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Scene 98

"You look like the cat that ate the canary. What's up?"

Johnny glanced into the rear view mirror, and Alexis's quizzical face looked back at him. He shifted his eyes back to gaze at his own reflection, trying to see what it was giving away. He did look rather pleased. He had good reason. Johnny's suspicions had been confirmed - after all the baby steps that Sonny and Alexis had taken toward each other, they were finally standing face-to-face. Or rather, mouth to mouth. The thought of it made Johnny's smile begin to grow.

"Johnny?"

"Hmm?"

Alexis crossed her arms and tilted her head. "You practically have feathers sticking out of your mouth."

Mouth - she said mouth! Uh-oh. He kept his eyes on the road as he slowed down for a yellow light. But his smile wanted to burst forth, and it made his face ache to fight it. Johnny tensed his jaw and bit the inside of his cheek until it hurt. He couldn't let himself smile any harder or Alexis would figure out what he knew. He didn't want her to be embarrassed. And knowing her, she would be. He was already a little embarrassed himself, for having had so little self control when he first saw Sonny after arriving for his shift. Johnny knew it was out of line to ask what he asked, but he'd been in suspense all night and he just couldn't take it anymore.

Sonny had made him uneasy the night before, the way he stopped just outside Alexis's closed door, staring into space with large, intense eyes. He looked as if he was in a trance, standing there like a silent stone, hand still clinging fast to the doorknob of PH2. And his face wore a strange expression - a mix of confusion, fear, and deep, searing contemplation. Johnny couldn't read what it meant, and that bothered him. His instinct was to distract, and he tried to draw focus by asking whether Sonny and Alexis had parted ways for the night. Sonny's focus was drawn alright. His head abruptly snapped up, and those intense eyes stared at Johnny's face as if Johnny's words had been an unexpected slap. And with the utterance of the single word "no", Johnny was left alone in the hallway to wonder what had happened before Sonny left Alexis just 30 seconds before, and what would happen now that he had returned to her.

He stood, gazing at the closed door for what felt like an eternity. And then, Johnny began to inch toward it, taunting himself - DARING himself to put an ear to the door. But before the devil won out, Johnny was startled by the reappearance of Sonny...who wore a decidedly different expression. His face had softened, the confusion and fear traded for a veil of wistful bliss. And though his eyes were still large and gazing into space, they shone and sparkled with life. Sonny didn't say a word as he gently pulled Alexis's door shut. He lingered for just a moment longer, giving the door a backward glance of utter longing as his tongue swept across his lower lip. And then, Sonny released a gentle sigh as his dimples framed a soft smile.

Johnny's spine tingled. His instincts were kicking in and he wanted to know what just happened in Alexis's apartment. But he swallowed and watched in silence as Sonny turned toward him, allowing only the most fleeting of eye contact with Johnny as he slowly strolled past him toward his own penthouse door. He saw that Sonny's cheeks were flushed, as was his mouth. And before he pushed his door open, Sonny cast a sly, furtive grin Johnny's way. Johnny's heart skipped a beat...and Sonny was once again gone, leaving Johnny to wonder all over again. Only this time, he knew that the expression on Sonny's face meant something had made him happy - something to do with Alexis. Johnny intended to find out WHAT. And the minute Sonny opened Alexis's door that morning, he set about his mission.

"I need you to take Alexis where she needs to go today. Stay with her at all times, but keep a respectable distance. Don't let her feel hawked - you know what I'm saying?"

"Sure boss. But, don't you want to take her yourself?"

"Alexis would rather it be you."

"Uh..."

"She doesn't think it would be a good idea for me to accompany her today."

Johnny was confused - and concerned that his normally sound instincts had taken a turn for the worse.

"Is everything okay between you and Alexis?"

"Sure. Why would you ask?"

"She wants me instead of you?"

"Just to drive and guard her. Don't get carried away, my friend."

Sonny winked, and Johnny's cheeks grew warm.

"Alexis is going to L&B, and then to the PCPD. So do you see why she wouldn't think it's a good idea for me to take her?"

"Right."

"You don't seem convinced."

"No, I understand."

"What else is on your mind, Johnny?"

