Written for the Cotton Candy Bingo prompt: Snow/Blizzard and inspired by the Imagineyourotp prompt:
Imagine your otp, whilst not in a relationship, going to a hotel after a long road trip and finding out there’s only one room left, with 1 small double bed in.
Most people spent that Christmas morning with their families, opening presents beside a gaily decorated tree. Sean Astin spent that Christmas morning alone, handcuffed naked to a bed in a hotel room in Silt, Colorado.
It all started as a routine job for a bail bondsman named Viggo Mortensen. He called Sean after a kid arrested for drug possession jumped bail and skipped town. Yadda yadda, piece of cake. Sean could nab skips like that in his sleep.
This particular fugitive from justice, a twenty-two year old named Elijah Wood, got further than most, though. All the way from warm, sunny Venice Beach, California, to frigid, snowy Des Moines, Iowa, before Sean caught up with him. At which point Sean was cranky and pissed. It was December 24th, and he should have been home in LA preparing to do what normal people did at this time of year, that is, spending the holiday with his family, instead of driving half way across the country after a skip. He hadn't even had a chance to finish his Christmas shopping, for fuck's sake. The only consolation was that it didn't end up being a wild goose chase or an exercise in futility, as sometimes happened. The life of a bounty hunter was neither easy nor predictable.
Sean had arrived at the Greyhound terminal in Des Moines at five o'clock in the morning, a good hour before the bus supposedly carrying his skip was due to arrive. He was ready and waiting when the door opened to disgorge a slight young man wearing jeans, a too-thin-for-the-weather black leather jacket, and carrying an old army-green duffel bag.
"Elijah Wood?" Sean asked, striding quickly up to him. The element of surprise worked, as it usually did. The kid instinctively turned toward him at the sound of his name, even though he'd booked his ticket under a fake moniker. Not that there was any doubt about his identity, even without the giveaway reaction. Sean had a thick file containing several photos of Elijah Wood, and his face was, in a word, unforgettable.
Too late the kid realized his error; before he could take a single step, Sean nabbed him. He flashed his badge at him and said in his most authoritative voice, "Sean Astin, bail enforcement agent. I have a warrant for your arrest." Then he whipped out his handcuffs and slapped them on the kid's wrists.
Sean paid no attention whatsoever to the startled looks and the shocked whispers of the people around them as he cuffed him. Not because he was immune to startled looks and shocked whispers after so many years as a bounty hunter, although he definitely was, but because up close and personal Elijah Wood was the most gorgeous skip Sean had ever seen in a long and checkered career, with eyes like dew-drenched morning glories, skin like a rose petal, and a mouth that could tempt a man to forget all about his professional ethics and indulge his most sinful thoughts. And boy, did Sean have sinful thoughts, crowding thick and fast into his brain like whipped cream covering a Belgian waffle. Which pissed him off even more. He needed this complication like a hole in the head.
The kid also turned out to be a better actor than most. When he stopped struggling, after Sean casually drew back his ski parka to reveal the holstered gun beneath it, he turned those ridiculous eyes on Sean and said, "Please let me go. I didn't do it, I swear." Well, if Sean had a dollar for every skip who claimed not to have done it, he could have retired years ago. But damned if he didn't almost believe the kid. And that pissed Sean off more than everything else. He was no wet behind the ears chump, to be taken in by a pair of innocent seeming big Bambi eyes, goddamn it.
"Tell it to the judge," Sean said sourly. "When we get back to California."
"But my grandfather is on the way from Cedar Rapids to pick me up," the kid protested.
"Is he? Well, he's destined to be disappointed when he gets here then," Sean said, and thanked his lucky stars that he'd beaten grandpa to the punch. Interfering relations were a bounty hunter's worst nightmare.
He bent to retrieve the kid's bag that had fallen to the ground, picked it up in one hand, and with the other frog-marched Elijah Wood through the frigid pre-dawn darkness to where his Jeep Wrangler was parked. Sean opened the trunk and tossed the duffel bag in, all the while keeping a death grip on Elijah's elbow. In Sean's experience, you couldn't trust skips as far as you could throw them. Desperation made desperadoes of even the mildest seeming people. He slammed the trunk shut then opened the passenger door, thrust Elijah into the seat and said, "This door doesn't open from the inside, in case you get any funny ideas."
"That's not necessary," Elijah protested. "I'm not crazy, you know."
"And I'm not trusting. I once had a skip jump out of my car when I was driving 65 mph down the highway."
"Did he die?"
"No, but he wished he had. It wasn't pretty, let me tell you."
"And I need you to give me your cellphone, if you have one." Sean held out an imperative hand. "No calling or texting grandpa, or anyone else, on the sly."
"But..." It was apparent that that was exactly what the kid had in mind.
"Your phone. Now." Sean's voice was implacable, and reluctantly Elijah drew an iPhone out of his coat pocket and placed it on Sean's palm. "Anything else I should know about? Guns? Knives? Drugs? I can pat you down and search your bag, but I'd prefer not to." The last thing he needed was to touch this too-attractive skip, even in a business-like manner.
"No, there's nothing like that," Elijah said.
"That better be the truth," Sean warned him.
"It is. And I don't do drugs," he added defiantly.
