Clear Sky couldn't remember a time he was more nervous.
Well, that was a lie.
He'd been terribly nervous when they were trying to kill a convocation of eagles back in the mountains and he'd lost sight of Bright Stream. He'd been terribly nervous after Storm left his group. He'd been terribly nervous when Moon Shadow got wounded in a fire. He'd been terribly nervous when Storm and other starry cats descended on them from above and his former mate started chewing him out.
And when One Eye came to the forest and took his cats hostage… and when Star Flower was taken by Slash… and when Tiny Branch was bleeding out without help in sight….
...Clowder of Endless Hunting, had he ever felt secure in his life?
"Clear Sky," came a light voice, snapping Clear Sky back to reality and the task at paw.
"Uh," Clear Sky sounded, lifting his head up to look at the rich brown she-cat rather than his paws, "Yes?"
Acorn Fur let out a athss of laughter. "You're worried about meeting a ThunderClan patrol, aren't you?"
Clear Sky looked in front of him. They were in a large clearing, and in front of them was an old beech stump that he used to hold meetings on. Right past the stump started Thunder's- Thunderstar's?- territory.
Stars, that was another thing he was nervous about. But he couldn't tell Acorn Fur that.
"No!" he lied, "It's just that…" he took a step back, away from the medicine cat. "Do I really have to go? I might not even get lives! Everyone knows all the awful things I've done, what if they refuse me? Besides. I'm getting older anyway, I don't need eight more lives. What if we sent…"
He glanced at his paws again, eyes going wide. No other SkyClan cat was completely innocent. He blinked.
"Sparrow Fur!" he burst out, "What if we sent her instead?"
Acorn Fur blinked, surprised, then shook her head. "I'll drag you to the Moonstone if I have to, Clear Sky."
Clear Sky sighed, defeated. "Fine…" he said, tail drooping and dragging across the forest floor. "Do we have to go into ThunderClan territory, though? There's a field on the far border," he explained, pointing with his muzzle to the right.
Acorn Fur shrugged and nodded, tapping her nose to the taller cat's chin. Taking that as the go-ahead, Clear Sky turned and led the both of them that way. After several, several pawsteps, the two passed a beech tree, leaves ginger with leaf-fall, and emerged into the field. About a half-tree-length away sat a yellow house with a strange, silver, holy fence that jingled with every breeze. Acorn Fur watched it carefully, wide-eyed.
Clear Sky paid her no mind, instead pricking his ears. The wind was coming from the west, their scents would be blown into the Twolegplace down the hill rather than into ThunderClan territory. Flicking his ears, Clear Sky went on.
Star Flower had shown him this place and the city beyond the hill. She told him that that was where she and her mother and siblings had lived. Where One Eye used to reign, too, before he took interest in the forest.
When they reached the dry, torn-up soil marked with strange orange trees and Acorn Fur gained her bearings on where they were again. She took a step down into the strange ditch, flicking her white tail-tip for Clear Sky to follow. He tried his hardest for the swallow clawing at his stomach not to fly again- though the disgusting wet ash scent the place had wasn't helping his situation.
"Hey," Clear Sky mewed, right in the middle of the path. Acorn Fur pricked her ears and turned back to look at him, confused. "You think we can walk this path there?"
"Cloud Spots told me there are huge yellow monsters a ways down," Acorn Fur informed, flattening her ears to her head, her hackles aising, "They're as big as trees and a hundred times as wide. And they're loud as a thousand thunderstorms."
Clear Sky pricked his ears and looked to either side of the path. All was silent save for a few crickets, cicadas, and breezes ruffling leaves.
"...sounds like they're sleeping," he said.
Acorn Fur pricked her ears and listened herself. "...I suppose you're right."
Clear Sky nodded to himself, letting Acorn Fur lead him down the path rather than into ShadowClan's territory. He and Shadowstar had never gotten on well.
He figured it started back in the mountains, after Owl Feather, Shadowstar's mother, died and her father, Jagged Lightning, starting growing close to Quiet Rain, Clear Sky's own mother. He couldn't blame her- he meant, he never had two parents, but he figured that, if he did, he would be destroyed if they started pursuing someone else once their first mate died.
Quiet Rain loved Shadowstar and Moon Shadow, but Clear Sky always read it as Quiet Rain being a caregiver rather than step-motherly. He'd heard so much about how his mother never took another mate… but had everyone just been oblivious, aside from Shadowstar? The she-cat always was much smarter than he was.
Leaving her group with her brother, the only kin she had, didn't help much either, he supposed. Then when Moon Shadow died…
Clear Sky loved Moon Shadow. He really did. But he couldn't imagine the pain that came with seeing your last known kin die in front of you.
Acorn Fur cowered close to the ground, weaving around the huge yellow monsters. Clear Sky followed in her form and pawsteps, though couldn't help looking around curiously. Stars, Twolegs and their strange contraptions.
They made it out of the strange yellow monsters and onto what used to be the WindClan-ShadowClan border. The path was on a hill, and each side was in a gully. Last he had seen, the Twolegs had dug out a big hole underneath their path. Inwardly, Clear Sky thought it was hilarious the Twolegs were egging on a war, but outwardly, he knew it was one of those storm drains Star Flower spoke about.
Were the storm drains what inspired Shattered Ice and Windstar to go into rabbit burrows and dig their own paths? Clear Sky hoped. That would be funny.
"Here it is," Acorn Fur announced, stepping off the path and into a clearing. Boulders littered the place, though it was down off a hill from the path that Twolegs paid it no mind. Forward, a few rocky steps led up into an outcrop and a wide, pitch-black hole.
Clear Sky felt a rock in his stomach- or maybe that was the swallow again. On one paw, he still remembered the mountains and the cave that the Clowder of Rushing Water lived. On the other, he'd been in the forest so long he didn't know if rocks could comfort him.
Acorn Fur turned and smiled at her leader. Clear Sky didn't notice immediately, but once he did, he nodded. After the silent exchange, Acorn Fur hopped forward and onto the first rock before looking back at the tom to make sure he was following. He did, slowly, cautiously.
The two stepped up another and another, until they were several tail-lengths up and the large hole sat in front of them. Acorn Fur brushed her white tailtip over Clear Sky's nose, prompting a sneeze from the tom. Acorn Fur giggled.
"Sorry," she mewed, Clear Sky sniffed in response. "It's dark," she went on, "And it gets quite thin. I don't want you to lose me."
Clear Sky nodded and dipped his head, letting Acorn Fur place her tailtip onto the bridge of his muzzle.
"Are you ready to receive your lives?" she asked.
"Stars, no," Clear Sky admitted, "But I'm already here."
Acorn Fur laughed and stepped forward, leading Clear Sky onward. As promised, the tunnel twisted and turned, pressed in on their whiskers and brushed the tips of their ears. Terrifying as it was, light finally greeted them.
"Quickly, now," Acorn Fur commanded, "Very, very bright once moonhigh hits."
She then curled up beside the stone, pressing her nose to the base. Clear Sky followed and sat, defiantly. Soon enough, blackness overtook his vision and complete silence overtook his hearing.
Then came a buzzing. Quiet at first, just a noise his brain would make when no sound was there. Then it grew louder… and louder… and louder until it was as loud as a thunderstorm, right beside his ears. Clear Sky tried to reach his paws up, but as he lifted his feet, he didn't feel anything under him. He quickly put them back down and tried to dig his claws into the nothingness he sat on. He shut his eyes back tightly. He knew StarClan would refuse him, he knew it.
Then, slowly, the buzzing faded out and was replaced by the sound of running water. He slowly fluttered open his eyes. There sat a creek the same teal as his eyes, but everywhere else was white- but not white with snow, just- colorless.
Looking up from the river, Clear Sky saw a small, dark brown tabby cat. Her eyes were pure white, too, even lacking pupils.
"F-Fluttering Bird?" Clear Sky whispered.
"Have you achieved all that you hoped for?" Fluttering Bird mewed. Clear Sky flattened his ears, unable to think of a response. Fluttering Bird nodded and clawed at the white ground beneath them.
Her claws turned into thick black ravines, coming together and coming toward Clear Sky. He tried to stand, but his paws felt tied in place. The cracks came closer, dipping under his front paws. He stumbled in, trying to back out as he stared down into darkness.
The hole stopped moving and Clear Sky was stuck, claws unsheathed on any surface he could hold onto. His hind paws went numb, but he still couldn't move them to climb out. Fluttering Bird hopped over the creek, expressionless. With her claws sheathed, she smacked Clear Sky's hindquarters. He tumbled over himself and lost his grip on the wall as a yowl spilled out of his mouth. Suddenly, he was falling.
All around him scenes flashed: Leaving Quiet Rain in the Clowder's cave, sobbing. Taking several cats from Shadowstar. Exiling Jackdaw's Cry and hobbling out of camp on his broken leg. Exiling Frost and Thunder. Hitting Falling Feather over the head as they led them out.
Killing Misty, trying to kill her kits. Taking out said orphaned kits climbing, where they could've broken their necks. Killing Rainswept Flower, nearly killing Gray Wing.
Clear Sky felt a sob choke out of his throat and he closed his eyes tight and covered his eyes with his paws. He kicked, trying to flip himself over, to no avail. Suddenly, warmth touched his arms. Fluttering Bird pulled his paws off. Her cold, sightless white gaze softened and she smiled, before her body was blown away like a fallen leaf.
Clear Sky flailed and kicked again, turning himself over. Below him, a circle was coming closer. It was like the color of a twilight sky, but lighter. Not as white as it had been above the hole, but a pale purple. When Clear Sky reached it, he collapsed and slumped. He ached. He felt a paw on his shoulders and a wetness on his ears.
"Clear Sky!" Acorn Fur commanded, "Come on, you've been asleep long enough."
Clear Sky blinked his eyes open, body still tense as he feared the ground would disappear again. Acorn Fur touched her nose to his forehead, which made Clear Sky feel a bit safer. He raised his head and looked at the row of starry-furred cats in front of him: all in living color, all with colored eyes, all with pupils. Clear Sky managed to heave himself up and dip his head to the cats, turning to face them.
"Hello, Clear Sky," came a soft, high-pitched voice, "Are you ready to receive your nine lives?"
Clear Sky glanced around at the cats, though couldn't place who was speaking. He let out a breath and nodded, flexing his shoulders and standing taller. A small, dark brown tabby cat stepped forward first. She was short, much shorter than Acorn Fur, almost as if she hadn't fully developed. Her eyes were yellow, flecked with kit-blue. She bared a big, toothy grin.
"Forget about me?" she asked, voice the same as the greeter's. Clear Sky suddenly felt his heart swell and a raspy purr come out of his throat.
"Fluttering Bird? Is that you?"
"You better believe it," she snapped back.
