Never Be the Same: Chapter Four

Understanding

Sierra spent the next few days at Cammy’s, mostly curled up under a blanket on the couch streaming videos. She gave her friend the same story she’d given the police. It felt weird not to tell Cammy the whole truth–she never kept anything from Cammy–but something told her it was best to keep quiet about what had really happened. For one thing, how in the world would Cammy ever believe her? But more than that, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t quite as free of this whole mess as the boy claimed. Telling someone else would just be dragging them into it, too.

She wasn’t sure she believed the whole truth of the matter as it was. A cat that could turn into a boy? Or she supposed it was really the other way around, but still. If she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes…the very thought still made her shake her head. Not to mention the werewolf. And the boy had just brushed that off like it was no big deal. Well. Maybe it wasn’t, to him. He could turn into a cat, after all. But Sierra couldn’t quite wrap her head around it. Dios, that boy said he’d killed the thug. Sierra half expected to get a call from the police at any moment, saying they’d found a body that matched the description of her attacker and demanding an explanation. But another part of her didn’t think that was going to happen. She had the sneaking suspicion that the boy made sure the body wouldn’t be found. Damn it, why hadn’t she pressed him for more answers? He’d wanted to explain everything and she’d just shut him down. Kicked him out to deal with whatever this was all on his own, when he’d obviously been terrified, and hurt. Mierda. When had she become that person?

Everything just seemed so surreal to her now. Here she was, sitting on the couch in Cammy’s house, watching movies and eating way too many potato chips. Why did Cammy have so many chips on hand anyway? Sierra thought she preferred popcorn. She frowned at the bag in her lap, pondering its presence. She had just come to the conclusion that they must be left over from a party when Cammy came into the room, straightening her jacket. “Are you sure you don’t mind me doing this showing? I can reschedule, or ask another agent to do it.”

Sierra waved her off. “Don’t do that, Cammy. I don’t want you to miss out on a sale because of me. I’m fine. I am,” she insisted when Cammy looked skeptical. “Yeah, I needed to get out of there for a while to calm down. But just being here, somewhere familiar that I know is safe, it’s helped a lot. I’m feeling more like myself, I promise.”

“You know you’re welcome to stay here as long as you like,” Cammy said, sitting down on the arm of the couch and reaching out to squeeze Sierra’s shoulder. “Or even for good, if you want. I’ve plenty of room.”

Sierra laughed for the first time in days, and it felt good. “That is a terrible idea!” At Cammy’s look of mild affront, she just laughed harder. “Oh, Cammy, I love you, you know that. But we proved years ago that living together is a bad idea.”

Cammy pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “It would be different this time. We’re not dating anymore. If we tried just as friends…”

“Bobby and Intira would freak out,” Sierra answered. “They would worry that we were getting back together, which would only lead to an inevitable second breakup, which would then lead to Dragonfly imploding.” She tried to keep a straight face and added, “For band solidarity, Cammy, we can’t do it.”

Cammy huffed a lock of hair out of her eyes. “Bobby and Intira have no say in our personal lives. We’re adults, Sierra. We know better than to repeat past mistakes.”

Sierra shook her head and shot Cammy a wicked grin. “Oh, so I imagined what happened the last two New Year’s Eves? And this past St. Patrick’s Day? And–“

“That was just sex!” Cammy protested. “Purely for fun, and you and I were both fine after those…encounters.”

“Of course we were,” Sierra agreed. “But imagine how awkward it would get if we were living together and one of us brought ’round a date?”

“I see your point,” Cammy sighed. “Still, I don’t like the thought of you being alone in that apartment. Will you even be able to feel safe there again? Maybe you should consider moving. I can help you find something.”

Sierra held up a hand. “I think I’ll be all right,” she assured her friend. “I’m already going to have to replace my bass. I really don’t need the expenses of moving on top of that,” she added glumly.

“But–“

“Look, I’ll make you a promise. If I find I really don’t feel safe there anymore, I’ll come straight to you to start looking at options, okay?”

