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A Hand to Hold

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Long before Crow could open his eyes, the building energy lit him up inside. It started in the middle of his back and expanded outward through his body, a steady, humming warmth to fill up all the places inside him that had gone still and cold. It was so overwhelming that it almost drowned out the persistent beeping, and the sounds of human speech.

He wasn’t alone.

“He’s been plugged in for a while,” said a soft voice he didn’t recognize. Then again, there weren’t many that he would. “Do you think it’s going to work?”

“It has to. It just has to.” THAT voice Crow recognized. If his eyes could have popped open, they would have. “Look, I think his fingers twitched!” Something soft and warm enclosed them.

Slowly, Crow’s eyelids lifted to reveal his best friend in the whole world kneeling beside him and holding his hand -- his face a little more tired-looking, maybe, but still the same Seto. Behind him stood a girl with large, curious eyes... and silver hair.

“Oh, you found her,” he said.

“Crow!” Seto cried, his eyes shining as leaned in and gripped Crow’s hand more tightly. Guess it didn’t matter whether you died or lived, humans were going to cry no matter what. “Is it really you? Are you really back?”

“Hey, dummy,” Crow whispered. “I’m the one asking the questions around here.”

Seto smiled through his tears and threw his arms around Crow’s neck as the silver-haired girl hung back, watching bemusedly. “Ask me anything you want.”

“I really thought I was a goner,” he mumbled into Seto’s hair. “That I was never gonna see you again.”

Seto hugged him tighter. “Friends always see each other again.”

----

“Seriously, though -- how did you do it?” Crow poked a curious finger at the battery pack, now that he was no longer hooked up to it. Seto and the silver-haired girl, who he introduced as Ren, had dragged him to a hospital ward instead of the room where he had di-- had stopped functioning. That was just as well. The heaps of androids and partial androids, all of them wearing his face, creeped him out. A lot. He didn’t want to see them ever again.

"Well, when we left the tower, Ren mentioned that we should recharge the flashlights and gather some more supplies before we started looking for the people I heard on the radio. So, we came back here to the dam, since it already had electricity."

In the process of learning how to repair and recharge a portable radio that would hopefully let them tap into the channels of the other survivors, it had hit him -- could they also recharge Crow?

Immediately, the two of them had returned to the tunnels and gathered up all the scattered pages they could find of the H2 series operations manual, which wasn't all of them. When they gingerly examined the wires and connectors behind the door in Crow's back, they found that not everything matched the diagrams.

"I think that's because I was the first one," Crow said. Coming back here, he had begun to recover bits and pieces of his memories, not all of which he was sure he wanted.

It had taken some time, but between them, Ren and Seto put together enough information (and battery packs) to make their best attempt at charging Crow up again without frying his circuit boards, or worse.

"So what happens now?" Crow asked.

Seto looked pensive. "Let's listen to the radio one more time before we go."

If they were going to find survivors in the city and bring them back to the dam, they had to hurry. Autumn was already here, and Crow knew that for humans, that would make surviving a whole lot harder.

----

It wasn't the same, with Ren there, too. Not that it was bad. But it wasn't the same.

Crow had experienced firsthand how determined Seto could be, but Seto poked into corners because he needed to, in his search for something more, something bigger. Ren did it for fun. She was the one to discover a litter of kittens blinking bright-eyed behind a garbage can, and a lighter painted with bright orange flames in the foyer of an apartment building -- things that made Seto smile. (Crow kind of envied her the lighter.) She also knew the best places to find food and soap and other stuff the two of them needed, having had a crazy dead scientist around for years to give her advice before he tried to kill everyone he hadn’t managed to off the first time. She liked making new clothes out of bits and pieces of old ones, and cat toys out of beads and bells and feathers. Crow liked Ren just fine.

But when Crow got restless, he leapt up to run along the crumbling rooftops, with Seto calling for him to be careful, real fear in his voice. He didn’t need to worry, though -- when crumbling tiles gave way under his feet or a balcony railing broke away from a wall, his reflexes vaulted him to more solid footing. Besides, the view made up for any minor mishaps. He wished he could show Ren and Seto, but humans broke a lot more easily than Crow. From here he could see the Ferris wheel and the graceful spire of Tokyo Tower, where Seto had confronted Ren’s crazy dead scientist, and a thousand more ruins with a hundred thousand secrets.

