The Woodjin: Chapter 12 by Lbilover

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Those of you who love the old TV series 'Beauty and the Beast', there's a bit of tribute in this chapter to one of my favorite episodes, 'Masques'.


May 8, 2006

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Martha asked. “It’s not too late. I can buy a ticket on the train, Elijah.”

Elijah shook his head decisively. If he was going to go to Sean, if he was going to prove to himself that he didn’t always have to be the fox, cowering fearfully in the shadows, he had to go alone. “No, that’s okay. I’ll be all right.” If you say it often enough, you might even believe it.

They were standing on the platform at Hamilton Station, waiting for Elijah’s train to arrive from Trenton. A crowd of other northbound commuters was around them, but Martha’s reassuring presence kept uneasiness at bay. Once he stepped onto the train, however, he’d be on his own. Elijah fought down the brief flare of panic that the thought brought with it.

“Don’t forget to call me the moment you get to Trump Tower,” Martha admonished him for at least the twentieth time. She was definitely nervous. Even though she was doing her best to disguise it, Elijah could practically see the worry coming off her in waves.

“I won’t forget, I promise. And Martha, thank you for doing this,” Elijah said. “I’m sorry to get you in trouble with Dr. Ian, not to mention everyone else…” He bit his lip. They were going to be upset, to put it mildly, when they found out that she’d aided and abetted him in his plan to go to New York to see Sean.

After arriving at the agonizing decision, Elijah wasn’t simply able to drop everything and rush off to the city. He’d realized right away that he had to have an ally. For one thing, he needed a ride to the train station; he might know the twisting, winding sand trails of the pines like the back of his hand, but the roads outside were a traffic congested nightmare that he simply didn’t feel prepared to deal with. For another, the animals couldn’t feed and water themselves.

Exactly who his ally should be was the critical question. It had to be someone who wouldn’t try to talk him out of going to Sean, or insist on sending a delegation of pineys along to guard him, or, even worse, call Sean and tell him what Elijah was planning. That ruled out Katie or Bill or Hannah or Dr. Ian, and Pete didn’t know how to drive.

But there was Martha, whom he believed would understand why he had to do this, because she knew the stresses and pressures of Sean’s world better than anyone. Although Elijah hated asking her to deceive Dr. Ian, there was no other recourse. The doctor would no more allow Elijah to travel to the city alone and unprotected than he’d have let Sean take him to the hospital after he was shot. Fortunately, she had understood and agreed, though with obvious misgivings, to help him.

“As long as I can reassure Ian and the others that you’ve arrived at Sean’s office in one piece, I’ll survive,” Martha now replied calmly. “After that, you’ll have Sean to take care of you, and we all know you’ll be safe in his hands.”

Safe in his hands. Sean’s hands. He’d be seeing Sean soon! The vision that had been keeping him company over the past frantic hours of preparation sprang to the forefront of his mind.

Sean was sitting at the desk in his office, his head bent while he studied the paperwork in front of him. As Elijah entered the room he glanced up, did a double take, and stared as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. With a wordless cry of joy, he jumped to his feet and rushed around his desk as Elijah ran to meet him. ‘I’ve missed you,’ Sean said in a shaky voice as they held each other tightly. ‘Oh Elijah, I’ve missed you so much.’ And then his lips were warm on Elijah’s, and they kissed… for a very, very long time.

The shrill blast of a train whistle disrupted the blissful vision before it had a chance to move along to the part that came after the kisses.

“This should be your train, Elijah,” said Martha.

About a minute later with a rattle and whoosh, a silver train with the NJ Transit logo thundered into view. The rush of wind as the engine and first cars flashed past them whipped Martha’s hair wildly around her face and sent stray papers flying. Gradually the train slowed and stopped. People moved closer to the edge of the platform, waiting for the doors to open.

This is it, Elijah thought, his heart racing. The moment of truth.

Martha smiled reassuringly at him as she tucked strands of blonde hair behind one ear. “You’re going to be fine,” she said, as if she, too, thought that by saying the words over and over they would have to come true. “Remember, it’s the exit for 32nd Street and 7th Avenue that you want. There’s a taxi stand right outside.” There had been no question of him trying to navigate the subways alone.

Elijah nodded; his throat was suddenly too tight to speak.

“Give Sean my love,” Martha said as they hugged goodbye. “Call if you need me.”

“I will. Thanks again for everything, Martha.”

Elijah slung his backpack over his shoulder and picked up the cardboard shoebox that was resting on the ground between his feet. Hesitantly he joined the shuffling throng of people entering the train, trying not to cringe at the bodies packing close around him. He glanced back as he prepared to step across the gap between platform and train, and waved. Martha waved back, and gave him another encouraging smile. Then she was lost to view, and Elijah knew he really was on his own now.

He walked halfway up the car and selected an unoccupied row, sliding across the cracked burnt orange vinyl until he was right up against the window; he was afraid that if he couldn’t see the outside world, he might suffocate.

He set the shoebox on the empty space to his left, hoping that it would deter anyone from sitting down next to him. Thankfully, the train didn’t appear too crowded, even though it was the morning rush. But there were several stops yet to make between Hamilton and Penn Station, so it was entirely possible that the train would eventually fill up.

Elijah wasn’t sure if he could bear to have another human, a strange human, so close beside him. Already he was on sensory overload, and he’d barely begun his journey to visit Sean. How could people bear this day in and day out? He wondered. How could they stand to be enclosed in such tight quarters, be battered by so many different scents and sounds? His senses of smell, sight and hearing were unusually keen for a human, and at home in the pines that was a blessing. But not in the close confines of a train, and it was impossible to shut them off, impossible to ignore the rank smell of sweat, the stale coffee on someone’s breath, the cloying perfumes and aftershaves, and the residue of harsh cleaning chemicals that made him want to gag.

He would simply have to endure it, that was all, and pray that no one asked him to move his belongings so that they could sit in the empty seat. If it were possible, he would stand the entire way, but he couldn’t easily do that encumbered by his bulky knapsack and the shoebox.

With an ominous hiss frighteningly like that of a copperhead coiling to strike, the metal doors slid closed, trapping Elijah inside. There was no going back now. With a lurch the train pulled away from the station, quickly gaining speed. Elijah jumped like a scalded cat when a static-obscured male voice boomed nasally over the loudspeaker, “Next stop Princeton Junction.”

Elijah nervously fingered the thin paper ticket in the pocket of his tan corduroy jacket. The conductor would only randomly check tickets, Martha had told him. She’d had to help him figure out how to use the automated ticket machine to buy and validate his ticket, and he’d felt horribly embarrassed. 25 year-old guys should know about these things.

He wondered now what else he wouldn’t know about, and if he would somehow give away his otherness and make people suspicious. Resting one hand protectively on the lid of the box, Elijah turned his head to stare out the window. It wasn’t an edifying sight; they were passing through an industrial area on the outskirts of the city, and old brick factory buildings, rusted chain link fencing, and cracked asphalt parking lots dotted with pigeons and straggly weeds flashed by. But to one who had not seen such sights in more than fourteen years, it held a sort of grim fascination.

His reflection staring back at him caught his attention. An irrational fear seized him that his pedicles were visible. Everything looked fine, and he’d been extra careful when fixing his hair before leaving the house, but still… There had been that gust of wind when the train passed… He fought an urge to run his hand over his head and check that they were still hidden.

Don’t give in to paranoia, he warned himself. It’s the best way to bring unwanted attention on yourself. Instead, he groped in the same pocket that held his ticket and found the cat’s eye shell that Sean had given him. He wrapped his fingers tightly around it as if it were a talisman that would protect him from harm, and gradually regained his composure.

After a few minutes, Elijah risked a cautious glance around. Further up the car, he could see the conductor in his peaked gendarme’s cap and khaki green uniform checking a ticket. Otherwise, it appeared that the train’s occupants were settling in for the trip, closing their eyes for a nap, talking on their cell phones, listening to their mp3 players or reading the morning newspaper. No one was paying the slightest attention to Elijah.

This emboldened him to check on the contents of the shoebox, something he’d wanted to do ever since he first sat down. Carefully, he lifted the lid a few inches and peered inside the towel-lined box that held something far more precious than a pair of shoes.

“Everything okay in there, Fred?” he asked.

The box turtle’s bony prehensile head with its hooked nose was barely protruding from his carapace, and his scaled orange legs were tucked tightly away, hidden from view. While Fred had been all for the idea of visiting Sean in New York, when Elijah flipped on the bathroom light in the middle of the night and asked him if he’d like to go, the reality of leaving the pines was as unsettling for him as it was for the Woodjin. Fred had his doubts about the wisdom of this trip. Sean’s jokes about wild parties to the contrary, he simply wasn’t the adventuresome type.

But he slowly blinked his small red eyes to signify that he was fine, and Elijah smiled in relief. “Good. I’m glad to hear it. Now go back to sleep… and don’t worry.” If only he could take his own advice, he thought ruefully.

He pushed the tight-fitting lid down into place, and as he straightened, his eyes met those of the person in the seat across the aisle: a middle-aged man in a pin-striped business suit holding a copy of the Trenton Times, neatly folded to display the sports section.

The man was watching him over his reading glasses with what seemed a suspicious expression, and Elijah quickly looked away, his heart beating a furious tattoo.

Idiot! he scolded himself. Normal people don’t talk to animals like that. Normal people don’t bring turtles on a train. It’s probably illegal. What if he says something to the conductor? Fred could be impounded and you’ll never see him again. You could be arrested and-

“Ticket?”

It was the conductor. He was parked by Elijah’s seat with his hand outstretched and a look of bored impatience on his face; biting his lip, Elijah hastily fumbled for the paper slip in his pocket. Wasn’t it just his luck that he should be one of the random people whose ticket was checked?

“Sorry,” he said, offering an apologetic smile along with the ticket. The conductor didn’t return the smile, only took the ticket from him and scrutinized it for a few seconds. Then he scored it with a rapid fire click click click of his hand-held punch, and stuck it in the small metal clip on top of the seat in front of Elijah.

“Thank you,” Elijah said, smiling again, and this time, almost as if against his will, the man smiled back before moving away. He had a nice smile, Elijah thought, and wondered sadly why he couldn’t show it more.

To Elijah’s indescribable relief, the businessman across the aisle got off at Princeton Junction without causing any trouble for Elijah and Fred. But even more people boarded there and at New Brunswick and Newark, and the car started to fill up. He decided to hold Fred on his lap, fearful that someone might sit down on the box or knock it over, and substituted his backpack on the empty seat to discourage company.
When the train pulled away from Newark Airport, its final stop before arriving at Penn Station, no one had attempted to sit by him, and he was able to relax a little.

Relax, but not rest; he was too keyed up for that, although he desperately needed sleep. Transforming into the white stag was exhilarating beyond belief, but it was also exhausting, and he was weary to his very bones. But he didn’t want to sleep through any of this experience. After all, it might well be the one and only solo journey outside the pines that he would ever take; the odds that he’d get away with a stunt like this again were slim to none. No, sleep could definitely wait.

So Elijah leaned his forehead on the window glass and stared with interest as the train rattled across the wetlands that lay between Newark and New York. The marshy landscape reminded him of some places in the pines. His experienced eye immediately picked out a snowy egret standing still as a statue on one leg among tall green reeds. There were numerous waterfowl, too- he caught glimpses of gadwalls, mallards and what he thought might be a rare pie-billed grebe- and somehow the sight of them, familiar in a way that the people around him were not, heartened him.

But then the train left the Meadowlands behind, and entered the pitch blackness of the railroad tunnel beneath the Hudson River. As darkness pressed down on him, a darkness relieved only by the harsh glare of the train’s interior lights, Elijah battled a sense of claustrophobia.

He despised himself for his panicky reaction, but he couldn’t help it; he was used to having the wide open sky above him. His fingers convulsively gripped the lid of the shoebox while he took steadying breaths and willed himself to calm. He didn’t want to freak out poor Fred. Another train flew past them going in the opposite direction, creating a disorienting, queasy sensation that the train he was on was traveling backwards. Elijah closed his eyes and conjured up an image of Sean, looking tired but so handsome on that TV show. His Sean, who needed him. I can do this, he thought. I must.

The train began to slow, and Elijah opened his eyes to see sickly yellow light illuminating soot-stained cement pillars interspersed among the numerous train tracks that converged beneath Penn Station like sandy trails at a fingerboard. They had arrived.

Elijah forced himself to wait until most of the other passengers had disembarked, instead of bolting like a terrified rabbit, and then he tucked the shoebox securely under his right arm, picked up his backpack and slid out of his seat. Outside the train there was practically a stampede, with commuters from his train and another that had arrived on an adjacent track, pushing and jostling to get onto the single narrow escalator that ascended to the main level of the station.

As he stepped onto the escalator, he was glad he’d hung back rather than risk dropping Fred in the melee. Accustomed to the measured pace of life in the pines, this frantic hustle and bustle struck him as absurd and wasteful. No wonder Sean was so frazzled. How could you not be when everyone around you was highballing it as if there were no tomorrow?

Elijah got off the escalator without disgracing himself by tripping and falling. But he immediately came to a halt, wondering what he’d gotten himself into. It was so stiflingly hot in the station that he immediately broke out in a sweat, and the cacophony of voices, ringing cell phones and announcements over the loudspeakers was indescribable, battering his senses. And there were so many people, he thought in a panic: overwhelming numbers of them.

Something crashed into Elijah from behind, sending him staggering forward. The shoebox started to slip from his grasp; desperately, he held onto it.

“Get the hell out of the way, would you?” an impatient voice growled. “You’re blocking the escalator.”

“I’m sorry,” Elijah said, but to the empty air. Whoever it was who had run into him was already long gone.

Feeling shaken, he set out across the concourse in the direction Martha had told him to go. Now he just had to find the exit for 32nd Street, head upstairs and hail a taxi. How difficult could that be? He approached a large group of people gathered around a monitor and staring up fixedly at the screen with the coiled-spring tension of a cat stalking a mouse and waiting for the right moment to pounce.

Now boarding on Track 11, a voice boomed out from the loudspeakers as the track number appeared on the monitor, the North Jersey Coast Line to Secaucus.

Before the announcer’s voice had finished speaking, people were bolting toward the entrance to Track 11- bolting straight at Elijah. Willy-nilly, he found himself carried along by the crowd, as if he were no more than a hapless oak leaf on a gust of wind. He had kayaked on the Batsto after heavy spring rains had set the river to swirling with wicked currents, but breaking free of this human current was more difficult than paddling in quick water. Grimly, Elijah clutched the shoebox, sent mental ‘don’t worry’ messages to Fred, and tried to force his way against the flow, even as his feet were trampled on and his ribs poked by impatient elbows.

By the time he finally managed to free himself, Elijah felt battered and bruised both physically and mentally. He was totally disoriented, too, as if he’d been blindfolded and spun in circles. He looked around him in a panic, but couldn’t see any sign for 32nd Street. Spying an empty, glass-enclosed lobby filled with ATM machines, he hurried toward it and took refuge inside. He leaned, sweating and shaking, against the wall, and wondered if he’d ever have the nerve to venture outside this bolt hole.

“Oh Fred,” he said. “Whatever made me think I could handle this alone?”

Shame swept over Elijah when he recalled all the times he’d chafed at what he considered the over-protectiveness of his family and friends. The truth was, they understood what he had not: exactly how ill-equipped he was to function in the outside world after living as he had for so many years. He might have all the tools of modern society at his disposal- cell phone, iPod, Internet access- but he was, in essence, living the same old-fashioned life as his 18th century ancestor, Jordan Wood. He was a creature out of time and place. He didn’t belong here.

You’re a freak, Matt’s voice, nearly silenced in the months since meeting Sean, accused him.

A couple of passersby stared curiously at him through the glass, making him feel horribly like some hapless animal in a zoo. Was it written all over him, his otherness? What if he were caught? What would they do to him? A trickle of icy cold panic snaked down his spine.

Call Sean. The tempting idea sprang into Elijah’s mind. One brief phone call was all it would take for his magician to wave his magic wand and save Elijah. “Stay where you are, I’ll be right there,” Sean would say in his calm, reassuring voice, and Elijah wouldn’t have to leave this tiny oasis of sanity until Sean arrived.

But Sean had walked bravely into the woods at night to rescue him, even though he’d expected the Devil to be lying in wait. No, he mustn’t call Sean. He could hardly explain it to himself, the strength of his conviction that this was something he needed to do alone. He only knew that he had to.

