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Scene 100

Alexis pressed her cheek against his and the faint, familiar mix of sandalwood and light musk drifted into her nose.

Her mind began to cloud, inspiring her lids to slowly drop. All the times that she'd known that same scent while wrapped in those same loving arms, held close against that same strong body played like an emotional slideshow within her. She took a certain sense of comfort in her physical knowledge of him, and in his knowledge of her - in the small, intimate gestures between them, exclusively theirs and only for each other. For the last four years, it had only been so with him. Now, it was also so with someone else. And Alexis took a whole new unexpected sense of comfort in the small, intimate gestures between them, exclusively theirs and only for each other. She was greedy. She wanted to hold onto all of them. She didn't want to lose anything or anyone else that was precious to her, but the sense of eminent loss was creeping up her spine like the edge of a cube of ice. Four years could go by in a heartbeat. And new feelings could take hold just as fast.

Ned smiled at the feel of her arms firmed around his back, and a light laugh escaped from his throat. His eyes stayed closed as he bathed in the rare bliss of what used to be his for the daily taking. It felt wonderful to hold her again. He wanted to response to the warm hands that renewed their curve around his ribcage, holding her tighter and pulling her closer until he could no longer tell where he left off and she began...like he felt when he made love with her. Like he told her in a letter on the day he married Chloe - a letter that was read out loud, betraying his passion for her to everyone there. But he hadn't been ashamed. Neither had Alexis. Their eyes had smiled to each other, even though their closely watched faces could not. He wondered if she was smiling right then, as he held her in a careful embrace that feared losing care. He didn't know what hurts still lay unseen and unhealed beneath her sharp power suit, and he wouldn't depend upon Alexis to tell him if his hold was too firm. It was clear that she had been well taken care of and well nourished in every way...by Sonny. And the resentment that welled up in him made him feel so small. He couldn't help it. It should have been him.

But he'd rejected her, and Alexis owned that rejection completely. His pride went before her fall, and she took another hand that sought to lift her up - Sonny's. She held onto it still, smiling up at him as they walked under the twilight sky with her head upon his shoulder like...like they were nothing Ned ever imagined they could be. Alexis sighed lightly. Ned's eyes flew open and he blinked into the strong overhead lights as hands instinctively loosened, but didn't let go. He hesitated, taking his cue from her. Alexis didn't make another sound, but slowly began to pull back, breaking away from the circle of his arms. She tilted her head and looked up at him with a curious, half-dimpled face that he wanted to kiss like fury. But the image of Sonny's face close to hers, his hand touching her dimpled cheek, was still in his head. As was the image of Alexis's face close to Sonny's, accepting the tender gesture with a smile as if it was a normal, routine kind exchange between them.

"What?" Alexis squinted up at him, suspecting that his train of thought was picking up where Nikolas's left off.

"What...what?"

"Ned..."

His eyebrows rose, questioning.

"Look in a mirror and you'll know what. Something is on your mind and you're debating whether to mention it. Spill."

"Oh." Ned vaguely shook his head and glanced over her shoulder at the dark shadow that Johnny cast across the glass door. "I'm...just not accustomed to seeing one of Sonny's henchmen standing guard like a sphinx at my door. At your door? Yes. At mine? No."

"He's just doing his job."

"Which he clearly thinks includes being surly. He scowled at me, I scowled back...but I didn't mean for the scowl to stick." He smiled wide. "See? All gone."

Alexis grinned. "That's better. But I think you're being a little overly sensitive to Johnny. He's supposed to look like a man no one wants to mess with. On the way over here, I was being stubborn about wearing my seat belt. You should have seen the look he gave me when he ordered me to buckle up! The man meant business. I buckled up."

Ned pulled back and rubbed at his chin, letting his eyes fall deeply into hers. "Okay. So making you buckle up earns him a brownie point. But it's also a perfect example of a dichotomy that I just don't understand. Johnny's a proponent of seat belts, but he chooses to be part of a world where people get routinely kidnapped, shot at, and outright killed. I don't get it. Can you explain it to me, because there must be something logical in all of it that I'm just not seeing."

Alexis blinked. She didn't know what to say. He was right that the dichotomy was strange, and something she hadn't thought about herself. She could see in Ned's eyes that his desire for understanding was real, and she wished she could explain it. But she didn't understand the rationale of Sonny and Johnny's world either. She only understood that they were two gentle, loving, sensitive souls who could turn on a dime if need be. Sorel would be dead already, if not for her. Sonny wouldn't have stopped at merely beating his face bloody, if not for Alexis having needed him. She could see it in his eyes when he returned to her that night. He could have killed. He'd wanted to kill. And though she never said a word about it, seeing that want in Sonny's eyes had scared her.

"W-well, it IS Johnny's job to protect me. And he does. Even from my own stubborn self."

"And a never ending job it is." He winked and tapped her on the nose. You're your stubbornness is just a part of your charm."

