A Cup of Coffee


peyton_icon.gif russo_icon.gif

Scene Title A Cup of Coffee
Synopsis …and a friendly face can help restore faith and renew the spirit.
Date October 2, 2014


Toronto in October is incredibly unpredictable. Sometimes it’s chilly. Other times it’s warm. Today it’s raining. The rain has fallen into a steady rhythm, pattering loudly against every surface and beckoning people seek shelter anywhere they can. Others, however, find their way to the street just in time. Bradley Russo came to Toronto for two specific reasons. He’s been hotly pursuing a lead on an interview. His show, while he has no idea what the ratings are anymore, seems to garner enough attention that people are listening— that sometimes they even want on. Which has been helpful. The second reason for coming here was getting more supplies. He needs a larger range.

But Russo has never been singular, and the stress of the situation had worn on him. Stress always meant looking at the bottle. But he got back on the bandwagon some time ago. He’d made a few calls, and found a meeting. This one, in the heart of downtown Toronto was in the side of an old, nearly-falling-apart-Catholic-Church, complete with stained glass and leaks in the roof. It’s no wonder the meeting ended early.

Brad, along with several other attendees, exits the building, umbrella in hand. The large black umbrella opens and he treads to the crosswalk. He needs to get to a Source for some supplies. But the smell of food down the block beckons his inner foodie forward longingly. He stops at the intersection to wait for a walk sign.

Is it kismet or just coincidence? Just a few feet away, a familiar face appears as someone Bradley knows steps out of salon — whatever she was having done there isn’t complete; her dark hair is still wet, a portion of it still clipped up. Her hair seems to be the last of her worries, though, as she speaks into her cell phone, her free hand rifling through her purse to find something — presumably keys.

“I don’t know who it is or I would have more to tell you,” she murmurs in a thick voice. The keys finally come out of her bag and she pushes one of the buttons — the dark BMW sedan parallel parked right in front of her flashes its lights and unlocks its doors. “No, I don’t think I brought this upon myself. Do you think you could do your job and-”

Apparently whoever it was on the other line hung up.

Passersby give her a glance or two — Peyton Whitney looks a little strange, standing there on the sidewalk in the rain, her hands shaking as she tries to call back whoever was on the phone. It’s hard to tell teardrops from raindrops, but a close enough look at her face will reveal there are both, the tears welling up in her eyes. Juggling both keys and phone is too much, though, and she drops both into the water below. She sinks down in a crouch to pick them up.

Brad doesn’t exactly notice who the woman is, but when someone drops something in the rain, he slides over, umbrella in hand to hold it overtop her, and bends down after her. He reaches for the phone as she does, trying to grasp it with some fail thanks to the nature of the moisture on his fingers. “Slippery little sucker,” he murmurs with a wry smile only to finally catch Peyton’s gaze. “Miss Whitney?” he asks with a lift of his eyebrow.

And then, knowing too well that this is not a happy face, he gives a small tick of his head, “Hey. Can I…” his lips press together, knowing too well that strangers don’t often confide in one another. “…get you a cup of coffee?”

The nearness of another person — even one stooping to help her — makes Peyton stiffen a little in a defense, tension in her limbs, like she might need to spring away. She manages to reach for the items, only looking up when her name is spoken.

The face she looks into is not the one she was expecting.

Her own expression falters — to be seen is bad enough, but she’s used to it; to be seen by someone she knows, even only a little, is harder. “Bradley Russo,” she manages to say, before standing back up, her hand reaching up to pull the stupid hair clip out of her damp hair, releasing the dark locks. “I - why are you here?”

A strange smile, with all the markers of boyish charm, creeps across Russo’s lips, completing itself with a single dimple in his cheek. “On earth or in Toronto?” His blue eyes blink and the comedy doesn’t seem to escape him as he reaches out his hand still holding her phone. “The former? I think I’m still figuring out. The latter? A moment’s reprieve for an interview and some supplies.”

He considers her a moment and then he gives a tick of his head, “Seriously, Miss Whitney — a cup of coffee.” And then with earnest that he’s learning to embrace he adds, “I could use it.”

Peyton reaches for the cell phone, glancing down on it and sliding a thumb across the screen to close it. Whoever it was can wait, presumably. They obviously weren’t very helpful anyway.

“Coffee,” she repeats, looking up into his face, her head tipping slightly as if trying to read what’s there, “would be nice. A familiar face is…” she makes a face as she can’t find quite the right word, settling once more on “nice.” She nods to a little coffee shop a few doors down, and begins to move in that direction, slowly, so that he can follow, of course.

“How have you been? I hope better than me, at least today.” She smiles a little ruefully, her hand sliding over her hair, pulling it out of her face to tuck beneath her scarf. “I’d say I’m sorry you caught me on a bad day, but I’m sort of glad to see someone friendly, you know?”

