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Scene 80

His large dimples danced at her like happy children. But Sonny quickly saw that Alexis was as pale as a ghost. Tony had just told him she was just fine. Pale was not fine – pale was somehow Spencer’s doing. The dimples disappeared as his head turned to fix a deadly stare at her unwanted company. It was met with a look of bemusement that straightened Sonny’s spine.

“Luke.”

“Sonny.” He looked from one set of dark eyes to the other. “Well, well, well. It seems as if I’m giving that Kevin Bacon dude a run for his money! It’s six degrees of Luke Spencer, right here on one floor of this humble little hospital. I got my nephew-in-law, both my ex-bro-in-laws, one ex-bro-in-law’s sister, MY sister…”

“Who should be due for that break right about now. So enjoy your cheap lunch. And try not to choke on it.”

“You haven’t been…annoying my attorney, have you Luke?” Sonny turned to Alexis, his hand firming possessively around her waist, and Luke saw the tension in her body visibly release. “Was Luke annoying you?”

Alexis cocked her head and shifted her eyes to Sonny’s face. “Luke annoys everyone.”

Luke smiled and took a small step back, his fingers scratching at his unshaven chin.

“We were just catching up. Isn’t that right, councellor?” The smile became a light chuckle as he leaned forward, looking at her intently. “It’s a funny thing too, because I was asking my man Jonathan about you just the other night, Alexis, ‘cause I haven’t seen you around in a while. And the next thing I know…”

He slapped his palms together and Alexis flinched, eyes blinking rapidly under Luke’s scrupulous stare. “We run smack into each other. Now I call THAT serendipity.”

“Well I call it just plain bad luck.” Alexis found her voice and pulled her scarf closer around her neck.

“Oh, come on baby! I thought you were gonna be sweet to me?”

Alexis opened her mouth, but Sonny’s mouth was quicker. “If you have some business here Luke, I suggest you attend to it. Now. Alexis and I were…”

“In the middle of something?”

Alexis sighed and Sonny turned his eyes to her. She was vaguely shaking her head. He took a beat, then turned back to Luke with a broad smile - or more specifically, a baring of teeth.

“Yeah.”

Luke smiled back. “I’ll bet you are.” He crossed his arms and tilted his head at Alexis. “You are such the busy little bee. You just don’t let one blade of grass grow, do ya? First you’re in the middle of something with Tony, now you’re in the middle of something with Sonny…how come you're never knocking on my door, wanting to get in the middle of something with Lukie?”

“You need to watch your mouth when you’re speaking to a lady. Or has it been so long since a real lady has allowed you in her company that you’ve forgotten whatever class your Aunt Ruby managed to teach you?”

For a rare and deafening moment, Luke was rendered speechless. He hadn’t heard Ruby’s name spoken in a long while, and he didn’t remember the last time it had been spoken by this man who used to be his partner and his friend. Luke knew that Sonny’s invocation of her name now was not done lightly. It had intent, and the intent was to make him back off from Alexis. Whatever was going on with her, whatever happened TO her, Sonny knew. And he had a vested interest - a personal one, by what Luke's deepest instincts told him. All the better for Luke to find out whatever there was to know himself.

He let his arms slowly uncross and drop from his chest. As his hands slid into his pockets, he shifted his weight onto one leg in a deliberately non-threatening stance. He wanted to play this scene just so – to watch, listen, and speak carefully, seeing how much he could learn without being told a thing.

“Sonny, Sonny, Sonny. You just don’t understand. We’ve got this long-standing private dance, the lovely legal eagle and me. We’ve got our own special kind of rhythm, our own special moves, and we know just how hard and how often we can step on each other’s toes before it’s time to sit one out. Isn’t that right…Ginger?”

Alexis stared back at him, confused. His words implied an offer of retreat, but her gut told her she was being played and to give it back to him in spades. The arm firming around her back told her if she didn’t respond quickly, Sonny would do it for her.

“How could I argue when you’ve waxed so beautifully metaphoric and very likely exhausted your full mental capacity in doing so…Gilligan.”

Luke gave out a hearty laugh, and Alexis smiled at her desired effect.

“Well played, Natasha.”

“You sound surprised.”

