Free period was definitely a new concept.
In the Downs, the lowest parts of New York City, the public schools tended to get out two hours early so the teens could get to their part time jobs or night shifts or take care of younger siblings while their parents were out at jobs they could not afford to lose. A free period in the middle of the school day seemed completely random, but gratifying.
Chiara knew she probably should take the free two and half hours to study, but her brain was completely fried by the list of impossible classes laid out on her schedule. Advanced chemistry, Astrophysics, Business Studies, Classical Studies, Environmental Management, Applied Science, and Computer Programming. The last two classes had been on the verge of fun, as she spent most of whatever free time she had with mechanics and electronics of some kind.
She used to spend it doing much more active things, but that was a long time ago.
It was far too cold to be doing anything much outside, but she could not help herself. Inside, there were far too many people, all throwing the most obnoxiously judging glances and whispering behind her back as she moved from classroom to classroom. Apparently, not all students took their free periods at the same time, so most of the campus was left free to walk around without disruption.
Chiara let her legs swing wide out and forward as she slowly walked the cobblestoned path. She had no idea where she was going. The path led her down a shallow slope, between two buildings she recognized as Social Sciences and Physical Education. There was a double glass door into Physical Education. She rose her eyebrows curiously, shoving a shoulder into the push bar and sliding inside. Instantly, her jaw dropped.
Half of the first floor was split between a basketball, volleyball, and tennis courts. Everything was new and shiny and colorful, uniforms hanging along the walls with another door leading into what she assumed were locker rooms. If her public high-school in the Downs had had anything like this, she might never have gotten a part time job.
But the high-school had been close to what she really loved.
There were stairs.
She was curious.
It got progressively colder as she descended, her shoes clicking with monstrous echoes throughout the building. Her breath started to freeze in frosty plumes before her lips, as it did outside. Her heart started racing.
The most beautiful ice rink she had ever seen stretched out in front of her, the unblemished surface glowing with perfection. A low concrete wall rose around it and a plexiglass window rose up another six feet. Rows and rows of ice skates hung by their shoelaces from the walls. Slowly, she moved along the wall, reaching up so her fingers brushed the dangling blades of immaculate white figure skates.
The rink by her old school had been nothing like this.
Her skin tingled. It had been a long time. Her eyes fixed on the ice. Her knee burned in bitter memory, trembling shafts of pain shivering up her spine.
Chiara stumbled back a step, catching her breath sharply. It had hurt too much, cost too much to fix, could never be fixed completely.
She could never skate again.
“The garden’s pretty, too.”
She spun and launched up the stairs. The natural cold bit her cheeks again. Chiara chewed the inside of her cheek, blinking rapidly as old tears rebelled against the old wall she had established years ago. Once upon a time, the stale chill of ice skating rinks had been the air she breathed. Now, it was just a reminder. She shook herself and swallowed, strolling back up the path towards the gardens.
The bare oak trees lined the path, casting their white light over the rest of the gardens. Chiara raised her eyebrows, letting her lips tweak upwards in a little smile. There were stunning plants, flowers exploding from the dirt along the sides. Even in the winter. There were beautiful, white iron benches scattered through the garden, complete with small desks with electrical outlets. It was the perfect study arrangement.
A musical string note varied from the speaker system that had quieted in this area. Chiara looked up, craning her neck to see beyond. There was a figure at one of the benches, standing with his back to her. He was wearing white. She frowned, not in the mood to meet anybody new, but he was playing the violin and he was not looking. It was pretty ideal. Silently, she moved forward, keeping her shoulder to the trees. He came into view.
He was almost obnoxiously tall, wearing white skinny jeans and a white leather jacket, the hem of a blood red shirt peeking out of the bottom. His shiny plastic hi-tops matched in color. His dark cinnamon hair was gelled in stylish curls. Chiara leaned her shoulder against an oak tree. He stood straight, his chin cocked elegantly against a glossy wood violin, drawing his bow across the strings with an elbow bent in perfect form. Rich, shivering notes emanated from the instrument, wafting through the wind towards her.
Chiara leaned her head against the cold bark of the tree, feeling her muscles relax. It was beautiful, just like everything else at this school.
But why was he not wearing a uniform?
He drew his bow across the strings one last time, lifting it in a twirling finish. Chiara straightened, hurriedly turning to go.
“I assume you liked it.”
She froze, screwing her eyes shut in frustration. Bound for more taunting. Slowly, she turned to face him. He was gently laying his violin on the bench and taking a little box of wax from the case. Chiara bit her tongue. He was impossibly handsome, his jaw cleanly cut and shaved, his hazel eyes set beneath a perfect brow. He rose his eyebrows, his face deadpan.
Chiara hurriedly shook her head. “That was...that was really good!”
He stared at her a second longer, then sighed, shaking his head and continuing to wax his bowstring.
“Just like everyone else.”
Chiara managed a low chuckle, shrugging her backpack into a more comfortable position.
“Okay, wise guy, I wasn’t finished.” He straightened again, Your little flourish at the end…” She twirled her finger in an example. “Very cocky and distracting. Unless, of course, you’re a solo performer as opposed to an orchestra participant.” She shrugged, looking up at the leafless trees. “Duh.”
