Being inside the school that night was like being inside a Christmas tree. Lights sparkled from gold and silver stars and streamers. Rice-lights twinkled from the trees, their reflections glinting softly upon a myriad white and gold balloons. At one end of the quadrangle, which had been cleared of its booths earlier, multicolored stage lights set the stage ablaze. And across the backdrop of crimson velvet and gold tulle, scrawled in fancy, gold script were the words: “An Af-FAIR to Remember: South Crescent High School Foundation Week Closing Ceremony.”
On the rooftop, a place they managed to gain access to only because Ren was friends with the janitors, Yumi leaned over the concrete wall and gazed down at the scene below. The school looked as if it had sprouted an animated, oversized flower garden. Students dressed up in pretty dresses and button-down shirts drifted through hallways and filled up the chairs in front of the stage, talking, laughing and dancing to the beat of the pop music playing over the PA system. They wore an air of euphoria like an ermine coat; even the seniors, who technically still had to see Students’ Night through to the end, had finally stopped looking as if they’d love to dig their fingers into one another’s ulcers.
Electronic noises exploded from the quadrangle as members of the winning band tested the sound system and the amps onstage. Once, a scream rose up from the crowd as a lean figure in black took up a guitar and shredded it like a crazed angel of rock, tossing his hair over his shoulder and grinning sleepily at his bandmates. When he started playing the guitar riff from Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” vocal cords spontaneously blistered from the shrieking, and from the howls of disappointment when an irate teacher told him to stop as it wasn’t their time yet to perform.
Yumi smiled. Linc. She wondered if that girl Hallia was somewhere down there, watching him. She wondered how many couples were down there right now, coming together and falling in love. She thought of all the threads she’d read as the Goddess of Love. All those feelings of attraction, of affection, of longing, jealousy, tenderness, anxiety and pure, unselfish love… She could almost see the brilliant lacework of energy that connected every single person present tonight to everyone else. Even the ones who were deep in loneliness and despair. She’d held the truth in her hands, and she knew no one could ever be separated from the tapestry. No one was ever truly alone.
It was a perfect gem of a night, awash with a sweet sense of unreality, as if a dream had stolen into their ordinary, waking world. She’d thought at first that it was just her own happiness coloring her perception, until she realized what was going on. Her emotions were reaching out to everyone, her own threads of excitement, anticipation and the sheer joy she felt at simply being with the person she loved—all of her threads crisscrossing with those of others like her. Fran and Angelo. Lisette and Erik. Ate Tala and Ate Audrey, whom she’d seen earlier standing at a balcony with their arms around each other. Maybe even Natalie and the Marketing Committee head, whom Yumi had glimpsed talking together in a semi-secluded corner. For a moment, she wished her power would switch itself on so she could see the mesh of energy they all formed together. It must be breathtaking.
Not everyone was getting a happy ending tonight, though. She hadn’t seen Laurence anywhere, and she wondered if he’d decided to skip out on Students’ Night altogether. Maybe he was at home alone right now, or maybe he was at the mercy of his predatory landlady again. Goddess, please watch over him, she prayed. He’s weird, but he’s a good guy. And please, let him find someone who can love all of him, and whom he can love in return.
“What’re you thinking of, Curly-Top?”
Ren came and stood beside her, his arm drawing her close. Smiling up at him, she told him about the tapestry of energy and her wish that she could see what it all looked like tonight. In reply, he quirked an eyebrow upward. “And that’s what’s making you sigh like that?”
She hesitated. Really, how was she supposed to tell him that she was thinking about another boy while she was here with him? Noticing her vacillation, he took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. “Don’t, Yumi. Don’t even think about hiding from me,” he said, his voice low and fierce. “No more lies between us. No more misunderstandings. I want us to be completely honest with each other, okay?”
She stared at him, wide-eyed. It was the first time he’d spoken about their relationship since they officially became a couple yesterday. They were kept busy after his confession, with the Marketing Committee head working them both double-time to thin the line of clients waiting to have their love-fortunes read. Then their friends came to congratulate them, and to tease Ren about setting an impossible standard when it came to romantic confessions. Then she, Fran and Lisette spent hours chatting in person, on Facebook and on the phone, doing a play-by-play of Ren’s confession. Then in the morning there had been the clean-up, with the class working together to dismantle the bar, take down the decorations, return borrowed equipment, and restore their classroom to its normal state.
