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Taste of Freedom

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Eliot reeked of garlic. That was a problem. It was too noticeable; the sort of smell that put marks on their guard before you could put a bullet in their head. Eliot dropped his duffel bag by the door, stepping inside the small room.

Damien would never stand for it. He liked his people neat, professional. That’s why he liked Eliot. Eliot didn’t ask questions and he got the job done. No matter the cost.

Eliot slammed the door shut behind him with more force than usual. The room was nearly dark, the solitary narrow window high on the wall letting in only the barest trace of moonlight. He leaned back against the wall and inhaled slowly through his nose. “You got out.”

He didn’t have to worry about what Damien thought anymore. He didn’t need to shoot anyone.

He could smell like garlic. It was a good smell.

Eliot crossed the room without bothering to turn on any light. Not that there was any light to turn on. The shadeless bulb screwed into the middle of the ceiling had blown out a long time ago and he had never bothered to replace it.

It wasn’t like there was anything between the door and the mattress tossed in the corner that he needed to worry about stumbling over anyway.


Eliot woke up the next morning blinded by brightness. The narrow strip of sunlight filtering its way through the tiny window cut directly across his face. He went through his normal morning routine of cursing the sun, muttering about moving his mattress, sitting up, and realizing just how empty his studio was, then being seized by the desire to be somewhere else, anywhere else.

He threw on his tennis shoes and left the apartment. The mattress remained unmoved.

Eliot had not so much taken up running, as he had taken up fleeing. Fleeing from his memories. Fleeing from the void in his life that had once been filled with things like people and purpose and emotions. Recently, it had been filled with killing.

One of these days, Eliot was going to start running and refuse to stop. Run until he ran out of road, then keep running. Run until his body broke down and refused to function. But each morning so far Eliot somehow found the strength to turn around and go back to his apartment.

This morning was no different, he ran until his legs and lungs burned, and somewhere in the peace of that pain he mustered the will to turn around and head back to the hole in the wall his landlord called a studio.

He showered in the crappy cold shower, bent, and ducked around the nozzle spraying horizontally across his chin. He put his hair back in a headband, picked up his duffel bag, and went to the only place in his life that made any sort of sense.


“Think you might have gotten a little carried away there, Eliot,” Toby said, amusement sparking in his tone.

Eliot jerked out of his trance-like chopping, startled. His eyes slid over to the excessively large pile of matchstick potatoes next to his station.

Shit. He had zoned out again. Used up too much produce. A mistake like that in the field could have cost him—

Toby’s hand was on his shoulder and he was chuckling softly. “Eliot, I know your knifework is impeccable, but maybe slow things down a little for the sake of my less experienced students. Julian looks like he’s about to cry.”

“Yes, chef.” Eliot responded on instinct, looking at Julian. Toby hadn’t been exaggerating. Julian did look like he was about to cry, staring at his knife and a misshapen potato.

With a quick nod to Toby, Eliot took half of the pile that was twice as large as it needed to be, scraped it into a bowl, and with very little ceremony walked over to Julian. He set down the bowl of perfectly shaped matchstick potatoes and walked away. Julian was left spluttering thank yous to his back.

When Eliot returned to his station, Toby was holding up the small bowl filled with spices. “What’s in this?”

Eliot’s brow furrowed. “The spice blend, chef.”

“Which spice blend?”

“The one from the recipe.”

Toby set down the bowl, giving Eliot a long look. “You’re talented with the prep-work and, honestly, if you went into a kitchen right now, you’d make a more than passable line chef. But you don’t improvise, Eliot. There’s no personalization to your meals.”

Eliot shifted, uncomfortable. “I’d rather get things right.”

Toby sighed. “Leaving something of yourself in what you create isn’t going to ruin it.” Toby paused. “Unless it’s blood. I’m not talking about blood.”

“No, chef. Understood, chef.”

Toby gave Eliot a sad sort of look. “Well, if you don’t, you will. I have faith in you, Eliot.” He wandered on to help the next student.

Eliot wasn’t happy in the kitchen. He was settled. The tasks, instructions, and rules focused him. And at the end of the day, he had created something. Creation anchored him in the present like nothing else did; after all, food was life. If he could, Eliot would spend all his hours in the kitchen, losing himself in benign tasks done correctly. But it couldn’t last forever.

Eventually, the other students went home and Eliot stayed behind, helping to wipe down the counters and clean up the dishes. Just like every night, Eliot reached a point where he looked around, realized everything was in order, and had no more excuses to linger. That was when Eliot went back to his room.

It was the thudding rhythm of his life right now: sleep, run, shower, kitchen; repeat. It wasn’t the most variety-filled routine, but it wasn’t making his soul any darker. And that was... something.

Eliot dropped his bag, the door swung shut, and he made his way over to his mattress in the darkness.

He did not wake up to a ray of sunlight through the window.

“Hey.” There was a voice next to the mattress.

Eliot reacted on instinct. Jab to the windpipe, ringing slap across the temple to disorient, arm around the neck, snap the spine.

‘No.’

Decide whether to snap the spine or let the person talk. He could make these sorts of choices now.

Except, in this case, he couldn’t. His first quick jab punched only air, and the body he knew should be there was gone.

“You live like this?” an incredulous voice said from across the room.

Eliot charged towards the voice again, but once more there was no body, and he barely avoided smashing face-first into the wall.

There was a sound from high on the ceiling, then a voice said from outside his window. “Give me a bit. I’m going to fix this.”

And the voice was gone.

Eliot mostly didn’t believe in ghosts. If anyone deserved to be haunted, it was him. The absence of specters in his life made him feel more than a little skeptical about the concept as a whole. Still, he couldn’t help feeling he had just fought a particularly condescending poltergeist.

Someone had found him. Who?

There were a lot of people that wanted Eliot dead. Even more who wanted to know where he was, for one reason or another. But for all that, there was no one Eliot could think of that would find him, wake him, and then just...leave. It didn’t make any damn sense.

Eliot took a slow breath, forced himself to think through his options.

He could run. He could just...take the duffle bag and go. It wasn’t like he’d be leaving anything. Except the kitchen. And considering that...he might as well be leaving everything.

He could lock the place down. Eliot would have sworn that window was too small for anyone to fit through, but he could put bars or something up there. That would take time. And a trip to the hardware store. He’d be leaving his room undefended while he did that.

…He could fight.

Sure, the intruder was fast, but Eliot hadn’t been expecting anything extraordinary. He could get a gun with a silencer and—

No. Not that one.