The sly expression on Sonny's face made Johnny squirm. He looked like he was trying not to grin. Like he had a secret and was dying to share it, but had to hold his tongue. Johnny set about prying it loose.

"Well, last night I just kind of got the feeling that maybe..."

"Maybe...?"

"Something was going on that I should know about."

"Like what?"

Johnny squirmed some more as he lied. "I don't know. I mean, you were acting kind of strange when you left Alexis's place. You were quiet - and you had this goofy look on your face."

"Goofy?"

Sonny chuckled lightly. Johnny frowned and continued to fish.

"So is there?"

"What?"

"Something I should know. Since I am looking out for her and such."

Sonny shook his head. "Johnny, Johnny, Johnny. You worry too much. Alexis and I are just fine. Let's just leave it at that, okay?"

Johnny nodded dejectedly. "Sure."

"Good." Sonny's voice lowered to a whisper. "Because I'm just not the kind of guy who'd kiss and tell."

He put a finger to his smiling lips and tilted his head as he slipped back into PH2 while Johnny stood alone with a million kinds of happy overtaking him. It was all he could do to keep from pushing the door back open just to high-five his boss.

"Johnny, 'fess up! Are you up to something?"

Her voice startled him. Johnny blinked and scratched under his collar. "Who, me? I'm just driving."

"Is Sonny up to something?"

He caught her narrowed eyes in the mirror, and his grin widened. Johnny knew it made him look even guiltier, but he couldn't help it. He looked back to the road. Truth be told, he HAD been guilty - of imagining the look on Carly's face when she got word that Sonny was moving on and up, and with whom. Johnny knew it was mean of him, but he couldn't help that either. He always knew Sonny could do better, and didn't understand why Sonny didn't seem to think so himself. He was glad that Sonny had finally come around to setting his sights high. And he'd set the bar about as high as it could go when he set his sights on Alexis. Johnny cleared his throat and tried to bring an innocent expression to his face.

"Why the suspicious thoughts?"

"Why the suspicious grin?" She quickly countered.

Johnny sighed heavily as he took one more look at Alexis, who absently twisted a strand of hair around her finger, then let it unwind to fall against her face. It was a relief to see the bruise gone from her cheek, even if the last hues of it were still there but hidden by make-up. She looked like she did the first time he ever saw her - pretty, professional, and confident...but wanting nothing at all to do with Sonny. Fate was a funny thing.

"I was just thinking that it's really nice to see you so...you know."

She laughed. "Presentable?"

It wasn't a surprise to hear her half joking self-deprecation kick in. Johnny knew it was her habit when feeling insecure or unsure. He understood. She'd be seeing her nephew for the first time since the kidnapping. And in light of recent events with Sonny, Alexis was probably a wreck inside at the prospect of seeing Ashton too. He couldn't help wondering what would happen once they arrived at L&B. Would Alexis keep a private thing private, or would her guilt win out and move her to confess that she and Sonny had kissed? Ashton would flip. And as Johnny watched Alexis nervously twist yet another strand of hair, he knew down inside that she wasn't ready to handle that just yet. He hoped her guilt would leave her alone and let her lips stay sealed...for now.

"I look presentable. You look like a million bucks. And that makes me happy, so I grin."

Alexis smiled and scooted up to lean over the passenger seat beside him. "That bench at the Blarney Stone is quite a crowded little place."

"Nah. Like I told you before, I just call things like I see them."

"I know." She murmured. "It's one of the many reasons why I trust you the way I do. And why I respect you."

Johnny swallowed and quickly shifted his gaze from the road to her face. He was glad she was looking straight ahead, out the window, instead of at him. He was sure his face was beginning to pink. Finally, Alexis turned her head and looked at him. He smiled crookedly, and then refocused on the road as he slowly approached a red light up ahead.

"Coming from you, that means a lot."

Alexis smiled, flashing her deep dimples his way. "Have you always been this prone to blushing or is it a newly acquired phenomenon?"

The decelerating car came to an abrupt halt. Alexis grabbed the leather headrest in front of her.

"Whoa!" Her wide eyes stared up at the red light, then shifted to Johnny's face.

Johnny quickly turned toward her wearing a stern expression. "Would you put your seatbelt back on please?"

Alexis frowned. "I didn't have in on to begin with."

