Topanga State Park, California, February 10, 2007, 6:30 a.m.
“Mmm, what a beautiful morning. Perfect for a seven mile run across country,” says Elijah Wood around a yawn as he gets out of his Mini Cooper. He runs one hand through hair that is already standing up in bed head peaks and whorls, and with the other raises a container of double espresso coffee- the strongest Starbucks has to offer- to his lips and takes a sip.
“Tut, tut.” Sean Astin climbs out the passenger side, and grins at Elijah across the top of the small car as he shuts the door. “Do I detect a trace of sarcasm in the dulcet tones of my beloved’s voice?”
Elijah eyes Sean with a sour expression. Sean looks bright-eyed and alert- just the way he had in New Zealand all those mornings in Feet even while he was bitching that the laboriously applied prosthetics probably wouldn’t be filmed that day. Some things never changed. Sean Astin, early bird, meet Elijah Wood, night owl.
“I seem to recall someone telling me I’m out of my mind,” Sean continues. “Oh wait, excuse me, I mean out of my fucking mind. At least I don’t think I was imagining the fifty or so times you told me that after the alarm went off.”
Elijah leans his elbows on the roof and yawns again. “Five fucking thirty a.m., Sean. You got me up at five fucking thirty a.m. I was having flashbacks to New Zealand, and not happy ones for a change. Why do you have to train for the marathon at such an ungodly hour? You’re a famous Hollywood actor- you know, decadent lifestyle, sleeping late, flunkies to do the running for you?”
“The peace and quiet, Lij. If I get here at daybreak when the park opens, this trail is usually pretty empty. I don’t have to worry that anyone will stop me to ask for an autograph, or hand me a script they want me to read,” replies Sean patiently and not for the first time. “Anyway, you have your Starbucks, your cell phone and your iPod to keep you company while you wait. Or- here’s a novel thought- you might take a walk. The park is beautiful even on a gray morning like this.”
Sean moves away from the car and begins to stretch out. He stands on one foot and raises the other behind him, grasping the ankle and pulling his foot up tight behind him so that his heel touches his buttocks to stretch out his quads. He counts ten beats, lowers the foot, and repeats the motions with his other leg. “And let’s not forget the fact, Elwood,” he adds, “that you offered to come with me.”
“Yeah, well, I was in a sentimental mood at the time,” Elijah grumbles.
Sean laughs as he crosses his ankles, bends and touches the tips of his fingers to his toes, holding that position for a count of thirty. “Oh yeah? Is that what you call it? I recall you mentioning something last night about being eternally grateful for receiving the fuck of your life.”
“Cocky bastard, aren’t you?” Elijah sets down his coffee, and moves around the front of the car, and the way he moves- with a slight hint of stiffness- brings a look of proprietary pride to Sean’s eyes that amuses (and secretly pleases) Elijah no end.
“You’d know best,” Sean quips, and Elijah shakes his head. “I haven’t even finished my first cup of coffee yet. It’s too fucking early in the morning for one of your word games, Sean. Catch me later when I’m awake and feeling witty.”
“In about an hour, a little less if I can break my personal best. Which is definitely possible with you waiting at the end of my run.” Sean cups one hand around the back of Elijah’s neck and pulls him into a quick kiss. “Love you, Lij,” he whispers as he releases him. Sean begins to jog in place, shaking out his arms and tilting his head from side to side to loosen his neck and shoulders.
“Love you, too. Be careful,” Elijah adds, and then rolls his eyes. Jesus, I’m turning into my mother.
“Don’t worry, mom, I will be,” Sean replies with a grin. “Hey, just who is the Safety Hobbit around here anyway? You trying to take over my job, Elwood?”
“Very funny, Irish.” But Elijah is grinning, too. “Now get a move on, would you? I’m looking forward to a nice refreshing nap while you’re running over hill and dale like the Energizer bunny on speed.”
“Leaving right away, Mr. Wood, sir. Wouldn’t want to hold up your beauty sleep.” With a mock salute, Sean turns and begins to jog slowly across the parking lot toward a dirt trail marked ‘Eagle Springs’ that leads up into the mountains.
Elijah stares after Sean, admiring the view- and it isn’t the beauties of nature on display that he’s admiring. But on second thought, he decides, Sean’s legs and ass in thigh-length black spandex probably do deserve to be counted among the ultimate beauties of nature. Fuck Joshua Tree or Yosemite- or Topanga Canyon, for that matter; he’d rather look at Sean Astin.
Sean pauses for a moment to check the time on his wristwatch and set the built-in stopwatch. Then he gives Elijah one final smile over his shoulder and a brief wave before he breaks into a jog again, and disappears from view around a bend in the path.
But Elijah can not tear his eyes away from that spot: though Sean is gone, his image is still burned on Elijah’s retinas, as if he’s been looking into the sun that is lurking unseen behind the clouds that lour over the Santa Monica Mountains.
A strange unsettling feeling creeps over him. Sean, with his Irish blood, would probably call it a premonition, but Elijah has never believed in that kind of shit, maybe because he’s too familiar with the smoke and mirrors tricks that filmmakers use. Still, he feels a sudden, nearly overpowering compulsion to run after Sean, grab his arm, and stop him from going any further along that path. Which is ridiculous, of course. He’s letting himself be infected with Sean’s Safety Hobbit nonsense. Sean does know where he’s going, as he said. He’s trained here before.
Elijah actually shakes himself as if he’s a dog that’s just emerged from a pool of water, as if this strangeness is something he can physically throw off. And thankfully, it seems to work and the unsettling feeling passes.
Elijah turns around and rescues his coffee cup from where it leans precariously against the windshield. He raises the cup to his lips and takes a gulp of lukewarm coffee, and tries to ignore the fact that his hand is trembling slightly.
He gets back in the car, which feels empty without Sean’s vibrant presence in the passenger seat, talking nonstop about everything and anything, giving Elijah directions he doesn’t need until he finally says in exasperation, “Irish, would you please shut the fuck up?” and turns up the volume on the satellite radio station they’d been listening to. Sean can talk the ear off a stalk of corn, and Elijah wonders sometimes a bit ruefully if that’s why an Iowa boy fell so hard for him.
Elijah puts on his headphones and finishes his coffee to the bass thunder of dance music on his iPod. He doesn’t honestly know why he offered to come- insisted on coming actually- with Sean today. It didn’t really have anything to do with sex, although Jesus, the art of Sean Astin improved with age. Maybe it’s because Sean is getting into fantastic shape from the intensive training he’s been doing, or maybe it’s the old ‘practice makes perfect’ adage, but whatever it is, Elijah remembers last night, and the feeling of Sean driving hard and hot inside him, and his cock stirs uncomfortably against taut denim.
Elijah presses his hand briefly to his crotch to relieve the wanting pressure, and then removes it. Not a good idea. It would be just his luck to be caught with his hand in his pants by some curious passerby, and next thing you knew, it would be all over the news: Frodo arrested for wanking off in public park. He has no aspirations to be another Pee-Wee Herman.
To distract himself from his incipient hard-on, Elijah fiddles with his iPod, scrolling through songs in an aimless fashion. But his mind returns to the nagging question of why he’s here at all. Elijah has felt no burning desire to go with him on the previous occasions Sean has run here. True, they’ve been apart for a couple of weeks while Elijah was in New York on Simian business, but it’s not as if Elijah would be up if he was at home right now. Hell, he’d likely have deliberately lingered in bed and waited for Sean to return so they could shower together.
Well, whatever the reason, his coming along this morning has made Sean happy. Elijah could see it in the softness of Sean’s eyes even while he was taking the piss out of him, and that look makes it all worthwhile, no matter how much he questioned his sanity when the alarm went off. No matter how much he questions Sean’s sanity for deciding to compete in the New York City marathon in November.
It’s only February, and Sean is already in full ‘Astin-mode’ as Elijah likes to think of it. Their small house in Venice is littered with books, videos and magazines on running. Sean is keeping a running diary, and has taped print outs of training schedules and upcoming races to the fridge. Sean’s goal is to beat the time of 4 hours 42 minutes he ran in the LA marathon in 1998, and he has mapped out a campaign to do so with the thoroughness of a Douglas Macarthur.
Elijah, who is not in the least interested in marathon running, can only listen with eyes that soon glaze over to Sean’s talk about intervals and speedwork and crosstraining and long runs. He doesn’t mind, though. Fuck, Sean has to listen to him rattle on endlessly about new bands he’s discovered and is thinking of signing for his record company. He’s seen a similar glazed expression come over Sean’s face from time to time, no doubt about it.
The coffee cup is now empty, so Elijah sets it on the dashboard and locks the car doors as instructed by Mr. Safety Hobbit about twenty times during the drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. He adjusts the seat back so that it is almost horizontal, takes off his glasses and closes his eyes. With that uncanny ability he perfected in New Zealand, Elijah drops immediately into sleep as if someone has hit an ‘off’ switch.
Elijah awakens some time later from a dream of fire and loss, of him and Sean on Mount Ruapehu- or was it Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom? Only in this dream he was the one cradling Sean/Sam in his arms. The memory is confused, one of those dreams that his waking mind remembers only as flashes of muddled images and impressions that dissolve as quickly as he tries to catch them.