She started to strain up, but Clear Sky lowered his head to let her touch him easier. He closed his eyes as she started to speak.
"With this life, she started, "I give you compassion. Use it well to take care of your clanmates."
A scene unfolded in front of him. Cold, cold mountains an a huge pit in numb, growling stomach. Snowflakes pelted down and wind buffeted either side of him. Clear Sky shivered and lashed his tail as cold set in. Suddenly he fell, cold, so freezing cold, and blackness overcame him.
Next up came Quiet Rain, who gave him forgiveness and made him feel like his chest was collapsing in on itself. Then was Gray Wing, who gave his brother a loving hug before giving him confidence and again, making his chest shrivel up. Next was Bright Stream, who gave him courage and tore his spine straight out of his body.
Then was Moon Shadow, who's voice was on the edge of a sob the entire ceremony. He gave Clear Sky happiness. His life was warm, but he couldn't tell if that was from Shadowstar crying over his dead body or the fire still clinging to his pelt. Next was Petal, who gave healing, again subjecting Clear Sky to lung torture. Then came Micah, who looked as if he held no grudge against the tom whatsoever. He gave cool-headedness, and made Clear Sky feel as if one of those yellow monsters was running right over him.
Sheathing his claws into the ground and trying his hardest to stay standing and not roll the pain off, Clear Sky panted. Once the pain ebbed and he could open his eyes, he looked to Acorn Fur- who looked traumatized. Then he heard clumsy pawsteps and shushes. Five bundles came tumbling from between Bright Stream and Quiet Rain. The biggest- oh, stars, that's Tiny Branch…- ducked under Bright Stream's paw as the other four stepped to Clear Sky. He crouched down for them.
"Hi!" announced the biggest, her pelt dappled in gray, cream and white. "I bet you don't know us!"
"I don't," Clear Sky mewed, voice light in amusement.
"I'm Hurricane!" the kit announced.
A smaller kit without the cream patches spoke next, "And I'm Cloudburst! We're yours and Storm's kits!"
"Ohhh," Clear Sky purred, reaching to bundle them under his chin, still purring. The sisters giggled before they pried their father's paw off and stepped back.
The next kit to speak was smaller, and a dark-and-white tabby. "I'm Bright Moon," he announced, then pointed to a small pale she-kit, "And this is my sister, Little River!"
"We're yours and Bright Stream's," Little River explained.
Clear Sky felt his heart swell. He hadn't thought his and Bright Stream's kits would be living lives in StarClan! He reached for them as well, purring with them, too. They backed up and Hurricane was the one to speak.
"With this life we give you mentoring," she announced, "Use it well to defend your clan."
The weight of a thousand boulders cracked down his spine and back. Sharp, so sharp, so heavy. That was the most painful yet. Once the pain ebbed and Clear Sky could crack open his eyes, he licked each of the kitten's heads.
"I love you all so much," he mewed, nudging Little River to send them all back to Tiny Branch.
Lastly came a she-cat, a gray tabby with cream patches, just as tall as Clear Sky was- fine, taller by two kittensteps.
"Greetings," she mewed.
"Storm…" Clear Sky responded, lovingly.
"This is it, isn't it?" Storm asked, "Are you happy with yourself? With everything you've done? I've been watching you very closely, you know."
Clear Sky sighed, "I regret every cat I've ever harmed," he admitted, "And I wish I was better at talking from the heart than the head to find the words to forgive them. I am happy where I am. I am happy with my clan and family. I'm not very proud of the decisions I made to get here."
Storm frowned, thinking. It was several heartbeats later, really, when she responded; but to Clear Sky it felt like days. She closed her eyes and nodded.
"Then," she mewed, glancing around at the gathered cats, "With everyone's blessing," she turned back to Clear Sky, "I give you your final life."
She took a deep breath before speaking.
"I give you the life of forgiveness. You know better than most what hatred and fear can do to a cat. You know better than most what can come from holding a grudge. Use it well to lead your clan."
The pain of every life came crashing back to him, nearly knocking him off his feet. Spine getting torn and spine getting crushed and suffocating and freezing and he couldn't breathe oh stars was he dying right here? It faded after several, several excruciating heartbeats, and he managed to look back up at Storm, smiling smugly above him in the way only Storm could. Clear Sky gave a small smile himself.
"Your old life is no more," Storm announced, "You have now received the nine lives of a leader, and StarClan grants you true guardianship of SkyClan. Defend it well, care for young and old, and honor your ancestors and lessons you've learned. Live each life with pride and dignity. I hail you by your new name, founder of SkyClan: Skystar."
"Skystar!" called the starry cats, "Skystar! Skystar! Skystar!"
Skystar had caught a fat, juicy rabbit on the way back to his clan. The sun was rising and it had come running straight at them on the path. Acorn Fur had been startled by it, but Skystar, despite his joint aches, managed to catch it.
Both the cats were exhausted, and Acorn Fur had insisted to just take the path through Fourtrees. Skystar reluctantly agreed, praying the rabbit's scent wouldn't make Windstar accuse ThunderClan of something. The sky was bright as they headed down the bramble tunnel. Immediately, Skystar was trampled by two shapes.
"Dad! Dad!" exclaimed his daughters.
"Hey! Hey!" Skystar responded back, giggling along with the two of them. Soon Star Flower came over and pulled off Dew Petal.
"We missed you!" Flower Foot exclaimed, "Where have you been all night?"
Skystar chuckled and sat back up, shaking himself. "I got eight more lives! Your pop's a real leader now!"
But Dew Petal wasn't very interested in Skystar's lives. She licked her lips and looked down at the rabbit.
"Can we eat that?" she asked.
"Yes," Skystar mewed, "I caught it just for the both of you."
Dew Petal beamed and picked it up by it's back foot, running off to a stump and bundle of ferns on the other side of the clearing. Flower Foot quickly chased after her. Star Flower sighed wistfully.
"What's wrong?" Skystar asked, worriedly.
"Oh, nothing," Star Flower mewed, turning around and putting her head under Skystar's chin to watch their children. "They just grow up so fast. It feels like just yesterday they were still suckling... and look at them now…"
Skystar hummed and watched as Flower Foot violently tore off one of the rabbit's legs and pulled out the bone, tossing it in the air. ...what a strange activity.
"It feels like…" Star Flower went on, softly, "...just yesterday, we still had Tiny Branch."
Skystar hummed again, a twinge of sadness making his gaze blurry. He rapidly blinked it away. "Moth Flight did all she could," he reminded, then flexed his claws. He still hadn't forgiven Wind Runner- she didn't deserve the name Windstar- for preventing his son from being saved from bleeding out his life.
"...did you see him in StarClan?" Star Flower asked softly.
"Tiny Branch. Did you see him? Did he still have his cough? Was his foot still twisted?"
"Woah, slow down, hon…" Skystar said with a light laugh, "Yes. I saw him. He…" Micah's words suddenly surfaced in his brain, "...he seemed happy as a lark."
Star Flower smiled and pressed further into his pelt. "Well, I'm glad of that, at least…" she spoke again after several moments, "So, what, are you Clearstar now?"
Skystar shook his head and chuckled. "Skystar."
Star Flower purred. "That's good. Who are you choosing to succeed you? How did you do it in the mountains?"
"Oh, I've no idea," Skystar admitted, "I only lived through one healer…" Suddenly, he remembered how he'd mentioned Sparrow Fur getting lives instead of him. "...I think I'll ask Sparrow Fur."
"...to make up for what my father did to her's?" Star Flower asked, hesitantly.
The thought hadn't even crossed Skystar's mind. He shrugged. "Why not? I'll ask her tomorrow. I need to sleep-" he stood and looked back at her, "-bones hurt."
"Oh, stars," Star Flower fretted, "I'll tell Acorn Fur right away! You get some rest, Skies; I think Blossom is gathering some moss."
Skystar smiled at her, "Thanks, honey."
"Oh, by the way," Star Flower added, making Skystar prick and twirl his ears back, but he didn't turn his head. "Alder and Birch have started teaching Dew Petal and Flower Foot how to hunt and fight."
"Good for them," Skystar responded with a yawn.
Star Flower scuffled her paws as her mate retired to their den under a thorn tree. The thought of her little darlings getting torn apart in battle hurt her. She sighed and shook her head. Such is the life of a clan cat, and she wouldn't let any of them become kittypets.
She then stood and stepped forward, letting her back cave down and her hind legs extend before she scrunched up and did the same to her front. A satisfying crik! came from behind her ears. Thoroughly stretched, Star Flower padded along the camp wall. She passed the branch Skystar announced news and the roots where they slept, into the ferns and stoney den that smelled like fresh flowers and sharp herbs. Acorn Fur was muttering to herself.
"I need bindweed," she whispered, "And borage and and catchweed… Do I even know what catchweed is? No, aughh…"
The she-cat jumped, then turned around. "Oh, Star Flower! What's up?"
Star Flower sat down and curled her tail over her paws as she always did. "I just wanted to let you know Skystar's asleep and he says his joints hurt."
Acorn Fur nodded happily and turned back to her supply, starting to think aloud again. "Let's see… comfrey, daisy and ragwort or marigold…" she huffed, disappointedly. She reached under a hole in the wall and pulled out two, pathetic, crumbled yellow petals. Acorn Fur sighed. "I believe I need to pay my brothers a visit."
Acorn Fur pressed closer to the ground, pressing a paw to her eye and groaning.
"I don't wanna goooo…. I'm so tiiired…."
Star Flower pricked her ears and took a step forward, though knew Acorn Fur wasn't talking to her. The cream she-cat crouched beside her, their whiskers brushing eachother's. Acorn Fur cracked open an amber eye, dull with exhaustion.
"My daughters and I can go for you," she suggested, "Just tell us where we need to go, and you can go to sleep."
Acorn Fur smiled gratefully for a minute, then it twisted back to a frown. "I can't go to sleep. Windstar might attack us. I need to treat wounds."
Star Flower hummed and looked back into the clearing. Cats were steadily waking up and eating breakfast, rolling around and stretching in the blue dawn sunlight.
"Hey," Star Flower said, turning back to Acorn Fur, "If I send a cat your way, can you teach them the essentials?"
Acorn Fur sat up. "I guess I can."
Star Flower nodded and followed suit, smiling proudly. "I'll send Blossom, she already knows a bit."
Acorn Fur smiled gratefully. "Thank you, Star Flower… oh! I also need cobwebs… could you send a patrol for me?"
"Of course! Where do I need to go to grab the herbs you need?"
"ThunderClan and ShadowClan… Cloud Spots and Pebble Heart should be able to help you."
Star Flower nodded and headed out of the den, waving her tail in a goodbye. Sparrow Fur was speaking to her daughters, tossing a bone between the three.
