Bakersfield, Early Morning

Bakersfield

Early Morning

The darkness was shaded a gentle blue by the line of orange light slowly cresting the horizon. Throughout the night, the multi-storey community house had gone from a skeleton of scaffolding and frames to nearly whole, with siding on the entire outside of the building, a gently angled roof nearly ready for sodding, and neat rows of oak planks lining most of the inside.

With a slight shift of adjustment and a collection of almost musical clomps, planks of freshly-planed lumber rested easily on each shoulder in the loop of each arm. The weight was comfortable and the scent of oak comforting in its familiarity. Pre-dawn stillness reigned again once the armfuls of planks settled into place. A pair of footsteps thumped upon the still-fresh floor, the slow, measured beat contrasting the quick, arrhythmic tapping of a hammer on a nail. That was how it had been for several hours now: two sets of noises of industry, swallowed up by the silence of Radegast’s domain.

Honest work, it was called—though Sasha couldn’t think of anything that could be considered dishonest work, so long as it was done honestly. But the phrase sounded good, bringing to mind the sense of quiet rightness about it, like the gentle reflection of the sun’s rays on a clear, still pond. It harkened back to the time before the world was turned upside down, when Sasha spent the entire day breaking things down with a sledgehammer and building them back up again better than before.

He set the planks down in a pile beside his slim, dark-haired comrade in construction and grabbed a small handful of nails from the wrinkled brown paper bag, placing them between his teeth. Then he began closing them over the strange bluish insulation, one plank at a time, embedding the nails into the wood with a single quick thrust of his palm. Each tap shook some sawdust from the frame, but Sasha had long ago learned just how much back he should put into the blow so as not to knock a hole through the wall.

Derrick, having finished his hammering, glanced at Sasha. He’d been eyeballing him occasionally throughout the entire night at his unconventional construction methods—though far more often he’d been avoiding doing so. Sasha could tell he was trying not to judge, but it was hard to not do things in general much less quell an impulse. Each glance strung some mild tension in the air each time, ignorable for the most part since it tended to fade away. But Sasha had ignored it for long enough.

“You’ve got a lot more patience than I do,” said Sasha, bridging the gap of silence as he went to get another plank.

“Just because we’re people of miracles doesn’t mean we should rely on these miracles all the time,” Derrick replied. Despite the calmness in his voice, his words were heavy with emphatic meaning. “We’re more susceptible to the sin of pride than anyone else.” There was a brief silence as Derrick grabbed another nail and began tapping it into the wood. “So I’ll take every opportunity to remind myself that I’m no different than any other man beside me. And to remind everyone else of that too.”

Sasha mounted his second plank in short order. “Well, right now I’m the man beside you, so if you don’t want to use your tools then I won’t hold it against you.”

Derrick didn’t seem particularly moved by the humor, but at least the tension was gone. “You know what I meant.”

Sasha offered a grin and shrug. They’d had this discussion a couple days ago, when he first lent a helping hand in the construction project. Derrick was right, in some ways.

“When people wake up and start working again, I’ll do it your way.” Mid-promise, Sasha picked up a discarded hammer and slipped it in the back pocket of his jeans.

Though Sasha liked constructing buildings, he noticed that to Derrick the act held some kind of underlying meaning, a statement about his servitude to his pantheon. In fact, everything Derrick did was a statement about his servitude to his pantheon. Such careful, constant deliberation was admirable. Sasha, on the other hand, left it to his offerings, rituals, and orders. It was more straightforward that way, with no difficult questions of whether he was helping people for the sake of helping them or doing it all to please the gods. Clearly Derrick had already answered these questions to his satisfaction.

It probably helped to have an example. It was hard to picture someone like Perun using tools if he didn’t have to. Even the Lord Father Svarozhich preferred the efficiency of his hands. Jesus, on the other hand, was a much humbler fellow and probably used tools all the time.

