(Takes place Season 3, and pretends there was never a Ho, Ho, Ho Job. Couldn't be helped!)

"You're quiet tonight – even for you." Nate sat down at the opposite end of the table from Eliot and watched for his friend's reaction. He was pleased to see a relaxed shrug to be the only response.

"Hard to get a word in edgewise when Hardison and Parker get heated up about something – especially something so stupid."

The duo in question had spent most of the evening arguing the validity of the abilities of assorted comic book super heroes, to the astonishment of Sophie, the amusement of Nate and the annoyance of Eliot.

"Sure that's all? You've been quiet for a couple of days Eliot."

"Relax Nate – I'm fine. Not hurt, not worried, not bored. Not a case of the holiday blues. Just quiet. Ain't I entitled to a bit of introspection?"

Nate arched an eyebrow, and Eliot grinned. "Yup – know some of the big words too!"

"Never doubted it." Nate had long known Eliot was much more than he appeared. As long as the targets saw nothing more than what Sterling had not long ago defined as a "punch up artist", Eliot automatically had the upper hand. Nate sipped at his coffee, looking back at the rest of the team. Sophie had tuned them all out, picking up a magazine and focusing her attention there. The other two team members continued to debate how a fight between Hulk and Superman would end up. Nate debated with himself whether to follow up with Eliot. The Hitter and introspection struck him as a dangerous combination. Eliot kept too many things to himself, and dwelling on them seemed to Nate to be an invitation to trouble. Still, the younger man seemed comfortable with himself at the moment.

Eliot watched Nate for a few minutes. He knew exactly what was going through his head. Nate worried when his team was "off" from the normal routine. Eliot being quiet wasn't off, but it wasn't always a good thing either. He knew Nate wanted to follow-up, but at the same time didn't want to look like he was intruding. They all were fully aware of just how reluctant Eliot was to talk about himself - his past. They respected it, for the most part, but he knew the curiosity was there. It wasn't as strong as it had been in the early going. Over the years they had come to realize they didn't need to know his past, and if he wanted to keep his secrets, they would restrain from forcing the issue. He strongly suspected Hardison had done some digging in the early days, but even a hacker of his skills couldn't find information that wasn't there. And Eliot was a master at staying as far below the radar as possible. It wasn't hard to find out that he was wanted by several international groups, on both sides of the law, but exactly what he was wanted for, and whether or not the myriad of claims were true, remained a mystery. Just the way he liked it.

"So," Eliot knew Nate couldn't stay out of it, and was pretty close to guessing how long he'd last, "is this a meditative introspection, or brooding, or just a little bit of self- examination?"

"Some of all of the above. Seriously Nate – there is nothing to be worried about. I'm not depressed, I'm not in trouble. I'm just – well, just thinking things over." His look clearly told Nate not to ask what things. Nate ignored the look.

"Things?" Eliot just shrugged. "Things like 'Should my New Year's resolution be to add more fibre to my diet?', or things like 'I think some of the warlords I pissed off are trying to kill me again.'?"

"Somewhere in between the two. Nate, I promise you, if this was something to worry about you'd know."

"How?'

"How what?"

"How would I know? You'd tell me? You'd send a note saying you've run off to liberate someone or something? We'd find your body somewhere? How would I know?"

"Wouldn't just run off Nate. Damn. Thought you had me figured better than that."

"You'd disappear in a heartbeat if you thought it was protecting us. Don't bother denying it Eliot."

"You'd know because I'd tell you."

Nate arched an eyebrow and tilted his head. Eliot grinned with little humour in it. "Yes Nate, I would tell you – if I thought you needed to know. If I believed you… any of you could help. Trust me on this, there is nothing to tell this time. Just feelin' a little, hell I don't know –"

"Introspective?"

"Yeah."

"OK – but Eliot…"

"Yes Nate – I'll let you know."

Nate stood and walked away, resisting the urge to place a hand on the younger man's shoulder. Eliot stood as well, announcing he was going downstairs for a beer, and leaving before anyone could comment, or invite themselves along.

Despite all that had just been said Nate couldn't accept the idea all was fine. Eliot didn't brood for no reason, and that was what was happening. He'd learned over the last couple of years to read his team quite well. Sophie was fairly easy, since he'd known her longest – and best. Not to say that she couldn't surprise him from time to time with her actions. But her moods were not that much of a challenge to him. Not much effort was needed to decipher the mindset of either Hardison or Parker either. Pretty much open books, the pair of them. Hardison tended to be too eager to hide much of anything, and Parker simply couldn't be bothered with playing games.

