Released from the tension of their terrifying confrontation with the Devil, now a fading presence as he retreated into the depths of the pines, Sean became stunningly aware of exactly how cold, sore and tired he was, and how heavy Elijah felt. He had only one goal now: to get them into his Beemer, crank up the heat, and race Elijah to the nearest emergency room.
Gritting his teeth for another effort, Sean set out at a stiff, painful walk across the yard, angling toward the side of the cabin closest to where his car was parked.
“W-where are you g-going?” Elijah whispered.
“To my car. How far is it to the hospital from here?”
Elijah’s reaction to his question was startling. “N-no, Sean,” he said, with surprising strength and an underlying note of fear in his voice. “No h-hospital.”
“Elijah, if you’re worrying about what we’re going to tell them, I’m sure we can come up with a good explanation on the drive over there.” Sean spoke with an assurance he didn’t really feel. He could just imagine what the emergency room staff was going to make of them—both half-clothed and covered in blood, and Elijah with a bullet hole in his shoulder. A gunshot injury would inevitably mean police involvement and a lot of awkward questions that they could answer, at best, with partial truths.
An insidious little voice in Sean’s mind piped up then, and whispered that if the police became involved they would be duty bound to hunt down the bastard who’d shot Elijah, even if Sean had promised not to go after the son of a bitch himself. He felt a grim satisfaction at the thought—but also a twinge of guilt.
But Elijah was shaking his head vehemently, soft hair brushing against Sean's neck. “We can’t,” he insisted again. “S-Sean, I…” he hesitated, and Sean could hear him swallow hard. “I’m n-not… normal. My b-blood, and other th-things. They’ll f-find out. P-please.”
The little voice was abruptly silenced. Sean didn’t even have to think about it twice. Without another word, he changed direction, moving through the snow toward the mudroom door. Protecting Elijah’s true identity was more important than any desire for revenge—it was more important than anything.
In a night filled with soul-shaking discoveries, Sean made yet one more: there was nothing he wasn’t prepared to do to safeguard this extraordinary young man whom he loved. Nothing.
But still, the unexpected turn of events had his stomach roiling with panic and fear. He’d believed that soon he could turn Elijah over to the capable hands of emergency room surgeons, and now… Oh god, why had he ever dredged up the memory of that old western he and Mack had watched, and the butchery that had passed for surgery then?
“D-Dr. Holm. He knows. C-call him.” After that brief spurt of energy, Elijah’s voice had faded again, becoming the barest thread of a whisper.
Dr. Holm. The man Elijah had told him about, the one who had become a doctor later in life. Sean’s panic eased a little. He wouldn’t be on his own after all, and even if Dr. Holm wasn’t a trauma specialist, he had to have more experience with bullet wounds than Sean-- hell, he could hardly have less. And most important of all, he knew what Elijah was, and Elijah clearly trusted him.
“Okay. Let’s just get you inside and into bed, and I’ll call him.”
Maggie disappeared through the cat flap, and Sean wished he could follow after her. It was awkward as hell getting close enough to grab the doorknob without dropping Elijah or smashing his kneecap into the door. He managed it, though, turning the knob with fingers so numb that he couldn’t even feel the coldness of the brass beneath their pads.
He’d thought the mudroom was cold. But cold was definitely a relative thing, he discovered, for the room was a deliciously warm haven by comparison with outside. Sean kicked off his ruined running shoes, profoundly relieved to be rid of them at last, and crossed to the kitchen door and maneuvered it open.
A rush of warmth embraced him, but it wasn’t simply the temperature. It honest to god felt as if the house itself was welcoming them back. And not only the house, for there was Rocky, out of his nesting box and sitting on the kitchen table as if he was doing an impersonation of a coffeepot, with his tail curled over his back and his front paws held spout-like at his breast. Fred had abandoned the sanctuary of the bathroom and was waiting just inside the door, raised up on his clawed feet with his scrawny orange-brown neck outstretched to its full length.
“H-hey,” Elijah said, as Rocky began to chatter and Fred blinked his tiny red eyes, “I’m h-happy to s-see you, t-too, and d-don’t worry, I’m g-gonna be okay.”
Sean came perilously close to losing it then, especially when Maggie touched noses with Fred and then jumped onto the kitchen table and exchanged the same reassuring greeting with Rocky. But this was no time for emotional displays, so he got hold of himself and headed toward the hall, setting the mag on the kitchen counter as he passed. It probably ought to be bronzed or put in the Flashlight Hall of Fame, he thought inanely. The sheer ridiculousness of the idea nearly made him laugh out loud, and chased the remnants of tears away.
“All the l-lights are o-on,” Elijah remarked as Sean exited the kitchen, followed by Maggie and Rocky. Yellow light spilled into the hall from every doorway “That’s w-weird.”
“That was me,” Sean apologized. “I didn’t know where you were, and I ran through the house throwing switches.” He didn’t add that he’d been terrified of discovering Elijah’s bloody, dismembered body and whoever or whatever had attacked him, and he’d turned on the lights as much for his own comfort as anything else. But Sean suspected that Elijah understood exactly why he had the house lit up like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, for he hugged Sean a little tighter.
“M-my bedroom… you have to t-turn right at the e-end of the hall.”
“I know. I went in there earlier, looking for you.”
“S-sorry about the m-mess.” Elijah sounded mortified.
“Don’t apologize; it’s nice to know you’re only human like the rest of us.” The words slipped out without conscious thought, and if Elijah was mortified by his messiness, Sean was beyond mortified by his tactlessness. Open mouth, insert foot, Astin. “Elijah, I didn’t mean… that is, I… it’s just a saying…”
He heard a peculiar choking sound in his ear, and then Elijah gasped, “Ow. Ow. D-don’t make m-me laugh. H-hurts.”
Elijah was laughing. In spite of everything, he was laughing, and Sean fell ever more deeply under the Woodjin’s spell. He carried Elijah into the bedroom, stepping carefully over the small mountains of CDs, magazines, clothes and books on his way to the bed.
And then at last he was able to set his precious burden down. He turned his back to the bed and bent his knees until Elijah’s bottom met the edge of the mattress. “Okay?” he asked, and Elijah said, “Yeah,” and his arm dropped away. Sean straightened, feeling oddly light and a little bereft at the loss of that warm clasp and the tickle of Elijah’s breath in his ear. But his aching back certainly thanked him, as did his shoulder and arm muscles, which were quivering like dune grass in a nor’easter.
He turned around in the nick of time to catch Elijah before he slumped sideways, utterly worn out. “Hang on, let’s get this coat off you first before you lie down,” he said, steadying him with arms that protested loudly at being put to use again so soon.
Clumsily, for his fingers were prickling with painful pins and needles as the circulation returned to them, he unsnapped the down jacket, then eased it off Elijah’s shoulders and set it aside. The sweatshirt, Sean was relieved to see, was still holding Elijah’s right arm securely in place. He peered closely at the scarf with which he’d bound the wound, but didn’t detect any obvious signs of bleeding showing through. Amazingly, his amateurish bandaging job seemed to have held up.
Still steadying Elijah with one arm, Sean pulled back the comforter and top sheet, and piled the several pillows against the headboard. Then he helped Elijah swing his legs up onto the bed and lie back against them. In the process, the flannel shirt was rucked up around Elijah’s hips, and Sean was forcibly reminded that the young man had neither underwear nor pants on. Not that Sean had any objection to the sight of the nest of dark curls at the juncture of his pale thighs or his soft pink cock-- far from it-- but now was no time to be distracted, and he’d discovered that when it came to Elijah, he was eminently distractible. Hell, he could still feel the touch of Elijah’s cold lips on the sensitive spot below his ear, burning like a brand.
“My b-bottom’s frozen. I c-can’t feel it. And as f-for my b-balls,” Elijah joked weakly, “I th-think they’ve g-gone into p-permanent hiding.”
It was on the tip of Sean’s tongue to offer to coax them out of hiding and warm that frozen bottom, but he bit the words back. He’d never shared that kind of teasing, sexual banter with Chris, or anyone else for that matter, but he wanted so badly to share it with Elijah—an Elijah who was in a condition to reciprocate, which most definitely was not now.
Stick to the practical, Sean.
“Do you have pajama bottoms or sweats I can get for you?” he asked.
Elijah pointed with his left hand at a sturdy old-fashioned oak dresser against the wall at the far end of the room. Sean went over to it and ransacked the half-opened drawers until he found a pair of plaid flannel pajama bottoms and thick wool socks. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he stripped the cold damp socks from Elijah’s feet and replaced them with the warm dry ones. The skin was still icy to the touch, however, and Sean wished he knew what the signs of frostbite were. Was there something he should be doing besides covering Elijah’s feet with dry socks? You’re likely to do more harm than good, playing at doctor. Let the real doctor handle it.
Setting that worry aside, he helped Elijah into the pajama bottoms. As he slid them inch by inch up Elijah’s slender, muscular legs, Sean noticed a thin jagged scar above his left knee, and another longer scar halfway up his right thigh; he had a pretty good idea how Elijah had gotten those scars, and wondered how many others he had, and how often Dr. Holm had been summoned in the middle of the night to tend his wounds. Farther up, just above his right hip, Elijah had a small black tattoo that Sean suspected was related somehow to the silver ring he wore, for the writing appeared to be the same. There was so much he didn’t know about Elijah yet, and he burned with curiosity, wanting to know everything. But there would time for that later. There had to be.
“F-feels better already,” Elijah whispered gratefully when the pajama bottoms were in place, and this time Sean was certain he wasn’t lying.
“Good.” Sean pulled the sheet and comforter up to Elijah’s waist. “Now I need a phone so I can call Dr. Holm.”
“There’s a p-portable phone in the family room. Speed d-dial is 4.” The hitch and stammer in Elijah’s voice were nearly gone now that he was warming up, but his eyes looked fever bright and there was a hectic flush on his cheeks. It might simply be the exposure of his chilled skin to the warm air inside the house, but the tide of panic and fear that had briefly receded rushed back again.
