Chapter Eight

No Pain No Gain

The entire circle of onlookers was gaping at Braelin, me included. Her suggestion was so ludicrous that I had to work on stifling my laughter.

Dave, however, had no qualms against mockery. He burst into hysterical guffaws, and he was laughing so hard that he doubled over, clutching his stomach. Some of the people in the crowd chuckled a little with him, but the majority still had their attention on Cartier and Braelin.

Braelin's eyes were narrowed in furious accusation, her chest rising and falling at an alarmingly rapid rate. Her grip tightened on my wrist and I resisted the urge to twist out of her hold. The girl had a very tight grip for someone so dainty-looking.

Cartier, on the other hand, hadn't even flinched from her accusation. His gaze remained stoic, his arms crossed firmly across his chest. It was then that I noticed he had changed out of his soccer gear and was back in his school uniform.

His green eyes were cool. "This has nothing to do with Tess. Don't bring her into this."

"Oh don't fool yourself, Cartier," Braelin snarled, baring her teeth. "She has everything to do with this. You've never hesitated in taking me back before, but ever since she came into the picture you've been different."

Cartier tipped his head back and smirked, looking for all the world like he wanted to hit her. "This is so like you, Brae. Blame everyone else before you blame yourself."

Braelin looked like she had just been slapped. I didn't think Cartier had ever spoken to her in such a way before. She released my arm in a fit of anger and stormed towards Cartier until they were practically nose to nose.

She changed tactics then.

"Come on, Car," she whispered, lowering her voice to heighten its seductiveness. "Just forget about everything, all right? I love you, only you. Dave means nothing to me. I'll make it up to you, I swear."

I flushed upon hearing those words and looked around awkwardly. As it turned out, I was the only one close enough to hear their little heart-to-heart. Dave had already shooed away most of the onlookers, and now the rest of the stragglers were starting to leave. The main part of the drama had already ended.

I glanced back at the fighting couple just in time to see Cartier rest his hands on her shoulders. He leaned down slightly so they were at eye level. "It's unfortunate, but Dave happens to mean a lot to me," he said caressingly. "I'm sorry, Brae."

And then the waterworks exploded.

I watched with undisguised rapture as tear after tear leaked out of Braelin's eyes until they formed small rivers down her cheeks. Cartier flinched back slightly, looking uncertain and a tad horrified by her reaction, and I almost wanted to clap for her stellar performance. A part of me recognized that her tears were probably real, but the other part of me wanted to scoff. I still couldn't bring it in me to understand exactly how some girls could be so dramatic. Yes her boyfriend was breaking up with her, but it wasn't the end of the world.

Cartier reached out a tentative hand. "Brae…"

"You promised," she sobbed. "You promised you'd always be here, no matter what. Why are you doing this to me?"

He sighed and gently thumbed a tear away. His hand lingered on her cheek. "If it was anyone else… if you had picked anyone else, I probably would've found it in me to let it go again. But you chose Dave, my best friend. I… can't accept that."

My eyes widened. What the hell? I could hardly believe I was hearing this. If it had been anyone else, he really would've let it go again? How stupid could the guy be?

Braelin grabbed onto his hand. "Cartier, please."

"I can't, Brae. I can't." He swallowed and slowly pulled away. "We're done."

She let out an anguished cry and crumpled to the floor. Her entourage immediately flew to her side, but from the way her eyes were focused on Cartier's backside, it was clear she didn't even notice them.

Cartier stopped when he heard Braelin's cry, but then he shook his head, as if in reminder to himself to let her go, and then resolutely walked away. I contemplated following him to offer comfort, but then Dave appeared and stepped in front of Cartier, blocking his way. The latter stiffened, but to his credit, he made no move to push Dave aside.

"What?" Cartier said.

Dave looked fully ashamed. "I'm sorry, man. I didn't think it'd be like this. I just wanted you to see that she wasn't right for you."

I was close enough to see Cartier's jaw clench.

