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Cream and Sugar

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It was a dark and stormy night …. Finch shook the ridiculous thought out of his head. Since when had he started to think of his life as a lurid gothic novel? Oh, yes, since he had recruited Mr. Reese. Trouble and drama were drawn to the man like bees to honey. It had seemed like such a straightforward plan: hire a man–of-action to do the hands-on dirty work. Well, Burns was right. "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men…”

“Good evening, sir. Ready to order?”

Finch looked up, glanced briefly at her nametag, and smiled politely.

“Yes, thank you, Annie. I’ll have a cup of French onion soup and some hot tea, the Lavender Chamomile, with a side of lemon please.”

“It normally comes with French bread – is that okay?”

“Yes, that will be fine. I’ll also need another setting. My friend is in the restroom.”

“No problem. I’ll bring it out with the tea. Do you know what her order is?”

“Hmmm ….” Finch hesitated, uncertain. The menu wasn’t particularly hearty and he was certain Mr. Reese hadn’t eaten all day. He frowned, glancing towards the back corner of the restaurant, wondering what was taking Mr. Reese so long. Well, Mr. Reese wasn’t a complicated person. Considering some of the places he’d been Finch doubted he’d complain about anything that was put in front of him at this point.

“Coffee and water, please. And a bowl of the Beef Vegetable.”

“Good choice! That’s my favorite. I always have it with the whole grain.”

“Whatever bread you think goes best will be fine. He isn’t picky. But he’s probably pretty hungry.”

“Whole grain it is! I’ll make sure the bowl is as full as I can make it, too. I’ll be right out with your beverages.” Grinning perkily she bounced back to the kitchen.

Finch smile slightly at her youthful enthusiasm, a brow rising as he noticed her multi-colored tights and sequined sneakers. Chuckling, he shook his head in bemusement as he leaned back in his chair. Sighing in contentment he relaxed into his seat. The upscale café was warm and snug, with muted lighting and cozy, private seating areas. Smiling, he soaked in the ambiance of the small bistro: the dark wood and leathers, the fragrant bouquets at each table, the soft classical music coming from the surround sound speaker system. It all appealed to his aesthetic and warded off the chill from the frosty night. Winter had arrived and her grip was already fierce and final. Their latest person of interest had worked on the docks at the Navy Yards and Mr. Reese had spent, in Finch’s mind, a distressing amount of time exposed to the elements. Thank goodness that number was resolved! Another successful mission, another life saved. And it had been a good mission. An actual innocent bystander; someone who had been at the wrong place at the wrong time and seen something they shouldn’t have. It was so nice when the numbers turned out to be good people that just needed a little help. Well, in this case it had been a lot of help. Three days of constant surveillance and chasing down hired guns. Drug dealers were always so violent and seemed to have no end to their list of people willing to do violence on their behalf. Fortunately, the only other number that had come up had been resolved by his online research and the carefully timed presence of Detective Fusco. It had been a nerve-wracking three days and he was glad that it was over. If he was tired he couldn’t imagine Mr. Reese’s exhaustion.

“Here you go!”

Finch looked up, startled at Annie’s sudden reappearance.

She smiled down at him and carefully arranged the beverages in front of him: two ceramic pots, two cups with saucers, and a small tray with assorted sugars and spices as well as a pot of cream and his tea leaves. Excellent - she had left it to him to decide how to best steep it.

“The blue pot has your hot water and the red is coffee.”

Finch quietly thanked the young woman and set about preparing his tea. He poured the water, hot but not boiling (perfect!), over the tea leaves. Placing the pot back on the table he reached for the plate of neatly sliced lemon wedges. Already, the comforting ritual was calming his still jangling nerves.

He decided not to pour Mr. Reese’s coffee – he wasn’t sure how much longer he would take in the restroom and he didn’t want the coffee to be anything less than piping hot. As resilient and strong as Reese was, even he had to be chilled after the day he’d spent outside. Peering again into the darkened corner of the café he was relieved to see Reese finally emerge from the Men’s room. He had begun to wonder if he shouldn’t check on him.

