DISCLAIMER: All recognizable characters belong to the genius Don Winslow. This story was written purely for fun and entertainment; no infringement was intended, and no profit was made.
Song: Love Is Not Enough, Nine Inch Nails
in your eyes is a place
The muted sound of unspecific chatter and the clanking of cutlery and porcelain was all that Nina could hear. Chon had been sitting in front of her for the past couple of minutes and hadn't moved an inch, narrowing his eyes at the view – the restaurant had floor-to-ceiling glass panels so that the guests could enjoy Laguna's best scene: blue skies merging with the blue sea, only an intangible line separating them. Nina's stomach reminded her that she'd had to leave her breakfast to solve that tiny mishap, and it wasn't going to wait much longer without complaining. Nina waved at one of the waiters.
"Hola Poncho, como estás?"
Chon didn't move, but Nina caught his lips curling in a smirk. The waiter replied and they had a quick chat in Spanish before Nina started to order.
"I'm gonna have the usual. And..."
She stared intently at Chon for a moment before the words fell from her lips.
"Black coffee, hash browns, scrambled eggs, bacon. Orange juice with lots of ice. Short stack of pancakes. Did I miss something?"
He turned his head slowly, fighting back a smile. She remembered every single thing.
"I think you got it all."
"Eso es todo.", she told the waiter. "y rapido, porfa."
The young man left with a smile on his face, and Chon thought it was only fair – if he had a boss that looked half as good, and spoke as kindly as she did, he'd be a happy waiter too.
"I thought this was a buffet sort of thing", he said, looking around.
"Perks of being the owner", Lisa replied and his eyes went straight back to the turquoise horizon. The weight of their silence reminded Nina of how hard it was to start up a conversation with Chon, it had always been. On her first day of school, hadn't he asked her about the food, she wasn't sure if she would ever say a word; a big, bright "fuck off" sign was plastered on his forehead and he only took it off on special occasions. It's not like she was that talkative back then, but her job demanded small talk skills; his apparently didn't.
"John", she called him softly. He finally turned around to meet her vibrant brown eyes, framed in long dark lashes, representing a time in his life that he struggled to forget and hide, a time in his life when he was weak and got hurt, and Chon doesn't get hurt. Not anymore. But he should have known better than to pretend he didn't recognize Nina's family in her eyes. The warmth and kindness came from her mother; the glint and vivacity, from her father. Chon felt the memories starting to run down the tap and shut his eyes to shut it down; his chest, however, was still a bit tight because her presence forced him to acknowledge that there was true good in this world. Nina embodied it. Not that dull, hypocrite goodness; her honesty was straightforward, selfless and often spiced up with her short temper.
"What the hell happened to your hair?"
It wasn't small talk, she really wanted to know. His long hair gave him a touch of softness that balanced the austerity of his expressions and words. Maybe it was naïve, but it sugarcoated him; Nina never believed that he was as vicious and brutal as everybody said he was anyway. Now that the long brown strands were gone, the hurt and anger were blatantly showing on his face, with nothing to frame it or hide it. To make matters worse, the right side of his face and neck was branded with three big, nasty scars.
"Joined the Navy", he stated, matter-of-factly.
"Well, that kinda explains it", she replied without giving it much thought. It did explain a few things: the hair (or lack thereof), the scars (the visible and the invisible ones), the absolute lack of affection in his eyes. She reconsidered her answer, knowing that there was a lot left unexplained. "What happened to you?", she wondered with a frown, examining his reluctant face. Chon turned back to look at her, returning the question.
"What the hell happened to your accent?"
Nina shook her head, tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She was fully aware of how dumb that answer would sound to him.
"Got a dialect coach."
"You can't be serious."
"I'm afraid I am", she said, not really sure of why she was embarrassed. "Look, I didn't have a choice here. You know how that turned out in high school. Americans thought I was Mexican and shunned me; Mexicans knew I wasn't Mexican and shunned me as well. That just wouldn't cut in this business."
"Doesn't cut in any business", he concluded, as their very Mexican waiter did as his boss had ordered and brought their breakfast in a hurry, filling their table with plates and glasses and cups and food. "Still, it's ridiculous. Come on."
