Pet Projects Side Story: Fragile

This was originally posted for kitabug’s challenge, "Sing Me a Story." It is tied to my current writing project, "Pet Projects". This day-in-the-life chapter, inspired by Fragile by DJ Okawari & Celeina Ann, takes place during a time skip in the story. Hope you enjoy!

Innova City — the Eastern Republic of America’s answer to Silicon Valley and the seat of its military technology development. It was a modest size as cities go, but it felt like a trek across the world from its dilapidated Harlein quarter to its shiny, bustling downtown urban center for the pair of unusual travelers. Bundled in smelly coats that had picked up dirt from every alley and subway they’d slept in, the short teen girl and taller pre-teen boy dragged aching feet through wet, freshly-fallen snow.

“Where are we going, Shay?” the boy huffed through his thick, dark-blue scarf.

“I at least want to get out of Harlein,” the girl answered. “No telling how far that old soldier will go to track me down.” She shivered but not from the cold. The last words of the old soldier, uniform decorated in medals and eyes cold as ice, replayed through her head: “The military-grades were supposed to be purged when they cut off the splicing program. I can’t let her leave.” Her ears involuntarily flattened under the cover of her hat, and the tail hidden beneath her long coat curled between her legs. She shook her head and turned back to face the boy, whose lanky body was heaving as he came to a stop behind her. “Are you tired?”

“Enough to not want to wander with no plan in mind,” he quipped breathlessly. The boy had a rough idea of what they were running from, but to see this normally-fearless, hardened gang fighter quivering like a defenseless kitten sent a wave of unease through his gut. He pulled down his scarf, his heavy pants sending white puffs into the cold air. “Let’s pause and plot a path… I’m getting turned around in these alleys.”

Shay’s feisty friend did not easily admit to not feeling his best, which meant that he was worse off than he let on. “Sit tight here, Tristan. I’ll find us a safer spot to rest.” She started ahead to where she heard the hum of electric engines on the next street.

“Wait!” Tristan called out suddenly.

Shay stopped in her tracks. “What?”

The last time he’d been too tired to tag along and they separated, Shay had disappeared — picked up by traffickers and taken to be sold. The leader of the stray colony they’d been staying with rescued her, but now a higher-up from the military was after her. Sense told Tristan that he was overreacting from the recent incident, but he couldn’t help the anxiety that pricked at him now and sent the fur standing on the ears tucked snugly into his hood. Unable to rationalize his fears and knowing he’d only slow her down if he didn’t rest, he stared at her in silence until he felt like an idiot for stopping her. “Never mind.”

Puzzled, Shay watched him sit down and wrap his arms around his legs for warmth. “I’ll be right back,” she assured him and shot through the remainder of the alley toward the street ahead.

She recognized the area. This was a nicer strip of city near the road that split the east and west sides of Harlein, where her late mentor, Jackson, had taken her many a time to pick the pockets of unsuspecting shoppers. She clicked her tongue in annoyance. How did I get so far off track? I’ve been dragging Tristan too far out west when we could’ve left the projects by now if I’d not gotten lost, she thought. She’d been trying to stay clear of their old gang’s territory, but these unfamiliar alleys were like a labyrinth. The thick cloud cover hid the sun, making it hard to judge directions. They left the stray colony in the mid-morning, and, looking at the angle of the faint shadows cast by the surrounding buildings, it must have been late afternoon already. She cautiously stepped onto the sidewalk when it was clear of people and surveyed the area around the main road. A little farther in the distance was a park that looked to be empty. She sniffed the air. No humans there… I think I smell dogs, but the scent is stale. It should be safe for now.

Shay spun around and sprinted back into the alleyway. Tristan’s head popped up instantly as she got closer. “There’s a park across the street, where we can get a lay of the land and regroup,” she said. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“I’m good.” Tristan tucked his face back into his scarf, suppressing a cough as he got to his feet. He followed Shay out to the street, and they slipped out casually in a gap between pedestrians. “Shay. Give me your hand.”


“We’ll draw less attention if we look like brother and sister,” he mumbled awkwardly.

She stopped and cocked her head, her mind filling with questions. Before she could ask any of them, Tristan impatiently reached out and gripped her palm, the ice-cold of his hand startling her. “Your hands are freezing!”

“Yours aren’t much better off,” he retorted.

“So, how does this make us less noticeable?”

Tristan nodded across the street toward a couple and their child coming out of a restaurant, the man and woman walking with the child in between and holding hands. “That’s how a normal ‘family’ looks,” he said quietly and quickly averted his gaze.

