The Woodjin: Chapter 11 by Lbilover

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Media outlets and reporters included here are all real (hopefully they’ll never read this :O), and the facts are accurate to the best of my ability as a non-business tycoon and non-lawyer. (And thank you Microsoft for so thoughtfully launching a hostile takeover of Yahoo - you helped me immensely with my research!) There are references in this chapter to the inset fics Crystal, Magician and Protector.


Hostile Takeover: a type of corporate takeover which is carried out against the wishes of the board of the target company.

January

January 16, 2006

They faced each other across the width of the dining room table. It might have been an ocean between them, Sean thought. An ocean made of gleaming mahogany, and tossing with Waterford crystal and Irish linen, with sterling silver and Lenox china. He felt vaguely nauseous, as if he was in fact on a pitching boat, and entirely out of place. Less than 48 hours ago, Elijah had been straddling his lap in a kitchen chair and feeding him bites of cold quiche from a Tupperware container in between kisses.

“We’ve got to keep an eye on Parker and Ferguson, Sean,” Chris was saying as she cut into her filet mignon. “They’re the weak links in the chain, and I don’t trust them not to want us to sell out if Google comes back with a counter offer.”

Chris’s words washed over and around him, and then eddied away. He’d fought the good fight at the directors’ meeting, and largely because of his persuasive powers, the Board had unanimously voted to refuse Google’s takeover bid. But he’d felt outside himself the entire time, an imposter Sean going through the motions. He had to get a grip, he told himself, and re-engage this world that had, after all, been the only one he’d known for nearly half his life. His job wasn’t done yet, and until it was, he owed it to the people who worked for him and relied on him to give them his best.

But the pep talk couldn’t still the small voice in his mind that continued to ask the same question it had ever since he drove out of the Lincoln Tunnel into the hustle and bustle of the city and knew that the pines, and Elijah, were truly behind him now: What am I doing here?

Suddenly, Sean laid his fork and knife down on his plate; the musical chime raised by costly silver on costly china sounded false and hollow. He and Chris had decided to leave their discussion until tomorrow rather than pile more stress on top of what the day had already brought them, but it was an intolerable situation. This farce of normalcy couldn’t continue.

Last night Sean had escaped to his study, pleading, truthfully, mountains of e-mails to answer and preparations to make for the meeting. But first he’d called Elijah; their conversation was no more than a brief, agonizing exchange of I miss you, I love you that left him feeling bereft. To distract himself from the pain, he’d thrown himself into work, and not until the sky began to lighten had he paused to take a cat nap on the sofa, before showering and dressing for the Directors’ meeting. It had been a wrench to set aside the inexpensive jeans and sweatshirt Katie and Bill had given him and assume one of his Armani suits and silk ties.

Tonight would be different. He no longer had an excuse to spend the night in his study. Despite their growing alienation from each other, he and Chris had continued to share a bed, even if it was in the manner of strangers who were bunking together out of necessity: each clinging doggedly to their own side lest they accidentally touch in the middle. But it was simply out of the question now. The only person with whom he would ever, could ever, share a bed in future was Elijah.

“Chris.”

Something about the manner in which he spoke her name alerted Chris to his intention. She stared at him, fork poised in mid-air, and he wondered if he was imagining the flicker of apprehension in her fine gray eyes. Tiny bracket lines of tension appeared on either side of her mouth. Sean’s foot began jittering nervously beneath the table and his gut was churning.

During the drive back to the city, he’d mentally rehearsed what he would tell her, gone over and over it in his mind. But all the explanations and apologies in the world wouldn’t soften the blow, if blow it was. The unvarnished truth was all he could offer.

“Chris,” Sean said quietly, “I’m sorry, but we can’t go on like this anymore. It’s over.”

~~~

Sean was on the verge of total meltdown by the time he got checked into a suite at Trump Tower. As he’d predicted to Elijah, it was his decision to leave Clicktwice that had hit Chris hardest, and sent her straight over the edge. An ugly quarrel had ensued, with truths spoken that had been simmering below the surface for months. This wasn’t how he’d wanted them to part, in anger and bitterness, but he’d felt helpless to steer the confrontation into calmer waters. He was deeply ashamed now that he’d allowed Chris to goad him into a fight, but if he was truthful with himself, he had to admit that there had been more real passion of feeling in the ending of their relationship than there had been at its beginning. It should have ended long ago, and would have, if only he hadn’t been so passive, so certain that the future held nothing for him beyond what he already had. It was his own fault, and he, and no one else, would have to bear the guilt that knowledge brought.

It was shortly after one a.m. when Sean finished putting away his clothes and collapsed on the bed. His head was throbbing and he felt like total shit- worse, if truth be told, than he had after being chased through the woods by the Devil. But he still had to call Anna and Mack, let them know about the break-up and where he was staying—although it was likely that Chris had already called his mom and given her an earful.

First, though, before he did anything else, he needed to talk to Elijah.

He’d propped Hannah Wood’s painting against the wall above the dresser as soon as he arrived. With the white stag now watching him from the shadows with his great eyes like stars, Sean took out his cell phone- the one he’d left behind that life-changing day he’d headed to the shore- flipped it open and dialed the necessary numbers to reach Elijah without the call being traceable.

Subpoenas for phone records would undoubtedly be requested by whatever law firm Chris hired to try and prove her renewed conviction that he’d been cheating on her with another woman. A woman, according to her, who was after his money and prestige, and would rub Chris’s nose in it every time they met at some high-brow society function or other. And there would be lawyers. She’d made that abundantly clear, hurling the threat at him as he quickly packed enough clothes in a suitcase to last him a few days.

You’re going to pay for betraying me like this, Sean. Don’t think I’ll make it easy on you, not for a single minute.

The irony of her misassumption was so immense that it would have been funny if the situation were any less dire. But he couldn’t tell her that he was turning his back on this life for good, or that he meant to spend his future in the Pine Barrens with a young man who talked to animals, and who couldn’t attend an opera gala or gallery opening even if he wanted to.

The call clicked through, and Elijah answered on the first ring, as if he’d been hovering by the phone, waiting. “Sean?”

“Hey,” Sean breathed, and suddenly he was shaking and a flood of tears was blurring his vision.

“Sean, are you okay? I’ve been so worried about you.”

“No,” Sean replied, for there was grief at the close of this chapter of his life that had started with so much hope and promise, guilt for the depth of his relief that it was finally ending, and above all else, longing for the young man on the other end of the line, so near and yet so very, very far away. “No, I’m not okay.” And he started to cry.

~~~

“Sean, you’re making a terrible mistake, but it’s not too late to mend fences. I’m sure Chris will take you back if you ask her.”

“It is too late, Mom, and I have no intention of asking her to take me back,” Sean repeated patiently and for the dozenth time at least. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He’d known their conversation would be largely an exercise in frustration, and so it was proving. “Please believe that I didn’t arrive at this decision lightly, or with any intention of hurting her or you.”

He wanted to say, Can’t you even try to see my side for once? After all, I’m the one who is your child, not Chris.

“Chris is a beautiful, smart and successful woman. I just don’t understand how you can throw her away like this. Honestly, Sean, there have been times lately when I’ve felt like I hardly know you anymore.”

But Anna never had known who her eldest son really was, and so Sean tried to ignore the stab in his heart that her words caused. Chris’s social prominence, her place on numerous ‘best dressed’ lists, the glamorous lifestyle she and Sean had led, not to mention the incredible success of Clicktwice, blinded Anna to all else. The years of hardship and struggle while John Astin was dying of cancer had given her an almost pathologic fear of poverty.

“Chris and I have grown apart. We have completely different goals in life now, and I want—I need- to pursue mine while I still can.”

“But a doctor, Sean? Didn’t you see enough of doctors while your father was in the hospital?” Anna asked bitterly. What she had taken away from the experience was a dislike and mistrust of the medical system that had not only been unable to save her husband’s life, but had also robbed them of their life savings.

“I saw enough to admire their calling and their commitment to helping others. Mom, you know it’s what I dreamed about before I became so involved with Clicktwice,” Sean reminded her. “And I can’t think of any better way to honor Dad’s memory than to become a doctor.”

“Well, I don’t know, Sean.” Anna sounded softened, but doubtful. “If you ask me, you’re simply going through a mid-life crisis, and you’ll regret it when you come to your senses. Only by then it will be too late, and Chris will have found herself another man who can appreciate her worth.”

“I hope she does, Mom. I want Chris to be happy, and she definitely wasn’t happy with me. Please try and accept that this is the best decision for both of us.”

When Sean eventually hung up the phone, Anna still wasn’t convinced, and even though the result was about what he’d expected, he was still disheartened. His mother didn’t yet know about Elijah or that her eldest son was gay, and if she had so much trouble accepting his separation from Christine, what on earth would she make of that?

But in the power of Elijah’s goodness, Sean had the utmost faith; he refused to believe that his mother wouldn’t come to accept, and even love, Elijah in time.

~~~

The first words out of Mack’s mouth (after ‘No shit, you really left Chris?’, that is) were, “I’m proud of you, Sean.” They were words that soothed the raw places inside Sean that his conversation with Anna had left. At least someone in his family was on his side.

“When will you tell her about Elijah?” Mack asked next.

“When this mess is finally resolved and it’s safe for me to join him in New Jersey. And Mack, that brings up an important favor I have to ask.” Sean put every iota of gravity into his voice that he could muster. “I need you to promise me that you won’t mention Elijah to anyone, not even Mom, until I give you the okay. I want him kept completely out of this.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Mack sounded skeptical. “Reporters are nosey sons of bitches, and it’ll be a hell of a mess if Chris and Mom find out about Elijah from one of them instead of you.”

“I don’t plan to give the reporters anything to be nosey about,” Sean replied. “For all intents and purposes Elijah doesn’t exist, and you never heard me mention him, capisce? We’re not even going to see each other until it’s all over.”

“All right, I solemnly swear not to breathe a word to anyone, but don’t you think you’re going a little overboard?”

“No, I don’t. Elijah has led a pretty sheltered life, Mack, and it’s not fair to him or his family to subject them to harassment by the media.” Every word of which was true—but it was only half the truth. A time might someday come when Mack could be trusted with Elijah’s secret, but Sean was prepared to keep the knowledge from him forever if necessary. Given what was at stake, it was a sacrifice he willingly made.

“I was really looking forward to meeting your Elijah,” Mack said regretfully. “But if Chris tries to drag things out who the hell knows when that might be?”

“Chris is understandably upset with me, but I’m hoping in time she’ll calm down and see reason so we can end things civilly and without a lot of publicity. My bigger worry right now is the effect on the company while we deal with all this shit with Google. The timing couldn’t possibly be any worse, Mack. One way or another, Chris and I still have to work together and keep up the morale of our employees, not to mention placate our investors.”

“Jesus, talk about an awkward situation.”

Sean rubbed the back of his tense neck and sighed, “Yeah.”

