It had been going on for a couple of weeks now. Eliot would be out working on the family ranch during the day, Hardison would in town working at the brewery, and Parker was left alone to her own devices. It worked for their little family, being separated during the day, when they weren’t on jobs with the rest of Leverage, and at night they’d be cuddled up together on the couch, after dinner, or go to bed early and give each other the comfort and love they each needed.
However, when Eliot would come in for the night, there would be a random wounded animal on the porch. First it was a pug puppy in a cage, with a broken paw. The note on top said “Hi, I’m Chocolate. I’m a female pug puppy. I hurt my paw. My new mommy, Parker, is taking care of me.”
Three days later it was a Turtle with a cracked shell and a broken tail, the note read, “My name is Pokey. I’m a turtle, but I haven’t told Mama Parker what sex I am. She just calls me Pokey or Poke Poke.”
The next day it was several bats, in a makeshift large cage. As far as Eliot could tell there really wasn’t anything wrong with them, and he was shocked that Parker even allowed them near the house. A few years ago he and Hardison found out that Parker had a fear of bats and yet here were five of them. No note accompanied the cage and Eliot made sure there was water and food for them before leaving the porch.
None of the new animals bothered Eliot, and when he talked to Hardison about it the hacker just shrugged and mumbled something about it keeping Parker happy and out of harm’s way. Eliot had to agree and just let it be and neither man brought it up to their girl. A week went by with no new animals until he went to prepare a foaling stall for one of their mares who was due in three weeks. Upon walking into the foaling barn Eliot heard something that sounded like a group of children crying for help, running towards the noise he looked into the stall and found a party of Peacocks without their feathers. No note accompanied the party and he pulled out his phone, calling the brewery.
“Three Thieves Brewery, Alahana speaking.”
“Alahana, it’s Eliot, please tell me Hardison is there?”
“Yes, Sir, he’s here, I’ll get him.” Alahana set the phone down and Eliot waited for Hardison.
Eliot heard his partner’s voice telling Alahana a drink order as he picked up the phone. “El? What’s wrong? Alahana said you sounded upset.” Eliot’s shoulders relaxed as Hardison spoke.
“We need to talk about our girl, Hardison, she took the last foaling stall and put a party of peacocks in it. I don’t mind that she’s got these animals all around the house, but she knows this stall is reserved for Journey, it is her horse after all. We need to talk to her and we need to do it tonight.” Eliot’s voice was firm, but there was a thread of sadness in it. He never liked to have to tell Parker no, or make her sad, but when it interfered with ranch life, he had to gently put his foot down.
Sighing, Hardison answered, “Alright. I’ll be home in a few hours, can the stall wait until tomorrow?”
“Yes. It can, but not too much longer. I want Journey in that stall in the next three days, she needs to feel it’s home before she’s due. I’ll see you tonight, and please be careful coming home.” With that Eliot hung up his phone and went on with his chores.
Several hours later the Hitter was done and headed up to the house where he heard Parker rambling on about the contents of the fridge through the open window. He really didn’t worry until he heard a deep baritone voice replying, too soft for him to make out what the owner was saying. Rushing in Eliot almost tripped over a backpack lying in the hall and as he steadied himself he looked up to see Parker grinning at him and a thin, ragged, and dirty man sitting on a bar stool looking his way.
“I’m so sorry, Mister, I shouldn’t have left my bag there, but Ms. Parker here said I could.” The stranger was getting up, looking like he was ready to flee.
“Please, sit,” Eliot said calmingly, as if he were talking to a frightened animal, “it’s okay, I wasn’t watching where I was going.” Looking over at Parker, who still had a grin on her face, he raised an eyebrow at her, assessing the situation, making sure she was okay, before looking back at the man. “I’m Eliot,” he said, walking over to shake the man’s hand.
The stranger shook Eliot’s hand, firmly, and smiled, showing teeth that hadn’t been taken care of in a long time. “Charlie McGee. Ms. Parker drove past me downtown and invited me to come get a shower, a hot meal, and offered me a place to sleep tonight. She said you have a spare stall or two that would work for a place to rest tonight.” Charlie’s handshake was firm, and he looked Eliot right in the eyes when speaking.
“Sure, but I’m sure we can do better than a stall for a place to rest tonight, can’t we Parker?” The admonishment in Eliot’s voice was enough to let Parker know they’d be talking about this later, but not so strong to embarrass her.
Turning back to talk to Charlie, Eliot smiled, “We have an apartment over the barn that is fully furnished, and vacant. You’re welcome to it for tonight.”
