Blossomfall's ears were back as she limped around the destroyed hollow, carefully avoiding the scattered leaf debris. Brambles and thorn vines littered the ground, and the air stank of smoke. Overpowering the camp, permeating everything, was the stench of blood and death. I helped cause this! the tortoiseshell-and-white she-cat fretted. Her eyes were glazed as she stared at the aftermath.
The Clan was torn between grieving for the fallen and celebrating their impossible victory, but in every face was relief that the battle was over. Many cats were anxiously checking the tunnel entrance, waiting for the remainder of the ThunderClan cats to return home from other territories. Others were crowding around the dead. Purdy was silent for once, his head bent over Mousefur's body. Dustpelt, Spiderleg, Birchfall, Icecloud, and Foxleap were sharing tongues with Ferncloud for the last time. Sandstorm and Graystripe were crouched beside Firestar's body, their noses pressed into matted ginger fur. Bumblestripe was leading Dovewing to what was left of the apprentice's den, his tail resting comfortingly on her shoulder.
Even the sight of her brother acting so familiar with Dovewing could not ruffle Blossomfall's fur tonight. Pausing, she searched the Clan. Holding her breath, she prayed, Please StarClan, let her be all right! She warily shuffled her paws and added, I know I don't deserve to ask, after what I've done, but please…
Her eyes narrowed as she finally spotted her mother, and relief flooded over her. Then, her heart dropped as she realized Millie was speeding to the medicine den. She felt cold all over, felt the same ice around her heart that had led her to the Place of No Stars in the beginning. She only cares about Briarlight.
Immediately, guilt stung her. It's not Briarlight's fault. Defiance hardened her heart. But it is…
With conflicting emotions, Blossomfall trudged to the damaged warrior's den. No one was there. Finding a clear bit of ground by the back wall, she flopped down, not even bothering with a nest. The stone felt cool on her belly, and it eased the red-hot anger and guilt that engulfed her. There's nowhere to go now, she reminded herself. And that's my own fault, too. It felt weird to think that when she closed her eyes, she would dream normal dreams—not train in the Dark Forest. Fighting there had become her life; it had defined her when reality had deemed her unimportant. The tortured she-cat sighed and tucked her nose under her paw.
There's nowhere to go, she repeated tiredly. Her head shot up, eyes wide, at a new realization. Unless I leave the Clans. She was a traitor, and the only reason she hadn't been banished yet was because of the battle. Why not save Brambleclaw—soon Bramblestar—the trouble? The chaos erupting in all the Clans would provide her the cover she needed to slip away unseen.
It wasn't like Millie would care.
The tortoiseshell-and-white cat stood up, then immediately collapsed. Her leg was definitely sprained again, and there were numerous gashes down her flank. She felt light-headed at the sudden movement, and hopeless at her situation. As soon as I can move, I'll leave, she promised herself. She started to lick the blood off her fur, then stopped as she realized it was pointless. There was too much, and she'd never be able to wash it all off.
One by one, the other warriors crept inside and fell asleep. No one disturbed her. Birchfall pressed close to Whitewing, and Mousewhisker curled up between his littermates. Blossomfall felt a pang of resentment that the other Dark Forest recruits had family who'd forgive them.
Though anger clouded her thoughts, she was aware when the entrance to the warrior's den quivered and the sound of dragging flesh reached her ears. Oh StarClan, no! she begged. Go away! She closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep, faking heavy breathing as the sound drew closer. I can't deal with this. Not her. Anyone but her!
"Blossomfall?" her sister's voice whispered in the dark. Briarlight sounded both fearful and hopeful.
Still faking slumber, Blossomfall rolled over so her back was to her crippled littermate.
Briarlight shifted closer, her dead limbs dragging on Blossomfall's conscience as well as the ground. Hesitantly, the half-paralyzed she-cat prodded Blossomfall with her paw. "Please talk to me," Briarlight begged. "I know you're awake."
Discovered, Blossomfall snapped her head up. "So what?" she snarled. "I have nothing to say to you." You stole Millie's love from me!
Recoiling, Briarlight took a deep breath. "Maybe not," she conceded, "but I have things I want to say to you."
Blossomfall's ear twitched irritably, and she sat up. "No need," she meowed. "Save your breath. I know what you're going to say."
Briarlight tilted her head. "Oh?" she challenged, and Blossomfall was reminded of Briarlight's spark before the falling tree disaster. "Then what am I going to say?" she pressed, leaning closer.
Taking a deep breath, Blossomfall growled, "You're going to go off on me about what a mouse-brain I was to train in the Dark Forest. You're gonna tell me how ashamed you are, and how you wish I wasn't your littermate. But you're wasting your breath, because I don't care and I don't want to be your littermate either!" By the end, she was breathing hard, and her rising voice had woken many of the other warriors in the den.