~~~

The New York Times
January 17, 2006

CLICKTWICE REJECTS GOOGLE BUYOUT OFFER

The Board of Directors of Clicktwice, Inc., yesterday rejected a $3.1 billion offer from Google, Inc., to buy the Internet advertising firm, currently the world’s largest digital marketing technology and services company. Clicktwice Chairman and CEO Sean Astin said that the board vote was unanimous and that the strength of the company’s financial performance meant there was no appreciable benefit to shareholders by accepting the offer. “We will continue to expand our client base and remain responsive to changes in technology to improve the services we offer. Our commitment to our customers and investors is absolute.”

Google CEO Eric Schmidt said via phone interview from California that Google would reconsider its options, and did not rule out the potential for approaching shareholders directly with a new offer. “The addition of Clicktwice’s marketing technology would greatly enhance our ability to deliver search results tailored to our user’s needs,” said Mr. Schmidt, and indicated that a decision regarding Google’s next step will be made within two weeks.


~~~

New York Post, Page Six, Cindy Adams

POWER COUPLE CALL IT QUITS?
January 18, 2006

Is it over between longtime partners Sean Astin and Christine Harrell? Rumors are circulating that Sean checked out of their posh digs on Central Park West and into a suite at Trump Tower two nights ago. Do I smell the scent of another woman? This inquiring mind means to find out. Stay tuned, folks…


~~~

New York Post, Page Six, Cindy Adams

A WOMAN SCORNED
January 25, 2006

As I reported last week, rumors have been flying that it’s all over between New York power couple Sean Astin and Christine Harrell. Well, folks, according to the horse’s mouth herself, the rumors
are true. I caught up with (or should I say cornered?) the woman gossip columnists love to hate in the little girl’s room at Jean George last night. After flipping me the bird in the best tradition of this grand old city, Chris confirmed that it’s true. Is there another woman in the picture? She wouldn’t say. But Sean darling? Remember that old saying about ‘hell hath no fury’? From the look in your ex’s eyes, I’d recommend you hire a taste tester. Pronto.

~~~

January 31, 2006

“So, how’d it go?” asked Sean, at the precise moment Elijah said, “So, how’d it go?”

Both men started to laugh.

“You first,” Elijah prompted. “What did your lawyer say?”

“She seems cautiously optimistic. New York doesn’t recognize common law marriages, so the odds of the court ruling in Chris’s favor are slim, especially as we have a property agreement already.”

“That’s good news, then.” Elijah sounded so happy that Sean felt compelled to utter a caution.

“Don’t get your hopes too high just yet. According to Philippa there is precedent for the courts to hear a lawsuit involving unmarried partners, so we’re not home free. A lot will depend on the judge that is assigned to the case and how persuasive Chris’s lawyers are.”

“And when will you know who the judge is going to be?”

“A couple of weeks apparently, and then who knows how much longer for a ruling to be made,” Sean said heavily. “The entire process will probably take a good three months.”

There was a short silence while Elijah absorbed this information. “That long, huh?” he said, trying but failing to keep the disappointment out of his voice.

“Yeah, I’m afraid so.”

“Well,” Elijah said with determined optimism, “it could be worse, and by the time you get home again, the whippoorwill shoes will be blooming, and we can kayak through the swamps to find them. The pines in the spring are so beautiful, Sean; I can’t wait to show you everything.”

“I can’t wait to see it all.” Sean stared out the window of his bedroom at the magnificent view of the nighttime city skyline, and wished he could see beyond it to the homelier sight of smoke pouring from a chimney and yellow light streaming through curtained windows. Most of all he wished he could see right through those windows and into Elijah’s eyes…

But no amount of wishing would make that happen, so he shook himself and said, “Now tell me how everything went with your mom and Zach. Did they get off okay?”

“Yeah, everything went fine. No delays or problems at the airport. Mom called as soon as they got home.”

“That’s terrific. But how are you doing, Elijah? You must be missing them.” The thought of Elijah alone again and missing his family caused Sean’s heart to clench. It hurt like hell not to be there for him.

“A little,” Elijah admitted. “It would’ve been great if they could’ve stayed for a few more days, but at least they made it here in the first place, thanks to you. Sean,” there was a sudden catch in the young man’s voice, “what you did for us, it was so generous, so…”

“Uh-uh,” Sean broke in. “I thought we clearly established that you weren’t going to say ‘thank you’ any more.”

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot. I’m supposed to tell you all the other ways I intend to thank you when I see you again,” Elijah laughed, and the sound eased the aching tightness coiled inside Sean.

“No time like the present, Elijah. Start talking.” A grin curved Sean’s lips as a different sort of sensation coiled in the pit of his stomach, one that was akin to flames erupting out of smoldering ashes. “Tell me how you’d like to thank me,” he said in a low, husky voice.

There was another short silence. “Now?”

“Yeah, right now. Talk to me.”

“Oh. Oh. You mean phone sex?”

The mix of nervousness and enthusiasm in Elijah’s voice made Sean chuckle. “You’ve never done this before, huh?” Thank god, he thought, as Matt-the-Fucker’s name flitted in and out of his brain like a black fly at the beach- briefly stinging before taking off again.

“No, have you?”

“Never.” Chris had made it clear that that sort of love play was off-limits. Sean understood now that there had never been the requisite level of sexual trust between them that would allow for such intimacy. “But how difficult can it be? Of course it’s natural to be a little nervous- I mean hell, I’m a little nervous, but the important thing is to feel comfortable, Elijah, so don’t hesitate to tell me if we’re going too fast or if-“

“Sean?”

“Yeah?”

“I want to go down on you.” The words emerged in a breathless rush, so quickly that Sean wasn’t sure at first if he’d heard them correctly.

“What?” he said.

“You want to know how I’d like to thank you, well, that’s at the top of the list. I want to go down on you, Sean. I want to know how you’d taste and feel in my mouth. I want…” Sean heard Elijah swallow. “I want you to touch yourself now and imagine that I’m… I’m kneeling between your legs with your cock in my mouth. You have no idea how many times I’ve gotten off imagining doing that to you.” He choked out a laugh. “Like practically every single morning since you’ve been gone.”

The image that leaped immediately into Sean’s mind, of Elijah naked and aroused, kneeling between his spread thighs and closing that perfect mouth around him, sent every scrap of blood in his body rushing inexorably down to his groin, leaving him almost light-headed. Within seconds Sean was achingly aroused, and he wondered dazedly if any phone sex had ever gone from zero to sixty so fast.

He wedged the cordless phone between his shoulder and jaw while with shaking hands he groped for the elastic waistband of his boxers.

“I have to take off my boxers first.” He raised his hips so that he could work the underwear down over his hips and buttocks, gasping as the silk fabric brushed the head of his cock that was curving up toward his belly. “And what about you?” he gritted out. He tossed away the boxers with a moan of relief. “Who’s going to take care of you?”

“I’ll take care of myself,” Elijah said. “I can multi-task.”

Sean laughed, and hoped there’d always be laughter in their bed- or separate beds, in this case. He heard a rustling sound, and said, “Tell me what you’re doing now. I want to picture you.”

“I’m taking off my clothes- boxers and tee shirt. You started out ahead of me, so I’m taking them off fast.”

“You better, Elwood, because if you don’t get that sexy mouth of yours on me soon, I’ll spontaneously self-combust.” Elijah’s giggle sent another jolt of arousal rocketing through him, and he groaned.

“Almost done, Sean.” The rustling sound vanished, and then Elijah’s voice said in a hot whisper, “Ready or not, here I come.” Sean wrapped his damp palm around his shaft, squeezed hard and moaned. “Does that feel good?” Elijah almost purred. “My tongue licking you?”

Sean closed his eyes and let Elijah’s words transport him back to the pines and into their bed. Instantly, he could see Elijah with crystal clarity: his pale skin was lightly sheened with perspiration, his body backlit by the flickering fire so that it was limned in gold, and his blue eyes were dark with need as he ran his tongue along Sean’s shaft, while one hand petted along Sean’s thigh. Even the scents of pinesap, woodsmoke and dried grasses, ghost-like and elusive, seemed to hover in the air around him, so real was the image in his mind.

“Oh god, yes.” Sean relaxed his grip and his fingers slid lightly and tortuously up and down his shaft. “Ah… so incredible. Are you touching yourself?” he asked, needing to know and complete the vision.

“Yeah I am, and I don’t think I’ll last long; I was so hard already from just the thought of tasting you. Oh Sean, you’re smoother and sweeter than Kandy Kake ice cream,” Elijah breathed.

A panting laugh escaped Sean at the comparison, so perfectly Elijah, but it cut off with a gasp as he ran his thumb along the ruby crown of his cock, catching the slick fluid welling up, spreading it around, while he imagined Elijah’s tongue licking it away. “I’ve never felt anything like your mouth on me- so hot, so good. Don’t stop, whatever you do, don’t stop.”

“I won’t. In fact, I’m gonna take you deeper, Sean, the way I’ve dreamed of doing.”

Sean’s hand moved, tightened, became Elijah’s hot-silk mouth engulfing him and sucking hard. “Ohhh, Elijah, ohhh…” The twist and pull rhythm of his hand, slippery with sweat and pre-come, mimicked the motions of vision-Elijah’s bobbing head.

The edges of Sean’s conscious mind blurred and faded; only with Elijah had he been able to let himself truly go, relinquish the almost manic self-control that had ruled his life since his father’s death. Dimly he heard Elijah panting, “Sean, are you still with me?”

“Sorry… I’m… ah… I’m getting close, Elijah.” He shifted restlessly, arching up into his grip. “What… about… you?”

“Nearly, ah, there. Just a little longer…”

The erotically explicit sounds coming through receiver now obviated the need for explanation. The blood thundered through Sean’s veins, drowning out everything but his own incoherent moans, and the low tense unh unh unhhh that he already recognized as the sound of Elijah nearing his climax. It was the most arousing sound Sean had ever heard, and sent him hurtling straight toward the edge.

“I’m coming, Sean,” Elijah blurted out, just as Sean moaned, “Elijah. Elijah.” and then the hot spill of seed trickled over his fingers.

They both lay spent and panting into their respective phones for several minutes. Weakly, Sean groped for the box of tissues on the bedside table, pulled one out and began to wipe off his fingers. Then he paused, touched his tongue to a pearly drop of fluid on the back of his thumb, and made a face.

“Better than Kandy Kake ice cream? Really?”

Elijah giggled. “Absolutely.”

“I guess there’s no accounting for taste,” Sean remarked, but a delicious post-sex lassitude was drugging his senses. He knew that he would sleep soundly for the first time since leaving the pines, and that he and Elijah had discovered the best possible way to survive the days apart with their sanity intact.

