A light tap on the French door of his study drew AJ from the mound of paperwork stacked on his desk. The drug and alcohol rehabilitation center that he headed was a labor of love, but there were times when the work was overwhelming. Tonight was one of those times. Whatever the intrusion was, he welcomed it.
Rising from his leather office chair, he released a yawn into the palm of his hand. His body responded with an automatic stretch. As he recovered from the stretch, the tapping sounded again. This time, it was more insistent.
The persistence suddenly put AJ on edge. Thinking of his family asleep upstairs, he became alert and proceeded with caution.
"Yeah?" he growled, pulling open the door one quick, jerky movement.
"Dammit, AJ!" Jason growled back. He brushed past his older brother and stepped inside. "What took you so long?"
"I could ask the same of you," AJ countered. "Keesha called here hours ago, looking for you. She said that you dropped off Gina and the girls and you disappeared. What the hell is wrong with you? You know she worries."
"I don't need you to tell me about my wife." Jason's eyes flashed with anger.
"Well, I suppose I shouldn't have to tell you that worrying isn't good for Keesha right now," AJ bit out. The two men stared at each other. Jason's hand clenched at his side and AJ's eyes followed the movement. His jaw firmly set, he looked at his younger brother's fist and then into his eyes. "I thought we were beyond that."
The Adam's apple in Jason's throat bobbed as he swallowed hard. His eyes continued to flash but as his hand unclenched, the ire began to fade. Heat colored his cheeks a dull red. Rubbing his hand through his thick hair, he turned away from AJ. His breathing echoed throughout the room.
"You okay?" AJ asked. He closed the door and then moved past Jason to close the door that led to the rest of the house. Jason was in an odd mood and until he knew why, he didn't want his family disturbed. "What's going on?" he asked, resting his back against the door he just closed. "Why are you making a late night visit?"
"What? I need a special time to visit my big brother?" Jason croaked, humorlessly. He went to the small fridge that stood in the corner. He removed a 12 oz. bottle of 7-Up and gulped most of the contents in one swallow. AJ watched him from across the room with wariness and concern in his eyes. Jason pulled the bottle from his mouth. His gaze couldn't reach his brother's eye, so he settled for a spot right in front of AJ's feet.
"The doors are closed. It's just you and me," AJ said softly. He shoved his hands into his pockets and crossed to stand in front of Jason. A faint scent of beer drifted in the air. AJ acknowledged it but since he didn't believe Jason was drunk, he didn't dwell on it. Something else was wrong, and since Jason arrived on his doorstep, he meant to find out what it was and help him…whether his brother wanted it or not.
"Yeah, so it seems," Jason mumbled almost to himself. He finished the rest of the 7-Up and then tossed the empty bottle in a nearby wastebasket. He raised his eyes to meet his brother's gaze. "We have a problem."
"Yeah?" AJ softly urged him on.
"The twins told us that Michael had a run-in with Carly-"
"What?!" Rage ignited inside of AJ. His worst nightmare had become a reality. "When?"
"Today," Jason confessed. "She was waiting for him after school. She approached him and he told her to leave him alone. She did. The twins walked him back home just to be sure that he was okay. He didn't say anything to you or Eve?"
AJ shook his head. "Not a word. He was a little quiet at dinner, but… He should have told me. What am I doing wrong that my son won't talk to me?"
"Come on," Jason said, patting AJ's shoulder. "You're a good father. Michael is probably trying to figure it out for himself first. I told you because you needed to know, and maybe do something about her."
"I intend to," AJ vowed. "She's back in Port Charles. It shouldn't be too difficult to find out where."
Jason agreed with a nod. He looked at AJ as if he wanted to say more. AJ felt his eyes on him and asked, "Did she do anything else that I need to know about?"
"No," Jason replied quickly.
"So, what else is there? I know you don't see Carly for the vengeful shrew that I picture, so I'm sure you weren't upset about her. And, Jason, don't try to play me for a fool. You were upset. Is something happening with the pregnancy? I know that Keesha had an appointment with her doctor this morning. She's okay, right?"
"That remains to be seen," he said in a resigned tone. The miniature grandfather clock on the shelf chimed in another hour. Jason grimaced. "I'd better get going. Keesha's wrath is not something to play with."
"Agreed," AJ responded with a knowing smile. "Thanks for the heads up."
