28. Questions

"We aren't going to get him?"

The question burst out of his throat much louder than he had intended, but he was powerless to stop it; hot anger washed over him, flickering in his eyes like hot coals. Gingerstar seemed taken aback as well, but her voice was soft as she said,

"It isn't possible, Kestrelpaw. You know that. We can't send two or three warriors to get his body and bring it all the way back here. It would be dangerous, time-consuming…and unsanitary. Besides…do you really think he would want to be buried out there, in that forest? That forest is where he lost Featherpaw, and his own paw. The forest holds nothing but terrible memories for him. He died in the barn, right? That's where he made peace with himself, you said. Why wouldn't he want to be buried there?"

"For better or worse, this is his home." Kestrelpaw was embarrassed at the way his voice cracked with the last word, but he plunged onwards. "This is where he belongs. And you don't want to get him not because it's dangerous or time-consuming or whatever, it's because you want to forget him. He didn't fit that image of the perfect medicine cat: he wasn't kind, wasn't humble, wasn't gentle and caring. He was rough and harsh and crude, but he was a better cat than you could ever hope to be. And I won't let you erase him from this Clan's memory, not as long as I draw breath!"

He realized that he was baring his fangs at his leader, and in the back of his mind he felt a tremor of fear, but he pushed it away.

I don't fit that perfect image either. No cat can, not really. The Clan demanded Smokethorn's entire life, and for what? To be buried in an old barn, to be forgotten?

I can't let that happen.

The gentleness in Gingerstar's eyes had vanished, replaced by crackling anger at his insubordination.

"It seems to me that in the past few moons, you've become a little too secure in your own power," she said, her voice growing icy. "Medicine cats are powerful, that's true, but do not forget which one of us has nine lives."

"And you shouldn't forget which one of us has the power to take them away," Kestrelpaw hissed. He turned away before she could answer, exiting the den.

He felt the Clan's eyes on him as he brushed past the curtain over the den, but he did not look at them. He had probably looked like quite a sight, staggering into the camp with urgency in his eyes, minus one gray tom.

If they want their news, they can get it from her, he thought, padding into his own den. When was the last time any of them asked me for anything besides herbs and cobwebs?

He started towards his nest, only to pause as he saw Smokethorn's. Half of it was practically covering their supply of burdock root; Smokethorn had always been protective of their herbs. He almost smiled at the memory.

He reached out with one paw, gently tugging the nest away from the herbs. He paused, then glanced around the den, noticing the signs of Smokethorn's presence – a few gray hairs there, the herbs in carefully-constructed piles due to his slight obsessive tendencies, the remains of a mouse – and suddenly felt overwhelmed. How could he brush these out of the den, taking out Smokethorn's presence as if he had never been there at all?

Later, he said with a weary sigh. I can figure this all out later, I'm certain of it…I just need to rest. I've been up for hours now, and…I just really need to rest.

He flopped onto his nest, giving Smokethorn's one last look before curling up into a tight ball, trying to banish the images of the gray tom's body and Daze's heartbroken expression when he had told her the news from his mind.

. . .

He awoke several hours later, after a yowl pierced his dreams. It took him several minutes to affirm that the yowl had indeed been real, that it was Gingerstar's voice who had called out.

He uncurled, feeling puzzled and fuzzy-minded.

"What do you think—" he started, only to break off as he looked to Smokethorn's nest and found it empty. The earlier events flooded him again, and he felt a second stone settle in his gut, next to the first.

He padded out of the den, eyes narrowing as he saw Gingerstar standing atop the Highrock, preparing to address the Clan. His Clanmates hovered in the center of camp, their eyes wide and anxious. Even the kits had tottered out, their mothers inattentive as they waited to see what had happened to their medicine cat, one of their pillars, one of their constants. Smokethorn had been around as long as anyone could remember; without him, there was a jagged hole in the Clan, one that he knew Gingerstar would want to brush over as quickly as she could, to slap a patch on it even if that did not fix it.

"ThunderClan," she said, her voice carrying that same soft, gentle, false tone that it had when she had first spoken to Kestrelpaw, "today is a day of mourning. As I am sure some of you have already heard, Smokethorn will not be returning to us. He passed away this morning, in his sleep."