His eyebrows slowly crinkled together and his mouth twitched upwards. “Duh.” His eyes flicked down to study his bow again. “I do happen to be a solo performer.”
“Ah. Then I assume you meant to be solo and cocky.”
He cocked his head in concession. “Something like that, I suppose.” He rose his eyebrows. “You’re new.”
Chiara shrugged, nodding slightly. “Yeah. So?”
“So,” He picked his violin up again, setting it against his shoulder. “You’re the first one who’s had the guts to tell me anything aside from perfection. You obviously don’t know who I am, or Wise Guy would not have been your first form of address.”
Chiara moaned, throwing her hands up in exasperation. “Holy crabbers, why is that everyone’s first comment when I don’t talk about their dad first thing?”
He rose his eyebrows and seemed to smile again. His eyes were so neutral. Chiara decided he did not smile much. He pointed to her with the violin bow.
“What’s your name?”
She cocked her head. “Well, you’re the first one to ask for it. I’m Chiara. Chiara Dalton.”
He nodded in understanding. “Okay, Chiara Dalton, seems like you know your orchestra parts. You play?”
Chiara laughed, shaking her head. “Pfft, never! I would never be able to keep a rhythm. That’s why I didn’t comment on yours.” She shrugged. “You could be a horrible musician and I wouldn’t be able to tell you.”
“You spoke with confidence enough.”
“Cause I’m a really great liar,” She waggled her eyebrows. “And you never told me your name, Wise Guy.”
He shrugged. “I like it that way.” He turned his back on her again, setting his bow against his violin again and dragging it across to produce another perfect note.
Chiara rose her eyebrows and opened her mouth, then shut it again and turned to walk the other way.
Let him be that way. She could not have cared less.
Of course, he was the first one who treated her with even a modicum of civility.
She chose a bench deep in the garden, dug her astrophysics book from her backpack, and plopped herself down for a serious hour and a half of studying before her English class. She rolled her eyes. Her Goethe study.
And it was gone. The bell rang again as Chiara made her way into the Humanities building. She paused against one of the smooth stucco walls, glancing back at the double doors. The regular flood of students trickled through them, gabbling to each other and filling the hall with teenager sounds. Chiara raised her eyebrows, content to watch for as long as possible. It was almost like coming to a zoo, watching them in their natural habitat. A bunch of eyes flicked to her and conversations dulled to mumbles. Chiara smiled, leaning back against the wall and crossing her arms over her chest. She was so over them. They could do anything they wanted to her.
“Guys, it’s the Collective!” somebody shrieked. The crowd condensed into a pack and thrilled screams ran over the crowd, girls arms swinging in ecstasy and boys jumping over shoulders to see better. Chiara’s eyebrows shot up and an amused giggle escaped her lips. These kids were ridiculous.
But, still, maybe it was good for her to get eyes on her competition.
She stood on her toes and just barely got a glimpse of the faces of the famous Collective.
As an integrated member of the Downs, Chiara had to know the names and faces of everyone she knew she had to avoid, and the Newhall and Vaughan families were high on the list. Instantly, she recognized Jay Newhall, the eighteen year old heir to the entire Newhall conglomerate and proud of it. His dark, fluffy hair was gelled just so, as it was in all of his newspaper and magazine model appearances. He wore an impeccable grey Italian suit with a sky blue tie in place of the school uniform, a heavy black overcoat flowing around his ankles so that his shined black shoes could be seen. Intense blue eyes pouted from a perfectly chiseled, sun-tanned, flawless face. He looked looked like he was constantly thinking about the last bad thing he ate no matter what the circumstance and, no matter how handsome everyone insisted he was, Chiara decided she could never admit that.
Seventeen year old Dante Vaughan, on the other hand, looked like he was always looking forward to the next awesome thing on his list and nothing else mattered. His narrow, dark eyes glinted straight ahead from his chocolate face, completely ignoring the world around him as he continued with a dreamy smile on his face. His curly black hair was always cropped short to his skull, and Chiara was aware of his preference for black suits and brightly colored ascots. His rich orange, polka-dotted ascot contrasted sharply with his smooth skin and brushed suit.
The two members of the Collective whom she did not recognize were Oliver Truitt and Brody Hilton, big names with faces that did not often make the news. When she looked closer, however, one of the faces connected with an art magazine she had seen in a good handful of store windows. Eighteen year old Oliver Truitt, forever famous for his youthful face and impossibly talented hand with any artistic platform. He smirked at the hyperventilating girls surrounding him, his hands tucked comfortably in the pockets of his large, navy blue overcoat hiding his blue suit. Every now and then, he would blow upwards at the tiny bit of dusty brown hair that would stray into his pale blue eyes. It would flop up, then drift downwards once more.
The last one had to be Brody Hilton. Chiara rose up on the very tips of her toes to find any recognizable features. Her jaw dropped.
The violin boy. Wise Guy. He walked straight forward, never gracing his fangirls with a glance their way, his hands in his pockets and his eyes up front. His face was slack, as if all he wanted to do was sleep. The teasing eyebrows from the garden were gone, replaced by the pompous narcissist he was made out to be in the Downs.
