In the game I thought Crow acted much more like a super cat-human hybrid than a robot (the eyes, attitude, acrobatics). Here's an AU where I make my cat-boy dream a reality. This AU follows the beginning of the story fairly closely with a few aesthetic changes, and then takes a sharp turn into the unknown. It'll probably end up as a four of five chapter short story. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!
Disclaimer: Namco, tri-Crescendo, Xseed Games, Rising Star Games, and Kentaro Kawashima all own a slice of Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. I'm just borrowing some play toys from them.
Cat and Mouse
"Seto?" the Personal Frame hesitantly asked the young boy huddled near the campfire. Seto had carefully arranged the Personal Frame in an illogically human position—facing the fire and slightly turned to him. Her—its—her, she decided, her advice of turning her outward to keep a constant vigilance against enemies had been wasted on his stubbornness. Each time she listed off the tactical advantages of keeping watch, he frowned and repeated the same incomputable excuse of them both "needing a break." She did not want to "break," which would only impair her abilities. She did not need warmth or sleep or the visual signal of safety that a campfire meant. As a machine, she needed very few things other than batteries and a hard drive.
The boy continued to stroke the fire as if in a trance. Each jab of the stick brought a wave of warmth. The accompanying, brief flare made Seto and the PV's shadows twist across the mall's peeling-paint walls like a macabre shadow show. His wispy brown hair, a glowing halo from the light, hugged his baby face and emphasized his childishly hurt expression. Fifteen years old and going on both fifty and five, Seto could efficiently kill unimaginable horrors that would break lesser men, and in the same breath break down crying, railing against the injustice of his mere existence signing his death sentence.
"Seto?" she repeated louder after a long stretch of silence.
Shaking himself from his daze, he gave her a weak smile and said in his soft manner, "Sorry, I was just thinking..." He drifted off, then picked up the frayed threads of his sentence, "What can I do for you? You cozy where you are or do you want me to move you?"
"No, I am fine...but thank you. While debugging my database, I realized that my file on the world's end is incomplete. The minor water damage I suffered corrupted several files, including that one. What happened?"
The edges of Seto's smile sagged, barely holding its shape. "I wish I could tell you...but I don't know anything either. I was born the year it happened, and Grandfather only spoke of it once. He told me it was like everyone got tired of living and decided to sleep forever. No news reports, no newspapers...humanity's obituary was indifferent silence."
"Do you ever get tired?" the PV asked, like a child unabashed to ask obvious and personal questions.
"Of course I get tired, but that's what a purpose is for—to keep you moving."
"What motivates you?"
Seto paused, stalling for time by prodding the fire to new heights. "Well, I guess it's my belief that there are others out there, just as lost and alone as I am. And if we find each other...we won't be so lost and alone."
"Like the silver-haired girl?"
He reacted as if she had physically punched him, closing his eyes and doubling over. The stick clattered to the dirty tile floor as the silver-haired girl's image played over his closed eyelids. Her wide eyes had seared him across the distance, literally taking his breath away. She had eyes the same pale shade of violet as the lilies floating in the moonlit pool, her silken skin the color of the white moon. She was a marble goddess standing calf deep in a caved-in parking lot's pond. Before he could draw in enough air to call out to her, she had sprinted away on delicate legs so like a deer's, creating sprays of crystalline water droplets in her wake. He didn't even know her name.
But he knew now that he was not alone.
Once he regained enough control of himself, he straightened up. He said nothing more than, "Yes," but he exhaled it with such fervor that it sounded like a prayer, like a cry for salvation.
PV paused, and then her next statement came out slowly, as if an unexpected revelation, "I too am glad I met you. Although I wish our circumstances had been less dire. I think we could have become...'friends'...in another life. I am ninety-five percent positive."
Seto said nothing for a long time, only rubbing vigorously the corner of a glistening eye. Drawing in a shaky breath and pasting on a smile, he enticed the Personal Frame with the question, "Now, tell me more about what malls used to be like, before all this happened..." and listened to how her passion for knowledge made her voice beautifully human.
