The days were growing painfully cold, but Chiara could not bring herself to spend her free period inside. Winter looked good on the Globe.
She tapped her pen against her lips, her eyes skating over the professor’s red-inked comments on her last economics essay. Underlines, circles, asterisks, and a bold A on the front page. It was still a satisfying sight, even after almost two months of being the top student in half of her classes. The Downs schools had almost completely gotten rid of grades altogether to encourage kids to come back to school without fear of failing out of their level. The Downs teachers were satisfied simply if the child could read.
If one could read, one could teach oneself anything.
Chiara appreciated that. She was used to working hard. The Globe classes appealed to the part of her that enjoyed it. Already, she could not believe that the semester was nearly halfway over.
This reward system of grades was nice, too.
“Another A, huh?”
She felt herself cringe sharply. The Collective Card had been pulled for weeks, but Chiara sensed no improvement in the general attitude towards her. She considered it a good day if she was utterly ignored in passing. Slowly, she looked up through the curtain of golden tangles draped over her face, hoping against hope that the owner of the voice was not addressing her. Of course, there were not many others outside during her free period.
A girl stood quite still, clutching a designer black leather purse riddled with oversized buttons of punk bands and obscure animated characters. Fashionably torn black leggings and high-heeled black boots hugged her slender legs beneath the short uniform skirt and a tattered black scarf hid her neck. A bob of fluffy, pale pink hair brushed her thin, pale cheeks. Large, round brown eyes, half hidden beneath capes of light blue eyelids and thick black lashes, stared evenly at Chiara.
A green bubble slowly grew from her lips.
Chiara nodded once, devising as short an answer to the obvious question as possible.
The bubble popped and the girl started chewing her gum again.
Chiara raised her eyebrows. The comment felt unfinished but the student did not seem inclined to continue. She seemed completely content to stand there, chewing her gum. Again, Chiara nodded.
She looked down at her essay. The Up did not seem to be digging for conversation.
“You’re pretty smart for a Downs girl.”
Chiara released an exasperated breath, looking up with a plastic smile.
“Yeah, well, a lot of things about the Downs might surprise you! Can I help you or do you have something better to do than talk to the Downs girl?”
The student rolled her eyes with a sharp moan. “You’re so slow for a straight A! So, basically, Professor Brighton told me to ask you to tutor me.”
Chiara straightened, the papers in her hand crinkling sharply. Of all scenarios she had played in her head, this was not one she had expected.
“Tutor you? In…in what?”
The girl pulled a smart phone from her purse and flicked her thumb across the screen, shrugging a little as she snapped her gum loudly.
“Like, everything, I guess. Apparently, I’m failing all over the place and my parents would, like, kill me if I got kicked out of this school.”
Chiara watched her swipe across her screen for another minute. She did not have time to tutor. The nightly paper runs were draining enough, especially without a bike. Days were getting harder and harder to manage with this continuous lack of sleep.
Maybe some negotiating was in order.
“What’s your name?” she inquired. The Up raised her eyebrows, not looking away from her phone.
“Ana. Well, Analisa, but everybody calls me Ana.”
Chiara nodded once. “Okay, Ana. I’m going to talk to Professor Brighton about this and see exactly what you need. I’ll get back to you. I’ll find you in the cafeteria tomorrow.”
Ana frowned. “Why don’t I give you my number and you can just text me?”
Chiara shrugged “Haven’t got a phone. I’ll just find you.”
The Up rolled her eyes a little. “Fine. Do what you want. Just don’t tell my parents I’m getting tutored and I’m fine.” She looked up from her phone, her eyes widening drastically. “You know what? Don’t say anything about this to anyone, okay? No one needs to know I’m getting tutored -”
“By a surprisingly smart Downs girl.” Chiara touched her nose in understanding. “My lips are sealed.”
“On the condition,” a new voice contributed from behind. The smart phone clattered to the cobblestones as Ana’s face blanched and Chiara leaned back against the bench, crossing her legs and folding her hands over her knee comfortably. Brody leaned his hands on the back of the bench on either side of her shoulders. “That you stop rolling your eyes. She’s your tutor; show some respect!”
“Yeah,” Chiara added firmly. “Respect.”
Analisa opened her mouth, gesturing weakly before words came out.
“Mr. Hilton…why are you on her side?”
“Side?” Brody rounded the bench and sat beside Chiara, crossing his legs elegantly. “What side? I seem to remember the card being pulled.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that she’s a Downs girl!”
Brody cocked his head. “Which does not change the fact that no one seems to be threatening to kick her out of the Globe. The same can't be said for you, and you need her to ensure that the threats stay threats.”
Chiara bit her lips together, desperately fighting the shocked smile stretching her mouth. Brody leaned back in satisfaction. Analisa backed up several steps, her face blushing red beneath her pink hair. She spread her hands helplessly.
“Fine. I hope you don’t get on the rest of the Collective’s bad side, Mr. Hilton!”
The heir chuckled, raising a hand in acknowledgement. “Oh, don’t worry about me! We all seem to be on the same page.”
She clenched her jaw and spun down the walkway, her high heels clicking rapidly on the cobblestones.
Chiara slowly buried her face in her hands.
“That was…so mean.”
“No wonder everybody thinks the Collective is just a bunch of jerks!”
“You really want to laugh.”
She threw her arms out and pummeled his arm as he yelped in surprise, sliding down the bench and raising his arms to defend his face even as he laughed.
“Say you’re sorry!”
“For what? Helping you out?”
“What? No! Get off!”
