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Scene 58

“Uh…everything okay in there?”

A dull rapping followed the sound of a hesitant, muffled voice. Tony opened the door to Johnny, who wore a hesitant grin and carried a plastic tray bearing a covered plate and a small glass of orange juice.

Alexis smiled up at him. “Well this sure beats a stranger in white polyester. Hi, Johnny.”

“Hey. How are you feeling this morning?”

“I’m okay. You?”

“You’re getting sprung today, so I’m doing great.” As he set the tray down on the bed, something strange caught his eye. He stared.

Alexis followed his eyes to the fingers Sonny still had wrapped around her wrist. She cocked her head and turned her gaze up to Sonny. “A-hem!”

“A-hem to you too.” He looked directly at her hand, still clutching a corner of the pillow. She bit her lip and slowly released her grip, while Sonny, in turn, released his gentle hold on her.

“Be good.”

“Back at ya.”

Johnny smiled and shook his head. “I’m not even going to ask.”

“I think that’s wise.” Tony quipped. “They seem to have regressed into a couple of pre-schoolers, and it’s not pretty.”

He nodded knowingly. “Got it.”

He took the glass of orange juice from the tray and handed it to Alexis, who reached for it automatically. But as her fingers touched the glass, they froze. Johnny looked at her eyes and saw that she’d drifted. He held his hand still, patiently waiting for her to return. His gaze shifted to Sonny, whose head was already tilted toward her in study. Neither of the two said a word, nor did Tony. It wasn’t necessary, as Alexis quickly came back to them. She swallowed and glanced up at Johnny’s worried face, smiling softly to reassure him. Her hand took hold of the glass and her other hand came up to firm her shaky grasp. She still felt weak, but didn’t want them to see it, so she carefully rested the glass in her lap.

“I guess I’m busted, huh?”

“What do you mean?” Sonny asked.

She gave him a look. “Yes, I was remembering something.” She turned her eyes from Sonny, to Johnny, and finally to Tony – all three pair of eyes were trained on her and it made her uncomfortable. “But you all don’t have to stare. I’m not going to do anything freaky.”

Johnny’s head dropped from his shoulders and he fixed his eyes on the bright orange liquid she held. He saw the slight tremble in her fingers, but he didn’t say a word about it. Sonny and Tony simply looked at each other in silence.

“It’s nothing awful…really.” She sighed and took a small sip of her juice, as if to prove it to herself as well as to them. “Thomas – he was Sorel’s…”

“I know what he was.” Sonny interrupted her, bristling at the sound of her voice so matter-of-factly speaking Malloy’s name. The icy tone in his own voice wasn’t lost on Alexis, nor was the quick, intense look he shot Johnny’s way. Johnny’s head was still down-turned - he didn’t see it.

“Thomas kept after me to try and eat. When I couldn’t, he gave me orange juice. He said it was easier to drink than to eat, sometimes, and that his grandmother considered orange juice to be the healthiest thing for your body.” Her face grew thoughtful. “Strange that I should remember that.”

Sonny reached for her glass, his face set hard. “Honey, you don’t have to drink that.”

Alexis stopped him. “No, Sonny. I said that it wasn’t awful, and I meant it.”

She looked up at his vacant eyes and waited, wanting him to look back at her. He knew what she was silently asking, but he couldn’t comply. Alexis turned to Tony, who did look back. She smiled and finally moved her eyes to Johnny, hoping to command his attention as well.

“Being left alone in a dark room was awful. Being with Sorel was awful. Being bugged to drink orange juice because it’s good for me was strangely…comforting. It was the only somewhat rational and normal thing that happened to me during all that time.” She laughed lightly. “I don’t expect I’ll underestimate the value of life’s little mundane annoyances any time soon.”

Johnny smiled to himself and allowed his eyes to met hers. “So…are you saying that I’ve been one of life’s mundane little annoyance?”

The odd remark snapped Sonny’s head toward Johnny.

“I was bugging her last night about finishing her juice.”

Alexis smiled innocently. “I think I’ll plead the fifth.”

“You’re just still ticked that I wouldn’t let you have any coffee last night.”

“WHAT?” Tony gave Alexis an admonishing look.

“See?” Johnny pointed at Tony. “I TOLD you Dr. Jones wouldn’t like it.”

Alexis crossed her arms with a pout. “Tattle-tale.”

“Well at least ONE of you has the sense God gave a goose!” Tony was not amused.

“I think he means me.” Johnny deadpanned.

Alexis squinted at him. “You know, if you HAD relented on the coffee I wouldn’t have slept so insanely long, and I would be much nicer and much less grumpy this morning.”

