Copyright December 2012
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
This story was done for the 2012 round of the "Let's Get It Done" Ficathon.
Beginning at the Playa Principal and winding over rocky oceanside cliffs in a set of bridges, paths and stairs, the Andador Escéncico ("Scenic Walkway") passed beneath a lighthouse to some endpoint that Cordelia Chase couldn't see from her current vantage. The temperature was in the high seventies, and the night breeze, softened by humidity from the ocean, was clean and cool and languorous. A near-full moon lit the terrace where her table was located, and glinted off the surface of the ocean in a latticework of diamond lace. Warm music drifted over the walls that separated the restaurant from other establishments. Her margarita was tart, smooth, and delicious, the glass rimmed in coarse sea salt with a distinctive tang she'd never tasted anywhere else.
The view from where she sat was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen.
She was sixteen, and looked twenty-two (though she would never admit her age to anyone at Sunnydale High, because that would mean admitting she'd ever exhibited enough brainpower to skip a grade, and who wanted to be known as a grind?).
She had once ruled SHS through money, style, and social terror, and — after relinquishing all that — was well on her way to doing it again by force of personality and sheer savage determination.
She had a guy back home who … Okay, maybe he loved her, and if she could ever finish the horrendous fixer-upper process that would make him worthy of such commitment, she might love him someday.
At one time she had helped save the world, and had lived through another near-apocalypse just a few weeks ago.
And, right now, she was bored out of her ever-living skull.
And dissatisfied. Because, however marvelous the present tableau might appear on the surface, there were serious, heinous undertones of nowhere-near-good-enough threading their way through the fabric. She could deal with hardship — she'd once weathered an entire weekend with nothing higher-quality than Aquafina — but some things were simply not to be borne by anyone who possessed an ounce of self-respect.
First of all, she was in Puerto Escondido. Not Cancún, certainly not St. Bart's, not even any part of the Riviera. 'New and undiscovered' was one thing, but 'downscale' and 'backwater' … mortifying.
Second, she was alone. Not with family, because her father had taken off for an emergency trip to Turks and Caicos (something to do with taxes and offshore who-the-hell-cares) and her mother was laid up in their suite with one of her 'episodes' (which Cordelia had described to her schoolmates, with theatrical exasperation, as all different kinds of maladies but which looked horribly like plain old clinical depression). Not independently mingling with appropriate companions her own age, or thereabouts, because this place seemed to be beloved of a lower class of tourists — plus the natives, of course, for whatever that was worth — but nobody remotely of her own status or any to which she aspired.
Third were the pelicans. They were everywhere, as bad as the seagulls at Venice Beach. A few would have been picturesque, maybe even a touch exotic; too many, and they began to feel like a new brand of vermin.
Fourth, the music wafting over the walls from the club next door was disco. Deliberately retro, rather than authentic Seventies crap, and with a definite Mexican flavoring to it, but still … disco.
Fifth … was things she didn't like to think about, or even admit she cared about. Such as whatever had happened to Her Royal Buffyness, vanished without any word after the world didn't end, and no news in the weeks-shading-into-months since then. Such as whatever had been hanging in the air when Xander came out of Willow's hospital room after Oz went in. Such as what had put Willow in the hospital, and Xander in a cast, and Kendra in the morgue, none of which Cordelia had seen because …
… because …
Sixth, she was in fricking Puerto Escondido, damn it!
This was a moment that, dramatically, should have called for her to toss back the remainder of her drink and stalk off the terrace. She was about halfway through a frozen margarita, however, and no fan of brain-freezes (skull-splitting headache? SO not a part of her life plan), so she simply sat where she was, sipping steadily and stewing on exactly what in this dismal gulag she might possibly be interested in doing next.
(If Xander were here, he'd probably be trying to scout out a bowling alley right now. If Xander were here, the two of them would probably be locking lips in some cabana, and she might be feeling generous enough — or stimulated enough — to consider allowing him access to third base. If Xander were here, she'd have to be on her guard to be sure he never saw how hard it was for her to meet his eyes.)
Summer, glorious summer. In picturesque, romantic Me-hi-co.
… Can you complain to the management (in this case, God) about the shoddy state of your life?
Drink at last exhausted, Cordelia rose from her table and made her departure. Not stomping out, not doing anything that would compromise her dignity, but moving as steadily and inexorably as a battleship. Even when no satisfaction was to be had anywhere, you could still maintain a presence.
Bored. Oh, God, so bored. Almost to the point of wishing for an apocalypse, just to have something to look at. It really was that dire.
