The Enchanted Cottage by Lbilover

Originally posted at The Last Ship. Written for the 2008 Frolijah Challenge for the request: Sean and Elijah during filming, and the following quote from a letter that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son Michael: Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. According to an interview with Sean, he did in fact have difficulty with Sam’s speech at the end of The Two Towers, which he had practiced alone with Elijah.




‘Wake up, Sean; we’re here,’ Elijah says as the taxi pulls up to the curb and stops. He touches his companion lightly on the arm.


Sean jerks a little, and his eyes pop open. ‘I wasn’t asleep,’ he protests, but Elijah gives him a knowing look.


‘Hey, it’s been a long day, old man, and we were up ridiculously early. You’re entitled to be tired.’


‘I’m not…’ Sean begins, and then smiles. ‘Okay, maybe I am a little tired, old man.’


Elijah grins.


They get out of the taxi and wait while the driver opens the trunk, takes out their suitcases and sets them on the pavement. The man good-naturedly asks if they need help getting the luggage into the house, and Sean immediately bristles.


'We're fine, thanks,' he says, grabbing the handle of a large tan suitcase.


'But thanks for the offer,' Elijah adds with a smile to remove any sting from the rebuff. Sean is definitely cranky.


The driver smiles back, but the smile fades into a puzzled expression. 'You look familiar, mate. Do I know you from somewhere?'


Elijah hands the cabbie the fare plus a very generous tip. ‘You’re probably confusing me with someone else,’ he replies smoothly.


The man doesn’t look totally convinced, but he just shrugs, pockets the money and gets back in his taxi.


‘That’s not like you,’ Sean remarks. He pulls out the handle of the suitcase and, as the black plastic wheels click rhythmically, leads the way up a curving stone path to a house well set back from the road, and screened from view by thick bushes and shade trees. Behind them, the sound of the taxi’s engine fades as it drives off down the street. It is blessedly quiet save for the clack of wheels and the twittering of a few sparrows.


‘I’m not in the mood for signing autographs,’ Elijah says, following after him. ‘I’m a little tired myself, and I’d cheerfully murder for a cup of coffee right about now.’


‘Neither am I, so I won’t let my feelings be hurt that he didn’t think I looked familiar.’ Sean removes a key from his coat pocket, inserts it in the lock and turns it. ‘And there should be coffee, Lij. It was on the list of groceries I ordered.’ He pushes the door inward and stands back to let Elijah pass.


‘That’s my Samwise, always looking after his Mr. Frodo,’ Elijah jokes, but it’s not really a joke. Their eyes lock for a long moment before he steps over the threshold and goes inside.

________________________________________



The cottage they’ve rented for the weekend is in Napier, on the east coast of the North Island just above Wellington. It isn’t large, only three smallish bedrooms and an open floor plan that encompasses lounge, kitchen and dining room, but then it doesn’t have to be. All they require is a quiet retreat where they can rehearse together; a place close enough to Wellington to make for an easy trip there and back again, but far enough away that there is no danger of their fellow cast members unexpectedly dropping in on them.


Sean has been struggling for days with his crucial speech in Osgiliath at the end of The Two Towers, and as is the nature of such things, frustration and anxiety have been feeding on themselves and putting more and more roadblocks in the way of his ability to deliver the lines effectively. It is Sam’s first defining moment in the movies, a crucial one for the character and more especially for Sean. After a fruitless day spent trying to get the scene right, Peter had suggested they call it quits, and try again on Monday.


Watching Sean’s stress level skyrocket, and his disappointment in himself skyrocket with it, Elijah had taken his costar aside and suggested that they get away, just the two of them, so they can rehearse the scene alone together without any outside distractions. Sean had seized on the suggestion gratefully—even eagerly. Arrangements were made with a few quick phone calls, and now here they are.


Elijah carries his overnight bag into a randomly selected bedroom—comfortably if plainly furnished—and tries not to think about anything else that might happen this weekend, or where he might ultimately spend the night. He opens the top drawer of the dresser and, finding it empty, upends the suitcase and dumps the contents into it. A box of Trojan condoms and a tube of Astroglide stare up at him from their nest of cotton and denim. He quickly covers them with a tee shirt, wipes his damp palms on the legs of his faded Levis, and pushes the drawer shut with his hip. Sean has absolutely no idea he’s packed such supplies, and it suddenly seems the height of self-delusion and desperation to have brought them.