“You were already grumpy last night.”

Alexis stared at him a moment, then gave a quick nod of her head. “True.”

Her eyes shifted to Sonny, who was still quiet and staring down at the blanket. But the tension Malloy’s name brought to his face had melted – he was clearly enjoying the light banter that was much for his benefit.

“But I’ll be a lot less grumpy when I’m finally out of this place, never to return. No offense, Tony.”

“None taken.”

Johnny perked up. “How about it Doc - when can we take her home?”

“Good question.” Alexis turned to Tony.

“I just need you to hang in there a little while longer. Eat your breakfast, if it’s at all still edible, and I’ll light a fire under the lab for the results of that blood work.”

“What blood work?”

“From the sample drawn last night. I needed to check for any lingering deficiencies. It’s likely that you’ll still need some vitamin and mineral supplements, and I want to be able to send you home with whatever you need. And I certainly DON’T want to send you home with a case of anemia and have you passing out.”

Alexis looked down at the small bandage on her arm, then lifted her eyes to Sonny. “I slept through that too?”

Sonny nodded. “The nurse who took out the IV did a little vampire number on you at the same time. It was good, because she didn’t have to stick you again and you didn’t even feel it.”

Alexis wriggled under the covers and tugged nervously at the blanket. “I really hate not knowing when things are happening to me. Is it physically possible to sleep with one eye open?”

“Nothing bad is going to happen to you again, Alexis.” Johnny’s face was filled with serious intent as he looked down at her. “Not while I’m around.”

The timbre of his voice turned Sonny’s head, and he suddenly saw a level of emotion in Johnny that he hadn’t seen before. There was never a question of his loyalty - Johnny was true to the core. But the man was not to be crossed. He would lay down his life for Sonny, that was a given. Now, Sonny knew without a doubt that he would also lay it down for those Sonny loved.

Alexis reached out for Johnny’s hand and Johnny reached back. His expression was unwavering, though his face bore a trademark blush. He needed for Alexis to believe him, and Alexis did.

“I’m just feeling more and more lucky all the time.” She said softly, and the corners of Johnny’s mouth lifted up.

A soft beeping sound came from Johnny’s pocket, and he released her hand to pull out Sonny’s pager.

“Taggert.” He handed it to Sonny, and Alexis’ eyes grew wide.

“What does he want?” She couldn’t keep the trepidation out of her voice.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you in trouble?”

“No, Alexis, I’m not in trouble.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I do.”

“But you’re always in trouble.” She glanced nervously at Tony and began to stammer, remembering what Sonny had confessed to her the night before.

“And, and even though I didn’t really mean w-what I said before about keeping quiet the next time he hauls you off to the station, I, I really don’t think I’m up for putting on a, a suit and going down there and, and, and…getting you out. Not today, Sonny, n-not…”

“Honey…”

“What?”

She frowned at the too-familiar order, but it did stop her rambling. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, but then Sonny saw a slight tremble run through her as she opened her eyes and gave him a strange, sad, knowing look. Sonny finally understood. He smiled, but that frustrated her even more.

“Don’t smile - it’s not funny!”

Sonny couldn’t help it. The anxious look on her face told him she was afraid for him, and maybe even afraid he’d have to leave her. “Alexis, I promise you that it’s okay.”

“You could be in trouble.”

“I’m not…”

“Then why is Taggert paging you?”

Alexis sighed as she frowned at him. He sat beside her and took her worried face in his hands. “Trust me. I told you that Taggert and I have an understanding, and I’ll explain it to you later. Okay?”

She reluctantly nodded.

“But right now, I need to go see what the man wants.”

“Sorry. Attorney instinct rearing its ugly little head.”

“I depend on that instinct. Usually.” He let her go and Alexis pushed her hair behind her ears. “Eat your cold breakfast. I’ll be back.”

“I know.”

Sonny grinned as he took the cell phone that Johnny handed him. The two men headed for the door, when the sound of Tony’s voice came from behind them.

“Oh – Alexis, Ned is here to see you. Is that okay?”

Both Sonny and Johnny halted at the doorway. Tony’s attention quickly shifted toward them, then back to Alexis.

“Yeah, I told him it was okay.”

“I said that you were sleeping but he’s still around somewhere, so whenever you’re ready to…”

“I’m ready.” Her hand wandered up to her necklace, and Sonny’s eyes lowered to the ground. Johnny bit down on the inside of his cheek.

“Just…don’t let him distract you from eating your breakfast.” Sonny continued on his way out the door, with Johnny close behind.

“Bossy…” Alexis’ voice trailed off behind him.

