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Usually, when I bring kids their Companions, it’s a happy day.

Most parents like to throw parties for their children. Make it a big ‘lifetime milestone’ type deal. Sometimes, if there are a lot of birthdays on the same day, they do events at the local schools. I never really have to call ahead - people know I’m coming. The roster at the head offices keeps a running record, and Deliverers like me pack up the Untouched Eggs (wearing gloves, of course), and set out to cover their area for the day. I work six days a week, and sometimes I take emergency runs if I’m nearby and another district is overwhelmed. Overtime is common, but so are short days, when only a small number of kids are hitting ten.

It’s a job that has me travelling a lot. i go wherever there’s the most need for Deliverers. We don’t like to be late; tenth birthdays are an important matter. But I like being on the road. It lets me see a lot of the country.

Sunny agrees with me, of course. And the kids almost always get excited when they see me come with my big ole maned lioness in tow. Companions aren’t like regular animals, even when they can look exactly like one. They reflect parts of yourself - the parts that you share when you first lay hands on an Untouched Egg, and the parts that you build together afterwards. I usually get a fair amount of time to explain some things, though most parents handle the - forgive me - lion’s share of the education. The majority of kids I meet have already been excitedly reading up on and anticipating the visit. Bouncing on the balls of their feet, talking about an older sibling or parent’s Companion, and what sort they might get, and what their friends might have gotten. Looking at their egg with the kind of reverence that it really does deserve.

Disappointments are usually the worst outcome. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while a kid with their heart set on a dragon or unicorn ends up with something a little less… flashy. But I’ve never known a kid to stay disappointed for more than a minute or two. Companions just… resonate with you. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have the shape that they do. When Sunny first hatched, I thought she was a little housecat kitten. People often mistook her for one. Twenty years on, though, and no one doubts what she is. 

Being small helped me keep her safe, while I was in foster care. It’s illegal to try and harm a kid’s Companion. That doesn’t always stop folks, of course. People who lose theirs… it’s a blow. You can register for another egg, but it’s tough. I’m glad I’ve never known that kind of grief.

And it’s why I have to do safety assessments with my deliveries, too. A bit of social work mixed in with the deliveries. Sometimes there’s a lot of social work mixed in, in fact.

I’m not entirely expecting to have to wear that hat, when Sunny and I pull up to a relatively nondescript little suburban house, in a quiet, middle-class neighbourhood. The place is quiet, but that’s not a red flag in and of itself. Just because most parents like to throw some kind of party doesn’t mean all do. Kids are playing in the other yards on the street. It’s a Saturday, and bright. A little on the hot side. Sprinklers are turned on. Companions are romping around. I see a flop-eared rabbit hopping at the heels of two little girls, running around their front sprinklers. A baby elephant naps in an open garage, enjoying the shade while a little boy rests against its side, and plays some kind of handheld video game.

The house matching the address on my list is smaller than most of the others. Not by much, though. The blue siding looks like it could use a wash, and the front gate creaks. The grass is probably a couple of days behind on mowing. But it’s nice. There are little gnomes in the lawn, and a flag in the front window.

I knock on the door.

When a few minutes pass, and no one answers the knock, I try the bell.

Sunny moves towards the side of the house, investigating her way towards the backyard.

Something’s strange, she thinks.

What? I wonder.

Don’t know. Just… something.

Her agitation sinks underneath my skin. Not pressing, not yet, but definitely there.

I ring the bell again. Finally, I hear the sounds of movement on the other side of the door.

A man opens it. He’s about my age, and my height. Wearing a neat button-down, and a pair of jeans. He’s skinny, but, in that wiry-muscled sort of way. It puts me off, in a reflexive kind of way. I had a foster father with arms like that. Sunny dug her claws into them, once. Left some scars.

“Good afternoon,” I say, and look at the man’s face instead. I don’t see a Companion, but, it’s probably inside. “I’m here for your ten-year-old.”

Up go the man’s eyebrows.

“Ten year old?” he asks, plainly baffled.

I pause, and then double-check the address on my records.

“Ye-es?” I say. “According to my records, there’s a ten-year-old child living at this address.”

Immediately, the man shakes his head.

“Nope,” he says. “There must be some kind of mix-up. The only person who lives here is me.”

I frown, and feel my unease double. 

“That’s very unusual,” I say. “Are you sure-”

“Am I sure that I don’t have a kid?” the man interrupts me, with a scoff at the question. I guess that’s merited. His hand tightens on the handle of his door. The house beyond it is clean. I can smell cleaning liquids, actually. Even the man himself gives off a faint aroma of recent laundry. Cleaning on the weekend isn’t odd, but… 

The thing about the records is, people think it’s all done with birth certificates and immigration papers and registered addresses. That we find people the normal way any government might find people. Even a lot of the new hires think that’s how it works. But it isn’t. I’ve been at this job long enough to know that the records have some spellwork to them. Unofficial, probably. Overlooked, just because it’s been around for so long. Like soulmate magic or dreams of portent - you can’t really regulate it all away. Not without causing riots.

