(n.) a critical decision or turning point in one’s life
Cordelia’s riding shotgun in a chariot of fire.
That’s what it feels like to her, anyway, when she makes the left turn into the loop-around that leads into the student parking lot. The breeze that’s kicked up at this speed is a light tease that makes her stylish up-do artfully mussed and not completely ruined. Her lips are stained with a lipstick that her father had special ordered for her from Paris out of a makeup line that hasn’t even been released yet and those are real diamonds in her earrings. The skirt that she carefully shimmied into this morning is real leather and so is the jacket that’s artfully unbuttoned to give the ensemble a flirty splash of burgundy from her top. The shoes are her feet are alligator high heel d’Orsay pumps and the bag on her shoulder is Prada to match. It’s perfect.
She’s perfect, down to the last, lingering detail.
No one would look at her and suspect that underneath these skin-tight clothes she’s sporting a bandage over the hole in her stomach that was ripped through her by a piece of pipe and stitched shut by the fumbling hand of a doctor who definitely hadn’t been wearing that stethoscope long enough as far as she was concerned.
No one would see her and think that she’d been up until sunrise, worrying over her outfit and practicing her lines. Imagining everything that people would say to her so that she’d have a demure acceptance of sympathy to give to every guy who stopped and wished her well to hide the fact that they were ogling her and a scathing one-liner to rip down anyone who’d even think the name “Xander Harris” within fifteen feet of her.
And that’s exactly how she wants it as she slowly steps out of her cherry-red convertible in a way that she hopes looks sensual and not like she’s at all bothered by the twinge of pain in her stomach. This is not going to be her walk of shame, she tells herself as she pushes the car door shut behind herself and strides forward. This is her triumphant return to a throne she temporarily abdicated and everyone who worshiped her before is going to hit their knees again because she’s Cordelia Chase and there’s practically divinity in that name.
Her claws are out and perfectly polished. She’s ready to sink them into the first person who approaches.
…But no one does.
Her heels click against the ground in a rhythm that clearly sings, “Here comes the Queen” but no one’s even looking at her. There’s not a slack-jawed expression of awe, not even from the doofuses that would’ve been soaked in their own drool for seeing her in an outfit less perfect than this. There’s not a single fearful side-eye from the freshmen girls who breeze by. There’s not even quick glances and whispers.
It’s like she’s invisible.
Her stride stutters from confident to unsure. She can feel that imaginary crown on her head tilting to the side. Seven days. Seven FREAKING days. That’s how long she’d been out. A whole week — she’d expect more than half the school to be dropping rose petals before her every step when she returned. She’d almost died. Where’s the support, people?
Finally. Someone’s acknowledging her. And, yeah, it’s Harmony and Cordy had really hoped she’d have a gaggle of football players surrounding her before this particular showdown but the relief that she feels to see anyone acknowledge her existence, let alone smile at her, is enough that she doesn’t care if this isn’t going exactly how she rehearsed it with herself; doesn’t care that she’s standing alone and Harmony is the one who’s flanked by a flock of girls in stylish knockoffs.
“You look amazing!”
Straightening her spine, Cordelia leans for a hug without actually touching her and gives her a kiss on both cheeks. Cultured with ease, pretending that it isn’t killer to lean forward like that. “Tell me something I don’t know, Harm.”
“God, Cordy…” Harmony leans back first, blue eyes wide. “When I heard about… Well, I mean, I couldn’t believe it. But it was smart. You know, the injury thing? You take a week off, let everybody forget about the temporary insanity that as Xander Harris…”
She’d been bracing herself for the fact that she’d have to hear his name. Maybe that she’d even have to see him, sulking in the hallway like a stupid, lost puppy just like he had the last time she’d dumped him. But it still hurts. It knocks the air out of her lungs with a hit like a punch from a prized fighter and her retort is half-a-second too late. “Xander who?”
The laughter that titters up from Harmony’s herd of sheep is fake and awkward, but it’s better than standing alone so Cordelia is willing to grin it bear it. Even as Aura of all people steps forward and talks without Cordelia having first acknowledged her existence.
“You know what you have to do? Start dating! Get back on the horse!”
There’s actually nothing on the entirety of planet earth that Cordelia wants to do less, except maybe agree to experimental dentistry performed by an orangutan with a pair of rusty pliers. “Oh, absolutely! I am ready to ride.”
“Then I have just the stallion,” Harmony says. She takes Cordelia by the arm and the brief moment of warmth that comes from being so close to the girl that had once been her best friend chips away at a little more of the ice that had been in her stomach. “He’s so you.”
