Leafpool startled, ears flying back with surprise. "Hollyleaf? Is that you?" She stood and padded to the entrance of the medicine den, hoping to meet her halfway, but the look on her face instantly made the medicine cat worried. There was an exhausted slump to her shoulders. A defeated gleam in her eye. "If you're looking for Jay, he just went out hunting."
Hollyleaf shook her head. "Can I... ask you something?"
"Of course you can, dear." Leafpool waited, but the young warrior said nothing more. Gingerly, she touched her shoulder with her tail. "Want to help me sort some herbs? Your paws were always so delicate; they split the leaves so easily."
A rusty purr escaped her throat. Hollyleaf stepped inside, rubbing against Leafpool along the way. "Thanks."
Leafpool reminded her ex-apprentice how to carefully take one raspberry leaf from another, setting them aside. Each one was tested for wetness, as it had rained the night before, and she wanted to avoid mold as much as possible. Hollyleaf took to the work without complaint- Leafpool knew that this was the part of medicine that the molly enjoyed; the sorting and learning. It was the actual wounds that bothered her.
"I've been hearing rumors," said Hollyleaf eventually.
"There are plenty of those," Leafpool replied. "Which one in particular?"
"A little of everything." Which was, of course, of little use to the medicine cat. Hollyleaf's claws dug into the dirt. "Aunt Leafpool, what if I'm not... all ThunderClan?"
Leafpool blinked at her. "Dear, I hate to tell you this, but you aren't. Your grandfather, Tigerstar, was a ShadowClan leader. And even if you don't count that, his father, Pinestar, became a kittypet. Not to mention Firestar." Her tail flicked disinterestedly. "It doesn't matter, really. Russetfur of ShadowClan was a loner. Mothwing is the child of a ShadowClan leader and a loner, and she's the RiverClan medicine cat."
Hollyleaf perked up a little. That old curious glimmer was back. "How do you know all that?"
"Being a medicine cat has its perks."
"Did you know Ashfur liked mom?"
Leafpool didn't know what to say about that. "Yes? I mean, I didn't not know. Brambleclaw and Ashfur have been thick as thieves since they were apprentices. I just assumed it all worked out."
"Oh," said Hollyleaf. "Well. It didn't."
"I'm very sorry to hear that."
"And, well..." Hollyleaf swallowed. "You were there, right? When I was born?"
Leafpool felt something icky settle in her stomach. "Yes."
"It's just- some cats think it's weird. That we were born outside of camp."
"Oh, that?" She huffed out a grateful laugh. "It's more common than you'd think. Sandstorm was on patrol when she went into labor with your mother and I. It's just a bit odd to have happen in Leaf-bare."
Hollyleaf looked at her. Something vulnerable and aching was in her posture. "Did mom... say anything?"
Leafpool flinched. "Well... she said..." She ripped a small bit of leaf under her paws. "She said you were beautiful. And that she was worried that Brambleclaw might be disappointed, since none of you looked like him, but Lionblaze had his build and Jayfeather has Firestar's pointy nose." The tabby gently booped Hollyleaf as if to prove it. "And she said your eyes looked so much like your father's."
Confusion clouded Hollyleaf's features. "But... my eyes are green."
"And so expressive! Just like him." Satisfied, Leafpool turned back to her work. "You should just ignore what those other cats are saying. Ashfur. Whoever. This is where you belong."
A solid black mass curled up against her side. Hollyleaf's eyes fluttered shut as she purred. "Thanks, Aunt Leafpool. I feel a lot better now."
The smile on Leafpool's face became just a little strained. "Anytime, dear. Anytime."