"I like this one, Tommy."
Tommy groaned on the inside, but to the florist and Michael, he smiled and nodded in agreement. "It's great, little man. I'm sure she'll love it."
The florist smirked, but it immediately disappeared when Tommy raised an eyebrow in response. The young woman took the odd assortment of flowers to the counter and without a word, began to arrange them as best she could. Glancing down at the little red-head who followed her, the florist said, "So, who's the lucky lady?"
"Dawnie!" Michael replied, giggling as he said her name.
"Is she your girlfriend?" the young woman asked. She stole a quick glance at the quiet young man and quickly diverted her attention back to the little boy.
"No!" Michael laughed, hiding part of his face behind his hand.
"Oh, no? What about him?" she asked, nodding her head towards the young man as she added baby's breath to the arrangement. "Is she his girlfriend?"
"Why all the questions?" Tommy asked, placing a protective hand on Michael's shoulder. His eyes narrowed as he looked at her and waited for her answer.
"I was just curious," she replied with a shrug. "Also, I thought that maybe if you weren't seeing someone...we could hook up."
A faint flush tainted Tommy's cheeks, but it disappeared as soon as it appeared. With a polite smile, he said, "I'll keep that in mind. Um, are you almost done? We need to get going, so if you could..."
"I'm done," she said, holding up the bouquet to him.
Tommy took the bouquet from her and carefully placed it in Michael's outstretched arms. After he paid for Dawn's get well gift, they left the store. Once they were outside, Tommy took the bouquet from Michael. With a firm grip on Michael's hand, Tommy led them to his car.
"Yeah?" Tommy replied, as he stood upright after placing the bouquet in the backseat of his car.
"I'm hungry. Let's get ice cream," Michael suggested, grinning when Tommy chuckled.
"Ice cream? You want *ice cream*? Isn't it kinda cold for ice cream? Wouldn't you rather have something else?" Tommy asked, making sure that Michael was clear before he slammed the door shut.
"Nope!" the little voice chirped back.
"Yep!" the deeper voice countered. Tommy lifted Michael into his arms and pointed across the street to the restaurant which was right next door to the ice cream parlor which had captured Michael's attention. "See that diner over there? It serves the best peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I've ever had. I'll make you a deal. If you eat at least half of a pb and j sandwich, we'll split a sundae. Is that a deal?"
Carrie? Nikolas turned at the sound of the familiar voice, surprised to see her at the hospital. "What's wrong? Is Father okay?" he asked, as a million images flashed through his mind.
"Stefan's fine. I'm here with Dara," Carrie replied. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him. His hair hadn't been combed. His face was covered with stubble and there was an awful bruise on his left jaw. Her hand lightly cupped his cheek as she said, "What happened to you?"
"It's nothing, Carrie," Nikolas replied, removing her hand from his cheek to hold it in his hand. "How's Dara? Is there something wrong with the baby?"
"Her obstetrician is with her now. She started having pains and I brought her here immediately," she answered.
"Have you been here long? Do you need me to do anything? Call Ned?" he asked.
"We've only been here for a little while. I called Ned from the car, so he should be here any moment now. And as for me, I wouldn't mind if you kept me company until your father gets here."
"I can do that," he said with a smile. Placing his hand in the small of his back, he led her back to the Emergency Room's waiting area. After they were seated, he wasn't surprised when the questions soon followed.
"What are you doing here? And, do you know where Dawn is? I tried to call her cell phone and she didn't answer. Then, I tried to call her at work, but Krista said that she didn't know where she was."
"Dawn's here," Nikolas replied. He didn't really want to answer the rest, but after taking a deep breath, he decided that getting it out in the open was always the best course of action when dealing with Carrie. She'd be upset with him, of course, but maybe it wouldn't last long. At least, he hoped not. She was a wonderful woman, but Heaven help him for crossing one of her daughters.
"Because of her hand?" Carrie asked. From the tense way Nikolas held himself, she had a strong suspicion that there was more. And, that she wouldn't like it, whatever it was.
"Yeah," he admitted, quietly. "She's upstairs having it x-rayed."