Cordelia walks with her when Harmony starts to pull, eyes peeled for something tall, dark, and edible that she hadn’t given the time of day previously… but that expectant expression on her face tightens into disbelief when Harmony gestures at Jonathan where he’s sitting on the outside stairs, sipping at a soda that he nearly spills down the front of himself when he realizes that they’re gathered around to look at him.
Harmony giggles and her laughter is echoed by a chorus from the knockoff gang. “I’m pretty sure he won’t cheat on you. At least, not for a while. Plus? He’s got a killer -”
A voice interruptions Cordelia’s death by total and utter humiliation and all of them turn their heads at once to see a woman holding a clipboard standing in the entrance to the breezeway. There’s a smile on her face but disdain in her gaze as she walks forward, her heels clicking against the walkway.
“Is there a problem here, girls?”
“No!” Harmony says, her voice raising an octave to hit that pitch she gets when she wants to cute her way out of trouble. “Of course not. We were just saying hello to Cordelia, Ms. Jenkins. She’s been out for so long and we wanted to make sure she knew that we hadn’t forgotten about her.”
“Well, I’m sure that she appreciates the gesture,” the woman said, not looking like she was wholly convinced that was all that was going on but Cordelia wasn’t about to correct her. She could fight her own battles. “But you girls better get moving. The same goes for you, Jonathan. You don’t want to be late for first period.”
“Of course, Ms. Jenkins.” Harmony’s smile is bright enough to light up a dark room and Cordelia’s palm itches with the violent desire to slap it off of her face. Especially when she turns those blue eyes in Cordy’s direction and her voice drips with subtext. “See you later, Cordelia. If you’re free for lunch… what am I talking about? Of course, you will be.”
They move like a pack of hyenas away from her, then, dissolving into giggles as they go and Cordelia adjusts the bag on her shoulder and swallows hard against the lump in her throat, willing herself not to give into the tears that are just below the surface of her mask of self-assured calm. There’s no way that she’s going to let Harmony of all people make her breakdown.
“Cordelia?” Ms. Jenkins, whoever she is, suddenly places her hand on Cordelia’s shoulder from behind and she turns her head, ready to snap… but there’s something like kindness in her eyes and the words die on the tip of her tongue. “You’ve been out of school, so we missed the window of proper introduction. I’m Ms. Jenkins, I’m filling in as the school counselor. Actually, I was hoping to see you today. I understand that you’ve recently gone through a hard time and I’d like it if we could get to know each other and maybe talk about how you’re feeling before you integrate fully back into your usual school work.”
Right. Cause that’s all she needs now. Time in the school counselor’s office. She’d rather be laughed at during class than -
“Oh, is that a Prada bag?”
…Okay, maybe she can reconsider her stance. The plastic smile that she’d forced her lips to curl into softens into something more real. “Good call! Most people around here can’t tell Prada from Payless.”
“Well, I lived in L.A for quite a while. You pick things up. I actually own a few myself… but that’s just a secret between you and me, okay? I can’t burst the bubbles of all the students who think that we staff members live in our offices and don’t know anything about the big, scary world outside.”
“You’re from L.A?” Cordelia asks, her expectations about this woman rising by the minute. Maybe it actually wouldn’t be so bad to pop into her office for a little conversation. She’s from the city, she knows about Prada, and her skin is flawless so she obviously had a good morning routine. If it wasn’t for the fact that she was super old, Ms. Jenkins would be her people. “I’ve always wanted to live there. It’s in my five-year plan.”
“Well, if you want, I can tell you a little bit about the city from an insider’s perspective while we’re in my office. And then you can tell me a little bit about yourself. Tit for tat. I trust you with some of my feelings and you trust me with some of yours.”
…It does make sense for two birds of immaculate feathers to flock together, right? Especially if Ms. Jenkins can give some pointers about the best, most exclusive stores in the city to shop at. The kind of stores where she’d find an outfit so perfect that Harmony’ll choke from the jealousy and beg Cordelia to reinstate their friendship so that she can be within five feet of luxury.
“Yeah, okay. I guess I could use someone to talk to.”
Ms. Jenkins smiles gently. “I suspected as much. And my office is even near the front desk so we can have Mrs. Clark write you up whatever note you need to miss as much class as you wish while we talk. Aaaand I might be able to talk her into letting us make an espresso order. I think that the local coffee shop does deliveries now. Anything you want, my treat.”
“Ms. Jenkins, you are seriously on the fast track to becoming my favourite person here.”
Espresso, insider tips about LA, and not having to see any of the loser gang in her classes? This is the gift that keeps on giving.
“It’s my pleasure,” Ms. Jenkins says as she starts to walk, bidding Cordelia to follow. “And please, feel free to call me Anya.”