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Scene 84

Alexis gave the soft, protruding black beak a gentle push with her thumb, and one furry, web-footed little beast finally disappeared beneath the zipper of Sonny's overnight bag.

She would miss the penguin's protective presence by her side that night. She would miss Sonny's more. Her palms lay down upon the leather that was a thick, textured grain the color of caramel. But it was also soft and inviting, despite the outward impenetrable appearance - not unlike the man to whom it belonged...and not unlike her brother. Most people who knew either man would beg to differ. Most people didn't know them both as Alexis did. And she who knew them had been fascinated by the dynamics between the two men as they regarded each other that night with a measured civility in both their words and silent contemplation of one another.

They had sat across from one another at dinner, with Alexis between them at the head of the table. As Stefan carefully pushed in the seat that he'd pulled out for her, she joked about feeling like a queen holding court. Sonny joked about feeding spuds to a spud as he handed her the bowl of mashed potatoes. Stefan joked that he needed an interpreter for the private references made between them. And he squinted at his sister's explanation of the new nickname Sonny had bestowed upon her, then turned to Sonny with the polite agreement that the concept of couch, car or window potato was one Alexis needed to embrace. Sonny smiled back with the polite assurance that Alexis did - and he wouldn't hesitate to remind her if she forgot.

"Boss me, you mean." She'd corrected him, as Alexis once again found herself discussed while she was right there in the room. But she didn't mind at all. Stefan and Sonny were both smiling at her, and she was awash in a new wave of gratitude for being alive and knowing that she thrived in the hearts of people who were held in her own. And she thought of Johnny, the still-sweet, though silent-no-more man who stood guard out in the hallway. His earnest face filled her mind's eye, and the simple words of great truth he'd offered her at her lowest point quickly revisited her. She was lucky indeed.

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Kitchen appliances were wonderful things - except for maybe microwaves. There was such a thing as TOO convenient.

Sonny flipped the switch and listened to the low mechanical hum and the hissing of water that began to invade the dishwasher. Alexis had protested when Sonny claimed all rights to kitchen clean-up duty, eyeing the faucet sprayer and announcing that she had regained complete control of her dexterity and would NOT give him another unwanted shower if allowed to help. Sonny adored the determined expression of her face, which shifted into a bit of a pout when it grew clear what Sonny's response would be. And he finally shook his head "no" and turned her around by the shoulders, gently pushing her in the direction of the living room with instructions to go bid her brother a private and proper good night.

Cassadine had already bid Sonny a private and proper good night, accompanied by thanks for both the meal and the attentive care of his sister. He had taken the hand that Sonny offered in reply, and met the intent look he received with one of his own - a look of warning fused with both fear and ache. Sonny knew the look well. It was the look he'd given Ashton in the times the man had either stolen or been invited into Alexis's hospital room. Ashton took it for more of the same in an age-old mutual disdain, and a fairly recent issue of Alexis's professional principals. He was a fool, blind once again to what was right in front of him.

But Stefan Cassadine was no fool, and Sonny hadn't held himself back while helping Alexis through the haunted dreams of a haunted childhood. He didn't care that her brother was in the room, watching and listening. He didn't care that the truth of his own painful past was finding new ears, or that the depth of his feelings for Alexis were finding new eyes. He only cared that she felt safe and secure, and that she knew Sonny understood. And it was probably for the best that Cassadine knew firsthand that Sonny's fears for Alexis and the things that hammered at her mind were real. Neither a raised, angry voice, nor snide insinuations, nor even calm, plaintive pleas were able to break through Cassadine's impenetrable wall of suspicion that the motives of Sonny Corinthos toward his vulnerable sister were tainted. Now, he's seen for himself that all the warnings he'd been given about her emotional state were coming from a place of truth, and that Sonny's motives were made of the purest thing there was - love.

What an enormous little word that was…love. Sonny knew that his heart had made its way to his sleeve long ago, but only Johnny had heard the word from Sonny's mouth. It should have been Alexis. She should have been the first to hear him say that he loved her, but instead, she would be the second. And the ache to let the words spill from his mouth intensified each time he looked into those impossibly soulful eyes of hers. Alexis could feel it, that he knew. And for now, it was enough. It would have to be, until he was sure that the enormous little word, unleashed into her ears, wouldn't make Sonny lose her for good. He couldn't stand to lose her…and he couldn't stand to waste one more minute of their last night alone. Whatever Alexis was doing upstairs, she was about to be interrupted.

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Her eyes drifted up the bed to the smooth white pillow, and her hands soon slid down the sides of the leather bag. Alexis let her arms hang by her sides as she stared at the fluffy rectangle enveloped by white cotton. And she suddenly wondered if her penchant for purely white sheets had ever made Zander wish for something more colorful - or masculine. At least his bedding was tailored, instead of the cutwork and lace of her own. And she smiled at the memory of Sonny, lying propped up on his elbow on her bed in the early afternoon, surrounded by feminine trappings.

He hadn't looked at all uncomfortable, lying upon lace. Nor did he look out of place. He looked…sweet, the dark coloring and strong masculinity of him contrasting with the pale delicacy of white linen. Except for the white of his smile - that white, dimpled smile he used to his best advantage whenever possible. It was an incongruous image, but it was an unselfconscious one for Sonny. The only self-consciousness had been hers, at the awareness that she laid beside him IN lace. She'd felt strangely, suddenly naked while she was still clothed. Naked, but not exposed. There was a difference - a difference that made her mouth go dry and her bottom lip find its way between her teeth, instead making her bolt from the bed to shroud herself from his eyes. Not immediately, at least.

