HOURS OF COLD

Mackerel awoke with a start as a rustling near her ears reawakened her senses, luring her from the clutches of sleep. A soft, blue, wintry light bathed her silver coat, which stood out prominently against the backdrop of dusty straw she was curled up in.

"Mmm?" she murmured, cracking open one amber eye. Asa peered down at her, one small, black paw poised above her eyes, as if he were preparing to strike. At his shoulder, Javis—Jabber, as his siblings called him—grinned crookedly, a sight that still brought pangs to the silver tabby's heart.

Just like Shaw. Fate had been kind to give him Maelstrom's icy blue eyes, which distinguished him from her dead brother, at the very least—his personality had done enough on its own.

"C'mon, Ma," Javis pestered as Asa pawed at her cheek with the tips of his barbed claws. "You said two nights ago that you'd tell us a story tonight, and the sun's about to turn in for the night. We ate while we were waiting for you to wake up, but you didn't, so…" He shifted guiltily from side to side on his haunches, glancing at Asa as if he expected his handsome brother to lend him a paw.

"Not exactly," Asa amended hastily after a moment, catching on, "We caught you something, too. Annabelle's got it."

Mackerel blinked, hardly aware of their babbling, as she leaned forward in a luxurious stretch that pulled at the wiry muscles of her shoulders. As feeling rushed back into her upper body, tugging her from the absorption of sleep's comfortable haze, a tinier shape—Annabelle—detached herself from her golden brother Javis's form, a plump mouse nearly the size of herself dangling from in her jaws.

"Annabelle," Mackerel purred, ignoring the anxious looks her two sons exchanged, "Asa, Javis. You three are so sweet, bringing me dinner… But where's Elias? Didn't he want to listen to story hour, too?"

Javis lowered his eyes, and Asa cleared his throat. Mackerel's expression turned positively hawk-like. "You didn't bully him again today, did you?"

"No, we—" Asa objected.

"They told him he was going to end up like Unca' Sleet, Ma," Annabelle piped up, casting her two brothers a nasty look. "You know: blind, moody, always acting snappy and sullen. It's not his fault he looks like your brother, Ma. Toms," she finished scathingly, shaking her petite head.

Mackerel's eyes were mere slits as she raked her gaze across Asa and Javis.

"This is your last warning, you two," she said quietly, the words so soft and disappointed, so much so contrasting her expression, that it startled the two lanky toms. "Haven't I told you time and time again what Sleet has done for all of us? For Aunt Jaci, Uncle Jenner, Uncle Shackle, Aunt Twister, Miss Ali, and your cousins—for me, personally."

When no reply met her, Mackerel continued, "Maybe not, or perhaps you weren't listening. Either way, this is the last time I'll repeat myself. You three, sit down—whether or not this story is age appropriate, I'm going to tell you it: the history of your Uncle Sleet. Maybe once I'm done, you'll think twice before you speak of him in that way again."

"Ma," Javis mewed tentatively as his mother straightened up, her skinny, striped tail snaking around her paws neatly. "Should I—should I go and get Elias?"

She smiled at him mirthlessly. "Yes. Go get your brother. Maybe, once I've finished this story, you'll eat your words and apologize to him." Her golden son rose to his paws and spun around, loping off towards the shadier corners of the barn. Mackerel watched him disappear into the aphotic shadows and swallowed, closing her eyes.

Elias. My little shadow-walker. Just the thought of her son living his life as she had, huddling against the cobweb strewn floorboards with bated breath, straining his ears to hear a snatch of conversation that his peers and superiors denied him, was enough to incapacitate her. Am I turning into Eirem? Have I chosen my favorite sons? The possibility was overbearing.

It seemed like only moments later that Javis reappeared, Elias hesitantly in tow, his beautiful, pale blue eyes flicking warily from side to side as if he expected rebuke for leaving the long shadows.

