Sunday, January 13, 2008

The End of the Beginning

It had been nice, mostly.

Her, him, and the twins. In their home. She had been content. He had bounced back from his injury more quickly than she expected. And together they had moved on from everything negative that had happened between them.

It had been nice, mostly.

The mostly worried her.

More than she cared to admit. Something was missing. She couldn’t say what, only that something was off, that something was absent that shouldn’t have been. She found it hard to put into words, a feeling that lingered over what should have been pleasant moments between them. She knew that she would recognize it when she encountered it again, but unable to name it, she found herself reading into things that meant nothing. How he glared at her when she said that his messy hair looked goofy. How he sometimes looked at the twins disinterestedly when she sang to them. How he lingered over the knives a few seconds too long when he was putting the silverware away.

What part of him that she needed wasn’t there? And where had it gone?

She was pulling away from him without meaning to, unable to address what she was missing. She needed to tell him, and she had hoped she had found a way to talk about it without making it worse. She had to ask him without insulting him. Had he even known where he had put whatever it was?

So she had decided that before bed would be best. He would be tired, more open. As they sat on their couch after dinner, after the twins had been put to bed, she decided to move forward. She watched him uneasily before she began. “We need to talk, EJ.”

“Really,” he said dryly as he looked back at her. His eyes glistened in contrast with his blood red sweater and dark black jeans. “About what?”

“About…about you,” she put forth awkwardly. “You…you’re not happy, are you?” She cringed inwardly. It was much more direct than she had intended. Would it be the right angle? How else could she state it to him when she didn’t know herself?

He studied her and nodded. “No, I’m not.”

“Why not?” she asked, wondering what part of the life that they had begun to build together wasn’t fulfilling him.

EJ grimaced before he spoke. “Because…because I’m frustrated,” he admitted slowly. “And I think we should do something about it.”

“You mean like a vacation?” she lit up. She would like that. They could take all kinds of pictures together, and-

He smiled at her patronizingly. “No, not a holiday. That’s not the kind of frustration I’m talking about, Samantha.”

She thought for a moment, and then it dawned on her, and the smile dropped off her face. “I thought we agreed to take things slow. You needed to recover after what happened at the wedding,” she said carefully as she pretended to brush some dust off of her green velvet dress, unwilling to contemplate what he was going to say next. She didn’t want to go in this direction. Not now, not when she couldn’t pinpoint what about him was bothering her.

EJ glared at her. “There’s slow, and then there’s glacial, darling. I’m recovered.”

She looked back at him and shivered unexpectedly. She didn’t like the way he was leering at her. “You’re scaring me, EJ,” she said honestly. She had to remind him that he didn’t like to do that.

She saw EJ consider her words and then nod acceptably as he crossed his arms across his chest. “Good.”

That hadn’t been the response she expected. Things were suddenly spiraling out of control. She hadn’t heard him speak so harshly to her in months. He was backsliding, hard. But why? Why now? Why wasn’t he getting better?

“I should go check on the twins,” she said abruptly, rising from the couch.

He grabbed her arm nearly instantly and got up off of the couch himself. “They’re fine,” he insisted, holding her too tightly, searching her eyes.

She did not like where this was headed. “Let me go, EJ,” she said worriedly.

He moved his head slightly and dropped the hold on her arm. As he looked at her, she saw that he was debating something. An explanation? An apology? She could handle a slip, even one this large-

The blood drained out of her face when he removed the hidden gun from his waistband and pointed it at her.

“It always has to be this way to for ‘us’ to get anywhere, doesn’t it? And by ‘us,’ I mean ‘me,’” he breathed at her.

Sami stared at the gun in horror. She involuntarily backed away from the man she thought that she had been meant to spend her life with. This shouldn’t have been happening. She had been wrong. She had been totally wrong. It hadn’t been enough. The marriage, the injury, the house, the children. All the time they spent together. Her love. It hadn’t been enough. It hadn’t been enough to change him. To fix the part of him that was broken.

EJ looked at her disappointedly. “I have been beyond patient with you, you know.”

She stared at him, trying to figure out where she had gone wrong. “EJ, you don’t want to do this,” she pleaded with him.

He smiled wickedly at her, his eyes lighting up with the same malevolence that she remembered too well. “Oh, I most certainly do.”

It was her fault what happened next.

She had ruined the element of surprise. She had been unable to keep the pure shock off of her face when the front door of their home had suddenly flown open and a bearded, disheveled thinner version of her husband had appeared behind him. It had been too much of a warning, and the man in front of her in the red sweater wheeled around and flipped the intruder around towards her, knocking them both to the ground.

“I was wondering when you’d finally show up,” the man with the gun mused dryly, adjusting his aim as the sheer annoyance dripped off of his voice. “You always had almost perfect timing, after all.”

The unkempt man next to her sat up immediately and grabbed her arm, his familiar eyes searching her as he spoke to her in the same English accent as the first man. “Are you okay?”

She was too stunned to do anything but nod at him.

He nodded back. “All right.” He helped her up and purposely placed his body in front of hers as he spoke to the other man in the room. “Let her go,” he commanded.

“At this point? Not a chance,” the man who was supposedly her husband answered firmly.

She looked back and forth between the two men in her living room multiple times. She wasn’t imagining this. Two. More importantly, beneath the differences in their appearance, a matching set. How was that possible? She didn’t know what to think. “EJ?” she asked both of them.

“I suppose the jig is up now, eh?” the man clad in the red sweater asked. “Care to let her in on the con or shall I?”

The disheveled man in front of her in a dirty white t-shirt and torn black jeans looked at her sadly and swallowed.

“Oh, yes, now I remember, you never wanted her to find out about this, which is why you continued to go along with it,” the man with the gun continued. “I suppose I might as well explain it since I’m the one who does everything anyway.” He glanced at her. “As you can plainly see, there are two of us. Me, and him. The complete idiot standing by you is Elvis. I am John.”