The thick rolled sleeves of her heavy sweatshirt began giving way to gravity, and Alexis sighed in annoyance. Donning Jax's king-sized clothing had been a bit much, she knew. And the expression on Sonny's face when she came down the stairs had made her feel a bit silly. To change right away would have been awkward, but now it was a matter of practicality that the large shirt would simply have to go. The penthouse had grown quite warm from the fire, and the sleeves were just too cumbersome to deal with. She'd gone upstairs to attend to the final use of Vitamin E for the night, and she needed to keep her arms uncovered for at least an hour or so.

But her intention to change her shirt was usurped by the sight of the penguin on her nightstand, and the realization that it was her last opportunity to sneak it in with Sonny's things as a surprise for when he got home. So now the penguin was safely tucked away, and yet Alexis still stood by the bed, unmoving. She turned again to face the head of the bed, and her eyes settled on the pillow where Sonny's head had lain for the last two nights. Without thinking, her hand reached out to touch the crisp cotton, allowing her fingertips to brush back and forth across the surface. A feeling of warmth crept over her, wrapping around her like a blanket or an embrace. She closed her eyes and smiled with a second, contented sigh.

Sonny stood just outside the open doorway, watching her in silence. He'd expected to find her in her own room, but all he found there was the folded pair of jeans that she'd worn to the hospital and laid at the foot of the bed, having abandoned the denim in favor of fleece. A light but sharp sound coming from down the hall told him where Alexis was, and he turned his head toward Zander's room with all due curiosity. He crept down the hall with the stealth of a cat, and stopped just shy of the expanse of light that spilled out from the bedroom to the hallway. All was now quiet, and his curiosity deepened.

What was she doing in there?

He bent forward at the waist, just a tad, and tilted his head just enough to give his eyes access inside the room. Alexis stood at the side of the bed, her body turned three quarters of the way away from him. Sonny took a small step forward and his spine straightened, his body now framed by the threshold but hovering just beyond as the view he stole of her grew bold. He all but held his breath as he stared at her hand gently grazing the soft white pillow - his pillow. A sudden shiver made its way up his spine. To watch her touching the place where he'd laid his head felt almost as if that hand was touching his skin. And as he ran his tongue across newly arid lips, Sonny's curiosity was raised to a new intensity.

Why was she doing that?

He took a slow, careful step back, blending into the dark of the hallway as he watched Alexis pull her hand from the pillow and slip her arms around herself. Her body turned slightly and she tilted her head to the side, giving Sonny a more clear view of her face - almost a full profile. Her eyes had closed and the corners of her mouth had turned upward, rewarding his prying eyes with a small smile. And though her hands had left their travels along his pillow, Sonny's skin still registered the imagined sense of her touch. He smiled back as he took one more step away from the open door to leave her in peaceful contemplation. His feet were soft upon the ground as he moved toward the stairs with one more curiosity following alongside him.

Where had her thoughts gone?

Alexis uncrossed her arms and raked her fingers through her hair. She caught a faint hint of spice on her hand. It was the scent of Sonny. A rush of warmth traveled through her, and it sent her eyes blinking open. Her teeth grazed her bottom lip as she glanced down at the leather bag on the bed in front of her. So many things now drew her mind to him - even the feel of her own hands running through her hair. And Alexis had come to understand that these thoughts of him settled her inside. They made her feel strong, and very much alive. After all, Sonny had saved her life - twice. And it seemed that every time those dark, compelling eyes looked into hers, her heart began to quicken its pace, as if reminding her that it only beat at all because of him.

Something suddenly turned her head. She had the vague sense that she wasn't alone…but the room was empty. Alexis laughed to herself, feeling a bit silly. But knew that she would probably have that same false sense for a while, after Sonny went home and she was on her own again. She barely remembered the last time she was alone, before all the hours alone, in the dark, under Sorel's lock and key. And she didn't doubt that there would be many times that she'd turn around and Sonny would indeed be there, just popping in to make sure she'd had more than coffee for breakfast, or had remembered to take all her vitamins, or was making good use of the sticky capsules that were healing her skin.

But Alexis hoped that there would also be times that he popped in just because he wanted to laugh, or talk, or seek solace and distraction when the weight of his mind refused to let him sleep. She was afraid that something between them would be lost when he walked out the door that night. She didn't want to lose anything - it mattered too much. And she quickly chastised herself for her foolish, selfish thoughts. Sonny had been all but drowned in her and her ills, and she couldn't blame him if he needed some space. She owed him that much. She owed him everything. The thick sleeves received one more yank up to her elbows as Alexis heaved a weary sigh and moved toward the door. She would go about the business of attending to her arms, like the responsible grown woman that she was, and then return downstairs to enjoy her last hours of being…not so much a grown woman.

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Sonny gave the cavern another sharp jab with the poker and smiled at the burst of sparks and renewed flames it inspired.

The earthy aroma of burning wood was filling his head - so different from the feminine, sensuous scent of Alexis that filled his head during dinner. Every now and then, the miniscule bit of breeze sneaking in through the thin cracks of the window carried the teasing amalgam of gardenia and vanilla past his face. And every time it did, he couldn't help but look at her and smile. He tried to be subtle, but it seemed that Stefan always happened to be looking at him when he turned his dimpled grin away from her. It made Sonny feel like a teenager squirming under the study of a polite but disapproving parent. But Sonny had never been such a teenager, and Alexis had never had such a parent. Her brother was making up for lost time, and Sonny thought it was sweet - in spite of the light sweat that had formed along the back of his neck. How did teenage boys do it?

