Familiar Heart, A (& An Unchanged Soul) by Mish

A Familiar Heart cover

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A Familiar Heart (plus An Unchanged Soul – incomplete) by Mish

A Familiar Heart

An Unchanged Soul

A Familiar Heart cover

Title: A Familiar Heart

Rating: NC-17

Category: MSR, AU, GPF

Disclaimer: So not mine. I doubt anyone over at 1013 would recognize this Mulder and Scully as theirs, either. <g>

Summary: “The Best Years of our Lives” meets “Magnificent Obessession”, Mulder and Scully style.

This is in response to the Haven November Challenge, aka Guilty Pleasure Fic. The basic elements are:

fear of clowns
a voyeur
a stalker
a search

And the author can write the story as a ‘guilty pleasure’ fic – in other words, however the heck they want it to go, no matter how much it’s been done or how taboo it is. So here’s where I say my guilty pleasure is seriously AU fics. You know, the ones where Mulder and Scully are not FBI agents, most probably set back in time. I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, so bail now if you don’t care for this sort of story.

And yes, I also have a thing for virginal!Scully, MT, stranded-in-the-snow nookie and dress-up dancing, preferably at weddings. Now do you see where I’m going with this? 😉

That said, if you’re still with me, put some Old Blue Eyes, or Dino, or Rosemary Clooney in the CD player and dive into this romantic fantasy of mine.

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A Familiar Heart

A Familiar Heart Chapter One

Los Banos Internment Camp The Philippines February 23, 1945

Angels fell from the yellow dawn sky, their billowing white wings looking like fat, silky snowflakes. Against the chopped, guttural warnings of her fellow bunkmates, she drifted into the yard, watching with fascination as the dots became larger. They were beautiful. Silent and ethereal, they beckoned her. Come closer, they said. So she did, on stick-thin legs.

“Stop,” the voice behind her breathed, cowardly remaining behind the cracked door of the hut. “Scully! The hole – do you want to go back?”

She paid it no mind, entranced by the way the angels floated to the ground in small twisters of dust. Not even the threat of the hole could stop her advance.

Suddenly, the air became violent with sound and movement. The battle cries of the guards awoke the rest of the camp, and the screams of the imprisoned blended with the emerging rattle of gunfire.

Chaos filled her nostrils, the acrid smell of mortar fire and panic forcing her trembling legs to move. Move to the fence, no – the safety of the infirmary. The Japanese wouldn’t dare shell the sick prisoners, would they? Yes, they’d pulled out a week or more ago, leaving only a small administrative contingent made of two old men and a green boy. But they’d come back without warning just a few days ago, saying nothing, tearing down the makeshift stars and stripes with eyes that scoured the prisoners with hatred. Her defiance, wordless and proud, had landed her in the hole again, while the others slithered back to the huts. But she stood firm, sure the Allies would come to save them all, sad at the way the American flag was torn and burned. But now, she wasn’t so sure. Would they really have only come back to make sure there was nothing left but ashes and charred bodies? To get rid of the prisoners as they’d done the flag just days ago, in a fiery funeral pyre?

Rumors had flown about for weeks of an impending Allied invasion. The sounds of bombardment had filled the air to the north. Whispers among the internees carried tales of the liberation of Manila, with their own freedom just the next hill over. But she’d been here so long, she hadn’t dared to give them much credence. Neither did any of the other nurses interned at Los Banos; they’d all become inured to hope and eventual salvation from the endless days of tending the wounded soldiers and civilians. No, no one was coming to help. It was more of them, it had to be. Disposing of POW’s that had been forgotten long ago, like a child throwing away odd Lincoln Logs that no longer fit into the new, improved set.

The Japanese Army had no more use for them, as a bargaining tool, or as extra medical help. And they certainly wouldn’t blink twice at obliterating all trace of the women, if it meant hiding their treatment of them in the last months. She’d heard from one of the English- speaking officers last week that Konishi had ordered a massacre of a village not sixty kilometers from this camp – in a fit of pique at losing control of Santo Tomas. The bright light of freedom was unbelievably dim, and the horror of their captors’ revenge was all too real.

The thought, scrambled as it was with images of her father and mother as she last saw them, her brothers, proud and ramrod straight in their Navy blue, her sister… God, Melissa had been pregnant back in the fall of ‘41… all this and more made the decision for her. The fence or death.

Her slight, malnourished form stumbled several times, until she hit the dirt with a sputter. Crawling, she refused to give up, though the fence was now nothing more than a blur. The laughing faces of the camp denizens swam up in her vision. Ishimaru, the guard with a gimp leg who had endeared himself to the nurses with his easy protection from the others’ advances, stating that it was dishonorable to violate them. Sagi, the lone Filipino woman who was allowed in at weekly intervals to pick up laundry and deposit shined shoes.

Finally, there was Zama, the cool, inhumane head doctor who used enemy soldiers – as well as a few of his own – in experiments his government was unaware of; she and the others had cringed in horror at the screams that came each night from the forbidden hut nestled in the back of the camp. They knew what he was doing, but were powerless to help. The whispers through the guards’ ranks shook on his name… Zama, Zama. No one stood between Zama and his business, most certainly not the white nurses. Even though their blood was tainted by capitalist ideals and therefore suitable for the experiments by virtue of its lesser value, their notoriety as women captives apparently kept them safe from experimentation. Geneva knew of the nurses’ existence, knew them all by name. They were best kept alive and in good health. It hadn’t stopped the Japanese from putting her in the hole, however. And the hole hadn’t stopped her from trying to thwart Zama’s plans at every opportunity.

But now, with Zama’s stony face laughing at her miserable, hopeless attempt to flee, she realized that, tainted or not, her capitalist blood would soon stain the clumps of dried grass beneath her worn dress. The guns were getting closer, no matter to whom they belonged. Zama laughed still, his gray hair standing on end and his cheeks reddening with sadistic mirth, like a horrible caricature of a clown gone bad. Fear clogged her throat; as a child, she’d been afraid of clowns. Masks and wigs, painted on or not, hid monsters. The more Zama laughed, the more fright pumped through her veins. With a strength borne of absolute terror, she got to her feet, mindless of the bullets that zinged past her head.

“Get down, get down!”

The shout came at her from a place she’d not felt in more than two years – could it be? Beyond the smoke, beyond the gunfire, laid fresh air and home. She staggered to the opening in the wire that looked like someone had squashed it with an iron fist. Armored vehicles, dripping water from nearby Laguna da Bay, streamed in, separating their ranks to encircle the buildings. Soldiers poured out of the metal beasts, spreading out like ants across the yard, their clothes dark and indistinguishable as friend or foe. The sight gave her pause, and she fell to her knees, sure now that this was no bid for freedom. The gates of hell had opened, releasing the Nippon demons, and she cowered, crying out as she brought her hands to her kerchief-covered head.

God, she couldn’t go back into the hole. Her bravado of moments ago disappeared as the memory of almost suffocation in the black heat overwhelmed her.

“No…” The language of submission, learned over the years from harsh taskmasters bent on erasing all trace of the English dog, spilled from her lips. “Teiryuu! Douzo!”

A hand blackened with soot and gunpowder flashed before her face, and she gasped at the feel of it clamped onto her shoulder. “Get up! Move!” the voice attached to that huge paw barked, and she allowed him to pull her up, raising her head to look into the face of the devil.

His eyes were hooded by the combat helmet, and his face was streaked with black paint, his open mouth showing her a slash of white teeth. They seemed to snarl at her, to balloon into a grotesque mask that was the most frightening thing she’d ever seen.

“Iie! Iie!” No, no, she cried, certain this clown was bent on murdering her where she stood.

“C’mon, God damn it!” He yanked on her arm, his rifle poised to fire, his eyes red with angry purpose.

From behind her, she heard the gunfire pick up, and she twisted in the manacle of his hand, low pleas bleeding from her lips. But he stood firm, pulling her to the fence.

“Lady, we’re here to save you! Shut the hell up and quit fighting me!”

In a mind so used to hearing the staccato raps of the Japanese language, his low, Yankee accent took time to penetrate. But it did, and she stilled, finally opening her eyes to dispel the hideous clown. It was as if the sun had penetrated the gloom of her existence, wiping away the thunderclouds of imprisonment. His face was defined under the war paint, with a strong chin and even more austere nose that slashed down the middle of his high, tense, cheekbones. And those eyes… she’d thought them black, but they weren’t. Green? Brown?

A flash of blue caught her eye, adding the final piece to the puzzle. A patch, blaring from the sleeve of his camouflage shirt, the number ‘11’ emblazoned upon snowy white wings. He was an angel after all. Sent down from heaven amidst a balloon of white silk, here to take her home.

Misty tears of relief blurred her vision and she sagged, sure she was in the grip of safety; if by nothing more definitive than the small grin that curled one side of that full mouth at last. “Blue eyes,” he stated, winking as he dropped his voice to a purr. “How about those Yankees?”

Baseball, mother, apple pie… she saw it all in his easy smile and promising, subtle clasp, as if he’d never let her go. Her lips parted in return and she felt a smile crack her sunburned cheeks for the first time in forever. His smile became mischievous, amazing in the dwindling melee that surrounded them. “Don’t tell me – you’re a Dodger fan. Must be fate.”

She wanted to tell him that she loved baseball, and yes, ‘da bums’ were in fact, her favorite team. She wanted to reach up and kiss his stubbled face, then wrap her arms about his solid body and let him carry her back to U.S. soil and the smell of horsehide and the feel of smooth pine…

A voice from the other side of the yard broke into the haze that surrounded them. “Two of ‘em!” it shouted. “Hospital windows! Get down!”

The shooting that had died down momentarily picked up again, this time from behind and to her left. Ping, ping – then dull thuds, like an arrow hitting a target-covered bale of hay. Thomp. Ping. Thomp.

“Down, down, down!” the voices all screamed, followed by “Captain! Down!”

The smiling face before her froze for a split second, then he folded over her, shielding her from harm. A burning pain creased her collarbone, followed by a muffled thump. The hand holding her tightened, then went slack, and he started to fall.

“Shit,” he said with disbelief, his rifle hitting the ground in a puff of dust.

“No,” she whispered, trying her best to hold him up. But he collapsed beneath her like a felled tree, his beautiful eyes glazing over. She went with him, her slight weight no match for his brawn. “No!”

A slim scarlet line blossomed from his chest, and she shut down her fear, automatically bringing a hand to cover the wound, all the while struggling to remember words – English words – of comfort.

“Still,” she choked out, her other hand whipping the kerchief off her shorn head. “L-lie still.” Packing the dirty cloth over the hole in his chest, she smeared his blood on her cheeks as she swiped at her tears.

One last word came from him, with wonder, as his gaze swept over her bright, painfully short hair. “Red.”

The whole world was now red, she thought. His bloodshot eyes closed, and her hands floated in a sea of his blood. She shrugged off the other hands pulling her away. “No!”

“Ma’am, let go.”

“No!”

“Give way, ma’am. Medic’s here.”

The soft words filtered in, and she realized all was now silent. The Americans now had control of the camp; their guns were mostly silent, except for the lone, leftover shots into shadows. It was time to go. With one last look at the man that lay at her knees, she let the medic take over, knowing the wound was most likely mortal. She’d seen enough of misery and death to recognize it. Her hero, her savior, was dead.

A flurry of soldiers surrounded her, their guns drawn against possible threat, the one who’d pulled her away speaking to her in low, muted tones. “Ma’am? Can you tell me who you are? Ma’am?”

She watched the medics load him onto a stretcher; as they ran with him to a waiting truck beyond the fence, she found her voice. A normal, American voice.

“Scully.”

It was all she could get out over the lump of sadness in her throat. But the soldier, obviously well-trained in his objective, smiled, adding the particulars himself.

“Lieutenant Dana Scully, Navy Nurse Corps.” His right hand snapped up, as he straightened and saluted. “Sergeant John Franklin, 11th Airborne Division. There’s an Amtrac waiting for you, ma’am. We’ve got to hurry.” He offered a strong, steady hand and she took it, walking beside him to the amphibious vehicle that had crossed the lake beyond the fence.

She looked back only once, seeing the truck carrying her dead hero disappear in all the smoky sunshine. A fresh spate of tears crowded her eyes; she lowered her head, not wanting the sergeant to see her cry. Thankfully, he said nothing, as the vehicle lurched to movement.

Home. She was going home.

End Chapter One

A Familiar Heart Chapter Two

Outside Salt Lake City, Utah December 22, 1945

The snow was going to delay her arrival in Maryland, she just knew it. And her mother was likely to be furious, though not in any overt way. No, Christmas – if she made it there by midnight mass – was probably going to be a stilted affair, with her father’s silent drinking punctuated by her mother’s disapproving stares and sniffles of disappointment. That she was spending the holiday with them was usual, yes. But this trip was doubly necessary, when all she really felt like doing was letting the holidays pass without notice. New Year’s nuptials demanded that she spend the week at her parents’ house, with final preparations occupying most of her time.

Thank goodness, she thought. Instead of avoiding personal differences, they could at least talk of the wedding. Scrambling around on details like guest lists and last-minute adjustments to music and clothing tended to leave little room for conversation.

It wasn’t like she’d never been able to enjoy her family’s company, because she had. Before. In the time before she was reduced to eating rice mush and rats, before she chopped her own hair off because of head lice. Before she woke every night in the grip of a nightmare that ended with the sacrifice of an angel.

Outside her window, she watched the pinkening, heavy clouds with wide eyes, blinking rapidly to dispel the sudden rush of tears. It would do no good to think of him – her savior. But it continued to dismay her to this day, almost a year later. She’d seen so much death in the three years she’d been imprisoned, first at Santo Tomas, then at Los Banos. Others had slipped away under her touch in the hospital; actually, given their horrid living conditions, most of them, she was certain, went on to a much better place. Why did his death make her feel as if the world had been pulled out from under her feet?

Because it didn’t have to be. If she’d only been more alert, more willing to believe that rescue was possible, then she’d have ceased her struggles and he would still be alive. She’d heard of only two deaths among the Allied troops and Filipino guerrillas that stormed the camp that day, and she knew he’d been one of them. MacArthur had praised the operation as one of the smoothest ever carried out by paratroopers and amphibious infantry – a model that would be studied by military students for decades to come. That they’d freed over two thousand internees with such minute losses was amazing.

And if she’d hadn’t been such a coward, such a timid, Japanese-speaking coward, he wouldn’t have been one of the unlucky two. With a sigh, she touched the frost-bitten glass, wiping away the clouds from her mind and from the scenery. It was no use thinking of things she couldn’t change. Pragmatic, like her father, she’d moved on from the war. Like him, she’d embraced the stateside Navy life upon her return from overseas. Life in the rigid confines of the military suited her. Her mother thought that the military was a means to an end; to find a husband, raise a family under the protection of the US government. Men like Bill Scully and his sons were allowed to make careers out of it, but it wasn’t for women.

But Dana had discovered in her time in Los Banos that there was more to living than waiting for the right man to come along. Medicine still held intrigue, and she’d taken a post at Oak Knoll Hospital in San Francisco, treating patients who were former POW’s, like herself. She found that dealing with their traumatic recoveries helped ease her own anxieties about returning to normalcy. Only there a few months, it wasn’t long before the doctors recognized her ability to spread the more efficient methods to dealing with the wounded learned firsthand in the internment camp. Using her vast experience in trauma and triage, she was tapped to teach others younger and more eager to learn.

Not that she was that old, by any means. But at barely twenty-seven, she was considered an old maid by many of her peers. And the experiences she’d lived through had only added to her years. Still, she’d never had the time to walk through a different fire… the one called love. Fresh out of college, she’d joined up. A matter of months, and she was assigned to Corregidor in the Pacific. A matter of weeks, and she was captured along with most of her Nurse Corps Unit, living under the shadow of the Red Sun.

Going home for this wedding brought home to her the emptiness she felt. She’d have to smile and tell everyone she was fine, when she wasn’t. For the first time, she felt lost. Her life wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, according to her mother. By now, she should have married – a military man, of course. A hero, like the one who’d shielded her body with his in Los Banos. And she was beginning to wonder if maybe her mother was right… there had to be more to life than seeking self-satisfaction in a job, albeit a very challenging one.

A self-deprecating sigh trickled from her lips. She wasn’t being fair to herself, or to the men who’d offered her companionship since returning to the States in June. Good-looking, capable men who were decorated and bumped up the ranks because of heroism… men who wanted nothing more than to settle down and raise a family. It wasn’t fair of her to compare them to a dead man. She was being ridiculous; she’d seen him for what – maybe a minute or two? And suddennly, he was the epitome of her dreams? The dry beriberi she was brought out of that camp with must have dulled her brain. She was healthy now, and it was time to put those dreams aside. Get through Charlie’s wedding, then, when she got back to San Francisco, accept the first invitation to dinner she received from a man. Time to live again.

The snow had gotten heavier, and she had to slow her car to a crawl, cursing herself for her inattention to the matter of travel until what amounted to the last minute. Commercial travel, she found out yesterday, was booked solid. Trains, planes, even buses were overloaded with soldiers making their way home for the holidays. So she requested a few extra days leave and set out in her car. At the time, it seemed a good idea – if she could survive what she’d been through, surely a little cross-country trip was a piece of cake? Even in the winter. They had to keep major roads open; she’d put on the snow chains before hitting Salt Lake, and had made good time, thanks to the snowplow she’d followed for a couple of hours.

But now, with darkness rapidly approaching, she knew she’d have to call it quits for the night before long. According to her map, there was a town about ten miles ahead. Piedmont. She could make it.

Or not. A sudden lurch made the Buick twist and turn; she fought for control, but it was no use. A loud pop and she skidded to a halt half off the road, her head whipping into the glass of her window with a crack. By the time she woke up, her head was against the steering wheel and the smell of blood filled her nostrils. Not to mention the gigantic headache that made her moan when she moved. Quickly, she did a quick assessment of her body, thankful she could still move her arms and legs. The scrape on her forehead was wicked, but she didn’t think she’d done any real damage. After pressing her handkerchief to it for a minute or so, the bleeding stopped altogether.

Great. She killed the motor and tried to see where she was, but the windows were caked with ice. It felt like she was on level ground, but she couldn’t tell. She buttoned her coat and shoved open the door. One foot, then two, and she stood beside the car, making her way to the trunk, where she retrieved her flashlight.

When she saw where she was, she stifled a curse. From where she stood, she could barely make out the road ahead and behind. The car, while not suffering major damage, had a flat tire. It sat at an angle, half in what looked like a ditch. But when she heard the sound of water just beyond, she knew that ditch was no ordinary ditch. She thanked her lucky stars she hadn’t rolled into whatever stream laid in that dark void below. Shining the light on the damage, she saw it was just a small puncture, easily fixed. But the angle of the car made it impossible to attempt; jacking it up could very well send it down the ravine below. It would take a tow truck to pull it out to level ground. And it was damned cold. Shivering, she decided to set out immediately for the nearest town. Grabbing her purse, she started up the road, tugging on her knit cap and pulling her scarf close, stifling the urge to loosen it.

The trek up was more difficult than she’d thought. Rocks laid in wait under the blanket of snow, and she hadn’t gone more than a few feet when her right ankle gave out and she dropped like a stone, flat on her face. Sputtering, she grimaced at the sharp pain. It wasn’t broken, but it was a bad sprain. Hopefully, the added stability of her calf-high boots would see her through her hike along the road. Maybe a vehicle would pass, and she could flag it down. The situation wasn’t hopeless, but she felt like crying, anyway.

No, that wouldn’t do, she told herself. She would crawl if she had to. She’d survived far worse.

After a few torturous minutes, she made it to the road. Not a car in sight. The realization threatened to send her into a pity party, but she killed the urge to whine. She wasn’t her father’s daughter for nothing. A Scully, through and through.

She hummed “Anchors Aweigh” as she began to walk, her head pounding in time with the imagined music. Before long, her gloved hands were feeling the pinch of the seeping cold. Keep going, she ordered herself. Don’t give up.

But her slight trepidation began to grow into worry, then fear. Even though only a few miles separated her from warmth and safety, she knew that hypothermia was a real possibility. She had to get warm, and fast. Now, instead of keeping her flashlight trained on the road in front of her, she swept the beam into the trees on either side, hoping for some sign of a dwelling. Inhabited or not, it didn’t matter. She had to get out of the cold for the night; tomorrow was soon enough to try to make it the rest of the way.

A meager light pierced the darkness to her right. She stopped, wincing at the weight on her ankle. It was a cabin, set upon the top of a hill above the tree line. A slim line of smoke trickled from its chimney, and in the dusk, she could make out lights in the windows. Sitting as it was atop the hill, the snow hadn’t totally obscured it from her vision. If it had been nestled in the trees, she certainly would have missed it altogether.

There had to be some sort of access road; a few limping steps more, and she found a parting in the trees. The snow-covered gravel crunched under her boots and she knew she was on the right path. The road was relatively smooth, recently graded. Someone lived up there, and took great pains to keep the road clear. Of course, after a while, she began to wonder if she’d even make it that far. The cabin, which had looked so close from the main highway, was, in fact, several hundred yards up. What once looked accessible turned out to be isolated by design. She crossed a wooden bridge, pausing to look at the rush of water below, shuddering to think how close she came to an ice-cold bath a half-hour ago.

Almost there, almost there. She was beginning to feel a bit woozy as she trudged to the front door. It took every bit of strength she had left to raise her hand and knock. The pounding of her fist sounded pitifully weak to her own ears, and she wondered if whoever was inside even heard her.

“Hello!” Damn, even her voice had given up the ghost, croaking out the plea, “I need some help!”

No answer. Was anyone at home? She spied the boxy hulk of a Jeep peeking out from around the corner of a cabin, and decided this person was being mighty unsociable. Again, she knocked, using the last of her strength to beat with both fists.

“Help me!” she cried, then swayed as a rush of heat warmed her face.

The tall form silhouetted in the light beyond didn’t look too happy, quickly confirmed by his growling, “This is private property. Beat it.” The rifle in his hand only punctuated his displeasure at her standing on his doorstep.

But she had nowhere else to go. Swallowing, she tried to explain. “My – my car. I have a flat. At the end of your road. Can I -”

“No.”

“P-please,” she stuttered, her teeth shaking with cold. “I can – I can pay you.”

“I said no.”

The door began to swing closed and she put out a hand, feeling herself falling forward. Sure she was about to make a fool of herself by fainting, she was brought up short by a pair of strong arms. Her eyes closed at the feel of his warmth, and she heard him mutter, “Damned woman.”

Lifting her frosty lashes, she found his face inches from her own, his jaw clenched with anger. A sharp tingle of recognition shot through her and she gasped. The high cheekbones, the full mouth, the days old stubble… but most of all, the eyes. She’d never forgotten those eyes.

She knew he was bound to think her an escaped mental patient, but she said it anyway, forcing a shivering smile.

“How about those Yankees?”

His eyebrows drew together; it was the last thing she saw before she gave in to her exhaustion.

End Chapter Two

A Familiar Heart Chapter Three

Fox Mulder stared at the unconscious woman in his arms, sure God was paying him back for all the lies and underhanded tricks he’d had to say and do in the last four years. He thought he’d suffered enough since February, but now he knew his personal hell wasn’t yet over. All he wanted to do was be alone. At last, he’d had the chance. His grandfather’s hunting cabin had seemed the perfect place to forget for a week or so, until he had to return to his work. No one ever came up this way; it was far enough up the main highway, and the ‘posted’ signs scared off any trespassers.

But not this woman. A little voice in the back of his mind told him that maybe she’d not seen the signs. It could be an honest mistake. Then again, she could be here for a more nefarious purpose. He’d made a lot of enemies over the years, people who would love nothing more than to cut his balls off – women included.

She didn’t look at all familiar to him, however. Of course, the men he’d dealt with during the war had many ways of getting to an adversary – the most basic of which involved using a woman to distract and deceive.

How about those Yankees, indeed. What better way to assure your prey of your patriotism than by talking about baseball? Hell, he’d bet his bottom dollar that underneath that knit cap was a head full of tinted hair… with black roots. He hadn’t been able to get a good look at her eye color, but he’d seen foreigners with light eyes before, many of which spoke perfect, unaccented English. The war had brought a lot of students home from their years of study in the US; all of them quite comfortable with the language and customs. Enough to be immediately drafted into the Axis Armies as spies.

It didn’t help that he’d found out before he’d left a few days ago that he was being hunted. We know it’s Chang, Skinner had said quickly. We’re on his trail, and we should have him neutralized shortly. Take off a few days early, lay low. By the time you make it to the East Coast, we’ll have Chang.

Mulder had been furious, mostly because of his orders to hide. But he knew how valuable he was to his superiors, how they didn’t want to take the chance he’d fall before the knife of an unseen enemy that many thought vanquished. He should have known better than to think his actions in Hong Kong would go unchallenged. Especially when, in a valiant effort at redeeming himself before departing for home at last, he’d managed to sever Chang’s opium trade with a swift, severe blow. Dealing with the snake for five years had been difficult enough – it felt damned good to watch Chang’s ships and dock go up in flames, to get a little buzz from the opium- laced smoke. The next day, he’d caught a transport home, wiring Skinner that the “China Moon” had closed shop forever.

Shifting the dead-to-the-world woman in his arms, he hesitated about dropping the rifle, then remembered the knife in his boot and pistol in his belt under his flannel shirt. He had to do something with her; he couldn’t stand in the door all night. Propping his rifle against the wall, he kicked the door closed and lifted her in his arms. Even covered from head to toe in bulky winter clothing, she hardly weighed anything. And pressing her close, he could feel the tremors of near hypothermia assaulting her body.

Her lips moved with unconscious, whispered words. Leaning close, he let her warm breath tickle his ear, and he stiffened at the realization that the soft words she muttered were not English.

They were Japanese. Almost unintelligible, but Nip just the same. Instantly on guard, his arms clamped around her, as he thought of his next move. How likely was it that a woman would show up here with innocent purpose? Not very likely, especially considering the damning evidence of her mastery of the Asian tongue. She was here to kill him, he was certain of it. But damn if she didn’t look like Little Bo Peep, with her alabaster skin and blue eyes. Against his will, his body tightened, reacting to the soft feel of her in his arms. She weighed almost nothing, so light and downy. He wanted to bury his nose in her pink cheek and inhale her perfume. The sexual attraction was immediate and intense. All those years under Chang’s watchful eye, he hadn’t availed himself of the lure of the man’s conniving prostitutes, and since returning home at the end of August, he’d been too busy with stateside business. He could have buried himself in her in a matter of minutes.

He squeezed his eyes shut, banishing the lust to a dim part of his brain. No. He had to stay on guard. He turned with her, heading for the brass bed on the other side of the room.

Assassin or not, she was in no shape to attempt any death blow at the moment, that was certain. He had time to assess the situation. But first, he had to rouse her – he wanted answers before calling San Diego. Then he would cheerfully hog- tie her and put an end to Chang’s threat once and for all, with her as bait.

Laying her on the feather mattress of his huge bed, he began to strip off her wet clothes. The coat and scarf came off first, then the boots. He struggled with the right one and she moaned a bit, giving him pause. Looking up into her still sleeping face, he decided she wasn’t waking up, and gave a hard tug on the boot. It popped off her sock-covered foot, and he threw it on the floor. Quickly, he surmised the pants would have to go as well; they were soaked from the knee down. Her sweater was dry, a fact he blithely noticed as he frisked her for weapons, lingering a bit on the soft fullness of her breasts. Mentally slapping himself for his lapse, he pushed up the green cashmere to undo the button and zipper of her slacks, which gave way easily to his hands.

He quelled a sudden rush of desire at the sight of the short, slim legs. Okay, so she had a great body, and he’d been too long without a woman. But that was no excuse to let his mind wander, even if she was a deadly operative bent on slitting his throat. He ignored the way the white satin of her panties clung to her hips, and pulled up the sheet and blankets.

Backing away, he stood with hands on hips, admiring his efficient work. She looked small and lost in his bed, and very vulnerable. Good. Best to keep her that way. A quick search of her purse didn’t even produce a driver’s license, which wasn’t surprising. He expected to find a gun or a knife, but didn’t. Though the little amber glass vial filled with a powdery substance was the final nail in his coffin of suspicions. Poison. She’d planned to poison him. Knowing Chang as he did, he imagined it would have been a slow and horrible death, with no antidote in sight. He gathered her clothes and draped them over a chair in front of the fireplace, quelling the urge to burn them. No way could she sneak out if she had no access to outerwear. But she’d have to wear something for her trip to jail the next day; besides, he wasn’t about to let her get near them. The vial, he placed in his shirt pocket, where it would await the moment of her denouement.

He made some coffee, stoked the fire in the fireplace, and sat in his rocker by the window, rifle propped on the sill. He reached into the waistband of his jeans and pulled out his pistol, then sat back to wait.

**********

Two hours later, she still hadn’t woken up, and he was beginning to fidget, wondering if he shouldn’t have radioed the sheriff in Piedmont to send a Jeep out for her and just be done with it. But if he did that, then she surely wouldn’t talk. Once in the clutches of local law enforcement, she could concoct any story she wanted. And with her looks – yeah, he had to admit she did have a classic beauty – she’d be on the next plane out of the country in no time. Lost forever, with her ties to Chang leaving with her.

No. Once she woke up, he’d have his answers, and his pipeline to Chang established. Chang was in the States, that much they knew. Most probably working out of one of the California ports, re- building his trade routes, and seeking revenge on his old friend Mulder. He should have killed the bastard when he had the chance. He’d wanted to, many times. But loyalty to his country – and Chang’s numerous ties to the Japanese military – had prevented such a course of action. Mulder thought Chang had perished with his boats on that last day in Hong Kong, but no such luck. He was just getting used to life back in the States again when Skinner had told him the bad news. Even after so many months, after losing over half of his assets and money, Chang was back, like a bad penny. And gunning for Mulder.

It wasn’t surprising to him that Change had hired such a young, sweet thing to kill him. In Hong Kong, he’d seen the most innocent-looking women work the docks. As whores, as intermediaries in the opium trade, as spies for the Japanese and Germans. Blonds, brunettes, redheads… though chances were, the hair was fake. The British control of the island in the pre-war days had produced many interracial offspring. Mixed in with German, Italian, and Middle Eastern blood, Hong Kong was a mixed bag of skin color and eye shade. Even if she wasn’t native to the island, Chang, according to reports out of Skinner’s office, still had enough money to hire the best.

Was she German? One of the many cutthroat Nazi spies that circled the globe, who now found herself out of a steady job? Not caught in the net of the Allies, she would have turned to the underworld to make a living. With skills honed at the hands of the Third Reich, she could command a high price for her services. That white skin spoke of European ancestry, that was certain.

A shift in the bed jerked him upright. He stilled, knowing she wouldn’t be able to pick him out from the shadows beyond the fireplace. Gun in hand, he drank the last of his coffee, and waited for her to fully awaken.

He didn’t have long to wait. In a few moments, she was sighing and stretching beneath the covers. Face in relaxed profile, her eyes opened, and he spoke, his fingers curling around his gun in preparation.

“Guten abend,” he murmured, and her head turned. From the slight confusion he saw on her dimly-lit face, he took another tack. “O dovrei dire, buona sera?”

Still no answer. In fact, she looked more dazed than ever, as if mesmerized by his voice. Good. However much he wanted her alert to tell all, he didn’t want her that alert. A fuzzy, easily manipulated mind was the ideal. He let a sinister smile cross his face and he threw out, “Ni hao?”

That sparked a moment of recognition, as her eyes widened. The Asian language connection was impossible to deny, as it flared on her face like a light bulb coming to life. Going for broke, he drawled, “Kon-nichiwa?”

Her face softened and she drew in a deep breath, apparently warming to the smell of his coffee as she whispered, “Koohii? Douzo?”

In her foggy mind, she’d reverted to her – while most probably not native – most certainly, her working language. He reached for the pack of matches on the small table beside his rocker. Keeping steady but subtle aim on her with his gun, he flicked one to life with his thumbnail and lit the coal oil lamp that sat on the table. His gaze trained on her lovely face, he watched her take in his hard-edged smile as he said, “Koohii? Koucha?” His voice became like steel. “Or me, baby?”

End Chapter Three

A Familiar Heart Chapter Four

She blinked at his sudden animosity, her mind refusing to believe he could be so rude. Yes, she’d intruded. And the last thing she remembered before now was his angry face at the door. But this was something different, and she wondered if she’d fallen into something far more dangerous than potential hypothermia at the hands of the snowstorm.

Shaking her head to clear the rest of the cobwebs away, she asked, “Excuse me?”

Never taking his eyes from her, he carefully put the glass globe on the lantern and turned up the flame, until the room was alive with light. This time, when he spoke, it was perfect, slow English. “You heard me, baby. Coffee, tea, or me?”

Dear God, it was him. Her hero, the one who’d risked all to save her back at Los Banos. But he was dead – he had to be. The wound was mortal, she’d known it from the moment she put her hand over the liberal flow of blood. Of course, covered with camouflage paint, his face hadn’t been clearly obvious. But she’d know that voice anywhere. She dreamed of it, longed for it. Wanted it caressing her ears ever since the first and only time she’d heard it.

“It’s you,” she whispered, tears coming to her eyes.

At her soft statement, his eyes darkened to twin pinpoints of dark passion. They burned where they touched her, leaving little frissons of desire on her skin, on her face. He wasn’t an unaffected by her as he liked to show.

“Are you sure, sweetheart?” he drawled. “I pack a mean punch… but maybe you like something a bit stronger than caffeine.”

Oh, God. He’d misunderstood her reply, and not in a very harmless way, either. Sprawled in the rocker, his jeans almost indecently tight, she couldn’t help but notice his masculinity. And as soon as her eyes drifted back up, she felt her face get hot. Especially when he chuckled – without mirth.

“Maybe I’ll let you sample the goods, baby. After you spill the beans.”

Why was he being so arrogant, so ugly to her? Unless he didn’t remember her at all, which made sense. After all, they’d only met once, and that was in the middle of an all-out battle. He couldn’t be expected to remember one scrawny little redheaded POW. But she had to try.

“No, you’ve got it all wrong. I – we’ve met before. The Philippines.”

“Luzon? One of Chang’s whores?”

“What?”

“Sorry to burst your bubble, but I would have remembered fucking someone like you.”

At his profanity, she blanched, but kept on, determined to get through to him. “You saved me. You’re a hero.”

He laughed, a harsh, grating sound, flashing his teeth. “Then you really have me confused with someone else, sweetheart. One thing I’m not is a hero.”

It was quite possible he was suffering from shell-shock, blocking out the memory of his injury, of the horrors of war. She knew because she’d seen it all at Oak Knoll, had actually lived through some of the same feelings of helplessness herself. The way you jumped when a car backfired, the times you ate a meal as if you were still starving… the intense, sudden distrust of strangers, as if you’d never be able to walk into a crowd again. She could totally understand why he seemed to be holed up in this cabin, his guns at his side. Watching and waiting, awakened by the least little noise. She had to tread carefully; from his narrowed eyes to the pistol he clutched in one hand, his whole demeanor shouted that he was ready to act in an instant. She could very well find herself dead in a heartbeat.

So she started out slowly, trying to divert the tone of the conversation. “Thank you, Mister…?”

A snort came from that too-big nose and his lips curled. “Let me guess… for saving your life, right? And you know damn well what my name is.”

That response made absolutely no sense. They never knew each other’s names. There wasn’t time to take a deep breath, much less…

“The better question is – what’s your name?”

Beneath the slow drawl, there was an icy cold layer of menace. She cringed under the blankets, but was determined to break through to him. “Scu-” she began, then thought better of using the name she’d become accustomed to in service, where one was just a last name and a rank. “Dana. My name is Dana.” First names were good, she thought. More familiar terms than falling back on military address, when war was the last thing either of them should be thinking of at the moment. Overseas, or in the confines of this cabin.

“Dana,” he murmured softly, trying out the name for a second before adding, “Pretty. Just like you. I almost wish I’d met you in Luzon.” Suddenly, as if he caught his lapse, his lips thinned. “Where’s Chang?”

“Who?”

“Your boss. Yui-Kwok Chang. Where is he? Waiting on the road for your signal?” He dug into his shirt pocket and held up a small brown vial. “What’s this? Some of his finest opium, maybe mixed with a little cyanide? Were you supposed to do the job yourself or just incapacitate me for Chang’s later enjoyment?”

“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about!” He was speaking in riddles. And it looked like he’d gone through her purse; the thiamine powder she carried with her as a fatigue fighter gleamed amber in the lamplight. “Look, my car is maybe a quarter of a mile west of here on the highway. I ran off the road and saw your cabin. I just need a ride into Piedmont.”

“Oh, come off it, sweetheart.” He stood, the rocking chair reeling from his angry push-off. God, he was taller than she remembered; tall, handsome, and impossibly, irrevocably… insane. “Where’s your ID?”

“My ID?”

“Yeah, let’s see some identification.”

“My purse -”

“Guess again.”

Damn. She remembered putting her license in the glove box of the car before she’d left the house; she’d learned to carry as little as possible in her purse, especially since she was traveling alone. Money, ID, checkbook – all locked in her glove box.

“Can’t remember where you put it?” he asked snidely. “Or can’t remember exactly what name is on it, sweetheart?”

His tone was infuriating, and she snapped back, “Don’t call me sweetheart, you jackass!” She closed her eyes against the sudden rush of pain to her head, instantly regretting the outburst.

“Baby, in a minute I’ll be calling the FBI, unless you start talking.”

Pain or not, she let her eyes fly open. “Call me ‘baby’ again, and you’ll be picking your nose with that gun.” All right, so women weren’t trained for physical combat, but she had brothers. She knew her way around a fistfight, even if he was twice her size. And her fear had given way to anger, making her foot itch to plant itself up his rear end to kick some sense into him.

Cocky surprise at her vehement threat made one eyebrow lift, but still, he remained in control, softening his voice to a menacing purr. “All right. Dana. It’s time to stop fooling around. Tell me where Chang is or you’re gonna find yourself back out in the cold… with a hole right between those pretty baby blues.”

Something about the way he issued his warning told her he wasn’t quite serious about outright murdering her. After all, he could have already done it just by leaving her outside, instead of wrapping her in warmth. He needed to know where this ‘Chang’ person was, and no amount of explanation on her part would make him believe she was legitimately stranded. The mental illness that came from battle sometimes lasted months; it was no use arguing with a man tormented by memories that wouldn’t let go.

“I don’t know where he is.” It was the truth, and she saw him react accordingly, stepping forward.

“Don’t lie to me, Dana.”

“I’m not lying. Please, won’t you listen to me?” A sudden thought made her hopeful. “Go out – find my car. My keys are in my coat pocket. Or I could go.” She looked around, noticing her slacks and coat draped over a chair by the fireplace. “My clothes -”

“Forget it. You’re not leaving until I say so. And if you think I’m walking out there tonight, you’re crazy.” He put the vial back in his shirt pocket, waving at her with the gun. “Get up.”

“What for?”

“I’m gonna tie you in the chair.”

Swift fear sliced through her. “No.” She swore she was never going to submit to any form of imprisonment again, and his order tweaked her last nerve. “I won’t go anywhere, I promise.”

“I said get up, Dana. Do it.”

“No!” She scrambled to the far side of the bed, but the weight of the blankets worked against her, and he caught up with her in a second, grabbing her by her sore ankle. She hissed with pain and turned on him, kicking with all her might. But the simple strength it took to fight back, combined with the pain in her leg and head, proved to be too much. In a matter of a half- minute, she was trussed up in the chair like a convict awaiting execution. He was gone, somewhere behind her, and his voice came over her shoulder as the first tremors started.

“Jerry? It’s Mulder. Come back.”

Her head began to swim; she recognized the onset of a seizure with a sad heart. Even though she’d been diagnosed with beriberi after her release, a good diet and thiamine supplements had gradually put an end to the malady. But it was during their layover in Hawaii that she began experiencing fits of madness. The doctors hesitated to call them seizures, as there was nothing physically wrong with her. But they were there just the same, always coming upon her in times of severe stress. She hated any form of constriction; even her coat and scarf seemed to suffocate her at times. It was why she didn’t wear them in the car, only donning them when necessary. And now he’d tied her up. She felt the scream billow up her throat, and tried to tell him.

“Please! You don’t understand! I can’t stand it!” Struggling against the ropes, her voice raised to a keening moan. “Please let me go!”

Her doctor said the fits would gradually disappear; actually, she’d not had one in a month or more. This one promised to be bad. Her neck lolled, her arms and legs jerking against the bonds. She needed to be free; but they were laughing at her again, with their slanted eyes and guttural commands. The wooden lid to the hole closed, trapping her in dirty darkness. Her lungs squeezed tight, forcing air out. Couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t breathe. “Please…” Her brain, dulled by misfiring synapses, formed the familiar plea. “Douzo…”

“Yeah, Mulder. I’m here.”

“Listen, Jerry. Do me a favor.”

“Sure, lemme have it.”

“There’s supposedly a car at the end of my road with a flat. Tow it into town for me, would you?”

“Sure thing, pal. On my way. The owner?”

“She’s… uh, she’s gonna be staying with me a while, okay?”

A knowing chuckle crackled over the radio line. “Gotcha, Mulder. Anything else?”

“Nope. Thanks.”

The radio squawked, setting her teeth on edge. The man named Mulder ignored her, so she began to rock in her chair, throwing her shoulders against the imaginary wooden lid that blocked out the sun. Out, she had to get out. In a second, she’d crashed to the floor, her teeth chattering.

“Shit! What the hell -”

He was beside her on his knees, his hands wrapping around her head to keep it still.

“Let me go,” she managed to squeeze out.

With an incredulous face, he asked, “What the hell is this? You sick?”

She nodded, letting her eyes close. Just watching him hover over her made her nauseous. “P-please. Can’t… breathe.”

Tears sprang to her eyes, slowly trailing from beneath her eyelids. She heard a muffled curse, then felt him pull apart the knots. It seemed to take forever, just like the way she could hear every clink of the sliding chains on the door of the hole. He wasn’t going fast enough; she struggled more, losing the grip on her sanity. Muttered profanity filled her ears and she cried out for her savior – for him. In her recent nightmares, he’d always come, swooping down like the angel he was, saving her from the grip of terror.

The voice, once cursing and vile, became muted, comforting. “Shh… I’ve got you. Hold still. I’ve almost got you free.”

Almost immediately, her shaking subsided. A few minutes later, she could open her eyes. It was him. Thank God, it was him. She sat up, her body suddenly too warm, curling into his waiting arms. “God, thank you,” she whispered, burying her face into the blessed pulse of life in his neck. He stiffened beneath her touch, but she wouldn’t allow him to leave her, like he’d done before. This time, she was going to hang on.

“No, don’t leave me,” she murmured, her arms encircling his waist.

She knew flight was uppermost on his mind, but if he pulled away, he would be dead, just like before. She had to think of something fast, anything to hold on to him. Her hands grabbed fistfuls of his shirt, and her lips opened on his scratchy skin. For a second, he hesitated, then she felt his hands come up, tilting her head back.

And the kiss felt so good… he tasted of coffee and smelled of the outdoors, of freedom. His mouth opened over hers and his tongue dipped inside. Yes, she thought, letting him delve into her soul. She could hold on, banish the devil from her soul under his soft touch.

She succumbed willingly, feeling him take her farther away from the terror with every second that passed.

**********

This is insane, he thought, digging deeper into the soft recesses of her mouth with his tongue. This woman – this soft, responsive woman – was most likely an operative working for one of Asia’s most ruthless crime bosses. And it didn’t matter that the scene he’d just witnessed could not have been faked; he saw the stark terror in her eyes, heard it in her trembling voice. Lots of women who worked for Chang did so only because of the threat that came with refusal. Their families tortured, they themselves beaten into submission, they had no choice but to take up prostitution or murder at his command.

But she was different, he knew that now. Those not fit for life under Chang’s thumb either quickly fell victim to his swift retribution, or became hardened, without an ounce of mercy in their words and actions. She was neither; she’d taken the road to this point as a tempting seductress. Soft in voice and body, luring her prey into the one mistake that would cost them their lives. He recognized it, and just as quickly realized it didn’t matter. He wanted her. He could remain alert, and deal with her when it was done. But nothing was going to stop him from having her. Here. Now.

She moaned as his hands stole under her sweater. He made quick work of the clasp of her bra, releasing her breasts to the pinch of his fingers. Squirming, she gasped into his mouth at his rough handling, but it wasn’t with fright. No, she leaned into it, the crest beneath his thumb becoming firm with her arousal. He only played for a moment or so before lowering her to the floor, releasing her from their kiss to stare into her face.

Eyes glazed over with passion, she looked half- drugged, though eager to move forward. She licked her lips, watching his mouth dip down to cover hers once again. Restless, she was so restless under him… he captured both of her wrists in one hand, bringing them above her head in an effort to hold her still. With the other, he reached for the hem of her sweater, shoving it up and out of the way.

In the lamplight, the twin mounds of straining flesh beckoned, and he lowered his mouth, nuzzling the soft valley between. She arched under him, pressing up into his caress. The warm scent of womanly skin filled his nostrils and he inhaled deeply, re-acquainting himself with the smell of sex. It had been too long, and the freshness of winter air that lingered upon her opened his senses, made him feel alive. He had to taste… and he did, greedily suckling on one pebbled nipple, the rasp of his tongue seeking the milk and honey of her body.

Her response was immediate, as he heard her moans become low and intense. Beneath him, her hips circled into his, her legs falling apart in readiness. It was unbelievable, but it seemed she’d been without as long as he had. Her reaction to his touch was unmistakable… the realization spurred him on, as he wasted no more time in giving them both what they wanted.

She whimpered in protest when he raised his head and he hurried to placate her. “Okay, okay.” He pressed a kiss to the feverish impatience that marred her brow, and lifted up, reaching for the zipper of his jeans.

Grimacing at the slide of metal rasping against his erection, he cursed under his breath, feeling like a teenager with his first woman. After a moment of fumbling, he decided to let go of her hands, too caught up in desire to worry about what she might do to him. She immediately wrapped her arms around his back and he jerked at the feel of her cool fingers sliding under his jeans… and at the scalding heat of her mouth closing over his. Hands now freed, he shoved both jeans and boxers awkwardly down his hips just far enough to allow his dick to spring free, the gun in his pocket clattering to the floor.

Dimly, he registered its loss, knowing he really should keep it close. But he couldn’t stop – he had to have her. Despite her allure, he’d never before let a woman hypnotize him into losing all sense of his surroundings, and he wasn’t about to start now. One hand fitted itself between her shoulder blades, effectively holding her trapped between him and the floor.

His free hand tore at her panties, and she arched beneath him, tearing her mouth away from his to whisper, “Yesss…”

That one word incited his arousal to painful proportions. With the last of his patience, he shoved aside the scraps of silk and dove deep into her with one finger. She whimpered, tossing her head from side to side. Moisture made his finger slick, and he groaned at her readiness, withdrawing his hand. A few false starts later, he finally fitted himself to her and thrust within her, stilling at the tight clasp of her walls. She gripped him like a vise, and he knew he wouldn’t last long, especially with the way she squirmed beneath him.

“Be still… God, be still,” he moaned, his hips beginning to move as his mouth stifled her cries.

So good, so good….

End Chapter Four

A Familiar Heart Chapter Five

It felt so good… she was protected at last. In the arms of a hero, her hero, the one who’d crossed the boundary between freedom and death for her. Caressing her intimately, where no one had dared tread before, he swept away all her fears with a kiss, a touch. The horrors of imprisonment, of pain at the hands of the Nips, faded away as if they’d never existed. She reveled in the way his mouth and tongue drew passion from her; she gave easily, taking his strength in return.

“Yes,” she hissed, when a bolt of pure pleasure ignited up from her depths. God, he plied her with the fingers of a master, until she couldn’t help but move at his stroking, taut like the strings of a violin long left on the shelf. Singing with low moans and soft pleas for more, she opened to him, turning her head in a fury of wanting, of needing completion.

A lift, a few seconds of cool air rushing over her damp recesses, then he pushed into her, groaning a prayer at the contact. The sharp pain was fleeting, nothing like anything she’d ever felt. Embracing it, she shoved up to meet his thrusts, happiness at the utter sense of wholeness that enveloped her making her bold.

“Please,” she begged, twisting her hands in his shirt. She wanted to touch him, to give him pleasure in return. She felt his hesitation, but she seduced his compliance with her mouth, running it along his jaw, his face, feverish in her urgency.

He let her go, raising himself up to pull his flannel shirt over his head. Lowering his lips to hers again, he pushed more forcefully into her, groaning into her mouth. Her hands, now free to roam, raked over his sweat-slickened back, feeling the stretch and tug of muscle over bone. They wandered at will, tracing the bumps along his spine to the flexing buttocks that pumped into her over and over. Her short nails dug in, eliciting a growl from his lips that traveled down her throat.

Breaking free of their kiss, he pulled his hands from around her to plant them on the floor beside her head. She almost cried out in protest, then thought better of it, as he loomed over her, blocking out the meager light from the lamp. He consumed her then, in face and body, like a dark angel whose shadow promised protection and ultimate joy. Feeling herself slide under him, her own damp back giving way under the brunt of his thrusts, she wrapped her hands around his neck to keep him with her. Breathing in time with him, she watched, loving every nuance of his face as it shifted in sync with his movements. Slack-jawed, his eyes slitted, he panted above her, his face at once hard and yet bright with passion. Just the sight of the ever-growing creases in his brow told her he was close to something that she wasn’t. But that was okay; her pleasure came from watching him, from having him love her.

Suddenly, he stiffened above her, his eyes closing as he let out a faint, throaty cry between clenched teeth. She felt her body fill with his seed in several short, hot, bursts, his hips prolonging the delivery a with slow, intense grinding that sparked a spasm of electricity low, where they were still joined. God, she wanted more. She tried to make it last by moving beneath him, mimicking his moves.

“Don’t stop,” she whispered, looking into his relaxing face.

He was so beautiful, his face soft with confusion and completion. His eyes searched hers, as if he were trying to find words. His body within hers was semi-hard still; he gave a few weak thrusts, and she moaned, low and pleading. But it was no use… she tried to move with him, to reach for satisfaction. The pleasure, moments before building to some unknown pinnacle, dwindled rapidly.

Until she felt him shift above her, the slick heat of his shrinking member replaced with a double salvo of his calloused fingers. A sharp pierce of renewed sparks blossomed under the pull and slide of his fingers, and her breath caught, knowing he meant to give her what his premature finish had denied her. Thankful that he planned to help her reach that joyous end, she looked up at him with a small smile, using the clasp of her hands to pull his head down for a loving kiss. His resistance was immediate, as he shrugged his shoulders to loose himself.

His voice, when it came, was husky, but cold, and his gaze hardened. “Tell me where Chang is, baby.” Slipping within her, his fingers teased. “You want this, you tell me.”

Nothing. It meant nothing to him but a means to an end. Hurt filled her body, replacing the burgeoning happiness in a heartbeat. He still thought her someone sent by that Chang person, whoever the hell that was. Her hands fell away, curling into angry fists that hit the floor. She felt degraded somehow; what she’d thought of as a beautiful communion of souls was now a travesty of real feeling.

He smiled above her, one brow raising. “I know you want it… tell me, and I’ll give it to you.”

Her knuckles felt something cold – his gun! In an instant, her hurt flared into anger. Her brain hot with revenge, she gripped it and brought in up with all her might against the side of his head. Surprise lit his eyes for a split second, then he wilted like a spent balloon. Using all her strength, she averted his fall upon her, shoving him off as he dropped into oblivion. He landed on his back beside her, out like a light, the dull thud of his back hitting the floor echoing in the cabin.

Chest heaving, she scrambled to her feet, grimacing at the pain in her ankle. Gun pointed at him, she shouted, “You son-of-a-bitch!”

Even with bloodlust surging through her veins, she hoped he wouldn’t move, because the last thing she wanted to do was have to shoot him. In fact, when he didn’t move for a few moments, she sucked in a ragged breath of fright. Cautiously, she bent down to feel his pulse. Still strong and steady. She touched the forming lump above his ear, but detected no blood. She didn’t think she’d caused him any permanent damage, but for a moment, guilt at the violent way she’d put him down gnawed at her gut.

That was the least of her worries, however. He was such an ornery bastard, she doubted a well- placed bullet to the heart could bring him down for good. No, she might be facing an eventual charge of assault, but she knew she’d done the only thing she could to get free. And if she got away before he came to, he might never find her.

Lying as he was, his limp penis dotted with blood and semen, he was a laughable sight. But she didn’t take time to relish her work – or lament the loss of her virginity to the cad. If all she walked away from the cabin with was a tainted memory of sex, then she’d count herself lucky. Truth of it was, she’d wanted him as badly as he wanted her, and there was no use painting a picture of rape in her mind. Walk on, her father would say. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t dwell on them.

Her clothes… she needed her clothes. She spied them by the fireplace and scooted around his prone form, keeping careful distance.

She had to get out of there. Leave now, before he came to. He still was under the mistaken notion she was some sort of spy, and now, with her walloping him in the head, he was liable to strangle her with his bare hands. In no time, she’d donned her still damp slacks, coat and scarf. Pulling the boots on was a monumental task, but she managed it. One hand went to her head – the knit cap was still in place. Now, that was a hoot. She’d been intimate with this man without even taking her hat off! Stifling the giggles that she knew could quickly turn to hysteria, she looked around for her purse, then gave up, knowing she didn’t have that much time. Finally, she moved to him again, gingerly sneaking into his jeans pocket with a grimace of distaste, her fingers closing around a ring of keys. Dropping the gun next to him, she walked out of the cabin without a backward glance.

Night had fallen with severe intensity, and the snowfall had doubled. She blinked against the sting of the icy flakes, knowing time was short; if she could make it into town before everything closed up, she could have her tire fixed and get going again. It must have been close to six o’clock, but she couldn’t see her watch for the darkness. Surely a little backwater service station would stay open until six? Figuring an hour to get to town and return, then another hour to get the tired fixed… damn, she’d have to turn on the charm to sweettalk her way out of town in a timely fashion.

The Jeep roared to life under her hands, and she was grateful for its four-wheel drive capability as she quickly made her way back to the main road. She turned toward her abandoned car – it was gone. Good. That meant the tow truck had picked it up already. She quickly turned around in the direction of Piedmont.

The town was a sleepy little place, with one diner, a rustic town hall, and a smattering of dwellings, one with a neon sign proclaiming, “Jerry’s Esso”. The service station was still lit up, and she sighed with relief when she saw her car parked in one of the bays. Calming herself, she pulled in slowly, listening to the bell go off in a couple of sharp peals. A smiling man, heavily coated against the wind and snow, came out from the side of her car.

Instead of waiting for him to approach the Jeep, she got out, forcing a similar smile to her cheeks. “Is my car ready?”

Wiping his hands on a soiled cloth, Jerry creased his brow, taking in the Jeep with a recognizing nod. “Mulder said you were spen- ” He broke off with gentlemanly panache, his blush glowing red in the neon light. “Sure. Just finishing up. You’re lucky. I was about to close for the night, Miss Scully.”

The use of her name made her freeze. As if he noticed her sudden bristling, he quickly explained, “I had to get the tube size from the manual in the glovebox, Miss. Didn’t mean no harm. Just a little pinprick, but I fixed ‘er right up for ya. Course, the rim was a might bent – had to find ya one from out back. But I think you’re all set to go.”

She bit her lip; she hadn’t wanted anyone to know her name, and she knew this Mulder person was going to come running into town looking for his Jeep. But then again, it didn’t matter that her name would most likely make it back to the man in the cabin. She would never see him again, and if she did, she had a father and two brothers who would cheerfully wring his neck, should she choose. After she herself set him straight – if he even got that close.

“Miss Scully,” he said with a bashful grin. “You a friend of Mulder’s? Where is he, anyway?” He looked over the Jeep as if expecting someone else to get out.

“Umm… he started feeling bad,” she lied. Well, he would feel very bad when he woke up, she mused. “I think it’s something contagious. He told me to take the Jeep to retrieve my car. Said he’d come by tomorrow to get his Jeep. That okay?”

“Sure. That’ll be twelve bucks, for the tube and the rim,” he added, nodding at her car.

Damn. She had about fifty dollars tucked away in the glovebox, along with her checkbook, but she knew that writing a check to this man Jerry meant the fiend back in the cabin would have her address. And she couldn’t afford to waste even the twelve dollars on the tire. She’d need every penny of it in gasoline to make it to Maryland, because now she wasn’t stopping at all, not even to stay at a hotel. If he decided to follow her, she didn’t want a trail of checks behind her to point the way. She’d make it there without sleeping; she was used to getting little sleep, anyway.

“M-Mulder.” Her tongue tripped over the hated name. “He said to put it on his tab?” God, she hoped nice, sweet Jerry fell for the ruse. She tacked on a hopeful, sweet smile to the request.

“Sure thing, ma’am. Just let me back it out for you.”

She kept one eye on the road behind her, urging Jerry on silently. The faster she could get away, the better. The man named Mulder would be out for maybe a half hour, then dazed for another hour. She wanted to be far away when he made it to Piedmont; and he was coming, she was sure of it.

“Here ya go, ma’am.” Jerry stood beside her, the driver’s door open. She jumped at his voice; she hadn’t heard the car purr to a stop beside her. “You be careful now, okay?”

“Thank you.” She got in and ignored Jerry’s wave goodbye, heading east as if the hounds of hell were behind her.

After an hour, the snow let up, giving way to a moonless sky. After another, she noticed the cars on the highway slacking up. Yet another, and she was alone, speeding home, not a trace of a car behind her. She took the first deep breath since leaving Piedmont, and flipped on the radio, feeling home grow closer with every second that went by.

Bing Crosby crooned, “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

An impatient hand wiped at her cheeks as the first tear slipped free.

**********

The first thing he noticed when he woke up was that his head hurt like hell. And that he was damned cold. Groaning, he rolled over, one hand touching the tender lump under his hair. What the hell happened?

Geez, his pants were around his knees, his bare chest was dappled with gooseflesh… the gun! He started, then realized it lay within reach of his fingers, a few dark hairs clinging to its metal surface. For a second, his ears rang with confusion, as he squinted at the gun.

Then it all came rushing back. The woman, Chang – God damn it! He stumbled to his ffeet, yanking up his boxers and jeans. The room lurched around him and he gulped, closing his eyes against the heavy weight of dizziness. She was gone, and chances were, in his Jeep.

Yep. No keys in his pocket. He was damned lucky she hadn’t shot him when she had the chance. Unless she’d gone to get help, to call in her comrades for the final kill. But why? He’d been down for at least… it took all his effort to focus on his watch. A half hour or more.

A flash of white caught his eye. He bent, picking up the torn underwear, his eyes widening at the dots of blood. Nah. She couldn’t be – but a quick check of his own body told the tale. In living color on his dick and his fingers, branding him with a red flag of innocence lost.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he breathed.

A virgin. Either that, or he’d split her in two. But no, that couldn’t be the case. She was as ready for him as any woman he’d ever been with, and he wasn’t one to force his attentions on unwilling women. No, her arousal and readiness had been genuine, as well as the way she’d welcomed him, and pleaded for release.

And if she had been untouched before now? Then no way did she work for Chang. The only use he had for virgins was to fetch a high price from his more wealthy customers. He certainly wouldn’t waste the money she’d command in the sack by sending her after an old nemesis.

Unless she was forced to do so – any number of debts owed to Chang could be used to command her cooperation. A sister in trouble, a mother or father held hostage… hell, the vial he still had in his pocket was very likely opium. Addicts were known to do anything for the next fix.

The thoughts made his head hurt more, but it also made him more determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Even more so, he’d made love to a stranger, one who’d embraced him with a passion he’d not felt in more than five years. No matter what her motivation, she’d fit to him like she was born for his touch. He had to find her, starting with the one place he knew she had to have gone. She wouldn’t try to travel far in the Jeep; one radio call and he could have the state patrol on her ass within the hour.

He walked gingerly to the radio. “Jerry? You still up? Come back.”

No answer. He tried again, but with no success. He also tried the local sheriff’s station, but got no answer. That wasn’t surprising; Peidmont was a one-horse town of maybe a couple of hundred people. The sheriff went home for the night at about five, and everyone knew his home number if they needed anything.

Mulder cursed his lack of a telephone. He’d have to wait until morning, or walk into town, which wasn’t wise. One more time, he called for Jerry.

A few seconds, then, “Yeah? Mulder, that you?”

Mulder breathed a sigh of relief. “Jerry. Good. Thought you’d gone home.”

“I was just locking up the bays, taking a last look around. What’s up?”

“My Jeep over there?”

“Uh… yeah,” Jerry answered dubiously. “Why? Thought you told Miss Scully you’d come by tomorrow for it?”

His blood ran cold. “Come back?”

“She said you weren’t feeling good, that you’d come get it -”

Mulder depressed the talk button savagely, a chill of impending doom running up his spine. “What’d you say her name was? The name?”

“Scully. Dana Scully. Thought she was a friend of yours?”

Closing his eyes, Mulder leaned against the wall and sighed, “A friend of a friend.” It was the total truth. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Jerry.” He clicked off the radio and flopped into the rocker, his head in his hands.

She wasn’t an assassin. By a wild streak of coincidence, he’d met up with an innocent and made a foolish, devastating mistake. One he would soon be made to answer for, he was certain.

God. What had he done?

End Chapter Five

A Familiar Heart Chapter Six

Annapolis, Maryland December 24, 1945

“Dana? Would you stir this for me, please?”

Staring out the window above the kitchen sink, Dana barely registered her mother’s request. Mesmerized by the snow falling outside, her mind drifted back to a similar scene two days ago in the wilds of Utah. Like the snow, she thought she’d left what had happened behind her. But just this morning, the snow and the memories caught up with her. Waking from an exhausted, twelve hour sleep, the first thing she’d brought to mind was his face. Like a specter that wouldn’t leave her alone, he haunted her. Would she ever be rid of him?

“Dana?”

Close, her mother’s voice made her start. She dropped the coffee cup she held, and it shattered in the porcelain sink. “God, I’m sorry, Mom,” she said, rushing to pick up the pieces.

Maggie stilled her hands, coming to her aid with a smile. “That’s okay, sweetie,” she said softly, brushing aside Dana’s shaking hands. “I’ll get it. You only just got in late yesterday evening, you know. I’m sure you’re still tired.”

Tired was an understatement. She’d driven almost non-stop, finally leaving the snowstorm behind her to where she could make good time. All the while searching her rearview mirror for signs she’d been followed, it was a harrowing trip. She’d arrived during dinner, and immediately fell into her mother’s arms, her tears rising unbidden at the safety of a loving embrace. She never was one to break down, and thankfully, neither of her parents had commented, thinking her emotional lapse a product of her confinement at Los Banos. Little did they know she felt as if her world had been turned upside down, and it had nothing to do with any residual upset over spending the war as a POW.

“I am,” she said, though it was an untruth. Her nerves were on edge still, and the sleep she’d had last night, while taking care of her fatigue, had been restless. And walking around the house this morning under the watchful eyes of her parents hadn’t helped. She expected her mother to suggest psychiatric commitment at any moment; all on the sly, of course. A Scully would never have need of a sanitarium – maybe a retreat? There was nothing a little time spent with the Lord couldn’t cure.

She watched her mother clean up the mess in the sink, and felt instant guilt at her own thoughts. Her mother really was a fine woman, typical for the times. Loving, religious, respectable… but bowing to her husband’s will and her church’s doctrines without question. Dana had once believed that was the only way as well – but now, she knew that any walk down the same path by herself would have to be as a partner, not as a servant. She’d lived through too much not to value her freedom and her worth as a human being with a mind of her own.

“Mom? Let me do that.” Calm now, she tried to get back into the cooking of Christmas Eve dinner, knowing the simple tasks of beating and attacking the pots and pans with a spoon could only help ease some of her tension.

Maggie gave her a small smile. “I’m almost done. Would you stir the potatoes, dear? I don’t want them to stick.”

“Sure.” Actually, it was just the distraction she needed. She dove right in, the sudden silence in the kitchen prompting her to ask, “When’s Charlie getting here again?”

“This evening sometime…” Her mother kept on, and Dana listened with half an ear to the facts she already knew. But it was nice to hear them again, to have the pleasant drone of her mother’s voice to keep her occupied as she worked on the potatoes.

Charlie, her younger brother by two years, was marrying her friend Ellen on New Year’s Eve. It was amazing really, that the girl who’d grown up with her, who’d shared high school and college with her, had caught the eye of her wandering brother. Ellen finally gave in to the ‘kid’ when he’d graduated from high school. The war had put a crimp in their relationship, but it hadn’t mattered. From their very first date, it was obvious they were in love. Ellen had patiently worked stateside while Charlie had spent the war in Honolulu, his keen mind tapped by the Navy to work in intelligence. Upon his return in May, he’d proposed. Dana was to be Ellen’s maid of honor; she’d happily accepted the post, though she didn’t look forward to spending the wedding in taffeta and high heels.

Bill, her eldest brother, wouldn’t arrive until later on in the week. With his wife Tara and their two children, he was spending Christmas at her parents’ place in upstate Maine.

Melissa… God, she couldn’t wait to see her sister. Though their reunion was bound to be bittersweet – Melissa’s husband had died in Normandy last June. Rob had been her perfect match in every way, full of laughter and spirit. Her mother had kept mum on the subject of her son-in-law’s death, but earlier in the day, Dana had asked her father about it. And her Dad, in his own halting way, had told the tale of how Melissa had been devastated. But, in her usual Scully way, she’d picked up and lived on, for herself and her children. Still living in her house a few blocks away, she and the boys would descend at the parents’ for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, then spend the Santa day at home.

It was a picturesque holiday, straight out of Harper’s Bazaar. The smell of pot roast in the kitchen, the faint aroma of her dad’s cigars wafting from the den, the decorated scotch pine in the living room window, the anticipation of seeing family and friends again, after being away for so long. She vowed then and there to let herself enjoy it all. Her life had changed, but one thing remained the same – the love she shared with her family.

Amidst her mother’s running commentary, a pair of hands circled Dana’s waist and she jumped, the spoon she held clanging against the side of the pot.

“Sorry, sprite. Didn’t mean to scare you.” The words were playful but sincere, murmured into her ear.

“Charlie!” Turning, she launched herself into his hug. He felt so solid, so huge, a big, lovable bear of a brother. Bill had been aloof like her dad, but Charlie was her pal. “When did you get in?”

He pulled away, his smile beaming, looking so handsome in his civie suit that he took her breath away. Similar in features to herself, his blue eyes and reddish hair made most people wonder if they were twins. “Actually, I got in late last night. I told Mom I wanted to surprise you. I’ve been at Ellen’s all day.”

Dana gave Maggie a scolding stare. Her mom shrugged, a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. She brushed aside the two of them, saying, “Go visit. Tell your Dad dinner will be ready in about a half hour, then set the table, okay?”

Her mother, for all her pride and trying to exercise control over her children, knew that Dana and Charlie were close. Closer even than the two sisters. Dana gave her mother a thankful smile and pulled Charlie out of the kitchen. “Go give Dad the news, then come back.” She moved to the china cabinet with a wink.

“Dad!” Charlie yelled, not moving an inch. “Dinner in thirty, okay?” He returned Dana’s wink.

“Roger that,” her father yelled back.

Dana’s lips pursed, but it was over a grin. “That’s not what I meant. Mom hates yelling in the house, you know that.”

“In case you didn’t notice, sprite – Mom has changed. I think the house got to be way too quiet for her these last few years.” His eyes narrowed. “Hair’s growing back, huh? Looks good.”

She self-consciously touched the chin-length mop, glad that Charlie hadn’t elaborated. “Yeah. I think Mom was under the impression I was going to show up bald for the wedding.”

“Dana, Mom wouldn’t have cared,” he whispered, moving to her side. “I tell you, she’s a different person. War does that to people.”

Didn’t she know it. Lowering her chin, she tried to hide the faint tremble of her lips from her brother. He was always perceptive to her feelings, and she didn’t want to ruin the brightest moment in his and Ellen’s lives with a sad litany of her own troubles. Thankfully, he didn’t pursue her sudden silence, instead wrapping an arm around her shoulders to give her a squeeze. “Gotta fatten you up a bit, though. You look like you could blow away in a stiff wind, sprite.”

Only Charlie really knew of what she’d suffered in Los Banos. His was the first face she’d seen as she’d gotten off the transport in Honolulu. A shadow of anger passed over his eyes at her shorn hair, but he knew it had been necessary because of the lice infestation in the camp. Wordlessly, he’d enfolded her in his embrace and let her cry. With his position in Naval Intelligence affording him a bit of leeway, he’d gotten her away from the media for the short week she’d spent in Hawaii. Safe at his place on the beach, she’d told him of the horrors of internment. It was healing in a way that Naval counseling could never be. She’d made him promise to never tell the rest of the family just how bad it had been; like always, he just nodded and helped her move on. Charlie had always treated her as a person and not a helpless female, as a bonus to simply loving her for who she was, and not who society expected her to be.

She wondered what he would say if she told him of those few hours in Utah. Would he be so understanding, so forgiving, if she told him how she’d stumbled into sex with an obvious madman? It hadn’t been rape, but she doubted Charlie would see it that way. She so needed to talk about it with someone, to absolve herself somehow of the needless guilt that plagued her. She knew she shouldn’t feel guilty at all, despite what her Catholic upbringing demanded. It was a release of sorts for her, with a man her clouded mind had designated a savior. And no matter how it ended, she still couldn’t escape the undeniable sense of peace and oneness she’d felt in the encounter.

God – what if she was pregnant? Then she’d have to tell someone. Not her parents, certainly. Not until it became necessary. And Charlie would most probably go all macho at the revelation; his treatment of her as an equal up until now would be thrown out the window, as he’d insist she let him level the guy. No, much as she needed to talk about the incident, it was best to keep quiet unless circumstances changed. Maybe she would follow her mother’s panacea for trouble and pray on it at midnight mass. Couldn’t hurt.

Meanwhile, she’d have to smile and tell Charlie all was well.

“I’ve put on a few pounds, Charlie. Stop worrying.” She moved away to set out the plates and silverware.

“Where?” He pulled open a drawer and reached in for the linen napkins. “In your toes? Speaking of – what’s with the limp?”

Damn. So far, she’d hidden her sprained ankle from her parents, mainly by keeping the swelling an pain down within the confines of her boot. But it had ballooned during the night, and standing in the kitchen this morning had not helped. “Twisted it day before yesterday. Don’t tell Mom,” she warned, making a mental note to concentrate on walking correctly when in front of her parents. “She already thinks I’m some kind of invalid.”

“Gotcha. My lips are sealed – as long as you think you can make it down the aisle when the time comes.”

“Charlie, I will make it down the aisle even if I have to be carried all the way. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Personal worries aside, she couldn’t contain her happiness at the fact that her best friend was marrying her brother.

Charlie grinned. “Carried? Guess I could arrange that – Fox is a pretty big guy. I think he could handle a wee thing like you.”

It was the first time she’d heard Charlie speak of his best man, and she was naturally curious. All she knew was that he’d met him during his time overseas, and that the guy had roots around Washington. Apparently, they’d hit if off; but then again, Charlie was an easy guy to like. “Fox? His name is Fox?” Rolling her eyes, she finished with the place settings, moving around to the head of the table.

“Yeah. Pretty unusual, huh? He’s joining us for after dinner drinks tonight. But he hates his name so don’t -” Charlie knocked a fork off the table to the floor, and surreptitiously wiped it off with one of the napkins in the face of Dana’s arched eyebrow. “Don’t tell Mom. Please.”

Seemed her mother hadn’t undergone that much of a change. Charlie was genuinely apprehensive about her displeasure concerning the dropped utensil. Her mother must really be tiptoeing around her if she’d let the broken coffee cup go by without comment.

“About the fork or Fox?”

“Oh, she knows he’s coming.”

“The man with the hated first name doesn’t have family to spend Christmas with?”

“His parents live in Washington; his dad works for the State Department. He’s stopping by on his way to their place.” He gave her a sheepish smile. “I don’t think they get along too well. Besides, when I mentioned today on the phone that you were here already, he wanted to come meet you.”

Her sudden anger was evident in her growled, “Charlie…”

“He’s a nice guy, sprite. Can I help it if I think you should be as happy as I am?”

“I expected this sort of behavior from Mom, not you.” Her censure was more bristling than she’d liked. Once upon a time, Charlie’s meddling would have been laughed at. Now, it hit a sore spot he wasn’t even aware of. She backed down, noting Charlie’s crestfallen face. “I’m sorry, I just…”

Once again, he moved in, this time gathering her close to press a light kiss on her rumpled hair. “I know. It’s me who should apologize to you, sprite. Things will never be the same, will they?”

Dana hugged him tightly, whispering, “No, they won’t.” Though not for the reasons Charlie suspected; she opened her mouth to clarify, when she heard a clamoring from the foyer.

“We’re here! Where’s Dana?”

Melissa, with brood in tow. Dana pulled away from her brother, sniffling away her anger and fear to give him a shaky smile. “Twins?” she asked Charlie, referring to Melissa’s kids.

“Yep,” he replied, matching the inquisitive look of hers. “Names?”

He knew she’d had trouble with a fuzzy memory due to the beriberi, and his gentle prompting was designed to spare her an embarrassing moment to come. Spying Melissa’s approach out of the corner of her eye, she leaned up to press a light kiss to Charlie’s cheek. “Daniel and… David?”

Giving her a kiss back, he whispered, “Donald.”

“Right. Thanks.” One last swipe at his cheek to remove the faint traces of lipstick, and she turned to greet Melissa.

**********

“And Donny sleeps at night just like his Aunt Dana – dead to the world,” Melissa laughed, cuddling the shy toddler to her breast.

Dana joined in on the family’s chuckling, but it was without any real involvement. She couldn’t very well blurt out that the days of sleeping sound were gone for her. It was one of the reasons she’d been able to drive straight through to Maryland – having to be constantly on guard in the internment camp made for light sleeping. But to bring up her trials during the war would not be in good taste, and would most probably cause a stilted silence. Especially since her mother seemed to be making a real effort to steer the subject away from the war with constant talk of the wedding to come. Dana didn’t mind – the less she thought of the horrible time at Los Banos, the better. It would eventually become in her mind as an out-of-body experience, she knew. To be remembered as if she’d watched it all on a movie screen, and not lived through it firsthand.

The recent night in Utah… that was entirely different. That was burned on her brain. She doubted that, even if she lived to be a hundred, would she ever forget the way she felt in that man’s embrace. And the way she felt afterward, to still bear the brunt of his distrust.

She got up from the sofa and murmured something about getting more coffee, drifting away from the family reunion. She caught Charlie’s questioning look, and gave him a reassuring nod before moving to the tray on the bar.

The conversation carried on around her, but her thoughts had once again shifted to the man she’d let break through her barrier of reserve. Had it been all that bad? Truthfully, she’d have to say no. She could understand his paranoia after having lived on the edge for years herself. Maybe he’d suffered under the Japanese thumb just like she had…

The doorbell pealed, interrupting her thoughts. Coffee cup in hand, she turned to face the rising Charlie. “I’m already up,” she said with a smile. “Sit.”

He nodded, though he perched on the end of his chair like he was poised to come to her aid, should she require it. She knew the visitor was most likely his best man. Just as she knew Charlie was still a bit guilty for trying to set them up together; she felt his apologetic gaze upon her still as she walked from the living room.

A tall silhouette shifted beyond the frosted glass of the front door. Dana pasted a friendly smile on her face and took a deep breath before swinging the door wide.

“Come on in,” she greeted.

The man hesitated a moment, his face lost in the folds of his scarf. But he swiped his polished shoes on the welcome mat and walked past her into the foyer, flapping the lapels of his black woolen coat. A shower of snowflakes fell to the floor, instantly melting in the warmth of the house. “Sorry about that,” he muttered. The gleam of six brass buttons on the double-breasted suit twinkled at her, and she recognized the dress blues immediately, seeing the gold stripes peek out from the overcoat sleeve.

“That’s all right, Lieutenant,” she smiled. She put her cup down on the table by the coat rack and reached for his coat. “Let me take your coat.” Reaching up, she moved behind him to slide the heavy material from his shoulders, realizing her lack of manners. “Guess I should introduce myself. My name is -”

“Dana. I know.”

An imaginary fist hit her square in the chest with a dull thud, and she clutched the coat protectively, as if by doing so, her heart would cease its frightened tripping. Wide-eyed, she watched him turn around and unwind the scarf, then slowly lift his officer’s hat from his head.

A soft, hopeful curl of his lips accompanied the warm brush of his gaze over her face. “Red. Never would have guessed.”

Her shaky hand went to her hair, then snapped back down as she realized the gesture was an acknowledgment of the effect he had on her. “You,” she breathed, anger tightening her voice. “Get out.”

“Mulder!”

Charlie’s shout made her jump and she looked away from the intruder’s steady perusal of her face. It couldn’t be. No. God wouldn’t be that cruel, would he?

“Glad you could make it, pal.” Charlie stood between them, his hand engulfing Mulder’s. She wanted to scream at him to watch – to not trust this man. But Charlie faced him with broad familiarity, shaking his hand like he was a long- lost friend. He turned to Dana with a smile. “Dana, this is Fox Mulder.”

Fox. Jesus, she should have known the moment he walked in, should have felt his overpowering presence and seen the breadth of his body as it encroached on hers. What a horrible turn of events. Would he let on that –

“We’ve met.”

Yes, he would, the bastard. She raised furious eyes to him, wondering if it would be in poor taste to kick him in her parents’ foyer.

“Just now,” he added pointedly. “Your sister was helping me with my coat.”

She couldn’t breathe. The foyer had suddenly become too claustrophobic, and she handed Mulder’s coat to Charlie, feeling her face pale. “Charlie, I – would you mind… I don’t feel so good…”

Charlie, bless him, knew exactly how she felt about tight spaces, immediately taking the coat from her to step aside. “Sure, sprite. I’ll get Mulder settled in. Go.”

She felt both pair of eyes follow her departure up the stairs. One concerned, his love warming her back.

The other probing, insinuating itself into her family, her home. Its daring gaze bent on stripping her of all sense of security. She felt its promise all the way up the stairs –

He was here for her.

End Chapter Six

A Familiar Heart Chapter Seven

Mulder watched her fly up the stairs, feeling as if he’d never see the brightness of that smile again. He sighed, handing Charlie his hat and scarf. This had been a mistake. He should have just called Charlie from Utah and begged off, like he’d wanted to. Chang was still an ominous presence in his life, and putting Charlie and his family in the way of possible reprisal by his nemesis was unwarranted. But he knew Charlie wouldn’t let him off so easily; Charlie knew all about Chang, and he refused time and again in the last month to let Mulder face death alone. Charlie had faith in the Navy’s ability to take care of its own, and he believed that Chang would be taken care of before the wedding. Skinner had assured them that they could proceed with the wedding without fear of Chang getting too close.

Mulder wasn’t so sure. And, until a couple of days ago, he’d decided he was going to tell Charlie it was too risky. Then he’d met her. A woman who’d called him a ‘jackass’ and then melted into his arms like she was born to be there. Upon finding out her name, he knew he had to come to Maryland. Call it selfishness, call it regret – whatever. She was bound to find out who he was through Charlie, and if he didn’t come prove to her that he wasn’t the monster she thought he was, then he’d never have the chance again. One mention of the name “Mulder” and she’d refuse to listen to any of his explanations. By presenting himself to her family, she couldn’t avoid him – at least not until the wedding was over. Maybe by that time, he’d have a chance to tell her the whole story.

Or maybe, when she came back downstairs, she would be packing a gun. From what little he knew of her, it was a damned good possibility.

“Sorry about that, Mulder,” Charlie said, dragging Mulder’s attention away from the empty stairs. “Dana’s been through a lot. She’s a bit skittish still.”

The implication that there was more to Dana’s past than a naval career made Mulder’s ears perk up. He knew Charlie’s sister was a nurse, had served in the Pacific. But, combined with the attack of nerves he’d witnessed in the cabin, she’d apparently been through a helluva lot more than dealing with casualties at a base hospital. “What happened to her?”

Charlie bit his lip, as if he’d said too much. “That’s not for me to divulge, Mulder. But I will tell you this – she didn’t spend the war in a cushy hospital in Honolulu. She was a POW.” He turned to the hat rack, leaving Mulder to his riotous thoughts for a second.

A POW? He knew that there had been female POW’s scattered in the camps of the occupied Pacific, most notoriously at Los Banos. Was that where she’d been? No, God wouldn’t be that cruel – to either of them. No matter where she’d been, the fact that Dana had been a POW only added to his sudden sadness; he had a reason to hate POW camps almost as much as she did. Jesus. Seemed neither of them would ever catch a break, just when they’d found each other.

“What’s with the uniform?” Charlie asked, interrupting Mulder’s melancholy. “We’re on leave, you know.”

It had seemed a good idea that afternoon – impress her with his rank, with his stature in Naval Intelligence. Now, seeing Charlie’s casual dress and spying the family in the living room in similar attire, he felt out of place. He smiled sheepishly. “It’s been so long since I’ve had to wear it, I figured I needed to get used to it again.”

“As long as your dress whites still fit,” Charlie replied with a wink, speaking of the upcoming wedding.

Mulder just nodded, feeling as if he was too sullied by the past years to wear the white uniform of his country’s Navy. Especially since he’d seen her again, let his eyes fall upon the graceful curve of her cheek and storm-tossed blue eyes. She embodied everything that was good and fine about home… damn, even her clean scent lingered in the foyer, threatening to pull him under. He couldn’t put her or her family in jeopardy like this; Charlie would have to understand.

“Uh, Charlie.” He stilled his friend’s movement to the living room with a hand on his arm. “About the wedding.”