"Like I said, tell it to the judge." Sean turned off the kid's iPhone, pocketed it and shut the car door, but didn't immediately go round to the driver's side. He pulled out his own iPhone and made two calls. First he called Viggo's office and left a message that he'd apprehended the skip, and then he called the LAPD to let them know he would be bringing Elijah in. "I should deliver him by noon tomorrow," he said. He'd already decided to drive straight through without stopping anywhere for the night. He felt a nigh overwhelming urgency to get back to California asap. Why exactly that was didn't bear close examination, but it had nothing to do with his mother's famous Christmas lasagna.
When Sean got in the Jeep, Elijah was huddled in the passenger seat, shivering. Sean squelched a surge of pity for the kid and started the car; tepid air streamed out of the vents. "It should warm up in here pretty soon," he said, putting his hand on the gear shift.
"What about my seat belt?" Elijah asked. "I can't fasten it with my hands cuffed." He raised his bound wrists from his lap as evidence.
"If you try anything, I'll hogtie you and stick you in the back. The way back. Capisce?" Sean leaned over, grabbed the belt buckle and pulled it across the kid's chest and lap. Shit. He shouldn't be noticing the bulge at the juncture of his thighs, the shape of his cock hinted at under faded denim. He shouldn't be noticing the scent of him, the best scent to Sean's mind: simply soap, shampoo and a trace of musky sweat. Oh, this was bad. Maybe he should make the kid ride in the way back, for his own peace of mind. He shoved the metal tongue into the slot until it clicked and then quickly sat back.
"Who are you?" Elijah asked as Sean put the car in gear and pulled out of the Greyhound station parking lot, the tires crunching over a layer of recently fallen snow. "I mean, why did you come after me?"
Because God has a sick sense of humor, Sean was tempted to say. "I was hired by your bail bondsman, Viggo Mortensen, to bring you in. The paperwork is all in order, in case you're wondering." He indicated an accordion file resting on the console between them.
"You mean you're a bounty hunter?" There was a note almost of awe in Elijah's voice.
Sean restrained himself from rolling his eyes, but with difficulty. People tended to have wildly romanticized and totally inaccurate ideas about a bounty hunter's existence, based on movies and television. They assumed it was an action-packed, thrill-a-minute profession, when in reality it mostly involved hours of tedious computer research, visits to the skip's friends and relatives to try and schmooze them into divulging his or her whereabouts (schmoozing being a specialty of Sean's), and even more hours spent in a car, doing surveillance or driving to godforsaken places like Des Moines, Iowa.
He didn't disabuse Elijah of his notion, however. A little awe was no bad thing when dealing with a skip, in his experience. "Got it in one, kid," was all he said. "Although we prefer 'bail enforcement agent' to 'bounty hunter'."
Elijah replied with some heat, "I'm not a kid. I'm twenty-two, almost twenty-three."
"Yeah? You look about sixteen."
"Well, I'm not. And I'm not guilty, Sean. I swear. I was set up by a friend of mine. Or, someone who used to be a friend of mine. Someone I thought was a friend of mine."
Sean glanced over at him. Those Bambi eyes were fixed on him, pleading with him to believe. "If you're not guilty, then you have nothing to worry about." It was a standard line and one he didn't entirely buy, the criminal justice system being the flawed instrument that it was. But he also believed firmly in upholding the law, however flawed the system for enforcing it. "Besides, running from your problems never solves anything," he added. "The wheels of justice might grind slowly, but they get there eventually. They always catch up, no matter how fast you run."
"You don't understand..." Elijah began, but Sean interrupted him.
"No, I don't. And I don't want to. Let's get something straight, ki- Elijah. My job is to apprehend you and bring you in. That's it. I won't discuss your case with you. I'm not your attorney. Save the explanation for him or her."
"But..." Elijah tried again.
"Listen, you want to talk about the weather? Fine. You want to talk about your favorite books or movies? Great. Hell, even politics and religion aren't off limits. We can talk about anything you want - except for your case."
Out of the corner of his eye, Sean saw Elijah slump back against his seat, defeated. He firmly squelched another surge of pity for the kid. A bounty hunter who let his emotions interfere with his work didn't last long in the profession, as he constantly warned the newbies he trained. Emotional involvement led to sloppy work and foolish mistakes, after which one of two things inevitably followed: unemployment or death.
"Look," Sean went on, gruffly but not unkindly, "we have a long drive ahead of us. Twenty-four hours at least, possibly longer depending on the weather. We may run into snow west of Denver if the forecast is accurate. So let's try and make the time pass with as little pain for either of us as we can, okay? Spirit of Christmas and all that."
Elijah slowly nodded his assent. "Can I at least call my grandfather to let him know I'm okay? He'll be worried when he arrives and I'm not there. And then he'll call my mom and she'll freak out."
"Maybe you should have thought of that before you jumped bail," commented Sean.
Elijah said nothing. When Sean glanced at him, he was staring down at his cuffed hands, looking young and very vulnerable, and Sean had a sinking sensation that he was about to cry. Fuck, but he hated it when skips cried. He'd take kicking, screaming and curses over tears any day, especially when he was already inclined to like the skip, as in this case. At heart, he felt sorry for anyone who saw no option but to cut and run, and though he'd learned to put on a tough, no-nonsense face to do his job, it wasn't always easy.
Hoping to avert the imminent waterworks, he said, "You can call your grandfather a little later. I want to put some space between us and Des Moines first. I had to bust my ass to get here before your bus and I'm not anxious to pick up a tail on the way back to LA."
"How did you find me anyway?" Elijah asked, his voice only a little wobbly. "I didn't use my real name to book my bus ticket."
