Colouring In

“I think you’re a pink,” said Leaf with a smile. The boy glanced at her and looked away towards the window. She watched him for another few seconds. “I’ll change the leaves on your dressing in a bit,” she said. “You’ll soon be back swinging from branch to branch, like a gorilla.” She beat her chest lightly and gave a few little howls. The boy looked round at her. “That’s wolf,” he said.

“I’m not so hot on gorilla sounds,” she admitted.

“They scream,” said the boy. “And they sing when they’re eating.”

“My!” said Leaf. “That’s an impressive bit of gorilla knowledge, Twig.”

“And they’re always farting,” said Twig.

Leaf laughed. “Well, I’ll do the singing for you but that’s as far as it goes.”

Twig smiled and Leaf felt a little surge of satisfaction – a break-through.

“Let’s have a quick look at the dressing then,” she said, “before Dr Bronze gets here.”

Twig nodded and she raised the blanket. The leaves were still in place and nothing had seeped from under them. His leg seemed less swollen.

“You’re called Leaf,” said Twig, “so that’s a leaf dressing. Do you get it?”

“A lot,” said Leaf, replacing the blanket. “It’s a good job I’m not called Poo.”

Twig actually laughed, the first laugh Leaf had heard since he’d been brought in three days before. Before either could speak, the door opened and Dr Bronze came striding in.

“Laughter?” he said. “Good. The dressing?”

Leaf lifted the blanket again and Dr Bronze looked at the leaves. He prodded them quickly and stepped back. Twig winced but this time he didn’t bite. Leaf sighed with relief. Her own bite marks were scarcely visible.

“Still tender, eh?” he said. “Not for long.” He glanced at his wristpad for several seconds. “Your breath analysis indicates ruby or cerise for the recovery pod so we’ll give each a go this afternoon.”

“Will Leaf come with me?” asked Twig.

Dr Bronze stared at him briefly.

“You’re not the only patient here,” he said. He paused at the door. “You’ll be well looked after whoever it is.” He left.

“I will pop in to see you,” said Leaf. “If you’d like that.”

“You got pink right,” said Twig.

“Without a single fart,” said Leaf.

This time, both of them laughed.

“Should I fetch a holophone?” asked Leaf. “I’m sure your mum would like to hear and see how well you’re doing.”

“No,” said Twig. He turned his head to stare through the window. There’s a story there, thought Leaf. She nodded and quietly left the room.

Outside, she paused to check her wristpad. She entered Twig’s full name and his file opened. Beyond her name, commune and occupations, there was little else that shed light on Twig’s mother. He had an older sister and a younger brother, though… middle child? No father was indicated, just the usual “Commune”. Her screen suddenly filled with a picture of her next patient and she hurried to the ward.


In the cafeteria, Leaf snipped a piece of mint and chewed it while listening to Nat tell her how he’d lost the chess game. ‘Listening’ is probably too generous a word to describe what her ears were doing. She was still wondering about Twig and whether or not she should try to introduce him to children on the ward. If she moved him too soon, it could be a disaster.

“The thing is, it moved too soon,” said Nat. “You see, I’d thought about the—”

“Are you doing it to me?” asked Leaf.

“Doing what?” replied Nat. “I’m telling you about the chess game.”

“It’s just that you said “moved too soon” just as I was thinking those very words,” said Leaf.

“What, you guessed that I’d moved too soon?” said Mark.

“No, I… never mind. Go on – you moved too soon,” she said.

“Yes - no,” said Nat. “I’d thought about the move but only as a possibility and then the queen actually moved on the board before I could stop it. I didn’t think I was focussing on it that hard. Maybe if you visualize it too many times… I don’t know. Anyway, there it was. Bang. Gone. It was so embarrassing! The girl is only 11! Her powers of telepathy are scary.”

He carried on for several minutes and Leaf nodded politely every so often. She had never played chess. Nat paused to sip his tea. “What about the colours?” asked Leaf in that short gap.

