The Woodjin: The Secret by Lbilover

Later, Mack wondered if it was simply coincidence that he woke up needing to take a piss precisely when he did.


He rolled out of bed, cursing under his breath and wishing he’d skipped that third Shiner Bock, pulled on his bathrobe, and shuffled sleepily along to the bathroom. He’d stayed at the cabin enough times now to navigate his way there easily even in the dark, but flipped on the light switch just inside the bathroom door, in case Fred was underfoot. Squinting against the glare of the overhead light, Mack determined that he wasn’t about to trip over or step on the resident sage, and headed for the toilet.


He took care of business with a sigh of relief, flushed, and then looked around for Fred who, morning, noon or night, was always up for a bit of communing. It was crazy as shit, and not something he’d ever admit to his friends back in LA, but he’d become attached to the phlegmatic box turtle.


Sean was right. There was something soothing about Fred and his unflappable nature, and shooting the breeze with him, even if he couldn’t reply, did a guy good. Especially a guy with a now long-time (by Hollywood standards) hit TV series who had been nominated for his first Emmy and was finding the awards season merry-go-round scary as shit—including his upcoming appearances on Letterman and Jimmy Fallon that were the excuse for this overdue visit to his brother and brother-in-law.


But Fred, when Mack’s bleary eyes located him in the far corner by the shower, was for once closed up tight inside his shell, not even the tip of his hook-nose visible. Guess he wasn’t in the mood for communing...


“Nighty night, Fred.” Mack turned off the light and stepped into the hall. And heard voices, coming from the direction of the kitchen. Seemed he wasn’t the only one awake at 2:30 a.m. Poor Sean. Being a doctor was undoubtedly a noble calling, but it played hell with your ability to get a full night’s sleep.


He wondered if Sean had just returned or was about to leave to see a patient. Well, there was only one way to find out, and what the hell, since his brother and Elijah were both up and so was he, they might as well make a party of it. If Sean was heading out, Elijah might welcome the company until he returned. There wasn’t a chance he’d go back to bed while Sean was out and about, that much Mack could say with absolute certainty. The word ‘devotion’ took on new meaning where the two of them were concerned.


“Hey, what’s up, Doc?” Mack said as he breezed into the kitchen, and immediately could have bitten off his tongue, for the sight that greeted him made it clear that he’d interrupted a romantic interlude and he was decidedly de trop.


His brother and Elijah were standing near the open door to the mudroom, and while Sean was fully dressed in a faded UPenn sweatshirt, jeans and running shoes, Elijah was buck naked.


“Fuck, I’m sorry,” Mack said, as their startled eyes flew to him. He backed up, hands held palms out in front of him. “Just pretend you didn’t see me, okay?”


“Mack, wait,” Sean said, and his voice was so serious, almost grim, that Mack stopped dead in his tracks. On second thought, maybe this wasn’t a romantic interlude. The atmosphere in the kitchen was noticeably tense, extending even to Maggie, who was crouched, watchful and alert, on the doorstep. Something was definitely wrong, Mack decided, watching them exchange a meaningful look. Finally Elijah nodded, almost as if he was granting Sean permission. Permission to do what?


“I want you to come with us,” Sean said, and shook his head when Mack opened his mouth to ask ‘where’ and ‘why’. “There’s no time for explanations right now, just come.” Without another word, his normally garrulous brother followed Elijah and Maggie through the mudroom and outside into the dank, misty yard. Mack, totally baffled, trailed after them, pausing only to pull on the spare pair of hiking boots he kept at the cabin. A fleeting thought of the ridiculous appearance he must make passed through his mind.


Rain earlier in the day followed by plummeting temperatures had raised a thick mist, and the surrounding woods looked spooky as hell, shrouded in tatters of ghostly gray. God, he hoped Elijah wasn’t planning on taking them for a hike. Mack shivered and pulled his flannel robe closer around him. He wasn’t keen on setting foot inside those pine trees, even with a Woodjin to lead them—a naked Woodjin, and what the fuck was Elijah doing anyway, he must be freezing his ass off, and why was Sean, a doctor for fuck’s sake, letting him risk catching pneumonia?


