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Scene 99

"Heroin." He breathed softly.

"Y-yeah."

"HEROIN?"

His voice was now demanding, as if trying to make her take it back. Alexis had chosen her words of explanation carefully, but this one particular word couldn't possibly be avoided. And it was now stuck in Nikolas's mouth as much as it was clearly stuck in his head. It hurt to see the pain and confusion whirling in his eyes, but something inside of her was glad for it. The nurturing of Stefan overruled the nature of Helena and Stavros. As long as Nikolas felt pain and anger at cruel wrongs, he WAS Stefan's son. And Alexis desperately wanted to help give that lost blessing back to him. And she also wanted to take away the pain. She reached out to lightly touch his cheek, then set her hand down upon his knee and rested it there, feeding her own need to keep a physical connection.

"It sounds worse than it really is, Nikolas. I mean if you think about it, it's just a chemical. Like any number of other chemicals that are routinely used for medical purposes every day and can also have a negative effect if… used improperly."

Nikolas's tongue was numb. He stared into her wide, anxious eyes and wanted to scream. She'd been shot up with heroin. How could she speak of it in such a benign way? It wasn't just a chemical - it was an illicit drug. It wasn't medicinal - doctors didn't write prescriptions for it. And the negative effect wasn't just nausea or a headache - it was addiction. Addiction. Alexis was addicted to heroin. Oh God…he wanted to scream, but he couldn't. What Sorel did to her had hurt her enough, and Nikolas knew that she was still afraid. Not of Sorel, who was locked behind bars, but of him - of Nikolas, and the way he would respond to the truth that he'd asked for.

He was sure the response of his uncle had been a bracing thing that she didn't want to see again. And in telling Nikolas, Alexis gave light words to a heavy thing to take away its weight for both their sakes. She knew how to survive, in body and spirit, and Nikolas couldn't help but be proud of her for that. So he held his anger in and pushed his frustration down. And as he forced a smile and took her hand in his, he saw her body release the tension that had kept her shoulders locked up toward her ears. Alexis wasn't afraid any more. Not of him. And she smiled back.

"It's all over and done, Nikolas. So there's nothing for you to worry about."

She gave his hand a squeeze and shifted against the dull ache that was settling into her lower back. As her brow creased, Nikolas's smile disappeared.

"You're still hurt?"

"No." She shook her head and moved her hand to her hip. "I'm still feeling the effect of too little activity for too long a time, that's all. Too much lying around in bed and on my couch, to be specific. But I'm fine."

Nikolas lifted an eyebrow. "There's that word again."

"Don't I LOOK fine? Say yes."

Alexis gave him an imploring face, complete with small pout. He couldn't help but laugh.

"Yes. You look wonderful, as always. But wanting for some sun. You are a little pale."

"Also attributable to too much lying around, seeing as how neither the bed nor the couch is located outside."

Alexis caught his eyes upon her bandage, and was grateful that he'd not seen her face looking the way Ned and Stefan had seen it. And she would be very, very careful to hide her arms from his view until the needle marks and scratches had succumbed to the healing powers of time and Vitamin E.

"Hey." She whispered, pulling his eyes back to hers. "I'm really glad this isn't a secret from you any more. And I know this was a hell of a thing for you to hear, but once the immediate shock of it has waned, it won't seem so…well, you know. Overwhelming."

Her hand moved back along her hip, fingers pushing into ache as her spine straightened. Nikolas's jaw shifted at the fleeting grimace that flashed across her face. The wheels were spinning in his mind, but he said nothing. There were many new questions hitting him all at once, and yet they all came down to one little word.

"Why?" He asked flatly.

"Why…didn't I tell you sooner?"

"Why did it happen at all?"

"Desperate people do desperate things. Sorel was desperate. He knew he was about to go down for murder one, which is an automatic death sentence. He had nothing to lose by grabbing me and trying to make a trade for the one person whose testimony would put him in his grave."

"Zander."

Nikolas's tight voice was barely audible, and it made Alexis falter as she answered.

