Summary:Nate finds a stowaway in the trunk of his car on the way back to Boston. Parker needs a place to call home, and Nate needs to fill a void - they're the only ones who don't seem to think it's a bad idea.-Vaguely based off a prompt I filled for poestheblackcat at comment-fic, who wanted to see a kid Parker with the team.

Finding a Home

Chapter 1

Nate is utterly flabbergasted.

It doesn't happen often, so when it does happen, it takes him a moment to gather his wits and come up with the appropriate plan of action to deal with the situation. The only thing is – and this is the thing – he's been staring at this peacefully sleeping girl for at least a minute and a half, and nothing, absolutely nothing, is popping into his head.

No plan of attack, no insightful conclusions, nothing comes to mind except the incredibly curious, empty sensation of being well and truly flabbergasted.

Nestled in a pile of money siphoned from the previously-locked but now-open and empty briefcases, lies a little blond girl, her chest rising and falling gently with the steady, unflappable rhythm of a child's deep sleep, arms wrapped tightly around a worn stuffed bunny.

That simple act of breathing has rendered Nate catatonic, his mind cruelly pulling him back to five years ago, when his son was still alive, still breathing, in much the same way. They're the same age, he thinks to himself, his hand resting on the lip of the trunk door. The same age, and yet she is here and Sam, his son – his only son – is not.

The car is a very modest hatchback Honda, with a spacious trunk, but Nate couldn't fathom when she managed to crawl into it. And how he hadn't noticed. Of course, she's familiar; she'd tried to pick his pocket on a street right outside Central Park, but he'd caught her.

Her fearful eyes stared up at him as he held her thin wrist, feeling just as surprised as she looked. It had been a gut feeling that made him reach out, not the feeling of her fingers in his pocket. He hadn't felt a thing, and he was torn between being impressed and being incredibly concerned. Delicately, he'd plucked his wallet out of her fingers before releasing her, managing only to caution her to be more careful next time, before she ran off.

And now, it appeared that she hadn't heeded his warning at all. He hadn't meant 'caution' as a term for 'run away'. And he certainly hadn't meant it as 'hitchhiking'.

Still… her face was white and pale against the clumped furs on the stuffed rabbit, almost sickly. Weak. Helpless. He could almost imagine her hooked up to an IV, a heart monitor beeping reassuringly by the wayside until that terrible moment when it spiked, then flat lined, the nurses rushing through the doors and pushing him aside, out, pushing him away, denying him the kindness of being with his boy as he slipped away from the world, a glass window separating him from that last second of connection, that last touch, that last shuddered breath as his world slipped away through the chaotic scrambling of doctors.

Nate could bear the burning in his eyes, but he couldn't bear to wake her up.

And he couldn't, in good conscience, leave her in the back of the car either.

With a sigh he looked around, eyeing the cars whizzing by on the freeway wistfully. The gas station he'd stopped at had an attached motel, and he stared at the girl for another second before making up his mind.

Leaving the trunk open, he went around the side of the car to retrieve his overnight bag, making sure the ID card and the credit card matched, and were at the ready. Then, putting inordinate amounts of faith in the extraordinary powers of a child's sleep, he tentatively picked the girl, and her bunny up, picked off the cash that clung to her, and closed the trunk as quietly as he could.

The girl remained so still Nate had to pause to make sure she was still breathing.

What he was doing was reaching into the dubiously moral, rationalized only because she'd chosen to stow-away in his car, and he knew he had good intentions. Ignoring how poorly this could all turn out if, at this moment, she decided to wake, he plowed onwards into the motel, booking a room with the fake ID and no questions asked.

Still slumped against his shoulder, Nate opened the door of the room, backing into it and clicking on the lights. Two beds, a bathroom, a television set that looked as if it might fall down before the night was through, and a noisy mini-fridge perched on a rickety table. Dropping the bag to the floor, he pulled away the covers of one of the beds and gently lowered her down onto it. Placing the rabbit beside her, he pulled the covers up lightly, staring down for a moment, trying to see what was there, instead of what he wanted to be there.

He didn't try too hard, and there were phone calls he had to make, so with one last look he fished out his phone, opened the door, and called Sophie to let her know he'd be staying the night and asking her to get the team together for tomorrow afternoon. Sophie, who knew him better than he cared to think, didn't ask what had happened after the first time he reassured her all was well.

When he came back, the girl had turned into the stuffed toy, her hand curled around one of its arms possessively, breathing soft and gentle.

There was nothing to drink in the mini-fridge, and a journey outside offered no more than vending machine goods.

As Nate lay there that night, he pretended that it was because he didn't want her to wake up while he was sleeping, and not the memories that plagued him each time he shut his eyes.

Chapter 2

When Parker wakes up, she isn't surrounded by money, with the sound of the road coming in through the floor; the sound of the road is still there, far away; but she's somewhere soft and warm – soft and warm like she can barely remember ever feeling. The smell of money is gone, but she can smell Bunny, and when she opens her eyes, he's right there in front of her.

But where was she? The money had been cozy and reassuring, too reassuring. She can feel herself starting to panic because she can't remember the last time she hadn't woken up when someone touched her, and sleeping through something like that was dangerous. But it felt like she was fine.

Curiously, she lifts her head up, past Bunny and sees a wall with a door on it, a little fridge – it reminds her of a hotel room. Even though she hasn't been to many in her life, they all look the same, and she turns to her other side, dragging Bunny along, staying low in case anyone is awake.

There's a man on the other bed, but he's not under the sheets. It's the same man as from before, from outside the park, she recognizes him now, and she bites her lip, wondering if he's mad at her for breaking into his car and hiding in the trunk. And finding the briefcases. And opening the locks on them. And sleeping on all the money – he was definitely going to be mad, she decides, carefully pushing off the covers.

Still in all her clothes and shoes, Parker stills as the bed creaked, her hand a vice-grip around Bunny. He must have moved her here, and she must have slept through it. It was the only thing that made sense. But what doesn't make sense is why he hasn't woken her up, or yelled at her, or hit her, or left her outside.

It puzzles her, but she isn't about to give him a chance to fix his mistake. Carefully, she moves to the edge of the bed, trying to feel the bed as she moved, willing it to work with her and stay quiet. It does until she slides off it, but he doesn't seem to hear the squeak and she takes a deep breath.

She just has to make it to the door, and she can get away from him. It'd been a stupid idea, and she's starting to regret it now – adults were mean and couldn't be trusted, and she should've never thought this would be different. Only… he hadn't yelled at her or turned her over to the cops when he'd caught her. Just told her to be more careful. And then he'd let her go. And her wrist hadn't even hurt afterwards. And he'd found her in his car, and he'd still put her up in the bed, with the blankets and everything.

A little bit of hope floods into her and she tries not to get caught up in it. No, running away was the better idea, not staying and seeing what happened. With the man sleeping, it was too easy not to run away, even if he turned out to be really nice.

Nice wasn't for her, she reminds herself, stepping on the floor lightly and trying to move with it, instead of on it. It only sort of-kind of works, and by the time she's at the door, she's paused half a dozen times to make sure he hasn't woken up. He looks a little sick and pale, but Parker keeps her eyes on the door.

The chain to keep people from coming in is on it, and it also kept her from just unlocking the door and leaving. She's too short to just take it off, and there isn't a chair or anything around to drag over. Seeing the bag on the ground, she goes over to it, slowly. Curiosity makes her look through the main part of the bag, but all she can find is clothing, and a few different plastic cards. Frowning, she looks through the side pockets – there's a neatly bound stack of cash in one, and nothing in the other.

Taking the cash, she drags the bag over to the door and steps on it, reaching up for the chain. Still too short, she puts a hand on the door knob and lifts her foot against the window sill that's right beside it, but a few feet off the ground, and uses both points to leverage herself up until her fingertips can touch the chain. Carefully, she tugs the chain over until she can pull it free.


The voice surprises her, and her trembling arm and leg give way as she falls onto the bag. Nothing really hurts though, and she scrambles to her feet, snatching Bunny up from the ground and backing into the corner.

"I'm not going to hurt you."

Parker glares at him suspiciously – that's what they all say; they always say the same thing. And always, it turns out to be a lie. Except this man hasn't hurt her yet – and she doesn't want him to hurt her, but she knows it doesn't work like that.

"My name's Nate Ford," he tells her, and she continues to glare at him, holding Bunny against her defensively. "You were sleeping in my car, remember?"

He's waiting for her to answer him, and she slowly nods.

"Why were you sleeping in my car?"

He still hasn't moved, hasn't done anything other than sit up on the bed and fix her with a curious look. Curious, and something else too, but she doesn't know what that was, and it isn't hostile, or threatening, so she doesn't really care.

"Look, I want to help you out, I really do, but I need to know why you were in my car."

He sounds honest, and kind, but she's had too many experiences where sounding hasn't been the same thing as being. So she still doesn't answer, and he sits up, moving his legs off the bed, and Parker eyes the door, wondering if she has enough time to get to it, unlock it, and run before he gets to her.

The man sighs, and he's already standing, and Parker tells herself that she can always kick him in the shins, to make herself feel better. And he's coming closer to her, and she presses herself even harder against the wall, but she knows the reason she's not running, that she didn't already run away, is because she wants him to be nice. Wants him to be kind, wants him to be patient, and not hurt her. Wants him to be all the things he was when he caught her wrist and let it go gently. She can't help but think that maybe, just maybe, this time, things will turn out differently.

Parker tenses as he crouches a few feet away from her, looking relaxed, and nice, and smiling. "I can't help you if you don't talk to me. What's your name, kid?"

He could have hurt her. He could have been mean. He could be yelling instead of asking, so she says, quietly and mostly into Bunny's head, "Parker."

"Hi Parker," he says, waving at her, and she thinks that's dumb, but she's too confused to be anything but confused. "Do you have parents, Parker?"

Parker shakes her head, swallowing, her hand loosening its grip on Bunny just a little bit.

"Do you have a home, Parker?"

For a second Parker thinks, before shaking her head – the pipe in the park isn't really a home, and the rooftop greenhouse she'd broken into wasn't really either.

"Why were you in my car?"

It doesn't take as long for Parker to shrug, and she looks down at the floor, feeling him look at her. And look at her. And it doesn't feel like he's going to stop looking at her, ever until she answers, so she says, "I dunno."

"You don't know why you broke into my car and were sleeping in the trunk?"

For a second she waits for… well, anything, but nothing comes, and when she looks up, he's smiling, and she knows he doesn't believe her. "You didn't yell at me," she says quietly, feeling stupid for even saying it.

"When you took my wallet?" he asks, and she nods. "Where did you learn to do that, anyway?"

That Parker doesn't answer, because she didn't really learn it anywhere, she just saw someone doing it and started doing it too, and she was good at it, and she could get money and buy food and it was just something she knew how to do.

Whether or not he guesses that, or makes up his mind on something else, he stands up, and offers her a hand. "You want to come home with me, Parker?"

Parker looks at the hand, looks at Nate, thinks about everything she's heard about strangers and mean people; remembering all the stuff she's learned from strangers and mean people, and decides that Nate isn't like any of those people. And she doesn't take his hand, but she nods, and she feels almost happy.

Chapter 3

Nate knows that Parker wasn't a brat, it she was just that… she was testing him.

She'd been docile and quiet on the drive out from the motel, alternating between looking up through the window (her eyes just barely broke even with it) and glancing at him with a fearful, weary look, like he was going to suddenly change his mind and toss her out the car.

They'd pulled over to a diner when Nate realized he hadn't eaten since yesterday, and that maybe his head was pounded from a lack of food, and not just the lack of alcohol. He wasn't sure when in the hell Parker had eaten last, and he didn't really want to think about it.

The booth table was nearly as tall as she was, and it occurred to him he didn't know what age she was. Sam… had been eight, but sick and small for his age, and Parker looked like she was almost the same size, even though there were times when she looked at him and she felt older than Sam could ever be. Would ever be.

Forcing his thoughts to other things, he ordered breakfast for himself, and pancakes with sausages for Parker when she fixed him with a petrified look when the waitress asked her what she would like. Nate smiled easily at the woman serving them, knowing that the look and Parker's grimy, too-thin look didn't bode well for him.

They'd agreed before that Parker was to say she was Nate's daughter if asked – he didn't want to run into any trouble before they got back home and could figure out… whatever this was. And she seemed content to stay with him, keeping her distance while at the same time staring at him in a hopefully, earnest way that broke his heart when she thought he wasn't looking.

The trouble started when their food arrived, and Parker pushed it away, sitting up on her knees and pulling her chocolate milk toward her. "I don't want it," she announced, looking a tad too shaky to be serious. Despite the diligent slurps on her straw to prove that she did not, in fact, want the pancakes, Nate knew a con when he saw one. Or rather, a test, but it was more or less the same thing, and Parker wasn't exactly the best grifter out there.

"Parker, I know you're hungry," he said reasonably, digging into his own meal in the hopes that seeing him eat would break her bluff.

"I don't want it," she repeated, her words determined but her eyes worried, like… like she expected something bad.

With a longsuffering sigh, Nate wondered what on Earth had possessed him to agree to this – to initiate this. But that only took him so far, since he already knew the answer to that question; giving her back to the system that had left her on the streets was only the edge of that iceberg. Some of the reasons he didn't want to go near with a ten-foot pole, and others… well, it was as easy as the look of childish hope and innocence he wanted to make sure weren't fully quashed.

"Parker, sit down and eat, please." Polite, but firm, and Parker did sit down, worry in her eyes, her hand going down to Bunny, who'd taken up residence on the seat beside her. But she still didn't touch the food. "Would you like them better with syrup?" Nate asked, playing oblivious to her attempts at riling him, holding the syrup bottle out to her.

"No," she told him, her eyebrows furrowing, clearly confused that her behavior wasn't eliciting the reaction she'd been hoping for, yet unwilling to go too far.

"Would you like some of mine?" Nate asked, putting down the syrup bottle and opening his arms so that she could see the greasy goodness on his plate. Eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, hash browns – he wasn't going to finish it all anyway, and this way he could force her to play nice without losing too much face, and have something to eat.

Seeing a way to keep pushing without losing a meal, Parker immediately jumped on it. "I want yours," she demanded, crossing her arms and pushing herself back into her seat in what Nate could only assume she deemed willful.

"Then you can share it with me. Come sit over here, and we can eat together."

A kid, who'd been on the street for who knows how long, would likely not be concerned with germs. If anything, she'd be concerned with getting so close, but Nate smiled and shifted over on the bench to leave her lots of room, and looked around all the people. "Getting loud in here, isn't it?"

And he waited while Parker put it together – there were too many people for any sane person to try anything violent with her, and when she looked at him he smiled: "It's delicious."

