Dealing with unfinished business turned out to be harder than she’d thought. As it was, Yumi had her hands full with simply dealing with classes in the mornings, and helping manage their fruit-shake café and reading love fortunes in the afternoons.
The good news was, their booth was doing even better than expected. For one thing, the fruit-shake selections the Menu Committee had come up with—with a lot of help from one of their members’ fruit-shake café-owning aunt—proved to be a hit. Lisette, who was part of the Menu Committee, provided fruit-themed cupcakes and jellies to go with the shakes. The Physical Arrangements Committee arranged tables and chairs about and set up the bar behind some hand-painted wooden frames. Bead curtains, wind-chimes and tie-dyed fabrics hung at the windows, while potted plants and crepe flowers brightened up the room. Calypso music courtesy of the Sound Committee—really just a guy with an iPod and a set of speakers—completed the cool, close-to-nature atmosphere.
The highlight of their café was the “shrine” set up in one corner. It was separated from the rest of the room with more bead-curtains and potted plants, and elevated somewhat via the repurposed platform from the float. Inside the space, Yumi laid a straw mat on the platform, then added a pair of oversized throw-pillows she’d taken from the family den, to her mother’s disgruntlement.
On one side of the platform, Ren set up a low table containing a tall, white candle in a brass candlestick, a crystal bowl filled with sea-salt and water, a towel Yumi could use to dry her hands with, and a dish stacked with oranges. When the rest of the Physical Arrangements Committee raised their eyebrows at the objects, Ren just shrugged and said: “They add to the realism.”
Whatever the Marketing Committee had done to promote their café’s “buy our fruit-shakes and you can get your love fortunes read by our Goddess of Love” line, it must have been near miraculous. Either that, or Yumi’s notoriety as the secret-stealing witch of the sophomore class was boomeranging in unexpected ways. Barely an hour after their café opened for business, she’d already read four love fortunes. After she sent off the last one—a shy freshman asking about her chances at love—with enough teasers to give her hope and advice to keep her eyes and heart open, Yumi turned aside to warm her hands on the candle-flame, then wash them in the salt-water and dry them. Then she picked up an orange and held it in both hands, taking deep breaths the way Ren had taught her, shoving as much of the excess emotional energy as she could into the fruit.
“You’re overloading already, aren’t you?”
She looked up to find Ren beside her, watching her with hooded eyes. Despite the headache tightening around her skull, she felt a wave of warmth at the thought that he’d noticed her struggling. Swallowing against the nausea, she nodded. “I can do up to three as long as I keep cleansing myself in between, but four—”
Before she could finish, he knelt in front of her, plucked the orange out of her hands, and replaced it with his hands. “Let me in,” he said huskily.
Her first thought, as she fell into the lush, glowing web of his emotions, was that something was off. His threads were as warm and welcoming as ever, but the intensity she’d observed in the last few weeks was gone. His threads looked the way they used to before they began their Goddess-training, and she felt the loss of his happiness as if her own heart had been drained. Through their joined hands, his focused stream of energy poured into her, sweeping away the remnants of stray psychic energy, but this time, she tried to return the favor, sending her own love and affection for him through their connection in an attempt to restore the brilliance in his threads.
Again, his threads responded to her—flaring more brightly and taking on a beautiful golden sheen. But again, before she could explore the change further, he ended their link.
Blinking, she became aware that they were both on the floor, with her crouching between his knees and snuggling up against him, her head tucked into the crook of his neck, one of his arms around her. Ren himself seemed to be biting back a laugh. “I didn’t do anything,” he informed her. “You were the one who moved.”
“Ack!” She threw herself backward, nearly bowling into their shrine as if it was a giant game of tenpins. Glancing around, she found their classmates and customers watching them with undisguised interest, and a furious blush scorched her face.
He rose and offered her a hand. Flinching, she threw her mental shield up, then berated herself for acting as if he was about to attack her, and accepted his help. “Sorry. I didn’t mean—that was—I-I’ll try not to do that again,” she stammered, dusting off her tie-dyed skirt to keep him from seeing how rattled she was.
“Not on my account, you won’t.” She peeked at him warily. His smile had vanished, but his serious expression was only making the pounding of her heart even worse. “We’ll do this as often as you need to. I’m not leaving your side, so you might as well get used to it. Of course,” he added with a smirk, “if you feel like cuddling, Yumi, I’m sure I can throw in a little extra service.”