Everything was as it seemed.
“Jay! Jay, look at me, look at me! Let me get a picture with you!”
Chiara released a sharp scoff, watching Felicity Reacher bounce desperately on her high heels, trying to get over the rest of the kids to be near the Collective. So much for famous dads when the handsome guy’s dad was even richer and more famous. That was how it worked in the Ups, she supposed. You were all glitz and glam until you met someone who had more than you did. In the Downs, jobs were hard won and competition was heavy, but people knew to watch each other’s backs, to herd together to avoid being eaten by those with more power. Chiara’s smile faded a little as the Collective pierced their way through the crowd, never giving them anything. Maybe it was even scarier in the Ups than in the Downs.
Everyone was a shark. Here, they had to eat or be eaten.
The Collective finally made their way through their fans, Jay brushing off hands and an offer of a homemade cake with his look of perpetual disgust. He jerked his head and the other boys started to follow him. Then he stopped. His eyes flicked to Chiara, standing at the back of the hall with her foot braced comfortably against the wall behind her and her arms crossed. He cocked his head, slowly swinging a foot to bring himself directly in front of her. The three other boys settled behind him, contenting themselves with watching. Chiara studied them briefly. Brody Hilton, the boy with the violin from not two hours earlier, gave no sign of recognition. He really looked ready to fall asleep where he stood.
Chiara barely refrained from rolling her eyes. This was her challenge. They had given her dry cleaning customer, from two weeks before, the Collective card and the school had been given the freedom to make him try to jump off the roof. They could do the same to her.
But she was not going to let them keep getting away with these kinds of things.
Jay slowly leaned forward. Chiara watched him, her eyes never leaving his. They were very blue, she noticed. Bluer than most. Like he had specifically gone to the gene store and picked out his own shade of blue. They seemed to pop out of his perfect face, his perfect skin, bore into her as they tried to find answers. They narrowed. He sniffed, and his face contorted as he threw himself backwards.
“Ugh!” he moaned, yanking a white silk handkerchief from his overcoat pocket and holding it to his nose. “She reeks of the Downs!”
A burst of laughter exploded from the class behind them as they all seemed to appear in a congregation, hanging onto his every word. Felicity Reacher appeared at the front, positioning herself as close to Jay as possible without actually touching him. She placed her hand on her hip, smiling contentedly at her victim.
For as long as she could remember, Chiara had refused to be a victim.
She smirked, finally releasing the pent-up eye roll that had been waiting since that morning.
“Aw, did that hurt your highness’ delicate little nose? Do you need me to go fetch some rose water to splash on your dainty little cheeks?”
The Collective leader straightened, whipping his handkerchief from his nose and throwing her the dirtiest look she could remember having received. His eyes spewed venom even while his full lips smiled.
“I think that sounds like a great idea, Commoner. Why don’t you go fetch me some rose water? And go take a bath while you’re at it. The Globe is accustomed to even a modicum of class.”
An approving mumble passed over the crowd. Felicity snapped her fingers in front of her face. Chiara bit her lip to contain a laugh.
“More like pampered with it, if you ask me.”
The mumble halted. Jay’s face went rock hard and he took a long step closer, closing the space between them. Chiara pressed herself against the wall, quickly turning her face so her nose did not brush his. He was that close.
“Do you have something to say to me?” he breathed. She winced. His breath tickled her cheek and she wanted to scratch, but her arm was pinned to her side. He smelled like jasmine. Or something fancy like that. “Commoner?”
He was too close to see as she bit her lip once more. He was leaving her so many opportunities, one would have thought they had rehearsed.
“Well, yeah, but you know what Mom always says: if you don’t have anything nice to say,” She ducked under his arm and swung to walk backwards down the hall towards her class. She flicked to him a two fingered salute. “Don’t say anything at all.” She turned and jogged towards Goethe.
Jay Newhall, heir to the largest international conglomerate since Google, stood rigid, his hands slowly closing into fists at his sides. His stomach churned. Who was she to say those things? No one had ever talked to him like that.
Perhaps she was the subject of the text he had received that morning. That would make sense. He turned his head slightly.
The Collective moved around him. When he started in his low voice, they knew it was time to listen. He straightened again, slipping his hands in his pockets.
“I have a feeling we’ve got a new weed to exterminate.”
Oliver moaned softly and Jay’s eyes flicked to him. The artist shrugged his broad shoulders, pursing his lips.
“Nothing, I guess. Don’t you guys ever just get bored of torturing kids for, like, a day before they decide to leave? Didn't we just finish with that?”
“You’d think so,” Jay breathed. He looked back down the hall. The new girl’s shoe disappeared behind a door and it swung shut behind her. “But a Collective's work is never done, it seems. Come on. We’ve got Political Science in ten minutes.”
“You’ve never cared before,” Dante observed, his brow creased in confusion. Jay threw him a quizzical look.
“Did I say we had to be there in ten minutes?”
Brody shook his head with a mild smile and led the way up the stairs, ignoring the whimpers of hyperventilating fangirls with dreams and ambitions that would never come to pass and letting them all fade into nothing.