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Scene 83

"I'm pretty proud of you, you know that?"

Stefan cleared his throat and lowered his eyes from her face, trying his best not to smile at the praise coming his way. He cherished the pride of Alexis, but he still couldn't bring himself to openly bask in it. He wanted to, but old habits died hard. She reached out to lay a hand upon his knee, knowing his hesitance and wanting to ease it. It was no less than he had done for her in the difficult morning before - or a difficult lifetime ago.

"It took a great deal of restraint for you to just drive on by. But you did the right thing, Stefan, and I don't think you need me to tell you that."

He shifted against the small throw pillow nestled between his back and the arm of the sofa. "No. No, I don't. But I do need you to help keep me on the straight and narrow, as they say."

Alexis grinned as her brother's hand set down upon hers and his fingers wrapped around it. "Ned also made mention of how displeased Nikolas is that I won't let him see me yet. I hate doing that to him and I don't want to put him off for much longer. He's too smart to not figure out that there's a ruse going on, especially since I'm beginning to venture back out in public. It won't make any sense that I'll allow myself to be seen by so many people other than him."

"Yes, you're right. And if he does recognize that he's being manipulated, it will only make things worse between us, and make him angry with you as well. I don't want to risk either situation."

"I think it's best if I make plans to see him maybe the day after tomorrow? That would give the two of you another couple of opportunities to connect on my behalf, and then…well, the ball will be in his court."

Stefan's eyes unconsciously lowered to their locked hands and he loosened, then firmed his hold on her. "Yes. It will be that." He smiled and lightly shook his head. "Patience IS a virtue. Or so someone with an infinite supply of it once proclaimed."

She cocked her head as she leaned forward, trying to coax his gaze back up to her face. He kept his eyes cast downward, but she was sure she saw the hint of a smile over her efforts.

"There's another saying that that helped me get through this rather trying week and a half - 'one day at a time'. That's about as much as I think any human being should demand of himself."

He leaned his body forward to mirror her movement toward him, and he tilted his head to flash twinkling eyes in response to the timid smile Alexis gave him. "Human beings, yes. But Cassadines?"

She laughed and gave his hand a squeeze. "Especially Cassadines. And I promise that when I see Nikolas, I'll make every effort to impress upon him that life is much too short and far too tenuous to waste time living in anger when living in love is so much more rewarding. His father may not have learned that lesson, but I'll be damned if Nikolas will follow in his footsteps."

Stefan straightened his back. "Alexis!"

She stared, wide eyed, then slowly bowed her head in contrition. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that Nikolas was…" Her expression was tentative as she looked back up at him. "I've said before that he is NOT his father's son, and I meant it. You raised him and he's YOURS." Alexis slowly slumped back into the cushion, releasing her hand from within Stefan's grasp. "But sometimes it…unnerves me, when I see a sharp flare of anger in him. Or when I see that small flash of coldness in his eyes. I know the sweet, loving boy is always inside of him, no matter what, but sometimes I…I can't help but see…"

Her eyes roamed as she held the words in her mind that she couldn't bear to release from her mouth - not to Stefan. He watched her face as she struggled, his anxiety rising as he began to read her mind. It had never occurred to him before that moment, but he now knew that there were times that Nikolas' physical resemblance to Stavros elicited a fearful response from Alexis. Stavros and his cruelty were the stuff her nightmares were made of, and it was uncertain whether they were gone for good. She had finally remembered some painful things from an early age, but there lingered the possibly of other things from other ages.

It hurt Stefan to know that the mere visage of his brother's child could take her back. Stavros and Nikolas shared the dark hair, the equally dark eyes, the oval, angular face and sharply drawn cheekbones belonged to Mykkos' lineage, not Helena's. They were Alexis' features as well. Only Stefan stood out as the visual mark of his mother - a thing that made her murderous contempt for him an inexplicable thing. She showered a near-incestuous devotion upon her unfaithful husband's likeness, while vilifying her own. And the one pure fantasy of Stefan's adult life was that he, like Alexis, was also the true but secret issue of a woman other than his father's wife.

"Stefan?"