Her entire head felt as if it had burst into flame, and when he gave her a mocking bow, she snatched up a pillow and pounded his head with it. “Overgrown, boneheaded jerk,” she fumed, stalking over to the bar, with people quickly getting out of her way. Unfortunately, she couldn’t exactly walk out of there, as her next, somewhat nervous-looking client was already waiting.
To her disgust, Ren’s touching determination to keep his promise to Tala and stay glued to her side soon proved to be the biggest hindrance to Yumi’s plans to slip away for a while. True to his word, he was always there—serving drinks, bussing tables or cleaning the bar, always keeping one eye on her. It didn’t help to know that she needed him there. The candle-flame, salt-water washings and oranges could only do so much before she started to feel like crawling into a corner and throwing up. And it really didn’t help that more often than not, she would return to her senses to find herself curled up in his arms, all warm and cozy, while he smirked and looked infuriatingly smug.
Their classmates were quick to notice his devotion to her, and they soon took to calling him “the Goddess’ Consort.” Yumi cringed in fear every time she heard it, convinced that any minute now, Ate Tala would find out and descend upon her in a righteous wrath. Bad enough that she and her sister barely talked to each other now. When she couldn’t avoid talking to her, Tala would maintain a guarded distance, using cool politeness to keep Yumi at bay, her eyes watching her with suspicion and doubt. Not only did it hurt to know that she’d lost her sister’s trust, the guilt was also eating at her. Ren belonged to Tala, heart and soul. Yumi was just the interloper, the frenemy, the freak they had to take care of. She had no right to be feeling this way for him, and even less right to be hanging around him when every moment she spent with him just made her want him more and more.
If only Ren and her own unconscious self would be the least bit cooperative about the whole thing.
Even when Yumi wasn’t technically working, she’d still find him lurking somewhere nearby. Later that day after the parade, she and Fran took a break from café duties to check the other booths out. Yumi had managed to trip on the hem of her skirt and would have crashed into another booth’s sandwich board if Ren hadn’t appeared from out of nowhere to catch both her and the board. She’d blushed and glared at him, but since nothing she said could dissuade him from fulfilling his Goddess-trainer/attendant duties, she resigned herself to his company as they explored the fair.
They found Lisette at the Homemakers’ Club booth, looking dispirited even when people came to buy her cupcakes. Erik still hadn’t made an appearance, either at their junior class booth or anywhere else in school. Worse, they’d had such a huge fight last night that she was afraid he’d run away from home altogether. She’d told them where Erik actually lived and what his real circumstances were, which turned out to be the exact opposite of what he’d led everyone to believe. The revelations had stunned Yumi and Fran, but all they felt now was worry for Erik and helplessness at their friend’s plight.
That helplessness drove Yumi to once again offer to read Lisette’s threads. It had never occurred to her before, but she thought she might be able to trace Erik’s whereabouts by following the thread connecting him to Lisette. Her friend was sorely tempted. In fact, Lisette was already reaching out to put her hand in Yumi’s when she stopped and drew back with a sad smile, choosing instead to keep believing in Erik and trusting that he’d find his way back soon.
Yumi and Ren, this time joined by Lisette, were also together when Fran discovered Angelo’s surprise for her. He’d pulled it off spectacularly with the help of the once-underground and just newly declared official Anime-Manga Otaku Club, of which he turned out to be the legendary president. Later, with the three of them clutching copies of the limited-edition, single-volume, completely original yomikiri manga that was the AMOC booth’s bestseller, Yumi, Ren and Lisette returned to their posts to give Fran and her new boyfriend some privacy.
“Well, he definitely came through,” Ren remarked as he and Yumi made their way back to their classroom. “So did it work out the way you thought it would?”
Yumi shook her head. “I can’t see the future, remember? But it doesn’t matter, because what he did for her was just so…” She clasped the manga between her hands—concrete, gorgeously illustrated proof of Angelo’s faith in Fran—and sighed dreamily. “Did you see how happy she was? I’m so, so glad for her.”
“Yeah.” They wandered among the colorful displays, neither of them in a particular hurry to get back to their booth. Then Ren glanced sideways at her. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just thinking about some selfish stuff.”
