It was done. Another long day was over. At last, the day was done.
There was no moon tonight. No light seeped into the hot, uncomfortable, crowded nursery in which a new mother lay with four squirming, sightless, deaf kits near her belly. Dacedream was no longer pregnant; it should have been a relief. She had given birth to the kits five sunrises ago just after dawn with Mossbloom's help, and after a long day - most of which was a dark, emotional blur - at last all of the well-wishers and visitors had departed from the nursery to leave the queen in privacy with her litter. It felt more comfortable to call them Houndheart's litter - his kits - but the dull ache in her muscles was plenty to remind her that they were her blood, too.
They had all been born healthy and strong in the safety of ThunderClan's nursery with all of the love of the Clan around them, but when the queen gazed upon Houndheart's children she felt... She... She felt... No. No, she couldn't even comprehend what she felt. She didn’t love the kits; she couldn't comprehend the kits.
The thick-furred tortoiseshell stared at the little bundles with glassy eyes that flickered and fluttered. One moment her gaze would be narrowed in thought, the next her lip would bunch with something almost akin to disgust or annoyance, and then her eyes would widen in fear. Each moment was an overwhelming shift of emotion. Her tail wriggled in unrest. Across the den, the other queens curled up peacefully sleeping in their nests with their kits. Their slow, deep, rhythmic breaths made Dacedream want to curl her claws into the earth and hiss. How could they be so loud? How could they be so - so relaxed?
One of the kits wriggled in their sleep and brushed Dacedream's foot. How can anyone sleep with all this?! she thought angrily. Reflexively she jerked her foot away, jolting the little pale tabby kit who let out a squeak of alarm. Immediately Dacedream flinched, her expression twisting with guilt as she stared helplessly at the already settling creature. Cherrykit - the only kit with Houndheart's handsome stripes. She had Beartooth's toes, too.
How dare you treat Houndheart's helpless little kit that way? a cold voice chided Dacedream in her mind. It still wasn't her kit. It still didn't have a name in her mind, and yet to deny Houndheart's choice only struck another chord of guilt. Completely reckless. It's no wonder why no one has left you alone with these kits since you brought them into the world. You are a danger to them. You've heard them. You've heard how they talk of Ridgelight now. The infamous queen's name had traveled around corners and fluttered on the breeze since the first night of the kits' lives. Dacedream felt sick when she first heard it muttered, knowing that the horrible elders' tale was not simply a tale - knowing what her Clanmates thought of the new queen's behavior.
Comparing Dacedream to Ridgelight... Houndheart's mother... the she-cat who had purposefully left camp to give birth where the foxes would reach her kits. Only Houndheart came home that day - any ThunderClan cat knew that tale. Any cat could guess what that comparison meant and what fears it might instill for the future of the kits.
The thought of foxes on her mind immediately made Dacedream groan, tears suddenly spilling over her eyelids as she fixed her gaze on the fox cub-looking tabby-calico. Some distant voice called the kit Vixenkit - her voice. She had chosen that name. Her decision. Her horrible decision. Stupid! You complete mouse-brain, how could you be so careless? So tactless? Naming Houndheart's child after a fox, her own voice growled in her head again, you shouldn't have been allowed to name any of them. You shouldn't even be allowed to touch them.
The pale tortoiseshell queen jerked her head away, glaring across the den at the wall and sniffling hard, biting back a sob. She wanted to argue - surely they needed her. Mossbloom said so. All of the queens said so - a queen’s kits need their mother. But there were other queens... did they need her? The thought of abandoning them to another queen only brought up more thoughts of Ridgelight and more feelings of inadequacy. Surely none of the other queens in the nursery had ever had such horrible, selfish desires.