"Hey, mollies," Star Flower greeted, pausing their game. Sparrow Fur looked up at her and dipped her head, but Dew Petal and Flower Foot weren't as respectful.
"Hi, mom!" Dew Petal greeted, letting go of the bone she and her sister were tug-of-warring on. Flower Foot landed on her back with a grunt, but didn't seem fazed- moreso proud she won. "What is it?"
"Would you two like to come to ShadowClan and ThunderClan with me?" she asked, "Acorn Fur needs us to get herbs." Dew Petal nodded happily, but Flower Foot spat out her bone with a noise.
"I don't want to go," she informed defiantly. Star Flower felt her heart sink a bit. StarClan knew how many more days she would have to spend with her daughters. She realized that all too well when Tiny Branch died, but she also didn't want to force Flower Foot to come. She didn't want her eldest daughter to resent her.
Sparrow Fur pricked her ears and sat up from where she was crouching. "I'll come instead of her, if you want. I'd love to see my brothers."
Star Flower smiled a bit at the she-cat's offer. "Yes, thank you," she mewed, then faced Flower Foot again, "Would you like to go and collect cobwebs, instead?"
"If it means I can go into the forest," Flower Foot said with a shrug. Star Flower suppressed a bit of laughter before standing and tapping her tail to her flank. Flower Foot stood and pounced after her. She was so much like her father, tall, with powerful hind legs great for jumping. She would grow to be taller than Skystar one day.
The two neared Nettle and Quick Water, who lifted their heads. Neither looked very interested as to why the two were approaching them.
"Good morning," Star Flower greeted.
"What did we do this time?" Quick Water asked bluntly.
Star Flower scowled but decided against snapping at her. "Nothing," she said just as bluntly, "I need you two to go out and collect cobwebs. Flower Foot is going to keep you two in line."
Flower Foot's eyes glowed as she heard the words, excited to be in charge of older cats. The two gray cats cast a glance at eachother before Nettle stood.
"Fine. Come on, Flower Foot."
Flower Foot beamed and pranced in front of him, holding her tail in the air as if she was the clan leader. Neither Quick Water or Nettle looked too happy with the arrangement, but at the same time, knew better than to bad-mouth the leader's daughter.
She then turned back around to Dew Petal and Sparrow Fur, nodding to signal them to follow. Star Flower was sure it would be awkward to meet Thunderstar again, and especially Thunderstar's new mate, Violet Dawn. But she wouldn't dwell on their past. She was Skystar's mate now and Thunderstar's wishes had no power over her.
"I didn't know you had brothers in ThunderClan!" Dew Petal said, wide-eyed in astonishment, to Sparrow Fur.
Sparrow Fur let out a mrrow of laughter. "You bet I do."
"Why would you all leave eachother?" Dew Petal asked, flattening one ear but keeping the other pricked, "Don't you still love them? I couldn't imagine being away from Flower Foot."
Star Flower knew it wasn't her conversation, but she couldn't help listening. Her heart hurt a bit. Her daughter had already completely blocked out Tiny Branch's memory.
"Of course I still love them," Sparrow Fur mewed solemnly, "We had to follow our hearts. And mine led me here, with Clear Sky."
"Skystar," Star Flower corrected softly.
Dew Petal looked up at her mother, "Do I have any brothers in ThunderClan?"
Star Flower let out a bit of laughter, "Yes, you do." Dew Petal's eyes lit up. "You'll meet him soon enough."
"Is he yours, too?" Dew Petal asked.
Star Flower shook her head. Quick Water must've told her about all of Skystar's former mates. Dew Petal didn't seem put off by her new-found half-brother. They continued through the territory silently, except for when Dew Petal would pipe up and ask Sparrow Fur something about her siblings. When they reached the ThunderClan border, they saw four cats sniffing around.
A tortoiseshell lifted her head and immediately got into a defensive position. A reddish tabby followed suit, baring her teeth.
"Greetings," Star Flower said calmly.
The tortoiseshell stood from her battle crouch, "What is it?"
"We need to speak with Cloud Spots," Star Flower informed.
The tortoiseshell cast a glance at the next oldest cat, a scraggly ginger tom. The tom nodded and tapped a young dappled gray cat's shoulder, before flicking his tailtip for Star Flower's patrol to follow. Dew Petal cast a nervous glance up at her mother before the reddish tabby stepped forward and sniffed her pelt.
"So," asked the tortoiseshell, "What do you need Cloud Spots for? I don't know SkyClan cats very well, but I know well enough your medicine cat is brown."
"That's not your business," Star Flower responded.
The tortoiseshell's eyes went wide for a moment before her pupils narrowed to slits.
"Hi," whispered the reddish tabby to Dew Petal.
Dew Petal let out a noise of discomfort. Her voice was strained as she responded with a pathetic, "Hello."
"I'm Apple Blossom," she went on, "You're Dew Petal aren't you?"
Dew Petal nodded, a bit unnerved she was known outside her clan.
"Yeah, you're Clear Sky's kit aren't you?" Apple Blossom went on, "Thunderstar talks about him all the time, you know. You know Clear Sky abandoned his first son, and then once he came back, he exiled him? Wack."
Dew Petal flattened her ears to her head and looked up at her mother, who hadn't seemed to hear anything Apple Blossom had said. She knew her father wasn't the best cat. But he'd changed, surely, he loved his daughters. Dew Petal loved her father… but she wasn't happy anymore to meet her ThunderClan half-brother if he was just going to be negative about her existence. His talks of her father worried her terribly, even if she only found out about them heartbeats ago.
Acorn Fur was padding along the RiverClan border, gathering fennel and alder bark. It was a rather nice leaf-fall day, warm instead of the chills the last few days had brought. It had been quite a few days since Skystar had received his lives, and luckily, Windstar hadn't attacked again.
"Hey!" called a voice from across the river, "Acorn Fur!"
Acorn Fur whipped around, startled. She then pricked her ears happily and put her herbs down. "Dappled Pelt! Hello!"
Dappled Pelt dipped her head and hopped over the stepping stones, gracefully as RiverClan cats did. She stopped on the last stone, closer now to the SkyClan bank and Acorn Fur.
"Moth Flight wants to speak to us at the Moonstone tonight," Dappled Pelt informed, "I hope you understand her not wanting to come back to SkyClan territory."
Acorn Fur tilted her head. "Whatever for?"
Dappled Pelt shrugged and made the appropriate sound.
"Well," mewed Acorn Fur after a moment, "See you there, then."
Dappled Pelt nodded and made the appropriate sound again, hopping back over to her bank. Acorn Fur tilted her head and looked up toward the clear, blue sky. Whatever could Moth Flight need?
"I'm going to give up my kits."
The words had haunted Acorn Fur. The entire night had haunted Acorn Fur. She should be more upset over Red Claw- oh, and don't get her wrong, she would be furious in due time that Moth Flight had made that decision for her- but…
She hunched over and flexed her claws into the dirt. She was sitting in front of Skystar's den, about to tell him he needed to go to Fourtrees that night- the medicine cats had spent the previous night at the Moonstone, and it was now dawn. Moth Flight didn't know what she was talking about. She was lucky to have two parents that lived with her to adulthood. She was lucky to have any family in her own clan. Who was she to deny her children a choice? Who was she to deny her children a bond with their blood family?
Acorn Fur was angry. So terribly angry.
"Acorn Fur?" came a sleepy voice, perking his head up from under the ferns of his den. Skystar stepped up and out of the roots, facing the medicine cat. "I'm sorry. I didn't know you were waiting for me."
"I wasn't," Acorn Fur affirmed, still looking at her paws, which were tearing up grass, rather than the leader. She sighed and looked up at him, eyes still blazing in that hateful fire. "Moth Flight wants you to come down to Fourtrees tonight."
Skystar tilted his head. "Whatever for?"
Acorn Fur sighed angrily through her teeth, "She's giving up her kits. One to each clan."
Skystar looked mortified, his thoughts racing with ideas similar to Acorn Fur's- but from a parental point of view. He had lost his first litter, then half of his second and his only son disliked him. How any cat could willingly give up their children… Skystar shivered and looked down at his paws. His claws were involuntarily dug deep into the earth.
He let out a breath and his voice shook as he spoke, "I thought Moth Flight loved them…"
"Moth Flight said you were the most confident leader," came a small voice from behind Skystar, "But Windstar said she hates your guts."
Skystar let out a huffy laugh and turned back to face the small tom behind him. He looked the most like Micah. Honey Pelt had the least white of his siblings, whose cream-yellow patches were separated into islands in a sea of white.
The fur on the top of his head curled in the same way Micah's once did, his ears were perfectly pointed, not with the roundness of his mother. He even had Micah's big, dumb, mouser paws. Though his eyes were just as round as his mother's, and his figure was sleek as his grandparents.
"And what do Gorse Fur and Dust Muzzle think of me?" Skystar asked gently.
"Gorse Fur thinks you're okay," Honey Pelt mewed, looking tiredly down at his paws and giving the occasional hop, "I don't think Dust Muzzle cares very much."
Skystar smiled to himself and hummed in response, letting his thoughts drift back to when his daughters were hardly able to walk.
It was just after they had defeated Slash, or at least, not long after. His cats had joined each clan, and a cat named Bee had left Wind Runner to go back to the mangy fox-heart. He hadn't trusted Red Claw in those days, and Gorse Fur had come to his camp to tell him about Bee. The two hadn't ever been close friends, not whatsoever, but it was still a memory he remembered fondly.
Occasionally, Skystar would catch Gorse Fur and a few other WindClan cats looking into ThunderClan and SkyClan territory from Fourtrees. He had always figured it was because of their feud. It wasn't very often, but whenever Skystar could have a word with the WindClan deputy, they would discuss their children. That was another memory he recalled fondly.
Often times Skystar wondered what a sweet cat like Gorse Fur was doing hung up with a cat like Wind Runner, but he supposed he'd made too many strange love choices himself to judge any other cat's.
Oh, if only Willow Tail had been the one to leave instead of Bee…
"What does forest prey taste like?" asked Honey Pelt, voice in a yawn, breaking Skystar from his thoughts.
Skystar turned back to him again with another smile. "You'll just have to find out yourself."
Honey Pelt yawned again. "I've never slept on my own before…."
Skystar tapped his tail to the kitten's shoulder, falling back to hold him closer. He looked exhausted, and Skystar wasn't sure if the idea of being abandoned by his mother hadn't set in yet or if he was hiding the pain.
"Well, we have two places for you to sleep, Honey Pelt," Skystar informed, "You can sleep in my daughter's den, and, if you're nice enough, Dew Petal might let you share her nest. Or, if you want, you can sleep with Star Flower and I."
Honey Pelt yawned again and slumped against Skystar's leg, whimpering a response.
