When the door closed behind Cate, Elijah pinned a determined smile on his face and said to Professor Mortensen, "Now that they're gone, we can get back to what we were discussing. I'm sorry they barged in that way, Professor." He really wanted to collapse to the floor, bury his head in his arms and weep, but he couldn't do that, not in front of Professor Mortensen.
The Professor was staring at the door with a pensive expression on his face. "What we should discuss is what just happened here, Elijah," he said slowly.
"That's not necessary," Elijah said quickly. The last thing on earth he wanted to do was rehash the ugly scene that had left him with his stomach tied in knots and on the verge of tears. When Sean had called him 'sweetheart' in that sarcastic voice, so different from how he'd spoken the endearment last night, he'd broken through Elijah's hastily cobbled together defenses and stabbed him straight in the heart.
"I disagree. Please, sit down." It was less request than command.
Reluctantly, Elijah sank down on the leather sofa, and Professor Mortensen sat beside him, turned slightly towards him. "Tell me what that was about," he said. "What did Mr. Astin mean when he said that... Ian, is it?" Elijah nodded. "That Ian cannot show the collection without you?"
Elijah sighed. "I'm a model," he confessed, hoping the Professor wouldn't think it too frivolous of him. "A fashion model. I originally took the job because it meant I could come to Paris and meet you. I was supposed to show Ian McKellen's clothes tonight at eight o'clock at his salon."
"But instead you came here. Why?"
"Because..." Elijah flushed. Suddenly his reasons, that had seemed perfectly valid at the time, appeared lame and childish in the extreme. There was no getting around it: he'd only accepted the Professor's invitation as a means of punishing Sean. "Because I had a fight with Sean and I was angry at him. I wanted to hurt him the way he hurt me."
"I see." The Professor tapped his lips with a forefinger a few times in a contemplative manner then he said, "And did hurting him make you feel better?"
Elijah looked down at his lap, at his hands twisted tightly together. "No," he admitted. "It made me feel terrible." Hurting Sean only hurt him, he'd discovered; there was no satisfaction to be gained from it. Besides, in his heart of hearts he knew Sean hadn't meant what he said about not being interested in Elijah's intellect.
"So. He is hurting and you are hurting. Would it not have been better to put yourself in his place before becoming angry with him and fighting? To try and understand why he was upset?" The Professor spoke gently, but a reproof was inherent in his words. After all, he claimed to be an Empathicalist, didn't he?
Elijah felt the reproof deeply, but he raised his head and said, "But Professor, Sean said the most ridiculous things about you. Things that are completely untrue."
"What things did he say?"
"That you..." Elijah hesitated, reluctant to reveal Sean's insane theory. Professor Mortensen was regarding him expectantly, though, and after all, he was the one who had brought it up. "Well, that you don't look at me the way a philosopher would but the way a man would - a man who is attracted to me, I mean. I know it's absurd, but Sean actually believes it."
Surprisingly the Professor smiled, a rueful smile. "I very much fear you will be shocked and disappointed then to learn that he's right."
Elijah stared at him, wide-eyed. "He- he's right?" he uttered faintly. "Professor Mortensen, you can't be serious. You and me?"
It was mind-boggling, the very thought. Objectively Elijah acknowledged that the Professor was good-looking, if not his type, but, well, he was the Father of Empathicalism and way older than he was. Elijah's interest in him was purely as the philosopher whose books and theories had nourished and inspired him.
The rueful smile deepened. "Why not? I am, as Sean said, a man - very much a man - and you are attractive, Elijah, the most attractive young man I've ever had the fortune to meet," Professor Mortensen said. "If matters had gone as I planned this evening, I was hoping that soon you would stop calling me Professor and start calling me Viggo."
"Oh. I- I had no idea." What an idiot he'd been, Elijah thought in despair. Sean, with his greater knowledge and experience of the world, had seen the truth immediately, he'd tried to tell him, but Elijah had stubbornly refused to listen and now look where it had landed him. He owed Professor Mortensen absolute honesty, however, and so he said, "The thing is, you see, I'm in love with Sean." That he had ever lost sight of that truth, even for a minute, seemed incredible now. "I'm sorry."
