By Saturday evening, Yumi was completely exhausted, physically, mentally and emotionally. She lay splayed out on her bed while Ren straddled her desk chair and flipped through the pages of his “official Goddess-training” clipboard. He was also wearing his “official Goddess-training” glasses again, but Yumi was too tired to do anything more than have a private, little laugh over it.
He lowered the clipboard and nodded with satisfaction. “You’ve done pretty well, all things considered. Great work on your training.”
“Ren, I’m barely alive. My brain feels like it’s been boiled and left on the counter for a month. And I still get nauseous when I read more than two people in one sitting, so I can’t imagine how I’ll do with fifty or a hundred. How the heck can you say I’ve done well?”
Instead of replying, he rolled the chair over to her bed and picked up her limp hand. Out of habit, she raised her orange shell around her to block out his threads. “Tell me what you’re feeling from me,” he demanded.
“What?” She looked at him as if he was crazy. “You want me to tell you your love-fortune now?”
“Yeah, something like that. So what do you feel? What are you reading in my threads? What do you—”
“I don’t know, okay?” she growled, yanking her hand out of his grasp. “Read your own threads and let me die in peace.”
Laughing, he punched one fist upward and did a victory spin in the chair, ignoring her muttering “you freaking loony” underneath her breath. When his epileptic fit had ended, he took out a pencil and his clipboard again, and checked a few items. “Okay, just one more thing before we take it to the next level tomorrow,” he pronounced.
That did not sound like good news to her. “There’s a next level?”
Instead of bothering to explain himself, he jumped out of the chair and left the room, only to return with Ate Tala in tow. “Oh, great,” Yumi grumbled, unable to muster the energy to at least be civil.
Her sister didn’t look overjoyed to be brought into her presence either. Her brows were drawn together in annoyance, making a line appear in her otherwise flawless skin, and there were dark shadows underneath her eyes. Even her mermaid tresses were looking frizzy, as if she hadn’t had time to properly condition and style her hair lately. Tala was feeling the school fair crunch, all right. “What’s this about, Ren? And does it have to be now? I’m in the middle of something,” she complained.
“Just one favor, Tala. Just one tiny, little one. It won’t take long. Please?” he coaxed.
If he bats his eyelashes at her and says, ‘Do it for me?’, I’m really going to hurl, Yumi thought sourly, pushing herself up to a sitting position.
Tala crossed her arms and regarded both Ren and Yumi with open suspicion. “Will this involve insects, slime or breaking and entering into other people’s property in any way?”
“Sheesh, Ate, that was just one time. And besides, we were nine years old. It didn’t exactly turn us into juvenile delinquents, did it?” Yumi pointed out with a roll of her eyes.
“Actually, it was more like two times,” Ren murmured, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
“Three,” Tala corrected flatly, then threw her hands up in surrender. “Fine, I’ll bite. What do you want me to do?”
“Take her hand,” Ren said.
Tala actually backed up a step, the color draining out of her face, leaving her looking ashen and oddly translucent. At the dread and revulsion she saw in her sister’s face, Yumi felt something inside her crumple. Ren had looked at her the same way three years ago, but Tala was different. Tala was family. Her rejection wounded Yumi in the core of her being, and she turned aside before either Ren or her sister could see how shattered she was.
“You want me to what?” Tala whispered, staring at Ren as if begging him to say something, anything but that.
Realizing that he’d inadvertently waded into dangerous waters, Ren stepped closer to Tala as though preparing to cut off her escape. “I want you to take Yumi’s hand,” he said, his expression turning serious. “Look, she told me about the deal you made. You said she has to prove to you that she can control her power, or else you’ll get the senior council to disqualify our section from the competition. I saw a copy of our class proposal lying among the papers on your desk when I came to get you. You’re getting ready to do just that, aren’t you?”
“What?” Yumi turned to look at her sister with stricken eyes. “Ate, is that true?”
Beneath the weight of Ren’s and Yumi’s combined stares, Tala’s hunted expression flattened into a kind of fatalistic calm. “Yes,” she answered with a sigh. “We’re going to have an emergency meeting at school tomorrow to talk about last minute stuff, and I already added your booth’s disapproval to the agenda. The council will make the final decision then.”
