He stood in the doorway, awkwardly staring at her as if it had been a lifetime.
She scrunched her shoulders up, then slowly released them back down with a long, quiet exhale of breath.
His eyes wandered all over her face and her body, the distance giving him the illusion of safety to do so. Alexis felt as if she were under a microscope. She soon shifted nervously, her eyes casting down to the floor. The continuing silence between them intensified the pounding in her chest - she wondered if it was the same for him. Her mouth had gone dry and she swallowed as her gaze drifted back up to his face. Ned’s eyes quickly met hers and he smiled shyly. As he tried to force his mouth to speak and his body to move, he saw Alexis pull her lip between her teeth and her abject vulnerability hit him like a wall. He knew what that gesture meant…he knew her.
“Alexis, are you sure you want me…”
“No – yes…I’m sure.” Her eyes moved from Ned, to the empty chair beside her bed, and then back to Ned once more. He didn’t move, remembering Sonny’s warning: “You know Alexis – she’ll do anything to prove how strong she is. Don’t let her fool you.” Ned longed to rush to her and pull her up tightly into his arms - to be denied was paralyzing.
Alexis tilted her head down, but kept her eyes focused on his. “Are YOU sure?”
Her hesitant voice registered and he smiled sheepishly, nodding and feeling like a fool in the distance he kept from her. As he moved closer, Alexis shifted and suddenly caught sight of her ragged arms. She felt her face flushing – she felt branded and sought to hide Sorel’s marks. Her fingers quickly interlocked, one palm resting against the back of the other hand as she tucked her arms tight against her chest. Ned pulled the chair up to the bed, but not too close. He knew he was treading a thin and tenuous line – her boundaries were impossible to see. It was like handling spun glass with boxing gloves on, and Ned would rather die than let anything break. He tried not to stare – she hated being watched. But he’d noticed that her bruises were fading and hoped they’d soon be gone. What lay beneath them was a mystery that Ned was now just slowly beginning to uncover.
Alexis finally looked him square in the face, tucking her chin down over her folded hands that nestled against her throat. It hurt her to see him looking as he did – his clothing uncharacteristically rumpled, his energy so drained and his face all dark and scruffy. She knew it was because of her, and she yearned to make him smile.
“Everyone seems to be rebelling against their razor.”
Ned smiled and rubbed at his stubbly cheeks. “I’ve just had a few other things on my mind the last couple of days.”
Alexis felt a wave of guilt and she pushed at her hair. Ned watched her, noting the healing scrape on her forehead that her bangs only partially hid from view.
“Well, ONE other thing…”
His voice drifted as their eyes tentatively met once more. This time, neither one looked away. Alexis scrunched her shoulders again, feeling the continued ache in her muscles but trying to keep it from her mind. Her fingertips drifted up and she tapped them against her chin with a small frown.
“Y-you’re not growing that little thing back again, are you?”
She cocked her head and gave him the same look that she’d given him every time she pleaded with him to shave the hated soul patch. The coy, sexy, little girlishness of that look simply enticed him…but not to shave. The more she begged, the more he wanted her. And now, seeing it again made Ned want to take hold of her face and pull her into a deep, endless kiss right then and there, as if nothing between them had changed at all. Instead, he clasped his hungry hands together and laughed lightly as he leaned his elbows against his knees.
“No, no – I’m not growing it back. You hated it, the family hated it…and to tell you the truth, I didn’t really like it all that much myself.”
“But I thought you…I begged you constantly to shave that thing! If you didn’t like it, why didn’t you get rid of it?”
Ned shrugged, smiling slyly. “Pure stubbornness. I wanted to get rid of it because I decided to – not because you or anyone else decided. I guess we both know a thing or two about digging in our heels.”
“Some things are worth it.”
Ned paused, the earnest expression on her face moved him. Sonny was right – to save a life, she would do it all again. That was the kind of woman she was.
“Yes, some things are.”
His eyes left hers and swept back up to the reddened mark on her forehead, across the palette of colors gracing her cheek, and then down to the tiny bluish circles spotting her throat. They were all too much proof of Alexis’ own stubbornness, and it was all he could do to contain himself…to keep his hands from submitting to their lust for the feel of her skin. But he stayed in full control, caressing her with his eyes and kissing away the marks of her pain with his heart. It was all he could do this soon in their reaching back toward each other.
Alexis knew what he was thinking – she could see it in his eyes as he studied the evidence that he had been right all along. She didn’t want him to see her like that…like a victim. She never wanted anyone to see her like that, but it was only a matter of time before everybody knew. She couldn’t lie still beneath his enveloping eyes, and her hand moved up to cover her face. Her eyes lowered to the cotton blanket as trembling fingers pushed at her bangs, seeking to hide the healing wounds.
“Ned, please.” She whispered, all self-consciousness spilling out into the open.
