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Chaos and klaxons echoed through every room. I ran back to central command. The Colonel was there with his sleeved image. His eyes were shut. He said, “Thank you….” He looked to the doctor, who was standing near CT. They both looked nervous.

The Colonel told me that his office had a hidden vault and how to get in. “If you and the doctor stay there, that might buy you some time. The door is heavily-reinforced. Remember. You must wait thirty minutes before you can use the images. Here…”

He handed me a timer.

I asked him, “What about you?”

He shook his head and noted, “You won’t see this version of me ever again. Hopefully…farewell.”

Red dots spawned all over the sensors. The Colonel left through a side door with his sleeved paper.

The doctor stayed a moment to help CT with the outer defensive cannons, but we were losing them fast. CT smiled at Dr. Fujiwara but shooed him away and said, “You two get somewhere safe.” He slipped an LP record of Wagner on his player.

I could hear the melody still vibrating in my ears in the Colonel’s room. The papers were immersed but the images were gone. There was no trace of ink or pigment in the paper or the water. Everything was just blank. We took all four pieces of paper, the sleeves, the pens, and the other drawing materials with us into the vault.

The inside was sparse with just a bed and some supplies. I sat on the bed next to Dr. Fujiwara. He shook his head and looked down at the papers. “I wish I could understand all this…” He stuck out his tongue a little, a nervous gesture.

I nudged him and whispered, “Me too.”

He looked me in the eye and said, “We’re supposed to remember something. Our past lives. But I just get little glimpses.”

I nodded but offered my little memories, the little incidents I could recall. He listened to each of them carefully, doing his usual, mental dissection like after a particularly bad or particularly great mission.

We looked into each other’s eyes.

I tried to focus on the images but they did nothing as they flashed by in my head. I clenched up. I felt like crying but I grit my teeth.

“What if this doesn’t even work…what if the Colonel is wrong…what if we…what if I…lose you? I don’t want to lose you.” They were words that made my face flush. I loved the doctor. But it wasn’t like the schoolgirl crushes I’d long tossed aside. This felt like a binding of us together. I felt his teeth clench and his eyes narrow. I felt him and I knew he felt me.

He lay his hand together with mine and said, “You…won’t lose me. No matter what. You won’t. I promise. I’d stay here, if I had to, for you. You’re my friend, Neil.”

His eyes blinked and, at the same time, mine did as well. Something flashed between us and the doctor softly said, “I remember…a plush thing. You bought it for me.”

I answered back, the thought flowing out with my words, “You had a star thing to go with your cosplay.”

We nodded together. It felt so close. I could remember a hallway so similar to the ones here. A stone hallway. A hallway made of trees bending in. A hallway in a school. A hallway in a hotel. I felt like I was running down it with…Fujiwara. I was trying to get to the end. I could almost see the end. It was right there but I couldn’t touch it.

The ground vibrated. That had to be the explosives in the last level of defensive turrets. Their detonation would seal many of the levels but I knew the monsters wouldn’t take long to get through that as well.

I tried to focus what memories I had but I just couldn’t grab hold of them. I pushed myself. I tried to…

I paused.

I stopped pushing myself. I took a breath. I looked to Dr. Fujiwara and gently squeezed his hand. I felt a great calm come over me as I looked at him. To be here, to be with him…meant everything.

In the quiet of my mind, the torrent came rushing back. I remembered the castle and the fight. I remembered the forest and the catboys. I remembered Kyoko and Mayu…

Mayu…I remembered Mayu. And I remembered myself. All of me.

I tugged on Mayu’s hand. He seemed to relax as well. His eyes settled. Then they widened as he looked at me in surprise and breathlessly asked, “Neil?”

I nodded and hugged Mayu. The hug lasted only a moment. I knew I had to ignore my awareness of how my clingy outfit now felt. And I knew we had to get out of here.

I held the papers up. Mayu looked over at them. I had some inkling of what to do because of A.L. But whether it was supposed to be me or Mayu…

I looked down at the paper. I felt a wish that I knew what A.L. knew in some universes. I wished that I had that kind of knowledge to know what to do, no matter if it meant going back...maybe even in time.

But I pushed aside my wish and looked to Mayu. I asked Mayu, “Do you have any idea what to do?”

Mayu took one of the papers. He sighed. He looked at me and I looked back at him. I wished with all my heart that there could be a place where Mayu was happy. Mayu’s lips moved as though he was saying something to himself.

A sensation suddenly flooded me and Mayu at the same time. We seized the art supplies and worked at the papers. Our hands flew. Before me, I could see a female form developing. She had Mayu’s red-dyed hair. She had the cosplay from the convention. She had Mayu’s smile. And he drew me, mud stain and everything. 

When the burst of action finally stopped, I looked down at an amazing visualization of Mayu. Unlike the anime shapes and colors all around us, the image felt like there was another dimension to it. I hoped that was a good sign.

