The night seemed colder without her bike. Maybe it had not seemed too cold because she was done faster. On wheels, she could finish twelve neighborhoods in four hours. At this rate, she was going to wear through her battered, hand-me-down tennis shoes before finishing her third.
Chiara trudged her feet across the gravel, half-heartedly flinging rubber-banded newspapers into the doorways of another Burroughs neighborhood. It had been a long night so far and it would only continue to be a long night. The hard facts that she was cold, tired, and hungry added to the discomfort of the heavy bag digging into her narrow shoulder. Her distressed skinny jeans, hi-tops that used to be white, and men’s black hoodie pull-over did little to block the piercing wind. The streetlights flickered fitfully, their incessant buzzing the only sound filling the thin, sharp autumn air, aside from the occasional rumble of the borough route trains. Mostly the C, she figured. Despite having never taken the IRT due to the ridiculously high entrance fare, she had memorized the routes.
“Who reads newspapers anyway?” she mumbled, kicking a dying hedge as she hurled another bundle at a door. It slammed into the wood and dropped limply to the step. She frowned at it and continued along the sidewalk. “Nothing good happens. Just depressing stocks and stupid…”
She froze, one heel touched to the sidewalk in front of her. Her ears twitched.
Somebody had yelled.
Once upon a time, she would have had the power of a word or a favor to free nearly anybody from a mugging. Generally, too, the gangs on the street were not sanctioned by Alan Armister and the black market, simply following their own make-money-quick schemes; they were easy to dismantle and scatter with a simple reminder that she knew all the right people. After her ice skating accident, street connections had not seemed so important to cultivate. When her dad had been laid off, she had pulled most of her favors to make sure her family stayed in their apartment. There was not much left for her in the streets except for mostly honest work that earned barely enough money to justify the labor. Additionally, there were those street gangs over whom she never had any power. Those who answered to the Vaughn family were too rough for her and most of the Downs. Generally, they kept to themselves and came out to collect protection fees. Muggings were somewhat unusual in their areas.
Stepping into a brawl at this point might prove dangerous.
A look could not hurt, though.
Chiara dropped her newspaper bag to the sidewalk and jogged across the street to the other track of run-down homes. A twisted link fence did a pitiful job of blocking the entrance to one of the alleys between blocks. She stepped close to it, peering through the rusted chains dripping to the concrete. Her brow tightened.
Four vaguely familiar characters bent over another, huddled on the pavement with his arms wrapped around his head, grunting with every solid contact. One of the assailants yanked a bag from the victim’s shoulder and he barked a wild protest. He was dealt a meaty slap across the face in return. Chiara cocked her head. She had definitely seen the attackers before, but she had seen most of the lower members of the Downs. Placing them as to when and where she would have seen them would be more difficult, and so would finding a way to manipulate the situation into her favor, or at least the favor of the victim.
She shrugged. What was the worst that could happen? She reached up and hooked her fingers into the fence links, launching up and over the fence to land solidly on the other side. She grunted slightly in annoyance, noting the way her body naturally favored her left knee.
The group of alley assailants glanced back over their shoulders in her direction, and the faces clicked in Chiara’s memory. They were underground runners for the black market, people she had often conversed and cooperated with. Why would black market runners be mugging someone in an alley?
Alan Armister slowly straightened, stretching his arms across his chest. He grinned sleepily as Chiara’s stomach churned.
“Evening, Cheech. What are you doing out so late?”
Chiara shook her head hurriedly, taking a long step forward with a rigid finger jabbed at her old friend’s chest.
“No, what are you doing here? Beating people up? Is that what you do now, after years of teaching me every other way in the book to find a means in the Downs?”
Alan chuckled, shaking his hands in wild emphasis and closing the space between him and Chiara. “No, no, no, Cheech, you don’t know the whole story!” He gently rubbed her shoulders between his hands, meeting her eyes evenly. The flickering street light reflected eerily off of his dark brown eyes. Inwardly, Chiara sighed. She used to find comfort in his gaze. Now, she just felt betrayed.
“What’s the whole story?” she growled. He jerked his head back towards the victim.
“The Ups are finally working up the courage to start stepping outside of their bounds. I have to protect you, Cheech, and your family, no matter what.”
Again, her stomach clenched and her skin went clammy. The Ups were in the Burroughs. Chiara stepped away from him, yanking herself from his grip and marching forward to the runners and their victim. They stepped back for her; they had never been the violent type to begin with. The victim rolled to look up, separating his arms from his head to peer up through the darkness.
Chiara slowly lifted two fingers to pinch the bridge of her nose, screwing her eyes tightly shut, then opening one eye again to make sure nothing had changed.
Jay Newhall sniffed past a bloody nose, narrowing his eyes at her.
