Disclaimer: Not mine, and so on.

Notes: So this might be the least stand-alone of the series so far, but I think it still is self-contained enough to work. I think I'm losing objectivity, though, so I don't know. One more to go! And then Parker doesn't have to be dead in my head any longer! Hooray! (Er, yeah, Parker has been killed prior. See the story "wrong with you".) Note to self: no more character death ever. Unless there's a really good reason for it. This is Sophie and Hardison, and I liked it a lot more than I was expecting. A bit more comforting, too, which I think we all definitely need by now.

Concrit: Always welcome.

The light in Nate's apartment was mercifully dim, so that even the soft yellow light of the streetlamps outside painted the walls and ceiling with stripes. Cool metal steps, familiar against bare soles, spiralled her smoothly downward into his living room; into the wide and aching space, brooding over the presence felt by its absence. A whole with a piece gone.

Upstairs, Nate was finally getting some sleep, probably his first proper rest since it happened. If Eliot hadn't been standing next to him at the graveside, fielding him with a shoulder each time he swayed, he might well have fallen over.

Not drinking, though. Not yet, anyway.

She found herself at the foot of the stairs and paused, hugging herself. Hardison was hulking over his laptop on the couch, orange soda opened but untouched, documents flashing across the screens on the wall. The ferociousness of his silence pressed in on her, but ... she didn't know what to do with it.

Her own tiredness drilled its nasty ache in the middle of her forehead and she turned kitchen-ward, rubbing at it. The bottle of red was still where she'd left it, but her glass was gone; Eliot had retreated into being even more Eliot than usual, stony and efficient. He'd tidied away the whole kitchen before disappearing over an hour ago.

She rummaged for another glass and poured slowly, worrying her lip. Her boys – her men – each one was reeling, and she....

The dim light glinted and curved darkly in her wine, absorbing her eyes as she stood, lost to the aftershocks of devastation.

Nothing in the world could have hit them harder. Not a single thing. The moment the coffin came to rest at the bottom of that hole ... she didn't know how she'd stood it. How any of them had. She still didn't.

Maybe they hadn't.

That Parker could be in that box didn't seem real. Didn't seem possible. What were they thinking, putting her in a hole in the ground and covering it with earth? What kind of world was this where that was something they should do? Who were they, who had done that?

And who were they now, who had to live in this world where they'd done it? Who would they be after they'd taken their revenge on those responsible?

A coldness crept over her at the thought, surprising her. She wanted to hurt them, she viscerally needed to make those men suffer. They all did. A not-unfamiliar feeling, except in its sheer intensity. But....

She looked up at Hardison, certainty yawning before her, swallowing her whole.

It wasn't enough.

They were all of them falling apart, and revenge would only hold them together so long. It was not enough.

She stared at Hardison's back, feeling like she was suffocating.

We trust you to make sure we're all okay. That's what he'd said, after – oh God – after her fake funeral which....

She couldn't do it. She couldn't – she had no idea how to help them. How could she make this okay? This wasn't power, or sex, or status, no male levers for her to reach in and nudge and tweak and steer. It was pain and loss, brutally close to breaking them completely. Not a thousand death-scenes could supply her with a mechanism for this; no character, no lie, just the truth that she was as close to breaking as they were. She didn't even know who she was, let alone who to be that could possibly make this okay.

The smashing of glass was the first thing that told her it had slipped out of her fingers. A yelp jolted out of her, then chasing thoughts of bare feet and don't move and did it get me.

She took a shaky breath, reaching for calm.

"Whoa, girl," Hardison said, already off the couch in concern. "You cool there?"

"Ah...." Good lord, where to begin, she thought wryly. At least there was one simple answer. "Bare feet," she said, a little sheepishly.

"Don't move, I gotcha. You cut anywhere?"

"I don't think so."

"Maybe get up on the counter, then. Out of the way."

"Oh." Of course. "Right."

He flicked on the light over the bench, both of them squinting at the brightness. She checked over her feet quickly while he fetched paper towel and a brush and pan, but they were fine, if a little splashed. She took a piece of towel and wiped them clean. "Do you want me to –"

"Nah, it's cool, I got it."

She sat and just watched him clean up the mess below her dangling feet, the way he took care not to let the shards scratch the wood floor. He'd always had a gentle touch where it counted.

"You're a good man, Hardison," she said, wanting him to know that about himself.

He snorted. "Yeah, Nana always said I was handy with a broom."

"I mean it, Hardison," she insisted. "You are."

He gave an unpleasant little laugh and looked up at her. "Sophie. I'm not. I cheat and steal and invade privacy left right and center, sure, but there are bad things, too."


He looked back down, soaking up the last of the liquid. "I.... Sometimes I hate them. Sometimes I think I even want to kill them." He stared at the mess in his hand, then threw it in the rubbish.

She paused, confused. "Well – I mean, they did kill her...."

"No." He caught her surprised look and shrugged. "I mean, yeah, them – I want them fragged out of existence, obviously."

Understanding began to seep coldly in. "But ... what, then?" she asked, homing on the bitterness he needed her to draw out, thankful now for his unique tendency to say absolutely everything on his mind.

"I don't...." He sighed, frustrated. "She ... she died in his arms, did you know that? He let them shoot her, he couldn't even protect her, and he got to say goodbye! Do you know where I was? I was parked a mile away, on the computer, covering our asses, because that's what Nate told me to do. And by the time he got to them, she was already ... and all I could do was listen on Nate's com –" He stopped.

She had to close her eyes, dry and burning with so many tears already shed, but never enough.

"I can't stand to even look at him," he admitted, dropping his head. "I mean, I know ... I guess I know it's not his fault she died – or Nate's that I wasn't ... there. But I think I hate him anyway. Both of them, maybe. That sure as hell doesn't make me a good person."

"Oh, Hardison...." She shook her head. "That's not.... I...." She swallowed, trying to find something that wasn't hollow and wrong. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah." He was fiddling with the hem of his shirt, the movement drawing her eyes.

"Is that ... all it is?" she asked, probing as carefully as she could.

He looked at her, startled, then ruefully pursed his lips. He considered her question in silence. "Nah," he said eventually. "You're right, it's not. It's just...."

He sighed, and she waited patiently. He could have all the time he needed.

"It's not anything we did do, or didn't do – you know? Not really." He took a deep breath, staring down at his hands. "It's that she was with us at all."

She tilted her head, frowning at him. "What do you mean?"

He lifted his hands fitfully. "She was ... untouchable. Before us. She'd never have let her guard down.... Wouldn't even've been there in the first place." He met her eyes, in such misery that she could barely breathe. "It's our fault. She's dead because she was with us. She trusted us to have her back, and...."

"No. Oh, no – Hardison –" It wasn't even a conscious decision to reach out and pull him against her. He didn't fight it, and she could feel him shaking, hot tears on her shoulder as he clung to her.

"I don't ... I don't know much," she said, the naked words choked only by the raggedness of her throat. "But I know – Hardison, I know ... she wanted to be with us, she was happy with us. She might still be alive, but she'd be alone – no family, no one to care for her and understand her. We gave her that. No one else could. I think ... I believe she still would have chosen it. Chosen us. Even if she knew. Would you want her to be seventy and never had anyone to love her?"

He shook his head against her shoulder and gripped her tighter, crying in earnest. She simply held on, weathering the storm with him, letting it spend itself in its own time. Her own tears slid down her face, and she just let them, resting her head against his.

And she realized she was at peace.