I turned over my image. Mayu did as well. We clicked the timer. Only thirty minutes. An eternity in a place like this.

I held Mayu’s hand in mine. We sat on the bed together with our finished images hidden before us. We’d both drawn what we were like in the original reality. I wasn’t sure what it meant or how we’d done it.

The minutes passed achingly slow on the timer. We were so tense, so ready for anything. But we soon had to relax. I smiled at Mayu and asked him what his favorite anime scenes were.

He smiled and rattled off a list of scenes and moments that we both agreed were awesome. But then he came to one in particular. I knew it well. It was on my list too.

I smiled gently. I knew why it was there. I had it on my list for the same reason.

Mayu told me, “I love it because I was watching it the day you joined the anime club and we first met.”

That moment returned to me. I could remember every sense as I walked into the club room. I remembered Mayu turning and smiling at me. I remembered my first question to her because it was the same question I’d just asked.

Then a long vibration rattled the floor. I knew it was the end of my machine. We didn’t have much time. We gathered up everything I could and wedged it against the door. It was as secure as we could make it. All we could do was wait.

Mayu stared at the papers and pushed them down as much as possible. I didn’t want to reset the time either. We were halfway there.

Cautiously, we talked about animes we loathed. We laughed a little at the worst scenes. Little sounds pressed through the heavy walls. They increased like a rising symphony.

I squeezed Mayu’s hand tightly. Our voices quieted. I whispered to Mayu, “Thank you for being my friend.”

Mayu softly said the same back with the beginnings of tears around his anime eyes. My eyes felt moist too. I felt scared. I wanted to go home, and I wanted to be with Mayu.

The minutes creaked past. Finally, it was the last five minutes. We set our hands on the papers. The noises outside were agonizing. They felt right on top of us.

I could hear the edges of roars and screams. I thought I could hear the loss of CT’s symphony. I knew they were close. Something burst open just beyond the door. I could sense the flood on top of us.

The heavy door gave the faintest creak. Then, it shuddered, slammed, and banged.

The noises crushed all thought. The door moved a tiny bit. The bracing helped but I knew that monsters were all flooding the Colonel’s room to ram the door. They knew we were here and I knew from Norna that they would never stop trying to get in.

I shuddered at what they would do to us, at what they were already doing to everyone outside.

I felt bile in my throat. I panted and squeezed Mayu’s hands. We were so close, but I knew they were coming. We had minutes to go but, with the progress they were making on the door, I knew it would only be moments before they compromised it.

I reached over for Mayu’s paper. I placed them so the one she made for me could be easily turned and she could hold it at the same time I did and the same for hers. The spares were underneath.

Mayu shivered and asked, “Should we go now? Should we even have two?”

The monsters pressed even harder on the door with her words. I shook my head. I didn’t know.

I could feel the roars. The door curled.

A black claw and snarl of teeth wedged through the heavy door.

A dozen more pressed around it.

We had no more time. I looked at Mayu and she looked at me. We had to try it now and hope.

As the door peeled away and a thousand horrors streamed in, we turned our papers to each other. We held each other’s paper like a loop of thread between us and looked at them.

The young man before me felt like a stranger from long ago. But his face looked up at me, as real as anything. I held a breath. And everything released…

Light sailed. It burst through every shadow. Together, we could imagine anything.

We imagined countless monsters evaporating like shadows blasted by the sun. We imagined the people underground bursting out in joy and freedom. We imagined two friends ending their fight with forgiveness and peace. We imagined a mother looking out at her daughter and son. We imagined thieves making amends with a protector they secretly admired. We imagined a cross-dressed boy and his sister and two sisters having a beautiful day at school. We imagined the happiness of two lovers…two best friends…and then…

The floor felt hard as we fell out of bed and onto the carpet. Mayu’s elbow nudged me as we looked up warily. We were in a hotel room. The bedsheets collapsed all around us.

Mayu was dressed in her Kairi cosplay. Her red hair looked as adorable as ever. I felt my face in the mirror and smiled back at it. We hugged and cheered till there was a knock on the door.  

I opened it cautiously, hoping against any sudden, horrible surprises. A.L. stood before us and smiled as she said, “Not bad.”

I had to ask her, “Are we home?”

She wobbled her hand. “All except for one difference…but I don’t think you’ll mind it.”

We had to know what it was. A.L. directed Mayu to look in her room. When she came back, she was wide-eyed and carrying the cosplay first place trophy. Mayu marveled at it with light in her eyes but also concern.

A.L. came inside and picked up the papers which had fallen on the floor. She turned them around and said, “What you two did is something that few instances before have done. Because of you two, a cycle has been broken and several entire universes are better off for it.”

That was staggering to hear. But I had questions. I asked her, “Who are you…really?”