"Y-yeah. You knew that."

"Yes, I knew. I knew that he was a drug dealer. A kidnapper. A stupid hot-head and self serving jerk who almost ruined Emily's life by leaving her naked in a hotel room with a dead cop lying next to her and a syringe in her hand."

Alexis felt her left eye twitch.

"And as if that wasn't enough, he had to drag her off at gunpoint and hold her as a hostage to make sure HE got out of the country safely!"

She blinked slowly and tried to push back the creeping chill running up her spine. She felt dizzy and a little sick. Nikolas's angry words created a stunning, unwanted visual of the innocent Emily with a gun pointed at her head. But the image was quickly morphing into one of a syringe held up before Alexis's own face against the backdrop of Sorel's smirk. And she remembered the terror of that first strange sensation of a rolling, tingling heat that flooded her body while Sorel's satisfied smile grew. Yes, he'd been desperate. But mostly, he'd been angry. And vengeful.

Zander may have been desperate too. But Alexis knew that he never would have hurt anyone deliberately, and certainly not maliciously. He never could or would be like Sorel. He may have done harm to Emily, and he may have scared her, but he also took care of her when she was hurt, and ultimately got her home. Like Thomas had done for Alexis. And he was truly remorseful for what he had done…also like Thomas. Alexis swallowed and ran her tongue across her lips.

"I know you're upset, Nikolas. But that isn't quite fair, considering what Zander ultimately did to…"

"Fair?"

Nikolas shot up from the couch, and Alexis flinched at the sudden movement - and the loud, angry bark.

"What about this IS fair, Alexis? That Zander got to make one stupid move after another while Emily made excuses for him, you cleaned up all his legal messes and Sonny footed his bills? Is it fair that you were the one to pay for the choices that both he AND Sonny made?"

"I made choices too. I chose to NOT let Sorel walk away from murdering a police officer by murdering a truly decent kid no older than you."

Nikolas stared down at her for a long moment, then turned and moved toward the counter, rubbing his eye and shaking his head as he tried to settle himself down. Alexis's gaze followed him. She hated the silence between them, knowing that Nikolas was far from through with his questions. But she was compelled to keep close and let him know his questions were okay to ask. So Alexis pushed herself to her feet and quietly came up behind him, pressing a palm to the center of his back. Nikolas turned to her with sad eyes.

"Why was it YOU who was grabbed instead of Zander - or Sonny, even? Why did Sorel take you? And why in God's name would he want to hook you on heroin? That sounds like something cruel and unusual enough for Helena to have done."

"Helena had nothing to do with this."

"I know. But she may as well have."

Her face questioned him.

"You've spent your whole life under the threat of Helena. You've always had to look over your shoulder, watching for her to make a move against you. Is it not enough that she wants you dead and has almost succeeded in killing you several times over? I don't understand why you insist upon seeking more of the same by aligning yourself with a known criminal like Sonny Corinthos, whose enemies pose just as great a threat to your life as Helena."

Alexis felt a muscle in the corner of her eye twitch. She touched a finger to the spot and rubbed gently. "Is this really you talking, or someone else?"

He bristled. "I speak for no one but myself."

"You sound just like Stefan." She murmured. "And Ned."

"Doesn't that tell you something, Alexis? The three people who love you the most all share the same concern for you. Can't you stand back and take a long, hard, objective look at what the three of us see?"

"In all fairness, the three of you haven't been too willing to stand back either. There are things I see that you all can't."

"Like what?"

Her eyes shifted away from him as her hand slipped away from the soft wool covering his back.

"What, Alexis? What aren't you telling me?"

"Nothing."

Alexis turned and began to make her way back to the couch. As she passed the chair, she paused and let her fingers trail along the fringe of pink cashmere that rested there. She smiled and cast a steady look at him over her shoulder.