To reach the exit she had to pass through the interior of the restaurant/cantina/tourist trap she had deigned, in desperation, to visit, and she automatically assessed and catalogued the patrons as she proceeded. When all else failed, there was still the possibility of occupying herself by keeping her social combat skills honed … but that, too, required a suitable subject population. Within her view was the same sorry selection she had already noted and dismissed with a grimace: surfers, backpackers, middle-class tourists, and even native Mexicans cruising for a little resort relaxation. From the security of a properly disciplined entourage, she might have been willing to take occasional small dips into such a shallow pool, but on an unwilling solo outing? simply too dreary to bear contemplating.
She stopped, one elbow on a corner of the bar, not because anything had caught her interest but because she could think of nothing of any possible interest elsewhere. She was not practiced in self-analysis (though the capacity was there, she was innately scornful of anything that smacked of navel-gazing), but Cordelia had enough awareness to recognize that much of her current dissatisfaction sprang from a bleakness inside herself. So? She had no way of changing that, not anytime soon, which meant she needed some quality diversion so she wouldn't have to think about it. And, right now, prospects were dim indeed.
Shouts, sounds of impact, the sharp fear-spurt of adrenaline so intense it made her skin itch. Danger, abrupt and calamitous and unexpected, a combat situation none of them had been prepared to face. She wasn't suited for combat, not the literal physical kill-or-die type, that just wasn't her skill-set at all, so she did what she had to do.
She hadn't had a choice. Really.
Buffy herself had told Cordelia she'd done the right thing. And Xander …
Xander, with a battered cheek and a cast on his arm, and a bitter light in his eyes that said he was aching to get back out there and deliver some payback, in whatever way might be possible. Xander, with a fashion sense so horrendous it actually hurt the eyes, a quick and agile wit that somehow never manifested in decent grades, and a preposterous and utterly bottomless courage. He knew he couldn't fight — not well, not really — but he fought anyway, whenever his efforts might make the least difference. He'd run from a fight, if he could (and joke about it later, with himself as the butt of the joke), but not if that left anyone else at risk, not if it meant deserting an embattled comrade …
Oh God. Oh, God.
Cordelia had never been and would never be suicidal. Drugs, though, despite the blistering contempt she felt for stoners she might seriously consider drugs right now, anything to blot out the memories that nibbled at her spirit like a swarm of guppy piranha —
Movement at her elbow, and she turned and the bartender had set out a drink for her, something in a tall slender fluted glass with the obligatory little umbrella. At the challenging arch of her eyebrow, he smiled and explained, "Compliments of the gentleman," with a nod toward the other side of the room.
Well. Okay. It might not necessarily be welcome (jury still out there), but at least this was something. Cordelia glanced in the direction indicated. No problem recognizing her donor, of course, he was looking straight at her with an inviting half-smile/half-grin, and as he raised his beer glass to her in ironic salute, she was already cataloguing him in lightning assessment.
Better than diversion: this might actually be promising.
He sprawled in the booth against the wall in a way that could have been slovenly, but instead projected a casual and almost aggressive self-assurance. His clothes, well, Cordelia already knew she was in the fashion capital of Nowhere, but the clothes were on the plus side of acceptable: denim pants, faded but clean and tight-cut, a red t-shirt tucked in neatly (instead of worn in the tail-out style-that-wasn't-a-style but seemed to be taking over like a creeping blight), a wide belt with a plain brass buckle, sturdy well-worn half-boots of the general Doc Marten type. The man himself looked to be in his early to mid-twenties, hair a tousled light brown but cut fairly short; the lines of his face were angular and sharp-planed, with a mouth so finely-formed as almost to be called "pretty". (In fact, the whole face might have dipped toward pretty, if not for the confident masculinity radiating out of the attitude.)
Promising, yes. Good or not, this would definitely be worth further attention.
His gaze moved from her eyes to the drink at her elbow and then back, and he made an open-hand motion that, along with the smile, said, So? She shrugged, picked up the drink, and took a sip from the long straw. Oh, ughh, piña colada … except she didn't like those because they were always too sweet, and somehow this one wasn't. She took another sip, giving it a more careful and intense evaluation, and then favored her benefactor with a micrometer-precise nod of approval.
He made another gesture, toward the empty seat at his booth. Okay, points for confidence, but Cordelia Chase was not to be summoned. Instead she sat down at an open table a couple of steps from the bar, facing him; and, after a moment, he came to join her there.
