Sophie woke alone in the dark. She knew she was alone because the room felt empty, and the only sound was a soft, rhythmic beeping. The darkness was so deep that she doubted there were windows, and her stomach clenched slightly. Where was she?
Her body ached, and there was a stabbing pain in her head. She knew there was something she should remember, but everything after their last team meeting was a blank. Searching her memory made her head hurt worse, so she stopped trying to figure out what had happened.
"Nate?" she whispered. Her voice cracked on the word, and she started to cough. When she brought her hand up to cover her mouth, something softly ghosted over her skin, and she realized it was connected to her arm. The clenching in her stomach became real fear as she used her other hand to investigate. What appeared to be tubes or wires crossed her body, connected in various places.
"Nate?" she said again. "Say something. Somebody please say something."
Nobody answered. She had to get out of there. Somehow.
Sophie shifted to explore whatever held her. There was a mattress beneath her, and her elbow connected with hard plastic on one side. Frowning, she ran her fingers over it, discovering it was some sort of bed rail. She noticed a faint scent to the air, one of antiseptic and sickness and realized she wasn't being held in someone's windowless basement. She was in a hospital bed. Obviously, something had gone really wrong.
Reaching up to brush her ear, she discovered her bud was gone. She also encountered a sore spot that made her wince. It felt like a scrape.
Clearing her throat, which was still too dry, Sophie called, "Is anybody there?"
There was no answer to her call, and she wondered why she was alone in the dark. Sophie didn't like the dark. There were too many things that could be lurking in it, and people were hard to read. It made her feel vulnerable. How could you tell what someone's deepest desire was if you couldn't see his eyes?
When she heard the door open, she was tense and wary.
"You're awake?" a voice asked. It was a perfectly pleasant male voice.
"Are you a doctor?" she asked. "Why are you keeping me in the dark?"
"I'm Doctor Thatcher. Do you remember why you're here?"
Once more, Sophie searched her memory. It didn't hurt as much, but her mind was still blank. "No. I'm sorry."
"There was an explosion."
"An explosion?" That was something she definitely should have been able to remember. "Is that why I'm in the dark?"
There was a weighted pause, one that made goosebumps prickle on her skin.
"I'm sorry, Sophie."
"Sorry for what?"
He started explaining something to her in technical terms that her muddled mind didn't quite understand. She tried to listen carefully, but her thoughts wandered, even though she knew what he was saying was important. As he began to wind down, she grasped onto something and held on. With growing horror, it dawned on her what his whole long winded speech was saying.
"Do you mean...?"
"That you were in a terrible explosion, and somehow you survived. Miraculously, you came away with only scrapes, bruises, minor burns, and a few stitches..."
"But without my sight," she said tightly.
"But without your sight," he agreed. "This will be a difficult adjustment; you will have to learn to live a whole new way, but you will live."
Sophie absorbed this quietly, wondering if it would be worth living in a world of perpetual darkness. The thought was terrifying. The magnitude of what that would mean was so overwhelming that she pushed the thoughts away. Forcing all of her fear into the back of her mind, she asked, "How long have I been here?"
"Four days. You've been in and out of consciousness since then, and this is the first time you've been lucid."
A sudden thought turned her blood to ice, and her chest felt tight. "Was anyone else hurt in the explosion?"
"You were alone in the building. Your brother wanted me to assure you of that."
"My brother?" She turned her face towards him, puzzled.
"He's been here every day with your sister and her husband."
Sophie felt tension she hadn't even been aware of drain from her body. "Are they here now?"
"Let me do a quick examination, and then I'll go check."
She nodded and meekly waited while he checked her vitals and poked and prodded her. When he was finished, he said, "Everything looks fine."
"I wouldn't know," she replied softly.
There was a brief touch on her shoulder. "You'll figure this out. Trust yourself."
"I'll go see if your family is here."
"Do they know...?"
"They've been kept informed."
At least she didn't have to tell them.
When the doctor left the room, Sophie took several deep, calming breaths to prepare herself. She wanted to show a positive face to the others. Three others. Was Nate the one missing?
"Sophie!" Parker announced her presence loudly. "You're awake."
"Yes, Parker. I'm awake."
"You're not going to say anything crazy, are you?"
"The last time we were here, you were pretty heavily medicated," Eliot told her. His gruff voice was softer than usual, and she could hear his concern.
"I don't remember."
"I'm not surprised."
"How do you feel?" Parker suddenly sounded very close, and her breath brushed across Sophie's face. The younger woman had been chewing gum, and the scent was sharp and minty.
"How do I look?"
"Parker!" Eliot snapped.
Sophie laughed softly, grateful that Parker was her normal tactless, honest self.
