Disclaimer: See chapter 1.

Author's note: I must apologize that this story has taken me so long. I posted it while I had two other stories going on, and this was on the back burner. Anyways, this is the ending!

XXXXXX

Nate realized, in hindsight, that he hadn't gone about things the way he should have. There were a number of things he could have done to get Parker to recognize that her reckless behavior put both herself and the rest of them at risk. He could have talked to her privately. He could have staged a sort of intervention with all of them. Hell, he could removed himself from the equation altogether (since God knew she didn't react well to his mere presence lately) and had someone else talk to her; Sophie or Hardison alone would have made the news more palatable. And she might have listened to them.

He knew he'd been quite drastic, but in his defense, at the time he saw it as absolutely necessary. Some of the things she did could have seriously hurt her. Such as when she confronted one of their marks, by herself, when they not only suspected him of bank robbery, but of murdering his own partners. She'd come out of it alive, and so had Nate – barely. But he still had no doubt that one of these days she really was going to give him a heart attack.

In fact, that incident had been what convinced him that his subsequent actions were completely justified. He'd been furious, and worried, and rightly terrified that one day she might get herself killed.

She liked to remind him that (most of the time at least), any risks she took would only affect her. Wasn't it her own life to risk, if she thought the situation warranted it?

She had never understood that the end of her would be the end of him, too.

The others didn't share his sense of urgency, which was the only reason he didn't fill them in on his plan. Maybe seen from the safe distance of passing time, he might admit that he suspected they wouldn't go along with him, but that mattered little when it was already said and done.

In fact, it didn't matter at all when he was confronted by Parker, furious and hurt, wondering why he'd done what he'd done.

He hadn't planned on her ever finding out, except that the others (read: Hardison) figured things out, and he hadn't been able to stop it.

He'd set her up to fail. It sounded awful (especially if one didn't know the details), but it was the truth. In fact, it might not even be counted as sabotage on his part, considering their entire last con had been fake, set up between himself and an old acquaintance. Its sole purpose had been to teach Parker that going off on her own was foolish, and risky, raising the chances of potential harm to her and the rest of their team. In the end, the only important facts were that she'd been allowed to extricate herself from a supposedly 'lethal' situation, while under the impression that she'd risked all of their lives, and caused the entire operation to fail.

Nate still thought it was sort of brilliant – and it would have worked, if the others had been able to keep quiet. He hated their tendency to always ask so many questions.

Needless to say…Parker hadn't taken it too well. It ended with a confrontation between them, which included plenty of screaming and hurt feelings on both sides. They'd reached an impasse. He'd never convince her that he'd done what he had for her own good, and she'd never understand his reasons – or maybe, she'd never believe them.

The others had tried, but neither Nate nor Parker were in the mood to concede any points to each other. Parker had finally given up and announced she was going on an 'open-ended vacation' with no indication of when, or if, she'd come back.

After she'd left that night, Hardison had been so devastated that he left, too. He was followed by Eliot, and lastly, Sophie, who used every trick she could think of to try and reach Nate, to no avail.

The other three had told Nate their team was 'temporarily' disbanded – until Parker came back (though it didn't seem the most likely of scenarios). Nate considered moving, but then didn't, for the simple reason that he had nowhere else to go.

And then, one day, three weeks later (not long enough in Nate's opinion), the three of them had come back. They told him they still wanted to work together, but wouldn't without her. And Nate was the only one who had any shot of convincing her to return, (seeing as he was the reason she wouldn't).

Nate wasn't as convinced. "I don't know what kind of scheme you've concocted, but it's not going to work. And it's sure not going to work if it hinges on me convincing her to come back. Count me out."

Hardison quickly became irate, as if he'd been hiding it this entire time and now saw an opportunity to vent his rage. "What the hell is the matter with you?" He yelled. "Do you not care? Don't you realize this was your fault? You convinced her to leave us! You!" He punctuated the last statement with a fierce shove that forced Nate into his kitchen table.