Skystar sighed and looked at the sleeping kitten. Smiling to himself, he picked up Honey Pelt by the scruff and continued back home.
Star Flower jumped a bit at the sudden feeling of a little young bundle at her stomach, but did not object. Skystar curled up on Honey Pelt's other side and fell asleep himself.
Both Dew Petal and Flower Foot had been hunting since sunset. They knew that their father would be horrified at the idea of them being without Alder and Birch, but, well, their father was napping.
It was a rather good catch for a late leaf-fall afternoon; Flower Foot had caught a moorhen and wagtail while Dew Petal had caught a lapwing and pigeon. They were safely kept under a nearby bush while the two continued.
Suddenly, they heard a scuffling.
Dew Petal was the first one to get into a crouch. She slowly slunked through the grass and bushes, Flower Foot behind her. The fluffy she-cat strained her neck up to look through a gap in the leaves of the holly bush. There hunted a fat dove, clawing at the ground and pecking. Dew Petal unsheathed her claws and furrowed her eyebrows, licking her lips hungrily.
She took a few steps back, smacking her sister's muzzle with her tail. Flower Foot, despite her annoyance, didn't make a sound. Dew Petal bundled her legs tightly under her. She still wasn't quite used to Skystar's leaping technique- he'd showed them it and insisted they keep trying two moons ago- but she figured practise was good.
Skystar jumped the highest of every cat in SkyClan. He boasted that it was because of how he prepared.
Shifting the weight into her hind legs, Dew Petal pushed off and shot over the bush. Unfortunately, the dove was turned in her direction and flew off as Dew Petal's belly fur brushed the holly leaves. She flew off, then again, Dew Petal had overshot anyway. She landed with her paws outstretched and on her chin, a grunt involuntarily jolting from her jaws.
A laughing came from behind the holly bush as Flower Foot weaved through it and met her sister on the other side. She sat beside Dew Petal and raised a paw to her mouth as she laughed and stared. Dew Petal grunted a growl and lifted her head, making a big show of shaking it just to get a speck of dust on her tan sibling.
"Hey!" Flower Foot exclaimed, voice still laughy, shifting as Dew Petal shook. Dew Petal stared up angrily before smiling and standing, shaking the rest of her pelt. She quickly earned tiny, high-pitched yip-laughs from Flower Foot.
Then came another scuffling. Dew Petal stopped her shaking and Flower Foot stopped her sounds. They both stared wide-eyed ahead of them, at a different bush. Another scuffle came out, then a shake, and finally a snap. Flower Foot crouched down and unsheathed her claws, preparing to leap at their enemy. The both of them knew it was too loud and clumsy to be another piece of prey.
Before she could leap, a figure jumped over. Flower Foot let out a yowl and jumped, grabbing the creature by its shoulders and slamming it down to the ground. It let out a whimper as Flower Foot stood above, teeth bared and growling. She pushed a paw deep into its neck, claws pricking the creature's skin.
Dew Petal stood and stared down. It was a cat!
"Stop!" she exclaimed, pouncing forward and bundling her sister off her paws. They rolled off together in a cloud of dust. The cat sat up, blue eyes wide and watery. Flower Foot bopped Dew Petal's head and stood. Dew Petal wasn't deterred and padded back to the cat. She brushed a paw over his pelt.
He was different than any cat Dew Petal had ever seen. His fur was white, but with the warmth of a dove's feathers. Plus, he had pure black, swirling tabby stripes. No, Dew Petal had never seen a cat like this.
"You're not hurt, are you?" Dew Petal asked.
The tom shook his head and licked his paw. His pads were bright pink. "I don't… think so."
Dew Petal nodded and smiled softly, helping to nudge him to his paws. Flower Foot watched on, eyes dark and angry. The tom shook his head, dirty dust falling.
"I was trying to catch a bird," he mewed, "I saw that really high jump of yours and wanted to try it!"
"You didn't do a very good job," Flower Foot hissed, coldly curling her tail over her feet.
Dew Petal ignored her. "I can teach you," she offered the tom.
"What?" Flower Foot asked, walking up beside her sibling and staring down at her, "Do you have bees in your brain? We shouldn't be teaching a rogue to hunt!"
"Actually," the tom informed, "I'm a housecat."
The sisters blinked, surprised.
"But I thought all housecats had collars?" asked Flower Foot.
"And you know what rogues are?" Dew Petal added.
The tom sat down and stared down at his paws. He didn't seem embarrassed, moreso like he was thinking. "Not all housecats have collars. And of course I know what rogues are. My mother used to tell me the story of the wicked cat Slash who used to rule the city. Then, one day, he just disappeared."
The sisters shivered. Star Flower had told them of Slash too. They had nearly been born into Slash's control because their mother had been kidnapped days before she was due. They even lived with one of Slash's old gang members.
"Anyway," the tom went on, shaking his head and looking back up at the mollies, "Will you teach me to jump like that? Please?"
Dew Petal smiled and nodded, standing. But Flower Foot rolled her eyes and sighed.
"No, it's bad enough there's a cat trespassing in our territory. Come on, Dew Petal," she commanded, standing.
Dew Petal hummed, "I can show you, but we have to make it quick. You also have to keep to your garden from now on, okay?"
The tom nodded, eyes gleaming.
Dew Petal crouched and narrated what she was doing. She pushed her hind paws close together, so much so her toes could feel the opposite fur. Then, she shifted all the weight off her front paws and into her hips and thighs.
"If It doesn't burn, it's not correct," she added. With her position, she rolled her forepaws onto their heels, pushing off the ground with her sprung hind legs. Suddenly, she was more than a fox-length in the air. To add to her height, she stretched all the way out, extending her paws even further. If it didn't burn, it wasn't correct.
Eventually she landed. On her paws, but her elbows and knees had bent and she was low. She quickly sprung back up to a standing position and looked at the tom. He tried himself. He didn't go as high as Dew Petal did and he didn't have his feet close enough. He landed rather clumsily, but he hadn't fallen on any vital organ.
Dew Petal nodded and purred proudly. "Good job! Keep practising."
The tom nodded back and smiled. "Hey," he mewed, voice soft, "I don't believe I ever caught your name."
"It's Dew Petal," the she-cat responded, then pointed with her tail at Flower Foot, who looked as if she was sulking. "And that one's Flower Foot."
The tom purred. "My name is Sterling," his voice then went even softer, "Are you doing anything tomorrow night, Dew Petal?"
Dew Petal hummed and thought. "No, I don't think so."
Sterling huffed a small laugh, "Um. Would you be so kind as to meet me here tomorrow night, then?"
Dew Petal smiled kindly. "I'll sure try to. So long."
"Godspeed!" Sterling responded, happily pouncing off. Flower Foot grumbled as she pushed through the bushes, Dew Petal on her heels.
"Dad is going to kill us for smelling like kittypet," she finally mewed before picking up her wagtail.
"You confused him for a rogue. He can't smell so badly," she said, leaning down to pick up the pigeon, "But I suppose we should roll in some mushrooms."
Flower Foot shut her eyes tight and shook her head. "I didn't say we needed to smell like death!" she exclaimed from around the tip of the wagtail's wing.
The two did eventually end up rolling in a mushroom patch. Birch was the first cat to acknowledge they came home.
"Uck!" he exclaimed before saying a word to the sisters, he took several dramatic steps back. "You smell awful! Go jump in the river before you fill the entire camp!"
"But we have prey," Flower Foot muffledly said between all the feathers stuck in her mouth.
"And I'll take them to the fresh-kill pile," he offered, "Please. What did you do, roll through the dirtplace?"
"We saw a sparrow in a field of mushrooms," Dew Petal lied through her own feathers.
"She missed, so I went after it," Flower Foot continued.
"Pesky thing," Dew Petal finished.
Birch rolled his eyes. "Scat, the both of you!"
So, they dropped their catches and backed out of the tunnel. Neither of them could explain to eachother or the hunters why they hadn't thought to rinse themselves.
"Do you eat mice? Gorse Fur told me ThunderClan eats mice."
It had been one moon since Honey Pelt had come to SkyClan. He had been sleeping with Dew Petal and Flower Foot in their tree stump den, but most of the moon had been spent to Honey Pelt adjusting. Now he was five moons old and a non-stop chatterbox, asking Skystar everything about anything.
"We don't," Skystar admitted, "But if you wanted to catch one and eat it, I wouldn't stop you."
A storm was rising on the horizon, but it had yet to break. Occasionally there would be a clap of thunder, but Honey Pelt was never deterred by it.
"What are all the birds called?" Honey Pelt asked, "Have I eaten them all?"
Skystar hummed thoughtfully. Honestly, he couldn't remember the number of prey Honey Pelt had eaten, much less the color of the feathers he and Star Flower had picked off for him. He stood.
"How about, we go over to the fresh-kill pile, and I'll tell you about the birds there."
There weren't many and Skystar knew that. Leaf-bare was fast approaching and these leaf-fall storms didn't help. Maybe they would have to start eating mice.
Honey Pelt's green eyes lit up and he scampered over to the elderflower bush. He stuck his head under the leaves, shaking them around. It wasn't long until he was thoroughly stuck. Skystar stifled a laugh and padded over, sticking his paws under the leaves and trying his hardest to ignore the sharp prickles. With a grunt, he lifted them up and let Honey Pelt back out.
Honey Pelt let out a small whimper as he collapsed onto his haunches. Skystar huffed a laugh and licked his own pricked pad, dragging it over the ruffled parts of Honey Pelt's fur. Satisfied, Skystar tapped his nose to the kit's forehead.
The kit's eyes lit up again, so Skystar once again lifted the leaves to allow Honey Pelt to scamber inside. He quickly did, and sat, wide-eyed. Skystar quickly followed, ignoring the leaves that pricked his skin.
Under the bush, there were birds. They were dappled in a light, cold, cloudy sunlight from holes between the sharp leaves. Skystar made a note that they'd better get those patched up soon, prey didn't last long in sunlight. Then again, that was a good sign that no thunderstorm would wreak havoc that night.
Anyway, there were more pieces of prey than Skystar thought there would be, higher than he could count, but less than the number of SkyClan cats. He sat down and let Honey Pelt point at a bird, ignoring his growling stomach.
The first bird Honey Pelt pointed at had brown feathers and a bright red chest.
"That's a robin," Skystar informed.
"What do they taste like?" Honey Pelt asked.
Skystar tilted his head and thought. It'd been a while since he'd eaten a robin, much less had he ever thought about how to describe one. After several moments of gathering his thoughts, the leader spoke.
"You know the scent of new-leaf? When all the flowers are in bloom and the scent of honeysuckles and dogwood blossoms blow into the moor?"
Honey Pelt nodded happily at the thought. Skystar gave one solid nod to confirm. The young tom then pushed that bird away and brought forward a fat gray bird, some feathers darker than others.