For a second Parker looked like she was going to say something, but then she found her courage. Standing up with Bunny in one hand and a fork in the other, she climbed up next to Nate, planted herself on the edge of the seat, and speared a sausage. Watching him carefully, she took a small bite out of it, unable to keep the delight from her face as she chewed.

"Told you it was good," Nate smiled, turning in the seat so that he was open to her, welcoming, non-threatening and jovial. Together they finished the plate, and with some coaxing, he got Parker to eat a pancake as well.

When the waitress came back to their table, any trace of suspicion and doubt was gone, and she smiled warmly at them, asking if they'd like desert. The excitement on Parker's face when Nate said they could have ice cream was so heartbreakingly sincere that he let her have his as well.

It probably wasn't advisable to con a child, much less a child that you were trying to prove trustworthy to, but it worked, and Nate wasn't going to regret it.

That is, until they got back into the car and Parker couldn't sit still for two minutes even if the world depended on it.

Chapter 4

Parker stares at the group of people in front of her, unimpressed. They all stare back at her, each one with a different expression on their face that she doesn't quite understand. So she moves in closer to Nate, just enough so that her hand brushes against his pants, and she holds Bunny tightly in the other hand.

There's a big guy who looks like he could hurt her without trying, and who looked mad, but didn't look mad at her. When the big guy looks over at her, he gives her a small smile, and she thinks that maybe he's just annoyed with her, until he looks back at Nate and frowns, angry again. Parker doesn't like it, because Nate's been nice to her, and this guy is being mean to him.

There's a black guy who just stares at her like he's never seen a kid before, but his clothes look really comfortable and he kept saying weird things like, "I ain't no Big Bird, I don't know how to entertain a child!" and "You know how expensive college is these days? I'm gonna have to start up a trust fund or something!"

And then there's the lady, who smiles at her and crouches down like Nate had done in the hotel room, and holds her hands together, and tells her that she needed to talk with Nate for a second, and that her name is Sophie, and they were just going to be a minute and could Parker stay just right there like a good little girl?

Parker wants to throw something at her, but Nate tells her to stay behind too, and had smiled at her and said that it was all going to be okay, and to trust him. And Parker's already starting to trust him, and she wants to keep trusting him, so she stays standing in front of the door with the big guy and the black guy, and Bunny in her hand.

"You hungry, kid?" the big guy asks, and Parker doesn't answer him, but he goes into the kitchen anyways, and starts making noises. As long as he's making noises, he can't sneak up on Parker, and that's all right with her. She looks up at the spirally stairs that Nate and Sophie have disappeared up, and she wants to go up there to see what they were saying… to see if they're saying anything about her.

"So Parker," the black guy is saying, and it sounded like what some of the other kids at the orphanage had sounded like, and she kind of likes it. "My name's Hardison and that there's Eliot. Now if you have any questions, or you want a tour 'round the apartment, just ask one of us and we'll make sure you get…"

Parker stops listening, instead taking a moment to look at the rest of the place. It's tall and nice, nicer than anything she can remember being in. There's lots of TV's on one of the walls, and a couch that faced them, and a table that looked out of place just behind it. Hardison turns his back on her and she uses the moment to move further into the room, stopping between the couches and the TV's, dragging her finger along the smaller glass table. The couch looks soft too, and she touches that, smiling at the way she can push the cushions down, and they come popping right back up.

" – Parker? PARKER!"

The yell comes out of nowhere and Parker flinches, ducking under the glass table instinctively while the big guy, Eliot, yells,

"Damn-it, Hardison!"

"Don't blame me! Where the hell could she have gone? I turned around for a second! A second, man, and she just vanished into thin air!"

Hardison doesn't stop yelling about how she disappeared though, which she thinks is stupid because she's right there. But she doesn't want to come out from under the table because they're upset with her, and she doesn't know what they do when they're upset. How they'll react when they find her.

Then Parker starts panicking because they still won't stop yelling at her, and she remembers how she had a good time with Nate, and thinks about how she's probably just ruined it all.

"What's happening down here?!" Nate asks, and she can see him halfway down the spirally stairs, so she crawls out from under the table as fast as she can and runs to him. She can see Eliot and Hardison staring up at her as she flies up the steps, bumping into Nate's legs before she stops.

"I'm sorry," she cries, pressing against his legs, wanting him to be nice, and to keep being nice, like he'd been at the diner when she was trying to be bad. "I didn't mean to, I'm sorry, please don't be mad." There are tears on her face and she tries to wipe them away with Bunny's ear, tries not to think about how she's ruined everything because she couldn't stay like he told her to.

"Parker, hey, calm down." Nate's sitting down on the stair above her and she pushes into his arms, pushes her face against his chest and cries. She's ruined it all and he won't want her anymore and she'll have to go back to being alone and hungry, and he was nice and she'd been stupid and she just wants to stay with him, because he cared and he was nice.

And she cries and cries and cries, cries out all the nights she's spent alone, all the homes she's been in, all the kids who've made fun of her and all the adult who've called her names and hit her and made her do things that she didn't want to do. She cries, disappearing into the tears and the sadness she feels when she thinks about little Nicky, about how she'd accidently killed him, how it hadn't mattered that she hadn't wanted to; how it just mattered that he was dead and that it was her fault and that her daddy couldn't forgive her and her mommy didn't want her.

Parker cries and cries, and after it feels like she can't cry any more, when her face hurts and her eyes hurt and her hands hurt from holding Bunny so tightly, she realizes that Nate still ahs his arms around her; her face is pressing into the collar of his shirt, because he'd picked her up at some point, and now they were in another room, and she's sitting on his lap. He's talking to her, softly, calmly, and he doesn't sound mad, and she lets herself stop crying for a second to hear what he's saying.

"You didn't do anything bad, just stop crying, please? It's alright Parker, you'll be fine."

Nate's holding her, and they're on a bed, and she's holding Bunny, and he isn't upset with her, and everything finally feels like it might be all right.

Suddenly she feels so tired her eyes start closing on their own. Parker hiccups one last time and sniffles, trying to clear her nose, but then all she can feel is warm, and Nate not being mad, and she's asleep before she knows it.

Chapter 5

"What the hell happened, you two?" Nate wasn't furious, but he was close to – between Sophie trying to convince him that he was kidnapping a child, that they had to call the police, that it was unhealthy, and a bad idea – between Sophie, and Hardison and Eliot doing who knew what down here in the kitchen, he was close to furious.

"I just turned my back for a second man," Hardison protested, his hands up in a surrender, looking genuinely distraught, "And she was gone. Poof. Like into thin air, gone. I don't know what happened."

"You weren't paying attention to the kid, that's what happened. You gotta watch them, make sure they don't wander off and stick their fingers into an electrical circuit, you can't just – "

"Well, I didn't see you helping, now did I? You just disappeared into the Kitchen of – "

Of what, Nate didn't hear, nor did he particularly care to. "Guys! Stop!"

Sophie clicked her tongue, gave him one last disapproving look, took her bag and left the apartment. Suddenly, Nate's head was hurting a lot more than it did before they stopped at the breakfast diner that morning, and the two clowns bickering in the kitchen weren't helping.

" – food and nourishment. Have you seen the state of her? She's a stick! She needs to eat!"

"And I need eyes on the back of my head! But guess what?! I don't have 'em, and you know what? That means you gotta be them man!"

"I can't be your – what are you even – Nate?" Eliot voice suddenly dropped out of his squabbling with Hardison, hard and even. "What're you doing?"

"Getting a drink," Nate informed them, his head pounding too much to have to deal with this without one. "Why," he asked pleasantly, "Would you like one?"

Eliot came at him with a spatula that had something sticky on the end of it. "Nate. You got a kid up there. You can't be drinking with that."

Nate moved the glass away when Eliot attempted to grab it. "I'm not going to be drinking," he reassured, ignoring the dark thought in the back of his mind that said otherwise. "I'm just going to have a single drink." Hardison was beside Eliot now, looking at him with disapproval, and Nate had to wonder when he started having to defend himself to these guys. "I can't deal with this without a drink. Don't worry about it."

"We worry man," Hardison said, and Nate closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. Now they were tag-teaming him. That was just great. Ignoring them, he turned away and lifted the glass, desperate for that first, soothing sip.

"It's not just about you anymore, Nate. You can't be drinking like you used to. It's gotta stop."

Nate closed his eyes to Eliot's voice and took a sip, his entire body relaxing as he swallowed, the pounding in his head receding a little. They were wrong – just one drink and he would be fine; he'd be better for it. Better for everything.

Nate said one drink. Nate said one drink, and that turned into two, turned into three, turned into four, turned into more drinks than they could remember Nate having since he'd lost control and ended up in jail. Eliot had never been so mad at Nate drinking before. Nate drinking used to be a dysfunctional reassurance; the drink was Nate's game face. Now though…

He'd stuck around, claiming that he needed to fix something for the little girl to eat before she woke up. Nate, when sober, was a terrible cook. Nate, when drunk, was marginally better, though that depended on the state of his inebriation. Sliding the homemade chicken nuggets into the oven, Eliot straightened and glanced at Hardison, who hadn't even bothered to conceal his presence with an excuse.

"Hardison," he called softly, and Hardison turned to him, heading over quickly once he handed off the remote to a drunk Nate.

"Those smell good man," Hardison complimented, picking up a sliced potatoes from the last batch of cooking and taking a big bite.

Eliot resisted the urge to roll his eyes, and instead turned his back to Nate, trying for a semblance of privacy if Nate happened to get interested in their conversation. "We gotta keep an eye on things," he told Hardison softly, wiping his knife on a dishrag.

Hardison turned his back as well, equally concerned. "I know man. But unless we strap him down…"

"He can't be drinking this much and alone with her. I don't care, that's gonna go bad somehow."

Hardison probably didn't think that Nate would hurt the girl, and Eliot agreed – but it was the emotional scarring he was worried about. He'd seen the uglier side of life, the scum of the underworld, the depravity that some human beings were capable of. The darkness in his heart wouldn't let him be naïve to any experience she might have gone through. And Eliot knows that he'll be able to find a way to make Hardison agree she needed protection without sharing that darkness, if he didn't agree already.

"So we'll make sure one of us is always around. It's not always pretty when they place you in a home… and she ended up on the streets…"

Eliot knew well enough how to finish that thought, and he nodded. Sometimes, too often, he forgot that Hardison grew up in foster care, that he was one of the lucky ones who found someone stable, like his Nana. Sometimes he forgot that Nana wasn't Hardison's first home, either.

"We can make sure she gets better than that," he promised softly, putting an understanding hand on Hardison's back, and letting it linger when he felt the other man lean back into it.

"We can and we will."

Chapter 6

When she wakes up, it's in another strange place she hasn't been before. It's warm here, and cozy too, and Bunny's the first thing she can see. Then she remembers the day before, and the day before that, and she wonders what time it is, because it's dark in here, and she can't see a window.

But she remembers crying in Nate's arms, and she remembers Nate pretty clearly, so she doesn't panic. When she turns her head though, Nate's not there, and she frowns, wondering where he could be. Wondering where she is, if she's still in the house, or if she's slept through someone else touching her.

Sitting up she notices the hole in the room, the railing, and she remembers the spirally stairs from before. It could be the same one, she thinks, and so she takes Bunny and sits up. Moving off this bed is easier than the one in the hotel, and the floor doesn't make a noise when she crosses it. She's still wearing the same clothes and everything from yesterday, but that doesn't matter to her in the least. She's lucky she has these clothes, and she's been wearing them for longer than she can count.

Peeking down the spirally stairs, she sees that Nate is sleeping on the couch in the big room, and that the black guy, Hardison, his name was, is on the single couch. Hardison was watching something on the television, something she couldn't really see properly, but he didn't look like he would notice her at all. None of the lights were on, but there was light coming in from outside, so it had to be morning.

Hardison had yelled at her before, been angry with her, but… he wouldn't dare hurt her while Nate was there, would he? Even if Nate was asleep? But if she was quiet enough, he wouldn't even notice her, and she wouldn't be disruptive and loud, and that would be all right.

So Parker starts to make her way carefully down the steps, one at a time, trying to move with them instead of on them, and doesn't make even one noise. It's easier to be quiet on the solid ground, and she hides behind the couch as she steals another look at Hardison – he hasn't moved, and Parker could smell alcohol, and she wondered if Hardison had been drinking, or if Nate's the one that was drinking. Hardison doesn't look drunk though, just a little… serious, all focused on the television, so Parker moves away from the couch, quiet as she can be, and into the kitchen.

Once she gets away from the smell of alcohol, she starts smelling all sorts of delicious things. They're things that she can't describe; she doesn't know what these smells are, or what sort of food they belonged to, but she wants it all.

On the countertop she can see a pan of what could be muffins, and she places Bunny delicately on the countertop before she hoisting herself up quickly. They were indeed muffins – they smelt delicious and sweet and she pulls away the saran wrap covering them and takes one out of the tray. When she bites into it, her mouth fills with the taste of bran and deliciousness, and she nearly makes a noise, it's so good.

There are other things, in containers, and when she finishes with her muffin, she crawls over the counter to get to them. In one container there are sliced potatoes, and she has a dozen of them, crispy and soft at the same time. Beside them is a plastic covered plate of what looked like big, thin, pale pancakes, and she tries one before deciding it's gross.

There's a pile of vegetables and fruits on a platter beside that, and she stuffs herself on strawberries and grapes and blueberries and oranges and kiwi – leaving the carrots and the other hard things because they would be loud – and then moves onto another container that has cookies. Cookies that tasted like they were made out of vanilla and sugar and other sweet things that make her want to keep eating them forever.

Soon the entire container of cookies is gone, and she sits on the counter, unable to remember when she's ever felt so awake or full before.

The caution that she'd entered the kitchen with is gone, and she jumps off the countertop with Bunny, landing softly on the floor. She wants to play, or do something, and she wonders if Nate will wake up for her. Moving quickly to the couch, she appears at Nate's foot, tugging on his pants.

"Nate?" she asks, and she hears a squeak, and a gasp, and she looks over at Hardison, alarmed. Her heart is suddenly in her throat, and she's terrified that she's done something wrong. "Nate," she says more urgently, tugging on his pants harder, but he just moans so she stops.

It wasn't a good idea to wake up people who had drunk themselves to sleep, and she doesn't want to have two people angry with her.

"I'm sorry," she whispers to Hardison, moving closer to Nate, thinking that even if he isn't awake, maybe being close to him will protect her.

Hardison is still holding his chest, and looks like he hasn't been breathing. "Jesus, Parker, where'd you come from girl?"

Unsure if it's a real question or not, she points up toward the ceiling. "I'm sorry, I can go away," she tells him nervously when he doesn't say anything, leaning heavily against Nate's leg, which hangs awkwardly off the couch.

