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Scene 70

“Watcha doin’?”

Sonny stood at the edge of the dining room table, watching Alexis as Alexis watched the world. She turned with a smile and rested her cheek upon her knees as she peered up at him.

“Being a couch potato - only I’m doing it on the window ledge.” Her brow furrowed. “I’m being a window potato.”

He chuckled as he moved closer, sipping on his second cup of coffee of the day.

“Did you have fun dismantling and reorganizing my kitchen? And I really do wish you’d let me help clean up. That much I can do without causing too much turmoil.”

“Yes I did, I know you do, and I’m sure you can. But it’s not necessary. Thank you for offering. And just in case you ever do decide to actually cook anything in there, you now have all the proper tools and cookware with which to do it.”

“What did you do while I was stuck in GH, buy out Williams-Sonoma?”

He gave her a curious look. “And how do YOU know about Williams-Sonoma?”

“I hate malls, but I am an admitted catalogue junkie.”

As her innocent voice carried into his ear, Sonny couldn’t keep his face from registering the heavy new weight of a word that used to mean nothing to either one of them. Alexis saw the subtle twitch in his eye and realized what she’d done.

“I’m really going to have to think a little more before I speak, huh?” She turned her head to gaze back out the window, sliding her hand up along her shins to clasp them around her knees.

Sonny took another step closer to her. “No.” He reached out and took hold of the end of her loose ponytail, giving it a light, playful pull. “You already think too much as it is.”

Alexis shrugged with a soft sigh. “Think too much, talk too much, work too much. I’m a woman of total excess.”

“You got THAT right.” Sonny leaned against the wall behind her, his eyes washing down over her profile as the gentle sunlight did the same. “A woman of totally excessive intelligence, wit, warmth, loyalty, kindness...stubbornness.”

His voice tapered to whisper, as if afraid the full timbre of his tone would somehow expose something more than just his words. Alexis shifted and Sonny moved around to face her. She finally looked up at him, a pink flush living in her cheeks.

“Back at ya. Except for the ‘woman’ part.”

Sonny laughed. “Thank you for clarifying.” He felt a small flush of his own as his shy eyes drifted out toward the blue, cloud-filled day. “It looks nice outside.”

“It does, doesn’t it?”

“Maybe you’d like to take a short walk or something later on? Get some fresh air and sunshine?”

Her head rose up and she turned to him with anxious eyes. “I…no, not yet. Maybe tomorrow?”

“Sure. Whenever you want.”

Alexis pushed at her bangs, and Sonny knew that she was still too self-conscious about the way she looked to venture out in public – the availability of cover stick notwithstanding. He understood that for her, it went much deeper than what other people’s eyes could see. But he wouldn’t let her hide herself away for too long. The more she resisted, the harder it would be to take the first step.

“At least the snow is gone.”

“I know. I missed the last days of it.” She frowned thoughtfully. “I wonder if this how bears feel after hibernating? They go into a dark cave one cold, snowy day, then suddenly wake up to sun and dry ground.”

“Only you would ponder such a thing.” Sonny took hold of her hair once more and flipped the ends up, teasing the edge of her ear.

Alexis swatted his hand away with a reflexive laugh. “Stop it, I’m ticklish!”

“Oh, REALLY? Good to know.” He winked and gave her a purely evil grin.

Her back straightened and her dark eyes flashed at him. “You’d better behave yourself or I’ll…make you watch “Jeopardy” with me again.”

“Uh oh!”

His eyes widened in mock fear, and Alexis shook her head with an exasperated sigh. Sonny couldn’t help but smile. She was breathtakingly adorable when at a loss for words, and he pushed away the strong temptation to play with her a little more. Instead, he took another swallow of his coffee and watched Alexis tighten the arms that encircled her legs and give her back a slow, careful stretch while her eyelids languidly closed.

“You may feel like a post-hibernation bear, but you look more like cat. This little white kitten that my mother had for a short time.”

Alexis cocked her head and rested it back against the window, eyes still closed. “I’m allergic to cats.”

“Me too. That’s why she only had it a little while. But I remember how its favorite place was in front of the window. It loved to curl and stretch, basking in the sunlight from behind the safety of the glass. I felt so guilty that my mother had to give it away because of me. She fell in love with it right away. And that kitten was the last thing Mike gave her…before he left her.”

“You mean, before he left the both of you.”

