Never Be the Same: Chapter Eight

Respite

“Explain to me again why we’re doing this?”

“I told you,” Sierra sighed, reaching up to adjust the rear view mirror, “Papá won a state education award and mi familia is getting together to celebrate.”

Elia stopped flipping through the comic book he was reading to shoot her a skeptical look. “I’m not part of the family.”

“It’s not like I can go out of town all weekend and leave you by yourself,” she said, keeping her eyes fixed on the road. “Besides, you may as well be familia, as far as Mamá is concerned. When I mentioned I had a roommate, she insisted I bring you along so everyone could meet you.” All true, though Sierra thought it best to leave out that she had mentioned Elia’s existence in the first place because she knew it would elicit such a demand.

“You never mentioned anything about a family get-together until today,” he said, still skeptical.

“We’ve been trying to work out everyone’s schedules for a few weeks,” Sierra told him. “When I was talking to Mamá today and she heard I don’t have any gigs this weekend–“

“You call your mother on Sunday,” Elia observed, closing the book and setting it in his lap, “not Friday.”

“We talk on other days sometimes,” she defended. Also true, if not the entire truth.

“What’s going on, Sierra?”

“What do you mean?”

He turned in his seat and leaned up against the the door, crossing his arms and frowning at her. “I mean, you come home from work tonight and tell me, ‘pack a bag, we’re going to Austin!’ without any real explanation. You’re on edge, and you keep checking the mirror like you’re afraid we’re being followed.” His frown deepened and he craned his neck around, glancing behind them. “Are we?”

“Not as far as I can tell,” she muttered in a grudging tone.

His eyes narrowed. “What aren’t you telling me?”

She heaved a sigh and flicked her eyes to him, then back to the road. Her stomach was a churning ball of knots, and as much as she didn’t want to worry him, she was beginning to think it wasn’t fair to keep him in the dark about this. Besides, did she have any right to hold things back from him when she’d gotten so angry at him for doing just that?

“You told me we can face this together,” he reminded her in a soft tone. “That only works if we’re not keeping secrets.”

She snorted and shot him a wry smile. “Just use my own words against me, why don’t you?”

He settled back in his seat with a satisfied smirk. “I thought that might prove effective. Come on, out with it.”

Sierra bit her lip then nodded. “J.D. is dead,” she said.

“What?” Elia put a hand on the dashboard, gripping it hard enough to turn his knuckles white. His face drained of color.

“It was on the news today,” she said, taking one hand off the wheel long enough reach over and cover his. “His body was found on the edge of town, torn apart. The official theory is that it was an animal attack, but the news is claiming that inside sources say the police think the scene was just staged to look that way.”

“Wolf,” Elia breathed, loosening his grip on the dashboard. He squeezed her hand then dropped his own into his lap.

“I think so,” she agreed, pulling her hand back. “The body had been there about a week. It sounds like he was killed on his way back to the city, after he left us.”

Elia frowned, rubbing his face. He took a few slow breaths as he thought it over. “If the wolf followed him from Bobbi Leigh’s, he would have already come after us,” he murmured. “So maybe he was following the first wolf’s trail?”

“That’s what I was thinking,” she agreed. “He must have run into J.D. and recognized him as one of the local crew, tried to question him.”

“Clearly he didn’t like J.D.’s answers,” Elia grimaced. He shook his head. “This doesn’t make sense, though. If Orsino is working with Bobbi Leigh, why would his man kill hers?”

“Are they really working together?” Sierra asked. “From what J.D. told us, it sounded like she wasn’t too happy about the collaboration. Maybe Orsino’s men think she’s holding back on them.”

“That would not surprise me.” He sighed and glanced at her. “If the wolf is in town, it’s only a matter of time until he finds the trail to your apartment. Or at least to Moonshine. Going away for the weekend won’t really do us much good. He’ll just wait for me to come back. Unless you aren’t planning on us coming back?”

Sierra shook her head. “No. I said no running, and I meant it. I’m just hoping to buy us some time. If I could recognize J.D. from the news, she definitely will. I’m betting she’s smart enough to get someone looking into whatever he was doing right before he died. Once she has someone pull your financials, it’s going to look like J.D. warned you off and then you skipped town. She’ll send the wolf hunting down that lead.”

