What the Heart Can Hold by Lbilover

Written for OTP Summer Dreams Month at Tol Eressëa for the wish: a Sean/Elijah fic in which Elijah, in dire need of a transplant, receives the heart of a victim of a car accident. Months after his surgery, he meets Sean in the park and the two are inexplicably drawn to each other. We find out that the heart Elijah received came from Sean's late wife. This was one of the more intense and fascinating fic writing experiences I've had. My research into heart transplants led me to cellular memory in transplant patients, and I was blown away by what I learned. I also discovered that at least one heart transplant patient ended up marrying the widower of her donor.



Labradoodle_Brown
Labradoodle_Brown
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Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold ~ Zelda Fitzgerald


October


The beeper on the bedside table goes off, shrill and imperative.


For an instant, everyone in the room is still, eyes fixed on the small black device, and then things begin to happen very fast.


Elijah's dad, unstoppable tears streaming down his cheeks, picks up the phone to call an ambulance. His mom gives Elijah a careful hug, breathes, "Thank God," and then hurries to the closet to retrieve the suitcase that has been packed in readiness, in hopefulness, of this moment for the past eleven months. "I'll get the car out of the garage," says Hannah in a high excited voice, and races downstairs. Only Elijah doesn't move. He can't. He's too weak.


He isn't afraid. He's been carefully prepped by his doctors and transplant coordinator. He understands the risks involved in the surgery and the lifelong changes it will mean if he survives. But the alternative is certain death, and he is only twenty-three and he's not ready to die.


Yet Elijah is all too well aware that someone else has had to die in order for him to live.


~*~


February


Dear Donor Family,


On October 2, 2004 I received a heart from your loved one, after almost a year on a waiting list. Thanks to her and you, my life has been renewed. I want you to know that I treasure the incredible gift that I've been given with my new heart, and I will take the utmost care of it. With every beat I am reminded of her and I promise to honor her memory by making the very best use of the extra time I have been given.


I've just turned twenty-four. I was thirteen years old when I was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. I crossed the stage to receive my high school diploma using a walker, had to give up playing music, put away my dreams of college and a career, of love and a family of my own. But now, because of her and you, I've taken those dreams out of storage. I'm playing again, and next fall I'll be starting my freshman year in college. It is as if windows that were closed and shuttered have been flung open at last, flooding my soul with sunlight. This is the gift you've given to me. I wonder if you can imagine how it feels.


Although I don't know your identities, I consider you to be a part of my family now and my thoughts turn to you constantly with sympathy, gratitude and love. I hope that your grief over her loss is tempered by the knowledge that her selfless generosity has made such an enormous difference to me and to my father, mother and sister, and that a part of her lives on inside me.


I can never thank her or you enough for this precious gift, the gift of life.


A Grateful Recipient



~*~


June


The trail around the pond is precisely .73 miles long, and Elijah uses it as a road map for his recovery. The first time he'd come to the park, in company with Hannah, he'd barely managed one circuit. His sister, hovering at his shoulder, had looked as if she were about to scream or faint or try to pick him up and carry him. But she hadn't. It has taken months, but his family have learned not to panic or freak at the first sign of weakness or weariness, to accept that Elijah is, in fact, well again. His heart is working fine; it simply needs time to adapt to its new lodgings, and for the body it inhabits to regain its strength after years of enforced inactivity.


He walks along the path at a good pace, swinging his arms, and though he's well into his fourth circuit, his breathing is deep and easy, his heart functioning like the well-oiled machine it should resemble. He starts any exercise slowly, because it takes that machine time to warm up and get into sync. Alice, his transplant coordinator, compares it to starting a diesel engine in cold weather, although in fact it's a consequence of nerves necessarily cut during the five-hour transplant surgery. And she'd warned Elijah that likely it will always be the case, just as he will always need to take immunosuppressive drugs to guard against rejection, and will require regular monitoring for signs that, despite the drugs, his body is rejecting the donor heart; or signs that the drugs are causing some other complication. But the blood tests and biopsies, the powerful drugs with their side effects, the slow-syncing heart, are a very small price to pay considering what he has gained.


If Elijah wanted, he could jog most of the distance - that's how far he's come in the months since his surgery. But he saves the running for the treadmill in physical therapy; after spending so many years as an invalid, he relishes the simple joys of a walk in the park, with the sun warm on his shoulders and the soft breeze caressing his face. He will never, ever take such blessings for granted, not only for himself but for her, the woman whose heart now beats in his chest. As he was wheeled into surgery eight months earlier, he'd made a silent vow: If I survive this, I'll live not only for me, but for you, too. He means to keep that promise.


She is a constant presence in his life, his heart donor, not only physically, but emotionally and mentally. Due to the confidentiality laws surrounding organ donation, Elijah has been told nothing about her except the few things he's legally entitled to know: her gender, her age when she died - thirty-six - and the fact that she died in an automobile accident. He has no idea if she was married or had children, what her hobbies were, if she was fair or dark, tall or short.


But while he is intensely curious about her, and hopes someday to meet his donor family and discover the answers to his myriad questions, he can wait. Lying in a bed month after month had schooled him in patience, whether he wanted to learn it or not. Beyond that, he's changed since the surgery, lost the restiveness that had given him his childhood nickname of Monkey. He has no inclination to return to his manic ways now that he's gotten back his strength. It's simply no longer who he is. With his new heart, he's discovered, has come a new outlook on life, one that is calmer and more reflective. Hardly surprising, considering what he's been through, but there have been other changes, too - startling changes - with which he is still coming to terms.


Those changes are on his mind whenever he walks in the park, a place to which he has been strangely drawn and with which he feels intimately familiar - and had since the first time he walked through the gates several months earlier. It's a puzzle without a single piece to fit and make sense of, because he had never visited this particular park before his surgery. When Elijah was eighteen, his parents moved them closer to the hospital where he was forced to spend so much of his time, and walks in the park weren't even an option then.


When Elijah arrives back at the entrance, he cuts across the grass and sits down on an empty bench overlooking the pond, large and irregularly shaped with stands of cattails and vivid green water lilies adorned by gorgeous white blossoms. He uncaps the bottle of spring water he brought with him and settles back. It's peaceful and uncomplicated and exactly what his soul needs. He's not anti-social, but his life has necessarily involved a plethora of caregivers - doctors, nurses, therapists, psychologists - poking and prodding at his body and mind. His gratitude to them knows no bounds, and he's come to consider some of them true friends, but like a child on a bike from which the training wheels have just been removed, it's time he learned to manage without them.


A thriving colony of mallards and green-winged teals inhabits the pond. It's another of those peculiarities that Elijah can tell the two species apart. What he previously knew about waterfowl wouldn't have covered the head of a pin. The ducks are currently squabbling loudly over crusts of bread being tossed in the water by an elderly man standing on the wooden bridge that spans the pond at its narrowest point. Elijah grins as he watches them jockeying for the best position when the man takes more crusts from the plastic Wonder Bread bag he's holding. He never does find out which of the ducks score, however, for a large dog with a curly rust-brown coat bounds up to him, and demands his attention.