Shay couldn’t take her eyes off of them. She’d seen those sets of humans before, of course, but seeing them and putting them together with that word, ‘family,’ made it take on a whole new meaning. “You told me before that two girls who are tied by blood are ‘sisters;’ so, is ‘brother’ the word for a boy tied by blood?” She turned questioning eyes on Tristan.


She grinned and tightened her grip on his hand. “You’re my brother today, Tristan.” She liked the sound of those words.

“Ah, dang it, Shay, that doesn’t mean you crush my hand! Ow!!”

“I was trying to warm it up! Give it here!” She pulled his hand up and rubbed it between hers.

“Just walk, Shay! Walk!” Tristan snapped in protest as his face turned bright red with embarrassment.

The two walked hand-in-hand across the street and down the sidewalk on the other side, finally taking off into the park and climbing up onto a two-level jungle gym with a rope ladder going up the nearest side, a metal pole going down the farther and a snow-covered slide at its rear. They both scoped out their surroundings from its highest point.

“I think the neutral zone is that way,” Shay said, pointing down the main street in the direction they’d come from. She pictured the other large road that crossed this one, lined with stalls and stands where huge crowds of hybrids and humans traded goods and offered services.

Tristan pointed down the main road in the opposite direction. “Downtown Innova is east of this big road, and Firwood Pointe is to the west.”

Shay looked back at him in surprise. She’d lived in Harlein all her life among the hybrids in the backstreets and had never heard the names of the areas that lay beyond it. “How do you know that?”

“The Greys are in Firwood Pointe,” he murmured. He fought back the disgust and baggage that came with the name. “It’s Innova’s upper-crust suburb — homes for people with more money than they know what to do with. They don’t like us ‘street rats’ much. So, if you want to leave Harlein, I’d suggest downtown.” He turned to face her, expecting a response; but she just stared. “What?”

There’s still so much I don’t know about him, Shay realized. Tristan had told her the bare bones of how this human family called the Greys had bought him as a pet and thrown him out when they didn’t want to deal with his asthma anymore, leaving him to fend for himself as he bounced from gang to gang. That was the first and only time he’d spoken of them. He even went so far as to throw out the name they gave him and go by “Tristan” instead. “If you don’t want to go where the Greys live, we can go downtown.”

“Let's follow the street so we stay out of any gang’s territory?”

“That’s probably better than getting turned around again in the alleys past the stray colony’s turf.” Shay’s stomach growled loudly. She felt around in her pocket and fingered her pay card. It still had some money left on it from her job at a small, family-run workshop in the neutral zone. Tristan probably shouldn't walk too much farther today. It'd be good for us to eat and get some rest, she thought. “Hungry?”

“You better believe it,” he answered instantly.

“Let’s get something to eat and camp here ‘til the morning.”

“You sure? What if we get more snow?”

“The sidewalks near the big streets always get shoveled. Should be easier than what we walked through today in the backstreets.”

Tristan tucked his chin into his scarf and got that absent stare that meant the gears of his mind were turning. Shay's right; the streets should be cleaned up by the time we're ready to go in the morning, and we should be able to cover a lot more ground without getting lost again or freezing our legs in the snow. We could follow the main road south, hopefully get downtown by the afternoon, and head into the smaller roads and backstreets from there to look for somewhere safe to stay. He nodded. “Okay.”

“Let’s go to the restaurant we saw earlier,” Shay suggested. “We can warm up there, at least while we wait for our order.”

“I would love to be warm.” Tristan descended to the jungle gym’s lower level and climbed down the rope ladder before Shay could blink.

Grinning, she jumped down after him, and they walked briskly to the restaurant in the storefront up the street, once again holding hands.

Mouths watering at the thought of delicious food, they hurried inside and lined up behind the group of people waiting to be seated. There were a counter and two doors to the left and tables and booths to the right. Tristan tugged on Shay’s hand. “Take-out at the counter,” he whispered to her, reading the sign that hung from the ceiling just above it.

Shay could not read the gibberish and followed Tristan’s lead. The take-out counter had glass display cases filled with round desserts decorated with what looked like colorful cream. “Tristan, what are these?” she asked excitedly. “They smell so good!”

Tristan blinked curiously at the display cases to see what had gotten Shay so revved-up. “That’s cake.”

Shay’s brown eyes glittered as she stared and plastered her hands against the glass. “I want this! ♥” Her tail poked out, curling up from the bottom of her long coat.

“Uh — Shay!” Tristan hissed. “Your tail!”

Shay quickly tucked it back near her legs. Thankfully, no one in the new group at the door seemed to have noticed.

“Hands off the glass, kids,” the man behind the counter said. “Where are your parents?”