"There is no need to be sorry, dear Elijah. I could wish that I had met you sooner," said the Professor, "but such is life." He gave a Gallic shrug. "The heart, after all, does not do our bidding but has a mind entirely its own, and yours has chosen Sean. He is a lucky man."
"I'm sure he doesn't feel lucky right now," Elijah said sadly, picturing the disgust on Sean's face as he'd thrown up his hands in defeat and stormed off.
"Then you must do something about it, mustn't you."
Elijah stared. Of course. Why was he sitting here like a lump when he should be going after Sean and telling him he loved him - before it was too late. "Oh Professor, you're right. I have to find him straight away. He thinks I don't want anything to do with him anymore." Elijah leapt to his feet, consumed by that one thought: to find Sean.
But then abruptly he sobered. "No, I can't do that. Not yet. There's something else I have to do first - go to the salon and show Ian's collection. Sean was right about that, too. I have a responsibility to Cate and everyone else." He thought about Yves and Henri, who had been so nice to him, about Marcel who had taught him how to play tennis, about Ian, who had designed an entire collection just for him, and lastly about Cate, who despite her autocratic ways was at heart, he knew, a decent person. "They need me, and I can't let them down."
Mortensen stood up. "Spoken like a true Empathicalist. I am proud of you."
Elijah flushed. "I'm afraid I've been a very bad Empathicalist lately, but I'm going to try to do better, I swear. Thank you for your guidance and for being so very kind." He held out his hand.
"Being kind to you is no hardship," the Professor said, taking his hand and looking down at him with a wry smile. "I should have liked to be even kinder."
"I'm sorry, I truly am," Elijah replied. "But the invitation still stands, Professor: you're more than welcome to stay with me and my uncle if you visit New York."
"Then I shall certainly take you up on it when I go there," Professor Mortensen replied, and released Elijah's hand. "And now you had better go, or you'll be late for the fashion show."
Elijah consulted his watch. "Oh shit. It's almost eight o'clock already! Good-bye, Professor, and thank you again." And off he went at a run, without so much as a thought for the sneakers and socks he was leaving behind.
Viggo Mortensen stood staring at the empty doorway for a few minutes, seeing penetrating blue eyes and pondering the strange workings of fate, then he let out a regretful sigh, shrugged his shoulders again, and went downstairs to join his guests.
Ian strode into the back room looking very agitated. "They are getting restless," he said. "I don't know how much longer we can stall, Cate. We should have started the show half an hour ago. I need to make an announcement. But what should I say?"
Cate threw up her hands. "Tell them they can go home, Ian. Blame it all on me," she said, but hardly had the words left her mouth when Elijah came flying barefoot into the room.
"I'm sorry I'm late," he panted.
The instant he came to a halt he was surrounded by Alain, Yves and Henri, who immediately set to work undressing him.
"Oh thank god," Cate said, leaning on the back of a chair as if too weak to stand.
Ian beamed beatifically. "I knew you wouldn't let us down, Elijah. I knew you'd come. I must go and announce that we will be starting in a few minutes." He disappeared.
Cate's outraged look followed him. "Knew you'd come? Honestly, that man-"
But Elijah interrupted her. "Is Sean here?" he asked as he slipped his arms into the crisp white dress shirt that Alain held at the ready.
"No, he's on the way to the airport," Cate said. "You told him to leave and he's leaving."
"Oh no. He can't." Elijah stepped out of his jeans and into the seersucker slacks. He appeared devastated. "Isn't there some way to stop him? Get a message to him?"
"Let me see what I can do."
"Thank you," Elijah said then added humbly, "I don't deserve for you to help me after the way I behaved at Professor Mortensen's house."
"Now that's quite enough of that," Cate admonished him. "Sackcloth and ashes definitely aren't your style, Elijah. I far prefer your snark. Besides, I want to help you - I can put myself in your place. I know you'll find that hard to believe, but I can."
