The Woodjin: Chapter 10 by Lbilover

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Legends mentioned in this chapter come in part from John McPhee's The Pine Barrens. The explanation for the Jersey Devil is not one I made up, but the one that I felt best fit this story (for obvious reasons). 


Sitting on the sofa in the family room, Sean leafed slowly through the pages of one of Hannah Wood’s sketchbooks. Like the other he’d seen, it was both an astonishingly detailed catalog of the flora and fauna of the pines, and a feast for the eyes. It was also a reminder.

I have to return to the shore to get my drawing and close up the house, he thought, and mentally calculated the extra hours it would take to detour there before heading back to New York on Sunday. Extra hours that could have been spent with Elijah.

This time he didn’t even allow himself the thought that he didn’t want to go; he had to go, that was all there was to it. He would make the most of the limited time that he and Elijah had left—even if, he thought ruefully, they didn’t succeed in spending any of it alone, as seemed likely now that Hannah and Jordan had arrived. Sean had wrestled his aching, protesting body into submission, but he couldn’t help wishing that Hannah had showed up just half an hour later. They’d been so close… But fate seemed to be conspiring against them.

Realizing that he’d just turned several pages without seeing them, Sean forced himself to slow, to concentrate, to go back and give the drawings the attention they merited. But it wasn’t possible to concentrate fully when at that very moment Elijah and his sister were discussing Sean. He understood why Elijah had asked him to leave him alone with Hannah, once she’d calmed down enough to listen and Elijah had convinced her that Sean was neither a murderer nor a rapist, and that it was not at all necessary to call the police.

Understood, but he definitely didn’t like it. Sitting on his hands and waiting was not something at which he had ever excelled—especially right now.

It was clear that of all the people around Elijah whom he loved—Katie, Ian, Martha, Bill—Hannah was the most important and influential. Her opinion would carry heavy weight with him. Sean couldn’t believe that it would ultimately have any effect on Elijah’s feelings for him, but he didn’t want to be an obstacle between Elijah and his sister, especially as the younger man had already suffered the loss of his father and temporary estrangement from his mother. Elijah needed Hannah in his life.

When Sean had left the room, Hannah was still looking piney-stubborn and stormy-eyed, but Elijah, cradling his nephew Jordan in his good arm, had been wearing an expression of such love and tenderness on his face that tears began to prickle in Sean’s eyes. The toddler obviously adored his uncle equally in return. No surprise there.

Sean stroked Maggie’s soft fur while he turned a page of the sketchbook with his other hand. Her small body vibrated under his palm with the force of her purring, and he took comfort from that. She was so attuned to Elijah that if he was in any distress she would surely know.

“Look at this, Maggie,” Sean said, angling the sketchbook toward her. A flower of a blue so intense it hardly seemed possible glowed in the center of the page. “It’s called gentian, but maybe ‘Elijah’ would be a better name for it. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to the color of his eyes, though I doubt even this is quite as blue. What do you think?”

Maggie contemplated the drawing with an expression that was almost scarily human, and then uttered a low mrrrowr.

“I’ll take that as an affirmative,” Sean said, and somehow it didn’t feel strange, holding a ‘conversation’ with Maggie. “I wonder if the first Woodjin had eyes similar to Elijah’s.” He recalled that odd vision he’d had out by the cedar swamp, when it had seemed for a moment as if he was looking through different eyes at an Elijah from a different time. Rarely had he been anywhere in which he felt so strongly the presence of those who had gone before, as if he might actually glimpse shadowy figures if he glanced quickly enough in the right direction...

What Maggie might or might not have replied to Sean’s comment, he never discovered, for just then her ears flicked forward and she was the one who glanced around- toward the door. Almost immediately thereafter, a sound of swift footfalls could be heard, heading in their direction. Sean closed the sketchbook, set it aside and climbed to his feet just as Hannah Makoare entered the room.

She didn’t pause or utter a single word, only ran forward and threw herself at Sean, who staggered a little under her slight weight and instinctively put his arms around her. She clung to him, burying her face against his chest, and her thin shoulders were shaking under the oversized black cardigan that was belted around her narrow waist.

Sean had the distinct impression that Hannah was no longer angry.

“Hey,” he said, rubbing a comforting hand between her shoulder blades when she showed no sign of stopping, “I’m really not that bad, you know. I shower every day and use deodorant, too. Elijah could have made a much worse choice.”

A watery-sounding giggle remarkably like her brother’s escaped Hannah and she glanced up. Her face was streaked with tears, but she was smiling.

It was so odd, Sean thought. Here he was holding a young and attractive woman in his arms, a woman who closely resembled her very attractive older brother, if a more feminine, slighter version of him. But nothing stirred inside him when he looked into her prominent blue eyes. Good thing, too, an amused voice inside him piped up, as she’s a married woman.

Hannah’s smile faded, and her expression grew solemn. She pulled back a little, her hands resting lightly at his waist, and said, “Elijah told me what happened: how he was shot,” her voice faltered, “and how you found him and carried him home. How you stood up to the Devil for him.” Fresh tears welled up in her eyes. As Katie had done in the kitchen earlier, she took his hand between both of hers. “You saved my brother’s life. I can never thank you enough.”

“You don’t have to thank me,” Sean replied, and hoped fervently that she wasn’t about to use the dreaded ‘H’ word.

But Hannah didn’t use the ‘H’ word. “I do,” she said passionately. “I do have to thank you. Because it wasn’t only Elijah you saved last night. If you only understood,” she added in a whisper, and the tears flowed faster, “exactly what it means to me and my husband Lawrence.”

“I can make an educated guess.” Like a swift-blooming wildflower after a summer storm, knowledge suddenly grew inside him. The seed had been planted not by any one particular event or comment, but several things that Elijah had said or inferred, and by the deep love he and Jordan so clearly shared. “It’s Jordan, isn’t it?”

Hannah nodded, and digging a tissue out of her sweater pocket, wiped her eyes. “Yes. He’s going to be the next Woodjin, and if it wasn’t for you, he’d be growing up without Elijah to teach him everything he’ll need to know.” Her lower lip began to tremble and she pressed the crumpled tissue to her mouth.

“Hannah, sit down.” Sean put his arm around her shoulders and guided her down onto the sofa then sat down beside her.

“I’m sorry,” she said when she’d gained control of herself. “But Elijah was only fifteen when our father died, and I saw what it did to him, having to take on that responsibility so young and before his training was complete. Oh god, I don’t ever want that to happen to Jordan.”

“It’s a burden no teenager should have to assume, much less a young child,” Sean agreed, thinking of his sixteen-year-old self, trying desperately to hold his family together after his dad’s death. His mind turned to a question he hadn’t yet had a chance to ask Elijah, and he asked it instead of her. “Hannah, if you don’t mind me asking, how did your father die? Elijah told me there was an accident, but he didn’t elaborate.”

Hannah hunched forward, platinum-blonde head bowed, forearms on her jeans-clad thighs. “Dad was called,” she said softly, twisting the damp tissue between her fingers. “It was late winter. There was a man who’d gone ice fishing on one of the lakes, and he’d fallen through the ice.” Her expression was far off as she gazed down the path of memory, but her fingers with their fuschia-tinted nails continued to fret at the tissue. “Dad’s weight as the stag was too heavy for the ice to bear, so he transformed and went in to rescue him. He never should have done it,” she added sadly, “but he couldn’t not do it, because he was the Woodjin.”

Bare footprints in the snow. Sean could see them with his mind’s eye, and Elijah curling his freezing toes into his father’s down jacket, desperately trying to keep them warm. Dear god, to have voluntarily walked naked into frigid water… It was practically tantamount to committing suicide. Hypothermia would have set in within minutes. But Elijah would have done, he would do, exactly the same thing, and without a moment’s hesitation. Sean shivered—and not with the cold.

“Elijah sensed something had gone horribly wrong with Dad—he always knew. They had this sort of…connection. Elijah called Dr. Ian and they went to find him. Dad had managed to get the man to safety, but he’d been panicking and nearly drowned Dad and it was so cold. Dr. Ian tried to save him, but… it was too late.” Hannah’s voice was the mere thread of a whisper. “I don’t think Dr. Ian has ever forgiven himself, but it wasn’t his fault.”

“Oh god, I’m so sorry, Hannah,” Sean said, and reached out to touch her hand. It was cold and trembling.

“Dad lived just long enough to give Elijah his ring and his blessing.” Hannah turned her tear-stained face to Sean. “Do you know what Elijah’s first duty as Woodjin was? It was to block the memory of the man whose life Dad had saved, so that he would never remember that he owed his life to Warren Wood. Can you imagine what that must have been like for Elijah? He’d always hated that part of his training anyway.”

Sean’s throat was tight. “I can’t imagine.” The level of guilt Elijah felt about blocking Sean’s memory was even more readily explained now.

“I remember the first time Elijah was called,” Hannah went on. “It was only a couple of months after Dad died. Mom begged Elijah not to go, but he had to, he had to, and we sat together in the dark kitchen holding hands and praying that he’d be okay.” She fixed Sean with a look profoundly sad and yet at the same time fiercely proud. “The hardest part of loving the Woodjin is the waiting, Sean. The not knowing.”

“Then I guess I’ll have to take up needlepoint or sudoku or something,” Sean said lightly, “to pass the time until he comes home. But Hannah, the waiting won’t be quite the same for me. We don’t know for certain, but Elijah and I seem to share the same sort of connection he shared with your dad. I think I’ll always know if he’s okay.”

There was something very much like wonder in her eyes then. “That’s what Elijah said. I still find it hard to believe.”

“Before I met your brother, I would have told you it was impossible, not just hard to believe,” Sean said frankly. “I was skeptical of anything that smacked of the supernatural, and I thought I’d left my childhood fascination with magic and fairy tales behind me for good.” He huffed a small laugh. “No one could have been more shocked than I was to discover that real magic does exist, or that I could experience someone else’s pain as vividly as if it were my own.”

“I hope you understand just how rare it is for a Woodjin to share such a bond with anyone besides another Woodjin.” There was a frown line between Hannah’s brows, and she sounded troubled.

“I do understand, and please believe that I don’t take the knowledge lightly,” Sean tried to reassure her, but Hannah didn’t appear particularly reassured by his words.

“I’m protective of my brother, even if he is older than me,” she said. “Too protective, he’ll tell you, and I suppose in a way he’s right. But ever since I married Lawrence and left the pines, Elijah has lived alone, and I feel horribly guilty about that. He won’t even discuss our moving here, or at the very least me and Jordan living with him during the week, and believe me I’ve tried.” Hannah sighed. “My brother is not only the most selfless person in the world, but also the most stubborn. He’s right that it wouldn’t be a very practical solution, given Lawrence’s job- he’s a movie stuntman, in case you didn’t know. As it is, Lawrence misses out on opportunities for work because he isn’t based in the LA area. But that doesn’t stop worrying about Elijah from being practically a full-time job.”

Her mouth twisted into a rueful smile. “I’d list all the reasons why I worry, except we’d be sitting here until the cows come home, and you can probably guess what some of them are. But you might not be aware just how much the process of transforming takes out of Elijah, even when he hasn’t been injured. It’s exhausting for him, Sean, and it hurts that there’s no one waiting to take care of him the way Mom and I used to.” Maggie, curled at her side, let out an offended-sounding meow, and Hannah bent to kiss her on the head. “Sorry, Mags. I know that you and Rocky and Fred do the best you can.”

Having witnessed that electric surge of energy for himself, Sean had no doubt that it was exhausting, and required enormous reserves of strength. Thank god Elijah was able to tap into that strength last night, he thought, or Hannah and I wouldn’t be having this conversation, but a very different one.

“Hannah, I promise you that it won’t be like that for much longer. Soon I’ll be there to take care of him when he comes home.”

But these words didn’t seem to reassure Hannah any more than his earlier ones had.

“Elijah said that you’re leaving on Sunday to go back to New York,” she remarked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Sean admitted. “I have a lot of loose ends to tie up before I can move here permanently.”

Hannah studied Sean for a long moment, her expression somber. “You know, I may be a piney, Sean, but I’ve lived outside for a few years now. Your world isn’t a mystery to me, but to pineys like Katie and Bill, it is. They may have done some traveling, but the pines are all they really know, all they really want to know. Elijah is…” she sought for the right words, and then said, “he’s everything to them, and so is his happiness.”

We think the sun rises and sets on him, Katie had said.

“What exactly are you driving at?” Sean asked, figuring there was no sense in beating about the bush. He might as well know where he stood with Elijah’s sister.

“That to them you’re like manna from heaven—a sort of white knight riding to Elijah’s rescue, and they aren’t going question the whys or wherefores or wonder if you’re simply too good to be true,” Hannah replied with equal bluntness. “I’m sure Katie is totally over the moon, and everyone else is almost as eager as she is to accept you as Elijah’s partner, because they so desperately want him to be happy.”

“Is that what you think? That I’m ‘too good to be true’?”

