through all the tears - howling wind

Emberstar had not stepped inside her den since the morning before the fire arrived. She hardly remembered waking up in it that day. Her memory was entirely occupied by what came after, the panicked flurry of motion as she tried to figure out what she was supposed to do. Fighting desperately against a threat that choked the very air and, eventually, the flames that followed it. She could still smell the smoke, its scent lingered faintly everywhere in the camp. Even here, in her den. It hung over her, a reminder that - once again - she had failed. She had been helpless to save her friends.

The scarred molly exhaled, long and slow.

This was the first time she had been alone since that morning too. At least, that's what it felt like. Even after the danger had passed, her time in Riverclan had been a procession of people checking in on her or asking questions. There hadn't been much for her to do - Cicadastar was in charge there not her, after all - but there had always been someone around. In a camp packed with two clans there was always someone to talk to, someone to distract her.

Not here though. The Thunderclan camp felt empty in comparison. Especially with the absences of those they had lost felt so keenly. Her den felt big and empty and lonely. She had never liked that she had her own den, even though it was what she was used to. At times she had even considered just sleeping with the warriors. Now most of all, Emberstar longed for the long ago days when she was a kit, and she had shared a den with her mother.

Silently, she glanced toward the entrance. There was no one there. She was alone. Settling into her nest, she wrapped her tail about herself, curling inward. Then, building slowly like cracks in dam, she began to cry.

It was not silent, it was not even quiet. It was loud and ugly. She cried like she had when she was a kit, and the only one who might hear was her mother.
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As a mother to eight children, it's easy for Howling Wind to pick up on the soft sounds of cries. Even easier to hear the loud sobs coming from the leader's den. The she-cat falters in her steps; she had been heading towards the warrior's den but her attention is now on Highrock, ears swiveling forward. In an instant, her path changes and she's padding swiftly towards the towering boulder, entering the cave within after pushing through the lichen curtain. "Emberstar?" Her mew is careful, worried. She sees her leader curled up tightly within her nest, wailing as wet tears stained her pelt. "Emberstar, hey, hey." She hurries forward to crouch beside the flame point, brow knitted as she places a white paw upon Emberstar's shoulder. "What's wrong? Talk to me."
A figure slipped into her den and - with a start - Emberstar tried to conceal her cries. It was fruitless though, the dam was broken now and there was no going back. Nothing now could stop the tears that flowed freely from her eyes. Instead, like a kit caught being disobedient, she slipped a paw over her face to hide. "I'm fine. I'm fine." She tried to reassure through hiccuping sobs. Even she could tell it didn't sound true. That made her cry all the harder.

She couldn't be seen like this.

Compelled, against herself, to explain, all she could do was mutter the half-choked words; "I don't know. I don't know." There were too many reasons to cry, too many things happening. More had happened to her in these last moons than in her whole life. There had been more joys, more despair, more everything. Too much of everything. She had been alone for so long, and she was glad not to be anymore, but now there were too many people to care about.

"I was supposed to keep them safe." Emberstar whispered at last. It was a shameful admission. One that, in the moment, she wasn't certain if was referring to everyone she lost in the fire or everyone she lost in the battle. She was the leader, it was her job to keep each and every one of them safe, even if that was impossible, even if that was unfair. That was what she had to do, and she kept failing. Time and time again. There were just too many of them, she couldn't be everywhere at once and it hurt.
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Howling Wind's ears flick forward, surprise on her face. She's talking about their clanmates lost in the fire. Sympathy washes over her and she moves to drape her tail comfortingly over her leader's shoulders as a similar grief aches her own heart. They'd lost good warriors that day. Her daughter had lost her mate; her grandchildren lost one of their mothers. Tempest would be terribly missed, but she takes comfort in the knowledge that she along with the others lost to the flames now reside in StarClan, where prey is plentiful and the trees are always lush. She hopes they're able to rest there.

"None of what happened is your fault," The tabby urges, gazing down at the flame point with wide eyes. "You lost a life protecting your clan. You saved a kit's life. You're a hero, Emberstar."
Howling Wind's words only curl her tighter in on herself, her sobs only growing. Her deputy didn't get it, why didn't she get it? That it wasn't her fault wasn't the point. The life she had given hardly mattered because...

"It wasn't enough." Emberstar insisted through her cries. "They're gone and I couldn't save them. I-I was their leader they trusted me to-to-" A spluttering gasp for air. "I was supposed to be better than this. I was supposed to keep them safe. And-and-" Words fall from her tongue like her tears, and she is helpless to stop either. Helpless, helpless, always helpless. Helpless in the battle, helpless in the fire, helpless against the weight of a clan on her back. It was crushing her right now, she couldn't breathe. "I keep messing this up!" she sobbed.

"I don't know if I can do this anymore. It's all just too much."