"What's going on?" Icecloud asked sleepily.
Spiderleg jumped to his feet, claws bared. "Are we under attack again?!"
Lashing her tail, her frustration giving her the strength to move, Blossomfall stomped from the den without answering. When she heard Briarlight calm the others and start to follow, the ex-Dark Forest recruit started to run. Vindictive, she thought, She'll never catch up!
Her sprained leg gave out on her near the main camp entrance, and Blossomfall went sprawling. Her head spun with dizziness. She lay there winded for a moment, and in that time Briarlight caught up. To avoid looking at the dark brown disabled warrior, Blossomfall stared into the center of the camp. Millie had joined Graystripe in mourning Firestar, and the gray tabby she-cat gave her a warning glare.
Blossomfall wanted to wail like a kit. Even now, you don't care about me! She finally looked at Briarlight. And it's all your fault!
Following her gaze to Millie, Briarlight's eyes softened. "Do you want to talk in the forest?" she asked soothingly, as if Blossomfall's hurtful words had never happened.
The tortoiseshell cat glanced at Millie, and was dismayed to see the older she-cat's attention back on Firestar. Flicking her ears, she hauled herself to her feet. She'd faced trained Dark Forest warriors every night in her dreams for moons; surely she could face her crippled sister?
With a weary nod, Blossomfall padded into the forest. She didn't wait to accommodate her sister's limited mobility, and instead she bounded up the slope and settled near a bramble bush to think. It didn't take as long as she'd thought for Briarlight to join her under the stars, and Blossomfall still didn't know how to start. Instead, she caught a leaf on her claw and shredded it, wishing it was her sister one moment and her mother the next.
"It's all right, you know," Briarlight began after a long time of elapsed silence. "You don't need to explain yourself." She twitched her ears. "About the Dark Forest, I mean…"
Blossomfall whimpered, still emotionally taxed. Briarlight's unconditional support twisted the guilt nettled in her heart. "It's not okay!" she burst out, whipping her head up wildly and staring at her sister. Her eyes were wide and imploring, self-blame swimming in their depths. Couldn't Briarlight see what she'd done? Chest heaving, Blossomfall rushed to explain, "I betrayed my Clan every time I went there to train, and for what?!" So caught up in her feelings, she didn't notice as she let slip, "Because I hated you and Millie? Because I hated myself?" She hunkered down, her nose close to the ground. "It wasn't worth it, and I was so blind…"
Cautiously, Briarlight pressed against her. She didn't seem to mind the blood rubbing into her brown fur. "Jayfeather taught me that being blind isn't a bad thing."
Blossomfall let her sister press close, relishing her warmth while simultaneously hating her for it. She snapped her teeth and growled, "Different kind of blindness."
"Is it?" Briarlight questioned, stirring some nearby leaves with one foreleg. She stared at the sky, focusing on the new flaming dot of light that must belong to Firestar. When Blossomfall didn't answer, she went on, "I don't blame you for hating me. I'm pretty useless to the Clan, and it's not fair to make you all look after me. You hunt and fight and I do nothing but take up valuable fresh-kill."
For the first time, Blossomfall looked at her sister with new eyes. "How can you say that?" she demanded. "You are a truer ThunderClan warrior than I am!"
Briarlight shrugged. "I don't think so." She leaned her upper body weight harder against Blossomfall's side and explained lightly, "You know the only reason Millie frets over me so much is because she knows I'm worthless."
"That's not true!" Blossomfall protested. Millie pays you more attention because she loves you best!
Again, Briarlight shrugged. "I can't do anything for myself, and she knows it." Her wistful eyes reflected the stars. "She's been there for me constantly, but she's waiting on claw-tip for me to join StarClan."
"At least StarClan is honorable," Blossomfall breathed. "I won't be going there when I die."
Briarlight nudged her cheek. "I believe you will. You weren't trying to destroy the Clans, were you? And if you don't end up there, then I'll follow you to the Dark Forest instead."
Blossomfall snorted, "You wouldn't stand a chance there. They'd shred you."
"But you'd protect me," Briarlight said with such trust and confidence that Blossomfall felt her heart twist with bittersweet emotion.
The tortoiseshell she-cat rested her head against her sister's and murmured, "I'd try…" In response, Briarlight purred, and Blossomfall couldn't resist asking, "How can you be so positive?" She faltered before croaking, "How can you…forgive me?"
Eyes shining, the dark brown she-cat answered, "Because you're my sister, and I love you." She butted her head against Blossomfall's shoulder and murmured, "I could never think poorly of you."