"Well, hello there, you," Elijah says. He loves dogs, and he's been thinking that maybe he'll get one once he has his own place and life - a goal that's definitely now within reach. Weirdly this is exactly the kind of dog he's pictured in his mind - a brown Labradoodle. The dog's dark eyes beam at him from under its shaggy brows, and it wags its tail so enthusiastically that its entire rear end shimmies. Clearly its intentions are friendly, so when it puts its round front paws on Elijah knees and woofs at him, Elijah only laughs and pets the soft curling fur.


"God, I'm sorry. I don't know what's gotten into him. He usually has better manners than this." A shapely masculine hand grasps the dog's red nylon collar and pulls him gently away. It belongs to a short, slightly stout, middle-aged man dressed in jeans, a faded maroon sweatshirt and sneakers. "Chase, I'm surprised at you," he addresses the dog. "You know you're not supposed to jump on people." Chase whines and pulls against the man's restraining hand. "I'm sorry," he says again to Elijah. "He's normally a very well-behaved dog."


"It's okay," Elijah assures him. "I honestly don't mind. You can let go of him if you want."


"Well, if you're sure..." He releases Chase's collar and the next instant Elijah's lap is full of warm, cuddly dog. The man frowns and fingers the ends of the leash as he watches them. "I haven't seen him do that since..." He breaks off abruptly. His expression turns carefully neutral, but not before Elijah glimpses, as if through a veil momentarily pulled back, a depth of pain that stuns him. The man has beautiful eyes - clear green with flecks of golden brown - and Elijah has the strangest sensation that he could fall straight into them like diving into a pool...


Impulsively he asks, "Won't you sit down?"


After a moment's hesitation the man does. Elijah sets aside the water bottle and holds out his hand. "I'm Elijah Wood."


The man takes Elijah's proffered hand and shakes it. "Sean Astin." The warm firm clasp has an undeniable effect on Elijah, like a mild electrical shock that tingles throughout his body, and as they break the contact, he wonders if Sean Astin, too, has felt that pleasant tingle.


"I'm sorry for interrupting your walk," Elijah says, although he isn't at all sorry. Sean is a very attractive man, and opportunities to spend time in the company of a very attractive man when he's feeling well enough to appreciate it have been few and far between in his life.


"Please don't be," Sean replies. "Chase seems perfectly happy where he is and the walk was more for him than me."


"He's a beautiful dog," Elijah says admiringly. "How old is he?"


"Four years old. We got him from a shelter when he was eighteen months. Crazy, huh? Can you imagine someone giving up a dog like him?" Sean sounds incredulous.


'We'. The simple word puts a damper on Elijah's spirits, and then he notices the plain gold band on Sean's left ring finger. It's irrational to be disappointed, of course, since he's only just met Sean, but Elijah has never been so instantly drawn to anyone before. It's not only Sean's looks, though he finds the combination of those beautiful green eyes with thick, slightly unruly chestnut hair stunning. No, it's something else, something indefinable. But although he can't put his finger on it, it exists. It's real. The thought flashes into his mind that here is the reason he's been coming to the park, but even to him that sounds batshit crazy, and Elijah can only imagine what Sean would think if he could read his mind. Jump up and run like hell, probably.


He says softly, "I can't imagine anyone giving him up. But it sure sounds like it was your good fortune."


"It definitely was." Sean reaches over and tousles the mop of curls on Chase's head. "I don't know what I'd have done without him after my wife died," he says very quietly. Then he gives a funny half-laugh. "Chase used to lie across her lap like that, you know. She was the only person he ever did that to - until today."


Elijah understands now the pain he'd glimpsed in Sean's eyes. "I'll get him down," he says, and starts to shift, preparing to lift Chase off his lap.


But Sean briefly touches his sleeve and shakes his head. "It's okay."


Elijah subsides, hoping Sean is okay with it and not simply being polite. "I'm so sorry about your wife," he says quietly.


Sean folds his hands, bows his head and is silent. Chase whines and paws at his arm. He takes a deep breath, straightens and says, "Thank you, Elijah. It was eight months ago, and appearances to the contrary, I'm managing well enough."


Eight months. Elijah had received his new heart eight months ago. While he was beginning a new life, Sean had been dealing with a terrible loss. It doesn't seem fair.


"What was your wife's name?" he asks. Maybe he has no right, but it's a question he can't ask about the woman who gave him her heart and who had died around the same time.


"Her name was Christine." Chase whines again, and Sean says, "You know, I promised myself that when I started going out and about I wouldn't introduce her death as the first topic of conversation with everyone I meet." He sighs and rubs the back of his neck. "Let's talk about something else, all right? Tell me what brings you to the park today."


For eleven years, Elijah's life has been defined by his heart disease. It strikes him that it doesn't have to be that way with Sean. He can finally, for the first time in those eleven years, be nothing more than an average, ordinary guy to someone else. He understands, none better, why Sean wants to change the conversation, how sometimes it's a relief to shed your burden for a little while before picking it up again.


So he replies lightly, "I came to watch the ducks. They make me laugh."


To Elijah's surprise, that makes Sean grin; laugh lines spring to life at the corners of his eyes, and with them he sheds several years. Elijah realizes that Sean is younger than he'd thought - not middle-aged at all. "The first time we brought Chase to the park, he decided it would be great fun to play with the ducks. Only they didn't agree, and then a pair of swans came over to express their disapproval of his plan in no uncertain terms. It was quite a scene." He laughs and tousles Chase's fur again. "You keep a respectful distance now, don't you, boy?"


"Poor Chase," Elijah says, but he can't help but laugh, too, at the mental picture Sean has painted. And then his eyes meet Sean's, and he experiences it again, that electric tingle, and a sense almost of recognition.


The laughter fades from Sean's face; he tilts his head to the side, looking puzzled. "This is probably going to sound like some cheesy pick up line," he says slowly, "and it's not meant to be, I promise. But... have we met before, Elijah? I can't put my finger on it, but," he lifts his shoulders in a shrug, "you seem familiar."


So he's not the only one, Elijah thinks. Sean's experiencing it, too. "To be honest, I've been wondering the same thing, because you seem familiar to me, too. But I don't think we have. Not that I can recall, at any rate." He doesn't add that he can't imagine ever forgetting Sean if he'd met him, even when he was at his sickest in the hospital.


"Maybe we met in a previous life?" Sean suggests with a smile.


"Maybe," Elijah agrees. "But where and when? And who were we?"


Solemnly, Sean intones, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"


Elijah giggles, and they start coming up with increasingly improbable scenarios for a past life meeting. Their wits play against each other, sharpening like knives; it's a heady experience for Elijah, and he sees vividly what life can be like without his illness casting a shadow across it.


"But what about in this life?" Sean says when they stop laughing over the image of themselves as protozoan acquaintances in the primordial soup. "What do you do besides duck watching?"


