He tells himself three days later that it was stupid to mourn someone longer than you'd known them, and he should snap out of it. He tries to come up with a good joke, then a bad joke, then any joke. He can't. He grins at himself in the mirror. It looks ghastly. Deathly. He makes himself get up, and take the shortest and most underground route to Makubex's rooms, so he wouldn't meet anyone.
Sakura hugs him and doesn't say anything, and when he doesn't say anything back and just curls up in the corner with his head on his knees, she goes back to her work. She couldn't type as fast as Makubex, but the noise has a comforting familiarity.
He falls asleep without realizing it. When he wakes up there's a blanket over him and a vast pile of bubble wrap beside him, with a yellow sticky-note on the side: There's more where this came from. We'll be gone until dusk. Call if anything starts beeping. M & S. Cheaper than therapy and half as effective, Emishi thinks, and laughs. It's a small, dry laugh, but then it's not much of a joke. Would take a hell of a delivery to pull off. He realizes he's crying again and absently tries to blot his eyes with bubble wrap and laughs again, no more convincingly.
A week out he's hitting a few good moments, but not many. He wants to hear Just kiddin'! I'm back! Man, I hate dying. Won't do it again in a hurry. He'd settle for goodbye.
He knows when he gets his chance that it isn't real, but he takes it anyway, and he feels almost human again.
Emishi tells himself not to think too much about might-have-beens. If he's going for wishes, he might as well wish for his mother to be alive again. She would, he thinks bitterly, have valued it more.
But that was years ago and he's over it, and he keeps imagining he hears Amon's voice making sly remarks, thinks if he turns around he'll see Amon standing behind him.
It's getting cold out. He spends a lot of time sitting in his room and reading, the blankets piled on top of him, wishing he had a heater. He found one a few weeks ago, but he gave it Aunt Mei, who's past fifty and feels the chill in her bones. He makes it through the entire Hitchhiker's trilogy one night, finishing at four in the morning, when he couldn't sleep anyway. It occurs to him as he muzzily wanders toward the bathroom that it's amazing a story that starts with the destruction of the Earth could be so funny. But he's never been one for dark humour. He likes happy endings.
Later that morning, before he can sleep on it and decide it's a bad idea, Emishi goes rummaging through Makubex's stash of computers that he's not using, and finds an ancient laptop, lightweight, with a scuffed-up screen and a nasty gash where the serial port ought to be. He asks Makubex if he can have it. Makubex doesn't mind, but warns him it's old, not good for much beyond checking email and word-processing.
That's just fine for Emishi's purposes.
He almost deletes his first effort, then changes his mind and stashes it away without showing anyone. It's a transparent fantasy involving a kidnapped princess, the brave knight who sets out to rescue her, and two jesters. It doesn't use names. And besides, he tells himself, the dialogue is terrible. The second one is a little better. It's about a college student, like he might have been now if he'd had an ordinary life, and a transfer student, who suddenly have to fight off an alien invasion. The dialogue is better. The scenery could use work, but what the hell.
Aunt Mei's daughter Feng is five, brainy, and adores him. He drafts her as a test audience, and reads the whole thing to her, doing funny voices and sound effects. She giggles a lot. He takes that as a good sign. When he's done he asks her if she liked it. She thinks for a bit, then solemnly declares that she liked it a lot, and now she wants to know what happens next.
She's confused when he looks sad. But he can't disappoint a pretty girl, so he tells her to come back tomorrow and he'll tell her some more. Feng giggles again and thanks him and gives him a hug. He sits up all night writing.
The third and fourth attempts are sequels to the second. He's somewhat proud of them, but not enough to admit their existence to a larger audience than Feng. Feng thought they were the greatest things ever, but Emishi is sure she's biased. He has bigger fish to fry.
He needs to branch out. They weren't the protagonists, anyway.