Sadly, Dacedream's exhausted green-hazel eyes drifted to a third kit: Puddlekit, a she-cat, yet the cold, hollow voice in the queen's head simply said, Sparkfrost is disappointed. You aren't happy right now. Look at yourself. You failed your father. He wanted you to find happiness, and after your nestmates and your warrior name and your kits you're still too selfish to be happy. The kit was blind, deaf, helpless. Dacedream watched the little dilute calico move in its sleep, and she edged her paws away from it to let it move without touching her - the thought of it touching her made the fur on her shoulders prickle. It looked exactly like Sparkfrost. Knowing now that he stood in StarClan, looking down on her... how could he not be ashamed? She had everything she could ever want and yet she was unhappy. She owed everything to this kit now to make sure it was happy - that they were all happy...
The fourth kit moved in closer to suckle.Dacedream flinched away, dislodging the little tom Jaykit as well as the others. The kit immediately let out squeaks of protest, and Dacedream lost her remaining willpower. She rose up completely, pulling away from their warmth and looming over them with a panicked expression. Three of them were squeaking and mewling away, calling out for the warmth and nourishment that had just been swept away from them; the final kit still seemed peacefully asleep. Or dead, her cold voice said almost mockingly, as if knowing she would cling to the fear. Dread soaked Dacedream's pelt as she immediately pushed the other kits aside to examine Vixenkit. "Kit?" the queen meowled in a fearful tone.
Across the den, one of the queens awoke at that piteous sound and began to rise to investigate.
"K-Kit, are...?' Dacedream began to ask, but then the little russet kit, disturbed, turned its face towards its mother and let out an ear-splitting mewl. Immediately startled Dacedream jolted up and asked desperately with a rising pitch, "Why didn't you mew like the rest of them? Wh-Why are you all mewing?"
The other queen had reached Dacedream at that moment and laid her thin tail over her broad shoulders. "They're only cold, dear, that's why they're mewing. That's all," the she-cat reassured after glancing them over. She turned to the new mother. ”Is there something wrong, Dacedream? Why are you up?”
"They... Th-They... It was trying to suckle and I... i-it just surprised me," Dacedream stammered, immediately feeling heavy with guilt and shame. The concern in the other queen's eyes only served to magnify her feelings of uselessness. How was the other she-cat so calm? There was even sympathy in the depths of her gaze. Was Dacedream really so inadequate as a mother that the simplest of tasks was impossible?
The she-cat brushed her tail down Dacedream's flank, replying, "It's alright, many new queens have had that experience. It will be okay. Now you know what he needs and it won't surprise you so much." Dacedream stared down at the wriggling, protesting litter, feeling unconvinced… unwilling. The thought of laying down next to them was almost repulsive, but mot than that it was terrifying. The other queen continued, "Trust me, Dacedream, why don't you try laying down? Get yourself comfortable and you'll see how much easier the kits will sleep, too."
With a patient look, the queen gently guided Dacedream down into a crouch and then onto her side. The kits wriggled in eagerly, seeking out her warmth - and a meal, now that they were fully awake from the disturbance. Their tiny, gummy mouths and little pin-pointed claws settling into place brought Dacedream no comfort, no joy, yet the other queen seemed pleased and relieved to see the tortoiseshell laying down again with her kits pacified.
"You see, dear? It takes practice, but you'll get it,” the other queen praised. ”You'll be a mother in no time." With that she had gone back to her nest, tucking herself in with her sleepily awaiting kits.
Dacedream stared after her for a long time, uncomfortably and acutely aware of the kits at her belly and shame on her shoulders. She's a better mother than you, the hollow voice muttered about the other queen. She knows it. She knows you’ll never be a real mother; she just doesn’t want to deal with your sniveling by telling you so. You've let your Clan down, and you let your nestmates down, and you'll let these kits down, too. Dacedream's haunted green-hazel gaze turned sorrowfully downward to stare at the kits nursing from her. They were at peace, sleeping contentedly. The other queen was at peace. Houndheart and Duskrain were probably at peace...
For Dacedream, though, the fog continued to hang over her. In some ways she felt herself becoming more detached by the moment. As she stared blankly down at the kits, she tried to think of them as anything more than "the kits". She just couldn't. Mossbloom had been giving her herbs, her loved ones had been giving her kindness... but something was not right with Dacedream.
Where had her peace gone? When would she be happy again, too?