Disclaimer: I don't own Leverage.
Sophie'd threatened to leave often enough, since they'd gotten Nate out of jail. She seemed to think threatening to abandon the team again would keep Nate in line. (Never mind that it had nearly destroyed them all—not just Nate—the last time she'd done it.)
Hardison had made noises about starting his own team. Now, Eliot didn't think the hacker was considering doing anything in the foreseeable future—especially not after Nate had made it brutally clear that Hardison wasn't anywhere near ready—but the fact that he'd been thinking of a time when the team was no longer together was pretty significant.
As for Parker, well, who knew what was going on in that head of hers? Sometimes Eliot thought she was the one most devoted to their little team, that she needed the rest of them to provide some stability in her crazy little world. Other times he thought she was a hair trigger from bolting.
Eliot didn't give a lot of thought to leaving. He knew that if he thought about it too much he'd up and do it. He liked his teammates well enough—wouldn't admit to more even under torture—but being around them was wearing away at him. Parker and Hardison were like some sort of love-boat-slash-ticking-time-bomb, their feelings for each other both excluding everyone else and dangerous for themselves, since he seriously doubted the two of them could ever work out. (She lived in a storage unit, for heaven's sake.) Sophie was back, and Eliot was relieved about that, but he often thought that when she'd rediscovered her original identity she'd lost a lot of the compassion that had made her tolerable in the first place.
As for Nate…Eliot didn't know what was going on in Nate's head, and that scared him. From the first, he and Nate had been on the same wavelength. In a lot of ways they were the same, with the same protective instinct, the same commitment to the team. (Of the five members of the team, they were the only ones who hadn't ever gone off on their own and put everyone at risk, as Hardison had done when he'd slept in the day of a job, or as Parker had done when she'd gone on that job for Archie Leach, or as Sophie had done when she'd abandoned them for months.) Now, Nate seemed determined to push them all away—seemed to be trying to cultivate a reputation for disregarding his team's safety, which was as far from the truth as one could get—and Eliot knew why Nate was doing it but didn't know how to make him stop.
Nate had never mentioned that he might leave. Since coming back from prison, he hadn't made any of his weak claims that he didn't want to be part of the team anymore the way he had when they'd first tracked him down in Boston. Of the five of them, Nate was the only one Eliot was sure wouldn't leave unless it was somehow for the team's own good.
So when he showed up to a team meeting one morning and found Hardison typing furiously on his laptop and Parker standing with her nose an inch from the wall with her fists clenched, heard Sophie softly sobbing up in Nate's loft, he had a pretty good idea what had happened.
"He's gone, man," Hardison said, shaking his head. "Just left us a damned note and took off. He even ditched his cell phone and the tracker I put in his shoe."
"He said we were his family," Parker said to the wall. "How could he leave if we were his family?"
"What's the note say?" Eliot said.
They all looked up when they heard Sophie's foot on the stair. Her cheeks were dry but her eyes were red. She recited the note from heart. "This isn't working for me. Please don't sell my clothes while I'm gone. Nate."
"I can't believe he'd do this to us," Hardison bitched. "And after we just sprang him from prison, too!"
"You say that as if he owed us somethin'," Eliot said, taking the note from Sophie's outstretched hand and scanning it quickly, his mind racing.
"If we're his family, he owes us something," Parker replied, then frowned at her own words. "Doesn't he?"
"He does," Sophie said, sinking gracefully to the couch.
And, just like that, Eliot understood. The way to make Nate stop pushing them away? Stop treating him like he was their enemy. It wasn't Nate's behavior he should have been trying to change—it was everyone else's.
"If we're his family, how come we ain't been treating him like one?" Eliot crumpled the note in his fist and crossed his arms over his chest, glaring at his teammates.
They stared at him for a long moment.
"What are you talking about?" Hardison demanded.
Eliot rolled his eyes. These were three of the greatest thieves in the world. How could they be so dense?
