Never Be the Same: Chapter Five

Acceptance

Having a roommate after so long living alone was an adjustment. Elia didn’t have much in the way of belongings–just a backpack he’d taken when he ran from the group in the city and stashed in Bowieville after he’d decided to hide out there as a cat for a while–so it wasn’t that he took up a lot of space. But he still had to sleep somewhere, and Sierra thought he deserved more privacy than just the couch. She set up the futon in the apartment’s second bedroom, which had been her office. That meant relocating her desk and computer, not to mention her music gear. Most of that lived at Intira’s already, but there were plenty of odds and ends she kept at home. All of a sudden, the apartment that had been more than big enough for her felt tiny and cramped.

At least Elia wasn’t a lazy roommate. He picked up after himself and agreed to do some of the cleaning while she was at work, and he also helped out in the kitchen. A lot. It turned out Elia loved to cook. Sierra was fine with that. She could admit that it was a nice change getting home from the office to a waiting hot, home-cooked meal instead of reheating something from the fridge or freezer.

“Ay, dios, this is delicious,” she said as she finished his most recent effort. She wiped her mouth with a napkin and sat back at the table, giving him an amused look. “Where did you even learn to cook like this? Not on the run for the last…wait, how long have you been running, anyway?”

His brow crinkled in thought, and he swirled a piece of bread around his plate. “Three years?” He seemed to be asking himself the question, tilting his head as he considered and then nodding. “Yes, that sounds about right. “I was just starting my second year at university when I was found out. I traveled for two years, staying for a few weeks in one place, then moving to the next, before Bobbi Leigh found me and took me in.” Bobbi Leigh was the leader of the “court” he’d sort of joined in the city. From what Elia said, they sounded more like a gang. Sierra couldn’t imagine how bad Orsino must be for it to seem like a better option.

“You never got to finish college?” Sierra said with a frown. “That sucks.”

,” he agreed with a shrug, “but it was only a distraction anyway. Something to buy me time before I had to go back home.”

“What was the plan for when you finished school, anyway?”

“I am not sure,” he admitted. “Perhaps my parents hoped that by then I would have control enough over my power to be able to hide it. They would have set me to work for them, and I am sure it would have involved as much travel as possible to keep me from Orsino’s attention.”

“Seems shaky,” she mused, “but I guess it makes sense.”

“To answer your question,” he said, pushing back from the table and grabbing both their plates as he rose, “the schools I attended offered culinary classes as,” he frowned, trying to find the word, “electives, I think was the term?”

She let him get away with changing the subject and nodded. “Sounds right. So, basically Home Ec.”

His brow crinkled again. “I don’t remember anyone calling it that. But I took the first one on a whim, thinking it sounded close enough to chemistry, which was my favorite subject. I enjoyed it enough to continue.”

“Cool,” Sierra said, getting up and clearing the rest of the table. “I’m not complaining.” She nudged him with her hip as she set the glasses on the counter. “You can leave the dishes. We need to get going.”

He shot her a puzzled look. “Going? Where?”

“It’s Tuesday night,” she reminded him. “I’ve got band practice.”

“Ah, yes.” A nervous look flitted across his face. “I had forgotten.”

“Hey, it’ll be okay,” she said, giving his shoulder a squeeze. “They’re cool, I promise.” She tried to ignore her own burst of nerves at the thought of bringing Elia to practice. They had a story in place. She wasn’t comfortable lying to her friends even more, but there was no way she was leaving Elia by himself again. They had discussed it and decided that during the day while she was at work was fine. Orsino’s thug had plenty of chances to go after Elia during the day before his break-in, and something had stopped him. She hoped that if any other hunters tracked him down, they’d reach the same conclusion. Which meant that aside from when she was at work, she wasn’t letting him out of her sight.

“Are you sure I should not go in my other form, at least?”

Sierra was already shaking her head. “It would be more weird for me to show up at practice with my cat than with a new roommate,” she told him for at least the third time. The roommate thing was weird enough, but she thought with the break-in and all, her friends wouldn’t question it too hard.

“If you are certain,” Elia sighed.

Sierra didn’t reply. She wasn’t certain about anything anymore. They rinsed the food off the dishes and left them in the sink. Sierra slipped into her room to gather her things for practice. She spared a regretful caress for the pieces of the broken Fender before pulling them out of the case and replacing them with her backup, her very first bass. It was a cheap thing that had come in one of those starter kits with an equally cheap amp and case. It worked, true, but the sound wasn’t stellar. Nowhere near what she’d managed to get from the Mexi P, but it would have to do until she could buy a new one. She gave a string an experimental pluck and winced. They’d need to be replaced this week, but would at least last through tonight’s practice. “Gonna take some getting used to,” she muttered as she zipped up the case. She stood and shouldered it, then turned to find Elia standing in the doorway.

