Laurence’s question haunted her as she returned to her classroom and got back to work. She’d done about a couple of love fortunes when Ren walked in, freshly showered and dressed in his tie-dyed café uniform. The entire room erupted in cheering as their classmates and customers gathered around him, slapping him on the back and congratulating him, while he kidded them about lacing the fruit-shakes they served the team with some kind of performance-enhancing drug.
“Oh no no no,” the Marketing Committee head countered. “No drugs involved. Just the pure-hearted blessing of our Goddess of Love. With a little extra, in your case, Ren. Am I right, guys?” he added, waggling his eyebrows at the orange hair-tie holding Ren’s bangs back.
Both Yumi and Ren turned scarlet, much to the amusement of their classmates and customers. Apparently, word had already spread about how she’d gotten Ren to wear the hair-tie. But when his eyes met hers, his smile had vanished and his dark eyes had turned cool and distant, just before he turned away, rubbing the back of his head. “Uh, yeah, about that, Yumi, could you stop with that Goddess Rules thing already? It’s really embarrassing.”
Yumi, who’d emerged from her shrine so she could congratulate him too, halted in her tracks, her smile turning frozen. Somewhere in the background, someone muttered “ouch.” Without waiting for her response, he went to stash his belongings in the “kitchen” area and don his apron, leaving her to retreat into her shrine again and try to shove her hurt and humiliation aside long enough to focus on her next client.
Or clients. Two girls crammed themselves into the shrine, one sitting on the other throw-pillow with her legs folded beneath her, and the other standing just behind her. The one sitting was beautiful in a kind of aloof, haughty way, while the one standing was also cute, if rather serious-looking, but was slightly overshadowed by her gorgeous friend. Yumi recognized the two as juniors. In fact, the girl sitting before her and looking impatient was none other than September, the most popular girl in the entire junior class, who was known to have had a string of boyfriends a mile long. Yumi wondered why a girl like her would need her love-fortune told, when for the past week she’d been telling other people love fortunes involving her.
With a start, she recalled that September was the girl Angelo had been caught in the library with, and that earlier this year, rumors had circulated that September had claimed Erik as her latest boyfriend. Yumi breathed a sigh of relief that Fran and Lisette were doing duty in their other booths. Having all three of them together in the same room would have been a nuclear bomb of awkward.
“It’s about time. We’ve been waiting here for a while now,” September complained.
“Sorry about that.” Yumi raised her mental shield and took the other girl’s hand. “Before I start, I have to warn you that I can’t see into the past or the future. I can just tell you how things stand in the present,” she went on, giving her standard disclaimer.
September frowned. “Oh, really? What’s the good in that? Oh, whatever, just get on with it,” she said impatiently when Yumi opened her mouth to defend herself.
Yumi closed her mouth and tried her best not to give her client a dirty look. Peeling back a sliver of her shield, she studied the love-threads springing from the other girl’s hand. “You’ve been searching for the right guy for a long time, and so far, you haven’t been successful,” she said, releasing the other girl’s hand and trying to blink the dizziness away. Belatedly, she recalled that September was her third reading—fourth, counting Laurence—and her friend would be her fifth. She was nearing the point of overload again.
“That’s it?” September sniffed. “Any two-bit fortune-teller can tell me that. Aren’t you supposed to be the sophomore class witch? Give me something more.”
Yumi ground her teeth. “What exactly do you want to know?”
“Who’s the guy who’s meant for me, and when and how will I find him? Tell me now.”
Pushy chick. Out loud, she said, “You’re looking for two guys, actually. One is this supposed ‘ideal prince’ of yours, and I’m telling you, he doesn’t exist. You’ve caused a lot of trouble for other people over a guy who’s only a figment of your imagination. The other one is the one you really want, the one who can help you face the truth about yourself. And he’s much closer to you than you think, but you won’t let yourself see him.”
“Oh, really? How am I supposed to know it’s him then?”
“You know how,” Yumi answered over the bongo-drumming in her head. “Just follow your nose.”
“But who is he? Why won’t you even tell me that much?”
“Sorry, I don’t give out identities as a rule. Next.”
September rose to her feet, still protesting, and her friend took her place. Strong, graceful, faintly calloused fingers—a pianist’s fingers—touched hers with only a slight hesitation. “So, anything in particular you want to know?” Yumi asked a tad ungraciously, wanting nothing more than to get the last reading over with so she could cleanse herself or barf onto the floor, whichever came first.
“I just want to know if I’ll ever know what love feels like. I need to know,” the girl—Hallia, Yumi dragged the name out from her recollection—replied in a low voice.
