ƬΉΣ PӨIƧӨПΣD ΛПD ƬΉΣ PЦЯΣ

Deserting Duties

She tried not to notice the small, awkward things Strongclaw did that suggested he might not be a total jerk. He cleaned up her nest and made her new ones, thoughtfully adorned with feathers. He always brought her a piece of prey before eating himself. He tried to make her laugh, and no one had dared to insult her openly since the day of her pairing.

She tried to think that the moss he fetched was always lumpy-mostly, it wasn't- and that the feathers smelled of blood- they didn't; they were so clean he could've groomed them himself. His jokes only made her smile, but her reluctance to make such an obnoxious sound as a laugh was more often than not an effect of her melancholy mood.

"Sablefrost?"

He was there at her shoulder, an unusually concerned look on his face.

"Mmmm?"

He was probably worrying she'd go the same way as her mother: looking down at herself, she could see her glossy fur was starting to mat and lose its sleek luster; the ribs beneath her pelt seemed starkly prominent.

Strongclaw flicked his tail in front of muzzle, trying for a smile that only seemed watery and weak. "Just checking. You're still all there?"

"Of course I am," she snapped, jerking her head out of his tail's range. She stopped staring at Smokefang- who was sitting quietly with his pair- and begun to glare at her own.

"Sorry," he muttered, drawing back a few steps. "You just looked...distant."

I am distant. I'm icy, I'm untouchable. Don't you get the message?

She didn't tell him that. She often found that the words she had were for him alone. She often found that the words she had for Strongclaw were short, sharp, and regularly explicit.

"Don't do an Embertooth on me," Strongclaw mumbled, and the concern in his eyes seemed genuine.

"I'm sure by now Specklefrost's hidden her berries so well I couldn't find them if I tried," she growled. The mention of her mother's suicide was still a touchy subject, and the implication she would follow in her footsteps was degrading. She wasn't that weak; she had her father's strength after all, a trait her mother had never seemed to own. If he could survive a bite to the throat, she could surely resist the temptation of an easy death.

She wondered which tom would care more if she died; Thornstreak, Strongclaw or Smokefang. The latter seemed unlikely. With the amount of attention her brother Peppermask showed her, she doubted he would care at all.

Redsong's four kits tumbled out of the nursery. There were four of them; a perfect litter. The black-and-white tom named Nightkit trotted up to Sablefrost and squeaked, "Nettlecloud says she wants to see you."

His sister Goldkit pushed him aside. "She said don't bring him," she added, with a wary glance at her pair. The elders' tales were already working their paranoid magic.

Strongclaw waved his tail. "Go on," he told her. "I can amuse myself." To demonstrate, he began to chase his tail in a ludicrous, comical fashion. Sablefrost only rolled her eyes, but the whole litter of kits started giggling. Warriors were supposed to be strong, sensible and mature. This one was evidently a hilarious anomaly.

Shrugging, the black she-cat climbed to her paws and headed towards the nursery. Her friend had moved there three days before, claiming the slight swelling of her stomach was her first litter.

Recently the nursery had undergone a renovation; the hollow tree stump's rotting outer walls were covered with thorns while the inside now housed an underground extension. It had taken hours of strenuous labour, but Morningstar had demanded a private area for the birth of her kits. They were due any day now, and the leader was perpetually complaining about the weight in her large belly.

Stifling a sigh- the nursery only dredged up old and painful memories of her long gone mother- she ducked through the entrance. Nettlecloud was reclining in a plush mossy nest to her left.

"You're here," the fawn queen yawned. "At long last."

"The journey across the camp was rather taxing, thank you for asking," she replied, settling with a thump on the dirt floor.

Nettlecloud flicked an ear impatiently. "Right. And just when were you coming to visit me?" she demanded.

"Soon. You haven't been in here that long, you know."

Her friend sniffed haughtily. "It gets boring in here, with a stuffy old she-cat and bunch full of annoying kits for company."

"Oh, poor you. Nevermind the rest of us that slave away to feed you lot all day. Yeah, none of us have keeled over yet, but I wouldn't expect that record to stand for very long."

Her friend snorted. "Oh, please. You could always join me in the nursery, you know. That's what I wanted to talk to you about."

Sablefrost gulped nervously; she hated talking about the kits she was supposed to have. Nettlecloud ignored the small anxious movement and continued to talk.

"Come, Sablefrost, it's your duty. We have pairs for a reason. Looks, besides, our litters would be paired together! Wouldn't that be great?"

Her mouth was dry, and she could only manage to mumble, "Yeah, I guess."

Kits weren't on her agenda. She wasn't sure exactly what was, actually, but it did definitely not include bundles of squealing fur.