"Of course," Jason said. "That's what brothers do, right? Look out for each other."
AJ smiled. Brothers. His mind repeated the word again and again long after Jason had left. After all this time, their reconciliation still felt good.
Matt rose from behind the desk with a low groan. His hand reached for his cane, and gripping the handle, he edged towards the open French doors. The balmy island breeze felt good on his face, but did little to ease the tension from his body. Frowning, he slowly admitted to himself his agitation at the outcome of his latest surgery to correct his spinal injury from so many years ago.
"Harmon?" Alex asked as he entered the doctors' impromptu office. "You okay?"
Matt bristled in response. The last thing he ever wanted was anyone's sympathy. To Matt's ears, pity oozed from Garcia's voice and hurt his pride more than the pain hurt his back. Keeping his eyes trained to the blue sky and clear waters, he bit out, "I'm fine."
"You don't sound fine," Alex replied, closing the door behind him. He moved to stand next to Matt, resting his side against the doorjamb. "You sound like you could use some rest-"
"I don't need your pity-"
"That's not what I'm offering," Alex said with more patience than Matt had seen over the last few days. "I don't know what it's like to be in your shoes and I'm not about to guess. I don't know anything about the type of injuries you sustained to put you in a chair, but I can guess that what you endured to get out of that chair wasn't easy. It had to have been hard. Damn hard.
"I see that more often than not, you've been in pain and despite that, you've tried your best to help my wife. I appreciate that. I may not show it all the time, but it's there."
Matt nodded his head slowly. He didn't know what to say to Alex's heartfelt speech, so he said nothing. He knew that Alex would understand.
"She's looking better than she has in days," Alex continued. "Maybe you should rest up some-"
"I would never put a patient at risk. I know my limitations," Matt said, feeling defensive again. "I know what I'm doing."
"I'm not disputing that," Alex countered, "but just like Dara's not alone in her fight, neither are you. I need Dara. Not being able to help her in the way you, Ellen and Simone can is not easy for me to accept, but I'm adjusting. And I'm helping her the best way that I can and she knows that. Ellen is fighting for you, too. There's no shame in leaning on her if you need to." He paused to glance at his watch. "Lunchtime. I have a date with my wife. See you later."
Grudgingly, Matt accepted that Alex made sense. He drew in a deep breath air and decided that a date with Ellen was what he wanted, too. And, this time, instead of pushing her concerns away, he would talk to her and let her help and guide him through the pain that he would finally admit to feeling.
"Papa?" A tiny frown wrinkled Noelle's smooth brow as she regarded her father. Still frowning, she cocked her head to the side and stared at him.
In the next room, Dawn gathered their things in preparation for their departure. A small chuckle passed from her lips and brought a faint smile to Nikolas' face. "Yes, Sunshine?" he asked, running a hand through his damp blonde hair. Upon his urgings, Dawn had cut his hair, leaving it just short of being labeled a buzz cut. As Noelle continued to regard him with a curious expression on her face, Nikolas squatted down until he was eye level with her. "My hair is different, but I'm still your Papa, understand? You can touch it if you want to."
Noelle stretched out her small hand and with one her forefinger, lightly touched her father's hair. Finding it still wet, she giggled and a dimpled smile lit up her face and aquamarine eyes. "You look like Uncle now."
"Thanks," Nikolas murmured, pulling his daughter into his arms. The comparison was not the one he was looking for, but his children loved his brother. If he could help it, he would do nothing to change their relationship.
"Hey, Goldilocks," Dawn said as she joined them. "Are we ready? It's still dark out. The best time is to leave now."
Nikolas smiled in response to the sultry way Dawn said his new nickname. A comment about her new look was on the tip of his tongue when their daughter spoke first.
"Mommy!" the little girl exclaimed, scrambling to remove herself from Nikolas. Her eyes as wide as saucers stared in awe at her mother. "It's all gone," Noelle breathed, "and what's left is purple like Barney!"
"Barney," Nikolas repeated with a smile and a gleam in his brown eyes.
"Don't even think about it," Dawn warned under her breath. She ran a shaky hand through her short, curly punk-rocker purple Afro. "Maybe I should have gone with blonde, too."
