A/N: I'm trying my hand at another Leverage fic. This turned out nothing like how I had hoped and planned but I sincerely hope someone out there finds it interesting. Reviews are welcomed and appreciated. : )

Disclaimer: I do not own Leverage. Not even Eliot and Hardison who I'd love to own. I could try to steal it...maybe if Parker taught me how to. This story is unbetaed so all errors are my own.

~~~Thirty-Two Hours~~~~~

He once spent thirty-two hours being tortured in an underground Moroccan prison, having everything from his flesh peeled and burned to sharp daggers shoved beneath his fingertips, and he still hadn't experienced a pain quite like this.

It was of his own doing...well...undoing, that he allowed himself to be at ease with a group of people. It was of his own volition that he let each and every one of them worm themselves into his life until the lines between professional and personal blurred to the point of dissipating altogether. In fact, it had reached a point where he couldn't definitively determine where he ended and where they began. They had somehow become his responsibility. His own instinctual, primal, self-preservation had slowly morphed into the equally as primal role of protector. He was their protector...and he failed.

He whisked around the kitchen gracefully. The clanging of metal against porcelain filling the palpable silence, as he plated the distractedly made food. His muscles were tense, tendons exercised to their maximum limits as he gripped the plate tightly in his hand, and yet it still didn't stop the tremor ripping through his body as he did his best to shut off all feeling. A vice like grip on the dish in his hand, he turned on his heel, away from the stove and the temporary warmth that the kitchenette provided. The cold consumed him instantly as he stepped into the living area, as if he had stepped through a physical barrier. It cut through him like the cold steel of an Amazonian machete through his torso.

He longed for that pain now.

The ripping of his flesh, the burning of his skin as air and dirt met open wounds. He longed for the breaking of bones, the crushing of cartilage when blunt objects connected with it. He wished it were merely the taste of metal in his mouth as the blood, his blood, trickled between his teeth when he faced an opponent and flashed them a feral grin. He wished for the stain of his own blood against his skin, the technicolor bruises bespeckling his body, the swollen eyes, the gut wrenching pain in all of it's forms... stabbing...prickling...aching...tenderness. He wanted it. He wanted all of it because as any man in his field knew the physical pain was as easy as sipping Sweet tea on a lazy Sunday night on the backporch of his Pa's Kentucky ranch. The emotional pain was unbearable, insufferable, and disabling. The emotional pain is what scarred him to his very core. Scars that lasted longer and cut deeper than any hatchets, bullets, or swords could ever achieve.

He found himself clumping towards the armchair in soot caked combat boots. He held the plate he clutched out towards her, and he blinked in irritation as his own body betrayed him by still continuing to shake. "You gotta eat something Soph."

He watched as his friend's eyes flickered towards the steaming plate of Penne in his outstretched hand. It was the only acknowledgment she gave that he even penetrated the cocoon of isolation she had astutely wrapped herself up in. She hadn't so much as twitched from her spot in the armchair since they had returned. Her eyes occasionally scanning around the room was the only thing convincing him that she wasn't completely catatonic. Under other circumstances, he would have been mildly bemused at her theatrical flair, sitting stone still like an Egyptian Queen. She certainly looked the part. Her flawless tanned skin illuminated by the overhead light. The dark eyeliner highlighting her deep brown eyes. Or what was left of it. Black streaks still marked her skin making intricate patterns across her cheeks from bouts of hysterical tears she shed. Her bronze and copper blouse stained with black soot. Shrapnel and debris caught up in her entangled brown hair.

"Try to eat a little, Darlin'" his voice was low and hoarse, his throat dry and raw.

"Leave her be, Eliot."

He carefully placed the plate down and turned on his heel, fists clenched tightly as strategically hidden feelings surged through his body in a small spurt, rocking him back on the heels of his feet before he tampered them down again. Burning blue eyes narrowed and met the bleary ones of Nate. His lips tightened and formed a thin line, lips whitening with the strain as he appraised his colleague. Nate broke eye contact and heavy lids rested on the often replenished tumbler of Scotch in his hand. Nate's own solace in their mutual hell. He bowed his head forward, unkempt hair falling into his worn face. Stray debris sprinkled the surface of the table from the action and he stared at the foreign material, blinked, and brought a shaky hand up to his lips for another drink.

"She has to eat, Nate," Eliot growled. His balled fists tightened as heat burned his flesh, another wave of anger rolled between his broad shoulders and down his back. Anger was always easiest. Anger was more bearable then overwhelming grief. His narrowed eyes flickered from the depleted tumbler to his disheveled friend. "And so do you."

He let out a frustrated sigh, resigned to the fact that he'd still have to play Caretaker. They hadn't ate since they returned home. They hadn't slept, showered, or changed either.

"It's not your fault." Nate slurred, the words tumbling out on top of one another. Eliot watched as he threw back the remaining drops of the amber liquid and lazily reached for the bottle. He carelessly poured the liquid into the glass, sloshing speckles of it all over the surface. Drops of liquid ran into each other and formed puddles on the table.

"It's not your fault that they're..." Nate rose from his seat, blinked again, sniffed, and rolled his shoulders back as he straightened his posture. Guarded. Defensive. He motioned with his free hand for Eliot to fill in the blanks and took another gulp.