It’s not that hard. They’re only people. Impatient, rude, unhelpful people, a tiny voice added. Frazzled, busy, stressed out people, his mind argued. They don’t mean to be this way.

Just then the door to the lobby swung silently inward and a young African-American woman dressed in a black suit with a turquoise blue blouse came in. She headed straight to the nearest ATM without so much as glancing toward Elijah where he huddled against the wall. As she zipped open the oversized black leather purse she was carrying and pulled out her wallet, Elijah made up his mind. He couldn’t cower here indefinitely.

“Excuse me, ma’am?” he asked politely, stepping forward before he lost his nerve.

She was tugging her ATM card free from the tight sleeve inside the wallet, using long nails done in a French manicure. She paused to look at him, and her expression was anything but encouraging. “I already gave at the office,” she said in sarcastic tones. “Besides, panhandlers aren’t allowed in here. You better beat it quick before the police see you.”

Panhandlers? She thought he was looking for a handout? Elijah was mortified. “I don’t want money.”

“Then what do you want?” she asked, and suspicion laced her voice and glinted in her eyes. She gripped the strap of her bag more firmly, as if she thought he meant to snatch it away from her.

“I’m wondering if you’re acquainted here,” he quickly explained.

“If I’m what?”

“Acquainted here,” Elijah said again.

“’Acquainted here’?” she repeated blankly. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

Didn’t people use that expression outside the pines? Anxiety gnawed at Elijah. What hope was there if he couldn’t even make himself understood to this woman? “I mean that I’m lost,” he haltingly explained. “I need to find the 32nd Street exit but I got kind of turned around.”

“Oh, I see.” She visibly relaxed at his words. “Penn Station can be pretty confusing if you’re not used to it,” she said in a kindlier voice. “But fortunately, you’re not far from the exit for 32nd Street. You just walk up that way until you get to the Starbuck’s,” she pointed in the direction he needed to take, “and then turn right. You’ll see the stairs to the street straight ahead of you.”

“Thank you.” Elijah let out a sigh of relief. “I didn’t mean to get into a state, but it’s been years since I’ve been around this many people at one time.”

“Really? Just where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“New Jersey,” Elijah said, and then he flushed. “I’m forgetting my manners. My name’s Elijah.” He offered her his hand.

“I’m Mary,” she replied, shaking it. “So you’re from Jersey, huh? You know, I never would have guessed. You don’t act like anybody I’ve ever met from there.”

Elijah tried not to look conscious. “I’m from kind of a small town. I guess we do behave a little different.” He smiled apologetically. “I didn’t mean to confuse you before, with what I said, I mean.”

“That’s all right.” She returned his smile, and he thought how pretty she was. “You talk kind of old-fashioned. But in a nice way.” Her smile widened, warming her brown eyes. “’Acquainted here’,” she repeated again, but thoughtfully this time, as if she was taking the measure of the words. “I like that.” Then she added, “I’m sorry if I came across as suspicious when you first spoke to me. Comes of living in a big city, I’m afraid.”

“Please don’t apologize,” Elijah reassured her. “You had no reason to trust me.”

A puzzled expression crept over Mary’s face, and she said slowly, “Maybe not, but I noticed right away that there’s something different about you. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but...”

A flicker of the sudden apprehension he was feeling must have showed, because she quickly added, “Whatever that something is, it’s good, that much I do know.”

One of the glass doors opened, letting in a young man on a wave of noise. It was jarring after the relative quiet of this unexpected oasis he’d found. It was also a reminder that he needed to be on his way. “Well, I’d better let you get back to what you were doing,” Elijah said. “I appreciate your kindness, more than I can say.”

“I was glad to help,” Mary replied, and then she added, in a very serious voice, “You take care of yourself now.”

“I will. It was a pleasure meeting you, Mary, and thanks again for the directions. Oh, and Fred says ‘thanks’, too.”

“Fred?”

Elijah raised the shoebox. “My turtle,” he explained.

“You have a turtle who can talk to you. Why am I not surprised?” She laughed and shook her head in a sort of amused disbelief as she turned back to the ATM machine.

But Elijah could feel her eyes following him as he pushed through the glass door. She probably thought he was crazy, like Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, talking to an invisible friend. He grinned, imagining what Sean would say when he told him the story.

Buoyed by the image of Sean’s face alight with laughter and by his encounter with Mary, Elijah was able to brave the crowds again. He was almost emboldened enough to stop in the Starbuck’s, just to see what all the fuss was about, but time was wasting. Sean’s meeting started at 10 a.m., and there was still a taxi to find and a drive through rush hour traffic.

So Elijah gave Starbuck’s a miss, and in a few minutes he was bounding up the stairs to the street, taking them two at a time in his eagerness to leave the claustrophobic atmosphere of Penn Station behind. He emerged into a warm sunlit world, where the sky was pure blue and puffy cumulonimbus clouds were sailing among the towering skyscrapers on a strong southwest wind. Those clouds probably passed right over the pines on their way here, Elijah marveled.

A line of taxis idled by the curb, waiting for fares. Cooing smoke-gray rock pigeons with iridescent green and purple feathering on their necks were pecking at crumbs on the pavement. Bright yellow and blue striped Sabrett umbrellas marked the street vendors’ carts where coffee, juice, bagels and Danish were being hawked to passing commuters. A construction crew in hard hats was repairing a section of sidewalk. The blast of jackhammers tearing at concrete vied with the blare of horns from vehicles trying to get around a double-parked delivery truck and the tinkling bells sounded by cyclists weaving in and out of the traffic. Elijah stared wide-eyed, taking it all in, not caring if he looked like the foreigner he was.

“We made it, Fred,” he whispered in wonder. “We’re really in New York.”

~~~

The cab driver’s name was Ben Williams, according to his ID badge. He told Elijah that he was originally from Jamaica, but had moved to Brooklyn with his wife and children several years earlier, and he was working two jobs to help make ends meet while she finished nursing school. Not that Elijah found all that out immediately, of course. In fact, Ben was disinclined to talk when Elijah first climbed into the cab, only grunting when Elijah informed him that he needed to go to Trump Tower.

But he loosened up after Elijah held out his hand in a friendly fashion and introduced himself, and even more after he introduced Fred, opening the shoebox so that the cabbie could see what was inside. Ben grinned and said in his musical West Indies accent, “Man, I never had no turtle as a passenger before. Dogs, cats, even an iguana once, but no turtle.”

Since he seemed accepting of Elijah’s eccentricity, unlike the businessman on the train, Elijah lifted Fred out of the shoebox, and held him up to the window so he could see. Fred extended his scrawny stalk of a neck and pressed his hooked nose against the glass, and blinked several times.

“What does he think?” Ben asked after some minutes, and he didn’t sound sarcastic, but sincere.

“He’s not sure what to think,” Elijah replied in all seriousness. “You see, he spends most of his time in my bathroom.” Ben only nodded as if the answer made perfect sense to him.

As they drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic along the Avenue of the Americas and then Broadway, traveling north in the direction of Central Park, Elijah pressed his own nose to the window and, with ample assistance from the helpful Ben, pointed out the sights to Fred. But not even the stately majesty of the Empire State Building, which Elijah’s child’s memory had not exaggerated, or the colorful bustle of Times Square, or the innumerable dogs of every conceivable breed pulling their owners along the sidewalks, could completely hold Elijah’s attention, not when every block that passed was bringing him nearer and nearer to Sean.

Rolled up inside the spare undershirt and boxers he’d stuffed at the bottom of his hastily filled backpack was a white plastic tube; the thought of what its presence meant kindled a fire low in Elijah’s belly. He didn’t try to deceive himself that having sex with Sean wasn’t one of the reasons he was here in New York. Maybe it wasn’t the main reason, but they both needed it. Badly. Even with Sean’s husky voice in his ear, conjuring the most erotic images imaginable, his familiarity with his own hand had grown old weeks ago. It was the same for Sean. The vision that had been keeping him company flickered into life, like a paused videotape picking up where it had left off earlier on the train station platform.

They were sinking onto the leather sofa in Sean’s office now, pulling desperately at each other’s clothes, unable to wait to make love until they got down to his suite…

Elijah’s skin suddenly felt stretched taut, aching and fever-hot as if he had the ‘flu. He shifted uncomfortably on the vinyl seat. This could get embarrassing, he thought.

But then, “Here’s Trump Tower,” Ben announced, gunning the taxi into an opening at the curb before any of the other cabbies vying for the same spot could grab it. “That’ll be $11.35.”

Elijah restored Fred to his temporary accommodations, pulled out his wallet and found a $20. Leaning forward, he handed it to Ben through the opening in the plexiglass barrier between the front and back seats. “Keep the change,” he said, hoping he’d included a large enough tip - he’d forgotten to ask Martha about that.

Judging by the wideness of Ben’s smile, he had. “You have a nice stay in the city, you and Fred,” Ben told him as he took the bill. “And take care of yourself, Elijah,” he added more seriously.

Why did everyone seem to think he needed looking after? Elijah wondered.

Elijah waved as Ben drove off, but he didn’t immediately move. For several minutes he stared up in awe at the bronze-colored glass tower soaring 58 stories above him. Between his time spent googling and his conversations with Sean, he knew so much about Trump Tower that he could easily have aced a quiz. The Clicktwice offices were housed on the 50th floor; Sean’s suite was on the 43rd. Both his office and the suite faced Central Park West- giving an unparalleled view of the park from high overhead, the sort of view that only serious money could buy. Sean had sent him photos taken from his suite at varying times of the day, but soon, very soon, Elijah would be seeing the view for himself. It seemed incredible.

His eyes unconsciously flicked up the rows of windows and he found himself counting until he reached the 50th floor. Somewhere behind those windows, right now, Sean was getting ready for his meeting, with absolutely no idea that Elijah was in New York. There was a sense of unreality about this moment, about being so near to Sean after months of only hearing his disembodied voice on the phone.

Elijah’s heart started beating fast as he walked toward the entrance, shouldering his way through the stream of pedestrians, and then he belatedly remembered his promise to call Martha the moment he arrived. He dug his cell phone out of the front pocket of his jeans, flipped it open and punched the Holm’s speed dial, while a mental image popped into his brain of a posse of determined pineys, led by Dr. Ian no doubt, storming Penn Station in search of their missing Woodjin. What a disaster that would have been!

The phone was answered on the first ring.

“Elijah! Thank god,” Ian Holm barked. “Where are you?”

Uh oh! It was Dr. Ian. Martha must have spilled the beans early, Elijah thought, and the doctor sounded grumpy as a lion with a sore tooth and a thorn in its paw.

“Hi Dr. Ian,” he said brightly. “I’m at Trump Tower and I’m calling like I promised Martha I would.” He hesitated, not sure he wanted to hear the answer to his next question. “Um, is she there?”

“She’s here,” the doctor replied tersely. “And lucky to be alive after helping you commit the most foolhardy stunt it’s been my privilege to hear about in my 67 years. When you get back, young man, we are going to have a serious talk and-"

“Ian!” Elijah could hear Martha exclaim. “You promised me you wouldn’t scold Elijah. Give me that phone.” It seemed Dr. Ian was no better than Hannah at minding such a promise.

There were a few seconds of silence, and then Martha’s voice came over the line. “How is everything, Elijah?” she asked. She sounded cool and composed, and considering how hopping mad Dr. Ian was, Elijah could only admire her.

“Everything is fine,” Elijah assured her, judging it wise not to mention his near panic attack and melt-down in Penn Station.

“Good. I knew it would be,” she said, with a bravado that Elijah knew was false; she’d been a lot more worried than she let on.

“Oh you did, did you?” Dr. Ian fairly shouted in the background. “Sending the Woodjin off to New York alone…”

“You better go, Elijah,” Martha said quickly. “Have a good time, and call and let me know when your train is due into Hamilton.”

“I will. And Martha, I’m awful sorry about Dr. Ian.”

“Don’t worry about Ian,” she replied, a trace of amusement in her voice. “He’ll get over it.”

As Elijah ended the call, the last thing he heard was Dr. Ian saying, “Get over it? I haven’t got a cold, for God’s sake.”

Elijah was grinning, albeit a little guiltily, as he pocketed his cell phone and pushed through the revolving doors into the atrium.

At any other time, he might have gawked at the seven-story high waterfall illumined by floodlights, at the miles of pink, rose and peach white-veined marble, at the mirror-lined walls and gleaming brass fixtures, at the tony shops and the cafes. But this was not any other time. He was here to see the lover from whom he’d been separated for nearly five months, and his eyes only glanced over the opulence of the massive lobby before he located the elevators on the left and veered toward them.

Elijah pushed the ‘up’ arrow and tried not to fidget as he watched the numbers over the elevators go up and down until at last there was a bright ding, and the doors to one of the elevators opened. Several people spilled out, but Elijah was the only one to get on. He selected ‘50’ from the innumerable buttons on the brushed silver panel inside, but he was too keyed up now with anticipation to feel claustrophobic when the doors closed, as he had in the train. Elijah set Fred’s shoebox down on the carpet- royal blue with the Trump logo in the center- and then rested his back against the wall. He didn’t even realize at first that the elevator had started to move, it was so smooth and soundless.

The elevator was mirrored along three sides - Donald Trump must really like mirrors, Elijah decided. As it sped swiftly upward, he nervously examined his reflection. Staring back at him was a short, slight, unassuming young man dressed in a tan corduroy jacket that was shiny with wear at the elbows, a bright blue button-down hanging open over a white tee shirt, faded jeans that were frayed at the cuffs, and scuffed boots. His too-long hair was standing up in messy tufts, his eyes bugged out, and his face was ghostly pale. What on earth did Sean find to attract him in that?

Maybe he won’t find you attractive anymore. After all, he hasn’t set eyes on you in nearly five months. What if you aren’t who he remembers you to be? What if he’s disappointed when he sees you? Which, in light of the almost embarrassingly fulsome compliments Sean paid him, was patently ridiculous. Not to mention that Sean would say, as he had once before, that they had many more important problems to worry about.

But as Elijah averted his eyes from the uninspiring sight, he couldn’t repress the fleeting, futile wish that he could transform, right here and now. There was no possibility that Sean would be disappointed then, for in his eyes the white stag was a being of surpassing beauty, a creature straight from the pages of a fairy tale, as he’d said the day they met. But what would the Clicktwice employees make of an antlered stag ambling off the elevator and into their midst, looking for their CEO’s office? Elijah had to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the image.

The elevator stopped at the 25th floor to let a large group of people on. They were all wearing tags saying ‘Hello, My Name Is’, and were obviously attending some sort of conference or meeting. Although they paid him no mind, but talked and laughed amongst themselves, that stifling sensation he’d felt on the train returned, and Elijah was relieved when they got off at the 31st floor. He spent the remainder of the ride willing the elevator not to stop again, and when it reached the 50th floor at last, he let out a sigh of relief and crouched down to pick up Fred.

Two women were standing outside waiting for the elevator, and Elijah became almost paralyzed with shock when he realized that one of them was Chris. In person she was even more stunningly attractive than she’d appeared in the photos he’d seen of her. Her makeup, her hair, her clothes, all spoke of the sort of lifestyle that few were privileged to enjoy, and she bore herself with an unselfconscious confidence. She had probably never once averted her eyes from her reflection in a mirror, Elijah thought stupidly. As he stared at her with the same helpless fascination a vole must feel, corned by a long-tailed weasel, her gaze met his, as strangers’ gazes invariably did under such circumstances; her eyes quickly flicked up and down and away, taking him in and then discarding him as of no importance.

But in the wake of her dismissive glance, it wasn’t intimidation or uncertainty that Elijah felt. It was anger: blazing, white-hot anger of a kind that he had never before experienced in his human form. It wasn’t anger on his own behalf, but on Sean’s. Anger for everything a decent and honorable man was suffering because of her. He practically shook with the titanic force of it, as if it was too vast for his body to contain, and the desire to confront her, as if she were the Devil and he the white stag, and this elevator a sandy clearing in the pines under a starlit sky, swept over him. But he couldn’t allow his stag nature to win out; it would be an act of folly, like to do more harm than good. He was here to help Sean, not hurt him.

So Elijah quickly dropped his gaze and practically vaulted out of the elevator in his haste to get away from Chris before he could do anything he’d later regret. Her well-toned legs, encased in sheer black stockings and sleek black pumps with four-inch heels, strode briskly past him. A cloud of some expensive perfume lingered after her, and made his nose itch.

When a soft hush told him that the elevator doors were closed, Elijah released the breath he hadn’t even known he’d been holding. The crisis had been avoided, if narrowly. But it shamed him deeply to have run, when every instinct had cried out for him to stay and defend his mate. He ran a trembling hand over his perspiring face and tried to compose himself. Forget about Chris; you’re here to see Sean.

Directly in front of Elijah was a gilded marble-topped table decorated with a massive floral arrangement in a Chinese export porcelain vase. A discreet, tastefully engraved sign fastened to the wall read ‘Clicktwice, Inc.’ and directed him to the right. By the time he reached the end of the hallway, where a set of clear glass double doors led to the company offices, Elijah had managed to force down the tumultuous emotions his unexpected encounter with Chris had roused. But more than ever, he needed Sean: the sight, touch and taste of him, the solid strength of his arms.

Eagerly, Elijah pushed the heavy door inward with his shoulder while he cradled the shoebox in the crook of his right arm. A waiting area to his left held a comfortable-looking sofa and several easy chairs surrounding a low table covered with neatly arranged magazines and adorned with more flowers. Ahead of him a curved silver and white reception desk was set beneath an oversized version of the Clicktwice logo. To either side and behind the desk, Elijah could see partitioned cubicles and beyond them floor to ceiling windows that gave a breathtaking view of the city and filled the office with light. The partition walls were low enough so that the floor plan remained open, and the workplace gave the impression of a beehive, seething with activity. Only these worker bees were men and women, mostly around Elijah’s age, although a few were considerably older. The atmosphere was decidedly more casual than he’d expected, with jeans and tee shirts much more in evidence than suits and ties.

A young woman wearing a rose pink sweater set and a gold cross on a delicate chain around her neck was sitting behind the reception desk. Her office chair was slightly swiveled so she could work at her computer, but her ‘incoming client’ radar was obviously highly developed, for she looked up at once from a black flat-panel monitor as Elijah approached, and smiled at him. She had shoulder-length red hair and a peaches and cream complexion dotted with freckles, and Elijah recognized her at once from Sean’s descriptions.

Over the preceding months, Sean had told him about many of the almost two hundred people who worked at the company’s New York headquarters, including the office receptionist, Bridget O’Donnell. She was married to a New York City firefighter and they had a three year-old daughter, Emily, who sometimes came to work with her and was, in Sean’s words, ‘cute as a bug’.

It was strange, even unsettling, to realize that the knowledge didn’t go both ways, that to Bridget, Elijah was a complete stranger. He was now brought face to face with the stark reality that Sean had been living every day since he returned to New York in January. Bridget and his other employees could talk freely to him about their lives and families and concerns, but he in turn had no such freedom. Elijah, Hannah, Jordan, Maggie, Katie, Dr. Ian… it was as if they didn’t exist. His sole confidante was his secretary Liv, and she had been in on the secret for only a short while. No wonder Sean had reached a breaking point last night. How could anyone bear the strain of such intolerable pressure without eventually bowing beneath it?

“Good morning,” Bridget said in a polite, professional-sounding voice. “How can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Sean Astin,” Elijah replied. He tried to imbue his words with the sort of casual ease that someone like Chris would use, to sound as if he belonged in this alien world.

“Do you have an appointment with Mr. Astin?” she asked, glancing down at a calendar book spread open on the desk and frowning a little. “He has nothing listed for 9:45.”

“No, but if you wouldn’t mind telling him I’m here, I’m sure he’ll see me,” Elijah said firmly.

“May I have your name, please?”

Elijah hesitated for a fraction of a second. Mentioning his real name here, when Sean had gone to such drastic lengths to keep it secret, was probably foolhardy. But there was really no other choice; he couldn’t use a fake name, and if he acted too mysterious or coy, surely her suspicion would be aroused. “Elijah Wood.”

Bridget picked up the handset of her phone, but before she set a single finger to the buttons, she was putting it down again. “You’re in luck,” she told Elijah, smiling, “there’s Mr. Astin now.” She raised her voice. “Sean, there’s a gentleman here to see you. A Mr. Wood.”

Elijah’s head whipped to the right. And there he was. Sean. He was wearing the same dark charcoal gray suit he’d worn for the television interview- or one just like it- and a white button down, a black tie with a pattern of diagonal maroon stripes inset with white dots, and shiny black loafers. His dull gold hair was shorter than it had been when he was in the pines, and arranged with almost painful neatness. He was deep in earnest conversation with a tall, dark-haired woman walking beside him- she must be Liv, Elijah realized, but the thought was fleeting, for nothing else really existed except Sean.

Time abruptly slowed to a crawl. Every sound was drowned out by the thunder of Elijah’s heart as he waited for Sean to notice him.

After what seemed an eternity, Sean finally looked around, his attention caught by Bridget’s words. His eyes instantly met Elijah’s and widened in astonishment. He stared as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The moment must have lasted only a second or two, but to Elijah it felt like years. He wanted to run to Sean, throw himself into his arms the way he had imagined on the journey here.

But they weren’t alone in Sean’s office, safe behind a closed door. There were Liv and Bridget and so many others within ear and eyeshot. This reunion could not have taken place in a worse setting. So Elijah remained frozen in place like Lot’s wife, turned to a pillar of salt. But his lips shaped a single soundless word: Sean.

That surprised widening of his eyes was the only physical reaction that Sean allowed himself. His face remained impassive as he turned to Liv and murmured something to her. Then he was striding briskly toward Elijah, taking him perfunctorily by the elbow and steering him toward the waiting area, all without so much as a single word. When they were opposite the couch, Sean halted, released his grip and angled his body so that Elijah was effectively hidden from view.

“Sean,” Elijah whispered, half-raising his hand as if to touch him. How could he be so close to his lover without touching him? Every nerve ending quivered with need; his senses swam with Sean’s longed-for scent. But Sean’s body language was screaming ‘do not touch’, placing a barrier between them that Elijah dared not breach.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” were Sean’s first words to him, spoken in a low, tight voice. His face was now livid, and perspiration dotted his brow. “For God’s sake, Elijah, what were you thinking? And did you have to give Bridget your real name?”

It was like a slap in the face. Elijah went cold, then hot, then cold again. He’d told Maggie that Sean would be furious with him for coming to New York, but in his heart of hearts he hadn’t really believed it. Surely when Sean saw him, he’d reasoned, gladness would overcome any other emotion, even anger. He’d pictured them as the foxes, embracing in an ecstasy of joy at their reunion. He’d been so wrong, so very, very wrong.

Sean glanced at his wristwatch. “I don’t have time to deal with this right now,” he gritted under his teeth. “I have that fucking meeting in ten minutes. Shit. Look, go down to my suite and wait for me. I shouldn’t be more than an hour and a half, two hours at most. And whatever you do, don’t talk to anyone on the way.” He reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and withdrew two plastic keycards that he handed to Elijah. More loudly, he said, “Here’s my business card, Mr. Wood. Give me a call later this week and we’ll set up an appointment.”

Their fingers brushed as Elijah took the keycards from him. For a moment some powerful emotion flared to life in those gold-flecked green eyes, but it was gone too quickly for Elijah to be certain it had been there at all. Then Sean’s back was to him and he was walking away, leaving Elijah standing there, alone and adrift, trying to school his face into a semblance of normalcy, and not reveal the devastation in his heart.

He heard Sean make some kind of jest to Bridget that caused her to laugh. He was trying to distract her, Elijah realized, give him a chance to leave unnoticed. He turned and almost bolted for the door, hot tears blurring his vision as he fumbled with the handle. His chest was aching, crowded with stifled sobs as Sean’s voice replayed in his mind: You shouldn’t have come here… For God’s sake, Elijah, what were you thinking... I don’t have time to deal with this right now... Couldn’t he have spared one single word of welcome? Looked even a little happy to see him?

Holding the keycards in a grip so tight that they bit cruelly into the soft skin of his palm, Elijah pressed the back of his left hand to his mouth. Oh Maggie, I never should have listened to you, he thought as he made his way blindly to the elevators.

He would go home, Elijah decided. Leave the keys to Sean’s suite at the front desk with a message, and then return to the safety and security of the pines, where he belonged. It had been a mistake to come here. A terrible, terrible mistake. One for which Sean might never forgive him. He went cold again.

The minutes that passed before an elevator finally arrived seemed somehow both the longest and the shortest of Elijah’s life. Despite himself, he kept listening for the muffled thud of running footsteps, hoping against hope that Sean would follow him. But when the elevator doors opened, he was all alone.

His finger hovered just above the button for the lobby. Coward, a small voice inside him said, the same voice that had challenged him to go to New York. How can you, the Woodjin, run away? What would your father say if he knew? Yielding to the rebuke in that voice, Elijah moved his finger up to the number ‘43’, and pressed it firmly.

