Bakersfield, Early Morning II


Early Morning

Shifting, thumping, sliding… it was as if the dancing crowd was an ocean, choppy in parts as one group jumped and another didn’t, with moments of unity when a whole wave seemed to weave through the crowd, sweeping them as one across the dance floor. The music seemed to guide the tides, though whatever commands filled their rhythms escaped Sasha.

Sasha himself stuck out like a sore thumb. He couldn’t help but keep his head above the waterline, and his dancing was like a doggie-paddle—small, tight movements, ones that would keep him afloat and moving, but lacked a sense of harmonious rhythm. It served for now, though Pizamar would probably be deeply disappointed in him. Sasha made a mental note to find time to practice before he was invited to another family party.

Candace, though, was a natural. It was as if her whole body was at the mercy of the music and the crowd, allowing itself to be guided by the ebb and flow, the wax and wane—but also able to slide effortlessly through the tides when she needed to. She wasn’t just Candace, vaulting over countertops and pressing espresso. This was Candy.

After watching Sasha in amusement, she edged close, making just a half-turn so her back was turned to him, and followed it with a slow roll of her hips from side-to-side.

Follow my lead, she’d said, with a masterful lack of words.

By focusing on just the rhythm she set for herself, rather than that of the dancers gathered around him, or of the music driven by the chaos of whimsy, he comported himself much better. Perhaps this was not too different from how his Lord Father learned how to dance! A small grin broke unbidden on Sasha’s face as he pictured the stern, forbidding deity stumbling over his own feet on the dance floor.

But, eventually, he had to surface from the press of bodies. As much as he admired the force of nature that was the crowd, it felt too close, too claustrophobic for him. Perhaps it was a Lithuanian thing.

A shadow at the bar waved him over—at closer look, and with a lucky flicker of a red flame from a nearby brazier, it turned out to be Alvaro. When had he returned? Sasha probably should’ve reminded Candace to introduce him to people. Then again, she looked like she was having fun.

As Sasha drew closer, he could make out Alvaro’s impressed smile. “I didn’t know you were a dancer.”

“Not a very good one,” Sasha said.

Alvaro turned away briefly to make eye contact with one of the bartenders, who headed over in short order. “You had me fooled.” He then gave Sasha a brief look of questioning, tilting his head towards the bar.

“Whatever he’s having,” said Sasha to the shadowy bartender, who proceeded to place two tall glasses on the table. Sasha regarded Alvaro once again, seating himself. “That’s because I’m a very good pretender who had a very good partner. You should’ve seen me earlier.” He shook his head. “Basically hopeless.”

Alvaro laughed. The bartender pushed the filled glasses forward.

He nodded. “Thank you, Tara.”

“Sure thing, Alvaro.” Sasha could see a flicker of a smile, briefly lit by the firelight. Then the shadowy bartender moved away.

As Alvaro’s hand closed over the glass, there were small, subtle shifts in his forearm, making it seem almost as if the muscles depicted on the outside of his arm were real.

“Okay,” Sasha said, putting his hands on his thighs and turning his elbows out. “This has been nagging me for a while.” Alvaro gave him an inquisitive look as he took a drink. “There’s got to be a story behind your tattoo. And I know it’s a good one, because that’s some impressive body art.”

Alvaro smiled a little. “I’m afraid I might disappoint you. I’ve just…” he paused a moment, a thoughtful expression overcoming him as his eyes scanned over his tattoo. “I’m fascinated by how the body works. It’s… incredible, artful, really, how everything fits together.” He paused, set his drink down, and wiggled his fingers, sending the muscles in his forearm rippling a little to illustrate his point. “And I’ve always liked tattoos. Don’t really know why.” He paused, idly running his fingers over a bundle of muscle fiber. “This was stuck in my head for a couple years. Couldn’t shake it, for whatever reason.”

“A couple years? What made you finally decide to get it?” Sasha prompted, reaching for his glass.

Alvaro’s smile bloomed over his face, edging into the territory of a grin before settling back. “Who, actually.” He turned and leaned back against the bar, turning his gaze to some inscrutable spot on the ground before him. “Sofia. She convinced me to have it done two years ago, when I first met her.”