Seto wearily climbed the rungs of the ladder out of the dilapidated mall. He was tired of breathing in the mildew decay of the underground maze, of touching rusty reminders of humanity's ruin. Climbing out into a dark tunnel, he rubbed the ladder's rust flecks from his hands and inhaled fresh air for the first time in days. He walked forward without looking back at the dark opening in the ground, but every time he blinked he saw the image of a shallow grave and a radio antenna sticking out crookedly.
Reaching the end of the tunnel, he blinked—a slipshod grave dug from barren soil—to adjust to the pale moonlight. He squinted and the fantastical unfurled itself to him, like a mirage solidifying into reality. Seto gazed at the broken down carnival that, despite its ruined state, still wore its colors gaily. A lucky cat statue sat upon the dry fountain, welcoming Seto with his uplifted paw and knowing smile. 'PV would have loved to explain how—' but he did not have the strength to finish that thought. The wound was still too fresh.
When a human face with green cat-like eyes stuck itself aggressively in Seto's face, the young boy did not have the emotional strength to wonder or care that another human being existed. He just shrunk down to shield himself from the cat's bullying questions.
When the older boy touched his precious golden locket, practically caressing it as if he were imaging himself wearing it, it woke Seto up from his funk enough to feel defensive and truly see the cat boy for the first time. Underneath an oversized purple captain hat, unruly dark hair framed a lean, hungry face. Luminous green cat eyes sat above thin, mocking lips. The boy's clothing had psychedelic spirals, and the most striking ornament was the taxidermic crow head worn on his chest like a badge of honor.
When the cat-like boy stole his locket and ran away in a whirlwind of spiteful laughter and taunts, Seto fell to the ground and cried the tears he had been unable to summon while burying PV.
After the hiccups subsided and he had rubbed his cheeks raw, he silently picked himself up and gave chase.
A boy—man—who did not normally question his actions, for once Crow wondered what possessed him to take his game to such an extreme. He watched the frail boy determinedly dragged himself up the ferris wheel's side, his fear evident in his trembling hands and white knuckles. The spindly spokes of the ferris wheel webbed across the moon like manmade tree branches, and the white light washed the colors out into indistinguishable pale copies.
He hated the foreign feeling of guilt; it ran through his veins like a nauseating poison. He had raised himself in this fun park, scampering up rides to scream at the staring moon, killing crows with his bare hands and fighting hellish hounds for scraps of food. He never once questioned why someone took the time to teach him to speak and read before abandoning him here with nothing more than a photo and a stack of children books. If not for the adventure books he lovingly read every day, the years of isolation surely would have reduced his speech to the barks, hisses and caws of the animals that inhabited his domain. He didn't care about life before the park—he was Peter Pan, he neither had nor needed parents.
He had no one but himself, no moral compass but his own desires. What made him feel good was good, what made him feel bad was bad. Guilt made him feel bad, so it was bad. It undermined his absolute confidence in his own judgment, like a nagging parent who scolded that actions have consequences.
Rebelling against the feeling that robbed him of his fun, Crow whooped and did a back flip on the thin ferris wheel sign. He landed perfectly, and the rusty metal groaned and vibrated violently under his feet in protest. The tingling sensation traveled up his body and shook loose the guilt.
He chortled, the sound half laugh and half crow, as he watched the brown-haired boy make his slow ascent. It amused Crow to see something so pathetic try so hard. How had this human even survived this long?
"Please," the boy said softly, trying to drag himself up the sign's side to reach Crow, "that locket is precious. Please give it back."
In response, Crow raised himself to a handstand and used his hands to walk away from the boy. He stopped on one hand and, balancing perfectly with a graceful twist of his body and legs, lifted the other hand dramatically before letting the locket tumble through his fingers to dangle before the boy. Lit from behind by the bright full moon, the thin chain disappeared in the light and left the golden locket floating in space. "This old thing? It's mine, I found it years ago. You calling me a liar?"