"That's a pigeon," Skystar informed, and knew exactly how to describe it's taste. "You know the taste you get, after a long day of playing, when you rest in your den and you lick your pads, and they taste like sweat and dirt? That's what pigeons taste like, and I don't like them very much, but Acorn Fur does."
He quickly added on the Acorn Fur bit, not wanting his opinion to influence the tom too much. Honey Pelt then brought forth a brown-feathered bird, and a skinny one at that.
"I know this one," Honey Pelt informed proudly, "It's a sparrow! I saw them picking at the moor! I think I ate one, once."
"Oh?" Skystar asked, voicing more intrigue into his voice, "How do they taste?"
"...kinda like a flower petal."
Skystar couldn't help himself laughing. "Why have you eaten flower petals?" he managed through rumphs.
"Because Blue Whisker dared me to! You can't just not do a dare!"
"Did Moth Flight get mad at you?"
Honey Pelt stared at him through the tops of his eyes, the green in them dark and serious. "Moth Flight doesn't need to find out."
Skystar laughed even harder, and the two continued on. Honey Pelt also knew what a pheasant was, and Skystar was very proud of him. Finally, Honey Pelt pulled out a blue bird with a white underbelly and black wings. Its face was orange. His eyes shone a moment.
"It's so pretty," he whispered.
Skystar smiled and licked his lips hungrily. "Yes," he said, "That's called a swallow. They taste like honeysuckles."
Honey Pelt stuck his tongue out and scrunched his face. "But honeysuckles are so sour!"
Skystar was genuinely taken aback. This kit… this kit who lived on the moor for his first four moons… this kit who had eaten flower petals… hadn't properly eaten a honeysuckle.
"Oh my stars," Skystar whispered, "You know what, Honey Pelt, you're old enough to start training to become a hunter. The first thing I'm teaching you is how to eat a honeysuckle."
Honey Pelt's eyes lit up- though Skystar suspected that was more at the thought of battle training rather than eating sweet flowers.
"But," Skystar mewed, "You can't train on an empty stomach. Pick the bird you'd like to try, and I'll show you how to eat it properly."
Honey Pelt gave one big nod and turned around to dig through the pile of fresh-kill. He pulled out the robin by it's head.
"Oh, no, no," Skystar said, making Honey Pelt freeze, "By the wing or leg, your mouth is still too small to carry it by the breast."
Honey Pelt's eyes lit with the flame of defiance as he set down the robin, opened his mouth all the way, and dug his teeth into either side. His face quickly shifted to a strain, but Skystar didn't tell him otherwise. Sometimes, cats had to learn for themselves.
Skystar lifted the leaves again and let the tom out. To his credit, Honey Pelt didn't put the robin down until the middle of the Highbranch. He leaned against the low-hanging branch, his shoulders rising and falling as he panted. Skystar smiled and suppressed a laugh before laying down beside him.
"What did I tell you?"
Honey Pelt let out an unhappy grunt but didn't speak. He laid down and curled his paws under himself. Skystar took that as an invitation to start teaching him.
"First we crush it's skull," Skystar informed, "So we can send its spirit off and it won't have to see what it's body's going to."
Honey Pelt nodded and put one paw on top of the other before placing the both on the prey's head. A satisfying crack came from under. Skystar let out a happy purr.
"Now," he mewed, demonstrating, "We start to pick off feathers from the breast."
Honey Pelt started on that task while Skystar supervised. He suddenly heard a shuffling from behind them and turned back toward the bramble tunnel. He turned around to see Blossom, Quick Water and Nettle coming through the it, pelts spotted with white. The leader stared on, confused, but none of the cats seemed to do anything about it.
"...did you get caught in a snowstorm?" he mewed, standing up and stepped toward them.
"No," replied Nettle, licking his paw. Only when the white clump fell did Skystar realize they were feathers.
"We went over to WindClan," Blossom went on, "You know, just to make sure everything was alright."
"Oh," mewed Skystar, "Did Windstar chase you out?"
Blossom snorted, "Bold of you to assume Windstar knows!"
Skystar let out a huff of laughter. His gaze caught on dark blue-gray movement, and he turned to look at Quick Water, who was shaking her paws.
"Damn sheep," she murmured, "And I thought water was bad." She grumbled and picked a few feathers from her pelt, snaking her head around to nip. "We wanted to tell the 'rents of Micah's death."
Skystar felt his heart sink a bit at the reminder. He then felt it sink even more as he realized the former medicine cat's parents hadn't known. ...and his heart sunk further as his idiot brain put himself and Quiet Rain in those positions. He sighed and flattened his ears momentarily before perking them back up.
"What're all the feathers for?" he asked.
"We, uh," Nettle admitted, "Might've been attacked by chickens."
"Spiteful pheasants," Quick Water explained, "Idiot balls of fluffy fury."
"Oh, so you," Skystar joked. Quick Water rolled her eyes and kept picking.
"I thought they might make good nest warmers," Blossom said, "Leaf-bare will be here soon, you know."
Skystar hummed thoughtfully. Before he could say anything else, Quick Water spoke.
"Riverstar wants to hold a meeting at Fourtrees," she mewed, "What for, you ask, as if we have any clue."
It was Skystar's turn to roll his eyes and smile. He then looked back to Honey Pelt, who had a pile of feathers stacked beside him and was picking morsels off a rib bone.
"Get to it then," he ordered, padding back to the kit. Honey Pelt looked up at him. "Let's start your training, little one."
Honey Pelt was a very quick learner. He had done rather well for his first day of training, managing to catch one fat thrush, and, by extension, a full nest of eggs. Skystar had scolded his apprentice at first for killing a mother. If they killed nesting birds, soon enough, no eggs would hatch and no more birds would fly in the forest. Honey Pelt had angrily replied that he didn't know, so Skystar let it go at that.
Honey Pelt had the nest balanced between his shoulders as he brought his catches back to camp. SkyClan ate rather well that night. Eggs were rather filling, Thorn explained. Skystar couldn't bring himself to taste one. He'd lost so many children. At least they're dead with their mother.
Sparrow Fur licked yellow residue from her jaws and padded up to Skystar.
"Are you really going to meet Riverstar at Fourtrees tonight?" she asked.
"Of course," Skystar answered. Suddenly, he remembered how he wanted to make Sparrow Fur deputy and that he'd never properly asked her. "Would you like to come with?"
Her eyes shone a moment, then quickly faded. "I don't want the other clans to think you're trying to launch an attack."
Skystar understood her concern. She was too young to fight during the Great Battle, but Skystar wasn't surprised in the slightest that she had heard of it. He let out a small purr as he finally thought of a response.
"You'd never fight willingly and I couldn't take on the rest of the leaders at once."
"You sure tried before."
Skystar sighed, "With every cat in the forest behind me. We'll be alright, the other leaders have accused me of worse."
Worse, Skystar repeated to himself, You did kill Misty and Rainswept Flower. Why wouldn't they believe you killed Bumble.
"...okay," Sparrow Fur eventually conceded, giving one more tongue swipe around her whiskers. "Why me, though? Why not Star Flower?"
Skystar licked his pad and swiped it over his ear as a sudden itch came up. "Well," he managed to start, "The other clans, currently, have second-in-command cats to help lead. I want you to be mine."
Sparrow Fur froze, her eyes going wide. Suddenly, they sparkled and she beamed. "Me? R-really?"
She turned down to her paws, sitting in front of her leader. "I can't believe it," she whispered, "But…" she looked back up to Skystar, "Why me? Why not Thorn, or Quick Water, or Star Flower, or-"
Skystar shifted forward and pressed his nose to Sparrow Fur's, making her stop for the moment.
"You are the strongest cat in SkyClan," he explained, "One of the best hunters, and a friend of everyone here. Cats adore you, Sparrow Fur, more than you realize."
Sparrow Fur sighed. "You think?"
Skystar nodded and stepped back, "I'll give you the night to think about it. But I'd still like you to come with me to the meeting."
Sparrow Fur pricked her ears and sat up, eyes alight with determination. "I'll come with you."
Skystar smiled graciously. "We'd best be off then." Sparrow Fur nodded and Skystar stood, turning toward the bramble tunnel. Sparrow Fur let out a huff of laughter.
"Imagine a Starstar…" she whispered, half to herself.
Skystar let out a mrrup and lowered his voice, "Or a Flowerstar."
"Yeah," Sparrow Fur responded, "But what if Flower Foot becomes her deputy?"
The two were laughing all the way out of their border.
"Skystar!" exclaimed a voice as the tom pushed out of their border. Skystar jumped and frantically looked around, nervous. Sparrow Fur stood up a bit higher and rose above her leader.
It wasn't long until a large, ginger-and-white tom appeared from the undergrowth. A black tom was beside him. Skystar slouched again.
"Oh. Hello, Thunderstar."
Thunderstar nodded in greeting, "I didn't scare you, did I?"
"Nooo," Skystar lied.
"I didn't think you'd come," Thunderstar went on, "You know, I would've thought Fourtrees was traumatic for you."
Skystar shrugged and continued walking on, his paws crunching over the dead ginger leaves that littered the ground. He would've stepped on lone grass patches, but every tree had lost it's leaves and the forest floor no longer showed grass. At this point, he could only hope he didn't get ants in his pads.
"I would've thought it'd be worse for you, Lightning Tail," Sparrow Fur said, "Your mother died in the Great Battle."
Lightning Tail's yellow eyes suddenly lit with complete fury, but he didn't speak. Sparrow Fur knew she hit a nerve and she guiltily turned away from the tom. Thunderstar hopped up and padded beside his father. If they spoke, neither of the deputies heard.
The four walked in hushed whispers for a long time after that, but the deputies remained completely silent. Sparrow Fur's paws itched with sharp edges and leaf shreds, and she quietly wondered if Fourtrees had gotten further. Eventually, Lightning Tail spoke.
His voice was gruff and quiet, clearly still reeling from the reminder of Hawk Swoop and Jackdaw's Cry's deaths. "How's Acorn Fur?" He asked, looking up at Sparrow Fur from the corner of his eye.
"She's fine," Sparrow Fur quietly answered.
"Good, good," Lightning Tail went on, "Cloud Spots told us that Moth Flight made all medicine cats swear they wouldn't have kits. I thought she and Red Claw were pinned."
Sparrow Fur blinked. Pinned? Acorn Fur and Red Claw? She huffed, disbelieving.
Eventually they made it to the edge of the hill that Fourtrees sat on. Sparrow Fur parted her jaws to check for the other clan's scents, but the breeze was against them. Peering up, she could already see Windstar, Riverstar and Shadowstar in front of the Great Rock and a wave of anxiety crashed over her.