~~~

February

The Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition
February 2, 2006

Google Ups the Ante—One Last Time

Internet giant Google, Inc. (GOOG), whose $3.1 billion takeover bid was rejected in January, has made a final buyout offer of $3.6 billion to the board of directors of Clicktwice, Inc. (CLCK), a digital marketing technology company. In a letter to Clicktwice CEO, Sean Astin, Google informed the board that they have until February 15 to accept the offer or risk a hostile takeover attempt. Sources inside the company say that major shareholders in Clicktwice have been pressuring the board to do a deal with Google, and if this final offer is refused, it seems likely that Google will approach company shareholders directly with the offer. Clicktwice stock shares have reflected the uncertainty of the company’s future, their volatility in recent days resulting not only from Google’s bid to buy the company, but the high-profile separation of Astin and company president Christine Harrell.


~~~

February 4, 2006

Elijah swung his arms jubilantly as he walked across the twilit yard. He was out of the confines of a sling at last! The unaccustomed movement caused a slight twinge in his right shoulder, but that would pass soon enough, and at least the sharper, shooting pains were gone. The bullet that remained inside him didn’t look as if it was going to be a problem, just as Dr. Ian had predicted.

Of course he had solemnly promised the doctor not to overdo it once he was allowed to dispense with the sling, but Elijah was anxious to test the strength and mobility of the damaged shoulder. He needed to know what his limitations were if he was called.

So far, so good, he thought, circling his arm. There was a slight pull on the scar tissue as his hand described a shallow arc through the air, but with time and work Dr. Ian was optimistic that he would regain his full range of motion. The doctor had consulted with a physiotherapist who had developed a series of stretching and strengthening exercises for Elijah, and he was obediently performing them every day. Not that he could slack off if he wanted to, Elijah thought humorously, because practically the first thing Sean asked him every night when he called was, “Did you do your exercises today?” Between him and Maggie, not to mention Dr. Ian, there was no escape.

But even this early in his recovery, Elijah judged, it should be possible to bear the stag’s far more considerable weight if it proved necessary. In a few more days- and with Dr. Ian’s somewhat grudging permission- he would transform into the white stag and see for himself. A thrill of anticipation coursed through him as he imagined running free through the woods, his every sense keenly and completely alive, but he tamped it down. Right now there was another recovering patient to think about, and he smiled down at the silent companion trotting by his left side.

The red fox was sound again, moving easily across the frozen ground with no trace of a limp. The severe wounds from the leg hold trap had healed swiftly and without complications, and Elijah’s heart rejoiced, for in a few minutes she would be reunited with her mate at last and free to return to the remote corner of the pines where their den was located.

The fox didn’t need him for guidance, for the reynard had been haunting the perimeter of the yard for the past nineteen days, and she knew it. But she remained beside Elijah, out of respect and gratitude for the care he had given her. Foxes, as Elijah had learned over the years, had a grace of spirit that many people could study and learn from.

They entered the woods on the same sandy path that Pete Gunner had used when he brought the injured vixen to Elijah, and a sudden lump formed in Elijah’s throat, remembering how he and Sean had later visited her mate, after Sean had tended to her wounds. It would have meant so much to Sean to be here and witness their reunion.

He’d considered asking Crystal to join him, for she’d been a huge help to Elijah in taking care of the vixen while he was hampered by having his arm in a sling, but in the end he decided against it. He was sensitive to Sean’s lingering misgivings about Crystal, understandable considering the circumstances. Sean still wasn’t convinced that trusting Crystal with the truth had been wise. There was also the fact that Sean was, Elijah thought ruefully, a tiny bit jealous of Crystal, too. Not in any sexual sense, of course, but because she was free to visit and help Elijah with the animals, while he was stuck in New York. Sean was far too generous of spirit to resent her for it, but there was no doubt he wished he was in Crystal’s place.

Just inside the fringe of the pines, the male fox emerged silently from the underbrush, not even a rustle of dried leaves heralding his arrival. He gave a low, joyful yip at the sight of the vixen, and she bounded forward to meet him, her burnished copper coat gleaming in the fading light.

They brushed against each other again and again, bodies twining in a sinuous dance of almost rapturous bliss at their reunion. Elijah’s eyesight grew blurry as he watched them and listened to their trilling purrs of happiness, such a far cry from the plaintive barks of longing he’d heard them exchange late at night. But he fiercely blinked back the moisture, not wishing to miss one step in their dance of joy so that he could describe it all in detail when Sean called that night. They were learning to see their respective worlds through each other’s eyes, and never before in his life had Elijah been so keenly aware of his surroundings, of storing up images and memories that he could later share with Sean.

Reassured of his mate’s wellbeing, the reynard nudged her with his nose and yipped softly, anxious to be away. The fox’s amber gaze found Elijah one final time, and in it he read both thanks and farewell.

“Be well,” he said softly to her. “My blessing goes with you both.” And then she and her mate turned as one and vanished, melting away into the shadows of the pines.

Elijah stood for a time in the deepening twilight, staring at the spot where they had disappeared. He had told Sean that he was the fox’s mate, unable to leave the safety of the pines to be with the one he loved, and it was true. But in the reunion of the two foxes he saw foreshadowed his own reunion with Sean, and if theirs was even half so joyful, it would more than make up for the length of their separation.

~~~

New York Post, Page Six, Cindy Adams

OUT AND ABOUT
February 15, 2006

There was no billing and cooing for former lovebirds Christine Harrell and Sean Astin this Valentine’s Day, but Chris must be cooing in triumph. Notoriously lenient Family Court judge Bernard Hill has been assigned to hear her palimony suit, and that has to be a better Valentine’s gift than a dozen red roses and a box of truffles from La Maison Du Chocolat. I ran into her estranged partner at the International Center for Photography, where he was attending the reception for the opening of the Martha Holm exhibit ‘Photographs from the Edge of the World’, but the normally voluble Sean wasn’t talking, and if there’s another woman in his life, he’s keeping her all too well hidden for this gossip columnist’s taste.


~~~

Businesswire
February 24, 2006

David vs. Goliath

Buzz in the business world this week revolves around the face-off between web advertising firm Clicktwice and Internet giant Google in a modern day version of David versus Goliath. On February 15, the Clicktwice board of directors turned down a second Google buyout offer of $3.6 billion. Now Goliath is taking more aggressive measures, and yesterday announced that it will bring the fight directly to company shareholders in an effort to unseat the Clicktwice board of directors and install their own candidates. Reached at the Apple Expo in Paris, Clicktwice Chairman and CEO Sean Astin said the company is prepared to go to the distance and won’t knuckle under to Google’s hostile takeover attempt. Can they hold out? Only time will tell.


~~~

February 25, 2006

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium,” said Elijah.

“Except of course that it’s only Saturday and I’m in Paris, and I won’t be in Brussels until Wednesday.” Sean yanked on his red silk tie to loosen it and unbuttoned the top of his now-limp white button-down, then sat down on the edge of the hotel room bed and kicked off his shoes.

“Did you ever see that movie, Sean?”

“You mean the one with Suzanne Pleshette, right? I saw it once when I was a kid. In fact, I kind of had a crush on Suzanne,” Sean confessed, flopping back on the peach-colored satin duvet with a relieved sigh. He flexed his stocking feet, which ached after standing all day on the unforgiving concrete floor at the expo center. “Dark hair, large expressive eyes, that flawless skin…”

“I get the impression you’re trying to tell me something,” Elijah remarked, sounding amused.

“I suppose I was searching for you even then,” Sean replied thoughtfully, pillowing his head on one arm. “I was just a little confused about the gender I was searching for.” His words ended on an involuntary yawn. Maybe it had been a mistake to lie down on the oh-so-comfortable bed in his room at Le Meurice. It was tempting to close his eyes and give in to the pull of weariness, even with Elijah on the phone.

“Tired?” Elijah’s voice was soft and sympathetic.

Sean stifled another yawn. “A bit jet-lagged still, that’s all. I’ll be fine after a good night’s sleep. God, I wish I could beg off this dinner, but not a chance. The whole point to my being here is to schmooze the Apple guys and reassure them that all this shit going on with the company right now doesn’t impact our ability to do the job for them.”

“It doesn’t seem fair that you should have to do this on your birthday, though.”

It wasn’t the first time Elijah had said this. Despite the birthday package filled with gifts and assorted pines goodies- such as Katie’s cranberry bread- that had arrived at Trump Tower a few days before Sean left New York for Paris, Elijah felt that he could have, and should have done more.

“If I can’t be with you, Elijah, it’s far better that I’m here rather than in New York. In fact, this overseas trip is a blessing in disguise. Things are so tense at Clicktwice that it’s healthier for everyone if Chris and I aren’t in the office at the same time. Poor Liv has been wearing a path in the carpet going back and forth between our offices with those damned notes we’ve been writing each other.”

Elijah sighed. “Maybe, but I hate that you’re spending your birthday with a bunch of strangers. Do they even know it’s your birthday?”

