My head slumped. Mayu's arms wrapped around me, but I could barely feel them.
She blurted out, "Okay, you're a boy. You're Neil. But you're still my friend...right?" I glanced up. Her eyes trembled.
I reached up to squeeze her arms and she relaxed a little. I nodded. "I'm still your friend."
She announced back, "And I'm still your friend. Do you need anything? Water? Stomach pills?"
I could use both. I remembered bringing some stomach pills in my weekend luggage…before though.
Reluctantly letting me go for the moment, Mayu went over to the closet, pulled out my luggage, and set it on the bed. It was a little different. But the big difference was on the inside.
Mayu unzipped it and hunted through the side flap. I looked down at the clothes. They were the clothes of a girl. Nothing too fashionable, but I noticed a few swimsuits and bras on the side. I looked away in embarrassment.
Mayu fished out some stomach pills and paired them with a cup of water from the sink.
I made myself swallow and drained the cup. My leg quivered and the water almost felt like it wanted to come back up, but I sat there with Mayu's arms around me.
She shook her head and said softly, "I wish I could understand...Neil...Heather... I'm sorry."
I sighed. “Me too.”
I took a few breaths.
After a couple minutes, I felt like the thinking part of my brain was working again. I knew I could change this. I could fix this. I would get my own body back.
Think, I urged myself.
I thought back to the artist. She told me to wait thirty minutes when starting, but she also said to wait thirty minutes with each viewing.
So that might’ve been why the image didn’t work on me when I looked at it again. I had to wait that amount of time again. Maybe.
I thought about experimenting, but I didn’t want to wind up changed further with no way to reverse it…or with mental alterations of my own.
Assuming I didn’t already, unknowingly, have them.
I shook off that thought. I disengaged from Mayu. She watched as I put the first paper back in its protective sleeve and tucked them all into my messenger bag.
I told Mayu, “I need to go find the artist. Maybe she can help.”
Mayu stood with her hands folded. “If you think so… Want me to go with?”
My knees had started trembling again since I stood up. I set my feet together and nodded. I sure could use a friend with me, even if she didn’t remember me as I truly was.
Leaving the safety and privacy of the hotel room was jarring, even with Mayu nearby.
I felt every inch of my reduction in height. I’d never felt particularly strong but the absence of what I once had overwhelmed me.
Walking really reminded me of my unfamiliar body.
I moved slowly and tried to keep my head down. Mayu walked with me.
I wished I’d gotten a coat or something to take my mind off my breasts.
I walked and tried not to think about what had happened to my body. Looking at the drawings before made me feel excited. But looking in the mirror and looking down did absolutely nothing but make me feel afraid.
I didn’t notice the people passing in the halls and, thankfully, they didn’t notice me much either.
Back in the convention center, there were a lot more visitors than earlier. It was an absolute crush.
Despite my best efforts, I bumped into so many people. I could smell them. And, in one case, I got a lingering look from one guy which set me on edge.
If not for Mayu right beside me, I knew I was sure to fall over or pass out.
Putting all my self-conscious anxieties aside, I pushed through the close crowd.
The Dealer’s Room was a lot busier. As we walked, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t been paying all that much attention to which part of the hall I was in when I found the artist’s area.
I was certain I would find it, but fear came rushing back.
Mayu gave my arm a little squeeze, as if she could read the fear on my face.
I slowed and looked for landmarks. I recognized the key-chains. One table looked familiar, but I was wandering. My eyes looked all around and we just walked. Each clap of my flip-flops felt like a persistent reminder of what was at stake.
Then, as though it just suddenly appeared one moment, I saw the same curtained area and sign as before. The woman with long, black hair peeked her head through.
I rushed over with Mayu and resisted the urge to grab her.
I told her only, “I changed.”
She gave a little smile and invited us both inside.
The area was the same as I remembered it. The woman folded her arms and asked, “Did you look inside all the special sleeves?”
I shook my head.
She sighed back. “Admittedly, I don’t tell people it’s there…blame my mischievous streak. But the information is all there.”
Mayu looked over at the woman and asked, “Who are you?”
The woman folded her hands. “I go by the initials ‘A.L.’ and that should be enough. And who are you two?”