Dave, realizing that Cartier was too angry to talk, continued in a thoroughly apologetic fashion. "I didn't mean to hurt you. Honest. You're my best friend, Cartier. I only-"

"Shut up, Dave," he snapped. "Just shut the fuck up."

I blinked and Dave immediately obliged.

Cartier glared at him, his eyes narrowed to the point where the pupils looked almost black. "I really don't want to talk to you right now. I don't even want to look at you. So if you please, get out of my way."

Dave looked pained. His mouth opened and closed, as if he wanted to say a million things but didn't know how or where to start. Finally, his shoulders slumped in defeat and he took a step aside, successfully clearing the path for Cartier to make his exit. Cartier took it without a second thought and strode down the hall, disappearing around the corner.

I saw Dave's forlorn expression as he watched Cartier disappear and felt another tug of guilt inside my chest. I had to admit, this was a weird feeling. While I knew what guilt was and dealt with it occasionally, I had never felt so terrible until now. I had ruined three people's lives, all within the span of a few hours. I didn't know whether I ought to congratulate myself or hate myself for the accomplishment.

Dave turned to me with puppy-dog eyes. "I've blown it now," he said sadly. "Cartier will never forgive me."

I frowned. "Don't say that. You did what was best for him. He's hurting now, but give him some time. He'll see the light."

"No he won't. You don't know how much Brae means to him. He loves that girl, and I just tore them apart."

"For good reason," I reminded him. "You didn't want your best friend to be stuck in an abusive relationship. In the long run, he's going to thank you for it. It's just going to take some time."

Dave looked at me, hope stirring in his eyes. "You think so?"

I nodded. "I know so."

He smiled then, thought it was still a bit wobbly. "You surprise me, Tess. Sometimes I get the feeling that you severely dislike Cartier, and yet here you are, trying to save him some heartache."

I chuckled and that annoying strand of guilt tugged again. "Don't be silly. He antagonizes me but he's still my friend."

Dave reached out and ruffled my hair affectionately. "You're a good kid, Tess." He glanced over his shoulder at Brae and her posse, who were still gathered around her attentively. "Let's make a break for it before she comes and bitches at us."

"Wise words," I agreed, and we snuck away from the desolate ex-girlfriend.

The moment I got back to the apartment, I filled Aven in on everything that had gone down on campus after the soccer practice. He listened with rapture throughout the story, but once I got to the part about Braelin bawling like a little girl, he laughed so hard that he fell off the couch. I stopped, annoyed, and waited for a good minute or two before he finally calmed down and I was able to finish my tale.

He grinned, flashing pearly whites at me when I told him about the new rift between Cartier and Dave. "You're one smart girl, Tess. Tearing down the group one by one is definitely the way to go. If anything, Cartier won't be protected as well."

I chomped on my carrot and tried not to feel too miserable about the situation. Aven was right. This was a good thing. The more friends Cartier lost, the better it was for us. Now if only I didn't have to feel so bad about ruining his life.

Aven must've noticed my uncanny silence. He leaned forward and tapped me on the forehead. "You're starting to scare me," he said teasingly.

I frowned. "What? Why?"

"You're thinking. Every time you think I start fearing for my existence."

I slapped his hand away and contemplated throwing the butt end of my carrot at him as well. Aven could be so simple-minded that I didn't dare voice my concerns. He'd call me a pansy and then God knew what he'd do. He wasn't well-known for his patience, and just to spite me, he might even speed up the errand.

Aven frowned when I didn't respond and tossed the remote onto the table in front of him. He seemed to be a mixture between amusement and exasperation. "What's up with you, Tess? I haven't seen you like this before."

"Like what?" I asked.

"You're moping."

"I am not," I responded hotly. "I'm just thinking."

He raised an eyebrow. "Remember what we just discussed about you and thinking?" He looked away, briefly distracted by an infomercial on TV. His brows were furrowed as he watched the man introduce a new brand of toilet cleaner.

I finished off my carrot and was concentrating on chewing the last bit when I noticed Aven turn to look at me. His eyes had widened and it looked like he was on the verge of realization.

I blinked. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"I can't believe this," he said, almost awed and a bit horrified. "You… you're having second thoughts?"