Elijah is taken up short by the question. His life has been on hold for so long that he doesn't have an answer, or at least not one he wants to share, because the majority of his time is still spent dealing with his transplant, and he doesn't want Sean to view him as an invalid. "I'm a musician," he replies. "A drummer."


It's not a lie, although it's not the entire truth. He's started to play again, but he's rusty as hell. Drums are more physically demanding than most instruments, and it's been a struggle. He might never get to the point where he can play a long demanding set, and his dreams of traveling the world as the member of a kick-ass rock band have been permanently set aside.


"Cool," Sean says. "Do you play in a band?"


Elijah shakes his head. His old bandmates from grade school have moved on to other things, although they get together occasionally to jam in Elijah's basement - mostly to keep him happy. They're a great bunch of guys, and have stuck with him through thick and thin. "I used to, but I took a... short break after high school. I'm starting college in the fall, though, and I'm planning to be a music major."


Sean smiles. "That's music to my ears, Elijah. In my current incarnation, I'm a guidance counselor at Loyola High School. Where are you enrolled?"


"Just Santa Monica Community." Elijah flushes a little. He'd had aspirations for Juilliard or Berklee once. His drum teacher had told him he had the talent to aim for the top.


"There's no 'just' about it," Sean says. "It's an excellent school; you can get a wonderful education there. I've sent a lot of students to SMC over the years. Many of them have then transferred to four-year colleges like USC. Something to think about." He gives a self-deprecating laugh. "Sorry - occupational hazard, offering advice. I'm sure you got plenty from your guidance counselor and don't need to hear it from me, too."


Elijah doesn't tell him that he'd never had any advice from a guidance counselor, because he was far too sick by then to think about attending college. "No, that's all right. I appreciate the advice, Sean."


His cell phone rings. He glances at the display and sees that it's his mother, and though he very much wants to ignore her, just this once, he can't. For someone like him, not answering a call from his family isn't an option. Ever.


"Excuse me for a minute?" he asks, and Sean nods. "Hey, Mom."


"Elijah, where are you? Have you forgotten you have a biopsy appointment in half an hour?"


"Oh shit, I did forget. I'm sorry, Mom. I'm still at the park." Guilt floods him. His parents have spent endless hours ferrying him to and from his numerous appointments. The least he can do is make sure to be home on time.


"Is everything okay, honey?" Though she speaks calmly, Elijah can hear the worry lacing his mother's voice.


"Everything's fine, Mom. I just lost track of the time. I'll be home as soon as I can."


"Your father can pick you up on the way. Meanwhile I'll call the clinic and let them know you'll be a little late, all right?"


"Thanks, Mom. Love you." Elijah ends the call and gives Sean a regretful look. "I'm sorry, Sean, but I have to go. I have an appointment." He gently dislodges Chase, still happily ensconced on his lap, and gets up.


Sean stands, too. He unslings Chase's leash from around his neck and snaps the metal clip to the dog's collar. "He might try to follow you otherwise," Sean explains with a wry smile. "I've never seen him take to a stranger the way he's taken to you, Elijah."


Flushing a little, Elijah bends to pet the dog, whose tail is going a mile a minute. "The feeling is mutual, Chase. I hope I'll see you again." He deliberately doesn't look at Sean as he says this, afraid that the depth of wanting will show in his eyes.


"Now that school's out for the summer, we'll be here most days around the same time," Sean says.


It sounds like an invitation to meet, and Elijah makes no attempt to disguise his pleasure as he meets Sean's eyes and replies, "I'll keep that in mind." The gaze lingers, and a queer breathlessness sweeps over him, but not because there's anything wrong with him. For once, it's quite the reverse. "Well, I better get going," he says. "Enjoy your walk."


Elijah doesn't have to glance back to know that Chase isn't the only one watching him as he leaves.


~*~


Elijah stands in front of the bathroom mirror, razor in hand. There isn't much to shave, although there's more than there had been before he started taking cyclosporin. He's glad at least one positive side effect has resulted from his immunosuppressive drugs. He lathers up, shaves carefully and splashes on some aftershave. Then he studies his face in the mirror, trying to view it objectively, the way a stranger would.


The years of illness have taken their toll, but he's less drawn looking than he was and he even has a little color in his cheeks. All in all, it's not so bad, the face that looks back at him. Maybe even attractive in its way. It's strange to find himself caring about his appearance. Strange and also good. Not that he wants to be vain, but until recently he didn't have the energy to care how he looked. Drawing each new breath had been enough of an achievement.


His gaze drops to his bare chest and the livid scar that neatly bisects his torso from his collarbone to his navel. He's been assured that the scar will fade over time, although it will never disappear entirely. He wonders if the sight of it is off-putting or even repellent. He runs a forefinger lightly down it, imagining how the small ridges and lumps of scar tissue, so intimately familiar to him, might feel to a lover. To Sean, his brain whispers. A shiver runs through him, and pink blotches rise on his pale skin as a flush of heat follows in its wake. And that, too, is strange and good. The word 'sex' hadn't been part of his vocabulary for far too long.


But sex in relation to Sean? Abruptly Elijah drops his finger, turns away from the mirror, reaches for the undershirt lying on the toilet seat and pulls it on over his damp hair. He shouldn't be thinking of Sean in that light, he tells himself. They've only just met, and Sean is a fairly recent widower. It's naive and dangerous to think that they can ever be more than friends.


He goes into his bedroom and takes a plaid button down from a hanger in his closet. The collar is high enough to hide the small white bandage covering the spot where the intravenous line had been inserted in his neck to perform the heart biopsy. He knows that if their friendship continues, at some point he'll have to tell Sean about his transplant. But there's no rush. It's early days yet.


He finishes dressing and runs lightly downstairs. "Mom, I'm going for my walk in the park," he says, poking his head through the kitchen door.


"All right, sweetheart. But take some water with you. You know it's risky for you..."


"...to drink out of the drinking fountain. I know, Mom."


"It's water fountain, Elijah," Debbie Wood says, and her face is troubled as she opens the refrigerator and removes a bottle of water.


"Mom, I'm sorry. You know I don't do it on purpose," Elijah says as he takes the bottle from her.


"I know. It's just...unsettling. I expect your father and I will get used to it eventually." She hugs him. "I love you, honey."


"Love you, too, Mom."


Elijah lets himself out the back door and cuts across the yard toward the street, anticipation of seeing Sean again erasing the awkward moment in the kitchen. He knows he's setting himself up for disappointment if Sean isn't there, but at the same time, anticipating something pleasant instead of yet another doctor visit is a pretty fantastic feeling.


When Elijah arrives, Sean is standing with Chase by the entrance. Coincidence, maybe, but he suspects Sean has been waiting for him. Chase sees him and runs up to him, barking enthusiastically. Aglow with pleasure at his reception, Elijah walks over to Sean. "Hi," he says.


"Hi, Elijah." Elijah thinks that Sean definitely looks pleased to see him, too, and the glow intensifies. "We were about to set out on our walk. Would you like to join us?"