"You've turned my couch asunder."

Sonny looked up from the fire and grinned at the sight of Alexis coming down the stairs. "And you've folded up tent."

She stopped in the middle of the stairway. "Excuse me?"

"Sorry - I've never been camping. Is that the wrong expression?"

Alexis laughed. "You're asking me?" She began to move again, her fuzzy sock-covered feet not making a sound and she made her way down the last of the steps and into the living room. "Camping is the one outdoor activity that my sweet, wonderful, and overly energetic ex-mother-in-law never inflicted upon me. So I have no idea what you're talking about. What tent?"

"The one you were wearing, which was obviously stolen from your not-so sweet and wonderful ex-husband." He gave her a wide dimpled smile.

"Oh." Alexis looked down at the navy blue t-shirt that skimmed her body. "THAT tent. Well, it was getting warm in here and that sweatshirt was too heavy - and too much in my way. The sleeves, I mean."

She held her naked arms up to his view, and Sonny noted the glow they wore that had become so familiar to his eyes. He also noted how the new shirt followed along the curved of her body - and how the thin, deep blue cotton looked like ripples in a pool of water where she'd pushed the sleeves up above her elbows.

"And I didn't steal it! I got it in the divorce."

"Oh?" Sonny raised an eyebrow. "Is one of your little silky things now taking up residence in that Aussie dog's closet in exchange?"

Alexis crossed her arms and frowned at the sly wink he gave her. "Very funny."

"I thought so!" He laughed at himself and Alexis shook her head with a reluctant smile.

"What's with the couch?" Her eyes surveyed the sofa cushions and throw pillows that Sonny had laid upon the floor in front of the fireplace and the sofa beside it.

"I'm trying to expand your repertoire to include 'floor potato'. And by the way, did you get the impression that your brother wasn't amused by my calling you spud, or was it just me?"

"Stefan is rarely amused by anything. At least, not until he's considered it five ways from Sunday and from every possible vantage point. Maybe it's because he associates the name with that little dog in those old beer commercials." She smiled pointedly. "I know I do."

"That was 'spuds', not spud."

"Semantics."

"It's not semantics, it's singular versus plural TENSE, Harvard girl. And sorry, but you ain't shaking the name that easy. I like it…spud."

"You correct my grammar and then you say 'ain't'? Did you really think I was going to let that one go?"

"Nope." He widened his grin and nodded toward the cushion-covered floor. "Now come on and make yourself comfortable." He held out his hand to her. "I've got a beautiful fire going, and I thought we might enjoy it more if we were in front of it, instead of all the way over there on the couch…unless you'd rather I put it back and…"

"No, it's fine."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. I kind of like it. So long as you're the one who'll be putting it back instead of me."

He laughed as Alexis rounded the corner of the couch and took his hand. She carefully stepped onto a seat cushion and Sonny helped her lower herself to the ground, making sure her back was properly protected by plump, soft pillows. He then took a seat himself just to her left, propped up in front of the fireplace wall.

"I made some tea. It's in the kitchen, if you're in the mood. Just let me know."

"What kind?"

"Green tea - the kind they give you in Chinese restaurants. It's got all kinds of antioxidants in it and it's very good for you."

She laughed and settled back against the pillows. "I don't doubt that. Would you let me have anything that WASN'T good for me?"

Sonny tilted his head and rubbed at his stubbly jaw with a mischievous expression. "Well…now that you mention it, I DID stock your freezer with various flavors of Haagen-Daas."

Her jaw dropped open and her eyes grew large. "You're kidding."

"I kid you not. You deserve a little decadence, and I'm more than happy to lead you into hedonistic ice cream temptation."

She bit her lip and gave him a dubious expression that made her look all of ten years old. "Is there mocha chip?"

"Would the coffee king of Port Charles NOT get mocha chip?"

Alexis slapped her palm down against the cushion and gave him a radiant grin. "I love you!"

A short wave of unbridled laughter came forth from Sonny, whose ears were suddenly ringing. The context of her outburst was clear, but to hear her speak them in any way, shape or form made him feel like his heart was naked. He shook his head and pulled his gaze away from the huge, little girl eyes that smiled his way, trying to focus on keeping the blood from flooding into his face and turning it into a beet. Alexis hated beets. And what did that have to do with anything? Sonny now scratched at his stubbly face.

"I'll bet you say that to all the guys who buy you ice cream." He teased in as low voice, nudging her leg with his foot as he glanced up at her. "Would you like some of that decadence now?"

Alexis made a face as she groaned and leaned her head back with closed eyes. "Oh God, no. Not unless watching me explode is your idea of a good time. I'm still stuffed from dinner."

"Good. That's exactly how you're supposed to feel after comfort food."

Sonny smiled, pleased that his choice of the modest, all-American meal of meatloaf and mashed potatoes had been such a success - with BOTH Cassadines. And something about the sight of the formal, stuffy Stefan eating meatloaf would probably always make him smile. But at the moment, a vague flutter still lived in his stomach. Sonny was wondering, somewhere down deep, what would have happened if he hadn't teased her - if he'd simply told her the truth. Would she have teased him back instead?

"I love you!"

"I love you too."

"I'll bet you say that to all the attorney's who keep you out of jail."