“Oh no, you don’t,” Charlie growled, his smile fading. “You’re here now. You can’t back out on me. Skinner says it’s perfectly safe for you to resume normal activity. No way can Chang get to you.”

Mulder scowled. “He also said that they’d have him in custody by now.”

“Like I told you on the phone today, Chang apparently high-tailed it back to Hong Kong. He was seen there yesterday. All our feelers – not to mention the agents dogging his every step – must have spooked him back to his hole. Besides, have you been accosted by any assassins lately?”

Mulder felt as if the wind had gone out of him. But he recovered quickly, before Charlie could see how his innocent remark had staggered him. “No, but -”

“No buts. It’s been four months, Mulder, since you came home. Four months of laying low and looking over your shoulder. Chang’s gone, and he won’t be coming back. Now… are you gonna be my best man or not?”

He finally allowed himself to relax a bit, giving Charlie a grim smile. “Sure.” But he let that smile harden into a determined nod as he added, “But if I see one inkling that Chang is on my tail, I’m outta here. Got it? I’m not putting any of your family in danger.”

His friend took his hand in a firm shake. “Deal. Just make sure you tell me about it, okay? I’m not letting you go it alone, if Chang decides to come back. Skinner too – he needs to know.”

Mulder agreed, though he knew damn well if it came to that, he was going to shoot first and ask questions later. If he had the chance, he was going to take care of Chang once and for all, without involving Charlie. A newlywed had no business chasing a killer, whether or not it was his job.

Charlie gestured for him to follow, and he walked behind his friend, his mind still working as he was introduced to Dana’s family. Smiling vaguely, he tried to listen to names and other small talk, shaking hands. Her father was a large man – he could see where Dana and Charlie had gotten the red hair. Her mother had obviously passed on her petite form to her youngest daughter. Melissa was a tall and willowy strawberry blonde; in other days, he might have found himself attracted to her. But no longer.

He seemed to be ruined forever for other women. All because of one small redhead with a temper of opposite proportions to stature.

Bill Scully offered him a scotch and he took it, sitting on the edge of the sofa with one eye toward the living room doors. Would she come back downstairs? Surely she had more courage than to cower like that – she was bound to know his reasons for being in her parents’ house. And she damn well knew that sooner or later, she’d have to face him.

After a few minutes, Charlie excused himself, saying he was going upstairs to check on Dana. It was about damned time, Mulder thought. Another moment of inane conversation about the wedding and he would have charged up those stairs without thought to appearances or manners. He wanted to talk to her, and he wasn’t leaving until he did.

**********

“Dana? You okay in there?”

The knock on the bathroom door startled her. From her perch on the toilet lid, she took a deep breath. “Come on in, Charlie.” She hadn’t locked it; it was juvenile to think Mulder would follow her upstairs. Besides, a locked door in this house meant subterfuge within. The last thing she needed was her mother becoming curious.

Charlie squatted before her, one finger brushing away a lock of her hair from her forehead. “What’s up, sprite? Feeling okay?” His simple gesture brought moisture to her eyes and she blinked it away, not wanting to show weakness.

She brought the wet washcloth to her neck and gave it another swipe. “I just got a bit claustrophobic in the foyer.” It was the truth; however, the cause of her claustrophobia still remained unspoken. Still lurked downstairs somewhere, probably drinking her father’s brandy.

Charlie looked around the bathroom with a disbelieving eye. “So you decided to hightail it to the bathroom?” He took her hand, stilling its fidgeting. “Uhh… hate to tell you this, sprite, but this is the smallest room in the house.”

In spite of her nerves, she chuckled. “It is, isn’t it?”

He sobered a bit, intuitive as always. “Is it Mulder? Did he say something to you? Make you uncomfortable?”

“No!” Her reply was a bit too quick, and she toned it down, heading off her brother’s train of thought with a semi-truth. “He’s just so… big. With the both of you crowding me, I couldn’t breathe.”

“God, Dana, I’m sorry. Mulder doesn’t know better, but I should.”

She nipped at his nose with the washcloth. “Damn straight you should.”

Charlie perked up, his eyes laughing as he said, “Oooh… such language. I’m gonna tell Mom.”

Leaning closer, she whispered, “You do, and I’m telling her how Ellen used to sneak out of my room into yours when she’d sleep over.” College held little appeal for her friend once she discovered the lanky high school senior had grown up; how either of them got this far without having to go through a shotgun wedding first was beyond her.

“What can I say? She has a thing for younger men.” Smiling, he got to his feet and extended a hand. “C’mon, sprite. I told Mulder you were the prettiest, smartest woman in three states. You’re making me look bad.”

Oh, Charlie, she thought sadly, you don’t know what you’ve stumbled into. And now, I really can’t ever tell you.

It wasn’t like her to run from anything, and her uncharacteristic flight up the stairs was generating suspicion. Buck up, she told herself. Gathering her courage, she took his hand and dropped the washcloth into the sink as she stood. “I look okay?” Her slacks and sweater were too casual for anywhere but home, but she wasn’t about to change into a skirt.

“You look fine. Smile, sprite. I promise not to try any more matchmaking, I swear.”

He had it in his mind that she’d run off partly because of his maneuvering. Let him think it. It would certainly help toward avoiding Mulder. She could do this. Another week, and he’d be gone. Who said she had to keep him company? They’d never be alone together, if she had any say about it.

“Good boy,” she murmured. “You’re learning. I see Ellen’s splendid hand in your training… I’ll have to congratulate her on her fine work.”

Charlie ushered her out the bathroom door, snorting, “Leave it to me to fall for an older woman.”

**********

He had to gently push Daniel – or was it Donald? – off his knee to get to his feet. He felt like a total goof with his attempt at good manners, because Dana’s father beat him to it. It had been years since he’d been in the presence of ladies other than those of the evening. Charlie flashed him a knowing grin and Dana just ignored him, murmuring something about “it was just a headache” to her mother’s soft question about her disappearance.

God, but she was beautiful. Even with the faint scrape on her forehead; he could see she’d tried to cover it up with makeup, and she’d done a good job, but he knew it was there. Dressed in a soft white pullover and forest green slacks, she stood at least a head shorter than Charlie, who he noticed had to give her a little push past the living room doors. If memory served, the top of her head reached only to his own chin. Then again, the only real gauge of that came when they were both horizontal.

Mentally chastising himself for letting his thoughts wander in that direction, he instead catalogued the finer points of the woman before him. Medium length red hair with a slight wave that he could tell she tried her best to tame. It was parted on one side and held back with hairspray, he supposed, though one heavy lock draped over her brow in a very Veronica Lake-ish way. It was damned sexy, and he gulped, clenching his fists against the urge to cross the room and steal his hand through it as he turned her face up…

“You say your parents live in Washington, Lieutenant Mulder?”

He saw Dana’s head whip around at her mother’s use of his rank. He also noticed – as a warm tide of color crept up his cheeks – that he was the only one still standing. Quickly he sat, and just as quickly, Dana’s sharp look avoided his gaze. He turned to Maggie Scully, not really hearing the words that came from his lips. Something about his father and the State Department. She kept up the conversation, asking him about his time in the Navy, where he’d been stationed, blah, blah, blah. He supposed he answered correctly, though he couldn’t very well blurt out that he’d kept company with an opium dealer for the past few years. So he gave them all the official version, raising his voice a bit to make sure Dana heard.

“I’ve been in Hong Kong since the summer of ‘39. Working to subvert the interests that funneled money into Japan.”

“A spy?” Melissa breathed, her eyes wide.

Thankfully, Charlie spoke up, diverting the conversation into more reasonable terms. “He works in Naval Intelligence, Missy. You can’t expect him to give away all our secrets.” His eyes met Mulder’s. “Want me to freshen up that drink, Mulder?”

“Sure,” he said, even though his glass had hardly been touched. He stood, walking with Charlie to the bar. Dana hardly moved, and he wondered if he’d get his chance tonight to speak to her. He had to try; he couldn’t very well show up on the Scully doorstep every day until she deigned to receive him. But how?

“Dana?” Charlie addressed his sister, handing her the ice bucket. “Would you get some more ice, please?”

A slight hesitation, then she stood, her form stiff. “Okay.” It was the first word she’d said since re-joining the family in the living room. Passing within inches of Mulder, he caught a whiff of her subtle perfume. It tugged at his groin, and he was glad for the long suit jacket of his dress blues. Trying to still his rushing blood, he realized that maybe this was his chance.

“Charlie, can you direct me to the head?” he whispered, watching Dana turn right past the living room doors. “I need to wash up before I get back on the road.” And he was leaving after he spoke to her – he didn’t know if he could stand being so near to her and not be able to touch her for much longer.

“Take a right in the hall. Last door before you get to the kitchen,” Charlie whispered back.

“Thanks.”

The sound of their voices followed him down the hall and he hoped for a few moments alone with her. Five minutes, tops, he figured. It was enough. What he really wanted to say to her would take much longer, but the assignation must be made for such a lengthy conversation.

Her back to the door, she pounded the ice trays in the sink, not hearing his approach. He was sure to frighten her, but there was no way around that. Just as there was no good way to begin.

Staying far enough back to give her space, he said, “I need to talk to you.”

As expected, she jumped, the loosened ice clattering into the bucket. Slowly, her back straightened, but she didn’t turn around. “We have nothing to say to each other.”

“Dana -”

“Don’t call me that!” she hissed. “You have no right.”

Swallowing at her indignant tone, he conceded, “Fair enough. Miss Scully. I need to explain.”

At last, she turned, her cheeks pink with haughty anger. “I am of the same rank as you, Lieutenant. Either afford me some respect or leave off the ‘Miss’.”

His anger tweaked, he growled with frustration, “Fine then. Scully.” She wanted to be treated as an equal, then by God, she would be. Without the title commanded by her rank – they’d been too intimate to fall back to military protocol. “We have things to discuss, and I insist you make the time to speak to me.”

“I refuse… Mulder. And you are in no position to force me.”

“If you refuse, Scully, I’ll have no choice but to tell your brother what happened in that cabin.”

She blanched, one hand coming up to hover at her neck. A gold cross gleamed in the light from above; funny, he hadn’t noticed it back in Utah. Then again, he’d never actually seen her completely naked. He squinted against his own betraying thoughts and desires, as if he’d said the words aloud.

“You wouldn’t,” she breathed. “Why would you do that? Charlie would kill you.”

A solid beating was the least he deserved. If he knew Charlie would keep the tale to himself and not involve her parents, he’d damn well tell him, just to get his friend to make him atone some way. Yeah, he could feel the broken nose already. “It’s only what I deserve, don’t you think?”

Her concern of a second ago vanished. “You deserve to be drawn and quartered,” she answered, her face becoming cool and aloof. “And I don’t believe you have the guts to tell Charlie.”

Mulder backed to the kitchen door, nodding at the melting ice. “You might want to put some of that ice in a dishtowel, because I think I’ll need it shortly…”

“Wait.”

He stifled the urge to smile with satisfaction; first and foremost, she was a healer. His guess that she would never willingly cause him pain was an accurate one – even if she had knocked him in the head once already. As she wavered before him with indecision, he made his next move. “Have dinner with me tomorrow night.”

“Christmas Day? And just where would we go? The soup kitchen at St. Mary’s?”

“The next day, then. About seven? I can pick you up -”

“No.” She was adamant. “I’ll meet you. Mike’s Grill.”

He nodded, happy she’d capitulated. Though she sure knew how to pick ‘em – from what he remembered, Mike’s Grill was a bustling, rowdy place full of Irishmen looking to pick a fight. Or defend a lady.

“Seven,” he agreed. “I’ll be sure to wear my combat helmet.” He saw how his wink infuriated her before he turned to make his goodbyes to the rest of her family.

**********

Midnight mass soothed her jangled nerves. The lilting voices of the choir, the smell of incense, and the drone of Latin. Sitting between her parents and Charlie, she felt somehow buffeted in a cocoon of safety and love. Melissa had taken her children home to await the arrival of Santa. Their absence left a hole in the family celebration, but she welcomed the peace and quiet. Besides, tomorrow would be hectic enough, with the Scully clan celebrating with typical rowdiness.

As the priest delivered his homily, Charlie leaned in to whisper, “You okay, sprite?”

She nodded, taking his hand in hers. “Yeah.”

Despite the impending meeting with Mulder, she was, indeed, feeling pretty good. He’d caught her a bit off guard with his sudden appearance, but she’d righted herself quickly back to an even keel. And the more she thought about it, the more she realized that talking it out with Mulder was for the best. She didn’t want Charlie’s wedding ruined by the lingering hostilities between the two of them. They were both adults, they could reason their way past their first disastrous encounter.

And then never have to set eyes on one another again. It was what she prayed for; she had an awful feeling Mulder wasn’t going to be so cooperative on that item. But she had to keep her distance. She’d never met a man she couldn’t handle… and something told her Fox Mulder wasn’t a man she could control with her logic and cool hauteur.

He wanted her, it was obvious in the warm, magnetic pull of his hazel eyes. And she couldn’t deny that she felt an equal attraction. She remembered her thoughts in the car before their fateful meeting in Utah, how she’d decided to pursue a relationship at last. But on her terms. Mulder would consume her, she knew. He’d already broken through her physical reserve – she wasn’t about to let him barrel through to her emotions. When she decided to take that leap, it would be with a man similar in nature, one ruled by his head, not his heart. After only two meetings, she could tell Mulder was a man driven by his passions. Not a compatible mate for someone like her, who relied on stability and security. Maybe if they’d met under different circumstances… but no. It wasn’t to be, and she’d have to make him see that.

End Chapter Seven

A Familiar Heart Chapter Eight

Mulder fidgeted in the booth, checking his watch again. 7:15. Would she show up? Or was this her way of getting a bit of revenge? He quickly dismissed the thought – her revenge, should she choose to exercise it, would be swift and sure. Most likely, a blow to the groin this time. Unmanning him while she condemned him with that cool gaze.

“Mulder.”

The low call of his name jerked his head up. He stood up with a gulp, subconsciously bending at the waist in an effort to protect his privates at the angry look in her eyes. She wasn’t pleased at all by his demand to have her meet him, and she’d had two whole days to simmer and stew herself into a fury. God, she was magnificent – all buttoned up in gray wool, a matching felt hat haloing that errant lock of hair. He wanted to greet her with a kiss, to swoop her into his arms like he’d seen other couples do in the hour he’d waited. Instead, he smiled. Not too broad, just a simple, hesitant parting of lips.

“Can I take your coat?”

“I’m not staying that long.”

Okay, he should have expected that. “Would you at least sit?” He glanced around the room, alerting her to the subtle stares their standoff was attracting.

With a purse of her lips, she dropped her purse on the table and sat, though she perched close to the edge of the booth as if poised for flight. He cleared his throat, forcing a normalcy to his voice. “How was Christmas?”

A scalding, ‘are you being absurd?’ look crossed her face, but before she could answer, they were interrupted by a big man who descended upon the table with a smile. “Dana!”

Her whole face transformed; she stood, a brilliant smile in place as she was enfolded in a bear hug. “Uncle Mike… so good to see you again.”

Uncle Mike? Mulder took hold of his glass of water with a shaky hand. Its ascent to his lips stopped at half-mast, as he took note of the waiters and waitresses, not to mention the man who hugged Scully as if she were… kin. Jesus. They all had the familiar reddish hair and pale complexions. Mike could be –

“And who’s this, darlin’?”

Scully’s smile faded as she nodded at Mulder, who slid to his feet. “Uncle Mike, Fox Mulder. Charlie’s best man. Mulder, this is my Dad’s brother, Mike Scully.”

His hand was engulfed in a beefy, calloused paw. “Pleased to meet ya,” Mike said, still smiling. “If I’d known you were Dana’s beau, I’d have given you a better table. One not so close to the kitchen.”

God, he was in such trouble. Scully stood by with rigid fury, Mike’s mistaken declaration compressing her jaw into a firm line. Mulder rushed to explain, sensing he was seconds away from being thrown out by her command. “I’m not Dana’s beau. We’re just discussing last minute wedding details.”

Mike’s smile drooped a bit, though he commented no further on the subject, instead turning his attention to Scully. A slight frown marred his brow as he said, “I saw the little limp, darlin’ – you hurt yourself?”

Her eyes darted to Mulder, then back to her uncle. Lips pursed, her cheeks lost some of their cold weather color as she murmured, “I twisted it changing a flat. It’s nothing, Uncle Mike. Getting better every day.” Her smile was brief and listless.

Another nail in the coffin of Mulder’s guilt; he hadn’t noticed her limping last night at her mother’s. Of course, she hadn’t wanted him to notice – he doubted if she let herself show the physical weakness in front of her family, for fear of the inevitable questioning.

Mike seemed satisfied by her off-putting answer, though he spread his hands and boomed, “Well then – what’re you doin’ with your coat oon? Surely you’re stayin’ for dinner? We’ve got some fine corned beef and cabbage today.”

“Um… actually, I really need to -” She faltered, looking to Mulder for help.

Which he was in no mood to give. Despite the fact that she could sic her relatives on him in a heartbeat, he was willing to brave the sure pounding in order to get her to stay a while. “We’ll have that, Mike,” he drawled easily, ignoring her flashing eyes. “And maybe a couple of beers?”

Taking in Mulder’s uniform and friendly smile, Mike beamed. “Sure. I’ll get right on it.”

“But -”

Mike stalled Scully’s protest with a firm hand. “Now, if I didn’t feed you before I sent you on your way, your pa would take a stick to me. Sit. Mr. Mulder?”

When Mike stepped aside, Mulder moved in, turning her gently to divest her of her coat. Mike winked and moved away to the bar while she fumbled with the buttons.

“You… you…” Her anger made her stutter, as she searched for the right, albeit ladylike epithet. Mulder could feel her mind scream out ‘bastard’, but she didn’t dare say that in such close proximity to her cousins.

“Wretch? Swine?” he offered, his hands gentle on her shoulders as he leaned close. Her familiar scent wafted over him and he closed his eyes, embracing it with his mind as if his arms had cuddled her close. This meeting was destined to be another mistake, but he just had to see her alone one last time. It didn’t matter if he had to field barbs all night; anything was worth just looking at her.

Shrugging off his hands and her coat, she let him take it from her, facing him. “Too good for you,” she bit out. “How about slimy cur?”

He grimaced at the vehemence in her voice. “I’d prefer ‘friend’,” he said softly, waiting for her reaction.

“Fiend,” she replied, sweeping aside her skirt to sit in the booth.

Sighing, he hung her coat next to his on the nearby hatrack and resumed his seat. This wasn’t going to be easy. And truth was, he’d never really been all that smooth with women. He’d never had to be; he wasn’t an ugly man by any means, and women seemed to find him attractive enough. Not that he treated them badly – usually, he could charm any woman with his smile and rapier wit. But not her.

The uniform hadn’t impressed her. His smile seemed to fall flat at every opportunity. Though they’d not exchanged more than a hundred words since they’d met again, his attempts at being friendly were met with hostility. Of course, he couldn’t blame her one bit. What he’d thought of her back in Utah… what he’d done to her, would take a lot more effort to repair than smiles and charming words.

Letting his gaze wander over her sky blue knit dress, he drank in the sight of her loveliness as a waiter appeared with their drinks. “I didn’t know you’d hurt your ankle,” he said. “Is it bad?”

Her eyes, which had been making a serious study of the shiny table, snapped up. She waited until the waiter left, then, with ice dripping from her voice, said, “My ankle is fine, Mulder. Just say what you have to say so I can go.”

“Dana -” At the leap of flame in her eyes, he amended, “Scully. I’ve been too long without conversation that wasn’t edged with suspicion. I realize you have every reason to hate me, but I thought we could talk without growling at one another. For Charlie’s sake, I thought we could at least try to be friends.”

“Friends?” Her question carried the unspoken, ‘and nothing more?’

“Friends,” he stated. His more-than-friendly feelings would have to be squashed, he knew. And if her friendship was all he could ever enjoy, he’d damn well take it. For this brief interlude, it would have to do. And maybe, just maybe – if he played his cards right – they could come together again, on an even playing field.

Her animosity slowly faded, but wary reticence still clouded her eyes. She picked at the napkin neatly folded on the table, saying, “I’m – I can’t just forget. It’s not something I’m very proud of, you know… the way we… met.”

At last, a peek behind the armor of defiant fury. Using every bit of sincerity he’d thought lost in the past few years, he responded in kind. “I can’t say that I was on my best behavior, either. I’m usually more accommodating.”

“Mulder -”

“And I want to apologize,” he interrupted, sensing that her anger was giving way to something more fearsome – total withdrawal. He wasn’t letting her go that easily. In fact, if he had his way, he’d never let her go again. “I’m sorry, Scully. You caught me at a really bad time.”

A slight curl of her lips accompanied her reply. “Is there ever a good time to catch you?”

He shouldn’t, the little angel on his shoulder whispered. But the devil on the other side won the argument, and he touched the lump under his hair. “You seem to have found the best way.” Steady and truthful, his somber gaze tried to tell her what his lips could not. Signed, sealed, and knocked unconscious… whether she wanted it or not, he was hers.

Instead of retreating behind a cool mask of anger, she surprised him by chuckling, which pleased him to no end. “I’ll have to remember that – all I have to do is wallop you with the butt of a gun. Got it.” Her near smile was winsome and it tugged at his heart. “I need to apologize to you as well.”

“What for? You did what you had to do.” He looked away, disgusted with the remembrance of his behavior toward her.

“But it – we never would have reached that point if I hadn’t… you know.” A fresh surge of color tinted her cheeks, an attractive, blooming tinge of pink. “I don’t usually… throw myself at men that way.”

He looked at her, falling more in love with her with every second that passed. He could feel it burn from his eyes, travel down to the fingers that longed to touch her face. “I know.”

Her eyes met his, and he could have sworn it wasn’t possible for her to become more beautiful. But she did, her flush extending down the vee neck of her dress, the cross glowing above the rush of blood to her skin. “Yes. Well.” She reached for her glass of beer, taking a long sip. “So. I have a feeling you’re about to tell me who this Chang person is. Am I right?”

He lowered his voice to a murmur, clasping his hands together beneath the table to prevent them from reaching for her. “I’d very much like to, if you’re willing to listen.”

The arrival of their dinner made her hesitate, but she gave him an answer as she picked up her fork. “Will it ruin my dinner?”

Mulder knew he would never tell her the most sordid, heinous details of his time spent with Chang. As a genteel lady, she really shouldn’t be regaled with tales of opium and whores. “Probably. I think I’d better wait until we’re done.”

“Nonsense.” She took a bite of cabbage, chasing it down with another sip of beer. “I’ve seen and heard things you can’t imagine.” Her face clouded over with a memory unknown to him – but one that intrigued. She was no ordinary female, and he’d best get that straight. He could see her courage etched in every subtle, firm crease of her brow.

“And I’ve done things you can’t imagine,” he said, regret making his voice husky.

She laid her fork on the plate. “Then maybe both our imaginations need enlightening. If you want us to be friends, Mulder, you have to tell me the truth.”

The truth. However ugly it may be, he knew he owed her that. “Finish your dinner, then we’ll talk.”

“I’ve got a strong stomach,” she pressed, a soft intrusion punctuated by an encouraging lift of her lips.

He picked up his fork, lowering his gaze. Much as he wanted to, this was not a moment for soft, re-assuring smiles. “Maybe I don’t.”

**********

Mulder’s appetite seemed on a par with hers, as he picked at his dinner. They fell into silence as they ate, and she took the opportunity to study him and gather her thoughts.

He’d had a haircut since Utah, but he needed a bit of Brylcream, in her opinion – there was a lock of unruly hair that refused to stay put. Every now and then, he impatiently brushed it back with his fingers. He’d shaved, though a little red scrape on his chin told her he’d either been out of practice, or nervous. She could commiserate, she thought sadly, recalling the butterflies in her stomach on the way over here.

All in all, he was a handsome man, with a devastating smile and hazel eyes that were old, but warm. In another time, she might have found herself falling for his charm. And he was charming, she had to admit. An easy intelligence and dry wit – God, she would have fallen hard. But there was an edge to his polished exterior, and though it didn’t frighten her, it did make her uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to playing the part of the gentleman, that was obvious. But the uniform was spotless, and his manners, while rough, had been taught at an early age. She wondered what had happened to him. His behavior in the cabin had been appalling. Now, he was trying so hard to contain whatever drove him to act that way. And it was high time she found out what it was.

As the waiter took their plates away and brought coffee, she murmured, “You weren’t kidding.”

Lost in thought as she’d been, his glance was confused. “Excuse me?”

“About your stomach. You hardly ate a thing.”

Fingers wrapped around the steaming cup of coffee, he seemed mesmerized by the brew. “I wasn’t very hungry.”

She added sugar and milk to her cup, knowing the time had come to hear his story. “Guess you don’t want dessert then.”

His eyes snapped up, as if he’d suddenly been reminded – once again – of his lack of manners. Raising a hand to the waiter, he said quickly, “I’m sorry. What would you like?”

Before she could stop it, her hand tugged on his sleeve, pulling his arm down. That slow burn, the same one she’d seen back at the cabin, returned to his gaze. Slowly, his eyes caressed her face, then fell to her hand. She snatched it from his arm, saying, “I don’t want dessert, thank you. But I would like some answers.”

Mulder paled a bit, bringing a hand up to scratch his jaw. She noticed a mole on his cheek; it was quite attractive, actually. Gave him a bit of distinction. Not that he needed any – she’d noticed the admiring looks from the ladies in the diner while they’d eaten. Once again, she lamented the circumstances of their meeting with a heavy heart. But no… they couldn’t go back…

“You know I work in Naval Intelligence.”

His statement shook her from her traitorous thoughts. “With Charlie, apparently.”

“Yeah. He was my contact in Honolulu.”

“And this Chang fellow?”

He sighed, looking everywhere but at her. “I was assigned to Hong Kong back in ‘39, when the Japanese began stirring up trouble in Asia. The government set me up as a Dutch trader – I’m fluent in several languages.”

She remembered his barrage of questions, barked at her in languages she didn’t understand. Until he got to Japanese. “For what purpose?”

“We suspected the Japanese were moving in on the opium trade; they used their profits to finance the military. At first, I was only supposed to keep an eye out and report back any suspicious movements.”

“At first?” She wished he’d look at her; it was difficult to read him when those expressive eyes were hooded and withdrawn.

He swallowed the last of his coffee before answering, “Then I met up with Chang.” He raised somber eyes to her. She almost gasped at the pain and guilt in those liquid depths. “I now had a connection. As it turned out, the connection. He was – is – a major player in the Chinese Triads.”

“The Mafia?” Surprise lit his face; he hadn’t expected her to recognize the term. “This fabulous hairdo does sit atop a brain, you know,” she said dryly, waving a hand at her hat- covered hair.

He smiled, and it was as if the gloom over him dissipated a bit. “Yeah, I kinda noticed.” Admiration glinted in his eyes, warming her more than the coffee.

She sensed their drift into dangerous waters, and pulled him away with, “So… how deep did you go in?”

His smile faded and he leaned back, toying with his empty cup. “Deep. When Skinner – our CO – learned I’d been offered a job with Chang, my orders changed.”

“Changed? How?”

“By that time, the Japanese had occupied Hong Kong. Let’s just say Chang was very friendly with the officers – and my job was to make sure they stayed happy.”

Something in his face told her she wasn’t going to like what came next. But she had to hear it all. “And what was your job?”

“I ran the China Moon.” He hesitated, his lips pursing, then added, “Chang wasn’t happy making millions from the opium trade. When the Japanese won, he wanted control of Hong Kong.”

“Greedy fellow, wasn’t he?” Mulder didn’t respond to her attempt to lighten the conversation. He knew what was coming next, so she didn’t dawdle further. “The China Moon. A bar, I take it.”

“You could say that.” He finally looked at her again, his face an ill-concealed portrait of self-revulsion. “Let’s just say, whatever the Japanese wanted, I got it for them. In return, Chang got plenty of blackmail material. I got plenty of military secrets.” His eyes spoke of things criminal, of dirty, backroom deals and an easy flow of all manner of vices.

Scully was speechless. When he said he’d done things he wasn’t proud of, she’d never dreamed he was little more than a common criminal.

“Some hero, huh?”

His cutting remark spoke volumes of the way he felt about his service in the war. After the initial shock of moments ago passed, she’d quickly realized that it didn’t matter how he’d done his job – the fact remained, he’d done it. Charlie obviously knew what Mulder had had to do in Hong Kong, and he didn’t hold it against him. In fact, Charlie was Mulder’s big advocate. She’d spent the better part of Christmas Day listening to Charlie’s subtle praises of his friend, despite the warning looks she bestowed on her brother.

Mulder cleared his throat and signaled for the check. “I was supposed to stay until the end of the war, but in February, I’d had enough. I couldn’t stand what I’d become. Skinner and Charlie knew I was at the end of my rope, and arranged transport out for me.”

He couldn’t stand what he’d become. That statement, quickly sandwiched between the other two, made her see him for what he was – a flawed, totally human being. He was right. He wasn’t a hero. But he was a soldier to the bitter end, taught to fight for his country in whatever way he had to. So what if he finally broke and had to be relieved of his duty?

There was still one question that remained. “Chang. I take it he didn’t let you go so easily?”

At that, a bitter laugh broke from his lips. “Not after I torched his warehouses and blew up a couple of his ships in a fond farewell.”

Scully blanched. “He’s after you.”

“You could say that. I thought the bastard had gone up in flames with his merchandise. Seems I was wrong.”

God. Moments ago, she’d been on the verge of sobbing at his story. But that was before the final piece fell into place. Chang was still after him – out for revenge. If Chang was the type of criminal Scully suspected he was, he wouldn’t let anyone stand in his way. And here was Mulder, sitting out in the open with her, exposing himself in order to explain. Worse – putting her family in the line of fire as well. “I can’t believe you,” she said, anger at his nonchalant attitude hardening her voice. “Do you think I want you anywhere near me and my family?”

“Scully, listen to me -” He put a hand over hers, trapping her at the table, his face desperate.

“No.” Jerking her hand away, she stood on shaky legs, not wanting to hear any more of his explanations. It didn’t matter that she sympathized with his story – the fact remained, he was a walking timebomb, and the explosion could very well take her family with him.

Her uncle Mike chose that moment to interrupt, saying their dinner was compliments of the house. Mulder sat mute, watching her tug on her coat.

“Dana,” Mike said, “what’s the rush? Stay awhile. Have another cup of coffee.”

Feeling as if she had a target plastered to her back, she glanced around the room, looking for signs of menace. Mulder got to his feet and slowly pulled on his own coat, addressing Mike. “Thanks, Mike, but we’ve got to get going.”

She pressed a kiss to Mike’s cheek and fled, not listening to Mulder’s goodbyes. The night air was cold and crisp, and she wasted no time waving at the few cabs on the street. Damn him. Just when she was beginning to feel sorry for him, too. He had no business placing himself in such close proximity to her family, and she was going to let Charlie have an earful when she got home.

“Tell him I said I’m sorry.”

Mulder’s soft statement made her flinch, but she didn’t turn around. “Tell who what?” she grated out, not interested in anything but getting as far away from the man as possible.

“Tell Charlie I’m sorry.”

Impatiently, she dropped her arm and faced him. “For what?”

“He’ll know.” He turned up the collar on his coat, his face half in shadow. “And I really am sorry for what I did to you, Dana.”

Furious, she could do nothing but stare. Mulder shoved his hands in his pockets, his eyes sweeping her face one last time.

“I know it’s not an explanation, or an excuse. But being with you… it was like coming home at last. I felt… whole.”

He turned and walked away, his tall figure blending in with the night. Her anger fell to ashes at the sight of his hunched shoulders and for a moment, she allowed herself to grieve for what could have been, her whisper humid with unshed tears.

“So did I.”

End Chapter Eight

A Familiar Heart Chapter Nine

When she came down for breakfast the next morning, she was greeted by the smell of bacon from the kitchen, and a harried Charlie hanging on the telephone in the hall.

“Hey,” she said, tapping him on the shoulder. “What’s up?” She’d been fully prepared to light into him for the Mulder business, but the frown on his face detoured her thoughts. Something was amiss.

Charlie’s chin snapped up, the receiver cradled between his ear and shoulder. A fleeting, absent smile curled his lips and he said, “Hey, sprite. How was the movie?”

Remembering her cover story for the way she’d spent last night, she returned his smile. “Okay. Gable’s getting a bit long in the tooth.” She nodded at the phone. “Is something wrong?”

“Um… nothing. I just can’t get a hold of Mulder this morning. We’re supposed to -” He turned back to his conversation. “Yes? Yeah…”

Scully wandered off toward the kitchen in search of coffee, Charlie’s words fading behind her. So Mulder was gone.

Tell Charlie I’m sorry, he’d said.

Relief flowed through her, mixed with a healthy amount of guilt. Seemed she wouldn’t have to tell Charlie anything about her meeting with Mulder; his best man had taken care of it by skipping town. On one hand, she was glad he’d taken his woes with him. Her family was most important in the matter. On the other hand, she felt bad because Charlie was bound to be hurt by Mulder’s disappearance. But God – the man was dangerous! Charlie knew better than to expose his family and friends to that kind of threat.

“Coffee, Dana?”

Maggie worked at the stove, looking up at her daughter’s approach. Scully murmured a ‘good morning’ to her mother, and made for the pot on the stove.

“Careful, it’s still dripping,” Maggie warned. “Breakfast won’t be ready for another ten minutes of so – would you mind getting the morning paper in the drive before your father comes down?”

“Sure, Mom.” She tipped the coffee pot, one finger on the metal basket of hot water that sat on the top. The full, stout aroma of coffee beans wafted up to her when she filled her cup, and she added a generous amount of sugar and milk before heading back into the hall.

Charlie hung up the telephone with a sigh. His defeated posture tugged at her heart, and she laid a hand on his arm. “What’s the problem?” If she had a hand in Mulder leaving, the least she could do was console her brother. And Bill would make a fine best man, she thought, even though her two brothers always fought like cats and dogs.

“Mulder’s gone.” Slapping the pad of paper he held against his thigh, he muttered, “Damn.”

“He’s what?” Act cool, she told herself. Be surprised, then be sympathetic.

Charlie turned back to the telephone, picking up the receiver to dial a number he read off the paper. “He’s left his parents’ place – they think he put up in a hotel, but I’m not so sure. I knew he was going to do something like this. Idiot. No matter how many times I tell him that it’s okay – Yes? Hello?”

“Okay for what?” This was more than simple disappointment that his best man had abandoned him. Charlie was genuinely hurt by Mulder’s leaving, and was trying his best to track him down.

“He’s not registered? Okay, thanks.” He threw the pad to the table and scrubbed at his cheeks with one hand, muttering, “Where the hell did he go?” He depressed the disconnect button and dialed again, this time more aggressively. He ignored her tug on his arm, telling her with a wave of his hand to wait. “Yeah. This is Charles Scully. I need to speak to Commander Skinner ASAP.”

She walked around to the living room door, sipping at her coffee, trying to appear nonchalant as she listened in on Charlie’s barked instructions. He’d apparently phoned his CO’s office at the Pentagon, and was asking them to put out feelers for Mulder’s whereabouts. She heard Chang’s name once or twice, then, when Charlie noticed her hovering in the doorway, he lowered his voice until she couldn’t hear anything at all. Surely he didn’t think Chang had gotten to Mulder? Alarm made her heart trip; no – Mulder had just left because of her angry outburst last night. He had the sense to realize it wasn’t safe, that was all.

The slam of the telephone made her jump, and Charlie brushed past her into the living room. “I can’t believe he did this to me.”

“Did what?”

“Skipped out on me, that’s what,” Charlie growled. “I told him that it was okay for him to be here, and then he goes and does this. Why the hell did he bother showing up if he was gonna end up leaving?”

A dull thud set up residence in her head, pounding out the chilling reason for Mulder’s pop-in and pop-out: because he wanted to explain. Not to Charlie, to her. He’d known who she was – if not before he left Utah, then bby the time he got to Maryland. He didn’t come all this way to be Charlie’s best man. He came all this way to apologize to her, to try to make it right. It was the only thing that made sense. But the unanswered questions in her mind still lingered, and she was determined to know the whole story.

“Charlie.”

“Yeah?”

“Why did you tell him it was okay to be here? Was he not planning on coming to your wedding all along?”

Charlie flopped into her father’s easy chair, looking at the hall as if he could make the telephone ring with his stare. “I’m gonna tell you something, sprite – but you have to promise it goes no further.” He leveled her with a grim look.

God, she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear all the gory details. But she had to know – if Mulder had it in his mind all along to leave, she had to know if he would have stayed, had she not pushed him away with her anger. And something in Charlie’s sad countenance told her that his friend’s decision was based on more than her harsh words of reprimand.

On legs suddenly rubbery with fear, she walked to the couch, where she perched on the edge. “I promise,” she said, waiting with bated breath.

Charlie sighed, lowering his voice as he leaned forward. “Mulder had it much worse in Hong Kong that he let on in front of the family the other night.”

<Some hero, huh?>

Mulder’s voice echoed in her head as Charlie continued, “I knew him before he got shipped there, back in ‘39. We went through basic training together. Of course, he was the old man of the group.” He smiled grimly, shaking his head. “He might have been 25 or 26. Then again, I was only eighteen, so anyone with a heavier beard than me was old.

“He’s smart, you know. Way smarter than he lets on. I mean, I always knew I wanted to make a career out of the Navy, just like Dad. So I joined up right out of school. It was just dumb luck I happened to get in with Intelligence along with Mulder.”

She knew that was a modest statement. Charlie was quick and agile mentally, perfect for the intuitive work that Naval Intelligence demanded.

“But Mulder? God, Dana – he could speak like seven or eight languages, he could remember things word for word after only seeing them once. The man went to Oxford, for God’s sake. His father was wealthy and Mulder could have had any juicy government job he wanted.”

“Why didn’t he?”

“He never offered a reason, and I never asked. But it’s my guess there’s some friction at home. His kid brother was always making good, you know. He’d tell me about how Sam had made all-American in baseball at Princeton, how Sam graduated with honors, how Sam did this, and Sam did that. And it wasn’t with envy, either. I think Mulder was very proud of his brother. But I also think he felt very inferior, at least in his Dad’s eyes.” Charlie paused, linking his hands as they rested over his knees. “Maybe he wanted to make something of himself on his own, without his father’s help.”

She saw how that statement was reflective of Charlie’s own inadequacies, as far as Bill was concerned. Dana had never seen her father treat his sons any differently, but Bill often came out on top by virtue of his status as eldest. It was Bill who was destined to be captain of his own vessel one day, not Charlie. But she knew Charlie had come to terms with his life, and he was very good at his job, something her father had recently realized. The wedding was supposed to have been a celebration of Charlie’s adult status at last… and she’d gone and put a chink in it.

“Anyway, he jumped at the chance to go to Hong Kong. He was perfect for the assignment, and I was set up in Honolulu to communicate with him. Then he met up with Chang.” Charlie’s face took on a sour look, and he hung his head to stare at his hands.

“Chang?” It took all of her strength to keep the emotion from her voice, to act like she’d never heard the name. Still, it left a bitter taste on her tongue, one she washed away with a sip of her sweetened coffee.

“Yeah. Chang was – is – bad news. He ran one of the major opium smuggling operations in Hong Kong. When Skinner – our CO – heard about this, he ordered Mulder to get in good with Chang. I kept my mouth shut, but I didn’t like it at all. It was dangerous, and we both knew it.”

This was sounding more awful by the minute; she now realized Mulder had glossed over the details not because they were top secret, but because they were quite probably too horrible to speak of. One look at Charlie’s face told her of the ominous story to come. Putting aside her coffee cup, she scooted closer, taking one of Charlie’s hands in her own. A slight tug, and she forced him to look at her. “Tell me.”

It was so like the way he’d gently pulled the story of her own imprisonment from her, and she felt tears gather in her eyes. Tears for Charlie, who’d obviously had to stand by and watch Mulder go deeper into trouble… and tears for Mulder, who she suspected with each passing moment had spared her because he cared more deeply for her than she’d thought.

“After a while, even Skinner knew that Mulder was in over his head. But he couldn’t do anything about it – the orders from above were specific: leave Mulder there. He was getting some good information about troop movements from Chang’s Japanese customers – mostly officers who liked to hang around the China Moon.”

Once again, she fished for already known information. “What was the China Moon?”

“Chang tapped Mulder to run the China Moon. A really nice place, from what I understand… crystal chandeliers, teakwood bar… and all the women and opium one could ever want.”

Dear God. Mulder ran a brothel. Disgust curled in her stomach; had he ever availed himself of the women? Goodness knew he was sexually active, if his performance of the other night was any indication. Of course, she really had no other way of gauging him against other men… damn! She had no business even thinking of him like that anymore. Her displeasure at the thought must have shown on her face, because Charlie immediately squeezed her fingers. “He wouldn’t have done that, sprite. Believe me.”

“How do you know?”

“Because he’s an honorable man. And because that’s one of the things he most hated about working in Hong Kong – when he came back to the States, I heard the venom in his voice when he’d talk about the way Chang’s women were treated. Like chattel. And he couldn’t do a damned thing about it.”

Yet he’d made love to her. Even his snide bargaining at the end had been laced with self- revulsion, she knew that now. He’d been rough, but he’d been tender.

<You were like coming home at last.>

Letting go of Charlie’s hand, she stood and walked to the fireplace, squeezing her eyes shut as she gave Charlie her back. The words seemed to drag out of her, each one filled with dread. “That’s not all, is it?”

Behind her, Charlie sighed. “No. Toward the end, Chang began to suspect Mulder. He got one of the girls to slowly slip some opium into Mulder’s food.”

The vial. His paranoid insistence that she’d been sent there to drug him. “Was he…” she stumbled a bit, then took a deep breath. “Was he addicted?”

<I couldn’t stand what I’d become.>

“When he started feeling the effects, he realized what Chang had done. He couldn’t refuse the food, because it would mean his certain death. So he went along, barely eating enough to survive until he could get out. I tried telling Skinner that they should pull him, but it was no use. Skinner’s hands were tied like mine. It all came to a head in February.”

Composing her face into a calmer mask, she turned, arms crossed over her chest. “What happened in February?”

Charlie’s face was pinched and pale. “I relayed a message to Mulder – his brother had been killed in action.”

“God,” she whispered, feeling Mulder’s pain as surely as if she’d been there with him.

“It broke him, sprite. I think he went a bit nuts. His message back was so cold, so crazy. He told me I’d better find him some transport, because he was leaving Hong Kong, no matter what Skinner said. And if we didn’t find him transport, he was going to go up in flames with Chang. He’d had enough.”

<I torched his warehouses and blew up a couple of his ships in a fond farewell.>

She had a sudden mental image of Mulder’s madness, and it took her breath away. Because it was familiar. Did he see angels when he lit the fuse? Were there voices telling him that no matter what, with death there came freedom? She shuddered at her own memories of nearly crossing that jagged line of instant, permanent insanity, and wondered how Mulder had stepped back from it, as she had. He could very well have gone over the edge in Utah, but he didn’t. It was a testament to his strength, a statement of his humanity.

“You got him out, though, didn’t you?” It was the one hopeful scene in the horrid tale, and she hoped that Chang would never tack on a sad ending.

“Yeah, but it wasn’t easy. A heavy cruiser doing reconnaissance for a carrier spotted him a couple of days after I lost contact with him. He was floating in a fishing boat a few hundred miles southeast of Taiwan. How the hell he avoided Japanese patrols, I don’t know; he’d paddled his way away from Hong Kong. It was sheer luck we found him – he was in bad shape. Another day or so, and he’d have been a goner.”

“And the opium addiction?”

“Took a few months to wean him off of the stuff. He seemed like he was going to be okay, then we found out Chang was after him, looking for revenge.” Charlie got up from the chair to look out the window, hands on hips. “Damn it,” he growled. “He’s been practically on the lam since August; he wasn’t going to come to my wedding, you know. He didn’t want Chang to follow him here. But I told him a couple of days ago that Chang had gone back to Hong Kong. Mulder didn’t have a damn thing to worry about.”

She watched Charlie’s back stiffen with hurt, and she knew she was responsible. Mulder had tried to tell her last night that they were in no danger, but she’d been too caught up in her own anger and selfishness to listen. The wrong she’d done Charlie and Mulder pressed upon her like a two-ton pile of bricks. But how could she make it right? Mulder was gone, and even if Charlie could find him, she doubted Mulder would sit still to listen. And no way would she risk getting that close to Mulder again. Yes, he wasn’t what she’d thought he was, but he was still too dangerous to her peace of mind to have him around.

She was such a coward. A little fool who thought all the hurt in the world had fallen upon her shoulders. It wasn’t bad enough she’d burdened Charlie with all that happened to her in Los Banos… no, she had to ruin his wedding by practically running his best man out of town on a rail.

The loud ring of the telephone made her jump; it made Charlie whirl and run for the hall. She couldn’t help but follow, eavesdropping on Charlie’s breathless replies.

“Yeah? He did? Thanks.” As soon as he hung up, he made for the coat rack, giving Scully a peck on the cheek as he donned his coat and gloves. “Catch ya later, sis.”

“Wait a minute,” she called out, stopping him half in and half out the door. “Where are you going?”

“Mulder and I were supposed to meet at Skinner’s office this morning – he’s already come and gone. One of the assistants says she overheard him on the phone before he left – checking schedules at the Dupont Train Station.”

A rail. How ironic that her machinations should literally find Mulder catching a train out of town. “Charlie?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think he’ll come back with you?” She wasn’t worried that Mulder would tell Charlie of his dinner with her last night. No, by their common, unspoken, honor, neither would ever say a word to Charlie about any of that mess in Utah. She was more concerned that Charlie would beg until he was blue in the face and Mulder wouldn’t budge from his decision to leave.

“He’d better. He has nothing to hide from anymore, and I’m damn well gonna make him see that.”

Scully shifted from one foot to the other, a trickle of nervous energy fluttering in her stomach. Charlie paused, one hand on the door knob, confusion creasing his brow. “Sis?”

Damn. She knew she was going to be sorry for this, but it had to be done.

**********

It was cold out on the platform, but at least it wasn’t snowing anymore, Mulder thought. His body tucked into his heavy coat and scarf, he almost wished he’d worn his uniform. The hat would warm his head nicely. But God, he’d had enough of the uniform already. It hadn’t done him a damned bit of good to wear the thing, and actually, it brought back memories he’d just as soon forget.

Skinner hadn’t been pleased he’d shown up early for the de-briefing about Chang, saying Charlie should be there. But Mulder had lied and told Skinner there was a family emergency in Florida. Truth be known, his parents were leaving Washington for Florida early this morning, but only for his dad to get in some sun and golf in Miami. He could have stayed at their house indefinitely, according to his mother, but his father’s frown had put an end to that idea. Mulder didn’t even have a key to the house. Some welcome home.

Besides, after seeing her last night, and hearing her condemnation, he wanted to get as far away as possible. Nagging guilt about abandoning Charlie made his shoulders droop, but Scully had been right – he had no business exposing their happy family to any danger, or to anything associated with his seedy past. Including himself. He was not worthy of the friendly, homespun Scully clan, most especially Dana, who still managed to look like an innocent. Jesus. He shut his eyes against the glare of the sun, wondering if he’d ever forgive himself for that transgression.

“Mulder!”

He turned at the shout of his name, only to look away with a grimace. Charlie, his smile of relief beaming across the platform. He should have known his friend would track him down. Damn. Another ten minutes and he’d have been gone on the 11:15 to parts west. Tucking his hands in his pockets, he straightened his shoulders and prepared for the argument to come.

Smiling, he faced his breathless friend. “Come to see me off?”

Charlie’s relief at finding him faded quickly to a frown. “I should kick your ass. C’mon.” He wrapped a hand around Mulder’s duffel bag.

“I’m not going back, Charlie.” He gave Charlie his profile, a proud, implacable show of stubbornness.

“Yes, you are. There’s nothing to worry about, Mulder. You talked to Skinner this morning – Chang’s gone.” He hefted the bag over his shoulder. “You want your clothes? You’ll have to come with me.”

“Take ‘em. As soon as I get back to San Diego, I’m resigning my commission. I’d have done it here, but Skinner refused to accept it.”

From the corner of his eye, he saw Charlie drop the bag to the wooden floor. It hit with a dull thud, and Mulder almost flinched at the hurt in Charlie’s voice. “You’re what?”

“You heard me. I’m out.” He gave Charlie a sidelong glance, then dropped his chin at the sadness he saw written in the crestfallen face. “I’m just not… ready for any of this, Charlie. Life on the outside.” He spoke as if he’d been in prison, and he supposed he had. A dirty, dark place that he was just scratching his way out of; and one thing his short time with Charlie’s glowing family had proven to him was that he’d lost touch with normal people, with the simple things like manners and genuine feelings. It hurt, and he wasn’t sure it would ever stop.

“Mulder, no… you can’t crawl back and hide. I won’t let you.”

Mulder’s lips curled at Charlie’s insistent growl. It was so easy for Charlie to stand there and plead with him to stay. He was the most decent fellow he’d ever had the pleasure of knowing. But Mulder didn’t see his own parents standing before him with the same words, nor did he see any of his so-called pals from Skinner’s office. And he certainly wouldn’t be graced with a plea to stay from her… the very thought of her, standing in the watery sunshine, a smile on her face, a ‘please’ on her lips… God, it shook him to his bones. No. That was just a dream, and he’d had plenty of those in Hong Kong that never came true. Why would Maryland prove any different?

A sharp whistle pierced the air, and he saw the train approaching from his left. “Look, Charlie,” he said as he faced the younger man, “I can’t -”

“Yes, you can.”

Soft and precise, the words cut through the air behind him, and his mouth dropped, his own protest choked down by the hammering of his heart. No, it couldn’t be. She’d throw his bag on the train and shove him on behind it, if she were really there. He was hearing things, that was it.

“It’s about time you made it, sprite,” Charlie said. “See if you can talk some sense into him.”

“It took me some time to find a parking spot, Charlie.”

Slowly, Mulder turned to find her standing there, a few feet of distance between them. She wasn’t smiling, but then again, she looked at him with eyes that were warm and intense, the corners of her mouth flirting with the effort to let a smile break free. Her coat flapped open in the cold wind, and her cheeks were kissed with a pink blush. She looked as though she’d just woken from a sound sleep, and he thought he’d never seen anything so beautiful. Under his stare, she finally dropped her gaze, her hands sliding into her coat pockets.

“You can’t let me walk down that aisle by myself, Mulder,” she murmured. “I do have a tricky ankle, you know.” For emphasis, she stuck out one loafer-clad foot. Still, her eyes remained downcast.

“Yeah,” Charlie pounced, coming up beside Mulder. “You don’t do it, and I’ll have to ask Bill. And he’s got two left feet. He steps on her foot, and it’ll be war right in the middle of church. Mom would faint right there.”

Mulder cleared his throat, wondering if he had the strength to suppress his shout of sheer joy. It was difficult, but he managed it – just barely. “I guess I could stay,” he said, feeling his goofy smile cling to his face, despite his attempt to tame it.

Charlie nudged Mulder, picking up the duffel bag again. “I knew I was bringing the right reinforcements,” he whispered to Mulder.

Mulder felt heat creep up his cheeks and he sobered, embarrassed that he’d let Charlie witness his happiness at seeing her. All business, he grabbed the bag from Charlie. “I’ll catch a cab to the nearest hotel and call you later, okay?”

“Hotel? You’re kidding. What about your Dad’s place?”

“They closed it up for the winter this morning. They’re going to Miami to catch some sun.” His stern look warned Charlie not to dwell on the subject of his parents. “I can get a room, no problem.”

“Out of the question,” Charlie replied. “We’ve got lots of room, don’t we, sprite?”

Mulder, still watching Scully, saw her chin snap up. He waited, knowing one word from her could send him packing on that train. Her eyes widened a bit, then became placid. “The couch is pretty comfy.”

His smile returned, warmth blooming within him at her simple gesture of truce. “I don’t mind the couch. Some of my best friends have been sofas.” He pursed his lips over the inane remark, looking away.

“It’s settled then,” Charlie stated. “Give me the keys, sprite, and I’ll bring the car out front. We can’t have you hobbling on that ankle too much.” Scully did as he asked, and directed him to the Buick, some two blocks down. She watched him lope away in silence before turning back to Mulder.

“Some of your best friends are sofas?” she asked softly. “What are your enemies – ottomans?”

At that, he took a step toward her, his voice just as soft as he watched the wind whip her hair about her face. “I once thought that my only adversaries were a Chinese mafia boss and a petite redhead. As of this morning, I seem to have lost both.”

Gathering her coat close, she cocked a brow. “I wouldn’t bet on it, Mulder.” Turning, she began to walk to the front of the station. “Now move it, sailor. We don’t have all day.”

He fell into step beside her, grinning. Not because he was staying for the wedding. Not because he was staying at her house for the next few days. Not even because she’d personally come to the station to get him to stay.

It was because, though she tried her best to hide it, the smile was there. He heard it in her voice.

This was shaping up to be one helluva holiday.

End Chapter Nine

A Familiar Heart Chapter Ten

Her mother wasn’t at all perturbed to see them return with Mulder in tow. Scully had braced herself for the inevitable round of questions, and had quirked an eyebrow at her mother’s enthusiastic greeting. She watched as Charlie hustled Mulder upstairs to deposit his bag in Charlie’s room, and took the opportunity to stop her mother’s return to the kitchen.

“Mom?”

Maggie just smiled and winked, gleaning her daughter’s thoughts in an instant. “That young man is so very alone, Dana,” she murmured. “I saw it from the moment he walked in the other night.” She shrugged, wiping her hands on her apron. “And I sort of eavesdropped this morning.”

“Mom!” Scully blanched, wondering what else her mother had heard – namely, her kitchen meeting with Mulder Christmas Eve.

“Don’t worry, sweetie – I don’t make a habit of listening in on private conversations. I just happened to hear Charlie on the phone with his CO, that’s all. He seemed very upset by Mulder’s leaving.”

Scully sighed, relieved that her mother hadn’t heard the whole story. Taking in a wandering soldier was one thing, harboring a man with Mulder’s shady – albeit faultless – past was quite another. “He was,” she agreed, happy that Charlie was now happy. She still wasn’t sure how she was going to get through the next few days. Especially since seeing the way Mulder reacted at the train station; his quiet, stumbling joy at seeing her there still had the power to send shivers up her spine when she thought of it.

“And you?”

Her mother’s soft, pointed question broke into her wayward thoughts. “What?”

“Seems to me you could have let Charlie collect his friend all by himself, but you didn’t. I wonder why?” The corner of Maggie’s mouth went up, and she turned, humming her way back to the kitchen. “Lunch is almost ready,” she threw over her shoulder. “Go tell those boys to wash up while they’re up there.”

Wonderful. While not understanding exactly what kind of bond existed between herself and Mulder, her mother had intuited that there was some attraction of sorts. That’s all she needed – first Charlie, now her mother. Thank goodness her father had reported back to the Pentagon today for work, or he’d be offering Mulder a dowry and his choice of Cuban cigars. Of course, her father would be back for dinner, as would Melissa and kids, and Ellen. God. The whole lot of them would be throwing her and Mulder together at every opportunity. She’d have to find a way to talk to Mulder before then, to make certain he understood not to fuel the matchmaking fire in any way. And he wouldn’t, of course. Why would he? Just because he’d been gratified to see her in a semi-apology of sorts at the train station didn’t mean he expected a love affair to bloom. They were both intelligent adults, able to co- exist as friends for a short time.

The clamor of male shoes on the stairs made her look up. She opened her mouth to speak, then felt the words die at the devouring look on Mulder’s face, who lagged a step or two behind Charlie.

A fine sheen of perspiration broke out on Scully’s upper lip. This wasn’t going to be easy. “Mom says for you two to wash up. Lunch is ready,” she said, her throat dry with nervousness. Back at the train station, she’d had the upper hand. Not so now; Mulder moved toward her with the slow stealth of a panther, his eyes never leaving her face.

“Taken care of, sprite,” Charlie replied, rubbing his hands together as he made for the kitchen. “Last one at the table’s a rotten egg.”

Mulder stopped at the bottom of the stairs, hands in the pockets of his corduroys. His pullover was forest green cashmere, expensive-looking and breath-taking in the way it made his eyes glow like emeralds. “Thank you,” he said expressively, keeping his distance, though he exuded warmth and vitality. She felt it wash over her, and she took a step back from it, licking her lips.

“Mom cooked lunch, not me.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he whispered.

She knew that already. Her back was warm as she turned and walked to the kitchen.

**********

“I think I’ll go see what Melissa’s up to this afternoon.”

Scully’s declaration made all of them look up from their soup and sandwiches. Mulder dropped his chin first, knowing she needed a bit of space. Her mother, however, took exception at Scully’s decision.

“We have company, Dana,” she chided softly, giving Mulder a sidelong glance.

“That’s okay,” he said quickly. “I’m not company – at least not the kind you need to entertain.”

Charlie piped up, and Mulder almost kicked him under the table. “We can go along, can’t we, sprite? I’m sure she could use a break from the boys. Mulder and I can keep ‘em busy while you two gossip.”

There was no way she could refuse, and Mulder saw a slight flutter of exasperation cross her face before she replied cooly, “Of course. You can help them build a snowman before it all melts.”

In other words, stay the hell outside, Mulder heard in the firm statement. Truth was, he didn’t mind one bit. She could huff all she wanted, throw Melissa’s kids at him like grenades, and still, he’d come back for more. This opportunity, these few days of encroachment, were a boon he never expected. And he was damn well going to take advantage of their close proximity.

The problem was, there was a fine line between subtle wooing and scaring her off – or worse, making her angry again. He’d have to be on his best behavior, seizing ground only when allowed to do so.

Scully stood, walking to the sink with her bowl. Her mother did the same, gathering the remaining bowls with a smile. As the women busied themselves taking care of the dishes, Mulder sighed, trying his best to grimace at Charlie’s ‘thumbs up’.

It was very difficult to do, especially when he wanted nothing more than to yell in triumph. A whole afternoon together – well, sort of. He’d been relegated to babysitter duty, but there were ways around that. Didn’t kids usually take a nap?

If they built a snowman to end all snowmen, they would.

**********

“I should have warned your Mr. Mulder that Danny and Donny are known worldwide for their energy.”

Scully looked up from her coffee to pierce her sister with a cold glance. “He’s not my Mr. Mulder.”

Melissa looked outside the kitchen window, her face assessing and curious. She ignored Scully’s correction, musing, “He’s not bad, actually. A bit too tall and lean for my tastes, but he’s got a nice smile.”

“Missy!”

Melissa came away from the window to sit beside her sister. “What? A girl can’t look?”

It seemed so odd to be sitting in her sister’s small kitchen, discussing the merits of a handsome man, even if it was Mulder. The days of teenage angst over the local football hero were long gone, their innocence lost in the mire of war and misery. Scully briefly lamented the loss, then realized the world had moved on, just as she herself would. Melissa’s husband had been her perfect match – impulsive yet loyal and loving. But he was gone for over a year now, and Scully could not bear to see Melissa alone. Her judgmental attitude was unwarranted.

“I’m sorry, Missy,” she murmured. “It’s just that, to me, you’re still…” She faltered, not knowing how to explain that sometimes, it felt as though she’d woken up from a three-year sleep and nothing should have changed. Yet it had – all of it had changed.

“With Rob?” Melissa finished softly. She reached across the table and took hold of Dana’s hand, gently squeezing it. “Dana, I loved Rob with all my heart. When he was killed, I thought I’d never go on.” She tilted her head at the boyish screams of glee coming from the back yard. “But I did – for them. My boys. Rob left us pretty well off financially, but I need more. Do you understand?”

Scully searched Melissa’s hopeful face; there was something she wasn’t saying. On Christmas Eve, she’d whisked her family away after only a couple of hours, pleading the need to get the boys in bed in time for Santa. Now, Scully realized there was an ulterior motive in Missy’s hasty departure. It was written all over her face.

A small, knowing grin bloomed on Scully’s face. “All right. Who is he?” The better question was – why hadn’t Melissa told her parentts? If her mom knew Melissa was seeing someone, she would have spread the news far and wide.

Melissa stood, walking to the stove. As she poured another cup of coffee, she shrugged. “His name is Melvin Frohike. He’s a nice man, a businessman, actually. He’s into shipping.”

What Melissa wasn’t saying set off Dana’s inner alarms. “And he’s married,” she muttered, feeling her sister out.

“No…”

There had to be some unsavory quality about the man, for Melissa to hedge like she was doing. “He’s not Catholic,” Scully supplied. She didn’t think her father would care, nor would she herself. But her mother would have a hissy fit. Good Catholic girls were made for good Catholic boys.

At the thought, she looked out the window where Mulder and Charlie were romping with the boys. Of course, her mother already had her married to Mulder in her mind, religious differences not even spoken of. Maybe Charlie was right – maybe the war had changed her mother, just like it had everyone else.

Melissa turned, walking to the window again. “Actually, I’ve never asked.”

“Then what is it?”

“There is nothing wrong with him, Dana. Besides, we’re just friends. It’s not like I’m going to elope with the man tomorrow.”

“Missy…” she warned, wondering what Melissa’s reticence was due to. From the vague way she described this man, there had to be some trait their family would find objectionable. Rob had been perfect for her, but it had taken several false starts for Missy to find him. One boy after another, most of them rebels. A sudden thought made Dana pale. “He’s not a communist, is he?”

Melissa laughed, moving toward the door. “No! He’s just a man, Dana. In fact, you’ll meet him in a bit. He’s coming over for dinner tonight.” She opened the back door, yelling at the snowman crew, “It’s getting dark, guys. Time to come in.”

Scully knew she wasn’t going to get anything else out of her sister, and she stood, saying, “Guess we’d better go, then.”

“No, stay,” Melissa said, shutting the back door. “The boys will most likely poop out after dinner, and we can have a party of sorts. Just the grown-ups.” She winked, taking Dana’s cup. “I’ll tell Charlie to go collect Ellen, and we can maybe play cards or something.”

A nice, cozy night spent with… Mulder. God, no, she couldn’t. The obvious pairing off would leave her very vulnerable to his attentions. “I really can’t stay, Missy.”

While not as attuned to Scully’s moods as Charlie, Melissa had always been keen to a brush- off when she heard one. Hands on hips, she said, “And what do you have to do at home? Listen to Dad snore in his chair and Mom sigh over “Queen for a Day” on the radio? Puh-leeze.” At the scrape of shoes on the back stoop, she lowered her voice. “Stay, Dana. I’ll phone Mom and tell her – she’ll understand. I want you to meet Melvin. Charlie likes him, I’m sure you will, too.”

“Charlie’s met him?”

“Our little brother has been here a week longer than you have, Dana… and he had enough of “Queen for a Day” after his first day home.”

Scully saw the late afternoon shadows of her brother and Mulder darken the back door glass. Even with sunset muting their features, their easy smiles and laughing camaraderie were plain to see. Indecision tugged at her heart.

“I dunno, Missy. I kind of like “This is Your FBI”.” Her comment was tongue-in-cheek, but her meaning was lost on Melissa, who faced her with their father’s stern blue eyes.

“Then get out of the Navy and join up with J. Edgar so you can do the real thing. But tonight, you’re staying, and that’s final.”

**********

Melvin Frohike turned out to be an old man.

Scully sipped at her wine, pasting a vacuous smile on her face as she listened to the after- dinner conversation build and lull. She had nothing against Mr. Frohike, per se. He was very intelligent, and had obviously won over Charlie with his easy banter about any manner of subjects. Sports, the latest in business and post-war enterprise; he even made the boys behave with a firm command tempered by interest in their daily activities. He spoke to them often, asking about their friends, school – how it was the monstrous snowman in the back yard had a top hat just like the one he wore only at New Year’s.

But he was old. At least three inches shorter than Melissa, he was a pudgy little thing with glasses and a balding pate. How her sister, a beauty who could have any man she pleased, had hooked up with this staid, older gentleman was beyond Scully.

Scully, in her fascination with Mr. Frohike, had all but forgotten Mulder was even in the room. He sat on a loveseat set apart from the other adults, flanked by the twins. Come to think of it, she hadn’t heard a peep from any of them in a good fifteen minutes. Standing, she reached for the tray on the coffee table, intending to kill some time with cleanup while the others carried on their conversation. Melissa, who sat beside Mr. Frohike on the couch (at a very respectable distance, Scully had to admit), also stood, an embarrassed smile on her face.

“Let me get that, Dana,” she said. “You ask Mulder if he needs another glass of wine.”

Oh, joy. She knew her peace and quiet had been too good to last. Giving her sister the tray with a nod, she walked to the far end of the living room, where the loveseat and Christmas tree flanked the bay window. She stopped at the sight of the three boys – one of them very much overgrown – fast asleep.

They were a trio of windblown exhaustion, their faces in the shadows of the loveseat pink with the afternoon’s exertion in the snow and sun. She felt a gentle hand squeeze her heart at the way Mulder slept, his mouth slightly parted, his face relaxed. She wondered when was the last time he’d gotten a good night’s sleep; she knew that his war years were probably more harrowing than hers had been, and she knew she that she’d slept with one eye open in the prison camp. And for him to still be pursued by an unseen, deadly enemy? It would very much surprise her if he’d let himself sleep more than a couple of hours a night.

Even in the dim light, she could see the faint smudges under his long lashes, and a sudden rush of emotion clogged her throat. He was nothing but a man, seriously troubled through no fault of his own. What he’d done to her… she really must quit thinking of that night as a product of Mulder’s actions. She had done quite a few things to him as well. Run her fingers through his hair, over his warm, strong body, greedily latched onto his mouth and pulled him to her…

As if she still felt him move within her, her hand drifted to her lower belly, where a flutter of apprehension stirred. She hadn’t given it any more thought since Christmas Eve, but seeing him slumbering, his arms around Melissa’s children, brought home to her once again the possibility of pregnancy. But instead of curling dread, the idea took root as a glimmer of hope; she spread her fingers wide over the thick wool of her slacks, knowing it was foolish to want such a thing, but unable to deny its birth. It was foolish, it was complicated to ponder, she shouldn’t be wanting it at all –

“Dana! Help us move the furniture, would you? We’re gonna have some fun!”

At Charlie’s shout, she jumped, looking at the four happy adults to her left. When she looked back, Mulder’s eyes were open. Narrow and glazed with sleep, they touched her face with their warmth, as if he expected a wake-up kiss. Dark and dangerous with desire, they literally took her breath away with the overt need that shown through. It took every ounce of strength she possessed to break their hold and turn back to the others.

**********

She was there. Looking at him, her eyes filled with wondrous hope, her hands set low over her belly. What was she thinking? Did he want to know? He wished for her mind to open to him, for her feet to move her into his arms. Closing his eyes, he waited, knowing any sudden move on his part would likely scare her off. Please come to me, he prayed.

“Come on, baby.” The child on his left stirred, and Mulder felt a rush of cool air replace the warmth at his side. He opened his eyes, expecting to see her settle beside him. Yes. He’d never been a praying man, but maybe…

“Mulder?”

He blinked a few times at the soft call of his name, trying to dispel the cobwebs from his brain. Seconds away from reaching out a hand and murmuring her name with a longing ache, he finally realized it wasn’t her after all. Had he been dreaming?

Melissa gathered the nearest of her sons up in her arms. “I’m sorry, Mulder. I should have known they’d poop out after they ate. I didn’t mean for them to fall asleep on you.”

He say up, wiping a hand across his face. “That’s okay. I guess I was just as tired.” His stellar plan to tucker out the kids and have Scully all to himself had only resulted in him succumbing to exhaustion. Who knew kids had so much energy? He reached for the twin on his right, and was stalled by another’s voice.

“I’ll get him, Fox.”

It was Melissa’s friend, Melvin. Mulder had liked the little man on sight, but had seen Scully’s doubts about his relationship with her sister all night long. It was plain in the way she kept looking at Melvin across the dinner table, her veiled looks trying to pierce the man’s confidence. “Just Mulder, Melvin,” he said, stretching up from the loveseat.

Melvin Frohike hoisted the sleeping child in his arms, giving Mulder a grin. “You know, I never liked Melvin all that much, either. It’s a shame what the good intentions of parents saddle a kid with – why don’t you call me Frohike? I think I could use a change, and you’ve provided me with the perfect opportunity.” He rolled his eyes at Melissa’s departing back, telling Mulder silently that she couldn’t object on those terms.

“Sure,” Mulder chuckled. “From now on, you’re Frohike.”

“Good man,” Frohike nodded, turning with the child. “We’ll be back shortly.” He followed Melissa up the stairs.

When Mulder turned to the others in the living room, he found that the pieces of furniture had been moved out, and a wide expanse of tapestry rug laid bare in the center of the room. Charlie was on his knees in front of the radio, Ellen by his side. Scully stood apart, a distinct look of – fear? – on her face. No, she wasnn’t scared of a damn thing. And he wouldn’t allow himself to consider the possibility it was anything else.

Hands in pockets, he walked to the edge of the rug, addressing Charlie. “What’s up?”

“We have to get some practice in, old boy,” Charlie threw over his shoulder.

“Practice?” Mulder looked at Scully; no, that wasn’t fear. It was definitely dismay – mixed with something else, something she’d hidden very well. What the hell did Charlie have planned?

“For the wedding reception. We won’t become Fred Astaire overnight, but we don’t want to embarrass ourselves, either.”

Dancing. He was speaking of dancing. His mouth dropped as he looked at Scully again. This time, she didn’t even acknowledge his look. Instead, she bristled, her arms crossed.

“Charlie, it’s getting late, and we really should go.”

“Late?” Ellen said, her face incredulous. “It’s only eight o’clock, Dana. Before the war, we’d be up until midnight – don’t you remember? Listening to music and dancing – with each other, if we didn’t have anyone of the male persuasion around.” She winked, turning back to Charlie; he swatted her hand away from the knob.

“I got it,” he said. The scratching of the radio gave way to the muted tones of “Sentimental Journey”. Charlie stood, wrapping an arm around Ellen. “You’re not leaving, either of you. We’re gonna learn all the new dances, courtesy of Melissa and Melvin. That’s an order.”

Damn Charlie. Mulder could have kissed him right then and there. His arms already itched to hold Scully, and Charlie had handed him the perfect excuse. When Charlie swung Ellen into his arms, Mulder took a sheepish step to Scully’s side.

“May I have this dance?” he asked, holding out a hand. To his surprise, she took it, though she was stiff. And very angry, from her whispered warning.

“Keep ‘em high, sailor. One finger below the waist and that’ll be the last time you use that hand, got it?”

Oh, yeah. She smelled good. What was she saying about fingers?

End Chapter Ten

A Familiar Heart Chapter Eleven

“Would you please wipe that look off your face?”

She didn’t meet his gaze as she whispered the plea, keeping her head slightly turned to where Charlie and Ellen glided in perfect sync next to them. Practice, indeed. Charlie looked as if he was born to dance, while Mulder felt like his legs were the two limp appendages of the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. Of course, his very attractive dance partner most probably had a great deal to do with his dance infirmity.

“What look?” he asked, in all innocence.

Her eyes came back to his face, and her words were dry. “Mulder, Christmas was two days ago, and I’m not a pony.”

He laughed, catching Charlie’s attention, and Scully’s annoyance; the hand on his shoulder pinched him through the sweater. He flushed, giving Charlie a grin. Before Charlie could say anything, Ellen had diverted his face back to her with a firm hand.

Lowering his head, Mulder murmured, “Funny you should say that.” His hand crept up her back, feeling the ridges of her spine through her thin blouse. “Because I’ve always wanted a pony, but that was years ago, and now, I’d settle for -”

“Mulder, shut up,” she warned.

But he ignored her, continuing, “A little spitfire who can break me to bridle.” His grin faded into a pointed stare at her lips.

Her lashes drooped, and she mirrored his study of her mouth for a moment. Just when he was an instant away from giving them both a brilliant, much needed kiss, she looked up, her cheeks pink.

“Mulder, this is not a good idea.”

He knew she wasn’t speaking of the dancing. He could have pursued the train of his amorous thoughts, but he backed off, sensing the time had come for a tactical retreat. “I know. I never was all that good at dancing. If I step on your toes, forgive me.” He smiled with an easy show of friendship offered, and was gratified to see her tense face soften into a grin.

“You’re something, you know that?”

“As long as I’m not an ottoman, that’s okay.” He saw his soft statement harken the memory of their train station conversation; did she still consider him an enemy?

Her hair fell over one eye as she cocked her head, her voice lowering to a husky purr. “I’d say you’ve moved up to sofa status.”

<Some of my best friends have been sofas.>

His own words echoed in his head, and pure joy filled his chest. At the blossoming of his smile, she narrowed her gaze in warning, and he relented, forcing his face to adopt a calm mien. From the corner of his eye, he saw Melissa and Frohike descend the stairs and knew their bubble was about to be popped. One last chance to encroach, and he took it.

His own eyes heavy-lidded, he bent to her ear and whispered, “Have I ever told you how much I lov – like beds?” Mouth open, he lingered over the shell of her ear, the silky wisps of her hair tickling his lips as he waited for a reply. If there was one forthcoming; he’d almost blown the whole shebang with the wrong word, one he was sure she wasn’t ready to hear. Sighing, he began to pull away after a second or two, until he felt her warm breath caress the underside of his jaw.

“So do I.”

Mesmerized by her answer, he stopped moving, pulling back to search her face. For the first time, she was fully open to him, her eyes glowing in the light from the fireplace with simple acceptance. Her lips broke into a soft smile and she took a deep breath, in preparation for another profound statement, he just knew it.

“Hey – what is this? No hanky-panky on the dance floor!”

Frohike’s laughing interruption broke them apart, and Mulder flashed the man an irritated glance. It was for naught though, as he realized Frohike’s statement had been directed at Charlie and Ellen, who still lingered over a kiss at the edge of the rug. Mulder looked at Scully, who had the same bewildered expression he felt on his face. Together, they grinned, and he reached for her hand. She let it slide easily into his, then kept the clasp a bit hidden between them.

He understood. And he would take anything he could get.

**********

Dana Scully was having a good time.

It amazed her, really. Swinging in Mulder’s arms, laughing at she was passed from one partner to another, Melissa’s and Ellen’s giggles complimenting hers until the room was filled with feminine laughter and masculine preening. The slow tunes of the previous hour had given way to an all-dance program, and the music was bouncy and carefree.

She felt as if her body was boneless. Whirling and dipping, her feet having no trouble keeping up with some of Frohike’s very capable dance moves – Mulder let him take the lead on the more involved steps, lagging back to watch with admiring eyes that she knew followed her every move. Once or twice, she faltered a bit, her ankle still a bit sore; Frohike was attentive, slowing down at those moments.

Mulder, on the other hand, clenched his jaw and jerked as if ready to swoop down in a rescue, his arms crossed at every small grimace of fleeting pain she let show. With a nod, she told him she was fine; with a raised brow, she threatened bodily harm should he make a big deal of it. At that, he smiled, a big show of teeth as he dropped his chin and kicked at the rug.

Seemed they were becoming more attuned with each other, with every moment that passed. Their unspoken communication pleased her, but it also scared the hell out of her. Could he read all her thoughts?

“You’re a good dancer, Dana.” Frohike’s statement pulled her gaze from Mulder’s face. He whirled her around Charlie and Ellen to the far side of the room, where he dropped his voice to a low murmur. “I just want to thank you.”

“For what?” She stole a glance at Mulder, who looked ready to storm across the room. She didn’t feel threatened by Melvin’s isolation of her from the group, but Mulder apparently had other ideas. “Mr. Frohike, I think we’d better…”

“Just Frohike, Dana,” he corrected her.

Jesus, another one with a preference for last names only? Had there been a change to the US Constitution while she was gone? She could just see it now, in stark black and white: By law, one must now address familiars by last names only. The thought broke her concentration, and she grinned, which made Mulder’s face become stormy.

“Uh, Frohike, I think we’d better move back.” Her eyes darted to Mulder, and Frohike blushed, seeing the way the wind blew at last.

“I’m sorry, Dana,” he stuttered, “I – I didn’t mean anything by this, you know.”

“I know you didn’t,” she replied, placating his sudden attack of nerves. “I take it you have something to say about my sister?”

Catching sight of Mulder’s approach, he quickly blustered, “I just want to say that I respect her and like her very much. Thank you for not saying anything -” He broke off, relinquishing his hold on her. “Mulder. Just in time. I think I need a drink.” He moved away, joining Melissa, who’d been upstairs checking on her children.

“Little twerp,” Mulder growled, watching his departure, his narrowed eyes seeming to throw poison darts at Melissa’s friend.

“Stop it,” Scully said, putting a hand on his arm. Mulder’s jealousy, while putting a tingle on her tongue, was fierce and unwarranted. “He wanted to talk to me about Melissa. And you have no business scaring him like that.”

Mulder turned to face her, hands on hips. “I don’t?” Confusion clouded his face. “Just what the hell are we doing here, Scully?” he whispered.

Oh, this was going too far, too fast. Then again, she already had carnal knowledge of the man – just how much further could they possibly go?

“We’re dancing,” she said slowly, muting her anger. “At least that’s what I thought.”

He pursed his lips and hung his head, letting out a big sigh. “I’m sorry, Scully. I’m just… sorry.” Without another word, he walked to the kitchen.

She was so confused, she didn’t know what end was up anymore. Wrapping her arms around her waist, she stood apart, watching Mulder disappear through the kitchen door. Charlie and Ellen, too caught up in one another to notice the sudden discord, kept right on dancing. Scully turned her attention to the Christmas tree, avoiding Melissa and Frohike’s concerned looks. But she knew it was only a matter of time, and her intuition paid off, as she felt a soft touch at her elbow.

“Dana?”

Melissa stood beside her, and Scully felt the words bubble up, no longer able to keep her riotous emotions inside. “He wants something from me, Missy. And I don’t know if I’m ready to give in to him.” She laughed, a mirthless breath that was shaky. “I’ve only known him a few days. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

“No.”

Scully looked at her sister, who stood with a small smile, as if indulging a child. “What?”

“You heard me. It’s obvious to everyone in this room that you and Mulder… well, I’m not about to ask you for details. But that man has stirred something in you, Dana. The question is – why are you fighting him so?”

A spate of tears burned her eyes. Melissa, like the rest of her family, could never be told the whole story. But it no longer mattered, anyway. She and Mulder were walking into new territory, and it frightened her more than the anonymous lure of sex. “I don’t know. He’s… he’s so intense.”

“And you’ve always been so cool, so together. Would it be so very bad to just let go?”

Let go. She’d done that once, with almost disastrous results. Scully sniffed, another chuckled bursting forth, this one a bit more genuine. “Oh, Missy, if you only knew.”

“I think I already do,” Melissa murmured, with the experience of a woman once pulled under by desire. “Melvin isn’t Rob, and he never will be. I had that once, Dana – that consuming passion that you find with the one perfect person. It’s something I’ll never forget. But that’s not what I need anymore. But you? Dana, if anyone ever needed to swept off her feet, it’s you.”

Scully felt a hot tide of color creep up her cheeks. “Am I so very rigid, Missy?”

Melissa brushed a thumb over her sister’s damp cheek. “No… well, maybe. But in a good way.” She smiled at Dana’s crestfallen face. “You’ve been in limbo for years, Dana. Don’t you think it’s time you start to live again?”

Scully didn’t begrudge her sister her opinions. She was rather cool and logical, and something as radical and unpredictable as falling in love had never part of her agenda. Damn, she’d even had to force herself make the decision to give men a try back in the car before she’d met Mulder. Just like everything she did in life, it was planned and thought out, never done spontaneously. And just like most plans, it never did fall into place.

Melissa was right. Time to live again – to deal with the emotional rollercoaster that came with love. Whether good or bad, she could do it.

“Okay then,” she said, stepping into her sister’s arms to hug her tight. “How do I do that?”

Missy squeezed her back, then pulled away, her eyes wide and determined. “You can start by talking to that man. Really talking. None of this conversation about weather and politics.”

“Got it.” Scully moved away, then paused, looking back. “I like Melvin, Missy. He’s a good man.”

“I wouldn’t have him in this house if he weren’t, Dana.”

“Just how old is he, anyway?”

Missy bit her lip, hesitating. “Forty-two.” Her grimace was apprehensive. “Too old?”

Scully inwardly sighed with relief. At least Melvin wasn’t old enough to be Missy’s father. “No, not at all. I’d say he’s… seasoned.”

“Mmm… seasoned. I’ll have to remember that – that’s a good word to use with Mom.”

“Speaking of – ” She trailed off, wondering when exactly Melissa would introduce her new friend to the family.

“The Rehearsal Supper. I think it’s time the parents met Mr. Frohike.” Melissa waved her hand in the direction of the kitchen. “Now, get going!”

Scully took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and headed for the kitchen. She was so easy to read.

By everyone but Mulder, it seemed.

**********

“I just wanted to tell you that I wasn’t coming on to Dana.”

Mulder huddled in the cold of the back porch, hands in his pockets. He’d listened to Frohike’s profuse apologies for five minutes now, and any attempt to get a word in edgewise was futile. Finally, he smiled, breaking in to say, “I should apologize to you, Frohike. My behavior was irrational and rude. I can see how you look at Melissa. I don’t think I have anything to worry about.”

At last, Frohike seemed satisfied. He looked over his shoulder, distracted by movement in the kitchen, and cleared his throat. “Uh, yeah. Well, guess I should be getting back in. You coming?”

“In a minute.” He saw Frohike move away, and felt the heat of the house spring forth from the door. It didn’t stop, however, and he turned, knowing he should close the open door before the kitchen got too cold.

The small outline in the door made him freeze. He looked at her for a moment, then turned back to watch the moon hover over the horizon. “Party’s over?”