~~~

By the time Elijah reached Sean’s suite, he was so worn down with emotion and exhaustion that he had barely enough energy to figure out which of the unlabeled keycards was the correct one to use. It took several frustrating attempts before the small light turned green and the door’s handle yielded when he pushed down on it.

He found himself in a small foyer, with doors to left and right. The door on the left opened on a small but fully-equipped modern kitchen. The other was closed. This was the door to Sean’s bedroom, Elijah guessed. Directly ahead of him a short hallway led to a spacious, sunlit living room. Elijah dropped his backpack on the carpet just outside the bedroom door, then crossed into the living room and slumped down into the closest chair.

He removed the long-suffering Fred from the confinement of his shoebox and held him on his lap. He ran his thumb over the knobbly roughness of the box turtle’s carapace, tracing the complex pattern of mustard yellow swirls that decorated it. At least he had one friend here in New York, Elijah thought dejectedly. Fred craned his neck around and stared at Elijah, who scratched the soft skin under his throat and sighed.

As ever, Fred’s phlegmatic calm worked its soothing influence, and Elijah began to regain his equilibrium. From the moment he’d entered the suite, he’d sensed Sean’s presence, even though he knew that Sean was careful to keep anything truly personal locked away in his bedroom. But Elijah could smell and feel him in the very air. He didn’t need to see the stacks of DVDs - both Harvey and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were visible from where he sat - piled beside the high-definition TV at one end of the room, or the well-read copies of U.S. News & World Report, Computerweek and The Economist that shared the coffee table with Schaum’s outlines for chemistry and biology, and the Rough guides to music that Elijah had sent him.

Elijah got up and went to the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked Central Park. “Look at that, Fred,” he said, marveling at the vast sea of spring green, whose vivid palette was made up of thousands of trees and wide grassy lawns, surrounded by tall buildings whose windows shone in the morning sun. “Have you ever seen a view like that in your life?” The irony of this moment couldn’t be denied. He’d expected to be standing here with Sean’s arm around him. Instead…

“But how was Sean supposed to react when I surprised him like that,” Elijah said aloud, “grab me and kiss me, right there in front of everyone? Oh Fred, I’m such a fool.” Fred blinked. “Hey, you don’t have to agree with me, you know.” Fred blinked again, and Elijah laughed ruefully. “That’s okay. I am a fool, but at least I know it.” He turned away from the window and looked around him. “The bathroom’s that direction, I think. How about I show you your new digs?”

Carrying a curious Fred with him, Elijah went to the closed bedroom door. Fishing the second keycard out of his pocket, he unlocked it. Immediately inside was another door, standing ajar, and he reached in and felt around until he found the light switch and pressed it.

“Gollykeeper,” he exclaimed, as the lights came on to reveal an expanse of pink and gray marble and an enormous glass-enclosed shower that looked like it could easily hold several adults. “I’m afraid you’re never going to want to come home once you’ve spent some time in this bathroom, Fred.”

He bent and set Fred down on the floor, and the turtle raised up on his clawed feet and set out with ponderous dignity to explore. His initial reaction was highly approving.

But Elijah’s gaze dwelled on the marble-encased Jacuzzi at the far end of the room that was softly illumined by recessed lighting overhead. That spark of fire sprang to life low in his belly again; he had plans for that Jacuzzi. Sean had called him from it a time or two, and complained that it was too large for one person, which had inevitably led them into a discussion about what two people could do in a Jacuzzi that size, and to Sean promising that he’d have one installed when he finally moved home.

Feeling suddenly more hopeful, Elijah left Fred to his own devices and went into Sean’s bedroom. Like the rest of the suite, it had beige carpet, pale cream-colored walls, heavy red velvet drapes, and cherry wood furniture. The easy chair was upholstered in the same red-and-gold fabric used for the sofa and chairs in the living room, and the king size mattress was covered by an opulent cream and gold satin bedspread.

But what interested Elijah wasn’t the décor, or at least not the décor provided by the Trumps. Sean had brought with him his treasured belongings from the beach house he and Chris owned, and replaced generic hotel art with photos of the Barnegat Lighthouse and the storm-tossed ocean, and the antique map of Long Beach Island that had belonged to his father. It gave Elijah a little thrill of happiness to see them now, and imagine him and Sean picking the best spots to hang them in the cabin when he came home.

His eyes next fell on a small wooden easel on top of the dresser. On it was his great-grandmother Hannah’s painting of the white stag. It was very much like meeting an old friend again after an absence, and Elijah smiled at the image of his great-grandfather, keeping guard from the shadows of the pines. “Thank you for watching over Sean,” he said, and it seemed to him almost as if the stag smiled back.

There were a number of framed photos surrounding the painting. Of most interest to Elijah was a photo of ten year-old Sean standing on the deck of a deep-sea fishing boat with his dad and Mack. Elijah picked up the photo and studied it. Sean was wearing a bulky life vest and holding a bluefish he’d caught. He looked adorable with his snub nose, freckles and overlong bangs hanging in his eyes. But even more, he looked happy, carefree, and a little mischievous. It wasn’t long after this photo had been taken that Sean’s father had been diagnosed with cancer, Elijah knew. I want to give that kind of happiness back to him, he thought fiercely as he set the photo carefully down. Next to that photo there was one of Sean’s mom Anna and his brother Mack. Elijah’s eyes flicked back and forth from one photo to the other; Sean definitely took after his mom more than his dad in looks.

There were of course photos of Elijah himself, three of them. In one, he was sitting cross-legged on the family room sofa holding Fred, with Maggie on his lap wearing a Cheshire cat smile, and Rocky, staring suspiciously into the camera, crouched on his shoulder. In another, he was holding Jordan on his hip, while Hannah and Lawrence stood on either side of him. In a third, he was perched on the paddock railing outside the barn, surrounded by Sonny, Cher, Paco and Dolly. Scattered among the photos were a variety of small keepsakes: a bowl half-filled with weathered sea glass, seashells, pieces of driftwood and several plump acorns that Rocky had selected for Sean. Elijah’s heart felt lighter and lighter. How many men would be sentimental - not to mention plumb crazy - enough to put those acorns on display in his bedroom?

On the bedside table was the portrait of Elijah that Martha had taken. He’d had some misgivings after sending that photo to Sean as a Valentine’s present. He looked sad, Elijah thought now, and somewhat ridiculous with those silly clumps of snow sticking to his eyebrow and lashes. But Sean loved the photo, or so he’d said enough times to convince Elijah he meant it, so in the end, he supposed he’d made the right choice. Anyway, it wouldn’t have felt right to send him a photo where he was wearing a painted-on phony smile.

The table also held an alarm clock and a tall stack of books. Sean was hands down the most voracious reader Elijah had ever met, hoarding books like Rocky hoarded seeds and nuts. There were more piles next to the closed Mac laptop on the round table by the window, and still more on the floor beside the armchair in the corner.

A large, dog-eared paperback with a number of neon pink post-it notes marking pages was at the top of the pile on the nightstand. The Joy of Gay Sex. Elijah picked up the book and smiled a little as he leafed through it, noticing sections highlighted in yellow and notes scribbled in the margins. Sean was nothing if not thorough, and as he’d told Elijah more than once, he meant to be prepared the next time they made love.

With so much evidence of Elijah’s importance to Sean surrounding him, how could he possibly have doubted, even for one split-second, that he was deeply loved?

Elijah replaced the book and sat down on the edge of the unmade bed. He reached behind him for one of the plump down-filled pillows and hugged it to him. Unable to resist, he buried his face in it and breathed deeply. The silky-soft cream Egyptian cotton smelled deliciously of Sean, and he thought he might just stay right where he was until Sean finished his meeting and came down to join him. After all, this was where they were inevitably going to end up. Elijah had no doubts now.