"Well, you should have."

Her mouth slowly opened in disbelief. "You did that on purpose."

Johnny swallowed. "Isn't it a law or something?"

She didn't know what to say. She was flustered, because he was right. And because he had played a very devilish trick on her for the very first time. Or maybe it was because Johnny in authoritarian mode was adorable. It made Alexis want to laugh...or kiss him right on the apple of his blushing little cheek. If she did, he'd probably run them off the road.

"I repeat - have you always been this prone..."

A rude honk sounded out, and the two both glanced out the back window at the impatient driver behind them. Alexis turned her head and squinted at the signal framed by a full sun.

"Green light."

"I know. But I'm not moving until you put your seatbelt on."

She arched an eyebrow. "Oh yeah?"

Johnny's brow arched back in response. "Yeah."

It was Alexis's turn to bite her cheek as two pair of twinkling eyes stared at each other from within two stubbornly set faces. A trio of rude honks sounded behind them, making Alexis jump. Johnny smiled. Alexis sighed heavily, knowing she'd completely lost this round.

"Alright, alright." She grumbled. "I'll put my seatbelt on."

Her hands let go of the headrest, and Alexis slid back into her seat with pursed lips. Johnny adjusted the rearview mirror to more fully catch her reflection, and watched as she slid the metal latch into place with a "click". He gave her a small nod of satisfaction.

"Thank you." He gave her a small nod of satisfaction and gently put the pedal to the metal.

"Bossy junior."

Johnny grinned. Coming from her, that meant a lot too.

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Nikolas slipped the headset from his ears and glanced at the clock above the studio door.

He was nervous, in a good way. But he also felt a modicum of fear - fear of the unknown. He knew Alexis had been injured, and that she'd become ill while held captive. But many details were left unspoken. Neither Ned nor Stefan volunteered much beyond the fact that she was alright, and that she wasn't ready to see him. He knew it was a selfish way for him to feel in light of what she'd been through, but it hurt that she held him at arm's length. The brother who let her think he was dead, Alexis agreed to see. But she hid herself from Nikolas. It didn't make any sense. Why him and not Stefan?

Alexis was torn apart when she finally accepted the evidence that her brother was gone - murdered, as they said, but by someone other than the accused Luke Spencer. She believed Stefan had died at his own mother's hands. And when the lie of his death was brought to light, the same cold anger that took over Nikolas took over Alexis as well. But in the aftermath of her kidnapping, Alexis softened toward Stefan, giving him her forgiveness and a place in her life once again. Nikolas hadn't softened. The fraud hit him with a stronger force of pain and rage than Alexis was even capable of feeling, and it bitterly, stubbornly stayed with him. He'd already suffered through the death of his mother - the faked death of his mother, and Stefan knew it. To be made to suffer through it yet again was too much. It hardened him, and that hardness took over his life. He didn't want it to, but it did. And Nikolas didn't know how to change it.

The best he could manage was civility toward Stefan, and he did it for Alexis's sake. Nikolas knew she needed her brother, in spite of the heartache he'd put her through. And she believed that Stefan's contrition was sincere. The proof was in his promise to respect and accept Alexis's decisions, and that acceptance included her friendship with Sonny Corinthos. Stefan may not have accepted Corinthos himself, but he swore he'd never say another word in protest against Alexis's inexplicable need to have him in her life. Nikolas knew that holding his tongue would be torture for a man so used to taking control, but it was clear that Stefan didn't want to risk Alexis shutting him out - not again. Not even if it meant accepting a criminal who had almost gotten her killed.

Ned was another story. Ned would never accept Sonny, and he was incensed by Stefan's refusal to help pull Alexis from the path of the human speeding train. But Ned was hardly objective where Stefan was concerned either. His feelings had been colored by not only their past business conflicts, but also by their mutual possessiveness of Alexis. Ned was STILL possessive, though he and Alexis had parted ways months before her ordeal - parted badly. And Sonny had been a big and serious bone of contention between them. Ned feared for her safety, and he resented the time and attention Sonny's legal troubles demanded of her and which she freely gave. He resented that another man was usurping what was rightly his - the focus of the woman he loved and planned to marry. The marriage plans went awry...but Ned still loved. And he wanted Alexis back. But now more than ever, Corinthos stood in his way.