It was a crushing disappointment, but he should have realized that things had gone much too smoothly thus far. He could only hope that this was simply a bump in the road to his future with Elijah, not a patch of treacherous sugar sand to bog them down.

“I think that you met my brother under the most dramatic circumstances anyone possibly could, and that it’s only natural for you to have a romanticized vision of this place,” Hannah said. “But I can’t help but wonder what will happen later, when the glamour has worn off and you discover what it’s really like here and what you’re up against. Like I said, I live in the outside world, and it’s nothing like the pines, Sean. Yes, we’ve got most of the modern conveniences now, but there are no trendy stores, no Starbucks on every other block. The fact is, a lot more people leave the pines than ever come to live here. It’s too quiet and too isolated.”

“Martha seems to like it here well enough,” Sean commented reasonably. It was difficult to restrain himself from bursting into an impassioned defense of his commitment to Elijah and a life in the pines, but he held back the flood of words. From Hannah’s standpoint, his relationship with Elijah must seem improbable at best and doomed to failure at worst.

“Martha’s situation is very different, Sean. She and Dr. Ian can leave the pines at any time, and for as long as they like. You and Elijah will never be able to do that. The most my brother can spend outside the pines is a few hours, and even that is terribly hard for him, because if something were to happen and he wasn’t here to prevent it, he would never forgive himself. He’s tied here, and therefore so are you, unless you’re prepared to go places by yourself.”

“I’m a businessman. I’ve traveled all over the world,” Sean said. “There’s absolutely nothing left that I have to see.”

“What about your family and friends?” Hannah challenged him. “Will you give up seeing them? And if you don’t, then how exactly are you going to explain to them that they can never meet Elijah unless they come here? How will you deal with a lifetime of lying to them? You can never tell them the truth about Elijah, Sean. Have you considered that?”

“Hannah…” Sean tried to interrupt her, but she was on a roll now, and there was no stopping her.

“Please don’t get me wrong, Sean. I love my brother more than almost anyone in the world, and nothing would make me happier than for him to have someone permanently in his life. But he’s already been hurt once, and I don’t want him hurt again.”

“Hannah…” Sean tried again.

But Hannah swept on, her hands now clenched into fists on her thighs, “Has Elijah told you about our parents yet? About how their marriage was poisoned and nearly destroyed because of what my dad was, because of the risks he had to take and the reality that being Woodjin had precedence over everything else—even his own family?”

“As a matter of fact yes, I have told him,” said a mild voice from across the room. “Sean knows all about Mom and Dad and he knows about Matt, too. And it’d be real nice if you let him get a word in edgewise, Han, although I suppose he might as well get used to the way you highball over people, seeing that he’s going to be part of our family.”

Sean’s startled gaze found Elijah standing in the doorway. He was clutching the wood frame with his good hand, and Sean was up and moving before the last word had left his mouth.

“Elijah, what are you doing out of bed?” he exclaimed, torn between fear at the damage Elijah might have done to himself and frustration that he’d defied Ian’s orders. Without giving the younger man time to answer, he swooped in and picked him up, sliding one arm beneath his knees and the other around his shoulders. Ignoring the protests of his still-tender back muscles, Sean carried Elijah to the couch and set him down. Then he knelt in front of him and took his left hand, noting anxiously how cool it felt. “What kind of crazy ass stunt was that?” he demanded, frustration winning out.

“Jordan fell asleep, so I thought I’d better come and stop my interfering busybody of a sister from harassing you,” Elijah replied, giving Hannah an exasperated glance. “I just knew she’d start in on you, even after she promised me she wouldn’t.”

“I don’t care,” Hannah said stubbornly. “You and Sean barely know each other, and you’re talking about him moving in with you. Sweetie, you’re too naïve and trusting for your own good, and you’re setting yourself up to be hurt again, I just know it.”

A sound eerily like that of a whistling teakettle escaped through Elijah’s now-gritted teeth. His cheeks were suddenly flushed and his eyes stormy. “You forgot to add the bit about me not understanding what people are really like in the outside world.”

“Then consider it added, because it’s true, you don’t.”

“No? Hannah, it wasn’t a piney who shot me last night. I don’t have to live outside to understand what people can be like. They bring their fear and intolerance here with them.” His voice softened. “But they also bring their goodness, like Martha did, and now Sean.”

As their heated conversation passed back and forth over Sean’s head, it barely made an impact on him; he was too absorbed in carefully pulling back Elijah’s pajama top to examine the bandage over his bullet wound. But it was still a pristine white with no signs of seepage. Letting the flannel fall back into place, he sat back and released the pent-up breath he’d been holding. He was, he discovered, literally trembling with reaction. “Elijah, I… you…” Words failed him. He wanted to hold Elijah close in his relief, but Hannah’s presence inhibited him.

“I’m sorry,” Elijah sounded truly contrite as he transferred his gaze to Sean. Raising Sean’s hand to his lips, he kissed it. “I really am sorry for worrying you.”

The simplicity of the gesture, the way those blue, blue eyes held his own, making him feel once more as if they were the only two people in the entire world, undid Sean, as did the press of exquisitely soft warm lips against his skin. He let go fear and frustration, and the trembling subsided.

“I’m beginning to think worrying will be a permanent condition,” Sean joked weakly, and gave Elijah’s knee a little reproving shake before getting up and sitting down beside him on the couch.

Hannah was observing them closely. Her lips were compressed, her eyes troubled, and Sean had little difficulty in deciphering her thoughts. She was wondering who he really was—a knight in shining armor who had saved her brother’s life and won his heart, or a self-centered bastard from the city who would end up breaking that same heart. But his corporate leader’s eloquence and his impressive vocabulary weren’t going to convince Hannah of his sincerity. Only time would do that.

“Hannah, you look like a progger who just got bit by a snapping turtle,” Elijah commented, and then added gently, “I understand why you’re concerned after what happened with Matt, but I’m not making a terrible mistake this time. Have a little faith in my judgment, okay?”

“You can’t know that,” argued Hannah, who seemed prepared to go another 12 rounds with her brother. “I met Matt, don’t forget. He seemed like a really nice guy, too, and he acted like he was crazy about you.”

Sean opened his mouth to protest at the comparison—how could Hannah possibly put him in the same league as Matt-the-Fucker, who had rejected the very essence of Elijah’s soul? But Elijah beat him to the punch.

“He was crazy about me until he learned the truth, and then he decided I was some sort of freak. But Sean…” Elijah turned his head to smile at Sean, and his eyes were shining, dazzling as a cloudless summer sky. “Hannah, learning the truth has only made him love me more.”

At her brother’s simple statement, the wind went out of Hannah’s sails. Sean couldn’t say she looked happy or reconciled, but she appeared at least temporarily resigned. It was a start. As for Sean, the imprint of that dazzling smile was burned on his retinas as if he’d been staring straight into the sun, and he wondered anew how he could possibly have been so lucky as to win the love of this fearless, beautiful, magical young man.

“Well, now that we’ve settled that, how about some ice cream and a movie?” Elijah proposed brightly, relaxing back into the sofa. At Sean’s dumbfounded expression, he said, “Oh come on, Sean, now that I’m here you have to let me stay.”

Sean’s eyes met Hannah’s, and simultaneously they started to laugh.

***

Hannah volunteered to get the ice cream, but said she had to put Jordan to bed in his cot first. “Don’t start the movie without me,” she warned, and then added with a grimace, “I just hope Jordan doesn’t wake up. He slept in the car part of the way here, but he didn’t nap at all before that and he’s going to be very cranky tomorrow if he doesn’t get enough sleep.”

Elijah closed his eyes and concentrated for a moment. “Jordan won’t wake up,” he assured her. “He’s out like a light.”

“You Woodjins can be very useful to have around sometimes,” Hannah joked. She gave her brother a quick hug and a kiss, and got up.

“Where will Hannah and Jordan sleep?” Sean asked after she’d gone.

“Next door to me, in Hannah’s old bedroom,” Elijah said, with a rueful look. It wasn’t at all necessary for him to elaborate on what that meant. “But I was thinking that after you move in, we can use my parents’ old bedroom—the one you slept in. It’s larger than mine, and then we can turn my room into a study for you. You’re gonna need someplace quiet to do your schoolwork.”

“Are you sure about that? I don’t want you to feel you have to turn things topsy-turvy for me, Elijah.”

Elijah colored a little and looked down at his lap. “I know this place isn’t anything like what you’re used to. I want you to be happy and comfortable here.”

“Hey,” Sean said, putting his arm around Elijah, “the only thing I need to be happy and comfortable is you. Well, okay, and a mattress for us to be comfortable on. I’m getting too old to sleep on the floor.” He studied Elijah’s downturned face. “Aha, you’re smiling. That’s better. We’ve got enough to worry about without adding anything superfluous to the list. I love this house and I did from the moment I first saw it. We’re going to be as happy as a… well, what would a piney say?”

“As happy as a skunk in a whirlwind,” Elijah supplied, and his smile widened.

A skunk in a whirlwind?” repeated Sean, grinning. “Oh, I am definitely going to use that expression at the Board meeting on Monday.” He was rewarded by a giggle. “Now, what are we going to watch?”

“How about Empire Strikes Back?” suggested Elijah. “Have you ever seen it? I’m a total Star Wars geek, and that’s my favorite of the trilogy.”

“I saw it when it was first in theaters, but not since then. All right, Empire Strikes Back it is.” He got up and went to the entertainment center and browsed through the DVDs until found the right case. Truthfully, space fantasies weren’t his thing, but he’d sit through a 24-hour Star Wars marathon if it made Elijah happy. He snapped open the case, removed the shiny silver disc, and then studied the DVD player.

“Sean?”

“Yeah?”

“Hurry up. We’re missing a golden opportunity here.”

“Good point.” Sean punched the ‘open’ button, hastily dropped the DVD into the carriage, and closed it. Then he grabbed the remote and returned to the young man who was holding his arm out to him in invitation.

Already kissing those soft lips felt like coming home, their shape and touch intimately familiar to Sean in a way that Chris’s had never been. Mindful of Hannah’s imminent return, they resisted the urge to deepen their kiss, but kept it light and almost teasing. After a few minutes their feline sentry sounded the alarm, and they separated with only a lingering regretful look, one final brush of lips on lips, and none of the frantic haste that had resulted from Hannah’s earlier interruption.

By the time Hannah appeared, Sean was aiming the remote at the TV and Elijah was cuddling Maggie in his lap. She gave them a suspicious look as she set a small tray containing three bowls of peanut butter Kandy Kake ice cream, spoons and napkins on a side table, but if she guessed what they’d really been up to in her absence, she decided not to say anything about it.

Despite his valiant attempts to stay awake, Elijah was soon yawning and his head nodding. Long before Han Solo was dropped into the carbon freeze chamber, he had fallen sound asleep. Sean rescued the half-empty bowl of ice cream from his slack fingers and set it on the tray. Elijah had come to rest against Sean’s side, but his head was at an awkward angle, so Sean adjusted their positions; he didn’t want the younger man to end up with a stiff neck. Hannah was covertly watching him as he gently shifted Elijah’s head into the crook of his shoulder, and he sympathized with her obviously conflicted emotions. But she was just going to have to deal, he decided.

They continued to watch the movie, but Sean suspected that Hannah was paying as little attention to the action on the screen as he was. The climactic moment between Luke and Darth Vader didn’t come remotely close to competing with what he saw in his mind’s eye: that shining look of pure love that Elijah had given him. Having bestowed his heart, it seemed that Elijah would hold nothing back, allow no one, not even his sister, to put a damper on his joy. It was this, of course, that worried her: her brother’s willingness to say, ‘I love and am loved in return’, to open his heart so completely to someone he had barely met. Hell, in her place, he’d be worried, too.

Hannah, biting at her lip, continued to shoot surreptitious glances at them. Finally, she said softly, “I want to apologize if I’ve given you the impression that I don’t appreciate what you did for Elijah last night. I truly meant what I said, Sean: I can never, ever thank you enough.” She began swirling the dregs of her ice cream around with the spoon. “Sometimes I think my brother is too good for this world, you know? He will never willingly believe the worst of anyone. He was even making excuses for the guy who shot him. I wish he had a shell like Fred to protect him, but then he wouldn’t be Elijah anymore.”

“What I think is that your brother is good for this world,” Sean replied seriously. “He has a capacity for empathy and forgiveness that can only bring out the best in others. Meeting Elijah was a profoundly life-changing experience for me, Hannah. He restored my faith in dreams, and showed me that it’s never too late to pursue them. Even if I never saw him again, I’d carry that gift with me for the rest of my life.”

“Do you really love my brother?” Hannah burst out. “Enough to put up with all the deception and difficulty it will involve?”

“I do.” Two simple words into which he put as much conviction as he possibly could.

“If you ever betray him…” she said in a low, fierce voice, gripping the handle of the spoon as if it were a dagger.

“You can have what’s left after Dr. Ian is through with me,” Sean promised. “But I won’t betray him, Hannah. I give you my word.”

