A cold shock of déjà vu hit Stefan’s senses, locking the breath in his lungs and his feet to the floor.
Sonny shot past him in a blur, up the stairs and out of sight before the man could even turn toward the distant sound of his sister’s cry. Stefan’s heart raced as he was thrown back in time, and his lips uttered a frantic whisper in answer to her call.
His legs finally released him to follow in Sonny’s path, taking the stairs two at a time. Corinthos stood in the open doorway of Alexis’ room, staring inside with cautious quiet. As Stefan slowly approached, Corinthos turned his head with one hand raised…and a decided look of warning cast Stefan’s way. Through narrowed eyes, Stefan sent the clear message that he would not be held at bay. And as Corinthos slipped into the room, Stefan followed without a word.
The light was dim and he blinked to focus within the unfamiliar surroundings. He’d never had occasion to be in her room before, and he faltered at the first thing his eyes took in – the sight of her bed, in utter disarray. It had been torn apart, as if a battle had been waged amidst the covers. He turned toward Sonny, who stood at the foot of the bed with his eyes trained in a different direction, taking in a different sight. Stefan crept up behind him, his gaze following over Sonny’s shoulder and landing on a small, pale shimmer of gold beneath the window.
He inhaled sharply as his history repeated itself in the form of Alexis, her small, crumpled body shaking as she huddled on the floor. One hand clutched the lace curtains, pressing them into her face - the other hand pushed at the wall above her head, as if trying to force it away. Sonny moved toward her, crossing behind her back to reach for the lamp and send its full brightness washing over them.
“Alexis?” He murmured softly, holding his own body still behind her. “Honey, open your eyes. The dark is gone, I promise.”
A choking sound escaped from her throat as her grip on the fistful of curtains tightened. She wouldn’t respond right away, Sonny knew, and he prepared himself to gently coax her back in as much time as she’d need.
“Alexis, it’s Sonny. Can you hear me?”
Something caught his eye and his head turned toward the
slight movement of Cassadine, who was slowly inching closer. Stefan stared down
at his sister with a crease in his brow and a distant look in his eyes. It had
been so long since he’d seen her that way…he almost felt trapped in a bad dream
of his own. But as Alexis whimpered and hit at the wall, a visible jolt ran
through his body and made the moment all too real.
“No…no…” Again and again, her palm met the hard surface.
Sonny hadn’t seen her strike out like that – she’d only cowered and withdrawn before, pulling into herself. Her nightmare cries of “no” had been plaintive, but now her cry owned strength. He wasn’t quite sure where she was this time, but Sonny could only handle her as he had before, hoping for the best. He crouched low on the floor and firmed the tone of his voice.
“Come on now, Alexis. Time to open your eyes and wake up, okay? I put all the lights on, just for you.”
Alexis gave no sign that she heard him or knew that he was there. Her palm moved down the wall, pushing and pushing at the immoveable object holding her in her imaginary prison. Sonny shifted his weight as he took a deep breath and edged himself closer to her. He bowed his head down and saw the damp flush of her face as she continued to gasp for air against the handful of curtains at her face.
“Honey, please. Wake up. I promise, it’s safe.”
He reached out, his fingertips touching down on her clenched fist in the hope that she’d let go and allow herself to breath. But Alexis jerked away from the feel of him and turned her head into the wall with a sharp cry.
“Ow! No, don’t…”
“It’s okay. Nobody’s going to hurt you. It’s Sonny. Alexis, can you hear me?”
Again, he reached for her, lightly touching the soft ends of her hair that lay across her shoulder. She flinched, but didn’t pull away. As Sonny’s fingers moved against the silk, stroking the curve of her tense shoulder, Alexis leaned her head against the wall and began to slowly rock back and forth.
“No, it’s not dark.”
She slid her hand down, away from the wall, and pulled another handful of curtains up to her face. “Sh…sh…she’ll find me.”