Her comment took him aback. He drew a sharp breath and his mouth opened…but instead of speaking, he ran his tongue across his teeth as her expectant face gazed up at him. It was no shock that Alexis could give as good as she got, refusing to allow him to dismiss his own pain - he just hadn’t expected it right then. And he had to smile at the sweet way she looked at him, as if afraid she’d overstepped her bounds. But that wasn’t possible, and Sonny smiled to let her know it.

“Right. Both of us.”

Alexis scrunched her shoulders, and Sonny knew that the gesture meant she was pleased. “I never had a pet. We did have horses, if you can count them as pets.”

“I can see you on a horse, all proper, with a cute little riding habit.”

She laughed. “You’re confusing me with Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet”. No proper riding habits for me – and sometimes, no saddle either.”

Sonny conjured a stunning visual of Alexis, riding bareback with her hair whipping around her face.

“I just rode because I liked it. And I was pretty good, actually. I managed to keep up with Stefan most of the time too. Except when we rode on the beach. I tended to dawdle when we were near the water, because I loved it so much. It was just…beautiful, riding along the shore. I wanted it to last.”

Her face had grown radiant with the fond memory, and it made Sonny’s heart swell to hear of a happy time in her young years – to know that there was some joy to temper all that her nightmares held. He stared at her in silence, wanting that look on her face to last as long as her beautiful rides along the shore.

“I only got thrown a couple of times, and that was while riding the most disagreeable horse in the stables. Stefan was smart and rational, you see. He simply avoided that particular horse, whose name escapes me right now. But I got it into my mind that all he needed to mellow out, so to speak, was the affection and gentle handling of a girl. As opposed to the harsh and demanding handling he got from…well, Stavros. I was wrong.”

“That horse was an idiot. Little did he know what he was depriving himself of.”

Alexis smiled and one eyebrow rose up. “Do my ears deceive me, or did you just end a sentence with a preposition?”

“Touche. But I didn’t go to Harvard.”

“Well, that’s Harvard’s loss.”

Sonny smiled a silly smile and rolled his eyes as he turned his head away.

“I mean it.”

Alexis reached out to touch him on the arm, and Sonny felt his face tingle. A strange flutter of self-consciousness ran through him – but his need to simply survive the streets had taken precedence over his education. He took a large gulp of coffee and closed his eyes as the feel of her hand wrapping around his arm stole his focus. He glanced down at her soft fingers and smiled as he mumbled his response.

“I’m pretty sure they would have wanted to see a high school diploma before considering me for admission.”

She knew about the difficulties of his early life, but Alexis didn’t know he hadn’t finished school. The clear depth of Sonny’s shame made her wish she’d never opened her mouth. She hadn’t meant to pour salt in an old wound, but she did mean what she’d said. She needed him to believe it.

“Sonny.” The rich resonance of her voice intoning his name drew his eyes to hers like a moth to a flame. “You have one of the most sharp, intuitive minds I’ve ever seen. That isn’t something you can learn, at Harvard or anywhere else. You’re either born with it and know how to use it, or you’re not and you don’t. And you stun me, sometimes, with your ability to use both analytical logic and an uncommon sensitivity, ultimately knowing just the right thing to say or do…in a given situation. I think I know that about you as well as anybody possibly could. Even Carly.”

Sonny blinked, taking in her words and allowing their deeper meaning to gel in his head. And he smiled, realizing that Alexis had just told him he was, in fact, being what she needed him to be for her. He was overwhelmed and simply stood, quiet and staring as Alexis continued to speak.

“And you don’t learn to have a sweet and generous heart by going to Harvard either.”

He swallowed hard against his dry throat, and when his voice came, it was a raspy whisper. “God, I wish I could have seen you – trying to give that disagreeable horse a part of your sweet and generous heart.”

She laughed and turned toward him, carefully lowering her legs over the side of the window ledge. “I’m afraid all you would have really seen was me, on my behind, on the ground with Stefan standing over me with arms folded, saying ‘I warned you, Alexis’.”

Sonny smiled at the clear picture that his mind drew. “He adores you, you know.” He murmured, grateful that she’s had her brother to keep her from growing up fending for herself, unloved and alone. And he wished he’d had someone like that for himself.

“Sonny?”

“Alexis?”

“You…you brought up Deke in front of Stefan. That’s such a private thing for you. Why did you do that?”

“Because you needed me to. You trust your brother, so I have to trust him too. Besides, you remember what I said about not letting bad memories have power over you. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge that that holds true for me as well. Right?”

Alexis bit her lip and lowered her eyes from his face, settling her gaze on the mug he held tightly in his hands. She stared at it as her own hand rose up to rub at her temple. Sonny’s fingers fidgeted against the smooth surface, resisting the urge to reach out and touch her. He didn’t know why.