Cool. Be cool, he admonished himself. He’d gone too far, too fast. She had every right to distance herself from him. His jealousy was not something he had a right to feel. They were friends, and though he saw otherwise in the fleeting moments they danced, he knew better than to hope for more at this early stage.

“Not quite,” she answered. He felt more than saw her come to stand beside him. “It’s cold, Mulder. What are you doing out here?”

He gave her a self-deprecating smile. “Cooling my ardor?”

The soft, smooth voice of Nat King Cole drifted from the open door.

<Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you…>

“Did it work?”

Staring straight ahead, he sighed, knowing they were back to friendship. Her voice held no trace of interest beyond mere curiosity. He looked down at his feet, unable to do more than mutter, “Yeah. Look, Scully, I’m sorry -” He stopped, his ears picking up her soft reply a second too late. “What did you say?”

Her face was pale in the moonlight, but her eyes were bright and filled with humor. “I said… too bad.”

One hand crept out from his pants pocket to settle over his heart. He almost staggered, closing his eyes to mutter, “You’re gonna kill me yet, Scully.”

<I love all the many charms about you…>

Slim fingers closed over his, pulling his hand away. “Well, if a knock on the head didn’t do you in, I don’t see how I could ever -”

<Above all, I want my arms around you…>

The rest of her words were lost in his kiss. She tasted like heady, rich wine and the cool night air. He couldn’t help himself; his arms went around her and his mouth gently pressed hers open. A moment of sanity amidst his growing passion for her made him slow down, and he drank deeply, pulling her close. Her head fell back against his shoulder, and her free hand came up to skitter across his exposed nape, making him shiver.

<Don’t be a naughty baby, come to papa, come to papa, do…>

God, she was perfect. Not timid at all, returning his kiss with little moans and sighs that shot like an arrow to his groin. Settle down, he wanted to tell his body. She wouldn’t like it at all. But instead of recoiling, she purred like a kitten, her belly rubbing against him. He couldn’t stand it, it was too much. Gasping, he pulled his mouth from hers to mutter, “Jesus, Scully. Stop that.”

“Stop what?” Her mouth skimmed his jaw, and her body cradled his erection. It was electric and frustrating at the same time. Just a few more minutes, he thought.

She was a good girl, and he had no business seducing her. It was bad enough he’d not wooed her like a proper gentleman should. Hell, he’d made love to her without thought to the consequences –

<Don’t be a naughty baby, come to papa, come to papa, do… my sweet embraceable you.>

Shit. His heart tripped, remembering his dream of a couple of hours ago. Melissa’s soft murmurs to her child, the hazy image of Scully standing before him, her hands laid upon that slightly rounded belly.

It took all his willpower to push her away. He panted, forcing his lungs to take in air as he studied her swollen mouth and heavy-lidded eyes. Cradling her head in his hands, he broke the spell, his voice hoarse as he asked, “Scully?”

Blinking, she brought her lashes up. “Yes?” She was a picture of soft confusion, and it pained him to wake her fully.

“C’mon.” Taking her hand, he pulled her to the kitchen door.

“Where are we going?”

To the nearest chapel, he wanted to say. Then to the nearest bed, he wanted to shout to the heavens with joy. His recent discovery had given him all he desired, and no way could she protest. Instead, he gave in to the urge to kiss her again, this time a short, bittersweet kiss that made her melt against him.

Aw, hell. He may as well go for broke. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

“We’re going find a Justice of the Peace.”

End Chapter Eleven

A Familiar Heart Chapter Twelve

They were half inside the back door when she snapped out of the miasma of drugged passion. Snatching her hand from Mulder’s, she drew back from the light. “Wait a minute.” Hands in fists, she inwardly lamented the loss of his warmth. He looked as though a man desperate – for what, she didn’t know. But she did know one thing: she was not going to quail under his command, and it was best he know that from the beginning. “What did you say?”

His lips pinched, as if he’d said too much. His words had been muffled and terse, and she knew he was lying when he said, “Scully, we gotta talk.”

“About what?” It was a foolish question, and she knew it. They had plenty to discuss, but there was time for all that. Mulder looked like a man who’s legs had been cut out from under him. He swayed in the doorway, his face pale in the blare of the kitchen lights. She softened her tone, sensing his anxiety. “What’s wrong?”

Mulder’s jaw firmed up, and he shut the kitchen door with a huff of exasperation. “We have to get married,” he stated, as if his decision was carved in granite.

“Get married?” She felt Mulder’s nervousness pervade her bones, and her legs felt like jelly. “You’re not serious.”

“Of course I am.” He ran a shaky hand through his tousled hair as his feet did a little shuffle on the scratchy wood of the porch. “You have to agree with me, Scully. You have to.”

Okay, something was definitely amiss. Yes, they’d just shared one heck of a kiss. One for the record books, she had to admit. He’d felt so good to her empty arms, like she’d found the other half of herself once again. And yes, they’d had intimate relations with one another without benefit of any other knowledge of each other’s pasts or futures…

Her thoughts came to a screeching halt. Mulder looked at her differently, his gaze traveling down her chest to her belly. Gulping, he half- turned, hunching over. In the light from the moon, she could still see his arousal bulge the front of his pants, and she knew he was trying his best to maintain control of the situation.

But apparently, this was one situation neither of them had control over. Never had, never would.

“Oh.”

It was all she could think to say, and Mulder sighed, closing his eyes. “Yes, oh.”

She bit her lip, but not from dismay. Actually, back there in the living room, she’d come to terms with the possibility of pregnancy. Though it wasn’t the best thing that could happen to either of them, it wouldn’t be the worst. She didn’t care anymore. A baby would be welcome – to her, anyway. And from Mulder’s reaction to the realization, he was willing to accept responsibility and do the right thing. It was obvious from his stance he didn’t want to push her into anything; after all, he’d backed down almost immediately from outright insistence.

“Mulder, it’s too early to tell,” she pointed out with an indulgent smile. “Besides, I don’t expect you to marry me.”

“God damn it,” he muttered, lost in his own thoughts. “I should have thought of this earlier.”

“Mulder, I’m not pregnant!” She lowered her voice and moved closer, laying a hand on his arm. “Listen to me.”

He jerked his head around, squinting. “What do you mean, you’re not pregnant? You just said it was too early to tell.”

Now she knew what was behind all this anxiety. He felt trapped. It was the oldest trick in the world, and she pulled her hand away as if burned. “We only… did it once, Mulder. The odds against pregnancy are tremendous.” Burrowing in on herself, she turned away, sadness permeating her. “I don’t expect marriage, even if I am pregnant. And I mean it.” She grabbed the door knob, wanting to get as far away as possible from the situation – from him. What was just minutes ago glorious communion had turned suddenly sour and sordid. She wanted no part of it.

But she was halted by a pair of familiar arms, two trembling limbs encircling her from behind. His mouth moved over her hair. “Scully, wait.”

Twisting in his embrace, she tried to get away, her chest expanding with the too-close feel of his arms. God, would it start again? Please, no. This was not a moment for one of her seizures. “Let me go, Mulder.”

“No!” he whispered fiercely, his arms tightening, his fingers curling around her hands. She had no choice but to keep still or she’d find herself bruised. It had been hard enough hiding the sprained ankle – she didn’t need faint smudges on her wrists. “It’s not what you think.”

Taking slow, deep breaths, she forced herself to calm. “You don’t know what I think.” And he never would, if she could manage it. All her thoughts of a sweet, lasting relationship would be buried forever.

“You think I’m unhappy about a baby. I’m not.”

His words penetrated, but still she wasn’t convinced. “I saw your face, Mulder. That wasn’t happiness. That was fear. I’m not about to trap you into marriage. Please, let me go.” Before I break down into tears and give in to the nausea rising in my throat.

She felt Mulder’s heart racing against her back. “No, I won’t.” His shaky words rumbled through her. “Not until you listen to me.”

Sighing, she knew she had to relent, at least temporarily. “Okay.” Hanging her head, she moved her hands under his sweaty palms; he eased his hold, but didn’t release her fully. “Talk.”

“Will you at least look at me?”

“Don’t push your luck.” If she turned, she was liable to slap him. He was such an idiot. She was such an idiot for letting herself hope.

“You’re right, Scully. That was fear.” Quickly, his head dipped to her neck. “But it wasn’t the kind of fear you think it was.”

She snorted. “Fear is fear, Mulder. I know it when I see it.”

“No it isn’t. Scully, this was the worse fear I’d ever known in my life. I’ve faced down guns and men who wouldn’t blink twice at carving my guts up.” He paused as if he wanted to apologize for his crudeness, then he plunged ahead. “When I realized I might have made you pregnant, I wanted to throw you over my shoulder and find the nearest priest, minister or judge. I had a way to hold on to you.”

He what? “Mulder, are you saying you want me to be pregnant?”

“Would I be a horrible person if I said yes?” At her attempt to turn in his arms, he held fast. “No, listen. I can’t do this if I’m looking at you.”

“A minute ago, you asked me to look at you,” she pointed out.

“That was a minute ago. This is now. I have an awful feeling I’m about to spill my guts to you, and the carnage will be messy, to say the least.”

“Okay,” she chuckled, her mind easing slowly. “But why in the world would you want this? You barely know me. I hardly know you. This is not the best way to start…” She trailed off, realizing they’d already begun on an even more uneven footing, back in the cabin.

“I don’t care. From the moment I saw you again, Scully, I wanted you. You were every shred of decency I’d lost in Hong Kong. Everything good and fine. You made me feel human again.” He let go of her wrists, his hands drifting lower to spread over her abdomen. She jumped at the touch with a slight hiss, then relaxed at the gentle pressure of his fingers. “This… this would have given you to me, Scully. And the second I tried to rush you into a decision, I knew I’d made a mistake. That’s what scared me. That you would have found a way to say no. And you did, didn’t you?”

The disappointment in his voice made her chest ache, and she rushed to say, “Only because I didn’t want to trap you into anything.” At last, she turned, taking his sorrowful face in her hands. His eyes were a portrait of sadness, the pain at what he thought he could never have, would never deserve etching fine lines in his brow. Smoothing away his torment, she whispered, “We seem to have made a mess of this once again, haven’t we?”

His chapped lips cracked into a slow grin. “I never made a mess of anything until I met you.”

She smiled in return, seeing his confidence return by degrees. “Neither did I. Some romance, huh?”

“Think we can do better?”

“Definitely.” She raised on her toes, her mouth a scant inch from his.

“Dana!”

And she groaned, dropping her hands and her lustful intentions. Mulder did the same, brushing his forehead against hers as he growled, “Is there any place in this town that doesn’t currently have one of your relatives watching our every move?”

She pulled away, a playful smile gracing her lips. “Well… Mom did tell Melissa on the phone that she and Dad were going to a dinner and a movie. I figure we have at least another couple of hours before they get home.”

The light in Mulder’s eyes flared to a hot, needy glow. At that moment, the kitchen door swung open.

“C’mon, you two. Melvin’s gonna show us the mambo. Then we’re going to hit a dance hall.”

Scully looked up at Mulder; she saw the same thought on his face. Amidst Charlie’s surprised, “Hey!” they ran off the porch and around the house, hand in hand.

“How many blocks to your house?” Mulder said, tugging her up the driveway.

“Two,” she said breathlessly, slightly limping, her ankle picking a bad time to act up. “We can make it in ten if we walk fast.”

In answer, Mulder picked her up in his arms, ignoring her squeak of protest. His smile threatened to turn her into a quivering, clinging female. God, she was hopeless. Not her usual self at all.

“We can make it in five if I run. Just point me in the right direction.”

Did she care? Hell, no. One arm around his neck, she turned his chin with the other hand, wordless in her demand for him to get going.

“Got it,” he said. “Hold on, Scully.”

Her laughter echoed down the lamplit street; Melissa was right after all. It felt good to be swept off her feet.

Damned good.

**********

They were both shivering by the time they made it to the Scully house. Groaning, he set her down on the porch and doubled over, gasping for breath. He still wasn’t in tiptop shape, but he didn’t want her to know.

“I’m okay,” he said, shrugging off her concern. “I’m just cold.”

Scully opened the unlocked door, pulling him into the dark, warm house. “You’re not. We should have gotten our coats.” She moved away, only to come back with a throw from the couch, which she draped across his shoulders. “You’re freezing, Mulder.”

“S-so are you.” Damn. Another gallant effort shot to hell. His legs were trembling, and he allowed her to guide him to the couch.

“True. But I wasn’t…” She moved away to the smoldering fire, where she added a couple of logs.

Her hesitance pricked at his brain. He hadn’t allowed himself to think much on her sudden turnabout this morning, cheerfully basking in her favor like a damned schoolboy smiled upon by his first crush. Now, his mind started working. Why had she come to the station with Charlie? Realization made him cringe.

“He told you, didn’t he?”

“Who told me what?” She didn’t turn around.

“Charlie, that’s who. He told you the whole story, didn’t he? About Chang, about me. How they had to put me in a straightjacket for two weeks while I screamed my head off for a fix? About how I couldn’t even tie my God damned shoelaces for two months without wanting to throw up?”

“Oh my God,” she breathed, facing him at last.

He fell silent, dropping his head. He’d said too much. Her revulsion shimmered in the air between them, and he couldn’t face it. He should have known it wasn’t his charming personality that drew her to him at last.

“Yes, Charlie told me,” she whispered, tears choking her voice. “But I never realized just how bad it was until now.”

Great. He’d really come off looking like a weak, sympathy-inspiring fool. And sympathy was not what he wanted from her. “Forget it. I have.” He huddled under the blanket, wishing she would just leave him alone. “Go to bed, Scully.”

In answer, she walked to the couch, where she sat next to him, pulling on the blanket. “Give, Mulder. I’m cold.” Her voice had lost its sad quality; he blinked at her stern statement. “You heard me, sailor. Share the blanket.”

Amazed at her resilience, he stared at her, sitting up so she could pull on the blanket. After a few moments of fluffing and tucking, she had them both enveloped in warmth, her head resting on his shoulder. “You can share anything else with me that you want, you know,” she said softly, her hand curling around his arm.

Tired of fighting, he propped his chin on her hair, staring into the growing fire. “I don’t think you wanna hear it,” he said softly. “And I don’t know if I can tell you anything else.” Please don’t make me, he added silently. I don’t have the strength to re-live it all over again.

“All right,” she said, snuggling closer. Her warmth began to seep into his cold bones, and he relaxed, listening to her continue, “Would you like to hear my story?”

Her halting statement brought to mind Charlie’s warning when he first arrived. She’d been a POW, he’d said. It still tore at him, the way he’d treated her in Utah. Coupled with the certain horrible time she’d spent as a prisoner, he was humbled by the way she offered her own experiences as a cathartic balm. If he was sure she was just doing it to make him feel better, he’d absolutely refuse to let her speak. But something in her voice spoke of her own need to release her demons of war, and he found himself whispering into her hair.

“Only if you really want to tell me.”

“I do.”

Under the blanket, his hand reached for hers, his fingers entwining with her small ones to hold on. His silent gesture made her sigh, and she began, “They treated us well at first… the Japanese, I mean. We had adequate food and shelter, and the hospital for the prisoners wasn’t that bad. We could get supplies fairly easily, and lots of the soldiers we treated survived.”

“Where were you captured?”

“Manila. It was early in the war, only a couple of months after Pearl Harbor.”

The Philippines. He closed his eyes, tamping down his own sadness at the geography of their combined sadness. “I remember hearing about it,” he said, hedging over the location. “But I didn’t get very much news. Only what I needed to know.”

Nodding, she said, “The Army retreated to Bataan and MacArthur declared Manila an open city. Then the Japanese moved in and took us away. It was no big deal, really. Like I said, we were treated well. Actually, there were a few times I thought we’d be released in exchange for Japanese POW’s. Rumors always went around about the possibility. After the second or third time, I stopped getting my hopes up.”

“But apparently their kindness didn’t last,” he prompted, eager to hear the rest of her story.

“No. In ‘43, Konishi moved in to take control of all the camps. Until then, they’d been run by Japanese civilian administrators. First thing he did was halve the camp, cutting off the south end to the prisoners.”

“Why would he do that?”

She stiffened a bit at his side, and he knew the worst was yet to come. “We didn’t really know at the time, and we didn’t ask. But then, prisoners started disappearing from the Infirmary. The guards always said they’d died overnight – but these were the least injured men that went missing. They couldn’t have died.”

“Are you sure they weren’t traded for other POW’s?” It was a stupid question, one spoken as more of a balm than out of curiosity. She knew as well as he did that the Japanese were not famous for their treatment of POW’s, nor for their release, even in an exchange. The fact that she and the other nurses had spent years as prisoners was proof. That the Nips hung on to women for so long was telling; no way would they stoop to trade men who had no value.

Her huff fluttered over his heart, and she raised her head to look him in the eye. “Nice try, Mulder.”

She was so beautiful she nearly took his breath away. “What?”

“You know as well as I the Japanese weren’t so accommodating.”

He brushed the hair from her face with his free hand. “No, they weren’t,” he murmured. “I was trying to distract you. Truth is, I don’t need to hear the rest of your story.” He dropped a kiss to her cheek, which twitched under his lips.

“Maybe I need to tell it,” she replied with a catch in her voice.

He pulled away, serious as he said, “Then tell me.” He kept his hand on her face, his gaze steady on hers.

“There was a doctor – Zama. He was like a ghost, just fading in and out of the camp. The guards started whispering about what he was doing at the south end. The other nurses were terrified of him, but I made it my business to learn Japanese. Well, enough so I could understand what was going on.”

Her begging at the cabin came back to him, her explanation now telling him that the guttural Japanese words were something she’d mastered in the camp. But what she’d said weren’t common words of friendly conversation.

“Douzo” – “Please”. Along with others he now remembered as frantic. “Iie” – “No”. “Teiryuu” – “Stop”.

Then, when he was moving within her, a change. One spoken in English as well as Japanese:

“Hai” – “Yes”.

He wanted to beg her now to stop; the way he’d treated her at the cabin was inexcusable. But she kept on, not seeing the way he tried to stop her with the shake of his head. Eyes almost blank now, she had disassociated herself from what was to come next, and he couldn’t make her snap out of it.

“Scully, I’m sorry -”

“He was taking them, to a building at the south end of the camp. At first, you wouldn’t hear anything. I guess they were careful not to let anyone hear. Then, when it looked like the war was going sour for them, they didn’t care anymore. They began to starve us… and we began to hear screams from the south end. Every day and every night. Zama was torturing those men. I never saw what he was doing, but I knew he was doing some sort of experiments on them.

“I couldn’t stand it anymore. I kept standing up to Zama and the guards, trying to sneak back there to see what he was doing. The other nurses told me I was crazy, that I shouldn’t interfere. But it wasn’t just what Zama was doing – he and Konishi were slowly killing all of us. And no one stood up to them.”

Except for her. He could see her now, dressed in rags, her defiant blue eyes daring the Japanese to strike her down. God, had they beat her? “Scully.” He wanted her to stop; she had to stop. He didn’t know if he could bear to listen any longer. “Scully.” He shook her gently, but she didn’t respond, her lips moving still.

“They hit me,” she said, her face crumpling. But her cheeks were dry, the tears damming up in her eyes. “Slapped me down, but I kept getting back up, demanding more food, more medicine. I wanted to know where those men had disappeared to – but they wouldn’t tell me. Then they put me in the hole.”

Mulder’s breath hitched at that. He knew what ‘the hole’ was – anyone who’d ever lived through war knew that every POW camp, every prison, had some form of solitary. A clapboard shack, a cell separated from the other prisoners, or… quite literally, a hole dug in the ground. No, they wouldn’t have done that to her.

“It was dark and dirty and so small. The first time wasn’t bad at all, but I got so hot in there, even though the ground was cool. They only kept me in there an hour – piece of cake, I thought.”

“Scully, stop. Please,” he begged, but she didn’t listen.

“Then the next time, it was for a bit longer. Then longer still. It got to where I was in there for hours, maybe even a whole day. I don’t remember – all I know is, it suffocated me. The dirt choked me, and I had to sit with my legs tucked close to me because it was so small in there. God…” Her voice finally broke, and she laid her head on his chest, her hands going to his waist to hold on. “I can’t stand close places anymore, Mulder. I can’t stand to be confined. Even my damn coat suffocates me.”

The image of her on the train platform, her coat flapping the wind, fell into place, like the others in his mind. Scully fighting against the ropes in the cabin, rushing out of the small foyer when he’d first arrived, he and Charlie sandwiching her, her struggling against his arms on Melissa’s back porch – shit.

“That’s enough.” He shook her gently, then carefully took her in his arms. “Enough, Scully,” he said hoarsely, breathing a deep sigh of relief when he felt her relax against him.

Soft, hiccuping, sobs slowly faded as the minutes passed. “It’s you,” she said. “It always has been. I just didn’t know it until now.”

**********

She didn’t know how long she cried. Really, she hadn’t expected the renewed anger and devastation to re-surface; she thought she’d cried it all out with Charlie in Honolulu. She wondered if she was becoming one of those women who lost it to tears at the drop of a hat. Sniffling, she decided she didn’t like that at all. But in the next thought, she knew she had no choice in the matter. Emotional distress was a fact of life; Melissa had been right – sometimes she just had to let go.

It was fate that all this had happened with Mulder. He wasn’t her angel, he never had been. But he was her rescuer, by a strength of will and determination that meant more to her than dropping from the sky to brave gunfire. He would have walked away from her, would have spared her more hurt. And she would have let him, if not for Charlie. Just this morning, she realized. What a difference a day made.

Her tears gone, she lifted her face from the softness of his sweater, her hand cupping his jaw. “Kiss me,” she whispered, eager to seal the release of their common demons to the four winds.

He looked at her with warm, dark eyes, but he began to shake his head. “Scully, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

He hadn’t finished the denial before she’d reached up and touched her mouth to his. He went still, his arms becoming rigid around her. Oh, no, she thought. You’re not going to get all sensible on me, Mulder. Bringing her other hand up to trap his face, she opened his lips with hers, deepening the kiss. Still, he held back, though he groaned deep down, a low rumble that incited her to seduction.

Pulling away a hair’s breadth, she said into his wet lips, “I want you,” before returning to her wanton exploration of his mouth. “Take me to bed.”

Suddenly, she found herself drawn away. “Scully,” he said, his fierce eyes searching her face, his cheeks taut with desire. “I know – back in the cabin – that I didn’t -”

“That’s okay,” she said, halting his apology with her fingertips. “We can start over.”

Taking her hand in his, he kissed her palm before replying, “Will you at least let me say I’m sorry?”

“You said it already.” She returned the favor, curling her hand around his to brush her lips over his knuckles.

It sounded more like a squeak than a question. “I did?”

“Yeah. Back at Uncle Mike’s.” She sidled closer to him, drawn to the light stubble on his face. “Now, where were we?”

Mulder let her nuzzle his jaw for a moment, then jerked away again with a soft, half-hearted sigh. “We can’t do this. I won’t take the chance. We talked about this already.”

Drifting up slightly from the fog of hazy passion, she realized he was referring to their earlier misunderstanding about pregnancy. “But you said -”

“I know what I said,” he growled, his hands clasping her waist to keep her still. “And I meant it. But it’s foolish to take another chance.” If possible, his face became more sensual, his voice more like velvet as he murmured, “But I can help you.”

Confused, she asked, “Help me? Help me what?” The only way he could help her was to make love to her. She wanted it, she needed the completion he stole from her in Utah. And she wanted him to be there with her, to take her to the heights with him.

In answer, Mulder fitted both hands under her bottom, and gently lifted her to stand. “Take your clothes off,” he gently requested. He stood as well, the blanket caught in his hand. He wrapped it around her like a curtain, his gaze hopeful that she’d not protest.

Biting her lip, her mind raced with facts. Charlie had gone out with her sister and the others, and her parents were sure to be another hour. And making out on the couch, while not ideal, was something she wanted very much. Slowly, her gaze holding his, she began to disrobe, reaching for the buttons of her blouse.

He watched her every move, from the way the silk slid off her shoulders to the removal of her slacks and shoes. Her bra came next, and she felt her nipples pucker in the cool semi- darkness. When she reached for her garter belt, Mulder said, “Hold the blanket,” licking his lips as his gaze lifted from its perusal of her breasts.

She did as he asked, shaking with nerves. He dropped to his knees before her, and her eyes drifted shut. A the first touch of his fingers on her skin, she jumped and shifted on her feet, and he murmured soothing nonsense until she quieted. One by one, he rolled her stockings down her legs, his fingers leaving little goosebumps as they trailed along her inner thighs. His breath was hot and heavy on her abdomen, and she swayed closer. He caught her hips and made quick work of the garter belt and panties before pressing an open-mouthed kiss to the patch of curls at the junction of her thighs. She almost squealed, and he chuckled, rising to pull his sweater and undershirt over his head in one move.

Sitting back down, he reached out a hand. “C’mere. I want to feel you against me.”

The blanket settling over them like a tent, she straddled his hips, fists full of scratchy wool going around his neck.

“Warm?” he asked, his fingers caressing her waist, his liquid gaze steady on hers.

“Mmm,” she nodded, arching into his touch, her breasts skimming his chest.

He made a sound deep in his throat, one of longing, and she gave him what he silently asked for, leaning down to press kisses to his brow, his face, his lips. The crackling of the fire mixed with their sighs, and she began to move against the rough nap of his pants. His hands urged her on, kneading the soft flesh of her backside. She felt the hardness of his erection under the cool, tight buttons… felt her own body become warm and slick above it, and she moaned, wanting more.

She let go of one corner of the blanket, and it slid down, letting in a rush of cooler air. But she paid it no mind, stealing a hand between them to loose his buttons. Mulder pulled away from her kiss, saying, “No, don’t.”

“I want to,” she insisted, working furiously. In seconds, she’d peeled open the fly of his pants. His erection, trapped inside his boxers, pushed up under the press of her small hand and he hissed, his hips practically shoving her off. “That’s far enough,” he demanded in a gruff voice, pulling her back until his cotton-covered flesh was trapped between the heat of their lower bodies. “I can’t come inside you, Scully,” he said, as if in pain, his head falling back to the couch.

She nipped at his neck, understanding, even though she didn’t like his decision. “I know,” she whispered. “But you have to let me help you, too.” Her near-virginal body didn’t know exactly how, but she was willing to try – very willing. “Just tell me what to do.”

“Just…” he faltered, one of his hands stealing around to take hers from its slow slide up and down his length, “just don’t touch me yet, okay? Later. I promise.”

“Then what am I supposed to do?” Frustration made her squirm on his lap, but she was soon rewarded by a familiar touch, one she dimly remembered.

God.

“Just move, anyway you feel like.” Mulder smiled, one warm finger feeling its way inside her.

“Oh,” she gasped, surprised at the sharp point of pleasure that soared up from where he was touching her. The blanket fell from her limp fingers to pool around her spread legs, and she gave in to the urge to circle against his hand.

“That’s it,” he ground out, rubbing her in some spot, the same place he’d found before, but never had he done this. It was heavenly, and she moved up on her knees, striving to get closer. Mulder’s other hand splayed on her back and he held her up to his mouth.

“God!” she cried out, at the first wet touch of his mouth on her breast. What was he doing to her? He suckled, he played with his tongue, even his teeth nipped at the sensitive skin. “What are you doing?”

“Helping you,” he said against her skin.

“Like that?”

“Like that.” He moved to the other breast, whispering, “Think of it as the mambo.” She felt him grin against the underside of her breast.

“I don’t think that’s what Melvin had in – oh!” She was lost to him now, her hands gripping the back of the couch behind his head, as she rode his hand. “Some mambo,” she sighed, rewarded by his chuckle.

“I like it.”

Good Lord, so did she. This was a dance unlike any other, much better than the Lindy, or the waltz… “Oh… oh!” Suddenly, she knew it was coming, whatever it was.

Reaching… reaching for the unknown… it was so good… there, there it was! Her buttocks clenched, the muscles of her legs trembled as she spasmed around his fingers, her head dropping to touch his, her mouth open on a low, keening cry against his damp hair. Still, he kept it up, slowly bringing her down from the pinnacle, his mouth leaving her breast to fasten on to her numb lips.

As she settled into his lap, he drank deeply of her cries, his lips stealing them like drops of cleansing rain. She gave this to him, and much more, telling him with her kiss of what she’d come to realize.

This man, this complicated, tormented, sometimes arrogant man… had stolen her heart. In just a few short days. He had become her angel, pulling her from the dark void to live again.

Sighing against her mouth, he let her slide away, tucking her against him to breathe, “You okay?”

A harsh, cool voice answered, piercing the contentment that surrounded them.

“She’d better be, you son-of-a-bitch.”

She stiffened, recognizing in an instant who mouthed those angry words.

Charlie.

End Chapter Twelve

A Familiar Heart Chapter Thirteen

“Shi -” Mulder bit his lip, stifling the epithet as he reached for the blanket. He didn’t rush; after all, they were adults. Charlie’s outrage, while birthed from brotherly protection, wasn’t warranted, and he’d be damned if he let it shake him like a teenaged boy. It wasn’t like Scully was a timid, underage girl, either. She was a woman, able to do what she damn well pleased.

“What the hell is going on here?”

Scully, he was thankful, didn’t skitter away like a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar. She gracefully got to her feet, giving Mulder a little smile as she wrapped the blanket around her. Facing her brother, who stood just inside the door, she calmly asked, “And what are you doing here, Charlie? Watching us? I never figured you for a voyeur.”

At the hardening of Charlie’s face, Mulder stood. He saw Charlie’s furious gaze dip to his open pants, and he took his time doing up the buttons, making sure Charlie saw that he’d never exposed himself. It didn’t help all that much, but it made it clear that he and Scully hadn’t had sex. Reaching for his sweater and undershirt, he pulled them over his head. “Charlie, calm down. I can explain everything.”

We can explain everything,” Scully corrected him, standing at his side like the blanket she covered herself with was a suit of armor. “I’m a big girl, Charlie. I can do what I want.”

“In Mom’s house? Jesus, Dana.” He ran a hand through his hair, and Mulder knew from his look he wished that hand was around Mulder’s neck.

“Oh, like you and Ellen never did anything in this house? Please.” Her eyes rolled, and Charlie flushed. Mulder knew it was time to step in, or there’d be hurtful words tossed around in no time.

“Dana… get dressed, please.” he whispered in her ear, his hand stealing up to brush over her back with soothing emphasis. “I need to talk to Charlie.”

She bristled as if her dismissal irked her, but he knew she would do as he asked. It was best for the moment to stand down; this was a delicate situation and Charlie expected him to explain, not her. His affronted rage was normal, and he stood puffed up, guarding her virtue like any male relative would. Mulder felt a tinge of relief that it was Charlie standing before them and not her father. That scenario would have had him standing before a priest with a shotgun at his back before the night was through. Though maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea…

“Get that right out of your mind,” Scully warned. He looked down at her stern face, wanting to smile at the way she’d gleaned his thoughts. “No decisions made about me while I’m gone.”

As stately as a queen, she gathered her clothes and walked to the stairs, giving Charlie the same, pinched glare. To his credit, her brother had the sense back down a bit, stuffing his fists into his pockets.

Mulder waited until he saw Scully disappear at the top of the stairs, then he stepped forward, regret in his voice as he said, “It’s not what it looks like, Charlie.”

“It isn’t?” Charlie sneered. “I trusted you, Mulder. And then you go and seduce my sister under my very roof?” Mulder opened his mouth to reply, but Charlie was on a roll. “And don’t give me that crap about ‘you didn’t really do anything’. The intent was there, and you know it. Another ten minutes and you’d have been -”

“Charlie,” Mulder growled, his own fury at Charlie’s near insult of Scully making his face darken.

“Fucking her brains out,” Charlie finished, his sneer daring Mulder to hit him. “What – the whores in Hong Kong weren’t enough for you? You had to make my sister into one?”

“That’s enough!” Mulder turned his back on his friend in an effort to keep from knocking him flat on his back. He stared into the fire, willing his anger to subside. “Say what you want about me, Charlie. But one more word about Dana and I’ll knock your teeth down your throat.”

Charlie huffed behind him, then, his voice full of hurt, he said, “I trusted you, Mulder. Hell, I even wanted you to get together with my sister. She’s been through a lot – I figured you for the kind to stick around, not get some tail and run.”

At that, Mulder swung around. “Do you see me running?” He hated the distrust on Charlie’s face. “God damn it, Charlie, I’d marry your sister in a heartbeat if she wanted me to.”

“Marriage?” For all his bravado, Charlie seemed to be realizing his histrionics could make life very difficult for his sister. Mulder pounced, coming to stand before him.

“She’s very vulnerable right now, Charlie,” he murmured, hearing movement upstairs. “What we did…” He bit his lip, not quite knowing how to say it delicately. “Was something wonderful. Hate me if you want, but don’t force Dana into a situation she’s not ready for.” He had to make Charlie see this unfortunate discovery of his would best be kept secret. For now, anyway. “Your sister is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I would never abandon her or mistreat her. But God help me, Charlie… you make her a pariah with this and I will make you wish you’d never been born. Got it?”

Threatening his best friend galled him, but at this moment, he would crush the Pope himself to protect Scully. He waited, watching Charlie’s gaze search his face for some sign he was bluffing. Calm but unblinking, he stood his ground, hands clenched at his sides.

Until Charlie relaxed into a grin. Not a big one, but a truce, nonetheless. “I knew it.”

Mulder, confused beyond belief, looked up, sensing Scully was moments away from re-joining them. “Knew what, damn it?”

“I knew that you and Dana were made for each other. Of course, maybe it’s because I wouldn’t wish either of you on someone else.” Sobering, he lowered his voice, moving in until he stood nose to nose with Mulder. “But I’m telling you, Mulder – you hurt her and you won’t answer to me. You’ll answer to Bill.”

“Your Dad?” Impossible. Though a big man, Mr. Scully had a good thirty years on him. Not that he wouldn’t do his best to ruin his Naval career, such that it was…

“My brother, you idiot.” His eyes shifted, hearing his sister come down the stairs, then he whispered, “Think my brawn and Dana’s temper. Then kiss your balls goodbye.”

Jesus. Mulder felt himself pale, just as Scully hit the last rug-covered step. “Charlie, did you hit him while I was gone?” She rushed to Mulder’s side, grabbing hold of his arm, her eyebrows drawn together with concern. She’d changed into a soft, fuzzy sweater the color of shimmering pearls. If he wasn’t so queasy, he’d have smiled his appreciation.

“Only below the belt.” He raised his hands at Scully’s scowl. “And only in some future universe, if he’s not smart.”

Mulder, at Charlie’s pointed look, gently took Scully’s hand from his arm and put a bit of distance between them. He had an idea what was coming next, and he started for the stairs.

“Mulder, where are you going?” She turned to Charlie, her frustration at their cryptic conversation growing. “And what the hell are you doing here, anyway? I thought you were going dancing.”

“I was – I am. I just came to get my wallet, then I’m meeting the others at The Crystal Ballroom.” His voice carried up the stairs with sterling clarity. “After I take Mulder to a hotel.”

“Be right down, Charlie,” he threw over his shoulder. “Just gotta get my things.”

Scully’s reply was incredulous, and he was glad to be out of the line of fire. “A hotel? Charles Andrew Scully -”

“You know, with that little line in your forehead, sprite, you look just like Mom.”

“Oooh…”

Even with being caught ‘in flagrante delicto’, Mulder thought, he wouldn’t want to be in Charlie’s shoes at that moment. He chuckled, closing the door to Charlie’s room behind him.

**********

“I can’t believe you,” she growled, flopping into her Dad’s chair as she turned on the lamp. The yellow light showed the dent in the middle of the couch where just minutes ago, she’d been wrapped in Mulder’s embrace. It made her blush, but she ignored Charlie’s smirk, shifting her furious gaze back to him. “You made me feel like a sixteen-year-old.”

Charlie deliberately sat in that spot, stretching his long arms like an albatross along the back of the couch. “Comfy.” His grin faded a bit. “Perfect for a woman who’s twenty-seven but acts like she’s sixteen.”

She bit back her retort, seeing something in Charlie’s face besides sarcasm. From the dip of his lashes to the way he worried his lower lip, he looked as if… someone had taken away his favorite puppy. All her residual anger died at his crestfallen expression; she’d not only put him in an embarrassing situation, she’d disappointed him. Despite their relation to one another and their gender differences, she and Charlie were best of friends. Coming upon her and Mulder in the throes of passion was bound to tilt his nice, orderly world off-center. He’d gone through the war just as they had, but he was relatively unscathed, thank goodness. And she didn’t have the heart to disillusion him further by telling him of her true first meeting with Mulder.

“Charlie?”

“Yeah?” Dropping a hand, he picked at his coat.

“I’m sorry. Not for what we did… I only wish we’d shown more discretion. I know it upset you, and I’m sorry.”

“I’m a big boy, sprite,” he stated, finally looking up at her. “It just… shocked me. I can’t say I was too happy about seeing my sister naked.”

“Ewww.” She made a face, feeling the mood lighten.

“Yeah, ewww.” He grinned and added, “Thank God Mulder still had his pants on – I probably would have been scarred for life otherwise.”

From what she’d seen of Mulder back in the cabin, he put most men to shame – and that was while unconscious, much less fully aroused. Of course, if the sensation of being filled to almost painful proportions was any indication…

“I don’t want to hear it, Dana,” Charlie growled, apparently seeing her blush. He wasn’t angry, just embarrassed because he’d seen her thoughts written plainly on her face. “There’s such a thing as too much information, you know.”

Her smile was fleeting. She wanted to tell Charlie what she was feeling, and Mulder’s absence had given her the opportunity. “Charlie?”

He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees, his face serious. “Yeah?” She’d always been close to Melissa, but Charlie was a sibling with a like soul and heart, and she thanked God for it.

“I think I’m -” She was what? In love with him? Sure, it was easy to think so when still shuddering under his capable hands and mouth. But Charlie would think she was nuts if a declaration of love spewed from her lips. “I care for Mulder,” she amended. “Very much.”

Charlie’s eyes widened, then he hung his head with a soft ‘whoosh’ through his lips. “Jesus, Dana.”

Oh, God, she thought. More arguments. “Look Charlie, I think I’m old enough to know -”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what is it?”

“I think he’s in love with you, too.” Charlie laughed nervously, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Beats me how you two managed it…” His head snapped up. “And I don’t want to know.”

Scully’s head still reeled from the possibility. Mulder in love with her? “Charlie, I didn’t say anything about love.”

“You don’t have to. Neither does he.”

They fell silent as she contemplated the night’s revelations. During the war, it was common for overnight romances to blossom; she’d learned this when she got back home. Last chances before an iffy future, men and women married within a week’s time of knowing each other. No one looked askance at those unions. And now, the marriage market was growing by leaps and bounds – sweethearts for years weren’t waiting any longer to seal their unions. Ellen and Charlie had waited six months for the church and reception hall at the Governor Calvert House. Of course, that was Ellen – the whole nine yards. Charlie would have been satisfied with a quickie in Vegas, though her mother would have croaked.

Groaning silently, she pressed a hand to her head. Her mother. Her father. Always the sensible one, they’d said of her. If they ever got wind of this… no. This torn, unworthy feeling would have to go. She could do what she pleased with her life.

“Ready, Charlie?”

Mulder’s soft words brought her head up. “You can’t leave, Mulder.” Just the sight of him standing behind Charlie, his gaze traveling over her like he was remembering what every bit of her skin looked like… God, it made her shiver all over again.

“Sorry, sprite,” Charlie said, standing. “This one I insist upon.”

“But Mom thinks he’s staying with us – won’t it look odd if he just up and leaves?”

Between them like a brick wall, Charlie looked first at Mulder, then her, before remarking dryly, “We can just say the couch was… too small. And Mulder has a bad back, or something.” He colored, as if his thoughts were descending into remembrance of his arrival. “Geez. C’mon, Mulder. I’m late already. Ellen’ll begin to wonder where I am.”

As he turned for the stairs, Mulder held out a hand. “Got it for you,” he said, handing Charlie his wallet. “Can we have a minute, Charlie?”

Scully’s heart leapt in her chest at Mulder’s request. Though they’d done just about everything with one another they possibly could, suddenly, she was nervous to be alone with him. What was he going to say? It’s been a riot, Dana. See ya next time I’m in port?

No. He wasn’t the type.

“Sure. I’ll wait in the car. One minute only, Mulder.” Scully barely registered the slam of the door behind him.

Oh, God. What if he brought up the marriage thing again? She turned to stare into the dying fire. She’d have to throw some more logs on before her parents got home, because they liked a late-night drink…

She jumped at the arms that circled her from behind. “Mmm… I knew it.”

“Knew what?” she breathlessly replied.

“I kept catching a whiff of something upstairs… something on my skin. You. I smell like you.”

Gulping, she closed her eyes. “Yeah… I noticed that, too.” She knew there was no way she was bathing before bedtime; just the prospect of sleeping while wrapped in his scent was heady. Of course, she’d much rather the real thing snuggled under the covers with her.

“Scully?” His mouth tickled her ear.

“Yeah?” Here it comes, she thought.

“Sweet dreams.” He pressed a kiss to her collarbone. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” His warmth was snatched from her in an instant.

Oh, no. That’s not the way their goodnight was supposed to happen. She whirled, seeing him pick up his bag slowly. “Mulder!”

Turning, he looked at her, his face hopeful, yet guarded. Walking slowly toward him, she said, “Get Charlie to put you up at the Belmont. The day after tomorrow is the Rehearsal Supper. I’m supposed to be spending the night with Ellen.”

Dropping his bag, he crossed the distance between them, a smile emerging. Her arms went around his neck as his gathered her close, his gaze wandering over her face. Shaky now, her voice lowered, “You owe me a bed, sailor. Make sure it’s a double because -”

He kissed her like a drowning man, devouring her mouth until she was gasping for breath. And then, he let her pull away only to cradle her head in his hand as his lips traversed her cheek and jaw. “The Belmont,” he murmured absently. “Do they have big bathtubs, too? ‘Cause I love bubble baths.”

Laughter rumbled through her and she kneaded the muscles of his back, not wanting to let him go. “It’s across the street from Uncle Mike’s – that’s where we’re having the supper. And I think they have bathtubs, yes. Nice place.”

Groaning into her neck, he said, “Uncle Mike’s? Not again.”

“Leave Uncle Mike to me,” she whispered, moving to kiss him again as she heard Charlie blow the car horn. “You just remember to call me tomorrow, okay?”

“Is six a.m. too early?”

Tears filled her eyes at the question; he was so beautiful, so eager. So unabashed in his wooing, his eyes alight with desire and… was Charlie right? Did Mulder actually love her? Time would tell, she knew. And they had all of that to spare now.

“Make it seven. I like to sleep in.”

“In what? Silk? Satin? Nothing at all?”

She practically pushed his grinning face out the door, then stood on the porch until she could no longer see Charlie’s car.

A half hour later, she was getting ready for bed when the phone rang. Breathless from running down the stairs to answer it, she said, “Hello?”

“I just wanted you to know that I miss you already.” He paused, then added, “And that this bed is nice. Very big. Good night, Scully.”

She stared at the phone for a good minute after Mulder hung up, her smile watery. So this was what happiness felt like.

End Chapter Thirteen

A Familiar Heart Chapter Fourteen

True to his word, Mulder phoned at seven the next morning. Then at nine, and again at noon. His calls were so persistent, they couldn’t fail to arouse her mother’s suspicion, and it was over late afternoon baking that Maggie put her motherly curiosity to work.

“Did Mr. Mulder find his glasses?” Maggie looked over her shoulder at Dana, who was up to her elbows in flour at the kitchen table.

Scully smiled, taking out her frustration at Mulder’s absence on the pile of dough, punching it vehemently. “Yes. They were in the bag with his toothbrush and razor.”

“What a forgetful young man,” her mother remarked, turning back to her cookies, seemingly satisfied with Scully’s explanation for the phone calls.

Forgetful? Scully was glad her mother had looked away once more, as she felt her face get hot. Mulder remembered every moment of their tryst last night; she could hear it in the tone of his voice over the line. The phone calls had been brief, but filled with husky promises of everything he was going to do to her once they were alone again. He described the way he was going to touch her in vague double entendres, cloaked in descriptions of the merits of good furniture. He was smart as a whip, realizing without having to be told that it was quite likely her parents’ neighbors were listening in on the party line.

“I’m thinking of buying a new couch for my cabin,” he’d murmured last time. “The thing is – should I go with soft, buttery leather? Or sturdy, long-lasting corduroy? The first is more comfortable, but kind of… slippery, you know? The second could be kind of harsh on the skin, but should withstand any kind of, uh, punishment? By the way – you didn’t happen to see my dogtags around there anywhere, did you?”

Laughing, she’d replied, “I’m hanging up now, Mulder.”

Now that she thought about it, they’d made no plans to see each other until the Rehearsal Supper, and that was tomorrow night. Maybe a bit of time apart was needed, she had to admit. It was all moving so fast, to a point that thrilled her as well as frightened her a bit. After the wedding, who knew where they’d end up? He was stationed in San Diego, as far as she knew. And she was stuck in San Francisco. Not that great of a divide, but there, nonetheless. She had a feeling her whole life was about to change once again, and it scared her more than facing down the Japanese.

The ringing of the phone startled her, even though she’d become quite accustomed to it by now. Wiping her hands on the dishtowel, she ignored her mother’s quizzical glance and went to answer it.

“Yes, Mulder.”

“Dana?”

“Bill?” Damn. This was not how she wanted to greet her brother after last seeing him stony- faced in Honolulu. He never did come see her in San Francisco, either, though she knew he’d been through once or twice in the last six months. “Merry Christmas.”

He paused over the line, then said, “Same to you, Dana. How’s it going?”

“Fine.” Her mother peeked around the entrance to the kitchen, and Scully waved her over. “Here’s Mom.” Covering the receiver, she handed to her mother, who gave her a disappointed whisper.

“Talk to him, Dana.”

“When he gets here,” she whispered back, going back to the kitchen over her mother’s hello to her eldest son.

Bill was an ass. No other way to put it, she decided. He had all of her father’s stoicism and none of his compassion. Cold and almost emotionless, he’d been unable to deal with her recovery like Charlie had. The military was the military, in his mind. Suck it up and move on to the next battle. It didn’t matter that she was female; a soldier should not cower from fear and nightmares. Her father and mother had been most supportive, as well as they could, anyway. Her father had been granted a couple of days’ leave to be with her in Hawaii, and her mother had spent time with her in San Francisco. But Bill? He’d turned tail and run the first time she’d had a seizure, disgust written plainly on his face. His wife Tara had come to see her a few times with the kids, but it was more of the same. Bill’s wife had to be strong, too.

And God only knew what choice words he’d have to say about Mulder. She was not looking forward to that.

“They won’t be here until the day of the wedding,” her mother said, coming back into the kitchen. “Snowed in.”

Scully couldn’t help the relief she felt, and it showed on her face.

“He’s not all that bad, sweetie,” her mother murmured. “He just doesn’t know how to be any other way. You’re not known for your embracing ways, either, you know.”

She knew she had some of those same aloof qualities, but since meeting Mulder, her calm facade had taken quite a beating. He wasn’t one for keeping his emotions hidden, and he wouldn’t let her hide behind a false mask of control, either. Just another way her life had been turned upside down.

The corner of her mouth turned up at the ringing of the telephone. Upside down? More like inside out and front-to-back. She rather liked it.

This time, she didn’t take any chances. “Hello?”

“Scully, it’s me.”

“What now? Your hair brush?”

“I can’t find my dogtags.”

She lowered her voice to a whisper. “You used that one already.”

“Seriously, I can’t find ‘em.” He sighed, and she pictured him licking his lips. Hoo-boy. “I think they’re in your living room somewhere?” The slight emphasis on the location made her heart jump to her throat. “They… uh, the chain sometimes catches on… uh, stuff.”

A flash of him pulling off his sweater and undershirt last night made her groan.

“Yeah,” he said, their shared memory sending a jolt of electricity over the line. His voice scratchy, he added, “Do me a favor and go check, would you?”

“Hang on.” She dropped the receiver to the small table with nerveless fingers, wincing at its loud contact with the wooden top. Hurrying, she rounded the corner of the living room door, skidding to a stop at the sight of her father, who sat reading the afternoon paper. At her noise, his head popped up, slight confusion creasing his brow.

“Starbuck? What’s up?”

“Uh… nothing, Dad,” she hedged, her eyes searching the carpet for the telltale, shiny metal. She’d forgotten he’d come home early today. He was the quiet sort, content to sit and read with his pipe and slippers. Speaking of –

“Damn,” she muttered, under her breath. There they were, half hidden under the sole of his left slipper. Not totally obvious, but shining like a beacon in the light from the lamp. Their presence could be explained in an innocuous way, but then again – the chain normally hung around Mulder’s neck. His clothed neck and chest. Why would he have any reason to disrobe? In her parents’ living room, of all places.

“What did you say?”

“Ham,” she replied with a smile. “Would you like ham for dinner?” Wringing her hands, she walked slowly forward.

“I thought we were having leftover roast beef, Starbuck.” Folding the newspaper in his lap, he sat straighter. “Are you sure you’re okay, Starbuck? You look queasy.”

“I’m fine, Dad. Just a bit hot from the kitchen.” And from the prospect of discovery, just a slide of his foot away.

“Bill?”

Scully jumped at her mother’s voice behind her. Together, she and her father looked up at her mother, who stood in the door.

“We need some more logs for the fireplace, dear.” She turned to leave without waiting for an answer.

Scully’s dad grimaced, raising his paper again. “Get Charlie to do it. Where is that boy, anyway?”

“He’s at Ellen’s,” Scully supplied, eager to get her dad up out of that chair.

Her father sighed, finally curling up out of the chair and depositing newspaper and glasses on the lamp table. “Young fool,” he murmured, then, looking at his daughter, he amended, “Ellen’s a nice girl, Dana – I didn’t mean anything by that.”

“I know, Dad,” she smiled, reaching up to give him a kiss. “Love does strange things to people, don’t you think?”

He smiled in return, giving her a wink. “Makes ‘em queasy, too,” he replied, heading for the front door. “Tell Mr. Mulder I said hello, Starbuck.”

Had he seen the dogtags? Scully gulped, assuring herself that he hadn’t. Though he was as astute as her mother, sensing there was something between her and Mulder, he was more likely the recipient of an earful of speculation, courtesy of that same meddling, well-meaning mom. She shouldn’t be surprised; just because they were in their late fifties didn’t mean they still loved as though they were younger and recognized the same in their children. She shuddered at the mental picture of her parents doing what she’d done with Mulder last night, shaking it off. That was not what she wanted to be thinking of – not now, not ever.

Picking up the dogtags, she scrambled back to the telephone. “Got ‘em.”

Mulder laughed with relief on the other end of the line. “Trouble?”

“Dad was practically sitting on them.”

“Ouch.” He allowed a moment of silence, then said, “I really need those, you know.”

Longing made his voice husky, and she felt a similar rush thread through her reply. “Then come over. Dinner will be in another hour or so.”

“So I can have your Dad and Charlie frowning at me from across the table? I don’t think so.”

“Dad would not frown at you. He likes you.”

“But you can’t deny I’m on Charlie’s shit list at the moment.”

A stifled gasp bled over the line, followed by a click. Scully laughed. “I think you just offended Mrs. Bowman with your language.”

“Good. Wonder who else I can get rid of if I say -”

“Mulder,” she warned, knowing something worse was on the horizon.

He chuckled, then said softly, “Have dinner with me, Scully. Somewhere more private. My treat.”

“Chicken.”

“Beautiful.” He was way past the point of furniture analogies; then again, so was she. Hell on the neighbors. Seemed everyone who counted approved of their match, so they might as well let the cat out of the bag, big time.

“Handsome.”

His breath hitched, and she sensed he was a moment away from saying something really meaningful. But he backed off with a laugh. “Short stuff.”

“Bean pole.”

“Meet me somewhere… Red.”

Red. God, the nickname still had the power to move her. It was high time she told him the rest of the story – the rescue from Los Banos. He would probably think she was nuts, but she wanted him to know why she’d been so startled back at the cabin. It hadn’t been him, she knew that now. But it went a long way to explaining her frame of mind just a few short days ago.

There was also something she wanted to give him besides the truth; she wanted him to know she was ready to give herself to him in soul as well as body. This was the perfect opportunity, before they were sunk knee-deep in wedding celebrations. The calm before the storm, so to speak.

“Uncle Mike’s at seven?”

A short huff of breath, then, “That’s not exactly the privacy I had in mind, Scully.”

“Too bad. That’s what you’re going to get, sailor.”

“But -”

“I have a plan, Mulder. Trust me.” The Rehearsal Supper could prove to be a sticking point, should her Uncle Mike spill the beans about their previous dinner there. What had she been thinking when she suggested that a couple of days ago? No, she’d thought Mulder would do just as he had – leave. No worries after that. Now, it seemed some pre-party reparations to their story was in order.

“As long as none of your cousins beat me up.”

“They’ll have to get past me first, okay?”

“Oh, that makes me feel a whole lot better.”

She smiled at the sarcasm. “It should. I used to kick their asses regularly.”

Another gasp and click made Mulder bellow with laughter over the line. “Who was that?”

“My guess is, Mrs. Kennedy. See – I know what I’m doing.”

His laughter faded and he purred, “I hope you do, Scully. Because I’m a tenacious bastard – I never let go once I latch on.”

Silence reigned for a few seconds as she held her breath, her happiness at his soft statement filling her chest with warmth.

“Just tell her you’ll meet her already, boy!”

The elderly female voice, laced with a hint of a brogue, made Scully gasp this time. “Mrs. O’Malley?” Her face, unseen to anyone on the line, still flushed with embarrassment.

“Aye, and you should latch on, too, girl. Take it from me – the lads are headin’ up the aisle right and left. Just look at yer brother!”

Mulder was obviously rolling with mirth at the other end, if his snorts and guffaws were any indication. Scully was speechless, and she wished he would say something before she put an end to their mutual embarrassment by slamming down the phone. He did, much to her relief, clearing his throat before saying, “Mrs. O’Malley?”

“Yes, son?” the old lady murmured, pleasure in her voice at the way he addressed her with subtle warmth.

“I really hate to put a damper on your afternoon eavesdropping, but would you kindly fuck off?”

She expected a tirade like no other; Mrs. O’Malley was not the sort to hold her temper. Instead, the woman said, “Son, I’ve heard worse on the docks in Dublin. You’ll have to do better than that.”

“What if I told you I’d like to take Dana and -”

“Mulder!” Scully found her voice at last, just as her nosy neighbor hung up with a snort of laughter.

“What?” He sounded as though he’d done nothing wrong. Truth was, she herself was tired of all the poking into their business as well.

“Uncle Mike’s, Mulder. Seven o’clock. And no cursing, either.”

“Spoilsport. I can’t stand nosy people, Scully. You know your relatives will be hovering like vultures.”

“Then I’ll cuss ‘em out, okay?”

“My hero.” She could picture his smile fade into a slow burn. “I can’t wait to see you, Scully.”

“I miss you, too,” she answered, before bidding him goodbye.

**********

Dinner was enlightening, to say the least.

She now knew he was thirty-three years old, as of October. She pulled from him his first puppy’s name, his favorite color, and the remembrance of his first kiss – at the age of seven, behind the garage with his second cousin Emily. He was experimenting only – he never liked Emily, he told her. Too much of a tattletale. In other words, he got a spanking that day. Didn’t stop him from kissing again, he told her with a wink.

He now knew she’d broken a leg when she was twelve, courtesy of a fall from a tree. He knew she liked her coffee with cream and sugar, and her hamburger with ketchup and pickles. She was dainty in everything except her laugh – when it came, it startled him. So broad and fun-loving, showing a mouth full of teeth and crinkling the corners of her eyes. He loved it all.

He loved her.

“See… if Uncle Mike happens to say something about us having dinner here together, no one will know it wasn’t tonight. Got it?”

“Smart,” he said, giving her a smile. “I like the way you think, Scully.”

She looked like a Christmas present, wrapped in green wool, her red hair tamed into a sleek bob. Her face, this time not half hidden by a hat, was warm and pink, her lips almost cranberry red and so tempting to him that he kept biting his own to keep from leaning over and chewing on hers. She smiled, she laughed, her eyes were twin blue stars that hypnotized him. He do could nothing but stare and do his best to follow the train of conversation.

“I told you before – I do have a brain,” she remarked, sipping at her after-dinner coffee, her little finger crooked at the end. Yep. Dainty. He wondered if that finger tasted as good as the rest of her. Her gaze swept the room, his rapt attention to her pinky going unnoticed. “Looks like Uncle Mike gave us the best table in the house this time.”

Mulder looked around, feeling all eyes upon them as he replied softly, “Yeah. Close to the dance floor, away from the kitchen… and right smack in the middle of the room. One more curious look thrown our way, Scully, and I’m standing on this table to declare my intentions.”

Blue mischief danced beneath coquettish lashes. “And what would those be?”

To nibble on that pinky, he thought. To do what I wanted to last night, and bury myself in you so deep I may never come up for air. To marry you, no matter what you say. All this and more clamored for release on his tongue; it would be so easy to tell the world at this moment she was his. But their playfulness of the day was a beginning once more, and he knew she was more comfortable with banter than talk of commitment at this stage.

“I don’t think I can go into detail in this crowd, Scully. Something tells me I wouldn’t make it out with my gorgeous face intact.”

She laughed, eyeing the swarm of redheads doling out ale among the customers. “I told you I’d protect you.”

“My guardian angel?”

Her smile faded, and he knew instantly he’d said the wrong thing. Uh-oh. Scully dropped her gaze to her purse, surreptitiously reaching in. Hand fisted, she extended it across the table. “Here you go, sailor,” she murmured, nodding.

Mulder opened his palm beneath her fist, feeling the metal of his dogtags fall into his hand. Before she could snatch her own hand away, he curled his fingers up, holding fast, the cool chain caught between them. The easy atmosphere they’d enjoyed all night had changed to something far more serious in an instant.

“Why do I get the feeling I just got my class ring back?” he quipped with a guarded smile, his heart pounding with fear. “You going with someone else to the prom, Scully?” Instead of stupid phone calls, he should have camped out in her living room all day, Charlie be damned.

At that, she relaxed a bit, chuckling nervously. “No… it’s just that I’m about to declare my own intentions, and it scares the hell out of me.”

His shoulders sagged with relief, but his reply was still shaky. “Declare away.” Maybe, if he was lucky, he’d find himself carted off to the minister tonight.

“Mulder, do you remember how I thought I knew you back at the cabin?”

At the time, he was sure she was one of Chang’s operatives, bent on killing him. He never gave her cryptic comment much thought after he found out who she really was, but now it resounded in his brain.

<It’s you.>

“Yeah,” he said, keeping her hand in a tight grip. “I know better now.”

“The reason I said that…”

“Scully, you don’t have to explain.”

“No, I do. It’s all part of my declaration.”

She was firm, and he relented, squeezing her hand. “Go ahead.”

“You were familiar to me, Mulder. I was sure I’d seen you before. But then again, at the time I’d thought I’d seen you, you were like some sort of angel… swooping down from the sky to save me.”

POW camp. Angels from the sky. Manila.

The connection began to take form in his mind. Along with it, a trickle of dread pooled in his chest. He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear this, but he had to ask. “You were in Los Banos, weren’t you?” Don’t say yes, Scully. Please don’t.

She nodded, a light sheen of tears glistening in her eyes. “And I thought you’d been the one… the one who died saving me that day. He looked like you.” She rushed ahead before he could speak again. “But I know now you are my angel, Mulder. My savior. Not some ghost I barely spoke to.”

“Scully…” he whispered, unable to look at her any longer. He pulled his hand from hers, dragging the chain with him. The cheap silver tags hit the table top, and a glimmer of gold caught his eye.

It had all been too good to be true. Her giving herself to him, him thinking of marriage and kids… everything. He should have known better than to let himself want it so badly.

“It’s all I have of value,” she said, “and I want you to have it. My class ring, so to speak. I don’t want to run away from you any longer, Mulder.”

Her cross. Gleaming on the chain with such brilliance it took his breath away. He didn’t want to take the happiness from her face, but he knew his next words would do just that.

“Scully, my brother died at Los Banos.”

She was still for a moment, sitting up straight, shock making her pale. “What?”

“Sam. He was only one of two who died that day.”

“No. That can’t be true.”

“It is. Scully, he looked like me, he had a voice like mine.” Though it hurt him to say it, he went on, the details spilling from him. “He was a paratrooper with the 11th Airborne. He was supposed to be shipped home after that mission.” A wan smile cracked his face. “I’ve spoken to a buddy of his, some guy named Franklin. He said Sam was hoping to make it home for spring training. He wanted to try out for the Yankees.”

Scully closed her eyes and swallowed, looking as if she was about to lose her supper. Grabbing her purse and coat, she slid from her chair. “I… I have to go, Mulder.”

All he wanted to do was grab her and make her stay. Instead, he sat there, his body shaking with shock of his own. “I know.”

They said no goodbyes, made no further plans. He waited a full five minutes before paying the bill and walking to his hotel room, the chain still fisted in his hand. He didn’t know what else to do.

End Chapter Fourteen

A Familiar Heart Chapter Fifteen

The phone didn’t ring once that day. It seemed as if the damp, cold rain had even put an end to holiday greetings for the houses on her mother’s party line. Christmas was over, and she felt as if she’d never smile again.

She missed him. His smile, his laugh, the way he had of making the most innocent remarks simmer with sensuality. The memory of the way she’d left him last night was burned on her brain; the utter sadness in his eyes when he realized the man she spoke of in Los Banos had been his brother. Much beloved, by the halting, proud way he’d told her of Sam’s baseball aspirations. But he was dead, felled by a bullet meant for her.

Guilt washed over her, as fresh as if she still held her hand over the hole in Sam’s chest. Mulder’s brother would still be alive, if not for her. He’d taken the bullet meant for her, and had perished for it. She was as much to blame for his death as if she’d pulled the trigger herself. It was no wonder Mulder stayed away today.

Would he show up for the rehearsal? Or stay for the wedding? God, she hoped so. For Charlie’s sake, she hoped Mulder fulfilled his obligation as best man. She’d almost run him off once, and she didn’t think Charlie would forgive her if she managed to do so again, albeit not on purpose. She hadn’t known. God, she hadn’t known!

Standing by the Christmas tree, she looked out the living room window, sniffling quietly. Her parents had gone ahead to the church, and she was waiting for Charlie to come down so they could take his car together and pick up Ellen for the rehearsal. He knew she was supposed to be spending the night with Ellen, and she was to take his car while he rode home with her mother and father after the party. Little did they know she’d planned to drive it nowhere; it would have stayed parked behind her Uncle Mike’s while she spent the night with Mulder. It was to have been so easy – Ellen would have been told she was going back to her house, her parents would assume she was at Ellen’s. Perfect.

Except she knew now there would be no night spent in Mulder’s arms. No making love on his very big bed, no whispering words of trust and commitment, no making plans for the future. His silence of today had told her just one thing: he wanted nothing more to do with her.

“Dana, are you ready?”

Though she tried to avoid Charlie’s eyes by quickly turning away, she wasn’t successful.

“Hey,” he said softly, gripping her by the arms to turn her back. “What’s with the tears?”

She swiped at her cheeks, trying her best to smile. “I just realized I’m about to be all alone,” she whispered, hoping the half-truth was enough to satisfy him. “I’m losing my best friend.”

Charlie enfolded her in a warm embrace. “You are not,” he admonished softly. “I’ll always be here for you, sprite. Right here.”

“Yeah, three thousand miles away.” It wasn’t like her to give in to melancholy, but she couldn’t help it. Charlie was being assigned to Washington, and here he’d stay. The telephone was a lifeline, but suddenly, she wanted more than a voice. She wanted physical closeness as well. Her world was rocked to its foundations, with no end to her sadness in sight.

“You could always transfer here, you know,” he pointed out. “Though I guess with Mulder in California, too, you wouldn’t want -”

“Mulder has nothing to do with this,” she stated flatly, pulling away from Charlie. She walked to the couch, retrieving her coat.

“Uh – oh,” she heard behind her. “Trouble in paradise?”

Putting on a calm she didn’t feel, she turned, shrugging into her coat. Charlie stepped forward, concern in his gaze as he helped her with the sleeves. “Charlie, Mulder and I are just friends,” she said, knowing that sounded so trite, given the way he’d seen them night before last.

“Just friends? Sprite, I don’t know anyone who’s ‘just friends’ who gets naked on the couch.” The wince in his voice was palpable. “I’m sorry, Dana. That was crude.”

“But true.” She looked up at her brother, giving him a small smile, knowing she had to say something to ease his mind. It wasn’t good to be with Mulder one day and totally apart from him the next; bad move. Charlie didn’t need to worry about anything other than his wedding day. She’d tell Mulder so when she saw him at the church; they’d have to at least speak to one another for the next couple of days, act like friends. Any other course would cause suspicion. Then, when all was said and done, he could go his way and she would go hers. Maybe a move to Washington wouldn’t be a bad idea, after all.

“Look, Charlie, Mulder and I have decided to take things slow. Your wedding is what’s most important right now, and we don’t want to detract from it, okay?” Please believe me, she prayed. “What we did… it happened way too fast. We both agree that we need to take some time to get to know one another.” Then, after a couple of months in San Francisco, she could just tell Charlie things didn’t work out, and move back home.

Nice plan, she thought, ignoring Charlie’s questioning look as she moved to the front door. If only she didn’t feel so lost without Mulder, it would be wonderful.

**********

The priest moved them about like dolls, his heavy Irish brogue demanding compliance. Not that Mulder felt like arguing at all; on the contrary, every time Father Corkery pushed him together with Scully, he took full advantage, brushing his arm against hers, folding her hand in the crook of his arm like a good little groomsman.

She was so pretty tonight it almost hurt to look at her. A slim silhouette in navy blue wool, her tiny waist cinched tight by a matching belt, she was covered from neck to knees, and made a very demure picture, complete with white lace collar. Too bad he knew what every inch of her looked like under that dress, and his fingers itched to undo the buttons down the front one by one.

Her hair was pinned back, but there were a few wisps that refused to be tamed, falling down to caress her cheek. Every few minutes, she brought a hand up to brush them away, never once looking at him, though she had to know he couldn’t take his eyes off her. And he could not stop touching her, taking sinful pleasure in doing so, all with the permission of the priest.

But that sigh. Damn it, that sigh he received every time he touched her pierced him to his heart like a stiletto. He was sure the next time he heard it, he’d bleed like a stuck pig.

It wasn’t fair, God damn it. He’d stayed away today, though it was the hardest, longest day of his miserable life. Finding out she knew Sam had opened his eyes, and not for the better. If only he’d known about her angel before he’d met her…

“Okay, ladies and gentlemen,” Father Corkery said, breaking into his thoughts. “The mass has ended, the bride’s been kissed – it’s time to move out, bride and groom first, then the best man and maid of honor, then the parents. Go, go!”

This time, when he met Scully at the front of the alter, he practically latched on to her, his other hand folding over hers on his arm like a vise.

“Slowly, children, slowly!” Father Corkery said.

Mulder slowed his steps, which were already at a leisurely pace. Scully huffed a bit, matching her steps to his; he knew she wanted to get as far away from him as possible, as fast as she could.

“Mulder?”

Her soft question surprised him, and he almost stumbled. “Yeah?” he whispered back. Maybe she wanted to talk, maybe all hope wasn’t yet lost…

Staring straight ahead, Scully said softly, “You are going to stay for the wedding, aren’t you? Charlie would be disappointed if you didn’t.”

He looked away from her, clenching his jaw. Scully certainly had a soft spot for her brother… hell, anyone’s brother. “I wouldn’t do that to him. I’ll be there.” Then I’m catching the first train, plane or boat out of town, he added silently.

“Good. And Mulder?”

He didn’t answer, not trusting himself to just scream at her to stop being so damned cool. She continued, taking his silence for acceptance of her words.

“We need to try to be civil to one another, okay? It would look very bad otherwise.”

Considering that just the night before last, they’d been naked on the couch, he snorted, seeing how their aloof behavior toward one another could rouse suspicion. “Sure,” he said snidely. “Like we’re best friends, Scully.” From the corner of his eye, he saw her face pale, and he let her go to reach for his coat. He didn’t look at her as he put it on, sensing her physical withdrawal by the warmth that disappeared from his side.

“Mulder, you riding with us?”

At Charlie’s question, he looked up from his perusal of the church bulletins in the lobby. He tried to tamp down his discomfort, and he quickly said, “I’ll meet you guys there. Um… I have to go back to my room for something.”

It was a lie, and he saw Scully turn away to don her coat. He knew she was avoiding his company. Pride prevented him from asking why, though he had a pretty good idea. It was probably the same reason he could no longer bear to spend every second in her presence. Some things didn’t have to be said.

He’d make a short appearance at the party and then beg off. Spend the day tomorrow hounding Skinner at the Pentagon for news of Chang, then the wedding on New Year’s Eve. He wondered if there was a midnight train headed west that night – the sooner he left all this hurt behind, the better. For him and for her.

He’d tried, he really had. All day long, he’d told himself the conclusion he’d drawn couldn’t be right. But then again, if it wasn’t – if he’d finally found true happiness with the right woman – how the hell could he be so lucky?? He’d never had anything so valuable, so beautiful, fall right into his lap. It wasn’t this Mulder who’d been smiled upon by the Gods all his life; Sam had taken all that good fortune with him to his grave. Even in death, he’d nabbed the last, best prize.

As he walked out of the church, he heard Charlie call his name. His friend left his fiancee behind with a murmur, catching up with Mulder halfway down the block. Mulder saw Scully and her parents drive away in the opposite direction, and he hunched over, scraping the sidewalk with the toe of his shoe. “What is it, Charlie?” Impatience laced his words; he wanted to be alone, to lick his wounds back to semi-closure before braving the party.

“What’s up with you and Dana?”

Cut right to the chase, he thought. “And how was your day, Charlie?” he said, sarcasm breeding on his tongue. He wasn’t up for explanations, and besides, it wasn’t any of Charlie’s business. He turned, walking to the corner, one hand waving down a cab.

A strong hand whipped him around. “Don’t give me that, you son-of-a-bitch,” Charlie snarled. “She’s avoiding you like the plague. What the hell did you do to her?”

“Nothing!” Mulder wrenched his arm from Charlie’s grasp. “It’s Dana who wants nothing to do with me, in case you hadn’t noticed!” He hung his head, knowing he’d said too much. Scully had probably not said a word to Charlie about Sam, and he’d just blown the whole shebang with one angry, hurt-filled statement.

“What the hell happened, Mulder?” Charlie was softer of voice now, and Mulder looked up to find his face tight with concern. “Just yesterday, you couldn’t get enough of one another -”

“That was yesterday,” Mulder interrupted, trying again to flag down a cab, though it seemed like he was stuck with Charlie on the corner for a while. He cursed inwardly, feeling he was seconds away from losing his mind, again. “A lot can happen in a day.”

“She told me you’d decided to take things slow, but I could tell yesterday she was ready for anything. Anything, as long as it was with you, Mulder.”

Mulder closed his eyes, pain making him drag in a ragged breath. “I’m not the right one, Charlie,” he muttered. “She didn’t know… and I didn’t either. Not until last night.”

“What do you mean – not the right one? Jesus, Mulder, you love her, don’t you? Tell me what I’m thinking is wrong. Tell me you didn’t just use her for a little holiday sport.”

At that, Mulder brought his face up, his gaze slashing into his friend with fury. “Fuck you, Charlie. I wouldn’t do that to her, for Christ’s sake! You know I -” He broke off, his words of love utterly useless at this point. Number one, he was telling the wrong Scully. Number two, the right Scully didn’t want to hear them.

“Then tell me, damn it. Tell me why you haven’t called once today. Tell me why I found her crying in the living room a little while ago. Tell me you’re not going to leave as soon as you can…”

“She was crying because she got the wrong one.” He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets, giving Charlie his profile, the cold biting into his tense face. It was probably going to snow later – he’d have to remember that. Snow, a good reason for leaving early. “She got the wrong one,” he said again, his heart turning to ice right there on the street.

“The wrong one? Mulder, are you feeling okay?”

Suddenly, he’d had enough. Enough of people looking down on him as second-rate, enough of his friends treating him like an invalid, enough of the prying of others and the pretending in front of them he didn’t need what everyone else needed.

“You know, I never begrudged him a God damned thing.” He looked at Charlie, who stood there bemused. But Mulder spoke what was in his sad, jealous heart, not the explanation Charlie wanted to hear. “He was my brother… the class president, the baseball star, the war hero. Good at everything he did and loved by everyone, including me. I never once coveted what he had. Until now. Because you see, Charlie – she never wanted me. I was just the substitute, the guy who happened to look like an angel.”

He stepped off the curb, tired of waiting for every fucking thing in his life, including taxicabs. “I’m no angel, never will be. And she knows it. It just took me a little longer to realize it, that’s all.” A sad smile graced his face as he finished softly, “And I can’t change a damn thing. I may have the look, but I don’t have the heart.”

Dodging the cars on the street and Charlie’s shout of his name, he melted into the night.

**********

“So, you really think I’m doing okay so far?”

“You’re doing fine,” she whispered back, feeling as if she were floating across the small dance floor in his arms. He really was a great dancer; just one of his many good traits, she was glad to discover. Loyalty, humor, intelligence… and he really cared for Melissa, a major plus. “I think Mom likes you.”

“What about your dad?” Frohike asked nervously, eyeing the older man who stood with crossed arms on the edge of the crowd, pipe in his mouth. “He keeps watching me.”

“Melvin, he’s just a bit thrown by you,” she said, smiling. “Once he sees how well you get along with Melissa, it’ll be fine.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure.” She didn’t say that it was probably going to be a long while before her father quit watching him. Maybe even never. Her dad was very protective of his children; but once you had his trust, you never lost it. “Try talking to him, Melvin. See if you have anything in common. Dad loves golf, you know.”

Frohike’s face lit up with a smile. “Besides being a mean dancer, I play a pretty good round of golf, myself.”

“There you go.”

“Can I cut in?”

For a second, Scully forgot to breathe, sure the quiet question came from Mulder. But it was Charlie who stood with his hand on Melvin’s shoulder, a sympathetic look on his face. Damn. He was up to something, and it was destined to make her cry. Again. The whole evening so far had taken a monstrous effort on her part to remain unemotional.

First came the breakdown at the house, then the rehearsal, where every time she touched Mulder she practically purred with longing. Even now, she could still smell his cologne around her and feel his hand take hers. All she needed now was for Charlie to stick his nose into it; her brother knew something wasn’t right, and he was determined to get them back together.

As Melvin excused himself, she walked stiffly into Charlie’s arms, keeping her eyes downcast.

As expected, Charlie launched right into his campaign. “Mulder’s here.”

She stepped on his foot at the announcement. Murmuring an apology, she said, “That’s nice,” though her heart sped up and she scanned the room covertly for the tall, handsome form in a black suit. The crowd had long since had dinner, and had been dancing for an hour or more; she thought he wasn’t going to show.

“Dana…”

“Charlie, please,” she whispered, tired of denying there was a problem. Not that she was going to explain fully, but if she could get him to see how much talking about it upset her, maybe he’d leave it alone. “Please don’t do this.”

“Aw, sprite.” Charlie was truly upset now, his mouth thinning with displeasure. “If it’s anything I said or did, just hit me, okay? But don’t let it come between the two of you.”

Damn it, here they come, she thought. Looking up at her brother’s blurry, contrite face, she said brokenly, “It’s nothing you did, Charlie. It was me. All me. And I don’t know what I can do to make it right. I can’t make it right. It’s impossible to fix.”

Once Mulder found out she was the coward who’d distracted Sam into a bullet in the chest, he wouldn’t want anything more to do with her. She was so cowardly, she didn’t even want to tell him, wouldn’t stand before him to watch him re-live his brother’s death all over again. Charlie said it had driven him over the edge. She couldn’t chance making him slide into madness once again.

“Funny, but Mulder said basically the same thing to me a little while ago. Except I had the distinct impression he was speaking of himself, not you.”

Blinking back her tears, she chuckled, mostly to keep herself from bawling like a baby. “He would.” Mulder was so good, so willing to take blame for something he could never, ever be responsible for. “Believe me, Charlie. This one’s all mine.”

“It wouldn’t have anything to do with his brother, would it?”

Charlie’s dead-on guess slammed into her, making her feet stumble to a stop. Mouth open with dismay, she stared up at her clueless brother. “Oh, Charlie. Please don’t say anymore.” I can’t stand it, she tacked on in her mind. In a moment, I’ll break down and sob in the middle of the dance floor.

“I have to, sprite,” he said quietly. “Because I can’t stand to see either of you so miserable.”

Scully dropped her chin, silent with sadness. Her whole chest ached now, and it hurt to breathe. She tried to wrench herself from Charlie’s embrace to seek the safety of the ladies’ restroom, but he was having none of that, holding on tight while he kept on speaking.

“All I could get out of Mulder was some nonsense about how Sam was a hero and he’d never been jealous of him until now.”

Her head snapped up. “What?” Mulder couldn’t think that she…

“He also said he looked like an angel, but he didn’t have the right heart, or some crap like that.”

Taking her hand from Charlie’s, she pressed trembling fingers to her lips, looking up at him with eyes swimming with tears. “Oh, Charlie,” she whispered brokenly.

“Shit,” her brother muttered, reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief. He pressed it into her hand, looking around at the dance floor at the crowd of relatives and friends. Most of them just smiled, sure she was just being emotional over her brother’s marriage. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

She snorted into the fine linen and mumbled, “All day long, I thought he blamed me. That he couldn’t get past Los Banos.”

“Los Banos? What the hell does that have to do with anything? Quit crying, Dana. Dad’s on his way over.”

She spied her father’s approach from the corner of her eye. “Charlie, you have to sidetrack him while I find Mulder.”

“What the hell am I supposed to tell him?”

“That I got something in my eye, what else?” She began to move away, but was stopped by Charlie’s firm grip.

“Don’t you dare let him get away, sprite. I’m not gonna play the fucking fairy godmother again.” He released her, straightening his tie with a smile. “Bad for my image as a he-man.”

She chuckled, reaching up on her toes to press a kiss to his cheek. “Thanks, Charlie. I owe you one.”

“Or two.”

“Or two, if you’ll do me another favor?”

“Make it quick, sprite.”

“Tell Ellen I’m not feeling well, and tell Mom and Dad I’m spending the night at Ellen’s. But I’ll really be -”

Charlie groaned, lifting a hand to stop her. “Don’t tell me. As long as you don’t do it in my car, okay?”

She giggled, loving her brother more with every second that passed. “Well, I think the room has a very nice bed.”

“Argh!” he cried, grimacing. “Just go, already!”

“Where is Mulder?” Her father was almost upon them, held up by Melvin Frohike, bless his kiss- ass, Melissa-loving heart.

“Last I saw, the end of the bar. Mighty close to the door, sprite. Better make tracks.”

Again, she took the time for a kiss to Charlie’s cheek. “I love you, Charlie.”

“Get going,” he mumbled with a sniffle, turning to greet their father.

Seeing the press of well-wishers between her and the bar, she made a quick decision. She made more than tracks on her way there… when they saw her complete, albeit fake, collapse into tears, they were more than happy to let her by. She heard murmurs of concern as she ran through the parting of the sea of red hair.

“Poor darlin’. She’s gonna miss Charlie.”

“Someone get her a drink of water.”

“Fresh air, that’s what she needs.”

Hiding her grin, she made it to the end of the bar. Nope. She didn’t need fresh air.

She needed the man who was shrugging on his coat to leave. That long, cool drink of Mulder.

The not-so-perfect angel.

**********

“Private party, man!”

Mulder winced at Mike’s shout, but he didn’t pause in donning his coat, nor did he look over his shoulder at the entrance behind him. “There a problem, Mike?”

Mike swiped at the bar with a rag. “No problem, lad. Just a customer peeking in. Maybe I shoulda put a sign out, eh?” His smile faded as he looked Mulder up and down. “Where ya going, Mulder? Dana should be in the bar somewhere – let me get Charlie over here. We’ll find her in a flash.”

“That’s okay, Mike,” Mulder replied quickly. “I’m beat. Gonna turn in early, I think.”

Mike looked to his left, then back, his smile returning. “Too late for that, lad. Looks like the lady’s ready to dance.”

Mulder knew it was her before he even faced her; his breath lodged in his throat and he wondered if she was going to instruct Mike to toss him out on his ear.

“Buy me a drink, sailor?”

Senseless, happy surprise threaded up his throat. He turned, taking in her damp face and hesitant smile. Before he could speak, she wiped her face into dry composure and stepped forward, sitting in his vacant stool. Unable to stand her proximity without snatching her up and hauling her off into the night, Mulder moved slightly away as she addressed the man behind the bar. “Two whiskeys, please, Uncle Mike.”

He found his voice after her uncle poured two stout drinks, leaning over her shoulder to reach for his drink. “Need courage, Scully?”

She pulled the other glass to her, saying softly, “Maybe.”

Before his glass touched his lips, he replied, “Mind telling me why?” More revelations to come? What was it this time – she’d had a secret affair with his father? Fallen in love with Frohike on the dance floor a half hour ago? Grimacing, he chided himself for his ill feelings. She couldn’t help what she felt, any more than he could. Too bad those feelings weren’t directed at him, but at a ghost.

She toyed with the amber liquid, swirling it as if hypnotized by the little whirlpool it made.

“Because in a minute, I’m going to ask you for your room key. In five minutes, you’re going to nonchalantly make an exit, and join me in your room. In ten minutes, we’re going to have a little talk… well, I’m going to talk, you’re going to listen.” He knew he looked stupid with his mouth wide open. She wasn’t serious, was she? “As a heart attack, Mulder,” she said, reading his dumbfounded expression.