The passion from the other man snapped Nate out of the state of apathetic self-pity he'd been mired in for weeks. "It was for her own good!" He yelled back, rubbing his back and barely resisting the urge to physically retaliate. Why the hell was no one was on his side? Did they not understand how reckless she'd been lately? How could they fail to see his plan had been necessary to show her that she was putting herself in danger?

"Normally I'm on your side, Nate," Eliot said, his tone as infuriatingly calm and controlled as ever. "But you went about it the wrong way. You betrayed her trust, and that was your big mistake. I know you think you were justified, but she is gone. And it seems by now she has no plans to come back. What are you going to do about that?"

Nate stared at him, trying to think of a solution. Only he had nothing, and that left him scrambling to continue justifying his actions, though he knew they didn't want to hear it. "Would you rather she'd gotten herself killed on one of our cons? Because that's what was going to happen!"

"You don't know that," Hardison argued, still looking as if he wanted to beat the point into Nate.

Sophie watched Nate with a look of pity. "I know why you set Parker up, and I know you think you went about it in the best possible way. But it didn't fix anything. It only ended her trust in you." She searched his eyes, for a moment, willing him to understand. "Don't you get that you're it with her?"

"What?" Nate asked, clearly confused.

"If she doesn't trust you, she's not going to trust any of us," Eliot explained. "You shattered her trust in all four of us with your stunt."

"She needed – she was going to –" Nate grimaced, furious that he couldn't articulate exactly what he meant. Why did he become the bad guy because he cared about her life? "Maybe it's better she's not here anymore. I'd rather have her hate me than be dead!" He yelled, as the other three stared at him in stunned silence.

"Wow, man, you're telling that to the wrong audience," Hardison finally said, his anger dissipating as quickly as it'd come.

Nate stalked over to the sofa, sitting on it and putting his head in his hands. He didn't know what to do anymore. He knew he should apologize to her, but how could he do that when his intentions hadn't changed? He still wanted – no, he needed her to see how dangerous her behavior was. He couldn't apologize for trying to protect her – even if he'd gone about it in a manner of which no one approved.

"Nate," Sophie said softly, coming to sit next to him. "I don't know if you really meant that, about thinking she was better off without us, but…she's Parker. She's going to do whatever she wants to do, and telling her not to do something is the quickest way to get her thinking about how to do it. At least here, we could look out for her; we could be there if anything happened. You know that. And if we're being honest here, I've never seen you like this before. Have you left your apartment in the past three weeks?"

He shrugged, "Why bother? I can get groceries delivered."

"Man, this is pathetic," Hardison said, exasperated.

"If Hardison's the one telling you that, it means you've got a problem," Eliot added.

Sophie shot him a dirty look, then turned back to Nate. "This is not just for us. It's for you. Trust me, you need to resolve this. You don't look well."

He turned his head to look at her warily. "Is this another dig at me, Sophie? Because I've had enough. Besides, I can't talk to her. She left. She clearly doesn't want to hear from me or anyone else."

"I think she wants to hear from you more than anyone else," Sophie argued. "Trust me on this one, Nate."

"And where am I supposed to find her?" He asked sarcastically, gesturing around the apartment. "Do you see her here? She's gone. And when she's gone, she's gone."

"Actually…" Hardison said, "she just checked into a hotel in San Francisco. I already booked you a ticket."

"What?" Nate asked, stunned. Part of him had honestly thought he'd never learn where she was, that he'd never see her again. "How is that possible? It can't be an accident she let you find her."

"I agree," Hardison said, "she did it on purpose. She wanted to be found."

"Then why don't you go?" Nate asked.

"Because I can't bring her back," Hardison said. "Believe me, if I thought I could, I'd have left by now, and wouldn't have bothered coming here."

Nate glanced at the others to find they were nodding along with Hardison.

He gave in without more of a fight, mainly because he wanted to see her with a desperation he hadn't allowed himself to truly feel until now. "Fine," he relented, standing. "But if this goes horribly, I'm going to blame you. All of you."

"I wouldn't expect anything less," Sophie said, watching him leave. She prayed this worked, because if it didn't, their team would go from 'temporarily' to permanently disbanded. And from the way Nate was acting, she thought that might be the least of their problems.

