The thin carpet jarred beneath his polished shoes. Somehow, even the ground felt frozen.
Why did she like it here?
Brody slowly took the steps down the cold metal bleachers, listening to the benches clang beneath his soles with every step. She did not even look up, her face fixed forward, elbows on her bare knees, chin in her hands.
Staring at the ice rink.
He lowered himself to sit on the bench above her, his feet on either side of her. Chiara sighed, her head dropping. Then she jumped, shoving herself to her feet and spinning to face him. She released a sharp breath, dropping her head to her chest and slapping a hand to her heart.
“Brody, you scared me! You're supposed to tell me if you intend to sneak up on me like that!”
Brody laughed, straightening suddenly in his seat.
“I wasn't! I came in like a regular elephant! You were just a little too absorbed in your thoughts.”
She frowned, shaking her head slightly. Brody cocked his head. She seemed strangely frustrated at herself. “Was I?”
Brody grinned, raising his eyebrows high. “You always are." He waggled a finger at her forehead. "You've got your own little world going on in there"
Chiara’s face slackened and she smiled a little, shrugging her shoulders again. “I can’t help it. I kind of had to build one for myself, especially since I was never supposed to be here.”
Brody tilted his head quizzically, rubbing his hands together and blowing on his fingertips. The cold air was damp and clung to his heavy coat.
“Why? What do you mean?”
She shrugged, taking a long step up to his bench and sitting down. She wrapped her arms around her bare legs, leaning forward and bouncing her combat boot heels on the metal bench. Brody hid a smile. She had done away with the uniform flats or high heels long ago. He liked the boots. They seemed to fit her.
“Come on, I’m from the Downs. Globe?” She scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Who are we kidding? Besides, no one expects me to last the Collective Card much longer.”
Brody raised his eyebrows, twisting to face her. “I don’t know about that. You’ve survived the past week. It’s not like anyone has been holding back, either.”
“Yeah,” she sighed, slapping her hands against her knees with every syllable. “For one long, stupid week. I didn't even know minors could get their hands on kerosene and a lighter at the same time. Not until Thursday, anyway.” She chuckled ruefully, shaking her head and twisting to face him. “Thankfully, I’ve had someone looking out for me throughout this week. I'd be getting straight F's for incinerated homework if you weren't.”
He raised his eyebrows with a slight, but satisfied smile. It had taken long enough, but she had finally admitted that she needed his help. Though that had not been the ultimate goal, it was kind of nice to hear. It was definitely different to feel that he was taking care of someone. He had never been given such a responsibility. Brody concluded that one was only given as much responsibility as he made himself available for. It was new, but he liked it.
“What’s up?” Chiara finally prompted. She breathed out to watch the white cloud of her breath freeze before her lips. “How did you know where to find me?”
He shrugged, gesturing feebly. “I saw you leave the Humanities building. I just wondered where you spend all your time.”
“Oh.” Chiara lifted her narrow shoulders in a helpless shrug. “Well, obviously nowhere special. Just the PE building.”
“No. Just the ice rink.” He gestured out to the round stretch of white beyond the high glass wall, beyond the icy fog that drifted upwards from the surface. “It’s always the ice rink, isn’t it? There’s something special about it.”
Chiara sat still, frozen in her seat, her eyes fixed straight ahead. Her eyes narrowed.
“Mhmm.” Slowly, she let her eyes slide to him again. “Why? I mean, why...do you care?”
He clenched his jaw. That should have a stupid question to ask. With this segregation between the Ups and Downs, however, it was a common sentiment, he knew. Why should the Ups care in the slightest about what the Downs felt?
“Because...I miss a time when people used to care. That’s all.”
Chiara leaned away from him, her eyes flicking up and down as she feigned an impressed study. “Wow.” She chuckled softly, shaking her head. She touched her heart, puckering her lips and batting her eyes in mock pride. It was cute. “So, that is beautiful. I didn’t know you Ups thought that much!”