That look. Sasha knew that look. He took quaff from his glass to settle in for a good story.

Water! That wasn’t much of a drink for listening to good stories. Telling good stories, certainly. But vodka or beer would’ve served better. Tea, even!

“Just like that?” Sasha set the glass down and turned away, sweeping his hand through the air as if wiping a canvas clean. He drew his shoulders up, shrugging into the mantle of storyteller. “She met you, looked into your eyes and plucked the image of the tattoo from your mind, just barely after you introduced yourself. ‘This, you need to get this now,’ she said. And she took your hand, sweeping you away to the nearest tattoo parlor before you could gather your wits to say, ‘Yes, maybe I should.’”

Alvaro laughed. “Not quite.” He paused, looking down as he drew the memory forth. Then he turned to Sasha, his manner suddenly intent, engaged, animated. Apparently he, too, knew how to wear the mantle. “I spotted her…” he scanned the tables, then pointed, “over there, with the violet candle lighting her face.” He put his closed hand at his chin and opened his fingers to indicate the light, then paused, thinking. “Her arms were on the table, kind of crossed, like this,” he turned to the bar and arranged his arms to illustrate. “She was alone. She shouldn’t have been. No one should be alone.” He paused, his eyes taking a bit of a distant cast as he looked past Sasha, “Especially not someone so… alive like her.” Alvaro’s eyes turned back to Sasha, looking present again. “So I went to introduce myself.

“She had this tattoo around her thigh,” he put his hands around his own thigh to illustrate. “It’s very impressive. Very elaborate, grayscale, kind of tribal designs, with a black jaguar crouched in the middle of it all. It must’ve taken at least a dozen hours.” He looked up again. “So I had to ask about it. We got to talking about tattoos, and I… couldn’t help myself.” He paused, thinking, and drew the mantle around himself more tightly, regarding Sasha directly, holding his fist out, palm up. “My tattoo was like a seed, which I’d been holding in my hand for too long. She saw my closed hand and gently bid my fingers open, to let it get a peek at the sun.” On cue, he slowly unfurled his hand, like a bud blossoming, his smile growing as it opened. “I couldn’t resist.

“She asked me why I hadn’t gotten my tattoo done yet—why I held this seed so tightly in my hand if I didn’t plan on planting it. I realized I didn’t have an answer. So she took my hand, brought me down to the soil alongside her, and encouraged me to plant it, right then and there.” He grinned, growing a little distant again. “’No one should be alone when they get their first tattoo,’ she said.” Alvaro looked down again, putting a hand over his forearm, the storyteller’s mantle drifting from him. “We must’ve spent… five or six hours in that tattoo parlor.”

“Surely you didn’t get it done all in one sitting,” Sasha prompted further.

Alvaro shook his head. “No, it took a few more.” He turned and settled back against the bar, keeping the storyteller’s mantle hung in the closet. “She promised to come back as soon as she could, to see the finished tattoo.” A smile flickered at one corner of his mouth. “I didn’t have any more done, though, until she came back.” He rubbed the back of his neck, a slight bashful tinge to his smile. “It’s kinda silly, but I felt like I shouldn’t get it done unless she was there.”

Sasha offered a shrug with one shoulder. “It makes sense to me. She helped you plant the seed—she should be there to watch it grow and flower.”

Alvaro regarded him once more. There was an instant of suspension, that still moment before realization—and then he turned away, a smile growing, tinged with slight wonder. He brought his arm to bear, turning it about, eyes scanning over it to regard it in the new light.

But a conclusion awaited. He broke the silence to offer it. “Overall, it took… maybe eight or nine months. Well worth the wait.”

Watching Alvaro, Sasha couldn’t help his grin. “So when am I gonna meet this Sofia, then?”

He spotted Candace pulling away from the crowd, searching. Sasha waved her over. Eventually she saw and started towards him.

There was a long pause and a brief, thoughtful sigh before Alvaro responded. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen her for a while.” He took another drink of water. “Now that I know you, I suspect it’s because she lives… outside. I don’t know how, but that’s the only way I can explain her… appearing and disappearing like that. Why no one else here really knows who she is.” He looked directly at Sasha, a half-smile on his face. “When I see her again, though, I’ll introduce you.”