She couldn’t have been more surprised than if dinosaurs had suddenly ran across the room. “John?! You’re kidding.”

“You honestly think Father would let his favorite son be named after some inglorious American musical artist?” John stated indignantly. “Although it’s an apt moniker for this moron here. He’s a joke, just like his namesake.”

She felt Elvis stir angrily in front of her, but he said nothing.

Confronted with the indisputable proof before her, she had to believe it. “But why?” she asked, unable to keep the absolute puzzlement out of her voice.

“Surprise, my dear,” John responded. “As capable as I am, and as occasionally useful as Elvis can be, ruining an entire family isn’t an easy task. Simply too many unknown variables, too many chances for things to go wrong. We needed every advantage possible.”

Elvis added, “It allowed us a particular freedom that two identities could not.”

The man in the red sweater nodded. “There is no EJ. There never was. We were him. Elvis and I created him in order to complete our assigned tasks here in Salem. And let me tell you, the ‘E’ before the ‘J’ was very much a compromise on my part,” John explained to her.

It was crazy, but she had to ask. “Even all the race car stuff?”

“Particularly all the race car stuff,” John mocked her. “In this day and age, anything can be created with the internet and enough cash.” He continued. “Anyway, Elvis here was the distraction while I did all the heavy lifting. And everything was moving along well with the blackmail and the gloved hand stunts until emo boy here began to care more about you than the mission.”

Elvis stared back at his twin, still continuing to shield her from John’s aim. “Let her go, John,” he commanded again.

“Oh, it’s you, I want? Please.” John frowned at his brother. “Don’t insult me. You’ve failed me too many times, Elvis. Had to be a gentleman, had to wait and wait and wait until it was almost too late. I did what needed to be done. I saw an opening, and I took it.”

Sami suddenly realized that the man that she had lived with wasn’t sorry at all for what had happened between them. She shot daggers at John. “You bastard.”

“You wanted it! Shut your eyes, pretended you were with your precious pathetic knight in shining armor here-” John spat at her.

“You shut your mouth or I will shut it for you,” Elvis seethed at John as he interrupted.

John laughed at him. “What, impugn the honor of your fair lady? She’s a two-timing whore along with being an uneducated bimbo.”

“No, she’s not.” Elvis sighed suddenly. “Please, John. It doesn’t have to be like this. Give me another chance,” he asked quietly.

“Like the last time I gave you another chance? At the warehouse? Where instead of ending up with stem cells to save Father I ended up with kids? You’re the one who wanted children, not me,” John stated angrily. “Enough of this anyway. I have had enough of your incompetence. She’s mine, and there’s no place for you.” He readied himself to fire.

Time run out, Elvis moved his gaze away from his brother and slid his vision back towards her. She met his eyes as they looked at each other.

She took the initiative. Stepping to the side, she hissed at John, “You’re delusional. I will never be yours. You have no respect for the life that I wanted.”

Enraged, John gave her the response that she needed and turned his head towards her, fire blazing in his eyes. “This life? This life that you wanted? To be burdened with the typical marriage and children? You don’t want this. I wanted to free you, release you from all this sheer banality. We don’t belong here, you and I-”

Elvis made the most of his opportunity.

He leaped forward and tackled his brother, the two of them stumbling out of the room, out the front door and onto the lawn, a blur of punches and kicks. She felt her heart skip several beats as she followed them outside and watched, until John pulled away from Elvis, falling onto the grass beneath him. She then saw that Elvis had taken the gun and was pointing it at John, who was on the ground a few feet in front of him.

She wondered whether she could afford to call the police until John looked at his twin too calmly. “You don’t want to do this, Elvis.” She knew at that moment that she couldn’t afford to leave.

“I always end up doing a lot of things I don’t want to do because of you, John,” Elvis said robotically, staring down at the man in front of him detachedly.

“Come on, Elvis…brother,” John implored his twin.

The disheveled man’s eyes flared angrily. “You have no right to call me that.”

“You are my little brother, are you not?” John grinned sinisterly at Elvis. “You can’t kill me. You tried, remember? After you learned that I had been with Samantha? You were irate, beyond mad, and you tried and tried, and you just could not do it.”

“Practice makes perfect,” Elvis said darkly.

She saw that was when John realized that things were no longer under his control. His eyes shifted as he changed tacts. “All right then. Congratulations. You win. You understand, Elvis? I’ll go, and leave you and your sweetheart here to be the happy little family you’ve always wanted.”

Elvis stared at his brother and shook his head slightly. “I don’t believe you.”

“I’m not exactly in any position to trick you now, am I?” John persuaded. “You have your freedom and the gun. Heck, you even have the girl. Good show. With you finally getting on the ball, you don’t need me around anyway, eh?”

She saw Elvis’ arm waver as he spit his next words out. “Leave then. Never return. Now.”

John nodded at his brother, getting up and dusting himself off. “As you wish. It took you an extra ten years, but you’re finally a man now. So it’s been fun, Elvis. Samantha.” John glanced in her direction. “For what it’s worth, I hope you two are very happy-”

It was louder than she expected.

She hadn’t realized that she had looked away until she turned her neck back as Elvis lowered his arm. His aim was true. The man who had been John fell to the ground, the knife that he had been concealing in his left hand dropping onto the grass. She locked her gaze on Elvis and knew from the intensity in his eyes that had he fired a moment later, the blade would have been impaled in her chest.

It had all taken much too long, and she did most of the talking, well, almost all of the talking. He had stared at the sheet covering the body on the lawn at first, and then at the ground once it was removed, speaking in a monotone when his preliminary statement was taken, gripping her hand with intensity that should have bothered her but reassured her instead. Nearly everyone who could come did, all of them staring at the man who had stood next to her in complete bewilderment. She had refused almost all of the offers, the night in a luxury hotel, the suggestions to stay with them or come to their residences, and the one everyone had been the most insistent on, which had been the urging to take EJ-no, Elvis, she mentally corrected herself, to the hospital. She knew that it was the proper thing to do, but that neither she nor he wanted it. The one suggestion she had accepted was Aunt Hope’s offer to take the twins for the night, not because that she wanted to be away from them at a time like this, but because she needed time alone with someone else.