"Nah, you don't gotta do that," Hardison shakes his head, and he doesn't sound angry or upset anymore. "You just, you startled me. I wasn't really paying attention, wasn't expecting it." He pauses, and looks at her, then at Nate, then back at her, and Parker looks at Nate, confused. "You know, he's just, uh, sleeping. Got tired and didn't want to wake you."

Parker's smart enough to know when someone had drunk themselves to sleep, but she's also smart enough not to argue.

"So uh, you hungry kid?"

Parker shakes her head. If she hadn't eaten all the cookies and stuff… Hardison nods, but looks a little lost, and Parker picks at the hem of Nate's pants for a few seconds. "Hardison?" she asks softly, her eyes still on Nate's pants, energy still making her body want to move.

"Yeah kid?"

She wants to say that she was bored, that she wants to do something other than just stand here, but that was never a good thing to say. People didn't like it when you said you were bored. So instead she asks, "What were you watching?" and climbs up on the couch with Nate, pushing his legs out of the way to making room for herself.

"Oh, uh… nothing, really. Why, you wanted to watch something?" he asks, his hand going for the remote, his eyes staying on Parker. Parker shrugs, knowing he's watching her, and feeling safer now that she's with Nate. Who was still sleeping, but it felt safer.

"Well, how about some cartoons then?" Hardison asks, and Parker wonders if he thought she'd said something. "There's a few funny ones, and we've got the old school network on this baby too – how about it? Some CareBears? Some Sesame Street? Some Tom and Jerry?"

Parker doesn't know what any of those were – well, she remembers Sesame Street, but she didn't cared much about it then, and she doesn't think she will now. So she shrugs again, and Hardison goes on talking,

"I loved Tom and Jerry. They were awesome. See, here, look."

The six screens come to life with the image of a cat and a mouse, and Parker's feet come up to the couch, tucking under her as she watches the screens, fascinated.

The door opens, and it was only years of conditioning that make Parker turn to see who it is – Tom and Jerry were funny. And she liked them. And she liked that Hardison laughed along with her, and that he though they were funny too. Sometimes he would say things that didn't really make sense, but she didn't mind it.

It was Eliot who was coming through the door, and he had bags and bags on his arms, and she watches him, wondering how he was able to carry all that stuff.

"You guys have been watching cartoons all morning?" he asks, sounding grumbly, and Parker turns back toward the screen and slides down so that the couch hides her, moving closer to Nate.

"Yeah man," Hardison replies happily, and Parker glances at him, wondering if that was the best way to deal with grumbly people. "And the classics too, you should sit down, join us!"

Eliot grumbles something, moves around the with bags a little bit, and then goes behind the counter… oh, Parker thinks, remembering the mess she made earlier crawling across it and eating all the food, and Eliot yells, "Damn-it, Hardison!"

Parker winces and shrinks even further into the cushions – she's totally forgotten about the counter, and all the stuff she'd eaten, and maybe she wasn't supposed to eat that stuff? Maybe that wasn't Nate's stuff?

"Look at the mess you've made here," Eliot is saying, his voice angry, and Hardison stands up to go take a look at what Eliot's talking about; to look at Parker's mess. Sleeping Nate can't protect her now, not from Eliot, and she quickly and quietly gets off the couch with Bunny and runs to the first door she saw.

"I didn't do that. That was you man!"

"Oh really?! 'Cause I'm pretty sure I would remember if I made a mess like this!"

"Well it sure as hell wasn't me!"

"Then who was it!?"

There was a pause and Parker closes the door of the room she'd slipped into, hoping they didn't hear the click as Hardison calls out her name. No, she isn't going to come out until Nate woke up, and he was there to protect her again. They could be angry all they wanted, but they would never find her. Never ever, she promises Bunny, moving through the space carefully, wondering what's inside of it. It feels like clothes, and odd things, and she takes something soft and covers herself with it, curling into a small ball, protecting Bunny, and pretending like she isn't there.

Chapter 7

Someone was shouting at him to wake up, and really, that was the last thing he wanted to do. His head was ringing, his stomach was revolting against him, and he remembered drinking the previous night. Drinking… way too much, the previous night. The passing out on the couch had happened after Eliot had left, and Hardison had very obviously stayed to prevent him from doing anything stupid. Which were Hardison's words, not his own.

But now people were yelling at him, and wasn't he supposed to be the team leader around here? Why were people yelling at him – he was the one who was supposed to do the yelling.

"Stop it!" he demanded, his voice carrying much less authority than he wanted, hoarse and parched. Ah well, it would have to do – and apparently it did, because the shouting stopped. "Now, say it slowly," he instructed, sitting up carefully on the couch, his body aching and protesting every muscle of the way.

Falling asleep on his bed was much better than the couch… but Parker was in his bed, which is why he'd chosen the couch. Parker. Hardison and Eliot were saying something about Parker, but their voices were overlapping one another, making both indistinguishable.

"Alright, alright, alright," he said, waving his hands at them like it would make them go away. When it neglected to, he sighed, held his head and said, "Say it again. One at a time," he clarified when he could feel both of them opening their mouths. "And clearly."

"We can't find Parker." Nate looked up at Hardison, ignoring the wave of nausea that went through his body – he hadn't had much to drink last night, not more than usual, so he wasn't sure if the nausea was from the hangover or from the idea of losing Parker.

"What do you mean," he said, his voice carefully controlled, "'Lost her'?"

"Hardison scared her off," Eliot started, but Hardison interrupted almost immediately with,

"Hey now, I was getting along perfectly fine with her before you showed up, it's you're –"

But Nate had no interest in the blame game, and he had less than the usual amount of patience for Eliot and Hardison arguing. "Guys!" The sharpness in his voice stopped them, and he closed his eyes, trying to center himself. He was fine, he really was, besides which, they had to find Parker. "Did you look everywhere?"

"Yeah, we did. But if she's around here, she wouldn't come out." Hardison looked worried, and upset, and that made Nate worried.

"Did you try my room?" he asked, resisting the urge to go do it himself because he needed just another second before he cared to tackle the stairs.

"Yes, and everywhere else." Eliot's tone was impatient, and Nate finally managed to push himself up to a standing position.

"Parker!" he called out, in vain, but he needed to try it. No way has he going to lose another – that train of thought he aborted abruptly, calling out once again, more desperately, "Parker?!"

The door behind them opened and all three of them turned in unison to see Parker peeking out of it, her hand on the doorknob, a wool coat over her head, and Bunny in her arms. "Nate?" she answered nervously, clearly ready to head back into her closet if the situation did not appear to be in her favor.

"You didn't check the closet?!" Eliot demanded incredulously, and Hardison looked at him with a 'what do you expect from me look' and an indignant,

"I checked the closet! I checked the closet three times! She must've been hiding!"

Eliot began to respond, his voice rising, and Nate watched as Parker backed back into the closet, the door closing marginally. "Guys, stop it," he snapped, and Eliot and Hardison fell into silence. "You upset her when you fight. It scares her. Right Parker?" he asked, distancing himself from the other two, and she opened the door a little more. Nate nodded, crouching as she looked at him.

"Yeah," she said quietly, leaving the closet but keeping the door open, making a beeline for Nate and stopping just before she reached his knees. Carefully she oriented herself to put Nate between her and the other two, her hand hovering less than an inch away from his jacket.

"See." He stood up, letting Parker hide behind him, feeling the ghost of a touch as she grabbed the hem of his jacket. "It's your bickering that's been scaring her."

Hardison looked guilty as he said, "Aw, man."

There seemed to be some sort of conclusion dawning on Eliot, and he looked sheepish, trying to smile. "Sorry darling," he said, sitting down on the arm of the couch, and Parker peeked out at him. "We didn't mean to scare you. We were just fooling around."

Parker looked up at Nate in confusion and he smiled at her. "They do that. They'll argue and fight and yell at each other, but they're not going to hurt one another. Or you," he added, seeing the question forming on her lips. "Never you."

"We promise," Eliot said, and Hardison chimed in as well with,


"They're not mad at me?" Parker asked, confusion evident in her face and Nate knew that she doesn't need him to play middleman anymore, which was a relief, because he really needed to sit down.

"Nah, we ain't mad at you. Why would we be mad at you?" Hardison followed Nate to the dining table, sitting down on the other side of the table, and Parker followed them, clambering onto the seat at the head of the table.

Parker was hesitant to answer, and she glanced over at Eliot, in the kitchen. "Because I made the mess? And I was bad?" It's more like she's asking the question, and Nate looked over to the kitchen to see what she was talking about.

"You ate all these cookies?" Eliot was holding a container that was empty except for crumbs, looking dubious. "There were a dozen in here."

"I was hungry," Parker shrugged, looking to Nate, "And you were sleeping."

"I wasn't," Hardison muttered to himself, and it was at that point that Nate clued in to the fact that Hardison hadn't noticed Parker raid the countertop. Eliot shook his head with a mutter, and Hardison let his head fall into his folded arms, on top of the table.

Yet, Parker was still looking at Nate. Nate's head still hurt, but she was looking at him, lost, completely out of her depth and unsure of how to deal with what was happening. "Okay," he said, resting his head on his hand, relief flooding through his body when he heard Eliot setting something on the stove to sizzle. "Let's make some… guidelines."

"For me?" Hardison asked, and Nate would have glared at him if it didn't require moving his head.

"For Parker," he clarified, Parker's eyes still latched onto his, looking uncertain about what he was going to say, still unsure if she was in trouble or not. "No hiding from us. If you're going to live here, you can't disappear. Everyone worries, and we're not going to hurt you," he explained, and her worry faded into vague confusion. "When we can't find you, we're worried you could be… I don't know, on the street somewhere, about to be run over by a car."

It wasn't the most appropriate analogy, what with her being from the street and all, but it was early, and his head still hurt. Thankfully, Eliot stepped in: "And before you have all that sugar, come to me and I'll make you something good to eat. And if I'm not here, get someone else."

Parker looked back at Nate, who nodded slowly, more out of the head pain than punctuation. "Eliot's right. You have to eat healthy, and the food he makes is good."

"And you don't have to sneak around no more. I know it was probably… better, before, but we won't get mad at you. Promise." Hardison said it with such sincerity that Nate wasn't surprised when Parker nodded, silent but determined.

Eliot brought them each a plate filled with a breakfast that would appease anyone, mortal or god, and Nate dug in with as much fervor as he could muster. And the third time that Parker stabbed into his plate to withdraw a piece of food, he had to wonder if he'd created a food-stealing monster yesterday at the diner.

Chapter 8

Sophie had come in after breakfast, her arms filled with bags, and a cold look at Nate. Parker had turned back to watching television on one of the screens, though really, she was looking at the other five, where Hardison was doing things on the Internet. She doesn't think that she's supposed to be paying attention to what he's doing, but she's curious, and even though she can't read it, it seems much more interesting than whatever was going on in the show that was currently on.

"What're you doing?" she asks softly, after she's convinced herself that it'll be all right, careful to give him the chance to ignore her if he wants to. When he looks over at her and smiles, she smiles back a little, shifting a little bit closer.

"Well bug, I'm – "

Nate, who'd been talking to Sophie, came around the couch to stand in front of her, looking impatient and cutting Hardison off mid-sentence. "Sophie got you some new clothes – come try them on." He doesn't look happy with the idea, and Parker's more interested in what Hardison's doing than she is clothes.

"But I want to stay here," she tells him, looking at Hardison for support, but he shrugs,

"I'll be here when you get back, bug. I can show you then."

That seems to settle it for Nate, who motions for her to come with him. "Right. Hardison will be here later, now come on."

Parker shakes her head, pulling Bunny up to her chest. "But I want to stay here," she insists. She doesn't want to go with Sophie, she doesn't know Sophie, and she wants to stay with Hardison, who was doing cool things with the Internet.

"Parker, I don't have time for this," Nate sighs, and he takes a deep breath and tells her again, "So let's get going."

"I don't want to," Parker repeats stubbornly, scooting closer to Hardison, who's starting to look less happy as well.

"Parker, I'mma be here when you get back. Go try on the clothes, and then I'll show you what I was doing."

Hardison wants her to go with Sophie as well, and Parker stands up on the couch, leaning against the back, and looks at Sophie, who lifts up a bag of clothing with a big smile on her face.

"Come on Parker. We need to get you cleaned up, and into something other than that. It'll be wonderful, and we'll have fun!" Parker shakes her head, sitting back down on the couch, and clamps down on Bunny, pushing away from even Hardison and pressing back against the arm of the couch.

These were her clothes, and she'd worked hard to get them. The jacket she had to steal off a girl at the park, and the pants she'd taken from a vendor on the street, and the shirt she was wearing was long and still a little bit big from her – it had holes in the arms, but those were covered by the jacket, and she'd had it the longest. She'd taken it with her when she ran away, and she didn't want to give it up, not for nothing.

"Parker," Nate says, and he's starting to sound more and more impatient. "Don't you want new clothes?"

"No," she says stubbornly, even though impatient never means anything good for her – she looks pleadingly at Hardison.

"Hey, don't look at me, I like new clothes," he says, holding his hands up, like she's seen him do to Eliot before, when he's trying to not make Eliot angry with him. "And being nice and clean. Yep – see these sweats? See how soft they are? Go on, touch," he tells her, holding out the fabric of his pants so that she can feel it, and she moves over to him carefully, hoping it isn't a trap.

But the pants are soft, and he just smiles at her, and she nods. "They are soft. But I don't want new stuff. I like my stuff."

"But your stuff's got holes in it. See, this stuff is better. And softer. And warmer. And I'm sure Sophie has a lot of different stuff that you can try on. You should go."

He's trying to convince her, but she really doesn't want to go. She can't help but whine. "But it's my stuff."

"Parker," Nate says, and she turned to him, curling up defensively. But he's smiling again, that weird smile he'd had at the diner. "That stuff's going to be your stuff too if you want it. But you have to try it on to see if it'll fit first, and then it'll be all yours. It'll belong to you, you can keep it, I promise."

"It'll be mine?" Parker asks, because she hadn't taken it, and she hadn't bought it, and she doesn't know how something could be hers if not by doing those things.

Nate nods, motioning again for her to come. "All yours. Even if someone wanted to, they wouldn't be able to take it away, because it would be yours. Right Hardison?"

Hardison nods as well, reaching out to touch her, and she stills as he touches her shoulder. "We won't let anything happen to it, promise. And if someone takes it, we'll take it right back." His hand isn't tight, but it is warm, and it moves up and down her arm a few times before he pulls it back.

"I can keep it?" Parker asks again, just to confirm, a little distracted by the touch, and Nate comes over and takes her hand.

"Of course you can. We wouldn't give you anything you couldn't keep. Come on, Sophie's waiting." He pulls on her hand lightly, like he wants her to come, and won't force her if she doesn't want to. That's what makes her go, that he was being nice about it, and it felt a little good too, to be holding his hand and going with him.