Her hushed voice called him back.

"Are you angry with me?"

Alexis' fingers played with the thick, rolled cuff of the sleeve that hugged her wrist. She tugged upward as she waited for his reply with a solemn face, and Stefan concentrated on her large eyes instead of the newly exposed expanse of her forearm.

"No, Alexis, I'm not angry. I understand."

Alexis smiled weakly and tugged on the other dropped sleeve. Another expanse of pale skin, marred with scratches and tiny needle marks, was revealed. Still, her brother concentrated his focus on her face.

"Nikolas does bear the coloring of both his father and ours. But he owns a loving soul akin to yours. And I believe he will one day open it to me, just as you did. Nicolas is a strong and proud young man, and he is justified in his mistrust and anger after what I did. Faking my own death put him through hell, but the only alternative I was allowing that death to be real. He is too young to understand that sometimes one must make difficult choices that will cause others pain, even if those choices are made with love. And I would rather lose his love for good than make a choice that left him at Helena's mercy or under her control."

"Of course you would. Your love for him is pure, and he knows it. He feels it. Every time he sees you looking at him…he'll always feel safe and loved."

Her voice drifted. Alexis looked suddenly distracted, as if her own words were a mystery to her that she didn't expect to hear. She slid her fingers back through her hair as her eyes darted toward the stairs and a hint of a curious smile crossed her face. And when her voice returned, it was whisper soft.

"Such things can be felt, but stay unsaid." Her hand slowly returned to her lap and Alexis' focus was back on Stefan's eyes. "You're both strong and proud. Like I said, you raised him. So I'd expect no less."

She smiled and bit down on her lip. Stefan's breath caught in his throat at the childish gesture he knew so well and had even borrowed himself.

"Just as I expected and received from you. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have certainly had their way with you, but you always come back fighting. And you come back even stronger."

"I'm hardly alone in that."

Stefan paused, regarding the orchid-blush staining her cheek and reflecting on the many crimson palm-prints that he'd seen visited upon that same pale place while they were growing up. He could rarely discern if they'd been placed there by Helena or Stavros, and Alexis would never tell him. He only knew for sure whose slap she'd felt when Alexis went missing and Helena had found her first.

Stefan finally dared to move his eyes downward, to the place where an enemy of her client had taken revenge on her client's proxy. Only the day before, Alexis had hidden her arms from his sight in a lingering self-conscious shame. Now there they were, out in the open, and he wondered if she was somehow seeking his acceptance of the temporary imperfection. She had it.

"You're quite right. You're not alone."

She pushed the hair from her eyes and sighed. "You know what I meant, Stefan."

"Yes, I do."

He reached for her as her hand slipped down from her bangs, catching a gentle hold of her wrist before she knew what was happening. He felt her stiffen and begin to pull away as his gaze openly took in the sight of her marred skin. But when his soft eyes looked up into hers, drawing them in, Alexis relaxed and gave him a sheepish expression.

"S-sorry. That was a reflex."

Stefan had made her flash on Luke, grabbing her arm and staring down at it with a shocked and horrified face. And she also flashed on Sorel, jerking her limb upward and locking it against his body as the torn silk of her sleeve fell away. She blinked against the encroaching image of a small, white cloth and the sound of a pop as the cloth floated to the ground. Alexis suddenly felt her other arm being carefully taken into Stefan's warm hands as well. And she couldn't help the slight shiver that ran up her spine, despite the heat washing over her back from the healthy fire that burned behind her.

"What is that on your skin?"

"Oh, um…that's Vitamin E. It helps to heal it, so I won't have s-scars."

"Mmm." Stefan nodded, his eyes washing up one arm and down the other. "Your right arm looks like it's healing quite well."

Alexis squirmed, still uncomfortable with such blatant inspection. "Yeah. The other is where I scratched a lot and…there was an infection. That's why I got sick. But you know that already so I don't know why I'm repeating myself."

"Yes, I know." He smiled and set her hands back down as he lifted his eyes to her face. "Do they hurt at all?"

"Only if I scratch at them too hard. They itch a little. Or if I bang into something or if someone…grabs them, accidentally."

