Chiara debated going back inside. The ballroom was flooded with people and she could easily lose everyone in the crowd. She could just go home and start cleaning so that her mom did not have to. It would be a long walk in high-heeled sandals, however. Jay’s car had made the transportation process much easier. Holly would not be offended that she left.
Unless Holly was in on this plan.
Brody cleared his throat, crossing his arms over his chest.
“I assume Jay told you he would meet you out here, too?”
Chiara shrugged with a nod, clenching her jaw to suppress the winter shivers. It had to have been below freezing, certainly not very conducive weather to hiking home in sandals.
“Yeah. Dante’s holding back the mob in there.”
Brody nodded absently. “Yeah, people still seem to hate you here, don’t they?”
Chiara raised an eyebrow. “Sure seems like a majority ruling, that’s for sure.”
Brody looked away from her, his arms crossed over his chest as the wind tossed his overcoat playfully about him. Chiara narrowed her eyes. He had resumed the sulky visage in which she had first found him. The boys had a mask that they donned for the school, but it seemed to melt away in Chiara’s presence.
Despite there being no other soul on the balcony aside from the two of them, Brody looked ready to fall asleep of boredom.
He cleared his throat again.
“It looks like this was set up. I guess that was smart; it’s not like either of us would have come on our own. Jay can be pretty conniving, though. I wonder why this matters so much to him.” He shrugged apathetically. “I assume you’re supposed to apologize now.”
Chiara felt every instinct rear to her own defense, forcing her mouth open with a retort that she was sure she would regret later.
It did not come.
She slowly closed her mouth, letting her jaw clench instead. The Christmas wind bit her cheeks sharply, throwing her back to days in the rink, ice grinding beneath her blades, Holly shouting encouragement from the floor, Alan Armister watching with pride, Brody supporting her with a strong arm.
Overall, the trial date had been successful. It told her exactly what she had wanted to know.
He did not need to suffer from it.
Her muscles slowly relaxed and she closed her eyes.
There was a long silence and Chiara cracked open one eye. Brody’s eyebrows were high on his forehead and his lips parted in surprise. He shook his head slightly.
Chiara nodded. “Isn’t that what you wanted to hear?”
“Well…yes and no.” He looked wide awake again, like the Brody she had grown accustomed to. His frown was deep. “I mean…I guess I just didn’t think you’d actually say it. You looked pretty convinced that I was -”
“I was wrong.” Chiara swallowed heavily. There were no tears, but there was strange sort of pain that came with the relief of the words, like she was pulling a scab off of an old wound. Her muscles relaxed further, despite the cold. “I was wrong to blame my feelings on you. It was wrong to put you in a box when I was just figuring out my own.”
Brody shook his head again, pushing himself away from the rail and stepping closer to Chiara. “Feelings?”
Chiara nodded quickly, realizations exploding in her head like fireworks. “I was having a great time, Brody. Ice skating again, being with you…it was all great. But…I mean, I asked for it to be a trial date for a reason.” She shrugged. “Reasons. And I think the biggest one was that…” She looked up to meet Brody’s eyes. His hazel eyes were focused on her with such a familiar intensity. Chiara bit her lip. “I don’t think I ever had romantic feelings for you.”
Brody’s eyes dropped to his shoes and Chiara squeezed her hands into fists around her arms. She had not had to interact with him since their failed trial date, and she realized that his hurt was something she could not have borne to see anyway. He still meant so much to her, in unprecedented ways. Holly was one of those friends from birth who invited blunt fights that resulted in late night laughter and a deeper friendship than ever before. Alan was her first experience in shattered trust. Chiara saw the walls that he had inspired her to create, how they were supposed to protect her heart and hurt others by extension. Relating to these high and mighty boys - young men - with ways of life that she had never dared to dream as her own was something for which she had no time to prepare. The result was a makeshift tactic that failed.
Chiara was so ready to change it.
Brody's shoulders heaved with a heavy sigh.
“Why didn’t you just tell me?”
Chiara moaned through clenched teeth. “Because I’m an idiot who has never been on a real date before and never really gave much thought to how I would deal with certain situations! Turns out, I suck at handling confused feelings and so I wind up lashing out at the first opportunity I find and hurting people who still matter to me.” She shrugged, pursing her lips moodily as she sank back against the marble wall of the ballroom. “Go figure.”
