Sheet music was a language all on its own.
Jay’s eyes followed the gentle progression of musical notes with effortless ease, his fingers obeying their command across the glossy piano keys. The music emanating from it filled the entirety of the Globe’s new theater. They had had one before, but hardly this grand. Jay had been insistent that it be on par with the theaters that once housed the greatest performances of all time. It did not disappoint, and the music from the immaculate white piano inaugurated it with all ceremony.
His dad had ensured he was proficient at piano early in life.
He had loved music.
The last note faded and Jay released a long breath, laying his hands in his lap. There was a strange lack of finality to letting a note fade away as opposed to leaving it at a staccato finish. He liked that.
Slow applause broke the ensuing silence and Jay’s jerked to face the door, his muscles tense in shock.
Chiara laughed shortly.
“Sorry!” She trotted through the rows of velvet seats, running her fingers across the soft material as she approached the stage. “I didn’t want to interrupt you.”
Jay chuckled dryly, shrugging. “All good.” Chiara hopped onto the stage, leaning an elbow on the piano. “I’m just not used to having an audience.”
Chiara cocked her head, her unruly curls dripping over her shoulder. Jay had long since become accustomed to her somewhat strange outfits when she was not required to be in uniform, especially with the increasing cold that demanded layers. Bright blue leggings peeked through the time-worn holes in her pale jeans and the rest of her was practically swallowed by an oversized ski jacket, the hood pushed back against her slender shoulders. Her cheeks were still ruddy red from the biting wind outside.
“Well, you’re the one who asked me to come here. Why not?” she prompted. “Why don’t you play for people?”
Jay smirked, raising a teasing eyebrow. “Stage fright.”
“Nah, that’s not it.” Chiara chuckled, looking at the music over his shoulder. “What’s this one?”
Jay arranged the sheets so she could see the title. “Prelude Op. 32 No 5 in G Major. Sergei Rachmaninoff. It’s really different from most of his stuff. I guess that’s why I like it. Probably why my dad liked it.”
Chiara met his eyes. Jay held the gaze for only a second before clearing his throat and adjusting himself on his bench, looking back to the piano keys. It was becoming disturbing how he let things that used to just be stray thoughts and personal wonderings come slipping out in front of her. He had not intended anyone outside of the Collective to know him the way she did, and it was all by accident.
“Can you play something I know?”
Jay felt his eyebrows shoot up. Normally, she would have pried for more information, for a deeper understanding of his life. Chiara must have been in a somewhat subdued mood today. That was probably for the better, concerning how he planned for the rest of the night to go.
“Um…yeah. What do you…what do you like?”
Chiara pursed her lips, motioning for Jay to scoot over. He complied and she sat beside him on the bench, staring into space as she thought. The stage lights reflected off of her wide eyes. They were captivating as always.
“Do you know anything jazzy?”
Jay moaned and she laughed. “Ugh, you’re one of those?”
“Guilty as charged!”
“Fine! Guess I’m going to have to put up with that, aren’t I?” He chuckled as he touched the piano keys again, a song already flowing through his mind. Chiara listened for a second, then grinned, opening her mouth and stumbling into the timing.
“I'll go back to Manhattan,”
Jay glanced sidelong at her, his fingers moving of their own volition. She shrugged with a quizzical smile, not missing a beat. Her voice was interesting, as was the rest of her. Not a bit trained, but raw and sulky. Jazzy. It fit her.
“As if nothing ever happened. When I cross that bridge, It'll be as if this don't exist. Have a prince who is waiting, And a kingdom downtown. I'll go back to Manhattan, As if nothing ever happened.”
The empty theater swallowed their performance and it was greeted with no applause. Jay did not fight the smile that pulled his ears back and narrowed his eyes as he met Chiara’s gaze. She cleared her throat, tucking her explosion of hair behind her large ears and squeezing her hands between her thighs. She nodded slowly, like she was critiquing her own performance in her head.
Jay’s phone buzzed from its place on top of the grand piano and he glanced at it. The screen was still shattered in several places. He should get that fixed eventually.
‘Package in place.’
He turned back to Chiara.
“You’re going to the Christmas Ball, right?”
Chiara blinked, staring at him from the corner of her eyes.
Jay shrugged, spinning to straddle the bench, his leg splint thumping on the glossy wooden floor of the stage. He could not wait to remove the thing.
“The Globe Christmas Ball in a week, right before winter break. Everybody’s been talking about it.”
Chiara’s frown deepened. “I generally don’t pay attention to what people are talking about.”
“Not even Analisa? You spend a lot of time with her.”
“She’s knee deep in homework right now. We’ve been working through that. She’s doing well, by the way. Got a B minus in Brit Lit.”
“That’s great. So, the ball?”
Chiara rolled her eyes and pushed herself to her feet, trotting to the stage steps. “I have to work.”
“Get the night off! Chiara, wait a minute!” Jay lunged for his crutches, swinging forward with a practiced movement to follow her down the steps. She did not look inclined to wait for him, striding through the aisles of velvet seats. “You have to have fun sometime!”
Chiara spun to face him, bracing her hands on her hips. “Is this why you asked me to meet you here at, like, 10 o’clock at night? To ask me to come to this stupid dance?”