She sat across from him now in her kitchen at the table. He had showered and shaved, his medium length hair still slightly wet. He looked younger than his actual age, wearing deep blue jeans and a forest green sweatshirt that was too large for his emancipated frame. She had made him something to eat. Chicken soup. It seemed appropriate somehow. The man that should have been hers all along hadn’t appeared to notice it placed in front of him, alternating between staring at her and into space. After more time than she expected, he frowned at her. “I don’t know if the grass will come back on that part of the lawn.”

It was an absurd thing to say, and she couldn’t stop herself from laughing. But her loudness startled him and he froze, dread silence again filling the house. She waited for him again, again for too long before he spoke.

“I should go,” he said blankly, making no effort to move from where he was sitting.

She wanted to tell him that he had just arrived, but she knew she had to tread lightly.

“I should go, Samantha,” he repeated. The haunted look in his eyes tore at her.

She couldn’t bear to see the pall over his face or the hollowness in his gaze any longer. Sami got up, moved over to Elvis, and sat in his lap, pulling both of his arms around her. “Wherever you go, I go,” she stated unarguably. She should have done this the instant he sat down. She needed him to hold her. He needed her to need him.

She felt him relax almost immediately. “I’m…I’m not your husband,” he said even as he rested his head on top of hers. His hair brushed her face, and she thought about how much it looked as it had when she had first laid eyes on him.

“Aren’t you?” she asked simply.

He hesitated. “This is your life, your house, your…children.”

“You’re the same genetically,” she tossed out without thinking.

It hadn’t been what he was looking for. He stiffened. “And that doesn’t frighten you?” indicating by his tone that it terrified him.

“After everything that happened tonight? Never.” She closed her eyes and rested against him. This was the man she had been missing, the one who she had been looking for, only in the wrong place. With him, she felt that which had been misplaced. All of the things she had missed.

The one she needed now was comfort.

For both of them.

She was quiet, letting him think, waiting until he was ready. When he didn’t volunteer anything after several minutes, she opened her eyes and prompted him. “He didn’t let you out much, did he?”

“No,” he responded. “He barely trusted me to begin with, but after January, he was very careful to control my visits. Only when he needed me to be EJ’s good side. That’s why he didn’t kill me after messing up his plans again,” he stated factually. “Because he truly needed me to do that. He could barely stand it, you know. Pretending to be nice took so much out of him.”

No wonder John had been increasingly on edge with her. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“He told me he’d kill you and your entire family along with the rest of Salem. I couldn’t risk it,” he explained. “He also supervised me too closely, always monitoring me. Take what happened in June for instance. We would never have been able to save you from all those attempts on your life without working together.”

That surprised her, that both of them had joined together for her at times. “So you kept up the charade?”

“Yes,” he nodded, his jaw ruffling the top of her hair. “He promised me. He told me that he wasn’t interested anymore, that I could marry you. That he would disappear and leave us alone.”

She just couldn’t believe that he was that na├»ve. “You didn’t expect him to doublecross you?”

He shook his head. “Of course I did. He constantly lied to me. I just wasn’t prepared enough. He always managed to get the upper hand on me, and that time wasn’t any different, no matter how much it needed to be. We fought, I lost, he locked me up for good…” he trailed off.

“And then I married him,” she finished for him.

“Yes, and that’s what really set him off, even more so than the aftermath. This isn’t what he envisioned at all. You weren’t fulfilling his fantasy. I think he had some twisted idea in his head about the two of you running off together to do who knows what. He wanted you to join him, be his literal partner-in-crime. He said that he could help you understand who you really were.”

She asked him quizzically, “How do you know that?”

“He told me. He checked in on me occasionally. Brought me bottled water, let me know how everything was going.” He sounded so grateful that she couldn’t bear to say anything in response to it, to remark on how heartbreakingly thin he was. How could such a kind man be born into such a malevolent family?

“How long were you trapped?” she asked.

“Quite some time. Honestly, I’m not really sure how long,” he answered as he recalled a dimly lit warehouse subbasement and how he had managed to slowly chisel through concrete with an exceedingly stubborn spare piece of plastic. “I was so worried about you. I could have reached him before, but after everything that happened…he was the worst that I had ever seen him. You hadn’t been the woman he wanted, and he was seething. I could see that he wasn’t going to be appeased this time, no matter what. There was no longer any reasoning with him. I had been trying the entire time, but I had to escape and get here. I had to save you.”

“And you did,” she said as she snuggled against him.

“Yes…I got here just in time. Everything is all right,” he said aloud, and she could tell that it was as much for his benefit as her own. “But none of this should have ever happened. It shouldn’t have been like this. I never should have gone along with any of this. I should have stood up to him. I should have told you back in the beginning, no matter how hard it was.” He swallowed harshly. “I’m so sorry. I’m a coward, Samantha.”

She wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He was correct that if he had been more assertive, much of what had happened to her, to him, to all of them could have been averted. But if he had been outwardly stronger, Stefano and John wouldn’t have allowed Elvis to stay as he was. His supposed weakness had protected him from losing his soul the way his father and brother had, from succumbing to the darkness surrounding him.

“You’re my coward,” she decided finally.

He sat up a bit straighter. “I can live with that.” He spoke again quietly as he looked off into the distance. “He always was a cold evil bastard, you know? A shark. He loved to make everything into a game, always manipulating things to his will. He got so much out of hurting people just because he could. And what he did to you was unforgivable…but I miss him.”

Pure anger welled up in her and she opened her mouth to scorn the dead brother of the man who held her, but as she did so, an image she that didn’t expect flashed across her vision. Another man, elsewhere with shining eyes and a smile that could light up the sky, a man who shared a connection with her that she could always feel in the back of her head.