“Introduce you to who?” Candace asked by way of entering the conversation. She leaned against Sasha’s arm a little, as if taking a little break from being on her feet. Her eyes settled on Alvaro’s glass. Before anyone could answer, she asked, “Hey, can I have some of your water, Alvaro?”

So water was his drink of choice, then, judging by the way she didn’t have to ask what was in his glass.

Sasha pushed his own glass to her. “Have mine,” he offered. “And he just told me about someone named Sofia.”

“Ohhh, Sofia,” Candace reached across Sasha to get her drink, her back to Alvaro, sneaking a meaningful look his way. She was coated in a light sheen of sweat, which lent a bit of a heady cast to her perfume. “Such a bad influence on our sweet young Alvaro.” Alvaro massaged the back of his neck. Candace pulled away, catching Sasha’s gaze and nodding slightly to Alvaro. She quickly schooled her mischievous grin into a disapproving press of the lips. “Did you know she convinced him to get that tattoo?” She drank deeply from the glass.

“Yes, I just heard that story,” Sasha said, picking up on Candace’s cue. “He was very impressed with her own tattoo. You know, the one around her thigh.” Almost without thinking, Sasha’s voice adopted Lady Mokosh’s cadence, her disapproving tone, even a little bit of a Russian accent. He clicked his tongue and waggled his finger disapprovingly at Alvaro. “What were you doing looking there, huh?” Candace fought to maintain a straight face.

Mockery! Irreverence! cried the guilty voice in his head, to the beat of his pulse. Perhaps a little, Sasha granted. But some of his favorite memories of the Lady Mother Mokosh involved her scolding—him, Dovile, Lady Morena… anyone, really. That was when her vitality, her vivacity really showed its face. It was not mockery, it was loving tribute.

Alvaro looked up to the ceiling in a long-suffering manner, grimacing and nodding a little as if he’d known this would happen eventually.

“You don’t know how many women—and men!—have tried to get his attention,” Candace said. “They practically threw themselves at him, and he hardly even noticed.”

“And, to think, all it took was a tattoo.” Sasha gave Alvaro a frown. “For shame!”

Alvaro passed his hand over his mouth, clicked his tongue once, and then regarded Candace and Sasha directly. “Finished yet?” A slightly pained smile edged his lips.

“Depends,” Candace said, setting the glass back down on the bar. “Are you blushing?” She drew closer, scrutinizing his face, then grinned as he turned away. “Yep. I did my job.” She hooked her arm around Sasha’s. “Now I’m going to steal my dance partner back and leave you to stew in your embarrassment. Like a good friend ought.”

“Hold on now,” Sasha said, drawing her back towards him and tilting his chin up. Turnabout’s fair play. He shifted back into Mother Mokosh mode, directing his waggling finger at her. “You’ve been lax in your duties. I haven’t been introduced to a single person this evening! Work before play, little bunny.”

Candace scoffed in exaggerated disgust. “Do I have to?”

“Yes, you have to, young lady.”

“Ugh, fine!” Candace let go of Sasha and whirled away. Sasha rose, sending a grin Alvaro’s way.

Alvaro simply shook his head, smiling. He stood. “You two have fun. I’m going to get some dancing in, myself, before the night is through.”

A few paces away, Candace paused and turned towards Sasha, waving at him to catch up. Once he did, she looked up at him, tilting her head and opening her mouth for a l’espirit de l’escalier response.

“My goodness, Candy!” said a voice somewhere beyond Candace.

Candace’s expression closed along with her retort. She turned as a woman emerged from the general crowd. This hispanic-looking woman was tall, made even taller by her heels, with a healthy but soft build, curvy and feminine, knowingly highlighted to emphasize her allure. Her saunter was at ease but purposeful, like the steps of a lioness, and her presence powerful. Everything about her, from her makeup to her expression to her perfume seemed carefully molded to be disarming.

She drew Candace into a tight embrace which was met with no resistance—in fact, the tension that had suddenly tightened disappeared, as if Candace were relieved.