She studied him for a long moment, and then said, “I’m not going to lie to you and claim that I’m totally okay with this, Sean, not when it’s all happened so fast.”

“As long as you’re willing to give me a chance, so years from now, when Elijah and I are celebrating our golden anniversary, I can remind you of this conversation.”

Hannah smiled faintly. “If that day ever comes, I hope you will remind me.”

The closing credits were now rolling across the screen to the distinctive John Williams score. Sean picked up the remote and turned off the TV.

“I guess we’d better get Sleeping Beauty here back to bed,” he said.

“He is beautiful, isn’t he.” Hannah gazed down at her peacefully sleeping brother with tenderness in her eyes, and then her lips quirked into a wry grin. “God, it’s a good thing he can’t hear me say that. He’d be so pissed.”

Sean shifted around and slid his arm beneath Elijah’s thighs. “I expect he’d be even more pissed about this,” he remarked as he braced the backs of his knees against the sofa and rose slowly to his feet, cradling Elijah to his chest.

A sudden twinkle lurked in the back of Hannah’s prominent blue eyes. “Oh, I’m not so sure. My brother’s quite the romantic, you know. And he’s always had a thing for fairy tale princes.”

***

Hannah went on to her bedroom with a quiet ‘good night’, after helping Sean get Elijah settled in his bed. Like Jordan, he was out like a light, and didn’t so much as stir as Hannah held back the covers and Sean gently set him down. After she’d gone, he played their conversation over in his mind. They’d reached a rapprochement of sorts, he thought, and it seemed she was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt as he’d asked—after all, she’d left them alone, hadn’t she, and without so much as a hint that Sean should find someplace else to sleep.

Of course, Hannah might assume that he was sleeping in the spare bedroom, Sean decided as he smoothed the comforter with the palm of his hand. But it was out of the question. He would only toss and turn and fret with worry about Elijah. Better he should stay here, where he could keep an eye on him. Climbing into bed with Elijah was also out of the question; the knowledge that Hannah and Jordan were sleeping on the other side of the wall was enough to squash that idea.

So instead, he went to the fireplace and added more logs, for the air was cooling; the wind had picked up again, and a soft whistle could be heard in the chimney. When he was done, Sean went to the window and pulled back the curtain to look outside. The moon was high overhead and brighter than the previous night. Tattered shreds of cloud raced across its face and the snow glittered silver in its light. He wondered where the Devil was. Out roaming the pines looking for mischief, or did he have a bolt hole somewhere? An image of a dank, dark, bone-strewn cave came into his mind. Sean shivered and let the curtain drop.

He grabbed a stack of the NME, deciding he might as well begin familiarizing himself with the indie bands Elijah loved. He settled in one of the chairs that Katie and Martha had brought into the room earlier, and started to read. At some point in the midst of perusing an interview with an obviously famous musician of whom the entire world appeared to have heard except for him, Sean dozed off, chin drooping to his chest.

When Sean awoke with a start some time later, the room was dark; the fire had died down to a few glowing embers. He peered blearily at the digital clock on the bedside table: 5:11 a.m. There was a weight on his shoulders, and he realized that someone had draped a blanket across them to keep out the cold. How odd, he thought, and then his eyes, adjusting to the darkness, revealed a sight that caused him to throw back the blanket and leap to his feet in a panic. The bed was empty.

Elijah was gone.

Okay, okay. Sean cautioned himself. He probably just had to use the bathroom. Or maybe he was thirsty and went to get a drink of water. It would be like Elijah to see Sean sleeping and decide not to wake him, but instead cover him with a blanket, thinking as always of others before himself.

We are so going to have a talk about this, Sean decided grimly as he headed for the bathroom, intending to barge right in and give Elijah a piece of his mind. But the bathroom door was ajar, and when he flipped on the light switch, he discovered only Fred, shut up tightly in his shell. All right, they’d have their little talk in the kitchen instead. Only Elijah wasn’t in the kitchen either, nor was there any sign of Maggie.

Shitshitshit.

Cold fear clawed at Sean’s guts. This was too eerily reminiscent of the other night. Had Elijah been called and Sean had not known? Despite what he’d said to Hannah, they had no real proof, after all, that the connection between them was more than a one-time freak occurrence. God. God. Elijah could be out there in the pines again, wounded and weak… The thought was even more terrifying now that he’d seen the Devil face to face. Shit. Why hadn’t Elijah woken him? Instead of a talk, I’m going to kill him when he gets back. That’s all there is to it.

Briefly, he contemplated waking Hannah, but almost immediately decided against it. Unless it proved absolutely necessary, it was better not to involve her. There was no point in sending her into a panic, too.

He pushed through the door to the mudroom, where he discovered Elijah’s boots and coat missing. Not called then, but for some unknown reason, he’d felt compelled to go outside. Then Sean noticed that the lights in the barn were on, and his panic subsided a little. Elijah must have woken up early, and instead of staying in bed like any sane person who was recuperating from a bullet wound, had felt it his duty to get up and go muck stalls or something. Yes, I’m definitely going to kill him.

Sean returned to the spare bedroom, and with jerky, impatient movements put on the running shoes Katie and Bill had bought for him. As he tied the laces, he plotted his course of action: go to the barn, hogtie Elijah, drag him back to his bed and chain him there. Hopefully before Ian Holm arrived, discovered that Sean had been a total failure as a caretaker and killed him. Assuming that is that Hannah didn’t get to him first. Well, at least Elijah and I will both be dead, he thought with grim humor.

When he stepped outside, the intensity of the cold literally stole his breath. Hunching his shoulders and tucking hands beneath his armpits to keep them warm, Sean jogged stiff-legged across the yard to the barn. The door handle was so cold that it practically burned his palm. He slid the heavy wooden door open just enough to squeeze through, as Elijah had once done, and quickly closed it. The propane heater in the ‘hospital’ was running and a rush of warmth greeted him, as did the sight of an ugly gray hat pulled haphazardly over bright auburn hair.

Sean was almost dizzy with relief, for a part of him had been wondering what on earth he would do if it turned out he was wrong, and Elijah wasn’t in the barn after all.

The young man was kneeling on the bare wood floor with his back to Sean, and he was wearing his flannel pajamas under his fleece-lined barn jacket. Maggie was sitting beside him.

“Elijah,” Sean said quietly, holding onto the frayed ends of his patience with difficulty, “would you care to explain exactly what you think you’re doing?”

Elijah glanced back over his shoulder. His face was set and serious. “I’m glad you’re here, Sean,” he said. “I was just going to send Pete to get you.”

“Pete?” So focused had he been on Elijah’s kneeling form that he hadn’t even noticed that there was a second person in the room. A gaunt-looking older man with long gray hair under a faded blue cap with a logo for a charter fishing company was crouching opposite the young man. He had on faded Levis, duck boots laced with frayed twine, and a stained and patched canvas jacket belted around his middle with an old leather belt. Everything he wore looked as if it had seen better days at least ten years earlier, and to Sean’s startled gaze he looked like nothing so much as one of the homeless men who slept on lengths of cardboard in the subways.

“This is Pete Gunner,” Elijah said. “Pete, I’d like you to meet my friend Sean Astin.”

“How do you do, Pete?” Sean said. “I’m pleased to meet you.”

Pete glanced up at him, nodding and barely making eye contact before looking away. He said in a soft, slightly slurred voice, “I brung the Woodjin a fox. She’s been hurt bad.”

Sean moved closer and looked over Elijah’s shoulder; an involuntary gasp escaped him. “Oh Jesus,” he breathed.

Resting on its side on a moth eaten brown blanket was a red fox: a truly magnificent animal with thick sable-tipped fur of burnished orange and a bushy tail that looked as if its tip had been dipped in white pain. But the fox’s left hind leg was encased in rusted steel, like the victim of some bizarre medieval torture device. Jagged metal teeth bit cruelly into the skin halfway between paw and hock, and blood was trickling down, staining the blanket almost black. The fox was panting, her ribcage rising and falling rapidly, and her mouth was open, lips curled back in a rictus of pain to reveal sharp white teeth.

Nausea rose up in Sean. It was a trap. The fox had been caught in a trap.

“How can I help, Elijah?” he asked quietly, kneeling down beside him. His anxiety and frayed patience seemed petty and immaterial now.

“We have to spring the trap and free her leg,” Elijah said. “But it requires both hands, and I only have one, and Pete isn’t strong enough.”

“I’m sorry I bean’t able to do it, Woodjin,” Pete apologized.

“It’s all right, Pete,” Elijah reassured him. “Sean can help.”

Pete transferred his gaze to Sean, something that seemed to take every ounce of his courage, and Sean realized that he was exceedingly shy. “It’s the palsy,” he said, and held up his hands, large hands dotted with brown age spots; they were visibly shaking, and small tremors were jerking his head and shoulders, too. Pete must have Parkinson’s, Sean thought.

“The release mechanisms are located on either side of the jaws—here and here.” Elijah pointed. “You have to push down on both sides simultaneously.”

“Will she lie still? I’m sure it’s going to be painful.” There was an understatement if ever there was one, and the fox’s teeth were sharp as razors. If she lunged around and nailed him, it would be no joke.

“She’ll lie still,” Elijah promised. “I’d never risk you getting hurt.”

Sean moved behind the fox. He could see her shock-dulled eye tracking him. It must be agony for this wild creature to tolerate not only the pain of her injury, but being surrounded by three humans, even if their intention was to help her. Thank god for Elijah, who had placed his hand on her neck, and was now crooning softly to her under his breath. Sean couldn’t make out what he was saying—if indeed he was using words.

“All right, you can go ahead,” said Elijah. “She understands that she’s not to move.”

Please don’t let me mess this up and hurt her more, Sean prayed, but Elijah’s calm, steady gaze held nothing but confidence as he watched Sean place his hands in on either side of the steel jaws in the spots he’d indicated.

Sean averted his eyes from the fox’s mangled leg as he pressed down hard on the releases with his palms, but the rusted metal resisted the pressure and didn’t budge. Gritting his teeth, Sean brought all his weight to bear on it, and then suddenly with a high-pitched squeal, the jaws of the trap sprang apart, freeing the fox’s leg from their cruel grip. Blood immediately welled out from the deep wounds left behind, but Elijah was prepared. He handed Sean several large sterile gauze sponges to stanch the bleeding. “Wrap those around her leg,” he instructed.

As Sean did, Pete reached in and removed the trap. A few seconds later there was a hollow clanging noise as he dropped it in the trash can. “Just where the fucking thing belongs,” Sean muttered, not even aware he’d spoken aloud until Elijah said quietly, “Yeah,” and then added, “Okay, now I need you to pick her up and put her on the table, Sean.”

The fox started to struggle when Sean picked her up in his arms. Elijah rested his hand on her flank, stroking it while he crooned more of those words-that-weren’t-quite words. Her struggles ceased, and she remained quiescent as Sean carried her to the stainless steel examination table and laid her down on the soft fleece pad that covered the top.

“I thought leg hold traps were illegal,” he remarked in a voice that a shook a little with anger for what had been done to this beautiful animal.

“They are now,” Elijah said. He peeled back the blood-soaked gauze and studied the wounds, and if he felt the same sickening sensation as Sean at the sight of the torn flesh, he didn’t show it. “But they weren’t always illegal, and there are still abandoned traps hidden here and there in the woods. This isn’t the first time I’ve had an animal brought to me that stepped in one. Thankfully Pete found this girl before she was desperate enough to start freeing herself, or her injuries would be a lot more severe.”

More severe? That seemed difficult to imagine, and Sean was about to ask what he meant when Pete said, “I saw a fox once’t that had only three feet- he’d got caught in a trap and chewed the other right off.”

“Oh dear god.” The mental image was horrifying.

“It’s not a… pleasant sight,” Elijah said soberly. “But thankfully Pete found her in time. She owes you her life, Pete.”

Pete shuffled his feet, looking embarrassed, and said nothing. Sean wondered what his story was, but there was no time for speculation. Elijah put him to work gathering the necessary supplies to clean and treat the fox’s wounds. He flushed out the cuts with Betadyne solution and a syringe; it was gruesome work, but after dealing with Elijah’s bullet wound in both his stag and human forms, nothing would ever seem as daunting by comparison.

Elijah took over when he was satisfied that the dirt and rust had been thoroughly removed. He picked up the fox’s leg in his good hand, and all the while he gently manipulated the limb, checking for the extent of the damage the trap had done, Elijah crooned softly under his breath to the fox. Sean still couldn’t understand any of it, but then, he supposed, it wasn’t about words, and the soothing, calming effect on the fox was clear. His own tense nerves relaxed; such was the power of Elijah’s magic. If only there was some way to bottle that ability, he thought. Every veterinarian in the country would be grateful.

“How bad is it?” he asked when Elijah finally set the leg down.

Elijah straightened, and he was smiling in relief. “Nothing’s broken, and I’m pretty sure there’s no tendon damage either. The leg feels stable to me. She was very lucky that the trap closed where it did. There’s a lot of soft tissue damage, but she should make a good recovery.”

