My youth is yours, runaway now and forevermore
— Troye Sivan, YOUTH
WILLOW HAD NO IDEA where she was when she woke up.
Actually, the feeling in itself was familiar. During the moons they had been away from the brokewoods, she and her sisters had taken shelter at a wide array of places, seldom staying in one for more than seven nights. They key difference between those wakings and this one, though, was that they never returned to any of those other places more than once. But this place she had woken in before, in what felt like a lifetime ago.
She crawled out from under the holly bush, wincing at her sore muscles. "We've outgrown our old nests," she said to Aurora, who was sitting in the middle of the clearing and attempting to pick bits of grass out of her pelt.
"Not me. I made mine huge. Riverfur and Treepaw helped me add heaps of grass."
Willow smiled; after Blackbird and Riverfur had gotten over their initial shock at seeing them, they'd gone to fetch their two younger brothers. That half of the reunion involved a lot of screaming and yelling -- mostly Treepaw and Aurora -- and a few tears -- mostly her, Violet and Stonepaw.
"Maybe your ridiculously grassy nest took up all the room, and that's why it was so cramped," she told Aurora.
Aurora wrinkled her nose. "Maybe it was too grassy," she conceded. "My pelt is now more grass than fur."
"Here, let me help." Willow sat beside her sister and began helping her groom herself.
"So what do you think?" asked Aurora expectantly.
Willow frowned. "What do I think about what?"
"What else? The toms! What do you think about the way they've grown up?"
Tilting her head to the side, she thought for a minute. "They seem... older."
"No, really? I wonder why that is."
"Oh shut up," said Willow, blushing. "I mean they seem to have aged a lot mentally. Maybe not the younger two, but Blackbird's eyes look ancient -- he looks so tired."
"I did notice that. I wonder what they've been through since we've been gone. Besides Mothfly's death," added Aurora ruefully. She hesitated, a small smile twitching at her mouth, as if she was debating whether to say what she was thinking. Then she blurted, "They've gotten cute, haven't they?"
Willow blinked. "They what?"
"Blackbird and Riverfur. They're cute. Good-looking."
"Aurora! That's gross!"
"How is it gross? They're not that much older than us; it just felt like they were when we were kits."
"I mean because they're like our brothers," Willow protested.
Rolling her eyes unconcernedly, Aurora said, "Well, it's not like I expressed a desire to become mates with one of them. I'm just pointing out a fact about their physical appearance."
"I guess. It's just weird. I've never thought about them like that."
"We haven't really had the chance. We were just dopey kits when we lived here, and we haven't seen them in moons. I wonder if they have girlfriends or mates."
"It's possible. Well, Riverfur might still just like to flirt, but Blackbird is probably still with that other she-cat -- Rosepaw -- dunno what her name is now."
"Yeah," agreed Aurora. "Isn't that strange? I'm still so happy to be around them and everything, but there's so much we don't know about each other."
"It's going to take a while to bridge that gap," said Willow, "but hey, we are like family. Family sticks together. We'll get through it."
"Violet didn't sleep under the holly bush," blurted Aurora abruptly.
"What? What do you mean? She's under there right now."
"She came back this morning, when the sun rose, but she spent the night outside."
Willow's brow furrowed. "Why would she do that?" she said, but even as the words left her mouth, the answer came to her. "Mothfly."
Aurora bit her lip and nodded. "Ghosts always come closer in the dark," she murmured. "I think she just couldn't bear being under there."
She saw the doubts rising in Aurora's eyes, the questions about whether things would ever return to normal here, and she was eager to avoid them. She had never told her sisters -- it wasn't worth complaining about, as there was nothing they could do about it -- but constantly moving around and never settling down had driven her nuts. She wanted a place where they belonged, and though the brokewoods wasn't exactly a dream home, what with the fact that they were outsiders to the Clan and had also killed the Clan's old deputy, it was the closest thing she had to an anchor.
If only it could stay this way. But it might not. They hadn't told the brothers the real reason for their return. Violet hadn't seemed to want to spoil the happiness of yesterday. Perhaps she too had wanted to pretend they were simply prodigal daughters returned home, rather than remember their complicated past.
"Good morning, girls!" Treepaw's bright voice preceeded him into the clearing. Two of his brothers were close behind him; Blackbird and Stonepaw were carrying a small heap of prey in their mouths, which they dropped in front of Willow and Aurora.
Feeling an uncontrollable purr rising in her throat, Willow warmly bumped noses with each of the toms. "How are you guys? Where's Riverfur?"
"Hey, you guys!" Violet emerged from beneath the holly bush. In spite of her sister's hearty tone, Willow took note of the depressions under her eyes and the weariness in her gaze; clearly, not sleeping under the holly bush wasn't enough to ward off the nightmares.
When Violet's eyes locked with Blackbird's, though, her exhaustion disappeared like clouds vaporized by a blinding greenleaf sun. The same was true for him; the hauntingly worried look in his eyes that had made Willow characterize him as "ancient" earlier disappeared. "How are you all?" he asked, though he looked only at Violet. Behind him, Treepaw smirked and made dramatically lovelorn faces.
"We're good," Aurora answered pointedly after a slight pause during which Violet was too busy gazing at Blackbird to even respond.
Blushing, Violet ducked her head. "I'm sorry. It's just . . . It's so good to see you all again, I just want to take it in. I still can't believe we're back."
"We still can't believe it either," said Stonepaw.
"Yeah." Treepaw tilted his head. "How come you guys decided to return, anyway? I mean, I figured you'd run away for good, seeing as--"
"Treepaw," hissed Blackbird furiously.
"What?" his younger brother snapped back. "We're family. They don't have to keep secrets from us."
Willow exchanged a look with Aurora. There were times when even the two of them felt that they barely knew Violet, their sister kept so many secrets trying to keep them safe. Treepaw's comment about family was sweet, but there was no way he could even begin to know what they'd been through
Blackbird glanced at Violet, taking in the pain on her face, and said firmly, "We don't have to talk about that night, not until you're ready."
"Okay," she said, a little shakily. "But he's right that we're family. We want to truly know what's happened since we left."
"There's been a lot," said Stonepaw.
"Fernstripe's dead," blurted Treepaw. "Our mother."
Willow gasped. "No. Oh, I'm so sorry."
Clearing his throat, Blackbird said, "She was . . . sick. All the time. It kept getting worse and worse, and we--we knew before it happened. It was awful, watching her suffer. We knew she would be at rest once she got to StarClan, and that allowed us to make our peace with it. It wasn't like she was snatched from us without any warning."
Violet glanced away from him, and Blackbird looked sorry, though Willow was still half sure that he had said that last thing on purpose. She didn't blame him; there were times when she felt a pang of irrational anger at having to leave in the first place, even though they had no choice. What was Violet supposed to have done that night, allow a crazed Mothfly to murder them in their nests?
The one thing Willow wasn't so quick to forgive her sister for, though, was never explaining. Never explaining why she thought Mothfly had come after them or who she'd been talking about when she'd said "You're working for him."
It was hard, having to give everything up and not know why. Especially since they hadn't had much to start with.