A knock at the outer door interrupted his plan to stay right where he was, but Elijah didn’t mind. How could he? He’d been secretly hoping that Sean would find a way to end his meeting early, and he had. Relief flooded through him. Elijah ran to the door and flung it wide, but even wider was the joyful smile that curved his lips.

“Sean, I…” he began, and then stopped. His smile was abruptly snuffed out, like a candle’s flame doused with water.

“Well, well, I was right,” said Chris. “So, you’re Sean’s little piney whore.”


~*~

Before Elijah had time to react, Chris stepped swiftly around him and into the foyer, uninvited. Short of forcibly removing her, Elijah knew there would be no getting rid of her until she’d spoken her piece. Bowing to the inevitable, he shut the door with a soft but all too audible snick. As he turned to face her, Elijah willed himself to remain calm. He must not allow his stag nature to overcome him as it nearly had in the elevator, no matter how many other vile insults she threw at him. Sticks and stones, remember?

It was dim in the foyer, and Chris, backlit by the brightness of the sunlight streaming into the living room, was a formidable presence in a formfitting black suit jacket that flared at the hips and a matching black skirt that ended just above her knees. Those four-inch spiked heels gave her nearly a six inch height advantage over him, and unconsciously, Elijah straightened his shoulders and stood with his head held high, refusing to allow her to intimidate him.

“I admit you’re not exactly what I was expecting,” Chris continued. “You’re not blonde, and you’re definitely not female.” Her observant gray eyes examined him from head to toe as they had in the elevator, but this time she didn’t dismiss him; she seemed to be honestly baffled by him. “In fact, I’m not quite sure what you are, or what on earth Sean sees in you, even if he has decided to bat for the other team – something that explains his deficiencies in certain areas. I suppose you must have… hidden talents.”

Elijah remained impassive, but was almost tempted to smile at her unwittingly true words. If you only knew, he thought with grim amusement.

“When Sean assured me that he wasn’t involved with another woman, it never occurred to me that he was parsing the truth – I thought it was a straightforward lie.” Her expression hardened. “Because I knew you existed, no matter what Sean said. It just took me a while to prove it. Sean has been careful, but unfortunately for him, not quite careful enough this time. He might be able to keep your phone calls untraceable, but he couldn’t exactly hide you when you showed up in person.”

Despite himself, Elijah bit his lip. He’d played right into Chris’s hands, given her ammunition to use in her palimony suit. Done exactly what Sean had striven so hard all these months to prevent.

Chris smiled, no pleasant smile, but the sort a cat wore when waiting outside a hole for an unsuspecting mouse to emerge. “Oh yes, you were observed. Sean isn’t the only one with employees loyal to him, you know. Within five minutes I received a call that a young man in a tan jacket carrying a backpack came to the reception desk and asked for Sean, who was clearly upset and concerned when he saw him. Far more upset and concerned than a simple unscheduled appointment with a Mr. Wood could account for. The same young man, it turns out, who I saw getting off the elevator.” She let out a short, distinctly unamused laugh. “Funny, at the time I didn’t make much of the way you stared at me. Most men do stare, at least those of a different persuasion. But later… it occurred to me that what I’d seen in your eyes was hostility. After that, it was easy enough to put two and two together, especially when I remembered that absurd lie Sean told me last January, about having to stay in the Pine Barrens to take care of a ‘friend’ who’d been hurt in an accident. A male friend.”

If she tried, Chris couldn’t have said anything more calculated to rouse the protective stag inside him. The memory of that night in the woods and Sean’s incalculable bravery was sacred to Elijah. How dare she call Sean a liar? he thought. How dare she.

Impatiently, he shrugged back his jacket and blue shirt and tugged down the neck of his tee shirt far enough to expose the puckered, faint pink scar on his right shoulder. “Does this look like a lie to you? Sean saved my life.”

Just for an instant, there was genuine shock in her eyes, but then Chris said with ill-disguised scorn, “I certainly don’t have to ask how you’ve been repaying him, do I? It must have seemed like manna from heaven to someone like you - Sean, with all his money, dropping into your lap that way.”

“Someone like me?” Elijah repeated. “You mean a piney?”

She made an impatient gesture, as if irritated by his question. “Everyone knows what people from the Pine Barrens are like.”

“Shiftless good-for-nothings, backward and ignorant - is that it?” Suddenly Elijah felt almost sorry for Chris, blinded by her prejudice. For all her intelligence and her accomplishments, she was really no different than the man who had shot Elijah out by the Quaker Bridge. “You can’t have much of an opinion of Sean, if you think he’d be taken in by a person like that.”

Chris’s mouth tightened. “Sean has always been too naïve for his own good.”

“Sean isn’t naïve,” Elijah said steadily. “He’s a good man with a caring heart and an open mind, a man who doesn’t believe in outdated stereotypes.”

“Oh, so your vocabulary includes multi-syllabic words, does it?” It was a cheap shot, and Chris obviously knew it. “I apologize,” she said, albeit grudgingly. “That was uncalled for.”

“The one you need to apologize to is Sean,” said Elijah. “I don’t much care what you think about me, but he deserves better from you.”

He had a moment of revelation then, like the drawing back of a curtain from a window, similar to when he gently set his hand to a wild animal’s side and could suddenly see right inside it, read its emotions, understand what it was thinking. He went on quietly, guided now by what he saw inside Chris, “Do you have to go on punishing him for never loving you the way you wanted him to? Do you think he wouldn’t have loved you like that if he could?”

If he’d harbored any doubt that he’d read her aright, it was erased by her reaction. She stiffened, and a look of absolute incredulity passed over her face. Elijah realized that Sean had been wrong. For Chris, this wasn’t about him leaving the company, or at least, the company was only a symbol for something deeper and more tragic.

Who are you?” Chris asked, and her voice actually shook.

“My name is Elijah,” he replied.

She made another impatient gesture. “That’s not what I meant. How do you… how could you…” She stopped, and then paced in a small circle, restless as a cougar in a cage - no, Elijah decided, not a cougar, a panther. A sleek black panther wearing a bejeweled collar.

Elijah truly did feel sorry for her then, although he suspected she’d hate him for feeling pity. He could see her debating how much and what to say, and remained silent, giving her space, the way he would any trapped wild animal.

“It’s true that I loved Sean almost from the moment I met him,” Chris finally said, the words drawn from her as if against her will. “I knew when we got together that he didn’t feel the same - Sean was always upfront with me about his feelings back then - but I was willing to take the gamble, and he believed that we were starting out on the same page emotionally.” She paced in another restless circle. “It became clear pretty early on that the gamble was never going to pay off, though, and that I was always going to be the one who felt more. Sean did try, I’ll give him that. He suggested we get married and have a child, but without love, taking either of those steps would have been irresponsible, and we had the business to keep us busy.” Chris laughed. “I suppose a psychiatrist would have had a field day analyzing Sean and me, told us that we were sublimating our desire for a family by making Clicktwice into our child.” She shrugged her elegant shoulders. “That’s water under the bridge now, because the sad truth is that one-sided love doesn’t last forever. I don’t love Sean anymore. I haven’t for some time. I’ve watched him drift away, and I suppose on some level I always knew that eventually he’d decide to leave.”

“Then why won’t you let him go? Why are you dragging him through a palimony suit?”

“Because I helped him make that company into something special,” she said. “I helped him earn a fortune and a place in society that he’d never have attained on his own. Now he’s going to give all that to you?” Chris stabbed her finger at him. “Well, not without a price. He owes me.”

Elijah wondered how Chris could be so singularly blind about a man she professed once to have loved. Was it any wonder that their relationship had failed? “But Sean isn’t going to be giving me any of that. I’m sure you’ve heard from his mom that he wants to go to medical school and become a doctor.”

“What, and move to the Pine Barrens and practice medicine there?” Chris asked scornfully. “When he has connections that could score him a job at New York-Presbyterian or Mount Sinai in a heartbeat? When you can leave that place to live the sort of life you probably never dreamed was possible?”

“Not everyone aspires to live on the heights. ‘That place’ is my home, the only home I want,” Elijah replied. “But we can use another good doctor in the pines, and Sean will make a fine one, compassionate and caring.”

“You can’t be for real,” she scoffed. “What B movie did you step out of?” But her attempt to be derisive fell flat, because she was reluctantly impressed despite herself.

“Sean could have walked away from all this back in January,” Elijah said, indicating the lavishly decorated living room with its stunning view, and what it represented. “Did you know that today is the first time we’ve set eyes on each other since then? He said it wouldn’t be right for us to be together until he took care of his responsibilities here - his responsibilities to Clicktwice, and to you.” He held Chris’s gaze and tried to appeal to whatever sense of decency she possessed. “Sean cares about you, Chris, and he trusts you. He’s leaving the company in your hands. He doesn’t have to do that. He doesn’t have to wear himself to the bone trying to save Clicktwice from being sold out. He’s not doing that for him or for me. He’s doing it for you, and for all the dedicated people who work for you.” Elijah’s voice caught, and he flat out pleaded, “Please give up the lawsuit. Don’t put Sean through more than he’s already being asked to go through. Please.”

“Very eloquent,” Chris remarked softly. “Isn’t this the point at which you promise never to see him again if I do?”

“Life isn’t a movie,” Elijah said, his heart sinking at the flippancy of her response. “And no piney worth his salt would ever behave in such a nonsensical way.”

“Then what’s in it for me, Elijah? Tell me that.”

Elijah had the sense that Chris wasn’t being flippant now, but sincere. Once again, he experienced a moment of revelation, as if he was gazing through clear glass straight into her soul, and he could see the corrosive blackness eating at it like some deadly cancer.

“What’s in it for you is the peace that will come from knowing you’re being true to the person you are inside,” he said. “The one who has been telling you all along that this is the right path to take.”

There was a silence. Then Chris said again, in a strained whisper, “Who are you?”

But Elijah didn’t answer. He’d given her the only name she had a right to know.

She averted her head so that the sweep of her shining auburn hair hid her expression, but her long tapering fingers adorned with gleaming gold were clenching and unclenching at her sides, revealing the struggle within. This was the final chance, the last throw of the dice. If Chris refused, it was all over, and she would have the means to bring everything Sean feared down on their heads - reporters in the pines, the glare of publicity and the risk of discovery for Elijah.

But however she chose, Elijah understood now why he had been compelled to come to New York alone. This opportunity would never have arisen if Martha had accompanied him, or if he’d called Sean from the station to rescue him. Surely, that had to be a good sign. Nevertheless, he held his breath as the slow seconds ticked past.

At long last, Chris slowly turned her head, brushed the hair back from her face. “Very well,” she said simply. “You win. I’ll give up the lawsuit.”

Elijah closed his eyes in the profoundness of his relief, and opened them to find Chris watching him with an expression that was strangely reminiscent of the sort of bemused wonder he sometimes found in the eyes of those he’d rescued.

“Thank you.” He wished he could say something more, but he was afraid of seeming condescending, or like he was triumphing over her - for nothing could be further from the truth. He only prayed that the decision brought her the inner peace her soul so clearly craved.

“Don’t thank me. I have a strange feeling that as soon as that door shuts behind me, I’m going to wonder what on earth came over me to agree to this.” She let out a small disbelieving laugh. “If I didn’t know it was impossible, I’d swear you’ve cast a spell on me.”

“If there’s any spell at work, it comes from the goodness in your own heart,” Elijah said seriously. “I have no magic here.”

Chris stared and then shook her head. “What is it about you? Do you know, if anyone else said something like that to me, I’d laugh myself silly. But you… coming from you it doesn’t sound like a load of New Age bullshit. It actually sounds genuine.” She hesitated. “I want you to know that I’m a woman of my word. No matter how I feel after I leave, I’ll be calling my lawyers when I get back to my office. But in return, I need you to promise me something. What I said about my feelings for Sean... I’d like for that to remain in confidence.”

“It will, I promise,” Elijah replied. He wondered if it was true that her love for Sean was entirely gone, or if some vestiges remained of which she might not even be aware. He’d never know for sure, but he thought he could guess.

“Thank you.” She moved around him and reached for the door handle, clearly unwilling to allow Elijah to play the gentleman. On the threshold, she turned and looked back at him. “I can understand now why Sean would fall for someone like you. I won’t pretend to like it, but at least I understand.” And then she was gone, without a word of good-bye, and only a trace of her perfume remained as proof she’d been there at all.

