting a hand on his chest. “Aww, honey, she doesn’t have to be left out. I’m open to a lot of things.”

“Board games?” Sasha asked. “I’m a mean Chapayev player.”

She paused, bemused. “Shop-ai-what?”

“Chapayev,” said Sasha, carefully removing her hand from him while she was occupied by her confusion. “Like checkers, except communist.”

Ollie considered this a moment. “There’s a Strip Checkers?”

Sasha cleared his throat. “Not the way I play it.” He paused to muse a moment. “Then again, I’ve only ever played with my sister.”

“Hold on, Ollie,” Candace said, holding up a hand to forestall her. She quickly got control of her stifled smirk and put on a serious face. “He’s part of Alvaro’s crew. You know how they are.” She paused to look at Sasha, as if in slight disapproval. He released Ollie’s hand, which slowly dropped to her side. “Besides, he’s a fresh import. Handy, but dirt broke.”

Ollie sucked on her teeth a little, looking Sasha up and down before settling into a slight pout and stepping back. “Ah well.”

Sasha relaxed a little. “But you’re more than welcome to join us at Dis. I’m sure Alvaro wouldn’t mind.”

Her pout turned into a more genuine, apologetic smile. “That’s sweet, but I’m working right now.” She paused, brightening as if she remembered something. “Oh, but, when you see him, be sure to tell him thank you for bringing us by some dinner earlier. Those tamales were so good.”

“Sure thing,” said Candace. She turned, grabbing Sasha’s arm, and began to usher him away. “Anyway, we should get going. It was so good seeing you again, though!”

Ollie nodded, offering them a wave as they departed. “You too, Candy! Don’t be a stranger!”

Once they were out of earshot, Candace released Sasha and gave him a thwap with the back of her hand. “That wasn’t very nice.”

He shook his head to free himself from surprise. “What?”

“Board games.” She tried to press her lips into a flat line to keep from smiling. “You were making fun of her!”

Sasha turned his hands up. “I wasn’t!” She gave him a distinctly dubious look. “Really!”

Candace tilted her head. “Come on. Don’t tell me you were planning on following up on the whole Shap-yav…”

Sasha rubbed the back of his neck. “Chapayev.”

She waved her hand dismissively. “Whatever. Chapayev. Anyway.”

“I panicked a little, okay? I started saying the first thing that came to mind.” He pointed an accusing finger at Candace. “You were putting me through the wringer.” For emphasis, he clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “Now that’s what’s not very nice.”

Candace pushed her tongue into her cheek, her eyes roving over him from head to toe to head again. After a couple moments of silence, she said, “You’re freakin’ adorable.” She looked away and shook her head. “If I hadn’t met Alvaro first, I wouldn’t believe you were for real.” At that, she leaned onto his arm, loosely wrapping it with hers. “C’mon, ‘tall, dark, and handsome.’ Let’s get you to Dis before we run into another one of my old coworkers.”

Luckily, there didn’t seem much more opportunity for that before they’d arrived at the squat, squarish building with its name propped on its flat roof. The massive block letters stood sentry behind a long trench of flickering firelight which sent both shadows and light dancing as if to the thumping beat that emanated from within, giving volume to the otherwise flat, smooth planes of the letters. Behind them was a column of clean smoke drifting into the sky. Various crowds of people in all manner of colorful outfits were loitering outside, smoking, talking, laughing. Two large, musclebound fellows stood sentry at the door to the place, each flanked by massive metal cabinets.

Candace pulled Sasha forward. Naturally, as they drew closer, the two door guards stepped forth, barring their entry.

One of them nodded to Candace. “Hey, Candy.”

“Hey, Midget. Uh, it’s Candace now,” she said. She turned to Sasha, inviting him forth. “This is Sasha, friend of mine. He’s not carrying.”

The guard stepped forward. “You know the rules, Cand… ace. We gotta check.” He regarded Sasha. “Arms up.” Sasha complied, standing still as the guard frisked him.

The silence was too tensely professional for Sasha’s liking. “So what’s the most interesting weapon you’ve come across this evening?”

“Desert Eagle,” grunted the guard. “It was loaded, too. One bullet. Don’t see that much nowadays.”

A Desert Eagle! That was interesting. It hadn’t taken very long after the world turned upside-down before guns were no longer useful. Proper ammo was very hard to make without automated machinery and even harder to come by.