Tony laid his palm down on her leg in a paternal gesture. “I’ll let you know when I see those results.”

“Tony? Can I put on real people clothes now?”

“Sure, I don’t see why not. After you’ve eaten, just buzz the nurses’ station and someone will come help you get dressed.”

Alexis laughed. “I think I can manage on my own. I’ve been dressing myself for years now.”

He leaned down and lowered his voice. “You may think you can fool Sonny and Johnny, but you can’t fool me. I’m the doctor, remember?”

“And I’m the lawyer – I think we finally got that distinction settled.”

“Then suffice it to say I know exactly how strong your body is, and how strong it isn’t. “Take the help, Alexis.”

Alexis was silent as she looked into the concerned face of the man who’d brought her through the storm. She should have known he’d see right through her, but she hated having the illusion of her façade shattered.

“Take the help, Alexis.”

She leaned back into the bed and sighed, already feeling tired from the engagements of the morning. Tony was right, and he deserved for her to admit it.

“Okay.” She agreed with a soft voice.

Tony smiled broadly. “Good. I’ll see you soon.”

He slipped through the door and past Johnny, who sat at his usual post. “Which way did Sonny go?”

“Around the corner - to the stairwell, I think.”

Tony scurried down the hall and called out after Sonny’s quickly disappearing form.

“Hey! Wait up!”

Sonny stopped, but didn’t turn around. Tony circled around to face him, breathing heavily from his quick jaunt and making a mental note to get himself to the gym sometime soon – work schedule permitting.

“I have a few strong words of advise, in case Ned’s still in there when you get back.”

“And what would that be?”

“Cool it with the terms of endearment.”

Sonny stared at him blankly. Tony’s voice rose in frustration.

“If hearing you call Alexis ‘honey’ doesn’t set him off, then seeing her respond to it most certainly will.”

Sonny felt his face grow hot. He hadn’t even realized he’d been saying it, but now all the times it flowed from his mouth, easy as air, came back to him. He nodded at Tony and continued on his silent way toward the stairs, wondering when it was that he first took the liberty, and why Alexis never brought it up herself.

And who else besides Tony had noticed.

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Alexis watched the last inch of orange juice swirl around and around in the bottom of the glass as her wrist moved back and forth.

She was beginning to remember more, as she tried to go back. She knew that things would continue to creep out at will, and she wondered if it might not be best to summon them before they could blindside her. The memories weren't all awful - Thomas' vibrant eyes looking down at her in tenderness wasn't awful. The soothing way he spoke to her wasn't awful...but before all that he had scared her, and he had hurt her.

Alexis tore her eyes away from the glass and set it down on the table - she'd had enough of the color orange. She knew she had to eat, but hospital eggs were proving to be a serious challenge. She picked up her fork anyway, determined to avoid being dressed-down by Tony and Sonny - and also, a newly bold Johnny. As Alexis twirled her fork, a knock on the door saved her from hospital eggs.

“Come in.”

As Ned’s smiling face popped in the door, Alexis set down the fork and wriggled against her pillow, trying to sit up as straight as she could. The nurses had been too busy to help her change clothes yet, and she wished she’d just tried to do it on her own. She didn’t want to look sick - she wanted to look strong.

“Good morning.” He lingered in the doorway, his bright eyes flashing at her from across the room. His winsome expression was like that of a little boy’s on Christmas.

“Hi.”

She smiled, still feeling inexplicably shy when he looked at her the way he did. It almost felt normal to see that look again. Ned could read the lingering trace of anxiety behind her welcoming eyes, and he didn’t take his worried face off of them as he approached the bed. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m…okay.”

Ned raised an eyebrow. “She said without conviction.”

Alexis rolled her eyes.

“You may be a fabulous lawyer, but you’re a lousy liar.” He let the satchel slide from his shoulder and down to the floor. Alexis watched.

“They took the IV out last night.” She offered, trying to change the subject.

“Oh…” His eyes snapped to her unencumbered arm and he smiled. “I’m glad. I know how much it bothered you.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” She squirmed against the pillow, trying to keep from sinking back. Her movement hurt a bit and she groaned lightly.

“Is it your back?”

“I still ache a bit, which they say is normal after, um…the detox.”

“I know.”

Alexis frowned and Ned rushed to explain himself. “When Sonny pulled me into your room, I was scared because you were so scared. And I wasn’t sure if you were even awake, or if I was helping.”

She closed her eyes, hating that he had to see her like that…and that it wasn’t the only time. What she hated even more was how much it hurt him.