Mackerel forced a purr to bubble up in her throat as she shoved back her worries. "Elias," she greeted, "Where've you been?" His eyes were dark as he looked at her, his pale, gray-flecked body thinner than the rest of her kits; it took him a moment to find his voice.

"I was—I was watching the horses earlier," he mumbled after a moment, flattening his ears and throwing Asa a quick look. His black-furred brother's expression remained stony and stoic, his eyes fixed to his paws. "The farm folk came in and fed them. Then I came up here and—and I, uh, took a nap."

She knew he was lying, but chose not to probe for more answers yet. Not with Annabelle's prying, blue eyes darting back and forth between them like two courting jays between branches. Mackerel knew how much Elias appreciated confidentiality and privacy, and if there was one thing she could respect, it was that; she nodded, beckoning the four of them closer with a flick of her tail.

"Elias, did Javis tell you why I called you here?" Mackerel asked her eldest son.

"No," Elias replied uncomfortably. "He just said for me to come, 'cause it's story time. Is it really?"

"Of course it is, Eli," Asa muttered acidly as he looked up at his brother. "Did you think Jabber would lie to you?"

Annabelle sighed in exasperation, raising her paw as if she planned to cuff him over the ears. "Shut up, Asa. What's your problem with Eli anyway?"

"That's enough, you two," Mackerel hissed sharply, drawing herself up to her fullest height. "Are you going to bicker all night, or will you allow your siblings to hear the story?"

"Sorry," Asa growled after a moment's pause.

"I'm sorry, too," Annabelle muttered, though her tone contradicted her.

"Thank you," Mackerel snapped, forcing her ruffled fur to lie flat. "Now is there anything else you four would like to get off your chests'?"

When silence greeted her, Mackerel deflated. "Good. Now, Elias, why I called you here was so that I could tell you four about your Uncle Sleet. I suppose I haven't made my opinions on him clear after all this time, so this is me making amends. Are you all ready to hear me out?"

Annabelle, Javis, and Elias nodded, while Asa shrugged. Mackerel parted her jaws to reprimand him, before shaking her head. Arguing with Asa was pointless; he had an answer for everything.

"I'll start at the beginning, then, when I first met Uncle Sleet—back then, he was known as Maelstrom—in the forest of Griffin Hill. You four haven't yet set paw out of the barn yet, but when you're as old as your cousins I'll show you."

"What does it look like?" Annabelle fired off at once.

"Rolling, golden hills that stretch on for as far as the eye can see," Mackerel purred, pleased by her small daughter's enthusiasm. "You can't walk twenty steps without running into another cat when the prey runs well."

Javis's eyes widened. "How come we never see any of them from the window?"

"The farm folk's equipment and dens are in the way," Mackerel explained patiently, her tail uncoiling to tweak his nose. "Anyway, I ran into your Uncle Sleet, Uncle Shackle, and Aunt Jaci in the woods bordering Griffin Hill in the cool moons. I'd overheard them talking about the Clans—" she shook her head as Annabelle's jaws parted in question, "—and since I knew a cat, Sand, whose sons and daughters lived there, I figured I could tell them about her and help them hunt her down.

"We introduced ourselves, and then ducked into the circuit of tunnels that run beneath Griffin Hill. I've already told you about those, haven't I?"

"Yes, Ma," Elias mewed at once, with a nod of assurance.

Mackerel smiled. "I thought so. The four of us stowed away in those dank, damp tunnels for a short while, and then after we emerged at the other side, Uncle Shackle collapsed them to make sure we weren't being followed." She paused, letting that settle for a moment as she waited for her children to ask questions.

"Followed by what?" Asa inquired finally, his curiosity getting the best of him.

"The Clans. Your Uncle had just trespassed on their territory, and worried he was being pursued. At least, that's what he told me."

"Why would he do that?"

"I don't know. Why not ask him yourself after the story?"

"No thanks," Asa said hastily, closing his mouth.