“But Scully, we can’t just…” Make it all go away, he finished silently.

“We can, and we will,” she stated. “Now, are you man enough to work this out with me?”

He felt a slow grin emerge on his face and he leaned in, shoving his glass and hers aside. “I don’t need this, and neither do you.”

“Why?”

He couldn’t believe his good fortune; here she was, willing to talk. About what, he had no idea. And at this moment, he didn’t care if she told him she saw Sam every time she closed her eyes. He wanted her. He could make her want him, and only him. With sex, with love, with whatever it would take. He wasn’t about to spit in the face of the gods who’d handed him this opportunity.

“Because in thirty minutes, after we’ve both said some things that need to be said, we’re gonna put that big, comfy bed in my room to use. And we’re both going to be sober when it happens, with nothing between us. Absolutely nothing. Agreed?”

Looking up at him, she fastened her gaze on his lips, her tongue darting out as if she could already taste his kiss. “Agreed.”

She swivelled on the stool, facing him. He felt a small hand brush over his pants, and he sucked in a quick breath. “My keys are in my right coat pocket, Scully. Not in my zipper.”

“Just checking,” she said, lifting her eyebrow with mock innocence. Her hand shifted, and he felt her hand wrap around his hotel key. “See you in five, sailor. Don’t be late.”

He helped her put on her coat, then turned back to the bar and downed both drinks.

Mike, who’d discreetly faded to the other end of the bar, walked back to him with a grin. “Want another, Mulder? You look like a man who’s got legs o’lead all of a sudden.”

Mulder chuckled, nodding. “Not lead, Mike. Rubber, more like it. Hand me the phone, would you?” He wanted to call the front desk at the Belmont. Champagne, flowers, food – the works. No way would they be leaving that room before dawn, and he wanted her to want for nothing. Quickly, he dialed, wondering if he could order bubble bath as well…

“Jesus! It’s a private party, for Christ’s sake!” Mike practically screamed in his face. “Good, he’s gone. Can’t have a Chinaman loitering outside the window. Ain’t good for business.”

Mulder’s blood ran cold and he dropped the phone from his ear. “What did you say?”

“Damn Chinese fella. He’s been trying to get in all night – just took one more look in the window and then got in a car – hey! Where ya going?”

But Mulder didn’t hear him. He was already out in the street, stiff with panic. He was imagining things, right? She was already in the hotel room. He took a step forward, then stopped, his shoe scraping against a bump in the pavement. Bending down, he almost cried at the object in his palm.

He gripped the key so hard, it bruised his palm, and he cried out into the night with anguish.

“Scully!”

End Chapter Fifteen

A Familiar Heart Chapter Sixteen

No broken bones.

That was the first thing she realized when she woke up. That, and she had the most awful taste in her mouth. The aftereffects of chloroform, most likely.

Chopped, guttural words filtered through the ringing in her ears. Eyes still closed, she listened, trying her best to understand the language. It sounded familiar, but not. Not Japanese. Chinese.

She groaned, knowing exactly what was going on without understanding a word of the conversation. Chang. She’d been taken by Mulder’s nemesis, who obviously intended to use her to lure Mulder into a trap. But why not just shoot him on the street, if he wanted to kill him so badly? Chills ran down her spine; this wasn’t payback of the normal variety. Mulder, from what little she’d learned from him and Charlie, had apparently decimated Chang’s holdings – in a big, bold statement of hatred punctuated by the middle finger of arrogance. An Asian like Chang, even though the most ruthless of gangsters, lived and died by his honor. Embarrassment of the scale Mulder had put him through called for a statement of his own.

Torture. Dismemberment. Mulder’s body hung in effigy in a very public place, where Chang’s enemies – and his friends as well – could catch wind of just how ruthless he’d been in his revenge. Nothing else would satisfy him.

She should have it stamped on her forehead in big bold, letters. BAIT.

She had to get out of there before Mulder came. She would not be used as a pawn in Chang’s game, nor would she stand by helplessly as Chang carved Mulder up into little pieces.

It was dark where she was, and she was lying on the floor in a fetal position, her head resting on something dank and musty, though soft. She brought one hand up and felt of it… a mop. Jesus, they’d locked her in a closet!

No, no, nononono…

Arms and legs suddenly spread wide, she struggled with the suffocating blanket around her face, whimpers of distress trickling up her throat. The darkness seemed to swallow her whole, a black expanse of nothing before her wide eyes. Her nostrils filled with the smell of dirt and cloudy, hot air.

The hole, God no… not the hole.

A scream trickled up her throat as she gasped for breath…

The sharp bark in Chinese pierced her panic, and suddenly, her face was blessed with cool, clean air.

“Ni hao, Miss Scully.”

**********

“It’s me he wants, Charlie, not her. You know it’s Chang as well as I do.”

Mulder paced the kitchen at the Scully house, finally alone with Charlie for a few minutes. Her parents, her sister and Ellen – even Frohike – were all congregated in the living room with the police. The party had come to a screeching halt when Mulder had burst in after scouring the neighborhood for her. He’d even looked in the hotel room, hoping against hope that somehow, she’d just dropped the key from her hand as she crossed the street. No luck. No one had seen a sign of her, though there were several witnesses who saw a black Rolls screech away down the alley by Mike’s about the time she’d walked outside.

Mike and her relatives had fanned out in a wider circle with the help of the police, who Mulder later found out, contained a healthy contingent of distant Scully cousins. He would have laughed at the presence her family seemed to have in Annapolis, had he felt like it. But he didn’t; later, he’d tell her later when she was back safe and sound. If she came back at all.

He made a face at his thoughts, reaching for the coffeepot. He poured a cup, then set it down, not wanting it. The pacing began anew.

“Mulder, we don’t know it’s Chang. I phoned Skinner – he hasn’t heard a damn thing about Change being back in the states, but he’s checking every available resource. If it is Chang, we’ll find him.”

“No you won’t,” Mulder replied. “He’ll find me first. He’ll dangle her out as bait to make me come running.”

He knew his old boss wanted him badly. Just as he knew he wouldn’t get off easily once Chang got his hands on him. Neither would Scully; she would most likely die as soon as Mulder walked in Chang’s door. If Chang didn’t use her as an example of what he was planning to do to Mulder.

God, no, he prayed. Please don’t let her body turn up floating in the Severn River. He knew then he’d walk up to Chang with arms wide open. Mulder would have nothing left to live for if she was dead.

The ringing of the doorbell startled them both. It had been a couple of hours since Scully had gone missing – had they found her already? Was she dead? He ran to the front door, Charlie hot on his heels.

It wasn’t another round of police. It was Skinner, flanked by two of his assistants.

“Bill.” He addressed Scully’s father, ignoring Mulder and Charlie for a moment. “I’m sorry to intrude.”

“Walter,” Bill Scully nodded. “What brings you here?”

It made sense that the two knew each other; they were Navy through and through, both Old Guard and patriotic down to the bone. Skinner hadn’t come to offer sympathy to Bill Scully. He was here for a different reason, and the proof was in his next statement.

“Bill, I need to speak to my men,” he said, glancing at Mulder and Charlie. “Alone, if at all possible.”

Dana’s father didn’t hesitate, turning to his wife. “Maggie, could you get us some coffee, please?” His wife huffed a bit, but he was adamant, turning to Frohike. “Melvin, please escort the women to the kitchen.”

“Of course,” Frohike replied, offering his arm to Maggie. Displeasure written on her face at her dismissal, she took it, and they departed, Melissa trailing behind with a similar scowl. The policemen faded out the front door with Skinner’s assistants, and the men found themselves in a tight semi-circle, Mulder itching to speak.

“It’s Chang, isn’t it?” he rasped, jumping right into the fray, uncaring that Scully’s father would soon know the whole sordid business of his past.

Skinner sighed, hands in his coat pockets. “We thought he’d left the country, Mulder. He was seen in Hong Kong just a few days ago -”

“Who’s Chang?” At last, Bill Scully got in a few words.

It was Charlie who answered his dad, saying softly, “Mulder worked undercover in Hong Kong for a man named Chang. This man was a major source of information from the Japanese. He was also bad news. Very bad news.”

“What does he want with Dana?”

Mulder stood still, facing Dana’s father. “It’s not her he wants, it’s me,” he said quietly, regret making his voice sorrowful. “He’s just using her to flush me out.” He waited for the inevitable tirade; after all, he’d heard it all from Scully before. Why should her father react any differently?

His father looked at Charlie for confirmation; he got it in a short jerk of Charlie’s head. Sighing, he stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Don’t say anything in front of her mother.” He gave Mulder a nod, adding, “I don’t blame you, Mulder. You were just following orders. It may not even be him behind this.”

Mulder groaned, turning away to pace once more, his hand pressing against his pounding head. Skinner stopped his sure attack of guilt with a terse, “We’re pretty sure it’s him, Bill.”

“Damn it!” Mulder turned, intent on wearing a hole in the rug, just like he had in the kitchen. “I should have known better than to trust your intelligence, Skinner.”

“Mulder!” Bill Scully admonished. “You’re speaking to a superior officer, son. Show some respect.”

Walter Skinner sighed, “He’s right, Bill. We should have been more on the ball with this. But we never dreamed Chang would have the guts to get so close.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t know him like I do.” Worrying the back of his neck with his hand, Mulder knew this crying over spilled milk was useless. “That’s all you came to say? If it is, then get out.”

Skinner’s face tightened, but he held back his anger, saying, “We think we have a lead to his whereabouts.”

“A lead?” That was Charlie, who, other than explaining about Chang to his father, had simply absorbed Skinner’s news like a sponge. “Where is he?”

“I’ve had my men check out all points of entry into Annapolis. No one matching Chang’s description has been seen at the airport, train or bus stations. But – several ships have docked on the Severn and South Rivers the last few days. We can’t get hold of anyone with the Port Authority – the administrative offices have closed for the holidays. I have people tracking down the director and his minions, but we may have to wait until business hours tomorrow to actually scour the docks -”

“No, you don’t,” a voice broke in.

All eyes darted to the small man in the doorway.

“Just point me to the telephone, gentlemen,” Melvin Frohike announced. “He may not like being interrupted with his mistress, but the Port Authority Director owes me a favor.”

**********

“Dana, be still.”

In the instant away from total insanity, she calmed. “Mulder?” she whispered, cracking open her gritty eyes, though she couldn’t really see anything in the sudden bright light. It hurt, so she slammed them shut once more, realizing the voice was very familiar. No, please no. Just hearing his voice meant he’d been captured with her. They’d never get out now. Still crying, she laid her head on the concrete floor and curled up into a tight ball, wanting him to go away.

“It’s all right,” he said softly, just above her ear.

The light pierced her closed eyelids and she sat up, wincing at the glare, one hand raised to the figure standing before her. No, swaying slightly. A ship. She was on a ship.

“Get up!” the man barked, waving his gun. “Get up now!”

She looked around, dazed. Mulder wasn’t there; had she been dreaming? She shoved away the blanket she’d been wrapped in with leftover panic, not wanting the thing near her.

“Get up, I said!”

The staccato shout, delivered with a definite Chinese accent, finally registered in her panic- dulled brain. Get a hold of yourself, she thought. Be courageous. Don’t let your guard down this time; don’t make Mulder pay for your cowardice. She rose on stiff legs, smoothing down her skirt. The man before her stepped aside, and she had her first glimpse of her host.

“Ni hao, Miss Scully.” He was a small man, seated in the captain’s chair of the bridge, his suit impeccable but his smile evil. Black, slick hair matched the dark, beady eyes, and a cigarette hung loosely between two fingers. “Sit, please. Allow me to introduce myself…”

“I know who you are,” she said, her voice hoarse. “You’re Chang.”

His smile became satisfied, and he lifted an eyebrow. “My reputation precedes me, I see. I hope you haven’t yet formed an opinion, Miss Scully. Rumor and innuendo follow me everywhere.” He sighed. “Though it seems you aren’t enamored of my world-famous hospitality, Miss Scully. I asked you to sit.”

A strong hand clamped on her shoulder, and she was pushed into a chair directly across from Chang. “Mulder won’t come for me,” she spat out, wrenching her arm from the gorilla’s clasp. “We are nothing to each other.”

“Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong, Dana. I believe he will.” Chang took a deep drag on his cigarette, saying through the haze of smoke, “I so enjoyed hearing about your telephone conversations yesterday – oh, day before yesterday, as it happens now. Silly to the extreme – do you Americans value nothing but material goods? Too bad I didn’t arrive a day earlier – I seem to have missed some big scene with your brother.”

“You listened in on my telephone?” Geez, did the man have his fingers in everything?

“The Stuarts leave a key under their mat. But you knew that, didn’t you, Dana?”

She breathed a short sigh of relief; at least he’d picked a neighbor gone for the holidays, and not one at home. His kind of persuasion would surely include death, and she shuddered inwardly at the thought of her neighbors falling under his knife.

So Chang knew she and Mulder were close. He’d probably even guessed they were lovers. And he knew Mulder would have no choice but to come for her. But she wasn’t going to make it easy for Chang. “What do you need me for? Why not just kill Mulder?”

“That would be too easy, Miss Scully. No, you’re coming back to Hong Kong with me.” He killed his cigarette and lit another, adding, “I assume Mulder told you what kind of work he did for me in Hong Kong?”

“He said he ran the China Moon.” Distaste sharpened her tongue. “A brothel, from all appearances.”

“He was really good at it, you know. The girls liked him… so did the boys.”

For an instant, she allowed sheer contempt to curl her lips and nausea to roil in her belly. But knowing Chang expected his comments to stir her to anger, she tamped down the sick images his words evoked, lifting a brow as she said in a cool voice, “The boys?”

“Surely you can’t believe that everyone’s tastes run to the heterosexual, Miss Scully.” He grinned at her discomfiture. “You will do well there, Dana. You are young, pretty and white. I can’t think of better revenge on my friend Mulder than to make you into what he despises most. A whore. If he even makes it out of my twin traps alive.”

God, it was worse than death. She’d once thought back in Los Banos she could withstand anything, as long as she was alive. It wasn’t the thought of her servicing men that scared her. No. It was the fact Mulder would be forced to return to such horror. He hated what he did in Hong Kong, said it had made him into something he couldn’t live with any longer. He would simply go mad if forced to go back there, and Chang knew it. She had to find a way out.

“Your twin traps?” Keep him talking, she figured. Kill some time.

“Two ships besides this one, Miss Scully. Red herrings, if you will. Naval Intelligence will home in on them first, believe me.” He cocked his head to one side. “So heroic, these men. And all for naught, as I will soon be away with you. Mulder will follow me, I’m sure. But by the time he finds you, Dana, you will be well used. If he finds you at all. I don’t have to kill him, my dear. The knowledge that you are lost to him will do that most effectively.”

“You bastard,” she snarled, stopped from rising by the same hand as before. She struggled, but was pulled up out of the chair on Chang’s nod.

“Enough talk. From what I understand, they’re making slow progress at your father’s house. It will be quite a while before they figure out where I am. And by that time, Mulder’s friends will be too busy picking up the pieces of the other ships to notice us chugging by.” Eyes narrowing, he continued, “Yell all you want, my dear. There’s no one around to hear you.” Turning to his man, he snapped out a command in his native language; Scully knew it wasn’t a pleasant farewell, as she found herself dragged out of the bridge.

The corridor was narrow and dim, and she heard the faint sound of water. As her captor shoved her along, she looked right and left, up and down the hallways that branched off the main. She faltered at the sight of an open door at the end of one such hallway, pretending to lose her shoe. The man behind her grunted, and she looked at the escape route from under her lashes, taking her time slipping the shoe back on.

The river, it’s night-blackened water rushing by beyond the railing. They were on a boat on one of the nearby rivers, or in Chesapeake Bay itself, possibly. No, not on the bay. They were docked along the riverbank; she could see clearly across the river at the numerous, lighted warehouses. Another smaller boat was tied to the rail, a speedboat, from the looks of its sleek outline. An Asian drifted into view, his cigarette hanging from a mustached mouth. He stopped, his machine gun hanging from one arm, his glare menacing.

Nope. No escape route there. The man behind her, tired of her tarrying, gave her a shove, and she continued forward. They went down a short flight of metal stairs at the end of the corridor, and she was forced into the nearest room.

Which turned out to be a closet. Dark and so small, it made her freeze with apprehension.

**********

“We’ve got two good possibilities, gentlemen, and one not so good.” Frohike hung up, satisfaction lacing his voice. “The Sheilong, docked below the Naval Academy on the Severn, and the Desheng, anchored on the South River. Both putting in a couple of days ago, offloading goods from Hong Kong.”

“Chang wouldn’t be so foolish as to dock so far up the Severn from the Bay,” Bill Scully said. “He’s got to be on the Desheng. Easier access to open water.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Mulder said, worrying his lip. “He’s an arrogant bastard.” Besides, Chang would know they’d eventually get this far. He’d know Skinner would hit the Desheng first… just as he’d know that Mulder would insist they hit the Sheilong. “He’s on neither.”

“What?” Skinner was incredulous, voicing the question before anyone else could, though they all looked at Mulder like he was crazy.

“He’s on neither boat,” Mulder insisted. “My guess is, he’s laid a trap on the other two. Explosives, most probably. Believe me, he’s smarter than you think.” Turning to Frohike, he asked, “You said there was another on the list. Where?”

“The Meifeng. But it’s docked above the Naval Academy, and it sailed out of Taiwan -”

“That’s it!” Mulder ran for the foyer and his coat, Charlie and the others lagging behind.

“What makes you so sure, Mulder?” Charlie asked, eyeing him with skepticism.

He paused, stealing into the holster of a nearby policeman for a gun. The man blustered, but fell silent at Skinner’s glare. “The Meifeng… in Mandarin Chinese, it means ‘beautiful phoenix’. He wants me to know he’s risen from the ashes.”

**********

“No, don’t put me in there – please!” She struggled against the man’s hold, fright making her tremble. The closet beckoned with dark menace, and before she could say another word, she found herself locked in, suffocation closing in around her like the tentacles of an octopus. She slapped her hands against the walls, looking for a light switch. But she felt nothing but cold steel. There wasn’t a string hanging from the ceiling, either, and her legs gave out as she realized she was trapped without promise of light and air.

Falling to the floor, rocking against the screams that threatened to consume her, she told herself not to cry out. She would not give him the satisfaction of hearing her scream. Chang not only wanted Mulder, he wanted all of his associates. Surely Charlie, her father, and countless law enforcement and military police, would go up in flames when they boarded the other ships. Then Chang would be on his merry way, smiling all the way back to Hong Kong. It would take forever for the US government to find him once he’d made it out to sea. He could debark at any port and find sympathetic friends. Cuba, South America, Africa. Just because he said he was going home didn’t mean it was so. A man like Chang had interests all over the world. Mulder would never find her.

Oh, no. No. Sweat broke out on her face, and she stifled the urge to yell.

“Miss Scully?” A knock on the door startled her and she looked up into nothing. “I just wanted to know if you were comfortable? Do you have enough air?”

She could tell from his tone he was prodding her into madness. Somehow, he’d gotten hold of her records at the hospital, knew of her fear of enclosed places. Of course, that wouldn’t be too difficult to do for a man like Chang, who had money to burn and connections with the Mafia worldwide.

She didn’t answer him, tears streaming down her face as she fought to hold in her panic.

A muffled laugh reached her ears, then, “Too spacious for you? Let me see if I can find a crate… I know how you love to re-live your days at Los Banos.” His laughter faded away.

Scully began to hyperventilate almost immediately, falling back to the wall in a rigid pose of absolute terror. A crate. Even smaller than the closet; most probably set in the hold, where no one would hear her. Infinitely dark and cold as the bowels of hell.

“Dana.”

Caught up as she was in the impending evil of Chang’s plans, she barely heard the call of her name.

“Dana.”

Louder now, the voice – it couldn’t be Mulder, it just couldn’t – called to her. She squeezed her eyes shut, willing her illusions of safe harbor to leave her so she could concentrate on staying calm.

“C’mon, Red. Open your eyes. I wanna make spring training next year, you know. And this delay is gonna make me late.”

**********

“You serious about this, Mulder?” Charlie crouched beside him, the both of them concealed by huge crates some twenty yards away from the Meifeng.

“As a heart attack,” Mulder replied, the memory of Scully saying those words to him back at Mike’s tearing a searing hole in his chest. He tamped down the ache, checking his gun. He would not be distracted at this stage by should-have-been’s. Yes, he should have left with her. Yes, he should even have walked out on her family that day at the train station, then none of this would have happened.

But that was all water under the bridge. No use thinking about it, especially now, when he needed all his wits about him.

“Chang’s on that ship,” he stated firmly. “The only way to get Dana out alive is to go in with all we’ve got. Shoot anyone who isn’t wearing a navy dress and heels. Got it?”

“Got it,” Charlie answered. Mulder noticed his face was pale, and he grabbed Charlie’s shoulder in reassurance, knowing the younger man had never faced down an enemy in his life. “I can do this, Mulder. Don’t make me stay behind.”

Mulder sighed. He’d had a hard enough time convincing Bill Scully and Frohike to stay with the women. For on thing, Frohike wasn’t a soldier. And though Mr. Scully was well-seasoned, Mulder didn’t want his possible death on his hands. It was bad enough he’d gotten Scully and Charlie involved in this mess.

Looking around behind him, he saw Skinner wave a couple of men to the left, and he knew they were almost all in position. He closed his eyes, saying a quick prayer for success, though he wasn’t a praying man. His hand touched his chest through his cotton shirt and his fingers curled around his dogtags, feeling the cross dangle between. He prayed to her to stay alive. He prayed to her angel, his brother, to keep her safe. He prayed.

**********

She opened her eyes slowly, disbelief acting as an anesthetic of sorts, her breath coming easier now through her lax lips. “Sam?”

He was nothing but a glow against the door, a disembodied soul without face or form. She squinted in the darkness, and heard him chuckle.

“Sorry about that.” Suddenly, he stood before her, albeit a bit skimpy on the solid side, as she could literally see through him to the door. “I still don’t have the hang of it.” He was dressed as she last saw him, in fatigues, but his face was clean and so Mulder-like it took her breath away, with a brilliant, warm smile.

“Oh, Sam,” she whispered, beginning to cry anew. She couldn’t help it; he was really there with her. Unbelievable.

“I’m not your angel, Red.” His smile faded into a serious look. “I’m only in your mind. Tell yourself that.”

“You’re only in my mind,” she repeated after him, knowing it was a lie. “Why are you… why do I -”

“See me?” Off her nod, he said, “Because you think you need help. But you don’t. You can do this alone.”

“I can?”

“Stand up, Dana. We have to get going.”

“But how?”

“Use your hairpins to pick the lock. All hell is about to break loose and we have to be gone before it does.” He became brighter, more intense, lighting up the closet. “Come next to me. All you have to do is open the door. You can do it, Red.”

On the strength of his words, she stood, reaching into her hair. Her fingers trembling, she moved to stand beside him. “This is not going to work.” She had no idea how to pick a lock, and even if she did, Chang’s men were right outside the door.

But the lock opened easily, on the first try. She sucked in a breath of surprise and looked up at Sam, who nodded. “Go on. Jump overboard then find a place to call home. But be careful, they’re still listening.”

Right. Chang had a man listening from the Stuart’s place. “But how will I get to someplace safe?”

“Trust me, Dana. I still have things to do here.” He faded away into nothing, though his voice still hovered in the air. “I may have been a hero, but his heart was always better and stronger than mine, Dana. Don’t let a ghost stand between you any longer. You have nothing to be sorry for, either of you… just be happy.”

She stilled at the soft words, turning around. “Sam?”

But he was gone. She shook off the lingering goosebumps the visit had stirred and opened the door a crack. Her guard, minutes before pacing outside her door, laid in a heap in the corridor, dead to the world. Quickly, she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket, sniffing the scent of chloroform in the hall. Someone had snuffed him out with the same stuff used to nab her. Was everyone else unconscious as well? She didn’t wait to find out, stealing down the corridor to the next hallway, and freedom. She paused, giving a quick look down its dimness. The same man she’d seen before was also down, his limp form half inside the open door. Should she take the boat? No, too noisy. Sam had said to just jump, and jump she would.

Her steps were silent, and as she came upon the unconscious man at the railing, she looked at him closely, catching sight of something sticking out of his jacket pocket. His wallet! Quickly, she stuffed it down her dress into her bra, feeling its weight. More than enough money to hail a cab, even if she was going to be wet and bedraggled. She could blame it on the rain that seemed to have stopped for the time being, though the clouds over the river hung heavy with more inclement weather approaching.

Making it to the railing on tiptoes, she looked down into the freezing water and grabbed hold of the rope hanging down. The icy water threatened to take her breath away, but she sucked up her courage and swam around the stern of the ship. Then another fifty yards or so, to the next ladder up. By that time, she was almost numb, but she made it up the ladder, and to freedom. It was dark, and she was cold, but she was alive. Walking on stiff legs, she disappeared into the night.

**********

The Rolls pulled to a stop by the boat, and Mulder saw Skinner wave his men down as a skinny man ran out from behind the wheel, his words carrying over the dock. The warning in Chinese was precise and to the point, telling Chang’s men the police were on the way. Damn, Mulder thought. They must have listened in on the party line somehow. In moments, Chang would pull anchor and leave.

“Now!” Mulder hissed, signaling Skinner. They could no longer wait for Skinner’s reinforcements to travel upriver and surround the boat. What little men they had moved forward as a group, their guns ready. The ping of gunfire greeted them immediately, and they dove for cover.

“Damn it,” Charlie said beside him. “What now?”

“Skinner has men coming up alongside any moment now. Chang is pinned down. He’s not going anywhere.” But a man trapped was a dangerous one, Mulder knew. He popped his head over the crate they’d ducked behind, pulling the trigger.

As soon as it had started, the gunfire ceased. They heard an engine roar to life, but it wasn’t the massive engines of the Meifeng. No, it was a smaller boat. Damn. Chang was getting away – and he most likely had Scully with him!

Mulder stood amidst Charlie’s shout of “Get down!” and he ran toward the ship. Skinner and his men did the same off Mulder’s wave to join him. Mulder knew there would be no more gunfire from the ship.

“She’s no longer there, Fox. Trust me. She’s safe. Don’t board the ship.”

The voice in his ear made him stumble, and he stopped for a second, looking around to see who had spoken. Skinner stopped as well, and, seeing Mulder’s confusion, said, “What is it?”

“She’s not on board,” he stated calmly, sensing the voice was true. Chang must have taken her with him on the smaller boat.

“What?”

“Just stop the other boat!” He ran to the dock by the stern of the Meifeng, just in time to see Skinner’s men on the water fire at the small boat speeding away.

“No!” he shouted, but it was too late. The smaller boat went up in a fireball downriver. He felt heat sear his back as the larger ship exploded as well, and he fell to his knees on the dock, numb with shock.

**********

“Seems Chang wanted us all to go up in flames,” Skinner said, grimacing at the iodine Melissa applied to his forehead. “It was a setup from the beginning. We had no idea he was listening on the party line, but we’ve taken care of it.”

Mulder stood at the window and watched the sky grow lighter. He was numb. Unhurt, but numb. All the men had returned unharmed from the docks, and Chang was presumed dead, his boat having been blown to bits by the Naval bombardment.

No one could have survived the blast, Skinner told him not long ago, after hanging up the phone with the police captain in charge of the investigation. Chang had booby-trapped all three ships, never intending to make his getaway by anything other than the speedboat. Several men were captured on the docks, but there was no sign of Scully. She must have been with Chang aboard the smaller boat.

But Mulder knew better. Because the voice had told him so. She was safe. But where? Was she out there in the cold and rain, trying to make her way back home?

Her mother and father were dazed, so was Charlie. They sat in the kitchen, her mother making small talk and coffee in an effort to keep her emotions under control. Skinner and Mulder stayed away in the living room, keeping Melissa and Frohike company. Melissa hadn’t cried once, quietly watching him stand by the window. He knew she thought he’d lost his mind, but he hadn’t. He was waiting for Scully to show up. And she would. It was only a matter of time.

“I’ve got to check on the kids,” she murmured, excusing herself.

Frohike came to stand beside him. “I’m sorry, Mulder. I know she meant a lot to you.”

“She’s not dead,” he stated, looking down at the shocked man with a scowl. “So don’t even say it.”

The phone rang, and Mulder ran from the room, reaching it before anyone else. “Hello?” Charlie stood in the kitchen door, his face hopeful.

“Hello, boy.”

His heart sank; it was Mrs. O’Malley. He wanted nothing more than to hang up on the old biddy, but she was probably calling to offer her condolences. The news had spread far and wide in just a few hours, which didn’t surprise him. “Let me get Maggie, Mrs. O’Malley. Hold on.”

“Wait,” she said, “I want to speak to you, lad.”

Sighing, he murmured, “I’m afraid I can’t talk right now, ma’am.”

“Then listen.”

He closed his eyes with displeasure, anxious to get rid of her. “I’m listening.”

“I have a couch for sale, Mr. Mulder. I understand you’re in the market for a new one? This one’s a bit damp at the moment, though. The humidity, all that seawater around here. Tsk. Makes a body cold… but alive. Yes, indeed, Mr. Mulder. Alive.”

He was out the door before she could say another word, the phone dangling amidst Mrs. O’Malley’s bewildered, “Hello? You there, lad?”

End Chapter Sixteen

A Familiar Heart Chapter Seventeen

He made it out to the street before he realized he had no idea where the old woman lived. In his shirt sleeves, his tie askew, he began to shiver in the pre-dawn light, the rain that had changed over to snow stinging his cheeks. “Damn it,” he muttered, shifting on his feet, hands on hips. Aw, to hell with it, he thought.

He brought his hands up around his face, taking a deep breath. “Scully!” He whipped around, shouting her name in the other direction. And again and again, until he was hoarse from the effort. She had to be close by – why wasn’t she showing herself?

“Mulder, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Charlie stood on the front porch, his confusion apparent in his wide, worried eyes. Mulder could see that Charlie assumed he’d gone off the deep end, and he supposed he made a perfect picture of madness, with his red-rimmed eyes and cries for a sister thought dead. “Mrs. O’Malley,” he said breathlessly. “Where does she live?”

“One block over, third house on the left,” Charlie answered, pointing to his right. “But -”

Mulder took off in a sprint, ignoring Charlie’s shouts for him to stop. The pavement under his feet was slippery, and the fresh snow quickly soaked his shoes and made his toes numb. But he kept going, the cold air he drew into his laboring lungs almost piercing with pain. Rounding the corner, he almost collided with a milk truck; the driver cursed him soundly, waving a gloved fist. Mulder slid to the curb, falling to one knee. Still, he didn’t linger, though he heard a little crack as bone met concrete. Struggling, he picked himself up and kept on, still calling her name, limping his way to the O’Malley place. The slightest pressure on his leg made pain radiate up to his hip, but he didn’t care.

“Scully!” One, two, three houses – where the hell was she? “Damn it, Scully, answer me!” He was sure he was at the right place; a few fingers pulled a crack in the blinds. “Scully,” he breathed, heading for the sidewalk and the front door.

“Shhh.”

The hiss came from the open garage. In the dimness of the cloudy dawn, he couldn’t make out exactly where; everything blended in with the black Pontiac parked inside. Taking a limping step forward, he squinted in the direction of the sound. “Scully?”

“Mulder, will you shut up!” she whispered. “Chang is listening! He has a man at the Stuart’s just a few doors down!”

Mulder smiled, with giddy relief, holding out his arms. “Scully, would you mind coming out here?”

“No! Shut the hell up and go inside the house, Mulder!”

“Chang is dead, Scully,” he said wearily. “We found his man at the Stuart’s place.”

“He’s dead? Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Arms dropping, he began to shiver, knowing he was going into mild shock. “Now, would you please come to me, because I think I’m about to…”

He landed flat on his back in Mrs. O’Malley’s front yard, a whoosh of breath leaving his lungs as he hit the icy ground. Suddenly, he was assailed by warmth, as a curtain of Scully surrounded him. Cracking open his eyes, he finished, “Fall.” She hovered above him, concern making her face pale. His gaze swept over her and he smiled at her sheer beauty, his hands coming up to grip her waist. “Nice outfit, Scully.”

She looked down at the pink, flowery housecoat and blue rubber boots, taking the blanket from her shoulders to settle it over him. “It’s Mrs. O’Malley’s,” she said tremulously. “Like it?”

His shivers expanded into deep tremors and he felt the wet snow seep into his shirt at his back. “Are those snaps or buttons?”

“Snaps.” Her hand brushed over his forehead; it was warm and familiar, and so soft.

“T-then I like it,” he smirked, one eyebrow raised in a leer. “Con-convenient.”

“You would,” she remarked dryly, then her eyebrows drew together with concern. “Mulder, you’re going into shock.”

“N-no shit.” He closed his eyes, wondering if he had the strength to get up.

“Dana?”

“Charlie, get over here! Mulder’s hurt!”

“No, I’m not,” he said weakly, though he knew shock was nothing to laugh at. Other than the shakes and a busted knee, he felt fine. “I- I just scraped my knee, that’s all.”

Still, she looked up at her brother, who came skidding to a halt on Mrs. O’Malley’s driveway, his face happy, yet worried. “Call an ambulance, Charlie. Now!”

Charlie, after a moment’s hesitation, ran up the driveway. Mulder could hear the clamor of other Scully relatives coming up the street, and he tightened his grip on Scully’s waist, forcing her to look at him. “Scully, I don’t need -”

“Yes, you do,” she insisted, then looked up again to address the crowd descending on them. “Mulder’s hurt!” she cried out.

He was getting warmer, and the shakes weren’t quite so bad anymore, but all the bobbing up and down of her head was making him dizzy. “Scully, damn it, stop moving!”

She did, leaning down, her frizzed hair blowing in the snowy wind. “What? What’s wrong? Do you hurt anywhere else besides your knee?”

“Will you just listen to me?” He had to tell her, before her family made it impossible. Before another ‘Chinaman’, as Mike was fond of saying, took her away again. Before he himself let another ghost come between them.

“What? What’s so important you have to tell me now? Jesus, Mulder, you talk too much. Keep still. We’ll get you to a hospital as soon as -”

“I love you, Scully.”

” – we can…” Her eyes changed from concerned blue to silvery, soft clouds and she whispered, “What did you say?”

“I said I loved you. I know we’ve only known each other a few days, and I know we didn’t get off to the best start… and Charlie says your brother Bill will rip my balls off when he finds out about us – but I don’t care – and, and…” His voice trickled to nothing as he watched her face crumple. Sucking in a sharp breath at her misery, he pulled her down to him. “Shit, Scully. I didn’t mean to make you cry. Just forget it. Forget everything.”

“Not on your life, sailor.” Her face nuzzled his neck and her hands cradled his head. “I’m going to hold you to every word.”

Laughter rumbled through his chest as he wrapped his arms around her. “Even if means your brother castrates me?”

“He lays one hand on you, he answers to me.”

Mulder laughed even harder, knowing he had nothing to worry about. She’d proven herself a most capable partner, able to watch over him better than any guardian angel. “That’s my girl.” The wail of a siren pierced the air around them. His chuckles dying, he said, “I’m not going to the hospital, Scully. If anyone is, it’s you.”

“Wrong. Mulder, you may have broken something.”

“Scully, the only thing broken is my ass, and only because I think it froze before it hit the ground.” He gently pushed her away. She rose to her feet and, grabbing his outstretched hand, helped him to his.

“Mulder…” she warned, eyeing the way he favored his right leg.

“Scully…” He was just as stubborn, wrapping his arms around her to hold himself steady.

“Hardhead.” She returned the gesture, a soft ‘oomph’ coming from her lips at the precarious way he teetered in her arms.

“Listen who’s talking.” Steady now, he allowed her to guide him to the sidewalk, and the greetings of the group rapidly gaining on them.

“Look who’s limping. And it’s not me, Mulder. Not this time.” Her hand came up to caress his cheek. He looked down at her lovely, cold-white face and beaming smile. “It’s you.” Her thumb ran across his lips and she said it again, this time meaning so much more. He saw it in her eyes, felt it in her touch. He was an angel after all. Her angel.

“It’s you.”

**********

No amount of arguing, threatening or cajoling could get him to go to the hospital at the beginning. It was only when she offered to go herself to be checked out, though she knew nothing was physically wrong with her, that he relented. They spent the better part of the day in the emergency room, where she kept grumbling about the slow service, especially when she realized Mulder was in increasing pain. His knee was swollen, and the doctor seemed in no hurry to come back with the results of his x-rays. Scully paced, having been released an hour before with a clean bill of health.

“Did the rabbit die?”

She whirled on Mulder, hands on hips, taking in his smug look as he laid on the bed, one arm propping up his head. He looked so hopeful and sweet, she found her anger at the shoddy treatment fading. “That’s not a routine emergency room test for someone who’s been abducted by the Chinese Mafia, Mulder. Sorry to disappoint you. Besides, I think it’s still a bit too early to worry about that.”

He laid back, his grin turning into a wince. “Who’s worrying? You see anyone here worrying?”

Now wasn’t the time to be speaking of possible pregnancy. She moved forward, moving the sheet aside to prop his bare leg back on the pillow. “No, I see you. In pain, I might add. Where is that doctor?” Her fingers brushed over his leg as she studied his knee; it was a hellish shade of fiery red that promised to transform into black and blue before long. “If you can’t walk down the aisle for the wedding, Charlie will be crushed.” Not to mention me, she added silently.

“I know. Let’s keep our fingers crossed, okay?”

“Okay.”

The corners of his eyes crinkled with his grimace. “Um, Scully?”

“Yes?” Biting her lip, she concentrated on making him more comfortable, feeling awful for him.

“I may be hurting, but if you keep playing with my leg like that, the doctor’s gonna see something besides a swollen knee when he walks in.” He sucked in a hiss, and its tone spoke of frustration more than pain.

Her gaze wandered up, and she blushed furiously at the growing evidence of his arousal under the double layers of gown and sheet. Quickly, she pulled the sheet back over his knee and said, “Mulder – we’re in a hospital, for goodness’ sake!” She was still dressed in Mrs. O’Malley’s housecoat; she’d sent her relieved parents home for some of her clothes an hour ago. With a pinch of his wandering hand, she added, “And Charlie is right outside.” Some watchdog, she mused. Her father had no idea just how much Charlie had witnessed already when he asked him to stay behind with her and Mulder.

“So what? He knows better than to come in here.” Mulder waggled an eyebrow, bringing back the tryst on the couch in a heartbeat.

Scully leaned over the bed, one hand coming to rest by Mulder’s tousled head. His face broke into a wide smile at the way her face hovered above his, but she resisted the urge to kiss him. Just barely, as she licked her lips. “I’m not about to add to Charlie’s education by having him walk in on us in a hospital emergency room. He’s getting married tomorrow, you know. If we make him sick this time, Ellen will never forgive us.” But her eyes told him she wanted to… God, how she wanted to.

“Guess we’ll have to wait, then.”

“Besides, you still owe me twenty minutes of listening, sailor.”

Mulder’s eyes darkened as he picked up on the seriousness in her face. He brought a hand up to caress her cheek. “Scully, about Sam.”

“Yes, he was the one who saved me at Los Banos, Mulder,” she said, forging ahead with what she’d planned to tell him before so rudely sidetracked by Chang. “That’s why you looked so familiar to me in Utah. I just didn’t put it all together until you told me at Uncle Mike’s where he was killed.”

“Scully, listen to me -”

“I felt so guilty, Mulder,” she interrupted, trying her best to stay level and not get all teary. There was way too much of that going around for her tastes these days. “That’s why I just left without saying a word that night. I was there when he died, Mulder. If not for me, he’d still be alive. He took the bullet, the one meant for me. All I could do was sit there and cry in Japanese. I couldn’t stand for you to know that.”

Mulder’s confusion was evident, and he rushed to keep her there. Not that she was going anywhere, but she let him wind his other arm around her waist, anyway. “Scully, men died in battle every day of the war. All of it was senseless, but necessary. Don’t you believe that?”

“Now I do,” she whispered, smiling through her tears. Damn it, she was going to cry, no matter how hard she tried not to. “Mulder, Sam came to me.”

“What?”

She still had trouble believing it herself. She was not one to embrace the mystical, even if she believed in the power of God and angels. But despite Sam’s gentle swaying of her mind into safer, more logical pathways, she knew he’d been there. An angel, a ghost, a specter – whatever name she put to it, it had been him. His soul had manifested itself before her. To give her final guidance back to life… to Mulder.

“He appeared to me on the ship, when I was about to go crazy in that closet Chang locked me in.”

“He locked you in a closet?” Mulder tried to sit up with concern, but she stayed his anxiety with a soft hand to his shoulder.

“He did. And I almost lost it, but Sam spoke to me. He calmed me, showed me a way out.” It sounded so ridiculous to her ears, but she had to get it out. “He told me to let go of my guilt. To be happy. Silly, isn’t it?”

After a moment of searching her face with his solemn gaze, Mulder replied, “No, it isn’t. Because he came to me, too.”

“You’re kidding,” she breathed, amazed at his admission.

“Outside the ship, when we were about to storm aboard, a voice stopped me. He told me you were safe, not to go on the ship.” Smiling sheepishly, he added, “Then it all blew to hell. He saved me, Scully. He saved you. Again.”

“Stop it right there,” she warned. His eyes still held lingering clouds, and she made him focus once again on her with her adamant statement. “I did not fall in love with you, Mulder, because you looked like Sam. Let’s get that clear right now.”

He groaned with realization. “Charlie.”

“Yes, Charlie. See? My nosy relatives are good for something now and then.”

Mulder paused, mid-laugh, as if his brain had finally caught up with his ears. “Scully?”

“Yes?”

Narrowed eyes still heart-wrenching with disbelief, he asked, “Did you just tell me you loved me, or was that still the ringing in my ears from the explosion?”

“Well, I suppose I can take pity on you and say it again.”

“Please do.”

“I love you, Mulder. Only you. You may look like your brother, and talk like him, but it was you who saved me. You who made me feel alive again.” The tears were flowing freely now, and she kept going, lowering her head to kiss his brow. “Your soul is beautiful to me, Mulder. Your mind captivates me, and your body makes mine sing. And your heart is filled with courage and loyalty and trust.”

“Oh, Scully,” he breathed, pulling her until she had no choice but to lay beside him, her body curling into his.

She trapped their clasped hands between them, and felt their heartbeats soothe and slow, falling into a lifelong rhythm. “You were familiar to me from the beginning, Mulder. Not because of your looks, but because of your heart. My heart understood your pain and saw your capacity to love, despite your sadness. Because I had lived through the same thing… and together, we survived it. Sam didn’t save me, Mulder. You did. And I saved you.”

She felt shaky fingers tilt her chin up. The kiss was soft and warm, without a trace of physical desire. She returned it as he gave it, a simple touch to seal the pact their hearts had made days ago.

“Aw, geez. In the hospital? Give it a rest, already!”

Mulder let his head drop back to the pillow with a groan; Scully lifted hers from the cozy corner of Mulder’s chest and gave Charlie a glare. “Don’t you ever knock?”

“Very funny.” Leaning against the door jamb, he crossed his arms, a satchel hanging from his hand. “Just thought you’d want to know – Dad dropped off your clothes on his way to Uncle Mike’s for a beer. Oh, and the doctor’s coming down the hall.”

Scully scrambled from the bed, murmuring an apology to Mulder, who grimaced at the jarring of his knee. “Please tell me there’s somewhere in this damn country where there isn’t a Scully for a hundred mile radius,” he growled through clenched teeth.

“Hey,” she said, nudging him with an elbow trapped by pink flowers and elastic. “I’m a Scully.”

“I meant another Scully.” He trained deadly eyes on Charlie, who held up his hands as he moved into the room.

“Don’t look at me, pal. In just about twenty- four hours, my ass is honeymooning.” Grinning, he added, “Of course, Bill will be here by then. Did I ever tell you, Mulder, what we used to call Bill when we were kids?”

“Charlie…” Scully, straightening her pseudo- dress, looked up in warning.

“Elmer.” Charlie lifted his eyebrows like Groucho Marx. “Because he sticks like glue. Try keeping him off your tail tomorrow, Mulder. Ain’t easy, believe me.”

This time, Mulder’s groan came deep from his chest, and Scully rounded on her brother. “You little…” An instant of indecision flitted through her mind while she pondered retribution.

The middle finger? No. Stick her tongue out? Nah.

Instead, she turned back to Mulder, and, taking his surprised face in her hands, planted a kiss on him. With her mouth open, her tongue doing a dance over his lips, and her throat purring like a kitten. It didn’t take but a second for Mulder to respond, as his arms flew up to pull her down to him.

“Shit! That’s it!” Charlie cried. She heard the satchel hit the floor at her feet. “I’m outta here!”

“And how’s our patient doing?”

Scully, almost too far gone to break out of Mulder’s embrace, pulled back just in time to see a bespectacled man walk into Mulder’s room. The doctor who, thankfully, had his nose stuck in Mulder’s chart.

“Pretty good,” she heard Mulder say behind her, a smile in his voice.

She watched Charlie huff out, his mumbled, “I’ll be in the hall,” thrown over his shoulder.

“Good, good,” the doctor said, making notes. “Your kneecap isn’t broken, Mr. Mulder. But your knee is badly bruised and sprained. I’m giving you some pain medication and sending you home…”

Scully turned, her gaze meeting Mulder’s, her smile as broad as his. Maybe the wedding wasn’t out of the question after all.

“… on crutches, naturally. No weight on that leg for at least a week.” He muttered a few more instructions, then made a hasty exit, telling Mulder he could leave whenever he wanted.

“Looks like I’ll have to get Bill to substitute for you, Mulder.” Charlie had obviously overheard from his vantage point outside the door, and he looked like he’d just lost his best friend. In a way, he did, Scully thought. To injury, but after all they’d been through, it was horrible to think Mulder wouldn’t be able to stand up for him.

“Like hell you will. I came all this way to be in a wedding, and I’ll be damned if I let a sprained knee stop me.”

Charlie’s smile was beaming. “I’ll pull the car around, okay?” He practically bounced out of the room, and Mulder pulled on her arm.

“Give me a hand, would you, Scully?” He swung his legs over the side of the bed with a bite of his lip.

An arm wrapped around him, she helped him stand, then found herself flush against him in an embrace that told her his ardor had definitely not been one of the things frozen on Mrs. O’Malley’s lawn. “You’re shameless,” she whispered, looking up at the eyes that skimmed over her face with burning desire.

“Think we have time before Charlie gets back to – “

“No.” Her face got hot, despite her adamant refusal. “He’s quick, you know.”

“I can be quick.”

“I’d rather slow but sure.”

His gaze deepened to the point where she thought she’d be consumed in flames in another second. “Just name the place, sweetheart, and I promise you I’ll be so slow time will stand still.”

His soft vow made her shiver, and the image of him fulfilling that promise took her breath away. They had to stop before she threw him back on the bed and put those snaps to the test.

“A wheelchair?” she asked.

Her swift change in direction did the trick, startling him into pulling back before he could kiss her. “What?”

“We could wheel you down the aisle.”

Eyes filled with a silent, mock reprimand at her diversion, he said, “No wheelchair. Think you can carry me, Scully?”

She put a bit of distance between them, her arm going around his waist as he hopped on one leg. “No way, Mulder.”

“What? I would have carried you, remember?” He gave her booted foot a pointed look. “In fact, as I recall, a certain someone used that very excuse to get me to stay a few days ago.”

“I can get Bill to carry you, if you’d like.”

“Very funny. Will you at least help me put my clothes on?”

She thought about it a moment, then called out, “Charlie!”

Mulder leaned down and nipped at her ear. “Chicken.”

“Brute.”

“You know, I kind of like that housecoat. Five’ll get you ten it doesn’t look that good on Mrs. O’Malley.”

She smiled, leaning up to give him the kiss she’d denied him moments ago, hearing the door open behind them.

“Car’s by the – Christ, not again!”

End Chapter Seventeen

A Familiar Heart Chapter Eighteen

The day started out well enough, he supposed. After all, he got to sleep in Scully’s bed the night before, which was a plus. Of course, she wasn’t there with him, but he dreamt of her, his sleep-induced fantasies fueled by the subtle scent of her that clung to the sheets. He was one lucky bastard, he had to admit.

Via Charlie, Mulder learned Mrs. Scully had insisted he stay at the Scully house. A hotel room was no place for an injured man, especially one who’d become like part of the family in the last week. Said with a roll of his eyes, Charlie had departed the news as he’d helped Mulder hobble to his car, Scully trailing behind with specific, barked instructions. Mulder was helpless to intervene, or protest. Not that he wanted to, by any means. But he knew Charlie wouldn’t pass a peaceful night at all, between pre-wedding jitters and pacing the upstairs hall at hourly intervals to make sure Dana wasn’t sneaking in for some late-night cuddling.

“Don’t even think about it,” he’d warned them both as he pulled in the drive. “My room is right next to yours, sprite. I hear one creak of those bed springs and I won’t be responsible for keeping your secret this time.”

“Charlie, you have my word we won’t do anything,” Mulder had assured him, catching Scully’s wicked glance as she sat beside him in the back seat. “Will we, Scully?”

“Nope. We’ll be perfect angels.” She’d reached for his hand with a smile. “Besides, I think Charlie has more pressing things to worry about than whether or not we’re having sex in his room.”

Charlie’s face colored at his sister’s frank statement. “Shut up, will you?”

She’d calmly angled her head to meet Charlie’s embarrassed gaze in the rearview mirror, as it happened, leaning her head on Mulder’s shoulder. “You’re the one who keeps bringing it up, you know.”

She had a point. She also had her other hand wrapped around Mulder’s thigh. He knew then he’d awakened a sleeping beauty – one who wanted him just as much as he wanted her.

And they were perfect angels, though it nearly killed him to think of her sleeping downstairs on the couch they’d christened not long ago. The wedding today would have to be endured before he could even consider being alone with her. He groaned as he pulled on his pants, wondering how he’d ever stand the wait.

The laborious journey downstairs took some energy, despite the good night’s rest he’d had courtesy of the pain pills. But he pasted a smile on his face as he walked into the kitchen. Mrs. Scully was the only one who greeted him.

“Mulder! Good morning!”

His disappointment must have shown on his face. Maggie pulled out a chair for him and said softly, “Dana is at Ellen’s, Mulder. I thought you knew? Let me get you some coffee.”

“Where does Ellen live, by the way? In Annapolis?” He tried to make his question nonchalant, and thought he’d succeeded, until Maggie turned, coffee in hand, a sly look on her face.

“I’ll tell you what I told Charlie this morning, Mulder. Leave the girls alone.” She sat across from him with a wink. “Wedding preparations take time, and men underfoot do not make it any easier. You’ll find out when you get married yourself.” From beneath lowered lashes, she gave him a curious look as she sipped at her coffee.

Uh – oh, he thought. Seemed he and Scully’s display on Mrs. O’Malley’s front lawn yesterday had only confirmed to everyone what, before now, they’d only speculated about. He could tell Dana’s mother what he’d told Charlie days ago – that he’d marry Scully in a heartbeat, if she’d have him. But something told him Scully wasn’t the type to have her business broadcast citywide, especially since he had yet to pop the question.

“Good coffee,” he murmured, avoiding Maggie’s gaze as he brought his cup to his lips.

“Mulder!”

Mulder almost dropped the hot brew in his lap. Looking up, he gave Charlie a grin, despite his friend’s almost disastrous slap on the back. “Charlie! Need some help this morning?” Facing away from Maggie, he shifted his eyes in her direction as if to say, “Please rescue me!”

Charlie cleared his throat, putting his hands in his pockets as he wiped the smile off his face. “Um… sure. You can come with me to Melissa’s, if you want. Melvin is there by himself with the kids and I’m sure he could use some help.”

Giving Maggie a smiling goodbye, he walked ahead of Charlie to the front door. One step closer to Scully.

**********

“I know I’m not part of the family, per se, Mulder. But as Melissa’s friend, I feel I should tell you…”

More coffee, this time at Melissa’s kitchen table. Charlie played outside with the boys in the new snow, and Mulder sat with Frohike, who suddenly looked more like a banker than a fellow man enamored of a Scully woman. “Tell me what?”

“That you’d better do right by Dana.” Frohike punctuated his statement with a raise of his eyebrow.

“Charlie,” Mulder muttered, angry at his friend’s blabbing.

“Charlie hasn’t told me a damn thing, Mulder,” Frohike corrected his assumption. “I know you and Dana were alone in the house a couple of nights ago, and Charlie showed up at the dance hall looking like he’d lost his lunch.” He leaned back in his chair, tucking his thumbs in his vest pockets. “Besides, I may be old, but I’m not dead. I take my chances when I get ‘em, too.”

Mulder rolled his eyes, the mental image of Frohike doing with Melissa what he himself had done with Scully almost making him ill. He struggled to his feet and wrenched open the back door.

“Charlie! Time to go!”

Jesus. Didn’t these people know he’d been bugging Scully that very same subject for three days? Who else was going to corner him today with advice to ‘do the right thing by Scully’?

**********

Bill. Junior, not senior.

Mulder sipped at his beer, half sitting on the stool at the bar, and trying like hell to avoid the man’s narrowed stare. Instead of sneaking past Ellen’s – Mulder had tried his best to talk Charlie into making a surprise visit – they found themselves having a late lunch and afternoon beer at Mike’s. Dana’s father was feeling pretty good by mid-afternoon, telling bawdy jokes one moment, then frowning into his beer at the next with the prospect of facing his wife after having had one too many.

But Bill, Jr. – who’d arrived with family in tow around noon – didn’t say a damn thing. He only nodded when introduced to Mulder, not even shaking his hand. Bad news, Mulder thought. Somehow, he’d been informed of the goings-on yesterday, and he wasn’t too happy. Instead of pulling Mulder aside and letting him have it, however, he just stood there at the end of the bar, not saying a God damned word. It was unnerving, to say the least. Mulder knew he was in for it eventually, and he hoped Junior had the sense to make it after the wedding.

Sighing, Mulder scratched the side of his face, feeling that stare burn his skin. He didn’t feel like making small talk, or sitting under Junior’s stare like a bug under a microscope. All he wanted was to see Scully. But she was getting ready for the wedding, and he was getting mighty lonesome. The reception promised to be no better, with hordes of Scullys descending for a New Year’s Eve party like no other. It would be well into the next morning before they’d even have a chance to breathe, much less talk, and already Maggie had the pot of cabbage on the stove for New Year’s Day dinner. More celebrating. Jesus, he thought. He had to do something to get her alone or he’d go mad.

“C’mon, Mulder.” He was roused from his feverish planning by Charlie’s tap on his shoulder. “It’s almost three. We gotta get going if we’re gonna be ready and at the church by six-thirty. Bill and his bunch have to use the bathroom, too, you know. Hey – did you ever meet Uncle Mike’s kids the other night? He has ten, you know. They’ll all be at the wedding tonight.”

That did it. Looking up at Charlie, he said, “You go on with your Dad and Bill. My dress whites are still in my room at the Belmont. I’ll meet you at the church, okay?”

“But how will you get around?” Charlie eyed Mulder’s crutches.

“I’ll take a cab. Don’t worry, Charlie. Even if I have to drag myself down the aisle, I’m gonna do it.”

Junior walked up and helped Charlie rouse his dad, who’d succumbed to a nap at the bar. He still didn’t say a word, though if looks could kill, Mulder would be a dead man. After they all staggered through the door, Mulder looked at a laughing Mike. “Can I use the phone, Mike?”

With a big grin, Mike laid the telephone in front of Mulder, his beefy hand covering it like a clamp. “Now, you wouldn’t be thinkin’ of callin’ Dana, would you, lad?” he asked with a wink.

The hand was a deterrence, an obvious one that made Mulder growl, “You, too? Jesus, Mike, give me a break, will you?”

“Me, too? What’re you flappin’ your jaws about, boy?”

As if even the telephone company was against him today, the phone rang abruptly, startling them both. Mike picked it up immediately, while Mulder seethed in his stool, half-listening to Mike’s laughter. Suddenly, he found the receiver thrust under his nose.

“For you, lad.”

Mulder had no idea who’d tracked him down at Mike’s. If it was Skinner with news of Chang’s vengeful brother, or some such nonsense, he was liable to scream.

“Hello?”

“Hi, sailor.”

Just the sound of her voice made him relax, and he smiled. “Hey yourself. I’ve been trying to find you all day.” He flashed Mike a ‘bug off’ glare, and Scully’s uncle moved to the other end of the bar with a belly laugh.

“I know.”

“I don’t see how the hell you could. You’re avoiding me, Scully.”

“I am. And I know because I know you, Mulder.”

“Scully, you’ve only known me a few days. A week at the most.”

Her voice lowered to a sultry purr. “I feel like I’ve known you forever.”

He blinked, wondering what he could possibly say to top that, especially with his throat suddenly clogged with annoying, leaping little frogs. He missed her, and the phone call, while welcome, only seemed to be making his need worse.

“Mulder?”

Finally, he found his voice. “Yeah?”

“You know why I’m avoiding you, don’t you?”

“I have a pretty good idea, yeah.” If she felt half of what he was feeling, then she was climbing the walls with frustration.

“Good,” she sighed. “Then you know it’ll be another day or so before we can do anything about it.”

“Yeah.” He still had his room at the hotel, but that was out of the question. They could no more sneak off for an hour than they could for a day. Her family would be on them like hounds on the scent.

“I miss you. I just wanted you to know that.”

“I do.”

I do, I do. He whispered his longing for her in a sweet goodbye, the vow echoing in his head. He had to think of something, or they’d both go crazy. “Bye, Scully. I’ll see you at the church, okay?”

“Okay. I’ll be the one with the pinched, impatient face.”

He chuckled, imagining the sight. “Then we’ll be a matched pair.” He hung up, and watched Mike come back to his side of the bar.

“Lad, it’s no use. No way to get rid of the clan. Short of carrying her off to parts unknown, that is. And you’d better make sure it’s damned far away, or you’ll find yourself under the gun.”

Mulder sighed, downing the rest of his beer. Looked like he wasn’t going anywhere near Scully today. “I want to marry her, you know. I’m not going to leave her high and dry after this wedding, and I’m tired of people thinking that I’m some kind of heel.”

“Simmer down, lad,” Mike said, leaning closer. “This ain’t the way to get her alone. Take it from me – you don’t want an hour when you could have a whole lifetime.” As if embarrassed by his statement, he coughed, straightening to add, “Besides, that nephew o’mine took a dislike to you.”

Mulder snorted, knowing Mike was speaking of Junior. “Yeah, I kinda noticed. Is he always that sociable?”

“You caught him on a good day, lad.”

“Thought so.”

“Yeah. You fuck this up, lad, and he’ll make sure you never darken their door again. Lotsa Scullys in this town, boy, and Billy wouldn’t hesitate to put ‘em on your ass. Best cool your heels for a couple of days.” Mike moved away to tend to a customer at the other end of the bar, his words echoing in Mulder’s head.

An idea took root in Mulder’s mind, and he smiled, reaching for the telephone. He dialed the number quickly, his plan taking shape.

“Get me Skinner on the line,” he barked at the underling who answered. Old Walt owed him one, the way he saw it.

His heels needing cooling, all right. So did hers.

**********

So beautiful. All in white, like the most innocent virgin God ever created. Except this man was no virgin. Far from it, Scully thought.

She was damned glad he wasn’t, too. No innocent would make it through a church untouched by lightning if he looked at her that way. Even hunched over crutches he made an impressive, handsome figure. Of course, his smile was so bright it created an ache deep inside her, one that would not be assuaged until she could kiss that relaxed, happy mouth.

And his eyes. They shone like the calm, sunlit surface of a summertime pond, brilliant in their reflection of her love; yet underneath, the depths promised something more… a deep, cool embrace designed to strip away her last defenses against its drowning pull. She couldn’t look away, hypnotized by the promise in those gray- green pools. Though he’d come as a show of friendship for Charlie, he’d stayed because of love for her. Tonight, it was almost as if the wedding had become, for them, an afterthought. He told her this with his steady gaze – assured her that the change for Charlie signaled a change for them, too.

The swell of music in the church made her break from Ellen’s side. Gliding up to Mulder, she asked, “Ready?”

Before she could say anything else, he put aside the crutches and took her arm. “Don’t fuss,” he warned. “I want to walk up that aisle with you without those damn things. Just don’t walk too fast, and I’ll be okay.”

It took some effort, but she managed to get herself and Mulder to their proper places on the altar without disaster happening. The actual ceremony was short, wedged in the middle of a full Latin mass. In the candlelight surrounding the altar, she watched Mulder watch her. Facing each other, Ellen and Charlie between them, they couldn’t seem to take their eyes off one another. It was bound to be noticed by her parents in the front row, she thought, but she didn’t care.

The priest droning on about love and commitment, she saw Mulder’s sleepy, desirous gaze sweep over her from head to toe, taking in the silver gown that draped provocatively off her shoulders to fall in a floor-length full skirt from a cinched waist. It was copied after the bride’s, just a shade or two darker, its satin bodice different in that it was not embroidered with pearls. She felt beautiful in his eyes, and so very feminine, for the first time in a long, long time. And she could have punched him when she saw him lean to his left, trying to look at the fastenings on the back of the gown. With a suppressed grin, he straightened, turning his attention back to the priest.

The rings exchanged, communion over, Father Corkery gave the final blessing and it was over. When Scully reached for Mulder, she noticed his face was rather pasty. “You all right?” she murmured.

“Just let me hold on to you, okay?” Instead of taking her arm, his hand went around her waist.

She smiled at the parents with reassurance, and began walking. In a second, his hand had stolen under the drape, and she gasped, whispering, “Mulder!”

“Hooks,” he whispered with satisfaction, his face showing no sign of their conversation as he nodded at the crowd, guiding her out behind Charlie and Ellen. “Did I tell you how much I like your dress, Scully?”

“You don’t have to,” she said, wondering how much longer Mulder would wait to fulfill his promise back at the hospital. The phone call today had only made her own need soar to lofty proportions, and she knew he was chomping at the bit as well.

She almost cried when he let go of her. The family crowded around them outside the church as rice showered down on Ellen and Charlie. Lifting sad eyes to Mulder, she watched the influx of well-wishers separate them. His look was just as mournful, as if they’d come from a funeral, not a wedding. Reaching for his crutches, he limped off to hail a cab.

How would she ever stand the wait?

**********

The Governor Calvert House was one of Annapolis’ oldest establishments, steeped in Colonial charm and expensive as all hell, he noticed, feeling very out of place among the ritzy place settings and tuxedo-clad men. He’d been born to parents, who, while not wealthy by any means, were pretty well-off financially. But he’d always thumbed his nose at the snobbery associated with wealth, and he felt uncomfortable with the trappings of riches. He knew damn well it wasn’t Scully’s family responsible for this extravagant display, and his suspicions were confirmed when Ellen’s father made a big show of nodding at the mayor and several other big names when toasting the happy couple.

He could pick out the Scullys in attendance, though, by their understated suits and dresses. Not frumpy, just modest. He naturally gravitated in their direction, his crutches preventing him from traveling too far, too fast. Besides, from the moment they’d arrived at the reception, Scully had been whisked away to attend to Ellen’s needs during the photographs, adjusting her wedding dress at appropriate intervals. Mulder had taken the required photo with the happy couple and Scully at the very beginning, using his temporary handicap to beg off any others. Now, he sat at the bar, sipping at champagne and counting the hours until his plan could be set in motion. He glanced at his watch yet again, wondering if Scully would be finished shortly with the required attendance to Ellen.

“No use watchin’ the clock, lad. Women live for weddings. You couldn’t pry Dana from Ellen with a crowbar.”

“Mike,” he greeted the older man with a smile, reaching out to shake his hand. He nodded Scully, shifting on his stool. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Brides are always lovely, Mulder.”

“I was talking about Dana.”

“I know you were. And if you don’t quit starin’ at her, you’re gonna get a visit from Billy.” Mike jerked his chin at someone Mulder hadn’t noticed sitting across the bar – Junior.

Great. He’d managed to avoid the inevitable confrontation so far with the eldest Scully brother, and he certainly didn’t want it to take place at the reception. Looked like his plan to dance with Scully at least once would have to be thrown by the wayside. He had other, more pressing plans to put into motion, and having old Elmer there do the glue thing promised to put a definite crimp in those plans.

“Mike?”

“Yeah?”

“Do me a favor, would you?”

“Anything, lad.”

“Keep Junior busy a while.” He shoved himself up on his crutches, and picked up his hat. “Then ask Charlie and Ellen to meet me in the lobby. But don’t tell Dana – at least not now. In about a half hour, have her meet us there, too, okay?”

“You’re not leaving, are ya lad?”

“I’m afraid so,” he said, looking at his watch again. Time was running short. “Gotta collect on a debt.”

“A debt?”

“Yep. Someone owes me for a flat tire.”

“She wouldn’t happen to be a little hellcat with red hair, would she?” Mike called after him, laughing.

**********

A half hour later, Scully felt a hand on her arm, turning her from the breather she was taking at the punch bowl. She’d not seen Mulder in at least fifteen minutes, and she planned on downing the sweet stuff, then searching for him before Ellen grabbed her again.

“Dana, darlin’!”

“Uncle Mike!” She gave him a hug, saying, “Have you seen Mulder?”

“Now, is that any way to greet your favorite uncle – by asking about another man?”

Pulling away, she said, “I’m sorry. You’re right.” Too much Mulder on the brain, she thought. And they still had tomorrow’s New Year’s celebration to get through before they could even think about being alone together. “Did you get some food? There’s roast beef at the -”

“Last I saw Mulder, he was heading for the restroom,” Mike interrupted, jerking his eyes in the direction of her brother Bill, who was stalking toward them. He lowered his voice, adding, “Then he said something about collecting on a flat tire?”

A flat tire. Back in Utah, she’d charged the cost of her flat to Mulder’s name. Was he leaving for Utah? Did he expect her to go with him? Indecision made her bite her lip, as she looked at Bill, who was fast approaching.

“Just go, girl,” Mike murmured. “Whatcha waitin’ for? Go.”

“But Mom and Dad -”

“I’ll tell ‘em you eloped,” Mike beamed.

Eloped? Jesus, Uncle Mike -”

“Better than telling them you ran off without benefit of marriage, am I right? Just don’t make me into a liar by showing up in a few days without a ring on that finger, Dana.”

She laughed, though it was nervous with uncertainty. “That’s entirely up to Mulder, Uncle Mike.”

He leaned down to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Then I think you have nothing to worry about, darlin’. Now, get going.”

**********

She ran into the lobby, breathless, her gaze searching the crowd that had spilled out from the reception. No Mulder. “Damn,” she muttered, heading for the front door. He better not have left her behind; she though he understood they would no longer run from each other.

Her breath hitched at the two shadows that moved in a dimly lit alcove near the front. One, dressed all in white, from the smooth, gold- braided top of his hat to his toes, his arms propped up on crutches. The other, hidden by the man’s tall form, only a pair of slim, feminine arms visible. And those were wrapped around his back.

A sudden rush of jealousy made her storm forward, her anger already on her lips. “Mulder?”

The man lifted his head, having heard her bristling approach, his whisper vehement. “Cool it, sprite. It’s me.”

Stopping cold, she saw Ellen’s nose peek around the man’s shoulder as she said, “Charlie?”

Ellen gave her a grin, then tilted her face up to receive another kiss. Lips against his bride’s, Charlie murmured, “Look out the door, sprite.”

“What?”

“Just look, Dana.”

She moved to the front door. A white-gloved footman held it open with a smile, and another held open the door of a limousine, gesturing for her to take his hand. Inside, a pair of long, white-clad legs stretched out in the back seat, one hand tapping impatiently against a knee. His face was hidden in shadow, but suddenly, as if sensing her stare, it popped into view. Hopeful, yet unsure, he smiled at her, the hat on his head cocked back at a rakish angle.

Still, she hesitated, shock at the switcheroo in progress making her stammer, “Charlie, t-that’s your limo.”

Distracted from his exploration of his new wife’s mouth, Charlie said, “Hell, Dana. It’ll come back for us. Just go, already, before Bill comes along.”

“Come back for you? Just where the hell -” Her curious question was cut short as her brother descended upon her, the crutches shoved into Ellen’s hands.

“That’s it,” Charlie growled. “You don’t know when someone’s trying to help you elope?” He practically shoved her into the footman’s hands. “Will you please shut her up?” he directed at Mulder.

Last thing she saw before climbing in the cab was Charlie, taking the crutches from Ellen – and Bill, standing in the back of the lobby with a scowl on his face. Charlie swooped down on his bride, pulling her back into the corner. Bill’s gaze gravitated in that direction, and he took a step forward, his call of her name furious.

“Dana!”

The door closed on her chuckles and the limousine sped away. Hook, line and sinker. Bill was so easy to fool.

But her laughter was short-lived, as she felt a tug on her chin. Looking up, she came face to face with a pair of somber eyes.

“If you don’t want to do this, Scully, just tell me. I promise you we’ll go back there and I’ll sit through well-meaning Scully comments, and Elmer’s flypaper routine until the end of time. But I’d rather not. I can’t stand to waste another minute apart from you.”

She felt a tug on her heart at the sincere statement. He was promising her freedom in his soft words, something she knew she’d never have if she went with him. But his imprisonment would not be confining, she also knew. It would be a simple holding of her heart in his loving hand, a commitment to keep her safe and loved.

One hand went up to caress his cheek. “Mulder?”

“Yes?”

“You promised me time would stand still. I’d like to see you do it, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Ten minutes to the station, Scully,” he said, his relief transforming his face into a happy smile. “Even I can’t work that fast.”

“Shut up, Mulder.”

And she kissed him.

End Chapter Eighteen

A Familiar Heart Chapter Nineteen

There was something to be said for riding in a limousine, Mulder thought, as he came up for air. The ride to the train station was cushiony and warm – perfect for a little preview of the main event, though he really couldn’t get all that comfortable because of his damned knee. It didn’t stop him from taking advantage of her willingness to neck a little, however. The dark interior and huge back seat gave him plenty of room to stretch out, and it didn’t take long before she was laid out on him like a blanket. But the ride was definitely too short, as he realized he could hear the whistle of the soon- departing 10:30 train. He sighed, looking down at his beloved with regret. “Scully, we’re almost there.”

Scully’s mouth still parted, she looked dazed and slightly bruised, her lips a little swollen from his kisses. One off-the-shoulder strap of her dress could now be considered ‘off-the-elbow’, and a lacy bra enjoyed the caress of his hand, the breast it cupped heaving with her panting. She looked as if she’d been thoroughly kissed, all limp and wanton against him, drugged with passion. If he had the use of both legs, he’d not disturb the picture, carrying her onto the train to immediately take up where they were being forced to leave off. But he had to rouse her enough to walk to the train, and damned if it wasn’t killing him to lose the dreamy, pliant woman in his arms to the efficient, logical nurse. What he suspected would happen, did, and he almost groaned as she slipped from his arms to sit up.

Pulling up the strap of her dress, she said, “And where is there?”

“Train station. Got us a room on the 10:30 out. Last train until tomorrow night; we were lucky. Skinner pulled a few strings and got us on.” He waited with bated breath for her reaction; yes, she’d gotten in the limo with him, on Charlie’s half-ass detailing of Mulder’s plan. But he didn’t think she’d really been listening at the time. Pressed as she was to make a decision before brother Bill hounded them both down, she’d trusted instinct and fallen into his arms without further thought. But now, did she really realize exactly what was going to happen?

“A train? To where?” Her fingers still shook a bit as she patted down her hair.

He bit his lip and looked out the window; the driver was turning into the station. They’d be there in moments, and she was backing out. He could see it in her darting gaze, one that didn’t quite settle on his face for any length of time.

“Does it matter?” He was tired of tiptoe-ing around her. As far as he was concerned, when she’d gotten into the back seat with him a while ago, she’d made her choice. He shoved himself up to a sitting position, turning back to say, “I want you to myself, Scully.”

“We could have… gone to the Belmont, like we’d planned earlier,” she ventured, still not looking at him. “You don’t have to do anything special for me, Mulder. A room at the hotel would have been fine.”

The limousine came to a halt at the edge of the platform, and the steam from the train’s engine enveloped the car. Mulder grabbed the door handle, though his grip was mostly to steady himself against the way she’d rocked him with that statement. She thought him so hard up for her that he’d take anything, anywhere he could get? Of course, he’d been doing nothing but practically pawing her for several days now.

“Get out,” he muttered, opening the door. With some difficulty, he got to his feet and held out a hand. Stunned, she stayed where she was, and he said again, “Scully, please get out of the car.”

To his surprise, she did, taking his hand more to help him than herself. Swaying a bit in the bite of the wind, Mulder leaned down and told the driver to hold a moment before walking her a few steps away. Taking her hands, he looked down at her with all the love he felt shining in his eyes. “Scully, are you related to any Mormons?”

“Mormons?” Confusion crinkled her forehead. “Mulder -”

“Just answer the question.”

“Okay. No, I’m not related to any Mormons. Not even distantly, to my knowledge.”

“Good. Because one of the stops of that train there is Salt Lake City. And as I see it, Utah is probably the only place in this God damned country where we won’t run into a cousin of yours. Or an uncle, or a brother. Now, are you coming to Piedmont with me or not?” His words were edged with impatience, when all he wanted was to coax her back into compliance. This was not the way he wanted to live this life-altering moment.

“But my parents, and Charlie -”

“Charlie’s got a wife of his own now, and your parents have each other.” Frustration made him release her and he limped back in an effort for some calming distance. “I want you to come with me, Scully.” Did she not believe what he was offering? What he was pleading for?

“Mulder, Charlie wasn’t serious about our eloping,” she chuckled. “I know better than that.”

“All aboard!”

At the interruption, Mulder glanced over his shoulder, then back to her, the ache in his heart compounded by the sudden silence between them.

**********

Oh, God. She’d said the wrong thing. She could see it in his face, the way it hardened to stone. The crowd around them, once fascinated by the sight of the limousine, scurried to make the train.

“You think I don’t want to marry you?” His question was incredulous. “Scully, I told you back at Melissa’s that was all I wanted.”

Ignoring the crowd around them, she shouted, “You only said that because you thought I might be pregnant!”

The few people on the platform perked up at her declaration, and she found herself flushing, even with the way she shivered in the cold.

“I don’t care if you’re pregnant,” he said through clenched teeth. “I don’t care if the world ends tomorrow. I don’t care if your brother shows up here and beats the hell out of me.” Grimacing, he took off his hat and shifted on his feet, trying to – what the hell was he doing?

He collapsed at her feet and she rushed forward, his name burst from her with concern. “Mulder!” But he put up a hand and struggled to bend his bad knee, which hit the platform amidst his grunt of pain.

“Stay right there,” he ordered, his hat clutched to his chest. He looked up, and suddenly, she realized the pose, however painful to him, was familiar.

“Oh, God,” she breathed, her hands coming up to hold in her rush of tears, her fingers pressed against trembling lips.

“Scully, I can take you on that train as my friend. As my lover. As the other half of me. But I’d much rather take you as my future wife.” He smiled through the pain, with hope and so much love it took her breath away. “Now, I don’t have a ring, and I’m seriously giving some thought to leaving the Navy, which means I’ll be out of a job. And, while it looks like most of your family likes me, my family isn’t the best, so you’d be walking into a mess, really -”

“Yes,” she whispered, not wanting to shut him up, but not wasting another moment for happiness. “Yes.”

He stopped, his eyes wide. “Yes?”

“Yes.”

He opened his arms, and she walked into his embrace. His arms around her back were shaking, and his voice was unsteady. Head cradled against her stomach, he muttered, “You didn’t even let me ask.”

She pressed kisses to his soft hair. “So ask. The answer’s still the same.”

“Okay, here goes.” He took a deep breath, one that tickled the satin above her navel. “Scully?”

“Yes?”

“Will you… help me up, please?”

“Mulder!” She tried to act offended, but it didn’t wash. Her joy overwhelmed any pretense.

“I’ll marry you if you do.”

“You will?” she asked, nipping at his ear.

Mulder squirmed under her mouth, his hands settling above her hips. “Will I what?”

“Marry me.”

Lifting his head, he grinned, his eyes wicked. “Thought you’d never ask, Scully.”

Instead of answering him, she lowered her head, intending to kiss him. But the insistent train whistle pierced the air around them, interrupting Scully’s intentions. She looked up, and noticed the platform was empty.

“Last call!” the conductor shouted, from his perch at the entrance to the first car.

“Hold on!” she cried, then grabbed Mulder under the arms. “C’mon, Romeo. We’re missing the train.”

“Jesus,” he hissed, ungainly and almost too heavy for her to lift.

But she finally got him to his feet, and, with one arm wrapped around her shoulders, helped him forward. “That was stupid, Mulder,” she scolded him, gasping under his weight.

He limped beside her, trying to keep his big body from smothering her by putting more of his weight on his injured leg. “I had to show you I was serious, didn’t I?”

“You know what this means, don’t you?” she asked, relieved the trip to the train was a short one.

“If you think I’m not making love to you as soon as we get in our room, you’re mistaken, Scully.”

“I’d like to see you try, sailor. You’ve really done it now with that stunt back there – I wouldn’t be surprised if we have to cut your pants from your leg. Your knee is liable to be twice the size it was.”

“Who needs knees?” he laughed. When they reached the car, the conductor held out a hand to help. Mulder took it, but lingered, leaning close to whisper in her ear, “You look pretty fit to me, Scully. Wanna ride a pony?” He winked, letting the conductor pull him up.

Scully thought she couldn’t blush any more than she had already. She was wrong.

**********

Mulder was feeling no pain. Literally. Scully had insisted he take one of the pain pills in his pocket before they went any further, and though he knew before long he’d be down for the count, he also knew they tended to make him more loopy before sleep kicked in. He was smiling like a giddy fool, the rumble of the train beneath his back massaging his aching body into a blissful, relaxed mood. His jacket and shoes gone, he laid on the single bed, his hands behind his head, watching Scully putter around the small room.

Earrings came off first, then the strand of pearls. She stood before the small mirror in the tiny bathroom, the door open so he could watch her clean up.

“You didn’t happen to bring a hair brush, did you Mulder?”

“Uh… no.” Who needed a hair brush?

“A toothbrush?”

“What’s a toothbrush?”

She rolled her eyes, though she grinned, reaching behind her for the hooks of her dress. “We’re going to be pretty rank by the time we get to Piedmont, Mulder.”

“I didn’t tell you? This train is practically non-stop. Far as I know, we stop for fuel in Kansas City. We’ll be in Salt Lake City by noon tomorrow.” His mouth went slack at the way her dress fell to the floor. “Damn.” Her bra wasn’t just lace – it was a strapless scrap of lace that left little to the imagination. “I wanted to practice on those hooks, you know.”

“I know you did,” she murmured, looking as if she was thoroughly enjoying the control she had over him. “But I wanted to practice myself, you know.”

When she slipped off her shoes, her height diminished by several inches. She was a petite, curvaceous bundle of pink skin and tousled red hair that fell over warm blue eyes. His mouth suddenly felt like it was filled with cotton, especially when she slowly divested herself of panties and stockings. The bra, which a moment ago held such fascination, went the way of the rest of her clothes, and she stood before him in the lamplight, her smile wide but a bit bashful. He knew she was fighting the urge to cover herself, but her courage won out. Straightening her shoulders, she moved toward him with pride, her hands reaching for the hem of his t-shirt.

“How did you manage to get us on this train, anyway?”

Her breasts swayed before him, and he lifted his torso a bit, gulping at the lovely sight that beckoned for the touch of his mouth. Before he could succumb to the urge, however, she pulled the t-shirt up, trapping his head in a cotton veil. “Hey!” Her hands left him, and he struggled with the t-shirt, whipping it off as he blew the hair from his eyes. “Watch it, Scu -” he began, only to sputter to a stop at the feel of her fingers on his zipper.

He sucked in a ragged breath as he watched her nimble fingers slowly pull the zipper down.

“Lift up,” she whispered, and he didn’t know how he was able to make the connection in his brain, but he did. In seconds, she had both pants and boxers off, tenderly pulling them over his bum knee.

At her gasp, he followed her worried gaze down, and was dismayed to find his knee had, indeed, suffered a bit from his semi-traditional proposal. “Don’t,” he said, reaching for her. “It doesn’t hurt, Scully.”

“Of course not,” she snapped, her eyes flashing up to meet his. “You have enough painkiller in you to numb an elephant.”

“Not quite,” he murmured with a smile, his gaze darting down once again. It was her turn to follow his lead, except this time, her eyes came back up immediately, and she blushed, licking her lips. He wanted to nip at those same lips, to tell her he was sorry for teasing her. Despite her bold moves of late, she was still very much an innocent, and he’d better remember it. Grabbing for the sheet, he pulled it up to cover his hips. “Umm… sorry. That’s not something I have too much control over, Scully.”

In answer, she lifted the sheet and climbed in beside him, pulling the soft linen over them both as she cuddled into his side. He gritted his teeth at the contact, sensing her need to take things slow from now on. His arm clenched under her cheek, and he bit back the urge to pull her over him.

“I know,” she said softly, her arm settling over his chest. She tugged at his dogtags, her fingers playing with the cross that he’d taken possession of. “Mulder?”

If she wanted it back, she was out of luck. He’d buy her the biggest diamond in the state of Utah, but she wasn’t getting the gift he considered the most precious thing he’d ever received. Besides her heart, of course. “Yeah?”

“Umm… about the China Moon.”

That floored him. “What about it?” And why the hell did she bring it up now?

“There were lots of women there, right? Experienced women.”