A.L. shrugged. “Around here…I’m just your average artist…who’s a weaver of threads on the side.” She winked.

“How do you know all these things?”

She smiled lightly. “I get around.”

Mayu set her trophy down and asked, “Why did we make it when others didn’t?”

A.L. sorted the papers. “There are always so many variables, but I believe you two succeeded because you listened to me…and others like me…but also didn’t listen to us. Rather, you listened to each other.”

She gestured to the papers with images and said, “The two you just made have been neutralized due to how you used them but, if you wash them, then you’ll be able to use them again. If you so wish.”

I took the papers from her. I wasn’t sure if I wanted them. I set them on a table.

A.L. clutched her hands and noted, “The convention is winding down. It’s Sunday afternoon. So, you might want to hurry if you’d like to have any more fun this weekend. And my booth will be open right to the end…if you need anything else.” She winked and quietly walked out, leaving us with still so many questions.

We sat together at the hotel room table. I looked over at Mayu and she looked back at me. I asked her first, “Are you okay?”

Mayu glanced over at the trophy and noted, “I figured I would’ve been happier to see this but I feel like I didn’t really win it.”

I smiled and noted, “Next year. You’ll conquer the cosplay competition next year with your super spells.” She narrowed her eyes and stuck her tongue out at me. We both laughed.

Mayu tugged on the end of her cosplay dress and said, “Well, I need to get changed out of this…again. You know…Norna would’ve looked really cute in my costume. Heather too. Kyoko…probably too tight. And Katsuko…your boobs would be spilling out everywhere, for sure.” We snickered and I shook my head with a smirk.

I noted about how ‘sexy’ her catboy looked and her Katsu. Mayu laughed and remarked, “I kinda liked Dr. Fujiwara too. But he didn’t get to kick any ass like you. I saw you on the view screen. So awesome!”

I stretched my hands out on the table and said to Mayu, “Thanks. I’m glad we’re back though.”

She set her hands on the table as well and smiled. “Me too. No more living anime…just watching it. In fact, I may not be able to watch anime for a while after a weekend like that…”

I raised my eyebrows at Mayu and asked, “Really?”

She paused a moment, then answered with a smile, “Not really…in fact, I know that there’s a movie preview showing before the end of the conference. And I’ve been bouncing off the bed each time I see art for it online. Must see!”

My eyes widened. “’That one’, you’re sure? I thought it was just a rumor.”

Mayu turned up her hands. “I had a very good source. And besides, this is the universe we made together. I have a good feeling they’re going to show it for sure now.”

I smiled and slowly nodded. But I looked at the papers. I asked her what she wanted to do with them.

Mayu tapped her lip and picked them up. “Well…considering these two can’t be used…why don’t we just keep them as mementos?”

“What about the blank two?”

She held one up in each hand. “Well…like the other two, they still have twenty-three uses left each…”

“How do you know that?” For some reason, I had the same intuition by looking at them.

Mayu paused and looked them over. “I…don’t know. Weird. I just kinda knew. But…I was thinking we could give them away.”

It wasn’t exactly the kind of gift I would wish on anyone else. I noted that we could burn them as well but we both knew that would be a waste. For the moment, Mayu tucked them all away in their sleeves and gave them to me.

Mayu went back to her room to change and I waited in the hall with the papers under my arm. As I waited, CT, with his original red-and-green-streaked hair, walked down the hall. He was humming a familiar piece of classical music. Without thinking about it, I smiled at him.

His eyes widened. He cautiously raised a hand and asked, “Uh…hi?”

I waved. “Hi. I’ve kinda seen you…around.”

“Aw…cool.” He paused and his eyes lingered on the sleeved papers. He asked, “Custom art? I’ve seen a few and my friend Aleena likes to sketch. Can I see?”

I pulled out ours and he marveled at them with awe. He looked disappointed at the blank ones. I just told him we were trying to get rid of them. He seized on that and asked, “Can I have them? Aleena is always looking for paper with this quality. If you’re okay with that…”

I passed both blank ones to him. He looked as giddy as a kid at Christmas. As I gave the papers, I asked him, “What’s your name?”

I expected a weird look, but he just put out his hand and said, “Chris Travers.” I felt a rush of peace but a little concerned for him and where the papers might lead. I gave my name, shook his hand, and told him, “Hope your friend likes them. Nice to meet you.”

He turned but paused a moment. He looked me over one last time but cleared his throat and said, “Thanks” before walking down the hall.

A little later, Mayu joined me again. She had the plushie I bought for her under her arm. I showed her the two remaining papers and explained. She smiled and noted, “Well, I hope it works out as well for him and his friend as it did for us. Come on, we need to get to the dealer’s room before the feature. Don’t want to miss it.”

Mayu reached out her hand to me. I reached out my hand to her.

We walked through the hall together.