I bristled defensively. "What? No!"

"Oh but you are," Aven said. "You don't want to go through with this anymore, do you? You like Cartier."

I jumped out of my seat. "What the hell, Aven! What are you talking about?"

He was watching me with an expression akin to disgust. I knew without a doubt then that Aven would never consider stalling the errand. He smiled and laughed and partied with the elites, but at the end of the day, they were nothing but the obstacles to another errand. He cared for them about as much as he cared for a homeless person on the streets.

And yet no matter how cruel and cold it sounded, Aven's attitude was right. The greatest taboo to being a successful assassin was to develop feelings for your target. And while I didn't feel romantically inclined towards Cartier, I understood his plight. Even worse, I stupidly felt sorry for him, and for Dave.

"You're silent," Aven commented, his voice faint. "My God, Tess. Don't fuck with me here."

"You're getting ahead of yourself," I said calmly, or as calmly as I could manage. "I don't like Cartier."

"Then what's with that expression?" he said accusingly.

I floundered for an explanation. The TV was loud in the background, but for some odd reason, I could barely hear the weatherman's voice. "I just… I feel… I feel somewhat bad for what I did to Dave. He's just an innocent pawn in the grand scheme of things."

Aven snorted. "Don't be stupid. Dave's about as innocent as you and I. It's just too bad he was foolish enough to be Cartier's friend."

I bit my lip. "You should've seen his face after what Cartier said to him. He was-"

"Do I look like I care?"

I was scandalized. "Aven, what-"

He glared at me, his expression cutting me off immediately. Aven had never looked at me like that before. "Damn it, Tess. Do you hear yourself? You're starting to care about these people."

"I pity them," I said defensively. "That's not caring about them."

"That's not pity I see in your eyes. That's sympathy."

I looked up at him.

Aven stood so abruptly that he nearly knocked the table over. "I've never seen you like this before." He tugged on his hair, almost viciously. "Just so we're clear, Tess, we're assassins. We have an errand to complete in a week. Don't fuck this up."


"I don't want to hear it," he snapped. "I will forcibly remove you if you fail to follow through with your end."

He gave me one last look and then he stormed out the apartment, slamming the door shut behind him.

I slumped back into the couch, letting the cushions support my sagging weight. I could feel a growing headache and wondered if I ought to just take a nap to forget about everything. This was too much for me to deal with. I knew without a doubt that I didn't yet care about Cartier enough to prevent me from completing the errand. But the problem was, I was starting to see him as a human instead of a project.

God, I was such a failure. What was wrong with me?

I pulled out my phone and flipped it open. I considered calling Raleigh to have her pump some energy into me but then wondered if she was still feeling antagonistic about Liana giving us the errand instead of giving it to her.

I sighed and tossed the phone onto the table. I refused to sit in the apartment and mope, mostly because it would prove Aven right and I hated being wrong. So what would be an efficient use of time? I could do homework, but that would just be a waste. I could go train, but Aven wasn't here and training alone was simply boring.

So that left me with… the elites.

Dave was probably still trying to get back in Cartier's good graces, so he undoubtedly wouldn't be up for anything. Quinn was always busy with theater, Vic was never accessible. Giselle and I had never been particularly close, so that left me with… Cartier.

I couldn't help but smirk at the thought. Now there was an idea.

He was still wounded over Braelin, which meant this was the perfect time for me to strike. I didn't hate the guy, but Aven was right. I needed to get my head back in the right place, and what better time and place to do it than now?

The Lovaine's security measures would give those in the White House a run for their money. There were two bodyguards stationed at the front gate of the house, accompanied with several stationed around the property. It was a miracle how Aven and I had gotten through last time.

The two bodyguards gave me a thorough pat-down after practically doing an on-the-spot background check. And it was only after I repeatedly assured them that I was a friend from school that they had let me in.

The mansion looked both imposing and marvelous in the day. I couldn't help but mentally gape at the fancy building and the intricate design. I had originally thought the Academy was the best architectural structure I had seen yet, but the Lovaine mansion topped that easily.

