Sonny watched the slow, rolling movement of muscles as the honey-hued liquid slid down Luke's throat - the throat that Sonny was so tempted to grab and squeeze.
"You got my attention, Luke. And it's obviously what you wanted. Though most people want to avoid the kind of attention they know they'd get from me by doing what you did. I tell you to leave Alexis alone, and you run right to her and get in her face?"
Luke cradled his glass between his hands, fingertips curving around the rim as he leaned both elbows onto the bar. He peered at Sonny over the top of his glass and stared at him with a blank expression.
"And it's such a pretty little face, isn't it? Even after someone tried to smack the pretty right off her."
"...smack the pretty right off her."
The hairs on the back of Sonny's neck bristled. Luke's choice of words hit his ears like a hammer. The man enjoyed his riddles and double-meanings, designed to confuse. They could also be pliers, designed to pry the lid off of sealed things that Luke wanted to see. He was quick and clever, and Sonny doubted that Alexis had been as fully armed to deal with him as she usually was. She was tired - and unprepared. She could have been caught off-guard. She could have let something inadvertently slip. With Luke, it wouldn't take too much information to draw correct conclusion.
"What did she tell you?" Sonny whispered dryly.
"What did she tell you she told me?"
Luke's eyes twinkled. Sonny ran his tongue across his lower lip and lifted his chin higher to fix his intense gaze into the two blue-gray eyes that laughed at him. The rest of Luke's face was unyielding. But as the two men stared each other down, Luke suddenly made a small noise as one corner of his mouth turned up in a wry smile.
"She didn't tell you anything at all, did she? Ha! The gold nugget's got a vault all her own. Good for her! But remind me never to ask Johnny to keep any of MY secrets. He may have great taste in music, but he's also got some very loose lips."
"What did she tell you?" Sonny's flat delivery made the words a demand, rather than a question. "Don't make me repeat myself, because I don't have the time or the desire to play your games. Neither does Alexis."
"Alexis can speak for herself! And I didn't hear that cute little mouth of hers telling me to leave. Johnny was the one making all the noise." His lips spread into a thin grin. "Alexis was the one who let me in the door."
"And she let you see her bare face. You know that she was hurt. Is that a source of amusement for you?"
"What the hell kind of question is that?" Luke growled. "You think seeing bruises on a women gets me off?"
"Then wipe that damn smirk off your face!"
"Who says I'm smirking at HER?"
Luke reached under the bar and grabbed a plastic bin filled with dirty glasses. He dropped it on the bar with a loud crash. Sonny didn't move. The patron in the corner flinched and briefly looked up, then hunched further down over his paper to mind his own business.
"Claude! I want clean glasses sometime today, or you're...oh, you know the drill!"
Luke crossed his arms and puffed up his chest as he stared back down at Sonny's hard expression.
"That woman is prime in my book, ex-partner o' mine. It's YOU who I find amusing - among other things."
"So this is about me? You're trying to provoke ME, for some reason? Is that why you won't leave Alexis alone?"
"Seems to me YOU'RE the one who won't leave Alexis alone. Literally."
"And the minute I did, look who showed up. What a coincidence. Know much about computers, Luke?"
"I know my motherboard from my hard drive. Don't you? Wait - silly question. I take it back."
The leering expression that veiled Luke's face made Sonny's hands unconsciously ball into fists.
"You're getting dangerously close to crossing more than one line, ex-partner o' mine." He mocked.
"Hey, I got a right to confer with my attorney, and she with me, without either of us getting a hall pass from you!"
"We both know damn well this has nothing to do with her being your attorney - if she even still IS your attorney. What do you want from her?"
"Since when is Alexis's business or my business with Alexis, legal or otherwise, any of business of YOURS?"
"Since two weeks ago!" Sonny barked, eyes shooting daggers at Luke's face. "Don't mess with me, Luke. And DON'T mess with her!"