“No, I haven’t told them.” Suddenly Sean started to laugh, the sound rumbling in his belly.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh, I’m just picturing the reaction I’d get if I was to tell my dinner companions that I was wished a happy birthday over the phone this morning by a cat, a squirrel and a box turtle. They’d think I was nuts- no offense to Rocky. Of course, I’m not actually positive Fred said ‘happy birthday’. All I could hear was a very, very faint blinking sound.”

Elijah giggled. “Fred may not be a great conversationalist, but his heart is in the right place.”

“And so is yours, Elijah. Honestly, I don’t know how I’d survive all this without you. Even if we can’t be together today, this is still the best birthday I’ve had since before my dad died.” When Elijah didn’t say anything, Sean said, “Elijah? You still there?” Cell phone reception in the pines could be spotty, and it wouldn’t be the first time one of their calls had been abruptly cut off.

But Elijah said quietly, “I’m here. It’s just… Sean, it doesn’t seem fair that you’re stuck in Paris alone on your birthday with no one to celebrate with, especially after how you made it possible for my mom and Zach to be with me. But I swear, I swear,” and his voice actually cracked on the word, “that next year will be totally different. We’ll have a big party here and invite everyone, and Bill will play his fiddle and we’ll dance all night- you and me and Maggie and Rocky.”

“Are The Stone Roses part of Bill’s repertoire?” Sean teased, because he hated for Elijah to be so upset on his behalf.

“It’s not a joke, Sean.” Elijah sounded as close to cross as his loving nature would allow.

“I know that. But what you have to believe is that I’m not alone. You’re with me every second of every day, wherever I am and whatever I’m doing. You remember yesterday, when I stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower and described the view for you, and then I held up my phone so you could hear the wind? I felt so incredibly close to you then, Elijah. Don’t laugh,” Sean said softly, “but I swear I could smell the pines, all the way across the Atlantic.”

“Laugh? Oh Sean…” Elijah’s voice caught again.

“We’ll always have Paris?” Sean quipped.

At that Elijah laughed despite himself and said, “I’ve always thought Rick and Captain Renault made a more convincing couple. Sean, I love you, even if you drive me nuts by refusing ever to be serious.”

“I’m serious sometimes, I swear,” Sean protested. “And I love you, too. But now,” he glanced at his faithful Rolex, in which he’d had the badly scratched crystal replaced, and grimaced, “I’d better go. I’ve got to shower and change before dinner.”

“Don’t call me later- go straight to bed and get some rest, okay?”

“Yes, mom,” Sean replied. Elijah’s infectious giggle lingered in his ear as he disconnected. After that one meltdown the night he left Chris, he tried never to allow their phone calls to end on a down note. It would be too easy to slip into negativity, to piss and moan about their separation. So no matter how difficult it was, and it was incredibly difficult at times, Sean kept his moments of depression to himself. He found other ways to deal with it, rather than weigh Elijah’s bright spirit down.

Sean made no immediate move to get up from the bed; instead he turned his head, the softness of the down-filled satin duvet echoing the remembered feel of the white stag’s fur beneath his cheek that wondrous night he and Elijah met. His gaze went to the ornate gilt and marble nightstand beside the bed and found a photograph in a brushed aluminum frame that he had set there. It was a black and white photo of Elijah that Martha Holm had taken- a recent photo that Elijah had had taken as a Valentine’s gift for Sean.

Sean smiled a little as he recalled the cloak and dagger at Martha’s photography exhibit ten days earlier. With that gossip columnist from the New York Post present and watching Sean’s every move like some glitzy society bird of prey, he and Martha had had to be extremely careful not to give her any reason to believe they had more than a passing acquaintance. An ICP reception wasn’t his usual milieu, and Cindy Adams knew it. She paid little to no attention to the stunning photographs Martha had taken on her journeys to the far-flung corners of the world; instead her speculative gaze had followed Sean, and said quite clearly, Are you here because of some woman?

She’d quizzed Sean with her usual combination of remorselessness and charm when she finally managed to trap him at the buffet table. Sean wasn’t particularly adept at prevarication, but he thought he’d acquitted himself pretty well and not given anything away, deflecting her questions about his love life with a laugh and disbelieving shake of his head. “Do you really think I’m anxious to get involved with anyone else right now?”

In the end Cindy, none the wiser, had departed for some other society event, and he and Martha had met for a cup of coffee at a small café when the reception was over. He hadn’t realized until the words burst from him, “Tell me how Elijah is doing, Martha,” what an immense relief it was to talk to someone who knew, not only about him and Elijah, but also about the white stag. The strain of maintaining his double life, of being constantly on his guard so as not to let a single miscalculated word slip that could raise suspicion, was far greater than he’d known.

Martha had patiently answered all Sean’s questions, reassured him that Elijah was indeed telling the truth when he claimed to be feeling better, and indulged Sean’s simple need to speak Elijah’s name aloud. Her sympathetic gray eyes told him without words that she understood. Before they parted, Martha handed him a shopping bag that contained a package gift-wrapped in shiny red paper. “A slightly belated Valentine’s present from Elijah,” she’d said with a mysterious smile.

Sean was looking at that present now, and into a pair of eyes unlike no other in the world, luminous eyes that had held him captive the first time he beheld them, and every time since.

Elijah was kneeling in the snow and looking up into the camera’s lens as directly and unselfconsciously as a child. Clumps of snow clung to his spiky hair, to his eyebrow and lashes, and dusted the simple dark sweater and jeans he wore. His arms dangled at his sides and beneath his eyes were dark smudges that told of the painful physical ordeal he’d endured. His expression was as ambiguous as the Mona Lisa’s, lips slightly tucked at the corners; Sean could never decide from one moment to the next if Elijah was about to smile at him or frown. All the sorrow and uncertainty of their current situation was etched in his face, and somehow it meant more to Sean that Elijah would allow his vulnerability to show than if he’d put on the biggest, brightest smile in the world.

Beyond that, Martha had somehow, miraculously managed to capture both Elijahs: the Elijah who was Sean’s friend and lover, and the Woodjin, the mysterious and magical guardian of the pines. It was an astonishingly powerful photo, and it was his and his alone. He’d never considered himself the possessive type until he met Elijah, but Sean definitely didn’t want to share this with anyone else. Martha had promised him that no further prints would be made- even as she ruefully acknowledged that it was one of the best photos she had ever taken.

How could it not be, Sean thought, with Elijah for her subject?

It was supremely easy to lose himself in contemplation of Elijah’s haunting beauty, and Sean allowed himself the luxury for a few minutes, before reluctantly getting up from the bed to shower and dress for dinner at the hotel’s three-star restaurant. But before he left his hotel room, Sean did something he’d not yet confessed to Elijah, a simple ritual that he followed every morning before he left for work and every night before he turned out the bedside light: he touched his fingers to his lips and then placed them gently against the smooth glass, directly above Elijah’s mouth. “See you later,” Sean whispered, and then he carefully hid the photo away in a drawer and went downstairs for dinner.


~*~
March

March 14, 2006

Liv set the steaming coffee mug down at Sean’s elbow. “Here you go.”

Sean glanced up from his computer monitor. “Liv, you don’t have to do that,” he scolded.

It was an old argument between them.

“You won’t take the time to get the coffee yourself,” she countered, “and you can deny it all you like, but you’re still jet-lagged from your trip. You need the caffeine. Anyway, how many times do I have to tell you that I don’t mind?”

“You should mind. The days are long gone when a secretary’s duties included making her boss coffee,” Sean said, but he picked up the navy blue mug, emblazoned with the Clicktwice logo, took a sip of the heavenly smelling brew and gave her a grateful smile. Liv knew exactly how Sean liked his coffee.

Liv shook her head. “I swear, boss, you’re more of a feminist than I am,” she joked.

Before Sean could come up with a suitable retort, his cell phone vibrated. He glanced down at the display and froze. It was Elijah’s number. This was the first time he’d ever called Sean at work, and they’d decided he would only do so in the case of an emergency. A frisson of fear ran down his spine and he fought to keep his expression neutral even while a series of horrific images flashed through his mind, images he didn’t have to conjure from his imagination. He’d seen Elijah wounded and bleeding. He’d looked the Devil straight in his flaming red eyes.

He thanked god fervently that he was alone with Liv, the only person at Clicktwice he trusted absolutely, and not in a meeting with Chris, who was so adept at reading his emotions.

“I have to take this call, Liv,” Sean said with forced calm. “If you wouldn’t mind…” He nodded toward the half-open door between their two offices.

Liv was eyeing him with concern, a faint frown contracting her smooth white brow; obviously he hadn’t succeeded in disguising his worry from her. But she said nothing, only quietly left the room and closed the door behind her. He sometimes thought she suspected that he had someone new in his life, but if so she never let on, and he blessed her discretion and her loyalty. She disdained the water cooler gossip that others indulged in, and in innumerable small ways eased the stress that the current situation between him and Chris created.

The moment the door closed, Sean picked up the call. “Elijah?”

“Sean, I’m sorry; I know I shouldn’t have called you at work, but I…” Elijah’s voice caught.

“That’s okay,” Sean said quickly. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“It’s Clack. He’s sick.” The words were clipped, and Sean could hear the tightly controlled fear in them.

Sean had jokingly dubbed the two noisy baby squirrels Click and Clack after Elijah made him listen to an NPR radio show called Car Talk. The engaging hosts with their non-stop banter had irresistibly reminded him of the squirrels, whose high-pitched chattering could be heard in the background whenever Elijah was talking to him from the ‘hospital’. The silly names had stuck despite Elijah’s caution that it wasn’t wise to name animals that were going to be released into the wild, lest one become too attached to them. Now he began to understand why.

“Oh Elijah,” he breathed. “What happened? You said they were nearly ready to be released.”

“I noticed last night that Clack was a little quieter than normal,” Elijah said miserably, “but I didn’t think much of it. I just thought he was tired- he and Click were playing almost non-stop yesterday. Then this morning he didn’t come out of the nesting box with Click when I turned the lights on, so I went into the pen to check on him. He was curled up in the corner of the box, and his nose was runny and he was making a rattling noise every time he breathed. I called the vet right away, and he came out as soon as he could. It’s what I was afraid of, Sean- Clack has pneumonia.”

