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Scene 116

He sat alone at the conference table, intently studying the document in his hand. She stood in the open doorway, watching quietly as he picked up a pen and roughly scratched out something that met with his disapproval.

The pen was sharply thrown down, and Ned heaved a heavy sigh as he returned to his study. He clearly didn't know she was there. Alexis considered the option of turning and walking out, but procrastination was never her way. And what she'd told Sonny that morning was true - she'd hurt Ned even more if she waited to tell him that what he hoped for was not meant to be.

There had been so many times that Alexis thought he'd taken his love away from her for good, but he'd always, with time, given it back. And Alexis grabbed it with both hands, grateful and relieved and vowing to love him better this time. She never thought there'd come a time when she'd willingly let his love go. But there she was, needing to do just that. She took a halting step forward...and then another. And then, Alexis softly spoke.

"Hi."

Ned froze with the paper aloft in his hands. He wanted to look up, but he couldn't. He wasn't prepared to see her just yet. The sound of her voice had thrown his last image of her into his head all over again - Alexis wearing just a robe, lying on her bed beneath a hovering, shirtless Sonny. And he wasn't sure he could bear to see her face so soon, knowing what happened on that bed after he'd turned and walked away. Ned finally dropped the tour schedule to the table and released a quick breath.

"I wondered how long it would take you."

Ned's cold voice and cryptic comment took her aback. She eyed him with curious confusion.

"Take me to...what?"

His eyes shot up to her face. Alexis looked as beautiful as always, and more vibrant than he'd seen her since before her nightmare with Sorel had ended. But she also looked somewhat afraid. And Ned suddenly realized just how acidic his tone had been. He never could keep his anger from coming to the fore when caught off guard. No, not his anger - his pain. The pain hadn't left him since he stole away from her penthouse that night. She'd let him lose her, to Sonny Corinthos.

Alexis took another hesitant step toward him, unsettled by the strange look in Ned's eyes as he stared up at her. It was almost as if he knew why she was there...what she felt and would say...what she'd already done. And for a moment, she wished she were that coward she always feared being, and could take back the moment she forced herself to stop pacing the walkway outside L&B and walk right through the door. But there was no turning back. She took another step.

"N-Ned?"

He smiled tightly. "I was wondering how long it would take you to come see me again. Without my asking you to, that is. Since you didn't return my call, I was a little worried. You did get my message?"

"I did. I'm sorry."

Ned gave out a small, wry laugh.

"But you didn't call me back. Was it something I said?"

He stared at her with a challenging expression that Alexis had seen before. It always unnerved her. It still did. She set her purse down on the chair, her gaze guiltily avoiding his.

"I intended to call you back that night, but it had been a very stressful day and I...fell asleep not long after I got home."

"And yesterday was just as stressful, so I continued to slip your mind?"

"No, you d-didn't..."

Alexis's voice cracked. She cleared her throat.

"A lot has happened in a very short amount of time, and I've been trying to process it all - to put it in its proper place and perspective."

His eyebrow arched. "Anything life altering?"

"These last few weeks have been nothing but life altering." She slowly began to make her way toward him. "Nothing in my life feels the same now as it did before. I've been trying to MAKE it feel the same, but it's becoming more and more clear to me that trying just won't make it so. Things are different. I'M different."

"No." Ned rose from his chair with a shake of his head. "No, you aren't."

"Ned, I am."

"I'm sure it must seem that way, but who you are hasn't changed."

He took her face in his hands and pushed away the creeping memory of Sonny's hands touching her that same way.

"You just need more time to LET things go back to normal. Like you just said, it's only been a few weeks. What you went through is still so fresh, and it brought back awful things from your past that you weren't prepared to deal with. And I know now that I made a terrible mistake in letting Sonny take advantage of your vulnerability while I stood off on the sidelines, afraid of pushing you too hard."

"You didn't make a mistake. You did as I asked, and I appreciate how hard that was for you."

