Author's notes: Eliot comes to a decision, and much cooking is done.
Many thanks for all of the kind words and kudos for this silly little tale of camels and hitters. They are very much appreciated!
Watch out for the next story in 'The Wapanjara Chronicles' - 'The Yobbo'.
Jo sat on the veranda in the late afternoon, a couple of days after Gertie got to her feet, and watched the two unlikely friends head slowly across the yard to the track which meandered its way among the trees, the lowering sun sending fingered shadows through the branches of the old almond stand.
Man and camel were lame still, both moving slowly and with some care. Gertie's fetlock was strapped up with an incongruously bright pink crepe bandage to help support the injured joint. Eliot moved gingerly, not needing Soapy's walking stick anymore, but he held himself together with stiff dignity, doing his best not to jar his shoulder or put too much strain on his wounded leg.
"They're doing a lot better, old girl," Soapy murmured, sitting beside his wife as she poured him tea.
"I suppose …" Jo pondered as she handed her husband his tea and returned to her latest crossword. "I think now Gertie's on the mend we might find out what's bothering the lad. It's to do with that team of his, I'm sure."
Soapy lifted a white chocolate blondie, Effie's latest baking experiment. Taking a bite, he hummed happily at the richness of the gooey, macadamia-laced square. His lugubrious face lit up with pleasure. Soapy Munro was very, very fond of anything sweet.
"Eliot's recipe," Jo said, "He supervised while Effie baked." She smiled at Soapy's obvious delight. "It's the first time he's had any inclination to cook, so I think he's feeling better."
Soapy saw Eliot and Gertie disappear into the trees. A small white pup suddenly appeared at a run and followed them along the track.
"Bloody daft dog," Soapy mumbled to himself, and took another bite of the blondie. "Is this peanut butter on the top?"
But Jo wasn't listening as she sipped her own cup of tea, her brow drawn down as she considered the American whom they both loved dearly.
"He'll be going back to Portland soon, love. I know it," she said with more than a hint of sorrow in her voice.
Soapy finished his blondie and his eyebrows rose a little in surprise.
"What for? I sort of thought he was here to stay!"
"No … no, he has to go back. But he has a decision to make, and I don't know what that decision is. What it's all about." Jo let out a deep sigh reamed with sadness. "I just wish -"
" – he didn't do what he does, my Jo, I know," Soapy finished the sentence for his wife as she leaned back in her chair, frustration on her lean face.
"He's got his undies in an uproar about something, that's for sure," she continued and refilled her teacup. "I mean … he said that he left them, not the other way around. Why would the idiot do that with two bullet holes in him, Soapy? Hey? Why do something so bloody stupid – " she stopped, knowing that she needed to control her emotions because it wouldn't do either of them any good if she became upset. "Oh, what's the use? He'll be gone soon. I suppose he'll tell us what's going on in that thick skull of his before he goes."
Soapy nodded soberly and reached out to lace his fingers in Jo's.
"No doubt he will. But I'll tell you something, wife of mine – whatever it is, he needed to come home to us. To his family. It meant more to him than life itself, and I for one am glad he feels that way. He belongs here, and he knows it."
Jo squeezed Soapy's hand, grateful for his love and understanding.
"He does, doesn't he? Belongs here, at Wapanjara."
Soapy grinned and snaffled another blondie.
"It's in his blood, Jo. This is where his heart lies. It's been part of him since he came out of that bloody nasty fever he had when we first found him."
Jo leaned her head on Soapy's shoulder.
"I s'pose. He's happy here, Soapy. I wish he'd stay."
She felt Soapy heave a deep sigh and nuzzled her cap of silver-auburn curls.
"Maybe one day, old girl. Maybe one day."
And Jo knew she had to be content with that.
Eliot settled his still-healing body on the old tree stump near the almond stand and waited a long moment for the ache of his wounds to settle. This was the worst part of dealing with the injuries he would accrue once in a while as he did his job of protecting his team. Oh, the initial stress of wounds and broken bones was hard to tackle sometimes, and his healing times were becoming more drawn out as he grew older. He still healed well and usually without too much hassle, but he hated this part of it … the bit where his wounds were stiff and itchy and were healed enough to let him move but didn't allow him to do very much. He wanted to push himself, to make his body do as it was told and toughen up … to get back to being pure muscle and bone and his usual deadly self.
He was distracted from his musings as Gertie very carefully sat down beside him and let loose a ripping, stench-ridden fart.