Ned blushed and turned away, flustered and just as shy. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. Does it still hurt much?”
Alexis wanted to disappear. She closed her eyes and leaned further back into the pillow as Charlie’s pragmatic words came back to her. “It looks worse than it really is.”
Her voice had grown weary and Ned thought that this was surely all too much for her – first Taggert and then him. She needed to rest and regain her strength, and he needed her to let him back in again.
“You’re tired. I should go…”
“No, don’t.” She opened her eyes to him and saw his trepidation. “Unless you want to go…”
The mixed emotions dancing across her face made Ned want to weep. The spun glass looked as if it might break.
“I want…” His voice cracked and he shook his head with a frustrated smile. “I want what you want. I want to give you what you need.”
Her expression changed, her interpretation of him was blurred. “Ned, I always did believe in that extraordinary heart of yours. But I don’t want you to feel…obligated to come running every time I get into trouble.”
Ned’s head popped up and his body stiffened. “Obligated? Is that what you think I feel toward you…obligation?”
Alexis shifted, regretting her obvious misstep. “I…I don’t know what to think. In spite of my drug-laced brain and the tricks it’s been playing on me, I do remember some things pretty well. I know I haven’t been your favorite person in the world lately, and for good cause. In fact the last time you saw me, I kind of thought you never wanted to see me again.”
Ned was knee-deep in grief at the horrendous effect his sharp words at Kelly’s had on her. He had meant to hurt her, as she had hurt him…but he never wanted her to think what she did. He didn’t know what words could now take it all back.
“Alexis, that’s not true. God…it’s not true.”
“Still, I know that turning your back on me in this kind of circumstance would be against your nature.”
Sonny’s accusations came flying back into Ned’s face. “You mean, not yet.”
Alexis gave him a blank look. “What?”
Ned sighed. “It’s too soon for me to turn my back. DURING the crisis is when I’m in front of you with open arms. But then, when the crisis has passed and the dust has settled, THAT’S when I walk away.”
“I – I don’t understand. I never said that…”
“You didn’t have to. Sonny said it quite well enough.”
“And he was very pointed in warning me not to hurt you like that again.”
Alexis was stunned. “Why would he say such a thing? He had no right to accuse you of anything.”
“Even if it was true?”
“Don’t, Ned. I know what I did to you - I turned my back on you, on our wedding day. I understand the enormity of that one action on my part, and I deserve every bit of the fallout.”
Ned’s breath stuck in his throat. That one action - that one interview, that one videotape…that one action on his part that changed their course.
Her fingers absently began to play with the diamond at her throat and he heard her breathing grow more heavy. “I hurt you in a way that I didn’t even know was in my capacity. I think I’m still reeling from the fact that someone actually loved me enough to BE so hurt by me.”
Ned’s eyes fixed on the sparkle of the stone rolling between her fingers. “Alexis…”
“I tried so hard not to think about you when I was…with Sorel. But after so much time alone, in the dark, I couldn’t help it. You kept sneaking in, no matter how hard I tried to push you away.”
“Kind of like here, in the hospital.” Ned smiled at the irony.
“I didn’t want to let you into that awful place. But there came a point that I didn’t think I was ever going to see you again.”
Ned felt the salty sting hit his eyes and his vision of her began to blur. “Alexis, when you and Jax were lost in the Sahara I thought the same thing – that I was never going to see you again. But here you are.”
“Gee, in retrospect that was a piece of cake.”
And although she smiled, dimples peeking up at him and begging to be kissed, Ned saw the reflection of light within the glistening darkness of her eyes. “At least Jax was with you. For me, I don’t know which was worse – knowing you were lost somewhere in miles of scorching, blindingly windy desert, or knowing you were in the hands of a psychopath with nothing to lose. All told, I think you’ve scared a few decades off my life.”
“I know. I'm sorry...”
Alexis’s lids were squeezed shut and she kept one shaky hand to her face while the other clutched at the bedcovers. The damage to her arms suddenly glared up at him as Alexis unconsciously let down her protective guard of them. His stomach tightened at the sight of what Sorel had inflicted upon her for God only knew what reason. The needle marks were still so red, scattered among an array of scratches, and he prayed she wouldn’t be scarred for life – at least, not physically. Ned pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes, willing the water to stop. He didn’t want her to feel pressured by him, and he took a deep breath to steady himself.
“There are a million things I want to say to you – things that have been running through my mind and my heart for these endless days that I’ve waited for you.”
Alexis bit her lip, the shaking in her hands growing. She thought she was ready for this, but she felt like she was losing her hold. Ned knew. He wanted to touch her…to hold her…to make her trembling stop.
“Only, I seem to be in a bit of trouble right now.”
He paused, wanting Alexis to open her eyes and look at him. She did. “Everything is stuck…right here.” He tapped at his chest.
“I know.” She whispered. “Me too.” She sighed, allowing her lids to close again.