"No - it is something. You've all spent years looking at Sonny and seeing nothing but a 'known criminal', plain and simple. And I admit that it used to be the same for me, but now I see more. I see a sensitive, loving, good-hearted man who feels things more deeply than anyone could ever know…unless he's allowed them to come close and take a long, hard look." A pensive expression suddenly veiled her face, and then a small smile began to grow. "And he began to allow it, with Stefan. It was against his nature, but he did it anyway. For me."

The wistful look on Alexis's face unsettled him. And she spoke of Sonny not as a lawyer or a friend, but as a woman. But Alexis and Corinthos? Was it possible? No. Stefan would never be accepting of that. This had to be gratitude Nikolas was seeing in Alexis. She defended Sonny because she was grateful to him for saving her life, just as Ned had claimed…before this sudden flare of jealousy came over him, seemingly overnight. And Nikolas now wished he'd pressed Ned for a reason. Alexis turned and sat down on the edge of the coffee table, facing in his direction.

"And another thing is that everyone, including Sonny, is entitled to the best possible legal council they can get. In Sonny's case, and at the risk of being shamefully immodest, that would be me. So I choose to BE his legal council. And because I know him to be a loyal, compassionate person, I also choose to be his friend. He did save my life, you know."

And there it was - the gratitude. It made Nikolas angry to hear it.

"He shouldn't have HAD to save it! It should never have been in danger at all, because Sonny shouldn't have allowed it to be!"

"Allowed it? Nobody has that kind of ubiquitous power, Nikolas. If truly evil people are on a mission to do a truly evil thing, they'll do it come hell, high water, or the legal system, and nobody can stop them. Helena should be proof enough of that. She killed my mother and God knows how many inconvenient people, and yet she still walks free. She tried to kill Stefan, and it's just more of the same."

She paused, allowing him to take in what she'd said. Her dark eyes studied him for a long moment as her teeth nervously grazed her bottom lip. Nikolas responded to her gaze by shoving one hand into his pocket and running the other through his hair as he rocked back on one foot. And then, he rocked forward, looking at her as if he wanted to speak. But the room stayed silent. Alexis reached out to him and wiggled her fingers.

"Come here."

Nikolas obeyed, taking her hand and sitting before her on the couch. He stared at the ground as she took a deep breath and continued to argue her case.

"I fight injustice for a living, and still I find it hard to accept that people like Sorel and Helena can and often do get away with horrible things. That's one reason I was so adamant that Sorel not get his hands on Zander. He had to testify and bring Sorel to justice. I only wish I could find a way to do as much to Helena. My own frustration over not being able to stop her or bring her to justice…at times, it's been unbearable."

Again, Alexis was brought back to that awful night of the Bacchanalia and the parapet - and her failure to lure Helena to her premeditated death. Katherine Bell's accidental fall aside, she still wasn't sure if that particular failure was a blessing or a curse. Could she live with herself if she'd killed? Even Helena? She looked down at Nikolas's strong, tanned fingers still wrapped around her smaller, paler hand, and a maternal surge rose up. She would kill to protect this boy, no question. Or Stefan, or Ned…or Sonny. They'd all do the same for her.

"I…I've made attempts to stop Helena that were beyond my limits because I was desperate. Not all that unlike Sorel, I suppose."

"Don't say that."

"What I'm saying is that people can be driven to great lengths to try stopping a seemingly unstoppable, destructive force. Look at what Stefan was driven to do. He didn't want to hurt us like he did, but he did it anyway because he knew he couldn't stop Helena unless he fought her on her own terms no matter what the cost to those he loved. Or to himself. Desperate times, my sweet Prince."

Nikolas's head popped up, his eyes large, as if he'd seen a ghost.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean that as a mockery. I was thinking of Hamlet - his love for his father, his vengeance against his uncle for his father's murder."

"Which drove him to the edge of madness."

"And we Cassadines think WE'RE a dramatic family? But I think you get my point."

He smiled. "Point taken."

"Good." She released Nikolas's hand and took hold of the edge of the coffee table, shifting as she cleared her throat. "But the most important thing is that when all is said and done, Stefan and I are both alive and well, and we both love you beyond measure. What I went through with Sorel put a lot of things into perspective for me. One of them was my brother. No matter how awful my experience was, it had to have been so much worse for Stefan to know his own mother wanted him dead and tried to make it so. I think it's a miracle that it didn't irreparably taint his heart."

