Beryl woke at first light, fine summer sun playing through the light curtains and laying shadows across the room. She had a visitor. She could smell them.
She sat up, pushed the covers back and wriggled her toes on the rug, breathing in the coolness of the morning. There was nothing else unusual about it, just that scent of a stranger. Well, whoever it was would just have to wait – it might be light, but it was also early, and she had every intention of having a cup of tea before she dealt with anything else.
She went downstairs, wrapping a light dressing gown around her, small enough that she didn’t have to duck to get around the turn of the staircase. That always gave her a certain sense of comfort. An unwary attacker would be knocked out by the heavy beams, or at least would have to fight half bent over. Such things could make all the difference, and one should never overlook them when choosing a home, particularly when one was a woman of a certain age and stature.
The wood-burner was still giving off a low heat, and the kitchen slumbered under the low ceiling. Light filtered in through thick-silled windows, and Beryl bullied the stove into setting up a decent heat under the kettle before she opened the back door. Cool air rushed to greet her, setting her purple hair shivering into spikes as she examined the sky. It was a high, deep blue, the scattered clouds painted in dawn pastels. It was going to be a nice day. She dropped her gaze to the path, and the cat sitting on it. The cat looked put out.
“Good morning,” Beryl said. “Do I know you?”
“No,” the cat said, sounding aggrieved. “But what’s with the blocking charms everywhere?”
“If you hadn’t tried to come in uninvited, you’d never even know they were there.”
“I’m a cat. Invitations are irrelevant.”
“Cat is a species, not a behaviour.” Although, admittedly, it was both. Not that that was any excuse for rudeness. Behind her, the kettle started to whistle, and she left the irritated cat on the doorstep while she filled her favourite teapot, yellow with cartoonish flowers splashed across it. She let it brew while she made toast, then carried her breakfast past the cat and went barefoot into the garden, to a small table flanked by two chairs that snuggled into the shelter of the rose bushes.
“May I join you?” the cat asked, rather pointedly, and Beryl smiled.
“Of course.” She sat down as the cat took the opposite chair, sleek pale head and shoulders visible over the table. Sunlight turned the pale ginger splashes on her coat to gold. “I haven’t seen you around before.”
“No, not my usual beat.”
Beryl took a cautious bite of toast. She’d run out of Nutella. Turns out peanut butter and cocoa powder is not a decent substitute. She made a face and took a sip of tea. “So what’re you doing way out here in a Folk village, little miss?” Her words were casual, amused, but her eyes weren’t.
“I have a situation that a friend told me you could help with.”
“Yes. It calls for your certain expertise.”
“Is that so.”
The cat’s tail twitched with annoyance, and Beryl lifted her cup to hide a smile. Cats always thought you’d just roll over and do whatever they wanted.
“Yes, Beryl. That is so.” No irritation in the cat’s voice, just that twitching tail.
“But why should I help you? The Watch is rather unhelpful to my kind, to say the least.”
“It’s true, the Watch has been rather outdated in its policies, and due to a few bad incidents has treated your kind poorly. But times are changing.”
“Changing, but not changed. Why draw attention to myself?”
The cat half-closed her eyes, looking across the garden. It was haphazardly overgrown, trees heavy with fruit and flower, bushes stooped under their own weight. Bees were already at work, birds calling to each other, and from here the other gardens along the row of terraced houses were entirely invisible. They might have been alone in the world. “You are known to the Watch, Beryl. Due to your usefulness, you’ve been ignored, and there are those of us that argue you should be left to your own devices whether useful or not. But at the moment, all that is dependant on the behaviour of others of your kind, as I’m sure you know.”
Beryl sighed, tapping her fingers against her cup. “A threat?”
“A warning. Some of the more conservative elements of the Watch still see your kind as little more than dumb beasts.”
There was silence between them, filled with the oblivious bustle of living and dying going on around them. Beryl thought she should probably be offended, outraged even. Maybe frightened – the Watch could be ruthless. But she felt only a weary resignation. They weren’t wrong, not really. Plenty of her kind acted like dumb beasts, until they either learned or died. Were killed. “Be useful, or be dead?”