XXXXXX

He called her, and she didn't pick up. He knocked repeatedly on her door, but she didn't answer. It left him with one option that was distinctly…Parker.

He picked the lock (despite what she might like to think, she wasn't the only one who knew how to do that).

"Parker?" He asked quietly as he slowly went from room to room. The hotel suite was dark, and silent. After a few minutes, he wondered if she were even there. Who knew why she was in California? She could be working another angle on something, planning a theft, or anything else equally dangerous.

With none of them there to help her. Like they should be.

The thought left him anxious, and edgy (and guilt-stricken) beyond reason.

What if she was there…but not alone?

He worried in vain, though, because as he stepped into the doorway of the bedroom, he saw her outline on the bed. Her even breathing told him she was sound asleep. His entire being relaxed completely, and it wasn't until that moment that he realized how tightly wound he'd been. He hadn't lost her. She was within arm's reach. He could grab hold of her and never let her go (though she'd probably have a few objections to that).

"Parker?" He whispered into the darkness. Predictably, she didn't answer him, though he did hold his breath when she restlessly turned over. She was on the far side of the bed, and he sat down on the side closest to him, wondering what he should do next.

May as well talk, since this was the closest he'd get to a fair, uninterrupted hearing.

"I'm sorry, Parker," he began. He could barely see her face in the dark, and wondered what she was dreaming about. "If I were you, I'd hate me, too. So don't worry about that. The reason I'm here is because the others pretty much forced me to come."

But was that true? Not really.

"I guess I need to be more honest, if I can't even tell you the truth when you're sleeping," he said, sighing and staring at her headboard, because he couldn't even look at her when she was sleeping, and when had that happened?

"I know you won't understand this, but if you knew how terrified I was – am – for you, every single day…then you'd know why I did what I did. I can't fix it, but I can beg your forgiveness. Though I guess that would be more effective if you were awake, right?"

He laid on his back next to her and pretended she was awake and listening to him; it would be good practice for when he had to do this again once she woke up (provided she didn't immediately try to kill him for showing up in her hotel room in the middle of the night). "You probably won't forgive me, but if you'd look at things from my perspective, for only a moment, then you'd understand. Parker, I've spent the past few months scared out of my mind that one day I'd have to deal with your death, and you have no idea what it's done to me. I couldn't sleep, I could barely eat. Every day, I thought of the various ways you could die because of your careless behavior, and I finally decided I had to stop you. Was it wrong of me? Probably. But you…terrify me. You terrify me and you'll never know it, because I'm sure once you wake up and I have to explain this to you, I'll leave that part out."

He listened as she breathed in and out, blissfully unaware of the vulnerabilities he was admitting. He tentatively reached out and brushed his hand over her face, wishing he knew when, exactly, he fell in love with her, and why he'd only realized it in this instant. "Doing what I did…it didn't help anything, because I'm in worse shape now than before you left. I didn't think that was possible, in any universe. I'm sorry I…care about you so much that I ended up hurting you to try and protect you. I hope, when I try to explain it to you, that you even remotely understand."

He sighed and shut his eyes, knowing instinctively it was beyond reckless to allow himself to fall asleep, but he was exhausted, and…

"Too bad I'm a better actress than you realize," she said, as his eyes shot open and he scrambled to sit up so quickly that he nearly fell off the bed. "Not that pretending to sleep takes that much work, despite what Sophie claims," she added thoughtfully.

"Parker?" He gaped.

"Who else?" She was sitting next to him, giving him a look of evaluation, as if she didn't quite know what to make of him…and she probably didn't.

"Were you awake that whole time?" He asked, trying frantically to remember what he'd said.

"Since you came in," she told him succinctly. "Good – or bad – for you. I guess it depends on how you look at it."

"No, it depends on how you look at it," he said.

It was dark in her room, but his eyes had adjusted enough that he could see her expression. He allowed himself a measure of hope when he didn't see the hatred he'd been expecting.