“NO, Alexis!” Stefan’s sternly intoned words resonated from above Sonny’s head, eliciting a harsh glare that Stefan ignored. “She will NOT find you, because Stefan found you first.”
Alexis stopped rocking...stopped breathing. The abrupt change in her awareness reflexively lifted Sonny’s hand from her arm. He wanted to put it right back, to keep his contact with her, but he was somehow afraid to touch her again. She had made a visceral connection to the sound of her brother’s voice, and Sonny was loath to distract her. He wasn’t sure what to do. But as Stefan took a step closer, Sonny instinctively leaned back on his heels to give him room. It felt right to relinquish, but something deep inside of him was still afraid. He watched Alexis carefully as Stefan knelt beside her and smiled, though her eyes were closed to the sight of it. And Sonny’s deep flutter of fear turned to a flutter of something else, something indescribable, as he saw all the tenderness that a man could own living right there in Cassadines’s face.
“Stefan is here, little one.” His strong tone was infused with the kind of loving warmth that Sonny had never thought him capable of expressing. “Don’t be afraid.”
She slowly turned her head toward his sound and released her long-held breath. Soon, they heard the oxygen begin to find its way back into her lungs in short, halting breaths.
“Good girl.” He gently lifted a damp strand of hair from her cheek and tucked it behind her ear.
“It’s…hot.” Her dry voice whispered through the lace.
“I’ll make it better.” As Stefan lay a firm palm over one clenched hand, he continued with his instructions in a gently authoritative tone. “But first, you must let go. Alexis, do you understand me?”
The two men watched in silence as the tremble in her body finally subsided, and the tension in her fingers released. The damp, wrinkled panels of lace fell away from her hands and back into place against the wall. Alexis kept her head down and her eyes squeezed shut, but she allowed Stefan to keep his hold on her hand. He moved his body, positioning himself directly in front of her.
“Don’t be afraid, little one.” His fingers brushed against her flushed cheek, pushing away more errant strands of hair that had fallen there and stuck to the dampness of her skin. “Stefan won’t leave you alone. Do you hear me, Alexis?”
Sonny felt a sharp pain in his leg. The slight cramping there had turned into spasms as he crouched in front of the slip covered chair – out of Cassadine’s immediate way, but as far from Alexis as he was willing to be. He grabbed at his calf muscle, working his fingers into it as he kept his eyes trained on her. And he was relieved when she finally, slowly, nodded in answer to her brother’s question. Alexis heard him. She knew that her childhood protector had come to her rescue once more. He was, in truth, her first hero.
“Now, I’m going to pick you up and put you back into bed.” Stefan smiled as his hand continued to stroke her face, soothing away the last of her labored breaths until the air flowed in and out of her lungs with ease and her fragile body had grown calm. “And I want you to go back to sleep.”
His hand departed from her face and he slipped his arm around her shoulder. The feel of it sent Alexis’ body releasing forward, her head coming to rest against Stefan’s chest. It was if she was asking, within her sleep, for his arms to hold her close. Stefan’s breath audibly caught in his throat, every ounce of intensity held within their childhood bond washing over him in her one sweet, simple gesture. He so missed being needed by her…by Nikolas…by anyone. The sense of adult loss was overwhelming. Stefan turned to Sonny’s dark, wide-eyed stare and tried to find his strength of voice.
“Would you…fix her bed, please?”
Sonny rubbed at his chin, fixed on the sight of Alexis curled up and comforted in another man’s arms. The feelings running through him were unsettling at best, disturbing at worst. That indescribable flutter he’d felt before no longer defied words, and his face grew hot in self-disgust. Cassadine was not another man - he was her brother. What shameful brand of jealousy had Sonny lowered himself to entertain? And how was he to shake it off when it felt so sickeningly strong? He swallowed and closed his eyes against the light dizziness creeping up on him.