He rolled his eyes with a grin. “Oh, please, being rich doesn’t mean we don’t have brains! Or souls.” He chuckled, looking down at his shoes as Chiara laughed. “But really,” He looked up again, meeting her eyes. “The ice rink means something to you, doesn’t it?”
Her smile slowly faded. “It used to.”
Brody shifted his position to catch her eyes again as she dropped them. “What happened?”
She smiled again, shaking her head. Brody’s brow tightened. Growing up in the devious world of business, where one had to be wary of everyone and aware of their surroundings at all times, every Up had to be able to pick out a real smile. Chiara’s was fake, but not for any devious purpose.
She was genuinely sad.
“Ah, just got too busy for it. I don’t know about you upper class kids, but we had to actually work if we wanted food on the table.”
Brody groaned and threw his hands up in the air as she laughed again. “We are humans, too, Chiara! You’ve been here long enough to see that, right? We have moods, we have issues, we have hearts. See?” He picked up her hand and pressed it to his left chest, underneath his coat. “There it is.”
He felt her hand tense like a drum beneath his and he instantly regretted it. She was uncomfortable. But it felt strangely good, her warm palm pressed against his painstakingly creased shirt. Brody swallowed. He was frozen, unable to move, feeling her hand, her fingers curl into the soft cloth of his shirt, watching her face as it paled, as it contorted in confusion.
Then she pulled it away.
“Wow. Heart rate of sixty-two over sixty. You’re a pretty chill guy, aren’t you?”
Brody blinked and managed another tight chuckle. “And, yet, again, caught off guard. You have quite a talent.”
Chiara shrugged, pushing herself to her feet and hopping down the benches to the carpeted floor.
“I have a lot of talents, including time management and knowing when I am late for World History! Did the Collective send you to distract me?”
Brody rolled his eyes, skipping two benches to join her as she made her way for the door.
“No. They don’t know where I am when I don’t want them to.”
“Why don’t you want them to know where you are? It’s not like you’re doing anything wrong.”
“Not in your book. But I’m an Up. I’ve always been an Up. There’s a certain...I don’t know,”
“A modicum of class?” Chiara suggested in a mock British accent, throwing a look over her shoulder. Brody frowned.
“That’s what Jay told me on my first day.” She chuckled roughly. “He left me so many openings for sass, I was just dying inside!”
“Like someone wrote a script?”
“Yeah. It was like that for all of our run-ins.” She paused by the front door, quirking an eyebrow at Brody. “Just curious, but why are you friends with him? Why are the four of you so tied at the hip?”
Brody shrugged, reaching forward to open the door. He let her pass under his arm in front of him.
“We always have been. But you know something? I don’t regret it. Neither do any of them.”
Chiara pursed her lips in confusion, letting her legs swing out and forward in a slow saunter for the front. “But why? I mean, you’re nothing like any of them! At least not like Jay.”
Despite himself, Brody chuckled. “You keep bringing him up specifically. Is he the baddest of the bunch, in your mind?”
She opened her hands helplessly. “Well, it’s not like I’ve known you forever! He’s the only one I’ve had any other interaction with and he most definitely did not make a great first impression, if you remember.”
“Yeah.” Brody’s eyes narrowed in recollection. As usual, thinking about his friend made him sad. Thinking about most things made him sad. “Jay has never been good at first impressions.”
Chiara scoffed. “Or second impressions. Or any impression. I don’t understand his attitude.”
“He has no justification,” Brody hurriedly interjected. “But he does have an origin story. The Collective…” He chuckled ruefully. “We’re all kind of screwed up in some way or another. Jay just...he just has it worse than the rest of us.”
She cocked her head, raising her eyebrows in a challenge. “So he has a sob story, is what you’re saying.”
Chiara thrust her hands into her uniform jacket pockets, letting her eyes scan the wall of amazing Globe athletes of the past. It was an extensive wall. Brody smiled absently, spotting Dante’s picture up more than once for several different sports since kindergarten. He had been there for most of the award ceremonies. Dante had started to dread them if the other three boys could not make it.
