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Scene 82

Ned's stomach growled as one more swallow of Coke made its way down his throat.

He hadn’t felt much like eating that day, and was on his third can of soda since noon. His stomach loudly protested being filled with nothing but carbonated sugar, but he paid it no mind. Squinting brown eyes shifted to the large round clock on the wall as the sound of Juan Santiago’s new ballad swam into un-attentive ears. It was almost four o’clock and still not a word. Please, God, don’t let something be wrong.

He shook his head, feeling absurd in jumping to the worst. Nothing was wrong. If it were, he would feel it. Ned sighed and pushed the sleeves of his sweater further up toward his elbows. They were annoying, those sleeves - they kept slipping down. And Juan’s voice kept swimming. He turned his head and gazed at the back of her nephew’s head. The kid had been a very unhappy camper that Alexis refused to see him yet, and Ned had nothing but empathy for how that felt.

But Nikolas kept busy. He sat at the end of the long table, a small stack of papers to his left and a stack of colored folders to his right. And the odd black and white glossy was scattered about. His dark head was bent down in concentration over the new promo plans for L&B’s new rising star – also known as Emily’s ex boyfriend. Ned crossed his arms with a wry huff. His family did everything they could to keep those two kids apart, and everything they did failed. In fact, it drove them closer together and kept them together longer than if they’d simply stood back and waited for Emily to show Juan the door on her own. That’s what Ned wished for, and that’s what Emily finally did…and Zander walked in to take his place.

Be careful what you wish for.

The word “love”, carried in a fading lyric, caught his ear as the music began to die. The boy was barely eighteen, yet he sang of love like a man – a man who knew things. What could he know? Young love was so fleeting. It came and it went, leaving a minor scratch in the smooth, shiny surface of one’s ego. But the smile of the next pretty girl who came along would buff that scratch right out, and all would be right with the smooth, shiny ego of a boy of eighteen.

How could he know that one day, a woman would come into his life and his heart, blissfully turning his world upside-down. And there would be no minor scratch, but a deep, irreparable gash when things went inevitably wrong. A world spinning with bliss could break apart without warning and leave you in painful pieces on the ground. Juan was just a boy…and Ned was a man – a man who knew things.

Why hadn’t Alexis called him back?

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She ran the brush lightly through her hair as the tortoise-shell barrette hit the dresser.

It had felt good to have her hair under control and off her face, but it felt even better to set it free. Her fingers ran through the soft strands, searching for unseen tangles before each sweep of the bristles made its downward path. She firmed her grip on the smooth wooden handle, and Alexis could feel the strength returning to the hand and arm that had been so weak and shaky just the day before. She felt it returning to her whole body…and in spite of a brief lapse in her fortitude just a few HOURS before, she felt it returning to her soul. After all, she’d slept through the night and also a mid-day nap, waking up in bed instead of the floor. There had been no bad dreams, only peace.

Alexis stared into the mirror in front of her as the brush moved slowly up and down, over and over, her fingers trailing across her scalp in time with the bristles. She drifted into thoughts of how Sonny’s hands felt, sifting in a rhythmic pattern through her hair. His touch was so gentle, so steady and sure. It settled the most static currents of anxiety running through her, and kept her grounded when fears made her feel adrift. And Alexis remembered Ned, and the look on his face every night as he watched her brush her hair from his side of the bed – be it his own bed or hers.

The movement of her arm slowed as her gaze lowered down from the reflection of her face to the reflection of the white comforter that hung over the corner of the bed. It was where she’d sat the day before, when Ned took the brush into his own hand for the first time and tenderly took up the task of the nightly ritual Alexis hadn’t the strength to take up yet herself. It had been a surprising gesture. It was sweet, attentive, and it made her feel inexplicably young...and unsettlingly vulnerable.

Her heavy arm fell south, brush still in hand as she blinked hard and lifted her eyes to the face in the mirror. The thick sleeve of her sweatshirt gave way to gravity, slipping down to rest the rolled cuff to her wrist. Alexis grabbed hold of the fleece and tugged it back up above the skin newly anointed with the glow Vitamin E. She squinted at her reflection, studying the smooth bangs that grazed her brow as she tucked her hair behind each ear. The scrape was well hidden, but Alexis didn’t really care about that anymore. The war wounds were beginning to lose their power.