Elijah walked slowly into the living room and sat down. If he’d felt exhausted before, now he was simply numb. He was scarcely able to fathom what had just occurred. But the significance of it, of what Chris’s decision was going to mean to him and Sean, soon started to sink in. Without the palimony suit to hold him here, Sean could be home by the fall, in time to start school… It was as if the sunshine pouring through the windows was filling him with light, filling him until its brightness spilled forth from his every pore. Such happiness simply had to be shared, and with a loud whoop, Elijah leaped to his feet and raced into the bathroom to tell Fred the incredible news. And when he got home, he owed Maggie a heartfelt apology. For as always, she had known best.

~~~

Sean held onto the metal railing for dear life as he bounded recklessly down the cement steps, wishing he had on sneakers rather than loafers with slippery leather soles. The sound of his pounding footfalls echoed wildly in the enclosed space of the stairwell. He’d been too keyed up and impatient to wait for the tortoise-like elevator to arrive from the lobby. Hell, it was only seven stories down to his suite, where Elijah was waiting.

Elijah was in New York. Elijah was in New York.

If he lived to be a thousand, he would never forget looking around to see Elijah standing by the reception desk, his heart in those amazing blue eyes, his mouth forming a single silent word: Sean. The tumult of emotions cascading through him had nearly torn Sean asunder. How he’d managed to hang onto his cool was still a mystery to him. His initial impulse to rush at Elijah, grab him up in his arms and runrunrunrunrun until they were miles away from everyone and everything that had kept them apart, had quickly been replaced by the most gut churning fear of his entire life, and that included the moment he confronted the Devil and figured his mortal coil was about to shuffle off forever.

It was a damned good thing he wasn’t prone to ulcers, or he’d have the mother of them all by now. What in god’s name had Elijah been thinking to come to New York? No, not just to New York but to Clicktwice, the one place on the planet Earth – hell, the one place in the entire universe – from which Sean wanted him to stay far, far away. Okay, so admittedly he’d lost it on the phone last night big time and alarmed Elijah. But to turn up like that without any warning? Shit. What if Chris had been around to observe them?

All through the seemingly endless meeting with the company’s patent attorneys, Sean had barely been able to focus or utter a coherent word. More and more questions, entirely unrelated to the new software patent they were attempting to secure before a rival company did, kept occurring to him. How had Elijah gotten to the city? Who had helped him? Had he come entirely alone? Did anyone even know he was gone? What if something had happened to him? What if something was happening to him - maybe even now, his separation from the pines was sapping the life force in him, depleted after his transformation last night…

Once again his tendency toward needless worry and his vivid imagination - as much a curse as a blessing – took over. By the time he reached the landing for the 43rd floor and yanked open the heavy metal fire door as if it was made of flimsy plywood, he was in a state of panic and fear nearly as great as that he’d felt the night he’d gone looking for Elijah, and arrived at the still, silent, dark house not knowing what he might find.

If Elijah didn’t answer his knock in less than a minute, he thought as he sprinted like a running back down the hall to his suite and hammered at the door with his fist, he’d kick the fucking thing in and gladly pay for the damages. A minute? Make that 30 seconds. No, 15 seconds. He drew his right leg back and raised it, kung fu style, just as the door flew wide and Elijah stood framed there, a joyful smile curving his lips. He was barefoot and wearing only his thin white tee shirt and jeans. Somehow the sight of this smiling, safe, apparently healthy and hale Elijah was the final straw, after the agonizing minutes he’d just passed.

Words fought each other in his throat, trying to be the first to emerge. A vein throbbed in his forehead. He realized that he was still standing in the hallway, where anyone could see him, with his leg half-raised like some hapless cartoon character about to plunge over the edge of a sheer cliff.

Oh, fuck it all… Everything but the imperative need to hold Elijah seemed irrelevant. Sean stepped inside, slammed the door behind him, and lunged, snatching the young man up into a fierce embrace. Elijah’s arms came around his neck in a stranglehold that made it impossible for him to speak, not that it mattered - he was too choked up to utter a single word. Time lost all meaning while they held each other, tighter and tighter and tighter, and as the blessed, longed-for scents of pinesap, woodsmoke and dried grasses filled his senses, deep inside Sean the pieces of his soul that had been shattered by their long separation shifted, aligned and seamlessly healed, bringing a profound sense of peace and joy. He was whole again.

Eventually they withdrew a hand’s breadth, just enough to stare into each other’s eyes. Sean cradled Elijah’s face in his palms, and as his thumbs stroked slowly along the crest of his cheekbones, discovered that the skin slipping smoothly beneath the pads was, impossibly, even softer than he remembered.

“If I wasn’t so deliriously overjoyed to see you, I’d strangle you for taking a risk like that,” he said hoarsely. “What in God’s name ever possessed you? I almost had a heart attack when I saw you.” He smiled crookedly. “After I got over the crazy urge to grab you and run, that is.”

“I wouldn’t have minded if you did.” Then the shining happiness in those fathomless blue eyes dimmed. “Our meeting didn’t turn out exactly the way I planned - it wasn’t supposed to be so public. I’m sorry, Sean.”

“No, I’m the one who needs to apologize. I kind of lost it on you, and said some things I shouldn’t have.” Sean dropped his hands to pull Elijah close again. “I was just so fucking scared, Elijah.”

“I know.” Elijah’s hand smoothed over his hair, the way it had when Sean had woken from his nightmare of the Devil chasing him through the woods and sensed instinctively that here was someone he could trust. “But I had to come; Sean, I was so worried about you. You sounded so depressed and discouraged on the phone that I couldn’t bear it.” There was a smile in his voice as he went on, “It was Maggie’s idea, and after all, you’re the one who said I should listen to her.”

“I’m going to have to have a talk with her when I get home,” Sean joked. “Although I expect I’ll end up promising her a lifetime supply of Scotch salmon this time, in gratitude.” He tightened his arms. “Elijah, Elijah, I’ve needed you so badly,” he whispered, speaking at last the words he’d held back for so many weeks. “Sometimes I thought I’d go mad with needing you.”

As if a switch had been flipped, the mood abruptly transmuted from joy and relief into the knife-sharp edge of hunger that had gone too long unsatisfied. In the next instant, their mouths were fused together in a bruising kiss, while their bodies pressed so close it seemed that they might simply merge one into the other.

Oh, but like some sailor of old lured beneath the sea by a siren’s call, Sean was drowning, drowning in the silken heat of Elijah’s mouth, in the radiant warmth of the lean hard-muscled body molded against his own, in the sharpening of the wild tang of pinesap, woodsmoke and dried grasses, with the tantalizing hint of bayberry beneath. How, how in god’s name had he lived without this for nearly five months?

He tore his mouth away, ignoring Elijah’s wordless moan of protest, and pressed it to the pulse beating madly at the base of his throat, evidence, like the erection burning beneath taut denim against his hip, that this was no dream conjured during the long, lonely nights. Then he looked up, and breathed, “Let’s go to bed.”

It took a moment for his words to reach Elijah through the haze of arousal, but his dazed expression slowly cleared, and a secret smile took its place. “Everything’s ready,” he said, and Sean’s already erratic pulse leaped. “I kept busy while I was waiting for you.” And then unexpectedly he giggled, the sound as usual sending a jolt of arousal straight to Sean’s already aching groin. “But I have to warn you that I hid your copy of The Joy of Gay Sex. I don’t want you stopping to double check your notes every five seconds.”

Sean grinned a little sheepishly. “I’m pretty sure I have all the relevant parts memorized now.” He reached for Elijah’s hand. “Come on.”

But Elijah avoided his grasp, and shook his head. A small but intense blue flame had sprung to life in his eyes. “Not just yet. There’s something I have to do first.” His fingers went to Sean’s throat and worked nimbly at the knot of his tie, quickly loosening it. “This isn’t my Sean,” he said, sounding almost fierce as he yanked the tie free, tossed it aside, and undid the top button of Sean’s shirt. “Neither is this,” he went on, and Sean could only stand helpless as a tailor’s dummy as Elijah, moving like one possessed, spun him out of his suit jacket and dropped it to the floor. “And neither is this.” His fingers went to Sean’s hair, and impatiently disarranged the neatly combed strands.

Only then did Elijah step back, nodding in satisfaction. “Now you’re my Sean, the Sean from the pines.” The blue flame burned hotter and deeper. “I don’t like what this world does to you, and I don’t want it anywhere around while we’re making love.” Then he took Sean’s hand, lacing their fingers together, and led him into a room that had been transformed since he left it a few hours earlier.

Sean stopped and gaped. “Shit, you weren’t kidding when you said you were busy.” The heavy red velvet drapes had been drawn, shutting out the view of the world beyond. All the lights were turned off, but Elijah had found the half-dozen storm candles Sean kept in a drawer in the kitchen, and arranged them on the dresser and tables. By their soft, flickering yellow glow, he could see that his bed was now neatly made, with the bedspread and sheets invitingly turned down, and the pillows piled up by the headboard. A large bath towel was spread over the bottom sheet. On the nightstand a white tube of K-Y jelly stood ready and waiting.

Something about the sight of these careful preparations brought tears to Sean’s eyes, so of course he had to make a joke. “You just had to rub it in that I forgot to make my bed this morning, didn’t you?” he commented, and the next second he was staggering under Elijah’s weight as the younger man half-tackled him, winding arms and legs around him and kissing him with passionate desperation. The fleeting thought crossed Sean’s mind that his lame jokes had the same effect on Elijah that his giggle had on Sean, but there was really no place for any thought except that if he didn’t get Elijah naked and on that neatly made bed within the next minute so they could rumple it up together, he might lose his mind.

Elijah clearly had the same thought at the same moment. He slid down Sean’s body like a pole dancer, drawing a long involuntary moan from him, and walking backwards, tugged Sean with him. In the candlelight, his eyes were huge and dark as midnight, and Sean was irresistibly reminded of the night they met, when their gazes locked across a starlit clearing deep in the pines, forging a bond that would endure for a lifetime and, god willing, beyond.

When Elijah’s knees met the edge of the bed, he fell onto his back, drawing Sean down on top of him. They bounced twice on the firm mattress, and laughed breathlessly, and then Sean’s hands were diving into Elijah’s hair, seeking for the raised knobs of his pedicles, even as his mouth drank the laughter from Elijah’s lips. He thumbed the yielding surface, stroking hard, and Elijah let out an agonized whimper and his hips involuntarily lifted to press the hard ridge of his cock against Sean’s, seeking relief. But between them still lay a barrier of denim and fine wool.

“Clothes,” Sean murmured, wishing he was the magician Elijah called him, and could magic them away with a spell. There would be opportunity for a slow, sensual undressing later. What ensued was a frantic, fumbling race against time as they tackled buttons and zippers with desperate haste, and not a few hysterical giggles from Elijah that didn’t help matters for Sean. Both were sweating and shaking with suppressed desire when they finally lay naked, with Elijah cradling Sean’s lower body between slender thighs roped with firm muscle.

“Don’t move,” Sean gasped against Elijah’s neck as he struggled for control. “Whatever you do, don’t fucking move, or it’ll all be over.” Elijah let out another of those slightly hysterical sounding giggles, and Sean gritted his teeth and wished he’d warned him against giggling, too.

He lifted himself gingerly on his forearms and stared searchingly down at Elijah, a wordless question in his eyes. For answer, Elijah swiveled his torso, and stretched out his right arm to pick up the tube of K-Y from nightstand. He offered it to Sean with an expression of perfect trust. Sean had indeed memorized the relevant sections of The Joy of Gay Sex. He understood the mechanics of anal sex, and he and Elijah had frankly discussed the topic. But still, Sean thought, the plastic tube slippery in his sweating palm, reading about something was not the same as actually doing it. And this was Elijah’s first time. God, if he were to hurt him…

“Uh-uh, cut it out, Sean. You’re thinking way too much.” Elijah fisted his hands in Sean’s thick hair and pulled him down into a searing, open-mouthed kiss. He let out all the stops, using tongue and teeth to such devastating effect that Sean could barely recall his own name when Elijah finally released him. His hand moved down between them and circled Sean’s erection, lightly stroking it before letting go. “I want you inside me,” he said in a voice raw with need. “Please.

Sean eased his body to one side. He popped the cap on the K-Y with an unsteady hand and squirted clear gel onto the pads of his fingers. Elijah grabbed the nearest pillow and, lifting his hips, slid it beneath them and braced his feet on the mattress. Sean couldn’t help but pause a moment to drink in the sight of Elijah’s nude body, golden in the candlelight, with the darkly flushed cock curving slightly to the right as it strained toward his soft belly. “Elijah, god, you’re perfect,” he breathed in wonder, and bending, pressed a kiss to the pulsing vein just beneath the head, tasting the salt-dampness for the first time and reveling in it.

Then he slid his fingers between Elijah’s splayed thighs, along the hair-roughened cleft until they found their goal. He used his lube-slick fingers to stretch and open Elijah, while with his other hand stroked the young man’s erection, first bringing him close to the edge and then retreating. He became so lost in the sheer erotic delight of observing Elijah’s uninhibited reaction to what he was doing, that he completely forgot to worry. There was surely no more beautiful sight in all creation than Elijah lost in pleasure, all shifting shadows and gleaming satin skin as his body writhed. Oh yes, he thought smugly, reading about something definitely was not the same as actually doing it.

“Sean,” Elijah moaned, his fingers twisting helplessly in the bedcovers, while his head tossed restlessly back and forth. “Sean, please.

It was the only invitation Sean needed. He withdrew his fingers and gingerly prepared himself, trying to be thorough with the lube without accidentally bringing himself off, and then knelt before Elijah. “Lift your legs,” he directed, and stooped his shoulders so that Elijah could drape his knees over them, before moving forward. Elijah’s knees were practically up by his ears, and his body was open and vulnerable, but he was watching again Sean with that expression of perfect trust. But Sean cautioned, “If I go too fast, or there’s any discomfort, for god’s sake, tell me.” He’d stop, even if it killed him, rather than hurt Elijah.

“I’m not worried that you’ll hurt me,” Elijah replied, and smiled that mysterious, inviting Mona Lisa smile. “It’s gonna be beautiful, like our other first time, only better.”

And it was. It was beautiful, it was powerful, it was steam-up-the-windows hot, and in all the years he’d been with Chris, never had Sean understood, as he did now with a gut-deep certainty, that sex could be as much a joining of souls as of bodies.

He went slowly at first, pressing into the narrow opening inch by careful inch, shaking with the effort to restrain himself and wait, until Elijah’s impatient “Sean, keep going,” told him it was safe to continue. When at last he was fully inside Elijah, his cock sheathed in the mind-blowingly tight, searingly hot passage, Sean hesitated, still maintaining a rigid hold on his self-control, even while his sex-deprived body was screaming for him to stop messing around and start moving, pronto. Elijah was in full agreement with this idea.

He pressed a kiss against Sean’s sweat-streaked temple and said, “I won’t break.” Then he traced the outer rim of Sean’s ear with his tongue, and whispered hotly, “Fuck me.” A word Sean was certain Elijah had never used before in his life, for fear of Katie and her bar of soap, and its effect on Sean was electric; the tight leash he’d been keeping on his control finally snapped. He withdrew halfway and thrust, and Elijah moaned and dug his fingers painfully hard into Sean’s buttocks, urging him on.

Everything started to speed up then, as if a fast forward button had been pushed. He captured Elijah’s mouth in a fervent kiss, and his hands delved into his hair, finding and stroking the round knobs of his pedicles in time to every powerful thrust. Elijah was whimpering against Sean’s lips; he had moved one hand to his erection and was frantically stroking it. Far too soon Sean’s thrusts grew jerky and erratic, his balls tightened, and as he gave one final thrust, he felt Elijah stiffen, then cry out his name, and then he was coming with an intensity that caused starbursts of color to explode behind his eyelids, and everything else to fade to black.

Sean’s first coherent thought in the aftermath was to marvel that he was still alive and in one piece. His second was that he didn’t ever want to move, to separate, to unjoin his body from Elijah’s. Never in his adult life had he imagined it was possible to share such closeness with another. His cheek was pillowed on Elijah’s sweat-damp chest; he could hear the rapid beating of his heart gradually beginning to slow. Sean angled his head up, and tenderly kissed the scar left by the bullet that had come so close to taking Elijah from him forever, to depriving him of this amazing young man who was now his whole world.

Their eyes met. “Sean, that was…” he searched for words.

“Totally and completely mind blowing? Awesome beyond belief? Transcendent? Life altering? Help me out - I’m running out of hyperbole here,” Sean joked. “What would a piney say?”

“I don’t think even we have a saying to cover this. But what about ‘fucking amazing’?” Elijah suggested.

“Elijah Wood! Katie’s going to wash your mouth out with soap if she hears you use that word,” Sean exclaimed in mock dismay. “Or maybe mine – I’m obviously a bad influence on you.”

Elijah looked absurdly guilty, like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and Sean laughed. Then he lifted his head and they kissed - a lazy, satiated kiss without any urgency. His muscles were lax and heavy, and he could have fallen asleep where he lay. But that could hardly be comfortable for Elijah, with his knees still draped over Sean’s shoulders, and Sean’s softening cock inside him. Besides, Elijah required some TLC. He was going to be sore; there was simply no way around it. Sean gently pulled out and eased Elijah’s legs down to the bed. They looked at each other with regret.

“There’ll be other times - thousands of them,” Sean said, trying not to let the shadow of yet another separation darken this moment.

“Only thousands?” Elijah said, in mock indignation. “I was hoping for millions.”

“I like the way you think.” Grinning, Sean got up from the bed on legs that felt surprisingly rubbery. He held out his hand. “Up you get, Woodjin. We need to hit the bathroom.” The extra-large fluffy bath towel had protected the bed, more or less, but the two of them were a sticky, sweaty mess.

Elijah didn’t immediately move, however. He let his gaze roam in a leisurely fashion over Sean, who was suddenly all too conscious of the weight he’d gained and the health club membership he’d been neglecting.

“You’re so incredibly gorgeous, Sean,” Elijah said with a happy sigh. “I thought I remembered just how gorgeous,” and his dreamy gaze lingered on Sean’s cock, impressively large even when it wasn’t aroused, “but I wasn’t even close.”

“You’re crazy,” Sean said, feeling his cheeks start to burn. “Now come on, get up.”

“I’m not crazy,” Elijah protested, but he took Sean’s hand and allowed him to pull him to his feet. He was walking a little gingerly as they crossed the candlelit room, but shrugged off Sean’s concern. “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine. In fact, I’m better than fine. I’m so happy that skunks the world over are protesting.” He gave Sean a mischievous look. “Besides, there’s a surprise waiting for you in the bathroom.”

“Another one? I’m not sure I can survive another of your surprises,” Sean joked.

“You just wait and see what it is.” Elijah’s eyes were dancing with amusement, and Sean wondered what on earth the surprise could be. He switched on the bathroom lights and stared around, but nothing looked any different.

“Elijah, what--?” he began, but was interrupted by a familiar sound.

Scrape, scrape, thud.

Scrape, scrape, thud.

“Fred!” Sean exclaimed in amazement, and there was the box turtle, emerging from behind the toilet, and heading toward him as fast as his limited physique and innate dignity would allow. “God, am I happy to see you.”

He crouched down beside Fred, absurdly overjoyed by the sight of those small red eyes blinking at him. For once, he didn’t need Elijah to interpret for him. He could tell that Fred was as glad to see him as he was to see Fred. “I’ve missed you, buddy,” he said emotionally, scratching the turtle beneath his chin with a forefinger. Sean glanced up at Elijah, who was watching them with the hugest grin. “So that’s what was in the shoebox. Elijah, I can’t believe you brought him for a visit.”

“Oh, he wanted to come,” Elijah assured him. “And Fred isn’t just here for a visit, Sean. He’s going to stay here and keep you company until you can come home. I only wish I’d thought of the idea weeks ago,” he added regretfully.

“But I don’t know anything about taking care of box turtles,” Sean replied dubiously, although the thought of returning to the suite at the end of a long, tiring day and having Fred to commune with and talk to about Elijah, was comforting beyond belief. Fred was the perfect confidante: wise, unflappable, and immune to bribes from gossip columnists.

“Don’t worry about taking care of Fred. I’ve written down instructions for you, and he’s an easy keeper. Just make sure you don’t let him get too spoiled. This bathroom is a lot fancier than what he’s accustomed to. And no wild parties,” he teased, “even if there is a Jacuzzi.”

Afterward, Sean could never satisfactorily explain to himself why Elijah’s reference to this ongoing lame joke caused him to start crying. But cry he did. Hot tears spurted from beneath his lids as if a faucet had been turned on, his nose stuffed up and began to run, and he sank cross-legged to the cold marble floor, buried his head in his hands and sobbed.

“Sean…” Seconds later, a pair of strong arms came around him, and Elijah cradled his head against his breast, and slowly rocked him.

“Sorry,” Sean choked out, wiping his runny nose on the back of his hand like a child. “I just… oh god, I’ve missed you so much.” The tears ran faster.

“Oh Sean, I’ve missed you, too,” Elijah said in a wobbly voice. “And it breaks my heart when I think of everything you’ve had to go through alone.”

Sean shook his head vehemently. “No, not alone, never alone. Not since I met you.”

Elijah’s hold tightened, and they remained that way for some time, while Sean’s sobs gradually lessened, and Fred rested his chin on Sean’s thigh and regarded him with a doleful, unblinking stare.

It wasn’t until Elijah unconsciously shifted that Sean realized he was kneeling on the unforgiving hardness of the marble, and it must be uncomfortable as hell. His own ass was turning numb. He pulled back with a final snuffling sigh, and said, “I could have picked a more comfortable place to have a breakdown.”

“’Sokay.” Elijah thumbed away the tears streaking Sean’s face and then leaned in to kiss him gently on the mouth. “Better?” he asked in a tender voice, and there was such understanding and love in his eyes. Whatever his quirks or flaws, and they were numerous, Sean had found the one person who would love him regardless, who would be there for him through thick and thin.

“Yeah, I’m better,” Sean said, exalted in his soul. A smile grew on his face, stretching wider and wider. “Shower or Jacuzzi?”

Elijah’s eyes sparkled. “Do you really have to ask?”

While Sean filled the tub with hot water and turned on the heater, Elijah found fresh towels and then disappeared briefly, returning with two open bottles of Sam Adams beer he’d taken from the refrigerator. He set them down on the broad marble ledge that surrounded the Jacuzzi just as Sean turned off the faucets.

“All ready,” Sean said to the unabashedly naked young man standing beside him. Elijah had red marks on his knees from the floor. There was drying come on his belly and the insides of his thighs. Sean picked out at least a dozen small bruises starting to form on that ivory skin, marks left by the intensity of their coupling. A sense of possessive pride such as he’d never known filled Sean as he watched Elijah climb stiffly into the Jacuzzi, and admired the flex of those pale rounded buttocks that concealed such treasure.

He quickly followed, settling opposite Elijah, and hit the control to turn on the jets. Immediately the water began to roil and bubble, and Elijah let out a little moan of pure undiluted bliss. Sean snagged a beer and handed it across to Elijah and then picked up his own and settled back.

Their outstretched legs drifted together, forming a comfortable tangle beneath the water, while they drank their beer and basked in the soothing massage of the jet bursts. Sean thought of the numerous questions he had for Elijah, but decided they could wait. They’d had so few moments just to relax and be, and there was such enormous pleasure to be taken in simply drinking in the sight of Elijah’s flushed face, brilliant eyes and auburn curls spangled with droplets of moisture. It gave Sean a greater rush of warmth inside than the Sam Adams - no contest.

