The crowd at the mall wasn't bad for a Wednesday afternoon. That was to say, there were just enough people there to make the place feel inhabited, and to grant other shoppers the fun of people-watching, but not so many that a person felt squashed in the great tide of humanity. Hikari felt glad she was there. Shopping was not one of her great passions, but she had to admit that it was fun being allowed to come out here by herself, to go into whatever store she pleased and try on whatever she liked, without her mother's watchful eye on her the whole time. It was a chance to let her hair down a bit, and perhaps try something new and different.
"You ought to try that on," Miyako suggested, pointing to an outfit that was on display in a store window.
"What, that?" asked Hikari. "My mom would skin me alive if I brought something like that home."
"What's wrong with it? I've seen things that were a lot worse."
Hikari laughed. "I know. You just know how moms are. She doesn't want me to wear anything that makes me look like a teenager. No short skirts. No high heels. Nothing that shows my bellybutton."
"I guess a tattoo is out, then, huh?" said Miyako teasingly.
"If I got one of those, Mom really would skin me," Hikari replied. "I don't really want one, anyway. It's not really my image."
"Yeah, you're right," Miyako agreed. "It would be kind of interesting, though, wouldn't it? That would be one way of showing our parents we aren't three years old anymore."
"They know we're not three years old anymore."
"Well, yeah... but still. Hey, we haven't been in that store yet. Want to go in and look?"
"Sure, I have a little money left," Hikari replied.
"It doesn't cost to look," Miyako said.
They went in. The store Miyako had indicated was a jewelry store - not one of the teenager stores that sold plastic hair clips and silverplate jewelry, but an upscale establishment with a few precious objects hidden away under glass boxes. Necklaces curved gracefully over velvet pedestals, rings sat in neat rows like a bed of tiny exotic flowers, and brooches and earrings flashed like a galaxy of stars and moons. The girls moved among them quietly, more as if they were in a museum than a store, gazing at the treasures with more than a little awe in their eyes. Hikari heard her friend give a wistful little sigh as she trailed her hand over one of the glass cases. She didn't blame her, really - Hikari herself felt drawn by the shimmering objects, but she had used up most of what she had to spend already.
"They're all so pretty," she murmured.
"I know what you mean," said Miyako, admiring a display of jeweled earrings. "Makes me wish I had pierced ears."
A saleswoman appeared behind them.
"Can I help you girls with anything?" she asked.
"Oh, no," said Miyako. "We're just looking."
"That's all right," the saleswoman said. "If there's anything you'd like a closer look at, please let me know."
"I don't think we can afford any of this," said Hikari with a small laugh. "Maybe someday, though."
The girls left the store again, feeling a bit let down by the reminder that all they could do was look. They walked slowly without any particular destination in mind.
"Hey, Miyako," said Hikari. "Why don't you have your ears pierced?"
Miyako grimaced. "My mom. She says I can't have them until I'm older."
"Older than what?"
"I don't know. I gave up asking a while ago. It's not fair; my brother got his ear pierced! Why can't I?"
"Why don't you?" Hikari suggested. "There are places all over the mall where you can have it done. It doesn't even cost that much."
"True..." said Miyako. "It's better than a tattoo... and it's not like Mom can tell me to send my ears back to the store."
Hikari giggled. "True."
"And she has been nagging me to take more care about the way I look," Miyako continued. "All right, I'll do it!"
"That's the spirit!" Hikari cheered.
"You'll come with me, won't you?" Miyako asked.
Hikari was surprised. "Huh?"
"Hey, it was your idea! You can't just send me off and tell me to tell you about it when I get back. Besides," said Miyako, "you need to take more risks. You never do anything but what you think everyone else wants."
"Maybe," said Hikari doubtfully. "Dad always says people need pierced ears like they need a hole in their head."
"Well, maybe more people need holes in their heads. It might make them more open- minded," said Miyako. "Come on. It'll be an adventure! I won't do it if you don't come." She folded her arms and looked stubborn. Hikari sighed. She was not good at winning arguments with Miyako.
"All right," she said. "Lead the way."
