Taggert slowly rose from the sofa, stretching his long arms overhead with a loud groan.
“Try lying in a hospital bed for days on end – then you’ll know what stiff muscles REALLY feel like.” Alexis teased.
“Alright, you win.”
“Such lovely words, especially coming from you.” She pushed herself to the edge of the sofa, and Taggert bent down to offer his hands in assistance.
“Don’t get used to it.”
“Too late. I already am.”
Her body felt almost weightless, and his strong arms helped her rise with ease. And as Alexis stood barefoot before him, Taggert suddenly felt like a mountain. She looked so small and it took him aback. His mind went to thoughts of Malloy’s massive frame, much larger still than Taggert’s own, and he felt an overwhelming empathy for the kind of physical threat the man had posed to this delicately framed woman. It must have been effortless for Malloy to control her, but the unintended injuries he caused were proof that Alexis refused to hand him that control on a silver platter. It was foolish of her to fight against Malloy's obvious strength, but he would have expected no less from her in the face of fear. And as he gazed down at her, Taggert couldn’t help but wonder how she felt standing beside him right then - if his size was newly... intimidating. The mere thought of it did away with his always perfect posture, and he unconsciously shrank into himself.
Alexis took a small, unsteady step back. Taggert smiled and gently squeezed her hands before letting go. “Either Dara or I will be in touch about any further information we’ll need from you. It will probably Dara.”
Alexis sighed and looked from Taggert to Sonny. “Whatever she needs. Only, I’d rather not have to go down to the station for another day or two. I’d like for…well, I’d like to look a little more presentable before setting foot back there.”
“I don’t expect there to be any rush. We are still waiting for the Wilson case to wrap up. First thing's first.”
“You take care of yourself, Alexis.”
She nodded, glancing at Sonny. “If I don't, he will. Thanks, Taggert. I guess I should go call Stefan.”
“Okay. I’ll walk Taggert out.” Sonny moved to the door, his hand touching down on her shoulder as he passed by.
“Such civility! I’m afraid this is going to take some getting used to.”
“Tell me about it.” Taggert drawled as he slipped out the door.
Sonny followed and shut the door behind him. He rubbed his palms over his face. “Thank God that’s over with.”
“Amen.” Taggert cracked his neck. “I just wish Sorel was over with!”
“Alexis wants to face him. She wants him to know that he didn’t win.”
“Yeah, I got that.”
“I appreciate you trying to steer her in the opposite direction.”
“And not surprisingly, she wouldn’t budge.”
Sonny grinned. “Not for you.”
“I guess that means the ball is in YOUR court. Try not to drop it.”
“I won’t drop anything. I’m holding on with both hands.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed that ‘holding on’ thing you’ve got going.”
Sonny gave him a blank look. “She needs to feel connected, Taggert. It’s important. And so is keeping her out of a trial situation. Sorel has the means AND the desire to destroy her on the stand. I won’t allow it.”
Taggert slipped his hands into his pockets. “Ever heard of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome?”
Sonny frowned. “Yeah. It’s what soldiers get after combat. Right?”
“Right - but not soldiers specifically. It’s what all kinds of people get after all kinds of combat.” He glanced at Alexis’ closed door. “I think she’s going to need some help.”
“A shrink.” Sonny said flatly. “Alexis isn’t going to want to see a…”
“Yada, yada, yada.” Taggert rolled his eyes to the heavens. “She didn’t WANT to go through with the detox either, but somebody managed to reach her. I thought that somebody was you. Maybe I was wrong.” He hit the button to summon the elevator car. “Maybe it was Ashton.”
Sonny glared at the back of Taggert’s smooth head. Taggert smiled, knowing full well what Sonny’s deathly silence meant – he knew Taggert was right.
“Call me. I’ll put you in touch with a woman I know from the victim’s assistance program.”
The elevator doors opened and Taggert stepped inside. He turned to face Sonny, who stayed silent. The doors began to close.
“Taggert!" Sonny blocked them with a fast raise of his arm. “You were good with her. She felt comfortable with you. Thank you for that.”
“Just doing my job, Corinthos.” Taggert cocked his head. “Protect and serve, remember?”
Sonny smiled and dropped his arm. Taggert quickly disappeared behind the steel doors, and Sonny leaned forward to rest his head against them. The faint rumble of the elevator car sent a distracting vibration through his skull, but it failed to shake away the lingering warning Taggert had left in his head – that Alexis was going to need help. Professional help. But even in her worse moments in the ICU, Sonny had instinctively known that it was wrong and he fought against Tony’s repeated threats to force Kevin Collins on her. Though Tony was well intentioned and only sought to help her, he didn’t understand Alexis the way that Sonny did. He didn’t know that terrified child crying out from within the terrified adult…Sonny did.
