Days became a thick, warm haze in the hours passed with a slow reluctance. It was never silent, and her head constantly ached from the shrill impetuous squeals of the kits. The air was laced with the tang of milk and she could never ignore the pangs of nostalgia, her regular companion beneath the thorny roof.
It was always easy to hide, in the nursery. Her pelt was the dull black of shadows, and whenever Smokefang crawled in to visit Jayflight, Sablefrost could retreat to the darkness of Morningstar's tunnel. It was not so easy to hide her hurt, her betrayal, but in her stagnant, mellow nursery days she let it fester. She thought up all the cruel words she could spit at him, planned a scathing speech to convey just how much of a disgusting furball Smokefang was. She'd never utter it, she knew, but simply thinking up all the ways she could hurt him soothed her vindictive heart a little.
Oblivious to her friend's inner turmoil, Nettlefrost was immensely pleased that Sablefrost had finally joined her. Day in, day out she proclaimed that their kits would be good friends- perhaps they'd even be paired together. Sablefrost could only wince when the fawn queen brought this topic up; StarClan probably frowned upon the pairing of cousins. Despite their friendship, Sablefrost did not dare tell Nettlefrost the small intimate fact that it was Smokefang's kits she carried.
To break the Clan's sacred laws meant death; if anyone ever found out, she'd be dead ten times over.
It would not be long until someone unravelled her secrets; any day now Strongclaw would announce her infidelity and demand she be executed. He was Morningstar's son, after all, and she could expect no less. Sablefrost often found herself wondering if they'd let her kit before they killed her, or if they'd condemn her children to die with her. She wondered if Jayflight's kits would be better than hers.
It did not come as any surprise to her, the day Strongclaw came calling. His sleek striped head pushed through the entrance just as she finished demolishing her fresh-kill. She half-swallowed, half-gulped; the result lodged a bit of meat in her throat. Sablefrost descended into a fit of racking coughs as her pair approached.
"How's the life of luxury?" he asked, a faint smile tugging at his lips as he sat down beside her bedraggled nest. She spat out the small bloody chunk at his paws and sucked in a relieved breath.
"Be glad you're not a she-cat," she told him.
"I'd be a stunning she-cat," Strongclaw declared. "I already have the paws, for it, see." He waved his forepaw in front of her muzzle to emphasise his point; indeed, it was small, verging on dainty, insubstantial compared to the furred grey boulders on the ends of Smokefang's feet.
"Let's go stretch your pretty paws then. I feel like a walk," she told him. Whether or not he saw the implications in her eyes, he complied. The breeze outside was ice made air; frost hid from the light of the sun in the forest's looming shadows. Strongclaw did not say a word as they left the clearing. She could feel the Clan's gaze resting on her bloated belly, and in a small, stricken moment of paranoia it almost felt like their eyes could see beneath her flesh, see that the kits she bore were illegitimate, illegal, a sin in the eyes of their ancestors. These kits were the result of everything PureClan sought to destroy, and she was their mother.
For a few days that thought had nearly driven her mad- the prospect of motherhood, that was. She'd been dealing with treason since her naïve apprentice days. She'd managed to smother her fears with the realization that accidents did happen; kittings, regardless of safety, did not always need to occur within the warm walls of the nursery. There was always a risk that a queen could be nowhere near the camp when she kitted. Sablefrost was willing to embrace the risk, willing to ensure each and every kit died of...natural causes before they reached the camp.
The thought sent a shiver rippling down her spine, but she would not succumb to the same- or worse- fate as her mother had.
"We have things to talk about," Strongclaw murmured, his muzzle close to her ear as they ducked below a low-hanging branch.
"You haven't told Morningstar yet?" she asked, surprised. She'd thought the first thing he'd do, when he realized her prolonged trip to the nursery was not a hoax.
"The only information I have is that my pair is in the nursery and I don't know why. Hardly anything to tell my mother about."
"It's enough to go on," she insisted, before falling silent. Perhaps it was a natural instinct, to argue and quash whatever Strongclaw had to say, but it was not helping her here. "Nevermind."
Her pair smiled, mildly amused, if only for a moment. "When I said we had to talk about things, I was thinking along the lines of kit names," he told her.
