Brody slowly ran his fingertips over the glass image. Four toddlers dressed impeccably in suits, hair combed to perfection, stood with their arms draped over their shoulders in a line. They were laughing uncontrollably at something or other and it was the most beautiful thing. These little boys were yet unaware of the intense future that awaited each and every one of them. They were content with each other. Brody smirked.
Really, not much had changed. They had simply grown up.
“Doesn’t seem like that long ago, huh?”
Brody glanced back at Jay. The Newhall heir smiled a little from his supine position on the couch, his head propped up by a mound of soft pillows. He had kicked off most of the blankets the doctor had stacked around him so they bunched on the floor. Jay stretched out his hand and Brody passed him the framed picture, sitting on the end of the couch at Jay’s feet. His ankle was professionally casted now and Brody lifted it into his lap, reaching for the pen that had already been passed around the Collective. Jay chuckled.
“Dante still has that crazy widow’s peak.”
“He looks like his dad.”
“Of course I do,” Dante muttered, swinging into Jay’s bedroom with a plate of flan. He wore sweats and a loose t-shirt, his feet bare for bed. He plopped onto Jay’s bed, pulling his legs up to sit cross-legged and propping his plate on his knees. Brody raised his eyebrows at him quizzically and he frowned, forking a bite of flan into his mouth. “It’s easy to look like your dad when you don’t know what your mom looked like.”
Jay raised his head from his pillow. “He still won’t talk to you about it?”
Dante shrugged, staring down at his dessert. “Well, aside from the fact that she is dead, has been dead for a long time, and there’s nothing I can do about it, no.” He pointed at Jay with his fork. “At least your dad is a memory. When he died, the world knew about it.”
Brody paused in sketching on Jay’s cast, glancing up at him over his shoulder. Jay met his eyes evenly, smiling a little. It was a forced smile, Brody knew. Most of Jay’s were.
“Yeah, he left behind quite a legacy. It’s a lot to live up to.”
Brody nodded to himself, turning back to his sketch. Jay was still determined to keep his secret. Brody was not surprised. He himself had only discovered by accident, having walked in on a heated phone conversation between Jay and his mother overseas over a year ago. Even then, Jay had been reluctant to reveal the truth about his father’s untimely stroke, followed by his crushing, media-crazing death.
May Newhall’s full-time job consisted of hiding things and keeping secrets.
Oliver stepped out of the bathroom, rubbing his towel over his wet hair with his t-shirt slung over his bare shoulder. He threw a glance back at Jay and Brody, then back to Dante. He raised an eyebrow.
“What’s with the mood in here?”
Brody shook his head, capping his pen. “You missed our existential conversation about life and death.”
Oliver rolled his eyes, tossing aside his towel and pulling his t-shirt over his head. “Fine, don’t tell me. I have a question.” He hopped onto Jay’s bed beside Dante, pinning Jay with a death stare. “You spent the night in the Downs.”
Brody chuckled, looking back at Jay. The Newhall frowned, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Was…that a question?”
“Well?” Oliver prompted, opening his hands in galvanization. “How was that? Some life-changing experiences happen while you were at it?”
Jay sighed, rolling his eyes. “I was busy trying not to throw up and suffering from a concussion and sprained ankle. And I slept on a couch for the first time in my life! I wasn’t too interested in looking around.”
“That's boring!” Dante groaned. “The universe didn't split in two while we were sleeping? Chiara wouldn’t even talk about it when she and Holly came by the expo.”
“That still makes me laugh,” Brody grinned. “Holly didn’t strike me as an art loving type.”
“I don’t know,” Oliver sighed, leaning his chin on a fist. “She impressed me.”
Brody scoffed, his eyebrows high in amusement. Oliver had always been the romantic of the four of them, but it consisted of him commenting on the eyes of a girl in the morning and admiring the voice of another at night. He seemed to be a bit smitten with this Holly character, but Brody was sure it would disappear before lunch the next day.
