You hear about it through the grapevine. That's really how it happens. Lionblaze doesn't have the decency to tell you, and Dovepaw, bless her heart, is too terrified of your anger. And so you hear about it when Thornclaw is gossiping with Mousefur and Longtail, while Purdy snores loudly on the sun rocks nearby. You're just in your den, like every other day of your life, sorting through your stock to find feverfew for Ivypaw's cold. And you hear it:

"Have you noticed Cinderheart?" It's Thornclaw's hushed mew, and you can picture him furtively glancing around to be sure no one heard. You strain your ears immediately. Anything concerning Cinderheart concerns you, right? After all, it was you who allowed her to get the strength back in her leg; it was you who taught her how to swim, despite your pathological phobia of water. So you eavesdrop, because you do have a right to know. Obviously.

Mousefur's brusque snort reaches your ears, and you can picture her rolling her eyes, dragging her tongue lazily over her paw. "For StarClan's sake, Thornclaw," she meows irritably, "you'd think it was a secret, wouldn't you?"

You prick your ears even more.

Longtail's raspy purr sounds from the elder's den. "What she means to say, Thornclaw, is that yes, everyone's noticed." His mew is softer, more relenting and gentle. There is warmth in his voice as he goes on. "They will be beautiful kits, I assume. Strong and loyal. I expect her in the nursery within a few days, in fact."

Thornclaw's embarrassed meow is drowned out in the thrumming of blood in your ears.

Kits? You almost want to laugh.

Then you stop, and you contemplate the situation, blocking out Ivypaw's questioning whisper as she notices you stiffen up. Suddenly, your fur is straight on end and a choked gasp tears from your lips. Kits! Cinderheart is having kits!

And then you unsheathe your claws. They scrape uncomfortably in the stone. It all seems clear to you, doesn't it? You should have noticed beforehand. You should have heard Lionblaze's tongue gently caressing Cinderheart's ear; you should have noticed the warm, milky smell that seems to wafte from her; you should have noticed. You should have stopped it.

You thrust the stalks of feverfew in Ivypaw's paws; the apprentice lets out a faint mew of distress. "I'll be back. Chew that up." With the brisk words, you fly out of your den; your paws seem to be on fire.

You can sense Cinderheart making dirt nearby, and you skid lightly on your pads, scrambling forward to meet her at the dirtplace entrance. Desperation pulses through your veins. Will she be alright? Will the kits be fine? You wince again. Kits.

You can hear her delicately scraping earth over her dirt, and you release a deep breath before plunging into the bracken.

Cinderheart lets out a soft mrrow? of surprise as you intrude on her privacy. You can taste her milky scent; you can hear your heart beating rapidly against your ribcage. Suddenly, you hear everything. You can sense her heartbeat speeding up, quickly thumping against her own chest. You detect the faintest trace of guilt, too, and the thought sends you reeling with a brusque, bitter bark of laughter. Quietly, you dig into the deepest burrows of Cinderheart's mind, but barriers of thorns block your way, overflowing with waves of fear, longing, and remorse, carrying you off your paws.

You blink your eyes and you're simply standing in front of her.

"Jayfeather?" The tiny meow is wispy. You imagine the fog permeating in front of her eyes.

Your voice is unnaturally high-pitched when you mew, "Just checking to see if you're alright. If your kits are growing properly." It's the near perfect excuse to be such a mouse-brain. "Come here. Let me feel your belly." You want to say so much more. When were you going to tell me? Why Lionblaze? I should have known. You should have notified me.

Cinderheart's puzzlement fades and is replaced with warm trust as you press your paws firmly into her swollen belly. You feel the tiny, squirming forms against your pads, the warmth seeping through to melt the icy cold of your paws. There are three kits. Three, beautiful kits, with parents who will love them like no cat will ever understand.

"You have three." The end of your sentence hitches with your breath, and you want to wail your despair.

Cinderheart's purr is soft and barely audible; you can feel her muzzle brushing against yours, in a gesture of thanks. Suddenly, the unjustness of the whole thing makes you snap, and you wrench away from her with a snarl on your lips.

"Why didn't you tell me?" The words tumble out effortlessly, a plea to understand. "Why Lionblaze? Why my brother?"

"Because you're a medicine cat!" The anger and distress coursing through your veins is voiced in her trembling mew. "You're a medicine cat that follows the warrior code!"

The truth behind her words pierces you to the core. She's right; she's always so right. You should have understood that. You should have been that cat that followed the rules of StarClan; you shouldn't have started to want her. With a last desperate attempt, you whisper, "You can't have kits with Lionblaze!"

Cinderheart's voice is cold when she murmurs, "Oh? Why not? Why can't I, Jayfeather? It's perfectly reasonable. He's a warrior; I'm a warrior. We're following the code exactly." The harsh tremor behind her bravado proves that she doesn't want to believe in what she's saying.

"You can't because I -"

Because you - what? You love her?

"Because I..."

Because she's the only cat you would break the warrior code with? Because you've started to want her?


Because you're wrong? Because he's your brother? Because - what?

Because you love her.

"Because you don't deserve him."

You can hear the shards of your heart thrashing against your chest. You wonder why she can't see the blood.