“We absolutely have to have one of these,” Elijah declared a while later, setting his now-empty beer bottle on the ledge beside Sean’s with a contented little belch. “Next time you call from the Jacuzzi, I’m going to be extremely jealous. I didn’t really know what I was missing.”

Sean tickled the back of Elijah’s knee with his toes, making Elijah gasp and squirm. “I’ll have Fred call you instead, how about that? Then you won’t have to be jealous.”

“Oh, so you’re going to give Fred his own cell phone, huh?” Elijah’s toes retaliated, and it was Sean’s turn to squirm.

“Absolutely, and an office upstairs with his own secretary, too. I thought I’d hire him as a consultant for our ‘targeted advertising for turtles’ campaign. In fact, I’m going take him to Barney’s tomorrow and get him fitted out with a suit and tie. Enough with that Mr. Rogers look already. He’s a city turtle now.”

By the time Sean was done, Elijah was laughing so hard that he slid right under the water, and came up spluttering and blinking moisture from his eyes. And suddenly froze, becoming stunningly aware, as Sean already was, of exactly where his right foot had ended up: firmly lodged against Sean’s groin. Wide-eyed, he moved his foot experimentally.

“Jesus,” Sean gasped, breaking out in a sweat unrelated to the warmth of the water. The wide-eyed look was replaced by one of a very different sort, compounded of equal parts mischief, lust and determination, and Sean knew he was in for it.

Sean had admired Elijah’s narrow, high-arched feet with their long, elegant toes. Now he had an entirely new reason to admire them, and while it really shouldn’t be possible at his age, within a couple of minutes there was absolutely no doubt about it - he was raring to go again. His head fell back against the padded edge of the Jacuzzi with a thump, while Elijah’s magic toes kneaded and stroked his rapidly hardening cock with devastating effect.

Sean was so adrift in liquid sensation that he didn’t even realize at first when the tormenting foot was removed. Then a sudden wave of water sloshed up over his chest, followed seconds later by the creator of said wave, Elijah, who had launched himself from the other side of the tub. He straddled Sean and wound his slippery arms around his neck, and it was clear as he settled atop Sean’s lap and their cocks brushed that he, too, was raring to go again. So much for TLC, thought Sean dazedly, as a hot demanding mouth fastened over his, and a small hand glided down in a silken caress to palm Sean’s nipple and rub it in circles, bringing it to a tight, aching peak, and sending shafts of pleasure streaking along every nerve.

“Oh shit, oh shit,” Sean repeated, as Elijah’s mouth moved lower, to plant hungry kisses along his jaw and throat, before fastening over the tender skin just above Sean’s collarbone and suckling it hard enough to leave a livid mark. Meanwhile that exploring hand moved lower, under the roiling water, and between Sean’s thighs to explore. Then Elijah started to move against Sean. The sensation of their slick cocks gliding against each other through the warm swirling water was indescribable, and he could only moan in helpless ecstasy.

In fact, Sean felt helpless to do anything except allow Elijah to have his way with him, and indeed it seemed clear that this was precisely what Elijah wanted. The young man’s mouth moved to Sean’s nipple, alternately biting at it lightly, sucking it, and then soothing it with his tongue. Between what was going on below the water and what was going on above, Sean was lost. In no time at all it seemed, he was arching up with a loud cry, and coming with explosive force, and then a panting Elijah was collapsing limply against his chest. A milky white cloud appeared in the water around them, and then swiftly dispersed.

Sean let out a weak laugh. “That’s it. You’ve officially killed me. I’ll never be able to move again and will die a wrinkled prune in this Jacuzzi.”

“Pretty good, huh?” Elijah bragged immodestly.

“Fucking amazing, as they say in the pines,” Sean joked. “Although this wasn’t one of the ideas we talked about on the phone, I have to say you improvise brilliantly. They’re going to have to license your toes as a lethal weapon, Elijah.”

Elijah giggled, and snuggled against Sean. It didn’t seem that he was capable of moving either. Sean’s hand drifted between Elijah’s shoulder blades in slow, lazy circles, and he cherished the warm weight of the body draped across his like a silken blanket. Eventually Elijah rubbed his cheek against Sean’s chest like a tired kitten, as he’d done that first time they made love at the cabin, and yawned hugely.

“Not that I have anything against prunes,” Sean said, sitting up reluctantly, “but I’d really rather we not both resemble one. And you need some sleep.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” Elijah said, sounding sad. “I can only stay until tomorrow morning, Sean. I don’t want to miss a single minute of our time together.”

Sean ignored the stab of pain the thought of Elijah’s departure brought, and the reminders of their last difficult parting that had lasted so much longer than either had then imagined it could. “It’s less than 24 hours since you transformed, Elijah, and I’m willing to bet that you haven’t slept a wink since then.” Elijah’s non-response was answer enough. “I’ll wake you in a couple of hours, I promise.”

Elijah was clearly almost dead on his feet, and Sean had to steady him as he climbed out of the tub. But he tried valiantly to protest when Sean picked up one of the towels and started to dry him. “I can manage,” he said, around another huge yawn. “You don’t have to do that.”

But Sean, kneeling like some knight’s squire of old to wipe away the rivulets of water running down Elijah’s legs, glanced up and said simply, “Yes, I do.” He welcomed this chance to give Elijah a little of the TLC he so deserved.

When he was finished, he quickly swiped himself down, and putting an arm around Elijah, led him back to the bedroom. He picked up the soiled towel and rolled it into a ball, held back the covers so Elijah could slide underneath, and then pulled them up around him.

“There,” Sean said, straightening with a smile, “you’re all tucked in.”

Elijah didn’t smile back this time. “You won’t leave me, will you?” he asked, putting his hand on Sean’s arm. In the flickering light of the storm candle, he looked young and vulnerable, his eyes shadowed with worry. Sean could only imagine what it had cost him to make this journey and leave the safety and security of the pines behind.

He covered Elijah’s hand with his own and squeezed it reassuringly. “Of course not. I have a few phone calls to make and I want to order us in some food. But I’ll be here every second, don’t worry.”

“’Kay.” Elijah’s eyelids were starting to droop, as if he’d needed Sean’s reassurance before he would let himself give in to the pull of sleep.

“Elijah, before you’re out like a light, just tell me: how did you get to New York?”

“On the train,” he murmured sleepily. “Martha gave me a ride to the station.”

Sean nodded. He stooped and brushed the damp tendrils of hair back from his brow, then kissed Elijah softly on the forehead. “I love you,” he said. “Now go to sleep.”

“Love you, too.” The words had barely passed his lips before Elijah’s eyes were closed, and in the next instant his breathing deepened as he fell into a sound sleep.

Sean gathered up their scattered clothing - how had his black leather belt ended up draped over a lampshade - and then turned on the lamp before moving around the room and blowing out the candles. Romantic though candlelight might be, and beautiful as Elijah looked by it, it was, after all, still a fire hazard.

He got dressed, amused when he discovered his copy of The Joy of Gay Sex sticking out from the bottom of a pile of boxers in the underwear drawer. But his gaze kept straying to the king size bed and the young man peacefully asleep in it. There was a sense of déjà vu about the circumstances, yet never in his wildest imaginings had he expected Elijah to be here in his bed in his suite in New York.

Reluctantly, Sean left the room to make his phone calls, not wanting to disturb Elijah, even though he was reasonably certain that nothing short of a brass band marching by the bed would wake him.

It was a shock to walk into the living room and discover that it was a sunny, bright afternoon in New York City, and all around him the workday world was going on about its usual business. It truly had seemed as if he and Elijah had stepped into a separate world, timeless and apart. If only they could remain in that world, Sean thought now as he turned on the cell phone he’d retrieved from the pocket of his discarded suit jacket. He checked his messages, and saw that there was just one, from Philippa Boyens. Well, he decided, it could bloody well wait. The last thing on earth he wanted to think about while Elijah was here was the fucking palimony suit or Chris. He’d give Philippa a call tomorrow.

He checked in with Liv, whom he’d ordered to cancel all his remaining appointments for the day, and she reassured him that everything was under control. Not that he’d had any doubts - she could charm the birds from the trees if necessary. Still, he was a bit uneasy about what he might have given away in the aftermath of Elijah’s unexpected arrival. He’d done his best not to reveal the tumult of his emotions in such a public setting, but he wasn’t sure just how well he’d succeeded or what curious eyes might have been observing him.

After he hung up with Liv, Sean turned his attention to another problem: what Elijah had told him moments before he fell asleep about how he’d gotten to New York. On the train. Martha gave me a ride to the station. Well, Elijah might have arrived by train, but he sure as hell wasn’t going home by train. The very thought of the Woodjin traveling alone outside the pines made Sean’s skin crawl with fear. Fortunately, there were other, better ways to get him home safely. It would take a few phone calls to set it up, but it was doable. Then he’d call Martha and let her know about the changed plans. What else he might say to her, he wasn’t sure. Much as he’d like to lecture her about how incredibly irresponsible it had been to let Elijah take the train alone into the city, he suspected Elijah had really given her no choice, and after all, he had arrived safely, so in the end perhaps it was best to let it go.

Sean went to the window and stared down at the crowds hurrying along the sidewalks or strolling through the park, enjoying the late spring afternoon.

There was a larger point to consider, too. Elijah was an adult. He had made an informed decision to come to New York, an agonizing and risky one to be sure, but not one based on impulse or self-interest. He mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that because Elijah was vulnerable to discovery, he was also a child who needed constant supervision. Like Sean, he’d been forced to grow up young, and bore the weight of responsibilities and pressures that would be inconceivable to the average person. He risked his very life over and over without a second thought. To treat his decisions with less than the total respect they deserved was to dishonor him.

Of course, it might kill him sometimes to resist wrapping Elijah in cotton wool, Sean thought ruefully as he turned away from the window, but he had to remember that he wasn’t Elijah’s keeper - he was his lover, his partner and his friend.

Sean made his calls, and then turned off his cell phone and went to sit by Elijah. And if he felt now rather like the knight himself, standing guard over his sleeping love, well, that would remain his little secret.

~*~


It didn’t need a brass band marching through the suite to wake Elijah, just the smell of an extra-large pizza, loaded with broccoli, peppers, mushrooms and spinach. Sean had just tipped the delivery guy and carried the cardboard box into the living room, where he’d already set out more Sam Adams, dinner plates and napkins on the round table by the window, when Elijah appeared.

“Wow, something smells fantastic,” he said, padding barefoot into the room.

“Famous Joe’s pizza, the best in the city,” Sean said. “You’re going to love it.”

Elijah had put on the jeans and tee shirt that Sean had left, neatly folded, on the end of the bed. Sean’s heart stuttered at the sight of him. His hair had even more of a kitten fur effect than usual going on, since he’d fallen asleep with it still damp, while his cheeks were flushed with sleep so that his eyes appeared almost impossibly blue. Rather than sit down at the table, Elijah walked straight up to Sean and put his arms around him. “Just making sure you’re real,” he said, and they held each other until a loud growl from Elijah’s stomach reminded them of the waiting food.

Elijah couldn’t stop staring out the window in rapt fascination while he devoured his pizza (after carefully removing every last bit of spinach, Sean noted for future reference). “Sorry,” he eventually said, a bit thickly because his mouth was full, “I’m not ignoring you. But it’s still kind of hard to believe what I’m seeing.”

“I know what you mean,” Sean replied. “I’m still having trouble believing that myself.” He detached another slice of pizza from the pie, picked out the spinach, and lifted it onto Elijah’s plate. “But if you wouldn’t mind being distracted from the view for a few minutes, I’d really like to hear about how you got here. I spoke to Martha while you were sleeping, by the way, and she was very relieved to know you were here with me and safe.”

Elijah sighed. “I felt bad about dragging her into it, but I needed someone to drive me to the train station.”

“I gather Ian isn’t too happy with her,” Sean said dryly, watching Elijah turn his beer bottle around and around in the ring of dampness it sat in.

“I just hope he isn’t too upset with me.” Elijah looked up from his contemplation of the Sam Adams label. His eyes were haunted. “I’m the Woodjin, and my duty is to stay in the pines and protect him and everyone else. Only this once,” his voice cracked, “just this once, I had to put you first, Sean. I hope they can understand and forgive me.”

“Of course they understand. Elijah, they’re only worried about you, not upset with you.” Sean spoke with calm reassurance, while inside he felt humbled, utterly unworthy of such a sacrifice. “I remember what you said to me that morning, about being the fox. And yet despite that, you came anyway. You are without a doubt the bravest person it has ever been my privilege to know.”

Elijah flushed. “I’m not, oh Sean, I’m not. If you could have seen me this morning in Penn Station, you’d never think I was brave.”

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?” Sean said gently. “Tell me what happened, from the time you left Martha.”

It was difficult to hold onto his vow not to wrap Elijah in cotton wool after listening to the story. Elijah was brutally honest about how difficult it had been for him to be around the unaccustomed crowds of people. When he described the moment of panic and disorientation that had driven him into the ATM room, Sean reached across the table and took his hand, as much for his own comfort as for Elijah’s. His body broke out in a sympathetic sweat while he listened; the remembered distress in Elijah’s eyes was so evident and real.

Sean soothed Elijah’s palm with calming strokes of his thumb. “You should have called me; I would have come for you.”

“I know, and I almost did call you. But…” he hesitated and gave Sean a look he couldn’t decipher. “This was something I had to do by myself, and besides, I met a really lovely woman named Mary who helped me out, and after that I was fine.” The remainder of the story made for easier listening, and Sean couldn’t help but laugh at the image of Fred with his nose stuck to the window while Elijah pointed out the sights to him.

“I wish you’d gotten Mary’s last name,” Sean remarked regretfully as Elijah picked up his second slice of now-lukewarm pizza and bit into it.

“Why?”

“Because I’d like to thank her for helping you out.” Give her a few million dollars, or raise a statue to her. “But at least I have the full name of the cabbie. ‘Ben Williams’ is a pretty common name, but it should be possible to track him down through the Taxi and Limousine Commission – they license the drivers.” Sean lightly drummed his fore and middle fingers on the table top as his brain raced. “You said his wife is in nursing school, right? Maybe I can help them out financially so he doesn’t have to keep working two jobs.”

Elijah stared at him, his pizza suspended in mid-air, a long strand of mozzarella dangling from it. “Sean, you can’t be serious. You can’t go giving that kind of money to someone simply because they were nice to me!”

“Why not? It seems a perfectly sound reason to me.”

Both Matt-the-Fucker and the sonofabitch who had shot Elijah out by the Quaker Bridge were never far from Sean’s mind, symbols of the intolerance that existed in the world, and of the very real dangers Elijah faced. Bound by his promise to Elijah, he couldn’t do anything to the two men who had harmed his lover both physically and emotionally, but he could do something to thank a man who had gone out of his way to treat Elijah with kindness. He had once told Hannah that Elijah wasn’t too good for the world, he was good for it. If any proof were needed, it could be found in Mary and Ben and their instinctive response to Elijah’s innate goodness, like flowers opening to the morning sun.

“Well, it’s up to you, Sean,” Elijah commented, tonguing the strand of cheese into his mouth, and added slyly, “but I gave Ben a twenty when the fare was $11. I have a feeling I over tipped him by a lot.”

Sean had just taken a sip of his beer; he choked on his laughter and started to cough. Elijah jumped up and came around the table to pound him on the back. One thing led to another after that, and the pizza was nearly cold by the time they finally finished it.

As they gathered up the dishes and empty bottles and the pizza box, the shadows were lengthening outside and night was starting to draw in; the setting sun set the glass windows of the skyscrapers ablaze with color.

In the kitchen, after washing the plates and putting them in the stainless steel dish drainer, Sean said, “Would you like to go out? We could hit one of the clubs on the lower east side, listen to some music.” It cost him something to make the offer. His fear of encountering someone who might recognize him was like a specter hovering over him. But Elijah had taken a considerable risk for him, and how could he do any less?

Elijah shook his head, immediately and decisively. “I didn’t come here to go clubbing. I came here to be with you.” He grimaced. “And I think I’ve had enough of crowds for one day.”

“You’re sure?” Sean couldn’t quite disguise his relief as he draped the damp dishtowel over the side of the drainer.

“Positive.”

“Then what would you like to do?” he asked.

Elijah’s answer was a slow, knowing grin.

“You have a one-track mind, Elwood,” Sean laughed. “But I’m not sure my enfeebled body is quite up to what you have in mind just yet. Two orgasms in the space of a few hours is pushing the envelope for a guy my age. How about we watch a movie instead? I rented Godfather 2 from Netflix.”

“I am so tempted to prove that your enfeebled body is capable of pushing the envelope even wider,” Elijah remarked provocatively as he went to the freezer and opened it. “But I’ve been dying to argue with you over which Godfather is the better movie.” He peered into the freezer. “No Tastykake ice cream?” he asked in disappointment.

Sean grinned and swatted him on the ass. “You’ll have to make do with Haagen-Dazs.”

“If I have to,” he said, “but I hope you have popcorn to go with it.”

“Of course,” Sean said, opening a cupboard and taking down a box of Orville Redenbacher. He nuked the popcorn while Elijah divided the pint of chocolate chocolate chip ice cream between two bowls. Then they returned to the living room, and Sean put Godfather 2 in the DVD player and turned on the television.

“A flat panel television,” Elijah enthused. “I’ve never watched a movie on one of those.”

After which comment Sean immediately started wondering how soon he could get one delivered and installed in the cabin.

Elijah didn’t sit on the carpet this time, but squashed next to Sean, draping one leg over Sean’s thigh and resting his bare foot on top of Sean’s. Sean tried not to stare at those long, elegant toes that could wield such magic, but resolutely offered Elijah the popcorn bowl. Beyond, it was now dark, and the city lights were shining, and Sean wasn’t the only one having trouble concentrating on the movie.

“Sean, it’s amazing,” Elijah said, his gaze fixed on the skyline, not the TV screen. “But I can’t imagine how you get any studying done with this to distract you.”

“Oh, I manage okay,” Sean assured him. “It’s what I’m going to have distracting me when I get home that’s going to make studying difficult.”

Eventually, despite distractions, the movie’s superb acting and direction lured them in, and as they ate their ice cream and passed the popcorn bowl back and forth, they argued about the relative merits of the two Godfather movies. Fred ambled in from the bathroom to join them about halfway through, but when asked, declined to take sides.

It was the first carefree evening Sean had spent since leaving the pines in January, and he thanked god from the bottom of his heart for Elijah’s courage and resolve that had made it possible. There were some risks worth taking, and this was one. He realized that his belief in the magical and fantastical, a childhood dream that his meeting with the white stag had given back to him, had been slowly but surely dying under the sordid weight of lawsuits and hostile takeovers. Well, the magical and fantastical was in this room with him, right here and right now, pressed solid and warm against his side, and every inhalation of Sean’s breath brought with it the beloved scents of pinesap, woodsmoke and dried grasses. He had the memory of this magical day to sustain him; he could walk around the suite and see Elijah in every room. He wouldn’t lose faith again.

When the movie was over, they were still at an impasse. Elijah stating categorically that Godfather 2 was definitely superior, but Sean clinging stubbornly to his preference for the original movie. “Well, it would be boring if we agreed on everything,” Elijah said cheerfully.

One thing they did agree on was that it was time to retire to bed, not that they had any intention of going to sleep. Sean’s claim of bodily enfeeblement hadn’t held much water after sitting with Elijah plastered against him for several hours. Elijah knew it, too, the tease, and his apology after dropping that piece of popcorn between Sean’s thighs and fishing around down there to find it, was blatantly insincere and hadn’t fooled him in the least. But he’d gotten his own back, letting his hand casually toy with one of Elijah’s pedicles until Elijah glared and accused him of not playing fair. Sean just laughed, tilted his head back and tossed a piece of popcorn in his mouth.

The bedroom was in darkness when they entered. Elijah went to the windows and pulled back the drapes. A spectacular three-quarter moon was rising above the rooftops; by its light and that from the windows of the buildings around them, they undressed. There was time now for the slow, sensual undressing that hadn’t possible earlier, for lingering touches interspersed with slow burning kisses.

They stood at last naked, face to face, their quickened breathing loud in the silent room. Sean was about to take Elijah’s arm and pull him toward the bed, when the young man said unexpectedly, “In case you’ve been wondering, I haven’t forgotten, Sean.”

“Forgotten what?” Sean asked blankly. He was totally at sea, not that his lust-fogged brain was in any shape to remember much at the moment.

“How I was going to thank you when I saw you again.” To Sean’s shock and undeniable excitement, for he couldn’t even count the number of times he’d imagined this scene, Elijah dropped to his knees in front of him. He looked up at Sean with a hint of vulnerability and uncertainty in his eyes. “I hope this’ll be good for you. I don’t have much experience, and it’s not exactly the same as pretending to do it over the phone.”

“Elijah, you could kneel there and read the phonebook to me and I’d enjoy it. I don’t think you have anything to worry about.” Then he let out a loud gasp as Elijah, with a determined expression, took a firm hold of him and bent his head.

It wasn’t the first blowjob Sean had received, and it wasn’t the most expert. But what Elijah lacked in experience, he more than made up for in enthusiasm, and the sight of those full, perfectly shaped lips closing around him was one Sean would never forget. Elijah’s tiny hums of satisfaction as he lost himself in pleasuring his lover vibrated straight through Sean’s body from head to toe - and everywhere in between. Sean wasn’t sure which was more arousing - what Elijah was doing with his silken hot mouth and his roaming hands, or how beautifully abandoned he looked as he was doing it.

That he managed to stay on his feet for the duration was a miracle, all things considered. When the crucial moment neared, Sean did his incoherent best to warn Elijah in time to pull back if he wanted; he didn’t want, only dug his fingers bruisingly hard into Sean’s buttocks and held on. He didn’t release Sean until the final spasm faded; only then did he sit back on his heels, and look up at Sean, licking at his lips curiously, but with no evidence of distaste on his face that Sean could detect.

“Was it okay?” Elijah asked anxiously, when Sean didn’t say anything.

Okay? If it was any more okay, Elijah, I’d be a pile of smoldering ashes on the carpet,” Sean said in a weak voice. His legs were wobbling like Jell-o and there was a buzzing sensation in his head, which at one point had threatened to explode. “God help me if you actually get better at this.”

Elijah beamed, but the beam turned to a look of alarm as Sean’s knees buckled slightly. “Maybe you better lie down, Sean,” he said, scrambling to his feet and putting an arm around Sean’s waist.

“Maybe I better,” agreed Sean. “Turnabout’s fair play, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to take yours horizontally.”

Elijah’s arm tightened convulsively. “Are - are you sure?” he asked, but his voice trembled with hope and anticipation.

“Oh yeah, I’m sure.” That single brief taste of Elijah’s salt-dampness that he’d had earlier lingered on his tongue. He wanted more, a lot more. He got it, and later a blissed-out Elijah reassured him with great fervor that, despite his even greater lack of experience, Sean had done just fine.