His shoulders were slumped and he stared at the broken bass with a miserable expression. “Sierra, I am so–“

“Don’t,” she snapped. She held a hand out and shut her eyes, drawing a steadying breath. “Look, it wasn’t your fault, not really. It sucks, yeah, but I don’t want to talk about it, all right?” Okay, maybe if he hadn’t lied and pretended to be a cat so she’d take him in, the thug wouldn’t have ever broken in and she wouldn’t have been stupid enough to try to fend him off with her most prized possession. But she took him in. That was on her, and she was pretty damn sure she wouldn’t do it any differently if she could go back, so why dwell? Besides, if all she lost in this was a bass, she suspected she was getting off easy. “Come  on,” she said, shooing him out the door, “we’ve got to go.”

“Of course,” he said, eyes skipping back to the broken instrument one last time. He straightened his shoulders, mood changing in a flash and he grinned at her. “I am looking forward to meeting this Cammy of yours. Some of your conversations with her on the telephone were quite interesting.” He waggled his eyebrows.

Sierra grimaced and pushed him out the front door. “Can we just agree right now to never again mention the fact that you were living in my apartment for all that time, hearing and seeing everything about my life without me knowing? Every time I think about it, I get creeped out.”

His grin faded to a look of apology. “Scusa,” he murmured. “I did try to leave you your privacy though,” he defended.

She sighed. It was true. Thinking back, she realized he’d been very un-catlike about respecting her boundaries, always leaving the room when she was getting changed and never following her into the bathroom. “And I appreciate that,” she retorted, herding him into the elevator, “but there’s a big difference between bringing a cat into your home and a new person, and cat shaped or not, you were still a person. It’s going to take me a while to get over. You’re just going to have to respect that.”

“You’re right,” he nodded with a sigh. He gave her a long look, then said, “Are you sure you’re all right with this? I can go. I don’t wish to put you into further danger–“

“We’ve been over this,” Sierra interrupted. “You’re staying. It’s settled. You don’t deserve to spend your life running.” She wrinkled her nose and turned to him. “How much of that time were you a cat, anyway?”

He seemed to think this over as he slipped into the car and buckled his seatbelt. “A third, perhaps. Maybe a little more. I changed whenever I would be around people or needed to move around without being seen. In some places I was the cat all the time, just so that no one shown my picture would remember me.”

“But he was asking about a missing cat, not a missing person,” she mused.

Elia nodded. “Yes, he figured out what I was doing and started asking around for both.”

“Well, let’s hope none of the others reach the same conclusion any time soon.”

~**~

As expected, her bandmates were surprised, to say the least, when she introduced Elia to them as her new roommate. But as she hoped, once they got over the initial surprise, they greeted him warmly. Intira offered him a beer–after double checking that he was of legal drinking age, if only barely–and Bobby engaged him in the kind of small talk that Sierra had always wished she could manage. Cammy was the only real exception to the welcome wagon. She was polite to him, but Sierra caught the looks of suspicion her friend kept directing at the boy while he was talking to the others. She wasted no time in excusing herself from the group to bring Sierra a drink where she was tuning her bass a little apart from the others to avoid interrupting the pre-practice socializing. Sierra was at once both grateful for and annoyed by Cammy’s direct nature. “I thought we decided you were going to have me help you find a new place if you didn’t feel safe at the apartment anymore.” She set the bottle down beside Sierra and drummed her fingers on the carpet.

“We did,” Sierra sighed, eyes focused on the tuning pegs. “But Mamá called me after I left your place on Saturday and asked if I’d meet with him on Sunday. I couldn’t tell her no, not after what happened.” They’d explained Elia as a student of her madre, just moved to Bowieville and in need of a place to stay while he looked for a job.

Cammy narrowed her eyes and leaned back against the wall, crossing her arms over her chest as she watched Sierra. “So this is a favor to your mum, then? Letting some strange boy you’ve never met come live with you in your exceptionally small apartment so she won’t worry about you?”

“It’s not forever, Cammy,” Sierra sighed. “Just until he gets his feet under him.” She risked looking up, flashing a wry smile. “It’s not like anyone has to worry about my virtue in this situation. Or his. Besides, you know Mamá.”

“Yes,” Cammy said, pursing her lips, “I do.”