Shay looked questioningly at Tristan, puzzled by the unfamiliar word.

“They’re at the shop next door,” Tristan covered quickly. “They gave us some money, though. Can we see a menu?”

The man turned on a digital menu screen next to the dessert case and hurried away to pick up a ringing phone.

“What’s that?” Shay asked.

“Their actual dinners,” Tristan answered. “Want a burger?”

“No cake?”

“We don’t need cake, Shay; we need actual food.”

Shay unleashed the ultimate pouty eyes — big and gleaming with a sheen of tears.

“Oh, fine! It’s your money!”

“Did you decide what you’re having?” The man behind the counter stepped back over to them when he was off of the phone.

“Two house burgers with potatoes and a slice of vanilla cake for dessert,” Tristan replied.

“That’s sixteen forty-four.”

Shay handed him her pay card, touching it to bring up a holo-menu.

The man’s eyebrows raised. “Who are you? This can’t be your parents’ card — there’s no last name.”

Dang it. Tristan nudged Shay’s arm. “Time to go,” he hissed.

“Huh? But — ”

The man reached over the counter and pulled off Shay’s hat, revealing her pointy, feline ears. Some of the customers in line at the front door gasped. Others broke out in murmurs. A waitress yelped. The man swiped off Tristan’s hood, too, uncovering the droopy ears at the sides of his head. “Can’t you read?” He pointed angrily at a sign on the wall opposite the front door, behind the people waiting to be seated. “We don’t serve hybrids here! Get out of my restaurant!” He tossed Shay’s hat and the pay card back at her and threatened to come out from behind the counter.

“Let’s go, Shay.” Tristan pushed her out through the frightened crowd that parted as they passed. They replaced their hats on their way out of the door.

“Hmph. So much for that. We’ll have to settle for convenience store food,” Tristan muttered, “or something out of a vending machine…”

“Why were they such huge jerks about it?” Shay spat, her claws flexing and sheathing.

“This isn’t the neutral zone, Shay. It’ll probably be even worse outside Harlein, so we’d better get used to it now.” Tristan reached out for Shay’s hand. “Come on.”

They went back to the park in fading daylight with some cup noodles and settled in a covered part of the jungle gym on the pole side as the snow started anew. Once they had food in their stomachs, they curled up together back-to-back to sleep. The window cut-outs on the outer walls let the whistling wind and blowing snow through.

Tristan woke after dark with the familiar rattle starting in his breath. His legs were freezing, and the uncomfortable chainlink-patterned tread of the jungle gym was putting his hands and arms to sleep. He sat up, his breath taking enough effort for him to notice, and shook his hands to get rid of the numbness. He was tempted to lower his scarf, but he knew that if he did, the dry air would tighten his throat.

Shay stirred from her half-sleep when Tristan’s warmth disappeared from her back. “Tristan? Are you okay?” She slipped her hat off and heard the slight wheeze in his breath. “How many doses are left in your inhaler?”

“Ten, I think,” he replied groggily. “It’s not that bad. I’m gonna try not to use it.”

He talks as little as he can when his asthma’s bad. If he’s answering normally, he’s okay, Shay reassured herself.

Her ears pricked up at the sound of footsteps crunching through the snow below. Then, she picked up a scent on the wind — a slight scent of a dog, or maybe two. The footsteps, though, did not belong to dogs. Dog hybrids.

Tristan caught the scents, too, and wound up pulling his scarf down anyway to get a better whiff. “A patrol?” he whispered.

Staying as still as possible, Shay peeked out of the window cut-outs and saw the two dog-tailed boys coming closer under the harsh, white light of a nearby lamp. They were already making a bee-line toward the jungle gym. They must’ve heard us a second ago. One of them peered up into the window cut-outs and saw her. “I’ll try to talk to them,” Shay said decidedly. She crawled over to the pole exit and readied to jump out. “If it turns into a fight, get to the big road and find a place to hide. I’ll stall them.”

“Shay, wai—”

She sprang to the ground and went to meet the patrol.

Tristan nervously listened and readied to leap for the pole. He stifled a cough and tugged his scarf back up. His mind was racing. Shay’s crazy strong, but there are two guys out there, bigger than her. What if she gets hurt? We’re nowhere near a clinic. On the other hand, if I jump in there like this, I’ll just tie her hands. Should I run, like she said? The dog-boys’ voices turned hostile. Tristan got up the nerve to peek out.

“Look, we’re just strays camping out for the night. We’re gone in the morning, I swear,” Shay pleaded with the patrol leader. Every muscle tensed, and every hair from the back of her neck down to her tail stood on end as she held his sharp gaze.