He could go back to sleep. Maybe they killed him, maybe they didn’t. There were a lot of people in his past plenty justified in sending him to the next life. He could just close his eyes and see what happened.

Eliot gave a quiet snort, running his fingers through his hair as he caught himself pacing around the room. That last option had some appeal, but there was no way he was getting back to sleep. He hadn’t lived this long by being willing to die easy.

He could cook.

Well. That was a strange thought. Eliot’s pacing took him over to the corner of the room that housed the “kitchen”. Kitchen in this case referred to the narrow countertop holding a sink and a hot plate, next to an empty patch of wall with hookups for a fridge and stove. He never cooked here. Why would he? But the itching under his skin refused to go away, and he felt the need to do something, create something.

He felt more than a little ridiculous as he reached for the bag of bread he kept on his counter. This was stupid. He wasn’t hungry. He could barely even see. There had to be something more productive he should be doing right now. He considered what he could do with the bread.

He knew how to make french toast, but he didn’t have any eggs. Or milk. Or cinnamon. Or butter. Maybe it was better to start with what he did have. Bread. Peanut butter. A plastic bear full of honey. A couple of suspiciously brown bananas.

That sounded like a decent sandwich, right there.

Ten minutes later founded him carefully grilling a sandwich on the hotplate, nudging it around with his fingers as he grumbled about his lack of a spatula. And a cutting board. And a hotplate that cooked evenly rather than in patches. This was miles away from Toby’s clean, well-stocked kitchen.

And yet, at the end of this, there was going to be a sandwich where there wasn’t one before. Eliot felt peace settle in his chest.

“Wait. Are you blind? This won’t work if you’re blind.”

What the—

Eliot grabbed his chef knife and pivoted, blinking through the near-blackness to find a figure bent by an outlet on the far side of the room.

“Hey. No need to get stabby. I told you, I’m fixing things. As long as you’re not blind, look!” The figure plugged something into the outlet.

Sitting on his floor was a glowing lava lamp. Orange blooped its way up and down the lamp, casting an odd ambient light on his previously dark room. Eliot got a good look at his poltergeist for the first time.

Despite the strange light, she looked solid enough. Young—teenager probably, too skinny, undeniably proud of herself. Blond hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, black clothes…‘No,’ Eliot’s brain corrected, ‘black gear.’. She had on some sort of harness, an assortment of tools in the back of her belt, and supple black gloves that would let her avoid leaving fingerprints without overly-compromising dexterity. Skinny girl was a thief.

Eliot was filled with the desire to both feed her and lock up his valuables. After a moment of reflection, he realized he was holding the most expensive thing in the room and the second most expensive thing was probably the lava lamp. So instead, he growled out, “Why is there a lava lamp in my living room?”

“You needed a light.” The thief tipped her head to the side, coming closer. “I was going to rob you, but you don’t have anything! So I’m fixing things, just like I told you.” She gave a sniff at the plate. “Are you cooking a sandwich?”

“Tastes better when the peanut butter is melted.” Eliot defended himself without thinking.

“Never tried it.” She shrugged and edged closer.

Eliot pulled the sandwich off the hotplate and tossed it on his only plate, blowing on his fingers as he took his hand away. “Want some?”

Wait. Why was he offering the girl who had broken into his apartment twice a sandwich?

“You take a bite first,” she said quickly.

Eliot wondered what sort of history made someone as young as her worry about poisoned food. Some unfamiliar feeling rose in his chest, and he held up his hand, “I’ll do you one better.” Eliot carefully tore the sandwich in half then looked up at the thief. “Pick your half, I’ll eat mine first.”

She nodded, pointing to the right. Eliot picked up the left and took a bite. Before he could take a second, the girl had finished her half.

“It’s not that different from a regular sandwich,” she decided.

Eliot looked down at the sandwich in his hand, “To each, their own.”

By the time he looked back up, she had vanished again, leaving the lava lamp behind.


The next morning, after the blinking and the cursing and the promising that today he would finally get around to moving the mattress, Eliot’s morning routine was interrupted by the presence of a lava lamp along the far wall.

So, last night hadn’t been a dream. He had just about convinced himself that it was. But there the lamp sat, glugging along, proof that while his dreams had not taken a sudden detour into the surreal, his reality certainly had. Eliot stared at the lamp, perplexed, trying to figure out if he should do something. Eventually, he decided that the underfed thief was more of a danger to herself than to Eliot and there was no point in sitting around the apartment.

Eliot got up and grabbed at his running shoes. He stopped and looked around. Then he set his shoes back down and dragged the mattress over to the other corner of the room, where the sunlight wouldn’t shine on his face next morning.

He left on his run, a strange feeling of satisfaction lodged in his chest.


As the sun sank behind the city skyline, Eliot returned to his apartment. The kitchen had been interesting today, they learned to make a complicated sort of pastry dough. It had required precision, patience, and no small amount of kneading. Eliot left the kitchen tired and triumphant, three croissants wrapped in his bag.

He had a moment of foreboding as he reached the door. His apartment was compromised. He should have burned the place last night, going to ground somewhere else. He doubted he’d find another place within walking distance of Toby’s kitchen though. Eliot braced himself, and pushed the door open.

At first glance, the only strange thing was the lava lamp, casting a surprisingly pleasant orange glow across the room. Eliot took a tentative step inside and waited, then relaxed as all seemed calm. Maybe it was an aberration. One day he would look back and tell the story of the one time a thief came to rob him and wound up giving him a lava lamp inste—

There was an eighties glam-rock band poster on the wall to his right. Eliot closed the door, tilting his head at the jumping men with overly-fluffy hair and overly-bright outfits. He should probably feel more threatened by strange posters showing up in his apartment, but it was such a bizarre addition he mostly felt a detached sort of amusement.

He looked around to see if the girl was still there. He presumed it was the girl. The odds were pretty slim that two different thieves would break into his apartment and leave tacky decor. As his eyes tracked around to the wall next to the door he saw—

“Is that a Cézanne?” Eliot asked the air, horrified.

From behind him he heard, “Yep! I stole it from the Ashmolean Museum a few years back. Of all the stuff I had on hand, it had the best colors.”

Eliot startled, breathing in quickly. After a beat he exhaled, resignedly turning to face the thief. “Why is there a Cézanne in my shitty apartment? Why are you in my shitty apartment?”

“Hey,” she snapped, “no need to be rude.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.” Eliot couldn’t help the growl that came into his voice.