“Are you okay?”

Alexis nodded slowly, her dark, distant eyes unmoving. “Yeah. I’m alright.” She whispered, her fingertips moving rhythmically against her temple.

Sonny shifted his weight from one leg to the other, and Alexis was suddenly looking up at his face again. “Do you think it’s odd that nothing clicked in my head when you told me about Deke? I mean, nothing at all.”

Sonny set his mug down on the dining room table behind him and wrapped his fingers around the edge of the wood as he leaned back against it. “That was a couple of years ago, Alexis. We were different people to each other than. You were an attorney talking to a client about an issue that was only relevant to a case.’

“So?”

“So, you were in total attorney mode. You were focused on me, not yourself. Maybe if we’d been…friends, at that point, something may have clicked. I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s odd that it didn’t.”

Alexis frowned. “Just because our relationship wasn’t personal then, that doesn’t mean I didn’t care about what you suffered as a child.”

“I’m not saying you didn’t care, I’m saying...”

“I distinctly remember thinking that it was awful, what Deke did to you and your mother, and that I never would have guessed by how little much I did know of you as a person.”

Sonny leaned forward with a crooked smile. “Back at ya.”

Alexis shifted her jaw. “I still think it’s odd.”

“Hon…Alexis, please don’t drive yourself crazy with over-analyzing this, okay? If you didn’t make the connection back then it’s because you weren’t supposed to.”

Alexis crossed her arms with a sigh and gave him a left-dimpled smile. “I know.”

Sonny’s urge to touch her won out, and he traced a finger down the edge of her face. Alexis blushed in the wake of the strange current of heat running through her. Sonny’s eyes seemed to reach inside of her, and the light touch of his hand on her face made her lower lip begin to tremble. But it wasn’t from fear…she didn’t understand it, and she closed her eyes and bit down hard on her lip to make it stop. Her right dimple unconsciouly joined the left, and she grabbed onto his hand as it fell away from her cheek.

“By the way, that was a stellar omelet you made this morning. And I don’t even really like eggs.”

He grinned wide. “Yeah, I noticed that at the hospital. Not that you could really call that food, let alone eggs. But I’m glad you liked it.” He suddenly cocked his head in thought. “Hey…didn’t you threaten something about my needing to give you a polygraph to know whether you liked my cooking?”

She snapped her fingers. “Rats! I forgot. I guess I’ll just have to find some other way to get back at you for teasing me.” Her voice lowered as she gave him a sly wink. “Watch your back.”

Sonny lowered his voice right back. “I always do.”

“When you’re not too busy watching mine.”

Sonny grinned and stood up straight, casting his eyes over her shoulder. “Yeah, well…what can I say? They view’s better when I watch yours.”

Alexis laughed and squeezed his hand, and Sonny squeezed back with a wink. She slipped off the ledge and the movement sent a glint of sunlight dancing off the diamond that suddenly came out from hiding under the neckline of her sweater. Sonny’s smiled softened and he released his hold on her hand, turning his wrist to check the time.

“I’d better make myself scarce before Ashton gets here. You said twelve, right?”

“Mm hmm. But you don’t have to go. I meant what I said about telling him that you’re staying here.”

“I know. And he’s going to be bent out of shape about it. I think it’s best that he doesn’t get bent out of shape BEFORE you tell him, simply by virtue of walking in here and seeing my face first thing. You know I’m right, so don’t even bother trying to argue. I’m outta here.”

“Who me? Argue?” Alexis widened her eyes in innocence and Sonny shook his head as he headed back toward the kitchen, downing the last swallow of coffee in the bottom of his mug.

“Speaking of getting bent out of shape…” Alexis followed him. “You must have wanted to throttle Ned for sicking Taggert on you like he did.”

Sonny sighed heavily, eyes to the heavens as he stopped at the sink. “Oh, yeah…you could say that.” He turned on the faucet and rinsed his mug under the running stream. “But it’s not like I didn’t expect him to do something to get in my road, once he figured out that something was wrong.” Sonny turned around to reach for the dishwasher handle, and smiled when he saw Alexis had the door open and waiting for him. “Thank you.”

Alexis smiled. “See? I can help.” She watched him deposit the mug into the rack and shut the door. “So…how DID he figure out something was wrong?”

Sonny shrugged. “He showed up here, out of the blue - Zander was acting weird, I guess and he just...I don’t know exactly. I was too angry to ask and it didn’t really matter after the fact. I’m surprised he didn’t tell you himself.”