The patrol leader got right up in her face, and his partner pressed in on her from the side. “You’re sure up on your high-horse for a lousy stray cat. I’ll say it one last time: ‘Get the heck off our turf.’” The patrol leader threw the first punch, landing it squarely in her jaw. Shay’s eyes narrowed and glinted in the lamplight. She unsheathed her claws, and the smaller boy with the husky tail jumped in from her side. She moved to evade, and her foot caught the back of her long coat. Off flew her hat as the boy’s arm swung over her head and she fell backward onto her rear.

Suddenly, she heard feet crunching quickly toward them through the snow. For an instant, she feared that the patrol had backup – until she recognized the scarved bundle streaking past her to tackle the boy with the husky tail. “Tristan?!” she cried in dismay. He was guarding well against the boy’s blows, but his worsening wheeze reminded her that he was on a short time limit.

Shay unzipped her coat to free up her movements and leaped back to her feet, springing at the bigger patrol leader just as he lunged to swipe his claws at Tristan. His claws raked across her shoulder instead, but thankfully he only hurt the thickly-lined felt on her sleeve. Shay swung him around, pinned him and swiped across his nose.


The husky-boy turned to knock Shay off of his partner, and Tristan jabbed him in the side with his elbow, doubling him over. “Shay, let’s go!” He grabbed her arm and yanked her after him as he retreated toward the main north-south road.

The patrol was hot on their heels the whole way out of the park and even partway down the sidewalk. Tristan quickly fell behind, and Shay hauled him by the hand that still desperately clutched onto her and pushed him ahead. Finally, the two dog-boys’ footsteps stopped. “If we catch you back in our territory, you’re dead meat!” The red-and-blue lights of a police car flashed nearby, and the patrol turned tail and retreated.

Shay shoved Tristan into an alleyway alongside a convenience store and tucked herself and him behind a dumpster. Tristan coughed and hacked into his scarf, his thin frame doubled over and tense. “Tristan?” Shay’s ears pricked forward with alarm. The light rattle that his wheeze had been was now a tight, harsh, rasping sound. “Are you okay?”

I knew it. It’s always like this… All I ever do is cause trouble for her. Tristan watched Shay twist sharply. He tensed as the red-and-blue lights spilled into the alley for an instant…and then passed. Grateful that he wouldn’t get them both caught by the police tonight, he almost felt relieved until Shay turned back to him, wide-eyed, and repeated her question. “The real question is,” he started hoarsely before a cough interrupted him, “h-how many times’re you gonna ask that…and if I tell you I’m great, will you stop looking at me like I’m about to die?”

Oh, good… He’s talking. Shay sighed with relief. “If you lie to me, I’ll force you to sleep on my shoulder,” she said.

“Spare me… You’re too short. I’ll wake up with sore everything.”

“Quit getting so tall, then!”

“How ‘bout you grow—” Tristan couldn’t hold back the coughs the time and broke into a fit that hurt his throat and his back. He reached into his pocket for his inhaler but hesitated to take it when he saw there were less than ten doses left in it. This day just keeps getting better. He groaned in frustration. “’m okay enough to move. Can we at least…not sleep next to the smelly dumpster tonight?”

“You’re definitely not sleeping in the snow,” Shay firmly stated. “Bus stop?”

“Sure.” Tristan heaved himself onto his feet.

They slowly followed the main road, Shay matching Tristan’s tired pace. She tucked her ears close to her head in hopes that any nighttime strollers or drivers wouldn’t be able to make them out in the dark. She shivered and zipped her coat back up to block out the cold. “Thanks for helping me out back there.”

“Didn’t do much,” Tristan muttered back and coughed.

Shay blinked at him in confusion. Her gaze was drawn away, though, when she noticed a plexiglass bus stop just ahead under a streetlight. “There,” she said.

They settled on the bench together, and Tristan leaned against the side and closed his eyes, exhausted. It didn’t take long for him to nod off, but his breathing stayed heavy and wheezy. Shay tried to follow his lead and get some shut-eye, but every once in a while, Tristan would gasp and start coughing and startle her back to wakefulness. At some point in the dead of the night, she woke again to him whimpering. “Tristan?” she grumbled groggily.

They invaded his dreams. Even in his dream, his breath was uncomfortably tight and heavy. The little human girl’s eyes were wide with worry. “Russet, what’s wrong?”

“He’s broken, dear. We’ll get you a new pet.” The heavily-perfumed woman ripped him away from the girl.


“This one’s defective,” the faceless voice echoed from the depths of his memory.

Don’t throw me away.