Stefan frowned. "Who would be grabbing…"

She interrupted a bit too loudly. "And it did kind of hurt when I put the Vitamin E on them myself, because I was too weak to be coordinated and I was pushing on my skin too hard. Sonny had to do it for me and he tried to show me how to do it right, but it took a couple of days for me to get the knack. He…he was really good at it. He never hurt me."

He stared as his sister's gaze drifted toward the stairway, where her caretaker had vanished to leave them in private conversation. A slight tingle took up residence in his center. The tone in her voice as she spoke of this man worried him, and the vague expression of yearning on her face fed his suspicions even more. Stefan knew full well what Sonny Corinthos wanted from Alexis - he saw what he felt for her. He just never thought it possible that Alexis could entertain such wants or feelings herself. Not until now.

Stefan sighed and rubbed at his light beard as he cleared his throat. "I'm pleased that you're healing so quickly, and that you look as well as you do."

Alexis smiled ruefully and shrugged her shoulders. "I wish you could have seen me earlier today. I cleaned up pretty nice. And with the proper placement of cover stick, you'd never know there was anything TO cover."

Stefan's eyebrows rose and he opened his mouth to speak. Alexis jumped in.

"I was at GH this morning, for a check-up with Tony Jones. And before you take me to task for not telling you about it when we spoke last night, I had my reasons. For one, I wanted to surprise you by popping into your office unannounced and looking like my normal self…only I got distracted and was halfway home before I remembered. I'm sorry."

He smiled at the guilty look on her face. "What distracted you so?"

"Nothing important. I just saw someone at the hospital that I wasn't expecting to see and I got…you know - distracted. That's all."

"Who did you see?"

"Um…" She toyed with the notion of lying, but Alexis could not. "Luke Spencer."

Stefan's face grew hard, and she immediately regretted her decision. To see him shift so quickly made her nervous. Alexis tried to make light of it.

"It was the usual drill - he sniped at me, I sniped at him, yada yada yada, and off he went on his merry way."

Stefan's head turned to the large dining room window, and his body followed the direction of his gaze. Alexis watched him carefully.

"It was just the first time I'd seen someone I knew who didn't know what happened to me and I was…a little…Stefan?"

He stood, staring out the window, scanning the streets down below with squinting eyes. She wasn't even sure he had heard her speak. But Stefan heard…and he had seen. He'd seen Luke Spencer's car parked across the street when he pulled up to Alexis's building, but the car was unoccupied. And now, hearing of the man's encounter with his still-fragile sister, Stefan fruitlessly searched for signs of a predator hiding within the dark of a new-fallen night. But all he saw was a sea of headlights. And Luke Spencer's car was now gone.

"Was he following you?"

Alexis frowned as she rose and moved toward his back. "No, of course not. Why would he follow me?"

"Because he's following ME." Stefan turned sharply to face her. "Has he made any attempt to contact you, either while you were in the hospital or since you've returned home?"

"What's going on?" She whispered in a monotone voice. Her color began to fade, and Stefan reached for her. Alexis took a step back. "Stefan!"

"I think you should sit down, Alexis. You're beginning to pale."

"I'm fine. And Luke has made no attempt to contact me at all - not since he needed representation for your alleged murder." She narrowed her eyes with a slight turn of her head. "What does he want from you, Stefan? Retribution? Is that it?"

"What happened when you spoke at the hospital today?"

"I told you. He served me a well-worn ball, I returned it, we volleyed - end of story. Sonny finally shooed him away. And it was purely coincidental that we had any contact at all. He was there to have lunch with Bobbie."

"How can you be so sure it was happenstance? Barbara has access to the hospital records. She could have revealed to him that you would be there."

Alexis sighed. "Why, so she could help perpetuate this tedious, infinite family feud? I seriously doubt she'd want to have any part in that. And I know that she wouldn't violate patient confidentiality."

"Do you?"

"Yes! And to answer your other question, I could tell by Luke's behavior that he was just as surprised to see me at GH as I was to see him. But you still haven't answered MY question. Why is Luke following you?"