"Dead." Eliot finished gruffly, his voice strangled and yet cold. He inwardly cringed as Sophie let out a barely audible whimper; his perpetual scowl efficiently masking his agony. He shook his head slightly, his own long hair dispelling debris.

His eyes never left Nate, watching as the re-confirmation made the Mastermind recoil. His friend stumbled backwards as if on the receiving end of a blow. Eliot supposed that he was. They all were. He noted the faraway look in Nate's eyes. The look that Nate always got when he thought of Sam. Painful images in black and white or sepia on constant replay in his head.

He turned his head away granting Nate a moment to mourn the death of more kids.

Because that's what they were. Kids.

Two gifted kids with troubled pasts, who dared cross paths with him...and Nate...and Sophie, and charmed their way into all of their hearts. He knew they did with him, even though he was hesitant to admit it, even to himself. Two kids who managed to form a makeshift family amongst five individuals dead set on living solitary lives. Two kids who held them together like duct tape or glue. His own mind was flooded with images flickering rapidly through his head like a roll of film on a projector...

"Sometime today Parker." Nate muttered through the com with barely concealed irritation rising up in his voice.

"Sometime today Par-ker," Parker mimicked in a whisper, rolling her eyes as she slowly crawled through the air vent. "I'd like to see you crawl through one of these puppies," she giggle-snorted blowing strands of blond hair out of her face with the exhalation of air. "Why do people say that anyway? How do you go through puppies?" She murmured while carefully removing the slat from the vent.

"Something is wrong with you," he growled in annoyance as he leaned against Lucile 3.0 and studied their surroundings, on alert.

"Do you ever get tired of saying that man? 'Cause redundancy is overrated," Hardison quipped from inside the van as his fingers ghosted across multiple keyboards. "Oww!"he yelped as Eliot's hand collided with the back of his head.

"You're overrated!

"C'mon man! Physically abusing your co-workers makes for a hostile work environment," the Hacker whined, rubbing the back of his head and narrowing his eyes at the Hitter.

"Oh you ain't seen host-"

"Focus." Nate growled,clearly disgruntled with the childishness of them all. He tapped a finger against the com, causing the others to wince from the feedback.

"Spoilsport", Parker pouted before gracefully lowering herself from the air vent, and landing on both feet stealthily. "Uh oh."

"What the hell do you mean, 'uh-oh?'" His low timbre echoed through the coms, as his eyes darted towards the two men guarding the exit. He pushed himself off the bumper of Lucile and readied himself for a fight.

"The lasers. They have lots and lots of lasers. This isn't the security system we were briefed on," she hissed into the com. She stood stock still as one of the many rotating red beams came within a hair of the tip of her nose.

"Parker, dear, can you get past them?" Sophie's warm voice came through, slightly tinged with concern.

"If I could, I wouldn't be saying 'uh-oh'," Parker replied in a clipped tone, her breath being held as another beam neared a strand of her hair. "Motion. Sensored. Floors." She responded in a strained voice. "I could use your help here Hardison."

"Dammit Hardison!I thought you said the security plans were up to date?" Eliot tore his eyes away from the guards briefly to glare at the younger man.

The Hacker stared at the computer wide-eyed as his fingers flew over keys and multiple windows danced across the computer screen. He shook his head slightly as his eyes flickered across the screens. "They were..." A pause as the only thing penetrating the silence was the tapping of keys. "..until four hours ago. Damn, how the hell did they integrate the Teriznic 983 in four hours? That's one complex system."He murmured in slight awe as he licked his lips and read over the new plans.

"Can you do something about it?" Nate's voice became clearer as he approached the van with Sophie beside him. Their sudden presence momentarily startling Hardison, who unlike Eliot didn't sense their arrival.

"I-I could try but it's going to take at least two hours."

"I don't have two hours!" Parker hissed from inside the vault, her eyes crossing as she held her breath upon seeing another laser barely touch the bridge of her nose.

"I hear you girl, but I'll need at least that to disable the system completely. I can reroute everything for a few minutes so you can get out...but that isn't enough time to crack the safe and get all the discs."

"That's not good enough." Nate supplied in his calculating tone. The whole con rides on us getting the discs. Parker's going to have to chance it."

"Nate, man, we gotta get her out of there before she sets off the alarms-"

"Or get fried." Parker added.

"-or gets fried." Hardison continued wide-eyed.

" No. There has to be something else you can do. Hardison?"

"Nate!" Eliot growled staring the Mastermind down in his own warning.

"Ya'll still don't get what I do..do you?" Hardison sighed. He paused briefly, a flourish over the computers in front of him as he stared at his other teammates. "I-I could try to override the system, short circuit some things and buy her a bit more time. It'll be cutting close, and I'll have to do it in person."

"Fine, Hardison you're in. Eliot, give him a free entry."

"I don't like this Nate. We're caught off guard and practically going in blind! Hardison can chance taking the couple of minutes to get Parker out but anything longer than that is too risky. We may blow our cover and the entire con may still fall apart!" The Hitter argued in a low, gruff voice.

"Damn, somebody's extra verbose today. That's the most you've said all week."

