Jay stared at the tarnished bronze B5 hanging on the door. It tilted slightly to the left, as if someone had banged the door shut and not bothered to fix the marker.
He had a feeling that was exactly how it had gone.
He drew in a sharp breath, letting go of his crutch just long enough to knock. There was a sudden fear that no one was home and his struggle up the stairs with a pair of crutches and leg cast was useless. Chiara would not be out today, according to Brody. She would have homework or something.
A minute barely passed before Chiara opened the door. She smiled tightly, her eyebrows raised a little. She was tired, Jay could tell. She probably got very little sleep last night.
“Hi,” she sighed lightly, leaning her shoulder against the doorjamb. “I had a feeling you’d be here.”
Jay cocked his head. “Yeah? I didn’t even know until this morning.”
“Mm. So Brody didn’t talk to you until this morning. Figures.” She nodded once, opening the door wider and swinging her arm invitingly. “Come on in.”
Jay nodded a thank you and pushed himself into the room with his crutches, hurriedly moving to the couch and setting himself down. He had still not grown accustomed to the crutches and his ankle throbbed after a day of use. Chiara took his crutches and leaned them on the wall behind him.
“My parents are at work and Grant’s at a friend’s, so we’ve got the place to ourselves for now. Do you want anything to eat or drink? My mom made fancy coconut cookies for when you guys ever wanted to come over.”
“I'm not a coconut fan.”
“Yeah, I didn’t pin you as one, so I made chocolate chip as a precaution. Everybody likes chocolate chip.” She grabbed a plate from the kitchen counter and returned to the living room, sitting on the coffee table across from him next to a pile of textbooks. She looked comfortable in a beat up pair of high waisted jeans folded at the cuffs and oversized plaid button up tucked into the waist band. Her feet were bare and she tucked them underneath her as she sat cross-legged on the coffee table. Chiara smiled again, letting her frizzy, curly hair drip into her eyes.
She was at home and she was comfortable, but she was sad.
“So, Brody filled you in, I guess,” she started. Jay pulled his good leg up onto the couch, hugging his knee to his chest. He accepted the cookie Chiara offered him.
“He gave me his side of the story. I made him wait until after he’d slept so I could get the unemotional version, but it was still…” He shrugged, his eyes narrow. Even just thinking about that morning’s incidents made his chest feel cold. “Intense.”
Chiara released a short breath, burying her face in her hands. “Ugh, this is so messed up! Is he -“
“Heartbroken?” Jay nodded sharply, his lips pursed tightly. “Uh huh, pretty much. Said he couldn’t be around you. I asked him if he wanted me to talk to you and he kind of sank a little in his seat and stared at nothing for a minute then shrugged like he didn’t care about anything again and said something along the lines of ‘whatever’. Now, I haven’t heard that since you came to the Globe, so I’m guessing his emotions pretty much revolve around you. I don’t like that. I appreciate that you’ve saved my life, so I’m not going to stick you with another Collective Card, but, trust me, I’m not going to let you hurt my best friend.” He shrugged and bit into his cookie. “So why don’t you give me your side of the story?”
Jay watched her slowly breathe into her hands, then push her hair back and hold it tightly against her neck. Her eyes were red and glossy with suppressed tears. She smiled a little, looking out the window.
“I don’t know what to say that would make you think any different,” she whispered. “By all rights, I shouldn’t even be this upset. A month ago, I might not have been.”
She shrugged. “It hurts. I don’t want to lose him, Jay!”
The Newhall heir leaned forward. “Then tell me so we can figure this out. He doesn’t want to lose you either.”
Chiara released a shuddering breath, bracing herself against her knees. “Okay. He picked me up from here and took me out.”
“To the Rockefeller.”
“Yeah.” She bit her lip. “He knows I used to love ice skating.”
“‘Used to’ being the key term here?”
“Not really. I…I used to skate competitively and I had…an accident. I haven’t been able to skate since then.” Again, the hint of a smile curled the corner of her lips upwards. “He helped me. He was so patient with me. Never complained. We would just talk. It felt so good to be on the ice again. He supported me and…it was great.”