Sean tried to disguise his worry, however, and stood up, saying easily, “I’ll be back in a few. Hang tight.”
He had taken only two steps toward the door when a gasp from Elijah halted him and he whirled around, heart in his throat. “What’s wrong?”
“Your f-feet. Oh Sean, your feet.”
Sean glanced down; to his surprise, both his feet were streaked with blood. The skin had been rubbed raw in a number of places by the damp leather of his running shoes, and between the cold and his worry about Elijah, he hadn’t even felt it.
“It’s nothing,” he said reassuringly. “Doesn’t hurt a bit.” Which was an outright lie—for of course as soon as he was made aware of the state of them, his feet started to sting like a son of a bitch, as if they’d been waiting in line behind his back and arms for their turn to complain.
Elijah knew he was lying. “It’s all my fault,” he whispered.
“Hey, if a few blisters are the worst I have to deal with after what we just went through, then I’m damned lucky,” Sean replied. “I want you to stop worrying, okay? Now I’m going to call Dr. Holm.”
But he made certain not to limp until he was well out of the room.
The phone was on the desk next to Elijah’s computer. As Sean removed it from the charger, he realized that he had absolutely no idea what time it was, or how early he’d be waking the doctor. He hit the speed dial number Elijah’d given him, and glanced at his Rolex; the crystal had been badly scratched somewhere along the line, but he could still make out the time: 4:57 a.m. It was nearly morning. Incongruously, it seemed to Sean both no time at all and forever since he’d woken up with that lancing pain in his shoulder and arm and known that Elijah was in trouble.
Please be home, he prayed as the phone on the other end began to ring. Please don't be out on another emergency…
To his intense relief, it was answered on the third ring. A woman’s voice, husky with sleep, said, “Hello?”
“I’d like to speak to Dr. Holm, please. It’s an emergency.”
“Ian,” Sean heard the woman say, “it’s for you. He says it’s an emergency.” There was a series of rustling sounds—obviously the couple was still in bed.
“Dr. Holm speaking.” The doctor’s voice was crisp and no nonsense, even at this early hour, and immediately instilled in Sean a feeling of confidence.
“Dr. Holm, this is Sean Astin. I’m a friend of Elijah Wood. I apologize for waking you, but Elijah has been in an accident—he was shot in the right shoulder. We’re at his house now, and he asked me to call you.” Sean hoped the doctor wasn’t going to waste time subjecting him to an inquisition, that he’d said enough to allay any immediate concerns the man might have about this stranger who was calling him.
Apparently he had. Dr. Holm asked no unnecessary questions, just barked out: “Keep pressure on the wound and keep Elijah quiet. Don’t let him move. I’ll be there as fast as I can- about half an hour.”
“Doctor,” Sean said quickly before Ian Holm could hang up, “there’s something else I need to tell you. The Quaker Bridge—Elijah says it’s collapsed into the river. He wants to be sure the appropriate authorities are notified as soon as possible.”
“I’ll take care of it. Thirty minutes, Mr. Astin.”
There was a click and then a dial tone.
Sean disconnected the phone, but took it with him as he retraced his footsteps to the bedroom. He noticed Fred making his stately, ponderous way down the hall, and detoured to pick him up. “Don’t tell the hare you pulled a Rosie Ruiz, okay?” Fred only blinked his tiny red eyes. He was probably sick and tired of tortoise and hare jokes, thought Sean, or possibly the reference to Rosie Ruiz was a bit obscure for a box turtle, even one as wise as Fred.
When he entered the bedroom, turtle in hand, he found Elijah being watched over by Maggie, who had climbed into his lap, and Rocky, who was curled up on the young man’s left shoulder. Elijah was awake; when he saw Sean, he smiled sleepily. “Hey,” he whispered.
Jesus, Sean thought, Elijah looked so small and vulnerable lying there. His complexion was chalk white beneath the spots of color burning on his cheeks. The half-hour wait for the doctor suddenly seemed like an eternity. “How’s your bottom doing?” he asked with deliberate lightness.
“I can feel it again,” Elijah whispered. “That’s pretty good, huh?”
“Yeah, it is,” Sean smiled down at him. “I got through to Dr. Holm. He’s on his way.” Elijah’s mouth opened, so Sean quickly added, “Not to worry: I told him about the bridge and he said he’d take care of it.”
“Thanks,” Elijah said, and relaxed against the pillows.
“Fred here wants to join the party,” Sean remarked, holding up the turtle, whose scaled legs were moving as if he was swimming through the air. He started to set Fred on the floor, but Elijah said, “On the bed. He wants to see.”
Considering what the doctor was probably going to do to Elijah, Sean thought Fred might come to regret that decision, but he set the turtle down on the cream and gold striped comforter, and stood the phone on the nightstand. It hit him then that there was nothing else he had to do until Dr. Holm arrived. And just like that, exhaustion crashed over him like a wave, and he thought longingly of lying down on the bed beside Elijah, closing his eyes and…
With a start he realized that he actually had closed his eyes, and was almost literally asleep on his feet. “Yeah?”
“Please,” Elijah urged him, “sit down. You look so tired.” His overly bright blue eyes were searching Sean’s face, taking in every line and crease and shadow.
But Sean shook his head. “If I sit down, I’ll fall asleep for sure, and I don’t want to make a bad impression on Dr. Holm. Well,” he huffed a small rueful laugh, “any worse of an impression than I’m already bound to make, looking like this. How about I clear a path to the bed for him instead?” Sean needed some way to keep busy until the doctor arrived, and the room was rather a minefield to traverse.
When Elijah made no objection, Sean moved to the end of the bed and retrieved the down jacket. He draped it carefully over the back of a wheeled desk chair, and then turned his attention to the piles on the floor. Ignoring the loud protests of his strained back muscles, he bent and picked up a lopsided stack of plastic CD cases. To his chagrin, Sean didn’t recognize a single one of the album titles, and determined to start getting himself up to speed on the music front as soon as possible. Looking around for a free space, he discovered one on top of the dresser beside an iHome stereo with an iPod plugged into it. He set the CDs down, thinking that Elijah definitely liked to have his music everywhere around him.
Elijah said softly, “You won’t make a bad impression on Dr. Ian.”
“If he doesn’t give me the third degree, I’ll be very disappointed in him,” Sean replied. He gathered up an armful of wrinkled tee shirts, boxers, and jeans with their legs inside out that were lying on the floor next to the dresser. “Where do you want me to put these?”
“Hamper in the corner,” Elijah said then added with a slight frown, “Why should Dr. Ian give you the third degree?”
“Because he doesn’t know me from Adam, and I’m the one who called to tell him you’d been shot,” Sean said, lifting the lid of the wicker hamper and dumping the clothes into it. He fixed Elijah with a serious look. “He has to be wondering how I’m involved, and ready to kick my ass or worse if he discovers I’m somehow responsible. I’d expect no less of anyone who cares about you.”
A mulish expression that Paco might have envied appeared on Elijah’s face. “Sean, I won’t allow him--“
But Sean quickly interjected, “No, that’s as it should be. I’m a total stranger to him, and your secret is much too important to trust to just anyone. Look, no more talking, Elijah: doctor's orders. Dr. Holm said you should be quiet and rest.” He grinned. “Besides, I’m a New Yorker. There’s nothing he can dish out that I can’t take.”
“Tough guy, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s me. Mr. Tough Guy. Now shaddup wouldja?” Sean put his best New York-ese on, and was rewarded by a smile.
Warm, fuzzy sensations weren't something Sean was accustomed to feeling, but the way Elijah jumped to his defense was kind of like being wrapped in that comforter and hugged, he thought.
The unaccustomed sensation stayed with him as he moved around the room, his heart beating a little faster with the hope that he might soon become intimately familiar with this place. Painted a soft fern green with white trim, it was slightly smaller than the room in which he’d stayed, but the sturdy oak four-poster bed was definitely large enough for two—with plenty of room left over for Maggie, Rocky, Fred and who knew what other animals. Funny, considering he’d never had a pet of any kind, the idea didn’t disturb him in the least. But then, he'd fallen in love with a guy who could turn into a white stag, hadn't he?
The other bedroom must be the one that had belonged to Elijah’s parents. The beautiful double wedding ring quilt on the bed was obviously a treasured family heirloom. Sean might not have known Elijah long, but it seemed very much in character for him not to lay claim to the master bedroom after he became legal owner of the house, but leave it in readiness for his mother’s visits-- or for lost travelers whom he rescued in the pines.
Wrestling with a stack of slippery magazines, Sean wondered again at the fascinating dichotomy that was Elijah Wood: a young gay man into movies, music and the latest technological toys, but also a serious-minded and dedicated Woodjin who was an integral strand in the warp and weft of the Pine Barrens. Cheek by jowl on the wall with another of Hannah Wood’s delicately rendered watercolors was a framed photograph of the Smashing Pumpkins autographed by the band members, while the bookshelves that lined one wall were filled with an eclectic mixture of Rough music guides, books on film history, childhood classics such as My Side of the Mountain, The Incredible Journey and Ring of Bright Water, and anthologies of gay short fiction.
There was a rectangular spot on the wall opposite the bed where the fern green paint appeared a shade lighter. To judge from its size and shape, Sean was certain that the drawing of the white stag that Elijah had given him must have hung there, where Elijah could see it first thing in the morning and last thing before he fell asleep.
Yet he gave it to me freely, believing that I wasn't ever coming back.
The immensity of Elijah’s generosity staggered Sean.
He started putting the issues of NME in order by date, but then paused to glance over at Elijah, something he felt compelled to do every few minutes or so. He couldn’t help himself. Like a miracle they’d both survived those terrifying hours in the woods, but only by constantly reassuring himself of Elijah’s presence in the room, safe from further harm, could Sean really believe it.