"We've been giving Nate the cold shoulder since he got out of prison. Don't deny it—you know it's true. He nearly got himself killed—did get himself arrested and sentenced—and we couldn't get over it. We haven't trusted him. We haven't made him feel welcome. Hell, the five of us haven't even hung out at his apartment, and it's not like he has any other friends. We haven't really been a team, much less a family, since he got back. Seriously, why would he stay?"
"Eliot," Sophie said slowly, "you're not making any sense."
Eliot leveled a finger at her. "You," he snarled. "I ain't even gotten to you yet. You told Nate that you were the only one of us who actually liked him. Where the hell do you get off saying something like that?"
Sophie shrunk back as Parker and Hardison blinked at her in surprise.
"It's not like Nate's been an angel since he got out," Hardison pointed out defensively, though he kept shooting Sophie incredulous looks. "He hypnotized me—he put Parker in danger—"
"What, and you'd rather he never put any of us at risk?" Eliot snapped. "What exactly do you think this job is, Hardison?" Hardison opened his mouth to argue, but Eliot just steamrolled over him. "No, I'm serious. Do you know what I'm out doing, every time Parker's picking a lock or Sophie's flirting with someone or you're playing with your little toys? I'm fighting people. Beating 'em up and taking a beating in return. Usually I'm better at fighting than they are. Someday I'll meet someone who's better than me, and it'll be over." He sneered at Hardison. "You all complain because Nate's asking you to put yourself on the line for the job. Nate and I, we've been putting ourselves on the line all along, to help people. That's what doin' the job means. If you can't handle that, why are you even here?"
He strode to the door and yanked it open.
"Where are you going?" Sophie called out.
"I'm going to find Nate."
"I told you, I don't know where he is!" Hardison said.
Eliot couldn't keep the contempt out of his voice. "You don't. I do."
"How could you possibly know that?"
"Don't be an idiot, Hardison," Parker said suddenly, drawing everyone's attention for the first time since Eliot started ranting. She looked Eliot in the eye, and for once they understood each other perfectly. "Nate would never abandon us as long as we were still in danger, and we're in danger as long as the Italian is blackmailing us."
"So where is he?" Hardison said.
Eliot growled. "You still don't get it? He's gone after Damien Moreau."
Sophie gasped. "That's suicide!"
Eliot wasn't so sure. Nate was the smartest guy he knew, and before forming their team he'd been as much a loner as any of them. But what he said was: "It is, if he tries to do it alone. I don't intend to let that happen."
He didn't even have time to toss out his challenging "who's with me?" before Parker grabbed her coat off the back of the sofa and jogged over to join him. Hardison took a little longer, fumbling to close his laptop and put it in its case, but a moment later he was at the door, too.
The three of them looked at Sophie. She hadn't moved.
"He's not the same man, you know," she whispered, a tear slinking down her cheek. "I look at him, sometimes, and I think it's already too late for him."
"He doesn't need you, Sophie," Eliot told her frankly. "Whatever you might have trained him into thinking, he can manage without you. But he cares about you—about all of us—and this is a man who's had everyone else he's ever cared about torn away from him. Ask yourself whether he's really that far gone, as long as there are still people he loves and who love him in return. And ask yourself whether it's possible—just possible—that we've disappointed him as much as he's disappointed us."
"You're right." Sophie smiled weakly and got off the couch. "I didn't know you were so good at handing out relationship advice, Eliot."
Before Nate took off, Eliot might have deflected her comment. Now he was done with coddling any of them. "There's a lot you don't know about me," he said. "Sometimes I think none of you know me at all."
Hardison hesitated, tentatively put his hand on Eliot's arm. "Maybe so, but that's gonna change. We're a team, aren't we?"
Parker slung one arm around Eliot's shoulders and the other around Sophie's. "We're more than just a team," she said, and there was determination underlying the false confidence in her voice. "Now let's go get our Nate back."