Now he knew what she was after. Anger at her self-imposed inadequacy made him haul her up, so he could look in her eyes. “Not a one of which I slept with, Scully,” he growled, “so get that right out of your mind.”

She smiled ruefully, shaking her head. “Charlie said you hadn’t. I should have believed him.”

“You asked Charlie?”

“The subject just came up.” She shrugged, and dropped her gaze to his chest. “I feel like I’m so young, Mulder. Yet I’m not. I should have lived through many things by the ripe old age of twenty-seven, don’t you think? Instead, it feels like I’m always trying to catch up – and I’m failing miserably.”

Tilting her chin up, he said, “You could never fail in my eyes, Scully. Besides, before you, it had been close to six years since… uh, since I…” Great. Her embarrassment had become his.

Her eyes went wide. “What did you do? I mean, you had to have some…” She trailed off as well, seemingly mesmerized by his ear all of a sudden.

“My right hand.”

“What?” She was bright red now, and he suspected it covered more than her face, as the flush extended down the shadowy valley between her breasts.

“Want me to show you?”

His sincere, sober question elicited the response he was looking for, though he knew this play was liable to cause him more pain than his knee. “Please do,” she said with a small smile. “Then show me how.”

Mulder groaned, closing his eyes with brief regret.

“Mulder?”

Scully’s touch on his face brought him around again, and he moved her slightly to the side, keeping one arm firm around her back as he reached down with his other hand. In the dim light behind her head, he knew what he was doing wasn’t very clear to her, but he decided to leave it up to her whether or not to pull back the sheet.

At the first touch of his hand on his erection, he stiffened slightly, trying to keep still. Knowing there was a softer, more feminine hand just inches away sort of put a damper on an activity that, before now, had been guaranteed to get him off in moments. Despite what she thought, he was not a very experienced man. There had been a couple of sweethearts before the war, and he’d had his share of intimacy with them. In Hong Kong, he’d always had to watch his back, and giving in to the luxury of a warm female wasn’t wise. He’d learned to fall back on the reliability of self-gratification, and only when his body seethed with frustration.

Now, he wanted her. Her touch, her caress. But he was determined to give her anything she wanted, and she obviously wanted this. It was new for them both; from the wide-eyed stare she bestowed upon him, she’d never witnessed this, and he’d never done this in front of a woman.

His hand, hidden by the sheet, began the slow movement up and down his shaft. He kept his gaze on her face, watching the her fascination with his play. When her tongue darted out to lick her lips, he imagined her mouth on him, and his teeth grabbed his bottom lip to keep from crying out. He thought that he wouldn’t be able to find any enjoyment with his performance, but he’d been dead wrong. Just the sight of her amazement made him speed up, and he felt like he would soon explode with satisfaction.

“I knew…” she whispered, “I knew a man had a way of satisfying himself… but I didn’t know it was so…” She trailed off, watching his movements under the sheet with an open-mouthed stare.

“So…?” he prompted, fast losing himself to approaching orgasm.

“So erotic,” she finished, looking up at his face. Her hand came up to touch his cheek. “Mulder, you’re beautiful. May I?”

“Only if you feel like it,” he said, his voice hoarse with strain. He was still not sure she was offering because of curiosity; he didn’t want her to feel obligated to please him.

“I do.”

The hand on his cheek slid down his chest and abdomen, leaving little goosebumps of pleasure. When her fingers touched the wiry hair at his groin, he let go of himself, and curled his fingers around hers. “Like this,” he murmured, touching his lips to her forehead as he guided her hand to his straining flesh.

Her hand was much smaller and softer than his, and he moaned against her hair, his arm pulling her close to his side. She required no further instruction as she picked up where he left off, her rhythm sure and steady. “God, Scully,” he muttered, sure he was in heaven. “That’s it. Feels so good.”

She was way too good at this, he thought. Much as he didn’t want to make her stop, he had to slow her down somehow. His hand skimmed over her breast, then down her belly. She faltered with a little gasp, but didn’t stop stroking him, asking, “Mulder?”

“You remember this, don’t you, Scully?” His fingers dipped low, and he almost howled at the moisture gathering between her thighs. Her hips squirmed against his intrusion, and the hand on her back slid down to cup her behind and hold her still. “Shh… let me.”

A soft, mewling sound came from deep in her throat as he slipped one finger into her hot depths. Once again, her hand jerked around him, and this time, she slowed her movements until they matched his. Her whole body seemed to turn to water against his side, as she melted around him, her legs entangling with his and her mouth coming up to touch his.

He kissed her like a starving man, probing with his tongue deep into the soft, moist hollow of her cheeks, mimicking the act to come. She returned his fervor with some of her own, both above and below, her hips now circling as she practically rode his upper thigh. God, she was hot, he thought. Hot and so eager he thought he’d die from the sensations that poured over him like the sweetest, stickiest honey.

“Mulder,” she moaned against his mouth. “I need… I -”

He was loathe to break contact to tell her to take what she wanted, his own body reacting to her touch with little shivers of impending joy. Another second, he bargained with himself. Just one more second and I’ll stop long enough to –

Making the decision for them both, she let go of the kiss, her body shifting quickly to hover over his, her legs falling to either side of his hips. He could only watch with dazed happiness as she took command, instinct guiding her to use her hand. Eyes slitted, she caught her lower lip between her teeth, and lowered herself on him.

Mulder felt the breath leave his lungs in a silent cry of intense pleasure as he felt her walls expand with his entry. Head and neck stiff, he forced himself to be still, as the corner of her mouth lifted in a grimace she couldn’t quite suppress. Then he was home, and Scully, feeling it as well, leaned down to kiss his mouth into relaxation.

“Okay,” she murmured, her hands sliding up to his face. “I’m okay, Mulder.”

He tried to smile, his own hands coming up to caress her back. “You’re also a fast learner.” She smiled in return, showering his face with fleeting kisses. They played for half a minute, just getting used to the feel of one another as the train rocked them gently. It wasn’t long, however, before Mulder couldn’t be still, and he took her by the waist, pressing his fingertips into her soft skin to get her attention.

“Scully, you’re gonna have to move.”

Dropping one last kiss to his brow, she said, “Don’t move that knee, Mulder.” Despite her sexual innocence, she’d realized she had control of the moment, and used it to give him the warning, her eyes liquid, but firm.

His chuckle rumbled through them both, and he slid just a fraction of an inch deeper into her, which caused them both to purr. “Scully, if you don’t move, I will.”

With a laughing sigh, she straightened, her hands falling to his chest. A subtle, sinuous motion began where they were joined, and one eyebrow went up as she asked, “Like this?”

Mulder felt almost boneless, like he was flying. The motion of the train, combined with her movement, lulled him into a foolish, grinning idiocy. “Yeah. Told you it was like riding a pony.”

Her fingers plucked at his shoulders; she was a slinky kitten above him, kneading her way to ecstasy. “I never had a pony like you, Mulder.” She began to move faster, rocking on him with a more determined goal in mind. He heard her breath catch, and his fingers spread out over her backside to help matters along.

“Just call me Buttercup.”

Her rocking became jerky and unfocused when she laughed. “Stop it. I can’t concentrate.”

He shut up, knowing the time had come for less talk and more action. Sliding them both further down on the small bed, he touched his feet to the wall at the end. Careful not to put pressure on his injured leg, he planted the other foot flat against the plaster, bending his knee as he let the other foot slide off the side of the bed. When he began to push up in counterpoint to her downstrokes, she gasped, her eyes flying open.

“Nice, huh?” he grinned, but she was no longer listening.

Grinding against him now, she strove for completion, her back arched and her head limp on her shoulders. He used one arm to prop himself up on an elbow; her breasts were tantalizing as they bounced above him and he could no longer stand to keep still, taking one hard nipple in his mouth.

She cried out, calling his name, speaking to God, muttering curses and praises as she rode faster and harder. The smell of sex and sweat filled his head, a potent mixture he knew had the power to make him crazy. Her body was beautiful, her scent heady, her voice hoarse with use as she drew him under her spell.

He was light-headed; from the painkillers or from loving her, he didn’t know. All he knew was he wouldn’t last much longer. Amidst her own sounds, he made some of his own, urging her in a raspy voice to come, to find what she was looking for so he could join her.

And she did, finally bowing above him, her body clenching around him with several powerful, dragging pulls on his cock. His balls reacted to the pressure of her orgasm, drawing up; he felt a spark at the base of his spine and he pulled his mouth away from her skin to suck in a short, gasping breath. At last, he let go, letting her milk him until he had nothing left to give.

Sated, he gathered her close, the roar of the train second only to the furious beating of their hearts. When he’d finally gathered enough strength to move, he reached up and flicked off the lamp above his head, pulling the sheet up over them once again.

She raised her head; by the light of the moon streaming through the blinds, he caressed her face and kissed her.

He felt married already.

End Chapter Nineteen

A Familiar Heart Chapter Twenty/Epilogue

Scully curled around him, the close quarters of the single bed making a nice, cozy nest. She felt safe and not at all claustrophobic, even though she was wedged between him and the wall. Her hand slowly caressed his damp skin of his chest and her head nestled in the curve of his shoulder.

The events of the day, of the past week, flitted through her mind and she smiled secretly to herself. From the moment she saw him back in Utah he stirred something within her, and the feelings he aroused were a most welcome change. She’d never be the same from this night on. What a way to start a new year.

Suddenly, she found herself giggling. Mulder, half asleep, moved his head on the pillow, his lips brushing over her hair. “What?”

“Bill,” she chuckled. “I don’t think he knew what hit him.”

Mulder stretched a bit beneath her, his chest puffing up. “He’s not so bad.” She laughed harder, Mulder’s mental strutting typically male. “He’s not,” he insisted. “He never said a word to me, Scully. Not one word.”

“He was waiting to get you alone. And when he does, look out.”

“Oh, I’m so scared,” Mulder drawled, his own sleepy fingers drawing circles on her back. “Scully?”

“Yes?”

“Think I can call you Dana now?”

She pretended to give it thought, watching the moonlight slash through the blinds to illuminate the opposite wall. “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“I kind of like to be called Scully. Especially by you.”

“Ah, but you won’t be a Scully for very much longer, you know.”

“Mulder, from what I saw of Piedmont, there can’t be more than a couple of hundred people living there. I certainly didn’t see a church.” She jerked, remembering her home with a guilty flash of responsibility. “I have to wire my parents from Salt Lake City, let them know where I am.”

“Nearest church is twenty miles down the road in Asheville.” With his other hand, he grabbed the one strumming his chest, bringing it to his lips. “I didn’t tell you? Besides being a damned good mechanic, Jerry operates the Western Union from his office. And he happens to be a Justice of the Peace.”

She lifted her head to meet his confident, happy gaze. For a moment, she pondered arguing about churches and parents and obligations. Then she thought better of it, raising an eyebrow with a smile. “Works for me. Besides, I have to pay your bill.” Settling back down, she sighed, “Or maybe not. I didn’t exactly bring my purse with me.”

“Scully, you’re straight with me. Believe me. No further payment necessary.”

They drifted into silence, each exhausted from the day and more so, from the night. Scully, almost asleep, was jolted awake by a clamor from the club car, one that made her jump. “What’s that?”

Mulder slurred his words, sighing, “My guess… it’s midnight. Happy New Year, Scully.”

“Happy New Year, Mulder,” she whispered back, already falling back to sleep. “I’d give you a kiss, but umm… too tired.”

“Then I’ll kiss you.” Those beautiful lips wandered down until they touched skin, and he pressed a kiss to her brow. “Mmm, taste good… you wanna ride th’pony again, you wake me, ‘k?”

“Deal.”

She felt his kiss once again, then almost immediately heard a soft snore above her head. Happy New Year, indeed. It was guaranteed to be a good one, if the first minute was any indication of things to come.

Before losing herself totally to dreams, she raised her head to look at his profile, seeing the man who, despite it all, was sent to her by forces unseen. A weird twist of fate brought them together, and she wondered if, after all, there were angels watching over them both. The odds against the two of them ever reaching this point were astronomical, and she looked up into the moonlight, whispering a prayer of thanks before lying down next to her love for some much needed sleep.

**********

The two hazy figures stood on the small end of the caboose, watching the countryside fly by, the moon casting the hills and valleys in a serene white blanket of shimmering snow.

“Nice night,” Sam murmured, tucking his hands in the pockets of his coat. He wasn’t cold; it was habit that he shivered, the scenery stirring him to memories of snowball fights and hot chocolate. He was form without real substance, but it didn’t prevent him from remembering what it was to be human. Or to appreciate his expensive suit and coat; his combat fatigues were permanently retired, according to the man beside him.

The vaporous man at his side was just as well- dressed, his black skin almost blending in with the night, only his pepper-gray beard visible as he spoke. “It’s time to go, Sam.”

Sam hung his head, pretending to watch the tracks beneath him rush by. “I know, sir.” He never called his superior anything but sir. He didn’t even know his name, and doubted he ever would. It wasn’t important. Feelings, emotions, even the pleasant exchange of earthly information like names ceased to matter in the world he was still getting used to.

It wasn’t a bad place, but it wasn’t home. Sam felt as though he was caught between two worlds, and he supposed he was. He hadn’t yet attained the ultimate goal, his superior reminded him time and again. This place wasn’t like home, where hitting baseballs and playing the hero automatically lofted you to a position of adulation and superiority. Happiness and peace here had to be earned, and the jobs to be done were a test of courage and love.

He was finished with Dana and Fox, but he didn’t want to leave. His brother was brother to him no longer, not on a physical plane. But he still felt close kinship and wanted Fox to be happy. And Dana… God, he still remembered the ache he felt the one and only time he’d held her in his arms, knowing it could never be.

Love had come to him one breath too late.

“She was never for you, Sam,” his companion said softly. “You have to let go.”

“I have,” he replied, smiling. Suddenly, after watching over her for months, he finally felt the truth. Even if he’d had the chance, he knew he would have lost her to Fox. His brother was the better man for Dana; the past week had proven that. “She’s where she was meant to be.”

“True.” The man next to him paused, looking about. “Won’t be long, we’ll be coming up on Kansas City. We’ll get off there.”

Sam looked at him with surprise. “Kansas City?” Everything in this new world had a purpose, and their destination signaled a new direction for him. “Why Kansas City?”

“You were a good soldier, Sam. But you were an even better baseball player. You had heart, and there’s someone who needs your courage now. A baseball player. Good kid.”

Despite the fact he was no longer supposed to feel it, Sam sagged a bit with sadness. Kansas City was an eternity from New York. “What’s he play? Second base?” Maybe there was hope, after all. He loved to play second base. He could still feel the thrill of turning a 4-6-3 double play. Even if he wasn’t supposed to sense things, the lingering smell of leather and horsehide tickled his nose.

“Shortstop. Great player, but he needs a bit of coaxing. He won’t find his new home a welcome place.”

“Why not?” Something about the whole business tweaked his inner alarms. ‘Sir’ was not telling him everything.

“He plays – played for the Kansas City Monarchs, Sam.”

Sam’s eyes narrowed; now he understood. “The Negro Leagues?”

His superior faced him with a similar, bristling look. “I shouldn’t have to ask – but do you have a problem with that?”

“No!” Sam wasn’t a racist, had never been. He disdained the rules that made black men play baseball in segregated leagues, when he’d seen many who were equal to, if not better than, any white player. “Do you mind if I ask why he needs my help?”

“He just signed a contract with a Major League team.”

Sam snorted, shaking his head. “He’s gonna need more than my help. He’ll need body armor.”

“Sam…” Sir warned, his voice speaking of growing impatience.

“I know, I know,” Sam replied with a grin. “I go where the boss sends me.” With a jerk of his chin, he plunged ahead. “So – what’s the story with this guy?”

“He’s reporting to their minor league team early next – this year. Happy New Year, by the way.”

“Same to you, Sir.” Sam gave him a brilliant smile, pleased this once-stoic man had a warmer side, even if he rarely showed it.

Sir cleared his throat and continued, “From what I hear, he won’t be there long. Maybe a year, tops. The Montreal Royals.”

“Montreal?” Sam sputtered, feeling as if the rug had been pulled out from under him. “But – but that’s -”

“Brooklyn’s triple A club, yes.”

Sam groaned inwardly. The Dodgers. So close, yet so far away from the Yankees. “No way will he ever beat out PeeWee Reese,” he grumbled stubbornly, feeling his chance for Yankee greatness slip from his fingers.

“He’ll come in at first base, from what I understand. In my opinion, he’d make a great second baseman.”

Sam snorted, giving his sometime friend a sly glance. “You sure know how to get to a guy, don’t you?”

“Cheer up, Sam. With this kid, the Dodgers will give the Yankees a run for their money. Believe me.”

“That’ll be the day,” he muttered. Shrugging, he feigned interest, knowing it was no use arguing. He was being sent where the boss wanted, and no amount of resistance on his part would do any good. “What’s his name?”

“Jack Roosevelt Robinson.”

“Great.” He was leaving one resolved mess to head straight into another. Except this one promised to be more trouble than getting two lonely people together. “The kid better be good.”

“He is, Sam. With your heart and protection, he could be one of the best who ever played.” His friend gave him a nudge. “Dana likes the Dodgers, Sam. Make her smile.”

“Hey, no fair. You used that one last time.”

“Last time, I told you Dana needed someone to love, someone who’d love her back. You were the one who suggested Fox. Good choice, I might add.”

He knew ‘Sir’ was kissing up to him, but Sam smiled, anyway.

“Okay. But if this kid turns out to be no good, don’t blame me.”

“And if he turns out to be an All-Star?”

“Then you owe me the Yankees next time.”

“Deal.” Sir held out his hand, and Sam took it.

As they crossed the Mississippi River, the two faded away, their laughter drifting off like snowflakes into the night.

The End

Many thanks to Sybil, for beta above and beyond the call of duty. This business of posting a chapter a day was more of a strain on her than me. <g> Also, my thanks to Clarissa, for info on Annapolis. You rock, girl!

And thanks to the Havenites for daily poking. Never could have done this without you all!

––—

Hope you enjoyed my guilty pleasure fic. It was the first and last, I think. But I had so much fun writing it, so who knows?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Mishy 🙂

++++++

An Unchanged Soul

NOTE: FOLLOWING IS THE SEQUEL TO A FAMILIAR HEART, AN UNCHANGED SOUL. IT REMAINS UNFINISHED. YOU MAY PREFER TO STOP READING NOW IF YOU LIKE YOUR STORIES COMPLETE. 🙂

An Unchanged Soul Chapter One

Free fall. Like a dream, almost – soaring above the clouds like a bird in flight. He used to have those dreams, he thought, with a mind mesmerized by the sensation of movement without hindrance. Something told him he used to live those dreams as well. A vague prickling of his consciousness made it true, inasmuch as he had conscious thought in the endless stretches of time without seconds or hours.

A colorless void surrounded him, but it wasn’t frightening. As he floated, his arms wide and free, a memory came to him of doing this before. In the sunlight, the crisp, thin air taking his breath – or had it been fear? No, he loved this. Day or night, but especially at night, with the wind and stars his twin guides to exhilaration. He felt the same now, as excitement stirred within him. The free fall was familiar, and he smiled, enjoying every moment.

Until the light came. Blinding, hurtful light that seemed to pierce his body through every pore. The brightly lit tunnel he dropped into was narrow and he plummeted through it, suddenly dead weight. Trying to slow himself, he grabbed with his hands and feet – at nothing. The tunnel had walls, but it didn’t. He could find no purchase, no way to slow himself.

He hit the ground like a sack of potatoes, feeling his lungs contract at the hard landing. For a second, he could not breathe. Then he gasped, rolling from his back to his side with the intake of cold, frosty air.

The pavement beneath his skin was cold. Huddled as he was in a large, naked pile, he trembled like a newborn babe, unsure if he had the strength to open his eyes. Maybe that was it – maybe he’d just survived his own birth.

Someone help me, he thought, unable to give voice to the words. A flash of red skittered across his closed eyelids, and he cracked them open. Fright grabbed at him at the sight of the bright lights and the harsh, masculine voice.

“You there!”

Not the light again. No! The hard earth beneath him was sure to give way at any moment and he’d fall again, this time to hell.

He inched away from the approaching terror, his legs and arms burrowing into his torso with a feeble grasp at defense. This was a nightmare, it had to be. He didn’t know where he was, who he was, or why the man in blue pointed the gun at him like he was a criminal. Forcing himself to get to his knees, he crawled out of the line of light; he stood, fear making him dart forward as adrenaline kicked in. But he didn’t get far, as he smacked head on into something huge and cloaked in the night, his nose filling with the stench of rotten garbage.

Groaning, he fell down to the icy surface once again.

“Gotcha,” the voice said, and he felt his arms pinned behind him. A double click of metal against metal, and he was trapped. He tried to see, but found he couldn’t. Something clung to his eyelashes, and made it hard to open them without the sting of grime-laden pain.

“Boy, I thought I’d seen it all,” the voice chuckled. “But I ain’t ever seen a bum without even a pair o’pants in the middle o’winter. C’mon, Adam. Time to sober up.”

Dragged along, he felt a wave of nausea climb up his throat. Stumbling, he gave in to it, dry heaves doubling him over.

“Shit! Don’t puke on me, boy.” The hand holding the chain around his wrists let go and the figure backed off.

This was his chance. Wherever he was supposed to be, he was sure it wasn’t with this devil. His feet moved quickly, slapping against the pavement. Get away, he had to get away.

“Hey!”

No, don’t stop. Keep going.

He headed past the blinding lights, for the sounds that came from the street ahead. Warmth waited for him across that street. Still not steady, he lowered his head and ran.

“Watch out!”

The blare of a horn was the last thing he heard. Then there was nothing. Again.

**********

November 27, 1947 Annapolis, Maryland

“Slow night, huh?”

Emma looked up from the desk, shoving her wayward glasses up her nose. “I’m about to fall asleep,” she said, giving Pete a smile.

The janitor took up his broom again, laughing. “Now you know how I feel every night. And I had my Thanksgiving turkey early this afternoon, thinking it wouldn’t make me any sleepier.” He rubbed his generous belly, yawning. “Turkey always makes me sleepy.”

“Me, too,” she replied, thinking of the big dinner that was probably finishing up at her father’s house. He hadn’t been too pleased she’d volunteered to work the late shift in the Emergency Room on Thanksgiving Day. But she felt sorry for the other nurses, most of whom had husbands and children at home. Besides, her brothers would be plenty of company for her father, and their wives and children would more than fill the gap her absence would leave. Still, she missed the boisterous sounds of a typical family gathering; especially when confronted with the tomb-like silence of the hospital halls.

Pete seemed to notice her melancholy, and he cleared his throat, straightening. “Well, guess I’d better get back to work. Got two more floors to finish up before midnight. Happy Thanksgiving, Emma.”

“Same to you, Pete.”

She watched his large form amble down the brightly lit corridor. The hospital’s Emergency Room was so quiet, she could have heard a pin drop. In the year she’d been a nurse at St. Catherine’s, she worked several holidays, most of them quiet like this one. But the occasional stomachache and staggering drunk always interrupted the peace. The lone doctor had commented on it an hour ago, right before he’d given up his vigil of the empty Emergency Room and sought a couch in the waiting room. Jack and Harry, the two orderlies who, until ten minutes ago, had been hovering over her, trying to see down her uniform, had adjourned to the lounge to play poker. This silence was unusual, and she thanked God for the breather, knowing it meant everyone in the immediate area was safe and sound so far.

But she was bored. The daily crossword before her had ceased to hold her interest a half hour ago, and she still had the whole night to go before relief would show up in the form of Edna Stevenson.

A single woman like her, Stevenson had quite a few years on Emma. She’d never married, and spent her off hours taking care of her elderly mother. Her youth long gone, she was pinched in the face and stout as a butterball, too many years spent sitting around on holidays just like this one. Emma wondered if she’d end up the same one day.

Though she was small and definitely feminine, her looks were nothing extraordinary. She’d spent hours with her nose in books instead of the latest fashion magazines – well, with the exception of Photoplay. She dreamed of looking like Lana Turner or Hedy Lamarr, with flawless skin and come-hither poise. She wasn’t bad- looking, she had to admit. Her father had called her beautiful; but then again, he’d been biased. The reading glasses gave her oval face a bit of an owlish look, but the eyes behind them were blue and clear, with long, light eyelashes. She’d tried mascara years ago, but all it did was make her eyes itch. Her fair skin could have used some makeup, especially when emotional upheaval of any sort always seemed to make her cheeks flush a bright, sassy red. She hated the reaction her body had at such times; it was like a sign that said, Look at me! I’m a clown!

The only physical feature she could say had any distinction at all was her hair. A deep shade of auburn, it fell to past her shoulders in a thick swathe of wavy silk that defied all attempts at straightening. Mostly, she kept it confined in a braid. It was easier to manage while at work, though it had a mind of its own, anyway. She seemed to always be brushing back several wayward strands from her face.

One thing she’d change about herself if she could was her height. Her short stature, combined with a body in her most congenial moments she thought of as ‘healthy’, made it difficult for anyone, especially men, to take her seriously. Most of the time, she was either patted on the head like a child, or ogled from the neck down like a floozy. Thank goodness the end of the war had brought about a return to fuller, softer dresses. The clinging, efficient fashions of the war days had always made her feel like an hour glass – and the looks her breasts and hips got back then seemed to make the material just as transparent.

She had cousins – females who were tall and willowy. Females who were short like her, but dainty and fragile. Emma wasn’t fragile. Not by a long shot.

Her father had deemed her a petite Venus who took after her mother’s good farm stock. And in the next breath, he swore to castrate any man who touched her without benefit of marriage. Her teenage years were spent under her brothers’ watchful eyes. Nursing school was more of the same, living at home to watch her older brothers move out one by one. After her mother passed, it was naturally assumed she’d take over the running of her father’s household. And she had, with no arguments. Not even a complaint. She loved her father and younger siblings, and taking care of them was not an obligation, but an honor.

Then the war had come. Barely twenty, she’d watched friends and family take off for service at the edges of the world, wishing she could join them in the exciting journey of courage and patriotism. But her degree had been still two years away, and even if she could have, she wouldn’t have joined up. The sight of her father seeing off each of her older brothers at the train station had put an end to her Army aspirations. He’d died a bit at each departure; she could see it in the lined shadows on his stoic face. Wrenching them from her father’s bosom like a sweeping lion, the war threatened to dismantle the family with swift slices of a machete poised to strike. She couldn’t leave him; the decision was a quick one, though not easy, as she felt like the world passed her by in the war years. Praise from friends at her vigilant home presence hadn’t dimmed the desire to branch out. It remained, simmering for five long years.

Now, with all her brothers back safe and sound, with the younger three firmly ensconced in the Naval Academy and her father happy once more, she found herself living in a haze of contentment, wondering if this was all that her life was meant to be. She had a job, all her family around her, and the occasional date under the watchful eyes of said family.

But sometimes… late at night, doing crosswords as another year faded away… sometimes she wished for more. Not just a few more inches to go with those extra pounds, nor a breather from her male relatives’ constant worry. Not even for the excitement of travel, like she’d once wanted and thought the war could provide.

She wished for love. For someone to take notice of her mind and humor, not just her generous curves. For someone to treat her as if she were the most fragile piece of crystal; a prince who would take her hand in his and look beyond the workhorse to the woman beneath. He wouldn’t ask her to play catcher in the stickball game because she was ‘a wide, yet compact target’. He wouldn’t look at her hips and automatically count the number of children he could sire on her.

Emma sighed, closing the newspaper as she dropped her eyeglasses to the desk. With most of the available men snatched up by eager women after the war, there wasn’t much left but widowers much older than her, or youngsters fresh out of high school. She’d just as soon look for Mr. Right to drop out of the sky into her lap, with the pickings so slim these days.

A burst of cold air accompanied the breathless man who shoved open the outer doors. Spying her at the desk, he stopped, his voice carrying over the quiet.

“Quick! There’s been an accident outside!”

Jack and Harry, apparently hearing the commotion, came running from the lounge. “What the hell -” Harry began, but was cut short by Emma’s bark.

“Get Doctor Belden from the waiting room.” She pulled on her heavy cape and reached for the first aid kit on the wall, snapping at their hesitation. “And bring a gurney. Now!”

The man who’d summoned her had already turned for the door. Emma rushed through it as he held it open, following his instructions to turn left for the cross street, the one that ran directly in front of the hospital. Already, the scene was lit by the red flash of a squad car’s lights, giving it an eerie, surreal glow. The few passers by had gathered in a circle just beyond a Buick that still spewed exhaust from its back bumper. Though the front glass was cracked in a few places, there didn’t seem to be another vehicle involved, so she went first to the man leaning against its driver’s side door, asking, “Are you hurt?”

Though pale, he nodded, “I’m fine. I didn’t see him. I wasn’t going that fast, honest! He just darted out in front of me!” He gestured to the crowd on the passenger side with a trembling, gloved hand. “Rolled right over the hood like he was Superman or something! I swear to God I didn’t see him!”

Emma made her way around the front of the car, shoving her way through the crowd. A stout policeman bent over a huddled form in the road; Emma could see nothing but bare, hair-dusted legs. Naked? On a night like this? Drunk. He had to be drunk.

The cop had shrugged off his jacket and was tucking it around the unconscious man when she approached. He looked up, relief palpable on his face. “He just ran out into the street, the damn fool. No way the guy could have avoided hitting him.”

Emma crouched on the other side of the victim, feeling the cold seep into her stockings at the knees. Her cape came flying off as well, and she draped it over the man, uncaring of the cold that made her shiver. Noticing his arms still bound behind him, she growled, “Get those off. Right now.”

The cop eyed the handcuffs, then sputtered, “Ma’am, I can’t just -”

“You can and you will,” she insisted, breaking open the first aid kit. The victim was covered with street filth, obscuring his features. But in the moonlight that filtered between the clouds, she could see his lips were blue; at the least, he was going into shock and he must be attended to quickly. “Now, get them off.”

He mumbled his displeasure as he unlocked the handcuffs, but Emma was past the point of caring. She grimaced as the limp body, no longer supported by the bound wrists, flopped to its back with a dull thud. Ignoring the gasps of the women in the crowd, she pulled away the makeshift blanket, quickly scanning his body for injury. None that she could see, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t seriously injured internally. Cradling his head with one hand, she wiped at the dirt on his face with a light touch of the gauze bunched up in her other hand.

“Idiot ran into a brick wall back in the alley, drunk off his ass.” The cop rammed one fist into his hand for emphasis. “Wham! Rung his bell, I guess. Next thing I know, he’s rolling up the hood of this car.”

As she swiped at the injured man’s face, Emma cursed the inept policeman under her breath. This unfortunate soul wasn’t drunk, from what she could tell. For one thing, there wasn’t the smell of liquor that usually permeated the air around the bums who frequented St. Catherine’s emergency room. And she’d seen enough of those to know when someone had a problem with alcohol. Even when they weren’t drinking, the bums exuded the pungent odor of alcohol through their skin. For another, she’d never seen a bum with such a cleanliness about him, even if he’d just been rolled across the pavement. This man’s skin was so purely pink beneath the dirt, with just a tinge of a healthy glow that could only have been put there by strength and good living. The hand that peeked from under the jacket was callous- free, its fingernails short and relatively clean, despite the grime elsewhere. She wondered at its frailty; it reminded her of the paintings of ‘incorruptibles’ that hung in Mother Superior’s office back at Our Lady of Mercy School. Of course, back then, she’d spent quite a bit of time under the Mother’s censure, so she’d had the opportunity to peruse the portraits of Jesus and the saints.

She mentally chastised herself for her wandering thoughts, wondering where the hell that doctor was. Surely Jack and Harry should have been out there by now with the gurney? The man lying beside her began to move, his groan almost lost in the cacophony surrounding them. But Emma heard it, and rushed to comfort him.

“Shh… still. Lie still.”

The cheek under her hand jerked, and she knew he was trying to open his eyes. Grabbing a fresh piece of gauze, she wiped them clean. A clamor over her shoulder told her the gurney had finally come.

“Get down,” he muttered, his head moving with increasing panic.

“Help is here,” she quickly assured him. Her cap flopped over her face, and she pulled it off impatiently, feeling her hair go wild with freedom. She brushed the uncooperative locks from her forehead, feeling his grime stain her face. “Please… be still.”

But his fidgeting grew, and his voice pierced the night with anguish. “No!” Eyes squeezed shut, he thrashed, and Emma was powerless to stop him as he kept on shouting. “I’m hit! God damn it, no!”

“You’re okay,” she said clearly, trying her best to calm him. “Just lie still… please lie still.” A burning at the back of her eyes was unwanted, but she couldn’t stop it. His terror – something she’d never witnessed in her life – made her chest ache with sadness. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she tried to make him see he wasn’t in whatever hell he imagined. “Open your eyes. Please, wake up.”

Doctor Belden replaced the policeman across from her, his stethoscope ready. He glanced at Emma, apology on his face. “I was in the restroom,” he explained.

Emma ignored him, concentrating on the man who had quieted to a heart-wrenching whimper. Her fingers drifted through his short, dark hair, and a wave of helplessness threatened to overwhelm her in the face of his despair.

“Franklin… get her out… dead… leave me…”

“You’re not dead,” she whispered, hoping his condition would not later make her shaky statement a lie.

Doctor Belden worked swiftly, muttering his findings as he moved. “Pulse is thready. Going into shock.” A flash of his pen light illuminated the face before her. A face she was most familiar with… one that was unique.

Emma sucked in a shocked breath. No, it couldn’t be. He wasn’t supposed to be here. God, this was all wrong – how would she ever tell –

The hazel eyes, so familiar to Emma, squinted against the intruding light of the doctor’s examination. He was awake now, and no longer mumbling.

Doctor Belden looked over his shoulder. “Get that gurney in here, now!”

The man’s eyes blinked and rolled, trying to focus on one person among the many who gawked at him now. Emma, her tears beginning anew at her awful discovery, wrapped both hands around his face, her words forcing him to look at her.

“Be still. You’re going to be fine. Trust me. Everything’s going to be okay. Just lie still.”

The blue-tinged lips parted with surprise, and his face lost all trace of agitation, relaxing into a loopy grin as he whispered shakily, “Hey, Red. How ‘bout th-th-” He swallowed hard, forcing his frozen lips to complete what he seemed most desperate to say to her.

“Those – those – Yankees?”

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Two

At last, he was stable. Doctor Belden had him on fluids and between her and the orderlies, they’d cleaned him up and put a gown on him. Emma had averted her eyes several times, sure she shouldn’t be seeing what this man had in the way of… God, she couldn’t even think it! How was it she could look any man up and down naked as the day he was born, but this man’s looks unnerved her? It was like looking at her own brother, he was so close kin. By marriage, yes, but kin still the same.

He was sleeping comfortably now, thanks to the sedative the doctor administered after they’d ascertained his injuries were minor. Minor? Almost nonexistent, Emma thought with a chuckle, as she closed the door on him to walk back to the desk. After being chased into a brick wall by a policeman, then doing the mamba with a car windshield, he was unscathed. Not even a bruise, though she suspected those would appear by the next day. He was a little dehydrated and hypothermic, but that was easily taken care of by their prompt care.

The small smile of relief at the patient’s good fortune faded, as she realized she had some bad news to depart. Not horrible, thank goodness, but troubling just the same. He shouldn’t have been anywhere near the hospital at this time of night. Of course, in the last few months, she’d heard vague ramblings among her brothers about his new assignment for the government. Covert, spy-type things that they obviously envied even while they approached him with big smiles and easy handshakes. But they weren’t easy around him, knowing his past through family rumors, some of which weren’t very kind.

Her father stated that anyone could think as they liked, despite how their new cousin-by-marriage played it close to the vest. He liked the man and made no bones of it. Emma stood firmly at her father’s side on the issue, simply because she agreed. He was intelligent and kind; no matter what direction he chose to follow, he’d never slighted her cousin and never would. First and foremost, he loved his wife.

Still, the phone call would be difficult. Emma knew the news would most likely upset all involved, one in particular. And her cousin had no business being upset these days. She had enough to worry about. Though he wasn’t hurt all that badly, she still dreaded making the call. What to say? Just do it, she scolded herself.

The policeman still hovered in the hallway, waiting for her patient to awaken so he could question him. No ID anywhere in the alley he’d shot from, and Emma wasn’t about to offer even a hint of information to the officer. Despite his most unusual, naked, appearance, the man was a government agent of some sort. He could have been on assignment, something really secretive the police had no business knowing about. Emma’s cousin needed to know first, the police be damned. She cracked open the room door and saw the man in blue bend over a flame at the end of the hall; his cigarette would keep him busy for a few moments, and she slipped off in the other direction, seeking the peace of the doctor’s lounge to make the call.

A drowsy voice answered on the fourth ring. “Hello?”

“Dana?”

“Yes?” A pause and then, more alert, she added, “Who is this?”

“It’s Emma. Dana, I’m sorry to wake you -”

Emma heard shuffling noises in the background, sheets rustling with definite movement. “Emma? What’s wrong?”

Dana knew her so well. She’d always been one of Emma’s favorite cousins; they’d practically grown up together and while similar in looks, they shared an even greater bond of love. Dana was her idol. Emma had stayed the course in her studies because she’d heard the stories of Dana’s bravery and compassion for others. She could only hope to be half the person Dana was. It was the shadow of Dana’s strength she drew on to find the words to continue.

“Dana, I have something to tell you.”

The voice on the other end of the line became frantic. “Emma, is it Dad? Mom? Charlie? Tell me!” Dana knew that Emma worked the night shift at St. Joseph’s, and had automatically assumed the news was bad.

So much for emulating Dana’s courage. Emma swallowed, taking a deep breath as she struggled with words. Suddenly, Dana’s hitching breath was replaced by a stern, yet calm voice.

“Emma, you’re upsetting Dana. What is it?”

Startled, Emma’s fingers gripped the phone even tighter, sure she was hallucinating. “Fox?”

“Yes, Emma. Take a deep breath and tell me what’s going on.”

This wasn’t supposed to be. Of course, the person lying in that bed beyond those doors wasn’t supposed to be who she thought he was, either. It was all so confusing, and she felt as if she was in way over her head.

“Emma!”

Mulder was perturbed at her silence, and she stammered through an explanation. “F-fox, we admitted a patient tonight.”

“I gathered that,” he pressed, his voice terse. “Just spit it out, Emma.” She could hear Dana’s soft, worried queries behind him.

“He – it’s not one of the family, Fox,” she hastened to assure him, though with his looks, he most certainly belonged to the Mulders somewhere along the line. “He looks like you. I thought it was you.” There. She’d said it, foolish though it sounded. Sighing, she realized her bored mind must have conjured up a bit of excitement, knowing the next time she went into the ward, she was likely to find some differences and laugh at her mistake. “Sorry about this, Fox -”

“Emma, are you sure?”

His breathless question took her by surprise. “Fox, it can’t be you, you know that. I think I’m just tired, that’s all.”

“Emma, I’ll be right there. Don’t let him leave, okay?”

“He couldn’t if he wanted to – wait a minute! What did you say?”

“I said I’m on my way.” With that, he was gone.

Emma stared at the receiver in her hand, confused at Mulder’s abrupt decision. What was going on? The man in the ward was most probably a vagrant; a clean one, yes, but a bum just the same. Why would Mulder associate with such a person? One who looked a helluva lot like him, granted. And his frantic question lent suspicion that he might just have a connection to the John Doe down the hall.

Either that, or those stories her brothers passed around, their suggestions that old Fox may have a screw loose… maybe they weren’t so wrong, after all.

**********

“Could it be him, Scully? I mean, really, the odds against are tremendous, but…”

“Mulder, please slow down.”

Scully relaxed a bit at his deceleration, but worry at his high hopes still gnawed at her nerves. Emma’s phone call had sparked flame to an interest of his that until recently had just been a slow smolder. Mulder was passionate about most things, she’d learned in the two years she’d known him. Though in the early days, he’d tamped down his eagerness to explore for fear of scaring her off, these days he had no such qualms with her. Due to her reticence to have his new theories publicly known – mainly for fear of his job – he never spoke them aloud except to her.

And this night proved to upset their tidy world even further. “You know as well as I do, Mulder – it can’t be him.”

“But they never found a body, Scully,” he insisted, taking the turns a bit too fast for her liking. “And don’t say it again – I’ve heard it all before.”

She bit her lip, gathering her coat closer to her body. Mulder, having been exposed to realities the majority of Americans never dreamed of, had good reason to suspect anything thrown in his path. But he also had the best reason to hope for miracles – a gaping hole in his life and the unceasing need for closure. Whether by logical or ridiculous means, he wanted answers. She hated to see him waste his energy on a false promise, but she hadn’t the heart to deny his boundless capacity for hope by telling him the story once again.

“I wasn’t going to say a thing. Except that you missed the turn back there.” With a small smile, she grabbed his free hand, watching him slow the car to a stop at the curb. “Take it easy, Mulder. He’ll still be there when we get to the hospital.”

Squeezing her hand in return, he drew a deep breath, meeting her gaze in the confines of the shadowed car. “I’m an idiot, aren’t I?” he murmured, shaking his head.

“No, you’re a just a man who believes in the impossible. That’s one of the reasons I love you so much.”

“One of the reasons?” His attempt at a grin and his sidelong glance eased the tension of the ride as he ground the gearshift into reverse, ignoring the roll of her eyes. “Do I want to know the others?”

“Oh, just your manly physique and killer smile.” Beneath the fur of her rolled-up coat collar, she gave him an answering smile. “And your way with women.”

He snorted at the last, watching for traffic as he made the turn from the parking lane onto the right street. “Yeah, I have a way with women, all right. It involves the Chinese Mafia, a cabin in the mountains, and a knot on the head.” His wink was self-deprecating. “Smooth.”

“Maybe not smooth, but original,” she replied, pointing out the hospital parking lot with a gloved hand before turning to face him. “Worked for me, Loverboy.”

She waited for his answering quip, but found him staring at the Emergency Room doors, his face pale. His lips were chapped from the cold, and his fingers curled around the car keys in a white-knuckled grip. Without facing her, he whispered, “Scully, what if it -”

“Isn’t him?” she finished, taking up his dwindling words as her own. “Then we’ll deal with it, Mulder.”

He sighed, turning to look at her with haunted eyes. “I meant… what if it is?”

Leaning closer, she pressed a light kiss to his mouth, soothing away the lines deepening his cheeks. “Then we’ll deal with that, too. We beat Chang, didn’t we? Piece of cake.”

Mulder chuckled, opening his car door. He helped her out on his side, gently grasping her by the waist to steady her. Now grinning, he said, “Hate to remind you, Scully… but we never found his body, either.”

“Were you born this paranoid or is it an acquired taste?” she said softly, linking her arm in his.

Gently steering her toward the double doors, he carefully sidestepped patches of snow and ice as he chuckled, “Me? Paranoid? Please.”

Glancing up at his profile, she saw his face harden as they got closer to the hospital, and knew he was bracing himself for disappointment. When they reached the brightly-lit overhang, she stilled his progress, making him look down at her with a sure touch of his chin.

“Don’t worry so,” she murmured. “It’ll be okay.”

Nodding, he seemed to relax, opening the door. She walked past him, praying for an easy resolution to the night. But an inner voice told her it wasn’t in the cards; she felt as if their world was about to be turned upside down.

**********

He really was beautiful, Emma thought as she sat by his bedside. And though he had Fox’s strong jaw and distinctive cheekbones, his nose wasn’t quite so unique and his lips were just a bit thinner. In a face that looked as if it were untainted by years of war and stress, it made a pretty picture, indeed. She wished for him to awaken, so she could have a good look at his eyes. They were what ultimately urged her to phone Dana – their liquid depths had seemed to be pulled straight from Fox’s face. Even in the shadows of the street, she’d seen the uncanny similarity.

What was keeping them? She fidgeted in her seat, wanting them to arrive and prove her wrong. Or prove her right – whatever. But they had to hurry; soon, he would wake up. Once deemed fit by Doctor Belden, he could leave, never to be seen again. Or worse, he could be pronounced unfit because of his nakedness on the street, and shipped to the psych ward with undue haste. No one in the Emergency Room relished the idea of dealing with a crazy man. She’d seen many bums committed before they knew what was happening; it was the county’s way of dealing with most vagrants.

A deep breath from the bed drew her attention from her clasped, tight hands. With eagerness, and a little bit of dread, she looked up, words of comfort already on her lips.

“It’s okay,” she murmured, bringing a hand to his jerking arm. “You’re all right.”

His eyes flew open and he gasped, tensing under her touch. Almost wild with fright, the glassy gaze whipped about the room, as if he expected all of it to collapse beneath him into dust. “The light!” he cried, squeezing his eyes shut.

Emma quickly switched off the lamp, casting the room into shadows, the only light a ghostly cast of the moon over the bed from the window. “It’s okay,” she said again, sitting back beside him. A trickle of apprehension fluttered in her chest; Dr. Belden had performed the usual examination, and had said nothing about vision problems. But maybe this was the onset of something they hadn’t anticipated. “I’ll get the doctor.”

At last, he seemed to get his bearings, grabbing her hand. “No! I’m fine.” He hesitated, cracking open his eyes to look up at her. “The light hurts my eyes, that’s all. Where am I?” he croaked, squinting as he tried to get his bearings.

“The hospital,” Emma supplied softly, lowering herself back into the chair. He really was handsome, she thought. And now that he was awake and talking, she found herself trembling with reaction, which wasn’t good at all. She had to stay professional. Slowly pulling her hand from his, she created a bit of distance, saying with what she hoped was the usual medical concern, “Do you remember how you got here?”

His fingers curled into the sheet, becoming white-knuckled as he struggled to reply. After a few moments, he sighed with frustration. “No.”

“Easy,” she crooned, tucking his hand under the blanket. “You had a little run-in with the pavement – but you’re fine. You were very lucky.”

His tongue darted out to lick his lips, and Emma reached for the glass of water by the bedside, curling a hand behind his head to help him drink. “Thank you,” he whispered, seeming to become more aware as he blinked away the cobwebs. As she pulled away, he suddenly took hold of her hand, his eyes widening. “Red?”

She thanked the dimness for hiding her furious blush. His fascinated, hopeful gaze made her heart trip, and she gave him a small smile. “Yes, it’s red,” she replied, speaking of her hair. “Not the most flattering -”

“You made it out okay.” His heavy whisper tugged at her chest. “You’re okay.”

“Of course I am.” Something about his emotional face, his husky voice, told her he may still be a bit rattled. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“The Nips… all around us. But if I’m in the hospital and you’re here, too, then I’m not dead, am I?”

“The Nips?” Good grief, he was talking out of his head. A flash of warning made her take a step back, but he held on, coming up to one elbow as he pressed forward with his explanation.

“The Japanese. Where the hell are we, anyway? Manila?” He closed his eyes, lying back as a wave of dizziness hit him. “Where’s my uniform? I have to get back to my unit.”

She eased her voice into a cajoling murmur. His war talk was distressing, but not all that unusual, given the knock he’d taken. “Sir, you’re at St. Catherine’s Hospital in Annapolis. You were hit by a car a couple of hours ago in front of this hospital. Can you tell me your name?”

“Maryland?” Those eyes snapped open once again, nearly taking her breath away with their intensity. “What the hell am I doing in Maryland?”

“Sir, if you’d just tell me your name, maybe I could find out -”

“Sam?”

Emma snatched her hand away at the hoarse interruption, glancing at the man silhouetted in the doorway with a relieved upturn of her lips. Before she could greet Mulder, the man in the bed came up on one elbow, his gaze pinpointed past her to Dana’s husband.

“Fox? What the hell am I doing -”

“Sam!”

With a broad smile, Mulder brushed past a stunned Emma to grab the man he called Sam into a hug.

“Whoa, Fox. I’m okay, I’m okay.” Cautiously, Sam’s arms came up to return the enthusiastic hello, his face hidden in Mulder’s coat. Emma caught sight of Dana’s slight form in the door, and moved out of the room in response to her wordless beckoning.

As Emma gave the reunion one last look, she whispered, “What is this?” to Dana, who pulled the door closed behind them with an equally shocked lift of her eyebrow.

“Let’s leave them alone for a while, okay?” Dana said, pulling off her gloves. “Anywhere we can sit and talk?”

Emma took in Dana’s fatigue in a glance and curled her arm through her cousin’s. “Sure. The doctor’s lounge has awful coffee, but maybe I can scrounge up some tea.”

“Tea would be wonderful, Emma. Lead the way.”

**********

“So you see Emma, your call took us quite by surprise.”

“I’ll say,” she muttered, still not sure if she could believe the fantastic tale she’d stumbled into. Dana being rescued by Mulder’s brother, who took a bullet meant for her… then being presumed lost in Laguna Bay when the transport carrying him sank unexpectedly. It was spooky enough to be featured on “Lights Out”.

Sipping at her coffee, she met Dana’s equally dumbfounded look, the questions pouring from her. “But if he was presumed dead, where has he been all this time? Why didn’t he try to let anyone know where he was? Is this man even Mulder’s brother? He could be an axe murderer for all we know.”

“You’re asking me? Emma, I’m as much in the dark as you are. Hopefully Mulder will be able to find out what’s going on.” Dana sighed, leaning back in the lumpy couch, one hand sliding against the faded leather to disappear at her back.

“You okay?”

A small, tired smile curled her cousin’s lips. “I’m fine. Just not used to midnight runs to the hospital. Good practice though, isn’t it?”

As she scanned Dana’s face, Emma noticed the shadows of fatigue on her cheeks, along with the concerned dart of her eyes to and from the lounge door. She hated to make Dana worry so, especially in light of her advanced pregnancy. It hadn’t been easy for her at all. A miscarriage in the early days of her marriage had almost devastated them both, as had the next she’d suffered a mere nine months into the union. On doctor’s orders, they’d waited a while to try again. And even then, the risk remained that Dana wouldn’t carry to term. Her slight stature, coupled with the physical trauma she’d suffered in the internment camp, had left her body an unwelcome vessel for a growing baby. Emma prayed every Sunday morning in mass for the child, as well as for Dana.

She stood, taking Dana’s cup of now cold tea. “Maybe Fox Junior here will go easy on his Mom and make his appearance on my normal shift.” She normally worked three to eleven; it gave her time to see to her Dad’s needs during the day, and enough sleep at night to still function during those hectic hours. “That way you can be asleep by midnight.”

“Fox Junior?” One slim eyebrow arched; Emma had spent many an hour in front of her bedroom mirror trying to imitate the gesture that was more like movie star than nurse. When she’d said as much to Dana one time in a longing sigh, Dana had laughed and said she was far from being Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Emma thought she put those two to shame. “Mulder would divorce me, Emma.”

“I doubt that. He tells Dad all the time you’re the best thing that ever happened to him.”

Dana scooted to the edge of the couch, giving Emma a wry grin. “Well, he wouldn’t think so if I named his son Fox. Believe me.”

Emma helped her to stand. “So, you two picked out any names yet?”

“Christina if it’s a girl,” Dana said softly, giving Emma a solemn glance.

Mulder’s parents had died in a tragic car accident earlier in the year; Emma nodded at the homage they’d decided upon, even if it was common knowledge Fox’s parents were anything but loving toward their oldest son.

“And William if it’s a boy?” Emma prompted, thinking Mulder’s father would have the same respect and remembrance.

Dana’s eyes filled with tears. “Sam. We were going to name him Sam.”

Oh, dear, Emma thought. She’d done it now. In Dana’s face she could see hesitant happiness, with a good measure of concern. Mulder had embraced the man in the room down the hall with certainty, but Dana wasn’t so sure. After all, she’d never met the man. Emma herself had been skeptical even in the face of Mulder’s hearty acceptance. If ‘Sam’ turned out to be just an uncanny look-a-like, Mulder would be crushed. And in turn, Dana would bear the weight of his grief like it was her own. No way would she fail to share in his pain.

“God, Dana. I didn’t mean to make you cry. It’s him, it has to be. Mulder wouldn’t take to him like that unless -”

“Mulder sometimes wants to believe too much, Emma.” Dana took Emma’s hastily produced handkerchief and sniffled into it. “God, I can’t let him see me like this.”

“Why not? You’re pregnant, for Pete’s sake!”

“He has enough to worry about besides having to hover over me like a nurse. He does that too damned much already.”

“Dana!” The Scully men weren’t known for their tolerant attitudes toward female independence of any sort, and cursing was strictly forbidden. Emma had known that at the tender age of six, when she’d found herself with a mouth full of Lifebuoy after mimicking her father’s “Hellfire and save the matches!”

“Oh come on, Emma. You might fool Uncle Mike with that good little angel stuff, but it’s me, remember? How many dirty words did we find in the dictionary at summer camp? Thirty-eight?”

“Fifty-two. We counted even the ones that sounded dirty.”

Together, they began to chuckle, Emma leaning close to whisper conspiratorially, “Farkleberry.”

“Uvula,” Dana supplied, just as covertly.

“Sexton.”

“And your favorite, Dana – pussywillow.” They dissolved into laughter, Dana hanging on to Emma’s hand as she cradled her belly. It took several moments before either was sober enough to stand upright, their eyes twinkling with mirth and remembrance.

Sniffling together now, they quieted slowly, Dana pulling back to say, “Great. Now I have to pee.”

“Peony?”

Warning flashed in Dana’s face, though her lips trembled with the need to suppress more laughter. “Don’t start.”

“Sorry,” Emma said, taking a deep breath. “Ladies restroom is the third door on the left down the hall. If Mulder comes out, I’ll come get you, okay?”

She watched Dana leave, her smile waning. Dana was strong, but inside she was soft as a kitten. The trick was to get past that tough outer shell; but once pierced, it released a flood of emotion. Emma knew she hated to show just how vulnerable she was. The only person besides Emma who had enjoyed the true measure of Dana’s depth and sensitivity was Charlie. And now Mulder, she supposed. But Emma knew Dana needed a more feminine ear now and then, and she vowed to make more time to visit her cousin in the future.

The shuffle of feet to her right brought her head around; Mulder met her inquisitive look with a wry shake of his head.

“He says he wants to leave. He hates hospitals, you know.”

“Don’t we all?” Emma said softly. “Dana’s in the restroom. Let me tell her you’re back.” She paused on her way out, adding, “I don’t think Doctor Belden will let him go just yet, Fox.” She was practically bursting with curiosity, but good manners forbade poking into Mulder’s family business. Not that it ever stopped her family from prying, but she vowed to show more respect for one’s privacy than her father and brothers ever did. She nodded at the policeman still hovering at the end of the hall. “Besides, I don’t know if the officer will let him go that easily.”

“Just leave that to me. I’ll tell him it’s a matter of national security.” Mulder grinned, and she had no doubt he had the pull to make the accident disappear in the eyes of local law enforcement. “Emma?”

She turned, arms crossed over her waist. Mulder always made her slightly nervous, as if he was always looking underneath her skin for what laid beneath. He did that to everyone, she knew. She’d recognized it from the moment she met him, so had her father. In his case, however, he gave as good as he got. Mike Scully was born with pure Irish grit flowing through his veins. Emma felt the same within herself at times, but realized the need for temperance. Still, it didn’t mean she allowed others to get the better of her. Just meant she exercised her brain more than her brawn, what little she had of that.

At her silence, Mulder continued. “I’d appreciate it if you keep this to yourself for a while. Sam doesn’t know how he got here, and he’s confused, to say the least.”

“I wouldn’t tell anyone, Mulder. That’s not my place.”

“Thanks.” His sheepish grin relaxed her a bit. “Sorry if I implied the opposite.”

“That’s okay. It’s been quite an evening, hasn’t it?”

“Sure has,” came the reply behind her.

Mulder covered the distance between him and his wife in two steps. “Scully – it’s him. It’s Sam.”

Dana put a soothing hand on Mulder’s arm. “Are you sure?”

“As sure as I can be. He knows me, Scully. He knows Mom and – damn. How do I tell him about Mom and Dad?”

“There’s lots of time for that,” she said, her look calm yet guarded. “We need to be sure, Mulder. Is there any way we can be sure?”

Mulder faced Emma. “Did you take x-rays?”

“A few. Mostly of the chest. He showed no symptoms of broken bones so we didn’t -”

“Take a few more. Sam broke his left collarbone when he was eight. Should show up on an x-ray.”

“Mulder.” Dana’s tone spoke of the need for more proof. To his credit, Mulder didn’t argue.

“I know, I know. I’ll get his fingerprints from the Department of Defense. Might take a day or two more with the holiday, but that will settle this once and for all.”

“Okay.” Dana started buttoning up her coat. “I guess it’s no use asking if you’re going home tonight?”

“Umm…” He was suddenly at a loss, glancing from Sam’s room to Dana with guilt. Still, it was obvious he didn’t want Dana driving home alone.

It was the perfect time to butt in. “Take Dana home, Fox. I’ll make sure Sam doesn’t go anywhere while you’re gone, okay?”

For a second, he let relief soften his face. Then he looked at Dana once more. “Scully, I don’t want to leave you alone, but I can’t let Sam -”

“I understand,” his wife broke in gently, laying a hand on his fidgeting arm. “Take me to Missy’s. I can bunk there for as long as I have to, she won’t mind.”

Dana had given up school a month ago, on doctor’s orders. Since then, Mulder had practically driven her nuts with his constant hovering, never leaving her side except to work during the day. Emma knew the time would eventually come when he insisted she have a full-time babysitter. She couldn’t wait to see the fireworks that would cause; Dana hadn’t yet had enough of his smothering concern. But when she did, look out.

“Go on,” Emma said, already making her way to Sam’s room. “It’s so slow here tonight, I was about to fall asleep, anyway. Take your time. I can sit with him until you get back.”

Like that would be any hardship. Already, the man intrigued her to no end. A little voice told her this was just the beginning of an adventure of a lifetime.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Three

So much for her promise, Emma thought as she flitted from one bed to another in the crowded Emergency Room. Dana and Mulder hadn’t been gone for fifteen minutes when Harry burst into Sam’s room, out of breath. Thank goodness he hadn’t woken the sleeping man, who had calmed down enough to fall into an easy sleep. With Harry’s news of an apartment fire just two blocks away, Emma knew they’d be swamped with injuries. Giving the lovely Sam a wistful last look, she pointed the lamp to the wall to mute the light and followed Harry to where Dr. Belden waited.

Most of the victims now packing the ER suffered from smoke inhalation, but the frantic children and unnerved parents needed more than the hospital staff’s physical care. For the next several hours she handed out juice, substituted hospital blankets for the security blankets lost in the fire, played peek-a-boo when her nursing skills weren’t needed, and rubbed at her aching back.

Dawn was breaking through the hospital doors when she looked up to see Mulder striding through them, a hesitant smile on his face. Suddenly, she remembered his brother, who she hadn’t checked on in at least an hour. Letting the child in her arms slide down to its mother, she faced him with a regretful smile.

“Mulder, I’m sorry. I haven’t had time to -”

He waved a dismissing hand. “I heard about the fire on the radio. No problem. He’s doing okay?”

She sighed inwardly with relief. Not that she expected Mulder to chastise her for relaxing her guard over Sam, but a promise was a promise. “Last time I checked, sleeping like a baby. We still need to x-ray his collarbone, you know.”

Mulder stripped off his gloves, stuffing them into his coat pockets. “Is it okay if we come back for that tomorrow? I mean, if he’s well enough to come home with me, I’d like to get him out of here.” His tone, the way he shifted his gaze around the crowded ER, spoke of his uneasiness with leaving his brother there another day.

“If you’d rather wait until Monday for the x-rays, I’ll be here. My shift starts at three.”

“That would be great. Give him a bit of breathing room over the weekend.”

Emma nodded. There was no reason Sam had to stay another day or come back tomorrow if it wasn’t urgent; when Doctor Belden checked on him in one of the few moments of calm, he’d pronounced him fit, shaking his head at the wonder of Sam’s good health. In fact, he’d already signed the discharge papers, Emma having told him Sam had family coming by to take him home.

“All you have to do is get him dressed. You did bring clothes, didn’t you?”

He glanced around him like he expected a suitcase to materialize in his hand. “Damn. Forgot ‘em in the car. They might be a bit short, but they’ll do. Can you wake him up while I get his bag?”

“Sure.”

“Are you sure he’s okay to leave?” Mulder shifted from one foot to the other, looking for last-minute approval. Emma understood his hesitation; despite Sam’s fitness, there was something fragile about him, as if he teetered on the edge of disappearing again. She couldn’t blame Mulder for wanting to cover all the bases when it came to a treasured sibling.

“I’m off today, but I can pass by your place this evening to check on him.” She wasn’t sure Mulder trusted anyone, but he seemed satisfied with her offer, giving her a grin. Even more disconcerting was her own motivation for the last offer she’d made; the words had come out of her before she could stop them. She hoped she didn’t sound too eager. Hell, she wasn’t eager. She was just being a conscientious caregiver, that was all. Combined with lingering guilt over not being by Sam’s side all night, it was natural she’d want to do all she could for them both. Thankfully, Mulder didn’t seem to notice her sudden avoidance of his eyes.

“You’ve been here all night long – you sure you feel up to giving Sam a look-see tonight? I mean, I can get Dana to -”

“Dana has no business looking after a patient,” she interrupted tersely, more so to cover her own embarrassment. “I’m tired, but I’m going straight to bed when I get home.” And having to put in extra time at her father’s pub these days was wearing her thin. “In fact, I should have left a half hour ago. Morning shift is on already.” She knew why she hadn’t left; Mulder knew as well, and reached up to touch her slumping shoulder.

“Thanks, Emma. Sorry for all the trouble.”

“Trouble?” She laughed, walking away to fetch her purse and coat. “Mulder, that was the most exciting Thanksgiving I’ve had in years.”

He walked past her, a spring in his step as he trotted toward the exit like a kid going to the candy store. “I’ll see what we can do for Christmas, okay? He winked, almost beaming with happiness.

“Mulder?” she called after him, shrugging into her coat.

He paused, half over the threshold. “Yeah?”

“All I want for Christmas is a new, healthy little cousin. That’s not too much to ask, is it?” Though her request was playful, her tone also told him to tread lightly with this “brother” thing while Dana was in the final weeks of pregnancy.

“Point taken, Emma,” he replied, sobering a bit with a nod. “You don’t have to worry about Dana. There are too many Scullys waiting for the chance to beat the crap outta me if I let her down in any way.”

“And I’ll be first in line.” She smiled, waving him away.

“Don’t I know it,” he threw over his shoulder, letting in cold air as he hurried to his car.

Coat on at last, she pulled the pins keeping her white cap in place, sighing at the removal of the prickly things. Stuffing the cap into her black purse, she asked Maria, the day shift desk supervisor, to keep an eye on it while she woke Sam.

Maria took it from Emma and stuffed it under the counter, never pausing in her perusal of the morning’s caseload. “You mean the cutie in 23?” she asked, her broad olive face cracking into a knowing grin as she glanced up from the clipboard. Off Emma’s nod, she added, “Single?”

“I think so.” Dana hadn’t said anything about Sam being married, or even having a girlfriend. Surely if he were attached in any way, they’d have called the woman in question.

Maria tilted her head to the door. “How about the brother?”

“That one I know for sure. Definitely taken.” Before she could take two steps, she turned with questioning eyes, Maria’s overt curiosity sinking in at last. “Besides, why do you want to know? Aren’t you forgetting someone?”

Maria lifted the pen from the clipboard with flair, returning Emma’s look with the wide eyes of the deviously innocent. “I’d never look at another man besides my Johnny and you know that, Emma. I meant for you.”

She should have saved her breath the last sixty seconds; if she hadn’t been so tired, she would have caught on to Maria’s plan from the moment the other woman began speaking. “Don’t be silly. I’m perfectly satisfied the way I am.” Single. Working. Keeping her father’s household in order.

Lonely.

“But I understand he dropped right into your lap, cara -”

“He didn’t drop into my lap, Maria. He was hit by a car in front of the hospital.”

“And he was naked as a jaybird, smiling up at you like you were his own personal angel of mercy.” Maria’s face relaxed into a knowing grin, as she crossed her arms with satisfaction. “Which I suppose you were. Can’t say I figured you for an angel, Emma – too much temper in that red hair. But you never know. My mama always said angels walked among us.”

Harry and Jack, had to be. Those two could never keep anything to themselves. And Maria, ten times more Catholic than anyone Emma had ever known, was always ready to latch on to the spiritual. She came by it honestly, having been raised in an Italian family who swore to lineage dating back to Pietro Bernadone, the father of St. Francis of Assisi.

Of course, however distant her relation to the patron saint and steadfast her attendance to morning mass, Maria had a romantic streak a mile wide. One of these days Emma fully expected Maria to claim kinship with St. Valentine; goodness knew the woman made an art of matchmaking.

“Now I suppose you’ll be telling me it’s divine intervention I just happened to be on duty last night,” Emma drawled.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

“I’m not listening.” Her singsong answer had never worked before with Maria, and she doubted it would now. However, she could do what she’d always done – ignore it while not really ignoring it. Emma began to walk away, Maria’s voice following her down the hall.

“God gave that man to you, Emma. That means you can’t throw him back. He’s yours!”

Emma sighed as she turned the corner. If only that were true.

**********

Considering he’d been hit by a car the night before, he looked pretty good. Better than good, she admitted to herself, watching him pace by the window in the morning sunshine. Even clad in the flimsy cotton robe the hospital had provided, he made an impressive figure. Fox was easily in the range of six feet tall or more; compared to her stocky Irish brothers, he was a giant. Sam, on the other hand, dwarfed them all.

His shoulders were broad, his hands curled into fists that could probably kill her with one blow. Long, hairy legs peeked out from beneath the robe and she felt her mouth suddenly go dry. Reminding herself she’d seen it all the night before, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Keep it professional, she told herself. Starting with a very concerned comment.

Swinging the door wide, she pasted a smile on her face, eyeing his bare feet with a chiding, “You know, we do provide slippers.”

She felt the wind knock out of her when he turned. Last night, she’d faced an unconscious man. A handsome one, to be sure. Still, nothing could have prepared her for the jolt of seeing him smile. Of watching him walk forward on those bare feet and feeling him take her in his arms.

“You’re here,” he whispered into her hair.

Gracious. Now she really couldn’t breathe. And it wasn’t because of his hold. Loose but secure, he burrowed into her small stature in a way that made her feel like a bird held by a bear. She let herself linger a bit, her hands trapped over his heartbeat. He smelled faintly of antiseptic, but mostly he carried the warm scent of masculinity. A fluttering took up residence low in her belly and she almost purred into his breastbone; with her clunky white flats, that was the extent of her height matched against his. She’d never felt so helpless in her life. And so consumed by another person.

Oh, it was heavenly. And she never wanted it to stop. But it had to; Mulder would come through the door any second. What a way to blow his confidence in her abilities as his brother’s nurse!

“Uh… Sam?” She pushed at his chest feebly, but he didn’t budge.

“I can’t believe it,” he murmured, his hands running over her back as if to memorize her form. “It’s you. I thought I’d made you up last night.”

“You weren’t dreaming,” she replied, finally getting him to move back enough so she could look into his face. “That’s a side effect of the sedatives. I was here last night. I’m still here. But your -” He interrupted her before she could tell him of Mulder’s arrival.

“Your name.” His eyes, though hazel like his brother’s, pierced her with a vivid array of darker hues, sweeping over her face with an intensity that was nearly frightening.

“What?” She gulped, unable to look away from his scrutiny.

“Tell me your name. I can’t keep calling you Red, now can I?” Once again, his brilliant smile burst forth, rivaling the rays of sunlight haloing his head.

You can call me anything you want, her mind swooned, her betraying body clutching at his. Good Lord, this had to stop and quickly!

“Mr. Mulder, I think -”

“Sam. Samuel Mulder. Surely Fox told you my name?”

“He did.” Forcing herself to move, she released his arms and took a step back, feeling him reluctantly let her go. There. That was better. “I’m here to make sure you signed your release papers. Maria should have brought them to you early this morning.”

“Tall Italian girl with the big -”

“That’s her.” Emma cut him off, grabbing the hands that presented themselves before his chest in a demonstration of Maria’s most prominent assets. In a flash, he turned the tables, enclosing her hands in his with a grin.

“Sorry. Sometimes I forget I’m not in a locker room or a barracks.” Squeezing them with purpose, he attacked once more, pulling her closer. “You never did tell me your name.”

“Emma.”

The voice, so like his brother’s, penetrated the fog in Emma’s brain. Trying her best to keep from blushing, she pulled away from Sam’s grip and stuffed her hands in her pockets, facing the door. And a very amused Mulder.

“Good. You’re back. Guess I can be off now.”

“Damn it, wait!” Frustration edging his voice, she heard Sam follow. Just as she sidestepped Mulder, who obviously thought the whole scene fascinating, she was brought up short by a firm hand.

“Even though he’s woefully underdressed for the occasion, I think introductions are in order.” Mulder gently turned her around to face a relieved Sam. “Emma, this is my brother Sam, who’s apparently forgotten his good manners. Sam, Emma Scully. She’s the one who found you last night.”

“Emma.” Again with the smile. If she made it out of the hospital without melting at his feet in an absurd rush of girlish adoration, she’d be lucky.

An abundance of Scully nerve forced up her chin. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.” Those warm, dark eyes swept her from head to toe and back. Damn if he hadn’t looked at her like she was the one in a flimsy gown!

Indignant heat finally brought her tamped-down blush to bear, as well as the curl to her tongue learned from her parents over the years in their house.

“Tis a shameful man you are, Samuel Mulder! Would ya mind puttin’ those eyes back where they belong?”

“Now you’ve done it,” muttered Mulder, who’d lost his smirk at her risen Irish.

“C’mon, doll… I didn’t mean any -”

Doll? I’m no doll, ya mule-headed -”

“Sam, Emma’s the nurse who was on duty last night,” Mulder broke in. “As well as… a part of the family,” he finished lamely, giving Emma a pleading look.

Her fury died a quick death. Mulder only wanted to get Sam home, she knew. He had so much to tell him, if indications proved accurate and his brother had indeed been missing for years. The news would be a mix of good and bad, definitely not something they should discuss in a barren hospital room. It was time to make her exit and leave the two of them to their family business. She nodded at Mulder, defiantly avoiding Sam’s attempts at catching her eye.

“Dad’s waiting for me, I’m sure. I’ll see you later,” she directed at Mulder.

But Sam wasn’t so easily put off. “A part of the family?” Quickly, he searched out her left hand, which she stubbornly refused to remove from her pocket. Bad news to come his way or not, she wasn’t giving him such instant satisfaction. “Don’t tell me you got married, Fox.”

In answer, Mulder shoved the bag at Sam’s chest, who looked like he just had a punch to the gut. “Emma isn’t my wife, you big dope. Now get dressed so we can go home.”

The man had lost his paleness in a heartbeat, giving Emma another dazzling grin. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.” His look said he wasn’t speaking of the trip home.

Giving Emma a gentle shove to the door, Mulder murmured, “The day is young.” As he escorted Emma from the room he said in a louder voice, “Get dressed, Sam. I’ll be waiting out in the hall.”

“See ya later, doll,” Sam called out around the closing door.

She closed her eyes and counted three before facing a sheepish Mulder.

“Sorry about that, Emma,” he said softly. “Sam’s always been a charmer with the ladies.”

Remembering the enveloping hold he’d had on her moments before, she replied with a roll of her eyes, “A charmer? More like the snake.”

At that, Mulder laughed. “If I promise he won’t ‘rub chests’ with you again, will you still come check on him this afternoon?”

She’d thought she couldn’t get any redder. Obviously, she was wrong. “You saw that?” she whispered, imagining she was now just one step above a barroom hussy in Mulder’s estimation.

“The door was wide open,” he admitted, lowering his voice to match hers as he leaned in. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell a soul.”

Emma buttoned up her coat, angry at herself for what she’d let Sam do. “Just Dana, right? God save me, she’s worse than Maria!” Turning, she stalked down the hall, leaving Mulder laughing behind her.

Just last night she lamented her loneliness. So what did God do? Drop a man right into her hospital ward, according to St. Maria of the Emergency Room.

One who was her cousin’s brother-in-law. One who couldn’t remember anything after being shot over two years ago. One who would most likely have a hard time getting a job and would no doubt mooch off his brother. One who was too damn good-looking for his own good.

And one who intrigued her to no end.

**********

It felt good to put on clothes. Being found naked on a cold street wasn’t exactly something you could hold your head up about, and the hospital gown was barely a step up from that embarrassing state. He’d always rolled with the punches, but this one was a doozy, knocking him flat on his back.

Why the hell was he in Annapolis? Last thing he remembered was landing in Los Banos. Then nothing. And to wake up with the same beautiful face before him, albeit in a hospital halfway around the world… very confusing. From the bits and pieces he was able to put together – and from the looks of his much older brother – he’d been missing a long time. Years, perhaps.

The thought staggered him and he clutched at the bed rail for support. He wasn’t used to being so… helpless. He was a man, damn it. Men weren’t supposed to lose control of their lives that way.

“You aren’t a man.”

Sam whipped around at the whispering voice, searching the room for the intruder. All he saw were dust motes shimmering in the sunshine. After a few seconds, he shrugged off the eerie feeling, discounting the experience as leftovers of a bad night.

Hell, a bad year or two, if indications were correct. He had a right to feel as if the unknown hovered over his shoulders.

“Sam?”

Blinking, he swallowed and faced the new voice. This one thankfully belonged to a familiar face.

“Smokey!” As if they already hadn’t had an emotional reunion last night and a brief hello just minutes ago, Sam grabbed Fox in a hug. The chills associated with the few moments before Fox’s return to his room quickly evaporated.

“Slammin’Sammy!” Fox laughed, returning the hug.

The use of their childhood nicknames made Sam’s chest tighten uncomfortably, and he pulled away to slip on his jacket. Fox had always been better able to deal with adversity of any kind and this was no exception. Sam felt disjointed, one moment beaming with happiness and the next, feeling as if his world was falling apart. He hated it. Keeping his head down, he tried to avoid Fox’s keen eye.

“What – no tie? You want me to face Mom without a tie?”

“Sam, I know you’re having trouble remembering and it’s okay -”

It wasn’t okay, but Fox couldn’t see that. He wasn’t the one with Swiss cheese for a brain. “What the hell day is it, anyway?”

“The day after Thanksgiving. November 28.”

“Shit,” Sam breathed, feeling another anvil of bad news whistle down from above. They’d taken Los Banos in February, near as he could remember. “I’ve been gone nine months?”

Fox hesitated. Sam had grown up watching his brother handle the parents; the way he bit his lip as if about to confess to the frog in the lemonade didn’t bode well for what was to come. “1947, Sam. It’s November 28, 1947.”

Sam’s legs wilted and he sat on the bed, avoiding Fox’s helping hand and soft, “You okay?”

“I’m okay.” It was a ghost of a reply, but he thought he handled it well. He dug his shoes and socks from the bag in a jerky effort to cover up his astonishment. He hadn’t been home in over five years. Hadn’t seen his family since his last leave in Christmas of ‘43… couldn’t recall anything past February of ‘45. Jesus.

No wonder Fox looked so old. He wondered if he himself looked every bit of his now thirty-two years. He was afraid to look in the bathroom mirror, dreading what he’d find.

“Look, Sam, let’s just get you out of here. We can talk on the way home.”

With stiff fingers, Sam finished tying his shoe. He couldn’t argue with that. The white walls of the hospital were closing in fast. “Just where is home, by the way?”

“Outskirts of Annapolis – I commute to DC for work. Nice place, lots of room.”

“Why can’t I go to Mom and Dad’s in Georgetown? Where are they, anyway?”

Fox picked up the empty bag with a sigh. “C’mon Sam. We gotta go.”

Everything had changed. From the look on his brother’s face, Sam could tell the news about his parents wasn’t good. Fox had aged considerably in the time he’d been gone, as if he had lived two lifetimes. The city beyond Sam’s hospital window looked normal, but the cars and bustling crowds were different somehow. Faster, louder, more pressing. Even the clothes he wore didn’t fit, inches too short in the sleeves and trouser legs.

Seemed the only thing unchanged was he himself. And then, only physically. He had no idea when his mind would suddenly jump up and bite him on the ass. He’d lost years. Time and friends and family… he pushed down the sudden onslaught of tears and faced his future.

“Show me the way,” he told Fox, walking behind his brother.

To the future of a man without a past.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Four

The news had stunned his brother. Of course, it wasn’t every day you learned of the disintegration of your family. Mulder asked Sam for the second time, “You want me to pull over?”

A thin white line circled Sam’s mouth; he was so pale in the sunshine that Mulder thought he was moments away from throwing up. Sam had always had the look of good health, even in the middle of winter. Somewhere back in their mother’s ancestry was a Mohawk princess; of course, Teena Mulder never liked to discuss her Indian blood, minute though it was. Didn’t make for good Washington socializing. But Sam had grabbed on to the gene, his skin darkening to the shade of a copper penny in the summer.

“No.” Sam didn’t waver from his stare out the front windshield. “I’m okay, Fox. It’s just… a whole lot to hear at once.”

Mulder lapsed into silence as he rounded the corner to his neighborhood. It was a helluva lot to take in and he couldn’t blame Sam for being shocked. To be missing for over two years, to not remember anything of where you were or why you couldn’t even recall a day of that time – to find out your parents had died in an automobile accident in that stretch of endless nothing and your brother had moved on with his life and gotten married. Mulder thought he could sympathize, having lost just about the same amount of time under Chang’s influence. Hell, when he found out Sam was dead, he’d lost his sanity in one fell swoop, causing a chain reaction that almost cost him the only woman with the power to save him from total oblivion.

“So…” Sam cleared his throat as Mulder slowed the car. “Tell me about this wife of yours.”

That Mulder could handle. He could talk about Scully for hours; he was certain Sam would take to her as he’d done Emma. Well, not quite in the same caveman fashion, he hoped. He didn’t feel like breaking Sam’s nose for what – the third time? His memory was as bad as Sam’s.

“Her name is Dana. Dana Scully Mulder.” He couldn’t have kept the overwhelming pride from his voice even if he’d tried. Nor could he let loose his breath at the possibility of Sam recognizing the name. Sam was Scully’s ‘hero’, the one who’d taken a bullet meant for her in Los Banos; she’d even told him after the Chang business was done how she’d seen Sam in a vision. He’d called her by name. Of course, Mulder knew there was no way Scully had seen his brother, dead or alive. Her mind had simply conjured up a release valve for her fears.

“Scully?” That brought Sam’s head around.

Maybe he did remember her after all. “Yeah. Sound familiar?”

“As in Emma Scully?”

“Cousins,” Mulder explained, easing to a stop at his street as he heaved a relieved sigh. Nope, Sam never blinked twice at the name Dana, though he certainly perked up at the connection with Emma. But that would have to be explored later. Much later – they had too many other pressing topics to discuss.

He looked both ways before taking a left; Sam probably thought he was crazy, driving like an old man. But he wasn’t taking any chances with Sam’s well-being. “Their fathers are brothers. It’s how Emma knew to call us last night.”

“She knew me?”

“Not exactly. She thought you were me.”

Sam shook his head with a snort. “As if anyone would find you naked on the street. They’d expect it of me, you know.”

Despite Sam’s ‘golden boy’ status among his family and friends, he’d been in more scrapes as a boy and a young man than Mulder would ever have dared attempt. Instead of turning blue in the face trying to talk his brother out of his latest brush with an irate boyfriend or an even angrier cop, Mulder was the one who pulled Sam out just in the nick of time. Without alerting his parents, naturally. Sam wasn’t bad, but Mulder could never make him see that. And of course, his parents never saw anything but good in Sam, which contributed to his rebellion. Mulder was surprised Sam had stayed in the war so long without ending up in the hands of the MP’s; he wasn’t a troublemaker, just very headstrong at times.

“Lately, they would expect it of me as well,” Mulder said quietly, capturing Sam’s attention.

“Of you? Please. You always had the brains, Fox. And the bravery to go with it. What kind of trouble could you possibly get into?”

Chang, Mulder answered silently. Being a mole for Naval Intelligence. Falling in love with a woman who hated your guts, then having to win her by sheer determination and luck. Then there was this latest fork in the road, one that would make him the laughingstock of the Navy should they find out…

“You don’t know the half of it, Sam.” He pulled into his driveway and killed the motor. “Here we are. Home sweet home.”

It wasn’t much by his parents’ lofty standards, but it suited him and Scully just fine. Sam got out of the car and stood in awe, turning to look at Mulder’s exit from behind the wheel. “This is yours?”

“Yep. Lock, stock and mortgage.” The snow-covered lawn hid the sidewalk, and Mulder motioned Sam to be careful as he picked his way to the front door. “I’ll have to shovel the walk before Scully gets home. Watch your step.”

“Scully?” Behind him, Sam was incredulous. “You call your wife Scully?”

As he opened the ice-crusted door, Mulder smiled slightly. “Long story. Come on in and I’ll make some coffee before I call Scully.”

Sam followed him into the kitchen. “Nice. I assume ‘Scully’ is just as nice?”

“The best.” It had been at least five minutes since he’d mentioned Scully’s first name, five of the longest minutes of his life. Did it click with Sam? “Sam, what’s the last thing you remember?” He put the kettle on to boil, taking his time with filling the basket full of coffee grounds. Nice and easy, almost nonchalant – that was the way to go.

“That’s easy – landing outside that prison camp.” Sam sat at the kitchen table, looking up at Mulder with a grin. “Best landing we ever had. Taking the fence was a piece of cake. Hardly any resistance at all.”

“And then?”

Sam’s face clouded as he began to roll the salt shaker between his hands. “All of a sudden, bullets were flying around us. I remember… this woman… God, she looked like death warmed over. Speaking Japanese, begging me not to kill her.”

His back to Sam, Mulder closed his eyes and relived the incident once again. This time, instead of Scully’s halting voice, he heard Sam’s low tones. But the tale was just as horrifying.