Mayu gestured to herself. “Mayu Fujiwara.”
After taking a moment, I said, “Neil Drake…before…but now I’m Heather Drake.”
A.L. rested her head on her chin. “Temporarily. None of the changes are necessarily permanent either in mental changes or in the physical changes you’ve seen.”
A cool wave washed over me, but I braced myself. “How do I change back?”
She sighed. “All is explained on the paper in the sleeve but I’ll give the gist.”
She cleared her throat and said, “I use a paper which is taken from trees which have had a…special contact with spirits. It’s the paper that makes the difference. You see, my skill as an artist on normal paper is tolerable, at best.”
I listened, but I was really waiting for words on a way to change back or if she meant I would just revert, if given time. Mayu bit her lip and frowned.
A.L. picked up a tube of paint and turned it around in her hands. “While…I suppose…anyone can make art on the paper, it still takes skill to do what I do. And what I do is render a perfect, opposite-sex work of art for anyone, in endless variations. But…to what you probably care about…once the image on the paper is set for thirty minutes, it becomes…usable.”
“Is that what you meant by ‘viewing’?”
A.L. shrugged. “In all honesty, I don’t precisely remember what I told you because my mind changed too. My memory is better than someone without regular exposure to the paper. But still. And viewing? I would call that the time needed for the paper to be usable again.”
I leaned forward. “Does that mean…if I give thirty minutes then I can look at the male image of me and turn back into that?”
A.L. laid her hands out. “Precisely. Although, you can’t look at the same image at all for those thirty-minutes.”
I clutched my head. This sure seemed complex. But at least I had a way out.
I picked up one of the images in its sleeve. A.L. cleared her throat and told me, “You don’t want to do that here.”
She sighed. “Because…firstly, your friend is nearby and wouldn’t you prefer that she just remembers you as a boy?”
Mayu’s frown deepened and she looked away.
A.L. shrugged. “It would just be a little bit of her memory. Most of it would be changed. But then, secondly, I do remember that you wanted an anime rendering of a guy in a form-fitting bodysuit for one work. One-in-three…two… chance, at random. Spare you the embarrassment. And lastly, I don’t often let people transform in here. Personal reasons..."
I put the sleeved paper back. I looked at Mayu and she grabbed my hand. “Heath…Neil…you mind if I stay for a minute and get one or two for myself?”
I looked at her. “It sure seems like trouble.”
“I know. But it’s just temporary. There’re so many boy characters I’ve always wanted to cosplay but I wouldn’t look right…”
I sighed but nodded. “Your call.”
I waited just outside the curtains while A.L. worked. What I feared for more than anything was if Mayu used the papers and I wasn’t near…then I would forget all about her as a girl.
But then, I reminded myself, I never knew the life Mayu remembered with Heather.
I sighed and held my messenger bag over my breasts. I glanced around.
No one seemed to be looking at me. I lowered it.
Despite nagging fears that I would still be somehow trapped as a girl, the sick feeling in my stomach was passing.
I didn’t feel any more comfortable with the smooth, girlish contours of my body than before. But, at least to some extent, I could see myself as being disguised as a girl.
Once I got the disguise off, I knew I could sure go for a minute in front of the A/C in my room.
Then, a nice, big lunch and a nap on my bed. I yawned and shrugged my shoulders.
After another minute, Mayu came out with two sleeved papers under her arms. She plucked out an info paper from the sleeve and we read it together.
I took more foreboding qualities from that note than Mayu did. She noted, “She seemed nice. Her art is amazing.” She put the info paper back in the sleeve.
I glanced down at her sleeved art. “Can I see?”
Mayu stuck her tongue out a little to me, like she always used to do when I was a boy, and said, “Later.”
On the way back, I only needed to hold Mayu’s hand a few times when the crowds got thick. Mayu sighed to herself.
It didn’t take long to get back to my room. I paused at the door and looked at Mayu.
She looked away and said, “When you look at those papers again…I won’t remember what I remember now. I won’t remember the day I cried after being teased at school and my best friend Heather played a silly video game with me to cheer me up. I won’t remember years and years of my best friend being there for me. Will I?”
