Between the Two of Us
Emberkit never told her brother where she went. Maybe it was because he never asked; mostly, she felt it was because he couldn't be trusted. Oakkit was just a boring fickle tom. You wouldn't tell someone so callous your secrets, would you? Or your mother's.
Oakkit liked to sleep, and he liked to play. He didn't have an inane sense of curiosity and this at least, she could like about him. He couldn't care less about Sablefrost, or why she so frequently vacated the nursery. In for a feeding, and then out for hours. One who didn't know any better could speculate that she was simply following the regulations and restrictions that PureClan so reverently upheld.
Emberkit knew a lot.
She followed; she watched; of course, she listened. It helped to have a pelt spun of shadows, although the socks on her tiny paws, pale as snow, were four small setbacks. Emberkit herself was small, slim and short-furred. A kit's body, and a kit's dazzling blue eyes. For now. If not for the entire system PureClan followed from birth to death, the appeal of being grown-up, a 'warrior,' was alluring. It was the life partner fact that swayed her a little.
Frankly, the toms in the nursery all irritated her a little, and it was painful to imagine that she'd have to be tethered to one the moment she gained a small form of independence.
Not that Sablefrost seemed to care. Strongclaw appeared to care too much.
"Remember that hailstorm?" Her parents, under the pretence of hunting, were wandering the forest. They'd stopped here for a while, allowing Emberkit some time to catch up. She masked her breathing, sounding slightly breathless. She vowed she'd be fitter and bigger one day. 'Here' didn't seem to be any special place, unless you were a fan of rotting wooden logs and their accompanying mosses. Maybe it was surprising, the things she had learned, when she could barely keep up.
"You frightened me." Her mother's voice was breathy. Emberkit didn't suspect it had something to do with her father's proximity.
"Hey, I halted a potentially deadly infection in its tracks. Did I hear a thank you?" Strongclaw often reverted to jokes. Emberkit, not really given to laughing or amusement, smiled, just a little.
"Hmm." Her mother didn't seem to have words. At times like these, Sablefrost prefered silence, rather than thinking up something to say. Others would fill the silence for her, provide new conversations. In the nursery, topics were often bland- "Have you tried the baby mice?" (delicacies, Emberkit had since learned); "Aren't they growing up fast?"; "When I was their age..."
These moments were as sweet as they were dangerous. Ingrained in her already was the typical PureClan paranoia, small veins of hatred for what she had come to know as the poison. Her parents were detached, unconnected to the stories; such good warriors, brave cats, would never fall prey to any kind of disease less substantial than Greencough.
Strongclaw stopped with the jokes. Emberkit shifted slightly, holding her breath. She could see his face better now, and he was serious.
"You're still afraid."
"Not of you."
Emberkit's curiosity roused. She'd never known her mother to be anything other than stoic; cynical, a time or two. In PureClan, how could she possibly be afraid? But they were again moving, sleek pelts dappled with sunlight. Strongclaw didn't bother to hide his limp, where no one was supposed to see.
The black she-kit didn't learn much that day, that conversation, although she gained a sort of caution; if her brave mother was scared of something, it seemed only logical to harbour fear too. To make up for the sad lack of information, Emberkit snuck round the back of the medicine dens. Sparkpool shoved herbs down a white queen's throat, simultaneously swearing that leaves would only do so much to save her life. Sorrelstorm was treating a pale grey tom. The scabbing red scratches beneath his eye did nothing to detract from his cold, arrogant air of authority.
Unsurprisingly, her mother was nowhere to be found when she returned to the nursery. Too engrossed in his tussle with Mallowkit, Oakkit didn't spare her a glance. The she-kits were gathered nearby. Out of all of them, only Fawnkit and Mosskit could be honestly counted as her friends. The others were too old; conversations with Fernkit, Jayflight's daughter, were few and far between. The only thing Sablefrost really tried to enforce was the distance between them. She seemed equally unfond of her father, Smokefang, whose visits were brief and infrequent. Supposedly, this was due to his wound-riddled body, the beginnings of infections blooming red along the edges of the scabs he wore without pride.
Watching her brother pin down his opponent from the corner of her eye, Emberkit headed over to their nest. It was a little small, a little smelly, and the dried moss was cold when she curled up in its middle. Oakkit didn't take long to join her.
"Hey," he greeted, out of breath. The tabby was already big for a kit; she was uncomfortably small. "Have you seen Sablefrost?"