“You put me in a box of people who hate the Burrough Downs because I happen to be born into an Up family…all because you didn’t want to date me.”
“Well,” Chiara shrugged again. “I said I’m sorry. Because I am. Because I see how that sucked.” She raised her eyebrows. “So are you going to apologize for being a jerk the second I walked out here?”
He stepped closer and wrapped his arms around her in a deliciously warm, enveloping hug. Chiara immediately melted into it, linking her hands behind his back. Brody sighed again against her ear.
“I wish you had just told me,” he breathed. “We would have been fine.”
“I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Looks like that didn’t work out the way you wanted.” Brody stepped back, yanking off his overcoat and draping it over Chiara’s shoulders. She made a mental note to start bringing jackets everywhere or her boys were bound to freeze. Brody smiled sadly, bracing his hands on her shoulders. “My parents were Ups. They had the expectations of their high society and I am expected to live up to those expectations. I do often wonder what they would think of me. I’m pretty sure I’m not what they imagined. But no kid will ever be what their parents imagine. They’re either better or worse, and I’m pretty determined to be better. Chiara, I can handle rejection. I cannot handle you deciding to hate me for something I’m not. I can’t handle being…shoved somewhere I don’t belong.”
Chiara frowned. “You’ve been putting up with that for your whole life. The Collective…the Card, everything.”
Brody shook his head. “I couldn’t care less what the world thinks. But you?” He shrugged helplessly. “What you think - what you see - really, really matters to me. It’s fine that you don’t see someone romantic, but don’t let me be someone who hurts you.” He smiled again, and Chiara could see the nearly two weeks of ache in his eyes. “I’d rather disappear from your life than hurt you.”
Chiara chuckled ruefully, hugging his coat around her shoulders.
"So, is this your version of an apology?"
Brody smiled helplessly, spreading his hands. "Sorry."
“Well, now I’m really glad that we didn’t actually date. I have a feeling that we’re not the great communicators I thought we were. We would have hurt each other left and right while trying not to.”
Brody allowed himself a small smile. “It doesn’t really change my feelings for you, though.”
Chiara’s stomach churned and she dropped her eyes, releasing a sharp breath. A white cloud crystallized before her lips.
"Brody, I don't -"
Slowly, she raised her eyes to him again. His smile widened encouragingly.
“I’ll get over it. Your friendship is way more important to me than dating you is.”
Chiara laughed incredulously, rolling her eyes. “You’re a way better person than me! It took me being shoved onto a constricting balcony with you by photographers, a drunk student, and a bully to even apologize for being a jerk!”
Brody’s face spasmed in surprise and he inclined his head to see inside the bright scene of the ballroom.
“They have photographers? I would have thought they wouldn’t, after - ”
“Last year’s senior prank.” Chiara jabbed a finger at his chest. There may be more healing needed, but they were on the same page again. Two weeks was too long to feel uncomfortable around Brody. “I’m going to need to hear about that later. As for this party, I’m not feeling inclined to go back inside to all the nonsense waiting for me, and it’s absolutely freezing out here.”
Brody shook his head, wrinkling his nose in distaste. “Never been a fan of it myself. This was always Dante and Oliver’s scene.”
“Our little party animals.” Chiara blinked. The Collective had all become her boys, her party animals. A growing part of her felt responsible for them. She allowed herself a content smile. That growing part glowed with warm pride. They were works in progress, herself included, but the progress was so encouraging to watch. The progress had a face that was learning to smile. One with impossibly blue eyes. She shrugged off the thought. “I have an idea. Do you think anybody would mind leaving?”
Brody chuckled, glancing inside again. “Well, this is our senior year here. We never planned out a senior prank, so there’s really no point. I don’t think they’d mind.”
Chiara grinned. “You guys want to come throw papers with me?”
Brody’s eyebrows shot up. His gaze traveled to the ballroom again, lingering on the fantastic display of lights, food, and music. The kind of life he had always known was embodied in the ballroom. Chiara suddenly wondered if she had miscalculated the young millionaire’s adventurous tendencies.
He shrugged with a grin.
“Well, anything’s better than this right now! I’ll go rally everyone.”