Alexis gave him a crooked smile. "Only once the charm of it wears off, my stubbornness tends to become everyone else's nightmare. I've seriously tried the patience of everyone who's come into contact with me over the last couple of weeks. Tony Jones deserves a combat pay. Johnny and Sonny deserve a long vacation far away from me. And I don't know what Taggert deserves for teaming up with Sonny and having to - gulp - TRUST him. A bottle of good Scotch, perhaps? No, wait - I'm confusing him with Luke."

"Don't tell Taggert that."

She laughed lightly, her eyes drifting here and there around the room before settling on Ned's face. Her fingers pushed at her bangs as her smile softened.

"And you. You spent two days and nights pacing the hospital hallways and sleeping in a chair, waiting for me. Because you knew that in spite of how bad things had gotten between us, the good things would always be there. And you knew I'd let you in if you were patient enough, and w-waited...for me to be ready."

Her eyes were suddenly welling. Alexis frowned and blinked the hot tears away as she dropped her gaze down to her lap. The unexpected wave of emotion confused her, and made her temples begin to throb. Ned tucked a fingertip under her chin, beckoning her to look at him. She bit her lip and smiled at the strange amalgam of things swirling through her brain. Ned had waited for her, but not with much patience. His love was impatient, and it was afraid. And the line that she'd set for him had been crossed. Alexis understood why. She understood him. But that didn't change the fact that Ned having seen her at her worst made her cringe. Sonny had seen her that way too. But it didn't make her cringe. A renewed sting in her eyes made them close. Deep down, Alexis knew why. Ned's voice suddenly drifted into her ear.

"It's okay. Sweetheart, it was an awful time for you and you're bound to have strong reactions when you think about it. Give yourself time."

She slowly released the breath she'd been holding. He was being so sweet and sensitive - she almost couldn't stand it. But Alexis finally acquiesced to the gentle pressure of Ned's finger and let it lift her face.

"No, it's not that. I'm sorry. I don't..."

"Shh."

His finger slid upward and pressed against her mouth, and Alexis held his gaze for a long moment. The heat of his soft skin fed into her lips. He was touching her in a place newly claimed by someone else - a place that had only been Ned's to touch...to kiss...to rouse with passion and want. And as the heat of his finger upon her mouth grew, so did the heat of her memory of Sonny's kiss. The stirring of something old with something new was colliding in the pit of her stomach. Her heart thumped away inside her chest while the breath held its unmoving place within her lungs. Ned's dark eyes stared from beneath a creased brow, as if he was looking for an answer to something inside of her. Could he see deep inside of her, down to the pit of he stomach where the stirrings of something old and something new were colliding?

"No eggshells, remember?" Ned murmured, his hand finally falling away from her face.

"Right." She whispered back.

But the eggshells were everywhere, playing hide and seek and daring her to keep from crushing them beneath her feet. She swallowed hard. Ned couldn't see inside of her, but he knew her well. He knew that something was troubling her, and Alexis knew she had to come clean. Ned had to know that her feelings for Sonny had shifted, deepened, and become a thing that she couldn't deny. She didn't want to deny them...but she didn't know where they would go once they were set free from her silent heart, like a baby bird with unsure, untested wings. She could fall, or she could fly. Fly...butterfly...angel...

Her body took a jolt as the flash of a dark, angry face filled her mind's eyes. A sharp pain hit her head and Alexis winced.

"Owe...damn." Her palm pushed into the side of her skull

"Hey - what's wrong?" Ned put an arm around her shoulders as her head dropped, all muscles releasing it down. "Are you getting a headache?"

"Um, yeah. I mean no. It's not really a headache. It's just a little twinge that keeps coming at me out of the blue. It'll pass in a few seconds."

Alexis rubbed at her head with eyes closed tight. Ned slid his hand up and down the curve of her shoulder, trying to soothe her.

"What can I do? Do you need some aspirin? Coffee? How about lunch?"

She shook her head as her hand slipped down. A smile began to form and Alexis blinked open her eyes to look at him sheepishly.

"How's the twinge?"

"Gone." She gave a truncated laugh. "I've learned the drill, it seems."

"It happens a lot?"

She shrugged. "Some."

"Was it happening in the hospital too, or just since you got home?"

She looked at him blankly. "I'm...not sure. I was kind of on sensory overload at the hospital. I think it's just since I've been home. It doesn't matter anyway because I'm fine. Tony said so. Although he may have a vested interest in keeping his worst nightmare from ever darkening his door again."

"Speaking of nightmares..."

"I'm kidding, of course. He's a wonderful man and a credit to the profession. I mean he did harangue me into coming back for a check-up in spite of my history as the patient from hell. And in spite of my strong protests against ever setting foot in that hospital again."

Ned let he rambling mouth wind down before picking up where he left off - and where Alexis had tried to deflect.

"Alexis?"

"Hmm?"

He briefly hesitated with the slow, deliberate shifting of her gaze away from his face and off in the direction where Nikolas had disappeared. She looked pensive, and somewhat confused.

"How have the nightmares been since you got home?"

Her eyes snapped back to him. "Fine."

He arched an eyebrow. "I think I need to petition the court to get that word legally eliminated from your vocabulary."

