The icy chill bit her cheeks again. She felt the familiar blush of cold and excitement color her cheeks red. She raised her bare hands to them, her breath hurting her lips.
Brody grinned, leaning his elbows on the freezing rail of the Rockefeller Ice Rink. There was already a tremendous amount of activity on the ice, couples pairing off for awkward beginners’ ice dancing, friends making trains by hooking onto each others’ hips, somebody taking figure skating lessons in the back corner. Everybody had passed by the Rockefeller at some point. It was nothing new to Chiara.
The Christmas decorations, though, turned it into a place of unforeseen magic.
White Christmas lights followed the rails, twirled through every possible opening, the gently twinkling lights reflecting off of the foggy white ice surface and the windows across the street. Evergreen garlands twisted through with even more lights draped over the walls surrounding the ice rink. The glows and twinkles were enough to take Chiara’s breath away. She laughed shortly, jumping up onto the bottom rung of the fence of metal bars surrounding the place and leaning her stomach over the rail.
“Brody, this is amazing! I didn’t even know it could look like this!”
He grinned, rubbing his hands together and blushing with pleasure. “This used to be the Collective’s favorite place during the Christmas season. We would rent out the whole rink for a day, just the four of us. It was always a lot of fun. When I first saw you sitting in the ice rink all those weeks ago, this was the first thing I thought of.”
Chiara threw him a curious grin. “Were you planning tonight way back then?”
Brody shrugged, twisting to lean an elbow against the rail so he faced her. “If I was, does that earn me any prizes?”
“Mm. Depends on what the prizes are supposed to be.”
“I’m easy to please.”
Chiara grinned, flicking her gaze back to the commotion in the rink. Her trained eye followed the clumsy attempts of new skaters, discriminating them from the competitive dancers with ease. She looked down at her feet. Her left knee ached in the cold. There were enough techniques that did not require the strenuous use of that leg. Her very heart seemed to pound against the wall of her chest, pulling her towards the rink where she could be so happy again. Slowly, she swung her eyes back to Brody. He raised his eyebrows with a galvanizing smile.
“You wanna?” he breathed. Chiara bit her lip, drawing in a slow, smooth breath.
“Yeah. A lot. You’ll have to help me, though. I haven’t skated in years.”
“Don’t worry,” Brody reached across the rail and took her hand, lacing his fingers through hers. He grinned, gently pulling her off of the rail towards the skates counter. “I’ve got you.”
Chiara felt herself blush and the frigid air met its match in the heat in her cheeks. She followed him almost numbly. She could not remember a guy who had ever cared for her on this level, aside from her dad. Dads are always different, though. Alan had been determined from the start to make her into something much tougher than the nails that were scattered at random around the Downs, and that required no coddling or reassuring words. Every move Brody made was a surprise, despite how well she thought she knew him. The way he looked back at her every four steps to smile made her wonder about things she had never stopped to consider before.
Things she had never had never had the luxury to think.
She pulled the laces of her skates tight around her ankles. She did not feel old, but the comfortable security of tight laces seemed to throw her back into a time so long ago. Chiara smiled. Brody stood to stomp his skates into place, throwing a grin down at her.
She released an incredulous breath, standing with him. Balance on the thin blades came so naturally. “I knew I missed it but...I hadn't realized just how much, I guess,” she whispered. Her eyes skipped to the ice again and her stomach churned giddily. “You’re smart, Brody. You’re really smart.”
He laughed, taking her hand again and stepping out onto the ice. “Smart?”
“Yeah! If you’re going to do a trial date…” She clenched her jaw, catching a sharp breath as she slowly set her left foot out onto the choppy ice. Brody’s arm stiffened as she leaned on it for support, sliding her right foot to follow. Chiara nodded slowly, grinning up at his curious face again. “Do it like this.”
The corners of Brody’s lips turned up in a gentle smile. “Good to know. You ready?”
Her left knee trembled. She nodded once. “Yeah.”
“Here we go.”
Slowly, gently, Brody pushed from his standstill to glide backwards over the glowing white ice. Chiara caught her breath sharply, shuddering at the familiar scrape of ice grinding beneath her skates. She had loved skating. It was one of the things that she could pour her heart into without waiting for a reason to use a favor she was owed or guilt someone into leaving her alone. It was a talent that did not revolve around using other people, something Alan had so artfully engrained into her nature. In a way, it bound her to the streets that owed her so many favors and imprisoned her just as masterfully as a physical jail might have. Of course, she knew the police deputies who patrolled the Downs, so even a jail was a sorry way to hold her.
