The booths officially closed at five in the afternoon. Luck continued to be on Yumi’s side that day. At around four, a bunch of Ren’s teammates carted him off to some meeting regarding the basketball exhibition game on Friday, leaving Yumi free to head toward to the garden shortly after five, without her Goddess-trainer/attendant hovering over her shoulder.
The garden was empty when she got there. She sat down at a bench and waited. Some minutes later, Laurence appeared, holding his cellphone in one hand.
“Okay, I’m here.” He pocketed his phone as he walked over to her. His entire demeanor was neutral, neither welcoming nor hostile, which Yumi chose to take as good news. He didn’t look like he was going to immediately rebuff her, at least.
Nervously, she got to her feet. He stopped when he was a few feet away, close enough to hear her but still well out of her reach. “Um, thanks for coming,” she began, then her mind blanked out. Good grief, hadn’t she mentally practiced her speech enough times already?
“What’s with that?”
She followed his gaze to the orange in her hands. “Oh, this? It helps me. It, um, keeps me from catching colds. Vitamin C is good for you, you know,” she said with a weak laugh.
He looked momentarily confused, then shrugged. Sensing that the conversation was going nowhere, she took a deep breath and dived in. “I want to apologize to you for accidentally reading your threads—I mean, your love-fortune. And I know I said something weird about it, but I really was trying not to tell the truth back then. Also, um, you see, I wanted to tell you—”
“It’s true, isn’t it?” he said, cutting her off. “You really do have ESP.”
Yumi hesitated, then nodded. “When you agreed to—to help set me up, you didn’t believe I could do anything, did you? You thought Pauline was just being superstitious, or that I was a kooky fraud trying to get attention. But afterward…I don’t blame you for being scared of me or for thinking I’m a witch. And even though you don’t have any reason at all to trust me, I want you to know that I will never, ever tell anyone about the things I felt from you.” She looked him straight in the eye, letting him know how serious she was. “You never meant for anyone to find out, and that’s how it will stay, until you decide to talk to someone else about it. I promise you that.”
Laurence closed his eyes as if pained. Then he moved until he drew alongside her, propping a foot on the bench and leaning on his knee. “Thanks, I guess. What did you sense from me, anyway?”
She sighed. A few short weeks ago, she would not even have waited for him to ask that before she rattled off every one of his innermost secrets, like a gossip revealing all the juicy tidbits she knew. It was a testament to how much she’d changed that she was wavering now. No, it was a testament to how much Ren had changed her. The thought was bittersweet. “Do you really want me to tell you?” she asked.
He looked at her intently. “Yeah. Tell me everything.”
She nodded, then summoned the memory of his threads and let the words come. “There’s a woman. Her name is Rhea, and she’s your mother’s friend. She’s beautiful and she seems to treat you really nicely. She’s the one who gave you the dog. A black and white one.”
He smiled. “Beanie. Yeah, she’s a great dog. The day I got her was one of the best days of my life, which was why I freaked out when you said I was in love with my dog.”
Yumi shook her head. “It’s not the dog you’re in love with, or you think you’re in love with. It’s Rhea. But Laurence, I felt the emotional thread connecting you to her, and it felt terrible. What she’s doing to you…she makes you burn, but it’s hurting you. You’ve got to find a way to stop it before it—she tears you to pieces.”
He’d gone so still she wondered if he was even breathing. The harshness in his face, and the memory of his poisoned pleasure and sweetened pain, made tears gather in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m really sorry.”
He laughed, and the sound was like glass breaking. “Stop it, you said. Just like that, huh? You don’t know crap about what I’m going through. Or about me.”
“I know. I mean, I know that I don’t know anything about you,” she admitted. “I can’t even see the past or the future, only the present. But—but there’s something else you might want to know.”
“Yes. There’s someone else who loves you, but unlike Rhea, his love is pure and unselfish. You don’t know it, but his love is one of the reasons you’re still strong and whole right now. Every time you go weak, his thread is there, holding you together. He doesn’t—”
“He?” Laurence looked at her askance. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Yes, it’s exactly what I’m saying,” Yumi replied, wiping her tears away. “He doesn’t expect anything from you. He doesn’t expect that you’d even find out. He just accepts everything about you, fully and completely. It’s incredibly, incredibly beautiful.”
“Who is it?”
