Never Be the Same: Chapter Nine

Upended

Sierra dragged her feet getting ready the next morning. She waited until she heard the others leave for Mass before getting out of bed, taking her time with her shower and packing. Elia was already in the kitchen, fixing a pot of coffee, when she made her way downstairs. “Are you packed?” she asked as he got out a mug for her.

,” he said, nodding in the direction of the hall. “My bag is by the door.”

“Cool. I’ll go put our stuff in the car. We’ll stay for lunch after Mass and then I figure we’ll hit the road.”

“We should probably stop at the store once we are back in Bowieville,” Elia said as he stirred sugar into his coffee.

Sierra nodded. They’d missed their usual Saturday shopping trip, and they were running low on a few things in the apartment. Best to stock up, since they were going to be sticking close to home for a while. “It’s a plan,” she agreed.

They ate their breakfast in relative silence. Sierra wondered if Elia was trying to soak up as much peace as she was before they had to return to reality. It had been a nice break, but now they had to go back and deal with whatever might be waiting for them. She took advantage of the silence to offer up a few prayers that Elia’s hunters had taken their bait and were now looking for him far, far away. When her family returned, Mamá suggested they all go have lunch at her favorite restaurant near campus.

“Are you sure, Marta?” Papá asked, wrinkling his nose. “Finals are approaching. Will we be able to get through the meal without interruptions from your students trying to seize the opportunity to speak with you?” He winked at Sierra and Elia behind his wife’s back to show he was teasing.

Mamá scoffed and waved him off. “My students know better than to interrupt me when I am with mi familia,” she said, smiling at Sierra. “I was thinking after we eat, we could take a walk through campus. They’ve made some changes since the last time you were there.”

“I think that sounds perfect, Mamá,” Sierra replied, seizing on the chance to delay their departure even a little. Practicality jumped in enough for her to add, “Although we should probably take separate cars so Elia and I can leave from campus.”

With that decided, there was little else to do but go. Sierra and Elia made a quick run upstairs to ensure they’d left nothing behind, and then everyone headed out for the restaurant. Lunch was a boisterous affair, trying to get in as much last-minute conversation as possible in the atmosphere of the crowded restaurant. There were, as Papá predicted, a few quick interruptions from Mamá’s students, but she was able to mostly fend them off with a gentle reminder of her office hours and a few tips on which sections of the textbook her questioners might find most helpful. They walked off their meal with a quick tour of the campus and Sierra let Abuela wrap an arm around her as they wandered, enjoying the silent support. She didn’t think Mamá would have shared their conversation from the night before, but Abuela knew Sierra well enough to know that a little extra love might not be remiss. It was a wonderful reminder that no matter how overwhelmed she felt, she really wasn’t alone. She could count on their help if it came to that, and watching Papá talk Elia’s ear off, knew that he could, too.

They finished their walk and there was a round of hugging and farewells, accompanied by admonitions to be careful on the road and to call when they got in. After Sierra buckled herself in, Abuela knocked on the window and waited for her to roll it down. “Visit more often, cariño.”

Sierra flashed her a smile and leaned out of the window to kiss her on the cheek. “Prometo, Abuelita.”

She started the car and waited for the other woman to step back before rolling up the window. Then she gave a final wave to her family and, checking that Elia was buckled up, pulled out of the parking lot and turned toward the highway. He seemed to be lost in his thoughts, so she put on some music at a low volume and left him to stare out the window at the passing scenery. It was a gorgeous day for a drive. Sierra couldn’t help but think it would have been perfect if not for the fact that with every mile closer to Bowieville they drove, a new worry seemed to wake up and remind her that all was not right with the world. We’re doing everything we can, she told herself. There’s no point in stressing over it. She didn’t quite manage to convince herself.

About an hour or so into their trip, Elia spoke up at last. “Grazie.”

“For?” Sierra glanced at him, curious.

“This weekend,” he said. “For letting me be part of your family. It has been a long while since I’ve had that.” His lips quirked up. “Although my experience of family was never quite so caotico. I am surprised they were so welcoming of me, but glad. It was a good thing.”

Sierra smiled and nodded. Then she bit her lip and risked another glance in his direction. “If you don’t mind my asking, what was your family like? It was just you and your parents, right?”

,” he confirmed. He leaned his head against the window, thinking. “It was different,” he said at last. “They were loving, and cared for me well, but…there was no time for play. If I didn’t have magic, I would take over their work for il re, and they were always preparing me, making sure I knew what was required. Both to run the business and to avoid Orsino’s attention. I was never given the chance to consider what I might want to do with my life. They were scared, too, of course.”

