Yumi stared at the dark head floating off the edge of her bed. Well, not floating exactly. The head was perched atop a neck like a normal head was supposed to, although she couldn't see much of the neck; black hair that brushed the collar of his T-shirt concealed most of it. She knew that neck was tanned from hours spent playing basketball outdoors, though. Just like the rest of him.
His neck in turn curved upward from a pair of shoulders that were much broader than she remembered. Her eyes traced the line of one shoulder down to a lean upper arm, then to what little she could see of his left wrist. His arms had also grown longer and more muscled. And talk about growing, he'd shot up, too. She was still getting used to the way he towered over her now, when it used to be the other way around. Even when he was sitting on the floor and she on her bed, he still managed to take up a great deal more space than she did. How could this boy, whom she'd once considered her best friend in the world, have changed so much in just three years? She, on the other hand, was still waiting to "grow into her own skin," as her mom kindly put it. It just wasn't fair.
She turned her attention to the curves of his shoulder blades. They still looked a little bony to her, which was comforting. Maybe some parts of him weren't all that different from the boy she used to know. She wondered if he was still ticklish in his sides and the back of his neck. Then she wished she could just reach across the bed and find out for herself. Three years ago, she would have tackled him to the floor and tickled him until he begged for mercy without a second thought. But it's not the same anymore, a voice whispered sadly inside her head. Instead, she went back to contemplating the black strands at his nape. When did he start growing his hair out? She had to admit, it looked really good on him. And his hair looked so soft and glossy beneath the light, too—
"Stop staring at me. It's creeping me out," Ren said without turning his head.
She started and lowered her gaze to the math workbook on her lap, then realized he couldn't even see her. "I wasn't staring at you. Why would I do that? Pretty vain of you to think so. Besides, how can you even tell when I'm sitting right behind you?"
He looked at her over his shoulder and grinned. "Maybe you're not the only one with weird psychic powers, Curly-Top." She flinched a little before she could stop herself, and his grin vanished. "Sorry. I didn't mean—" he trailed off, then scowled and turned away, his body tensing as if he was about to get up and walk right out of there.
"No! Don't leave," she blurted, then blushed. Good grief, she'd sounded so desperate. "I—I still need some help with our geometry homework."
"I wasn't leaving," he muttered, his own face going red. Their gazes met, held, then fell away at the same time, awkwardness stretching between them like taffy. Finally, he cleared his throat. "So, uh, geometry. What part are you having trouble with?"
"I can't seem to get past the second problem." Eager to dispel the odd tension between them, she showed him her workbook, tapping her pencil on the page to indicate the problem.
"Oh, that one. You need to use the remote exterior angle theorem on that."
"Can you show me?"
"Sure. Come closer."
She scooted forward on the bed and passed him her workbook, careful not to let any part of her come into contact with him. When she craned her neck over the edge of the bed to see what he was scribbling on the page, he stopped and gave her a dry look. "You're going to fall off the bed that way. Just sit down beside me."
Slowly, she slid off the bed and sat on the floor a good two feet away from him, with her knees drawn up to her chin. Then she craned her neck to peer at her workbook in his lap.
He raised his eyes to the ceiling. "Yumi, any farther and you'll need Google satellite to see what I'm doing. Come closer. I'm not going to bite, jeez."
She stared down at her bare toes. He was teasing her in that old, familiar way of his, complete with the squinty eyes and smirking grin that promised to dissolve into a laugh at any moment. It ought to be easy for her to return with a lighthearted retort and make everything between them just the way they used to be. Besides, what he was asking for was hardly unreasonable. But she found herself unable to move or speak. I'm afraid to touch you, were the words she couldn't say. She knew they'd already sort of made up, and were inching their way to being friends again. She knew it was unfair for her to keep harping on the past, and it could very well ruin the fragile truce between them.
Still, she couldn't help remembering the last time she'd deliberately tried to touch him. It had been a week after she'd woken up with her strange, new ability. She'd been amazed, somewhat thrilled, even more bewildered and a whole lot scared, and she'd wanted him, her best friend and the person she was closest to, to be the first one she told about this. She'd wanted him to comfort her, to reassure her that he still wanted to be her friend even though she was suddenly breaking out in bizarre extrasensory experiences the way other people broke out in zits. That he thought she was the same Yumi she'd been before, not a witch or a freak or, worst of all, a liar.
And in the beginning he did. He listened to her quietly as she told him what happened and what she felt—or more accurately, saw—when she looked at someone through her hands instead of her eyes. He'd gone pale with shock and incredulity, then solemn as he absorbed the meaning behind her breathless, disjointed raving about invisible colored threads. But he seemed to believe her. She smiled at him in gratitude and reached out to take his hand—and watched as he recoiled from her, horror spreading across his face. He stumbled backward a few steps, curling both hands into fists and thrusting them behind his back. He managed to croak one word—don't—before she spun on her heel and ran all the way home, nearly crashing into her sister in her rush to reach the sanctuary of her room before the sobs erupted.
Up until that fateful Midnight Mass, she hadn't exchanged a civil word with him since. It had taken her a year to work up the courage to tell Fran and Lisette about her ability. By then, she and Ren had gone from being best friends to a couple of strangers who just happened to be neighbors, or at worst, mortal enemies.
Ren sighed, bringing her back into the present. "Fine. If you're not going to move, then I will."
He skootched over until his elbow and knee were brushing against hers, then set the workbook on their laps between them. He began explaining the problem and drawing diagrams on the page, but Yumi couldn't seem to focus. His nearness was making her heart pound, her head go all fuzzy, and her face heat up to burning point, and it had nothing at all to do with her power. She kept her eyes trained on the page, because otherwise she'd have to stare at his face, and that would just make the feelings even worse. She didn't used to feel this way about him three years ago, so why now?
