(A/N – After rivendellelve's two great stories, I had to write this, the fourth in what I am choosing to call the 'Mortal Sin' saga. As with each story, you don't need the others to enjoy it alone. But the others are, in chronological order, my 'For I Have Sinned' and rivendellelve's 'Desperate Measures' and 'After the Storm'.

Anyway, I want some more of Twinchy's wonderful virtual cookies! Please?)

Penance

by Gorgolo Chick

"Where have you been?" Sophie practically shouted when Nate walked into his apartment.

Nate looked around at each member of his team where they were scattered about the main room in characteristic ways. Sophie stood in front of a comfortable armchair in the living space with a fashion magazine in her hand. Nate couldn't help noticing, however, that the magazine was held upside down. He wondered how long she'd been pretending to read it. Parker was eating a bowl of cereal, but since the box beside which she sat on the counter was Müeslix, it seemed unlikely she had tasted what she was putting in her mouth. Eliot was over by the windows, although he currently had his back to them. He stood squarely facing Nate, his arms crossed over his chest, glaring. Hardison caught Nate's eye shift to him and quietly closed the laptop he'd been using. From the overall mood in the room, Nate doubted the hacker had been playing World of Warcraft.

"I just went out for little walk and… you might say I visited with an old friend." He so very much wanted to challenge their obvious anxiety, but he couldn't do that when he'd come to find them to show contrition for the act on his part that made them so anxious.

"Everybody might as well come sit down. I have a," he hesitated, torn between his pride and the necessity of humbling himself to these teammates… friends… his family. He glanced up at Eliot, since the hitter was the direct instigator of this whole painful process, but found no sympathy, or even mercy in the other man's gaze. Eliot obviously suspected he was trying to wiggle out of taking responsibility for scaring the wits out of the whole team.

"I have an apology to make to all of you. And an explanation." Nate looked away from the suspicious stares they were all giving him. Good God, this was going to be hard and painful. Nate Ford didn't do emotional pain; he numbed it out with good Irish whiskey. But this time he had to do it all; do his penance. Going to confession and then refusing the penance assigned by the priest was not only sin, but it was not at all what he owed to his team.

He made himself look at their faces again and this time was met with open astonishment.

Contrition could only take a man so far.

"I'm not that bad!" he protested. "Give me a break, here, will you?"

Their various emotions assaulted him, from acid sarcasm in Sophie's voice to indignant anger in Hardison's and child-like petulance in Parker's.

"Let him talk." Eliot's voice, on the other hand, was neutral. He led the way in joining Nate and Sophie at the group of chairs and sofa. "Let's hear what he has to say for himself."

It was hardly sympathy, but at least Eliot was giving him the benefit of the doubt.

When the others were all seated, Nate took a chair facing them. "I'm not going to apologize for trying to kill myself," he told them flatly. "What I am going to do is explain why I decided to do it. Why I felt like I had to, however slim the chances that Mr. Slimy CEO would actually keep his word and let you go."

"Why you didn't just trust your team to get out of a tight situation without having to watch you blow your brains all the hell over the place?" Eliot's voice was at least free of his trademark growl.

"Not trust you?" Just because he was making an act of contrition didn't mean he had to take anything they wanted to throw at him. "Damn it Eliot, I was running about a thousand plans through my head when we walked in there and I saw all of you trussed up like Houdini couldn't have got loose. Forgive me for not expecting an impossible survival. I've kinda had to learn that those don't come along much." He could hear the echoes in his mind of his own screams as he held his dead son's tiny body in his arms.

'God, please, do I have to do this part of it? I can't! I can't let that memory free and still keep my composure to do the rest of it.'

Suddenly a warm, light, lithe body was draped across his back and shoulders. "You don't have to do this alone, you know." Parker's voice, of all things, offered him that comfort. "Not when you have us. Let us have you."

He let his astonishment slide away and simply kept his head down, trying to … to do he knew not what.

A hand on his jaw forced him to lift his head again. His eyes met warm dark ones in an understanding, affectionate young face.

"We know, Nate," Hardison told him in a firm voice. "You can do this. I think you have to do this as much for yourself as for us, don't you?"

Nate glanced around the group, and was relieved to see their stares were riveted to the young hacker's face with something approaching awe, instead of pinning him in a flood of sympathy that might drown him. Except Parker. She just beamed approval.

Now he could go on.

"It wasn't that I didn't trust you. I simply registered what I thought was an impossible situation, and immediately went to …" inspiration struck. "I went to plan 'M'."

A suspicion of a smile twitched the corners of Eliot's mouth. "I thought in plan 'M' Hardison dies."

"Oh, yeah. I meant plan 'N', where Nate dies. I'm sorry," he rushed on before they could all become somber again, "but in that moment all I could see was that I was being given the choice of watching all of you die, or of taking myself out of the picture and the," he fought through when his voice broke, "out of the pain that was just way beyond anything I could handle." He drew a deep breath, and then another, and forced himself to look into the faces of each person surrounding him one by one.

"Parker," he had to twist his head to see her where she sat on the arm of his chair, her arms clamped around him and her head resting on his shoulder. "Sophie."

'How, when…?' Sophie had somehow gone from sitting on the sofa across from him to curled at his feet with her hands on his knee.

"Hardison," This was a truly mature man who watched him seriously and with what seemed understanding rather than simple, painful sympathy.

"Eliot," He looked up in time to receive a nod and a definite wink from the hitter standing behind Hardison.

"Please, all of you, I'm asking you to forgive me for choosing to die, for wanting desperately to die, rather than face seeing you all die."

The tears he had been struggling so hard to hold back burst forth, and he dropped his face into his hands and sobbed.

End