"No, you used your mother's maiden name. A cardinal error. It stuck out like a sore thumb when I checked the passenger lists. And then there was the little matter of that ATM withdrawal you made at the bank across the street from the terminal in LA. It was easy enough to put two and two together after that."
"Oh." Elijah sounded deflated. "I thought I was being so clever..."
"You made it all the way to Des Moines before I caught up to you. That's better than most skips manage."
"But not good enough," Elijah said bitterly. "Some fucking Christmas this is going to be."
"Cheer up. You're young; there will be plenty of other Christmases. And like I said, if you're really innocent, you have nothing to worry about. How about we listen to some music?" Sean figured it was time to change the subject before Elijah launched into another impassioned 'I'm innocent, I swear' declaration.
Sean turned on the radio. It was tuned to a local country music station, as Sean had needed to listen to something while he waited for the bus to arrive, and Elijah made an inarticulate noise that definitely meant 'ugh'. "Not your cup of tea?"
"Afraid not. Can I pick a different station?"
"Sure thing. I'm easy. About music at least."
Elijah reached out with his cuffed hands and fiddled with the scan button. Sean noticed how ragged the cuticles around his nail beds were, as if he gnawed on them. A definite sign of stress and worry. But Sean hardened his heart again, refusing to let the kid slip past his defenses. Some fucking Christmas this was going to be, indeed.
"They don't have a single music station worth a shit here," Elijah said in disgust after going through the entire FM range, and finally settling for a classic rock station, playing a mix of rock and Christmas music.
"Well, you're the one that chose to get off in Des Moines," Sean replied unsympathetically. "Anyway, we won't be here long. Soon as we hit I-80, I'm putting the pedal to the metal. By law I have forty-eight hours to turn you over to the authorities, but I intend to do it a lot sooner."
"What happens if you don't turn me over in time?" Elijah asked.
I don't get paid. "Not an option, so don't get your hopes up. We'll make it, easy."
Sean should have known better than to wave such a big, juicy carrot in the nose of Fate.
"So I went into the chicken coop with my flashlight, and sure enough, there the skip was, crammed into one of the cages."
"No fucking way," Elijah exclaimed. "You can't be serious."
"Yep, and when he saw me, what do you think he did? He started clucking like a hen."
Elijah burst into hysterical giggles. "H-He th-thought you'd mistake him f-for a ch-chicken?" he gasped. "Oh Sean, that's the funniest story I've ever heard."
"First time I've ever cuffed poultry and brought it in," joked Sean, and listened to another cascade of giggles, a sound, he was discovering, to which he could listen ad infinitum and never grow weary.
They were wending their way west along I-70 through the Rockies, having left Denver behind, and it was late afternoon and the sun had gone down. They'd been on the road for just over eleven hours, stopping twice to fill the Wrangler with gas and hit up a drive-through McDonald's (it was amazing how sustaining giant cups of coffee, Big Macs and fries were) and twice at highway rest areas to take a bathroom break. Sean had allowed Elijah out of the Jeep only for the latter stops, keeping a watchful eye on him lest he get any cute ideas about making a run for it.
In truth, though, Elijah seemed resigned to his fate, and gave Sean no trouble. Well, no trouble of the cutting-and-running kind. But he was causing Sean no end of other kinds of trouble, ones involving his heart, his libido and his conscience in (more or less) equal proportions. Possibly his libido was winning by a small margin, but somewhere along I-80 between Kearney and North Platte, Nebraska, Sean came to the realization that Elijah Wood (alleged drug possession aside) was the complete package: gorgeous, smart, funny, thoughtful, and nice. And, to all appearances, honest as the day was long.
Sean had learned the basic facts about his skip from the information Viggo had given him when he hired him and from his subsequent skip tracing before leaving for Des Moines. Elijah interned at the Geffen Theater in LA and had majored in theater arts at USC. He did some modeling on the side. He had a younger sister, an older brother, and his parents were divorced. He had an apartment in Venice Beach and frequently visited his mother, who lived in Santa Monica. His father, from whom he was estranged, lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as did his maternal grandparents, from whom he was clearly not estranged, since he'd chosen to run to them when he jumped bail.
But that was merely the skeleton, the framework upon which Elijah Wood was fashioned. What counted was the rest, the intangible qualities that filled in the framework and made him the person he was. A wholly admirable person, from what Sean could see, and that decided him, at their first pit stop, to remove Elijah's handcuffs.
"Hold out your wrists," he said, taking the key from his pocket. "I'm going to take off your cuffs."
"You are? Why?" Elijah asked in surprise.
"For one thing I know they're uncomfortable, and for another you've earned it."
Elijah extended his arms. "Thank you," he said gratefully. "They are uncomfortable."
"Don't make me regret it," Sean warned. He removed the cuffs and reattached them to his belt for easy access if necessary.
"I won't, I promise," replied Elijah, rubbing at the red marks on his wrists.
Sean had an impulse to raise a wrist to his lips and soothe those marks with kisses. Shit. Shit shit shit.
Some hours later at their second pit stop, he returned Elijah's iPhone long enough for him to call his grandfather. It was, as might have been expected, a difficult, painful call, and Sean braced himself for the flow of tears. But Elijah surprised him. "Granddad, maybe it's better this way," he said softly. "I couldn't have run forever. It was foolish to think I could run at all, and I should never have involved you and Grandma. I'm sorry. Please tell Mom I love her and not to worry, and I'll be in touch as soon as I can, okay?"