Parker didn't know what to make of Nate's explanation. When she thought back to his actions a month ago, she couldn't believe what he'd done – except she had to, right? Because he had done it. He'd let her think she put all of them in mortal danger. He'd let her think she compromised their entire con – a con which had been completely fake. And to what end? To try and 'teach' her to behave better? So she'd continue staying in line, doing whatever he said, whenever he said it?

To hell with that.

A part of her, a very small, minute part, might have understood his motives – at least from what he'd tried to explain of them. But most of her simply resented that he'd treat her in the manner he had.

"Did you mean what you said?" She asked, and he didn't need clarification on which part, because he knew what she was referring to. Everything.

There was no point in denying it.

"Every word," he admitted.

When she didn't say anything, he started to become worried. There was a very real set of possibilities that included her hating him and trying to throw him out of her hotel room. "It was for you. For your own good," he said, quietly.

"Do you know how many times in my life I've heard that justification for something that wasn't for my own good?" She asked, suppressing bitter laughter.

He stared at her thoughtfully. "There's a difference between me and everyone from your past," he pointed out. "I hope you can see that."

Actually, she did, which was entirely in his favor. "I still can't believe you did what you did," she told him. He seemed surprised that she wasn't trying to stab him with a letter opener. "However…I believe what you said."

"Meaning…what?" He asked.

She didn't say anything, merely moved over a few feet and wrapped her arms around him.

He stared down at her, shocked at her actions. He'd thought she might want to kill him, so to have her embrace him instead was a turn that he didn't quite know how to deal with. A few minutes passed while he tried to regroup. "Are you feeling alright?" He finally asked.

She laughed, the sound muffled against his chest. "I don't know, I might be losing it…especially in light of recent events."

He felt hope at her candidness, and he had to know… "Do you forgive me?"

She let go of him so she could sit up and look at him. "I don't know, Nate. What I do know is that you seem to really care about me –"

"I don't seem to," he cut in, "I do care."

"And that alone makes you more important than most the people I've ever known," she said.

"Don't leave us forever," he said, "please."

When she only stared at him in question, he had to reword it.

"Don't leave me," he said. "Don't you see, by now, that's what this entire thing has been about?"

"No," she told him, frowning. "I don't." She really had no idea what he meant.

"Leaving me," he said, emphasizing the words in the hopes it would get her attention. "If you ended up dead because of one of your stunts –" he sighed. "It's leaving me, Parker. I can't even think about the possibility, never mind what I'd do if it came true."

"This whole time," she said slowly, "was about what you'd do if I died?" When he merely shut his eyes in response, her heart threatened to break. "I'm not going anywhere, Nate."

"You say that now," he insisted, "but you have no control over it! The things you do are so dangerous, and you could die at any time, I just couldn't allow you to go on that way."

She was still upset, though. "Nate, dying is a part of everyone's life. Anyone could die at any time. You know that. Nothing you do is going to eliminate the risk of that happening, to me or anyone else."

"No, but I can decrease it," he said, vehemently. "And if I can, I'm going to. I can't stop because you're mad at me. Like I told the others, I'd rather you hate me, than…"

"What?" She whispered.

"Than be gone forever," he said agitated, his voice rising with each word. "I'd rather you were alive and far away from me, with the possibility I might touch you again someday, than be dead, in a place where I can never reach you. Is that what you want to hear?"

Actually, though it stunned her, it was exactly what she wanted to hear.

He could only sit unmoving in shock when she threw her leg over him, straddling him and waiting until he looked her in the eyes. "You care about me that much?" She asked.

"In this way…I don't know that I've ever cared about anyone more," he said, more honest than he'd intended.

"That's what makes this okay," she whispered. He was about to ask what she meant, when her lips met his. There were a million questions he should have asked, instead of kissing her back. Like why did she want him? Why was she willing to forgive him? What had he ever done to deserve this kind of happiness?

Once he felt her against him, he couldn't articulate any of those logical questions. The only thing he could do was kiss her back and pray she meant what she was telling him without words.

Because if she didn't, he had no idea how he would go on.

He would have gladly kept kissing her all night. Maybe forever. But he had to know, which was why he gently pushed her away and drew in a deep breath, recognizing her own attempts to compose herself. "Parker, please explain what just happened."