Brad takes the silent cue and holds the umbrella to keep them both dry-ish, and falls into step with her. “Well,” his lips turn up into a wry smile, “I sank Studio K, tanked my show, went to rehab, and was hanging out as a correspondent in a war zone,” while fighting in the war. “So it’s been a gas,” he has a comical lilt to his voice.

“You?” He manages some warmth in the return question.

Peyton’s brows lift, and the smallest of smiles curves her lips — not laughing at him, but at his tone. “Oh, I just got about my tenth death threat. Must be Tuesday,” she says lightly. “I mean, not to compete or anything.” Her smile grows just a touch, before she grows more serious, opening the door to the coffee shop and holding it for him behind her, rather than waiting for him to be the gentleman.

“I started a school last year and I have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, who’s brilliant and adorable. So it’s not all bad,” she says, glancing at the waitress who waves to them to take any seat they like. She moves to a corner booth where she can see the door and out onto the street. “You’re not covering the Tribunals?” She glances down at this question, picking up one of the laminated menus from behind a napkin container.

“Death threat?” Brad’s gaze softens. “Why would anyone issue you a death threat? You’re delightful.” He lifts his hand and rocks it back and forth, “Me? I know me. I’ve met me. I’ve spent a lot of time with me. If I didn’t live in my head, pretty sure I’d threaten it.” He casts her another grin and tucks his chin to his chest nearly bashfully.

The smile grows at the mention of a school, “So lots of kids, then? Well schools are good. You’ve turned outright philanthropist then,” he easily follows her to the booth. “I am sometimes covering the Tribunals. Should probably be there instead of here, but increasing the range of my show is… tricky.” He lifts his eyebrows comically, “It’s all radio now. Just what it is. Telecommunications isn’t what it used to be, so I transmit and try to keep the range high. But people have trouble getting the news sometimes. Doing what I can to make that happen.”

He follows suit and plucks a menu. “Been here before? You know, Toronto continues to baffle me. All this amazing culture in a city where people don’t want to tear each other apart. How did that ever happen? And how can it be repeated?”

“Delightfully evolved,” she says with a lift of her finger as if she’s correcting him. “But thanks. I’m sure a lot of people would beg to differ, and not just the ones who are bigots and fearmongers.” It’s said fairly matter-of-factly, as if she’s accepted this as a matter of course.

“Your show was always good. I enjoyed what I’ve heard since everything… you know. Went to shit, down in the States.” She tucks the menu back, apparently having decided what she wants.

“The cafe or Toronto?” she asks, with a smile. “Both, actually. My parents owned a property up here, so that’s where I put the school. The cafe is near where I get my hair done,” she touches her wet head, making a face, “so I sometimes pop in for coffee. I haven’t had anything that wasn’t delicious and probably terrible for my figure.”

“You’re assuming you’re delightful,” Russo says with a glimmer of mischief in his smile. “Although, admittedly, I haven’t been known to invite undelightful people for coffee. Unless it’s for an interview. Then I talk to some of the least delightful people I’ve met. Sometimes. Present company is excluded.” He shoots her another smile. “You are, indeed, delightful. Probably lends itself well to school management.”

His face turns a light pink hue at the compliment. “K and I did what we could to make it good before. I’ve done what I can to make it good since she passed. I owe her and Kincaid,” his eyebrows draw together while his expression turns pensive, and then, as if forgetting whether Peyton met his son, he clarifies, “another producer at Studio K— well, I owe them both a lot. So I stood by our journalistic integrity. Never thought I’d wind up closer to the reporter side of the political game.”

“You don’t have to watch your figure,” he actually chuckles at that. “You’re still gorgeous,” and he certainly means it. And then as he lifts a hand, he begins to utter an apology, “Not that I’m….” his eyebrows draw together “…I’m not trying…” he rubs the back of his neck “…I’m not trying to flirt with you.” He feels his cheeks warm further and his menu becomes incredibly interesting. “Sorry,” he apologizes.

And then quietly, while looking at the menu, he asks, “So your tenth death threat today? Because of a school?”

When he calls her delightful, she lifts her brows and shakes her head slightly; at gorgeous, she dips her lashes and laughs, looking to the rest of the cafe to find the server. Looking back, she laughs aloud. “Oh, my God, you’re actually blushing,” she says, eyes widening. She obviously finds it hilarious. “I think I may have finally outgrown that.” She touches her cheek with the back of her hand to see if it feels warm, perhaps.

But the talk is more somber again and she looks down, this time with no menu to study, so she studies her hands instead, fiddling with the sole ring, a rose-gold braid on her right middle finger.