“You’re right, you do need to know. Your music is incomplete without it,” Yumi said shortly later while a wide-eyed Hallia cradled her hand. “Your love-threads are incredibly clear, except for one thing: You’re afraid. You’re terrified of trying anything different from what you’re used to. You can’t learn about love that way. In fact, if you keep on hiding like that, you’ll be heading in the opposite direction, and you’re going to lose much more than you think you stand to lose.”
“So what do I do?”
“Listen to him.” Yumi pressed her fist against her lips, swallowing convulsively. “Go to the Battle of the Bands tomorrow night,” she managed to choke out. “His song is for you. You don’t just want to know what love feels like, you also want to know what it sounds like, s-so you need—sorry, I—”
She turned aside, holding her hands as close to the candle-flame as she dared before plunging them in the salt-water. “You won’t tell her who he is, either? And how come she gets her future told and I don’t?” September demanded.
Before she could reply, Yumi found herself being drawn back into a familiar warmth, and her hand groping for an orange enveloped in a much larger hand. She thought she heard Ren’s voice saying flirtatiously, “Sorry, ladies, but our Goddess has spoken” just before everything faded away. But as she wandered through his threads, she was dismayed to find it full of gloomy blues and indigos and anxious browns again. He was as hurt and afraid as ever, and she thought she knew why. She just wished she could feel the threads connecting her to him so she could be sure.
Of course, there was another way of getting to the truth; she just had to do it quick before he figured out what she was up to and cut their link. After sifting through his threads in search of the one connecting him to Laurence, she wanted to kick herself for having missed something so obvious. The thread was as rough and as rusted over as an old chain, colored dark crimson mixed with brown and a sickly shade of green. Touching it filled Yumi with a sense of helplessness and a poisonous kind of rage—a desire to repel and destroy, turned forcibly into itself.
Jealousy. She recalled another thing Laurence had said to her. Out of curiosity, she’d asked him what he’d said before that had pissed Ren off so much. In reply, Laurence had given her a psychotic-clown grin. “Oh, that? Nothing much. I just asked him, should you ever become my girlfriend, if that would make him my secret servant-slash-bodyguard, too.”
He didn’t say anything that wasn’t true, Ren had said.
Her connection to him ended abruptly, as if he’d pulled his hand out of hers. But instead of giving him space, she snuggled closer, breathing in his scent. Oh Ren, she thought. You great, big idiot.
He looked at her, then looked away again. “I—please don’t ever—”
Her heart began to race. Is this it? Will he finally say it? “Yes? What is it, Ren?”
“I—I, uh—I think we should get up now.” He reached around to unwind her arms from around his torso then pushed himself to his feet, heading stiffly toward the bar.
Huh? As she stared blankly at his back, the Marketing Committee head cleared his throat. “The fruit-shakes for the volleyball team are ready, Goddess. Time to deliver some blessings.”
She picked herself up and dusted herself off as the others arranged several paper cups of fruit-shakes on trays. Her face was flushed, her hands were shaking and her heart was pounding but for an entirely different reason, and she avoided looking at Ren for fear of turning him into a small pile of ash from the heat of her glare. As she tidied her costume, she half-listened to the Marketing Committee head as he drew up their delivery schedules for the afternoon. “In short, Yumi, you get to take a bit of a break from love-fortune reading,” he finished, then turned to Ren. “You, too, Goddess Consort. Yumi won’t be needing you for now, so enjoy your moment of freedom.”
He’d be free of you. It’s gotta be a pain for him to be constantly watching over you and rushing to revive you every few minutes. From the corner of her eye, she saw Ren’s shoulders flinch and his fist clench around the rag he was using to wipe a table. “Got it, boss,” he tossed over his shoulder, his grin as engaging as ever. But Yumi noticed that he didn’t look at her either.
Her temper climbed. “All right, that’s it,” she growled underneath her breath just before she stormed over to Ren, grabbed his sleeve and, ignoring his sputtered protests, proceeded to drag him out of the room while everybody goggled after them. She stopped at a relatively quiet corner some distance away from their classroom, then stood in front of him, scowling fiercely.
He scowled right back. “Just what do you think you’re doing? You know, you’ve been acting really weird since—mmph!”
She plastered a hand over his mouth to silence him. “First of all, I am not going to stop this ‘Goddess Rules thing’ u-until I’m…I’m good and ready…”
Oops, I’m going to faint, she thought in almost detached wonder as every one of her senses tuned out the real world. It felt as if she was falling into someone’s threads, yet somehow…more than that. Then someone caught her up, and she snapped back into her body to find herself sagging in Ren’s arms. “Hey, are you okay? Are you still feeling sick?” he asked worriedly.
Embarrassed, she straightened, wishing she was holding an orange at the moment. “Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry. Maybe I’m still a little hungry. Anyway, that’s not important right now.”