Skystar padded up the small slope, Sparrow Fur close behind him. For the first time on the walk, Skystar was standing up straight with his ears pricked. As they reached the peak, Windstar rolled her eyes and scoffed. Gorse Fur, who sat beside her, scuffled his paws uncomfortably.
"About time," she said quietly. Shadowstar and Sun Shadow didn't say anything. Night turned a cold gaze to the WindClan leader. Riverstar, unsurprisingly, was disinterested in the two's dispute. Skystar didn't respond, though his blue eyes were dark in anger as the two cats stared eachother down.
"...sorry we're late," Thunderstar said to Riverstar, "What is this meeting about?"
"I had a thought," he started calmly. "Several, actually."
"Shoot," said Shadowstar, encouragingly.
Riverstar nodded at her, "I quite like you mountain cat's names," he explained, "I like the idea of keeping your system."
"We have kept our system," Skystar responded, managing to tear his gaze from the opposite leader.
"Yes," Riverstar admitted, "But some cats do not have two-word names. Nor do you have anything to relegate a cat's age."
Skystar, Shadowstar and Sun Shadow stared down the silvery cat hard, confusion alight in all their eyes.
"Back in The Park," Riverstar went on, "We had an age system. When we were born, our mother gave us a letter. When we were old enough to hunt, we gave ourselves full names."
The former mountain cats looked the most uncertain. Then Shadowstar pricked her ears higher.
"Moon Shadow and I were called the Shadow Kits before our parents decided our prefixes," she announced, "Perhaps we could start naming our young cats, say, Shadowkit?"
Skystar nodded and hummed thoughtfully, "But I can't imagine any full-grown cat with the name kit would be too happy with their name. When should they get their full? Once they start training?" He directed his last sentence toward Riverstar.
Riverstar nonchalauntly curled his tail over his paws, "Which brings me to my second thought. Why do you let your entire clans train your young?"
This time Thunderstar was the one to answer, "No one cat can know everything."
"Perhaps that's because, when you're trained by everyone, information slips through the cracks."
But Thunderstar looked uncertain. "Surely several apprentices are too much to put on one cat?"
"You have multiple hunters, don't you?" Riverstar asked. Although his voice was still calm and uncaring, it sent a shiver up Sparrow Fur's spine and a laugh choke in her throat.
Thunderstar looked taken aback. "I-I suppose so."
"Then why wouldn't you give one kit to one hunter?"
Thunderstar flattened his ears and turned to Lightning Tail, seemingly embarrassed. Skystar smirked and cleared his throat to prevent a laugh.
"Wait, wait, wait," Windstar mewed, "How does our clan training our young relate to our names? I don't care much for your park, Riverstar, but I know enough that a park is just a Twoleg forest. Are you trying to turn us into kittypets?"
Riverstar turned calm blue eyes to the taller leader, "We weren't owned by Twolegs, Windstar, we were loners. If memory serves me right, weren't you one as well?"
Windstar's eyes lit up in an angry fire, but Gorse Fur put his paw atop her's to stop his mate from doing anything.
"But what do you bring up our mentoring for?" The WindClan deputy asked.
"When young cats start training," Riverstar mewed, closing his eyes and bringing a paw to his mouth. He licked a toe and dragged it over his ear as if he was sunning instead of making clan-wide decisions. "Their paws are on the path to growing up and serving their clans. They are born Shadowkit, what if they become Shadowpaw? Then, once they finish training they earn their full name, say, Shadowfur."
Shadowstar nodded proudly, "I like it. We aren't the Clowder anymore, we don't have to stick to their naming techniques."
"Do you think StarClan will give young dead cats full names?" Sun Shadow asked, his eyes dark.
"That's not something we have control over," Riverstar answered calmly.
"We can hope," Thunderstar answered. Skystar's content smile dropped and he looked at the big ginger tom from the corner of his eye. He looked as if he had something to tell his son, but didn't have the courage to.
"It's settled, then?" Night asked.
"I'm a bit confused," Lightning Tail answered, "Can we go over?"
"Yes," Night said with a nod, "Cats are born a name that ends with kit. They are apprenticed to a singular cat and earn the name that ends with paw. Once they finish training, they earn a full Clowder name."
Lightning Tail nodded understandingly, and Windstar spoke next.
"We have a queen with kits old enough to start training," she mewed, "Do I change their names?"
"No," Riverstar answered before Night could, "They are very special. They are the last of a generation."
Windstar nodded and the rest of the cats glanced around eachother. Eventually, Riverstar stood.
"Thank you all for attending. This meeting is over."
He and his deputy looped around the Great Rock and padded down, leaves crunching quieter and quieter until only the cicada and katydid calls remained. Windstar and Gorse Fur were next to leave, dashing down the hill and up more as WindClan cats did.
"We have several expecting queens," Thunderstar informed, "I hope they take to this well."
"I do, too," Shadowstar agreed, then turned to Skystar expectantly. "What about your clan, Skystar?"
Thunderstar huffed a light laugh and smiled, "Yeah, Skystar, will your and Star Flower's next litter be following this system?"
Skystar rolled his eyes and smiled, "We won't, only because we aren't having more kits," he then stood up, "Pleasure speaking tonight. See you when the next time comes. Come on, Sparrow Fur."
The other cats murmured their goodbyes as the SkyClan cats padded down the hill. Once they were both out of earshot, Sparrow Fur spoke.
"I'm worried, Skystar."
"This new name thing."
"Oh, don't be," Skystar encouraged softly, "We'll adjust, just like we adjusted coming here."
Sparrow Fur let out a mrrow of laughter. "No. I'm not worried about adjusting."
"I'm worried we won't be able to use it for a very long time."
Leaf-bare made itself very apparent the next morning. A chill filled the air and the hollow of the SkyClan camp was several kittensteps deep with snow.
The snow brought one other thing: Skystar could no longer complain about ants in the leaf-fall leaves, but Quick Water could complain of damp paws. Which is just what she was doing.
"Awful season. Terrible," she mewed.
"Hey, Quick Water!" Thorn called, still on their back with their eyes still closed, "Which would you rather be, water-wet or snow-wet?"
"Neither, thank you very much!"
Blossom let out a lovely purr of laughter. "I'd rather be water-wet," she announced, "Snow makes you wet and cold."
"I've always liked a nice dry snow," Alder announced with a sniff.
"You can't build snowcats with dry snow!" Shot her brother, Birch.
"You've never built a good snowcat!" Alder shot back.
"I've never built a snowcat," Red Claw announced, shamefully.
Birch turned wide green eyes to him. "I'll show you how to build a snowcat."
"You don't have to do that," Red Claw said with a laugh. But Birch had already stood and was padding from the holly bush den. He didn't make it out of the camp, and soon froze as Skystar stepped up to the Highbranch.
"Let all cats old enough to catch their own prey gather here beside the Highbranch for a clan meeting!" he called.
Birch sat down. Red Claw and Alder, laughing, soon joined him. Blossom came out followed by Nettle. Thorn came out stretching, but not before a bramble tendril got caught under one of their ear cuts. Sparrow Fur was the last to come out. Rather than joining the crowd a tail-length from the Highbranch, she stood on the ground opposite of Skystar's den.
Dew Petal first came out of the apprentice ferns. She, her sister and Honey Pelt had started sleeping there rather than under the stump as Honey Pelt had a growth spurt. Flower Foot hopped atop the stump a tail-length from the entrance. Dew Petal joined her side, Honey Pelt pressed into her pelt.
Acorn Fur came from her den, nodding at the young cats before sitting beside Sparrow Fur. Star Flower laid on one of the roots in the thorn tree. Eventually, only Quick Water remained in a den. Skystar turned his tired blue eyes toward her.
"Well?" he asked, "Are you joining us?"
Quick Water rolled her eyes and stepped out, making a big show of taking high steps and standing for the meeting. Skystar laughed before going on.
"I'm happy to announce some well-needed changes," he leader announced, "I have finally decided my deputy. I'm pleased to announce that Sparrow Fur will be the new deputy of SkyClan."
Sparrow Fur lifted her head high, embarrassed, as Acorn Fur started a cry of her name. Skystar purred proudly as his clan took up the cry.
"Now," he went on, "I'm very happy to announce that SkyClan will be gaining two new hunters today." He turned to his daughters, their eyes big and sparkling. "Dew Petal and Flower Foot, you have completed your training. You are now hunters of SkyClan."
The two squealed as their names were called. Skystar stepped off his branch and, flanked by Star Flower, padded over to their children. They ran their heads across eachother affectionately. Birch and Alder watched on proudly. Alder sniffed loudly as Sparrow Fur padded over.
The deputy swept her tail through the frosty air, "You all know what to do. I want you to hunt for now, but don't overhunt. I'm hoping the snow came so suddenly birds might still be around. One piece of prey each."
Quick Water nodded and started to turn back to the hunter's den. Inwardly, Red Claw was confused as to how she would give up food in favor of dry feet.
"Not you, Quick Water," Sparrow Fur announced, "I want you and Thorn to patrol the RiverClan border."
Quick Water sighed and turned to the tall brown cat. Thorn kept their same malicious smile. Before either could say anything, Alder spoke.
"Can Birch catch two?" she asked, voice more stuffed up now that she was properly awake, "I don't think I can catch my own just yet."
"Yes, of course," Sparrow Fur responded quickly, "Get well soon."
Alder nodded and smiled, padding toward Acorn Fur's den. The chestnut she-cat had already returned.
Alder had been sick since the forest was plagued with the Blazing Star sickness. She never quite got it out of her lungs; Birch had always suspected it was the sadness of losing their mother, Petal, that made it stay. It got much worse in leaf-bare, so bad to the point she was nearly debilitated for two moons. The she-cat didn't mind, she spend those two moons gathering moss and herbs. At first it worried Acorn Fur, but it quickly became apparent she was not contagious.
Birch turned to Red Claw. "Let's go!"
"We can hunt after snowcat, c'mon!"
The ginger tom rushed out of the bramble tunnel, Red Claw on his heels. Soon enough, it became a race. Red Claw pulled ahead of Birch quickly, but very soon realized he had no idea where he was going.
Red Claw turned a hard right, making Birch stumble. It didn't stop the tom for very long, and Red Claw could quickly feel his warm breath on his freezing hackles. Eventually, Red Claw spotted a thorn tree with a good amount of snow around. He stared at that and smirked, cutting off Birch once more and leaping nearer.
Red Claw touched first, skidding to a halt on his heels. He gulped as he stopped, one spine was merely a kittenstep to his nose and another was brushing the fur on his chest. Birch didn't notice the spines until he had scraped his nose against one. The tom let out a yowl and stepped back, bending his head and letting red drip into the snow.