He was lying in an alley filled with thick darkness. He could make out Shay in the gloom; but her eyes were cold as she stared down at him. “I’m tired of having to protect you all the time.”

Tristan snapped awake. “Shay?!” The shout sent him into a coughing fit as he twisted around to see her right across from him on the bench, eyes wide and ears pricked and alert.

“I’m right here,” she answered, blinking in surprise. “Bad dream?”

He sighed and nodded.

“I’m all ears if you want to talk about it.”

Tristan just blinked at her for a moment. “…I’m okay.”

Shay blinked back, puzzled. She frowned. It's so weird. Sometimes, he has this amazing mental strength, and other times, it’s like he could break. “Can I do anything?” she asked.

Tristan wrestled with the remnants of his dream, even though he reminded himself again and again it was just that. It wasn’t real — the part about Shay, at least. I’m being dumb. He found himself reaching out to her. “Can you hold my hand?” he rasped softly.

Shay clenched it instantly, as hard as she had earlier. But this time, her firm, warm grip was reassuring. Tristan slumped over against her shoulder and fell asleep again.

Keeping a tight hold on his hand, Shay leaned against him too and drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, Shay awoke with Tristan’s hand still in hers. He was still asleep against her, his wheeze having died down to a light whistle that didn’t disrupt his breathing as much. Shay sighed with relief. Then, she looked up and noticed that a third person was seated at the opposite end of the bench — a young, human man. Her ears pricked with surprise, and she had to stop herself from letting out a yelp and waking up Tristan.

The young man looked up from his smartphone. “Oh, you’re up. Good.” He tucked the device into his coat pocket. “When I saw a couple kids lying on a bus stop bench, I got scared you’d frozen to death — not the way a guy wants to start off his day, you know?” The man’s eyes rested on Tristan. “How’s he?” He reached out to nudge him.

Shay’s ears flattened as she blocked the man from Tristan and growled, “Don’t touch him.”

“Okay! Okay!” The man threw his hands up and backed off.

Tristan grunted and slowly woke, blinking at Shay and then catching the scent of the man and turning a leery glare on him. His stomach grumbled loudly, drawing stares from both the man and Shay.

“You guys are hungry, huh?” The man pulled a lunchbox from beneath the bench and reached into it for a block of aluminum foil. “This was going to be my lunch today, but what the heck. I can always order delivery.” He unfolded the foil to reveal two thick-crusted slices of pepperoni-and-sausage pizza. A heavy vehicle’s wheels crunched and splashed up the slushy asphalt, and as it approached, the man suddenly looked up. “That’s my bus.” He stood and moved in front of them to wait for the long, dark-green vehicle to lurch to a stop. “Take care of yourselves.” The hulking thing’s door opened with a hiss, and the man climbed aboard.

Shay and Tristan glanced at each other in confusion and then down at the food that the human had left. Shay sniffed curiously at it. “What is this delicious-looking, meat-covered piece of bread?”

Tristan’s mouth twisted into a crooked smile. “They don't have it at the trading market a lot because it’s perishable…” He rolled his shoulders and rubbed his neck. “…but is this really the first time you’ve seen pizza?” he asked in disbelief. He picked up one of the slices and took a bite.

“These big squares are pizza? Pizza is supposed to be round and flat!”

“This kind’s called ‘deep-dish.’”

Shay curiously nibbled at the second piece, and her whole face lit up. “Mm!!” Her ears pricked with excitement. She quickly gobbled up more.

“Now imagine it fresh and warm.”

“That’d be so good!” Shay cried, mouth full and sauce getting on her cheeks.

Tristan chuckled. “Talk or eat, Shay. Your face is a mess!”

Shay felt a warmth wash over her at seeing him laugh. She smiled.

Tristan finished his slice and licked the sauce from his fingers. “I’m good to go whenever you are.” He bent down and scraped up a handful of snow, letting it melt and using it to rinse the rest of the leftovers of his meal from his face and hands.

“Okay.” Shay finished hers, too, savoring the lingering flavor of the meat. Then, she cleaned up and slid from the bench onto her feet. “Don’t feel bad if you need to take it slow,” she said. “I’ve got your back.” She held out her hand to Tristan and waited for him to take it.

How did she know exactly what I needed to hear? She had once promised him, “I’ll never throw you away.” Those words echoed in Tristan’s mind now. The remnants of his nightmare fell away, as though he’d been snatched out of freefall. He reached for the hand that was extended to him. Can I help her escape the shadows she’s running from? They linked hands, and Shay braced him as he pulled himself up from the bench. I can at least start by helping her get by in this world of humans she knows nothing about.

They started along down the road together hand-in-hand with the morning sun breaking through the clouds overhead.