Alexis dropped her head to the side. "You and Nikolas really HAVE been in cahoots, haven't you?"

Ned persisted. "Are you still having them?"

"Only when I sleep."

She gave him a goofy smile, and Ned frowned in response. Alexis sighed.

"For more than a couple of hours at a time. But it's better than it was when you - when I was at GH."

"Oh, honey. No wonder you've been so exhausted, if you're not getting a decent stretch of quality sleep. You need your REM."

"I'm functioning just fi..." She stopped herself mid-word. "I'm handling it. Really."

"You shouldn't have to handle it. You can get help. Hey - do you still have any of those pills that Monica gave you after the shooting, when the nightmares wouldn't stop? They helped you sleep through the night."

No, they hadn't helped. She hadn't taken them. But for three days, for Ned's peace of mind, she let him think that she had. One pill was thrown down the sink at night, and she loaded up on caffeine before Ned awoke in the morning. She hated deceiving him, but how could she explain her aversion to taking the pills to Ned if she couldn't explain it to herself? And she didn't want to argue with him about something so trivial - not when he'd just come back to her again. At least she didn't have to deceive him for long. As soon as Sonny's crisis passed, so did Alexis's bloody dreams with a tragic end. And a peaceful sleep was hers once again.

"Yeah, I still have them. But I just went through detox to get all the drugs OUT of my system. I really don't want to put any more back in."

Ned groaned and rubbed at his temple. "Of course not. Sorry. I wasn't thinking."

"Yeah, you were. You were thinking of me in normal, logical terms. Thinking of me in terms of drug addiction is far from normal or logical - and it's far outside your frame of reference."

"True. It's my family that I'm used to thinking of in terms of addiction. Not you."

Alexis looked at him with a studious expression, as if he'd just said something profound. Her gaze shifted toward the hallway, then quickly back to Ned once more.

"H-how is Emily?"

He smiled. "She's okay. Didn't she call you? She said she was going to."

Alexis nodded. "Yeah, she did. She was sweet. She wanted to see me, but I put her off a bit. At least until after I'd seen Nikolas."

Nikolas. His words of concern over the heroin were playing in her head all over again. He'd planted a seed, and it was haunting her. Would the heroin itself find a way to come back to haunt her too? She cleared her throat as she began to probe about Emily a little bit more.

"I can't help but wonder if it brought up some difficult personal memories for Emily when she found out Sorel had drugged me with heroin"

"I know it was hard on her, knowing the truth about what Sorel did you and having to keep it a secret from me. But she hasn't said a word to me about the heroin issue coming up for her again personally."

"Really?"

"Mm hmm."

Her eyes widened and darted back and forth across his face. "So that probably means she's okay. If my experience was pushing her buttons and bringing up an old, painful stuff for her she'd have said something to you...wouldn't she?"

"I don't know. I suppose it's possible that it could be bothering her and she thinks she needs to deal with it alone."

"Right. I suppose."

"Alexis, what exactly are you worried about?"

"What we've been talking about. Emily used to shoot up heroin - fast forward a couple of years, here I am getting shot up with heroin. And I was so wrapped up in my own problems that I needed Nikolas to point out the parallel to me. I'm ashamed that it didn't occur to me on my own that Emily might be dealing with something personally as a result of what happened to me."

"You're probably concerned over nothing, but checking in with her addiction councellor might be a good thing for Emily to do. Just to see if those buttons might have been pushed without her being completely aware of it."

He locked into her dark eyes and searched them deeply. Alexis shifted, uncomfortable with being the subject of Ned's intense worry.

"What now? Is Johnny scowling at you again, through the window?" She turned to glance behind her.

"Sweetheart, isn't it also possible that the refusal of your nightmares to go away means that checking in with someone might be a good idea for you too?"

Alexis turned back and stared at him with wide eyes. "I told you, I'm fine."

"Alexis..."

"I was just concerned about Emily. That's all."

"So, you're concerned about Emily's after-affects, but not so much your own?"

"My circumstances were very different from Emily's." The words were barely out of her mouth and the sense of déjà vu was enveloping her already. She'd made the same excuse to Nikolas just a short time before, and he'd promptly sliced right through it.

"The heroin doesn't know that."

"There's no harm - or shame - in talking to a professional who knows how to deal with the kind of thing that you and Emily have gone through."

"No, Ned..."

"And you went through so much more than just the heroin. I was talking to Monica, and she mentioned the subject of post-traumatic stress - like what happened after the shooting. If anyone has reason to be suffering from it now, it's certainly you."

She turned her eyes away from him and swallowed hard.

"I'm sure that either Gail or Kevin would be able to..."

"I don't need a shrink! God..."

Alexis abruptly pushed herself off the couch. She needed to move. She needed to move quickly. Her body was remembering the chilling panic of waking up with her wrists tied down to the bed. And her mind was replaying Tony's threat to have Kevin Collins keep her at GH against her will. Both things had scared her death and inspired a visceral rage that stayed locked inside of her. Her body may have been an easy target, but her mind was no one's to invade. It never would be, no matter what Ned thought. Her hand took hold of the corner of the leather chair and Alexis turned back to face him, eyes stealing a glance at the soft stream of pink nestled against her coat. She felt guilty for barking at him like she did. It wasn't his fault. He only knew a part of what happened to make her so raw to his implication.

