AN: Definitely a warning for Ali's dirty mouth. She kinda got out of control with it. And I may have lied about no intentional heartbreaking, Prin. :D

When she first awakens from a dreamless sleep hazed with the red of blood and poppies, she wishes that the earth would simply swallow her up.

It feels like a dream when they first begin to look nervous as she, sleep-slow and pain-drunk, asks to see them. Tolbert's fur has never looked so white as it does now, pristine compared to her dark pelt tinged russet with half-dried blood. "Ali, you need to sleep, honey," he begins slowly, in that quiet, careful tone one reserves for burials. "You lost a lot of blood. You need rest."

But she sits up then, too heavy with painkillers to know and still lucid enough to feel the wrongness of it. "Where're my babies, Tolb?" she slurs in a voice unfamiliar to her own ears, glazed green eyes meeting his bloodshot amber.

And he tells her then, in a voice soft as the nest of rags beneath her paws, that their babies had come too early, that even Aether with all her experience had not been able to save them, that her children are already somewhere buried deep down, never to open their eyes and see the light of dawn for the first time.

She leaves him with three bloody gashes burning like tendrils of flame down his muzzle before she succumbs kicking and screaming to the medicine's crushing weight once more, praying desperately all the while for the gods to let her sleep forever, to let her sink deep beneath the earth's surface and rest always with the children that she's failed.

Alifair wakes up the next morning from the first of the nightmares that will never entirely go away. The gods are cruel, and life is crueler still.

"How are you, Ali? Is there anything I can get you, anything I can do? Oh, sweetheart, I'm so sorry. You're strong, so strong. We'll always be here for you, you know that, right? Whatever you need, sweetheart, whatever you need."

They all whisper it, kind, nameless faces and soft eyes bright with sorrow, before turning their backs to pull their children closer, holding on to their babies for reassurance that they haven't lost what matters to them most. A life cut short is a tragedy; a life never begun is a misfortune that settles a stigma on the broken mothers who bear them.

Alifair's become more acquainted with Sorrow these days.

She never mentions it to anyone, not her solemn family, not her dark-eyed mate, not this endless queue of comforters and well-wishers. The tiny tabby keeps silent as those needling, vicious whispers pick incessantly at the back of her brain, holing it up deep within herself as she nods silently to the white noise of the she-cats' well-intentioned, painful attempts at comfort. One of them brings her own kits with her one day, small and bright-eyed, and Ali barely escapes the conversation without vomiting.

She embraces Sorrow, letting the bitter hissing twist and slip into every corner of her mind, accepting the constant stream of vitriol without a whisper of defiance. The she-cat, so small without her moon-round belly, only bows her head; pitiful pathetic failure murderer kitkiller disgrace fallen is easier for her to believe in than the uncertainty that would take its place, the frightening, indistinct idea of what she's supposed to be now. There is no word for a mother who had lost her children, no name for a she-cat who has seen her kits' deaths done by her own paw.

She would rather be pitiful pathetic failure than nonexistent, and so she takes all that she's given.

The she-cat isn't sure of how to describe those weeks she spends with Sorrow as her companion, her confidante, her closest, most poisonous friend. Years later, when she will struggle to explain a world spitting acid and tinged with gray, and words she knows fall short, and green eyes that have held as much pain as her will only blink in silent understanding.

Sweet Little Ali slowly becomes Poor Little Ali to the world, whispers slick with pity enough to make her turn her ears towards Sorrow, choosing the harsh snarls over the wilting sympathy any time. Alifair sometimes wonders if she really did die that day after all, trapped in a limbo where every word, every touch, every gesture seems to reach for her from a world hidden behind a veil that paints everything a dull, lifeless shade of gray that makes her think oblivion.

Even her mother's words take twice as long for the she-cat to comprehend, the tiny tabby blinking in quiet consternation until she manages to string them together into something comprehensible.

"Ali? Did you hear me, baby? I asked if we could talk for a minute." Her mother stands before her, the picture of everything that Alifair is not, tall and golden with fur soft as a kitten's and a belly still plump from birthing two litters. The older she-cat's expression is something she can't even begin to untangle, not with Sorrow beating into the back of her brain, almost too loudly for her to hear anything else.

"Yes, ma'am, I heard you," she replies quietly. "What is it?" The little bobtail sits down, closing her eyes against the roar of guilt. Enough, she thinks feebly, and for the moment, Sorrow recedes, although the constant rhythm of pitiful pathetic failure remains.

