“So I’m wondering, why is a Goddess hiding out here instead sitting in there?”
Yumi turned to look over her shoulder at the voice, causing her to wobble precariously on her perch, which consisted of a couple of cinder blocks she’d turned on their ends and pushed together. “Whoa,” she muttered, grabbing hold of the chain links to steady herself. She looked down her nose at the clown in the frizzy, electric blue wig, striped pajamas and scary clown make-up. “So? A Goddess can hide out wherever she wants.”
Laurence raised an eyebrow, making a blue diamond creep higher up his face, then glanced around. They were lurking outside the chain-link perimeter fence of the basketball court, somewhere between the bleachers and the shower rooms. The basketball court was packed full of people, and even on her perch, Yumi could catch only fleeting glimpses of Ren and the rest of the team over the heads of the crowd. It was hardly an ideal location, and before Laurence could point out the obvious, she sighed and explained: “I got here in the middle of the game, and I couldn’t get in. Anyway, I can see the scoreboard from here, and guess what? We’re leading by ten points!” she added excitedly.
Laurence merely looked bored. “Whoop-de-doo. You really should’ve let the team know you were here. Even muscle-heads know not to treat their sponsors so shabbily. It’s practically all they know.”
“Oh, you mean the sign? Our Marketing Committee head convinced the team captain to put up that ‘Sponsored by the Goddess of Love Café’ sign,” Yumi said, letting his comment about dumb jocks slide. “Come on, what’s happening now? I can’t see—wait, it’s—yes! Twelve point lead! Go, Navarro!” she shouted, bouncing as much as she dared on her rickety perch.
“Your sister’s in there,” Laurence pointed out. “She and your boyfriend even waved to each other, right in front of God and everyone.”
“I know,” she replied distractedly. “I saw her sitting with Ate Audrey in the front row. That’s good; it means she didn’t forget her promise to watch his game.”
He sent her a skeptical look. “You do know what some of the guys are saying about him, right?”
“They’re saying he’s being a jerkwad for hogging the two hottest sisters in South Crescent High.”
“He’s what?” Yumi couldn’t keep a bark of incredulous laughter from escaping. “Which sisters are those? Look, I know about the rumors about him and Ate hugging in the garden. People have totally gotten the wrong idea about him, and I aim to do something about that.”
“What the—do you work at being stupid or do you come by it naturally?”
She waved a hand impatiently. “Shut up, already. We’re down to the last three minutes. Come on, guys, don’t let the other team get their hands on the ball.” She lapsed into low, urgent muttering, coaching the home-team underneath her breath. When the buzzer rang, ending the game with a resounding victory for South Crescent High, she screamed in exultation along with the rest of the crowd, and watched, breathless with amazement, as Ren and his teammates finally came into view. He seemed distracted though, his gaze scanning the crowd instead of responding to his teammates’ congratulations. Then Yumi’s stomach flipped when his eyes met hers across the distance, just before he disappeared again beneath the tide of humanity.
“Yumi, over here.”
Laurence had moved to a new spot further along the fence, and was waving her over. The new location afforded her a better view of the goings-on in the center of the court. The two teams had lined up in a row, with Tala, Audrey, the senior student council president and a couple other teachers shaking hands with each member of the St. Anthony team and handing each of them a gift. Even with all the shifting bodies in between her and the court, Yumi could see the admiring eyes of the St. Anthony guys follow her sister long after she’d shaken hands with them and moved on.
She couldn’t blame them. For the last two days of the school fair, the senior class had decided to cosplay as movie characters, so Tala had borrowed a pink gown from an aunt and added layers of chiffon to form a Grecian-style gown, with her mermaid tresses pinned up in a thick, loose ponytail. She insisted she was Megara from Disney’s Hercules, but people still kept mistaking her for an elven maiden from The Lord of the Rings.
How does she do it? a voice inside Yumi whispered as she watched her sister. She’s got them wrapped around her little finger, and she doesn’t even have to dress like a belly-dancer to do it.