Stefan smiled a small, wry smile. "Probably to make sure he doesn't end up back behind bars on another false murder charge, should Helena decide to strike out at me again."

"That's not funny."

Alexis gave him a blank look and turned away from him. She shook her head and her hand wandered up to her naked arm. A cloud of guilt began to envelop her. Her encounter with Luke had left her with a shadow of anxiety, and his awful words still haunted her mind. But Stefan's own mother had tried to kill him and he was making light, as she herself often did to keep from screaming, or crying…or turning to stone. She wanted to turn around and encircle him in her arms, but Alexis knew that it was not the proper moment for her brother to accept such tenderness. The hand grazing her arm dropped back down to her side, and Alexis slowly moved back to the couch. Stefan was right - she did need to sit down.

"I'm sorry. I'm the last person on earth who should berate someone else for their coping mechanism of choice. Go a head and make another joke. I promise I'll laugh, even if it's really bad or just plain tacky."

She felt a soft hand set down on the top of her head, a light palm smoothing its way down to her shoulder where it came to rest. Tenderness given - that was acceptable. Alexis tested the waters and lifted a hand to cover Stefan's with her own, but she did not turn her head to look at him. He didn't move.

"I'm concerned, Stefan. And I wish you would tell me what I think I have a right to know. Why is Luke following you? What does he want, really?"

"An eye for an eye?"

"Okay, so, is this how it will go unto perpetuity? He set you up, you set him, and the vicious cycle goes on and on until it gets passed down to the next generation after you're both dead and gone? Or if not dead and gone, just GONE - convicted of felonies for which you've so cleverly framed each other."

"Luke Spencer is irrelevant to me.

"Good." She finally turned to look into his face. Stefan slid his hand from her shoulder and rounded the couch to reclaim his seat beside her.

"I have no interest in him or what he does, other than the fact that I don't want him distressing you and interfering with your recovery. But Spencer does have an interest in me."

Alexis studied his expression and her mind began to work in the way of her brother's. "He's wondering what dirty new deeds Helena might be plotting to get back at you for foiling her plot?"

"Aren't we all wondering?"

"And he's trying to figure out how a new strike against you might catch him in the crosshairs, and how to make a pre-emptive strike of his own."

"To that end, he watches me."

"Why not watch Helena?"

"She'd probably take it as courting. I don't know if I'd even wish the potential outcome of that particular misconception on Spencer."

"Stefan. Is he right? Do you think that Helena is planning another attempt to…?"

"Murder me? I think not. Not now, at least. There are too many eyes upon her for another attempt. She appears to be laying low, as they say, and it's a wise decision on her part. Spencer is wasting his time."

"You must tell me if that changes. Promise me, Stefan."

"I promise." He smiled at the look of worry still fixed on her face. "And for two?"

"Excuse me?"

"The reasons you failed to tell me last night that you had an appointment with Dr. Jones this morning. For one, you wanted to surprise me with how gorgeous you are."

"Stefan, I did not say that!" She swatted his leg.

He laughed gently. "And for two?"

Alexis sighed and crossed her arms in a minor pout. "For two, I didn't want you to have a whole morning's worth of time to get up in Tony's face about me."

"Get up in his face?" Stefan meticulously repeated her American vernacular as if it was an odd new food he didn't want in his mouth. "Really, Alexis. That Smith boy has been living with you far too long."

"Really, Stefan. You're far too stuffy."

His smile grew. "If you mean to say that I would have made it my business to ensure that you were attended to thoroughly and properly by Dr. Jones and anyone else responsible for your care, you were right."

Alexis lifted both arms up to him. "There - you see? You just proved my point. Dr. Jones and the entire staff of that hospital do their jobs wonderfully, and without any haranguing from you. The last thing I want is to be treated with kid gloves because the Cassadine name is hanging like a noose over people's heads. In fact, I've spent the better part of the last several days trying to yank those gloves OFF people." Her head tilted, nodding toward the stairs as her voice lowered. "Especially that one up there."