Ice skating was something that no one could control but her. Her little bit of freedom in the midst of a world of one person owing another in circles.
Brody, his eyes smiling just as gently and joyfully as his mouth, had brought her icy independence back, guiding her ever so carefully with a strong arm and dependable balance.
No one else had ever tried to do that for her.
She grinned, nodding over his shoulder. “Veer right!”
Brody chuckled, leaning right and guiding her around the teetering rookie skater clinging to the rail. He inclined his head in thanks.
“We make a pretty okay team, don’t we?”
Chiara grinned. “Haven’t we always, in a way?”
“That’s what I’ve been saying since the start! It only took you forever to admit it.”
“Oh, please, you know I’m not an entirely trusting person.”
“Yeah, like I said, it took you forever to come around.”
“You never gave up.”
Brody smiled. Chiara liked the way his eyes widened when he smiled. The lights glinted invitingly off of the whites of his eyes.
“I think that’s just one of the many things that we have in common.”
Chiara let her mind graze over the plethora of things that she and Brody had been able to discuss, the myriad of subjects that had agreed upon, the things that made her smile. Had she not known better, she would have thought him leaning towards a stronger Downs perspective than an Up. When he was with her, all inhibitions seemed to sink away and she was all that mattered. Already, his willingness to protect her at the Globe, where his reputation was at stake, proved that more than anything.
Now here, he guided her gently around the ice, knowing that she had to trust him completely, and not being afraid to take it.
Brody inclined his head encouragingly. “I’m all ears.”
Chiara nodded slowly, putting together as many eloquent words as she could find in her head. Nothing made sense. Nothing sounded like her. She rolled her eyes to herself. Leave it to Chiara to botch things that meant a lot to her. Even as she thought it, her left leg throbbed. A pure flood of will kept her knee from buckling.
Brody grinned, glancing back over his shoulder and adjusting his speed and direction to allow a small child in an oversized coat struggle past him. “For what? The night’s barely started!”
“For treating me like a human being.”
He looked back at her, his expression sobered. He sighed a little. “Bummer.”
“I was hoping to treat you like a princess.”
Chiara bit her lip, fighting tears. “Well, I don’t really know what that’s like, so…let’s just say you’re doing that perfectly.”
Brody smiled in contentment, nodding his acknowledgement. “You deserve it and more.”
She was the last person to have suspected this kind of behavior from an Up and a Collective, at that. Briefly, her mind wandered to the others. Chiara wondered what Oliver and Dante thought about Brody taking a Downs girl out on a date, one that did not involve the florid parties that the Ups seemed to so enjoy or shopping until the early hours of the morning or spending an obscene amount of money on an appetizer imported from France. She supposed they would be a little confused, but they certainly did enjoy their amusements and did not seem to resent her for Brody’s attention.
Jay, on the other hand, had first hand experience with the aspects of the Downs, having been beaten to a pulp and robbed and rescued and fed and pampered. Chiara had not seen much of him over the week since that Saturday morning at her apartment but for over distances. He seemed quite occupied with his classes as of late and refused most help, getting around slowly on his crutches. His sprained ankle did not seem to hurt that much anymore. He just liked the attention, as if he was not getting enough to begin with.
He would make eye contact with her. Sometimes, he would nod in acknowledgement. In a strange, satisfying way, it was nice to see. Some small victories were often enough to tide Chiara over until the next one, and she was determined to either tame the boys of the Collective or bring them to justice. Of course, their sob stories and occasions of genuine kindness and concern were enough to convince her that punishing them would not be as enjoyable as she had initially foreseen, so she had to content herself with reminding them of their own humanity and duty to observe the dignity of others. They seemed more than willing to learn, at least from her. She liked them and they treated her well in return.
Brody chuckled and she blinked, shaking the thoughts from scrolling in her vision.
“You think about things too much! You could just ask me.”
Chiara smiled sheepishly. “I was just wondering what the boys thought about this.”
Brody winked. “Well, you had Dante choosing my necktie, Oliver demanding pictures like a mom, and Jay assuring me that you would like the jeans I picked out.” He shrugged as Chiara laughed. “Dates in themselves are such a foreign concept to all of us, so this really got them spun in a loop.”