Sometimes he went all stealthy so that he could sneak up on them and give them a scare. And when he did, creeping along and watching them in the broken streets below, he noticed how there was almost an invisible string between them -- whenever one or the other (usually Ren) wandered far enough away, they always drifted back toward each other again.

And suddenly, the rooftops didn’t seem so much fun anymore.

It reminded him of this one old tabby cat back at Lunar Hill Fun Park who claimed his lap when he sat still long enough. The cat came back again and again, even after all the times Crow dumped him off to find more moons for the pool or walk on the roller coaster or whatever. But whenever one of the other cats got curious and tried to come near, the old cat hissed and swiped at them. Right now, he felt like that old cat. And maybe also like one of those other, younger cats who just wanted a few scritches of their own.

But whenever he started feeling particularly sorry for himself, up there by himself, all Seto had to do was look for him on the rooftops and smile, and Crow would hop back down to walk beside him. So maybe there was still an invisible thread between them, too.

Anyway, it wasn’t like Ren and Seto ignored him or anything. They talked or just hung out, all three of them together, all through the day and then again at night when they made camp in some vacant lot or underpass, listening to the crackling fire and the crickets chirping and the wind in the weeds. They were like their own pirate band, just the three of them, going where the wind (or radio transmissions) took them. But then Ren and Seto huddled up under the blankets together and went to sleep by the fire, and he was alone again.

There seemed to be an error in Crow’s programming or hardware or something -- according to the diagrams Seto found, he had a switch that would put him in sleep mode to save energy, but it didn’t work. Dimly, he remembered long nights and sometimes whole weekends, waiting for his scientist to return, back before the day he woke up in a rusty storage locker with a book and a photo and no memories, in a world with no people. He had another switch that was supposed to turn him off entirely, but Seto was scared to risk it, especially without a better power source than the one battery backup they were able to carry with them. (Crow wouldn’t admit it, but he found the idea a little scary himself.) So of course it was at night that Crow finally messed up.

He’d left Seto and Ren curled up underneath the viaduct to watch the sun set and be on lookout for wandering spirits. Instead, he ended up exploring the train cars parked on the overpass. He didn’t find anything as neat as Ren’s lighter, but he did run across a dried-out human body in a corner seat, which put kind of a damper on further explorations. When he hung down over the edge to tell them about it, the movement of their blankets caught his eye and closed his mouth.

Silently, he dropped to the ground and crept closer. Their giggles had morphed into sighs and little “mm” noises, and he craned his neck for a better look.

Seto was kissing Ren. Or Ren was kissing Seto -- Crow wasn’t sure which.

“Hey, you guys aren’t asleep!” he said, poking Seto in the arm.

He wasn’t sure which one of them screamed louder, but Ren clutched the blankets tight around her. Her dress seemed to have slipped a little. Both she and Seto were breathing hard, and their lips glistened in the low light.

“Crow!” Seto gasped. “I thought you were... what are you doing?!”

He sprang back, scowling. “Jeez, you don’t have to yell. I just thought that if you guys weren’t sleeping after all, I could join you.”

Seto stared at him, befuddled. “That’s not... You can’t just... Really?”

Snatching up one of the blankets, Ren snapped, “I have to pee,” and stalked off behind a concrete pylon. Seto groaned and pulled his jacket over his head.

At that point, there wasn’t much to join.

----

It's wasn’t like Crow could carry Seto off someplace else, like a pirate taking a hostage. Well, he probably COULD, but Seto wouldn't be happy about it. And picturing Ren sitting by the fireside alone, waiting in vain for them to come back, was an awful thought.

Back before the world changed, Crow's scientist sometimes brought other humans to see him. One man had shown him a coin that vanished and then reappeared in Crow's ear. It was so cool that he lifted the coin from the man's back pocket when he was leaving so that he could figure out how it worked. But in Crow's hands it stubbornly refused to do anything but sit there, being shiny. Shiny made up for a lot, but not that particular disappointment.

Apparently there were some things you just couldn't steal.

All he wanted was for him and Seto to still be best friends. Seto was here with him, laughing and smiling and exchanging shy glances, and now they were even traveling together. Yet he and Ren had something that was just for the two of them, even more than all that human stuff about eating and sleeping and going off to pee, and that stung.