Mackerel's amber eyes were distant as she gazed towards the hunched, pallid, and unkempt figure sulking in one of the dark corners of the barn, her mouth growing dry. "It might be hard to believe, Asa, but he was once a proud cat, an unbelievable fighter, a good leader…"

"That's why you're telling us the story, isn't it?" Annabelle asked, tipping her head to the side. "So we can, well, not be disrespectful to him anymore?"

Mackerel smiled sadly, glancing away from Maelstrom. She could feel the weight of his sightless glare on her as she replied, "Yes, Anna." Clearing her throat, she added, "Back to the story—Uncle Shackle collapsed the tunnels, and we made a quick den for the night. A few mornings passed by, and we searched for Sand, but she was nowhere to be seen. I expect she was in the forest fringing Griffin Hill, raising another litter of kits, but whether or not is unimportant.

"Around then was when Vetis appeared, and he—"

"Vetis? The assassin in the stories you told us?" Javis exclaimed, interrupting her. "He's real?"

Asa's ears pricked, betraying his interest, and Annabelle quivered in recognition. Elias remained emotionless, scrutinizing his mother's expression, which had twisted plaintively.

"Yes, but he's not really an assassin. I borrowed his name," Mackerel explained as she fought the urge to stare down at her paws. The topic of Vetis was a delicate one, not that her kits were aware of that, and she was acutely aware of Maelstrom openly staring—no, he can't see—at her with those haggard hollows of his. None of her family had ever broached the topic before; they had taken her word that Vetis had never harmed her, and been satisfied.

"The real Vetis looked just like Asa: black furred, lank, handsome—" her black-furred son rolled his eyes, "—but his eyes were red, red like blood," the silver tabby mewed, avoiding her kits' hungry eyes as she spoke.

"That's impossible," Asa argued heatedly. "You said a cat's eyes can't be that color, said so when you taught us about the differences between dreams n' reality." He looked ruffled, indignant that another cat had dared to mirror his appearance.

"Vetis wasn't—isn't a normal cat," Mackerel replied, the practiced patience in her voice eminent. "He's a crossroads' demon. He dealt—deals—with souls. A cat can sell him their soul to get whatever they want within his guidelines, whether that be another cat's death, bringing back a cat from the dead, or anything else."

"That's amazing," Annabelle whispered in awe. "How did he get that kind of power?"

"Yeah, right," Asa snorted. "Demons. You're so dense, Anna."

"Ma, what happened next?" Javis interjected quickly, casting Asa a warning look.

"Perhaps I could tell you if you closed your mouths and tried listening for a moment."

"Oh, right," Javis mumbled sheepishly. "Sorry, Ma."

"Thank you, Javis." Mackerel sighed heavily, as if doing so would push the weight of her sorrow from her body through her mouth, and expel it from her mind. "Now, Vetis. He appeared on our doorstep that morning, reeking of sulfur, and his eyes glowing like red, hot coals. Maelstrom—Uncle Sleet, I mean—had made a deal with the tom before to give Uncle Shackle more time on his deal.

"Time was running out—you see, demons collect the souls that they're owed after a certain amount of months. He takes them to Hell, and burns them alive until they forget all they were and become demons, just like him. I hope you children never have to taste the burn of smoke, feel the flames fan across your flesh, singing it and turning it as black as soot…"

"That won't do much for Asa, now will it?" Javis joked, nudging his brother's shoulder. The dark tom allowed a small smile.

"Naw, Jabber. I take after like our Papa, don't I, Ma?"

"No, Asa, don't you remember? Ma said you looked like her brother, the one who lives with Gramma," Annabelle laughed, poking him in the ribs with her nose playfully. "You're dumber than a mouse."

Mackerel smiled painfully, swallowing the thick lump that blocked her throat. "You look like Loth. You even have his eyes, the pretty shade of yellow the color of straw."

"Pretty? Really, Ma? What about intimidating, or ferocious?" Asa demanded sourly, his lip curling.