A gleam of blue like the flash of a bluebird's wings told him that a sleepy-eyed Elijah was watching him, too, as if he sought the same reassurance. He was slowly stroking Maggie’s rust and black fur; the rumble of her purr was loud in the quiet room. Rocky appeared to be sound asleep, his tail was curled around him and his head hidden under the collar of the flannel shirt.
It occurred to Sean that he wasn’t the only one who would have to make adjustments, if things turned out the way he fervently desired, and he hoped Elijah’s animals weren’t going to mind sharing their bed with him. Maggie looked at him just then, and he could have sworn there was amusement in her amber eyes, as if she knew exactly what was in his mind.
“You're smiling. Why?" Elijah asked curiously, tilting his head to the side in that way that Sean found so utterly charming.
He hadn't realized that he was. “Just thinking about Maggie. She’s a remarkable cat.”
"She is remarkable," Elijah agreed, looking down at Maggie with love and affection, and the sound of her satisfied purring grew louder and her eyes narrowed to amber slits.
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Elijah the real reason for that unconscious smile, but a sudden superstitious fear came over him. Elijah may be safe from the Devil, but he's not out of danger yet. Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself?
His gaze returned to that pale rectangle on the wall. Although he knew Elijah should be resting and gathering his strength for what was coming, Sean couldn't let another moment pass without bringing up the gift. If anything happened… Don’t think like that. Elijah’s young, strong and healthy. He’s going to be okay.
“Elijah," he said abruptly, and he was no longer smiling now, "I haven’t had a chance yet to thank you for your gift. To say that I was floored that you'd give me one of your great-grandmother’s drawings is an understatement, but then to discover it was a drawing of the white stag…" He paused. “I'm usually not at a loss for words-- quite the opposite, in fact, as you've probably noticed-- but I honestly don’t know what to say. You shouldn’t have, but… thank you.”
“Please don't thank me.” Elijah’s voice was low but intense. “Sean, do you have any idea what it meant to me when you said that you felt lucky to have met the white stag? Lucky-- despite being chased and nearly caught by the Devil?” His throat worked and he appeared to be having as much difficulty finding words as Sean was. "You can't imagine…"
“I think I can, actually.” It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise, when Elijah was lying there with a bullet hole in his shoulder, the victim of an ungrateful bastard who couldn’t recognize the white stag for what he was: the guardian sent to save his unworthy ass. How many other times had Elijah had been hurt through ignorance, prejudice or fear? “Although," he went on soberly, "it's difficult for me to understand how people can be so blind."
“But there are still those with eyes to see, like you. I meant what I said to you that morning, you know. You're a very special man, Sean."
In an instant, Sean was transported back to the starlit clearing in the pines, and the wonder and magic of their first meeting. As they had then, so, too, now did Elijah’s eyes-- the stag’s eyes-- hold him captive, and Sean felt again that profound sense of connection. Only now he understood that the connection wasn’t one-sided, as he'd thought, and that it was as special to Elijah as it was to him. Sean sent up a silent prayer: Please let me be worthy of it. Let me be worthy of him.
It was Maggie who broke the spell. She sat up suddenly, her ears at attention, and uttered a low mrrrow. Sean hastily shoved the magazines into an empty spot on the bookshelves then glanced at his watch: exactly half an hour had passed since he'd spoken to Dr. Holm.
“I’ll go let the doctor in,” he said quietly, and the prayer he sent up this time was of a different kind.
To Sean’s surprise, Maggie jumped down from the bed and accompanied him to the front door. Then he remembered Elijah telling him that Dr. Holm was the one who had rescued her as a kitten and given her to Elijah. Of course she’d be anxious to greet such an old friend. But whatever the reason, he welcomed her intrepid presence at his side while he waited to open the door for Dr. Holm, who was retrieving a bag from the back seat of his black Ford Explorer.
Sean had dined with kings and queens, shaken the hands of prime ministers and presidents, but rarely had he been as nervous as was about meeting this man for whom Elijah obviously cared so much. He had a suspicion that no amount of money or social status would impress Ian Holm. Relying instead on his own shaky personal merit was nearly as terrifying a proposition for Sean as facing the Devil in the woods.
Dr. Holm looked to be in his early seventies and he had a shock of white bed hair that was standing up every which way. He was as brisk and no-nonsense in person as he was on the phone, and shook Sean’s hand firmly as they introduced themselves to each other. Shrewd blue eyes took in Sean’s haggard face, filthy wrinkled clothes and blood-streaked feet, and Sean wondered what conclusions he was drawing. The doctor’s salt-and-pepper eyebrows raised, and he said, “I’m going to want to take a look at those feet, Mr. Astin.”
“Not until you’ve seen to Elijah,” Sean said firmly, nerves vanishing in the face of his concern for Elijah.
“Of course,” Dr. Holm agreed. He unwound a red wool scarf from his neck, removed his navy duffle coat, and dropped both on the seat of a chair. Judging by the sloppily buttoned green cardigan and black turtleneck he wore, both of which appeared to be inside out, he must’ve dressed in an almighty hurry. Dr. Holm gave Maggie, who had been winding around his legs, a brief pat and hello, and said, “Let’s go.”
The doctor led the way to Elijah’s bedroom, moving through the house with the ease of long familiarity. Studying that upright figure striding in front of him, every instinct Sean had honed during years of business dealings shouted that Dr. Holm was to be trusted. But his eyes were drawn to the medical bag the older man was carrying. Black, bulky and old-fashioned, it inevitably had Sean remembering that Western again, and his heart sank as images of rusty medical instruments, jars of leeches and bottles of applejack passed through his mind. Then he felt ashamed, for that was precisely the kind of stereotyping the people in the pines had been battling for centuries.
Predictably, the first words out of Elijah’s mouth when they entered the room were, “Dr. Ian, I’m so sorry for dragging you out of bed.” Sean wondered if Elijah ever thought of himself first.
“I’ll bear up under the loss of an hour’s sleep, Elijah,” the doctor said equably, going to the bed and setting his bag down on it. He didn’t appear at all surprised by the sight of the gray squirrel sleeping on Elijah’s shoulder, or the box turtle lumbering slowly across the covers. But he said, “I’m afraid this little fellow is going to have to move.” He crooked his arm and held it out. “Come along, Rocky.”
Sean was secretly chagrined when Rocky yawned, uncurled and climbed onto the doctor’s forearm, and then scurried into his nesting box when Dr. Holm held his arm up to the opening. It seemed ridiculous to crave the approval of a squirrel, but there it was: he wanted Rocky to like and accept him, too. Rocky's beady dark eyes appeared in the opening. He stared at Sean and his expression seemed to say, "The jury's still out on you."
The doctor then turned his attention to Elijah. “All right, young man, let’s see what you've done to yourself this time.” With deft fingers he unbuttoned the flannel shirt and pushed it back, and then undid the knotted sleeves of the sweatshirt and removed it.
So much blood.. Dry and flaking or slightly tacky, it covered most of Elijah’s right arm, chest and ribcage, stark against the ivory pallor of his skin. Sean had forgotten exactly how much blood there’d been. Elijah had told him that his blood wasn’t ‘normal’. What did that mean exactly? And what if he needed a transfusion? Was there even a compatible blood type for someone like him?
Dr. Holm was frowning at the makeshift bandage, and embarrassment temporarily displaced Sean’s worry. “I’m the one who bandaged Elijah’s shoulder,” he admitted. “I apologize for the very unprofessional job, Doctor.”
“Not at all,” the doctor replied mildly, his brow smoothing out. “When I was serving in Korea, long before I became a doctor, there weren’t always medics or adequate medical supplies on hand when someone was injured. But as long as what we cobbled together did the job, that was all that mattered---and as there’s no evidence of continued bleeding, I’d say you did the job, Mr. Astin.”
“Of course he did,” Elijah chimed in. There was a hint of challenge in his voice, as if he was daring the doctor to disagree.
Dr. Holm’s eyebrows elevated again, but he made no comment, only reached for Elijah’s wrist, still cradled against his breast. “Give me your arm. But easy now.”
Elijah obediently allowed the doctor to straighten out his arm and gently move it. But his teeth were sunk hard into his lower lip, and he avoided looking at Sean, as if determined not to let him see how much pain the movement was causing him.
Oh Elijah, you don't have to be brave for me. Impulsively, Sean sat down on the bed across from Dr. Holm and held out his hand. With a grateful look, Elijah curled his fingers around Sean’s; the grip of that work-roughened hand was reassuringly strong, and Sean realized how much he needed that physical connection between them, too.
Maggie was sitting on the end of the bed, meticulously grooming her front legs, still slightly damp from the long trek through the snowy woods; she ceased her ablutions and fixed her great eyes on Elijah. Rocky was peering down from his perch over the headboard, and Fred’s wedge-shaped head with its hooked nose rose out of the coverlet like a tiny periscope from a cream-and-gold colored sea. It was a strange, almost fantastical, scene, and one Sean would never forget as long as he lived.
Having expected the doctor to examine Elijah’s injury immediately, Sean was surprised when, after that cursory glance at the bandage, Dr. Holm ignored it. Instead, he undid the clasp on his medical bag and took out a white electronic device that looked to Sean like an oversized mp3 player, with a LCD display and a set of headphones attached.
“What is that?” he asked curiously.
“A hand-held Doppler ultrasound machine,” Dr. Holm said as he removed a white plastic tube of conducting gel from the bag. “They’re mainly used for fetal heart monitoring, but in this case I’ll be using it to measure Elijah’s pulse and determine the extent of the damage caused by the bullet. It’s important to determine whether he has adequate blood flow in his arm before deciding what course of treatment to pursue.”
Dr. Holm squeezed a dollop of clear gel on the head of the Doppler machine, set aside the tube and then placed the headphones over his ears. With the head of the machine pressed against Elijah’s wrist, he turned it on and listened intently for a time, eyes closed in concentration, before shifting the head to the pulse on the inside of Elijah’s elbow and listening again.