Stefan's eyes turned to the stairway. He had seen the delicacy with which Corinthos handled Alexis, and it was the last thing he'd expected to see from a man of such reputation. His gut told him that true sincerity of feelings was at play, but Stefan still wanted the dangerous element of Corinthos as far away from Alexis as possible. He knew Alexis would not agree.

"Hey." She suddenly narrowed her eyes and gave her brother a sideways glance. "You didn't seem terribly surprised to hear that I had an appointment at GH today. Nor have you browbeaten me about how it went. Me thinks you've set some spies about the hospital…or have become one yourself."

"Alexis, you are too suspicious."

"Look who's talking."

"I'm working on that, just as I am working on…other things. But I have respected your privacy. I was telling you the truth that day in the hospital, when I explained how I came to the correct conclusion about what had happened to you. And you cannot fault me for wanting to assure that you were being properly treated, and only by the most qualified medical personnel available."

"I don't blame you for checking up on Charlie because I probably would have done the same thing in your place. And I know that you found out about the heroin by accident." She watched his eyelids twitch. "I'm sorry. I know it's an ugly word, but I have to use it."

"I understand. And I don't want you worrying about me." He brought her hand up to his face to kiss it gently, and opened his mouth to speak again. But he quickly closed it in silence.

"What? What's wrong?"

Stefan shook his head and wrapped both his hands around her smaller one, lowering it down to his lap. He cast his eyes down too, staring at her long, graceful fingers. What happened to Alexis was wrong, as was the fact that he was only of use to her in the aftermath…again. And it was wrong for him to feel any empathy for Sonny Corinthos, who believed himself responsible for the pain of someone he loved. He WAS responsible. He could have prevented it. Alexis was left trusting and vulnerable, and he should have known what could happen - he should have protected her. Stefan should have known what could happen…

Alexis shifted her weight, leaning in toward him. "Are you okay? Now you're looking a little pale. Can I get you something? More coffee, maybe? I didn't make it, so it's safe."

"You do make rather unfortunate coffee." He smiled at the sound of her light laughter, and when he looked up, his eyes landed on the proud, elegant stem of white blossoms holding court in the center of her coffee table. "I knew you liked orchids. Are you pleased with my choice? I was particularly drawn to the white."

The fireplace crackled in response, and Alexis turned her head toward the sound. She saw the wilting bowl of iris atop the mantle out of the corner of her eye. It was time to take them away, and she would replace the delicate bouquet with the more hearty flower that she knew was Stefan's favorite. She turned back to her brother with a smile.

"Yes, I do like the orchid - very much. And the white was a perfect choice. The men in my life have been exceedingly attentive with horticulture - orchids from you, iris from Ned, roses from Sonny."

Stefan's gaze automatically began to search.

"I left the roses at the hospital. There were so many of them, and I wanted them to be enjoyed by patients who weren't lucky enough to have such attentive men."

"He has been attentive. And he's taken good care of you. Your…client."

"Yes. My FRIEND has taken very good care of me." Alexis corrected, eyes drifting to the stairway. Sonny was upstairs, giving Stefan and her some privacy - and gathering his things in preparation to return home. "But now it's time for me to take care of myself."

Stefan frowned. "It's only been a short time since your release from the hospital. I still think that you need care, Alexis. And I still believe it would be best if you came home with me to Wyndemere, where you can be…"

"You've no reason to worry, Stefan. You're the one living on an island, not me. I have Sonny right across the hall, if I need anything. And Johnny is always right here too. Besides, I'm much stronger now than…well, than what you saw the other night might have led you to believe."

He lowered his voice. "Alexis…"

"Now, don't you try getting all stern with me because it won't work. I AM stronger. But I'm sure the way I look doesn't help convince you of that. The bruises are fading every day, just like the marks on my arm are healing. It's just on the outside. Aside from the fact that I get tired too easily and sleep too much, I'm okay. And Tony says that sleeping is good, so I guess I'm actually better than okay."

"I know how strong you are, Alexis. I won't argue that. What I…my concern is…" His eyes darted to the stairway. "My concern is for your continued safety and well being."