“Pneumonia?” Sean repeated, his heart sinking. “That sounds really serious.”

“It is serious. It’s the most dangerous illness a baby squirrel can have, and a lot of them don’t pull through it…” Elijah’s voice wobbled.

“But some of them do pull through, right? So there’s no reason to assume that Clack won’t,” Sean said, putting as much positive energy into his words as he could.

“I don’t know. Oh Sean, if you could see him… He’s just lying there on the heating pad, fighting to breath. And Click- he’s all confused. They’ve never been separated before, and he’s too young for me to help him understand what’s going on.”

Elijah sounded perilously close to tears, and it was all Sean could do not to blurt out, “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” drop everything, and race out of the office to go to him.

Instead, Sean forced himself to stillness. “What are you doing for him?” he asked.

“He’s isolated from Click, of course, and he’s on a nebulizer to help him breath and get the antibiotics he needs. I’ve been giving him Pedialyte to keep him hydrated, and he has the heating pad to keep him warm.” As Sean had hoped, listing the positive things being done helped to steady Elijah.

“Did the vet give you a prognosis?”

“He thinks he’ll make it, if he gets good supportive care.”

“Then there’s no question of him recovering, because he’s in the best possible hands- yours.”

“But he shouldn’t have gotten sick in the first place,” Elijah fretted. “It’s my fault. I should have realized that there was something wrong with him last night and called the vet then.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Elijah, don’t go down that road. Beating up on yourself isn’t going to help matters.”

“I know, but…”

“No ‘buts’. Listen, I want you to call Bill as soon as we’re done and ask him to come out and give you a hand. There are all the other animals to see to, and you’re going to be exhausted if you try to take care of everything by yourself.” Sean didn’t have to ask if Elijah was going to be staying at the barn pretty nearly 24/7 nursing Clack. Some things went without saying.

“That’s a good idea. I should have thought of it myself,” Elijah said ruefully.

“You would have, when you calmed down.”

“Sean?”

“Yeah?”

“I hope you’re not too upset with me for calling you at work. I know this isn’t a real emergency, but I was starting to panic a little and I… I had to talk to you.”

“I’m not upset at all. To tell you the truth, I’m relieved,” joked Sean. “I was beginning to worry that you didn’t need me.”

Elijah gave a shaky laugh. “Not need you? Oh Sean, I need you if just to make me laugh.”

“Well laughter aside, there is nothing and no one in this world more important to me than you,” Sean went on, dead serious now. “If you need me for any reason, at any time, I’m here for you. I don’t give a shit if it’s an emergency or not. You call me.” He paused for a few beats to let the words sink in, and then said softly, “Elijah, I wish I could be there with you.”

“I know you do. But you have no idea how much you’ve helped already.” Elijah sighed. “I better let you go.”

Sean glanced at his watch. “I have a meeting with our software developers in a little while. I should be done by 4 o’clock. I’ll call you then to see how things are going.”

“Okay. Sean, I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Sean had never been so reluctant to hang up the phone. After he did, he sat there, staring sightlessly at the screensaver on his computer’s monitor, and for the first time he seriously questioned the wisdom of his decision to keep his and Elijah’s lives entirely separate. He should be there for Elijah, goddamn it, not leaving it up to Bill and the other pineys to step in and do what by rights was his responsibility. Frustrated anger surged up inside him, and he forced it back down with difficulty, relaxing his suddenly tight grip on the arms of his chair. Getting angry wouldn’t solve anything.

Sean slowly let out a shuddering breath, and his gaze traveled around his office, ending with its stunning view of Central Park, where the trees were budding for spring was just around the corner. Most people would kill to have the kind of office he did: spacious, light-filled, and beautifully appointed, with an antique burled walnut desk, comfortable burgundy leather sofa and chairs, and several exquisite oil paintings - not to mention the most high tech of high tech phone and computer equipment. But on the gleaming surface of his desk sat only one silver-framed photograph: a picture of Anna and Mack taken at her 59th birthday party in December.

Elijah, his lover, the most important person in his life, was nowhere in sight.

Even in Sean’s suite several floors below, Elijah existed only in the bedroom, a room kept carefully locked whenever he went out, with strict instructions that the cleaning service was not to go in there unless he was present. God alone knew what they thought of this eccentricity- probably that he was some kind of sexual deviant hiding his kinks- but he was afraid that Chris might not be above a little bribery of the staff in her efforts to discover what, if anything, Sean was up to in his private life.

Was he crazy? He wondered now. Was it absurd to go to such lengths to keep Elijah’s presence in his life a secret?

Sean pushed back his chair, wheels rolling soundlessly over the plush pile of the forest-green carpet. Then he got up and walked over to the vast picture window, and stood staring down at Central Park West with his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his slacks. Far below, taillights blinked red as cars and taxicabs and trucks snarled in the usual mid-town traffic started and stopped, while their drivers leaned on the horns in frustration. Pedestrians scurried along the sidewalks, clutching at hats and scarves against the raw, windy March weather that was making urban tumbleweed of stray papers.

He imagined what would happen if Elijah’s existence was discovered, if a persistent reporter started digging into Elijah’s background, and eventually tracked down Matt-the-Fucker. “Elijah Wood? Yeah, I dated him for a while. The guy’s a total freak, man. He swore up and down that he can turn into a deer, even showed me these weird knobs on his head as proof.” Those people down there might someday pick up the Post or the Daily News from a newsstand to see a photo of the strange man from the Pine Barrens, the freak who could turn himself into a deer, staring back at them. The very thought made him sick with fear.

No, he definitely wasn’t crazy and it definitely wasn’t absurd. It was very, very necessary. Only when Sean Astin was no longer a blip on society’s radar screen would it be safe to return to the pines- and Elijah.

A tap on the door caught Sean’s attention. “Come in,” he said, turning away from the window just as Liv appeared in the doorway.

“Your meeting starts in five minutes, Sean,” she reminded him.

“I’ll be right there.” Sean grabbed his suit jacket and shrugged into it, then picked up his briefcase and the mug of coffee.

“Is everything all right?” Liv asked as he joined her, concern lacing her soft, musical voice.

If there was anyone at Clicktwice he could tell about Elijah, it was Liv Tyler, and he was sorely tempted. But it didn’t seem fair to burden her with his secret and make her partner to a conspiracy of silence.

“A friend of mine is ill,” Sean hedged. “But I think he’s going to be okay.”

He was proved right three days later when a tired but relieved Elijah called to tell him that he’d been woken from a cat nap by a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Clack’s impatient and vociferous demands for dinner. But even that best of news couldn’t quite erase Sean’s sense of guilt over his failure to be there with Elijah, where he belonged.

He wondered how he’d manage to hold onto his sanity until it was all over, and just how long ‘all over’ was going to take.

~~~

MarketWatch

March 31, 2006

Clicktwice Shareholders’ Meeting Postponed

The board of directors of Clicktwice, Inc. (CLCK), the digital marketing technology company based in Manhattan, voted today to postpone their annual shareholders’ meeting, originally scheduled for April 30th, until June 1st. Company Chairman and CEO Sean Astin said that the date was pushed back in order to give the company more time to explore all of its strategic alternatives in their proxy fight against Google, Inc. (GOOG), leading to speculation that the internet giant is poised for victory.


~~~

April

April 3, 2006

Elijah hit the record button on his VCR and returned to the sofa. "This is it, Maggie," he said, gathering the calico cat onto his lap and staring nervously at the TV screen. He'd felt nervous ever since Sean had told him last night that he’d be appearing on the CNBC early morning financial program the 'Squawk Box'.

"I've been on that show before, and they don't pull punches, Elijah," Sean had warned. "But don't worry, I can handle it." Although Elijah didn't like the idea of anyone giving his Sean a hard time, he knew Sean was right: he could handle it. He could handle anything, even the Devil. But still, given all the publicity surrounding Sean’s separation from Chris and now the latest news about the postponement of Clicktwice’s annual meeting, Elijah couldn’t help but be nervous.

He’d raced around like a madman that morning, feeding the animals and cleaning stalls and cages even earlier than usual so that he could be in front of the television at 6:00 a.m. when the show started. Sean couldn't tell him exactly when his interview would be aired, and predictably, Elijah had had to sit through forty-five minutes of boring financial reporting before Sean's live interview was finally announced at a commercial break by Joe Kernan, one of the show’s two hosts along with Carl Quintanilla. The men looked to be about Sean's own age, and were dressed in dark slacks, white button-downs and conservative ties.

Both their somewhat disheveled appearance- sleeves rolled up and ties askew- and the hectic appearance of the set were designed to add an element of urgency and vitality to the show, Elijah guessed. Laptops, computer printouts, notepads, pens and empty coffee cups were scattered randomly across the curved, black-topped desk behind which the men sat.

In fairness, Elijah supposed there was genuine urgency to their job, but though for Sean’s sake he’d been valiantly trying to keep up on all the news about Clicktwice and the hostile takeover attempt, there was no getting around the fact that the world of high finance just didn’t interest him. He couldn’t wait until it was all over, and Sean could return home to the far simpler, less hectic life of the pines.

When the commercial break concluded, the show’s bouncy theme music played, and Joe Kernan said, “Welcome back to the Squawk Box. Our next guest is Sean Astin, Chairman and CEO of the Manhattan-based Internet advertising company Clicktwice."

The camera slowly panned back until a giant TV screen came into view, and there was Sean, sitting on the sofa in his office at Clicktwice. Elijah’s heart gave a great leap and his eyes hungrily devoured Sean’s face. Other than the photos that Sean sometimes sent via his cell phone’s built-in camera, most of them taken by cooperative strangers at various tourist attractions on his European trip, it was the first time Elijah had ‘seen’ him since he left the pines over two months earlier.

By comparison with the Squawk Box hosts, Sean was neatly dressed in a charcoal gray suit, crisp, light blue button-down, and navy tie. He wore a suit so well, Elijah thought with pride. He looked distinguished, competent, and, in Elijah’s entirely biased opinion, sexy as hell. Sean had confessed somewhat dejectedly that he’d been having trouble losing the weight he’d gained during his time overseas, but although Elijah could objectively see that he was heavier, to his loving gaze Sean was nothing less than drop-dead gorgeous.