She shook her head again. “It’s not for me to say. Just know that someone loves you, and that you’re worthy of a love that deep. And if one day you do find out who he is, then please be kind. Please. It’s the very least you can do for him.”
Straightening, he stared at her for a long time until she flushed and began to fidget. “I heard you came to our classroom earlier,” he suddenly said. “I can’t believe you apologized to Pauline. You do know she was the one who set you up, right?”
“She and her friends are also the ones who spread the rumors about you being a witch last year.”
He gave her a faintly disgusted look. “For an ESPer, you’re pretty dense, aren’t you? What, your boyfriend never told you? Or your friends?”
Yumi felt as though he’d just clotheslined her. “I—my boyfriend? Who—?”
“Ren Navarro, who else could it be?” he said, rolling his eyes. “Your friend Lisette was my classmate last year, and I overheard him talking to her about it. I’ll give him this, though: I thought his plan to counter the wench’s twisted deeds was brilliant. Too bad I can’t say the same for his stupidly accurate aim with books,” he grumbled, one hand touching the side of his head.
“His plan to—what plan? And Lisette and Fran knew about it?” Yumi struggled to wrap her brain around his startling revelations.
“By the way, I hope you don’t expect us to become best buddies or anything after this.”
With effort, she turned her attention back to Laurence. “No, of course not,” she said with some bewilderment.
“Good. Because I still think you’re kind of slow. And you’re not exactly brilliant when it comes to schoolwork.”
Her entire face went slack.
“And you’re a world-class meddler, not to mention annoyingly preachy. And you get loud and violent when you’re pissed off.”
“What in the—”
“Plus, you’re some kind of freaky ESPer. And your hair is all over the place. It’s like, boom. Mad curls everywhere.”
She glared. “Okay, I get it! You loathe me to the depths of hell and back. You don’t have to—”
“Loathe you?” He laughed uproariously. “Oh man, some Goddess of Love you are. You got my whole, crappy life down with just a single touch, but you couldn’t even tell that I like you?”
Her hand moved of its own volition, flinging the orange at his head, thereby proving his opinion of her temper correct. Her aim, unfortunately, was nowhere near as good as Ren’s, although she did manage to make him duck clumsily. “Whoa! I knew it. You and Navarro are a match made in heaven.”
“And you’re a freaking liar, Laurence. Is this another set-up or what?”
While she searched around for other objects to chuck at him, he studied her curiously. “You read—what did you say? Strings?” She glowered, then reluctantly explained about her ability to read emotional energy as threads of colors and light. Then Laurence, who was certifiably insane, held his hand out to her, palm-up. “Read my threads. I mean, right now.”
“Are you aware that you’re certifiably insane?” she enquired.
“Just do your thing already. After all—” his lips twisted “—what more do I have to hide from you?”
She gave him a thoroughly irritated look, then placed her hand in his. After a while, she cut their link, frowning. “Nothing. I don’t feel any thread connecting us. You’re either lying or your sense of humor stinks. Don’t worry, I’ll still keep my promise to you, but this conversation is over.”
Then Laurence did something unexpected, even for somebody who was certifiably insane. He caught her arm, and as she threw her mental shield up, he lifted her hand and kissed it. “I’ve been hearing about you since last year,” he said over her scarlet-faced spluttering. “Not good things, true, but it made me curious about you. So I started watching you, and when Pauline wanted a guy to pretend to ask you out, I said I’d do it. I figured it was my chance to finally get close to you.”
“I can’t believe this!” she exclaimed. “You just called me dumb, preachy, violent, freaky and ugly—and you like me? What do you do to somebody you hate? And would you let go of me already?”
He kissed her hand again before releasing it. “I think you’re the most interesting girl in this whole school, Yumi. And as for ugly, I honestly don’t know of any guy who thinks that of you. Especially after seeing you in your belly-dancer’s costume,” he added with a leer.
“It’s a goddess costume, you pervert,” she seethed. “And for the record, this confession sucks even more than that fake one you tried last time.”
He grinned. “You’re the one who told me to just be myself. What can I say? Us guys have weird ways of showing we love you. Ask your boyfriend; he should know.”
Ren? she thought, nonplussed. Then Laurence shrugged and added: “Besides, it’s not my fault you can read everyone’s threads except yours.”
Somewhere inside her, something went click. “Wait a minute, I can read my own threads,” she protested, with diminishing conviction. “I mean, of course, I can. I have…before. I’m sure I did.”