Questions rattled around Mack’s brain like peas in a metal bucket, but at least his fear of entering the woods was set to rest when Elijah came to a halt midway between the house and the barn.


Mack had a strange sense then that even though he was standing right there, he was totally invisible, for his brother and Elijah were focused on each other to the exclusion of all else. Mist swirled around them as they came together in a fierce embrace, the kind shared by lovers who feared they might never see each other again.


“Be careful, Woodjin,” Mack heard Sean say.


“I’ll do my best,” Elijah replied. He took Sean’s face between his hands, kissed him on the brow, and said softly, “My blessing on you now and for always, Sean.”


It wasn’t the first time that Mack had heard Sean call Elijah ‘Woodjin’, nor was it the first time he’d heard Elijah bestow his blessing on Sean or another piney as part of that peculiar calling or duty or whatever the hell it was that being Woodjin entailed. Never before, though, had he heard Elijah add ‘now and for always’, and never before had the blessing caused actual tears to sting Mack’s eyes with its solemnity. Whatever was going on, and to say he was mystified was a gross understatement, it must be damn serious—that much, at least, was no mystery.


Eyes never leaving Elijah, Sean reached out and took Mack by the wrist. His hand was icy cold. “Stay here,” he cautioned, as Elijah moved, walking several yards away from them before stopping. Not even Maggie went with him.


“Sean, what the fuck is going on?” Mack demanded.


But it was Elijah who answered him. “Sean will explain everything to you, I promise.” The ghost of a smile played over his lips as he added, “Just keep in mind what Shakespeare wrote, Mack: ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.”


Then he closed his eyes and tilted his head back. His hands that had been hanging at his sides, fingers dangling loosely, clenched into fists, and a furrow appeared between the dark slashes of his brows.


A number of things started happening at once then, impossible things that left Mack stunned, gaping in wonder and disbelief. He’d worked on a number of films that employed special effects, had seen many more in movie theaters, but not even Weta or Industrial Light & Magic could match what he was witnessing with his very own eyes, without the aid of 3-D glasses, blue screens or motion capture.


The silver ring on the third finger of Elijah’s right hand began pulsing with white light. The black tattoo above his right hip glowed red as if it were a burning brand. And the air… Mack blinked and shook his head as if to clear his vision, but the weird distortion of the air around Elijah was no anomaly of his eye sight. The air was moving, literally moving, shifting and melting until Elijah was no more than an oddly distorted, blurred, vaguely human shape.


“Holy shit,” Mack breathed, and Sean’s fingers tightened around his wrist almost painfully.


As if things weren’t already weird enough, a light appeared, tiny but intensely bright in the mist and gloom. Rapidly it blossomed and grew, brighter and brighter, illuminating the yard as if it were broad daylight, reminding Mack of a time lapse video of the rising sun that he’d once seen. But the light continued to grow in intensity until he was at last forced to close his eyes against its dazzle. He could hear a low electric hum as if the very air was crackling, charged with energy. He couldn’t tell what direction the hum came from; it seemed to be all around him. He was grateful for the firm grip of Sean’s hand, an anchor to reality in a sea of strangeness.


Seconds passed—Mack had no idea how many; they could have counted minutes or hours—until the red glow behind his eyelids gradually diminished, and the electric hum faded with it. Whatever was happening appeared to be coming to an end.


“You can open your eyes now.” Sean let out his characteristic huff of laughter. “And meet the real Woodjin.”


Cautiously, half fearing but totally intrigued by what he might see, Mack cracked his eyelids open—and gasped aloud. Elijah had vanished. But there, in the precise spot that he’d been standing, now stood a stag, a magnificent, majestic white stag with his head held regally high. His coat was white as new-fallen snow, his antlers, whose tines were sharply pointed and lethal-looking, were black as coal, and his wide, liquid eyes were an unmistakable cobalt blue—the color of Elijah’s eyes.