When he appeared satisfied that he’d gotten whatever information he needed, he removed the headphones, and shut off the Doppler machine, but to Sean’s disappointment offered no more than a very vague and uninformative ‘hmm’.
What exactly does ‘hmm’ mean? Sean wanted to demand, but he had a feeling the doctor wouldn’t appreciate a litany of questions right then. He’d learned enough during his father’s time in the hospital to recognize when it was best to allow a doctor to work without interruption, no matter how frustrating it was for someone like Sean, whose native curiosity inclined him to ask question after question.
The remainder of the examination was quick but thorough, and Dr. Holm’s poker face remained entirely uninformative. But Elijah’s complete faith in the older man was obvious. He never questioned anything the doctor asked him to do, even when there was discomfort involved, as there was when he had to open and close his right hand several times under Dr. Holm’s eagle eye.
“Is there any numbness or tingling in your fingers, Elijah?” he asked, and then added in the tone of one who had long experience of dealing with the stoical young man, “Be truthful now.”
“No numbness,” Elijah replied evasively.
“But there’s some tingling?” Dr. Holm prompted.
“A little,” he admitted. “But not very much. Honestly.” He hesitated. “When it first happened, there was a sort of grinding sensation in my shoulder whenever I moved it, but since I transformed, it seems to be gone.”
“Elijah!” The exclamation was sharp as the crack of a whip, startling in its intensity. Then the doctor seemed to catch himself; more quietly he added, as if he hadn’t had that brief loss of control, “So the grinding sensation is gone? You’re sure of that?”
It took a bewildered Sean a moment to figure out what had just happened. Then the light dawned. But of course-- Dr. Holm still had no idea that Sean knew the truth about Elijah. He was understandably concerned that Elijah was on the verge of revealing his secret.
“It’s all right, Dr. Ian,” Elijah said calmly. “Sean knows about me. He knows that I’m the white stag. We can talk freely in front of him.”
“Indeed?” Those piercing blue eyes widened with surprise, and Sean had a feeling that very little surprised Ian Holm. But the look he gave Sean then was unmistakable: You and I, it said, are going to have a little talk later. He returned the look steadily.
“You can trust him,” Elijah insisted, his gaze going from one man to the other. “Sean’s the bravest person I’ve ever met. He faced down the Devil and saved my life.” Maggie spoke up then, with a supportive meow.
“Don’t listen to Elijah, Dr. Holm,” Sean said, flushing. “Or Maggie. I was scared out of my mind.”
“If you weren’t scared out of your mind, coming face to face with that monster, I’d question your sanity,” Dr. Holm said dryly, but his face was still troubled.
“Sean was amazing,” Elijah enthused. “I wish you could have seen him.”
Go ahead. Make my day. The words flashed into Sean’s mind, and he nearly groaned aloud. Had he really said- no growled- those words, as if he’d been channeling Schwarzenegger? His eyes met Elijah’s, and they were brimful of tender laughter. He knew exactly what Sean was thinking. A thrill ran through Sean at the intimacy of the moment, of having this private memory to share with Elijah, to laugh over later—their very first.
The sound of a throat being cleared interrupted their silent exchange. “Well, what’s done is done,” Dr. Holm said in a voice that couldn’t have indicated more clearly that, the support of Elijah and Maggie notwithstanding, he wasn’t yet ready to embrace Sean and welcome him into the piney family.
No wonder he and Rocky are pals, The irrepressible thought popped into his mind.
“Let’s return to the matter at hand, shall we?” the doctor continued. “You’re absolutely certain that there's no grinding sensation left, Elijah?”
“Yes, absolutely,” Elijah replied, moving his arm a little as if to prove it.
“The bullet might have shifted during your transformation,” Dr. Holm said thoughtfully.
“Then it’s definitely still in there?” Sean asked, relieved to have his own conclusion confirmed. At least he hadn’t overlooked anything obvious.
“Oh yes, without a doubt. Well, before I can take care of that wound, I need to disinfect my hands and get some supplies together.” Dr. Holm took a bottle of surgical scrub from his medical bag. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He gave Elijah a mock stern look. “No getting up and dancing around the room while I’m gone, young man. Mr. Astin, keep an eye on him.”
No one had ever looked less like getting up and dancing than Elijah, but Sean said lightly, “I’ll do my best.”
Elijah sank back against the pillows with a sigh as the doctor left the room. He was clearly glad of this brief respite. Sean sat holding his hand, stroking the edge of his bloodstained thumb along the backs of his fingers in a soothing motion, over and over.
“Do you dance around the room?” he asked softly. There would be time later to talk about Dr. Holm’s reaction to the news that Sean knew the truth about the Woodjin.
Elijah turned his head on the pillow. His face was drawn with pain, but he summoned a smile. “Sometimes we do-- Maggie and Rocky and I, that is,” he clarified. “Fred isn't exactly built for dancing. Dr. Ian caught us once. He likes to tease me about it.”
The mental image of Elijah dancing with his animals was charming, yet at the same time strangely sad. Elijah had been deprived of the sorts of pastimes a young man his age would normally enjoy, such as nights out dancing with friends… “I’d love to see that.”
“It’d be more fun if you danced with us.”
“I’m not a very good dancer, but I’m game to try.”
“Then it’s a deal. Besides, you don’t know from ‘not very good’ until you’ve seen Rocky dance.” There was a burst of indignant-sounding chattering from above them; Elijah’s weary smile widened until it was a fair approximation of the infectious grin that could light up an entire room. “Rocky doesn’t like it when I insult his dancing. If he wasn’t so worried about me, he’d be dropping acorns on my head.”
Sean almost said the words then, almost blurted them out.
I love you, Elijah.
He might have, even though the timing was all wrong and it was much too soon, if Dr. Holm hadn’t chosen that exact moment to return to the room, carrying a plastic basin in hands that were now encased in latex examination gloves.
But reality returned with the doctor, and worry as well.
“All right, round two, Elijah. Let’s a get a look at that bullet hole,” said Dr. Holm, sitting down on the bed again with the basin on his lap. It was half-filled with what looked to Sean like plain old soapy water but it had a strong medicinal smell.
The folded tee shirt was crusted partially to the wound, but Dr. Holm dampened the fabric with water from a squirt bottle until it came free without causing any further trauma. The white cotton was nearly soaked through with blood, but it had done its job: the bleeding was all but stopped. Only a trace of reddish fluid showed at the bottom edge of the bullet hole, pooling there but not spilling over.
Revealed in the brighter light of the bedroom, the ugly wound looked uglier than ever, the edges puckered and blackened and the skin surrounding it already discolored with bright purple and blue bruising. Dr. Holm took out the penlight again and shone it on the hole, doing more of that maddening and uninformative hmm-ing as he bent close, nose almost touching the blood-streaked skin.
Finally he switched off the penlight and sat back. “You’re a very lucky young man, Elijah,” he pronounced. “The bullet managed to avoid doing any significant damage, a minor miracle considering all the vascular structures that go through your shoulder. You’ll carry that piece of metal around for the rest of your life as a souvenir, but once the wound is healed, it shouldn’t cause you any further trouble. I’ll clean it and dress it, and in a couple of weeks, you should be pretty meddlin' smart-- provided you don’t overdo it, of course.” He gave Elijah a stern look.
“But, I don't understand,” Sean said, and he wasn't referring to the doctor's pinelands colloquialism. “Do you mean you’re not going to remove the bullet? But it can’t possibly be safe to leave it in there, can it?”
On one level, he was more than relieved to hear the doctor’s optimistic prognosis and realize that he wasn’t going to have to help re-enact that awful scenario from the western. But relief was counterbalanced by worry that Dr. Holm was making a huge mistake, one that might cost Elijah his life through infection or other complications.
“You can do more harm than good trying to remove a bullet, especially in the shoulder,” Dr. Holm explained patiently. “Even the most skilled surgeons these days only do so if there is sufficient cause. In Elijah’s case, it would be foolhardy to attempt it and risk making matters worse.”
Sean’s continuing doubt must have been showing on his face, for the doctor went on in a testy voice, “Whether you believe me or not, Mr. Astin, it’s the truth. Even a doctor in the Pine Barrens can manage to be conversant with the latest medical advances, you know. I gave up digging bullets out with dull knives many years ago.”
“Dr. Ian.” Elijah spoke up then. His voice was quiet, but the reproach in it was unmistakable. “That wasn’t fair. Sean isn’t like that.”
This was the Woodjin speaking now, not Elijah, and surprising as it was to see this new facet of his personality, one that Sean had not suspected existed, Dr. Holm’s reaction was even more surprising. His eyes dropped before the young man’s unyielding blue gaze. “The Woodjin is right; that wasn’t fair, Mr. Astin. Please accept my apologies. Old habits die hard, and as you've probably noticed, we have a tendency to be suspicious of foreigners here.”
“No apology is necessary, Dr. Holm," Sean assured him. "You have some justice on your side; I confess that when I saw your medical bag there, I started wondering what you were carrying inside it.”
“This thing?” Dr. Holm actually smiled, his face creasing into lines that showed he wasn't always as dour as he had appeared thus far. “I suppose it is rather old-fashioned, come to think of it. But although leeches still have their place in a doctor’s toolkit, I have no plans to take any more blood from Elijah. He’s lost quite enough already.” Still smiling, he tore open a paper packet containing a surgical sponge, and dipped it in the basin.
“Leeches?” Just the thought of those disgusting-looking creatures latching onto Elijah’s smooth skin and sucking his blood made him shudder with horror, like Humphrey Bogart in…
“The African Queen,” Elijah murmured, as if he’d been reading Sean’s mind. “Great movie, but it gave leeches a bad name.”
“Elijah, please don’t tell me you’re president of the Save the Leeches Society, or expect me to join it if you are. Even for you I won’t do that,” said Sean, hoping to divert Elijah’s attention from what Dr. Holm was doing. The doctor had started sponging the blood from around the wound, and though he was being as careful as possible, even the slightest touch on the torn and bruised skin was making Elijah wince.
