chapter eleven

***questions***

"How are you today?"

Andrèsj turned at the sound of Keesha's voice. His eyes narrowed at the bundle she carried. He gave her a half smile and shrugged. "The same as usual, and yourself?"

"About the same," she said, smiling. "I have something for you." She presented a flat cardboard box and set it on the table. Her hands clasped in front of her as she looked at him. "I hope you like it."

He eyed her offering with suspicion and curiosity. Slowly, he edged away from the window towards the table. Being careful to make sure his movements were akin to docility, he went to the opposite side of the table so that he faced Keesha. From the design on the cardboard container, he saw that she presented him with a game. "Chess."

"Yes," she said, nodding enthusiastically. "Do you play?"

He released a humorless chuckle. "I'm a Cassadine. Of course. We are taught from the womb. It's as natural to us as breathing."

"Now, I'm a little intimidated."

His eyes cut to her. He frowned. "Why?"

Keesha shrugged. "Because I planned to ask you to play with me, but now, I'm not sure if that's wise. I'm not very good and I wanted to learn."

"I could teach you," he offered. "If you would like."

She nodded. "I would appreciate that very much." She took a step back towards the door.

"Where are you going?"

"I have to assist with dinner," she said, "but later, we can begin our lessons if that is fine with you."

He shoved his hands inside his pants and rocked on the balls of his feet. His dark eyes stared at her. "Fortunately for you, my schedule isn't full this evening."

Keesha smiled and reached for the doorknob. Her movements stopped when he called out.

"Keesha!"

"Yes?"

Aware of the numerous electronic devices that recorded his every movement and sound, he tried to ignore them. Speaking quietly, he said, "Why?"

She returned his stare and asked, "Why not?"

When she slipped out the door, Drè found himself continuing to stare at the spot where she had stood. The beautiful young woman was proving herself to be an enigma, and he found himself seriously intrigued.

~*~

'ALL MY GIRLS AT THE PARTY

LOOK AT THAT BODY

SHAKIN' THAT THANG

LIKE I NEVER DID SEE

GOT NICE PACKAGE ALRIGHT

GUESS I'M GONNA HAVE TO RIDE IT TONIGHT'

"GIA!" Nik screamed over the loud music. He slammed the front door shut behind him and strode to the stereo. The sound of Janet Jackson's voice came to an immediate halt as he pushed the power button and yelled an expletive.

"What's wrong with you?" Gia asked, as she descended the staircase. "Why are you trippin'?"

"I'm not trippin'!" he muttered.

"Did Sheba step on your foot or toss you on your ass?" she asked, her dark eyes boring into him. "I told you to get rid of that dumb horse a long time ago-"

"Sheba isn't a dumb horse!" He grabbed a magazine and fell onto the sofa. After ripping through the pages, he threw the magazine across the room. Gia watched him in silence for a few moments and then she joined him on the sofa. She touched his arm and he flinched. She reared back, a look of shock and hurt on her face. Nik quickly reached for her. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

"What's wrong with you?" she asked quietly. "You've been acting just as weird as Clucky Lucky. You wanna tell me what's going on."

He drew in a harsh breath. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he answered, "Philana dropped by yesterday."

"So?" She shrugged. "She can't have any complaints with your performance. Everybody thinks you're the Prince. It's been a piece of cake-"

"It was a piece of cake," he corrected. "Past tense."

"Why?" she asked. "Stefan's will is gonna be read. You'll get everything and they'll get the kingdom. What's the problem?"

"It would have been that simple, but it's not anymore." He ran his hand through his short black locks and sighed. "The real Nikolas is back. He's out there somewhere and any day this is gonna come to an end."

"I don't understand," Gia said, frowning. "I thought he was dead."

"So did I!" he exclaimed. Agitated, he stood up and began to pace. "They told me he was dead and slipping in as him would be easy. The car accident was real, and it was a bad one. I don't know how he survived it. None of this makes any sense. If I had known he was alive, I wouldn't have taken this gig. But he's out there and he's gonna come back for what's his, I just know it."

"Maybe we can make him a deal?"

Nik shook his head. "He's not gonna want a deal. C'mon! A deal? This is his life we're talking about here! His legacy. He's not gonna wanna deal for it. He's gonna take it!"

Gia stood up and went to him. She took his hand and asked, "Do you think he knows about you?"

He accepted her comfort and squeezed his hand. "I don't know. It's possible. Philana doesn't know where he is, just that he's out there. God, this is getting complicated. I'm not even sure if it's worth it-"

"Don't talk like that!" Gia interrupted. She wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him. "Of course it's worth it. Do you wanna go back to the life you had before? I know I don't."

He stroked her back. "You know I'll always take care of us, don't you? No matter what happens, we'll be fine. You know that, don't you?"

"Of course." She kissed him. "Try not to panic, okay? We'll handle it when he shows up. Maybe we can get everyone else to think he's the impostor."

