Elijah tossed the movie script he’d been reading on top of the lopsided pile on the beige carpet. God, this script had sucked even worse than the others, he thought in disgust. He couldn’t believe his agent had even sent such a badly written piece of garbage to him. A dozen scripts he'd just looked through, and not a single one that piqued his interest. Not that he was in the correct frame of mind to be reading them right now anyway. It was something to do to kill the time that was all.
He jiggled his foot nervously, and wished he could go outside and have a smoke. But he didn’t want to be out on the deck when Sean arrived, and he’d called twenty minutes earlier to say he was on his way home after dropping Lizzie and Ally at Chris’s house. He should be arriving any minute now.
Elijah picked up a graphic novel from the coffee table, flipped through it and put it down again. He couldn’t settle to anything productive- hadn’t been able to all afternoon for that matter- and Bessie Smith wasn’t having her usual calming effect on him. He turned off the stereo and wrapped his arms around his knees, burying his face in the shelter he’d created.
Hey, Seanie, did you and the girls have a nice day? he practiced saying in a falsely bright, chirpy voice, and sighed. Jesus, Elwood, could you possibly sound any lamer?
A car door slammed, and Elijah unfolded, sitting up straight and pinning a determinedly cheerful smile on his face. He was overcompensating madly. Sean wasn’t stupid; he would notice at once, and then he’d start feeling guilty for making Elijah worry. Fuck. The smile vanished.
Then the front door opened, and there was Sean. His clothes were rumpled, and there was a dark stain on the front of his green sweatshirt that Elijah suspected was chocolate ice cream. He looked exhausted. When he saw Elijah sitting on the couch, he forced a half-hearted smile of greeting that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Hey,” he said wearily, as he set his car keys and sunglasses down on the foyer table.
“Hey,” Elijah said, but he couldn’t return the smile or think of any cheerful upbeat banter in the face of Sean’s sadness. He held out his arms instead. “Irish. C’mere.”
Sean came to him and sat down heavily on the couch. Elijah wrapped his arms around him and Sean buried his face in Elijah’s shoulder. Elijah held him tightly, wishing desperately that he could draw Sean’s sorrow into himself, right through his skin, and free him from it. They didn’t speak, simply held on to each other. There was nothing left to say after all. They’d replayed this same scenario many times over the past weeks.
“Come on, Sean,” Elijah said eventually, scooting over to make room, “lie down. I’ll give you the super-duper Elwood scalp massage, free of charge.”
“Now there’s an offer too good to refuse.” Sean shifted around and stretched out on the butter-soft brown leather, using Elijah’s lap as a pillow for his head.
Jesus, Sean was tense, Elijah thought, every muscle contracted as if he feared that if he relaxed even for one moment, he’d fall apart. Oh Sean… I’m so sorry.
Elijah began to card his fingers gently through Sean’s thick chestnut hair, over and over and over. Sean was wearing his hair a little longer these days, and Elijah loved the sensuous feel of the silky strands as they slid between his fingers. But even more, he loved the effect the slow, soothing caresses had on Sean. The tension began to fall away from him like a snake shedding its skin, and his eyelids gradually drooped shut. He made a low noise of contentment deep in his throat, and his entire body relaxed, settling deeper into the softness of the sofa cushions.
After a few minutes, Sean sighed, “God, that feels so good, Elwood. Your hands are magic.”
“Hmm. Don’t think Elsie would agree with you,” Elijah commented, remembering his amateurish attempts to milk the poor unsuspecting thing some weeks earlier.
“Ah, Elsie’s just a cow. What does she know?”
“She’s not just a cow, Irish. She’s our cow. Elsie Wood-Astin,” Elijah pronounced with mock grandeur, hoping to make Sean smile.
Sean’s eyes opened, and he did smile, and this time the smile was reflected in their hazel depths. Elijah felt his heart lift. His Sean was returning to him.
“Elsie has a hyphenated last name now, does she? The farmer already thinks we’re crazy Hollywood types with more money than sense, you know that, don’t you?”
“Hey, we paid him good money for Elsie so she’ll never end up as dog food or burgers or something. If that makes us crazy, well then, I guess we are. Anyway, who’s the one who bought an ugly milkmaid’s costume for an extortionate price, hmm?”
“I couldn’t stand the thought of another man wearing that dress, Elwood. It’s sacred to the memory of Heidi.”
“You’re such a sentimentalist, Irish,” Elijah laughed, but he touched Sean’s face with tender fingers, and Sean caught them and pressed a kiss on the tips.
“And you aren’t? There’s a certain Dolce & Gabbana suit you’ve had your eye on for some time now, as I recall.”
“All I can say is, they’d better give you that suit when you’re done with 24 or I will be seriously pissed.”
“Don’t worry, if they won’t give it to me, I’ll order Jack Bauer to infiltrate Wardrobe and steal it from them at gunpoint,” Sean promised.
“You’d better,” Elijah warned him, smiling. “Jesus, Sean, that suit makes you look so fucking hot, I completely lose track of the plot of the show. Believe me, I have serious plans for that suit of yours after it retires from show biz.”