The cat looked shocked. “It wouldn’t come to that. You know Charlie and Harvey – they’d never let it go that far.”
“But it could come to moving, if I don’t help. Hiding.”
“It could,” the cat admitted. “That we couldn’t stop. We can’t openly break orders.”
Beryl leaned back in her chair. “How are the boys?”
“Dealing with some Hinky-Punk situation.”
“Yeah. They’re fighting with flower fairies over the rights to honeysuckle or something.”
“Oh my. That sounds very contentious.”
The cat shrugged. “Another day, another squabble. You’d think the Folk were human sometimes.”
“They do have their moments,” Beryl agreed, and they watched a butterfly twisting across the lavender in companionable silence. “So you are?” the woman said finally.
“And you’re both Watch and not.”
“For even longer than Charlie and Harvey. Although not to hear them talk.”
“Little boys and their big ideas,” Beryl said, and they shared another of those agreeable moments, each comfortable in their own worn skin. “So what is it you need me for?” the woman asked finally.
The cat had lifted her face to the sun, and now she cut her green eyes towards Beryl, not speaking.
“Really? Me? What about Walter? He took that on when he took on my shop.”
“This is beyond Walter’s ability. Besides, he still lives in a human town. Too many questions would be asked.”
“I’m retired, Scarlett. I’m old.”
The cat arched the whiskers over her eyes sceptically.
“Fine, so I could do it, but really? There’s no one else?”
“No one as good as you.”
“Don’t give me your flattery.”
The cat huffed amusement. “This has to go smoothly. And quietly. I want the Watch proper to be kept out of it.”
“Cubs?” All feral rage and unchecked urges, no understanding or self control. No wonder she wanted it kept secret. The Watch would destroy them, no discussion, no negotiation. Grown ups were dangerous. Cubs were disastrous.
“Two of them, oldest maybe seven human years. Mum’s got no idea.”
“Well, two cubs, so I guess he’s been around twice.”
Beryl’s swearing clashed terribly with her rather prim dressing gown, hair standing to purple attention.
“Can you handle it?” the cat asked.
Beryl gave her a look that would have crushed any other creature. “I’ve been handling this since before you were born,” she said.
“Maybe in this life,” the cat replied, and jumped to the ground as Beryl picked up her plate. “You don’t happen to have any tuna, do you? Not to be cheeky, but I’ve been waiting out here for ages.”
“I’m vegetarian,” Beryl said.
“Well, gods damn.”
The old landrover started with a cough and a whine that built into a hiccoughing roar, shuddering like an asthmatic dragon.
“Is this thing going to hold together?” Scarlett asked, ears flat against her head. “Only I’d quite like to get there in one piece.”
“Of course she will.” Beryl patted the dashboard. A cloud of dust billowed upwards and the needle on the fuel gauge careened wildly from one end of the scale to the other. A spider swung out of the headlining, then scrambled back out of sight. “She just hasn’t been run for a while.”
“She sounds like she should be put down,” the cat said dubiously, but settled herself into the front seat.
“Landies last forever,” Beryl said, but even she winced at the backfire as they pulled away from the gate. “Maybe she does need a service, though.”
“She needs a shallow grave,” the cat muttered, then gave an indignant squawk as a particularly energetic pothole bounced her into the air.
“That’s what you get for being rude.” Beryl wrestled the car onto the road beyond the old stone walls of the village and settled back into her seat, window half down and one bare elbow hanging out.
Road was a generous term – it was more of a rough farm track, grass growing on the centreline and the wheel ruts filled with a dubious mix of gravel and mud. There were gates, too – plenty of them, all festooned with private property signs in varying states of decrepitude and legibility. Not that they were really necessary – a Folk village has a way of sliding beneath the notice of most people. Even when they joined the main road (Scarlett grumbling that she hadn’t known Z roads were a thing, and Beryl snapping back that she should have damn well shifted then), the road behind them remained unsigned and oddly unseen. If pushed, you might admit that there did seem to be something there, but you weren’t going to be wandering down it by accident. Such is the way of hidden things.