In short, she and Ren had barely had time to themselves. Worse, the few times that they were alone, she was aware of a strange tension between them. She was overjoyed that he loved her too, and was still spacing out over his confession, but a part of her kept wondering if the whole thing really happened—that he was actually her boyfriend now, that it wasn’t just a huge, elaborate joke. The boundaries between them had changed so fast her head was still spinning from it. After all, it wasn’t that too long ago when she and Ren were barely on speaking terms, and now…
Is he really mine? she thought again as she looked up into his face, her eyes darting up to the orange hair-tie for an instant. Will I ever get used to the idea that Ren—smart, caring, amazingly hot Ren, who could have any girl he wanted—actually wants me?
She knew she wasn’t the only one who was still trying to find his footing, so to speak. Since yesterday, she’d often catch Ren staring at her with a dazed expression, as if some part of him hadn’t quite caught up with current events yet. He was constantly touching her—hugging her, squeezing her shoulders, holding her hand, brushing his arm against hers, stroking her face or her ear or her neck, playing with her curls, kissing her forehead or the back of her hand or the top of her head. When physical contact was not possible, he was always somewhere nearby, as if he couldn’t bear to be separated from her for long. As if he’d been starved of her for the past three years and was now filling himself up with her with single-minded determination.
At the same time, he seemed to be holding himself back. He was careful not to let his touches linger, and whenever he forgot himself—whenever his arms tightened around her or he leaned in to nuzzle her or his lips started to slide across her skin—he’d catch himself and pull away, blushing and muttering an apology. She wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to be so cautious with her, but whenever she tried, her throat would dry up and her mind would go blank, and the moment would pass with nothing else happening between them.
She couldn’t doubt how happy he was now, though. When he’d channeled energy into her, she found herself caught up in the lightning-bright, rainbow-vivid storm of his emotions, and when she’d sent her own wave of love into him, his threads had responded by twining around her in a gentle embrace. But there were still faint strands of uncertain brown among his threads, and she wondered if she’d feel a lot more of these if she could only sense her own threads among his. She supposed she wasn’t the only one who needed a little more convincing that this—the two of them together—was actually happening, and she hoped the little package stashed in her purse would do the trick.
“Yumi? Is it a promise?” His grip on her shoulders tightened and his dark eyes glinted with worry.
She smiled again. “Yeah, it’s a promise. As long as we also promise to hear each other out first before jumping to conclusions. We’ve already done enough of that, too,” she said ruefully, thinking that she could have spared them both a lot of unnecessary pain if she’d figured that out sooner.
He nodded. “Deal. Now tell me what’s on your mind.”
She told him about Laurence’s confession to her, his offer to channel energy into her, her guilt and worry over turning him down, and her wish that she could change Laurence’s feelings. She left out the abuse he was suffering and his emotional chaos, just as she’d promised him, but she also knew that she might have to break her promise someday in order to help him. Some things took a back seat when somebody’s life was at stake. She’d already decided to ask Ren for help when that day came; maybe together they could figure out what needed to be done to help Laurence.
Ren listened quietly, and when she was done, he tilted his head back and stared up at the night-sky, mulling over what she’d told him. “You know, even though you can read people’s emotions, it’s not your job to manage them,” he finally said. “You’re not responsible for how Laurence feels, Curly-Top. You’ve done all you can to make him feel better, so leave the rest up to him. And while you’re at it, you might want to have a little more faith in him. That dirtbag’s way too obnoxious to let a setback like this get him down,” he added with a snort.
She giggled at his obvious disgruntlement, but his words rang with truth, as usual. “I still have to talk to him though,” she mused out loud. “There were questions he asked me that I couldn’t answer at the time. But I’ve thought about it some, and now I think I can tell him a few things.”
“Things like what?” he asked somewhat peevishly.
So she told him: That emotions obeyed no rules except the heart’s commands, and the heart loved whomever, whenever and however it wanted, as many or as few as it wanted, for as long or as short a time as it wanted, for every reason and for no reason at all. That the rules came from outside, filtering in as words like “should” and “must” and “ought to.” That emotions naturally appeared as airy, glowing, colored threads, but it was thought that gave them their solidity and texture, making them stronger, thicker, more agonizing or more beautiful. That emotions were neither right nor wrong, good nor evil, something to be denied nor something to be blindly obeyed. They just were.
“I wrote it all down in my journal,” she finished a little self-consciously. “There’s some other stuff in there, too. Being the Goddess of Love for a week has given me a lot to think about.”
Ren smiled at her. “That was kind of poetic. It makes sense, though, since everybody knows how hard it is to control your feelings sometimes. Our threads really can’t be controlled?”
