But if you loved me, why'd you leave me?
— Kodaline, All I Want
"Well." Blackbird looked at Riverfur for a long moment. "Who isn't? It's sad. The whole freaking thing."
"You don't have to act like that around me. Maybe everyone else. But not me. I know you cared for her, even if you never loved her."
"How do you know whether I loved her or not?" Blackbird snapped.
Riverfur sighed, and Blackbird instantly felt sorry for the pained look on his brother's face. "I don't matter. Did she know you loved her?"
"I don't think I knew if I did," Blackbird whispered. "Isn't that sick?"
"How was the vigil? Last night was cold."
"I didn't feel anything." On the outside. On the inside . . . He didn't want to even try and figure that out.
Riverfur, who normally was on a completely different wavelength than Blackbird at all times, understood immediately. "We could talk about something else? How about a walk?"
"Why not. Everything here" Blackbird gestured to the entirety of the NightClan camp "reminds me of her."
It was true. Everywhere he looked, he saw Roseleaf -- visiting the kits in the nursery, wearing that gentle smile of hers that said when we have our own . . ., playing with the apprentices easily because she was young at heart herself, trotting to and from the fresh-kill pile, laying in her nest and waiting up for him all night when he was meeting with his father and other senior warriors.
She had been an incredible mate. And he had loved her. Whether she'd known it or not. Whether he'd known it or not -- the sad truth was that he had not. He had wanted a life with her -- only now that they had been ripped away did he realize that the ghosts of the secret hope he'd hidden in his heart had names. He'd planned them, dreamed them up in those twilight hours with Roseleaf between waking and sleeping, when the corners of the boundaries he'd built for himself all his life blurred into glorious possibility. Stormkit. Fernkit, after his mother. And Violetkit.
They would never exist, those kits. What a cruel, cruel lesson to learn: the value of what he had. He had taken Roseleaf, and the solid, comforting life she represented, for granted. Now he was untethered, a leaf blowing loosely on a volatile wind.
He and Riverfur ducked out of the camp and began to walk. Almost without realizing it, Blackbird veered off the beaten path, onto one he had not set paw on in a long, long time.
Riverfur let out a noise of surprise, running to catch up. "Blackbird?" he said hesitantly.
Ghosts. Ghosts of hopes, ghosts of the past. Blackbird figured if they were going to haunt him, he might as well attend the party willingly.
He and Riverfur were at the border now, but he ignored the scent markers and pushed onwards.
On into the thickest part of the forest. On into the heart of his own personal Ghostlands.
"It's grown," said Riverfur, and pointed to a sprawling holly bush directly in front of them.
Nodding wordlessly, Blackbird walked forward so that he was standing under its boughs. He scuffed his paws in the dirt underneath. Mostly it was covered in the tracks of small woodland creatures, but there were three indistinct piles of grass in a corner, old and faded and half scattered by the wind. Old nests.
"Do you still think about them?" asked Riverfur.
"Everyday." Every hour. All the freaking time.
"Me too. I wonder where they went, whether they're still okay, whether they've changed . . . why they left in the first place."
"Mothfly," Blackbird reminded him.
"Mothfly barely had my loyalty as a deputy. Violet and her sisters had my whole heart. Don't act like you're okay with what the Clan thinks happened. Violet is not some insane rogue who felt like randomly killing a Clan deputy. Something happened."
"I guess we'll never know," said Blackbird, "because she didn't tell us. Didn't even tell us she was leaving."
"She probably felt like she couldn't."
"Yeah. She couldn't do that, didn't have it in her. But we could lose her, we could bear that."
"Good practice. We lose a lot."
"Speak for yourself."
There was a pause that stretched into several minutes of silence. Then Riverfur said, "Why did we come here?"
Blackbird had closed his eyes; at the question, he reopened them. "I don't know. It's kind of the center of all sadness somehow, isn't it?"
"It used to be the center of all happiness, remember?" said Riverfur with a nostalgic smile, remembering. "We'd play moss-ball, we'd go fishing, we'd teach Vi hunting, we'd chase Aurora and Willow--"
"I remember," said Blackbird curtly.
"Too idyllic. We should've known it wouldn't last, in retrospect. I mean, what kind of life is that -- the sons of Thunderstar of NightClan, running around playing at fairytales with a few loner orphans. It was an illusion, so we could pretend we were normal and we mattered because of who we were."
It was a surprisingly harsh statement coming from Riverfur, and Blackbird had no practice in making optimistic comments -- that wasn't his job. He shrugged. "We matter because of who we are."
"The wrong parts of who we are. Just because we're Thunderstar's sons. Of course, you have to bear the brunt of that a lot more than I do."
Momentarily forgetting the other thousand things to be sad about, Blackbird glanced at his brother and saw only him. "You know if we could trade places . . ."
"I wouldn't," said Riverfur stoically. "Even if it weren't for my -- my condition. I just can't ever imagine myself being leader of NightClan. It makes my stomach turn."
"Yeah. Sometimes it makes mine, too."
"I can see it now. You get on High-Rock to address the Clan and end up vomiting all over them," said Riverfur.