Elijah sinks down on the edge of the bed and worries at his thumbnail with his teeth. Sean is a married man and a father, and any flirtation between them has simply been a riff on their roles as Frodo and Sam, and a teasing acknowledgement of the relationship so many fans like to believe exists between the two hobbits. Elijah has played along, following Sean’s lead, never letting on that for him it has become—no, has always been-more than a game.


But during the months at home spent reconnecting with friends and family, some subtle shift in the dynamic between them has taken place, totally unexpected and thus far unacknowledged. Elijah fears to give it a name, but Sean returned to New Zealand for Two Towers pickups alone and his ring finger has been bare morning, noon and night. Rumors have floated around the set that Sean and Christine have separated, but Sean, the most talkative person Elijah knows, has been silent on the subject, and Elijah hasn’t dared to ask.


But the lighthearted flirtation and teasing have stopped, and what he sees in Sean’s eyes now alternately exhilarates and terrifies him. He is so used to being the one who feels more. So used to yearning without hope that his yearning will ever be fulfilled.


So afraid now that, like Frodo, he is looking into Galadriel’s mirror without any clue if what he is seeing is real or not…


‘Elijah, I’ve put on a pot of coffee.’


Elijah jumps guiltily to his feet, as if to be found sitting on the bed is too suggestive of what he’d give anything to have happen while they’re here, but Sean doesn’t enter the room, just pokes his head inside. 


‘Thanks,’ Elijah replies with a forced smile. ‘Um, I’m going to go check out the view.’ He gestures vaguely toward a sliding glass door whose partially drawn-back curtain allows a glimpse of the sunlit backyard behind the cottage.


‘Great idea—I’ll bring our coffee out there. See you in a bit.’ Sean gives a wave, and disappears.


Bright sunshine greets him when he steps outside, and Elijah squints against the glare. As his eyes adjust to the light, the sight that greets them is enough to make him forget about his worries for the moment. New Zealand is a land of spectacular views, and Elijah has seen many of them during the months of filming all over the North and South Islands, but even so, this takes his breath. The cottage is perched at the very edge of a cliff, so that it seems almost like a ship sailing on a sea of green treetops toward the deep blue water of Hawkes Bay and the ocean beyond.


He walks quickly across a low gray wood deck furnished with a round glass-topped table and several chairs, and then a narrow lawn of neatly trimmed grass, bordered by low white fencing and planters filled with colorful flowers. Digging his cloves and a lighter out of the breast pocket of his button-down, Elijah lights up, and then rests his elbows on top of the railing.


It’s a sheer drop down on the other side of the fence, but Elijah has absolutely no fear of heights. He grins a little, thinking of the day he was strapped into a harness and dangled upside down from a crane for the Watcher in the Water scene, and Sean’s near-apoplexy at his willingness to risk his neck on a ‘crazy stunt’ like that. He took the greatest delight in saying ‘I told you so’ to Sean when the scene was completed without incident; he never lets on that Sean’s protectiveness warms him inside, even while it sometimes drives him nuts.


And speaking of Sean… Elijah turns around just in time to see Sean emerging from the house, carrying two canary yellow ceramic mugs.


‘The view’s fucking fantastic, isn’t it?’ Elijah says as Sean joins him at the fence.


Sean hands Elijah his coffee. ‘It is. Just don’t lean over too far, Lij,’ he predictably warns him, peering cautiously over the edge. ‘I forgot to bring any of that real Elvish rope with me.’


Elijah has just taken a drag on his cigarette, and his laughter turns to coughing as clove-spiked smoke catches in his throat. Sean places a hand palm-down between Elijah’s shoulder blades to steady him, and Elijah is so very, very aware of his touch. Too aware. Nervousness flares again, and a touch of panic with it.


‘You okay?’ Sean asks with quiet concern, bending so close that Elijah can smell the familiar scent of his aftershave.


‘I’m fine,’ he chokes out, waving the cigarette dismissively, and pulls away. Is it his imagination, or does a fleeting look of hurt cross Sean’s face?


