Chapter 3 - No Pain, No Gain

Most people who have had their nose pierced will tell you different things.

One of the guys hanging around the tattoo displays said it felt like having a really blunt log shoved through your nostril. The guy who actually did it said it didn't hurt at all. Of course, nothing anyone tells you ever prepares you for the actual experience.

I'm not going to lie. I still had misgivings about this whole situation. And because I couldn't quite be as blasé as Daryn, I was a little teensy, tiny bit worried about what people would say. After all, I hate labels. I didn't want to inadvertently shove myself into one.

Yet here I was, rather calmly letting the guy - who looked the part of a Hell's Angel character in a bad 80s film - swab down my nose. Somewhere in the back of my mind, relief pulsed and filtered. I'd once heard that any infection from nose piercings shot straight up to your brain, so the sterilization was comforting. I didn't want to become a bumbling idiot for the sake of beauty, if that's even what this was.

"Do you want to hold my hand?" Daryn asked from beside me. The look in her azure eyes said I didn't know what I was in for.

Determined to be brave, I was in the process of declining when I saw the tweezers descending toward my nose. If you want a really good mental image of these things, imagine what a pair of normal size tweezers look like to an ant. A skinny black felt tip pen hovered in his other hand and he was squinting at my face. With a sigh of relief, I saw the tweezers stop.

"Where do you want the piercing?" he asked. You know, for all the long stringy frizz on his head, the overgrowth of facial hair, and the tattoo collage on his arm, the man sounded educated. Although, I must admit, his question sounded downright stupid.

I think that thought must have shown on my face, because he was already rolling his eyes when I replied, "On my nose."

He shook his head, then darted forward with the marker. I felt it dab coldly against my left nostril. "How about there?"

"Yeah, sure." I clenched my fingers into my jeans and eyed the tweezers suspiciously. I think they were featured in the March page of the S & M calendar hanging on the wall, right next to the sign that said, "Don't beware of the dog; beware of me!"

Yep. I was feeling more safe and secure with this whole decision after seeing that, right up to the point where I was ready to scream before the pliers - which I've decided is a much more accurate descriptor than the first I used - fastened securely on my nose. I wasn't prepared for him to try to yank the appendage off my face.

I had to fight to stay facing forward, especially since I happened to like my nose where it was. He didn't say anything else to me, just reached for the tiny diamond lying on the counter. I'd had to buy it pre-sterilized. Since it came all wrapped up in a box and pretty translucent plastic, I never had a chance to notice the lethal looking point on the end of the stud. I grabbed blindly for Daryn's hand and gave up all pretense of being cool.

I'm a baby when it comes to pain. Sue me.

Surprisingly, it was over only a few seconds later. The pressure brought tears flooding to my eyes and completely ruined all the make-up I'd coated my face with while trying to ignore Jace, but it hadn't really hurt.

He slipped one of the plastic fasteners on the end, while handing me a paper towel. Wow, not only does he sound smart, but he can also multitask.

As I wiped the make-up off my ace and blinked the remaining liquid from my eyes, he held out a mirror. I took it calmly, ready to survey the damage.

"What do you think?" Daryn asked.

I didn't answer for a couple of seconds, because I wasn't really sure. "Can I tell you when the marker isn't leaving a huge black splotch on my face?" In response, the biker presented me with a Q-tip. Even with that, I still couldn't get close enough to the hole to get all the black stuff off.

"It'll wear off," he said calmly. He waited until I'd hopped off the stool and started digging around in my back pocket before continuing, "That will be twenty dollars."

Handing him the bill cheerfully, I thought about what a cheap price that was for something that would make my mother go into cardiac arrest. And what would Jace say? Oh, the thought was almost priceless. "Thank you," I chirped, and peered one last time into the wavy glass they called a mirror. Yeah, I'd make a decision as to whether or not I liked it after the marker wore off.

I glanced quickly at Daryn, then followed her out of the store into the semi-darkness of the mall. Should I go home and confront my family with my newest decorative addition or...?

"Are you hungry?" I demanded, deciding with very little thought that it was easier to wait until my family was sleeping before I returned. At least then I could put off the lecture until tomorrow, at which point I might be able to avoid too much yelling, as I could use the excuse that I needed to leave for school.

Unfortunately, Daryn's plans were not conducive to mine. "Yeah, but I have to go home to eat. My grandparents are coming over for dinner." She said this rather mournfully.

