It was nearly moonhigh by the time Cinderpelt realized she could delay no longer. Much as she dreaded sleeping and perhaps receiving no guidance at all, she knew--even if Firestar had not told her in so many words--that by the next time the moon was as high as it was now, ThunderClan would have a new deputy, and her leader was counting on her to help him pick one.
It hurt her to think of Graystripe now, hurt so much to consider that he must be dead--but had he not been, surely StarClan would have spoken to her, insisted ThunderClan remain effectively deputyless until he could return to them. She, alongside Brambleclaw and Sandstorm, had managed in the past few sunrises to convince Firestar that it was time to move on, time to accept his longtime friend’s death. At first, she’d worried that Brambleclaw’s insistence on a new deputy was motivated by ambition as strong as his father’s had once been--but then she’d reminded herself that he’d had no apprentice, and could not be named deputy at all. No, it was sheer loyalty and dedication to the wellbeing of his Clan that motivated Brambleclaw; she regretted ever doubting him as she had, and regretted causing his own former mentor to doubt him as well.
Sighing to herself, the medicine cat spun to return to her den, realizing now that the stars and the moon above truly held no answers for her. She was no stranger to the grief Firestar felt; Graystripe had been her brother’s mentor, a permanent fixture in her young life despite his flakiness at times, and there was a coldness in her stomach to think of him dead. Still, life had to go on. Tomorrow they would sit vigil for him and grieve his loss; tonight, she had to decide what advice she would give to Firestar.
As she entered her den and moved back towards her nest in the corner, her gaze darted to the empty nest beside it even without her meaning to. The den was so much lonelier now. All she could hope for at this point was a dream from StarClan to help her advise her leader--but she could not help but think that her apprentice would have had more luck in that area.
But she had no apprentice--not anymore. ThunderClan's other medicine cat had left her post some time ago, and not only that, she had left the Clan entirely; she had gone to WindClan to be with her mate as a warrior. She had even forsaken her old name willingly at her new leader's insistence, so determined was she to be with the cat she loved.
Cinderpelt knew well enough even just by observing her Clanmates how powerful a motivator love could be--she didn't blame the other she-cat, not really, but the decision had still disappointed her. At least she's happy. That's what matters, she reminded herself, a sigh escaping her as she circled her nest. Flopping down finally and heavily, she put her paws over her nose and closed her eyes, waiting for sleep to take her.
She didn’t wait long. Next she knew, she was opening her eyes to a rather disorienting view--ThunderClan’s camp stretched out below her, as if she was a bird, looking down upon it and riding the wind above. Curious, she tested the theory and tried to swoop down--joy surging unbidden in her chest as it worked, and she dove gracefully downwards for a closer view. She had to admit--important dream or not, the experience was exhilarating.
Though she felt almost as if she had no body at all, still a part of her felt -- or thought it felt -- her eyes widen as she took in a notable change to the landscape of ThunderClan’s ravine camp. Instead of the high stone walls that protected them, the barriers surrounding the camp were made of thick, tangled brambles; as she pitched over to look closer, swinging around to the other side of the walls to peer curiously at them, she noted the distinctive shape of the thorns that poked out of the tangled brambles. They were like claws, curved and sharp, lining the walls and protecting the cats within. Shock hit her as she processed what she was seeing, and then, just as quickly as the dream had come, it was gone, and she blinked awake in her nest, surprise still coursing through her in the waking world.
Hurrying out of her den--noting idly, but not truly considering, the fact that the moon still shone overhead, though lower now--she pushed her way into Firestar’s den, her fur standing on end as she stumbled through the entrance and came to a stop just inside. “Firestar!” she mewed urgently, as loudly as she could manage, and she heard Sandstorm grumble as the two started to stir. “Firestar!” she repeated, moving closer.
“What is it?” the flame-colored tom replied with a yawn. He blinked sleepily at her--then shook himself and rose quickly to his paws when he seemed to notice her expression. “Cinderpelt?”
“StarClan sent me a dream,” she explained, feeling a bit silly as the shock and urgency that had come with her sudden awakening began to fade--of course this could have waited for the morning. Still, she was already here…
“What did they say?” Sandstorm mumbled, not bothering to rise as her mate had. (Perhaps another medicine cat might have insisted she leave before the sign was discussed, but Cinderpelt trusted the other ThunderClan cat more than well enough to not be bothered by her presence.)
Quickly, Cinderpelt explained her dream and what she was certain it had meant. She saw Firestar’s eyes widen in the darkness, though Sandstorm’s expression did not change.
“Are you sure?” Firestar murmured with an uncertain flick of his tail.
“Completely,” she told him with a nod. “StarClan is not often wrong.”
“I trust in you as much as I do StarClan,” he admitted, and there was something in his gaze that gave her pause--perhaps, she thought, related to the quest he had undergone so many moons ago, seemingly against StarClan’s own wishes. “If you’re certain, I believe you.”
She nodded again, forcing her fur to lay flatter than it had been. StarClan had spoken; ThunderClan would be in good paws.