Eliot remained an enigma in many ways. He'd made a career out appearing to be far less than he was. Underestimating Spencer was a mistake his enemies only ever made once. They either learned the hard way how truly skilled and efficient the man was, or they weren't around long enough to learn any lesson. Nate tried not to dwell on that particular reality. The others were not aware of just how dark Eliot's past was, and for everyone's sake it was best to keep things that way.

Eliot quickly downed his beer, seething quietly over just how well Nathan Ford could read him. He knew the mastermind had not accepted for a moment that all was fine with the hitter, nothing more than a bit of melancholy. The others were all allowed their quiet moments to be alone with thoughts or memories, but if Eliot did it, alarms went off. Granted, there was good reason Nate to be concerned, but dammit, he wasn't supposed to figure that out. Eliot figured it really was his own fault though. He'd been a loner so long that he was still, even after over two years, not used to the idea anyone paid that much attention to him. He'd survived this long in a profession not known for retirement options, by being invisible. Yet somehow, he'd lowered his defenses enough to let these people through. He was a different Eliot Spencer around them, and that led to scenes like the one he'd just tried, with marginal success, to bluff his way through.

All of which led him to the current battle – with his worst enemy – his better judgement. His hitter instinct was telling him it was time to move on. Hell, it long past time to move on. He was getting comfortable, and that never ended well. Complacence was dangerous. Letting his guard down was an invitation to trouble. Not that he needed to invite trouble. It had a way of finding him, and he was fine with that. Living on the edge had been a way of life for so long the idea of not being in a state of combat readiness seemed beyond strange.

But, and this was something he never foresaw, he didn't really want to leave. He liked this situation. He liked just about everything about it. Despite what they all thought, he didn't really like fighting. Oh, sure. He was good at it, and the satisfaction of taking down someone who truly deserved it couldn't be equalled. But he wondered sometimes if that was really all he was good for. One step up from school yard bully – the very kids he used to take on back home. That was where this started – taking on the bullies that no one else would. Definitely satisfying. Over the years, it became profitable more often than not. Very profitable. But at a cost. With each fight, each take down, he felt more of himself slipping away. The avenger became the aggressor. He'd done things he didn't want to remember – and couldn't forget. Things that he realized would horrify the others if they found out. Nate might shrug them off, at least some of them. Parker might even accept it, but that didn't mean he wanted her to. But Sophie and Hardison? Not at chance. They were still far too normal, too conscientious in their own ways to accept the reality of what his life had been. As for the truly terrible things he'd done – no one would forgive him that. Why should they – he didn't.

Unfortunately, the way things were unfolding, it was just a matter of time before his past was going to catch up to him. And he knew they would never forgive him for what he was now planning to do. It's one thing to have a history like his, it was something else to make it part of their present. But as far as he could figure, there was going to be only one way to keep the team from a face to face confrontation with Damian Moreau. And he was ready to do whatever he had to in order to keep them away from Moreau.

So now, before things went too far, before he'd gotten into more than he could get out of, it was time to disappear. As long as he distanced himself from the team, he could take care of their current problem without any of them getting their hands dirty.

Of course, the fact that he had just promised Nate he'd never leave without telling him made that a little more difficult, but at the same time it wouldn't be the first promise he'd broken. And leaving right before Christmas? Yeah, that was going to piss them off. Maybe enough that they'd hate him just a little. At the very least, they'd be disappointed in him. But then, disappointing people seemed to be one of his strengths. And strangely, the more noble his intention, but more disappointed people were in him. He'd just have to add this to the list of things he'd learned to live with. It was a long list.

"He OK?" Sophie had completely abandoned the superhero discussion and moved over to a far more comfortable resting place. She looked up when Nate re-entered the room. He should have realized that the fact she hadn't said anything did not be she hadn't noticed anything. Very few things passed unobserved in her presence.

"Seems to be. Just a little 'introspective', according to him." She raised a skeptical eyebrow to him, but had no time to comment before Hardison joined in.

"Damn - that doesn't sound like him. Should we be worried?"

"Nobody has to worry about Eliot. He's an expert at taking care of himself. It's what he does."

"No Parker, what he does is take care of everyone else, and pretend what he wants or needs doesn't matter. Taking care of himself isn't on his radar anymore."

"But he'd tell us if he was in trouble Nate. That's the deal now, right? I mean, now that Sophie's back and you're out of prison and everything is working out, we are a team – right? He'll do what we tell him to." Parker looked anxious for the first time. She was just starting to believe that this was her family now, and she wasn't entirely sure what she needed to do to keep things that way, but she was damn sure going to try.