“Thank god,” Sean whispered, and Elijah slid his arm around him and gave him a quick, reassuring hug.

“You’ve got a kind heart for a foreigner,” remarked Pete. “But then you saved the Woodjin’s life,” he added simply, as if that said everything.

It was Sean’s turn to be embarrassed, and to cover it he grabbed the jar of blue-green salve that sat among the gauze pads and rolls of Vetwrap. “Do you want me to put this on her cuts? Or do they need suturing first?”

“No sutures,” Elijah said, shaking his head. “These wounds are very similar to my bullet wound: they have to heal from the inside out. There’s too much risk of infection if they’re closed. We’ll pack them good with the salve and bandage them, and then she can go in a cage to rest.” He picked up a paper packet that contained a pair of surgical gloves. “Put these on first, Sean.”

Sean set down the salve and took the gloves; as he pulled the thin latex over his hands, he studied Elijah’s face. The immediate crisis over, a wave of tiredness had clearly replaced the adrenaline surge of energy. Elijah’s right eyelid was drooping and there were faint lines bracketing his mouth. He needed to go back to bed and rest. It was only his apparently limitless strength of will that was keeping him on his feet.

“Okay, Doctor Doolittle, what next?” Sean said lightly, flexing his fingers.

“Rex Harrison or Eddie Murphy version?” Elijah wanted to know.

“Rex Harrison, of course. I saw it when I was a kid and god, did I want to be able to talk to the animals.” Sean grinned. “And now I know someone who can. How cool is that?”

“Yeah, but remember what I told you- this Doctor Doolittle can’t sing worth a darn, so don’t expect any musical numbers,” Elijah warned him.

“Rex Harrison couldn’t sing worth a darn either, and it never stopped him,” Sean teased.

“Just open that salve, would you, and count yourself lucky I’m not as daring as Rex Harrison,” Elijah said, but he was grinning, too.

Pete was watching them with a sort of open-mouthed surprise, and Sean supposed that this sort of banter was out of the question for him and the others whose reverence for their Woodjin was so great that they wouldn’t even call him by his first name.

With Elijah’s guidance, Sean managed to get the fox’s leg successfully bandaged without making a mull of it. The vivid purple color of the Vetwrap was a touch of brightness that probably did little to cheer the fox, but somehow put extra heart into Sean. Then he carried her over to the row of wire mesh cages. Elijah opened the door to one that was lined with several thick fleece pads, and Sean carefully set her inside.

She immediately explored the small confines, hopping on three legs, until, satisfied that she was safe, she circled around several times and lay down, tucking her pointed muzzle under her bushy tail and closing her eyes. Pete brought over a small stainless bowl half-filled with fresh water, and Sean took it from his trembling hands and set in the holder inside the cage before closing and latching the door.

“Sean, thank you for all your help—you were amazing.” Elijah smiled at him, and his tired eyes were glowing with pride. Then he turned to Pete, and gave the old man a one-armed hug that caused him to blush scarlet. “And so were you, Pete. It was a long way to carry her, and in the dark, too.”

“You carried her?” Sean asked, startled.

“I ain’t got a car, Mr. Astin. Never have owned one. My feet carry me where I need to go, unless it’s outside, and then the Doc gives me a ride.”

“Pete, please call me Sean, okay? But aren’t you afraid? Of the Devil, I mean.” He never wanted to walk alone through the pines at night again. He’d done it twice, once out of stupidity and once out of necessity, and that was more than enough to last him the rest of his life.

Pete considered the question; all the while his head jerked and his hands shook, but he was otherwise, Sean realized, remarkably fit looking and could probably walk Sean into the ground. “I cain’t say as I am. I seen him a few times, been chased by him once’t when I was young. Got all scratched up before the Woodjin saved me.”

Sean looked at the backs of his hands, still bearing faint reddish lines from his own mad dash through the pines, and barely repressed a shudder at the memory. Yet Pete, too, had seen the white stag, and he realized that it must have been Elijah’s grandfather who saved him.

“But I’m acquainted with his ways,” Pete went on, “and he cain’t trick Pete Gunner no more.”

“I’m glad to know that,” Sean replied.

“Pete, Sean and I still have one more thing we need to take care of,” Elijah said, “but why don’t you go ahead to the house, get yourself some food and something hot to drink. Hannah arrived last night with Jordan. She’ll be so glad to see you.”

“Hannah’s here?” Pete asked, and his face lit up with a smile that showed he must once have been a handsome man. “I ain’t seen her since Christmas, Woodjin.” His jerking and shaking increased, as if his happiness at the news had no other way to express itself.

“Then you go along,” Elijah told him. “And when Dr. Ian arrives, you tell him not to worry, that Sean and I will be there real soon.”

After Pete had gone, Sean said, “His face lit up like a lantern when you told him Hannah was here.”

“Pete loves Hannah, always has, since she was little. She’s the closest thing to a daughter he’ll ever have.”

“Didn’t he ever marry?” Sean asked curiously.

“No, he could never work up the nerve to court a girl. He’s the kindest, gentlest soul you’ll ever meet, but he’s as shy and as wild as this fox.” Elijah looked sad. “My dad was probably the closest friend Pete ever had. It was a terrible thing for him when Dad died. He took off into the pines and we didn’t see him for a couple of months. You have no idea how relieved we all were when he finally turned up again. He can’t be found when he doesn’t want to, even by me.”

Just then an impatient squeaking started. It was the squirrel babies, sensing that dawn had arrived and it was nearly time for their first meal of the day. Sean went to look in at them. “They’ve gotten so much bigger in just a few days,” he marveled. “Their eyes are fully open.”

“They’re thriving,” Elijah said, joining him by the incubator. “You can practically see them growing minute by minute.”

“And the opossum? How he is doing?” His gaze transferred to the large pen where he’d last seen the sleeping opossum hanging by his tail, but it was empty.

“I released him.” Elijah’s eyes were apologetic. “He wanted to be set free. I wish now I’d waited so you could have been with me, but I didn’t think you were ever coming back.”

“It’s all right.” Sean put his arms around Elijah, and the young man settled against him with a tired sigh. “I was intending to tick you off for disobeying doctor’s orders again, but under the circumstances, I can’t. But why didn’t you wake me?” he asked, gently rubbing his back, the way he’d done to Hannah, but the feelings Elijah’s lean but strong body evoked in him were very, very different.

“I didn’t want to disturb you. You needed to sleep so badly.”

“If you knew how scared I was when I woke up and couldn’t find you…” Sean whispered into the scratchy gray wool.

Elijah’s arm tightened around his waist. “Maggie said I should wake you, but you looked so tired. I’m sorry for worrying you.” He gave a rueful laugh. “I seem to be saying that a lot, don’t I?”

“Nah. But I’d a million times rather miss a little sleep than leave you to deal with things alone. So listen to Maggie next time. One for all, and all for one, Elwood, remember?”

Maggie, who was twisting in and out of their legs, her tail flicking, voiced her agreement with this sentiment very emphatically.

“I’ll try.” Elijah rubbed his cheek against Sean’s shoulder in mute apology and then pulled back. “Now we better get things cleaned up and go before Dr. Ian gets here.”

“Go where?” Sean had honestly thought Elijah was simply buying them a little time alone together.

“Into the woods.” At Sean’s incredulous expression, Elijah went on quickly, “The fox has a mate, Sean, and he’ll have followed Pete. He’ll be fretting, wondering what’s happened to her.”

“Elijah, can’t it wait until later? You’re not up to this.”

Elijah’s face set into stubborn lines. “He won’t be far inside the trees. I can easily walk that short a distance. Besides, wouldn’t you want to know as soon as possible that the one you loved was safe?”

Sean had no answer to that argument. When they went outside a short time later, they discovered that dawn had arrived in a swirl of pinks, lavenders and palest gold. With Maggie trotting at Elijah’s side, they retraced Pete’s footsteps across the yard. The cold air seemed to revive Elijah’s flagging energy, and he walked over the brittle snow with sure strides.

“Hannah told me about your dad,” Sean said quietly, recalling what Elijah had told him about Pete and the depth of his grief over the loss of Warren Wood. “I’m sorry, Elijah.”

“I miss him every day,” was all Elijah said, in a very quiet voice.

“I know.” Sean took his hand in a comforting grip. “Believe me, I know.” He hesitated. “She also told me about Jordan, and I’ve been wondering how that will work. When will he become the Woodjin? When he reaches a certain age?”

Elijah’s cold fingers suddenly and convulsively tightened on Sean’s hand. “Sean…” He sounded as if he very much didn’t want to continue whatever sentence he had been about to start.

“Uh oh, I have a feeling you’re about to tell me something I’m not going to want to hear, aren’t you?”

“The truth is, I really have no idea when it will be Jordan’s time,” Elijah replied, stopping short. “Have you ever heard those reports on the news—the ones that talk about the most dangerous jobs?”

“Yeah, I seem to recall reading that timber cutters and airplane pilots head the list.” Sean didn’t like where this was heading at all.

“Well, being Woodjin is a very dangerous job. So dangerous, that it should probably rank number one, above timber cutters and airplane pilots.” He hesitated. “No Woodjin has ever lived long enough to retire, Sean. That’s why it’s so vitally important that we get our training early.” Elijah looked at him apprehensively. “I should have told you right away, I know. If you want to change your mind…”

“Why would I want to change my mind?” Sean replied calmly, walking on. “For one thing, I love you, and for another I fully intend for the both of us to live to a ripe old age. You’re going to be the first retired Woodjin, with a pension plan and everything, and we’ll sit by the fire telling Jordan’s grandchildren the story of how we met.”

“That’s a beautiful image,” Elijah said. He sounded almost wistful.

“We’ll live it someday,” Sean said.

“How can you be so positive?”

“Well, I already told Hannah I intend for us to celebrate our golden anniversary, and you wouldn’t want to make a liar out of me, would you?”

“No, I wouldn’t ever want to do that,” Elijah agreed, and his tense grip on Sean’s hand relaxed.

They had reached the tree line, and Sean was relieved that the path Pete had traveled was not the same one that he and Elijah had taken with the Devil on their heels, but another path that lay about a hundred yards west. He wasn’t anxious to revisit that scene. They didn’t speak as they stepped into the shadows of the pines, and before they’d walked twenty yards, Elijah was proved right. A red fox crept cautiously out of the underbrush, and froze, ears pricked as he eyed them warily.

“Wait here,” Elijah instructed him and Maggie, and walked slowly forward.

Elijah had already given Sean enough astonishing memories to last a lifetime. Yet here was one more, an encounter that would remain indelibly printed in his mind forever. The fox, like his mate, was a magnificent animal, with the same rich russet fur, black points and white-tipped tail. His amber eyes appeared bright and filled with intelligence. Elijah crouched in front of him, the hem of his coat trailing in the snow, and stretched out his hand. The fox stepped close and touched the tip of his black nose to Elijah’s fingers.

As if that contact held an unspoken invitation, Elijah moved his hand and rested it on the fox’s thick ruff. Then he bowed his head and began a silent communion with the wild animal, who stood like a statue, suffering Elijah’s touch. The wind whistled eerily through the trees, the pine needles whispered their secrets, and Sean watched, spellbound, his eyes riveted to that small hand that held such power. At last Elijah dropped his hand and rose to his feet. For a long moment he and the fox stared at each other, and then, like a ghost, the fox was gone, vanished.

Elijah turned around, and to his dismay Sean could see the silver trails of tears running down his cheeks. Maggie bounded forward, crying her distress, and wound anxiously around his legs.

“Elijah, what’s wrong?” Sean demanded, hurrying to him. “The fox?”

“He won’t come past the edge of the woods, Sean,” Elijah said sadly. “He wants to be with his mate, but he’s too afraid.”

“It won’t be for long, though. You said her injuries should heal just fine.” Sean tried to console Elijah, but the tears only ran faster, and Elijah wiped them away with the backs of his fingers. “He’ll be reunited with her soon.”

“You don’t understand.” Elijah’s eyes were anguished as they met his. “It’s me. I’m the fox: too afraid to venture beyond the edge of the wood. You’re leaving tomorrow, for who knows how long, and I can’t follow where you’re going. If something were to happen to you out there, I couldn’t be with you, any more than the fox can be with his mate.”

“Oh Elijah.” Sean pulled him close, and Elijah bowed his head against Sean’s chest. His shoulders were shaking and his muffled sobs tore at Sean’s heart. It was only natural after all he’d been through, having pushed himself physically and mentally to his very limits, that Elijah should finally succumb to tears, but that didn’t make it any easier to hear him cry.

“And darn it, Sean,” Elijah finally whispered, “we didn’t even get to have sex. I love my sister, but why did she have to show up just then?”

“I’ve asked myself that same question about a thousand times, Elijah,” Sean said wryly. “Maybe it was for the best. We were both so exhausted that it might have ended up being a non-event.”

“That’s not the impression I got,” Elijah said, and he sounded more like himself again.