"Stefan told me that it was swollen. Do you know what happened?" Carrie had her answer when Nikolas looked at her with contrite brown eyes. Nodding her head in understanding, she said, "She hit you, didn't she?"
"Yeah. I had it coming, though," he replied.
"If you say so," she answered. "Care to tell me why?"
"Not really. She and I haven't quite figured it all, yet, and until we do, I'd really rather not discuss it."
"I'll give you that...this time. But if I see any more bruises or anything swollen, we will discuss it. All four of us. Understood?"
"Carrie!" Ned called, unknowingly interrupting the step-son/step-mother moment. Visibly distressed, he ran to them. His eyes were lit with worry and fear as he said, "How is she? Where is she? She's not in labor is she? Is the baby okay?"
"She's being taken care of. She's in the back with Dr. Newman," Carrie said. When Ned started to move down the hallway, she quickly added, Ned, wait. She's only been with Dr. Newman a few minutes. Give them a few minutes, okay?"
"But, Carrie..." Ned objected, desperate to check on his wife and see with his own eyes that she and their unborn child were okay.
"Just a few more minutes. Dr. Newman knows that you were on your way. She'll come out and get you when the time is right. Trust me on this one. Besides, it wouldn't help Dara to see you agitated like this. When you go in there, she'll need you to be her rock. Not vice versa. Give yourself a few minutes to calm down," Carrie advised.
"Carrie's right," Nikolas agreed. "You should relax before you see her, you know. Maybe I could get you some coffee or something. And, for you, too, Carrie."
"No thanks," Ned shook his head as he ran his hand through his dark hair. "Coffee's the last the thing I need right now. Okay. You're both right. I'll wait until Dr. Newman comes back out."
"Good idea. Carrie, can I get you anything?"
"No thanks, Nikolas," she said, giving his arm brief, light squeeze. "But if you don't mind, I'd appreciate it if you told Dawn that we're down here. I think she'd want to know."
"Sure, no problem," he said, offering her a smile which he didn't really feel. "I'll let her know right now."
"Well, the good thing is that it's not broken," Dawn said, softly.
"Yeah, it's only sprained. I suppose that's good, considering," AJ grumbled, the sarcasm heavy in his voice.
"C'mon what? C'mon where? Dawn, he provoked you into slugging him," AJ said. "I know from personal experience that it takes a lot to make you turn to violence, and I want to know what he did to make you have to punch him."
"No, you don't to want to know," she said, shaking her head. "Believe me, you don't."
When she reached out a hand to press the elevator call button, AJ stopped her by taking her hand. "Believe me, I do. What did he say?"
"I don't want this to turn into a war between you and him, and I know if you tell you that's what's gonna happen."
"What if I give you my word?" he asked, offering her a teasing smile.
"Nope! Not good enough," she answered, her eyes dancing in response to his change in tone.
"My word? Not good enough? I'm offended!" he said, clutching his chest in mock horror.
"Oh, AJ, hush!" she laughed, and without thinking, playfully pinched him, using her right hand. "Ow!"
"Dawn!" he said, alarmed by her cry of pain. Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, he pulled her to him. "I think you should rethink the prescription. You barely touched me. You shouldn't force yourself to 'deal with' the pain. We can get the order filled on our way out."
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I can deal with it. It doesn't hurt *that* much and besides, you know how I feel about drugs."
"Sweetheart, it's not hardly the same thing," he replied, knowing that she was refering to her moment of rebellion a few years ago.
"It doesn't matter," she refused again, stubborn in her determination to never use pain-killers for anything ever again. "It's easy to say it's not the same thing, but it only takes a second to get hooked again."
"I hate to intrude on this tender moment," Nikolas replied, stepping out of the elevator as he faced his ex-girlfriend wrapped within the protective arms of her current interest, "but I must."
"For what? To badger her some more? Well, I'm not having it!" AJ said, instantly angered by the sight of Nikolas.
Nikolas clenched his jaw and drew a long breath. "Look, a hospital is hardly the place for this, and besides, I didn't come here to talk to you."
"Well, that's too damn bad, because your days of talking to Dawn are over."