“Focus on Alexis!” He admonished himself. “This is about her and what she needs. Just love her - love her right, like you swore you would, you sick, stupid…”
Sonny quietly cleared his throat before speaking. “You need to…be careful of her spine. There’s some bruising. It hurts.”
“Yes. I saw.”
Sonny opened his eyes in surprise. Alexis would never have allowed her brother to see the bruises on her back. She had even turned them away from Sonny’s curious eyes, after all else he had seen. He didn’t understand her shyness, and again resorted to taking advantage of her grogginess, needing to see the damage for himself. His guilt was somewhat tempered by the unknowing confession of her brother - that he must have taken a similar measure himself. Sonny couldn’t help but give a wry smile at the thought of two grown men taking such a desperate and sneaky tact with the woman they both adored….and the kind of verbal mincemeat Alexis would make of them if she knew what they’d done.
Sonny rose to his feet with a grimace, tensing his jaw to stay quiet against the pain of his cramping calves. He let it subside before moving to smooth out the covers and fluff her pillows back into their proper place…and Sonny watched them out of the corner of his eye as he readied the bed for Alexis’s return. He watched Stefan lower his cheek against the top of her head, further nestling it into his chest. He watched him encircle her, his arms crossing behind her and his hands running lightly down her sides to settling against the small of her back in a gentle embrace. And he listened as Stefan whispered something into her ear – something soft and comforting, and in a language that Sonny didn’t understand. He felt like an intruder, and his eyes unconsciously lowered while he stood at the side of the picture perfect bed…waiting.
At last, Stefan was certain she had drifted back to sleep. He slipped his arms beneath her and gently lifted his sister from the floor. He frowned at the noticeable heat of her body that met his skin through the thin silk. She felt much too warm, and he worried that her hospital release had been premature. As he laid her down, his hand moved to her damp, flushed face to search for signs of fever. But the renewed sight of the bruises on her cheek halted his hand mid-air. He’d almost forgotten what she looked like, and what the red and purple marks on her face reminded him of. As Sonny pulled the cool white sheets back over her, Stefan released his hand against her forehead. But Alexis suddenly turned away from the feel of him.
“Don’t.” She mumbled, her hand pushing his away.
Stefan pulled back, and Sonny regarded his stricken look. He kept his voice low.
“You might have accidentally touched her scrape. It’s a little sore.”
“She still feels warm. This could be another fever – or the old one come back.”
Sonny drew the comforter up to her shoulders, and Alexis pulled her arms out from under it. She grabbed at the edge of it with one hand, holding it tight against her body as she curled onto her side toward Stefan. Sonny reached around and lightly touched his fingertips to her head, avoiding the healing wound there. She didn’t resist.
“No fever. It’s just the dreams making her flushed and warm. She’ll be fine now.” He gently sat down on the edge of the bed, gazing down at her profile, so soft and still. His fingers moved back into her hair, and Stefan frowned as Alexis stirred with a sigh.
“Don’t - you’ll disturb her.”
“No. She likes this.” Sonny murmured. “It makes her feel safe.” He glanced at Stefan’s dubious face, and couldn’t stop himself from staking his partial claim. “And she knows I’M here too.”
Stefan resented the confidence in Corinthos’ expression, but knew it wasn’t without just cause. Alexis did indeed seem fully calm and content under his touch, her subconscious demons chased back into their corners and finally leaving her in peace. Sonny refocused his attention on the fluid motions of his hands in her hair, smiling at the intrinsic power of such a simple gesture of comfort.
“Little one.” Sonny’s softly spoken words made Stefan bristle. “Is that what you called her, when you were children?”
“I…I wasn’t sure she’d remember.” Stefan murmured, his suspicious eyes still watching as Sonny’s hands raked through his sister’s hair. Stavros tried to sully the first loving name that he heard Stefan call her, twisting it into something hurtful. Little one…little ugliness.