"Is." Ned stared down into her eyes with a renewed fervor. "It was and still IS hard for me. Every day it's hard to wake up without you lying next to me in bed and to know it's my fault that you aren't there any more. Every day it's hard to think about how another man was there to comfort and care for you and to know it's my fault that you didn't want it to be me."

"Ned, it wasn't your..."

"And if it cost me you, then doing as you asked was the biggest mistake of my life."

"I...it's so much more complicated than that."

Her eyes began to fill, and Alexis let her lids drop, closing them tight to stave off the release of grief that was building inside of her.

"Ned, please, please believe that I do I love you, and I always will. But..."

He firmed his hold on her face. "Shh..."

Ned quickly claimed her mouth in a bold, possessive kiss. Her eyelids fluttered in surprise, but her mouth instinctively responded to the familiar, allowing his kiss. He took her lack of protests as an encouragement to push his window of opportunity open a little wider. Ned slipped one arm around her back to pull her body close against his, his hand quickly firming against the rounding curve below her hip. Alexis's instincts shifted from the past to the present, and she made a small sound of distress as her palms pushed against his shoulders to abruptly break their mouths apart.

"N-no, Ned." She stammered through quickened breaths. "I can't..."

"Yes, you can."

She closed her eyes, brow tightly furrowing as she let her head wearily drop. Ned took hold of her wrists and pulled her hands from his shoulders, giving them a firm shake to try making her look at him. She wouldn't. She only let her head drop further.

"You CAN, if you're telling me the truth when you say that you love me." He gave her wrists another hard shake. "Alexis, look at me and tell me it's the truth. P-please."

The raw emotion fracturing the timbre of his voice made Alexis's body jerk with grief. He knew why she was there and what she was trying to tell him. He didn't want to hear it any more than she wanted to say it. But neither one of them had any choice. She lifted he head and ran her tongue across her bottom lip before allowing her lids to lift and her sad, salt-stung eyes to look into his.

"It is the truth." She whispered. "But not the whole truth."

His head began to slowly move back and forth, but Alexis didn't stop.

"I do love you, Ned. But the whole truth is that I love you in a...different way now."

Ned fixed her eyes with a deep, fierce stare.

"Now?" He repeated. "You love me in a different way NOW. As opposed to the way you loved me...when? The day before Christmas, when you almost got killed and then spent the whole night making love to me with more unbridled heat than ever before?"

Alexis swallowed hard. Memories of the day and night of the shooting flooded back to her all at once, tangling the vivid, visceral images of Sonny bleeding to death in the cold, bloody snow - and that of Ned's warmth wrapped around hers, moving against her, inside of her, and making her forget that Sonny almost died while making her remember that she was still alive.

"I never loved you more than I did that night." She whispered in a quivering voice. "I never needed you more."

She began to relax the tightness in her wrists, still held captive by Ned. She wanted him to let go. He didn't. He only held them more firmly. And looking into his eyes, where a pain-fueled anger grew, Alexis knew that Ned was going to hold onto her for as long as he could. He was going to make her hurt him...and she knew he'd have to hurt her back. It was his only defense. It always had been.

"I needed to know that you didn't hate me. I still do."

"And I need to know when, exactly, the way you love me changed."

"I..."

"Was it the day Sorel grabbed you off the street, smacked you around the way Helena did when you were little, and then started drugging you to death for the fun of it?"

Alexis winced. Ned's breathing grew more labored as he struggled not to come undone at the sight of her flinching from his words.

"Was it the day Sonny snuck off to rescue you, leaving me behind in complete ignorance until I got to the hospital and was told you didn't want to see me?"

"Ned, I tried to explain..."

"Maybe it was the day you were released and asked Sonny stay with you instead of me."

"I tried to explain that too."

"Try explaining the other night, Alexis! Because I think that was probably the final point at which your love for me became different."

"The other night?"

"Unless it was just one in a long line of nights just like it while I, yet again, lived in complete ignorance."

"Ned, what are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about you lying on your bed wearing nothing but a loosely tied bathrobe while a half-naked Sonny hovered over you, putting his hands all over you."