"On a Thursday?" I knew Daryn's parents schedule as almost as well as she did. They had dinner with her grandparents every other Saturday at eight o'clock precisely, on the threat of death. They couldn't threaten to send her to Sacred Heart anymore - something almost as bad - because they'd already followed through with that one.

She shrugged. "They leave for St. Martin's tomorrow. I'd take you with me, but my mother's been in one of her moods and I'm afraid you might try to have her committed." Her eyes crinkled with just the hint of a wicked sparkle. "You could call Austin and tell him I stranded you at the mall if you're looking for something to do."

"Very funny," I responded dryly. That was definitely on my list of things not to do, right along with jumping off the nearest bridge. Never mind that it was a great excuse. "It's a shame I didn't bring his number with me."

"I'm sure," she said, giving me a look that said she didn't think I'd do it even if I had brought it.

She was probably right. No, she was definitely right. I'd said I'd call, but under the pretense of asking for a ride... It would make me feel like a user. Although not only would I get a free ride, but I'd also get to enjoy the scenery. Probably not a bad deal all around.

Stopping abruptly in front of the smoothie stand in the middle of the mall, she didn't wait for me to protest her obviously sarcastic comment. I - along with the cashier - already knew what she was going to order, without having to ask. Caramel chai might have been my weakness, but smoothies were definitely hers.

The cashier's name was Matt, and I'd long ago learned he was a sophomore at the nearby community college. He winked at us from across the counter as he started dumping strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries into a large cup. Fat-free yogurt soon followed.

As well as being difficult, Daryn was also a health nut.

"Hi, Matt," I greeted him, grinning as he walked back to the cash register. It was always good to make friends with the people who worked at the places you frequented; it often got you free stuff. I especially liked when Matt worked.

He grinned cheekily at me, chucking me under the chin like you would a five-year-old. "Hey! How are my two favorite customers?"

In response, Daryn rolled her eyes. She didn't follow my theory that making friends was a benefit. Since she was very much not a people person, this was hardly a shock.

We both ignored her. "Great. You?"

He nodded vaguely as an answer to my question, brown eyes filled with curiosity. "Like the nose piercing, Chandle. When'd you get it done?"

"About five minutes ago," I admitted, eyeing the poster advertising their new chai smoothie with wistful anticipation.

Matt followed my gaze, just as I expected him to. Men can be so predictable, but usually never when you want them to be. "Want one?"

I pretended to think about it. "I don't know. What's the charge?"

Wrong thing to say. I knew it the moment he grinned, his nose wrinkling in a way that warned me trouble was about to arrive. "It's free if you do me a favor."

Why do I set myself up for these things? I should just pay for it - the price was advertised along with the smoothie itself - and leave. It's too bad I always let my curiosity get the better of me. "What favor?"

His grin widened. "Are you always this suspicious?" I guess my mute stare must have answered his question, because he just shook his head and went on. "I just need you to run this video down to the movie place. I have to have it back before they close or they'll charge me extra."

Oh. That was easy enough. "Yeah, sure. The one across the street?" I glanced at Daryn, whose attention had strayed to a large group of guys by the music store. "Daryn, do you mind?" After all, she was the one who was driving and the one who had to be home.

"Huh? No."

I nodded at him. "No problem. Where is it?" The three seconds it would take was more than worth the free smoothie.

"Thanks, Chandle, Daryn. Just a second." A few minutes later he handed me my chai in all its plastic-cupped glory, followed by the plain black plastic case that held the video. I checked the title, which was nothing I'd ever heard of. I shrugged, thanking him, then we left, sipping our respective drinks in silence.

We made it out the door before Daryn spoke. "Am I dropping you of at your house after this?" she asked. She walked directly in the direction of her car as she talked, no hesitation involved. I personally walked around for hours trying to remember where I parked, pressing the button for the alarm and hoping it chirped its location where I could hear it. No one had yet been able to break me of the habit.

I checked the time on my watch. Six-thirty. "Yeah, you have to get ready for dinner anyway." A derisive laugh from her direction told me she wasn't planning on it. I let slyness creep into my voice. "You can come in and say hi to Jace if you want."