“I needed to understand what was happening to you, so I asked Tony to explain it to me. I hope you don’t mind...I just needed to understand.”

She shook her head. “No, I don’t mind.” She opened her eyes and felt a rush of warmth at the look in his eyes. “I want you to understand.”

Ned sighed lightly, gazing down at her with all the love his heart held. She seemed to recognize it, her dimples widening as she gazed back.

“Don’t you want to sit down…stay awhile?” She teased, breaking the rich silence between them.

“Sure.” Ned turned to pull the chair close to the bed and Alexis carefully stretched her tender back while stifling a yawn.

“I’m putting you to sleep already? It took me at least twice this long yesterday.”

She laughed at his teasing. “Okay, I did apologize for that. I have no intention of doing it again.”

“I didn’t mind. Honest. Did you get enough sleep? I know you had a rough day yesterday, especially with our having to deal with Taggert. I hope that my being here wasn’t too much for you.”

“Yes, I got more than enough sleep. And no, your being here wasn’t too much.”

“Tony was worried about it. He…and I just want you to take good care of yourself. You deserve it.” He caught sight of the uninviting and picked-at plate of toast and scrambled eggs sitting on the table beside her. “You also deserve something better than that slop.”

Alexis wrinkled her nose. “I hate scrambled eggs.”

“I know. But you love blueberry muffins.” He bent down and pulled a white paper bag from the satchel, then opened it and peered inside. “But just in case you happened to be feeling adventurous this morning, I also got cinnamon-apple, carrot, pumpkin and chocolate chip. A muffin for every mood.”

She grinned at his sweetness. “You certainly covered your bases, didn’t you?”

Ned’s smile softened. “Are you still having trouble getting food down?”

“It’s a little better. And I’m sorry you went to so much trouble with those, but…I’m afraid I’ll always be a die-hard blueberry girl.”

Ned reached into the bag and pulled out a blueberry muffin and napkin, handing it to her with a satisfied feeling inside. The muffins had been a blessedly good call.

“See, I knew that about you.”

Alexis cocked her head as she tore the top of the muffin. “Oh really?”

“Mm-hmm.” Ned watched her, reassured by the ease of her movements, which seemed more steady and strong than the day before. In just the short time he’d been there, Alexis’ whole bearing seemed so much more her own.

“Just like I knew that you’d tear the head off that thing and end up leaving the bottom part uneaten.”

Alexis pursed her lips and looked down at the broken pieces in her lap. “Surely you’re not accusing me of being predictable?”

Ned’s eyebrows rose. “Hardly.”

Alexis laughed and popped a bite into her mouth. “Good answer.” She glanced at the bag still in Ned’s hands. “You’re not expecting me to eat alone, are you…pumpkin boy?”

Ned pressed his palm to his chest in mock offense. “You’re not accusing ME of being predictable?”

Alexis sighed and took another bite, deliberately ignoring his teasing with a sly grin on her face. She leaned forward and looked down at the satchel on the floor beside Ned’s chair. “What else is in that thing, because if it’s lunch, I won’t be here that long.”

Ned set the muffin bag into the bed and reached down, pulling the canvas tote into his lap. “Well, aside from considering the need to properly fill your tummy, I also considered the need to properly cover your body – at least, for your trip home. Once you get there, I suppose clothing is strictly optional.”

Alexis opened her mouth, her cheeks flushing as she pushed her hair behind her ears. “What…what are you talking about? I…I’m a respected attorney! I don’t run around my apartment/office house in my birthday suit!”

Ned’s smile was full-dimpled as he stared at a flustered Alexis with uncensored joy. She was radiant and it moved him beyond words to see her this way.

“You are so beautiful.” He murmured, the truth of his feelings undeniable.

Alexis felt her mouth go suddenly dry. Her pulse began to speed up, the blood pounding noisily in her temples. His words had taken her by surprise and her natural response of so many years was locked in her heart, uncertain and afraid. She knew that he meant it now, as he always did…but beautiful was far from how she felt. Alexis unconsciously ran her tongue across her lips as her eyes lowered from his face. She hadn’t yet found the nerve to look in a mirror, even asking the nurse to keep the bathroom cabinet open to avoid her own reflection. It wasn’t her vanity, as she had very little - no make-up and sweats was her favorite way to be. But this was different…only Ned didn’t know it. Alexis could feel the ugliness of Sorel’s marks right down to her center, where no one but she herself could see it.

A little ugliness…it was not a new feeling.

As she hesitantly lifted her eyes back up to him, lids fluttering, Ned felt a wash of pain overtake him. It hurt to see her self-consciousness...and still, that flicker of shame. “Sweetheart, I mean it.”