"I'd love to," Elijah replies, and can't suppress a happy smile.


They fall into step side by side, while Chase runs in joyful circles around them. Elijah understands exactly how he feels.


~*~


July


"Do you hear that?" Sean asks, cocking his head to one side.


Elijah listens. "Turkey in the Straw!" he exclaims. "It's an ice cream truck. Let's get some, Sean." He jumps up from the bench - their bench as he's started to think of it for they sit there after every walk - and digs in the front pocket of his jeans for his wallet.


Sean laughs at Elijah's enthusiasm. "All right."


"I hope they have something coffee flavored. I've had such a craving for coffee ice cream since..." Elijah catches himself. "I mean, it's my favorite."


"I'm a chocolate guy myself," Sean says, seeming not to notice the near-slip, "but coffee was Christine's favorite, too." He speaks her name easily. In the three weeks they've been meeting at the park, Elijah has noticed that Sean mentions her more and more often, and no longer as if her name bears a nearly intolerable weight of grief. "I might splurge and get a soda, too."


"I can't believe I haven't asked you this yet, but what's your favorite kind of pop?" Elijah says as they join a small crowd of adults and children moving toward the ice cream truck.


Sean gives him a strange look. "I thought you said you were born in LA."


"I was. I'm southern California born and bred," Elijah says proudly.


"Then where on earth did 'pop' come from? That's what they call it in the Midwest. I know because Chris was originally from Indiana."


"It must be something I picked up from one of my friends," Elijah replies, and this, too, is not entirely a lie. He thinks of his heart donor as his friend, and she's the one responsible for him using it, as well as 'drinking fountain' and any number of other Midwestern expressions. She's also the one responsible for his new-found love of Fifties rock n'roll, chili dogs and coffee ice cream.


But Elijah doesn't tell Sean that because he still hasn't told him about the transplant, just as he hasn't told his family, not even Hannah, about Sean. Every time he thinks he's ready to confess, he gets cold feet and decides it can wait a little longer.


~*~


She's anxious to get home, but the traffic on the four-lane road is at a near standstill. She drums her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel as her car inches forward toward the green light.


'Love me tender, love me sweet,' Elvis croons from the speakers, 'never let me go. You have made my life complete, and I love you so.'


Even the King's velvet-smooth voice can't soothe her jangled nerves. She isn't normally like this, but she dislikes driving in traffic and she hates being late. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," she mutters impatiently, and then sighs with exasperation when the light turns red just as she reaches the intersection. "Damn." Well, at least she's first in line now, she thinks. She stares fixedly at the red countdown display as Elvis continues to sing.


'Love me tender, love me true, all my dreams fulfilled. For my darlin' I love you, and I always will.'


The light turns green again, and she presses hard on the accelerator pedal, impatience and frustration coming out in one of those jackrabbit starts that do nothing but waste gas.


The tractor-trailer that barrels through the just-turned red light and into the intersection hits her car broadside, squarely in the driver's door. Through the cacophony of screeching tires, twisting metal and her own agonized screams, she can still hear Elvis singing, 'Love me tender, love me long, take me to your heart. For it's there that I belong, and we'll never part.'


Then all is blackness.


"Elijah." A hand shakes his shoulder. "Lighe, wake up."


Elijah surfaces from the nightmare struggling for breath, his heart hammering like a frightened rabbit's. "H-Hannah?" he gasps, sitting up.


"I'm here." His sister sits down on the bed and puts an arm around his shaking form. She doesn't say anything else, only holds him until his breathing calms and he stops shaking. Then she says quietly, "Was it the nightmare?"


"Yeah." He doesn't have to describe it for her. It's always the same one.


Hannah rubs a comforting hand between his shoulder blades. "Lighe, don't you think you should tell Mom and Dad?"


He shakes his head. "Why burden them with anything else, Han? They're freaked enough by the other stuff. If they find out I'm reliving her death over and over, and through her eyes, they'll totally flip out."


"Oh Elijah. Why is this happening to you?"


"You know why. And it's a small price to pay, Hannah. I don't mind."


"I mind for you," Hannah whispers, resting her cheek on his hair. "It's not fair, after all you've been through."


"She died. Is that fair?" He thinks of Sean, who'd lost his wife. His donor could have been someone's wife, probably had been, and her husband was going through exactly what Sean was. He hugs his sister and says, "Go back to bed. I'm okay now."


She doesn't argue but instead kisses him on the top of his head and gets up. "Night, Lighe."


"Night, Han."


After she leaves, Elijah lies back down. He stares up at the ceiling, at the neon green glow in the dark stars and planets that adorn it, put there by Hannah to give him something beautiful to look at during the unending tedium of his life pre-transplant, when night and day made no difference because he never left his bed. He's twenty-four, still living with his parents and being comforted in his nightmares by his sister, who should be building her life but lingers here for him, working at Starbuck's and taking evening classes at the local community college. The best repayment he can give Hannah, and their parents, is to become strong enough to move out, get his own place, and be independent. Let them move on with their lives, too.


But as he drifts off to sleep again, his hand resting on his chest, feeling beneath his palm the steady beat of the heart that isn't his own, it's not of independence that he's thinking. He's thinking of a home shared with a rust-brown Labradoodle and a man with chestnut hair, clear green eyes and a smile that lights up Elijah's world, a man who can hold Elijah through the nightmare and maybe banish it forever.


~*~


Dear Grateful Recipient,


I apologize for taking so long to reply to your letter. It wasn't for lack of wanting or trying, but I simply couldn't find the proper moment or the right words. I'm not sure I have them now, but I can't let any more time pass without telling you what your letter means to me and to my wife's family.


I have read it many times in the months since receiving it. In fact, I carry your letter with me everywhere. I think of it as both a talisman against grief, and a tangible connection between us. You wrote that you consider us as part of your family now. I want you to know that we feel the same about you. Our thoughts turn to you constantly as well, in hopes that you are daily growing stronger and looking forward to all the blessings the future has to give.


My wife believed strongly in organ donation, and she would be proud to know that she has given you a new lease on life. Though it has taken time for me to reach this place, I now take immense comfort from the knowledge that her heart beats on inside you.


I've discussed it with her family, and at some point in the future, we would very much like to meet you. We aren't quite ready for this step just yet, but when we are, if you're ready and willing, too, then perhaps we can arrange for a meeting.


Until then, please be well and know that our hearts, too, are with you.


Your Donor Family


~*~


"You're very quiet today, Elijah," Sean remarks.


Elijah starts. His thoughts have been a million miles away. Alice had warned him that his donor's family might never write back to him. Not all families wanted to know who received their loved one's heart or to communicate with them, finding it too painful. After months of waiting, he'd more or less given up hope, resigned himself to the fact that he would never hear back from them.


And then yesterday, out of the blue, Alice had called to tell him that the reply to his letter had arrived. Elijah hasn't been able to think about anything else, not even Sean. He hadn't understood how important it was to him to have that contact and even more to know that her family wants to meet him, until he held the precious sheet of paper in his hands. He'd cried as he read the letter, kept on crying long after he finished it. Even now, recalling the words her husband wrote causes his eyes to sting with fresh tears.