Yes, Sonny was sure that she would have teased him too. Alexis suddenly opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling with a creased brow. She looked confused, and Sonny could see her mind at work. He wanted to ask, but his instincts told him to leave her alone. So he watched her closely, silently, waiting. And soon, Alexis lowered her head and slowly pulled her knees up, planting her feet flat on the floor. Her palms pressed into the cushion beside each hip, bracing her weight as she sat up straight. She threw a hesitant glance Sonny's way, knowing that he felt her distraction and wondering why he was so quiet. He usually asked if she was alright, but not now. There was nothing worrisome in his soft smile, and there was no demand. But Alexis wanted to tell him. She ran her hands up along the tops of her thighs and set her palms down upon her knees. Sonny still waited, listening to the snap of the burning wood behind him, and taking in the earthy incense of its smell.

"I just remembered something." Alexis murmured, staring at the movement of her fingers as they alternately flexed away from the curve of her knees, then wrapped around them again.

"I kind of thought you did." He murmured back. "But whatever it is, I know you're okay about it."

Her eyes snapped to his and she stared intently into the darkness of them. "Yeah, I am. How did you know?"

Sonny shrugged and lightly shook his head as the corners of his mouth turned up. "I just did."

She cleared her throat and smiled back at him - a quick, wide smile that disappeared in a heartbeat. And her tongue began to play with the edge of her teeth as she considered her next words. "I remembered something I said to Sorel. I'm not sure, but I think it was the first day…or night, maybe. The time frame is a bit of a blur."

Alexis smiled again, and her dimples stayed out in the open a little while longer this time. Sonny shifted his weight and leaned forward, then pulled his knees up in a mirror image of her. His hands clasped together and came to rest upon his knees, and he set his chin down upon his hands as he looked at her. She was watching him carefully, wary of his reaction to any mention of Sorel or even Thomas. Both names stirred something deep and red within him, but she knew it was something that Sonny would need to eventually release - just as she would have to do herself.

"I smart-mouthed him. And that was AFTER he'd already punched me." She laughed lightly. "Talk about being ornery. But it was before he got really angry. He wasn't angry when he hit me. Just…quietly intense." Her eyes drifted for a moment as she pondered this new perception.

Sonny's jaw tightened, but he gently, quietly urged her on. "What did you say to him?"

"Something to the effect that if drugging me and watching me pass out was his idea of fun, he really needed to get out more often. And you know what? I really meant it."

Sonny released a light chuckle, and Alexis looked at him hesitantly. His reaction encouraged her, but to talk of Sorel with him was to tread on unsteady ground.

"I guess I'm lucky I didn't get punched a second time, not knowing when to shut my trap." She shook her head and rolled her eyes at the wanton stupidity of her recklessness with a powder keg of a man, and Alexis began to smile at the memory of the look on Sorel's face. "He looked at me like I'd just sprouted another head." And then, Sonny's smile became a laugh. The sound of it unleashed all the pent-up tension within her, and Alexis laughed too. "I swear I don't think he knew what to make of me. And I think he might have even started egging me on deliberately, just to see how big my mouth could possibly get."

"It can get pretty big." Sonny nudged her again with his foot, and Alexis laughed harder.

"This is news?" She nudged him back. "And I don't know why Sorel looked so surprised. It's not like he didn't know me already. But I suppose he expected me to shrivel up and surrender, just because I was a woman and got smacked." Her laughter began to die down, and Alexis tilted her head to give Sonny a wry grin. "He sure didn't know me THAT well, did he?"

"No, he did not." Sonny beamed with pride as he whispered back.

"I wonder if I'm doomed to spend my adulthood blazing a brazen, big-mouthed path to over-compensate for being such a quiet, timid little mouse as a child. That's what Helena called me - a mouse. Sorel did too, only he meant it in a different way. Funny."

The sound of her quickened breaths grew lighter, steadier, and Sonny carefully watched her face relax into a thoughtful repose as she gazed past his face and into the flickering flames. She slid her hand back through her hair, pushing it away from her face and exposing the purple-spotted cheek to his full view.

"I can't believe I'm sitting here laughing about Sorel - about being hit. REALLY laughing. That's some progress, huh?" Alexis shifted her eyes to his, and they were large and warm with a tiny reflection of gold sparks dancing about inside of them. "Thank you for not getting upset by my talking about Sorel. Thank you for laughing with me."

He couldn't respond - couldn't think, talk or move. All Sonny could do was feel, and what he was feeling for her was swallowing him whole. Finally, he opened his mouth. He closed it again as his eyes took on the wet sting he hoped wouldn't visit him. He scratched at his face and forced his limbs back to life as his hand moved up to push at one eye, then reached out to lay itself upon the hand Alexis still had resting on her knee. Sonny let his fingers slip lazily in between hers, and when Alexis flexed her own fingers once more, he accepted her invitation and instantly grasped her hand to entwine them.

"Sonny?"

"Alexis?" The husky timbre of his voice startled him, and he gave Alexis a shy smile.

"Have you ever been able to laugh? About…" She stopped, suddenly hesitant to go there.

"About Deke?"

"Yeah." She bit her lip, and Sonny pulled her away from her leg and enveloped it between his, wanting her to know it was okay.

"No. I've never even really talked about it to anyone but you. When the custody trial was going on, I understood that it was necessary, but I resented the hell out of it. I was resentful and angry that I had to tell such personal business to anyone - especially you."