Sonny and Alexis had already grown much too close for Ned's comfort long before she was kidnapped, and it only intensified after she was found. And Ned's fear and resentment had fully morphed into full-fledged sexual jealousy. If Nikolas didn't know such woman-inspired pain all too well himself, he'd be tempted to laugh. Alexis and a mobster? Absurd. But Nikolas did have to wonder what Alexis was thinking - and feeling. Why did she continue representing Corinthos legally when it only brought her physical harm? Why did she continue defending him personally when she knew he was far from an innocent man? And why did she still cling to him, when everyone who loved her despised him? Ned believed it was a matter of misplaced gratitude and loyalty, because Sonny saved her life. And he could very well be right.

But Nikolas had another thought - Sonny needed her, and Alexis thrived on it. Her need was to take care, defend, protect, and be needed. Her choice of professions spoke volumes, as did the lengths to which she would go to provide a perfect defense. And when the people Alexis loved didn't need her to take care, defend and protect, there were always the clients who did. Nikolas now wished that he'd been more open to her in their mutual time of loss and grief. But his need was to be strong, as he was raised to be. Stefan would have expected it of him, and he would have expected it of Alexis as well. But Alexis was able to reach out and hold her strength at the same time. Nikolas didn't trust that he could do it too. He didn't trust that he could keep himself together if he accepted tenderness and comfort, especially from her. He wanted to, but he couldn't. And so, he stood alone.

But in standing alone, Nikolas had forced Alexis to do the same. It was against her nature, and it must have hurt. A lot of things hurt her, and they happened all at once. She thought she'd lost her brother to the same hands that had taken her mother away. Nikolas shut down and pulled back. Jax and Chloe left town indefinitely, with hardly a backward glance. The nightmare of Eddie's Angel continued to haunt her far beyond the usual and customary fifteen minutes of fame that any pop-culture icon by all rights should have. And the media-event wedding Ned planned to put the angel to rest put Alexis into a panic instead. Before she knew it, she had lost Ned too. But there was Sonny Corinthos, waiting in the wings and needing her. Like a bee to honey, Alexis was instinctively pulled in. And once she was, abandonment was not an option.

How abandoned had Alexis felt? Nikolas couldn't help but believe that his own behavior was why Alexis had kept him at bay. His stoic stance in the wake of Stefan's death was an abandonment of sorts, and it filled him with shame. If he had reached out to her in his time of need, maybe Alexis would have done the same in hers. But it was better done late than never. Now, they were reaching out to each other. And deep down, Nikolas knew that Alexis was the only one who could help his hardened heart soften toward his uncle...when he was ready. For now, he was only ready for her. And as he looked once more at the clock, he began to feel a flutter of good nervous all over again.

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Alexis stood just inside the glass doors of L&B while Johnny stood just outside.

It felt odd to be there again. Only a few weeks before, she didn't think she'd ever be back. Only a few weeks before, she thought Ned hated her. And maybe he had - until she almost got killed...yet again. Alexis squinted, eyes furtively traveling around the empty, high tech room. She looked upward, toward the stairway, and the shock of a bright recessed light hit her eyes. It slammed her lids shut and sent an array of sparklers dancing underneath them. Her equilibrium was thrown, and she reached a hand out to the wall to keep her balance. Had it always been so stark and bright in there? A sense of déjà vu crept over her, and Alexis blinked her eyes back open. She cleared her throat and blinked some more as the sparklers died down. A quick glance was thrown over her shoulder. Johnny's body was casting a shadowy silhouette against the frosted glass door, and it made her smile. Alexis turned back to the open room and took a few careful steps.

"Ned?" She called softly.

She tugged at the sleeves of her blouse to check her watch. She was right on time. Alexis continued moving into the quiet of the room - quiet but for the sound of her own footsteps. She felt eerily alone as the clicking echoed in her ears. Her heart suddenly skipped a beat. Alexis halted, and the clicking stopped. She tilted her head and looked down at the tiles beneath her feet. Had her heels against the floor always been so loud? The clicking stirred something in her...and Alexis flashed on a memory of a similar sound from another time and place - the same time and place that held the memory of bright lights hitting her eyes. And for a brief moment, Alexis relived the echo of hard, heavy footsteps hitting concrete before the pitch-black basement was blindingly lit by a door thrown wide open. Her hand moved up to clutch the soft pink cashmere draped around her neck as she let herself feel the twinge of anxiety...and then, she let it go. She ran her tongue across her lips and took a deep breath. No problem. She was fine...but suddenly feeling hot. Alexis began to slip off her coat as she gently called out.