Briefly Sasha wondered if Dovile still used her gun or if all she could do was carry it around like some kind of totem. Knowing her, though… she’d find the right ammo somewhere. Perhaps that was another thing that her magic scope could do.

“Hey, is Alvaro still in there?” Candace asked as the other guard patted her down.

“Haven’t seen him leave,” he replied.

She nodded. “Cool. Thanks.”

The two fellows stepped away, returning to their posts.

“Have fun, don’t cause any trouble, yadda yadda,” said the first guard, stepping aside to let them enter. He paused mid-thought, putting a hand out to forestall them. “Oh, uh, new rule as of two weeks ago. If you’re caught having sex in the bathroom, you’ll be kicked out for good.”

Candace’s jaw dropped briefly. “No way! What’s the story behind that one?”

The guard rolled his eyes, his lips pressed in a thin line of disgust. “You don’t wanna know. It was almost like that fuckin’ joke with the aristocrats. Reeked for days. Damien was really fuckin’ pissed.”

Candace shook her head. “Must’ve been. That move probably made a lot of people unhappy.”

The guard nodded. “You might notice the word ‘fascist’ is coming back into style.”

Fascist, a stylish word. Sasha was glad that the people here could toss it around so lightly. For him, the word still led to heavy thoughts and mixed emotions—even though he’d laid that life behind long before his Lord Father had first spoken to him, he’d still lived it.

But that sort of heaviness had no place here and now.

“On the up side, I imagine the folks on cleaning duty are much happier now,” Sasha pointed out.

That got a smile out of both guards, and a dry laugh from Candace.

“All right, we need to get back to work. Have fun, you two,” said the first guard, waving them in.

Sasha crossed through the doorway after Candace, beginning the descent down the steps into Dis.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” the guard called after them.

The stairway leading downward was wide but dark, and the ceiling was so low Sasha had to stoop. A group of chattering people passed them, their footsteps clunking up the stairs.

At the bottom of the stairway was a pair of swinging doors. Without much ado, Candace pushed them open and passed through, her head bobbing a little to the beat of the muffled music.

It was as if those door were the floodgates holding back a veritable wall of plunking, thumping music, body heat, and the mingled scents of perfumes, colognes, smoke, and sweat. Where the hallway was dark, the night club proper was darker. Around the entire room were blazing braziers, each holding flames of all sorts of different colors. Fire trenches lined the edges of the open second level loft, oddly enough casting it deeper shadow—at least, from Sasha’s vantage.

Directly beneath the loft was the bar, completely clear of flame, with two dark figures behind it, flitting about from station to station, serving drinks and passing, as fleeting as the firelight-cast shadows. Each table surrounding it had tiny, fluttering candle flames in various shades of cooler, calmer green, blue, and purple colors. The entire club’s walls were networked with pipes made of materials ranging from copper to PVC, each carrying the chaotic, almost cacophonous sounds pounded through them all over. As Sasha traced them to their source, they dipped from the walls into the dance floor, beneath the jumping, swaying, twisting, flailing mass of people, and came up through a raised platform in the middle of the room, upon which musicians tapped the pipes with wooden dowels or pounded against drums.

Over the dance floor was a solitary skylight in the high ceiling. Smoke flooded through it, obscuring the night sky even more than the city itself had.

Candace pulled Sasha aside, out of the doorway.

“All right, big guy, do you see Alvaro anywhere?” She had to shout to be heard.

“Hard to see anyone around here,” Sasha said, craning his neck to search over the dancing crowd.

Candace tapped him with the back of her hand. “C’mon, you practically have a bird’s eye view!”

As his scan proved fruitless he squinted to attempt to pierce the cloak of darkness over the loft. “This is your turf. You know what to look for better than I do.”

“He tends to be pretty visible—draws a crowd wherever he goes.” Candace began to scan around as well.

Sasha shrugged and looked back to Candace. “We could just ask around.”

She directed her mischievous smirk at him. “Really? Did you just suggest we ask for directions?”

Sasha cleared his throat and lifted his chin in an exaggerated display of defiance. “Of course not!” It was his turn to tease her now. “I could… put you on my shoulders and you could look for him.”

Candace gave him a flat look, but it quickly grew milder as her eyes flicked to his shoulders, considering.

“Okay,” she said, her arms akimbo, daring him to try it.