"Well, she's got cuts and scrapes on her face, and her hair is messy."
Sophie felt her good humour fade. "What happened?"
"We screwed up," Hardison said. "Pure and simple."
"How? What did we do wrong?"
"You don't remember?" This was Eliot.
"Nothing after the briefing."
"I thought you'd died again." Parker settled beside her on the bed. "For good this time."
"When I found out he'd rigged the building to blow, I was too far away to get to you in time," Eliot said tightly.
"We warned you just a little too late." Hardison was subdued. "You didn't get out fast enough. We should have been faster."
"You're blaming yourselves? We all know the risks."
"It's my job to take the hits," Eliot growled. "No excuses."
"This isn't your fault." When he didn't respond, she added, "Eliot."
She could feel his glare.
"Are you going to be able to come on jobs with us now?" Parker asked suddenly.
"I don't think so, Parker."
"But you're going to be okay, right?"
Sophie wasn't sure about that so she lied. "I'm going to be fine."
"But you can't see."
Hearing the words come out of Parker's mouth so starkly brought the reality crashing down. Sophie felt her chest tighten and panic start to claw at her throat. This darkness was her new normal. Every day, she was going to wake up to it, and every night she'd go to sleep with it. Continuous. Unrelenting. Only a lifetime of practice allowed her to keep these thoughts from her face, but her breath became short and her forehead became damp.
"Parker." Eliot spoke her name as a warning.
"Yes," Sophie forced out, "it's true."
Hardison had been uncharacteristically quiet through the whole visit, and she wished she could see his expression most of all. He was sensitive and took things to heart more than the others. Sophie swallowed down her panic to feel in private because she didn't want to add to anyone's guilt, especially his.
"And I can always call you when I need help not stabbing somebody, right?" Parker continued.
"You can always call me," Sophie assured her.
"Okay, guys, that's enough," Eliot said firmly. "Sophie just woke up. She doesn't need any more chatter. Let's let her have some time to herself."
The mattress shifted as Parker stood up. "The doctor said if you do well on your tests you can come home tomorrow."
"Yup. Bye, Sophie."
Sophie almost had to bite her tongue to keep from asking about Nate. "Bye, Parker."
There was a large, warm hand on her arm briefly. Hardison mumbled, "I'm sorry. I shoulda known."
He moved away before she could answer. Footsteps went across the room, but she could still feel someone there with her.
"I'll be back to get you."
"And do what with me?" She had a sudden flash of her sitting in her living room afraid to move.
"Don't worry about it."
He left without saying another word. Sophie sat there after he'd gone, doing exactly what he'd told her not to do.
“We were visiting Sophie,” Parker told him, oblivious to the flash of anger that went over Nate's face.
As Eliot joined Parker at the table, he studied Nate. Nate's face was flushed and bloated, his eyes red rimmed and bruised looking. Since Sophie's accident, he'd been drinking more heavily than usual, and anger had been constantly simmering in his eyes. He'd ordered them not to talk about Sophie, but, so far, none of them had listened.
“Hardison, did you at least look up the information I asked for?”
“Sure.” Hardison eyed him warily as he moved across the room.
“So, why don't we get on with the briefing?”
“Maybe we should do this tomorrow,” Eliot suggested, though he knew chances were Nate would be no better the next day.
“Why? Why is that, Eliot?”
Eliot considered confronting him but found he didn't have the strength, so he just looked away.
“Okay.” Nate clapped his hands. “Diamondback Industries. Do your thing, Hardison.”
“This doesn't feel right without Sophie,” Parker complained.
“We've worked without Sophie before.” The answer was short and tight.
“I didn't like it then, either.”
“Sophie won't be back. Adapt, Parker.”
“Like you're adapting,” Eliot ground out.
“If you don't like the...”
“Is anybody going to listen to this thing?” Hardison broke in. “If not, I'm going home.”
Nate glared at Eliot and waved his hand. “Go ahead, Hardison.”
In the minutes that followed, Eliot paid more attention to Nate than he did to Hardison. The man was falling apart at the seams, and Eliot was waiting for pieces of him to go flying everywhere. He hoped it wouldn't be in the middle of a job. At one time, he would have said it was self-interest that made him worry, but not anymore. The fact was, he cared about Sophie and he cared about Nate, and he couldn't see how any of this could turn out well. Guilt twisted his guts because he'd been too late. He should have been the one in that hospital bed. No matter what Sophie said, the explosion and its consequences rested right there on his shoulders.
No matter how much alcohol passed his lips, he couldn't seem to drown out the sound of Hardison yelling frantically for Sophie to get out of the building. He remembered yelling himself, her name over and over, willing her to answer after the blast so loud it was almost deafening. He heard it when he was awake; he heard it when he was asleep. It didn't matter how drunk he got, it never went away.