While the girl didn’t seem particularly intimidated by it, she moved, keeping herself out of arm’s reach. “Like I said, I came here to rob you, but you didn’t have any stuff. That was sad, so I’m fixing it.”

“Wha—why? Why would you bring me a lava lamp and a damn Cézanne? Why were you breaking into my house in the first place?”

The girl walked even further away, body language casual, but clearly moving to place herself underneath the open window. He eyed the window, which had not been open when he left. He would have sworn backward and forward it was too small for anyone to fit through. Apparently not.

Once the window was above her she said, “I’ve seen you in Paris. And again in New York. You were near high-profile jobs both times. So when I saw you here, I figured I’d trail you back to your hideout and take your stuff. But this isn’t a hideout, it’s just a room. And you don’t have any stuff.” She shook her head. “It’s all wrong. So I’m fixing it.”

Eliot froze. He had been in Paris, early 2003, running Moreau’s security while he handled one deal or another. Back then he had been proud to be trusted, proud to be useful to a man like Moreau. By New York, late 2004, he had begun to realize the difference between being useful, and being used.

Eliot shook his head. “There’s nothing here that needs fixin’.”

Parker rolled her eyes at him. Eliot tensed, feeling defensive about this room, of this life he was trying to create. He didn’t need things. Things just tied you down. Made it harder to leave. He didn’t need some kid coming in and telling him—

Wait. “How old were you in 2003? Eight? The hell you doing in Paris?”

“Old enough to steal a Caravaggio.” She folded her arms. After a beat, she continued, “Which is what I was doing in Paris. Why don’t you have any stuff?”

“I don’t need any—wait.” Eliot froze, staring at the girl. “You’re Parker? The Louvre Ghost?”

Parker grinned. “Louvre Ghost. I haven’t heard that one yet. So what about you?” She left her window post and started walking back to him, apparently deciding he wasn’t a threat. “You’re clearly in the business. Art? Paper? Import/Export?”

Murderer.

Eliot shifted. “I’m not—I’m not anything, now.”

“You’re too young to be retired,” Parker said.

“Leave it,” Eliot snapped. Parker flinched back a little. Eliot felt a stab of guilt at that, and softened his tone. “I don’t talk about it.”

“Alright. But for the record, your retirement plan is bad. You’re supposed to get a bunch of money before you get out.”

‘It’s better than the alternative.’ Eliot was lucky Moreau had let him leave. Sure, he had run on a job and never gone back, but Eliot was under no illusions he had gotten free entirely on his own merits.

He had no intention of saying any of this to a nosy thief in the middle of his hole-in-the-wall apartment, though, so he settled for a muttered grumble. He let out a small huff, walked over to the tiny counter and set the bag down next to the hotplate.

“What’s in the bag?” Parker asked.

“Nothing worth stealing,” Eliot snapped. He pulled out a spatula and set it down on the counter.

“Are you going to make another sandwich?”

“Are you always this nosy?” Eliot paused. “And no. I made croissants earlier.”

“What are those?”

“You’ve been to Paris and you’ve never had a croissant?”

Parker shrugged. “I wasn’t there for the food.”

“That’s the saddest damn thing…” Eliot grumbled, going over to his duffle bag and pulling out his chef knife. He returned to the counter, pulled out two croissants, and carefully cut them both in half. “Pick your half.”

“I didn’t say I wanted to try it,” Parker said, edging closer to the counter in clear contrast to her words. She picked up the closer half of one, and the further half of the other. Eliot took the other two halves and quickly bit into one after the other.

After watching Eliot swallow Parker took a bite of her own. “It’s flaky bread.”

“Yep.”

Parker chewed, making a puzzled face. “With stuff in it?”

“Raspberries. It’s brushed with a hint of rosemary-infused syrup in there too. Gotta be careful, don’t add too much, but just the right amount adds that green flavor.”

Parker laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. This doesn’t taste like green. It tastes like Rose Madder.”

Eliot raised an eyebrow and gave an exasperated shrug.

Parker walked over to the painting of a village, and pointed at a tiny reddish-pinkish roof. “That color. That’s what it tastes like.”

Eliot looked down at his croissant. By the time he looked back up, she was gone.


The next morning Eliot still didn’t know what to do with the Cézanne. If it was real, and it looked damn real, it was probably worth at least a few hundred thousand. Hypothetically, Eliot could fence it and live easy. Practically, the painting was hot. And Eliot had no contacts in that world. If he started asking around it raise all sorts of flags, would look like he was back in the game again…that made it more trouble than it was worth.

But the alternative was to leave almost-certainly priceless art on his wall. Eliot was faintly aware that the painting might be worth more than the entire apartment complex it hung in. He could leave it on a museum’s doorstep, or something. But if he got caught with it…

This was more trouble than Eliot needed by half.

Despite it all, as Eliot stood in his apartment and stared at the painting, he found a flicker of pride flare up in his chest. This was something any number of the powerful people he had known and worked for would have loved to keep as an indulgence. But it was here, and right now it was his indulgence.

He decided to leave it. Maybe Parker would take it back.


Eliot drummed his fingers across the instruction sheet as he considered the recipe. Forty-eight appetizers, twenty-four spanikopita squares, twenty-four orange-vanilla cheesecake bites. He chewed on his bottom lip, setting on a plan of attack. Cheesecake first—he’d need to bake the crust, prep the filling, bake the custard, then chill them before decoration.

As his eyes flicked over the cheesecake recipe, it was suddenly covered by someone’s hand. Eliot blinked and looked up to find Toby regarding him with a certain amount of amusement.

“You are not making orange-vanilla cheesecake bites,” Toby said.

“Chef?” Eliot asked, resisting the urge to react to the order by coming to parade rest. Old habits died hard.

“Make something else.”

“What would you like me to make, chef?”

“Whatever you want. There should still be twenty-four, should still be an appetizer. It can still be cheesecake, if you want, but surprise me with the flavors.”

“Chef, I’m not comfortable—”

“I’m not asking if you’re comfortable, I’m telling you to do it.”

Eliot glowered for a moment, but he had obeyed far worse orders from people he trusted far less. There was only ever going to be one answer. “Yes, chef.”

Toby hummed in satisfaction and walked away. Eliot returned to drumming his fingers against the counter as he thought. He could probably adapt one of the recipes they’d done before into an appetizer. But he knew that Toby wanted something that came just from Eliot. Recycling ideas would disappoint him. The idea of seeing... not anger, but a sad sort of understanding in Toby’s eyes was abhorrent.