But there was something else that loving gaze picked up on, too.

“Oh Maggie, Sean looks so tired,” Elijah breathed, taking in Sean’s puffy lids and the shadows beneath his eyes that make-up couldn’t quite hide. Maggie flicked her tail and meowed her concern, and Rocky added his two cents. The squirrel was draped across Elijah’s shoulders, his bottlebrush tail tickling the sensitive skin beneath the young man’s jaw.

With a stab of guilt, Elijah recalled that he and Sean had been on the phone last night until one o’clock in the morning. Sean had probably had little to no sleep. Neither had Elijah, of course, but he was as much a night owl as any great horned or saw-whet in the pines. He suspected this was yet one more manifestation of his stag nature, or perhaps it was an innate response as Woodjin to the fact that the Devil couldn’t bear the light of day, but prowled the forest under cover of darkness. Whatever the reason, Elijah had never had the least difficulty pulling an all-nighter, something Hannah had complained was downright unfair when she was still in college and bleary-eyed from staying up all night to cram for a test.

But such was not true of Sean, and yet he’d sacrificed untold hours of rest over the past eleven weeks. He worked a killing schedule at Clicktwice, and then hit the books every evening for a couple of hours, trying to polish up his math and science skills before he started his post-baccalaureate studies in the fall. After that, come hell or high water, he called Elijah, and their wide-ranging conversations- from passionate discussions of movies, music and politics, to their plans for the future, to passionate discussions of a very different nature- often lasted well into the night. It was no wonder Sean looked so tired.

“Sean, welcome back to the Squawk Box,” continued Kernan, and to Elijah’s disappointment, the camera moved away from Sean.

“Thank you for inviting me, Joe,” Sean replied, and the deep tones of his voice poured through Elijah’s body like sun-warmed honey.

“But,” Joe continued, “and let’s be totally honest here, you’re a guest this morning under vastly different circumstances than last time.” Sean’s rueful, slightly lop-sided smile appeared as the camera briefly showed him before returning to the Squawk Box host. “And that’s because your company is currently the target of a hostile takeover bid by Google.”

“Yes, it is,” Sean replied calmly. “As you’re no doubt aware, our board rejected two tender offers from Google earlier in the year, and as a result they’ve chosen to engage in a proxy fight.”

“Those tender offers were both in excess of $3 billion, certainly a fair market value for the company. So why did you turn them down?” Carl Quintanilla jumped in and challenged Sean. “Wouldn’t it have been in the best interest of your shareholders to sell? Google’s stock has certainly outperformed that of Clicktwice, especially in recent weeks.”

A graphic appeared on the screen, a chart that traced Clicktwice’s common stock share prices. There was an overall definite downward trend in the zigzagging blue line that represented the company; Elijah had known that, but to see it illustrated on a national news show made his heart hurt for Sean.

“Is there a company whose stock hasn’t been outperformed by Google’s?” Sean rebutted, appearing unruffled by the attack or disturbed by the chart. “It’s true that the stock price has fluctuated lately, but that’s only natural under the circumstances. We could hardly expect anything else. But I have every confidence that Clicktwice will return to the pattern of steady growth that it’s enjoyed ever since going public.”

If you avoid the hostile takeover attempt, and considering who you’re up against, you can’t be feeling particularly sanguine at this moment,” Joe pointed out. “It’s no secret that Google has its eye on your software patents, and they’re obviously willing to go to great lengths to secure them.”

“And that’s why I personally believe that when it comes down to a vote, our shareholders will choose to re-elect a board that has their best interests at heart, instead of those who are simply greedy to get their hands on our patents.” He spoke with an unflappable assurance that made Elijah’s heart swell with pride.

“All well and good, Sean, but I think our listeners would like to hear something more concrete about the shark repellent you plan to use, or are you looking for a white knight to save the company?” Carl asked, thrusting his head forward aggressively. “Friday’s news that you’ve pushed back the date of your annual meeting has to have raised legitimate concerns among potential investors.”

“I can tell you we aren’t putting out feelers for a white knight,” Sean replied, “But it would be premature for me to go into specifics about any poison pills, Carl. We’re still weighing our options.”

The discussion continued, but Elijah found it hard to concentrate on the arcane lingo that was as mystifying to him as the piney slang sometimes still was to Sean, for the warmth of Sean’s gold-flecked green eyes as he looked into the camera proved too great a distraction to one starved for the sight of his lover for eleven interminable weeks. Sean was speaking with animation, using his shapely hands to emphasize the points he was trying to make. The disfiguring scratches that had marred the backs were entirely gone now. The Sean whom Elijah had rescued in the pines- sad, uncertain, deeply unhappy- was nowhere in evidence. For the first time, Elijah was truly seeing Sean as the rest of the world saw him: a wealthy, successful and articulate businessman, standing confidently at the helm of a multi-billion dollar corporation.

This wealthy, successful and articulate man loved him, Elijah thought in amazement, and even more, he was prepared to give up the life of prestige and privilege that he’d earned through his own talent and hard work, and move to the pines to be with Elijah. Watching Sean now, it seemed almost incredible. Sean had told Elijah innumerable times over the past weeks that he was the luckiest man on the planet, but Elijah knew that he was the lucky one.

His attention was abruptly jerked back to the interview, however, at Joe Kernan’s next comment.

“But even if Google’s takeover attempt doesn’t succeed, what does the future hold for Clicktwice? You’ve recently separated from the company’s president, Christine Harrell, and it’s no secret that you’re intending to step down as CEO after the annual meeting.”

“My personal life isn’t relevant to the future of Clicktwice,” Sean said firmly, “and my decision to step down has nothing whatsoever to do with my relationship with Ms. Harrell. In fact, she is my choice to succeed me as CEO, and I’m confident that the board will support my recommendation and nominate her as my successor. It’s a position she is eminently qualified to assume. But I intend to continue in an advisory capacity for as long as is necessary to ensure a smooth transition.” He huffed a small laugh. “I’ve devoted a lot of years of my life to Clicktwice, Joe. I’m not going to abandon it to the wolves.”

Not by a single flicker of an eyelid did Sean betray the internal struggle he’d waged to arrive at this decision, or the cost it was taking on him. But Elijah knew all too well, and the lump that formed in his throat was made up of equal parts pride, love and pain.

Joe laughed. “The wolves at Google, huh? Well, we wish you and Clicktwice the very best, Sean, and thank you for joining us this morning.”

“It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for having me on,” Sean replied.

The camera panned back from Sean and returned to the co-hosts. “That was Sean Astin, Chairman and CEO of Clicktwice, Inc. We’ll be back after this commercial break…”

Elijah set Maggie down and bounced up from the sofa, going to the VCR to stop it. He rewound the tape, listening to the high-pitched whine until it ceased, and then hit ‘play’. He fast-forwarded until he reached the point in the interview that the camera zoomed in tight on Sean’s face, and then he paused the tape and stared and stared, thinking he could never get his fill of that beloved face.