Could a human have two best friends? Books were no real help. In books, people were always looking for "the one," and sometimes two people fought over "the one," even while having other friends who were important to them, sometimes even friends they shared. Sometimes those friends were called "family" or "husband" or "brother" or "sempai," but Crow wasn't completely clear on the differences. Why did humans make everything so complicated?

----

Using their taped-together maps and the details the old woman had been able to provide before her signal cut out, they found the first of the people they were looking for. Her apartment was on the ground floor of a two-story apartment building, underneath a balcony and through a tangle of unpicked pumpkins and cucumbers. They knew they had found her when they opened the door from the ruined foyer into her spotless apartment. But it didn't work out like they had hoped.

"I think that's why she got on the radio," Seto said, pulling the blankets up over her body. "She knew she was dying, and she wanted to talk to someone.”

None of them mentioned the possibility that Glass Cage had started again after all.

“I wish we had some flowers for her,” Ren said. She picked up the necklace the woman had laid on her bedside table. The red glass beads sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. With a sigh, Ren laid them next to the woman’s head.

“Well, if you’re just going to leave them there --” Crow began, his hand reaching out.

“Crow!” Seto protested.

He opened his mouth to argue, but Ren and Seto were staring at him with identical appalled expressions.

“Oh, fine then,” Crow mumbled, and kicked the throw rug as he stalked out.

From his perch on the planter built into the side of the building, Crow glowered at Seto and Ren when they finally emerged. The two put their heads together briefly, and Ren took off down the street, graceful as a fairy in one of Crow’s books.

“She’s going to go pick some goldenrod for the old woman,” Seto explained.

“Well, why don’t go you with her, then?”

“She likes spending time alone sometimes.”

“Well yeah, doesn’t everyone?”

“I’ve spent enough time alone.” When Crow didn’t answer, he said, “Please don’t be mad.”

“You collected all sorts of dead people’s things,” Crow said. “I looked through your stuff, you know.”

“It’s just... I don’t know how to explain it. It’s too soon, Crow.”

Yet another human thing he didn’t understand. It sat between them like something sharp, and finally Crow spat out, “I thought we were best friends!”

“Of course we are!”

Crow hopped down and leaned over Seto, making him shrink a little. “You were kissing her, that night.”

Seto’s face went scarlet. “Well, Ren’s my friend, too.”

Crow scowled. “And that’s fine! But you haven’t kissed me since you... since I came back. Not once!” There, it was out. He stalked over to the cucumber patch and sat down, fuming.

Finally, Seto mumbled, “Well, you haven’t kissed me, either.”

“Feh,” Crow said, and scowled down into the prickly vines. Even when Seto was standing right in front of him, he wouldn’t look up.

Until Seto bent down and kissed him on the lips.

“There,” Seto said. “See?”

Crow gaped up at him, then grinned. “Well, it’s only fair that I return the favor, then.” And he tackled Seto into the cucumbers.

“Ow, they’re sharp! Crow!”

This kiss lasted longer, mostly because Seto’s arms had gone around his neck, and it just generally felt good, being this close. When he stopped, Seto was flushed and breathing hard, and he kissed Crow again, until Crow wasn’t sure who was kissing who.

“Jeez, what’s poking me?” he grumbled. “Are your pockets full or what?” If possible, Seto got even redder and tried to squirm away, but not before Crow yanked up his jacket. “It’s in your pants -- what on earth is that?” The pants were definitely coming down, he decided, and when he’d managed to yank them down past Seto’s hips, he cocked his head. “How come it’s sticking up like that?” He leaned in for a closer look.

With a yelp, Seto twisted away and scrambled out of the cucumber patch, yanking up his pants as he went. He was panting and shaking, and Crow’s hand fell back to his side. “But... I wanted to see.”

Seto gulped air. “You can see,” he said between gasps. “Just not in the cucumbers.”

They knelt down in the shadow of the planter. When Crow’s hands found Seto’s waistband again, Seto hunched over, suddenly shy. Crow put his hands in the air. “Hey, if you don’t want me to look, I won’t.”

“If you’re going to do it, just do it, okay?” Seto’s breaths were coming quickly again.

Crow yanked them down and reached between Seto’s legs for the object in question. It was velvety smooth, and twitched in his hand.

“Mine definitely doesn’t do this,” Crow said, fingers running up and down its length. He was pretty sure he’d read about it, though. It was in one of the books he’d mostly skimmed because it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Oh, and in that one comic book with the panels blurred out. This, though, was every bit as captivating as Pirate Isle. Maybe because it was part of Seto.