Elijah rung off and held the phone out to Sean, and his eyes, though overly bright, were dry and his hand steady. He had some strength to him, did Elijah Wood, thought Sean, impressed. He'd listened to many such conversations, and that was not how they usually went. People were more like to think of themselves not others, to curse and cast blame on Sean and the system and rail against fate for treating them so shitty.
As he accepted the phone from Elijah, Sean realized that this was, in a weird way, turning into the best Christmas Eve he had ever spent. And simultaneously the most frightening, because he found himself thinking that there was simply no way someone so transparently honest and sincere could be guilty of any crime. It made him, for the first time ever, reluctant to do his job.
When they got back on the road, Sean reminded himself that his job took precedence over anything else, including his feelings for his skip - and that he had feelings - unexpected, wonderful, scary feelings - was undeniable. He was falling for Elijah Wood, and falling harder with every mile that passed. At thirty-two, Sean had about given up on finding real, lasting love in his life, and never had he ever imagined finding it in a skip, of all things.
Of course, that was making the giant assumption that the skip felt the same, but Sean was no fool nor was he inexperienced, and it was patently obvious that the attraction was not one-sided. There were too many distracted silences when he felt Elijah's luminous blue eyes on him like a lover's first tentative caress for him to be mistaken. Under any other circumstances, the knowledge would have filled Sean with elation; instead it had him pushing the Wrangler harder, the sooner to put temptation out of reach. Because a part of him wished that their journey might never end, wished that they were simply a couple taking a holiday road trip for fun, and such thinking was dangerous, and exactly what he warned others about.
Sean was being put to the test at last, and he feared to fail it.
As they were still laughing over the chicken coop story, Sean noticed the first swirling white flakes settling gently on the windshield. "Here's the snow," he remarked cheerfully. "Looks like we'll have a white Christmas Eve at least."
"Cool," replied Elijah. "I love snow. Have you ever been skiing?"
"Sure, plenty of times," Sean said, and they fell into a discussion of their favorite places to ski.
As they continued on, the snowfall intensified, and even with four-wheel drive Sean was gradually forced to slow down nearly to a crawl. The wind, always present in the mountain passes, rose to a banshee howl and shook the Jeep like a cat with a hapless mouse.
This was no mere snowstorm, Sean soon realized, his cheerfulness vanishing. They'd driven straight into a blizzard.
Sean climbed back in the car, stripped off his gloves, and held his pink, tingling fingers in front of the heating vent. "Shit," he swore. "I can't keep doing this. My fingers are turning numb even with gloves. We've got to find a place to stop for the night, Elijah."
He put the Jeep in gear and crept back onto the highway, peering intently through the windshield. The visibility was practically zero now, wind-driven snow swirling thick and fast in the amber glow of the headlights. What he could see of the road ahead showed only faint tire tracks from some other vehicle trying to traverse the Rockies in a blizzard. Even with the Wrangler's reliable four-wheel drive, it was hazardous going, and Sean was all too well aware that there were steep ravines on either side of the highway and only low guard rails between them and certain death.
The windshield wipers were doing their game best, but the snow and ice outpaced their ability to keep the windshield clear. Sean had already stopped several times to clean the blades of encrusted ice that had defeated the defroster. The storm was close to defeating Sean, too. If he couldn't see, he couldn't drive, and if he couldn't drive, they were fucked.
From thinking that it was the best Christmas Eve he'd ever spent, Sean started to wonder if it would end up being the last Christmas Eve he ever spent. Were these his just desserts for getting emotionally involved with a skip, as he'd repeatedly warned others against doing? Oh, life was filled with delicious ironies, he thought grimly as he hunched his tense shoulders and willed the next exit to appear. No fucking way was he stopping until they made it to the exit and found a hotel. He didn't intend to freeze to death inside his car, or watch Elijah do the same.
"The last road sign said five miles to the exit for Silt. How much farther do you think we have to go?" Elijah asked.
"Too far. But we'll make it, if I have to get out and push the goddamn car," Sean replied grimly.
"I'm..." Elijah began.
Sean cut him off. "If you say 'I'm sorry' one more time, Elijah, I'll make you get out and push the goddamn car." It was novel, having a skip apologize for the inconvenience Sean was being put to, but it wasn't helping matters any.
And then Elijah said excitedly, "Sean, look. I think that's an exit sign." He pointed.
Sean squinted hard and just discerned a dark rectangular shape ahead on their right. A few seconds later, luminous white letters partially obscured by snow sprang to life in the headlights. 9th St, 1/2 mile. "Thank god," he said fervently. Maybe this wasn't going to be one of life's delicious ironies after all, if he could manage to drive one-half mile further.
Sweating and swearing and praying, Sean did it. The Jeep fishtailed as he drove it down the icy exit ramp, but they made it safely to the bottom, where a cluster of smaller blue signs pointed to nearby gas stations, restaurants and, hallelujah, a hotel called the Red River Inn.
Sean turned right, and there, barely a stone's throw from the exit, was the hotel. He didn't care if it turned out to be the fleabag joint of all fleabag joints. To his bleary, burning eyes it resembled the Taj Mahal. He pulled up to the entrance, parked, and slumped, exhausted, over the steering wheel.
"Well, we made it," he said, sitting up straight. "I'm going to go inside and get us a room. You wait here."
