A/N: This is the second time I've been distracted from writing The Stubborn Oneshot...maybe the third time will be the charm. For now, I offer my first foray into Nate's mind. Because I can't stay away from the angst, apparently. Rated T for some language, not excessive.

Nate rolled onto his side, punched his pillow a few times, tucked the blanket under his chin, tried to convince his overactive mind to shut down for at least a few hours. Five minutes later, he was shoving the covers off, sitting up, and running his hands through touseled hair. Sleep eluded him, and he knew exactly why.

This time of year was not good for him. The anniversary of Sam's death loomed close and, just over a year after, his divorce from Maggie. If those dates were not bad enough, today's job had thrown him a sucker punch. It hadn't been about suffering children or happy families at their rope's end, two triggers always sure to push him, and by extension his team, to the razor's edge...but it had hit closer to home than he cared to admit to himself.

Damn it.

He pushed off from the bed, made his way down the hall to the spiral staircase. He was not above admitting to the desire to drown the pain and whirling thoughts in mind-numbing alcohol; drink himself into a pleasant oblivion for at least a few hours, until the rest of the team showed up to invade his privacy and misery. Again.

He reached the bottom stair and had to grab for the railing as his heart lurched to a stop, then immediately took off at a full-out gallop. Good thing the old ticker's healthy. There was a figure seated on his couch, small and nearly invisible but for the filtered city light glinting off pale gold hair. This was what, the forty-sixth, forty-seventh time she had scared the crap out of him since they started working together?

Nate took a deep breath and did his best to employ Eliot's tactic of not showing his surprise, though his voice croaked just a bit. "Parker. What are you doing here?"

The thief sitting crosslegged on his couch in the dark shrugged slightly, but didn't move otherwise. She seemed to be staring down at something in her lap, and her reply was quiet and subdued. Not at all like her. "Couldn't sleep."

Nate turned toward his kitchen. "So you decided to...not sleep...here."

From the kitchen, Nate could only see the back of her head, but it looked like she gave another half-shrug. He reached for the cabinet where he always kept a bottle just in case.

Parker's voice, when it came again, was barely above a whisper, but in the deep black silence of his apartment, it carried like a shout. "You said you'd die to protect me." That stopped Nate cold. Crap. This was going to require something stronger than his usual. Nate closed the cabinet, and plugged in his coffee maker instead. Jet fuel it is, then.

So far, Parker's words had been delivered in that neutral inflection that outsiders sometimes read as too flat, or just a little off, and only served to convince them that something is wrong with this girl. But Parker had blossomed with the team, and showed so much more of herself to them now. Still, Nate didn't quite recognize the tones in Parker's next sentence. There was confusion, but he thought he caught a hint of...awe...in there as well.

"No one ever said that about me before."

Feeling more than a little uncomfortable now, Nate asked in the best impassive, imperious, voice he could muster in the middle of the night, "Isn't this something you usually talk to Sophie about?" Or Hardison, hell, even Eliot would be better than me at this! Nate opened the cabinet where he kept his coffee, and found himself staring instead at Sophie's stash of tea. Hmm. What Would Sophie Do? He selected chamomile. Non-caffeinated, calming. He filled Sophie's flowery teapot, and set it on a high flame, then unplugged his coffee maker.

Nate waited in the kitchen while the water heated, wondering if he should call Sophie to come over. He really wanted to pass this off to her, get himself a drink or ten and go back to bed. Parker didn't speak again, but the silence was heavy. Expectant. Nate didn't want to be the one to break it. He sat at the breakfast bar, head braced on hand, elbow on the counter, and tried to avoid thinking about the bottle in his cabinet. When the water was ready, he steeped two cups of tea. A jar of honey from last weekend's farmer's market caught his eye. Eliot's. He added a big dollop to Parker's cup.

Nate carried the two mugs back to the sitting area and set Parker's on the coffee table in front of her. He finally got a good look at the girl: hair disheveled from bed, dressed in sweats looser than she usually wore on jobs. She was hugging that stuffed rabbit he remembered seeing on her bed in the warehouse, its head tucked up under her chin. In the dark, broken only by what light from street lamps reached through the bars of his window blinds, Nate could barely make out the shape of something else clutched in her hands. He thought it could have been a pair of small framed pictures, their glass barely catching the light. As he lowered himself into the armchair near her end of the couch, Nate tried to make out her face in the darkness.

Parker never once looked up at him, just stared down at the pictures, but after a few moments she finally broke the silence. "He was good to me, you know? Archie...he never hurt me, if that's what you were thinking..." Admittedly, that thought had crossed Nate's mind, but Leech hadn't given off that vibe when he spoke of Parker. Nate knew Eliot hadn't picked up on anything like that either, or he would have killed the man, painfully and slowly, right there on the rooftop.

Parker hugged the rabbit tighter. "You said you both would have died for me. Maybe...I don't know if he would have. He never said anything like that; I wasn't his real family." Nate sipped his tea, Parker's sat untouched on the table.

"I'm not your real family, either. But Hardison says we're all family. He gave me these just because he thought they'd make me happy. No other reason." The pictures shifted a little, and Nate caught sight of a young couple, just married and all smiles, with the future, the whole world, ahead of them. His heart clenched a little.

"I think...they loved me like that. I remember being happy, before the night they didn't come home." Nate caught the slightest hitch in Parker's words, a slight sniffle, then she was silent again. She shifted the other picture to the forefront: a smiling young boy, and passed a hand lightly, reverently, across the glass.