There were a few gasps, and anxious murmurs raced through the Clan. Kestrelpaw's eyes flicked over their faces, taking in the shock and confusion, and felt slightly vindicated as he saw traces of grief.

"W-was he at the Moonstone?" one cat stammered. "Is it an omen?"

Kestrelpaw's tail bristled. An omen for the Clan? Is that all they care about?

"Kestrelpaw has informed me that Smokethorn died in the barn near the Thunderpath," Gingerstar said, her cool green eyes darting down to him. "It was after they shared dreams with our warrior ancestors. I assure you, it was a peaceful death." Her voice had risen in volume, emanating strength. "I am sure Smokethorn would have preferred to go in such a peaceful place, away from the troubles of the forest. And we have decided that it is there he will remain."

"He's not going to be buried here?"

Kestrelpaw was surprised to see that it was Emberpaw who spoke out. He hadn't seen the tortoiseshell she-cat since he had rescued her, sacrificing his future as a warrior in the process. She had never spoken of Smokethorn with any fondness that he could remember.

"No," Gingerstar answered. "It's too dangerous to send our warriors to retrieve him, and I am certain that he would prefer to remain there. I have been to the barn several times myself, and it is a peaceful place, one of plenty. It is where he would want to be."

"What of his vigil? How can we hold one without a body?" another cat asked.

"We will not have one," Gingerstar said. "It is unfortunate, but you're right; without a body, we cannot share tongues with him a final time, and I'm certain he is already with our ancestors. We know there is a battle likely approaching with RiverClan; he would not want our warriors to be tired. I know he wouldn't want to cause more trouble for his apprentice."

The Clan visibly relaxed, and what little grief Kestrelpaw had seen vanished. He realized that it hadn't been true grief at all; rather, it had been guilt, guilt for not bidding the medicine cat farewell, for bringing him back. But Gingerstar had relieved them of that, and now only their selfishness remained.

Before Kestrelpaw knew what he was doing, he was on his paws, hot anger licking through his veins.

"You don't know anything about what he would have wanted!" he snarled. Gingerstar froze as he spoke, her eyes flicking down to him, anger crackling in her gaze.

"Kestrelpaw, we understand that you are overcome with grief—"

"And I'm the only one!" he hissed. "Look at you all. You call yourselves warriors? Warriors are supposed to care for their Clanmates. They're supposed to protect them from harm, support them while they are weak, and mourn them when they are gone. But you all only want to forget! You want to put Smokethorn behind you, because he was an embarrassment, an affront to everything you hold dear. He was crippled: that made him weak, didn't it? ThunderClan was ashamed of him, ashamed to admit that our apprentices were fallible. He lost his paw trying to defend a Clanmate, but because he failed, he was suddenly less than a cat.

"And you all shunned him. You turned your backs on him, acted as though he was nothing more than dirt. Is it any wonder he became withdrawn, hostile, even vengeful?" He was quivering with fury, and he raked his gaze over the gathered cats.

"When was the last time you spoke to him, Swiftfoot?" he asked, his gaze piercing the young tom. The warrior blinked, his ears flattening, and he scuffed his paw against the ground.

"He helped your mother kit. When you caught a cold at two moons old, it was he who kept you alive. When you got that scar over your nose that became infected, it was he who cured it. When you had that thorn in your paw, it was he who got it out. Did you ever thank him? Did you ever say anything to him without demanding something in return?"

The warrior didn't answer, but Kestrelpaw didn't care. He moved on to the next cat, an older queen.

"What about you, Spottedbird? You've had three litters, and he helped you kit every time. This last kitting was the hardest, wasn't it? You nearly died, but he saved you and every one of your kits, against the odds. Is there another medicine cat in the forest that could have done that? And what did you do for him in return?

"And you, Emberpaw?" He ignored the painful pang in his heart as he met the apprentice's green eyes. "When you fell into the river, who was it that kept you from catching a chill? Who was it that kept you healthy? Did you ever offer him a word of thanks? Did you ever visit him again?"