“Well, they can, but at the same time they can’t. It’s got something to do with your thoughts and feelings working together and feeding off of each other. I…haven’t figured that part out yet,” she said sheepishly before she turned to face him, laying her hand on his chest to feel his heartbeat. “I wouldn’t have gotten this far without you, Ren. You know that, right? I wouldn’t even have made it past the first day of the fair. You’ve helped me so much more than you can imagine, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to repay you for what you did.”
His dark eyes turned impossibly warm. Sliding his arms around her waist, he tugged her closer then leaned down until his face was inches from hers. “I know how you can repay me,” he replied huskily.
So close! His lips are so close! As her lashes fluttered lower, she whispered, “Yeah? How?”
“Stay with me forever.”
Her eyes flew open in shock. He pulled back and gazed at her solemnly. The pounding of her heart reverberated throughout her body, which felt lighter than air and filled with bubbles. Does he mean—is he asking me to—?
When she remained silent, his eyes dimmed and his lips twisted in a self-deprecatory smile. “Sorry. Too soon, huh?”
Before he could withdraw any further, she grabbed a fistful of his shirtfront, went up on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. “No.” Then she added, “And yes, I’ll stay with you. Forever sounds about right.”
His answering smile lit up the entire rooftop.
Feedback from a microphone split the air as down in the quadrangle, the program officially began. The principal came up onstage to give his speech, congratulating everyone on their hard work, sacrifice and enthusiasm, which made this year’s school fair a resounding success. Yumi and Ren tuned him out. They already knew the results of the booth competition anyway; Tala had clued Yumi in last night about the judges’ decision, and she’d immediately texted Ren about it.
Instead, he took her hand and drew her over to a stack of cinder blocks that he’d pushed against the wall, leftovers from the school’s recent renovation. There was just enough room for them to sit side by side. The strange tension had returned, and Yumi was pinballing between shyness, dreamy bliss, and disappointment that he hadn’t kissed her back. Her hand drifted down to her purse. Maybe she should give the package now before she lost her nerve completely.
Ren’s rueful chuckle disrupted her thoughts. “You know, I was supposed to confess to you tonight,” he told her. “I was going to time it so I could ask you to dance with me later after the program.”
“What?” She looked over at him in surprise, which soon turned into outrage. “So wait, you’re telling me you had no intention of asking me out to Students’ Night at all?” An embarrassed flush darkened his face, and he yelped when she punched him on the shoulder. “I can’t believe it!” she exclaimed. “Ren, you dope. What if somebody else asked me to Students’ Night?”
“Nobody else would’ve dared. You’re mine, and I made sure everyone knew it. Why do you think I kept telling everyone I was your Goddess Consort? And have you ever heard me deny it when people said you were my girlfriend?”
Her mouth hung open at this display of presumption and sheer overconfidence. “Laurence asked me,” she pointed out flatly.
He smirked. “Yeah, well, he’s kind of a dense dirtbag, and I’d have done it anyway. Just how bad do you think it would’ve looked for him if I swept his date right off her feet?”
Her jaw was bruised from having hit the floor twice in a row. Then all at once, she was doubling over and laughing. “Oh my God. Was that item in your clipboard, too? ‘Make her date look like a total stiff in comparison to me?’” she chortled. “Good grief, Ren, that’s just mean. I’m starting to think my ruining your plan to confess by confessing to you first was actually a good thing.”
His smug expression dissolved into laughter as well. “Definitely a good thing,” he agreed.
As their humor ebbed and the tension flowed in again, Yumi sighed and decided to go for broke. “Hey, I’ve got something for you,” she announced.
From her purse, she pulled out a small box wrapped in blue wrapping paper and dropped it in his lap. “Whoa, I get a present? Really?” Ren said with a surprised delight. “What is it?”
“Open it, dummy, and find out.”
Inside the box were two necklaces, lying side by side on a felt paper bed. Hanging from one of the silver chains was a small, bronze disk engraved with a heart. The other pendant was a larger, silver-tinted disk in the shape of a crescent moon, with twining vines carved on its surface, interspersed with tiny, white gems. He took the necklaces out and let them swing from his hand, then looked over at her in stunned amazement.
She smiled back, a little anxiously. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Ren.”
“Yumi, what—” was about as far as he got before he choked.