“I know you do.” Alexis whispered, smiling weakly.

A struggle was looming inside of her and is made her head swim. Her lower lip trembled and her face assumed a concentrated look, as if she wanted to say more, but nothing else came. Ned reached out to gently move a strand of hair that had fallen across her cheek, without the tiny rainbow of colors. She closed her eyes as he tucked the hair behind her ear, then ran a soft fingertip down, tracing the line of her jaw.

“You are beautiful, Alexis - completely so, and in every way.”

His voice caressed her with the tenderness of his touch upon her face, and it sent a shiver through her. She felt herself growing weak. It would be so easy to be weak with him, but she knew she couldn’t allow it – not now, not so soon. She ached to pour everything out to him, but she had to hold it back. There had been too many mistakes made between them, and too much taken for granted. There had also been too much hurt doing battle with all the love. She would not make the same mistakes again, and she would not hurt him. Love should not do battle, and Alexis would protect Ned’s heart while hiding her own.

Ned shifted in his chair, uneasy with trying to read the many emotions crossing her face. He saw the confliction and he saw the pain, and he saw that her love for him still lived. But Alexis wasn’t ready to go there, and Ned pulled her focus back to the issue at hand.

“Alexis, listen to me. There’s nothing that anyone could ever do to take away the beauty of you. And I don’t want to ever catch you thinking otherwise, you hear me?”

Alexis opened her eyes and tilted her head, meeting Ned’s soft, smoky eyes with a gentle smile. “You sound like Stefan.”

Ned groaned and grimaced. Alexis laughed and bit her lip.

“Oh…okay! Just this once, I’ll admit that your brother is a wise and insightful man.”

“How very sporting of you.”

“Yes, I know.” He leaned forward and rested his forearms along the tops of his thighs, bringing his face closer to hers. “Generous to a fault…and willing to do anything for you.”

“All I need you to do for me…is be patient.” She admitted in a low, breathy voice. “I’m just fumbling around right now. I don’t want to crash into you. I want to be careful. Okay?”

Ned nodded, feeling the too-familiar sting hitting his eyes as they locked into hers for a long while. He understood. As Tony had succinctly defined it, this was about Alexis, not Ned AND Alexis. There would be time for them, he was sure of it. For now, she wanted to be careful, and that’s what he wanted too.

The room was heavy with silence, neither one of them moving to break it. Finally, Alexis scrunched her achy shoulders and furrowed her brow. “What did you say was in that bag again?”

“Oops – I almost forgot!” Ned smiled down at the satchel resting in his lap. “Traveling clothes…” He reached into a side pocket and pulled out the beloved item. “And one hairbrush that’s been feeling terribly neglected lately.”

Alexis’ face lit up as she took it from his hand. “Oh…it really is the little things in life.”

“I’ll second that.”

Ned beamed as he watched her run the bristles against the palm of her hand, as he himself had done in the quiet of her empty bedroom just hours before. Alexis pulled a small section of hair in front of her right shoulder and began to carefully work the brush through it, her fingers searching for tangles along the way. She didn’t notice the look on Ned’s face – he was lost in the pure happiness of one of life’s precious little things. Her eyes closed and she smiled, content.

“They give you these awful plastic combs in here and all they do is make static.”

“We can’t have that.”

“Mmm…I’ve missed this.”

“Me too.

Alexis opened her eyes and glanced at him shyly, remembering the sight of Ned’s reflection in the mirror in front of her as he lay in bed, watching and waiting for her to finish the nightly ritual before lying beside him.

“I mean…I know.” Ned looked away, smiling to himself at the surety that their minds had met in the same lovely place.

“I don’t suppose there’s a ponytail thingy in there too?”

Ned’s head dropped and he groaned. Alexis laughed.

“I’m sorry! I sound thoroughly ungrateful, don’t I?”

“Will your favorite cozy sweater make up for my failure to provide a ponytail thingy?” He pulled an ivory cashmere sweater from the top of the bag and held it up in front of himself, so only his eyes showed above it.

“Absolutely!”

Alexis reached for it and gathered it up into her arms, pressing the pale softness into her neck. Her dimples flashed at him and he sighed. And then, he noticed how the creamy color of the cashmere against her face made her skin seem all the more pale. He hadn’t seen such pallor in her skin since the day she finally stopped believing that Stefan was still alive.

“I couldn’t find those zipper-front jeans you like so much, but I did find the black…”

“Oh – well, Sonny had Emily pick out a few things for me. I didn’t look at what’s in the bag, but knowing Emily my jeans are probably in there.”