"Shut up Hardison." He growled, shooting the Hacker a threatening glare, causing the younger man to temporarily abandon his knack for lightening the mood.

"Go." Nate ordered, his face placid and unaffected by the death glare Eliot was sending him.

Eliot shot Nate one last glare before grunting, adjusting his skull cap and heading after the two guards. He effectively and efficiently disabled them as the Hacker slipped through the entrance and towards the secured room. Eliot dragged the two guards to the other side of the building and resumed his spot leaning against Lucile's bumper.

"You have to stop pushing so much," he growled at Nate, his scowl deepening when Nate chose to ignore him again. He felt Sophie give him a reassuring pat on the arm.

"Wow, this really is state of the art," Hardison's impressed voice came through the coms, easing some of the tension building outside of the van. "I swear girl I don't know how you do this climbing through ventilation systems-"

"Hardison, get to it!" Parker snapped back letting out one of her frustrated sighs.

"Well alright already..geez! Never-mind the fact that y'all need me to save the day..." Hardison muttered as he pulled out his smartphone and got to work on the security box. A few minutes passed before the the lasers died down and the motion sensored floors were disabled. "Yeah baby! That's what I'm talking about!"

Parker let out a sigh and lithely skipped towards the safe, ignoring the yelps from Hardison as he tried to maneuver himself down the zipline from the ventilation shaft,getting tangled up in the process.

Sophie let out a relieved sigh as she sunk down into the van next to Eliot.

"I wouldn't be sighing just yet. They ain't out of the woodwork," he grumbled, narrowing his eyes at Nate, whose face still remained blank.

"Actually, I think I was able to trick the system into thinking it was still on, so we should have a decent window of time before the alarms set off," Hardison responded with a noticeably cheerful lilt in his voice. "I know, impressive right? Whose the man?" he gloated with a sassy shake of his head and a fist pump.

"Not you, bubba." Eliot retorted, the corners of his lips twitching a bit at Parker's giggle.

"You ain't right, man," Hardison's face fell considerably. "I'm bout tired of y'all not appreciating me."

"Mmm, we should really consider lighting some incense in here. It's...whiffy." Sophie ignored Hardison's whining and brought her hand up to cover her nose. Eliot shrugged in agreement.

"What? Nobody ever appreciates the van! She works just as hard as all of you. I hope you know,that's the smell of sweat and hard work." Hardison grumbled, his feelings clearly hurt, as he watched Parker crack the last number of the safe. " She doesn't need incense. She ain't the Mystery Machine."

"Wrap it up you two," Nate admonished impatiently as he paced back and forth in front of the van, his hands stuffed in his pant's pockets.

"Uh-oh." Parker stopped chuckling long enough to stare at the opened safe.

"What Park-Uh-oh!"

"I don't like all of these 'uh-ohs', what's going on in there?" Nate questioned as he paused mid-pace and tapped on the earbud. He noted Sophie at attention and Eliot standing with fists clenched. "Parker! Hardison!" He barked when the younger members didn't respond immediately.

"There's a bomb Nate. In the safe, and it's set to blow in a minute-thirty. I umm..."

"Dammit," Eliot roared. "I'm going in there!"

"No." Nate interrupted. He ignored Sophie's panicked gasp and Hardison's protests. "Hardison can you disarm it?"

"I-I, I don't know where the wires are. I can't see any wires and..." The Hacker's voice was wrought with panic. He felt something warm wrap around his hand and noticed it was Parker intertwining her fingers with his. He turned to face her but she remained expressionless. "I got a plan."

"Am I going to hate it?" She asked, her face blank but her eyes penetrating his with a hint of fear intermingled with faith.

"Yeah." The Hacker replied with a quick squeeze of her hand. "And so am I. I can buy us a bit more time," he said as he toyed with the screen of his phone with his free hand. "But we have to grab the discs and run like hell."

"Do it." Nate ordered. He swallowed over the lump in his throat and turned away from Sophie and Eliot's piercing glares.

"How's it coming along?" Eliot questioned in his low tone, voice still clipped and masking his concern as painfully long seconds ticked by. "I'll bring the van around..." He watched as Sophie brought her hand up just below her nose, biting her nails nervously. He chose to go for light, by cracking a joke to put her at ease, "...and maybe let down some of the windows."

"We got the discs," Parker said in a huff. She was panting and slightly out of breath. The cutting of the wind from her running broke through the coms.

"-and we're headed out now." Hardison finished for her, in a pant matching hers. "I heard that dig at my van, Eliot. I don't know how many times I tell y'all to respect the van. But you..you always got it in for-"

The Hacker was cut short by a loud eruption. The building exploded as the noise assaulted their eardrums and made their ears ring. Licks of flames in red and orange hues danced across the light blue sky. Curls of dark smoke swirled about making intricate patterns and morphing with the fluffy white clouds above. Nate dove across Sophie, their bodies colliding to her intense discomfort as his hand spared her head from bouncing against the hard pavement. He turned his head in time to see Eliot attempt to run towards the devastation, he reflexively grabbed the Hitter and with a strength fueled by adrenaline alone managed to pull the stocky man down alongside of him. Shrapnel and debris pierced the air like lead bullets and shot in every which way, some of which pounding against their huddled bodies, and falling around them along with ember and ash.

