Food for the Soul

It's late when Eliot gets home.

He dumps his jacket on the couch and sits down to unlace his heavy boots. He stretches, feeling his back click, the tension pulling in his shoulders, and the aching in his bruises.

Barefoot, he goes into the kitchen. He opens the fridge door and reaches in for a beer. He catches sight of his hand and pulls back. There's blood under his fingernails that he's missed when he got in the shower at Nate's.

The blood isn't his.

There's blood on his sleeve too.

Eliot stares at his hands for a long moment, slams the fridge door harder than he needs to and heads for the bathroom.

.

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Half an hour and a whole tank of hot water later, Eliot gets out of the shower. He pads back to the kitchen wearing clean jeans and his oldest t-shirt, damp hair curling on his shoulders.

His stomach growls as he reaches for the beer again, and he changes his mind. He'd been planning on just having the beer and hitting the sack, but maybe cooking will help him to forget about the disaster that has been today's job. Maybe it will help to use his hands to create something instead of using them to destroy. He runs his hand through his hair, snagging on a damp tangle, and looks in the fridge again.

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He can't face meat, he decides, not after the knife fight on the docks and the blood-smell that still clung to him when they got back to the Brewpub. But he's got rice, and lentils, and onions, and he's pretty sure he can do something with that.

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It's not the fighting he minds; he never feels as alive as when he squares up to an enemy and feels the adrenaline fizz in his veins, knowing that this time he's on the side of the angels. But while punching someone who truly deserves it is a good and just thing, knife fighting with henchmen who are only following orders is just a shade too close to what he used to do for a living, not so very many years ago.

Eliot looks at the onion he's holding, flips his knife back out of the eight-yakuza grip and chops. Using the knife this way feels good, pushes the man he used to be back into the shadows.

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He measures out lentils and water, sets the pan on the stove and adds the chopped onion. He wipes his hands on the dish towel and goes outside to look for herbs.

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His garden is dark and quiet, the earth cool under his bare feet. Eliot locates the coriander by smell and picks chillies from the plant outside the back door. Once inside again, he collects garlic and dried spices and lifts the lid to stir his lentils. The steam from the pan fogs his glasses and he takes them off to wipe them on his t-shirt. This time, when he looks at his hands, they are clean.

It wouldn't have mattered to him before, but now it is important. Now blood under his nails is a sign of a job gone wrong, not a job well done. It's something to be scrubbed away, not something to be left there as a mark of how dangerous he is.

.

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The smell of the coriander rises fresh and wild as he chops it, reminding him of mornings in India.

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Not everything he's done in India has been good, and he used to avoid talking about India at all, but nowadays his clearest memory is of saving those kids after the river burst its banks. There had been coriander growing wild there, the scent of the crushed plants strong as he and Shelley hauled the last kid out of the flood and collapsed side by side on the river bank.

He'd forgotten about that until their last poker night, when the whiskey had brought the stories out. Shelley had made such a big deal of how brave Eliot had been, refusing to give up until everyone was safe, putting himself in danger again and again to rescue perfect strangers. Eliot had seen the looks Nate and Bonnano gave him through the curtain of his hair. Respect from them was worth a lot, and Eliot has felt a little better about India ever since.

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Eliot adds garlic and turmeric, and grinds cumin and mustard seeds with a little oil. His dodgy shoulder protests at the pressure he puts on the pestle and he switches hands, frowning. The smell of the spices is rich and exotic and Eliot breathes it in with his eyes closed.

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For years, Cumin reminded him of Morocco, of getting off a plane with Moreau and feeling the hot, spice-scented wind ruffling his shirt. The bag on his shoulder then had been heavy, filled with guns and ammunition and all the tools of a wetwork specialist. For years after he left Moreau, Eliot had held his breath when passing restaurants and street food stalls, the smell of the spices enough to transport him back to that dark, bloody time.

Now the scent of cumin reminds him of Hardison's first attempt to cook dinner for the team. Three hours of preparing and chopping and frying, and they'd ended up with something brown and awful that had made Parker throw up. As angry as he'd been about the ruined pan, Eliot had been touched by the effort that had gone into the hacker's first serious attempt at non-packet cookery. Eliot smiles at the memory and sets a pan of rice to boil.

Hardison had been understanding of his anger today too. He'd snapped at the hacker even though it hadn't been Hardison's fault the job had gone bad. Hardison hadn't snapped back and hadn't been shocked when Eliot tracked blood back into Lucille. He'd simply passed him a cloth and thanked him for keeping everyone safe. Hardison doesn't see him as a monster.

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Finally Eliot reaches for the chillies. They're sharp and keen, making his eyes water and his mouth tingle when he licks the cut end to judge the heat.

At least the chilli burn doesn't make him gag any more.

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Originally, chillies had reminded him of his Momma's cooking, back in Oklahoma, but then some nasty tempered Koreans had taken exception to him disrupting their black market dealings, captured him and demonstrated their displeasure using capsicum tincture. He'd been lucky to keep his sight and his mouth intact. After he'd freed himself and recovered from being tortured, even the thought of eating chillies had made him retch.

That had lasted until he'd had to explain to Nate one evening why he didn't want to go out for a curry with the rest of the team. He'd expected Nate to make a sarcastic comment, or just shrug and leave him behind, but the older man had simply listened. Then he'd told Eliot that he shouldn't let the memory steal away his enjoyment of food, that he should steal it back so that the Koreans hadn't won. Then he'd finished his Irish whisky and left. Eliot had sat alone in the bar for a long time before he'd decided Nate was right. He'd gone to the restaurant and been amazed when the rest of the team were still there, waiting for him to join them.

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Eliot adds the chopped chilli and leaves his dhal to simmer. Now he gets the beer out of the fridge and takes a sip.

.

Today could have gone worse, he thinks. The mark is safely in jail thanks to Sophie's hysterical call to the police, he hasn't picked up any new injuries even though he was seriously outnumbered, and he even managed to limit the damage he did to the mark's henchmen – not an easy thing to do once the knives come out.

He rubs at the ache in his shoulder, noting the tender spots that today's fight has aggravated. It's gone out on him a couple of times recently and he knows he should be careful of it for a bit.

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Eliot takes his food and his beer into the living room, turns on the TV and finds an ice hockey game to watch.

The dhal is good, the game is good and the beer is good. Eliot realises that he feels good too, relieved that he's got through their latest job without causing more than minimum damage. He takes a pull at the beer. Years ago, the amount of damage he caused wouldn't have concerned him at all, he thinks.

He eats some curry.

Sophie's right – he really isn't that man any more.