Actually, Stribog might too, Sasha amended as he continued his work, if it were ordered of him. A smile grew on his face at the thought of dour Stribog stubbornly using a toothbrush to clean a floor.

They worked in silence as the line of orange light thickened and filtered into the sky in hues of pink and purple. Sasha took a break to step onto the roof and regard the first curve of the sun over the horizon, silently wishing his Lord Father well, wherever he was at present. It was a relief when half of the sun cleared the horizon, indicating that it would continue its path through the sky.

It wasn’t long after that before people began filtering to the construction site in various states of wakefulness, some adorned in tool belts, some toting coffee cups, some coming with nothing at all but an eagerness to help. Sasha dropped from the roof and went to grab some more planks.

After he’d gathered up an armful, he spotted a fellow approaching them, plates and bowls of food distributed in a fine balance among his hands and forearms. The ceramic seemed to accent the full-sleeve tattoo he bore, which made it look as if he had no skin on that arm. Sasha found himself admiring that tattoo frequently. A little girl kept pace beside him, holding four mugs in one hand and carrying a thermos with the other.

Sasha grinned and waved with his free hand before setting down his load and briefly ducking back inside the building. He tapped Derrick with the back of his hand to get his attention. “Alvaro’s brought some breakfast.” He nodded to the nearby window for emphasis.

Derrick paused in his work and peeked out.

Alvaro smiled brightly and called out, “Morning!”

Sasha had forgotten how intense Derrick was. After spending a week in Bakersfield, he’d learned that was pretty much Derrick’s natural state of being. That was, until Alvaro smiled at him. Then the thoughtful knot between his brows loosened, the hard set of his brow lifted, and the falcon-like focus of his gaze softened. Then again, Sasha noticed that Alvaro had that effect on a lot of people. With good reason—Alvaro had a good smile, the smile of a guy who never had anything bad to say about anyone.

“Alvaro!” It was a warm greeting from one of the other construction workers, accented by a friendly pat on the back.

Alvaro’s gaze turned briefly from Derrick and his smile transformed into a crooked grin. “Hey, Will!” The worker continued on his way.

Derrick, on the other hand, turned away from the window and returned to his work. “Thanks, but I don’t—”

“—eat breakfast, I know,” finished Alvaro. He handed Sasha a large, steaming plate of pancakes, potatoes, and eggs through the window. “But the rest of us do, and it’s not fair to exclude you.” Alvaro, shadowed by the little girl, circled around the building into the doorway. Sasha helpfully took the mugs from her as Alvaro grabbed a smaller plate resting on his forearm and offered it to Derrick. “Besides, a blueberry muffin and tea hardly counts as breakfast.”

A corner of Derrick’s mouth twitched as he accepted the offering. Obligingly, he set aside his hammer and took a seat cross-legged, resting the plate on one of his legs. Alvaro looked around, admiring the fleshed-out building.

“Wow. You two work fast,” he said. “I guess you and Sasha are a better team than you and me, Derrick.”

Derrick quickly opened his mouth to respond, then shut it and gave Sasha a look that tried not to be pointed.

Sasha grinned and shrugged off the look. “We’ve mostly done our own thing. I just used to do this for a living, is all.”

The rest of the breakfast was distributed in short order—soon enough, all four of them were seated in a loose circle. Sasha began digging into his meal.

“What prompted you to do all this?” Derrick asked.

Alvaro shrugged. “It was kind of a spur of the moment decision. Lena woke up early and the two of you were working all night, so we thought we’d make some breakfast for everyone.” Lena. Lay-nuh. A very Russian pronunciation for a very Russian nickname. The first time Sasha had heard it, when they were introduced, it rang like a tiny gong in his mind.

“Thanks, it’s good,” Sasha said around a mouthful of pancake. He glanced to the girl, who was listlessly spearing a piece of potato with her fork. “I bet you did all the work, huh, Lena?” Lyeh-nuh this time—a force of habit, more than anything else. But technically it was correct and Lena had never told him otherwise.

