He stared down at the dark, gentle curve of her lashes as Alexis gave herself over to him. The brushing of her hair was such a small thing, and yet it carried so much weight - at least, it did to him. There came the sound of a precise intake of breath, and Ned’s eyes caught sight of lashes beginning to flutter and lips beginning to part. He leaned down close, over her shoulder, and made a pre-emptive move of a soft whisper.
“Shhh…no talking. And close your eyes.”
She did as she was told, sighing contentedly as she tilted her head toward the sensation of the bristles as they lightly moved against her scalp. She loved the feel of it and just wanted to float. And there was something achingly familiar as she sat, eyes closed and giving herself over to the gentle tingling current that danced from the top of head all the way to her shoulders. Ned had only ever watched her brush her own hair - he’d never done it himself. No one had. Not like this.
When she was small, an expressionless servant routinely yanked her locks into two braids that left her head with a pulling pain. That is, until Alexis dared to loosen them once safely out of grown-up sight. But now, she closed her eyes tighter and tried to connect to something teasing her from just out of reach, like the brass ring on a carousel. And this time, trying to connect to something uncertain didn’t scare her. She felt safe and protected…she didn’t know why. The frightening memories may have stayed locked inside of her, but there had to be some good – there had to be the elusive brass ring that was her mother. Kristen must have brushed her daughter’s hair like this, before Alexis’ world abruptly changed at the age of five. Could she possibly remember it?
Ned wore a blissful smile as he watched her and wondered where she’d gone. He knew the far away look of Alexis’ face, even when her eyes were not his to see. And he moved slowly, carefully, on full tangle-alert so as not to pull her back too soon. His eyes darted from his fluidly moving hands to the hint of the dimples that framed the corners of her mouth. She was so relaxed under his hands and welcoming of his touch, and all he could hear in the still of the room was the soft, steady sound of her breathing…the sound that had lulled him to sleep the many nights Alexis had lain snuggled against his chest. She usually drifted first, with much greater ease and speed than he. In fact, he wondered if it was possible for her to do so right then and there, sitting up, while he brushed her hair. He wouldn’t mind her falling asleep on him again – not by a long shot.
But Alexis was very much awake, though her concentration was waning, and she finally tired of the efforts of her searching mind. She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled as Ned paused, his hand slipping from her hair to rest fingertips upon her shoulder. He could see she was back, and he stayed silent…waiting. Alexis suddenly became conscious of the halted movement of the brush and the gentle weight of Ned’s hand on her shoulder. She turned her head slightly, opening her lids as she raised her own hand to cover his. His smile spread and he bent down to plant a kiss on the top of her lovingly brushed hair. Ned was pleased when he saw her dimples grow, but something was nagging at her and Alexis was sure it was guilt…or anticipation. She had to tell him the truth. She lifted her eyes to the mirror and looked into his face. It seemed to glow with a kind of satisfied pride at tending to her well – as Sonny’s face seemed to do while his fingers worked the Vitamin E into her war wounds without hurting.
“There are things I need to tell you, and I don’t want to wait any more. Some of them, you’re not going to like. But I need to tell you anyway.”
His eyes focused straight ahead, into the large mirror above the dresser. The serious expression he saw reflected on her face frightened him – and confused him. He thought they were doing so well, and he wasn’t prepared to hear that he was wrong.
“Is it me? Did I push too much? Do you want me to leave?”
Alexis gave him a reproaching smile. “Do you really have to ask that?”
He sighed with relief, but a serious expression of his own quickly clouded Ned’s face. “Is it something about your health?”
“Taggert? You said he was here yesterday – you said on the phone that you were drained after he left.” Ned began getting angry. “What the hell did he…”
“No, Ned! Calm down. It isn’t Taggert.”
“Sorry.” He held his hands up in surrender. “Okay. I’m listening.” He took a seat beside her and set the brush down on the white comforter. “What do you need to tell me?”
Alexis laughed nervously as he looked at her with his hands folded in his lap. “I feel like I’m on the witness stand, about to give testimony to a judge. Not that I’m calling you judgmental, because I’m not, I just mean…”
“Yes? Oh – sorry. You’re waiting for me to say something.”