He was - somewhat. Even though she smiled and her sharp little tongue kept slicing away, Luke noticed the color had yet to return to her face. As shocked as he’d been by the sight of so many puncture wounds marring the pale skin above her wrist, Alexis was more shocked that he’d seen it. She couldn’t have looked more vulnerable if he’d walked in on her stark naked. He almost wished he’d never seen it...but he knew he would have kept staring if she hadn’t pulled away. And there was also the question of that scrape, ill hidden beneath her hair.

Alexis suddenly gave out a weary sigh and cleared her throat. Her smile had vanished, as had all the challenge in her eyes, and she was now looking back at him with a face devoid of emotion. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw the nervous twisting of her fingers within an expanse of pale pink around her neck. Ginger needed to sit one out.

He rubbed at his stubbly chin. “Well…I don’t want to keep Bobbie waiting.”

Luke’s face unintentionally softened and formed what could conceivably pass for a smile. Alexis responded with crossed arms and a suspicious furrowing of her brow. It took him aback, and sent Sonny edging even closer to her. He stared Luke down in a strong, silent warning, and one part of the mysterious Cassadine equation was suddenly crystal clear - Sonny was staking a claim, and the turf at hand was NOT his sister’s bad seed. Not that Luke could blame him for wanting an upgrade, but he couldn’t help throwing back one of the daggers that Sonny’s eyes were throwing his way.

“Give my regards to your wife. If you ever hear from her again.” Sonny didn’t even flinch, and Luke had his answer. He quickly turned his attentions back to Alexis. “Natasha! As always, you were a sight for sore eyes.”

Alexis lightly tilted her head. “And as always, Luke, you were a sight to make eyes sore.”

“She shoots, she scores!”

Sonny felt Alexis lean back into his arm as Luke leaned toward her with a whisper.

“The invitation for darts still stands.”

Alexis smiled sweetly. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

He returned her smile. “And I’ll keep YOU in mind…" His eyes darted down to her arm, then quickly back up to her face. He was sure he saw her eyelid twitch. "Darlin’.”

As Luke turned and slowly sauntered down the hall, Sonny slid his hand away from her back and turned to her. His head tilted and his eyes tried to connect with hers, but her eyes were distant and her statement was cold. But then, his hands took hold of her shoulders and turned her body to make her face him. When she did finally look into his eyes, her face grew warm again. But Alexis was still pale.

“What did he say to you before I got here?”

“Nothing.” Her voice was soft.

“Then what did he DO?”

"Nothing."

"Alexis?"

“Sonny…”

“What?”

“He was just being Luke.”

“You were white as a sheet when I got here, and I want to know why!”

Alexis stared at him with narrowed eyes and a tilt of her head.

Sonny ran his tongue across his teeth and shook his head. “Oh boy. I just sounded like a complete Neanderthal, didn’t I?”

“You said it.” Her expression was unyielding.

“Sorry.”

Her eyes darted toward the direction of Luke's departure. “Look, Sonny, what Luke said was true. We’ve been doing the antagonism tango for years." She gave him a small flash on her left dimple. "I’m sorry to have to break it to you, but you were not my first. I was a source of amusement for him long before I was ever one for you.”

Sonny felt himself begin to blush at the double-entendre that slipped from her mouth. And he smiled at his silly pang of jealousy.

“And you know as well as I do that his brand of amusement is rather…well, base. I can handle him. I always have.”

“Okay. If you say so.”

Sonny wanted to believe her, but he just couldn’t. She was definitely not herself when he first came upon the two of them. And there was something about the way Luke looked at her that made the hairs on the back of Sonny’s neck stand on end. Or maybe it was it the way Alexis looked back at Luke.

Alexis sighed and scrunched her shoulders. “So what happened to Tony? Can I just go home now?”

“I’m here!” Tony quickly approached, decidedly out of breath. “Sorry. I had to check in on that emergency patient from this morning. And yes, you can go home." He began to wave his arms, shooing her away. "Go! Get out of here, get lost, take a hike, hit the road Jack, and don’t let the door hit you in the behind on your way out!”

Alexis laughed, dimples finally flashing everywhere as she wrapped her arms around herself. “I can take a hint.” She turned to Sonny with an exasperated look. “Well, you heard the man. Get me the hell out of here!”

“Ask and ye shall receive.”