She frowned and cocked her head. "Why especially me? I thought you had complete confidence in my legal skills, especially after you hounded me up one side and down the other to represent you, threatening to sue me because I took your retainer, which I did give back to you and you knew it…"

"I hounded you because I wanted you. I wanted the best. You knew how to handle things and people - including me, I might add. And you knew how to take care of problems without any mess. But I did make a certain assumption about you, and that assumption was wrong."

Alexis moved her eyes toward the feel of Sonny's warm hands sandwiching hers, and the light brushing of his thumb against the sensitive underside of her wrist. She remembered him doing that when she was in the hospital, and it played havoc with her ability to think. All she wanted to do was stay quiet and give in to the mesmerizing feel of his gentle touch.

"Well, um…w-what are you saying? Are you t-trying to tell me that despite your complete faith in my professional abilities, your impression of me as a person was one I'd rather not know about?"

He smiled softly, watching his fingers as they grazed up and down the back of her hand. "I'm trying to tell you that my impression was that you were untouched by anything bad or ugly. I remember seeing you for the first time and thinking, "Wow!" - like any normal red-blooded man would have done. And then I met you and thought, "She's a pistol - and no doubt, a handful." And then you took up your first defense of me when you saw the PCPD overstepping the bounds of their authority and it got your dander up, and I thought, "This is one ornery, brazen, contrary woman who is not to be messed with."

"Came on a little strong, did I?" She joked.

"You dazzled me, Alexis." Sonny wasn't joking. "And I thought there was no way in hell that a woman as sophisticated, educated, and self-assured as you could possibly understand or care about an uneducated, angry, smacked around street punk all grown up. And then I started to know you - really know you - because you let me see what was hiding behind that protective picture you show to the world. And now…"

He pulled his eyes away from hers, afraid of letting her see the tears he felt beginning to invade them.

"Now?"

"Now, I WANT to tell you things. When you began to see behind my protective picture, it wasn't because I let you. You saw behind it because you cared enough to look. I may not be able to laugh about some of the painful things in my life, but it feels good to have you know about them."

He bowed his head slightly, then lifted his eyes to quickly glance at her face. She was staring at him. The corner of her bottom lip clamped between her teeth and a damp haze covering her smoky eyes. He smiled and gave her hand a light squeeze. Alexis squeezed back.

"Please don't let that change after tonight."

"Let what change?"

"The way you are - the way WE are. Our separate lives may be about to go back to some semblance of normal routine, but I hope that doesn't mean that we'll let it…well, that you'll…"

"What? What are you worried about, Alexis?"

She sighed, frustrated with her own verbal ineptitude. It was unlike her, and she didn't know why she suddenly felt so self-conscious and inarticulate. "You know that I feel close to you, and that I trust you in every way…right?"

He smiled. "Yeah. Right back at ya."

She flushed a pale pink and her gaze darted down to her lap. "N-not that you don't have every right to be thoroughly sick and tired of me at this point in time, but…I don't want you to stop feeling close to me just because you won't be here with me all the time… anymore."

"It would be impossible for it to stop." He pressed a palm to his breastbone. "Because you're in here for good, no matter what."

"Yes, I know - in the form of a nasty scar across your chest." Alexis teased.

"I meant…"

"I know what you meant." She quickly interrupted, all teasing tone gone. "And…me too. But you know something? If anyone had told me when we first met - if anyone had told me just a year ago, that one day you'd be…what you are to me, I'd have sent them straight to Kevin Collins."

"That makes two of us."

Sonny's head suddenly perked up and his face showed the evidence of a happy thought having invaded his mind. "Do you remember that first time they let you see me, in the hospital?"

"Of course I do."

"You told me that you never expected to really care much about me, but you did."

She smiled, remembering too. "Yeah."

"You were pretty cute about it too. You took like an hour to spit the words out, you were so shy and tongue-tied."

"I was not."

"Were too."

"Was not!"

Sonny laughed and slid his hand across the floor, setting his palm on top of her foot and running his thumb down her instep. He felt her muscles tense between his hand and the thick, fuzzy white sock she wore, and he watched her eyes widen.

"What?"

"Don't even think about it, buddy." Alexis deadpanned.

Sonny jerked his head back. "What?"

"That!" She pointed at his errant hand. "Let me make myself perfectly clear - if you tickle, you are toast."

He grinned and Alexis tried to pull her foot out from beneath his hold once more - a hold he deliberately firmed.

"I mean it, Sonny. TOAST!"

"Well, Alexis, it never even occurred to me to tickle you, until you brought it up."

Her eyes narrowed in warning as she cocked her head. "Sonny…"

"Alexis…I thought you trusted me completely?"

"I lied."

Sonny laughed and Alexis squirmed. "You know, you're going to MAKE me tickle you unintentionally if you keep wriggling around like that."

She stopped wriggling, keeping a suspicious eye trained on his hand.

"That's better."

His fingers briefly released, then firmed again around her arch, pressing into the smooth curve where he felt her tension being held. Alexis bit her lip and shifted against the seat cushion beneath her as her gaze shifted from his face to his hand. Sonny moved his body forward, turning to better face her as he wrapped his other hand around her outer edge of her foot.

"Just let me know if I AM tickling you, and I'll stop." He murmured, giving her a soft smile that received a small nod in reply - although her face still betrayed her hesitance. Sonny lifted her foot from the ground and set it down in his lap between his crossed legs, and began working his fingers against her muscles with a firm, gentle strength. He felt the pulse beating at the top of her foot, just below the beginning slope of her leg, and it made him smile.