No fucking way.


This can’t be real, Mack thought, his mind rejecting the evidence of his own eyes. This fucking can’t be real. But the stag tossed his head, snorted and pawed at the ground, and the steam that billowed from his flared nostrils, and the clod of wet sand dug up by his cloven hoof, were real, as real as Mack was himself.


Before he could absorb the incredible truth—Elijah, his brother-in-law, was an honest-to-god shape-shifter—the white stag wheeled on his muscular haunches, bounded away into the mist and disappeared from view.


Mack discovered he was shaking and had a death grip on his brother’s hand. “Sean, what happened here?” he said in a voice that also shook. “What the fuck just happened here?”


“Magic,” Sean said softly, his gaze fixed on the spot where the white stag had vanished. “Magic happened.”


~*~


The kitchen was quiet save for Maggie’s rhythmic purr and the ticking of the Audubon clock on the wall. It now read 4:15. Mack cradled his second cup of coffee between his hands and watched as his brother took a sip of the herb tea and honey that he favored.


Poor Sean—even such an accomplished talker as he was must have a dry throat after talking non-stop for nearly an hour and a half. He’d patiently explained everything to Mack, as Elijah had promised he would—or nearly everything. Mack suspected there were still some secrets to which he’d never be privy. Which was fine by him. Shakespeare might be right, but there was just so much a 21st century guy could handle at one time.


It was like emerging from a particularly vivid waking dream or a trance, for Mack had been transported, carried away by his brother’s eloquence into a different world, a world where magic, both light and dark, existed, a world where legends were fact not fiction. Elijah’s world. The Woodjin’s world.


And it was real.


In truth, he felt more than a little shell-shocked. He’d never believed that there was such a thing as ‘real’ magic. It was either a trick of the illusionist’s art, or a trade skill of the SFX experts. Had it been anyone other than his brother Sean telling him such seemingly preposterous stories, about a legendary white stag and the Jersey Devil and a closely-kept secret that generations of pineys had protected, sometimes literally with their lives, he’d never have believed them.


But it was Sean, and his brother was the most straightforward and honest person he knew, and if he said that Elijah, in the guise of a white stag, had saved him from certain death at the razor-tipped claws of the Jersey Devil, who was a demon accidentally released from the underworld, well, then Mack believed him. Besides, as an actor, Mack was skilled at interpreting the nuances of speech, and Sean had spoken with an unembellished sincerity that couldn’t be faked.


“Mack, I’m sorry it took so long to let you in on the secret,” Sean said, setting down his mug. “You’re my brother, and I trust and love you, and it wasn’t easy to keep this from you. But keeping in you in the dark wasn’t only for Elijah’s protection but for yours, too. Expecting anyone on the outside to guard a secret of this magnitude, requiring them never to breathe a word about it to another living soul, is asking a lot.” He looked troubled as he fidgeted with the mug, turning it this way and that on the tablecloth. “I hope you aren’t pissed at me.”


“Pissed at you? Sean, I’m honored that you and Elijah trust me enough to let me in on the secret,” Mack said, and it was true. He was both honored and humbled.


He remembered the lengths to which Sean had gone during his final months in New York, when he was freeing himself from his ties there, to keep Elijah safe. Mack hadn’t really understood or quite bought Sean’s explanations at the time, because it seemed extreme, an overreaction, but it was easy to understand now that he knew the truth about the Woodjin. He didn’t need Sean to spell out what it would mean if Elijah’s secret was discovered by the outside world—after all, he lived in the heart of ‘15 minutes of fame’ country. This peaceful, secluded haven would be overrun with TV cameras and reporters, and Elijah’s life would become the peculiar living hell that unwanted celebrity conferred.


“And I promise you that I’ll guard that secret with my life. Scout’s honor.” Mack raised his right hand, with his ring and pinky fingers bent and his thumb curled around them.