She smiled at him: not a hard-edged smile (she had some that could flay skin), but one that carried its own warning. "I'm listening," she told him, with some warmth but absolutely no latitude. "You haven't bought my company, just a chance to convince me. But I'm listening."
He actually laughed at that. "Well," he said cheerfully. "You're a right proper sheila, yeh? But I'll give ya this, you've got the class to carry it off."
At the broad accent, Cordelia regarded him with an added touch of coolness. "Australian?" she asked. She had learned what that usually meant here. "Please tell me you're not a surfer."
"I'm not a surfer," he said instantly, smiling. "Got some mates plannin' to come 'ere 'n' watch the Oxbow World Masters in August, but I'm just vacationin' meself."
"And trying to play up the local hotties," Cordelia returned. "Because that's what you thought I was, right?" An easy mistake to make, given her coloring and bone structure, but she tended to bridle at being taken for granted in any way …
He dismissed it with a quick gesture. "Naah, I knew right away you weren't local."
"Really?" she challenged. "And how could you be so sure?"
"'Cause you're here by yourself." His grin was easy and disarming, and from the glint in his eye he well knew its usual effect. "Stunner like you? no Mexican father, husband, or lover'd ever dare let you out of 'is sight."
Cordelia took another sip of her piña colada, mollified. "All right. And I guess you'd know better than to offer a señorita some cheesy tourist drink, even if this one is pretty much top class. So what's your name?"
"Nick," he said, still smiling. He held his hand out to her across the small table. "Happy ta meetcha."
She took the hand, and gave it a quick impersonal squeeze before releasing it. "Well, Nick, I'm kind of in a mood tonight. Keep me entertained, and we'll get along just fine. Otherwise, you'll be back chewing on bloomin' onions before you can blink." She smiled, turning up her own personal wattage and watching it register in his eyes. "So, tell me some more about what a stunner I am."
~ – ~ – ~
He took her to dinner at — of all places — an Italian restaurant called La Belle Vita. ("Are you serious? Come to Mexico to eat Italian?" "Give it a try, pet. Think about it: Italian cuisine, prepared in Mexico with local ingredients, for a mixed local an' international crowd? 'Fusion' to a T. And people absolutely rave about their insalata caprese." Which turned out to be true, and well deserved.) He took her dancing at the Tequila Sunrise Disco. ("Gag me! Disco is for drones. Passé drones." "So we'll entertain ourselves laughin' at the drones." And they did, dancing together while sparring to see who could deliver the most scathing put-downs about the décor, the music, and the other patrons. Cordelia won, of course, but it wasn't a runaway victory.) There was another place he recommended, a night club, but Cordelia balked at the name: Montezuma's Revenge. Ten minutes later, Nick had his own revenge when she started toward a place with a sign identifying it as the Mirador, with Lady's Bar in slightly smaller letters. After his initial guffaw, he led her quickly away, explaining with gleeful triumph, "It's a whorehouse, luv. No doubt you'd command top dollar, but it's not really a top-dollar establishment."
He was an excellent companion. Attentive, self-assured, good-humored and well traveled. Sufficiently handsome that she didn't lose points by being seen with him, but not so much that his attractiveness threatened to overshadow hers. (Wasn't about to happen, but even the threat would have been a cloud in her sunshine.) Laughing, vital, drawing pleasure from everything around them and somehow infusing some of that pleasure into her simply by his presence.
More than anything else, he was willing to listen to her. Cordelia couldn't remember the last time anyone had truly paid attention to what she had to say. Even those who feared her (the Cordettes and the common herd at Sunnydale High), accepted her (the 'Scooby Gang' — God what a lame nickname!), or desired her (Xander, and practically any male with a letter jacket), didn't seem to take her thoughts, the inner Cordelia, seriously.
Nick … did.
After two hours of perfectly balanced entertainment and diversion, Cordelia had relaxed enough to be willing to lower some of her defenses. They had passed quickly through Pérez Galga Avenue (La Zona Adoquinada): brightly-lit and lively, replete with stalls of colorful handicrafts, tapestries, jewelry of silver and carved stone and even some that cunningly incorporated seashells, it was also where the vendors were most aggressive. Nick had repelled several overtures with an unflinching gaze and half-smiling warnings in soft, rapid Spanish that sent the importunate peddlers backing off fast, before the two of them finally won clear of the center of tourist targeting. Now they were back at the Andador Escéncico, following the path that paralleled the beach, in some places near enough to the ocean that waves wet the walkway, and Cordelia was speaking as earnestly as she could while still maintaining the necessary level of discretion. (What? She knew what the word meant.)