Nikolas lowered his eyes, and his head slowly began to bow in turn. His shame was rising up at having so coldly dismissed the fact that Alexis just held up before him in so warm and gentle a way. Stefan and Helena's relationship was so far from even remotely resembling that of a normal mother and child that it was easy to forget the primal bond that once had to exist - at least, for the child. And for a moment, Nikolas instinctively put himself in Stefan's place. He conjured the face of Laura, looking at him with pure contempt in her eyes as he drew his last breath at her hands. It made him shudder.

"But I know it put things into perspective for him too. I can see a change in him already. He's trying to be more open, flexible…I guess you could say he's trying to lighten up."

Nikolas's eye stayed downcast. He was still too ashamed to meet Alexis's gaze. But he shook his head as a sad smile grew, and allowed her to see the softening she inspired in him.

"Not too much, I hope. I want to be able to recognize him. And if you want to know the truth, I'm kind of used to those somber dark suits of his."

"I'm telling!" Alexis gently nudged him in the belly.

Nikolas laughed and playfully swatted at her hand. "Alexis! Come - here on the sofa next to me. You can't be comfortable there."

"I'm fi…" She widened her eyes as she abruptly halted in the middle of the verboten phrase.

Nikolas smiled at the semi-guilty look on her face, and Alexis quickly gave him a full show of dimples in return. He tugged on her hand until she complied, taking a seat beside him, and Nikolas let his gaze wander over her face to take a closer study of her. Something was still gnawing at him, and a large part of him wanted to just let it go. But he couldn't.

"Alexis? One more question?"

"Sure."

"I understand why Sorel took you as a hostage, but why the heroin? Do you know?"

He could see in her eyes that she did know, but he could also see that she hadn't decided whether or not to tell him. Her eyes shifted toward the door, and Nikolas turned his head in reflex. He thought Ned might have entered unheard, but all he saw was a shadow outside the door. He frowned and sat up straight.

"Someone's loitering out there…"

"It's Johnny. He's one of Sonny's…."

"I know who he is."

Nikolas turned back around, withholding the comment that Sonny's protection of her had come a little too late. But he decided to not let his question go.

"Why did Sorel do it?"

Alexis fidgeted with the ends of her bangs. "H-he wanted revenge."

"On who?"

She squirmed. Nikolas didn't need to know every little truth. And Sonny didn't need any more blame.

"I…he was mad, because I wouldn't tell Sonny to turn over Zander."

"Sonny should have done it anyway."

She shook her head. "No."

"Yes!"

"I told Sonny no, and he knew that I meant it!"

"That shouldn't have stopped him! I'm sorry, Alexis, but how could he could let Sorel do that to you?"

"He didn't know! Sorel didn't WANT him to know - not until it was too late. And as soon as he found out, what I wanted him to do was irrelevant and he would have done anything he had to do to get me back. And he DID get me back, within hours of finding out what Sorel was doing."

"But…why wouldn't Sorel want Sonny to know that he was hurting you when it would have forced his hand about Zander? Letting him know would have gotten him what he wanted, so for him to have withhold the fact that he was drugging you just doesn't make sense."

Alexis closed her eyes wearily and scratched at her arm. Deflecting with Nikolas was harder than she thought it would be, and Nikolas was finding every little inconsistency and detail to examine. She took in a deep breath and sighed as she opened her eyes once more. Think…think…

"I…told you, Nikolas. Sorel was desperate. And he was angry, because his fate had basically gone out of his control. The only thing he DID have control over was me, and I wasn't letting him have it too easily. So he took it. But now, I've taken it back."

