Disclaimer: See chapter 1.
Author's note: I finally finished, in an exact month. Love to all readers and reviewers – especially consistent reviewers, you make my life!
A few days later, Hardison was still deliriously happy and taking sole credit for the success of bringing Wilhelm Andrews to justice. "Without my fake IDs, guys, none of this would have been possible."
"Please," Eliot scoffed, "without my Oscar-worthy performance as a sadistic husband, you'd have nothing to brag about."
Sophie rolled her eyes at both of them. "I think you're both forgetting that state inspector Murphy was what scared Andrews into acting in the first place. Not to mention my numerous coaching tips."
That set off a fight, albeit good-natured, among the three of them about who should take the most credit.
Naturally, Parker felt she should, but she refrained from commenting, lest anyone remind her how she'd almost destroyed the whole thing by nearly killing their mark.
Nate had been more or less silent the entire evening, allowing them to celebrate their victory but not participating. She could guess what he was ruminating over.
At first they'd all worried that the end of Briarwood might not do any good for the women who still had to return to the families that sent them there in the first place. Though, as it turned out, many actually didn't know the side deals Andrews had set up for a select few families at Briarwood in order to earn extra money.
Delia and Eleanor had visited them the day before to thank them one last time. Delia had decided to separate from her husband and was going to live with her sister. With the public collapse of Briarwood and impending trial of Wilhelm Andrews, the publicity would ensure that those who didn't have safe families to return to would have other alternatives. Eleanor was one of many helping them find places to live. (You five did this for us, for my sister, without even knowing us, she'd told them, I think the least I can do is carry it on and try to help those who still need it).
Hardison had offered to pitch in and help if necessary, such as with the strategic emptying of bank accounts for those who still posed a threat to former patients of Briarwood.
Nate still worried, as she knew he would. "They'll be okay," she told him as she sat across from him in the living room.
"You're sure of that because...?" He asked.
"Because they have people looking out for them," she said simply, "like Eleanor." She shifted, unused to being the one who reassured someone else. "And us. And you."
He hummed in an entirely noncommittal manner. She looked over her shoulder – the other three were still arguing in the kitchen. Now or never, she thought. And hoped she wasn't about to make one of the most misguided decisions of her life.
"You know," she said, "you're probably the best psychiatrist I ever had. And you weren't even real."
"That says little about your other psychiatrists," he said lightly.
"I had a few good ones. The problem was that when you got a bad one, he would overshadow everything in recent memory."
She was afraid he might look on her with pity, but the only thing she saw in his face was the same solemnity she'd come to associate with him, in every situation, always. She was immensely grateful for it. For him.
She was taking an enormous risk here, but she had to because it had gotten to the point that she couldn't ignore this any longer and still be happy.
She tapped her fingers against her glass before setting it on the coffee table. "I'm sure you know, in TV shows and movies, it's a common occurrence to fall in love with one's psychiatrist. Thankfully as a teenager I never fell into that trap."
"That's a good thing," he smiled, "because I really don't think a relationship between a teenage girl and her psychiatrist would have a bright future."
"You're right, it would have been a spectacular disaster," she swallowed, eyes fixed on her glass of wine. "You know, there's one big difference between my time at Briarwood and the time with the other psychiatrists I've had," she said.
"What would that be?" He asked, leaning forward and assessing her in the same way he'd done at Briarwood. It didn't make her uncomfortable though, it just made her more…aware.
"I never fell in love with one of my psychiatrists. Before Briarwood, that is."
Nate was silent for a moment and she was afraid to look at him. "Parker, please don't tell me that you fell in love with Andrews."
She looked up at him sharply, and sighed with relief when she saw that he was only teasing her. "No, not him."
"Well then…" he waited a moment, thinking, "I think your record is safe, because the only other psychiatrist you had at Briarwood was not real. Therefore, you can still claim you never fell in love with one."
"You're right," she said, uncomfortably. "I suppose it wouldn't have mattered anyway because I'm sure…Dr. Matthews would not have fallen for one of his patients. Too much integrity for that."
She was giving him an out, because she was sure he needed it, and really she just wanted to get out of the conversation.
"Dr. Matthews didn't fall in love with one of his patients," Nate confirmed, and she felt her heart sink. What had she expected, though, really? He was trying to let her down easily, because that was the kind of man Nate was.
"I understand," she said softly, about to stand and join the others in the kitchen – not out of desire to celebrate, but merely out of a desire to escape from this humiliating situation as soon as possible.
Right as she picked up her glass to leave, Nate circled the coffee table to come sit next to her. "However…the man who was playing him might have fallen in love with a woman named Parker."
"Wh-what?" She let go of her glass a few inches over the coffee table, and was amazed when it only tipped, and didn't shatter.
"That'd be you," he confirmed. His eyes were fixed on her.
"Really?" She asked.
"Really," he confirmed as he leaned in to kiss her. She kissed him back, tentatively reaching up to touch the sides of his face, and then, when he didn't pull away (as she half expected), running her hands through his hair. All the while she could barely comprehend what was happening, except that she kept reminding herself that it was Nate. It was Nate. And she'd never thought he would love her, not this way – not in a way she'd only realized she wanted in the past few weeks. Was it possible she'd wanted it for much longer, but never consciously realized it? Maybe.