"There was this whole big drama back home, a few weeks before —" (whoops, couldn't say 'before high school let out for the summer', she was still letting him believe she was older) "— before finals. A friend of mine —" (Buffy? a friend? well, what else could you call it without going into details that would have any normal person thinking you were totally looney-tunes?) "— had gone through a really bad breakup, and the fallout from that just kept … falling out. Anyway, it turned into this huge emotional crisis moment, and I was slammed with a situation where I had to do something, quick, only the 'something' was something I couldn't do." (Fight, or run? more like die or run. And RUN is the winner!) "Anyway, I did the best I could — and it really was the best I could do — but a lot of people were h–… got their feelings hurt over it, and I keep wondering if some of them think I should have handled it differently." She wouldn't look directly at him, but a darting glance from the corner of her eye told her that his head was half-turned to watch her as they walked, shadows and moonlight passing in ripples over that finely sculpted face. "Sometimes … sometimes, I think that myself."
He was silent a moment, considering her words before asking, "Okay, what was it you should've done instead?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "There was this … like … confrontation. And I made a judgment call, and … and stepped out to let the others hash it out among themselves. The thing is, even if I think now that leaving was the wrong way to go — and I guess that is what I think — I still don't know what I could have done if I had stayed. When it came to … to their issues, I was just totally out of my depth. I didn't know how to deal, and I still don't." She stopped, leaning back against the railing at this stretch of walkway. "But I really, really wish things could have been different."
He turned to face her, head tilted slightly to the side. The moonlight turned his hair to silver, while a fluke of angle and shading made the cast of his mouth into something almost like a sneer. Even so, his voice was steady, thoughtful, sympathetic. "Sounds like you care a lot about your friends."
Her laugh was sharp and harsh, but not as bitter as it might have been earlier. "Don't go spreading that around," she told him. "I mean, I do still have a reputation to maintain."
His smile wiped away the cruel twist the deceptive lighting had imparted to his lips. "Right, then. But is it safe to say that you've managed to land 'ere in the perfect getaway destination just when you seem to need it the most?"
"Not even." Her own mouth bent in disgruntlement. "You're good company, Nick, but not even that can turn this armpit into a perfect anything. I get home, I'll tell my friends I was somewhere less humiliating. Las Palmas, maybe. And I'll still complain."
"It's a shame," he said. "I've 'ad a fine time showing you the sights hereabouts. Just seems such a waste, that you won't take away anything."
"I'll always have the memories," Cordelia answered with forced lightness.
"Maybe I can do you a touch better'n that." Nick hooked a couple of fingers into the right pocket of his jeans, rooted around for a second. "Picked up a nice little something at the Mercado the other day … yeh, here it is."
His hand came out of the pocket, and Cordelia bent to get a better look at what he held. It was a bracelet, thick cords of metal worked around each other in different shades (the artificial saturation from the beach lights made it impossible to be sure, but Cordelia suspected she was looking at interwound gold, silver, and copper), with carved jet-black stones set at three points. "I got it 'cause I liked the workmanship," Nick was explaining. "It's too tight on me wrist, though, plus not really my style. I'm thinkin' it'd suit you just right, now."
Cordelia shot him a doubtful glance. She had an eye for quality, and was quite accustomed to being presented with pretties … but this gift, and giver, were both a cut above the norm for her. "Are you sure?" she asked.
He nodded. "It's up to you," he told her. "If you don't want it, I can't make you take it. If you're willin', though, there's no place I'd rather see it than on you."
Something in the phrasing tried to sound an alarm there, but Cordelia was focused on the bracelet. It truly was striking … and Nick was right, she would show it off, and it her, to the best possible effect. She held out her arm, wordlessly, her eyes still fixed on the artifact; and, smiling, he worked it around her wrist and did something — a loop, a prong, a catch, something — that fastened it into place.
"Well, that's done, then." His voice had changed: not just the tone and timbre, even the accent was subtly different. From his back pocket he produced a pack of cigarettes, tapped one out and placed it between his lips, lit it with a steel lighter that had somehow materialized in his hand. His expression was different, too, sly and satisfied and perhaps even a bit malicious. "Took long enough, and I thought you'd bloody yammer my ears off … but now we're all set, and the night can really begin."
She stared at him, her thoughts suddenly too turbulent to sort out, and he smiled back at her. "And, just in case you hadn't twigged to it yet —" He drew on the cigarette, let out a plume of smoke. "— the name isn't actually Nick."