“Okay, whatever. You’re the ESPer, not me.” He raised his hands, then gave her another wide grin. “So, will you be my date for Students’ Night and for all the other nights to come or what?”
She stared at him. “I—I—I’m sorry, but I—”
“I know, I know. You already have somebody you like,” he interrupted with a sigh, and for a moment, sadness dimmed his eyes. Then he threw a glance over her shoulder. “Looks like our tryst is over, sweetheart. Do me a favor and tell your boyfriend not to beat me up too badly, okay? He’s been standing there for a while now, watching us.”
Yumi whirled around, her alarmed gaze colliding with a familiar pair of dark, ice-cold eyes. Ren was standing on the path leading to the garden, right beside the corner of the school building. Even in the red-gold glow of the sunset, he looked as if he had been carved out of gray slate. He was too far away to have heard them, or so Yumi hoped, but she wondered despairingly how much of their exchange he’d seen. Or judging from his glacial expression, how little of it he hadn’t seen.
While she stood there paralyzed with guilt, Laurence brushed past her, loping down the path toward Ren, who shifted his gaze to him. Forcing her shaky legs to move, she followed him, albeit reluctantly. As he drew level with him, Laurence stopped and said something to Ren in a voice too low for her to hear. Ren’s eyes glittered with fury. The next moment, he had slammed Laurence against the wall, and pinned him there with a forearm across his throat.
Yumi broke into a run and grabbed his arm, trying to pull it back before he choked Laurence into oblivion. “Don’t hurt him, you great, big idiot. He didn’t do anything. I was the one who called him out here. Be mad at me, not at him. Please, Ren. Please don’t do this.”
A tremor ran through his body, then to her everlasting relief, he released his hold on Laurence and stepped back, while the other boy doubled over, coughing and massaging both his throat and the back of his head. Yumi rushed over to him and helped him up. “Oh my God, are you okay?”
“Yeah, just peachy, considering I almost got killed,” he croaked. As he straightened, he smirked at Ren, which Yumi took as proof that he was not only certifiably insane, he was suicidal as well. “You know, I like you better when you’re being all cerebral and cool-as-ice, Navarro. This mindless violence stuff is just beneath you.” Then he fixed Yumi a solemn look. “Remember your promise.”
“I will,” she vowed.
She watched him walk away, still rubbing his head and muttering underneath his breath. The air was still warm but she shivered, feeling Ren’s gaze upon her like a physical touch. Finally, unable to take the silence anymore, she screwed up her courage and turned to face him.
His icy ferocity had drained away, but somehow the bleak look on his face felt a thousand times worse. “What did you promise him?” he asked dully.
She bit her lips. “I can’t tell you, Ren. I’m sorry.” He flinched ever so slightly, and she added in a rush: “I don’t know what he said to you, but he’s certifiably insane, so you really shouldn’t take—”
He tilted his face skyward and closed his eyes. “Forget it. He didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.”
Taut silence fell between them again. Wishing she hadn’t gone and thrown her orange away, Yumi stared at her feet and twisted her hands together. The action reminded her of Laurence’s kisses, which made her grimace and drop her hands, but it also served to bring back all the other, possibly certifiably insane things he’d told her.
And one particularly crazy thing he’d said: It’s not my fault you can read everyone’s threads except yours.
She looked up just as the floodlight on the corner of the building came on, bathing them in stark white light. She blinked, momentarily blinded. His voice as he said her name had sounded broken, and when she managed to focus on him again, she found him gazing steadily at her, his dark eyes filled with an odd desperation.
“I’m still waiting for you to fulfill your end of the deal,” he informed her.
Her jaw dropped. “What?”
“Help me get closer to the girl I like. Get her to agree to be my date for Students’ Night. In return, I help you with your Goddess-training. That was our deal, remember?” His lips twisted in a sneer. “Don’t tell me Laurence had you so distracted that you forgot all about it.”
Frowning, she waved his words away. “No, it’s not that. I didn’t think you needed my help anymore. I thought you and Ate Tala were already together. Like, you’ve already confessed to her and—and asked her out yourself.”
He shook his head. “I told you, I need you for this. I—I can’t do it without you, Yumi.”
“Why? What on earth can I do?” she asked, thoroughly perplexed. “Look, did something happen between you and Ate? Did you get into a fight, is that it?”
