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Scene 9

He had no idea what excuse he was going to give her for being there.

Ned stared at the ascending numbers as they lit, one after the other, counting his way up to the penthouse floor. A quick glance at his watch: 8AM. He didn't even know if she'd be there. Alexis had developed the mother-hen habit of dragging Zander to Kelly's first thing in the morning - just to make sure he had at least ONE decent meal per day. Like the kid couldn't figure out how a box of corn flakes and a carton of milk work.

That kid...

Just thinking about him, just the sound of his NAME made Ned's blood surge. Hadn't it been enough, the hell he'd put Emily through? The hell he'd put ALL the Quartermaines through? No, Zander had to drive Emily away from her family too...and Alexis away from Ned. With every fiber of his being, Ned hoped that Alexis would fail, fail MISERABLY, in her attempt to keep that Sonny wanna-be from doing the prison time he so richly deserved. The thought of Zander behind bars sent a smile of satisfaction across his face.

"One down," he thought as the door began to open, "one to go." This last thought cast his eyes glancing toward Sonny's door as he stepped off the elevator.

"Hey!" He had walked smack into Johnny, surprising him.

Ned stepped back, a bit stunned himself. "Sorry. Uh, isn't your usual post over THERE?" He pointed toward Sonny's.

Johnny glared at him.

"What? I said I was sorry. You want a greeting card or something?"

Johnny narrowed his eyes...if looks could kill. "Alexis isn't here."

Ned bristled at Corinthos's goon calling Alexis by her first name, as if they were friends.

"Is she with Zander at Kelly's?" He held his temper in check.

"Sorry. She's not in the habit of clearing her schedule with me. I'll tell her you stopped by." Johnny was enjoying the little bit of weight he had to throw Ashton's way, and Ned's arrogance just fueled Johnny's fire.

"Never mind! I'll leave her a note myself!" Ned pulled Alexis's key out of his pocket and shoved his way past Johnny.

"Shouldn't you have given that back by now?" Johnny stared at Ned intently. His effrontery was so complete, Ned knew not how to respond. Instead, he glared right back, opened the door and slammed it behind him.

"Jeez..!" Zander jumped a mile, his heart in his throat.

Ned hesitated to apologize to him for ANYTHING. "Sorry."

Zander's heart continued to pound as he stared at Ned, who looked absolutely livid. Oh God - did he know?

Finally..."What? What do you want?" Zander struggled to regulate his breathing, ruffling his hands through this hair. He was trying his best not to act nervous as Ned just stood there, silent.

"Alexis isn't here," he blurted.

"Yeah, so I'm told. Do you expect her back soon?"

Zander swallowed hard, sitting on the couch in an attempt to look casual. "She's out of town on a quick case, but she'll be back in a couple of days."

Ned frowned. "But, aren't you testifying against Sorel..."

"Friday. Yeah," he interrupted, "but she'll be home by then."

Ned cocked his head sideways, as he always did when something struck him. "Hmm."

Zander watched him warily, praying he'd just leave it alone...and LEAVE, period! He only had this one thing he was allowed to do to help Alexis. He continued to try and get Ashton out.

"I'll tell her you stopped by."

Ned's head snapped to attention. He looked Zander squarely in the face, then turned his eyes to the door. Zander began to panic. As he rose from the couch, considering the need for Johnny's intervention, Ned's voice halted him.

"You know, I think that living across the hall from Kingpin Sonny and his merry band of brothers is a bad idea for someone who claims they want to change their own criminal ways. You're starting to parrot their phrases so...automatically. 'I'll tell her you stopped by.' Is that some kind of code you and Johnny came up with for 'Get lost and never darken her door again'?"

Zander shrugged. "Works for me."

"Said the match, that lit the candle, that started the fire, that burned down the house Ned and Alexis built."

"I didn't see any house." Relieved that his cover-story took, Zander loosened the reigns on his reciprocal disgust for the man in front of him.

"I saw a woman doing her best to BE her best, for everyone. And I saw you telling her that it wasn't good enough - that SHE wasn't good enough. So you lost her. And that wasn't my doing, or Sonny's, or anyone else's but yours."

Ned's eyes blazed as he stepped right up into Zander's face. "You know NOTHING about what Alexis and I had OR what we meant to each other."

"Who's been living with Alexis since you left? OF COURSE I know. I know what you meant to HER, at least." Zander watched as Ned's face flickered with a hint of pain, then added, "What you MEAN to her."

Ned looked him in the eye for a shocked moment, then took a deep breath and stepped back. He cast his eyes downward, unable to bring himself to show this kid that he'd innocently spoken the words to keep his heart intact.

Zander knew. For a moment he even felt sorry for the guy. "Look, why are you here anyway? Do you have to keep throwing it up in her face? Can't you just rip the band-aid off in one fast pull?"

Ned slowly turned away. Zander thought he was headed for the door, but Ned paused before making a turn at the stairs instead.

"I'm...I came to see if I'd left my brown leather jacket here," Ned lied. "Alexis liked to wear it sometimes."

He disappeared up the stairs, his last words trailing in the air behind him. Zander shook his head. He just didn't get why some people had to turn loving each other into such a painful thing.