She nodded, looking relieved. “All right.” She stood and brushed out her skirt, then tilted her head with a frown. “Now that I think of it, you were all alone. What happened to your cat?”

Sierra drew a deep breath and tipped her head back on the couch. “He…got out during the burglary,” she said. “I don’t think he’s coming back.”

“Oh dear, I hope he’s all right.”

“Yeah, me too.” She was surprised to realize how much she meant it. A rush of guilt accompanied the thought and she found herself wishing she hadn’t just turned her back on him. He needed help, and he’d come to her.

“Well, if you’re sure you’ll be fine, I should get going.”

Sierra made a shooing gesture. “Go. Be fabulous, sell a house.”

“I’ll do my best,” Cammy chuckled, pausing to kiss the top of Sierra’s head on her way out. She also plucked the bag of chips from Sierra’s lap. “Do try not to eat all of the crisps while I’m gone.”

“No promises.”

She got a text from Kensington about an hour later, letting her know that the window had been fixed. There was no reason to stay away now except for her own hesitation. If the boy had been telling her the truth, she wasn’t in danger anymore. But she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that she was still part of whatever this was. Not to mention the growing guilt refusing to be ignored. She hated not knowing what was going on, and there was only one person she could think of who might be able to give her some answers. Maybe it wasn’t too late to do the right thing.

Mind made up, she turned off the TV and started gathering her things. She ordered a ride and texted Cammy to let her know she’d gone home, though that was only the first stop. She had a cat to find.

~**~

On the way home, she talked the driver into stopping at the store so she could get her Saturday shopping out of the way. She picked up a few extra items just in case, dropping it all off in her apartment before doing a quick sweep. Everything looked to be in order. Guessing that the boy would stay in cat form to avoid attention, she hoped he might not have gotten too far. She started her search close to home, with the apartment building’s dumpsters. Sierra opened her mouth to call out and closed it again, realizing with embarrassment that she didn’t even know the boy’s name. After a few moments of internal debate, she finally settled on just calling for Pequeño. If he heard her, he’d know she meant him. She walked around the building, calling softly, in case he was hiding in the shadows somewhere, but there was nothing there. She stopped at the edge of a circle of light from the parking lot lamp, staring at the woods behind the building, wondering if he might have gone there to hide. A shudder rippled through her at the thought of searching them alone in the dark. “Last resort,” she muttered to herself. “Only if I don’t find him anywhere else.”

She got back in her car and drove down the block to the gated apartment complex on the corner. Someone was just pulling in when she got there, and she followed behind them, parking as close as she could to the first set of dumpsters she came across. She checked the entire complex with no luck and moved on to the next one. A few hours passed as she searched. After the apartments, she decided to try the fast food restaurants further down the street. The first three, all different taco chains, were a bust, but she got lucky at the fourth stop. She pulled up at the Whataburger parking lot and there he was, fishing out what looked like a half-eaten chicken breast with a resigned air.

“Pequeño!” she called through the open window as she turned off the car. His head snapped around and he dropped the piece of chicken, staring at her. She got out, taking a few tentative steps forward, holding her hands out at her sides. “Look, I’m sorry I threw you out. I was seriously freaked out.” He let out a questioning meow and she beckoned him. “Do you want to come back with me?” His tail twitched and his answering mew sounded hopeful. She smiled. “Well, come on then.”

He leapt down from the dumpster and ran over to her, and damn it, he was limping. She felt another stab of guilt as she scooped him up and carried him to the car, setting him down in the passenger seat. The drive back was short and silent, and he let her carry him inside and upstairs. “You really have been hanging out in the dumpsters, haven’t you?” she asked, wrinkling her nose as she got a good whiff of him. “What kind of trouble are you in?” He let out a plaintive meow and she smiled down at him. “I know, you’ll tell me everything. First things first, though.” She set him down in the bathroom and resisted the urge to scratch his ears, reminding herself that he wasn’t really a cat. “Do your thing,” she said, trying to gesture that he should turn back into a person. She reached under the sink for the first aid kit and headed for the door. “Then get a shower,” she told him, pointing to a pile of clothes on the counter. “You can wear those. Hopefully they’ll fit.” She’d had to guess at his size, but given his lean frame had decided to go with medium. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen when you’re done. We’ll get you patched up,” she waved the box in her hands, “and then we’ll talk, okay?”