As if echoing her thoughts, Laurence gave a low whistle. “Your sister’s amazing, huh? I know guys who get teary-eyed at the thought that she’ll be graduating soon—”
“And you’ll be left with just me. Sucks, huh?” Yumi cut in. Ignoring the look Laurence shot her, she turned and walked off. “Come on,” she called. “They’re moving to our team and I can’t see them from here.”
They found a new spot that offered them a better view of the faculty and senior student council hanging medals shaped like gold stars around the necks of the members of the South Crescent High team. Likely from popular demand, it was Tala who was doing the actual medal-hanging, and when she came to Ren, the two of them smiled at each other as easily as ever. Then as he lowered his head so she could loop the ribbon around his neck, the rest of the team broke out in wild hooting, while some people in the crowd began chanting: “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!”
Yumi stumbled backward away from the fence as pain raked her insides. She knew better, she reminded herself. She trusted what she felt—or rather, didn’t feel—in Ren’s threads. She believed her sister and her friends. She knew better, but still…but still…
Without warning, her sister, the team, the crowd and the entire basketball court vanished into gray shadows, and the noises faded into a barely audible susurration. Her stomach flipped as she plummeted into Laurence’s brilliant mesh of emotional energy, his love-threads winding around her wrists until she broke free of their hold by summoning her orange shield around her. Returning to her senses, she found herself being pulled by a determined clown into a semi-secluded knot of trees somewhere between the basketball court and the library.
“What’s the big idea?” she demanded, yanking her hand out of Laurence’s grasp.
His lips lifted in a grin, an expression rendered slightly disturbing by the scarlet clown-lips drawn around his mouth. “That’s weird. For a while after I grabbed your hand, you just went sort of limp and docile, letting me pull you wherever. Did you accidentally read my threads again?”
A guilty flush spread across her cheeks. “A bit,” she admitted. “I’m sorry. You surprised me, so I couldn’t get my shield up before you touched me. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten my promise.”
He brushed that aside with a wave of his hand. “Interesting. So that means you’re at your most vulnerable when you’re reading threads. Does your spirit leave your body or something?” When she nodded, he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm. I suppose it does make sense to have somebody protecting you while you’re doing your readings. But what about that other thing?”
“What other thing?”
“People say that your love fortunes are always accurate, but they come with a price. You get struck down by a curse or something. They even say you court death every time you use your power.”
She blinked, then burst out laughing. “What? No, of course I’m not cursed. And I’m not dying either, even though I sometimes wish I was. Ren explained it all to me.” As they settled down upon a couple of tree roots—with Laurence unearthing a handkerchief from somewhere in the depths of his stripy pajamas and gallantly laying it over the root so Yumi could keep her white skirts clean—she told him about sensory overload and how Ren had come up with the candle-flame, salt-water washing and orange combo to cleanse her of the remnants of psychic energy.
“What about that thing Navarro does for you?” he asked after a while. “According to the stories, he’s the only one who can bring you back from the edge of death by using some weird combination of CPR and really intense praying. They say it’s pretty romantic, if you’re into that exorcise-the-demons-trying-to-steal-my-soul-and-I’m-yours kind of thing.”
“Good grief, is that what they think he’s doing?” Yumi laughed again. “He’s just channeling energy into me. It’s sort of like a speeded-up version of an energy-cleansing.”
“Energy-channeling? That guy is just full of surprising depths, huh? I’ve read something about psychic abilities myself, and I know for a fact that almost anyone can channel energy.” Laurence looked at Yumi, a blue diamond once again twitching higher on his face. “It’s not true that he’s the only one who can channel energy into you. Just in case you didn’t get the memo.”
“I know that,” she retorted, rolling her eyes. “Ren offered to teach my sister how to channel energy so she could do it for me, too. But, well…” He’s the only one I want doing that for me. She swallowed the words and shrugged instead. “To be able to channel energy into me, someone has to let me drop all my mental shields around them and let me in completely. And I mean completely. Other people are afraid to even let me touch them without permission. Well, Ren used to be afraid of me, too, but he’s not anymore. And he’s the only one who’s ever let me get that close to him.”