Well, that was unexpected. Sasha opened his mouth as he searched for a retort. But, hey, why not?

He closed his mouth and, without further ado, lifted her up easily by the waist. She let out an astonished yelp just as little as she was, quickly followed by laughter. Sasha began to maneuver her, but paused briefly: setting her astride his shoulders wouldn’t do, he realized—she was wearing a skirt. Instead he set her on his right side, leaving one hand up to keep her balanced.

“My god, I can see everything up here!” she cried.

“But can you see Alvaro?” Sasha asked.

He was answered with a long silence.

Time to try again. “Cand—”

She patted an urgent rhythm on the top of his head. “Sasha, some guy just took a swing at Alvaro!”

“Where?”

“Loft!”

In an instant, Sasha had slid Candace off his shoulder, set her down gently, and was making his way up the stairs, taking each step two at a time. Devchuska called to him again, but Sasha knew better this time. Besides, he wasn’t interested in breaking any rules.

It was easy to spot the hubbub—a crowd had gathered around Alvaro and a squarish-looking fellow with wiry limbs. One of the fellow’s hands was clenched, and the other held a glass bottle by its neck. A willowy, almost elfin-looking woman was cowering directly behind Alvaro, fear and horror and shame all twisting her expression, directed at the man opposite her. The fellow staggered back with uncoordinated feet, looking at Alvaro, astonished. Alvaro simply regarded him with a concerned expression, hands held passively before him, not looking the least bit punched out. He stepped forward.

“Easy there, friend.”

“Get’way from me, you fuggin’ Jesus freak!” spat the man, taking another step back. He bumped against a table and stopped, glancing frantically between it and Alvaro.

Alvaro didn’t take another step forward, but neither did he back down. “Listen to me: you’re very drunk and very high. Let me take you home.”

Sasha crossed the distance in short order and carefully began parting the gathered crowd with his hands. Alvaro’s gaze flicked to him and he shook his head slightly. This gave Sasha pause.

“No way! I know whachre tryina do!” The man snarled. “You’re tryina fuggin’ be all white knight an’ shit! But it’s a trick.” His eyes flicked to the woman standing behind Alvaro. “Krista, nnget over here! ‘S jus’ tryina get in yer pants.” The woman didn’t move, petrified.

“KRISTA!” The man smashed his bottle against the edge of the table. The glass shattered, leaving behind the jagged remains of the bottle’s neck. It wasn’t a clean break, like in the movies. But that didn’t seem to stop him. The fellow didn’t notice the blood dripping down his hand as he brought the glass shards to bear, stepping forward. “Ya fuggin’ whore! Yu gecherass over here!”

Sasha began picking people up and setting them aside. The fellow’s eyes flicked to him frantically and he coiled to spring forward.

Suddenly, like a cool wind, calmness washed over him, instantly stealing the once-burgeoning heat in his clenched fists. All around him, it was as if everyone had let out a collective sigh. The remains of the broken bottle slipped from the man’s nerveless fingers, clattering on the floor.

“Let me look at your hand,” Alvaro said firmly.

Numbly, the fellow brought his hand level with his face. His brow furrowed as he tried to concentrate on it. Blood dripped on the ground.

Alvaro rolled his sleeves up and drew forward in slow, measured paces. He took the man’s hand in both of his own, ignoring the blood smearing his palms.

“Those are some deep cuts,” Alvaro murmured, stooped over hand. He looked up at the fellow, who stared down at him as if mesmerized. “See that right there? That’s your bone. And that’s your tendon. You’re very lucky it hasn’t been cut.”

“Holy shit,” the man murmured.

“Don’t worry, I can fix it,” said Alvaro. “I just need you to stay still. Can you do that for me?”

Once the fellow nodded, Alvaro began deftly plucking out the glass shards, one-by-one, laying them carefully on the nearby table. Then, once he’d pulled out the last of them, he gently wiped his top hand over the man’s wounds. As he did, the blood that had crawled down the fellow’s arm began retreating, and his flesh came through clean and whole. The scent of fresh soil underscored by the fragrance of roses overpowered the smells of smoke and sweat.

The only sign of injury was mottled purple, blue, and yellow bruising and the blood that still stained Alvaro’s hands.

“Sasha, can you get me a towel from the bar, please?”

