The ringing of the librarian’s bell woke Yumi up. She lifted her head from the cradle of her arms and glanced around in momentary confusion. The sky was still bright, but judging from the way the shadows of the trees outside the window had moved across the table, Yumi guessed it was close to five o’clock. Helpfully, the librarian rang the bell again, signaling that it was closing time.
She got up, stretched, then smoothed down her curls around her head and shoulders. They sprang back up, of course; there really was no hope of taming them without the help of a hair-tie or a head-band. Collecting her books and her bag, she joined the line of people who were checking books out, then stepped out of the library and into a warm, golden afternoon.
She lifted her face and took a deep breath, savoring the smell of trees and grass in the air. But as she made her way toward the main building, all the books she’d checked out heavy in her arms, the worry that had hounded her for the past week crept back again.
So far, she’d made little progress in what she’d called her Goddess-training. Part of it was that she’d been busy juggling her studies and being a member of the Physical Arrangements Committee, which was charged with making the props and decorations that would transform their classroom into a New Age-style café. But most of it was due to one thing: She had no idea how to go about training herself. Yes, as much as she hated to admit it, her sister had gotten it right. Again.
Simply put, she didn’t know what to do, and she didn’t have anyone to turn to for help. She’d tried Googling her power, and while she came up with plenty of information, none of them were helpful. She’d grilled her mother about their family history, in the hopes that some similarly gifted ancestor had left behind a clue, but her mother couldn’t come up with anything.
She’d even taken Natalie aside and hinted that maybe she wasn’t suited for the role of the Goddess of Love after all, and that maybe the class would be better off choosing someone else to tell love fortunes. Natalie had brushed aside her misgivings. Nobody but Yumi could do it; she was the one with a reputation for mystical powers, after all. The Marketing Committee had totally banked on that, hyping up her “one-hundred-percent accurate” love fortunes as their café’s main draw. Somehow, Yumi couldn’t bring herself to tell her about her sister’s threat to revoke the senior council’s approval, and thus disqualify them from participating in the fair entirely, so in the end, she’d just made agreeable noises and promised to do her best.
She turned to the library next, hunting down books about paranormal abilities, ESP, mysticism and the occult. Again, there were plenty of those, but she had yet to find out if any of them would work for her. If nothing useful came out of this, the only other thing she could think of would be to experiment with different fabrics and see if one of them would be able to muffle her power, allowing her to feel a person’s love-threads but not any of the heavy, emotional stuff.
But no matter which avenue she tried, she was always brought up short by the same obstacle: who in the world could she experiment on?
The thudding, squeaking, shouting sounds of a game in progress drew her attention, and she found herself slowing as she walked past the covered basketball court. The basketball team was still in the middle of practice; getting ready for the exhibition game, no doubt. Then a familiar figure caught her eye. Ren was racing across the court dribbling the ball, which he passed to someone else before seemingly disappearing into thin air. She squinted and moved closer. No, there he was, dancing around another guy who was trying to block him. The ball flew back into his hands, then he in turn was flying through the air, and whoosh! Right through the basket.
“Yeah! Go, Navarro!” Yumi cheered, unable to contain herself. Then one of his teammates noticed her and pointed her out to Ren. He turned around, and when his eyes met hers across the court, her stomach seemed to flip upside down. Reminding herself that they weren’t exactly on speaking terms, she dropped her gaze and hastily backtracked, intent only on escape.
She hadn’t gotten far before she was stopped by a trio of girls she recognized as her old classmates—the same ones whose fortunes she’d told during that fieldtrip ride last year. “Hi, Yumi. You remember us?” one of them said.
“Yeah. What’s up?” Yumi asked, shifting her grip around her books.
“Can we ask you a favor? There’s a guy in our class who wants to talk to you. He’s waiting for you in the garden. Will you come with us and meet him?”
Yumi frowned. “A guy? Who? And why does he want to talk to me?”
The trio exchanged looks. “You won’t know until you meet him. Honestly, though, I think he’s going to confess to you,” another girl said in a conspiratorial tone. “Please, Yumi? You don’t want to leave him hanging, do you?”