He blinks them back and says, "I'm sorry. I got some unexpected news and it's thrown me a little. Not bad news," he adds, seeing the concern in Sean's expression, "just unexpected."


"Do you want to talk about it?" Sean asks gently.


Elijah almost gives in to the urge to tell Sean about the letter, about his donor and and the gray limbo in which he'd existed until the day the beeper, so long silent, went off and his life went into fast-forward. But he fears the consequences, fears what it will do to their ever-growing friendship, precious and important to him and utterly untainted by the illness that casts a long shadow over every other relationship in his life.


"Not right now. It's too beautiful a day for serious discussion." Elijah makes an effort, puts the letter from his mind even though it's in the back pocket of his jeans and almost burning a hole there. "We haven't fed the ducks yet and they look hungry." He gets up and smiles brightly down at Sean. Impulsively, he holds out his hand. "Come on."


Sean takes his hand and allows Elijah to pull him to his feet. But he doesn't let go. Instead he folds his other hand around it so that it is cradled between both his own. Looking intently into Elijah's eyes, he says, "I hope you know you can trust me, Elijah. I care about you very much, and I-" He stops, hesitates as if searching for the right words.


Elijah's heart speeds up as he waits for Sean to go on, but then Sean releases Elijah's hand and bends to pick up the brown paper bag filled with bread crusts from the bench. With an obvious effort he smiles and says, "You're right: it's too beautiful a day for serious discussion."


Will we ever talk seriously? Elijah almost asks. They've carefully skirted any truly personal conversations during their walks, nor have they discussed meeting outside the park. They haven't shared phone numbers or email addresses, and Elijah suspects that Sean, too, is afraid to disrupt the delicate balance of their friendship. It exists apart from both their real lives, as if, once they pass through the gates of the park, they've entered a magic realm where nothing bad can touch them.


But it's not a magic realm, and sometimes, when Sean thinks Elijah doesn't notice, he looks at him the way a man who wants more than friendship would. And Elijah can't help looking at Sean the same way. The tingle of awareness that he'd felt the first time they met has only grown stronger with every meeting. He's becoming discontent with the magic realm and its limits on what they can be and do to each other.


Maybe tomorrow, he thinks, standing beside Sean on the bank and watching him toss a handful of bread to the avidly waiting ducks. I promised her family that I'd make the most of the time she's given me. I need to honor that promise. He gives a small, decisive nod. Tomorrow it is then.


Only when tomorrow comes, Elijah is flushed, feverish and coughing, and by day's end he's back in the hospital, battling pneumocystis pneumonia.


~*~


Elijah hates the clock in his hospital room. All the rooms have them, mounted directly opposite each bed. It's supposed to keep patients anchored in the here and now, so they're aware of the passing of time and avoid the mental confusion that a sterile environment can inflict. But to him the clock is simply a reminder of the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and years he's lost to his illness. He'd thought he was done with it, for a while at least, but he should have known that just as things were finally looking up, he'd get knocked on his ass. He'd been doing so well, too, making solid progress without complications, to the delight of Alice and his doctors.


But he has another reason now to hate the clock. He turns his head away from the inexorable sweep of its black second hand to stare out the window at the deep blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds above the green treetops. But that's almost worse, because right now, outside under that same blue sky, Sean and Chase are at the park, waiting for him to arrive. How long will they wait before they give up?


Elijah shuts his eyes, but while he can block out the sight of clock and sky, nothing can block out the image of a man and his dog, walking by the pond without him.


~*~


August


"Honey, I don't think you should go. You're just starting to feel better and I'm afraid you'll have a relapse," Elijah's mother says when Elijah finishes his breakfast and announces his intention of walking to the park.


"Deb, it's Elijah's decision," Warren says, a slight edge to his voice. "He knows what he's capable of handling better than either of us."


Being a bone of contention between his parents makes Elijah uncomfortable and guilty. They've tried hard to keep it from him, but over the years his illness has tested the bonds of their marriage repeatedly, especially during the tense months waiting, possibly in vain, for a donor heart. Though those bonds have always held fast, the strain shows at times like this, when they're exhausted after dealing with yet another of his health crises.


"Mom, I need to do this," Elijah says. "I'm so fucking tired of lying in bed."


She doesn't even scold him for using the f-bomb. "I know this setback has been very frustrating for you, Elijah, but I wish you'd err on the side of caution and not do too much too soon." Then Debbie sighs in resignation. "But I suppose your father's right. You are the best judge. Though," she adds, attempting to inject some humor into the situation, "the attraction that park has for you is a mystery to me."


"Thanks, Mom," Elijah says, evading the implicit question. "And I promise I'll go slow and not overdo it."


He gets up from the table, and after a quick kiss on his mom's cheek and an appreciative hug for his dad, lets himself out of the house into the warm mid-August morning. It feels wonderful to be walking the familiar route to the park again, but at the same time he's aware that it's past time for him to come clean to his parents and Hannah about Sean.


The setback had been frustrating, but it had also showed Elijah that he can't go on hiding Sean from his family, and hiding his transplant from Sean. The risk of infections like the one he had will be with him the rest of his life because of the immunosuppressive drugs he has to take. Other complications might arise as well, in fact they are pretty well guaranteed to happen at some point, and a serious setback could end up killing him. His new heart doesn't come with a warranty, and it isn't fair to those he loves to keep secrets from them.


And love Sean Elijah does, and definitely not only as a friend. Lying in the hospital for ten days attached to IV lines and monitors, with nothing to do but listen to his iPod, rest and think, the depth and breadth of that love had revealed itself to him. He'd replayed in his mind their many walks together, reliving the intense discussions about topics from gaming to politics and everything in between, the shared laughter, and the moments of quiet companionship.


But as he makes his way slowly along the sidewalk, Elijah mentally prepares himself for disappointment. Three weeks is a long time. Anything could have happened in three weeks. Sean might not even be coming to the park anymore. He might have concluded from Elijah's absence that he's given up on him and Chase and their friendship. The thought is so painful that Elijah unconsciously walks faster, anxiety to find Sean and prove that he isn't faithless giving him strength. Please be there, he thinks. I don't know what I'll do if you aren't.


He stops dead when he sees Sean and Chase by the park entrance, standing in the shade in the same spot where they'd waited for him so many times before. The intensity of his relief is so great that he's almost light-headed.


Sean hasn't given up on him. He's still waiting.


Elijah's throat works, tight with a knot of emotion. He's afraid that making any sound at all is beyond him, but he somehow manages to get out a single breathless, "Sean."


Sean turns his head and sees him. For a moment he stares as if at a ghost, and then he's following after Chase, who bounds across the space between them, and once again forgetting his manners, jumps up and puts his paws on Elijah's chest.