“It’s not such a big deal, Alexis.”

She smiled, holding her brother’s soft brown eyes in her mind’s eye. Such sage and stoic words from a boy of barely eighteen, spoken like a man – a man who knew things. But Stefan WAS a man, and had been from an earlier time than that tender age. It was only in the last few months that he’d faltered, his sage and stoic pride compromised as only the deepest wounding could cause…wounds done by a parent or child. Her brother had suffered both, and Alexis couldn’t help but feel she’d failed him as well.

He didn’t come to her when Helena’s plan to kill him came to light. She knew deep down that it was a purely personal battle he needed to fight alone, but there’s nothing she wouldn’t have done or sacrificed to help him. Alexis hoped he knew that. And she hoped he knew she forgave him for the pain his supposed death had caused, just as he’d forgiven her for the pain of a desperate act of her own - hers, and his worst enemy’s.

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It was pure reflex, the way his head turned and his foot released from the gas pedal as he neared the building.

He knew he should keep going – push his foot back down and keep his eyes on the road ahead. But Stefan allowed himself a long moment to make it a conscious choice for the right reasons. Nikolas was so close. He was somewhere inside the modern architecture, if one could call it that, of the two-story building marked with the large, scrolling letters “L & B”. Stefan longed to go inside and see him, the boy who should be all right be HIS issue - if for no one’s sake but Nikolas’s alone. He could offer to bring him along, for just a short visit. He knew that Alexis was still fragile, and she could not be subjected to too much…

No.

Stefan shook his head and slowly blinked his eyes against the vision of the unsightly façade – and the detour of his rational mind. He would not go inside, he would not see the boy who should have been his, and he would not push. Instead, he ran his fingers along his sharp jaw line, absently stroking the short, well-trimmed sandy beard. His eyes returned to the pavement in front of him and his foot pressed on the accelerator. Returning him on his intended path. A conscious choice was made, and Alexis would be proud that her perceptive heart had led him down the right and proper path.

“Stop trying. Let it go – let him come to you when he’s ready.”

Stefan smiled and turned his eyes away from the glass doors. Alexis was always right when it came to the emotional pain of people she loved - the pain of anyone, in truth. It was her empathy, un-tempered with reason, which gave rise to her own conscious choice to gamble with her life for a stranger her beloved nephew’s age. Stefan couldn’t help it, but he still felt a flash of anger at the selfless stupidity of what she had done. His sister’s selfless stupidity had laid a deep trail behind her, blazed in a search for acceptance and love.

It amazed him how one so wonting for love had so much to give herself, and gave it so freely. And it amazed him that her own pain had left her not bitter and hard, but soft and compassionate. In that, Stefan ruefully admitted she was his better. But he hadn’t always thought it so. He’d spent the better part of her youth attempting to instill a core of unflinching steel and pragmatic dispassion within her. These were Stefan’s own qualities acquired from necessity, that oft-times cruel mother of invention.

He released a short, sharp exhale in a semblance of a laugh. Cruel mother? Quite ironic. And ironic too was his teaching of these traits to one who could don them like a dress, use them to her best gainful advantage or deft deflection of ills, then shed them like that self-same dress when safely in no one’s company but his own. Not so for Stefan, whose steel and dispassion stayed rooted where they lay, only managing to yield, but not release, when safely in no one’s company but hers.

It was a matter of balance, he philosophized, that Alexis should now attempt to instill a core of softness and patience within him. And Stefan was beginning to understand that he would do as well to learn from his little one now, as she did well to learn from him then. He would give Nikolas space, and allow him to reach out both when and how it suited him. Alexis had spoken to him and assured him of her health, but she still put off a face-to-face meeting.

It caused a great frustration in the future prince, but he bore it with fitting dignity. He respected his aunt well enough to abide by her wishes, though it worried him to know Alexis was injured and it was bad enough to make her want to hide from his tender eyes. And it angered him that even the drug-dealing Smith boy had been allowed to see her, though the penthouse living arrangements made it somewhat inevitable.