If the list says a ten-year-old is here, then a ten-year-old is here.

“Well, this is awkward,” I say, as Sunny makes her way back to me.

Find anything? I wonder.

No, she admits.

“Yeah, I guess. But. I can’t help you,” the man tells me. He moves to shut the door, but I stop him with a hand on it.

“Unfortunately,” I say, in my best ‘apologetic’ tone. “My boss is kind of picky about these sorts of things. I need to check the residence, or else they’ll just send me back out to bother you again.”

The man pauses, and glances off to one side.

“You can’t. You don’t have a warrant,” he says.

“Police need warrants. I’m not looking for any evidence of a crime,” I tell him. “You could have floor-to-ceiling cocaine in your house, sir, and there would be no grounds for me to do anything about it. All I can do is just check the rooms, see if there’s a child. If there is, they get their egg. You see, sometimes parents don’t really want their kids getting their Companions. They think it should wait a year or two, or else they don’t see the merit, or… something. But it’s the law. Everyone has a right to their Companion. So. I have to check.”

The man’s expression drops. I see his eyes move a certain way. You know that way that people look sometimes, when they’re weighing their options? When I was younger I worked a job in retail, stocking shelves for a big chain department store. Sometimes customers would get that look while they were deciding whether to back down or scream for my manager.

I’m not entirely surprised when the man straightens up.

“Look,” he says. “This is my property. There’s no kid here. I’m not letting you nose around my private household just because you think being some fancy Deliverer gives you the right to march wherever you please.”

“If you decline to let me in, I will have to call the police,” I warn him. “And if they come, they will not need a warrant, either, because your continued refusal to let me take a look around will be in violation of the Child and Companions Protection Act. Unlike me, cops will, in fact, be very interested if your house is full of floor-to-ceiling crack.”

“I don’t have any drugs!” he snaps at me.

I shrug.

“I don’t care,” I tell him. “Like I said. I just have to check.”

The box with the Untouched Egg in it is starting to get warm beneath my arm.

The man narrows his eyes. I think, for a moment, that he’s going to slam the door on me. That’ll shoot my day right into the gutter, because I really will have to call the police. And then I’ll probably have to call in back-up, too, to make sure my remaining deliveries get out in time. Police can be a total crapshoot. Sometimes they actually help, and sometimes they just make an even bigger mess.

But after a minute, the man moves aside.

“Just be quick,” he finally decides.

I step into the house. The scent of cleaning products get louder. Sunny’s nose twitches, and the man tries to shut her out. He’s not quick enough, though, and she shoulders past him to follow me.

“Hey, no, leave that thing outside!” he insists.

“It’ll go faster with her here,” I tell him. A pair of eyes catches my attention. I look over to a narrow coffee table and see a pale white fish, watching me from the confines of a remarkably sparse bowl. The way its eyes follow me, I know it’s a Companion. Ordinarily I’d think the bowl was just a temporary situation. Aquatic companions can survive longer on land than true animals, but most I’ve known have elaborate pools, ponds, or tanks set up for their comfort, too. But this bowl has a sealed lid. And the Companion looks somewhat listless, as it moves around the pristine, empty waters.

The room around it seems equally pristine. Equally empty. The kitchen looks more lived-in.

I pause at the lock on the fridge door.

“You… live alone?” I ask, again.

“Yeah,” the man repeats. There’s an edginess to him that has me keeping a minimum distance between us. Sunny stays close. 

I point to the lock.

“Then why lock the fridge?” I wonder.

“It’s a diet,” the man says, in an exasperated tone that doesn’t entirely land with me. “I have bad self-restraint. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“No, I guess not,” I say, and move on to the next room.

The man goes silent and still as I glance into the laundry room. He doesn’t give much away, but Sunny can smell some fear on him. It eases up a bit when I move away again; acting like I didn’t see the second door, near the washing machine. Leading to basement steps, probably. I leave to check the other rooms.

The man follows me.

Sunny slips back into the laundry room. It’s not something she’s built for, but she’s good at opening doors.

It’s locked.

Can you undo it? I think. Companions can have… talents. Sunny’s claws are a lot more versatile than most people would guess, especially with her shape. I get a hum of confirmation and slow down as I look around the second floor. Taking my time to check the bathroom and master bedroom. The man scoffs when I open the closet, and look under the bed. There’s nothing to find.

Sunny makes her way down to the basement. I can’t see what she sees, but I can get a vague sense of her moving. Of her unease growing.

Found her.

A terrified scream rings up from downstairs.

The man’s eyes widen. I can see him realize that there’s no sign of Sunny. See the moment when he puts two and two together, and for a hot second, I think he’s going to try and kill me. 

Sunny!