“It’s quite hard,” said Nat. “Have you ever tried to picture a colour in your head? You focus and focus but the pixels, well, it does for me, they keep blurring. Actually, it’s not just for me. Most of the others have the same problem. Lucas can get a fairly consistent colour for three or four minutes, nowhere near long enough for the recovery pods”.

“Maybe you should get Bronze to include that girl in the trials, “said Leaf. “That girl who totally humiliated you. I’d like to meet her, congratulate her.”

Nat grinned. “I’d like to meet Twig,“ he said. “Congratulate him – how many bites was it?”

“Touché,” said Leaf. She showed the back of her right hand with its single bite and pulled back a sleeve to show the other two. “So is Bronze happy?” she asked.

“He’s hardly ever there,” said Nat. “Just pops in from the lab next door, says ‘keep at it’ and leaves.”

“Really?” asked Leaf. “I thought it was his big thing? They’ve granted him so many resources!”

“Yeah, it’s a bit odd,” sad Nat. “Bit of a contradiction, too – he wants us to keep our minds concentrated but he just goes straight back to that other lab.”

Leaf snipped another piece of mint, chewed and thought. There had been such publicity about the initiative. Invitations had gone to every commune looking for volunteers. If enough people could be trained to meditate on a single shade for at least five minutes in order to change the pixels on a wall, then patients could recover much more quickly in the reassuring familiarity of their own homes. After the initial fanfare and a few promising bulletins, little had been heard for nearly a year. Maybe Bronze had realised it couldn’t be done and he was a man who did not like to fail.

“So what’s he doing in the lab next door?” asked Leaf. “Is that part of the scheme?”

“Probably,” said Nat. “He always locks the door.”

“Always?” echoed Leaf.

“I’ve never seen anybody else go in or come out,” said Nat. “But there’s an outside door.”

Leaf tried to picture the rest of the hospital. She knew it well from 12 years working in it. She could not think of one other room in the building which was permanently locked – even when locked, her wristpad unlocked every door she approached when she thumbed the screen, even at night. The only exception was during storm lockdowns – no-one wanted 200 mile an hour gusts sweeping down the corridors. Even then, all the underground rooms still opened and closed when she needed them to.

“Is that all you’re having?” asked Nat. “Two mint leaves?”

“Oh my God!” said Leaf. “I’ve eaten two? That’s shocking! Right, I’m off. See you back in Birch.”

“Unless you get blown over by a breeze,” said Nat. “Maybe if I concentrate enough, you’d be easy enough to topple. Revenge!”

She’d known Nat since tree school. Both were born in Birch and both had been in the Fungi Buds. They’d even had a fight which Leaf had won having the advantage of an extra year and a bit. She’d been put in the Green Room, Nat in the Blue and when they were calm enough, they sat in the Violet Room and listened to gentle waves reaching a beach that they had never seen. Years later, talking to Nat about it, he’d insisted that it was birdsong they’d heard. She smiled every time he reminded her that he’d only ever been in one fight whereas Leaf couldn’t even remember how many she’d had. It made her uncomfortable to think that once upon a time she used to hit people. Twig would grow out of it, too, she felt, with the right treatment.

She left the building and crossed the garden where some patients were tending plants some would later be eating. She thumbed her wristpad and the door to the Colourdome slid open. Pink occupied part of the first floor and she jogged up the steps. She wouldn’t herself have chosen the darker pinks like Ruby or Cerise for Twig. Dr Bronze must have had his reasons. She’d actually have chosen green, whatever the breath analysis said.

Twig was in the second room. What she saw was not what she expected. He was not lying down but limping restlessly around the room and weeping. She instantly opened the door, turned to the wall chart, activated the cursor and moved it gradually to a light green. Twig slowed and Leaf walked calmly to head him off. She stopped and held out her arms. He limped past her, snapping his teeth but he made no attempt to bite. She turned to watch him, keeping her arms open, and made waves of shushing sounds. He limped past again but did not snap his teeth. On his next turn, he walked into her arms and sobbed. She held him for all the minutes it took for the sobbing to cease, shushing all the while. She led him at last to the divan but he would not release her. They were standing like that when a nurse walked in. She moved towards the wall chart and activated the cursor.