~~~

May 9, 2006

A faint uneasiness woke Sean from a deep sleep. He reached out, but the spot at his side was empty, and he quickly sat up. Only unlike the last time this had happened, he didn’t have to worry long or look far to find his missing lover. Elijah was standing at the window, gazing out at the quiet city and the fading stars. The sky was beginning to show the faintest hint of the approaching dawn. Sean checked the alarm clock. It was just before 5:30.

He threw back the covers and got up, his body setting up a vigorous protest as he straightened. His muscles were stiff and sore; even his cock ached - no big surprise considering the unaccustomed gymnastics it had been put through during the previous day - but Sean reveled in each and every twinge of pain.

He walked up close behind Elijah and slid his arms around him, burying his face in the soft auburn hair with a murmur of content. Elijah leaned back against him with a sigh. “I hope I didn’t wake you,” he said.

“No, you didn’t wake me,” Sean replied, although it wasn’t strictly true.

They stood for some minutes without speaking, and watched as the sky slowly turned from black to gray and the shapes of the buildings and the trees began to take on form and substance. Then Elijah said, “You’re going to miss this, aren’t you?”

“A little,” Sean admitted. “After all, New York was my home for a lot of years. But it’s not as if I can’t come back for a visit from time to time if I feel the urge.”

“There are no sunrises like this in the pines,” Elijah remarked sadly.

Sean tightened his hold. “You are every sunrise I ever hope to see, Elijah. I don’t need any other.”

Elijah turned in Sean’s arms and pressed his face into his shoulder. “Sean…”

“What’s wrong?” Sean asked, and the answer to his own question came to him in the coolness of the naked body he held against him, a body whose normal temperature was several degrees higher than the average person. His heart clenched with sudden fear, and the faint uneasiness that had awakened him was explained. “Elijah, tell me what’s happening to you. Please.”

“I’m not sure exactly,” Elijah admitted, “because I’ve never been away from the pines for this long since I became Woodjin, and my dad never was either.”

“Are you in pain?” Sean demanded. “Do you need to leave right now?” His mind frantically ran over the plans he’d made to get Elijah home, and how he could rearrange them at such short notice.

“No, no.” Elijah touched his face reassuringly. “I’m not in pain, Sean. It’s not like that. It’s more…” He thought for a minute. “Did they ever make you read that book Jane Eyre when you were in school?” he asked unexpectedly.

Sean was confused by the seeming non sequitur, but he shook his head. “It wasn’t required reading in my school. I did see that old movie with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine once. Jane Eyre was an orphan, right? Went to be a governess for some rich guy and they fell in love?”

“Mr. Rochester. Yeah, that’s the story.”

“I’m not really following you here, Elijah. Are you comparing yourself to Jane Eyre?” In which case he was the wealthy Mr. Rochester who, as Sean recalled, had a mad wife in the attic and ended up going blind. Not exactly a pleasant comparison.

“No, I’m not comparing myself to her, although I’ve always been able to sympathize with her to a certain extent. Her life was pretty hedged around, and she wanted to see the wide world but couldn’t.” Elijah smiled ruefully. “Too bad she couldn’t transform, huh? Her life would have been amazing then. But actually, it’s Mr. Rochester I’m thinking about. You see, he tells Jane Eyre that he’s going to send her away to be governess for a family in Ireland. And he says that it’s like there’s this cord tied inside him and the other end is tied inside her, and if she goes too far away from him, the cord will break and he’ll start to bleed.”

Elijah.” Sean understood now what he meant, and it terrified him. “Are you telling me that you’re… that you’re dying?”

No, Elijah said vehemently, “I’m not telling you that. Like I said, I’m not even in any pain. The cord isn’t broken, Sean. It’s more like a gentle tug right now, a sort of warning sign to tell me that I shouldn’t stay away too much longer.” He cupped his hands around Sean’s face and looked deep into his eyes. “Please, stop worrying. We don’t have to rush off this second. Relax.”

“I’m not sure I can. You’ve scared the shit out of me, Elijah.” Sean let out a shaky laugh. “But I’ll try not to wig out on you, if you’re sure it’s safe for you to stay a few more hours.”

“I’m sure,” Elijah said steadily, and leaned in to give him a reassuring kiss. “Sean, could we go for a walk? It’s so early, I’m sure no one will see us. Not even that gossip columnist lady could be lurking around this early.” He turned his head to look out at the waking city. “I’d like to take a walk with you once in your world. And there’s something I need to tell you before I leave.”

Sean swallowed hard against a constriction in his throat. “Another surprise?”

“Yeah, another surprise.”

“Let me guess: you’re pregnant,” Sean joked, a feeble attempt even for him.

But Elijah giggled and hugged him, and Sean thought that if Elijah could still giggle, then maybe he really was telling the truth when he said he wasn’t dying.

~~~

They rode the freight elevator down in the company of a couple of empty laundry carts, and went out a side entrance. Possibly unnecessary precautions, but Sean was relieved that he didn’t encounter anyone he needed to worry about seeing them together.

They set out side by side on the sidewalk along Central Park West, and then struck into a path that meandered through the park. It was still relatively dark out, although behind the buildings to the east, the sky was becoming suffused with a rainbow of pastel colors. The usual contingent of dedicated rise-with-the-sun joggers, bicyclists, dog walkers and roller skaters was in evidence, and the birds were setting up a ruckus in the trees as they welcomed the arrival of a new day. Elijah listened intently with his head cocked to one side and identified the different songs for Sean with an effortless ease that he could only marvel at.

He surreptitiously studied Elijah for signs of weakness, but the young man was walking with his characteristic lightness, every step buoyant, and his shining eyes were everywhere, taking it all in. He looked at Sean and grinned. “This is so amazing,” he said happily, and Sean relaxed.

It was amazing to be out in public with Elijah, strolling along together like any other couple in love. Sean supposed he should be more fearful of discovery, but he wouldn’t allow himself to spoil the occasion with his paranoia. They were walking so near to each other that their hands brushed, and it was Sean who finally made the move to link them together. Elijah’s startled gaze flew to his face, and then he broke into a radiant smile that was more than sufficient payment for taking the risk.

Sean was beginning to wonder when or even if Elijah was going to bring up the subject of his mysterious surprise, when he said, “Sean, about what I need to tell you…”

He looked somber now, and Sean couldn’t tell if it was going to be a good surprise or a bad one, but he had a hunch it wasn’t good.

“I probably should have told you this straight off,” Elijah continued, “but I didn’t want it to interfere with our time together.”

A bad surprise then, Sean thought, his heart sinking. Why did their magical time in New York have to end on a down note?

“You see, while I was waiting for you in the suite, I had a visitor.”

“A visitor?” Sean was suddenly very apprehensive.

“Yeah. Chris.”

It was as if every single drop of blood instantly drained from Sean’s body. Black dots danced behind his eyelids. Bad surprise? It wasn’t a bad surprise – it was a sheer, unmitigated disaster of a surprise.

Chris had met Elijah.

“Oh dear god.” He halted and dropped Elijah’s hand, and for a moment he really thought he might be physically sick. “Elijah, how can you speak so calmly? Don’t you understand what this means?” His voice started rise with panic, as a host of horrible images swarmed like locusts into his brain.

Elijah put a hand on his arm. “Sean, please calm down. Just listen, okay? I need you to listen, and not panic.”

Listen? How could he listen when their entire fragile house of cards had just come crashing down? But Elijah had started talking, and he owed it to him to listen, and besides, he needed to know exactly what threats Chris had made against them.

So with dread in his heart Sean listened to Elijah’s account of his meeting with Chris. Listened until the dread was gradually replaced by astonishment, disbelief, and at last wonder.

When Elijah was finished talking, Sean could only stare at him in dumbfounded amazement. “Chris dropped the palimony suit?” he repeated in a daze. “She actually dropped the palimony suit?” Then he remembered the message from Philippa, and realized that she must have been calling to tell him the good news. “I don’t believe it. I just fucking don’t believe it.”

Elijah was smiling so wide his cheeks must be hurting. “Believe it, it’s true. She dropped the palimony suit, Sean.”

The early morning sun was rising over the city, and it seemed to Sean as if it rose not only on a new day but an entirely new world.

Suddenly, he let out a whoop so loud that a dozen pigeons scattered in a panic, and passers-by stopped to stare. Sean didn’t care. He picked Elijah up in his arms and twirled him around jubilantly, around and around and around, until the sky was tilting crazily overhead and they were both breathless and dizzy and laughing with giddy joy.

“You call me a magician,” Sean said, tears prickling in his eyes. “But you’re the one who is magic.”

And there, right there in the middle of Central Park, in the morning sunshine and without a thought for who might be watching, Sean kissed him.