“He’s not the only one.”
Yumi’s head swiveled toward Laurence. “What? But who else—?”
“Me.” His lips twisted upward again as he tugged his wig off, revealing hair so flattened it looked as if it had been painted on his scalp. It made him look strangely vulnerable, as only a pensive clown could. “I’d let you in,” he said, as serious as she’d ever seen him. “I don’t know how to do the energy-channeling thing just yet, but I could learn, and I could help you if you get sick. You won’t have to be tied down to just Navarro, Yumi. You won’t need to depend only on him ever again.”
She stared at him, stunned. “Do you know what—do you understand what exactly you’re saying?” she stammered, her voice barely heard over the crackling of the leaves in the trees.
“Perfectly.” He met her gaze as he said this, then lowered his head and began scuffing aimless patterns in the dirt with his foot. “It’d be a win-win situation, since he’d be free of you, too. It’s gotta be a pain for him to be constantly watching over you and rushing to revive you every few minutes.”
She thought of Ren following her everywhere, even running out on his own basketball practice just to channel energy into her. She winced. He must have wanted to do his own thing so many times, but he couldn’t because he was stuck to her side. What a horrible friend she was. Somehow, she’d never even thought he might find the job of taking care of her a burden. She already owed him for giving her a freedom she never thought she’d have by training her to control her power. He didn’t deserve being forced into the role of Goddess Consort as well by her sister and her own selfishness.
She bit her lips. “You’d do that for me?” she asked in a tiny voice, focusing on Laurence again.
“Wow, aren’t you a slow one? How many times do I have to repeat myself?”
She made a face at him, then listened to the crackling of the leaves and branches as she considered his offer. “You said it’d be a win-win situation, but I don’t see how it’d be a win for you. For one thing, we’ve practically just met. And for another, I’m not sure if you hate me or you like me or just barely tolerate my presence. So why?”
“You really don’t know?” He shook his head, then proceeded to tell her about how he and his mom lived in a few rooms attached to his Tita Rhea’s house, which she rented to them dirt-cheap because it was all they could afford; how in the last few years, she’d been making Laurence come over to her house and making him do things he wasn’t sure he wanted to do; and about Jeffrey, Tita Rhea’s quiet houseboy who always treated him kindly even though he knew what was going on.
“Mom said Tita Rhea loves me like her own son. Is that what love is? Other guys’d think I lucked out, but what do they know? All I know is I hate myself after I’ve been with her. But I can’t do anything about it. And Jeffrey isn’t helping. How can a gay guy help? I don’t care if he loves me. I’m not gay! I don’t want to be gay! How can I be gay when I feel this way for Tita Rhea—and for you?”
When Yumi laid a comforting arm across his shoulder, he twisted round and attempted another smile. “See that? That’s the reason I’m offering to help you,” he went on. “When you read my threads the first time, I was afraid you’d be screaming your disgust of me, but you didn’t. You even tried to help me. I thought I liked you before, but now…” Sighing, he shoved his wig on his head again and got to his feet. “Look, I’m not an idiot. I know you’re in love with him. But I’m making this offer with no strings attached. I’ll learn how to channel energy, so if in the future you find yourself getting sick and Navarro isn’t around, you can just call me and I’ll come to help you out.”
She got to her feet as well, touched and astounded by his offer. “I understand. Thanks, Laurence, although this is mostly just for the school fair anyway. I don’t think I’ll be doing a lot of readings on normal days, and Ren will be with me then.”
He shrugged. “Well, whatever. I don’t get what you see in Navarro, anyway.”
“Right, well, pardon me if I think you’re a bit prejudiced against him. But I’ve known him for way longer than you have, and he’s as wonderful as they say he is, and more.”
“Oh yeah? So how come he’s never told you that he likes you?” Laurence sneered at the look on Yumi’s face. “I thought so. That coward. You and I’ve known each other for a couple of weeks, and I’ve already confessed to you. He’s known you all his life, so what is he waiting for?”