Elijah managed to summon a small laugh, and Dr. Holm gave Sean a quick, approving look: his first, and Sean valued it. But by the time the blood was cleaned away, the water in the basin had turned pink, and Elijah was no longer laughing but drawn and paler than ever. Beads of perspiration had appeared on his forehead, and his blunt nails were digging into Sean’s flesh, adding crescent-shaped white marks to the collection of scrapes and bruises that already covered his hands.
“Sorry,” Elijah apologized when he realized what he was doing, and relaxed his grip.
“Hush, it’s nothing. If I could, I’d take all the pain for you,” Sean replied quietly.
Dr. Holm’s keen glance went from one man to the other. But he only said, “Lean forward, Elijah. I still have to flush out the wound.”
Obediently, Elijah leaned forward while Dr. Holm prepared a large syringe, filling it with saline solution from another bottle.
“Mr. Astin, I could use your help. If you wouldn’t mind supporting Elijah… I’m sorry, Elijah, this will cause you some discomfort, but it’s imperative that the inside of the wound be as clean as possible to prevent infection.”
Sean moved closer to Elijah’s left side and slid an arm around his narrow waist, thinking this was definitely not the way he had envisioned holding Elijah for the first time. He could smell the familiar scents of pinesap, woodsmoke and dried grasses, the scents that were uniquely Elijah, but they were subdued and overlain by the sickly copper tang of blood and the medicinal smell of the soap the doctor had been using. The smooth muscles beneath Sean’s arm were tense as Elijah braced himself for what was coming.
“Here we go.” Dr. Holm depressed the plunger on the syringe, and Elijah’s entire body jerked as the saline entered the wound. With a choked whimper of pain, Elijah turned his head, burying his flushed face in the crook of Sean’s neck. He was trembling violently. Sean tightened his hold, and whispered into his hair, “It’s okay, it’s okay. It’ll be over soon.”
But it wasn’t over nearly soon enough to suit Sean. A stream of foamy red fluid flowed from the bullet hole into the basin as Dr. Holm continued to flush out the wound, refilling the syringe several times. Even though there was no alternative, it still hurt like hell to hold Elijah this way, helpless to do anything to ease his suffering. The fact that Elijah refused to make a sound only made it worse.
“Nearly done, Elijah,” Dr. Holm said, grim-faced. Then, a few moments later, “There. That should do it.”
Elijah slumped limply against Sean. Dr. Holm set the basin aside and then carefully dried the area around the wound. From the depths of the medical bag, which was beginning to seem to Sean like some magician’s trick hat, he produced a glass jar. When he unscrewed the lid, the pungent smell that filled the air was immediately familiar to Sean. It was the same blue-green salve that Elijah had put on Sean’s scratches. Dr. Holm spread a thin layer around the edges of hole and just inside it. Elijah was so worn out by this point that he didn’t even flinch.
“We don’t suture wounds like this,” Dr. Holm commented as he covered the bullet hole with a large sterile pad and began winding gauze over it with quick, expert motions. “They need to be able to drain. The last thing you want to do is close the hole and trap bacteria in there.” He followed the gauze with an Ace bandage, and last of all placed Elijah’s arm in a simple cotton sling. “Help Elijah lie back now,” he directed.
Sean did, although he would have been content to keep holding Elijah indefinitely. The warm weight of his body, the way he fit against Sean’s side, felt so perfect, so right.
“I’m going to check out the rest of you,” the doctor said. “Just to be on the safe side.”
“Oh joy… I… can hardly… wait.” Elijah’s voice was slurred with exhaustion.
Dr. Holm chuckled. “This won’t take long, I promise.” He was as good as his word. He anointed a few scrapes and scratches with the salve, and was able to reassure Sean that there was nothing seriously wrong with Elijah’s feet. “All done,” he pronounced, pulling the sheets and comforter up around Elijah again. “I’d like to get a dish of that herb tea into you, though, before you fall asleep.”
“You aren’t going to put Elijah on antibiotics?” Sean asked.
“We tried that experiment once when Elijah was a child. The damn things nearly killed him. No, Mr. Astin, for the Woodjin the old ways are still the best ways,” Dr. Holm said.
Sean recalled the nearly empty medicine cabinet in Elijah’s bathroom, and one more small mystery was explained. He didn't know much about herbs or folk medicine, but mentally added both to the ever-growing list of things he would need to learn if he was going to share a life with Elijah. He wasn't going to sit helplessly by again while someone else took care of Elijah's hurts.
"I can make the tea," Sean offered as a first step. "I know where it's kept."
"No," Elijah protested weakly. "You've done enough. Besides, your feet…” he added, sounding agitated. “Dr. Holm…"
"I intend to take care of them, Elijah. Tell you what," the doctor said, as he stripped off the gloves and put them in a plastic bag along with the other trash, and then began to pack up his things. "Mr. Astin and I will go along to the kitchen, and I can clean up his feet there and he can make you your tea. I’ll be by a little later to check up on you, but I have to do my rounds first and you have to get some rest." He snapped the bag shut and smiled down at Elijah. "Will that satisfy our Woodjin?"
Elijah nodded, and held up his uninjured arm. The doctor bent to receive a warm hug around the neck and a whispered, "My blessing on you, Dr. Ian, and thank you."
"The best thanks you can give me," Dr. Holm replied gruffly, straightening, "is to stay in that bed and rest."
"I expect you to do more than try, young man. Maggie? You know what you have to do." The cat got up and padded soft-footed across the bed to settle firmly on Elijah's lap. “Would you mind carrying my bag, Mr. Astin, so I can take this basin?”
“Not at all.” Sean picked it up, and his eyes met Elijah’s. In another of those wordless moments of communication, he could tell exactly what Elijah was thinking: You look good holding that.
It felt good, too.
Sean expected Dr. Holm to start cross-examining him the moment they stepped out the door. But the doctor said nothing until they entered the kitchen, and then only uttered a curt, “Have a seat.”
Sean set the doctor’s medical bag down and sank wearily into a chair. He wondered if he should initiate the conversation, but he simply couldn’t summon the energy. Instead, he rested his elbows on the table and his head in his hands, trying and failing to suppress a jaw-breaking yawn. God, he would give anything for a shower, he thought, a long, long, long hot one. And then a bed and some sleep-- no, lots of sleep.
He gazed blearily out the picture window, surprised to see that it was growing light outside: the sky over the pines was no longer impenetrable black, but pewter gray. Dimly, he could make out the shapes of birds fluttering eagerly around the feeders, and hear Paco's distinctive bray from the barn. It must be nearly time to feed the animals. Someone would have to take care of that-- no matter what, they couldn't go hungry, especially in this cold weather-- and he supposed that that someone would have to be him, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to let Elijah do it. A shower and sleep would definitely have to wait.
There was a hiss as the gas burner on the stove caught and a metallic clink as Dr. Holm set the kettle on to boil. Sean turned his gaze back to the doctor, who was scooping herbs into the blue willow teapot. So much for him making the tea, he thought ruefully. There was already a pair of mugs on the counter, and Sean hoped that the second mug was meant for him. He could use something hot to drink.
Dr. Holm had emptied the basin and rinsed it, but now filled it again and added soap. Then he carried it over and set it on the floor by Sean's bare, bloody feet. “Set your feet in there,” he directed. Sean did. The warmth of the water on his still-chilly feet was welcome, but the sting of it in the raw, abraded flesh made him let out an involuntary hiss of pain. He was glad Elijah wasn’t there to hear it, and grateful to Dr. Holm for suggesting they remove to the kitchen.
“You did quite a number on your feet,” Dr. Holm remarked. He was rummaging in his bag again.
“Running around the woods in wet shoes without socks probably wasn’t very wise,” Sean commented.
The doctor knelt by the basin and lifted one of Sean’s feet. Holding it gently, he examined it, turning it this way and that. “These are all superficial abrasions, fortunately. You should be fine in a few days.”
“That’s good news.” Sean repressed a wince as Dr. Holm began to clean a very tender abrasion on his heel. His touch was as gentle as his manner was brusque, however, and Sean was reminded of some of the doctors and nurses who had cared for his father.
“But I’ll confess I’m curious to know how you came to be running around the woods in wet shoes without socks.” The doctor raised his head and fixed Sean with those piercing blue eyes. “You are under no obligation to tell me what happened tonight, Mr. Astin, but considering the circumstances, it would be better if you did.”
“Because I know about the white stag, you mean?”
Dr. Holm visibly flinched, as if hearing those words spoken aloud was like a slap to the face. “Yes. You’re privy to a secret that very few people outside the pines have ever learned. I wonder if you can possibly understand the seriousness of the situation. It’s now within your power to do great harm to Elijah and to all of us who live here.”
“Dr. Holm…” Sean began.
"I love that boy," Dr. Holm stated abruptly then corrected himself. "No, Elijah's not a boy, he's a man, and he's been a man since the day his father died and he took on a responsibility that shouldn't have been his for years, a responsibility he has never once shirked or resented." He paused. “Warren Wood was a very dear friend, and his death was a terrible loss to all of us. Elijah will tell you, if he hasn’t already, that his father was a great Woodjin, and so he was. But not as great a Woodjin as his son is. There never has been a Woodjin to equal Elijah, except perhaps the first.”
“Jordan Wood? Elijah told me a little about him.”
The doctor nodded. “But the world is a vastly different place from what it was in Jordan Wood’s day, and the consequences of discovery for someone like Elijah far more severe.”