"Kestrelpaw—" Gingerstar began again, trying to cut him off, but he turned his furious eyes to her.

"And you? How many times did he save one of your precious nine lives? How many times did he save the leader of our Clan without a word of thanks? How many omens did he give to you, how many times did he withstand the pain – pain you can't even begin to imagine – of walking all the way up to Mothermouth to dream of the Clan's future? How many Gatherings did he attend, despite his distaste for them and the effort it took for him to drag himself to them? How many times did he give you advice, even though you were constantly trying to push him into retirement, to shove him into the elders den? Out of sight, out of mind, right? Out of sight, out of worry, out of trouble, out of existence. In the end, he even handled that problem for you. Wasn't it considerate of him, to die at the barn so you never even had to set eyes on the body? You don't even have to give him a grave now. That would be a constant reminder, wouldn't it, a silent testament to the cat he had been? But now there doesn't have to be any trace of him. Now he can fade away as though he never existed, just the way you wanted."

He shook his head, disgust twisting his face. "There's nothing I can do about that. There's nothing I can do about any of this, because some day the same will happen to me. I'm an embarrassment too, with my paw. I'm just another cat forced into a job that doesn't fit. But you don't care, none of you care. You're content just to use me and Smokethorn and any other cat that ever falls short of your expectations, to wring us out until we're nothing more than husks, and then just throw us away. That will probably never change, not while cats like you are leaders. I can't change the way this Clan is run. And after today, I won't protest. I'm just one voice, after all. On my own, I'm powerless. I'm not going to be like Smokethorn; I'll do my job, and I'll do it without resentment. But today, I am leaving. Today, I am going to the barn. Today, I am going to bury my mentor and my friend. Today, I'm going to honor the tom that died twice. And you," he paused, eyes boring into his leader, "can go to the Dark Forest, for all that I care."

The Clan was completely silent as he turned his back on the ginger she-cat and began limping towards the camp entrance. The only sound he could hear was his heartbeat thudding in his ears as the last of his anger faded away, replaced by empty numbness. For once, his paw didn't hurt – or, if it did, it was lost in the swirling maelstrom inside of him.

And then,

"Wait."

He knew whose voice it was without even turning around.

"I'm coming," Emberpaw said, and he felt her tail barely touch his. "I'll say goodbye to Smokethorn. And I will help keep his memory alive."

And then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement. First, Swiftfoot rose, then Spottedbird, then the deputy, Redstripe. And with him rose the rest of the Clan, until they were all standing, every last one of them save for the kits, and they were all watching Kestrelpaw. Wordlessly, he turned away, exiting camp.

Behind him was the rumble of dozens of paws moving together as the Clan followed, leaving Gingerstar in her empty shell of a camp, save for the kits mewling for their mothers.

. . .

Daze was waiting outside of the barn as they approached. Kestrelpaw almost smiled as he saw her; her eyes were as wide as the moon as she saw the cats walking towards her humble barn.

Kestrelpaw held his tail up as they neared, signaling for them to stop. He looked again to Emberpaw, but said nothing as he and Daze walked into the barn.

The body was exactly as they had left it; Kestrelpaw shuddered to think what would have happened if he had not returned, if young Daze had been left with the corpse.

"We have to prepare him for his vigil," the medicine apprentice said.

"Tell me what to do."

They began grooming him, tongues untangling every knot, whisking away every speck of dirt, until Smokethorn looked far tidier than he ever had in life. Kestrelpaw moved him so that his muzzle was resting on his paws, so that it seemed he was merely asleep, not a million miles away. Then, the medicine apprentice slipped out of the back entrance of the barn, scouting for any sweet-smelling herb he could find. He returned with a bundle of them in his jaws, and arranged them around Smokethorn as carefully as he could, allowing them to fill the air with their rich, soothing aromas.

And then, they allowed the others in.

It was only a trickle at first, the bravest cats coming forward to murmur a few words to the medicine cat – thank-yous, perhaps, or apologies – before touching his shoulder and moving on. And then, gradually, it grew as more and more cats stepped up to say their goodbyes. A few – the older cats – stayed a bit longer than just a few words, but eventually they too moved on to sit with the others, until the barn contained nearly all of ThunderClan. Kestrelpaw watched, a silent sentinel, until every cat had their moment. And then he stepped forward.