On the other hand, Chiara’s hold on his thoughts seemed to only be growing stronger.
“Well, okay,” Dante conceded. “So you got there late last night. But what about this morning? Her family and everything?”
Brody slowly nodded, draping his arms over the back of the couch. “Mrs. Dalton is a fascinating woman.”
Jay chuckled, nudging Brody with his foot. “The two of you hit it off right away. Guys, I woke up this morning to Brody and Mrs. Dalton making pancakes in the kitchen!”
Brody closed his eyes, biting his lip to hide the smile as Dante and Oliver exploded into laughter. They might have found it funny, but they could never know the strange satisfaction that had filled Brody as he was treated like family by the mother of the only girl who had ever caught his eye.
Maybe they could get an idea.
“What can I say?” he sighed, lacing his hands behind his head. “I really, really like Chiara.”
The laughter cut off abruptly and Brody smiled brightly at them. Oliver slowly leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees.
“I knew it,” he whispered. “I totally knew it.”
He opened a hand to Dante, who sighed, rolling his eyes and slapping the proffered hand.
“Dinner for a week at the Glitz Club.”
Brody’s eyebrows shot up as Jay laughed.
“You two were betting on me? I thought we all made a deal not to do that anymore after Jay’s -”
“We also agreed to not talk about that anymore!” Jay hurriedly interrupted, kicking Brody hard in the stomach with his healthy foot. Brody doubled over and Oliver laughed.
“Well, what can I say? Must be the Truitt luck in my blood. I can’t help but win these kind of bets.” He blinked rapidly, lacing his fingers under his chin. “Brody’s in love!”
“Ha ha!” Brody hurled a pillow at Oliver and the other caught it, laughing. “It may not be love. She’s just…one of the greatest people I’ve ever known.”
“She’s a Downs girl,” Dante reminded him evenly. Brody nodded.
“Dude, I know. But…I mean, we…the four of us…we know there’s no real difference between the Ups and Downs.” He shrugged, leaning back into the soft depths of the couch. “There shouldn’t be this much segregation, and we all know that. I don’t see any reason I shouldn’t like who I want to like.”
“Aside from being the heir to the largest hotel line in the world?” Oliver pursed his lips thoughtfully, spreading his hands helplessly. “Yeah, me neither.”
Brody rolled his eyes as the others chuckled. Every ripple of laughter that passed through the four of them lately seemed to desperately hide a layer of ruefulness, irritation, and general discontentedness. They all wished things could be different, now more than ever. He shrugged, pulling his knee to his chest and lacing his fingers around it.
“I think…I’m going to ask her out soon.”
The laughter died slowly. Dante leaned forward.
Brody smiled a little, nodding slowly. “Yeah. I really, really like her, guys. I’m willing to try. She may not even respond the way I want, but she’s really cool.”
He watched the boys exchange glances. Little more than looks and nods and eyebrows were needed to communicate. They had learned to read each other like books. Brody fought a smile as he saw muscles relaxing, eyes widening, dimples deepening in Oliver’s case. Dante met Brody’s eyes and shrugged a little, gesturing to him with his fork.
“I think so, too.”
“Who knows?” Oliver added, leaning back against Jay’s pillow and lacing his fingers behind his head. “She might be fun to have around. Drag her around to all the grossly fancy parties the Ups feel obliged to throw.”
“Slow down a bit,” Brody sighed. “She hasn’t said yes yet.”
“Right,” Jay interjected, raising his eyebrows doubtfully. “And if it were anyone else, we could say that she would be saying yes before you finished asking. But this is Chiara. You never know what comes next with her.”
“I don’t know.” Brody winked at him. “I’ve got a good feeling about this one.”
A short, kind of filler chapter to give more insight into the Collective's relationship without Chiara. I keep looking at this chapter and trying to edit it to make it a little longer and more revealing, but I don't want to dump too much at one time, especially considering some of the upcoming chapters. The next one will be up really soon!