"JEEZ!" Eliot coughed and flapped a hand in Gertie's direction in the futile attempt to disperse the stink. Gertie thought he wanted to give her a fuss and gazed adoringly into Eliot's eyes. So she squeaked with delight and opened her mouth to give her best friend a camel-kiss. Unfortunately she burped loudly instead, spattering Eliot with saliva.
It took him long minutes to wipe off the drool, swearing roundly and succinctly at Gertie who watched him with a mixture of confusion and concern, and then he had to put up with her investigation of his pockets for carrots.
Buster by this time had caught up with them and was rootling about under a nearby acacia looking for a lizard to chase. He began to enthusiastically dig a hole and showered Eliot with dirt.
Eliot decided hanging out with Gertie and Buster was even more irritating than dealing with Parker after a chocolate binge.
The last time he has seen Parker was when she and Hardison had very carefully hoisted him, bleeding wounds and all, into Mike Vance's government-issue SUV. Vance hadn't missed the keys until it was too late, but Parker knew Eliot needed a vehicle roomy enough for her to maneuver the injured hitter into the back seat, and the SUV was just the ticket. Parker had settled beside him as Hardison drove them out of town to a small hotel where they knew Eliot could rest and Parker could treat his wounds.
It had been a painful hour or so, and Eliot had gritted his teeth every inch of the way, Hardison alternately apologizing for every tiny bump in the road surface and prattling on about how Eliot should go straight to a hospital.
Parker said nothing but had curled up beside Eliot and watched him like a hawk, silently thrumming with tension.
"Stay put, Eliot! You promise me!" she had scolded, fear and worry in her blue eyes as she and Hardison had left him in the SUV to go and organise renting an unobtrusive chalet at the rear of the hotel.
By the time they had returned, Eliot was gone.
Guilt tickled the back of Eliot's mind but he tamped it down firmly. He knew what he was doing. Even as he sat next to Mike Vance later that day in the Colonel's ridiculous little pool car, listening to the man grouching and complaining about Parker stealing his SUV, Eliot, hurt and feeling nauseous, had thought about only one thing – going home to Wapanjara, to the people who would take care of him and let him mull over the problem which had been percolating in his mind for some time.
He reached out and pulled Gertie's bottom lip, teasing her. Gertie hummed happily.
"They're gonna give me hell when I get back," he said, and the camel mumbled at Eliot's fingers. "Now all I have to do is decide whether to stay there or not."
Gertie burped up her cud and settled down to listen.
So Eliot pondered and cogitated and argued with Gertie, who listened carefully. He ran through endless scenarios and gauged reactions, and as the sun dipped lower and lower and the galahs swept in for their evening drink from the billabong in the great South paddock, Eliot finally came to a decision.
Getting carefully to his feet, he began to walk back to the homestead. Gertie heaved her bulky body upright and limped after him, and finally Buster gave up on finding a lizard to harass and brought up the rear as the magpies fluted their haunting cries in the encroaching gloom.
It was obvious that Effie was on a mission to fatten Eliot up, because dinner that night was one of his favourites – a large brisket, marinated and doused in Effie's secret rub before being placed in her old cooking range for hours on end until it was melt-in-the mouth.
It was afterwards, with everyone stuffed with food until it was almost impossible to move, when Eliot finally told them what he had been thinking about for quite a while.
He was slouching in his recliner on the veranda, gazing out into the darkness as he sipped on a beer. It was a decision he knew he had had to make, and although it tugged at his love for these people and the home he treasured, he had other responsibilities.
"I, ah …" he began, and made a soft sound in his throat as though clearing it. "I have to head back to Portland soon."
There. He had said it.
Effie muttered something rude under her breath as Charlie helped her clear the table, but Alice, sprawled on the swing seat, sat up with a start.
"Are you bloody daft? You're only just back on your feet, you nerk, and anyway, what the hell's left for you back there? Why not stay? At least you're wanted here, brother," she added as she saw Eliot's frown.
"Hang on, Alice," Charlie said softly as he balanced plates on a tray, "let Eliot finish. There's more to it than that."
Alice shifted from the swing seat and flung her slender frame into the chair next to Eliot. She hitched a questioning eyebrow and poked Eliot hard in the arm, which made him curse.
"Dammit, Alice! Give me a break, will ya?" he groused, and rubbed the poked muscle. Alice Jakkamarra was a worse finger-poker than Parker. But Alice was having none of Eliot's grumbling and stared at him expectantly. "Look …" he continued, trying to keep his voice conciliatory, "… I have people there I have to think about."