"AJ! Nikolas! Cut it out. We're in a hospital, and since your aunt is over there almost falling all over herself to hear this, I suggest you both cool it! Now!" Confident that they had listened to her, Dawn continued, "What do you want, Nikolas? If you came back because of my hand, don't worry about it. It's sprained, not broken. Curiosity satisfied now? Guilt abated? Good. Now, leave me alone."
"I'd love to leave you alone with your...*friend*, but I can't. Carrie asked me to inform you that Dara is in Emergency-"
"She's downstairs. Carrie brought her in a little while ago and now, she's with her doctor. Ned's down there, too. And Father is on the way."
"Is she okay? She's not in labor, is she? It's too soon for her to be in labor. She can't be!"
"I wish I knew what was going on, but that's all I can tell you," Nikolas replied, quietly.
The down elevator doors opened and Dawn and AJ immediately went inside. "Aren't you coming?" Dawn asked.
Nikolas shook his head. "I'll take the next one."
Tommy leaned back in the booth and watched his young friend attack the jamocha almond fudge ice cream with gusto. Laughing softly, he said, "Good?"
"Well, save some for me!" Tommy picked up his spoon and began to dig in, too. As he spooned the cold treat into his mouth, he continued to watch the little boy. He seemed so happy and well-adjusted. Looking at him now, no one would guess the trauma he'd been through at such a young age. By all rights, he shouldn't even be alive, but he was. Alive and full of life by day, and scared and terrified by night.
Knowing that even a year after the fact Michael wasn't completely over what had happened and that he continued to have nightmares worried Tommy. His relationship with Emily and his job with AJ had brought Tommy closer to the innocent, playful tyke, and in all honesty, he loved him. And, seeing him still hurting, no matter how subconscious it was, bothered him and made him want to do something about it. But, what? The question was one he and everyone who loved Michael wished they had an answer for, but knew that they probably never would.
"I dreamed about the car," Michael said, interrupting Tommy's thoughts as if by some uncanny psychic ability.
"Oh, yeah?" Tommy asked, wanting Michael to tell him more, but knowing better than to push. The three-year-old would go at his own pace, not Tommy's. And if he stopped speaking about it, he wouldn't be prodded about it.
"Yeah," Michael sighed, causing himself to sound much older than his preschool years. But, all of that changed with the next sentence. "Yummy. Tommy, can I have another cherry?"
"Sure. You can have mine." Tommy smiled when a grin spread across Micheal's face.
"Yay!" Michael popped the cherry into his mouth and slowly chewed swallowed it. Satisfied, he began to speak again. "The car was a bad car."
"Yep," he nodded. "It was a monster car. It said, 'Gggrrr!'"
"That definitely sounds like a monster car," Tommy agreed. "Do you remember anything else from your dream?"
"What was your daddy doing?" Tommy asked, hoping that he wasn't asking too much.
Michael shrugged and didn't speak. He directed his attention to the melting ice cream, swirling his spoon around in the chocolate goo. Tommy took the hint and remained silent.
"Is Dawnie okay?" Michael asked, breaking the silence which had come upon the table.
"Yeah, I think so. It's just her hand that was hurt. Besides, you sent her a kiss to make it better, right? So of course, she's okay now," Tommy said, reaching across the table to ruffle Michael's hair.
"Yeah!" he grinned.
"Wanna see if she's back, yet, so we can give her the flowers?" Tommy suggested, relieved by the bright smile on Michael's face. He'd been worried that he'd asked one question too many. If he caused Michael any more pain than he'd already endured, he'd never forgive himself.
"Yeah!" Michael hopped down from the booth and waited for Tommy to join him. He was patient as Tommy helped him with his coat and as soon as Tommy had his own coat on, Michael grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the door.
The drive from the ice cream parlor to SNR was quick and filled with songs and light-hearted conversation. Soon, they had parked and were inside the warm gym, greeted by the familiar faces of employees and clients.
Carrying the bouquet, Michael walked carefully into his father's office. He was happy to see his father smiling back at him, but he was disappointed to see that Dawn wasn't there. His bottom lip began to tremble as he tried to sniff back the tears which threatened to fall. "Where's Dawnie?"
"Come here," AJ said, opening his arms to Michael. Tommy, who had followed Michael inside, took the flowers from him so that Michael could run into his father's arm without worrying about crushing Dawn's gift.