"Withdrawn, your honor. No further questions for this witness."

She kept her head bowed, but lifted her eyes from the pale cashmere to his crooked grin. "Look, I know that the way you saw me in the hospital made you think I was coming off the spool, but that was just... an anomaly. It was an extreme reaction to an extreme situation, and nothing you were even supposed to know about."

He wasn't supposed to know. He wasn't supposed to see. That was true. What wasn't true was that Alexis thought it was an anomaly. She'd told Ned herself, just days before, that she HAD been afraid of coming off the spool. She trusted him enough to tell him that truth - after the fact. But while it was happening, Alexis only trusted Sonny to safeguard her sanity. He didn't understand. As sure as Ned was that Alexis did love him, he was sure that she wanted to trust him. But she couldn't. And he could see that it hurt and confused her. It hurt and confused Ned even more. He'd loved her for much, for so long, and Alexis never doubted that. Not that he could tell. So how did the trust they shared slip away without either of them feeling it leave...until it was too late? And how in God's name could he get it back when Sonny was always there right between them, even when he wasn't literally in the room?

"I'm not losing my mind." She whispered softly. "I'm just losing a little sleep."

Ned silently, slowly nodded. He was aching inside from the truth he'd tried to not to tell himself but refused to stay unheard. And he ached at the lingering look of anxiety in her somber eyes.

"I'm s-sorry I snapped at you." Her voice broke and she cleared her throat. "I know you're only speaking out of concern, but you don't need to worry about me. You've done that enough already. You deserve to chill."

He smiled. The anxiety in her eyes wasn't for herself, but for him. He couldn't help himself - he wanted something from her, and he was going to ask for it. Ned stood up and began moving toward her.

"Is that all I deserve? I was thinking of something a little more substantial." He slid his finger back over her hair and cupped his palm to the side of her head. "Like...holding you again?"

One dimple greeted him in response.

Alexis held his gaze as he moved closer, and closer still, until the space between them was closed. And then, Ned's arms encircled her and she couldn't help but melt into the length of his body against hers. She turned her head and laid her cheek upon his shoulder as warm hands found their favorite place at the top curve of her hips. The scent of him returned to her nose and she breathed in the earthy blend of sandalwood, musk, and subtle hint of leather that had been everywhere in her life for so long - in her head, in her bed, on her body...on the man she loved. Loved - but couldn't marry. And again, to her chagrin, her eyes began to burn.

Ned felt her upper body rise as she took a deep, full breath. And a small, muffled sound locked itself inside her throat. His arms instinctively loosened around her.

"Your back still sore?"

She shook her head.

"Are the bruises healed?"

She cleared her throat. "Just about."

"Good." He whispered. "It's been hard, trying to be careful and not hurt you."

"It's alright."

He smiled as his hand slipped upward, lightly grazing the surface of smooth gabardine cloaking her body. He felt her move, the strength of her embrace of him weakening as her arms lowered down to his waist. Ned sensed that she was close to pulling away, and it made him want to hold her tighter. It was too soon to let her go. But he would, if she wanted him to. And yet, the warm softness of her body and the smell of her hair were making him hungry - and bold. They were making him want something else from her, and he wanted to ask for it. But we wouldn't ask with words. To hear the word 'no' in response would be too hard to take. He would ask in silence, with his body, and hope it wasn't too bold...too soon...or too late.

Ned's face moved more fully into the soft upsweep of her hair, letting the feel and scent of it fill his senses. Alexis released the firmness of her embrace just a bit more, letting her arms uncross behind his back and sliding her hands over the thin fabric of his shirt in a way that made a river of electricity run through him. Her palms settled, just below his waist, and he felt her shift her weight to one leg. She was beginning to break away from him. And Ned's hand quickly found the nape of her neck before her cheek could part from its resting place upon his shoulder. The pressure of his hand was light - she could have easily pulled back. His touch was meant not to restrain her, but to revisit a small physical intimacy between them. When breaking away from their embrace, Ned always moved his hand to that same silky, sensitive place before giving in to the complete breaking of contact with her. Alexis knew what the gesture meant. She knew what would normally come next. Normally. And she could have easily pulled away.

Alexis wasn't pulling away.

Ned smiled and moved his fingers against the meeting of warm skin and fine wisps of hair at the base of her skull. Alexis again began to move, and his instincts compelled him once more. Her cheek lifted away from his shoulder, her chin grazing it as she moved. And as she moved, so did he. His own cheek tilted toward the long, soft layers of bangs already tickling him wickedly while his nose sought the scent of her skin...and his mouth yearned for the taste of her lips. And Ned began to silently will her to turn her face to his - to look into his eyes and see what he was asking her for. To allow his to revisit another not so small physical intimacy between them that he'd missed like crazy and wanted back. But Alexis didn't turn to him. She slipped her chin down along the crisp cotton of his shirt, head slightly bowed and released a slow exhale. And her gaze was downcast to the floor...not to him. His silent will had gone unfelt. Or felt, but denied. She knew what would normally come next. Ned's stomach dropped.