"She wasn't in camp, last I saw," Emberkit answered, rolling out of the path of his shadow. That much was the truth, at least. She didn't often lie to her brother- then again, he wasn't in the habit of talking to her much.
Oakkit pouted. This was a little odd, Emberkit thought, considering Sablefrost was usually the least of his concerns.
"Morningstar was looking for her," he added, thrusting out his chest in a typical display of self-importance. It was inches from her nose, and his lungs still laboured for breath. A dusty bit of fur brushed against her muzzle until a feeling in the back of her throat told her she was going to cough or sneeze or attempt both.
After a pregnant pause she sneezed, and the look that Oakkit sent glowering down at her was frankly disgusted. He pulled away a step, although his chest was still ludicrously inflated. The leader had apparently spoken to him, so what? It was a small world. A few cats lived in a freaking clearing in a forest; sooner or later, you'd be bound to talk to them all.
"Well, what did she want?" At this question, Oakkit looked a little crestfallen. At least it was sensible, keeping information from kits who had no clue how to close their mouths.
"She didn't say," he admitted. "Just told me she was looking for her. See you." Abruptly, her brother was tumbling away. Within moments he'd acquired another target: Littlekit. The two were roughly the same size.
Emberkit did not consciously make the decision to fall asleep. She was thinking, pondering, and all the while her eyelids grew heavier. Whatever her mother was afraid of...was it the reason their leader wanted words with her?
Always a light sleeper, Emberkit woke when her mother returned. She smelled enticing; all ferns and leaves and old milk, with a hint of fresh meat on her breath. Her pelt was uncomfortably cool. Instinctively, Oakkit nestled closer, but she didn't make a move. Her small patch of moss was warmer than Sablefrost, and the slim she-cat wasn't generally great for hugging. Especially not now, when what little the kit could see of her stomach was matted with leaves and twigs. But at least she was here now, masking the drafty hole in the nursery wall. Half large-leafed plant and half rotten, hollow tree stump, the hole marked the spot where the two that composed the nursery joined. On a warm day, it was pleasant; on a cold night it was the source of the breeze likely to keep you up and shivering for two hours.
Sablefrost never seemed to mind, but it was possible she was never there long enough to notice.
So, half-awake and only half-lucid, Emberkit thought at first that the voice curling through the hole, the irritance that no one bothered to fix, was only the wind. But wind didn't form words, wasn't so gruff, didn't demand things. She'd certainly never heard the wind hiss her mother's name.
"Sablefrost," it whispered. "You are awake. I can tell."
Though was a mouse length or two that separated her and her mother, she could feel her tension. Oakkit uttered a sleepy protest against Sablefrost's unyielding muscles. Through heavily-lidded eyes, Emberkit saw the black queen's sharp gaze narrow, pupils blown wide. She unfurled a paw, sunk her claws into the stale moss of their already dishevelled nest. She looked incensed; irate to the point of anger. And slowly, unsteadily, Sablefrost rose to her feet, shrugging aside her son.
As she made her way outside, Emberkit cautiously crawled to the mouth of the hole. Standing in the dark was an immense grey tom- the same war-wounded warrior who delighted Fernkit and Volekit with his sporadic visits. His gaze was impassive, intimidating more than anything, though this was due to the lengthy pink scar gracing his cheek, kissing the corner of one shadowed amber eye. He smiled as Sablefrost slid from the nursery, a little triumphant, a little too familiar.
"What do you want?" Sablefrost asked. She stopped a few feet from the other warrior and hesitated. Emberkit tucked her paws beneath her and watched the two stare at each other. After a long moment, Smokefang tilted his head and gave her a reply.
"The truth. Maybe you don't think I deserve much, but I don't care. I want to know."
The distance between them lessened, like a cat lured to its prey, a moth drawn irrevocably to light. Neither noticed and neither dropped their stare.
"You don't care what I think? That must be a first."
Emberkit herself was drawn to their words, the unspoken history they shared. Her insatiable curiosity once again demanded to know more. A story, once started, should be told in its entirety. This was Emberkit's philosophy. It wasn't altogether popular within PureClan; Oakkit, especially, didn't care about stories and histories, origins, lineages.
"It's the least I can do after you deserted me." An equally unfriendly response, another splinter of tension, another step taken. Inches gained, distance melted.
So derisive, was Sablefrost's snort. "You deserved what you got, and I didn't. There's my truth- happy now?"
"Hardly. But those kits don't belong to Strongclaw, do they?"