Sean didn’t need to be told that. He dealt with the press on a regular basis and understood better than Dr. Holm what would happen if they got wind of the mysterious man who could transform into a stag. The media circus that would result would put any celebrity or political scandal to shame. The very idea of reporters and curiosity seekers staking out the cabin, destroying the tranquil beauty of this place in their insatiable greed for a sensational story, made Sean’s skin crawl with loathing. Then there were the scientists who would want to study Elijah, make him some kind of fucking human guinea pig, and god only knew what else…
“If you betray Elijah,” Dr. Holm went on, “if you reveal his secret to anyone, I swear to you, Mr. Astin, that I will hunt you down and when I find you, you’ll think that confronting the Devil was a picnic by comparison.”
He meant every word, too. Sean could see it in his eyes: implacable, hard as flint. But hadn’t he himself already come to that same conclusion, that there was nothing he wouldn’t do to protect Elijah and his secret?
“Dr. Holm,” he said quietly, “for what it’s worth, you have my promise that I will never reveal his secret to a living soul. But you don’t know me, and I realize that a promise from a near stranger can mean little to you. Perhaps if I tell you how Elijah and I first met, and about what happened tonight, you’ll understand why I would rather die than betray him that way.”
While Dr. Holm continued tending to his feet, Sean quickly related the story of his first encounter with the Devil and his rescue by Elijah. He suspected that the doctor had heard many such stories over the years, but what had happened tonight was a different matter altogether. He wasn’t prepared to tell Dr. Holm about waking with that pain in his shoulder, or about his apparent connection to Elijah, not when he hadn’t yet told Elijah about it. Nor were other details-- a thankful kiss on the soft fur between the stag’s eyes, cool lips pressed to Sean’s neck-- relevant, and besides, the doctor was far from stupid and had clearly noticed the significant looks he and Elijah had been exchanging. So Sean skirted around the reason he had come to the cabin in the middle of the night, and concentrated instead on what Elijah had told him about the circumstances of his shooting, on finding Elijah as the stag and his transformation into his human self, and on their flight through the woods with the Devil hard at their heels.
“I couldn’t take him to the hospital, for obvious reasons,” Sean concluded. “Elijah asked me to call you instead, so I did. The rest you know.”
Dr. Holm hadn’t said a word while Sean was speaking, nor had his neutral expression changed-- except when Sean repeated Elijah’s explanation for how he’d come to be shot. Then those salt-and-pepper brows had snapped together and the fingers spreading salve on one of the abrasions had stilled momentarily.
“Elijah won’t hear of trying to find the man who shot him,” Sean said into the silence that fell when he was done, thinking of the doctor’s reaction.
“Are you surprised?” Dr. Holm spoke at last. “The Woodjin is sworn to protect, not to harm. Ask Elijah to tell you the meaning of the inscription on his ring.”
“But I don’t understand,” Sean’s frustration spilled over, and he clenched his hands into fists on his thighs. “Why couldn’t that son of a bitch see that Elijah was trying to save him?”
Dr. Holm climbed stiffly to his feet and looked down at Sean with compassion in his eyes. “Do you know the legend of the first Woodjin and what happened at the Quaker Bridge in 1772?” he asked.
“Yes. He saved a stagecoach from falling into the river when the bridge was washed out.” Just like Elijah saved that truck tonight.
“And do you recall what the coachman did when he saw the white stag blocking their path?”
Sean thought a moment, calling into his tired mind the story from the book Elijah had left for him in the bathroom. “He grabbed his rifle,” he said slowly, understanding dawning. “He meant to shoot the stag, didn’t he?”
“Humans have always had an unfortunate tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. It seems we haven’t come very far as a species in all these years, have we?” The shrill whistle of the kettle sounded, and Dr. Holm went over to the stove and removed it from the heat.
He poured the hot water into the teapot, and then turned and leaned against the counter, fixing Sean with a serious look. “If I’ve seemed harsh or overly suspicious, I’m sorry. But you’ve only known Elijah a few days, and it’s clear that he already thinks the world of you. There is nothing that would please me, or any of us who love him, more than for him to find the happiness he deserves, but protecting him is second nature to us. Not only because he’s our Woodjin, but because he’s a very special young man who has endured too much loss in his life.”
“We take care of each other around here,” Sean quoted slowly, remembering the times Elijah had said that to him.
“Exactly. In fact, that might be considered the unofficial piney motto,” Dr. Holm said, with a trace of humor.
“It sounds like a fine one to me.”
The doctor poured the steaming tea into the mugs and brought them to the table. He handed them to Sean. “You saved the life of our Woodjin tonight. For that you will always have the gratitude of the people here, and find a welcome in our homes.”
“Thank you.” Sean flushed with equal parts pleasure and embarrassment at the unexpected words. But what Ian Holm said next flabbergasted him entirely.
“I’m inclined to believe that you can also save his life in a different way,” Dr. Holm added quietly. “Now take Elijah his tea, and then get some rest, Sean.”
With Dr. Holm’s reassurance that someone would be arriving shortly to take care of the animals easing his mind, Sean carried the tea mugs back to Elijah’s bedroom. He still felt rather dazed by the turnaround in Ian Holm’s attitude. Not that he’d earned the doctor’s wholehearted approval yet, but it was a start, and one he hadn’t anticipated by a long shot.
He stepped cautiously into the room, not wishing to disturb Elijah if he was sleeping. It appeared that he was, for his eyes were closed and his lips slightly parted, his chest rising and falling in slow even breaths. Maggie, who after her heroic efforts certainly deserved more than a catnap, was stretched along Elijah’s side, sound asleep. Her whiskers were twitching a little, and she was flexing her claws, perhaps chasing a mouse in her sleep. Rocky was nowhere in sight, presumably sacked out in his nest, and Fred was closed up inside his shell, fore and aft.
Sean stood by the bed, staring down at Elijah’s peaceful face, and he simply couldn’t bring himself to wake him, even if Dr. Holm wanted him to have the tea. He carefully set the mug down on the nightstand with a nearly inaudible clink, but when he straightened again, Elijah’s lashes were fluttering, and his eyes slowly opened, a miracle of blue.
“God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you,” Sean whispered remorsefully.
“You didn’t,” Elijah assured him, smiling. “I wasn’t really asleep, just waiting for you to come back,” He looked like a drowsy kitten with his tousled auburn hair and sleepy smile, and so beautiful it made Sean’s heart catch. “Everything okay?” Elijah asked with a touch of anxiety. “Dr. Ian didn’t give you a hard time, did he?”
“A little bit, but that’s okay. I told you, I would’ve been disappointed if he hadn’t. But everything’s fine now.” It was more or less the truth, thank god. Sean picked up the mug he’d just set down and handed it to Elijah. Then he settled on the edge of the bed and studied Elijah as he blew on the surface of the hot liquid to cool it, and then took a cautious sip. His color definitely looked better and his eyes were clearer and less feverish-looking. “How are you feeling?”
“Happy. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.” The raw honesty of Elijah’s response undid Sean.
“I had to come back, Elijah,” Sean replied, returning honesty with honesty.
“That’s what you said when you found me. Why? Why did you have to come back?”
But Sean shook his head. “You need to rest. We can talk about it later, after you’ve had some sleep.”
“I won’t be able to sleep until I know,” Elijah insisted. “Sean, please.”
Reluctantly, Sean gave in to the appeal in those vivid blue eyes. “All right. But I want you to drink your tea before it gets cold.”
Obediently, Elijah raised the mug to his lips and took another sip. “Don’t keep me in suspense,” he prompted. “Start talking.”
“It’s hard to figure out where to start exactly.” Sean huffed a laugh. “If I told this to anyone else, they’d think I was crazy. Hell, maybe even you’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Why? What happened?”
Sean’s tired brain tried to formulate a coherent, detailed response, but in the end, he opted for simple and straightforward: “I felt the moment when you were shot, Elijah. Here.” He touched his right shoulder, and Elijah’s eyes widened in astonishment. “The pain was so intense it woke me out of a sound sleep. At first I thought I must be having a heart attack, or maybe,” he joked, “an attack of indigestion from eating too many Butterscotch Krimpets.”
“Sean, can’t you ever be serious?” Elijah said, but the softness of his expression belied the words.
“Sorry. But saying it aloud seems so strange. You see, suddenly I knew, Elijah, somehow I just knew that the pain I was experiencing was your pain and that something bad had happened to you.”
“You came because you knew something had happened to me? You experienced my pain?” Elijah sounded almost dazed. “But that’s only ever happened once before with a Woodjin and someone else-- with my great-grandparents.”
Sean felt staggered by what Elijah had just told him. “Wow.” Beyond lame, but it was the only word he could come up with under the circumstances. “Was it a one-shot deal with them?”
“No. According to Dad, Hannah always knew when Great-Granddad was being called or was in trouble.” For a long moment they stared at each other, neither quite sure what to say. Then Elijah asked, “So what did you do when you realized what the pain meant?”
“I jumped in my car and drove here like a bat out of hell. In fact, I don’t think I even closed the back door on the way out, I was in such a hurry.” Funny that. Once the very idea of going off and leaving a house unlocked would have driven him mad with worry, but now, it seemed completely unimportant.
“You listened to your instincts. Oh Sean.”
“They were screaming pretty loudly, Elijah," Sean said with a wry smile. "But unfortunately they weren't very specific. When I arrived here, I didn’t know what to expect. I tore the house apart looking for you, but I couldn’t find you anywhere. Then Maggie led me into the mudroom and I discovered your clothes hanging by the door. I couldn’t believe you would voluntarily go outside undressed in weather like this, and well... you don’t even want to know all the crazy scenarios I imagined.”
“When did you finally figure out the truth?” Elijah asked softly.
“When I saw your footprints change in the snow. There was no other conclusion I could possibly draw than that you and the stag were one and the same. And then it seemed so blindingly obvious; I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t suspected the truth, right from the very beginning. But…” Sean hesitated, and then continued slowly, “This probably won't make any sense, but all along I had a feeling there was something important that I was forgetting about the night I met you; some memory that I simply couldn't hold onto, no matter how hard I tried. It was almost as if a veil had been drawn across it, preventing me from remembering. Until I saw those footprints, that is, and then suddenly I knew what it was: the stag's eyes--they were your eyes, Elijah. How could I ever have forgotten how they looked? God, I feel such a fool…”
“Please don’t, because it wasn't your fault,” Elijah said, and his cheeks had reddened.
