John lay on his hospital bed, Doc tucked into the corner of his arm. She was laying on his good shoulder, her hand drawing lazy patterns on his chest. It was nearly three in the morning, but neither of them could sleep. He glanced over the top of her beautiful head, to where EJ and Sami slept peacefully in their separate beds. They were leaning towards each other, as though they could sense each others nearness. Had there not been rails between them, John knew they would have been holding hands.

It didn't bother him, to tell the truth, that Sami had picked Junior Dimera. There was humanity in Elvis – a humanity his father certainly didn't possess. Yeah, Elvis had shot him, put him in jail for a crime he didn't commit. But John understood, believe it or not. Being under the influence of Stephano Dimera seemed to make certain people do crazy things.

John, himself, had done crazy things by that man's command. He wasn't exactly sure the whole frame up was entirely EJ's idea. Oh, sure, EJ believed he'd come up with the scheme – but somehow John was thinking Stephano may have "suggested" EJ do something about his old rival. It made sense to John, at least, and even if Junior had done it on his own, he was a man changing.

John believed people could change. Oh, yeah, he was a bit cynical and hard sometimes. He didn't believe all people could change – old man Dimera proved that – but if you wanted it enough, you could. And John saw the way EJ looked at Sami. It wasn't that fanatical obsession he'd seen in the old days. It was love; pure, true love. And he'd seen the way Sami looked at EJ. She looked beautiful, even beaten as she was. A woman in love, John thought, was the most beautiful creature on this good Earth.

"John? What are you thinking about?" Marlena's quiet whisper broke into his thoughts.

He looked down into her eyes, smiling at their beauty. His Doc was a gorgeous thing – the most beautiful woman he knew. He brushed a finger down her porcelain cheek, tipped her chin up, and pressed a gentle, chaste kiss to her lips. "God, I have missed you," he whispered to her, the sting of tears burning the back of his eyes.

"I missed you, too," she said, her voice cracking just a bit. They hadn't had any time alone since his return to Salem, not even a second. To see her, beautiful and all his, all he wished was to take her from this hospital bed and show her how much he loved her. She saw it in his eyes, for the look in hers matched his desire. They kissed again, this time not as chaste, and John held her close.

"I was thinking," he said at last, clearing his throat, "how glad I am Sami and Sydney are home safe."

"Me, too," Marlena said, smiling up at him. Her smile faltered, her eyes wide in the pale, night lights. "John, I keep thinking about what would have happened if you hadn't have wanted to go see Sami. That...that mad man could have...he might have..." She lowered her face into his chest. "You saved her, John. You saved her from a monster I set on her."

"Hey now, none of that," John admonished. "It wasn't your fault."

She said nothing for a long time, and would not look up at him until he took her chin in his hand and tilted her head up. Her eyes were filled with tears, her bottom lip trembling.

"Oh, sweetheart, c'mon," John whispered, kissing that trembling lip. "It's okay now. We got the kids back."

"But not safe," Marlena gasped, trying to keep her voice down. " my little girl. He beat her over and over again. I saw the x-rays. She had massive internal bleeding in her stomach – he must have kicked her a dozen times in a row!" She took a shuddering breath, squeezing her eyes shut. "John, oh John, he...hurt her. Inside. He ruptured her uterine wall when he...when he took..."

John held her closer, rubbing his hands reassuringly down her back. "Our Sami is just like you Doc – a fighter. She's gonna be okay. She has us...and she has EJ."

Marlena stiffened in his arms again. "He framed you, John. He confessed."

John closed his eyes briefly. "I know. That just doesn't matter to me anymore." He opened to his eyes to find Marlena's incredulous gaze on him. "Doc, he saved our grand-baby. He saved my Samantha Gene. He's saving her right now. I can't help but love him for that."

Marlena's eyes widened, tears spilling over them again. John brushed them from her cheek and smiled softly down at her.

"You are...the most forgiving, amazing man I have ever met, John Black," Marlena whispered in wonder.

John smiled, feeling the skin around his eyes crinkle. "Only because I am married to the most wonderful, amazing woman I have ever met."

For the first time in hours, Marlena smiled at him.

Heart of Everything
Chapter Sixteen
The End of the Vendetta

Nicole lay on the hospital cot, staring through the darkness at the sleeping figure of Eric Brady. It was beyond her wildest imagination that Eric Brady would come save her from the wrath of Stephano Dimera.