Something about the boy's look twisted his gut and made this not fun. He knew as soon as his hand pushed off the metal to send him into the air that something had gone wrong with his balance. He always landed on his feet, no matter how he fell, but this time his stomach clenched with fear, an alien feeling for the acrobat. He twisted madly to land on his feet, sighing visibly in relief when he felt metal tremble underneath his toes, only to have his off centered weight pull him off the side of the sign. His hands wind milling vainly, he glanced at the boy as he fell down and saw the softy's horrified expression spell out his doom. Without thought, he hurled the locket at the boy before crashing through the merry-go-round's ornate roof.
He clawed his way desperately out of the murky oblivion that threatened to drown him. A white light from the surface reached his face under the water. The churning water fragmented the light's circular source into a million little shifting stars. Each stroke to the water's shimmering surface wracked his body with pain and yet strengthened the sensation of a mother's warm embrace. Forgetting his pride, his name, his purpose, he was reduced to one powerful, all-consuming thought that drove him towards the pain and light.
'I want to live.'
His head broke through the surface and he drew the sweetest breath he had ever taken. Water streaming down his face and neck, he gazed up at the full moon.
The still body cradled in Seto's arms suddenly inhaled, recovering from having the wind knocked out of him. Crow blinked open his eyes and gazed dazedly at the moon and Seto's hovering face. He reached for the moon and his shaky fingers found the boy's smooth white cheek instead. He pulled him down, or drew himself up, and kissed salvation.
The glazed peace on his face disappeared into a fit of coughs as Crow hunched over. Seto quickly dropped his hold and stepped back to give the boy space, leaving Crow colder. He longed to fold himself into a comforting hug, a weakness he had once scorned, and for the first time in his life he had a desire to know the man in the photo.
"Are you okay?" the boy hiccupped, trying to swipe discreetly at his cheeks.
Mirroring the child's action, Crow touched his fingers to his own face and felt his damp skin. It strangely reminded him of surfacing from a river, like a full-body baptism. He never cried, could not in fact, and came to the only conclusion he could: "Why did you cry all over me? Real men never cry."
The brunet shrugged and gave a helpless smile. "I couldn't help it. I was worried."
Despite the debilitating pain in his limbs and the knife that stabbed his chest every time he breathed, Crow felt an inexplicable lightening of his body. "You were?"
"Of course! I was afraid you were, well...you know..."
"Dead?" Crow's knowing eyes held amusement, watching the boy's struggle to avoid saying the obvious.
The boy tried to hide his expression by turning his face to the side, uncomfortable with Crow's stare or trying to spare Crow from his sadness, but nothing could hide the pained look that spoke volumes. Wanting to express himself yet lacking the right words, Crow pulled out a silver ring and folded it into the boy's small hands. He brought the loosely cupped hands to his lips and gently kissed the fingers as he had seen the Prince do to the Princess in one of his books.
The boy's cheeks blushed red and he gently extracted his hands from Crow's grasp, uncomfortable but not wanting to hurt Crow's feelings. He shuffled away a few steps and leaned against a wooden horse on the merry-go-round. Roaming beasts and the elements had chipped the horse's gilded gold mane, revealing the rough wood underneath. To break the silence, the boy said, "I never got your name. What is it?"
Crow grinned his best, pointiest smile, puffed out his chest and declared proudly, "The name's Crow! And now a true gentleman would return the favor."
"My name's Seto."
"Seto, huh? How unsurprisingly common," the raven-haired boy teased playfully. "Well, Seto, I have a mission I need to fulfill, but I promise I'll come back for you once I'm done. Friends should stick together." As if afraid of the repercussions, Crow leaned in lightning-fast and chastely kissed Seto's forehead before vaulting away over the carousel horses. He did a show-off flip off the last horse's back and hit the ground running, his yellow scarf flapping ostentatiously behind him like a bright canary tail. He ignored Seto's cry of "wait!"
Seto sighed and ran an agitated hand through his wispy brown hair. "I'm sorry Crow," he said to the empty amusement park that creaked and swayed in the wind, "but I can't wait around for you. I have an important mission I need to fulfill too. Hopefully our paths will cross again, somehow. I would like to be your friend too."
The words felt like shovelfuls of dirt, burying another friend. The savage world rarely let people live long enough for second chance encounters.
Opening his fist to inspect the silver ring, Seto held it to the moonlight and saw the silhouette of a black crow in flight.