“Don’t,” said Leaf.

“Dr Bronze said Cerise,” replied the nurse.

“Didn’t you see the state of him?” asked Leaf. “Is nobody monitoring the holoscreens?”

“Dr Bronze said it would be temporary,” said the nurse.

“How long were you watching?” asked Leaf. Twig turned his head on her chest to stare at the nurse.

“Not much more than maybe twenty minutes,” said the nurse. “Mr Bronze, Dr Bronze said—”

“Twenty minutes?!” exclaimed Leaf.

The nurse turned back to the wall chart. “I should—”

“Don’t bloody well touch it!” said Leaf. “This leg is not meant to be walked on just yet. Even Dr Bronze knows that.”

The door opened and Bronze strode in. He folded his arms, looked at the nurse then at Leaf.

“He was limping around the room,” said Leaf. “You agreed that he shouldn’t be walking until the leaves are off.”

Bronze nodded to the nurse who left, closing the door quietly.

“I know you think you’re doing the right thing,” he said calmly, “but don’t ever countermand my orders again, particularly in front of junior staff members.”

Leaf took a deep breath. “The reason I think I’m doing the right thing is because you taught me,” she said, her heart racing. “Nevertheless,” began Dr Bronze but added nothing else. He walked to the wall chart.

“Didn’t you see what he was doing on the holoscreen?” asked Leaf.

“Sadly, I don’t have time to watch all my patients,” said Bronze without turning. He held his thumb briefly over his wristpad but didn’t press it. He walked instead to the door, turned to stare at Leaf and then walked out, shutting the door firmly.

“Phew!” said Leaf. “I thought I was going to fart.”

Twig burst out laughing. She sat him on the divan, tried to put her arm around him but he moved to sit with his back against hers. When she felt his calmer breathing, she aired him back to his room.

Later that evening on the shuttle from the Hub to the communes, Leaf turned it all over in her mind. She was particularly puzzled by what Twig had told her in his room. He’d said that Bronze told him he would change the wall colour if Twig helped him. It sounded almost like a bribe and that Bronze knew it was the wrong colour. What sort of help could Twig give a doctor? Why hadn’t Bronze really reprimanded her? Had the nurse not alerted him to Twig’s behaviour? Or had she? Did it have anything to do with the locked lab? What had happened to Twig to make him so aggressive? What was his mother like?

She was still trying to find plausible answers when she entered the funicular and pressed the button. She listened to the water filling above and slowly the funicular rose. It suddenly struck her that slow, running water would be a good sound to add to the calm store.

At the top, she walked along the footbridge, running her hand along the wooden rail, still puzzling. She’d never been on one but people who had had told her the slight sway of the footbridge was like being on a ship. She raised her hand at her door and it glided open.

“Where’s my bloody tea?” she shouted.

Cedar came from the kitchen and they hugged.

“You told me that slavery died out a long time ago, mum,” said her daughter.

“I was lying,” said Leaf. “What’s been happening with you today?”

“I fell in love with a man and we want to make babies together,” said Cedar. “A normal day.”

“How many?” asked Leaf.

“We haven’t fixed on a number,” said Cedar.

“A ‘man’?” said Leaf. “So… twice your age?”

“I will be fourteen soon,” said Cedar.

“Is he the same one you mentioned before?” asked Leaf sinking onto the sofa.

“Mum!”, exclaimed Cedar. “That was last week. Do you want to eat in the kitchen or shall I just slop it onto your lap here?”

“’Slop’?” said Leaf. “Sounds appetising”.

Over tea, Cedar told her what she had been doing. Her group had communicated with two others in Willow and Oak, sending electrical signals through the mycelium under mother trees to the other two communes.

“It wasn’t just for fun,” said Cedar. “We were sending information about water levels, carbon levels and animal droppings.” “Shit work,” said Leaf.