“Alexis, you’re shaking. Should I get a nurse?”
“Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing’s wrong.”
Ned leaned forward, closer to her. “Tell me the truth. Is it me? Too much baggage too soon?”
“It’s not you, Ned. It’s me. I’ve been shaking for days. I’m weak, that’s all.” She frowned at the sound of her own voice. “Wow - I never expected to hear those words coming out of my mouth.” She grinned at the irony, and at her private thought that Johnny would be proud.
“So, you’re a little weak. You’ll get stronger. I know how impatient you can be. Just give yourself the time.”
“It’s hard.” She glanced at the IV with resignation. “I hate this. Tony won’t take it out until I can eat more. I’m trying, but it’s hard.”
“Of course it’s hard - you’re trying to eat hospital food. But there is an alternative…me!” Ned leaned in closer with a sly grin and rested his hand along the edge of the bed, as close a contact as he dared to make. “I’ll just name-drop my way into the hospital kitchen, work my usual magic and be back here in no time with the best plate of French toast you ever had.”
Ned’s eyes danced at her and she smiled at the sweetness of him. French toast – a small sacred thing between them that now had the power to tear her up inside. He was so proud of this special culinary skill and it was all they had eaten that one unforgettable day, when they had hidden from the world and made the gatehouse their private nest in which to revel in each other. It was just them, a fire, his guitar…and French toast. He had told her that she was good for him and it melted her to hear those words, to know that she gave him what she’d longed to give to someone all her life. But she had yet to scare those decades off his life.
She remembered the night of the shooting, how she’d stepped off the elevator and there he stood. She forgot that she was covered in blood and she rushed into his open arms as if he was a life preserver. He helped her own her strength that night - to keep Sonny holding on to life, to give Carly support, and to give Mac and Taggert the details that she could recall. But when Ned took her home it all fell away in an instant. Her strength had been bankrupt and all she could process was the fact that she could have died, the fear that Sonny still could, the sight, feel and smell of dirty snow mixed with his darkening blood as it covered her…covered her…Sony had covered her with his own body and offered his mortality in exchange for her life. Why?
It was too much and she broke just inside the penthouse door, crumpling into a shivering, weeping ball in Ned’s arms and he simply held her, huddling with her on the floor until she couldn’t cry any more and her body was drained. And then, he carried her upstairs and set her down on the edge of the bathtub to gently peel the pieces of torn, bloody clothing from her body, one by one. He tenderly cleaned the streaks of blood from her skin and the tear stains from her face as she just looked at him in silence. And when Ned had finished tending to her, Alexis locked her eyes into his, took his face in her hands and kissed him in a way he’d almost forgotten existed.
He fell into her, losing himself as he washed away her fear with his mouth and his body… reclaiming her, enveloping her. Ned’s hunger was deep and she fed it with everything she had to give him. She needed to obliterate the pain that she’d caused and to shower him with all the love she felt - to leave no doubt about it in his mind. That night, they made love with the consuming passion that the deepest fear of loss can bring. It was a fiery affirmation of life – her life, by the grace of God not taken. They exhausted their bodies upon each other and it brought the last of the unspent tears…one final burst of feeling to carry them into the sleepy night, wrapped in each other’s embrace. The crisis was over and the dust would soon begin to settle.
And the next morning, he made her French toast.
“Alexis?” Ned’s voice had an urgent tone, though Sonny had said she was likely to drift and he wouldn’t know why. It still scared him.
Alexis was called back by the sound of him and she looked up at him, her eyes brimming at the remembrance. It hadn’t lasted. Within a matter of weeks, there was more hurt and anger and unmet need…and he had walked away. To watch him – to let him – wrenched her soul. Could she bear to watch it again? Could she keep from letting it happen?
“Sweetheart, please.” Ned’s voice was choking at the sight of her tears. He didn’t know where they were coming from or how to stop them. “The last thing in the world I want to do is upset you. I think I should go.”
Alexis smiled in protest, pushing the dampness from her eyes. “Don’t mind me. I’m just a bit of an unpredictable mess right now.”
“Is there something I can do to make it better?”
She shook her head and closed her eyes. Ned was right – the strain of her emotional tug-of-war was taking its toll. But she refused to give in and answered simply.
“I don’t know what could make it better.”
Ned bowed his head, feeling somewhat defeated. A sick feeling in his gut told him that Alexis still had a very solid wall up between them, and that she was far from ready to trust. Her heart was still aching when Sorel did his damage – Ned understood that the lost look in her eyes meant there was a long way for her to go.
“I would do anything in the world for you. Please tell me that you know that.”
She turned her head against the pillow and studied his eyes, so tired and troubled. “I do know.”
She shifted to turn more toward him and the pressure sent a quick, sharp pain up through her back and into her chest. It registered on her face as squeezed her eyes shut and tried to stifle a groan. Ned instinctively reached for her, his hand touching down on her arm. Alexis instinctively jerked her arm away.