“Thank the gods for that,” the cat said, disentangling her claws from the seat cushion. “Do you have to live in the back of beyond?”
“It suits me,” Beryl said. “I got sick of the hiding in plain sight thing.”
“The other Folk don’t bother you?”
“Aren’t bothered by me, you mean.” She gave Scarlett a sideways smile. “No. We look out for each other, no matter what species we are.”
“More people should look out for each other,” the cat said. “Life would be much easier. And less work for the Watch.”
“Maybe the Watch should keep out of Folk business, then. Let us get on with it.”
“Maybe,” the cat said, surprising her. “But that’s not really our nature, is it?”
“We are more than just our nature,” Beryl said. “I should know.”
They rattled on into the long summer’s day in uneasy companionship.
When they pulled up in front of the red brick house it was getting late, shadows drawing long across the road, curtains pulled against the dusk in many of the houses along the quietly affluent street.
“Big house,” Beryl said.
“Far as I can tell, Dad set up his human pretty well. Just a shame he didn’t tell her what she was in for.”
Beryl turned the key, and the engine died with an exhausted whine. The cat gave her an alarmed look.
“Is this thing going to start again?”
“Would you stop fussing? Get the damn cubs and let me worry about the transport.”
“Driving makes you grumpy.”
“You’re making me grumpy.” Although, as she opened the door to let the cat jump out, she had to admit it wasn’t just that. The drive had been long enough as it was, but they’d also had a flat tire, which had taken a while to sort out, and the engine was starting to overheat. She wasn’t all that sure they would make it back tonight, and she was tired. Maybe she wasn’t old, but she was too old for this. She just wanted to potter in her garden, make inedible cakes, and wander down the pub on sunny afternoons for a gin and a gossip in the beer garden. Cubs, though. Cubs. Walter couldn’t handle that. She wasn’t even sure she could, but she couldn’t ignore them now she knew – the Watch would find them sooner or later, and it’d only make things harder for her kind. She sighed. Sometimes being useful sucked.
The cat had vanished around the side of the house, and Beryl slid out of the car, stretching and yawning. Maybe they wouldn’t be too bad. You never knew. They might be perfect little – there was a scream and a crash from the house, and she lunged forwards, taking the steps to the door at a run, boots heavy and unfamiliar after months in bare feet. She pounded on the door, rang the bell, tried the handle, went back to pounding and ringing.
“Hello? Hello? Scarlett, what’s going on? Scarlett!” There was no answer, just another crash inside. It sounded like a chair falling over. Being flung over. She ran for the gate at the side of the house.
The unlocked gate opened onto a big back lawn scattered with discarded toys, grass neatly cropped and a two-story playhouse hunkered by the back fence. It looked ill-used, the door hanging askew and a disembowelled bear lying on the threshold, stuffing spilling sadly from its wounds. Her nostrils flared as she ran to the back door. No blood. Not out here, anyway.
The cat shoved her head through the cat flap just as Beryl jumped the patio steps. “About time,” she snapped. “Where’ve you been?”
“You didn’t say you were going to need back-up.”
“The really big crash and the screaming didn’t tip you off?”
Beryl scowled. “I’ve been trying to get in. What’s going on?”
“I’ve run into some resistance.”
“Ah.” The cat looked sideways across the lawn. “Both.”
“Both? But – wait. You didn’t tell her?”
“She’s not entirely stable.”
“Have you even discussed this with her?”
“I repeat – not entirely stable. How d’you think she’ll cope with a talking cat?”
“You haven’t even talked to her?”
“Well, I thought you might be better. More human-looking. Other than the hair.”
Beryl patted her hair protectively. “The hair’s fine. What’s not fine is me turning up with no warning and a talking cat, and running off with her kids.”
“Look, just get in here and talk to her, can’t you?”
“Well, yeah. But gods, Scarlett – this is not the way to do things.”
“Thanks for the evaluation. Now stop flapping and get in here.”
Beryl growled, but tried the door. “Is there a key?”
“How should I know?”