It took three minutes for me to finally reach the double doors of the mansion, and I found myself looking at a pair of expensive iron knockers. I contemplated banging on them in the good old-fashioned way, but then I noticed the doorbell on the side.

I pressed it and waited.

There was no response.

I frowned and pressed again.

There was disgruntled shuffling on the other side and then one of the doors slowly opened. I looked up and found myself staring into a pair of very blue, very irritated eyes.

The owner of those eyes blinked for a second, and then a look of pure horror dawned on his face. "Oh my fucking God," he blurted, and took a step back. "It's you!"

I stared at him, confused. "What?"

"Why are you here again? I promise I didn't say anything!"

It was that line that did it. I pointed at him, my mind trying to come up with the right name to match that face. "Ace? No… Ash? Ash…"

"Sterling," he supplied without thinking.

I smiled. "Hi Ash. It's good to see you again."

From the expression on his face, it was clear that he didn't think it was good to see me at all. In fact, he looked wary and very disturbed. I couldn't really blame the guy. The last time he had seen me, he had wound up with a gun in his face and then had been knocked unconscious.

"Um… is Cartier here?" I asked, when it was apparent that Ash wasn't going to say anything.

That seemed to knock Ash out of his stupor. He ran a hand through his tangled blonde hair and barely stifled a yawn. I noticed then that he was wearing a pair of old sweatpants and a black wife beater, clear evidence of having just crawled out of bed.

"Yeah, he is. Do you want to uh… come in?"

"If you don't mind," I said, as politely as I could.

Ash looked a little grumpy then. "I do mind, but I doubt I could keep someone like you from coming in." He opened the door a little wider and motioned me in with an agitated hand.

We walked through the foyer and led me through what looked like the living area and into the kitchen. There was a huge island in the middle, and I saw that the kitchen was easily twice the size of that of any gourmet restaurant. Ash stumbled onto one of the high chairs surrounding the island and slumped into it with a loud groan.

I hesitantly paused in front of him. "Um… should I go find Cartier?"


I blinked. "Why not?"

"Because he's currently contemplating suicide and would probably rather be left alone."

My eyes widened in alarm. "He what?" When Ash didn't respond, I grabbed his shoulder and shook him rather forcefully.

He jerked up, annoyed. "What do you want?"

"You're kidding, right?" I asked. "Cartier really is that upset?"

"You should know. You caused it." And then under his breath, he muttered, "Bitch."

My eyes narrowed, my annoyance flaring up. "Care to say that to my face?" I asked hotly.

"No," Ash said, to my surprise. "You're fucking scary when you want to be. I'm content just cursing you behind your back."

Despite his words, I felt a smile flicker across my face. "Sorry about last time. If it's any consolation, I promise I didn't bring any weapons with me."

"Whatever," he grumbled.

A minute ticked by, Ash still lying on the counter, his face in his arms. I shuffled restlessly and then couldn't keep my question in check any longer. "So can I go see Cartier now? I'd rather he not kill himself just yet."

"Yeah, well…"

Just as he said this, another figure came into the kitchen. Cartier stopped when he saw me, and I saw that he was dressed down for the first time I had seen him. He was wearing a loose pair of jeans and a white T-shirt under a black hoodie. His green eyes flickered with what looked like confusion and he glanced at Ash, who had lifted his head when he heard Cartier's entrance.

"Yo," Ash muttered. "The freaky girl is here to see you."

I stared at him. "The freaky girl?"

"You tried to kill me. Is that not freaky?" he asked.

I opened my mouth to object, but Cartier chose that moment to speak up. "What do you want, Tess?" he asked. Was it just me or was his voice slightly deeper?

"I just came to see how you were doing," I said as pleasantly as possible.

He reached into the fridge and grabbed a bottle of water. "Well now that you've seen me, you can leave."

I rolled my eyes at stubbornness, but before I could say anything, he was already halfway out of the kitchen. I turned to bid Ash a quick goodbye, but found that he had disappeared, and then hurried after Cartier. From what I assumed, he had gone up the grand spiral staircase. Cartier really did live like a king.

