The next morning, she was awakened by the burbling of her cellphone. It was Ren, telling both Yumi and Tala to meet him at the gate within an hour for Yumi’s next training session, and to come prepared. Neither she nor her sister exchanged a word all throughout breakfast, a fact that had their parents casting questioning looks in their direction. But as Ren instructed, they were both dressed in jeans and T-shirts, carrying bulging backpacks, and waiting for him outside the gate within an hour.
Walking behind them, Yumi watched as Tala and Ren bent their heads close together and talked in low voices. She couldn’t stop herself from wondering what happened between them the night before. Well, whatever it was, it seemed to have brought them closer together. She’d noticed immediately that he was wearing Tala’s black wire hair-band, and that he seemed to be hovering near her sister extra-solicitously, as if he was worried about Tala’s fragile emotional state. She couldn’t stop herself from wondering if he’d kissed Tala last night. Maybe he’d even confessed to her and asked her to be his date for Students’ Night. Maybe with her angry, impulsive actions last night, Yumi had ended up inadvertently fulfilling her part of the deal after all.
And as for her—well, here she was walking behind them, feeling like the proverbial fifth wheel, waiting for the giant eraser in the sky to come down and rub her out of this romantic scenario entirely. She bit her lips against self-pitying tears, and prayed for the strength to make it through the training session without going to pieces.
As it turned out, Ren’s brilliant idea for the last stage of her Goddess-training was heading to a particularly crowded plaza in a rather seedy shopping district, parking in front of a church of all places, and setting up a cardboard sign with the words: “Free Palm-Readings: Your Love-Fortune Told. 100% Accurate!”
“What?” he said when both sisters stared at him. “I didn’t have any better ideas, okay? We need to simulate the conditions Yumi will be working in for the next five days, and this is all I could come up with.”
He’d brought a bunch of mysterious stuff as well—two small folding chairs, a crystal bowl, a bag of sea salt, and a few sticks of sandalwood incense. At his instruction, Yumi and Tala produced the candles and bottle of water he’d asked them to bring, as well as the bag of oranges they’d purchased along the way. After consulting his clipboard, he mixed the salt and water in the crystal bowl, lit one of the candles and the incense, and made Yumi sit down on one of the folding chairs in their midst. He studied the oranges for a few minutes, looking perplexed, then shrugged and simply handed one of the fruits to Yumi. Then they settled down to wait.
And wait. And wait. After over an hour of waiting and a grand total of zero customers, the sisters turned to stare at Ren again, who scratched his head in puzzlement. “I don’t get it either,” he admitted, pulling his “official Goddess-training” glasses off to rub the sweat out of his eyes. “You’d think people would be lining up for free palm-readings, but all they do is look at us then walk away.”
Specifically, the males looked at Tala, while the females—and a goodly number of males as well—looked at Ren. But when they looked at Yumi sitting hunched up on that folding chair, her shoulder-length curls crimping up around her head from the humidity until she probably resembled a sweaty Afro wig that had sprouted arms and legs, they just sort of lost interest. Needless to say, this was not doing Yumi’s ego any good.
“What do you think, Yumi?” Ren was still talking, while Tala groaned and turned aside to fan herself with a piece of cardboard. “Hmm, maybe I should’ve told you to dress differently, like in a more Gypsy-fortune-teller way. Somehow, jeans and a T-shirt don’t really sell your mystical powers.”
Just then, a middle-aged lady, who was wearing a blindingly purple paisley blouse, a long, flowing black skirt, a purple turban and strings of fake pearls, drifted over to inspect their makeshift stall with some amusement. “You children are new to this, aren’t you?” By way of introducing herself, she jerked her thumb to her own fortune-telling stall not far away. “You won’t draw customers with that ‘free reading’ nonsense,” the lady continued. “People will think you’re a fake. You need to state your price so they’ll know you’re worth their while.”
She drifted back to her stall, leaving Yumi, Tala and Ren staring down at their sign. A few minutes later, the sign was covered over with paper, upon which was scrawled: “Want Love Advice? Palm-Reading, P100. Two Questions About Love Answered.”
They got their first customers by way of the fortune-teller lady, which revealed how pitiful they must have seemed to her. Then more followed, and despite her mental shield, Yumi soon found herself struggling. Her skull had taken on a pounding rhythm, her vision was spinning, and she kept swallowing back the nausea with dwindling success. When Ren ordered her to wash her hands in the salt-water, the sick feeling abated for a little while. Holding her hands near the candle-flame until her palms were deliciously toasty also helped. The incense, not so much, so Ren put it out and flicked the remains away. Oddly enough, holding the orange between her hands and taking deep breaths while imagining herself pushing all the residual emotional energy into the fruit worked best of all, although she knew she wouldn’t be eating any of those charged oranges soon.