The feel of Sonny's warm hands was quickly beginning to fog over Alexis's brain. She wanted to just sink back into the pillows and let herself give in to it, but she didn't want to fall asleep just yet. Why did his touch have such a hypnotic effect her on? She shifted again, and cleared her throat to try to also clear her thoughts.

"You really are making the most out of your last night of houseboy duties, aren't you?"

"Yep. Is this okay?" He looked up and she nodded again as her fingers began to play with the hem of her t-shirt. "Good. You did such an excellent job chasing away my headache, I wanted to reciprocate."

"I was glad I could help last night. And while I do appreciate the reciprocal gesture, my foot doesn't hurt."

"No, but almost everything else does. I know you're still kind of stiff and sore from being stuck in bed so much, and from all that the beginnings of withdrawal put your body through. And I also know that until the bruises and such go away, you can't even think about having your aching muscles worked on." He set her foot down on the floor, beside his knee, and took the other one into his hands, pulling it into his lap. "So even though you don't hurt here…" He gave her foot a squeeze. "Maybe this will have a positive, relaxing effect of the places where you do hurt."

"I…think it already is." She murmured, still feeling the hot tingle of his touch spreading through her whole leg as it rested along the floor. Though both of Sonny's hands had moved on, it felt like they were in two different places on her body at once.

"But when you're all healed and feeling up to it, I'm going to send you off to the best spa in the world for a week of massages and mud baths and all those other things you women love to do. "

Alexis smiled at his sweet thought. "If you'd made that offer a few weeks ago, my bags would already be packed. But I think it might be a while before I'll warm up to the idea of strangers touching me again."

Sonny hesitated, his hands halting their movement.

"You're not a stranger." She reminded him with a whisper.

He smiled up at her, then lowered his head to attentively watch his fingers at work, just as he'd done while the oil into her arms and forehead. And it amazed Alexis, the way his hands were so strong, yet his movement of them was so gentle as he touched her. It made her feel as if there was nothing else in his mind but what he was doing - and how. It made her feel as if there was nothing else in the world to him but her…for just that moment.

Sonny suddenly glanced up and gave his dimples to the curious face that watched him. "I'm not tickling, am I?"

Her eyes grew large and she shook her head.

"Then…maybe you should start breathing again."

Alexis frowned. She WAS holding her breath. It was finally set free to the sound of Sonny's chuckle. She hadn't even realized she'd forgotten to breathe. But Sonny had distracted her by the pressure of his thumb sliding up long her instep, and the heat of his palm cupping the sole of her foot. Even through her socks, she could swear she felt his hands on her skin.

"Relax, will you? And close your eyes. This is supposed to help your tension, not add to it."

"I'm…relaxed."

Her protest was weak as she swallowed hard against a dry mouth. Sonny's hand was sliding up the top of her foot, toward her ankle. It slid back down again, four fingertips rubbing down the outer edge of her foot and a thumb pressing in the opposite direction against her heel. A quick, hot suddenly current ran up the inside of her leg, and Alexis's spine involuntarily straightened. Sonny felt the slight tremor in her body and stopped, holding his hands steady against her. He looked up to find Alexis staring at him once again, but this time, it was more intense.

Her eyes met his and he stared back as the fire crackled and sparked between them. She ran her tongue across her lips and swallowed again, a hint of studiousness now creeping into her expression. Her chest was rising and falling at a quickened pace, and the pink of her cheeks ripened with every moment that he looked at her. He grew concerned and gave her foot one last tender clasp before releasing it back down to the floor.

"Are you okay?"

Alexis took a deep breath as a second warm current traveled up the inside of her leg. A soft hum was filling her brain and her body, and she was suddenly overcome with the desire to reach out and touch the beckoning curve of his cheek that glowed with a golden hue under the fire's light. But Alexis was frozen within his enveloping stare, and it was all she could do to form words in her mouth and give them breath to fly.

"I'm fine."

Sonny didn't believe her. He swiveled his body around to sit down on the cushion beside her, leaning his shoulder into hers. His eyes never let go of her face, and Alexis smiled nervously and pushed at her hair.

"Is the fire too much? Are you too hot?"

She bit her lip and shifted her gaze away as she shifted against the pillows behind her, and the weight of his body now sinking into the seat cushion beneath them. He reached up to slip a hand through her bangs, his fingertips setting down on the center of her forehead. Alexis laughed and shyly tilted her head.

"I'm not sick, Sonny. I'm…just warm."

His hand pulled away and moved down, and Sonny pressed the backs of his fingers to her cheek. She couldn't help but lean into the feel of it, and her lids slowly, reflexively dropped. Sonny's heart fluttered at the feel of her warm skin, and the way she welcomed his touch. And he stared lovingly at the delicate black curve of lashes framing the doors to beautiful eyes momentarily at rest. Alexis lifted her hand as her lids blinked open, and Sonny's palm was soon blanketed by hers, taking it in her gentle grasp. She looked at him and whispered as she held their clasped palms to her cheek.

"I'm fine, Sonny."

The fire cracked and the smell of cloves intensified in her head. Alexis shifted her eyes to the sound, then briefly to Sonny's furrowed brow before returning them back to the fire. She wasn't sick, but she wasn't all that fine - she just didn't know why. Her body had grown increasingly hot and tingly, her breaths had grown shallow, and the rapid beating of her heart sent a rush of blood through her temples and made her head feel light. Alexis didn't want to tell Sonny that she did in fact feel strange. She didn't want to tell him that without warning, the warm, tender touches he gave to her had become something she wanted to take…to ask for, by holding his hand to her skin.