Rolling her eyes, she took the necklaces from him and shifted so that she faced him. “This is me,” she informed him, holding up the bronze disk pendant. “It’s got my heart on it, and it looks like an orange—well, sort of. And this is you.” She held up the crescent moon pendant. “You’re bigger than me, and for a lot of people, you sparkle brightly—no, you do, don’t deny it. And this is us.” She slid the bronze disk into the hole in the center of the crescent moon disk, clicked them into place, then pressed the pendants into his hand. “See? My heart belongs to you. It always has, even when I tried to keep it away from you. And you protect me, help me, and care for me. You always have, even though I never knew it. We’re complete shapes on our own, but we fit together just perfectly.”
She peered up at him, but his face was lowered as he stared down at the joined pendants, and with a shadow falling over him she couldn’t see his expression very well. “I found this in that cute shop near the convenient store. You know the money we got from telling love fortunes in the plaza near the church? Ate Tala gave it to me, saying I’d earned it, and that’s what I used to buy this. Um, Ren?” She twisted her hands together as his lack of a response made her even more nervous. “You can tell me, you know, i-if you don’t like it. Maybe it’s a bit too sappy, huh?”
He met her gaze then, and her insides melted from the heat in his eyes. “You think I don’t like it?” he demanded hoarsely.
Her face brightened. “So you do like it?”
“Yumi—” Closing his fist around the pendants, he leaned back against the wall, shut his eyes, and sucked in a ragged breath. “I love it. Thank you. It’s just—I’ve never…Sorry, but I really feel like crying right now,” he admitted as his other hand came up to cover his eyes.
“Good.” She beamed. “Now you know how I felt yesterday. Here, straighten up so I can put your necklace on you.”
She took the pendants, snapped them apart again, then picked up the chain with the crescent moon, only to stop when his hand covered hers. He shook his head, then took the bronze pendant instead. “This one’s mine,” he said softly. “Your heart belongs to me, remember?”
She hoped she wouldn’t cry herself as she clasped the chain holding her heart around his neck. Then he took the crescent moon necklace and clasped it around her throat. “And this is yours,” he went on, his fingers brushing her skin, “because like you said, I’ll always protect you. Always.”
Her eyes drifted shut as his breath warmed her mouth. Then she became aware of a familiar voice coming through on the speakers, and she pulled back in surprise. “Wait, that sounds like my sister.”
She blinked. His lips had frozen in mid-pucker, and his eyes were as wide as saucers. He looked completely nonplussed. It was too bad that their kiss had been thwarted yet again, but she regarded the fact that he’d actually tried to kiss her as good news. Smothering her giggles, she pulled him to his feet, and together they headed back to the wall overlooking the quadrangle.
Tala was onstage holding the microphone and a piece of paper, looking as angelically gorgeous as ever. Raising the microphone, she announced: “And for the sophomore class, the booth with the highest registered sales and winner of the best booth competition is…the ‘Fair Games’ booth by II-Diamond! Congratulations!” She smiled widely and applauded as II-Diamond’s class president came up onstage to shake the hands of the principal and the senior student council president and accept their prize, while the rest of II-Diamond cheered wildly from the audience.
Yumi and Ren glanced at each other. They knew what the results were, but that didn’t make it any easier to hear. Especially now that the rest of the class knew. Yumi could feel the disappointment weighing heavily upon her friends and classmates, wherever they were. “Hey, we gave it our best shot. That’s got to count for something,” Ren said as he encircled her in a comforting hug.
“Yeah, but it didn’t count enough,” Yumi sighed. “Brace yourself, because II-Diamond’s going to be insufferable for at least a week.”
They were halfway back to the cinder-block stack when the rest of her sister’s words registered. “And now, we’re going announce a special prize. As you know, we added a popular-vote factor for this year’s competition, with members of the senior class voting for their favorite booth. No, sorry, only the senior class members were allowed to vote,” Tala was explaining with a beguiling look of contrition when Ren and Yumi ran back to the wall. “If the freshmen, sophomore and junior classes were allowed to vote, you all would have voted for your own booths. It’s what we would have done, anyway.”
When the laughter died away, Tala exchanged looks with the principal and the senior student council president, who both nodded. She glanced at her script, then announced: “And the winner of our special prize, voted the most popular booth in the fair and the section with the best team spirit—” she winked playfully at the audience “—is II-Ruby’s ‘Goddess of Love Café!’”
For an instant, Yumi and Ren just stood frozen. Tala hadn’t told them about this. Then Yumi shrieked and threw herself into Ren’s arms, and he laughed and laughed as he spun her around. “Oh my God! Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” she screamed, her exultant cry echoing down below.
“‘Best team spirit?!” Ren spluttered, still laughing. “This is Tala’s revenge, all right.”