“Alexis remembers a lot - more than she consciously knows.” Sonny looked up at the solemn face of her first protector, preparing to put his feet to the fire. “But I already told you that, didn’t I. Maybe now you believe me.”
“I never questioned that she was having nightmares. Alexis was kidnapped, drugged, and physically assaulted - I would expect her to have such a response. But the relevance of her past and your right to make enquiries about it…those things I did rightly question.”
“You want relevance?” Sonny slipped his hand away from her and rubbed at his temple as he stared Cassadine down. “Sorel kept her locked in a small, windowless basement for three days straight. Most of the time, she was alone. And most of the time, it was dark. There’s your relevance.”
Stefan winced, his normally stoic bearing losing a touch of its steel as his hand grabbed hold of the wooden headboard. The thought of Alexis alone and screaming out in fear made him feel ill. Sonny watched as Stefan’s grip on the wooden edge tightened against the slight buckling of his knees. And without a word, the man’s eyes closed as his body slowly lowered to the bed. Alexis shifted and made a small noise with the feel of his weight pressing down into the mattress beside her. Stefan’s eyes quickly opened and he leaned down to whisper softly into her ear.
“Shh… Stefan is here.”
He smoothed out her covers and gently kissed the top of her head. Alexis sighed and slid her hand across the crisp sheet, as if she was searching for him. Stefan bit his lip, remembering how her tiny hands would clutch at his sleeve as he carried her from the darkness a lifetime ago. As he lowered his palm to cover the back of her hand, he swore he saw a slight hint of her dimples peeking out at him in response. He smiled back.
“I won’t leave you, little one.”
Stefan’s eyes rose up to Sonny’s face - the promise to Alexis was intended for his ears as well. The displacement Cassadine had meant for Sonny to feel had squarely hit its mark. And as he stared down at Alexis’ fragile, curled up form, Sonny ached with longing. He ached to be the one lying beside her, with his arms wrapped around the softness of her body and keeping her safe and warm through the night. But it wasn’t Sonny that she needed right then. He swallowed as his restless fingers played with the corner of the comforter.
“She’s never had more than one bad dream in a night, so I expect she should sleep through ‘till the morning. Still, I think it’s best to leave the light on.” But something deep within him still refused to surrender. “Tell me, Cassadine – where did you rescue her from tonight? Another windowless basement? An attic…a closet, maybe? What relevant thing from her past did we both just watch her re-live?”
Stefan squinted at Sonny as his hand firmed around his sister’s.
“And who did it…your mother?”
“My mother’s favorite son.” Stefan hissed, tossing Sonny a narrow-eyed look. “The apple that fell all too close to the tree.”
“What did he do?” Sonny murmured. “Enough with the secrets, Cassadine. They all want out anyway, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop them. I already told you THAT as well.” His eyes swept over Alexis, breathing deep and steady. He still didn’t even know what was in her conscious mind and what lay hidden below. And Alexis was so good at covering, she could be uncertain herself.
“What did he do?” Stefan parroted. He gave a small shake of his head as his arm circled around Alexis’s head to rest upon the pillow – close, but not touching her. “He took revenge.”
Sonny’s spine tingled. He wondered if Cassadine’s words were double-edged, holding accusations within. A guilty mind traveled far and wide.
“He resented my affection for Alexis, and the attention that I gave her. And as jealous, angry humans are wont to do, Stavros lashed out.”
“With Helena’s encouragement?” Sonny’s interest is Alexis’ one true enemy was growing.
Stefan sniffed. “Stavros was not only angry and jealous, he was also cruel. Helena taught him well, no question, but it was in his nature to learn. He had an instinct for sniffing out weakness and a talent for using that weakness to his own advantage.”
“Is that why you taught her that she wasn’t allowed to be afraid? To protect her from having her weaknesses used against her?”