“That you would have magic?” He nodded and sighed. Sierra frowned, voicing a question that she’d had for a while. “I know you said that magic can skip generations, but if neither of your parents had any, how were they still tied to Orsino’s court?”

Elia shot her a wan, dry smile. “Because once magic appears in a bloodline and it is bound to a court, that bond is permanent, no matter if future generations have the magic or not. At least, that is how it is in Italia and other parts of Europa.”

“I guess that makes it easier to know when powers do pop up again,” Sierra mused.

“Precisely,” Elia agreed. “Although since coming here I have seen that other groups are not so strict. Orsino is obsessive about keeping track of the bloodlines within his territory. He has a permanent team of genealogists on staff, and also a special squad of hunters whose job it is to track down emerging stregone and weres.”

She blinked at that. “I’m surprised there would be any, if he keeps you all under such close watch.”

“It is rare. The most common occurrence is when someone from outside of the court’s influence moves there without knowing there is magic in their blood. Sometimes someone in the court has an indiscretion they do not think to report to the trackers.” He smirked.

“One night stands, gotcha.” She frowned. “With all that, how did your parents hope to keep your powers hidden?”

He glanced down at his hands. “I do not know. Even I was surprised that they tried. I do not think they would have if not–” he cut himself off, clenching his hands. “I told you that Orsino uses cats as spies. Before my powers emerged, he had been growing bold in his use of my kind. To the point of carelessness, even. He was trying to take over a rival court, if the rumors were to believed, and his spies were paying the price.”

“They were dying, you mean.”

He nodded. “Weres were more common in the middle ages, but over the last few centuries, we have grown rare, even among our kind. When my powers emerged, Orsino had only one cat left in his court.”

Sierra let out a low whistle. “No wonder your folks were so scared to turn you over to his service.”

“They knew I would not be given any real chance for training. There would be no honing of my powers, of other skills useful to me in my position as a spy. So, they sent me away. They risked everything to keep me safe.” He sighed and glanced back out the window. “And now even that may have been in vain.”

Sierra reached over and grabbed one of his hands, squeezing it tightly. “Hey. No. Don’t think like this. We will figure out a way to get him off your back. For good.”

“How?” he asked, turning to her with a look of utter hopelessness.

She wanted to give him some confident, inspiring answer, but nothing came to her. “I don’t know,” she admitted, squeezing his hand again when his shoulders slumped. “But we’ll come up with something, Elia. You’ve evaded him this long. We just need to keep you out of his reach a little longer, okay?”

He returned to staring out the window, but after a few moments he gave her hand a small squeeze in reply. “Okay,” he whispered.

~**~

Sierra slowed the car when they crossed into Bowieville’s city limits. A switch seemed to flip inside of her, in Elia too, if his tense posture was any indication, and she found herself scanning their surroundings as she drove to the store. Her eyes flicked from the rear view mirror to the side mirrors, taking in everything she could. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary, no one following them as far as she could tell, but she  wanted to be alert all the same. They paid cash at the grocery store–Sierra had given up using her cards anywhere but at an ATM since the trip to Houston–and took a long hard look around the parking lot before they loaded up her car and headed to the apartment.

“Let’s see if we can carry this all inside in one trip,” she murmured to Elia as they unloaded the trunk. He nodded his agreement, slinging both of their duffels over his shoulder and grabbing as many of the grocery bags as he could.  As casually as she could manage, Sierra examined the parking lot for any unfamiliar vehicles. Nothing. She didn’t see anything suspicious across the street, either. Letting out a slow breath, she unlocked the front door to the building and she and Elia shuffled inside, making straight for the elevator.

“Turn the light on as soon as we are in the apartment,” Elia murmured as they rode up to the second floor, “just to make sure no one is lying in wait inside.”

The elevator let out a soft ding and the doors opened onto the second floor. Sierra already had the correct key in her hand, and Elia kept watchful eyes on the hallway while she unlocked the door.

“Where in the world have you been?”

Sierra jumped and dropped her keys. She almost dropped the bag with the eggs, too, but managed to catch it just before it hit the ground. “Mrs. Davis!”

“Good heavens, Miss Espina, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.” She stood in her open doorway with her hands on her hips, looking the pair of them up and down. Then she huffed out a sigh and joined them in the hall, stooping to pick up Sierra’s keys. “You should have made an extra trip,” she observed, glancing at all of their bags as she opened the door and shooed them inside. “Well, go on, get in, put all that down.”