“Oh, dear,” said Cedar. “That must be the… let me see… 26th time I heard that one today. We told them we saw wolf tracks, too.”

Leaf beat her chest lightly and made a small howl. Cedar stared at her. “Have you been on those mushrooms again?” she asked.

“Tell me, dearest, for you are my dearest,” said Leaf, “have you ever bitten anyone?”

“Bitten?” said Cedar. “No, never, unless I did when I was too young to remember. I’ve certainly felt like hitting people.”

“Hmmm,” said Leaf. “I wonder where you get that from?”

“Did he bite you again today?” asked Cedar.

“Just the opposite,” said Leaf. “He hugged me.”

“Wow, Mum,” said Cedar. “You’re a proper healer. That is amazing! In, what, three days?”

“He doesn’t want to holocall his mum,” said Leaf.

“He doesn’t want to?” said Cedar. “What about her? You’d be sleeping at the foot of my bed! Correction. You wouldn’t be sleeping, you’d be staying awake.”

Leaf smiled, reached across and stroked her daughter’s cheek. She vaguely remembered her own mother lying almost on top of her, as the hurricane tore through the valley where they lived. She could almost feel the rock against her back when she thought about it. Then, so many long hours after, her mother pressing her against her body to keep her from seeing the bodies of her father and her brother as they passed the shattered house that had failed to shelter them. That was coming up to three decades ago. She sighed. Cedar would have loved her granny. Such hurricanes seemed to occur less often now… maybe the mighty kelp forests she’d heard about were doing their job and drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere. One day she would take Cedar to the sea.

“Didn’t you once tell me that people used to move around in schools, like fish or dolphins?” asked Cedar.

Leaf grinned. “Well, they didn’t move about, “she said. “They usually stayed in one room and were told about things the teachers decided were important. That’s what your great-granny told me - her granny had been to a place like that.”

“So they couldn’t find out what they wanted to find out about, the kids, I mean?” said Cedar in near disbelief.

“It wouldn’t have been so easy,” said Leaf. “You all did one thing for something like an hour, then something different—”

“Whether you were interested or not?” exclaimed Cedar. “That’s mad!”

“People used to believe that slavery was OK, too,” said Leaf.

“Some people still do,” said Cedar with comic darkness. “Obviously.”

Leaf took her daughter’s hand and bit it lightly. She made a small howl.

“I said slavery,” said Cedar. “Not wolvery”.

The following afternoon, Leaf arrived early at the Hub and went straight to Twig’s room. It was empty. She hurriedly thumbed his details onto her wristpad. He was still registered. She put his image into a search – he was not to be seen. Registered but invisible? She called the Hub Exit. He had not left the complex. She went to the nurses’ station and activated the wall screen. Of course. There was only one area that provided no image – the laboratory next to the Colourdome.

“Activate ColourLab,” she said aloud. The screenwall flashed back: “Disabled.” “Reason?” she called. The screenwall flashed again: “Disabled.” “Access,” she said firmly. “Denied,” it flashed. She was about to try ‘Authorise’ when her wristpad lit with the face of her next patient. “Damn,” she muttered and then said to the screenwall: “And damn you, too!”. “Clarify,” it flashed.

Nat confirmed her thoughts at lunchtime. “He’ll be in Bronze’s lab,” he said. “They’ve got beds there.”

“I don’t like it,” said Leaf.

“What, you think the beds should be somewhere else?” said Nat.

“Be serious for a minute,” she said. “I think—”

“Oh, no!” said Nat. “Not thinking?”

Leaf glared at him and stood, picking up her half-eaten seaweed.

“Sorry, sorry!” he said immediately. “I’ll be serious, I promise, I promise.”

She sat again.

“I was thinking…” she began. He didn’t interrupt. “Do you remember Fungi Buds when we used to play hide-and-seek?”

“You were brilliant at it,” said Nat. “We’d run past right where you were and never see you.”

