Some part of my mind immediately flashed into action. I looked around for signs of their direction. I recalled what Katsu had taught Yuji about trails. I noticed the fine details. I could tell fresh footprints from old.
I cut through the dense forest. Branches were broken along the way. I worried after a while that they intentionally wanted me to follow them, but I had no other choice. I quickly ducked around trees.
I was fast but not fast enough to catch a glimpse of them. After a while, it seemed they were getting more careful. There were fewer signs of their direction but still enough for me to pick up. My heart was racing but Yuji wouldn’t let it overtake me. He was going to be strong for his brother. He was going to show him how much he’d learned and how much he’d done.
I felt such great admiration for him.
Yuji even had a rough fighting style which used his small size as an advantage. I worried what Mayu would do without Katsu’s skills. I ran a little faster despite the fact I was already out of breath.
The forest seemed to be thinning. I could hear voices up ahead. I slowed, worrying about an ambush. I made my way carefully through the trees. I could see old, wooden houses. They looked like buildings from centuries ago. They were wooden and painted white and brown in the traditional style.
A dense crowd was gathered in the middle of a road. Their clothes looked relatively-modern. Not Edo period like everything else was suggesting to me. Yuji didn’t offer any clues. I leaned around a tree and listened as best I could without being detected.
The crowd was murmuring when one voice cut through the rest. It was deep and male. There was a laugh followed by the words, “Look upon your supposed protector. Where are his powers now? Look at the blood streaking his face…”
I tried to climb a tree to get high enough to see around. I could hear Katsu coughing through the murmurs. The same voice laughed and added, “Sure, he put up a better fight than anyone here. But this is hardly the Great Katsu I’d taken soooo much trouble to seek.”
Finally, a gap cleared in the crowd and I could see Katsu standing there with his fists up. His face was beaten up, but he stood with a trembling young boy behind him. Mayu had none of Katsu’s skills but she sure showed his resolve. Her eyes looked ahead at the laughing aggressors.
The attackers were dressed in rough, gray full-body outfits. The tallest one circled around Katsu. He had a long scar in the shape of a half-moon across the middle of his face, wrapping around his nose. He walked with a limp and held my satchel up in one hand. The others hung back.
My heart almost clenched as he reached in to dig around in the satchel. Then, he passed out of sight in front of someone in the crowd. A cow made a soft sound. I hopped down from the tree branch. I had to get over there before my mind was altered.
I made my way carefully around the onlookers. I bowed my head and tried not to attract anyone’s attention. Yuji’s mind recognized those people I could trust, who wouldn’t sell me off.
I sought a name to put to these attackers, but Yuji had never met them before. He did know that thieves and barbarians often challenged the protection that Katsu provided people in the border towns. Sometimes they were rivals who wanted tribute. Sometimes they just wanted to best him in battle.
My brother always won.
I darted around carefully. I searched Yuji’s thoughts for something, anything I could do. Finally, he had an idea. I whispered to one of the townspeople that a local store was on fire.
Then, I darted away and kindled a small fire with a fallen branch. It wasn’t long before the smoke from the flames wafted into the confused gathering and, from there, lit embers of accusations and fear. The crowd started to rend. Some of the young men launched at the thieves. I made my move.
In the chaos, the leader had the satchel torn away from him. With my small size, I was able to snatch it up before anyone knew it was gone. Getting my brother out would be harder.
I was sure to be seen quickly. Fortunately, my brother made the first move. As the crowd dispersed, I could see my brother punching the man with the half-moon scar in the face. I smiled and clenched my fist for Mayu.
The other thieves swarmed him. Katsu darted through the crowd and soon spotted me. The young boy dashed away, right with Katsu. I ran with my brother and the young boy through the heart of town.
Screams and mighty yells echoed behind us. I tried to fish the papers out of the satchel. I hoped with all my heart that the images were all still there. I counted quickly and soon felt all four.
The young boy’s eyes were full of panic. I grabbed his hand and assured him, between pants, “It’ll be okay.” The thieves were right behind us, but I didn’t let him look back.
Yuji knew a good hiding place. I just hoped we could make it. I took the lead ahead of Katsu with a hand wave. Katsu had strong lungs but Mayu didn’t have his running skill. I darted around a house.