They did not go to the upscale jewelry store, which offered ear-piercing but not at a price they could pay, but to one of its near neighbors that sold plastic jewelry and offered a free second pair of earrings to anyone who bought their piercing package. They were waited on by a young lady who already had three sets of earrings, perhaps as a living testimony to reassure those who were nervous. Her nametag read Aoi.
"What can I do for you?" she asked.
"We want our ears pierced," said Miyako decisively.
"Congratulations," said Aoi, smiling brightly. "Both of you? Wonderful. See that little display right there? Those are our starter earrings. Just go over and pick out a pair you like."
Feeling a little fluttery inside, Hikari nevertheless inspected the selection of jewelry. All of the starter earrings were small and discreet, things that wouldn't be a bother to wear for long periods of time and would look good with almost anything. She chose a pair of little gold stars with discreet gems glinting at the center, while Miyako selected a pair of small stones the same pale purple of her hair.
"Okay, we're ready," said Miyako.
"Good," Aoi said. "Which of you wants to go first?"
"She does," said Miyako, pointing at Hikari.
"What? Why me?" she asked.
"I don't want you to change your mind," said Miyako.
"You just want me to tell you if it hurts," Hikari grumped.
"I wouldn't do that to you. Go on! You have to get it done anyway; you might as well get it over with."
Feeling a bit put-upon but nevertheless resigned to her fate, Hikari allowed herself to be escorted to a small chair in the corner of the store. It was bright purple, as if determined to convince the people who used it that this was fun. Hikari was not utterly convinced, but she sat down in it and closed her eyes.
"Nervous?" asked Aoi. "Don't worry - it's not so bad. It'll all be over fast. What's your name?"
"What a pretty name! Okay, Hikari, here's what I'm going to do. First I'm going to clean your ears a little. Did you wash behind your ears today?" She grinned, and Hikari giggled a little.
Aoi produced a small damp cloth, with which she began wiping off Hikari's earlobes.
"It's cold," said Hikari.
"That's right. We keep them in the same kind of refrigerator doctors put their stethoscopes in," said Aoi. "There, that was easy, wasn't it? Okay, the next thing I'm going to do is draw on you. Hold very still, please."
She took out a thin brown marker and made a little dot on one earlobe, and then on the other. She turned Hikari's head back and forth a few times, looking at her seriously. Hikari felt a bit like when she was having her picture taken for school, when the cameraman kept telling her to turn her head this way and that.
"Nice and even," Aoi pronounced. "Now for the fun bit. Do me a favor, and close your eyes and count backwards from ten."
"Why?" asked Hikari.
Aoi gave her a teasing grin. "Maybe I never learned to count. Go on, do it."
Hikari did as she was told. As she closed her eyes, she felt something being settled against her ear, but she couldn't see what it was. Ten, nine, eight... She was probably getting ready to make the first hole. Seven, six, five... She was probably going to do it just as Hikari reached one. The girl felt her insides clench, but she forced herself to keep counting. Four, three...
"Ow!" Hikari squeaked.
"Did it hurt?" asked Miyako.
"No," said Hikari, without opening her eyes. "It felt more like when Taichi was a little kid and would get mad and pinch me."
"See, I told you it wasn't so bad," said Aoi. "You think you can do the other one without counting?"
"Yeah, I can do that," said Hikari.
"Okay, get ready!"
Hikari felt the gun settle next to her ear, and again there was a punch and a quick pinch.
"There! All done!" Aoi proclaimed. "Here, let me look... Yes, that came out perfectly. You look great. Now, there's a little drugstore up the street from here. What I'd tell you to do is go get a little bottle of rubbing alcohol and some cotton balls, and wash your ears with them every morning and night. Twist them around a little so your ears won't try to grow together again. If they start feeling sore or itchy, talk to a doctor. Otherwise, you can take them out in about six weeks."
"That wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," said Hikari, hopping down from the chair. She walked over to a little mirror that sat nearby and had a look at herself. Sure enough, there were two little stars sparkling on either side of her face. She thought she looked rather pretty and grown up that way.
"Okay, Miyako, you can get yours done now," she said.
She looked at Miyako. To her surprise, her friend was looking rather pale, eyes wide as she looked at the unassuming little earring-gun.
"I'm not sure I like this idea anymore," she said.