"You're not afraid I'm going to take off?" Elijah asked. It was the first time in hours that either had alluded to the reason they were together.
Sean cracked open the door. A gust of bitter cold wind mixed with snow blew inside the Jeep's warm interior. "Be my guest," he said ironically, and got out.
He didn't waste any time but hustled inside the hotel. As he did, he noticed that the parking lot was pretty well full with cars and semis. More refugees from the storm, most likely. He hoped that didn't mean the hotel was full, but he'd settle for a seat in the lobby if he had to. It was now ten o'clock, and almost sixteen hours since they'd left Des Moines. The strain of the last few hours' difficult driving through the blizzard had taken its toll. Sean felt completely wrecked and ready to crash.
The hotel lobby was brightly lit, clean, warm and welcoming, and smelled wonderfully of spiced cider. A large, beautifully decorated Christmas tree stood off to one side and the Carol of the Bells was playing softly in the background. Not the Taj Mahal, maybe, but no roach motel either, thought Sean. He crossed to the reception desk and rang the service bell. A holly painted bowl of red and green Hershey's Kisses sat on the counter, and Sean took one. After the day they'd had so far, he needed chocolate - badly.
As he unwrapped the Kiss, Sean's eyes fell on a sign posted on the wall behind the reception desk. Manager On Duty: K. Kringle, it said, and Sean grinned. Someone at the Red River Inn had a sense of humor, it seemed. He popped the chocolate in his mouth, and moments later a portly middle-aged man with bright blue eyes, ruddy cheeks and a bushy white beard appeared. He was wearing a red plaid flannel shirt, suspenders and a Santa hat, and looked for all the world like Santa Claus in the off season.
"Kris Kringle, I presume?" Sean said, and the man laughed, a full, rich laugh that almost sounded like 'ho-ho-ho'.
"That's right," he said, his eyes twinkling. "Now, how can I help you?"
"I need a room for the night," Sean said. "Non-smoking if you have it."
"Well, the Inn is pretty full up, thanks to the weather," said Kris, and Sean's heart sank, only to rise when he added, "But as it happens you're in luck: I've got exactly one room left and it is non-smoking."
"I'll take it." Sean pulled out his wallet, found his credit card and set it on the desk with alacrity. He wasn't taking any chances, even though the lobby was empty save for him and 'Kris Kringle'.
"If you'll just fill out this card for me, please," Kris said, sliding a registration card and a Bic pen toward him. Sean quickly scribbled the required information on the white card and returned it. Kris looked it over and said, "That'll be $56 plus tax." He ran Sean's credit card through the machine and added, "The room has a refrigerator and a microwave and free wifi if you need it."
"Sounds great," Sean said, although the only amenity he cared about was a bed on which to collapse. "Any idea how long this storm is likely to last?"
"Should be over well before daybreak," Kris replied. "The towns hereabouts do a fine job of clearing the roads, so no worries if you're looking to be on your way bright and early tomorrow."
"I'm relieved to hear it. I do need to get back in California as soon as possible." For the sake of my own sanity.
The manager handed Sean the credit card slip and he signed it while an old dot matrix printer clattered in the background, printing his receipt. Kris removed the receipt, folded the serrated strips on either side and tore them off, talking all the while. "We serve a complimentary continental breakfast from six a.m. to ten a.m., Mr. Astin, in that room through there." He gestured to a doorway on his left. "If you'd like some mulled cider and fresh-baked cookies, go on and help yourself. But if a hot meal is what you're looking for, the Red Brick restaurant is open til eleven and serves an excellent barbecue. Just drive back up the road to the exit and you'll see it."
He dropped the strips in the trash and turned to a rack behind him, lifting a key with a green plastic tag from one of the hooks. "You'll be in Room 111. That's on the far right end of the building. If you park down there you'll find a door you can use so you don't have to traipse through the lobby."
"Thanks," Sean said, taking the key, his credit card and the receipt.
"You and your friend enjoy your stay, Mr. Astin," said Kris, his bright blue eyes twinkling again, "and a very Merry Christmas to you both."
"Same to you," replied Sean, and though it wasn't likely that either he or Elijah were going to have a Merry Christmas, yet somehow his spirits had lifted. Must be the decorations and the music, he thought as he went into the room Kris had indicated to get cider and cookies. The thought of some excellent barbecue and a couple of beers was tempting, but the thought of driving further than the end of the building was not. The cider and cookies would have tide him and Elijah over until morning. Anyway, eating frugally now meant he'd have more room for his mom's Christmas dinner tomorrow night. A sudden image of Elijah, sitting in a holding cell while Sean feasted and made merry with his family, sprang into his mind, and his briefly raised spirits plummeted like an avalanche of snow.
As he filled two Styrofoam cups with cider and a paper plate with sugar cookies and iced gingerbread men, it never occurred to him to wonder how 'Kris Kringle' knew he wasn't alone.
Sean pushed open the door to the hotel room and stared in dismay. As hotel rooms went this one was pretty typical. It was small, but clean and neat, and as promised free of the reek of stale cigarette smoke. A microwave and mini-fridge sat on a low dresser opposite the bed, along with a decent sized television. But ah, there was the rub and the cause of Sean's dismay. The bed. The only bed. Worse, a double bed, not even a queen much less a king. Oh shit. Oh shit.
"I guess it's better than a stable," Sean remarked as he ushered Elijah inside and then closed and locked the door behind them, sliding the security chain into place. He set down his small suitcase and briefcase beside Elijah's duffel bag and said, "Do you prefer sleeping on the right side or the left?" What the fuck, best to confront the awkward situation straight away.