“I haven’t seen you swear scout’s honor since we were kids, Mack,” Sean said with a smile. “But I hope you know it isn’t necessary—I trust you implicitly, and so does Elijah.” He blew out through his lips and relaxed his tense shoulders. “Jesus, you have no idea what a relief it is to have finally told you. Although,” he added with a small huff of laughter, “you’re probably wondering how your boring older brother ended up involved in such fantastical goings on.”


“To be honest, the only thing about all this that doesn’t surprise me is that you’re involved,” Mack said, and it was true. “You always did like fairy tales, Sean, and I’ve never known anyone who has as open and accepting a mind and heart as you do.”


“Well, it was all a bit much even for me to take in at first,” Sean said, a reminiscent look in his eyes, “but god, when I discovered the truth… it was like being inside a fairy tale, Mack. Hell, it still is. Watching Elijah transform never grows old, believe me.”


Mack could believe it. How could it get old, watching magic happen before your very eyes? “And you’ll really feel if anything happens to him while he’s out there?”


Sean nodded. “Yes.” The reminiscent look faded. He sighed. “Like I told you, that’s the darker side to the fairy tale—knowing that Elijah’s out there risking his life. Not knowing if he’ll make it safely home again if he’s injured, or if I can reach him in time to save him. Even my training as a doctor is no guarantee that I can save him, although I’d die trying.”


Sean’s statement was matter of fact, not melodramatic. Mack could see the implacable truth in his eyes and the set of his jaw. It was clear that he would die for Elijah, in a heartbeat.


For a moment, Mack experienced a flicker of something that might have been envy. Sean was involved in things far greater than himself, matters of life and death and magic, while his biggest worries were memorizing his lines and hitting his marks filming an episode of his sitcom. What must it be like to love someone as deeply as Sean loved Elijah, Mack wondered. He’d probably never know.


Then Sean laughed. “Of course, Elijah would kill me if I died trying to save him,” he added, and he was Mack’s self-deprecating older brother again, the one who used humor as a shield against too much emotion.


Maggie, who had been contentedly purring in Sean’s lap, sat up. Her ears swiveled to attention and her amber eyes fixed on the darkness beyond the picture window. She meowed.


“He’s back, thank god,” Sean said, briefly closing his eyes, and the relief in his voice was so profound that Mack wondered how over the years his brother had endured the agonizing hours, alone in a quiet kitchen save for Maggie and the ticking of the clock.


“Sean,” he said, as they got up from the table, “if you ever need anyone to talk to, to hold your hand, even if it’s only from a distance, call me. It doesn’t matter what time of the day or night it is. You were always there for me, especially when Dad was sick, and I’d like to be there for you the same way.”


Sean set a hand on Mack’s shoulder and gripped it hard. “Thanks. I’ll definitely keep that in mind.” His voice was gruff and his eyes were suspiciously bright.


They returned to the yard in time to see the white stag emerge from the mist and gallop towards them, and Mack’s heart caught at the sight. Jesus, he thought, it’s like in that movie Enchanted: it’s like he’s escaped from a Disney animated fairy tale and stepped into the real world.


The stag slid to a halt in front of them, in a spray of damp sand, and half-reared.


“Show off,” Sean said, but he was grinning. He held up the thick flannel bathrobe he’d brought with him. “Whenever you’re ready, Woodjin. I want to get you checked out, cleaned up, and then we could all use some sleep.”


That’s when Mack noticed that the stag’s legs to the knees and hocks were coated in mud, and his flanks and belly were liberally splashed with it, too. He wondered where he’d been called and why.


The stag snorted and tossed his head and danced back a few steps.


“Wait a minute,” Mack said impulsively. “Can I… would it be okay if I…” What was the correct terminology? ‘Pet’ seemed ludicrous under the circumstances. “Can I touch him?” An overwhelming need to prove by touch the evidence of his eyes consumed him, and who knew if he’d ever have this chance again?


Sean smiled at him with perfect understanding. “Of course you can touch him. Go ahead.”


Mack’s heart beat faster as he approached the stag. He was five feet ten, but the white stag dwarfed him, and he tried to wrap his head around the fact that this powerful, athletic animal and his short, slight brother-in-law were one and the same.