She followed his focus, and Alexis suddenly understood her brother's true bone of contention. She closed her eyes with a heavy sigh. "Stefan, please. Don't you start in on my relationship with Sonny too. I've had enough of that from Ned."

Her choice of words gave him pause. "Relationship? And how, exactly would you define that word with regard to you and your…friend?"

Alexis felt her face flush at the hint of accusation in Stefan's words and in his tone. She frowned, at a momentary loss for words before she began to babble. "For heaven's sake, Stefan! W-what are you implying - that there's something…untoward going on between Sonny and me?" Her nervous fingers sifted through her hair, and her eyes couldn't quite land on any one place. "I mean, he's been staying here because Tony and Charlie insisted that SOMEONE look after me and it was just convenient for it to be Sonny. And he wanted to do it because he's my friend…and because he still feels a responsibility for what happened to me - even though it was NOT his fault. But just for your clarification, he's been sleeping in Zander's bedroom, not mine, and he's going back home tonight anyway. And why are your suddenly making an issue out of Sonny? You said yourself he was taking good care of me."

Stefan stared, pondering his tact carefully. Alexis was flustered and defensive. Her reddened cheeks and rambling tongue told him all he needed to know - without question, his sister felt something for Corinthos that was not far a field from the obvious feelings the man had for her. He cleared his throat and leaned in to her, capturing her eyes with his.

"It was not my intent to suggest anything unseemly. I am simply concerned about your professional association with the man and the dangers you'll face if it continues. You are a talented and respected attorney, Alexis. You should have a client list worthy of your skill and reputation, but instead you chose the town mobster. Why, I cannot fathom."

Alexis frowned and shifted in her seat, easing herself up off the couch. Stefan watched as she moved toward the fireplace and crouched down beside it to stare into the burning wood that cracked and sparked. He shifted himself, moving down along the sofa cushions to be closer to her.

"And it's only by the grace of God that you're still alive and well, but your representation of Sonny Corinthos could change that in a heartbeat. I don't want to find myself pacing the corridors of yet another hospital, waiting to see how badly you've been hurt. Or worse, be called in by the PCPD to identify the body a of a beautiful, brown haired woman who'd been found floating in the water off the docks, or in an alley, riddled with bullets, or…"

Her head suddenly whipped around, halting the flow of his words as her eyes bore into his with an unyielding ferocity. "It's by the grace of Sonny Corinthos that I'm alive and well - that my body WASN'T riddled with bullets. You know that." Her face was bathed in the soft glow of the fire and for a moment, there was the illusion that her face was unmarred. Stefan smiled softly, but the expression on his sister's face stayed unmoving.

"Yes, I know. But Alexis, it's because of that that I question whether you're confusing personal and professional obligations when it comes to him."

Alexis frowned in confusion and began to nervously rub her hands together before the warmth of the crackling wood. "I…I don't understand what you mean by 'confusing personal and professional obligations'. What is it that upsets you, Stefan - that I'm friends with Sonny or that I represent him? Or is it really both? Although the protective big brother act IS rather sweet, it sounds like both, in which case I must tell you that I think you're being grossly unfair and shortsighted."

"I'm glad that you at least see my intent for what it is - your protection, pure and simple."

She crossed her arms and rose up from her perch beside the flames. "I thought some of your frost toward Sonny had thawed. At least, it felt that way to me yesterday morning."

"Well…"

Alexis slowly moved toward him. "Or was it all just my own perception, because I had both of you holding a safety net under me and I knew that neither one of you was about to let go of their side and let me fall."

Fall. Why did she have to use that word? Stefan looked up at her and reached out to take her hand. "Neither of us would have."

He gave her hand a slight but insistent pull, leading her to sit back beside him. But Alexis resisted, standing tall and firm. Her brother rose to his feet instead, and stood before her, face to face. He smiled sadly, and then Stefan's head lowered, as did his voice.

"I've seen how he treats you - the way he is with you. I have no doubt that he would put himself between you and harm's way again without hesitation."

"So do I." She murmured.

Stefan's head snapped up. "But he can only do it if he sees it coming!"