Charlie’s smile answered Eliot’s statement, “Thank you, Sir,” he replied, turning and looking at Parker, “M’am.”
“Please, it’s just Eliot and Parker, and you’ll meet Hardison when he gets home shortly. Why don’t I show you to the apartment and then I’ll start on supper for all of us. Is there anything you can’t or don’t eat, Charlie?”
“No, Sir, I mean Eliot, I’m just thankful for a warm meal in my belly these days.” Charlie’s baritone voice was quiet, but Eliot could still hear the thanks and appreciation in his voice.
“Follow me and we’ll get you settled.” Eliot said, waiting for Charlie to follow him before he walked out of the house.
While Eliot was showing Charlie the apartment, Hardison arrived home and was greeted with a very enthusiastic Parker. “Hey, mama, what’s got you so happy?” He punctuated his question with a kiss to her lips as she wrapped herself around the Hacker’s strong but lean frame.
“I did something nice for someone, but I won’t say what, because that negates the niceness.” Parker’s smile was wider than a kid’s on Christmas morning.
Raising a eyebrow, Hardison just shook his head and threw Parker over his shoulder and walked her into the house, where he was greeted by their other lover. “Hey, El.” Eliot responded with a gentle kiss to Hardison’s cheek and a gentle tug on Parker’s foot.
“Put her down before you hurt yourself again, and help me decide what we’re having for dinner. We have a guest tonight.”
As Hardison was gently setting Parker upright he looked at Eliot, who was looking towards Parker. “A guest?”
“His name is Charlie, he’s homeless, and he’s staying the night in the barn manager’s apartment.” Parker’s gleeful voice trailed off at the end, “Eliot, did I negate my good deed by saying that?” The Thief looked at the Hitter with sadness in her eyes and uncertainty in her voice.
Eliot walked over and gently stroked Parker’s hair. “No, darlin’ you didn’t. You just told Hardison who the guest was, that’s all.” Pulling Parker into his arms he gently kissed the top of her head before letting her go. “Now would you two help me decide on dinner?”
Hardison went over to the fridge and opened up the bottom freezer drawer. “We still have that amazing veggie beef soup you made,” he pulled out the huge container and set it on the counter behind him. “That with some of the rosemary bread you made this morning to make grilled cheese would be really nice.” Shutting the freezer drawer he turned around looking at his family.
“Sounds good enough to me. I need to go shower, could you two get the soup thawed and start heating it on low? I’ll be back in a little bit.” Eliot left when Hardison and Parker nodded and went off to shower and put on fresh clothes.
Not long after Eliot returned to the kitchen and started making the sandwiches, Charlie knocked at the kitchen door. “C’mon in Charlie, have a seat at the island.” Eliot motioned with the spatula he was holding when Charlie walked in. “Can I get you anything to drink? Dinner should be ready soon. Soup and grilled cheese, I hope that’s alright? Hardison is helping Parker feed her stray’s. She likes taking in injured animals. If you’re an animal guy you should check out her collection. She has bats, a turtle, peacocks, a sloth, and some other unusual ones scattered through the property.”
“Smells wonderful, Eliot. Thank you.” Charlie chuckled at Eliot’s list of Parker’s animals. “I do, I love animals and I would love to look at them.”
Charlie had shaved and looked somewhat refreshed from when he was shown the apartment. When Eliot first laid eyes on Charlie he thought the man to be in his late forties, he now realized that after the grime of the streets had been washed away, along with fresh clothes put on, Charlie couldn’t be more than thirty-five. With a few less layers on, Charlie looked way too thin, and Eliot hoped he could fix that.
“You must be Charlie,” Hardison stated as he walked into the kitchen, interrupting Eliot’s thought process. “I’m Hardison, welcome to the HTH Ranch. We’re glad to have you here.” He put his hand out to shake Charlie’s, which the man took willingly and shook it. “Can I get you some coffee, tea, water? There’s milk and juice in the fridge as well.”
“Coffee would be nice, Mr. Hardison.” Charlie said.
“Just Hardison, please.” He walked over to the coffee pot, poured three cups as Parker pulled the half and half out of the fridge and set it in front of Charlie, along with the sugar. Hardison set the biggest mug in front of Charlie, with a spoon, and then made up the other two mugs before depositing on in front of Eliot. Eliot smiled at Hardison as he flipped the grilled cheese onto a big plate, stacking the sandwiches up high.
“Thank you.” Charlie said softly, before taking the mug in his hands and inhaling the warm scent.