"I can sleep on the floor," Elijah said, putting their cider and the cookie plate on the microwave.
"No, you can't. You're a skip, and I'm tired and I'm a heavy sleeper. You're sleeping in the bed with me and we're going to be cuffed together. I'm not risking you taking off on me or pulling my gun on me." Sean spoke harshly to cover the discomfort he felt. "I'm sorry, but that's how it has to be."
Elijah flinched as if Sean had struck him. "I thought you trusted me now, Sean."
"I can't afford to take a chance, Elijah."
"Oh right, I forgot," Elijah said scornfully. "I'm worth money to you. You won't get paid if I get away."
He probably deserved Elijah's scorn, but as he'd already decided not to take a penny for the job, it stung. "I was hired to do a job, and I intend to do it. Later..."
Elijah cut in angrily, "You mean when I'm serving time for a crime I didn't commit and my life is fucking destroyed, you'll come and visit me in jail? Gee, thanks."
"Elijah," Sean said urgently. "Please, don't."
"Go to hell," Elijah spat, and then he sank down on the end of the bed and buried his head in his hands. "Why did you have to come after me? Why did it have to be you?"
Any shred of doubt Sean had left that Elijah, too, had undergone a cataclysmic change over the course of their journey, vanished. Acting on impulse, he sat down beside Elijah and put an arm around him. "I wish I could say I'm sorry. But I can't," he said soberly.
"I can't either. I should, but I can't." Almost in resignation, Elijah rested his head against Sean's shoulder. They sat together in a fragile silence for a minute and then Elijah said in a small voice, "Sean, I'm scared. I'm so fucking scared. It's the reason I ran. I don't want to go to jail, and what if I can't prove I'm innocent?"
Sean tightened his hold. "I won't let that happen," he said, casting his professional distance to the winds and for the first time ever openly taking sides. He wasn't about to stand by and watch Elijah go down for a crime he didn't commit, and he could no longer believe for a second that Elijah was guilty. "I swear to you, Elijah, I won't let that happen. I'll help you fight this. Fight it and win."
"Oh Sean. Thank you. Thank you for believing me."
Sean could visualize his next move clearly: sliding his fingers under Elijah's chin, lifting it so he could kiss him. He didn't act on it, though. Instead, he leaned forward and plucked a gingerbread man from the plate. "Here, have a cookie."
Elijah took it, broke off a foot and ate it. "I can never bring myself to bite into a gingerman," he said. "I never have, since I was a kid. Silly, huh?"
"No, not silly. Kinda sweet, actually." Sean retrieved their cups of cider and the rest of the cookies and they ate in a companionable silence, the bitterness and anger gone.
"Let's leave this last one for Santa, Sean," Elijah said, when the plate was empty save for a single sugar cookie covered in red and green sprinkles.
"All right," agreed Sean, smiling. "Since the hotel manager is named Kris Kringle, I have high hopes that this cookie will mysteriously disappear during the night."
"Kris Kringle? You're kidding, right?"
"No, I'm serious." Sean explained, and as he hoped, his description of the hotel manager brought a smile to Elijah's face.
"Now I'll be disappointed if it isn't gone when we wake up," Elijah said.
Perhaps it was the mention of waking up that reminded Sean of how badly in need of sleep he was. He yawned. "Sorry, but I'm kind of beat. You ready for bed?"
"Yeah, it's been a long day. Especially for you. Sean, I'm-"
"Uh-uh," Sean said, cutting his apology off at the pass. "Why don't you take the bathroom first?" He got stiffly up, feeling every one of his thirty-two years and then some. He threw the empty cider cups in the trash can and left the single sugar cookie on top of the refrigerator, while Elijah hung his black leather jacket in the closet by the door.
When Elijah had disappeared into the bathroom with his toiletry bag, Sean hung up his own jacket and then removed his gun holster. He emptied the gun of bullets, locked it, and put the bullets in his briefcase and the gun in the bedside table drawer next to Gideon's Bible. A juxtaposition whose irony did not escape him. The handcuffs he placed on the bedside table. Old friends they were that had served him well, but he loathed the sight of them at that moment, and he turned away and busied himself with his suitcase.
"It's all yours," Elijah said a short time later.
Sean was at the window, holding back the curtain to look outside, where it was still snowing heavily and a ghostly shroud of white covered everything in sight. He let the curtain drop and turned around, and his breath caught, although there was nothing in the least outwardly erotic about how Elijah looked. He was simply a young man in a white tee shirt and green plaid boxer briefs, with his face freshly scrubbed and a distinct odor of toothpaste hanging about him. But to Sean's eyes, he was beyond desirable.
"Has the snow slacked off at all?" Elijah asked, kneeling to place his folded jeans, shirt and socks in the duffel bag.
Sean cleared his throat and dragged his gaze away from the flex of muscles in Elijah's legs, thin legs but shapely. "Not yet. It's still coming down like a son of a bitch. But Kris assured me it will stop well before morning and they'll have the highway cleared asap." He picked up his own toiletry bag and went into the bathroom. He left the door slightly ajar and positioned himself so that he could see if Elijah went past. Old habits died hard. This wasn't the first time he'd been forced to share a room with a skip.
"Do you mind if I watch the TV?" Elijah called.