Sonny unfolded her coat from over his arm and held it up for her. Tony looked at Sonny’s face and saw the bright gleam in his eyes as he helped Alexis carefully slip her arms into the sleeves. She was still smiling, and Sonny basked in the glow of it. It was clear from the way he looked at her that the adoration Tony had seen over the course of her hospital stay was still living large, only it was no longer tangled in so much fear. And he wondered how much longer it would take for Alexis to realize that the adoration was not so one-sided. She’d invoked Sonny’s name at every turn while anxiously enduring the exam – so much so that he might as well have been in the room himself.

"I just want you to promise me that you'll take it easy and not overdo - either physically or mentally. Got it?"

"Got it."

"And I want you to keep getting as much rest as you possibly can. There's no such thing as too much sleeping in the first week or so after you get out of the hospital."

Luke rolled the back of his head against the wall, his eyes squinting at the sporadic bits and pieces his ears could steal from his post around the blind corner.

"Take it easy...first weeks...out of the hospital..."

“I’ll call you with those blood test results. And please do call me if there’s anything else you need to discuss.” Tony set a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“I will.”

Sonny’s ears perked up. Anything else? He looked to Alexis, but he would not ask.

"I'll be calling and checking up on you, you know."

"I did expect as much. Thank you, Tony."

“Doctor Jones.” Sonny held out his hand, and Tony shook it without hesitation. "You can call me too. I have no problem with ratting her out if she's being contrary."

Alexis gave him an incredulous look, which made Sonny laugh heartily. "This tyrant business is one thing, but ratting me out is not on the list of acceptable behavior, buddy."

"Yeah, yeah. Let's get you home." And Sonny slipped his arm back around Alexis and led her on her way home.

Tony turned and headed for the nurse's station, only to find his ex-bro-in-law suddenly blocking his road.

“Payback’s a bitch.”

Tony stiffened. His face tightened as he looked up at Luke, who stood shifting his jaw back and forth. He turned to follow the focus of Luke's attention, and watched as Sonny and Alexis disappeared into the elevator.

“What the hell is THAT supposed to mean?” Tony snapped, his eyes squinting to slits.

“What the hell do you THINK it meant?”

Tony was stunned. “Good God, Luke. What did that woman ever do to you?”

He didn’t know if Luke truly hated Alexis if only by virtue of her bloodline, or if the crass display he’d witnessed between them earlier had been just some sick form of flirtation. And he couldn't imagine how Luke could have found out what happened to her, as his cutting remarks would imply. Even if Bobbie knew the truth, she’d never divulge it.

But Luke was taken aback by Tony’s defensive tone. He pulled his chin back into his neck and snorted. “I’d think that what that woman did to YOU is more the question. But we already know the answer to that one, don’t we?”

Tony was thoroughly confused. But he didn’t trust Luke as far as he could throw him, and he was wary of stepping into any well-laid traps that might pave Luke’s path toward giving Alexis more grief.

“Maybe YOU know the answer. Care to fill me in too?”

“Carly trashed your marriage, she trashed my sister – she trashed YOU, my friend!” Luke finally barked, looking at Tony like he was an imbecile.

“Yeah. So?”

“And a bit of payback, also known as karma, seems to be in the cards for the not-so-sweet Caroline.”

Tony sighed, relieved that Luke’s contemptuous comments were not directed at Alexis. But he still didn’t understand what Carly had to do with anything.

“As usual, Luke, I need a program to follow the libretto of the strange, private little opera you’re singing.”

“Her husband and his attorney seem to be quite the cozy couple. It’s no wonder my niece has been hating Ms. Davis with the rage of a thousand toddlers. Could it be that the former home-wrecker is now on the receiving end of having her own nest un-feathered by a new beauteous bird?”

“You’re jumping to an awfully broad conclusion, don’t you think?”

Luke winked. “Well she is one hell of a broad. Although, I’d have to say ‘dame’ is really more fitting, wouldn’t you?”

Tony heaved a sigh. “Some men do still follow various forms of traditional behavior. It’s hardly unusual for a man to walk with an arm around a woman’s back – especially Sonny, I would think. After all, he never does know when he might need to quickly step up behind her and shove her to the ground to keep a hail of bullets from entering her body.”

Luke smiled and wagged his finger. “That was good.”

“Thank you.”

“I liked it.”

“I’m glad.”

“But it ain't throwing me off the scent. Bullet-proofing his attorney is one thing, doc. But only a WOMAN inspires a man to bare his fangs and growl like a mama lion seeing her cub under threat." Luke took a deep breath and his eyes washed across the hall. "I can still smell the testosterone. Can't you?"