“Ah, thank you, Mrs. Davis,” Sierra said, darting inside and hitting the light switch with her elbow, taking a mad survey of the apartment to ensure it was empty as Mrs. Davis pushed Elia in behind her, following along. The living room was empty, and both of the bedroom and bathroom doors were closed like they’d left them. She raced into the kitchen under the pretense of putting the groceries on the counter. No one in there, either. She and Elia exchanged a glance as Mrs. Davis stood in the living room, sizing everything up. It occurred to Sierra that her neighbor hadn’t been inside since Elia moved in. She’d probably been dying to see what kind of changes his presence had wrought, as much as she needed to know everything that went on in the building. “Would you like a cup of coffee, Mrs. Davis?” she asked in a strained voice. “It will take a few minutes to get a pot going, but–“

“Oh, no, no. Thank you.” Mrs. Davis waved her off, watching as Elia set each of their duffel bags outside of their respective bedroom doors. “I just wanted to make sure everything was all right,” she said, giving Sierra a pointed look, “what with you disappearing all weekend with no notice.”

Ah. She didn’t know where we went and she hates not knowing. “Sorry about that, Mrs. Davis. I probably should have let you know. Last minute trip to visit my parents.”

“Pish posh,” Mrs. Davis said, looking satisfied. “No need for you to check in with me. None of my concern. I just wondered, is all, in case I needed to tell someone.”

Right. A new thought occurred to Sierra. “Was anyone asking for either of us while we were gone?”

Mrs. Davis pursed her lips in thought and then shook her head. “No. No, didn’t see any visitors in the building this weekend. It was nice and quiet, really.” Sierra relaxed a little. “Everything all right with your folks, dear?” Mrs. Davis asked after staring at the door to Elia’s room for a long minute.

“Just fine, Mrs. Davis.”

“Well, that’s good. That’s good.” She fixed Elia with a stern look. “And what about you, young man? Have you found yourself gainful employment, yet? Or are you still content to let this young lady provide for you?” There was a distinctly accusatory bite in her tone and Sierra winced. She bit her lip to refrain from pointing out that, of the two of them, Elia was the more financially stable. Even if all of his savings were in a safe in the other room instead of a bank.

“Ah, not yet, signora, I am afraid. I am still looking.” He flashed her a more polite smile than Sierra would have managed.

This seemed to mollify Mrs. Davis. “Hmmph. Well. See that you find something soon. It’s not good for young folks to just laze about all day.” With that said, she seemed to feel her job was done. She clapped her hands together and added, “I’d best be getting along now, leave you two to your unpacking. Good evening.”

“Buenos noches, Mrs. Davis,” Sierra said, following her out. “That woman,” she said in a low voice after she’d shut and locked the door. She shook her head, turning back to face Elia. With a sigh, she glanced at the apartment’s closed doors. “Bathroom first, then we’ll each take a bedroom at the same time?”

,” Elia said, nodding.

The rest of the apartment proved to be empty and they both relaxed a little more. They double checked all of the windows and locks before settling in to put away groceries and unpack. “Other than work, I don’t have anywhere to be until Thursday,” Sierra said. “We should plan on just staying inside until then. Will you be all right during the days? Or should I figure out a way to sneak you into my office?”

“I think I’ll be fine,” he said with a smile. “I’ll have Signora Davis on the lookout for any suspicious activity, after all.”

“True,” Sierra laughed. A nosy neighbor was good for that much, at least.

Elia tilted his head. “You said Thursday. What about rehearsal on Tuesday?”

“Canceled this week,” Sierra told him. “Intira has something going on at her school.”

“For the best, I suppose,” he said with a sigh. “Although I suspect by Thursday I will be quite ready to get out of the apartment again.”

~**~

Elia couldn’t have known how prophetic his declaration would turn out to be. The week started off in a quiet manner. Sierra kept her eyes open on the way to work on Monday, watching out for anyone that might be following. She kept her head down at her desk, even working through lunch, only taking a break midmorning to check in with Elia. Then, at three-thirty, the impossible happened. Her world turned upside down again.

It started with a knock at the door of her office. Sierra looked up to find her boss’s assistant looking grim. “He needs you for a meeting, Sierra.”

“Can it wait?” Sierra frowned and gestured at the pile of paperwork on her desk, but the other woman was already shaking her head.