"Nikolas? Ned?"

Alexis folded the coat over her arm, tucking the pale scarf under the collar before laying it on the black leather chair. She suddenly heard the dull thumping sound of rubber-soled footsteps behind her.

"Alexis? Is that you?"

The familiar voice made her smile wide. Alexis turned her head just as Nikolas appeared at the top of the stairs, a cell phone held up to his ear.

"Hey there, handsome."

Nikolas stopped dead in his tracks to stare at his aunt with a hesitant face. He'd waited so long to see for himself that Alexis was okay that he almost didn't trust that she was really there. He blinked and let his eyes wash over her face to glean what it held, and all he saw was a loving, curious smile as she patiently bore his impolite stare. She looked as beautiful and healthy as ever, and a rush of filled his yielding heart. It made his breath catch in his throat and a wave of relief wash over him. And in a flash, Nikolas suddenly realized that Alexis still thought of him more as boy than as a man, and she probably always would. Her instincts would be to shield him, no matter how old he grew. But he wished that her instincts had told her that hiding would be so much worse for him than letting him in. Suspecting things, but not knowing, could make a person come undone.

The sharp, loud sound of a voice in his ear made Nikolas blink. He turned and looked at the phone held in his downward drifting hand. "I'm here - sorry. Listen, can I get back to you about that venue this afternoon? Thanks."

He clicked the phone off and let his arm drop down to his side as he slowly came down the steps, one at a time, and halted near the bottom. Alexis took a tentative step toward him, then stopped. She tilted her head and gave him a sheepish, plaintive smile.

"I guess you're kind of mad at me, huh? I don't blame you." She let her eyes dart away from Nikolas's studious, staring face toward the shadow of Johnny against the door. "It wasn't you, Nikolas, it was me. I...I just needed to be sure I could handle..."

Nikolas took the last two stairs at once, dropped the phone on the counter, and was upon her in a flash. Alexis met him with arms raised and ready to enwrap him.

"God, Alexis." He moved into in her embrace, holding her close and tight. "I'm not mad at you. I've just been worried about you."

She made a slight, strange whimper, then laughed lightly. He didn't see the small grimace cross her face at the pressure of his arms locking against the lingering soreness at the center of her spine. But he felt her back stiffen and arch, and he instinctively began to release her. Alexis only held him tighter.

"Hey, where do you think you're going?" She whispered into his ear. "I'm not ready to let go of you just yet, if you don't mind."

He laughed and rested his chin on her shoulder. "Do I seem like I mind?"

A vague sense of déjà vu ran through him - an elliptical memory of childhood and the rare trips abroad with Stefan to see his beloved cousin at school. Alexis was the only warm memory of a woman that his family gave him, and he took comfort in it. And now, he took comfort in that same woman, who was also the only Cassadine who looked at him and saw Nikolas instead of just the heir and prince. It scared him when he'd almost lost her at his grandmother's vengeful hands. But it was somehow worse to know that he'd almost lost her to something he didn't know or understand - wantonly violent world of organized crime. Ned was right. Alexis needed to get out from under the influence of Sonny Corinthos.

"You scared me, Alexis. I know you were trying to protect me in somehow, but refusing to see me scared me."

"I know. And I'm sorry." She finally began to pull away. "But I needed some time. That's why I asked Stefan to let you know what was going on with me and to make sure you knew that I was okay."

Nikolas drew back, hands still at her waist, and looked her up and down in a most Stefan-like manner. Alexis cleared her throat and watched anxiously as his eyes perused her at close range. She'd expected such a study, but it made her a bit uncomfortable nonetheless.

"As you can see for yourself, Stefan told you the truth."

He nodded. "Yes. You do look well - on the outside."