Walking stiffly but firmly upright, Mr. Reese joined Finch at his table. His hands and face were cleaned of blood and grime, but the suit under his coat was still … unspeakable. Thankfully, the dim lighting in the café hid it well. It was fortuitous he had worn a maroon shirt today instead of the more frequent white. Finch grimaced in sympathy. Bruises hadn’t formed yet but they would.

Sliding gingerly into the chair across from Finch Reese reached eagerly for the cup of coffee Finch had ordered for him.

“That took longer than I expected, Mr. Reese. Is everything all right?”

Reese slanted a stony stare at him.

“Did you order food?”

Finch waited a moment and then retreated, accepting the unspoken warning.

“Soup and fresh bread, Mr. Reese. There isn’t anything more substantial here.”

Reese touched a hand lightly to his ribs and winced as he adjusted himself in the delicate chair. Finch figured the light dinner was probably for the best. Watching Reese fidget uncomfortably he made a mental note to request a booth next time. Reese was oversized for the small Queen Anne chair at their table. Sipping at his own beverage, Finch watched as Reese sipped tentatively at his hot beverage, appreciation flitting briefly across his face.

“It’s good!”

“Of course it’s good!” Finch was offended on behalf of the shop. “They roast the beans themselves and are very selective on the product they buy.”

Reese chuckled lowly, “Should have expected that, I guess. Nothing but the best eh, Finch?”

“Life is too short to waste on mediocrity, Mr. Reese.”

Their stilted conversation was interrupted by the return of Annie.

“Gentlemen, dinner is served!” With a large smile she deposited a steaming bowl of soup in front of each man. Small bread baskets and dishes of fresh scooped butter followed. “Anything else?”

“Not at the moment, Annie, thank you.”

“Sure thing! I’m not far – call if you change your mind.”

Finch spooned up some of his French onion – thrilled with the quality of the salty soup. Reaching for a piece of the bread he looked up at Reese in time to catch the look of resignation on his face.

“Is something wrong with your soup, Mr. Reese?”

Reese set his shoulders and grabbed the spoon next to his bowl.

“No. It’s fine.”

Finch watched him for another minute until Reese finally looked up, tilting his head inquisitively.

“Something I can help you with, Finch?”

“I’m trying to figure out why you’re eating something you obviously don’t like.”

“It’s fine. I’m hungry. I’m cold. I’ve had worse.”

“It’s been a long day Mr. Reese. Call Annie over and order something you’d prefer. It won’t take long, I assure you.”

Reese frowned. “That would be wasteful. Besides, it doesn’t matter if I like it or not.”

“Honestly, your penchant for “it’ll do” is mystifying.”

He shook his head, taking in the plain black coat Reese had draped over the back of his chair, the unremarkable suit and practical haircut.

“It’s a Soldier’s way Finch. Good enough is pretty much all there is. The Company wasn’t much different. It’s fine.”

“I would have thought a Soldier’s way would have taught you to seize the moment – enjoy what you can when you can.”

Reese’s mouth flatted, his eyes hollowing as his gaze moved to the dark, wet night outside the window. Hitching a shoulder into a small shrug was his only reply to Finch’s light barb.

Finch frowned, thrown by the sudden mood flip. Reese could be difficult to pin down at the best of times, careening between deadly calm, lighthearted lunatic, and teasing chatterbox with a speed he found difficult to follow. He could rarely tell which face was the false manipulation and which was Reese forgetting to hide. With a sinking feeling Finch suspected the current morose figure sitting across from him was the real Reese peeking through. He really needed to remember that Reese had been homeless, drunk, and suicidal not so very long ago. His ready charm and ridiculous levels of competence made that easy to forget.

“What do want from me, Finch? You know everything. Cradle to the ‘grave’. You want to know how I like my coffee now, too?”

Finch was silent for several moments, contemplating the subdued demeanor and despondent tone in Mr. Reese. Reese’s gaze remained fixed on the bowl of soup in front of him, though he only idly moved the spoon about and hadn’t eaten anything more.

“John.”

Reese glanced up sharply at the use of his first name, eyes unshuttered and dark. He locked gazes with Finch and Finch was disturbed at the desolation he saw there. “You’re not in the Army anymore. You’re not with the Company. You can eat or drink whatever you want whenever you want. And I think maybe you should try it sometime. Not everything has to be a sacrifice.”