“You have one?” Seto said, sweat beading his upper lip.

“Yep.” He unbuckled his own pants, and Seto reached for the equivalent place on Crow.

“It’s just kind of like... a sack,” Seto said, working it insistently.

“Don’t bother, it doesn’t act the same way.” Seto’s hand did feel nice and warm, but he wished he wouldn’t pull so hard. Suddenly, it clicked. “Is that how you want me to touch yours?”

“Yes, please!” Seto leaned back against the planter and rolled his hips up toward Crow, who was glad to oblige.

“Is this how Ren touches you too?”

“We haven’t... ah!” Seto broke off, biting his lip.

“Whoa, I think it’s getting bigger,” he said. “Is it supposed to leak like that?”

“Crow!”

“What?”

“Kiss me again, okay?” It came out on a gasp.

He did, his hand still working, and Seto’s whole body jerked against his like a cat toy on a string.

Afterward, Crow looked matters over, impressed.

“Do you need me to get you a bottle of water or something? I mean, all that had to come from somewhere, right?”

Still panting, Seto rolled over on his side, laughing so hard he couldn’t catch his breath.

----

Once they’d gotten Seto cleaned up, they sat together on the edge of the planter, sneaking little glances at each other and laughing. Crow felt giddy, like he’d been walking the amusement park’s highest roller coaster.

After a while, though, he thought to ask, “Hey, where’s Ren?”

“Ren!” Seto shot to his feet. “It’s probably been an hour. What if she’s...”

“Come on, let’s go look,” Crow said.

They started around the outside of the building, only to find Ren right around the corner, leaning against the brick with a bouquet of goldenrod sagging in her arms. She wouldn’t look at them.

“Are you done?” she asked, her face closed and hurt.

“Ren...” Seto reached out to her, then hesitated.

“I’m going to leave her the flowers now.” And without another word, she went inside the building.

----

It wasn’t much fun to be either cat, Crow reflected.

He had never imagined how awful camping could be, with nobody speaking to anybody else. But when you might be the last three people in the world, it was hard to keep that up all night.

“Do you want me to go back to the dam?” Ren asked softly. Her eyes flicked toward Crow, but he was pretty sure the question was meant for Seto.

“No! Of course not!”

“Me neither,” Crow said, and meant it.

“But the two of you... you were friends before we really even talked. You kissed each other first.” She hugged her legs against her chest and scooted closer to the fire. “And now...” she trailed off.

“But that doesn’t matter,” Seto burst out. “I mean, it matters a lot!” he said with a shy smile at Crow. “But all of it matters. Every single moment I’ve shared with both of you matters. You’re both my friends. My best friends.”

“If anyone leaves, it should be me,” Crow said, though the words hurt to say, somewhere down deep. “What if we don’t find anyone else, and you have to repopulate the world? I read this one book where...”

“No!” Ren and Seto both cried at the same time.

“I don’t want to think about having ANY kids right now,” Ren moaned, covering her eyes.

“I don’t want either of you to leave unless we all go,” Seto declared.

For a while, they listened to the crickets chirp.

“This isn’t how it works in stories,” Ren said finally. “Someone always leaves.”

“Well, do we have to do it that way, though?” Crow asked. It was something of a revelation. “There’s a lot of weird stuff in books.”

Ren thought for a moment and then eyed Crow speculatively. “Well, do you want to sleep next to him tonight?” she asked. “Then I can sleep next to him tomorrow.”

“But I don’t sleep.”

“Oh, right,” Ren said, deflating.

“I... I’ve always wanted to join you guys, though,” Crow said, scowling at the grass.

“Oh,” she said, going a little pink. “Well, we could try.”

“Don’t I get a say?” Seto asked plaintively.

“Well, what do you want to do then?” Ren asked, exasperated. Two sets of bright eyes turned toward Seto. Now it was his turn to go red, but then he smiled.

“Yeah. Let’s try.” And he held out a hand to each of them.

When Ren and Crow reached for Seto, their eyes met. Crow stuck out his other hand toward Ren.

“Whaddya say? Friends?”

She blinked, and then a sweet smile lit her face. “Friends,” she said, and Crow was holding two sets of hands.

----

In books they called them love triangles, but Crow had always thought that was stupid. A real triangle would have meant they were all holding hands. Like him and Seto and Ren, now.

He liked this way better.