She’d always love Eric no matter what.

And she knew that it would be the same for the twins. And how Elvis had had the same bond with John and willingly severed it. The enormity of what he had given up for her suddenly hit her, that while it had been the right and clear choice, it had been anything but easy for him.

“I know,” she said softly.

He accepted her gift for what it was, a statement of fact. He refused to ask for what she could not give and marveled at how selfless that admission to him had been. “Thank you.”

They continued to sit, basking in each other’s presence, letting their breathing reassure each other that they were still together. The silence stretched across the room. Eventually, he sighed softly. “How can I possibly make this up to you, Samantha?”

With the twin reveal and its ending, her fears were answered and her worries allayed. But it was apparent to her from the trepidation in his voice that his would not be so easily cured. She wordlessly reached out in front of them and tugged on the placemat underneath the soup she had prepared for him.

He giggled unexpectedly. “I appreciate the thought, darling, but I was thinking more along the lines of buying you a castle.”

She was about to laugh before she caught herself and realized that he could really do it. “I’d like that, but this will do for now,” she then said honestly, reaching out again and nudging the meal forward.

“Thank you,” he replied nicely while eyeing the soup with disinterest.

Why wasn’t he hungry? “You have to eat, EJ,” she said bluntly. A small smile appeared on his face as she called him by the name she was used to. “Oh, I’m sorry. I meant-”

“I know. It’s okay. I don’t mind,” Elvis said nonchalantly. “You can still call me that.”

“No, I want to get it right from now on,” she told him. Elvis. She needed to remember.

He was unconcerned. “It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about it.”

As he held her, it was all the more apparent to her that he was the calm, obedient one. John had been headstrong, pretending to agree to her demands yet all the while pushing his own agenda. But she could already tell that the opposite was going to be an issue with Elvis. “No, I insist.”

“It really is fine, my dear, but okay then. Elvis is it is,” he agreed with her.

They sat once again in silence for several minutes. She frowned slightly as he still made no move towards what she had prepared for him. Had she misjudged what he would want? “I can make you something else,” she ventured.

“No, I’m sure it’s good,” he answered positively.

“I wouldn’t go that far, considering it’s my cooking after all,” she said as she reached out for the spoon and took a sip of the soup. They had been sitting together longer than she’d thought. “Besides, it’s cold now. So I’ll make you something else. What would you like?”

“You don’t have to do anything,” he replied. “I appreciate the effort, Samantha, but I’m really not hungry.”

She wondered how that was even possible. She estimated that he had to be twenty pounds underweight at the very least. Had he really been starved the entire time? “You are going to eat something even if I have to shove cupcakes down your throat,” Sami finally stated, exasperated.

She felt better than she expected when he perked up at that suggestion. “Well, now that sounds intriguing…what kind of cupcakes are we talking about exactly?” He raised his head from hers and turned to look at her, grinning in such a way that his smile reached his eyes. “Ones with pink frosting? Little sprinkles on them?” he teased her. “I think I’d like that very much…but only if I get to kiss your lips afterwards to see if they are as sweet as you are.”

She beamed at the complement and, taking it as a spur onward, hopped down off of his lap. “Come on.”

“Where…what?” Elvis looked at her blankly.

She made a show of walking over to the counter where she had set down her purse earlier. “We’re going to go get you those cupcakes.”

He still hadn’t moved. “You’re serious,” he ventured.

“Of course I am.” It was more painful to look at him than she wanted to admit. She had felt his exhaustion as she had sat on his lap and leaned against his chest. He was clearly still operating on the adrenaline that had enabled him to save her, but she strongly doubted that he was thinking anything along those lines. He was too oblivious to how poorly his late brother’s clothing fit on him and too grateful to be in her presence, his eyes shining with how pleased he was just to be around her. She stared back at him. How long would it take her to make him well?

He still looked completely surprised at her movements. She could now see he had only responded as he had because he had been certain nothing was actually going to come of it. “Samantha, it’s two o’clock in the morning,” he explained questioningly.

“And that’s why God made people who invented twenty four hour supermarkets,” she shot back at him.

Elvis looked at her for a moment and then raised an eyebrow incredulously. “How could I possibly argue with impeccable logic such as that, eh?”

“You can’t. Especially when it’s the only thing you feel like eating,” she replied determinedly.

She watched him debate internally and then resign himself to her resolve. “Well…if your mind is made up,” he began slowly, mock dejectedly as he stood up and joined her.

“You’re just looking for an excuse,” she interrupted cheerily.

She began to move towards the door, and he followed behind for a moment before stopping. Sami turned to face him as she also halted, and upon seeing the hesitation that held him, took his hand in hers, wrapping her entire hand around his slender fingers that were even thinner than they were supposed to be. She looked up at him and waited, anticipating what he was about to say to her, knowing that he had to say it in order to move forward.

“We can’t pretend that everything is fine,” he stated bluntly. He took a deep breath before steeling himself in order to continue. “I’m not…I’m not him.” His voice, which had remained steady otherwise, wavered on the last word.

And how lucky was she that he wasn’t? “I know, Elvis.”

Her utter certainty received a half-smile in return. “I don’t think you do. I’m…I’m,” he paused as he trailed off. She saw him visibly struggle to qualify the gulf of differences, both great and small, that separated himself from his now late brother and from the joint persona that they had created together. “I’m not who you think I am.”

“I know exactly what kind of man you are,” she told him quietly. She could already tell that Elvis was different from both John and EJ. But she had met this man before. The quiet man who stood near her had been the one who had read letters with her, who had flown in dinner for her, who had pictures taken together with her. When she cried, he was the one who had held her. “The one I love.”

Elvis smiled genuinely at her, the honesty on his face warming her heart. “I love you too, Samantha,” he whispered. “But we can’t fix this one night over sweets. This is not going to be easy. Figuring everything out is going to take awhile. It’s going to be hard…complicated.”