So Eliot spent some time thinking. He remembered Parker pointing at the painting, saying with confidence that the croissant tasted like the pink of the village roof. What would she think the green of the trees tasted like? Or the cream of the walls?

Eliot went back to that morning, the satisfaction of indulgence in knowing that something beautiful and rare hung on his wall. He tried to think of what that would taste like. Cheesecake seemed made for that sort of feeling. It was already indulgent.

Chocolate. That emotion definitely required chocolate. But not just chocolate...Eliot wandered over to the kitchen spice rack, thinking about flavors.


Four hours later, a tray of tiny cheesecakes sat in front of him, and Eliot was deeply displeased. They were riddled with cracks, they looked ugly, imperfect. He glanced over at his peers, most of them garnishing their perfectly shaped appetizers with tiny orange round slices. Eliot glared back down at his chocolate monstrosities.

This is why he followed instructions. Because the only thing he was good at on his own was killing.

When Toby came by his station, Eliot found he couldn’t look him in the eye. Toby had believed in him and Eliot had failed.

“Looks like you had a bit of trouble with the consistency.” Toby’s tone was gentle as he reached down and grabbed one of the appetizers. Eliot fought the urge to stop him as he popped it in his mouth. Eliot’s eyes were fixed grimly on the counter until he heard Toby make an indecent noise.

“Eliot,” he groaned, tone reverent. “Eliot, these taste…”

When Eliot looked over at Toby, the chef was shaking his head in disbelief. Failing to find an appropriate word, Toby grabbed another appetizer and scarfed it down.

Eliot tilted his head, not understanding exactly what was happening. Toby looked up at him and smiled at his confusion. “They don’t look amazing, but these are the best thing I’ve eaten in months...no, in years. Did you even try one?”

Toby picked up another cheesecake and brandished it at him. Eliot took it reluctantly, taking a bite and letting the flavor expand on his tongue.

Oh. That...wasn’t half bad.

“Julian, Sarah, get over here.” Toby gestured at the two closest trainees, started handing out Eliot’s creations. “Eat this. Eliot, what’s this flavor combination?”

“It’s a chocolate cheesecake with a honey-spice ripple.”

“What are the spices? I’m getting cinnamon for sure, what’s the heat?”

“Dried chipotle peppers, ground. I thought about using cayenne but…”

“Yeah, no. That would have been too harsh. Plus, the smokiness from the chipotle complements the chocolate amazingly well. And it offsets the honey.”

“There’s also a bit of nutmeg,” Eliot found himself loosening slightly as one peer after another tore into the cheesecake bites with noises of delight and indulgence. He felt that coil of pride, of luxury, an echo of that unfamiliar feeling present when he looked at the painting hanging in his shitty apartment.

“Perfect. Alright, you hellions, back off, Eliot needs to take the rest of these home.”

“Oh, no, that’s fine. You all can finish them.”

“Tell me you’re not concerned about your girlish figure,” Toby deadpanned. “You’re not going to make it very far as a chef.”

“No, chef.” Eliot felt a tiny smile on his face. “That’s not it. I don’t have a fridge.”

Toby's eyebrows drew together, looking deeply worried. A moment later the expression was gone, and he smiled over at the other cooks. “You heard Eliot! It's our lucky day, eat up.”

The bites vanished, as did the other students, one by one. Eliot stayed behind, helping Toby put the place back in order. As he wiped down a countertop, Toby cleared his throat. “Question, Eliot, do you like not having a fridge?”

Eliot shrugged. “You feed us well here. I never cook at home.” Eliot paused, remembering a sandwich shared. “Almost never.”

“So you're saving on electricity? That seems extreme.”

Eliot shook his head. “Not that serious. I just don't have a car. Never worth the fuss of walking clear to the store and back with the damn thing on my back.”

Toby looked at Eliot. “You need a fridge, Eliot. I have a truck. Finish up that counter and we'll go get you one.”


Eliot waved goodbye to Toby and wrestled his new minifridge upstairs. Toby had offered to help take it up, but aside from the general nagging feeling that his debt to Toby was already more than Eliot could ever repay, he had other practical motivations in keeping Toby out of his place.

After all, it was a terrible apartment and Eliot didn’t need or want anyone’s pity. On top of that, he didn’t know what might be waiting for him. He wanted to avoid having to explain why there was a blond thief and the crown jewels of Croatia sitting on his kitchen counter.

The apartment seemed to be just as he left it. Closed window included. Eliot was oddly unnerved. He set down the fridge and circled the room, casing the bathroom as well.

Empty.

Eliot shrugged, and began setting up his new appliance. And then he walked down to the corner store and bought a quarter-gallon of milk, just because he could. And a couple folding chairs. Not that he was expecting company. Place just seemed to need some chairs.

He came back to a still empty apartment. With a bit of a pang, he realized he was disappointed his home hadn’t been broken into while he was out. Eliot gave a tiny shake of his head. He was going crazy, that’s what it was. Too much time spent staring at that lava lamp.


Three days later, Eliot shouldered his way into the apartment carrying a bag of groceries in one hand and a couple of folded TV dinner tables in the other.

“You got more stuff.” Parker was sitting cross-legged in one of the folding chairs, writing in a journal.

“There you are.” Eliot set down the bag of groceries, unfolded one of the tray tables and put it in front of her.

Parker leaned forward to set her elbows on the table, tucking the journal on her lap. “A job came up. Normally I wouldn’t go for it, but the safe was a Wells Fargo combination lock from 1862. That was a good year. Worth the trip.” Parker seemed lost in nostalgia for a second, before shaking her head slightly. “But it turned out pretty well, the guy’s safe was full of—”

Eliot cut her off. “Hey. Plausible deniability. Keep me out of this.”

Parker rolled her eyes, but stopped recounting the job. “I don’t understand you. You don’t fit. You’re clearly one of us.”

“Us?”

“You know...people who break laws. Bad guys. But you mostly just cook and look sad.”

“I don’t look sad.”

Parker fixed him with a deeply skeptical look.

Eliot shook his head and decided to drop that line of discussion. “I reckon I’ve done enough terrible things to make me a ‘bad guy.’ I’m not interested in doing any more.”

“Okay. But I still don’t get it.”

“You’re the weird one.” Eliot started to put the vegetables in the fridge. “Why do you keep coming around? I have stuff now.”