“Alright, grab as many sandwiches as you want. Plates are at the end of the counter, and soup will be coming up in a moment. Hardison, Parker, come sit.” Eliot’s mates rushed to their seats and waited for Charlie to take what he wanted. Both Parker and Hardison took two sandwiches, moaning enthusiastically when Eliot placed bowls of soup in front of them.
Sitting down Eliot commanded, “Eat up folks, there’s plenty more soup on the stove. Charlie, ignore these two, they can be noisy eaters.” Hardison and Parker made appreciative noises as they chowed down. The chit chat, when their mouths weren’t crammed full, was pleasant and easy.
After supper Charlie helped with the clean up and smiled brightly when Eliot suggested a tour of the ranch. All four adults piled into the gator that resided in the driveway and that was used to get around the property.
“So, Charlie, where do you come from?” Parker asked, in that innocent Parker way.
“Parker!” Hardison said.
“No, it’s alright, I don’t mind talking about my past.” Charlie looked down at the travel mug of coffee in his hands, took a deep breath and started his story. “Ten years ago I worked for a cattle ranch just outside of Dallas. The owner was fair to all of us, treated the workers and animals right, but he had gambling problems. He got in over his head and started selling off the cattle. Eventually he lost everything and with a week's notice we were all out of a job. Most of us were out of a home as well. I bounced around during branding season to different ranches, but with the stigma of my previous employer’s habit, I could never get anything permanent. So I came here to Kentucky two years ago and have been in and out of homeless shelters since. I miss working with the colts and fillies, but my true passion was running the broodmare program as well as shoeing horses.” His voice drifted off as he looked around at the property. Eliot had stopped the gator to listen to his story.
“I’m so sorry, Charlie. You’re welcome to stay a few days here, and I can put out some feelers, see if anyone is hiring.” Eliot’s voice was soft, sincere and yet firm.
“Thank you, Mr. Eliot, that would greatly appreciated. I’ll take any help I can get, and it would be nice to sleep in a bed for a change. I would really like to help out and do odd chores while I’m here, if that’s alright with everyone?”
“Good, it’s settled then. Oh and wait until you taste Eliot’s famous breakfasts. Food coma at it’s best. I could use help with my animals, and Eliot can always use a hand. Hardison runs our brewery in town. I don’t help out there much though, I like the openness of the ranch better.” Parker clapped her hands and leaned in against Eliot’s shoulders as the men chuckled at her reaction.
“Breath, Mama, breath.” Hardison said, gently rubbing her shoulder from behind. “Charlie, I have a supply shipment coming in day after tomorrow, if you want to go into town with me and help out. Usually comes around two pm.”
Charlie beamed, “Yes, I’m willing to work wherever you all can use me. It’s the least I can do for a few days stay.”
Eliot finished the tour, using it as his nighttime routine to close the ranch, check on the animals, and watch how Charlie interacted with the few staff that lived on the ranch. Later that night, as Eliot, Hardison, and Parker were snuggled in bed, wrapped around each other, making it hard to tell where one started and the other ended, Eliot spoke softly.
“I want to hire Charlie full time to help me with the broodmares and see what else he can do. It would free me up to concentrate more on the rest of the ranch, and give me more time with you two in the evenings…” He trailed off as Parker hugged him tightly, and Hardison let out a soft laugh. “What?”
“We knew you’d say this, right after Charlie mentioned working with broodmares.” Hardison ran a finger down Eliot’s cheek and popped him on the nose when Eliot tried to bite his finger. “Parker and I think he’d be a good fit, and we like him. He really relaxed towards the end of the night. We need someone to manage the horses and the apartment is free, so why not?”
“Good, it’s settled then.” Eliot snuggled in closer to his family and stroked Parker’s back as she yawned and closed her eyes. After a few minutes of silence, when he was sure Parker was asleep, he turned to Hardison.
“Babe? Did you talk to Parker about the party of peacock’s in the broodmare barn?”
Hardison grunted, “No. I didn’t. I’ll talk to her tomorrow. Maybe I can get one of the workers to build a cage in the corner of the arena or something?”
“Sounds good. Thanks, I forgot all about it with Charlie.” Eliot yawned and scratched at Parker’s hair as she slept.
“I already asked Mikey if he’d build them a cage. He’d said he’d have it done in two days. Now shut up and go to sleep because I want to tell Charlie when he comes down for breakfast.” Parker’s voice was a surprise, since Eliot thought she was asleep.
“Good night, Hardison. Good night, Parker. Love you both. Parker, you did good today, proud of you, little thief.” With that Eliot kissed both of his partners on their heads and closed his eyes.