"Come on Cartier, don't be like this," I shouted up the stairs. "I know you're sad and angry, but don't bottle it up inside you."

I hurried up the stairs and paused on the landing, taking a moment to gape at all the doors that lined the hallway. There were about fifteen from what I could see, but I noticed that the staircase extended continued to another floor.

And then I noticed Cartier's shadow striding down the hallway. There was a set of double doors at the end, but instead of going towards those, he made a right and instead opened up another door. It led into what looked like a study room, with a fancy mahogany work table at the end of the room, accompanied with fancy couches and leather seats. It was every CEO's dream office, but to Cartier, it was apparently just another room.

He perched himself on the edge of his mahogany table and raised the water to his lips slowly, as if in a stupor. He was looking out the windows of the double doors that led to the balcony.

I cleared my throat and slowly closed the door behind me. If Cartier heard me, he didn't acknowledge it. He remained in his own world and I wondered if I ought to just make myself comfortable in one of the many armchairs in the room until he bothered to speak to me.

I didn't have to wait long.

Cartier suddenly let out a loud sigh and a loud crackle filled the air as he clenched the bottle tightly in his hands. And then to my surprise, he let out a loud curse and forcefully chucked the now-ruined bottle across the room. It sailed in a flawless arc into the trash can.

I gaped at him in astonishment. Ever since I had known him, Cartier had never appeared to like violence. He rarely showed any emotion as it was. But for him to be physically throwing things meant he was angry on a whole new scale.

"Um," I said.

He glared at me, his face twisted in fury. "What?" he snapped.

"Are you okay?" I knew it wasn't the brightest thing to ask, but I was never all that great at comforting people.

This seemed to anger Cartier even further. He chuckled furiously and pointed a finger at himself. "Am I okay? Does it look like I'm okay? Goddamn it, Tess."

I held up my hands defensively, a little offended. "Hey, calm down, all right? I was just asking."

He stared down at the table and turned away from me. "If you don't mind, I'd like you to leave."

I blinked. "What?"

"Leave, please."

"I just wanted to see how you were doing. We're friends, right?"

Cartier smiled but there was no humor in his expression. It was a bitter smile, as if the very word 'friends' was something derisive to laugh about. It looked like Dave's betrayal had hurt him more than I had anticipated.

"Friends," he repeated. "We were never friends."

I stared at him, wondering for a brief moment if I ought to be offended or not. But taking in his current state, I figured it'd be best if I just let him off the hook. He was clearly hurt, and if the state of his clothing was anything to go by, he was very upset and wasn't quite sure how to handle this turn of events.

"Oh but we are," I insisted. I took a step closer. "I'm here for you now, aren't I? I'm here to hear you rant and complain. And if you even want to do a little crying, I promise I'll keep it a secret."

He didn't respond.

The room was bathed in silence as my words rang into the air. I had said the last bit in jest but it didn't seem like Cartier had taken it that way.

My curiosity was piqued. "Cartier, can I ask you something?"

He didn't comment, but I took his silence as an affirmation.

"Before, even when Braelin cheated on you, I get the feeling that you didn't feel as bad as you do now. Is it because it was Dave this time?"

Cartier's jaw clenched. He lowered his gaze to the hardwood floor. "I don't want to talk about this right now."

"Are you sure? I've heard it's therapeutic."

"Yeah well, I don't feel much like being psychoanalyzed right now."

I looked up at him and saw that he was looking outside again. His eyes were narrowed, his face drawn. I stood from my perch on the side of the couch and hesitantly approached him. There was a moment's pause as time seemed to stop, and then I slowly reached out and rested a hand on his shoulder. Cartier stiffened automatically, and for a second, I thought he'd throw my hand off.

"Dave is sorry. He'd tell you just how sorry he is about everything if you'd let him talk to you."

Cartier voice was strained. "I can't talk to him right now."

"Look, everyone knew your relationship with Braelin wasn't healthy, but no one was brave enough to do anything about it." I turned slightly so I could look at his face while speaking. "But it just sucked to see you continuously hurt, so Dave agreed to step in."