They rose only when the ground stopped shaking beneath them. Eliot jumped up first, he faced the fire, his feet planted firmly to the ground but his body leaning forward, instinctively wanting to race towards the explosion that most likely took his friends. Rationality kicked in as he remained stagnant, watching the flickering flames with a look that was inscrutable.

Nate rose next, slowly but surely, bent over, hands resting against his knees as he looked up at the mass destruction with soot and sweat staining his skin. He reached out his hand, relieved when Sophie grasped it and pulled herself up on her broken heels. She stared ahead, squinting in an effort to see beyond the thick waves of heat before her, her mouth agape. She took a few staggered steps towards the fastly crumbling building, not hearing Nate's protests past the ringing in her ears. She stopped just in front of Eliot, and looked up in horror before a shrill shriek managed to slide over the lump in her throat, through the dryness and the suffocation and past her chapped lips.

"W-we have to get them! We have to...Go get them! Eliot...Eliot you have to go get them!" She shrieked as her wide panicked eyes shifted from Nate to Eliot. Her voice came out in a rasp, clearly stolen from her by the thick smog, like fingers wrapping around her throat and choking her.

"Please, Eliot! You have to...you have to..." She gesticulated towards the continuously burning debris, the once sandcolored building now charred onyx.

Nate stood slack-jawed and seemingly oblivious to her useless pleas. His own eyes flickering from her moving lips to the building before him. His lips moved in an effort to respond but the air was too thick and the pressure was too much, his voice catching in his throat, his body betraying him as he no longer found himself able to move anything other than his head. He shook it back and forth in response to her pleas, as he swallowed down the bile rising up in his throat.

"Parker! Parker! Hardison! One of you answer me! You better answer me! This isn't bloody funny!" She screamed into the coms, as the ringing in her ears subsided and was gradually replaced by the sound of white noise, which was almost worst then eerie silence.

"Plea...Eliot, you have to...you have to! Don't just stand there do something!" She continued to shrill, taking a step forward and looking up at Eliot with pleading eyes, bright and wide like a mother pleading for her own child.

"They're joking, they're bloody yanking our chains, aren't they? I bet they think this is funny!" Her voice was thick with strangled laughter as a small hysterical chuckle escaped her lips.

"I'm sorry, Soph I..." Eliot's own voice caught in his throat and he blinked, unable to tear his eyes away from the look of desperation in her face. He watched the glimmers of hope slowly diminish from her round eyes. "I... they're...I think they're gone."

Sophie shook her head slowly and curled her lip up in anger. "No." She said firmly. "No! They are not...they are not gone! Why would you say that?" She stood in front of Eliot, a manicured nail jabbing into his chest, her own chest heaving with anger.

"Why would you..." she jabbed her finger into his chest harder, and repeated the motion until a flurry of fists beat across his blackened t-shirt. The anger left as quickly as it came, and she tired herself out, collapsing into him. Strangled wails escaped her lips, her mouth wide, eyes squeezed shut, her teeth occasionally biting into his shoulder as she tried to muffle them. Her tears soaked through his t-shirt,wetting his skin beneath and all he could do was hold her, until she was cried out. He looked over her shoulder at Nate who watched them as if from a distance, his hand running across his face glistening with sweat, running through his entangled hair. If he closed his eyes and ignored Sophie he could quietly hear Nate repeatedly murmur "No."

He shook his head free of the thoughts and tried to contain the heat ripping through him. He faintly heard Sophie hiccup in the distance...or maybe it was another muffled sob. It was becoming harder to tell. He made his way back in the kitchen to retrieve a towel. He grabbed it up and headed towards Nate, stopping before him long enough to swipe up the beads of alcohol skittering across the counter-top.

If he kept himself busy he wouldn't have to think of them.

It wasn't the best way to handle things but it was the easiest way for him right now. He couldn't think of them. It would hurt too much if he did. He firmly believed in living a life and not having regrets. Regrets were useless if you couldn't do anything about them. But he did have them...had regrets. He regretted liking them. He regretted loving them. He regretted letting them get close, because it went against everything he taught himself in the past two decades. His cardinal rule was to never let anyone close, and he broke it with them...he broke it for them. For all of them. Because even if he was reluctant to admit it, they were his family.

The thought of the word pulled him up short and he nearly stumbled at the weight of it. He would have normally been self-conscious at the idea of anyone noticing but he realized that his current company wouldn't notice, nor would they care. They were a team, they each served their purpose professionally but they all served one personally too. They were a team, a working unit, with various functions like that of a body.

If they all made up the body then Hardison was the heart. No doubt about it. He was a nuisance on the surface, one who got under all of their skin and irritated them beyond words but he drove them. He pumped life into them with his infectious laugh. He fueled them with his funny quips and happy go lucky attitude. He won them over with his bright smile and his wide eyes. He inspired them with being the first one out of them all to see...really see, where they were headed, his keen perceptiveness that often went unnoticed clued in on just how tethered they had all become, long before any of the rest of them knew it themselves. He confounded them with his wisdom far beyond his twenty-four years, with his genius of limitless depth, and his skills that were vast and beyond what they ever imagined or would have the chance to know. He was the heart of them all. He was the little brother...the best friend he never asked for, but wouldn't have traded in for the world, despite various times of implying just that. He wished he told him that...told him how much he meant to him. He sent a quick prayer to whatever deity would take in an Alec Hardison, hoping that his friend knew.