He starts a story about a teenage girl who gets thrust into a vast conspiracy run by an omnipotent government agency that's trying to keep the existence of real magic secret. She has parents, and siblings, and wants to be a science teacher when she grows up. There are two guys she keeps running into at the ice-cream parlour who might be secret agents, or who might have worked out the puzzle already. They crack a lot of jokes about it. They like her and she likes them. Emishi thinks this has potential. He's even cleared up the problems with scenery. Okay, he has to use careful notes to make sure his character's outfits don't change in the middle of a scene for no good reason, but he's never been into fashion. Feng likes this one too. He'd been afraid it would go over her head, but she's a very smart five-year-old.
Makubex asks what he's been up to lately, that he hasn't been hanging around so much. Emishi confesses, dramatically, and offers to send over the draft.
The next day he gets it back with a short list of continuity errors and a longer list of suggestions for the Conspiracy. Suggestions from a master, thinks Emishi, and can't stop himself from cackling. Well, the kid can probably use the creative outlet. And Emishi can use the help. He picks the three funniest-looking suggestions and starts outlining, finding ways to work them into the plot. He wonders where he's going with this.
Emishi goes to Madoka's Christmas party. He'd thought he was better, but he gets drunk and makes an ass of himself. At least he did it quietly. He wakes up the next morning in her guest bedroom, hair an absolute bird's nest, a cat he doesn't recognize curled up on the other pillow, head pounding.
He had the most fascinating dream.
He realizes with growing dread that his laptop is back home. Five minutes later he is pawing through the dresser for a notepad. There must be a notepad around somewhere, right? There is, tucked next to a bunch of clean towels, and he sits crosslegged on the floor and starts scribbling. When Shido comes in to check on him, he's on the third page. He makes some hasty excuse and shoves the ripped-off pages in his pocket. He can retype them later.
He finishes the fifth attempt a few days after New Year's. He hadn't thought he could type that fast.
Feng likes it. He hugs her and says he's glad she liked it. He liked it too. It helped him. He realizes he's about to spill his guts to a five-year-old girl, and stops. He won't burden her with it. She could probably handle it - she lives in Mugenjou, after all, and it's not like she isn't willing to comfort anyone who's feeling down - but it's his job to cheer people up, and he shouldn't need cheering up, especialy not from a five-year-old girl. Instead he asks her if her mother would give him a sweet roll, if he turned up and asked nicely. Feng says of course.
It's late and she's sleepy, so Emishi gives her a piggyback ride back to Aunt Mei's room. She collapses gratefully into bed, hugging her stuffed rabbit. Mei gives him the promised sweet roll, and they linger in the door for a bit, talking quietly. Isn't Feng sweet, isn't Feng clever, she's growing up so fast. That sort of thing.
He looks at the laugh-lines on Mei's face, and thinks of the three husbands she's outlived, and the five sons, and how when Feng was born she cried with gratitude that even out of all that devastation she got one thing she'd always wanted. He gets red bean filling on his face on purpose and makes a face. Mei chuckles and shakes her head, and kisses it off. You've grown too, she tells him. You're a fine young man. She ruffles his hair, and he blushes and thanks her quietly.
He wonders what it was like for Amon, not having anyone at all.
The next day Makubex asks what he's going to do with the story that he's done. Emishi hadn't thought this far ahead, and he admits it. Sakura quietly says that it was a very good story. You need a return adress to send something to a publisher, but you don't need anything to put something up on the net. Emishi laughs, points out that he's no good at anything computer that isn't a computer game - not even very good at those, Makubex can beat him at Dream Fighters III nine times out of ten, and he knows Makubex's reflexes are crap - Makubex scowls and attempts to deny it, and Emishi tackles him and tries to tickle him until he surrenders. Six months ago he wouldn't have dared. Six months ago Sakura wouldn't have smiled like that, or fallen down with them and hugged them both so hard they could barely breathe. Things have changed. It's like they live in a different world now.
They live. So he asks for some tips and he finds a free site and he learns a little bit about HTML and he puts it up, and then he starts on the sixth attempt. This time it's nothing sci-fi or horror or action-adventure; it's just a simple fantasy. Two young men leading two perfectly ordinary lives, working at uninteresting jobs and spending a lot of nights sitting up talking about their dreams, and making lots of jokes. Well, for him it's a fantasy. It could never have happened.
But it makes him smile anyway, and he if he has to remember, he'd rather smile about what should have been.