Chiara dropped her hand from her face, clenching her jaw tightly.
“What are you doing here?” she growled through her teeth. Jay shook his head a little, shoving himself to sit upright.
“None of your business,” he wheezed, coughing as his nose plugged again with dark blood. Chiara rolled her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest.
“I could let them keep beating you up.”
Jay frowned, throwing an arm out quizzically. “How are you going to stop them from doing that anyway?”
“Yeah, hon,” Alan sighed, draping an arm over her shoulder. “How are you going to stop us?”
Chiara did not bother to shrug his arm from her shoulders, glancing at each of the black market runners standing awkwardly around their victim. They fidgeted beneath her gaze. Slowly, she nodded.
A middle aged, husky man in battered jeans and an oversized sweatshirt sighed, braced his hands on his hips.
“What do you want, Dalton?”
She cocked her head, her hair tumbling over her shoulder and tickling her neck. “I remember you. How’s your daughter? I trust her recovery went well, what with that top-notch treatment she received?”
He dropped his head to his chest, scratching the back of his neck. He nodded a little. “Yeah, she’s…fine,” he muttered under his breath. Alan released a sharp groan, throwing his head backwards in exasperation.
“Oh, please! Getting a six year old past all that health insurance nonsense is child’s play! Illegal, but child's play.”
“Sure, but she was the one who did it,” Lawton sighed. He backed up a step. “Sorry, Alan, I’m out this time.”
Alan chuckled as the older man trudged away, unhooking his arm from Chiara’s shoulders. She glanced across at him and he met her eyes from the corner of his gaze. He shook his head, eyebrows high on his forehead.
“Why am I feeling jealous?” he muttered. Chiara elbowed him in the ribs and marched forward as he doubled over with a laugh. The other assailants slowly backed up as she bent to pick up the designer leather satchel that had been thrown to the side. Jay’s eyes followed her as she crouched beside him, holding the bag strap by one finger in front of him. She raised her eyebrows.
“What are you doing in the Burroughs?” she murmured. Jay rolled his eyes, cutting off in a wince and raising a hand to his temple. A thin stream of blood leaked from his ear.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you I was doing a favor for a friend, would you?”
Chiara slowly cocked her head. Her loose braid toppled over her shoulder. Jay watched it fall. Slowly, she nodded.
“Strangely enough, I would.” She glanced over her shoulder as Alan straightened, rubbing his stomach. “Keep your guys off of him, Alan. He didn’t ask for this.”
The black market leader scoffed, spreading his arms incredulously. “He came here, didn’t he?”
“Should I tell him and all his police buddies how often you journey to the Ups? And exactly what you do there?”
“I don’t know; I’m finding out a lot about myself tonight.”
The young man’s eyes flicked between her and Jay, his amused expression lingering for too long. Chiara felt a shiver run down her back. She could not remember the moment the person who had been like her older brother became this slimy cockroach content to manipulate the world around him, watch it writhe and endure its torturous existence, to emerge victorious and reap the fruits of his labor. Once upon a time, he had allowed himself to look sad every now and then.
Now, it always looked like he knew something no one else did. Something that would change their lives for the worse.
He chuckled again, raising his hands in a helpless gesture and backing up a step. “Fine. Fine. But, hey, when the Burroughs get turned upside-down someday soon, don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
Chiara raised one eyebrow. “Don’t worry. I won’t.”
Alan jerked his head and the middle aged market runners awkwardly turned to follow. They all nodded to Chiara in acknowledgement and she nodded back. They still seemed to like her to an extent. Maybe she still had some pull in the Downs.
It was quiet again.
She turned back to Jay as he shoved himself to an elbow, rubbing his thumb across the blood streaming from his nose over his upper lip.
“Can you get up?”
The Newhall heir nodded, rolling onto a knee. “I’m fine and you can go now.” He pushed himself to his feet and instantly moaned, collapsing again and clapping a hand around his left ankle. His jaw visibly tightened. “Oh, wow.”
Chiara sighed, nodding as she sat back on a heel. “That’s what I thought. The angle your leg was at was definitely going to result in at least a sprained ankle.”
Jay scoffed through clenched teeth, shaking his head. “Oh, please, what do you know? I have my own doctor. I don’t need your comments!”
“No,” Chiara agreed, playing with the laces of her sneakers and watching the elite student of the Globe attempt once more to push himself to his feet. He balanced on one leg, the other foot gingerly brushing the gravel. “But you do need an ice pack if you’re going to have anything close to a normal sized leg tomorrow.”
“Like I said,” Jay sighed, spinning on his foot to face her. Chiara carefully watched his eyes glaze over with a dizzy film. Definitely concussed. In as subtle a movement as possible, she backed up on the pavement. “I’ll see…my doctor…”
He promptly doubled over to his knees once more, his body convulsing as he retched violently onto the ancient gravel. Chiara sighed, standing up and brushing off the seat of her pants.