He hadn't been in to see her. It would be more than he could bear to see what his screw up had done to her. She'd warned him over and over that someday he'd get someone hurt, and he'd laughed in her face. He wasn't laughing now.
He wasn't even drinking.
Nate scowled and picked up the glass. Angrily, he threw it against the wall. The noise as it shattered seemed to get inside him, piercing his chest to the heart.
Loving him was a curse. When people loved him, they got hurt, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do to prevent it. Sam. Maggie. Sophie.
Guilt wasn't a new feeling for him, but that didn't make it hurt any less. How could he face Sophie knowing how terribly he'd failed her? She deserved better than the life he'd given her over the past three years. Better than the explosion. Better than him. They all deserved better than him.
Nate wasn't much of a crier, not even when he was drunk, but he felt tears start to fall down his cheeks as he stumbled to the stairs. The lump in his throat had grown so large it seemed to be strangling him. He wasn't even sure he could make it up to his bed to sleep everything off. It was more likely he'd trip and fall down the stairs. Maybe he'd be lucky and break his neck.
They'd all be better off.
It was clean and super modern, as he'd expected, with priceless artwork on the walls and a kitchen that showed almost no signs of wear.
The rooms reflected Sophie's sophisticated and elegant beauty. Understated but in a way that was more effective than any flaunting of wealth. He could see her there surrounded by all that elegance, and it made him sad to know it would all have to change.
Eliot placed the things in his hand on her coffee table—antique and probably worth enough to put a kid through med school—so he could go to her bedroom and get to work.
He paused and looked down, swallowing hard at the contrast of her new life verses her old. Doctor Thatcher had sent Eliot to the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. They'd given him a White Cane—temporarily until she could be measured for a permanent one—and information on their independent living services and rehabilitation therapy. They'd also given him a bunch of brochures. It was all pretty overwhelming.
Turning away, he wondered if he'd made the right decision. He hadn't told Sophie, but with Nate unable to even hear her name and no clue about her family or friends—except Tara, whom he didn't trust—Eliot had been the one to sign the papers for Sophie's release. Since he was on record as her brother, it had been easy to accept the responsibility of caregiver until Sophie could live on her own. He'd done this for several reasons, the least of which was the lack of options. The fact that he was at fault weighed heavily into the decision; he always paid his debts. Besides, this was Sophie, and he'd do a lot more than take her into his home to keep her safe if she needed him. With this firmly in mind, he shrugged off his doubts and started down the hallway to do what needed to be done.
Since Doctor Thatcher had mentioned that her brother was coming to get her, she assumed Eliot was keeping his promise. She had no idea what would happen after that. She could hire someone to come stay with her, she supposed, but the thought of a stranger in her space when she was so vulnerable made her skin crawl. It was going to be hard enough interacting with the people she knew.
The door opened and someone came in. Sophie realized she recognized the way he walked and the way he smelled. She suddenly didn't feel quite so helpless.
“Hey, you ready?”
She wondered if he'd take no for an answer.
“I don't know. Are my clothes on backwards?” She meant that as a joke. The nurse had helped her dress and announced her 'pretty as a picture'. Considering the pictures Sophie was used to working with, she highly doubted it.
“You look fine.”
That was considerably less than 'pretty as a picture', but she'd take it.
“Okay, take me home.” She got to her feet and suddenly felt lost.
“Yeah, about that. You're coming home with me.”
“Did you think I was going to drop you off at your apartment and drive away?”
“To be honest, yes.”
“Well, you thought wrong. You can come stay with me until you can make it on your own.”
“Don't argue with me, Soph.”
If she hadn't felt so lost, she might have continued to protest. For today, she wanted to be taken care of. She'd worry about being a burden later.
“I've got a wheelchair waiting outside the door. Hospital policy. We'll get you down to the car, and then we'll go from there.”
Sophie thought of his car and sighed.
“What is it?”
“Now I'll never get to drive it.”
He was silent for a minute, and Sophie wondered what he was thinking.
“Tell you what,” he said eventually. “Once you learn to go to the store and buy something all by yourself, I'll let you drive.”
“I'm serious. We'll head out of town and rent a field. I know a guy.”
“You're really serious?”
“I give you my word.”
Sophie swallowed a sudden lump in her throat. “Let's get out of here.”
His hand was suddenly on her elbow, and he guided her to the door. He was warm and solid against her, anchoring her to a world that had seemed so far away just a minute before.
“Don't let go,” she said suddenly.
His hand tightened. “I'm here as long as you need me.”