He yawns and sits up, rubbing at his eyes. The interior of the car feels cool and damp like the weather outside. He wonders what the time is. He fumbles his glasses back on and consults his watch. 7:45. Shit. If Sean kept to the pace he planned, he’d have finished his run at least fifteen minutes ago, and been back at the car by now.
The cold chill that races through Elijah then is completely unrelated to the weather. Why didn’t Sean call him if he was going to be late? He grabs his cell phone from the center console and looks at the display. There are no messages waiting. In an instant the coldness has morphed into fear.
Elijah tries to still the fear and panic clawing at his insides. Okay, okay, Elwood, he cautions himself, calm down. Sean is only fifteen minutes late, not fifteen hours. It doesn’t have to mean something terrible has happened.
Maybe Sean can’t get reception on his phone where he’s running. Cell phone dead spots happen, especially in mountainous areas like this. Maybe he forgot to charge his cell phone, or accidentally dropped and broke it. Maybe he got a cramp and had to slow down or take a break. Maybe he decided to run further than he originally planned. Maybe he became distracted by the scenery- Sean had raved to Elijah on the way here about the tafoni formations, whatever the fuck they were. Hell, maybe he stopped to smell the flowers, or talk to a fan. There are so many possible explanations…
Elijah gathers his calm and his wits and does the sensible thing. He hits the speed dial for Sean. The phone rings and rings, until a mechanical voice intones, ‘The Verizon customer you are trying to reach is currently unavailable.’ Elijah leaves a message, “Seanie, call me as soon as you get this.” He disconnects, and wonders what the fuck he should do now. It’s 7:50. He’ll give Sean until 8:00 to appear, and then… What? Call 911?
Unable to sit still, Elijah gets out of the car and lights a cigarette. He paces as he smokes, calls Sean’s cell again two more times, but doesn’t leave a message. He’s trying not to panic, but it’s difficult. 7:58. Fuck it, he’s going to call 911. And tell them that his partner is a half-hour late returning from a jog? Bad enough they’ll think he’s overreacting, they’ll also want to know his name and Sean’s name and their location, and as soon as that gets out, the media will descend in droves. Elijah can just picture Sean jogging up moments after the police and the news vans arrive, and how embarrassing that will be for the both of them, not to mention the needless worry it will have caused their families.
Sometimes being famous totally sucks. He can’t call 911, not unless it seems absolutely imperative.
Elijah notices that the couple of cars that had been in the lot are now gone, their occupants on their way home or to work. He is alone, on the edge of freaking out, and it’s 8:00 on the dot. Elijah drops his half-smoked clove on the ground, and grinds it out with sole of his sneaker. He has to do something, he decides, or he’ll go mad. He calls Sean’s cell one more time. No answer. All right, that’s it, he’s not going to sit on his ass one more second, he’s going to go and find Sean. And if Sean teases him from now until doomsday for trying to take over his job as the fucking Safety Hobbit, Elijah doesn’t give a shit.
The car door is still open; Elijah puts his head and shoulders inside and reaches into the back seat to grab Sean’s red nylon gym bag. He’s not certain what Sean keeps in it, but if he knows his Sean, it probably contains more shit than Sam Gamgee’s backpack, and if he’s going to look for Sean, he’d better take it with him- just to be on the safe side, of course. Not that he’ll actually need it or anything.
Predictably, the bag weighs a ton. He sets it on the hood of the car, zips it open and rummages through the contents. He removes the extra pair of running shoes and three books on marathon running and tosses them in the back seat of the car, but leaves the rest of the stuff- white towel; windbreaker; extra tee, socks and shorts; several additional bottles of water to the couple Sean had taken with him; energy bars; and- not surprisingly considering whose bag it is- a first aid kit. Elijah closes his mind to any possibility that the latter might prove necessary. There’s a map of the park, too, and Elijah blesses Sean’s anal-retentive personality for he’s even highlighted the route he’s running.
He unfolds the small buff-colored map of Topanga State Park, spreads it out on the damp hood and studies it. Sean had said he’d be running on the Eagle Springs trail, following a 6.5-mile loop that would bring him back to the parking lot but at a slightly different point from where he started. The route looks simple enough, without a lot of confusing turns. There shouldn’t be much chance of missing Sean.
If he’s there… says a little voice in his brain. Stop it, just fucking stop it, okay?
Elijah studies the map for another minute before folding it and stuffing it in the back pocket of his jeans. He retrieves his valuables from the car, throws them in the gym bag, too, and slings the white nylon strap of the bag over his shoulder. He scribbles a quick note for Sean on a Starbucks napkin, telling him that he’s gone to look for him and he should sit tight if Elijah isn’t there when he returns, folds the napkin and sticks it under the windshield wiper. Then he locks the car and heads across the parking lot.
Elijah has decided that the most logical plan is to head in the opposite direction from Sean, taking what the map calls the Musch Trail, and with luck meet up with him on his way back. Glad to have a plan of action, and a way to dispel all the nervous energy building inside him, Elijah makes his way quickly to the trailhead.
If he wasn’t so worried about Sean, Elijah might have enjoyed the walk. Sean was right; it is beautiful here, even on a somber gray morning. The path leads him past a large pond with tendrils of mist rising from the still surface and some sort of tall yellow-legged water bird- a heron?- standing like a statue among the reeds at the far end. Past the pond, he turns right and crosses a field splashed with the bright colors of wildflowers, and reaches the junction of the Musch Trail where he turns right again.
This trail is lined with stately mature oak and sycamore trees, and there are more wildflowers, ferns and other plants growing in abundance along a small creek that meanders back and forth, crossing the trail in spots. He is reminded vividly of certain places in New Zealand where they’d filmed Lord of the Rings and he wishes fervently that he was there now, that he could shout for help and in an instant be surrounded by caring and concerned fellow cast members and crew.
He feels so completely alone.
After walking about a mile at the quickest pace he can manage, he reaches a camping area with bathrooms and picnic tables. He detours to the rustic wooden building, goes into the men’s room and calls Sean’s name. There is no answer. Feeling a bit foolish, Elijah opens each of the stall doors and peers inside just to be on the safe side, finding only the usual graffiti and a few lonely looking spiders. He even checks the women’s bathroom, hoping he isn’t about to scare the shit out of some poor unsuspecting hiker who will think he’s a peeping Tom. But he sees no one.
Frowning, his worry deepening with every passing minute, Elijah continues on, laboring a little as the trail begins to climb steeply upward. His jeans and Converse sneakers aren’t meant for hiking, and Sean’s gym bag is growing heavier and heavier. It smacks against the back of his hip with every stride, and he knows he’s going to have the mother of all bruises there when this is over.
Periodically, he stops to double check the map, and to call Sean on his cell phone, hoping against hope that this will be the time Sean will answer with his characteristic ‘Hey, Elwood, what’s up?’ He calls Sean’s name aloud, but his voice sounds weak and ineffectual to his ears, and it does no more than startle a couple of gray squirrels that scold him from a tree branch for his rudeness, and flush some small birds out of the underbrush where they were roosting.
By the time Elijah reaches Eagle Springs, he’s sweat-soaked, footsore and his shoulder aches from the strap of the gym bag digging into it. He’s also pissed as hell, because the alternative is to be scared shitless. Sean Astin, I swear to god, he thinks as he limps along, trying to ignore what feels like a sizeable blister on his right heel, if I hear you mention the fucking word marathon ever again when this is over...
He stops briefly to take a bottle of water out of the bag, but continues walking while he uncaps and drinks it. He’s traveling a well-graded fire road now and the going is a little easier, but the blister on his heel hurts like fuck-all. Wimp he chastises himself, knowing that he hasn’t even made it halfway around the loop and he’s already running out of steam. Sean keeps telling Elijah he should exercise more, and though he is careful never to say a word about it, Elijah knows damn well what he thinks about the cloves.
Elijah sets his jaw and pushes harder, following the trail markers that point toward Eagle Rock, a giant outcropping of yellow sandstone that, according to Sean, offers a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside all the way to LA. But what Elijah hopes is that instead of LA, he’ll see Sean, sitting on that damned rock and contemplating his navel, or, what’s more likely, lecturing a bunch of hikers on tafoni formations.
Elijah has climbed a considerable distance now- he’s amazed when he glances behind him and sees how far he’s come- and the terrain up here is rockier and more barren. When he gets to Hub Junction, three miles from the parking lot, Elijah stops for a minute, dropping the gym bag to the ground with a groan of relief. Fuck, he’s beat. He feels like he’s inside his own personal marathon, and he wonders how Sean can find the motivation to keep running, keep pushing when, unlike now, unlike New Zealand, there is nothing at stake.
Fuck, if only he could sit down and rest a while.
But he knows he can’t, and as an incentive to go on summons up a mental image of Frodo and Sam, starved and weary, struggling mile upon endless mile over the Emyn Muil, and through the Dead Marshes, and up that godawful stair to Cirith Ungol, not to mention across the heart of Mordor. He’s only hiked about three miles, for god’s sake. How pathetic is that? Some hobbit hero he is. Frodo certainly wouldn’t have bitched to Sam about a blister.