He laughed. "Maybe. If we're lucky."

"That's what I like to see. A smile on your face. I have a pretty long shoot today. Will you be okay without me?"

"I'll try to manage."

They kissed again and then she left. Nik showered and dressed for his day, but thoughts of true Nikolas Cassadine were never far from his mind. Gia thought that handling him would be easy, but she didn't know Nikolas' head the way he did. To become the man, Nik had to learn every facet of his personality. Nik had to imagine Nikolas' biggest dreams and feel his greatest losses. The transformation hadn't been easy. There were more hits than misses, but over time, people accepted him. Now, it would be all for nothing. Nik wasn't sure if he could do battle against the real Nikolas Cassadine and win. There was one thing in pretending to have Cassadine blood and quite another to actually have it pumping in his veins.

A knock at the front door interrupted his thoughts. He answered it and was a little surprised to see Emily on his doorstep. After hugging her, he invited her inside. "Isn't this a little early for you?"

"Maybe a little," she said, nervously tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. She glanced at the staircase and then looked at him. "Are we alone?"

"Yeah, Gia's at work," he replied. "Are you okay?"

Emily released a short laugh. "That depends. Could you loan me some money?"

Nik shrugged. "Sure, Em. How much do you need?"

"About three or four thousand bucks."

His eyes widened. "What? Are you kidding me?"

"No, I'm serious," she said. "I wouldn't go to anyone else, and I hate that I have to ask... You know I'll pay you back, but Nikolas, please. I really need it. Can you give it to me?"

Folding his arms across his chest, he gave her a hard look. "Does this have anything to do with Zander? The truth, Em."

She swallowed hard and nodded. "Yeah. We're leaving Port Charles and we need the money to get settled. Will you help us?"

Pretending to think about it, Nik turned his back on Emily and went to the window. If he gave her the cash and she left, that would be one less person who could tell the difference between him and Nikolas. He smiled and nodded. Turning around, he said, "I will. I'll help you. What are friends for?"

~*~

Carly gripped the slip of paper in her hand as she clutched the telephone against her ear. Her fingers shook slightly and the numbers were almost hard to read. Good thing, squinting helped.

"Yeah?" The voice on the other end answered.

"I'm looking for Joe Patroni," she said. "Is he there?"

"It depends," the raspy voice said. "Who's calling?"

She swallowed hard and rushed out with her name. "Carly. Carly Corinthos."

There was a pause, and the sound of Carly's heart thudded rapidly in her eardrums. Eavesdropping on Sonny had been wrong, but a necessary evil she reminded herself. This was their only way out. This Joey 'Magic Fingers' Patroni could be the answer to their prayers and if Sonny was too stubborn to realize it, she for damn sure wasn't. If Magic Fingers would take the job, then Sorel would be erased from their lives forever.

"This is Patroni."

"This is-"

"I know who it is," he interrupted. "Why are you calling? My offer of business for your family was denied. Has there been a change?"

"Yes," she quickly answered without a moment's hesitation. "We've changed our mind. We'd like to take you up on your offer. When can you start?"

"Mrs. Corinthos," he said, pausing for effect, "it's as good as done. You know the terms?"

She guessed he referred to the exchange of money and she said, "Yes. I just don't know where it should be sent."

"I'll call you later with details. I always do. It will be nice doing business for your family again."

An ominous chill zigzagged down her back and she shivered. In a quiet voice, she answered, "Yes, it will."

After the call ended, she shrugged off the feeling of foreboding that chilled her and went back inside to watch the rest of Gia's photo shoot.

~*~

His dreams took him to strange, dark places. A kaleidoscope of bizarre images and misshapen faces danced before him. In his sleep, he called out words that held no meaning for him when he was awake. Sweat covered his body and soaked his clothing and sheets. Violently, he thrashed around on the bed until he fell and hit the floor. The hard landing woke him and Lucky sat up, clutching the back of his head in a daze.

"What the f-?"

His eyes widened in shock as he stared around the room. His mouth dropped open and pulled himself onto his bed. He couldn't believe what the state of his studio apartment. Clothes were tossed wildly across the floor and over the furniture. Books lay in a pile on the floor and his CDs were all over the place. The only thing that wasn't destroyed was his camera. Thank God for that, he thought. Slowly, he rose to his feet and moved around his apartment, mentally accessing the damage.

"Damn!"

The place looked like a madman stormed through it. It had the appearance of the aftermath of a psychotic rampage. Who could have done something like that with him right there in the room, Lucky wondered?

Barefoot, he carefully stepped across the floor to check the locks. Maybe the bastard left fingerprints. Stooping down, he peered at the locks. "What the hell?!"

He reared back in shock. The deadbolt and chains were still intact. No one could have broken in the night before which meant the culprit was...him.