Ned laughed. “Honey, you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to.”
“But I do want…I need…I’m just a little nervous. Like I said, you’re not going to like it.”
“Now you’re making ME nervous.”
“Don’t be sorry. Just…say it. Quick is good."
"I'm not so sure."
"Quick, Alexis. One two three…go!”
Alexis closed her eyes and jumped. “Sonny is staying here with me until tomorrow.” She sighed loudly and opened her eyes wide. “You were right – quick is good.”
“You were right too. I DON’T like it.” Ned’s eyes couldn’t help but harden, even as he looked into the vulnerable face of the woman he loved. He was still being kept at a distance while Sonny stood by her side, and his jaw stiffened as Sonny’s smug face filled his head. “Why?”
“Um…Tony and Charlie – he’s the doctor who did the…”
“I know. We met.”
“Right. Well, they insisted that I have someone with me at home for a couple of days after being released. Apparently it’s standard after the detox. I argued with them, of course, but I got no slack whatsoever. That Tony is one tough nut to crack. So...that’s why.”
“Obviously it didn’t need to be a medical professional.” Ned couldn’t keep the twinge of sarcasm from infusing his tone.
“And you wanted him.”
“I…” Alexis felt a chill creep up her spine and her muscles tightened, reminding her of the lingering soreness there. Her slight grimace was ill hidden.
“What?” Ned’s head tilted and his eyes followed the reflexive movement of her hand to her lower back. “Are you in pain?”
“No – it’s nothing.” She took a slow breath and tried to regulate her quickening heart. “And I didn’t WANT anyone, Ned.”
He kept a concerned eye on the careful way she was holding her body upright – still, he kept on his course. “But you let it be him. Did you think I wouldn’t be willing to move in here and take…” He smiled wryly, shaking his head. “Of course not. You knew that I would be. But you chose Sonny instead.”
“And I also chose to tell you the truth about it, just like I’m choosing to tell you WHY I said yes to Sonny instead of to you, or anyone else. Unless you just don’t care to hear it at this point, in which case I’ll quit while I’m behind.”
“Of course I care, Alexis!” His defensive anger carried him to his feet and to the window. “That’s just it! You know I care, and that I would have done anything I could to help you.”
“I DO know that you would have done anything.” She waited for Ned to turn around and face her, but he continued to stare out the window with his back to the room…and to her. “Would you still?”
Ned bowed his head and pulled his hands from his pockets to wrap his arms around his chest as he turned his eyes toward her. “Do you really have to ask?”
Ned sighed and rubbed at his face. “Alexis…”
“Ned - what I need from you now is for you to listen. You’re important to me and I want you to understand. But the things I need to tell you won’t be any easier for me to say than they'll be for you to hear, if that makes you feel any better.”
With every word, her voice had grown softer and her body seemed to pull inward, making her look so small sitting along on the edge of big white bed. And as Alexis stared at her hands, fidgeting with the edge of her sweater, the glint of the safety pin in the back of her jeans caught Ned’s eye. It was then that he pushed away his own damaged ego and remembered her damaged body - remembered what hell she’d been through, and what still lay ahead of her. He watched her lower lip disappear between her teeth and Alexis was suddenly looking up at him in the heavy silence. He moved toward her, her eyes following him expectantly as he bent his knees and lowered himself down to meet her eye level. His hand took hold of hers and stopped the nervous twisting of cashmere.
“Seeing you struggle, like you have been, does NOT make me feel better. It makes me feel like…I hate it. And all I wanted was to make it better for you, not worse.”
Ned put a finger to her lips and Alexis was quiet. His hand swept across her smooth, freshly brushed hair, and his eyes swept across the room. “I think maybe it’s the location. I feel particularly territorial about you when I’m in this room, and it’s easy to forget that we’re not quite…the same as we were before.”
Alexis’ left dimple peeked out at him. “This room is the one place where we never had any problems.”
“I could have lived quite happily, never getting out of your bed.”
“If only life was that simple, that it could be lived from bed. But it’s not – it’s necessarily complicated. Everything feels complicated to me now, and I just don’t know how to begin trying to explain things to you.”