Elijah shoulders Sean’s gym bag and trudges on, bearing to the left and leaving the fire road for a much narrower trail. And every few minutes he repeats a now-familiar pattern: hit speed dial on his cell phone, and then call Sean’s name aloud.
The going is hazardous here- there are loose rocks everywhere and the ground is extremely uneven. Elijah has to look down almost constantly for fear of tripping, and he’s starting to loathe the very sight of his dirty, scuffed red Converse sneakers. He’s going to throw the fucking things in the garbage when he gets home, he vows, and buy a proper pair of running shoes that won’t rub his feet raw. After he strangles Sean, that is, for putting Elijah through this ordeal with his fucking competitive streak that makes him do all this crazy shit like drive racecars and run marathons. Well, this is the final straw. From now on, it’s computer games and crossword puzzles at home, safely indoors, and maybe, if Sean asks very nicely, an occasional field trip to a bowling alley.
So lost is Elijah in thoughts that border on the delirious that he almost steps right on something lying in the middle of the path. He halts abruptly, and gets the shock of his life when he encounters his own image staring up at him from a small LCD display set in a rectangle of silver.
He has found Sean’s cell phone, and with brutal suddenness understands why Sean did not answer his calls. Despite everything, he hadn’t really believed he wouldn’t find Sean safe and sound, and the reality is like a sucker punch to his gut- every scrap of breath is driven out of him.
For a moment, Elijah is afraid he is going to pass out. Black dots start swimming in front of his eyes and the world seems to tilt around him. Get a grip, Elwood, he berates himself, how can you find Sean if you pass out? He stoops and picks up the phone. The moment he touches it, Elijah steadies, as if the reassuring and solid warmth of Sean’s large hands lingers on the silver case. He clasps the phone tightly in his hand, and calls out in a loud, clear, carrying voice, “Sean! Sean, where are you?” The hills throw the words back at him in a mocking echo: Sean! Sean, where are you?.
But that is not the only reply he receives. There is, like a miracle, another. At first he can hardly believe his ears, after calling Sean so many times without response. “Elijah! I’m down here!” Sean’s voice is weak, but to Elijah it sounds like the heavenly choir singing.
The edge of the trail breaks sharply away and plunges downward about six feet from where Elijah is standing. Elijah takes two long strides and is at the brink. He looks down, and there is no suppressing the cry that escapes his lips: “Sean!”
Sean is about fifteen feet below on a sort of small rocky plateau that juts out before the ground breaks away again. He is lying on his back with his face turned up toward Elijah, but he isn’t moving, and in an instant, acting completely on instinct, Elijah is pocketing Sean’s phone, and plunging over the edge. He half-slides half-stumbles down the rock-strewn slope, having to steady himself with one hand behind him, while the gym bag bounces along the ground causing a small avalanche of pebbles to descend with him. He holds his breath the entire time, aware that he is being foolishly reckless, but nothing, fucking nothing, is keeping him from Sean one second longer than necessary.
Then he’s safely down in a cloud of dust, and he drops to his knees beside Sean, heedless of the sharp rocks that dig into his skin through the artful rips in his jeans. He takes Sean’s hand in his own, and holds it tightly, so tightly, as if he could merge their flesh by sheer force of will.
“Lij,” Sean whispers, and his voice is hoarse and ragged, “you found me. I knew you would.”
“Seanie,” Elijah swallows hard against the rush of emotions that threaten to choke him, “Sean, what happened? How badly are you hurt?”
His anxious eyes travel over Sean from head to foot, and it feels as if he’s been thrown back in time to Mount Ruapehu, for Sean is dirty, bruised and scratched, and his clothes are filthy and torn. But this is no wizardry of the makeup and costume artists. This time it’s for real. The blood that seeps from several nasty scratches on his arms and legs is not fake. Sean’s hand in his feels cold- frighteningly cold- but the pallor of his face is even more frightening. His normally warm complexion is chalk-white, his lips colorless, and there is a livid bruise on his cheek.
Shock, Elijah thinks, he’s in shock. Oh Jesus. He’s been lying here unable to move for how long? It must be a couple of hours by now… Oh god, Seanie…
Sean grimaces. “I’m pretty sure I’ve broken my left leg, Lij,” he says weakly. “I fell, god, it was the stupidest thing. I was taking out my cell phone to call you, just check in and make sure you were okay.” He pauses, and closes his eyes as if against a spasm of pain, opens them again. “I was looking down, not paying attention, and something ran across the path in front of me. Some animal; I didn’t even get a good look at it. Startled me, I dropped the phone and tripped. Couldn’t catch my balance...” His voice trails off. Even that brief explanation has exhausted what little reserves of strength he has. “Never make a stuntman,” he adds with a desperate attempt at humor.
But Elijah doesn’t laugh. “Broken leg? Jesus, Sean.” Elijah sees it then, what he had missed in his first sweeping look: a hard swelling, midway between Sean’s knee and ankle, virulent red and angry looking. “I’m calling for help.” He takes out his cell phone and flips it open.
“Call the ranger station, Lij,” Sean whispers. “They’ll know what to do. Number’s on the map in my bag.”
“Yeah, I know.” He takes the map from his pocket, finds the number and dials it- or tries to, but he won’t, can’t, let go of Sean’s hand, and his other hand is shaking so badly he can’t seem to hit the right numbers. “Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck!” His voice rises on a note of panic.
“It’s okay,” Sean says, squeezing his hand. “Take a deep breath and calm down, Lij. It’s gonna be okay.”
Sean is comforting him? How fucked up is that? Elijah does take a deep breath, and this time gets the number punched in. Aware every moment of Sean’s eyes fixed on his face, eyes so clouded with pain that they are almost unrecognizable as his, Elijah informs the park ranger who answers the phone about what has happened. He speaks calmly as he answers the man’s questions and provides him with the information they will need to find him and Sean.
“He’ll probably have to be airlifted to the hospital,” the ranger tells him, “and it will be helpful if you can elevate the broken leg and put ice on it if you’ve got any; it’ll take about half an hour for us to get there. Keep him warm, and keep your cell phone on in case we need to contact you, Mr. Wood.” Elijah thanks him, and disconnects.
“What did they say?” Sean whispers unsteadily; his voice sounds so thready that, even though help is now on the way, Elijah’s heart contracts with fear. He remembers the day, so long ago now, that Sean cut his foot running into the water in New Zealand and how he had taken a stick and poked at the giant clot of blood from the cut in morbid fascination. God, he had been such an asshole. But then there had been a crowd of people around, people who knew first aid, competent people who stepped in and took care of Sean. This time there is only Elijah, and there is nothing remotely fascinating about what has happened to Sean.
“They’ll be here soon, Seanie,” he says quietly. “Meantime, I’m supposed to elevate your leg and put ice on it. Only,” his voice falters a little, “there isn’t any ice.”
“First aid kit in my bag… there’s a cold pack.”
“If I ever complain about you again, Mr. Safety Hobbit, you just say ‘cold pack’, you hear me?” Elijah manages a shaky laugh.
“I hear you.” Sean actually musters a tiny chuckle in return. Elijah reluctantly releases Sean’s hand- it’s like letting go of the rope to which a drowning man clings, although he’s not sure who is the one drowning- and practically rips a hole in the gym bag in his haste to open it. He removes the cold pack from the kit, and activates it with several firm shakes. As gently as possible, he drapes the rapidly-cooling pack across the ugly swelling on Sean’s leg, but despite his care, Sean gasps sharply, “Jesus, that hurts,” and Elijah says over and over, “I’m so sorry, Seanie,” as if words can somehow lessen the pain.
Next Elijah wrestles a large rock over near Sean’s feet. Folding the towel into a thick pad, he sets it on top of the rock, and then takes Sean’s ankle in his clasped hands. He eases the broken leg onto the towel, but he can see in Sean’s eyes the excruciating pain even that slight movement is causing him. But Sean doesn’t make so much as a sound this time; he bites his lip hard and endures in stoic silence.
Elijah is sweating buckets by this time, but Sean is visibly shaking with cold. Moving quickly, Elijah gets the windbreaker and kneels by Sean’s head. “Here, baby, can you lift arms for me?”
He has never before, in all the years they’ve known each other, called Sean ‘baby’, but as he guides Sean’s arms into the sleeves of the black and gray nylon shell and eases the top over the thick chestnut hair that is matted with dust and sweat, emotions swirl through Elijah that he’s never felt before: fierce protectiveness and aching tenderness so profound that the force and depth of them stun him. How is it possible that he has never really understood these aspects of his love for Sean until now? He tugs the jacket down over Sean’s chest but doesn’t let him go. He sinks down cross-legged with Sean’s head and shoulders cradled in his lap, and then wraps his arms tightly around as much of Sean as he can to warm him. Sean’s scraped and bruised hands cover his. Their fingers interlace.
“Hold on, Sean,” Elijah says in a low, fierce whisper. “I love you.”
“I know,” Sean whispers back, and holds on.
UCLA Medical Center, February 11, 2007, 7:00 p.m.
Elijah can feel Sean’s worried eyes on him, following him as he moves about the hospital room. And he knows why. Sean is wondering when Elijah is going to hit the wall in this emotional marathon he’s been running. Well, Elijah doesn’t intend to hit that particular wall, damn it, not if he can help it.