Confess to me? Yumi tried to think of all the boys she knew in their entire class who could possibly be so enchanted by her charms that he’d be moved to confess to her—and drew a complete blank. “I don’t know,” she hedged. “Maybe he could just come up to me later in a normal way and talk?”
“No, it’s got to be now or he’ll lose his nerve.”
Before she could stop her, the first girl reached out and grabbed one of her hands, prying it from around her stack of books. The stack wobbled and fell to the ground, but Yumi didn’t notice. Neither was she aware that she was being dragged off unresisting toward the garden. She was adrift in a world of glowing threads, mesmerized by the shimmering energies radiating from the girl, while in her hand Yumi held the cords that revealed the girl’s most secret loves.
The connection ended abruptly, making her sway a little. Yumi was disconcerted, to say the least, at finding herself standing underneath a large mango tree in the garden, while the girls ran off.
A sound made her turn. A boy was leaning against the tree, watching her with a grin that somehow reminded her of a shark’s. Straightening, he ambled over to her, one hand hooked in his pocket, the other running through his hair. “Hi, Yumi. Thanks for coming to meet me.”
She burst out laughing.
His grin vanished. “What’s so funny?”
“You!” she sputtered. “Sorry, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have laughed. It’s just that the way you’re acting, you probably think you look like John Wayne or something. But you just remind me so much of Woody from Toy Story 2.”
A dull flush swept up the boy’s neck, and for a moment he looked more outraged than ardent. Then he glanced at something over her shoulder and sighed. “You’re right, you got me. I guess I was trying too hard, huh?” he said with a disarming smile. “I just wanted you to think I’m cool.”
“Oh. Really? Well, I think you’d be cooler if you’d just act like yourself. No more doing bad impressions of whomever, okay?”
The boy winced slightly, although to his credit his smile never faltered. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Great.” Yumi beamed. “Now that you’re done confessing, I’ve got to go back—”
“I haven’t confessed to you yet, you—”
She eyed the boy warily, taken aback by his sudden loss of composure. “Look, I’m trying to say that I like you,” the boy informed her after taking a deep, steadying breath.
Her eyebrows shot up. “You do?”
“Yeah, I do, and I was wondering if you’d like to go out with me some time.”
“Go out with you?”
“Like on a date,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Oh.” Yumi tilted her head to one side. “Wait. Who’re you again?”
The boy threw his hands up. “You know what? Forget it. There’s a faster way to do this.”
He lunged at her but she was prepared for it this time, jumping back with her hands held behind her. But he’d managed to grab her by the upper arm, and ignoring her yelp of pain, dug his fingers into her skin, wrenched her arm from her body, and closed his hand around hers.
Not again. The next moment, she had fallen into grayness, watching the threads writhe around him. From his hand, two cords snaked out and wrapped around her wrist, one rough and burning, the other smooth and pliant. For some reason, she suddenly felt like crying.
Their link snapped apart, and Yumi swallowed convulsively against the rising nausea. Then she was gathered against something warm and firm, if somewhat damp and smelling of sweat. She opened her eyes, and wondered why she wasn’t at all surprised to find Ren, still in his basketball jersey, holding her with one arm and cradling her books in his other arm. Murder glinted in his dark eyes.
Why do you always seem to be there when I need you the most?
She glanced around. Five girls, including the original trio, stood nearby, a couple of them brandishing cellphones as if they were weapons. Her erstwhile suitor, on the other hand, was groaning and clutching his head. “You threw a book at me!” he cried. “I can’t believe it! You actually threw a book at me, you rotten sonuva—”
“So this is how you plan to win? With underhanded tricks and cheap melodramas? I can’t believe you people are this desperate to win a dumb booth competition.” Ren shook his head, his voice calm even though Yumi could feel tremors running through his body.
“That really hurt, you know? I bet it was a hardbound book, too—”
“That girl’s a witch,” the lead girl said shrilly. “She’s a witch, and we can prove it. We’ve got it all on video, and by this time tomorrow, the whole world will know the truth about her.”
“Yeah,” cried another girl. “Come on, Yumi, say something. Why don’t you tell us a love-fortune? When you touched Laurence’s hand, did you feel his love for you? Or was he just lying to you?”