“Oh. Okay.” Ned sighed. “I suppose I should have known that Sonny would have already taken care of it.”

Alexis saw the vague disappointment in his face and gave him an impish smile. “But you brought me my brush, and my favorite sweater. And blueberry muffins. Thank you.”

He shrugged and tilted his head. “It’s not very much…”

“Yes, it is.” He lifted his eyes to hers and it was all he could do to keep from saying those three little words. He hoped she could hear them anyway…he hoped she could feel them.

“Alexis?”

“Hmm?”

He slowly reached for the brush with one hand and took the sweater away from her with the other.

“Hey!” Alexis protested.

“You’ll get these back when you finish your muffin. At least the top of the muffin.”

Alexis gave him a blank look. “It’s a conspiracy.”

“You’re such a lawyer.” He teased, leaning over to set the satchel back down on the floor.

Alexis took the opportunity of not being watched to tense her shoulders up and carefully stretch her tight upper body. As Ned turned back to sit, he caught her.

“Looks like someone could use the help of a pair of hands that – how do you always say it – hands that should be licensed?”

Alexis opened her mouth, but quickly closed it again. Ned was mortified at what he’d said and how it must have sounded.

“Wow. Talk about old habits dying hard. I didn’t mean…”

“Ned – I get the spirit in which the offer was intended. But to tell you the truth, the thought of having my muscles touched at all is - well, I don’t want to think about it at all, actually. But the first thing I want to do when I get home is immerse myself in a hot bathtub filled with bubbles. And I may just stay there for several days. My skin will be very pruney, but my muscles will be very happy. And for the record, trying to shower or bathe in a hospital bathroom with a nurse helping you really sucks.”

Ned couldn’t help but laugh at Alexis’ use of one of Emily’s favorite phrases. “Do you know when Tony’s letting you leave?”

She shook her head as she nibbled on her muffin. “He’s waiting for some test results, and I’m waiting for a nurse to come help me get dressed. Would you believe Tony’s making me wait for help to put on clothes? It’s silly, but I decided to humor him.”

“Mm.” Ned gave her an authoritative look.

“What, you don’t think I can be trusted to dress myself either?”

“I think that anything Tony tells you to do, you should listen. It’s a fine art, listening. I’m trying to gain a whole new appreciation for it myself.”

“I suppose it’s something we all could do a little more of.” Alexis frowned. “Damn – I did it again.”

“Did what?”

“Ended a sentence with a preposition. I never used to do that and now I suddenly am. I hate that.”

Ned laughed and took a piece of her muffin. “I’m sure your verbal acumen will return once you’re home, in familiar surroundings. Speaking of which…” He cleared his throat before continuing, and his eyes roamed about the room nervously.

“I want you to know that I’m here for you, twenty-four seven. Anything you need or want, no matter what, I hope you’ll feel comfortable coming to me. No baggage, no strings – just me, wanting to take care of you.”

His wandering gaze finally came to rest on her face, and he saw the hint of longing there. But there was also a hint of reluctance. “I know what you’re thinking - that you’re a grown woman and you can take care of yourself. But…”

“But…even a grown woman needs a friend now and then?”

Ned’s jaw dropped. Alexis remembered. From the dark fog of a cold night on the docks, from the depths of a long-ago despair, she remembered. His comfort, his words still resided within her.

“Wow.”

He finally managed a dry whisper through his shock. A lump was forming in his throat and he tried to swallow it away. Alexis let her hand drop away from her lap and she slowly reached out to lay it into his upturned palm. He stared down, not seeing Alexis push the dampness from her eyes.

“Will you come over – tomorrow, maybe? Or do I need to call in a special request?”

“You don’t have to ask me twice.”

“I hope you don’t end up regretting that twenty-four seven part of your offer.”

He smiled and wrapped his fingers around her hand. “No more regrets. From now on, I look forward, not back.”

“Said another wise and insightful man.”

The sharp rapping at the door tightened Ned’s hold.

Alexis called out expectantly. “Tony?”

Johnny poked his head in the door. “Sorry, it’s just me. A nurse is free to help you now. Are you ready to get dressed?”

Her face brightened. “Absolutely.”

Ned handed her the sweater with a warm smile. “Well, I guess that’s my cue.” As he rose, he lifted the canvas bag from the floor and set it down on the chair. “There might be something else in here that you’d like to wear home. Heaven knows what Emily’s come up with.”

“Thank you. Really.”

“You’re welcome. Really.”

Ned let her fingers slip out of her hand and he slowly moved to the door, where he hesitated under Johnny’s watchful eye. With one quick, backward glance, he mouthed those three little words. And then, his voice was full.