Smokefang struck a nerve; her mother flinched. "You don't care about them. You're just stirring up trouble. Did you even know I had to leave two behind? Did that kill you, just like it killed me? I don't think so, and you don't have any right to drag me out here and interrogate me."
The impact of her words on the grey tom seemed minimal, at best. "Did you miss me?" he asked, hushed.
Soft, unerringly slow, Sablefrost murmured, "I hate you." When she fled, Smokefang didn't look surprised. His expression did not reveal anything at all, but it was not yet that Emberkit recognized his acting and his perfected mask.
The next day, Emberkit found her mother dozing in the shade of long ferns. Where her fur met with the bright dawning sunlight, it glinted a rusty red-black. She didn't wake at her daughter's approach, so she took a few moment to study the queen's imperfections; dirty fur at her paws and belly; even sleeping, a face worn and haggard; a dusty thread of cobweb twining around one ear.
With a short foreleg, Emberkit reached out to snare the cobweb. Its dusty whiteness fascinated her for a moment and she paused, watched it hang from her tiny claws. Oakkit liked to call it spider dirt, and shoved it in her face every time he found some. She still found it pretty, if a little flimsy to play with.
Morningstar's impatient cry interrupted her staring.
It wasn't her longest summoning ever, nor her most informative, but cats came any, yawning, blinking, half-asleep on their paws. Sablefrost woke too, and ushered Emberkit to a spot beside Nettlecloud and her litter; far away from Smokefang, she noticed.
"I have a very long and boring list of apprentices and mentors to read out," the golden leader announced, "and you're all going to sit through it." The older kits were the only ones to look excited at this prospect. They milled at the bottom of the Speaking Hill, segregated in their groups of gender.
"Under the eyes of StarClan, I rename these young cats. They are now Flurrypaw, Ashpaw, Swiftpaw, Flutterpaw, Goldpaw, Dawnpaw, Sunpaw, Firepaw, Cloudpaw, Nightpaw, Scarpaw, Willowpaw and Littlepaw. Look alive, lumps. This is barely half of it. How do you think I feel? I'm the one talking."
"The nursery is going to feel so empty," Sablefrost remarked, ear twitching as Morningstar rolled her eyes at the crowd. Emberkit felt a little jealous; apprenticeship was a liberty. They were granted a freedom denied to the kits and unlike the warriors, suffered no mutual tether to another cat.
More names were rattled off in an ardent succession. Most she didn't recognize; some she'd heard mentioned in fleeting discussions and offhand comments. Nettlecloud's name was among the rabble, and the fawn queen looked pleased.
"And of course, if two certain airheads hurry up and finish their training, we will soon be gaining two new warriors," Morningstar concluded. Her abrupt assembly was already diffusing. The new apprentices were huddled with their mentors, the kits already distracted and flicking a burr across the grass. The loss of their denmates was apparently insignificant. They were too old for fun.
Even Sablefrost was leaving, slinking through the shadows without so much as a word of farewell. Like mother like daughter, Emberkit left the sunny clearing. She wasn't particularly subtle, but no one noticed her departure. They were all too sleepy; too busy pretending to be interested in the ceremony and its recipients. When she caught up with the black queen, she was already entertaining company.
"His mother is terrifyingly insane. I don't see why you should trust him at all." Said company was once again the large and persistent grey tom. Sablefrost was distinctly unpleased.
"Morningstar has nothing to do with this, for once. Her sanity isn't even in the question, so I'd watch your words if you'd rather not be reported."
"You've had too many opportunities to report me, Sablefrost, and you've never done it a single time. Even in the midst of my so-called betrayal."
"So-called? Then I suppose it's your 'so-called' kits running around camp then?"
Pleasantly, Smokefang inquired, "And which lot would you be referring to?" A low growl sprang into the she-cat's throat.
"Those kits may be yours but they will never belong to you. You don't have any perverted rights to see them, talk to them, watch them, or remotely concern yourself with their lives. They have me to do that and they have their father. Strongclaw."
Emberkit could hardly contain her curiosity, this thirst for knowledge that burned at the back of her throat. Her mother had never told her anything of this; she never told her much at all, and the small she-kit had doubts that she ever would. Information was for mentors to dispense, and family concerns were for those with a superior age and in deeper dirt than she. In fact the whole conversation sounded so illicit it was likely Sablefrost would never tell anyone about it, let alone her young daughter.
"Shouldn't we let them make their own decisions?" Smokefang snapped.
"They will never know and if I have to rip your throat out for our protection, I will do it. I will enjoy it, and I will finish what that mangy Tainted started. Trust me. I've done it before."