“Tomorrow, yeah. How you getting home?”
He did not respond, thoroughly occupied with regurgitating the remainders of his dinner that night. Chiara looked back up at the moon hanging high in the sky.
“Maybe midnight. Dad won’t be home yet and Mom’ll be asleep. Grant’s practically dead after nine. We should be good.” She looked back at her classmate and patted him roughly on the back. “Hurry up and get it out; we’ve got just a little ways to go.”
“Where?” Jay choked, wiping the sleeve of his coat across his mouth. Chiara’s eyebrows shot up as she considered how much the beige leather had to have cost.
“To my place. It’s way closer and you’re not getting far on that ankle and in your general condition. This concussion is going to make you dizzy and want to throw up everything you eat for the next four days, at least.”
Jay groaned again, letting himself fall onto his side and hugging an arm around his stomach.
“I want to die,” he whispered.
Despite herself, Chiara giggled. With his face contorted in disgust and utter misery, he was somehow much more appealing than he had ever been. She crouched by him again, patting his shoulder in a friendly manner.
“Nobody really means that. Come on, I’ll help you walk.”
“I don’t want to go to your house. Call me a cab.”
“Pfft, no! You’re in the Downs, Newhall! Any cab driver will just drive you somewhere dark and out of the way and you’ll never see the light of day again.” She shrugged. “At least my place has cookies.”
His eyes flicked up to her again, red-rimmed and glazed with concussed nausea. Chiara shook her extended hand.
“We’ll arrange for you to get home tomorrow morning.”
He looked down at her hand. Slowly, he reached for it, closing his fingers around hers. Chiara smirked, carefully hauling him back onto his feet. He gasped, transferring all of his weight onto his right side to favor his injured ankle. Chiara ducked underneath his arm, draping it over her shoulders.
“Let me take some of your weight. You’ll just get exhausted this way.”
She felt him obey and she easily took his weight, adjusting his position over her shoulders.
“I have it. What’s so special about it?”
“The favor for the friend.”
Chiara glanced up at him. As usual, his face was close. This time, though, he was far from taunting her. This time, his visage was far from perfect: pale, shiny with sweat, cut and stained with blood.
This was the version of a man to which Chiara was accustomed in the Downs.
He nodded down to the bag dangling from Chiara’s shoulder.
“It’s in there.”
Slowly, she nodded her understanding, looking forward again. The dark alleys of the Downs loomed ominously ahead. “I’ll take care of it. Come on, right foot first. Good. Lean more weight on me. Left foot. Careful.”
It was slow going, Chiara needing to gently elbow the Up as he would fall asleep standing up and trip over his own feet. At the apartment, the elevator was broken, as usual. Chiara rolled her eyes deep into her head, slowly glancing up at Jay. He was pale and looked ready to pass out.
“How you feel about going up the stairs?” she whispered. He shook his head, pursing his lips.
“I’ll die,” he replied shortly. Chiara nodded.
“Stairs it is, than. It’s only the second story. You’ll be fine.”
“I’m going to throw up.”
“Do it here! We don’t want to be smelling that all night.”
He obeyed and Chiara waited until he finished before taking his arm again and leading him to the stairs. Jay leaned on her heavily, hopping on one foot up every step. Chiara took his weight silently. She was already exhausted, having accumulated a total of ten hours of sleep over the week. However, she had helped too many victims of assault and drunken fistfights home at the end of a long day, and she knew that their level of fatigue far outweighed hers. Jay Newhall was not used to this life and he never would be. The least she could do for him was get him home safely.
B5 glinted at her like an old friend. Chiara dug in her jeans pocket for her key and jiggled the handle until the door jerked open with a familiar squeal of protest.
“Here, lie down on the couch.” She flicked the light on. “I’ll get the ice pack. Do you want to take a bath or something?”
Jay rose an eyebrow to her as he gingerly lowered himself to the old, weathered couch. Chiara set the designer leather bag on the seat beside him. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
Chiara cocked her head, crossing to the kitchen and pulling a long ice pack from the freezer.
“Nice? This isn't being nice. Isn’t this just what’s required of us as humans?” She sat on the other side of the couch. “Lay down and give me your ankle.”
He slowly obeyed, turning to prop his head up on the armrest. Chiara gently took his injured ankle and laid it in her lap.
“It already does.”
Carefully, she pulled his shoe off. He gasped sharply, his fingers curling around the soft material of the couch and squeezing hard. Hurriedly, Chiara wrapped the ice pack around his ankle, holding it in place.
She felt him slowly relax against the soft cushions, releasing a slow sigh of relief. “It is helping.” He let silence reign for a long second before looking down at her again. “Required of us as humans?”