Alexis pushed at the bangs that had fallen into her eyes. She could feel Ned's warm breath still grazing her skin as she stood with only inches between their faces. She'd felt it before she began to withdraw from his embrace. She thought he was about to kiss her sweetly, chastely - on the forehead, or the cheek, as he'd come to do in the days since she'd begun to recover. But the feel of his lips never met her skin. Only the warm breath touched her face. And Alexis suddenly knew that he did want to kiss her, but not chastely. He wanted her mouth. He was waiting for permission to kiss her where he used to, as he used to, when everything was good between them.

She wished it still were. She wished that the last few months could be re-lived and all the stupid, hurtful things done differently. She wished she could let go of the tension in her body and relax into the hand held tenderly against the back of her neck and let herself follow the call of the warm breath whispering against her cheek to the familiar feel and taste of the mouth awaiting hers. But Alexis could do none of those things. Something inside of her had changed over, and something inside of her began to mourn. And she felt her legs falter as Ned's arms released and his hands broke contact with her hips, leaving her body unsupported. A quick hand flew back up to her waist to steady her, and her own hand just as quickly covered it. Her large eyes turned directly to his in surprise. She hadn't realized she'd been letting him brace her, and she felt her face begin to tingle.

"Sorry." She whispered through an embarrassed smile. "I'm a bit wobbly. Bloody high heels."

She took a step backward, looking behind her for any potential obstacle waiting to trip her. Ned looked down at the three-inch sling backs and couldn't help but smile. She was a creature of high heel habit - and she was wobbly. Maybe she's been standing for too long and didn't want to mention it? Maybe her keeping herself steady on her feet as Ned held her had stolen all her focus? It was possible that she was just too distracted to sense his unspoken request. And as Alexis return to her seat on the couch with Ned's strong hand holding hers for support, his eyes intently searching her face for something - anything that would tell him it was all in his head. That she'd been too distracted...and what he'd seen between Sonny and Alexis in the park the night before was an innocent encounter between friends. Just friends. Not...

"I have a newfound appreciation for the person who invented sneakers." Alexis suddenly announced.

"I do love you in your high heels." Ned murmured, contemplating where he wanted to go. "But I also love you in your sneakers. Which are probably the best thing for you to wear for a while, when you're not out being an attorney type person. And...taking walks, of moderate length, is probably a good way to regain the strength in your legs. Just make sure you're warm enough if you go after five o'clock. The sun may be bright and warm during the day, but the chill in the air gets pretty fierce once the sun starts to go down."

She tilted her head and looked at him questioningly. "Did I...tell you I went to the park last night?"

He shook his head. "I saw you."

"Why didn't you say something? I mean, why didn't you let me know you were there?

"Well at first, I wasn't even sure it was you. When we spoke on the phone yesterday afternoon, you said that you were tired and just wanted to hibernate at home for the rest of the night. But a few hours later, I'm in the park and there you are - with Sonny. Or at least, there was someone who looked like you. I wasn't all that close and it was starting to get dark. And I didn't have my contacts in, so..." He laughed lightly.

"When we talked, I'd forgotten that I promised Sonny I'd go for a short walk before dinner. He'd been bugging me about getting outside and the benefits of air and...where in the park were we?"

"You were walking past that old, cracked drinking fountain and the sandbox. And then you stopped and sat down on a bench."

"I wish you'd come over."

"Something told me not to. You looked like you were discussing something...intense."

"We were. I was telling him about the morning Sorel grabbed me. Before he grabbed me, I mean. I had been sitting on that bench, on the phone, telling Sonny that Sorel had been released on bail. Two minutes later, guess who was leaning over my shoulder and whispering a threat in my ear. And the last thing I remember, before waking up on a cold concrete floor, was staring down at the white blanket of snow on the ground in front of me as I walked away from him...with my heart pounding away like crazy in my chest."

Ned stared. "And Sonny thought it was a good idea to take you back there?"

"He didn't intend to take me to that spot. He didn't even know about it. I led him to that that bench on purpose. It was just something I felt compelled to do."

"But once you were there, it upset you."

"No." She shook her head adamantly. "It didn't. In fact, it gave me back some of the power that Sorel stole from me. I'm walking around freely and living a life that he failed to ruin or take away. But he's locked up and waiting to see if he'll live the rest of his life in prison, or have it taken away...by someone sticking a needle into HIM."

Ned winced. But Alexis was calm. And he wasn't sure if it should worry him to hear her speak of such things with cool dispassion.

"So it didn't bother you at all to be back there last night? You looked like it was. I mean you and Sonny looked...it looked like he was comforting you."

