Dreampaw sat quietly, tail curled around her paws, staring out at Twolegplace. A pure white she-cat, blue-eyed and lovely, an exact replica of herself, sat on the fence.
Sometimes Dreampaw imagined that she was that she-cat. But she'd chosen her life, and Wish had chosen hers. Wishpaw. Wishpaw and Dreampaw. If only her sister saw the same thrill of the forest, and life as a warrior, as Dreampaw did.
Yet she couldn't just abandon Wish. Getting up, she padded across the dew-soaked grass, her ears pricked and her steps cautious. "Wish?"
Her sister gazed at her with sorrow on her face. "Dream...paw. Hello."
"Don't bother. I belong here. Let's just have a pleasant conversation, for once."
"Okay, okay." Dreampaw gathered her haunches beneath her and leaped onto the top of the fence. Surprise flickered in her sister's eyes, but she didn't say anything. "How are you?"
"Fine," Wish said. "How is the, uh, prey running with you?"
Dreampaw smiled. "Great. It's new-leaf, spring, I mean, so there's lots of prey. Life's pretty great."
"I'll bet," Wish turned her eyes towards the Twoleg den. Dreampaw shuddered. She remembered it perfectly; the closed walls, the rabbit-dropping food, and the odd Twolegs stomping about. And worst of all, the feeling of helplessness. Of being a pampered kittypet who couldn't fend for yourself. Not that Dreampaw would ever tell Wish that.
"So... how's it with you?"
"Huh? Oh. Well, I mean, okay. For some strange reason, my Twolegs are putting their belongings in boxes. The house is being emptied."
"Why? They don't need to store food for leaf-bare now," Dreampaw said.
Wish gave Dreampaw a funny look. "We have plenty to eat in the winter anyway."
Suddenly, Dreampaw's ears pricked; she heard her patrol in the distance. "I have to go. My Clan won't like it if I'm here."
For a moment, hurt flashed in Wish's blue eyes, then she purred and rubbed her chin against Dreampaw's chin. "Bye sis."
"Bye!" Dreampaw leaped off the fence and raced back into OakClan's woods.
"Dreampaw!" A brown tabby tom was running towards her, followed by a gray-and-white she-cat and a ginger tom.
"Hi Brindlepaw, Stormcloud, Suntail. Sorry, I accidentally chased a squirrel too far."
"Dreampaw, you shouldn't keep straying near the Twoleg fence." Suntail looked mildly angry, but more concerned. Dreampaw heard her mentor's unspoken words. You were a kittypet. The other cats will begin to be even more suspicious, and you can't afford that.
"Sorry Suntail. It won't happen again, honest."
"Good." Her mentor relaxed. "We're going to the training hollow now, for some fight-training."
"Sounds like fun." As the two apprentices fell in behind their mentors, Dreampaw suddenly felt very conscious of every part of her body; how her paws crunched heavily on the grass, when her tail got slightly stuck in a bush. But Brindlepaw always made her feel like that. She couldn't understand it. As a kittypet and a warrior apprentice, toms had always fallen all over her. But Brindlepaw, he was friendly, but not adoring. His kind and calm personality drew her to him, but she didn't think he looked twice at her.
"So.." she said. Brindlepaw glanced at her and she dropped her gaze to her paws, unable to meet his amber eyes without melting. "Learn any new tactics?" She added a teasing tone to her voice. She tried to flick her tail over his shoulder flirtingly, but whipped it against her own cheek instead.
Mouse-brain. She focused on trying to walk properly.
"Sure, I guess. Nothing you don't know."
"Huh? Oh, right. Well, I guess we'll see who's the better apprentice now."
Brindlepaw grinned. "Yep, and let's start now. Race you to the training ring." He shot ahead of Stormcloud, who rolled her eyes, and vanished into the woods.
"Hey, no fair!" Dreampaw leaped after him, bumping into Suntail. "Sorry," she called.