“I guess I need to think that, or I’ll lose my mind,” Sean joked, and Elijah laughed. “Better?” he asked softly, and Elijah nodded. “Then how about a kiss before we go back?”

Elijah’s mouth tasted of the salt from his tears, and his breath hitched on a tiny hiccough, but somehow that made their kiss all the sweeter. They drew apart at last, and Elijah complained, “Your nose is cold.” But his eyes were the burning blue of a pines gentian, and a smile was on his lips.

“So is yours,” retorted Sean, rubbing the tip of his nose playfully against Elijah’s. “Ready to face the music and dance, Elwood?”

Follow the Fleet,” Elijah promptly supplied.

“I knew there’s a reason I love you,” Sean replied, and holding Elijah tightly against his side, they walked back to the house with Maggie. 


~*~
“Two of my uncles helped to carry his body out of the swamp,” Katie said. “They took him to Buzby’s General Store on the back of a truck.”

“There’s a memorial for him out on Carranza Road,” Joe Nichols added. “It was built in 1930, two years after the plane crash. Every penny of the money was donated by schoolchildren in Mexico.”

“The American Legion holds a ceremony at the memorial on the anniversary of his death,” put in Bill. “Why, you could highball by there every day for the rest of the year and not see a soul, but come July 13th, hundreds of people show up from Mexico and all over. Emilio Carranza ain’t been forgotten, and it’s been nearly eighty years.”

There was a general nodding of heads at this from the twenty-odd people gathered in the kitchen. The number had fluctuated all afternoon as pineys came and went, bringing even more food with them until Sean calculated Elijah wouldn’t have to cook for himself for at least a month, possibly longer.

“You’ll have to show me the memorial when I return, Elijah” Sean said to the young man who was sitting between Katie and Bill on the other side of the table. “I’d like to see it.”

“I stop by every few days,” Katie said. “Sometimes teenagers from outside will have parties there at night, and they leave their beer bottles and trash lying around.” She shook her head. “The police don’t have time, so I clean up the mess, make sure the place stays nice.”

“Parents outside don’t raise their young’uns with respect for others,” said Budd Harris. “No piney child would behave like that.”

There was more nodding of heads in agreement.

To his right, Martha asked sotto voce, “Would you like another cup of coffee, Sean?” She gave him a sympathetic smile. He supposed he must look pretty wrecked by now. He was definitely feeling the effects of the past few largely sleepless nights.

“Thanks.” Sean handed her his empty mug, and she got up and went to the coffee maker, that had been going non-stop all day. His eyes met Elijah’s across the table, and he marveled at how rested the younger man looked. Elijah was dressed in jeans and the red plaid flannel shirt he’d been wearing that first day, when he’d cooked Sean pancakes. The shirt was buttoned over his sling-confined right arm, hiding it from view, and his eyes were clear, alert and astonishingly blue. No one would ever guess that it wasn’t even forty-eight hours since he’d suffered a bullet wound.

But Elijah had slept for a solid seven hours straight after they got back, and had only joined the party in the kitchen about an hour ago, after Ian, between rounds, had stopped in, changed his bandage and given him the green light to get up. “Although I shouldn’t simply on principle,” the doctor had said gruffly, “after the stunt you pulled this morning.”

On their return to the house, Sean and Elijah had found Ian, Katie, Bill, Pete, Hannah and Jordan awaiting them in the kitchen. Jordan, sitting in a high chair with a bottle of milk and a small mountain of Cheerios, had been the only one who greeted them with unalloyed delight, kicking his legs and calling, “Lijah! Lijah!”

The others had seemed in varying degrees torn between hugging them in relief and smacking them upside the head for being so foolish, especially when they caught sight of Elijah’s still-puffy eyes and tear-stained cheeks.

But Ian and Katie had immediately swooped on Elijah and whisked him off to his bedroom, wasting no time on recriminations. Sean had gone with them, and been drafted as doctor’s assistant in Martha’s absence. Ian had looked distinctly pleased at the state of Elijah’s wounded shoulder, which was clearly healing well, although he’d used a full complement of annoying ‘hmms’ simply, Sean suspected, to punish him. The doctor had declared Elijah a lot luckier than he deserved, shot Sean a sour look that said, “It’s a good thing, too, or you’d be toast,” and then asked Elijah to tell him about the fox’s injuries and what he’d done to treat them.

“You’re an old fraud,” Sean had wanted to say as Ian gently promised Elijah that he’d look in on the fox before he left. But he’d decided not to push his luck. He was still alive, after all.

After downing another dish of herb tea without complaint, Elijah had fallen asleep, his hand tucked beneath his cheek like a child. When he was sure that Elijah was out for the count, Sean had gone to shower and shave, fill the now-wakeful Fred in on what was happening, and then get himself some breakfast. By then pineys had started to arrive, each of them seeming intent on embarrassing the hell out of Sean by handing him yet another container of food, expressing undying gratitude to him for saving the Woodjin’s life and then making him squirm by calling him a hero.

Sean had always had a good head for remembering names, a knack honed over the years of running Clicktwice and promoting the company at expos and conventions all over the world. But after a few hours, his head was whirling with Browers and Jenkinses and Browns and Whites and Harrises and Leeks and Adams, for every introduction was accompanied by a lengthy explanation of how the person in question was related to every other family in the pines, either by marriage, blood or friendship.

Like Katie, these pineys were reticent until he asked the first question, and then the floodgates opened. They were marvelous storytellers, one and all, and Sean listened raptly to their tales about the pines. In addition to Emilio Carranza, the Mexican Lindbergh whose plane went down in the pines on a goodwill flight from New York to Mexico City, Sean heard about other colorful characters from pines lore: the African-American James Still, known as the Doctor of the Pines, who became renowned for his medical skills in the 19th century, and Salt Caesar, a woodcutter who could reputedly chop ten cords of wood a day. There was Jerry Munyhon, a wizard of distinctly unusual talents, who could convince a woman that she was walking through thigh-deep water instead of on dry land so she’d give her skirts a hike, and Peggy Clevenger, a witch who could turn herself into a rabbit. There was much good-natured ribbing and arguing over the facts of these stories, and Sean found himself wondering how much actual truth there was to them, like the one about Fiddler Sammy Buck and the Air Tune he played, a song of such haunting beauty that it saved him from being taken to hell by the Devil. A tune, Sean was assured, that still existed, just beyond the range of human hearing.

The Devil featured in any number of their stories, and had he not seen the creature for himself, he’d have considered it all good-natured pulling of the foreigner’s leg by a bunch of locals. But every piney seemed to have seen him at least once, and there was a look of remembered horror in their eyes that couldn’t be faked. He felt certain that the same look would be in his own eyes when he spoke about his encounter with the legendary creature years from now.

“Besides,” Emily Harris, Budd’s wife, was saying now, “no one with a lick of sense would drive into the pines at night. Foreigners don’t believe the Devil really exists, and if it weren’t for our Woodjin, many of them would never come back out again alive.”

“I wouldn’t have, that’s for certain,” Sean agreed.

Emily blushed scarlet. “I beg your pardon, Sean. I didn’t mean to imply that you haven’t got a lick of sense.”

“That’s all right, Emily,” Sean laughed. “Following that light was not the smartest thing I’ve ever done.” Although it led to my meeting Elijah, so in reality it was the smartest thing I’ve ever done. “But I’m curious: who or what exactly is the Devil?”

All eyes turned at once to Elijah, and Sean was struck again by the extreme deference with which these people, all of whom were old enough to be either his parents or grandparents, treated him. It also drove home to him the fact that there wasn’t a native piney in the room, outside Hannah and Elijah, who was under fifty years old.

What Elijah and Katie had both said was true: the old ways of life in the pines were dying and young people weren’t staying, but going outside to find work and build their lives. No wonder Elijah was lonely. These were good people who loved Elijah dearly, but he would always be first and foremost the Woodjin, and an object of reverence to them.

Sean had even seen it in their attitude toward Jordan, although the tiny Woodjin-to-be, who was currently down for a nap, was such a charmer that as he was passed from lap to lap, it was impossible for anyone to maintain a reverent distance from him. But what would Jordan’s lot in life be when he eventually became Woodjin? Sean wondered. Who would be left, even to reverence him, once all these people were gone?

“Do you remember me telling you that most of the stories about the Devil are apocryphal?” Elijah asked, bringing Sean’s attention back to the topic at hand.

“I remember.” I remember every word you’ve ever said to me, Elijah. Had there not been a fascinated audience raptly listening, Sean would’ve said it aloud. But a faint smile crept into Elijah’s eyes, and Sean thought he might have heard the unspoken words, too.

“There are a number of theories about the origins of the Devil,” Elijah began. “You’ve probably heard the most common one—that he’s the child of a Mrs. Leeds, who when she discovered that she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, made a wish that he would be born a devil, and so he was.”

“I have, but I take it there’s no truth to it?” Looking around the room, Sean could see the pineys grimacing or smiling with rueful amusement at what was clearly to them a preposterous story.

“Not a word of truth to it,” Elijah said. “The Devil isn’t a deformed human with wings. He’s not an oversized fruit bat, a sand-hill crane or a pterodactyl, either. Believe it or not, those are all theories that are embraced by outsiders.”

“Having seen him for myself, I know for sure those last three theories are completely bogus,” Sean said, nearly shuddering at the memory of pitiless red eyes, vast wings and skin like scorched earth. “But then what is the true explanation?”

“The true explanation is the one that people outside the pines give the least credit to, I suppose because in many ways it’s the most frightening. But the real truth is that he’s a demon, Sean, a spirit from the underworld. In the craze to mine for bog iron in the eighteenth century, some of the miners grew foolish and greedy. They dug deeper than they should have searching for more and more ore, and released him into our world.”

“Like the Dwarves in Moria,” Sean remarked, struck by the similarity of the stories. What was it Tolkien had written about the Dwarves? Something like ‘they dug too greedily and too deep’.

“That’s right,” Elijah said. “I suppose you could call him a sort of Balrog.”

Judging from the number of blank expressions that greeted this exchange, most of the pineys hadn’t read Tolkien, so Sean explained, “It’s from a book, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.”

“A book based in part on existing legends,” Martha said thoughtfully. “How interesting, Sean. I never looked at the Devil that way. Who knows how many other such legends might in fact be true?”

“My dad thought that a lot of them probably were true,” Elijah replied earnestly, leaning forward with his elbow on the table. “Other demonic tales exist that are remarkably like ours, Martha. There’s good reason to believe that demons have been let into the world in other countries; the stories are too similar for it to be sheer coincidence.”

Not a happy thought, Sean decided, unless they had their own Woodjins, too. “But if the Devil is a demon released into our world, why doesn’t he ever leave the pines?”

“Because in some way we don’t quite understand, he’s tied to the place where he was released,” Elijah explained. “He can only travel so far from it, and no more.”

“And where is that place?” Sean wanted to know.

Elijah lifted his left shoulder in a shrug. “No one knows, not even me. It must be one of the old bog iron mines, but there’s a glamour over it that hides it from view. Just as he can’t cross the wards around this property, I can’t see where he lives.”

“So there’s no possibility of finding and destroying him, or forcing him back underground?” Sean was disappointed, for in light of what Elijah had told him about the dangers of being Woodjin, the idea of hunting down the Devil and getting rid of him once and for all was very, very appealing.

Elijah shook his head. “No, not so far as I know.”

There was a short, uneasy silence; not a person in the room, Sean thought, save perhaps Pete Gunner, could contemplate that reality without a chill. Generations of pineys had lived with a monster in their midst, and between them and that monster stood only the Woodjin. It was a frighteningly awesome responsibility that Elijah and his ancestors bore.

“But look at it this way, Sean,” Elijah went on lightly, “I’ll never be out of a job no matter how bad the economy gets.”

The building tension in the room was released as everyone laughed, and Sean had never admired Elijah more. But just then Elijah went suddenly still, and a far-off look appeared in his eyes, as if he was hearing something no one else could hear.

“Hannah,” he said, turning to look at his sister, “Jordan’s waking up from his nap.”

Hannah was sitting with Pete in the corner on the far side of the hutch. Just as Rocky had sought the safety of his refrigerator top, where he was observing the goings on with suspicion, the old man had retreated to the furthest corner of the room, seeming overwhelmed with shyness at the sight of so many people, even though they were mostly people he knew well. Hannah was holding his hand, and Sean found the sight of the tall, gaunt, ragged old man and the elfin young woman with her fashionable haircut and clothes an oddly touching one.

“Thanks, Lij.” Hannah released Pete’s hand, and stood up. “I was about to go and wake him anyway. He’ll be ready for a bottle and a diaper change.” She and Katie exchanged a significant look, and Sean wondered what it meant. “And my brother needs to rest,” she added in a no-nonsense voice, looking around the room, “so I’m afraid we’re going to have to break up the party now.”

Hannah would have made a great general, Sean thought, amused. Within seconds, or so it seemed, she and Katie had mustered the troops, and people were donning coats and hats and taking their leave. Each and every piney came to Elijah to ask for his blessing; Elijah being Elijah, they also got a hug. As Sean shook hands with these people who had welcomed him with unqualified kindness, he looked forward to the day that he became part of their extended family and hopefully earned the right to call himself a piney.