"Yes Parker, we're a team. Maybe even more than that. But that doesn't mean we get to control each other."

"Really?" Hardison responded. " – 'cause that's pretty much your specialty." Nate let out an exasperated sigh. "You denying it?"

"No – not entirely. But that's not the point Hardison. It's not like I can order him to sit and stay like the family pet. If Eliot wants – needs – to move on, then we have to accept that. The question I have is how did this go from 'Eliot's being quiet tonight' to 'he's leaving and there's nothing we can do? I think we all need to take a step back and just let it go for now."

None of them looked overly convinced that ignoring things was the best course, but since there were no other suggestions on the table, they all remained quiet when Eliot came back into the room. Too quiet, which naturally got his attention.

"What did you say to them Nate?"

Ford put on his most innocent face, which fooled no one.

"Look, I don't know what he's telling you, but there is nothing wrong. Geez – one quiet night and suddenly it's Armageddon."

"Not one night Eliot – you've been 'introspective' for a few days."

"We aren't trying to pry –" Sophie started, only to be interrupted by Parker.

"Sure we are – we want to know what's bugging you, and how we fix it. We don't want you to go anywhere. You aren't going to – are you?"

Eliot kept the sigh internalized, and tried to plaster on a smile. He knew none of them would buy it. "Look – for the last time. IF I decide, at some point, that I have to leave, I will tell you. Yes, right now I am working out a few plans in my head – all short term stuff. We aren't especially busy at the moment, and I may be asked to do a favour for a friend. I've just been trying to figure out how I can work it all out. That's it – that's all. So please – stop making this into more than it is." He grabbed the jacket he'd come back for from the chair. "I'll see you in the morning." He left the office without looking back.

"OK! Well that was a lot of worry about nothing. Come on Hardison – show me more about the Hulk – he reminds me of Eliot when he's mad." Parker grabbed his hand and pulled him back over to the computer. As they settled in, Sophie turned to Nate.

"Eliot's leaving." It wasn't a question, it was a statement.

"Yup – not sure when, but he's definitely planning."

"Do you think we should try to change his mind?"

"Absolutely."

"Do you think we can?"

"No."

Nothing changed over the next few days. They worked a couple of simple jobs, and quietly Nathan and Sophie kept an eye on Eliot. Hardison had also re-thought their recent conversation, and was debating whether or not to hide some tracking devices in Eliot's clothing. Parker vetoed the idea.

"In the first place, he promised he wasn't going anywhere, and he wouldn't lie. Not to me, and not on Christmas Eve. Bad karma with Santa to do that." Hardison arched an eyebrow, clearly indicating to her that he did not for a moment believe Eliot was the least bit concerned about what Santa thought of him at this point in his life.

"In the second place," Parked continued, ignoring the eyebrow, "and more to the point, Eliot will seriously hurt you when he finds them. And he will find them."

"Find what?" Eliot asked from the door, causing Hardison to jump several feet and emit a loud eek, bringing a smile to the hitter.

"Find the presents she hid – nothing special."

"Don't lie to him at Christmas Hardison. I told you – bad Karma."

"You lyin' to me? Seriously?"

"Yeah, he wants to put tracking stuff on you so you can't hide from us."

Hardison was trying to covertly put as much distance between himself and his increasing angry friend. One glare had him frozen in place.

"Told you – told everyone, I'm not leaving. And if you ever mess with my stuff, they won't be able to find the pieces." Hardison merely gulped his response as he watched Eliot storm out he door.

"Oh relax – he'd never really hurt you. Not anything permanent anyway."

"Not finding that particularly comforting."

"Why do you think he's leaving?

Hardison softened his face and voice. "Mostly 'cause he just isn't the type to stay put. When you think about it, none of us really are. Not exactly the sort that settle down and raise a family."

"But we're the family – aren't we. I mean I kind of thought this was what being in a real family would be like. We kinda have mom and dad with Nate and Sophie, though I doubt Sophie would want me calling her that. Eliot, well that's like having a really overprotective big brother taking care of us all, don't you think?"

Hardison just nodded, deciding this might not be the moment to ask just where he fit into her idea of family, but hoping it wasn't as another sibling.