"Ha," Javis snickered. "Trying out some new words, are you, brah? 'Ferocious', huh? Your eyes actually remind me of sunlight poetically falling over the floor, caressing our pelts as we snooze."

Annabelle purred in amusement. "Owned, Asa."

"Have you ever felt fire before, Ma?" Elias managed, speaking quietly, yet his question was startling enough that Mackerel glanced at him in surprise, hearing him over the bedlam.

"I—yes, ages ago. I was double your age at most."

"Ten moons," her gray-flecked son said slowly, as if he were tasting the words. "What happened?"

Mackerel half expected Asa to throw out a sarcastic remark, but even he remained silent, awaiting her answer. "I don't know," she replied truthfully, her voice subdued.

White hot flames licked at the bales of hay, igniting one after the other. She was coughing, her paw pads blistering from the heat as she rushed away. The heat that emanated from the fire blurred her surroundings into a liquid-like haze, and she constantly bumped into things, her eyes burning from the smoke…

"Maybe it was the farm folk?" Annabelle suggested, her voice unnaturally echoing in the silver she-cat's thoughts. "Maybe they didn't want barn cats anymore. What if that happens to us?"

"That won't happen," Javis said heartily, licking his sister's cheek in assurance. "There's plenty a' mice skittering 'round here, and they need mousers. Especially since cousin Say and Con moved out."

"It wasn't the farm folk," Mackerel told them, shaking herself. There's no need to scare them. All cats instinctively fear fire, and frightening them will only give them nightmares.

"Then what?" Asa said impatiently.

"She already told you, she doesn't know," Elias murmured.

"Shut up," Asa advised him, the hiss sliding through his bared teeth.

"Knock it off," Mackerel growled wearily. "It's getting late—do you want to finish the story, or not?"

"I do!" Annabelle chirped, as chipper as ever even with the reoccurring arguments.

"I do," Elias repeated, his shoulders sagging as he let out a soft sigh.

"Yeah, c'mon, Ma, don't stop now," Javis exclaimed earnestly. "We're sorry for interrupting you, Asa n' I. It won't happen again."

"Speak for yourself—" Asa began, but swiftly closed his mouth as Annabelle fixed him with an icy look.

"Where was I?" Mackerel wondered aloud. "Vetis, still, I think?"

"Yes, Mother," Elias confirmed. "You were talking about a fiery Hell."

"Thank you, Elias," she purred, smiling fondly. "Now, as I was saying, Vetis takes a cat's soul and, well, he lets it burn. That's what you trade for getting whatever you want in life. Uncle Sleet had given his soul to buy Shackle more time in his deal, but it was nearly time for Vetis to collect their souls.

"I, having grown, er, fond of my brother by then, as you can imagine, couldn't let that happen," Mackerel's voice rose an octave, "I offered Vetis eternal servitude instead of my soul on the condition Maelstrom and Shackle were released from their deal. He accepted my offer, and whisked me away. I thought I'd never see them again."

"That's so brave," Annabelle whispered. "He must have been horrible to you—how did you escape?"

"No, he wasn't. Vetis was kind to me for the short time I was there. I caught him his prey for every meal, changed his bedding, and did other chores, and in return, he never harmed me." Mackerel's were glazed as she gazed dreamily out of the window, the shale gray sky outside unnoticed by her. "It was… well, it wasn't what I expected. We became friends, and eventually, he came to care about me enough that he let me go back to my family."

"That's so romantic," Annabelle purred. Javis gagged, earning an eye roll from Asa. Mackerel, however, frowned, looking back to her daughter.

"We were only friends, Anna." She could feel Elias's skeptical eyes on her, but didn't dare meet his gaze for fear he could read her thoughts. Out of all her children, Elias's little blues were the only ones that she found unnerving. His carried the true coldness of his father's eyes, masking the emotions he felt inside—sometimes, she wondered if he could feel at all. But it was ridiculous to think he couldn't, wasn't it?