Lucky sat down hard on the floor and grasped his head. Ice cold fear rippled in his veins. "What's happening to me?" he whispered.

~*~

Thoughts of Zarek kept Dara awake most of the night and sleep didn't come until the wee hours of the morning. Her subconscious produced even more images of him and she found herself enjoying her dreams of them dancing together on clouds. The band started to play a tango and they were just getting into the dance when her doorbell sounded. She awakened with a scowl. Grabbing her robe, she stomped into the living room to greet her unwanted visitors.

"It's nearly noon, Porcupine," Steve said when she opened the door. With his one good eye, he gave her attire a hard stare. "Did we catch you at a bad time?"

Her mother's questioning glance mirrored Steve's and Dara grimaced. She pulled the door open wide. "No, I just had a late night. Come on in."

They entered and once the door was closed, the family greeted each other with hugs and kisses. "When did you get in?" Dara asked, once the displays of affection had ended. "I would have met you at the airport. Did Dawn meet you?"

"Nope," Steve said as he headed for her kitchen.

"I'm sorry," Dara said. "I went out last night and lost track of the time."

"It's okay," her mother said. "We're adults. Steve can hail a cab with the best of them. Besides, the plane came in late and we wouldn't want either of you out at that time of night, but as it turns out...you were out anyway."

Dara knew an interrogation when it was in its beginning stage. Sighing, she sat on the sofa and waited for the rest of it.

"Irish creme, hazelnut and mocha berry," Steve announced as he stood in the doorway to the kitchen.

"Mocha berry, baby," Carrie answered, giving him a smile.

"You got it, Sexiness." He winked at her and disappeared into the kitchen again.

Dara shook her in head, but remained quiet. She was thrilled that her mother and stepfather loved each other so much, but the endearments were enough to make a maggot gag. Sometimes, they were too much to take without enough sleep for her mind to handle them.

"So, you're gonna make me drag it out of you, aren't you?" Carrie asked, sitting on the loveseat across from her daughter. "What's going on, Dara? You quit your job? As the Assistant District Attorney? That doesn't sound like you. Tell me the truth. Were you threatened?"

"No, Mama!" Dara said. "I told you before. I quit because I wanted to. I had enough. I'm tired of dealing with the corruption. I'm tired of working my butt off and ending up looking like a fool-"

"So you just quit?"

Dara's jaw tightened. "It wasn't like that. If you're worried about the student loans, I'll pay them back. I have money saved and this won't set me back."

"I'm not worried about the loans. That's not what concerns me," Carrie said. "I'm worried about. You've never done something so impulsive before. If something else is going on, you know you can tell me."

The unshed tears in her mother's eyes were Dara's undoing. She sighed and reached for her mother's hands. "I know, Mama, and believe me, I'm telling you the truth. I quit because it was the best thing for me. I'll be okay. I'll be a lot better than I was before."

"Here's your coffee," Steve said upon his return. He handed a steaming mug to both women and then joined Carrie on the loveseat. His arm wrapped around her shoulders and his hand automatically stroked her arm. He smiled as he looked at Dara. "So, Porcupine, what's his name?"

She nearly choked and coughed to recover. "Whose name?" Dara sputtered, feigning ignorance.

"Your man's," he said, looking at her with a broad teasing grin on his face. "You have that gleam in your eyes, baby. It might have slipped past your Mama, but not me. Who is he?"

Dara shook her head and laughed. Her family was amazing. Just enough love and craziness to make life interesting and as frustrating as hell. Taking her time, she sipped more of the coffee and then said, "That's for me to know and for you to find out."

~*~

"Did you sleep well?" Philana asked, joining Zarek as he ate breakfast.

"It was wonderful," he said with a smile. "And you? I believe I heard you come in rather late. I trust you weren't out making mischief."

She laughed and then took a sip of mineral water. As she set the glass on the table, she leaned back and said, "I'm the parent. You're the child. Be sure to remember that."

He rolled his eyes while he chewed on a slice of bacon. "It's not like I could forget. You remind me every chance you can, but I assure you Mother dear, I can take care of myself."

"I'm sure you can," she agreed, "but I fear you're making a few enemies along the way and I don't want to see any harm come to you."

"What do you mean?" he asked. "I have the feeling this isn't idle conversation. You're referring to someone in particular. Who is it?"

"Joseph Sorel." She leaned forward and covered his hand with hers. "He's upset with your treatment of him."

Zarek's eyes narrowed. "He's angry because he won't have a seat on Death Row? What an ungrateful bastard!" He pulled away from his mother and abruptly rose from the chair. In his agitation, he nearly knocked the chair over. It tittered, but remained upright.

Philana rose and patted his back. "He is being ungrateful and I don't appreciate it-"

"When did you see him?" he cut in.

She lifted her chin and answered, "Last night."

