I looked at the sleeved paper and felt less confident than her…him. But I didn’t want to diminish the light in his eyes. I asked, “Do you still want to head back to town?”
Mayu sighed with the paper in his hands. “I’d like to put things right. Or at least know we can. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy any of this without knowing that. Even the catboys. And…this fantasy hasn’t really turned out so fun.” He slipped his shirt back on.
The walk to town took a while and it was harder to navigate the dense branches in my adult body. Town itself was much the same as I remembered it.
Some people stopped to greet me, and everyone seemed so nice. There was one lingering look from an old man which creeped me out but, the smiles of the townspeople more than made up for it.
Our home was much nicer than the one in Yuji’s memories. It was three stories with lovely glasswork on the front. Mayu slid open the door and we left our shoes on the side. With hopefulness, I left mine facing out.
A woman I remembered from Yuji as mother smiled over at us and asked, “Hello, you two. Did your little fans find you, Katsuko?” I smiled and nodded to mom. She looked annoyed at Yuji’s wet clothes and made him change upstairs.
I found a soft cushion and rested on it. My clingy dress didn’t feel comfortable in any position but at least the material breathed.
I regretted that I hadn’t finished all of breakfast. The smell from the kitchen didn’t help.
Mother’s clothes looked contemporary, but the tools of the kitchen were antiquated. Shimmering lights decorated the room, but they weren’t electrical, glowing on their own. I figured it was some sort of fantasy magic.
Mother served a cup of tea on the table before me, and I eagerly sipped it. Before long, Mayu came down in different clothes. Mother served some sweets to both of us. Mayu still had the satchel in his hands. He leaned it towards me but waited till mother went upstairs.
When we were alone, Mayu looked over at me and asked, “Do you want to get this over with?”
I traced the rim of the cup in my hands. I circled around it again and again and asked Mayu, “And what will happen when it ends?”
Mayu lowered the satchel and looked at the floor. “I have no idea, but we have a chance to get back home.” I looked right at her and resolved, “I have memories of two homes. One is a home like this. The other is a home with my sister, Mayu. Your home is different.”
He scooted closer to me. “But we both started out at the same place. At an anime convention where I dressed up…where…I remember about my boyfriend Neil. I know…I might have to give that up to get back to the original one, but we have to do it.”
I squeezed the teacup. “…The convention one is gone.” I felt fresh guilt burst through me. Mayu looked away and nodded slightly. “Yeah. It’s gone. But we can find something. We can get it back. A.L. said that these parallel worlds are real. They exist. And I don’t think any one of them is lost. It’s gotta be like stars in the sky. We just have to find the right path.”
I looked at my dim, undulating reflection in the tea. I shut my eyes. It sounded like mother was on the stairs. I felt sad to leave such a calm and friendly place. But I opened my eyes and told Mayu, “Let’s try it…”
Mayu packed away some food in a side pocket of the satchel. Then, we held hands as she slipped out her catboy image. He looked no less nefarious than the last time I saw him. I hoped he was actually a nice guy who didn’t attract red-eyed beasts, thieves, or danger of any sort.
He seemed to reach out to me as I looked down at him. I said a quiet goodbye to mother as the world slipped away once again.
We arrived in another forest. I was holding a hand that felt about the same size as mine, only much more muscular. Mayu’s intimidating, white-haired catboy looked across at me with a nervous expression. I felt glad to know we’d switched back.
The ears on his head shifted like a cat’s. I could feel a pair of my own on top of my head. They picked up the soft sounds of the forest.
He had a rather villainous appearance. His skin-tight outfit really showed off the firm ridges of his abs. Mayu brushed his long, feathered hair away from his eyes. His skin was pale with black-traced eyes that looked sinister but were disarmed by Mayu’s worried gaze.
I smiled at Mayu and asked, “You okay?” The white-haired catboy gave me a look and felt around. He paused with a blush as he felt his firm chest and constricting outfit. Looking down, I felt a bit warm myself. My clothes were just as tight as Mayu’s, but my form was leaner with less-pronounced pecs. I was dressed all in black.