The crease between Alexis's brows deepened as she searched his face in utter confusion. Ned felt his face grow hot. The innocent confusion in her eyes felt like a slap in his face. He'd seen her and Sonny with his own two eyes, and he couldn't believe she'd try to deny it when confronted. Alexis could spin with the best of them, but she wasn't a liar. She'd always embraced the truth, even when it hurt. How could she start lying to him now? He felt his arms begin to tremble, and Ned abruptly, angrily dropped her wrists as he pushed himself away from her.

"Go ahead - deny that you've been sleeping with Sonny."

Alexis blinked, her mind reeling from his words as her body faltered from the force of his sudden release. Ned just shrugged his shoulders

"Go ahead and tell me that what I walked in on the other night wasn't what it looked like."

"What you walked...?"

She took in a quick, sharp breath. The confusion in her eyes began to morph into guilt, and Ned felt his heart begin to break.

"Sonny didn't tell me you'd..."

"Sonny didn't know! He didn't see me. Neither did you. I guess you were both a little too preoccupied with each other to notice me standing there in the doorway."

"Ned, it wasn't..."

Her eyes closed, head vaguely dropping. Maybe it would be easier to leave it alone.

"Never mind."

"It wasn't what, Alexis? What it looked like?"

She shrugged lightly. "It wasn't."

"Oh, please!" Ned grabbed his head as he turned away from her. "Don't insult me."

"It wasn't."

Ned quickly spun back around. "Don't!"

"I'm not trying to insult you! What happened that night is that I fell asleep in the bathtub and almost drowned. Sonny found me and pulled me out before my face completely slipped under the water. He saved my life, and that's what you walked in on."

"You're not that heavy a sleeper, Alexis. And I would know. Can't you come up with a better excuse than that?"

She bit her lip and cleared her throat.

"Do you remember those pills you asked Monica to give me after the shooting, when I couldn't sleep?"

"What about them?"

"I took one of them when I got home that day. And then I decided to take a bath."

Ned's brow furrowed as he took a step closer to her. Alexis wrapped her arms around herself, face flushing, eyes avoiding his face. She was thoroughly embarrassed, and he knew she was telling the truth.

"You got into a tub of water AFTER taking a sleeping pill? What the hell were you thinking?"

"I WASN'T thinking. That was the point. I didn't want to think - I just wanted to sleep. I just didn't expect the pill to take effect as quickly as it did. It was an accident. A very stupid and infinitely mortifying accident."

"So Sonny saved you - again."

She nodded her head. "Yeah."

"He got you out of the water...put you in a robe...laid you on the bed...and all the while, you were totally out of it."

Her head continued to slowly nod.

"And then he decided to take advantage of the situation, getting half naked himself..."

"His clothes got wet when he..."

"And touching you however and wherever he wanted."

"No! He wouldn't do that!"

"I saw him!"

"What, exactly, did you see him do? Where did you see him touching me?"

Ned's mouth went dry as the picture flashed before his mind's eye.

"Your face. He was touching your face." He swallowed hard. "And he was telling you that he loved you. And you were letting him - or so I thought."

Alexis let her eyes drop from his face as the guilt welled up inside of her. It somehow didn't matter that what Ned walked in on two nights ago had been innocent. What he didn't walk in on the night before was anything but. And it made his false assumption the truth. She slowly lifted her eyes back to his.

"Ned..."

Ned held up his hand to halt her confession. She swallowed and stayed quiet, waiting for him as he fixed her with a studious stare and struggled to form his words.

"He...he told you he loved you when he knew you couldn't hear him. Nobody would do that unless they really meant it."

"I know."

Ned's jaw shifted as he felt his throat constrict.

"But you have heard him say it...haven't you?"

"Yes." She whispered. "And the whole truth that I needed to tell you is that Sonny's heard me say it too."