If Hardison was the heart, than Parker was definitely the soul. She embodied their spirit, like their own little personal mascot. She solidified the need for them being a family. She was a walking paradox, both innocent and mischievous...wise and naïve...strong and fragile...oblivious and omniscient...together and yet so damn broken. She befuddled them with her own personal brand of crazy. She surprised them with her boundless skill and laser focus. She inspired them to be bold, to take risks, to live life to the fullest, and to literally jump at every possibility that life presents them. She was carefree and oddly innocent. He always felt the most protective over her, even more so then his real sister. And that's what Parker had become...his sister. The little sister that followed him around. The little sister that bounded at the heels of his feet with a bouncing blond ponytail while she poked her finger into one of his many wounds. The sister who he'd protect always. He hoped she knew that...that he'd always be protective of her, that he wouldn't have hurt her like so many had hurt her...that he didn't think she was crazy at all.

But then again he hadn't protected her. He hadn't protected either of them. He failed them both. And that fleeting thought that had ruminated in the back of his head since the minutes before the explosion, resurfaced to the forefront once again. It was his job to protect them...and he didn't. The errant thought that had been lingering in the back of his mind for the past thirty-two hours begin to expand. His failure. His going against his instincts. Their deaths. Not one death but two. Not one life but two lives. Not one loved one but two loved ones. And the thoughts of them permeated through. His anger, his anguish, his grief no longer remained coiled inside, buried deep down, rooted in his feet. It slowly built. He felt his body tremor, his fists clenched and unclenched. He felt the blood rush through his veins. He felt his pulse quicken and the heat encompass his body. He felt the hot prickle of stubborn tears burn in his eye sockets.

He felt the control he once prided himself in maintaining, break. Like a leash snapping, a coil breaking...and it almost conflicted with the fissure line tearing in his heart. Almost. Just two more casualties to the slapstick familial bond he formed. He found it strangely poetic that the world's best thieves were able to steal his heart, while robbing him of his self-preservation and his self-control too. The bottled up emotions that he fought so steadily against uncapping, finally won over the rest of him. A low rumble rose up from his belly, through his throat like a high tide. Seconds later he let out a roar that could rival the clapping of thunder during a deadly storm.

In his peripheral vision he noticed that he startled Sophie. She flinched and turned to face him, her vacant expression morphing into concern and fear. He would have rejoiced at the motion if he could. Sophie's face showing more than just emptiness was a welcome reprieve. Nate on the other hand promptly poured himself another two fingers and remained eerily unperturbed.

He glared around the room, his blue eyes darkening as his mind clouded over with visions of them. He let out another mighty roar before his fist collided with a wall. He ignored the sting of pain as plaster splattered around his fingertips...or rather he welcomed it. The physical pain hurt far less. The physical pain reminded him that he was still alive, and not a mere echo of what he used to be. He was alive...but they weren't.

He closed his eyes and gently massaged the bridge of his nose. He was alive, but they weren't.

Visions of them danced across his closed lids and the anger, pain, and guilt consumed him again. His fist collided with the wall again as the image of Parker's smile flashed through his mind. The many smiles of Parker, that crazed one that usually accompanied her maniacal laughter when she was about to dive off of a roof. The mischievous smirk, that lit up her face when she took on the task of safe cracking. He felt the chair beneath his firm grip snap as her low chuckles, and obnoxious snorts and giggles echoed in his mind. She always snorted or laughed at the most inopportune times, or whenever she was laughing at one of Hardison's stupid jokes that he secretly loved. He loved it best when she was annoyed and when she exhaled that puff of air and and let out one of her frustrated sighs that reminded him of a pissed off toddler...or when she scowled in that way the he took pride in because she had to have inadvertently picked it up from him. He felt the weight of the couch leave his fingertips as it fell over backwards under his force. He ignored the waves of fear radiating from Sophie and the blank expression that his adult tantrum was eliciting from Nate. He'd miss that too. Parker's blank stare. The way she appeared so expressionless and unreadable unless you looked closely into her eyes. He'd seen what she was really thinking sometimes when she'd scoot close on that same couch, using pokes as a ruse to be near him. To feel safe. He'd probably miss that most. The way she migrated towards him, the way she implicitly trusted him to protect her, the way she sought physical contact and affectionate gestures with him...with them, in the small amount of time it took for her to trust them. He always pretended to hate it, but he suspected that she knew he didn't.

He thought of Hardison as he hurled the remaining Penne across the room and watched it slide down the wall. Hardison hated Penne. He hated anything that wasn't hot pockets and gummy frogs and highly carbonated beverages that only enhanced his never ending energy. He was starting to turn him around though, turn him on to actual food that didn't take three minutes or less to heat up in a microwave. He chuckled darkly, which seemed to startle Sophie even further as a little squeak escaped her lips. He was even turning him onto fishing. He crossed the room and slammed his palms against the window pane and let out a frustrated growl. The sunset with all it's shades of burnt oranges and deep purples spread across the Boston sky. It hardly seemed fair that such a beautiful sunset could still happen when they weren't there. It made him think of Hardison's smile, bright like the sun, luminescent and infectious. Hardison had a way of making those around him feel good...even if he never told him that. Parker's smiles were rare and came in various forms. Hardison's smiles were frequent...a constant, in their world of inevitable change. They were as predictable as his witty remarks, his hearty laughs, his wide-eyed expressions, and his penchant for playing computer games while simultaneously working the feeds when they were on a con.