Stefan knew that Alexis had motives beyond her fear that the boy would be upset to see the marks of violence. Helena was his grandmother, after all. He suspected Alexis had a more dramatic ploy at play than the simple one designed to force communication between the brother and nephew she loved. To refuse Nikolas a visit was to create a sense of alienation – one with which his uncle could empathize. It was clever, and very Cassadine…if not on the grand and gothic scale befitting the name.

And it seemed to be working fairly well, so far. With each visit to Alexis, Stefan would report back. He would answer any points of concern, and leave before being asked to do so. His pride was on the ground, but so be it. He wanted his son – his nephew back. Their shared love for Alexis would help make that happen, as would her love for them.

The tall white orchid in a glazed celadon pot waved at him in the rear view mirror from its perch upon the back seat. Stefan smiled and hoped it would make her smile too. She loved orchids as much as he did, but he’d never told Alexis that they put him in mind of her. The flower and the woman shared an elegant beauty, a balance of delicacy and strength, and the ability to flourish from a foundation of stone. And as the gentle sway of the curving petals drew his attention once more, there dawned another striking similarity...but this one took the smile from Stefan’s face.

In the center of the pale, elegant beauty lay variant purple hues - like Alexis now, and Alexis long ago.

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There was much to be said for the power of simplicity…like a Pyrex casserole of macaroni and cheese.

And there was much to be said for the ability to give comfort. He supposed that his propensity for feeding people physically was a form of compensation for the degree of emotional distance that was his way, especially with people who lived deep in his heart. Cooking for them was an expression of love. To nourish their bodies was to nourish his soul - his mother had taught him that well.

Sonny stretched his arms up over his head with a groan, then lowered his hands to clasp them behind his neck. As he settled back into the couch, listening to the crackling flames in the newly lit fireplace, he drifted into a rare deliberate thought of his mother. Sonny knew that she loved him, as she knew the love of her son. But she was incapable of protecting either one of them from the violent anger that simmered beneath the surface of their lives.

And the secrets living in their house kept tongues locked in silence, afraid to loosen at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and set the first angry domino to falling. They learned to read each other well without words, and expressions of love and comfort came within the simple things of everyday life. For Adela, that expression came from her kitchen, and Sonny was proud to follow her lead.

Now more than ever, his cooking was infused with love as he fed Alexis and joyfully watched her take comfort in it while it also helped her grow strong. She didn’t know it yet, but Sonny intended to continue nourishing her. He would take over her kitchen, or toil away in his own, until the safety pin in her blue jeans was gone - if she allowed herself to be so bossed, that is. He smiled as he conjured her petulant face, frowning at him in a brief, obligatory show of rebellion when being prodded to eat…or take her vitamins…or leave her alarm clock unset. Petulance was adorable on Alexis, even when worn in jest.

And the vision in his head morphed into one of Alexis curled up on her bed beside him, the think, pale, feminine silk camisole sweetly hugging half her curves while the thick, dark, androgynous denim hugged the rest of them. Though she wore no less in private than Carly often wore out on the streets, it was a vision of her that Sonny’s instincts said belonged only to a lover’s eyes. But he paid his instincts no mind. His wishful thinking and hard-held hopes had stolen his sense of propriety. And Alexis thought nothing of the way she filled his gaze. Her instincts made her feel natural, being that way with him. She was comfortable…until Sonny reached for the scarf.

He’d made her self-conscious, as he wanted NOT to do, and the word “exposed” sat in the room like a vital presence. Her joke about donning a snow suit was not so great a jest, as Alexis came down to lunch wearing thick black leggings and a white sweatshirt that covered her from neck to wrists to the tops of her thighs. It was huge – and it bore a “World Cup” logo, leaving little room for doubt who that sweatshirt once belonged to. A long gone ex-husband and a not-so-gone ex-fiancé were constant ghosts haunting the flesh and blood of Sonny. He didn’t want to be an ex-anything to Alexis. He wanted to be her present, and her future. And what he’d let slip from his mouth was true – even in a big, baggy sweatshirt appropriated from Jax, Alexis took his breath away.

A sharp snap from the fireplace turned his head, and Sonny watched a spray of yellow sparks fly upward and disappear into thin air. The sweet, smoky fragrance of burning wood began to fill his head. It was a soothing fragrance of hearth and home, and he yearned for Alexis to come downstairs and enjoy it with him, as he knew she would. He glanced back at the stairway, wondering what was consuming her attention up in her room.