He thought it over. “Maybe. She won’t be happy about J.D.’s murder though. She might send her own people to chase it down instead, and leave him waiting around on what she assumed will be a dead end.”

“Would she be willing to take that risk, though? That it is a dead end? Or that Orsino would find out she withheld more information after one of her own apparently tipped you off?”

“No,” Elia said after a long moment. “I don’t think she will.” He sighed and rubbed his face again. “I hope you’re right about this. There’s just so much that we don’t know.”

“I hope so, too,” she agreed. “If I’m wrong, we’ll deal. We’ll be extra careful when we get back home, okay? But for now,” she shrugged and glanced over at him, “I’ve gotta admit, Elia, I am feeling so overwhelmed by all of this. A weekend with mi familia, where I can try to forget all our problems for just a little while? It sounds like exactly what I need. I was thinking maybe you might need something like that, too.”

“I’m not even sure I remember how to be part of a family,” he admitted.

“Don’t worry,” she laughed. “I’m sure it will come back to you.”

~**~

“¡Mija! ¡Bienvenido!” Mamá barely let Sierra get out of the car before wrapping her up in a giant hug. Sierra let herself relax into it, a sense of peace that she’d been lacking the past month or so settling over her. It was good to be home. “¡Angelo,” Mamá called back to the house, “ella está aquí!” She let go of Sierra and gave her a nudge toward the front door, where Papá emerged, drying his hands on a dish towel. Spying Elia on the other side of the car, she grinned and went to hug him as well. “And you are Elia. Hola, and welcome. I cannot wait to hear all about you.” She ignored the look of surprise on his face at the warm greeting and stepped back, taking his arm and pulling him into the house along with her.

Sierra caught his eyes and winked at him. “Just go with it,” she mouthed. He gave her a dazed nod and she turned back to find yet another person waiting to greet them. “Abuelita!” She ran forward to hug the woman in question.

Papá offered his hand to Elia and then looked between the two of them. “Did you eat on the road, or are you hungry?”

“We drove straight here,” Sierra answered. “Haven’t had dinner yet.”

“Well,” Papá answered with a grin, ushering them into the kitchen, “let’s see what we can do about that.”

The five of them settled down around the large table and made small talk while Sierra and Elia ate their meal. “Alma will be here tomorrow after lunch,” Mamá told Sierra. “We thought we’ll take the niños to the school to see your papá’s plaque, then maybe to the museum. There is an exhibit now about popular music through history, you will like it.”

“Do you play music, Elia?” Papá asked.

“Ah, no, I’m afraid not,” he answered. “I have never had much talent for it.”

“His talent in the kitchen might rival yours though, Papá,” Sierra chimed in, trying to keep the conversation from steering off into too many questions about what it was Elia did, exactly. She’d told her parents as close to the truth as she could manage about him–that he’d been schooled in the States and dropped out of college when his parents died. And that he’d been traveling since, trying to figure out just where he wanted to settle down.

“But you met at one of Sierra’s concerts, yes?” Mamá asked, before Papá could start grilling Elia about recipes.

“They’re not concerts, Mamá,” Sierra muttered, “they’re gigs.”

Elia grinned at her and then turned a more sincere smile at Mamá. “Sì, signora. I may not be able to make decent music, but I do appreciate it when I hear it. Sierra’s band is amazing.”

“So we keep hearing,” her abuela sniffed. “But they do not come to Austin to play a show so we might hear them.”

“We’ve played in Austin tons of times, Abuelita,” Sierra said in amused tone, “and I very clearly remember you in the audience at all of them.”

“It has been too long,” she insisted. “What about that festival?” she asked. “If we have to endure that ridiculous circus every spring, then at least you could make it worth our while.”

Sierra refrained from rolling her eyes out of respect, but only just. “If we get booked for South By Southwest, Abuelita, you will be the first person I call. Prometo.”

Abuela huffed, crossing her arms and sitting back in her chair, satisfied.

They finished eating and Papá helped bring in their bags. Sierra headed straight for her old room, directing Elia to Alma’s. She exchanged a nod with him and closed the door behind her, flopping down on the bed with a relieved sigh. Even with Elia here, everything about being at home just felt so simple. For the first time in weeks, she was able to let go of the worry. Doing so invited in a deep wave of exhaustion, however. She hadn’t realized just how much she’d been struggling to keep it together all this time. She hurried through her evening routine, then climbed into bed. She was fast asleep seconds after her head hit the pillow.