He meowed an affirmative and she shut the door. When she heard the shower start, she went into the bedroom to change her shirt, which smelled like dumpster cat, and then into the kitchen to wash her hands. Next she started a pot of coffee. She suspected she was going to need it. By the time he emerged from the bathroom, she was sitting at the table working on her first cup and had set out an array of snacks in case he was hungry. “Um, hello,” he said as he approached her.

“Hi,” she replied. “There’s coffee if you want some.”

“Ah, grazie,” he said in the reverent tone of someone who has been without caffeine for far too long. Sierra felt a smile tug at her lips as he made a cup and then brought it over to the table, taking a long sip even as he was sitting. “I cannot remember the last cup of coffee I drank.”

“What, you didn’t make yourself some while you were watching TV when I was at work?” she asked with a smirk. It had dawned on her yesterday that maybe Mrs. Davis hadn’t been hearing things after all.

He blushed, confirming her suspicion, and looked down, shaking his head. “I am sorry for getting you in trouble with your neighbor,” he said. “That was not my intention. But no, I did not make any coffee. I didn’t want to use up anything you might notice, and the food you were providing was adequate for my needs, since I was mostly in my other form.” He glanced up, “Thank you for that. I will pay you back for the food, and for the increase in your water bill. I did take a few showers, and washed the towels.”

Unsure of what else to say, Sierra raised an eyebrow and said, “Utilities are included in my rent, but thank you for the offer.” If he wanted to pay her back that meant he had some money on him. That was good, if she was going to let him stay here. Dios, was she really even considering that? She shook her head and pushed herself up from the table. “Let me get you patched up.”

“It is only a few scratches,” he protested, “and I pulled something in my arm. I will be all right, truly. The shower was enough. I heal quickly.”

Sierra gave him a hard look. “Are you sure?”

“I am. Sit, please. As you said, we should talk.” He waited for her to sit back down, reaching out to snag a cracker. After he swallowed it, he leaned forward, “I am sure you have many questions. Where would you like me to start, Sierra?”

“How about with your name?” Sierra grabbed a piece of cheese and nibbled on it, raising an eyebrow at him. “Since it seems you have me at a disadvantage there.”

“Of course.” He gave her a sheepish grin, then placed a hand over his heart. “I am Elia. Elia Sapienti. It is my most sincere pleasure to meet you at last, Signorina Espina.”

“Okay then,” she drawled. “Elia. It’s nice to meet you, too. Now. Why don’t you start at the beginning of this whole mess? Or at least by telling me how it is, exactly, that you can turn into a cat.”

“It is strange,” he mused, sitting back and looking as if he was thinking this over. “I have spent so much of my time with mondani trying to blend in and pretend I am just like them. To do otherwise feels…” he trailed off, waving a hand in the air as if trying to catch the right word.

Mondani?”

“Ah, yes, I think in English it is mundanes? Those without magic, and who do not interact with those that possess it.”

“Magic.” She deadpanned the word, giving him a level stare.

“Surely what you have seen with your own eyes is enough proof that it is real?”

She opened her mouth to object but then shut it again. It seemed impossible, but…he was right. She’d seen too much not to believe there was something happening beyond her understanding. “Go on,” she said instead.

He nodded. “It is a little different everywhere, but in Italia, there is a court. If your family has magic, you must join the court and serve its ruler.”

“What, it’s like a law?”

“No, no, not exactly. But for those who will not serve, Orsino can make life…unpleasant.”

“That’s why you’re running? You don’t want to join this court?”

Elia’s face darkened. “I would not have my power exploited by him. Il re is not a good man. He uses magic to hurt people, to coerce them. He cares not about protecting his flock, but about using their powers to further his own influence.”

“Okay.” Sierra sat forward, cupping her coffee mug and taking a sip, watching him over the rim. “He’s a bad guy, you don’t want to be a bad guy too, so you ran. I get that. But I can’t believe he would chase you all the way here. That seems extreme.”