Dreampaw felt right at home sprinting through the woods. Sometimes, since she was a former kittypet, she felt clumsy and useless in Clan life. But she knew she was fast. She could imagine she was a StarClan cat, sailing over the ground. And the one compliment Brindlepaw had given her, almost making her swoon, was this: "With your glowing white fur you look like a beautiful star-cat."
Brindlepaw was waiting for her. "I won!" He did a little victory prance.
"Hmph. Anyone can win when they're twice their opponents size and get a headstart of a thousand tail-lengths." Dreampaw pretended to be miffed, when actually, she gone slow on purpose, so they could have a friendly teasing.
By the time they were done criticizing each other, their mentors had arrived. "Okay you two. Smokepaw and Lilacpaw are doing hunting assesments right now, so we'll stay out of their way. Let's start with that move we learned last time. The roll-over and belly-swipe."
"Ready to get bowled over?" Brindlepaw said. He was surprisingly agile for his bulky body, but in any move that required speed, Dreampaw knew she could take him.
"Okay, Dreampaw, you try it first. Brindlepaw, try to attack her."
Dreampaw tensed up, waiting. Predictable, she thought as Brindlepaw charged at her. He always uses brute force. At the last moment, she ducked. Like Suntail had taught her, she used the force of her drop to roll herself onto her back and pummeled Brindlepaw's belly with sheathed claws.
Brindlepaw backed off Dreampaw. "Ow," he complained.
"I didn't really hurt you," meowed Dreampaw.
"Good job, both of you," said Stormcloud. "Brindlepaw, you can try to counter next time. Try springing down on her belly, or using your muscle to roll yourself on top of her."
"Okay," Brindlepaw said.
They went over some wrestling techniques, which Brindlepaw excelled at, and headed back to the camp. Dreampaw walked onto the Flat Rocks at the back of the camp and stretched out to enjoy the sun. A sleek blue-gray she-cat leaped up beside her. "Hi Lilacpaw. How was your assessment?"
Dreampaw's best friend beamed. "Great! I caught a thrush, two mice, and a squirrel. Smokepaw did good too."
"Congratulations," Dreampaw purred. "I'll bet we'll all be warriors soon."
"Yeah," Lilacpaw answered. "I wonder what my name will be. Lilacflower? Lilacpelt?"
Dreampaw laughed. "What about me? Dreamchaser? I hope Olivestar comes up with better names than what we have."
Lilacpaw nodded her agreement. "So," she said mischeviously. "Did you and Brindlepaw have fun?"
Dreampaw flicked her tail at Lilacpaw. Naturally, her best friend knew about her crush on Brindlepaw. "Great," she said. "But he still only thinks of me as a friend."
"He'll get over it," meowed Lilacpaw. "You've already captured the hearts of toms everywhere. You'll capture his too. I think he's just shy."
Dreampaw gazed at the tabby tom. "Maybe."
It was early dawn. Dreampaw was sitting casually by the apprentice's den, waiting for the dawn patrol to leave. She was planning to see Wish again.
Finally, Mosswhisker flicked her tail. "Let's go," she said. The four cats headed out of the camp.
Dreampaw waited a bit, then slipped out the entrance, an uncovered tunnel that had formed from an old stream. She raced through the dark pine trees, violet-gray light just reaching the ground and turning her white pelt to silver. She reached the stretch of grass between. Wish was waiting for her, but instead of sitting up on the fence, her sister leaped down and met her halfway.
Dreampaw purred a greeting, when she noticed Wish's eyes were wide with fear. "Wish? What's wrong?"
"Oh Dreampaw," Wish said. "My Twolegs are... they're moving."
Dreampaw's blood ran cold. "Moving? Twolegs don't move."
Wish shook her head. "They do now. They've been packing their stuff, and now they're trying to catch me so we can leave. Dreampaw, this is the last time we'll see each other."
Dreampaw felt her heart pounding as Wish's words sank in. "Why? You don't have to go, Wish. Please, join my Clan."
Wish stared at her sorrowfully. "I'm sorry Dreampaw. I can't."