Stefan’s head lifted, his eyes betraying shock. The extent of his sister’s confidence in Corinthos had clearly extended to deeply personal matters, and it left him unsure how, or how far, to proceed in his own disclosure. Alexis was, as always, too trusting for her own good. But Stefan knew that his own pendulum could swing much too far in the opposite direction. It was a reflex of his own childhood, and it had served him well…just as it had done him a disservice.
“She was an innocent, thrust into the Cassadine lair. Someone had to teach her or she never would have survived. But I think it’s a wise lesson for anyone to learn young. Don’t you?”
“I learned it young.” Sonny rubbed at his tensing jaw, eyes avoiding the suspicious face gazing up at him from the other side of the bed. “But I don’t think any child should have to learn it at all.”
Stefan stared long and hard as he decided his course. He gently turned to rest his back against the wooden headboard, watching Alexis all the while. She lay quiet, undisturbed by his careful movement beside her. “Our brother enjoyed preying on small, helpless creatures – the chase, the capture, the control.”
“Control…” Sonny whispered. It was the thing Alexis always held onto for dear life, and the thing she now so desperately needed to regain. His temples began to throb.
“Alexis was afraid of the dark. She would scream…and Stavros took pleasure in the sound of it.”
Sonny shivered, his hands clenching around the edge of cotton beneath his fingertips. He already knew, deep in his soul, the things Stefan would tell him. He had looked into the velvety warmth of her eyes time and time again, and the things he saw was there were no stranger to his own young life. But he still needed to hear the words. The words would sharpen his sword for all the dragons still waiting to be slain – and he would slay them all for her, if it was the last thing he did. But even so, the anticipation of those awful words sent an unwelcome surge of grief rushing through him.
“God, she breaks my heart.”
The sound of his own raspy words stunned him. They lay heavy in the air, an almost tangible thread between him and Alexis’ brother as they sat vigil over the sleeping innocent who had been thrown into too many lairs. Stefan watched Sonny’s fingers dig into the comforter and listened to his breathing grow ragged. He wondered what had taught Corinthos his early lessons in pushing away fear. Sonny felt Cassadine’s focus upon him, studying him, and he slowly lifted his gaze from her sweet, peaceful face. It was then that he realized his eyes were full and wanting to spill. He didn’t care – what he saw in the other man’s expression was clear and familiar. What he saw was love.
“You…you were just a kid yourself. But you took care of her.”
“As best I could.” Stefan couldn’t look at Corinthos any more and pulled his focus away. His hands played with the edge of Alexis’ pillow, wanting to hold onto her but afraid to wake from her hard-won rest. His lids lowered to closing. His body was weary and his mind was not too far behind.
“There were many small, lightless places for a child to be hidden away - many basement rooms, attics, passageways and closets. If Alexis disappeared for any length of time, I would search them all, listening for her. But my mother’s closets were the first place I’d look. If Helena found her there, Alexis would be punished for playing where she didn’t belong. It’s the one place our brother would put her that didn’t make her scream. She was terrified of Helena discovering her there, and she’d bury her face in the hems of the dresses and coats to keep herself quiet. On occasion she would also, inadvertently, keep herself from breathing and I would find her unconscious on the floor.”
“Good God…” Sonny’s eyes squeezed shut against the unwanted image of the tiny, big- eyed child muffling her own screams in ear. He took a long, slow breath as the pieces fell into place. Alexis was afraid of having her face covered…and the occasional smell of perfume.
“Her little face would be so warm and red…like tonight. It frightened me. But I’d carry her to her room and put her in bed, and I would stay with her until she woke up.” Stefan’s tired eyes closed and he rubbed at them a little too hard. “Even as I lay beside her, listening to nothing but the sound of her soft breathing, the sound of her past screams still lived in my head.”