Nikolas stared. Alexis wasn't telling him the whole truth, and she wasn't going to tell him any time soon. But she didn't really have to. It was clear she was spinning to keep him from putting it all on Corinthos's head the way Ned had already done. Stefan too, despite his newfound resolution to hold silent with his ojections. But it was clear to Nikolas that the revenge Sorel wanted was against Sonny, not his attorney. He chose Alexis as a means to the end, and he chose a weapon that would cause her continuous harm. And that gave rise to a whole other question of "Why?" The only logical answer was the one Nikolas wanted to deny - that Ned's strange notion about Sonny and Alexis might not be so strange after all. Any Cassadine worth their salt knew that you target an enemy's Achilles heel first if you really want to take them down. Did Sorel believe Alexis was that for Sonny? He had to. And he had to have a reason. Did Alexis know it? She had to. She was spinning hard and fast.

His ponderous expression made Alexis tilt her head and try to catch his eye. "What?"

"I…I know you were only following your conscience when you decided not to give in to Sorel's demands. And even though I respect the courage it took for you to make that choice to save someone else's life, I hate that you'll have to spend the rest of your life paying for it."

"I won't. There will always be some bad memories, but with time they'll stop feeling so…intense. Sorel can't hurt me any more, Nikolas. It's over."

"Are you sure? I mean, are the doctors sure? How do they know that the heroin didn't affect you in a way that they can't even see yet, or that it won't have some kind of affect on you down the line?"

"If there was anything for me to be concerned about, they would have told me. Do you understand what I explained about the detox?"

"Yeah. It took all the heroin out of your system quickly, but without you feeling the symptoms of withdrawal."

"Right. So you see? The drugs are gone."

"But what about the addiction? I thought that once someone was an addict, they would be an addict for life. They could be clean and sober, but the addiction was always still there and could reach up and grab them any time. It's that way for Emily."

Her mouth went dry as she tried to speak. "M-my circumstances were very different from Emily's."

"The heroin doesn't know that."

Alexis flinched. His words hit her hard, like another fist. She hadn't thought about it…she hadn't wanted to. But how could they be sure that the addiction her body held wouldn't rise up in need again? She hadn't even read the detox information Tony gave her or the consent form that she signed. But Sonny had read it all. He would have told her if there was anything she needed to know. She trusted him, just as she trusted Tony and Charlie when they said they could take it all away. But why would it be different for her than for Emily? Nikolas was right - the heroin didn't know the difference.

Nikolas was sickened by the look on her face. He had clearly scared her, and that wasn't his intent. But he couldn't imagine that the things he spoke of hadn't already prayed on her mind as well.

"I'm sorry if talking about it in such detail is making you uncomfortable. Emily's situation IS different from yours, but…"

"It's easy to forget that Emily faces a daily struggle, isn't it? She looks and acts like such a normal, healthy teenage girl that one would never know…unless they knew."

"And you look and act like a normal, healthy woman. But what your body went through with that drug - and your mind too, I'm sure. I'm afraid for you, Alexis. I can't bear the thought of you having this thing hovering over your head for the rest of your life, like Emily."

"I wish I could make more sense of it for you, but I can't. Before I agreed to let them do the detox, I really wasn't in the proper frame of mind to ask the questions I should have asked. So I did a very uncharacteristic thing and left it all in other people's hands. And after it was done, I just didn't want to think about it any more. But I want your mind to be at ease with this, so I'm going to call Tony Jones and tell him he has my permission to answer any questions you may have about me."

"No, Alexis. Your medical information should be kept private."

She shook her head. "I don't need it kept private. Not from you, not about this. I don't want you to be afraid of or confused by anything that can be clarified with a simple phone call to Tony."

"There's no need for me to be bothering Dr. Jones. I'm sure Stefan did enough research on the subject of heroin to answer any of my questions just as well."

Alexis was taken aback. Had Nikolas just admitted that he'd be willing to bend? Would he go to Stefan of his own accord when another option was open? She began to smile, though tried to keep her growing joy inside.

"Well, he does tend to overdo. When he saw a strange doctor in my room, he proceeded to investigate him within an inch of his life. That's how he found out what was really wrong with me. The doctor was Charlie, the anesthesiologist who did the detox procedure. Apparently he specializes in assisted detox, so Stefan put two and two together. He was pretty good about it though. I expected him to freak out."