“What, you expect me to break the door down as well?”
“Don’t you just huff and puff and blow it all down?”
They glared at each other, the pale ginger cat and the small woman in lime green Doc Martens and a pink cardigan, then Beryl went to try the windows. She could see the kitchen through the dusty glass, a big pine table dominating the middle of the floor, its top crowded with boxes of sugary cereal and half-finished bowls. “Double-glazed – I can’t break it. You’re going to have to find some keys, or get her to let me in.”
Scarlett sighed. “I don’t know why I brought you along.” But she vanished back into the dimly lit house, and Beryl managed to resist aiming a quick kick at her backside. Just.
For a while there was nothing more beyond the windows. Beryl tried the big sliding doors that opened onto the garden, but they were locked too, heavy blinds protecting the rooms from prying eyes. She went back to the kitchen window and waited, straining to hear movement.
It seemed a terribly long time before Scarlett reappeared, her tail high as she padded into the kitchen, although Beryl supposed it had only been ten minutes at the most. A woman followed the cat, keeping close to the walls and peering around in bewilderment. She was too pale and too thin, shadows deep under her eyes and a fresh bruise blooming on one cheek. Beryl waved and gave what she hoped was a reassuring smile. The woman waved back automatically, but halted with the table between them. Scarlett said something, too soft for Beryl to hear, and the woman started forward reluctantly, stumbling as if the floor was unfamiliar territory. Her blouse was torn, one shoulder exposed and decorated with angry red scratches.
She stopped just short of the door and stared at Beryl. Open up, the older woman mouthed, still smiling widely. The woman looked uncertain, hugging her arms about herself, eyes huge and child-like. Hell, she wasn’t much more than a child. And way out of her depth. Beryl nodded encouraging, and mimed turning a key. The woman looked from the cat to the stranger at her window, then slowly turned the latch.
She was taller than Beryl, but so skinny as to seen almost insubstantial. She kept one arm wrapped protectively across her belly, still holding the door in the other. “Are you with social services?” she asked.
“Ah – no,” Beryl said, glancing at the cat, who shrugged.
“Oh. I thought maybe the neighbours had complained. Or the school. They don’t like going to school you see. And they make trouble.”
“So I see.” Beryl decided she wasn’t going to get invited in, so she stepped forward, and the woman moved away from the door, leaving it hanging open on the fragrant evening. Inside, the place smelled of spilt milk and unwashed plates, unshowered bodies and the musk of something altogether wilder. “So – your kids are home?”
The woman stopped next to the table, surveying the detritus of unsupervised meals, and plucked at her blouse. “They’re watching TV.”
“Okay.” Beryl could hear it – explosions and screams, gunshots and crashes. “Scarlett told you why we’re here?”
The woman gave a startled laugh. “You can hear her too? I thought the new sleeping tablets were maybe a bit strong.” She seemed less surprised than Beryl would have thought – as if her capacity for shock had been worn away by constant assault.
“I hear her too. So you know.”
“She says the Goblin King is going to take my babies away.”
“Stop saying that!” Scarlett snapped. “Gods damn – that was not an invitation!” There was a ripple of something like laughter, just on the edge of hearing, and the cat rose to her feet, lips drawn back in a snarl. “You know that wasn’t an invitation! She didn’t say the words. Don’t try me!”
“What’s she doing?” the woman asked Beryl.
“Best not to mention goblin royalty,” Beryl said. “Now – how about a nice cup of tea?” She skirted the snarling cat to the kettle. “I’ll explain everything.”
“Well,” the woman said dubiously. “I suppose that makes sense. The tea, I mean. I’m not sure about the rest.”
“Are you seriously making tea?” Scarlett asked. She’d stopped snarling, but her hackles were still up. The laughing had faded and the kitchen seemed brighter than it had a moment before, as if the sun had lifted itself from behind clouds. “This is hardly the time -”
“Tea’s important,” Beryl said, rinsing a cup out and taking a small vial from the pocket of her cardigan. “Sometimes tea’s the most important thing there is.”