There have been other such strained, awkward moments since their return to New Zealand. Yet touching and hugging have been a natural extension of the bond they have shared ever since the day they met. Why is it now so difficult to accept Sean’s touch without self-consciousness, to initiate contact without feeling as if he is crossing some forbidden line? One or the other of them is going to have to speak up, and soon. Elijah can only hope that Sean goes first, because if Elijah is wrong, if the image in Galadriel’s mirror is a chimera, they will still have to go on working together, however difficult that might be. In which case it will be better that Sean never know, or only suspect, how his costar really feels about him.


They sip their coffee in silence for a time, and Elijah finishes his cigarette. He wonders what Sean is thinking, and why he is so uncharacteristically quiet. Talk to me, Irish, please, he thinks. What is going on with you and Chris? With us?


Then Sean tilts his face up to the early autumn warmth of the sun. He takes a deep breath and slowly releases it. ‘God, I needed this, Elijah,’ he says. ‘Thank you for suggesting it, and thank you for putting up with me. I’m surprised you even would, considering what an asshole I’ve been lately.’


‘Hey, I'm glad to be with you, Sean Astin . . . here at the end of all things,’ Elijah quips, using humor, hobbit-like, to hide his real emotions. ‘Or here at the edge of a cliff, I should probably say.’


But Sean says, his expression intent, his voice quite serious, ‘Maybe it’s not the end of all things, Elijah. Maybe it’s the beginning.’


The wild beating of Elijah’s heart drowns out the paper-dry rustle of leaves as a gust of wind stirs the treetops. Time loses all meaning as he and Sean stare at each other, and Elijah’s brain has become a skipping record album that repeats a single word over and over: beginning, beginning, beginning.


‘Let’s go rehearse.’ Sean breaks the spell. ‘That’s why we’re here, right?’


Elijah clears his throat. ‘Okay.’ He tries not to show his disappointment.


‘But after…’ It’s Sean’s turn to clear his throat. His color is high, although that might be from the sun. ‘Elijah, I’d like for us to talk. There are some things I want—I need—to tell you.’


‘Okay,’ he whispers. He seems to have lost the capacity to say any other word.


As they return to the house, they are walking so closely together that their shoulders brush.

________________________________________



Elijah has lost count of the number of times they’ve gone over the scene. But he can tell that Sean is getting there, closer and closer to nailing it. Away from the tensions and demands on set, he is able to concentrate solely on Sam and his emotions. He does his usual prep for a tough scene: jumping up and down, pumping his fists, and letting out a couple of primal yells that make Elijah glad for the seclusion of the cottage. God knows what their neighbors would think if they heard it.


‘Ready?’ Sean asks, and shrugs into Sam like a second skin, without any need for wig or costume or hobbit feet. He just is.


‘Go for it!’ Elijah says, and he in turn effortlessly morphs into Frodo, a Frodo who, horrified and appalled by what he has almost done to his friend, has dropped his sword and sunk to the ground.


It’s me. It’s your Sam. Don’t you know your Sam?' Sean begins in a tearful voice, and a thrill goes through Elijah. This is it, he can feel it. The energy fairly crackles in the room. Sean is in a place that only another actor can really understand: where every word, every gesture, sings.


I can’t do this, Sam.’ Elijah’s tone speaks of utter, soul-deep weariness.


I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here.’


But we are.'


It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo,’ Sean begins pacing slowly across the floor of the lounge, never once glancing at the pages of script he holds in his hand. ‘The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you... that meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.’


What are we holding on to, Sam?’ Elijah almost forgets his line, so focused is he on Sean’s performance, on willing him to succeed.


There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo.’ Sean walks over to Elijah, grasps him under the arms and hauls him to his feet. ‘And it’s worth fighting for.’


A hushed silence falls when Sean is finished, because they both know that he has done it at last. Relief and joy surge through Elijah, and Sean’s face breaks into a huge smile.


‘Ye-es!’ he exults, raising his hand. Elijah gives him a high five of triumph, and the pages of script that Sean has been holding fall from his hand, scattering across the varnished floorboards like windblown leaves. For some reason, they both find this hilariously funny.


‘Guess that was symbolic!’ Sean laughs. He kneels down and begins to gather them up again.


Elijah kneels beside him. ‘Who needs the fucking script now?’ he says happily. ‘You totally nailed it. Sam’s big moment, and you did it proud.’