Blossomfall's heart twisted tighter. I've thought poorly of you this whole time…
Before she could answer aloud, Millie burst out of the ThunderClan camp and raced up the slope. "Briarlight!" she called, and skidded to a stop beside her two daughters. Breathing hard, she sniffed her crippled daughter from nose to tail-tip, checking for injuries.
Blossomfall's battle wounds stung, but her heart stung more. Can't you see my gashes? she wanted to scream. Can't you see all the blood on my fur?!
Millie gasped and took a step back. "Oh, Briarlight!" she moaned. "Look at all the blood on you. How did this happen? Wait, I'll fetch Jayfeather!"
As their mother turned, Briarlight hurriedly protested, "No, Millie! The blood on Blossomfall just rubbed off on me. It's her who's hurt!"
Millie spun back, her eyes narrowing at her tortoiseshell daughter, as if seeing her for the first time. "How could you?!" she ranted, taking a step closer.
Blossomfall braced herself for the lecture about the Dark Forest.
Millie leaned in close to her face and hissed, "How could you bring your defenseless littermate into the forest, so soon after the great battle?! Do you want her to die?!" Her teeth showed red in the moonlight, still stained from the fight.
Jaw dropping, Blossomfall searched for words. Even now, all she thinks about is Briarlight.
To Blossomfall's surprise, Briarlight jumped to her defense. "I was the one who wanted to come into the forest. It's not her fault!"
"Blossomfall should've known better," Millie meowed. "She's a warrior, not a kit."
The tortoiseshell-and-white she-cat flinched. She wasn't just a warrior; she was a Dark Forest recruit. Did her mother not remember, or was it just not important? Blossomfall felt another wave of anger. Even when I do wrong, I still don't get acknowledged!
"She would protect me if anything happened," Briarlight argued.
Millie circled her daughters. "And if she couldn't? What then?" She rested her muzzle on Briarlight's head and murmured, "I can't lose you."
Blossomfall jerked away. This was like a claw-stab in the back! Did Millie have to rub her nose in it?
Briarlight shifted uncomfortably. "What about Blossomfall?"
Millie growled, "If she was smart, she'd worry more about losing you, too."
Blossomfall jumped to her feet, almost sending her sister flying.
"That wasn't what I meant!" Briarlight protested. "Don't you worry about losing her?"
Blossomfall's paws felt rooted to the ground as she waited for her mother's answer. This is it. She swallowed hard. Briarlight understands, but it all means nothing if Millie doesn't.
Millie stared at them both, eyes round with shock. "Why would I?" she asked. "Blossomfall is a capable warrior. She can protect herself."
Feeling her eyes water, Blossomfall stumbled quickly down the slope, away from the ThunderClan camp. She ignored Briarlight's worried calls, focused intently on getting away. She'd ceased being Millie's kit the moment that tree fell on Briarlight. Maybe Bumblestripe was content chasing after Dovewing, and thus he didn't care about Millie's sudden abandonment, but she did and she wasn't going to take this! It was just the final straw in her decision to leave the Clans. Only now, she'd actually miss her sister. Briarlight wasn't as bad as she'd thought, but Millie…
Millie was worse.
Millie was mouse-brained for chasing after her. She was probably only doing it for Briarlight's sake, because Briarlight wanted her back.
Blossomfall raced faster, trying to run away. Hiding in the Dark Forest hadn't worked, but she'd keep running until she found something that did. The forest slipped past her in a blur, her sprained leg forgotten, her paws thumping seamlessly on the ground. Millie doesn't love me. The wind flattened her fur, drying some of the glistening clumps of blood. Maybe she never did.
Millie caught up and tackled her from the side, bowling them both over into some brambles.
Instinctively, Blossomfall lashed out with a Dark Forest swipe, claws unsheathed and aiming for the throat. Millie jumped back with a startled gasp, and Blossomfall twisted in the air to regain her balance. She landed on her forelegs with a grunt and a snarl, then fell as her sprained leg buckled beneath her weight.
In an instant, Millie was beside her, holding her up. Supporting her.
"What…are you doing?" Blossomfall snapped, trying to keep her voice from shaking.
Matter-of-factly, Millie replied, "I'm helping you."
The gray tabby she-cat pulled back, startled. "You're my daughter…"
Blossomfall winced. "So? That hasn't meant anything before!"
The tortoiseshell she-cat plunged on. "And what are you doing, leaving Briarlight alone? Aren't you the one always going on about how defenseless she is? What if she dies because you're not hovering over her, smothering her with your attention?!" She looked away from her mother, eyes stinging.
After a moment of tense silence, Millie ventured, "Is that what this is about?"
Blossomfall pulled away and roared, "What do you think?! "
Millie gazed at her sadly. "Blossomfall…"
"I hate you!" the young she-cat went on, tugging up clumps of grass with her claws. "You never loved me, so why should I give a rat's tail about you?"