The fawn queen gave her a scathing look. "It's not about what you want, you know. It's for the good of the Clan. And the Clan needs kits."

The black warrior shook her head and climbed to her paws. "I'm not having this conversation."

As she hurried out of the small den, Nettlecloud called, "You can't run from your duty! Your duty!"

"Then what am I doing?" she hissed, pushing her way past Streampaw and into the forest.

No one answered her, not even StarClan. Perhaps that was because she already knew it.

She wasn't sure why, or even how, she ended up back in the tunnel beneath the green meadow. She only knew that the sobbing gasps she took hurt her body, but the fear in her belly hurt more.

Sablefrost pressed her muzzle against the dirt wall. Having kits had unhinged her mother, and now the mere prospect of them was unhinging her.

"I don't- I can't...they won't make me...I can't!" Her words were incoherent; they seemed to make as such sense as her awful, twisted life.

"Sablefrost!"

A shape was silhouetted the entrance of the tunnel, bringing with it a familiar scent that made her want to cringe.

"Sablefrost, what's wrong? What happened?"

"Go away, Strongclaw," she spat. "I don't want you here."

"Sablefrost," the calico tom said softly, patiently. "I can help you. It's all right." He gently laid his tail on her shoulder.

She leaned away, looking up into blue eyes gleaming with a hopeful light.

"Please," she said tersely. "I need you to go away."

Strongclaw backed away. The light had shattered; perhaps she'd refused him for the final time. But his was not the comfort she craved.

"Okay," he murmured. "I'm going, see?"

She watched as he turned and shuffled out of the den.

"Thanks," she whispered, but he did not hear it.

She wondered when she'd gotten so fragile. She wondered just when her mind had begun to go. As she shivered, she wondered, just wondered, when it would be her turn to die.

The laugh bubbled out of her throat uninvited and unexpected. High, desperate, hysterical.

Why is it funny? Why is the realization that no one in my Clan is sane somehow hilarious? Everyone's just as mortal and as screwed up as I am. Ha, ha, ha.

"Sablefrost, what in StarClan's name?"

She growled again, because obviously Strongclaw couldn't take a hint. "I told you to go away!"

"Sablefrost, you haven't spoken to me all day. You haven't spoken to me in two moons."

When she lifted her head and saw that, indeed, the figure before her was not Strongclaw, she snapped out of her hysteric haze.

"You," she growled, scrambling into a defensive crouch.

Unstable cats were dangerous, weren't they? He ought to know that.

"It's me," he agreed quietly. "But is it you?"

"What do you mean? Who do I look like, mousebrain?"

"You looked very distressed when you ran out of camp," Smokefang commented. "I'm just worried, that's all."

"Well don't be. Look, I'm fine. Anyway, it's no right of yours to worry about me. What happened to playing pretty pairs with Jayflight?"

His scent wreathed around her pelt. "You looked like you needed my attention more."

Sablefrost laughed smoothly, belying no hint of the wild frenzied mirth that had spilled from her mouth half a minute ago.

"I don't need anyone's attention. Yours least of all."

"Why are you doing this, Sablefrost? You keep shutting me out, glaring at me across the clearing, trying to ignore every word I say. What have I done?"

"What have I done?" she mimicked, mocking the lower cadences of his voice. "I think you would've consciously registered becoming Morningstar's newest henchman."

Smokefang relaxed and sat down beside her. "Oh, that," he snorted. "I was acting, Sablefrost. Acting. I doubt Morningstar would appreciate my natural personality and my ethical views. Such questioning of PureClan's morals would surely guarantee her claws on my throat. Besides, what do you do all day? Is that frozen mask really you?"

She was silent for a moment; if he'd been acting, then he was very convincing.

"It's not me," she managed to whisper. She did not flinch as Smokefang rested his head on her shoulder; it felt right.

She'd missed his touch.

"When I'm with you, I don't act, Sablefrost. I'm not acting now," he breathed.

"Neither am I."

"Let's just be ourselves, Sablefrost. Just once."

She agreed.

Phew, sorry it's been so long since I updated. End of school, holidays and whatnots. Anyway, this is your Merry Christmas update. If you don't celebrate Christmas, then it's your very own Merry Holiday update. Yaaaaaaaay.

Thank you everyone for my birthday reviews! :D Over 330 is really great. Thanks everyone.

I'd also like to let everyone know that I've made a PureClan forum!

Is anyone else's heart breaking for poor dear Strongclaw? (Thanks to my dear Hunterwifey for pointing out his infertility. So sad 3:)

I think that's my AN for the chapter. See you next...update, whenever that may be. Happy hols C:

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