Sean glances over at him; his eyes are a warm and deep green. ‘Do you have any idea how truly remarkable you are, Elijah?’ he asks. He huffs, a small sound of wonder and disbelief. ‘How many actors would be so generous in your place? So willing to give center stage to someone else?’


‘Would you please shut up, Astin?’ Embarrassed, Elijah ducks his head, and reaches for a piece of paper.


Sean just gives him a knowing smile, and straightens the papers in his hands, tapping them lightly against the floor to neaten the edges. 


But Elijah doesn’t see that knowing smile. He’s staring curiously at the paper he just picked up, for it’s not from the movie script, but from a book: a photocopied page with a few lines highlighted in day-glo yellow. From the letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is scrawled at the top in Sean’s distinctive handwriting.


Sitting back on his heels, Elijah quickly scans the page. The letter is from Tolkien to his son Michael, he discovers, and he wonders why Sean has it with him. His eyes are irresistibly drawn to the highlighted section, and the words leap out at him: Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to.


In an instant, his euphoria has vanished, snuffed out like a candle. A sick sensation rises in its place. Galadriel’s Mirror has lied, and if there is any beginning going on here, it’s the beginning of the end, the death knell to the fragile hopes he’d been nursing. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.


Elijah had come to believe that in Sean he had found his soul-mate, but it seems clear now that Sean will never reciprocate. Perhaps that is what he wants to discuss with Elijah. Perhaps he has known all along how Elijah feels, and now he will give him to understand the futility of wanting a man who already has found his soul-mate in his wife.


The words begin to swim and blur, as if he’s taken out his contacts. Fuck this, he scolds himself fiercely. Crying won’t solve anything, Elwood. Besides, you always suspected it was an impossible dream.


‘Elijah?’


He jerks his head up to find Sean staring at him. There is no fucking way he can disguise his distress. It’s written all over him in day-glo letters a mile high.


‘Lij, what is it? What’s wrong?’ Sean slides closer on his knees, puts a supportive arm around Elijah’s shoulders. ‘Are you ill?’


Elijah is tempted to seize on the excuse Sean is offering, but he can’t bring himself to do it. For answer, he holds out the piece of paper. ‘I found this,’ he says, and is proud of the steadiness of his voice.


Sean takes the letter. A look of puzzlement crosses his face. ‘This is what upset you? But…’ And then understanding dawns, and compassion fills his eyes. Elijah’s hands rest limply on his thighs. He’s stripped bare before the man he loves, defenseless, but Sean is the kindest person he knows. He’ll let Elijah down as gently as he can.


‘I’m sorry,’ Sean begins, and despite himself, Elijah winces. Sean’s arm tightens. ‘No, you misunderstand me, Elijah. I’m sorry you found this, but only because you leaped to a conclusion that you shouldn’t have.’


It’s absurd, how quickly hope can stir to life in the ashes. ‘What do you mean?’ Elijah asks.


‘This,’ Sean holds up the letter, ‘is what I wanted to talk you to about. Elijah, while we were home in the states, I missed you so much. Yeah, I know we saw each other during the Fellowship junkets, but it wasn’t the same.’


‘It wasn’t the same for me either,’ Elijah admits. ‘I missed you like hell.’


‘I don’t know how many times a day I’d turn my head as if expecting to see you right behind me,’ Sean continues softly. ‘How many times I wished you were there to talk to. I got so used to you being there for me every day. I tried to convince myself that after a while I’d adjust, that it was just going to take time. But instead of missing you less, I only missed you more and more. When we came back to New Zealand… god, it felt like coming home again, because you were here.’


‘And this?’ Elijah gestures at the piece of paper, afraid to believe, despite the evidence, that Sean is leading up to a declaration of love. Good friends can feel that way about each other, can’t they? It doesn’t have to mean erotic love. Look at Frodo and Sam. ‘Where does this fit in, Sean?’


‘I was searching through Tolkien’s letters on the plane flight, trying to find some of the things he wrote about Sam. I figured it couldn’t hurt, and might help me with that speech, help me to find my Sam voice again. But instead I stumbled over a letter he wrote to his son on the topic of marriage, and ever since, I haven’t been able to erase these words from my mind: But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.