In seconds, the pain was gone and she was brought fully back to the present. She opened her eyes to a look of shock and hurt on Ned’s face that sent a fresh spring to her eyes. Alexis realized what she’d done.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice was raspy as she tried to keep herself in control.
Ned was still frozen, his withdrawn hand suspended above the bed.
“I’m sorry Ned. It isn’t you, it’s me.”
Ned slowly pulled back his hand and wrapped his arms around his chest, holding on to Sonny’s words once again: she could react badly to anything - anything. “You don’t have to explain, Alexis. I know what happened to you and I shouldn’t have surprised you like that.” He glanced back at the puncture wounds on her arms and Alexis turned them down, away from his sight.
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
Ned closed his offending eyes and tightened his arms, firming their hold around his chest. “I don’t mean to stare.”
“I know this is difficult for you too.” Alexis watched his body tense. He seemed to be pulling inward, withdrawing into a deep sadness that was because of her. “I’m sorry I scared you – both yesterday, and this morning. I do remember you…and the look on your face.” She saw his body shake slightly, and her head dropped down in a twinge of shame.
“I didn’t want you to see me like that.” Her words floated over her vocal chords in a way that barely registered sound. But Ned heard her, and it made his chin start to quiver.
“It was my own doing, and I’m sorry for being so disrespectful of what you wanted. But, you see, I was going a little out of my mind at the time. I felt utterly helpless – and we both know how much I HATE that.” Ned laughed lightly and Alexis smiled through the fight against the tears that were still threatening to spill as she kept her eyes down-turned.
“There was nothing I could do for you – to get you back, or to take away the horror of what happened. I couldn’t even see you or talk to you…and I’m afraid I just have to plead insanity, councellor.”
“Please, Alexis. You don’t have a damned thing to be sorry for. And whatever you feel is right for you, that’s what I want you to have. Given my behavior the last few weeks I don’t expect you to trust that too much, but I do mean it.”
She slowly raised her eyes up to him, her trembling fingers wiping away the wetness.
“Just promise me that you’ll take care of yourself, however you need to. I hope you’ll let me help you.”
Alexis felt a hesitance within her, though she didn’t want it. It was so tempting to pretend that it wasn’t there...it pulled her two different directions. She felt her lids growing heavier and her body ached. She tried to stretch her limbs, but it was difficult in her small confines.
“Okay, this time I know for a fact that you’re needing to rest.” Ned looked down on her with an authoritarian face.
“No. I’m okay.”
He frowned at her weak protest, but she forced her eyes open and looked at him with renewed intent. His knuckles had turned white from the force of the grip in which he held himself, and she knew he was holding so much back.
“You’re going to hurt yourself.”
Ned’s face questioned, his eyes following her gaze to his hand. “Oh – that. It seems my arms have been awfully empty lately. They want nothing more than to wrap themselves around a certain dark-eyed, dimpled attorney with a killer smile. But for now, they do the job of bracing me instead.”
Alexis bit her lip as Ned’s eyes twinkled at her. She gathered all her strength and pushed herself as upright as she could on her shaky arms. Ned sat at attention, wondering what she was trying to do. When she’d positioned herself as best she could unassisted, Alexis sighed from her efforts and waited a moment to catch her breath. Finally, she looked at Ned with shy eyes that quickly darted away.
“My back still hurts, in the middle and up at the top, a bit. But the lower part is okay…I think.”
Ned stared. Her implied invitation to hold her took him aback and he was afraid to make a wrong move. As Alexis stared back, she tilted her head to the side and he began to smile. He moved to sit on the edge of the bed, where he’d seen Sonny sit when his arms had been around her. Ned boldly reached out toward her face, drawing a light fingertip across the line of her jaw. His touch sent a slight, unexpected shiver through her, but Alexis didn’t pull away. Instead, her arms rose up, just slightly…just enough to give him room to slide his arms around her small body. She lowered her arms down against his as his palms gingerly found a place to rest along the familiar curve of her hips. His breath snagged in his throat as her head leaned down against his shoulder, the softness of her hair brushing his neck. The feel of her was like coming home again and he closed his eyes to keep himself locked in this beautiful moment alone with her...at last.
“Alexis? Do you remember what I said to you this morning?”
Alexis was still within his gentle hold, her heart beating against his chest, her warm breaths whispering against his throat. “Sweetheart?”
He turned his face into her hair. There was no response but for an almost imperceptible sigh. She had fallen asleep in his arms, as it should be. Ned’s smile grew and his hand ventured up to cup the back of her head as it rested against him. The color of her hair and the curve of her shoulder still spoke to him the way that music did, and in the calmness of his head and in his heart, it was still the truest thing he knew.
“I love you, Alexis.”