His eyes suddenly met hers and held them with a knowing expression that made him seem much older. Alexis smiled and cupped a palm to his cheek.

"I am well. But I won't try to make you think that this hasn't been...difficult for me, because it has. And I just needed some time before..."

"You don't have to explain."

Alexis took his hand and gave it a light squeeze. "I do. But I think I'd better sit down first."

She turned and began to lead him toward the leather couch, faltering slightly as she rounded the edge. Nikolas quickly firmed his hold on her hand and set his other palm against the small of her back.

"Let me help you."

"I'm fine."

But Nikolas kept his hand where it was and helped her take a seat. He took one right beside her, and watched in silence as Alexis shifted with her lip between her teeth. She moved carefully, and looked a bit uncomfortable.

"Would you rather sit in the big chair, or at the table?"

She shook her head.

"Okay. Well, would you like some coffee or water? Orange juice - we have orange juice in the refrigerator too."

"I'm fine. Really."

Nikolas sighed with a frown. "Alexis, do you have any idea how often and automatically the words 'I'm fine' come out of your mouth?"

She shrugged. "Kind of like a trained seal, am I?"

"Stop looking out for everyone else for once and look out for yourself. If you're not all that fine, don't say that you are."

"What a concept for a Cassadine." She mumbled with a wry smile. "Where did YOU ever hear of it?"

"You." Her big dark eyes snapped up to his, locking into them, and Nikolas felt another level of tightness inside of him way. "You're the one Cassadine who cares about me first, and all the trappings of my birth second. I care about you too, and I want to be here for you the way you've been there for me. Even when I couldn't allow myself to take what you wanted to give, I knew you were always there for me, and I needed that. Now it's your turn. What do YOU need, Alexis? What can I give to you that you'll allow yourself to take from me?"

Alexis gave him a long, steady look, then let her gaze drift to the pink fringe peeking out from under the folds of her black coat lying folded on the chair. She cleared her throat and gave her head a light toss to coax the bangs from her eyes.

"Right now, all I need is your ear."

"It's yours."

"I want to explain things to you, Nikolas. I want you to understand why I waited to see you."

"I will."

She smiled sadly. "I know. Um...the events of the last couple of weeks have brought up all kinds of feelings for me. Some have been okay, some not so okay. Some have been understandable - logical even, given the circumstances. But some have been confusing."

"How do you mean?"

Nikolas furrowed his brow and leaned in toward her, listening and waiting. But Alexis hesitated. Her instincts were to stop. He didn't need to know that bad memories of her childhood were resurfacing. He already knew that his father had been cruel, and Alexis knew that Nikolas felt the shame of it - and feared the blood of Stavros that ran through his veins. It was a wound that she simply refused to re-open.

"W-well, I got sick while I was with Sorel."

"Yes, I know. Stefan told me that you developed an infection of some kind, and that your fever got pretty high. And Ned said it made you a little disoriented, at times. That must have been frightening."

"Y-yeah, it was. The fever made a lot of things blurry in my mind. It was disconcerting, and frustrating sometimes. I haven't always been sure whether certain things really happened, or if they were just...hallucinations. But the facts are clarifying more and more every day."

He smiled and murmured softly. "Good. I'm glad. Because a lack of clarity to you is like a lack of oxygen to everyone else."

Alexis opened her to protest, but quickly closed it as Nikolas gave her a single raised eyebrow. She smiled and shook her head, eyes rolling heavenward. Soon, the smile grew to laughter, and Nikolas joined in.

"Don't tell me you thought that was a secret or something?" Nikolas teased, welcoming both the break of her well-contained tension and the healthy glow that laughter brought to her cheeks.

Her smile began to relax. "Hardly. And I must say it's quite comforting to know that someone I love understands me so well."

Alexis sighed lightly as she glanced at the spray of pink fringe resting on the chair behind him. Nikolas tilted his head and took her hand between his, as was his uncle's tendency with her. Her eyes quickly came back to his.

"But what I really want you to understand is that all of the confusing feelings became more so when I even thought about seeing the people I loved - Stefan, Ned...you. And I wasn't quite as ready as I thought I was the first time I did see Stefan and Ned. I wanted to be ready with you. I wanted to be prepared."