Sami looked back at him and raised her own eyebrow. “A man once told me that things of value usually are.”

That brought the mischievous twinkle back to his eyes. “Oh, I wouldn’t listen to him necessarily.”

“Really? He was rather charming,” she continued slyly.

The challenge accepted, he moved evenly with her and wrapped their linked arms around her waist. “You see, sweetheart, that’s exactly what he wants you to think,” he explained excitedly to her as he moved them towards the front door, “so you’ll let your guard down.”

She smiled at the man who only needed a white horse to complete his gallantry. “And why exactly would he want that?” she asked simply.

Sami was surprised by how innocent Elvis could look. “I wouldn’t have any idea…but I could attempt some educated guesses,” he replied as a smirk grew across his face and then hers.

Their barely repressed snickering turned into all out laughter once they were outside.

The Third Way

She had to know.

She was committed, of course. Either way. It didn’t really matter at this point as she was in too deep anyway. She knew she loved him, that she was too enamored of him to break away no matter what answer she got. That what mattered now always included him. So she felt at ease, really. Calmly determined. But she had to know the truth. In order to plot a course forward, to get to that next stage, she had to know. With her feelings admitted and received, she had to bring him closer to her, and that meant getting to the bottom of it. She needed the how and why to decide on the what next.

She had decided on an ambush. If she was right, it’d keep him from trying to protect her. If she was wrong, well, then there was less that she’d have to explain. She waited until late. At night after dinner with the twins put to bed. Wine. Two glasses. Part of her felt badly for taking this route, but it was necessary. She’d explain it to him afterwards if need be.

She was done before he was. She sat next to him on their couch, watching him finish the last of his drink and place it next to hers on their end table. She waited a bit and then asked if he would put the glasses away. She watched as he tried to get up and immediately put out a hand to steady himself, slinking back onto the couch and leaning into it for support when he decided that he couldn’t stand.

“Are you feeling okay, EJ?” she asked, knowing exactly why he was not.

“No, I-I-I’m,” he stuttered.

“Dizzy?” she supplied. It was part of why she had made the choice that she did from the options available. She couldn’t risk him going anywhere.

“Yes…I guess I’m more tired than I thought,” he smiled at her lazily. “Your beauty has exhausted me.”

She heard a slur slip into his voice and smiled back. Everything was progressing as it needed to. It was time. She turned to her right to face him and waited a moment, aware of just how silly what she was about to say would sound aloud. “I want to talk to Elvis.”

She received an eyebrow raise from him along with a confused expression. “What?” he asked fuzzily.

“I want to talk to Elvis,” she repeated.

She watched him hesitate, saw him struggle to puzzle out where she was going with this. “Last time I checked, I am Elvis, Samantha,” he eventually offered.

He reeled from the slap more slowly than she had expected. He looked at her in shock, surprise flowing over his entire body. He hadn’t seen it coming.

The second time left a large mark on the right side of his face, the skin bright red from the impact. She had hit him harder. She had intended to do it a third time, but she froze at the pain in his eyes, the depth of his pleading with her not to hurt him again.

She had been wrong.

“Oh, EJ, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she spilled out as she reached up to touch his face. “I’m so so sorry, I didn’t mean to, I was just trying-”

She didn’t finish her sentence. She gasped as his hand flew up and clamped around her wrist, squeezing much too tightly.

“Be careful what you wish for, darling,” he commanded darkly. “You just might get it.”

She wasn’t wrong.

He flipped the two of them over before she knew what was happening, his sweater and jean clad body on top of her and her white dress. And then the same amused gleam in his eyes that she had seen every time he’d hurt her appeared. “Elvis.”

“My dear, you’d think you’d know by now that only turns me on.” He grinned at her, his mouth twisting evilly in a way that it never did otherwise as held her down. “So, sweetheart, you missed me? I’m touched.”

The slurring that had been present in his voice was barely audible now. Even with overcompensating for his size and strength, she still hadn’t given him enough.

“And you know,” he continued, “that makes three of us now. I have to give you credit. You really are a wise girl. You caught on pretty quickly compared to him. You know how he is…so lost in his dreams that he’s a little slow on the uptake sometimes.”

She searched the intensity in his eyes that were only a few inches from hers. So many things that she could ask, so much to know, that she surprised herself when all that came out of her mouth was a simple, “Why?”

“The eternal question with the clear answer, especially in this day and age. What, no Google search? And from a daughter of a renowned doctor specializing in the subject, no less.” He smirked at her threateningly. “You honestly want me to believe that you’re winging this? That you’d talk to me without having considered every single possibility? You tell me.”

With his goading of her, he confirmed her theory, but she couldn’t stop herself from asking anyway. “All those happy times EJ remembers...being raised like a prince…having the best teachers and servants…catching fireflies at nighttime at Maison Blanche with his father…even his Nanny’s tea…none of that ever happened, did it?”

Elvis nodded at her. “Of course not. How could it? After all, you said it yourself, no one else thinks of Stefano as a warm and cuddly guy,” he grinned cruelly. “It never used to be this elaborate, you know? But I think he saw what you had and had to improve it. Make the fairy tale that he tells himself to make some sense of our rather fractured existence even more fantastic. Then he could continue to believe in it even when confronted with how relationships are supposed to work.”

She waited for him to continue, and when silence filled the air instead of his words, she explored the face that was too close to her own. “What happened?” she asked, pushing her curiosity forward to paper over her fear.

He glared at her before dropping his gaze. “The obvious,” he stated bluntly, surprising her with the amount of pain in his voice.

“Please. I want to know the specifics,” she implored, trying to drag his interest away from how he kept trailing his eyes around her neckline.

He tore his look upwards while the strength returned to his voice. “Ah, so you want me to indulge you, Samantha. Very well.” He tilted his head towards her, altering his tone to that of an adult regaling a bedtime story to a child. “Once upon a time, there was a little boy. The little boy lived in England with his mother and stepfather, and he was very happy there. Until one day the little boy’s father appeared in their home and killed his mother and stepfather in front of him. Then the little boy’s father took him away and did whatever was necessary in order to make the little boy into the weapon his father wanted him to be. And then one day, the little boy was hit one too many times, and then there were two. And the second little boy made sure that we were never that helpless again.”