Parker went quiet. Eliot finished stashing the broccoli and glanced at her. Her forehead was furrowed as she tapped her finger against her lips. Finally, she looked up at him again. “I’m stealing your home.”

Eliot blinked. “You want my apartment?”

Parker made an exasperated noise. “No. Your apartment sucks. Your home. It’s not like you know what to do with it.”

Eliot snorted. “I have no idea what that means. You can’t sleep here. There’s not enough space.”

Parker stretched. “I don’t think home is about where you sleep.” At the peak of her stretch she winced, glaring down at her shoulder in affront.

“You okay?”

“Fine.” Parker was suddenly jittery, standing up and folding her arms. “I’m fine.”

Eliot didn’t have the first clue what Parker meant when she talked about home, but he understood what was going on now. “There’s no shame in carrying an injury. You had it seen to?”

“I said I’m fine.”

“I know. Just in case, there’s a first aid kit in the bathroom, help yourself.” Eliot paused, then offered, “I’m halfway decent with an ace bandage if you need it.”

Parker looked at Eliot for a long moment, tension painted in the lines of her body. Finally she gave a slow nod, and turned for the bathroom.

Honestly, Eliot was surprised. He had expected her to bolt. There was a certain vulnerability that came with your most reliable tool malfunctioning. Eliot’s safety depended on his body, and he figured Parker’s probably did to. You don’t admit that sort of weakness to strangers. And you lick your wounds in private.

Eliot wondered what it said, that Parker hadn’t left. Likely that they weren’t strangers anymore.

Parker emerged from the bathroom and tossed the first aid kit at him. “I can’t reach.”

Eliot looked down at the kit when he caught it, and by the time he looked back up, Parker was shirtless, turned away from him.

“Jesus, Parker, what the—”

“Don’t make it weird,” Parker snapped, still carrying tension across her shoulders.

“I’m not the one who…” Eliot trailed off as he looked at her back. “That’s a burn.”

“Yeah. Had to wiggle under some wire. Nobody warned me there was a current running through it. I’d have worn a different shirt.”

Eliot grabbed the burn cream and stepped closer. Moving slowly, he squeezed the cream on his fingertips and started working it across her back. “You can’t trust other people to tell you these things.”

Parker’s shoulders tightened even more and she started to lean away from Eliot. He winced. Parker knew that already, didn’t need him saying the obvious.

Eliot tried again, “Keep a magnet with you. They react differently around electric fences.”

Eliot could tell the moment Parker started working the problem, instead of thinking about what she did wrong. Her shoulders relaxed and after a beat she said, “A magnet could cause some trouble around more sensitive systems. Which...could be good, but it depends on what you’re going for.”

Eliot grunted. “Yeah. Doesn’t need to be a big one, though. Tape it to your fingertip. You get used to how it tugs, you can even use it to check for current in walls. Quieter than most sensors. Easier to ditch, too.”

Parker made a considering noise. “That could be useful.”

Eliot finished with the burn cream. “How’s that feel?”

Parker wiggled her shoulders. “Better.” She shimmied her shirt back on and Eliot quickly turned around, trying to give her some privacy. He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to find her standing right next to him.

“Thanks,” she said, and brushed past him, poking her finger into his grocery bag, making an inquisitive noise at the fennel root.

Eliot knew he had a problem. He gave his loyalty too quickly, and to the wrong damn people. He had given his loyalty to the army, and they had used him. He got out, and the uniform hanging in his closet hadn’t even had time to collect dust before Damien managed to collect him. And Eliot’s loyalty went, as it always did, to the wrong place, to the wrong person.

He swore that this time it would be different. He’d get out, out of the game, out of the business of selling his soul to the first person who seemed to need it.

He followed Parker with his eyes, as she pried open his cabinet drawers, and knew he had already broken his promise. This underfed undersocialized teenager had somehow waltzed her way past whatever protections he had set up around his soul.

Maybe Parker wouldn’t figure it out.

“Oh! Cereal!” Parker pulled out the box and ate a handful. She didn’t seem the least bit concerned about poison anymore. That shouldn’t feel as satisfying as it did.

“Who taught you manners?” Eliot grumbled, irritation a cover for affection as he grabbed the box out of her hands. “Come on, I’ll make you something.”


Eliot insisted that Parker was not allowed to move in. There was only one bed; well, a mattress. And Eliot was the only one who slept in the apartment.

Sure, her climbing rig showed up one day and it was too much hassle to move it. And he started stocking that sugary cereal she liked, because it was easier than fighting her every time she started devouring his. It only made sense for her to have a toothbrush at his place, with how often they ate together. Same went for a change of clothes. Just sensible.

Sure, Parker was waiting for him just about every afternoon when he came home from the kitchen. And had started showing up after his morning runs to walk him to the kitchen. She started telling him when she left for jobs. He started expecting her back.

Parker’s colonization was so gradual, it took Eliot three weeks to realize he had a roommate, just one that happened to sleep somewhere else. By that point, it seemed rude to ask her to leave.

Eliot could really only think of one reasonable reaction.

“It’s quiche, just try it.” Eliot pushed the plate a little closer to Parker.

“Pie is for fruit, not eggs.” Parker folded her arms and stared at the food.

“There’s more than one kind of pie!”

“What does it taste like?”

‘Bacon and sauteed onions with a touch of fresh basil, topped with caramelized goat cheese,’ was what Eliot wanted to say. But he had learned early on that those explanations didn’t work well for Parker.

“It tastes like waking up and knowing you got enough sleep,” Eliot said instead.

Parker gave a considering nod, grabbed a fork, and took a bite. “It’s still weird,” was her judgement. She took another bite. “Not bad.”

“I’m going to be late tonight. Toby’s kitchen is doing a fundraising dinner.”

Parker hmm’d around her fork. “I’m out too. Longer trip this time. Week and a half?”

Eliot nodded. “Watch out for dogs.”

“That was one time!” Parker jabbed her fork in Eliot’s direction.

“One time too many. Dog bites raise questions, Parker.”

Parker rolled her eyes. “I don’t tell you how to cook, stop telling me how to thief.”

“Stop making me patch you up, then.”

Parker grabbed the quiche up off the plate and took a bite out of it as she walked to the door. “I don’t make you do anything,” was her parting shot as she let herself out.


Three days later, Eliot waved goodbye to Toby and let himself out of the kitchen. He made it four steps into the parking lot before someone jumped out, yanking a bag over the top of his head. Another body slammed into his waist, trying to pin his arms.

Amateurs.