"Cate, that's empathy," Elijah said, holding up a foot so Alain could slide on sock and shoe.
"Good heavens, is it? Well why on earth didn't you ever say so? Absurdly simple, once one understands the concept. Now just you concentrate on showing the collection and leave Sean to me." She pulled her cell phone out of the pocket of her severely tailored black Dior suit and started hitting buttons.
Andy helped Elijah into his vest and suit jacket while Henri wielded the powder puff, Yves combed his hair and Alain fixed his tie.
"How long before we can begin?" Ian asked, poking his head through the door to the stage.
"I'm ready," Elijah said, and went to join him.
A few moments later, a very posh woman's voice could be heard saying: "Monsieurs et Madames, we are proud to bring you a new collection by Ian McKellen, inspired by the Quality Man, chosen to represent the great American fashion magazine, Quality."
Mozart started to play, followed shortly by a ripple of clapping that swelled into loud applause.
Cate sighed and lowered her phone. "He's not answering his cell. Andy, get me the number of the Meurice. I might catch him there before he leaves for the airport."
Ten minutes later, Elijah reappeared, and as he hurried over to where Alain had his next outfit at the ready, he asked anxiously, "Did you get him?"
"Not yet. His phone must not working and the hotel said he just left so I didn't get him there. But there's nothing to worry about, Elijah. I'm sure I'll reach him at the airport."
Elijah was whipped into black leather pants and a see-through blouse, his feet left bare and his hair disarranged. "Please hurry," he begged, and then he was gone.
Back and forth Elijah went, switching outfits so fast it made his head spin, and every time he walked down the runway, it was to an increasingly enthusiastic reception from the crowd. The show was a triumph, redeeming Cate, Ian and Quality Magazinecompletely from the fiasco earlier in the day. He was sensible of his own success, but far prouder of the fact that he'd come through for the people who had put their faith in him.
At the same time, however, he felt oddly remote from it all: from the applause, the admiring stares, the click and flash of innumerable cameras photographing him as he walked with head held high and posed at the end of the runway. His mind was on Sean, getting ready to board a flight back to New York - the flight he'd said he was going to cancel, but obviously never had. It was a discouraging thought.
Every time Elijah hurried to the back room to change his clothes, he only grew more and more discouraged. Cate was putting a good face on it, blaming her failure to get in touch with Sean on airport miscommunication or a problem with his phone. Elijah wanted to believe her, but he couldn't. It was far more likely that Sean was ignoring the messages because he didn't want to talk to Elijah.
Finally there was only one outfit left to model: the wedding tuxedo that he'd been wearing when he and Sean declared their love for one another at the church by the lake. As Elijah hurried into the dressing room, stripping off his fingerless gloves, he asked, "Is there any news?" The clock on the wall read 10:18.
The answer was written all over Cate's face. But she said, "It's not too late, Elijah. Even if he's boarded the plane already, he can still use his cell phone."
Elijah unwound the olive wool scarf from his neck and handed it to Yves. "It's sweet of you, Cate, but you and I both know it's not going to happen. He's leaving and I can't blame him. I hurt him too much." If only he'd put himself in Sean's place earlier, Elijah thought, when it might have done some good. Too late, too late, his mind cried.
The mood in the room was subdued as Elijah was helped into the tuxedo. Yves was suspiciously bright-eyed, and Henri sniffled several times, and no pink roses appeared like magic for Elijah to wear as a boutonniere.
"You look fabulous," Cate said, but the words sounded forced. "Now go out there and give 'em the ol' pizzazz," she added with less than her usual verve.
"I'll try," Elijah said bravely, and left.
"And now," the announcer said as Elijah stepped into a golden pool of light, and a gasp went up from the crowd, "the finale of the collection: wedding day."
The Wedding March started to play, and Elijah advanced down the runway with steady, measured strides, like a groom approaching the altar where his bride awaited him. As he went, the audience rose to its feet in a standing ovation. At the end of the runway, he stopped and posed, and a man said to the person next to him, "I thought it was only brides who cried on their wedding day."