There it was. The admission that had been weighing on her eart, building and building since she first said the name Thunderclan. She loved this clan, loved it more than anything. It was the best thing that she had ever done, better than she ever could have imagined. Yet, she couldn't keep it safe.

Emberstar knew she didn't have the wisdom of Rain, the tact of Cicadastar, or even the desperate, savage ruthlessness of Sootstar. All she could do was desperately try and run headfirst into her clans problems, throwing her heart and body on the line in hopes that would be enough. Trying to protect everyone because she couldn't bear to be the one to risk leaving someone who didn't deserve it behind. She made a mistake, naming herself as leader. It had been a childish, impulsive decision and now her whole clan was paying the price for it.
The outburst causes Howling Wind's ears to fall back against her head, a shocked, "Emberstar-" leaving her, but she doesn't know what to say. It's almost frightening to see her leader like this, crumbling and cracking. She always saw her as a beacon of light and hope ever since she claimed the oak forest that day, brimming with confidence and optimism. Now, she appears to only be a shell of that cat. She had faced her first loss as leader - could she be blamed? Not one bit.

"You can't be perfect," She mews more assertively this time, shifting in front of the flame point's nest to hopefully catch her gaze. Her brow is furrowed now, her voice simultaneously gentle and firm. "No cat can be. But ThunderClan deserves a leader that does her very best, and that's what you've been doing." She cries more, saying how it's becoming too much, and the tabby straightens herself with a lash of her tail. "Let me help you, Emberstar. You chose me as your deputy to help you lead this clan. Please, let me take some of the responsibility off your shoulders!" Howling Wind urges, leaning forward. Once more, she repeats, "Let me help you." She can't do this all on her own, no matter how badly she wishes to. It's simply too much for any singular cat to bear.
Emberstar knew she couldn't be perfect. After everything that had happened, she knew that all to well. She had to try to be though. For everyone else's sake, she had to try, or else they might get hurt. They had gotten hurt, because she hadn't been good enough. Which was why it hurt a little, to hear Howling Wind say she had tried her best, even if it was true. Because it hammered home that she never could have saved them. That she just wasn't strong enough to do that.

She hated that. It made her feel helpless.

It was hard, though, to argue while she was drowning in her own tears. Or when Howling Wind spoke to her with such firm certainty. So for a while she just cried a bit more. Letting it all out before she spoke once more.

She wasn't quite done when she did, but she weeping as forcefully as she had been. "Making you deputy wasn't supposed to be a responsibility, it was meant to be a reward." Emberstar argued weakly. It sounded stupid even to her, now that she'd said it. "I'm the leader, I shouldn't hand off my work like that." She attempted again, but even that still sounded dumb. The molly sniffled, blinked. Why couldn't she say this in a way that sounded right?

"Still, I'll do it." She agreed, despite her protests. It didn't feel like she had a choice, she was at her breaking point. Past it, really. A moment passed. "What did you have in mind?"
As her leader sobs even more, Howling Wind tentatively shifts closer, draping a fluffy tail across cream shoulders. She doesn't mean to invade Emberstar's space, but what else can she do? It's simply against the she-cat's nature to let a cat cry and cry without so much as touching them in an effort to comfort. She stares at her with sadness in her eyes, feeling immense sympathy as she can't possibly imagine the pain going through the younger cat right now. Her heart breaks as the flame point speaks again through choking sobs. A reward. Yes, it was a reward - she recalls how proud she had been on that day to receive the promotion. It's an honor to be selected for Emberstar's second-in-command. But she had known that the job would come with a duty to work hard in service towards her clan.

She ponders for a short moment, wondering what she should ask her leader to give up. Perhaps the one that fills up her mornings the most - something Howling Wind can easily begin to do. "For starters, let me handle patrols from now on." Emberstar's patrols had proven to be...inefficient, despite her very best intentions.
It was a small concession that her deputy asked from her. Not to undermine their significance, they were hardly the most demanding of her duties. All she had to do was announce them, which hardly took much time out of her day at all. There was, of course, the organization. Which she was less than perfect at, admittedly. It was however, more a matter of skill than time consumption. In terms of her responsibilities, it was a proportionally small one.

And yet.

Somehow that almost made it worse, that it was such a small thing. Like her own deputy thought she could take care of even this. It wasn't true, of course, Howling Wind was her friend and would never think that, but still. All the worst parts of herself that tangled themselves in words like responsibility and strength and protection knotted together, and for a moment she thought she might refuse her deputy outright. Deny, pathetically, impossibly, that she needed any help at all.

Tears were still wet on Emberstar's cheeks, however, and she was tired. She did not want to try and argue with Howling Wind. She hated arguing. The least she could do was try it, she persuaded herself. If it didn't work, she could change things back. That was how being leader worked, after all. "Okay." The flame-point conceded weakly. "You can handle patrols."
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