Autumn leaves of amber, gold, and brown swirled in the lofty breeze. A single leaf, still carrying the rich green-leaf's coloring, tickled the gray apprentice's nose as she emerged from the den, her tail trailing in the drifting lichen. A limp mouse, suffering from hunger pangs of the new leaf-fall, dangled by its tail in her jaws. The clearing was empty; pale sunlight sifted through the trees and illuminated the entrance to the forest.
Cinderpaw lifted an ashy gray paw hesitantly, nose twitching as she scented her camp. The smell lingering on the gorse tunnel told her that a patrol had just left; Brackenpaw and Graystripe, possibly going hunting. Cinderpaw's shoulders ached and her heart sank. She wished desperately to go hunting with her brother and his mentor. But the numbness in her leg, the twisted way it dragged behind her, reminded her she would never again feel the dappled sunlight on her fur as she stalked prey.
Cinderpaw sighed, her whiskers fluttering with the troubled breath of air. She remembered the stench of the Thunderpath; a roar, a thud and dripping blood. Cinderpaw's blue eyes widened in horror. She shook off the memory with a shudder that rippled through her gray tabby pelt.
When she'd woken, she caught a glimpse of Yellowfang's matted gray tail as she left the den. Where she had been was a warm, enticing body, thin but young and fresh. The scent had made Cinderpaw's belly growl with anticipation. But she had felt too wretched to eat. She decided she'd take the fresh-kill to Fireheart; the new deputy was tiring himself, busy with his new duties as he struggled to fill Tigerclaw's pawprints. Often Cinderpaw noticed the haunted look in his leaf-green eyes, showing he was terrified of Tigerclaw and finding it hard to handle his responsibilities.
But there was another reason why Cinderpaw wished to take her wood mouse to her former mentor, a reason she felt treacherous to voice aloud. A shiver made the sleek fur along Cinderpaw's spine bristle. I can't love him.
The medicine cat apprentice gritted her teeth and stalked ahead, hoping to smell Fireheart's warm, welcoming scent along the bramble thicket of the warriors den. She poked her soft, rosy nose into the den. Sleeping warriors filled her blue gaze, their strong and supple muscles flexing as their flanks rose and fell with their snores.
Immediately Cinderpaw noticed that Fireheart's body was curled against a pale ginger tabby shape, his flame-colored tail wrapped around the body protectively. Dismay flashed once in Cinderpaw's eyes, jealousy making her unsheathe her claws. It was Sandstorm.
Cinderpaw'd noticed that Sandstorm and Fireheart were growing closer. She'd even encouraged Fireheart to take a step towards a relationship with the pretty ginger she-cat. But that didn't stop the envy that boiled in the pit of her stomach. She'd give anything to be in Sandstorm's place right then, her own gray pelt pressing against Fireheart's.
Shaking off the thought mutely, Cinderpaw let out a low hiss. "Fireheart!" One ear twitched and he curled even tighter against Sandstorm. "Fireheart," she hissed again, blue eyes flashing.
The deputy lifted his head, his green gaze sleep-blurred. "Cinderpaw?" he murmured, heaving himself to his paws. Sandstorm's own green eyes flicked open, and Cinderpaw didn't miss the annoyance that flared there.
Fireheart stepped past Cinderpaw, his flame-colored coat brushing against her gray fur. A tingling spread from where his tail swept her paws.
"I suppose deputies eat, right?" she asked, amusement making her whiskers twitch. "Sorry to wake you. But you do have dawn patrols to set out."
Fireheart nodded gravely, his legs stiff and his tail drooping. Cinderpaw again saw the haunted look in his leaf-green gaze as he glanced at her. Fear made the tip of her tail tremble. "Come on, Fireheart," she whispered, lifting her tail to drape it over his shoulders. "I'll see if there's something I can do for you in the medicine den."
Fireheart chuckled; the force of it made his legs wobble. "What makes you think there's something wrong with me?" he asked, his voice deep with sleep. Cinderpaw shook her head, keeping her mouth shut.
"What's wrong, Fireheart?" Cinderpaw demanded in a silky tone when she dipped through the hanging moss. Fireheart sighed again, flopping down into a mossy nest without saying a word. Cinderpaw dropped the mouse at his paws and limped to the storage. "Chamomile, for soothing nerves," she whispered under her breath. "Looks like marigold, smells like comefry..." With a grunt of acknowledgment, Cinderpaw picked up fresh-smelling leaves in her jaws and rapidly spread them with her paws.
"Here, almighty deputy," she said with a laugh, placing the leaves gently near his nose. "This will soothe your nerves. I know you need that."
Fireheart slowly began to chew the leaves, his eyes squinting at the taste. But within moments the leaves were gone and he was quickly devouring his morsel of mouse. Cinderpaw pressed her muzzle to his cheek, savoring the scent and warmth that spread through her. He rested against her, his leaf-green eyes closed, then tucked his paws beneath his chest.
"Is this about Darkstripe and Longtail?" she asked quietly, her blue eyes gazing at him steadily.
Fireheart's whiskers twitched. "Why is it you know me so well?" he teased, though his mew was dull. "Yes. I wonder... are they really loyal to the Clan, or just to Tigerclaw?"
Cinderpaw shook her head. "I can't answer that," she meowed truthfully, her tail twining with Fireheart's. She hoped she wasn't stepping past the boundary of friendship she'd worked so hard to forge with him. "Only time will tell."
Fireheart's tail-tip flicked but he said no more. He moved closer to Cinderpaw and pressed his nose in her ashy fur, a purr rumbling in his throat. Cinderpaw closed her eyes to remember the moment.
"I wish I could talk to Sandstorm about this," he admitted, his mew muffled. A puff of air flew out of the apprentice's mouth before she could stop it. She hoped Fireheart didn't notice the sudden tensing of her muscles.
"Oh?" she choked out, swallowing the lump in her throat.
Fireheart nodded and stood up again, kneading his paws on soft moss. "She doesn't understand that... She expects me to be the perfect deputy."
Cinderpaw was unable to stop the tumbling thoughts. "You'll never have to be perfect for me, Fireheart," she whispered.
The deputy stiffened; his green eyes raked over Cinderpaw with a different intensity. Cinderpaw buried her nose in the moss, hoping she hadn't really said that and she was just imagining it. A warm flush creeped through her fur, humiliation making her eyes water. She didn't feel the rough tongue that lapped gently at her ears, or the tail that smoothed the ruffled fur on her flank.
"But you're a medicine cat, Cinderpaw," he mumbled into her ear, his nose pressed against her. "You're heart will never lie with me. Not truly with me."
That's not true! she wanted to wail. She started to protest, but Fireheart's presence left the den. His heavy pawsteps faded into the clearing.
A shattering filled Cinderpaw's ears, a numbness crippling her heart and a sickness making her eyes water again. A cold rain began to fall outside the den, drizzling on the hanging lichen. Cinderpaw listened to the steady rhythm, almost imagining she could hear Fireheart's voice calling her name in the wind. But it was gone almost at once, just like her hope that she could ever be with him.