“No strings.”

As he crossed the threshold, Alexis opened her mouth…but he was gone.

“Me too…”

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No trial for Thomas Malloy.

Sonny ambled down the hallway, watching the speckled tiles of the floor swirl and dance beneath his moving feet. Thank God for one small favor, though it came as no surprise. While Sonny still held the man in contempt for what he helped Sorel do, he could see that Malloy had remorse. And he had led Sonny to Alexis before it was too late – it had almost been too late. It was the ‘almost’ that kept Malloy breathing…though Sonny’s visit was designed to instill a proper degree of fear. Malloy surely knew where he stood where Sonny Corinthos was concerned, and that any further harm to her would bring an irrevocable price.

No trial for Thomas Malloy – guilty on all counts, case closed.

“Hey boss. What’s up with Taggert?”

Sonny shrugged as Johnny rose from his chair. “He needs to talk to Alexis.”

“Now? Again? Forget it!”

Sonny’s eyes widened at Johnny’s outburst, and a huge grin slowly crept across his face. Johnny was sorely put out, and the sight of his protective indignance tickled Sonny to pieces.

“Don’t worry about it Johnny. I told him I’d have to see how she felt when she got settled in back home. Sorel and Malloy are being arraigned today and Taggert just wants to let her know exactly what’s going on with that before she reads in the papers or sees on TV.”

“I don’t like it.”

Sonny laughed. “Well, Johnny, I understand that. But it can’t be helped. She needs to know some things and she needs to know them today, if possible.”

Alexis also needed to know the truth of how she was rescued, and by whom – the truth of his ‘understanding’ with his enemy. Sonny clamped a hand down on Johnny’s tight shoulder. “I won’t let it get out of hand – you know that.”

“Okay you two! Quit standing around blocking the hallway and get that grumpy, stubborn wiseacre out of my hair. Although I think I’m going to miss her.”

Tony stood smiling, a bag in his hand and a file under his arm.

“Everything checked out okay?”

“Everything’s fine. She just needs a couple of supplements for the next few weeks, like I thought she would.” He held up the bag. “They’re in here, along with instructions for taking them. And there’s also the medication that Charlie told you she’d need for the next few days. I’ll have her take the first one now, before she leaves.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

He turned to the door, then stopped as a though hit him. “Johnny, is Ashton still in there?”

Johnny grinned. “Nope.”

Sonny regarded Johnny’s expression, then slowly nodded. “Is she dressed?”

“Yep”

“Alright – let’s do it.” Sonny opened the door and smiled at the sight of Alexis sitting on the edge of the bed with her jean-clad legs dangling above the floor. She smiled back, then looked down at her legs.

“I think I need a belt.” She declared. “My jeans don’t quite fit me any more.”

“One large safety pin, coming up.” Tony moved to the table beside the bed and fished around in the drawer. He found a pin and handed it to Alexis, who pinched the extra material gathered at her waist. She stared at it a moment, then looked up at the three men.

“Help? Denim is kind of hard and I don’t think I can get this pin through it.”

Sonny took the pin and forced it through the thick folds, his fingers careful not to touch her back as she lifted the edge of her sweater up and out of his way. He could see the faint spreading of the bruises there and he didn’t want to hurt.

“Thanks.”

“Here – don’t forget this.” Tony handed Sonny the bottle of Vitamin E that he pulled from the drawer. “Charlie was right about this stuff. It may take some time, but it does work. Be sure to use it a few times a day.”

“Will do.”

“And you, missy, get this.” Tony held out a glass of water and deposited a single pill into Alexis’ palm.

“What’s this?”

“It’s the medication that Charlie told you about, that you need to take for the first few days following the detox.”

She stared at him wordlessly. Tony wrinkled his brow and looked to Sonny. “Charlie did tell you about the…”

“Yeah, he did. But she was groggy and I’m sorry, Alexis, I should have reminded you about it before this.”

“What kind of medication.” She looked at the tablet the same way she’d looked at the IV– with dread and suspicion.

“It’s the same thing that you were given intravenously during the detox, only in a much milder pill form. It’s to make sure that if there is any residual heroin still in your body, there won’t be any effect from it.”

Alexis winced at the mention of the word heroin. She swallowed and her body registered her clear distress as she squirmed and clutched at the edge of the bed with one hand, while she continued to stare at the pill held by the other. She thought she was starting to feel dizzy.

“I…I thought the detox was supposed to take it all away. I th-thought it was…over.” She couldn’t control her stammer and it made her angry with herself, but was a curve in the road that she simply didn’t expect. “Are you s-saying it isn’t?”