Reese hesitated, glancing towards Annie for a quick moment before shaking his head.

“It’s fine.” The mantra slipped from him for the third time in as many minutes.

“How many other things do you do every day that you don’t like?”

Glancing down at Reese’s left hand, curled tightly around the coffee cup, a sudden, horrible thought occurred to Finch.

“Please tell me you at least like coffee.”

Reese paused, deliberately, and then shrugged. The man was infuriatingly blasé.

“Sort of. Mostly.”

Finch boggled at him. “You drink it all the time!”

“I carry it all the time,” Reese corrected. “It’s mostly a prop. Unless it’s particularly cold, and then I just want something hot. Black coffee is a habit because it’s easy to get - doesn’t matter what it tastes like.”

Finch was speechless. He didn’t consider himself a particularly self-indulgent man but he did enjoy wearing a good suit, drinking a cup of fresh, hot tea, hacking the websites of supercilious know it alls. It had never occurred to him that Reese would abstain from everything, all the time.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m in the States or not Finch. Most of the time I’m working. I need to be focused on the job … not worried about how my coffee tastes.”

“I’m not saying you should change your working habits – they’ve certainly kept you alive long enough – but you’re NOT behind enemy lines anymore. Once a number is complete and we’re waiting for the next one … you can, and should, do something you like. Something for yourself: go to a movie or a baseball game. Take a walk in the park without following someone, eat ice-cream or fried cheese or – or go for a nice steak!”

Finch paused, realizing he was coming close to a tirade. Reese was looking at him uncertainly, a worried look in his eyes

Finch sighed. Reese had been so lost inside his work for so long he had forgotten he was still a person outside of it. With a pang, Finch realized he had learned the importance of balance from Nathan. Where would he be if he had never had never known Nathan? Shoving that thought quickly down Finch refocused on Reese. He must be tired – he hadn’t gotten up and walked out yet. He tended to do that when Finch got too pushy.

“Start with something small Mr. Reese. Please, order a soup that you like.” Finch caught Annie’s eye and beckoned her over.

Annie came quickly, a pot of coffee in her hand.

“Refresh your cup?”

Reese nudged his cup towards her but remained silent. Finch rolled his eyes at Reese’s stubbornness and decided an intervention was needed.

“I’m sorry, Annie. I seem to have ordered poorly for my friend. You can box up the vegetable beef and I’ll take it with me, but he’d like something else.”

“Sure! No problem. Did you need a menu?” Annie looked inquiringly over at Reese. At Reese’s continued silence Finch nudged him under the table with his foot. Reese sneered at him but responded.

“The chicken with the wild rice. And toasted sourdough.”

“Sure thing! Be back in a flash.” With a sunny, oblivious smile to the tension between the two men, Annie flounced off to the kitchen. After a long moment it was, surprisingly, Reese who broke the uncomfortable silence.

“I CAN drink it black and I DO but that doesn’t mean I like it. I drank it black over there because I had to. Because I was cold or tired. The powdered stuff doesn’t mix if the coffee gets even a little warm and it’s … disgusting. Real sugar was hard to find and the pink stuff doesn’t taste right. Happy?”

Finch wasn’t sure what to say. The point hadn’t been to force a concession or admission out of Reese. Just to get him to see how unhealthy his behavior pattern was.

Reese glanced at Finch warily before making a decision and reaching for the cream. Finch watched Reese add a large dollop of heavy cream into his cup before reaching for the sugar bowl. Finch’s eyes widened as one, two and then three teaspoons were added to Reese’s cup. He chuckled in disbelief as a dash of cinnamon followed. Reese slanted a suspicious glance at Finch.

Finch shook his head but then raised his own cup in a silent salute, allowing a small smile to be seen and gesturing for Reese to drink up. Reese was quiet, staring moodily into his cup, indecisive for a moment, then he gave Finch a quick, half grin before lifting it to his lips.

“It’s been a long time but … cream and sugar are for safe places, Finch. They’re for home.”