It’s true he hasn’t slept in well over 24 hours, not since this whole ordeal began, and he feels like total shit. His head is swimming with fatigue, his eyes burn, and his mouth tastes vile from way too many cups of bad coffee. He does indeed have the mother of all bruises on his hip, his knees are skinned, and the palms of his hands sting with small abrasions. He has only left the hospital once, a quick trip to a nearby hotel early in the morning to shower and change into the fresh clothes his mom had brought for him when she stopped by the Venice house to pack a suitcase of necessities for Sean.
But fuck the lack of sleep. There will be plenty of time after Sean is released from the hospital for Elijah to catch up on rest. The events of the previous day, especially the memory of Sean lying helpless at the bottom of that fucking cliff, are still way too fresh in Elijah’s mind.
Right now what he needs isn’t sleep- it’s Sean. Just the sight of him, that’s all, sitting up in bed with a couple of solemn-looking teddy bears on either side of him, clearly feeling no pain after the drugs he’s been given, and seeming as bemused as Elijah by the outpouring of love and caring with which they’ve been blessed since the medevac helicopter set down at UCLA just before noon yesterday.
Mack and Debbie had already been at the hospital waiting for them when they arrived, alerted by Elijah’s phone calls when he knew where Sean was being airlifted. Since then, almost all of their family and friends have either visited or called, and Sean’s hospital room has had more the atmosphere of a party than a sick room. Balloons, cards, flowers, books and stuffed animals- they are everywhere Elijah turns. The phone next to Sean’s bed has rung so often they’ve had to take it off the hook, and the messages on both their cell phones- that they aren’t allowed to use in the hospital- are piling up at an astonishing rate.
If Elijah ever doubted the true meaning of Fellowship, he no longer does.
Sean is fucking lucky. Everyone from the park rangers to the medevac paramedics to the doctors has said so- if not in precisely those words. A fall like that could have had far worse, possibly fatal, consequences.
The x-rays showed that the tibia fracture in his leg was clean and didn’t require surgery, only realignment and casting. Sean bruised a couple of ribs in the fall, his back is sore, and he looks like he’s been in a bar fight with that livid bruise on his cheekbone and the scrapes all over his hands and arms (something Elijah privately and a little shamefacedly admits to himself is a fucking attractive look on Sean). But the results of the CT scan and MRI show no evidence of internal injuries and the latest word is that he’ll be able to go home tomorrow if he continues to do so well.
Elijah’s being given far more credit than he deserves for Sean’s luck, in his opinion. The news media have predictably had a field day with the story, and made him into some kind of fucking hero, based on interviews with the people involved in the rescue. But it’s all bullshit, and Elijah hopes the frenzy will soon die down, and some new celebrity news or scandal will divert their attention from him and Sean. Maybe, he had joked to Sean earlier, Brad and Angelina will do them a favor and announce that they are expecting again.
The real heroes, as Elijah’d said in the statement he scribbled out for Mack to read at the press conference that morning, are the rangers and paramedics who got Sean out of the park so quickly and efficiently, and the doctors and nurses who have cared for him here at UCLA.
The truth is that if Elijah feels anything, it’s guilt- guilt for not having listened to his instincts yesterday morning and kept Sean from leaving that damned parking lot. Sean doesn’t know about the premonition, but even if did, he’d be first in line to kick Elijah’s ass for blaming himself. Nevertheless, in the future, Elijah vows, he is going to listen to his instincts where Sean is concerned. The connection between them is more complex and profound than he could ever have imagined.
Lij, you found me. I knew you would. Sean’s faith and trust humble Elijah. Has he always known what Elijah has only just understood?
Those eight whispered words have sustained Elijah during the tense, seemingly endless hours while Sean was in the hands of the doctors, having a battery of tests run and his injuries assessed, and they waited to learn just how badly he’d been hurt.
They have sustained him during the night, as he slouched in an uncomfortable chair next to Sean’s hospital bed, watching his drugged sleep and feeling grateful for every slow, even rise and fall of his chest beneath the thin blue hospital blanket.
And they have sustained him when Sean’s ex-wife Christine arrived a few hours earlier with their daughters Ally and Lizzie, their arms laden with presents for their father and their hands clutching colorful, streamer-laden mylar balloons that read ‘Get Well Soon’ and ‘I Love You, Daddy’.
The tension in the room as he and Chris exchanged carefully polite greetings had been palpable, but Elijah had stayed back and allowed Chris, Ally and Lizzie to have time alone with Sean. And when Zach whispered in his ear, “You’re a fucking saint to let her near him after the shit she put you through,” Elijah had only shaken his head and replied to his brother with complete conviction, “It’s all right. She can’t touch us anymore.”
Still, it had been a huge relief when Chris and the girls finally departed, after Ally and Lizzie had finished decorating Sean’s cast with colored magic markers and stickers. Elijah had ignored the kiss Chris planted on Sean’s unbruised cheek and the curt nod she had given to Elijah as she swept past him. But the farewell hugs from Ally and Lizzie he had returned with interest. “Your dad’s gonna be just fine,” he’d whispered to them, hugging them close. “Don’t worry.”
Funny how the air had seemed so much easier to breathe after Chris had gone.
But Sean had not been breathing easier; he had looked exhausted and in pain. Within minutes, easygoing Elijah had ruthlessly emptied the room of everyone, even Debbie and Mack. Sean was hurting, and he needed to rest. End of story. If he hadn’t been feeling so concerned about Sean, he might’ve laughed at the shocked looks on their faces as he marched them to the door.
Typical of Sean, he’d put on a relentlessly bright face for his daughters, not wanting them to be any more upset than they already were at the sight of their father in a hospital bed, hooked up to a variety of beeping, hissing, ominous-looking machines and sporting bruises nearly as colorful as the flowers and rainbows they’d drawn on his cast.
But maintaining that bright face has come at a cost. There is a white, pinched look about Sean’s mouth now that Elijah recognizes from years of working with him on Lord of the Rings.
And it’s Elijah’s fault. There shouldn’t have been nearly so many people in the room as there had been, or for such a long time, and the only reason they’ve gotten away with such a gross violation of hospital policy is the fact that the patient, his partner and most of their family and friends are famous.
But Elijah isn’t particularly grateful for the newfound peace and quiet, even if kicking everyone out was the right thing to do for Sean. That fucking wall is looming larger and larger, and it is easier for Elijah to ignore it when he is keeping busy and pretending it doesn’t exist.
He tidies up in the wake of the visitors, taping get-well cards and drawings to the wall, stacking books and magazines in a neat pile on a table. Tidying is not his thing, and Sean knows it.
“Lizzie left her sweater,” he comments, picking up the bright pink cotton cardigan from a table. He shakes it out, folds it carefully and drapes it over the back of a truly hideous green vinyl and chrome chair. “We’ll have to make sure she gets it back.”
“Elijah,” Sean begins.
“Because,” Elijah continues, resolutely ignoring him, “you’re going to be released tomorrow, and the girls won’t have to visit you here again, right?”
“Lij.” Sean sighs. “Will you turn around and look at me, please?”
Elijah turns. “What?” he asks a little defensively.
“You don’t have to pretend with me. You’ve been through a lot, you haven’t slept in hours and if you need to cry, it’s totally okay. God knows I’d have been in tears by now if I was you.”
“I’m not going to fucking cry, Sean. I never cry.” That’s always been true in the past, no matter what happened to him. Even when his dad left and went back to Iowa, Elijah hadn’t cried. As an actor, summoning up tears on demand has been fucking difficult, and the most he can sometimes manage is red-rimmed eyes and a tragic look with fake tears to augment them. He refuses to believe that this tightness inside him that has been building and building is something he can’t control.
But Sean’s eyes, pain-dulled though they are, still see right through Elijah’s determined façade. “There’s always a first time.” He grins crookedly, the sleepy, sexy grin that has turned Elijah’s knees to water countless times in the past. “You can even weep on my manly breast if you want. I promise not to tell anyone.”
“Fuck you,” Elijah retorts, but he’s so tempted to do just that, to bury his face in Sean’s chest and bawl like a baby.
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m afraid that’s gonna have to wait a while, Elwood,” Sean replies.
“Sean…” Elijah lets the word out on a shaky breath of laughter at the predictability of Sean’s reply. “Do you ever think of anything besides sex?”
“Hmm. Let’s see. There was that one day back in May of 2005 when I actually thought about something else,” Sean jokes. “Remember? We talked about the weather.”
And just that suddenly, the wall can no longer be ignored and Elijah hits it hard, face first. He could have lost this forever, this familiar joking banter between them that was such an integral part of their relationship.
Hard on the heels of this thought crowd others, inescapable and terrible. He can see with stark clarity what he might be doing at this very moment: sitting in some fucking funeral parlor, listening to a bunch of meaningless platitudes meant to console him when the light and purpose had gone out of his life forever. He remembers the day he had thought he’d lost Sean forever, and sat alone on the bare wood floor of his bedroom, bereft, staring at unopened boxes. But that was a trivial loss compared to what he could be going through now. At least then, he’d known that Sean was still in this same world with him, and that no matter what, he’d always be there for Elijah as a friend even if they could no longer be lovers.