Another nap? No, she was well rested enough. Maybe she was trying to get used to the idea of being alone, once he’d gone back home. But the day was going by so quickly, and even an hour alone with her, sitting contentedly on the couch in front of a warming fire, was too precious a thing to lose. And Sonny almost regretted his conscious choice to share what little private time they had left.

Almost.

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She tugged at the waistband of the black fleece as she turned away from the mirror.

Alexis always felt a sense of calm after her personal ritual of hair brushing was done. It was something she didn’t normally do during the day, unless preparing for an occasion after work. But now it served as a small reward for dutifully completing the medical ritual of taking vitamins and detox pills and rubbing sticky oil into her arms and forehead. It no longer upset her much to have to so these things, but to find something soothing to do for herself afterward gave her balance. Balance was sorely underrated…until one found it unexpectedly thrown off kilter. Alexis had found her sense of balance sorely challenged in recent months, and not just by Sorel. Reclaiming it was something she needed to do - in ALL aspects of her life.

She slipped into the bathroom and filled a glass with water before making her way to the bed. She sat on the edge as she sipped slowly, her eyes settling their gaze on the penguin that sat vigil on the nightstand. Alexis smiled at the black-beaked little thing, and made a mental note to slip it into Sonny’s things before we went back across the hall that night. It was, after all, his turn. She blinked and let her focus shift to the browning purple iris that stood in its tiny crystal vase. She reached out and ran a gentle finger down the dry, curling petals. They were such lovely flowers, but far too delicate to last for long once they’d been cut. Alexis moved her hand from the wilted stem to the telephone. She wanted to call Ned. As she pushed herself back up onto the bed and leaned against the back pillow, Alexis punched in the number she knew by heart. It was answered on the first ring.

“L and B.”

“Hi. It’s me.” She heard a sharp inhale of breath on the other end of the line.

“Alexis? Hi. Um…”

There was a strange silence. “Ned?”

“Hi. Sorry. Nikolas just walked out the door two seconds ago, and when I heard your voice I had the reflex to yell for him to come back so he could talk to you.”

“No, don’t. We spoke last night and I’ll talk to him again soon.”

“He is going a little crazy that you won’t let him see you yet.”

“I know. Stefan told me. And I’m sorry about that.”

Ned hesitated. “May I ask why you’re keeping him at bay? He won’t care about the bruises, you know. I mean, about how they look.”

“Let’s just say that I’m trying to make lemonade out of lemons.”

“O…kay”

Alexis smiled at his clear confusion. “Bridge a gap?”

“Ah! Between Nikolas and Stefan, I take it?”

“Bingo.”

“Now THAT’S the resourceful little Cassadine I know and love.”

“I know it’s terribly manipulative of me, but it just feels like the right thing to do. And I’m doing it for good, rather than evil, so I hope I’ll be forgiven.”

“Better be careful. That kind of talk could get you thrown out of the family.” Ned teased with a soft chuckle.

“What, again?” Alexis bit her lip as Ned’s laughter grew. “So anyway, I called to talk to YOU.”

“Good.” He murmured, lowering himself into the leather chair.

“How are you? See – I’m still trying to beat people to the punch with that question.”

“I’m infinitely better, now that I’m talking to you instead of watching the clock and wondering if you were okay.”

“Why? What time…” Alexis turned her head to find the clock.

“Almost four fifteen.” Ned answered. “I was getting a little worried that yesterday was…well, that maybe in looking back, you were sorry for everything you…”

“Ned?”

He paused. “Yes?”

“I’m not sorry for anything I told you. But I am sorry I couldn’t call you back more quickly.” She took a moment, and Ned focused on the sound of her soft breaths. “I think you may be right about me pushing myself a little too much - and too soon.”