"Oh Nate," she said, dismay in her tone, "if you don't know what that was by now – and when you've been married! Then I feel quite sorry for you."

"Parker!" He said, agitated, but his unease evaporated when she only started laughing in response. "I don't deserve you."

"No," she said smartly, "you don't. But life doesn't work that way, does it?"

He met her eyes with concern. "What do you mean?"

"What you do or don't deserve has nothing to do with what I feel for you. Unfortunately." She gave him an unhappy glare. "However, I find myself willing to forgive you because…God, because you're you. How sappy is that?"

"I don't think it's –" He began.

"You've totally ruined me," she interrupted, sounding almost depressed at that sudden self-awareness.

"Does this mean you'll come back?" His voice was tinged with hope.

"Yes, I'll come back," she said, rolling her eyes.

"And you'll keep working with us."

She smiled, somewhat sadly. "I wish you'd known this a long time ago, because it would have saved us a lot of trouble. The fact is…I don't know how to leave you, Nate."

"But you did leave," he said. Now he was confused.

"I told you, it was a vacation. I needed time away from you. And I knew you'd find me after the few dozen clues I left for Hardison two days ago."

"Parker," he pleaded. "Please tell me you don't hate me for what I did."

"I don't hate you, I'm just…disappointed."

"I will never do what I did to you before ever again," he swore. "Believe me."

"I do believe you," she said. "But Nate, the fact that you…I may forgive you for what you did, but it's going to take time for me to get over."

"Just remember," he said desperately, "how terrified I was that you might end up killing yourself. I might have an answer for both of us. Make a pact with me."

She shifted backwards a bit, in order to comfortably look him in the eye. "What kind of pact?"

"Listen to me from now on because I'm only concerned about your safety. I'm not saying follow my every word to the letter, but at least consider things from my point of view, and if something is too dangerous, don't do it. In return, I won't ever lead you astray again."

She blinked and considered his offer. She had to admit it sounded fair. Besides, no matter how mad she was at him for setting her up on their last (fake) job, she could never hate him. Not when he only had her welfare at heart. (And truthfully, not even if that weren't the case). "I'll swear if you swear," she said.

"I swear," he said, quickly.

"Then I swear, too," she told him, leaning forward to kiss him again. They got lost for a few minutes, reveling in the novelty of being able to share their feelings for each other in such an intimate way. She fleetingly wondered how she'd gone from being so furious at Nate in the past few weeks to sitting on his lap, in bed, kissing him.

It was kind of crazy. Good thing she didn't mind crazy.

"What are you going to tell the others?" She asked when they parted, and he knew she was referring to their burgeoning relationship.

"That you wanted me so badly, I told you if you came back, you could have me. Who was I to refuse?" he said, smirking.

She shook her head at his obvious triumph, but she knew why he felt it. He'd won this time, and Nate Ford was used to winning. She should probably resent him for that. But since it meant that she'd won, too…she found she didn't care.

"Tell me one thing," she said, as she returned to her side of the bed. "How did you get me from hating you to…well…now?" She didn't specify, but she knew he could fill in the blanks to realize that she was referring to the extreme amount of affection she currently felt for him.

He took on a lecturing tone that barely kept her from wanting to hit him. "Why Parker, it's a matter of charm."

"Sure, Nate. Charm. It's all about charm."

He shifted on the bed so he could whisper in her ear. "And love. Maybe it has something to do with love."

She grinned at him, completely against her will. "You think?"

"I don't think, I know. It's clear now that you never hated me in the first place," he whispered back.

"It surprises me," she said, "but you're right!"

"How can it surprise you? I'm always right."

"Wait, I was wrong, I do hate you," she said, but her laughing belied her words.

"I don't believe that," he said. "In fact, I believe the exact opposite."

She didn't bother to correct him, because he was right: she loved him.

A few weeks ago, she might have hated him for making her feel that way.

Now? She found it was...the exact opposite.

XXXXXX

The end! This marks the first time in awhile that all of my stories are finished! It may not last long, though.

I hope you enjoyed, and sorry to anyone who was waiting for the conclusion. I'll try to do better in the future.