"Oh, it gets worse", she said with a genuine grin, fishing for a business card in her phone case. She felt the rings she had put there earlier, when she had to wear those dreary rubber gloves, and poured them over the table before putting them back on. His eyes fell to her hands and he couldn't help but notice the massive diamond ring that went straight to her ring finger on her right hand, the same had that handed him her card. He picked it up and scrutinized it for a second before reacting the way Nina knew he would – with a scowl.
"Carolina Powell?", he half-asked, half-wondered, his mind assuming the obvious. Nina jumped in before he could settle on a conclusion or dropped the coffee cup that he was holding absentmindedly, or both.
"It's my mother's maiden name. Figured that hiring a dialect coach wouldn't help if I kept the Zamora in there."
He chuckled, munching on his hash browns.
"Your father must be pissed."
"Not really", Nina said, smirking. "He knows how hard it is for a Spanish-speaking woman to be taken seriously around here, and since he's pretty much the only reason I'm in this business anyway, he wasn't even entitled to be pissed."
He raised an eyebrow and downed half a glass of juice. No small sips for Chon.
"You have a point."
The card lay in front of him and he stared at it for a moment. There wasn't really that much information in it, and Nina wondered what he was looking for.
"Yeah", she replied with a sigh. She was actually the owner and took that word rather seriously. Responsible for every single thing that happened in four hotels, from the glasses they were drinking from, to staff, to... dead bodies, apparently. To this day, Nina didn't know whether she really had what it takes to run such a large business, or her father had convinced her that she did. Either way, she was making money out of all the properties and really couldn't complain. But it was Sunday morning. The sun was already burning bright outside, and even though she didn't like the beach as much as the majority of the Laguna residents, that was the kind of day that made her wish she didn't have to work. Lost in her thoughts, Nina rested her head in her hand and allowed herself to also get lost in his eyes. Just for a little while.
"Following your father's footsteps, I see", he stated, and saw the tenderness flee from her dreamy eyes. Nina didn't look away, although she knew damn well that no one could win a stare down with Chon, ever. She stared long and hard at him before striking back with a calculated question; one she wished she could avoid asking, because it hurt to do it.
"I'm not the only one doing that, am I Chon?"
Her question didn't surprise him, and Nina didn't expect it to. Chon had people fooled into thinking that he didn't react to things like everyone else simply because he lacked feelings altogether, but that was far from the truth. Behind that state of apparent apathy, lay years and years of arduous practice. Tears that were bitterly swallowed, smiles that were crushed before they could reach his lips, affection that was suppressed before could turn into a hug. He fought them all back, diligently. Chon had learned the hard way that his father was right: he should have never trusted anyone, ever, in his life. The few times he was dumb enough to trust people, he was let down. Nina wasn't different.
It all came down to choosing between building a wall to make people bounce back and never really get to know who he was, or letting people in and getting hurt as a result. It isn't hard to guess why he chose the former, and he excelled at shutting people off. Nina's last question, for instance, bounced right off the "wall of Chon" and fell flat to the ground, unanswered, his only reaction being shaking his head while cutting through the stack of pancakes.
"I know what you're thinking", she said, after finishing up her yogurt.
"Dead men don't talk."
"Right, but their cell phones do."
"You went through his phone?", he asked her, fork suspended mid-air between his mouth and his plate.
"I don't think you're morally qualified to question what I did", she stated calmly, "especially when you could have saved a life if you had only helped your friend to 'mellow out' last night."
"All right, first of all, not friend, customer. Second of all, save him? Really? What these fuckers decide to do with our product is none of my business, Nina."
She waved him off dismissively.
"I don't wanna know Chon, seriously", Nina said in a low voice. "If this shit ever tracks back to me, I don't want to have to lie."
His eyes went wide as he took a sip of his coffee.
"Yeah, that wouldn't work, since you're a lame ass liar. But you don't have to worry about it, we've been paying up the right people for a long time now."
He fell back on his chair, and Nina fumed for a lot of reasons. There was a "we", there was "paying up people", and there was "long time", all in the same sentence. Add to that an overdose, a dead person and a pest control van, and Nina's stomach wasn't too happy about that conversation. She downed her tea to help the contents of the breakfast settle down.
"What?", he inquired, tossing his napkin on the empty plate.