He thought of bro-hugs and personalized handshakes that Hardsion had somehow coaxed him into without him realizing it until it had already been ingrained and in practice. He thought of fishing trips, and game nights, and picking up girls at McRory's. He thought of defense training, coffee trips, and their faux arguments and snark offs. He thought of losing his best friend; he clamped strong, calloused hands around the edge of the coffee table, ready to turn it upward but then...he stopped. He noticed the opened laptop resting on it's surface, the half empty bottle of orange soda sitting beside it. An empty bowl of cereal sitting across from that. He thought of them before the con, Hardison doing data checks and refueling himself with that godawful orange crap and Parker smirking beside him with her bowl of Fruity Pebbles.

He couldn't breathe.

He felt the anger in him finally fizzle out and he made his way to the door with a fierce determination to get the hell out of there. He couldn't stay there anymore. He couldn't think of them anymore. His hand wrapped around the doorknob when an echo of a voice broke through.

"Please don't go, Eliot," Sophie whispered.

He turned to face her, the shell of what she used to be, as she sat upright in the arm chair and her glassy gaze met his. She must have been crying again while he was being strangled by memories and pitching a fit. She was hurting. She lost them both, and unlike Nate she didn't know first hand what it was like to lose kids...but she just lost her kids, her annoying pseudo-son and Parker, her protege, the daughter she never had. She wouldn't last if he left too. He knew she thought of them as a packaged deal, he, Hardison, and Parker. She couldn't lose him too. His hand slipped from the doorknob and he took a slow step towards her, a twinge of regret hitting him as she reflexively flinched. Her body telling her to be cautious and perhaps fearful of the raging man before her.

"We..." she let out a shaky voice, and all he could think was that he never seen the Grifter with such a lack of control...a lack of composure. But then again, he had clearly lost both too.

" Please don't leave. W-we should stay together, yeah? We're a family. Family should stick together." She met his steely gaze with imploring eyes and he had to turn away. She was giving him that same desperate look that she gave him hours before.

"Look around Sophie, we're not a family anymore!" He hissed as he waved around the room with his hand. He gestured towards Nate, who was perched on the barstool and staring out the window, utterly lost.

Her anguished expression was the only thing that kept him from continuing. He caved into her pain and not wanting to contribute any further to it, and he sat gingerly on the edge of the coffee table and ran his fingers through his hair. They weren't a family anymore. He wanted to tell her as much. Two gaping voids were left in their "family". The two people who were the soul purpose of them being considered a family were gone. He wanted to tell her that, her and Nate. Tell them that Hardison and Parker were the only reasons he ever stayed, because they needed him more than Nate and Sophie ever did.

"We're still a family." She said firmly, quietly, as if she were trying to convince herself. "We shouldn't leave each other right now."

He barked out a bitter laugh as he faced her with irritation and disbelief, "As opposed to when you left before? Or when Nate left?" He watched as she bristled uncomfortably under his accusation. Nate's attention was caught, as he silently turned to face the Grifter and the Hitter and looked on. "Maybe it's best if I go."

"Eliot," Nate started, his voice thick with Scotch and sealed tears. "I-we can't..." he fell silent for a bit, as the unspoken 'I can't lose you too' lingered in the air. "It's not your fault Eliot. There was nothing you could do."

He felt the burst of anger flare up in him again as Nate's words, his drunken, slurred words, slapped him across the face. They were preposterous.

"Don't. Say. That." he ground out through clenched teeth as he glared at Nate fiercely. "It's my job to-"

"It's not your fault" Nate murmured again.

"It's my job to protect them-"

"Eliot, you couldn't do anything..."

"Protect them from the bad guys-" he shouted.

"There was nothing else you could do..."

"Protect them from the job-"

"Eliot," Nate's placating voice rose to match his. "It's not your-"

"Protect them from you!"

He stood before Nate his chest heaving up and down, his teeth clenched, face red hot. He watched as Nate recoiled from the accusatory words. His placid face now twisted in anguish as he stared at the Hitter and stumbled back as if he had been physically hit. Somewhere deep down Eliot wanted to take the words back. He didn't regret the words themselves. It was a truth, his truth and as far as he was concerned it was fact, but he regretted the hurt they caused.

"Oh," Nate breathed out after the long silence. "I see."

He watched the crestfallen expression on his friend's face, as Nate made his way back to the counter-top to retrieve his glass of Scotch. He contemplated taking another gulp but seemed to figure that it wouldn't help. For once he pushed it aside. He turned back around to face Eliot his face indiscernible.

"Eliot!" Sophie leveled him with a glare to coincide with her verbal reprimand. The shock of his statements wearing off and finally catching up to her. "That wasn't fair."