“You’ll be coming back, Sean?” Pete asked. His soft, slurred voice sounded anxious.

“I’m not exactly sure when, but I will be back, Pete, I promise.” He took the old man’s trembling hand between his own and pressed it.

Pete nodded. “Maybe the Woodjin can bring you to visit me. The road ain’t been scienced where I live, so it’s quiet and peaceful. My cabin ain’t much to look at, but I built it right by a bog, and it’s as pretty a place as you’ll ever set eyes on.”

“It sounds wonderful,” Sean said sincerely. “I look forward to seeing it. But you’re not walking home, are you?”

“I’ll be riding with the Harrises. They bean’t living too far from me.”

“Good.” Sean was relieved. He felt drawn to this strange, shy, good-hearted old man who had carried an injured fox for miles through the woods on a bitter-cold night. He hoped they would become friends.

Martha gave him a warm hug and her business card. “I’m in the city on a regular basis, Sean. If you ever want to have lunch or dinner, or just talk, give me a call.”

“I’ll do that,” Sean said, sliding the small buff card into the back pocket of his jeans.

When everyone save Bill and Katie had gone, Hannah heated a bottle of milk for Jordan in the microwave, and then disappeared. Bill, who had taken over caring for the animals while Elijah recuperated, went out to the barn to give them their evening meal. Katie instructed Sean and Elijah to stay put at the table and relax, and then started gathering up the empty coffee mugs.

Perhaps he was punchy from lack of sleep, but Sean was suddenly overcome with a mischievous impulse. He grinned slyly at Elijah and stuck his stocking foot out under the table to tickle Elijah’s bare toes. He’d tried playing footsie with Chris a couple of times, only to have her look at him as if he had two heads, and make a withering comment about adults who acted like children. Somehow he thought Elijah wouldn’t react quite the same way.

Elijah jumped as Sean’s foot touched his, bit his lip, and glanced at Katie, who was humming to herself as she dumped a used coffee filter into the garbage. Then he slid his own toes up under the hem of Sean’s pants leg, and lightly stroked the back of his ankle.

Feeling absurdly light-hearted, Sean retaliated. Katie was too busy loading the dishwasher, shoehorning leftovers into a refrigerator that was packed to the gills, and wiping off the counters, to notice that their replies to her suggestions about which of the leftovers they should have for dinner were distracted.

Just as she closed the dishwasher door and turned the machine on, Hannah appeared. To Sean’s surprise, she was dressed for the outdoors, and she had the quilted diaper bag slung over her shoulder.

“We’re ready, Katie,” Hannah announced. “Bill’s putting Jordan in his car seat.”

“Hannah? What’s going on?” Elijah asked, sitting up straight in a hurry.

“Jordan and I are spending the night with Katie and Bill,” she replied.

“You are?” Elijah’s voice rose and ended with a squeak.

“Yes, we are,” she said firmly. “What time are you leaving in the morning, Sean?”

“Eight o’clock,” Sean replied. He now understood what the look that had passed between the two women earlier had meant. Hannah had planned it all in advance. She was leaving the field clear so that he and Elijah would have a chance to spend their remaining hours together alone. Sean pushed back his chair and stood, resisting the urge to grab Hannah and whirl her around. In the face of her uncertainty and doubt about their relationship, it couldn’t have been an easy decision for her to make, and he was beyond grateful.

“Then I’ll see you both around 7:30.”

Elijah rose from the table and went to his sister. They held each other tightly, blonde hair and auburn intermingling as they rocked back and forth. “Thank you,” Sean heard him say softly.

“Yeah, well, I kind of owe you one after last night,” Hannah admitted. “I know my timing sucked.”

Katie folded the dishtowel and set it on the counter. Then she unrolled the cuffs of her sweater sleeves, and proclaimed, “I’m all done.” She held out her arms to Sean, and gave him a tight hug. “We’ll miss you, Sean,” she said warmly, and he could see the sincerity shining in her tea-brown eyes. “Don’t let those city folks keep you away from us too long.”

“I’ll try not to let them,” Sean promised her, hugging her back just as hard, “and I’ll miss you, too, Katie.”

Then Katie embraced Elijah, and warned him not to overdo it—an admonishment that caused Hannah to clap her hand over her mouth against a fit of giggles. Her laughing eyes met Sean’s, and he knew that she not only had not the slightest doubt what was going to happen after she left, but that she was okay with it.

“I’ll see you in the morning, Sean,” she said, giving him a quick hug. Then in the twinkling of an eye, almost as if by magic, Hannah and Katie were gone, and the kitchen was empty except for Elijah and him, a calico cat and a gray squirrel.

To all intents and purposes, they were alone.

Sean and Elijah stared at each other incredulously, stunned by the swiftness of this totally unexpected development.

“I think I love your sister,” Sean remarked. Elijah raised his eyebrows. “In a purely platonic, fraternal way, of course.”

“Good thing. You haven’t met Lawrence yet.”

“Big guy, is he?”

“Makes about three of me.”

“To be honest, your sister scares me more.” Sean was only half joking.

Elijah grinned. “She’ll come around, never fear.”

“I hope so.”

“So, what do we do now?” Elijah said, changing the topic.

Sean smiled and held out his arms. “Do you really have to ask?”

***

“I have this sinking sensation that it’s simply too good to be true,” Sean said, drawing back. Their kiss had been overshadowed by a sense of impending doom that left neither fully able to lose himself in their embrace.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. The odds are someone will show up looking for a hat or glove or scarf they left behind,” Elijah agreed gloomily. “It’s inevitable.”

“How about we get ourselves a beer and go relax in the family room for a while, until we’re sure the coast is clear?” Sean suggested.

“A beer?” Elijah asked eagerly, his eyes lighting up.

Sean laughed. “I take it that plan meets with your approval.”

He dug through the packed refrigerator until he unearthed two bottles of Shiner Bock, and held them up with a triumphant “Voila!”

“Good thing Dr. Ian isn’t here to see this,” remarked Elijah with ill-disguised glee, as Sean found a bottle opener and popped the caps.

“What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him,” Sean said, handing him his Shiner Bock.

They started to move toward the door, when Elijah stopped and looked back. “Aren’t you coming, Rocky?” he asked the squirrel, who was still sitting atop the refrigerator as if even more dubious than Sean and Elijah that they were really and truly alone. But after one last suspicious glance around the kitchen, he appeared to decide to risk it. He leapt down to the counter and ran along its length until he was close enough to Sean to jump onto his shoulder. A spate of indecipherable Rocky-chatter was translated for him by Elijah. “Well, let’s just put it this way, Sean,” he said, his voice trembling with laughter, “if you were a nut, you’d be an acorn, and that’s the highest compliment Rocky can give someone.”

When they reached the family room, Rocky scrambled down from his shoulder, and Sean went to feed the woodstove while Elijah turned on the stereo.

“Can we listen to that Stone Roses album again?” Sean asked. It was important somehow that everything be as much like their first evening together as possible. He had a strange feeling that he was being given a second chance to relive the events of that night, sort of like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Only I’m going to get the ending right this time, he vowed.

“Sure,” Elijah replied. He flipped one-handed through the binder until he found the plastic sleeve that held the CD, then slid it out and put it in the player.

As the music started, Elijah settled cross-legged on the richly colored Navajo rug with his beer, and leaned his back against the sofa. As if on cue, Maggie and Rocky curled up again together in front of the woodstove, and small clouds of white streamed from the snout of the dragon steamer on top of it.

Déjà vu all over again, Sean thought, as he walked over to the sofa and sat down in the same place he had the first time. “Do you ever actually use this couch the way it’s meant to be used?” he asked. “You know, for sitting on?”

“Not usually. I can’t stretch my legs out and still sit up.” Elijah uncrossed his legs and demonstrated, wriggling his bare toes for good measure.

“There’s a peculiar logic in that explanation,” Sean said, smiling.

Elijah inched over, wriggling his butt, until his side was pressed warm against the length of Sean’s calf. The heat of Elijah’s body seeping through the leg of his jeans reminded Sean of the stag, and that never-to-be-forgotten journey through the starlit pines.

Elijah tilted his head back to look at Sean, and for a brief moment, Sean seemed to see superimposed over the flawless perfection of Elijah’s face, the equally flawless perfection of the white stag, and the blue eyes that met his own were both Elijah’s eyes and the eyes that first captivated him across a sandy clearing in the woods. And then the stag’s image shimmered and dissolved away. But stag or human, Sean loved him.

“I wanted to sit close to you like this last time, while we were watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Elijah confessed.

“And I wanted you to sit close like this last time.” Sean hovered on the verge of confession as I Wanna Be Adored played in the background, thinking about how he’d sat on the floor of his study at the beach house, aroused and aching and filled with despair. “Elijah…”

“What is it?” Elijah’s brow wrinkled into upside-down lines.

“When I was at the shore, I downloaded The Stone Roses from iTunes. Then I… well, I jerked off to this song, thinking about you.”

A tinge of pink appeared on Elijah’s cheeks. “You did?”

“Oh god, maybe I shouldn’t have told you that.” Sean’s own cheeks were burning. Great, now he’d embarrassed Elijah by his inability to keep his big mouth shut.

“Why shouldn’t you have told me? You can tell me anything, Sean. Besides, how could I possibly mind?” He gave Sean a mischievous look from under his lashes. “You bought a Stone Roses album because of me.”

Sean grinned, relieved, and reached down to ruffle Elijah’s hair; this time Elijah didn’t shy away. God, he loved the feel of Elijah’s hair: it was as soft and plush as mink, and he let his hand linger, running the shining auburn strands through his fingers, delighting in the sensation. Matt-the-Fucker never got to do this, Sean thought with satisfaction.

Elijah heaved a sigh of pure contentment, and Sean pushed his hand deeper, intending to massage Elijah’s scalp with his fingertips. And then his forefinger brushed against the hard, ridged edge of one of the pedicles; obeying some instinct he didn’t understand, he circled the pad of his finger over the softer, slightly yielding center. Elijah’s breath caught; he let out an involuntary moan, and it was definitely a moan of pleasure not pain.

Intrigued by this unexpected reaction, Sean repeated the motion, but pressed down harder, and Elijah moaned again. His eyelids had drifted downward, and a hectic flush stained his cheekbones. His chest was rising and falling rapidly, and he shifted restlessly in a way that could mean only one thing: he found what Sean was doing intensely arousing.

“Does that feel good?” Sean asked, stroking the pedicle again.

“Ah… yeah.” Elijah sounded almost dazed. “I had no idea…” He opened his eyes and looked up, and once more the pupils were so enlarged that only a thin rim of intense blue could be seen. His breath was coming fast through parted lips, and Sean could no more have resisted their unspoken invitation than a honeybee could have resisted the sweet nectar of a flower. The crucial moment had arrived, the chance to get the ending right this time, and Sean didn’t hesitate.

Setting his beer aside, Sean dipped his head to capture those full lips in a suckling kiss, tasting Shiner Bock and the whisky-rich, velvet-smooth nectar that was pure Elijah. The scents of pinesap, woodsmoke and dried grasses intensified, swirling around them, as Elijah’s hand went to the nape of his neck to pull him deeper into the kiss. His palm was damp from holding the sweating beer bottle, and an electric sensation shivered down Sean’s spine at the cool touch on his overheated skin.

But the positions in which they were sitting made lovemaking awkward, so Sean twisted around and slid down from the couch, straddling the younger man’s lap with his knees. He delved both hands into Elijah’s hair, and caressed the pedicles with his thumbs.

“Ohhhh.” The long, drawn out moan was torn from Elijah’s throat, and Sean reveled in the sound and in the hardness of the erection pressing against his own rapidly hardening groin. He ground his hips down, rubbing taut denim against taut denim, and Elijah cried out and his body jerked spasmodically. Sean clamped his mouth over Elijah’s, drinking down the ecstatic whimpers as he rocked gently against him.

Elijah’s good hand began scrabbling at Sean’s sweatshirt, tugging at it imperatively, and Sean finally relinquished Elijah’s mouth and sat back, breathing hard. He crossed his hands at the hem of both sweatshirt and undershirt and in one smooth motion pulled them both over his head and flung them away. Immediately, Elijah was devouring his naked chest, shoulders and arms with greedy eyes, and the body Sean had always thought inadequate seemed suddenly desirable, and burned wherever the heat of that blue, blue gaze touched it.

“You’re gorgeous,” Elijah whispered, almost reverently, and reached out with fingers that trembled. “Even in the woods after I’d been shot, I wanted to touch you.” He stroked his fingers up Sean’s right arm, then along the line of shoulder and collarbone, and moved down over the swell of pectoral muscle, pausing to circle briefly around his nipple before threading through the crisp mat of hair, and following it south to where it narrowed and disappeared below the waistband of Sean’s jeans. A trail of fire lingered on Sean’s skin wherever Elijah had touched him.