He quirked an eyebrow, before drawing her toward a relatively quiet balcony festooned with gold and silver tinsel. “Okay, spit it out,” he ordered, the gentleness of his fingers as he tucked a stray curl behind her ear belying the sternness of his voice.
Shivering a little, Yumi glanced about nervously, then relaxed when Ate Tala failed to spring out from behind a corner shouting, I thought I told you to stay away from him! “I was just thinking that Fran and Angelo didn’t need me to fix up their lives,” she confessed. “And Lisette doesn’t want my help at all. The truth is, nobody needs me to tell them what to do. They get it done all by themselves, eventually. If that’s the case, why do I even have this freaky power? What am I here for? Sure, I can read someone’s threads and tell them what they’re feeling, but what good does that actually do?”
Ren gazed out at the quadrangle, giving it some thought. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “I can’t tell you what you’re here for. You’ve got to figure that part out on your own, I suppose.”
“Gee, thanks. That helps,” she replied, making a face.
“No, listen.” He grabbed her shoulders before she could walk off. “Just because I said you have to figure it out on your own doesn’t mean there’s no meaning at all to you having this ability. And you’re wrong about your power not doing any good. You help people feel a little less confused. You give them a sense of hope. You remind them that love is always there, even when they can’t feel it at the moment. I happen to believe that’s a very good thing,” he stated quietly.
As they stared each other, Yumi had the oddest sensation that she was floating in mid-air—that his hands on her shoulders were the only things keeping her from flying off into the sky. “Thanks, Ren. And I’m sorry I bit your head off. I just felt a little lonely, I guess,” she said with a self-conscious little laugh. “I think I have an idea how those old Goddesses of Love must have felt when people realized they didn’t need them anymore.”
His eyes were warm as one of his hands moved to touch the side of her throat. “Wrong again, Curly-Top. Some people need a Goddess of Love in their lives.”
He gave her a tiny smile. “Me, for one.”
Yumi’s breath caught. Then Ren was leaning closer, his hand on her throat tilting her chin up, and her eyes were drifting shut—
“Yumi! There you are! And Ren! Sheesh, we’ve been looking all over for you guys.”
Yumi and Ren jumped apart. She spun around, her heart in her throat, to find two of their female classmates bearing down on them like a pair of avenging hippie-angels. One of the girls grabbed Yumi by the arm and began dragging her back, while the other pushed Ren in front of her. “We’ve got a whole line of people waiting to have their love fortunes told,” the girl towing Yumi was saying. “We really should come up with some kind of system for when you’re out. Maybe we could give out numbered stubs or something.”
“Say, what were you two doing back there, anyway?” the girl driving Ren forward asked teasingly.
“Nothing!” Yumi practically yelped. “Nothing important. That is—um, we were just talking.”
The girls looked skeptical, but to Yumi’s relief they decided to drop it. She and Ren got back to work, but she couldn’t help noticing that the next time he channeled energy into her, his threads seemed dimmer than before, blazing brightly when she sent her own feelings into him, then subsiding back to their dull state. She had to admit, it matched the chilly, sarcastic demeanor he adopted around her after their totally inexplicable, never-should-have-happened almost-kiss.
That confused her. A lot. Especially since she still couldn’t feel the love-thread connecting him to Ate Tala; she couldn’t feel the love-thread connecting him to anyone. If she didn’t know any better, she’d swear that he wasn’t romantically interested in anyone. The best theory she could come up with was that he was blocking her somehow, and he was doing it completely unconsciously. How, she didn’t know. Maybe he had some latent psychic ability himself?
Why he was blocking her, she didn’t want to know. But she had the depressing idea that the three years he spent hating the very thought of her might have something to do with it.
All she was sure of was that he liked Tala. She’d seen the easy way he smiled at her sister and the affection in his eyes when he looked at Tala too often to miss it. And every time, it brought Yumi back to that day when they were ten when Ren had confessed to her, right in the middle of flag ceremony, that he had a crush on her sister—that Tala was his idea of the perfect girl. Yumi still remembered how devastated she’d felt that day. That feeling of devastation had never truly left her.
And now, it seemed as if their friendship was slowly crumbling back into the way it was before Christmas—avoid, ignore, attack—and she had no idea at all how to stop it.
Apparently this, too, was another thing that hadn’t changed between them.
Two days later, she found out how much more was about to change. It was enough to make her wish she could trade her ability to read threads of emotions with the power to see the future instead.