Dreampaw glanced at the fence. "Let's sit there and watch the sunrise, just one last time." Wish nodded, and Dreampaw leaped up and landed gracefully on the top. She smiled down at Wish, when suddenly something grabbed her from behind.
"Gotcha!" Dreampaw found herself staring at a Twoleg! She began clawing furiously. The Twoleg yowled and yelled but didn't let go. There must be a mistake! Dreampaw turned to the fence, but Wish hadn't appeared yet.
The Twoleg opened a large flat thing and walked into its den. A barrage of old scents assaulted Dreampaw's nose, and her kithood came flooding back. The Twoleg placed her down, and she made for the door. The Twoleg grabbed her and placed her on a big plush boulder. Dreampaw turned and found herself staring at a small square frame. In it were... Impossible. Staring out at her was the image of herself and Wish, somehow captured in this frame. Seeing her and her sister side-by-side, with matching blue eyes and shimmering white coats, Dreampaw realized what had happened. The Twolegs think I'm Wish!
They didn't know she was their lost kitten, who had run away into the woods several moons ago. They thought she was their well-behaved little kittypet, and now she was going to be taken along with them when they moved.
Just then, she was scooped up and thrown in a box with slits in the walls. It was picked up and carried to a... monster! Dreampaw went crazy, scrabbling at the walls till her claws tore. As she licked blood off her paws, she realized she was inside the monster!
"Oh StarClan," she whispered. "I'm doomed!"
Dreampaw jumped as the monster belched loudly. The ground beneath her began to vibrate, and she herself was shaking with fear. She began scrabbling again, this time at the fixture that held the cage shut. Carefully, she took the bolt in her mouth and tried to lift it upwards.
Just as she felt it slipping, the monster started to move, and she was thrown back against the cage wall. She let out a whimper, but the Twolegs didn't hear over their loud, obnoxious yowling.
What must Wish think? Her sister would feel abandoned. Would she figure out what had happened? The monster zoomed on, it's pace fast and smooth. Dreampaw was shaking uncontrollably. The faces of all her friends back in OakClan flashed through her mind.
After a few failed attempts, Dreampaw was able to get to her paws. She stumbled to the front of the cage. Taking the bolt once more in her mouth, she pulled it up, ignoring the metal cutting into her mouth. Just when she thought her face would get stuck between the bars, the bolt lifted. The door fell open and she tumbled out of the cage and the ledge it was seated on.
One of the Twolegs up front noticed. She yowled and waved her arms. The monster stopped. Dreampaw braced herself as the Twolegs got out. The instant the door opened, she sprang out, claws unsheathed. The girl Twoleg let out a yell of shock. Dreampaw didn't pause to see what happened. She streaked off, paws pounding the ground, running for all she was worth.
It felt good to be moving. She had been so cramped riding in the tiny box. Gradually the yowling of Twolegs faded away, and Dreampaw was left alone with her own thoughts.
Dreampaw crouched on a little rise, staring out at the bright morning scenery. Her heart thudded against her ribcage painfully still, and she kept casting glances over her shoulder, expecting to see angry Twolegs charging after her.
The monster couldn't have gotten that far from Twolegplace and the woods, but looking around, she saw no sign of her old home. With a sickening feeling she thought of how fast monsters could go, and how far. Stifling a whimper, she guessed on a direction and began to walk slowly. Her instinct told her it was right, but she didn't think that was enough. Straining to make out a familiar landmark, her eyes caught on a dark shape hidden in the grass.
Dreampaw raised her head and sniffed. It was a cat! Trembling, she watched as it crept closer. When it was within hearing distance, she said, "Who are you?"
A dappled tortoisehell she-cat popped out of the grass, looking shocked. "You saw me?" she pouted.
Dreampaw blinked in surprise. "What?"
"And I thought my stalking was really coming along," she added. Her face lit up again, like a firefly that could only go out for a few seconds at a time. "I'm Fern. What's your name?"
"I, uh, Dreampaw," stammered Dreampaw. This cat was no Clan cat, but not a kittypet either. "Do you live here?"