“What do you mean it wasn't my fault?” Sean asked in total confusion.
Elijah was fiddling with his silver ring, using his thumb to twist it to and fro on his ring finger. ”It’s hard to explain, but as Woodjin I have a certain… ability, I guess you can call it, that I can use to prevent people from discovering my identity. I was certain you’d gotten a good look at my eyes that night, and, well, they’re pretty distinctive. Distinctive enough that you might easily have put two and two together when you met me-- the human me, that is. So while you were sleeping, I… made sure you wouldn’t remember.”
“You mean you used a forgetfulness spell, like the obliviatus charm in Harry Potter?” Sean supposed he should be disturbed by the idea, but he was fascinated by this revelation of yet another aspect of the Woodjin’s powers. Truth was indeed stranger than fiction…
Elijah looked intensely uncomfortable at the comparison. “I suppose, although it’s limited strictly to situations where I’m in danger of discovery. And I don’t like to think of it as a spell or charm. In fact, I don't like to think about that ability at all. It seems so dishonest to mess with someone’s memory.” His lips twisted into a wry grin. “It was the one part of the training my dad gave me that I totally sucked at, because my heart was never really in it. Luckily, it hasn’t been necessary for me to use it very often. Guess I wouldn’t fit in at Hogwarts very well, huh?” His eyes were filled with regret as he looked at Sean. “You have every right to be angry with me, Sean. But I… I was so afraid. Afraid of how you’d react if you discovered the truth about me.”
“Elijah, I’m not angry with you. You did what you had to in order to protect yourself. Frankly, it’s a relief to know that you can, and that there isn’t anyone out there who could betray your secret.” His conversation with Dr. Holm was very much in the forefront of his mind.
“There is one person,” Elijah whispered. The remembrance of past pain was reflected not only in the tone of his voice but also in the sudden shadow that crossed his face. “Someone who knows that I’m the white stag.” He laughed, a bitter sound that, coming from Elijah, shocked Sean to the core. “But I won’t ever need to worry about him saying anything to anyone.”
Sean felt a sudden chill; he set his mug aside, knowing he couldn’t choke down another mouthful. “Who is this guy?” he asked.
“Someone I need to tell you about so you understand… why I did what I did to you.” Elijah swallowed hard, Adam’s apple bobbing. “Someone I was involved with a few years ago. His name is Matt.”
With every new revelation, more puzzle pieces slid into place, and Sean understood that the losses to which Dr. Holm had referred included more than the death of Elijah’s father and his mother and brother leaving the pines.
“It was the summer after my mom and Zach moved to Iowa,” Elijah continued. “Matt was from California, but he was vacationing in the area with some friends. I had a summer job, leading kayak tours through the pines, and Matt and his friends signed up for one. That’s how I first met him.”
Elijah tilted his head back; he stared at the ceiling with unseeing eyes, lost in memories that clearly weren't happy ones.
“We really hit it off, you know? Right from the start. We had so much in common, or at least I thought we did. Matt was in a master’s program in oceanography at UCLA. He loved the outdoors-- camping and hiking and kayaking-- and he was into a lot of the same music that I was.” Elijah gave Sean an apologetic sideways glance. “I guess it didn’t hurt that he was very good-looking, too.”
In his mind’s eye, Sean could picture Matt: a tall, tanned, athletic blonde surfer type-- his complete antithesis, in fact. It was difficult not to loathe the guy, and he hadn’t even heard the entire story yet.
“After that first day trip, he signed up for two more, and he made it pretty clear that it was so he could get to know me better. I was really flattered. No one had ever seemed interested in me before, not the way Matt was. So when he asked me to have dinner with him, I said yes.” Elijah looked at Sean as if pleading with him to understand. “I was so lonely, Sean. I missed Mom and Zach, and Hannah was in college then and not around much. I’d never had many friends my own age, and I couldn’t go to college myself, only take correspondence classes.”
“Elijah, you don’t have to justify what you did,” Sean said gently. “The wonder would be if you hadn’t gone out with someone like Matt.”
“It’s just… I hate to think how stupidly naïve I was. But it almost seemed like it was fate, Matt showing up so soon after Mom and Zach left. As if he’d been sent to make up for me losing them.”
Sean could vividly picture that 21 year-old Elijah, on his own for the first time in his life, and with such a weight of responsibility resting on his shoulders. With his open and caring nature, he’d have been vulnerable to the first guy to pay him the slightest bit of serious attention.
“Pretty soon we were dating regularly, seeing each other nearly every day, and when Matt’s friends moved on, he decided to stay behind. He even hinted that he was considering a transfer to a school in New Jersey in the fall so he could be with me. I couldn’t believe my luck. But there was only one problem. After a couple months, things weren’t moving fast enough for Matt, but they were moving too fast for me.”
“Meaning he wanted you to have sex with him?” Sean asked, and dread crept over him, remembering that moment in the mudroom when Elijah had shied away from him. Oh dear god, please don’t let it be that he was forced against his will…
“Yeah, he did. Oh, we’d made out and fooled around a bit, but nothing more serious than that, and Matt acted like it was no big deal. But I could tell that he was getting impatient with me, and I was afraid he'd think I was some kind of cock tease. It wasn't that at all; I mean, I wanted to have sex with him…” Again Elijah gave Sean an apologetic look.
“Is there any guy that age who doesn’t want to have sex-- 24/7 if he can get it?” Sean said lightly, and was rewarded with a grateful look.
“But it wasn’t a simple, straightforward decision, not for me, at least.”
“Because I honestly thought I was in love with Matt, and that he was in love with me. I believed that we’d be together forever. And believing that changed everything.” Elijah stopped, his throat working. What he had to say next was proving tremendously difficult for him.
“Elijah, whatever it is, you don’t have to tell me,” Sean said. “Not now or ever. Not unless you want to.”
“No, no. I do have to tell you. It’s important to me that you understand, Sean. I don’t want there to be any more secrets between us. Because it was a secret that nearly destroyed my family. My dad… he was a great Woodjin, like I told you, but he made one terrible mistake in his life, a mistake that haunted him right up until the day he died.” He paused. “He didn’t tell my mom what he was until after they were married and she was pregnant with Zach. He… he used his… ability to make sure she didn’t find out.”
Sean closed his eyes briefly. “Oh Elijah.” No wonder he had such mixed feelings about messing with anyone’s memory.
“Dad was afraid that she might change her mind about marrying him if she knew the truth. It was wrong of him, I know, and I’m not making excuses, but try not to think too badly of him.” Elijah’s eyes implored him to understand, and in them Sean saw the depths of loneliness and solitude that a Woodjin could be forced to endure.
“Hell, with my track record at relationships, who am I to cast stones?” Sean said. And if your mother had decided not to marry him, you wouldn’t exist, Elijah, and this world would be a much poorer place.
“I expect you can imagine how my mom reacted when Dad finally told her the truth," Elijah went on soberly. "She’d never really liked the pines; it was too different from where she’d grown up. She’d hoped that Dad might consider a move to Cedar Rapids eventually, or at least somewhere in the mid-west, closer to her own family. Instead, she was faced with the reality that Dad’s responsibilities as Woodjin meant they could never leave the pines. Mom never really forgave Dad for not trusting her, for keeping something so important from her. Even now, after all these years, she’s very bitter about it. ”
“I can understand why. He didn’t give her the chance to make her own decision, but made it for her. That was hardly fair.”
“No, it wasn't. Mom was so devastated that after Zach was born, she almost took him and went back to Cedar Rapids. In the end she decided to stay, because she loved my dad, despite everything. But then I came along, and it became clear what I was-- that I was like Dad... Mom was horrified. You see, not long before I was born, Dad was involved in a fight with the Devil, and he was cut up pretty badly-- came close to dying, in fact. If it weren’t for Dr. Ian, he probably would have. Mom couldn’t bear the idea that that might happen to me some day. From the time I was little,” Elijah went on quietly, “Mom had this way of looking at me, as if she was saying goodbye to me with her eyes. I didn’t understand what it meant for the longest time. But to her, my being born the Woodjin was a fate almost worse than death. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt, knowing that Mom would rather I be a burger flipper at McDonald’s than the Woodjin.”
“Of course it hurts. Oh Elijah, I’m sorry.” But at the same time, Sean felt a reluctant sympathy for Elijah’s mother. Every time the Woodjin was called, every time he transformed and vanished into the pines, there was no guarantee he would ever return. What self-respecting parent wouldn't be worried sick at the thought of their son encountering a monster in the woods? The white stag had seemed to Sean like a creature out of a fairy tale come to life. But even fairy tales, he now realized, had their dark side, too.
“Please don’t think that I blame her, Sean. She’s my mom, and she only wants me to be safe. I know how hard it was--it still is--for her. But Dad made me promise that I’d never make the same mistake that he did and keep the truth from someone I loved or use my ability to deceive him. Not that he even needed to make me promise-- not after seeing how his deception nearly destroyed his and Mom’s marriage.” Elijah swirled the remaining tea in his mug and stared at it in apparent fascination. “All of which is to say that eventually I decided to tell Matt the truth.”
“I gather it wasn’t a success.”
Elijah sighed. “That’s an understatement. At first Matt thought it was simply a joke and I was pulling his leg. But when I insisted that it was the truth, he got angry with me. He wanted to know why I was jerking him around like that, making up ridiculous lies.”
Oh yeah, Sean loathed this Matt guy all right-- with a passion. “What did you do then?” he asked gently.
“I told him I could prove it.”
“You mean you transformed?” The idea was unsettling, and Sean felt a ridiculous, childish resentment that Matt, the unworthy bastard, should have been privileged to witness that moment of sheer magic and wonder.