As if she’d heard his remark, Tala addressed the crowd again: “Accepting the prize on behalf of II-Ruby is class president Natalie Gonzales. Congratulations. By the way, if you’re wondering where the Goddess of Love and her Consort are—” she gave another telltale pause, smiling impishly, then looked straight up at the rooftop “—I’m sure they’re somewhere up in heaven right now, watching over us.”
Ren and Yumi jerked away from the wall as all eyes turned toward the rooftop, and when the audience started squealing, hooting and wolf-whistling, Yumi buried her flaming face against Ren’s chest, embarrassed beyond belief. “Aaaaateeeeeeee!” she whined. “Good grief, my sister is such a pain!”
Hearing a strange, urgent note in his voice, she lifted her head. She found him was staring down at her, his dark eyes warm and sleepy-looking. “Yeah?” she croaked as her stomach turned into a cloud of glitter.
“Raise your shield. Your orange mental shield. Put it up,” he explained when she looked confused.
“Huh?” She frowned. “What, are we going to do more Goddess-training?”
He just shook his head. “Is your shield up? Good. Because—” he gave her a slow smile “—I’m about to kiss you silly.”
Then he cupped her face and covered her lips with his. And Yumi felt her senses shut down, leaving behind only her sense of touch. Warmth. Plush softness. Slightly chapped lips sliding over hers, back and forth, back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm, before delving deeper with tongue and teeth. Then the taste of Ren in her mouth—comforting, addictive, and so much better than she’d dreamed of. Her mind turned inside out, her insides were full of liquid sunlight, and she felt her hands slide over his shoulders and twine around his neck in an attempt to pull him closer and keep him in place.
When the kiss ended, she opened her eyes and found him smiling faintly at her. “Wow,” she breathed.
“Yeah.” His gaze lowered to her mouth. “Again, please.”
“Wait.” He paused and gave her a questioning look. “Why’d you make me put my shield up?” she asked curiously.
He grinned as the dreamy haze in his eyes cleared momentarily. “I’ve been thinking about your power lately, and I may have figured it out. It’s nerve-endings. Your power has something to do with how your nervous system processes electrical pulses, and it’s concentrated mostly in the sensory neurons in your skin. When the parts of your body with the highest concentration of nerve-endings come into contact with another person’s nerve-endings, it triggers your power. These parts include the fingertips…” He took her hand and touched his fingertips to hers. “And the lips.” He traced a line across her lower lip with his thumb, making her lip tingle.
“Oh.” She nodded thoughtfully. “That actually explains things. But how on earth did you figure out that thing about the lips?”
“I got a clue when you covered my mouth with your hand and you almost went into a trance. So now, I’d like to conduct an experiment.”
“An experiment? Right now?”
“Yep.” He gave her a sexy, little smile and drew her to him again. “To test if my theory is correct.”
“Oh, really?” she teased, sliding her arms around him, her fingers toying with his necklace. “And this is purely in the interest of training me further?”
“Exactly. Oh, and you did mention that you wanted to see all the threads connecting us right now. And maybe feel your own threads, too. Well, after this experiment, I may be able to find a way for you to do just that. So drop your shield, Yumi,” he whispered against her lips, “and let me in.”
She did. Several endless moments later, the experiment turned out to be an unqualified success.
* * * * * * * * * *
At around the same time, a breeze blew in through the window of a darkened bedroom, and rifled through the pages of a journal that had been left lying open on a bed. The page it revealed contained a list. Above the list, printed in slightly uneven all-caps, were the words: “The Rules of the Goddess of Love.”
The list had only seven items, and the numbers beside them had been erased and rewritten several times, as if the writer had had trouble deciding on the sequence of the rules.
In the end, the items were numbered so:
- Rule No. 7: Never approach your Goddess while wearing some other goddess’ personal token or marker.
- Rule No. 6: Trust in your Goddess. She rewards faith with faith.
- Rule No. 5: Give your Goddess your sincere offering, and she will reward you in return.
- Rule No. 4: Don’t hold back, especially when giving your Goddess her due, whether in your offerings, your praise or your heart.
- Rule No. 3: Have faith in your Goddess. Love understands, and love forgives.
- Rule No. 2: Your Goddess always comes first, whether in your thoughts, feelings or actions.
- Rule No. 1: Always approach your Goddess with nothing but truth in your heart.
Beside every item was a check mark. As the breeze departed from the room, it tossed a rose petal from the bouquet beside the bed onto the page, where it lay like a red heart against the crisp, white sheet.
Thank you for getting all the way to the end! I hope you enjoyed it. Comments, reviews, suggestions and feedback very much welcome.