"Gross!" It was what Blackbird had been thinking, but he hadn't said it aloud. With a frown, he glanced over his shoulder, back at the thick line of bushes they had come through where NightClan territory ended.
Riverfur gave an exasperated smile and called loudly, "We know you're there. Come on out."
There was a beat of silence, and then the bushes swayed wildly as two young toms clambered out. "We didn't know you were leaving the territory, honest!" said Treepaw, as Stonepaw nodded along with an expression of contrite apology on his face. "We just wanted to come see if we could help."
"We know how sad you've been, Blackbird," said Stonepaw.
Been sad. As if his sadness were a chronic illness that extended to far before Roseleaf had died.
Well, that wasn't entirely inaccurate. Roseleaf had been sick for a while. And -- he tried to stop the thought from coming, tried to push back the glaring truth that he still wasn't over it -- Violet and her sisters had been gone for an even longer while.
"I'm sorry," blurted Stonepaw. "This is all my fault."
"What?" Blackbird said incredulously.
The gray apprentice hung his head. "After Mother died, I became Graylight's apprentice so I could learn how to stop something like that from ever happening to someone we loved again."
Riverfur squeezed Treepaw close; Blackbird knew why. Their mother's last days were still imprinted clearly on his mind too. He remembered Fernstripe's wasted face, her emaciated body, skin hanging off protruding bones, her breathing constantly labored. "Graylight did all she could for Mother," he reminded Stonepaw, who looked to be on the verge of tears. "She made sure Mother was in as little pain as possible before she died."
"But I didn't think there would be a next time," said Stonepaw. "I thought you, at least, could be happy, even if Father wasn't anymore."
"There are some things you just can't stop," said Blackbird. "Mother was just too sick. So was Roseleaf."
"I hate diseases," spat Treepaw bitterly. "Badgers and foxes are one thing. At least you can fight them. At least you have that chance."
"There's more than one way of fighting things," said Riverfur, "and different kinds of fights."
"Yeah, but I like this way," said Treepaw, picking up a leaf and shredding it completely.
Stonepaw shook his head and shuddered. "I don't."
Glancing at the sky, Blackbird said, "I'm sorry guys, I just remembered -- I promised I'd show up for at least one meeting tonight."
"They're holding meetings? The day after?" asked Riverfur.
"Yeah. There's important things--"
"To be discussed," finished Treepaw.
Blackbird hesitated, glancing between his brothers. "Is there . . . something you're not saying?"
"No," said Riverfur quickly, and Treepaw shut his mouth with a snap. Blackbird guessed they didn't want to upset him anymore than he already was, and felt a pang of irritation. If his own brothers weren't being honest with him, he had no one else to turn to.
Except your father and his council of warriors.
With that not at all reassuring thought in mind, Blackbird bid the others good-bye and returned to the camp.
"Blackbird!" Leopardstrike, a relatively young warrior on the council because of pure talent, hurried towards him. "In Thunderstar's den," she said, hurrying him along.
"What's up?" he said, noting the tension in her body.
She did not elaborate, and Blackbird was thoroughly confused as he stepped into the leader's den, which was on an elevated platform of rock (known as High-Rock) overlooking the camp.
Thunderstar stood in the center of a lopsided half-moon shaped row of council members; Leopardstrike evened it out by going to stand on the far right. "Hi," said Blackbird nervously, feeling as though he were attending his own trial.
"Blackbird," said Thunderstar. "Sit down, please."
"What's going on? Why do I have to be briefed? I'm a part of the council." "Exactly. And if you are going to assume true leadership in this Clan, you need to know what that entails."
Blackbird cast Birdclaw, his father's sister, a questioning look. In addition to being part of the council, Birdclaw was also deputy of the Clan. Blackbird knew his father eventually planned him to become leader, but he'd always thought Thunderstar would at least allow Birdclaw to have her chance, that his own bid for leadership was still far off.
"Blackbird, you are at least familiar with part of our Clan's story. You know that we have not always lived in the brokewoods, that we came down from a region that lies north along Ash River."
Something was definitely up. Normally, Thunderstar hated anyone using the term "brokewoods". A few generations ago, the term was used all the time by the cats who had just moved from their old home to the dense, unforgiving forest they lived in now, with its rocky soil and jagged slopes. Thunderstar had put a stop to it, saying he was tired of cats pretending that where they lived was a downgrade -- it was their home now.
Cats still referred to their home as the brokewoods, they were just careful not to say it in front of Thunderstar or his council. Blackbird suspected the reason NightClanners were so reluctant to quit labeling their home negatively was the remaining mystery of why they had moved in the first place. All the elders who had been alive for the original move were gone by now, but even when they were around, they didn't quite know themselves. The reasons given were shady at best: lack of prey, when the brokewoods were a lot harsher hunting grounds, and a half-hearted attempt at convincing the Clan that StarClan had instructed the move.
As far as Blackbird was concerned, the move had brought nothing good to NightClan. His curiosity was piqued by the fact that Thunderstar brought it up at all. "What does our old home have to do with anything?"