‘You mean Christine.’ It’s hard, but Elijah manages to keep his voice level.


‘No, I don’t mean, Christine,’ Sean says steadily. ‘I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors about us, that we’ve separated?’ Elijah nods. ‘They’re true.’


‘Oh god, I’m so sorry.’ Guilt sweeps over Elijah, because he likes Chris and adores their daughter Alexandra, and divorces, as he knows from personal experience, are hard on everyone, especially children.


‘Please don’t be, Lij.’ Sean shakes his head in negation. ‘We’d been growing apart for some time, and we both knew it. This would have happened eventually. Meeting you only hastened the inevitable.’


He sets down the letter, and shifts around on his knees until he is facing Elijah squarely. He holds out his hands and Elijah takes them. They are cold and trembling slightly. Elijah grips them tightly, and meets the painful honesty in Sean’s hazel eyes without flinching. They rise slowly to their knees, face to face, hands clasped.


‘The truth is,’ Sean goes on softly, ‘you’re my real soul-mate, Elijah, and if I feel married to anyone, in the deepest and most profound way, it’s you.’


‘Sean, I don’t think that’s what Tolkien meant,’ Elijah says, but he’s flying higher than a kite, because there’s no doubt left in his mind or heart now; whatever Tolkien meant, Sean is his.


‘The man was a genius, but even he couldn’t always be right,’ Sean replies on a shaky laugh, and he gives an impatient tug on Elijah’s hands. He falls against Sean, pulling his hands free so they can brace against his shoulders and then, as their mouths meet in a hungry slanting kiss, slide under his shirt to caress the warm bare skin he has longed to touch.


‘You know,’ Elijah says, panting a little as he rests his forehead against Sean’s chest, ‘we’ve spent much too much time on our knees playing hobbits, and this floor is fucking hard. Can we continue this in a bed?’


‘You won’t get an argument from me.’ Sean helps Elijah to his feet a second time, and hesitates. ‘Not that I had any ulterior motive in going away with you,’ he says, ‘but in case you’re wondering, I came prepared.’


‘Not that I had any ulterior motive in suggesting we go away together,’ Elijah replies with a smile, ‘but in case you’re wondering, so did I.’


________________________________________



‘It’s still here,’ Elijah remarks, taking a yellowed piece of paper from the nightstand drawer.


‘Of course it is. What could possibly happen to it?’ Sean asks.


‘I don’t know. We only make it down to the cottage twice a year if we’re lucky. I suppose it could get chewed up by mice or something.’


‘They wouldn’t dare.’


Elijah is grinning as he climbs into the bed and settles on his side so Sean can spoon around him. He unfolds the paper, and together they study it, Sean’s chin resting on his shoulder. The print has faded to near illegibility, and the day-glo highlighting is completely gone. But it doesn’t matter; they know the words it contains by heart.


‘I guess we proved Tolkien wrong, huh?’ Elijah says smugly, as he does every time they visit the small, secluded cottage perched above Hawkes Bay. The cottage that belongs to them now.


‘Or right.’ Sean always argues the point. ‘Considering we’ve been married for nearly fifty years.’


‘Fifty years,’ Elijah marvels. ‘How can that possibly be true, Sean? It seems like only yesterday we arrived in New Zealand.’


‘Maybe it was only yesterday,’ Sean says, stroking Elijah’s soft cheek tenderly with the back of his fingers. ‘I swear, you don’t look a single day older than when we starting filming, Lij. No wonder that cab driver thought he recognized you, Mr. Frodo.’


‘His grandfather probably worked as an extra on the movies, and showed him pictures of me when he was a kid,’ Elijah jokes. ‘But you know, when we’re here at the cottage, I can almost believe we’ve traveled back in time.’


He smiles over his shoulder at Sean. His partner’s full thick hair is nearly white now, and the lines at the corners of those beautiful hazel eyes are deeply graven. But to Elijah’s loving gaze, he is still the same Sean Astin he fell in love with all those years ago. He carefully folds the fragile, faded paper and sets it on top of the nightstand. He has been remembering their first kiss, the hardness of the wood floor beneath his knees, and what came after… the beginning of all things. The union of two real soul-mates. Elijah turns in Sean’s arms and pulls him close.


Time stands still.


~end~