He felt Alexis's fingers tighten around his hand as her eyes rapidly blinked. His unexpectedly sharp tone had scared her, and he made a concerted effort to soften it.

"He may have seen the guns pointed at your back, but he did NOT see Joseph Sorel coming after you. Corinthos may be as self-sacrificing as any man would be for a woman he…" Stefan guarded his tongue, which was far too close to making her hear what she was not yet ready to acknowledge. "I'm afraid for you, Alexis. He can only shield you from harm if he sees it coming. You said yourself that the man feels responsible for what you've suffered at the hands of his enemy, and I've seen the look on his face - the pain and the anger he feels when he looks at what was done to you for no other reason but that you were HIS council. You must have seen it too."

Alexis cringed inside. She had seen too much of Sonny's pain and anger when his eyes washed over the damage to her body, and when his ears heard her crying out in fearful confusion. And she had also seen his guilt. But she didn't see guilt in Sonny's eyes anymore. Or maybe it was really still there, but she just she didn't want to see it. She didn't want it to be there.

"I know how it feels to look upon something like this and believe there was some way you could have prevented it." He drew a light finger through her bangs, revealing the scrape that lay beneath them. "Have you not lived enough of your life in danger, little one? Must you seek it out?"

Alexis swallowed hard and Stefan felt a knot begin to form in his stomach as her eyes began to mist over.

"Please don't start making me have to justify my choices to you too. I'm so…tired of always having to fight with everyone over my wanting to do the job that I'm trained to do, that I do very well, and that I do for someone who means a lot to me." She closed her eyes and rubbed at her temple as her chin fought an oncoming quiver. "I told Ned and now I'm telling you, Stefan - I won't fight that fight anymore. I can't."

Stefan took a step toward her. "I don't want to fight with you, and I certainly didn't come here to upset you."

"Then please, just drop the subject." She murmured, eyes opening and darting everywhere but her brother's face.

Stefan took another step and reached out both hands for her, gently taking her head between them and holding her until she obeyed his silent request to look at him. Their eyes finally met and Stefan unexpectedly found himself looking into the soul of a wounded child. He took in a sharp breath and blinked, and the soul of a wounded woman took the child's place. Her dark eyes were pleading, her expression wary. He knew she needed to put away her defensiveness and she didn't expect he would allow her to do so. But Stefan smiled and leaned down to plant a soft kiss to her forehead. He lingered there, and he soon heard Alexis sigh and felt her body relax under his hands.

"As you wish." He whispered against her brow. His chest was tight, and he didn't know if was owed more to the look that that he'd just put on her face, or the look that Alexis put on the face of Corinthos.

Alexis tilted her head upward to look at him, and Stefan received a fetching one-dimpled smile as she whispered back. "Thank you."

"Whatever personal association you chose to continue with Mr. Corinthos, I'll respect it. I know that you've developed a bond, of sorts, and that he's been instrumental in your recovery. For that, I am indebted to him. All I ask is that you think long and hard about continuing your professional association. You can keep the man as your friend, Alexis, but it wouldn't preclude you from letting him go as a client."

He released one hand from her head and laid a careful fingertip to the edge of her bruised cheek. "And if you did, he'd never again have to see damage that was done to you and know that it was because of your loyalty to him."

"So much for dropping the subject." Her voice was arid and her eyelids lowered halfway in a wounded expression. She took a step back, away from him. Stefan's hands stayed aloft, though his contact with her was broken.

"I just want you to consider what I said. Please. And I will not bring it up again. The subject IS dropped. I promise." His arms slowly lowered back down to his sides. "You, on the other hand, have my permission to…'get up in my face' whenever you please with your concerns about my safety and Helena."

Alexis bit her lip and tried not to laugh at his deliberate use of a frowned-upon American slang. He tilted his head and gave her a shy, humble smile that took all of two seconds to melt Alexis' heart. She smiled back and took a step toward him.

"Everyone needs someone to worry about them. You have me. And I just seem to have more than my fair share right now. It can be overwhelming. And sometimes I feel ganged up on and I either have to push it all away, or just run and hide. I don't mean to be ungracious, I hope you know that..."