Luke studied the fierce expression, and he suddenly recognized himself in Sonny's creased brow and large eyes fraught with anticipation of something bad happening - something of specific origin but unspecific intent against someone beloved. Sonny had come to Luke for the same reason that Luke had gone to Alexis. Each had sensed a threat, but each had been mistaken. Luke meant no harm, and Helena wasn't on a renewed warpath...yet. But where Cassadine evil left off, there were others waiting to pick up the slack. Natasha needed a better, safer circle in which to travel.
"Those are some veins you've got popping in your neck. Helena has the same affect on me. That woman has no soul, and she hates my family. She hates Alexis too. She'd be happy dancing all across Port Chuck at the sight of either a Spencer or Mikkos's bastard daughter suffering, and she's dedicated a large part of her existence to making it happen. She's damn good at it, too. But then, you know that already. You were there the night she made sure that my son's parents, siblings, and the love of his life thought he'd been turned into nothing but bits of ash and bone."
Luke slowly turned his head at the squeal of a door in the distance. His eyes followed Claude as the man strode purposefully toward the bar, gave Sonny a nod, and removed the offending bin of alcohol-stained glassware from the bar. Sonny nodded back, but Luke simply watched in silence as Claude disappeared through the same door from which he'd entered. Luke turned his eyes back to Sonny and instinctively lowered his voice for reasons he didn't even know.
"Helena Cassadine is really good at making her enemies suffer. She likes to make them suffer - before she ultimately grows bored with them and dispatches them to meet their maker. Strangely enough though, she's had much better success in doing away with outsiders than members of her own family, be they family by tainted blood OR by illicit spousal affair. Did you know she tried to off our sweet little brown-eyed girl a couple of times already?"
Sonny suddenly flashed on Alexis, huddled in a corner and struggling to breathe while locked in the fears of childhood. The sound of her small whimpers reverberated in his head, and he wondered if she would ever be free, or if the ghosts of Helena and her eldest son would haunt her forever. He felt helpless, unable to do anything to make it go away. It ate at him - though as Alexis had said, there are some things that neither money nor power can fix. But Sonny knew Helena, and was familiar with her tactics. If she posed a threat to Alexis, he would know how to spot it and fight it.
But all Sonny had known about the oldest Cassadine brother was that long ago, he'd taken Laura Spencer and made her his hostage wife, and Luke exacted the ultimate revenge. And now, Sonny knew that Stavros had also terrorized Alexis as a child. His was the face that filled so many of her nightmares. His was the name she cried out while being terrorized by Sorel. Sonny had heard it - so had Taggert. And he would never get the sound of it completely out of his head. Sonny squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed at them hard. How could he make it go away for her? How could anyone fight a dead man who still lived so vividly beyond the flesh.
Luke watched Sonny carefully...knowingly. He had to admit he shared Helen's fondness for a bit of the cat-and-mouse game himself. He just didn't often get to play it so many times in one day. And he never got to one-up Sonny anymore. But this time, it was strangely unsatisfying. It ticked him off. He quickly set his glass down on the wooden bar with a sharp crack.
"Yep, it's a scary thing, the way Helena's mind works. She finds ways to play with and torment her prey that defies the most twisted of minds. And it's almost safe to say that Helena's most apathetic attack would make anyone else's most fervent look like a love pat. ALMOST safe to say..."
Sonny's eyes slowly opened and shifted up to Luke's face. There it was - another veiled hint. Or was it? He frowned and tried to decipher what was really being said. Luke touched the tip of his index finger to the side of the full glass of scotch and pushed it an inch more in Sonny's direction.
"Come on! You look like you could use it." Luke turned his back and reached for the bottle of Jack once more, pouring himself another generous shot.
"Are you saying you have reason to believe that Helena Cassadine is coming after Alexis again?"
As Sonny's voice crept up from behind him, Luke stood in place for a long beat with his back still turned. Luke glanced into the mirror behind the two-tiered row of glass bottle and looked Sonny in the eye.