The cat narrowed her eyes but didn’t reply, and Beryl smiled at the woman. “What’s your name, then?”
“Lana. That’s nice. Isn’t it, Scarlett?”
The cat gave her a murderous look. “It’s a name.”
“Well, I like it.” She topped the cup up with boiling water and the contents of the vial, leaning away from the steam. “Sugar?”
“And milk. I think there’s some.”
Beryl selected a half-full bottle from the table and sniffed it. “Good enough.” She took her time over the tea, letting it steep, ignoring the cat’s huffing and impatiently twitching tail. The woman was desperately fragile. She needed careful handling,and the cat was just going to have to wait.
The kitchen was quiet, only the sound of televised violence seeping in from somewhere down the hall, and Beryl humming to herself amiably as she slopped milk into the cup and stirred it briskly.
“There you go. Get that down you. You’ll feel better.”
Lana took the cup in both hands gratefully, but didn’t drink at once. “Who are you if you’re not social services? And why do you have a talking cat?”
“She’s not my cat,” Beryl said hurriedly, over Scarlett spluttering in outrage. “She’s very much her own cat.”
“As are all cats,” Scarlett added, tail flicking indignantly. “Beryl, we really need -” She stopped as the woman held her hand up imperiously.
“We’re here on behalf of the children’s father,” Beryl said.
“Their father? Where is he? Does he know what’s happening? Is he even alive?”
“I can’t answer that. I’m family, so to speak, but not close. But the kids – they need to be taken care of by people that understand them. By his family.”
“You’re taking them away?” She sounded dubious rather than upset, and finally took a sip of tea. Good.
“As you said, they’ve become unmanageable. Causing trouble, not going to school. Their father, and all those in their family, have a condition. A disorder.”
“Is it ADHD? I thought it might be. I wanted to have them tested, but they wouldn’t go.” She took another mouthful of tea, and Beryl watched her shoulders begin to sag into more relaxed lines.
“A little. But more damaging, less controllable. It’s very rare.”
“So – you’ll treat them?” Beryl heard hope in her voice, and her heart ached for the woman. Had she always been this broken?
“We’ll teach them how to manage it. They’ll be well cared for.”
“Can I see them?”
“Not at first. They’ll need time to adjust. Maybe later.”
Lana’s eyelids were drooping, the cup almost empty. “It’s not like juvenile detention, is it?”
“No. No punishments, no beatings. Discipline, yes, but love too.”
Lana rubbed her mouth with the back of her hand, stifling a yawn. “I dunno. I mean, they’re my kids.”
Scarlett opened her mouth, ears back in annoyance, and Beryl flicked her nose. She hissed soundlessly, but subsided. “They will still be yours,” Beryl said. “But what can you do here, on your own? It’s not fair, to you or to them. Look at your face. Your clothes.” She cupped the woman’s undamaged cheek in one warm hand. “It’s too much for you. For anyone. Let their father’s family help, even if he can’t. Let us take this weight for you.”
Lana’s mouth was working, and as she looked up at Beryl a tear trekked down her face. A familiar trek, the older woman thought. “You promise they’ll be okay? You promise?”
“I’ll care for them like my own.” Which was true, even if it didn’t answer the question.
The woman sniffed. “I’m a failure. My mum always said I was.”
“It’s not failure to admit that something’s too much for you to carry alone. It’s wisdom.”
Lana stared at Beryl, tears falling freely now, all but soundless. The smaller woman kissed her gently on the forehead, then let her bury her face in the fluffy warmth of the pink cardigan, rubbing her back in soothing circles.
“Would you hurry up?” Scarlett hissed.
Beryl glared at her, but disentangled herself from Lana’s grip and helped her up. Her mug was empty. That was good. She’d sleep, and in the morning she’d just remember that the kids had gone to live with family. It was easier than explaining it. “Let’s get you to bed,” she said, and helped the woman towards the stairs.
“About bloody time,” Scarlett said when Beryl came back into the kitchen. “Half the night’s gone.”
“That’s a wild exaggeration – I thought cats were meant to be patient. Besides, I couldn’t just leave her.”