“But we worked so hard.” In a kind of daze, Yumi cast back to all the times in the past few weeks when she’d witnessed—and had actually been a part of—her classmates’ excitement, determination, creativity, patience, and occasionally, even ruthlessness. “Everyone worked so hard. You should’ve seen it, Ate. We made these pretty wooden frames and wind-chime mobiles and bead curtains, and Lisette and the others made all these cool fruit combinations, and—if you only knew how hard my classmates worked and how much they want to be a part of the fair, you wouldn’t be so quick to condemn them just because I happen to be the one screw-up in the class. It’s not fair to put all their effort to waste just because you don’t think I can pull off one measly job.”
“You can’t disqualify us, Tala,” Ren added quietly. “For one thing, you don’t have any grounds to do so. And for another, Yumi held up her end of the bargain. She can control her power now. If you’ll just take her hand, you can find out for yourself.”
Tala backed up another step, pressing both hands tightly to her sides, and forcing Ren to move even closer to her. She’s afraid, Yumi thought, drawing her arms and legs to her aching chest to curl herself up into a protective ball. My only sister is actually terrified to touch me.
“N-nevertheless, even if she can control her power now, it’s still such a risk, isn’t it?” Yumi didn’t miss the way her sister spoke only to Ren, and that she kept her face averted from hers. As if it was all up to her and Ren. As if Yumi’s own thoughts, struggles and desires didn’t matter. As if the choice isn’t ultimately mine to make, she thought, the hurt fusing and solidifying into anger.
“Sure, it’s a risk, but I know she can do it,” Ren was arguing. “If you’d only—”
“You want to know about risk?”
In a flash, Yumi launched herself off the bed and grabbed her sister’s arm, throwing her mental shield up just as she closed her hand around her sister’s, all before Tala could even register what was happening. She stared straight into Tala’s white face and frightened eyes, and for the first time in her life, felt stronger and more powerful than her perfect older sister. But the power didn’t come from her ability; it came from somewhere else, some place deep inside her. She’d taken her sister’s hand to prove something to her, but Yumi now realized that she hadn’t needed to prove anything at all, except maybe to herself. That while Tala might have been everything that Yumi wished she could be, Tala could never be everything that Yumi was.
The truth of it stunned her, rocking the very foundations of what she knew about herself. And to think, she would never have discovered it she’d been all tangled up in someone else’s emotions instead of being grounded in hers.
“Let go!” Tala shoved Yumi away with desperate force, sending her stumbling backward and crashing back down on the edge of her bed. Her sister rubbed her hand as though to remove the taint of Yumi’s touch, looking down at her with unadulterated fury. “Don’t you—don’t you ever dare do that again,” she hissed. “You have no right to—”
“I didn’t see or feel anything, okay?” Yumi interrupted dully. The moments of hurt, anger and sudden insight coming in rapid succession had left her feeling utterly spent. “I didn’t read your threads. That was just a normal kind of touch.”
Tala glared at her some more, then spun on her heel and ran back to her room, ignoring Ren calling her name and slamming the door behind her. He took two steps in the direction of Tala’s room, cursed underneath his breath, then came back to kneel on the floor in front of Yumi, who was huddled on the edge of her bed. “Are you okay?” he asked worriedly. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to cause a fight between you. I had no idea—”
“It’s okay. I’ll be fine,” Yumi said in a small voice. “But you need to go talk to her and make sure she’s all right.”
He cursed again. “I don’t want to leave you alone, but I need to clear things up with Tala—”
Before his words could chip away even more pieces of her heart, she laid a hand on his cheek to silence him. “I know, you big goof. I told you to go to her already,” she said, smiling. “But do me a favor and go home after you talk to her, okay? I just—I want to be alone for a while. I’ll do whatever you want me to tomorrow, but right now, I just…”
Ren nodded. “I understand. I’ll text you later.”
He leaned over to kiss her on the forehead again. Then he stood up and left, quietly closing her door behind him, leaving Yumi to lie awake in her bed and stare blindly at the ceiling, long after she heard the metallic clang of their gate being shut.