He soon noticed that she wasn't paying attention. "Hey, wake up. Don't you dare fall asleep on me like you do in Ms. Ponce's class," he said, bopping her on the head with the workbook.
"It's not the same between us anymore, is it?"
She belatedly realized that she was the one who'd spoken, and in a voice that was barely above a whisper. She looked up at him, and her heart seemed to stop altogether at the sight of his smile vanishing, replaced by what she could only describe as pain. Ren's hurt? she wondered, surprised and not a little confused.
"Time for a break, you two. And Yumi, Ma wants you to—oops, did I interrupt something?"
Ate Tala stood in the doorway, a tray with a couple of tumblers filled with iced tea in her hands, and a faux-innocent smile on her face. And because she knew what was coming, Yumi felt the tiny puff of air that Ren exhaled, like a secret sigh of pleasure. She saw the way he straightened his shoulders, the rush of color in his cheeks. She felt him withdraw from her and turn all his attention to Tala, as though someone had taken a gigantic eraser and erased her out of the scene. She thought she could even feel his heart thudding against his ribcage, sending vibrations right through the bed and into her back. It touched off pulses of a familiar ache inside her own chest.
Yumi almost laughed. For as long as she could remember, Ren had had a crush on her older sister. Yumi might have been Ren's buddy, but Tala was his dream girl. Well, duh, of course she was. Even in a T-shirt and shorts, with her long, mermaid tresses pinned up in a messy bun and her face devoid of makeup, Tala simply glowed. Her being almost two years older than him made no difference. As far as Ren was concerned, Tala was his Goddess of Love.
I guess one thing hadn't changed in the last three years, Yumi thought, then pressed her lips together to keep the giggles in. Or the tears, she wasn't entirely sure.
Tala set the tray of drinks on the floor, diplomatically saying nothing about the untidy state of her little sister's room, although she did glance pointedly at the piles of clothes and junk Yumi had stuffed underneath her blanket on one end of the bed and arranged to look like a heap of pillows. "It's great to see you here again, Ren. It's been too long," she said, settling on the floor with a dancer's grace and smiling at him. "You're the only one who can make Yumi study for longer than ten minutes. Maybe now her grades will improve instead of just barely skim over the passing mark."
Yumi shot her sister a dark look over her iced tea while Ren returned the smile with equal warmth. "Thanks for not putting any pressure on us about her grades or anything," he quipped.
Tala gave a small laugh, tucking a stray curl behind her ear. "It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it. No, I'm just kidding, little sis." She cast an apologetic smile at Yumi. "I'm sure you'll work hard, with or without your slave-driver. Oh Ren, our parents want you to stay for dinner. Ma's making spaghetti Bolognese. I remember that was your favorite whenever you came over."
"No, his favorite is lasagna. And pepperoni pizza." Tala arched an eyebrow at Yumi, who flushed. What on earth was she doing? She sounded like she was trying to pick a fight with her sister—and she of all people knew it was a fight she would never win.
Ren chuckled, oblivious to the strange undercurrents between the two girls. "Yep, definitely your mom's lasagna, but I can't say no to spaghetti Bolognese either. Thanks. My folks won't be coming home until eleven, so your dinner invitation is much appreciated."
"Super." Tala's eyes sparkled as she smiled again. "Just like old times."
"Ate, what're you doing here? Don't you have status updates to share with, like, a thousand friends?" Yumi muttered.
"Of course, I do. I just wanted to say hi to Ren first. You're not his only childhood friend around here, you know. By the way, that other thing I was trying to say: Ma wants you to go to Mini-Stop and buy butter for the garlic bread."
"Why don't you go?"
"I went last time, remember? It's your turn."
Feeling torn, Yumi glanced at Ren, who wasn't even looking at her but was straightening his books and notes, as if he'd just become aware of the unbecoming clutter he was presenting before his idol. You want to be the Goddess of Love, right? Well, here's your chance. "Fine, I'm going," she said out loud, getting to her feet. "You two can talk—oops! Oh no!"
To her dismay, her knee knocked her glass of iced tea out of her hand, sending its contents splashing on the floor between them. Ren yelped and scrambled sideways, but not before one side of his shorts got soaked. At the same time, Tala lunged to pull Yumi's workbook out of the danger zone, and when Ren rushed to rescue his cell phone, they ended up knocking their heads together. They fell back, moaning in pain, looked at each other in surprise, then burst out laughing.
Yumi watched them, and for a moment she was unable to breathe. Her chest felt way too tight. Then her senses returned, and quickly grabbing a towel that was destined for the laundry, she dropped to her knees to mop up the mess. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to spill it."
A large hand covered hers on the towel, taking her place. "You're still the same, Curly-Top," he murmured, his lips curving upward in a small smile.
Panicking, Yumi jerked her hand away and scuttled backward, bumping into her bedside table and sending her alarm clock and a small stack of romance novels she'd borrowed from Fran raining down upon her. Ren's smile faded again—he'd laughed so easily with her sister while she couldn't even keep him smiling for longer than a few seconds—and he lowered his head and busied himself with wiping the floor until Tala took over with a long-suffering sigh.
"Leave this to me. You two just go buy the butter," she told them.
"Are you sure?" Ren asked, frowning.
"Oh yes. We're used to cleaning up after Yumi in this house. Just go already. The money's in the big crystal bowl. Oh, and Yumi?" Yumi halted her humiliated flight out of the room and glanced back at Ate Tala, who smiled angelically. "Be sure to hold hands when you cross the street, okay?"