The certainty in his last sentence disturbed her, but she had to confirm what she had heard. “Given the choice between dying or becoming a monster-”

Elvis nodded again as he interrupted her. “EJ chose door number three. He created an option that shouldn’t have existed, but then again, unpredictability is one of our better traits.”

“He wanted to preserve that person who Susan and Edmund loved.” She had said it without thinking, automatically backing the man who held her heart.

Elvis regarded her evenly. “Maybe. Or it could be that he saw that virtue really isn’t its own reward, and since he couldn’t get what he wanted, he decided to give control over to someone who could…personally, I’d go with the latter.”

For a moment, she felt the pull of everything that the man on top of her had been through. But now wasn’t the time. With her hypothesis confirmed, she took a deep breath and moved on to the next step. She refused to give him any quarter as she stared daggers at him. “Let him go, Elvis.”

He laughed loudly. “What?”

“You heard me. Let him go. Get out of his head. He doesn’t need you anymore,” she ordered coldly.

She could see the wheels turning in his mind. He then looked at her condescendingly. “You really think it’s that simple? That you can simply separate us into Good EJ and Evil Elvis? That you can save him and get rid of me?

She raised her voice. “You’re the one destroying his life. EJ is a good man.”

That angered him. She recoiled as he hissed at her. “He is weak. I am the strong one. I am the one who makes things happen. I get things done. I am the one who protects us and goes after what we want. He would have nothing without me.” She listened to the contempt that dripped off of his voice. “Do you know how guilty and ashamed he feels about what happened? When you were still fighting your love for us, he would have let you go. All he did was worry about you and your precious feelings. I’m the one who knew that this was better for you no matter what you thought. I’m the one who made you stay.”

She shot back at him. “You call him weak? You’re nothing but a coping mechanism who has outlived its usefulness. A distorted imitation. You’re not even the original. If you could get rid of him, you already would have. But you can’t, can you? And he can get rid of you, can’t he?”

From the way his expression darkened, she knew she had hit a nerve. But he wasn’t done. He adjusted his grip, overlapping her wrists to hold them with his left hand in order to free his right. He spoke to her plainly, and she was surprised to see the openness in his expression. “I love you more than he ever will.”

She kept to her plan. “He loves me. You use me.”

“Is that all we have? No. He loves you in the way people think you’re supposed to love someone, the way songs and poems and letters describe. Brilliant and pure, all tied up in beautiful wrapping with an elaborate bow.” He ran his long fingers though her hair. “Whereas I…I would do anything for you, Samantha. I’d slaughter all of Salem if you asked me to.”

She gave him the most intense look of disgust she could. “How sweet.”

“Isn’t it?” The corner of his mouth turned up in enjoyment. “I love you in a way he never could. But in any case, you belong to us. You’re ours.”

She didn’t like where he was heading, the ownership implied in his choice of words. “Get out of his head, Elvis,” she spat at him as she tried again.

“Now, now, Samantha, you’re the one who said that you wanted to talk to me, and you have.” He looked her over hungrily. “I obliged you, and it’s your turn to oblige me. Enough talking.” He moved in and began to nuzzle her neck.

A chill ran up her left arm and jumped over to her right. It wasn’t going to be this time. He was too entrenched. She would have to try again, get EJ’s help. Time to end it. “EJ?” she asked tentatively.

Elvis stopped what he was doing momentarily to start snickering. “Good luck with that, darling.”

“EJ?” she asked again. It had to work. It had to go both ways. “EJ?”

“You know how shy he can be, sweetheart.” He started kissing her again, this time more roughly. “How he freezes when he’s around you.”

He wasn’t stopping. She had to get him back before it got ugly for both of them. She had no intention of anyone getting hurt. She raised her voice. “EJ? EJ, I need you. Come on, EJ, wake up!”

Elvis continued idly, “I keep him on a tight leash…I let him play with you because it keeps him entertained…all this parenting, marriage, and romance, and I can’t really be bothered with any of that…necessary certainly, but much too boring for the most part. Why not skip to the good part?”

But whatever control Elvis at his worst had over EJ, EJ had broken it. At the warehouse, she had brought it out of him. He had appeared then, coming to her rescue like the knight she knew he was. She needed that man. She had planned it all out, what she was going to say to him that would bring him back…what was it that she had said to him then?

“Be your own man, EJ!” she screamed.

The switch flipped.

And she watched him stop and look at her with panic as the malevolence faded from his eyes. Almost instantly, he threw himself off of her and backed into the opposite end of the couch. She didn’t know that a face could have that many expressions on it at once, shock, fear, shame, relief, guilt.

His hands shook in his lap. He was terrified. She studied him, forcing a smile on her face. “It’s okay, EJ. It’s okay.”

He stared back, and shook his head at her. “No,” he whispered. And although she watched how much he struggled to hold them back, she saw tears stream silently down his face. “No.”

She inched closer to him. “Yes. It’s okay, EJ.”

She had to make him believe her. No more tears fell, and he made no noise as she crept towards him and embraced him. He was quiet and unmoving as she hugged him and told him that everything was okay again. And again and again and again. And sooner than she expected, he pulled away from her and leaned back on the couch to look at her.

“I’m sorry, Samantha.” The softness was back in his voice along with a heavier slur. “I’m so sorry.”

She repeated herself. “It’s okay, EJ. I understand now. Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

He looked at her uncomprehendingly. “Father thinks Elvis is me. If he knew, he’d try to get rid of me and keep him.”

She frowned inwardly. She hadn’t been able yet to free him of the compulsion to elevate Stefano above himself. “That’s not what I meant, EJ. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Incredulousness spread across his face. “Tell you what, exactly? That I didn’t do any of those horrible things? That I’d never hurt you? That it was my body, but it wasn’t me? That it was my other personality? I might just as well have said it was a one armed man.”