First Hardison and now Nate – it's nice, and she likes it, and she looks up doubtfully at Sophie, but Nate's leading her, so she follows, heading up the stairs still a little resistant.

Chapter 9

"But I don't want to take a bath!" Parker shrieked, running out of the bathroom and leaping onto the bed, crawling all the way to the top, where Bunny was lying, taking hold of him and brandishing him like he was a laser-blaster, capable of keeping them away.

But she was filthy, even Nate had to admit it, and it wasn't like he had the best standard to begin with. There came an age where Bath Time stopped being fun, and starting being the end all and be all of the World As Was Known, until eventually, it started being a necessary evil, and then, a long way down the road, relaxing and wonderful. Parker seemed to be stuck in the end of the world phase, and it was Nate and Sophie who had to deal with it.

"Sweetie, if you want to try on the new clothes, you're going to have to take a bath."

It was a pathetic attempt at reasoning with Parker, if only for the fact that Parker had been, not minutes ago, loudly protesting the procurement of said clothing.

"I don't want them," she protested predictably, and loudly, and Nate was glad that Hardison owned the building, because they were most likely disturbing some neighbors. His head felt like it was the location for a parade march, in any case.

"Parker, you need to take a bath."

"No!" she yelled at him, raising her voice for the first time.

It wasn't like he could just drag her into the tub and force her to do it – so he sat down on the bed, crossed his legs, and prayed that she would see sense before he saw the light.

"Parker, why don't you want a bath?"

Parker's mouth was already open when she realized that the response she had queued up wouldn't be appropriate. No doubt she'd had one all prepared and ready to go.

"Parker," he asked again, hoping he'd brought out the persuasive, urging her to answer him.

"I don't want to," she said, the same vague answer she seemed to have for everything.

Nate let his head fall into his hands for the umpteenth time. Sam had never been like this. And he was going to say that, the next time Sophie tried to throw that particular argument in his face. "Sometimes you have to do things that you don't want to do," he told her, before looking up and checking to see that she was paying attention. She still looked suspicious and mutinous, but much less panicked.

"We don't have to be there if you don't want to. I don't have to be there. And neither does Sophie. Is that it? We can stay right out side the door the entire time." With the door open, preferably, for this first time, but he was willing to compromise.

The mutiny left her face and she just looked suspicious – Sophie, picking up on it, played it. "I'll go get it all set for you, and then you can have a nice soak in the water, wash your hair, oh, it'll be lovely." And even Nate believed her, so thoroughly that he found himself wanting a bath.

Maybe later. The water started running and he resisted the impulse to simply lie down and have a nap.

Parker's quiet voice interrupted his increasingly committed thoughts, and he blinked at her. "What – about the bath? No, Parker, not at all. But it might be easier for everyone if you just talk about why you don't want to do something, instead of just saying no."

And here he was, a con artist, preaching the truth well communicated. He felt like a fraud, in more ways than one.

"But I don't want to take a bath," Parker repeated, and he wondered again how old she was – six or seven for sure, but that doesn't account for the age or maturity he's really wondering about. She'd snuck around the place without Hardison noticing and managed to hide like an old hat, but the moment she needed to communicate what she was feeling, she regressed years.

And maybe that was normal for a kid like her, but he wanted to fix it, make it better, and make her happier. "You didn't want to take a bath and you didn't want us to be there."

"That too," she conceded softly, Bunny no longer on the defensive, and instead lying passively by her side.

For a moment they looked at one another, and he could see the intelligence in her eyes, the years of cautious wisdom and hard learning. All the promising cleverness; the spark, the potential for so much more than just a street pickpocket, looking for the next meal.

"And we're all ready!" Sophie's voice is bright and sounds false in the darkness of the room, and Parker looked at them both with pensive eyes before crawling off the bed, leaving Bunny behind with a lasting glance.

"I've got him," Nate told her, smiling, reassuring, promising that nothing would happen to him if she left him alone for just a moment. "We'll be right here," he promises, "Yell if you need anything."

"And make sure to rinse your hair well," Sophie added, sitting on the bed beside him before remembering that she was angry with him.

With a helpless look, Nate gestured to the bathroom, where they could hear Parker delicately getting into the water.

Sophie huffed quietly and rolled her eyes, shaking her head. Apparently it was his fault that a child had crawled into his car and hitchhiked halfway to Boston before he noticed.

They both knew that was unfair and Nate gave her a look that said exactly that, in not so many words.

Sophie sighed and fell down dramatically onto the bed, and Nate looked to the open door of the bathroom as he heard Parker splashing around in the water. After a moment of thought he flopped down onto the bed with Sophie, relishing in the softness of the bed after hours on the couch, and the abrupt wake up in the morning.

After a second, her fingertips brushed his and he opened his hand without implying anything but that – that he was open to it. Gently her hands ghosted over his palm before sliding between his fingers and closing around them tightly. Nate allowed his to do the same, closing his eyes and ignoring everything but the feeling that he might be all right.

There was a splash of water and Parker giggled in the bathroom, and he couldn't help but smile.

Chapter 10

The bath had been… amazing. Parker can't remember the last time she'd been in a bathtub like this, warm water all around her, in a clean bathtub, with no one around, wanting anything from her. She even faces the door the entire time, but neither Nate nor Sophie try to come in, even though the door is wide open.

For a while she's a duck in a pond, her hands making ripples in the water as they move this way and that. Then she's an otter, diving under the water and popping back out again, quick and slick, her hands jumping up to the ledge of the tub and flipping back down to the bottom. Then the water gets cold and she reaches for the shampoo, which smells fruity and weird. With her hair thick with shampoo, she takes a few minutes styling it in different ways, using the metal of the spout to see her distorted reflection.

When she tries to rinse the shampoo out, her fingers catch on all the knots in her hair – for a while she tugs at them to get them loose, but eventually they hurt too much to keep trying. A little worried that Sophie and Nate will get mad at her for spending so much time playing, and so little time 'getting clean', she gets out of the bath to dry herself.

The towel wraps around her entire body, enough so that she could even get some over her head. For a moment she debates just putting on her old clothes, but she knows that she's going to be getting new clothes, and she doesn't want to make Nate or Sophie even more upset.

They're lying on the bed when she comes out, holding hands, but not sleeping. Parker stands there with her towel-cloak, until Nate realizes she's out. He sits up quickly, pulling his hand away from Sophie's and clearing his throat. Sophie just shifts and puts her head up on her hand, smiling at her. Nate looks a little weird, uncomfortable and nervous, but when he actually sees her, he smiles.

"Sophie, why don't you get those new clothes?" he says, and Sophie sits up all the way, moving off the bed and heading to the corner of the room where the pile of bags is.

Nate's still smiling at her, soft and kind, and she once again feels the desperate hope that this might work out. That she'll be able to stay good, and not do anything stupid to mess things up.

"Why don't you try these on sweetie?" Sophie says, and she's beside Parker, and she's holding five… dresses.

The old clothes back in the bathroom begin to look worth the trouble they would cause. "I don't want to," Parker says softly, and Nate shifts on the bed.

"Parker," he starts, and she moves away from Sophie, back towards the wall, her eyes going to Bunny on the bed. But he's too far away, so Parker shakes her head,

"I don't want to."

"Oh," Sophie says, and Parker doesn't understand why she's so upset about it. "But they're all so nice."

Parker shakes her head, and Nate comes to the edge of the bed, leaning his elbows on his knees. "Why don't you want the dresses?"

He sounds nice, and patient, and not at all upset with her – just curious. "I don't like dresses," Parker ventures, quietly, and then waits for the fallout.

But there isn't any – Sophie just makes a small, positive sound, and goes back to the bags. "I've got plenty of things here that aren't dresses," she says cheerfully, but it's Nate's quiet nod, and reassuring smile, that really make Parker feel okay.

There are leggings, and jeans, and sweat pants, and a track suit, and a dozen other things that Parker tries out, ducking into the bathroom every time and coming out to show Sophie and Nate on the bed, where they always smile and say she looks great.

There are sweaters and t-shirts and long shirts and long-sleeve shirts, and hoodies and a little leather bomber jacket that Parker refuses to take off and that makes Nate give Sophie a look.

By the time she has a pile of things she wants to keep, she's ready to go downstairs and show someone else.

Hardison had said that he would be waiting on the couch, and she leaves Nate and Sophie to run down the stairs. Keeping up the momentum, she flips over the back of the couch and lands on the cushion beside Hardison, who nearly sends his keyboard flying.

"Holy Parker!" he shouts, and she shrinks away from him, her good cheer disappearing in an instant. He sounds upset, and angry, and she almost made him break his keyboard, and she's scrambling off the couch even as she can hear Eliot yelling at Hardison.

Parker finally pauses on the second step of the stairs, her hand holding the railing firmly, ready to bolt in an instant. Hardison doesn't look upset anymore, and he's standing up from the couch, looking… sad, almost.

"Parker, kid, I'm sorry," he apologizes, and Eliot presence seems to shrink a little bit. "You just surprised me, is all. Come back here and we'll look at this cool stuff?" he suggests, sitting down and patting the spot beside him.

Tentatively, she steps down from the stairs, glancing at Eliot, who gives her a nod. It makes her feel a little bolder, and she makes her way to Hardison, who's nodding as well.

"I didn't mean to yell," he says again, apologetic, and Parker takes the long way around the couch, hovering by the arm. "That's a nice jacket," he tells her, and she looks down at the floor because she feels oddly proud of her jacket, even though she didn't do anything to earn it. "Did you find a lot of stuff you liked?"

Parker nods, hiding a smile, looking at his hand on the cushion, and then crawling up onto the furthest edge of the couch.

"Do you still wanna see what I'm doing?" Hardison asks softly, and Parker can hear Eliot start slicing something in the background. Parker nods and inches a little closer; Hardison starts pointing at the screen and explaining how to make fake identities, and eventually she's almost beside him, hanging off every word, the sound and the rhythm of his voice smoothing over her fears and relaxing her.

Chapter 11

"Parker, it's almost midnight – you have to be tired by now."

But Parker only curled up tighter on the couch, shaking her head and clutching the stuffed toy rabbit to her chest. At that moment, Nate gave up on reasoning with her; instead he stepped over Hardison's legs, which were stretched out from the armchair and resting on top of the coffee table, getting closer to the couch.

"Look," he told her, trying to sound reasonable, sitting down on the couch beside her. She didn't shrink away, but she did eye him wearily, her face drooping with exhaustion. "Hardison's fallen asleep. Even he was tired."

Sophie had spent a painstaking hour detangling the knots from Parker's hair, and while Parker squirmed and looked generally unhappy, Sophie had managed to keep from pulling any strand of hair too painfully.

Parker's looking at Hardison, thinking hard – probably trying to decide if her new favorite person would still be around in the morning, if she went to bed. Nate wasn't sure if she was so enamored with Hardison himself, or the tech he'd let her play around with. She'd been a quick study, pressing buttons and moving pictures around, and Nate wouldn't have been surprised to find that she could already do more stuff than he could with laptops and cell phones.

"Will Hardison be here in the morning?" she asked softly, and Nate nodded – Eliot brought over a night bag for Hardison, and there were sheets on the opposite armchair in case he woke up enough to put them to use in the guest room.

"Can't I sleep here?" she asked timidly, looking tiny against the arm of the couch, staring up at him with big, wide blue eyes.

Nate sighed. "Wouldn't you be more comfortable upstairs, in my bed?" He'd been planning to rough it on the couch – he wasn't going to go to the guest room that had been set up adjacent to his apartment, against his wishes, because this was still his house, and he was not going to validate that area by using it.

Parker shook her head, looking between Nate and Hardison. Nate knows for a fact that she would be more comfortable upstairs, that the only reason she doesn't want to leave is because this is where Hardison is, and this is where he is, and she doesn't want to leave those two people, or this place by extension.

"Alright, fine," he relented, standing up and sighing – this was a battle he was too tired to fight right now. When he looked at Parker again, she looked worried, but he gave her a smile, "I'm just gonna grab myself a drink. You should go change into one of those pajama sets that Sophie got you."

The suggestion got a dramatically forlorn response from her, and for a second Nate wished that Sophie could see it. Instead he shrugged, playing it cool, making his way to his drink stash saying, "Well, either that or you could sleep upstairs. You're choice." And he turned around just in time to see her feet disappearing off the stairs, into his room.

Again, he thought to himself that conning a small child wasn't the most morally acceptable thing, but damnit, it worked.

By the time she came back down the stairs, he'd resettled himself on the couch, the television(s) on, the volume low so as to not disturb Hardison. The cotton set of pajamas was decorated with small bunnies, and Parker had taken the afghan from his bed and dragged it down the stairs. Her eyes lingered on him when she came into sight, and she slowed for a second, gauging his reaction.

"Come on then," he smiled at her, and she grinned at him, grabbing the pillow on the vacant armchair and crawling onto the couch. Curling up into the pillow against the arm of the couch, she pulled the afghan tightly around her. Nate could feel her eyes on him, could feel the shift of her body as he reached out for his drink on the coffee table. "Just a night cap," he told her, and she nodded at him, but her eyes were distant, suspicious.

"Really, it's not a big deal," he told her, shrugging it off, and she nodded again, this time saying,

"Okay," very, very softly. Guilt weighed down on him and he looked away from her; the first sip washed away some of the guilt, relaxed his body, made everything feel a little looser.

But he could still feel Parker's eyes on him, the quiet judgment in her stare, and he couldn't help but think of the implications of that stare. What kind of things she might have associated alcohol with – and he knows he'd never hurt her, never let himself get to that point – he's gotten control of the drinking, no matter how many bad memories she stirs up every now and then – but her eyes burned into the side of his head, and he suddenly couldn't stand it anymore.

Parker flinched visibly as he stood up, drink in hand. "I'm going to go upstairs, sleep up there." He tried to keep the impatience and frustration out of his voice, the anger contained, but Parker pulled into herself regardless.

"Okay," she whispered, on the edge of fearful, but he couldn't make himself explain to her that all the negativity wasn't directed at her, it was directed at him. That this was how he made himself feel better – this and a con well run, watching the pieces slipping neatly into place, just as he'd orchestrated them to. That she'd never become his target because… it just wouldn't happen.

Nate picked up the bottle of whiskey on his way to the stairs and ignored her look as she watched him going up.

Chapter 12

It's quiet in the apartment when Parker wakes up; the lights are off, but there's light outside, enough to make it seem like the windows are glowing. As she stretches out her legs a little, she peers over to where Hardison is sleeping, in the armchair, his head at an awkward angle. His legs are still on the coffee table, his arms folded, his chest rising and falling evenly.

