Darkest Before the Dawn

CHAPTER 1


"Ciarda, honey, come down!" Gina's brow was creased with a worried frown and her hazel eyes never wavered from the small figure, who sat on what seemed to Gina, the tree's highest branch. "Ciarda! Come down, now!"

"I don't want to, Mommy," the six year old girl said mournfully.

"But, there's gonna be birthday cake!" reasoned Ciarda's twin, Alanna. "I'll let you have some of mine if you come down."

"I don't want any," Ciarda told her sister.

"But, Ciarda, you love cake!" Alanna said, mirroring her mother's stance as she planted her hands firmly on her hips. "And, there's gonna be a pony!"

Ciarda hold on the tree became harder as she shook her head in reply.

Gina's breath caught in her throat as the branch holding her stubborn daughter swayed under her child's weight. She would have gone up the tree to get her, but her fear of heights prevented her from making a move. She had been sure that her daughter had only climbed up the tree to look at the bird's nest they had recently found, but when the little girl refused to come down after a few minutes, Gina knew something was up. The branch swayed again and out of fear, she screamed, "Ciarda! Come down this instant!"

"No, Mommy, I can't!"

The backdoor closed with a loud bang, as Tommy headed for the raised voices. "What's going on?" he asked, looking at his trio of females. He put his arm around Gina's shoulder and followed the direction of her gaze. He felt a tug on his free hand and looking down, he saw the solemn face of one of his daughters staring back at him. "Yes, Alanna?"

"Ciarda won't come down, Daddy," the little girl told him. "I even promised to give her some of my cake and she still won't come."

"Oh," Tommy said, nodding slowly, "I see. Maybe she'll change her mind." He stepped away from Gina and Alanna and moved to stand closer to the tree. He called up softly to her, "Ciarda, honey, you don't wanna miss the birthday party, do you? Come on down so that we're not late."

"I don't wanna go to the party, Daddy. You can all go without me."

"You know that's not gonna happen-" He stopped short as Ciarda shifted and the branch moved slightly. He took a deep breath. He turned towards Gina. Her face was ashen and her hand clutched Alanna's. He spoke softly to her. "You two go inside and finish getting ready. I'll get her down."

"Tommy, be careful," Gina said.

He smiled at her gently. "Of course." He waited until Gina and Alanna were gone and then he started up the tree. He moved quickly and soon he was right in front of his daughter with the dark hair and hazel eyes. Without wasting a moment, he pulled her from the branch and went back down the tree. Once his feet were safely on the ground, he set her down. He squatted before her and asked, "You wanna tell Daddy what all of that was about?"

"I don't wanna go to the party, Daddy," she said, her eyes downcast.

"Why not?" he asked her. He placed two fingers under her chin and gently lifted her face so that he could see her eyes. They shone with unshed tears. He cupped her little face and said, "Baby, what's wrong? Are you scared of the pony? You don't have to ride if you don't want to."

"It's not the pony," she said. "I-I just… I wanna be pretty like Mommy and Alanny!"

She burst into tears and Tommy pulled her into his arms. He stood and walked around the backyard, gently patting her back with each step. "Sweetheart, you are pretty. You're just as beautiful as your mother and your sister-"

"No, I'm not, Daddy," she sniffled. "I'm not pretty and no one will play with me."

"Everyone will play with you," he reassured her. "We were at Wyndemere last weekend and you played with everyone. Did you have a fight-"

"No," she sniffled, her little hands still clutched tightly around her father's neck.

"So, why don't you think anyone will play with you?"

"I don't know-"

"Now, Ciarda, you must have a reason for thinking this," he said. "Did something happen at school?"

The little girl trembled slightly, but she remained quiet. Tommy noticed her body's involuntary movement and gently patted her back again. He took her inside the house. As he set her down in the kitchen, she asked, "Do I have to go?"

"Yes, you do. We promised that we'd be there and we don't break our promises." Her bottom lip quivered and he knelt before her. His voice was warm and caring as he said, "I promise you that we'll have fun today."

"Yes, sir," she mumbled. "May I wait in the den?"

"Yes, you may," Tommy said before he brushed her full cheek with a soft kiss. Rising to his full height, he watched her as she left the kitchen. She and Alanna were as different as night and day in temperaments. Alanna was more like him: quiet and thoughtful. Ciarda was more like her mother: fiery and playful. Frowning, he began to wonder when his little girl had changed and why.

"Watch out, Daddy!" Alanna cried as she flew past him in the hallway. Her dark blonde curly hair bounced off her shoulders as she skipped away from him.