Ned swallowed hard. The other shoe had finally dropped, just as he knew it would. He'd known it since the moment he was banished from her side and forced to stand outside the door to the ICU, watching as Sonny held her hand and stroked her hair. It made perfect sense to Ned that Sonny would fall in love with Alexis. She was a beautiful, amazing woman. It even made sense to him that Alexis would cling to Sonny. He was, in her mind, her savior. And now she'd convinced herself that it was love.

"You're a smart woman, Alexis." Ned murmured. "But we both know that where emotions are concerned, you're a bit on the...challenged side. And I think that if you got a little distance - maybe took some time away somewhere alone, you'd see that you're just confusing love with gratitude and Sonny's confusing love with guilt."

Her eyes lowered as she smiled a small, knowing smile.

"At first, I did buy into the 'confusing love with guilt and gratitude' theory to explain away feelings that seemed...well, unacceptable. But that was just denial, because admitting that I'd fallen in love with Sonny scared me." She looked back into his eyes. "And I'd loved you so much for so long that I couldn't imagine letting go, even though you'd made it clear you HAD."

"I didn't - I couldn't let go of you either. That's why I was so frantic when I found out you'd been kidnapped. That's why I ran to the hospital to be with you the minute I heard you'd been found, and why I refused to leave when you refused to see me. I wanted to be there for you the moment you realized that you needed me. But you never did need me. You had him."

"He had nothing to do with that. In fact, he told me again and again that he'd get you if I wanted him to. And he DID get you when I really needed you, after the detox. He knew what I needed even when I didn't."

"Funny. When I try to give you what I think you need, you call me controlling."

"I know it must seem that way."

"It IS that way! With me, at least."

"Because with you, there's been an ever increasing price to pay for not agreeing with what you think I need."

"Price? What price?"

"Insults about my personality traits. The mocking of my insecurities." Her eyes briefly flitted away from his. "And worst of all, the withdrawal of your affection."

"That's not true!"

"It is, Ned. When I don't follow step with what you think I should do, you take it as a personal slight and lash out at me because you're hurt. I've tried so hard to find a way to stand my ground without hurting you, but I've always failed if not made things worse. And that just made me more tentative around you. More...guarded. And the more guarded I was, the more hurt YOU were. It became a vicious cycle that I couldn't see clearly until after you said we were over and I had all those weeks alone to think about what went so terribly wrong."

"You didn't want us to be over."

"No, I didn't. But it takes TWO willing parties to make a relationship and you were no longer willing."

"Funny. I thought the unwilling party was you."

"You left ME, not the other way around."

"I'm the one who said the words, but you'd left me long before that. You'd left me emotionally, even though I knew - I KNEW that you loved me. I didn't understand why you wanted us to just stay the way we were, not ending but not moving forward either. And the way we were stopped being enough for me."

"I know."

Ned sighed and gave a weary shrug of his shoulders.

"Maybe in the back of my mind I thought that if I held MY ground it would force you to face whatever it was that wouldn't LET you move forward. Maybe I thought it would force you to throw fear and caution to the wind and take a leap of faith - with me. But there was some inexplicable force that wouldn't allow you to give yourself to me completely. Hell, it even made you run away from me. And yes, I was hurt. How could I not be?"

"You had every right to be. If the tables had been turned, I..."

Alexis suddenly flinched, almost imperceptibly, her body physically reacting to the unexpected blow hitting her mind. She let her gaze slowly lower to the ground, where she stared with a growing crease between her brows. Ned took a small, worried step toward her.

"What?" He murmured.

Alexis cleared her throat and continued to stare at the ground.

"I would have thought that the curse of a loveless life, which a scorned, vengeful monster put on the head of a bastard child, had finally found its mark like I'd been waiting for it to do my whole life."

She finally lifted her eyes to his. It was then that the floodgates of her mind unlocked, and Alexis found herself felled by a rush of self-understanding that guilt, confusion and denial had buried. It was all so clear to her now. She finally knew why she'd run.

"Alexis?"

Ned's voice startled her. His confused expression overwhelmed her. She abruptly turned away and wrapped her arms around herself, trying to steady herself as she searched for what to do or say to him next.