"I'm saying I had reason to believe she went after her already. Which would mean it was only a matter of time before the old bat came howling at the moon over my family's heads. You know, it was quite fortuitous, me running into Alexis at the hospital. I hadn't seen her around in a while and I was starting to get curious if something uniquely and dangerously Cassadine was afoot. But I'm not sure which piqued my curiosity more - Tony wanting me to leave him and Alexis alone so badly, her acting so squirrelly and trying not to, or you being so damned territorial."
He took a modest sip and slowly turned back to face Sonny. Sonny's back straightened, and Luke went on.
"Or maybe it was that nervous habit Alexis has of tossing her head, just a little bit, to get the bangs out of her eyes. That must have been a pretty good knock to the noggin she took, judging by the look of the wound on her forehead. I suggested she use some Vitamin E to keep the scarring down, but it turns out she was one step ahead of me on that one."
"You went to see Alexis because of Helena?"
"Because of what I thought Helena had done to her. And would do to me and mine next."
"What did she tell you?"
"That I was mistaken."
"You were in her apartment an hour and a half, Luke."
"Johnny had a stopwatch, did he?"
Sonny smiled. "He earns his pay."
"No argument here. But Alexis is free to bill me for her time."
"From what I understand, you're not too good at paying your bills."
"Only Baldwin bills. I'm more than happy to crack open my piggy bank for Natasha."
"An hour and a half. That's a hell of a long time to take just to ask if Helena had hurt her and for Alexis to tell you no."
"Well, you know her. 'No' is much too plebian. Why say it with one word when your Harvard education gave you the means to say it with 20 - most of which aren't even in the vocabulary of the person you're talking to."
Sonny smiled in spite of himself, and slowly shook his head. His eyes shifted to the solitary patron in the corner, too busy with his handicapping to pay him or Luke any mind.
"I like the way she talks."
"But you're not answering my question, so let me rephrase it to make myself more clear. How MUCH did she tell you? About what happened to her."
Luke shrugged. "The Reader's Digest version. This Sorel joker was mighty ticked at you and felt the need to flex some muscle and show you who's king o' the mobster hill in the not-so sleepy hamlet of Port Chuck. Apparently, it was something you anticipated, because you made sure Bobbie's daughter and her son were safely out of the line of fire. My sister couldn't have taken the loss of another child, so...for that, you have my thanks. But the bad news is that poor little Natasha was left out in the open and once again called upon to play the role of innocent victim who gets to pay for someone else's crap. She's getting good at that role. She's played it a lot - since she was no more than five years old."
Sonny swallowed and looked at the shiny, wet amber surface of the glass of scotch sitting on the bar before him. "You know a lot about her past, do you? You being so tight with the Cassadines and all?"
Luke smiled. "Now who's being the funny guy?"
Sonny's tongue ran back and forth across his lower lip. "You killed her brother."
"Only ONE of them! Let's keep the specifics straight, lest I find myself in stripes again."
"Stavros. You killed Stavros."
Luke cupped a palm to his ear. "Listen...do you hear the hounds of hell being unleashed too? Be careful how you toss that name around - and where. Just hearing it spoken gives him too much life for my liking. Why the interest?"
"Like you said, Alexis was been a target for Cassadine wrath since she was small. Helena, Stavros..."
He paused, his mind going faster than he knew his tongue should wag. He wanted to know what Luke knew of Stavros and Alexis, but it was impossible to ask. And he probably knew nothing anyway. Alexis had been full grown and away at college when Laura was forcibly dragged into the Cassadine lair. The tight-lipped family probably never even spoke of her, and they certainly wouldn't have spoken of childhood cruelties or suspicious adolescent accidents. It was like pulling teeth to get the decent Cassadine brother to speak of them now. No - Luke knew nothing.