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The words loomed large over her head, like a cloud - a verbal Sword of Damocles, courtesy of Luke Spencer. Luke. Of all people. How could she have been so careless? Why did it have to be the more difficult injury to explain away? What could he possibly be thinking? Alexis knew that he WAS thinking.

“You look like a damned junkie…”

Sonny tried not to stare at her profile as she stared out the window, lost in thought. So far, she was just as quiet on the ride home as she’d been on the way there. And Johnny still cast two many glances into the rear view mirror, stopping only when his eyes were met with Sonny’s disapproving face. This was no time for an accident. But at least the color had come back into her face with the warmth of the sun washing over her through the glass.

She took a deeper breath now and then, releasing it slowly. And as she blinked against that warming mid-day sun, her eyelids seemed less and less willing to open all the way. He knew she was drained, but he also knew that there was something troubling her that she wasn’t of the mind to share.

“Oh…” Alexis brought her hand up to her mouth as her brow furrowed.

Her sudden statement sent Johnny’s eyes into the forbidden mirror once more. Sonny shifted in his seat, turning himself toward her.

“What?”

Her fingertips danced against her lower lip as she looked at him. “Stefan. I forgot that I wanted to stop by his office and see him before I left the hospital.”

“Was he expecting you?”

“No. I didn’t even tell him about my appointment when we spoke last night. I didn’t want him to hover over me - or harass Tony. And I thought it would be nice to surprise him with how much better I look. But I got…distracted.”

“I can turn around and take you back, if you want.” Johnny offered. “Just say the word.”

Alexis hesitated. As much as she could have used a reassuring smile from her life-long tower of strength, she knew he would see something was wrong. Stefan always knew, and there was simply no hiding from him. She would not add fuel to the fires of unyielding animosity between her family and Luke.

“N-no, that’s alright. Thanks, Johnny.”

“Are you sure? It’s no problem, right boss?”

“No problem at all. Are you sure?”

She nodded, her heavy lids fully closing as she whispered softly. “I’m sure.”

“Your brother will come and see you, whenever you want him to.”

“I know”

Sonny’s hand slid to her leg, just a few inches from his, and he gave the denim a light scratch. “Tired?”

Her eyes slowly opened and she gave him a smile that he knew was solely for his benefit. “Yeah.”

“Why don’t you lean back and rest until we get home. It’s pretty comfortable back here, with the leather seats and all. Right, Johnny?”

Johnny frowned into the mirror. “I’ve never been in the back seat.”

She laughed softly, and Johnny caught the reflection of Sonny’s twinkling eyes before returning his focus to the road. Alexis sighed heavily and took Sonny’s suggestion, settling herself back against the soft tan leather and closing her eyes.

“Now I’m being a car potato. Is there no end to my spud potential?”

It was Sonny’s turn to laugh. “I guess I’m just a bad influence.”

“So everyone keeps telling me.”

“Hey!”

Johnny chortled. He couldn’t help it. “Sorry boss. It was funny.” He stole another glance into the mirror and was greeted with the sight of Alexis smiling…and Sonny, settling himself back beside her.

“Yeah, yeah.” Sonny grumbled mockingly.

He turned his head and lowered his gaze to her sweet, beautiful face, watching the light flutter off her closed lids as she tried to release the morning's stress free from her mind. That face was too tempting, and Sonny couldn’t keep his empty hands to himself any longer. The corners of her mouth rose up, cheeks giving him a hint of dimples as his fingers brushed along the edge of her jaw on their way to the nape of her neck.

He loved the feel of that soft, delicate spot where her warm skin met baby-fine wisps of hair. And he loved knowing that it never failed to elicit the same languid response from her. Sonny couldn’t help but wonder if some such things he knew about Alexis’s body were things that not even her lover had discovered. He already knew there were things about her soul that Ashton hadn’t opened his eyes enough to see.

And as his thoughts continued to stray toward the man who would claim her back, Sonny felt the slight pressure of Alexis’ head coming to rest upon his shoulder. He smiled and rested his own head against hers, enjoying the tickle of her hair against his neck and the lovely whisper of gardenias teasing his nose. Alexis buried her fingers in the softness of cashmere and released herself even more into the feel of strength at her side.

“Thank you for my present.” She whispered.

“You thanked me already.”