“The dissemination of information to me has been tentative, to say the least, and by all parties involved.” Alexis tailed him as he finished drying his hands on a towel and headed out the kitchen door.

“Jeez, you sound like a lawyer or something.” Sonny teased.

“Good. I was afraid I was getting rusty.”

She sat on the arm of the sofa and watched as Sonny double-checked the ringer on the telephone and the power light on the machine before heading across the hall to take care of some long-awaited business – and to have a small chat with Zander.

“I think Ned’s afraid to bring up anything that I don’t bring up first. You’re not the only one who’s been handling me with kid gloves, you know.”

“Don’t knock it. There are worse things than being treated with kid gloves by people who think you’re worthy of it.”

“Noted.”

Alexis rubbed at her temple, and Sonny resisted the temptation to utter the word ‘aspirin’ again. He would reserve his quota of bossiness for the prescription bottle sitting, ignored by her, on the kitchen counter – IF it still went ignored by the end of the day.

“He really hit the roof when I stonewalled him about where you were.” Sonny moved to take a seat on the arm of the sofa across from her. “I can’t blame him for going to Taggert, because I’d have done the same thing if I were him. And when he found out where you really were…oh God, did he want my head on a platter!”

“Well that would have made me one very unhappy Salome.” Alexis smiled softly. “Hey – that was supposed to amuse you. Am I slipping?”

Sonny met her eyes and tried to smile back, but he couldn’t. As little use as he had for the man, the memory of Ashton’s devastated face still stayed with him. “Ned may know all about how nasty things go down inside the corporate boardroom, but he knows nothing about how they go down out there.” He nodded to the window. “But he sure knew enough about Sorel to be scared witless that the monster had you. He also knew he was powerless to do anything about it, so he railed against it – against me. And even though he tried to bully me and Taggert into including him in our plan to get you back, I think he knew he’d only get in the way if we did.”

“You’re right. Ned knows nothing about the kind of battles that go on in your world, or how they need to be fought. He could have gotten really hurt if you’d let him get any more involved than he already was. Thank you for not letting him. Thank you for protecting him.”

Sonny frowned and waved his hand in the air as his eyes shifted toward the empty stairs. “Protect him? I wasn’t protecting him - I was trying to keep him from causing any more trouble for me. I mean he’d already caused enough trouble, sending Taggert to get in my face, and that was all the interference I was going to take from rocker boy. No offense.”

“Mm hmmm.”

Alexis pulled the throw pillow into her lap from the corner of the sofa and hugged it. She stared at Sonny with a mischievous grin and that famous one-dimpled smile on her face. He felt her eyes tugging at him, whittling away at his pretense. He couldn’t hide himself from her – not if she meant t0 find him. Not any more. He finally turned his head back to her and leaned his elbows against the tops of his thighs. A deep inhale and slow exhale came and went before he smiled and met her soulful eyes.

“I felt for him, Alexis. Looking at the fear in his eyes and the panic on his face…I saw myself. And I knew I was really just as powerless as he was.”

“I know the feeling. It sucks.”

Sonny laughed lightly. “Yeah. That’s one way to put it.”

“But not very lawyer-esque.”

Sonny winced and grabbed a throw pillow of his own. “You ARE rusty.”

He lifted the pillow overhead as Alexis watched. She folded her arms across her chest and cocked her head.

“I double-dog dare you.”

The pillow gently sailed through the air, a three-foot distance, in the direction of a one-dimpled attorney.

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

Eleven fifty-five, sharp - not that she was surprised.

Alexis studied herself in the mirror, unready to open the door on the first knock. Taggert had been right – the colors lightly marbling her left cheek were definitely at the purple end of the spectrum. Her lavender cashmere sweater was precisely chosen, the rationale being to blend with rather than highlight the bruises. She was pleased with her choice, but began to reconsider whether some make-up might have been a good idea anyway. There was a sudden second rap at the door.

“Miss Davis? Mr. Ashton is here to see you.”

Too late.

“I’m coming Francis.”

She pushed her bangs to favor the right side of her forehead and smoothed down the long arms of her sweater, covering her arms to the wrists. She wanted to keep Ned’s eyes from looking as sad as they’d been when the sight of her puncture marks blazed up at him before. A quick tilt and turn of her head confirmed that Sorel’s fingerprints along her throat had all but disappeared. They’d faded to mere shadows and Alexis was sure that nobody else would even remember where they’d been. Finally, a deep breath was taken on both sides of the door as it slowly pulled open. Her eyes were the first thing he saw – for her, it was his smile.