"God, what a mess," she moaned quietly, pulling the blankets up under her chin. She just couldn't believe it – Stephano had Eric kidnapped, had this Thorvald guy kidnap Sami and Sydney. She shuddered when she thought of the things Eric said happened to Sami – she may hate that conniving, man stealing bitch...but no one deserved that.

And now Stephano was after everyone EJ loved! Ha! He shouldn't even bother with her. Yesterday's news, that's what Nicole Walker was. She ran her hand over her stomach, her eyes wide. But her baby...she knew EJ would love her baby. He'd want to raise her little bug with that bitch...Nicole squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the tears she had been fighting all day swell in her lids.

It wasn't fair. Sami got everything – kids, a wonderful husband, and now Nicole's wonderful husband! Though he wasn't that wonderful...he was in love with another woman, after all.


She opened her eyes, staring wide into the dark. Eric had risen, and was kneeling by her bed. He brushed the tears from her cheek, his face masked in the darkness. "Yeah, Eric?" she whispered.

"You scared, Nicki?" he asked quietly, his familiar voice an unexpected balm on her soul.

She shook her head, took a deep breath. "I'm just...hurt, you know? I really loved EJ. I gave him my whole heart – again! He's cheated on me before, Eric," she admitted, feeling her cheeks burn with shame. "I gave him a chance. I always...I always knew he really loved Sami." She couldn't keep the bitterness from her voice. "I always knew that if she wanted him, he'd go running. I just hoped...that if I loved him enough...that if I tried...he would..."

Eric's arms slipped around her, pulling her up into a sitting position. He held her close, rubbing his hands up and down her back as she wept. "Shh, I understand. I'm so sorry you're hurting. I'm here for you."

Nicole let out a bitter, coughing laugh. "Why would you be? I treated you like dirt. I threw you to the side for what? Money?" she snarled, pulling away from him to rub her face. "I hate money now. I hate what it does. It creates creatures like Victor and Stephano. It warps people...the way it warped EJ. The way it warped me."

Eric's arms were around her again, pulling her into him. "It's okay, Nicki. I had a lot of time on that island. A lot of time to think. To forgive. I forgave you a very long time ago, Nicole."

She looked up into his hidden face, her heart soaring up into her throat. "You mean that, Eric?"

He chuckled then, and kissed her forehead. "I do, Nicki. I mean it with all my heart. I forgive you."

"Well, well, isn't this...touching," an unfamiliar, sinister voice said some the darkness around them.

The lights flickered once, twice, and came on full force above them. Nicole's eyes widened – the three police officers that had been assigned to protect them lay dead just inside the door. There were five men, with knives and guns, all looking at Nicole and Eric like they were the most delicious slices of meat on the menu.

"Oh shit," Nicole whispered.

"Ditto," Eric replied.

EJ woke to a commotion. Roman was there, speaking quietly with John and Marlena. All three looked upset; Marlena was clinging to John, weeping into his shoulder. Roman's back was tense, his hands shaking at his side.

"Who was it?" EJ asked, a horrible leaden weight sinking into his stomach. "Who has my father hurt?"

Roman turned, his expression inscrutable as ever. Not so long ago, EJ had thought the man incapable of emotion. Now he understood; Roman was all emotion, all tied up under his thin veneer of civility. He could see Roman was on the verge of explosion.

"Eric and Nicole were taken last night from this very hospital. The officers assigned to their protection were killed," Roman said, his voice as even as the cold expression on his face.

EJ felt his world go upside down. "Nicole was here? Why was Nicole here?"

Roman's eyes darkened, fluttered to Samantha's bed. She was awake, watching in quiet horror. "Turns out Eric and the officers brought Nicole here when she was complaining of abdominal cramps." He looked back at EJ, the feeling of utter foreboding stealing EJ's breath. "She's pregnant, EJ."

The world seemed to go in and out of focus, surrounding Roman with a halo of movement and sound. "P-Pregnant?" EJ repeated, his hands clutching the covers.

"Yeah. Dr. Jonas told us, only because hers is a high-risk pregnancy. Normally he wouldn't break doctor-patient confidentiality. The only reason I'm telling you, is because you're gonna have to call your old man and let him know about the baby and that it's yours, if he doesn't know already. It may be the only way to keep Nicole alive." Roman approached the bed, holding EJ's phone out for him.

His hands felt like they were made of bricks. He took it numbly, hitting the speed dial for his father's phone. He held it to his ear, and turned to look at Samantha. Her eyes were wide, her skin pale against her dark bruises. There were tears streaking down her face.