“The school’s an academy for the gifted — i.e. evolved. So there are people who think it shouldn’t exist, of course. The police say it’s probably not even anyone in Toronto, but…” Peyton trails off. Finally she lifts a shoulder. “At least this lunatic’s targeting me, not the school. I can stand that better.” Despite the brave words, her voice quavers a little. “I started the school so they’d be safe away from the hate, you know? I wish people would just let live.”

“Thanks for that, some things aren’t meant to be outgrown. And honestly? Now that there’s no camera, I don’t need so much of a poker face anymore,” although Brad still has it when he needs it. But then onto more seriously things and he tucks the menu back where he found it. He inhales a half breath and studies her face. “I don’t think it’s realistic to protect people from hate. I think it’s a lot easier to prevent people from hating in the first place or to teach them in their ignorance.”

His lips twist to the side with uncertainty. “Hate is pretty easy to go to when people don’t understand each other. It’s a lot harder when they get everyone’s humanity.” His eyebrows lift at that and he issues her a smaller smile. “So while I don’t think they can be wholly protected, I’m sure you help them a lot. Because it’s easy to fear anyone different. Even themselves.”

His lips hitch up on one side into a crooked grin. “I was terrified of what I was when I did that self-test kit and saw I had tested positive. Covered it up for years, although,” he lifts his hand, “if repeated outside this booth, this cone of silence, I will deny that until I’m blue in the face.” He shoots her an easier smile, “Self-acceptance seems like an important first step.” He issues her a small shrug. “Admittedly this isn’t my wheelhouse, so I’m not sure I should even have an opinion.”

Peyton’s dark eyes rise to study his face as he talks. Her nervous fidgeting stops, at some point, and she seems more at ease; being inside away from the eyes of the pedestrians and drivers seems to help, too. “I won’t tell. Being afraid of it isn’t anything to be ashamed of, though. There are so many people who hate anyone different.”

She quiets as the server comes their way with a coffee pot, filling in their mugs with the hot beverage. Peyton shakes her head at the query of ‘anything else?’ It’s Toronto and it’s raining — taking up a seat for just the never-ending refills is almost expected. They’ll tip well, in the end.

Once the server’s gone, Peyton looks back to Brad. “You look like you’re on the right track,” she says quietly. “I think maybe I’m helping others so I don’t have to accept myself.” There’s a small smile, like she’s kidding, but it turns a little crooked at the end, like the truth has found its way out in the unplanned sentence.

Brad’s blue eyes watch her carefully, studying the nuances of her expression. He doesn’t miss the curl of her lips or the way it flattens. “I only started getting on the right track because I hated what I saw in the mirror. I wanted to stop seeing all the ghosts in my life and see me.” His eyebrows lift at that. A single hand points up the block from where they came, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” he finally adds. “Didn’t get to share — the rain kicked us out.” Good humour colours his expression.

“But it would’ve gone something like,” he turns solemn for a minute. And starts, “Hi, I’m Brad, and I’m an alcoholic. And addict.” His purses his lips, “My last drink was ten months ago. My last hit was about a year ago.”

“…and now you say, ‘Hi, Brad.’” He watches her like expectantly.

Her eyes drop again at the mention of ghosts, brows drawing together — there’s a direct hit there, that much is clear. She looks up again when he mentions the meeting, glancing to the window as if she could see within the building he’d just come out of, see that meeting in progress. But that’s not how her ability works.

Lips curve up into a smile, and she says the perfunctory, “Hi Brad.” But then adds, “I’m familiar. I did a stint in rehab when I was a kid. I wasn’t actually an addict-” she holds up a hand to stave off any laughter or cynical remark. “I mean, I know everyone says that, but I wasn’t. I was a liar. I took the fall for someone else who was behind the wheel.”

She finally reaches for her coffee, more to wrap her hands around the warm cup than to take a sip. “That said, I know how hard it is. I saw it. Being surrounded by people who really were — it made me feel even worse, you know? And when people praised me for being strong and getting through rehab? Jesus. I apologize to you, because I can’t really go back and apologize to all of them.”

A grin follows the familiarity and the not-an-addict-thoughts. Brad shrugs, “We do what we have to in order to cope. I turned to liquor when I lost my Mom and late fiance. It got progressively worse when life turned into a shit storm.” He manages a vague smile. “And you don’t have to apologize. I spent a lot of time in and out of rehab. It’s hard. But it’s also just what it is. People trying to figure out how to manage their lives apart from something that’s become so central to who they are.”

He inhales a long breath, clearing his thoughts as he does it. “There’s little doubt that I still struggle with the man in the mirror sometimes. I see the shadows of my life and what I did or didn’t do. And when I chose to do it. If I chose to do it.” His eyebrows lift at that, silently punctuating the point.