Quietly, she pushes off the blanket and moves off the couch – there's no sleepy left in her, and she wants to do something. For a second she debates what she can do, her eyes moving to the kitchen counter, where there was a neat pile of muffins stacked under a glass container. Eliot had made more of them last night, before he left, and said they were for her, but she didn't want to take anything after the mess she'd made yesterday. And she wasn't too hungry, not so much that she couldn't wait a little bit.

The stairs catch her eye and she heads to them after a moment. Nate had gone upstairs yesterday, and he'd seemed upset with her, angry almost. And she'd tried so hard not to make him mad, but it hadn't worked. As she makes her way quietly up the stairs, she keeps one eye out on Hardison, Bunny dangling from her hand. Parker doesn't want to wake Nate up just… make sure that he's still there. Still here, to protect her.

And Nate's sprawled out on the bed, the empty bottle of whiskey on the floor and the smell of alcohol thick in the air. Parker moves a little closer, right up to the bed, close enough so that she can see he's still breathing – still alive, just sleeping. He doesn't move at all except for his breath, and she takes her jacket from the pile of her clothes that are in the corner of the room before leaving the room.

Downstairs, Hardison is still sleeping, twitching every now and then, shifting restlessly. Parker hadn't dreamt that night, but she wonders if Hardison is, if she should wake him up. Mostly when she dreams, it's not nice, and she doesn't want him to be having a bad dream.

But before she can make up her mind, he shifts one last time in the chair, and opens his eyes. For a second he looks confused, and he closes them, pulling his legs off the coffee table and moaning. As he moves the rest of his body, things crack and pop, and it sounds like it hurts.

Not wanting to scare him, like she usually does, Parker climbs onto the couch, leans back against the pillow and the afghan, and watches him. Eventually he leans forward in the seat, opening his eyes again, registering her with surprise. "Oh, hey."

Parker gives him a tentative smile, stilling still and quiet, waiting to see what will happen. But Hardison just stands up, still stretching his arms and legs every which way, and asks through a yawn, "Did you sleep okay?"

Parker nods, and then says, "Yes," because he isn't looking at her.

"Hungry?" Hardison asks, and Parker nods again, this time getting up off the couch to follow him as he heads into the kitchen. She climbs up onto the countertop as he opens the fridge, pulling out a bottle of bright orange liquid and taking a long drink from it. Parker watches him, her legs swinging off the edge, Bunny sitting in her lap.

"That's better," Hardison says to himself. When he turns around he looks surprised to see Parker. "You like climbing stuff, don't you?"

Parker nods at that, smiling widely at just the thought. Trees, fences, houses, walls, playground equipment – Parker loves it all. "It's fun," she tells him quietly, still not sure if he's in a good mood because she's being quiet, or if this is how he is in the mornings.

"I'm sure it is – toast okay for you? I don't know how to do all that fancy stuff that Eliot does." Parker nods, and Hardison opens the fridge, pulling out some jam and butter before taking some bread and popping it in the toaster. "You know where Nate's at?" he asks, as they wait for the bread to toast.

Parker points to the stairs, "He's still sleeping."

Hardison looks at the stairs darkly, and Parker wonders if she should have lied. If Nate didn't want anyone else to know that he'd been drinking – suddenly she feels guilty, like she's betrayed Nate. "Yeah, I'm sure he is," Hardison says, and Parker wants to make him not angry with Nate, but she doesn't know how.

The toast pops and Parker's still trying to think of how to fix things – Hardison takes the two pieces out and looks at her, "Jam, butter, both, none?"

Parker shrugs – the diner the other day with Nate was one of her few encounters with toast.

"We'll try some jam and see how that goes – this is strawberry," he says, smearing the thick jelly over the toast, and then hands it to her. "Try that."

Parker looks at it with a frown before taking a bite – it's sweet, and tangy, and she smiles at the taste of it.

"So jam's good! Awesome. That's going on the Parker-Likes list." Hardison's setting another batch of bread into the toaster, and Parker pulls her feet up onto the counter, nibbling on her food. Hardison keeps talking, but it doesn't sound like he's asking any questions, and he doesn't seem to mind that she doesn't talk back.

By the time Parker's been filled up by two pieces of toast, and Hardison's finishing munching on a muffin, the front door opens. Parker and Hardison both turn to look, and she sees Eliot, who looks at them and shakes his head.

"Don't you guys know what tables are for?" he asks, and Parker immediately moves to get off the counter – except Hardison catches her under the arms the moment she starts shifting, and she stiffens – but all he does is help her off the counter, controlling her fall until her feet are on the ground.

"You know how it goes, man," he's saying, like he doesn't even notice what he's doing, "Gotta eat where you gotta eat."

"Yeah, I don't think that's how it goes – good morning Parker," Eliot says pleasantly, coming around the kitchen's counter. He looks a lot bigger up close, but just as she starts to take a step back, he crouches. "How're you doing this morning?"

Parker glances quickly at Hardison, who smiles. "I'm good," she tells him, and Bunny lowers an inch from his place against her chest.

"Did Hardison feed you enough? Or are you still hungry?" he asks, and Hardison makes a sound of protest, and Parker shakes her head. There's room for more, but she doesn't want Eliot to get upset with Hardison. It was better just to say yes and agree. "How about for some dessert? I could make some cinnamon rolls, or some pie?"

"I want cinnamon rolls and some pie," Hardison says, and Parker shrugs. They both sound delicious, but she's starting to feel outnumbered, and she wants Nate to wake up and come downstairs and be with them.

Eliot laughs and stands up, stepping aside. "Why don't you guys go sit at the table like civil people and I'll whip something up?" It doesn't really sound like a question, but Parker doesn't mind and she slips past Eliot, heading to the table. Hardison and Eliot make conversation, but Parker doesn't hear her name, and they don't look at her to join in, so she sits on her knees in the chair, laying her head down on the table. They're not yelling at one another, and every time it sounds like they're going to start, she lifts her head a little, getting ready to leave. But then either Hardison or Eliot will change their tone, and they go back to sounding normal.

By the time Eliot's putting a tray of things into the oven, Parker's beyond bored. Sitting at the table and listening to Hardison and Eliot talk is nice, but they're talking about boring things, and she hasn't done anything yet to use up any of the energy she woke up with.

So when Hardison gets up and leaves the table to head into the kitchen, debating something with Eliot, she takes it as permission granted for her to leave as well.

Chapter 13

Nate woke up disoriented, his mind muzzy and his head cluttered. Cohesive thoughts were a no-go, even after he opened his eyes. He was in his room that much was clear, but there was a nagging thought that… and something moved on the bed beside him. The memory of Parker popped into his head and he rolled over with enormous effort, groaning as his head ached in protest. It'd been a while since he'd drunk so much he had a hangover – it was just as unpleasant as he remembered.

And sure enough, there was Parker curled up on the corner of the bed, the stuffed rabbit clutched close to her chest, watching him with wide eyes.

"Hey," he managed, the word feeling thick in his mouth. He tried to sit up, but his head was spinning, so he gave up and just let his head lie on the pillow for a little while more. Parker didn't answer, just watched him with her wide, calculating eyes. "What time is it?" he asked; he needed to say something, and his blazer felt heavy against his arm – he slept in his clothes again, and it definitely felt like he'd been sleeping in them for a while.

"Nine," Parker told him quietly, remaining still and small, like he might eat her if she moved. Like he was a predator and she was the victim, and if she stayed still, maybe he wouldn't notice her.

It made him angry, and guilty, and he closed his eyes to his deductions about her. "I need to take a shower," he muttered out loud, bringing his hand up to his face to try and rub away the disorganized clutter. Parker didn't answer, nor did she move, and he tried hard to smother the annoyance her caution caused him. "I'm not going to eat you," he muttered at her darkly, frustrated, and the bed shifted.

Nate opened his eyes and looked down at her, but she was on her knees now, the rabbit in her lap. She still had her pajama's on, under the bomber jacket Sophie had gotten her, and she looked perplexed. "I know," she said softly, her eyebrows drawn in confusion.

"You should get dressed," he told her, too tired and hungover to deal with the conclusions he was making. Parker nodded solemnly at him before sliding off the bed. It took a moment for him to gather up the will to get off the bed as well, and when he did, Parker already had a fistful of clothes in her hand.

"We need to hang those up somewhere," he muttered, more to himself than anything. Parker didn't answer him, and he accidently kicked the empty whiskey bottle at his feet on his way to the bathroom. He would feel better after a drink, he thought to himself – he'd head downstairs, have a small drink to tie him over, and get Parker something to eat. It sounded like a good plan in his head, though he wondered where Hardison had wandered off to. The man probably stayed the night, so why wasn't Parker with him?

Nate closed the door to the bathroom, leaning back against it for a second. The image of Parker's wide eyes wouldn't leave him, and he stripped, leaving his clothes on a pile on the floor before turning on the shower. The water was hot, and steaming, and he surrendered some of his thoughts to the sting of burning water against his skin. The muzziness that left him only made room for guilt to set in – his frustration with Parker washed away with the water, and when he stepped out of the shower he was glad that the mirror was too fogged over to be able to see his face.

When he got out of the bathroom, Parker was gone, and the pile of clothes was pushed into a corner, the pajamas on top of it. She must have heard his comment, and when he looked into his own closet, he realized that he should probably take it under advisement as well.

Dressed in the first pair of jeans and the first clean t-shirt he could reach, Nate headed down the stairs. Parker was sitting at the table with the rabbit on the place mat in front of her, Hardison at the breakfast bar and Eliot pulling out something that smelt entirely too sweet to be having in the morning.

Parker looked up from her silent conversation with the rabbit, and Nate offered her a tired smile at her, hoping he hasn't accidently ruined things between them. He could see the tension leave her as she timidly smiled back, and Hardison turned around at the sound of his feet on the stairs. There was no trace of a smile on there, and even Eliot gave him a dark glance.

"How long have you guys been up?" he asked, pointedly ignoring the looks, and Parker squirmed her way to her knees, clearly happy to see him. The worries that he might have alienated Parker disappeared when she turned in her seat, following him with her eyes as he crossed over.

Hardison shrugged, looking displeased with Parker's enthusiasm. "An hour or two," he said stonily. Nate headed to the drink bar, glad to see some clean glasses there. From the look on Eliot's face, he's pretty sure that he would be physically barred from the kitchen to get at one.

"Nate," Eliot said, and the low tone had a rough edge to it.

"Parker eat?" he asked, ignoring Eliot's warning, and Hardison's look of betrayal. Parker looked between the three of them nervously, sitting back down in the chair, looking ready to leave. Nate poured a bit of whiskey into the tumbler, taking a sip of the amber liquid before turning back to them. They hadn't answered his question, and they looked angry, but he wasn't about to let them dictate when he did or didn't drink. They'd been over this before – he was a functioning alcoholic thief. A new house-resident didn't chance that.

"Parker," he asked instead, and Parker's eyes drifted over to him cautiously. "Did you eat?"

"Hardison made me toast," she said softly, sensing the tension in the room. Nate walked over to the table with his drink, ignoring the glares, and her anxiety seemed to ease – his state of being is first in her mind, he realized. It was his mood she was concerned about, not Hardison or Eliot's; only how their mood affected him.

When he sat down, Parker shifted towards him, as close as she could get without leaving her chair. A show of alliance, of support – Nate could feel the anger radiating from Eliot and Hardison, but he had Parker on his side, and this is his apartment, and he didn't ask them to be here in the first place. "What's Eliot making?" he asked, trying to play nice, and Parker jumped on it, still careful not to place herself between them.

"Cinnamon buns. He said I could have some."

"'Course you can darling," Eliot said gently, keeping the anger at Nate out of his tone, but Parker wasn't looking at him, she was looking at Nate. Watching him. Trying to analyze how to best survive the situation. Trying not to do anything to upset him. Trying to keep everyone, but most of all him, happy. Trying to do all the things a kid her age shouldn't be do.

Nate nodded, taking a sip of whiskey, "Sure. They smell good too, don't they?" Parker nodded in agreement, glancing at Hardison and Eliot on the other side of the room. When they realized she was looking, they rearranged their faces to smile at her, but she looked disheartened all the same.

Eliot opened his mouth and Hardison coughed to interrupt him – they had a silent conversation between themselves, Parker obliviously playing some sort of game with her rabbit. "Hungry, Nate?" Eliot finally asked, and Hardison looked annoyed, getting up off his stool and coming to sit on the other end of the table. Parker watched him with a hand on the rabbit, and Nate smiled,

"Yeah, thanks. That'd be good."

They were all just playing nice for Parker, putting on a show. Somehow, though, Nate didn't think that Parker was fooled.

Chapter 14

"But I don't want to go," Parker protests for what feels like the millionth time. Nate hasn't gotten impatient with her yet, and she's hoping that he'll change his mind and say that it's okay that she stays.

Hardison's standing behind her, with his hand on the doorknob, and trying to convince her that she'll have fun. "I'll take you to the park, and then we can get ice cream or something. Com'on, Parker, we'll be having fun right, left, and center."

Parker shakes her head, trying to slip past Eliot and Sophie for the millionth time. This time Sophie blocks her path and she looks pleadingly at Nate through the cracks their bodies make.

Sophie had shown up just as Nate was finishing up his breakfast and Parker's hands were all sticky and gooey from frosting. The cinnamon buns had been delicious, and Nate had shared half of his with her. For a moment she'd hoped that they wouldn't be angry at each other any more, but then Sophie had come in, seen the empty glass next to Nate's plate, and started making everyone angry all over again.

"Nate," she whines, taking a step back as Eliot steps towards her – she doesn't want to leave Nate. They're going to convince Nate that she was stupid and useless, and they were going to make Nate think that she didn't like him. That Nate should make her leave, and never come back, and she doesn't want that to happen. They don't like her, and they don't like that Nate drinks around her, even though she doesn't mind. They were going to make her leave, and she doesn't want that.

Nate isn't looking at her, and she tries to dodge around Sophie again, only this time Eliot blocks her. "Darling," he says and she glares at him; he's only faking being nice – she knows that he doesn't really want her there either. "Go have fun with Hardison and when you come back, I'll make you anything you want."

"I don't want anything. I want to stay with Nate," she insists, stubbornly, and she finally gathers up the courage to push past the two – Sophie gasps in surprise and she can feel Eliot's hand on her shoulder, but it doesn't close to stop her.

Abandoning common sense, Parker crawls up onto Nate's lap as fast as she can, wrapping her arms around his neck tightly. "Don't make me go," she whispers, desperation in her voice, and Nate holds her for a second.

"I'll see you in a few hours," he tells her, even as he tries to make her let go. Not wanting to give him any more reason to not want her, she lets go of his neck, sitting back against his arm.

"I want to stay," she tells him, feeling tears behind her eyes – but people always hated it when she cried, and maybe Nate didn't want her because she'd been crying so much?