“I looked down into her face…” Sam paused, a note of wonder trickling into his words. “I mean, I knew there were women POW’s in the camp, but it shocked the hell out of me to hear one speaking Japanese. I wasn’t even sure she was one of ours until she looked up. She had the bluest eyes. American eyes. I told her something – God, something stupid about baseball – and when she looked up at me again I could tell she understood. She started crying and… damn, Fox, she was beautiful. Beautiful and so damned skinny she’d blow away in a stiff wind. I remember wanting to kill every God damned Nip I could get my hands on for doing this to her. Then -”

Mulder couldn’t turn around; he gripped the coffeepot with white fingers. “Then what?”

A heavy sigh came from the table behind him. “Then nothing. Maybe an instant of pain, I don’t know. Mostly fuzzy words and pictures after that, until I woke up last night. Not a damn thing.”

An instant of pain. Sam didn’t remember being mortally wounded.

“You think someone knocked me out? Is that it?”

Mulder couldn’t find the words to tell Sam the truth. There was time for that later; Sam had heard enough bad news for one day. Apparently he’d survived his injury. The time after that worried Mulder more than anything.

“Maybe so,” he murmured. “We’ll find out, Sam.”

So Scully’s hero had been exactly that. Sam. None of this made any sense, but one thing was true. Sam had been there, and had been officially declared dead by the Army. Mulder, while not one hundred percent sure her rescuer had been Sam, always clung to the hope it hadn’t been him. It had taken a long time for him to let go of his belief he was second-best to Sam in Scully’s eyes, even over her declaration of love for him and their hasty marriage. Would she now look at Sam and realize her mistake had been genuine?

“About Emma…”

Sam’s abrupt change of subject made Mulder lift an eyebrow. “Yeah? What about her?”

“She’s not old enough to have been in the…” Sam trailed off, and Mulder turned, seeing his brother straighten in his chair, the salt shaker planted firmly on the table with a quick smile. “How old is she, anyway?”

“Oh, I dunno – twenty-five or twenty-six. She’s a great girl – she’s taken care of her father since her mother died something like five years back, according to Scully. Any particular reason for the ‘twenty questions’?” he finished with a wink.

For an instant, a shadow of disappointment crossed Sam’s face. It was gone as quickly as it had come, replaced with an even bigger smile than the last. Fake almost, but then again, Sam’s smile had always come easier and broader than his own. “No reason. Just checking the ID, you know.”

“If she were underage, she wouldn’t have been working at the hospital, you know.”

“Uh, yeah – right. You’re still pretty sharp, Fox.” He touched a finger to his temple. “Unlike me. My head feels like it has more holes in it than an outfield playing a pull hitter.”

“You just need time, Sam. Things will get better, I know it.”

“Sorry, Smokey,” Sam said, using the nickname like a lifeline to pull Mulder back from his melancholy. Sam might think old Smokey had all the brains, Mulder thought, but Slammin’ Sammy had his fair share. “I wish I could remember more. And I didn’t mean to make you -”

“You didn’t,” Mulder interrupted, reaching for the whistling kettle. He poured quickly, wiping at his damp face. “I’m just glad you’re home, that’s all.” The ringing of the telephone was a welcome respite; with a mumbled, “Be right back,” he left Sam at the table looking more confused than ever.

The coolness of the central hallway was like a breath of fresh air. Even more comforting was the sound of Scully’s voice after he said hello.

“Hi there, sailor. How’s everything so far?”

For a woman miles away and battling to overcome the trials of pregnancy, she sounded like Ava Gardner and Veronica Lake rolled into one. The tremor in his reply vibrated out of him with such sheer need it felt like days since he’d last seen her.

“God, I miss you.”

“Already? And here I was, thinking you’d abandoned me for a comfier couch.”

Her recollection of a long-ago conversation concerning furniture preferences made him chuckle. “You know you’re my favorite sofa. Even if you give ‘overstuffed’ a new meaning these days.”

“Watch it sailor. This is your throw pillow I’m carrying around, you know.”

“You won’t let me forget it.”

“Neither does he.”

Something in her tone alarmed him. “You okay? Scully, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing, Mulder,” she assured him. “I just missed my before breakfast back rub, that’s all. So did little Sa – so did the baby, apparently. He’s been jumping around in there all night. Missing his dad, I think.”

Mulder noticed her abrupt change of direction and commented on it. “It’s okay, Scully. Nothing says we still can’t name him Sam. After his very much alive uncle.”

She paused for a moment and he heard her sigh. “How is he? Doing okay?”

“As well as can be expected, I suppose. Looks like he stepped right out of one of those European spas.” Actually, he was amazed out how utterly fit Sam looked. Whoever took care of him the past two years had done an excellent job; the only thing different was the pure lightness of his skin. Wherever he’d been, he must not have seen the sun too often.

“And mentally?”

“Doesn’t remember a thing.” He glanced at the open kitchen door, where he could see Sam pouring himself a cup of coffee. In a whisper he added, “He does remember you, however.”

A sharp gasp flew over the line. “Does he know who I am?”

“He knows I’m married to a woman named Dana. He doesn’t remember anything about the woman at Los Banos except for her blue eyes. Then nothing.”

“Nothing? But I saw him get hit, Mulder. In the chest. Mortally wounded.”

“Was he dead when they took him away? Did you actually see him die?”

“I saw him close his eyes. He fell limp in my arms, Mulder. If he wasn’t dead, he was sure to be soon. There was blood.” The conversation affected her as much as it did him, as she choked out her next words. “So damn much blood.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” Hell, he shouldn’t have brought it up over the phone. “Listen, I’d like for you to spend the day at Melissa’s. Can you do that? Emma’s coming by later on and I want her to be here when he sees you.”

He didn’t have to tell her the reason why; as a trained medical professional, she already knew Sam had suffered quite a shock and it wouldn’t hurt to have Emma there should the sight of her cause him further harm.

“Good idea. I can call her and have her pick me up. Save Missy having to pack the kids along. And I won’t bring up Los Banos if he can’t remember it, so don’t worry.”

“Like you’d jump headfirst into that,” he snorted, knowing she was the most level-headed person he’d ever known. “I just want to cover all the bases with him, Scully. He’ll come to terms with whatever happened to him eventually, and until then, I think he needs to take it slow.”

“Agreed. Starting with some new clothes. Lots of good sales today, Mulder. Take him shopping. Spend some time talking. Bring home Uncle Mike’s corned beef and cabbage for dinner.”

“Ha! I knew there was an ulterior motive behind all these helpful suggestions.”

“You’d better believe it, sailor. I’m not cooking for you and that hulk of a brother tonight.”

“He is bigger’n me, isn’t he?”

“I know. I remember.”

Silence drifted over the line. Sam may not remember much about Los Banos, but Scully had every detail burned on her brain. Mock jealousy crept into his reply. “Bigger isn’t necessarily better.” Well, he hoped it sounded teasing, anyway. Insecurity had a way of taking hold of him at inopportune moments.

“I’m very happy with the couch I have, Mulder.”

Once again, he found himself sputtering like a fool. “So am I. Love you, Scully.”

“I love you too, Mulder.” This time, her voice held the same low need. “I’ll see you tonight, okay?”

She gave him a brisk goodbye and rang off. Holding the receiver in hand, he smiled.

“Either that was your wife on the phone or you’ve taken up all my bad habits with the dames.”

Mulder started, slowly hanging up the telephone as he pasted a smile on his face. How much had Sam heard? “She’s at her sister’s for the day.” He nodded at the cup in Sam’s hand. “Coffee okay?”

Sam straightened from his lax pose against the door frame. “Perfect. You’re out of milk, by the way.” His gaze searched Mulder’s frozen face and he looked as if he was about to blurt out something more important than the Mulders’ lack of dairy products.

“We can pick some up on the way home.” Mulder hadn’t even doffed his winter coat; he dug into his pocket for the car keys. “Ready?”

“We just got here, Fox. Why do we have to leave again?”

“You need clothes. Scully reminded me -” He broke off, biting his lip as he turned for the living room. Damn. So much for avoiding the telephone call.

“Fox, I wasn’t eavesdropping,” Sam said with a chiding grin. “All I caught was the ‘love you’ at the end. Which was smoother than silk, you know. You have learned something from me after all.”

With a silent sigh of relief, Mulder turned back to face his brother with a heat building in his cheeks. “Believe me, ‘smooth’ never works with Scully.”

“Smart, huh?” Sam downed the rest of his coffee in one gulp.

“As a whip. She’s…” He trailed off, knowing there was something else Sam needed to know before they went any further. “She’s strong but at the same time, fragile. She’s pregnant, you know.”

“What?” Sam quickly transferred his empty cup to his left hand, beaming as he reached for a handshake. “Hot damn! Congratulations, Smokey! Now I really have to meet her. Why the hell isn’t she here?”

Mulder smiled through the jarring handclasp, accepting Sam’s good wishes for a few moments before sobering. Quickly, he explained Scully’s previous miscarriages and how they had to monitor her very closely throughout this pregnancy. Sam listened with concern, though his happiness dwindled little.

“So, when can I expect to be an uncle, Smokey?”

“Sometime after the New Year. Most likely the middle of January.” Every time he thought of being a father, he shook in his shoes. The feeling was ten times worse than any time he’d faced down the wrong end of a gun.

“She’ll be okay,” Sam said quietly, seeing Mulder’s hesitation. “I know it. And it’ll be a boy.”

“What – all of a sudden, you can predict the future?” Mulder laughed.

His eyes took on a faraway look. “I just know it.”

Mulder’s laughter died a quick death. “Sam? What is it?”

Shaking off the mask of stillness, Sam grinned. “Nothing. The only future I can predict is the ass-kicking you’ll get if you don’t bring back dinner. C’mon, Smokey. Let’s get some better duds for the prodigal son.”

As he watched Sam head for the front door, Mulder’s heart skipped a beat. “Hey,” he called out, following his brother. “How’d you know about -”

“You have a pregnant wife who’s spending the day at her sister’s,” Sam threw over his shoulder. “Don’t tell me she’s gonna come home tonight and cook?”

The cold air was bracing, clearing Mulder’s head of all suspicions about Sam’s sudden gift for divination. “Bingo.”

As Sam practically bounded down the front steps he snorted, “And I said you had all the brains.”

**********

Sam took his time in the upstairs bathroom, reveling in the first hot shower he could remember in… well, years, he thought with chuckling self- derision. Everything he did today, everything he was liable to do tomorrow, he’d not done in years, if his memory was anything to go by. Adding to the overall creepy feeling that hung over him was the fact he was using the master bedroom and bath. At Fox’s insistence, he’d hung his still-tagged department store clothes in the closet and set out his brand-spanking-new comb, razor, and toothbrush on the counter in the spacious bathroom. All was peachy keen.

“Dana can’t climb the stairs anymore,” Fox had explained. “We use the guest bedroom downstairs.”

The logic made sense. But still, there was something unsettling about using a bed and bath that belonged to your brother and his wife. The whole house was warm and alive, awaiting the arrival of Fox’s newborn with open arms. He, on the other hand, felt as if he were the walking dead. Not physically; he’d never felt better in that respect.

He took his new comb in hand and filled his lungs with blessed, calming air before facing the mirror. Slowly, he tugged the tamer through his unruly hair. One stroke, then two, then three – all the while searching his face for signs of age. Where Fox sported more than a few gray hairs, his own was still dark. Where the corners of his brother’s eyes fanned out in tiny lines, his were still unmarked by time. It was downright spooky, like he looked at a younger twin of himself. He didn’t like it.

He was lost, period. A lost man, a lost soul, whatever name, it didn’t matter much. He no longer even had a home or the familiarity of his old clothes and personal items. All that was gone, disposed of after his parents’ death. He’d had to finally tell Fox to shut his trap with all the apologizing. It wasn’t his fault. No one was to blame.

Because he wasn’t anyone anymore.

Despite the sibling connection, he and Fox were distant. Sam supposed that could be blamed on the awkwardness of the situation and his memory loss. They’d always been close as kids, only drifting apart when it became clear Fox’s calling was in academia and his, athletics. Sam didn’t like to think ill of the dead, but his father fostered those differences, practically pushing them both to excel in their respective strengths. In doing so, he further alienated them from one another. Still, they found ways to communicate; it wasn’t like they were ever in competition with one another, even if Bill Mulder encouraged that behavior by rewarding the winner.

And Sam knew how to win. Of course, winning at the local baseball tournament was flashier and garnered more attention than acing the top spot in French class. Fox never begrudged him the trophies and the newspaper clippings; in fact, when the time came to enlist and Fox was nabbed by Naval Intelligence, Sam deliberately walked to the nearest Army recruiting office and signed up, opting out of his minor league contract with the military service loophole. Fox was destined for greatness in the war and becoming just another foot soldier was Sam’s homage to his brother’s superior intellect. Besides, it pissed his old man off to no end. He kind of liked telling his father ‘no thanks’ for his offer to get him transferred stateside.

“You have to think of your baseball career, boy,” Bill Mulder growled. “Next year, you’ll be in the majors, everyone says so! Don’t throw all that away!”

Sam could still see the ever-present glass of scotch in one hand and the cigarette in the other. Even more vivid was the mental image of his father’s livid anger at Sam’s defiance.

It had been the first time he’d overtly disobeyed his father, and it felt good. He’d miss his too- meek Mom and his browbeating Dad, but he was thankful he didn’t have to try to explain this mess to either of them. He didn’t think he could stand the sure condescension and embarrassed attempts to hide him away from their friends. Mulders didn’t have anything wrong with them, certainly not in their heads. A little amnesia would have been a first class ticket to an asylum for “rest and relaxation”.

The roar of a car engine snapped him from ancient history; sweater in hand, he went to the front window and wiped away the inside moisture. Even with darkness falling, he could make out two slight forms in the front seat of the Buick.

Emma and… Dana. He shook his head at the lapse, grasping the name after a few moments of hesitation. What a way to greet your new sister- in-law.

Hi, I’m Sam but I can’t remember anything. Not even your name, though Fox told me just this afternoon what it was… but then again, I can’t remember shit, anyway.

Dragging the navy sweater over his head, he smiled. He had no trouble at all remembering Emma. Short and tartly sweet, with an hour-glass figure and a temper one shade shy of the fiery red of her hair. The attraction to her had been instantaneous; with her voluptuous body and smooth, round face, she represented home at its very best. The fact her face triggered a moment of recognition in him last night he discounted. No way was she his mysterious ‘Red’ of Los Banos, despite the way the spark hit him again this morning. He’d had confirmation when Fox had said she’d spent the last five years in the States. He may have been out of it a bit last night – and apparently missing the last two years – but he remembered that winsome face from the internment camp well enough to know it when he saw it, which he doubted he ever would again.

No, what Emma stirred in him amounted to nothing more than plain lust. Just because he felt a bit of tenderness toward her – something he’d never before experienced with any woman – didn’t mean he’d back down from the challenge she presented. However, he’d have to be very careful around his brother and sister-in-law when it came to wooing the girl. Now that he was back home, no matter where he’d been the past two years, he was determined to pick up where he’d left off with his life.

Starting with one tiny redhead.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Five

“Dana, I’m not a doctor.”

Emma couldn’t help but reiterate her trepidation about the main reason Fox wanted her to bring Dana home this evening. Dana had tried her best to explain that it was likely to end up amounting to nothing at all, seeing as how Sam hadn’t reacted so far to any mention of a woman named Dana. Of course, he hadn’t known her name when she saw him last at Los Banos, but the chance he’d recognize her after all this time was slim to none.

But just in case, Emma was along to forestall any medical complications. She couldn’t argue with the fact that Dana was in no condition to come to Sam’s aid should he need it, and carrying him back to the hospital just to have a doctor close by was bound to arouse his suspicion. If all went well, the introductions would be made and Sam would go on thinking of Dana as Fox’s wife, period. That would buy them time to investigate just how he’d managed to disappear for two years without a trace.

“Emma, there’s more at stake here than Sam’s well- being.” Dana slipped on her gloves, her face pinched with worry.

Emma set the brake and killed the motor before turning to face her cousin. “Why do I get the feeling you’re about to tell me something I don’t want to hear?”

Dana sighed, looking up at the blazing lights of the house. “Mulder already believes the man in there is Sam. No question.”

A trickle of dread climbed up Emma’s spine. “And you?”

“I just find it hard to believe he shows up after two years with not even an inkling of where he’s been.”

“Dana, amnesia is a very real condition.”

“You don’t have to tell me that, Emma. In Sam’s case, I hope it’s genuine. But I really don’t know the man; I’ve never even met him. All I have are Mulder’s memories to rely upon.”

“Mulder wouldn’t let Sam near you if he was a threat.”

“What if he’s a threat and doesn’t know it himself?”

Emma’s eyes widened with surprise. “You mean -”

“Brainwashing.” Dana scooted a bit to face Emma directly, her worry evident in the crease of her brow. “Emma, I saw many forms of torture in Los Banos. I saw men whipped and forced to do things they would never do otherwise. I saw fine, healthy men reduced to mindless zombies who could only utter ‘yes’ to every command in Japanese.”

“You think Sam may have been held somewhere all this time? His mind wiped clean? For what purpose?”

It was as if it pained Dana to say it. “Chang. They never found his body, you know.”

“Oh, come on, Dana.”

“I’m not joking, Emma. Men like Chang are very real and very hard to stop.”

Emma swallowed hard, speechless at the possibility. It was too far-fetched, too surreal to consider. Dana and Fox were used to espionage and all things top secret, but she, like ninety-nine percent of the population, happily buried her head in the sand as far as true evil was concerned. There were men in the government who took care of such things. Men like Charlie and that nice Commander Skinner, and… Fox.

Fox, who had a crazed Chinaman lie in wait almost a year to take his revenge. Fox, who had to watch that same Chinaman kidnap Dana and threaten to take her halfway around the world to become – God, she couldn’t even think it. Fox, who was still so deep into that very same spy stuff none of her family knew exactly what the hell his job was these days.

“Okay,” she said slowly, “maybe it’s not so fantastic after all. What do you want me to do?”

“You? Emma, I can’t ask you to get involved in this.”

“Why not? You said yourself Fox already believed Sam was the real deal. Who else can you turn to? Commander Skinner? He’d have Fox and Sam in his office in the bat of an eye and you know it. Then, if it all turns out to be nothing, you’ll have one very angry husband.”

“I know.” Dana dropped her chin. “I’m probably just suffering from an overdose of hormones. Forget it.”

Emma grabbed Dana’s hand. “No, I won’t forget it. You obviously feel something about Sam is very wrong; it’s up to us to figure out what it is. Deal?”

Dana squeezed the fingers holding hers with a small smile. “If we get into any trouble, we call Skinner immediately, got it?”

“Got it.” Though she was still a bit cautious about the whole idea, she felt a thrill steel her shoulders. She trusted Dana’s judgment and figured there was a grain of truth to her suspicions. The way Sam had just surfaced out of nothing, naked as the day he was born, was enough to arouse doubt in the most trustworthy of people. Still, having seen him and spoken to him, she didn’t think he was up to anything nefarious. It would make for one interesting escapade, however. Something her boring life desperately needed. “So what’s the plan?”

“I want you to examine him.”

Emma pulled her hand away. “What?” Great. Just when she had the chance to build some defenses against the guy via street clothes, Dana wanted to subject her to the full naked glory once again. “We examined him last night at the hospital.”

“Did you see a scar on his chest from a bullet wound?”

To tell the truth, she’d not been looking except for a quick scan for bruises. Remarkably, Sam was virtually untouched from his collision with the automobile.

“I thought so.”

“Dana, I wasn’t exactly looking for bullet wound scars, you know.”

“Then it shouldn’t be a problem to find one, should it?”

“But won’t you get confirmation when Sam’s fingerprint records arrive? And what about the x- ray Monday?”

“Both of which will probably prove me wrong. But I know what I saw, Emma. Sam – if that is Sam at all – was shot right in front of me.”

“Now you’re saying it may not even be him?” This was getting more ridiculous by the moment. Emma wondered if Dana’s hormones had taken over control of her faculties. “That’s impossible.”

“Think about it, Emma. Chang survives the explosion. He lays low, finds out all he can about Mulder, how Sam was missing and presumed dead at Los Banos. He finds someone who looks enough like Sam to be believable – or changes his face with plastic surgery until it’s perfect – and sends him here to kill Mulder. Mulder hasn’t seen his brother in six years, Emma. The real Sam was barely twenty-six when he left for war. Still a young man.”

“You’ve been hanging around Fox too long.”

“Just do me this one favor and look. Please?”

Emma couldn’t resist the pleas of a pregnant woman. Especially if that woman was her favorite cousin in the whole world. Her best friend, really.

“Damn.” Dana’s expletive made Emma look up. “Here comes Mulder. Emma, please?”

She sighed, recognizing the worry Dana had for her husband and her baby. It would all amount to nothing, anyway. “Okay. But this is weird, Dana. Really weird.”

“And a dead brother showing up after two years isn’t?” Dana reached for the door handle, schooling her face into a smile for Fox.

“What are you two up to in there? It’s freezing, Scully.” Fox’s teasing had a quiet, worried edge. But he looked like a kid at Christmas, all smiles and hopeful thoughts of candy and gifts. “C’mon – I want you to meet Sam.”

She had to admit, Dana had a point. From his whole demeanor, Fox had already accepted the man inside as kin, and therefore, beyond reproach. Reaching for the small bag of medical supplies she’d brought with her, she took a deep breath and prepared to face the mysterious Sam once again.

**********

He stumbled over his own feet before he even made it to the stairs. “Shit.” He’d never been clumsy, but suddenly his legs wouldn’t cooperate. Maybe it was the new shoes. Fox’s had been pinching him all day, something he hadn’t discovered until the feeling returned to his toes when he took them off earlier.

A pair of feminine voices drifted up the stairs, stopping him cold.

“So where is he?” Emma. Even the sound of her voice had the power to make his stomach sink to his knees. Damn, he must be more starved for a woman than he thought if just that simple question felt like a kiss. “Don’t tell me – he’s out wrestling with the cars on the street. And just when I decided to park it, too.”

Yep, that was her all right.

“Emma.” Softly chastising, the other female chimed in. This tone was equally pleasant, maybe just a bit lower. A chill skittered over his skin and he hovered on the second floor landing.

“You okay, Scully?” Fox’s muffled question told Sam he had his arms around the source of that gentle voice. His brother had it bad. ‘Scully?’ Talk about henpecked, if she made him call her by her maiden name.

“I’m fine, Mulder. Just a bit tired. And in need of the bathroom. I’ll be back in a bit.”

He heard two pairs of footsteps go down the hallway; Fox was such a worry wart, following his wife like that. But Sam wasn’t about to let the opportunity slide for some one-on-one with the prickly Emma. Silent as a cat, he slipped down the stairs to see his prey shrugging off her coat.

“You might want to keep that on,” he said, gratified to see her jerk with surprise.

“And why is that?” Good recovery, he thought, watching the invisible walls go up in a flash.

“Well, I’m here.” He spread his arms wide. “And ready to wrestle. No can do on the car. Gives you an unfair advantage.” Winking, he added, “I’m willing to strip to give you a head start if you want.”

“Oooh…” Emma sputtered, her already cold-pinked cheeks becoming a splash of furious red. “You – you -”

“Handsome devil?” he prompted, moving closer to help her with her coat.

“Don’t touch me, ya rogue.”

Ah, that’s what he wanted to hear. That hint of a brogue meant he was getting to her, big time. What did they say about the line between love and hate? Thin. Mighty thin.

Now that he’d riled her a bit, it was time to back down and play the gentleman.

“C’mon, doll.” She didn’t move away from his advance this time, letting him take her coat. She looked good enough to eat, her dress a soft shade of navy wool that flared softly above those strong calves. He averted his eyes from her generous bosom a split second before she looked his way; it wouldn’t do to be caught mentally undressing her after he’d done it once already today. Gulping down the urge to smooth his hands over the flare of her hips, he said in a hoarse voice, “I don’t have all that much to laugh about these days, so gimme a break.”

Playing on sympathy was something he’d learned at an early age. He didn’t take advantage all that often, only when circumstances threatened to hold him accountable for a misdeed. His good looks and charm held sway with most women, especially his mother. However, he’d always stopped short of making Fox take the heat when they were kids. If there was one thing he was proud of, it was that he’d learned courage at his brother’s side. He never had a problem diminishing his preferred status in his parents’ eyes by admitting to his transgressions. When Fox allowed it.

His smile faded a bit as he hung Emma’s coat on the rack in the foyer. Fox hadn’t told him everything, he was certain of it. Hearing the news of his parents’ death was bad enough, but instinct told him far worse awaited him. Getting Fox to stop babying him long enough to spill it would be the hard part. With the wife and Emma now in the house, there was no way he was ever going to squeeze the truth from his brother. Not tonight, anyway.

“Sam? Anything wrong?”

Emma’s anger had quickly turned to concern. What was wrong? Oh, not much, he wanted to sneer. Just a bad case of amnesia he felt was one step away from insanity. Oh yeah – and he felt like he walked in another man’s body. Not much. Just give the poor guy a cup o’joe and he’d be fine.

God, when had he become such a misfit?

He let the lost look he knew blossomed on his face die, and he faced her with a renewed smile. One that didn’t quite reach his eyes, but he gave it the old college try in the face of her sudden seriousness.

“Nothing,” he said, his voice sounding louder than normal to his ears. Stuffing his shaky hands in his trouser pockets, he added, “I’m just nervous about meeting the new Mrs. Mulder, that’s all.”

Emma unwrapped her scarf, twisting it in her hands as if she shared his anxiety. “Dana’s a wonderful person, Sam. She loves Mulder very much.”

His smile twisted into a grimace; he brushed past Emma to the bar nestled in a shadowed corner of the living room. “Am I the only one who calls him Fox? Since when did he become ‘Mulder’?” Fox was Fox, period. Didn’t matter if he was married, with a child on the way.

Hell yes, it mattered. It mattered a great deal, because it was different. He’d lost everything in the blink of a two-year-old parachute jump. As far as he was concerned, he was still holding on to those ropes – still waiting to land in a familiar place. Inwardly cursing his clumsy hands, Sam took his time pouring a small splash of scotch in a tumbler.

In seconds, Emma stood beside him, taking the glass from his hand with a severe, “That won’t help.”

He snatched it back with a dark look. “Like hell it won’t.” Defiantly, he dared her to object as he knocked it back like a pro. He should know how to drink with the best – he’d done his fair share before and during the war. He wasn’t Bill Mulder’s son for nothing.

“You just got out of the hospital. You shouldn’t be drinking.” As calm as she was angry moments ago, she reverted to nurse mode. Something which made him more angry than ever. “If you need to talk to someone -”

“I’m not fucking crazy!” he almost shouted, though he felt like that final step was closer than ever. He poured another drink, this one deeper and guaranteed to take the edge off. It went down in a tasteless blur.

Arms akimbo, Emma barked, “Fine. Greet your brother’s wife with whiskey on your breath. Make a great first impression!”

“What do you think I am? A gorilla? I’d never say or do anything to hurt my brother’s wife.”

“Dana, bless her heart, would never condemn you. But you’d embarrass your brother this way?”

Slamming his glass down, he reached for the woman who faced him. Exhilaration surged through him, along with a good dose of frustration. He should just kiss her and be done with it. Shut that sassy mouth the only way he knew how. God knew he wanted to, had wanted to from the moment he saw her. It was good to know one thing hadn’t changed – a pretty woman still had power over him. Second only to his love for baseball, the scent and feel of a woman made him heady with excitement. He didn’t know if leather and horsehide would still arouse the same passion for the game. But did women smell the same? Did women still taste the same? Whiskey sure as hell didn’t. Though a rush of intoxication made him sway; whether from the alcohol or her nearness, he wasn’t sure. In either case, his tongue slurred his words.

“Why can’t you be her?” It wasn’t what he wanted to say, but it escaped on its own. An instant of relief at the confession made him relax and let go of his anger.

Why couldn’t she? She looked enough like her, had blue eyes almost the same color as the sky. Maybe if he pretended the woman before him was the one he remembered last, he could open the door to those missing years. Make everything normal again.

“Her?” Confusion clouded those eyes, just as it had on that dusty February morning.

“Red. I remember Red. She would know what happened, wouldn’t she? My Red.” It was a thread of hope he held on to, a flash of color in an otherwise yellowish memory. His hands released her shoulders to cup her face. “I know you aren’t her… but damn it, why can’t you be? For just one minute. One lousy minute.”

Those eyes widened for a moment, then just as quickly filled with tears. “Oh, Sam…” she breathed, her hands settling at his waist as if to draw him into an embrace.

Heart pounding, he let her come closer. Maybe it was her, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Maybe he’d had one stroke of luck in an otherwise dismal day –

“Hey – I let you get away with it earlier, because you were in the hospital. But now, you’re treading dangerous ground, Sam. She has nine brothers, you know.”

At the sound of Fox’s voice, Emma pulled away, despite Sam’s attempts to hold on to her. Head lowered, he felt her move around him and address the untimely intrusion.

“He’s a bit nervous, Mulder,” she said lightly, as if the scene meant nothing more than that. “I told him he looks fine, though. Charming as ever. Good thing I’m immune or I’d be in serious trouble.” She laughed, an easy return to normalcy he envied.

Sam shifted, giving the two his back as he wiped at his face with an unsteady hand. He wished he had Emma’s knack for recovery. He wanted to take that step back from the precipice he felt dangerously close to stepping over. Damn his queasy stomach and rubbery legs.

“Dana okay?” Emma again. She was good, he had to admit. She would have made an excellent actress.

“She’s fine. Coming right out.”

The wife. Jesus. Sam took a moment to compose himself, breathing deeply. The earth beneath his feet felt soft, refusing to lend support to his body. Thank goodness Emma was in control, because he felt like screaming. Forcing a calm he didn’t feel, he latched on to Fox’s last statement. “Nine brothers? Am I going to need backup to get in the door?” He turned to face a new chapter of his life.

Fox stood in the living room doorway, his tall form blocking the entrance of a skirted pair of slender legs. “Mulder?” came the soft entreaty from beyond.

Sam’s heart skipped a beat. He knew that voice.

<Still. Be still.>

He couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. He could only stare as Fox moved aside to let his wife pass. She stepped forward with a wary smile, her hand offered in greeting. “My name is Dana. You must be Sam.”

She looked just as unsure as he was certain he’d found his missing link. There could be no other with eyes like that, with a face like that.

With a pregnant belly like that. He swallowed, knowing his day just hit rock bottom. Smiling, he folded his hand around her small one. “Don’t tell me,” he said, amazed at how normal he sounded. Did she know him like he knew her? Only one way to find out without making Fox suspicious. “You’re a Dodger fan. Must be fate.” The words made him shiver as they echoed about the room; he’d said the same to her long ago, word for word.

A flash of something – recognition, maybe, mistrust, definitely – colored her face. But she recovered quickly, disconnecting the handshake as she moved to his brother’s side. Taking Fox’s hand in her own, she leveled a steady gaze at Sam. “I am. Is that so bad?”

She knew. And she’d made a bold statement with her stance, daring Sam to make a scene. He sucked in a swift breath, glancing at Fox, who remained unmoved by the unfolding drama. “You couldn’t find a Yankees fan?” he asked, giving his voice a sneering edge designed to mask his riotous emotions.

“Sam?” Confused, Fox took a small step forward.

Sam saw the sympathy behind Fox’s guarded eyes and snapped. “What now? What else are you gonna take away from me?”

“Sam -”

“It’s not enough I can’t remember the past two years?” He no longer had control of his tongue; harsh anger and real fear flushed his skin. He felt hot and betrayed, with a million invisible pins pricking his body. “Why’d you bother? Why bring me here? Go on, God damn it! Call in the straightjacket!”

A softer voice penetrated his misery. “Sam, it’s not like that.” He looked down into Emma’s sad gaze.

“It isn’t? Then why didn’t any of you tell me?” Her hand touched his arm, but he jerked away, listening to their silence with a heavy heart. “Leave me alone. Just leave me the hell alone.”

Fox’s “Sam!” followed him down the hall and up the stairs. He heard Dana mutter something about letting him go, something about it taking time for him to come to terms with all that had happened, blah, blah, blah.

All he knew was it was her. And she belonged to the one man in the world he could never compete with – someone he wouldn’t hurt for anything or anyone, though he just had, with a handful of angry words. He woke up this morning thinking all he had left was a memory of a beautiful angel. Even if he never found her, no one could take that away from him.

How wrong he’d been. Now he had nothing.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Six

“I’ll go.” Emma laid a comforting hand on Dana’s arm and reached for the bag she’d brought from the car. It contained a few medical essentials and would probably be useless in the face of Sam’s emotional state, but it provided her with some semblance of authority and usefulness. Someone had to stay in control; Dana and Fox both looked shell- shocked by Sam’s tirade. “He’s just had quite a few shocks today, that’s all.”

Giving her stricken cousin one last reassuring glance, she made her way up the stairs, wishing her bag contained a cattle prod for the insensitive lout who’d left the living room in a snit. She’d love to give him one last shock, this one guaranteed to knock that piss and vinegar right out of him.

Of all the mean things to do to Dana. He should have just gone ahead and thrown curses at her head, for all the good his avowed temperance had done. Although the way he’d lashed out at Fox was understandable – well, barely – given his lack of memory, Sam should know his brother well enough to realize all he’d done so far was out of concern, not jealousy. Fox had tiptoed around Sam like he was afraid he’d disappear any second; any fool could see just how happy Fox was to have Sam home. No way would he give that up, or purposely have Sam taken away. The very idea was ludicrous, and Sam, if he’d stop to think, should realize his fears were baseless.

But one thing she didn’t have to do was step lightly herself. The distance afforded her as just a concerned relative and professional gave her the leeway to be firm with Sam, something she knew Fox wasn’t ready to pursue. She wasn’t going to lash out at him like he’d done earlier, but neither would she cut him too much slack for his outburst. Especially if he felt no remorse; she would wash her hands of him if kept up the tantrums.

Emma poked her head into one door after another, finally finding him in what looked like the master bedroom. Standing in the dark at the window, his tense form silhouetted against the frigid night, he emanated stilted frustration, as if he wished to melt into the black beyond. Dropping her bag onto the bed, she alternated between anger of her own and a lingering compassion for the awkwardness evident in his stance, settling on the use of slight sarcasm in a tentative approach.

“That went well.”

Fists at this sides, he stood like a statue, not bothering to turn around. Self-derision laced his reply. “You think so? Maybe I should have gone for the throat and insinuated the baby wasn’t his. Really put the icing on the cake.”

An immediate rush of relief made her pause; he felt guilty, all right. Thank goodness for that. She hated to go back downstairs and tell Fox and Dana that Sam was ultimately a big jerk. Renewed sympathy for his plight blossomed within her. Sam knew he’d messed up big time. He also knew he’d seen Dana before and it had rocked his already unstable world. But did he know everything? If not, was it her place to tell him? Fox wasn’t in the best shape now to deal with another scene, his hands full with She’d have to speak to Mulder first. Best to do what she could with Sam’s end of the triangle.

“And here I thought I’d captured your fancy,” she murmured with a hint of laughter, though her heart was heavy with realization. Even when she’d seen the recognition on his face downstairs, she hadn’t wanted to truly believe it. She thought maybe he’d felt the attraction between them for the same reason she did – because they were both lonely, lost people. But Sam, waking up from his two year sleep, had thought she was Dana. It made sense now, all of it. Didn’t make it any easier to swallow, but she’d been through enough rejection to hone a fine sense of humor about things. “Guess I’m back to playing catcher.”

He turned, his face etched with shadows of bewilderment. “Huh?”

“Never mind.” He hadn’t heard, and she wasn’t about to spill her guts to him over her foolish fantasies. A guy like Sam went for dainty, like Dana. Not for sturdy, like Emma. Besides, he had troubles aplenty without having her bleeding heart attached to his guilty conscience. “Are you okay?” She flipped on the overhead light and turned it off again at his squinting grimace. “Sorry.”

“Still not used to it,” he said softly. “It scares me sometimes. Like everything else.” He turned to the window again, one hand rubbing his nape.

She walked to his side. “I know seeing Dana was a shock, Sam, but -”

“How the hell do you know about it?” His head whipped around, his face fierce, a cornered mutt starved but unwilling to sniff at the proffered hand.

“Dana told me last night. She didn’t know if you’d remember her.”

“So you came along for what? Dinner? Moral support? Morphine and a straightjacket?”

She ignored his snide tone, knowing his sense of betrayal was at fever pitch and his sense of ‘belonging’ had taken a major hike. “We didn’t know how you’d react. We didn’t know if you’d react at all. You can’t blame Fox and Dana for wanting to keep you safe.”

“I know. I know Fox wouldn’t hurt me deliberately.” He deflated in an instant, though he retained some defensiveness, crossing his arms to stare out the window once again. “But someone could have told me. Someone should have told me.”

“Mulder told Dana you didn’t remember much about Los Banos. He thought it better to just wait and see. He wanted to spare you if he could.”

“Spare me what?”

Emma bit her lip; she’d said too much. Despite his high emotional state, Sam was still sharp as a tack. And she herself wasn’t sure Dana’s story was all that accurate – after all, her cousin had spent years in a POW camp. Dana’s tales of torture by the Japanese, while the soldiers figured prominently, could very well have applied to her own time spent at Los Banos. She’d come back a very different person, that was certain. Even now, Emma caught a glimpse of fear in Dana’s eyes at her more emotional moments. Fear that hadn’t been there before the war.

What if Dana’s imagination had conjured up the bullet wound? Sam was very much alive and well, and in his tenuous state of mind, wouldn’t take to having her examine him for a scar without an explanation of some sort. He’d want to know every detail of her suspicions. Dana’s suspicions, which, given Sam’s immediate reaction to his sister-in-law, were best kept secret. She’d have to think of something, and think fast.

“Spare me what?” he nearly shouted, startling her from her thoughts.

Maybe a little of the truth would suffice, as well as soften his attitude toward her cousin. “Dana thought she’d seen you wounded.”

“Wounded? At Los Banos?” Incredulity lit his face. “Be serious.”

“Sam, you’ve got to understand what Dana went through. It was horrible; she spent the better part of two years living in that camp. It took her months of rehabilitation to be able to face the world again.”

“I wasn’t wounded. That I’d remember.”

“Are you sure?” Actually, the time was ripe to lay their doubts to rest. “What exactly do you remember?”

He sighed, as if telling the story was a burden. “I told Fox the whole story this afternoon.”

“Then you’ll just have to repeat it, because I’m not going anywhere until you do.”

Jaw clenched, he flashed an impatient look her way. Within his tensed features, however, there was a begrudging respect for her steadfastness. “I remember seeing… Dana.” He said her name as if it hurt. “Then nothing. I think maybe someone knocked me out or something. I sure as hell didn’t get shot.”

“How do you know? Do you have a scar?”

A little smile graced his face and he leaned in to purr, “I don’t know. You tell me. Or were you too busy holding my hand last night to look?”

She had to admit to a certain relief his anger had faded. At least he hadn’t lost his charming side, even if he meant nothing by his flirting. But the way he could turn on the charm like a hot water faucet was disconcerting to her sense of balance. She’d always been able to handle men and their lines with a deft, diplomatic tongue. But this guy? Just looking at him made her work harder for it, something she’d never had to do before.

Thank goodness for the darkness of the room, she thought, feeling herself tingle all over with heat. “There’s only one way to be certain.” Stern of voice, she left his grinning self by the window to switch on the bedside lamp. Too bad her insides felt like jelly, or she’d have the nurse routine down pat. “Let’s take a look.” She busied herself with removing a stethoscope from her bag; so what if he looked healthy as a horse and in no danger of a heart malady. She had to have something to keep from staring at his – one muffled thump, then two, made her turn around.

“What d’you think you’re doing?” She gaped at his sudden appearance by her side; he already had his belt unbuckled, the twinkle in his eye definitely mischievous. And where were his shoes? Was he going to strip right there?

“You wanted to look, didn’t you? Can’t get the pants past the shoes, you know.”

“I didn’t want to look at your… your…” God, she hated it when she lapsed into her childhood stutter. “It should be on your chest, you imbecile!” she finally managed to choke out.

He had the gall to look genuinely disappointed. She wondered if he’d ever been told ‘no’ by any woman, considering how utterly tempting it was to kiss that pout. “You sure?”

She whirled, unable to take his proximity any longer as she brought her bag to the dresser. “Just take off the sweater and lie down on the bed,” she growled, pulling her glasses from her skirt pocket. Even something as sheer as a little round, thin layer of glass between them was better than nothing.

“Cute,” he murmured. She heard the rustle of clothing behind her. “You didn’t have those on last night.”

“Because someone interrupted my crossword puzzle and made me forget them at the desk when he got hit by a car.” Actually, she only used them for really close work, like crossword puzzles. And needlepoint. And inspecting a naked male chest for – good grief.

If possible, he looked more sexually intimidating to her fractured nerves than he ever had. She thought by making him lie on the bed she’d have the upper hand, so to speak. Pretend they were still back at the hospital, where she had the cool white walls and starched sheets to bolster her detachment. Not so in the confines of this bedroom. Against the patchwork quilt she herself had made for Fox and Dana’s wedding gift, his upper torso looked sleek and muscular, taking up more than half of the side he laid upon. He wasn’t nearly as pale as he’d been last night; the lamp made his skin shine with an olive glow. Under the sprinkling of light brown hair, his chest rose and fell with each breath. She was mesmerized by the way that hair became thinner just above his navel…

“Uh, Emma?”

She licked her lips in an attempt to still her beating heart. “Yes?”

“My chest is up here, doll.”

Mortification crept over her; she closed her eyes for a brief moment before looking into his amused gaze. “Oh, be quiet,” she said, with as much haughtiness as she could muster. “And don’t call me doll.” Without further ado, she sat at his side, deliberately ignoring his chuckles as she placed the stethoscope over his heart.

His laughter sucked into a gasp. “Sss… that’s cold. What’re you doing that for?”

“Shh.” She adjusted the earpieces and stared at the ornate headboard with feigned concentration. “You just got out of the hospital. You may be suffering from some delayed trauma.” It was a load of bull, and she knew it. But she had to do something besides stare at his chest… well, until she had to stare at his chest.

“Delayed trauma? Doll, I may not be an Einstein like Fox, but -”

“Quiet!” There, that did it. She’d finally found her ‘dealing with a 200 pound male patient’ tone of voice. Directly below the ornate wood trim, she saw his eyebrows go up, but he remained silent. His heart beat steady and strong, and she kept up the ruse with solid, nurse-like inquisition. “Sounds good. Any dizziness? Blurred vision? Headaches?”

“No, no, and no. Admit it. You just wanted to get me in bed.” When his arms went up, she jolted back with alarm. But he just snickered, as those twin limbs of sinew cradled his head. “Relax, doll. You’ll know when I want you to join me.”

“I’ll know? Oooh…” Abruptly, she downshifted, noticing something immediately. “Where are your bruises?”

“What bruises?”

“From last night.” His body remained remarkably unscathed from his waltz with the Buick, and she looked at it in amazement. “You should be black and blue by now.”

He glanced down. “Hmm. I don’t bruise easily, you know. Years of baseball run-ins have toughened me up.” Shifting a bit to his side, he showed her a glimpse of his backside. “But I landed pretty hard on my ass. Think you should check it out? Would be no problem to take off my pants…”

She was thoroughly fed up with his teasing. “Oh, in that case, maybe we should take you back to the hospital. We didn’t x-ray your pelvis, you know. You may even have internal injuries… any trouble urinating? We can insert a catheter into your -”

“Never mind,” he interrupted her cool litany, with a subtle gulp. “You said something about a scar?”

“Scar? What scar? We’re talking about possible -” She couldn’t keep a straight face, dissolving into chuckles.

“You’re a cruel woman, Emma Scully.”

“So I’ve been told, and by bigger men than you, Sam Mulder.” She straightened, pulling the stethoscope from around her neck. Sometimes, she gave as good as she got. “Now hold still.”

This was it. Proof of Dana’s story. If she could hold on to her control long enough to finish the examination.

Leaning in, she put one hand over his heart. Immediately, the smile in his eyes simmered to a slow burn. The same warmth rose from his skin to sear her palm and travel up her arm. Her mouth fell open as she struggled for breath; one, then two, then three. Concentrate, she admonished herself.

Her other hand joined the first, spreading its fingers over the planes of his chest. The hair she’d thought coarse on first glance was baby fine, and it was easy to sift through its sparse covering to feel for puckered skin. Slowly, she watched her fingers search; unwavering, she felt his eyes never leave her face. It had to be there, it just had to.

“Told you,” he whispered. Suddenly, he sat up; the heat from him enveloped her like a blanket. One of his hands went around her waist, the other stalled her instinctive retreat by capturing her hands against his chest. “Maybe you should look closer. Just to be sure.”

Heavy-lidded, he encroached, his face dark and determined as he refused to let her go. Not that his hands held her all that tightly; just the shining sweep of his gaze over every part of her face was enough to hold her in thrall. She’d had her share of embraces from potential suitors. But nothing like this – though he only employed the lightest of holds, she felt like a rabbit caught in a silken snare. His tenderness and soft voice worked upon her senses like the most passionate of intimacies. It was all she could do to raise her eyes to meet his.

“There’s nothing there.” Her words were paper- thin; she felt his breath tickle her nose. The hand over hers pressed down and she gasped at the vibration of his heartbeat through her fingers.

“Oh, there’s something there all right,” he murmured. “Something neither of us were looking for.”

The statement, so blatantly forced into the open, frightened her more than anything she’d had to deal with before now. He couldn’t be serious; from what little she’d gleaned so far in her time spent with him, Sam was a happy-go-lucky type of guy. He most likely went through girlfriends like a hot knife through butter. Intense pursuit followed by quick boredom. This play was par for the course, and she’d better remember that.

Face relaxing into a smile, she brushed off his half-embrace as she stood. “I thought I’d heard ‘em all, Sam Mulder.” There. That was better – her back was to him now. Her emotions hidden as she gathered her bag. “Good thing I’m not like other girls, or I’d be in serious trouble.”

“You definitely aren’t like other girls, Emma.”

With her back to him, his soft reply resounded with truth through her small form. So he knew it as well; she was nothing more than a pleasant diversion in the midst of chaos. Despite her inner vow to remain strong, she felt a break in her facade, as her answer came in a choked whisper.

“Leave me be, Sam.” She stuffed the stethoscope into her bag with more force than necessary. “That’s all I ask.”

Don’t get too close, she added silently. Don’t look at me like I’m beautiful. Don’t hold me up to Dana because I’ll surely lose.

Don’t break my heart.

“Emma -”

Damn, he’d gotten close too quickly. A stealthy slide of her foot shoved one of his shoes deep under the dresser. That should stall him for a while. “Get dressed, Sam. I think explanations and apologies are needed all the way around, don’t you?” Amidst his muttered curses, she left the room.

**********

She found Dana and Mulder huddled together on the living room sofa. Once again, she silently cursed Sam’s impulsive, hurtful outburst, as she saw Dana’s red-rimmed eyes lift to her.

“Is he okay?” her cousin asked, a study in control. Her crying was done, safely gotten past. Mulder, however, cradled her as if she would break into pieces at the slightest movement.

“He’s fine,” Emma said with a smile. Herself, on the other hand… “And if he could kick his own butt, he’d do it. Of course, he’d have to get in line behind me.”

“Emma, you didn’t -”

“Can I get ahead of you in that line, Emma?” Mulder asked, silencing Dana’s pleas with a harsh tone. “I mean, he’s always been used to getting everything he wanted, but he’s never been rude about it. And he’s certainly not the insulting type. But he went a bit too far.”

“He knows that,” she rushed to explain. “You’ve got to understand, Mulder – he’s walking on eggshells. He doesn’t know what’s happened to him, or if he even belongs anywhere anymore.”

“I would never turn him out, Emma. Or turn on him, for God’s sake. He knows that.”

“He remembered Dana.” Her blunt words made them both stop fidgeting. “From what I gather, he saw her as some sort of stabilizing image. A way to hold on to his past, so to speak. It just threw him to find out you two were married.”

“Does he remember getting shot?” Dana asked.

“No.” Emma took a deep breath, gathering her strength for what was to come. “And there is no scar on his chest, Dana. No evidence of a bullet wound.”

“But… how can that be?” The confusion on Dana’s face was palpable. “I know what I saw.”

The last thing Emma wanted was to get into the middle of their shared memories of Los Banos. “I think you and Sam will have to settle that amongst yourselves. But he has no scar, Dana. Not even a bruise from last night, though by rights he should be pretty beat up.”

Mulder piped up, latching on to her last sentence like a dog on a bone. “Are you sure he was hit last night? Did you see the accident, Emma?”

“No, I arrived moments later. He was hit by the car, Mulder. The driver verified it for the police officer.” Everything was so confusing. “Sam told me he was a pretty tough nut.”

“He always was,” Mulder agreed. “And never a peep out of him when he was hurt. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him shed a tear about anything, even when he broke his collarbone.”

“Um… speaking of that,” she said softly, “I think maybe you should wait on the x-ray, Mulder. He’s antsy enough about hospitals right now. And besides, when you get his fingerprints you’ll have all the proof you need, right?” She looked to Dana for support, and got it, albeit with a dubious raise of her eyebrow.

“This will be settled soon, Mulder,” Dana said, showing Emma she still didn’t quite believe with the clouds of doubt hovering in her gaze. Which she carefully hid from her husband by averting her chin.

Mulder nodded. “Yeah, that’s a good idea. He is Sam, anyway. I know he is.”

Emma shared a telling look with Dana, who flashed a miffed look her way. But Emma didn’t know what else she could possibly say; she’d overstayed her welcome as it was, and now was not the time to debate the issue any further. She’d done what was asked of her and Dana would just have to be satisfied at that.

“Emma?”

Sam’s shout carried down the stairs. Despite Dana’s look, Emma knew she couldn’t stay. Her own peace of mind hung in the balance; this was something the three of them had to work out, and she’d had enough of Sam Mulder for one night.

She walked to the foyer, where she quickly donned her coat. Mulder, with a murmur to Dana, followed. “He’s okay, isn’t he?”

“Physically, yes. Not a thing wrong with him. But I think he needs to talk to you both, Mulder. I’d just be in the way.”

“Emma!” More curses drifted downstairs, along with clumsy stomping. Seemed he was having trouble with his shoes, which meant she had mere seconds to make her exit.

“Sounds to me like he’s expecting you to stay,” Mulder said, glancing up the stairs.

“I’ll see you later, okay?” Though she probably wouldn’t, and she hated lying about it. She hated being such a coward, but it would take some time to rebuild her defenses against the man. “Just remember all he’s been through, Mulder. Go easy. Call me if you need anything.”

She slipped out the door on Mulder’s vacant offer of thanks, knowing they had more to do before the evening’s end. It wasn’t until she put the car into reverse that she chanced a look at the house.

Sam stood in the doorway, hands on hips. She bit her lip and looked away. Away from the promise written all over his face.

We’re not through, that glowering look said. Not by a long shot.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Seven

Sam watched Emma drive away, his legs itching to follow. His mind, however, locked down on the impulse, reminding him with a burst of pride that he’d never run after a woman in his life, and he wasn’t about to start now. Shivering in the night air, he closed his eyes against the sight of her turning the corner like the hounds of hell were at her heels.

Coward. He wasn’t sure if the thought applied more to her or to him. What waited for him in his brother’s house couldn’t possibly be pleasant, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to crawl up in that big bed upstairs and lose himself to sleep.

“Don’t even think about stepping foot back in this house until you apologize to my wife.”

Nope, not pleasant at all.

He turned to face a furious brother. Fox blocked the entrance to the living room, standing guard over his domain with clenched fists. His anger palpable in the warmth of the foyer, he had no need to raise his voice. Fox had never been the kind for outbursts, unlike Sam, who stomped around like a sore bear when riled.

Sam closed the front door against the winter night and sighed. “I’m sorry, Fox.”

“Tell it to Scully.” He stepped aside, but made a final show of dominance as he grabbed Sam’s arm to hiss, “You upset her, and brother or not, you’re outta here. Got it?”

All the fight within had left with Emma’s departure, and Sam raised solemn eyes to his brother. “You don’t have to worry about that, Fox.” He watched as Fox sagged a bit, searching his face for the truth to his words. Sam added, “I wouldn’t hurt Dana again for the world. Or you.”

Fox seemed satisfied with Sam’s sincerity, clearing his throat as he released him. “See that you don’t.” He preceded Sam into the living room, sitting next to his wife to take her hand.

The shock of looking Dana in the face was no less than it had been the first time. Sam caught his breath, assaulted by memories of her pleading in Japanese, her slender body dressed in rags. He remembered the feel of her wasted fingers in his, so fragile he thought they might break at the slightest squeeze. Protectiveness rose within him, along with a faint surge of anger at the Nips who’d starved and abused her.

But that was past, and she’d obviously bloomed in the years since. The waif in Los Banos now had a classic beauty, her cheeks full and pink, her hair wavy and thick. The added weight of pregnancy didn’t detract from her looks; if anything, it filled out her body to the point where he imagined it would be a joy to hold her and lean into her softness.

His brother was a lucky man.

“Dana.” He took a seat by the door, in the overstuffed chair he knew to be Fox’s by the way it fit his own body. A pair of reading glasses sat haphazardly on the arm, and he moved them to the side table atop the pile of books. History, westerns and astronomy – he’d have known it was his brother’s spot just by the subject matter.

“Sam, I’m -” she began.

“No, let me say I’m sorry first.” He ran a hand through his hair, unused to the guilt that filled his chest. “I forgot my manners, and there’s no excuse for that.”

Her face lit up with a small smile. “You were allowed. We should have told you before you saw me.”

Sam looked at her with a steady gaze. “That’s still no excuse. I was rude, and I apologize, to both of you.”

“Emma explained a bit of what you were feeling to us. We all understand.”

Just the mention of the girl who’d slipped away from him after one of the most explosive moments of his life made him bristle. “She did, did she?” He’d imagined her concern was something more, and he felt more of a fool than ever. She’d only gotten so close to report back to Dana.

“She told us mine was the last face you remembered. It’s natural to try to hang on to the familiar.” Dana looked at Mulder with the same apologetic eyes. “We never meant for you to be upset.”

“I’m not upset. Not anymore.” Actually, he was more exhausted than anything. “Will you accept my apology?”

“Apology accepted.” Tentatively, she dipped her head a bit. “Feel like talking about anything else?”

Despite her easy manner, Sam sensed a remaining wariness. He couldn’t blame her; like a tigress, she protected her own. She held his brother’s hand more like a shared secret than a lifeline. She was smart and courageous – too probing with those clear eyes for him to summon the energy for questions.

“It’s been a long day,” he said by way of excuse. “Think I’ll turn in, if you don’t mind.”

Fox, who’d sat silently for the last minute, spoke up. “You okay, Sam?”

“Yeah.” He stood, more weary than he’d realized. “I guess you know she didn’t find anything,” he added, implying he knew the reason behind Emma’s examination. No matter what Dana believed, he hadn’t been shot. Really, there was no need to discuss it any further. In his mind, Dana had held on to a false memory, just as he had.

“We do,” Fox replied, stilling Dana’s eminent reply with a hand on her arm. “There’s plenty of time to get to the bottom of that. I think it’s the least of our concerns right now. Don’t you agree, Scully?”

Dana only nodded, keeping her eyes lowered. Sam knew she’d been through enough for one night, just as Mulder did. It was time to make an exit. “Good night.”

Fox stood up as well. “Want some dinner before you go up?”

“Nah.” His appetite, once voracious, hadn’t yet made the return his big mouth had. “I’ll wait for breakfast.”

“Okay then. Goodnight.”

On slow feet, Sam trudged up the stairs. He hated confusion; he’d always been in control, no matter what and where. The precise team play of baseball gave him the chance to shine as an individual while still being a part of the whole. The army offered the same rigor and opportunity for excellence, and he’d grabbed it with both hands to confront an unquestionable enemy.

Now, he was adrift in a sea of lost days, with only images of two women who could be one swirling in his mind.

**********

They puttered in the kitchen, neither of them making any real effort to scratch something up for dinner. Mulder had apologized once already for forgetting to get food from Uncle Mike’s, and he looked ready to spit out another guilty request for forgiveness when she looked up from the pot of leftover soup.

“You can take us out to Uncle Mike’s tomorrow night, Mulder. It’s okay.”

Mulder dropped a kiss onto her head as his arms encircled her from behind. “You look tired. Let me do that.”

She was tired, and her bout of tears earlier had drained her. But since the scene with Sam, and most especially Emma’s pronouncement, she wanted to pounce while the topic was still fresh. Before, she’d not wanted to voice her fears about Sam’s reappearance in their lives. But seeing his angry confusion only made it more imperative she make Mulder aware of the possibilities.

“It’s my soup, and I don’t want you burning it.”

“How the hell can I burn soup?”

Pausing in the act of stirring the chunky vegetable broth, she lifted her chin to give her husband a sidelong stare. “Easter?” was all she had to say.

He had the grace to flush, but remained typically defensive in an all male way. “That was gravy, not soup. And how should I know it’s made with flour? I thought it was all liquid. You boil out the water, there’s nothing left to burn. Simple.”

Scully went back to stirring the pot of soup with a knowing smile. They’d spent last Easter alone in the house, begging off the traditional family gathering with a little white lie about sickness. Actually, they’d received the okay to try again the week before from her doctor. No wonder Mulder burned the gravy – she distinctly remembered putting the kitchen table to the test that Sunday. As well as the living room couch, and the bathtub. Didn’t take long for the results of their renewed sexual activity to sprout forth, either.

As if his mind ran along the same lines, Mulder’s hands spread out over her belly. “Guess naming him ‘Naugahide’ is out of the question, huh?”

As well as naming him Sam, she thought, Mulder’s joke failing to make her smile. “Mulder -”

“I know you have your suspicions, Scully,” he interrupted softly in her ear. “But it’s him, I know it is.”

“Then where’s the scar?”

“You weren’t exactly in tiptop shape, Scully. A stressed mind can conjure up all sorts of things.”

“I know what I saw, Mulder,” she insisted. It didn’t matter if she’d been half-starved and scared beyond belief, she’d seen Sam fatally wounded. “He died right in front of me.”

“Are you saying Emma’s a liar? Or that she’s incompetent? She said there was no scar, Scully.”

“And I’m saying the lack of a scar is insignificant in my eyes, Mulder.” She didn’t elaborate further by saying Sam could have easily had the scar removed by plastic surgery. She’d seen battle scars turned into mere scratches by excellent surgeons. Scars which, when examined closely, could be explained away as the results of childhood accidents.

Sighing, Mulder released her and flopped into one of the kitchen chairs. She covered the soup before giving her sore feet a rest by taking the chair at his side. Reaching for his hand, she said, “I know what stress can do to a person. I know what kind of stress I was under in Los Banos. Believe me, I’m not discounting my physical and mental state, Mulder.”

Sharp eyes challenged her. “Okay then – let’s look at the facts. Deal?”

She never expected less from her husband; Mulder had never given her anything other than a fair shake. “Deal.” She squeezed his hand with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. So far, she’d managed to keep her suspicions to herself – and Emma. And while not the ideal time to reveal them to Mulder, she couldn’t very well leave the matter indefinitely. Especially if what she suspected turned out to be true. “You start.”

“Fine. Number one – they never found Sam’s body,” he stated. She knew it was his most convincing argument and he didn’t hesitate to lay it on the table. A flighty thought made her wonder if her kitchen table could stand the weight of his convictions.

“True. My number one – I saw him die.” As strong as her husband’s, her own convictions threatened to make that table tremble. But she had more than just that ‘number one’, and she knew she’d have to use it all to at least make Mulder put his guard up a bit.

“Which, sorry to say Scully, could have been a delusion. My number two – he has no scar from a bullet wound to the chest.”

“Fine. Let’s say he wasn’t shot.” Which she didn’t believe for a second, but it was no use beating a dead horse when there were other, more pressing questions. “Obviously he isn’t incapacitated, and hasn’t been for some time, judging from his glowing health. Where has he been, then? Why didn’t he come home? He knows who you are and remembers his family and hometown. This two-year absence is troubling, Mulder.”

“I can’t deny that.” A frown settled over his face. “And the fact he can’t remember just that period of time looks suspect, I’ll give you that.”

“Try to look at this objectively, Mulder. What would be the first conclusion you’d draw when presented with a case like Sam’s?”

His frown became darker. “That he’d been held somewhere against his will. If not, he’d have come home.”

“Exactly. The next, when presented with his amnesia?”

“You know, you’re good at this. Sure you don’t want my job?”

She answered his grin with one of her own; she had been getting a bit too caught up in her detective work. “Missy once told me to get out of the Navy and join the FBI. Think it’s too late?”

Mulder gave her a look so loving and sincere it took her breath away. “You can do whatever you put your mind to, Scully. Of that, I have no doubt.”

“You’re just saying that because I let you sleep with me.”

“True. No one else would let me.” She doubted that very much; Mulder was more handsome now than when she’d first laid eyes on him, with the smattering of gray in his hair adding a certain seasoning. He would have made one hell of a movie star. “Now, back to the matter at hand.”

It wasn’t just his looks that set him apart from every other man. One of his most endearing traits was the way he treated her as an absolute equal. Not many women enjoyed that luxury. “Right. When presented with his amnesia, what’s the next logical conclusion?”

“That his mind was deliberately wiped clean of any memories of his imprisonment. But the war is over, Scully. Who would have kept Sam for two years?”

As ridiculous as it sounded, she had to say it. “Chang.”

Mulder snorted, releasing her hands to rise from his chair with impatience. Hands on hips, he paced before the kitchen sink. “Don’t be absurd. Chang is dead.”

“Is he?” She pushed her chair away from the table, angling her body in such a way as to keep his attention. “You said it yourself last night, Mulder – they never found his body, either.”

“You think he waited two years, held my brother captive and somehow brainwashed him into what – coming back here now as some sort of assassin?”

“He waited almost a year to make his move on you the first time, Mulder.”

“Scully, that’s impossible, and you know it. It’s more likely Sam spent the last two years in a…”

Noting his hesitation, she urged him on. “In a what, Mulder? A hospital? A prison? Either way, he ended up back here, with no memory of where he’s been. I’d say that’s pretty unusual.”

“I agree.” Mulder sighed, pulling out the chair he’d vacated so he could sit again, this time facing her as he took her hands. “Scully, I have a theory about Sam.”

She hung her head. “Oh, boy. Something tells me I’m not going to like this.”

Mulder hadn’t resigned his commission with the Navy after all once they’d married. With his boss, Commander Skinner, and her brother Charlie, he’d moved up in Naval Intelligence under the command of Rear Admiral Hillenkoeter, who’d been tapped to serve as Admiral Nimitz’s intelligence office in the Pacific Theater after Pearl Harbor. A decorated survivor of the USS West Virginia, it had been Hillenkoeter who’d hatched the plan to bring down Chang’s operation in Hong Kong. He was an affable, likeable man who had a brilliant mind. Charlie had nothing but praise for his intelligence and authority, and he’d jumped at the chance to follow him in his future endeavors. Mulder was rather lukewarm about the whole espionage business, especially after the Chang debacle. But he’d stayed put, realizing the opportunities to provide for his growing family laid with the Navy in a post-war slump.

It was only since the past summer Scully had begun to doubt Mulder’s involvement with Hillenkoeter and Naval Intelligence. Her concern had tripled when Hillenkoeter was named director of the new Central Intelligence Agency in September. Mulder had gracefully declined an appointment with the new agency, stating his career was with the Navy. But he had become privy to things she had no knowledge of, and it scared her to see him go deeper into the covert world in which he now lived. His loyalties to his country ran deep. She dreaded the day he’d get so deep he could never get out – just like he had almost done with Chang.

“You know I’ve heard about… unusual things. Especially since I went out to New Mexico this past summer. I’ve told you about some of it,” he began softly, watching her face with a pleading gaze.

“Men who aren’t really men,” she sighed. “Beings who claim to be from another world. Mulder, Arthur Dales went whacko on a suspect not long after you spoke to him.”

“That was a set-up, Scully. They knew he’d been talking to me.”

“They? Mulder, we’ve been through this over and over -”

“His brother works for the FBI, Scully. He’s seen some of the same classified reports I have. Carefully wiped clean with a black marker, of course.”

“You never told me about a brother.”

“His name is Arthur Dales, too.”

“And these people are intelligent, responsible and trustworthy? Sounds like they’re Li’l Abner’s first cousins.”

“Did you know even their sister is named Arthur?”

She lifted an eyebrow and said with sarcasm, “Your argument gets more convincing by the second, Mulder.”

“Okay, okay. I admit they’re a strange bunch. And other than their stories, I have no real proof.” She hated to shoot him down like that; seeing his disappointment weighed on her chest. One thing she never wanted to do was hurt him. Still, he had an amazing resilience, evident in the way his eyes filled with determination. “But believe me, there are a world of possibilities out there, Scully. Things more wild than Chang and his cronies.”

Suddenly, she wanted nothing more to do with the conversation. Not at the moment, anyway. Her back ached and she’d lost all appetite for food and for the truth. Mulder’s implication that he was involved in something far more dangerous than Chang made her weak.

“I may not believe in your outlandish theories, Mulder,” she said softly. “But I believe in you. You will get to the bottom of this.”

His eyes shifted as he played with her fingers. “We’ll get to the bottom of this,” he answered in a light tone. “We’re in this together, Scully.”

“I know we are,” she replied in a faint voice. If what she suspected turned out to be true, she would be the one to pick up the pieces of Mulder’s life. She prayed this whole thing with Sam turned out to be nothing. “There’s just one thing I’d like to say about this whole business.”

“Just one thing?”

She tried to smile at his quip, but couldn’t quite do so. “Don’t let your love for your brother blind you to other possibilities. We’ve both been through too much to let our guard slip on this. Sam may be just what he seems… the prodigal son returning home. Then again, he may not. Promise me you’ll keep a clear head about all this, Mulder.”

Leaning in, he placed a swift kiss to her forehead. “I promise. You and the baby are more important to me than anything, Scully.” He cleared his throat, getting up from his chair to move to the stove. “Now, let’s give it a rest for tonight. Want some soup?”

“I don’t think so. But you have some – I trust you not to burn it this time.” With a wink, she got up from her chair, stretching under the harsh light from the ceiling. “I think I’ll just turn in. I need some sleep.”

“Are you sure? I can bring a bowl to you in bed if you’d like.”

“Nah. It’ll only give me indigestion if I eat this late, anyway.” Giving him a hug, she accepted his good night kiss with a heavy heart. “I love you, Mulder.”

“Love you too, Scully. After I clean up in here, I’ll be right there to tuck you in, okay?”

“Hurry up,” she said, heading for the kitchen door. “My feet get cold easy.”

The next days would be tough. She only hoped they all had the strength to deal with whatever came of this mess. She was worried about Mulder… she almost wished Chang was behind Sam’s odd return home.

That she could handle.

**********

Mulder watched her slowly disappear into the hall leading to the downstairs bedroom, only sagging when she was well out of sight. Instinct told him she was right in her suspicion that all was not as it seemed, but he wouldn’t go so far as to peg Sam as one of Chang’s operatives. Not that he believed Chang incapable of doing all Scully suspected. No, indeed – Chang was a clever and inventive foe. It wouldn’t surprise him in the least if his old friend from Hong Kong had survived the explosion on the Severn River almost two years ago.

But Chang wasn’t responsible for Sam’s return; he’d lay money on it, he was so sure. Why? Because he knew his brother. Even if Sam had an ego the size of Montana and a fiercely competitive spirit when it came to dueling with his elder brother, he was loyal to a fault. Chang could tamper with Sam’s mind all he wanted, but Sam would never turn against family and friends. Hadn’t Chang tried to do the same to him with the opium? If there was one thing the two brothers had in common, it was their courage in the face of adversity. The worst form of torture imaginable couldn’t sway the Mulder boys from fighting to the end. Sam had proven his patriotism time and again in the months preceding his disappearance; numerous commendations and medals dotted his file, just as did Mulder’s from his superiors.

No, Sam would die before he let himself become the pawn of another. So what remained? Something more sinister, more fantastic than a little rising from the dead. He was a fool to even consider it, but the Josh Exley incident this past summer was too coincidental to be denied. The crash in Roswell, Arthur Dales’ story of a being who could change faces right before your eyes, a being who could miraculously heal itself – and others – was impossible to discount.

Scully would roll her eyes if he ever told her what he’d seen. The documents, the photographs, the physical evidence he’d only begun to tap into before the CIG locked down and came up with the ‘weather balloon’ story. They’d even tried to muzzle Dales by getting him sacked on a bogus police brutality charge. Anyone who took one look at the man could tell he didn’t have a mean bone in his body.

He shook himself from the path he’d automatically taken. Thoughts of alien beings posing as baseball players? Not Sam, certainly. Scully’s suppositions about Chang made more sense, really. His brother was back, that was all that mattered.

That, and Scully would definitely let him have it if she woke up to a dirty kitchen. He got up from the table and walked to the stove. “Shit,” he muttered, smelling the acidic burn of tomatoes when he lifted the lid on the pot of soup. Quickly, he put it under the faucet, grimacing at the way it sizzled. He was going to have a helluva time scraping the burned stuff off the bottom.

“Got you on KP, huh?”

Sam’s voice made him start, but he recovered quickly. “Yeah. She’s moving slowly these days, you know. I help out when I can.” He turned, the soup pot in hand, to find his brother all bundled up in the hall door. “Where the hell are you going?”

“For a walk. I can’t sleep.”

Join the club, Mulder thought. He doubted he would get much sleep between wondering about Sam and watching Scully toss next to him in pregnant discomfort. He smiled ruefully, gesturing for Sam to follow him out the back door. “I’d join you, but I don’t want to leave Scully.”

The night was clear but cold. As he dumped the unwanted soup into the garbage can on the back porch, he heard Sam walk out into the chilly air. “Is she okay?” his brother asked quietly.

Mulder looked up to find Sam standing solemnly at the edge of the porch. The waning moon caught his face at an odd angle, and he looked almost ethereal, his pale face reflecting the meager light. His dark eyes were full of guilt and regret; with his hands stuffed into his coat pockets and his shoulders hunched against the cold, he looked lost and alone.

“She’s okay,” Mulder said, hastening to ease his brother’s mind. “She’s made it this far without any trouble, and her doctor said that’s good. She’s a strong person, Sam. Much stronger than me.” He didn’t want to lay more guilt on Sam by telling him of Scully’s previous miscarriages, so he concentrated on the positive. “She’s studying to be a doctor, you know.”

Sam was taken aback. “Really?”

Opportunities for women were few and far between. Mulder took pride in the fact Scully didn’t let their male-dominated society stand in her way. Her experience in Los Banos had actually swayed opinion her way when she’d applied at Georgetown through the GI Bill; no way could they turn her down when she presented them with a list of all she’d learned as a trauma nurse in a POW camp. Having the bigwigs of the Navy, including her father’s office and his own, fire off letters of recommendation hadn’t hurt, either. She’d balked at first, but resigned herself to accepting a little help when Mulder pointed out how much she could help others like her when she succeeded.

“Not every woman aspires to living out her life as a housewife, you know,” Mulder chuckled, giving up scraping the bottom of the pot. Seemed he had burnt the soup in a round-about way, as he’d monopolized Scully’s kitchen time. Oh, well… he tossed the pot into the garbage can, making a mental note to buy another one like it before Scully discovered it missing.

“She’s good for you, I can tell.”

Leaning as he was against the porch railing, Sam seemed distant. Mulder piled a few newspapers from the stack by the back door on top of the ruined pot before mashing the lid down. Better safe than sorry. He moved to Sam’s side and together, they made similar figures against the dark of the night.

“She is,” he said with conviction. “After the war, I thought I’d never find a way to live again. But Scully made all the difference.” He didn’t want to get into his time in Hong Kong with Sam. “I know you’re kind of at loose ends now, Sam, but believe me, it’ll -”

“I was jealous of you,” Sam interrupted him quietly.

Mulder fell silent; he knew that from the moment Sam laid eyes on Scully.

“I know this sounds crazy,” Sam continued, staring out into the back yard, the mist from his words drifting eerily into the darkness. “But she was mine, you know? And to see her again with you – God, Fox, I’m so sorry.”

“For the longest time, I was jealous of you.”

Sam turned his head, his eyes bright with confusion. “Jealous of me? Why?”

“Because she thought… well, it’s a long story.” He couldn’t very well tell his brother all the intimate details of his disastrous beginning with Scully. “Needless to say, she remembered you, just like you did her. And when she saw me, she….”

“Thought you were me,” Sam finished. Hanging his head, he grinned. “I’d like to say you bagged her because of me, but somehow I think she’s smarter than that. Bet it didn’t take her long to figure you out, did it?”

Mulder rubbed his temple, one side of his mouth going up in an answering grin. “After she walloped me one, no.”

At that, Sam laughed, a rich hearty sound Mulder had sorely missed. “This I gotta hear one day, okay?”

“Not a chance,” Mulder replied. Sam’s mirth was infectious, and he found himself chuckling along. “She’d wallop me again.”

The two brothers swayed in easy camaraderie for a few moments until their laughter died down. It was going on ten o’clock, and Mulder knew Scully probably squirmed in the bed already. He needed to get back inside, but hated to end the little one-on-one with Sam. Shuffling to and fro, he felt cold seep up his woolen trouser legs and gave Sam an inquisitive look. “Still feel like taking that walk?”

Sam’s smile was warm and knowing, as if he too, didn’t want the evening to end. “I’ll take a turn around the block and be back in ten, okay?”

Mulder dug in his pockets. “Here, take my key. I’ll get it back in the morning.” No one in the neighborhood locked their doors, but Mulder always had. Being stalked by a Chinese madman had a way of making one overly cautious. “And tomorrow, we see about getting you back in the swing of things.”

“The swing of things?”

Though delivered in a playful tone, Mulder’s reply was more serious than he wanted. “Can’t have you sniffing around Scully forever, you know.”

Sam took the key without question; he paused when he hit the bottom step, looking back up. “Fox?”

“Yeah?”

“I’d never come between you and Dana – you know that, don’t you? That jealousy thing?” Sam waved a hand in dismissal. “That was just me being… me.”

“You mean, territorial and egotistical?”

Sam’s smile was brilliant. “Nah. I just saw her first, that’s all.”

Mulder snorted at the way Sam drew his own conclusions, which turned out to be a simpler way of saying what took himself years of education. “But I saw her last. Remember that.”

“As if I’d forget it.” With a wink, he turned to follow the sidewalk around to the front of the house. “See ya later, Smokey.”

Mulder watched him fade into the darkness on the side of the house, wondering where the hell they went from there. A job for Sam, he could handle.

A meaningful direction for his wayward brother – that was something else entirely.

**********

Not bad, Sam thought, looking the street up and down. Fox had done well for himself and his family. A nice neighborhood, a good job, a baby on the way – and a brother who was destined to be a bum if he didn’t get his shit together. Sighing, Sam made for the park on the corner; he remembered passing it on their way home from the hospital. He needed to be alone to have time to think, to plan what his next moves would be in the face of his sudden lack of prospects.

He brushed the snow from the seat of a child’s swing and plopped down, resting his clasped hands on his knees. What the hell was he supposed to do now? He couldn’t stay with Fox and his wife forever; in fact, the sooner he made himself scarce, the better. Despite the way they’d smoothed over his reaction to Dana, Sam knew there would always be a lingering cloud over them from the whole incident. Especially since he couldn’t remember a damned thing – and until he did, Dana would always look at him like she expected him to fall dead at any moment. Creepy.

No, it was better if he moved on as quickly as possible. Find a job and a place of his own. He rubbed at his cheek with dismay; that was easier said than done. Baseball had been his life, was destined to be his career before he got sidetracked by the war. Even then, he’d shown enough promise that his name was easily bandied about among the major league scouts as a sure thing once the war was over. He knew before Los Banos the war’s days were numbered, and he’d been in contact with his agent back home in preparation for spring tryouts. So what if he was a few years older? Lots of players left the leagues to fight abroad, and everyone expected them to return to play again.

But now, with two missing years behind him, he doubted the scouts would spare him a glance. According to Fox, the war was long over. Major leaguers would be firmly ensconced in their positions once again, and the best Sam could hope for was playing backup on some farm club. He felt pretty good, but could he still play with the finesse he’d honed in college? Would anyone give a chance to a man who’d essentially been dead for two years – one who didn’t even remember where he’d been? He’d be lucky if they didn’t lock him up and throw away the key.

No. He just had to make up his mind he wasn’t going to be a burden to anyone. A man could find work and –

“You’re very stubborn.”

The low voice brought his head up; he squinted at the figure standing in the shadows of the monkey bars. “Who’s there?”

“Then again, I always knew you were. But you surprised me with your single-minded persistence.”

Sam shot up from the swing. Something in the man’s manner, his very stillness, filled him with dread. “Do you know me?” Did this person know where he’d been all this time?

“You make me waste my time chasing after you, when you know I’m powerless against your will.”

Dread turned to suspicion as Sam backed away. “Don’t come any closer.”

“How could I possibly get closer? You won’t let me.” The man was faceless in the dark, with an angry demeanor that emanated from him despite the distance separating them. “Listen to me -”

“Tell me how you know me!”

“You don’t have much time. Things will… change. You will quickly find yourself at the mercy of all things human, and then I won’t be able to pull you back.”

“Pull me back? What the hell are you talking about? Why would I want to go anywhere with you?”

“Deep down, you know you don’t belong here. But you had to come back because of her.”

Her. Dana? Cold fright raced down his spine. He remained silent, knowing somehow the man spoke the truth.

“You are in the middle of something beyond your control. Come with me. Now, before it’s too late.”

Too late for what? This man, with his statue-like stance and emotionless words, knew something Sam didn’t. Whatever it was, it involved Dana. He knew it to be true, felt it in his heart.

Sam had never been a coward. But at that moment, he wanted nothing more than to turn and run. Far away from the pull of the man’s voice. A faceless man who knew everything there was to know about where he’d been all this time. He was certain of it, just as he was certain he didn’t want to know. He was back with the only family he had left, and the devil himself had no power to sway him.

“Go away,” he growled, dropping his chin in a defiant, narrow-eyed stare. “Go away and leave me alone.”

Rigid, his hands clenched in fists, he turned to walk away. Away from what he refused to remember. Even if he never remembered, he now knew hidden pain lurked in those memories and he wanted no part of it. One last look over his shoulder made him pause, ready to fight tooth and nail should he find the menace to his happiness at his back.

But he was alone.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Eight

Sam rolled over, away from the sunlight streaming through the bedroom window. He scrubbed at his unshaven cheeks, wincing like he’d tied one on the night before. But even the worst hangover he’d ever had hadn’t felt like this. He had no headache, his stomach felt fine, but for some reason, he felt out of sorts. The feeling had stayed with him since he’d woken up in the hospital, a feeling of being uncomfortable in his own skin. He hated it and wished it away, knowing the thought would do no good. Time, he needed time, that was all.

A fist pounded at the door. “Breakfast in five, Sam,” his brother yelled. “Then we hit the road, so up and at ‘em!”

Sam moaned and buried his head under the pillow. He didn’t feel like facing the world today, especially since visions of the faceless man still crowded his brain. He’d never been more scared in his life. Facing down bullets and crazed Japanese soldiers had never made him cower like that ghostly figure had.

Should he tell Fox? Maybe the whole thing was just a product of his overwrought senses; it was possible he’d imagined the whole thing. After all, the guy had really been only a voice in the night, a shadow that looked like a man, but he couldn’t be sure. Maybe the run-in with the car had knocked his brain sideways or something. It was bad enough he felt like every step he took was a monumental effort; it probably wasn’t all that unusual his mind took a hike as well.

After delivering his warning to the shadow man, he’d found himself alone. A quick search of the park revealed no trace of anyone else; much as he didn’t want to admit it, maybe he had been seeing things. Hearing his own conscience chastise him for shoving his way into Fox’s ideal family life.

But that would change today. With no help from his brother, he vowed. No matter what Fox said or offered, he was going it alone today.

His bones creaked as he threw off the covers and sat on the edge of the bed. When his bare feet touched the floor, he shivered. The cold was getting to him; it made him smile. Things were getting back to normal. His nightmare last night was just that – a dream. He stood and reached for his pants, feeling his balance settle. Again, he smiled.

His body felt good. More comfortable with every passing hour. Amazing what a good night’s sleep could do.

It would be a snap to find a job, he thought with confidence. After all, no one had ever denied him anything in his life. Why should today be any different?

**********

No, he wasn’t willing to sell novelties on the street corner; he drew the line at making a total fool of himself that way. He was too big to be a shoe salesman – the women would faint at the size of his hands, even if he had a pretty face. He was too white to mop the floors at the elementary school around the corner – that one made him want to break the principal’s nose for being such a prejudiced ass. He would have had the job hauling slabs of beef to the local markets, but he was too slow to come up with a convincing lie about previous employment. The last two years? Spent ‘em… uh… driver’s license? Sorry, must have lost it. Social security card? Damn – in the same wallet with the driver’s license.

Blah, blah, blah. He’d have been better off staying dead. He was as good as such, seeing as how he really had no way of proving who he was or where he’d been. With a sigh, he trudged up the sidewalk, dreading the smile Fox would bestow upon him – the one assuring him he’d help out as long as necessary.

Damn it, he didn’t want to mooch off his brother. And for the little while he’d seen Dana that morning, the silence had been so awkward around the breakfast table they could listen to the clock ticking between bites of oatmeal. Fox’s attempts at conversation were admirable, but Sam knew the more he left Fox and Dana alone, the better. He’d finished his coffee in one gulp and set out to become part of the work force, asking Fox to take care of the one thing he was best at – getting him declared ‘undead’ in the eyes of the military. One thing Sam didn’t want was to go back in the Army. He’d had enough of that.