His head shakes and his chin drops, prompting his gaze to stare at his hands this time. “So I went to rehab because I owed it to all of them. Mom, Lina, K, Joe. I owed them all. Even the living deserved more from me. And I work on it. Everyday.” He pauses and curls his fingers around his coffee. “But you know why? Because of that man in the mirror.”

Peyton listens, staring into that cup of coffee, then tipping her head up to look back across the table at the man in front of her. “I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to lose people,” she says quietly. She doesn’t list hers — but everyone these days has far too long a list.

She taps the mug a couple of times, before she speaks again.

“I guess the school is making amends, in some ways. I can’t fix what I did, not without a time traveler.” She smiles a little wryly at that — she’s fixed other people’s problems in the past, but never her own. “I guess I’m just trying to balance out in the end — who’s the mythological god that weighs your soul? I’d like to come out at least even. I’m not sure I can come out ahead.”

“Don’t count yourself out of that fight yet,” Brad returns. He takes a long gulp of coffee. “None of us can. You can do this. You will make it through.” He offers her a warm smile. “One day at a time,” it’s an old adage from AA, one that he’s learning to live by. He reaches into his pocket and takes out his six month chip—the last time he did a ceremony; a graduation of sorts.

He smiles wryly, “Most of us can’t fix the past, but we can build a better future. You know that, it’s why you run a school, I’m guessing.” He can’t help but manage a mirthless chuckle, “You’re too young to be that cynical. I’ll be lucky to come out even, Peaches,” he wags his finger, “you, however have a good decade more to reach that point. Besides, no one expects people to be good in their twenties. Your twenties are for making the mistakes. Your thirties are for learning the lessons. And your forties? Well, I think,” because he hasn’t quite made it there yet, “they’re for finally getting your life together. God-willing.”

His throat clears. “So, my friend, you gotta find a way to lose this albatross. Too much life left to be that cynical. Besides, you have a toddler, imagine that gives you a shroud of hope.”

She listens to his words with the air of someone desperate for good advice, but she does chuckle at his little jokes as they come. “My twenties weren’t exactly typical,” she points out — after all, she’s been kidnapped, gone back in time, found her birth parents, lost her birth father, aided and abetted Richard Ezekial Cardinal, and had a child, all by the age of 23 — and that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

“But, yes, one day at a time,” she says, reaching for her phone to glance at the time. “Speaking of toddlers… “ she turns it to show Brad the lock-screen photograph of a little boy with a mop of curly brown hair and soulful dark eyes, “that’s Jonah — who I probably should go pick up right about now from his playdate.” There’s something a little wistful in that — talking to an adult who’s not a parent or a teacher is something she realizes she needed today.

The next question, “How long are you in town?” comes a little quickly, and brings a small flush to her cheeks — she may be a blusher after all.

“He’s beautiful,” Brad admires the pictures and shoots Peyton an easy smile. “Cute kid. Looks smart too.” His lips hitch up on one side. “And typical or not, you have a pretty good accomplishment already for those twenties. Don’t lose sight of that.” He manages an easier smile, “Even with the bad, you have something very good. I once read that joy is all about connection, and I think you’ve managed that much.”

The question and its flush earn a far shier smile, nearly unsure despite Russo’s usually brimming confidence. “Uh.. couple days. I have a flight back to New York on Wednesday. Trying to cover the tribunals at the end of the week.” He glances around the coffee shop, “I know you’ve gotta run, but if you’ve got time,” his expression softens, “I… I don’t have dinner plans tomorrow.” He can feel his own face warm.

And then a little quicker than he ought, he adds, “I’m also back in three weeks. Have an interview scheduled here at the end of the month if… if tomorrow doesn’t work.” If neither work, he’ll just run with it.

She all but beams at the compliments of her son — for all of the bad she’s endured, it’s clear that he’s made it all worth it. At the mention of tomorrow, Peyton swipes open her phone and looks at her calendar, presumably, before nodding. “I can swing it any time after seven,” she decides, glancing up and smiling a little more broadly at that shy smile.

A quick rummaging in her purse is ended when she pulls out a business card case and hands him one of the cards within. “My cell’s on that. Does agreeing to tomorrow preempt me from also catching you in three weeks?” she asks.

The smile finds its usual confident air when she offers the card. “Let’s do seven thirty then, I’ll get a reservation…” he smirks, “somewhere. I’m not up on Toronto, but I will be.” If he has reason to be. He chuckles at the last question, “If you’re not tired of me in three weeks, we can schedule dinner again. It’s good to see you again.”

And as Peyton disappears to go pick up her son, Brad pockets the card and reaches into his wallet for a few bills to cover the coffees. And, even though he knows better because the thirties are about learning the lessons, his eyes dance with anticipation.

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