Ned frowned into the phone as he sat up in his chair. “I don’t like the sound of that.” He leaned forward, elbows pressing into the tops of his thighs while his fingers rubbed at his brow. “Sweetheart, what’s wrong? If you feel like it was too soon for you to go home, or if you think that you’re having a relapse, I want you to call Tony Jones now and…”

“No, Ned, I’m not having a relapse. I don’t think there is such a thing as a relapse from what was wrong with me. Well there IS, but it would involve a return to shooting up heroin, and I assure you THAT’S not going to happen.” Alexis laughed nervously, and it was met with an uncomfortable silence on Ned’s end of the line. “I mean, just an ordinary blood test has become traumatic enough, you know? And I’m just making you more and more uncomfortable with my inappropriate humor, aren’t I? I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Alexis.”

“Normally, Sonny and Johnny just give me this mortified look and I know to shut my big mouth, but I’m not quite sure what to make of you being quiet. If I could see your face, I would know.”

“It’s just hard for me to stop thinking of what happened to you as…well, as if it was still happening. I was in the dark for so long, both while you were with Sorel and before you finally let me see you in the hospital. I feel like I’m still stuck in that high anxiety mode. I know that you’re okay and that the worst is over, but my psyche can’t quite get out of a state of panic.”

“Oh boy, do I understand that feeling.” She laughed again, and was relieved to hear the same sound coming from him. “I think that’s why I needed to leave the hospital so desperately. It was so hard to let go of feeling trapped still. It wasn’t really over until I was back home.”

“I know. I remember you saying that, and I did understand how you felt. I still do. You deal with difficult things by making light, and that’s probably the smartest and healthiest way to be. But only as long as you don’t make light of things that still need to be taken seriously.”

Alexis shifted her back against the pillow and switched the phone to her other ear. “Why do I get the feeling that a mini lecture is coming on?”

Ned felt a tightening in his chest as he fought to control his tongue. “Sweetie, you said you were pushing yourself and then you changed the subject. Now, I thought the whole idea of Sonny staying with you was so he could look out for you and make sure you weren’t doing things you shouldn’t be doing - like pushing yourself and having a relapse. I mean…well, you know what I mean.”

“Sonny IS looking out for me, but I’m not under house arrest. I don’t let him dictate to me any more than I let anyone else dictate to me.”

“Well THAT sounds like a promising change of pace.”

“Ned!” She sighed and took another sip of water as Ned grumbled a vague apology into her ear. “Sometimes, if I start going I have to keep on my path or I’m afraid I’ll just jump the tracks. Yesterday, with you, was like that. If I had stopped in the middle of telling you all I needed to, I’d have lost my momentum and very likely my nerve right along with it. And today, it was kind of the same for me.”

“Why? What happened today?”

“That ordinary blood test trauma thing I mentioned? That’s what happened. Tony called yesterday, after you left, and wanted me back at GH for a check-up in another day or two. I wanted to get it over with, so I went this morning. That’s where I was when you called before. And there you have it – me, pushing too hard and too soon.”

“Are you alright? What did Tony say?”

“I’m fine.”

“Alexis?”

“I am. Not even a minor encounter with Luke Spencer could wreck havoc with my blood pressure.”

“I’m impressed. Luke could wreck havoc with ANYONE’S blood pressure.”

Alexis smiled and turned her cheek into the pillow. “That’s exactly what I said.”

“Are you really okay? Are you gaining back enough weight?”

“I’m not THAT thin. Why is everyone so obsessed with my gaining weight back?”

“Alexis…” Ned’s voice softened as he released himself back, slumping into the chair. “I’ve had my arms around you in the last week, and I know what your body should feel like. It doesn’t.”

That word “exposed” crept into her mind once more, and Alexis grazed her lip with her teeth. “I’m eating, Ned, so don’t worry that I’m not. In fact, I just ate like a pig a little over an hour ago and I feel like I’m going to burst.”

“Not popcorn, I hope?”

“NOT popcorn. Sonny removed every last packet from my kitchen and replaced it with so-called “real” food. He’s been cooking me three meals a day and not one of them has seen the inside of a microwave. Are you happy?”

Ned smiled in spite of himself. Yes, he was happy - sort of. “At least Corinthos is good for SOMETHING besides...”

“Ned…”

Her deep resonant tone held a warning that Ned ignored.

“So was that a late lunch or an early dinner you just had?”

Alexis paused, making the choice between leaving it alone or making an issue - or continuing to utter Sonny’s name and making Ned just deal with it. Option number three won out.