"I'm not really one for speeches," he said, "but this isn't about me. It's about Smokethorn, who died here, alone, believing that he had been unwanted and uncared for by the Clan. And he was right. But I hope that he can see what has happened today from the stars, because…it's surprised me. And maybe it's only a temporary shift, maybe tomorrow I'll go back to being invisible and he'll be nothing but a fading memory in the minds of ThunderClan's kits, but I hope that won't be the case. Because he was a cat worth remembering. Every cat in ThunderClan is, whether they're old or young, whole or broken, warrior or medicine cat or queen or elder or apprentice or kit. Every cat is worth something. I can't claim to speak for him, but I can speak for myself: this is what I want to see in our Clan. This is how it should be.

"I'll never forget him, or the things he did for me, or everything that he taught me. And I'll never forget that the last thing he did was wish me strength, strength for the responsibilities and sorrows I'll have to shoulder in the coming moons. If you're listening, Smokethorn, then please know that I'm ready. And know that both the Clan and myself are better off for having known you."

He bowed his head then, and the others did as well, sending a final prayer to the stars.

When he looked up again, he found Emberpaw standing before him with a small, sad smile.

"You didn't ask for any thanks for yourself," she said.

"Today's not about me."

"Well, I'm not going to wait until you die," she answered, and reached up – up, for somehow in the past few moons while he had been training, he had grown into an adult, hadn't he? – to touch his nose. "Thank you, Kestrelpaw. I won't forget him, and I won't forget you, either."

His throat felt thick, and all he could do was nod. She smiled again, and then the two of them turned as Redstripe spoke.

"It will be nightfall by the time we return to camp," he rumbled, "and it would not be safe to walk to camp in the dark. You all should leave now. Sit vigil in camp, if you wish; Gingerstar will not object." He looked to Kestrelpaw. "I will stay."

Obediently, the Clan ebbed away – Emberpaw touched her tail to Kestrelpaw's again before leaving – and the barn was nearly empty once more. For once, Daze was quiet, seeming a bit overwhelmed with the past events; Redstripe and Kestrelpaw moved away to allow for her to have her own goodbyes with the older tom.

They went outside, and began to dig, underneath of a young sapling that grew near the barn.

By the time they finished, the sun was dipping down towards the horizon, and the sky had darkened to a smoky purple. They returned to the barn to find Daze waiting for them, her eyes glistening with sorrow.

"In the Clan, we stay with the dead for an entire night, before burying them," Kestrelpaw explained quietly, sitting down next to her.

"I know," she murmured. "He told me, once, after he lost a patient. He told me about the customs sometimes…where I'm from, we stay up too, to honor the fallen's spirit. We stay awake to assure the spirit it's being watched, so it can find its way to the afterlife without fear of getting lost."

Kestrelpaw smiled to himself. "Smokethorn would probably insist that the watcher was wrong, if he messed up getting back."

Daze's whiskers twitched. "Yeah."

They didn't say anything after that, as the moon rose into the sky and the stars scattered themselves over the heavens. There was no need; their hearts were all heavy with the day's same pain.

But, Kestrelpaw reflected, in the pain there was a tiny seed of hope, the hope for change. He didn't know what had shifted in the Clan that day, and there was no telling if it would last beyond these precious few hours. But it could, and that possibility might even be worth it, in the end. And even if it didn't linger, he felt certain that it would resurface, with some other cat. Today had been the end of more than just Smokethorn's story. It had been the beginning of the end for a pattern of thought, a way of looking at one's Clanmates, a way of evaluating one cat's worth compared to another's. And at his core, he felt certain of one thing.

It wasn't a question of whether things would change. It was when.

AN: Redstripe is obviously Redstar, the leader from Firestar's Quest. He didn't have a canon warrior name, to my knowledge.

And that's the close of Kestrelpaw's tale, at least for now. I hope you enjoyed it; it's nothing the sort of thing I usually do, a story told in one-shots, but experimentation is what this challenge is for.