“I think you tore my scalp, you ass. You could’ve gouged my eye out—”
“It’s a set-up. Don’t say a word,” Ren told Yumi, keeping his eyes trained on the girls.
Yumi straightened, reluctantly abandoning the safety of his arms to face her tormentors. Her own wrath had ignited, and she was more than ready to dish it out, set-up or not. “You’re in love with your cousin,” she announced, her stare spearing the lead girl, while Ren groaned. “You still are; that hasn’t changed since last year. Good grief, the things you think about when you’re with—”
Her complexion turning the color of oatmeal, the leader clapped her hands to her ears, ruining the camera work for her video in the process. One of the girls who weren’t part of the original trio frowned in perplexity. “I’m her cousin.”
“It’s your brother. The younger one.” Upload that, you witch.
With a wail, their leader turned and fled, and Yumi sincerely hoped she’d forgotten to turn her phone’s video recorder off. Even just the audio part was good as gold. The other girls were looking uncertain now, and even Laurence had stopped whining and was watching her in horror.
Then the mango tree spoke up. “What about Laurence?”
Everyone except Ren peered upward into the thick, dark foliage. “Laurence?” Yumi murmured distractedly. “Laurence is—”
Ren bent his head so that his lips brushed her ear. “Lie,” he hissed.
“—in love with his dog,” Yumi found herself saying, still shivering in response to his nearness.
Silence. Then the tree began to shudder, and the next minute it exploded in loud guffaws. Ren made an odd, choking sound, then pretty soon he was doubled up with laugher, too. Even the girls were laughing. Laurence, however, stared at Yumi with stricken eyes, before he too ran off. It was a resounding victory, but for a moment, all she could see was the Laurence’s panicked face and the feeling of his cords against her skin—and she knew she’d done something terribly wrong.
As the girls dispersed, still chortling about Laurence and his dog, the mango tree finally revealed its secret. A hulking figure dropped down from the branches, becoming an intimidatingly tall, broad slab of boy, with an extremely short buzz-cut and both ears glittering with piercings.
“That was the most hilarious thing I’ve seen all week,” he said, grinning down at Yumi, who smiled back nervously.
“Thanks for the heads-up,” Ren said, bumping fists with the other boy.
Yumi watched the figure lope away. “Who—what—who is that?”
“That’s Jake,” Ren answered. “He hangs out here a lot. I was looking for you, and he was the one who texted me to tell me where to find you. Let me go get changed, then we can go home together, okay? I’ve got a deal I want to offer you.”
Yumi felt strangely self-conscious as she waited for him near the gym. There were two or three other girls who were waiting for their boyfriends, and she found herself wondering if she gave off the same vibe. When Ren emerged, freshly showered and dressed jeans and a T-shirt, with his bangs clipped back from his face, Yumi found herself unable to look at him for long without getting her breath stuck in her throat. He took her books and her bag from her, carrying them easily along with his backpack and gym bag, then they headed home together, all without exchanging a word, each one trying to protect the fragile sense of companionship budding between them.
Yumi snuck glances at him as they walked along the streets of their village. He was looking oddly pensive, and she wondered what—or whom—he was thinking about. When they got to the waiting shed at the corner of their block, he suddenly stopped, forcing her to draw to a halt as well. She looked at him questioningly, and he cleared his throat. “So. You must be wondering why I asked you here tonight.”
She giggled—she couldn’t help it. “You’re so formal. You sound like you’re about to launch into a speech or something.”
“That’s because I am, Curly-Top. A little respect for the gravity of the moment would be nice.” He grinned with self-deprecating humor, which reassured her somewhat, then sobered up again. “I’ve been watching you this past week. I know you’re serious about trying to learn to control your power. And I’m also kind of thinking you need help. It’s not as if you can practice controlling your power when there’s no one who’s willing to let you practice on them.”
She nodded, astonished that he’d actually noticed her dilemma, much less given as much thought to it as he apparently had.
“So, here’s the deal: I’ll help you learn to control your power. I can do research—” he lifted her books meaningfully “—and if you need a guinea pig to try stuff on, I volunteer myself for the job.”
Her jaw hit the ground. “You mean you—you’re saying you actually want me to—”
“Yep. You can read my threads anytime you need to,” he said, smiling at her tenderly.