"Why? They don't seem to care much about you!" Alice snapped. "I know they didn't abandon you, papparti, but they haven't come after you, now have they?"
Soapy laid out coffee cups and began to pour, but he had to set Alice straight before Eliot could speak.
"They didn't come after Eliot because they don't know we exist," he interjected as he poured milk into coffee and handed the cup to Jo, who smiled her thanks.
"What?" Alice was astounded. "Why?"
"To keep you all safe," Eliot said and grasped Alice's hand, gently squeezing her fingers to prevent more poking. "Not that they'd tell anyone, but it's a chink in my armour, sweetheart," he added. "It'd mean Wapanjara and all of you would be within our circle, and we've had our security breached before. I couldn't take the risk. For your safety and theirs."
Alice thought about it for a moment or two and then nodded reluctantly.
"Okay, I can understand that. But why the hell did you come home with bullet holes in you, Eliot? Hey? You could have died, you idiot!" Her black eyes sparked with indignation.
Eliot paused and then spoke, the warmth of the love he had for them all evident in every word.
"I came home … I came home because … oh hell," he rasped and straightened in his seat. "I came home because you people …" he held a hand out to Jo and she grasped his fingers tight. "Because I had to think about what to do next. You fixed me up, you gave me space to think and now I know what I have to do." Lifting Jo's hand to his lips he kissed the soft skin on the back. "Thanks, Jo. Thanks for all the ways you love me back to life. For patchin' me up – again – an' makin' sure I can come to the right decision about the team."
He looked around at the pairs of eyes watching him closely and waiting in silence.
"Nate an' Sophie … I think they're gonna leave," he said, and the relief in voicing his concerns was almost overwhelming. Bottling up all of this worry had been gnawing at him, but now he thought he could move forward.
"Leave?" Jo asked, "for goodness sake, why?"
Eliot shrugged, wincing as it made the healing wound in his shoulder twinge.
"They've got this … this … thing … going, an' I think they're going to leave an' go their own way. Nate … he's been workin' with Parker, showing her how he thinks an' …" he let out a huffing breath, "anyway, I think they'll maybe retire. Not just yet, but … I guess it'll be soon." He sighed. "I don't think he knows I've noticed, but hell, sometimes Nate's easy to read. He's not even really trying to hide it."
"And you've been wondering what to do about Hardison and Parker," Jo murmured as the reason for Eliot's lengthy pondering suddenly became clear.
"Yeah. Hardison and Parker. What do I do about those two dumbasses." His sigh was full of affection. "Do we keep doin' what we're doin' without Nate an' Sophie? And if we do, how will it work? How do I keep 'em safe, because those two … I mean, they're better than they were, but still … but I thought about the last job we did. The bomb thing."
"You did it without Nate and Sophie," Soapy stated, "and you did a good job." He quirked a grin. "Even though you got shot. Twice."
Eliot had the good grace to look embarrassed even as he agreed.
"Yeah, well, I had to distract that bastard somehow," he said, and remembered the gunshot as Udall fired at Eliot from almost point-blank range and he felt again the impact of the bullet as it ploughed through his shoulder. He has stood it and hardly moved, and the surprise on Udall's face had amused him even as the pain exploded through his body.
He hadn't even felt the second shot as it slammed into his left leg, charging at Udall so that Parker could deal with the bomb containing the Spanish 'Flu virus. It had been worth it, he thought, as Hardison and Parker – his team – had handled the threat.
"So … you were wondering whether to stay with them or come home forever, weren't you?" Alice asked.
"Yeah … yeah, I was," Eliot admitted and finished his beer. "This is my home. This is where you people … my family … live and where I'm happy. But I realised I had another family to keep safe, because they couldn't do it themselves. If we as a team are going to keep doin' what we do … then I have to keep 'em alive, Alice, because if they try and go it alone they're going to die. An' I can't let that happen. Not on my watch."
And his face was suddenly fierce and strong and the need to protect those he held dear would not release him, and he was glad of it.
Jo's understanding smile nearly broke his steadfast heart. He knew how much she wanted him to stay here at Wapanjara. He also knew how much he wanted to stay. But that was somewhere in his future. Not now. Not when he had people to keep safe and to help those in need.
"When're you going then, you young jumbuck?"
Effie's muddy eyes were sombre even as she settled down in her chair on the other side of Eliot, a cup of tea in hand, and Eliot could hear the sadness in her voice. But he knew she understood. She always did.
"Soon, Eff. I got transport to organise, but I think I need to get back to Portland sooner rather than later before those two idiots try to do a job on their own and get themselves in trouble."