"First the Cassadines, and now Sorel. It's not right. But if she hadn't been as stubborn and brave as she is, a stupid kid would be dead right now. Oh - and don't let Alexis ever hear you call her a victim. She's not a victim. She's a hero. And she's just a got a special kind of...innocence. She truly believes that the good guys will win and the bad guys will lose."
"Yeah? Then what the hell's she doing defending you?"
A cross between a short laugh and a sigh escaped from Sonny's throat.
"That was funny, man! It deserved at least a real chuckle."
Sonny's wandering eyes fell onto Luke's. "I don't understand the instinct that tells a man to take something innocent and beautiful and mess with it. I don't want to understand it. But I have to, so I can recognize it when it's there, and keep it from messing with her again."
Luke took in a long, slow, deliberately quiet breath. The expression on Sonny's face was something he didn't often see - it made him look innocent himself, though he was far from it. But maybe there was something organically innocent in every man, no matter what his crimes, when he swam in thoughts of the woman he loved. And Luke knew Sonny wasn't only talking about Alexis - he was talking about his mother, and the instinct that told a man to mess with her innocence and beauty. Luke felt a sudden twinge of unwanted empathy for a son in pain and a fellow man in love. And he felt a sudden sense of loss on behalf of his sister.
"Carly and Michael aren't coming back, are they?"
Sonny released his breath with a long aspirant sound. "No."
Luke nodded in silence.
"But they're safe."
"Good. She may miss the home-wrecker and little red head, but at least Bobbie can sleep peacefully. I understand so can Alexis."
Sonny squinted at him strangely, as if he was confused.
"Sorel IS behind bars, right? That's what she said."
"So who found her, you or the Bubba brigade?"
"Me - and Taggert."
"Like...together?" Luke shuddered. "How does THAT kind of thing happen?"
"How long did he have her?"
Sonny shifted and eyed Luke with a renewed edge of suspicion. He took a long pause before clearing his throat. "Three days."
Luke nodded and slipped a hand into his pocket. His fingers wrapped around the small plastic bottle he'd stolen from Alexis's kitchen. Three days of being shot up with heroin. Damn. It hadn't taken five minutes on a search engine for Luke to learn what Naltrexone was - and the only reason why Alexis would be taking it. Sorel's brand of payback against his enemy took a form that would do Helena proud. He'd hooked Alexis on smack, and made Sonny helplessly watch as she suffered the consequences. It made Luke sick. He could only image what it did to Sonny...and was doing to him still.
"You know, if you're not going to drink that, I WILL."
Luke nodded at the glass of scotch - the object of Sonny's unfocused stare. Sonny glanced up to study Luke's face for a second or two, then lifted the glass and made half the liquid history. Luke smiled.
"Good call." He leaned in and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "There's nothing that makes hooch more appealing than having a womanly sorrow to drown. But all's well that ends well, as the bard once said. The good guy - or rather, the good GAL - won."
"Better watch it, Luke. People might start accusing you of going soft on a Cassadine, and your rep's gonna go right into the john."
"Well don't spread it around, but between you, me, and the pony player in the corner, I'll admit to having a soft spot for the little lady. I don't know why. Maybe it's got something to do with all her...soft spots."
Luke grinned slyly and gave Sonny a wink. Sonny stiffened. He shook his head and tossed back the last of his Jack Daniels.
"Luke, Luke, Luke. How many times I gotta tell you to watch your mouth when you talk about Alexis?"
"Would you lighten up? I already told you that she and I got a different kind of simpatico going on, so don't go getting your boxers in a bunch over what you don't understand."
The empty glass slammed down on the wood with a loud crack.
"What you don't understand is that I mean to protect Alexis from anything that I perceive as a threat to her, and that includes you!"
"Me? You're wasting your time, pal! I'm no threat to Alexis." Luke spat with disgust. "Too bad for her you couldn't perceive a REAL threat when it was staring you in the face. Or should I say, staring HER in the face? No, wait...make that HITTING her in the face. You're lucky Alexis is still even speaking to you after you left her a sitting duck. Pretty sloppy, Sonny. Pretty sloppy indeed."
