“My sister is such a pain,” Yumi grumbled. She and Ren were walking to the convenience store two blocks away, after making a quick stop at his house so he could change his shorts.
“That may be, but she’s really just watching out for you, Curly-Top.”
Of course you’d say that. She bit her lips to keep the words in. Silence fell between them, and when she snuck a glance at him, she found him staring grimly straight ahead. Good grief, say something already, you dummy. “S-so what do you think about our booth theme for the school fair?” she asked.
And regretted it instantly. Of all the stupid things to bring up… Sure enough, Ren gave her an enigmatic look. “The truth? I voted for Option A.”
“I know, I saw you,” she replied sourly. “So which is it? You don’t like me casting witchy spells on innocent people? Or you don’t believe a freakish dork like me can be a Goddess of Love?”
“No, I think you—watch out!” He threw an arm around her and pushed her to the side of the street, shielding her with his body as a tricycle roared past, nearly sideswiping them. Ren glared over his shoulder at the tricycle. “Freaking maniac.”
Yumi had gone as stiff as a board, one hand clutching his arm. When he looked at her, she gasped and pulled away from him, nearly tripping over a hedge, then stuffed her hands into her pockets for good measure. “Um, thank you,” she muttered without meeting his eyes.
He was staring at her with an almost angry expression that sent a little chill through her. “Nothing. Let’s just go,” he answered, turning away and stalking off.
The convenience store was crowded, which was normal for that time of the evening. A group of college students sat chatting over chips and coffee at one of the tables. A small family stood at the candy aisle trying to coax their toddler to release his death-grip on a candy bar. Two high school girls were browsing through the magazine rack. A middle-aged man and a couple of ladies in office uniforms stood in line at the cashier. And a young man in jeans and a T-shirt stood in front of the freezer, staring at the selection of beer and liquor.
While Ren perused the store’s selection of donuts, Yumi moved past the young man to get to the dairy section. She found the brand of butter her mom liked, and was checking the price tag on the way to the cashier when the man suddenly stepped backward, colliding into her and making her drop the stick of butter.
“Sorry,” she murmured, crouching down to pick it up. But the man got there a scant second before she did, and her fingers closed around his hand instead.
Her vision dimmed, the light draining from her surroundings, colors and shapes fading into dull, gray blurs. All the sounds grew muted as well, as though somebody had turned down the volume inside her ears. Her stomach flipped, the way it felt when she was going down in a Ferris wheel, and she knew a moment of vertigo as her mind unmoored itself from all her senses except one.
All feeling was directed to her hand—specifically, to the point of contact between her and the young man. His skin felt dry and hot but there was a chill underneath, as if he was turning into stone from the inside out. He was hurting; she felt his pain like a serrated edge on her nerve endings.
And the threads. In her mind’s eye, she saw him as the center of a tangle of glowing threads—a breathtaking, unbelievably complex web of a myriad colors and textures that were impossible to describe. Some of the threads were as thick as cords and were brighter and more vivid, and Yumi knew these connected him to the people who were most important to him and the ones who thought him important. Other threads were finer, more like cobwebs of shimmering light, and these connected him to every other human being, including the rest of the people in the store. The threads either radiated from or attached themselves to him. Each one was spun from memories, thoughts and emotions, each color representing the predominant emotion of the connection—a tender rose, a cheery yellow, an angry crimson, a faded, nostalgic indigo, and plenty of deep, sad blues and grays.
Where she touched him, one thread sprouted from his skin and wound itself around her fingers. It felt coarse and frayed, like a battered old rope that had reached its limit and was about to give. Just touching it hurt Yumi. So much pain, she thought, tears springing into her eyes, and she closed her fingers around his worn-out cord as if to soothe it.
Then her awareness snapped back into her body, all her senses returning to normal as if a switch had been flipped, as the young man severed their contact. He stood up and offered the stick of butter to her. She blinked dazedly up at him, then pushed herself to her feet.
Ren appeared beside her, one arm going around her to pull her close. She let herself lean against him until the dizziness passed, then became aware that the young man was still waiting for her to take the butter, and that Ren was glaring daggers at him.
“Sorry,” the man said to her. And to Ren: “My fault, man. I wasn’t looking and I bumped into her.”