Alice leaned forward and touched Eliot's arm, gently this time, with no poking fingers digging into tender muscle.
"But Eliot, you don't have to –"
"Yes, darlin'. Yes I do. It's my job. It's what I do."
And Alice read the truth of his words in his shining blue eyes.
For the rest of the evening Eliot sat with these people who had saved his life and whom he loved, and the cicadas sang in the night and the dingoes howled in the far horizon, and finally Eliot Spencer was at peace.
Eliot always hated leaving Wapanjara. He had done so many times over the years, and it never got any easier.
This particular morning he awoke sore and depressed. He had had an uneasy night, dreaming of long-dead friends and of Hardison and Parker, dying in front of him in oh, so many ways and no matter how hard he tried he couldn't do a thing about it. He didn't want to leave Wapanjara, but knew he had to keep them safe so they could continue helping people who had nobody else to whom they could turn. It was the right thing to do, and these days Eliot was all about doing what he could to turn bad things into good. It wouldn't save him from going straight to Hell for the terrible things he had done in his life, but at least he could do something right while he walked this earth.
Breakfast was subdued but full of love, and Effie didn't let up on the head-slaps coupled with affection as Eliot teased her unmercifully about her cooking.
Even Alice smiled at Eliot's jibes, and laughed out loud when Effie clipped the Oklahoman around the ear for saying she hadn't put enough jalapeños in his omelette.
"Cheeky young bugger!" she scowled and slammed more toast down in front of Eliot, who fell upon it as though he hadn't been fed for a week. She had made the seeded loaf the American enjoyed so much. Effie … little, fierce Effie McPhee, expressed her love through her food, just as Eliot did.
He spent the morning saying goodbye to the loyal crew who had carried him into the house, careful of his wounds, and who had all sat and waited until he was out of the woods. They had looked after Gertie while she was sick, and had been the quiet, unquestioning support throughout the recovery of both man and camel.
They parted with cheery insults and three cases of beer by way of a 'thank you' from Eliot, who understood the 'tinnies' would be the only thanks they would accept graciously.
It was Gertie, though, who made the farewell so difficult.
She ambled out of her humpy, gurgling with delight when she saw Eliot enter her paddock, fastening the gate behind him. Old Moke took the carrot Eliot offered her, but Gertie ignored hers for a moment as she sniffed him all over, concentrating on his injuries as she always did.
"I'm okay darlin', I promise," Eliot murmured and he scratched the soft curls between her ears. "Give me a couple of weeks an' I'll be good as new – just like you," he added as he saw that Charlie had left the support bandage off her still-slightly-swollen fetlock. Eliot knew that she might have a little residual puffiness in the joint for the rest of her life, but she would be hale and hearty with only a small scar to show for her near-fatal encounter with a snake.
Gertie, however, wasn't too sure that Eliot was as well as he said he was, and she whiffled at his face with her velvet-soft lips, her gurgles turning into those ridiculous, high-pitched squeaks she gave out when she was worried about her best friend.
Eliot grinned and did his best to give the huge camel a noogie, although his shoulder was still stiff and achy. But he was healing faster now, and he was sure that within a week or two he would be back to beating the crap out of his punch bag with alacrity.
Gertie chomped happily and closed her eyes, reveling at the attention, but Eliot stopped his scratching and gently tugged Gertie's bottom lip. Gertie's eyes popped open and she listened intently.
"Take care of yourself, you big moron," Eliot whispered, and Gertie chomped and flicked her ears. "Don't you go lookin' for trouble, do as you're told an' look out for Buster. He's just a little guy but he thinks he's invincible, so keep an eye on him for Effie, okay?"
Gertie snorted. Of course she would look after her people, and that included the little white terror which bit her tail. She flapped the tattered appendage indignantly.
Eliot chuckled and rubbed Gertie's muzzle and she gave him her best camel-kiss, a carefully-controlled swipe of her long tongue over his cheek, leaving frothy saliva all over Eliot's face. He sputtered and wiped off the drool, and then he gave her the carrot she knew he had brought for her.
And then he hugged her so hard he found it difficult to breathe.
"I'll try and be back soon," he mumbled into her neck, feeling the play of her muscles as she flapped her bottom lip at his obvious distress. "Be good."
Walking away from Gertie as she followed him to the gate and honked, made his chest ache with the pain of it.
But the hardest part was to come, because he had to leave the people and home he loved so that he could protect another part of his family. People he cared about deeply, although they didn't know it, and who also did not know the sacrifice he made and how much it made him die a little inside.