“No! No, it IS over, ninety-nine percent over. Minor traces of the heroin can linger in your system for days after detoxing, so this is just the insurance, if you will. And it’s only one pill a day for another four days. Okay?”

She closed her eyes and pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, trying not to cry. She felt like an idiot. It was only a stupid pill.

“Alexis?”

“Yeah. Okay.” She answered quickly. She took the glass of water from Tony’s hand and tossed back the pill as she made her mind a blank. She didn’t want to think about the fact that yet another drug would soon be running through her body. Sorel’s control still lingered, just like his heroin.

“Atta girl.” Tony took the glass back and Alexis tugged at the sleeve of her sweater, thankful that they were long. She didn’t want anyone else to see her arms.

“I feel like a puppy who just did a trick.”

“Woof.” Sonny grinned.

“Shut up!” Alexis swiped at him with her hand and tried not to laugh as he deftly jumped out of her reach.

“Alexis, I take it that Sonny will be the one looking after you for the next couple of days?”

“Tony, I swear I’ll be fine on my own. Sonny is right across the hall, if I need anything. And Johnny is right outside the door.”

“And neither right across the hall nor right outside the door is the same thing as being WITH you.” Tony was firm. “I need to know that you intend to play by the rules, councelor.”

She lowered her head, and Sonny could see her eyes darting back and forth across the floor.

“Alexis, you know you can count on me. But whatever else you’d prefer, I’ll take care of it. I mean, if you don’t think you’re tough enough to handle me being in your face, trying to tell you to eat, to breath, to sleep…” His voice drifted as he studies her face, waiting for her reaction and the words he wanted to hear.

Alexis cracked a smile. “Well, I suppose having you boss me around – correction - TRY to boss me around, is at least something I’ve gotten used to.” She looked up at him with a sheepish expression.

“But, aren’t you sick to death of me by now?”

Sonny smiled and reached out his hand to her. “I could ask you the same thing.”

She glanced at Johnny’s expectant face, then took Sonny’s hand and slid off the edge of the bed. The sudden weight on her weak legs caused her to wobble, but Sonny caught her and she quickly steadied herself.

“Not so fast.” Tony interjected. “Your chariot is on its way.”

Alexis turned to him in horror. “Ohhh no.”

“Ohhh yes! It’s hospital policy, and you know it.”

A squeak came from the doorway, right on cue, as an orderly appeared with a wheelchair. Alexis looked imploringly to Sonny, wanting him to help her in her argument. He tilted his head - she was un-seconded.

“Thanks a lot.”

Sonny smiled wide.

“Shut up.”

“You ready?”

Alexis glanced at the open threshold and searched down the part of the hallway that extended from it. She could see the wheelchair out of the corner of her eye, and the whole picture before her suddenly filled her with anxiety. She’d been hidden away for so long, and now the whole world was right out that door, waiting for her to re-join it. Everything outside that door seemed so big, and she felt so small. The slight tremble in her limbs firmed the hold that Sonny had on her arms. He thought it was just the weakness in her body that was making her shake. He was wrong.

“Come on – let’s sit you down.” As he tried to urge her forward, Alexis held back.

“I…I think I’m a little scared, all of a sudden. It’s…I’ve been so isolated.” She avoided Sonny’s eyes.

“I understand.” Sonny lowered his head down toward hers, searching for her focus.

She smiled and shook her head, eyes still wandering. “It’s okay – I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

Sonny moved one hand to her face and made her look at him. “Alexis, I know.”

Johnny saw her lingering hesitance and moved to the door. “May I?” Tony nodded his okay and the orderly shrugged and walked away. Johnny pushed the chair toward her and Alexis turned to Tony with a heavy sigh.

“I really, really don’t want anyone I know to see me.” She fussed with her bangs, pulling them toward the scrape on her forehead to cover it as best she could. “Have you noticed if anyone I know has been wandering around here today? Bobbie, Nikolas…God forbid, Luke?”

Tony smiled wryly and shook his head. “Bobbie’s off today. And no, I haven’t seen your nephew or, God forbid, my ex bro-in-law. Although why you’d want to avoid HIS charming presence, I’ll never know.”

Alexis cleared her throat and gave a quick, definitive nod of her head. “Okay then.”

Sonny nodded toward the wheelchair. “Your chariot awaits. You ready to blow this pop-stand?”

She glanced down at the table next to her and reached for the almost forgotten penguin. It made her smile, as Charlie had wanted it to, and she lifted her smiling face to Sonny.

“You did promise to bring me home. What are you waiting for?”