Millie jerked back as if clawed. "What are you talking about?" She sounded confused. "You're my kit. I've always loved you."
"No you haven't!" Blossomfall corrected, sure in her anger. "It's always Briarlight this, Briarlight that!" Her frame shook. "Briarlight doesn't even want your attention, and yet she's the only one you care about!" The young she-cat leaned forward and breathed, "You don't even care that I joined the Dark Forest."
With a forlorn sigh, Millie sat on the grass. "Of course I care," she meowed. "But I trusted that you would make the right choice, and you did. You fought bravely for the Clans." She stared her daughter straight in the eye. "I couldn't ask for more."
Blossomfall tried to squash the warmth that her mother's praise evoked. It was far too late in coming. "You…you never notice me," she accused. She thought of the tunnel expedition with Ivypool and tacked on, "Or when you do, it's to yell at me." Her ears laid flat against her skull, and she whined like a kit, "It's not fair."
Millie's ears perked up. "I do notice. I yell at you because I raised you better, and…" She swayed back and forth. "I yell because I worry."
Blossomfall snorted. "You don't worry about me."
"I do," Millie insisted softly. "I worry about all my kits." Tentatively, she leaned forward and rested her chin on Blossomfall's head, just as she did to Briarlight. When she wasn't pushed away, she purred and licked her daughter's ear. "I'm sorry you thought I didn't love you. I didn't realize you were that upset…"
"I was upset enough to join the Dark Forest!"
Millie stopped purring. "What does that have to do with anything?"
Blossomfall blinked. "The Dark Forest cats noticed me, even when you didn't! They gave me a purpose, and they cared about me and my training. I felt more at home with them than I did in ThunderClan!"
"Oh, Blossomfall," Millie soothed. She covered the younger she-cat's cheek with frantic licks. "I never thought you would take it so personally. I thought you knew that I loved you, but that I just showed it in a different way—by trusting you and letting you walk on your own, like Briarlight never will again. I thought you understood why I paid so much attention to your sister."
"I do now, but it doesn't make up for all those moons of neglect!"
Millie paused. "But you've got to understand—you're a warrior now." She leveled a stern gaze at her daughter and admonished, "You are a grown she-cat, able to take care of yourself, and you've got to mature and take responsibility. You are not a kit anymore." She swept her tail along Blossomfall's back to soothe the sting of the rebuke, then reached down and started to lick off what blood she could. "You don't need me like you did when you were younger."
Blossomfall's voice caught in her throat. "I'll always need my mother."
"And I'll always love you," Millie promised. "I can see now why you would be upset, but with all that was going on, I was counting on you to be strong."
Blossomfall hung her head, the words hitting deep.
"But maybe I've been mouse-brained as well," Millie amended softly. "I was wrong not to see that you were hurting just as much as Briarlight, only in a different way. I let myself become obsessed with Briarlight because I was convinced she was about to hunt with StarClan. Jayfeather has kept her alive so far, but I still fear every breath will be her last." Glancing up at the sky, Millie continued bluntly, "At times like now, even when I know Jayfeather is looking out for her, I am afraid that I won't be there when she dies—and I don't want her to go alone."
Shuddering, Blossomfall tried not to think of life without her sister. When compared to her littermate's inevitable passing, Millie's attention suddenly didn't seem like such a huge deal. She'd harbored resentment for Briarlight for moons, but underneath it all she'd still loved her littermate. Struggling to swallow, Blossomfall rasped, "I don't want her to die."
With a sigh, Millie pressed her muzzle against Blossomfall's. "I know. I can't stand the thought of losing you—any of you."
Hope soaring, still a little unsure, Blossomfall asked, "So you do love me?"
"Yes," Millie assured her firmly. "I'm sorry for not showing it more, but I will make more of an effort. For your sake." She flicked her tail at her daughter's ear. "And in return, you've got to be more understanding of my time with Briarlight." Her eyes brightened, and she nosed Blossomfall's ear like she was sharing a secret. "Why don't we make it a she-cat family thing? You, me, and Briarlight will spend time together, just the three of us."
Blossomfall's eyes misted, but this time from the loosening around her heart. "I'd like that," she breathed. I guess I have been a bit selfish. "I can try on my part. To do better." I can be there for Briarlight and make the most of the time I have left with her. She shifted uneasily on her paws. That means staying with ThunderClan. "But…what about when Brambleclaw banishes me for being a traitor?"
Millie shook her head. "He won't. Clan cats all around the lake were tricked into joining the Dark Forest, and the ones who chose right in the final battle will not be punished." Her eyes glowed as she praised, "I am so proud of you."
This time, Blossomfall let her mother's approval wash over her and drive out all the pain.