Effie had made him pecan pie.
Two thick, luscious wedges were carefully wrapped in waxed paper and installed in a box tied with string and handed to Eliot as he stood beside the Munro's old ute.
Soapy and Jo were going to drive Eliot to Tennant Creek and drop him off at the airport there. He would then fly to Darwin and hitch a lift to the States via a U.S. military transport plane, once more organised by a complaining Mike Vance.
Effie scowled ferociously and gave Eliot a gentle shove in the chest. He carefully kept the smile off his face and waited.
The rotund little cook studied Eliot for a moment and the scowl became even more fearsome.
"Now you listen to me, you young bastard!"
Effie's muddy eyes glinted with ire.
"Don't cheek me, you daft bludger! Now I'm warning you – don't you bloody well come back here bleeding all over the place, because I'm ruddy tired of you making a mess of my table and the Missus having to stitch you up. Again!" she emphasised with another gentle whack to Eliot's chest.
"Yeah, Eff … I know –" Eliot began, rolling his eyes like a teenager, which didn't go down too well with Effie, who growled.
"Don't you 'Yeah, Eff' me, you dozy mongrel! You're still stuffed and you'd be better stayin' on for a couple of weeks until you look a bit less like roadkill, but no! You have to bugger off back to bleedin' Portland, dontcha?" She gazed up at Eliot and he swore he saw tears in her eyes.
"They need me, Eff. Without me they're dead meat, so … yeah, I have to bugger off back to Portland." Eliot's smile softened Effie McPhee's old, kind heart, and she sniffed.
"Mebbee … mebbee one day you'll bring 'em here, so I can have a look at the beggars, hey? See if they're worth the worry."
That made Eliot chuckle.
"Hardison an' Parker? Man, they'd drive you into an early grave."
"Well if I can deal with you, you chancer, then they'd be a bloomin' doddle, I betcha!" She patted Eliot on the arm. "All of 'em, Yank. One day, bring all of 'em."
And even as Eliot gathered Effie's rotund frame into his arms for a hug and gave the protesting cook a smacking kiss on the forehead, he wondered if there would even be a team to bring home to Wapanjara one day.
As he let the weepy old woman go, Eliot suddenly found her being replaced by a wriggling Alice Jakkamarra, who wrapped herself around his stocky frame and held him tight. His shoulder protested but he didn't care, and as he pulled blonde-dark curls from his face he found himself looking at a grinning Charlie, who stuck out a hand. Freeing his own hand from Alice's clutches, Eliot shook it.
"I owe you a punch, Eliot Spencer of the Aniwaya," the young aborigine said, and Eliot's blue eyes crinkled with humour.
"You can live in hope, Charlie Jakkamarra of the Warumungu," he replied, but his demeanor became serious. "Thanks, Charlie. Thanks for savin' my girl. An' both of you, thanks for lookin' out for me. I know I'm a pain in the ass, but … anyway … just … thanks."
He felt a touch on his shoulder, and Jo was there, her lean, beautiful face full of sadness.
"It's time, boy. We have to go."
Alice began to weep silently as Eliot let her slide from his arms, but just as he began to open the passenger door of the Munros' old ute, she caught his elbow and stood on tiptoe to whisper something in his ear. Whatever she said, it made Eliot break into a sweet, wide grin. He tipped up her head with a forefinger under her chin and gave her cheek the gentlest kiss he could muster.
"I'll be home as soon as I can," he murmured, and then he was gone, Soapy driving the ute through the homestead gateway shadowed by the great, ancient gum tree, and up, up the incline to the stringybark stand and beyond, travelling to the far world beyond Wapanjara that Alice would never see.
Portland, Oregon, U.S.A
Alec Hardison trudged unhappily up the stairs from the brewpub, Parker trailing behind him, a scowl on her elfin face.
"I can't take much more of this, babe," he muttered as he sensed Parker's dejection. "Nate … he thinks we can just take on clients without Eliot. It … it's just …" unable to find the words, he shrugged helplessly.
"It's not right, Alec!" Parker was almost whiny, something she did when she was out of sorts, when the world was confusing and did things she didn't understand. Right now, her world was in turmoil because a part of it was missing. "Where's Eliot? Why hasn't he come home?"
Hardison shook his head. Nate had just interviewed a couple of elderly sisters who had been evicted from the home they had lived in all their lives. Some low-life loan shark with powerful friends had conned the old ladies into taking out a loan to improve the house at terrifyingly high interest rates, and without realising it they had defaulted. Nate thought it was an easy job and they didn't need Eliot, wherever he was.