"No running in the house!" he called out. A smile lit his green eyes as she slowed down to a fast walk.

"Who's running?" Gina asked. Her deep auburn hair hung loosely around her shoulders. In her hands, she carried two small matching sweaters. She laughed softly as Tommy swept his fingers through her hair.

"Why red?" he asked, grinning as she swatted his hand away.

Gina shrugged. "Why not?" She reached for his hand and slowly led him down the hallway. As they neared the den, she stopped. Her eyes were on their daughters as she quietly asked him, "Did Ciarda tell you why she didn't want to go to the party?"

"She doesn't think she's as pretty as you and Alanna," Tommy said, frowning. "She said that no one would play with her-"

"Where did she get an idea like that?" Gina interrupted. "The kids adore her, and she's beautiful. Why would she say she's not pretty? She's six! Why does she care?"

"I don't know," Tommy said. "I wish I did. I'm not sure, but I think something may have happened at school."

Gina slowly nodded. "Maybe so. I'll ask Alanna about it, but in the meantime, keep Monday free."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, amusement shining in his green eyes. He gave her a light kiss on her lips before they collected their children and headed to Wyndemere.

~*~

"Hey, Uncle Jase!" Michael Quartermaine beamed as he entered the Ward House. At fourteen years of age, he stood just a few inches shy of his Uncle's six feet; his voice cracked at all the wrong times: usually whenever Keesha and Jason's adopted daughter Grace was around; and his red locks had now darkened to brown. "What's up?" he asked, letting the door slam shut behind him.

"Not much," Jason smirked as he glanced at his nephew. He had long since resolved the sadness he had felt at being the boy's uncle rather than his father. There were times when a small twinge of longing would pass through him, but after a few moments of watching Michael and A.J. interact as father and son, the twinge would disappear. Besides, he had his own sons to love and worry about. And at fourteen and ten, George and Benjamin gave him plenty to keep him busy. Yeah, being an uncle had its good points, and considering how he had behaved during Michael's first year of life, he was lucky that he was even allowed to be his 'uncle.'

"So, um…you're not going to the big shin dig at Spook Island?" Michael asked, moving around the kitchen as if he lived there. He grabbed a few of Keesha's homemade fudge brownies and moved to stand over his uncle who was busy at work on the garbage disposal. "Whatcha doing?" he asked, spilling crumbs as he peered down into the pit of the disposal.

"Do you mind?" Jason asked, raising an eyebrow as he wiped Michael's crumbs from his chest. "What does it look like I'm doing? Marisa dropped her Barbie's ballerina slippers in here—Never mind that. What are you doing here? Aren't you going to the birthday party at Spoon Island? I seem to recall you had a serious crush on a certain some-"

"Aw Uncle Jase! I was a kid then. I've been over Dawn for a long time," Michael said. "So…um…where's everyone? I thought maybe I could go with-"

"Gracie left with her mother-"

"Aw, man!" Michael replied, blushing furiously. "I didn't come over here because of Grace."

"Sure, Mikey," Jason said, pausing in his Mr. Fix-It role to look at the bright face of the teenager. "Sure, you didn't."

"So, she left with Auntie Keesha," he said, trying to go for indifference. His voice cracked a little and his blush intensified. He tried to play off his embarrassment by laughing softly. "I just thought that maybe she and Auntie could use an escort-"

"What am I? Chopped liver?" Jason asked, rising to his feet. "And, what about George? Wait until he hears this-"

"Okay!" Michael said, unable to take his uncle's teasing any more, "you got me. I did come by to see if Gracie wanted to go with me. I should have come by earlier, but Dad was tripping."

"Oh, yeah?" Jason asked, a frown darkening his brow. "What's up with A.J.?"

"He's getting antsy again. You know how he is," Michael said, shrugging. "He keeps threatening to reassign a guard to me. You'd think I was a little kid, still."

"You'll always be his kid, Michael," Jason said, squeezing his nephew's shoulder. "And, don't shrug off his fear so easily. When you were missing, his world almost fell apart-"

"I know, but that was years ago. I was what? Five? Six? I'm fourteen now. She's not gonna come after me again. She's got her life and I'm happy with mine with my Dad and my Mom."

"Carly's your mother, too."

"Carly gave birth to me, but Eve raised me. If I have to choose, Eve's my mom. That other woman is just some psycho-"

"Michael!"