She laughed. Jokes were good. If he could make a wisecrack about it, then he was already feeling better. “No, you’re right. I wouldn’t have believed you.”

He shook his head sadly. “I barely believe it myself.”

“Just because something is hard to believe doesn’t mean it’s not true.” She waited for him to continue.

“I…I always knew that something was…well, off, about the way things were occasionally, but it’s never been this bad, never like this. I thought I was just forgetful, that I had a poor memory once in a while between the late nights and my busy schedule. Like the saying goes, I’ll sleep when I’m dead, eh? But I never missed anything important. Everything could be easily explained. But the last year…” EJ frowned and turned his head to stare off into space. “I don’t know. It’s been confusing. I…I don’t remember everything that’s happened, things I should. And even more is blurry, as if I was there and not there at the same time. Too many bits and pieces without the whole picture.” He turned his head back towards her. “I don’t think he’s ever had to take over full time before. That’s why I didn’t notice until afterwards. It’s…I…I’m missing entire weeks, Samantha,” EJ sighed loudly.

She moved over to him again and placed her hand on his arm, rubbing it through his white cable sweater. “And that’s when you knew?”

He nodded. “I thought of everything else I possibly could before I even considered it, but there wasn’t any other logical explanation.” He rolled his eyes. “Even now, that sounds absurd. Anyway, near the end of last October, things…just stopped making sense. I couldn’t account for so much. I had incomplete memories of events. You got mad at me for things I don’t recall occurring. And it got worse. I started waking up in strange places, and I had no idea how I got there.” He closed his eyes and placed his hand against the bridge of his nose the way she he knew he did when he was frustrated. “I thought that maybe someone was drugging me or some such since that would account for the confusion and memory loss. So I searched my apartment, and I even took a couple of tests. But I was stuck until it occurred to me to pull the Mythic security camera tapes.” He opened his eyes as he grew even more serious. “And there I was, doing all sorts of questionable things that I don’t remember, coming and going at all times of the day and night. I would never have imagined it if I hadn’t seen it myself. I was there physically, but I wasn’t there mentally. He was. He’s driven, certainly, but otherwise he’s not very good at running the show. I’m always tired and irritated whenever I wake up, and then I always have to figure out what he’s done…” He paused, bleakness entering into his tone. “He ruined my life. He hurt the people you care about. And much worse than that, he hurt you.”

He started as he stopped suddenly. “Samantha…how did you know?”

She smiled softly at him. “I didn’t. I guessed. Since we’ve been married and raising the twins, I’ve had a lot of time to think about everything that’s happened to us, and as weird as it was, I kept coming back to how you seemed to be another man depending on when I saw you. How you acted from day to day, even minute to minute often never matched. It was as if you were two different people sometimes. So calm one moment and then so sinister the next. And once that thought occurred to me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it…it was the only thing that made any sense, no matter how strange it was. I simply couldn’t reconcile his actions with yours.”

He met her eyes. “I can’t apologize enough for everything that he’s done. You’d be better off if you’d never met me.”

“No, I wouldn’t.” She took his hand in hers and spoke clearly, saying to him what had taken her so long to admit to herself. “EJ, if I had been honest with myself a year ago, this never would have happened. I shouldn’t have rejected you like that, even if I wasn’t ready for a romantic relationship with you back then. You wouldn’t have needed him if I would have been there for you as you had been there for me all summer.”

He gazed at her adoringly, as if she were some sort of angel. She was still adjusting to how he was awed of her. “You’re too kind, darling.”

“No, it’s the truth. Between me pushing you aside and your father getting sick, you were under a lot of pressure. You were backed into a corner, and he felt he had to protect you. He wouldn’t have come back otherwise,” she assured him.

He shook his head again. “That’s a convenient excuse, isn’t it? Just wave the magic wand, and none of it is my fault because I’m off my rocker?”

“You’re not crazy, EJ. And it isn’t your fault,” she impressed firmly.

He looked down, unwilling to meet her certainty. “I don’t believe that, Samantha,” he said quietly.

“I do. You never asked to be Stefano’s son.” She giggled abruptly. “Take me, for example. I never had a reason that good for anything I pulled.”

When her self depreciation drew no response, she tried another tact. “EJ, you know you’re winning. You’d never put me or the twins at risk if you thought there was even the slightest chance of anything happening. Look at our life together. We haven’t seen him in months. He says it’s because he’s not interested in this part of our relationship, but it’s really because he can’t control you anymore, isn’t it? You’re the one in charge now, and you don’t let him out.”

He grimaced as he looked up. “Then why did I tonight? He could have hurt you again.”

“So you could stop hiding. You wanted me to know. You wanted to be honest with me.” She moved to clasp her free hand with his, so both of their arms were linked together. “EJ, I’m so sorry that you had to go through all that, everything that’s happened. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for you, how life for you was when you were little. You did what you had to do back then. That wasn’t crazy. It was smart. And you’re much stronger than you’re willing to give yourself credit for. You’re a valiant man, EJ. You know that.”

She knew she had hit her mark when he responded with a half-smile. “And knowing is half the battle, eh?”

She shook her head at the reference. “You’re incorrigible.”

That got a full smile. “Just one of the many traits you love about me, sweetheart.”

“True.” She grinned back at him. “You don’t have to worry anymore, EJ. We can get rid of him so he’ll never come back. You’ve already done most of the work. You just need a little assistance for the last part, so I’ll help you. We’ll do it together.”

He studied her for a moment, considering. Then he accepted. “All right. You think it will be enough?”

She nodded. “I think so. And if not, we can get more help for you…without actually asking, if you know what I mean,” she added when she saw trepidation flitter across his face. “No one else needs to know.”

He gave her one of his long looks where she could see his love for her radiate from his eyes. “What would I ever do without you?”