"I like purple, Mommy!" Noelle said, practically bouncing in the air. "Purple is pretty. Do me, too! I want pink…like my Barbie." She took Dawn's hand and tugged. "Come on, Mommy."
"No, Sunshine." Nikolas shook his head. He strode to the table and grabbed the bags that Dawn had filled with groceries and toiletries that they would be too busy to buy later. The car had already been packed with the few belongings that they had decided to take with them, choosing only the bare essentials. Anything that could identify them as Cassadines before they were ready to make their presence known had been safely stored in the cabin.
"She has a point," Dawn commented just as Nikolas reached the door. "We should change her appearance in some way, too."
"My daughter will not have pink hair," Nikolas stated. His tone of voice brooked no argument and Noelle did not open her mouth to protest.
Dawn rolled her eyes. "That goes without saying, Sir Goldilocks."
"Well, what color would you suggest, Lady Barney?" he countered with a smirk.
"I like purple, too," Noelle admitted. She gave both of her parents a hopeful smile. Their returning smiles were accompanied by shakes of their head. Noelle shrugged as if to say that she had tried.
"Was there anything left in that Miss Clairol bottle?" Dawn asked.
"We can't bleach her hair," Nikolas sputtered.
"We have to do something," his wife said, exasperated. "They know what she looks like."
"Who?" Noelle asked.
"We'll tell you about it later," Nikolas said softly. He looked at Dawn with love and tenderness. "You're right, but the dyes could damage her. We have to think of something else and in the meantime, we need to get on the road."
"I know. I know."
Dawn kissed Nikolas' cheek, took Noelle's hand and preceded him through the door. Nikolas exited the cabin after his wife and daughter. He locked the cabin and joined them at the car. Dawn secured Noelle's child restraints while Nikolas stored the bags on the backseat. When both were finished, Nikolas sat behind the driver's seat and Dawn settled in the passenger seat. They secured their seatbelts and Nikolas started the car. As they fired down the dark road, Nikolas revealed where his thoughts had taken him during the silence.
"I know that we decided otherwise, but maybe we should execute plan C."
"Plan C?" Dawn questioned. She took his right hand between hers, gently caressing his smooth, large palm. "What's plan C?"
"Not what, but where," he corrected in a voice so soft that only Dawn could hear.
She glanced over her shoulder to look back at Noelle. The little girl was drowsy, but she wasn't asleep, yet. Dawn slid closer to Nikolas and pressed her mouth against his ear. "Where?"
Nikolas moaned softly at her nearness. Against his body wanting otherwise, he kept his eyes on the road. Besides, with what he would say next, he knew other kind of sparks would start to fly. "Casa Corinthos. Sonny and Simone's place is airtight. Noelle would be safe there."
Dawn's intake of breath was sharp and loud against his ear. The only spark that was released died as quickly as it had been born. She moved away from him. For a long time, she didn't say anything. Her breathing was low, even and barely audible. Behind them, Noelle breathed heavily in her sleep. As they neared the outer limits of Port Charles, Dawn twisted in her seat.
Nikolas watched the road and stole a peek in the rearview mirror. Dawn's fingertips grazed across Noelle's chubby cheeks with exquisite gentleness. By the time she turned back around in her seat, her own cheeks were wet. Squeezing his hand again, she whispered, "I promised her that I would never leave her again…"
"This isn't the same as before," Nikolas softly advised.
"She's so young," Dawn choked out. "How can she understand that this is to protect her?"
"She'll never trust me again," Dawn said tearfully, "and she'll never believe another word I say."
Nikolas checked the mirrors before he steered the car down an off road. He drove for a few miles into dense woods. The trees that lined that dirt road were tall and crowding, yet oddly protective. An old shed was set off to the left side. Nikolas guided the car behind it. After parking the Porsche, he shut off the ignition, pocketed the key and left the car. He moved quickly around the sports car to the passenger side. In one swift movement, he pulled Dawn from the car and into his arms.
She clung to him. Her face, wet with tears, burrowed against his chest. Her sobs shook her and he gently stroked her back. The sadness that possessed her was his as well. There was no other way they could protect their daughter. Dawn knew that and the sacrifice of her permanently damaging her relationship with their small child was a risk, but a necessary one. His heart ached with sympathy. He sought words to soothe her, but none came to mind. Holding her was the best that he could do until he could make their family whole again.