Fern gestured to the woodsy land behind them. "And in those woods. With old Simon. He's not good for hunting and all, but I take care of that, and he supplies the brains and wisdom."
"Who's old Simon?" Dreampaw felt herself warming to the pretty she-cat.
"'Old Simon? Well, he's an old tom, half-blind, but not deaf or dumb definitely. 'Do you want to meet him?"
Dreampaw hesitated, but the woods were on her way, and she needed company. "Sure. Lead the way."
Fern gave a rather dizzying giggle. "Okay! Follow me. You'll love him. We never meet any other cats, so we'll talk your ears off. But that's all right, isn't it?"
"Sure," Dreampaw said, laughing. Who could dislike such a darling?
Fern led her into the woods, talking the whole way. "Just left of here is a darling little brook. It isn't much good for fishing, but it supplies fresh water, and it's the prettiest sight you ever saw. Old Simon and I live in the base of that big oak tree over there."
Squinting at the tree, Dreampaw made out an opening between the gnarled roots of the tree. "You live inside it?" she asked incredulously.
"Yup," Fern replied. "It's hollow inside." Bending with her mouth close to the opening, she called, "Old Simon, I've brought someone to meet you."
There was a rustling sound inside, then a pair of brilliant golden eyes poked out of the den. A bronze-furred tom, his pelt patched with old age, yet with an elegant air about him, clambered out and surveyed Dreampaw, a friendly expression on his wise and worn face. "Hello Fern. And who's this pretty little cat?"
"Dreampaw! I met her in the field. Where do you come from Dreampaw?"
"The Clans," she meowed. Old Simon nodded at her.
"You're an awful long way from home, aren't you?" he inquired. "What happened?"
Dreampaw sighed. "It's a long story."
"Why don't you come inside?" invited old Simon. "It'll be a bit of a squeeze, but we can manage. We have some good fresh-kill too."
"Okay," she said. "Thanks."
"No problem," Fern said excitedly. "It isn't often we have guests, as I told you before. And will you tell us all about the Clans? I've never been anywhere but here you know. Old Simon found me as a kit, curled up beside my dead mother's belly. She was killed by a fox. I've hated foxes ever since. Funny how you can be so sad about someone you never really knew. So anyway, old Simon raised me in these woods. I haven't known any other home."
"I'll do my best to explain," Dreampaw promised. "I come from OakClan. Our leader is Olivestar, and I'm an apprentice there. That means I'm training to be a warrior." Old Simon was nodding, as though he knew this, but Fern's hazel eyes were big and round as she took it all in. Every few seconds she would interrupt with a question.
"What do you do when you're a warrior?"
"Was your mentor nice?"
"How many moons do you have to be again?"
"Are there other Clans?"
"Do you fight a lot? Are you savages? What kind of food do you eat? Do you starve in leaf-bare?" Fern finally seemed to realize that Dreampaw had stopped talking, and she hid a smile at the young she-cat's confusion. "What?"
Old Simon gave Dreampaw a long-suffering look. "Bubbly, isn't she?"
"That's the understatement of the year," Dreampaw assured him. With a smile, she turned back to Fern and proceeded to answer all her questions. "When you're a warrior, you have more honor, but also more responsibilties and duties. My mentor was really nice," she paused, her throat choking up as she thought of Suntail, with his kind amber eyes. What did he think had happened to her? Some of the others probably were spreading rumors about her, since she was a kittypet, but Suntail, Lilacpaw, and, she hoped, Brindlpaw, wouldn't believe them. And what about Wish? Had she found Twolegs to take her in? Or was she alone and starving, or even- Dreampaw couldn't bring herself to go on.
Shaking herself, she finished telling Fern about the Clans, while Old Simon got out three plump mice and a vole. "For you," he said, nudging a mouse and the vole towards her. Dreampaw shook her head.
"I couldn't," she said, hoping they couldn't hear her stomach growling. Old Simon ignored her.