Ned hesitated, desperately wanting to touch her - to physically reconnect in a way that would assure him that she wasn't completely lost to him in spite of what his gut had been telling him for longer than he could admit. He put a tentative hand on her shoulder.

"You didn't have a loveless life. I loved you, Alexis. Enough to want to spend the rest of my life with you. Or are you trying to tell me that you never really believed that?"

She turned her eyes toward his hand and stared at it for a long while, knowing it would probably be the last time she'd feel his familiar touch on her body and feeling the first stirrings of resolute grief.

"I believed it. But..."

"What?"

Alexis lifted her gaze upward, looking over her shoulder into his sad, expectant face. It was then that her grief collided with his, and her eyes began to sting before the tears had time to form.

"Why was Helena at my wedding?"

Her quivery murmur tore at Ned's heart.

"Sweetheart, we had guards all around the church. But you know as well as I do that all the guards in the world couldn't keep Helena's out if she wanted in."

She slowly turned around to face him. Ned let his hand slip away.

"I know there was no stopping her from getting into the church. But why was she allowed to stay once everyone knew she was there? Why didn't anyone make her leave - Nikolas, Stefan...YOU?"

"I...I didn't even see her until the ceremony had already begun. The music was playing and the bridesmaids were starting to walk down the aisle. I didn't want to ruin the ceremony by making a scene."

Alexis smiled weakly. "No. Of course you didn't. Neither did Stefan. Or Nikolas. And obviously neither did I, since I just kept walking right on down that aisle in a daze instead of stopping in my tracks and throwing her out myself. We're all just so well mannered, aren't we? Much too proper to make a deliberate scene in front of God and everyone we know."

"Throwing Helena out in the middle of the wedding would have only taken all the attention away from you, on what was supposed to be YOUR day, and put it on HER. It would have given her exactly what she wanted."

"Ned, she had all the attention the minute she slithered her way into the one place she knew she'd be most unwelcome. And you gave her what she wanted by NOT throwing her out. Showing up at our wedding was Helena's challenge to both of us. Did my soon-to-be husband love me enough to go against her? Or would he be too proud to give her the satisfaction, thereby making me have to suck it up and deal?"

"Alexis, I don't understand. You've been dealing with Helena your whole life, with strength and pride. You've faced her down under the worst of circumstances and you've never let her defeat you. You never let her win."

"And it's been exhausting, living in terror of that woman while knowing that any show of fear could make her react like a wild dog who'd tear my throat out in an instant. Helena may not have defeated me yet - not utterly. But she wins every day that she draws a free breath. And she really hit the jackpot on our wedding day by being allowed to make me look upon her smug, evil smirk on the one day that I shouldn't have HAD to face her down, or be reminded of everything she's taken away from me, or be unnerved by all her threats to CONTINUE taking everything away from me and hurting me until the day she died."

"I never would let her hurt you! If she'd made one move against you, I'd have killed her myself."

"I know that. I know you'd put your life on the line for me in a heartbeat if she or anyone else lifted a finger to hurt me physically. But being forced to see her in the church on my wedding day hurt me more than anything she could have done with a weapon. You should have known that, Ned. Why didn't you? After all our years together and all you knew about what she'd done to me, you still didn't understand how deeply Helena cuts at my soul every time I see her and how much I bleed inside."

Ned silently stared into her eyes with a hapless, helpless expression. She was blindsiding him, and she hated it. But she was also blindsiding herself. And she couldn't hold anything back that needed to be said. It might be the last time Ned would ever speak to her again. So Alexis wiped away a falling tear with her fingertip and carried on.

"I can't even begin to describe how it felt to see her standing right alongside everyone I know, as if they all thought it was the most normal thing in the world for the mother of the bride's killer to be in attendance. For a moment I thought my wedding nerves was making me hallucinate." She let out a small, nervous laugh. "I mean, how could Helena really be there without anyone making a single move to throw her out? But she wasn't any hallucination. She was real. And there you were, smiling at me from the altar, waiting for me to walk right on past her as if it didn't matter. It mattered."