What did he think, when she asked for his touch that way? Her eyes boldly met his again and Sonny smiled at her, releasing his thumb away from her palm to brush the soft apple of her cheek. Alexis smiled back, and a new sense of calm began to settle over her. Sonny liked that she asked. She crunched her shoulders and lowered her arm, leading the two entwined hands down to the plump cushion below. Alexis followed them with her eyes, still smiling. The strange feeling had dissipated, and she was content.

"Somebody looks tired. Maybe you should go on up to bed."

She squinted at him studiously and nudged his shoulder with hers. "Somebody DOES look tired."

Sonny gave her a stern expression in return. "It's been a long day for you."

"For you too." She murmured. "You really do look like you should call it a night."

"I will if you will. Deal?"

"Deal."

Sonny sighed heavily and slid his body down along the pillows until he was all but horizontal. He smiled up at her and closed his eyes. "Good night."

"Hey!" She tugged at his shirt. "I'm not letting you sleep on my floor, Sonny. Go home. Go sleep in your own bed."

"I'm good right here. It's nice and cozy on the cushions, in front of the fire."

"Sonny…"

"You know what?" He opened his eyes and gazed up at her reproaching face. "It's late, I'm here, I'll just stay one more night and get out of your hair tomorrow."

"It's not as if you have to drive across town to get home. You only have to walk across the hall."

"I don't want to walk across the hall - I want to sleep. And I think that I could fall asleep better right here, right now, then I could if I walked across the hall and went upstairs to my own bed."

"Now who's being ornery?"

"So…what if I did fall asleep right now? Would you wake me up just to kick me out, or would you put that lavender throw blanket over me and let me stay?"

His hand wandered over to run a finger up and down her fleece-covered leg. His dimples blazed in a shameless, manipulative display - one that Sonny was clearly proud of. Alexis sighed as she turned toward him and set her palm down on the floor between them before and looked down at the his flirty little face with a dimple-fest of her own.

"What I WOULDN'T do is pick you up, carry you upstairs, and put you into bed."

Sonny laughed and twisted his fingers into the baggy fleece, giving it a tug. "Well if you DID, I sure wouldn't grumble about it the way you did. 'Sonny, put me down'." He mimicked.

"Shut up!" She smacked his fingers.

He laughed even harder and gave her sweatpants a firm yank. "Grumbling and squirming. You did NOT want to leave that couch."

"Maybe I was comfortable there."

"It would have been bad for your back. And you were more comfortable in bed."

Alexis squinted at him. "I was, actually. All night. And there were no bad dreams."

"I know." Sonny murmured, slipping his hand over to cover hers.

A sudden flood of feeling came over her, and Alexis was acutely aware of his hand on hers, his body beside her, her own body bathed in continuous warmth as the fire danced in front of her. She took in a quick, sharp breath and looked down at him in a way that made Sonny's breath freeze.

"You stayed with me last night."

It was not a question…not an accusation. Alexis had simply, suddenly remembered. Sonny lifted his head and shoulders from the cushion and pushed the rest of his body up until he was once again sitting up, close beside her.

"I did." He watched her face carefully a he went on. "You caught hold of my hand when I was pulling the covers up over you. And then, you curled up on your side and took my arm along for the ride. You didn't want to let me go…so I stayed. I hope that was okay."

His last words were light as air, and his eyes lowered shyly to the floor. Alexis wriggled her fingers playfully beneath his.

"Y-yeah. It was okay. I hope it was okay that I arm-locked you like I did."

"I was quite the willing captive." The words slipped out before he could trade the truth with a teasing response. He laughed lightly, running the tip of his tongue across his lower lip as he hesitantly lifted his eyes to hers and found them soft. "But also, quite the gentleman."

Alexis smiled, knowing once more that she had asked for his touch and Sonny liked that she did. Sonny smiled back, and she began to blush as he looked at her - she could feel it in her face. But it wasn't a blush of self-consciousness. She wasn't quite sure where it came from, other than the fact that Sonny was blushing too. Or maybe it was just the heat of the flames.

"You were also quite the security blanket, or so it would seem."

Sonny swallowed as he felt himself being pulled under by those dark, open eyes. He tilted his head and bit down on the edge of his lip. "Back at ya."

She laughed quietly, and shifted her body to lean back against the pillows. Her knees pulled up and Alexis wrapped her arms around them, turning her gaze to the fire. She stared into it for a long moment, until Sonny broke the silence.

"Alexis, it is getting late. So why don't you let me just let me stay the night."

"Because it's time for me to cut the apron strings. And that was NOT meant as a crack about your domestic tendencies. I know how sensitive your masculine pride can be when it comes to that kind of thing."

She patted him on the shoulder with worrisome look, and Sonny shook his head.

"Yeah, yeah. Very funny."

Alexis gave him a wide grin as she scrunched her shoulders. "I thought so."

Sonny paused, then released a light sigh. "Okay then. I'll go get my stuff."

Her eyes followed him as he brought himself to his feet and carefully stepped over her, his hand slipping across her head once more. She smiled and stared at the flames, listening to his footsteps as he moved across the floor and up the stairs. This was it - Sonny was leaving. Alexis had expected to feel anxious when this time finally came, but instead, she felt a strong sense of calm tempered only by the sense of immediate loss. She had told Stefan the truth - she HAD grown stronger, and it was under Sonny's strength, nurturing, and even his bossing. There would be no real loss when Sonny went home, there would just be Alexis missing him.