Her eyes left his and unconsciously moved to the wrinkled patch of lace at the bottom of the curtains. She looked back to see Ned’s gaze had followed hers and was studying the object of her attentions with curiosity. Alexis swallowed hard. Her throat felt like it was shrinking and her mouth was dry. She began to release Ned’s hand from her own, and it drew his eyes to her. Alexis pushed herself further back upon the bed and Ned took his place beside her once again. She turned to face him before speaking.
“I guess I should begin with why I didn’t ask you. I think you’ll know in your heart that what I say makes sense…even in this room.”
“Uh oh. Would this have anything to do with those bloody eggshells I managed to sweep away last night?”
“No matter how large your broom, those bloody eggshells would still be all over the place. I just can’t handle watching out for them right now. We’re still so tentative with each other, and it’s too much pressure for me to put on myself when what I need to do is concentrate on getting through this mess intact.”
“I don’t want you to feel any undue pressure, but...”
“Ned.” She reached out and touched his cheek, and Ned covered her hand with his, pressing her palm to his skin. “There are too many emotional ties between us, and neither one of us should have to walk around pretending that they aren’t there. One of us would trip, and I’m doing enough of that already.”
Ned’s silence told her he understood, though his expression told her he couldn’t yet admit it.
“I need to stay strong. You know that. And it would be too easy for me to let go of it, especially with you standing there, ready to pick up the pieces of what used to be my fortitude. It would be too easy to let you take over and make decisions and basically be strong FOR me. I can’t do that, and I don’t even want to be tempted.”
He stared into the darkness of her eyes and sighed. He knew she was telling the truth, but to fight against it was his instinct. “But you need to be looked after. The doctors said so, and I know I could do that without compromising your…fortitude.”
Alexis took a moment, allowing herself to swim in his eager eyes before her hand slipped away from his face. “I keep thinking back to the shooting, and how we ignored all the very real problems between us because I almost died, and we were scared and just plain grateful. You let go of your anger and I let go of my defenses, and it was wonderful to be that way with each other.”
“It was wonderful.” Ned beamed at the memory of the raw passion that they shared in the wake of the violence and fear. “I’ll never forget that night.”
“Me too. And I’ll also never forget the pain of the ignored reality as it crashed down on me – the pain of feeling like what happened between us was nothing more than an illusion because we didn’t think beyond that night. I can’t do that again, and I don’t really think that you want to do it again either.”
“We wouldn’t necessarily have to.”
“No, not if we learn from our mistakes. I’m not trying to push you away, I’m trying to preserve what’s still left of US. If we are supposed to be together, we’ll have to work at it. And I have to be coming from a place of strength, not need. Which also means that I can’t let you take care of me right now.”
“But you CAN let Sonny Corinthos. Why? Is there a reason that's more compelling than because he’s the one who found you? I mean, I’ve heard there’s some kind of bonding thing that happens between a victim and the person who rescues them, so it that it?”
Alexis was taken aback. “Don’t ever call me that again. I mean it.”
The dark ferocity of her eyes played a striking contrast to the light, raspy quality of her voice, and left no room for doubt. She did mean it - and Ned had touched a very raw nerve he hadn’t meant to find. Tentative was bad, and surety could be worse. He felt like a bull in a China shop, but one where the China could suddenly turn into steel. Alexis finally closed her eyes and turned away from him, but when the offensive word stopped ringing in her ears, the rest of his statement came clear and she quickly turned back.
“And is that as grossly simplistic as you consider my feelings to be? Some kind of textbook hero-syndrome?”
Ned trod carefully. “Alexis, I know that Sonny is someone you like to refer to as a friend, but…”
“He IS a friend!”
“What kind of a friend keeps almost getting you killed?” Ned’s voice reflexively raised, and his utter frustration moved him away from the bed. He took a deep breath and began pacing before the window, trying to temper himself while Alexis scratched at her arm, unnoticed. Ned stared down at the floor as he made a concerted effort to control his tone before trying to make a sensible case to her in the face of her blind trust in a dangerous man.