The emotional barriers he’s managed to maintain begin crumbling like the tower of Barad-dûr. But at that very moment, rescue arrives in the form of a white uniformed nurse who walks into the room saying in a brisk cheerful voice, “Time to update your chart and give you your medicine, Mr. Astin.”
Elijah seizes his chance. “I’ll just go, um, get another cup of coffee, Sean,” he says quickly. He’s proud of the steadiness of his voice, and of his steps as he walks out of the room. But hell, he’s an actor, right?
But he hears Sean’s voice behind him, saying with sharp urgency, “Elijah!” Actor or no, Sean isn’t fooled for a moment.
And then he’s half-running, stumbling, not even sure where he’s going. Tears are flooding his eyes, and spilling over to run down his cheeks. Sobs are welling up in his chest, choking him. He pushes blindly through a set of double doors, and turns into a dark hospital room, hoping it’s empty and he isn’t about to freak anybody out, because there’s no fucking way to hold back the tears now.
The room is thankfully empty. Elijah leans against the wall, and buries his face in his forearm.
And then he cries.
“Are you okay, Elijah?” asks a soft voice.
Fuck. It’s Chris. Elijah pushes back from the wall and turns slowly to face her. She is standing in the doorway, backlit so that her expression is shadowy and impossible to read. Why has she followed him? Fuck, he’s in no emotional shape for a confrontation with her right now, and there is a mess of snot and tears on his face. He fumbles in the front pockets of his jeans, searching for the tissue he knows isn’t there.
“Here.” Chris advances into the room, pulling a scrap of white out of the pocket of the green blazer she’s wearing: a mother, always prepared for an emergency.
Elijah can see her face more clearly now, and her expression is carefully neutral. He takes the tissue from her; she holds it with just the tips of her fingers, as if daring Elijah to touch her hand. He does not. “Thanks,” he says quietly.
He wipes his nose, feeling as young and vulnerable as a child under Chris’s silent stare, and hating it. He hates seeming so vulnerable in front of Chris of all people, and wonders again why she has followed him in here.
“Are you okay?” Chris repeats the question. Her head is tipped slightly to one side; Elijah notices threads of silver in the sweep of auburn that falls across her cheek. It shouldn’t affect him that she looks so old and tired, but it does.
Reluctant sympathy tugs at his heart, and perhaps that is why Elijah answers as he does. Instead of the words he intends to say, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, just a little tired’, what comes out of his mouth is a desperate whisper, “I love him so fucking much it hurts, Chris.”
“Tell me about it.” The words are dry, rueful. Elijah studies Chris’s face, but he doesn’t see anger or even bitterness there. For a long, long moment they stare at each other, Sean’s ex-wife and his young lover. Elijah is vaguely conscious of a bustle of activity in the hallway outside, running feet, a flash of blue scrubs passing behind Chris’s silhouetted form. Some medical crisis, but thankfully the running feet are moving in the opposite direction from Sean’s room.
“I’ve hated you, you know,” Chris continues in an emotionless voice. “But I might as well have hated that bed there for all the good it’s done me.”
“Chris, I-" Elijah begins, not even sure what he means to say, if it’s apology or justification or something else entirely.
“No,” Chris interjects sharply, “just shut up, Elijah, and let me talk. I think you owe me that much under the circumstances.”
Elijah nods. He supposes he does owe her that much. He’s the winner, if anyone can be called a winner in such a situation, and if she needs to tell him off, and call him a heartless bastard, well, so be it. At the end of the day, he is the one who will be staying at the hospital with Sean, not Christine. He is the one whom Sean loves and trusts. After the events of yesterday, there is no trace of doubt left in his mind. Lij, you found me. I knew you would.
But to his surprise, she says or does none of these things. “If this was a Hollywood movie,” she begins, “we’d now be at the scene where the big-hearted ex-wife forgives the young cute guy for stealing her husband from under her nose.” Chris tilts her head back and closes her eyes briefly. “Only this isn’t a Hollywood movie, and it wasn’t stealing,” she admits, the words sounding as if they are being dragged out of her. “How can you steal something that’s being freely given? It’s taken me a long time, and a lot of therapy, to accept that truth. It was so much easier to blame you for everything, Elijah.”
Elijah says nothing. He’s too taken aback.
“I threw every roadblock I could in your way, I’ll admit it. I never thought you’d stick it out once you realized what you were up against.” Chris gives a short not-quite-laugh, a hint of bitterness creeping into her voice. “You’re so young, Elijah. I figured you’d get tired of dealing with all Sean’s baggage. Eventually you’d leave him and find someone else your own age and Sean would return home to me and his children, where he belonged.” She sighs. “Only this isn’t Tolkien, is it. You’re not going to get on some ship and sail away, never to come back.”
“No, I’m not.” Elijah hesitates. This unexpected conversation is fraught with dangers. He feels like he’s picking his way across a minefield. Chris had thrown every roadblock in their way that she could, and there had been times he wanted to confront her and let her know how much her behavior was hurting Sean, whom she claimed to love. But Sean, the one most affected by it all, had cautioned, “Give it time, Elijah. Chris isn’t an unreasonable person.”
“I would never have gotten into a relationship with Sean if I wasn’t totally serious about it, Chris,” he continues slowly. “You may not believe this, but I would never have done that to you and the girls. Or to Sean.”
“For what it’s worth, I do believe you, Elijah. It doesn’t make it hurt any less, but I suppose it helps to know that at least you truly care about him.” She smiles a little sadly. “I always liked you, you know, from the first day we met. I considered you a friend. I suppose that just made it all the harder somehow.”
“I liked you, too, Chris.”
There is a silence while they stare at each other, broken only by the distant sounds of hospital activity that in such a short time have already come to seem like a normal soundtrack to his life, and Elijah feels as if some bridge, just the faintest thread of connection, has been built between them. “I would like,” Elijah says tentatively, “if we could be friends again someday. Not just for the sake of Sean and the girls.” Elijah has never been good at anger or bearing grudges. It’s simply not in his nature. And he had liked Chris and considered her a friend.
“I don’t know. I wish I could give you a better answer, Elijah, but I’ll be honest. Right now, I just don’t know.”
Elijah nods, accepting her answer. It’s enough to go on.
“You haven’t asked me why I came back to the hospital,” Chris says then. “It was to get this.” She raises her left arm, and Elijah notices for the first time that Lizzie’s pink cardigan is draped over it. “It was a good thing I came when I did. Sean was about to push the nurse out of the way and get out of bed to go looking for you.”
“Oh shit. Is he okay?” Elijah starts to bolt toward the door.
“Wait. Wait, Elijah. He’s okay. I told him I’d go find you and make sure you were all right. He didn’t do anything stupid. Just relax.”
Elijah halts, stunned. “Oh God, Chris, I’m sorry. For having put you in that position.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Chris replies, and her smile appears genuinely easier now. “I’ve been looking for an excuse to talk to you anyway, Elijah. Maybe this wasn’t the ideal time or place, but… well, I’m glad we’ve talked.”
“So am I.” Despite the stress and worry of the past day and a half, Elijah feels a sudden lightness inside him. Of all the possible outcomes to Sean’s accident, this is the last one he would have predicted: a tentative peace between him and Chris. “Thank you, Chris,” Elijah says.
She only nods, then says quietly, “You may think I’m butting my nose in where I have no business. But like it or not, I’m going to give you a piece of advice. You have to let Sean go, Elijah.”
“What the fuck? I don’t believe this.” He feels like he’s been ambushed, and anger surges up inside him. “I’m outta here, Chris.” He takes a step toward the door, but Chris actually grabs his sleeve to stop him. He shakes off her hand and whirls around to face her.
“No, you misunderstand me, Elijah,” Chris apologizes. “I put that badly. I’m sorry.”
“What else could you fucking mean?” Elijah asks, still furious.
“That you can’t wrap him in cotton wool, Elijah. Believe me, I know how hard Sean tries to pretend he’s Mr. Caution, but that’s with other people, with those he loves and wants to protect, not with himself. Deep inside, he’s always trying to prove something to himself. He doesn’t like to admit there’s anything he can’t conquer if he just applies himself to it hard enough. He’s going to want to run that marathon, Elijah. He’s going to want to go back and train in those hills again. Don’t try to stop him. You’re going to have to let him go.”
Elijah stares down at the floor, hating Chris’s words but knowing they are true. But she didn’t find Sean lying at the bottom of a cliff, half dead from shock. She didn’t walk that fucking hiking trail with her heart in her throat or find Sean’s cell phone lying in the dirt.
“That’s between me and Sean,” he says finally, and walks away.
When Elijah returns to Sean’s hospital room, he discovers that, despite Chris’s reassurances, all is not okay with Sean. He’s staring anxiously at the door, while the nurse is standing over him, saying in a strained voice, “I’m going to have to call a doctor if you don’t settle down, Mr. Astin. And you mustn’t try to get out of this bed again…”
“Elijah. Thank god. Are you okay?” Sean, with a rudeness that is completely unlike him, interrupts her in mid-sentence. He stretches out his arm, the one with the white I.D. bracelet- Astin, Sean- circling the wrist. “Did Chris find you?”