Eliot threw his head back, hearing a yell and a muffled crack as his skull slammed into someone’s nose. He twisted with the momentum, ducking down so the man trying to pin his arms was thrown over his torso. Then Eliot exploded out, ripping the bag off his head and flinging the off-balance body into the wall in one smooth motion.

A quick glance around the parking lot showed Eliot three more thugs emerging from between cars. Eliot looked around and saw a garbage can sitting nearby. With a little smirk he lifted the lid off of it, holding it like a shield. “Well come on, then.”

The three men charged.

The first one’s head made a satisfying clang against the lid. The second tried to take advantage of the strike to get behind Eliot’s defense. He grabbed with his other hand and shifted. Thug number two went down screaming as a sharp ‘crack’ came from his elbow, which was really not supposed to bend that way.

There was a sparking noise and a gurgling scream from his left. Eliot pivoted, makeshift shield up, to find the third goon on the ground and Parker behind him, holding a taser.

“What are you doing here?” Eliot said, adrenaline sharpening his words.

“You’re good at this.” Parker sounded impressed.

The guy he had thrown into the wall struggled to his feet, groaning, and Eliot clobbered him with the trashcan lid. He went down again. Eliot turned back to Parker. “Yeah, well, I’d be dead if I wasn’t. You shouldn’t be here. It’s not safe.”

“No, they shouldn’t be here.” Parker nudged an unconscious goon with her foot.

“Aren’t you on a job?” Eliot tried again.

“This is my job. Was my job? I stole a—”

“Plausible—”

“Deniability, yeah, got it. I may or may not have stolen a thing. From one of them. And a member of a crew that I may or may not have been running with was sloppy with their security system. Which maybe threw off my escape plan. Which might have made them see my face. I don’t see how they found out about you though.”

“Wait. These are your goons?”

“I don’t have any goons!” Parker reared back, indignant.

“I mean, they’re after you? Why the hell would—”

“I still have the...hypothetical thing that doesn’t absolutely for certain exist. I guess they wanted it back.”

“Wait.” Eliot ran his fingers through his hair and glared at Parker. “You’re telling me that these idiots thought that I was a soft target to get to you?”

“Yes! It makes sense, I hang around you a lot and all you do is cook and go running. They wouldn’t know you’re secretly a ninja. I didn’t know you were secretly a ninja! Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’m not a ninja. That’s a word with some specific historical baggage and...that’s not important!”

Parker tilted her head, regarding Eliot with a certain amount of suspicion. “I don’t believe you. But you’re right, it’s not that important. I don’t know how they found out about you! I should have spotted any tails.”

Eliot shook his head. “You need to get out of here. It’s not safe.”

A noise came from behind Eliot. He turned, garbage can lid at the ready, only to find a stunned Toby, cigarette dangling from between two fingers. He looked around at the pile of unconscious thugs, then over to Eliot.

“What the hell happened?” he asked.

Eliot glanced over his shoulder, knowing Parker was long gone. Verifying that, he turned back to Toby, wincing. “Sorry, Toby. Didn’t mean to bring trouble to your place. I’ll take care of this.”

“Are they dead?”

“No!” Eliot snapped, indignant. Then he paused, realizing that he could have killed them. Easily. They’d probably be less trouble dead. But...he hadn’t even thought about it. He moved to incapacitate, not hurt, not kill.

Eliot realized he was proud of himself. That didn’t fix anything about the current situation, but it was something.

“They’re not dead,” he continued, “but they are dangerous. I’m sorry. I didn’t expect anyone to come after me here. I’ll clear them out.” He swallowed, looking around at the unconscious pile of bodies. They knew where the kitchen was. They knew that he was a fighter. Even if they didn’t come after him again, someone would, someone soon.

He wasn’t just going to have to clear out the bodies. He was going to need to leave himself.

He looked around and felt something surge up in his chest. He always knew that someday he’d need to leave. Sooner or later. But these past months had been...

Horrible. When Eliot had started cooking for Toby, he was at his lowest, in the worst shape he’d ever been in. Barely functioning. And yet, Toby talked to him, taught him how to cook, trusted him, believed in him. And now...now Eliot had to leave.

What would he become, away from the safety of the kitchen?

Suddenly, there were arms around him, Toby going up on his toes to wrap Eliot up in a hug. Eliot froze at first, startled by the unfamiliar sensation. Then, slowly, he hugged the man back.

“You’re leaving, aren’t you?” Toby pulled back from the hug and Eliot let him go reluctantly.

“I have to. You’ll just be in danger if I stay.”

Toby nodded. “Okay. God, Eliot, I’m going to miss you. You’re a talented chef, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Eliot shuffled, shrugging. Cooking had been a nice interlude, but now—

Toby took Eliot’s face in his hands, turning his face down so he looked Toby in the eye. “Hey. You listen to me. Whatever else life brings you, you keep cooking. You keep on creating the food nobody else can, because it’s yours, and the world needs it. No one can take that away from you, except you.”

Eliot felt tears burning behind his eyes, and he had to force himself to not pull away, to shy away from the vulnerability.

“Eliot, this is important. When I met you, you were barely holding it together. I don’t know your life, I don’t need to, but I know what it looks like when someone reaches their breaking point. And you were almost there, Eliot. But food brought out something in you, it kept you sane. Well, it and that blond friend of yours.”

Eliot pulled back in a shocked little jump.

Toby’s hands dropped back to his side as he gave a little chuckle. “Not as blind as you thought, huh? Don’t worry, I don’t know what your thing is with her, and I’m not asking. But you started shining after she started coming around.”

“It’s not like that,” Eliot said, looking off to the side.

“Hey, I have no idea what it’s like. She’s your friend, lover, sister, daughter, whatever. She’s been good for you, that’s all I’m saying.”

“Daughter?” Eliot had trouble moving past that one. “How old do you think I am?”

Toby shrugged. “Eliot, you showed up one day with dead eyes that came alive when I started talking about food. You are currently standing in an alleyway completely nonchalant about the fact that you took down five armed thugs. You’re something of a mystery. But that’s okay. I like ya anyway.”

Eliot gave a tiny huff of a chuckle.

“But seriously, Eliot, your past is past. You chose what your present and future look like. Make the most of it.”

Eliot cleared his throat. “Toby—I don’t—What I mean to say is, thank you. You gave me a home here.”

“And that’s not going away. Eliot, you’re welcome back here anytime.”