"Oh, stars!" Red Claw exclaimed, "A-are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Birch answered, his voice strained. Still looking down with his eyes closed, he motioned one paw toward a patch of snow. Red Claw got the message and bundled the snow into his paws before pressing it to Birch's nose. Birch took it and parted his jaws to keep breathing.
"...I'm sorry," Red Claw said, softly.
"It's fine," Birch said with a small laugh, "I do think all those cut-offs were illegal, though."
Red Claw let out his own strained laugh and sat, waiting, until Birch let the now-pink snow fall from his nose.
"If I'm still bleeding," he said, "I can't feel it."
"Let me see."
Birch did, staring Red Claw down. Red Claw felt a bit intimidated- and so strangely interested- but, aside from a dried red line, the blood was gone. He nodded and Birch turned away, burning those intense green beams into something non-living. He took a few steps forward and swept his tail for Red Claw to follow.
He pushed two heaps of snow together and instructed Red Claw to do the same. He was then told to roll a ball, so Red Claw did. The snow wasn't keeping together too well, and Birch didn't look very happy. Red Claw hoped it was because of the state of snow and not his rolling abilities.
Eventually, Red Claw rolled his ball into Birch's lump. With the other tom's help, they lifted the ball on top. Red Claw wasn't much help, really, his pads had frosted over and his toes tingled as his and Birch's own brushed together.
Red Claw couldn't understand why his heart was beating so fast. Birch stuck the ball onto the mound and stepped back proudly.
Red Claw stepped back beside him, not really seeing it. "...snowcat," he agreed at last.
Something like this, of such little value other than happiness, would never be allowed with Slash. Perhaps that's why Red Claw didn't quite understand. Birch nodded to himself and stepped back. In a rather bold move on his part, he jumped up into the thorn tree and climbed toward the nearest branch.
Red Claw lowered one ear and pricked the other, tilting his head as he watched. "...what are you doing."
"I heard a robin!"
Red Claw rolled his eyes. Whirlybirds! All feathers and no meat.
He turned away, stepping toward another tree. He scuffled around the roots for a minute, until his paw slipped down into something. Red Claw jumped, startled, and pulled back. A hole. He tried to sniff around, but he couldn't make out any scent above the snow.
Birch would be able to. Birch was so wonderful. How he learned to scent over water Red Claw didn't know, but it amazed him nonetheless.
Red Claw dug the snow away and peered into the hole. He couldn't see very well, but he could make out a strange, pink shape. He reached forward, claws unsheathed. The creature let out a squeal and shot up, running into Red Claw. The tom was startled, and, not knowing what else to do, he dropped his paws atop the creature's neck.
A snap came out and it stopped moving. Red Claw felt his heart sink. Of course, at that moment, Birch padded over with the robin in his jaws.
"Catch something?" he asked, then set his prey down to speak, seeing Red Claw's catch. "A mole! I thought they only lived in WindClan territory."
Yes, Red Claw thought, but it was caught in such bad taste.
"Now to catch something for Alder," Birch said, half to himself.
"It's fine," Red Claw mewed quickly, scooting the mole toward him, "She can have this. I can eat tomorrow."
Birch's eyes clouded in confusion, but he didn't object. Red Claw quickly picked up the robin and started to pad back over their pawsteps. Not only was his mole caught in such bad faith, it looked disgusting. Birch didn't say anything, but Red Claw could feel those confused green beams on the back of his neck. He felt like his pelt was stuffed with embers.
Red Claw hid in the hunter's den the second he and Birch returned home. He curled up in his feathery nest, pressing his paws to his face occasionally. His feet smelt like dirt, but he didn't have the energy to clean them.
"Are you alright?" came a soft voice, a blackness suddenly covering the entrance.
Red Claw looked up from the tops of his eyes and followed the big gray tom as he took the nest beside him. Red Claw raised his head and sniffed, nodding. "I'm fine."
Nettle hummed and dragged out a pinecone from his nest, rolling it over in his paws and pulling out moss and feather bits that got attached. "You don't seem fine."
Red Claw didn't respond, instead looking away and letting the tom perform his weird little ritual. Nettle then prodded his shoulder, making Red Claw look back at him. Nettle was glancing between his clanmate and his catch, a water shrew. Red Claw didn't understand what he was getting at, and Nettle quickly got his confusion.
"It's leaf-bare," he informed, "It's the most important time of year to keep our strength up. Share with me."
Red Claw would've denied his offer, but his stomach growled before he got the chance. Nettle chuckled, and Red Claw didn't have a choice but to eat, but that didn't mean he was very happy about it.
"We need to talk."
Those weren't the words Red Claw wanted to hear.
"Yes, we do," he replied.
Acorn Fur flicked her tail and led Red Claw back into her herb store. A moon had passed, and the clans were now in the thick of leaf-bare. Clouds had been covering the sky for weeks, and Red Claw couldn't remember the last time he'd seen the sun.
Acorn Fur's herb store was a huge hole. On one side were several rocky shelves and rock-lined holes where leaves were kept. Usually, anyway, when leaf-bare came it was nearly empty.
At the very top of the den was another big hole, covered with woven leaves, grasses, branches and bushes. Usually sunlight lightly dappled through and lit up the den, but this was a cloudy leaf-bare and the den was dark, cold and blue. It truly wasn't anything like the front of the den, which was one big rock-lined structure. A single nest sat there and so did several holes where Acorn Fur's most important leaves were.
But the sun den was much more beautiful. And where many more memories Red Claw and Acorn Fur had took place. Once Red Claw got a thorn stuck in his nose and Acorn Fur had invited him back. Once it was out, Acorn Fur started talking herbs to him.
Acorn Fur sighed. "The last time the other medicine cats and I met at the Moonstone, Moth Flight made us swear to never have kits.
Hypocrite was the first word Red Claw's mind jumped to. He stood and touched his nose to her ear.
"I don't like kits," Red Claw admitted, "I didn't know you wanted any. We don't have to have kits, Acorn Fur, not if your position doesn't let you."
"That's not all," the medicine cat went on, her voice shaking. "We can't have mates, either."
Red Claw shrunk back. "...oh."
Acorn Fur scuffled her paws and neither cat spoke for a very long time. Red Claw didn't know what to put his eyes on and neither did Acorn Fur.
"...so this is the end of us, then?" Red Claw eventually asked, his voice very quiet. Acorn Fur made one solid nod, still not looking up at him. The tom stood and pressed his nose lovingly to her cheek. She looked up at him as he spoke again, "I'll always be your friend, Acorn Fur. My nest is always open and I'm still here if your code ever changes."
Acorn Fur sniffed and nodded slightly. Before Red Claw could take too many steps away, the she-cat leaned forward and pressed their cheeks together one last time. Red Claw didn't try to stop her.
Leaf-bare ended, and so did new-leaf, but Acorn Fur's code never changed. Honey Pelt had grown into a fine young hunter and Dew Petal had grown into her fur. Though her chest was still large and plumey.
Nothing much had changed in SkyClan. No kits had been born, and only one cat had died. Skystar had lost his first life giving up his prey to Star Flower when she got very sick.
"I have lives to spare," he said on his deathbed. "She doesn't."
But, the most noticeable difference was that the hunters had changed dens. The former den was too small for the three new cats that joined, so they moved to the one between the hunter's former and the apprentice's former.
Nettle had lost his pinecone momentarily in the switch. The gray tom let out an ear-splitting screech. Acorn Fur and Skystar immediately rushed to the den entrance, leaves in Acorn Fur's jaws. The dirt ground was empty, and no blood splattered the ground to earn such a sound. Nettle was scuffling around where is nest used to be, his amber eyes wide and tail flailing wildly.
Skystar stepped forward and stood beside the tom. "What's the matter?"
"My pinecone!" he exclaimed just as loudly, "I-it's for Fircone-! I have to find it!"
"Calm down, calm down," Skystar soothed, "We'll find it."
Honey Pelt hopped into the den and, along with the other two toms, started sifting his claws through the dirt and destroying the walls to look behind.
"Found it!" Honey Pelt eventually exclaimed, pulling a small, thin, reddish-brown pinecone from behind the shared nursery wall. Nettle rushed over and ran his paws over the object. Eventually his eyes softened and he purred.
"Yes… thank you."
Skystar padded over, "If I may ask, why do you want that pinecone?"
Nettle's voice was soft as he explained, "It's for Fircone. It's been hard since the Great Battle… I just miss him so much."
Acorn Fur padded into the den, her leaves switched out for the little purple flowers of thyme. As she passed her leader, she felt waves of anxiety and guilt overcome her. She quickly placed the thyme at Nettle's paws and rushed out, panting. Red Claw made the first steps to comfort her, but Acorn Fur shook her head and he didn't move forward. He did, however, look on guiltily as Sparrow Fur licked Acorn Fur's face comfortingly.
But, just because Acorn Fur had been denied a lovelife, didn't mean the rest of SkyClan had been. In fact, Dew Petal was getting herself rather cozy with a certain white-and-black striped tom.
She returned home one day at sunset without a catch. She immediately padded over to Flower Foot, who was drawing future battle plans in the dirt.
"Talk," she mewed, "Now."
Flower Foot blinked, surprised, but stood and followed her without a word. Dew Petal led her deep into the territory on ThunderClan's side. The silver she-cat eventually stopped at a big birch and climbed up into a high branch, her sister on her tail. Flower Foot swiftly hopped over her sister and settled further along the branch while Dew Petal kept to the trunk. The she-cat stared down at the ground, eyes cloudy and lost.
"So?" asked Flower Foot.
Dew Petal sighed. "Do you remember Sterling? That kittypet we met last leaf-fall?"
"Well," Dew Petal went on, her voice quiet and shaking, "I've been meeting up with him, both in his garden and that strip of land between the forest and Twolegplace. It's nice. I've been in his den and he has these big soft boulders he takes naps on, they're really comfy… He has this dog who looks a bit like a cat and she's actually very nice. His food is really good, too, it feels a bit like dirt but it tastes wonderful."
Flower Foot stared, mortified, as her sister spoke. Once she paused, she spoke herself. "Please don't tell me you're becoming a kittypet, Dew Petal!"
Dew Petal blinked and shook her head, "Oh, no no! I was getting ahead of myself…"
Flower Foot heaved a sigh of relief, but horror quickly rose in her again as Dew Petal kept talking.
"I think I'm expecting kits," she said, quietly, "Sterling's."
"Shh! I don't need the whole forest knowing!"
"What do you MEAN you're expecting a kittypet's kits!"
Dew Petal smacked her paw to Flower Foot's tan cheek. Flower Foot gulped and stared, wide-eyed at her.
"I don't know if I am," Dew Petal breathed, "But I don't know how to bring it up with mom or dad or Acorn Fur to check! I was feeling really sick one morning and I told Sterling, this kittypet named Cider overheard and told me later that she felt like that too when she was expecting her first litter."