“Then, under those justifications, you, Dante, and Oliver should be screwed up ego-fests, too. You seem more or less all right.”
Brody smiled a little. “Like you said, it’s not like you’ve known us forever. But we can all be messes together while, at the same time, being just us. We don’t have to put on any sort of facades for families, for the school,” He shrugged. “For this world that needs Ups to be what we are. It’s so easy for the Collective to be ourselves, and we’re not all bad.”
Slowly, Chiara nodded, spinning in a slow circle as she moved forward. Brody smiled gently. She was so tough, emerging from the depths of the Downs, street savvy as an alley cat. Then she had these innocent moments where she could twirl down the hall in her skirt and be little again. They were beautiful moments and Brody loved to watch them. He loved it when she tripped over her shoelaces, dropped peas in her lap, or seemed to melt when she discovered a new food that she learned to love. He had come to treasure those moments when she was not fighting for her well-being. Just like with the guys, it had become easy to be with Chiara as well. He did not know when it started, but, when he was with her, he felt he had known her all of his life. From the moment she criticized his violin practice, he had known she was not like most girls and he had to find out why, to figure her out, like a puzzle or a machine.
Then she had cried after her bike was cruelly broken by the students obeying the Collective card and she had become a real, living person with troubles of her own. It had changed everything.
She listened. She nodded in all the right places and tried to understand his way of thinking as he explained, reasoned, painted a picture of words for her. It helped Brody work out all of his own answers that way. Already, together they had solved many of the world’s problems over lunches on the study benches in the gardens.
In only a week, he had come to trust her, and he felt that she trusted him.
It was a different feeling, indeed.
“I’m afraid…” she started slowly. “Of judging the Collective where I don’t have the right to. At the same time, Jay did give me the Collective card and gave the entire school the go-ahead to force me to leave as soon as possible, by any means possible. Understandably, that’s going to put him on my bad side. But you’ve managed to get on my good side, so that has to mean there’s hope for the others somewhere.” She tucked her hands behind her back and raised her eyebrows, looking very much like a child. “Can you help me find it?”
Brody smiled fondly. He had discovered a special smile that only Chiara could seem to bring about. It felt warm on his face. “I can try." He cleared his throat like their World History professor. "Let’s start with Dante. He's the son of the Eastern seaboard’s most prominent Mafia captain. Since he was born, there was this...necessity to become what his father is, and Vaughn is not the nicest guy. Dante hates it, but he can’t let anyone else know that. He has a reputation to keep up. So he hides it all, letting his anger...cool until it freezes over, and all he has left is kindness.” He shrugged. “No one can see it, but he is the kindest guy you could ever know. Then there’s Oliver. Everyone thinks he depends so heavily on his dad’s luck for his fortune, but he has earned every cent of it himself. He is so talented, but stuck with a stereotype he can’t escape. In order to do anything for himself, he’s had to work twice as hard as anybody, just to be his own person. You’ll never find a more hard-working person than Oliver. And Jay,” He paused, clenching his jaw a little. Chiara slowed, cocking her head. “He…”
“Let me guess,” she interjected with a raised finger. “The baddest of the bunch.”
Brody chewed his lip for a second. Dante and Oliver were relatively transparent about their issues, at least with the Collective. They were easier to read and easier to help. Jay, on the other hand, had worked so hard on his emotional walls for so long, that he had barely opened up, even to Brody. Jay Newhall had created a character that was not real in order to hide his true character, a person of whom he was ashamed because of the person who made him feel ashamed.
He had changed himself to accommodate the world around him.
“His baggage...is a little more complicated. He overcomes it in his own way. No one sees it, however much I wish they would.”
“I want to see it," Chiara breathed. "Tell me.”
Brody smiled sadly, sliding his hands into his slacks pockets.