“A late lunch. I was pretty tired when we got back from GH. Tony was running behind schedule and there were some other…distractions while we were there. Anyway, Sonny had some things to attend to after he brought me home, and I really just needed to rest.”

Her eyes drifted to the darkness within the open bathroom door as her mind went back to memory of that tumultuous feeling inside of her as she sat, head spinning, on the edge of the tub.

“I lay down and before I knew it, I was out. Sonny let me sleep longer that I intended, and we ate after I woke up. And then I called you.”

“Is he still going back home today?”

“Yeah.” She answered dryly, still staring into the darkness and feeling a pounding in her temples. She heard Ned’s voice continue to softly fill her ear, but she wasn’t sure if it was in her memory, or the present.

“Are you comfortable with being alone? I mean, after what you said about those nightmares? Sweetheart, if you’re still having them and you’re afraid to be there by yourself, please let me come and stay with you.”

“What?” She whispered, blinking her eyes and trying to refocus.

“Just so you’ll have someone there, until you feel more secure.”

Alexis rubbed at the pulsing space beside her left eye. “I’m fine with being alone. Really. I’ll be okay. Like I keep telling everyone, I am a big girl.” And she knew she needed to start practicing what she preached.

Ned cleared his throat and crossed one leg to rest on his knee. “And like I told you one dark and foggy night - although I’m paraphrasing right now - even a big girl needs a friend, now and then.”

“Friend, yes. Baby sitter, no. But thank you.”

“Are you sure this isn’t just you pushing again?”

“Speaking of pushing…”

“Right.” He sighed and closed his eyes. “Well, maybe I could stop by later. Not stay over or anything, but just come and check up on you? Make sure you’re all safely tucked into bed, at least, and that all is well.”

Alexis blinked hard and her eyes suddenly lit upon the penguin. The sight of it sitting unobtrusively beside the clock on the nightstand made her smile. She reached for her fuzzy black and white protector and set it upon her chest. “I AM safe, Ned. And all is well.”

“Okay. Good.”

Ned turned his head and lowered his eyes to the floor. He felt useless – useless and usurped. Another man was making sure that all was well with Alexis. Corinthos, of all people. But why wouldn’t he, when he worked so hard to maneuver her so well? His hard work paid off, playing her commitment to equal justice and her sense of personal loyalty like a master.

But the worst thing to Ned was that Sonny had made Alexis care about him as more than just a client, and Alexis turned a deaf ear to each and every warning from the people who loved her and wanted her safe. Sonny wanted her safe too. It was in his best interest to make sure that all was well with his own personal “get out of jail free” card ensconced right across the hall, and on twenty-four hour call.

“If there’s anything you DO need, just say the word.”

“I will.”

“Promise?”

Alexis felt a tightening in her chest at the somewhat strangled timbre of the single word as it hit her ear. “Yeah, I promise.”

“ALEXIS?”

She turned her eyes to the door at the sound of Sonny’s voice, calling her from a distance. Ned heard it too, and another stomach tensed.

“Sorry – could you hold on a minute?” She grimaced as she pushed herself from the bed and made her way to the door.

“Sure.” What else was he to say?

Alexis held the phone against her chest as she called out. “I’m fine, Sonny.”

“Could you come downstairs for a minute? There’s something I need to show you.”

“I’m talking to Ned. Can it wait a little bit?” There was a short silence. “Sonny?”

“Yeah, I heard. And it can wait. Just come down when you’re done, okay?”

“Alright.”

She cleared her throat and moved back to the bed, taking another sip of water before bringing the phone back up to her face. “Hi.”

“What’s up?”

“I don’t know. Sonny just needed me for something.”

Ned shook his head as his grip firmed on the phone. His mutter was soft, but audible. “What else is new?”

The air was quiet, and her silence sent a chill up his neck. “I’m sorry. That just slipped out. Old habits…you know.”

“Yes, I DO know. But I’m not going to engage it anymore. It’s exhausting and unproductive and I just won’t do it with you - or anyone else, for that matter. There’s too much else I have to fight.”