“I know. Some things bear repeating.”

Sonny’s fingers briefly stopped their rhythmic caressing of her neck, then began again as he turned his face into her hair.

“Thank you too.”

“For what?”

She opened her eyes and tilted her head back. Sonny looked down into those intoxicating eyes, and simply let himself swim.

“Not listening to what everyone keeps telling you.”

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"I’m thinking that Caroline tucked her tail between her legs and slithered off to parts unknown with the little carrot-top for a reason – a leggy one with soulful brown eyes and an Ivy League degree. Pity.”

“Carly and Michael left because Sonny’s worst enemy presented a serious threat, and you know it. And since when do you give a damn about Carly anyway?”

“I don’t. But Bobbie does.”

“I know. But don’t go throwing false accusations at Alexis because Carly’s husband lives a dangerous life. That’s Carly’s blame style, not yours.”

“Who said I was accusing Alexis?”

“You were referring to some other leggy Ivy Leaguer?”

“Try saying THAT three times fast.”

Tony stared at Luke’s twinkling eyes. He was not in the mood, and his growling stomach attested to it. He looked down at his watch and groaned. “One hour. That’s all I want is a lunch HOUR, just like the rest of the world gets.”

Luke slapped him on the shoulder and was met with an unpleased face. “Didn’t they teach you in med school that you aren’t LIKE the rest of the world? You’re a doctor – a god, who is not meant to live as the rest of us mere mortals. Saving lives waits for no lunch hour.”

Tony’s stomach loudly demanded attention once more, and he turned away with a shake of his head. “We’ll just see about that. I’ll see you around, Luke.”

“Speaking of med school, didn’t they also teach you how to do needle sticks on a grapefruit or something, before turning you lose on real people?”

Tony froze.

“But don’t worry. I don’t think she took my suggestion to sue the hospital very seriously. Which is a good thing, because she does know how to win a case. Some of us know that better than others, of course.”

Tony continued to walk away without a word. But Luke’s voice hit his ears one more time, and he couldn’t not listen.

“What’s wrong with her, Tony?”

Tony slowed his pace to a stop and turned his head to look over his shoulder. “There’s a little thing called doctor/patient confidentiality. You know that, Luke. And you’re not getting a thing from me.”

“I think I just did.”

Tony felt his nostrils flair. He struggled to keep his anger in check. There was something in Luke’s voice that told him he didn’t hate Alexis, but she had definitely been caught in his radar. And Luke was not one to walk away from anything mysterious…or Cassadine. Alexis was both, and Tony just wanted Luke to walk away.

“Leave her alone, Luke. If you’re in the mood to play, go find yourself another toy.”

“How come? Is this particular toy already taken by the well-coiffed patron saint of formerly wayward doctors?”

“It’s none of your business.”

“Helena Cassadine IS my business!”

“Alexis Davis is NOT!” The strength of his own tone startled him, and Tony’s eyes darted around the sparsely inhabited corridor.

"If Helena's throwing something around that could land on me and my family, it damn well IS my business." Luke hissed, keeping his voice low.

“It’s a big, bad world out there, Luke. And the blame for all the ills of the world cannot be summarily laid at Helena Cassadine’s feet.”

Luke cocked his head and his posture slackened. “Well don’t stop now, doc. I’m getting curiouser and curiouser.”

"The thing that killed the proverbial cat. Just how many lives do you think you've got left?"

"I could ask the same question about Ms. Davis."

Tony struggled, unable to answer with anything more than what he’d already said.

“Leave her alone, Luke. For God's sake, just leave Alexis alone.”

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The elevator door seems to take an extraordinarily long time to open. But when it did, the welcome sight of her own front door sent a wave of calm right through her. It was all that stood between her and her sanctuary…her home.

Sonny opened the door and stepped back to allow her inside first. He gave a nod to Johnny, who followed them into PH2 and closed the door behind him. Alexis was silent as she unbuttoned her coat and began to slip it off her shoulders. Sonny was quickly behind her, his hands taking hold of the thick wool. She dropped her arms and allowed him to ease it from her body.

The blinking light of the answering machine caught her eyes as Sonny opened the closet door and hung up her coat. Alexis closed her eyes and turned away. She’d been engaged enough for one morning and didn't want anything else coming at her. She still fought the echo of Luke Spencer’s voice in her head.

“…a damned junkie.”