He pursed his lips and glared at them both. Sure, it wasn't fair but it didn't make it wrong. He always knew he'd leave on his own terms. He said he'd leave their crew when he decided. He decided early on that he'd stay as long as Hardison and Parker hung around. He knew that both kids had a deep longing to belong to something, because neither of them ever belonged to anything or anyone before. He knew that as a result they would stick with Nate until the bitter end...even if it was to their detriment. He also knew that at the rate Nate was going it would very well be to Hardison and Parker's detriment. They were in too deep to ever turn away, with the loyalty and drive of real children with their parents. And Nate was entirely too focused for his own good. He was blinded by the end game, by succeeding and it was at all of their expense. He knew that Nate ,when overly focused, only seem them as weapons in his own arsenal, tools in his tool belt...not as people. Nate played high stakes and risked it all, including the people he'd come to care about...and he pushed too hard. He went too far. And it was Eliot's job to clean up along the way,to have his back, to have all of their backs. It was his job to be the voice of reason, and that was what made his job a never ending one. Protecting them from everything else was easiest. His hardest job was always protecting them from Nate's stubbornness, intense focus, fearlessness. His hardest job was protecting them from Nate.

"You don't think..." Nate's broken voice broke through the tension. "I know it's my fault. I screwed up I..."

"Nate," Sophie whispered, a fresh wave of tears starting.

Nate ignored Sophie, taking staggered steps towards Eliot. "I screwed up...b-but I didn't know. I didn't..." his voice broke off.

He couldn't take the broken look in Nate's eyes. "I know." He said silently, as he watched the older man practically crumble before him.

"I-I...I'm sorry," Nate let out a choked sob. "I didn't know..I couldn't help them. I c-couldn't save them. Any of them...I'm so sorry."

"I know," He responded quietly, his heart clenching at Nate's pain. Nate's reminder of being helpless while losing three kids.

He reached out to squeeze Nate's shoulder, glossy eyes meeting the reddened eyes of Nate for a brief second, before guiding him over to the couch. He silently put it upright and watched the man sink down into the sofa. Sophie let out a sigh and her eyes briefly met his as she gave him a little nod. She pulled her feet up into the armchair and tucked her knees beneath her chin. It was such a quintessentially Parker thing to do. He didn't know if he wanted to laugh or cry.

He cast a glance at the laptop and bowl on the table before walking towards the window to look out again. They left pieces of themselves everywhere. Little reminders everywhere he turned. He stayed for them, but with a glance over his broad shoulder at an irrevocably broken Sophie and a drunk Nate, he knew he'd have to stay for them now. He could almost hear Hardison laughing and making a comment about how "big, bad Eliot wuvs us," or something along the lines of how the Hacker knew Eliot couldn't stay away. The Hacker's contagious laugh echoed through his head and an involuntary smile spread across his face. It was so natural and clear that he took it as a sign that he was undoubtedly going insane.

"Oh my- what the heck happen in here?" Hardison inquired as he trudged through the door and closed it behind him. Parker was on his back, arms and legs wrapped around him like a child being piggy-backed by her father. Her face was impossibly close to Hardison's and the Hacker was seemingly enjoying it.

He felt his mouth open slightly in shock upon the Hacker and Thief entering the room. Hardison scanned the room with assessing eyes, the dirty foot tracks covering the floor, the overturned furniture, the holes in the walls, and broken pieces of dishes scattered about the floor. The pasta sauce staining the walls really caught his attention, as his eyes widened like saucers before he shook his head in disbelief.

"That's just nasty," he caught Nate's surprised look before going on. "Nate, I had nothing to do with that. I swear," he held his hands up for effect and bristled when Parker giggle-snorted in his ear.

"Parker? Hardison?" Sophie's voice was small gasp of air, as the shock spread across her face. "Y-you're alive!You..."

She didn't register the perplexed expressions on the two kids' faces as she rushed up to them and wrapped them in her embrace. She dissolved into sobs and relieved laughter as she squeezed them tightly. Recognition of their presumed fate appeared in Hardison's eyes. He finally caught up to what the others must have assumed, and he carefully wrapped his arm around her, gingerly patting her on the back.

"What's with her?" Parker muttered into Hardison's ear. Her brow knit together in confusion and mild discomfort as she felt herself being squeezed even tighter. She was still perched on Hardison's back, and Sophie's head was somehow wedged between her chin and Hardison's shoulder, as the older woman rotated between sobs and laughs.

"Shh, Parker," Hardison murmured quietly as he continued to soothingly pat Sophie's back, his wide eyes meeting the still shocked ones of Nate.

"You...uhh," Nate stood from his spot on the sofa and made his way over to the huddled bunch. "You guys sh..." he cleared his throat and sniffed. " You guys shoulda called," Nate posed it as a question as he nodded at the Hacker.

"We did actually. We called a few times and then we figured that when no one was picking up that you guys must have lost your phones or something in the..." Hardison's voice trailed off, unable to finish, and Sophie slipped out of his arms and collapsed inelegantly on the sofa with a dazed smile and a stream of tears.

"Yeah..." Nate nodded, his voice trailing off with a strangled noise that sounded suspiciously close to a cry.