In the last couple months, Jace seemed to have developed a "thing" for Daryn. That's the other reason I didn't tell him who was on the phone earlier. Now, I'm not sure what exactly this interest was. He relentlessly questioned me about her activities when we were together and constantly told me I should invite her over. When she did come over, he hovered over us or near us - he had yet to successfully break into one of our conversations once we'd gotten started - and didn't leave until Daryn stopped talking and fixed him with a stare that could only be described as glacial. Those stares were one of her more developed talents.

"I think I'll pass." Daryn, for one, did not find Jace's interest amusing. I thought it was hilarious.

"Somehow I figured that."

We stopped in front of her car, pausing for her to take the time to unlock it. Then, after a brief struggle with the door - which it almost won - I crawled into the seat next to her.

"So how did you manage to avoid Allie today?" she asked suddenly. "You did go to school, did you not?"

I wrenched the door shut behind me and hoped it wouldn't fall off or spring open, spilling me onto the pavement at a rapid speed. "I went. Allie did not. Apparently Jackson's last night was a little too much fun."

I wondered briefly how Austin's test had gone today and whether he was regretting his decision to follow Allie. Well, for reasons other than the obvious ones. I had no doubt regret was somehow involved. Then, sneaking in just like I knew it would the question of whether or not Allie had been successful in setting him up with her friend entered my mind. Maybe I should call him...

Or maybe I should just tell Finch yes, assuming he really did ask me. Granted, it would probably lead to problems, but at least it would annoy Jace. I always enjoyed that part the most.

"Probably," Daryn agreed, pulling out of the parking space. She adjusted the music to its normal ear-splitting volume, so I leaned back in the seat and enjoyed the chance to be quiet. I wasn't in the mood to shout.

The ride across the street took exactly fifteen minutes with traffic. It didn't help that the city looked like an overpopulated anthill, or that the traffic lights were off by about thirty seconds. Luckily, when we did finally make it across the street, Daryn found a space right in front of the video store, which she claimed by swerving wildly in front of a van heading for the same spot. Sometimes I swear Daryn had learned how to drive in New York City.

"Are you coming in?" I asked when she started unbuckling her seat belt. I picked up the video.

She nodded and opened her door. "Yeah, I might as well get a movie while I'm here."

True enough. I shrugged, then climbed out of the car. Walking to the brightly flashing sign, under which lay the deposit slot for returning videos, I slide the tape in the narrow metal cute and followed Daryn into the store.

And, of course, standing in front of the new release rack was the very guy I was determined not to call. If I believed in Fate, I might have taken this as a sign. I was tempted to do it anyway. I wandered over next to him and tried to be inconspicuous. And casual.

It took him less than thirty seconds to notice me, but a full minute to actually say something. I could see him looking out of the corner of my eye.

"Hey, Chandle. You're the last person I expected to see here."

I had to steel myself for the sudden clenching of my stomach when I turned to look at him. He hadn't lost any of his attractiveness between now and last night, much to my dismay. His green eyes were lit up with pleasure and the corners of his mouth tilted just enough to let his dimples show. He had a killer smile; some girl was definitely going to die happy.

I forced myself to remember to be casual. "Hi, Austin. Why's that?"

His grin widened. "Allie assured me you'd caught some incurable disease and would probably be in the hospital by morning. She gave an Oscar winning performance when she 'heard the news.'"

My mouth widened in an answering grin. Well, it was good to know he didn't have any illusions about his cousin. "Did you have fun at Jackson's last night?"

The smile slipped right off his face, leaving only mild annoyance. Hmm... Apparently not. His response confirmed that suspicion.

"I would gladly have stayed at the coffee shop for the next three weeks, chained to my German book, instead of going there."

"Why'd you let her talk you into it?"

The grin came back in full force, like we were sharing some secret about his cousin that no one else knew, his eyes twinkling conspiratorially. "Have you ever heard Allie whine?"

Illusions, hell. He knew all her tricks, too. I grinned back at him. "Enough said." I glanced over to where I'd last seen Daryn, but she seemed to have disappeared. In a store this small, that was definitely a feat. Turning my head bared the left side of my face to Austin's gaze. In my stomach's sudden tumult, I'd completely forgotten about my piercing.

"When did that happen?" he asked, reaching out to touch the side of my nose, but never quite making contact. His green eyes narrowed in thoughtful concentration.