"We've already eaten, and we have plenty." His kind old eyes crinkled at the corners. Dreampaw was sure they couldn't have much to spare, but she didn't want to hurt their feelings, so she began to eat.
"Thank you," she said. Fern sat beside her, chattering happily on and on.
"You're welcome to stay with us till you figure out what to do," Old Simon said. There was a strange sadness in his eyes as he looked at the pretty young she-cat. "She's like a daughter to me, but she could use a friend her own age when-" He cut himself off and lay down creakily with a smile. Dreampaw's heart twisted painfully. She knew perfectly well what the old tom had been about to say. But how could she stay? She had her own path to follow, and getting back to OakClan would be hard enough without bringing two other cats with her. Besides, the strain would probably be too much for old Simon anyway.
Dreampaw knew she was just making useless excuses now, but she couldn't help it. In the maze she had fallen into, there didn't seem to be a right choice. And there certainly didn't seem to be a way out.
Upon opening her eyes, Dreampaw couldn't figure out where she was. She was surrounded by rotting bark, lying on a dirt floor. A small opening gaped between two large, twisted roots. Then she spied Fern, her delicate head resting peacefully on old Simon's shoulder, and everything came flooding back to her.
Since the two cats weren't awake yet, she had plenty of time to think. She laid her head on her paws and surveyed the two cats. They looked so happy and serene. And yet she knew it wouldn't last. Old Simon did too. He knew soon his kind old heart would cease to beat, and his spirit would travel to the stars. And he was ready. Except for one thing. Fern. He loved her too much to leave her behind alone.
Dreampaw sighed. She knew what she had to do.
Finally, old Simon yawned and stretched. When he saw that she was awake, he gave her a sheepish smile. "Sorry about that. I guess you Clan cats wake up early all the time, huh? Fern and I like to sleep in." He blinked fondly at Fern and licked her between the ears. She gave a faint smile even in her sleep. Seeing how close they were sealed Dreampaw's decision.
"Old Simon?" she began tentatively, not sure how he would respond. "I've been thinking. I'd really love to have companions on my journey back to the Clan. And I think OakClan would love to have you both. So..."
The tom's eyes began to shine. "Thank you. Thank you so much. You have no idea how much that means to me. I was so worried-" He broke off and nuzzled her gently with his gray-flecked muzzle. "It would be our honor." He gave her a warm smile that chased away all her doubts.
"No, it would be mine and OakClan's." Then she sighed. "If I can ever find my way back home."
"We'll be with you every pawstep of the way," old Simon promised.
"I know you will," she smiled. "I trust you." At that point, Fern awoke with a huge, glorious yawn. She got up, stretched, and glanced back and forth between their radiant faces.
"Wha'd I miss?"
Old Simon and Dreampaw exchanged looks, and she knew Fern had to be protected from all the details of their decision. Though she and Fern were about the same age, Fern was fragile in a way Dreampaw had never been. It made her feel old and responsible to have to take precautions like this, plan things out and care for others. But it also felt good. And it confused her. Was she finally growing up?
Shaking it off, Dreampaw turned to Fern. "Guess who's coming with me to OakClan?"
Fern's "guess" nearly deafened every living creature within five miles of them. When she had finally calmed down, she gazed breathlessly at Dreampaw, eyes shining with hope. "Really? We're coming with you!?"
"Yes," Dreampaw said, hope blossoming in her heart. "Okay. We'll get something to eat, and then get started."
As she gazed up at the sun, shining prettily in the sky, Dreampaw felt her heart sink. Trying to hide her confusion and fear from old Simon and Fern, she pleaded silently, StarClan, please show me the way.
Scanning the woods nearby, she waited for a sign. Suddenly, right on cue, a strong gust of wind swept over them, bending all the treetops in one direction: north. A smile slipped across her smile, and she flicked her tail. "This way, guys." Under her breath she added, "Thank you StarClan. I know I'll make it back to OakClan." And Brindlepaw. Her heart twisted just remembering the tabby tom.
"What are we waiting for then?" Fern asked peppily. "Let's go!"