Annabelle didn't appear to be convinced, either, but she had the sense not to pry. "So he took you back to your family? What then?"

"I returned, and found that two more cats had joined up with your Uncle Sleet. Can you guess who?"

"Aunt Twister," Javis said at once. "And, uh, Miss Ali?"

"Nah, Jabber, Miss Ali runs this barn. It was Uncle Jenner who hooked up with Aunt Jaci and joined up, right?" Asa glanced to Mackerel for confirmation, and she nodded, masking her surprise. She had expected intuitive Elias to have remembered that kind of thing, but Asa had always seemed to open his ears more readily for stories that included Jenner in them. She often wondered if he idolized this tom of her stories, the one with a mouth as quick as his paws, a retort always on the tip of his tongue.

"Correct. Jenner and Twister came, and we were now a group of six. Apparently, another tom, Foxtrot, had also joined, but things didn't work out and he was exiled."

"What happened?" Javis asked in interest.

"I'll tell you that story when you're older. It's not for a cat with ears as young as yours."

"Did he kill someone?" Annabelle demanded, fidgeting with excitement. "Did Unca' Shaq beat him up?"

Mackerel dismissed the question with a flick of her tail. "Like I said, you're not old enough to hear about that. Remind me again when you're eight months, and perhaps I'll consider it again. Now, as I was saying, I returned to the group, only to find out Uncle Sleet had gone undercover to spy at the Clans. Do you know why?"

"Yes, Mother," Elias mewed readily, as if he had assumed she would ask this question and formulated an answer before the fact. "He'd sworn revenge on the Clans, but you won't to tell us why."

"For good reason, Elias. Anyway, Maelstrom and Shackle were away on business, and I wanted to drop in and alert them that I was back, so I raced all the way to Clan territory. It was bitterly cold, like most cold moon nights. Snow had fallen while I was gone. I crossed the border, looking for them in the forest, where I eventually stumbled upon Shackle's den. At first, he didn't believe I was real—he was as stunned as Jaci had been when she saw me for the first time.

"I managed to convince him it was me eventually, and he offered to let me stay the night with him while we waited for Uncle Sleet. It would be too risky, suicidal, to consider trespassing in the Clan's camp, even with it being pitch dark. The next morning, Uncle Sleet returned to check on your Uncle Shackle, and understandably thought I had risen from the dead.

"He welcomed me back soon after, and as he departed back for camp, I slipped away back to the others. I couldn't risk revealing Shackle's position by hanging around." Mackerel paused to take a breath, her amber eyes panning across her the four kits slouched in front of her.

"Many days passed, and still nothing happened. We had no news of what was going on, though we were never promised to be checked on, when Twister, while hunting, ran into a pretty she-cat named Brand. She looks like Aunt Jaci, but without the white markings on her belly and chest."

Annabelle grimaced. "Every pretty she-cat's a ginger."

"Come off it. Miss Ali's beautiful, aye, Jabber?"

Javis stared at Asa in disbelief. "Uh, sure. Yeah."

"Don't you be getting any ideas, Asa." Mackerel's whiskers twitched. "And Annabelle, sweetie, you might just be the most beautiful she-cat I've ever met."

"Ma's right," Elias mewed quietly. "You're very pretty, Bells." Annabelle flushed with pleasure beneath her silvery pale tabby fur as she mumbled a 'thank you'.

"Go on, Ma, let's hear the rest," Javis implored Mackerel impatiently. "What happened when Aunt Twist ran into Brand?"

"It wasn't only Brand she met, but her brother Jackal as well. He's as large as your Uncle Shackle, but gray with black stripes instead of just the solid color. They were exchanged a few words, then went their separate words. You all know what happened in the end though, don't you?" Mackerel smiled ruefully as they nodded their assent.

"Never judge a cat by their looks. Brand's blackened and cruel on the inside, not at all as prim and pretty as her coat and green eyes will mislead you to believe."