Nate sighs, and looks at Sophie – Parker looks too, but Sophie doesn't crack, just folds her arms impatiently. "You don't have to go forever, I promise," he says, but Parker doesn't believe him. "But I just need to have a talk with Sophie and Eliot, and you need to get out of the apartment."

"Com'on bug," Hardison says, extending his hand, and she would've gone with him gladly if it didn't mean she had to leave. "Let's go have some fun."

"Go Parker," Nate tells her, and she doesn't fight it as he lifts her off his lap and sets her on the floor. "Go, and I'll see you in a little while." He gives her a little push of encouragement and she makes her way back to Hardison, dejected. If Nate wanted her to go too… Hardison takes her hand and she doesn't pull away from him.

"Nate," she pleads one last time, but Nate shakes his head with a tight smile,

"Have fun."

"Com'on," Hardison says, tugging gently on her hand and she goes – the door closes behind them and she stops, even when Hardison pulls her. "Oh Parker," he says when he realizes she's not just being reluctant, but that she doesn't want to move at all. Crouching down, he pulls her in a little closer, "You know we don't want to get rid of you, right? Sophie and Eliot just wanted to talk to Nate about a job."

It's a lie, he's lying to her, but she wants it to be true. "No," she mutters, the tears that she managed to hold back in front of Nate now threatening to spill.

"We all want you around," Hardison insists, "Honest. Here, look at this." Hardison pulls out his wallet, and pulls out a card from inside of it. It's got her picture on it, and she takes it from him, examining it closer. "Remember how I showed you how to make fake ID's?" he asks, and she nods – it looks like an official card, and it has her picture on it, but she can't read very well and she can't make out the word on the top of it.

"That's your identity card. You know what it means?" Parker shakes her head, looking up at him curiously. "It means you belong with us. That you're one of us. Officially. It says, 'Parker Ford'. Nate's last name."

It takes a second for the logic to fall into place, and she looks up at him, daring not to believe she's come to the right conclusion. "Like… Nate's my dad?"

"Yeah," Hardison nods, "Like that. You don't have to keep it, but if the police or anyone ask, it's proof that you have a family."

"So Nate doesn't want to get rid of me?" Why would he ask Hardison to make this if he did?

Hardison shakes his head, taking the card from her and putting it back into his wallet, "Not at all. And as long as we have that, no one can take you away."

Parker thinks about it, thinks about staying with Nate, and how Nate wants her to stay, even if Eliot and Sophie are going to try and convince him otherwise. How Hardison wants her to stay, since he made a card for her. "Okay," she says, finally feeling a little bit better. "But I still don't wanna go."

Before she has a second to react, Hardison's arms are wrapped around her, and she wraps her arms around his shoulders. "But we're gonna have fun, and it'll be awesome." He keeps talking as he carries her away from the apartment, and she doesn't squirm to get down, but she watches the door until they turn the corner and can't see it anymore.

Chapter 15

"Look, I know what this is about, so just say your piece and get it over with." Nate would've been okay with an ambush – hell, he'd been expecting it since the first time Sophie and Eliot had laid eyes on Parker. Since the first time he said he wouldn't hand Parker over to social services. Since they realized that he was serious about letting her live with him. Still, he would've thought they'd give him more than two days before zeroing in on it.

And an ambush while Parker was there? That crossed the line, and he wanted to get it over with and done so that he could start telling them what he thought about it.

Sophie followed him as he crossed to the drink bar, slamming the door shut as soon as he'd started opening it. "You can't go on living your life like you have been – and if you are, you have no right to force that on Parker. Do you think that Parker makes the problem go away? It just makes things worse, Nate."

"It's not a problem, Sophie," he insisted, trying to open the cabinet once again, only to have her push it shut, again. How many times had they had this fight? What was so special about this time, he didn't know, and didn't want to think about. "Sophie," he chided, annoyed, but she held firm and he gave up on the liquor cabinet. There was some wine in the fridge, and he had a hankering for something sweeter anyway.

"The past two night's you've gotten entirely too drunk – you can be a drunk thief, but you can't be a drunk father."

Sophie's words hit him as he crosses the distance to the fridge, and he's about to turn around when Eliot steps in his way, arms folded across his chest. It's something he hasn't come up against before, Eliot challenging him like this, and it makes him think again. But it's easier than turning and facing Sophie - Eliot's intimidating, but he's loyal. Would he have a go at Nate? Nate's not sure, but he was getting tired of all the dramatic hostilities and the harsh words. "Stand down, Eliot," he ordered quietly, staring Eliot down, willing to take the punch if it went that way. And for a second he thought that Eliot might throw the punch, and he could sense Sophie's worry from behind him, but with a sound of fierce frustration, Eliot relented and shifted to the side.

"I'm not going to stand by and let you fuck that kid up, Nate," Eliot said darkly, and Nate opened the fridge to pull out the bottle of red wine. Sophie huffed, offended, and Nate talked as he poured,

"I'm not going to. I'm telling you, I'm fine."

"You're an alcoholic who won't admit he has a problem!" Sophie's voice was rising, and she was on the other side of the counter – Eliot was the mediator, Nate realized; Eliot was just here to keep things from getting violent.

Nate took a sip of wine before he spoke, just because he knew it would drive Sophie crazy, and he wasn't above getting the shots in where he could. "Functioning alcoholic," he amended mildly, and Sophie looked furious.

"You think that Parker doesn't notice? You think that she doesn't care? She needs someone that can take care of her, not another person to neglect her."

Nate's jaw clenched, and he could see Eliot reading it, reading into it. It made him all the more determined to spin things back to his corner. "I know how to care for a child, Sophie."

It was a mistake, and he knows the second he says it, the second he saw Sophie's face crumble. "No, Nate," she said sadly, and he turned away from her, hiding the pain. "You used to know how – this isn't healthy, Nate. Parker isn't– "

Familiar anger rose out of him: uncontrollable, fueled by guilt, fueled by anger, fueled by the rage of helplessness, blinding his sensibilities. "Don't say it," he snapped, whipping around, the delicate wine glass shattering in his hand, "Don't you dare say it!"

Eliot was halfway around the counter, ready to stop him if he advanced, but he stayed where he is, a puddle of red at his feet, blood dripping down his arm. Nate could feel the cuts, feel the blood, but he couldn't feel the pain. All he could feel is a hollow emptiness in his chest, where love had grown into a cavity.

"Parker isn't Sam," Sophie said, determined to get through her piece and Nate lunged, only because he knew that Eliot will stop him – sure enough, Eliot intercepted him, taking his arm and twisting it. In a second his head slammed down against the countertop, his arm twisted up behind him, Eliot's hand between his shoulder blades, pinning him down.

"Parker isn't Sam," Sophie repeated again, and Nate jerked until Eliot increased the pressure. "Parker isn't Sam," Sophie said again, softer this time, and she leaned down on the counter so that Nate could see her face. And she wasn't angry anymore, or scared, just… sad. Nate jerked against Eliot again, but the hold was strong and solid, and he closed his eyes so that he didn't have to see Sophie.

Sophie's hand touched his face and some tension left his body; Eliot eased up enough so that his cheek wasn't grinding into the counter, but Nate left his head down, defeated and exhausted. "Parker isn't Sam," Sophie repeated one last time, "But she loves you, even if she doesn't understand it. But you can't look after her if you're not looking after yourself. We can help you, but you have to want it."

"I don't have a problem Sophie," Nate muttered, and Sophie pushed Eliot away – Nate's arm fell back down and he straightened slightly – just enough to lean against the counter with the elbow that wasn't aching.

Sophie was quiet, and she took his bloodied hand in hers, holding it delicately. "Before Parker came along, I would've believed you. But how can you say that, especially now?"

Eliot disappeared into the background, and Sophie pulled him up from the counter. For a second Nate thought that she's going to kiss him, but she just shook her head. "Come on, we should fix this up."

"I'm not going to stop drinking," Nate said, a desperate move to assert himself, even as he looked at the puddle of wine on the floor, the drops of his blood beside it; even as Sophie took him up the stairs. Eliot followed at a distance, even after Sophie tried to wave him off.

Sophie answered only after she got him sitting on the toilet, his hand in her lap, picking out pieces of glass with tweezers. Eliot was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed, stoic. "You're going to stop," she told him, pulling out a particularly deeply embedded piece, "Or it'll get worse and worse until you hurt Parker one day. It might not be intentional," she added, before he could respond, "But it'll happen."

"We're not going to let it happen," Eliot said from the door and Nate wondered how one little girl could lead to all this. And why, in less than 48 hours, they suddenly decided he needed an intervention after years of nothing but disapproving looks and sighs.

Sophie ignored Eliot, dabbing disinfectant on the cuts. "So you're going to stop. And we're going to help you stop."

"You're not taking her away," he said quietly, seriously; and he can see it too, can see how it would work. It's what he would do; threaten to keep him away from the ones he stood to hurt the most. But that would hurt Parker more than it would hurt him, and he couldn't stand the thought of it. As much as she seemed to have imprinted on him, he'd imprinted on her as well. The innocence, the naivety, and the broken pieces he knew could fix – he needed it as much as she needed him, and he wouldn't allow them to take that away.

Neither Sophie nor Eliot answered. Eliot left after a minute to go clean up the kitchen; Sophie just wrapped his hand in bandages, giving him some Aspirin and some water before putting him into the bed. After she drew the curtains, she laid down beside him.

"I know she's not Sam," he said into the darkness, and Sophie took his uninjured hand, pulling it to her chest and shifting a little closer. And he did know it, but he also knew that sometimes he tried to forget it, and that it was easier to forget after a drink or two.

Chapter 16

"Can we go back now?" Parker asks, the ice cream seconds away from sliding off the cone and right into her lap. Hardison pushes it back onto the cone with a finger and Parker laughs, because now his finger is covered in cold goop.

Hardison looks at his watch and Parker looks at him hopefully – they'd already gone to the park, and he'd almost yelled at her a few times. She liked climbing on all the stuff that the other kids didn't, and she wasn't scared of falling. But after Hardison had told her that she wasn't allowed to run across the monkey bars anymore, she'd lost interest in the park.

Now they were eating ice cream, but all she could think about was getting back to Nate, making sure that Eliot and Sophie hadn't changed Nate's mind about letting her stay. She had taken the fake identity card from Hardison's wallet when he wasn't paying attention, and while it made her feel a little better, she still wanted to be back with Nate.

"How about we go to the park on our way back?" Hardison suggests, and Parker shakes her head,

"The park's boring. You don't let me do anything fun. I want to go back." And because Hardison had been nice to her, and hadn't hit her even after she'd ran on the monkey bars after he said not to, she gets up and starts walking down the path, the way they came.

"Whoa there," Hardison says, and Parker hears the disapproval in his voice but ignores it. "I thought we were finishing our ice cream first." He'd gotten a smaller cone, with the orange ice cream, and she shrugs – he doesn't stop her, so she keeps walking.

"I want to go back."

"Parker," he says, and he touches her shoulder, and she stops, turning around to him, wondering if she'd gone too far. But there are people all around them, and he can't get mad at her here. "I thought we had a good thing going. Now you're just gonna get up and leave without me? That's not cool."

Parker's not sure if he really means it, or if he just doesn't want her to go back to Nate's. But she wants to go, and she never wanted to leave in the first place. "I want to go back," she tells him; she's been telling him that the entire time, but he just hasn't been listening.

"I know Parker, you've said that already. All I'm saying is, we should go back together."

"Then come with me." It's not like he doesn't have to come with her.

"Parker…" he trails off, then shakes his head. "You know what, fine. Let's go back." He takes her hand and she starts walking with him, confused about what just happened. And Hardison, who usually talks even though he doesn't have anything to say, is quiet the whole way back.

When they get back, Parker's feeling nervous. She's managed to get Hardison upset with her, and she doesn't know how. It makes her feel extra glad that she got the identity card from him before – now he can't throw it out or anything.

Hardison knocks on the door, keeping her back as he opens it, poking his head in. After a second he opens it all the way and steps back to let her in, and she steps into the apartment, looking for Nate. Eliot's in the kitchen making something, and she makes a beeline for the stairs, climbing them quicker than she can ever remember.

It's dark in the room upstairs, and the smell of alcohol has faded a little – there's a window open behind the curtains, she can feel the cool air trailing along the ground. Nate's in the bed, but there's someone else in there with him. Parker creeps closer, worried that she's interrupting their special time together – she always got in trouble for that, but they didn't seem to be making any noises.

Nate is sleeping on his back, and when Parker steps up to the bed, she can see Sophie looking at her. Her anger at Sophie fades a little when Sophie gestures for her to come up onto the bed. "Come on up, sweetie," she says, and Parker climbs up onto the bed carefully, trying not to jostle Nate.

"Come on," Sophie encourages softly, and Parker looks at the space between Nate and Sophie, where Sophie's hand is patting. Parker stays where she is, confused and weary. "It's alright," Sophie smiles, and Parker moves across Nate, sitting down between the two of them, keeping her back to Nate so that she can see Sophie. "We were taking a nap," Sophie whispers, and Nate feels warm against Parker's back, and the weariness turns into sleepiness. "Did you want to join us?"

Parker doesn't say anything, but when Sophie moves her hand and shifts back a little, she slowly lies down. Eyes wide and open, she watches Sophie even as the older lady closes her eyes.

Maybe they hadn't been trying to convince Nate to make her leave? Parker presses back against Nate, hoping that since Sophie is okay with it, he will be too. After a while, Sophie reaches out with a hand, and Parker doesn't pull away as it covers her own. Instead she closes her eyes, relaxed, and tries to sleep.

Chapter 17

Nate woke up and his head ached, and his hand ached. Someone was curled up next to him, and for a second he thought that it was Sophie, before he realized that it was too small to be Sophie. There was a noise from his closet and he opened his eyes – it took a moment to adjust to the dim lighting, but once he did he could see the slim form of Sophie moving in and out of the closet. Which left…

Parker was curled up against him, holding onto his arm like it was her cherished stuffed rabbit. Sophie's words from earlier ran through his head: 'Parker isn't Sam'. But damn if he wasn't feeling something of the same kind of affection toward her, all curled up and serene.

"How're you feeling?" Sophie asked softly, and Nate wasn't sure if she somehow sensed that he was awake, or if she could just see him.

Nate started to shift until he realized that Parker had him effectively pinned down – if he moved, he'd risk waking her; that, coupled with his aching head, didn't make for a good case in the movement department.

"I'm fine," he deflected, keeping his voice low, "When did she get back?"

Sophie sat on the edge of the bed, picking up his bandaged hand and examining it. "Just after you fell asleep. It's been a few hours." His hand deemed acceptable, she put it back down and leaned in a little closer. "Now, how are you really feeling?"