My stomach plummeted even further. He didn't like it, not that it really mattered to me one way or the other. After all, I wasn't dating him, and even if I was, I'd hardly let a guy rule what sorts of metal I decided to shove through my skin. "This afternoon," I replied, keeping my voice neutral. Despite everything my head was telling me, I still wanted to know what he really thought.

He cocked his head to the side and stared, doing the perfect imitation of a parakeet, or maybe a monkey that was trying to figure out which lever would release the banana into its waiting grasp. "You know," he said, "I normally don't advocate facial piercings, but you actually look good with the nose piercing."

My breath released in a hiss of air. Yeah, so his opinion mattered to me. I was only human, and a teenage girl at that. We're supposed to be impressionable, right? Doing my best not to drool, I smiled at him and said, "Thank you."

"You're quite welcome." The dimpled smile was warm, startling against the tan skin of his face, then his expression grew serious. He looked like a Greek god dropped in the wrong time period. And, well, he didn't really look Greek, either. Scratch that, except for the god part. That might explain why I didn't expect the next couple of sentences to come out of his mouth. "So do you have a date for the dance? I was serious when I said I'd go with you."

My mind went blank. I know it sounds cliched, but I had no idea how to respond to that. On one hand, he was very attractive. Okay, let's be honest. I'd like to lock him in a cage and look at him for a really long time. Plus, I could tell Jace I already had a date and it would be true. On the other... Well, let's just say there were a number of reasons it was a bad idea. Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on how you looked at it - Daryn chose that minute to interrupt.

"She'd love to go with you," she said blandly, pausing to look him over as though he was some new breed of dog she found particularly intriguing. Maybe one with three or four heads. She'd appeared behind me with a bag full of movies in her left hand and a purse, if you could call it that, swinging over her right shoulder. It hit me in the arm each time she moved. She rummaged in that bag until she found a scrap of paper and a pen. "Here's her phone number."

As she started to scribble my number on the paper, I finally found my voice. "Daryn!"

Both of them stopped to look at me. Daryn seemed like she'd been expecting it, while Austin merely looked uncertain. As if any girl in her right mind would tell him no.

"I can give it to him myself."

Approval radiated from Daryn at my words; from Austin there was only relief. Maybe he was shy? If so, that made two of us. Before I changed my mind, I took the pen and paper and scribbled down my name and number. Thank you, Daryn, for forcing me to take the initiative. Still when I handed him the paper, my hand was trembling. Might as well make it official, right?

"Austin, would you like to go to the dance with me?"

Technically, I had to ask him, since it was my school that was having the dance. He'd saved me the trouble of having to worry about what his answer would be. Lucky me. Now I just had to worry about whatever malicious rumors Allie would dream up and the fact that I barely knew him. Of course, I wouldn't mind correcting that...

Austin seemed to have the same idea. "Yeah, I’d love to go. What are you doing this weekend?" he asked. Before I could answer, he shook his head and said, "No, never mind. That will give me an excuse to call."

I'm sure I was blushing furiously at this point, but I was determined to not act like a giggling schoolgirl, even if that's what I was. Well, except for the giggling part, I hope. "I guess I'll talk to you this weekend, then."

Daryn saw me trying to keep the stupid grin off my face and rolled her eyes. "I paid for the movies, so whenever you're ready..."

Right. She had to get ready for dinner with her parents. I'd forgotten that part. I waved at Austin and followed her out of the store. Funnier how it was so much easier to breathe outside. I tried to tamper down my ridiculous excitement as much as I could.

I glanced up to see Daryn smirking. "Don't even say it," I warned, already knowing that it wasn't going to keep her from saying exactly what she wanted. But hey, it didn't hurt to try. "And thank you."

The "thank you" stopped whatever evil comment she had from coming out of her mouth. "You're welcome," she said instead. "And you're right. He does actually seem to have a personality."

"Stranger things have happened," I shrugged. I tried once again to dampen the giddiness bubbling through me. Not only did I have a prom date, but Austin was going to call this weekend. I no longer wanted to damn Jory and Dev for "coercing" me into talking to him. In fact, I might have to do something really nice for them at school tomorrow. And besides, I was counting on them to protect me from Allie's wrath. Maybe I should call them and strategize when I got home.

It never hurt to be prepared.

I opened the door and slid inside, while Daryn did the same on her side of the car. When the music swelled up from the speakers, I was content to sit back and daydream.

I didn't give a thought to what my parents would say about the nose piercing. After all, I'd hear more than enough about that later.





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