Goddess-training officially began the very next day.
“The way I see it, we need to work on two things,” Ren announced.
The two of them were hanging out in his backyard, which was bigger than Yumi’s. By unspoken agreement, they were both dressed in their PE uniform in anticipation of the work ahead, but Yumi had added a few touches—a colorful head-band, a pair of silver earrings, lip gloss, perfume—little things to remind him that she was, astonishingly, a girl, too. When she’d arrived at his house, she was almost sure he’d noticed her. Then she recognized the hair-tie holding his bangs back—hard not to, with the little yellow star winking at her every time he moved—and her hopes sunk like a rock.
She watched him now as he as he paced in front of her, hands clasped behind his back, a pair of round spectacles perched on his nose. “First, we’ve got to stop you from going in too deep, or you’ll get sick from sensory overload really quickly,” he continued. “Second, we’ve got to figure out how you can turn your power on and off, instead of setting it off every time you—what’s so funny?”
“You,” she said, giggling. “You look like Professor Jose in the middle of a chemistry lecture. And when did you start wearing glasses?”
“Oh, these?” He pushed his glasses up his nose and grinned self-consciously. “They’re not prescription glasses. I just thought they were appropriate for the occasion.”
“Plus they make you look cool?”
“You think so?” he returned teasingly.
“Yeah, I guess, in a geeky sort of way,” Yumi replied, hoping he didn’t notice her blush.
He smiled, causing her blush to deepen. “Anyway, going back to our topic…”
He produced a clipboard from out of nowhere, making Yumi giggle some more, then proceeded to rattle off theories and ideas about ESP and the paranormal, as well as techniques for handling extrasensory abilities based on a variety of mystical and occult traditions. It was a great deal of information, and when she remarked on it, he told her he’d been interested in the subject for a while.
“How long exactly is ‘a while’?”
This time, it was his turn to blush. “About three years. Ever since you told me about your power,” he admitted. It just about melted her insides.
He had her practicing several visualization techniques, including imagining a pillar of white light pouring into her from the top of her head and forming a protective sphere around her to block off other people’s threads. Then he made her sit cross-legged across him on the grass and place her hands, palms up, on her knees. “Try to block me,” he said, before covering her hands with his.
She plunged through the gray world and right into the sparkling tangle of Ren’s emotions, as sweet and safe and welcoming as always. From his hands, she felt the delicate, rose-tinged webs of girls’ infatuations with him, but again, she couldn’t feel the cords of his own feelings radiating from him to her sister—or to her, or to anyone else, for that matter.
Then the connection between them ended, and she opened her eyes and met Ren’s questioning look. “Sorry. I forgot what I was supposed to do,” she said sheepishly.
He sighed and repeated his instructions then took her hands again, and off she went to wander through his threads. She felt his love for his parents as sturdy, shimmering ropes, holding him together and keeping him strong; his ties of loyalty to his friends and teammates; his respect for his coach; his exasperation with and contempt for some of their classmates; his antagonism toward the girls who’d ambushed her, and his jealousy of Laurence, which puzzled her; even the mild affection he felt for her own friends.
She drifted through his threads, filled with joy and love and a soul-deep gratitude at the incomparable privilege he was granting her. To her surprise, she felt his threads respond, waving gracefully toward her and flaring even more brightly, with some even taking on a pale, golden glow.
So beautiful, she thought, tears filling her eyes. You’re so beautiful, Ren.
She snapped back into her body, feeling his loss like a wrenching in her gut. “You’re not even trying to block me, are you?” he accused.
She blinked her tears away and shook her head. “Honestly? I don’t think I want to.”
The kiss was completely unexpected, and it shot through her like a bolt of lightning. She stared at him with wide, unblinking eyes, one hand flying to the spot on her forehead where he’d kissed her. He sat back and regarded her sternly, although his face had turned red enough to burst into flames. “Do it. Or all this training will be useless, and you’ll have to explain to our classmates why our section got kicked out of the competition.”
“Right,” she croaked.
She practiced visualization techniques on him for the rest of the afternoon, experimenting with different shapes of white light, different colors of light, different mental symbols and religious icons, even, out of rising desperation, random objects. It was already twilight when she finally stumbled upon a move that worked: imagining herself floating inside a kind of fruit, like an orange—bathing in cleansing white light on the inside and sheltered within a protective but supple, golden-orange peel that would shield her from other people’s threads without harming them. When she tried it out on Ren, she managed to block him off so effectively that she was able, for the first time ever, to end a connection all by herself.
“I did it. I did it! I did it, I did it, I did it!”
She jumped to her feet, whooping and laughing, and twirled around in circles until she was giddy. Ren was laughing too as he caught her around the waist to keep her from planting her face in the grass. Impulsively, she threw her arms around him in a tight hug, and whispered, “Thank you, Ren. Thank you so much.”
Another bolt of electricity sizzled across her nerves when he kissed her on the forehead again. His mom’s announcement of the arrival of the pizza they’d had delivered spared either of them from having to respond to the startling developments in their newly re-forged friendship.
When Ren offered to walk her home later that night, she gave him a strange look. “Um, I live just across the street. I’m not going to get lost or anything.”
“Still,” he insisted, and when Ate Tala met them at the front gate, the reason for his stubbornness became clear. Painfully reminded of her end of the deal, Yumi forced herself to smile. “Hi, Ate. I invited Ren over for hot cocoa and chocolate chip cookies. There’re still some left, right?”
“I think so,” Ate Tala replied, blinking in confusion.
“Great. Ren, come on in. Could you make the cocoa for him, Ate? I have to go take a shower.”
“Oh, okay.” As Yumi headed up the stairs to her room, she heard her sister say to Ren. “Aw, you look so cute wearing my hair-clip.”
She didn’t come down again, and watched from the window as Ren bid Tala goodbye at the gate. Her sister looked happy though, smiling in reply when Yumi asked if she’d had a great chat with him. It boded well for her promise to set up a date between him and his dream girl for Students’ Night, Yumi decided.
Then she buried her face in her pillow and cried.