"He'll be back when he's ready, Parker, you know that. He ain't dead, I'm sure of that," Hardison groused. He felt even more out of sorts because Nate and Sophie had headed off goodness-knows where for the evening, and left Hardison and Parker to their own devices.
Hardison had spent nearly two weeks doing everything he could to try and trace their errant hitter. They all knew Eliot had contacts who would treat his injuries and let him lie low and heal without any interference from his team.
But Hardison had also checked every dead body found State-wide and then done the same in all of New England, in case the notoriously private Spencer had returned to Boston to his contacts there. Hardison even set up an alert on his high-end software to let him know if a body answering Eliot's description was found anywhere in the U.S. There had been nothing even remotely Eliot-centric in any hospital reports or morgues throughout America.
That didn't mean Eliot hadn't shuffled off his mortal coil, but in his heart Hardison knew the man he regarded as a brother was still alive. He just knew.
"I just wish …" Parker sniffed. The past few weeks had been hard for the team, even after Nate and Sophie had returned from their own adventures to find Hardison and Parker had saved Washington from a terrorist threat. They were aghast to find Eliot was gone, wounded as he was, but Hardison's lack of ability to find him – dead or alive – reassured the team, more or less, that he was somewhere safe and healing.
Nevertheless, Hardison decided, he was going to rip the Oklahoman a new one because he had put them all through a passel of misery worrying about him. Although, the hacker thought, maybe he would have to find a way to immobilize the man first. One didn't hog-tie Eliot Spencer and live to tell the tale, so he would have to have a getaway organised to someplace remote and tropical and with no easy access and –
Hardison suddenly slammed to a halt at the top of the stairs, Parker piling into the back of him because she wasn't paying attention.
She sniffed, and then frowned, and then sniffed again.
"Is that –"
" – pan-seared chicken breast stuffed with fresh black truffles, served with mushroom and spinach salad!" Hardison's jaw tightened. "The sonofabitch is back an' he's makin' Black Widow Chicken!" He clutched Parker's shoulder. "I'm gonna friggin' kill the bastard!"
The relieved smile on Parker's face was pure, unadulterated sunshine.
"But not until after we've eaten!" she crowed, and pushed forward to open the door to the offices of Leverage Inc.
It was as though Eliot had never been away.
There he was in the kitchen, a bandanna keeping his hair out of his eyes and a dish-towel thrown over one shoulder, muttering to himself as he put the finishing touches to Eliot's Ultimate Chocolate Cake.
He looked up to see Hardison and Parker standing in the doorway, gaping at him with astonished, wide eyes. His heart ached with relief at the sight, knowing they were safe, so he did his best to draw his eyebrows down into the best Death Glare he could muster. It wouldn't do at all if he even remotely looked happy to see them.
"What? Cat got your tongue?" he demanded tersely, and it was as though a dam broke.
Parker let out a shriek that Eliot was sure would set any dogs within five miles into an apoplectic fit, and she ran towards him, arms flailing. Eliot closed his eyes, braced himself and prepared for the onslaught.
She hit him hard, arms and legs wrapping around his tired, sore body and he couldn't stop the grunt of pain, but Parker didn't notice.
"You're back! You're not dead! We thought you were dead! Maybe!" she added as she hung onto Eliot's damaged frame as though he would disappear in a puff of smoke if she didn't cling to him like a limpet.
Eliot didn't hug her back because he had a spatula covered in chocolate ganache in one hand and a bowl in the other. He did his best not to smear chocolate on Parker, but it was a struggle as his wounded shoulder began to weaken.
"Get off me, Parker!" he groused happily, and managed to set the bowl down on the quartz surface of the kitchen island. She squeaked, ignored him and squeezed tighter. Eliot sighed.
Hardison, on the other hand, stood immobile by the open door, his hand still on the doorknob. His eyes were hard and round and dark with anger, and a muscle jumped along his jawline.
"You … asshole!" he rasped between clenched teeth, "just where. The HELL. Have you BEEN!"
Hardison's fury suddenly percolated through Parker's excitement at Eliot's reappearance. She wriggled free of him and ignoring his hiss of pain, she fixed the hitter in an icy stare that would freeze molten lead. She snatched the spatula from Eliot's hand before he could stop her and poked him in the ribs with it, leaving ganache all over his clean flannel shirt.
"Why did you leave?" she demanded, and poked him again.