Smokefang inhaled, the sound deep and hoarse. "I'm sure you're aware this isn't over, Sablefrost. It won't be over till I get what I want." With these words he was backing into the shadows, only a fox-length or two from Emberkit. She pressed herself against the ground but neither had spotted her. Smokefang was fleeing; Sablefrost's eyes were too glazed, too blank to see her.
It took a few moments for another cat to join them. He was short, a little slim, limping a little, calico fur dappled with a medley of shadows and sunlight. He stopped a few feet from the other warrior, hesitant. Deciding it was time to go, Emberkit rose to her paws and backed through the undergrowth, thinking that she'd never seen her father- her father?- looking like he'd won a race but lost a claw. Tender, triumphant, bittersweet.
Emberkit didn't linger. Maybe it was a habit of hers, invading privacy, but for today she'd seen enough. Occupied as she pushed her way through low unwieldy branches, she failed to notice the someone that liked to see all, but this time, had not seen enough.
"A kit, all alone in the forest? Unprecedented," a voice crooned. It was the very same voice that had been so abrupt that morning, that had called the entire Clan from their nests to perform a ceremony she was not so very enamoured with. It was a voice Emberkit had not yet learned to fear, but instead, was taught to hero-worship its owner along with her denmates. Startled, Emberkit stumbled sideways into a small clump of dock. Standing before her, in quite plain sight, was PureClan's voracious golden leader, the revered Morningstar.
"Oh, um, um…" Any excuse fled her head; she found herself melting against the dock leaves, wide-eyed. She had broken the rules and strayed from camp- would Morningstar exile her from PureClan? Would she be turned over to the Tainted?
"I'm looking for your mother," Morningstar interjected. "Haven't seen her, I suppose?"
Emberkit was frozen. Her instincts pushed at her to give Morningstar the answers she desired, but her rationality told her that Sablefrost did not want to be found. She didn't reply.
Morningstar snorted. "Useless. I expect you know nothing at all."
"That's not true," Emberkit piped up. Of course she knew things. Most of all, she knew how to listen.
The leader reclined on her haunches, idly scratching a faded scar on her foreleg. "Oh, yes. Likely. Sorry to be cynical, but don't lie to me, kit-ling."
"I'm not," she exclaimed. "I know…" She paused for a moment, lost in recollections. "I know that Swanpath is sick."
"That mouse-heart is always sick."
What could she say to her to convince her; to impress her? "Fernkit and Volekit had a brother but he's gone now. Nettlecloud had another kit and he's gone too but her others don't know.I know my mother said when you left the city she had to leave two behind."
Morningstar blinked and smiled slowly. "That's interesting, little kit. Who told you?"
Emberkit shook her head. "No one. I found it out for myself."
"I'm sure a clever kit such as yourself has found out many things," the older cat purred. "And you see, Sablefrost was telling me a story, but I'm afraid we were interrupted. Could you finish it off for me?"
"I don't know...what…"
"She had an interesting conversation...interaction...wasn't sure what to make of it. It's only natural she trusted me dear, as you do, I'm sure. You can tell me how that story ends, can't you?"
"Oh yes," Emberkit replied, with sudden clarity. "That big grey tom with all the scars was talking to her last night. And today. He wasn't nice. He said he wanted to know the truth and they kept talking about kits but she hates him, she said so."
"Smokefang. Of course. And how are your parents? No arguments lately?"
"No. They just go for walks and stuff."
"Enlightening," Morningstar murmured. Her gaze was on the green canopy above them. Her smile showed more teeth than Emberkit was entirely used to. "Go away now, would you? I have some thinking to do and you wouldn't want to be caught outside camp, would you?"
When she hissed and swatted a paw at the black kit, she obliged and made off in much the same fashion as Smokefang.
Sorry for the wait, guys. I've alternated between being busy and not really that busy at all but this time of year for me is a little hectic. I think I've been writing this chapter for a month or so. ;-; And it's only half beta'd, so any mistakes are on me. Next week is exams so the next update could be a little far away. The good news is there's probably not that many chapters left! Dear little Emberkit has kicked things into motion a bit, which is really all creepy old Smokefang's fault. That guy can't take a hint and just die already.
I suppose this chapter was supposed to be a bit of double-fluff but hey, you guys know me.
Leave a review if you liked the chapter, if you hate me because I never update, or if you think you can predict what's going to happen next c: Or want wish me luck, I'm fine with all four.