“Oh.” She slowly exhaled, reeling from both the impact of his smile and the enormity of what he was offering her. It made her entire body go warm and her heart squeeze itself into funny shapes. “But wait, aren’t you scared of me? Of what I might do to you?”
“No. I’ve never been scared of you, not since the moment you told me about your power.”
“Ren, you don’t have to lie about that. I’m okay with it now; I totally understand. It doesn’t matter now, anyway,” she said gently.
He made a frustrated sound. “No, listen, what happened three years ago—that was just a colossal misunderstanding. The truth was, I—” He broke off, leaving her forever curious about what he’d been about to say, then looked away and took a deep breath. “You’re right. It doesn’t matter now. But going back to my offer: Will you accept it?”
She chewed her lower lip as she considered it. “What’s in it for you? What’s your condition?”
“It’s simple. I want you to help me get closer to the girl I like.”
For one crazy moment, she wondered if her power had activated itself again, sending her tumbling into the gray, silent world without her touching anyone. Then she realized she was still standing in front of Ren, still tied to the realm of the five senses, still breathing somehow. As hard to believe as that was. “You want me to help you get closer to—” She choked on the rest of the words.
“Yes. And by that, I mean I want her to be my date for Students’ Night.”
She found herself recalling her conversation with Fran and Lisette. The three of them had spent the first period hiding out in the garden, and she’d ended up telling them everything—about her fight with Ren; about the overwhelming sweetness she felt when she touched him; about his feelings for her sister and how she, Yumi, could never compete.
In the end, her friends had exchanged knowing grins while Yumi gobbled up her fourth chocolate cupcake. “What?” she’d said around a mouthful.
“Oh, nothing,” Lisette replied. “We just think it’s funny how you’ve got this special power that lets you tell when somebody’s in love, but you can’t tell when you’re the one who’s in love.”
Yumi froze, her face forming a stunned O—thankfully, she’d already gulped down most of the cupcake by then. “In love? Me?”
“Yes, you. In love. With Ren Navarro, to be precise.”
Fran pushed her glasses up and nodded in agreement. “It happens as often in romantic fiction as it does in real life, you know. Sometimes, you can’t see the things that mean most to you because they’re just too close for you to see.”
“And…what about Ren? H-how do you think he feels about me?” Yumi was almost afraid to ask.
“As I said, maybe he’s just too close for you to see,” Fran replied with a smile.
With that, the truth had unfurled inside her, as if it had been waiting for just that moment. She loved Ren. She’d loved him when they were kids, and he’d been her first and best friend. She loved him even when he’d rejected her; she wouldn’t have spent the last three years stewing in the hurt if she hadn’t. And she loved him now, even as he offered to open his heart up to her.
Even as he asked her to help him win her sister’s heart in exchange.
She thought about the threads of emotional energy connecting every human being to one another—bonds of love, friendship, loyalty, memory, hatred, sorrow, jealousy, gratitude and everything else, forming an infinite tapestry of unimaginable beauty. Maybe her love for Ren was one of those threads, reaching out from her to him. Maybe it was okay that Ren didn’t feel the same way about her, because they were still connected anyway.
Maybe that’s just the way love worked.
“Will you do it?”
She focused on Ren again. He looked calm enough, but his uncertainty and tension were revealed in the way his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down and his hands opened and closed into fists. “Why do you even need my help? You seem to be doing fine on your own, seeing as how you’re using one of my sister’s hair-clips again,” she groused, crossing her arms over her chest. Hey, it was worth a shot.
He shook his head. “I need you for this. It won’t work without you.”
That’s just the way love works.
She dropped her arms and sighed. “Fine, I’ll do it. I’ll use my Goddess powers to get you that date for Students’ Night. It’s only fair, since I’m going to be strumming your threads like a harp for the next few days.”
And maybe, just maybe, during their time together, she’d be able to win him away from her sister. Maybe it was a little too soon for her to give up. And if it wasn’t, she was going to find a way to wrap her own love-thread around him so tightly he’d be tripping over it every time he moved.
Ren’s answering smile lit up the night. “You’re the Goddess of Love, Yumi,” he said. “Make my wish come true.”