"Dammit, Parker!" Eliot complained and wrested the spatula out of her fingers as gently as he could, and then he tried to wipe the smeared ganache off his shirt. He failed miserably and realised he would have to change his shirt, so he carefully unbuttoned it and eased it off his stiff and achy torso. As he rolled it up and dumped it on a stool for washing later, he heard Parker's sob and he realised with a jolt that she could see the outline through the Henley of the light dressing over the partly-healed wound in his shoulder.
He turned back to his two friends and was surprised see the shock in their eyes. The anger was not so consuming anymore and all he could see was hurt and worry, and he once again felt a lurch of guilt. But his resolve hardened and his jaw set, and he grabbed the spatula out of Parker's unresisting fingers.
"I'm doin' fine, I'm back, an' if you want to eat then get your sorry asses outta my way. Where're Nate an' Sophie?"
Hardison blinked as though awakening from catatonia and heard the waspish annoyance in Eliot's voice which was now rich with his Oklahoma past, a telling indication of stress if ever there was one.
"Um …" the hacker began, but Parker flapped her hands, her gamin face full of anger mixed with confusion.
"No! NO, Eliot! You can't just pretend like it never happened!" she blurted, and tried to steal the spatula back, but Eliot held it out of her way and picked up the bowl of chocolatey goodness, intent on finishing off the rich, gooey cake he had made especially for the little thief. "Why didn't you stay? You were shot!" she continued, and not knowing what to do with her hands she used both of them to poke Eliot. Hard.
"OW!" he yelped and almost dropped both bowl and spatula as her fingers dug into his bad shoulder. He took a step back away from her but she followed him, fingers poised for another poke, but she realised then he was hurting and her eyes brimmed with tears.
"You left us. Eliot! You were shot and you left us! I thought you'd died!"
Hardison chewed the inside of his cheek and shook his head, the fury in him crawling, pricking underneath his sternum, but now he knew he had it under control.
"No, babe, I told you. I checked. And checked again … and again, and again … an' I knew the moron was still alive. Dumbass!" he added, glaring at Eliot, who placed the bowl on the quartz beside the half-frosted cake, resting the spatula inside it.
He glanced at the chicken dish resting in its heavy cast-iron casserole on a quilted pad and opened the oven door, slid on an oven glove and brought out a pan full of perfectly-roasted herby vegetables. It hurt him to do so but he managed, and limped over to the large table set with five places.
"I'll finish the cake an' then we'll eat. I take it Nate an' Soph will turn up when they're ready," he continued and made his way back to the work surface and his ganache. He ignored Parker and Hardison and bent to his task, carefully smoothing the last few dollops of chocolate heaven onto the rich, fudgy cake.
Hardison and Parker didn't move an inch.
Eliot finished his chore, and straightened.
"C'mon. I spent damn' near all afternoon making this friggin' meal, so wake up, grab some wine glasses an' we'll eat."
The three of them stared at one another.
Eliot pulled the dish-towel from his shoulder and curled his upper lip. It was obvious these two idiots weren't going to let him off lightly. He took a deep, noisily impatient breath and made his way over to the wine he had chosen, a spicy Australian Merlot he had bought before heading onto the 'plane at Darwin.
As he eased the cork from the bottle, he thought about the difficult goodbyes at Tennant Creek, Jo and Soapy hugging him as tight as they dared, both of them sniveling and sad. He remembered cajoling Mike Vance into taking him to The Puddock's Rest to return Geordie and Ginger's steel flask and handing over a bag of Effie's lamingtons as a thank-you. He had smiled at Vance as he ate one of Eliot's two slices of pecan pie, and the look of bliss on the big soldier's face as they sat opposite one another on the big military transport 'plane had warmed Eliot's weary heart.
He took a sniff of the cork and turned back to Hardison and Parker. They hadn't moved.
"This is good wine an' the food's gonna get cold, so don't you screw me around, 'cause my leg hurts! Eat!"
Parker's watery eyes fluttered and she let out a short, hoarse noise.
"You got shot!" she said as though repeating the words made the fact easier to bear, and then she sat down, shifting the chair slightly as she did so, the legs scraping the floor and the screech making Eliot wince.
Hardison finally clicked back into reality. Leaning over, he lifted one of the big linen napkins Eliot favoured and shook it out, and Eliot could see the man was still steaming with anger.