Chiara nodded. “Yeah. Isn’t there some common law that, if you see someone who is hurt, and you can help him, you should?” She shrugged, looking down at his ankle again. It was at least twice the size of a healthy ankle, but she was not about to tell him that. “At least, that makes sense to me.”
“What…what if it hurts you in the end?” She looked up at him, meeting his eyes curiously. He shrugged, looking away to let his eyes roam the rest of the apartment. “Or someone else you know? What if you don’t help people…to protect them?”
Chiara narrowed her eyes, studying his face. He was falling asleep again, but he seemed curious.
“That doesn’t make much sense to me. Of course, I guess it depends on your situation, but…if you’re able to help someone…you should.”
“No matter what.”
“Yeah. I figure that what goes around comes around. You can never help too many people.”
“Huh. So that’s how you got those jerks to leave me alone. You practically sent them running.”
Chiara chuckled, gently applying more pressure to the ankle. He sucked in a sharp breath.
“Exactly. Do someone a favor they’ll never forget and you’re friends forever! I tend to believe in kindness over fear, anyway.”
“That guy Armister didn’t seem to think that way.”
Her smile faded and she pursed her lips.
“You said he taught you everything you know.”
“He used to be different.”
“I hope you’re not defending him.”
“Does it look like I condoned his behavior tonight? I don’t control the Downs like he does, and I can’t do much to turn his methods over anymore. I don’t like what he does, but the most I can do right now is be kind and hope people know they can trust me.” She took a pillow at her elbow and propped it beneath his ankle, standing and moving to the kitchen again. “Let’s clean up your face. You’re pretty concussed and will have a headache for the next couple days, but you don’t have to have a mask of blood while you’re at it.”
She pulled the q-tips, gauze, and alcohol from their respective cabinets and sat on the edge of the couch again, closer to him so she could reach his face. Jay watched as she dipped the end of a q-tip in the alcohol and reach forward to touch it to the cut at his temple.
“I turned the whole school against you,”
She stopped, pulling the medicinal equipment away again. He stared at her intently, his brow furrowed in confusion and his blue, blue eyes glazed with exhausted persistence.
“And you’re still like this.”
Chiara looked down at her hands, one holding a q-tip and the other a bottle of alcohol. Her fingers shook with lack of sleep and food, but she was confident. She had treated many others like this. Jay was still no different. Finally, she shrugged.
“I don’t believe revenge really accomplishes anything. I was ready to ignore you after you pulled the Collective card, but…” She touched the wet tip of the soft q-tip to his temple. He winced, but did not look away from her. “I heard you through the door. That day I brought cookies for Brody.”
“You said you were afraid to be my friend.” She smiled a little. “I don’t know if I’m the one making you afraid, or if it’s your mom,”
He sighed, turning away to stare at the couch. “Brody needs to keep his mouth shut.”
“No, I’m glad he told me. I tend to be too judgmental and…this just taught me how little I know. You could be a really good guy who’s just caught in a bad situation, and maybe I could have been that friend who saved you from that bad situation. But I wasn’t because I was mad at you for something in the past. Don’t get me wrong,” she hurriedly added, frowning deeply at him. “I’m still mad.” He hid a chuckle with a scoff and an eye roll. Chiara applied more alcohol as punishment. “But maybe I won’t always be. Not that I’d expect you to really care, but maybe school doesn’t have to be such a scary place anymore.”
Jay sighed lightly. “Maybe it doesn’t. I wish it never had to be.”
Chiara slowly cocked her head, raising her eyebrows. “Wait, is…are you opening up to me?”
He rolled his eyes again. “Don’t flatter yourself! Sounds like you know most of the story, due to Brody being unable to hide anything from you!”
“Oh, please, that’s not how we are. He’s just being nice to the bullied kid at school.”
She sighed, throwing her arms open helplessly. “Okay, what does that mean? I saved your life so you do not get to be cryptic.”
He smiled a little and Chiara saw the teasing light spark in his eyes again. “Aw, you getting a little anxious? Digging for inside information here? I am Brody’s best friend, after all. I hear all the juicy stuff.”
Chiara’s eyes narrowed. “You do understand that you’re in my house,” She reached back and touched the ice pack. Jay’s smile disappeared and he straightened against the arm rest. “And I have power.”
“Fine,” he breathed, extending a calming hand. “Fine, fine, fine! I mean, I’m not going to tell you Brody’s secrets or anything, but I won’t…tease you, I guess.”
“Good. I’m going to get some compression bandages to wrap your foot, then you take a bath. I’ll wake you up in plenty of time for school tomorrow.”
“Oh. All my days are blending together. Just rest. I’ll make sure you get home.”