Sierra winced. Cammy wasn’t buying it at all. Mamá might ask me to keep an eye on a student she was fond of, or let him stay if I knew him, but this is pushing it. Even with the break-in. What else was she supposed to do, though? As much as she wanted to tell Cammy the truth, she couldn’t risk it. Besides, it wasn’t her truth to tell, not really. Sierra glanced up at her and found annoyance in her friend’s face, along with more than a little suspicion and, yes, hurt. She locked pleading eyes with Cammy. Just let it go, please. “It’s really all right, Cam,” she whispered.

Cammy huffed and blew a strand of hair out of her face, the lines around her mouth and eyes softening. “I hate it when you keep secrets Si,” she whispered back. “But I’m here when you’re ready to tell me what’s going on.”

Sierra nodded, looking down again and blinking back the tears threatening to fall. “Gracias,” she whispered.

“Now come on,” Cammy said, standing and offering a hand to Sierra. She gave the bass a critical once-over. “I think you’ve gotten it as far in-tune as it will get.”

They rejoined the others and found Bobby showing Elia pictures on his phone. “And there she is last Halloween,” he said, beaming. “She made an amazing Storm. Put the costume together almost all on her own, too.”

“Very awesome,” Elia agreed, “and yours as well. Falcon, yes? The resemblance is remarkable.”

“Wouldn’t have pegged you as being into superheroes,” Sierra snorted as she sat down on the edge of the sofa.

“They were all the rage with my last group of,” he hesitated for a hair’s breadth before saying, “friends. I found I rather enjoyed them.”

“Well that’s all well and good,” Cammy said, rolling her eyes, “but if Bobby is done showing off, we really should start practice now.” She gave Elia an appraising look and asked, “Let us know how we sound?”

“Of course,” he agreed, turning on the sofa and adjusting his glasses so he could better watch them.

~**~

“Well,” Sierra breathed when they got home, “that could have gone worse.”

“I thought you sounded great,” Elia said as he dropped onto the love seat. “I mean, I heard you practice while,” he caught himself and shifted, “before. But this was something else. Your singer, Cammy, she is quite talented.” Realizing that might be taken as an insult, he hurried to add, “Not that the rest of you aren’t, of course. You all come together to make something amazing.”

“Thanks,” Sierra snorted, “but I meant you meeting them. I think they seemed to accept why you’re suddenly in my life. Well, except for Cammy. But she’s at least willing not to pry.” She sighed.

“Rather protective of you, isn’t she?” Elia mused.

“You have no idea,” Sierra laughed, leaning against the doorway that separated the living room from the kitchen. “I mean, she’s pretty fierce about all of us, but she’s definitely worse about me.”

“You’re very close, I take it?”

“She’s my best friend,” Sierra shrugged. “I don’t know what I’d do without her. I hate lying to her,” she admitted, pushing herself from the doorway and walking to the fridge. She was feeling snacky.

“We can tell her, if you want,” Elia said after a long moment. “If you’re worried about her believing you, I can provide a demonstration. That should be convincing enough. Not the chicken,” he added when she reached for a container, “it’s gone off.”

Sierra picked it up and cracked open the lid with a frown. “Really? You can tell all the way from there?”

He shrugged. “Cat,” he reminded her.

“Huh.” She emptied the container into the trash can and rinsed it out, then pulled a box of crackers from the cabinet instead. She leaned against the counter and considered Elia’s offer. To tell Cammy would be a huge relief, but…didn’t it just put her in the same danger she and Elia were in? She didn’t think she was ready for that. Not yet, at least. She closed the cracker box and put it back, then wrinkled her nose at the sink. “Come help me with the dishes,” she called, grabbing the drying rack from beneath the sink and starting the water. Elia grabbed a towel and came to stand beside her, and they washed dishes in relative silence for a few moments. When Sierra picked up the container from the spoiled chicken she asked, “So what else can you do?”

Elia tilted his head and asked, “With magic, you mean?” When Sierra nodded his brow furrowed as if he was thinking it over. “Nothing extraordinary, really.”

Sierra laughed at that. “You can turn into a cat!”

“Well, ,” he agreed, laughing as well. “There is that. But that is the bulk of it. The beast is always with me, even when I am in my human form. I have a better sense of smell than others, and hearing. Quicker reflexes, more agility, that sort of thing.”

“You also have a propensity for napping in the sun,” she teased. He smiled in return and shrugged. “Kinda surprised you don’t have better eyesight,” she added, curious, gesturing to his glasses. She would have thought they were just a fashion choice, or maybe an attempt at disguise, but the way he’d scrambled to put them on after they’d retrieved his bag said otherwise.

“I have excellent night vision,” he said, looking down at the mug he was drying, “and can track motion better than most. But the nearsightedness, that is also a catlike trait. I am just lucky I am not as nearsighted as true cats.”