The A train was packed with commuters heading into Lower Manhattan. Elijah was uncomfortably squashed between two much larger men, but he didn't mind. It was easier to escape notice in a crowd. Which was weird as fuck, because never in a million years had he ever imagined that it would be necessary for him, Elijah Wood, philosopher, book store clerk, reluctant model, to escape anyone's notice.
From across the subway car, a pair of very familiar blue eyes stared at him, eyes as familiar to him as his own. That's because theywere his own eyes, and they were staring at him from the cover of a copy of Quality Magazine that a young woman was reading.
Elijah looked away. Talk about unnerving. He still wasn't used to his growing fame, and not at all comfortable with it. The first time someone had stopped him on the street and said, "Hey, aren't you that Quality Man guy?" then proceeded to ask him for an autograph, he'd practically died of shock. But with his face splashed across billboards in the city and along the sides of buses, not to mention the copies of Quality prominently displayed at every news stand in the city, it was impossible to avoid it. He couldn't get away from his own image; his enormous blue bug eyes seemed to follow him wherever he went these days.
He took to wearing over-sized glasses with dark lenses to hide his distinctive eyes, and that helped some. He wanted to regrow his scruff, but Cate strictly forbid it - "Not until we're done with the promotion for this issue" - and he grudgingly went along with her dictum. Just as he grudgingly went along with the press conferences and the parties and the interviews. He couldn't wait to get his old life back, he told himself.
Which was a lie, of course. He didn't want his old life back, because it was a life without Sean. Sean, whom he hadn't seen or spoken to since the awful night at Professor Mortensen's when he'd told him to leave and he had.
Despite himself, Elijah's gaze returned to the magazine Elijah. The photo that had been chosen for the cover was from the shoot in the Bois de Boulogne, but cropped so that only his head and neck were visible. "Marvelous, simply marvelous," Cate had enthused when the cover was unveiled at a ceremony at the magazine's offices, and apparently the world at large agreed. It was the fastest selling issue in the history of Quality, she'd informed Elijah. "It's that 'come hither' look in your eyes," she said. "Men and women both - they all want to sleep with you, Elijah, and that's good business for us."
Well, Elijah didn't want to sleep with any of them. Had he wanted to, offers were thick on the ground from men and women both, starting with Bret, the receptionist but by no means ending there. But the 'come hither' look in his eyes had been meant for Sean alone. He felt a stab of pain whenever he recalled that magical week in Paris, and especially the magical night that he and Sean had spent together. It was looking more and more likely that it would never be repeated, for Sean had made no attempt to get in touch with him, and when Elijah, swallowing his pride, finally asked Cate if she'd heard from him or knew where he was, she only said, "He's out of town." Whatever that meant. He didn't have the heart to badger her; it was plain that she knew something, but it must be bad if she wouldn't share it with him.
The train started to slow with a lurch and a squeal of brakes and Elijah got up. He shuffled out of the subway car with the rest of the people getting off at the stop, and made his way along labyrinthine corridors until he eventually reached the stairs to the street. As he climbed them, the recently purchased iPhone in his pocket vibrated. He checked the display; it was a text from Uncle Ian.
Don't forget to bring home that copy of De Rerum Natura for Cate.
Elijah sighed and stuck the phone back in his pocket. If being asked for his autograph was a shock, that was nothing to the shock he'd gotten one morning a couple weeks earlier when he came downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast and discovered Cate sitting at the kitchen table in a peacock blue silk robe and reading a book on psychopiscoparalysm.
"Be a dear and pour me another cup of coffee, would you?" she'd said, holding out her coffee mug to him as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
"What in the world are you doing here?" Elijah had demanded.
Before she could answer, Uncle Ian had come into the kitchen, also wearing a bathrobe, although his was an indeterminate muddy gray color and somewhat threadbare. He'd turned rather red when he saw Elijah, and said, "Well, well," several times, but Cate had only laughed and pulled him in for a, as she put it, 'good morning kiss'.