“And that was all fine, wasn’t it, because we knew it was a game,” she said. “But we always knew that it was something to grow out of because co-operation was more important and you don’t hide in co-operation. Hiding for adults was about treachery and competition, war and winning, that sort of stuff. So… why and what is Bronze hiding? And why is the hospital letting him get away with it?”

They were silent briefly. Leaf went to speak but Nat held up his finger. She waited.

“What’s the best animal at hiding?” he asked finally.

“Um… a spider?” she said.

“Apart from the fact that a spider is not an animal, yes, they’re good,” he said. “But not the best.”

“A… oh, that’s not an animal either. I was going to say cricket,” she said.

“If you put a cricket on that red coaster, would you see it?” he asked.

“Obviously,” she said. “It’s not grass.”

He paused.

“I bet Cedar would know,” he said. “Right – what animal changes colour to fit it’s background?”

“Oh! Yes, a chameleon!” she exclaimed. “So?”

“What creatures did Bronze order a year ago to ‘divert’ the patients?” asked Nat.

“That was Bronze’s idea?” said Leaf. Her wristpad lit up. “Damn!” she said. “Message me a bit more about it after work.”

“If you promise not to fight me again,” he said.

“That was years ago! Get over it!” she called back over her shoulder.

In between therapies and consultations, she worried about Twig and thought about chameleons. Before going home, she went back to the nurses’ station to check the screenwall. The nurse she had stopped in Twig’s room was there.

“Excuse me,” said Leaf.

The nurse turned and started.

“Sorry,” said Leaf, “I didn’t mean to startle you, I just—”

The nurse stared at her and waited.

“You’re blushing,” said Leaf. “You’re blushing!”

She turned and hurried away, hoping she could catch Nat before he aired home. Behind her, the nurse continued to stare.

“Nat, Nat!” called Leaf at the Hover racks. He was a foot above the ground, but turned and set his hoverboard down. “The nurse!” said Leaf. “She blushed!”

“What, you told her you loved her?” said Nat.

“Her skin!” said Leaf. “It changed colour! Like a chameleon’s skin can change colour! He’s trying to get human skin to change colour! Bronze is trying to somehow, I don’t know, maybe through thought, to get people to deliberately change their skin colour to, I don’t know why—”

“It’s the only defence a chameleon has,” said Nat. “It can’t beat, well, even I could probably beat a chameleon if I could find it.” “But why would he? Why spend all that time… we don’t need to hide from people anymore, do we, Nat? All that’s history, isn’t it? It’s crazy!”

They stared at each other for several seconds.

“I’ll ask Oakey,” said Nat. “She knows somebody who knows somebody.”

Back home, she stood on the balcony staring at the trees. Thermal imaging might pick out a chameleon but her eyes would not. Their only defence, Nat had said.

“I thought that it was supposed to be teenagers who didn’t listen to their parents, not the other way around,” said Cedar behind her. “THE… SOUP… IS… READY. Would you like me to say it a fourth time?”

“What eats chameleons?” asked Leaf.

Cedar shook her head. “Mum… those mushrooms – I’ve told you about them before. Mongeese, snakes and plenty of others eat chameleons. They have lots of predators.”

“And who are our predators?” asked Leaf.

Cedar stared at her mother.

“You’re beginning to scare me”, she said.

Leaf wrapped her arms around her daughter.

“Tell me again about the soup,” she said softly.

Later that evening she arranged for her next day patients to be seen by others. But she still went to the Hub in the morning. She stood by the outside door to the ColourLab and waited. It didn’t take long. An assistant approached and went to raise his hand to activate the lock but stopped.

“Can I help?” he asked politely.

“You can by opening the door,” said Leaf.

The assistant looked nervous.

“I don’t have… we’ve been ordered to enter alone.” he said.

“Well, I’m ordering you to give me access and if you hold your wristpad to my face you will see that I have seniority here,” said Leaf firmly. “Please remind me of the hospital motto?”

“C for Care, C for Cure and…” said the uneasy assistant.

“And?” she added.

“C for Co-operation.”