"I always knew you could end up in a job where you had to hurt people. You're too good at it, always was."
"Well, what can I say? I had good teachers", he replied right off the bat, leaving Nina speechless. Yes, she knew. Chon thought that she was one of those teachers. A long pause fell between them as they both stared out the window, only to avoid having to face the truth by looking at each other.
"So... who is he?", he popped out.
"Who's who?", she retorted, although she knew what he wanted to know. She just didn't feel like answering it.
"The man who gave you that ring."
Nina looked away as she couldn't possibly face him. "You don't know him."
"This might surprise you, but I do know a whole lot of people in this place."
"You know Chon, you and I, we don't exactly run in the same circles", Nina snapped. He crossed his arms defiantly, a cocky grin on his lips, and shook his head.
"Don't be naive, babe."
That simple four-letter word used to be his refuge for whenever he wanted to make up for something he had done or, on rare occasions, when he really meant to call her that. This time, it was neither of those. It carried such irony that it made Nina wish she hadn't heard it.
"His name is Vince", she said, and watched for a moment as the gears in his brain worked on that information, searching for all the Vinces he knew, unable to settle for one who could be her fiance. No matches found. Hell, his name could be James or Michael, and Chon still wouldn't find a man who was good enough to marry her.
"Vince Clift", she completed, and then the piece fell into place.
"Clift and Associates. Lawyer. Really?", he asked, tilting his head to the side. Nina nodded as Chon gazed at her, and she was sure that he was thinking of all the flaws he could find in Vince. They were probably the same flaws that Nina saw in him as well, but that was something she wouldn't even confess to herself. Finally, he let out a short laugh.
"This is so fucked up."
Chon leaned closer, over the table.
"You're... you're the girl from Seville, all right? Right now, I'm staring at this fucking card that has someone else's name on it, and you sound like you're from fucking Iowa or something. That's how this is fucked up. You're..."
He trailed off, but the sentence continued in his head. Mine.
It took her a few moments to take that in. This was classic Chon – holding it all up and then suddenly spilling out his precious words on a rant.
"Well, it's not like you're the exact same person you were fourteen years ago, is it?"
"We're talking about you here."
Nina shifted in her chair and looked at him, looking at her. Her mind got distracted for a moment and there she was, counting the freckles on his face again. Like she would really forget that he had something between 14 and 18 freckles, depending on how long it took before she gave up counting and gave in to a kiss. She lowered her eyes to his hands, clutched together on the table, inches away from hers; she moved her hands half an inch, before deciding that one touch was one too many, and settling for an honest, non-ironic answer.
"All this... the name, the accent, the fancy card, it's just a facade", she said, the tone of her voice soft and low. "You know how this town works. It's a matter of survival, of carrying on four hotels by myself, making ends meet."
"Is being engaged part of that facade too, Nina?"
Point blank, no mercy, just like that. The rudeness of the question made Nina lean back on the chair with a mortified smile, her eyes down to her lap where she kept turning her engagement ring around her finger. The time it took her to come up with an answer showed both of them how unsure she was about that. Chon loved to ask trick questions and watch, amused, as people struggled to find a way out, but not this time. Seeing Nina with her head low, wordless, was almost painful. She finally leveled her eyes with his.
A smug smirk crossed his face and Nina felt like choking him.
"See? Lame ass liar."
His smile faded as blood rushed to her face and the chatter from the other tables covered for everything they weren't saying to each other. Chon always had a penchant for being cynical, but now everything about him – the way he crossed his arms, the snicker on his lips, the inflection of his words – was so caustic that it burned every good intention Nina had when she invited him for breakfast. There was just one last thing Nina needed to ask him before their meal was over. Only it didn't came out as a question.
He stared at the table for a while, as if staring at the memories that led up to that answer, and Nina started to regret having said anything. He said he had joined the Navy, of course the story wasn't going to be "I woke up one morning and hit my head against the bunk bed above me." Her words hung in the air as he came up with a classic, Chon-like monosyllabic answer.
Stan, Nina repeated in her head a couple of times until it made sense. Afghani... stan. Paki... stan. Death. Sand. Heat. Scars. It was all there, in his eyes, and that was when Nina stopped looking for something familiar in him and reached a sad conclusion: John McAlister, as she knew him, was gone.