"I'll come by and take care of all this in the morning."

Sonny was suddenly behind her. He turned with a smile and took the hand that he offered her, allowing him to help her up from the cushions.

"I was kidding about you putting it back. I'll do it."

"No, you will not! I expect to come back here tomorrow and find this room in the exact same state of disarray that I'm leaving it in tonight. You got that?"

"Bossy."

"Spud."

They stared at each other until their deadpan expressions gave way to smiles at just about the same time. Sonny gently pulled on her hand, leading her toward the desk where the camel-colored leather bag sat waiting for him…with one tiny, secret stowaway tucked inside.

"I set the timer on the coffee maker for nine o'clock, so it will be ready when you wake up."

Her eyes grew big with surprise. "You can set it?"

Sonny shook his head and rolled his eyes.

"I'm kidding! I knew you could set it."

"Uh huh." He tapped the end of her nose. "If you need me, you call me. I don't care what time it is or…

"I know where to find you."

"Or if I'm not home, you tell Johnny and he'll track me down or take care of you himself."

"I know he will."

"Promise me you won't stop yourself from calling because of some notion that your apron strings are cut and that means you have to be…"

"YOUR apron strings."

"Whatever. Promise me."

"I promise. And you know where to find me too, just in case you need another headache chased away or…anything."

Sonny stared at her big, brown eyes and determined face, and he knew for certain that Alexis was more brave than he would ever be. Right then, Sonny wanted to pout and beg her to let him stay in a manner most unbecoming to a man. Instead, he gave a short nod of his head and offered her one last dimpled smile of the night.

"Sleep well, Alexis."

"You too."

Alexis let go of his hand, and Sonny let go of hers a moment later. He began to reach for his bag when she quietly took a step forward and slipped her arms around his waist, pressing the warm and gentle curves of her body into his unyielding planes. His own arms instinctively rose up and carefully encircled her, palms softly setting down and melting into her - one below the slope of her waist, one around her shoulder blade. Sonny's head turned slightly, his face finding the scented silk of her hair as Alexis rested her chin beside his neck. He inhaled deeply, his head swirling with her. And his whole body began to melt into hers at the feel of her light, warm breath against his ear.

"Thank you for everything you've done for me, and everything you've been for me." She felt his body register a slight jolt, and Alexis tightened her arms around him.

"I'd do anything for you." Sonny's voice was husky as it floated through her hair and into her head. "I am a willing captive."

Alexis smiled and turned her face into him. Sonny felt her rise up on her toes, just slightly, and then he felt her lips pressing into his cheek. His eyes drifted shut, and he slid his hand up from her shoulder to cup the back of her head and hold her kiss against his face. His fingers threaded through her hair and his heart began to pound. He wondered if she could feel it.

"Owe."

Alexis suddenly made a small sound, and Sonny felt her tender mouth breaking contact with his skin Sonny frowned. Did she saw 'owe'? What happened? Was he holding her too hard? Did his hand get too close to the soreness of her spine? He loosened his fingers from her hair, though he kept his palm where it was. She slowly pulled her head back and turned her face toward his. They were only inches away, and the scent of him was all she could think about.

"Did I hurt you?"

Alexis finally looked up into his heavy-lidded eyes with the tip of her tongue grazing the center of her lip and an odd expression on her face. She let her right arm slip away from its hold around him, and she brought her fingertips up to her mouth with an embarrassed grin.

"You're just being your masculine, albeit domestically inclined little self, and needing a shave even more now than you did this afternoon." Sonny began to laugh and leaned his forehead into hers as his fingers slipped through her hair once more. Alexis smiled, her fingertips dancing along the edge of her lips. "Those whiskers of yours are kind of sharp."

"Sorry. I'll be more attentive to my shaving needs, in future. I don't to want to be the cause any more owies. But since I did cause one…"

He stared down at her mouth, and the fingers that fluttered below. Sonny began to pull his forehead away from hers, and as he did, Alexis tilted her chin and looked up into his eyes. And with one small bow of his head, Sonny's mouth was brought down upon those beautiful, full, pink lips with the fingertips fluttering below. He watched it happen, as if it was happening to somebody else. And he watched Alexis close her eyes at the first feathery feel of contact. His world went into slow motion, and every detail of three seconds worth of bliss was magnified - three seconds of a light grazing, so soft and gentle, and just long enough for Sonny to know that if he never did it again, he would die.

It was over in an instant, a sweet, soothing whisper of a kiss against her lips - so tender and loving that Alexis thought she'd imagined it. But the insistent pounding in her chest and the air locked in her lungs told her otherwise. Her legs suddenly felt as if they'd turned to clay…and everything was dark. Was she dreaming? Sonny's fingers moved against the back of her head and Alexis began to blink. She swallowed and blinked some more, until Sonny's murmur ventured into her ears.

"But since I did cause one…it needed to be kissed and made better."

Alexis bit her lip and smiled as she lifted her eyes up to his. His dimples framed a brilliant smile that put the clay back into her knees once more.

"Is it better?" Sonny murmured.

She firmed her hand upon his waist to steady herself as she nodded. His hands slid down from her hair and a shiver of warmth traveled down her neck. Yes - aside for the clay in her legs, the pounding in her chest and forgetting how to breathe yet again…it was better.