Too bad no one needed help. If there was one thing he’d discovered today, he wasn’t the only war veteran out of work. The whole city was filled with men his age and older scouring the classifieds and standing in long lines at the employment agencies. War was good business; lots of men unable to work due to lack of education or opportunity found military service the place to earn money. Peace flooded the job market with those same men, still unemployable and hungry enough to nab every available job.

Sam wondered if he could make enough with a ten percent commission selling daisies that squirted water. Another day like today and he might just have to risk a punch in the nose from the recipient of his street corner product demonstration. So what if every little brat that walked by hanging on Mom’s skirts pointed and made faces at him? So what if the job required he wear the fake nose and bushy-browed glasses? A man had to do what a man had to do.

Which meant he had at least a couple more days of mooching. Tomorrow was Sunday, and he was destined to spend it under the watchful eye of his brother. Beginning with dinner tonight at some place called Mike’s. Fox had made him promise to meet them there at six, giving him thorough instructions on where to go. Best food in town, he’d said. Coldest beer in three states. Atmosphere – you’ll love it, he delivered with a wink. Trust me.

Right now, Sam thought, he could use a beer. He stared at the crowd through the darkened window then looked up. Funny, but he remembered this bar, though the name was unfamiliar.

“Mike’s.”

The pleasant hum of a Sinatra tune lured him in.

**********

“Two drafts and another whiskey straight up, Da.”

“Comin’ right up, darlin’.” Mike Scully gave his daughter a smile as he built a pint under the cold- sweated tap. “Good crowd tonight. Makes me giddy, it does.”

Emma blew a puff of air at the wisps of curls escaping from her braid as she set the tray full of empty glasses on the bar. “Makes you giddy, does it?” she replied. “Makes my feet hurt.”

“Aidan and Joseph will be back by Christmas, Emma,” her father said, his smile fading to a pitiful pout. His two eldest sons were off on holiday in Ireland with their wives. He couldn’t tell them no when they’d asked for time off from the business; they put their lives into the bar, just as he had. It would be theirs someday. It wasn’t their fault Tommy ended up on crutches after a spill down the church steps, limiting his part-time work in the tavern.

The son with the bum leg hopped up to butt in. “I’m not an invalid, you know.” He had the look of Mike himself, ruddy and fat-cheeked. “I’m doing pretty good back here, aren’t I?”

“That you are, son,” Mike answered. “Good thing you found yourself a girlfriend unafraid of an honest day’s work.” He nodded at the brunette waiting tables with nearly the efficiency of Emma; Jenny was a good match for his next-to-youngest boy. Even though both faced a few more years of college, they were already blindly in love and anticipating the marriage to come down the road. Mike hoped they weren’t anticipating their union that much – he’d tried to make his children responsible to their lives and the church by remaining chaste until marriage. He didn’t know if all his preaching worked, but so far, none of them had walked down the aisle with a shotgun at their back.

With a conniving, ‘follow my lead’ wink at his youngest, he purred, “Of course, I can always ask your Aunt Martha to help out you and Emma if it’s too much for you.”

“Yeah,” Tommy said, as if the idea ought to be patented. “Great idea, Da!”

Emma’s head snapped up, and Mike noticed the slight shadows of fatigue under her eyes. Didn’t dim her quick rebuttal, however. “No!” Martha was his late wife’s sister, a dingbat of the first order. She was sweet, but easily distracted. His profits would evaporate under Aunt Martha’s haphazard way of dealing with customers, but he hadn’t realized how trying these few weeks could be for his only daughter. “I’m just a bit tired from working that double shift Thursday.” She smiled, leaning over the bar to take the glass from his hand as she gave her laughing brother a glare. “If I can’t handle a few rowdy patrons, then how am I ever going to handle me own children?”

Mike’s eyes teared up at the lilting tone and brilliant smile. Emma was so like her mother, a real beauty, inside and out. He knew she didn’t think so, having inherited the red curls and pale, freckled skin. She thought her late mother plain and earthy, but she’d never admit to it. Having grown up practically glued to her favorite seat in that movie house down the block, she idolized the tall, slim glamour girls she saw every Saturday. Before her mother had passed, she’d spent many an afternoon poring over the slick magazines, sighing at dreams of beauty.

He could never seem to make her understand that she was beautiful. And she no longer had to give up thoughts of a family of her own to take care of him. Her easy banter about children held an edge of wistful longing, as if she didn’t really expect it to ever happen. Being a nurse was all good and fine, but Mike wanted more for his Emma. His one little girl, the jewel of his eye.

“You’ll never get those children if you don’t get out more.”

She matched his grumble, reaching for the last of her order. “I’ll never get out more if you keep givin’ my brothers month-long holidays.” But her bright blue eyes twinkled, and Mike knew she’d backed away from a potentially sticky situation. Loading the last of her order on the tray, she reached over and squeezed his hand. “I love you, Da,” she said. “And I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here with you right now. There’s plenty of time for other things.”

Mike watched her weave through the crowd with a proud smile; despite her small stature, she muscled her way around the patrons, some of whom dwarfed her. Her ‘make way!’ carried over Sinatra’s crooning – she was a Scully, all right. All fire and determination.

Shaking his head with indulgence, he caught the wave of a man sitting with a slinky blonde at the end of the bar. Things were certainly hopping tonight, which surprised him. People were getting into the holiday spirit earlier every year, even if their pocketbooks were feeling more of a pinch. Thank goodness they still set aside the dough to have a night out now and then, or he’d be in serious trouble.

A breath of cooler air touched his face as he filled the glasses of the couple with bourbon. Without looking up, he boomed, “And what can I get you this fine evening?”, catching the newcomer’s slide into the last stool. Mike grinned; that made for a full bar. Emma wouldn’t care for it, but he looked at an empty seat like a priest looked at an empty pew… the collection plate wasn’t going to get filled that way. Besides, he liked the company. Most of his patrons were neighborhood friends or distant family; since the death of his beloved Fiona, he took comfort in familiar faces.

“Umm… I’m meeting someone for dinner.” The newcomer craned his neck to look over the crowd, then grumbled, “Who isn’t here.” With an apologetic lift of his eyebrows, he faced Mike. “Is it okay if I just sit here?”

Mike stared at the profile hunched over the bar. So this was the prodigal son, eh? He’d been on the lookout for him since Fox had phoned a half hour ago, saying they’d be running late. Keep an eye out for Sam, he asked, concern running in a tight thread through his voice. He didn’t know why Fox was so worried; the lad looked beefy enough to take on any kind of trouble. “You’re a Mulder, aren’t you?” Mike asked, extending a hand.

“Sam Mulder.” His face relaxed into a tentative smile. “And you are -?”

“Mike. I own the place.” Nice handshake, he thought. Full of strength, though the palms could use a few callouses. But Mulder had implied Sam had been sick in his absence, so Mike cut him some slack on that issue. “Your brother called a little while back and said they’d be late. Meantime, can I can you something to wet your whistle?”

Sam released his hand to dig in his coat pocket. “Uh…” he said, looking at the quarter with dismay, “what can I get for two bits?”

“A fistful of Pepsi, if you be a temperate man with an unnatural likin’ for soda. Those run five cents apiece,” Mike rattled off with a mock shudder as he placed a bar napkin in front of the young man. “Or you can have a beer or two, or three.”

His newest patron glanced up from his perusal of the lonely coin. “Or three? Sign up there says ten cent beer.”

Mike gave him a smile as he leaned on one elbow. “You look like a man who could use a pint or two. Or three. Sometimes me cash register skips one – imagine that. Drives the accountant crazy, it does.”

The lonely face cracked into a grin. “I’ll bet it does. I’ll take a pint, then.”

“Ah, a man after me own heart. Comin’ right up.” Mike moved away to fill the order, watching Mulder’s brother from the corner of his eye.

He was a handsome lad, more brawny than Dana’s husband. He wore a nice blue suit under his overcoat that suffered a bit from wrinkling; from his coat pocket, he pulled a newspaper. Mike watched him scratch through the ads one by one with a stubby pencil, circling only one or two. So that was the way of it.

Emma had told him Fox’s brother showed up unexpectedly Thanksgiving night. Mike was surprised to find out Fox even had a brother; he thought the family had pretty much died out with his parents’ passing. Or so he recalled hearing at the funeral – hadn’t the brother died in the war? He tried to get more information out of Emma, but quickly gave up. All Emma would say was things were complicated, and he figured with Dana’s troublesome pregnancy, he had no business prying further. Emma had assured him the brother was a carbon copy of Fox, albeit a bit on the arrogant side. From what he could see as the man looked at the paper with ever-increasing glumness, he didn’t look all that arrogant. He looked like a man in need of a bit of good fortune.

Mike leaned over to whisper in Tommy’s ear, “Grab Pee Wee over there to help you for a bit, son.” He nodded at his cousin, who sat at the bar like an errant elf, his pointed ears wiggling under his hat brim.

“But Da, Pee Wee helps himself to a sip or two of our finest Scotch when he helps out back here.”

“Doesn’t hurt a bit, Tommy boy. You’ll learn that good customers are more valuable than a bit of pilfered Scotch.” He turned his back on Tommy’s grimace, chuckling. Good thing Aidan and Joseph followed their father’s tenets when it came to pleasing customers, just as it was a good thing Tommy had a more business-minded head on his shoulders. They’d make a good team when he made his trip to the hereafter; until then, no one disputed Mike’s authority.

With a flourish, he placed the pint before Sam. “There you are, lad. Drink up.”

He watched as Sam savored the cold beer with a look of sheer bliss. “Thanks.”

Mike jerked his chin at the newspaper. “Looking for work, are ya?”

“Yeah. Not much around, though.” Sam curled his lips into a tight grimace. “Fox says he’s bringing a friend of his along tonight. Someone who could give me a job.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“I kind of wanted to find one on my own. But there’s not much call for someone like me.” Mike could understand that; his pride matched anyone’s, and something told him this man had more pride than ten men. “Fox was right; this is the coldest beer I can ever remember in town. Why haven’t I ever heard of this place before?”

“Depends on how long you’ve been gone, son.”

“Almost fifteen years. I left for college at eighteen, then played a bit of semi-pro baseball in New York.”

That accounted for the sheer size of the guy, and went a long way toward explaining his lack of job prospects. “A baseball player, were you? Any good?”

“Passable. Everyone said I’d make it big one day.”

“What happened?”

“I enlisted right after Pearl Harbor and after the war…” He trailed off, as if the subject was a distasteful one.

Mike tactfully avoided that tangent. “Ah, then you must have known the place as Bully’s back in the day. Of course, you wouldn’t have been old enough to partake of the beer fifteen years ago.”

“True. But I remember my Dad coming here now and then – and how Mom used to send me and Fox in to get him when he’d stayed away a bit too long.”

Mike glanced over Sam’s shoulder at the skinny boy who poked his head in the front door. “Some things never change,” he laughed, then addressed the kid. “Tell your ma I’ll send your da right out, Jackie.” The boy hesitated. “Go on now with ya, lad,” Mike boomed, a mock sternness to his face.

Sam laughed along with him as the boy startled away like a jack rabbit. “If I remember right, he’s mighty disappointed he couldn’t come in and look around. I know I was. You’re right, Mike. Some things never change.” The sadness was all but gone from Sam’s face, as if the memory was a pleasant one. Mike wanted to keep the good feeling going.

“Let me get Harry out there before Mildred herself comes in or we’ll never live down the hair-pulling and whining.”

“Mildred gets a bit emotional, I take it.”

“No, Harry does. Especially when he’s got a half- full pint he has to kiss goodbye.” Mike took Sam’s empty glass with a laugh. “I’ll get you another on the way back.”

“Thanks, Mike.”

“Emma!”

His daughter looked up from the corner of the big room and caught his eye. “Yes, Da?”

“Grab Harry there and tell him Mildred’s waitin’ on him outside, would ya?” Mike filled Sam’s glass as Emma answered with a smile and a wave.

When Mike returned with the filled glass, Sam sat as still as a statue, a lazy grin across his face. He turned to find the source of Sam’s sudden happiness, and felt the lad’s gaze firmly in place on his daughter.

Well, whaddya know, he thought, catching sight of Sam’s pleased as punch perusal of Emma. The Lord works in mysterious ways, his beloved Fiona had always said. Maybe the lad was just what his daughter needed. With a job, of course. The man already had one thing in his favor, as far as Mike was concerned – he was related to Fox Mulder. A better man had never walked through Mike’s door. With a small smile of his own, he leaned against the bar. “Fetching little thing, isn’t she?”

Sam looked up with an eager hope. “She works here?”

“Fills in now and then,” Mike drawled, the pieces of the puzzle coming together. Emma’s reluctance to discuss the newly arrived brother, Fox’s insistence that Mike make Sam stay put… from the look on the man’s face, he was mighty glad to see Emma. Now, if Emma spit fire when she caught sight of the man, he’d have his answer. “I take it you’ve met?”

“We’ve met.” Sam took a healthy gulp of his beer and relaxed, looking totally pleased with the turn of events.

“She’s a regular tempest in a teapot, that one,” Mike prompted, idly wiping a dish cloth over an imaginary spot on the bar. “Wouldn’t you say?”

Sam chuckled, shaking his head. “That would be an understatement.”

So that was the way of it; now all he had to do was get those two together and watch the sparks fly. But his plan was put on temporary hold when he saw Fox and Dana walk in the door, followed by Melissa and Melvin. Now he knew where Fox intended to come up with the job for this brother of his. From what he knew of Melvin Frohike, the man was a good sort. But would this ex-baseball player be happy in the middle of a bunch of stuffy suits?

“Looks like your party’s here, son.” Sam’s face fell a bit, and Mike didn’t hesitate to reassure him, as he leaned closer to whisper with a knowing grin, “You go on and meet ‘em. I’ll send Jenny over in a minute to take your order, okay?”

“Jenny?” Sam’s face fell, as he chanced another wistful look at Emma.

“Tommy’s girl. She works that side of the room, lad.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t you worry, lad… you stick around a bit and I’ll wager you’ll end up with the waitress you really want.”

At that, Sam brightened, standing. “Thanks, Mike.” He laid the quarter on the bar, then watched in amazement as Mike slid it back to him.

“You can just owe me, Sam.”

Sam took a last glance at Emma. “I think I already owe you, Mike,” he said, already turning to meet the folks depositing their coats in the small alcove by the door.

“Or two, or three,” Mike murmured, out of Sam’s hearing range. This one would be a pleasure; he could hear the wedding bells already. Now, to just make it impossible for his daughter to balk… “Maybe we can make it four before the night’s over.”

**********

“So, this idiot tells me that something called Pixy Stix and – get this – troll dolls will one day make millions, and I should get in while I can.”

Sam followed the conversation reluctantly. After brief introductions (Dana’s leggy sister was definitely wasted on that little man), they’d spotted a table by the window and made a beeline for it, this ‘Frohike’ person – what was it with last names? – chattering to Fox non-stop about his day at the office. From the looks of his expensive suit and gold watch, the man was worth some money. But Sam had only been around him for an hour, tops – and already he was bored stiff with all the talk of business. How did Fox put up with this?

“Troll dolls, huh?” His brother finished up his steak, his attention still half-focused on his friend in a show of good manners.

“Troll dolls.” Frohike did the same with the T- bone in front of him, making short work of the remaining steak. “I kid you not.”

Sam picked at his meal, definitely feeling like a fifth wheel. The ladies talked softly as they sat beside each other; he, on the other hand, sat between Fox and Frohike, expected to join in now and then. And he did, though he felt lost in all the talk about importing goods from Asia – supposedly the next big manufacturing boom was to take place overseas, and Frohike had the inside track. Sam offered little or no response, other than an occasional yes or no when asked a question. His mind was elsewhere as he searched the bar for Emma, his ear only picking up bits of the conversation at hand.

“I don’t see why you shouldn’t invest, Frohike,” Fox was saying. “After all, you could save a bit of money with some shortcuts.”

“Oh, yeah? How so?”

“You wouldn’t have to hire models for the dolls. Just put on a pair of pointed ears and get rid of the suit.”

At that, Sam turned to Fox, who sat with a wicked grin. Frohike sputtered, but quickly dissolved into good-natured laughter. “I get it. No more work talk.” He took Melissa’s hand and smiled before giving Sam a wink. “Not until after dessert, anyway.”

Sam flushed, a bit non-plussed at the friendly banter between the friends and the implication that Mr. Melvin Frohike was destined to be his savior as far as a job was concerned. He didn’t like being maneuvered by anyone, but he supposed Fox had his heart in the right place. Thankfully, the sudden silence was broken by a welcome voice.

“Anything else, ladies and gents?”

A round of cheerful hellos greeted Emma, along with casual inquiries about dessert choices. She smiled, passing a glance over each one of them until she got to Sam. The smile faded as his own widened; he thought he was feeling uncomfortable. His discomfort with the set-up for a job was nothing compared to hers at finding him there. Quickly, she pulled out her notepad and got down to the business of serving them dessert.

“Where’s Jenny?” Dana asked.

“Off to put one of the customers in a cab. He had a bit much tonight. Why Da lets some folks in this place sometimes is beyond me.” The bite in her voice had nothing to do with a certain customer’s overindulgence, Sam was certain. Especially in light of the fact her displeased tone was directed Sam’s way. It didn’t matter what words came out of her mouth, their sting was meant for him.

“What are you doing here tonight, Emma?” Dana asked. “Where’s Aidan and Roberta? And Joseph and Claire?”

“Off to Ireland for holiday,” she answered shortly, not looking up from her scratch pad. “I’m just helping out until they get back.”

“They took the kids out of school?”

“The kids are staying with the in-laws.” She finally looked up, though she avoided Sam like the plague. “I figure everyone wants a coffee and a slice of apple pie? No coffee for you Dana, of course. Might take a bit, we’re kind of busy tonight.” It was obvious Emma hurried along the small talk, anxious to be away from him. Had he spooked her that much with his overtures?

“Sure,” Fox replied. “No hurry, Emma.”

“And how’s me favorite customers?”

Sam glanced away from Emma for a moment to find Mike at her side, beaming at the group as he laid an arm around Emma. Instead of stiffening, she relaxed into his embrace. What the hell was going on?

“Good, Uncle Mike. How’s Tommy?” Dana asked.

Uncle Mike? What the – no wonder the guy had been a friendly sort! He was Scully through and through. Sam could have kicked himself for not noticing the resemblance, as Mike shared the same fair complexion and red hair.

“Getting around pretty good on those crutches, but we’re in a bit of a spot for help.”

“We are not,” Emma said quickly, elbowing her father.

But Mike ignored her, giving her a healthy hug. “Now, girl – don’t be telling me you’re not getting a bit tired. I know better.” He looked at Fox with a perplexed frown. “Wish I had an extra pair of hands this Christmas season. It would make it a whole lot easier on us all.”

That was his cue; Sam felt the gentle nudge from Mike all the way to his bones. “I can help out, Mike.”

“No, you can’t!”

“Hush, girl,” Mike said, giving her a little shove to the bar, “and get that pie. Go on, now, do as I say.”

“But -”

“Emma!” His tone brooked no disobedience, and Emma sulked away, giving Sam a look that could kill were it filled with sharp objects. “You were sayin’, Sam?”

“I need a job, Mike.”

“Know how to tend bar?”

“Sam, Frohike here -” Fox tried to interrupt, but Sam ignored him, answering the answer to his prayers in the form of Mike Scully.

It was in bad taste to say he’d learned at his father’s knee, so he hedged the subject. “Some.”

“What say we start you out at fifty cents an hour? What you don’t know, you can learn from Tommy.”

Sam stood, taking Mike’s hand over the bemused looks of his dinner party companions. “Deal. When can I start?”

“How about right now? Go see Tommy behind the bar.”

Grateful to have the respite from Fox and Dana and their guests, Sam nearly tripped over his chair in his haste to leave. He murmured a quick ‘nice meeting you’ to Frohike and Melissa, and an even quicker ‘see you later’ to Fox and Dana before joining Mike, who took him in hand.

As they walked away, Sam addressed Mike in a whisper. “Thanks, Mike. That Frohike guy is just…”

“A bit stuffy, I know. Oh, he’d have given you a job somewhere in his office, like the good man he is. But you strike me as the kind of man who hates wearing a suit and tie.”

“I’m more comfortable in a baseball uniform,” he admitted. He tugged at his tie, quickly whipping it off to tuck it in his coat pocket. His coat came off next and he rolled up his sleeves. “You said something about tending bar?”

Mike laughed, giving him a hearty pat on the back. “You did more than come in here as a wee lad to summon your Da home, didn’t you?”

“I know my way around a barroom, Mike, that’s true.” One of the reasons he’d never made it to the majors too quickly was his propensity for the night life, and he knew it. Back then, he figured he had plenty of time. Little did he know.

“As long as you don’t turn out a bum, do I make myself clear?” Though his eyes were still gleaming with a smile, Mike’s voice was stern.

“As glass.” Sam stopped, making the older man stop as well as he caught sight of Emma filling her tray with pints of beer. “Mike, I’m not one for taking charity, I want you to know that.”

“Oh, it’s not charity, lad. I’m gonna work your ass off.”

“I expect nothing less. That’s two I owe you, Mike.”

Mike followed Sam’s line of sight, giving him a firm look. “That’s three you owe me, Sam. You work for me now, lad. Don’t disappoint me.”

“I won’t.”

Sam watched Mike move ahead, his gaze sliding with unerring ease back to Emma. With all the rotten luck he’d had since returning home, maybe he’d finally caught a lucky break.

Emma met his stare with a furious flash of her blue eyes before turning her nose up and purposely taking the long route back to his brother’s table with their coffee and pie.

Then again, maybe he hadn’t. Boy, did he have his work cut out for him – and that work had nothing to do with serving whiskey sours.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Nine

“I can’t believe you hired that man,” Emma whispered across the bar to her father, who stood there looking like a little boy on his way to first communion, all wide-eyed yet imagining how he was going to pull on the braid of the girl in front of him in line.

“And what would be the problem, girl?” he asked in a cool voice. He glanced at Sam, who tossed bottles at the other end of the bar like he was born to serve the masses. “He seems competent enough to me.”

“He’s… he’s…” Wonderful, she thought with sarcasm. How could she come out and say she thoroughly disliked the man? She couldn’t very well tell her father exactly how Sam had shown up Thanksgiving night, she’d given her word to Fox to keep a lid on their secrets. So what to say? “He’s just not needed, that’s all.”

“Do you have a personal beef with the lad, Emma?” Damn, her father was too intuitive sometimes. He leaned in closer, watching her with pale blue eyes that probed in places she wanted no one to ever see. “Is there something you’re not tellin’ me?”

Vivid images ran through her mind like a Technicolor film… Sam smiling at her, teasing and hugging her tight, holding her fast as he spread warmth with his hands and words… telling her with anger, “Why can’t you be her?” Oh, there was lots she could tell her father, if she wanted to make herself out to be a fool. No, she’d been shamed enough by having to plead with Sam himself to leave her be; she wasn’t about to drag her dad into the mess she’d managed to make of her emotions in two short days.

“No, Da,” she murmured, picking up her tray filled with pints. “I just thought we were doing fine, me and you and Tommy.”

Mike Scully ran a gentle hand over her cheek, lifting her chin with one firm finger to look into her sad eyes. “You don’t see what I see, Emma.”

“What do you see?” she whispered, suddenly afraid she’d given too much away with her protests.

A fine mist covered those old eyes, as he gazed down at her with love. “I see a woman who thinks she has to do everything without any help. A woman with enough pride for two people. Now, don’t be looking at me that way – pride’s a good thing, but it can get in the way sometimes.”

Smarting, she found her voice giving up its normal, strident tone as a lump of insecurity settled in her throat. “Am I so very rigid, Da?”

“No, no,” her father insisted, brushing his fingers over her cheek. “You’ve just traded your dreams for mine, love. I see a soft, caring woman before me – a woman who’s never had a chance to live because she’s given up her own life to take care of her Da.”

“But I’ve never complained, Da -”

“I know you haven’t, Emmagirl,” he interrupted softly. “And you never will. That’s my beef with it all – you’re runnin’ yourself ragged when there’s no need.”

“No need? Da, who would cook for you, and clean for you, Tommy and Jamie, if it weren’t for me? Who would keep you company?”

“Look around you, girl. I have me own restaurant full of food – and more company every day than you’ve had in all your life. Tommy’s almost done with college, then he and Jenny will be on their own. Jamie’s off to college next fall, and I don’t believe he’ll be needing you to hold his hand.” He released her with a slight pinch to her chin. “I need you, Emma. I’ll always need you… but I don’t need you. Stop using me as an excuse to bury yourself like an old widow woman.”

The truth, while delivered in a concerned tone, stung a bit. Emma straightened with a huff. “So is that what this is all about?” She jerked her chin in Sam’s direction. “I’ve got news for you, Da – you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“Now, did I say we’d settled the dowry?” He had the grace to look affronted. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Emma – I just hired the man to help out in the bar. End of story.”

“Right,” she snorted, still miffed at her father, her tongue running unbidden into dangerous territory. “Next thing ya know, he’ll be takin’ the rooms upstairs so’s to save you from havin’ to lock up at night!”

As soon as she’d said it, she wanted to take it back. The gleam in her father’s eye fairly burst into a glowing light bulb and he brought a hand down on the bar. “Now, that’s a grand idea, Emma! The lad has no business bothering his brother with Dana’s time so close, and besides, I could use an early night now and then.”

Quickly, she scrambled to save the ship sinking in the pit of her stomach. “But Da – those are Jamie’s rooms, you told him he could have ‘em on his eighteenth birthday, remember?”

“I did. But that’s six months away, Emmagirl. You wouldn’t want me to turn a homeless man out on the street, would ya?”

“He’s not homeless!” Emma took a deep breath, realizing she was in danger of losing her temper totally. Her father was getting senile, that was it. “Da, this is getting ridiculous. I insist we stop arguing about this right now.”

“I agree,” Mike replied, in a much calmer tone than she herself employed. Maybe she’d finally gotten him to drop the subject altogether. “Go on and serve those pints, darlin’. I need to make a pass on this end of the bar. Seein’ too many empty glasses.”

“Don’t do anything foolish, Da,” she warned, as she hefted the tray up to shoulder height.

“I won’t, Emma, I promise. Now get goin’ before that beer thaws out or we’ll have some sore customers on our hands.”

His sincerity was without a doubt his greatest asset. Right or wrong, Mike Scully never told a lie or went back on a promise. Emma gave him a nod before turning to venture out into the melee once again, confident she’d said her piece well enough to disabuse her father of any notion as far as that blighter down the bar was concerned.

*********

“I can’t believe you talked Mike into hiring you.”

Fox pulled on his gloves as he grumbled at Sam, watching Dana leave the bar with Frohike and Melissa. Sam clenched his jaw, having a hard time reining in his own temper when faced with his brother’s distrust.

“I didn’t talk Mike into anything, Fox. He offered me the job, I took it, simple as that.” He wiped down the bar with an agitated hand, wondering why Fox felt he still had to come to Sam’s aid at every opportunity.

“Frohike would have given you a job. A nice office job making twice what Mike’s paying you for slinging beer.”

“I would have been bored stiff within a week, and you know it.” Sam closed his eyes and counted three before adding, “I can take care of myself, Smokey. And as soon as I make a bit of dough, I’ll find my own place.”

“But Sam -”

“No buts, Fox. I might be missing a couple of years, but I still have a strong back and a good pair of hands. I intend to use ‘em, not sit on my ass and wait for handouts from you.”

Fox sighed, hanging his head as if lost in thought. Sam waited for the inevitable condescension, the ‘think before you act’ speech that Fox was so good at. His brother, Sam had come to realize, acted more like a father than his own had ever done. He was grateful for the guidance, but he was no longer twelve years old. And no longer prone to massive mistakes his brother corrected without batting an eyelash. This wasn’t a mistake, and he damned well was going to make Fox see that, even if he stretched the limits of his meager vocabulary in the face of Fox’s ten-dollar words.

“You know,” Fox began after his lengthy pause, “you’ve changed.”

“Of course I have,” Sam replied slowly, wondering where Fox was going with the sudden temperance. “I’ve grown up. You don’t have to watch out for me anymore, Fox. I can handle myself.”

Fox looked up, genuine concern clouding his gaze. “You realize you used to tie one on regularly, Sam. A bar is not the best place for you, especially -” He broke off, biting his lip over what Sam already knew was coming.

He might not remember the past two years, but the days before the war were a blur of baseball, booze and bimbos. It was amazing he did so well at the sport, considering he was a heavy drinker who could party with the best of ‘em. He couldn’t blame Fox for worrying about his choice of employment, but he knew those days were long past when he sought solace from the isolation forced upon him by his very own father, one he found in liquor.

“Especially since I can’t remember shit?” He tilted his head at Fox’s chagrin. “I’m not going to suddenly lose myself in the bottom of a bottle, big brother. I gave that up a long time ago. The Army has a way of sweating all the booze right out of you.”

“Are you sure about this? I can still set up a meeting with Frohike for Monday morning.”

“I’m positive. Give me a chance, Fox. I can do it, I know I can.”

“All right, I’ll butt out. But if you get into trouble again, I’m not coming to your rescue this time.”

“I don’t expect you to, Fox.”

“Leaving already, Mulder?”

Mike’s booming voice approached from the other end of the bar; Sam went back to the tap as he cleared his throat into silence. He hoped Fox wouldn’t tell Mike of his long-ago troubles with booze. He looked up with pleading, feeling a surge of relief by the solemn nod of his brother’s that told him his secret was safe.

“Dana’s a bit tired, so we’re heading home. Thanks for the dinner, Mike. Excellent, as always.”

“You’re welcome, lad.” Mike put an arm about Sam’s shoulders, still addressing Fox. “This one’s a fast learner, Mulder. Good man… hope you don’t mind I snatched him up? With Tommy movin’ a bit slow these days, and me two oldest away -”

“Take him, he’s yours,” Fox said with a smile. “One thing for sure – he’s bound to bring in the women with that handsome face.”

Mike frowned, a silly-looking pretense but worthy of a shudder at its intensity. “And me mug ain’t been good enough all these years? Is that what you’re sayin’?”

Fox took his keys from his pocket and stared Mike down. “Good thing the food’s good and the beer’s cold, or you’d have chased away all the customers years ago with that kisser, Mike. Believe me.”

Mike laughed, and Sam felt it roar through him with a bit of relief. At least there were no hard feelings between the men. “You’re a truthful man, Fox Mulder. Too truthful for the likes of me. I figure between me and Sam, we can come up with enough blarney to bring in the ladies in droves. Isn’t that right, lad?”

“I’ll do my best.” Sam breathed again as Mike released him; he was a big guy, and he towered over Mike by a good few inches, but the man was all muscle and grit. He had no doubt Mike could crush a few ribs in a determined choke hold. Looking back toward Fox, and the key dangling from a gloved hand, he asked, “That for me?”

“Yeah. Just leave it on the kitchen table. I’ll get another one made Monday at the hardware store. I won’t wait up, I promise,” he added with a wink.

“Wait a second, Fox,” Mike put in, before turning to Sam. “I’ve been thinking, lad.”

“Bad sign,” muttered Fox, who rolled his eyes.

“Oh hush, ya dandy,” Mike said, ignoring Fox’s chuckle. To Sam again, he said, “I’ve got a couple of rooms above the place here. Not much, just a bed and a bath, really. One by one, my boys have used it until they off and got married, most of ‘em. The two youngest are still at home with me and Emma, you see, and the five older than her either off to sea or in homes of their own… and of course, there’s Aidan and Joseph -”

Nine brothers. Damn, Fox hadn’t been kidding. Sam gulped, waiting for Mike to continue.

“Mike,” Fox interrupted softly, “Dana’s waiting in the car.”

“Oh, right, right. Sorry about that. Sometimes me tongue gets away from me.”

“Mike, spill it.”

“Well, Emma gave me the idea just now, and I thought it a good one.”

“What idea is that?”

“Why, that Sam should take the rooms upstairs as his own. A man needs a place to be alone, Fox, and I could use the help locking up now and then.”

“Mike, I don’t think that’s a good -”

“I’ll take it,“Sam found himself blurting out, with more excitement than he’d wanted.

“But you can stay with…” Fox trailed off, meeting Sam’s silent reminder of his vow to leave him be to find his own way. Their eyes locked, and Sam saw a burgeoning respect take hold in his brother’s face, one that warmed him all over. Fox dropped the key on the bar. “At least use it tonight, Sam. You can move your stuff over tomorrow after Scully goes to mass.”

Sam nodded, his throat suddenly tight as he pocketed the key. Mike, bless him, avoided the awkward lull by taking Fox’s hand in a jolly grip.

“Good deal, Mulder. You go on now and take Dana home. I’ll see the lad gets home after closing.”

Sam looked up at his waiting brother, and the hand he offered. With a strong, determined grip, he took it, saying softly, “Thanks, Smokey.” A world of unspoken love for his brother underlined the words, and he saw Fox take it as he did his hand.

“Good night, Sam. I’ll see you in the morning.” Jamming his hat on his head, he nodded at Mike. “‘Night, Mike. Thanks again.”

As Fox walked away, Mike stood by Sam’s side, watching the tall figure go into the night. “He’s a good man, your brother.”

“The best,” Sam choked out, dropping his chin to avoid Mike’s probing gaze. It was unmanly to shed a tear, especially in a bar full of people. God, he was getting soft.

Mike must have sensed his discomfort, as he abruptly changed tone. “Smokey? Never heard anyone call Mulder that before. Don’t tell me he smokes?”

Taking a deep breath to clear his head, Sam faced Mike. “My straight-arrow brother? Nah.”

“Then what gives?”

“Fox used to pitch to me when we were kids. He had a great arm; took me forever to learn how to hit his fastball. I think that’s why I ended up hitting as well as I did, because of Fox. I told him once he could be as great as Smokey Joe Wood. It stuck.”

“Ah… Red Sox pitcher, wasn’t he?”

At last, they were on a subject he could handle. The conversation quickly turned into a baseball player’s delight; Sam ate it up, feeling the weight of the world fall away.

Times were good again.

**********

She should have known better. She wasn’t gone more than a half hour when she turned and saw her father and Sam shaking hands at the far end of the bar. Mike looked like he’d made a new friend, almost jerking Sam’s arm off as he laughed and smiled like a big goofball. Sam looked like… well, like he always did when he smiled. Like a million bucks wrapped around a Hershey bar. Damn them both, she fumed, heading back with another order. This time, knowing her father would take no more obstinance from her lips, she approached the more pressing thorn in her side. The man she swore she’d have nothing more to do with, the man who could turn her insides to jelly with one word, the bugger who would tremble in the face of her wrath, she promised herself.

By the time she’d cleared a path through the tables and dancers in the makeshift clearing in the center of the room, her father was long gone. Emma said a silent prayer of thanks that she wouldn’t have to postpone the inevitable confrontation with Sam by avoiding her father. Mike had moved back to his spot by the door, where he’d practically worn a hole in the wood floor after all these years. He liked to greet his guests personally, as well as keep an eye on comings and goings. Really, if not for him, Mulder would most likely not have noticed Dana’s disappearance for some time the night of Charlie’s rehearsal supper almost two years past. It was Mike Scully who’d alerted Mulder to the lurking Asian fellow outside the window of the bar. Mulder had taken quick action; though Dana was already gone, he’d mobilized the family and law enforcement in a massive effort to find her. Which they’d done – Emma shuddered inwardly at the possibility that it could have ended much more disastrously, then set her mind to matters more pressing.

Sam Mulder and his unwanted intrusion into her life.

Already, he chatted and joked with the bar patrons like he was born to it. With his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and a twinkle in his eye, he served up beer and whiskey with a charming flair. As she moved closer, she heard them discussing – what else? – baseball, with the local sports fanatic, one Chauncy McCrory. Chauncy probably talked baseball in his sleep, much to the dismay of his poor wife.

“The Yankees lose to the Dodgers? Never happen, believe me,” Sam said, as he took Chauncy’s empty glass.

At least Sam looked like he was enjoying the conversation, which was a plus when bartending. Customers were always ready to talk.

“Came close this year,” Chauncy replied, his ever present cigar stuck between full lips. “That Robinson fella made a series out of it.”

“Robinson?” Sam asked, a light frown replacing his easy grin.

“Jackie Robinson. Negro fella the Dodgers called up from Kansas City coupla years ago. Helluva player. Almost took ‘em all the way. Where you been boy? The moon?”

Sam’s fluid serving technique faltered a bit; he cursed as he overflowed Chauncy’s glass at the tap, hopping away from the spill on his shoes. “Damn. Sorry about that, Mr. McCrory.”

Despite her anger with Sam, Emma sensed his sudden loss of control as if it were her own. His smile gone, he avoided Chauncy’s question as if it had been a pinprick to his balloon of good feeling, his face pale. Sam was a very affable guy, that was obvious; and to have to constantly be on guard against his past coming up to bite him in the ass must have been trying on the nerves, at the very least. Emma rushed in with a feigned huff of busy complaint, gently pushing her way between Chauncy and Pee Wee, who caught her eye with a Popeye grin.

“Emma, me darlin’! Need some help with that?”

“No thanks, Pee Wee. I just need to sneak under the lift gate.” By the time she’d wiggled her way through the opening in the bar, Sam was getting up from a crouch on the floor. He swallowed hard at the sight of her, breaking into a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes as he tossed the wet rag into the bin under the bar.

“Hey, doll. What’s up?”

Temporarily deprived of all animosity toward Sam with one look at his fake smile, Emma moved closer to murmur over the crowd noise, “You okay?”

He hesitated, reaching for a fresh towel from the pile by the cash register. “Yeah, I think so.”

“You think so?” Emma brought a hand up to touch his forehead; with her other, she grabbed his free hand. “You’re sweating, Sam. And your hand is freezing.”

“Cold beer, hot bar.” In an instant, he’d relaxed, leaning in closer. “But maybe you should check my temperature with my Mom’s method.”

“And just what is that?”

“With a kiss to my forehead. She swore by it.” The mischievous twinkle was back. “As for me, I think it works much better if you plant one on the lips.”

Her sympathy evaporated in a second. “Oooh, you… you…”

“Emma, if you can’t spit it out, just kick me, okay?”

Her foot, shod in black loafers, delivered a swift blow to his shin.

“Ow!” Sam hopped around in a fair imitation of her brother Tommy, disbelief slacking his grin. “Whaddya do that for?”

“Because somehow you talked my father into giving you a job, that’s why.”

“I did not. He offered me that job, Emma, fair and square.”

“And the rooms above?” She waited for confirmation of what she already suspected, and she wasn’t disappointed, as he straightened with a slow smile.

That, from what I understand, was your idea.”

She flushed to the roots of her hair, listening to Chauncy and Pee Wee chuckle over their pints. Her fingers curled into a fist and her leg shifted; before she could plant Sam a ‘kiss’ he’d never forget, she found herself trapped in his arms.

“C’mon, doll. We gotta talk.”

Struggling to get herself free, she growled, “Talk? About what?”

“About this notion you have that I’m trying to ruin your life.” He lifted the bar gate in one smooth motion, turning to yell at Tommy, “Tommy, watch this end for a sec, would ya?”

“Sure thing, Sam.” Her brother hobbled over from his stool, abandoning his intimate conversation with Jenny, who’d taken a break.

“The reason you were hired is to relieve Tommy,” Emma spit out, still shoving against Sam’s hold.

“He’s played kissy-face long enough. Besides, it’s closing time in half an hour. Bar’s clearing out already.” He had her past Chauncy and Pee Wee in the blink of an eye. “Dance with me, Emma.”

“Dance with you? Are you nuts?”

“Your father’s watching us like a hawk, ready to pounce if you keep up this scene. Would you have me lose my job after only four hours?”

Emma glanced her father’s way. Sure enough, he watched them with narrowed eyes, as if he doubted the wisdom of hiring Sam. Guilt swept over her; much as she didn’t like the idea of seeing Sam so much, she didn’t begrudge him honest employment. If he’d come by it honestly. He said he wanted to talk, and he’d better have a good explanation for muscling his way back into her life. Not all of the rigidity left her, but she let herself become more loose-limbed as Sam guided her to the dance floor.

“Good girl.” The sultry voice of Lena Horne filled the smoky bar, and Sam wasted no opportunity in gathering her close.

“Not so close,” she muttered, putting a bit of distance between them. Her hand seemed lost in his, and she kept her gaze trained on the top button of his shirt. Bad idea. The skin above beckoned and she gulped, averting her eyes to scan the room. “Start talking.”

He sighed, the dance he’d wanted so badly turning into a turn about the classroom floor with his third grade teacher, thanks to her jerky slide from foot to foot. Well, he couldn’t expect her to be thrilled about this development, now could he?

His legs stiff, he barely moved them in place as he began, “We got off on the wrong foot, Emma. I don’t want to be your enemy. I just want a job and a life of my own. Is that so wrong?”

When he made her feel as if she had no control over her own emotions? Yes, she felt it was wrong. She knew she was being selfish and downright shrewish, but she’d never had a man disturb her so much, and so quickly. He didn’t know it, but he aroused such sympathy and plain lust within her it was all she could do to keep from throwing herself at his head. He was the type of man she despised most – arrogant, sinfully handsome and without prospects. They were a dime a dozen in her world, men home from the war as heroes, expecting women to fall at their feet with gratitude. Most had, without even a whimper. But not her; she had more self-respect than that.

And more pride than two people. Her father’s words echoed in her mind, and, at that moment, she knew she was being unfair to Sam. It wasn’t his fault she’d taken an unhealthy liking to him. Her catty remarks and subtle roadblocks to his obvious need for normalcy were unjust. She’d have to live with the fact Sam was still hung up on Dana, as long as he remained distant from her cousin. He looked like he was making an honest effort to stay away from Fox and Dana, and she admitted a grudging admiration for his loyalty to his brother. Times had changed, and Sam was trying to keep up the only way he knew how – by going on with his life. She would have to do the same, even if it meant sacrificing her own familiar routine to do so.

“No, it’s not wrong,” she replied softly, looking up into his solemn face. “I’m sorry, Sam.”

“For what?”

“For being a harpy. For making it difficult for you. I don’t mean to deny you what you need right now.” Only by denying herself could she stabilize Sam’s shifting world.

His eyes searched her face as they slowly drifted to a stop. Serious, intrusive eyes, dark with an unnamed emotion. Her heart tripped as he kept her enthralled with a simple look; his mouth slightly open, as if he were a second away from saying things she wanted to hear, but knew he wouldn’t mean. As soon as it had come, his indecision faded, replaced by a warm smile.

“I need… I need this job, Emma. I need to show Fox I can do this on my own. Will you help me?”

“Will you stop treating me like one of your floozies? I have a brain, you know.”

His smile waned a bit. “I promise to treat you with respect, Emma. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you in any way.”

Finally, she cracked a grin, looking at her father once before answering Sam in a light tone. “See that you don’t, you big lug. I want to be your friend, not your ‘doll’. Get it?”

The lie rolled easily off her tongue. Resolute calm settled over her; she could do this. Be his friend; after all, she was friends with practically every man who frequented her father’s establishment. She could be friendly without letting anything else enter into it – she’d have to be, or die trying.

“Got it,” Sam replied, releasing her to extend a hand. “Friends.”

From the corner of her eye, she saw her father crack a broad smile; she took Sam’s hand and gave it a shake. “Now, get back to work before I have Pee Wee there wanting to take me for a twirl. He has two left feet, you know.”

Sam took her elbow to guide her off the dance floor. “And a very high tolerance for Scotch whiskey.”

Emma leaned closer to whisper, “Give him the stuff in the unlabeled bottle. It’s the reason Da doesn’t charge him a dime.”

“Watered down?” Sam whispered back.

“Yep. He’s not really supposed to have spirits – bad heart. But Da hasn’t the heart to tell him no, seeing as how Pee Wee is getting up in years and is all alone since his wife Mathilda passed.”

“Anything else I should know?”

“Stick with me, kid,” she said, enjoying the way Sam took to the ins and outs of working Mike’s. “I’ll see you through. Take Chauncy there, he’s a bit of a sports fiend, so if you don’t like baseball, you’d better steer clear of him.”

Sam laughed, a hearty sound she couldn’t help but embrace with her own laughter. “What is it?” she asked.

“Nothing. Just how long will this take? Should I bring a pencil and paper tomorrow?”

They made it back to the bar, where Sam slid through the lift gate with ease. Emma picked up her tray and gave him a glare. All in good fun, of course. “Lesson number one: Just bring your big self and some clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.”

“Why?”

“Because tomorrow’s Sunday and we’re closed. Which means the place gets a good scrubbing from top to bottom. Hope you like mopping floors.”

“Hey – no problem. I’m moving in tomorrow, remember? I’ll be here bright and early.”

How could she forget, she thought. With a wan smile, she answered, “Not too early. Da and I go to 6:00 mass, then I have to do some laundry before I begin lunch -”

“I get it, I get it. Afternoon then.”

Seeing his face fall at the prospect of spending the morning with his brother and Dana, Emma relented, telling him, “I’ll send Da by around 9:30 to let you in so you can get started. How’s that?”

“That’ll work,” he said, all cheerful again.

She turned to begin rounding up the stragglers for closing time, wondering how she’d manage to stay in control in the face of that smile.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Ten

“Well, Da… what shall we have today? Pot roast or leg of lamb?” Emma groaned a bit as she climbed the steps to her father’s house; the Sunday morning breakfast with Father Corkery at Rosey D’s diner had been especially heavy on her stomach this morning. The pancakes smelled too delicious to pass up, and she’d had one or two with her eggs and bacon. “Of course, I’d sooner have a bit of soup. That breakfast is liable to stay with me for a while.”

“Whatever, darlin’,” her father said, as he gestured her to precede him through the front door. “I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to have lunch with you today, or give you a hand with cleaning the pub. At least not until late this afternoon.”

Emma stopped in her tracks, half in and half out the door, her hands gripping the lapels of her coat. “And why not?” she asked, dread coming over her at the prospect of having to venture into the pub alone. Well, she wouldn’t be alone, but even that scared her less than who she’d have to spend the afternoon with in its close confines.

“I promised your Aunt Martha I’d come over today and take a look at a leaky faucet. She’s cooking, so there’s no need for you to go to any trouble on my account, Emma.”

She followed him into the kitchen, watching in disbelief as he pulled his tool box from under the sink. “Well, if she’s cooking, then I’ll just go along and give a hand. I always did like Aunt Martha’s pumpkin pie.”

“I’ll be sure and bring back a piece for you, Emma,” her father replied with an indulgent grin. Amidst her open-mouthed stare, he closed his tool box and made for the washroom off the kitchen. She followed, this time with hands on hips.

“Bring back a piece for me? You sound like I’m not invited.”

“You aren’t.” Mike took off his coat and tie, handing them to her before reaching for the ratty pair of coveralls on a peg by the back door. “You have to go show Sam what needs to be done in the pub today.”

She almost permanently wrinkled his good blue tie with her furious grip, then rolled it up and put it in her coat pocket. “What about Tommy and Jenny? Why can’t they go?”

“Tommy and Jenny haven’t been to mass yet, darlin’, neither has Jaime – you know that. And they all have school work to do this afternoon; when they heard I’d hired Sam, they asked for a day off from cleaning.” Mike frowned as he zipped up the greasy coveralls. “What’s the matter, girl? You goin’ batty on me?”

“Batty?” In a last minute remembrance of her father’s best suit coat, she hung it carefully on a hangar above the ironing board before letting him have it. “Whatever happened to ‘you’re running yourself ragged, Emma’, or ‘you’re looking a might tired, love’? What about my day off?”

Mike sighed, shucking his dress shoes for his work boots. As if on automatic pilot, Emma picked them up, brushing at a scruff with the handkerchief from her pocket. “See?” he said, as if it were all crystal clear.

“See what?” She was more confused than ever, practically stomping her foot with anger.

“You haven’t even taken off your coat. In the three minutes we’ve been home, you’ve hung up mine, folded up me tie, and taken a spot off me shoes.”

“What does that have to do with my day off?”

“Emma, if I gave you the day off, you’d do nothing but clean every bit of this house and cook enough food to feed an army. Give it a rest, girl.”

“By cleaning the pub with Sam? How is that giving me a rest?”

Her dad walked up to her, taking her by the shoulders as he planted a kiss to her green beret, missing her forehead by a mile. Her Da had never been accurate with his kisses; he was much too impatient to aim right. “Let the lad in, Emma. Show him where we keep the mop and bucket. I think he’s got enough smarts to handle the rest. Unless you go on one of those cleaning tirades of yours, you should be out of there in fifteen minutes, tops. Then you can do whatever you want the rest of the day.”

“Cleaning tirades? I beg your pardon, Da. I do not have cleaning tirades.” She punctuated her statement by tucking in his dress shirt at the collar. “You get grease on that, it’ll take me forever to get it out.”

Her father lifted an eyebrow in silence. She hated when he got that ‘told you so’ look.

“All right, all right,” she said with exasperation, turning away to walk stiffly back into the kitchen. Retrieving her purse, she snatched her car keys from the pantry. “I’m only letting him in, you’ll see. I’ll be joining you at Aunt Martha’s in under an hour.”

Still, he said nothing, only stood there with crossed arms, slowing nodding with complacency. Emma seethed, this time stomping her foot as she pointed a gloved finger his way.

“Time me!” she bit out, flinging her scarf around her neck with defiance.

His chuckles followed her out the front door, renewing her resolve to prove him wrong.

**********

As she turned the corner on the almost deserted street, she saw a lump sitting on the stoop of her father’s pub. Two lumps, actually. She groaned, slowing the car to a stop while she caught her breath. Sam and his suitcase. It was barely nine o’clock; had he been sitting there since dawn? She vaguely remembered hearing her dad tell him to show up at 9:30 – so what the devil was he doing there at nine? For that matter, she had no business arriving so early. If she hadn’t created a grand exit for her father’s sake, she might have noticed her watch. By the time she’d reversed out of the drive in a huff, she couldn’t backtrack without losing face. No way was she letting her father know how much this mission riled her, though he probably had a pretty good idea of it, anyway.

Well, there was no use for it. She had to face the man and his devastating smile. The sooner she had him set to cleaning, the better. She eased up on the clutch and took her car out of neutral, grimacing when she felt it lurch forward and stall. Her foot slipped onto the brake and she jerked to a stop right in front of Sam, who stood to watch. Lovely. Not only was he smiling, but she felt like a fool. She’d been driving since she was thirteen years old, and now she’d embarrassed herself in front of… wait a minute.

They were friends, weren’t they? She vowed then and there to keep telling herself that. Friends didn’t get embarrassed in front of one another, especially over little things like stalling a car. Setting her chin with a cool look, she pulled the hand brake and got out, pocketing her keys.

“Got a problem with the car?” Sam’s smile had faded into a concerned stare as he met her in front of the vehicle. “I can take a look if you want; I used to be pretty handy about mechanical things.”

That was better; he’d not commented on her vehicular faux pas, like a good friend would. Instead, he’d offered help – if she’d done that in front of her brothers, they’d be rolling on the sidewalk with laughter.

“I had a ‘36 SS Jaguar at one time,” he went on with that look men get when discussing cars, as if nirvana lived in horsepower and leather seats. “Greatest car ever….”

Of course he’d have owned a sports car, one he could zip around in, a convertible made especially for men with adorable windblown hair and sunlit smiles….

“Chicks loved that car.”

Oh, yes, she just bet they did. And he was willing to sully his race car hands on her big, black monstrosity? Ignoring his wistful reminiscing, she sidestepped him and headed straight for the stained glass door. As she inserted the key in the lock, she noted absently that the glass needed a vinegar wash. It was looking mighty streaky….

Stop it! she admonished herself. She was not getting involved in pub chores today. No sir. Immediately, she began rattling off his duties.

“You can put your suitcase upstairs. Fresh linens in the bathroom closet. If you need more soap, just tell Da and we’ll get it for you.” Snapping on the lights, she waved an arm at the bare floors; they’d picked up the chairs and put them on the tables last night before closing up. They always passed a quick broom every night, and kept up with emptying ashtrays, saving the major cleaning for Sunday. “Sweep and mop, wipe down the tables and chairs with the O-Cedar, as well as the bar from top to bottom. There’s Brasso for the bar railings, and ammonia or vinegar for the mirror. I find either works best. There’s Pine Sol for the restrooms – don’t forget to do the floors in there as well – and stock up the cabinets in them with tissue. Don’t forget the windows in front and the door, and -”

“Emma.”

“- change any light bulbs that need changing. All of those supplies are in the store room off the kitchen – “

“Emma!”

At his barked interruption, she turned, catching a breath. “What? Too much for you?”

Sam shrugged out of his coat. “No,” he lightly chastised with a grin. His faded Yale sweatshirt and denims were made for hard work. “Like ‘em?” He spread his arms wide. “Got ‘em at the Salvation Army mission next to St. Catherine’s this morning. Traded my suit for ‘em.”

“You did what?” She pictured one of the bums in front of the mission wearing that beautiful suit and practically groaned.

“Just kidding,” he chuckled. “Actually, Fox was holding back on me. He just happened to find a box of my old clothes in the attic this morning. I don’t know whatever gave him the idea I would be comfortable in a suit. Never was before.” He raised a finger, as if recalling something pleasant. “But you know, the chicks -”

“Loved the suits,” Emma muttered. “Yes, I imagine they did.” She cleared her throat, turning to survey the room once again. “Now, there’s a step ladder in the store room for reaching the lights if you need. Did I mention you’re to wipe down the glass on those fixtures, too? And if – ooof!”

Suddenly, she found herself seated on the bar, one black pump hitting the floor with a thud as her feet dangled helplessly. A pair of mischievous hazel eyes twinkled before her face; before she could give vent to her anger, one finger pressed against her mouth.

“Enough already,” Sam said. “I get the idea.” He took a step back to retrieve her shoe. “I’m supposed to clean the place from top to bottom, no matter how long it takes or how hungry I get -”

“There’s roast beef in the kitchen cooler,” she pointed out.

“Or how tired I get doing this all alone -”

“My father will be by later to lend a hand.”

“Or how I’ll surely mess up and give too many drinks to the wrong person because someone said she was going to give me lessons -”

“You remembered lesson number one, didn’t you? About the old clothes? There’s lots of time yet to learn the rest.”

“Or how lonely I get listening to myself grunt and groan -”

“There’s a switch on the juke box. You can set it to play for free. Just reset it when it cycles through all the records.” The moping drop of his chin tugged at her heart, but she refused to give in. “My shoe, please. I have to meet Dad at Aunt Martha’s for lunch.”

“Like hell you do,” Sam growled. “Admit it.”

Oh, Lord, she thought. Here it comes. He can see right through me. He knows I’m afraid….

“You’re just afraid of hard work. You kicked up a fuss last night when your dad hired me, but inside, you were whooping it up. I knew that ‘good little girl’ routine was just an act.”

Her heart beat again after its frightful stutter. Tilting her head to one side, she crossed her arms. “Oh it is, is it? I’ll have you know, Sam Mulder, I can work twice as fast as you can. And with better results – no one will have to come behind me with another bucket of soap.”

He twirled her shoe in one hand, a sly look succeeding in raising her mettle, as did his steely dare. “Prove it.”

She’d have to call Aunt Martha’s. Explain to her dad… what? Sink overflowed in the ladies’ restroom? Nah, he’d have a plumber out there in no time. Or worse, he’d come himself. She could always tell him she had trouble with her car. Smoothly telling him that Sam was a whiz with automobiles, she’d promise to join him as soon as possible. All the while listening to his voice choke with superior laughter.

So, she’d have to eat a bit of crow. It was either that or back down from Sam’s challenge. And Emma Scully never backed down from a dare.

“We’ll have to divide the work,” she said, “and set a time limit. With a fifteen minute break for lunch, of course.”

“I’ll do the floors and the restrooms,” he offered, “and you do all the glass and dusting, including the bar, tables and chairs. Fair enough?”

“First one to finish owes the other -?”

“A kiss?”

“Be serious.”

“I am serious.” At her frown, he relented with a smile. “Oh, I forgot – just friends. Right?”

“Right.” She was actually having fun; if she’d woken up this morning knowing she’d be enjoying herself like this with Sam, she’d have forgone the breakfast with Father Corkery. Or at the very least, limited herself to one pancake before making her excuses. “Now, what shall we wager?”

“Dinner and a movie. Loser treats.”

“Sounds like a date to me,” she warned.

“No date. It’s just been forever since I’ve seen a movie, feels like.” A shadow crossed his face; as soon as it had come, it was gone, replaced by a nod. “Okay, that sound good to you?”

She held out a hand, her lips parting in a simple wisp of a smile. “Okay. You’re on.” Instead of shaking her hand, Sam bent over it, making a production out of slipping her shoe back on her foot. “I can do that,” she protested, feeling the leather pull on her nylons. “Watch it! Those are new.”

“Never put a girl’s shoe back on before.” He huffed, bending lower.

“Really,” she said, leaning over to see the problem as she chuckled. She was willing to bet he had lots of experience with ladies’ shoes – especially in their removal.

“Really. Guy at the shoe store yesterday said my hands were too big and clumsy. Said that I’d scare the women customers.”

She was scared, all right. The frisson of fear his touch created started in her toes and moved up her leg with swift encroachment, setting her whole body afire with treacherous desire. She licked her lips, watching the way his unruly hair fell forward over his forehead, the way he bit his lip with concentration. It would be so easy to reach out her hand and touch that lovely, dimpled cheek….

She squirmed, her skirt sliding up an inch or two as she wiggled her foot in an attempt to help things along. This had to stop, and stop now.

“Stop that,” Sam said, still struggling.

“It’s a bit stretched out, so I don’t see why it won’t go on -” Emma shivered at the brush of his lips over her knee.

Playful eyes lifted to her own and he murmured, “Showed you – got my kiss, anyway.” His fingers caressed the back of her ankle as the shoe slid on without even a sigh of protest. “Don’t ever trust a man with your shoe, and a lazy streak a mile wide. My lesson number one.”

He stepped back laughing, and she realized she’d been had. Big time, as he practically raced to the kitchen. “Last one to the broom closet is a rotten egg.”

Sliding down from the bar, she doffed her coat and beret. She had to hand it to him – he sure knew how to get what he wanted. You just had to admire a man like that.

**********

He liked the music from the juke box, but he was getting tired of the same tunes over and over. It was preoccupying Emma, who sometimes sang along in a rich, deep tone. She’d hardly said a handful of words to him since their quick lunch, and he blamed the juke box. Of course, anything that took her time away from him deserved a bit of hatred.

Also in the course of the afternoon, he decided cleaning was actually fun. Mainly because Emma stretched and turned and climbed chairs to reach every nook and cranny, showing off those super straight seams in her nylons, the ones that he’d love to trace down her calves with his finger.

And he liked the beret, but enough already.

She hadn’t taken it off yet, like she expected to fly out the door as soon as the pub was clean. Even when they’d stopped to eat a quick sandwich, she’d left the damned thing on. He should just reach over the bar when her back was turned and steal it. With it on, she looked all of sixteen, and he had a hard time justifying any romantic overtures.

He’d never imagined she’d be the one to let him in today; it was a boon from the Gods he’d never expected. It was all he could do to hold himself apart from her – especially after he’d slipped up with the shoe thing. As soon as he’d touched that curvy leg, his mouth had gone dry. The implication he’d played footsie with her to get her to help him clean up was as good a recovery as he could get; she must have gone for it, because she’d stayed. Looking like she was ready to bolt at any second, but damn it, she’d stayed.

Every now and then, she’d throw a frantic look his way and glance at her watch. Either she was timing their respective sprints for the finish line, or she’s told her father on the phone to rescue her at a certain time. Sam didn’t believe the latter, when he’d managed to overhear a snippet of their conversation earlier. Emma blasted Mike a couple of times for abandoning her to cleanup duty; apparently, she’d expected the day off and Aunt Martha’s leaky faucet could wait, in her opinion. When she hung up with a huff, Sam knew she hadn’t won the argument.

He should feel guilty about the way she’d sacrificed her day off to help him, even if he’d manipulated her with the challenge he had no intention of winning. But he didn’t. In fact, he was deliberately lagging behind her furious efforts to beat him, knowing she’d take great pleasure in staying a bit longer to help him finish, all the while sporting a superior grin.

Yeah, he’d have to admit defeat. If she only knew how much that hurt, she just might get an inkling of the enormity of his feelings for her. Which were… hell, he didn’t know. He wanted her, he knew that much. Wanted to kiss her and caress her and get her into bed something bad. But not at the expense of her tender heart. God, he was a mess, all because of one Emma Scully, a stubborn, passably pretty but not gorgeous, too-smart-for- her-own-good, woman who could have him kneeling before her with a snap of her fingers.

“There!” That beret popped up from behind the bar; as expected, her smile was confident and almost cocky. “All done. And you?”

“Umm…” Sam, temporarily blindsided by that brilliant smile, looked down at the pine-scented water he’d just slopped all over his shoes. “I’m making a mess?” he finished lamely, silently begging for help with a pair of eyes a puppy would envy, or so he hoped.

And as he’d hoped, she wasted no time coming out from behind the bar, wiping her hands on the apron she’d taken from the kitchen. “You’re supposed to wring out the mop before you put it to the floor, you know.” She took it from his hands, giving it a firm squeeze as he admired the way her skirt tightened across her backside when she bent to the bucket.

He rubbed a shaky hand over his face, turning away from temptation. With any other woman, in any other time, he’d have at the very least pinched that luscious bottom. What the hell was wrong with him? He jerked around at the subtle rush of sweet- smelling air that signaled her straightening.

“You realize I won, don’t you?” she asked, mopping up the mess he made.

He swallowed down the urge to deny her by claiming the victory as his own. He’d done what he set out to do – spend the day with her and put her at ease. If they never went beyond friendship, he’d just have to live with it.

“I guess I haven’t had enough practice yet with the mop. What say we do it again next Sunday?” He held his breath while waiting for her answer.

“Nope.” Head down, she finished mopping the empty dance floor with a side-to-side flair.

“No? Why not?”

“Because you owe me, mister. Dinner and a movie, remember?” She plopped the mop down in front of him, her lips curled in a loose, jaunty smile.

Aw, hell, he thought, condemning himself the instant he looked into those soft, pretty eyes.

His hand trapped hers around the mop handle, his other going straight to….

“Hey!” Emma, her hair tumbling about her shoulders in a cascade of waves, reached for the beret on her tiptoes. The indignant flush of her cheeks matched her tone. “Give me back my hat!”

“Nope.” Sam, pleased at the picture she made – not to mention the way her body accidently brushed his in her agitation – grinned at his coup. Before this, he’d only seen her with the whole glorious mane pinned back or hidden under a hat. He’d known Emma was pretty, in a vivacious, kittenish way – he’d never guessed what a knockout she was until now, imagining those red locks spread out over a pillow. His pillow, naturally. “Not until you do something for me.”

Suspicion narrowed her gaze. “And what’s that?”

“Teach me to dance.” All right, so that was one great big lie. He knew enough about dancing to make her head spin as he twirled her around the floor. He hadn’t hung out in all those smoky bars without learning a thing or two about what women liked.

“You already know how to dance. You danced with me last night, remember? Or have all those pine fumes gone to your head and created another hole?” She bit her lip over the last, and an attractive pink blossomed in her cheeks. “Sam, I didn’t mean to -”

“That’s okay, Emma,” he said quickly, though he seized the chance to play on her sympathy a bit. “I’m not going to faint away every time you mention the other holes in my head.”

“Still, I apologize. I should watch my manners, you know – and my tongue. It’s my biggest fault, this big mouth of mine.”

And her most delectable asset, he decided then and there. One he would sample before the afternoon’s end, he promised himself. Friends, be damned.

He felt like he was strung on a yo-yo, with Emma wickedly directing his roll up and down. One minute, he was burning with lust, the next, playing the friend. Just when he’d hit the bottom of the string and resign himself to being her pal and nothing else, she’d jerk him back up with a simple phrase disguised as a snap of her wrist.

He had to get a grip.

“Apology accepted.” He could afford to be magnanimous in the face of her dismay. “But only if you teach me to dance.”

The same Sinatra tune that lured him in last night began to play on the Wurlitzer and he practically groaned, knowing the last tune in the cycle by heart now. He had to work fast.

<The sky fell down, when I met you…>

“Da likes Frankie,” Emma explained, seeing Sam’s grimace. “Says he sings pretty good for an Italian lad.”

“Well, he’s not my favorite, but he’ll have to do.” He was more of a Margaret Whiting or Jo Stafford man. Or The Andrews Sisters, or Peggy Lee. A guy trying to make it with a girl needed inspiration of the female sort, he’d always found. Then again, he needed no inspiration, inclination, or instigation to want to hold Emma close. Maybe just a little more fabrication, as she still looked at him with some – what else? – trepidation. “What if I have to dance with one of the customers? You saw how stiff I was last night.”

“We don’t run an escort service, Sam.”

Waving the beret to get her attention back on it and not on more logical arguments, he said, “Want your hat back? Then teach me to dance.” Like she’d go for that, but it was the only hope he had left.

“I’ve got more like it at home.”

Christ. His temper flared; all he wanted was to wind down the day with a dance. “I’ve been working my ass off all day, Emma -”

“Watch your language.”

“- and I’d like to have a bit of fun before you leave me here all alone. You’re gonna go home and sit in front of the radio and visit with your dad, and I’m gonna go upstairs and stare at the ceiling. I’ve done good today – don’t I deserve a dance?”

“No touchy-feely stuff?”

“Scout’s honor.”

“You weren’t a Boy Scout.”

“How do you know?”

“Because of that whopper of a lie you just told. You’ve been dancing before. A lot, I’d wager.”

“True.” He sighed, lowering his arm. Emma should be outlawed on behalf of all men with egos. “Here you go.” With a slight pout, he let go of her hand, shoving her hand back on her head. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you’re a cruel woman, Emma Scully.”

He was thankful she didn’t push her hair back up under the beret, though she did move away to lean the mop against the bar. “Sam?”

“Yeah?” He picked up the bucket and made for the kitchen, wondering if he could find a good book tucked away in that bedroom upstairs.

“Dance with me?”

He froze, the bucket sloshing a bit of water at the sudden stop. “Shit,” he muttered, setting it down to wipe at the water on his jeans. She leaned against the bar, the beret tilted at an angle, the one eye visible flashing with good humor. “What did you say?”

“You know, I don’t remember the last time I danced – really danced. I was wondering if myy friend Sam would dance with me.”

“Depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“On if his friend Emma doesn’t mind that he’ll have to hold her kinda close… you know, to show her what he can do when he cuts a rug. He wouldn’t want her to think he’s putting the moves on her, or anything.” But God, did he want to hold her in his arms… without fear of another kick to the shin.

“Oh, she wouldn’t think that.” Emma walked toward him, hands behind her back. “He’s too much of a gentleman to take advantage of her like that, isn’t he?”

“He is.” Funny thing was, he was very much beginning to act like the gentleman he never had a chance to be. Next thing you know, he’d end up calling on Mike for permission to court his only daughter, when before he’d just sit outside and honk. “Emma, my friend?”

“Yes?”

“Will you dance with me?”

Her hands came up to reach for him. “I’d like to very much, Sam.”

She felt like down in his arms, all soft and elusive. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder, and that damned beret obscured her face. But her hand in his was cool and a bit dry from the soap she’d used, and he squeezed it, feeling his warmth enclose her fingers. A small sigh escaped her lips after only a few moments.

“This is not going to work.”

His heart sank to his toes. “What isn’t?”

“You’re too tall.”

“You’re too short.” Before she could protest and pull away, he tightened his arm around her back and lifted. “Put your feet on mine.”

That one eye flashed up, but she did what he asked. “This is ridiculous. I feel like I’m dancing with Da.”

Oh she did, did she? “I can take care of that.” With a smile, he swung her about the floor, the Astaire in him coming to the forefront. Her laughter joined his over Sinatra’s crooning.

<To be with you just made it seem… that walking on snowy clouds was not a dream…>

Around and around they went, her hair flying out from under the beret like a river of red over his hand. The perfume that clung to her filled his head with dangerous thoughts, but he tamped them down, simply enjoying the way she fit to him like a glove. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had such fun.

“Enough!” she cried, now breathless and totally pliant.

“Gotta have the big finish,” he said, hearing the tune wind down with sadness. He promised himself this would be one dance she’d never forget, as he slowly came to a stop.

<You gave to me all this and heaven too… when the sky fell down and I found you…>

At the first hint of the dip to come, Emma stiffened. But Sam kept going, gently curving her back over his arm as his lips parted into a smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t drop you.”

“You’d better not.”

With a soft ‘plop’, her beret hit the floor. The music faded into silence as Sam held her inches from his heart. Her face, still high with color, was a sight to behold, those eyes as blue as a winter sky. He longed to close the distance, to put his lips to hers and end the dance the proper way. The only way, his mind screamed. He was an instant from doing just that when she started, her liquid gaze leaving his face to fly away. “Sam?”

She was pulling back, he knew it. His arm beneath her moved to keep her there, his voice a mere whisper of its former strength. “What?”

“We have company.” She scrambled from his hold.

Damn Mike and his bad timing, Sam seethed, levering up to face the certain amusement – or wrath – of Emma’s father. He hadn’t been around long enough to be sure of anything as far as Mike Scully was concerned. Fox obviously got along well with Mike, but Fox wasn’t the one panting after the man’s daughter.

“Good day to you, sir,” Emma said, her hand coming up to smooth her hair. “Sorry, but the bar’s closed for cleaning.”

It wasn’t Mike. It was a skinny, cotton-topped man in a coat too big for him – almost a boy, really. Standing practically on the wet mop still propped against the bar. Standing almost on top of them, actually. Emma smiled beside Sam, who didn’t feel quite as comfortable about the intrusion as she did. Something about the wide, shifting eyes of the young man spoke of nervousness. Sam took a step forward, placing himself between the guy and Emma.

“You heard her,” he said warily, “bar’s closed. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

“Be nice,” Emma said softly, putting a hand on his arm. “He’s probably just looking for a bit of food. Isn’t that right?”

On second glance, Sam decided the visitor was definitely a man. Not a boy, as Emma had assumed. Though he looked young with that fair skin and light hair, he was at least twenty-one. Old enough to drink, and old enough to cause trouble, even if he looked like a scarecrow. “Emma, go in the kitchen.”

“What?” She sputtered a bit, searching for her next protest, when the guy piped up.

“I don’t mean nothin’ by this, really I don’t.”

Definitely a man, with a raspy voice that spoke of time spent outdoors in the cold. Or in much more sinister places. No boy would have that growl, even if he looked ready to pass out from fright. “Emma, go.” But she stood still, looking from Sam to the other with confusion.

“Sam, do you know this man?” Confusion, and the dawning of a real fear.

He didn’t think he did. He certainly didn’t remember a face like that in the things he could recall. Sam took her arm to shove her away.

“I’m so sorry,” the guy said quickly, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

“Get out,” he heard himself answer, all the while pushing against Emma’s refusal to budge. “There’s no money in the cash register, if that’s what you’re after.”

The man blinked, his eyes shifting about the empty room before coming back to rest on Sam. “I got a wife and kid, you know. And I don’t mean nothin’ by this, really.”

Sam saw it all as if in slow motion. The man removing his hand from his pocket. Hearing the click of a switchblade, seeing the flash of metal.

“I don’t know why, but I gotta do this.” The fellow was almost crying. “Just give me the money.”

Watching the guy lose his footing on the mop, seeing his arm flail about as he sought balance, his hand aimed straight for Sam’s chest. Sam reached up, clamping his free hand around the bony wrist.

Feeling the blade slide in with a dull numbness.

Hearing Emma scream his name.

A muffled, “shit!” as the guy withdrew, his hand covered in blood. The pale disbelief in his eyes as he jerked out of Sam’s hold and back away.

“I didn’t mean to hurt nobody!”

Using his other hand to shove Emma to the floor, far away from danger. Falling to his knees as his assailant ran through the front door.

Emma. Emma.

Seeing her lay so still, her eyes closed, just a few feet away.

Boneless himself, sagging to the floor.

The rich scent of blood, mixed with the sharp tang of pine.

Closing his own eyes.

Emma.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Eleven

With a groan, Sam rolled over onto his back. A slight nudge of nausea in his throat bolted him upright, and he shook his head, taking a deep breath to clear the unwelcome feeling. What the hell happened?

The front door to the pub creaked to and fro in the blustery wind, scattering sunlight over the shiny floor. Silence crept around him as he propped on one hand, hanging his head. A flash of white on green caught his eye… Emma!

He crawled to her side, a litany of muttered curses streaming from his mouth. Carefully, he swept the hair from her too-white face. His hands, his shaking, oversized paws, tried to keep from hurting her as he rolled her over. He hissed at the way her small body fell limp into his embrace – stupid, stupid! God, had she hit her head? Was she still breathing?

“Emma,” he choked out, cradling her like the most precious of things. “Emma, wake up. Please.”

He touched her face, her neck, spread his fingers over her heart as he bent his head. The steady beat satisfied his somewhat, as did her soft exhale against his cheek. But he wouldn’t be calmed until she opened her eyes.

“God, Emma… wake up. Please, sweetheart – don’t do this to me.” Over and over, he begged her to open her eyes. He prayed to a God he’d not given much thought to in years, vowing to change his ways once and for all if she’d just wake up. “God, please, let her wake up.”

“Mmm…”

He caught his breath at the sound. “Emma?”

Her head lolled on his arm and her eyebrows pinched in a prelude to full awareness. Her lips, starkly red in an otherwise pale face, parted on a sigh. “Sam?”

A swift exhale punctuated his trembling smile as her eyes opened. Not quite back to normal, they slowly drifted in a blue daze. “Hey,” he breathed, “welcome back.”

He saw the exact moment her faculties returned, as she looked up with a piercing stare. “Sam?” Her hand came up to cradle his cheek. Her fingers were still cold, and he covered them with his own, willing his warmth into her body as his smile cracked a bit with emotion.

“You scared me,” he said. Was that his voice? It sounded like a scratchy record. “Are you okay?”

Her gaze searched his face with a bit of confusion. “I’m fine.” Suddenly, he found himself face-to- face with a very aware Emma, as she sat up, her hands going to his stained shirt. “Oh God, Sam – you’re hurt!”

“Emma -” He tried to stall her frantic inspection, to no avail.

“Let me see! Sam, oh Sam… God, please -”

He let her lift his pullover, and winced at the feel of her fingers on his flesh. “I’m okay, Emma,” he said with soft insistence, though she seemed not to hear him, her head bent to look. She bit back a choked sob at his hiss of displeasure.

“No you’re not – I saw – I saw -” She couldn’t get the words past her lips, and he let her poke around, knowing she wouldn’t be satisfied until she’d seen for herself. “What -?”

“You know, for a nurse, you have mighty cold fingers,” he quipped, seeking to ease her tension. He was more worried about the fact he’d had to pick her up from the floor like she was gone from him forever. The agony he’d felt seeing her limp form stayed with him still, and he used gentle fingers to lift her chin, as well as assure himself she was unhurt. “I’m okay, Emma,” he said again, this time looking into her eyes with solemn promise.

“But the blood… your shirt is stained! I saw him… the knife… I saw!” Her eyes filled with tears, as if she relived the moment.

“You felt for yourself, Emma. He didn’t stab me,” Sam insisted. “The fool most likely cut himself with his own knife. That’s the blood you see. His, not mine.”

He could have kissed her then and there, watching the way her lower lip trembled in an effort to maintain her composure. She had a strong will and later, when her fiery, proud nature took hold once again, she was liable to pounce on him for scaring her that way – and extract a promise to never say a word about her fright, especially to her father. He wouldn’t, of course. He knew she needed to be strong in front of the world, and he’d never deny her the dignity she wrapped around her like armor.

But all that flew straight from his head in the next shocking instant. All worry, all doubt, all sanity – all promises of friendship and distance gone the moment her lips touched his.

The kiss he so badly wanted, she gave him, her arms curling around his neck with almost-desperation. For a second or two he stiffened, shock at her overture immobilizing him. It was as if she’d jumped into the Severn in the middle of January, he was so surprised at what she’d done. She was a kitten suddenly transforming into a tiger, her teeth bumping against his as she sought entrance to his mouth.

Still, her kiss was awkward, as if she’d not had much practice. He wasn’t surprised by that – Emma had ‘innocent’ practically stamped on her forehead, despite her sharp tongue and bright intelligence. He should stop her, he thought. Pull away and laugh it off as leftover anxiety, giving her back that dignity he vowed just moments ago never to strip from her.

But he could no more stop his starving response than he could stop breathing. He took what she offered with all his being, opening to her kiss with a storm of feeling. Under his pressure, she whimpered in the back of her throat, and he gentled, plying with lips and tongue as he recalled this was Emma. Emma, who, in other times, he wouldn’t have used in such a lustful manner. Oh, he would have been attracted to her certainly. But never would he have applied his calculated seduction. She was too cautious, too warm and unknowing to treat like a more worldly woman.

She tasted like no other woman before her. Bringing his hand to her damp cheeks, he left her for a moment, savoring the feel of her lips with closed eyes. It wasn’t enough; with a groan of her name, he came back. She was home to him – all things familiar and favored. He kissed her as if he’d known her all his life, as if he’d loved her forever.

This time he bent her over his arm, protecting her from the evils beyond their embrace. She was more precious to him than his own life, and he wanted nothing more than to worship her in the only way he knew how….

“What the devil?” A harsh voice broke into the miasma of desire. “What in Hades happened here?”

**********

Emma pulled away from Sam, reality intruding in the form of her father’s gruff entrance. With a muttered, “Saints preserve us,” she scrambled to her feet, ignoring Sam’s gaze, though she felt it follow her retreat. How was she to explain this?

She’d practically thrown herself at the man. If her father wasn’t present, she’d curse, using words even she and Dana were afraid to say aloud. Her father! Dear God, had he seen her make a hussy of herself with Sam?

On her feet at last, she turned to face his wrath. But in the next instant, she realized he’d seen nothing – the curved edge of the bar by the door had blocked his view. Still, he looked like he’d seen a ghost, and it wasn’t until she looked down she understood why.

Mike stood in the door, a bloodied knife in his hand. “Emma!” he nearly shouted, stepping over the fallen mop to round the bar. “Girl, are you okay? Emma, answer me!” He was at her side before she found her voice.

“I’m fine, Da.” She smoothed the sodden apron with a shaky hand. Still reeling from the events of the last five minutes, she noted absently the overturned bucket. Water pooled at her feet, and the sheer effort of looking down at the flood drained her.

“Whoa, girl, take it easy.” Her father dropped the knife and took her arm, gently steering her to the kitchen, where he sat her in a chair. “Tell me what happened.” He ran to the sink and returned with a glass of water, which she took gratefully.

Between sips, she told him of their unwelcome visitor, how the man had meant to rob them until Sam stepped in the middle of the conversation.

“I thought he’d been hurt, Da,” she whispered, still unable to believe Sam had escaped harm. “I guess I must have fallen down. I don’t remember much after that.”

“That’s because you passed out.”

Sam stood in the kitchen doorway, hands in pockets. Even with the distance separating them, Emma saw his eyes were a dark, stormy gray, very unlike their usual soft, changeable hazel. He didn’t waver in his stare, the look he gave her somber yet challenging. Deny me, it said. Pretend it didn’t happen.

God, she couldn’t deal with him right now, she thought, as she lowered her chin to break the hold of his gaze. It was bad enough she’d thought he’d been hurt. Now, his whole demeanor spoke of his intention to discuss what had happened afterward. And worse, to take up where they’d left off. Thank goodness for her father’s interruption – and even more so, for his steady presence at her side since then.

“Is that true, Emma?” Mike crouched before her, taking both her hands in his. “Are you hurt, girl?”

“No, Da – I’m not hurt. And I didn’t pass out.” Actually, she didn’t know what had happened, but she wasn’t one for fainting, never had been. She had the constitution of an ox; it had served her well in the Emergency Room.

“I couldn’t wake you up.” Sam again, this time with an impatience that spoke of his concern for her. She wondered if that was truly the case – or did he just want to hurry things along so they could talk?

“Did you hit your head when you fell, Emma? Maybe I should take you to the hospital for -”

“No!” She raised her head in a panic, not wanting to cause her father any anguish with a trip to the hospital. “I told you I was fine, Da. Maybe it was just the shock of it all. He looked like such a nice boy.”

“A nice boy with a switchblade,” Sam muttered.

Mike stood and faced Sam. “You’re all bloody, lad. You sure you weren’t hurt?”

“I’m okay, Mike. I think the guy slipped up and caught his own palm with the knife.” Sam sighed, and Emma knew by the sound he’d temporarily given up his pursuit of her. Her suspicions were confirmed when he added, “I’m going to call the police, Mike. The guy’s probably long gone by now, but we need to report it.”

“Sure, lad. I’ll sit with Emma. Lock the front door just in case, okay?”

Emma heard Sam leave the doorway, but only after feeling the burn of his gaze sweep over her one more time. No way was he letting her leave there without a word or two, she could see it coming. She hated to do it, but maybe it was time to play on her father’s sympathy.

“Da?”

“Yes, love?” Mike pulled out another chair to sit close beside her. One arm came around her shoulders and she leaned into his embrace with a sigh.

“After you speak to the police, can we go home?”

“Sure you don’t want me to take you to see a doctor?”

“I’m just tired, Da. It’s been a long day. I never thought anyone would ever try to steal from us, or hurt us. It’s upsetting.”