"I have to ask you something," she said, as they broke apart, though they didn't move far from each other. She didn't want to ruin things, but this had been weighing on her since her confrontation with Andrews several days earlier. "When we were with Andrews and…you said all those things. How much of it did you mean and how much of it was to try to get me to lower the gun?"
"Parker," he smiled, pulling her closer to him on the couch (if that were possible, seeing as she was nearly on top of him already). "I meant everything."
"Everything?" She asked, and couldn't keep the skepticism out of her words (old habits died hard). "Because some of what you said, it was…it would mean a lot if…"
"Do I lie to you?" He asked, every ounce of mirth gone. In fact, he regarded her with a gravity she didn't know if she would ever, in the furthest reaches of her heart, feel she deserved.
"No," she admitted.
"That's your answer. I meant every word, Parker. I'm with you, even if it means going down for murder. Well, actually it'd be more like going on the run for murder together, since I had no plans of staying there to let the police arrest us."
"I'm sure Hardison would have loved assisting with that," Parker said.
He must have heard them from the kitchen. "Hey man, that entire 6 minutes I was coming up with emergency plans on how to get the five of us out of the country."
"Wait a minute," Parker sat up to look over at the three in the kitchen. "You would have come with us? You would all go on the run with me?"
"Of course," Eliot said, implying with those two words that she was crazy for thinking anything else.
"How could you think we wouldn't?" Sophie asked.
Parker shrugged as Hardison came over to sit on the arm of the couch next to her. "We love you, Parker."
"Yeah," Eliot agreed. "Though maybe not as much as Nate."
"You saw that, huh?" Parker asked, perilously close to self-conscious.
"We're not blind," Sophie laughed. "And I disagree with Eliot. I do love you as much as Nate."
Parker quickly looked at Nate, then back to Sophie. "Wow, I mean I'm flattered, but –"
"In a different way," Sophie clarified, sitting next to her so she could give her a hug. "I'm not hitting on you, Parker."
"Oh good," she sighed in relief. "I wouldn't want you two fighting over me." She nearly shrieked when Nate pulled her away from Sophie and back to his side.
"Out of curiosity, Hardison, what countries were on your short list?" Nate asked, wrapping his arms around Parker, and she had the feeling it would take a lot to get out of his hold – not that she was trying.
"Anything with no extradition treaties with the U.S., but also high levels of corruption. What would you all say to Russia?"
"That's where you'd pick?" Eliot complained. "The coldest damn place you can think of? Plus you know the FSB has been after me for seven years."
"What's the FSB?" Hardison asked, confused.
"The successor to the KGB – wait, why am I bothering to explain this? Brush up on your history, and find another place, I am not stepping foot back in that country," Eliot said firmly.
Hardison heaved a sigh and pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket – Parker had no idea he'd had an actual list. They watched as he exaggeratedly crossed an item off it while glaring at Eliot. "Next on my list was Iran," he said.
"Seriously?" Sophie asked, thinking he was joking. When he only looked confused, she sighed. "Wonderful choice, Hardison. They love Americans."
"We'd have to blend in, luckily I am a master of disguise!" He looked from Sophie to Parker. "How do you two feel about burqas?"
"Get rid of it," Sophie ordered, as Hardison reluctantly scratched it from the list.
"You realize we're not actually fleeing the country, right?" Nate asked.
"It never hurts to have an emergency plan," Hardison said. And Nate really couldn't argue with that.
The conversation dissolved into an argument about which country would be the best to escape to, if the need ever arose – which amounted to Hardison getting crucified by Eliot, Sophie, and Nate for every country he suggested. Parker didn't contribute, content to merely listen; half the time her friends were as crazy as everyone else thought she was. But she wouldn't have them any other way. And it was a very warming thought to know they felt the same about her.
She fell asleep at some point, and when Nate woke her it must have been much later because everyone else was gone.
"I would have let you keep sleeping," he explained. "But my bed is much more comfortable than my couch."
"Right," she sat up a bit, rubbing her eyes, and looked around, taking in the quiet darkness of his apartment. "Nate, I…"
He waited patiently. What else had he ever done with her?
"I think…I think I want to talk about it," she told him quietly, not sure how he'd take it, not sure if he remembered his offer from weeks ago, or if he did, what he would think of her saying this now.
He didn't placate her, or humor her, or condescend to her. He didn't become uncomfortable or pretend not to know what she was talking about. He only said, without hesitation, that he'd like to hear about it.
She knew, in that moment, that every decision she'd made in the past two years had been right. Perhaps everything in her life – good and bad and unspeakable – had been worth it, because without even one moment of it she might not have ended up there, with him, at that moment in time.
As she sat next to Nate, feeling truly comfortable for the first time to talk about the painful experiences she'd had, she thought that the possibility of never knowing him, or any of them, was something she could never – would never – accept.
Because Nathan Ford and his team had become her entire life. She knew she would do everything possible to ensure they remained her life – forever, if she had her say.
(And she did. And they were.)
To all who read this, I love you. And to all reviewers, I love you as well. It means a lot to me.
To those who are not N/P fans – I am truly flattered you made it this far.
To those who are N/P fans, I am definitely not going anywhere. And trust me, there are more of you than you think – something I find amazing, to know I'm not alone out here (and which is a far cry from how I felt when I posted my first story). Thanks again.