It's refreshing, if not a little annoying, that she can read him like this. That she knew when he was lying, or what he was thinking without asking. This once, he let himself answer honestly, "My head hurts a bit. Nothing too bad." But Sophie was already up and in the bathroom, pouring a glass of water from the tap – when she came back she had Aspirin with her, and she sat down, pushing his wrapped hand back into the mattress.

"Here," she said, placing the pills against his lips and he accepted them, lifting his head a little so that she could tilt the glass enough for him to drink.

See, he said, I'm trying.

Have to start with the little things, she said, and she pulled the water away and his stomach felt empty and full at the same time. "I really am fine," he told her, and she shook her head sadly.

Her hand lingered on his cheek, her thumb stroking the stubble there gently. "I'll be downstairs; come down when you're ready." Then she left, and he still had Parker at his side – and Parker's eyes were open, watching him, her mind working to comprehend however much she'd just seen.

"Hey kid," he smiled at her, and Parker's grip on his arm released just a little, even though her arms didn't move. His head hurt a little less, but he didn't want to pull away from Parker quite yet. "Have a good nap?" he asked, and Parker nodded.

"Sophie said I could come up," she told him quickly, nervously, and he turned to his side, facing her.

"Sophie was right," he said, and the look of uncertain hope was back in her eyes. "You can come up whenever you want, you know that, right?" Clearly, she didn't, but she nodded quickly, like he might withdraw the offer any second. "What do you say – ready to go down?"

Parker reluctantly let go of his arm, allowing him to get up off the bed. Parker's clothes weren't in a pile in the corner any more – Sophie had been putting them away in the closet, and he wouldn't be surprised if she tidied up a few of his things as well. Parker left her rabbit on the bed, and she looked over at him one last time before disappearing down the stairs.

The Aspirin was killing the ache in his headache a little, and he looked at his bandaged hand one last time before heading down.

Chapter 18

Parker sat at the head of the table again, right beside Nate and across from Sophie. Eliot and Hardison were on the other side, and they didn't seem to be upset with Nate anymore. Nate was drinking orange juice instead of his whiskey, which Parker thought was strange; she didn't say anything though. She could see the way he kept looking at the liquor cabinet, and that he never got up to go get some.

Hardison didn't seem to be mad at her anymore, and he even made her giggle a few times – Eliot had made something that had a bunch of fancy words in it, and looked funny, but it still tasted delicious. She's reaching over to Nate's place to take some of his potatoes (despite her own full plate) when Sophie clears her throat. Parker stops mi-reach – leaning across the table had been a very bad thing to do in one of the places she'd stayed at, but she thought it was okay here. Nate hadn't said anything about it, and had even turned his plate so that she could get to the potatoes easier. But before she can figure out if Sophie's mad or not, Hardison pokes her in the side and she giggles, ticklish.

Sophie clears her throat again, louder this time, and Parker sits back down in her seat, wondering if Sophie was upset with Hardison for being silly.

"So!" Sophie says brightly, clapping her hands and looking forcefully cheerful. "Parker, what do you think about having a sleep over with one of the boys?"

Parker's first glance is to Nate, who's looking at Sophie like he's annoyed. Had Nate known about this? "Why?" Parker asks softly, and Hardison and Eliot smile at her; they must've known about this.

"So that you can have an adventure," Sophie says, and Parker tries not to think that 'adventures' were for toddlers who were stupid enough to believe in them. They never turned out to be anything good for her.

"I don't want an adventure," she says carefully, because she doesn't want to leave Nate, but Nate could be going with them, and in that case she doesn't want to be left behind.

Hardison turns to her in his seat, smiling widely, "Com'on, it'll be fun! I can show you how to play some video games, Eliot can teach you how to cook – it'll be great."

Parker looks at Nate again, and then to Sophie – but they're looking at each other, talking to each other without using words, and Parker shakes her head. "I want to stay with Nate."

Nate sighs, his hand landing loudly on the table. Parker had asked what had happened to his hand, but he'd just said that he cut it, and wouldn't say anything more about it. Now though, she's curious again. "Maybe you should go, Parker. Spend the night, have fun?"

With Nate telling her to go, she feels like she has to – but she feels a little betrayed, and upset. He said she could stay with him, and she could sleep in his bed whenever she wanted, except for now he was saying she had to leave – it didn't make sense to her.

"But why?"

The question hangs in the air for a few seconds, Parker looking at Nate, Nate looking at Sophie, and Sophie looking between Parker and Nate. Sophie wants Nate to say something, but Nate doesn't want to say it.

"Nate?" Parker asks softly, wanting to know. Nate sighs, running his good hand through his hair, and shaking his head.

"I'm not feeling very well right now, Parker. I don't want to… get you sick."

It doesn't sound like the truth, but if this morning had taught her anything, it was that if Nate didn't want her to stay, she wasn't going to be staying. "But you said you were fine," she reminds quietly, sitting as far back in her chair as she can get.

"I know. But that was a while ago. Now though, I'm not feeling so well."

Parker just nods, knowing when to give up on something. She doesn't talk the rest of the meal, even though Hardison's trying to be silly with her, and Eliot keeps asking her questions. She doesn't steal any of Nate's food, she doesn't sit up on her knees in her chair, and she doesn't lean across the table. And she tries to help clear the dishes, and she tries to stay out of Eliot's way as he cleans up the kitchen, and she tries to sit still when Sophie brushes her hair, and she tries not to ask Hardison questions as he does things on the television screens.

None of it helps though, and even though she's been good, and quiet, and not in the way, Nate still comes down the stairs with a bag full of her things. Still comes down with Bunny in his hand, and when he gives Bunny to her, he hugs her, and then Hardison takes her hand and Nate doesn't say anything even as she secretly wishes he would.

The door closes with Nate and Sophie on the wrong side of it, and Hardison picks her up because she doesn't want to move, and buckles her into the car that Eliot drives away from the apartment, and it feels so much like the times when she's been taken away from a family she hoped would want her that she cries herself to sleep in the backseat, even after Hardison comes to sit in the back with her.

Chapter 19

"You didn't have to spring it like that," Nate muttered, and Sophie poured out two cups of tea – one for him, and one for her. Nate crossed the room to the liquor cabinet and opened it, only to find it empty. "You people realize I live above a bar, right?" he asked, irritated that they thought they could keep alcohol away from him and he wouldn't be able to find any. He was indulging them, playing along with their little game – it was easier to wait this out than to try and force them out. Still, it was beginning to wear on him. Sophie was the queen of the long cons, not him.

"Yes, we do. Which is why I'm staying with you. The first night's always the worst." And she sounded like she knew what she was talking about – Nate would've agreed with her too, if he didn't know better.

"See, you'd think that, but it really isn't. The first night's bad, yeah, but the second night's bad too. And the third, and the fourth – and then two weeks later you'll have another bad night, and that's even worse than your first. It doesn't work like that Sophie. And I'm not stopping."

Sophie ignored him, taking a spoon and the mugs of tea, setting them on the breakfast bar. "Come sit down," she said, using the spoon to poke the tea bag in and out of the water.

Nate sat down because he wanted to, not because she asked. "Parker was devastated, Sophie. She thinks she's never going to see me again."

"Don't be overdramatic," Sophie chided, passing the spoon over to him, but he put it down.

"It's not being overdramatic. She's a kid, Sophie, and how many times do you think this' happened to her? Getting pulled away like that."

"She's with Hardison and Eliot, she'll be plenty fine."

"It wasn't fair to her," he argued, and Sophie took the spoon from the counter to fish her own tea bag out. "It wasn't right."

Sophie drained the bag and put it in an empty cup, then did the same with Nate's. He knew that she was just drawing out the silence, waiting for him to snap and say something. But he could win at this game, and if the only thing he wanted to do was head downstairs right now and get a bottle of Irish whiskey, it could wait to win the game.

"Then why'd you let her leave?" Sophie asked finally, picking the mug up and looking at him over the rim, knowingly.

That threw Nate for a loop, and he looked at the tea distastefully, unsure how to answer. Playing along would only work as long as they didn't know about it – Sophie caught the moment of thought, frowning at him suspiciously. "I could if I wanted to," he told her, needing to validate himself. It was what he would have to do, if he wasn't playing. He'd need to know that it wasn't out of his control. That nothing was out of his control. "I could."

"Then do it," Sophie said, and she was playing him, and it was tempting to play her bluff – but that would mean losing. Before he could decide, she was speaking again: "Chose what you want to do and do it, Nathan. But you wouldn't have sent Parker away if you didn't want to be serious about this, and you wouldn't have let Eliot leave if you thought you were going to do something irrational. So what's it going to be?"

She knows him, knows how he thinks, and knows that he would've thought about this. But he has a game plan, and he just needs to stick to it. The itch for a drink was starting to burn, and he gritted his teeth as he reached out for the mug of tea. It wasn't nearly the replacement he needed, but it burnt his tongue and his throat as it went down, and it was distraction enough.

"You're going to be staying?" he asked, wanting to know in what capacity she's staying, but unwilling to ask.

Sophie inclined her head, "I'll stay, yes. As long as you're willing to work with me."

Nate waited for a moment, waiting for more. "And?"

"And, we'll see. Finish your tea, you're dehydrated." Nate shot down the rest of the tea, the hot liquid burning down his throat and searing his stomach. Sophie looked disapproving, and he felt better for having some tangible sense of control back.

Chapter 20

Parker wakes up in Eliot's arms as he takes her from the car, and for a second she panics, flailing. "Whoa there, darlin'," Eliot says, holding onto her a little more firmly so she doesn't fall out of his arms. "It's only me, calm down." Her mind finally places the voice, and she's awake enough to open her eyes and see Hardison behind Eliot. Hardison smiles at her, and she finally calms. "There you go," Eliot murmurs as she rests her head on his shoulder, her arms wrapping around him, Bunny between them.

Hardison passes them and opens the door to a townhouse-looking building; they're the same all the way up and down the block, but this one has nice green trimming that looks black as it disappears into the shadows. Parker's not sure where they are in relation to Nate's house, but she finds herself wanting to go back there.

"And this is my place," Hardison announces as he turns the lights on. The walls of the hallway are a nice golden brown, warm and welcoming. Eliot pulls off her shoes without putting her down, and then kicks off his own shoes. Parker feels exhausted, and doesn't mind being so close to someone warm and sturdy.

Hardison takes them through into the kitchen, which looks fancy and new, and barely used. Eliot puts her on the countertop, and she goes to move off it, remembering his words from morning, but he stops her. "It's alright, stay there," he says softly, and she nods after a moment. Eliot looks through a couple drawers to find something, and finally turns up with a glass. "Did you want something to drink?" he asks, and Parker shakes her head but he pulls some milk out of the fridge anyways.

"And I see you're already making yourselves at home," Hardison says, back from wherever he'd disappeared to, and Parker wants Nate to be near her so badly it hurts. Hardison and Eliot have been nothing but nice to her, but Nate was the one that saved her, and Nate was the one that protected her. And Nate wasn't here, and she didn't feel good about that.

Eliot passes her the glass of milk and she takes a sip of it, feeling out of place in the new kitchen.

Hardison's pulled out a bottle of orange soda from the fridge, and he takes a big gulp from it. "So I was thinking we could watch a movie, play some video games, pull out a board game or two if we're not feeling that – what do you guys think?"

Parker shrugs, and Eliot gives him one of those looks. "Let's not get too carried away – it's almost bed time, right?" He looks to Parker as he says it, and she looks back at him blankly. "… You don't have a bedtime, do you?" he asks slowly, and Parker shakes her head. Eliot looks annoyed and Parker starts to worry,

"I can have one though," she says quickly, trying to make him feel better before he gets angry. "Whenever you want."

"That's not – " Eliot cuts himself off, shaking his head, and Hardison comes to her defense,

"Hey man, I didn't ever have a bedtime. I mean, I did, but I never stuck to it. Though, whenever Nana found out…"

It doesn't sound good, and Parker quickly finishes up her milk. "I can go now," she offers, wiping the excess milk on her lips off. Parker doesn't want to go to bed, but this isn't Nate, and with Nate so far away, she doesn't want to do anything wrong.

"It's way too early for that," Hardison says, though Eliot looks like he's going to disagree. "Let's go watch a movie, and see how we feel then." Parker jumps off the countertop because it's what Hardison seems to want her to do, and they go off into the living room. There's a gigantic television in the middle of the farthest wall, with a whole bunch of stuff coming out the bottom of it. Wires and thicker wires, and different colored cables – Parker wants to go touch them, but she knows better.

Hardison points to a couch while he sets something up, and Parker sits down on the end of it, curling her legs up into her chest, putting Bunny between them. Eliot comes and joins them, and she shies away from him – this wasn't what he wanted to do, and even though she knows he won't hurt her, she can't but help feel guilty.

They watch something silly about fish, and she rests her head on the armrest until her eyes start closing. After a while she gives up keeping them open, listening to the movie, and listening to the small noises that Eliot and Hardison make as they shift around. Soon Hardison starts talking quietly to Eliot, and Parker listens to them.

"Think she's sleeping yet?"

"I dunno. Girl had a tough day – you should've seen her on the playground though, I swear she's part Spiderman."

"That's not a real thing. Look, maybe we should move her."

"Sure, Mr. Bedtime man. What was that all about anyway?"

"Kids need betimes. She's, what, six? Seven? She shouldn't be staying up all night doing who knows what while Nate – "

"Look, we're dealing with that, aren't we? Sophie's got it covered."

"I still think I should've stayed there the night. While you were gone he almost – "

"We agreed two with Parker would be better than two with Nate. It'll make her feel better and it would make Nate feel outnumbered. Nothin' we can do about it now."

"If he doesn't get his act together soon – "

"I know, man, I know. … Look, it's almost done, why don't you…"

The cushions shift on the other side of the couch, and Parker plays sleeping as Eliot's strong arms scoop her up gently. Eliot walks with her up the stairs, and she almost does fall asleep, from the gentle rocking of his steps and the warmth of his chest against her head.

"There you go," Hardison whispers, and Eliot lowers her to a cold bed, covering her up with soft blankets. "Night bug," Hardison whispers, and Eliot touches her head gently before they leave. Parker doesn't hear the door close, but after a few minutes she opens her eyes. There's a crack of light spilling in from the hallway, and she can hear Eliot and Hardison downstairs, and the sound of the television.

Carefully, Parker crawls out of the bed, taking Bunny with her. There's a window in the room and she pushes back the curtains to look out of it – there's a small ledge that comes out of the window, and the gutter pipe for the next house over is right beside it. There's an alarm on the window, one of the magnetic ones, and Parker looks around for something that she can use to disable it.

The alarm was meant to keep people out, not keep people in, so all she has to do is unscrew it from the window so that she can open it without breaking the seal of the pieces. With one last look back at the bed, Parker opens the window and crawls out of it. It doesn't take long for her to make her way down, and she can see the outlines of Hardison and Eliot sitting on the couch together through the window.