He wandered off, leaving the two of them standing there, with Yumi sheltered in Ren’s loose embrace. “Are you okay?” he asked her.
Drawing in a shuddering breath, she wiped her tears away and nodded. “Yeah. It’s just that my connection with him was stronger than usual. Just give me a few—”
Before she realized what he was doing, he took both of her hands, butter and all, in his. She squeaked and tried to pull her hands away, but his grip was unyielding and by then it was too late. Everything around her was going dim again—
But instead of plummeting into an alternate universe filled with another person’s pain, she found herself cradled in a mesh woven from brightly glittering threads, as welcoming as a hammock in the summer. In the center of the mesh was Ren, his heart the warm, iridescent source of the unspeakable beauty around her. She felt his threads twining gently around her, and through their joined hands, she could feel the remaining traces of the young man’s pain drain out of her and into him, to be replaced by a feeling of comfort, safety and total acceptance—a feeling of coming home.
The sensation was much stronger now, but poignantly familiar. She remembered feeling this way before. Last Christmas, when she’d suddenly found herself overwhelmed by the presence of so many people, her power activating itself even without her having to touch anyone with her hands. She’d staggered out of the church, stumbled into Ren quite by accident, lost her pre-Midnight Mass snack to the dizziness, then swooned into his arms like one of those heroines in Fran’s romantic shoujo manga. He’d held her hand for the first time in three years, and it was—
Wonderful. I remember now. This is what it feels like to touch him.
But she was puzzled as well. From his hands, she should have been feeling the thread connecting him to the person he liked the most. What she felt was a whole bunch of fragile, lace-like filaments coming from all the girls who had crushes on him. And boy, were there lots of them. But what she should have felt most clearly was that one cord radiating from him—the cord that represented his long-standing feelings for Ate Tala. Instead, there was…nothing.
She came back to her senses when he released her, and found him peering into her face with a mixture of concern and apprehension. “Um, I’ll go pay for this. Just wait for me at the door,” he muttered, taking the butter from her before turning tail and fleeing.
Yumi wondered about that as she waited outside the door. Fran, Lisette and the others reported that they didn’t feel a thing when she was connecting with their threads. But Ren had looked almost scared. Good grief. Ren Navarro—rising star of South Crescent High’s basketball team, who had a reputation for being as cool as ice under pressure; the boy who at age ten had beaten up a couple of bigger boys who’d been teasing her about her wild witch-curls—that Ren Navarro, scared? What could possibly have scared him, other than, well, having someone see right into the deepest, most secret, most intimate parts of him, all without his conscious control? But he knew what would happen if he touched her; he had to have known what to expect.
But what if—oh no, what if it had caused him pain? It made her feel so much better when he took away the remnants of the man’s emotional energy still clinging to her, but what it if doing so had hurt him? If it had, then she had another reason to avoid touching him. But if it had hurt him—and he’d known it would, because he’d touched her before—then why do it again?
And just why couldn’t she sense his love for her sister? Was it some glitch in her power? Or maybe it was because he’d willingly shared his energy with her; that kind of thing didn’t happen a lot with her. Or could it be…he really didn’t like Ate Tala that way anymore? That he wasn’t interested in any girl that way?
Hope blossomed inside her. Maybe she still had a chance. If she could just find out—
The door opened, and the young man stepped out and began walking away, and Yumi suddenly remembered why she’d stationed herself outside the store instead of waiting for Ren inside.
“Wait!” she called out, chasing after him. “Please, wait a minute.”
The man stopped and turned to her, his expression blank. Behind her, Yumi heard the door open again, followed by Ren’s voice calling her name. Ignoring him, she took another step toward the man. “I know this is going to sound weird, but please listen to me. That woman—your relationship with her—it’s not going to work. You’ve got to let her go. You’re breaking apart—”
The man’s vacant eyes sparked with bewilderment at first, followed by anger. “What the hell? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Mara!” she blurted out, holding her ground despite the fear shooting through her. Then she felt Ren at her back, and the fear lessened. “Her name’s Mara, right? You’ve been together for years, and you can’t imagine living without her. But what she feels for you isn’t the same anymore, and—”
“How do you know all this? Who the hell are you?” The man advanced on her, his face filled with fear and fury. Ren cursed underneath his breath and stepped protectively in front of her.