All that she wanted was some quiet solitude…and for the voice to go away.

Johnny fixed her with a strange and studious gaze. Alexis just didn’t seem right. She opened her eyes but they were unfocused, staring in the vague direction of the closet. Sonny closed the door and began to slip his arms free of his own coat.

“So, are you hungry? Say yes.” He cajoled with a grin.

“Yes.” She repeated simply, turning her head toward his movement as he laid his coat over the chair. “But I want to go upstairs and change first. Maybe lie down for few minutes.”

Johnny’s eyes darted to Sonny, looking for confirmation that the strange vibe she was putting out was not all in his head. He could see in Sonny’s expression that it wasn’t.

“Sure, you go get comfortable and rest a while. I need to go across the hall for a bit anyway – take care of a few things, make a couple of calls.”

“Okay.” Alexis tugged at the edge of her sweater.

“Does anything in particular sound good to you?”

She shook her head and twisted her fingers within the fringe. “So far you’re batting a thousand. I’ll just leave the menu up to your discretion.”

“But she probably wouldn’t mind if your discretion included popcorn.”

Alexis laughed at Johnny’s sudden quip. “True.”

Sonny turned an appreciative smile Johnny’s way. “NOW who’s being a bad influence?” He winked at Alexis over her shoulder, and Johnny grinned at the quick roll of her eyes. “Okay then. I’ll be back in about half an hour to get lunch started.”

"I'll be here."

Johnny followed Sonny through the door. Even though Alexis couldn't hear them, he kept his voice low.

"What did Dr. Jones do to her?"

Sonny stared at the closed door of PH2, as Johnny's harsh whisper filled his ears. "Nothing, Johnny. Her check-up was fine."

"But Alexis isn't."

Sonny shifted his eyes to Johnny's worried face. "She's just exhausted. It took a lot out of her to make herself go back today. And you know how she is. Tony said she was joking her way through it, trying to make like it was no big deal. Pretending like that is exhausting."

"I know. But there's something else, I think. I haven't seen her this...what's the word? Subdued? Yeah, subdued. I haven't seen her be that way since she was in the ICU."

When she last felt the threat of all control being out of her hands. Again, the hairs on the back of Sonny's neck stood on end. A light trill suddenly came from his jacket pocket, and Sonny pulled out his phone.

"Yeah." He frowned. "No, she's upstairs. What's going on"

Johnny's jaw shifted, tightening with the morphing looks on Sonny's face. He wanted to know who was on the other end of the line and what it had to do with Alexis. Sonny's narrowing eyes did not make him happy.

"Alright. Yeah. Thanks, Tony. I appreciate it."

"Dr. Jones? What's wrong?"

Sonny bit down on his lip and shook his head, remembering the way Luke had looked at Alexis, and the pallor of her face in response.

"If Luke Spencer mentions her to you again, I want to know about it. I don't care what he says or how irrelevant it seems, you got it?"

Johnny stared blankly. He was confused. "Luke?"

"And if he ever shows up here at her door, that's as close to her as he's ever to get. And again, I want to know about it."

"Did he...was he...?"

"Yeah, he was. I walked in on them talking in the hallway. She said it was nothing, that she could handle him. I don't want her to HAVE to handle him."

Johnny felt his face growing hot. He hadn't liked the lascivious tone in Luke's voice when he'd called her by the exotic name that Johnny didn't know was hers - Natasha. It was no secret to anyone in town that the Spencer/Cassadine feud had been long, ugly and involved the spilling of blood. If Luke thought he was going to use Alexis as a pawn to further his fight, he was mistaken. Nobody was going to mess with her again - not on Johnny's watch.

"Don't worry, boss. She won't have to handle Luke. I'LL handle him for her."

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Alexis stood in place, enveloped in silence and the object of no one's stare...no one's touch. She tried to determine how it felt, but she determined that she felt nothing at all. She was numb, and it was what she wanted. She slowly turned her head, allowing her eyes to wander around the room and finally settling upon the flashing red light. She stared.

Blink...blink...blink...

The light began to assume a sound in her mind - a noisy demand she wanted to silence. Alexis moved toward the light and reached out to push the button.

"Hey sweetheart, it's me."

She smiled and leaned against the desk.

"It's about twelve o'clock and I found myself missing you. Are you still sleeping? I know that our time together was pretty draining for you yesterday, and...well, I hope you're taking care of yourself today. You really do need to stop pushing yourself so hard, you know?"