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Ned stood in the doorway to Alexis's bedroom. Her presence was everywhere, yet there was a strange emptiness that went through him as he moved inside. It was odd to be there without her. He felt like an intruder now, like some kind of voyeur. His eyes took in the white comforter that lay across the carved wooden bed, remembering the feel of it against his skin as it wrapped warmly around them in the middle of the night. He came closer to it, couldn't stop his hand from reaching out and touching the sacred place where his body and soul had melded with hers so many times...

He shouldn't be there. He COULDN'T be there.

As he quickly turned to leave his arm hit something, knocking it to the floor. Her hairbrush. He picked it up off the floor, but hesitated before setting it back on the dresser where it belonged. Looking at the soft bristles that stood upright, touching his palm lightly against them, a tingle went through him.

Something felt...not right.

He picked up the brush again and leaned back against the foot of the bed. Closing his eyes, he let the image return to him. The memory of lying in bed, waiting for her. Watching her as she brushed her hair. It was the last thing she did each night before snuggling into bed next to him. He loved to run his hands through her full, soft hair, loved the feel of it against his bare skin as she lay her head against his chest. And she'd smile up at him...God, he loved that smile.

"Find what you're looking for?" Zander's voice made Ned jump. Zander chuckled. "I guess we're even now."

Ned felt his face flush, as Zander eyed the brush in his hands. He quickly dropped it on the bed and headed for the door.

"Nope."

Zander followed as an embarrassed Ned flew down the stairs. "Hey, why don't you check in here?" He pointed toward the coat-closet next to the stairway. "Alexis keeps her raincoats and stuff in here, so maybe?"

Ned was glad that his bogus excuse for being there hadn't been glaringly transparent. "Why not." He opened the closet and gave it a perfunctory once-over. "Nope, it's not here eith..."

Ned's abrupt silence made Zander turn. "What?"

Ned was staring at the shelf above the coat-rack. Zander came closer, to see what Ned was looking at so intently. When he did, his stomach lurched. Ned's face was set as he turned accusingly to Zander.

"Alexis is out of town? Without a suitcase?"

Zander thought fast. "Well, she's GOT to have more than just two suitcases, right? I mean, doesn't she have to travel a lot? She probably just took an overnight case or something." He attempted some levity. "I guess not ALL women pack their whole closet for just a two day trip, right?"

Ned slammed the closet door shut. Something HAD been odd...it hit him like a flash.

"All women DO pack their hairbrush!"

Zander stammered. "Well...yeah, sure, but don't most women have, like, three of everything when it comes to girly stuff like hairbrushes?" His heart was pounding yet again. This was NOT going well.

Ned's eyes were darting around the living room, looking for WHAT, he didn't know. Suddenly, Ned FOUND what...Alexis's laptop, sitting on the desk. He flew into a rage, grabbing Zander by the collar and shoving him up against the wall.

"WHERE IS SHE!"

Zander faltered. "I...I told you! She's out of town!"

"Without her suitcase, her hairbrush, her LAPTOP? WHERE?"

"I, I don't know where! She didn't...it's not my business..."

"Don't LIE to me!"

All the noise coming from Alexis's apartment sent Johnny bursting in without knocking.

"Hey! What's going on?"

"That's what I'D like to know!" Ned growled. "Where the hell is Alexis?"

Johnny looked sternly at the dumbstruck Zander, then took a firm, deliberate step toward Ned.

"Let him go."

"Where's Alexis?"

"I said, let him go. Now!"

"And don't you dare lie to me! Either of you!"

Johnny took another step. "Don't make me ask you a third time."

There was a stormy silence in the air, as Johnny and Ned stared each other down with an intense ferocity. Neither would be backing down. Suddenly, the silence was broken.

"You know, there are all kinds of anti-stalking laws on the books these days, Ashton." Sonny stood in the open doorway. "So, why don't you take your hands off Zander, as Johnny here has REPEATEDLY asked you to do, and then you can remind yourself that Alexis' business is no longer yours."

Ned dropped his hand from Zander and moved into Sonny with fire in his eyes.

"So, what are you now, Alexis's bodyguard? Have you demoted yourself to sentry?"

Sonny was silent.

"Where is she?"

Sonny stayed steady. "She's out of town on a case. She'll be back in a couple..."

Ned didn't want to hear the same crap once more. He pushed past Sonny and stormed into the elevator, yelling, "Forget it! I'll find her myself!" He punched the lobby button with his fist, wishing it was Sonny's face instead.

As the elevator door closed behind him, Sonny slowly turned to face the the two left standing mute before him.

"One thing. One thing for you to do." he said flatly.

Zander was afraid to move, afraid to try to explain. How could he? And what difference would his explanation make now anyway? He watched as Sonny turned slowly, as if to leave.

Sonny kicked the door with all his strength. It slammed into the doorframe with a rickety crash, then bounced back as it tore loose from its hinge. Sonny sighed heavily and pulled his cell phone from his coat pocket.

"Bennie, you got anything? Okay, good. Just follow up and let me know. And Bennie - Ned Ashton just left Alexis' penthouse. I want someone on him, NOW. I want to know every move that he makes, every person that he talks to, every cup of coffee that he drinks, you got that? Sonny glanced over his shoulder at Zander, standing silent.

"Yeah. He suspects. God help us."