Sharing amused glances, old Simon and Dreampaw followed the dappled she-cat; after a few seconds she dropped back to pad beside them. "So," she said, her eyes twinkling. "Any special toms waiting for you back in the Clan?"
"Toms? As in, more than one?" Dreampaw teased.
Fern shrugged unashamedly. "Nothing wrong with having more then one tom like you."
"Yeah, there are a couple who like me," she admitted. "But the one I like doesn't know I exist, or even worse, he thinks I'm just a friend."
Grimacing in sympathy, Fern shot her a shy smile. "Don't worry," she said. "You're too pretty for him to remain that blind for long." When Dreampaw just laughed, she added, "And you're modest too, not flirty and stuck up like some she-cats. What's his name?"
"Brindlepaw," she said softly.
"I approve," Fern announced, and Dreampaw had to chuckle.
"What about you?" she asked. "A gorgeous kitty like you must have tons of loyal, moony-eyed toms following you everywhere you go."
For a second, the hint of a shadow swept across Fern's face. "Nah. There aren't any toms my age that I've ever met anyway."
"Well, that might change when we get to OakClan," Dreampaw said, running all the young toms through her mind. Smokepaw would be perfect; he was the quiet type, and patient too; he would be perfect for tolerating all of Fern's chattering.
"Great," Fern said excitedly. "Oh Dreampaw, thank you so much for taking us with you. I can see why they gave you your name. You make dreams come true."
Blushing, Dreampaw let out a purr. "I wouldn't say that, but I'll do my best to get you there safely."
Fern smiled. "Do you think they'll let me be an apprentice too?"
"I imagine so. Olivestar is very reasonable about that kind of thing; she'll see that you have the right kind of spirit, and that's all you need to begin with."
"And you think I have it?"
The two cats padded side by side amiably for a while, when old Simon stopped, his kindly face wrinkling into a frown. "What is it?" Dreampaw asked.
"Fox. And it's close."
Dreampaw and Fern backed into each other, jaws parted to catch any trace of the fox that told them it was coming closer. Her heart pounding in her chest, Dreampaw beckoned for her companions to follow her as she broke into a hasty trot, making a beeline for the trees. There would be more cover there, and she fought better in the forest anyway, as that was what OakClan's territory consisted of.
Letting old Simon enter the woods ahead of her, Dreampaw spotted a large hazel bush and gestured to it. "Get under there, old Simon," she said. "Fern and I will guard the entrance."
Fern nodded and crouched down alongside Dreampaw, her hackles raised, all traces of her former playfulness gone; she was a focused machine now. "What do we do now?"
"We wait-" A low growl interrupted Dreampaw's words. She froze as a long, blood-stained red muzzle poked through some brush ahead of them. "We fight. And we don't lose."
Gulping, Fern said, "I'm not the best fighter."
"You don't have to be." Dreampaw tried desperately to hide her fear, knowing if she let on that she herself thought it was near hopeless, Fern would lose it. "You just have to try. Follow my lead."
She gulped and steadied her voice. "Okay. I'm ready."
The fox emerged fully before them, its black nose twitching as it inhaled their scent. Amber eyes glamed with a ghoulish delight. Judging by the mess around its mouth, the fox had already eaten, but would fight them just for the sport of it. Dreampaw tensed her muscles and prepared to go down fighting.
The beast took another step forward, curling its lips back in a snarl. Without warning, it lunged for their bush, jaws gaping. Dreampaw knew she had no choice; she raced out to meet it. Hooking her claws in its shoulder, she pulled herself onto its back and began shredding the fur. Smooth muscles rippled underneath her, and she realized they may have bitten off far more then they could chew. The fox was a full grown male, and vicious in its attacks. Fern, who had joined the fray, let out a screech as it nipped open a cut on her shoulder. Dreampaw was surprised at how well the she-cat had done so far, despite the fact that foxes had killed her parents. But it didn't matter. They stood no chance.