“Hi.” He whispered. He stared at her with a shopping bag held in his hand, and a giddy flutter in his stomach. He felt like a teenager on a first date.

Alexis smiled and leaned against the edge of the door. “Hi yourself.”

Ned’s feet were rooted to the ground as he drank her in, and he thanked God for the fact that she was alive and well and opening the door to him once more...and with a sweet, welcoming smile on her face. He barely noticed the fading bruises for the beauty of her right then.

“Wow. Look at you.”

She laughed nervously and lowered her eyes to the ground. “I have – although I’d rather not.”

“You look wonderful.” Her eyes shot back up to his face, driven by the throaty tone of his voice and the fact that she knew he meant it.

“Thanks.” She murmured. It finally occurred to her that they were still standing in the doorway and under the watchful eye of Johnny’s fill-in. She took a step back and cleared her throat. “I have an idea. Why don’t you come in?”

A wide smile followed the invitation, and Ned grinned back. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Francis turned his head in their direction as Ned moved past her and into the penthouse. “You let me know if you need anything, Miss Davis.” He began to point toward Sonny’s door. “Mr. Corinthos is right…”

“Yes…I will.” Alexis cut him off, wanting some unfettered time alone with Ned before bringing up what was sure to turn their tide. “Thank you, Francis.”

Alexis closed the door and turned to see Ned standing behind her.

“I meant that you look wonderful.”

“I consider it wonderful that I’m prone and wearing real clothes. I’m gaining a finer appreciation for the little things in life.”

“It’s only been one day since I saw you, but it’s like night and day. You look like…you.” He reached out to brush the back of his fingers along her jaw. “Only with a bit more color. Does it still hurt?”

His eyes were so hopeful, wanting her to say ‘no’. She softly shook her head. “It’s fine.” Alexis pulled at the hem of her sweater. “And I tried to keep a color scheme going here. I didn’t want my clothes to clash with my face.”

Ned laughed at her joke, knowing she’d want him to. “And you SOUND like you too.”

And then, he saw the sparkle of the diamond at the base of her throat. She still kept it above her heart – she still kept him inside it too, he was sure. His eyes began to burn and he blinked, lowering his gaze to the motion of her hands as they played with the edge of her sweater, accidentally exposing the loose waistband of her jeans. He could tell in the hospital that she’s lost some weight, but it was striking to see her favorite – and his – once snug-fitting jeans now bearing a gap between the denim and her body. He slipped a finger through a belt loop and tugged lightly.

“You just need to get back those few pounds you lost.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I know. I feel like I’m wearing someone else’s Calvin’s. I have a pin.” She turned to show him the large safety pin that Sonny has clasped between the two back belt loops.

“I’ll call Chloe. Maybe she can start a fashion trend as inspired by you?”

“You didn’t tell her, did you?”

“No. I wanted you to tell me it was okay. She said she tried to call you, but got no answer. It was when you were in the hospital. I told her you were embroiled in a case and I’d have you call her when you could. You should, you know. She loves you and she’d want to know what happened.”

“I know. I will.”

Ned slipped his hand around her waistband and down the side of her hips with a concerned expression. “You are eating though, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m eating. And sleeping - a lot - and taking all those bloody vitamins that Tony sent home with me…” She felt a twinge of guilt and her eyes darted toward the kitchen door. She hadn’t yet taken the little white pill that Tony also sent home – the one that he’d made her take before she left the hospital the day before, while he and Sonny and even Johnny watched. She’d been put on the spot and she didn’t like it at all, Tony’s good intentions aside.

“Alexis? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Sorry, I just drifted. I do that these days.”

“It’s alright. Just don’t drift too far away from me, okay?”

“If I do, you’ll just have to reel me back in.”

Ned smiled broadly, dimples blazing. Reeling her back in was exactly what he intended to do – starting right then and there. He held up the shopping bag.

“Here’s lure number one. Well, lure number two, if you count the iris as number one.” He turned his head to the mantle. “Which are still looking lovely today, almost as lovely as their bestowee.”

“Well that’s a word you don’t hear every day.”

“I thought you’d like that.”

Alexis squinted at him. “IS it a word?”

He sighed and dropped his arm back down to his side. “You’re going to go get a dictionary, aren’t you?”

“No! That would be rude.” Alexis pouted defensively - but quickly gave in to a sly giggle. “I’ll wait until you go home before getting a dictionary.”

“I KNEW you’d say that!”

“There I go, being all predictable again.” She peered down into the bag. “What did you bring, more muffins?”