Jay fought a frown. He had not signed up to hear the gushy details about a date gone well. Something about it was disgusting, in a way. In the back of his mind, he wondered if helping her so patiently on the ice required them to hold hands a lot. He could not imagine Brody holding hands with anyone. His stomach tightened; he could not imagine Chiara holding hands with anyone. Finally, he splayed his hands incredulously. “So what happened? That sounds like the…perfect situation to me!”
Chiara met his eyes again. Jay tilted his head a little. It was incredible how she could make her face so void of emotion, seemingly without trying. It was something that he himself had practiced for years and could see in others within the first minute of meeting them. That was easy. He knew that the hard part would always be understanding the person behind the walls. Chiara was proving to be a little more difficult than he anticipated, but he wondered if some of it was his own fault.
He had walls for her, too.
She swallowed. “Did Brody not tell you?”
Slowly, Jay nodded. “He did.” His eyes narrowed, studying her as much as he ever felt able. She had never come across to him as fragile. But there were cracks in the concrete walls he was so used to seeing, so used to building himself. She was springing leaks and it was Brody who brought them about. Why did, so suddenly, he feel an urge to sit closer to her? To protect her? “But…we all know how biased a heartbroken guy can sound.”
Chiara smiled dryly and a tear slipped from the corner of her eye, tracing a clear path down her nose and dangled there for a moment before dropping down to gloss her bottom lip. How strange that he had never noticed how small her nose was. The more he looked, the more he picked out imperfections, things that she never bothered to cover with the layers of makeup and any Up girl would pay a fortune to remove or adjust. Her nose was weirdly small, which seemed to enlarge her hazel eyes. Her ears were large, too, just barely wrangling the explosion of curly blonde hair accompanied by slightly darker eyebrows. She was flushing awkwardly as she fought the tears. She really was not incredibly pretty, but there was something amazingly attractive about the sheer honesty of her features. Even he had to admit that to himself.
"I’m not great at the diplomatic approach when things mean a lot to me, or…when someone’s life depends on it.” Jay nodded his head in concession to the point. “I was too harsh, as usual,” she sighed softly, dropping her eyes to her crossed legs. “But the problem was…that I was right.”
“Let me guess: as usual?”
Chiara arched an eyebrow at him, her hands clenching sharply around her crossed ankles as her jaw tightened.
“That’s not fair.”
Jay shrugged helplessly. “It might help me understand the situation a little.”
She tightened further, dropping her eyes again. Slowly, they closed as she nodded. “Okay. Yeah, I suck at being not right. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m wrong, Jay, don’t misunderstand that. And I’m really good at apologies. But when I’m right…I don’t compromise it.” She chuckled dryly under her breath, swiping the sleeve of her shirt across her shiny nose. “It’s awful, I know. It never comes across right. It makes me look…stubborn and mean and…unrelenting. I have to have everything my way if I understand it a certain way. You get that, don’t you, Jay?” She sighed as he tilted his head curiously. “You’re the exact same way, there. Just…more.”
Jay felt his jaw drop and she again giggled humorlessly. “How dare you?”
“Come on,” she prompted, spreading her hands helplessly. “You have to admit that you have an insane personality that has been groomed by the Ups to become whatever you are!”
“Well, whatever I am is a great friend to Brody, okay? I’m pretty awesome sometimes!”
“Can’t wait to see it.”
“I just climbed a lot of stairs on crutches, Downs. If that doesn’t rank me at superhero status, I don’t know what will.”
“Mm, I’ll admit, that is pretty cool.” She reached behind her for the plate of chocolate chip cookies and held it out to Jay. “At least deserving of another cookie.”
Jay rolled his eyes and took another cookie, both hands now laden with one each. “Thanks.” He shrugged. “I’m glad to hear you admit those things. He observed the same.”
Chiara sighed heavily. “Well, he manages to stand you so I don’t know why this is this hard.”
“We’ve known each other since we were kids. We know each other inside and out.” He inclined his head to her. “You’re the one who had to have made it hard.”
Chiara scoffed, pushing herself off of the coffee table and moving back to the kitchen. “I’ll bet.”