Instead of replying, he pressed his lips into a thin line and looked away, and she realized that she couldn’t remember ever seeing him like this before. When they were kids, it always seemed as if Yumi was the one who’d want something, and Ren would find a way to get it for her. She’d wanted to play sipa, so he strong-armed the other boys into letting her play with them. She’d wanted to prove that a bed sheet would make a fine parachute, so he helped her strip her bed, then patched her up when she skinned both wrists and knees jumping off a ledge. She’d wanted to play with her sister’s ceramic tea set, so he came up with a plan for them to steal it from Tala’s room, even though he ended up earning the ire of the girl of his dreams when Tala discovered their crime.
She’d wanted mint-chocolate-raisin ice cream, so he searched the town for a store that sold it. She’d wanted to do well on her exams so Tala would get off her case about her less-than-stellar grades, so he spent hours after school tutoring her. She’d wanted to ride his skateboard, so he taught her how, and nearly broke his arm catching her when she pitched into a ditch. She’d wanted to learn how to control her power, so he set aside his own fear and studied up on it so he could show her how.
And now, for the first time ever, he was asking her for something in return. And Yumi knew she’d do it, whatever it was. No matter how hard it was. She’d find a way to give him what he wanted, if she had to break own her heart to do it. He was connected to her anyway. Her love would always be entwined around him—she was a part of him even if he loved someone else.
But first, there was something she had to find out. “Can you do something for me?”
He turned to her, his eyebrows raised in question.
“Will you let me read your threads? I’m going in deep this time.”
For the first time since their Goddess-training began, he hesitated, fear rippling over his features. Then he steeled himself and held his hand out to her. She smiled her thanks, then put her hand in his. Then she took his other hand, shifted so that their palms were flat against each other’s, and laced her fingers between his. Only then did she drop her shield.
His threads formed an eerily beautiful forest of browns, pale blues, indigos and silvers mingling with streaks of bright colors. They felt heavy and rough, and her skin prickled where the blue and brown threads touched her. They wound around her and weighed her down, as if they were trying to pull her into his core—as if they had no intention of ever letting her go again. She focused on their joined hands, winnowing through the rose filaments connecting him to the other girls and, to her amusement, even a couple of males. For some reason, there were more of them now, despite the fact that many of the girls who had crushes on him believed he already belonged to another girl. She set those threads aside, and concentrated harder.
Nothing. No love-thread stretching from him to another person, although she did find a bunch of flimsy, reddish fibers that made her feel oddly warm when she touched them. They led to several females she’d never met before, because they were invariably porn stars or celebrities he thought were hot. She blushed furiously and released the fibers with haste, swearing to rake him over the coals about those later.
But no love-thread. Not a single one, woven from his purest feelings of love and devotion to another.
She went deeper, leaving their hands behind and letting his threads draw her in. She dove further into him than ever before, surrendering to the electrifying sensations of his emotional energies, even the stings and leadenness of his desolation, hopelessness and fear. Finally, she pulled back and sent a white-gold wave of love, peace and gratitude into him—she’d picked up a few things from observing him channel energy into her—and watched his threads brighten and come to life, the blues and browns momentarily enveloped in a sheath of warm, pale gold.
She withdrew from him, sinking back into the orange sphere of her mental shield, and opened her eyes. She found herself staring at his shirt buttons, since her forehead was pressed against his chest, vibrating in time with his heartbeat. Their joined hands hung at their sides, and she gently let him go and stepped back.
He watched her, his mouth a slash of white wreathed in shadow. “Did you find what you were looking for?” he asked hoarsely.
“Yes, I think so, but I still have to make sure,” she replied slowly. “Thank you for letting me do that, Ren. And about me holding up my end of the bargain…there are some things I need think about first, but I’ll let you know as soon as I can, okay?”
He swallowed and opened his mouth, then closed it again and nodded once. “I understand. Truth is, it’s enough for me that you’re willing to try.”
“I’ll let you know soon,” she promised, her heart aching at the sad smile ghosting over his face.
Much later that evening—closer to morning, in fact—she pressed the “send” button and laid her cellphone down on her bed beside her journal, staring up at slice of cobalt sky at her window. She’d done what she could. The rest would be up to him and Tala.
Come to the garden tomorrow at 5. She’ll be waiting for you. Don’t be late.