“There are not that many of us with powers,” he said with a wry grin. “Orsino holds on tightly to those he considers his own.” He sighed and ran a hand through his wet hair. “But this is about more than that.”

“What do you mean? Did you do something to piss him off? What, you slept with his daughter?”

Elia laughed and shook his head. “Nothing like that, no. He feels that I have tricked him, and if he lets me get away with it, he will lose face. Lose influence.”

“Tricked him how?”

“Magic has been in my bloodline for centuries, but neither of my parents actually possess any powers,” he began. “They serve il re in only a loose sense, letting him use their business to import or export magical items. Magic often skips a few generations, that is why there are so few of us. They had hoped I would be free of powers as well, and enjoy the same lack of attention from Orsino.”

“Clearly that didn’t happen.”

“When I came into my power, my parents covered it up. They sent me to your country to attend a preparatory school, explaining it away as an experience that would help me take over their business one day. Orsino agreed to let me go, since I had no powers for him to manipulate. Or so we thought.”

“You think he didn’t buy it?”

Elia nodded. “I know he didn’t. He sent someone to watch me, just in case I came into my powers late.” His face fell. “I didn’t realize it and I…I made a grave mistake. I can’t not change, you see. If I go too long I get an…itch. There were woods by my school. I would go there sometimes and be my cat self.”

“And Orsino’s goon followed you and found out that you have powers after all?”

“I wasn’t careful enough.” He finished his cup of coffee and rubbed at his eyes. “I was caught. So were my parents.” A sob cut him off.

Sierra sat up straighter. “Oh, no,” she whispered.

“He killed them,” Elia confirmed, “for their betrayal. I went mad when I was told. I managed to escape from Orsino’s man, but I have been running ever since.”

“I am so sorry,” Sierra said, getting up and moving around to wrap him in a hug. He seemed so young in that moment, so lost. “I can’t imagine how lonely that must have been. Was there no one here you could go to for protection?”

He drew a deep breath and wiped at his face, composing himself. “I did find a group for a little while. Similar to Orsino’s court, but not nearly as bad, and better to each other, at least. I thought I’d finally found a home, a place among people like me again, but I was wrong.”

“What happened?”

“Somebody in the group had ties to Orsino, somehow. I still don’t know who it was. But they told him about me, and he sent the wolf to collect me. I had to run again. That’s how I ended up here.” He glanced up at her, grabbing her wrist. “I am so sorry I brought my trouble to your door. You don’t deserve this.”

“Neither do you,” Sierra insisted. She drew a deep breath, thinking. “This wolf, you’re sure he wouldn’t have told Orsino that he found you?”

“If he had, more of Orsino’s men would be here already,” Elia said, certain. He hesitated, then added, “But I must confess it is possible that more will come looking. They may pick up on the first wolf’s trail.”

“Okay.” She hugged him again and then returned to her seat, thinking. “Okay. Well. You can’t do this alone. You shouldn’t have to. You can stay here if you want to.”

“Why would you help me?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” she looked at him in surprise. “I’m already a part of this now. Don’t we have a better chance keeping ourselves safe if we’re together?”

He was quiet for a long moment, and he looked tired. Sierra wasn’t surprised, with all of the running he’d been doing. No one deserved to live their life like that. Elia drew a deep breath and looked up, meeting her eyes. “Grazie,” he said. “I would like to stay, if you’re sure.”

“Right then,” she said, getting up to refill their coffee. “Now that that’s settled. We need to establish some rules.”

“Rules?”

“Vital to any roommate arrangement,” Sierra said with a nod. “For starters, if you’re staying, you’re staying as Elia, not as a cat.” She wrinkled her nose. “Not gonna lie, I’m still kind of creeped out about you being here so long with me just thinking you were a regular cat.”

“That is fair,” he said, blushing again. “It is not good for me to stay in that form for too long as it is. I risk losing myself to the beast.”

“Yeah, let’s avoid that if we can. Okay. On to the next rule…”

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