I need her claws. I brace for a fight; but then the man turns tail, and races down the steps instead. The clatter of his footsteps is jarring, and without much thought I give chase, worried for what he’ll do. Worried for what that scream implies. I stumble at the railing for the stairs; the man grabs the fish bowl from the table, and races into the kitchen. Sloshing water as he flies out of the back door so fast, it knocks he screen clean off of its hinges.

Sunny comes scrabbling out of the laundry room.

For a half second I nearly ask her to chase him. I don’t want to let this man get away. But that’s not our chief concern; I let my lion tug me down towards the basement instead.

It’s dark. I find a light switch, and hit it before I make my way down the stairs. A stuffed rabbit is on one of the bottom steps. It looks old, and threadbare. The staircase creaks as I make my way down. Sunny lingers at the top.

I scared her.

Lions can be a little alarming, and I suppose that without a clear cue, a kid might not think she was a Companion. I let her stay there, to watch for any signs of the homeowner coming back, and make my own way down. The basement is a good size. Half finished, with unpainted drywall up, and only a single, slit window up near the top of the walls. There’s a bathroom with no door. A few more stuffed toys.

A cot.

And a kid.

She’s wearing a single over-sized shirt, and she looks terrified. Her hair’s done in braids. Someone clearly took some care with them, but not in a way that seems comforting in the situation. There’s a staged quality to it; braids with pink ties in them, while everything else about the room is clearly negligible, unkind. Her skin has the kind of pallor that speaks to too much time spent indoors. She’s skinny, underfed.

The Unhatched Egg underneath my arm gets even warmer.

“Hey,” I say, as gently as I can. I’ll need to call this in. I should probably be doing that first of all.

But the thing about my job is, it’s a magical contract at heart. There’s a certain need to it. You can’t really put it off, so much. The egg knows it needs to hatch; and the little girl looks at it, with an expression in her eyes that speaks of a need, too.

Part of me is insisting that I go lift up my phone, call the authorities. Get someone from child services here to help. Get the kid at least a minute of fresh air, a moment of freedom, before she lays hands on the egg.

But that’s not what needs to happen. That’s the sensible approach. 

This kid is about to be freed from her cage, though. And she needs… she needs this. She needs a Companion that will understand what she is, right now, before that happens. So she can survive what’s going to come - so they both can.

I put down the box, as the kid watches me.

“Do you know who I am?” I ask her.

She shakes her head.

“That’s alright,” I say. “Do you know what this is?”

Again, she shakes her head. But it seems more hesitant this time. On some level, she knows

“Do you know what a Companion is?” I try.

The kid looks like she wants to rush over to the box. Fear, probably, keeps her in place. I don’t want her afraid of me, but she needs some forewarning. She needs to understand, or else the gods only know how this could all go wrong. There are so many ways for it to, in the end.

I think of the sickly fish in its meager bowl, as the kid struggles to find an answer.

In the end, she just nods.

“Today is your tenth birthday,” I tell her. “That’s how I found you. Your Companion needs to hatch. I’m going to help you - we both are.”

“Mine?” the girl asks, staring at the box.

I push it forward a little bit, and then step back. Giving her the opening. Giving her space.

So many ways it could go wrong. This kid is going to have to learn how to look after her Companion. If she’s been treated the way I expect she has, that’ll be a long road to travel. The thing about being abused is, it doesn’t exactly impart great lessons on how to care for another being.

But it’s a right no one gets to deny. 

The kid moves over to the box. Warily, but undeniably. Called to it, even as she expects something to snatch it away again. She watches me, until the egg steals all of her attention.

He hands are shaking when she finally reaches them into the box.

“Oh,” she murmurs in a small voice, as she pulls it out. “It’s hot.”

Sunny moves down the stairs a little, at that. Curiosity getting the better of her, as we both watch the kid cradle the egg in her lap. Her knuckles are scraped, and her knees, too. She settles down and stares, as the shell shifts colours beneath her hands. I stare, too. Hatchings are always amazing to witness. The first crack of the shell chimes like a bell. Light spills through it, as the egg trembles.

One crack spreads. Then the next. Whatever is inside the eggs before they take on a shape, it’s nothing like an animal. Not really. The kid moves to help, and that’s normal. I keep back as she starts to pry away more bits of shell. Revealing more light in the process. Until that light starts to fade. But that’s a good thing - the light fading means that a shape is being taken on. The kid moves more determinedly, staring at her egg, until finally a clawed hand breaks through and pushes away the whole top half of the shell.

Oh.

I stare as the feathered baby T-Rex kicks the last of the shell away, and tumbles into the lap of its little girl. Feathers like a peacock, but face full of teeth, and eyes sharp and shrewd and wary… and wondrous, too.

The kid stares as she suddenly finds herself holding twenty pounds of pure predator, all tooth and muscle and claw, even at this newborn stage.

…Well.

I don’t have to wonder why she’d need it.

Leaving Sunny to watch the two bond, I go upstairs, and finally call the police.