Suddenly Parker saying, ‘I don’t think home is about where you sleep,’ made a lot more sense. Eliot nodded, putting his hands in his pockets. “Thank you.”

Toby clapped Eliot on his shoulders. “And don’t forget to write! Let me know how things go. We can exchange recipes.”

Eliot ducked his head and grunted. “Sounds good.”

Toby looked around. “Now, I’m getting out of here before the police come and I have to lie under oath to save your ass. I’ll see you later, Eliot.”

“See you later, Toby.”

Eliot could almost believe that he would.


Eliot opened the door to his apartment for what he knew was the last time. He had always known that this day would come. In his planning for it, though, he had figured he'd be unsentimental about it. Eliot had expected stoic practicality—possibly tinged with some relief that he was finally done with that crappy shower.

He wasn't expecting to feel so damn sad. A weight settled unpleasantly in his chest as he scanned the room and found that Parker wasn't there.

Eliot wasn't mad at Parker. Sure, she was the reason he had to leave now. But, sooner or later, he was always going to leave. He was trouble and Toby’s kitchen deserved better.

His eyes settled on the Cézanne, and he shook his head. No. Not mad at Parker. Sad to be leaving without saying goodbye, if anything. Eliot opened his duffle bag and started packing, throwing his tennis shoes and change of clothes in. Table and chairs were too much trouble to move, same went with the fridge. No way in hell was he taking the mattress.

His eyes slid over the painting again. It hung in his room, but Eliot still didn’t feel like it was his to keep. Parker would probably come back for her climbing rig. She could take it back, too.

After a long moment of hesitation, Eliot unplugged the lava lamp, feeling like an idiot as he threw it in his bag. It wasn’t a thing he needed, and it would only weigh him down and take up space.

But Eliot had learned that there was a place for wants along with needs, and he wanted to remember a piece of the thief that showed up and declared that she was stealing his home.

Eliot found he wanted to leave something for her, too. It was foolish to leave information in the open and yet—Eliot had left a lot of people without saying goodbye. Parker didn’t need to be one of them. He rummaged around, found a pen and some paper, and started writing.


Parker,

I’m going to ground, and I won’t be coming back here. You keep yourself safe. Try to remember that there’s no stuff in the world that’s worth you getting hurt.

For God’s sake, don’t forget to eat.

And, hey, do me a favor. Next time you’re in Paris, find a place that sells fresh baguettes. Eat one. It tastes like home.

I’m keeping the lava lamp.

Eliot.


Eliot twirled his knife, humming as he chopped. Wafer-thin slices of green apples fell across the rosemary-smoked pork. Little bit of brie, toast it up, and he’d have a decent sandwich.

As he took a bite of the apple half that wasn’t going on the sandwich, he walked over to the fridge. The full-sized, fully stocked fridge. He had forgotten how good it felt, to have all the food you could need right at hand. The whole kitchen felt like a miracle, something Eliot had lost long ago suddenly returned to him. Holding the apple between his teeth, he pulled out the brie.

“What are their names?”

Eliot didn’t jump. He didn’t even startle. He should have, woman’s voice suddenly appearing in a house he knew was empty. But by now, he knew that voice. He pulled the apple out of his mouth and turned around with a sort of resigned acceptance.

Parker stood by the large window in the attached living room, poking at Eliot’s newly-planted herb garden. Early-morning light streamed in through the window and spun her blond hair golden. As she prodded the basil plant, coronated and celebrated by the sunlight, she had never looked more like some creature he had called forth from his imagination.

“Jesus, Parker, don’t you use doorbells?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because that’s what people do when they show up uninvited.”

Parker snorted. “That’s not what I do.”

Eliot felt a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth as he turned to look at his sandwich again. God, he was happy to see her again. He shouldn’t be. She was trouble. And yet…Eliot shook his head and sliced the brie on to the sandwich.

Parker said, “You didn’t answer my question.”

“No, Parker, they don’t have names. They’re plants.”

“They should have names. You’re Maleficent. And you’re Stapler. You’re—”

“Are you naming my plants?”

“No. I’m naming our plants.”

“You can’t just come in here and steal my herb garden.”

“Eliot,” Parker said, coming closer behind him. “I already told you, I’m stealing your home. Plants come included. Besides. Stapler likes me best.”

“Stapler is a bad name for a basil plant.”

“One, it’s a great name. Two, it’s the thyme that’s named Stapler. Three, if you don’t like it, you should have named it something first.”

Eliot topped the sandwich with another slice of fresh sourdough and turned on the stove. He glanced over at Parker, who had perched herself atop the opposite kitchen counter. “What are you doing here?”

“You’re here,” she said, like that was an answer.

Eliot supposed it might be.


Parker ate her half of the sandwich and declared it tasted like stealing, “One-point-two million dollars worth of diamonds.”

Eliot figured that was high, if oddly specific, praise.

Parker put her elbows on the table and leaned head on her chin. “Speaking of diamonds, there’s a job that—”

“Plausible deniability.”

Parker let her hands fall to the table with a ‘thunk’ and proceeded to glare at Eliot. “How much longer are you going to pretend you’re out of the game?”

“I’m not pretending. I am out.”

Parker picked up her hand again and started counting on her fingers. “Five guys came after you and you took them all down without blinking.” Another finger, “You burned your apartment and covered your tracks in under an hour.” Third finger, “You had an alternate safehouse up and running in two days, including false identity and a story about medical troubles leading you to sell your last house. And paperwork to back it up. Eliot, you may be hiding, but you haven’t retired.”

“How do you even know about—Damn it, that’s not the point.” Eliot swallowed, feeling his words thicken with emotion. “I don’t know how you missed it, Parker, but I’ve hurt people. Badly. Lot of people are dead because of me. Now I’m not sayin’ I deserve any kind a’ redemption, but I am sayin’ I’m done killing for someone else.” Eliot noticed he was gripping his fork so tightly his knuckles were going white, he forced himself to put the utensil down and take a breath.

Parker made a soft noise in the back of her throat. “I’m not saying we should kill people. That’s sloppy work.”

“That’s not the point,” Eliot felt a growl creep into his voice in frustration, “if I tell a person I’m there for them, I do what it takes. But I’m done being that person.”

Parker got very quiet. “You’re there for me.”

Eliot felt his heart sink in his chest. “That’s not—”

“You feed me. You patch me up. You say things like, ‘People ask questions about dog bites, Parker.’” Parker’s voice went low, a growly mock. But there was something pleading in her eyes, something defensive.