Michael rested his head on AJ's chest and found comfort in the steady beat of his father's heart. His hands balled into fists as he wiped the tears away. "Dawnie's not all better?"
"She's fine," AJ reassured him. He heard the sigh which escaped Tommy, but he didn't comment on it, or allow himself to think about it. Instead, he concentrated on reassuring his son. "She's with her Mama and Dara. Dara's not feeling well, so Dawn decided to stay with her for a little while."
"What's wrong with Dara?" Tommy asked with a frown.
AJ shrugged. "She had a few pains and the doctor is keeping her for observation. Ned's a wreck. I really feel for him."
"She's not in labor or anything, is she?" Tommy asked.
"Nah, not as far as I can tell," AJ answered, patting his Michael's back as he spoke. As Michael's breath deepened, AJ knew that his son was close to taking a much needed nap. He wished he could do the same, but duty called. "I see you two went out. Thanks for keeping an eye on him."
"No problem. He's a great little guy. Um...he told me a little bit about his dream."
"What? He remembered something? He never remembers. What did he say?"
"He said there was a bad, monster car. He said it made a 'ggrr' sound. He said that he remembered you, too."
"What about me?" AJ asked, glancing down at his now fast asleep son.
"He didn't say. I asked him, but he shrugged. I probably shouldn't have asked. I'm sorry. I hope my question doesn't cause him..."
"Don't worry about it," AJ said, shaking his head. "Your asking a question won't trigger a nightmare. It's not your fault Jason and Carly tried to kill me in front of my son. His nightmares are because of their selfishness and vindictiveness. You didn't do anything wrong by asking him."
Tommy shrugged, not fully convinced. Deep in thought, he turned away, but turned back again when something occurred to him. "I have a question."
"Hold it until I put him down." AJ stood up and carried Michael into the adjoining room which contained a cot and a few of Michael's toys. He set Michael down on the bed and removed his shoes and coat. After he was certain the boy was comfortable, he went back into the office. "Okay, what's up?"
"Probably nothing," Tommy mumbled.
"Well, you can tell me... or not. It's up to you."
"What's the deal with Carly?"
"What do you mean? You know where she is. She definitely won't be coming out soon, and as far as Michael is concerned, his mother is far, far away."
"No, I understand that, but are you *sure* she won't be released anytime soon?"
"Aw, c'mon, Tommy. She was an accessory to murder, and her son was a witness to it. I think it's safe to say that she'll be released when hell freezes over. Now, it's my turn to ask a question. Why do you ask?"
"Some woman at the flower shop was asking questions, is all," Tommy sighed.
"What kind of questions?" AJ asked, instantly worried.
"Actually, it's kind of lame. She wanted to know if I had a girlfriend."
"You're right," AJ laughed. "That is lame."
"Ha ha, very funny. That's not what I really meant. She was kinda talkative with Michael and it worried me. Maybe I'm just paranoid."
"Maybe. Maybe not. You went to that flower shop down the street, right? I'll stop by later and see what gives. If she appears iffy, I'll have her checked out."
"I'm sorry if I scared you. She's probably just the nosy sort-"
"Or just plain desperate," AJ chuckled.
"Uh huh. Yeah, yeah," Tommy grumbled. He made a move to leave again, but the flowers on the desk stopped him, reminding him of something he very much wanted to do. "Hey, um, AJ?"
"Yeah?" AJ replied.
"Would you mind if I go over to the hospital? Check on Dara and give Dawn these flowers. Mikey would hate it if they went bad before we could give them to her."
"Nah, it's kinda slow today, and I think Dawn would like that. Would you take her purse, too? I doubt if she even realizes she doesn't have it, and I doubt if she comes back here today."
"Sure, no problem," Tommy replied, taking the purse from AJ. "I'll come back in an hour or so."
"Okay," AJ nodded, stifling a yawn.
"Maybe you should take a nap, too," Tommy said, backing up towards the door, while one had carried a small leather purse and the other, a strange bouquet of flowers.
"And, let Krista think she's in charge? I don't think so," AJ chuckled. "Tell Dawn I'll call her later."
"Will do," Tommy nodded before he left the office.