Flower Foot sighed, "Well, that's not very good…"
Dew Petal sighed herself and shook her head, "It's not."
The two sat in silence for a very long time, neither knowing what to look at. Eventually, a magpie fluttered under the tree they sat in and started pecking the ground. An idea struck Flower Foot and she leapt down, landing squarely on it's back. A snap! came from under her. Dew Petal stared down, rather confused.
Flower Foot bared her teeth in a smile, nodded to herself and looked up to her sister. Dew Petal got the message and quickly climbed down, hopping to meet her once a tail-length from the ground.
"Hm?" sounded the silver she-cat.
"I had an idea," Flower Foot explained, perking up.
"We'll run this through the mud, you can eat it, then once we come home and you feel bad, Acorn Fur can check if there are any kits in you!"
"...are you sure that'll work?"
"We'll never know unless we try."
So, magpie in Flower Foot's jaws, the sisters headed toward the riverside to carry out her very dumb plan. It had been rather stormy since leaf-bare, but they could throw the evidence of this plan into the river. The tan she-cat crushed the magpies skull and, together, they started to pick off the feathers. Once a big enough piece of the breast was made bare, Flower Foot took a claw and cut out a small section.
Still hooked into her claws, she lightly grazed it over a nearby puddle. Dew Petal felt her stomach twist just watching, but the anxiety of possibly carrying kits was far greater. Leaning down, she took one tiny bite. Dew Petal shoved her claws deep into the marshy ground and kinked her tail over her back as she forced herself to chew. She nearly couldn't swallow, but eventually forced herself. She shot closer to the river's edge and took several laps.
"Here," Flower Foot offered, shoving the bird closer, "Get the taste out of your mouth."
Dew Petal shook her head and sat up, "I think I've lost my appetite for a lifetime," she sighed heavily, "If this doesn't work, I'm making you eat the same."
Flower Foot let out a bit of laughter. "And if it does?"
"...I'll still make you eat it."
Flower Foot laughed again and took her own bite of the magpie, then shoved it's corpse and feathers into the river. After it sunk out of the she-cat's sight, they turned back home. Dew Petal, sick immediately, leaned against her sister all the way back.
When Quick Water and Nettle reported that they'd found ThunderClan scent on their side of the oak stump clearing, SkyClan was a bit concerned to say the least.
"We had such a hard leaf-bare!" Alder complained.
"Even harder now ThunderClan stole half our territory," Red Claw added.
"What'll we do?" Blossom fretted.
"We'll have to mark it back," Thorn concluded.
"I'm sure they won't give it back willingly," Quick Water retorted.
Red Claw sighed and murmured, "It's rightfully our's."
"But ThunderClan won't just give it back," Birch pondered, "Not after they've stolen it."
"And it's not a few pawsteps either," Nettle added, "It's a few tail-lengths from the stump. They can't say it was a mistake."
"Figure we'd get stuck in a cycle of marking eachother's sides," Sparrow Fur guessed, "One of these days one of our sides will start a war."
Nettle shivered, his eyes going wide, "SkyClan and ThunderClan haven't fought against eachother since the Great Battle."
The cats old enough to participate in the Great Battle mumbled their agreements.
"Too pretty a day for a war," Dew Petal sighed, wistfully. She stretched out a paw to a hole of sunlight that dappled into the hunter's den. The camp and forest were so green. Bright-colored birds sang and their new litters fluttered about. It really was the thick of greenleaf. "Too warm, too."
Acorn Fur had found that Dew Petal was pregnant. She decided she was keeping it secret to everyone but Acorn Fur and Flower Foot, at least until she no longer could. Inwardly, Flower Foot wondered if she was making excuses so she wouldn't have to fight, but she also wondered why her sister would rather take a chance than admit she was pregnant.
"Seems we have to fight," Flower Foot mewed, sitting up and pulling her moss under her hind paws.
In the dirt, looser with the heat, she started drawing circles. The most experienced warriors, Quick Water and Thorn, along with the deputy, pulled in closer.
"Let's assume ThunderClan sends all their hunters in a line," she started, "ThunderClan cats are broad-shouldered and strongest as a wall, they'd be idiotic to do anything else. We have less cats. We'll do good to unsuspectingly strike from above."
"How's that?" Quick Water asked, "ThunderClan can climb trees just as well."
"Perhaps we can hop through the trees like squirrels?" Flower Foot suggested, "ThunderClan won't expect us if they never see us climb."
"Fair," Sparrow Fur said before Quick Water could say anything else, "Moves?"
Flower Foot hummed and rubbed out her drawing before restarting, "I'm thinking we can start with one big fall, like a storm. We crash down onto everyone and then spring back up. After we come back up, we can hang by our legs and start at their faces. The branches there are rather low."
"Will you show us your plan, Flower Foot?" asked Thorn, pricking their ears. The rest of the clan, watching on with pricked ears and intense eyes, whispered their pleases.
"Yes," Flower Foot answered, "Of course. Everyone?" She asked, casting a nervous glance at Sparrow Fur.
"Sure," Sparrow Fur mewed, "I'll go to ThunderClan after training. Sunhigh, tomorrow, the oak stump clearing."
Everyone gradually let out a battle cry of agreement.
Skystar was taking his daily nap, but Star Flower spotted her hunters heading out.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"We're going to practise battle moves!" Thorn cried out.
"Want to join?" asked Birch, not as loudly.
"What for?" asked the golden she-cat.
The hunters quieted to let the deputy explain, "ThunderClan took a chunk of our territory," Sparrow Fur said, "We must defend it with our claws."
Star Flower blinked and curled her tail over her paws perfectly as she always did when she sat. "I'd better not. The lot of you will have wounds. I'll help Acorn Fur stock herbs."
A few seconds later as everyone but Sparrow Fur left, the queen said one last thing.
"Don't kill anyone."
Sparrow Fur and Flower Foot led SkyClan to a stumpy elm tree with low-hanging branches, much like the ones on the oak stump clearing. It sat on a low hill, but was sunnier and it's branches were easier to see into than others. SkyClan's forest didn't have very tightly-packed branches, but Sparrow Fur would rather make sure everyone understood for real than pray they did. Flower Foot quickly hopped up the tree.
"Can I practise on you, Blossom?" the tan she-cat asked, "You look most like a ThunderClan cat."
"Dig, I'll get beaten up for the greater good," the calico responded, padding to stand under the younger cat.
Flower Foot nodded and, hooking her hind paws into the branch, she let the front of her body hang down. Honey Pelt and Nettle let out two gasps and Alder lost her footing, merely dizzy at the thought of hanging upside-down.
Kicking but not letting go, Flower Foot propelled herself forward, smacking Blossom in the face and dragging her paws over her ears. With a strain, she pulled back up. Now knowing where to land, Flower Foot gave one hop sideways and reattached. She half-hopped off the branch that time, bringing her paws down hard on the top of Blossom's head while an involuntary yowl escaped her mouth. The calico stumbled and her chin hit the ground with a thump.
Several heartbeats passed before she finally stood back up, paws shaky and dazed. "Far out…" she whispered after a heavy gulp.
"I don't know if I can do that," Alder admitted, scuffling her paws. "I get lightheaded if I stand up too fast. I don't think I could manage hanging like that."
Flower Foot nodded and shifted, hooking her front claws into the branch this time and hanging her back legs off. Blindly she flailed them, keeping her chin to the branch, though actually landed a few good hits to Blossom's face, but never accurately enough to knock her down again. Then a cracking came and Flower Foot fell a kittenstep down. Another ripping of wood came and suddenly Flower Foot was in free-fall.
She landed roughly on her back, thoroughly winded. Blossom hopped forward and rolled the tan tabby onto her side, hitting her roughly on her back while she wheezed. Flower Foot gave one dry cough and weakly sat up.
"...okay," Sparrow Fur concluded, "We aren't doing that."
Flower Foot, temporarily side-lined, leaned against her shorter sister for support.
"Some of us have stronger front legs than hind legs," Quick Water mewed, defiantly, "I'm sure some of us can stay up like that."
Sparrow Fur didn't stop the dark she-cat as she hopped up and got into position, but didn't look too certain. Sure enough, Quick Water stayed up, even daring to hold her head under the tree and watch what she was doing. She landed several blows to Blossom's face, even once managing to shove her head upward and strike her throat.
The she-cat pulled back up while Blossom stumbled back and momentarily choked. The calico then shot back and reared up onto her hind legs. Quick Water immediately came back down, kicking Blossom right in the chest and sending her stumbling her backwards over her paws. She fell over herself a fox-length down the hill. When she finally got back to her paws she padded up to a horrified-looking Sparrow Fur.
"We'll win," she concluded, voice high and airly.
Sparrow Fur gave a single, small, tight nod. "Oh… kay," she concluded, as Quick Water hopped down. "I want those who trust their front legs over here, and those who trust their hind legs-" she pointed to another low-hanging branch on the other side of the tree with her tail. It wasn't any higher or lower than the first. "-over there," she then turned to Flower Foot and Blossom, who had joined Dew Petal's other side, "You two can sit out for the moment."
"I'll be their rock," Dew Petal concluded, "Wouldn't want a bunch of dizzy cats rolling into a competent fox's claws," she said with a light laugh. Sparrow Fur happily purred back and joined the front-leg side.
On the front-leg side, Sparrow Fur, Alder, Quick Water and Nettle congregated. Nettle looked the most nervous about falling, but Quick Water pushed and his instincts kept him up rather well. Alder kept her head atop the branch, only to keep herself grounded. She could deal good blows when cats reared.
Meanwhile, Thorn, Birch, Red Claw and Honey Pelt were on the hind-leg side. Thorn, a swimmer, was the only cat of the four who didn't sway dizzily before gaining their bearings. Honey Pelt took the longest time to adjust, but his WindClan, rabbit-chasing blood mixed with his mouser paws kept him up rather steadily.
Soon enough, Blossom regained her bearings and touched her nose to Dew Petal's before joining the front-leg side.
"You're nervous," Flower Foot whispered after the calico climbed.
"...yeah," Dew Petal sighed, "I don't want anyone to know yet, still. They'll judge me for mating with a kittypet."
Flower Foot really doubted anyone would care about her choice of mate moreso than new lives breathed into the clan, but didn't say it. But the way Dew Petal whimpered and pressed tightly into her taller sibling told Flower Foot she got the message anyhow, and didn't believe her.
"You'd better start practising, then," Flower Foot concluded.
"All my legs are strong enough," Dew Petal informed, "Which side should I be on?"
Flower Foot hummed, tapping the tip of her tail to the ground as she thought. "You should protect your stomach as much as possible. I'd say back."
"What if they aren't as strong as I thought and I fall?"
"I'll catch you," Flower Foot swore, "I'll do anything to protect your kits, Dew."