Ned swallowed and scrunched his face. The crack in her voice hurt his heart, and he was as frustrated with his own uncontrollable mouth as he was with the object of her defensiveness. Corinthos was simply a button that felt pushed when it was merely looked upon. He’d hurt too many people Ned loved, and he couldn’t let go of the fear that Alexis was doomed to be next in line. And he had no idea how to stop it. So instead, he acquiesced.

“I understand.”

“Do you?”

“I’ll be good. I just might need a little help, now and then.”

Alexis stroked the tiny penguin head and smiled sadly at the two dark, round eyes staring back at her. “I know all about needing a little help. And Sonny has been an incredible source of it for me. You can either honor that, or not. If not, please keep it to yourself. Okay?”

Ned was startled by her blunt words, and his whispered response came slowly. “Okay. So…have I blown it?”

“No, Ned. You just need a little help, remember?”

He smiled and ran his hand through his hair, and he thought of how it had felt the day before when he’d done the same to hers. “Can I see you soon?”

“Maybe we could have coffee or something tomorrow? I’m kind of taking it day by day, and I don’t know if I’ll feel like making another public appearance yet, but…”

“The mountain will always come to Mohammad, if that’s what Mohammad needs it to do.”

“I’ll call you in the morning. But it probably won’t be too early.”

Ned laughed and tilted his head against the phone, pressing it closer to his ear. “Good. I want you to get as much rest as you can. You heal when you’re sleeping, you know.”

“So I’ve heard.” There was no need to tell him she’d heard it from Sonny. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow then. Have a good night.”

“You too. Sweet dreams.”

“I’ll do my darndest.”

She turned onto her side and slipped the phone back in its cradle. Alexis smiled and pulled the black and white creature up to her face, nuzzling her cheek against the softness. The penguin smelled vaguely of spice. Her eyes closed and she inhaled the light scent of Sonny as her fingers dug into the fur. An image began to tease her consciousness – the scent…her body, gently curled up on the bed…her arms folded up close against her chest…the feeling of being safe. Alexis frowned, unable to move more deeply into the image, and she sat herself up with a sigh of minor annoyance.

As she reached for her glass of water, she suddenly remembered that Sonny was waiting for her downstairs. She had no idea what he wanted to show her, but having discovered the secret, mischievous, if not downright goofy side of him, it could be just about anything. What was left of the glass of water quickly disappeared, and Alexis swung her legs over the side of the bed. A kiss was sweetly laid to the top of the penguin’s head, and the creature was placed within the impression she’d left in the pillow – like a tiny king upon a throne – as Alexis made her curious way toward the stairs.

Sonny sat on the sofa, a mug of coffee held cupped in both hands. His profile turned as he heard her feet, covered in fuzzy socks, hit the first landing. He gave her a smile and Alexis could smell the incense-like aroma of burning wood. She smiled back knowingly as she continued on her way down the wooden steps.

“Aha. So that’s what you wanted to show me – more of your fire-making skills in action. Well done! You would have made an excellent caveman.”

“I think I like being called a houseboy better. And I’m glad you like the fire.” Sonny’s gaze shifted from her face to the other sofa, and then back to her again as he rose to his feet. “But that’s not why I wanted you to come down.”

Alexis stopped at the foot of the stairs and tugged upward on her thick, slipping sleeves. “What’s up?”

“That would be me.”

The resonant voice snapped her gaze toward the back of the couch, and the back of the sandy colored head that began to rise up. Stefan turned and gave her a sly grin as he leaned down to set his cup of coffee upon the table, and his newly free hands reflexively smoothed down the front of his jacket.

“Stefan!”

Her dimples went full throttle as Alexis and her brother moved toward each other with open arms. His embrace was still somewhat hesitant, mindful of her healing back as his arms encircled her body. But her hold on his was sure.

“How did you know?” She murmured into his ear.

“Know what?”

“That I wanted to see you.”

Sonny watched her rest her chin on her brother’s shoulder as her arms tightened around his back. He slipped his hands into his pockets as he pulled his eyes away from her glowing face before she opened her eyes and caught him. His own smile, like his heart, was full. He had no regrets about his choice to share his last precious, private hours alone with her. Petulance may be adorable on Alexis, but the look of her joy was simply priceless.

Alexis had her favorite Greek comfort.