“Lunch. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I didn’t quite trust you to not count popcorn as a meal. You need real, healthy food, and I happen to know your fondness for the veggie soup and cornbread special at Kelly’s.”

“Aww. That was sweet. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And just to be clear, I’m not inviting myself to stay and join you for lunch or anything, but I did bring a lot. I wanted you to have plenty in the fridge, in case you got wanted some later or maybe tomorrow. Unless, of course, French toast for lunch sounds good, and then we can put this ALL in the fridge.”

“Why do I have the feeling that nobody’s going to be happy until I not only gain back whatever weight I lost, but also gain a little something extra?”

“As long as you’re strong and healthy. That’s all anyone cares about…who cares about you.”

Alexis scrunched her shoulders and tilted her head with a shy, close-mouthed smile. “I’m working on it. And I know I have a lot of people who do care about me, and are trying to help me get there.” The silly grin taking over Ned’s face made her laugh. “What?”

He shrugged and vaguely shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s just…there seemed to be a kind of shadow hanging over you, when I saw you lying in that hospital bed. But it’s gone now. You have the spark in your eyes that I thought I might not see again. It was probably me – just a product of bad dreams from too much caffeine and sleeping on too-short waiting room sofas.”

Bad dreams. Alexis knew full well the bad dreams weren’t hers alone. She knew what he’d gone through while she was too afraid to see him and ease his worried mind, and she wished to God she could go back and make a different choice. Hurting him more was the last thing she wanted to do.

“Do you mean it looks like a weight has been lifted?”

He smiled and sighed deeply. “Yeah. Like that. And it feels like one’s been lifted from me too.”

Alexis’ face took on a serious cast and she stepped closer to him. “I’m glad. And…I’m glad that you’re here.”

“Me too.” Alexis opened her mouth, but quickly closed it again. She wanted to tell him – to let him know what that shadow really was…and she would. But the sweet expression on his face kept her quiet. She couldn’t bear to change that expression just yet. He looked too happy, and he hadn’t looked happy for a very long time.

Ned’s eyes held onto hers, ripe with joy and holding back the longings that overtook his heart. He sensed that something was on her mind and fighting a battle with her reluctant tongue. He didn’t know what to do or say to let her know it was okay, so he simply stood, smiling, allowing her to decide for herself…and it was killing him. Even so, he wanted to lower his face and press his lips to hers, to slip his arms around her bruised body and pull it close to his. And he wanted to take back the moment in time that he’d used the “M” for word for real, knowing the mere sound of it sent fear into her heart. But most of all, he wanted Alexis to remember her promise to never let him lose her.

“Well.” Her voice seemed to startle him. “I guess I’d better put this in the kitchen.” Alexis wrapped her fingers around the handle of his bag to take it from him, but Ned didn’t let go.

“Okay.” He murmured, fingers flexing and slipping over to crest upon hers. And all the while, they stared.

Ned’s eyes glistened down at her in a way that made her mouth go dry. She felt herself weakening, wondering would happen if she just crumpled into a ball in his arms and let him take control, like she had the night of the shooting. It was so easy to allow it then – her reserves had been obliterated and her emotions were without restraint. Could it be as easy to allow it now? To give in to any weakness still lingering inside of her and not worry about what would happen between them a week…two weeks…a month from now? No. She was stronger now, and they both deserved better. She didn’t want any more pain – not with Ned.

“I get the feeling you’d rather to it yourself.” She released her fingers from the handle and taking them away from the feel of his warm skin. “You remember where the kitchen is.”

“Probably better than you.” He winked at her and Alexis rolled her eyes.

“Very funny.”

“Why don’t you sit down and relax. I’ll be right back.”

“I don’t want to sit down and relax. This morning, I had my first cappuccino in almost two weeks and the caffeine doesn’t want to let me forget it’s there.

“Is that a good thing for you to be drinking?”

“I don’t care. It feels normal and I need normal things right now.”

“I know you do.”

He ran his hand across her head and let his restless fingers slide down to the end of her ponytail, separating and twisting the soft strands. Alexis allowed it, neither pulling away nor asking him to stop. He hoped that meant it felt normal to her.

“If you don’t want to sit, feel free to tag along.” He gave her ponytail a swat and turned on his heels to stride off toward the kitchen with a satisfied expression on his face.