“Mmm, serious plans. I like the sound of that, Elwood.” Sean grinned at Elijah, a lazy grin that guaranteed full participation in whatever Elijah’s serious plans might be.
“You and me both, Irish.” He bent his head and gave Sean a brief kiss. He hesitated a moment before changing the topic, hoping Sean was now relaxed and comfortable enough to talk about his day. “So, tell me what the girls thought about Elsie.” There was no visible tensing of Sean’s muscles at the words, and his eyes remained clear and soft as they looked at Elijah. He breathed a mental sigh of relief. “Do they approve of our latest eccentricity?”
Sean’s two oldest daughters, Ally and Lizzie, had been clamoring for him to take them to visit Elsie ever since they learned that he actually owned a real live cow. Sean had, as any father would, given in to their coaxing, and driven them out that afternoon to a farm near Temecula, where Elsie was now enjoying a life of leisure at the bovine equivalent of a retirement community.
“Oh definitely. Elsie was an unqualified hit with both of them. In fact, they think we should keep her here in the backyard. Ally says the farm smells too much like cows and Elsie might not like that.”
Elijah laughed. “So Elsie has a sensitive nose, does she? But honestly, Irish, don’t you think Elsie would probably turn pale and faint away at the very idea of coming to live here? I’m sure she’ll never forgive us for the hell we put her through that day.”
“The hell we put her through? Speak for yourself, wanker. By the way, Lizzie thought Elsie was, and I quote, ‘adorable’; not the first adjective that leaps to my mind when I think of her. She even drew a picture of Elsie in the car on the way back to Chris’s. At least I’m pretty sure it was Elsie. Her eyelashes were about a mile long, and she had purple horns and green hooves. Lizzie’s a student of the Impressionist school of cow art,” he joked.
“Impressionist cows, huh? That’s a picture I want to see. Where is it? We’ll have to put it on the refrigerator, maybe even get it framed.” Sean stiffened, and Elijah knew immediately he’d said something wrong. Fuck. “What? What is it?”
The sad smile was back. “She wanted to give the drawing to Chris. I’m sorry, Lij.”
“It’s okay, Sean. Honestly.” But Elijah couldn’t quite disguise his disappointment, and Sean as always picked right up on it. Until the divorce was final, Elijah had agreed not to see the girls, and being kept away from them hurt, it hurt a lot. They were a part of Sean, the most important part of him, and Elijah and Ally especially had formed a deep bond of love and trust during those years in New Zealand. He missed her, and he knew, from little things Sean let slip, that she missed her Uncle Lij, too.
“I’ll get Lizzie to draw another picture, just for you, Elijah,” Sean said quickly.
“Sean, honestly, that’s not necessary. Of course Lizzie wanted to give the drawing to Chris. I was being stupid.”
“No, you weren’t. Don’t say that. Elijah, I promise you, it will get better. It won’t be too much longer now before Chris and I are divorced, and you can be part of the girls’ lives again.”
Elijah nodded, unable to speak past the lump in his throat. Who was he to say fuck-all anyway? The one who was hurting the most was Sean. He always looked so fucking devastated after he’d been with the girls. Sean missed them so much, and the weekends and afternoons he got to visit them weren’t nearly enough to satisfy either him or them. Sean and Elijah were fixing up the guest cottage for the girls for when they were finally allowed to visit and stay overnight, but Sean still didn’t know how much longer it would be before that day arrived. Think positive, Elwood, the way Sean is. You’re not helping him get through this.
“I know,” he said at last. “But I’m not the most patient person in the world. I’m sorry.”
“Neither am I, especially when it comes to you. I see the toll this is taking on you- hell, I can feel the toll it’s taking on you. You’ve lost even more weight, Lij.”
“Iggy Pop, remember?” Elijah protested, knowing the futility of the lie even as he said it.
“Iggy Pop, my ass. Elijah, when this is over, and we can finally both manage to be free at the same time, I’m taking you to a swank resort on a secluded island, throwing both our cell phones into the ocean, and feeding you chocolate-covered strawberries until they’re coming out your ears.”
“And when is that likely to be, Sean?” Elijah asked quietly. “Even after your divorce is final, you’ll still be filming 24, and I have to leave for Europe for that convention soon.”
“Don’t remind me. God, I miss you already, and you aren’t even gone.” Sean sat up, looking decisive. “All right, we’re getting entirely too morose here,” he said, getting to his feet. “We can’t go on this way, Elwood. It’s not healthy.”
“I’m sorry,” Elijah began, guilt taking hold of him. Fuck. He was supposed to be cheering Sean up, not dragging him down.
But Sean was shaking his head. “It’s not your fault, Elwood. It’s nobody’s fault. Things are rough right now for both of us. But I think there’s something I can do about that.”
“What do you mean?” Elijah asked curiously, wondering where Sean was going with this.
“Just sit tight, I’ll be back in a couple of minutes. I have to run down to the basement.”
“The basement?” But Sean was gone, disappearing down the hallway. Elijah waited impatiently, consumed with curiosity, until Sean returned a short time later carrying a large cardboard box in his arms. Elijah stared at it in dismay.