It is quiet enough, though, that Alifair is able to piece together most of her mother's glib whispers, silky, placating blames wrapped around the secret she'd held into for over a moon now. With every word, though, the voices grow louder, nearly drowning out her mama's voice with the torrent of hatred.

"You were too young, baby."


"You weren't ready, I could tell, but his parents were pushing you so hard. It was like you didn't have any choice."


"And you were always so willful, could never listen to those that had your best interests at heart. You always had to do it your way, your way or not at all. I was trying to help, but you wouldn't listen to reason."


"I only did what I had to do, sweetheart, do you understand? It was all for you. Things will be better this way."


"You'll see one day."


"Enough!" someone snarls, and Alifair can't even place the voice as her own. Everything falls silent for a moment, Sorrow and her mother too shocked to speak as this little she-cat, Poor Little Ali who had accepted defeat without a murmur, shrieks in her fury. "You bitch. You took them from me."

Sorrow seems to stand beside her mother now, just as complicit in Ali's fall as the golden queen. Its voices, with their tiny, needling words that had sunk like claws into her mind, quieten immediately as rage overtakes her, turning the black pain in her blood to flame like a spark to kerosene.

"How the fuck do you know what's best for me?" she hisses, bristling as she stalked stiff-legged to stand in from of her mother. "You had no goddamn right to do what you did! You killed my babies. You killed your own fucking grandchildren in cold blood because they didn't fit with the future you'd imagined, and I'll break your neck if you try to lay some kind of claim on me again."

Cap hears her before she can get a good swipe in, the golden tom dragging her away by the scruff as she screams and thrashes in her attempts to get at Sita, to grab her mother by the throat and make her bleed until the world is stained crimson. "It's not worth it, it's not worth it, it's not worth it," he murmurs unceasingly in her ear, holding her tightly until they've reached the den once more and she's screaming into Johnsie's chest. "It's not fair," she sobs, head buried in his gilded fur.

Sorrow, for once, is silent.

It's the last time that she grieves aloud.

Rose watches her moons later with wide, horrified eyes. "Ali, I can't be. I, I, I'm supposed to go live with Xander in a few days, I can't be pregnant. Daddy'll kill me. Daddy'll kill Johnsie, oh Fel, please, I can't. I can't." The little she-cat blanches under her pelt, white flesh under whiter fur. Tolbert's youngest sister still believes in bedtime stories and happy endings, moons too young to be a mother, just like Alifair's brother is too young to be a father.

She wants to kill him for doing something so monumentally stupid, but all she can see when she looks at the pale queen is Sweet Little Ali with her moon-round belly and still-soft eyes. Sorrow murmurs in her ear, voice sweet as the first bite of a ripe holly berry.

"Rose, I need you to look at me. Rose." The little she-cat looks up from her paws, amber eyes dark with fear. "It's okay, alright? Calm down. You're fine. Everything's going to be fine. We just need to think."

It's quickly becoming one of her favorite words, fine, a quick, reassuring white lie that covers places where the truth won't. Yes, of course I'm fine, she meows with a smile almost everyday, even as an endless mantra of fuck you fuck you fuck you combats Sorrow howling in her ears, threatening to drag her down again after she's spent so long fighting her way back up.

"Ali, I don't know how to be a mama," she whispers, insistent as a tremor wracks her small frame. "What if I can't love 'em right? What if they don't love me? What if they don't make i—" She cuts herself off abruptly, eyes widening in remorse, but Alifair already knows what she's going to say.

What if they don't make it?

Sorrow beats at the back of her skull, screaming its endless mantra, filling her brain with pitiful pathetic failure your fault murderer kitkiller disgrace fallen, on and on.

That's quite enough of that, thank you.

She's not Sweet Little Ali. She's not Poor Little Ali. She's Ali, Alifair, and she's had quite enough of Sorrow's wailing, thank you.

"Rose," she meows, voice calm in a way that her mind is not, racing as she imagines how many ways this can go wrong. "We'll figure this out, but you're going to be a fine mother. You'll love your babies, and your babies will love you, and that's all that will matter. You can come stay in mine and Tolbert's den while he's gone, and we're going to figure this out, okay? C'mon."

Even as the little she-cat follows her to the den, Sorrow's voice drops to a murmur in Ali's ears, suitably cowed as she pushes it far back, her attention focused on the white queen padding behind her. She can do this, she tells herself. Rose needs her to hold it together, and she can do this. She can fix this.

She's spent too long fighting her way back out, trying to hold it together, pushing Sorrow and Sita and the gray tinge away, that she can't not do this. Alifair's finally found her way back up, and she will not sink again, thank you very fucking much.