“To say the least,” Mike agreed, giving her a reassuring hug. “Every one in the town knows the Scullys – if they need, all they have to do is ask.”

“He looked like he hadn’t had a decent meal in days, Da,” she whispered. “I offered to get him something to eat, but it was like he didn’t hear me. He kept saying how sorry he was, but he had to do it. He needed money. I don’t know how anyone could do that to you… to steal from you.”

“Maybe he was new in town, Emma.” She felt a soft, trembling kiss brush her forehead. “Doesn’t matter. All that matters is you’re safe, girl. ‘Tis a good thing Sam was here. If you’d been alone….” He broke off, his stoicism suffering a bit from emotional upset, as if he’d finally realized how disastrous the afternoon could have turned out.

“But I wasn’t, Da.” Emma took his hand; his fingers wrapped around hers in a viselike grip, but she didn’t complain. For all his gruff manner and courageous front, her father was very susceptible to fear, just like everyone else. “Sam was here.” Just in case her father had seen more than he should have, she added, “He’s a good man, Da.”

“That he is, Emma. I owe him one after this, that I do.”

Her father wasn’t the only one who owed Sam. But he was the only one likely to get off with light payment.

**********

His brother made it to the pub right after the police arrived. Of course, it was just like Fox to tear up the road to see for himself Sam was okay, even though Sam had told him not to worry. He’d debated even calling Fox, but knew it wouldn’t do to have his brother hearing the news from someone else.

Sam sat at the bar, listening with half an ear to the cops murmur to one another as they looked around for any evidence. The knife had been picked up, but that was about it for anything to point a finger in the guy’s direction. And even then, Mike had touched it, so it was likely any fingerprints would be useless. So much for catching the bad guy, Sam thought as he sipped at a glass of water.

Fox, after checking on him with a concerned glance at the stained shirt, was in the kitchen with Mike and Emma. Sam hadn’t wanted to call Fox, mainly because he knew exactly what he’d hear. Just one day out from under his brother’s watchful guard and he fell into trouble, even if none of it was his fault. It didn’t matter what Fox would lay on him when he returned from the kitchen – he wasn’t giving up this job, nor was he moving back to that cozy little house of his brother’s. In Sam’s mind, he was now on his own, and it would stay that way until Mike kicked him out.

Or Emma made her father get rid of him with a wild tale of unwanted sexual advances.

No, she wasn’t the type to invent stories, not even to save herself from embarrassment or confrontation. And there would be a showdown between the two of them, that much he was sure of. She could avoid him all she wanted, put her father before him like a big, brawny roadblock, or pretend nothing had happened on the floor altogether – but he damned well was not going to rest until they talked about that kiss.

That wasn’t a kiss between two friends, not by a long shot. She couldn’t look him in the eye and tell him any differently without looking like a fool. He could hardly wait until he had her alone again. Knowing her agile mind, she’d be prepared with a list of reasons explaining her behavior, none of which would satisfy him until she admitted what he’d known from the beginning – they were hot for each other. That it took a near brush with injury or death to bring it out wasn’t unusual; they were both strong people unwilling to give in unless prodded a bit by extenuating circumstances.

In this case, a bloody shirt and a dead faint.

“Sam?”

Fox appeared at his side, and Sam looked up with a steady stare. “Don’t say it, because I’m not going anywhere.”

“I know you aren’t.” Fox slumped into the stool beside him, his long arms paralleling Sam’s as they stretched out in front of him. “It would do no good for us to argue about it, so I won’t even try.”

Sam swallowed down the lump of panic that had shoved up his throat at Fox’s return. He’d been prepared to argue until doomsday, though he’d not really felt up to it; he was glad Fox realized the futility of an argument. Or maybe not, as his brother faced him with a narrowed gaze. “I will say this, however – stop acting like Superman.”

“What?”

“You heard me. From what Emma says, you told the guy to beat it, even though he’d drawn a knife on you. You’re lucky he didn’t gut you right there, you idiot. Next time, give him the God damned money.”

“He drew the knife after I told him to get lost,” Sam answered with a sniff of pride. “And it wasn’t my money to give – it was Mike’s.”

“I don’t give a shit whose money it was!” After a glance at the officer behind them, Fox lowered his voice as he leaned it to drive his point home. “This isn’t high school, Sam. You can’t intimidate the smaller kids with your size anymore. And it damn well isn’t the army, where you had a dozen men ready to back you up with rifles. That guy could have killed you in a second, and then gone for Emma.”

Sam swallowed at the image, staying silent.

“It’s time you learned you can’t always be the winner, Sam. There will be times you’ll have to back down, times you’ll have to walk away. This was one of them. You were lucky this time. Next time you may not be so lucky.”

Still, Sam couldn’t shake the last traces of obstinance. “All he had was a knife, Smokey. I’ve faced down knives before.”

Fox threw up his hands with a huff. “Don’t ‘Smokey’ me, you lamebrain. Next thing you’ll be telling me is that you’ve beaten bullets. Superman lives only in the comics, Sam.” He pinched at the blood-stained shirt, rising from his stool. “Remember that.” He nodded to the police officer, then walked out.

Sam sat, pondering his brother’s warning with a yearning for a shot of whiskey. Damn it, he’d saved the girl and the pub – wasn’t that worth even a nod of recognition? Instead, all he’d gotten so far was the brush off from Mike and an ass-chewing from Fox. He would never have put Emma in any danger; it had all happened so fast, he didn’t have time to think. If he’d had a moment’s thought, maybe he would have just given over the money and suffered the humiliation of cowardice. But he hadn’t, and what’s done was done. Fox should thank him instead of jumping on him.

“Sam? We’re leaving now.”

He looked up to see Mike standing beside him. “Where’s Emma?”

“Already in my car – I’m driving her home. I’ll send Jaime over later for her vehicle. She’s still not quite calm enough to drive, I think.”

Craning his neck around Mike’s bulky form, Sam saw her sitting in the front passenger seat. Well, he hadn’t expected her to stop and chat, but the least she could have done was say good night. He got up from the stool with a sigh. “She okay?”

“Right as rain, thanks to you, son.”

Except she wouldn’t even look in his direction, though she was bound to know he was staring out the window at her – what a little coward. They were going to have it out, and soon, he promised himself.

The lights of the patrol cars faded away as the cops left; he hadn’t even noticed their departure. “Then that’s it? What did they say?”

“They likely won’t catch the guy,” Mike replied. “They get a call or two like this around Christmas every year. People tend to need money more, so they get it any way they can. What’s this world comin’ to?” He wrapped his coat tighter around him, then extended his hand. “Well, it’s glad I am you’re here, lad. You done good today.”

It was about time someone congratulated him on his heroics. Sam took Mike’s hand with a small smile. “Thanks. I’m glad I was here too, Mike.”

The older man smiled in return, then leaned closer as his smile became guarded. “Next time, though – let him have the money, lad. I don’t leave all that much in the cash register, and it’s not worth losing your life over, you ken?”

Sam looked at his boss with a lopsided grin, wondering if maybe there was something to be said for backing down from a fight. “Fox just told me the same thing.”

“Your brother’s a smart man. Not that you aren’t, Sam. But I’d hate to see you throw away something fine for something worthless like pride.”

In the deepening dusk outside, Sam could barely make out Emma’s profile as she sat in her father’s car. Even pale as she still was, she made him want to shake her for running out that way without giving him a chance to talk to her.

“She’s a good woman, Sam.”

He dragged his eyes from their single-minded stare out the window to face a solemn Mike. Of course – Mike had noticed him looking at Emma. Damn, he’d probably seen every little thing between the two of them in Sam’s face, maybe even had seen the liplock on the floor. Would he now get the third degree from a protective father? He supposed he deserved it, and he straightened his shoulders, bracing for the lecture. But not before he put in his two cents on the subject. “She is,” he agreed. “A good, grown woman.”

“Now don’t be getting all roostered up on me, lad,” Mike chuckled, reaching into his pocket for his keys. “It’s not my business what’s between you two… until you make it my business by hurting her. You understand?”

“I’d never hurt Emma, Mike.”

“I know you wouldn’t, Sam. A word of warning, though, about my little Emma… she’s very headstrong. She won’t be pushed into anything by anyone.” Mike winked, pulling down the brim of his hat. “Sometimes all it takes with her is a bit of space. Some time to come around. See that you remember that.” Whistling, he left the pub.

Sam stood inside the closed door, slamming the lock home as he watched the two of them drive away.

Headstrong, stubborn, just plain hardheaded. Whatever word you put to it, it fit Emma to a ‘T’. What she hadn’t yet realized was that he shared that same trait.

And the battle was just beginning.

**********

Emma breathed her first relaxed breath as they rounded the corner. It was cowardly of her to slip by Sam, leaving her father to bid him good night and thanks, but she needed some room.

“Nice night.”

Lovely. Her father sat behind the wheel, whistling a little Irish ditty like the day was just another uneventful Sunday. His comment on the night was sure to be followed by another, more probing statement. Then another, and another, until he finally got around to the subject he really wanted to discuss. She wasn’t in the mood for it, and let him know it.

“Okay, spill it.”

“Spill what?” He kept foot to the pedal and his eyes on the road, but his voice slowed to a drawl. “Seems to me you did a nice enough job of that with the mop water.” His face cracked into a disarming smile, and she couldn’t help but grin along with him. Maybe she was being paranoid about the whole scene with Sam. If her father hadn’t commented on it yet, that meant he hadn’t seen it all. No way could Michael Aloysius Scully hold his tongue about his children’s lives if he felt compelled to do so – and her throwing herself at Sam that waay surely would have qualified for a little of Mike Scully’s concern, as well as a bit of fatherly ribbing.

“We did, didn’t we?” she answered, smoothing her coat over her lap with a wistful look. She was tired and she knew her father sensed her need for some calm, bless him. She could tell the afternoon had unsettled him; though the tension of before had faded from his face, he still glanced her way now and then as if he expected her to go into another faint at any second.

“Emma?”

“Yes, Da?”

“I know I don’t tell you nearly often enough… but I love you, girl.”

Now she really was going to cry; her father was blustery and he easily spouted platitudes to her so-called beauty and charm, but he wasn’t the emotional sort who used words like ‘love’ lightly. He really must have gotten a scare today, she thought.

“I love you too, Da.” She put her hand on his arm. “I know I scared you today, but I’m all right, really I am.”

“Me poor heart fairly stopped when I saw that knife, Emma.” His gruff statement echoed her own sentiment, as she recalled the way she’d seen the knife sweep down toward Sam.

She was so sure he’d been stabbed. The awful feeling of dread still lingered, and she forced it away, unwilling to let her father dwell on it by adding to his fear with a remark about Sam. Instead, she smiled, giving him a bit of sunshine.

“Look at it this way, Da – we’ve had our bit of bad luck for the year.” Her father, the oldest of three brothers, had spent his youth in Ireland before emigrating to the States with his family; her uncles Bill and James were young at the time, but Mike Scully had spent enough time in the motherland for superstition to take hold. Emma, while never believing in omens like black cats and birds, respected her father’s beliefs and sought to ease them whenever possible.

“Let’s hope so, Emmagirl,” he replied softly. “Let’s hope so.”

**********

Sam trudged up the stairs in near darkness, suddenly tired beyond belief. The day’s near disaster had drained him, and he wanted nothing more than to get out of his stained clothes and shower before hitting the sack.

He pulled the string above the sink in the tiny bathroom, wincing at the blare of light. The face in the mirror had a shadow of stubble and the eyes were a bit haunted, but he didn’t feel like shaving. There was time for that tomorrow. The splash of red on his shirt caught his eye; his hand came up to touch the stiff stain. Slowly, he raised the hem of the shirt.

Nothing. The skin beneath it was smooth. He still felt the blade pierce him, but maybe it had been nothing more than leftover anxiety from the past few days. After all, no one could blame him for being a little antsy since he had no idea what his life had been like for the past two years. The guy with the knife hadn’t acted like he knew Sam, but these days, he couldn’t be sure. Maybe he’d made many enemies he knew nothing of anymore.

Or maybe he was just going crazy, like he feared would happen at any second.

He relaxed, hanging his head with embarrassment, though there was no one around to see. What a dope, he told himself. He hadn’t been stabbed, there were no wiseguys lurking around every corner. He really needed to lighten up.

Pulling the sweatshirt over his head, he turned for the bathtub then stilled, feeling his heart jump in his chest. His hand caught in the folds of the shirt and he felt a brush of cooler air caress the tip of one finger. Bringing the fabric up to the light, he squinted at the stain that marred the ‘L’ in Yale.

One finger poked out through the red, waving at him like a caterpillar popping up from red dirt. A perfect slit in the material surrounded that finger, and his mouth went dry.

The cut was the size of a switchblade knife.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Twelve

Emma stirred milk into her coffee, giving Dana a smile. “You mean Fox still hasn’t painted the nursery?”

Her cousin shifted on the sofa with a pained sigh. “No, and I’m afraid he won’t ever get around to it. We have just a little over a month left to go, you know. With the holidays coming up and this business with Sam, he’s running around like a chicken with his neck cut off.” Dana winked, sipping at her tea. “Of course, he never could sit still for more than five minutes at a time, especially when he latches on to something a bit more interesting than yellow paint and wallpaper with lambs on it.”

“True. Your husband is one easily excited fellow, isn’t he?” Emma laughed along with Dana, enjoying their visit.

It was Friday morning, and she’d made her weekly trip to Dana’s with a light step. She’d seen hide nor hair of Sam since Sunday, which helped her get back to a normal routine. Work took up her evenings and her father hadn’t asked her to pitch in during the day at the pub, claiming Sam was a natural born worker when it came to running the bar. He even helped out in the kitchen when necessary, and kept things running smoothly. Of course, the pub’s business picked up on the weekend, and she dreaded tomorrow night, when she’d have to face Sam after a week’s respite. Later, she’d think about that later. Right now, she planned on spending a bit of time with her favorite cousin without thinking of what awaited her in the form of Sam Mulder.

“Well, at least he had one of his questions answered Monday,” Dana said softly, her laughter dying.

“What’s that?” Emma was disturbed by Dana’s serious tone.

“Sam is Sam, according to his fingerprints. Mulder confirmed it Monday through the Department of Defense. He also started the paperwork to bring Sam back ‘from the dead’, though I don’t know how he’ll ever explain it all to their satisfaction.” Dana sighed, a worried crease coming to her brow. “I worry about him, Emma.”

“You’re not going to start with this Chang business again, are you?” Emma worried more about Dana than Fox; she was looking somehow very fragile these days, and she needed to stop thinking of Sam’s return as more than it was. The world wasn’t that awful of a place in Emma’s mind, even if she’d escaped a brush with death Sunday afternoon at the hands of a boyish lunatic. Dana needed to realize that sometimes, it took time for the world to right itself.

All Emma had needed was a week. Even if she planned to upset the apple cart a bit by telling Sam he didn’t have to honor their bet, she figured that, once done, she’d still be satisfied at the way she’d regained her balance.

“Doesn’t it seem odd to you that all these years, your father’s pub has never been robbed? Then suddenly – the first day Sam works there – someone tries to do just that?”

Emma felt the blood drain from her face. “You’re not saying Sam set that up, are you? Because if you are, I’ll have to draw the line at that, Dana. He saved the pub. He saved me from that knife by putting himself between me and that man.”

“From what Mulder tells me, the guy slipped on the wet mop. Didn’t seem like he wanted to hurt either of you at all, but he almost did by accident.”

“And this means what?” Emma was getting perturbed by Dana’s implication that Sam was something other than the long lost brother. She may not care to be around him, but Sam was a decent guy – not the sort to conspire with criminals. “That the guy was an incompetent fool? I fail to see any other explanation.”

“I know you’re getting tired of my paranoia, Emma.” Dana set her cup on the side table with a sigh. “But I feel something’s not right about Sam. I just can’t put my finger on it.”

Actually, Sam unsettled Emma in much the same fashion, but for more obvious reasons. Just being in the same room with the guy made her all nervous, even when he treated her as nothing more than a friend. And that kiss – well, she still hadn’t quite decided what to do about that, other than ignore it. Sam wasn’t going to let it go easily, she knew. But there was plenty of time yet to think of that, as Emma looked at her cousin’s troubled face. She didn’t know what to tell Dana to set her mind to rest, but she had to try.

“I admit his return home after all these years is rather weird,” she began, picking her words carefully. “But seriously, Dana – you can’t be thinking he’s into something criminal, especially where you and Fox are concerned. He spent his first night out of the hospital with you both, didn’t he? Surely if he meant to harm either of you, he’d have done it then.”

“You have a point,” Dana said softly, meeting Emma’s gaze with a relenting smile. “He had his chance, didn’t he? He could have let an army in the house without us knowing or being able to put up any kind of fight.”

“There – see?” Emma took Dana’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I think the way Sam came back has put you off a bit, that’s all. It’s not every day a man thought dead comes home, now is it?”

“You’re right. I’m just nervous, that’s all. Must be because of the baby.”

“You have a right to be nervous, Dana. You have every right to protect your family and your home, and deliver that child safe and sound. With all you’ve been through the last few years, I’d say you have the most right of us all to be a bit wary of strangers. And Sam is a stranger to you. To me as well. If it’s any consolation, Da seems to like him, and Da is a very good judge of character.”

“He is, isn’t he?” Hope spread over Dana’s face. “Uncle Mike has said good things about Sam?”

“Has he! You’d think the sun rose and set in the Sam’s face, according to Da.” Actually, her father had toned down the ‘Sam praising’ the last couple of days, as compared to the first part of the week. Maybe that had something to do with the fact she began to walk out of the room when her father started up on the subject. But she had to admit her father wasn’t just laying it on thick for Emma’s benefit; from all appearances, Sam was a hard worker who made it possible for her father to come home a bit early every night, usually by the time she herself came home, which was unusual. Mike Scully wouldn’t turn over the management of his business to a man who wasn’t on the up and up. “Sam can do no wrong by Da, Dana. And I believe him when he says Sam is a good man.”

“I’m trying hard to believe, Emma, I really am. For Mulder’s sake. But some of the things he’s told me about Sam make me nervous.”

It wasn’t in Emma’s nature to gossip, but the way Dana said the last caused a prickle of alarm to snake up her spine. This was the man her father had entrusted to take up the slack at the pub, and if there was anything shady in Sam’s past, it was in their best interests for it to come out. “Like what?”

“Mulder didn’t want Sam working at the pub, you know. He’d lined up a job with Frohike, one Sam didn’t want.”

Emma knew Melvin Frohike in passing; he was a good man, and totally devoted to Melissa. But he was a bit of a stuffed shirt and she couldn’t picture Sam working in Melvin’s huge office. Sitting at a desk in a suit and tie was not Sam’s thing, and she understood why he’d refused the job his brother had arranged. “Why didn’t Mulder want Sam in the pub, Dana? It’s good work, and from what I’ve seen, he knows what he’s doing.”

“That’s just it,” Dana said softly, apparently uncomfortable with the direction their talk was taking, as she looked away. “Mulder says Sam used to have a bit of a problem with liquor. Sam was a regular hellraiser when he was younger, and when he got drunk, it got worse.”

Emma gasped, picturing Sam as a bully. Or worse – as a man who couldn’t keep control of his anger. Those types were trouble. But not Sam, surely? He’d been nothing but gentle with her, with the exception of his outburst upon seeing Dana. That was understandable; in fact, he hadn’t taken long to calm down, and had been duly apologetic afterward. However, she had to know, even if the answer contradicted the man she knew. “He was abusive?”

“Toward his family? No,” Dana quickly corrected Emma’s thinking. “More toward himself. He had a great career ahead of him as a baseball player, Emma. Mulder thinks he would have gone far, all the way to the major leagues. But Sam and Bill Mulder didn’t quite see eye to eye. When Mulder’s father would push Sam too much, Sam would retaliate. Mulder had to bail him out of trouble many times… most of the time, it was because Sam was drunk. He’d go looking for a fight – and usually, he had no trouble finding one. Mulder won’t tell me why Sam tried to destroy himself that way. Maybe Mulder doesn’t know himself. In any case, Sam and alcohol don’t mix.”

The portrait Dana painted bore no resemblance to the Sam Emma had come to know. She’d seen many a man lose himself to the pull of alcohol, just like her father, who steadfastly refused to serve men who couldn’t handle their liquor. It was true Sam didn’t even sneak a sip of beer while bartending, according to her father, who didn’t mind taking a sip or two now and then even when he was working. Mike Scully would have spotted the lush in Sam immediately, and canned him in a heartbeat.

“As far as I know, Sam’s not taken a drink since he came to work for Da.” Not even after work hours; no way could Sam hide it from her father, who kept a close eye on his inventory. Besides, if Sam was drinking on the sly, they’d know it. Red-rimmed eyes, the ever present smell of alcohol, the general lethargy would be red flags… and Sam had exhibited none of the behavior.

“He swore to Mulder he’d given it up, that first night he worked at the pub.”

Mulder had confronted Sam about it? Of course he would – she would have done the same with any of her brothers.

“Sam promised all that was past, and Mulder trusts him to keep him promise.” Dana looked at Emma with a question in her eyes, asking very much the same from her.

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Emma promised.

“I wouldn’t want you to tell anyone else this, Emma. Not even Uncle Mike. Mulder would kill me if he knew I told you.”

“Why would I be telling Da? If Sam ever drinks to the extent you make it out to be, Da will know. And good man or not, Sam would be gone.”

“I just don’t want Mulder hurt any more than he has been, Emma. He worries about Sam constantly, but he knows Sam is a grown man who can take care of himself. But if you or your father see any sign of Sam doing something he’s not supposed to, I want you to tell me, not Mulder.”

“You? What can you possibly do?”

“Soften the blow for Mulder. Make him see that Sam’s problems are not his any longer.” A slight fierceness came to her face. “Or I could simply kick my brother-in-law’s backside myself.”

Emma snorted. “As if you’re in any shape to do that.”

Dana ran a hand over her stomach. “Well, maybe not. But I know a few men who could beat some sense into Sam – all I have to do is make a few phone calls. Charlie, Commander Skinner -”

“Aidan, Joseph, Tommy,” Emma supplied with a glimmer of mirth.

“While we’re at it, Emma – let’s go for the gold,” Dana said with a laugh. “No doubt Bill Junior would love to get his hands on Sam. If he can’t throttle Mulder, that would be the next best thing, don’t you think?”

“I’d pay good money to see Old Elmer stick it to Sam.” Emma’s dry remark made Dana pause, and Emma could have kicked her own butt for saying such a thing – words designed to pique Dana’s curiosity. She wasn’t wrong either, as Dana gave her a sidelong glance.

“Has he done anything to upset you, Emma? I thought you said he was a good man.”

Oh great, Emma thought. Just when she’d gotten Dana past the point of suspicion, she had to open her big mouth. With a sigh she answered, “No. He is a good man. Way too good at most things.”

Like flirting. Like looking at her with those amazing eyes like she was the best thing since sliced bread. Like kissing her until her toes curled in her shoes.

“Ah, I see.”

“You see what?” She hadn’t given anything away, she just knew she hadn’t. Dana couldn’t possibly know the turmoil in her heart right now, all of it due to Sam Mulder.

“You keep forgetting something, Emma.”

“What’s that?”

“I’ve been on the receiving end of that famous Mulder charm as well. Deadly, I tell you. Deadly.” Dana’s eyes twinkled. “So, where’s he taking you on your first date?”

“Dinner and a movie,” she blurted out, then looked up with horror. She couldn’t believe she’d let that slip! “But it’s not a date, not really. You see, we had a bet on who would finish cleaning the pub first and you know me, I can’t back down from a challenge, and besides, Sam is just too cocky for his own good and… and…” Her mouth pursed at Dana’s look. “Stop looking at me like that. It’s not a date. It’s just dinner and a movie. You know how I like movies.”

Dana rose from the couch with a bit of difficulty, waving off Emma’s offered hand of help. “Well, at least he’s more romantic than some. He’s not cornering you in a cabin in the woods, is he?.”

“What?” Sam, romantic? Emma had the feeling Sam’s idea of romance ran toward a bottle of gin and the back seat of a car. Mentally, she chastised herself. It wasn’t fair to judge Sam that way, especially when she’d beg off the chance to find out if she got her way.

“Nothing. Want some more coffee?” Dana’s voice trailed behind her as she walked into the kitchen. “Or would you rather I call Bill Junior and have him wipe the floor with Sam to save you from the unspeakable horror of a date that’s not really a date?”

Emma followed her cousin into the kitchen, pondering the suggestion. It would solve all her problems, really. Not that she’d ever have Sam beat up to get him to stop chasing after her….

“Emma!”

“What?” She looked up into Dana’s horrified face with a blank look.

“That was a joke, Emma,” Dana warned with a black look.

“I know it was, silly,” she replied, walking to the stove. “Siccing Bill Junior on him probably wouldn’t do any good, anyway. Sam’s got it in his mind – well, let’s just say I don’t think Sam lets anything stop him once he has his mind made up. Not even Old Elmer sticking it to him.”

Dana rinsed out her cup, throwing over her shoulder, “He’s after you like white on rice, is that it? I could always get Mulder to talk to him, to make him back off.”

“Don’t!” Another slip-up; this time, Emma felt her face color with embarrassment. She turned away from Dana, making a production out of adding sugar and milk to her coffee. “I mean, it’s nothing, really. Sam and I are friends, and friends we’ll stay. I’m not a Scully for nothing, you know. I’m a grown woman and I can handle myself… and Sam Mulder.”

Dana turned, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “I said something similar once to Charlie… right after he caught me naked on the couch with Mulder.” She spread her hands, making a show of her belly. “And look where I ended up.”

“You and Mulder were -” Emma’s blush compounded into a furious tide of red that she felt tingle all over her scalp. “When? Where?”

“Oh, Mulder wasn’t naked. Not totally, anyway. And it was on the living room couch at Mom and Dad’s. Right before Charlie got married.”

“But – but you didn’t meet Mulder until a few days before the wedding. How -?”

“Can things happen that fast? They do, believe me. And if Sam is half the charmer Mulder is, then you’d better prepare yourself.”

Half the charmer Mulder was. And Mulder, in Emma’s opinion, had one-tenth of Sam’s charm. She was in serious trouble.

“Dear Lord,” she breathed, the full impact of what was happening hitting her like a ton of bricks. She sat at the kitchen table, sloshing her coffee over Dana’s fine white tablecloth. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry, Dana.”

Her cousin was beside her in an instant, mopping up the mess. “It’ll wash.” Dana pulled up a chair beside her, laying a hand on her arm. “This is really serious, isn’t it? This thing between you and Sam.”

“No, it isn’t,” she stumbled through her reply, “at least I don’t think it is. I mean, we’ve only ever kissed once. It was a nice kiss, but it was right after the attempted robbery and we both know it was the result of relief. I’ve only known the man for a week, for God’s sake!”

“I married Mulder barely a week after I met him.”

At that undeniable statement, Emma jumped up from her chair. “No. Sam and I are just friends, Dana. Besides, the only reason he’s -” She broke off, this time stopping herself from making the mother of all mistakes by saying what she really felt.

Sam had only shown interest in her because she looked like Dana. From the first, he’d been attracted to a dream, to a woman who reminded him of someone he clung to like a lifeline. Even the kiss was most likely due to more than leftover stress from the situation – in saving Emma, he’d managed to save Dana all over again, this time with happier results. In Emma, he got to be the hero, got to hold the girl in his arms and kiss her with triumph. It was her fault she’d acted the fool and given him the opportunity. It was no more than him acting out a long-standing fantasy.

“The only reason he’s what?” Dana stood as well. “Emma?”

She grabbed her coat from the back of the chair. “I have to go. It’s almost two o’clock.”

“But your shift doesn’t start until three. Emma, please -”

She pasted a smile on her face as she quickly donned her coat. “Thank heavens it’s the end of the week. Though I’ll have to put in a long night at Da’s tomorrow night. Why don’t you and Fox stop by for some dinner?” It was a stroke of genius, one her feeble brain hadn’t had since Sam arrived on the scene. With Dana there, Sam would have the chance to see for himself Emma wasn’t the one he pined for; with Mulder there, maybe it would finally hit home that Sam had no chance with Dana. Simple. They were both off the hook. Sam would take his amorous ways and practice them on someone else for a change.

“Emma -”

“I won’t take no for an answer,” she said brightly, feeling more and more confident of success by the minute. “I’ll tell Da to expect you both. He can have the girls in the kitchen make that apple pie Mulder likes so much, okay?” She practically ran out the back door, stopping only to shove her feet into the rubber overboots once she’d reached the porch.

“Of course we’ll come.” Dana stood in the open door, her arms crossed. “But I want you to know this won’t do any good.”

“What won’t do any good?”

“I used to be good at running, you know. Used every trick in the book, put every one in my family between me and the truth. Still didn’t do any good.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Hey, she could pretend with the best of ‘em. Especially when there were circumstances Dana knew nothing of; Emma swore to herself to keep it up for as long as possible. Eventually, her family would see that she had no use for a man like Sam. Short of coming out and telling everyone of his feelings for Dana, of course. She’d studied the best actresses on the silver screen for years. Surely she could emulate them?

“That’s bullshit and you know it.”

Emma’s head snapped up. “Dana!”

“Yeah, you heard me. I didn’t say ‘bush tit’ or ‘shih-tzu’ or ‘Chautaqua’,” she snapped, drawing out the last word with emphasis. “You are so full of it, Emma.”

Emma seethed, for the first time in her life wanting to smack her cousin. Dana stood with pursed lips, daring her to fight back.

“Go on,” Dana poked, jerking up her chin. “You know you want to let me have it, so do it. But don’t stand here and deny there’s something between you and Sam, because I don’t believe it. Like I said, that’s utter bullshit. You can even tell Father Corkery I said that – I don’t care.”

Leave it to Dana to take away her last weapon of defense, Emma thought, still struggling for words. Not even the fear of priestly wrath coming down upon her head was enough to deter Dana. Emma stomped down the steps and onto the slushy sidewalk, intending to make a quick getaway before she said something terrible.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Dana called after her. “Run away! I was right – you’re a big coward, Emma Scully!”

Emma stopped and turned, having had enough of Dana’s needling. Drawing herself up to her full height, she grabbed the lapels of her coat in an offensive pose. “You… you… titmouse! Pussywillow! Beach!”

Dana just laughed as she leaned against the door frame. “You can’t use the real ones, can you? Oh, you think ‘em all right, but you’re too much of a coward in that even – you can’t beat me, Emma. Never could.”

Despite the playfulness of Dana’s words, they drove through Emma like a sword of truth. Dana was absolutely right, though she didn’t know it. Emma would never beat Dana, certainly not when it came to winning Sam’s affection.

“I know I can’t,” she said, trying hard to keep from showing Dana her misery. “Just like I can never let myself love someone like Sam. Why can’t you see that?”

Dana lost her smile. She stepped onto the porch, one hand outstretched. “Emma, wait.”

“Gotta go. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” Without another word, she got in her car and sped away, leaving Dana with a puzzled look on her face.

Thank goodness she had a bit of a drive to St. Catherine’s. Plenty of time to dry up those pesky tears.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Thirteen

Sam wiggled a finger through the hole in his bar towel. It looked like a normal finger, felt like a normal finger – even the fingernail was a bit ragged and dirty underneath, though he imagined he picked up all sorts of grime from the bar, especially the night before cleaning day. But that wasn’t the point of his inspection, and he damned well knew it. No use kidding himself; ever since Sunday night, he’d been bothered by the sight of that slit in his sweatshirt. His favorite sweatshirt that he’d had to throw away because he couldn’t rid it of blood stains.

He’d decided Monday morning he was imagining things as far as the tear in the shirt was concerned. It had been an old, moth-eaten shirt, and he supposed the knife might have nicked it some. The guy pulling on it had probably turned a little thing into a big hole, which wouldn’t have taken much effort, seeing as the shirt was probably going on fifteen years old. But still, he found himself pondering the whole scene over and over. He could still see the guy’s face plain as day, still hear him apologize in a shaky voice. What kind of bandit apologized before robbing you blind? Not the kind he’d ever come across, though he had to admit he’d never come across one so deadly before. He’d been acquainted with men who lied, cheated and stole from their own mothers – but none of them would harm a flea aside from the occasional barroom brawl.

No, he wasn’t scared of the guy – but he’d sure as hell like to talk to him. Something about the way the guy looked at him made him antsy, like he should know the fellow.

“Works better if you don’t make the holes bigger. Holes tend to ruin the towel’s purpose, lad.”

Sam glanced up at Mike with a grin, crunching the towel in his hand. “Good idea.”

“What’s up with you tonight, lad? You’ve been mighty quiet. For that matter, you’ve been pretty mum the whole week. Chauncy’s taken to chewing my ear off about baseball.” Mike slid a beer down the bar past Sam. “And I’m not much of a baseball fan. If he’d talk boxing, maybe.”

“I promise I’ll take Chauncy off your hands tonight, Mike.” He moved away, determined to do his job like Mike wanted. Until Mike surprised him by clamping a hand on his arm.

“That’s not what I meant, Sam. This isn’t like you – last Saturday night, you worked the baar like a pro. Is it the run-in with the guy last Sunday afternoon? Is that what’s buggin’ you?”

Mike looked at him with genuine concern, but Sam couldn’t bring himself to lay his worries on his boss. Mike risked a lot with the Scully family by literally hiring a man off the street. And Sam wanted nothing more than to prove his worth – to Fox and to Mike. That meant just doing his job, period. No use bringing personal business into it.

“I’m okay, Mike,” he assured him.

But Mike Scully wasn’t easily deterred. “Because if that’s what’s bothering you, you’re not alone. Emma hasn’t been the same since Sunday, either.”

Sam perked up at that, hoping that maybe Emma’s problems were related to the kiss, not the robbery attempt. It sure would make him feel better about the weak feeling he got every time she came near. Which wasn’t often enough for his tastes, as he hadn’t seen her since Sunday. And even then, when she’d shown up for work tonight she hadn’t even looked his way, preferring to switch with Jenny and work the opposite side of the room. “She hasn’t?”

“Mighty quiet as well. Of course, I think the goings-on last Sunday scared her more than she’d like to admit.”

“Scared the hell out of me.” He met Mike’s serious look with one of his own, as a sudden thought occurred to him. “She wasn’t really hurt, was she? Is that why she hasn’t been around? She had to see a doctor, didn’t she?”

“Whoa, boy, take it easy. Emma’s fine.” Mike looked out over the room at his daughter. “No, I think she’s finally been shaken out of that little world she lives in, and she’s fightin’ back the only way she knows how.”

Sam felt the statement directed toward him as Mike looked at Emma. He wasn’t a fool; he knew Mike suspected something going on between them but was too tactful to come right out and say it.

“By pretending nothing’s changed,” Sam murmured, following Mike’s lead as he watched Emma laugh and joke with the customers.

“Bingo. You know, you’re pretty smart for an Army man. Never met a grunt as quick on the uptake as you.”

He faced Mike with a laugh, daring to tease the older man. “Spoken by a true Navy man. I’ll thank you to take your Scully sea legs and leave me to my work.”

“Be diligent, lad,” Mike said in parting. “In slinging beer and changing the world.” He left with a whistle to tend his spot by the door. Sam heard his bellow of greeting with a distant mind. One very much on the woman who’d become his world in a very, very short time.

Diligent. Another ten-dollar word for a very impatient Sam.

**********

“Here now, this makes two weekends in a row! I’m beginning to feel special!”

Scully leaned as far as she could over the bar to accept Mike’s hello kiss. Behind her, Mulder stretched a hand in Mike’s direction. “Emma invited us to dinner, Uncle Mike,” she said. “She didn’t tell you?”

“Bah – that girl has her head in the sand these days. I’m surprised she remembered to show up tonight.” He passed a firm look Emma’s way before facing Scully once more. “Not that I’m not glad to see the two of you. I just wish she’d let me know these things so I can hold the best table in the house for you.”

“We can sit anywhere, Mike,” Mulder said. “Sam here?”

“Sure, sure. He’s at the other end of the bar, as usual. Right good worker he is, Mulder. None better.”

Scully felt a kiss brush her hair below her hat. “I’ll meet you at the table, okay? I just want to tell Sam hello.”

“Okay.” She gave the hand on her shoulder a squeeze, then watched him walk away before leaning in to whisper to Mike, “Can I talk to you?”

“Sure, darlin’. Let me take you to a table so you can sit.”

**********

“So, the week’s gone okay?”

Mulder couldn’t deny he’d been on pins and needles just about every night, expecting another phone call like the one Sam made Sunday. Except this time, it would have been Mike. Or worse, the police, telling him his brother had finally met up with the knife he couldn’t handle.

“Week’s been good.” Sam wiped at the bar, avoiding Mulder’s stare. “Pay’s not much, but I’m having a great time here. I like working for Mike, and I like the customers. They’re all good people.”

“They are,” Mulder agreed, looking over his shoulder to find Scully seated at a table with Mike. “And you? How are you?”

Sam’s eyes snapped up. “I’m not drinking, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“That’s not what I’m asking.” If Sam was back to his old ways, he’d know it. Scully would have heard about it through the family grapevine. Besides, something in his brother’s somber look told him the opposite – Sam had more on his mind than the need for booze. “I’m asking if you’re okay, that’s all.”

“I’m fine.”

As many times as Mulder had heard the same from his wife, when it just wasn’t true, he knew Sam was giving him the same lie. But a bar full of people was not the place to poke into Sam’s business. With a sigh, Mulder tapped the bar. “Look, I have your discharge papers in my office. Come by one day this week and we’ll go get some lunch. My treat.”

He saw Sam sag a bit, sure he was about to refuse. But Sam cracked a little smile and replied, “Sure. I could always use a free meal.”

“I’ll tell the front desk to be on the lookout for you, say Wednesday?”

“I’ll have to ask Mike.”

“Just give me a call at home one evening, let me know what day is good for you.”

“Sure thing.”

“And Sam?” Mulder paused in the act of turning.

“Yeah?”

“You’re doing good. Just wanted you to know that.”

Sam’s smile became broader. It made Mulder shiver with remembrance of old times and happier days. Maybe those times were back.

“Thanks, Smokey. Now go on before Mike steals Dana away from you.”

**********

“I don’t know, Uncle Mike… she’s just not herself.”

Scully, without giving away too many details, had told her uncle of Emma’s behavior yesterday afternoon, wanting his opinion on the matter. He’d nodded and hummed with agreement several times, as if he suspected the same thing.

“I know she isn’t,” he said, “and I don’t think the robbery is the reason, though it may have shaken her up a bit. You can’t really tell with my girl, she’s so strong. It takes a lot to make her crack.”

From the corner of her eye, Scully saw Mulder talking to Sam. His stiff back relaxed when Sam smiled, and she knew her time with Uncle Mike was coming to an end. “Then what is it? Is it Sam?”

Mike’s eyes twinkled. “You’ve hit the nail on the head, love. At least, that’s what I think.”

For all that she’d told Emma she was relenting in her suspicion of Sam, she still couldn’t shake the feeling there was more to him than they all knew. She hesitated in telling Mike so, he was so taken with Mulder’s brother. But she couldn’t let it pass without comment. “Are you sure Sam’s right for her? Sounds to me like she’s not too keen on the idea. She won’t even give him the time of day, from the way she speaks of him.”

“Oh, she’s given him more than the time of day, Dana me darlin’.”

Mike’s wink alerted her to something she wasn’t privy to – he never was all that good at keeping secrets. But he excelled at helping along a budding romance, something he’d done for her and Mulder once upon a time. This time, however, she had him beat. “You’re talking about the kiss?”

Mike fairly split a cheek with his puffy frown. “She told you?”

“She did. And she thinks you didn’t see it, so keep it under your hat, Uncle Mike.”

“Like I’d tease the girl about it.”

Scully stared him down.

“All right, I won’t say a thing,” he relented. “But it’s encouraging, don’t you think?”

“Encouraging is not the word I’d use,” Scully muttered, remembering Emma’s sadness at the prospect of falling for Sam.

“What’s that?”

“Here comes Mulder,” she said, spying her husband’s approach. “Listen Uncle Mike, don’t push her. I don’t think she knows what she wants right now, and throwing her at Sam won’t do any good.”

Mike took her hand. “I know that, Dana. I promise not to meddle.” He glanced at Sam. “With either side of the coin.”

“Good.” It was the best she could hope for, now that she’d had confirmation of the burgeoning relationship. Emma wasn’t one to be forced into any situation, and all Scully wanted was for her cousin to be happy.

“Conspiring against me?” Mulder’s voice drifted over them. “Or for me?”

Mike stood, giving Mulder a hearty slap on the back. “Always for you, lad. Always.” With a smile, he left them alone.

As Mulder sat across from her, Scully gave him a smile, feeling better now that she’d talked to Mike. Of course, just being in Mulder’s presence lightened her spirits. He looked at her sometimes like she was the finest of things, and a woman could ask for no more than that. She hoped Emma enjoyed the same love one day… even if it was with someone like Sam Mulder.

Who, she admitted to herself, she still didn’t totally trust.

**********

The hours passed in a whirl of one drink after another, and still she hadn’t said one word to him, though she’d chatted it up practically all evening with Fox and Dana. He wasn’t stupid; he knew she’d used them to avoid the ultimate confrontation she knew would come. But he smiled when he saw his brother and sister-in-law finally leave, knowing it was just a matter of time until he could get Emma alone.

As it was approaching eleven o’clock, Sam noticed the crowd had thinned considerably. The pub closed at midnight and the wind outside had changed, signaling the approach of another bout of winter weather. Many of the patrons, fearing a good soaking by the coming rain, were trickling out in an effort to beat the storm home. It wasn’t supposed to snow, but the changeable climate of the Chesapeake Bay area had never been easy to predict or tame. Sam waited, knowing exactly what tack Emma would use to break free of his dogged determination to speak to her. He wasn’t disappointed.

“Da, I think I’ll go home early, if that’s all right with you,” she said softly to her father at the other end of the bar, though Sam heard it clearly over the now quieter din of the sparse crowd. “Weather’s turning, and I want to make it home before it hits. People are saying a storm’s coming.”

“I’d drive you home, darlin’, but I need to give Doris a lift home,” Sam heard him say. Doris was the head cook in the kitchen, a rotund woman with eyes only for Mike, though Sam knew his boss was too polite to hurt the woman with a rejection. “Go on and take my car, I’ll grab a taxi for me and Doris.”

“That’s okay, Da. I’ll call a taxi for myself.” She nodded at the phone while untying her apron, silently asking her father to pass her the receiver.

Sam saw his chance and took it, ignoring Mike’s raised eyebrow as he stepped forward. “I can take Emma home, Mike. Then bring back the car for you.”

“No!” She just about had the quickest denials in the world, Sam thought. But it wasn’t getting her anywhere, not anymore. He was determined. “I mean, I have the taxi company on the line already. They’re on the way.” She looked down and barked brisk instructions into the phone line.

Well, if she thought that little trick was putting him off the scent, she was wrong. “Can I take my break now, Mike? I haven’t had one all night.”

“Sure, lad. Even if we close at midnight, you still have another hour’s work ahead of you, don’t you?”

Sam nodded, totally in agreement – and totally in sync with Mike’s machinations around Emma’s determination to give Sam the slip. He purposely avoided the look Emma gave him, the one eerily like a rabbit about to dart under cover, instead walking the length of the bar to make for the kitchen.

Already winding down, the kitchen was a beehive of cleaning activity. Doris, up to her elbows in dirty dishes and issuing orders, gave him a big smile. One he returned with a few words inquiring as to her health. She beamed, her ruddy cheeks practically glowing as she wished him luck. Did everyone in the pub know he had it bad for Emma? Apparently so, though they were all nice enough to do no more than throw a few knowing looks his way. He wondered if Emma enjoyed the same scrutiny, then quickly decided she didn’t. Emma wouldn’t stand for teasing or gossip, and they all knew it.

He paused at the door that led to the back alley, softly cursing as he realized his coat was upstairs. No matter – he wasn’t losing the chance to talk to her, even if he had to stand the cold in shirt sleeves for a while.

It was very dark in the alley, with only a lone light above the door. Passing under it quickly, he sought the safety of darkness as he crept along the alley wall. Poking his nose around the edge, he almost smiled at his genius.

There she was, huddled in her coat on the front step of the pub. Like he figured, she hadn’t even waited inside for the taxi. Damn, he was good. Now, to get her away from the door…

Leaning back against the wall, he let out a loud curse. “Son-of-a-bitch!”

As expected, she came running. “Sam?” She looked at the way he favored his right hand, holding it as if it pained him. “What’s the matter?”

“I think I sprained it trying to…”

The rabbit, still skittish, moved closer to the trap. “Trying to what?”

“Damn.” He turned it to and fro as he leaned in with narrowed eyes. “I can’t see. It’s too dark.”

Oh, but the rabbit had more smarts than he’d remembered, as it twitched its nose on the scent of danger. “Come around to the front. We’ll go back in the bar and have a look.” Emma slowly backed away, all the while eyeing him with caution.

But he was quick to snap the trap shut, as he reached out a hand to grab her coat. In seconds, he had her pinned against the alley wall, albeit in a very furious squirm. He felt her knee come up, as she didn’t even bother sputtering out a warning.

“No you don’t,” he said, putting his feet between hers, effectively taking care of that threat as he kept her hands down with his. “Will you just listen to me?”

“I’ll scream!”

“Then I’ll just have to kiss you to shut you up,” he warned, keeping her in a light hold. He didn’t want to do this to her, but he had no choice. As soon as she calmed down, he was going to let her go. All the closeness was not helping his mind’s rule over his body, which wanted nothing more than to close what little distance remained between them.

The fight within her ebbed, though she looked up at him with scorching anger, her lips pursed over sure curses.

“Will you promise to just listen to me for a minute?” he asked, already loosening his hold.

Nose up in the air, she bit out, “You have until the taxi arrives. No longer.” With a haughty sniff, she added, “And you can just forget about tomorrow night. I wouldn’t walk to the corner with you after this little stunt.”

That he already knew, but he played it cool. “That’s all I wanted to talk to you about, Emma. But you’ve been avoiding me all night.” He let her go at last, and his body breathed a sigh of relief. Or was it a scream of disappointment? “I was going to tell you maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for us to go out together.”

“You were?”

He shivered as he rubbed at the tired muscles of his neck, half-turning to face the street. “I think that’s your taxi.”

“It’ll wait.” He almost smiled at the way her tune changed from swing – and he literally meant swing, as in a punch to his face – to sedate, chamber music in an instant. “What do you mean, it isn’t a good idea?”

“Well, after that kiss, I mean… I figure you wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me, Emma.” Nothing worked better than the truth, even if it was delivered with an overdone, sympathy- inspiring sadness. “It really meant nothing to me…” Like hell it didn’t. Okay, so he stretched the ‘truth’ a bit. “I mean, it meant something, just not what I wanted from you now.”

For a second, she looked almost… disappointed? No, that couldn’t be. Must have been a trick of the shadows.

“Then would you mind telling me what you want from me so we can be done with this?” She straightened her coat and gloves with sudden impatience, glancing at the idling cab on the corner.

“Just like you said – friendship. I’m sorry if the kiss ruined all that for us, Emma. I really just want to be your friend.” Oh, he was in it hip deep now. “And I totally understand if you don’t want to go to dinner with me tomorrow night. I suppose I can ask one of the girls from the kitchen.”

A sly, knowing look came over her face as she crossed her arms. “Oh, I get it.”

“Get what?”

“You can’t make me jealous, Sam.”

Geez, she was one sharp cookie. “What if I told you I’d take Lydia instead?”

Lydia was one of the more overt girls in the kitchen, a busty blond with bad teeth but a hankering for a good time. All week, she’d been using every opportunity to rub that generous bosom against him. He’d taken to eating behind the bar, it had gotten so bad. Speaking of bad – man, he must have it bad for Emma if he turned down such an easy target.

“Have at it,” she said, though her face hardened a bit. “She’s perfect for you.”

“Nah, no can do.”

“Why not?”

Two could play that game. “Because that would make it too easy for you. I owe you, Emma. One dinner and a movie. I never welch on a bet.”

“I release you from any and all obligation.” She glanced over his shoulder at the waiting taxicab. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to catch a cab.”

“Coward.” He’d been longing to say it since day one, the first time she’d ducked away from him in the hospital. Designed to piss her off once and for all, or prod her to face up to facts and accept his suit, the word produced results either way. He waited for what seemed like an eternity, as she stopped dead in her tracks, mere feet from escape.

He held his breath, something he always seemed to be doing around Emma. One of these days he was liable to pass out from lack of oxygen.

She turned, her legs wrapped in steamy exhaust from the waiting cab, her eyes narrowing to mere slits. “What did you call me?”

At least it got a serious response, even if it was bordering on anger. “I called you a coward.”

She threw up her hands, her purse dangling in the growing wind. “What is it with people today?”

“What?” She’d lost him, big time. He stood stupefied, feeling the first drops of rain splatter against his shirt.

“First Dana, now you. I am not a coward!” She interrupted his sure answer with an even more vehement, “And don’t you dare say ‘prove it’! I don’t have to prove anything to you, Sam Mulder! To you or anybody else!”

He bit his lip at her sudden tirade. He’d pushed her too far. Emma could take a bit of needling like anyone else, but her pride eventually won out in the end. Looked like he was at a dead end. At his silence, she reached for the door handle, swinging it open with all the strength she could muster.

“I like you, Emma. I just want to spend some time with you,” he said softly. He couldn’t remember ever saying that to a woman. “Is that so wrong?”

With her back to him, he could barely hear her answer. The way it was delivered, in a choked whisper, made him long to cover her with his rain- soaked body. To take away her pain and replace it with happiness.

“It’s wrong when you don’t mean it.”

She thought he didn’t mean any of what he was saying? That he didn’t want to be with her? Was he that much of a gigolo in her eyes?

“No, you’re wrong, Emma,” he replied, his voice hoarse with fury of his own. “You don’t think I need someone? You don’t think I just want to go out with a beautiful woman and watch her laugh all night long and know that she’s with me and no one else -”

She turned, her face hopeful and so damned lovely it made him sputter to a stop. “You think I’m beautiful?”

A fist to the stomach wouldn’t have had the power to steal his breath like the sight of her face at that moment did.

“Christ, Emma – you’re so pretty it makes me ache just looking at you.” He stepped forward, babbling like an idiot. He’d never had to sweet talk a woman before, and he felt damned foolish doing it. But it didn’t stop him from revealing more of himself than he ever had before.

“Don’t swear.” The warning was delivered with trembling lips, and he lost it to the avalanche of frustration.

“Damn it, Emma, I’m spilling my guts here. Give me a break!”

“Go on then. Let’s see what you got, slugger.”

He clammed up immediately, his mind drawing a blank as she stood with a raised eyebrow. One second passed, then two, and he hung his head, his foot kicking at the small puddle forming on the sidewalk. “Your hair.”

Way to go, moron, he chastised himself. That wasn’t exactly Shakespeare material.

“What about my hair?”

This was it – make it or break it time. Two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and he held the bat in his hand. He stepped forward, swallowing down the big lump of fear in his throat.

“Your hair… God, I just want to bury myself in it and never come up for air.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

The cabbie’s voice intruded. “Lady, you gettin’ in or not?”

Emma turned her head. “Oh, hush up and start the meter.” Then she faced Sam again, the liquid depths of her eyes alight with anticipation. “Anything else?”

With relief, he realized Emma was just as susceptible to compliments as the next woman, as her eyes sparkled with happiness. Of course, she wasn’t exactly falling all over him with grateful kisses. He didn’t expect her to melt at his feet, though that burgeoning smile was promising.

“Your smile, Emma,” he continued, making his voice soft and sure. “Your smile makes me want to kiss you again and again.”

A slight frown pinched her forehead. “I think we should leave off the kissing talk for now.”

He understood her avoidance of that subject; she still regretted pouncing on him last Sunday. As if that were anything to regret, he thought. He’d never had a sweeter kiss in his life. But he went along with her wishes… for now.

“Your eyes bring me to my knees, whether you’re angry as hell at me or looking at me like you are now.”

“And how is that?”

“Like you want me to kiss you.” So, his resolve lasted all of one moment. Big deal. She couldn’t expect him to forget how hot that kiss was, now could she? Damn, but he wanted to do it again.

“No kissing talk, Sam.”

Mere inches from her now, he shivered in the rain, ignoring her protest. “I know you want me to kiss you again. Don’t deny it. I know you want to spend time with me, to come out to dinner with me. But you won’t let yourself. And it beats the hell out of me why you won’t.” His hands came up to cup her face. “I mean it, Emma. I mean every word. You just don’t want to hear it.”

Water dripped from the brim of her hat like tears, splashing on his shoes as she dropped her chin. He cursed softly, finally realizing she was never going to give in and admit they deserved a chance. He turned and made for the door of the pub.

“Sam?”

Hand outstretched for the door, he closed his eyes, wondering if he should just keep going. Emma was definitely worth all the trouble, but he didn’t know if he could take all the see-sawing much longer. And if he said, “What?”, he was guaranteed another rollercoaster ride… wait a minute. He had answered her, damn his stupid tongue.

“I’ll meet you here tomorrow evening around six, okay?”

He tamped down the surge of happiness, for once thinking with a clear head. His pride had just taken a severe beating, and he wanted no part of her acceptance if it was based on friendly sympathy. “Don’t pity me, Emma. If you don’t want to do this, just say so.”

“I like you too, Sam. I would very much like to spend tomorrow evening with you.”

Slowly, he faced her, seeking the truth of her words as he looked at her face. No more dancing around the issue, in his mind. If they did this, they were set on a path to something more than friendship. He made sure she knew that. “As friends? No, thank you. I’ve had enough of friendship with you, Emma.”

“I can’t just jump into something… more, Sam. Can’t you see that?”

He did; Emma wasn’t like other girls he’d known. Hell, he’d never had to put forth so much effort with a woman, which spoke of her uniqueness. “We’re not jumping into anything, Emma. We’re walking into it with our eyes wide open. Agreed?”

“As long as we walk nice and slow. Do you agree to that?”

“Yes.” He would take it as slow as she wanted, though it was liable to kill him. One step at a time, beginning with something he very much wanted to do, as he walked back to her. “May I kiss you good night?”

She sighed, her lips curling into a pretty pout. “Must you always bring kissing into it?”

“I must. It’s something I like to do very much, Emma. Something I like to do with you.” He grinned at her, loving the way she fought at every turn. Well, now that he’d claimed a small victory, he could put up with a bit of obstinance, he decided.

“All right then,” she said on a deep exhale. “Tonight or tomorrow night?”

Leave it to Emma to hash out details, he thought. “Tonight.”

She offered her lips with closed eyes. Oh no, he thought. He wasn’t wasting tomorrow night’s kiss on a little peck tonight. He bent and brushed his lips over the downy softness of her cheek, lingering no more than necessary.

Her eyes popped open. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.” He almost laughed at her disappointment. “Of course, I can try again if you want.”

“No, no, that was… nice,” she said in a whisper, the scent of her wafting up between them. He caught his breath at the sudden burst of desire within him; neither of them moved, gently swaying in the rain. She looked at him from under heavy lashes. “See… slow can be wonderful.”

Man, could it, he thought, enjoying the view as his hand came up to her waist. “Yeah, but I’m gonna be taking a lot of cold showers until we get to third gear.”

Emma laughed, her frosty breath tickling his chin. “Just stand out in the rain, like you’re doing now. Guaranteed to cool you off.”

“Say good night, already, mack!” The cabbie’s shout broke them apart. “It’s freezing out here!”

Sam clenched his jaw over the urge to punch the guy out, but Emma reached up to touch his cheek with a gloved hand.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Sam,” she breathed, her eyes like diamonds in the night. “Try not to catch your death of cold until then, okay?”

“I never catch cold,” he said, covering her hand with his as he tried to steal a kiss. “But if I do, will you be my nurse?”

“That’s enough of that. You need to get inside, and I need to get ready for that wonderful date you promised me.”

“So it’s a date now?”

“It’s a date.” She ducked her head, climbing into the car. “Good night, Sam.”

“Good night, Emma.”

He watched the cab speed away. Only then did he allow himself to let it go, his whoop of victory carrying all the way up and down the street.

“Here now, lad – what are ya doin’ out here in the rain?”

Mike stood in the door of the pub, looking at him like he was crazy. Sam spread his hands, his smile goofy. But he didn’t care – he didn’t care if the whole world thought he was nuts.

He tilted his head to one side, feeling rainwater drip on his shoulder. “Being diligent?”

Mike huffed, shaking his head. “You’re daft.” The door closed behind him.

Sam threw up an imaginary baseball and gave it a swing out of the park before following Mike in.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Fourteen

Emma tried to tell herself she wasn’t a fool. Over and over, from the time she’d left Sam standing in front of the pub until now, when she stood like a statue on exactly the same spot, she denied the little voice in the back of her mind. The one that whispered he was just being nice, the one that murmured he couldn’t possibly be as sincere as she’d thought last night, the one that clamored for priority over the other, more singsong voice that said not to bother with pinching herself, it was all true. She liked listening to that reasoning, against the lingering doubt that kept residence with the snide little voice of sanity.

It didn’t help that she’d agonized for an hour or more over what to wear, a decision she’d never had a problem with before. Maybe if she hadn’t come out and called it a ‘date’, she wouldn’t be so nervous. In the end, she scooted that little thought away as well, donning one of her most somber ‘Sunday go to mass’ dresses, a simple brown cashmere with a starched lace collar and gold buttons. Its high neck and long sleeves bolstered her vow to resist Sam’s certain advance. Now that she’d softened toward him, he wouldn’t hesitate to press her for more, and she had to keep a cool head.

The problem was, she wanted him. What she wanted from him, she didn’t know. Somehow, she didn’t see this relationship ending in marriage. She hardly knew the man, and it was way too soon for those kind of ideas. But neither was she going to give him leeway to pursue more a amorous path. At the very least she would try to stop him, with every weapon at her disposal, starting with the brown dress. She would have worn black, but dressing like a nun was sure to bring forth the opposite from the rascal, complete with lewd comments and even more dares.

What the heck was she doing, anyway? Who was she kidding? She was so close to being a nun, the only thing missing was going through the final vows! She couldn’t handle a man like Sam; he was used to women who could flirt and dance and not cringe with horror at the prospect of being intimate –

“Emma?”

Her head snapped up, and she focused on Sam with a gulp. “Yes?”

Goodness, he’d worn his suit! He stood in the doorway to the pub with a confused smile, so handsome she forgot to breathe for a moment.

“Are you ready to go?” His smile cracked a bit, as if he expected her to turn tail and run.

Actually, that was an excellent idea, that snide little voice of sanity shouted, as it finally made it to the top of the chorus.

No! She couldn’t do that to Sam. She’d just have to be brave and muddle through somehow. After all, no one said she had to see him again after this date. He probably thought she’d fall all over him in his expensive suit, as if blinded by the sight of a handsome man. Dinner – well, all the violins and champagne in the world had no power to sway her. And he’d soon find out if he laid one finger on her in a darkened theater, he’d find it chopped off at the knuckle.

She was prepared. Sam Mulder could wine and dine her until doomsday, but she was immune.

“Yes, I am,” she said, giving him a haughty look. Confident and cool, that was the way to go. She waved a hand at her car. “Just hop in and point me in the right direction.”

Sam closed the door behind him, locking it before pocketing the keys. His overcoat billowed behind him as he practically bounded her way. “You look great.”

Before she could stop it, one hand went to her loose hair. Instead of pulling it back into a braid or hiding it under a hat, she’d simply fashioned a worn white ribbon into a headband. Why, she didn’t know. But suddenly, she felt very uncomfortable with Sam’s scrutiny. “I didn’t have time to braid it,” she lied, saying a silent apology to the saints above for her deception. “Da was late for Sunday dinner, and I waited on him to come home before I…” She trailed off with a blush, knowing her motormouth was foolish.

“I like it.” Happy eyes swept her form from head to toe, taking in the brown dress that peeked from the opening in her coat. “The dress suits you.”

“It does?” She waited for the inevitable comparison to a Hershey bar. Sweet, like chocolate. He was so predictable.

“It looks warm and soft, just like you.”

Okay, so he’d abandoned the overly sweet talk for something much simpler. Just because the way he said it sent a thrill up her spine didn’t mean a thing. She was made of sterner stuff, and a little comment like that had no power to buckle her knees.

“Well, then.” She avoided his gaze, turning to walk to her car. “Where to?”

“I thought maybe we’d walk.”

“Walk?”

“Yeah. The rain’s gone and it’s a nice night.”

It was a pleasant night, not all that cold for the middle of December. The weather wouldn’t be this nice for long, she knew, but she was enjoying it while she could. And she did so love to walk outdoors. Besides, the little Italian place was around the next corner – if Sam wanted to impress her, that was his most likely choice for dinner. Good wine, good food, and the most lovely violin player… she sighed, wondering how she’d ever resist. Then again, the Antoninis were friends of her father’s, and she could probably waste quite a bit of time in friendly conversation, thereby lessening the lyrical pull of the atmosphere – and Sam’s charm.

“Okay.” Pulling her coat closer, she started in the direction of Antonini’s, only to be brought short as his hand took hers.

“This way.”

His warm hand held hers in a tight clasp, and she amended her earlier happiness at the warmer weather, wishing for her gloves. It would be rude to pull away, not to mention embarrassing. But she dug in for a moment, asking, “Where are we going?”

“I figure we’d take in the movie first.” He smiled, a boyish, excited thing. “Unless you’re too hungry to wait?”

Actually, she was hungry – just not for food. Stop that, she admonished the other little voice that craved Sam’s touch. “No, I’m not that hungry at all,” she said, tacking on a silent plea for absolution to whatever saint was still listening from above. She hoped that she wouldn’t have to pray to the Blessed Virgin before the night was through, as she didn’t expect the higher deity to cut her any slack.

“Good. There’s a theater a couple of blocks down.” He’d already turned, dragging her behind him with a little tug. “Showing something called ‘Singles’ – looks pretty good from the poster outside.”

Goodness, he even looked good from the backside. “Singles? What kind of name is that?” Jump him, Emma, jump him. Shut up, little voice!

“‘Singapore’.” As if he realized his words weren’t exactly clear, he turned, allowing her to catch up. “Sorry. I seem to be going a bit too fast for you.”

Mischief laced his gaze, and she tamped down the urge to blush. If nothing else, he’d taught her to rein in her propensity for blushing. She stepped to his side, looking up at him with cool eyes. “Remember Sam… we’re just at an idle right now.”

“Well, we need to kick it into first, or we’ll never make the movie. We’ll save second gear for dinner, I promise.”

Chuckling, she fell into step beside him. He matched his steps to hers; even though she walked at a brisk pace, he had to shorten his long strides.

“Singapore, huh? Fred MacMurray and Ava Gardner.” She had to fill the silence with something.

“You like movies?”

“I love movies,” she admitted, as they turned the corner. She could see the marquee of the Paramount Theater from where they were, the bright lights glowing in the night like a row of icicles. “I never had money of my own as a child, so sometimes I’d sneak in that very theater right there on Saturday afternoons.”

“Emma!” Sam’s shocked voice couldn’t hide his laughter.

“True.” She laughed along with him, remembering the time she’d gotten caught by the theater manager, Mr. Willis – who hadn’t hesitated in calling her father. “I was ten when Da found out.”

“Don’t tell me – he paddled that little bottom until you couldn’t sit for a week.”

“Actually no, he reserved those things for the boys. He made me work off what I owed to Mr. Willis by helping clean the theater every weekend.”

“And you got to see the movies for free, anyway.”

“Yep. Da was a smart man; he knew if he made me do anything else, I’d still sneak in after my punishment was done.” She lowered her voice, feeling a surge of love for her father. “After I’d paid off my debt, he asked Mr. Willis to keep me on. Of course, at the time I didn’t know Da gave Mr. Willis the money to pay me. A quarter a week – just enough to pay for the week’s movie.”

“Your father’s a great guy,” Sam said, his face averted. “You’re lucky to have him.”

Regret welled within her; here she was, praising her father before a man who’d not enjoyed the luxury of a concerned, giving parent. “Sam -”

“Here we are,” he interrupted her, pulling her to a stop. “Still remember the way to sneak in?”

One look at his face, and she tried to pull free. “Oh, no you don’t. I’m not getting into trouble this time. If you don’t have the money to pay for the movie, I can -”

“I have the money, Emma. I’m just wondering if you still have the guts to sneak in.” He leaned down with a wink. “C’mon. When was the last time you did something you weren’t supposed to?”

She could think of a few. Letting him talk her into keeping the date. Kissing him on the wet floor of the pub. She bit her lip, excitement blossoming within her at the risk of it all.

“I know you want to, I can see it on your face. If we get caught, I’ll take the blame.”

“Sure, and Mr. Willis will ban me from the theater for life.”

“He still manages it?”

“Going on seventy, but he’s still there.”

“Follow me.” Oh, that look of his was definitely trouble.

“Sam, I don’t think we ought to do this.” But she went along anyway, the thrill of doing what she normally wouldn’t pushing her to walk beside him.

Sam bypassed the startled girl in the booth and opened the door. Emma groaned at her shouted, “Hey, you can’t do that!” and suddenly found herself face-to-face with one steadfast Mr. Willis.

“Emma?” He relaxed a bit when he saw her standing there, but he eyed Sam with suspicion. “Good to see you, my dear. Missed you last weekend.”

Last weekend, she was busy sidestepping Sam Mulder, who extended a hand with a broad smile.

“Mr. Willis? Sam Mulder. How do you do?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Willis uncrossed his arms and shook Sam’s hand. “You a friend of Emma’s?”

“Yes, sir.” Good God, the man was all charm, Emma thought, as she watched him dazzle Mr. Willis with a million-dollar smile. “We were passing by and Emma mentioned how much she liked movies, but she didn’t care much for Fred MacMurray.”

Oooh, what a snake! Really, she didn’t care much for Fred MacMurray, so technically, it wasn’t a lie. Still, she couldn’t believe his nerve!

“And she told me you’d been the manager of this theater for years, so I figure you know the other theaters in town. The competition, so to speak.”

Emma paled and squeezed Sam’s hand as hard as she could, trying to keep her wan smile pasted on her face.

Sam kept on, oblivious to her warning, as he straightened to his full height, his face becoming a bit cool. The perfect dissatisfied customer. Oh, he was good, she had to give him that.

“Is there anywhere else we can take in a movie? Doesn’t have to be close by – I can get my driver to take us across town if needed.”

His driver? Gracious, they were knee deep in it at that point. Still, Sam’s rich man clothes and superior attitude did the trick, as Mr. Willis turned from penny-pinching owner to groveling kiss- up in an instant.

“No need to do that, son. It’s a good movie, really it is. Lots of action and romance.” He turned to Emma with a hopeful smile. “You always did like romance, Emma, if I recall correctly.”

“Yes, sir,” she answered weakly, scooting her foot across the floor to give Sam a little kick in the shin.

Which he ignored, waving a hand in dismissal. “But she likes Clark Gable – any Gable movies playing in town?”

They weren’t going to get away with it, she just knew it. She hated Clark Gable, with his big ears and skimpy mustache. Now, Robert Taylor, on the other hand, made her swoon. Surely Mr. Willis noticed her absence at Gable movies?

Mr. Willis didn’t answer the question, instead giving Sam a big smile. Emma hadn’t seen Mr. Willis smile in years; she stood stupefied, sensing Sam’s victory a kowtow away.

“Tell you what – how about I give you two free popcorn tonight? Emma has always loved our popcorn, isn’t that right dear?”

She opened her mouth to get in a word, but was promptly denied by Sam’s interruption – again. She was really going to have to speak to him about his bad habit of cutting her off.

“We couldn’t do that, Mr. Willis,” he said with a rueful shake of his head. “That’s taking advantage, and besides, there are other theaters in town, am I right? I’m in town for the holidays, and in need of some entertainment, so I expect to see a lot of movies.”

He was actually going to do it! Mesmerized, Emma stood silently, knowing exactly what Mr. Willis would say next.

“Oh, I wouldn’t want you to drag Emma all the way across town, Mr. Mulder! Stay, and be my guest, you and Emma.” Mr. Willis fawned over Sam so much it was all Emma could do not to giggle. “Anything you want, it’s yours!”

“Well, we really couldn’t…”

“I insist! The newsreels are almost over; you’re just in time for the latest episode of Flash Gordon. You look like a man who appreciates a bit of fantasy.”

That was the understatement of the year, Emma thought. Sam certainly knew his way around a tall tale.

“What do you think, sweetheart?”

It took her a moment to realize Sam addressed her. With a loving, dimpled grin, of course. Dear Lord, he put Robert Taylor to shame.

“Sounds good to me…” Two could play that game, as her free hand crept up the lapel of his coat. Mr. Willis’ eyes just about popped out of his head; she wondered how long it would take before her reputation lay in shreds up and down the block, then quickly decided she didn’t care. “Mophead.”

She had no idea she could bat her eyelashes like that. Sam gulped, all at once at a loss for words.

“Mophead?”

Uh-oh. Mr. Willis, despite his bootlicking, looked at them with a tad of doubt, and Emma took up the gauntlet, thoroughly enjoying herself now.

“Oh, it’s just a little private joke between Sam and me, Mr. Willis. He’s very good with a mop, you know – oh!”

“Say thank you, Emma.”

She found herself pulled along through the lobby by a lock-jawed Sam. “Thank you, Mr. Willis!” she called over her shoulder, giggles catching up with her at last. “I’m sure we’ll enjoy the movie!”

“Balcony’s almost empty, Emma!” the manager shouted back. “You two have fun! And don’t forget to come back soon!”

“I can’t believe you said that,” Sam muttered as he ushered her though the lobby doors. “I was on a roll and you almost blew it.”

“That’s what you get for lying,” she whispered back, smiling at his consternation, her eyes scanning the theater for two seats. It was very dark, and she held on to Sam’s hand. In a few moments, their eyes would adjust and they’d sit.

“C’mon,” he whispered back, pulling her away from the main aisle.

“Where are we going?”

“Balcony.”

“Balcony!” The only people who sat in the balcony were kids who wanted to sneak a smoke and couples who… oh, Lord. She was in such trouble now.

“Shhh,” she heard from a couple of rows beyond them, and she promptly quieted.

“Yeah, balcony.” In his whisper, she heard triumph. “That’s what you get for putting your two cents in.”

On stiff legs, she let him guide her up the stairs.

**********

“Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Sam slouched in his seat, finally letting go of her hand as the credits rolled. The house lights came up, and he saw Emma wipe furiously at her eyes. She was such a romantic; even though the guy had gotten the girl from the clutches of the bad guy and all ended happily ever after, she still cried.

“Here.” He pulled his handkerchief from his coat pocket. She snatched it away with a glare.

“Don’t you dare say a word.”

“I wasn’t going to.” Actually, he could have said it was sweet, or touching, but he figured he’d put her through enough for the past two hours.

As stiff as a board, she’d sat through the whole picture, jerking every time he shifted in his seat, like she expected him to pounce. Other couples took advantage of the dark reaches of the balcony, and he’d heard sighs and lip smacking all the way around. Oh, he’d been tempted to steal a kiss, but he knew it would do nothing but set him a step back, not forward. It had been enough for him to hold her hand. A very soft, feminine hand, in fact – one he took pleasure in caressing withh his thumb at every opportunity.

Face now dry, she leaned forward in her seat. “All right, let’s go.”

“Not so fast.” He took her hand again with an apologetic smile. “Let’s let the crowd clear out first. I want to tell you I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Emma flopped back in her seat. “For what?”

“For making you uncomfortable with Mr. Willis. For dragging you up here and making you think I meant to ravish you.”

“You didn’t mean to ravish me?” Again, his heart thudded at her disappointed look. He wondered if she realized how obvious it was; if she had, she would never let it show so much.

“Nope. I like to neck in more comfort.” He stretched his long legs for emphasis, grimacing at the lack of leg room.

“Ah, well,” she sighed, facing forward. “Don’t be thinking you’ll get another chance, because you won’t.”

He almost threw a ‘Ha!’ in her face, but thought better of it. “How’d you like the movie?”

A dreamy look swept over her face. “It was wonderful.”

It was dreadful, in his opinion. If that was the kind of garbage movie studios put out since he’d been gone, he’d pass. Guy thinks fiancee is dead after the Japanese invade Singapore. Comes back two years later to find the pearls he’d hidden, only to find the girl very much alive and married to another man. Naturally, she doesn’t remember him, because she has amnesia. He supposed he could sympathize a little bit – especially since the girl was a delicious Ava Gardner – but not even that development could make him stomach the overdone drama. Whatever happened to John Wayne and Gary Cooper?

“Sam?”

Emma’s soft call of his name put a halt to his thoughts. He faced her, leaning in a bit to catch scent of her hair. It smelled of clean, flowery soap – nothing expensive for his girl. With a rueful grin, he backed off before she could see how close he was. His girl. Damn, he was getting way ahead of himself. “Yes?”

“Do you ever wonder what happened in those two years?” She faced him, a slight crease to her brow. “I mean, I don’t want to pry or make you feel uncomfortable….”

“I’m not uncomfortable.” Really, he felt like he could spill his guts to Emma, something he’d never done with anyone, man or woman. She had an honest, caring soul, despite her quickness to judge sometimes. But he guess he deserved her labeling of him as a playboy, since he’d done nothing but chase her from the moment he saw her. “Do you mean – do I have a wife somewhere I don’t knoow about?”

Her frown deepened to the point of worry. “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.”

“I don’t have a wife, Emma,” he hastened to assure her.

“How do you know you don’t?”

“Believe me, I don’t.” One thing he was certain of was his rampaging sexual urges… his body felt like he hadn’t been with a woman in two years, from the way it clamored for Emma. Besides, the faceless man had said nothing to lead him to think – he clenched his jaw over the thoughts of the meeting in the park. That had been a delusion, nothing more.

She seemed satisfied by his answer, but curious still. “Then where were you? Why did you show up on that street without clothes?”

He’d asked himself that same question many times, and listened to the silent echo of his mind in return. It was frustrating, to say the least. “Maybe I was on my way home and got robbed.”

“In Annapolis? Please. The closest we get to robbery around here is -”

“A man with a knife who almost ruined our Sunday a week ago?”

She chuckled, shaking her head. “You’ve got a point.”

He could see it was important to her and he understood why. Emma liked order, not chaos, and she struggled to put the pieces together to ease her mind. He wasn’t exactly a good risk for her, especially missing a good chunk of his life. “I think I was on my way home,” he said softly. “Where I’d been, I don’t know. Maybe I’d been to see my parents, but they weren’t there. Sure, it’s unusual to get waylaid in Annapolis, but not in D.C. Maybe whoever did it was on their way to throw me in the Chesapeake, but never made it for some reason.”

“Maybe,” she replied with a small smile.

He squeezed her hand, trying his best to make her feel safe with him. “You know what? I don’t care where I’ve been. What’s important is that I’m here now. With you. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, Emma.”

“Not even with Ava Gardner?” she asked, her lips curling prettily into a bigger, teasing smile.

“Oh, well… let me think about that a minute… ow!” The swift kick she gave him had all the tickle of a feather, but he scrunched his face up and watched her laugh.

“Serves you right, mophead. Don’t you know better than to talk about other girls in front of your date?”

“I do now.”

“C’mon, ya rogue.” She stood, pulling him up with her. “You still owe me dinner.”

“I do, don’t I?” He towered over her, intending to steal his kiss, good night be damned. But she shoved at his chest and he staggered back to the end of the row. She followed, her nose in the air as she made for the stairs.

“I sincerely hope I won’t be forced to find a bug in my soup,” she threw over her shoulder. “One scam a night is all my poor Catholic soul is allowed. I’ll be saying an extra rosary for penance next Sunday as it is.”

If he had his way, she’d be saying ten. Or twenty. Just how many prayers did it take in forgiveness for a bit of necking?

Her admonishment drifted up the stairs. “Get your mind out of the gutter, Sam Mulder, and feed me!”

His girl. Yes, indeed.

An Unchanged Soul Chapter Fifteen

“A bug in your soup?” Sam caught up with her outside the theater. “Are you saying I’m cheap?”

They’d made it past a glowering Mr. Willis, who’d glanced at his watch without a word. Emma had simply smiled and offered thanks, knowing to linger would be asking for trouble.

It was only when they’d reached the corner that she acknowledged Sam, stopping in her tracks to give him an apologetic look. “Of course not. I had a great time sneaking past Mr. Willis. I’ve decided to look at it as free movie passes; he certainly got enough work out of me for his quarter a week.” Sam’s gratification at her statement made her smile. “It seems I owe you an apology.”

“For what?”

“For not wanting to take the chance at first. I enjoyed taking a chance again.”

In more ways than one, she added silently. For all her trepidation at the start of their ‘date’, she was glad now she’d gone through with it. She was having a good time, something she’d not had in ages. Chin tilted up, she let her happiness shine through, hesitation forgotten for the moment.

It didn’t dawn on her that Sam watched her until she found him close, a look of what could only be pleased surprise slowly lighting his face. It began in his eyes, creeping down his cheeks until a brilliant show of teeth nearly blinded her. Dear Lord, what had she done?

“You’re so beautiful,” he said softly, his smile fading as he swallowed hard. His gaze seemed to caress every part of her face, as if he touched with hands and lips.

Maybe if he said it often enough she might start to believe it. There was no denying the sincerity of his words at that moment, and the trickle of hope slowly undermining the dam around her heart forced its way through another crack. If he kept up the lovely words, the flood of emotion he’d cause would certainly sweep away any remaining resistance.

“You don’t have to keep saying it,” she said, only half serious, as she admitted to a certain thrill every time he paid her a compliment. “If you don’t have enough money for dinner, I understand.”

He seemed to take her joking more seriously than she’d intended, as he looked away. “That’s not why I said it.”

“I know it isn’t.” She exposed a bit more of her inner self, more than she wanted in her attempt to correct her bungling. “Look, it’s just going to take me some time to get used to the things you say, Sam. I’ve never had anyone say such things to me before.”

“Why not?” He looked at her, quiet emphasis in his voice. “They’re true.”

“I just wish you wouldn’t talk about it quite so much.”

She fell silent, wishing they could backtrack a few moments. Sam had a knack for making her feel awkward, when in truth, she was usually pretty deft at handling most situations. It spoke volumes of the effect he had on her.

“Look,” he said, his tone now light and playful. “Let’s get some dinner and we can talk about anything you want.”

“Anything?”

“Anything.” He was sincere, and she welcomed the opportunity to find out more about the man who’d upset her neat little world.

“Then let’s go. I’m starved.” When he captured her hand again with a smile, she hesitated. “Must you keep hold of me like this?”

“You can make me let go anytime you want. Just pull away.” He led her down the street, giving their clasped hands a long glance. “But you won’t. It’s been a long time since anyone held your hand, Emma.”

His soft statement, layered with double meaning, coupled with the knowing look he gave her, held her in speechless thrall. The way Sam had of uncovering her deepest insecurities was eerie and a bit frightening. But the way he also sensed her need for independence in tandem with a need for simple assurances like handholds eased that fear.

“No one’s ever held my hand, Sam,” she replied, letting him take hold bit by bit.

“Someone should, and often.” He was decisive, and a little angry. “Everyone deserves to feel protected now and then. To feel like there’s someone there for them.”

“And will you?”

“Will I what?”

“Be there for me?”

He stopped, bringing her fingers to his lips as he faced her with a solemn stare. “I will always be there for you, Emma. To hold your hand.” Again, he kissed her fingers, opening their clasp to whisper into her palm, “To give you anything you need.” A warm mouth pressed into her flesh. “To tell you how beautiful you are.”

Mouth dry, she watched his dark head bend to her palm, her heart tripping with excitement and dread. This was neither the time or place to get so deep in uncharted waters; she cursed herself for letting her needy side ask the question of him, when she’d known his answer would stir unsettling feelings within her. She swallowed, pulling her hand away as she croaked, “Dinner?”

Disappointment creased his brow for an instant; it was gone by the time he straightened, his smile easy. “I did promise you dinner, didn’t I?” He deliberately kept his eyes up, but she knew he didn’t miss the way she pocketed her hands.

“You did. Shall we go?”

“After you.” He gave her a slight bow, letting the hand she’d held for so long wave her on.

Emma started forward, her tongue finally loosening up. “Antonini’s is around the next corner.”

“Is that what you want?” Sam fell into step beside her. Something in his voice told her he didn’t care much for her choice.

She was going to regret her reply, she just knew it. But truly, if he didn’t have enough money to do dinner in style, then she had no right to embarrass him by suggesting an expensive restaurant. Antonini’s wasn’t expensive by her standards, but Sam had only been working for her father for a week, and his funds were bound to be tight. A sudden thought made her slow – maybe he’d wanted to sneak into the theater because he couldn’t afford the tickets! She felt badly after that realization, and she forced a lightness to her answer.

“I’ll tell you what – let’s just go back to the house, and I can fix something for us. Da would like to see you, I know he would.”

The curl of Sam’s lips told her he cared for that suggestion even less. “Actually, I had something in mind all along. Something I think you’ll like.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

He held out his hand in silence, a little grin challenging her once again. It wasn’t wise, but she couldn’t resist the warmth that waited for her there. With an inner sigh at her foolishness, she put her hand in Sam’s and let him take her away from sanity once again.

**********

“Keep your eyes closed. That’s it. Just hold on to my hand.”

Intrigued beyond imagination, she muttered for the fifth time, “This is ridiculous,” but she let him lead her on. Her shoe bumped into something and she stumbled, feeling his hand steady her.

“Easy.” Sam let go of her hand and moved her around. “Now, sit.”

She did, wondering what he had up his sleeve. They’d passed any number of decent, affordable diners on their way to an unknown destination. It was only after they’d gone several blocks he’d asked her to close her eyes, saying