“I miss you so much,” he whispered, and Rocky curled more tightly around his neck, chattering softly and offering what consolation he could.

~~~

April 19, 2006

Sean was perched on the corner of Liv’s desk while he and his secretary went over his schedule for the following week. It was a schedule crammed full of business lunches and dinners with clients who were jittery about the situation with Google; meetings with the company’s CFO and lawyers; and interviews with various media outlets. All this was leaving even less time than usual for Sean to oversee the day to day running of Clicktwice. More and more, Chris was assuming total responsibility for that end of the business, and Sean thought philosophically that at least it had the happy effect of keeping them out of each other’s way most of the time.

It was also preparing the company’s employees for a future without Sean, and he was surprised that the thought hurt as much as it did, considering how desperate he was to return to Elijah and begin his medical studies. But there were good people working at Clicktwice, many of them with the company since its inception, and he would miss them. People like Liv, his tall, elegant, stylish, model-gorgeous and oh-so-efficient secretary who had turned down at least a dozen different lucrative job offers from larger and more prestigious corporations, choosing to remain loyal to Clicktwice and to him.

“If we move the meeting with Peter to Thursday morning,” Liv was saying, “you can still attend that literacy fundraiser on Tuesday afternoon.”

“That sounds like a plan,” Sean agreed, and Liv did some clicking and dragging with her mouse as she rearranged the colorful grid on her computer screen.

They were interrupted by the phone ringing, no uncommon interruption these days, and with a sigh of frustration, Liv picked up the handset. “Mr. Astin’s secretary,” she said, and listened intently. “Just a moment, Ms. Boyens, and I’ll connect you to Mr. Astin.” She put the call on hold and looked inquiringly at Sean.

His heart was suddenly pounding, and his body broke out in a light sweat. This was it, he thought. There was only one reason Philippa could be calling him, and it was to tell him that Judge Hill had finally ruled on Chris’s palimony suit.

He held out his hand and remained where he was, rather than go into his own office to take the call. Somehow, he didn’t want to be alone while getting the news, and after all, Liv was aware, as was every other employee at Clicktwice, that the decision was due any day.

“Good luck,” Liv whispered, handing Sean the phone.

Sean gave her a terse nod, and said into the receiver, “Philippa, it’s Sean. Any news?”

“The decision came down a few minutes ago. I’m afraid it’s not good for us, Sean. Judge Hill ruled in favor of hearing the palimony suit.”

Shit. Shit. Sean met Liv’s eyes and gave a slight shake of his head, and her face fell. Somehow he managed to hold onto his cool, even as the understanding of what this would mean came crashing down on him: yet more delay, more weeks, if not months, of separation from Elijah. Little to no chance of starting his post-baccalaureate studies in the fall as he’d planned. A court battle that would be conducted with the full glare of the public spotlight focused on it thus requiring an even greater degree of vigilance in protecting Elijah than before.

“I don’t have the full text of the decision yet, but as soon as I do, I’ll fax it to you. Sean, I’m so sorry,” Philippa said. “If it had been any other judge, there would have been a snowball’s chance in hell that the suit would have gone forward.”

“Guess I’m just lucky, huh?” Sean jested, but without an ounce of humor in his voice. “What’s our next step?”

“Even though we don’t have a trial date yet, Chris’s lawyers certainly aren’t going to wait to start preparing their case, and neither should we. I’d like to set up a meeting for early next week if possible.”

“As it happens, my secretary and I were just going over my schedule. I’m available Tuesday afternoon.” There goes the literacy fundraiser. Sean gave Liv a rueful look.

There was a sound of flipping pages as Philippa searched her appointment book. “That will work for me. Two o’clock?”

“Two o’clock is fine.”

“Sean, I realize what disappointing news this is, but look at it as if we’re beginning again from a level playing field. Simply because Hill agreed to hear the case doesn’t mean it’s a given that Chris will win. The burden of proof will be on her.”

“I understand.” But it’s the time it will take, Philippa, he wanted to say, no, to wail, and the potential danger to someone I love. I don’t care about the rest of it.

Sean said goodbye and returned the receiver to Liv. Dejection overcame him then, an inescapable foe, and a prickle of hot tears burned his eyes. His shaky self-control fled and he buried his head in his hands, not caring that Liv was witnessing him self-destruct right in front of her. Peripherally he was aware of her getting up from her chair, and then her arm came around his shaking shoulders and the delicate floral perfume she wore teased his nostrils.

“Whoever she is, she must be really special to you,” Liv said quietly. “Would it help to talk about her?”

Sean released a ragged breath that was half laugh, half sob. He’d been right that she suspected he was involved with someone new. This time, the urge to confide in her was too strong to resist. He desperately needed an ally at Clicktwice, now more than ever, or he thought he might go stark, raving mad.

“Him. Not her, him,” Sean corrected in a hoarse voice. “His name is Elijah, and yeah, he’s pretty special to me.” He looked at her through tear-blurred eyes. She was doing a pretty admirable job of disguising her shock at discovering her boss was in love with another man, only her slightly widened eyes giving her away. “You sure you want to hear this?”

“I’m sure,” she replied, understanding what he meant. “I’d like to help you, if I can.” Liv was careful never to voice a negative opinion about Chris, but there was no doubting whose side she was on. “So tell me about Elijah.”

She dropped her arm and resumed her seat, and Sean began to talk. He couldn’t tell her the whole truth, of course, but there was no denying it was cathartic to unburden himself of as much of the truth as he dared. Liv asked no questions, only listened, and he knew that everything he told her about Elijah would be held in trust, guarded as closely as he guarded it himself.

When he was done, Sean was wrung out like a limp dishcloth, and Liv touched his hand and said, “You should go down to your suite and take a break.”

“There’s a phone call I have to make first.” He didn’t have to say to whom. He smiled ruefully at her. “You must sometimes wish you’d taken one of those job offers, Liv. Look at what a mess you’ve become involved in, through no fault of your own.”

“You know, I don’t think you really understand how much you’re loved here,” Liv surprised him by saying. “Everyone respects Chris. She’s demanding but fair, and she never asks more of anyone than she’s willing to do herself. But the reason we’ve all stayed through thick and thin is you.” To his shock, Liv’s blue eyes slowly filled with tears. “It won’t be the same after you leave, Sean.”

“There’ll be an opening for an office manager in a few years when I get my medical practice up and running,” Sean said, blinking back more tears of his own. “If you’re interested.”

Liv dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, and laughed. “Move to the Pine Barrens? A city girl like me? You’ve got to be kidding,” she joked.

“Hey, if this city guy can move there, so can you.” Despite her words, Sean was confident that when the time came, Liv would be ready and willing to join him. That certain knowledge, that vision of a concrete future, gave him the strength to go into his office and call Elijah with the bad news.

~~~

April 21, 2006

“It’s easy to see who Jordan takes after,” Elijah said with amusement from his spot sitting atop the paddock railing. “You were riding by the time you could walk, too, Hannah.”

His nephew was perched fearlessly on the broad brown back of Cher, his tiny fingers wound into the long strands of her coarse black mane. He seemed impatient of his father’s large hands holding him carefully in place as the mare plodded slowly around the paddock with Hannah holding the lead line clipped to her leather halter.

“Go,” Jordan said, urging Cher on, “go!”

Lawrence’s deep laughter rang out. “I think we’re going to have to get our son his own pony, Hannah, and soon.”

Hannah grinned mischievously at Elijah. “Just what you’ve been wanting, Lij, another animal to take care of.”

Elijah grinned back. “Oh, what’s one more mouth to feed?” he said. “Besides, I think it’s a great idea. I’ll start keeping my eye out for a suitable pony for him.”

Warmth filled Elijah’s heart as the three Makoares continued their slow circuit with Cher, while Sonny, Dolly and Paco watched tolerantly from the adjacent paddock. He’d thought he held it together pretty well on the phone with Hannah yesterday, when he called to tell her the news about the palimony suit, but she’d seen right through him; hence this unexpected but welcome visit. There’d been a moment when they first arrived, and Elijah scooped Jordan up into his arms and cuddled him, that he’d been hard-pressed not to break down into tears.

In some ways it would be a relief to cry, he thought, for the intolerable ache of loneliness and longing seemed sometimes more than he could bear, especially on a day like today.

The April sky was rain-washed blue from a storm the previous night, and the promise of spring was being fulfilled all around them, in the unfurling fronds of lacy ferns, the deep-throated mating calls of bullfrogs in the cedar swamps, and the chirping cries of baby birds from their nests under the barn’s eaves. These, and all the other signs of new life, were usually powerful distractions for Elijah. He sometimes spent entire spring days from sunup to sundown roaming the pines on foot or kayaking along the Batsto, making note of the locations of new burrows, dens, nests and dams, and any bridges or roads in need of repair or clearing after winter’s cold grip was released at last.

But this spring season was bittersweet, for he’d anticipated sharing these voyages of discovery with Sean. Already Sean had missed so much: the release of the red fox, and of Click and Clack, now happily playing and squabbling in a nearby stand of pitch pines where Elijah could keep a watchful eye on them as they grew to adulthood. There were new arrivals, too, for spring was a busy time for wildlife rehabilitators: a saw-whet owl with a broken wing, three baby cottontails whose mother had been killed, and a skunk with numerous cuts and contusions who had likely been rolled by a car. All were doing well, but it simply wasn’t the same telling Sean about their progress on the phone or emailing him photos. Strange how just those couple times he and Sean had worked together to care for the animals had imprinted on Elijah’s soul. It had felt so utterly right.

Being apart felt so utterly wrong, and now it appeared that their separation would go on even longer than their worst fears. The spring sunshine could not warm the sudden cold inside him, and the optimism that had always buoyed him up in times of trouble was nowhere in sight.

When the tall bay mare and her tiny rider came abreast Elijah, Hannah drew Cher to a halt. “All right, Jordan, the ride’s over. It’s time for your lunch,” she said firmly.

Jordan’s lower lip began to quiver ominously as his father lifted him off Cher, but experience had taught Lawrence that distraction was the key to averting childish tears. He lifted Jordan high in the air, pretended to drop him, making him squeal with laughter, and then settled him on his shoulders.

“Take Jordan back to the house, Lawrence, and get lunch started,” Hannah ordered. “I’ll help Elijah do Cher up.”

Elijah exchanged an amused look with his brother-in-law. Hannah was being managing again. But Lawrence good-naturedly did as instructed, and Elijah jumped lightly down from the fence and accompanied his sister into the barn.

Hannah put Cher on crossties in the aisleway while Elijah went to the tack room to get the grooming bucket. The mare was shedding the final remnants of her heavy winter coat and enjoyed a good grooming. He handed Hannah a black rubber currycomb, and picked up a stiff boar bristle brush for himself. Hannah efficiently wielded the curry, stopping periodically to bang the clumps of dead fur off it using the heel of her boot, and patches of shining dappled bay slowly emerged. Elijah brushed out Cher’s long tail, carefully separating any tangles with his fingers, until the hair fell like a smooth black waterfall, not unlike that of her namesake.

They worked in companionable silence. This was a routine they’d shared hundreds of times over their lives, and the chore was both soothing and satisfying; Cher’s nodding head and drooping lower lip showed that she was finding it soothing, too. Elijah didn’t need his special ability to read her mind.

But Elijah knew there was something on Hannah’s mind, although hers he couldn’t read; he could feel her gaze on him when she thought he wouldn’t notice. But she said nothing until they were leaning side by side on the stall door watching Cher munch on a flake of alfalfa hay.

“You know, you can stop being Woodjin for five minutes, Elijah,” Hannah said, turning toward him. “I promise not to tell anyone.” She held out her arms and Elijah, tears suddenly flooding his eyes, stepped into them and buried his face in her shoulder. “What’s happening to you and Sean is so unfair,” she whispered, rocking him and stroking his hair with a gentle hand. “I’m sorry.”

”I’m sorry. Elijah, I’m so sorry,” Sean said again.

“Maybe we should declare a moratorium on those words,” Elijah replied through the tightness that made his chest ache. “Or else it’s all we’re going to be saying to each other.”

“You’re right. I’m s…” Sean made that small huff that was so characteristic and so endearing. “I guess I’m running out of words. Who ever thought that day would arrive, huh?”

Elijah’s heart was breaking for Sean. “We’ll get through this, Sean,” he said, but the words lacked conviction to his own ears. They might get through it, but at that moment it was difficult to see beyond the fact that the bright and happy future they’d spent endless hours discussing seemed more and more distant and dream-like. “We’ll just have to up the phone sex to twice a day, seven days a week.”

That got a laugh out of Sean, as Elijah had hoped, but his own feelings of guilt left no room for humor. Everything Sean was suffering right now was on his account, because he was the Woodjin.