Sasha glanced at the no-longer-wounded man. Astonishment was plain on his face, despite being thickly coated by the slackness of intoxication. There was something almost pitiable about his face, now that it was completely free of anger. To think, Sasha had been ready to punch it a moment ago. Clearly he had spent too much time among the Titanspawn. Solutions were pretty straightforward then—they were the kinds that made Devchuska happy. But now he was among people again, and so he needed to adjust his instincts.

With a nod, he turned away to head down to the bar. As he descended the stairs, though, he found Candace on her way up, a towel in one hand.

Sasha couldn’t help his smile. He shook his head. Almost like a napkin on the shoulder.

“Yep, I’m a mind reader,” Candace said brightly as she passed. She paused and turned back to Sasha. “And yes, Alvaro does, in fact, fart rainbows.”

He turned and followed her back up. “But he farts, at least!”

Candace glanced over her shoulder at Sasha. “Y’know… that’s a good point.”

They returned, finding the intoxicated man seated and in kind of a daze as he turned his hand over and over, surrounded by people bombarding him with questions. Alvaro was off to the side talking to the woman. Despite the distance between them and Sasha, and the low, soft tones Alvaro used, he picked up on conversation. Alvaro wasn’t the only one with stupid good hearing.

“… you don’t deserve to be treated that way, by anyone.” Sasha was mildly surprised to see that Alvaro was an inch or so shorter than this woman. She’d seemed so small, so frail. Or perhaps it was because Alvaro filled his space so completely that he’d seemed taller. “When you’re ready to leave him, let me know. My friend Luisa has been where you are now, and she got out. She can help.”

The woman simply stared at him, fear still written all over her face. Sasha chose this opportunity to motion Candace forward.

“Courtesy of our resident mind-reader, who’s clearly much better at this than I am,” he announced, grinning.

This drew a knowing smile from both Alvaro and Candace—and a wary, uncertain look from the woman. Whoops, maybe that joke was badly timed.

Alvaro accepted the towel and wiped his hands clean. “I’ll be taking this lady and that gentleman home.” He looked up at Sasha as if remembering something, and added, “Oh, but please stay! I’ll be coming back shortly after. And then I’ll introduce you to everyone around here.”

Sasha’s eyes flicked briefly to the aforementioned lady. He made a show of waving his hand as if to dismiss Alvaro from his obligation. “Don’t be in a hurry,” he said. “I’m a grown man, I can handle myself.”

“Oh, is that what ‘playing Chapayev’ is code for? Handling yourself?” Candace cut in. Before Sasha could respond, she turned to Alvaro. “I got you covered, Alvaro. Sasha here’s officially designated me as tonight’s tour guide.”

Alvaro glanced between them, then smiled and shook his head. “All right. I will be back, though.”

Taking the dirty towel with him, he passed, shadowed by the willowy woman.

Sasha gave Candace a look. “You were making fun of me.”

“Sorry. Low hanging fruit.” Candace grinned in slight apology and tilted her head as if saying, ‘What are you gonna do?’ “I had to grab it.”

Sasha crossed his arms and lifted his chin. Low-hanging fruit, eh? He could play that game. “That’s what she said.”

There was a brief moment of a surprise so complete that Sasha knew he had caught her off-guard. And then she burst out laughing.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” she said after a few moments, catching her breath. “Alvaro never took the bait. Never. I thought it was against the whole Templar creed to make dirty jokes or something.”

Sasha shrugged. “Guess I’m not very good at being a Templar.”

“And here I was, about to be ashamed of myself,” she said. “You should be ashamed of yourself for encouraging me. I’m supposed to be all respectable and stuff. You know, Candace, not Candy.”

“Don’t see why you can’t be both and still be respectable.”

Sasha hadn’t intended for his words to carry her mirth away with them. Did he say the wrong thing? He didn’t exactly know what being Candy entailed—even though he’d gathered bits and pieces here and there of an idea of what it was like—so maybe that wasn’t something that would help her. As she stared at him, he sought a way to repair what he said, or maybe elaborate, or maybe some kind of joke—

“C’mon, weirdo,” she said, a small smile growing on her face. It was a new one, not quite tinged with mischief, but it was edging close to that territory. As she passed by him, she grabbed his hand to drag him along. “Let’s get some dancing in before I start in on the introductions.”

Bakersfield, Late Evening

God-Touched Nut_Meg