“Sean, what the fuck are you doing with that box?” he demanded. “I thought we got rid of every last one of the fucking things after that day.” God, that day, that terrifying day, when he thought he’d lost Sean for good… What was Sean thinking, deliberately bringing it up again? His heart began to pound with fear.
“Nope. I never told you, but I kept one,” Sean replied, setting the box down on the coffee table. “To remind me of what I almost threw away- you, and a life with you. To wax entirely sentimental, Lij, and you may not need to hear this, but I need to say it, it’s the best fucking life I could ever wish for. No matter how crazy we drive each other, no matter how stressful our schedules are, no matter how hard Chris is making it for us right now, I wouldn’t trade it, or you, for anything.”
“Sean, how could I not need to hear that?” Elijah said. “You say that you see the toll on me, but what about the toll on you? Do you have any idea how it makes me feel when you come home from being with your daughters looking so fucking sad?”
“Of course I do. You must know I do. But you have to trust me when I say that however sad I might feel sometimes about my limited time with the girls, I don’t regret my decision. And I’ll tell you that as many times and in as many ways as I have to so that you’ll believe me. But I think the best thing you can do, Elijah, is to open that box.”
Oh fuck, his hands were actually trembling. Elijah wiped his sweaty palms on his thighs and reached for the box. He grasped one end of the masking tape that secured the top and began to pull it, the ripping sound it made as it tore free almost drowned out by the sickening thump of his heart. His stomach was churning with dread as he dropped the tape on the table and fumbled open the flaps. And stared in complete surprise. There was another box inside this one, and it was gaily wrapped in multi-colored paper with a jaunty purple bow on top. “What the fuck is this, Sean?”
“You’ll see. Go ahead, Elwood, open it.” There was a funny look on Sean’s face. Elijah knew he was up to something.
Elijah tore off the wrapping paper with more haste than care, and removed the lid. Inside this box was yet another box, also wrapped in paper, a floral pattern this time, and decorated with an ivory bow. “What the fuck?” he repeated, baffled.
“Keep going,” Sean instructed him, smiling a little at his reaction.
Giving Sean a quizzical look, Elijah kept going, and the boxes kept appearing. Smaller and smaller boxes, and each one wrapped in a different color or pattern paper and ribbon.
Six, seven, eight, nine…
The tenth and final box was very small, and wrapped in expensive embossed gold paper, artfully decorated with a silver-and-gold satin bow. Elijah held the small box cupped in his hands. He could tell from the size and shape that it was a jeweler’s box. He felt tears building inside him. Shit. He wasn’t going to go to pieces. But one glance at Sean, and he knew it was a lost cause. His eyes already were filled with tears. Elijah removed the ribbon, with exquisite care, and with equal care slid his finger beneath the tape on the bottom and at the sides, and gently freed it from the wrapping paper. He pulled the paper apart, and stared as if mesmerized at a dark blue velvet box: a jeweler’s box, as he’d guessed.
“Elwood, open it, will you? I’m starting to hyperventilate here.”
With fingers that shook, he did. Inside, two rings rested side by side in a nest of white satin. Intricately engraved platinum, banded on bottom and top with eighteen carat gold.
“The symbols in the center are infinity knots. I couldn’t think of a better symbol of our love. There and back again, Elwood. Frodo and Sam did it, and so can we.”
“Oh fuck,” Elijah wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his tee shirt. “I’m going to go all girly here, Sean. I’m sorry.” He threw his arms around Sean’s neck and clung to him, snuffling and choking in the most embarrassing possible way, one hand clutching the blue velvet box for dear life. But he didn’t care. A weight he had been bearing for so long, a yoke of guilt and fear, had been lifted from his shoulders.
“I’m feeling pretty girly myself, but I won’t tell on you, if you won’t tell on me,” Sean whispered in a voice clogged with his own tears. “I was planning to give these to you on the day my divorce was final, and we won’t be able to wear them until then. But I need you to know now, right this very minute, that I am committed to you, Elijah, heart and soul, forever. ‘Til death us do part. This is one box I want you to keep. And if you ever feel even the slightest worry about us or about our future, I want you to open it and look at these rings. Don’t ever doubt my love for you.”
“Or mine for you, Sean. I love you so much.”
They kissed, tasting the bitter salt from their tears that ran down their faces. But by the time their mouths parted, the tears had stopped, and they were smiling at each other, two divers surfacing from deep waters to blue skies and brilliant sunshine and safety.
“So, what do you say to a dress rehearsal?” Sean spoke first, mischief creeping back into his eyes. He took the box from Elijah and set it down carefully on the coffee table.
“A dress rehearsal?”
“Yeah, you know, for when my suit comes to live here. You can practice those plans of yours that you were mentioning.”
“Great idea, but I think you have the wrong adjective. Don’t you mean an un-dress rehearsal?” Elijah quipped, his hands going to the hem of Sean’s sweatshirt.
“Elijah.” Sean placed his hands over Elijah’s. “We’re going to be all right.” It was a vow.
“Yeah. Yeah we are.” And for the very first time since their long journey began seven years earlier in New Zealand, Elijah knew with absolute certainty that it was the truth.