~~~

“I’ve never been in a helicopter before,” Elijah said as they got out of the taxi. His eyes were alight with interest as he took in the helipad right on the East River at 34th Street, and the red helicopter parked on it, ready and waiting to fly him back to New Jersey.

“Yeah, well, it’s minimally less terrifying to me than the thought of you taking the train again,” Sean replied. “And I know the pilot. He used to fly Jacques Cousteau into some pretty hair-raising locations. He’s the best in the business.”

“Jacques Cousteau? Really? Wow. He’s one of my idols.”

“Then you’ll have something to talk to him about during the flight.” Sean hoped that would prove a distraction to Elijah. They were both of them dreading the next few minutes, and it would help to know that Elijah had something to take his mind off the pain of yet another separation.

Elijah hefted his backpack, and together they walked down the steps to the helipad. Sean gave a signal to the pilot, and seconds later with a loud whop whop whop whop, the giant rotor atop the helicopter sprang into life and began to spin faster and faster. The noise was indescribable, and the wind raised by the blades as they spun made them stagger a little until they braced their feet.

“Call me as soon as you get into Lakewood.” Sean leaned in close so Elijah could hear him, although he’d already told him the same thing twice during the cab ride from Trump Tower. He knew he was being overprotective again, but he couldn’t help himself. “Martha and Ian should arrive well before you do, so you don’t need to worry that they won’t be there to meet you.”

“I’m not worried. Sean, thank you for doing this,” Elijah said. “It doesn’t seem right that you should always be arranging to fly my family places.”

“You know you don’t have to thank me. I need to be sure you make it home safe and sound, and whatever it takes to ensure that, I’ll do.”

“My magician.” Elijah leaned into him, and Sean’s arms automatically moved to encircle him; Elijah was trembling. “I wish I didn’t have to leave,” he said, burying his face in Sean’s chest.

Sean held him tightly, thinking of that invisible, fragile cord that bound Elijah to the pines. Having him here in New York had been a dream of unimagined bliss, but he wouldn’t rest now until he knew Elijah was back where he belonged and the danger of that cord tearing or snapping, and the awful consequences, were gone.

“I’d give just about anything if you could stay, but remember, I’ll be home a lot sooner now, thanks to you – speaking of magicians.” Sean did his best to be upbeat, but he was frankly dreading a return to a suite empty of Elijah’s vibrant presence. At least he had one consolation. “And thank you for bringing Fred to keep me company. I promise to take the very best care of him.”

Elijah choked out a laugh. “Just don’t forget what I said about those wild parties, okay?”

“I won’t.” They were clinging to each other, but Sean had strain to hear Elijah’s whispered words over the noise of the helicopter, almost the same words he’d said at their last parting. “My blessing on you, Sean, today and every day until you come home to me. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Sean whispered back, and reluctantly released him. They stared at each other, and Sean imprinted on his memory this one last image of Elijah, with the river and city skyline as a backdrop, to add to the others that would serve as mental proof that Elijah really had been here in New York with him. Elijah gave him one final, fierce hug and ran to the helicopter, ducking low beneath the whirling blades, and climbing inside.

Sean watched as Elijah fastened himself into his seat beside the pilot, and then the helicopter was lifting off. Elijah waved frantically to him from the window, and Sean lifted his hand in farewell. The helicopter rose higher and higher, and then took off like an arrow straight down the river before dipping sharply to the right, and speeding west toward New Jersey. Sean stood unmoving as the bright speck of red dwindled into the distance and finally disappeared. Only then did he turn and with heavy footsteps make his way back to the waiting taxi.

But even as he went, he was unclipping his cell phone from his belt and opening it to call Philippa. After he spoke to her, he thought, he would call Chris. It was time - past time - to reestablish a connection with her, and he owed her one of the most profound thank-yous of his entire life.

~~~

New York Post, Page Six, Cindy Adams

A WOMAN’S PREROGATIVE
May 11, 2006

An end has come to one of the more delicious scandals of the spring. Chris Harrell has called it quits, putting the kibosh on her palimony suit against former partner Sean Astin. Color me shocked, gentle readers. As recently as a week ago, Chris seemed dead set on taking Sean to the cleaners, and now the once battling duo have been seen lunching together at Jean-George and looking for all the world as if they are now the best of friends. Is a reconciliation in the works? Sean and Chris both insist there’s not, but when I caught up with Chris and asked her why she dropped the lawsuit, all she would say is that it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind.


~~~

June

June 15, 2006

“For goodness’ sake, Elijah, settle down. You’re jumpy as a cat on a hot stove,” Katie chided.

From her spot draped over the arm of the sofa, Maggie swished her tail and voiced her objection to the metaphor.

“I’m sorry, Katie, but Sean should be calling any time now. He said the meeting would likely be over by noon.” Elijah paced restlessly around the family room, unable to do as Katie asked. He was so nervous, so anxious for Sean. Even though, win or lose, Sean would no longer be CEO of Clicktwice after today, it mattered so deeply to him that the company not be lost to the hostile takeover, that he leave it intact and in Chris’s capable hands.

“Let the Woodjin be, Katie,” Bill said.

Hannah was sprawled on the rug with Jordan, helping him put together an animal puzzle that Elijah had bought for him. “I swear I’m almost as nervous as you are, Lij. I wish Sean would call already.”

“He’s likely to have a number of media interviews,” Martha reminded them. “It might not be that easy to get away.”

“He’ll manage it,” Elijah said positively. “Sean promised me he’d call the minute it’s over, and he will.” He was aware that his family and friends were exchanging amused glances, but Elijah didn’t mind. Dr. Ian liked to grumble that Elijah seemed to think Sean walked on water, which wasn’t quite true, but there wasn’t much his magician couldn’t do if he put his mind to it. And Elijah wasn’t about to apologize for thinking that, either.

When the phone rang a few minutes later, Elijah snatched it up and said breathlessly, “Sean?”

In the background he could hear a buzzing as if a great number of people were all talking excitedly at once. Over it a jubilant Sean crowed, “We did it! We won. Elijah, we won! The shareholders came through, like I knew they would. It’s over, can you believe it? It’s finally over.”

“Sean, oh my god Sean, that’s the best news ever,” Elijah exclaimed, wanting to dance around the room with joy. Selfishly it wasn’t of the company he was thinking at that moment, or of Chris or the other employees, but of himself and Sean. Sean could come home now. He was free at last.

Elijah made a thumbs-up sign and Hannah pumped her fist and yelled, “Yes!” and Jordan, sensing the excitement even if he wasn’t quite sure what it was all about, got up and ran to throw his arms exuberantly around his uncle’s leg.

There was quite a commotion then, as everyone crowded around Elijah and Jordan, eager to take their turn with the phone so they could congratulate Sean. “Hang on, Sean, there are some people here who want to talk to you,” Elijah said, laughing. “I love you.”

He offered the phone to Hannah, who practically snatched it from him. “Sean? It’s Hannah. Congratulations! God, I’m so happy for you.”

Elijah stooped to pick up Jordan, and holding his nephew on his hip, listened as the phone was passed from piney to piney. Soon Sean would be here to accept their well wishes in person. It seemed hard to believe after the rollercoaster ride of the past months. “Monkey, Uncle Sean’s gonna be coming home soon,” he said jubilantly, holding his nephew up in the air and twirling him round.

As he lowered a giggling Jordan, his gaze fell on Maggie. The calico cat was watching him intently. You always knew it would end exactly this way, didn’t you Maggie? he asked her.

Her great amber eyes held a definite trace of amusement as she smugly replied, Of course..

~~~

Businesswire
June 16, 2006

Clicktwice Shareholders Reject Takeover Bid

In a stunning development, the hostile takeover bid by Google, Inc. to acquire the Internet advertising company Clicktwice, Inc., was rejected yesterday. At the Clicktwice annual shareholders’ meeting held in New York, the proposed slate of directors, headed by former Clicktwice President and new CEO Christine Harrell, was elected by a near unanimous vote, despite an attempt by Google to install its own slate of candidates via proxy votes. Outgoing CEO and company founder Sean Astin said that it was a vote of confidence for a management that had always kept the best interests of the company first and foremost. “I had faith that our shareholders would do the right thing,” he said. During the meeting, an emotional Astin announced that he is leaving the company to pursue a medical degree. “I’ll miss Clicktwice and the terrific and talented people who work here, but I know that the company will be in the very best of hands with Chris Harrell, and I intend to work with her to ensure a smooth transition.”


~~~

August

August 21, 2006

Sean wasn’t anxious to get a speeding ticket, but he simply couldn’t stop himself from pressing down harder on the accelerator pedal. He was nearly there. Just a few more miles to go. It almost seemed as if the Beemer was floating above the ground, gliding along on a cloud made of pure undiluted joy, past rows of pitch pine trees and scrub oaks under a sky of intense cloudless late summer blue.

He and Elijah had been over-optimistic about how long it would take for him to wrap up his life in the city, but that had actually turned out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise. In the intervening weeks, several juicy new scandals had come along to occupy Cindy Adams and the other gossip columnists. Sean, who had stopped attending society functions, had fallen completely off their radar screens, exactly as he’d hoped.

He’d stayed on at Clicktwice for some weeks in an advisory capacity, to help ease the transition to the new CEO, but the company was now running like a well-oiled machine under Chris’s command. He had absolutely no fears for its future.

Even with the palimony suit no longer an issue, there had still been lawyers to deal with as he and Chris divided up their assets - amicably. She got the apartment on Central Park West, while he got the shore house on Long Beach Island. The house was already on the market, as Sean had no intention of keeping it, although he thought he might buy a smaller place if Elijah agreed - a cottage near the lighthouse like he’d always wanted. Elijah should be able to get away for a day trip every now and again, and it would be there for Hannah and Lawrence to use if they liked. Jordan ought to grow up loving the island, Sean thought, just like his two uncles did.

Sean wasn’t bringing much with him, and that was fine by him. He’d donated a lot of his clothes to a charity, not needing a closet filled with expensive suits any longer. He had his books, of course, and his computers and other electronic equipment, but office furniture for the study Elijah had set up for him was going to be delivered in a few days. Most of the space on the back seat was taken up with personal possessions, like the painting of the white stag. Elijah had reserved a spot for that on the bedroom wall - the new bedroom, the one that had been his parents’ and now would be theirs.

They were discussing putting an addition on the house. It was going to be cramped when they had more than a visitor or two, and Jordan would need his own bedroom soon. He would be spending more and more time with them as he grew older and his uncle began giving him the serious training he would need to become the Woodjin some day.

Then there was Sean’s family. Mack was already making noises about coming for a visit soon. He was dying to meet Elijah, and he wanted to bring Anna with him when he came. Anna was having a difficult time accepting the radical changes in her oldest son’s life. Bad enough Sean was giving up his privileged lifestyle in New York to become a doctor, but the news that he was moving to the New Jersey Pine Barrens to live with his gay partner had left her stunned and far from pleased. Sean was confident that once she met Elijah her attitude would change, however. Hell, if Elijah could work his magic on Chris, then Anna would be a piece of cake. Sean smiled to himself as he imagined that meeting, and watching Anna fall under Elijah’s spell.

With those and other, even happier, imaginings to occupy his mind, in no time at all it seemed, a familiar mailbox came into view. Sean choked up at the sight of it, and thought ruefully that he was never going to make it through the next half-hour without turning into a blubbering wreck.

“We’re here, Fred,” he announced, slowing to turn into the driveway. Fred was traveling in his towel-lined shoebox on the passenger seat. He stretched out his long neck until his head was above the rim, took a look, and quickly retreated again. Sean suspected, although he wasn’t positive, that the turtle was sulking a little over having to leave his fancy digs in Trump Tower.

“Trust me, Fred,” Sean remarked, “you’re a lot better off here in the…” But he never finished the sentence. He slammed on the brakes, and stared in awe. He definitely hadn’t been expecting this.

Right smack in the center of the driveway stood a magnificent white stag. His coat gleamed in the sun with the luster of a pearl, his antlered head was held proudly high, and his blue eyes, brilliant as stars, were fixed on Sean where he sat behind the wheel with hot tears raining down his cheeks. The stag tossed his head, moved to the side, and began to trot up the drive. Taking the hint, Sean let off the brake and followed. He never removed his enraptured gaze from the stag, who was pacing the car now, cantering effortlessly alongside it. Sean couldn’t stop the flow of tears, even while he was filled with a joy so boundless that it could have encompassed the entire universe - with room to spare.

Halfway up the drive, the stag suddenly lowered his head and sped up. He peeled off into the woods, vaulting agilely over a fallen tree, and rapidly disappeared from view - taking Sean’s heart with him. But Sean was smiling as he continued slowly up the drive, for he knew where the stag had gone, and why.

Sean’s emotions when he rounded the final curve in the driveway and the house came into view at last, were beyond any capacity he had to describe them. The small blue Toyota pickup truck was parked out front, and he pulled up beside it and shut off the engine. He sat for a moment, taking it all in: the cabin, the paddock behind it where he could see the tall equine forms of Sonny and Cher, the barn, and the woods that framed it all in living beauty. The last time he’d been here it had been winter. He’d never imagined, then, that spring and most of the summer would pass before he could return again.

But he was here at last.

Sean lifted Fred out of the shoebox and got out of the car. He paused to take a deep, rejuvenating breath of the pine-scented air before walking swiftly up the flower-lined stone path and climbing the steps to the front door, which was standing slightly ajar, as if inviting him to come in. It was, Sean thought with a catch of his heart, very much like being inside a fairy tale.

He pushed the door open, and with a child-like sense of wonder, stepped across the threshold. He bent to set Fred down, and even as he did, a loud ululating meow and an excited spate of indecipherable chatter caught his attention. It was Maggie and Rocky, who were tearing down the hall at full speed to greet him and Fred.

“Hey,” Sean said in a husky voice, kneeling down and gathering them in. He was instantly a mess, just as he’d predicted, sobbing and laughing as he hugged them, and said, “Oh god, I’ve missed you both so much.”

Then he heard the sound of running footsteps and quickly stood. Elijah, with his tee shirt on inside out and his jeans half-buttoned, was flying toward him. His face was flushed, his hair was wild, and his eyes were blazing, bluer than the summer sky outside. He didn’t even hesitate, but with a sob flung himself into Sean’s arms.

The scents of pinesap, woodsmoke and dried grasses swirled around Sean as he held Elijah close, and he heard the two words that like some magic spell brought his weary exile to an end.

“Welcome home,” the Woodjin said.

The End