"Damn fool!" the hacker muttered even as he settled his tall frame into a chair, "couldn't trust us to take care of you, huh! Had to disappear! Had to leave us worryin' you'd bled to death in an alley, or … or … or holed up in some derelict shit-hole an' up an' died or –"
"But I didn't, did I?" Eliot was busy serving portions of chicken onto plates as he answered, "I made it. You knew I would. I've been hurt a whole lot worse'n this an' healed up just fine." He placed a filled plate in front of each of his friends, and then sat down with his own food. He poured out wine, and then gestured at the delectable roast vegetables and the salad he had prepared earlier. "Help yourselves. I ain't a damn waiter."
Parker simmered a little as Hardison ladled more food onto her plate and then helped himself.
"Why did you leave us?" she demanded, "You know I could've looked after you –"
Eliot sipped his wine and shook his head.
"Nope. You couldn't, Parker." His eyebrows raised a little in appreciation. The wine was very good indeed. "I had a bullet in my leg. I needed someone to take it out, so I went someplace I could get fixed up an' then laid low while I healed up." He lifted a fork and took a bite of the Black Widow Chicken, and hummed a little at the flavour of the dark, luscious truffles. "Give me a couple of weeks an' I'll be good as new."
Hardison lifted his knife and fork and slowly cut into the chicken, but that was as far as he got. He flung the utensils onto his plate with a clatter and stared at Eliot.
"You scared the crap out of us, Eliot! You know that, right?" he snapped, and Eliot could see Hardison's hands were trembling.
He chewed some chicken thoughtfully, swallowed and nodded.
"Look … you know I don't do hospitals. I hate the bastards. But I needed a bullet removed, an' you couldn't have done it, Parker. So I went to someone who could. Okay?"
And I needed time to think, he reminded himself, even as he sipped more wine.
"So?" Parker interjected, still a little weepy, "we could have taken you to whoever it is and -"
"No, you couldn't," Eliot had to smile at her tenacity, "and before you ask, they need to be kept safe, an' I couldn't risk more people knowing about 'em. And before you say anythin' it's nothin' to do with trust. I trust you. All of you. But we've had security issues before an' I couldn't risk it."
He shifted in his chair. His wounds ached and he was very tired, but he was glad to be back. He hadn't realised how much he needed to take care of his team. His people. His family.
Hardison let out a grumpy sigh and served himself a portion of salad.
"Okay." His voice was still that of a man with issues, but now the timbre had a hint of resignation to it. "Okay, Eliot. I get it. I really do. But man … don't you ever disappear like that again. You tell us if you gotta go someplace to get patched up. Just so we don't …" Hardison had to stop before he told Eliot that he was loved and the dumb hick suddenly found out that they cared about him, but hell, the man was a real asshole.
Eliot thought about it, sipped more wine, ate a tomato – one of those heirloom tomatoes he loved so much – and nodded.
"I can live with that," he declared and ate more of his chicken.
"Are there sticky cherries in the cake?" Parker asked.
"Always, darlin'," Eliot replied, knowing Parker loved glacé cherries in chocolate cake. It was obvious now that he was forgiven.
And as the three friends settled down to a fine meal and two of them worried about the other as they saw how tired and sore he was, Eliot thought about the decision he had made.
He would remain with the team until Nate and Sophie plucked up the courage to tell them they were leaving. After that, Eliot would settle into the new 'normal' … Hardison, Parker and Eliot Spencer against the world, helping people and making the bad guys pay. He would growl, complain and grouch, and Hardison would pull his chain and Parker would drive him crazy, and Eliot Spencer knew in his heart he wouldn't have it any other way.
And as they ate and talked and drank fine wine, Eliot heard Alice Jakkamarra's whisper in his ear on the day he left Wapanjara.
"Guess what, Eliot?" she had mouthed so no-one else could hear. "Charlie and me … we're trying for a baby! And if it's a boy, we're going to call him Christopher Eliot Jakkamarra, because he'll have the best uncle in the world!"
As Eliot listened to Hardison tell him about the old ladies Nate thought they could help, he knew he would return home to Wapanjara sooner rather than later to see his people, go walkabout on Gertie, mend fences and work cattle.
And maybe … just maybe … one day in the future he would take his team back to Wapanjara with him … to the place where they could hear the magpies fluting in the almond stand, and where they could watch the brolgas dance as the sun set over the shimmering golden hills of his home.
There's a place that I know where they all know me
I gotta get back now to the ones who love me
Wrap myself around you, never let you go
There's nothin' in the world that feels like
'Comin' Home', lyrics by Keith Urban; J. Rotem; Julia Michaels; Nicholle Galyon & Merle Haggard