Make her see someone…
Charlie’s craggy, bearded little face popped into Sonny’s head, and his voice was admonishing in his ears. It opened Sonny’s eyes and lifted his head from the cool steel doors. That sweet and strangely paternal doctor had been worried for her too, but Sonny couldn’t see Alexis trusting a stranger. And someone she already knew, like Dr. Collins, would be an even worse idea. She was too private, too proud, and just too skittish - especially now. It was just too soon to expect her to release the defenses that kept her safe. If pushed, she’d only feel her control had been taken away again. Alexis felt safe with Sonny, and he meant to keep it that way. He would help her as best he could, any way he could, and for as long as Alexis allowed.
As he opened the door, a familiar masculine voice met his ears. Alexis stood beside the desk, head bowed and eyes closed while the last few words of Ashton’s message replayed.
“Sleep well, sweetheart. Good night.”
The machine clicked off, and Ashton was silenced. Sonny softly closed the door behind him and Alexis turned her head.
“I was going to return his call, but I couldn’t remember if he said where he’d be tonight.”
“I’m sure you’ll be able to reach him. He strikes me as the type to make good use of that wonderful invention known as ‘call-forwarding’.”
“No doubt. So do I.” She smiled slyly. “You and Taggert were talking about me out there.”
“Maybe we were, maybe we weren’t.”
“You were. I can tell.”
“You just think you’re so smart.”
“So do you. That’s why you pay me so well.”
“True.” She looked at him as if she wanted to speak, but her eyes moved to the floor.
“Did you reach your brother?”
“No. Stefan has yet to partake of the wonders of ‘call-forwarding’. But I left a detailed message though, so he could talk to Nikolas as soon as possible. I really hope that at least one good thing can come out of all this ugliness. I know my nephew, and he is NOT his father’s son. There is forgiveness in him, and it would be nice if what happened to me could bring it to the surface and bring him back to Stefan.”
Sonny ached for her. When Alexis loved people it was with all her heart, no matter how unworthy they may be. And she deserved so much better than what she usually received from them in return. Her love was pure and unconditional - a precious gift that Sonny felt blessed to have been given, even if it was just a friend. He watched as Alexis leaned against the edge of the desk and closed her eyes. She stretched her neck from one side to the other, then allowed her head to release forward from her neck. Sonny moved in front of her with a smile, reaching out to slide his hands gently down either side of her head.
“I’m not even going to SAY the word ‘aspirin’.”
Alexis lifted her head and opened her eyes with a crooked, one dimpled grin. Sonny’s hands moved back up to the top of her head to begin another slow descent. He nodded toward the sofa.
“You want to play couch potato while I start some dinner? You look exhausted.”
“I am. And that couch potato thing sounds like very good idea. But first, I’d like to call Ned back.”
“Okay. Ned first, couch potato second. No, wait – chef first! Any special requests?”
She shook her head. “Whatever sounds good to you is fine. I’m really not all that hungry.”
“Sure you are, you just don’t know it yet. Leave it to me - I’ll bet I can come up with something to tempt you.”
Sonny’s languid gaze slowly drifted down from her eyes to her mouth. His lips unconsciously parted, and the tip of his tongue swept lightly across his lips. The memory of his beautifully vivid daydream had come back to haunt him – the soft, wet sweetness of forbidden fruit. Alexis felt her mouth suddenly go dry as she stared at his downcast eyes that focused low on her face…on her mouth…studying her. A strange flutter ran through her chest. She swallowed nervously at the faint scent of spice – the scent of Sonny. Her eyelids slowly closed as his gentle hands grazed her ears on their repeated travels down her hair. They were soft and warm against her skin, as they always were, but somehow it felt different. The flutter inside of her began to quicken, as did the pace of her breathing.
And then, the moment had passed as quickly as it came. Sonny’s eyes found hers once more, and each noticed that other was flushed. Alexis cleared her throat and lowered her head.
“Tempt me, huh?”
As she pulled her lip between her teeth, Sonny’s heart skipped a beat. He dropped his hands from her hair and took a small step away from her. For a moment, he didn’t trust himself – it scared him. Alexis tilted her head and a mischievous smile appeared.
“So…that MUST mean we’re having microwave popcorn for dinner.”
Sonny’s face was indignant as and took a second, larger step back. “Like hell we are!”
Her eyes widened. “I’m kidding!”
“I know!” He mimicked her expression. “Gotcha.”
He winked and his dimples deepened. Alexis wrapped her arms around herself with a pout.
“Now don’t you be giving me that face! You started it.”
Her nose crinkled as she bit her lip. “Oh. I did, didn’t I?”
Alexis giggled at hearing Sonny use a Zander phrase. She supposed she was lucky it hadn’t rubbed off on her too. “If I hear you start using the word ‘dude’, you are in so much trouble.”