“Are they really? I didn’t know that.” She thought that over while they finished the dishes, the conversation moving into the living room. “So, you change into a cat, that hunter was what, a werewolf?” At Elia’s nod, she continued. “What else is out there? You talk like there’s this whole community. Is it like a hidden world, do you keep to yourselves, or blend in, or what?”

“We stick together, yes,” he said, “but we don’t keep ourselves isolated. We live and work beside ordinary humans for the most part. There are some exceptions, of course, but we’ve found it easier to stay hidden in plain sight. If we don’t know what’s going on with the world, we can’t protect ourselves from it.”

“So, my dentist could be a werewolf,” she mused, “and I’d never even know it.”

Elia laughed. “Possible, of course, but I doubt it.” He smiled, explaining, “Your dentist might be a stregone.” Seeing her frown he paused and tried again, “A magician? No, more like a sorcerer, I think.”

“Oh.”

. Our leaders encourage their followers to take vocations that fit with their magical powers. A stregone with an affinity for healing might go into medicine or dentistry. Werecats, such as myself, are used as eyes and ears. Cats are very good at getting into places without being noticed. We are the spies and guards of the magical world.”

“And werewolves are hunters?”

He nodded. “They track down and retrieve people and items as the leaders need. In Orsino’s court, the stregone are placed where they can increase his influence and wealth, and the weres are used to keep the status quo. As long as they obey his commands, they are otherwise allowed to live their lives as they will.” He frowned. “There are many who consider him a great man.”

“Not you though?”

“He holds little regard for humanity,” Elia said. “He wishes only for more power, more wealth, and does not care who gets hurt in the process. He takes care of those who are loyal to him, , but the things he asks of them to prove that loyalty….” He shook his head. “No. He is not a great man at all.”

Sensing how disturbed he was by the topic, Sierra tried to shift the conversation. “So, stregone,” she couldn’t bring herself to actually say sorcerers, “and weres. That’s it?”

“There are also the fae,” Elia answered. “Although they do keep to themselves.”

“What, like fairies?” Sierra laughed.

Elia smirked. “I would be very surprised if your idea of fairies was anything close to the truth of fae,” he said. “They are not human at all. Some of them could not even pass for human if they tried. So they keep their own counsel. Those that can pass as human take turns walking among us and working with the courts to ensure the safety of their clans.”

“Huh. I cannot believe all of that is just out there, without anyone knowing about it.” She frowned. “Are you allowed to tell humans about yourselves? About magic? If you want to remain hidden….”

“There are laws regarding revealing ourselves, but very few. It is largely at our own discretion. We are not enough to sustain a population on our own, after all, and while some of our number are content to reproduce without telling their partner the truth, many are not. Those who bring enough notice on our heads to threaten us are dealt with.”

He fell into a contemplative silence and she sensed that he was done talking about the matter. It was just as well. He’d given her plenty to think about, that was for sure. She didn’t know how she’d walk down the street now without wondering who around her might have magic. It was unsettling, to say the least. She pushed herself off the couch and went to collect her bass from where she’d left it by the door. She carried it into her room to put it on the stand, staring down at it with her arms crossed over her chest and a frown on her face. It wasn’t a bad instrument, but she was used to better.

“Will you get a new one?”

Sierra just about jumped out of her skin at the quiet question. He should have added “moves silently” to his list of abilities, she thought as she whirled around. She was going to have to talk to him about sneaking up on her. He gestured to the bass when she met his gaze and she sighed, pushing her hair out of her face. “Eventually,” she answered. “I have to save up some more before I can get something I’ll be happy with.”

He tilted his head and asked, “What about the one you were looking at on your computer last night?”

Sierra couldn’t help it, she laughed. Elia blinked in surprise. “The custom jazz bass?” She shook her head, a wry grin on her face. “Dios, that’s the dream. If I wait until I can justify that bass, I’ll still be playing this thing when Bobby’s an abuelo.” She shook her head again and stepped over to squeeze his shoulder. “I have a little saved up, and maybe in a month or two I can start trawling the pawn shops to see if there are any treasures to be found. In the mean time, I’ll make do.” Seeing he was about to speak, she added, “And don’t you dare apologize again, okay? That’s not what I was mad at you about anyway. The bass isn’t your fault. We’re good.”

“Oh,” he said, looking thoughtful. “All right then. Well, I just came in to say good evening.” He winked at her, “I didn’t get in nearly enough naps today. I’m turning in.”

“Buenas noches, Elia,” she said, squeezing his shoulder again.

Buona notte, Sierra.”

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