"Get away from them!" Old Simon bounded out of the hazel bush, shouldering Fern aside and clawing at the fox madly. Dreampaw's jaw dropped.
"Old Simon! Get out of here!"
It was too late. Malice filling its growl, the fox slammed its body into the frail tom's chest, then ripped open a gash in his throat. "No!" Dreampaw and Fern shrieked the word at the same time.
Before they could grieve, or even become angry, there was a crashing sound behind them. Another fox appeared, a female, and every bit as fierce. All of Dreampaw's hope disappeared. We're doomed.
"We have to run for it!" she screamed.
Fern was crouched over old Simon's body. She didn't even seem to register the other fox. "I won't leave him!"
Is this how I'll die? Dreampaw thought. Well then, might as well go down like a warrior.
Letting out a bloodcurdling screech, she tore into the male fox, shredding his ear with her front claws while kicking him with her hind legs. The female fox lunged for her, and she braced herself for the feel of jaws tearing at her flesh, as her life was ripped away.
Instead, another sound came to her ears. "OakClan, attack!"
Whirling, and not daring to believe her ears, Dreampaw saw a patrol of five cats standing in front of a bush. She recognized all of them, but the one in the middle shocked her the most. It was like looking in a mirror. "Wish?"
Her sister smiled. "It's Wishpaw."
Dreampaw opened her mouth, but no words came out. Tears filled her eyes as she realized her one dream had come true-
"Talk later!" Suntail whipped his tail back and forth. "Kill foxes now!"
"I'm down with that," a brown tabby tom said.
Dreampaw gasped. "Brindlepaw!"
He paused, about to follow Suntail into the battle. His eyes shone softly as he gazed down at her, and he touched his muzzle hastily to her ear. When he spoke, he sounded more emotional then she had ever heard the steady tom be. "Dreampaw. It's- It's really good to see you again." Giving her another shy smile, he leaped onto the nearest fox.
Two pelts brushed hers on either side. She turned to see Lilacpaw and Wishpaw, both smiling, flanking her. "Let's do this," Lilacpaw said. Dreampaw nodded, and they charged, side by side.
Once the fight was over, the OakClan cats gathered on one side of the clearing, giving Fern apprehensive looks. Dreampaw padded over to the grief-stricken young she-cat, and licked her on the ear. "He died a brave death."
She raised tear-filled eyes. "He didn't deserve to die at all."
For a few minutes, they both sat there, gazing at the body of the cat who had given so much for them. Though she knew Fern had known old Simon for longer, Dreampaw felt as if a dagger had been plunged into her own heart. She closed her eyes, wondering how anything could ever make it better. Then she reopened them.
"Fern, if you want, my offer still stands. You can come back to OakClan with us."
"Thanks," she said, but there was no life behind her tone. It was like someone had sucked the real Fern out of her, leaving only a shell. Dreampaw felt terrible, but she knew she couldn't do any more. Walking over to her friends, she sat down beside Wishpaw.
"Okay. Now, tell me everything. And start from the beginning."
Wishpaw gave her a smile. "You first. This is going to take a while, guys."
Lilacpaw shot a sympathetic glance towards Fern. "We've got time. Don't we, Suntail?"
The ginger tom nodded. "OakClan won't miss us."
Dreampaw shot him a sharp glance. "What do you mean, OakClan won't miss you? Of course they'll miss you. This many cats? And how long have you been gone-"
"It's not like that anymore, Dreampaw," Lilacpaw said softly. "Things have changed with us and the Clan. Most of them think we're crazy now, because we clung to the hope that we could bring you back. Olivestar let us go, but we all know it was mostly with the hope that we'd never come back."
"You- You did this for me? Why? I'm not worth it. You shouldn't have." Dreampaw felt like screaming. They had practically been thrown out of the Clan, for her? She wasn't worth it!
Brindlepaw took a step forward. "You are worth it, Dreampaw."
The intensity in his voice silenced her hysteria. She bowed her head, not able to meet the kindness in his eyes. She wasn't worth it. They had given up their lives for this...?