"Elvis?" his father's quiet, dangerous voice said.

EJ kept staring at Samantha. Kept eye contact with the woman he loved. Memorized the pain on her face. "Father," he said, clearing his throat, " Father, please. Don't hurt Nicole."

"Why ever would I hurt my...beloved Daughter-In-Law? We're having tea as we speak."

"Is she all right?"

"Of course, of course! She's just told me the...happy news. Elvis, you're going to be a father! I'll be a grandfather once again." EJ listened to the pleased chuckle on the other end of the phone, his hand fisting in the covers.

"I know, Father," EJ said softly. "Please, just let her go. Let her and my baby go."

"She is not a prisoner," Stephano said with a laugh. "She is my...honored guest. Her, and Eric Brady. We've made a deal, Nicole and I."

"What sort of deal?" EJ asked, meeting Roman's eyes.

"Nicole and Eric remain my guest until my grandchild is born. Then, I release them both into the world, keeping my little grandchild to raise the Dimera way. The way you should have raised your other children, Elvis," Stephano admonished.

EJ's eyes widened, his stomach dropped. "She...Nicole would never agree to such a thing!"

"Oh but she did! Here, I will let her tell you." There was a sound, like a scraping of a chair, followed by muffled foot steps.

"EJ?" Nicole's frightened, breathy voice said.

"Nicole? Are you all right? The baby?" EJ asked desperately.

"Yeah, yeah I'm okay. It's just really hot here," Nicole said, sobbing into the phone. "I did it EJ. I made the deal. I had to! His goons had Eric tied up. They've beaten him black and blue. I think his arm is broken, I –"

"Nicole? Nicole!"

"That's enough of that," Stephano's cold voice came. "Elvis, you have taken everything from me. Now, I take everything from you. Good bye, my son."

The line went dead. EJ dropped the phone, taking a deep breath, feeling the panic come on him. His monitors began to beep and buzz, exploding with sound. He couldn't breathe, couldn't think. His whole body was shaking. There were doctors all around him suddenly, pushing him down, shoot medicines into his IV.

He could hear Samantha calling his name. He looked over, passed the doctors, and met her eyes. She was crying, her mother holding her as she struggled to get to him.

"I'm sorry, Samantha," he whispered, the world going black once again.

Sami sat in the visitor's chair next to EJ's bed, watching him sleep. He had hyperventilated, had torn open his wound again. She was holding his hand, staring hard at his beautiful face.

Nicole was pregnant. The words kept ringing in her head. She was worried about Eric, worried about Nicole, but dear God, Nicole was pregnant.

Sami kissed his hand, nuzzled his fingers. "We'll get through this," she whispered to EJ. "We'll get Nicole and Eric back. Once they're home, we'll figure this thing out with Nicole. We'll share custody. I can be a good step-mom. We'll be a family."

"Really, sweetheart?" EJ's muzzy, tired voice asked.

Sami looked up, smiled her brightest at him. "Absolutely. Your baby already has my heart, EJ. I love that little one. It doesn't matter to me that the baby isn't mine. I love every part of you. Especially your children," Sami said evenly.

The look on EJ's face would stay with her until her dying day. His eyes were wide, his mouth slowly turning up in a smile. He was glowing, his large, warm hands cupping her face. "God, I love you so much, Samantha."

Sami smiled softly, placing her hands over his. "I love you too, EJ."

"Say it again?" he asked softly, licking his lips as he watched hers move.

"I love you, Elvis Dimera," she said with a quiet laugh. The joy leeched out of her, her expression falling, as she met his eyes. "We have to save Nicole and Eric. We have to stop Stephano."

EJ's happiness faded, too. An expression of pure determination came over him. "We will get them back. And we will take my father down."

"I'm in," Aunt Hope said from over Sami's shoulder. She was standing there, holding a sleeping Ciara, kissing her child's cheek.

"Me too," Bo said, walking up to his wife's side.

"That monster's downfall is overdue," John said from his bed, rubbing little Sydney's back as she dozed at his side.

"I want to be there," Marlena said darkly. "I need to see that man go down."

"For our children," Roman agreed. "And our children's children."

"Whatever I can do to help," Lucas said, sitting up from his bed.

"Me too," Will replied, smiling at Sami.

She looked at EJ, who was looking only at her. "Let's save Nicole and Eric."

"And take down my father," EJ agreed, looking at her. "It's time to end this vendetta."