"Maybe Vetis stole her soul," Javis joked.

"If she ever had one to begin with," Asa agreed.

Mackerel's smile was small, both amused and dismayed by their humor. They wouldn't realize the true pain and misery that had had played a direct impact on the fate of their family until they were much older, when she had shared with them the whole story of Brand, Foxtrot, Astral the assassin, and the servants. But then again, as she glanced at Elias's emotionless blue eyes, she wondered if he had not already pieced together enough from the snippets of stories she had told and the living proof that dwelled in this barn.

"Enough, you two—as horrible as Brand is, your comments are unnecessary. I'm nearing the most important part of this story, and you would do good to listen."

Asa and Javis's smiles faded as did their bantering, replaced by a solemnness that looked out of place on their faces.

"Thank you," Mackerel murmured, "Another pass of the moon came and went, and Maelstrom returned to us. We knew it was time to finish this once and for all. It was very surreal to know that what he, all of us, had planned and anticipated for so long was finally going to happen. And in the predawn light, we attacked. They were unprepared, which gave us an advantage for a short time, but the quantity of cats on their side was overwhelming, even with us being better fed and stronger than them.

"We fought cat after cat, and even though we took down many, in the end we were swamped by their numbers. Jenner fought like a lion—I never saw him more than a paw step's length from Jaci at any time—but in the end, he bled to death on the battlefield, and it only took a single strike to finish him."

Asa blinked. "I always thought Unca' Jenner just—just left. I didn't think he was dead. How come you never told us? What about Unca' Shackle? Did he get crippled in this fight? And Uncle Sleet, is this where he was blinded?"

"Yes," Mackerel mewed quietly, lowering her gaze. "They took so much from us that night, but at least we lived—I never expected to come out alive from that battle and I don't think the others did either."

"But you still went? All of you went even though you thought you would die?" Annabelle demanded, looking both bewildered and horrified.

"Of course I went. I am loyal to Maelstrom, and I was to his cause," Mackerel replied quietly. As she stared at her paws, she could imagine with vivid clarity the blood staining them, the bite of her wounds, the last cries cut off with a gurgle as their source choked on the wet, crimson blood flowing through their slit throat. All of their lives ended because of Maelstrom's vendetta.

But she had known what she had been getting herself into, hadn't she?

"Sometime during then, the muscles in Shackle's shoulder were frayed, and he could no longer do anything but hobble. Your Uncle Sleet's eyes were slashed beyond repair, and we were forced to retreat. We now know that Foxtrot snuck in and stole a kit from the nursery who grew up to be Astral, but at the time, Twister, Jaci, and I were too preoccupied in dragging the survivors and Jenner's body from the camp. I think the Clanners were just as tired of fighting as we were, which is why they let us escape rather than kill us.

"A few moons later, Jaci gave birth to Jenner's kits, your cousins Seisal, Conall, Ellie, and Audrey. Seisal and Conall look just like him, though Jenner didn't have white socked paws like Seisal does…" Mackerel finished unceremoniously as she trailed off, lost in thought.

If Jenner had lived, would his kits have turned out any different? She wasn't sure—Jaci had hadn't even been full grown when she gave birth, and though Jenner had been older, he had hardly been any more mature. She, Mackerel, had been tasked with the job of raising the four 'orphans' with some help from Twister and Alifair—Jaci had grieved for Jenner, then run from her responsibilities shortly after they were weaned, only returning when they had reached their fifth month of life. The four kits had been juggled back and forth, though they saw Mackerel as their motherly figure for the most part.

It had been rough, those few months, with Maelstrom entirely lacking the will to live, Shackle and Fetter coming to terms with each other, growing accustomed to a new home, and losing both Jaci and Jenner in different ways. The last thing Mackerel, Twister, and Alifair had needed were four helpless kits to take care of alongside three cripples, but they had made due with the warm and hot moon sun at their backs.