“So what’d you do – tuck her in and sing her a lullaby?”
“Just made sure she was comfortable and gave her a few suggestions regarding how she thinks of herself.”
“So fragile, humans.”
“They are. And they don’t need us helping them question their sanity.”
“Right. Well.” Scarlett stretched. “You’ve done your good samaritan thing, so shall we get the cubs and get out of here?”
“Sure. Check to make sure we won’t have an audience out there, alright? I’m going to grab some things.”
By the time the cat came in to report the street clear and a light glamour on the house to dissuade curtain-twitchers, Beryl had placed two rucksacks of clothing at the bottom of the stairs.
“They still watching the explosion show?” the cat asked.
“Sounds like it.”
“It’s a wonder their eardrums are intact.”
Beryl chuckled. “Shall we?”
They walked into the living room side by side and stood staring in an awed sort of horror at the drifts of chocolate wrappers and biscuit boxes, discarded drink cans and crisp packets.
“Gods,” Scarlett said. “It’s almost impressive.”
“It’s disgusting,” Beryl corrected her. “And it stops now.”
A small head appeared over the arm of the couch, its owner kneeling on the floor beyond. “Who’re you?”
“And who’re you talking to?” another voice demanded.
“I’m your new guardian,” Beryl said. “And right now I’m talking to you. I want every piece of this rubbish picked up. Now.”
Head two popped up beyond the coffee table, staring in disbelief.
“That’s not our job,” Head one said.
There was a particularly large explosion on the TV, and Beryl marched across to it, fumbled for the power button, and shut it off.
“Hey!” two small voices wailed as the room was plunged into near-darkness. Beryl ignored them, returned to the doorway and flicked the lights on.
“Pick it up,” she said.
“That’s not our job,” Head one insisted. In the light, its owner was a skinny boy with unwashed brown hair hanging thick about his ears. His sister was sitting on the other side of the coffee table, a year or so younger and just as unkempt. They were both blinking owlishly in the light.
“It is now,” Beryl said.
The boy growled, an angry feral sound. “Can’t make us.”
“I can, but I’d rather you just did as you were told.”
“Can’t.” Both children were growling now, the tone low and threatening, making Scarlett arch her back and bare her teeth.
“Hush,” Beryl said, although whether to the cat or the children was hard to say. The little girl clambered onto the table, teeth bared, fingernails long and alarmingly sharp looking. The boy gave a guttural bark, gathering his legs under him to spring, teeth over-crowded, face cruelly pointed. Scarlett hissed, and the girl snapped as if at a fly, teeth clashing hungrily.
“Stop it, all of you,” Beryl said. She hadn’t moved, hands clasped in front of her, regarding them severely. The children didn’t look at each other, but she felt the wave of communication pass between them, saw their small muscles coil tight under their skin. Scarlett hissed again, not in fear but in warning.
“They’re children, Scarlett.”
“Even children must pay the consequences of their actions.”
“Not when they’ve never even known there are consequences.”
The boy raised his head and howled, a half-formed sound in his skinny chest, and his sister tried to join in. Her voice cracked, and she dropped back to snarls.
“Beryl, if you’re going to do something, do it. Otherwise this is going to have to go to the Watch. These kids are a menace.”
“This is in hand, Scarlett.” She didn’t take her eyes off the children. The cubs. She’d only once seen kids with the change on them, and it struck her as even more unfair now than it had then. Then, the kids had parents that understood, that had been through it. This – gods, what must they even think, with one parent terrified and one missing? No. Time to take this in hand.
“You will pick up all this mess,” she said. “And I will tidy the kitchen. By the time I’m done, you better be done.” She turned as if to walk out of the room, sharp ears picking up the excited catch in their breathing, the scratch of hard nails across fabric and wood, even the pound of their furious little hearts. She heard the cat’s growl sharpen to a warning, and her turn became a spin that brought her back to face the room, one knee dropping to the floor (she’d feel that the next morning, thick carpet or not, but not now). She braced herself as the cubs hit her, all teeth and claws and directionless fury, tangling themselves in the folds of her cardigan, sliding off the hard fabric of her jeans. And they were quick and young, but she moved with a sure grace and strength that startled the cat to silence, and in a moment all was still.