Jay shrugged incredulously. “Every other minute of your day is already spoken for! You have your paper run in an hour and you’re working at the dry cleaners most of your free time. And I know it’s stupid, but it’s fun, lighthearted stupid that every high schooler has to have experienced before they graduate. You haven’t had a lot of those fundamental experiences because you’ve been so busy saving lives and making history and, overall, frustrating the precarious balance that we call our modern society.” He pursed his lips, spreading his arms with his crutches extended. He had practiced the little rant in the car on the way to the school and he hoped that it would be enough. “Why not take a night off? I think you need it.”
He watched her jaw tense in thought, her fingers tapping against her waist. She tapped her fingers against things when she was mulling something over. Slowly, she shook her head.
“Jay, I need my job. All of them. Whatever I’m doing, I need them. I know the Ups can throw their time around as they please, but we’ve got it different in the Downs.”
“Hey, let me take care of that.”
“What does that mean?”
“You won’t take charity. I know that much.” Jay slowly lowered himself to sit on the top step of the stage, laying his crutches beside him. His foot still ached sometimes. He spread his hands thoughtfully. “Take one night off. Have fun with us boys. Take Holly. I’ll make sure you don’t lose your job. I think that sounds like a good deal.” He leaned back in satisfaction, watching Chiara’s face for reaction.
She pursed her lips, jabbing a finger at him from across her aisle of seats.
“When did your…general jerkiness turn into…this manipulative generosity that I can’t argue with anymore? I can argue with you when you’re being a jerk.”
Jay shrugged helplessly. He was not about to tell her that he often wondered the same thing. “You were the one who decided we couldn’t intimidate you by being what we were told to be.” He chuckled. “If you choose to be intimidated by what we actually are…well, let’s just say that I thought I had you figured out!”
Chiara scoffed. “Let’s be real, Jay. You’ll never have me really figured out.”
Jay dropped his eyes to his feet. He recalled saying that to Brody as they both watched Chiara and Holly pass a mysterious envelope to a mysterious woman in a nearly abandoned strip mall in the Downs. It seemed so long ago. Just a few weeks.
“You’re right. But I want to try. We all want to try. It’s worth it.” He pushed himself to his feet again. “I think you should go. Bring Holly, if it makes you feel better. It’ll be a fun way to end the semester.”
Chiara released a slow sigh that seemed to resonate through the empty space of the theater. She shrugged helplessly.
“Will Brody be there?”
Jay slowly nodded. His plan hinged on her being willing.
She swallowed heavily, her eyes down at her feet. Jay slowly crossed his fingers, sending her every ounce of will in his body.
“I mean…fine. If you insist. I’m not a good dancer, though.”
Jay grinned. “Great! There will be food!”
Chiara chuckled ruefully. “Sounds like a plan. You’d better make a school-wide announcement that nobody’s allowed to laugh at what I wear. I’ve got nothing Globe Christmas Ball worthy.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What does that mean?”
Jay shrugged, patting his cell phone in the pocket of his slacks. The text was a good sign that all would be well soon enough. “You’ll see when you get home.”
Chiara frowned tightly, but slowly moved for the doors. “You’re really weird. Good night.”
Jay snapped a two fingered salute. “Night. No nighttime heroics without me.”
“Well, don’t go get yourself in trouble and I won’t have to worry about that!” she laughed, accompanying it with a dismissive wave, and disappeared into the frigid night.
Jay stared at the door long after she disappeared, then dropped his eyes to his hands, swallowing heavily. She would forgive him quickly for this set-up. Holly would see to that.
The Collective grew up together and there were few friends outside of their exclusive four. They were content with each other and no one else quite measured up to what they wanted and needed. They all had their roles within their brotherhood. Oliver was the flirtatious heartbreaker who kept the girls at bay. Dante was the extrovert, finding all of their new adventures when things got dull. Brody had always been the objective one, able to see the pros and cons of nearly any scenario and veer towards what made sense. Emotions rarely clouded his judgement, at least until Chiara came into the picture.
Jay laced his fingers in and out, chewing his lip thoughtfully. He himself was the explosive one. His emotions were those that ruled his actions, especially when it came to his friends. If any of them suffered the most minor slight, it was Jay who would go into a blind rage and avenge their inconvenience. His was the judgement that was normally distorted with the strength of his passions.
Where Chiara’s presence and unique personality seemed to fog Brody’s decisions, it made Jay’s all the more clear. He had never felt so sure that his decided course of action was good and right as now, when it involved Chiara so closely. He was confident that his feelings on this matter were justified and righteous. There might be consequences, but he was ready to suffer them, knowing that he had done the right thing for all involved.
Chiara granted him a clear head that he had rarely known. His heart was convicted. His conscience was clear.
Jay allowed himself a small smile. He had been able to come up with no other word for the feeling to which she gave him access aside from ‘glittery’. There were no flutters of the heart or sweaty palms or nervousness or awkwardness. He simply felt alive, energized, and full of ambition.
This feeling had grown quite addictive. In only the few, long weeks that Jay could even claim acquaintance with Chiara, he had often caught himself wondering when he would next be able to converse with her. His mind ached for that peaceful calm she had introduced, that courage and confidence. She had broken through the numbing panic that his mother had instilled in him through years of impossible expectations, verbal abuse, and manipulation.
Somehow, Chiara had made him a new man.
It was hard to truly enjoy that when she and Brody were not talking.
Jay clapped his hands together and the sound reverberated through the theater.
“Okay. Here goes.”