“Sean, you’re giving this poor woman a heart attack. Jesus, I leave for twenty minutes and look at the trouble you get up to.” Elijah hurries to the bed, and takes Sean’s hand. He looks apologetically at the nurse, giving her the full effect of his blue eyes- his Bambi impression as Sean likes to call it. “I’m so sorry.”
“That’s quite all right, Mr. Wood,” the nurse smiles warmly at him, her cheeks turning pink under the influence of that famous blue gaze. “I’m just relieved that you’ve returned. It isn’t good for Mr. Astin to become agitated, you know. He really needs to rest.”
“I know, and I promise I won’t let him become agitated again.”
After she has departed, her ruffled feathers soothed and an autograph for her niece in her pocket, Sean says, studying his face, “You look like you had a good cry, Elwood. Feel better?”
“Yeah,” Elijah confesses, perching on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry, Sean. I just didn’t want you to see me go to pieces that way.”
Sean raises Elijah’s hand to his lips and gently kisses the abrasions on the palm. “Don’t run away like that again, okay? It made me more worried that I couldn’t be with you.”
“So Chris told me.”
“Then she found you.”
“Yeah, she did. That was asking a lot of her, Seanie.” Elijah looks down at their linked hands. “But we talked, really talked. I think we’ve come to a sort of truce.”
“You can’t imagine how happy it makes me to hear that,” Sean replies quietly.
Elijah nods. “How are you feeling?” he asks.
“Tired,” Sean admits. “The nurse gave me some more painkillers.”
“Lie back and sleep then, Sean. Anything else we need to talk about can wait.” Elijah releases Sean’s hand, and sits down in the uncomfortable chair, resigned to another stiff neck and numb butt by morning. He yawns hugely. “Sorry.”
“I suppose it’s useless for me to tell you to go to the hotel and get some sleep in a real bed, huh?”
“Got it in one, Irish. I’m not leaving this hospital without you.” Elijah settles back, lacing his fingers across his stomach and stretching out his legs. “Although I’d fucking kill for a cigarette right now,” he sighs.
“Don’t even think about it, Elwood.”
“Are you kidding? Jonathan Ross put the fear of God into me.”
Sean grins sleepily. “Good. Now get up and come and lie down next to me, will you? I’m never going to sleep knowing you’re sitting in that instrument of torture.”
Elijah stares at him, uncertain if Sean is joking. “Sean, I can’t get in bed with you. We’re in the fucking hospital.”
“So? It’s not as if we’re going to be fucking in the hospital, Elijah. I just want you to be able to relax and get some sleep before you pass out and end up as a patient in the next room. I’ve never seen you look so exhausted.”
“It would be great to lie down for a little while,” Elijah admits, giving in, and bends down to unlace his black Chucks (the red ones have already been consigned to the trash) and pull them off. Then he gets up, arching his back with his hands on his hips. “They clearly want to discourage visitors from overstaying their welcome.” He goes to the bed and picks up one of the solemn-looking teddy bears. "Sorry," he says to it, and sets it down in the chair. "Better you than me."
Then Elijah sits on the side of the bed away from Sean’s elevated left leg, and carefully swings his own legs up and stretches them out on top of the covers.
“Good thing you’re hobbit-sized, Mr. Frodo,” Sean comments. It’s a tight squeeze even for two small guys like them.
“You’re only getting away with saying that because I can’t retaliate against an injured man,” Elijah says, settling in against Sean as if he’s made of spun glass and the slightest touch might cause him to break. “Wow, I’m fulfilling a dream here, Irish. I’ve always wanted to reenact that scene from ‘Love Story’.”
“I absolutely refuse to play the part of what’s-her-name and expire dramatically in your arms.”
“Damn straight, and besides I didn’t like the way you were flirting with that medevac doctor, giving him that Bambi impression like you did for the nurse a few minutes ago. If he comes sniffing around here, hoping I’m on my way out, I swear I’ll hit him over the head with my bedpan. He was way too good-looking for my comfort level.”
“He was simply a means to an end, Sean. They weren’t going to let me on the helicopter and there was no fucking way I was leaving your side. I wouldn’t even recognize the guy again, I swear.”
“Good answer, Elwood.”
Elijah shakes his head, smiling. How bad can Sean be feeling if he’s acting jealous? But still, it probably would be a good idea to relieve his mind a little.
“Would it hurt you too much if I kissed you?”
Sean lets out a sleepy chuckle, and then winces. “Ouch. Don’t make me laugh, Elwood. To be honest, I think the only parts of my body that don’t hurt right now are my lips and my dick.”
“I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I am that my two favorite parts of you are still intact.” Elijah raises himself up on one elbow, and leans over Sean, careful not to touch any part of him. Sean’s eyes are hazy from the effect of the painkillers, and the bruises on his face are turning more colorful by the minute- a Jackson Pollock mix of reds and blues and purples. The bar fight look is intensified by the five o’clock shadow he’s developed. But his mouth does appear undamaged, so Elijah lowers his head and very gently kisses him, a chaste, close-lipped kiss. Then he draws back.
“I feel like I’ve just been kissed by my grandmother,” complains Sean. “Is that the best you can do, Elwood?”
Elijah grins and settles back again. “Consider it a down payment.” He yawns. “God, I’m tired.”
The room is dim, and outside the hospital, in the real world that seems so strangely distant, it is nighttime. Elijah can see the lights of the city receding into the distance. Suddenly he has the same sense of disorientation he sometimes felt in New Zealand, especially in the early days when he was still adjusting to being so far from home. He turns his head and meets Sean’s gaze and is immediately grounded. He had never minded confessing those moments of homesickness to Sean, and he says now, very softly, “I was so fucking scared, Seanie.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for putting you through that,” Sean reaches out and strokes Elijah’s cheek. “But do you want to know something funny, Lij? I wasn’t scared. Somehow I just knew you’d find me and everything would be okay.”
“You said that to me yesterday, Sean,” Elijah whispers. “Do you remember? You said, Lij, you found me. I knew you would.”
“Did I?” Sean says drowsily. “To be honest, I was so out of it at that point that I don’t remember much, Lij. But I know I thought it.”
“How could you be so sure I’d find you?” Elijah asks, but Sean’s eyes have drifted closed and he doesn’t reply. Almost between one heartbeat and the next he has fallen asleep. But maybe the question is unnecessary, Elijah thinks, studying Sean’s sleeping face. How can he explain the premonition he had? It’s enough to know that Sean has such faith and trust in him and their love.
You’re going to have to let Sean go. As Elijah feels himself drifting toward sleep, the comforting solid warmth of Sean’s body close at his side where it belongs, he recalls Chris’s words, and comes to a decision.
Sean, he thinks, taking his sleeping lover’s hand, you’re gonna run that marathon next year and kick ass. And I’m gonna help you every step of the way.
And then at last, fingers laced with Sean’s, Elijah finally allows his guard to drop. He lets go, and falls into a deep, healing sleep.
New York City, November 4, 2007, 2:30 p.m.
The rock band is surprisingly good. “Come on, Ally, I want to go buy one of their CDs.” Elijah takes Alexandra’s hand and begins leading her across a 1st Avenue entirely and weirdly devoid of traffic.
“Uncle Lij!” Ally says in exasperation as she trots at his side. “They’ll be coming soon.”
Elijah glances at his watch. “Not for a few more minutes, sweetheart. We’ve got time.”
“We’re going to lose our spot and then we won’t be able to see Daddy.”
“Nah, we’ll just give them our best Bambi eyes and get our spot back, no problem.”
Ally giggles, and then waits patiently while Elijah chats up the musicians, who practically orgasm on the spot when they realize the slight, blue-eyed man complimenting them on their playing and buying their CDs is the Elijah Wood of Simian Records.
Even an interesting discussion of music isn’t enough to divert Elijah from his real purpose for being on the corner of 1st Avenue and 96th Street, though, and he doesn’t linger, just hands the lead guitarist his business card and jogs back across the street with an impatient Alexandra.
True to his word, they reclaim their spots at the front of the crowd lining the avenue without difficulty, although it does help that several people recognize Elijah. ‘Hey, it’s Frodo. How ya doin’, man?’
But this day isn’t about celebrity. It’s about the 30,000 plus non-celebrities who are competing in the New York City Marathon, and Elijah is happy to be just one anonymous member of the crowd of spectators who are there to cheer on the runners.
For all the time he’s spent in the city, Elijah has never been present for the marathon before, and the sense of building excitement is contagious. It’s like a giant block party, with rock and jazz bands, the ubiquitous sellers of every possible kind of designer knock-off, food vendors and most of all people. People are everywhere: hanging out of windows, sitting on fire escapes and roofs, lining the route the runners will take four and five deep.
He and Ally are positioned at mile 18. It’s one of the best spots for viewing the race, and also far enough into it that Sean is definitely going to benefit from seeing their faces and listening to them cheer him on. Ally’s all prepared with a big, colorful sign that says ‘GO DADDY GO’ in neon pink and green. It can be hard to find the person you’re looking for in such a huge crowd of runners, Elijah’s been told, and the sign will make it easier for Sean to find them.