She stared at the man who knew her inside and out and better than she knew herself. The only man who ever actually listened to her and respected her ideas. The man who never gave up on her. The man who made her breakfast without wanting anything in return. The man who was her best friend. The man who put her first and never gave either of her sisters a second glance. The man she relaxed around. The man who she had danced with on the pier.

She beamed at her gift of a husband. “I could ask you the same thing.”

He drew her towards him and wrapped his strong arms around her. “I love you, Samantha.”

She snuggled against him. “I love you too, EJ.”

He kissed her on the top of her head as he enjoyed doing. “Even if you drugged me,” he added happily.

She was still surprised by how quickly he caught on to her, even though she should have known better by now. “Hey, it worked for me, right?” She couldn’t keep the teasing out of her voice.

He raised his head and pretended to look around. “Now where’s that vase?”

They both laughed before they kissed.

The Road Not To Be

It had been bad. The worst one yet. Lots of screaming, accusations, name calling, eye rolling, and pushing, well, she had been pushing. He had been overly careful not to touch her. Not wanting to make it worse, not wishing every interaction they had as husband and wife to be negative, even if their marriage only existed on paper. She didn’t want it to have to be this way, but it had to be. She had to fight, especially now that the twins had been born. She had to push back at him as hard as she could. Show him she was just as strong as he was. She had to make him understand that he could never ever hurt her again.

And she was winning too, until it happened. Until he suddenly stood still, stared at her with those eyes that melted her soul and calmly asked, “Samantha?” Because then he collapsed. And she ran to him and screamed his name, over and over again until she regained enough composure to call for an ambulance. She held his hand with both of hers the entire way, telling him that he’d be okay, insisting that he would through will alone.

She wore the bottom of her shoes out pacing the hallway at the hospital. Thank goodness she had found someone to watch the twins-she was too anxious to think. After eons had passed, the surgeon came out and said that he would recover. That it had been an aneurysm. That it could have happened at any time. That it wasn’t her fault. She had asked if stress could have been a factor. The surgeon said yes. She remembered thinking that it never occurred to her that if she pushed him hard enough, he might break.

He was awake when they let her into his hospital room later on. He looked adorable in his bed with the bandages around his head. He smiled at her immediately and in typical fashion, wanted to know more about how she was doing than he himself was. She said that she was fine. And everything was as it was between them until he looked down and noticed her wedding ring. He complemented her on how impressive it was. She joked that her husband liked to spoil her. He laughed and agreed.

And then he asked her how Austin was.

She had stared at him for too long. He repeated the question. Then she realized he was serious. She hadn’t been prepared, but she had hid her surprise well, somehow making it out of the room without saying anything more. The doctors and specialists weren’t much help. She had asked them how he had managed to forget more than a year of his life while still remembering mostly everything else, and all they could say is that it wasn’t typical. That aneurysms usually didn’t involve memory loss, and that it wasn’t supposed to happen. Wasn’t supposed to? It didn’t matter what was supposed to have happened, it had happened. Would he remember eventually? Perhaps. Maybe not. She yelled at them, called them frauds, but it didn’t help. No good answers. Now what?

Eventually she had gone back into his room and explained to him that he was her husband. He didn’t believe her at first. Kept making jokes, asking her what was really going on. But when she called him by his given name out of frustration, the doubt turned to shock. How did she know? She told him again that he was her husband. And then he looked at her with amazement in his eyes and wanted to know everything. Every detail of their life together past that magical time dancing in that old house, after which, everything went blurry and then blank for him. So she told him the truth. How she couldn’t marry Austin because she had been attracted to him. How they had dated all throughout October and November. How he had held her and told her he was Elvis DiMera on the steps of his mansion as it snowed in early December. How they had a snowball fight and made snow angels together after he apologized for not telling her sooner. How they had spent all Christmas through New Years Eve by each other’s side. How she had surprised him by making cookies for him on Valentine’s Day. How he had gotten plastered on St. Patrick’s Day and sick on chocolate at Easter. How he always took her shopping and bought her whatever her heart desired. How she finally managed to talk him into going to a baseball game. How, with his help, she got revenge on Lucas for good and how she finally broke away from her family and their corrosive influence. How excited he had been when she told him she was pregnant with his children and how beautiful the birth of their twins was. How he was a magnificent father. How he gave her everything she could ever want, including a lovely wedding. How happy she was with him. How much he loved her and how much she loved him. Because it was the truth….if only both of them had been willing to admit everything earlier. It was the truth that should have been, that was now that they were together.

And he bought it. All of it. She had told it well, and it was exactly what he wanted to hear. Being the town pariah came in handy as they were left alone for the most part. No chance of him finding out anything other than what she had said. And life went on. Him, her, and their children. She didn’t know she could be this fulfilled. She couldn’t have imagined it. She no longer had to force the pieces of her life together. She never would have chosen it for herself, to be married to a man who was supposedly one of her greatest enemies, yet everything was as it should have been all along. Everything fit. And it was even better than it was before. Now she no longer had to fight him. Now she no longer had to remember all the pain they had caused each other. And neither did he. She no longer saw the hesitation in his eyes.

She was never going to tell him.

It happened one night many months later when she thought he had fallen asleep. Chasing after their children had exhausted both of them and they were lying in their bed together. He suddenly opened his eyes, looked at her, and told her he was sorry. She asked why. He said for everything and his gaze told her that he meant everything. She looked at him in surprise, and he explained that he didn’t recall every single detail, but he knew enough. Enough to figure it all out, and that he had known for a few weeks. She told him she wasn’t sure where he was going with this revelation, why he hadn’t said anything. He said that he knew, he knew why she lied to him and why she continued to do so. And that he never would have said anything except that he had to tell her.

And then he looked at her with those eyes that decoded her heart and told her that besides their children, wanting their life together to have been different was the greatest gift she could ever give him. And that he loved her.

Then she told him she loved him. And then they kissed forever.