He released a harsh sigh. "I thought that ended a long time ago. You told me it did."

"It had, but I was in a peculiar mood and decided to congratulate him on a small victory. One thing led to another... Oh, I don't have to explain myself to you!" She pointed her finger at him. "You will be careful until I have Sorel taken care of."

"I can protect myself without any problems," he told her. "And please for once do what I ask and stay out of this. We need Sorel alive in order to control Corinthos. Let me handle this."

"No," she said firmly. "That racketeer may be in an excellent lover, but that does not give him leave to threaten my son to my face." She cupped Zarek's face and whispered, "I have spent my life protecting you and I am not about to stop now. We'll find another way to keep Michael Corinthos in line, but in the meantime, Joseph Sorel will rest in peace."

~*~

Dawn glanced at the clock in the lobby again and made a move to stand up. Nikolas' hand closed around hers and pulled her down again. "What are you doing?" she asked him.

"I'm not sure about this," Nikolas said behind his usual disguise. They sat on the sofas on the tenth floor lobby of General Hospital. The time for Dawn's appointment with Sabrina had arrived, but he was reluctant to let her go alone. "Maybe it would be best if I go instead."

"Nikky, you can't go at all," she gently reminded him. Her hand squeezed his. "I'll be okay. I made the appointment weeks ago and my seeing her won't appear suspicious to anyone. But..."

"But if I go with you, it will," he finished for her.

She nodded. "Yes. You have my cell phone. Once the coast is clear, I'll call you. Her office is at the far end of the hall on the right side. Her name is on the door, so you shouldn't miss it." He became quiet and seemed to accept her logic. Dawn rose, but before she moved away, she placed her fingers underneath his bearded chin and tilted his head so that he would look at her. "Will you be okay out here all by yourself? Guardian angels feel kinda funny when they have to leave their charges behind."

He laughed softly and then smiled. Kissing her hand, he looked up at her with his soulful brown eyes. "I'll be fine, Angel, and I'll wait for your call right here."

Her flesh tingled from where he kissed her and she sighed without realizing it. "Very good. Sit tight. It won't be too long."

Dawn felt his eyes boring into her as she headed to her appointment with his aunt. The morning after his wondrous lovemaking hadn't been as awkward as she feared. Something magical happened between them as he loved her tenderly and introduced her to ecstasy. The friendship had deepened and feelings of love lay unspoken just below the surface. For the time being, Dawn was content to leave the sentiment unsaid. It was there. She knew it and she believed with her all her heart that he did, too.

Her footsteps slowed as she neared Sabrina's office. Thoughts of Nikolas faded to the background for just a moment as she considered the reason for the appointment. The WSB demanded a physical for all of its new recruits and although she hadn't made a firm decision about the job offer, she scheduled an appointment anyway. Her training in psychology made her want to analyze her reasons for making the appointment while the rest of her didn't want to think about it. But regardless of her reasons, she knew that time was running out and the WSB would only wait so long for an answer. She'd have to give them one sooner rather than later. "Oh, boy," she muttered and then tapped on Sabrina's office door.

The door opened and a slender, fair-skinned woman greeted her. Dawn was surprised that the woman was obviously part African-American and wasn't sure if she had the right office. "Are you Dr. DeLane?"

The woman with the large, intelligent dark eyes nodded and smiled. "Yes, I am. Are you Dawn Jensen?"

Dawn nodded. "Yes. I'm sorry. You weren't as I expected."

Sabrina gestured for her to enter. Once Dawn did, she closed the door behind her. "What did you expect? An older Italian lady, perhaps?"

Heat flooded Dawn's cheeks and she nodded again. "Yes, maybe. I'm not sure. I'm sorry."

Sabrina laughed and pointed towards her guest chair. "Have a seat. There's no need for apologies. You were polite about it and I appreciate that, so let's not worry about it." She sat and opened a folder. "This says you're a candidate for the World Security Bureau. Is this correct?"

"Yes. I haven't made a decision, but I'm taking their required physical just in case I decide to take their offer."

"I see." Sabrina smiled again and closed the folder. She laced her fingers together and rested her hands on the desk. "Do you have any questions or concerns for me? Any health issues I should be aware of or anything?"

"None to my knowledge," Dawn answered. "I'm ready for the examination whenever you are."

"Let's begin."

Sabrina led her to the examining room that was next door. The physical wasn't too grueling and when it was over, Sabrina told her that she appeared to be in perfect health. After Dawn pulled on her jeans and shirt, she returned to Sabrina's office.

"Your results should be in by the end of the week. If something is amiss, I'll call you myself. If everything is fine, you will receive notification in the mail. Do you have any questions for me?"

Dawn inhaled and slowly released the air. "I have one. The real Nikolas is here and waiting. Would you like to see your nephew now?"

[Song credit: "All For You" by Janet Jackson on her 2001 CD, titled All For You.]

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