“Your turn now,” Sean said hoarsely, and with fingers that shook almost as badly as Pete’s, he undid the buttons of the flannel shirt. Elijah leaned forward so that Sean could pull it free from behind him, and then it, too, was flung away. Sean already knew how that perfect, pale skin tasted beneath his lips, and he wanted to feast on it again, and to feel it against his own. But that would require some rearranging of positions.

“Elijah, let’s move over here,” he suggested, and shifted away, to lay back full length on the carpet. “It’ll be safer for your shoulder if you’re on top.” Elijah scrambled eagerly to his knees, and then he was the one doing the straddling, settling atop Sean’s thighs, so that their arousals were brought into stunning contact.

It’s going to happen, Sean realized in an odd moment of crystalline clarity. It’s really going to happen now. And somehow the enormity of that truth filled him with paralyzing terror as the twin demons of self-doubt and inadequacy that had increasingly plagued him over the unhappy years reared their ugly heads. As Elijah leaned in eagerly toward him, he held him off with one hand at his left shoulder.

It took a moment for Elijah to figure out that something was wrong. “Sean, what is it?” he demanded. “Oh no, please don’t tell me you hear someone coming!” It was almost a wail.

“No, it’s not that. It’s—Elijah, I- I’m afraid,” Sean confessed.

“You’re afraid?” Elijah repeated, staring down at him incredulously. “You? The man who stood up to the Jersey Devil?”

“I’ve never made love to a guy before. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I thought I’d have to time to read up on it first.”

Elijah looked as if he badly wanted either to laugh or scream, or possibly both. “Sean, it’s the first time for me, too. But we’re both bright guys, and it’s not rocket science—we don’t need diagrams or instruction manuals.”

Sean moved his hand to cradle Elijah’s flushed cheek. “But I want it to be perfect for you, Elijah. I don’t want to mess this up.” Nothing had ever seemed so important.

Elijah’s reaction was to roll his eyes in disbelief. “There’s only one possible response to that,” he said, and then he growled: “Go ahead, make my day.

As if the words held some sort of magic spell, Sean’s fear vanished as quickly as it had appeared; desire roared back into life, and then they were kissing again, wildly, as if it was necessary to make up even that short amount of lost time. Sean spread his legs wider so that Elijah could stretch out full length against him, cradled in the juncture of his thighs, and the first touch of Elijah’s silken smooth chest against his own was like setting a match to dry tinder.

It was difficult in the intensity of the fire that consumed them to be mindful of Elijah’s injury, but the brush of rough linen from Elijah’s sling kept some small part of him grounded and aware, even when Elijah began to drag his chest back and forth against Sean’s, the exquisite friction driving him nearly mad. He couldn’t wrap his arms around Elijah’s back and crush him to him, the way he wanted. Instead, he forced his hands to rest at Elijah’s hips, gripping hard enough to leave bruises, while Elijah tasted Sean’s skin, pressing hot kisses to the side of his neck, and licking at the sweat that had gathered in the hollow at the base of his throat.

A wordless hum of pleasure escaped Elijah as he slid down to bury his face in Sean’s sweat-dampened chest hair, breathing deeply, and then he turned his attention to one of the flat copper discs surrounded by a whorl of bronze-gold hair. He laved the nipple with the flat of his tongue before taking the tiny nub in his mouth and suckling hard. The effect was like fireworks exploding along every nerve ending, and Sean’s back arched involuntarily as he cried out.

“Sean,” Elijah murmured, raising his head to look at him. “Sean, you’re so beautiful.” And seeing himself reflected in Elijah’s eyes, for the first time in his life, Sean truly felt that he was. Elijah’s unsteady fingers went to the button of Sean’s jeans and fumbled with it. “I want to see the rest of you,” he said, his gaze falling to the blatant evidence of Sean’s arousal straining against his jeans.

“Hang on. Let me get it.” Sean unfastened the button just in time, for Elijah was already tugging at the bulging zipper. Each tug was torture and ecstasy rolled into one, and the moment the rasping sound ceased, Sean started shoving at his jeans as if he was going for the world stripping record. Somehow, he managed to get both jeans and boxers over his erection, down to his ankles and kicked away with Elijah still straddling his legs—no mean feat. The look of profound awe on Elijah’s face when he finally saw the rest of Sean, in particular that aching, pulsing part of him that now stood stiffly at attention from a nest of dark gold curls, was an ego rush the likes of which Sean had never known. He could live on it for years—decades—hell, millennia.

“Wow,” Elijah breathed in wide-eyed wonder, “lucky me.”

Sean tilted his head back and laughed, a helpless, giddy laugh that morphed into an involuntary moan as Elijah ran an exploratory finger along the length of his cock, and around the crown. “Elijah,” he bit out, “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. I’m about to go off like a rocket. It won’t take much, believe me. God, I could come just from the way you’re looking at me.”

“Don’t you dare,” Elijah warned, and for a guy with just one functional arm, he was out of his own jeans and boxers in a pretty impressively quick time, too. Sean barely got a glimpse of Elijah’s cock, flushed rose and glistening with dampness, before the young man was covering him with his body. Sean hooked his ankles over the backs of Elijah’s calves, cupped his palms over the satin smoothness of his buttocks, and pulled him in, trapping their erections tightly between them.

For a long moment they remained like that, in an almost trancelike state of total bliss, looking deep into each other’s eyes. But their throbbing cocks were demanding action, and Elijah braced his forearm on the carpet beside Sean’s head, took his mouth in a fierce, possessive kiss, and began to move against him. His movements were hesitant and a bit awkward at first as he tried to find the right angle, but he soon found a rhythm that suited them both, and their cocks were sliding against each other, slick and hot. Their kiss deepened, tongues dancing to the beat of the music that pulsed in the air around them. One of Sean’s hands dove into Elijah’s hair and stroked the nearest pedicle, and Elijah’s movements immediately quickened, he whimpered against Sean’s lips, and the wild pines tang around them grew ever stronger, so that they might almost have been making love outside in the woods.

Sean hadn’t been exaggerating about being ready to go off like a rocket; far too soon, his orgasm was cresting like a wave inside him, rising up with a power and intensity that he’d never come close to experiencing before. Elijah suddenly tore his mouth away, and buried his burning face in Sean’s shoulder, almost sobbing, and the sudden, jerky motion of his hips told Sean that he was riding the crest of the same wave. There was a moment when time seemed suspended, the wave at its peak, as both men stiffened simultaneously, and in a mad blur of intense sensation release thundered through Sean. His body spasmed again and again, and he lost all sense of direction and self, as if he was actually caught in a tidal wave and being tumbled helplessly in the surf. It was terrifying and glorious and he clung to the only anchor he could find in the maelstrom: the sharp cry that was his name on Elijah’s lips. When he finally came back to himself, he had made it safely to shore, with Elijah sprawled limply on top of him. Warm wetness pooled on his belly, and Sean was dimly aware that it was Elijah’s seed as well as his own, and the knowledge filled him with elation.

“Oh wow.”

Sean wasn’t positive who had spoken, but he was at least positive that it was one of the two of them, and not some relative with a poor sense of timing. But even if it was… they’d done it. Hallelujah, he thought jubilantly, they’d done it! Of course, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to move again for the foreseeable future, or possibly ever, but who cared?

Elijah slowly raised his head and stared at Sean, his expression solemn. With his ruffled hair and round, unblinking eyes, he bore an uncanny resemblance to an owl. And then he smiled. It was a smile so radiant that Sean suspected if a plane were flying 30,000 feet overhead at that moment, the passengers could look down and pinpoint their exact location.

“Well, I’d say you definitely made my day.” Elijah propped himself up on Sean’s chest, and instead of an owl, he now resembled a cat who had got at the cream. Sean expected him to start licking his whiskers like Maggie any second.

“I guess I’m never going to live that down, am I?” Sean said, pillowing one arm behind his head, the better to admire the lean, smoothly muscled back and shapely buttocks draped over him, a view he’d not had time to appreciate fully before.

“Are you kidding? Sudden Impact has now replaced Harvey as my all-time favorite movie,” Elijah declared. “I’m ordering a copy from Amazon and we’ll watch it every day.”

“Have a thing for Clint Eastwood, do you?” Sean cocked an eyebrow.

Elijah giggled. “Nope, but I do for a certain guy who makes him look like a total wimp.”

Sean colored with embarrassment, and Elijah leaned in and placed a tender kiss at the corner of his eye.

“That’s another thing I’ve wanted to do, ever since I took you to the cedar swamp. I love your eyes, Sean. I love you.” He kissed the corner of his other eye, and then his mouth, lips clinging briefly and warmly. Then Elijah rested his cheek over Sean’s heart, and said, “I’m happier than a skunk in a whirlwind.”

“So am I,” Sean replied softly as he smoothed Elijah’s spiky hair, “so am I.” They remained like that while their bodies cooled and their heart rates slowed, and it felt as if time’s wingèd chariot slowed, too, perhaps in repayment for the hours already lost. Sean continued to stroke his hand gently over those silky auburn strands, and the love he felt for this extraordinary young man seemed almost more than his heart could contain. He understood at last that perfect happiness really did exist outside the pages of a fairy tale, even if it was only for one brief shining moment, and he meant to hold onto this moment for as long as he possibly could.

Eventually the final notes of the last Stone Roses track died away, and Maggie’s rhythmic purr and the crackle of wood burning in the stove were the only sounds in the room.

Sean shifted a little and winced. He hated to admit it, but his sore back was killing him, and his legs were turning numb. “Elijah,” he said regretfully, “do you remember what I said about being too old to sleep on the floor?”

"You okay?” Elijah asked with quick concern, lifting his head and searching Sean’s face with worried eyes.

“Never better,” Sean reassured him, “but this floor’s a little hard. How about you? How does your shoulder feel?”

“What shoulder?” Elijah joked.

They literally had to peel themselves apart, a process that struck them both somehow as hysterically funny, and then they headed for the bathroom. Sean carried their discarded clothes in one arm, and kept the other around Elijah’s waist. Not to be constantly touching him while he could was somehow unthinkable.

***

“I’m afraid we’re shocking Fred,” Sean commented, coming up for air.

What had started out straightforwardly enough, with a damp washcloth and bayberry soap, had soon turned into sensuous exploration. They were still too satiated for true arousal, but they couldn’t seem to stop kissing and caressing each other. The knowledge that this would be their last opportunity for some unknown length of time was at the back of Sean’s mind, and he knew it was at the back of Elijah’s mind, too.

“Oh, Fred’s not shocked,” Elijah assured him as he brushed a kiss along Sean’s jaw. “He’s crazy about you, and if you’re happy, he’s happy.”

“While I’m delighted to hear that my happiness is Fred’s happiness, let me point out that he’s now facing away from us, Elijah,” Sean said, staring over Elijah’s head at the box turtle, who had with painstakingly slow steps, like an 18-wheeler making a three-point turn, turned his back on their antics.

“He’s just being tactful.” Elijah drew the warm cloth down Sean’s back in a gliding sweep that ended at the base of his spine. “Box turtles are like that, you know.”

“If you say so.” He wondered briefly if Elijah was pulling his leg, but then the hand holding the washcloth moved lower, and he forgot all about box turtle tact, or the lack thereof.

***

Still jumpy about the possibility of unexpected visitors, they dressed before leaving the bathroom. Elijah’s stomach had growled audibly a couple of times, so they made the kitchen their next stop. Neither could remember what Katie had said about the leftovers, so Sean randomly pulled a few Tupperware containers out of the refrigerator, found them two more cold beers, and grabbed some silverware from the drawer.

It was definitely one of the most unusual meals he’d ever eaten, and he’d eaten some very unusual meals during his travels overseas. They fed each other alternating bites of pasta salad, butterscotch pudding, cold broccoli quiche and chocolate pie, interspersed with sips of Shiner Bock. But as Elijah pointed out, the food all ended up together in your stomach anyway, so what did it really matter? And Sean could say with absolute certainty that on Elijah’s lips, the mixture tasted ambrosial.

By that point, they were sharing a chair as well as a fork, and the light-hearted atmosphere that prevailed might have continued had Sean’s eyes not fallen on the wall clock. His heart sank when he noticed the time. It was nearly 8 p.m. In only twelve hours, he would have to leave. Time was speeding up again, as if the hour and minute hands were engaged in a frantic race to reach the morrow.

Elijah sensed the shift in Sean’s mood immediately, and sat back on his lap, bracing his hand on Sean’s chest. He followed the direction of Sean’s gaze, and frowned. Then he grasped Sean’s jaw and gently turned his head until he was looking directly at him. Holding his eyes, Elijah said softly, “Don’t look, Sean. Don’t count the minutes. Don’t let anything ruin this.”

But it was too late. The spell had been broken, and they both knew it. With a final kiss and a sigh, Elijah slid off Sean’s lap.

“Elijah, I’m sorry.” Sean felt terrible for wrecking their happy mood.