Tentatively, he laid his left hand on the stag’s shoulder. The fur was soft and warm, damp from the mist, and the sensitive skin twitched a little beneath his palm, the way Mack had seen a horse’s skin twitch when a fly settled on it. He stood there for a minute or so, unmoving, absorbing the experience and breathing in the pungent, but not unpleasant, woodsy tang that emanated from the stag’s body.


Just to the right of Mack’s hand was a roughly circular patch of puckered furless skin—with a jolt he recognized, from Sean’s vivid account of the night he’d discovered the Woodjin’s true identity, the scar left by a bullet wound. That was the moment when the stag truly became real to him—no longer a mythical being, but a flesh and blood creature who was not impervious to harm. If anything, the knowledge increased Mack’s awe and wonder.


“Wow.” The soft exclamation escaped him.


The stag turned his head, careful to avoid clocking Mack with his antlers. His whiskery velvet muzzle briefly tickled the back of Mack’s hand. Large liquid blue eyes, not-quite-human eyes, even though they bore a distinct resemblance to those of his alter ego, looked straight into Mack’s own. He read in them understanding, but also a hint of amusement, as if the stag was enjoying having rocked Mack’s world.


Mack recalled that sliding, sand-spraying stop and Sean’s affectionate, amused accusation of ‘Show off’. It seemed the white stag, unlike Elijah, who was the most modest guy Mack had ever met, had a bit of an ego—and why not? He truly was one of a kind.


Finally, Mack dropped his hand and stepped back to Sean’s side. “Thank you,” he said, and then, moved by some impulse he couldn’t deny, he sketched a bow—something he hadn’t done since the long-ago days of his adolescent dancing lessons. The stag dipped his majestic head in acknowledgement of Mack’s tribute.


The second transformation was no less spine tingling than the first, but this time when Mack cautiously opened his eyes, he saw his slight, unassuming, magical, shape-shifting brother-in-law being wrapped in his robe by Sean. Elijah looked pale and a little drawn—Sean had said the transforming took a physical toll on him— but he was smiling his usual infectious smile as he said, “Hey Mack.”


“Hey Elijah.” And really, what else was there to say?


“So what happened out there?” Sean asked, knotting the belt of the bathrobe. He slung an arm around Elijah’s shoulders and they started walking back to the house.


“A couple of hikers got disoriented in the mist. Poor guys ended up floundering around in the middle of a bog,” Elijah said around a yawn. “I gave them a lift back to their camp. They were a little shaken up, but they should be fine.”


He spoke matter-of-factly, as if it were all in a night’s work for him.


“The Devil?”


“I got there first.”


“Thank god for that.”


“I thought everybody navigated with GPS these days and couldn’t get lost,” Mack remarked.


“GPS doesn’t work reliably in the pines,” Sean explained. “Drives scientists nuts, because they can’t figure out why. They don’t know, and we’ll certainly never tell them, that it’s disrupted by magical force fields.”


“No shit?” Mack said, impressed.


“No shit.”


“That’s why I haven’t found myself out of a job yet,” Elijah joked.


Sean went into full doctor mode when they got into the kitchen, pressing hot tea into Elijah’s hands, and draping a wool blanket over his shoulders. Caring for Elijah was uppermost in his mind, and Mack could see that he was neither needed nor wanted now. Considering that it was nearly 5:30 a.m., it was no difficulty for Mack to muster a yawn, and say, “I’m heading back to bed, you two. Gotta get my beauty sleep so I look good on Letterman tonight.”


That got Sean’s attention. “You planning on wearing that outfit?” he joked, and Elijah giggled.


Mack laughed. “It’s what all Emmy-nominated actors are wearing these days- flannel bathrobes with hiking boots.” Then he sobered. "Elijah, before I go, I want to tell you the same thing I told Sean earlier. I will never give you cause to regret trusting me with your secret, I swear. I promise faithfully to guard it with my life.”