“No,” Elijah said, “we were having dinner at a restaurant and there were other people around; it wouldn’t have been safe. God, I was so naïve,” Elijah repeated with bitter self-reproach. “It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t believe me, that it would be necessary for me to prove it to him. But there was something I could show him, even there in a crowded room.” He reached over and set his mug next to Sean’s on the nightstand, and then took Sean’s hand and guided it to his head, placing it palm downward on his hair. “Feel,” he said simply.
Sean parted the soft auburn curls with his fingers and searched until he encountered something unexpected to the front and side of Elijah’s skull, perhaps two inches from his hairline: a slightly raised round callus about the size of a half-dollar. It took him a moment to figure out what it was, and then he understood. He’d seen the same thing in photos of deer that had shed their antlers. There was a name for them, he recalled, they’d learned it in high school biology class... He searched his memory. Ped-something… Yes that was it. Pedicles: the source of his antlers when Elijah transformed into the white stag. The pedicle was soft and slightly yielding on top, but there were tiny hard ridges around its edges. Wordlessly, Sean moved his fingers across Elijah’s head, searching until, as he expected, he found its mate on the opposite side.
“Sean, I feel terrible about what happened in the mudroom the other day,” Elijah whispered. “About shying away from you like that. But I was afraid that if you discovered these, you might discover the truth, too, and suddenly I panicked. I couldn’t stop remembering what Matt said when he figured out what they were and realized I wasn’t lying to him.”
“What did he say?” Sean was beyond relieved that Elijah hadn’t been forced to have sex with Matt, the way he’d feared, but the bile was rising in his throat, sour and burning, as he waited for Elijah’s answer.
“He said… he said that I… I was a freak, and that no one normal would ever want anything to do with me. I could see the revulsion in his eyes, Sean. As if I wasn’t even human to him anymore.” Elijah’s hand was clenched into a fist in the covers as he relived the humiliation and pain of that moment. “Then he got up from the table and walked out of the restaurant. Just left me sitting there alone. I never saw him again.”
That buzzing sensation was back, stronger than before; Sean’s head swam with an impotent rage that was even greater than that he’d felt for the man who shot Elijah. But he only said, “Funny, I never liked the name Matt. I always thought that if I had a son, the last name I’d ever choose was Matt.”
“Sean…” Elijah’s laugh was half a sob.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am that you were hurt by that worthless son of a bitch.” Sean moved his hand in a caress down the graceful curve of Elijah’s cheek, and across the strong line of his jaw. “You aren’t a freak; you’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever had the privilege to know. And if that means I’m not normal, then hell, I’m proud not to be.”
Elijah captured his hand and kissed the palm, dirty and bloodstained as it was. “Thank you,” he whispered, and more than the thank-you, his expression showed how much Sean's words meant to him.
“But there’s one thing I still don’t understand,” Sean remarked. “If you didn’t use your ability on him, how is it that Matt didn’t discover these pedicles before? Surely he must have put his hands in your hair sometimes when you were making out.” I would have. I’d have put my hands all over you, every single inch…
Elijah looked suddenly, acutely embarrassed. “He didn’t, though. It was my sister Hannah’s idea, actually. She suggested I put a ton of gel in my hair. You know, that extra hold stuff that makes it spiky and stiff as a board? She said he’d never want to put his hands in it and get them all sticky. She was right; it worked better than any charm I could ever cast.”
The unexpectedness of the explanation took Sean totally off-guard. He couldn’t help it; he burst into laughter. “I’m sorry,” he gasped, “I shouldn’t laugh, but… hair gel?”
Elijah was still looking rather red-faced, but he said, “I don’t mind; I like it when you laugh. You have the most gorgeous laugh lines.” He reached out and traced one of the deep lines that radiated from the corner of Sean's right eye, and his own eyes had never looked bluer. “Did you know there are six of them on this side and seven on the other? I counted them once when you weren’t looking.”
It was Sean's turn to be embarrassed. The word 'gorgeous' in relation to him took some getting used to. As usual, he sought refuge in humor. "And to think, I was recently advised by one of my clients that it was time to look into Botox injections."
"Actually, for once I'm not. He's a Manhattan plastic surgeon, and his patient list is like a who's who of the rich and famous."
"Don't you dare let him inject you with that stuff!" Elijah exclaimed, looking horrified.
"I have no intention of letting him anywhere near me," Sean assured him, smiling.
But then Sean turned serious. “You know, in a selfish way I’m grateful that Matt couldn’t see his ass for a hole in the ground. Because if he could have, if he’d understood exactly how lucky he was to have you, you’d be living here in cozy domestic bliss with Matt,” and it was hard not to spit the name like a curse, “and I’d be out in the cold, literally and figuratively.”
“You wouldn’t have been out in the cold, Sean,” Elijah replied. “It wouldn’t have lasted with Matt, because I never really loved him. What I loved was the dream he represented: someone willing to share my life, even knowing what I am and how I’m bound here. After Matt, it seemed like an impossible dream, and I tried to accept the fact that I’d always be alone. I honestly believed that I had, until four nights ago when I was called, and there you were, and you looked at me in a way no one had ever looked at me before. I think down deep I knew right then what it really means to love someone.”
Sean opened his mouth to speak, but Elijah quickly added, “Please, you don’t have to say it. I know it’s too soon, that we only met a few days ago. I know you hadn’t planned on coming back here, that you have Chris and your own life in New York. But Sean, I was too much of a coward to ask you to stay the last time, even though I wanted to, so badly, and I won’t make the same mistake twice. Not if there’s any chance that you might consider staying this time.”
The aching vulnerability in Elijah’s expression nearly broke Sean’s heart, while at the same time his entire being felt transported by Elijah’s words: I think down deep I knew right then what it really means to love someone.
“If you were a coward, then so was I,” Sean said quietly. “I wanted to ask you if I could stay, and I didn’t even reach the end of your driveway that morning before I was cursing my stupidity for not doing so. I spent two lonely days at the shore thinking about you, and dreaming about you, and missing you. Elijah, I was going to come back, even without what happened tonight. It wouldn’t have been right away, because there were things I needed to settle first-- things I still need to settle-- but when I had, I was going to come back and hope there would be a welcome for me at the door.”
“There would have been, and there always will be,” and it was more than a promise, it was a vow. “I don’t care if it’s too soon,” Elijah went on, almost fiercely, “or we’ve only known each other a few days, I’m going to say it anyway while I have the chance: I love you, Sean.”
“You have no idea how glad I am that you do, Elijah, because you’re not the only one who fell in love that night.” Sean smiled, and the tight ache in his throat eased. “I hope you won’t take that the wrong way.”
“I don’t know,” Elijah replied, and a spark of mischief had entered his eyes. “Should I be jealous of myself?”
“Definitely not,” Sean replied, and curled his hand at the nape of Elijah’s neck. Very slowly, never taking his eyes from Elijah’s face, he leaned forward. “I love you, too, Woodjin,” he whispered, tilting his head to one side, and then at last Sean felt the exquisite softness of Elijah’s mouth beneath his own. It was a kiss of promise, not of passion, and short-lived. Elijah’s lips opened to his; there was a delicate meeting of tongues, a swirl and dip to taste velvet-hot depths, and then their mouths separated. But they remained close together, foreheads touching and eyes closed, and for the first time in his entire life, Sean knew that he was truly home.
“You should sleep now,” he said, drawing back. He lightly caressed a dark smudge beneath Elijah’s eye with his thumb. “Dr. Holm would have my head if he knew I’d kept you up talking for so long.”
“I’m not sorry we did,” Elijah said.
“Neither am I, believe me, but we’ve talked enough to satisfy even me for the time being. Now lie back and go to sleep.”
“But what about you?” Elijah asked as he settled against the pillows with a yawn.
“I’ll go crash in the other room.” If he even had the energy to walk that far; he wasn’t certain that he did.
“No way. You’re sleeping here, with me,” Elijah said obstinately.
Elijah rolled his eyes, and Sean grinned. He got up, trying to ignore the complaints from various parts of his aching body, and stripped off his ruined jeans and the windbreaker, dropping them carelessly onto the chair where he’d hung Warren Wood’s down jacket. It occurred to Sean that he didn’t have any spare clothes with him, and he wondered what the hell he was going to wear when he got up. But he was too tired to worry about it. Maybe tiny elves would come in while he was sleeping and leave him clean clothes. It was the Woodjin’s house after all, and anything was possible.
Leaving his boxers on, Sean shuffled back to the bed, and climbed in beside Elijah. It didn’t feel at all awkward or strange… only right.
“You’d better put Fred on the floor,” Elijah murmured. “I’m afraid he still doesn’t quite understand the concept of housebreaking.”
Yes, it was definitely the Woodjin’s house all right. Sean located the box turtle hidden in a fold of the comforter, picked him up and leaned over the side of the bed to set him on the floor. “Night, Fred,” he said, and then realized that morning sunshine was streaming through the windows. His entire world had been turned topsy-turvy, he thought as he straightened, and it was the most fucking fantastic feeling imaginable.
Edging close to Elijah so that their bodies were just touching along the length of one side, Sean eased an arm beneath his neck. The young man turned slightly toward him, and Sean carefully gathered him in. With a contented sigh, Elijah pillowed his head on Sean’s shoulder.
“Mm, you’re so warm,” he murmured, as he had earlier in the woods, and within moments his eyelids had drooped shut, dark lashes fanning out on his cheeks, and he was asleep. Sean rested his cheek against Elijah’s hair, struggling against the fatigue that was pulling him inexorably under. He wanted to savor this moment of unalloyed happiness, store it in his mind so that he would never forget how it felt to hold a sleeping Elijah in his arms for the first time. But the comfortable mattress, the warmth of the comforter and the blissful weight of the Woodjin’s head on his shoulder conspired against him. With the well-loved scents of pinesap and woodsmoke and dried grasses enfolding him like an embrace, Sean fell at last into a deep and dreamless sleep.