Chiara nodded to him and they both slipped back into the ballroom. She hugged the wall, taking the long way to the massive double doors. The grandeur of the place really was impressive, but Chiara let herself smirk. They were still teenagers. Teenagers did not need the pomp and circumstance that the Globe Academy insisted on providing. This was not one of the fundamental high school experiences that Jay was talking about a week earlier.
Teenagers needed true friends. Teenagers needed security. Teenagers needed to listen to the latest music and drink hot cocoa in paper hot cups and let their hair down and laugh about old senior pranks and not battle terror as a photographer raised his camera to snap a photo that could never see the light of day. Chiara jerked her face away from the photographer and slipped through the double doors into the hall of the top floor of the building. Her heels pounded and echoed obnoxiously on the steps as she took them two at a time, yearning to be free of the suffocating walls of the Globe Academy.
She stepped out into the freezing winter air again, clutching Brody’s jacket around her before the wind stole it from her. Chiara grinned at the glistening lights swaying from every available protrusion. It really was very beautiful.
Chiara closed her eyes to it.
She was ready to go.
The five others hurried out to meet her, the boys throwing on their overcoats and Oliver thrusting his around Holly’s shoulders once more. She did not fight this time.
Dante was grinning.
“This is the best idea you’ve ever had, Cheech!” he laughed. “And just in time, too! Turns out, Felicity’s pretty boyfriend is one of the Laliotas, that stuck-up family from the East Side who host all those sports at their arenas. I’m pretty sure he was about to challenge me to a fight.”
Oliver winced. “That would have been a really bad idea on his part.”
Dante shrugged, cracking his knuckles one by one. “I don’t know; I might have enjoyed it.”
Jay rolled his eyes, nodding to Chiara. “What’s the first step?”
Chiara wiggled a high heel from beneath her dress. “We change our shoes.”
Oliver squealed in excitement, spinning on his heel to sprint for the PE building, Dante and Holly close behind. Chiara turned a content smile to Brody and Jay. Jay winked at her, fingering the sleeve of Brody’s heavy overcoat hanging on Chiara’s slender shoulders.
“I like your new style.”
Chiara rolled her eyes as Brody chuckled. Jay spread his hands in prompt.
“So? Are we all good now? Happy family once more?”
Brody draped an arm over Jay’s shoulders. “You know what? This is actually the first time the two of us have both been really on board with this at once.” He nodded to Chiara and she grinned. “I think we’re a happy family for the first time.”
“And it feels good,” Chiara finished. She meant it, feeding even further the warm glow from inside of her that told her that all was well. Brody nodded.
“Agreed. I think the first order of business has to be choosing a mom and dad of the group,” He pointed at Dante, Oliver, and Holly streaking down the cobblestones to barge into the PE building. “Because they are definitely the children.”
“We can do that later,” Jay chuckled, wrapping an arm of his own around Brody’s shoulders. Brody offered an elbow and Chiara rested her hand in the crook of his arm. “Let’s all be the kids tonight.”
Chiara grinned at him. It was as if he had read her mind.
Chiara had an extra set of school provided tennis shoes and Holly was able to squeeze into them. The boys emerged, content in their suits and tennis shoes. Jay rolled his ankle experimentally. Chiara raised her eyebrows at him.
“You’ll be okay?”
“Yeah. I’m tough.” He made a convincing face and everyone laughed. Holly pulled on Chiara’s arm.
“Do you think we’ll have time to grab some hot cocoa at Barney’s on our way?”
Chiara felt that she could not grin wider. “That is a great idea!”
“I never thought I’d get hot cocoa from a place called Barney’s!” Oliver giggled. Brody jostled him.
“Did you ever think you’d be a paper boy? Even for a night?”
“I vote Chiara as the new adventure coordinator!” Dante interjected as the six of them sauntered out of the enormous gates of the Globe Academy in suits and gowns and tennis shoes.
Chiara turned to look back at the collection of castles that loomed over them. The first time she had walked away from this school that molded all the richest minds of the country, she had been alone and hated. This time, only a few months later, she had an army of support and laughter and love. She exchanged a glance with Brody. He winked and Chiara felt that little glow inside of her explode and envelop her.
The winter wind hardly bothered her in her ice princess gown and surrounded by her friends as they plunged into the Downs to pick up her usual collection of newspapers to distribute through the neighborhoods.
Chiara had never felt so safe.