"It's not our old home we're worried about. We're scared that our new home is taking on characteristics of our old one."
Blinking, Blackbird said, "But you've never seen it."
"No, but we know the signs."
Blackbird frowned. He didn't know what that was supposed to mean, but clearly the signs heralded something bad.
"You cannot breathe a word of this to anyone, not even Riverfur or your younger brothers," said Graylight, the medicine cat. "I haven't told Stonepaw."
"What -- why? I don't like the sound of this."
"It might not be safe here for much longer," said Thunderstar.
"We're not sure exactly why. We think it's . . . something in air or the water. Something dark and poisonous. It makes us weak and prone to getting sick."
"Not just sick," said Graylight quickly. "If a cat is truly affected, he or she will be robbed of any ability to fight off diseases. It'll only be a matter of time before one finishes them off."
"Like -- like Mother? Like Roseleaf?" said Blackbird, shocked.
"You're telling me if they lived somewhere else, they wouldn't have died?"
"That's our theory. There's no way of proving it; we have no way of testing the air or the ground," said Graylight. "We don't know how long it will take for the effects of the dark-ash -- that's what we call it, we have no idea what it physically looks like, it could be invisible for all we know -- to wear off, but we figured it to be one or two generations. We thought your mother just exhibited late symptoms, an anomaly in the normal period of healing. But then Roseleaf . . . One of two explanations has to be correct. Either we were wrong, and the effects of dark-ash are hereditary and are still in our blood, or there is dark-ash in our air again."
"So Roseleaf could just be the first to die?"
"Yes," said Graylight, and he saw something crumple in her eyes, though she was outwardly calm. "Usually, the younger the cat, the less the risk. But Roseleaf's illness might mean dark-ash is back -- perhaps its something that travels on the air and was swept along by the river winds, which means no one's safe anymore."
A thought occurred to Blackbird. There was no telling what other effects dark-ash had on cats. Could it be responsible for Riverfur's health problems?
He didn't dare ask his father in front of the council, of course. Like any weakness about their family, Riverfur's condition was carefully hidden from others.
"Blackbird!" Speak of the devil. Riverfur came bursting into the leader's den and made a beeline for Blackbird, who was thoroughly bewildered.
"What the blazes are you doing?" demanded Birdclaw. "This is a private meeting!"
"I need to -- I need to talk with Blackbird," sputtered Riverfur. "Please!"
Blackbird glanced at Thunderstar, who dipped his chin. "That was all we had to tell you for now. Remember, Blackbird, you cannot tell anyone. We can't have the Clan panicking for no reason."
Riverfur must have been utterly beside himself, because he didn't look the slightest bit curious at Thunderstar's words. "Come on!" he said, almost yanking Blackbird's paw off.
They slid down the path leading up to High-Rock and raced through the camp. Riverfur leapt logs and tore right through bracken. Blackbird stumbled as he tried to match his brother's pace, nearly slicing himself open on the jagged rocks of the brokewood ground.
He recognized the trajectory of their path. "Why are we going here?" he called, but Riverfur was either too far up to hear or too out of breath to respond.
They burst past the border. Blackbird's eyes scanned the clearning quickly -- but he barely saw the holly bush or the rest of it.
All he saw was the cluster of shapes standing in the center.
One shape broke away from the others, and even as his mind tried to excuse and rationalize and deny the impossibleness of what he saw, his heart skipped a beat, for no other cat he'd ever met had such an odd pattern of blazing chestnut on white, or such starkly different eyes -- one blue, one gold.
No . . . It can't be. His chest hurt with hope as his gaze traveled to the next shape, pale gray with wide blue eyes -- her kit-fluff was gone, but her face was as gentle as ever.
And then the last shape. Their eyes locked, and it was like winter had suddenly frozen Blackbird's heart, for it stopped beating, and all he could see were brilliantly violet-blue eyes, like the northern lights lashing across the sky in a deadly dance.
Hoarsely, Riverfur said, unneccesarily, "It's them."
"It's us," breathed Aurora.
"You left us," said Riverfur, flinging the accusation at the she-cats with vicious directness.
"We had to," said Willow, and a sob caught in her voice. "We couldn't face you."
"Why are you back, then?" snapped Riverfur.
"We missed you," blurted Violet.
Suddenly, all of them were running towards each other. Blackbird collided with Aurora and Willow, and he felt the ice in him shatter at their warmth. "Why did you leave?" he whispered as they rubbed their muzzles against his cheek. "You shouldn't have gone."
"We're sorry," said Willow. "But we're back."
Sorry wasn't enough, but they had always been enough.
He stumbled forward as Willow and Aurora went to embrace Riverfur, and suddenly he was face-to-face with her.
"It's Blackbird, now," he said, not knowing why it even mattered.
Her face broke into a watery smile. "You're a warrior. Congratulations."
They reached for each other. He buried his face in her fur and felt the moons fall away -- he could have been an apprentice again, clinging to his best friend.
"I'm home again," sighed Violet.
It was strange, how he'd never left, but he'd been thinking the exact same thing.