He looked at her with probing eyes once again. He was trying to read her. What did he expect to see? What had he seen in the park? Her mind raced back to the bench, in the park, at twilight. With Sonny listening at her side, she spoke for the first time about the morning her world was rocked by the casting of a large shadow over her shoulder and across the ground before her. She hadn't been upset, and Sonny hadn't been comforting her. Not purposefully. But his way with her was always comforting. It was knowing, nurturing, and accepting, and Alexis responded to it from her heart. Now, she was also responding with her body. Sonny tended to keep himself physically close to her and she found herself keeping close to him. She found herself moving into his touches, smiling at his smiles, and reaching for him when he reached out for her. It was instinct. There was no thought behind any of it, or both of them would have already run. There was no thought at all - only feeling. But now, Alexis thought. She thought hard and fast about what Ned may have witnessed from afar, in the park, at twilight. And what his own instincts were telling him that she was too cowardly to speak of for herself.

"Sonny was listening to me. I needed to talk, and he listened." She ran the tip of her tongue across the edge of her lips. "Listening to me babble seems to have become his lot in life."

"I haven't heard him complaining. In fact, he seems to encourage your dependency on him."

"Dependency?"

"Okay, that was a bad choice of words."

"Yeah, it was." She stared, her tone still strangely cool. "Sorel is the one who wanted me dependent. But I'm not dependent on anything or anyone. Not on a drug, and not on Sonny."

"You know what I meant, Alexis. You've been as vulnerable in the last couple of weeks as you've ever been in your life. And I'm not sure that you have a clear view of how ripe that vulnerability is for exploitation."

Alexis abruptly tore her eyes away from his face, shaking her head in disbelief at the sound of that word, vulnerable, being used about her yet again. She hated it. And she hated being considered incapable of seeing things clearly just because she'd been hurt. She saw some things MORE clearly, and one of them was that Ned would let his long-standing hatred and mistrust of Sonny go. Her stomach tightened. She knew she would ultimately have to choose.

Ned shifted in his seat and leaned toward her, laying one hand down on hers. "I don't want to see him take advantage of it for his own benefit or to alleviate his guilt over having left you an open target."

"Stop it, Ned! Please." She pulled her hand out from under the warm weight of his and pushed her bangs back from her forehead with a heavy sigh. "Give me a little credit, would you? My judgment is far from impaired, and the relationship I have with Sonny is not some circumstantial illusion. It's real, it's unconditional, and it's by choice. My choice. I talk to him because I want to - because I'm comfortable doing so. And he listens to me because he cares. It has nothing to do with obligation, or guilt, or ulterior motives."

Ned's mouth had gone dry. He swallowed and ran his tongue across his lower lip as Alexis continued, her eyes furtively darting from his face to her lap.

"Sonny and I have had a professional association for a long while now. But I never anticipated where it would lead, or how complicated and...intense things would get in the course of it. Trying to save Zander from death row and put Sorel there instead has been a difficult endeavor, and it took us more deeply into each other's personal lives than most attorneys and their clients ever go. And when he took those bullets for me, we both realized that we were more important to each other, personally, than we ever wanted to admit. And over the past couple of weeks, I've grown even closer to Sonny. Not dependant upon him - closer. And it's been the same for him. I suppose it was inevitable that we would form a stronger connection after what we went through together. I know you hate hearing that, but I don't think it's anything you didn't already know."

Ned vaguely shook his head. "I knew."

"What I also need you to know is that it isn't going to change. No matter how much you want me to feel the way you do about Sonny and cut him out of my life, it isn't going to happen."

"I didn't expect it to."

"Then why have you kept...you've never stopped telling me how much you disapprove of my representing him."

"It didn't help change your mind."

"No, it didn't. Neither did your disapproval over me calling Sonny my friend."

"I'm painfully aware of that too, Alexis. When pushed to choose sides, you chose his."

Alexis squinted at him in confusion. "What are you...are you wanting to go back to the issue of Zander jumping bail to bring Emily back from California?"

Ned sighed. No, he didn't want to go back to that. He did he want to sound accusatory or put Alexis on the defensive either. But the subject of Sonny - of Alexis and Sonny, was impossible to bring up without ultimately doing both.

"I wasn't referring to that specifically. But you're right - I've never pretended to approve of some of your choices, no matter how well intentioned your motives. And I may not have expected my feelings to always sway you - I hoped, but didn't expect...but I was always honest with you, Alexis. Always. And I'm glad you know that."

"I do. And I've been honest with you too. As much as I could be, keeping within the bounds of attorney/client privilege."

"Pesky thing, that."

"Honesty, or keeping within the bounds?"

He watched her teeth begin to nibble on her lip. "You tell me."

"Ned? Alexis?"

Alexis jumped. Ned tilted his head toward the sound of Nikolas's voice coming from down the hall.

"What's up, Nikolas?"

"I'm thinking something is down, actually. Like my blood sugar!"

Alexis smiled. Ned looked at his watch.

"No wonder. It's almost two o' clock." He muttered.

"If you guys are still busy with whatever, would you mind if I started without you?"

"I'd absolutely mind! I haven't seen you in almost three weeks. You're not cheating me out of my quality nephew time." Alexis called over her shoulder. "We'll be right there - so don't pass out."