Elijah is as happy to see Chase as the Labradoodle is to see him, but as he pets the overjoyed dog, his gaze remains fixed on Sean, drinking him in as he draws near. He looks more as he had when they first met, tired and somber, and Elijah is very much afraid that that is his doing.


Sean halts a few paces away, studying him closely, taking in his pallid face and the faint lingering shadows beneath his eyes. "You've been ill," he says quietly, and it's a statement, not a question.


"I was in the hospital," Elijah replies. "I had PCP - it's a type of pneumonia."


"Jesus." Sean briefly shuts his eyes, swallows hard. "Jesus, Elijah. I wish I'd known."


Elijah says contritely, "I didn't have any way to contact you, or I would have let you know, Sean. I'm sorry."


"No, that's not what I meant," Sean replies. "I just - I would have liked to be there for you. Helped to take care of you." He moves closer, reaches across Chase and cups Elijah's cheek in his palm. The skin is warm and slightly rough, and the feel of it causes Elijah to tremble inside. "Are you all right? Pneumonia is no laughing matter." His gaze is intent, demanding the truth.


"I'm fine now. Honestly."


Sean moves Chase gently aside, and then he wraps his arms around Elijah, holding him as carefully as if he's made of spun glass. "Thank god," he says in Elijah's ear. "I knew that something was wrong - I don't know how or why, but I did. I've been so worried about you."


Though he would have been happy to remain wrapped in Sean's arms indefinitely, Elijah pulls back to look at him. "Sean, we need to talk," he says in a soft, serious voice. "There are some things I have to tell you."


"And there are some things I have to tell you, too. But not here and not right now, okay?" He takes Elijah's hand between his, as he'd done the last time they'd seen each other, and says, "Are you well enough to have dinner with me tonight, at my place? We can talk then."


Exhilaration bubbles up inside Elijah, and he knows that Sean's invitation is exactly what he needed to feel truly better. "I'm definitely well enough," he says.


Sean pulls a folded piece of lined notebook paper from his pocket. "I've written my address and phone number down for you, as well as my email address." He huffs a laugh. "I've been carrying this around with me for days now, cursing myself for not having given it to you weeks ago, and hoping I hadn't left it too late."


Elijah takes the paper and tucks it away without looking at it. His spirits are so light he's amazed he doesn't simply float off into the sky like a brightly colored helium balloon. "Let's go sit by the pond," he says. "I've missed this so much. Missed you and Chase so much."


They sit on the bench, close together. After a minute, Sean slides his arm around Elijah, unselfconsciously, as if it belongs there. Happier than he can ever remember being in his entire life, Elijah rests his head against the solid warmth of Sean's shoulder.


"Christine loved this park," Sean says softly into the silence. "After she died, I couldn't bring myself to return here, but finally one day I forced myself and I am so glad, because that was the day I met you."


~*~


His mom doesn't argue when Elijah tells her that he won't be home for dinner because he's going out with a friend he ran into at the park. Possibly it's because of the emotional tussle at breakfast, or possibly it's because he quickly adds that he's going to take a nap after lunch so he won't get overtired. Either way, Elijah is relieved to get over the hard ground so lightly.


When lunch is over, he goes up to his room, toes off his sneakers, and stretches out on the bed. Needing a nap is no lie; though he didn't admit it to her, his mom had been right to question his fitness. He really isn't up to doing much exercise yet, and just the there and back had tired him out. What had come in between, though, had been completely worth it. He's smiling as he falls asleep.


He rouses to the sound of his door opening. It's Hannah, back from school. "Did I wake you? I'm sorry, Lighe. I was just checking to see how you're doing."


"It's okay," Elijah says, yawning and sitting up. "Come inside, Hannah. I have something to tell you."


She does, closing the door behind her, and settles cross-legged on his bed. "What's up?" she asks, tipping her head to one side like a curious bird.


Elijah hesitates, wondering how best to introduce the topic of Sean, then simply goes for it. "I've been seeing someone."


Hannah stares in round-eyed astonishment. "As in a boyfriend?"


"Yeah. His name's Sean." It's weird, saying his name aloud to his sister, but somehow it makes their relationship seem more solid and real. "We met at the park a couple months ago. I'm having dinner with him tonight."


"Elijah Wood, I can't believe you've been keeping a secret like that from me for two whole months, you stinker," Hannah exclaims, but despite the accusatory tone, she is smiling. "Have you told Mom and Dad about him?"


"Not yet. So please don't spill the beans."


"I expect Mom is going to have a cow when she finds out you've got a boyfriend." She looks gleeful at the prospect. "But I say it's about time."


"I'm twenty-four, so yeah, I'd say it's about time, too. And Mom will get over it, especially when she meets Sean." Elijah doesn't bother to contradict her on either point. His mom is going to have a cow, considering she frets over him walking to the park, and while Sean might not technically be his boyfriend yet, he expects that status to change very soon. Hopefully tonight.


"Yeah? So tell me more about him." She uncrosses her legs, hugs her knees and looks at him expectantly. "What's he like?"


"He's special, Han, different."


"Well, gosh, that's helpful. Serial killers are special and different."


Elijah grins. "Oh, you mean you want 'just the facts, ma'am'? Okay. Let's see. He's five-seven, about ten years older than me, he's a high school guidance counselor and he has a brown Labradoodle named Chase who's the sweetest dog in the whole world. Will that do?"


"Better. He sounds kind of old, though."


"Sean isn't old," Elijah retorts with some heat. "He's the perfect age for me." Sometimes I feel at least a thousand years old, he wants to add. What's a measly ten year difference?


"If you say so," Hannah replies mildly, although clearly amused by his vehemence. "What else?"


He's avoided it as long as he can. "He used to be married, Han. His wife died about ten months ago."


Hannah goes silent; her expression becomes sober. "That's the same time you had your transplant."


"Yeah." He can see the struggle inside her, can guess some of the things she's fighting not to say.


What she does say, very softly, is, "'Out of death comes new life.' Maybe you're meant to bring Sean new life, just like your donor gave you a new life."


Elijah stares at her in surprise. Hannah isn't one to wax profound. "That's some pretty heavy stuff coming from you."


"Hey, I can be heavy sometimes, I'll have you know."


"Not you. You weigh maybe ninety pounds soaking wet," Elijah teases.


"Very funny." Hannah leans forward and punches her brother very, very lightly in the arm. "Just for that I'm going to pick out your clothes for tonight, and you're not allowed to argue with me." She slides off the bed, goes to his closet and starts pulling out shirts and examining them before putting them back. Finally, she takes down a sky blue button down with thin white pinstripes. "This," she says, nodding decisively. "It does amazing things for your eyes."


"Hannah. Ugh."


"Now, now, you have play to your strengths, Lighe," she tells him, and hangs the shirt on the hook on the back of the closet door. "Wear it with your new jeans and those brown leather boots. You'll knock Sean's socks off."


"If you say so." Elijah rolls his eyes, but secretly he rather fancies the idea of knocking Sean's socks off.