Beryl pressed the boy’s face into the carpet, the girl held at arm’s length by the scruff of her neck, twisting and whimpering. “Calm down,” she said. “This is how it goes now. No point fighting it.” They kept wriggling, and she sighed. “Scarlett, is there a downstairs shower?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Fine.” Beryl stood, tucking the girl under one arm and dragging the boy with her as she headed for the stairs. “A cold shower will sort these two out. They could use a wash anyway.”
It was after midnight by the time Beryl opened the door and shepherded the children down the path. Inside, the house was far from spotless, but it was at least clear of rubbish, and she’d bullied them into writing a letter to their mother, which sat on the now-clear kitchen table. Gods knew what Lana’d make of it, but it was done.
“In,” she said, as they hesitated at the curb.
The boy growled. “You’re kidnapping us.”
“I’m saving you, Joseph. Hopefully you’re never know what a close thing this was.”
“I want my Muuum!” his sister wailed. She’d spent the whole night crying, until Scarlett had announced she was waiting for them outside. Now she wrinkled her nose distastefully as the cub wiped snot on her sleeve.
Beryl sighed. “You’ll see her again.”
“I want her nooow!”
Beryl crouched down wearily and said, “Well, you should have been nicer.”
“Beryl -” Scarlett’s cry was lost in the half-formed roar of the boy as he charged, and the sobbing girl was all sharp edges again, flinging herself forward, both of them at the perfect level for teeth in the throat and claws in the eyes – and Beryl snarled. She didn’t move, didn’t change or stand or raise her hands, just snarled. It was deep and old and full of power, and the cubs stumbled to a stop, close enough that she could feel their fearful breath on her cheeks. The girl whimpered, sat down, and began crying in earnest. Beryl turned those cold grey eyes on Joseph. He tried to look fierce, to hold her gaze, then wilted.
“Help your sister into the back,” Beryl said. “And no more nonsense. I know what you are. I am what you are, and I’ve had a good sight more practise at it.”
Joseph nodded, and patted his sister’s shoulder. “C’mon, Mel. We gotta go.”
“I don’t want to.”
“We got to.” He looked at Beryl, sighed, and added, “It’ll be okay.”
“It will,” Beryl agreed, and opened the back door of the landrover. “Buckle up.”
Scarlett stayed where she was, watching the children strap themselves in, huddling towards each other across the expanse of the back seat. “That was pretty impressive,” she said finally.
“What, you thought I was all nursery rhymes and porridge for breakfast?” Beryl inspected her cardigan and sighed. “Ruined. I should have known better than to wear a good top. Look at this hole!”
“Are you going to be okay with them?”
“We’ll be just fine.”
“I can come back with you.”
“They’ve enough to deal with without suspicious cats hanging about.”
“I’m not suspicious. I’m healthily cautious. They’re wild, those two.”
“So am I.”
They stood there in the hush of the empty streets, houses dark and blind around them, a plane blinking overhead. Scarlett inspected the small woman with her purple hair, and nodded slightly. “I’ll pop by. See how you’re doing.”
“You’re welcome to. Just remember, they’re children. It’ll take time.”
“So am I.”
Scarlett tipped her head in acknowledgement. “You’re quite exceptional.”
Beryl laughed. “An old, wild, exceptional ‘were.”
“And the Watch thinks your kind can’t handle their own. They should meet you.”
“You have to be careful of reality,” Beryl said. “It can send your world a little wobbly.”
“I’m okay with that,” Scarlett said. “Drive safe.”
Beryl raised her hand and climbed into the car, leaning into the back seat. “All buckled up?”
“Yes.” Their voices were small, subdued.
“Good. We’ve a long drive ahead. Try and get some sleep.”
The landrover started on the third or fourth try, then wheezed away from the curb, spitting black smoke at the cat. She wrinkled her nose and watched them go, leaving the street still and empty and blessedly silent.