"So... Where do we go now?" she said hopelessly, realization dawning on her. She met Fern's eyes, dread making her sick. She had promised old Simon to protect the she-cat, to take her to the Clan.
The tortoiseshell leaned forward and gave Dreampaw's ear a lick. "It's okay. We'll figure this out."
Though she gave Fern a grateful nod, Dreampaw could still feel guilt threatening to overwhelm her. Brindlepaw took a step towards her rather awkwardly, as if he didn't know how to make her feel better. Suntail spoke up. "It's okay, Dreampaw. Don't you understand? We would rather be here than back in OakClan without you. It was wrong to give up on you like that, and I didn't agree with Olivestar's decision to do so, just because you used to be a kittypet. So I spoke up."
She flicked her eyes towards Smokepaw. Why had he come? Sure, they had gotten along, but they had never been especially close. Seeming to read her question, he blushed and glanced at Wishpaw. Ah. So I'll have to find another match for Fern. This one's taken. Despite her tumultous emotions, she couldn't supress a wink directed at Wishpaw, who reddened and mouthed "Shut up," at her.
"Basically, what you're saying," Dreampaw said. "Is that you gave up your entire Clan life so you could prove a point."
Her mentor gave her his patented crooked smile. "I always was a little odd, wasn't I?"
She took in a deep, shuddering breath in an effort to clear her mind. "So we have nowhere to go."
Fern took a tentative step forward. "That's not exactly true. What about the woods where old Simon and I lived?" Her voice cracked slightly at the mention of old Simon, but she didn't lose her poise.
Still, shock reeled through Dreampaw. They had gone on this journey - which had killed old Simon - for nothing? Now they were just going to turn around and go back?
But that wasn't true. She had found the cats who truly mattered to her. Maybe... Maybe she could turn her back on OakClan. After all, Wishpaw had left her Twolegs because of her. I can do this. Together, we'll start a new life. She raised her head and smiled. "Let's go."
"Where?" asked a confused Brindlepaw.
While Fern explained, Dreampaw raised her head to the heavens and blinked a silent thank-you at StarClan. Perhaps everything would be okay after all.
Pure happiness surged through Dreampaw as she waited for Brindlepaw to catch up. Her breath came in ragged gasps of laughter, broken as she tried to gulp in air. Never before had she been so happy.
Usually, she and Wishpaw took a walk together this time of day, but this evening her sister had been invited on a walk by a certain special someone whose name rhymed with Hokesaw. Brindlepaw had asked her to go hunting instead, and she had happily accepted, though with all the noise they were making, they must have scared off all the prey between here and OakClan.
There was no familiar pang of pain thinking about her old home now. Perhaps what had happened was for the best. Dreampaw certainly felt like a wiser cat because of it.
"There you are!" yelled Brindlepaw, bursting after her. He blinked at her, his eyes widening in a way that made her feel self-concious. A shaft of late golden sunlight burst through the trees above, bathing her in a golden glow like a natural spotlight. She knew she was blushing, but she couldn't help it. Why was he looking at her like that?
Taking a careful step forward, Brindlepaw murmured softly, "With your glowing white fur you look like a beautiful star-cat."
She caught her breath in a gasp. "You remember?"
Now he was blushing too, ducking his head and not meeting her eyes. "Yeah. I was a babbling idiot back then. I couldn't help it. You made me so nervous." His ears flicked. "You still do?"
Not able to believe what she was hearing, Dreampaw took a step forward. "I made you nervous? I thought you didn't know I existed."
"Hardly." His smile was infectious.
A small flower of happiness blossomed in Dreampaw's chest. She walked over to Brindlepaw and sat beside him. He glanced at her shyly, and seemed surprised when she nestled her head in his shoulder.
"Thanks for finding me."
Brindlepaw gave her a lick on the forehead tenderly. "Who says you were ever lost?"
Around them, autumn leaves started to fall, closing the perfect day with red-gold curtains. Dreampaw's adventure was over. She was home.
Dreams can come true... but not always in the way that we think.