"Be my guest," Sean said, turning on the tap. While he adjusted the water to the right temperature, he examined his face in the mirror. He looked like hell. His eyes were bloodshot, and he badly needed a shave. But that would have to wait until morning. He washed his face, brushed his teeth, and stripped down to tee shirt and boxers like Elijah.
"This is really strange, Sean," Elijah said when he came out. "Every station is playing the same thing: the Yule log. Look." He was sitting on the left side of the bed, propped up against a couple of pillows, and held the remote in one hand. He pointed it at the TV and started scrolling through the stations, and each and every one showed an image of a log burning merrily in a hearth while Christmas music played.
"Must be a western Colorado thing," Sean said, shrugging.
"I guess. Sure is weird, though."
"I'm too tired to be puzzled by anything right now, to be honest." Sean put away his clothes, shut his suitcase and sank down on the opposite side of the bed, nearest the door. The mattress was barely wide enough for the two of them, though neither was a particularly large guy, and they were sitting so close that Sean could feel the warmth of Elijah's skin. It was a good thing he was so tired, he thought, or it would end up being a very long night.
Elijah had his knees raised and his arms looped around them. He was studiously avoiding looking at Sean, his gaze fixed on the television as though mesmerized by the leaping flames of the Yule log.
"Look," Sean said, "this is awkward as hell for both of us, but I'm dead beat and I have to get some sleep. So let's do what we have to and get it over with."
Without a word Elijah held out his left wrist.
"No, I'm not going to cuff you, Elijah. I know it's not necessary."
"Then what did you mean?" Elijah asked, puzzled.
"I meant, let's get under the covers and turn off the lights. You can leave the TV on if you want. It won't bother me."
"Sean, thank you for trusting me." Elijah's eyes were bright with unshed tears.
Sean shook his head. "Don't thank me. Please." I should be thanking you, he thought, for restoring my faith in humanity.
They folded back the polyester bedspread, a typically garish flower pattern in which hotels seemed to specialize, and then slid under the sheet and beige wool blanket. As they did, their feet accidentally touched, and Elijah jerked his away as if burned.
"Sorry," he said sheepishly.
"It's all right," replied Sean. "I'm going to turn out the light now." He reached out and hit the switch, and the room went dark save for the light from the television screen. Sean settled back and closed his eyes, and within moments fell asleep to Nat King Cole singing Silent Night.
He awoke some time later in a tangle of limbs, with a painful erection and the fading memory of a vivid, intensely erotic dream.
"Mmm," he murmured, instinctively pulling the warm yielding body tangled with his closer and rubbing his aroused cock against a jutting hipbone. Then reality returned with a rush. "Shit!" he exclaimed, realizing exactly where he was and against whom he was rubbing his cock. "God, Elijah, I'm sorry." He tried to pull back, but strong arms and stronger legs held him in place, and he became aware of an answering heat burning against his belly.
The television was still on, and in the ruddy light of the faux flames, he saw Elijah watching him, his eyes huge and shadowed.
"Elijah, we can't," Sean said, although every fiber of his being yearned to continue what they'd unconsciously begun.
"Why can't we?" Elijah asked. "I want this, and you want it, too." He pushed a hand between them, found Sean's cock and gripped it through the blue cotton. Sean moaned softly and his cock pulsed in Elijah's fingers. "Don't try and tell me you don't. Your body can't lie."
"Of course I do," Sean said. "God, I've never wanted anything more." He reached for Elijah's hand and gently but firmly pulled it away. He could have wept for the loss. "But I have to turn you over to the police, Elijah, and I don't want to make this any harder on either of us than it's going to be, than it already is."
"Maybe it will make it easier. Did you ever think of that?" Elijah said. "Sean, I don't know what's going to happen. But if I end up going to jail, I'd like to have this memory to take with me. Stop trying to be noble, okay? It's Christmas, and we've been given this unexpected gift. Don't let's throw it away, please."
Sean stared into Elijah's eyes while a furious debate raged in his mind. To give in or to fight. What should he do?
"Will this help you make up your mind?" Elijah asked, and with breathtaking suddenness, he pulled Sean down into a kiss. As their mouths met and meshed, Sean gave up the fight. He pushed Elijah back into the pillows, bracing his forearms on either side of Elijah's head as he deepened the kiss, his tongue eagerly exploring the lush silken heat of Elijah's mouth. Having released his hold on himself, Sean threw himself willingly into the depths, drowning in a sea of erotic bliss unlike anything he'd ever known.
They kicked back the bedcovers, shed their few clothes, and made love with total abandon. When it was over, they fell asleep in each other's arms, and this time it was to Bing Crosby singing White Christmas.
The next time Sean awoke, sunlight was streaming through the partially opened curtains. The television was off, the blizzard was over and it was Christmas day. He felt rested and incredibly relaxed, as if he'd been given the world's best massage while he slept. But some pleasurable aches reminded him that no massage was responsible for his current state of relaxation, and he was smiling as he started to sit up. Until he tried to use his right arm to brace himself, that is, and discovered he couldn't.
His smile froze, and he turned his head to stare with disbelieving eyes at his right wrist. Encircling it was a ring of silver metal, and the other end was attached to the bed frame.
He rattled the handcuff, but it didn't give. "Elijah," he called. "Elijah, are you in the bathroom?" But Elijah didn't answer.
Sean was handcuffed. And he was alone. Elijah had cut and run.