Eliot stood quietly on the far side of the door. He had waited, hoping to overhear the conversation, and not being at all happy he had succeeded. He thought of the bag he had strapped to the back of his motorcycle. His knives and miscellaneous weapons – all he really needed in the past when he'd disappeared. He allowed himself to imagine how hurt Parker was going to be when she realized he was gone. They'd all feel betrayed, and with cause. But this was going to hurt Parker in a way he had never wanted to. And there was nothing he could do, because staying would end up hurting her more.

Nate and Sophie watched from the window as they saw Eliot straddle his Harley.

"Shouldn't we be doing something?"

"What? We've made it as clear as possible that we don't want him leaving. Short of going out there and chaining him down, I really don't see that we have an option."

"I'm pretty sure we can find chains." Sophie said with a sad smile.

"That would hold Eliot? Doubt it."

"Whattcha looking at?" Parker had, as usual, appeared from nowhere.

Sophie pulled the curtain closed behind her. "Just looking for signs of Santa," she joked.

"Don't be ridiculous – he doesn't show up until you're in bed." She spun on her heel and skipped away, the bell on her elf hat bouncing with each step.

"Nate – you can be the one to try to explain this to her in the morning. I refuse to break her heart."

Parker hurried down the back stairs and out to the lot. She was relieved to see Eliot's silhouette perched on his bike, and at the same time could feel anger building.

"They were right, weren't they? They were all right."

He turned suddenly, not having heard her coming up.

"I'm just going for-"

"Don't Eliot. Don't lie to me again. Not now. Not about this. You're leaving, and you're doing in on Christmas Eve, and without even saying good-bye. How could you do that?" She punched his arm with the last statement, and he offered no resistance. He would have let her beat him half to death if it would have helped.

"I don't want to Parker. God, you have no idea how much I don't want to. But I gotta."

"No – you don't."

"Parker – if I go you'll be pissed, and maybe even hate me. But I can live with that. But if I stay… Well let's just say things are going to start happening, and when they do, you are going to do a whole lot worse than hate me, and I can't live with that."

"When are you going to get it through your head that I don't – no – WE don't care about the past?"

"You'll care about this."

"No – we won't." He didn't answer her. "I mean it Eliot. Do you think we don't all have stuff in the past? Stuff we wish hadn't happened?"

"It's more than that Parker – it's much more. You ain't gonna be able to forgive me. God knows I can't. And you sure as hell won't trust me, or want to work with me again."

"Shouldn't we be allowed to decide that?"

"No, not this time. I gotta make this call."

She stared for a full minute without saying a word. Then, slowly, took a couple of steps toward him and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek.

"Please don't make me lose another brother. I don't think I can stand it." She turned and walked away. A single tear fell when she heard the bike roar off into the night.

They all woke up at Nate's Christmas morning. Parker had come back from her talk with Eliot, curled up in a corner chair and refused to speak all night. Hardison settled into a seat across from her, watching until his own eyes finally drifted shut, by which time Sophie had dozed off on the sofa. Nate found blankets for all before climbing the stairs to his loft. The gifts under the tree sat untouched. At some point, Parker had gotten up during the night and segregated those both for and from Eliot, putting them front and centre, as if trying to keep is presence alive. Now, they just served as a hollow reminder.

Nate headed to the kitchen to start coffee, wondering what he could possibly do to lift the mood, and realizing the answer was 'not a damn thing'. He reached into the cupboard for a bottle, deciding this was the perfect morning to liberally flavor coffee with whiskey. Before he got a hand on it the front door opened.

"Nate – get outta my kitchen. You are not making breakfast, I've tasted your cooking. Everybody just sit tight for a few minutes and I'll have French toast and bacon ready before you know it. Sophie can you set –" Eliot didn't get a chance to finish his statement as he was bowled over by Parker leaping into his arms.

"I knew it! I knew you'd be back. Santa wouldn't let me down on something this important." He rolled her off him and watched her leap to her feet while he sat up on the floor. He looked up at three stunned and one grinning face smiling down. Nate expression shifted to one of bemused satisfaction.

"Here to stay Eliot?"

"Where would I be going?"

Nate reached out a hand and pulled the hitter to his feet, and before the younger man could step back, pulled him into a brief hug. "Merry Christmas Eliot."

Sophie gave him a longer hug, while Hardison wisely settled for just a pat on the shoulder. Parker had already moved to the tree, again repositioning the gifts to mix all together – family style.

Eliot walked back to the kitchen and started cooking. This wasn't over, and it may yet end the way he originally anticipated. He looked at the group now gathered around the tree. With luck, he'd be able to solve the Moreau problem before all the facts become known. And if not…well, he'd burn that bridge when he got to it. Til then, there was breakfast to make.

Merry Christmas to all