And for the next few minutes, held tightly in his sister’s loving embrace, the Woodjin vanished; Elijah was nothing more than a sad and lonely young man who wished very much that the arms around him belonged to someone else.

~~~

May

May 8, 2006

Elijah set Maggie down, and went to the stove. He lifted the teakettle from the back burner, filled it with water at the sink, and replaced it. After lighting the burner, he walked quickly toward the end of the kitchen counter, where the answering machine’s flashing red light continued its imperative demand for attention.

Relieved as he was to know that their bond was no one-time thing, Elijah doubted that Sean was dwelling on that right now; he was probably consumed with worry. Calling him was an urgent priority, but before Elijah had time to pick up the portable phone to call Sean, it rang. He lunged forward and grabbed it before the sound of that first ring had faded.

“Oh thank god,” Sean said, sounding half-frantic. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Sean,” Elijah reassured him. “Perfectly fine.”

“You’re sure? The shoulder isn’t bothering you?”

Elijah rolled his right shoulder; it moved smoothly, without a hint of restriction or pain. “My shoulder is perfect. Sean, take a deep breath and relax, okay? Nothing’s wrong. I was called, but it wasn’t anything like last time.”

“Except that I woke from a sound sleep, and I knew that you’d been called, and it scared the shit out of me. Elijah, what happened out there tonight? Why were you called?”

“To rescue a little girl who was lost in the woods.”

“A child? Oh dear god, Elijah. Is she all right?”

“Yes, she’s fine. She’s back with her parents, and she’s fine. But I better tell you the whole story so you’ll stop worrying.”

“I’ll never stop worrying about you,” Sean replied, “and before you say anything else, I need to know that you’re taking care of yourself. Have you had some herb tea and something to eat? Are you warm enough?”

“I’ve just put the kettle on to make the tea,” Elijah said. He glanced down at his bare chest and arms, pimpled with gooseflesh, for the transformations always left his body temperature lowered. “And I’m plenty warm enough,” he prevaricated.

Maggie, who had jumped up on the counter and was pacing back and forth, now paused and gave him a disapproving stare from her amber eyes. Don’t even think about it, Elijah warned her. Sean’s worried enough as it is.

He cradled the phone under his chin while he spooned the herb mixture into a teapot, and took the honey and a mug down from the cupboard. By the time the tea had done steeping and was ready to drink, Sean had heard about Megan, and about Elijah’s confrontation with the Devil.

“Thank god he backed down,” Sean said quietly when Elijah was finished. “Thank god. Elijah, you saved that child’s life. You’re totally amazing, you know that?”

Elijah flushed and sipped his tea, wishing he could blame his blushing cheeks on the tendrils of steam that rose from the mug. It wasn’t so much Sean’s words that left him at a loss as the reverence in his voice, the same reverence that crept in whenever he mentioned the white stag. Elijah had realized over the months that for Sean the stag was in some ways a being separate and apart, even though he’d seen Elijah transform before his very eyes, even though he knew they were one and the same. And yet perhaps that was how it had to be, for that sort of reverence, though it moved him to the very core of his being, was not what the human Elijah wanted or needed in his partner and lover.

“Sean, if I ever failed to save someone… I don’t know that I could handle that,” Elijah confessed. “I think I’d rather d-“

Don’t say it,” Sean interrupted, suddenly sounding almost angry. “Elijah, don’t you dare use that word. I almost lost you once, and I can’t even… I simply can’t contemplate something happening to you again.”

Suddenly, there was a loud crash that made Elijah jump and tea slop over the rim of his mug. It sounded as if Sean had slammed his fist down hard on a table.

“Fuck. Fuck. This whole situation is fucking impossible. I don’t think I can bear much more.” Sean rarely used such language, but he seemed to have reached some breaking point. The raw agony he was experiencing came clear across the miles between them, and was like a knife to Elijah’s heart. “I made a promise, Elijah, a promise to your sister that I’d be there for you when you came home. How many more times will I have to break that promise, the way I did tonight? What if… what if you’re in real danger again, and I can’t get there in time? There wasn’t one night when I was in Europe that I didn’t wake up in a cold sweat from a dream that you were shot and I was too late to save you.”

“Sean…” Elijah tried to interrupt him.

“No, let me finish.” Sean’s voice softened but was no less distraught as he said, “Elijah, I’m scared.”

Elijah didn’t make any jokes about Clint Eastwood or the Devil this time. “Sean...”

“When I first got back to the city, and for weeks afterward, nothing seemed quite real to me. It was as if I was trapped in this prolonged nightmare, and I kept thinking that I’d surely wake up and you’d be there beside me and I’d be home in the pines where I belong.” He gave a sad laugh. “But the nightmare has never ended. It simply goes on and on.”

The constricting thickness of tears clogging his throat made it impossible for Elijah to speak.

“I’m starting to worry that I’ll be trapped in this nightmare forever.” The slow, reluctant admission terrified Elijah. “It’s as if fate, or something, is working to keep us apart. You know, this morning I tried to remember how it felt to be in the pines, the smell and sound and sight of it, and I couldn’t. For the first time, I couldn’t. All I could smell was the stink of some rotting garbage in a dumpster and the diesel fumes from a bus.”

“Sean...” Elijah felt like he was the one in a nightmare now, unable to say anything but that one word, over and over.

“It’s going on five months since I’ve set eyes on you- five fucking months- and there’s not even a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. It could be another five months before I’m free at the rate things are going. There isn’t even a fucking court date for the palimony trial yet. God, Elijah, I don’t think I can bear it, and you sure as hell shouldn’t have to. I wouldn’t blame you if you got tired of waiting,” he ended bitterly.

That gave Elijah back his voice. “I’ll never get tired of waiting. Never, do you understand?” he said fiercely, but the receiver was slippery in his suddenly damp palm. He had never heard Sean sound like this before: so thoroughly dispirited, almost defeated. He had remained determinedly upbeat over the weeks of their separation, and the contrast between that Sean and this one drove home as never before the awful toll their separation was taking on him. “Sean, I think you should come home for a few days. I don’t care about the risk. All I care about is you, and what I can’t bear is for you to be so unhappy.”

There was silence, except for Sean’s uneven breathing on the other end of the line.

Finally, Sean said heavily, “Don’t tempt me. You have no idea how badly I want to give in. But we’ve made it this far, Elijah, and you’re safe from discovery, and that knowledge is what I hold onto every single day to give me strength.” He went on softly, “I shouldn’t have lost it like that and worried you. Forgive me.”

“There’s no need for forgiveness. It’s okay for you to lose it sometimes. But I still think you should consider what I said. We miss you, me and Maggie and Rocky and Fred, and I want to take care of you. You’re not getting enough rest.”

“You think I’d get any rest if I were there?” Sean asked, and a little lightness crept back into his voice.

“Well…” Elijah teased. “In between bouts of lovemaking you would.”

“Elijah, I’d give anything to come home, you know I would, but it’s simply not worth the risk.” Sean’s tone was final and sad. “I promise to be in a more positive frame of mind when I talk to you tomorrow. It was knowing you’d been called and that I couldn’t do anything but wait for you to come home that got to me.” He huffed a laugh. “I'm not sure if you’ve checked the answering machine yet, but there are five messages there.”

“Maybe I should carry my cell phone with me when I transform,” Elijah said, and realized that somewhere in the last couple of weeks he’d become the one making the jests to keep Sean’s spirits up.

“I’d like to see that,” Sean said around a yawn, and Elijah glanced at the wall clock and to his horror saw that it was shortly before 3 a.m.

“Oh gollykeepers,” he exclaimed remorsefully, “I didn’t realize it’s so late. You should be in bed, Sean.”

“Yeah, I should. I’ve got yet another meeting with the company lawyers tomorrow- today, that is- at 10 o’clock.” Sean paused, and then said emotionally, “I love you, Woodjin, and I thank god that you’re safe at home.”

“Oh Sean, I love you, too,” Elijah replied, but for once those words didn’t seem like enough.

After they disconnected, Elijah set down the phone but didn’t move. Maggie trotted across the counter to him and butted her head against his chest. He gathered her up and listened to the rumble of her purr with his cheek pressed against her silken fur. He recalled Sean holding her that first day, a lonely man who had told him that he’d always wanted a dog, a man who so clearly craved and needed physical love, but who had enjoyed it for just a few brief days before it was snatched away again.

“Oh Maggie,” Elijah whispered wretchedly. “What am I going to do?”

So Maggie, never hesitant to voice her opinion, told him.

“I can’t,” Elijah said. “You know I can’t.” He held Maggie away from him and stared at her in shock.

She only returned the stare coolly in that way she had when she thought he was making mountains out of molehills.

“No, it’s out of the question.” How could she even suggest it? Go to Sean? Leave the pines and travel to New York? It was impossible, unthinkable… He was the Woodjin; he couldn’t leave.

Elijah set Maggie down again, and walked agitatedly around the kitchen. Maggie was sitting upright with her tail curled around her paws, still as a black and rust feline statue, but her amber gaze followed Elijah’s every move.

Even as his brain rejected the very notion, his heart opened to Maggie’s suggestion. Was it really impossible and unthinkable to go to Sean? Couldn’t he leave the pines for one day?

Other than a few brief outings to Philly for birthday dinners, in the close and watchful guard of his family, Elijah had not left the pines since his vision quest when he was eleven years old. As a small child, his mom had taken him and Hannah and Zach on trips to the city, knowing that Elijah’s chances to see the world outside the pines would be limited. They’d visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center. They’d ridden the Staten Island Ferry and watched the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center.

Elijah had loved the bustle and color and noise of the city, so different from the quiet world of the pines. To see and experience it again… to see Sean… The idea filled him with a mixture of exhiliration, fear and dread.

I can’t believe I’m even considering this. It’s madness.

But day by day, week by week, the stress and pressure on Sean had been mounting, culminating with his breakdown tonight. Things couldn't go on this way, that much was clear, but Sean would never come to the pines, too paralyzed by his fear for Elijah's safety.

Should Sean be the only one willing to take risks? the voice of his heart asked. He’s giving up his old life for you. He’s moving to the pines to be with you. Must every sacrifice be made by him, and none whatever by you?

But my first responsibility is to the pines and to the people here.

Can’t you set that aside just once? Doesn’t Sean deserve that much? He’s going to be a piney, too- if he doesn’t change his mind out of hopelessness and desperation, that is. How can you say you love him, and yet be willing to risk nothing for him?

I have no magic outside the pines. If something were to happen...

Coward.

He’ll be furious with me.

He needs you.

Elijah halted in the middle of the kitchen. His hands were clenched into tight fists at his sides. His muscles were literally trembling, and sweat was trickling down his temples and the back of his neck as if he’d just finished running a race. He looked at Maggie, still silently watching. 'You should always listen to her,' Sean had told him.

“You’re right,” he said. “I have to go to New York.”