The young boy in the red-and-green outfit was behind. Mayu picked him up and set him on his shoulders. I knocked over a pile of bamboo. It wouldn’t block the way, but I hoped it would slow them down.
I led us back to the forest. It was slower but I knew it wasn’t far. There was a small hill beside a large stream. I lashed and secured my satchel, then leapt in first. A double splash followed behind me as the boy fell off Katsu’s shoulders. I swam back and grabbed his hand.
In my gut, I feared for the papers, but Yuji knew his satchel was water-tight. I hoped it would be good enough.
We swam under a tangle of tree roots to an opening beside the stream. The cave was quite small, but it led off to a larger opening upstream. I figured that if the attackers were looking for us then they would try looking downstream instead of up.
I leaned my head back against the rough, slick walls of the cave. It was dark but I could hear my brother and the young boy panting. I told them to wait and not to speak.
Darkness and slow breathing overwhelmed me. The young boy whimpered quietly. Aside from the low undulation of the water lapping against the cave, I could hear nothing else. I took that as a good sign.
I still had my flint, but I doubted I could find anything dry enough to start a fire. I grabbed Katsu’s large, muscular hand. It was trembling. The trembles stilled with my touch. Softly, he asked, “What now?”
I reached over for the young boy, but he started trembling when I touched him. I told them both to follow me.
The path upstream was narrow, so it gave Katsu some trouble, but he was just able to squeeze through. Before long, we could see light. As soon as I could see, I checked the papers. They all seemed dry. I tried to remember which were Mayu’s and which were mine.
I checked the edge of each carefully in the dim light. I couldn’t see much. It would work on one of us. I gripped Katsu’s hand. The young boy stammered out, “What’s going on…” before we all heard a rough sound above us.
I turned back and whispered to him, “This paper changes where we are. If you don’t touch it, then your mind changes too.” It was all I dared to say. He gripped the stone wall and shook his head.
I was sure I could hear footsteps above us. Then, came the voices. It was the voice of the scarred one. He said through the earth, “Do you really think you can out-smart us? We’ve been following both of you for days. We know where you hide…”
He was getting into a villainous monologue, so I figured I had enough time to act. I looked at the young boy, but he recoiled from us. I tried to grab his hand and guide it to the paper, but I was more concerned about my brother/sister.
I held Mayu/Katsu’s hand with the paper. I crept towards the opening to get enough light.
I slid out the paper. It was the kung-fu one of Katsu’s. She was a womanly martial-artist with muscular thighs and a beautiful figure dressed in a blue, floral qipao that clung to her mature body. Yuji wondered why his brother asked the mystical lady for that particular artwork. Katsu just blushed at the time.
I thought I saw the young boy’s hand dart in as enough light flowed for Mayu to see the image. I touched the paper and laced my fingers in with Mayu’s.
I heard a roar from outside rush in like a sudden thunderclap. I could sense that the attackers were just about to strike. I wanted to shut my eyes. I gripped Mayu and the paper tightly.
The moment that followed the shift felt no different than I expected, until I realized I was standing on the other side of the tunnel and I was much taller.
A sudden, giggling force enveloped me with smiles. Hugging me below a very mature woman’s chest was a young girl in a silver kimono with a half-moon charcoal mark on her face. She smiled up at me and proclaimed, “Gotcha!”
A flood of young girls swarmed the tunnel and helped us out. When we emerged, the half-moon girl pointed at me and said, “For catching the great Katsuko, lady warrior. We, the Silver Blossoms, ask the tribute of…your autograph!” She grinned widely and brought out a paper and pen. The other girls, all dressed in flower-covered, silver kimonos, also produced pens.
From around me emerged what used to be my body. Yuji looked at me with concern. I looked down as a shiver went through me. He slid the sleeved paper back in his satchel. With a careful smile, I signed what I could remember of Katsu’s signature in the best ‘Katsuko’ I could manage. I wound up mixing it with my own handwriting. It didn’t seem to bother the girls, who swooned and embraced me with glee.
The half-moon girl had an obvious limp to her step.
The young boy…now a young girl, clad in a reddish-and-green head-covering tied at her neck with little adornments of lace…also emerged. She looked over at the half-moon girl in her kimono. Then, they smiled at each other.