“Then please co-operate,” said Leaf gently.

“It’s no good,” said the assistant. “Even if I open the door, you’re not chipped. The inner door won’t—”

“I’m not what? Did you say ‘chipped’?”

The assistant turned his head and pushed his ear forward so that Leaf could see a tiny dot behind the lobe.

“Is what’s going on in there dangerous?” she asked.

“Well, no, I wouldn’t say dangerous. I mean we… they don’t get harmed. Nobody gets hurt.”

The assistant’s wristpad flashed and beeped.

“I should be in there now,” he said.

“OK, let’s go in.”

“But it’s no good – the inner door won’t open if it senses someone without a chip.”

“We’ll just have to wait in the space between the two then. Open the door.”

They stood inside for less than five minutes. Bronze came himself and let them both through. He nodded to the assistant who hurried past, stared at Leaf, nodded at her, turned and strolled forward. She followed. On both sides, she saw through glass walls a variety of landscapes. Apart from plants, nothing seemed alive. She then realised that if there were chameleons in any, she wouldn’t notice them.

“I know what you’re trying to do,” she said to Bronze’s back. “You’re trying to give humans the power to change their skin to match their background, just like chameleons. What I don’t understand is why.”

“Oh, we’ve moved beyond chameleons,” said Bronze without turning. A door slid open to his left and he went through. Leaf thought she could hear water. She followed and found that she was right. Large tanks of water twice as tall as herself were on either side. Again, there seemed no life beyond the plants that she could see waving gently in an artificial current. She noted the camera lenses at several levels. Bronze paused and thumbed a control panel embedded in the glass. From above, an animated fish shape slowly glided down towards a heap of rocks in one corner. Just when it seemed as if the ‘fish’ would strike them, a ‘rock’ almost exploded into life and shot towards a clump of fronds where it didn’t so much as dive among them but almost seemed to become one. Leaf’s mouth opened and her eyes widened.

“You’ve never seen a real octopus, have you?” said Bronze without facing her. “A chameleon can take five minutes to camouflage itself. With an octopus, it’s as close to instantaneous as you can get. When chased, five minutes sitting motionless isn’t much help. The difference is in brains. The brain of an octopus isn’t in a single place like ours is. Brain function is spread throughout the body. Imagine having part of your brain in your fingertips, in your lungs, in your tongue. What a species we would be!”

Leaf watched the ‘fish’ approach the fronds and almost as it touched them, the octopus shot away to the sand by the rocks, settled and ‘disappeared’.

“Margot,” said Bronze to the control panel. “Why is the octopus waiting to the very last second before moving? She didn’t use to do that.”

“She knows it’s not a real fish now,” said a voice. “She learns really quickly. She just doesn’t want to be touched.”

“You know this is illegal, don’t you?” said Leaf at last. “You know that Family would prevent you working here if they knew you were taking creatures from their natural surroundings and enclosing them. This isn’t the 21st century.”

“Ah, yes, Family,” said Bronze. “You probably know from your history that the Family was the name used by Italian criminals to describe their group, their gang. They murdered people.”

“This isn’t history,” said Leaf. “This is now and Family is all of us, bad and good.”

Bronze smiled at her and walked away. She followed him, angered by his arrogance.

“It’s only a matter of time,” Bronze’s voice trailed behind him. “You think the world is going to be perfect now? That humans will stop being human? That no-one will ever want to steal or rape or kill again? That’s not just naïve, it’s dangerous. And when that day comes, people will thank me for developing a safety net, a protection that will save countless lives. And we’re well on the way. You should join me. Your Twig is becoming quite good at it – he’s a surprisingly fast learner.”

They were heading towards a courtyard beyond which a clump of trees gave some shade from the late morning sun. No-one else was there.

“But societies change,” said Leaf. Talking to his back was infuriating her. “We used to think it was OK to buy and sell people of different colour. We used to think it was OK for men to make decisions for women. We used to think it was fine to give girls who had started menstruation to a man they didn’t know so that she could bear his children whether she wanted to or not.”