“If Sonny was really your friend, he would remove himself from your life - while you still have one. And considering the fact that it was HIS enemy who did this to you, it just never made sense to me that you allowed him to glue himself to your side while the people who loved you stood out in the hall, completely shut out.”
“Maybe I didn’t feel that there WERE any people who loved me! And I’ll tell you one thing about that, Ned – it sure made it a hell of a lot easier to choose between saving Zander and saving myself.”
Ned almost tripped mid-pace, indeed looking like he’d had the rug pulled out from under him. He turned to stare at her with his jaw slack and a cold chill creeping up his neck. Alexis wrapped her arms around herself and closed her lids tight against the wet sting that threatened to take over her eyes. She knew Ned was hurt by what she just said, but it was the truth. While Sorel had taunted her with the question of her relevance to Sonny, he didn’t know that her relevance to anyone was the question she already used to taunt herself.
“I’m sorry, but it’s how I felt. I know now that I was wrong, but at the time I felt pretty insignificant to everyone - except Sonny. He told me he’d find me, and I trusted him to do it. And it didn’t even matter whether it was only because he needed me to keep him out of jail, which I know it wasn’t. But even if it was, at least I knew I was valuable to someone…for something.”
Ned’s words forced their way past his arid tongue. “You WERE wrong. And you are invaluable. But if you know that now, then why do you still want him?”
“I’m trying to tell you, and you won’t let me.” Alexis shook her head and began scratching at her arm again. “Could you please, please just listen, without editorializing? I already said that this was going to be difficult for me, and I’d really rather not do it at all if you can’t.”
“I know, I know. I promised to listen and I will.”
Ned sighed heavily and glanced down at the movement of Alexis’ hand as it began to venture beneath her sleeve. She noticed his focus, and her hand quickly pulled away. Ned’s eyes rose up to hers and he nervously ran his tongue across his lips as he lowered himself back onto the bed beside her. He didn’t like being so far away from her anyway.
“You know that I just have a big mouth, so consider yourself free to smack it the next time I open it out of turn.”
Alexis stared at him in silence. Ned nervously shifted, afraid he had pushed her into shutting down again. He watched as she squinted at him and her face grew contemplative. She finally turned away from him and reached for the hairbrush that lay behind her on the comforter. She held it in her hand for a moment, grazing her palm across the bristles, before pushing herself off the bed. As she set the brush down upon the dresser, Alexis took a deep breath and released it slowly, summoning a new reserve of strength. Her hands took hold of the edge of the dresser and her head rose up, eyes straight ahead and fixed on her own face. She stared intently at the marbled purple colors on her cheek and Ned’s last sentence, said in jest, rolled over and over in her mind. Ned squirmed within the deafening silence that was finally, unexpectedly, ended.
The breathy tone that carried his name sent Ned’s adrenaline pumping and the tiny hairs on the back of his neck standing at attention. He suddenly felt as if something bad was about to happen and there was no way to stop it. He didn’t respond, but continued to look at her in the mirror and wait for her to look back. She didn’t.
She tilted her head and her eyes shifted away from her reflection and down to his. Her hand wandered up to her throat and began to play with the diamond that lay against the edge of her sweater. Ned saw her back stiffen and her whole stance shift, as if on guard, and he felt his stomach beginning to clench.
“Alexis, please…” His voice choked, halting his words. But it was all he needed to say to encourage her to trust him. He leaned forward, attentive, as Alexis dropped her hand from her neck and opened her mouth to speak. And when the words came, he wished they hadn’t.
“Have you ever been hit?”
The shock of her question registered soundly on Ned’s face. He was dumbstruck.
“I don’t mean like in a schoolyard fight, or a testosterone-driven bar room thing. I mean by someone bigger and stronger than you…someone in a position of power and authority over you.”
His head was spinning. The damage to Alexis’ face was suddenly screaming at him, and he wanted to scream back.
“Have you?” Alexis slowly turned to face him and saw the clear grief in his eyes as they washed over her bruises.
Ned shook his head as he struggled to release the word. “No.”