“You’re hurting. You’re in so much pain right now,” Yumi went on in a rush, trying to get all the words out before things got ugly. She slipped out from behind Ren, holding her hands out at her sides in wordless appeal. “Please, just listen. You’re going to be okay, I promise you. There’s someone else who loves you, a girl you know. She’s been waiting for you all this time. She’ll help you get through this. This pain won’t last forever. Please, believe me.”
“Yumi, you’ve said enough.” Ren grabbed her arm and thrust her behind him again. To the young man, he said: “Sorry about this. We don’t mean to cause trouble, but maybe you should listen to her. Give it some thought, at least.”
Yumi gaped at his back. Ren had supported her. Wait a minute, Ren had supported her?
Apparently, shock, anger, pain and fear all mixed together was an effective way to render a man paralyzed. Ren was right; now was the time to beat a retreat. She let him drag her away from the scene—and a scene it was, she realized, her face burning with mortification, when she spotted a few people from the store who were curiously watching the goings-on.
Then she heard the young man shout behind them: “Who?”
She looked back over her shoulder and smiled hugely. “Caylene!” she yelled back.
She didn’t get a chance to see his reaction to her revelation, but it didn’t matter. She was filled from top to bottom with a buoyant feeling of satisfaction. I helped him. I used my power, and I made someone feel better. If this is what being a Goddess of Love is like, I’m all for it.
Her companion stopped walking, a fact she was unaware of until she crashed into his back a second later. “You know one other thing about you that hasn’t changed? You’re still an impulsive, pigheaded little idiot.”
Ren’s anger doused the glowing embers of Yumi’s happiness better than a bucket of ice-water. “Excuse me? In case you missed it, I just helped that guy out,” she snapped, snatching her arm out of his grasp.
He spun around, his dark eyes practically throwing off sparks from underneath his bangs. “No, you butted into someone’s private business, uninvited and unwanted. Why don’t you ever think, Yumi? How long until some victim of yours screams demonic possession and tries to get you locked up and exorcised or worse?”
“Victim? Is that what you think I do?” she whispered, stunned by his admission of how low he actually thought of her and her ability. Then she narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms over her aching chest. “You don’t understand a thing about my power, or me. You never did, and I know why. You’re scared of me. You’re scared of what I can do. I finally find something I can do that no one else can—not you, not my sister, not anyone—and you hate the idea so much you’ve got to rain on my parade every chance you get. You’re not my friend, Ren. What you are is just a bully.”
She stormed past him, outraged and furious and betrayed all over again. And inside, the pain from the reopened wound battered at her, bleeding all over her silly little hope that they could be friends again. Just like before. But now it hurts even more than it did three years ago. Why can’t I ever learn?
She was just about to break into a run to try to make it home before she started crying—just like before—when he grabbed her arm again and jerked her around to look at him. “So this is what it’s all about, huh? That Goddess of Love thing. You’re doing it to prove that you can do it. You don’t care what your meddling does to people, and you don’t care what it does to you. It’s all about what people think of you. Yeah, sounds like you’d make a great Goddess of Love, all right.”
“Let go of me,” she spat, giving him a scorching glare. His jaw tightened until she half-expected it to creak, but then he released her and stepped back. “You’re not being fair at all. I’m not surprised anymore that I couldn’t sense your love-thread. It’s because you don’t know how to love.”
As soon as she said it, she knew she’d gone too far. Ren’s face turned frozen, and pain glittered in his eyes before they turned opaque. “You really didn’t sense anything from me?” he asked in an toneless voice.
“No,” she answered sullenly. “Do you even like anyone, Ren?”
He laughed bitterly as he started moving again, forcing her to trot after him like a puppy. “Yeah, I do. Seeing as she’s the only reason I’m going back to your place to have dinner with you and your family, I can definitely say that I like her.”
Yumi stumbled, but Ren walked on without a backward glance. Ate Tala. Of course. It’s always been her for him, anyway. She trailed after him, glad for once that he was ignoring her. At least, he wouldn’t see her dashing her tears away with the back of her hand.
This was the second time she’d let their friendship blow up in their faces. Not even a Goddess of Love deserved another chance after this.