Sonny swallowed. His hands were shaking and he clasped them together to try to make it stop. It didn’t work. His heart began to pound. His own childhood screams had never been given voice – they’d stayed locked deep inside him, refusing to give Deke the satisfaction of letting them spring from his throat. But the dark…the small, suffocating dark in the closet at the top of the stairs often kept him from breathing too. The small choking sounds Alexis made had been his, and the blinding force of his memory sent the tremble in his hands ricocheting through the rest of his body. Sonny gasped for air and turned away from the bed, his feet moving him swiftly toward the open bathroom door while Stefan’s curious eyes followed.
He turned on the faucet and leaned over the sink, splashing wave after wave of water across his face. The cold wetness was a blessing to his senses, and Sonny held tight to the edges of hard porcelain while both his body’s pulse and mind’s clarity returned to normal. It had been years since the past slammed into him like that, and he wasn’t prepared – though he knew he should have been. But Alexis owned all his focus and he was blind to anything but her. His pain was a surprise visitor that welled, uninvited, in his eyes. The hot tears melded with the cold water already dripping down his face, and Sonny ran his tongue across his lips to quench his dry mouth with water and salty release.
Water…Alexis should have some water by her bed, just in case. He grabbed a towel and dried his face, the soft scent of her there giving a gentle tease to his nose. He filled the small glass on the glass shelf and returned to her side, setting the water upon the nightstand to keep the single purple iris company. Stefan regarded him with an air of something…distinctly Cassadine. But Sonny paid it no attention. He ran his hands through the damp edges of hair around his face, carefully taking his place on the edge of the bed. The wet spots and streaks staining the chest and shoulders of his t-shirt felt good as they seeped through the cotton to cool his hot skin. And he suddenly remembered that Malloy had cooled Alexis’ face with cold, damp cloths. Sonny shook his head sharply, erasing the unwanted thought. He looked across Alexis’ curled up form and met her brother’s unyielding gaze.
“Did…did Alexis remember, when she woke up?”
Stefan sighed and glanced down for a brief moment, his hand brushing the ends of Alexis’ hair. He shook his head with a vague shrug of his shoulders. “She never spoke of it. But I could see in her eyes that she did.”
“She was being brave. For you.” Sonny whispered.
One corner of Stefan’s mouth allowed itself to turn upward. “Yes. I know.”
Alexis suddenly squirmed and turned onto her back, her hands pushing the comforter away from her body with a small groan. She rolled her head against the pillow, her face now fully in Sonny’s view. Her arm slid up to curve around her face, and he smiled down at the way her fingertips curled in toward her cheek amidst a tangle of hair that lay across the pillow. It was beyond his scope how anyone could want to hurt the beautiful, innocent child she used to be…or woman that she now was. He feasted on the sight of her, all but oblivious to her brother just a few feet away. Sonny didn’t care what he thought, as long it was the truth. Alexis squirmed once more, stretching her legs and scrunching her shoulder as one eye slightly, sleepily opened to Sonny’s face. But before he could smile at her, her eyes were closed again.
“Sonny?” She was barely audible, and Sonny leaned closer.
“I’m here. What?” He murmured.
“Go…” She sighed and frowned within her fog. “Go to sleep.”
Sonny laughed lightly, glancing at Cassadine’s reluctant smile. “You first. Deal?”
Alexis’ dimples flirted with him as she mumbled something unintelligible, then quickly surrendered herself back to sleep.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.” He whispered teasingly. He brushed a light hand across her head as he rose to his feet and looked directly at her brother. “I know you promised her you’d stay.” Sonny nodded toward the door. “I’ll be across the hall.”
Stefan nodded and pushed a pillow further behind between his shoulders and the hard wood behind his head. Sonny hesitated, then quietly left the room. A few minutes later, a pillow and amethyst colored chenille blanket found their way to the floor beside the doorway to Alexis’ room, just beside the ray of soft light that her lamp cast across the carpet. Sonny was exhausted, and quickly curled himself up within the soft blanket and laid his heavy head upon the pillow. He smiled, content.
He was still out of Cassadine’s immediate way, but as far from Alexis as he was willing to be.