Alexis stood still, her hand slowly rising to take hold of the ends of her hair. Ned always had a habit of doing what he’d just done – unexpectedly batting her ponytail as he walked past her. It was playful and familial, and somewhat possessive in nature. And it was also a guaranteed way to command her attention. He knew that it bugged her when he did it, and she knew that he loved watching her eyes narrow in minor annoyance. She smiled to herself at the silliness of such a game…and at the unexpected bittersweet feelings it provoked.

Ned quietly returned, unseen. He stared at her from a short distance, lingering by the dining room table as she stood, frozen in place, with a wistful look on her face and the tips of her fingers holding onto a thin lock of hair. He grinned at how cure she looked, lost in thought and completely unaware of being watched. He always loved those stolen moments of watching her just…be. And he did adore those ponytails. But the dawning awareness of his presence finally turned Alexis’s head in his direction. She smiled and flushed pink in embarrassment.

“Hello again.”

“I think I owe you an apology for that popcorn-as-a-meal comment I made.” Ned moved closer, sure he would burst if he didn’t at least fill his head with the scent of her, if he couldn’t fill his hands with the feel of her. “Your refrigerator looks like it belongs to the Quartermaine’s. Or should I say, to Cook? It IS her kitchen, after all.”

“Surreal, isn’t it. Um…Sonny did it, while I was still in the hospital.”

“Oh.” Ned felt like an idiot. Why hadn’t he thought to fill her consistently minimal food supply himself? He should have thought of it…but he’d been too concerned with staying on the right side of her boundaries to think of anything more than filling her eyes with the sight of iris – the flower that would remind her of his love.

“He kind of went overboard though. I’m sure that most of it is going to go to waste, which is criminal, really.”

Ned’s eyes widened and she saw the temptation raging in his eyes as his mouth opened. She wrinkled her nose and gave him a plaintive face. “Please don’t walk into the door I just opened.”

He smiled as he cleared his throat and swallowed his pride. “What door? I was going to say I’m glad someone thought to do that for you. And too much is better than not enough.”

His concerted effort to give Sonny due credit made her smile right back. But Alexis could see Ned’s thinly disguised annoyance with himself for not beating Sonny to the grocery punch. If that much caused him distress, to try to make him understand the truth about who was sleeping in Zander’s room would take some serious kid gloves of her own. But Alexis was determined to not let him leave until he understood why it couldn’t be him. She just didn’t know how she would do it. There was so much bad blood between Sonny and Ned, such a long and complicated history - and all of it due to women important in both their lives. But both men were important in Alexis’ life, and she wanted them both to stay that way. She remembered what Sonny had said to her before.

“I felt for him, Alexis. Looking at the fear in his eyes and the panic on his face…I saw myself.”

Sonny felt for Ned, when they both were afraid for her. That could only be a good thing, she thought, and maybe a good place to start.

“Ned?”

He looked at her without speaking, and she hesitated a moment, expecting to hear her own name repeated back in response. But that was what Sonny liked to do.

“Taggert told me that you came to him when you thought I was in trouble.”

“That’s right. I knew Sonny and Zander were lying and I wasn’t going to just walk away from that. Not when it was about you.”

“How did you figure it out?”

Ned’s eyes sparkled. “You really want to know?” She nodded eagerly and his dimples flashed as he glanced up the stairway. “Come - I’ll show you.”

He took her by the hand and led her, holding a palm against her hip as they slowly traversed the stairs. He could tell that Alexis was still sore and needed to go slow, though she said nothing. Ned paused at the threshold, remembering the strange and uneasy sensation of being in her room alone, yet surrounded by her. He turned to Alexis and released her hand, giving her hip a slight push forward to usher her into the room. She turned a curious eye his way as she sat on the edge of the bed, facing him as he leaned against the doorframe with a self-satisfied grin. She folded her hands in her lap, the picture of patient expectation, and Ned’s eyes swept down to the dresser, where her hairbrush sat in the exact place he’d put it himself.

“I don’t think that anyone else would have noticed this, but I knew you wouldn’t leave it behind if you’d really gone out of town.”

“Is that what they told you? I’d gone out of town?”

“What they told me was, ‘She’s out of town on a case. She’ll be back in a couple of days.’ That’s what they all said, almost verbatim – Zander, Sonny, even Johnny. And Zander was pretty good too. Very convincing. I didn’t suspect a thing…until I came in here and saw your brush.”

He reached down and wrapped his fingers over the soft bristles, letting the familiar sharpness send a welcome tingle up his arm. Alexis watched his eyes soften as he lifted the brush and pressed it against his chest. There was no need to ask him why he’d come into her room while she was gone - the look on his face spoke volumes.