Luke's face was becoming a blur before Sonny's eyes. His quiet rage was enveloping him. It distorted his vision, making his temples throb and the sound of blood rushing through his veins resonate like a bass drum. A man who had raped was daring to look him in the face and call him on his own wrongs against a helpless woman. And what he said was the truth. Sonny took a small step forward, blazing eyes boring into Luke's as he tried to find his voice. And when it came, it was flat and almost imperceptible.
"Alexis is my attorney, and my friend, and she got hurt because of it - because she has the courage of her convictions, because she puts people she cares about before herself...and yes, because I failed her. But it won't happen again. Nobody is ever going to touch her again. Nobody is ever going to hurt her so long as I draw breath. Now, I like Laura, and I like your kids. So I hope you don't make the mistake of testing how dead serious I am when I tell you to leave Alexis alone and show her the respect that she deserves."
Luke tilted his head and mimicked Sonny's tone. "Now why would I test you when I can see with my own peepers how...DEAD serious you are?"
"Good. I'm glad we're finally on the same page."
Sonny took a step back, as if making a move to leave. Luke leaned forward against the bar and shifted his eyes toward the silent patron with his head still bent over his paper.
"So tell me, what kind of 'dead serious' payback have you got planned for this Sorel character? I'll bet it's a humdinger."
Another twitch hit Sonny's eyelid. "Sorel will pay. He's going to fry, courtesy of the state of New York."
"Is it too early to put in my bid for a front row seat?"
"Get in line."
"Frankly, I'm surprised the guy is safely tucked away in a jail cell right now, instead of serving as statuary for some sea creature's back yard at the bottom of the river. Did the exacting of personal vengeance go out of style when I wasn't looking?"
Sonny shifted his weight and stammered. "Personal vengeance will never go out of style. But Alexis is my priority. She...I need to be available for her. I...we...she's had a difficult time with this, and I need to not be in trouble or in a jail cell myself right now."
'A difficult time'? That's one hell of a euphemism for being turned into a junkie, Luke thought. He suddenly took in a sharp breath. Oh God. His face began to tingle and his stomach clenched as he suddenly remembered the caustic remark he'd made to Alexis at the hospital, when he'd seen the unmistakable display of needle marks on her arm. He told her she looked like a junkie, and then watched as the color drained from her cheeks. Her arm went rigid in his hand before it was yanked away, and her eyes turned cold and angry. He'd meant nothing by the words that reflexively flew from his mouth. But now he knew he'd shot an arrow into her Achilles heel.
Alexis must have thought he'd done it on purpose. She must have thought he'd somehow found out what happened to her and was using it - taunting her with it to remind her where her allegiance lay in the ongoing war between their families. Even so, Natasha recovered in a matter of seconds to throw some Cassadine fire his way. And the sparks were still flying at him that morning. She covered her difficult time well, though Luke saw right through her veneer. The little sister had a whole lot of anger inside of her, and she sure as hell had reason - more reason than Luke's fertile imagination ever could have guessed. She saw him as a threat and lashed out in self-protection as best she could. And the old places she revisited with him suddenly made sense.
But it disturbed Luke to know that Alexis honestly thought he'd have revealed her true identity as Mikkos's child and led her to Helena like a lamb to the slaughter. It disturbed him to know that she thought he was once again trying to pour salt in her wounds. And it disturbed him the most to look at her bruised face and fearful eyes and hear her remind him of how low he himself had once sunk as a man. What Sorel did to Alexis was hideous, but what Luke did to Laura was no better. Alexis knew it, and still she let him into her home and stood up to whatever it was she thought he'd come to dish out. And that made Luke's already healthy respect for her grow tenfold. He sighed lightly and rubbed at his stubbly chin.