"What?" he asked, suddenly becoming angry. "She is a nutcase. I've heard you all talking about her. Grandpa-pa swears that she belongs underneath Ferncliff-"

"Edward is old and half out of his mind," Jason said, moving to the sink to wash his hands. "You shouldn't listen to him. He doesn't know half of what he says. He was like that when I was a kid and he hasn't changed."

"Aw, he's not so bad. A little loud—and besides! He's right. I've done my research. I know about her. She had half the men in Port Charles thinking I was his kid-"

"Now, Michael-"

"-and, she shot that guy in open court. I mean, come on, Uncle Jase. Only a complete idiot would snatch a cop's piece and fire in a courtroom."

"She was upset because she had almost lost you-"

"Yeah, whatever," Michael replied. His set jaw and folded arms closed him off from his uncle's defense of Carly. He had his own theories about the woman and nothing his uncle could ever say would change his mind. Nothing would change his mind ever.

Jason recognized the look in the young teenager's eyes. He had shut down and nothing was gonna get through. Jason had half a mind to shake some sense into the kid. Maybe tell him that things weren't always as simple as they appeared in the black and white of old newspaper clippings. Maybe tell him that sometimes the reasons why should be taken into consideration. But, Jason held his tongue. Michael wasn't ready to hear it, and to be honest, Jason wasn't quite in the mood to explain the inner workings of Carly's mind to him. He wasn't sure if he ever would be.

Jason wiped his hands on a dishtowel and then affectionately patted Michael's back. "I have to change my clothes, but if you want, we can go to Wyndemere together."

The boy's face brightened as Jason's offered signaled the end of their discussion about his biological mother. He grinned as he asked, "On the Harley? Please!"

Jason laughed. "Sure. We can take the Harley. I'll be down in about five."

"Cool."

Later, as the two roared out of the garage, they never knew that the subject of their almost heated discussion sat in a parked car across the street. Her dark brown eyes watched them closely behind the tinted windows of her Lincoln Town Car as the Harley-Davidson took them farther away from her. Her driver offered to follow the motorcycle, but she declined the offer. Her time to reveal herself would wait. Her husband expected her to be home in time to share their first dinner in their new home, and she knew better than to disappoint him. The rest would just have to wait.

~*~

Dawn's heartbeat was erratic as she left the launch pad and headed towards Wyndemere. Anticipation and dread filled her, but her determination never wavered. She had prepared herself for this, and she would not turn tail now. Besides, she missed her babies.

At the sounds of children's laughter and music, her pace quickened. She moved towards the sounds and was completely taken aback when her name was called just as she approached the garden gate.

"Mrs. Cassadine, this way please."

Dawn grew still. She slowly turned to face the owner of the familiar voice. Smiles were on both women's faces as Dawn said, "Mrs. Landsbury. It's so nice to see you again."

"Likewise, I'm sure," the older woman replied warmly. She held out her hand and gestured for Dawn to follow her. "This way, please."

Dawn glanced back towards the gate with its music and laughter. Her hands lingered on the iron railings for a moment. Then with a resigned sigh, she followed Mrs. Landsbury up the cobblestone walkway that led towards Wyndemere's West wing.

Her legs and feet felt as heavy as lead. She tried to keep up with the bustling woman, but Mrs. Landsbury was too quick for her. Dawn's boots trudged down the carpeted hallway. She moved as if she was headed for execution. And, in her heart, she was. She knew where she was being taken, or rather to whom she was being taken. She also knew that facing Nikolas after everything that had happened between them would be one hundred times worse than any nightmare and seeing him again would be a million times better than her favorite fantasy. As Mrs. Landsbury opened the door to what Dawn recalled as Stefan's study, Dawn prayed for the strength to survive it…to survive him.

"Wait in here, please," Mrs. Landsbury quietly said before she closed the door, leaving the younger woman alone.

"It's not like I have a choice," Dawn murmured to herself. Orange, red and blue flames provided the only light in the room. She squinted in the darkness, looking for a lamp or a light switch. She saw a lamp on the desk and came close to turning it on. She quickly changed her mind, deciding that the room was dark for a reason. She would play his little game, she thought.

With careful steps, she moved closer to the flames. Her hands stretched towards the fire's warmth. A sudden chill had swept over her and she was immediately grateful for the fireplace. A memory of another fireplace in the old abandoned cottage on the other side of the lake flashed before her. She brushed aside the images of the first time she and Nikolas had made love, but despite her best efforts, the longing lingered. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.

"Cold?"