“Ned Ashton, super sleuth.” She whispered with a tilt of her head.

“Well…you are very religious in your nightly hair brushing ritual. To see it sitting on the dresser and know it wasn’t with you, wherever you’d gone, was very wrong.”

“I guess predictability can be just as much a blessing as a curse.”

“More so.” Ned murmured. “I love knowing you the way that I do.”

Alexis felt her heart begin to pound as anxiety welled up within her. In the last few months, Ned would often look at her as if she was a stranger. It hurt. He USED to know her – really know her. But somewhere in their recent road, that seemed to change. SHE changed, or so he said. She didn’t understand. She argued, said he was wrong. He couldn’t make her understand, and in Alexis’ mind, the only thing that changed was the way Ned needed her to be. But there were still some things – intrinsic, organic things - that they would always know about each other. Those were the things that defined who they were, made them fall in love, and could bring them together again…if they were supposed to be. And if they also took great care.

She ran her tongue across her lips before she spoke with a very soft voice. “You were right. No one else would have noticed this.” She reached out her open palm to him and Ned laid the brush, wood side down, into it. As she studied it, turning it over and grazing the bristles with her thumb, her other hand began to fidget with her bangs.

“My hair is a mess - thus, the ponytail. You should have seen it yesterday though. It was a lot worse. I don’t have all the strength back in my arms yet and they kept shaking when I tried to de-tangle my damp hair after my bath. And the blow drier felt like it weighed fifty pounds, so that attempt didn’t last more than a nano-second.”

She sighed and looked up at his intent face. She knew she was babbling, but she couldn’t stop.

“I looked a wreck. But today, I went overboard on the conditioner and at least had some success with the wide-tooth comb. I think I managed to de-tangle fairly well, but the blow drier’s going to take another day or two. So meanwhile, I’m style-challenged. Why do they make those things so bloody heavy, anyway?”

Ned took a baby step into the room, then another. “Am I to understand that your predictable nightly ritual was forsaken last night?”

“It had been forsaken for a long time already. What’s one more night?”

“Unacceptable, that’s what.”

Ned slowly moved toward the bed and stopped right before her, standing not a foot away. His blood was rushing, warming his body and speeding his pulse as he made the choice to risk and be gently bold. He reached around to the back of her head and took hold of the black, cloth-covered elastic that held her hair in place. He looked down at her face, searching for a sign. Alexis sat still, eyes lowered and lower lip pulled between her teeth. She wanted to look up at him, but found it impossible. She knew what he was going to do, and she would not stop him.

“May I?”

His soft voice settled over her and she nodded, closing her eyes. And soon, she felt the spreading tingle of release spread across her scalp as the elastic slipped away, setting thousands of strands of hair to fall freely down to her shoulders. She heard the light, hollow sound of the elastic landing atop the cotton comforter and the airy sound of the release of a deeply held breath. She couldn’t say if it was his breath or hers. And then, she felt Ned’s fingertips settle alongside her temples, and his strong, gentle hands went traveling back through the thickness of her hair, staking their claim…and flooding her mind’s eye with the vivid image of Sonny’s face. Her eyes snapped open as a slight jolt ran through her - one Alexis hoped Ned didn’t notice. He did.

“I’m sorry. Did I snag a tangle?”

She smiled. “No. No tangle.”

“Good.”

His hands held steady against her head, fingers threaded through her hair. Her dark eyes darted about his face, and he slowly let his hands slip away from her and down to his sides. He wondered what was going through her mind. Was she still anxious? Afraid? Was she still glad he was there? And was she really looking at him like she wanted to be kissed, or was it just his own desire playing tricks? He knew it was too soon to kiss her right then, but there was something else he could do – if she let him. And as the diamond at her throat played hide-and-seek with the edge of the lavender cashmere, he reached out to take hold of the end of the brush she still held loosely in her lap. Alexis lowered her eyes.

“I’m going to have to brush you hair now.”

She lifted her head back up and scrunched her shoulders.

“You could probably stop me.” Ned’s whisper came with a shy tilt of his head.

Alexis stared into his eyes and sighed lightly before whispering back. “Boy. That was really hitting below the belt, Ashton.”

“Shame on me.”

He waited, his stomach in his throat, until he finally felt her fingers release the brush into his welcoming hand. Ned smiled and moved to her side, gathering a small lock of hair into his palm. He drew the brush down the short section, slowly moving further up to her head. Alexis closed her eyes and swallowed, and Ned saw the tension in her shoulders finally release.

He was in heaven, with his angel, and he never wanted to leave.