“Nuh-uh,” mumbled Lena, sluggishly eating her breakfast. Judging how little she’d been eating, something was clearly eating at her.

Sasha ducked his head to catch her gaze. “Someone hasn’t had her morning coffee yet!” he joked.

Lena looked up at him. She was paler than usual and her eyes were shadowed. He grinned to try to brighten her up. Her expression softened and a corner of her mouth pushed to the side. She looked back to her meal. “I’m okay. I’m just tired.”

Alvaro rubbed Lena’s back. “Hang in there, kiddo.”

She nodded and speared another potato. Sasha sent an inquisitive look to Alvaro, who looked pointedly at Lena as if to indicate that he was going to leave it to her to go into as much or as little detail as she wanted.

“It’s the nightmares again.” From Derrick it sounded less like a question and more like a statement.

Lena looked up at Derrick, then back to her fork. Twirling it idly, she mumbled, “Uh-huh.”

“Tell me about them, Lena.”

Alvaro gave Derrick a look of warning. “Derrick…”

The intensity returned. Derrick gazed directly at Alvaro and lifted his brows pointedly. “She needs to practice facing her fears head-on.”

“But she’s hardly gotten any sleep,” protested Alvaro.

“No Disciple or Hellspawn is going to wait for—” Though she kept her eyes on her plate, Sasha could see Lena’s shoulders tense. She wasn’t shrinking on herself, which surprised Sasha somehow. He’d never seen her shrink on herself, but for some reason it seemed like a familiar sight to him. Still, now was clearly not the time to be having this discussion.

“Nightmares! That’s no good,” he said, his voice blithely booming through Derrick’s statement. In the enclosed space, it didn’t take much to be loud enough. He pointedly ignored Derrick’s sharp answering glance and barreled right on through. Sasha had learned a thing or two from Perun. “I get nightmares too, sometimes. Then I wake up all sweaty and can’t get back to sleep again even though I know there’s no reason to be afraid. It’s a big pain.” As he continued, he lowered his voice to a more controlled volume.

Lena looked up at him, a doubtful expression on her face. “But you don’t even sleep.”

This gave Sasha pause. “Well, that’s not too far off.” He considered for a moment, trying to find a way to put the conversation back on track. “But even I need sleep once in a great while. And I do get nightmares sometimes, I promise. You know what helps?” He paused again for effect. “Hot chocolate. With lots and lots of whipped cream.” Well, that wasn’t entirely true. “Actually, for me, it’s more like a mocha. With sprinkles, too. But hot chocolate seems more your style.”

The girl eyed him, but Sasha could see her shoulders relax a little as she considered the prospect. He’d been hoping for a smile. He hadn’t seen her smile once in the entire week he’d known her. But he had lots of time.

Before Derrick could say anything, Alvaro said, “Great idea, Sasha. That sounds pretty good right about now.” He gave Lena a hopeful smile.

Lena looked briefly between the two before turning back to her plate. “I like hot chocolate,” she said quietly.

Sasha grinned, then schooled his expression to exaggerated graveness. “But do you like sprinkles?”

“Yeah,” Lena admitted.

He laid it on a little thicker. “What kind?”

“The rainbow kind.”

“Whew!” Sasha said, lifting the imaginary tension and wiping the imaginary sweat from his forehead. “If you’d said ‘the chocolate kind,’ we’d have to arm wrestle to see who gets sprinkles and who goes without. And I’m pretty sure you’d kick my butt.”

Lena looked up at him once more, as if assessing him. After a pause, she said, “Yeah.” Her lips twitched a little.

Sasha couldn’t help himself, nor did he want to. He bust up laughing.

Alvaro offered a half-smile to Derrick. Derrick ran a hand through his hair, sighed, and said, “All right. You guys go ahead. I’ve still got work to do. We can discuss your nightmare later.”

Bakersfield, Early Morning

God-Touched Nut_Meg