Mayu’s white tail showed from behind her. It was thick but moved quickly. Reaching around, I found I had a red one that matched my hair. It was slender and seemed to bend like a curl of flame.
The forest we found ourselves in was dense, more like a rain forest. The gray trunks of the trees seemed to stretch forever until they reached a dense halo of leaves that blotted out the sky. From the trunks, there were few branches and they always seemed dim-gray or even white. The slim leaves of the branches glowed.
On the floor of the forest, the plants were small but dense. We both wore heavy boots, so the low plants weren’t a problem. On my back, I had a pack which matched my clothes and had only a passing resemblance to my satchel or school bag. Within, I found all four papers still in their special sleeves and some food packed away.
After we’d both taken a moment to get a feel for our cat-like parts and bodies, I scanned the air for others. A cicada gave a far-off cry. Shutting my eyes, I turned my ears forward and circled in place.
Eventually, I caught a faint cutting sound, like someone was chopping wood. Mayu heard it too once he’d turned in the same direction. We both moved carefully through the forest. Having a tail didn’t do all that much for balance on two legs but I gave it a few swishes with a smile.
The sound was actually further than I expected but we soon tracked it to the side of one of the larger trees. High in the air, A.L. held her hand beside the tree as her energy seemed to hack into the tree bit by bit. She gestured and a severed limb drifted to the ground. It didn’t take long before she noticed us.
Dressed in a black robe that matched the deep tones of her hair perfectly, A.L. drifted down slowly. She looked us over and said, “You two seem familiar…” The look in her eyes wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
We introduced ourselves and then carefully showed her one of the images. She floated down to look it over and pronounced, “That’s certainly the paper I make from these trees. A little used but that’s them. Although, I’m not the only one who makes that paper.”
Mayu bit his lip, which looked menacing with his face. “What do you mean ‘used’?”
A.L. folded her hands. “These trees store spirit energy. The old-growth trees have brilliant, white branches. Those are rare. When made into paper, that paper can be used hundreds of times. The younger trees have been storing energy for less time. Their paper may allow only a handful of uses before it just becomes normal, depleted paper.”
Mayu gave a little shudder and clutched his hands. “Are ours old tree paper or new tree paper?” A.L. shrugged. “There’s no way to tell by the paper. It’s better to ask the maker of it. But I assume that’s not possible for you two…”
Mayu clutched his hands even tighter, like he was trying to crush something, and asked, “Another…version of you gave these papers to us. And a version of you who just talked to us said there was a way for us to get home.”
A.L. smiled a little and remarked, “I tend to be obtuse and obfuscating. Are you sure that’s what that ‘me’ really said?”
There was a moment when we both searched back to the other A.L.’s exact wording. Mayu shook her head and said, “What I mean…is there a way for us to get back to where we started?”
Immediately, A.L. said, “No….but there are ways to find happiness in new worlds.”
Mayu’s knees quivered. “There is no way back to our original world?”
Still in the air, A.L. leaned back against the tree. “Even what you perceive as your original world is made out of a mosaic of strands of possibility. It’s not a straight line but a web. Human experience leads you on a path you weave through that web. And the thread…perhaps… connects the both of you.” She looked between us. We looked at each other.
She settled to the ground and tapped her harvest of white tree limbs. They jumped up into her hands. “You both have made it through so much together. Imagine the countless times that your thread could’ve been broken before now. Each of those is a possibility that never got as far as you two standing right here.”
I could imagine so many times we could’ve gotten lost along the way. Mayu shook his head and asked, “Does that mean…we do have a chance to get home?”
A.L. beckoned us with her head as she turned to walk away. We followed.
She noted, “I don’t know what you would consider home but your thread…your fate and destiny tied together in each other…is crafted by your choices. I would never want to take choice away from either of you. That’s why I shudder to offer any clear advice. If I tell you possible paths then all other possibilities will be locked away forever. And one of those possible paths may be the one you most desire.”