"I was mad when he died. So mad...I wished it was me, and for a long time I didn't know why I wished that. I think now I understand." This was more than Parker ever revealed to anyone about herself, or her past, and Nate was hesitant to say anything, even to move, lest he break the spell that had seemed to settle over them in the dark of the apartment. But Parker seemed content to be the only one talking, so Nate settled back in his chair and stopped thinking about calling Sophie in to rescue him.

Parker finally placed the pictures carefully on the couch cushion to her side, then shifted so her legs were drawn up next to her, and she leaned on the arm of the couch. Still hugging her rabbit close, she finally reached for her mug of tea, wrapping her hands tight around it, as if to ward off a chill.

"Sophie traded the little naked man for me...that's kind of like dying. For someone like her. And Eliot. He's always fussing over us." Nate tried hard not to choke at the image that brought to his mind.

"Eliot would die for any of us. He says it all the time." Parker still didn't look at him, hadn't met his eyes at all since he stumbled down the stairs earlier. It was almost like he was nothing but a wraith to her tonight. Still, she seemed to sense his incredulity. "He says it every time in the way he fights...and when he makes us food." Parker sipped at her tea.

"And you went to jail, to protect all of us. And you said...we were your family." Nate got a sinking feeling in his gut at the sudden turn into personal territory. He had surprised even himself by giving voice to those feelings on the deck of the Maltese Falcon. But he had meant it. Nate Ford never said anything he didn't mean one hundred percent. And, outside of cons, he really wasn't very good at tact. More than once, that combination had landed him in "asshole" territory.

And now, the bastard that he fully admitted lived within him, and who he fully embraced much too often, wanted to disabuse her of the notion of him as family, push her away, get her to just go home and leave him to wallow in his own misery in peace. Because all of this family talk tonight was just too much, too raw and painful. He wanted to lash out at Parker. And if he had hit the bottle tonight instead of making tea, he just might have done that.

But the part of him who had bristled at Leech's words You know Parker. You know she wouldn't fit in. God, she doesn't fit in anywhere wanted nothing more than to reassure the sad, lonely little girl. Hold her tight, like a father should, without fear as to whether she'd try to stab him, and never let her go. He settled for remaining silent. Leech, I might be the bigger asshole, but at least I'm not blind.

It was obvious Leech was important to Parker, and so Nate had kept any further opinions about the man's contribution toward Parker's self-worth to himself. He had only asked lightly about her conversation with the man, and she had answered just as lightly. But as he drove her back to her warehouse, she had grown quiet and pensive. She hadn't wanted to talk, and he had been lost in his own thoughts, scattered words running through his mind.

God, she doesn't fit in anywhere.

They would've hurt you or your family. Y-your real family.

Parker, this is not what I taught you.

This is what we do.

...she was broken. You understand that?

You've killed her!

She was perfect. You ruined her.

I made her unique. What is she now?

What I do know is that we'd both die to protect her.

I'm not alone now.

I'm not alone now. Parker went back for the canister, because she knew it was the right thing to do, because she knew she had backup.

"I'm not alone now." Parker's whisper in the present jolted Nate from his thoughts. "And neither are you."

It took Nate a moment to realize she had addressed him directly. Parker had finished her tea and slid down a little on the couch, pillowing her head on the arm, stuffed rabbit still held close. She had directed that statement to him, but didn't seem to be awaiting an answer. Her eyes were already closed.

Nate had said barely a word to Parker tonight and yet, he had somehow managed to do something right. Maybe this was why she hadn't gone to Sophie. She hadn't wanted to be led through this twisting path of unfamiliar feelings and emotions. She had needed to find her own way through the strange angles and broken shards in her mind and heart. All she had needed was a sounding board.

Nate rose and carefully collected the framed pictures from the couch and tucked them safely into the bag on the floor that he hadn't noticed before now. He draped the throw from the back of the couch over her, trying to remember if he had ever seen Parker sleep in the presence of the team before tonight.

He collected the mugs and took them to the sink before turning for the stairs. Hand on the railing, Nate paused and looked back at Parker's still form. He couldn't stop the images that flitted through his mind; nights spent sitting vigil over Sam in his sickness, sometimes holding hands with Maggie, other times alone, when he insisted she get some rest of her own. Reluctantly, Nate abandoned the stairs, and returned to the armchair near Parker.

I can't promise you anything. I can't say with certainty I won't fall into old patterns, push you all away again, like the bastard I am. I can't. I can only promise to do my damnedest and try to let you in.

When Nate woke in the morning, stiff and sore from sleeping sprawled in an armchair, it was to the annoying, infuriating, and wonderfully familiar sound of Parker crunching cereal straight from a box, lightly thumping her heels on the cabinets under the counter she was perched on. Eliot's mild growling drawl provided a comforting counterpoint as he admonished her not to spoil her appetite. They both knew she would find plenty of room for his breakfast of champions. The delicious smells emanating from the stovetop must have been what woke him.

Nate rubbed tired, gritty eyes and levered himself upright. He could almost imagine last night had been a dream, but for the distinct lack of liquor bottles littering the tabletop in front of him, and the presence of Parker's travel bag by the door, appearing somewhat bulkier than usual, perhaps containing two framed pictures and a stuffed rabbit?

Hardison's and Sophie's near-simultaneous arrival, letting themselves in as easily as if they belonged there, signaled the start of another family breakfast.

I can't promise anything. I can't. I can only try.


A/N: If you want to know more about Parker's pictures, they're from my story The Worth A Thousand Words Job. Thanks for reading, and please consider reviewing!