"It's not that bad. Really!" Hikari assured her. "It barely even hurts. Hey, I got through it, and I'm not nearly as brave as you are. Come on."
With much cajoling, Miyako climbed onto the chair, looking rather as if she expected to be executed. She was completely silent, still as a statue, as she was prepared for the procedure. Hikari stood next to her, keeping a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"It'll all be over in just a second," said Hikari soothingly.
"I don't like this," Miyako said. "I think I've changed my mind."
"Okay, all right. Just sit still for a second. Take a deep breath."
Miyako did as she was told, breathing in deeply and then letting it slowly out. Before she had completely released it, there was a punch.
"Ow!" she squeaked.
"That's one," said Aoi.
Miyako opened her mouth to say something. Instead, there was a motion beside her, and then a punch.
"That's two. All done," Aoi announced. "How do you feel?"
Miyako's face was still very pale, with a faint greenish tinge.
"I think I'm going to be sick," she said.
"Not in here!" Aoi protested. "Put your head between your knees, kid."
Meekly, Miyako did as she was told, breathing slowly, while Hikari rubbed her back and murmured soothing words to her that she only half-heard. After a few minutes, she sat up again.
"I'm okay," she said, sounding shaky but more in control of herself. "I was just... a little dizzy, for a minute."
"Is she all right?" asked Hikari anxiously.
"Oh, yeah, sure, she's fine," Aoi assured her. "It happens all the time. Some people just don't take well to having holes put in them. She'll be good as new in a little while."
Hikari payed the bill for both of them, as Miyako still didn't feel inclined to get out of the chair, instead handing Hikari her purse and telling her she was just going to sit there for a while. However, just as Aoi had said, she revived quickly and managed to pick out her other pair of earrings without any trouble. She left the store carrying a little bag holding a pair of earrings made to look like flying birds.
"Are you okay now?" asked Hikari.
"Almost," Miyako replied. "I don't know about you, though, but I could use something cold to drink."
They went to an ice cream shop and bought milkshakes. Miyako sipped thoughtfully, while Hikari watched her with lingering concern.
"That was embarrassing," said Miyako at length.
"You did fine," Hikari assured her.
"No, I didn't. I went to pieces. You were sitting there so calm, joking around with the saleslady, and I was a nervous wreck."
"You want to know the truth?" said Hikari. "I was scared stiff. If you hadn't been there, I would have turned around, walked out of that store, and never come back."
"Really?" said Miyako. "Funny, I felt the same way."
Hikari grinned a little. "I know. I guess I'm just better at keeping things secret."
"You always were. You know, it's weird - it really didn't hurt that much, but as soon as it was over with, my head started spinning and my ears were rushing and my stomach felt all queasy..."
"Well, you heard what the lady said. That just happens to some people. I guess it is hard on a body, getting holes put in it."
Miyako giggled. "Now that I think of it, when my brother got his ear done, he passed out, but I thought it was just because he's a big chicken... either that, or he knew what dad would do to him when he got home."
"I'll tell you what," said Hikari. "When you get home, I'll tell your brother that you didn't have any trouble at all."
"You're a real friend, Hikari," said Miyako. "I really couldn't have done it without you."
"Sure you could," Hikari told her. "You're brave like that. Once you made up your mind to do it, you wouldn't have given up until you did. I just made it a little easier, that's all."
"A lot easier," Miyako corrected. "Hey, I haven't even looked at yours. Turn your head - let me see! ... Hey, that's nice! They look really good on you."
"So do yours," said Hikari. "You look very grown up."
"Thanks!" said Miyako, tossing her hair to show off the new earrings. "Anyway, I'm done with my shake. Let's go get that stuff, now, so we can go home and show our parents."
"Okay," Hikari agreed.
They headed for the drug store, Miyako eagerly leading the way. Hikari watched her, thinking, *She really does look more grown up, somehow.* It wasn't just the new earrings. There was something about the way she carried herself, the proud tilt of her head, a new light in her eyes. Maybe it was just the excitement of having done something new, or the pride in having gotten through something frightening.
*And maybe it's that doing those things made her grow up a little,* thought Hikari, *and that's not a bad thing. I'm glad I was there with her when it happened.*
"Hey, wait up! I'm coming, too!" she called, and hurried after her friend.