Nate shuffled towards the Hacker and Thief awkwardly and stared intently at them with beady blue eyes. He extended his hand out and rested it on the Hacker's shoulder, affectionately giving the young man's shoulder a squeeze and a curt nod. The Hacker nodded back in quiet understanding, before Nate turned to Parker and gave her a watery smile, his palm reaching out to cup her face for a second before giving her a quick hair tousle.

"It's..uhh, it's good having you back. It's good having you guys back in one piece," Nate mumbled in a choked voice. "Well relatively one piece," he amended as he noted the ace bandage wrapped around Parker's ankle. He sunk down into the couch next to Sophie and grabbed the Grifter's hand.

"And you guys call me weird," Parker snorted as she wiggled around on Hardison's back.

"Girl, you gotta stop doing that," Hardison muttered as she continued to shift around.

"Well my leg hurts, and nobody's telling me what's going on," she pouted. "You can let me down now."

Hardison rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh, "Easy Park, I will. Don't get your undies all in a bunch!"

"I don't wear underwear," she responded flippantly with a shrug, as if it were perfectly acceptable.

"Ok-ay...I-I don't even know how to respond to that," the Hacker muttered with a bug eyed expression as he eased Parker down and settled for wrapping his arm around her waist for support. She merely rolled her eyes at him and scoffed as she draped her arm around his shoulders and leaned into him.

"Eliot, you need to look at my ankle," Parker stated flatly, finally facing him.

He watched the antics between the two unfold before him with awe and disbelief. They were alive. They had survived and were suddenly directly in front of him with those same facial expressions that had been haunting him for the past thirty-two hours. He bit his lip and glared at them with red-rimmed eyes, noting how the room had went silent and everyone was staring intently back at him.

"Why are Eliot's eyes leaking?" Parker whispered loudly to Hardison, as she peered at Eliot, her head canted to the side and lips pursed.

"He's crying, Parker." Hardison murmured softly, and for once Eliot didn't hear a trace of the Hacker's usual humor or teasing tone. His eyes, sad and serious, met Eliot's as he rolled his lips between his teeth and he gave the Hitter a small nod.

"That's silly, Eliot doesn't cry," Parker snorted, as her eyes drifted away from Hardison's and she stared at Eliot, shaking her head and giving him that Parker-esque smirk.

He felt a bubble of some strange emotion build up in his chest and he gurgled out a bark of a laugh, his chest heaving and breath constricting as he let out strangled chuckles, and tried to ignore his blurred vision, as tears gathered in the corners of his eyes and clouded his line of vision. He yanked Parker to him, burying her into his broad chest roughly, his hand firmly planted against the back of her blonde head, as tendrils of her hair brushed against his face. She let out a muffled yelp that he ignored and he squeezed her a bit tighter than he should have and relished the warmth of her body against his. He buried his head into her hair briefly and inhaled the scent that was quintessentially Parker, a blend of Vanilla and Jasmine.

He closed his eyes for a few seconds and just tried to breathe. He continued to squeeze her tight, ignoring her muffled protests, before opening his eyes, peering over her blonde hair and meeting the somber eyes of his best friend. The Hacker barely managed a yelp of his own as Eliot's broad arm roughly yanked the skinny Hacker forward and pulled him into a side embrace. He held them both for a while, not wanting to break away as he tried to contain the cocktail of emotions that seemed to be bubbling up inside of him.

"Dammit Hardison," he growled with a lack of heat and anger, as he pulled back from the two and glared at the Hacker, his hand still clutching the younger man's shoulder. "You should have tried harder to...call, or something," he scowled at the man and sniffed, clearing his throat in an attempt to erase anymore signs of tears.

"Sorry man," the Hacker muttered quietly. He let the tension between them all simmer down before he flashed his brilliant smile and went for his trademark quips. "You totally gave me a bro-hug, man!"

"Shut up, Hardison!" Eliot grimaced a hint of a smile softening his usual scowl.

"Nuh-uh, man. You totally just gave me a bro-hug right now!" His grin widened as he ignored Eliot's low grumble. "Eliot totally missed us!"

"Awww, you missed us Sparky?" Parker asked as she canted her head to the side and poked Eliot in the chest and smirked.

He grunted his response, refusing to directly answer the question. "C'mon Darlin' lemme have a look at that ankle."

Parker shrugged as he gently pulled her to his side and helped her hobble over to the couch. He glared at Sophie and Nate until both moved out of the way, Sophie back to the armchair and Nate back to his mini-bar for a celebratory drink.

"Hey El, man I see you uh...fed the wall and everything, but ya think you can make something for us? I mean, you know...it was a rough few hours and we're kinda hungry." The Hacker chuckled nervously, scratching at the back of his head as he stared at Eliot and Parker's retreating form and waited for a response.

For his part, he growled out an irritated response and fought back a relieved laugh as he heard the Hacker mumbling about things never changing and once again not being appreciated. His lips curled up in a small smile as he went to work properly bandaging up Parker's ankle. He glanced up at her and she gave him one of her knowing looks. Wiser than any of them ever gave her credit for. He quickly dropped his smile and scowled at her, and she smirked back at him in response. He shook his head and levered himself from the couch, tugging the end of her blonde ponytail as he passed her, before clomping towards the kitchen and barking out orders to newly dubbed sous-chef Hardison. If the kid wanted food he'd damn sure have to help prepare it.