“Hey, Rochelle,” she said. Sasha was surprised to hear her voice pitched an octave or two higher, almost childlike, down to the sing-song inflections.

“Sweetie, it was like you were spirited away from us!” said Rochelle, drawing away from the hug. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Gone, without a word. You had me so worried!”

Candace didn’t respond, almost guiltily. Rochelle glanced over at Sasha, did a double-take, and examined him. Her eyes sauntered over him so knowingly that Sasha almost turned to the side to check if his fly was open or something.

“Who’s this gentleman, Candy?” Rochelle asked, her tone freezing instantly. Her eyes lingered on Sasha before turning back to Candace.

“A friend of mine,” Candace said, unable to meet Rochelle’s gaze.

“You haven’t gone freelance, have you?” the taller woman asked, her inflections becoming deceptively songlike. “Tell me it isn’t so. That would cut me right to the quick, it would. After all I’ve done for you.”

In that short span, it was as if Candace had grown smaller. She tilted her chin up in slight defiance, but it wasn’t the square, strong tilt that Sasha had seen before. It was curved, mild, unconsciously exposing her neck. Just the one motion set her hips cocked to the side. She’d been feminine before, but—even though he’d seen her dancing—Sasha hadn’t realized just how strongly sensual she could become.

This was Candy, again, summoned forth by Rochelle like magic.

“I’m Sasha.” Sasha held his hand out. “Nice to meet you.”

Rochelle eyed him again, almost warily. Though her expression remained guarded, she placed her fingers on his.

“Well, Candy? Introduce us.”

Candace didn’t match Sasha’s gaze, running her fingers languidly, absentmindedly down her throat. “This is Miss Rochelle Trujillo.”

Sasha blithely slipped his hand into Rochelle’s and firmly shook it. “How do you and Candace know each other, then?” he asked.

“I’m… Candy’s boss,” said Rochelle, her tone pleasant but firm.

“Oh!” Sasha regarded Candace, who still wouldn’t look at him. “I’d like to take this opportunity to say that your employee here brews a fine mocha.” To forestall any possible innuendo, Sasha extrapolated. “The espresso wasn’t burned and the chocolate didn’t drown out the coffee flavor.”

It was then that Candace looked up at him, warily, then down, as if only just remembering that part of herself.

Rochelle’s eyelids flickered. She offered Sasha a thin smile, inviting him to elaborate. “Pardon?”

“She’s a fine barista,” Sasha said. He put a strictly companionable hand on Candace’s shoulder. Perhaps it would lend her some strength. “Although I was under the impression that the coffee shop was part of the community, rather than owned by one person.”

Rochelle turned, keeping her eyes warily on Sasha until she finally had to regard Candace. “Candy, sweetie, I’m not up on my lingo anymore, it seems. Do you mind translating for me?”

Candace looked at Sasha, then took a deep breath and squared herself. With a light squeeze, Sasha removed his hand.

“Sorry, Rochelle. I found a new job,” she said, her voice at its normal timbre. “I make coffee now.”

Rochelle’s coldness melted a little with her surprisingly warm laugh.

“Honey,” she began. “You don’t know how many times I’ve heard that. Brave, spirited boys and girls, every last one of you. And I wish you luck. I really do.” She leveled Candace with a pointedly empathetic look, putting a hand on her chest. “But me and Kendall… Ollie and the others… we’re your family. You can’t quit your family. Not in hard times like these.”

Candace didn’t move, didn’t say another word. Sasha hesitated, searching for a way to dispel the tension in the air, unsure just how much of that deceptively warm statement was a threat and how much was just a fact. But he didn’t know the history between them beyond what he’d just seen—he hardly knew Candace’s history as Candy.

Rochelle tilted her head in assent. “All right, well, I won’t keep you—I’ve got an appointment I need to get to with Damien, anyway. Let me at least give you the rest of your earnings before I go.”

She plucked a small, light pouch from her cleavage and deftly opened it, tilting its mouth into her hand. What looked like little brightly colored handmade clay beads spilled out. Candace’s eyes flicked to them.

Her face hardened. “No, Rochelle, I don’t—”

Rochelle picked up three of the beads, returned the rest to her pouch. “Nonsense. You worked too hard for these, sweetie, I just wouldn’t feel right keeping them from you.”