The soft voice filled the dark room and startled Dawn. Without thinking, she backed away from the fireplace and almost tripped. A pair of strong arms prevented her fall and wrapped around her. She trembled slightly as warm breath tickled her ear. "Careful. You might hurt yourself."

"Nikolas, I'm fine!" Dawn ground out. She began to struggle to free herself, but his hold on her tightened, crushing her back to his chest. "Let me go!"

"Never," he said, spinning her around to face him. The flickering light brought a warm glow onto her milk chocolate skin. Her brown eyes stared back at him unafraid. Her breath came out in ragged spurts through her parted full lips. His eyes fell to her mouth and darkened as her tongue moistened her lips.

Nikolas held Dawn's wrists in a firm, but non-threatening grip. She tried to pull away from him, but he refused to let her go. Her constant tugging drew them away from the fireplace. Soon, her back was to the wall and Nikolas released her wrists to place his hands on either side of her, effectively boxing her in.

"You have to let me go," she said. Her eyes wandered around his face as she avoided making eye contact with him. To his high cheekbones, she said, "The divorce-"

"-will never happen," he said, taking a step closer to her. Taking his time, he leaned his head towards her until his mouth was just a breath away from her ear. "I will never grant you a divorce, Dawn. You will never marry Luc—oh, I'm sorry. Your lover calls himself Lorenzo now, right?"

"Nikolas, stop it-"

"Stop what?" he asked, taking another step closer to her. He moved his head so that when he spoke, his breath now tickled her neck. "What should I stop, Dawn? Does my refusal hurt you? Does it torment you that you can't pledge your love to him? Am I hurting you by contesting the divorce? Should I stop hurting you? Is that what I should stop doing?"

Nikolas took another step towards her and Dawn pressed her back hard against the wall. The heat from his body enveloped her and his familiar scent intoxicated her. She shifted in an effort to put some kind of distance between them. It didn't work. Her movement only caused him to move closer towards her, sliding his muscled thigh between hers and immobilizing her.

"Nikolas, don't. We agreed that we wouldn't fight-"

"Who's fighting?" he asked in a husky voice. His thigh slid upwards, pressing against the apex of her thighs. The hands that boxed her in trailed down the wall until they were no longer beside her shoulders but near her waist. He shifted his stance, making their eyes level as he waited for her to reply.

"W-we are… Y-you're angry with me, and you have every right to be, b-but…" She stopped abruptly and drew in a deep breath. She shouldn't have because after that, he seemed to be everywhere…surrounding her and consuming her. She had to get away. Her hands flew to his waist to push him away. "Nikolas, we can be civil to each other for today. Our kids need to see that."

"They will."

"They won't!" she cried, her hands still on his waist…neither pushing nor pulling him away. "They'll see how angry you are-"

"Anger's only the half of it-" he muttered unable to keep the pain from his voice.

"Nikky, I-"

Nikky. The shortened name held nearly a decade of memories for them. Dawn bit her lip as she silently berated herself for the slip. Nikolas shuddered as the tender endearment went straight to his soul.

"I'm sorry," Dawn whispered. "I didn't come here to hurt you."

"It's too late for that."

"Then, let me go," she softly pleaded.

"I can't."

His mouth was on hers as soon as the words were uttered. He didn't wait for her response. His tongue plundered hers, demanding that she submit to him.

Her initial response was to resist him. Dawn's hands clutched his waist and her body was in constant motion. Nikolas anticipated her every move, and when he had had enough, his hips and thighs pinned her to the wall. As she grew still, his kiss softened. His mouth suckled and drew on her lips gently. His tongue slid across hers, coaxing a response from her. One was given as her hands slipped up his broad back, pulling him against her. Her tongue teased his, causing them both to emit low moans originating from the back of their throats.

The last time they had touched had felt like an eternity, but with one kiss, all was nearly forgotten. Well, almost.

Common sense and cold, hard fear seeped inside of Dawn's consciousness. With surprising strength and determination, she pushed Nikolas away from her. She stormed past him and stood on the other side of the desk, using it as a buffer between them. Their labored breathing echoed in the room.

"Thanks," she said, as she angrily wiped his kisses from her mouth.

"For?" he growled, watching her.

"For proving yourself a liar!" she told him. "For treating me like a whore!"

"Dawn! Wait! I-"

The slamming of the door as she escaped into the hallway silenced the rest of his reply and signified just how solid the wall between them had become.

Flashback 1

General Hospital ©ABC
Dawn Cassadine, Alanna & Ciarda Hardy ©1999 niklovr
All Rights Reserved

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