She swoops in and hugs him fiercely. "I am so fucking happy for you, you have no idea. You deserve this more than anyone everafter the shit you've been through. Now I better run. My shift starts in half-an-hour and I have to change. But I can't wait to hear all about your date. Be sure to take copious notes and don't hesitate to text me if you need advice."


She leaves Elijah laughing, and very glad that he'd finally shared his secret with her.


Elijah slides out of bed, wrinkling his nose at the rank odor of dried sweat. He's definitely going to need a shower before getting dressed, he realizes. He strips off his jeans and is about to put them in the plastic laundry hamper in the corner when he recalls the piece of paper Sean had given him with his phone number and address. He removes it from the pocket before dropping the jeans in the hamper. As he pads silently over to his desk in his stocking feet, he unfolds the paper. He has to add Sean's number to his phone, he thinks, and then google directions...


Elijah stops as abruptly as if he's 'it' in a game of freeze tag, and stares in shock at the paper.


The queerest sensation creeps over him then, like a million invisible insects crawling across his skin. It can't be, he thinks dazedly. It can't be. Blindly, he moves to the desk, opens the top drawer, and takes out another folded sheet of paper. His hands are shaking so badly now that they're practically useless, but he manages to get the paper unfolded and then he lays the two sheets of paper down on the desktop side by side and compares the writing on them. They are identical.


Dear Grateful Recipient,


I apologize for taking so long to reply to your letter...


Elijah's legs are suddenly too weak to support him. He sinks into the desk chair, his entire body trembling violently. He places his right palm over the heart that is thudding sickeningly in his chest, the heart that had belonged to a woman whose identity is no longer a mystery to him. He knows her name as well as his own. She is Christine Astin, and she had been Sean's wife.


The magnitude of the discovery is overwhelming, and he struggles to make sense of it. A compatible donor heart could have come from anywhere in the country. The odds of it coming from someone living in the same city were astronomical. The odds of accidentally meeting her husband the way he had? Even more astronomical. As for the attraction between him and Sean...


Like slides in an old-fashioned projector, snippets of conversation flash in rapid succession through his mind.


"Chase used to lie across her lap like that, you know. She was the only person he ever did that to - until today."


Click.


"This is probably going to sound like some cheesy pick up line, and it's not meant to be, I promise. But... have we met before, Elijah? I can't put my finger on it, but you seem familiar."


Click.


"I've never seen him take to a stranger the way he's taken to you, Elijah."


Click.


"I'm a chocolate guy myself, but coffee was Christine's favorite, too."


Click.


"Then where on earth did 'pop' come from? That's what they call it in the Midwest. I know because Chris was originally from Indiana."


Click.


"Christine loved this park. After she died, I couldn't bring myself to return here, but then one day I forced myself and I am so glad, because that was the day I met you."


Puzzle pieces are everywhere now, tumbling down so fast that Elijah is dizzied and sick. He buries his face in his trembling hands, but he can't hide from the picture that is forming as the pieces fall into place.


Nor can he escape the inevitable conclusion that the heart Sean wants isn't Elijah's, it's Christine's.


~*~


Sean lives ten minutes away, and the drive is simultaneously the shortest and longest of Elijah's life. He pulls into the driveway of a modest brown clapboard house with a wide wraparound porch, parks the car and shuts off the engine. He doesn't move, but holds onto the steering wheel with both hands and uses one of the breathing techniques his physical therapist had taught him to calm his frayed nerves as he thinks about what he has to do. He doesn't know how he's going to tell Sean, only that he must.


A few moments later yellow light spills out onto the porch; through the windshield Elijah sees Sean framed in the front door that now stands ajar. He can't hide in the car like a coward, so Elijah gets out, locks the car and climbs the short flight of wooden steps.


"Hi," Sean greets him, smiling and holding the door open wider. "Come on in."


"Hi." Elijah returns the smile as best he can and steps past Sean into the hall. Chase is there to welcome him, and the dog starts dancing around him, wriggling with delight. Elijah bends to pet him, wondering with a catch of his heart if it's him Chase is greeting at all.


"Chase paid a visit to the dog groomer this afternoon," Sean says as he closes the front door. "He wanted to look his best for you."


The Labradoodle has a green and white bandana tied jauntily around his neck, and his shaggy fur smells faintly of coconut. "What a very handsome boy you are, Chase," Elijah says, and Chase leans against his legs, panting but clearly overjoyed by Elijah's presence.


Sean is watching them, an expression on his face that should have had Elijah's pulse racing, but now only fills him with dread. It's clear that Sean, too, wanted to look his best. Instead of his customary jeans and sweatshirt, he's wearing a white Polo button down with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and beige chinos. He's freshly shaved and smells not of coconut, but a spicy cologne. A gold watch adorns his left wrist, but his ring finger is bare. He's removed his wedding ring, Elijah realizes with a sickening jolt.


"Let's go into the living room," Sean says, and ushers him through a doorway on the right.


It's a cozy, welcoming room with a real stone fireplace, a comfortable looking leather sofa, a pair of overstuffed chairs, and a large entertainment center whose wooden shelves are bulging with books, videos and DVDs. Elijah feels immediately at home in it, and a little voice in his mind says, Are you sure you're the one who feels at home here?


He can no longer trust his own emotions.


"I'll go get us something to drink. I have beer, wine and soda. What's your druthers?"


"Beer will be great," Elijah replies.


"Beer it is. But first..." Taking Elijah by surprise, Sean pulls him into a tight embrace. Elijah stiffens, then relaxes and returns the embrace, trying to imprint in his memory the shape and scent and feel of Sean. It seems likely this will be the last time they ever hold each other, after all. "I've imagined you here so many times, Elijah," Sean says. "You can't believe how happy I am right now." He lets Elijah go. "Have a seat and I'll be right back."


After he disappears, Chase jumps up on the sofa, a spot where he's clearly accustomed to lie, judging by the dark blue throw blanket spread across the cushions. A mental image of Chase snuggled up to Sean as he sits watching the television pops into Elijah's mind. Then he sees himself in the picture, too, but he doesn't know if what he's seeing is his imagination or an echo from Christine's heart.


Biting his lip, Elijah turns away. As he does, his gaze is caught by a large silver framed photo on the mantelpiece. He is drawn to it like metal to a magnet, and as he stares at the smiling woman in the photo, he experiences the same queer lurch of recognition that he had when he first met Sean. No need to ask who she is. If a thousand photos of unnamed dark haired, gray eyed women had been laid out on the floor, Elijah could have picked her out at once. His donor. Christine.


"That's Christine, although I suppose you've figured it out."


Elijah starts; he'd been so focused on the photo that he hadn't heard Sean return. "She was beautiful, Sean," Elijah whispers.


"Yes, she was. Very," Sean says, setting two beers down on the coffee table. "But so are you, Elijah. Almost the first thing I noticed about you when we met is a kind of light inside you. Chris had it, too. That's what I mean by beauty, not the external trappings. Not," he adds with a smile, "that the external trappings aren't pretty fantastic."


"Don't. Please." Every word is like the sting of a lash.