Ned swallowed hard and took another step toward her.

"Oh, sweetie..."

As he reached for her face, Alexis reached back, taking hold of his hand before it could find its mark. And she looked up into his dark, wet, devastated eyes with all the love that she'd ever felt for him welling in her heart.

"I realize you didn't have much frame of reference for a woman with such a sordid family history and fractured emotional makeup as mine. And I'm not trying to put the blame on you for what I did that day, because running was an awful, cowardly thing to do even though it was a panic reflex and not a conscious choice. But can you imagine what it would have meant to me if you'd cared less about creating a spectacle and more about how I'd feel walking down the aisle, toward my future with you, and having to see the face of my mother's murderer where the smile of my mother should have been?"

Ned interlocked his fingers with hers as a lump formed in his throat.

"Your fierce independence and self sufficiency really fooled me. Or were you so terrified of losing any semblance of either trait that you fooled even yourself?"

She shrugged lightly. "I don't think I'm sure of the answer anymore. A lot of things that I used to take for granted about myself were recently shaken - not stirred."

Ned ran his tongue across his lower lip as a small smile crept upon him. Alexis tilted her head and gave his hand a squeeze.

"What I am sure of is that sometimes, even a fiercely independent, self sufficient woman needs a dragon slayer."

"Dragon slayer." Ned repeated with a quizzical frown. "Is that what Sonny is to you? How can that be, Alexis? He hasn't slain your dragons - he's only fed you to HIS."

"No, he didn't. I did that myself."

Ned closed his eyes and gave a small, slow, shake of his head.

"Alexis..." Ned closed his eyes and gave a small, slow, shake of his head. "Listen to yourself. You sound just like Emily, defending Zander like he was some hero and proclaiming her love for him after he kidnapped her at gunpoint and dragged her across the state line with the police on their heels. It's classic Stockholm Syndrome."

"Sonny isn't the one who kidnapped me. That was Sorel."

"I'm talking about AFTER Sorel. Sonny's the one who rescued you so that made you feel dependant on him, and you kept me and everyone else at arm's length away while allowing only Sonny to be with you in the hospital. And then after you went home, again, it was only Sonny. I can't help but wonder if you'd let it be me who stayed with you, who took you home and took care of you, would you be in my arms right now instead of wanting to be in his?"

"Probably. But in a few weeks or a month from now? Probably not. The problems between the two of us were ours alone. And even if Sonny wasn't...even if I had clung to you instead of him, look at the pattern that keeps repeating it's self with us. We clash over something and break up; a crisis happens and we run back to each other. Another clash erupts, another crisis brings us back. I c-can't do that any more."

Her voice broke, opening Ned's teary eyes. She forced herself to look into them, despite how much it hurt. She wanted him to see that it hurt her too - that it wasn't just his pain filling the room.

"I can't live or love the way I want to with all those eggshells lying about just waiting for me to step on them."

"What about all those bullets just waiting for you to step in front of them?"

"I know that you don't understand why I do what I do or feel what I feel, but I do know that you always tried. I'm not asking you to try. Not any more. I'm just asking you to...believe that everything you and I have shared is sacred to me and I want it all to stay sacred. I want to be able to look iris and smile - not cry."

Ned released her hand and grabbed her shoulders with both hands. Alexis tensed, but it only made his grip tighten.

"He's going to hurt you, Alexis. He ALWAYS hurts! Just ask Brenda."

Her eyelids fluttered at the sound of Brenda's name. Ned saw. He'd finally hit a nerve, and he wasn't about to stop swinging.

"Young, innocent Brenda, who Sonny claimed to love more than anything. But he chose to destroy her rather than risk losing his way of life, and there's no reason to think he won't do the exact same thing to you."

Alexis felt her mouth grow dry as her mind raced for a rational defense.

"Th-that was a long time ago. He isn't the same person now that he was back then."

