The Woodjin: Controlled Burning by Lbilover

Sean stepped out the mudroom door into the misty gray of an early March morning, stopped and sniffed the air. He didn’t have a sense of smell as acute as Elijah’s, of course, but the scent of burning pine was unmistakable, and far stronger than usual. Worrisomely strong, he thought uneasily.

“Elijah, where is that smell coming from? It can’t be from the chimney, can it?” Sean asked the young man who had followed him out the door.

“No,” Elijah said. “It’s from a brush fire.”

“Brush fire? You mean there’s a fire in the woods?” Sean’s gaze roamed the dense forest of pitch pine trees surrounding them on every side, searching for any sign of smoke or flames. Even though he found none, he wondered how Elijah could appear so unruffled in the face of such danger.

“It’s all right, Sean,” Elijah hastened to reassure him, catching the undertone of fear in his partner’s voice. He touched Sean’s coat sleeve apologetically. “I should have warned you so you didn’t worry. This fire was set deliberately, by the Forest Service. It’s called controlled burning, and they do it every March.”

“Controlled burning? But what’s the purpose of it?”

“To cut down on the possibility of a major forest fire,” Elijah explained. “They burn the underbrush along the roads mainly, so that if someone carelessly throws a cigarette out their car window, it won’t trigger a fire.”

“I see. Isn’t that kind of risky, though? Couldn’t the fire accidentally get out of control?” Sean couldn’t tamp down his continued unease. He remembered as a child seeing vast blackened areas in the pines when his family drove down to the shore: the aftermath of forest fires, his dad had told him and Mack. The memory had never left him—with his mind’s eye, he could still clearly see the twisted, charred skeletons of the trees along the parkway.

“It has happened,” Elijah admitted, “although they’re very careful only to do controlled burns when the weather conditions are safe.” Seeing that his admission had done little to allay Sean’s concern, he added, “But if you’re really worried, give me a minute and I’ll see what I can find out…”

He closed his eyes, and a faint frown appeared between his brows as he concentrated, reaching out with senses beyond human ken to check the pines for danger. Sean stood quietly, watching, waiting and marveling. When Elijah opened his eyes again a minute or so later, they were a deep and untroubled blue.

“There’s no risk today,” Elijah said positively. “The winds are calm, and I don’t detect any unease among the birds; they’re always the first to sense fire danger.” Maggie, weaving in and out of Elijah’s jeans-clad legs, meowed, and Rocky, perched on his shoulder, chattered excitedly into his ear. “Maggie and Rocky agree with me,” he added with a smile. “So don’t worry, Sean. We’re safe.”

“You never cease to amaze me,” Sean breathed, a familiar feeling of awe stealing over him as his fear retreated.

Elijah’s cheeks reddened; he never ceased to be flustered by Sean’s amazement. “It’s nothing really—just something I can do.” He shrugged and ducked his head.

“Mrrrowr,” said Maggie indignantly.

“Nothing, huh? Sorry, but Maggie agrees with me,” Sean stated with smug certainty.

“How do you know Maggie agrees with you?” Elijah challenged, though his eyes were now smiling. “You can’t speak her language.”

“Maybe not, but I’m damn good at understanding her anyway. Right, Maggie?” Sean bent to pet Maggie, who was purring loudly. “Besides, if she wasn’t agreeing with me then what exactly was she saying?”

Elijah held his hand up to Rocky, who grasped it with his paws, and then he gently swung the gray squirrel down to the ground. “Go on, Rocky,” he said, and watched as Rocky scurried toward the bird feeders, where he could feast on the sunflower seed that had spilled to the ground.

“You’re stalling,” Sean accused. “C’mon, tell me what Maggie said.”

Maggie looked from one to the other with tolerant amusement in her amber eyes.

“She said,” Elijah gave Sean a mischievous glance, “last one to the barn is a rotten egg!” And with a whoop, he took off at a run across the frost-silvered grass with Maggie sprinting at his side, her fluffy orange and black tail held high like a banner.

Laughing, Sean ran after them, knowing that while he might lose the race to his fleet-footed lover, he’d be the winner in the end; Elijah’s look had held as much flirtatiousness as it had mischief. This was a game they had played before.

Elijah had just darted inside the sliding door to the barn when Sean caught him and pounced like Maggie on a hapless cricket. “Gotcha!” he exclaimed, and started tickling Elijah mercilessly.

“Stop, stop,” Elijah gasped between helpless giggles, and twisted and squirmed until he broke free of Sean’s hold, only to retaliate in kind. The playful tussle soon turned more serious; fingers that had been lightly teasing stilled and then slipped beneath layers of clothes to stroke in lingering caresses. Laughter spilled over into sighs and murmurs of passion as their lips met, warmth on warmth. In the sheltered space just inside the darkened barn, Sean and Elijah retreated into a magical world that they alone shared.

“We could go back to bed after we’re done with the chores,” Sean suggested. His hands were now resting at Elijah’s hips while the younger man’s arms were around his waist and his cold nose was nuzzling into Sean’s neck. “Since I don’t have any classes today.”

There was a resounding thud as a hoof hit wood, and Paco’s distinctive bray rose above the impatient whinnies of Sonny, Cher and Jordan’s palomino pony, Oliver, and joined with Dolly’s low-rumbling and plaintive baa. The animals wanted their breakfast.

Elijah sighed and raised his head. “Paco’s going to hurt that hoof again,” he said, taking Sean’s hand. “We better hurry.” But he didn’t move immediately, only smiled into Sean’s eyes. “As for going back to bed, why walk all the way back to the house when there’s a hayloft just over our heads?”

“You and that hayloft,” Sean said. “Don’t think I don’t know the real reason you’re always wanting to drag me up there.”

“Oh yeah? Why is that?”

“You didn’t get enough to eat for breakfast, Woodjin, that’s why.” Sean grinned and ducked as Elijah, giggling, feigned an indignant punch.

Later, after the animals had been fed and watered, and peaceful silence reigned in the barn once more, they climbed the ladder to the loft and spread an old quilt they kept for just such purposes over a pile of fragrant straw used to bed the stalls. Then, as dust motes swirled and danced around them in the dim light, they slowly undressed each other, and Elijah pushed an unresisting Sean down onto his back and knelt over him.

“Elijah,” Sean gasped some time later, when, with skillful hands and mouth, Elijah had deliberately and maddeningly taken him right to the brink and then retreated, over and over. “God, what are you doing to me?”

“Controlled burning,” Elijah teased, blue fire alight in his eyes. “It’s a special technique we use here in the pines. Didn’t I ever tell you about it?”

“Well, this controlled burning is starting to get out of control, Elijah; I’m about ready to go completely up in flames,” Sean said, his voice taut with need. “But I don’t want to go alone. Please.” He tugged at Elijah’s shoulders.

“You don’t have go alone,” Elijah promised, moving up to cover his lover with his body, “ever.”

“Wow,” Sean breathed some time later, when the fire had burned a scorching path through them both, and he’d recovered enough to speak, “I think I’ve been reduced to a pile of ashes.”

“You know, Sean,” Elijah observed, pressing a satisfied kiss against Sean’s chest, “the really amazing thing about a fire here in the pines is how quickly the forest recovers afterward. New life starts to spring up out of the ashes almost immediately.”

“Really?” Sean asked with interest.

“Uh huh. Like me to demonstrate?” Elijah’s hand began to travel inexorably southward.

Sean made no move to stop him. After all, he was always eager to learn more about life in the pines.