Finally, just before the courtyard, he turned. “Yes, and for centuries we convinced ourselves that we were not part of the animal kingdom – with fairy stories that said we were above all that. But now that we know ‘better’, now that we all know we’re part of the animal kingdom, that doesn’t stop us being animals. Don’t tell me you’ve never fought another human, physically fought maybe even your sister or your brother. Don’t tell me you’ve never wanted to mate with another human or protect your offspring or taken what didn’t belong to you – does an octopus think, oh, that’s not my crab, I shouldn’t eat it? It’s all animal behaviour and, if the circumstances demand, it will reveal itself. So, caring as you undoubtedly are, Leaf, don’t think that there isn’t someone out there that might wish you harm or your son harm and, if he were to meet such a person, do not tell me you would not be glad of his ability to change his skin in an instant in order to save himself.”

He turned again and began to cross the courtyard. Leaf was briefly at a loss to find words to express how much better humans had become at accepting their ‘animalness’ and at controlling its worst manifestations, how co-operation was at the heart of every learning created for children… but all she could come out with was a shout.

“My daughter wears clothes over her skin. Changing colour wouldn’t help if she were threatened then, would it?” Near the trees, Bronze turned and smiled at her in his superior way. He opened his mouth to reply but did not have time to voice any words. A part of the tree detached itself and leapt at him, knocking him over. Astonished, Leaf ran forward as assistants suddenly appeared and grabbed what she soon realised was a naked boy. His skin was rapidly changing colour and she recognised at once it was Twig, struggling and trying to bite anyone who touched him. One assistant had a CalmPatch he was trying to put on Twig’s arm. “Leave him!” shouted Leaf. “Leave him! He’ll be fine! Leave him!”

She put herself between Bronze and the boy and held out her arms. “Quiet everybody!” she called and then began to make the shushing noises that had worked before. She walked towards Twig as his head darted round to watch the assistants. “Shush, shush,” she kept repeating slowly, calmly approaching as he backed towards the trees. He bumped against a trunk and waited for a moment before stepping forward into her arms. She didn’t turn around to watch the assistants helping Bronze to his feet or see them try to staunch the blood from the bite marks on his neck and cheek. She ignored his angry words to the assistants who were clearly preventing him approaching her and Twig. She just kept stroking his head and saying ‘Shush’. Eventually, Bronze was persuaded to leave the area and they were left alone.

“Twig,” she said at last, “how about coming to live with me for a bit? There’s a scheme which I might be able to access so we can carry on the therapy at home.”

“In your house?”

“Yes, in my house. But only if I can get this access. And there’d have to be rules. Like one, no biting. And two, you have to help with a few things – that means no hiding to avoid helping. That’s about it, really.”

“Three, no farting.”

Leaf smiled.

“You might have to rethink that one. You haven’t tried my daughter’s soup.”


Around a year later, Leaf arranged a small party to celebrate Twig’s tenth birthday. He was living with her on and off and sometimes staying with his older sister where he would keep an eye on his younger brother, Bark. He followed Cedar to her mycelium communications team and astonished them all with his knowledge of trees. Without whatever Dr Bronze had been giving to him, he lost the ability to change his skin colour at will. He only ever asked once what had happened to the doctor.

“Last I heard, he’d agreed to supervise the care of injured animals,” said Leaf. “Part of his rehabilitation. He’s a very clever man. You just have to be clever in a good way, though, to make all this work.”

At the party, they danced to Nat’s guitar, ate a hazelnut cake that Cedar made and played games until sleeptime. When the others had left, Leaf sat back to back with Twig while Nat showed Cedar how to tune his guitar.

“Why do you like this position so much?” asked Leaf.

“When I lived in the woods before they captured me, well, found me, that’s what I’d do. Sit against a tree for ages and watch and listen. There’s so much going on, so much among the trees. That’s when I felt at home.”

They listened as Cedar played her first ever chord and they clapped.

“Now you’re my tree,” said Twig.