"He's in the same business, isn't he? What about that makes you think he isn't still the same person?"

"I don't think it - I know it."

He heaved a loud, heavy sigh as he turned his head in frustration at the willful naiveté Alexis was displaying.

"He's changed, Ned. He wanted to be a better person, and I've watched him become one. And in all fairness, Ned, Brenda wasn't all that innocent. Instead of just walking away from a world she didn't want to be a part of, she chose to collude with the FBI against the man SHE claimed to love more than anything."

Ned's nostrils flared as he turned back and stared hard into Alexis's eyes. There was no sign left that his words were having any effect on her reasoning. Alexis was beyond reason. Sonny's emotional hooks were deeply embedded in her and it would take a painfully hard jerk for Alexis to be torn free. And Ned only had one card left to play to try to save her from the inevitable.

"What about you, Alexis? Are you saying you DO want to be a part of that world? Because that's what being with Sonny will mean. And if it isn't Sonny who hurts you, it will be yet another one of his enemies. As awful as it was to be shot up with heroin, that's hardly the worst that could be done to YOU in order to stick it to HIM!"

Again, Ned saw her eyelid twitch. Still, he wasn't done trying to shock her free of Sonny's spell.

"And what about the career you claim to love and need so much, huh? What the hell kind of legal credibility do you think you're going to have left once word gets out that you've become the newest bedmate of Port Charles's most notorious crime lord?"

Alexis felt her cheeks begin to tingle. She had no answer for the questions that stunned her with their sharp-edged truth. She hadn't ever dared ask them of herself, they silently lingered under the surface of her consciousness where they wouldn't lay silent for long. For once in her life, Alexis had turned off her head and listened to her heart. Now her head was abuzz, and it made her heart ache.

"I...I don't know." She whispered, eyes brimming with tears. "I guess I'll just have to figure things out one day at a time."

She took a small step back, and then another, until Ned's hands slid down from her shoulders and they no longer touched - they only stared.

"The other night may have been innocent, but you've already slept with him...haven't you?"

The question took her aback. She began to stammer.

"Ned, that's...really not..."

"Any of my business?"

He sniffed and turned his eyes away. He didn't need an answer. He already had it.

"You're right. Never mind."

"I never cheated on you. When you and I were together, it was only you."

"But we aren't together any more."

Alexis took a tentative step forward as she brushed away a falling tear.

"I meant it when I said I'll always love you. And I don't want to lose you from my life, even though I know it might not be possible to keep you there."

Ned's jaw tightened. He stayed silent. Alexis lowered her eyes and took a step back.

"I also meant it when I said I need to know that you don't hate me."

"I don't hate you, Alexis. I..." Ned swallowed hard, choking back the pain. "But I may not be here waiting when you wake up one day and realize the terrible mistake you've made."

"I hope that you aren't." Alexis smiled weakly. "Because you deserve to find someone who can love you the way you need to be loved. We both do."

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

He turned his attention away from the fire with the small squeal from the opening door, but he waited for her to see him before he spoke. Alexis leaned her forehead against the door as she pushed it shut, releasing a weary sigh. It made Sonny want to go to her...but he stayed where he was, before the growing fire, waiting for her. A moment later, a spark crackled, calling out to her. Alexis smiled to herself.

"Hey."

Sonny gently laid the poker against the brick.

"Hey yourself."

Alexis turned to see Sonny's dimples flashing from across the room.

"I didn't expect you to be here when I got home."

"It was kind of crisp outside today and I thought you'd like coming home to a warm fire. But I know you had a difficult day, so I won't stay if you want be alone."

She shook her head. "I want to be with you."

"Good answer."

She set her coat over the back of the chair and her purse atop the desk. Sonny ambled toward her, and she met him halfway. They didn't touch - they only smiled from a foot apart.

"Are you okay?" He murmured.

She nodded, eyes darting to the growing glow of fireplace.

"Is Ned okay?"

Her eyes shot back to his. "Yeah."