They were nice, but she wants to be with Nate. And if Nate didn't want her… well, he didn't have to know that she was around then, did he?

Chapter 21

For a moment Nate thought he'd finally gotten to sleep, because the ringing didn't make sense in the reality where he couldn't stop shivering. It'd been on and off for the past few hours, Sophie pressed up against him to both keep him in the bed, and attempt to keep him warm.

"Phone," Sophie muttered, and Nate realized that he hadn't fallen asleep – he reached out with a shaky hand and accepted the call with a raspy,


"Mr. Nathan Ford?"

It sounded like a police officer, and Nate sat up in bed, letting the blankets fall off him. Sophie sat up beside him, looking concerned, and Nate waved off her questions, "This is him."

"This is Officer Cornwell from the Boston Police Department. We, uh, found your daughter wandering the streets." From his tone, Officer Cornwell was very, very confused about the whole situation.

It took Nate a second to realize that they meant 'Parker' by 'daughter', and he didn't stop to ask any questions except which station they were at so that they could come pick her up.

Parker looked tiny sitting in the guest chair next to an officer's desk. She had Bunny in her lap and a forlorn look in her eyes – that is, until she saw Nate. "Nate!" she yelled, up from the chair next to the desk in a flash, and he bent down slightly so that he could pick her up when he realized that she wasn't planning on stopping.

"Mr. Ford?" the officer asked, and Nate stepped forward, shifting Parker to his side, so that he could shake the man's hand. Parker hid her face in his neck, clutching onto him like she was never going to let go.

"I'm so thankful you found her," Nate said, hugging her tightly, and not just for show. "We were just about to call the police and report it when you called."

"We're truly in your debt," Sophie added, shaking the man's hand as well. It's close to eleven, and they decided in the car that this would've been the best course of action.

"Right," Cornwell nodded, looking overwhelmed by their gratitude. "Well, you know, the only reason that we knew how to locate you was that ID – it's a good thing you made one out. Most parents now-a-days don't bother. And we couldn't get her to talk to us at all."

"See, I told you it was a good idea," Sophie said, looking smug, and Nate played the sheepish, wishing he'd gotten to the line first.

"Of course you were. I'm just glad she wasn't lost for too long."

"We'll just take that," Sophie said, plucking the card from the officer's hand, and Nate was already backing away, smiling widely,

"Thank you, so much, again. Just, thank you."

They left the station with Cornwell spluttering after them about reports. By the time they got to the car, Parker truly wouldn't let go of Nate's neck, so he sat down with her in his lap, and they drove back to the apartment, which was only a few blocks down.

There was nothing other than a clueless shrug that Nate could offer Sophie, by way of explanation. Clearly Parker had run away from Eliot and Hardison, but neither of them had called to say something was amiss.

"I'm going to call Eliot and Hardison, find out what happened," Sophie said as soon as they got in, taking her cell phone and disappearing up the stairs.

Nate, who could really feel the pressure in his neck now, sat down on the couch and tried to pull Parker away from him. He was feeling weak, and tired, and irritable, but beyond all that he was just confused.

"Parker," he said softly, and Parker shook her head, refusing to be pulled away. "Parker, stop it," he rebuked softly, and he could feel her grip weaken. "I'm not going to hurt you, but you need to let go of me." Once again, her grip weakened, enough so that he could pull her away gently.

"Did Hardison or Eliot do anything to you?" he asked sternly; the thought of Parker on the streets made him irrationally upset, but the thought of someone hurting her made him even angrier. Parker shook her head, caught his eyes, and tried to climb off his lap. "Hey, where're you going?" he asked, grabbing onto her arm lightly, and she froze, halfway to the floor.

"I'm sorry," she squeaked, closing her eyes, face screwed up in anticipation of… pain? Yelling? Nate didn't even know.

"Hey, come back here," he said, pulling her onto his lap again and releasing her arm, trying to be gentle. "What happened?"

Parker shrugged, and looked down at Bunny between them. She looked like the small, lost girl back at the motel room, afraid that he might cast her out.

"Parker, you need to tell me what happened." Parker shook her head, and Nate could hear Sophie's heels coming down the metal stairs.

"So I called the boys – they didn't even know she was gone. They put her up to sleep in the guest room, and apparently she unscrewed the alarm on the window and climbed down." Sophie sounded much more taken aback than Nate thought was going to be helpful at the moment. "Parker, what…?" she trailed off, mystified, and Parker buried her head in Nate's neck once again.

Nate rubbed her back, feeling her shivering, and remembering shivering like that not too long ago. "Sophie, I don't think you're helping at the moment," he said delicately, and Sophie shook her head before disappearing upstairs again.

"Parker, come on, tell me what happened." The adrenaline rush was starting to fade, and he could feel a trickle of impatience. "Say something, Parker."

Parker must have heard the change in his tone, because she gripped onto him harder, her little body trembling. Nate sighed, leaning back against the couch. What was he supposed to do? "Parker," he said again, much more gently this time, "If you don't tell me what happened, I can't help you. Now, I'm going to give you a minute to tell me what happened, or I'm going to put you to bed upstairs and you can tell me tomorrow." A small noise came from Parker. "What was that?"

"With you?" she asked, and he shook his head,

"No; if you don't want to tell me, then that means you don't trust me."

"I wanted to be with you," she said so quickly that Nate almost missed it. Sophie was sitting on the top step of the stairs, Nate knew that she was, and Nate tried to pull Parker away from him.

"What was that?" he asked, and Parker reluctantly moved.

Still holding onto his shirt with the ferocity she held onto the rabbit, Parker said, "I wanted to be with you. I don't… don't make me leave," she pleaded, "I'm sorry. I won't do it again; I'll stay with Eliot, and Hardison, and anyone, if you want me to, but don't make me leave. I'm sorry, I didn't meant to get caught."

Nate pulled her back into a hug when she sounded like she was about to start crying – he wasn't sure that he had enough strength to make it back up the stairs with the both of them, and he could feel Parker's body shaking as she tried to keep in the tears. "Just don't do that again," he whispered to her, mostly pleading, and she nodded, curling up on his lap. Bit by bit the shaking stopped, until she was slumped against him, arms curled around the rabbit, and pressed against his chest.

After Parker fell asleep, Sophie brought down a pillow from his bed and the comforter. "I'll be here in the morning," she told him, helping rearrange Parker so that neither of them was falling off the couch, spreading the comforter out around them and tucking him in.

Chapter 22

Someone's moving around the apartment, and they're not doing it very carefully. Parker peeks out from underneath the comforter, cozy and warm in Nate's arms, and sees the top of Sophie's head above the couch. In seconds, the warmth from Nate and the comforter is quickly turning into too hot, so she slips away as quietly and stealthily as she can, landing on the floor. The floor is cold through the holes she got in her socks last night – she'd left Hardison's without her shoes on.

Quietly she moves around the couch, making sure it really is Sophie before making her way up to the breakfast bar. The stools are higher up than the chairs, but they're easy enough to get up – Sophie gasps when she turns around and sees Parker, but at least she doesn't yell like Hardison does.

"Parker – you surprised me," she says, her hand touching her chest. Parker doesn't think she scared her that badly, but she's not going to say it. She just sits there and watches Sophie until Sophie asks if she wants something to eat.

"Eliot makes cinnamon buns," Parker says, but Sophie looks at her with disapproval and Parker thinks she might have said the wrong thing.

"Do I look like Eliot?" Sophie asks, taking a bowl from the cabinet and putting it on the counter. "Besides, after you ran away from them last night, I wouldn't be surprised if he wouldn't want to make you any more cinnamon buns."

Parker looks over at Nate, and wonders if Nate thinks the same thing. That Eliot and Hardison will be mad at her for leaving their place. Sophie puts a bowl of milk in front of her with some cereal, but Parker doesn't feel very hungry anymore.

"Eat," Sophie says, and there's something in her tone that makes Parker pour the cereal even though she doesn't want it. "Care to explain why you ran away from Eliot and Hardison last night?" she asks, coming around to sit beside Parker with a cup of something dark.

Taking a bite of the cereal, Parker ignores Sophie, hoping that she'll just leave her alone. But Sophie doesn't say anything, or look away, or move, and when Parker turns to look at her after a few bites, she's still looking at Parker expectantly.

"Why?" Parker asks through a mouthful of cereal, and Sophie uses a napkin to wipe away a bit of milk that runs down her chin. Parker pulls away, but with Nate on the couch, she doesn't feel threatened.

"Because it's not a very nice thing to do to people. And you could've been hurt out there – did you even think about how we might have felt if something happened? How Nate would have felt if something happened?"

Parker shakes her head, but she looks down at her bowl thoughtfully. Would Nate have cared if something happened? And if he did care about what happened to her, then why? She was just some kid of the street that followed him home from New York – why would he care? "No," she says honestly, this time turning out a little bit to watch Sophie as she talked. "Would he?"

"Of course he would," Sophie says, and Parker feels like Sophie thinks that's obvious.

"Why?" Parker asks, cocking her head to the side, the cereal forgotten.

Sophie looks at her for a moment, and then smiles sadly. "Oh, sweetie, you don't think that Nate doesn't care for you as much as you care for him, do you?"

"Does he?" she asks, just realizing that liking Nate, and thinking that he's nice, and wanting Nate to be happy, and wanting to be around him, means that she cares for him.

For a second she doesn't think that Sophie will respond to her – but then Sophie reaches out and touches her hand, holds it tight and gives it a small kiss. "Of course he does, sweetie. And he's not going to let you go anywhere. You're safe with him, and you're safe with us. So no more running away, okay? We're all just a phone call away."

Parker nods slowly, trying to understand what it is she's feeling. "I didn't mean to run away," she says, "I just… wanted to come here."

"Alright," Sophie nods, letting go of her hand and getting up. "Finish up your breakfast and we'll see if we can't go out and find something for Hardison and Eliot to make up for last night."

Another two bites into the cereal, and another thought strikes her. "Do Hardison and Eliot care about me?"

Sophie, who's loading up the dishwasher, turns around and comes back to the breakfast bar. "Of course love, we all do. Why?"

"Do… they think I ran away from them?" she asks, worried that now Hardison and Eliot won't like her anymore. Sophie shakes her head with a small laugh, and it makes Parker feel a little better,

"Of course not. They were just confused, is all. You worried them, but their feelings aren't hurt, don't worry about that. Doesn't mean you shouldn't apologize though," she adds, and Parker gathers that means she should apologize, even if she wasn't thinking about it in the first place.

"I didn't mean to worry anyone," she says softly, and Sophie nods,

"Don't worry about that now. Just finish up and we'll get going."

Parker gives the couch a look, the tips of the fingers that poke out just over the top cushion. She doesn't want to go with Sophie, but if Nate's still going to be here… if Nate's going to be here when she gets back, and that's all that matters to her.

Chapter 23

Nate had woken up to a quiet apartment, which was unusual. There was no one moving around, no one staring at him with wide eyes, or displeasure. He was a little worried until he found the note on the counter explaining the Sophie had taken Parker shopping, and reminding him that he had a meeting with a client. Wondering how much persuasion that had taken, Nate walked over to the liquor cabinet. It was only when he opened it and found it empty that he realized he'd been moving there automatically.

His fingers itched for a drink, his body ached for it, and he was still staring at the empty space when his front door opened.

"Shh, they might still be sleeping," Hardison was muttering, but the noise didn't stop, and when Eliot came in, he could see the bags on Eliot's arms.

"I thought you already got enough food," Nate said dryly, closing the door on the empty cabinet and ignoring the knowing looks on their faces.

Eliot shrugged, off-loading on the countertops, "You needed more food. Got a lot of people to feed."

Nate didn't justify it with a comment on how they didn't technically live here – and, maybe if he got down to the bar in time, he'll be able to get a small drink to keep his head clear.

"Where you going?" Hardison asked, and Nate didn't stop putting on his coat.

"Down to the bar," he said, opening the door, "Going to meet a client."

"We're getting a client now?" Eliot asked, incredulous, and Nate shrugged, offended that his reasoning was being questioned.

"People don't stop getting screwed over just because Parker's here."

"And are you going to have a drink?" Eliot asked, challenging him, and Nate looked at him for a moment. Instead of responding he left, slamming the door behind him a little louder than necessary.

As it so happened, he was going to meet a client at the bar. And if he ordered a glass of whiskey for the client to make things easier, and if he ordered one for himself as well to make the client feel like it was okay to drink, than what harm could it do?

The case had to do with the land that a wildlife refugee was about to lose because of legal technicalities. The owner of the company who was taking over the land had screwed over a few others before this victim; it wasn't about the money, they said, it was about the wildlife. It was about the countless families the owner had made homeless – the man was in town to plead his case to the courts, but Nate didn't foresee that going too well.

When he came back to the apartment, Parker and Sophie were already back. As he closed the door he could see Parker's face pop up over the back of the couch, grinning as she saw him, the events of last night as good as forgotten. "Nate!" she greeted, standing up on the cushions and he went over to ask her how the shopping trip had gone.

Eliot bumped up against him and Nate glared at him – it was hard to believe that someone with Eliot's control and ability could 'accidently' run into someone. After taking a whiff, Eliot spun away and Nate glared after him, annoyed.

Parker leaned out over the edge of the couch, rattling off all the places that Sophie had dragged her to with enthusiasm. "And look what I got," she beamed, holding out a chain of gold that dangled from her small hands.

Sophie, who happened to be walking by at that very moment, stopped in her tracks. "Parker," she asked, alarmed, "Where on Earth did you get that."

"You didn't buy it for her?" Nate asked; the relief that Sophie hadn't bought her something so trite was overwhelmed with the comprehension that she'd stolen it.

"I took it," Parker said slowly, her eyes wide, a look that Nate was quickly starting to associate as her guilty-look. "You can have it," she offered, holding it out to Nate and glancing nervously at Sophie.

"Hot damn." Hardison whistled, and Nate was torn between being impressed that she managed to steal it, and concerned that she still felt like she had to steal things.

"Parker!" Sophie's tone was admonishing, and Parker shrunk a little into the couch, still holding the necklace out, looking at Nate pleadingly. But even Sophie sounded confused about whether she should be impressed or disapproving.

Parker dropped the chain on the top of the cushions and instead picked up the rabbit – every time she held the thing up, Nate felt like she was getting ready to fight for its honor. "You can have it," she said again, even softer, troubled.

"What happened?" Eliot asked, coming into the conversation with a sandwich on a plate. He looked at the necklace, then at Parker; with an amused expression he glanced at each of them in turn, and then laughed. "Here you go Parker," he smiled, setting the plate next to her. "And you were the one to give us the white hat speech, Nate," he said with a shrug, "It's your job to give it to her too."