Sonny sighed, taking joy in her laughter. “Alright, time for me to be a good houseboy and hit the kitchen.” He hesitated, glancing at the phone on the desk behind her. “And you should go return that call.”
It taunted him from across the room, sitting silent and untouched beside the fireplace.
And every now and then, a reflection of flickering light was cast across the polished, grainy wood and thin rows of strings, as if the fire sought to play the instrument for him. Let it try. There had been more music made by the crackle of the fire than by the musician himself. Inspiration was in short supply – for now. Thinking of Alexis these days had kept his voice and guitar both silent. He’d faced the fear for her life, he fear for her mind, and the fear that she wanted nothing more to do with him again. Such extremes. Why? Why could just loving someone never be simple...or enough? Why life or death, all or none…get married or break it off entirely? Why couldn’t they have just left well enough alone? Why did he want so much more, and why was she so afraid of it? And why the hell did he have to THINK so damn much? He let out a wry laugh. Thinking too damn much was usually Alexis’ M.O.
But Ned had help in loosening the floodgates of his troubled mind. His fingers firmed themselves around his second glass of red zinfandel, which steadily depleted, sip by sip, as he stared at the crackling flames. He didn’t know which was more intoxicating - the dance of the fire before his eyes, or the dance of the wine inside his brain. He took another sip and let the full, rich current and spicy oak lay claim to every corner of his mouth. It slipped over his tongue, smooth and wet, leaving a warm tingle behind as it made a path down his throat. It was a heavenly vintage, but a poor substitute for the heavenly thing that he truly craved.
The dance in his brain kicked up once more, and he moved his eyes from the fire. He swirled the last few swallows waiting for him within in the glass, watching the ruby colored slip as it clung to the sides. Temperance. His temperance with Alexis was a necessity, if they were to ever get back to each other, but his temperance with this particular brand of distraction was not.
The sudden trill of the telephone brought the whirlpool of wine to a halt. Ned sighed heavily. The Quartermaine gatekeeper was officially off the clock – no exceptions. He tossed back a large, wasteful gulp of wine and set the empty glass onto the coffee table beside the half bottle still left to enjoy. And as he reached for the phone, he decided he did mean to enjoy it.
Ned’s voice was weary. For a moment, she thought she’d woken him up. Her eyes found the clock.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
His sound strengthened, infused with that light gravelly sound that Alexis knew well - especially from the times his needs roused her in the middle of the night. It sent a warmth through her face and an image into her head - the freshly drawn image of Sonny’s eyes staring down at her mouth. She closed her eyes and gave her head a quick shake.
“Hi.” Alexis found her voice.
“Alexis?” She could hear his smile as he eagerly intoned her name. Her chest fluttered again, and she felt a twinge of confusion.
“Did I call at a bad time?”
“No! There’s no such thing as a bad time for you to call, remember?”
“Right.” Her eyes wandered to the purple flower gracing her nightstand. “So, I don’t suppose you left any iris in town for anyone else to enjoy?”
“The hell with anyone else. Did YOU enjoy them?”
“Don’t I always?’
“I hope so. I know they’ll always be my particular favorite.”
“Thank you. That was sweet.”
Alexis laughed and sank back into the fluffy pillows of her bed, enjoying the serenity of her own room, and the reclaimed possession of her own body. No hospital gowns, no harsh fluorescent lights, no medicinal smells, no IV taped to her arm. Just home.
“Can I take that sweet giggle of yours as a ‘yes’?”
“Good. It’s hard to keep from crossing the line when the line isn’t something you can see…or touch.”
Ned couldn’t help allowing a sly grin to take over his face, remembering a certain ‘business’ lunch they’d shared at the Grille during their marriage-go-round. It was the best of all occasions of public teasing that they shamelessly loved to indulge in – a dropped pen that sent an errant hand traversing the plane of her thigh, a contract laid before him that also brought a generous glimpse of the slope of her cleavage and the smell of her hair whispering against his face. Ned squirmed in his chair while Alexis’ face progressively flushed, but the naughty game had to end all too soon. True business called and Ned had to answer, rising from his chair with great reluctance and a bit of physical difficulty. He wasn’t even embarrassed, only frustrated. With the fraudulent couplings as they were, he didn’t know when he would touch her again - for real, with passion, and in private.
“Hmm?” His sweet memories fueled the intoxicating effects of the wine.
“Let’s try not to walk on eggshells too much, okay? It’s too exhausting.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Ned murmured. “Alexis, how are you? Are you eating, resting, doing everything the doctor ordered?”
“Tony would have no complaints.”
“Were you sleeping when I called before?”
“Actually, I was taking a bath.”
Ned laughed. “That was my other guess.”