My heart sunk. She hadn’t reached the paper in time, but she looked happy. She was apparently a cousin of the half-moon girl and they’d split up to find Katsuko at her training ground. They argued over who found me first and stuck their tongues out at each other.
Eventually, all the girls waved to me with thanks for the autographs and darted off into the forest with a chorus of giggles.
It was only then that I could begin to absorb the fact I had traded places with Mayu, who leaned against a rock, shook her head, and marveled, “How did this happen?” She turned her small fingers around.
I leaned against another rock. I realized I didn’t even know the girl/young boy’s name, even back in school. I pressed on my chest and blushed. I felt like a stylized video game character like this.
I shook my head with Mayu. It was easier to think of him as Mayu than Katsu or even Yuji. I still had Yuji’s memories, but they didn’t intrude quite as much.
The world still appeared like a rich, full painting.
I turned my slender but rough fingers around. They looked well-worn by work with a few little scars and a layer of dirt under the nails. I paused. I held my hand up, with a flash of thought, and asked Mayu, “We never touched when holding the paper, did we?”
Mayu paused. She shook her head. “Not that I can recall, except for this time. Could that be why?”
I figured it had to be. It was the only thing we’d done differently. I tried to think back in the nebulous memories from before, from Neil. Yuji’s memories had crowded those places, but my feeling told me that it hadn’t even happened as far as Neil could remember.
Mayu reached for the papers in his satchel and sifted carefully. The one we just used was half-way out. I wondered if in thirty minutes it would work on me now or still only on Mayu.
After some discussion, we decided to wait and head back to town. I had a little bit of Yuji’s martial arts knowledge in passing from his brother, so I figured it would be safer this way for now. Mayu was curious for catboy land but we agreed on a little breather.
As I washed and marveled at my face in the stream, Mayu took off his top and waded in the water. With a soft smile, I asked him, “What do you think about being a boy?”
Mayu floated and answered back, “It’s actually not all that different. I kinda like being a young boy better. But it was fun to be totally ripped. Shame I didn’t save the day or anything.”
I felt more jarred in my current body than in the one Mayu had now. And both felt endlessly better than the stress and strain of that cross-dressed form.
Mayu looked content to be a flat-chested boy. The Mayu I knew would’ve been annoyed to have lost all her progress. But then I also knew Katsu, who didn’t even think about his muscular chest. He just thought about strengthening it to protect everyone. But there was another Mayu that I didn’t know and who I could only divine in glimpses.
I folded my hands and sighed. I wondered in the quiet places in my head if our fates were to just accept a new reality, like what happened to the young boy…to my busty classmate with red and green. To whatever he or she was before, if before even mattered.
I looked across the stream and saw a woman standing between two trees. She brushed her hands gently across the bark. Her hair was long and black, and she was dressed in a flowing, white robe.
She carried with her the tools of a mystic. She smiled at me and approached the stream. Mayu soon noticed her but I spoke first. I asked her about what happened. She bowed her head and said, “One of me probably told you this might happen. Be glad you weren’t touching without holding the paper, otherwise you two would’ve been each other and never realized it.”
Mayu wrung the ends of his clothes and asked, “Is there really a way out of this cycle of change?”
A.L. bowed her head and pronounced, “Yes. And it’s closer than you think.” We both leaned forward but that was all she offered. She tapped a tree and said, “The trees that make the paper that make your images aren’t far from here. They’re inside the boundary.”
We both gasped. Mayu immediately asked A.L., “How do we get inside the boundary?”
A.L. answered, “You don’t. No human can. Many try and are either transformed in various ways or visibly-scarred for life. But…”
That sounded different than what Yuji remembered but we both leaned forward expectantly. A.L. folded her hands and said, “But…those inside would’ve already been transformed. Into humans that shift genders. Into those with mystical powers. Or even…feline-human hybrids.” She gave a wink and turned away.
Mayu reached into her satchel. He peered carefully in the dark of the bag. My mind couldn't settle on the right pronoun for him/her. She found her/my catboy image and stared at it without any effects. Clearly, the images passed from her to me with the shift.
He held it up in its sleeve. He looked at it and over at me with wide eyes. “This is it. This has got to be it. If she’s right, then this is our ticket home...”