She took Candace’s hand, opened it, pressed them into her palm, and closed her fingers. Candace simply stared the whole time, her expression still hard.

Rochelle tenderly stroked her cheek. “Just remember, Candy, I always keep a place open for my boys and girls, no matter how adventurous they get. If you get homesick, don’t hesitate to come right on back to me.”

A few moments passed as Rochelle gazed directly at Candace, driving the point home with her eyes. And then she passed, her perfume lingering behind.

Carefully, Sasha put his hand back on Candace’s shoulder.

“You all right?”

She turned, not quite to face him, and opened her mouth slightly. After a second thought, she took in a breath.

“Sasha, I… I think I should go home.”

After bidding Alvaro farewell—well, Sasha did, at least, while Candace waited for him outside—they left Dis. Despite the fact that it was a warm summer’s night, the air was significantly cooler, more open than inside the club. Though Sasha felt a small sense of relief at not being so closed in, he couldn’t help but be reminded just how much was hidden in the combined shadows cast by the tall buildings and the night. Though Dis was dark, the flickering flames made the darkness seem much more fleeting, and the heat was reassuring somehow.

The journey back was silent. Judging by the subtle shifts in the muscles in Candace’s face, she was wrestling with something inside—some balance had been tipped, and she was fighting to right it. Sasha wanted to extend his help, but he couldn’t help but feel a sense of tenuousness, and he wasn’t sure which of his questions were the wrong ones to ask.

It wasn’t long after they crossed back into the Templars’ Bakersfield before they returned to the towering cluster of apartment complexes, passing through the paths in the garden. Crickets and other night insects chirped and buzzed around them, evoking a serenity that seemed—albeit comforting—out of place somehow.

Candace stopped in front of the door to the complex, but didn’t move to open it. She simply stood there, back to Sasha, almost like a statue—but for the tension that strung her, the kind that only strung living things.

Sasha moved to open the door for her, to break the bubble and to get a better look at her, to gauge how to break the silence.

Candace rested her free hand on his, to forestall him.

“Sasha…” she said, her voice venturing uneasily into the silence. “I… I need you to do something for me.”

She released his hand. Sasha straightened, waiting. After a couple moments, she took a deep breath, as if about to plunge into cold water. With that, she quickly grabbed his hand, tilted it palm up, and unclenched her fist, dropping the three little beads Rochelle had given her. She then closed his fingers quickly over them. Her grip was tight over his fist, briefly, and then she let go with a deep breath.

“Get rid of those for me, please,” she said quietly. “Smash them, throw them in a fire, bury them where I can’t see, toss them over the wall… I don’t care. Just make sure nobody else can get them.”

Obligingly Sasha took a deep breath, tightened his fist, and summoned the heat forth. Once there was enough, he opened his fingers and blew lightly on the quickly melting beads. A bright flame flared to life, disappearing as he cut his breath off, leaving nothing behind in his hand.

Candace drew back slightly, a little startled. “Uh… wow, I didn’t…”

Sasha smiled, gently. “What were they, anyway?”

She searched his face briefly, then looked away, as if in guilt.

“It’s called Rapture,” Candace murmured. “You… tuck one of the pearls in your cheek or… drop it in your drink to let it dissolve and…” She closed her mouth, clenching her jaw a little. “And I failed Alvaro. He worked so hard to… to get me clean, and… put up with the fucking awful withdrawal…”

Sasha’s guts twisted, for the third time that day.

“It’s possible to fail Alvaro?” he asked, injecting some light humor in his tone.

But this didn’t hearten Candace. Instead, she nodded, very slightly. “I’ve seen it happen, with someone else. It’s like…” She paused. “The pain on his face. The disappointment in his voice. He tries to hide it, tries to have hope, but I’ve seen it.” She turned away, putting a hand over her eyes. “I’m sorry, Sasha, you don’t wanna be caught up in this stupid drama. God, we only just met today. I’ll… I’ll be fine.”