I felt myself nodding at her words. But, for Mayu, they weren’t enough. “We need…something. What do we do?”
She looked us over with a sympathetic gaze. She sighed and said, “While I may hate me for this, and you might be worse off for this advice. I will say to trust in each other.”
Mayu cupped his face and sighed. I reached over to touch his shoulder. Then, Mayu’s eyes widened. “Wait…water. Is that it? If we wash the paintings then will…I dunno…things reset? Is there something here we can use? There’s gotta be something here…” His voice begged.
A.L. looked Mayu in the eye carefully. “Despite my regrets, I gave you the best advice I could offer. There is nothing of this world, or that I can offer, that can give you what you seek. If you want to put the images in water, I won’t stop you, but I don’t advise it.”
Mayu leaned his head. “What will happen if we put the images in water?”
A.L. gestured and the pile of branches joined together with another set of branches on the forest floor. “That’s up to the both of you. You may stay as long as you like but I’d really rather not say any more. My best wishes to you both, no matter what.”
She adjusted the branches into a neat pile and floated back into the tree-tops.
Mayu’s tail was low and his ears drooped. He looked on the verge of tears. I put my arms around him, and he trembled as he said, “I wish I could just forget. There’s no hope. There’s no way. We’re never going to get home…”
I turned my pack and showed her the images. “We still have these. We can test the last few and see what happens.”
He shook his head slowly and said, “And what then? We see the girl side of scary vampire boy. Or we see me as a catgirl. What then? What happens when there’s nothing?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. But hold the paper with me and I’ll be there to help you when things change.”
His legs trembled like mine in cross-dress. I put my hand in his. Despite how strong he looked, he felt so very frail. A.L. emerged from the canopy with a handful of branches and set them near the pile.
Mayu shook his head. “I don’t want to put on more costumes. I just want to go home.”
I hugged Mayu tightly, strong muscle to muscle. “Trust me. I’ll get us home.”
He looked at me. In his dark eyes, I saw a flash of hope. I took out the flip-side of the catboy. It was a playful catgirl with white, long hair on her head and silvery fur all over. Her tail was long and bushy. She was as busty as the female martial artist I’d turned into. Whereas Mayu’s eyes now were small and dim, her eyes looked wide and innocent.
Mayu shut his eyes. I hesitated. I didn’t want to kill Mayu’s hope. But I had no idea what else to do. Then, an idea flashed through me. I paused and turned to yell for A.L.
She fluttered over and set down a few branches. She accepted my questions calmly.
I asked her, “Can you make a work of art which will take us back home with a fresh piece of your paper?”
A.L. sighed and shook her head. “I’m hardly the person you want for something like that. My skill isn’t to the task.”
I felt deflated, but I came back with another question, “Can it be done? Who can do it?”
A.L. pressed her lips together and shook her head. “I really don’t know…I wish I did.”
Words died in my throat. I had one question left. “We kept memories from times where our memories were…changed. What does that mean?”
Her eyes lit up. “You did? How long have you had the papers with you?” Mayu’s gaze lit up as well. Mayu said it had to be no more than a day.
A.L. clasped her hands in surprise. She shook her head. “That’s rare. That’s so very rare. That means something….oh…but…no. I don’t want to risk your chances.”
She stared straight at us and said, “Remember what I said but also forget what I said. You two write your own future. If your bond is real…if it’s a strong thread then there’s nothing that can keep you from whatever you seek.” She held her hands, as though in prayer, and said, “But you need to know if your bond is strong. And the right moments are needed…” She looked pained to say the words. She said them then turned away.
It was the last she offered to us. The rest was just a repetition of, “You’re better without my words. I’ve said too much.”
And so, Mayu and I were left in the forest as A.L. hastily went on her way. Mayu looked better but still confused.
I wanted to read into her words, but I didn’t really know where to start. Mayu looked at me and said, “I think she wants us not to touch the paper.” My eyes widened and I asked, “Wait. How do you figure?”