"Okay!"

Ned watched her face as she turned back to him. He could see the struggle still inside of her, and the resolve as well. She was trying to be honest with him, but he knew she was holding back. And he knew what it was that she'd been trying to say and trying to avoid saying as well. For the first time in their relationship, Ned had competition for Alexis. And it was real. It was Sonny. And it pulled the rug right out from under Ned's feet.

"Let's not argue anymore, okay?"

He shrugged one shoulder. "I wouldn't call it arguing. We were talking. You talked to me, because you wanted to. And I listened, because I care."

She stared, eyes large and wary. "I...I know."

"I love you, Alexis. And you know that too. No obligation, guilt, or ulterior motives involved."

"Me too." She whispered.

And it was true - she did love him. She loved Sonny too. And she had a strong feeling that Ned understood more of her truth than she was able to tell him in words. Even so, he said he loved her. Ned suddenly smiled and held out his hand.

"Let's go get you some of that quality nephew time - before he passes out."

She put her hand in his and decided to put all thoughts of Ned and Sonny out of her mind. Just for a while. If she could. A young gate awaited more keeping.

"Lead on, MacDuff."

--------------------------------------------------------

Nobody had looked at her twice as she purposefully strode down the hallway of the PCPD. If she'd allowed Johnny to keep following at her heels all the way to Taggert's desk, people surely would have stared. But no one stared at Alexis Davis walking alone into that room, as she'd done a million times before. No one knew the whole truth about what happened since she'd last done so. She was still just the mob mouthpiece and thorn in the department's side. Only Taggert, Dara and Mac knew different, and Alexis was gratefully relieved.

Johnny stood parked just beyond the station room, just outside her view. He tried to be nonchalant in his loitering, but it wasn't working. People knew who he was. And people stared. He busied himself with the cup of coffee in his hands, sipping slowly while keeping a keen eye on the hum going on around him. He was far from comfortable having Alexis out of his sight in such an active place, and Alexis was far from comfortable with him being there at all. She insisted she'd be fine in a building full of cops and tried to convince him to wait outside. But Johnny knew it wasn't as safe a place for her as she thought. She should have known it too. While in that building full of cops, Zander's life had been threatened.

Some cops still had Sorel's money in their pockets, and Sorel was still in their prison. And in spite of Sonny's dismantling of Sorel's operation, some loyalties - financially inspired or otherwise, could hold fast. Sorel's last acts of retribution could still be forming inside that building. They could be laying in wait - for her. Better safe than sorry. But Johnny wouldn't speak of these things to Alexis. He didn't want to make her any more jittery than she already was. He'd rather she think he was being overprotective - like Sonny. Which wasn't exactly a lie. And a compromise was reached that let Johnny into the PCPD, but kept him outside the bounds of the station room itself...loitering awkwardly with a lukewarm cup of Starbucks in his hand. And people who knew him stared.

Alexis cast her eyes back over her shoulder and shifted in the uncomfortably hard chair. She was late, though she'd phones Taggert from the car to let him know she hadn't changed her mind. It was clear from the tone of his voice that he wished she had. But he still agreed to help with hat she needed. The ball was in her court, and he was with her all the way. That was the whole idea, she'd told him - keeping the ball in HER court instead of everyone else's. She'd already begun to do it, in the park the night before, and it felt good. But as she turned back around and stared down into the half-empty cup of black coffee in her hand, Alexis felt anxious.

Facing an old wooden bench was one thing. It was an inanimate object that did her no harm, and all that seeing it again did was take her back to the last normal moments of life before her world took a dive. Facing Thomas Malloy was something else altogether. He was another human being who had done her harm...then tried to do right by her. And seeing him again would take her back to the dive itself. Alexis just didn't know what to expect from herself. She didn't know how she'd react. She wouldn't admit it to Taggert, but she could at least admit it to herself. The anticipation made her stomach gurgle. Alexis fidgeted with the fringe on her scarf.

"Ms. Davis."

The coffee cup nearly landed in her lap. Taggert breezed past Alexis's chair and spun on his heels in front of her with his trademark impish grin in his face. He extended his hand in a gesture that seemed oddly formal and oddly amusing. Alexis grinned back as she took it.

"Taggert."

"You're looking well. Glad to see it."

Alexis unconsciously glanced around as she set the cup on Taggert's desk. "Thanks. Nice tie."

"I'm fond of it. So - you ready to do this?"

"Yeah, I'm ready. Where..."

"He's on his way up. So let's get going before..."

"Right." She rose from the chair and turned.

"Aren't you a little warm?"

She turned back. "Oh. Yeah."

Alexis began slipping the coat from her shoulders, and Taggert stepped behind her to help pull it free from her arms.

"I'll just leave it here, okay?"

"Fine by me."

She folded the black wool and laid it on the seat, leaving one end of pink fringe to dangle over the side. She turned again, and moved away from the chair, giving Taggert room to step past her and lead the way that she would silently follow.