"Dave… agreed to step in?" He puzzled over those words, and then he lifted his head to look at me. His green eyes were startling in their sharpness. "You mean you had a hand in this?"

I shrugged. "Maybe."

He shoved me away in one smooth move. "So it was you then," he said. "You got your wish in the end. You broke us up."

I stared, not having yet fully caught up with the change in events. Given Cartier's current mood, he was pretty much like a time bomb. He would explode any minute given the wrong words. I had to choose mine carefully.

"I did break you up, only not for the reasons you're thinking."

His smile was devastating in its coldness. "Enlighten me then."

I decided to approach this with the best friend card. "Think about this. Dave is your best friend. He only wants what's best for you. If my grand scheme had been to break you guys up, he wouldn't have agreed to it."

"You're trying to tell me you only want what's best for me?" He sneered. "How… noble."

"Why is that so unbelievable?"

"Because you aren't the self-sacrificing type," he said simply. "As innocent as you may seem compared to Brae, it's not that difficult to see through you. You're selfish, only you're smarter when it comes to getting what you want."

His words bothered me. Our gazes locked as we tried to stare each other down. Cartier was confident in his assessment and I was disturbed by how easily he read people. He wasn't completely correct on this account, considering there was no way he knew my real motive, but if I were any other teenager, he would've nailed it right on the spot. I knew I couldn't deny his accusation upfront, so I decided to take the other route.

I lowered my voice. "Why can't you just believe that I care about you?"

"Save it," he said.

"But I do care about you, Cartier." My voice was soft and imploring. "I don't want to see you hurt and neither does Dave. We did what we thought was best."

His jaw clenched. "Tess."

"You don't have to accept me," I said, withdrawing slightly. "I know you have a lot on your plate right now and I'm not demanding anything more. But at least talk to Dave. He's beating himself up over this right now and I think he'd really appreciate it if you at least heard him out."

Cartier shoved his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. His brows were furrowed in thought and I knew he was weighing the options.

"I... hear you," he finally said. "But I can't talk to him, at least not today. It's too soon."


"Let it go." It was a demand instead of a request, and I saw some of the hardness seep back into his face. "I appreciate your effort, but meddling can only go so far."

I glared at the word 'meddling' but I obliged all the same. It didn't seem like I'd get any further with Cartier tonight, and by now, there was nothing more I could say.

"Fine then." I grabbed my bag from where I had dropped it onto the floor next to one of the couches. "I've said what I came here to say and it doesn't look like you want me around any longer. I'll see myself out."

Cartier merely nodded without looking at me.

Scowling slightly, I made my way across the room and opened the door. The mansion was as silent as it was when I first arrived. Were his parents never home?

I turned back to glance at Cartier before I left and found him leaning against the desk, deep in thought. He looked up when he sensed my gaze and pushed himself away from the table.

I frowned and unconsciously took a step back to him. I watched as he slowly made his way across the length of the room until he was standing in front of me. Then slowly, he lifted my hand and gently pressed his lips to the back of it.

My breath caught in my throat and I looked at him, shocked.


"Thank you, Tess."

His lips lifted in the barest hint of a smile before he gave me a gentle shove out the door and closed it behind me with a resolute click. I was left to stare at the empty hallway, the back of my hand still tingling from that unexpectedly tender gesture.

Author's Note: Almost a year later and the next chapter is up! I know a lot of you have probably already forgotten what happened in the previous chapters, so please go back and read them first before reading this. It'll probably make things a lot easier for you :) I'm terribly sorry for neglecting this story. A lot of things have happened in my life this year so I had to put this story on the back-burner. Hopefully it won't happen again!

Thanks to ALL of you for sticking with me! I know I wouldn't be able to continue this without your constant support. So thank you, thank you, and thank you again for not giving up on me. I hope this chapter meets your expectations :) Please review! I promise Chapter 9 won't take nearly as long!

Oh and P.S. There are pictures in my profile of how I think the characters look. Go take a peek!