Mayu tapped the paper and said, “Think about it. I lost my memories once, but I still can feel them there. You became Kyoko but you still remember Neil and Heather too. It’s like…she called it a string. Maybe it’s like pulling on that string.”
I tensed my lips. “And what if it breaks? What if we don’t remember?”
He set an arm on my shoulder. “It could break. We could forget but…we’ve remembered so far. We surprised her. I think we can do this. We can get home. I believe it.”
I couldn’t feel her same enthusiasm, but I looked into her eyes and nodded slowly for her. “But we haven’t tried going through all the images. What if that’s the solution?”
Mayu’s tail flipped a little. She straightened her ears and asked, “Do you trust me?”
I nodded immediately. Mayu clutched my hands and said, “Trust me on this. I feel this is right. I feel really scared about it…but we have to try something different. I feel like we’re just stuck in an endless cycle of worlds and identities…I’ll volunteer.”
I took a long breath through my nose. My tail felt tense. I asked, “Your image or mine?”
She sighed and shook her head. “I dunno. Pick one.”
With a sigh of my own, I shuffled the papers and pulled one. It was the schoolgirl one. Into it, I fell. Before my eyes, the girl’s bathroom returned.
I was standing over the sink with the papers. It was like waking from a dream.
Mayu sat over by a stall. Now, he was the one in drag. It looked really good.
He smirked at me and asked, “Like your manly self…don’t ya, sis? Maybe I’ll show you my girly ones someday.” Then, he stuck out his tongue and laughed softly.
I could almost imagine myself smiling. I could almost imagine having Mayu as a brother or maybe as a sister again. I knew I could easily do it and Mayu would never know. Before I could even think about the possibility, I pulled out my other paper.
The visage of the skin-tight, dark man looked back at me. The rush felt a little stronger this time. I’d never used the papers so close together alone. I felt energy shudder through me and the entire room. I thought I even heard Mayu gasp.
I staggered. The bodysuit felt desperately tight.
I was in a bright hall. A young man stood before me in a dark, leathery outfit. His hair was red and long. It glimmered by torchlight.
We were in an immense hall. Ornate chandeliers covered the ceiling. Rich tapestries covered the walls. It all felt like a painting. The anime sensations were in full effect. Everything seemed to undulate with energy.
The man took a step towards me. I hoped this was Mayu, but I felt hesitant to speak. I wished that Mayu had never had this idea but my use of two papers in a row did feel different. The air felt different. I felt memories at every breath.
I remembered being Neil. I remembered being Heather…and Kyoko…and even Yuji. There were still some missing parts, but they felt like solid memories instead of passing thoughts.
Suddenly, heavy footsteps fell like thunder into the room. The red-eyed soldiers flooded around the edges. They all glared at me. They laughed and hissed and undulated like a plague. Through the red emerged a woman with black hair.
They cowered as she passed into the room. She approached us and gave a little smile as she said, “Hello, Count Drake. I’m in charge now.” She gestured and the red-eyed soldiers all took a step closer. She gave a look at the man before me. “And your good friend is now my second-in-command.” The man gave no expression.
Before I could respond, A.L. reached in and grabbed the two papers, sleeves and all. She turned them in her hands and tucked them under an arm. “I can’t just let you escape so easily with whatever spell papers you have here. Now…Mr. Fujiwara, you may take the prisoner away.”
I looked into the man and I knew it was Mayu. The gaze looking back at me was impossible to read. I pleaded with my eyes. I said one word, “Mayu…”
A.L. jerked her head around and yelled, “Silence!” I shut my mouth. A.L. turned away. I mouthed the word to the man. I tried to move his frozen features.
He looked back at me and punched me in the face. I tumbled. screaming with pain. He looked down at me with a harsh, gleeful smile and proclaimed, “I will kill you. Then, I will resurrect you to kill you again…”
I was surrounded by rough hands. They covered my head with a cloth bag.