Alexis smiled. “I know. But since I told you it was the first thing I wanted to do, it wasn’t all that great a deduction on your part.”
“As if I didn’t already know all about you and your sanctuary of choice.”
It was a sanctuary that she would sometimes allow him to share, if he was lucky. He even had his own small jar of bath salts in a decidedly less feminine fragrance than what Alexis preferred for her self. The only time Ned wanted to smell like gardenias and vanilla was when it was by way of her body. Then, it was more than acceptable.
“Well…alright, I’ll give you that one.”
“Did it help? Your sore muscles, I mean. My hands are still available for massage duty.”
“It did help – at least temporarily. And thanks for the offer, but it’s still too soon for firm hands to feel good right now.” She suddenly felt awkward. “I mean…”
“Alexis, I know what you mean. And you should take some aspirin for that.”
Alexis smiled as she curled up on her side, her eyes taking in the empty place on the bed beside her. “So I’m told.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Ned cleared his throat on the other end of the line.
“So…how are YOU? Gee - it’s nice to get to say that to someone else for a change.”
“I’m fine, now that you’re out of that damned hospital. Don’t tell Monica or Alan I said that. They might take it personally.”
“My lips are sealed.” She whispered.
“Truthfully, I’m tired, distracted, and thinking way too much. But other than that, I’m fine.”
Alexis frowned. “Hmm…tired, distracted, thinking, but fine. What a coincidence – me too!”
Ned’s soft laughter floated into her ear and Alexis hugged a pillow to her head. She always loved the way he laughed. “Although I’d probably have to say I’m more drained than tired.”
“I know.” Ned closed his eyes and saw her face – pale, bruised and with an edge of fear lingering in her eyes. “You’ve been to hell and back. And yet, you still try to make people laugh.”
“You know that saying – if you don’t laugh, you’ll…” Her voice drifted, and there was silence. Alexis began to see an expanse of eggshells in front of her, but Ned took them away.
“Sometimes you need to cry. Sometimes you’re supposed to cry – it’s fair and right. Laughter is wonderful, and God knows I love the way that you make me laugh. But don’t do it at the expense of a rightful tear or two having their way with you.”
They were having their way with her already. She brushed them away muffled a sniff with her damp sleeve. “Don’t worry. I think I’m one step ahead of you on that one.”
“God, you amaze me.”
Alexis laughed nervously, rubbing at her shoulder. “Don’t you mean frustrate? Perplex, maybe?”
“Those too. I’m winking at you right now, by the way.”
“Right eye or left?”
“I knew that.” Alexis tried to fight back a yawn. She was unsuccessful.
“Okay. I’ll let you deflect – for now. You should go to bed.”
“Bed? It’s too early to go to bed.”
“No I’m not.”
“Okay, I am. I’ll go to bed soon, but not now. I’m drained, but also a bit wired.”
“Taggert.” It slipped out before she could stop it.
“Taggert? What was he doing, bothering you today? You just got home, and he knows that!”
“Ned, it was fine - really. I said he could come. He and Sonny and I were just discussing…” Alexis sighed. Her mind was buzzing and she was angry at her own big mouth. “I’m sorry. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow, okay?”
“Are you sure you nothing’s wrong? If you want me to come over now, if you want to just talk, I’m just a cab ride away.”
"I've been indulging."
"Say the word."
“No, thanks though. I’m talked out, today. I think I’m everything’s out.” She wrestled with a pang of guilt for not telling him the truth about Sonny staying with her. But she knew that for now, she had to leave it alone. “I'll call you when I’m up and fit for company."
"Company?" Ned protested. "I don't like the sound of that. Too formal."
"It is, isn't it. Sorry. But I’m not going anywhere, so you can pretty much drop by whenever you want.”
Ned smiled. “I will. And I can't wait to see you.” He reached down toward the bottle of wine and pushed the cork back in. He didn’t need it anymore.
“That’s a distinct possibility.”
“Thank you for…clearing the eggshells away.”
The full effect of his second glass of wine kicked in, and Ned closed his lids against the defenseless emotions that rose up. As his eyes welled, he conjured her in his mind once more – but this time her dark eyes sparkled, her skin was glowing and clear, and her smiling face was untouched by any hand but his. He sighed and wrapped an empty arm around himself as he hugged her soft voice to his ear. It was almost as if she was there, in his arms, in front of the fire. Almost.
“A few eggshells are easy enough to get rid of. And you know us gatekeepers - the most essential tool of our trade is a very large broom.”
Alexis laughed, free and full. The sound of it put music back in Ned’s heart…and a soft whisper in Sonny’s mouth as he stood at the bottom of the stairs, near the table set for two.
“Just don’t do it again, Ashton. Please don’t hurt her again.”