The morning patrol gathered in the center of the camp, fur fluffed out against the cold. Moorland wind blew harshly over the grass, sending flurries of mist into Nightcloud's eyes, coating her black pelt with tiny beads of moisture. The dawn was frigid and wet, a perfect foreshadow for snow to come.
"Are we all here?" Owlwhisker grunted, his jovial nature dampened by the cold.
Whitetail blinked sympathetically. "Just waiting for Crowfeather, that's all."
As if on cue, a smoky black tom appeared from the old rabbit warren, used now when the weather got too cold. Nightcloud's heart skipped a beat when he appeared at her side, blue eyes downcast and shoulders hunched. Crowfeather greeted her with a noncommittal nod.
Nightcloud frowned, swallowing down the sense of resentment with a purr. "What's got you so grumpy today?" she teased, pressing her muzzle against his warmly.
Crowfeather quickly wrenched away with a muttered, "Nothing." He refused to meet her eyes, even when Nightcloud tapped him with the tip of her tail.
Oblivious to the problem, Owlwhisker released a relieved breath of air. "Alright, off to it, then." He raised his tail to signal they set off.
Whitetail nodded and followed the younger warrior, motioning for Nightcloud and Crowfeather to do the same.
The journey was quiet, with lack of laughter or enjoyment. Nightcloud was painfully aware of Crowfeather's closed-off mood. Granted, there were few times her mate was truly open with her; but he was never this reclusive. Nightcloud considered asking, but she knew it would only cause unnecessary sadness. It was sometimes better not to inquire when it came to Crowfeather.
As Whitetail finished marking the border with ThunderClan, Nightcloud watched as Crowfeather subtly gazed past the border, into the forest. There was a sudden flare of longing in his gaze, a tempest of emotion that never seemed to lay eyes on Nightcloud.
Jealousy burned a fierce path in Nightcloud's stomach, and she swallowed the bile in her throat. Surely it was nothing; Crowfeather was only wishing for the shelter of the trees from the wind, and surely, surely, it was nothing else. He felt nothing for Leafpool.
Yet still, Nightcloud gazed wondrously as he continued to stare, and only when Owlwhisker requested they leave did his eyes break. Crowfeather met her eyes indignantly, a challenge in them. There was never any warmth there, or a certain longing that he associated with ThunderClan. Only a challenge, a defense. He never felt anything more.
"Go on ahead, Whitetail, Owlwhisker." Crowfeather tossed the words over his shoulder, turning back only once more to look into Nightcloud's eyes. "I need to talk to her."
Owlwhisker twitched his ears disapprovingly, but Whitetail said nothing and carried on, bounding up the slope and towards the camp. Only when they faded from sight did he speak, his words coming in slow, careful tones.
Nightcloud felt the ground sway underneath her paws, the coldness suddenly much more bitter to her. A harsh wind threatened to carry her off her paws. "What?" The word was a whisper, a broken plea. Please, don't say it, she didn't say.
Crowfeather broke away from Nightcloud, staring over the border with the foreign passion in his eyes. "I need to go to her," he whispered.
The jealousy burst into flame, licking a trail of ashes in Nightcloud's heart. He was talking of Leafpool. He never said much about the ThunderClan she-cat, only sent those terrifying gazes over the border, only looked off into the distance when they were alone. Sometimes, when he looked at her, Nightcloud knew he never really saw her at all. Yet even when he said nothing, she knew; she'd always known.
It seemed funny, at that moment, that the only thing Nightcloud could think to say was, "What about Breezepelt?" It was a silly question. When had Crowfeather cared for his son?
Crowfeather seemed not to have heard Nightcloud. "Tell the Clan where I've gone, will you?"
The world spun far too fast around Nightcloud, dizzying her. No, this was all happening so quickly, without warning. She should have been told before. It shouldn't have had to come to this, an indifferent goodbye at the ThunderClan border.
Without waiting for Nightcloud to reply, Crowfeather broke into a run, twisting and turning through the trees, until the forest swallowed him up. He disappeared in the shadows, the ferns trembling, the only reminder of his presence.
With a burst of energy, Nightcloud took off after him, unable to be bothered by the way her paws tore in the thorns. She needed to tell him not to go. She needed him to stay with her, to stay with her and Breezepelt. It didn't matter if he didn't love her - she needed him so she may love him evermore.
It had taken few moments to catch up with him, in a shaded clearing underneath the oaks. He was gasping for breath, sides heaving, eyes wild. He seemed not to see anything around him, only the goal he set for himself: Leafpool.
"I love you!" Nightcloud cried, the only thing she could think to say, the only truth she knew. If he heard it once more, he might understand; he might come back for her. If only he heard what she so desperately knew... he would never leave her side. "I love you so much, Crowfeather. Please don't leave us."
Crowfeather's eyes focused again, a blue storm battling in his gaze. He stared disbelievingly at her, shaking his head. "It doesn't matter." His voice was cold, cruel, decisive, before he disappeared once more into the forest.
A single snowflake touched Nightcloud's tongue, an icy cold tenderness that tasted of lies and promises, bitter and sweet all at once.
She walked home alone.