The smile fades. "Are you worried that you'll somehow be second best? Because I promise you that won't be the case." Sean sets a gentle hand on Elijah's shoulder. "There's room in my heart to hold both of you. Elijah, surely you know that I love you."


It's too much. "Stop!" It emerges as a cry, and Elijah wrenches away from Sean. Chase sits up and whines in distress. "It's not me you love. It's her." Tears run down his cheeks.


Sean is stunned by Elijah's reaction. "But I told you..." he begins.


Elijah cuts him off with a vehement shake of his head and fumbles in his pocket for Sean's letter that he brought with him. Wordlessly he holds it out to Sean, who takes it from him and opens it. His eyes widen when he sees what it is. "Where did you get this?" he says in confusion. "I don't understand."


The tears are running faster now, dripping hot on Elijah's fingers as he unbuttons his shirt and pulls it open, revealing the long red scar from his transplant surgery. "Do you understand now?" he says, tear-hoarse. "I'm the grateful recipient - the person who got Christine's heart."


Sean's eyes are fixed on Elijah's scar. Elijah can't read his expression, can't tell if he's experiencing horror or revulsion or shock. Finally Sean says, very quietly, "How long have you known?"


"Only since this afternoon, when I looked at the paper you gave me. I recognized your handwriting, and realized that you were the one who had written me that letter."


"My god." Sean scrubs a hand over his face, and Elijah desperately wishes he knew what Sean is thinking, if the larger implications have hit him: the sense of recognition he'd experienced when he met Elijah, the uncanny similarities between Elijah and Christine.


The silence drags on until Elijah can't bear it anymore. "Sean, I'm so sorry. I'll leave."


He starts to turn away, but Sean stops him with a hand on his sleeve. "No, nothing will be solved by running away, Elijah. We need to talk about this."


"But you can't want me here now."


"Why not?" Sean asks calmly, although he's pale and clearly shaken.


"Because you said you weren't ready to meet her heart recipient." Which is only one of the reasons he should leave, and the least of them.


"But I have met you, and can you possibly think that I regret it, even for a minute?"


"Sean, if you don't regret it, that's because the person you connected with, the person you say that you... you love, isn't me." Elijah swallows hard and gathers his courage to go on, though it likely spells the end of hope. "There's this phenomenon that happens to some transplant patients, not all of them, but it happened to me. It's called cellular memory. Right after the surgery, I started noticing things about myself that were different. I was craving food I never liked before, and using words that I had no reason to use - like pop instead of soda." He pauses a few seconds then continues, choosing his words carefully, "Sean, I didn't only receive Christine's heart. I also received aspects of her personality and her tastes, stored inside it. When you said you thought we'd met before, well, I guess in a way we had, because a part of me is her now, and that's the part you were recognizing."


Elijah isn't sure what he expects Sean's reaction to be, but it's not the reaction he gets.


Sean doesn't act freaked or upset. He doesn't accuse Elijah of being insane, or deny that what he said could be possibly be true. He simply nods and says, "I know what cellular memory is, Elijah. We were told about it so that if we decided to meet Chris's heart recipient, we'd be prepared. And you could be right that when we met I was recognizing parts of her in you. I've read stories about transplant patients who experienced cellular memory, and some of them are really extraordinary."


"Then surely you see that it's not real, what you feel for me," Elijah insists, convinced that somehow Sean is still missing the point. "It's only an illusion."


Sean's reply blindsides him. "What about what you feel for me? Is that an illusion, too?"


Blindsided or not, his response is an immediate, instinctive and vehement, "No!"


"But it should work both ways, surely. How can you be so certain that what you're feeling is real, and not because of the cellular memory you got from Christine?" Sean doesn't relent, pushing him gently but inexorably, and with implacable logic.


Elijah hadn't considered turning the conclusion back on himself, and maybe he should have, because Sean is right. It should work both ways. Yet a voice inside him, the voice of Self that remains inviolate from any outside influence, will not be denied.


"I'm certain because I know it with the parts that belong only to me." Elijah places his hand on his breast. "And that includes my heart, not the physical heart that's beating here, but the invisible one that says, 'I love.'"


"Then won't you give me credit for knowing my own heart? Elijah, I love you. Yes, there are similarities between you and Chris, ones that puzzled me, I admit, until now, but in so many ways you are completely different. Whatever of her I recognized in you could never be enough to make me fall in love." Sean reaches out and covers Elijah's hand with his own, grips it tightly. "It's you I love," he says without hesitation. "It's your strength and your grace, your giggle and the light in your eyes. It's even your crazy taste in music."


Elijah wants so badly to believe Sean. Yet he's afraid to. "And you don't - you honestly don't mind this?" He moves Sean's hand to the scar. "Or the other things that came with it?"


Sean lightly traces the line of red with his forefinger. "I mind that it was necessary, that you were ill for such a long time and missed out on so much. But as for the rest, Elijah," he looks deeply into Elijah's eyes, his own more serious than Elijah has ever seen them, "it renews my faith in a compassionate God."


"Oh Sean." Elijah moves blindly into Sean's arms, and as they close around him, a feeling of pure joy wells up inside him, and he senses instinctively that it comes from Christine.


"We'll take it slowly, Elijah," Sean says. "I want you to trust me completely, believe that I mean what I said. I won't rush you into anything, I promise."


"Since I was thirteen, I've had to take things slowly. I'm so fucking sick and tired of taking things slowly. Can't we just rush,please?" Elijah says.


"Dessert before the main course, you mean?" Sean is smiling, so deeply that the lines at the corners of his eyes leap to life, and Elijah's heart leaps with them.


"That's exactly what I mean, Sean."


This time, as Sean's lips meet his, the joy that bubbles up inside Elijah is entirely his own.


~*~


Epilogue


Elijah discovers the note on the refrigerator when he gets back from school.


Meet us at the park, he reads. Homework can wait. - S.


For a guidance counselor, Elijah thinks, amused, Sean is a terrible influence. But he wouldn't have it any other way.


He leaves schoolbooks and assignments behind without a backward glance.


Sean has spread a large woolen blanket out in their favorite spot, in the shade of a maple tree close enough to the pond so that they can watch the ducks, and he waves when he sees Elijah approaching. Chase jumps up and bounds eagerly over to him, and no pang of worry about whom their beloved Labradoodle is greeting troubles Elijah.


Doubts have all been put away, and life is about as perfect as it can be. There have been setbacks along the way, as there always will be for him, but Elijah has not a single complaint, because he has Sean beside him for every step of the journey now, Sean who has held him through the nightmare and banished it forever.


"Hey," Elijah says, holding out his hand to Sean. For answer, Sean pulls him down into a long, lingering kiss.


"I hope you're hungry," he remarks when Elijah is seated cross-legged beside him on the blanket. "I brought way too much food as usual." He opens a red and white cooler and removes two pint containers of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. "Coffee for you and chocolate for me."


They don't always eat the ice cream first, but life has taught them both that sometimes the best way to begin is with dessert.


~end~


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