"Is that it?" Annabelle asked after a moment, her voice quivering. Mackerel resurfaced, blinking in surprise at how dark it had become. Hadn't she started this story before dusk? Had it really been so long? It didn't seem like it, but as the cool moons hunkered down to set the stage for the oncoming winter, the days grew shorter and the nights longer.

"Yes," Mackerel replied, rising to her paws. She arched her back in a stretch, her supple legs quaking as blood rushed back into them. She was woozy for a moment as feeling returned, before she took a seat on the soft bedding of hay she had napped in a few hours before. "I hope that you all will appreciate your Uncle Sleet and Uncle Shackle more, now that you know what they went through. They may not have the bodies of a warrior still, but they still have that strength in their hearts."

Javis groaned as he leaned forward, his claws unsheathing and grating against the wooden floorboards beneath him. "You're right," he said in a strained voice. "I never really thought about how they got that way, only that they were useless lumps of fur. Brave useless lumps of fur," he tacked on quickly as Mackerel's eyes sharpened.

"And I'm sorry about making fun of you earlier, Eli," Javis continued as he pulled up from his limbering movements, his golden coat rippling, "Saying you'd end up like Unca' Sleet did was really low, so I'm, uh, really sorry about that. You'll forgive your brah, won't you?"

Elias allowed a rare smile. "Thanks, Jabber. I forgive you." He hesitantly tilted towards his brother, touching his nose to the tom's shoulder. "I know I look just like him, so it's not hard to imagine, but…"

Javis nodded. "I get it. Won't happen again." Out of the corner of his pale blue eyes, he glanced at Asa. The black tom promptly sighed, his yellow eyes slanting to glare at Elias.

"Sorry," he said gruffly. "It was really dumb of me to say that stuff. Unca' Sleet's really cool though, so it was more of a back pawed compliment in the end, but, er, sorry anyway."

Elias's smile was only half as genuine as it had been originally, but it still lingered. "Thank you."

A purr burst forth from Mackerel's chest. "Thank you, Asa, Javis. That was very mature of you, and I'll be honest: I didn't expect that."

"Well, I didn't either, so that's alright," Annabelle snickered. Javis looked offended.

"Thanks, Ma—thanks a lot for your vote of confidence. I always knew you believed in me."

"I do, on the inside," Mackerel assured him, laughing quietly. "Now, you four, it's time to sleep. I've got to help Twister and Ali tuck Uncle Sleet and Shackle, as well as Fetter, in for the night."

"Ma," Javis moaned, his voice loudly exaggerated. "I thought you said we were allowed to stay up later now that we're five moons old?"

"I did," she agreed, "But I'm tired, and I don't want to listen to your rough housing for the next hour, so off you go."

Casting her a mutinous look over his shoulder, Javis slinked off towards the hay loft, where they slept so frequently that their individual shapes were printed into the straw. Annabelle followed closely at his heels, Elias trailing after her more slowly, but Asa stayed put, a prominent frown crowning his face.

"What's wrong, Asa?" Mackerel murmured as her other three children evanesced into the darker reaches of the barn. Asa sighed wearily, hanging his head.

"I'm just… sorry. I didn't really mean everything I said, you know? I just can't tell Eli that, because… I just can't. It's like giving in or somethin'—I just don't know."

She purred warmly, and Asa looked up, blinking at in her a mixture of confusion and anger. "What?" he snapped, his fur ruffling, "You're not taking me seriously, are you? Well that's just—that's just—"

"Shh, Asa, don't get all huffy with me," Mackerel told him with a placating smile, reaching forward to poke his ears with her cold nose. Asa ducked just in time, scowling.

"You're a very brave, kind cat, Asa. Not many toms would swallow their pride like that and admit they were wrong, especially in the face of who they taunted in the first place. I'm proud of you," she relented, contenting herself with gazing at him fondly.

He smiled.