Sonny didn't believe her answer to either question for a second. Alexis soon proved him right. Her lids suddenly squeezed tightly shut as her head dropped from her shoulders. He took a small step toward her and Alexis released herself into his waiting arms just as the sobs started to rock her body.

"Sorry." She whispered.

"Shh..." He held her tighter.

"It's not as if I just broke up with him, you know? I mean he already broke up with me months ago."

"Feelings don't know the difference."

"Apparently not." She sniffed through a small laugh. "I'm just not good with any kind of emotional confrontation because no matter what the circumstances, I always feel like I'm in the wrong."

"You aren't in the wrong, Alexis. Ned was, to assume you'd go running back to him again. From where I stood, which was pretty damn close, you've been sending him the clear message that it wasn't something he should expect."

Alexis pulled back from his embrace.

"What he expects is that you and I won't last very long."

"Lemme guess the particulars - I'm only using you, so you won't quit me as an attorney? That's the one I heard."

Alexis ran her tongue across her lips and smiled gently.

"Something like that."

The particulars were much more credible than that, but she didn't want to think about them. She couldn't handle the thought of having to make a choice between the career she loved and the man she loved - or that the man she loved might make that choice first.

"He's hurt. But at least I won't hurt him any more."

"Likewise."

Sonny kissed her. She kissed him back. He kept his eyes closed as he brushed his lips across her cheek, whispering softly.

"I would die before I'd hurt you. I would die before I'd let anyone else hurt you." His fingers slipped through her hair as his mouth found hers once again. "And we're going to last forever."

Alexis lost herself in the feel of his hands, his mouth, his words. She wanted to live fully in that moment as if it WAS their forever. But too soon, Sonny pulled away, taking his hands from her hair and his lips from hers, leaving her with only his words in her ears.

"So, that part where you said you didn't want to be alone...did that apply to right now or the whole night?"

"The whole night."

"Another good answer." He glanced at his watch. "Are you ready for me to start up some dinner?"

"I think I'm ready to give you a break."

Sonny's eyebrow arched.

"From cooking. Let's go out tonight."

"Out?"

"Yes, out. As in, not within these four walls and in the company of other people."

Sonny smiled. "Yeah?"

"I think it's about time I ventured beyond the protective borders of my cocoon and unto places other than the hospital, the PCPD or L & B. For a few hours, at least. It will be good for me to be in a crowd and know that if anybody's staring at me it's because my sweater is on backwards instead of because they somehow know I have needle marks hidden beneath my sleeves."

She widened her eyes jokingly and his smile grew. He knew it would be good for her. And he was glad Alexis brought it up first. Her self-understanding was growing every day. So was her strength. Very soon, Alexis would say 'yes' when asked if she wanted to be alone. And Sonny would know that it was all right. She wouldn't need him the way that she had, but by the grace of God, she would want and love him.

"So what do you say? You want to take me out?"

"I do indeed. I want to walk into a room and know that WHEN people stare at you it's because the woman I love is so stunning they can't take their eyes off her."

"And yet again, the blarney monger rears it's little head."

"I want to see you having fun, hear you laughing, and feel your body swaying against mine as you dance in my arms."

"Oh, you want to take me dancing?"

"Yeah."

She smiled. "Where?"

"Wherever you want to go - as long as I get to bring you back here for a special, private dance all our own."

He gave her a mischievous wink. Alexis tilted her head and held out her hand.

"Deal."

Sonny grabbed her hand and lifted it up, twirling her around. Alexis laughed as she spun right into his arms. He held her tight and buried his face in her neck, nuzzling it as he whispered into her ear.

"Alexis?"

"Sonny?"

"Thank you."

Alexis pulled back and looked at him with a curious one-dimpled smile.

"For what?"

Sonny stared into her sparkling brown eyes for a long while as his hand reached for her face, fingertips lightly grazing her bottom lip. And then, he murmured in a raspy voice.

"Choosing me."

She cupped the back of his hand with her palm and pressed his fingertips to her lips, kissing them softly.

"Back at ya."