“You guys don’t go on dates at all?”
“Well, I guess we don’t really count what Oliver does. He explores the waters, you could say.”
Chiara frowned, more to mask a sharp gasp as her knee squeaked beneath her than anything. “Are you calling him a shark?”
Brody pursed his lips indecisively. “Yes? One who knows where his limits are.”
“What does that mean?”
“He’s not afraid of taking girls out and treating them special, but he certainly doesn’t make a practice of calling them back. I guess he’s more of a heart breaker than a shark. His boyish good looks get him really far every time.”
“Has he ever genuinely liked a girl?”
Brody smiled mysteriously, spinning her in a slow circle. “I think a certain Downs girl has caught his attention. One with a certain appreciation for art.”
Chiara felt her face stretch as her jaw dropped and eyes widened. Brody laughed. Her stomach roiled.
“Holly? My Holly? Oliver has a crush on my Holly?”
“You didn’t hear it from me! He would never admit it, you know. He kind of prides himself on being a player.”
“That’s so messed up!”
“I don’t know! He seems quite content to use the fact that he doesn’t have the kind of reputation to destroy that Jay and I do. Dante just doesn’t seem very interested in dating right now, but he’s in a similar situation. His dad wouldn’t kill him for dating just anybody.”
Chiara yanked on his arms and he skidded to a stop, shavings of ice spraying from the blades of his skates. He frowned a little in askance.
“What? Are you okay? Your leg?”
She knew what he meant. She wished she was not bothered. She wished her mind, once so protected by walls of cold and indifference, would stop the growing snowball of unnecessary emotion. She wished her cheeks would stop burning and the heat in her chest would die as she bottled it in the mental coffin that Alan had once instructed her to build. Brody did not deserve this from her.
But she could not help but wonder.
She drew in a slow breath.
“Parents…would punish their kids for dating…just anybody.”
Brody sighed shortly, shaking his head emphatically. “Cheech, you know what I meant.”
“You’re stuck.” Chiara swallowed hard, feeling her throat rebel as hot tears threatened her eyes. Slowly, she nodded. “You’re stuck in this mindset, Brody. It’s not your fault, but you’re always thinking it, aren’t you?”
“Thinking what?” Brody prompted roughly, dropping her hands and crossing his arms across his chest. He raised his eyebrows cooly. “What am I thinking, Chiara, that we haven't already talked about?”
She tilted her head, reading his eyes with every minute of training she had ever been brutally given by the street. Alan had been relentless, shoving her into every possible situation that would demand her to make these judgements, understanding the personalities of perfect strangers until there was no concept of stranger in her mind. If she could see their eyes, she knew their motives and desires and fears. It was a difficult thing for a seventeen year old to have so mastered.
“You don’t think your parents would approve of this at all and that really bothers you.”
Brody’s eyebrows spasmed in surprise and his jaw tightened. Chiara swallowed again, sucking in her lower lip. He was hurt. Deeply. She knew, though, that she struck a chord. She was right.
“You want to honor their name and legacy and reputation and whatever. Fine. But, in the Ups, that means that this -” She flicked her hand loosely between their bodies, standing tensely apart. His chest rose and fell with quick, deep breaths. “Couldn’t work. This is wrong. This is impossible.”
“There’s that word again!” Brody groaned gutturally, smacking his palm into his forehead. “Chiara, you say I’m stuck? You’re the one who’s stuck! We in the Ups will always be so high and mighty that you can’t even consider the fact that you might be wrong sometimes!”
“Am I?” she demanded softly, dropping her eyes to the glowing ice. Her leg was trembling with the cold and strain. The silence was heavy, weighing on her shoulders and making breathing hard and threatening her leg with far more than it was used to. She looked up at Brody again. His face was tight and his eyes narrow, focused somewhere far above her head. She scoffed incredulously. “That’s what I thought.”
Slowly, she turned herself on the ice to cling to the wall on the outside of the rink, pulling herself one hand over the other. The ice grated roughly beneath her, protesting. Finally, it was not obeying her. It was begging her to stay. To reconsider.
“You’re not going to tell me that it’ll be okay?” Brody snapped to her back. She did not stop, clenching her jaw. “It’s not worth that to you?”
She laughed through hot tears, refusing to turn back. She did not like the hurt expression that dug into her back, but she was right. That was not something she was willing to give up.
“It’s your thought, Brody. It has to be worth it to you.”