“It’s okay,” he said, lightly touching Sean’s arm in reassurance. “We have to go change the fox’s bandage anyway, and I want to see if she’ll eat something. Dr. Ian said she wouldn’t touch anything he offered her, and that’s not good. She needs to keep her strength up.”

They bundled up against the cold and walked across the yard hand-in-hand. There was no need to bring the mag, for the moon was shining brightly enough to light their way. In its silvered radiance Elijah appeared a being of infinite mystery; the subtle hollows and angles of his face were emphasized by faint shadows, and his eyes were glimmering, liquid and deep. Sean halted, and Elijah looked at him questioningly. He said, “I want to remember you like this,” and they stood staring at each other, breaths mingling in white clouds that lingered on the frigid air, until, without a word, they walked on.

The fox was alert and watchful when they entered the barn and turned on the lights. Elijah was pleased. “They’re nocturnal,” he explained to Sean, “so if she wasn’t awake, I’d be worried. Her eyes are clear, and she hasn’t chewed at her bandage. Those are all good signs.”

She proved a cooperative patient once again, and with less necessity for Elijah to calm her. Sean cut away the Vetwrap and gauze with bandage scissors, and already his hands felt more deft and confident as he followed Elijah’s instructions, cleaning and treating and rebandaging the wounds. There was an intimacy in working with Elijah like this, different from the physical intimacy they had shared, but just as fulfilling in its own way. He’d felt it that first time he’d helped Elijah feed the squirrels, and he felt it even more strongly now. He hated to think that after tonight someone else would help Elijah with the fox, and that she would be set free to join her mate while he remained trapped in New York.

Elijah had brought a raw egg for the fox to eat, and he gave it to her after she was returned to her cage. While Sean watched with fascination, she held the egg between her front paws, delicately cracked it with her teeth, and lapped up the yolk. Elijah offered her a little canned cat food, and she ate that, too.

“I told her about her mate,” Elijah said, “and she knows he’s worrying about her and that she needs to get well as quickly as she can.”

Before they left, Sean took a final peek at the baby squirrels, sleeping soundly curled up together in their nest of tissues. It was likely they, too, would be gone by the time he returned. It was a depressing thought, and it must have showed on his face, because Elijah pulled him close and cradled his head against his breast, and said, “Please don’t be sad. Please.” But he sounded as if he was speaking as much to himself as to Sean, and they remained like that for a very long time.

They were both subdued when they returned to the house, and the sight of the half-eaten food on the kitchen table, the fork they’d shared and the empty beer bottles seemed almost cruel to Sean’s eyes now. Everything was a reminder of what he wouldn’t have for the foreseeable future. But nothing smote his heart as hard as the sight of Elijah, for there were dark smudges of weariness under his eyes once more, and he was moving tiredly as he picked up one of the Tupperware containers and carried it over to the sink.

“Leave the dishes, Elijah,” Sean said gently, “and let’s go to bed.”

They undressed each other by the light of the fire, not with their earlier desperate passion, but with slow, careful tenderness. This time it wasn’t about sex, but about the need to store up memories against the lonely days ahead. The flickering flames cast a warm glow over Elijah’s pale skin, and Sean couldn’t decide whether Elijah was more beautiful by sunlight, moonlight or firelight. Soon I’ll have the rest of my life to make up my mind. He clung to the hope fiercely as they climbed into bed.

There was an aching sense of familiarity in how Elijah fitted himself against Sean, throwing one slender muscled thigh across Sean’s legs, and tucking his head into the hollow of his neck. Elijah yawned and rubbed his cheek against Sean’s shoulder, like a tired kitten, and that was Sean’s last conscious thought before sleep pulled him under fathoms deep.

He woke to pale gray light suffusing the room, and immediately berated himself as an idiot for wasting so much precious time in sleep. At some point during the night, he and Elijah had shifted so that he was spooned around the younger man’s back, snugged up against him from chin to toes. His cock had apparently woken up before the rest of him, and was now curving hotly between the smooth round globes of Elijah’s buttocks. A quick glance down showed that the corresponding part of Elijah had woken early, too, and Sean’s gaze lingered, given an opportunity it had not had the previous night to study Elijah’s erect cock.

It was typical guy behavior to compare penis sizes, although that wasn’t why Sean was looking. Elijah wasn’t as large as he was, but he had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. He wondered how it would feel to touch Elijah there; he hadn’t had an opportunity to do that, either. It would be a shame to leave without knowing… Well, no time like the present. His right hand had been splayed at Elijah’s waist; he moved it downward and wrapped his fingers around the base of his shaft. It was firm, full and slightly damp, and the vein that ran along the underside from root to crown was pulsing beneath his fingers. He supposed every guy had a certain way he liked to be touched; Sean only knew what he preferred. Would Elijah prefer it, too? What the hell, he decided, and moved his hand in a circular motion.

A low gasp startled him, and Sean turned his head. Slumberous blue eyes met his, and then narrowed as Elijah gave him a drowsy, delighted smile. “Good morning,” he practically purred, and joined his hand to Sean’s over his erection, lacing their fingers together. “I really like the way you wake a guy up.”

There was a dream-like quality to the next minutes, as their joined hands moved languidly on Elijah’s cock, and Sean learned that what pleased him also pleased Elijah. With each twist and pull, Sean slid his cock, slick with wetness, along the crease between Elijah’s buttocks. Their kisses lingered, wet and open mouthed, and their climax was a long slow burn that only at the very last exploded in a frenzy of movement and starbursts of color and sensation.

When it was over, Sean grabbed a handful of Kleenex from the bedside table, and after a cursory clean-up job, he and Elijah remained in bed, and avoided looking at the clock. The increasing brightness of the room told Sean it would soon be time to get up, but he wasn’t about to move until it was absolutely necessary.

The fingertips of Elijah’s right hand were resting lightly on Sean’s chest, and the curiously engraved ring he wore on the third finger, the ring his father had given him the day he died, caught Sean’s attention. He touched the wide metal band that was just visible outside the protection of the sling.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about your ring,” he said softly. “Ian told me I should I ask you what the words on it mean. I don’t recognize the script. What language is it?”

“It’s Lenape—a language that’s nearly dead now,” Elijah replied. “Very few people can speak or write it.” He twisted the ring around slowly with his thumb so that Sean could see the engraving. “This ring was made by the first Woodjin, Sean, and what it says is: If not now, when. After the Devil was let loose and began attacking people, there was widespread panic. Pineys stopped going out at night, and some even talked about offering him sacrifices—human sacrifices—to try and appease him. But Jordan Wood realized that the powers he’d inherited from his Indian forebears could be used for more than just rescuing lost travelers. In fact, he wrote in his journal that he believed it was for just such a purpose—to fight the Devil and protect the people of the pines—that he’d been given those gifts. This ring is a reminder, Sean, of the sacred trust that I bear, and even more, it’s a reminder that if we don’t stand up to evil, each and every one of us, who will?”

“He must have been a very extraordinary man,” Sean said quietly.

“He was.” Elijah smiled wryly. “He was a little guy like me, too.”

“And did he also have blue eyes?”

Elijah nodded. “In fact, I’m supposed to look a lot like he did.”

Sean knew then beyond a shadow of a doubt that the vision he had seen when they were walking to the cedar swamp, of a young man in buckskins carrying a musket over his shoulder, had been Jordan Wood.

“What about this?” he lightly touched the black tattoo low on Elijah’s abdomen. “It looks like the same writing.”

“It is. It’s my stag name.” Elijah hesitated. “Have you ever heard of a ‘vision quest’?” he asked.

“It’s some sort of Native American coming of age ritual, isn’t it?”

“That’s right. You see, a Woodjin doesn’t come into his full powers until he goes on his vision quest. I was eleven years old when I went on mine. When—when we have more time, I’ll tell you the whole story, but for now, I’ll just tell you the most important part. On a vision quest, you go off alone into the wilderness for several days, without food or drink.” A far-off expression came into Elijah’s eyes. “After a time, you start to sort of… hallucinate, and that’s when you have your vision. In mine, a white stag appeared to me, and it was he who told me my name. I’m pretty sure the stag was Jordan Wood.”

“Wow,” Sean breathed.

“Yeah. It was… amazing. But the thing about names is that they can confer power on the hearer, Sean. So much as I hate to keep anything secret from you, I can’t tell you what it is. That name has never been said aloud and never will be, because it could give the Devil power over me.” Elijah looked apologetic and a little anxious. “I hope you're okay with that.”

“I’m having some trouble wrapping my brain around the whole idea, but of course I’m okay with it.” Sean realized just how much he still had to learn about Elijah and what it meant to be the Woodjin. Questions crowded his brain, questions there was no time to ask Elijah now—except for one. There was one question he simply had to ask, a question that had been on his mind ever since he discovered the truth about the white stag.

“What’s it like,” he asked quietly, “to be the stag?”

Elijah was silent for a long time, so long that Sean thought he might have fallen asleep again, but then at last he spoke. “I never had a frame of reference for it,” he said. “I never had a way to explain how it feels to be both yourself and a part of something greater, to be more alive than you ever knew it was possible to be, and never to want that feeling to end.” He looked up at Sean, and his eyes were filled with wonder. “Until now. It’s like making love with you, Sean. That’s what being the stag is like.”

***

Sean crouched down until he was nearly nose-to-nose with Fred. “Well, this is good-bye for a little while, Fred,” he said, reaching out to scratch the turtle under the chin. “I’ll miss you, buddy.”

Fred slowly blinked his small red eyes, and a rush of tears prickled Sean’s own eyes. Shit. This didn’t bode well, if just a blink from Fred could make him want to cry. He was determined not to make an ass of himself by going to pieces. He and Elijah weren’t parting forever—it only seemed that way. Shit.

He straightened, and looked sadly down at Fred, who craned his long neck up to watch him. “You behave yourself, and don’t go throwing any wild parties in here or anything,” he said, and hurried out of the bathroom and toward the front door where Hannah and Elijah were waiting for him.

What few possessions he had to take back with him were already packed in the Beamer, and the engine was idling. Elijah had gone out and started it, saying he wanted the interior of the car to be warm for him. He had been obviously trying to keep busy ever since they got up, and it broke Sean’s heart to see his desperation not to give into the sadness that was overwhelming them both.

As Sean walked down the hall Maggie came running to meet him, and he stooped to pick her up, burying his face in her soft fur. “God, I’m going to miss you, Maggie,” he whispered, and she wrapped her paws around his neck and butted her head under his chin. “Take care of him for me, will you?” She uttered a low mrrowr, and with a final kiss on top of her head, he set her down, and walked over to where Elijah was standing with his sister. He looked paler than death, and his eyes were red-rimmed, but dry.

Sean had already said goodbye to a confused and unhappy Rocky in the kitchen, and now he and Hannah embraced: the last goodbye save one, the most difficult one of all. “Thank you for everything, Hannah,” Sean said quietly. He wanted to say to her, as he had to Maggie, “Take care of him for me,” but with Elijah standing right there, he couldn’t, and besides, the words were unnecessary. Hannah had already informed Elijah that she was taking him back to the Jenkins’ house for the rest of the day, and Sean knew that he would be surrounded by their love and caring for as long as he needed it.

“I’ll walk you out to the car,” Elijah said in a subdued voice.

It was another bitterly cold day, and the sky was now a leaden gray, as if the pines itself was reflecting the Woodjin’s sorrow. When they reached the car, Sean took one final look around at this place that had become so incredibly dear to him, and then he looked at Elijah. He was watching Sean as he had that day out by the cedar swamp, drinking him in as if he was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.

“Elijah…” Sean began, but his voice cracked and he couldn’t go on, and treacherous tears filled his eyes. With total disregard for his injured shoulder, Elijah threw himself at Sean and they clung to each other. I can’t let him go, Sean thought despairingly, as their mouths met in a final, desperate kiss. I can’t.

But in the end, at last, they separated, and Sean said in an unsteady voice, “Would you give me your blessing before I leave, Woodjin?”

Elijah swallowed hard, and then he cupped his hand at the back of Sean’s neck, and leaning in, placed a soft kiss on his brow. The scents of pine sap, and woodsmoke and dried grasses, the Woodjin’s scents, filled the air around them. “My blessing on you today, Sean, and every day until you come home,” he said, and released him.

“Thank you. Elijah, I’ll call you tonight, when I… when I get—back to the city.” Sean was barely able to get the words out.

“Okay,” Elijah whispered in a stricken voice, and that single word was so shatteringly sad and resigned that Sean’s shaky self-control started to crumble.

“I’d better go,” he blurted, reaching blindly for the door handle. “I love you, Elijah.”

As Sean drove away, he tried not to look in the rearview mirror, but just before the final turn that would take him out of sight of the house he gave in, desperate for a last glimpse of Elijah. Hannah was holding her brother in her arms, and his head was bowed on her shoulder.

I can’t bear this, Sean thought, as he wiped the tears from his cheeks, but he didn’t turn around. Instead he kept driving, heading back to his old life, a life that no longer felt quite real to him.