~**~

Sierra slept hard and woke slowly. She drowsed in bed for a while, half-awake, until her mind cleared enough for her to hear the low rumble of conversation and clattering of dishes drifting up from downstairs. She smiled and rolled over, doing a double-take when she saw the time on the bedside clock. She checked it against her phone to be sure it was right, but she really had slept until eleven. Haven’t done that in a while, she thought, sitting up and allowing herself a good, long stretch. She rummaged through her bag for fresh clothes and slipped out of her room to the bathroom. When she finished her shower and stepped back into the hall, she found Elia peeking his head out of his room. “You slept in, too?” She smiled, glad he had been able to relax here.

,” he confirmed, giving her a sleepy smile. “Though I’ve been up for about an hour.” He shot a sheepish look toward the stairs, “I didn’t want to go down by myself.”

Sierra laughed and swatted at his shoulder. “They’re not that bad!”

“No,” he said, smiling, “they are not. They are wonderful.” A hint of sadness clouded his eyes, there and gone again in a flash. “Still.”

Sierra thought she understood. She nodded. “Well, I’m going down now. You get cleaned up and come join us. It sounds like we’ll be having lunch before too long.”

“Excellent.” He ducked back into the room, presumably to find his own change of clothes.

Sierra dropped off her pajamas and then headed down to the first floor, finding Papá and Abuela in the kitchen. When Elia came in a few moments later, Mamá was with him, asking how he had slept. “Very well, grazie,” he replied, taking a seat next to Sierra and accepting the cup of coffee that Papá held out to him. “Grazie,” he said again, this time for the coffee.

He and Sierra sipped at their coffee, trying to wake the rest of the way up. Once she finished her cup, Sierra got up to help Papá with getting lunch ready. Elia joined in as well once he finished his own cup. “Well,” Mamá laughed, exchanging a glance with Abuela, “isn’t it nice to have so many helpers?”

Between the three of them, lunch was soon ready. Not a moment too soon, as far as Sierra’s growling stomach was concerned. Abuela shooed everyone out after they finished eating, saying she would handle the dishes on her own. They relocated to the living room. “So, Elia, is this your first visit to Austin?” Mamá asked.

“It is,” he confirmed. “So far, I must say, it is much quieter than I expected.”

Sierra snorted. “Enjoy that while it lasts.” Right on cue, the doorbell rang, and Papá laughed as he got up to answer it. Elia shot Sierra a questioning look and she just shook her head, smiling. “You’ll see.”

The next moment brought a cacophony as Papá ushered in Sierra’s hermana and her family. “¡Tia Sierra!” two voices cried out in unison, and before she could get to her feet, Sierra was tackled by her sobrina and sobrino.

“Hola,” she said, wrapping them both up in a fierce hug.

“Who’s that?” Calli asked, pointing at Elia, who was looking a little lost amid all of the activity.

“Mi amigo, Elia,” Sierra answered.

“Is he your boyfriend?” Calli asked, staring at Elia in awe. “He’s pretty.”

Elia’s eyebrows shot up, and Sierra had to clap a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing.

“Don’t be estúpido,” Orlando said, adding in a whisper loud enough that the entire group could hear, “Tia doesn’t like boys like that, remember?”

Calli’s eyes went wide. “Oh,” she said. “I forgot.”

“Orlando!” Alma snapped, face caught somewhere between embarrassment and amusement. She plowed right through the awkward moment, deciding to address the more pressing issue, to her way of thinking. “How many times have I told you not to call tu hermana estúpido?”

Orlando seemed to give this serious thought. “I don’t know,” he said at last, shrugging. “I’ve lost count.”

Alma’s face turned red and Sierra thought she might be in serious danger of exploding. Her husband stepped in, holding his hand out to Elia. “Hi,” he said. “George Durbin. I’m the brother-in-law. Nice to meet you.”

Elia took his hand, looking relieved to have something to do. “Nice to meet you,” he parroted.