Nikolas grinned wryly. "Wow. Who would have thought that the Boy Scouts and a Cassadine would ever have the same motto?"

Alexis laughed as she gave her bangs an unconscious push, and Nikolas's eye went right to the small band-aid so meticulously cut to cover her healing scrape. She saw him notice it, and she saw his smile dim in response. Her head bowed down as her fingers nervously played with the short layers flirting with her brow.

"It's nothing, Nikolas."

He would have none of it. "I know you were struck, Alexis."

Alexis froze at the blunt words coming from his mouth.

"Is that why you weren't ready to see me until now?" His voice was beginning to rise. "Were you afraid of letting me see for myself what he did to you, instead of just hearing about it?"

Her hand moved up to her arm, palm curving below the elbow and holding firm. She was still stunned that Nikolas knew she'd been hit. How did he find out? Who would have told him? Why?

"And what DID Sorel really do to you, Alexis? What has everyone been keeping from me?"

She slowly lifted her head until she was looking up into his face - his dark, chiseled, firm jawed face. The clear current of anger growing inside of him looked back. Nikolas stared, waiting for her response, and a flash of recognition filled her senses. In the blink of an eye, a quick, sharp pain took hold of the back of her head. She squinted as she pressed the heel of her hand to the spot of pain. In another instant, it was gone. And Nikolas's sweet face was none but his own. Alexis pulled her bottom lip between her teeth as her hand slowly lowered back down and settled back on her arm.

Nikolas saw her unease and it worried him. He believed she wanted to disclose, but doing so was clearly more difficult than she thought. His attention was soon drawn by the gentle sound of her nails, scratching back and forth along the sleeve of her jacket. His gaze darted from her unflinching expression, to the motion of her fingers, and back to her face again. He hated the distance in her eyes and wanted to bring her back. He didn't want her to be afraid with him. He wanted her to be ready. His voice softened.

"Alexis? Are you not as prepared to see me as you thought you were? It's okay if you're not. I won't be mad at you. I'm just happy that I finally got to see you for myself because I missed you."

"Me too."

"And I'm sorry that I've been neglectful of our relationship. I've taken it and you for granted, and you deserve better."

"You did nothing to..."

"Alexis, my rage over Stefan's deception had nothing to do with you, but I let it pull me away from you and I didn't mean for that to happen."

"I know. You just needed some time and space to nurse your wounds."

"Yeah. Something like that."

"It was the same for me." She murmured. "So I do understand."

Nikolas held her gaze for a long moment, and then he leaned forward, closer to her.

His smile made her hand fall away from its place at her arm, and Alexis smiled back. "What wounds were you really nursing, Alexis? Tell me. But only if it feels right for you to do so."

Even though she had planned to tell him the truth, his willingness to let it go suddenly filled her with the desire to withhold - to protect him. But she pushed it aside and took a deep, cleansing breath.

"It does. But...where's Ned?"

"He went to Kelly's to pick up lunch. He wanted to give us some time alone."

"Oh. That was thoughtful of him."

"Yeah."

But it was not completely free of ulterior motive. Ned knew that Nikolas shared his concern about Corinthos and the danger he presented to Alexis. He hoped that Nikolas would do what Stefan wouldn't, and try talking some sense into her stubborn head. And he hoped that Alexis would be more solicitous to the fears of her nephew than she was to those of everyone else. Her soft spot for Nikolas was something Ned knew well.

"Do you not want him to hear what you have to tell me? I promise I won't say a word to him if you don't want me to."

Alexis smiled softly. "Ned already knows everything there is to know about what happened."

"Oh." Nikolas's face reflected vague disappointment at having his suspicions confirmed. He WAS the last to know the truth.

"He just didn't learn it all from me, or by my choice. Neither did Stefan. But you ARE learning it all from me, by my choice. Okay?"

Nikolas nodded through a swelling sense of unease. Her words were somewhat ominous, as was the decidedly gentle tone of her voice. He felt like a child who knew he would soon need comforting, but didn't know exactly why.

"I'm not a child anymore."

The sound of his own voice startled him. He didn't realize his thoughts had been given force of air.

Alexis smiled. "No, you're not."

"What really happened to you Alexis. Tell me. Please?"

"Alright. I will."

And so, Alexis did...