“What do you mean it’s not important?” he growled. “You were about to keel right over—”
Grabbing fistfuls of his collar, she yanked him down, raising herself on her tiptoes at the same time, and kissed him on the cheek. “Shut up,” she said calmly, pretending her face wasn’t toasting from the inside out. “You heard us, didn’t you? I knew you were standing on the other side of that tree while Laurence and I were talking.”
The crimson hue in his face drained away. “I saw you leaving with him, so I went to look for you,” he muttered, then sighed and raked his hand through his hair, only to snag his fingers in his ponytail. “Listen, Yumi, about Laurence’s offer, I can’t—that is, i-if you ever decide to—”
She pulled him down again and kissed him on his other cheek. “I said shut up, Ren. You obviously don’t know Goddess Rule Number Six.”
To her amused satisfaction, Ren was now looking distinctly dazed. “What the hell, I’ll bite. What’s Goddess Rule Number Six?” he asked, a goofy smile appearing on his face while his hands went around her waist and drew her closer.
She smiled back coyly as she peeled his arms off her, much as he did to her earlier. “Trust in your Goddess. She will reward faith with faith.”
With that, she danced away, laughing at his miffed expression. She only got to see him for intermittent moments after that as she and the Marketing Committee head made deliveries to the various sports teams. Later, they were all kept busy as the entire St. Anthony Academy basketball team showed up at the café, each one buying the fruit-shake required for a few minutes’ time with the Goddess of Love. Yumi had the weird feeling that only less than half of the team was actually interested in finding out their love fortunes, though, but with Ren hovering over her shoulder and giving each boy a steely look as they approached her, they all ended up getting their love fortunes read anyway.
The instant the school fair closed for the day, she ran to washroom with her backpack, eager to finally get out of her embarrassing costume. She came back dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, with her face scrubbed and her curls springing wildly from behind a headband. As surprisingly fun as it was to play the goddess of love and seduction, it was still a relief to be able to feel like herself again.
She immediately noticed that Ren was missing. When she asked about him, her classmates informed her that the class president had asked him to go with her on some errand. She nodded slowly, digesting the information, then pitched in with the clean-up, gathering the fruit scraps and peelings into a bin. She carried the bin to the compost pit in the back part of the garden to dispose of the waste. As she neared the garden, she realized she could hear voices. Even more importantly, she recognized those voices—Ren’s and Natalie’s.
Peering round the corner of the building, she saw their class president talking with Ren. From where she was standing, she couldn’t hear their exact words, but she could hear the shakiness of Natalie’s voice, could see her hand dart up nervously to push her glasses up her nose. She could also see Ren listening somberly to whatever Natalie was saying, then shaking his head, looking regretful. Natalie gave a brittle laugh, said something again, then stepped back and wiped her eyes underneath her glasses. Ren gave her a small, pained smile, and spoke a few words. Natalie nodded, then she turned and walked quickly away, following the path that would take her almost straight to Yumi.
Panicking, Yumi pressed back against the wall and raised the garbage bin to the level of her face in what had to be the world’s most ill-thought-out disguise. “Yumi? What’re you doing with that garbage can?” Natalie asked a moment later.
Yumi lowered the bin, laughing weakly. “Oh, um, just practicing my ninja skills.”
Natalie smiled a little at the lame joke, but Yumi could see that her eyes were red. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just…couldn’t give up without trying. You understand?”
“I do,” Yumi replied solemnly. “That took courage. You did well, Prez.”
Natalie smiled again, then a tiny sob escaped her and she fled. Yumi gazed after her, her own chest aching in the face of another girl’s heartbreak. Yet she also felt glad. Taking a deep breath, she headed down the path to where Ren was still standing, staring up at the peach and rose sky. “Yumi,” he said when he saw her coming toward him. “What’re you doing here?”
“Garbage duty.” She lifted the bin to show him. He took it from her without a word and dumped the contents into the compost pit; also without a word, she fell into step beside him as they strolled back to the classroom. “You turned her down,” she said after a while.
He sighed. “I thought you couldn’t see the future. You knew she was going to confess?”
“I felt the thread connecting her to you when you channeled energy into me. It was her decision to tell the truth, even though she knew the outcome. She deserves respect for that.” He nodded, but she could see he was still deeply troubled. “You know one of the things I like about you, Ren?” she said suddenly, clasping her hands behind her and smiling when he glanced at her. “You care a lot about others, and you really hate seeing people hurt. You especially hate it when it’s you doing the hurting. You’re a really kind person, aren’t you?”
“Not all the time,” he muttered, and she knew he was thinking of Natalie. And of Laurence.