"Alexis is a survivor, Sonny. She's a fighter. And she's more of a tough cookie than you're giving her credit for. Don't treat her like she'll crumble."
Sonny tilted his head and a crease formed in his brow as he regarded Luke's earnest expression. It was suddenly clear just who had put the wilting flower notion in Alexis's head - another fighter.
"You may have known her longer, but I guarantee I know her better. You see what Alexis wants you to see. You come charging at her and she charges back. You do your little flirty, aggressive, wise-ass thing and she plays along with you, not missing a beat. But you don't know what happens when the invisible referee rings the bell and the two of you go off to your respective corners. You may not know it, but when you turn your back and she's out of your sight, THAT'S when you take your toll on her. I DO know it, and you took a toll today, Luke. Her resources are low, she's trying to build them back up, and she doesn't have energy to waste on you when she needs it for herself."
"Alexis is a woman who needs to get her dander up every now and then, which is something I seriously doubt she's going to get from you. I think I provided her with a valuable service."
"Nice of you to be concerned."
Luke stared hard. "I am concerned."
"Then back off, Luke. Let her be. You wanted to ease your mind about Helena, and it was eased. You have no reason to show up at Alexis's door again."
"I'm not on your payroll and I don't take orders from you, my soon-to-be ex-nephew in law. If I want to see Alexis, and she's willing to see me, then that'll be between us. She's the one I'll be taking my cues from. But I have no desire to hurt her or make things any harder for her. Like I said, I got a soft spot for the warm, fuzzy one." Luke's face grew a sly smile. "There seems to be a lot of that going around."
The corners of Sonny's mouth twitched. He wanted to give in to the urge to smile - to release his tension and let down some of his guard. He'd known Luke well enough and long enough to trust that the look in his eye mirrored the truth of his words. Luke hadn't meant her any harm, he was just being his normal obnoxious self. But the subject of Alexis made Sonny feel like a walking raw nerve, so his smile stayed repressed and his tension stayed his. And his guard would always be up.
Luke's murmur brought Sonny's focus back.
"She's...she's gonna be okay, right? I mean, you know...physically."
Sonny's brow furrowed in suspicion. "Why would you ask that? Did something happen while you were there?"
Luke was momentarily stumped. He wouldn't tell Sonny that he knew about the smack. It would be too hard to come up with a lie, and the truth just wouldn't be good for his health at all. He needed to divert.
"No, nothing happened. I mean, all the birds in her tree seemed to be chirping just fine, but a head injury can be tricky. I just figured if Tony saw fit to keep her in the hospital, he must have been worried that the blow to her head did more damage than what the eye could see."
"She's fine. Physically, she's fine."
Luke shoved his hand into his pocket and found the smooth plastic cylinder. He would dispose of his ill-gotten evidence as soon as Sonny walked out the door. It made him uneasy to have that bottle with Alexis's name on it in his possession. It made him uneasy to remember her looking like a trapped rabbit under his scrutinizing gaze and know what kind of buttons he'd inadvertently pushed. Guilt wasn't an emotion that Luke considered worth his while, but on rare occasions he couldn't help but feel it. This was one of them.
"Tell Bobbie that Jason's taking good care of Carly and Michael, and that Carly will be touching base with her soon."
"I will. Tell Alexis I'm still available for batting practice, if she feels the need - if you even tell her you were here."
Luke smiled. "She'll know what I mean."
Sonny stared. Luke shook his head.
"There he goes with the menacing look again. It means I'm on her side!"
"Right." Sonny gave a single nod, then turned and headed for the door.
"Hey! Not so fast."
Luke barked, stopping Sonny in his tracks. He waited for Sonny to turn his head, then lifted Sonny's empty scotch glass high in the air with a mock expression of concern.
"Are you okay to drive, or should I call you a cab."
Sonny smiled and shook his head as he turned away and continued his short walk toward the door.
"You're a funny guy, Luke."