Jay watched her open the refrigerator and stare at its contents with dead eyes for too long to be seriously looking for anything even to interest. He slowly nibbled at the cookie in his left hand, then realized that that was the new one and moved back to the right one. At that point, it made no difference as both cookies had a single bite taken out of them. At least now they were balanced. He glanced back up at Chiara. She had not yet found anything interesting in the refrigerator. Jay sighed.
“So are you going to apologize to him?”
She threw a glance at him over her shoulder. Her eyes narrowed as she shrugged. “And this is where my true colors show. Like I said, I suck at not being right.”
Jay slowly widened his eyes in shock. “So…you’re not going to apologize?”
“Nope. I won’t apologize for being right.” She closed the refrigerator without retrieving anything from it. “And neither would you, so don’t pretend to be surprised by it.”
“I would if the relationship mattered enough to me.”
Chiara leaned her back against the kitchen counter, crossing her arms over her chest in a subconsciously defensive stance as she stared at the ground. Jay frowned. She was hardly in the state of mind to hear what he had to say and he wondered briefly what Brody had seen in her, what attracted him to her. This was bound to get exhausting.
Somehow, though, Brody was heartbroken. This meant a lot to him. Jay drew in a slow breath.
“Brody’s the closest thing I have to a brother, Chiara. The relationship I have with him means everything to me and I would go farther than letting him be right every now and then. I would ask forgiveness just for making him feel bad. I don’t want to be the one to make him feel like that.” He shrugged under her scrutiny. “I know I definitely don’t give that impression to the rest of the world, but, trust me, that’s not my fault. If I could…” He frowned, glancing up to meeting Chiara’s eyes. Her eyebrows were slightly raised, prompting him farther. “I didn’t come here to tell you my life story.”
“And yet it keeps happening.”
“Did this happen with Brody?”
“Yeah. I guess I have one of those faces.” She tilted her head and framed her stoic face with a peace sign. Jay chuckled despite himself. Chiara joined with a dry giggle, dropping her head again. “I’m sorry for you to come all this way just to find how stubborn I am.”
Jay rolled his eyes, pushing himself to his feet, favoring his injured foot. Chiara slid forward to seize his crutches and tuck them under his arms. He nodded his gratitude.
“Well, as you’ve established multiple times, you and I are a lot alike. I can be stubborn, too.” He waggled his eyebrows in challenge. “We’ll see who apologizes first.”
Chiara smiled sadly. “This isn’t a game, Jay. Or a joke.”
“I would know that best; these are my best friend’s feelings, I’m dealing with! But you’re never one to back down from a challenge, are you?”
She met his gaze evenly and Jay swallowed. Despite the imperfections of her face under close study, there were no flaws in her eyes. They seemed to change color depending on what she wore, the hazel of them reflecting the mood she had chosen that day. Whatever color they were, whatever emotion they displayed or masked, they glowed with an energy that Jay had never seen in a person. It was contagious and he tracked the rolling burn through his body as he swallowed it down to his churning stomach. It was energy. It was new. It was foreign and it was clearly Chiara who made it happen.
He could not tell if he liked it, but, for the moment, he did not want it to go away.
Chiara nodded once.
Jay extended his hand and she took it. Her fingers were long and slender, cold inside his warm palm. He liked the feeling, the one that emerges when one is given something to protect. Gently, Jay shook it.
"If I win, you make me cookies."
"And if you win?"
Chiara pursed her lips, tapping her fingers against Jay's palm in thought. The contact sent unfamiliar little shivers traveling along his arm and down his spine.
No. No, no, no.
"Hmm," she sighed, shrugging and taking her hand from his. "I'll think of something." She smiled and nodded to the door. "Need help down the stairs?"
Slowly, Jay shook his head. "Nah, I'm good. I need the exercise." He nodded to her. "See you tomorrow?"
The door gently shut behind him. He stood there for a long moment, frowning at the ugly floor beneath his glossy black dress shoe and leg cast. This was the ugliest place he had ever seen, easily. There was a fascinating smell about it that added to its rather unsavory character and made him wonder about the things that might have happened exactly where he stood. He could hardly believe that anyone could stand living here, and yet here was Chiara's door.
I don't want to leave.
He sighed sharply, rolling his eyes at himself.
Mom's going to kill me.