In the back of her mind, some oft-ignored part of her wondered why she had never seen Graystripe at any of her half moon meetings, but she pushed the thought away.
The stars had just begun to appear in the darkening sky when Firestar announced that the Clan would be recognizing Graystripe’s passing. Many of their Clanmates seemed stricken by the news--as if, like Firestar, they had not truly accepted the deputy’s loss until confronted with it outright. Tonight, they would mourn him at his vigil, even if there was no body to be buried; as Cinderpelt looked up at the sky above, she noticed one particularly bright star, shining down upon the camp. StarClan--and Graystripe--must have approved of ThunderClan’s choice.
After ThunderClan had been given ample time to sit and process the news and murmur among each other--or else sit in silence and grieve for a lost Clanmate--Firestar had approached the Highledge again. As Cinderpelt watched, he clambered back up atop it, turning his sweeping gaze out at the Clan, still gathered below him in the darkening clearing.
“Cats of ThunderClan,” he meowed, and despite the strength of his voice, Cinderpelt could hear him struggling to keep it even in his grief. “We all mourn Graystripe, but before we sit vigil for him tonight, I have an important announcement to make.” Lowering his head briefly and taking a deep and visible breath, he cleared his throat softly before he went on. “ThunderClan must appoint a new deputy, and StarClan has sent Cinderpelt a sign. Their choice of deputy is clear.”
Sounds of muted surprise rippled through the gathered cats; it was not often that StarClan themselves became involved in the choice of a new deputy, although in this case Cinderpelt was grateful for their guidance--as it had helped to convince Firestar once and for all that this was the right decision. The cat Firestar named would know, above all else, that StarClan truly approved of their leadership. Cinderpelt glanced over at her littermates, gathered together near the thorn bush that sheltered the warriors’ den. Brackenfur stood tallest of the three of them, and briefly the medicine cat mourned for the fact that he would not be named deputy today. He’d always been the closest of her siblings to her in their youth (especially as Brightheart and Thornclaw had been apprenticed later on account of their injuries at the ShadowClan camp); no cat could deny he would be an excellent choice for deputy, brave and strong and selfless as he was, but alas. Perhaps his time would come another day. She knew, either way, that he would not mind not being chosen--it was likely the idea of deputyship had not even crossed his mind.
Turning her attention back to Firestar, she blinked as she watched him straighten up to stand even taller. “I say these words before StarClan, and before the spirit of Graystripe, so that they may hear and approve my choice,” he called. “The new deputy of ThunderClan will be Thornclaw.”
Nearly three moons had passed since Leafpelt had joined WindClan to be with him, and Crowstorm’s happiness had not waned since. Still, today that joy was slightly tempered only by the maelstrom of feelings swirling within him--he felt completely battered by the sheer anxiety and worry he was currently struggling with as he paced the camp, sending frequent glances towards the nursery. The gorse bush covering it completely blocked his view, but he knew that Leafpelt was in there now… and, against all logic, his whole body was trembling with worry. Barkface had sent him away, telling him that he and the queens had it handled, but still he wished he could have stayed, could have been there for his mate. Her occasional pained cries echoed in the camp, and his heart ached each time he heard one. Was she okay? Were the kits okay? Would someone tell him if they weren’t? He didn’t know--and, though he was overjoyed to be a father, he was nonetheless terrified of all the things that could be going wrong.
As he turned a circle in the camp, he stopped suddenly as another cat appeared before him, blocking his path with an unimpressed expression on her face. “Crowstorm,” Nightcloud mewed, voice exasperated. “You’re helping no one by pacing like this. If you aren’t careful, you’re going to wear down the grass we sleep on, if you don’t wear your paws out first.”
She flicked an ear at him, extending one forepaw to give him a weak shove. “Sit down. You can worry without being on your paws.”
Crowstorm let out a snort of half-annoyance, half-amusement as he sat down, grateful at least for the brief distraction from his rising panic. He was thankful that his and Nightcloud's friendship, though it had seemed rocky at first, was now for the most part back to the way it had been before Leafpelt had come to WindClan. (Unfortunately, she still didn’t seem to like Leafpelt much, but some things couldn’t be helped.)
“That’s easy for you to say,” he grumbled at her, scuffing his paws on the grass below. “You’re not the one whose kits are being born as we speak!”
Nightcloud’s expression was cool as she stared back at him, her gaze unwavering even as he met it with a half-hearted glare. “Maybe not,” she meowed. “But you’re also not the one giving birth. If any cat has right to be panicked like this, it’s Leafpelt, and last I heard she was taking it fairly well, all things considered!”
That was one of the nicest things Crowstorm had heard Nightcloud say about his mate, and he blinked at her for a moment, almost at a loss for words. “Well,” he finally managed to reply. “Okay, but--I’m allowed to be worried!”
“I never said you weren’t,” Nightcloud said with a shrug, then licked a paw, moving it up to wash her ears nonchalantly.
“But--” Before Crowstorm could try and snap something else at her--anything to get his mind off of what was happening--Barkface’s call of his name from the nursery made him snap to attention, turning without another thought of Nightcloud and sprinting past her. “Barkface! Are the kits okay? Is Leafpelt okay?” he gasped, skidding to a stop just a mouse-length away from barreling straight into the medicine cat.