Mack and his girlfriend, who had flown out with Ally, are over in Brooklyn on Fourth Avenue and they’ve already called to let Elijah and Ally know that Sean has passed by and looked great and instructed them to tell Elijah not to worry, that his leg was perfectly fine. But that was only eight miles into the race, of course. Still, it was good to have the confirmation after not seeing him for so many hours. Sean had left their hotel for the starting line at the Verrazano Bridge at the crack of dawn, and he wasn’t carrying a cell phone on him.
They’ve tried to space everyone out so that Sean will have a rooting section at regular intervals. Once he passes by 96th Street, Elijah and Ally will run across town to 5th Avenue to be there when Sean hits the hardest part of the entire marathon- the uphill stretch just before mile 24 and the runners enter Central Park. Sean’s entire run has been choreographed like a ballet- with Elijah in charge of the production. Sean has jokingly told him any number of times over the past months that if he is ever looking for a third career besides actor and record producer, he could always become a marathon coach.
Ever since the accident, Elijah has been intimately involved in Sean’s quest to run New York, from the physical therapy after his cast came off, to the training when he was allowed to start running again, to holding his hand during the anxiety-laden weeks while they waited to see if Sean even got into the race. No favorites are played with the lottery when so many people want to enter, and Sean certainly didn’t pre-qualify as an elite runner.
Elijah’s timed Sean’s workouts and filled out those fucking charts on the refrigerator with the zeal of the newly converted. He’s read every one of the books on marathon running, and cheered Sean on when he ran in a couple of 10K races in preparation for New York. The only thing he’s refused to do is actually run with Sean; being an armchair marathoner is more than sufficient for him.
Elijah has even stayed home while Sean returned one day to Topanga State Park to do a training run. Chris had been right: it was something that Sean felt he had to do, but watching him drive away that morning was one of the hardest things Elijah had ever had to do. But he’d consulted those gut instincts that he’d ignored once before, and this time they told him that everything would be fine. He’d made no attempt to talk Sean out of his decision.
He’d let him go.
Of course, that didn’t prevent him from practically tackling Sean at the door when he returned, even though they’d called each other about every ten minutes, but his faith was rewarded in the look on Sean’s face as he held him tightly and thanked him for not trying to stop him from going back to the site of his accident.
And now it’s arrived: November 4th, 2007. They’ve made it to marathon day at last, even if it has sometimes seemed to Elijah over the past months as if getting here was an entire marathon in and of itself.
Elijah and Ally don’t have very long to wait before the first signs of activity that herald the approaching runners become apparent. Helicopters, police cruisers and motorcycles, and flatbed trucks filled with TV cameras start to appear. The wheelchair racers go pass first, an inspiring sight, and he and Ally whoop and cheer along with everyone else. The elite runners follow a short time later, carried along on a wave of cheering that echoes down the cavernous street and is so loud that it reminds Elijah vividly of the Return of the King premiere in Wellington.
Elijah is flat out awestruck by the pace that the professional marathoners can maintain this far into the race. They look almost like they are sprinting, and their long legs eat up the ground with effortless grace. Sean does not have the natural physique or muscle type for a marathoner. But Elijah decides he’ll take that compact, powerful body over the lanky build of a true marathoner any day. Hoping Ally doesn’t notice, he does some discreet checking out of the rears of the runners as they speed away up 1st Avenue, and concludes that Sean’s butt is far superior. So what if he can’t run 26.2 miles in less than three hours. There are more important things, after all.
Before long, the less competitive runners like Sean begin filling the street, and they provide a spectator sport unlike anything Elijah’s ever experienced. He and Ally put their heads close together, spiky brown and curly gold, and giggle and point out to each other the more bizarre and colorful outfits and costumes some of the marathoners are wearing. But they also make it a point to cheer on the runners who look like they’re starting to struggle. Elijah fervently hopes Sean isn’t going to be one of them.
“It’s almost time, Ally,” Elijah says, checking his watch for the umpteenth time. “Sean should be showing up in a few minutes if he’s kept up the pace he hoped.”
Ally picks up her sign and holds it high over her head with both hands, and she and Elijah lean forward and begin intently scanning the crowd as the runners continue to stream up 1st Avenue. Ally spots Sean first, and lets out a scream, “Daddy! Look this way! Daddy!”
And then Elijah finally sees Sean. He’s wearing white cotton gloves to protect his hands against the cold, a white tee shirt with The Mysterious Mister Smith on the front- he’s discarded his nylon running jacket somewhere along the way- and his number, 17572, is stuck to his thigh-length navy blue spandex running shorts. Elijah shouts, “Sean! We’re over here!” and starts to wave his arms wildly.
Sean is scanning the crowd, too; he drifts toward the left, knowing that that’s the side of the street Ally and Elijah will be standing on. He spots them, and his face splits into a wide smile. Dodging around the other runners, he quickly jogs over and halts in front of them, running in place.
“Hey,” he says brightly, and gives his daughter a sweaty one-armed hug without stopping moving. Ally whips out her cell phone and takes several photos of her dad that Elijah knows will be winging their way to her sisters in California within minutes.
“How are you feeling?” Elijah asks, giving Sean a quick once over. In comparison with some of the runners he’s seen, Sean looks fantastic- and not just because he fills out his spandex so well. “How’s your leg?” The broken bone has healed beautifully but Elijah can’t get out of the habit of fretting about it.
“Perfect. No worries, Lij, okay? I feel great and I’m even ahead of schedule!” Sean is on a runner’s high, no doubt about it, fizzing and bubbling like champagne.
“That’s frickin’ awesome, Irish. Just don’t push yourself too hard. You’ve still got a long way to go.”
“Yes, Coach,” Sean jokes, grinning.
“Do you want water or a banana? Or an energy bar?” Elijah has done his homework and is prepared with all three.
“A banana’d be good,” Sean says, and Elijah hands him one. “I’d better get going, Elwood. See you around mile 24? I’m gonna need you both there.”
“No fears. We’ll be there.” He and Sean exchange a quick awkward kiss- kissing someone who is bouncing up and down is not easy, Elijah discovers- and then with a wave, Sean is off, merging back into the stream of runners.
Elijah takes Ally by the hand, and they set out at a brisk walk up west up 96th Street. It’s windy and cold, and the tall buildings are casting long shadows that block out the sun. It feels good to be moving, and while Ally calls her mom on her cell phone and tells her and her sisters excitedly about seeing her father, Elijah’s thoughts are fixed on Sean, mentally following him along the course that he’s looked at on paper so many times he knows the route by heart. Sean should be heading into the Bronx by now, beginning the looping turn that’ll eventually bring him south along 5th Avenue where Elijah and Ally will be waiting. You can do it, Seanie, he urges him. You can do it. Stay focused.
It turns out Sean does need them. They spot him right away, for the pack is thinner here, the runners becoming more spread out. Elijah can see at once that Sean’s starting to hit the wall like so many of the other runners, many of whom have slowed to a walk, shaking their cramping legs or clutching their sides. The long, steady rise of 5th Avenue is taking its toll. Sean doesn’t even slow down when he sees them, as if he’s afraid that if he does slow down, he’ll never get started again. He gives them a tight-lipped determined smile and a brief wave, but he starts to pick up his pace a little, as if just the sight of them has renewed his flagging energy.
Elijah and Ally do their best to help him up the hill, calling out encouraging words, and they push and wriggle their way through the crowd and try to keep up with Sean for as long as they can.
“Daddy looks so tired, Uncle Lij.” Ally tips her heart-shaped face up to Elijah after Sean has disappeared from view, making the turn into Central Park with a crowd of other sweating, struggling runners. “Do you think he’s going to make it to the finish?” she asks worriedly. “He’ll be so disappointed if he doesn’t.”
“Yeah, sweetheart, he’ll make it. This was the hardest part of the course, Ally. Once he gets into the Park, the end is in sight and he’ll get a second wind. Besides, you know your dad’s the most stubborn person in the entire universe.” Ally giggles. “He’s not going to quit, no way,” Elijah ends positively. “Now come on, we’d better hurry if we’re going to catch our ride to the finish line.”
Media interest in Sean’s marathon run has been intense, and though they’ve tried hard not to let it take the spotlight away from those who really deserve the attention, human-interest stories are the meat and potatoes of sporting events. The story of Sean’s accident and Elijah’s part in the rescue has been revived in the run up to the big day, and they’ve been inundated with requests for interviews. One news program had even wanted to have a reporter run the entire marathon with Sean, but Sean had been adamant that he was just another runner among many and no more deserving of singling out than anyone else.
Still, it had been impossible to turn down all the requests, and Elijah had decided he might as well take advantage of the hoopla in one respect. Getting to the finish line from where he and Ally now are in time to see Sean finish the race would normally have been impossible, but Elijah has arranged for them to hitch a ride with a local TV station news team on the condition that they can film Elijah and Ally greeting Sean at the end of the race. He isn’t crazy about the idea, but it’s not as if a moment like that is going to be private anyway, and the reporter has promised not to get right in their faces.
The news van is waiting on the corner of 92nd and Madison, and they hop in and are whisked away in a flash. Elijah and Ally, who is already an old hand at dealing with the media, patiently answer the reporter’s questions about Sean and his progress in the race while they wend their way through traffic and are waved through police barriers.