It was bizarre beyond belief, but Uncle Ian and Cate were now a thing, and she was rapidly becoming a fixture in the Brooklyn brownstone. It had all come about when he dragged Uncle Ian, kicking and protesting, to the party launching the Quality Man issue of the magazine. Elijah had wanted his uncle to see that not everyone in the fashion industry was evil incarnate, but he'd had an ulterior motive, too: the unholy amusement he hoped to derive from introducing him to Cate. He deserved to get his own back a little for the incident in Embryo Concepts, after all, and in Sean's absence, it was likely to be the only enjoyment he got from the evening.
Predictably, sparks had flown between the two of them, and they'd ended up spending almost the entire evening arguing vociferously about philosophy and fashion. But apparently those weren't the only kind of sparks that had been generated.
Now Uncle Ian had a brand spanking new iPhone of his own and he'd even started 'twittering', as he liked to call it. Shock aside, Elijah was truly happy for him, but this startling development had also started him thinking seriously about finding his own place. He could afford it with the money he'd earned as the Quality Man, and though he'd grudgingly come to respect and even like Cate, the thought of living with her was kind of terrifying. Too, the constant billing and cooing was a little much to take when his own romantic hopes had been so thoroughly dashed.
As he trod down the sidewalk to Embryo Concepts, Elijah decided that he'd start investigating apartments in the Village, closer to the store, right away. It was time he was living on his own anyway. He was an adult now, after all.
But somehow the excitement he should be feeling at his declaration of independence was lacking as Elijah inserted the key in the door lock and let himself into the book store. He was still struggling to conquer the workings of the new computer system that had replaced the ancient cash register, for one thing. And for another, though he still embraced Empathicalism wholeheartedly, the truth was that he missed modeling. It had been fun, the dressing up, the playing pretend. By contrast, Embryo Concepts seemed darker and dimmer and more lifeless than ever.
Of course, offers for future modeling assignments were as thick on the ground as other kinds of offers, but Elijah was only interested in modeling if it meant he was working with Sean. It was driving Cate mad, his obstinacy in turning down plum offers from the world's top designers, photographers and magazines, but he didn't care. None of it meant anything without Sean there to tease and cajole and do magic tricks, to turn the process into a flight of the imagination.
Elijah raised the blind over the window, turned around the CLOSED sign to read OPEN, and flipped on the light switch. Then he drew the strap of his messenger bag over his head... and froze in disbelief at the sight that met his wondering eyes. Dropping his bag on the floor, he moved slowly forward, half-tempted to pinch himself lest he be having a particularly bizarre and vivid dream.
Overnight the store had been transformed into a photography exhibit. Framed photos were everywhere: propped against the books, resting on the sofa and chairs, and leaning against lamp stands and railings. Though some were black and white and some color, though some were large and some small, the photos shared one thing in common. From the redwoods of California to the paper birches of New England to the mangroves of Florida and seemingly everywhere in between, the photos were all of trees.
Elijah put a hand to his forehead. "What the fuck?" he said aloud, and just about jumped out of his skin when a voice spoke from behind him.
"You told me the first time we met that I should photograph trees," the voice, Sean's voice, said. "So I took your advice and did."
Hardly daring to believe the evidence of his own ears, Elijah whirled around. And there Sean was, standing at the top of the spiral staircase where once Orlando had stood in a white suit and teal scarf.
"Sean!" he cried out joyfully.
Sean swung his leg over the metal railing encircling the staircase and hopped down. "Trees make excellent subjects, by the way," he said, walking toward Elijah. "They never move at inopportune moments, talk back, or complain about the weather."
"Oh Sean." Elijah was caught between laughter and tears.
Sean came to a halt in front of Elijah. His dear face looked tired, the lines at the corners of his green-gold eyes and bracketing his mouth deeply graven, but to Elijah it could never be less than beautiful. "They do have one huge drawback, though. They aren't you. Elijah, I bitterly regret acting like such a jealous fool," he said quietly. "I'm so sorry for hurting you. Can you forgive me?"
"Of course I forgive you," Elijah said, and the tears were definitely winning now. "I didn't exactly cover myself in glory that night, Sean, and I need you to forgive me, too."