Ned laughed lightly, and Alexis could picture exactly how he must have looked right then - head turned into the phone, eyes cast to the floor, and dimples shyly peeking out of hiding.

"And now that I've tried telling you what to do - or rather, what NOT to do - I was wondering when I could see you again. And when I DO see you again, what do you say we don't talk about anything that will take the smile from your face. Okay? See, I've been a bit starved for that smile lately, and...."

His voice started to break and Alexis felt her eyes begin to burn.

"Sorry. Um, I just want to see you, Alexis. So please call me when you're awake, or...when you're able to talk. I've got my trusty broom in hand already." Ned laughed again and sighed lightly. "I'll talk to you soon. Bye."

Alexis felt a thin trail of hot tears run down her cheek as she stared down at the machine. She didn't know why. She didn't know what all was brewing inside of her. She only knew that Luke had opened the doors to something deep, and the sound of Ned's voice pushed them open even wider. Alexis didn't want them open at all. She was too tired, and the confusing tears were roughly pushed away. The bruise on her cheek hurt as her hand wiped at the wetness, but she didn't care. She just wanted to clean her mind, clean her face, and feel the softness of her own pillow under her head.

Her sweater was halfway peeled off before she got to the bedroom. It fell to the floor in a light gray pile by the foot of the bed, but the pink cashmere scarf was carefully folded and laid upon the white comforter. The high heeled boots she struggled to remove were tossed into the closet, and as she moved through the room, the cool air of the room felt good against her hot skin, now sheathed in only the silk of her camisole and the denim of her jeans.

She slipped into the bathroom and turned on the light, somewhat surprised by the even complexion of the face that stared back at her in the mirror. It wouldn't look that way for long. Alexis turned on the water and leaned down over the basin to splash her face, over and over, cleaning away the stain of unwanted tears and the make-up that made her bruised face presentable to the world.

The water was soothing and it sent a brief chill through her body as errant drops landed on the bare skin of her shoulders and chest. And the silk she wore, the color of coffee with heavy cream, grew dark-spotted. She dried her face with the bath towel and as she returned it to its hook, the tiny round bandage caught her eye. Her fingernails went to work on the edge of the adhesive, pulling it away and exposing the newest tiny dot to grace her arm. An even dozen.

"...damned junkie."

Alexis gripped the sides of the porcelain. The room had tilted and her knees felt weak under the weight of her body. She twisted herself around to sit on the edge of the tub, one hand holding tight to the sink as she took a deep, steadying breath. Her eyes slowly closed and an unexpected vision of Ned flashed into her mind. He was kneeling on the floor, looking up at her like he was afraid he would never see her again. She was cold and wet and dirty...and the color red was everywhere.

It was the night she almost died - the night Sonny almost died too - and Alexis had sat right where she was, on the edge of the bathtub while Ned tended to her. His face had never looked so loving, his touch had never been so gentle. Her emotions were overwhelming, and there came a point where she could no longer cry, and she couldn't even consciously feel. She didn't want to...just like now.

But the way Ned looked at her made her believe she'd been truly forgiven for all the hurt she'd caused him, and Alexis started to shake. She thought she would die if she didn't prove she was alive. The force of her need had stunned him, but his own need was no less great. And Alexis felt forgiven.

Her hand slipped away from the smooth basin and she ran her fingers through the damp edges of her hair. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut before blinking them open, biting down hard on her lip to force herself back to the present. Alexis tried to push the image of Ned out of her mind while keeping the image of Luke from drifting back in. Neither one was easy...and she was so tired. She needed to disappear. And the sight of her bed through the open bathroom door beckoned her. Alexis followed its call.

Before she knew it, she was crawling onto the comforter and hugging the pillow to her head. The cotton was cool and soft against her skin, and she smiled into it. Already, she felt at peace. But as her eyes blinked their final way to closing, a flash of pink caught her eye. She remembered Sonny's shy smile when she opened that silver box and pulled out the length of warm wool. And she remembered the feel of his hands as he slipped it around her neck and pulled her hair out from beneath, his fingers lightly brushing against her throat. Alexis reached out to gather a corner of the folded cashmere into her hand and pull it up to her face. Another hot veil of tears unexpectedly invaded her eyes.

She still didn't know why.