The finish line area is a madhouse and everywhere runners who’ve just finished the race are walking around wrapped in the mylar space blankets the volunteers give them to prevent hypothermia. There are runners exchanging ecstatic embraces with friends and family, and others slumped to the ground in exhaustion or relief. Elijah, infected by the excitement, can hardly wait for his first glimpse of Sean approaching the end.
The clock over the finish line banner reads 4:27:33 and Elijah realizes that they’ve made it barely in time, as Sean was hoping to finish in about 4:32. But it’s sooner even than that when Elijah spots Sean heading at a steady run toward the finish line. Elijah experiences an almost dizzying sensation of pride and joy as he sees the determined expression on that handsome face as Sean pushes his tired body toward the finish, sprinting on legs that Elijah can see are getting wobbly.
“Ally, look! It’s your father,” Elijah exclaims aloud, pointing, and forgetting all about the television camera that is now trained on them, they completely lose it, jumping up and down and cheering him on.
4:28:55… 4:29:00… Arms raised, gloved fists clenched, Sean crosses the line in 4:29:04, and gradually slows to a walk and then a halt, bending at the waist with his hands on his thighs. Immediately a woman volunteer goes running up to wrap him in a space blanket, and Elijah can hear him gasp as he holds the crinkly silver material around him, “Thanks.”
He glances up and sees Elijah and Ally running toward him, and the most beautiful smile Elijah has ever seen lights up his tired face. Then the three of them are embracing in a tight group hug, rocking back and forth, while the television crew, recognizing good ratings material when they see it, captures it all on film.
“Oh my god, you did it, Sean. I’m so fucking proud of you,” Elijah whispers for him alone.
“Uh-uh, Elwood, I didn’t do it,” Sean replies. “We did.”
Mack and his girlfriend meet them at a nearby Italian restaurant where they’ve made a dinner reservation. There are other runners who’ve finished the race celebrating with their loved ones, too, and they are easily recognizable by the medallions they wear proudly around their necks. They high five each other and swap times and miles per minute, and Sean is thoroughly in his element. He passes his medal around the table for everyone to admire, and Ally puts the ribbon over her head and wears it while they eat.
It isn’t until Sean almost passes out face first into his capellini pomodoro that Elijah realizes exactly how tired his partner is. The euphoria is starting to wear off and utter exhaustion is setting in.
“Seanie?” Elijah says as the fork slips from Sean’s hand, hitting the china plate with a clink, and Sean jerks his head up. “I guess it’s time we went back to the hotel, huh?”
“Yeah, I think so. I’m beat.”
Mack laughs. “Geez, bro, you only ran 26 miles today. What do you have to be tired about?”
Outside the restaurant, they go their separate ways after exchanging hugs and kisses and Ally reluctantly returns the medal to her dad who promises her she can borrow it to show all her friends after he gets home. Mack, his girlfriend and Ally are taking a cab to Kennedy to catch a red-eye to LA. Ally has to be back at school the next day- a typical Astin, she’s in rehearsal for a school play.
Sean and Elijah are headed to their hotel. They are staying on in New York for the rest of the week. They’ve got several TV and radio interviews scheduled over the next two days, and then some house hunting in Brooklyn to do. With Elijah’s record company taking off, he’s spending more and more time in the city, and they are seriously considering buying a second home here to minimize their time apart.
Sean dozes off in the taxi, and Elijah has to shake him hard to wake him up when they pull up in front of their hotel. He’s barely functional by this point, and feeling the effects of his long run. “Oh god, I’m wrecked, Lij,” he groans as he gets out of the cab. His leg muscles are stiffening up, and he’s walking, Elijah can’t help but think with some amusement as they head across the lobby to the elevators, like he’s been fucked within an inch of his life.
In the elevator, Sean collapses against the mirrored wall, tilts his head back and closes his eyes. “Come on, Sean,” Elijah says when they reach their floor, and taking him by the arm, steers Sean down the hall to their room.
Sean heads straight for the king-sized bed, intending to collapse, but Elijah stops him. “Uh-uh, Seanie. Shower first.” All the marathon books stress the importance of preventive measures to keep the discomfort at a minimum. Shower, massage, hydration and as much food as you want to eat.
Sean is so tired by now that Elijah has to help him undress. He can barely lift his arms and his head droops like a wilted flower. He keeps apologizing incoherently, but Elijah just smiles and ignores him, gets the shower going and adjusts the temperature. “You gonna be okay, Irish?” he asks when Sean is standing under the streaming water, his face tilted up into the spray, looking as if he’s asleep on his feet- and he probably is.
Sean nods, but Elijah still goes into the bathroom to check on him several times. In between visits, he gets out the massage oil he’s brought, buys a bottle of ridiculously overpriced spring water from the small refrigerator, and finds the ibuprofen that’s packed in his suitcase.
Just as he’s about to go back for the fifth time to make sure Sean hasn’t managed to drown standing up, the shower stops. Sean emerges from the bathroom on a cloud of steam, a fluffy white towel wrapped around his waist. He’s already walking a little more easily, Elijah can tell.
“How you doing?” Elijah asks.
“A little better,” Sean confirms. He walks over to the bed, unfastens the towel and lets it drop to the floor and then collapses face forward, bouncing a little as he hits the mattress. “Oh god,” he moans into the blue floral print bedspread. “I am so fucking tired.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Elijah remarks wryly. “But before you fall asleep, I want you to take this Advil and drink some water.”
“You are a slave driver, Elijah Wood,” Sean complains, but he obediently swallows the ibuprofen and drinks down the water.
“Okay, now you can go to sleep,” Elijah says, taking the bottle from him and throwing it in the wastebasket. “I’m gonna give you a good massage while you do.”
“God, I love you, Elwood.”
“I thought I was a slave driver.”
“You’re a loveable slave driver.”
“Flatterer.” Elijah is grinning as he straddles Sean’s thighs and starts to rub the fragrant sandalwood massage oil into Sean’s aching muscles, starting at the top with his neck and gradually working his way down his body. Sean’s blissful moans and groans as Elijah gently kneads his tight shoulder muscles are extremely gratifying. Elijah’s gotten fucking good at this massage stuff, even if he does say so himself. Sean’s physical therapist had showed him the basics and he’s gotten a lot of practice. Of course, the practice has paid unexpected dividends: most of their massage sessions end up with some pretty spectacular lovemaking. Elijah sweeps his fingers down the length of Sean’s spine, pressing firmly, knowing that there’s no way in hell Sean is capable of being aroused right now. But that’s totally okay.
Sean’s head is turned sideways on the pillow. He smiles sleepily, looking like a contented cat. “Thought of a fourth career for you, Elwood,” he murmurs. “Massage therapist. Only you won’t make a living at it because you’ll only have one client- me. I don’t want you touching anyone else this way.”
Considering where Elijah’s hands are now busily at work, he thinks maybe Sean has a point, but he only says gently, “Go to sleep, marathon man.”
“’K.” Still smiling, Sean drifts off to sleep.
The wake up call at 6:00 a.m. jars Elijah from sleep. Fucking early morning television, he thinks as he resists the urge to rip the phone cord from the wall. The limo will be coming to pick them up at 8:00 to the NBC studio. Yawning, he sits up and looks blearily at Sean, who hasn’t even stirred at the noise. He’s sleeping peacefully.
Elijah gets up and finds his glasses, and then makes his way to the door. He unlocks the door and cracks it, peeking left and right to make sure no one will see him standing buck naked in the doorway, and quickly stoops to pick up the New York Times that’s been left outside.
He heads back to the bed as he flips through the paper looking for the Sports section. Which is pretty fucking funny, he thinks, considering he’s Elijah Wood, least likely to give a shit about sports results. But he finds what he’s looking for, a special section devoted to the Marathon, and settles cross legged on the bed, with the paper spread out on his lap. And there it is, part way down the long, long list of marathon finishers: Astin, Sean, 36, Venice, CA. 4:29:04. A shit-eating grin spreads over his face.
“What are you looking so pleased about?” Sean asks. He’s awake and propped up on his side, watching Elijah.
“You! You’re famous. You made the newspaper.”
“My god, I don’t believe it. Me, Sean Astin, in the newspaper? I’ll have to call my folks. They’ll never believe it.”
“Wanker. You know what I mean.”
Sean grins. “Give it here, Lij.”
Elijah hands him the paper, and points out his name. Sean studies it for a while, smiling, then says, “Hey, I ran faster than some of those young whipper snappers. Pretty good for an old guy.”
“Pretty good? You did fucking fantastic, Sean.”
“Nah,” Sean says modestly, but he looks pleased, his smile widening, crinkling the skin around the corners of his eyes and causing Elijah’s heart to flip-flop.
“Hey, if I say you did fucking fantastic, you did fucking fantastic. Who’s the coach here, anyway?”
Sean folds the paper and sets it aside. “So, Coach, what do you have planned for us this morning?” he asks, a twinkle in his eyes. “All the books say a little healthful exercise the day after running a marathon is a good idea. Nothing too strenuous, of course, but something that will get the blood flowing.”
“Oh, I expect I can come up with a few suitable exercises to get your blood flowing, Sean,” Elijah says with conviction. His own blood is already starting to flow, heading inexorably southward.
“Let’s get to it then, Coach,” Sean says, pulling him down.