Parker was a foster kid, Eliot remembered. How many times had she hoped that this family would be better, that these people would care? How much higher and higher had her walls been built as one person after another took advantage of her? She let her guard down around Eliot.

What happened if Eliot said he didn’t care?

Eliot realized, with a rising sense of damnation, that he was never going to find out. “Of course I’m here for you, Parker.”

The hunted look receded from her eyes. She sat up straighter, leaned forward. “So, it’s settled then. Okay, with you backing me up, there’s this complex in southeast Georgia that needs at least two people to crack. But inside, are five million…”

Eliot felt himself shut down as Parker talked, laying out a heist that she had already slotted him into. Eliot reached over, face carefully blank, and grabbed her plate, standing up to go to the sink.

Suddenly, Parker was in front of him. “Nope.”

“I can do dishes and listen at the same time. What’s your plan for the laser grid?”

“I mean, nope, we’re not settled. That’s not a good Eliot face. That’s Apartment-With-Just-A-Mattress-In-The-Dark Eliot face.” Parker folded her arms. “What am I missing?”

“You’re not missing anything, Parker. You’re right. I’ve got your back. That means I’ll do what needs doin’.”

Parker huffed out a sigh. “Why is this so hard? How do people just have emotions all day? Okay,” Parker went up on her toes and stared into Eliot’s eyes, deep wrinkles appearing in her forehead as she concentrated, “you’re willing to go along with me, but something’s making you grumpy. I said we wouldn’t be killing people, so it’s not that. Do you...not like the target? Do you not like diamonds?” Parker sounded horrified at the idea.

Eliot leaned back in the face of Parker’s rather intense scrutiny. “Diamonds are fine. Parker. You’ve got me. You don’t need to worry about it anymore.” Eliot swallowed and looked away. “I’m sure you figured it out. You’ve had me for a while now.”

“Oh,” Parker said, and suddenly there were two soft fingers under his chin bringing his face back around to hers. “You don’t understand. You have me too.”

Eliot blinked at her.

She continued, “Whoever you were with before, they had you, but you didn’t have them. When you left, they didn’t find you.”

Eliot shook his head. “I was lucky they let me go.”

“Do you wish I had let you go too?” Parker asked, as serious as he had ever seen her.

“No,” Eliot said. It was the truth.

“Because I’m different than them. Me finding you means something different than them finding you.” Parker stared at him and Eliot felt like a safe, watched as she spun the dials that unlocked his psyche. “So what makes me different?”

What made Parker different than Moreau? Everything. Parker needed him. Not his skills, him. When they'd met, Parker hadn't been all that functional. She barely ate and would push through injuries rather than have them seen to. But she let Eliot care for her. And in return, giving care had somehow managed to pull Eliot out of the pit of self-loathing he had called home.

‘She’s been good for you...’ Eliot heard an echo of Toby's voice. He swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat.

“Parker, if we were on a job and I said, 'I can't do this, the security guard is seventeen, and I can't get past him without hurting him,’ what would you say?”

“I'd find you an exit route.” Parker said it like it was obvious. Like there wasn't any other option. “Though, if you don't want to punch teenagers just tell me beforehand, I'll make it a part of the plan.”

“And if I change, if I’m suddenly not okay with something I was okay with before?”

“Then I’ll figure it out. We’ll change together.”

That was it, Eliot realized. “We're equal. That's what makes you different.”

Parker hummed, then nodded. “Sounds right. That's what makes you different too.”

Something unfurled in Eliot’s chest, a sudden lightness that started under his collarbones and spread out through his lungs and across his shoulders. He’d done some monstrous things in the service of monstrous people. He was also very, very good at what he did.

Working with Parker...wasn’t history repeating itself. It was a chance to take those skills and put them into play protecting someone important to him. And if that person happened to be a tiny kleptomaniac with horrible people skills...well, that was life.

Eliot inhaled and exhaled in a huff, letting go of the last of his fears. “Alright, partner, let’s hear about your plan for this laser grid.”

Parker went from serious to enthusiastic in a flash. “That’s a good Eliot face. I can’t believe that worked. I must be getting really good at this emotion thing.”

Eliot chuckled, finally stepping around Parker to get the plates over to the sink. “Lets not get too far ahead of ourselves.” He paused, looking at her. “Hey...Parker.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m glad you found me. Thanks for hunting me down.”

“You always knew I was going to,” Parker said, following him over to the kitchen and hopping up on the counter next to the sink.

“I really didn’t,” Eliot said as he turned on the water.

“It’s a two bedroom apartment, Eliot. Who did you think was going to be in the second bedroom?” Parker shook her head and leaned back against the cabinet behind her.

“I never said you could move in.” Eliot grumbled.

“You have two beds. You didn’t need to say anything.”

Eliot hmphed, feeling uncomfortably transparent.

“And, you left a space for the Cézanne.” Parker pointed behind him.

Eliot looked over his shoulder, and sure enough, there was the Cézanne, hanging over his couch, coordinating surprisingly well with the living room colors, picking up the bright greens of his herb garden. “Huh.”

Eliot felt the spiced chocolate cheesecake feeling rise again, stronger this time. This was his life. And for once, it felt like a good one.

“You’re wrong, by the way,” Parker continued.

“About what?” Eliot started rinsing the first plate.

“Baguettes don’t taste like home. Not even the fresh ones from France.”

“What do they taste like, then?”

“A really comfy couch, all broken in from people sitting on it.”

“That’s kinda like home,” Eliot raised his eyebrows at her.

She smiled back at him. “It’s a piece of it. Home’s too complicated for a baguette though. I think you have to combine a bunch of different food, to make a home.”

Eliot thought of his childhood, of meal after meal eaten with family around a solid wood table.

He thought about watching while Moreau ate, stomach growling as the boss dined on lobster, then scarfing a power bar by himself when he had a moment.

He thought about a peanut butter sandwich on a shitty hotplate, croissants split in half, about a certain skeptical blonde shoving quiche in her mouth.

Eliot turned off the water, set the dishes in the drying rack, and looked over at Parker. Parker was relaxed and comfortable, limbs loose and eyes half closed. She was a long way from the twitchy thief that broke into his apartment. Eliot was a long way from the hollow shell that let her.

Eliot felt a tiny smile on his face as he turned around and rested his elbows on the counter behind him. He looked out over his comfortable living room, at the Cézanne that hung above the couch and the lava lamp on the side table.

“You know what?” He said, feeling content. “I think you’re right.”