"You expected the same from me too, didn't you?"

"I…" She widened her eyes and gave him a big grin. "You were VERY good about it." Alexis cupped her palm to his cheek, her smile softening, eyes drifting away from his. "I remember my own reaction when Sonny told me what Sorel had done. It wasn't very good. I wish I'd behaved better. Sonny deserved better, after everything he'd done for me."

"What was that?" He murmured. "What did Sonny do for you?"

Her eyes darted back to his face. Nikolas was looking at her as if he could see right inside of her, though it wasn't a prying kind of gaze. It was a gaze that sought to understand. But she didn't think it was possible for him or anyone else to understand just what it was that Sonny had done for her, what he'd been for her, or how deep their connection had grown. So she put it into words as simply and purely as she could, and hoped that Nikolas would hear the rest with his heart.

"He…he kept me from breaking." She whispered, never taking her eyes from his. "So please, please don't revile him, Nikolas. Stefan is trying to find a way, and I need you to try too."

Breaking? Nikolas felt a lump welling in his throat. Alexis had always been so strong and resilient, it never occurred to him that she could not just weaken or crack, but outright shatter if enough force was brought to bear. And now she was telling him that it HAD been - that Sorel had hurt her bad enough to break her. But it was Sonny who had kept her whole. Nikolas ran his tongue across his bottom lip before biting down on it. His brain was on overload from all the things Alexis had told him, and the one thing that he was gleaning for himself. And he wasn't quite sure which scared him the most - the effect the heroin had on her, or the effect of Sonny Corinthos.

Alexis's fingers were suddenly on his cheek, and her soft touch made him acutely aware of the stiffness in his jaw. He forced himself to release the tension, and then forced himself to smile. The smile Alexis gave him back turned his own to a genuine thing. She looked happy. He wanted her to be happy…and his own words came back to haunt him.

"What do YOU need, Alexis? What can I give to you that you'll allow yourself to take from me?"

She had told him what she needed, in no uncertain terms. Alexis needed him to open his mind where Sonny was concerned - where Sonny's place in her life was concerned. How could he deny her the one thing she asked of him? But God help Sonny Corinthos if Alexis was ever harmed again and the trail of blame led back to him. The wrath of the Cassadine men would bring him to his end.

"I don't revile HIM, Alexis. I revile the world he lives in."

"At least you get the distinction."

"I also get that what you're really asking of me is that I respect how you feel about him and what he's done for you. And I do. I'm grateful to him for whatever he did that lets you be right here, right now, alive and healthy with a smile on your face. Because I know it could have easily been a very different story, and I don't think I could have taken losing you."

"You won't lose me. I promise."

"I want Sonny to promise."

"He already did - to me. And I trust him to protect me."

Nikolas drew in, and then released a slow, deep breath. "Then I suppose I'll just have to do the same."

"The same what?"

Alexis blinked rapidly and turned her head toward the door, startled by the unexpected sound of Ned's voice. "Hey."

"Hello, gorgeous." Ned tightened his arm around the large paper bag he carried and pointed an elbow Alexis's way. "Her - not you."

Nikolas turned and gave Ned a raised eyebrow. "Thanks for clarifying. I could have been very worried otherwise."

Ned grinned, then shifted his eyes back to Alexis and gave her a wink. Nikolas shook his head with a light laugh as he turned back around. Alexis's countenance had morphed in the blink of an eye, and it took him aback. She was staring up at Ned with her lip between her teeth and a shy smile on her face while her fingers toyed with the diamond pendant at her throat. The strong-minded woman who had just unapologetically laid out her needs to Nikolas had abruptly retreated. And as her wide brown eyes followed Ned's movement behind Nikolas's back, he realized she suddenly looked…younger. And fragile. And a little afraid. And Nikolas knew that he was seeing a small glimpse of the Alexis who was indeed capable of breaking.