"No. Oh fuck, no," he moaned in despair. Once a few years earlier, a skip had jumped him, and in the ensuing struggle, kicked him hard in the gut. The pain now was exactly the same. No, it was worse. Far worse.
Elijah had betrayed him. He'd played Sean like an expert angler played a trout, and like the fool he was, he'd risen willingly to the bait, taken in by a pair of big blue eyes and a seeming sincerity. He wanted to curse, he wanted to scream, he wanted to kick and punch things. But most of all, he wanted to cry. He lay there, fighting back tears, trying to summon a righteous anger, and failing.
And then he heard a sound like a key turning in a lock, the door opened and Elijah came into the room. He was wearing jeans, a tee shirt and socks, and holding a Styrofoam cup in each hand.
"Oh hey, you're awake," he said. "I didn't mean to be gone so long, but you have no idea how hard it is to find a condom in this place. I finally ended up asking Kris Kringle, which was kind of embarrassing, but he didn't seem to mind and he found me one. You know you're right, he looks exactly like Santa Claus. Oh, and I got us some coffee." He held up the cups. "We can heat it up in the microwave if it gets cold."
Sean was dumbfounded, his brain in a total whirl. "I thought you'd gone," he finally said. "Cut and run."
Elijah's face fell. "Oh shit. I'm sorry. I guess I should have left you a note or something. But I really didn't think I'd be gone more than a few minutes and you were still sound asleep." Elijah set the coffee on top of the mini fridge and started undressing. "By the way, did you get up in the middle of the night and eat the cookie? 'Cause it's gone."
"Elijah, why on earth am I handcuffed to the bed?" Sean asked in total bewilderment, not interested in the cookie or its whereabouts.
"Because I've always wanted to have a bounty hunter bound naked and at my mercy," Elijah said, removing a square foil packet from the back pocket of his jeans and then dropping them on the floor. Naked once more and holding the condom, he climbed lithely onto the bed and straddled Sean's thighs. "It's been a secret fantasy of mine for years."
"You're not serious." Sean felt laughter bubbling up inside him.
"Scout's honor," Elijah said, crossing his heart and holding up three fingers.
The laughter couldn't be repressed, a combination of relief and hysteria that had to be released, and it was some time before Elijah got around to demonstrating exactly how his fantasy played out. By the time he was done, the coffee was ice cold.
Sean slid the room key across the desk. "Checking out of Room 111," he said blandly to Kris Kringle. He refused to be embarrassed, even if the guy had provided Elijah with a condom.
"I hope you and your friend enjoyed your stay, Mr. Astin," Kris said, picking up the key and returning it to the hook on the rack behind him.
"Very much, thank you," replied Sean, even more blandly. More than I'm ever going to admit to you.
Those blue eyes twinkled merrily. "That's what we like to hear," he said. "And I do hope you'll visit us again in the future."
"Maybe we will someday." Sean thought he and Elijah very well might. The Red River Inn would forever be a special place to them both, and there was a strange sort of magic about the place. "But right now we have to get on the road. Thanks for your hospitality, and a very Merry Christmas to you."
"And to you."
As Sean set his hand on the lobby door, Kris Kringle called after him, "By the way, Mr. Astin, you don't have to worry, you know. Everything's going to work out just fine for you and Elijah."
Sean whirled around in astonishment, but Kris must have stepped into the back, because the reception desk was empty. I'm hearing things, he thought, shaking his head, and left.
He joined Elijah in the Jeep, and as he was about to put the car in gear, his cell phone rang. It was the LAPD. "Sean Astin," he said in his most business-like voice, and then listened in astonishment to what the desk sergeant told him.
"Sean, what is it?" Elijah asked when Sean disconnected. "What's happened?"
"The guy who framed you. Is his name James Henderson?"
"Yes, that's him."
"Well, he just turned himself in to the police and confessed, Elijah. He must have had an attack of conscience, maybe because it's Christmas. But whatever the reason, he's exonerated you." Sean spoke gently, because sometimes good news was as much of a shock as bad.
Elijah sat like one turned to stone for a moment, and then tears started to his eyes. "He did? Oh Sean, I can't believe it. It's like a miracle. A Christmas miracle. Oh, I have to call my mom. I have to call her right away." He fumbled for his phone that Sean had returned to him before they left the hotel room, turned it on and dialed his mother. "This is the best Christmas ever, Sean," he said passionately as the phone rang. "First meeting you, and now this..." He wiped away the tears with the back of his hand, and then said, "Hello, Mom? It's Elijah."
A Christmas miracle. Elijah was right about that, thought Sean as he listened to Elijah joyfully give his mother the good news. It was, and he must have had a premonition about this latest turn of events, he decided. Otherwise why would he have imagined he heard Kris Kringle tell him that everything was going to turn out fine?
Of course, Sean had never had a premonition in his life before, but there was a first time for everything, as the events of the past twenty-four hours had proved. After all, when he set out for Des Moines, he never dreamed he'd find the love of his life in the skip he was chasing.
After Elijah hung up the phone he threw his arms around Sean’s neck, and they held each other in joyful relief.
“Ready to go home?” Sean said at length, and Elijah wiped his eyes again and said with a shaky laugh, “Those must be the four most beautiful words in the English language, Sean. Yes, I'm ready to go home.”
From the hotel doorway, Kris Kringle watched as the Jeep and its two occupants pulled away. He waved, though they didn't see him, and his bright blue eyes shone with satisfaction. His work for this Christmas was done.