"Shh, Alexis. I know. But I love you, and that means I will always worry about you, whether I have just cause or not."

Alexis took his warm face in her hands with a soft smile. "We're Cassadines - there's always just cause. And I love you too, you stuffy thing you."

She took her hands down from his face and slipped her arms around his waist. As Stefan wrapped his careful arms around her, the unexpected trill of the telephone made both of them jump. He frowned with a backward glance at the intrusive noise

"Let it ring?"

"No, I can't." She reluctantly pulled away from him and moved toward the desk. "It might be Tony with my blood test results, though that would be some kind of speed record for the lab, I'm sure." She picked up the receiver. "Alexis Davis." Alexis sharply turned her body to face the front door with a look of surprise on her face. "Hi. What did you do, sneak out onto the balcony and climb back into your place through the window?" Her head turned to the stairway. "Oh. Yes, Mr. Smarty pants, I have heard of cell phones." She laughed and shook her head as she gave Stefan a sideways glance. "It's Sonny."

"I gathered."

"You could have come downstairs, you know. That's very considerate of you, but you're not interrupting. What's up?" She listened for a moment, then turned away from her brother and lowered her voice. "You don't need to do that, Sonny. No really, you've done enough and you deserve to get back to your own…"

Stefan's eyebrows rose up as Alexis suddenly yanked the phone away from her ear and held it a foot away. The sound of Sonny's protest sang through the air, but the only word Stefan could hear clearly was "houseboy". Alexis turned and gave Stefan a blank look, then rolled her eyes.

"All right, you win!" She finally yelled at the receiver. There was silence on the other end. Stefan was shot another blank look. "That would be the sound of Sonny gloating, because he got his way."

Stefan heard the sound of a distant chuckle sifting through the other end of the line. And as Sonny began to speak again, Alexis brought the phone back to her ear.

"Sorry, what did you say? You know...you're incorrigible!"

She smiled wide and laughed in response to that which Stefan couldn't hear, and he felt a bittersweet pang inside of him. He loved to see Alexis smile - to see her light, and silly, and feeling so clearly safe. But the source of it all left a strange, fearful taste in his mouth. Even her involvement with Ashton was preferable to Corinthos. Ashton only had the power to damage her heart - a power already proven. Her heart may be in more careful hands with Corinthos, but the man had the power to damage so much more…and Stefan had promised to drop it. He would hold himself to it. He had yet to get Nikolas back, and he would not risk losing Alexis - not again. The resurgence of Alexis' laughter pulled his drifted eyes back to her, and he smiled in spite of himself at the sight of the full dimples now decorating her face.

"I don't know. But hold on and I'll ask." She pressed the receiver her chest and turned to Stefan. "Do you have plans for tonight? You've just been formally invited by the chef and soon-to-be-emancipated houseboy to join us for the dinner he just bullied me into allowing him to make." She sighed heavily. "I have the feeling that a terrible precedent has been set, and this man is going to want to boss me around for the rest of my days. Can you stay? Please?"

Stefan's eyes shifted to the stairs. "I would like that very much."

"Good." Her dimples grew as she put the phone back to her ear. "Yes, he'll stay."

"Good!"

The strong sound of Sonny's voice coming from behind her quickly spun a surprised Alexis around. She slapped at his arm with a reluctant laugh as Sonny pulled his body away from her anticipated move.

"Hey! No fair sneaking up on me, buddy!"

"I beg to differ. ALL is fair, councellor." The way Sonny saw it, Alexis had snuck up on him first.

She sighed and dropped the phone back into the cradle before crossing her arms and staring at him with a defiant tilt of her head. Sonny's grin widened as he mimicked her posture, and Alexis fought the urge to smile back. Sonny saw it, and he tapped the end of her nose with his finger to provoke just a hint of dimples etching into her cheeks. It worked. He ran his tongue across his teeth and whispered roughly.

"And a precedent HAS been set. One I look forward to invoking a lot...and for the rest of your days."

Stefan bit his lip as a pink flush took over his sister's face. He promised...he promised.