“Leafpelt is fine,” Barkface meowed, and his tone seemed careful. “And there are two healthy kits.”
Crowstorm’s relief was short-lived as he considered the words. “Two?” he echoed. “I thought you said there were at least three, maybe four coming?” A heavy weight was beginning to settle in his chest even as he spoke.
“I’m sorry,” Barkface sighed, expression sympathetic. “Something went wrong during kitting. The third kit didn’t make it.”
Crowstorm gaped at him, unable to reply.
“Leafpelt is waiting for you inside,” Barkface continued softly, and, startled by the words back into reality, Crowstorm pushed quickly past him into the nursery, ducking down under the gorse bush. The den was empty save for Leafpelt and their kits--he supposed the other queens had left while Nightcloud was distracting him, wanting to give the two new parents some privacy.
“Leafpelt,” he gasped as he rushed to her side, crouching down to cover her head with frantic licks. “Oh, Leafpelt, I was so worried!”
A weak purr came from his mate as she gently lifted a paw to push him away. “I’m alright,” she murmured. “I’m sorry for worrying you.”
As Crowstorm blinked back at her, his gaze flitted to the kits at her belly--two of them wriggling and nursing strongly, and the third, the biggest of the kits, laying still and silent beside them. His heart ached to think of the child he’d never know, and with a soft noise of grief, he reached out with a paw to draw the kit closer, licking its tiny golden fur and crouching down further to curl himself around it.
“He was a tom kit,” Leafpelt told him softly. “He--He got stuck during kitting--I was swelling too much… It’s a wonder Barkface was able to save even my life. I’m so sorry, Crowstorm.”
Crowstorm shook his head before he rested his muzzle on the tiny scrap of fur. “Don’t be,” he whispered. “It’s not your fault. I…” His ears lay flat against his head as he drew back to touch his nose to the little tom’s own still one. “I’m sorry I’ll never get to meet you, my son.” His gaze rose to meet Leafpelt’s again. “Does he… does he have a name?”
“No,” she replied, the sorrow in her own eyes matching Crowstorm’s own. “I was waiting for you until we named them.”
“Then…” He stood up slightly, half-crouching over his son and thinking of Eaglepaw, the older brother he’d never met. “Can we name him Eaglekit?”
“That’s a lovely name,” Leafpelt mewed. “May it serve him well in--” Her voice broke and she faltered before she went on. “...In StarClan.”
Crowstorm swallowed heavily before he looked at the other two kits. “Yes,” he agreed. “And the others?” He dared not move from where he stood, paws still wrapped around the son he had lost.
“I was thinking Jaykit, maybe, for the tom,” she answered, touching the smallest kit, a blue-gray and white tabby, with her nose. “It was one of the names we talked about before, and it seems fitting…”
“I love it,” Crowstorm told her, trying his best to purr to show his approval--though the sound came out stuttering and weak, as hers had before. “What about Hollykit, for the other kit? That one’s fur is as dark as holly leaves.”
“It suits her,” Leafpelt agreed, using her tail to draw the kits closer to her belly as they wriggled, their mews high pitched and needy.
“I…” Crowstorm finally rose fully to his paws now, glancing down at Eaglekit’s unmoving form. “I’ll … go talk to the elders. About -- about Eaglekit. And I’ll ask Whitetail if she can watch the other two, if you want, while …” He trailed off, a deep sadness settling over him as the gravity of the situation seemed to finally hit him.
Slowly, he raised his head to meet Leafpelt’s gaze, the silence in the den palpable. Her own eyes were dark with grief as she stared back at him, and for a moment, neither of them spoke.
“Thank you,” she said at last, lowering her head to return her attention to their remaining two kits. “Please do.”
He nodded in spite of himself--knowing she would not see it--and gently picked up Eaglekit in his mouth, turning and pushing his way back out into camp.
Goodbye, Eaglekit, he thought as he stood tall despite the pitying stares his Clanmates were now giving him--Barkface had likely let them know by now what had happened, and those who hadn’t heard could surely see the kit in his grip had gone to StarClan. As he paused where he stood, not wanting to approach the elders about burying the kit--not wanting to make it feel even more real--Nightcloud and Ashfoot both rushed to his side.
“I’m sorry, Crowstorm,” Nightcloud managed, voice trembling slightly. He shook his head and said nothing, Eaglekit’s body preventing it, but shot her a look, hoping she knew not to feel guilty for distracting him earlier. There was nothing she could have done, anyway.
As his mother pressed her nose into the fur on his shoulder comfortingly, purring to try and soothe him, Crowstorm drew in a shaky breath through his nose, doing his best to steady his shaking paws. It was alright. He was alright. He would be the best father he could be for his remaining two kits, in spite of everything. And no matter what happened--no matter what StarClan threw at him next--he wouldn’t lose these kits like he had lost Stormfur or Eaglekit.
He wouldn’t let anything happen to Hollykit or Jaykit, not while he still had breath in his body.