Ren had Yumi try out different combinations of salt-water, candle and orange, then frowned and made notes in his clipboard. Yumi was deeply relieved when he finally declared the training session over, but when she stood, a wave of dizziness hit her, and she clamped a hand over her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut to keep from throwing up. She heard her sister cry out her name, then felt arms around her, holding her securely against a warm chest.
“I know. Let’s try this then,” she heard Ren say to her sister, and from her position she actually felt his chest vibrate from the roughness of his voice. Then as his hand wrapped around her other hand, he lowered his head to hers and whispered: “Drop your shield, Yumi, and let me in.”
She did, and fell through the familiar gray world and into the warm, blazing mesh of Ren’s emotions. Oh, I missed this. Joyfully, she reached out to him, and his threads spun around her in response, creating a kind of sheltering cocoon. From their joined hands, she felt his energy rush into her as he focused his strength and poured it into her. How do you know how to do that? she marveled.
And even though he’d scolded her about it, she couldn’t help but run her fingers through the love-threads on his skin. Still nothing but infatuated filaments. Does he really love Ate Tala or not? And why can’t I feel him at all?
Something about her inability to feel his love-thread nagged at her—it struck her as both odd and familiar somehow—but before she could explore some more, he let go of her hand, cutting off their connection. Blinking, Yumi lifted her head and took stock of herself. No more nausea or headache. Even the dizziness was gone. She looked up at Ren in amazement. “How on earth do you do that?”
He grinned down at her. “Energy channeling. I’ve been reading up on it these past few days. I had to speed up the technique a bit, but I thought it could act as a kind of safeguard in case you got overloaded again.”
“No, it’s not that. I mean, yeah, it worked pretty well, but—” She shook her head and tried again. “You’ve always been able to do that, Ren, that energy-channeling thing. I don’t know why, but when it’s you, I never get sick, no matter how many times I connect with you. You even take the sickness away. You’re the only one who makes me feel so—” She stopped and blushed furiously as she realized what exactly she’d been about to say. Judging from the warmth of his smile and the softness of his gaze, Ren had gotten the gist of it.
Yumi’s eyes widened, and she became aware that Ren was still holding her, and that she wasn’t exactly moving away. Flustered, she pushed away from him and turned to face her sister, who was holding a plastic bag in her hands. “I, um—th-that didn’t mean anything,” she stammered, aware that she was probably just making it worse.
Tala arched an eyebrow at her. “Are you feeling better now?” she asked coolly.
“Yes,” Yumi said in a tiny voice, unable to look her sister in the eye. Good grief, I’d been hugging him. My sister’s future—maybe even present—boyfriend, she thought, utterly mortified. I’d been about to tell him he’s the only one who makes me feel so safe. Right in front of Ate. What a disaster.
“Then I guess you won’t be needing this anymore.” Her sister turned aside to put the plastic bag away, and when she noticed Yumi’s confused look, explained: “I didn’t want to risk you ruining anyone’s shoes again.”
“So, Tala, are you convinced now?” Ren spoke up as he finished packing their things. “I told you she’d be able to handle it.”
Tala pursed her lips. “I don’t know, Ren. She still got sick back there.”
“That really can’t be helped,” he replied solemnly, then shifted to “official Goddess-training” mode to address both Tala and Yumi. “Whenever you read threads, Yumi, the other person’s emotional energy naturally sticks to you like a layer of grease. Too much of that is going to jam your own psychic system, and you end up getting sick.”
“So what can I do about it? How do I clean off all that energy-grease?” Yumi asked anxiously as they made their way out of the plaza, with her trailing behind her two companions again.
Ren shrugged. “By using everything we’ve tried that worked, and then some. You’ll have to figure the other things out on your own; it’s really a work in progress. But you still haven’t answered my question, Tala. Are you convinced yet or not?”
Tala frowned halfheartedly at him, then relented. “All right, fine, I’m convinced. I’ll remove your class’ disqualification from the agenda for our meeting later. But only on the condition that every precaution be taken to keep Yumi from getting sick.”
Ren smiled and gave her a crisp salute. “Consider it done, Ma’am.”
“Oh, and one more thing.”
“You have to stay near her at all times, so you can do your energy-channeling thing for her if it gets really bad. If she’s doing readings, you’re not allowed to leave her side. In fact, you’re to stay beside her always, period. Do you understand?”
Yumi’s head, which had drooped all throughout their easy, companionable exchange, suddenly snapped up, and she stared at her sister in confusion. Did I hear her right?
“You don’t have to tell me that.” Ren’s voice was low and resolute, and Yumi whipped around to stare at him next in bewilderment. “But you know, Tala, anyone can channel energy—it’s kind of built into us as human beings,” he went on, once again in “official Goddess-training” mode. “I can teach you how to do it so both of us can jumpstart Yumi whenever she needs it.”
Yumi’s heart ached, and she closed her eyes for moment. Of course, he’d say that.
“I don’t think so, Ren,” Tala murmured, giving Yumi an unfathomable look over her shoulder. “Something tells me you’re the only one who’s meant to do that for her.”