At some point during all of this, Abuela slipped into the room. After another quick round of greetings, she set everyone in motion to get ready to go and before Sierra knew it, they were headed out the door. With nine people, they had to take two cars. Abuela claimed a spot in Alma and George’s car, suggesting Alma could ride with Papá, Mamá, Sierra, and Elia. That proved easier said than done. Neither Papá nor Mamá drove very large cars. They managed it in the end, though it was a bit of a tight squeeze.

“You’ll have to sit in the center, Elia,” Alma decided after Mamá relegated the three “niños” to the backseat. “You’re the skinniest.” Sierra almost felt bad for him, since this meant he was stuck in the middle of her conversation with Alma once the car got moving and her hermana decided it was time to catch up. Thankfully, it was a short ride to the high school where Papá taught.

“What do you teach, signor?” Elia asked as they all filed into the main entrance of the school to dutifully admire the plaque hanging under Papá’s picture on the school’s “wall of fame.”

“Algebra,” he answered. “Calculus.”

“Angelo teaches any math course they’ll let him near,” George chimed in with a laugh.

Papá shrugged. “I like numbers.”

“Ooh, I found Tia!”

Everyone turned to see where Orlando was pointing and Sierra felt her face go red. “Oh no,” she said. “No, no, no. Nothing to see here.”

“Oh, yes,” Mamá said, peering at the picture on the wall. “Your program that year was most impressive.”

Sierra tried to block Elia but he dodged her, eyes alight as he joined the rest of her family. “What are you wearing?” he asked with obvious delight.

“It was marching band,” she defended herself. “No one looks good in a marching band uniform.”

“State champions do,” Papá observed.

Sierra cleared her throat, trying to find some way to deflect their attention. “Didn’t someone say something about going to the museum?”

~**~

The museum was fun, if exhausting. After that, they all returned to her parents’ house for dinner. Abuela got the grill ready and the evening was nice enough that the family joined her outside while she cooked the chicken and steaks. Sierra was in and out, helping with a salad while Mamá prepared the rice and beans. Sierra started on the tortillas, pausing when she glanced out the window and saw Elia playing tag with Calli and Orlando. She wondered what his childhood had been like, with the possibility of magic looming over him. When Sierra was little she used to dream about being able to do magic, and it had always filled her with delight to imagine. He didn’t talk about his parents much, and hadn’t mentioned any other family at all. How much must his life have changed the day he realized what he was able to do? It was a wonder he took any joy in his powers at all, given what they’d cost him.

“He seems a nice boy,” Mamá said, dropping into Spanish without Elia or George being around. “But confusing, as well.”

“What do you mean?” Sierra asked, tensing at the question.

Mamá pursed her lips. Sierra thought she was trying to find a way to explain. “You speak of your friends often, but you have never mentioned him before yesterday, when you tell me he is your roommate. I cannot help but wonder, why him? Your friend Intira has a house to herself, does she not have room? Cammy would let you stay with her, I am sure, though I would question the wisdom of such a decision.” Sierra started to interject, but Mamá went on. “But you would not ask either of them to live with you, because you have always valued your privacy, your independence. So who is this boy that you let him into your home, into your space?”

Sierra bit her lip and concentrated on pressing tortillas and cooking them on the skillet. “He is lost, Mamá, and in need of someone to care for him. I am the person he found.”

“Ah. You have seemed protective of him. I thought it might just be because he is so young.” She tilted her head, staring out the window at him. “He is in some sort of trouble then, and you are helping him. Has he dragged you into his troubles as well?”

“It was not intentional.”

“Is this the sort of trouble that the police can help with?”

Sierra let out a bitter laugh. “I wish it was. It would make things easier.”

“Can we help you?”

“You already have, Mamá,” Sierra said, reaching out to squeeze her hand.

Mamá nodded and went back to her work. Sierra returned to the tortillas. After a few moments of productive silence, Mamá spoke again. “Will you stay for Mass tomorrow?”

“They do not want me in the church, Mamá,” she answered with a sigh. There were Catholic churches that accepted gay members into their community, but her parents’ was not one of them. Sierra had gotten over it long ago–mostly–and found her own ways to observe her faith, but Mamá still hadn’t and always invited her when she was in town. “If you like, Mamá, we’ll stay until Mass is over. We can all have lunch together before Elia and I head home.” Mamá was quiet for a few moments and then nodded, accepting the compromise. By the time she called everyone else in for dinner, her cheerful mood had returned.

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