“Now,” she said. “Leave what you’re working on. Big conference room.”

“Okay,” Sierra answered, pushing back from her desk and moving to follow the assistant. But the assistant did not head for the conference room, turning instead toward another hall of offices. Sierra paused long enough to watch her knock on another door and begin issuing a similar summons before hurrying toward the indicated room. ¿Qué diablos? Whatever was going on, she suspected it would be a bad idea to be late. When she got to the conference room, her already frayed nerves began to unravel even more. Looking around, she saw almost a dozen other employees, from half as many departments, all of them working on a variety of accounts. Sierra couldn’t think of a single good reason to assemble this particular group for an impromptu meeting.

She took a seat and two more employees drifted in, looking as confused as Sierra felt. They were followed by the assistant and then her boss, both looking grim. “Look,” he said, “there’s no easy way to say this, but corporate has been crunching numbers and decided it’s time to make some changes.” He rubbed the back of his neck and heaved a sigh. “I’m afraid the change starts here in this room, with all of you. You’ve been let go.”

Sierra was glad she was sitting, because the bottom seemed to have dropped out beneath her. Her boss’s assistant started handing out folders, each with the employee’s name neatly written on the front. Her boss continued speaking, but Sierra couldn’t bring herself to focus on him. She managed to catch a few words here and there. “…immediately…severance as generous as possible…gather your things…security will escort you out…” When at last the meeting ended, her boss gave them all an apologetic look and made a hasty exit. Not hard to do, given the room full of stunned former employees left in his wake.

Dazed as she was, Sierra managed to check when she got home that the apartment parking lot was free of suspicious cars. Still, something of the shock of being laid off must have shown on her face, because Elia’s smile faded the second she walked through the door. “What is it?” He hurried to the door, taking the box of belongings from her hand without even glancing at it. “Did you see something on the way in? Someone? A wolf?”

Sierra let out a dry laugh that turned into a sob, shaking her head. “No,” she managed. “I looked, but didn’t see anything. It’s not that.”

“What is it?” he asked again, concern writ large on his face as he led her to the couch. “Sierra, what has happened?” She told him about the meeting and he let out a string of unfamiliar Italian that she guessed were curses. Then he sighed and hugged her tight. “I am sorry,” he said, and she could tell he meant it. “But I am sure you will figure something out.”

“I will,” she agreed, wiping her face and taking a few deep breaths. She managed a smile. “But not this week. There’s enough going on right now. I can take a few days off before I start to worry about finding a new job.”

Elia responded with a solemn nod. Then a spark appeared in his eyes and he grinned. “Perhaps this is a good time for that movie marathon we had discussed?”

“It’s the perfect time,” she agreed, letting out another laugh. The job market was a crapshoot, especially in a small town like Bowieville, but he was right, she’d figure something out. Right now, though, she had other things to worry about.

At least this was a good excuse to lay low for a bit. They kept an eye on the parking lot, but there remained no sign of anyone who shouldn’t be there. When they were starting to feel too cooped up by Wednesday, they went out to dinner and Sierra risked driving by Moonshine on the way home to see if anyone unfamiliar was hanging out there, but saw nothing to warrant any alarm. Either they really had managed to mislead Elia’s hunters, or the newcomers were being smarter about their surveillance than the first wolf. Sierra had to admit she was surprised at how calm she felt about the possibility of another attack. She would have thought that without the distraction of work, the stress would have made her a nervous wreck by now, but it seemed that knowing there was an imminent threat was much easier to deal with than the vague fear of not knowing much at all she’d experienced when Elia first came into her life.

The only thing that really wore on her was the isolation. She missed her friends. Not just seeing them, but getting to openly talk to them about what was going on in her life. Worried they might come over and try to cheer her up, she held back on telling them that she’d lost her job. That, at least, she could come clean about at rehearsal. By the time Thursday rolled around, she was just as eager as Elia to get out of the apartment and be with other people. She hadn’t touched her bass since she found out about J.D., blaming it on some subconscious level for his death. After all, if Elia hadn’t ordered it, the young man wouldn’t have come to warn him, and he might still be alive. She didn’t want to risk questions from her friends about why she wasn’t using her shiny new toy at practice though, so she steeled herself to play it again. By the end of practice she was glad she had, reveling in its gorgeous funky sound and the joy she got as the music flowed from her fingertips, joining with that of her band mates to make up her favorite thing about her life. Whatever mess she might be in right now, she decided then and there, she wasn’t going to let it take away her love of music.

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