This stunned her, and she could only blink up at him. Surely he wasn't stupid…but that was the only logical explanation she could find. She remembered Thornstreak threatening to report Embertooth to Morningstar, when she was younger, and had always thought the ever fluctuating relationship between her and Strongclaw was much like one her parents had held.
What would Thornstreak do? she asked herself, and she could not deny that this was not it. Then her thoughts turned morbid. The kits will never have names. Before they even reach camp they'll be dead.
"Got any ideas? I thought Emberkit would be a nice tribute, to your mother, you know. Provided they end up with your black fur instead of their father's."
He knows, he knows, he knows. He knows, and yet he has not dragged me off to his mother. Often the calico tom's mood swings and actions were complex, confusing, but he'd never bemused her so much until this day, this odd perplexing moment.
"My mother is dead," she replied evenly. "M-our kits don't need to share a name with a corpse."
Strongclaw shrugged. "I propose a deal. I name the kits, and I don't tell Morningstar about your...mistake." His eyes darkened and he glanced at her stomach. "And here in PureClan, we learn from our mistakes, don't we sweet?"
Sablefrost ground her teeth, more at the mere thought of Smokefang than her pair's choice of endearment. Mistake. The word was ugly, blunt. She didn't like to make mistakes twice.
"Why would you possibly want to make a deal with me?" the black queen demanded. There was something he was not saying, she knew, and she did not trust the guilt he tried to hide. Guilt for what? For betraying his mother and Clan, or for planning to betray her? Guilt for manipulating her just then, however minimal the terms were?
"Can you just trust me? For the sake of your kits? Can you find it in your withered heart to trust me, Frozenface?"
I trusted my mother and she killed herself.
I trusted my father and he was paired to Morningstar.
I trusted the grey she-cat and she tried to rip Thornstreak's life out of his throat.
Finally, I trusted Smokefang, but that trust was devastatingly misplaced.
"The lives born of my mistake mean nothing to me," she spat. "And careful, Patches, your mask is slipping."
"That's why I'm not letting you name the kits," Strongclaw replied, grinning just a little in his familiar, irritating way. "You have no creativity. And, Sablefrost, I fully intend for those kits to lead long and healthy lives. I'll follow you, anywhere you go. There'll be no slipping off to fake a tragic accident when you kit. You can't escape me. I will find a way for those kits to survive."
"There's no way," she protested. They'd stopped walking, and had huddled in a sun-drenched corner of a clearing. Strongclaw leaned towards her, his breath stirring her whiskers, and she leaned away, pressing her back against the soft, mossy bark of an archaic tree. His eyes were full of a grave promise: one she dared not let him make.
"Morningstar will take one look at the kits and decide there's no way they're yours."
"Smokefang told me about your sister," the calico said, with a jaunty wink. "We could find her-"
"That son of a StarClan cursed snake," she swore. "He's not even that, it's more like a worm or a...a rat…"
"Don't strain yourself, sweet," Strongclaw laughed. "My vocabulary is colourful enough for the both of us."
"Why did he tell you?" she asked, picturing a certain grey tom's blood on her claws. "What did he tell you? When?"
"Just after you'd been attacked by the Monster. We went back to camp and I was talking to Smokepaw-pestering him really- and was saying how it was odd you'd let a Tainted beat you. You were always better than that, in training. Meadowmist wouldn't let you be soft. I said something about something distracting you, but of course then you didn't know my father had died. Smokepaw, or Smokefang, looked like he was just dying to say something, so I knocked the truth out of him. I was bigger than him back then."
"Smokefang," she groaned. "Tough as rabbit tails."
"We know her name," he stated. "We know her city. If we ask around, using some good old-fashioned PureClan methods, we can find her. She's family, and she'll look after your kits for you."
"I knew Arrah for a few moments," she reminded him. "And she's one cat in the entirety of the massive Twolegplace." There she went again, crushing his logic, ruthlessly destroying any argument he set against her. "And how would you sneak away to the Twolegplace anyway?"
"Well," the striped warrior drawled, looking ridiculously pleased with himself. "I'm sure the Clan would appreciate a raid."
Did we hit 500 reviews? Yes we did! }:D Today the reviews, tomorrow the world...Yeah, anyway, I thought Strongclaw needed a little more spotlight because honestly, who can get enough of 'em? Is everyone impressed with my super-speedy updating? xD