Chiara relented, leaning back on the bench. She tucked her legs beneath her and tossed her hair from her face as Brody straightened, releasing a relieved breath. She smiled.
Brody scoffed, winking at her as he rubbed his arm. “Can’t have everyone treat you like a dog forever. Congratulations, by the way! It’s kind of an honor to be asked by Professor Brighton to tutor anybody.”
“I always thought he hated me.”
“He does. Brighton hates everyone. That’s why it’s an honor.” He leaned an elbow on the back of the bench and propped the side of his head in his open palm so he faced Chiara, his eyebrows high in his approving smile. “I’m proud of you.”
Chiara cocked her head, her eyebrows tightening quizzically. “Why?” she prompted. “Because I’m your friend? Because I’m the first Downs to make it here?”
“You know it’s not bad to be from the Downs, right?” Brody sighed, closing his eyes briefly. “I feel like we keep having this conversation, then you agree, and then you say something that makes me feel the need to express this all over again.” He opened his eyes and met her gaze evenly. “You are you. The Downs don’t define you. You’re not a Downs who made it high up in the world. Chiara Dalton made it high up in the world.” He nodded once in emphasis. “Right?”
She smiled softly. “That’s so funny. You sound just like my dad.”
“Oh, good!” Brody chuckled. “All I ever heard your dad say was ‘don’t mess with my Chiara’!”
She laughed, poking his shoulder hard. “Yeah, Mr. Hilton, don’t mess with Chiara!”
“Trust me,” he breathed, shaking his head with a deep-chested chuckle. “I won’t. Ever.”
“Hmm.” She smiled in contentment, shifting so she sat on her heels, the cold iron of the bench pressing into her knees. Brody’s tall frame blocked the biting wind quite conveniently and, somehow, after these two and a half months of attending the Globe, she was not afraid to be close to him. “Thank you for that. So, is there a reward for earning something like Brighton’s praise? Or Brody Hilton’s pride?”
There was a long silence. Chiara was not inclined to hurry him. Silence with Brody was not a bad thing. She was relaxed, and not performing with an uncomfortable mask that was meant for someone else.
The list of people with whom she could be herself was short, and he was there.
“Go out with me?”
Slowly, she looked up at him. He angled his head down to meet her eyes. She raised her eyebrows.
Brody drew in a breath. “Chiara, will you go out with me?”
She dropped her eyes to her essay. The bright red A glared up at her. She had just settled into this new normality.
Brody chuckled. “Yes, Cheech, you! Will you go out with me?”
Chiara swallowed, feeling her stomach twist a little. What was happening?
“Like…on a date?”
The Collective member nodded, his hazel eyes burning insistently into her memory. She knew this gaze was something she could never forget, filed just beside a blue-eyed stare she never could seem to understand. Brody’s was one she understood, but had not anticipated. She bit her lip, swallowing heavily as he replied.
“Yeah. You and me, on a date.”
Chiara slowly looked down at her essay again, no longer really seeing the words. This was stupid. She was barely making life work with attending this insane school that justified too much to save the institution’s reputation, as well as working nights in secret. That was the problem. There were secrets at school, secrets at home, secrets on the streets. Alan Armister was growing more and more violent and Chiara was getting the feeling that some of it was her fault. Staying awake would always be an ordeal.
Adding a relationship made no sense.
She cleared her throat. “This is going to sound weird.”
Brody chuckled softly, but she could tell that it was not so lighthearted as he wanted it to sound. He was worried.
“You’re a Downs at the Globe! Everything sounds weird nowadays. Go ahead.”
She winced. “Could…could we do a trial run?”
His eyebrows slowly tightened in confusion. “A what?”
Chiara sighed. “Okay, you know most of my situation. I’m at school during the day and working nights. Half of my life is secret from my parents because they will make me quit and we can’t afford that. I have to be careful of everything. I don’t know how to add anything else to my life right now and make it work. So…can we do a trial date? Just to see?”
Brody slowly nodded. “So like a date without calling it an official date.”
She straightened. “Yeah!”
He chuckled incredulously. “Huh! Well, okay, let’s do that!” He swallowed, lowering his eyes. “Honestly, Cheech, I don’t care what we call it. I just…I really want to spend time with you. I want to get to know you so much better. You’re one of the most honest, real people I know and…I need that, I think. It’s like a breath of fresh air.” He grinned, winking up at her. “So I can’t wait for our trial date.”
Chiara smiled a little, desperately trying to ignore the flipping madness her stomach insisted upon. “Cool. Me neither.”
He stood, sliding his hands into his slacks pockets. It was getting colder, if that was possible, and his fingers had started turning white with the biting breeze.
“I only had a couple minutes between classes so I’ve got to get going. Are you free this Saturday?”
Slowly, she nodded. “Yeah.”
“Cool. I’ll pick you up at six.” He winked again, then spun and strolled down the path towards the buildings.
Chiara slumped against the bench, her hands limp around the paper in her lap. She wished that she had a moment every now and then to think about herself. Every moment was poured into ensuring that there was food on the table and the bills were paid every time they came around. For herself, there was so much uncertainty. She had never thought about being in a relationship with a guy. Her observations of manly qualities usually revolved around how they would benefit her family, or how they took care of their own. Her list of standards for potential boyfriends was not very well thought out.
She knew for certain that she wanted to like him a lot.
She did like Brody. He had made her feel safe when very few others had. He was there for her when it mattered. She was comfortable with him.
But was that enough for her?
The clock tower announced a musical two in the afternoon. Chiara sighed sharply, sliding her essay into her backpack and standing.
“And on to the next thing."