Johnny heard the sound of four footsteps in rhythm together, one pair heavy and one pair light. And then, the whispering scent of gardenias turned his eyes. Alexis didn't even glance his way, as if she'd forgotten he was there just around the corner. She only stared at Taggert's back as she followed him in the opposite direction down the hall. They didn't go far - just ten yards or so before coming to a stop at a closed door. Taggert slipped in a key, and Johnny heard the latch click before the door was pushed inward. Taggert stepped back and let Alexis go inside before disappearing after her. And then, the door was closed. Johnny tentatively edged his way along the far wall, toward that door. He wondered what was in that room and why Alexis was in there - with Taggert. Dara Jensen was the one she was supposed to be there to see, to fill in any gaps in her statement against Sorel. But Dara Jensen was nowhere in sight, and Alexis was alone in a locked room with Lieutenant Taggert. Something was up. It didn't feel right. And Johnny kept edging closer to that door.

"What did you tell him?"

"That it was in his best interest to bring him up here to talk instead of me going down there. If Sorel still has any guards whose palms he's greasing, he might be suspicious if he got wind that I was talking privately to his former...whatever."

"Do you think that Sorel really does still have any department people in his pocket?"

Taggert shrugged. "Beats the hell out of me. But I say, better safe than sorry."

"But you haven't had any specific indications to that effect, right?"

He chuckled lightly.

"Come on, Taggert." Alexis crossed her arms and tilted her head. "This isn't funny."

"Malloy is and will continue to be safe inside. I promised you that."

Taggert suddenly shifted his eyes away from hers and cast his gaze past her shoulder, to the interrogation room seen through the two-way mirror behind Alexis's back. He gave a nod.

"If you don't believe me, you can see for yourself. Officer Capelli just brought him in."

Alexis stared up at him in silence. Taggert watched as Capelli sat the prisoner down, facing the window, and left him alone in the room...to wait. He returned his focus to Alexis, show swallowed hard and swept her tongue across her lower lip.

"Not too late to change your mind." He offered.

She shook her head.

"Alright then. There's water in the corner, if you need it. The speaker switch is right here." He pointed to the shallow table before the window. "And when you've gotten what you need, just pick up the phone and push the red button. It'll ring in there and I'll answer."

"I know, Taggert."

"Right."

He sighed and furrowed his brow. She was acting too calm - too stoic. Why wasn't she looking at Malloy? He wanted her to turn around and just LOOK at Malloy, before he went in there to do as she asked. Taggert would never forget the shape Alexis was in when he and Sonny found her, or the terror they heard through a speakerphone - a one-way speakerphone. It was ironic that the tables were about to be turned. And still, Alexis wasn't turning around. Taggert couldn't even imagine what she'd really suffered in those three, even with Malloy's surreptitious care taking. It couldn't be easy for her to do this now, even for someone of her strength. But at least she wasn't asking him to do this with Sorel. He would have had to draw the line right there.

"Taggert?"

He blinked and looked at Alexis's questioning face. He hadn't realized he'd been staring at Malloy himself.

"I'm all right." She smiled softly. "Go."

He held up both hands in surrender. "Whatever you say."

Taggert moved to the door and gave her one last look before closing it behind him. And once she was alone, Alexis let her lids drift down before her body slowly turned. She reached down, feeling for the counter and finding it right in front of her. She set her fingertips upon the surface, grounding and bracing herself as she took a deep breath. It was so dark behind her closed lids. Dark, and quiet - like the basement, with Thomas just outside her four walls. But it wasn't cold, like the basement, and the closed door to the room was hers to open. And Thomas was the prisoner, not her.

Alexis slowly exhaled. Her eyes slowly opened to a pair of large, well-shaped hands with metal handcuffs connecting them. Above the handcuffs was a pair of pale, lightly freckled arms resting parallel to each other upon the table. Above the lightly freckled arms was an expanse of orange covering a broad, muscular chest. Above the orange covered chest was a solid neck that let her eyes further up to a strong, square jaw, a full mouth that neither smiled nor frowned, a pair of somewhat ruddy cheeks...and blue - a pair of crystal blue eyes that flashed their brilliant hue like a strobe as they wandered nervously about the room. She followed them, mesmerized all over again, and a hailstorm of images began to pelt her.

A throb in her cheek, a sting in her arm, hot waves rolling through her, strong arms lifting her up, a glass of water put in her hand, a peppermint put in her mouth, grapes held out to her, her body held too tight to breathe, a freshly laundered shirt against her nose, a pounding heart against her ear, a promise made...

"You'll be home real soon. I promise."

A promise kept.

Alexis did make it home. And a stream of hot tears suddenly spilled from her eyes. It wasn't fear, or anger, or grief that brought them forth. It was something unnamable, but its force was more powerful than her will to hold it back. So she stared at a nervous, wide-eyed Thomas Malloy through the shield of a two-way mirror and let the unnamable tears fall freely. And allowing it made Alexis feel as strong as she'd ever felt in her life. She was all right. And she was ready for what would come next.

As Taggert opened the interrogation room door, Alexis flipped the switch.