The look in her eyes tore at my heart. I shook my head and told her, “But that’s not real, Mayu. I’m not really a girl. We were friends before and we’ll still be friends once I turn back. It’ll all be okay.”
She held my hands. “I don’t want to lose my memories. I don’t want to lose my best friend. Just because you’re still my friend as a boy…it’s not the same.” Her eyes were moist. She shook her head and sighed. “But…I guess you’re not really a girl. You felt so different than all the years I’ve known you when I checked in on you after the competition.”
She took a breath and turned away. “Come to my door when you’re done. Farewell, Heather.”
Mayu reached around me and gave me the strongest, most-intense hug I could ever imagine. I felt her trembling against me.
Then, she ran down the hall. A moment later, she vanished into her room and closed the door behind her.
I stood there quietly for a moment and then went inside.
I took a breath. I checked my protective sleeves for the same info paper Mayu received. It said the same thing.
Delaying no longer, I checked my watch. With all that we did, it was definitely more than thirty minutes since we left the room. Even taking into account my failed attempt, there had to be enough time to use it again.
I took another breath.
I took the sleeve that contained the first paper I viewed and I slid it out.
I saw myself in anime form. I knew something was different than my first try. His detail was so crisp. He seemed to be reaching out to me with his eyes.
I reached right back.
The shift was more jarring than the first time. Before my eyes, the image had changed from a boy to a girl. It was the original image.
I tested my chest. It was flat.
My pants were pants and I was wearing sneakers.
I flopped down on the bed and pushed the papers aside. In that moment, I couldn’t care if I ever saw them again.
I was back.
I shut my eyes and just enjoyed the presence of my body. The body I was used to. My home.
I could’ve just slept right there and then or put my head right into the A/C. But I turned and thought of Mayu down the hall. I thought about her trembling. I thought about how she held my hand when I was scared and confused.
I felt, despite my relief, guilty.
I stood and massaged my shoulders. For a moment, just a moment, I thought I felt a phantom sensation of a bra strap across my shoulders. Before I could react to it, it was gone and I felt just the same as before.
I shook my head. I really hoped stuff like that wouldn’t continue.
I swore in my head to never use the images again. But I made no motions to throw them away. I just tucked them back in the bag.
Then, quietly, I made my way out of my room and across the hall.
I stood in front of Mayu’s door for what felt like a minute before I finally got up the will to knock.
She opened it with a big smile and asked, “Ready to head out for some lunch? I’m staaaarving.”
I smiled back and asked her, “Mayu…did you just come back from getting anime images made?”
She narrowed her lips and raised her eyebrows. “Uh…yeah…opposite-sex ones. I still need to see yours. But we both got them. They sounded weird but cool.”
I could see Mayu’s same cosplay outfit on her bed and the anime artwork right beside it.
Mayu turned around and glanced at them. She sighed. “…Next year, you said, right? I will conquer the cosplay competition with my super spells next year…”
That sounded like something I’d say. I nodded back to her.
Mayu's gaze lingered on the sleeved artwork. I felt nervous.
She smiled and said, “Maybe it’s dry by now. Wanna take a look at it together?”
I tried my best to hide my fear and concern and told her, “Later…I’m really starving too…and there was that nice-looking hamburger place next to the hotel you wanted to try. Let’s go there. My treat.”
Mayu turned away from the artwork and smiled widely. “That’s sooo sweet but…” She suddenly turned and picked up the plushie from beside the TV. She hugged it close to her, rocking it back and forth. At least it hadn’t changed any.
I felt glad Mayu was still happy.
She looked up at me and said, “This really made me feel better when I lost. It’s perfect and wonderful and so are you. I love you, Neil.”
Before I could absorb those words, Mayu had a look in her eyes of calm contentedness. Before I could react, she pulled me into a kiss on the lips.
All the butterflies came back.
When her lips finally left mine, I staggered backwards.
Mayu frowned at me. “Wha-what’s wrong?”
I shook my head and asked, “Why did you kiss me?”
A trace of confusion crossed Mayu’s face. She shook her head, mouthing my words back to me, and asked, “What do you mean?”
I felt like my legs were about to give out. “I thought we were just friends…”
Mayu reacted as though struck and dropped her plushie.
“How could you think that?...We’ve been going steady for eight months…”