“Good.” She smiled and gave a quick, single nod of her head. “It’s…dehumanizing. And feeling less than human makes it easy to also feel that you somehow deserved it. The bruises will fade and eventually disappear. But something inside of you fades and disappears too…every time, no matter how hard you try to hold onto it.” She pushed at her hair as her eyes wandered to the window. Her fingers fluttered in front of her cheek. “Sorel really caught me off guard when he did this. I didn’t expect it. But still, there I was with my face suddenly stinging and my mind speeding me backward into a kind of nothingness. I didn’t think anyone could ever make me feel that way again.”
Again? Ned’s hands had turned to fists and they were shaking. His mouth was a desert and he thought he had spoken, but his ears heard nothing. His lips parted and he made a second attempt. “Again?”
Her eyes snapped back to his face. She hadn’t realized what she’d said, and her teeth clamped down on her lip. Ned reached out to take her hands, holding them gently together between his as he looked up into her hesitant face.
“Alexis, tell me.”
His words floated up to her in the same warm, throaty current that she’s bathed in a hundred times before. Alexis slowly closed her eyes. Ned’s face, his smile, his voice all sent her back to the memory of his strong body holding into her, moving inside of her, engulfing her in a whirlwind of heat and oblivion. Heat…oblivion…heroin...and Alexis suddenly felt the phantom stick of a needle hit her arm, and Ned felt the subtle jolt run through her body. He firmed his grip on her hands. Alexis’s eyes opened with a start, slowly drifting down to his face as she released the deep breath she’d unconsciously held. Her cheeks grew pink and her expression shifted from hesitance to resolve.
“Yeah. Again.” She shrugged with a crooked smile, moving to sit back down beside him. “You know I come from a gothic family.”
“Helena? Helena hit you?” Ned’s hand instinctively moved up to her face, and Alexis shyly tilted her head away. But Ned wouldn’t let her hide and he tilted her head back to him with a gentle finger against her jaw. “Honey. Don’t shut down on me now.”
Alexis couldn’t keep her eyes from darting back and forth from his dark eyes to his chest, where the rapid rise and fall seemed to keep a steady rhythm with her own. To meet his steady gaze would be to court the very thing he sought to avoid – falling into his arms and melting under his familiar touch. Her jaw tightened, and Ned’s hand fell away from her face.
“I…suppose once you’ve slit somebody’s throat, raising your hand to a child is hardly worth a second thought. It wasn’t such a big deal, Ned. Yes, it happened sometimes, but it was mostly just… slaps in the face.” She laughed and turned her head away. “Don’t let her delicate frame fool you - Helena’s a lot stronger than she looks.”
“Oh baby.” Ned’s eyes closed and his face began to lose its color. His fingers dug into the fluffy cotton comforter, squeezing it in effigy. The last couple of weeks had given him a new lesson in helplessness, but it was nothing compared to the infinite helplessness of a child. He couldn’t bear the thought of the lessons Alexis had learned so young…and unbeknownst to him. Why hadn’t she told him before?
“At least with Helena, I pretty much knew when to expect it. But with Sorel, it was a shock. I didn’t expect a right hook and flying into a wall and…something else, something else that I can’t even solidify. And all the incessant darkness. It made me feel exactly like I did when I was little. I wasn’t prepared.” Her last worried words were barely audible, whispered on air.
“Alexis? What darkness?”
Alexis turned to him with weary eyes. “You saw it for yourself, only you didn’t know it at the time. When you snuck into my room and found me on the floor – that was the darkness. My darkness.”
The turmoil in Ned’s eyes took her back to that awful day and the expression on his face as he looked down at her, so terrified and confused. She would give anything if he hadn’t done it, and if he didn’t now have that image of her forever etched in his mind. But he did, and Alexis was terrified all over again, and suddenly unsure if she could finish what she'd started.
“Sweetheart? What’s wrong?”
Alexis closed her eyes and turned her face away. The air wouldn’t move from her lungs and she couldn’t speak. She swallowed hard, fighting for the voice that wouldn’t come. She needed to tell him. There was just one more thing that she needed to tell him, and her body wouldn’t let her…the reason why she chose a man he hated.
“It had once been Sonny’s darkness too.”