“Wrong.” She shook her head. “I’ve felt your threads, remember? You’d rather turn your anger inward than let it touch anyone else. Sure, you slip up every now and then; you’re only human. But you still do your best no matter what, and—well, it’s part of what makes you so wonderful.”
She was breathless at the end of that speech, which had apparently taken him so off-guard that he’d stopped walking and was simply gazing at her with an indecipherable expression.
“Hey, you wanna go home together?” she said quickly, giving him another bright smile. “It’s been a while since we had a chance to talk, just the two of us.”
He smiled back. “Sure thing, Curly-Top.”
They headed home in a companionable silence that felt deeply nostalgic to Yumi. It took her back to the days when they were best friends, and all he really needed to be happy was to make her happy, and all she really needed to be happy was to be with him. This hasn’t changed between us, she thought as they walked side by side down the block toward their street.
But there was something else now, an awareness that made all her senses come alive, as if real life had become as brilliant and vibrant as the threads she read. She felt the many glances he sent her way like feathery touches on her skin. She felt each brush of his arm against hers like sparks of light between them. She felt his presence like her own. His breathing was hers, his heartbeat, his energy, his existence—all essential to hers. How she managed to survive for the past three years without feeling him like this, she didn’t know, but she did know she never wanted to be without him again.
When they got to their houses, they found his mom’s car pulling into their driveway. She greeted Yumi warmly and asked about the goings-on at the school fair, then told Ren to come home soon because she needed his help with a software program she was learning how to use for work.
“Okay, Mom. I’ll just walk Yumi home,” Ren replied, while Yumi bit back a laugh and refrained from reminding him yet again that she lived just right across the street, literally a stone’s throw away from his place. Hey, if it meant they spent more time together, she would gladly hold her peace.
Yumi’s house was dark. Her parents had gone out with some friends that afternoon, and hadn’t come home yet. Ate Tala, on the other hand, had texted earlier to say that the senior council was holding another meeting to talk about Students’ Night and that the meeting was going to run late, so their parents would just pick her up on their way home.
“Will you be okay?” Ren asked when she unlocked the gate and turned to him again. “I can stay until your family comes home.”
“It’s okay, I’ll be fine. They’ll be home in about an hour anyway, and I still have to fix dinner for Ate and me. Besides, your mom’s waiting for you.”
His eyes met hers. “About Tala…” He trailed off, and just like that the silence between them grew choked with all the words they hadn’t spoken. About Tala. About Laurence. About the lies they’d told. About what really happened three years ago that drove them apart.
And in her mind, Yumi could hear Laurence again. How come he’s never told you that he likes you?
Underneath the street lamp, his skin darkened as he blushed underneath her gaze. “I gotta go,” he said, and turned around to head back to his house.
What is he waiting for?
“Ren!” He stopped and looked at her, and Yumi imagined she could see her love-thread winding all around him, blazing against the sky. She drew in a shaky breath. “I love you.”
For a moment, he looked faintly confused. Then his eyes grew wide.
“I love you,” she said again, just in case he doubted what he heard. “I’ve loved you for a long time, ever since we were kids. And—and I was wondering if you’d like to go with me to Students’ Night.”
“Yumi,” he breathed. Then he covered his face with both hands. “Oh man, no, no way, this isn’t how it’s supposed to go—”
I miscalculated. I got it all wrong.
Yumi laughed as pain ripped through her, and her laughter came out sounding slightly hysterical. “Good grief, Ren, if this is how you answered Natalie, then no wonder she ran off crying.”
He dropped his hands and looked at her in shocked dismay. “What? No, you’ve got it all wrong—”
“I know! And believe me, it sucks!” she cut in, laughing even harder. “Look, it’s fine. Let’s just forget I said anything, okay? And please, for the love of Pete, don’t say anything to make me feel better. In fact, don’t say anything at all, and we can put my stupid, little mistake behind us.”
“No! It’s not a mistake!” He moved toward her, his hands reaching for her. “Yumi, please, you have to listen—”
“Don’t touch me!”
Her voice cut through the air, and he froze and dropped his hands, pure agony glittering in his eyes. She pressed back against their gate, which swung open, offering her a much-needed escape route.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, then rushed through the gate and shoved it closed. As she ran into their house, she could hear him calling her name, followed by the insistent ringing of her cellphone, which she promptly turned off.
Here’s a riddle, she thought later as she lay in bed gazing up at the night-sky through her window, her journal flung open at her feet. What do you call a Goddess of Love who fails at love?
Nothing. A Goddess like that doesn’t exist.
Then what about a girl who forgets what happened three years ago and lets history repeat itself?
An idiot, that’s what.
She chuckled to herself. Then she turned aside and cried for the rest of the night.