“Jay...is loyal to a fault. Dante, Oliver, and I all know that we can trust him with anything at all! He’ll burn his reputation at the stake before he lets anyone mess with his friends. That’s partly why he is so careful about whom he chooses to befriend. He’s so careful.” He chuckled softly to himself. “Get on his bad side, you’re in trouble. Get on his good side, he’ll treat you like royalty.”
Chiara released a slow breath through her nose, then shook her head. “I wish I could see it.”
“Give it time,” Brody laughed, hurrying to open the next door for her. She ducked out into the cold. “And patience.”
Chiara scoffed lightly, raising a hand to block the watery, late autumn sun’s pointed rays into her face. Brody followed the light’s trail, watching as the sunbeams danced in her hazel eyes, playing across her perfect tan complexion, stroking her luscious lips. He liked that she did not wear the mask of makeup like the other girls on campus. Every expression, every facet of her face, was natural and real, and that much more attractive.
Everything about her was attractive.
His stomach tightened.
She sighed lightly. “I don’t know how much patience I’ve got left. I’ve got to get a new bike soon, or I might drop dead on the way to school one morning, but I can’t take anything out of the emergency funds yet. I’ll just have to work more hours. Or pull in favors.” She pursed her lips in irritation. “Oh well. I knew I would have to sometime.” Slowly, she looked up to meet his eyes again. “But what about you?”
Brody smiled tightly. He had wondered when the question would surface.
“Yeah. Everyone has a story. What’s yours?”
He released a short breath, sliding his hands into his pockets with a little shrug. “Just a rich kid…manager of this enormous fortune he doesn’t really want to worry about.”
Chiara cocked her head and the sun glared off of her bright hair like a reflector. “You’ve still got some time left, right?”
He chuckled sadly, blinking. He had not cried in years. Now would not be any different.
“My parents...are not doing well. They can't really...handle much of anything now.”
He watched her brow slowly tighten, then crease as she frowned, looking down at her shoes. Brody could not remember the last time he had seen someone look so hurt on his behalf. His skin tingled. It was almost eerie, seeing his emotions, his bottled feelings, reflected in her face.
“So, you’re not really…the heir to the Hilton fortune.”
“I run it.”
Most girls might have congratulated him, grinning and flipping their hair and kissing his cheek and proposing marriage to one of the richest individuals in the United States, or they would have petted him, crooning over how much of a burden must rest on his shoulders and how much they wished they could help.
Chiara stepped forward, slipping her arms underneath his, and hugged him comfortably around the middle.
Brody found himself holding his breath, his hands still in his pockets, staring straight ahead. Her head fit so perfectly beneath his, her chin at his chest and forehead at his shoulder. They were like two puzzle pieces, made only to match the other. It was amazing, something he had never anticipated.
How could someone be so perfect?
She angled her head up and he looked down to meet her eyes. She drew in a breath.
“You’re awesome. You know that?”
Despite himself, he laughed, shaking his head. “You manage to completely stump me for words!”
She smiled. “You don’t seem to have much of a problem.” She stepped away to face Brody again and he blinked. Already, he wanted her arms around him again. He missed it. “Guess I’d better get to class. Lunch?”
He managed to nod. “Yeah. Same bench.”
Chiara smiled. “Cool. Thank you.” She touched his arm. “See you later.”
She turned and sprinted for MD. Brody watched her go, studying her fluid motions. She had grown more comfortable in the uniform skirt, he had noticed. Still, she would look better in pants. Of course, that would require seeing her outside of school.
Slowly, his eyes were dragged up, back over his shoulder towards the Humanities building. The roof was where it all started.
Sure enough, a slender shadow stood leaning against the marble rail.
Brody drew in a breath. Maybe he could make some of this stop. Maybe he could make a difference after all. Chiara had said he could try, at least, and he knew she was right.
Something had to change. If he was not going to take the first step, who would?
He put one foot in front of the other.