But why was he seeing it now? Was she afraid of how much Ned had heard when he walked in the door, and about whom she spoke? Ned was the one person who'd never accept Sonny Corinthos's presence in her life in any capacity, even if Alexis unapologetically laid her need for that acceptance as she'd done with the Cassadine men. But she wouldn't. Not with Ned. At least, not without apology. As strong, forceful and insistent as Alexis could be with her family, clients and colleagues, it hadn't escaped Nikolas's attention that she was often passive with Ned. She often acquiesced to him, as she had done with Stefan since childhood. But with Stefan, her deference had been the natural order of their familiy. With Ned, it made no sense.

Or maybe it did.

Ned said that he'd forgiven her for running out on him like she did, but Alexis didn't seem to believe it. She didn't seem to feel his forgiveness, or any forgiveness from herself. And unless Ned could find a way to change that for her, he would very likely lose her. But could he do it? Just the sound of Sonny's name had always been enough to make Ned go rigid. But now, he'd been forced to stand idly by and watch as Sonny kept the woman he loved from breaking. Nikolas released a quiet, heavy sigh in tandem to the last crackle of Ned's paper bag as it finished settling on the counter. And as he watched Alexis's lower lip slip back out from between her teeth, he wondered if she would somehow be able to keep Ned's heart from breaking.

"That wasn't just a cheesy line either. You really do look absolutely gorgeous." Ned moved around the coffee table on his way toward Alexis. "If not still a little pale."

Alexis tilted her head at Nikolas. "Just when I'm in danger of getting a big head, you all play the 'pale' card and keep my ego safely in check. Did you two co-ordinate this or have you just been spending so much time together here at L&B that you're starting to share a brain?"

Nikolas glanced at Ned warily. "If you see me starting to sprout a soul patch, it's time for you to tell Ned to fire me."

"Ouch!" Ned grimaced as he came up to Alexis's side.

"You see?" Alexis swung around in her seat. "EVERYONE hated that thing, so don't ever grow it again, okay?"

Ned smiled. "No danger of ME getting a big head with you two playing the soul patch card."

"Fair's fair."

"I'll never grow it again."

"And I'll make sure to get some sun."

Ned held out his hand to her. She took it without hesitation and smiled as Ned cupped it between his palms. Nikolas smiled too, at the sweet, quiet moment of connection that his eyes were taking in. And he wondered if maybe he was beginning to follow Alexis's trait of over-thinking things. Maybe Ned only imagined the new kind of threat that Sonny had become? Maybe Nikolas only imagined the vibe he'd gotten from Alexis as she spoke of him? And maybe it was best if he made himself scarce. Ned had given him some precious private time with Alexis, and now it was Nikolas's turn to give. Fair's fair.

"And three is definitely a crowd." He rose from the couch and moved to the counter, where the paper bag from Kelley's rested. "So I'll go put this back in the kitchen and leave you two alone. Unless you want to eat now?"

Alexis shook her head and looked up at Ned. "Not yet. In a little while."

"You are going to eat, right?"

She nodded vigorously.

"I'm going to hold you to that." He turned to Nikolas. "You're my witness."

"That I am." He lifted the bad into his arms. "Let me know when you're ready."

"We will. Thanks, Nikolas. For…you know." She murmured.

Nikolas smiled. "Yeah. Same to you. For…you know."

"Yeah."

He hesitated a moment, then gave a small nod of his head. As he turned to leave the room, Ned's low voice intoned behind him.

"I missed getting to see you yesterday."

"M-me too."

Alexis's reply moved Nikolas to glance over his shoulder in time to see Ned finish helping her to her feet, then pulling her gently into his arms. Ned smiled, his eyes quickly closing as he tentatively slipped his arms around her. Alexis's eyes stayed open, a contemplative expression veiling her face as she wrapped her arms around Ned's back and set her chin upon his shoulder. And once again, Nikolas knew he was seeing a fragile woman…who was in the arms of an equally fragile man. It wasn't just his imagination.

Both of them loved, both of them feared, and neither was immune to breaking.