“Hey.” Sasha dropped the humor entirely and walked around to face her directly, putting his hands on her shoulders. Met today, met a week ago, met a month ago—it didn’t matter. She was still a friend. “You haven’t failed him. You’re still clean.”

“Only because you were here,” Candace said, dropping her hand from her eyes. Her expression was tight with anger and self-disgust. “I wanted to get home, because… because I didn’t want Alvaro to see. I didn’t want you to see. Waiting for you, outside Dis… that was the hardest thing ever.” Her mouth twisted. “I know Rochelle did that on purpose. She’s a huge bitch. But she’s right. I might’ve stayed clean today, but it’s only a matter of time.” Her face tightened further. “All I could think about was how… incredible the high was gonna be, especially after being clean for so long. Like the first one. I could almost feel it, just holding the pearls in my hand.” She paused. “It would be worth Alvaro’s disappointment. Because then I could go back to being Candy, to stop pretending that I don’t miss Ollie and even Rochelle and the innuendos and the dancing and the sex and the… and Rapture. To stop pretending that I wasn’t using you as an excuse to get a taste of that life again.” She looked up at Sasha, tears welling in her eyes. “Candace is a lie, Sasha, a big, fat, ugly lie.”

“No, she’s not,” said Sasha, with the same carefully balanced application of pressure in his voice as his palm on a nail. He ducked, to pin her gaze. “She’s the one who put Rapture in my hand and told me to destroy it.”

Candace fell silent.

Sasha continued. “She’s the one who didn’t want to be high in front of me and Alvaro. She’s the one who went through the ‘fucking awful’ withdrawal in the first place.” He could feel her shoulders begin to sag. “She’s the one who makes delicious mochas, and is clever enough to get a cup of tea past Alvaro’s brand of humility, and isn’t afraid to be weird to strangers.” She was yielding to him, slowly. “She’s as much a truth as Candy is.”

A long, uncertain silence followed.

“But I can’t be both,” she murmured. “They’re too opposite.”

“No,” Sasha admitted. “But you can find the balance between them. There’s no reason why you can’t like coffee and reading and dancing and sex all at the same time.” He paused, thinking. “You can remember Rapture, as long as you weigh it against the withdrawal—and how you feel now without it, compared to how you felt then.”

Candace regarded him for a long moment, looking over his face as if chasing thoughts, protests, refutations. Then she stepped forward, unabashedly wrapping him in a hug.

The tight embrace lasted for several long, quiet, slightly uncomfortable moments. The moon was low, preparing to make way for the sun. Candace pulled away slightly, removing one hand to wipe her eyes. She glanced over her shoulder at the night sky.

“Shit, I’m gonna need lots of coffee during my shift today,” she said with a shaky laugh. She turned back to Sasha, looking at him again. Her expression softened, just a little, and she leaned into him again, resting her head against the lower part of his chest. “Thanks. I… you’re good at this whole friend thing, Sasha.” She paused for the space of three breaths, reluctant to release him, then looked up at him. “Do you mind staying just a little longer? I don’t… I don’t want to be alone.” Realizing that she was being perhaps a little too vulnerable, too needy, she pulled away a little. “I’ll make you breakfast.” Before he could respond, her face lit and a small, mischievous smirk played at the edges of her lips, the one he’d first seen at the coffee shop. She tilted her chin up and turned her head to one side, exposing her neck to him. “We could play Chapayev.” She had taken on the sing-song inflections again.

Sasha straightened a little, raising an eyebrow. “Who’s asking, Candy or Candace?”

Candace’s smirk broadened, barely holding back her mirth. She stepped back and gave him an exaggerated once-over. “Depends. Are you as good a Templar as you are a dancer?”

At this, Sasha couldn’t help but laugh.

When Sasha left the apartment, the night’s darkness was shaded a gentle blue by the line of orange light slowly cresting the horizon. The line of orange light thickened and filtered into the sky in hues of pink and purple as he walked back to the construction site. He paused in his journey to regard the first curve of the sun over the horizon, silently wishing his Lord Father well, wherever he was at present.

He crossed into the construction site alongside other people 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, one grudgingly bearing a sentence. Sasha stepped forward and went to grab some more planks.

Bakersfield, Early Morning II

God-Touched Nut_Meg