"Much as I'd like to argue with you about who's more to blame, I think we've done enough arguing." Sean huffed a laugh, and the characteristic, so missed sound had a tear slipping free to run down Elijah's cheek. Sean stroked it away with his thumb. "Don't cry, Funny Face. Let's kiss and make up instead, okay?"
"Yes!" With a sob, Elijah threw his arms around Sean's neck and clung to him, finally accepting that he was real, he was back, and he still loved him. When their lips met in the promised kiss, Elijah tasted salt, and he didn't know if it came from his tears or Sean's.
"I was so afraid I'd never see you again," Elijah said when they finally came back to earth. "Cate wouldn't tell me where you were or how to get in touch with you."
"I asked her not to," admitted Sean. "At first I was too bitter and angry, and then after Viggo's call, I was too ashamed. I needed time to think, to forgive myself before I could ask you to forgive me."
Elijah thought he was hearing things. "Did you say 'Viggo'? You mean, Professor Mortensen?" he said in disbelief.
Sean huffed another laugh. "The very one. He called me a few days after I got home. Could have knocked me over with a feather when he identified himself."
Elijah goggled. "But what he did want?"
"To apologize, first of all. He said he never would have, er, put the moves on you if he'd known we were involved. I thought that was pretty big of him under the circumstances. He's a decent guy, your Professor."
"He is," Elijah said, thinking of his conversation with the Professor and how well he'd taken Elijah's rejection, even encouraging Elijah to make things up with Sean.
"Of course, he also ripped me up one side and down the other for being an insensitive clod and said I'd do well to take up Empathicalism," Sean added with a rueful smile.
Elijah giggled. "We've got shelves full of books on it here," he said. "Help yourself."
"Free of charge?" Sean joked, but then he sobered. "When Viggo was done lecturing me, he told me some of the things you said to him after I left, the most important being that you still loved me. Well, that changed everything, Elijah. Cate told me that you showed up at the salon to show the collection, but as far as I was concerned, that didn't prove you still cared about me. I was convinced I'd completely blown it with you. Viggo gave me reason to hope for the first time that there still might be a chance for me."
"Then why didn't you come and see me right away?" Elijah asked, puzzled. "Why did you wait so long?"
"Because I needed to prove to myself and to you that I wasn't a hot-headed jerk who couldn't trust you to be out of my sight. So I took off and started shooting trees until I finally made peace with myself. Then I came straight here to throw myself on your mercy and hope you'd take me back."
"Oh Sean, it wasn't necessary, but I love you for it, for caring so much." Elijah hugged him. "And I'm glad the Professor called you and you've become friends."
"So am I," said Sean in heartfelt tones. "By the way," he added casually, but in the nature of one who knows he's dropping a bombshell, "I promised Viggo that he and Ian can stay with us when they're here next fall for his photography exhibit. The guy's an amazing photographer and I offered to help set something up for him."
The implication that they'd be living together barely registered with Elijah. "Wha- did you say Viggo and Ian?" He was as flabbergasted as Sean could possibly have wished.
Sean grinned. "I guess Viggo went over to Ian's salon to see if he could find out anything about my whereabouts and how to contact me, and ran smack dab into Ian. The rest, as they say, is history."
"And here I thought Uncle Ian and Cate were an unlikely pair," Elijah said faintly, trying to picture the refined, oh-so-British fashion designer in a romantic relationship with the Father of Empathicalism. "Did you know about them?"
"How do you think I got the key for the store?" Sean asked. "I'm still reeling from the shock, though."
Elijah couldn't help it; he started to laugh. "I know- can you believe it? Oh Sean, I have so much to tell you - about Uncle Ian and Cate and, oh, everything."
"But not right now," Sean said in a husky voice. "Right now, I'm more interested in practicing my Empathicalist skills on you. Hmm, let me just put myself in your place... Ah, got it!"
And while Elijah watched with approving eyes, Sean strode to the door and locked it, yanked down the shade, and flipped the OPEN sign back to CLOSED.