“I consider you a piney, too, Mack, even if you can only be here sometimes,” Elijah said quietly. “I know you’ll never betray me.”


The first time he’d met Elijah, Mack had been as nervous as he’d ever been in his entire life, afraid that he wouldn’t pass muster with the man Sean loved. To be accepted and trusted, not only as Sean’s brother but also on his own terms, to be considered a member of the tight-knit piney community, was more than he could have hoped for.


The phone call from his agent informing him of his Emmy nomination hadn’t given Mack half the sense of pride and honor that he carried with him as he returned to his bedroom.


He collapsed onto the bed, pulled the covers over him, and fell at once into sleep, where he dreamed of a great white stag galloping ghost-like through the misty woods.


He woke six hours’ later, feeling pretty wrecked, but a long hot shower revived him. Fred was out of his shell, and listened with apparent interest as Mack filled him in on the events of the night while he brushed his teeth and shaved. “I’m sure it’s no biggie to you, Fred,” Mack remarked as he rinsed his razor under the tap, “but shit… even though I know what I saw was real, I’m still having a hell of a time believing it.” Fred blinked in an understanding sort of way, or so it seemed to Mack.


He put on jeans and a tee shirt and went along to the kitchen, where he found Elijah and Maggie. Morning light filled the comfortable, homey room, glinting off the shiny copper pots hanging from the ceiling beams. Nothing could have appeared more ordinary and every day than the calico cat napping on one of the kitchen chairs that stood in a patch of sunshine, or the barefoot man in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt who smiled at Mack and said, “Good morning. Sean’s out doing rounds with Rocky, but he should be back any minute. Have a seat and I’ll pour you some coffee. What would you like to eat?”


“I…” Mack began, but suddenly he was completely at a loss for words, overwhelmed by the knowledge of exactly who and what Elijah was. Nothing could have looked more ordinary, maybe, but the truth was that no one could be more extraordinary than Elijah.


The sense of unreality and distance that sleep had given him vanished. Mack was acutely aware that he was in the presence of the Woodjin, who had saved his brother’s life, who risked his life over and over again to protect this place and the people in it. Beneath the soft plaid flannel shirt, Elijah, like the white stag, bore a puckered scar in his shoulder. That scar was the result of taking a bullet while saving the life of the very man who shot him. Mack felt unworthy to be in his presence, awed by Elijah’s selflessness and the depths of courage he possessed.


“Mack, don’t,” said Elijah. He crossed swiftly to him and set a hand on his arm. His eyes were wide and beseeching and his voice a little sad as he continued, “Please don’t think of me any differently because of last night, okay? I’m still just Elijah, the same guy you’ve drunk beer with, and played video games with, and argued over music with. I haven’t changed.”


Mack nodded. A lump in his throat made it difficult to speak. “I’ll try not to,” he said at last. “I promise.”


“Thanks.” Elijah removed his hand. “You know, Sean was the first person who discovered my secret but never stopped seeing me as myself, not as the Woodjin. He’s always accepted me just the way I am. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with him.”


“And exactly how many lame Billy Joel impressions has he inflicted on you over the years?” Mack said, thinking how lucky his brother and Elijah were, to have found each other in spite of the monumental odds against them ever meeting. It had to have been fate.


“A few,” Elijah admitted, and a giggle escaped him. “To be honest, I’ve grown kind of fond of that song—but don’t tell him that,” he added hastily.


“Wild horses couldn’t drag your secret from me,” Mack joked, but Elijah wasn’t fooled.


He threw his arms around Mack and gave him a quick, fierce hug that warmed Mack’s heart. “You’re a good man, Mackenzie Astin.” And then Elijah’s face lit up, the way it did for only one person. “Sean’s coming up the drive,” he said happily. “Now go sit down and let me get your coffee. And tell me what you want to eat. I don’t want you going off to the city on an empty stomach.”


How had he known Sean was coming up the drive? Once Mack would have wondered, speculated and rationalized. But no more, for this was the Woodjin’s home, a place of magic, where anything, it seemed, was possible.


~end~