If someone had asked him what it was like to be saved from Aquatail's clutches in the nick of time, Strongheart's answer would've probably gone something like, "Uh... um... well... I don't know how I got saved even, so yeah."
It was rather lame answer for a returning battle hero, but also true. Strongheart had no idea who had rescued him, or how they had done it. At first he'd immediately thought it was one of his friends, but the shock Finchnose showed at seeing him alive clearly disproved that. Plus, he was sure that any member of the Hidden would've taken him back to the Tunnels upon saving his life.
So what other force was so great it could trick Aquatail into believing he was dead without actually killing him?
Had it been another StarClan rescue, like Finchnose's, back at the old GreenClan wood-pile headquarters? Somehow, he didn't believe so, but... what other explanation could there be?
Speaking of Finchnose, she hadn't let go of him since finding him, and it was starting to affect his circulation. Easing himself out of his little friend's grasp, he smiled down at her. "What a grand speech," he commented, meaning her tirade at Aquatail. "Do you... I mean, I know how brave you are. But are you really willing to do that? You are a medicine cat, and-"
"Strongheart, when I saw you there, and I thought you were dead, for once in my life I knew what it was like to be a warrior." The glow hadn't left Finchnose's hazel eyes, and for once her sweet personality was dwarfed by a greater spirit. "And I knew I would do any of those things for freedom. For you guys. All of you."
He nodded, understanding all of it.
With a smile, she said, "The others are going to flip out when they realize you're alive."
"Why? Am I really that good-looking, even after all this?"
A purr rumbled through her body, and she pressed against him. "Let's not get too carried away. To put it another way: friendship runs deeper than looks. We love you despite how you look."
"Too far," he joked, butting her affectionately.
And then he suddenly realized that he was in a battlefield, and cats could be dying while he acted like a little kit. "Let's get to the Tunnels."
Sensing his urgency, she nodded and began to lead the way.
Though he had intended to surprise Reedfur & Silverbreeze in some dramatic way - perhaps by just popping into their conversation or something - he didn't get the chance, because they saw him first. Two sets of green and blue eyes nearly popped out of their owner's heads, and his two best friends came streaking towards him like twin lightning bolts.
Seconds before the collision, Finchnose darted in front of him protectively. "STOP! He's hurt."
Strongheart couldn't stop grinning like a fool. "Hey guys."
"You're alive," Reedfur croaked in disbelief. Strongheart nodded to affirm this.
Not even Finchnose the medicine cat could stop the bulldozing embrace that followed. She laughed and joined in, and Strongheart found himself crushed into little pieces by his three best friends in the entire world. And he was suddenly the happiest, most pained cat in the world.
When he could finally breathe, he panted, "What's happening with the battle?"
"Well, all I heard was a bit of Finchnose's speech, but it seemed enough to sedate Aquatail." Reedfur glanced around. "Still fighting though." A shadow crossed his face. "We have to end this, guys. We can't lose-"
"No. We can't lose our friends."
Something flickered in Silverbreeze's gaze as she glanced at Reedfur; it was gone in an instant, but Strongheart noticed it, and he wasn't sure quite what to make of it.
Just then, Bramblepath and Electricswirl emerged, both with serious expressions on their faces. "Guys? We have something - actually, some cats - you'll want to see."
All four of them froze. "GreenClan?"
Bramblepath shook her head. "I don't think so. Follow me."
"Good to see you alive, Strongheart!" Fernheart called as they trotted past. Strongheart glanced at her with a smile, and he saw a warmth in her eyes that told him she really meant it. All of them did. It felt strange. Was he really a leader in their eyes? A really close friend? And could he truly live up to either title... in fact, did he even deserve them?
As she followed Electricswirl & Bramblepath towards the edge of the battlefield, half of Silverbreeze's brain was slow as molasses, still in shock. The other half was whirring like a hummingbird's wings. She had so many questions. Are Bramblepath and Electricswirl's cats the same cats that saved Strongheart? Why did they do it? Why didn't they stick around to tell us they saved him? What if they're not? What if... Oh, I'm so glad Strongheart's alive.
Upon sneaking a glance at her stoic friend, she found his warm amber gaze already on her. Both of them looked away hastily.
"You can come out," Bramblepath called into a clump of bushes. "We've brought our leaders." A thrill ran through Silverbreeze at that last word. "This will all go easier if you just step out and explain yourselves."
The bushes crackled, and out stepped two pretty she-cats, one a green-eyed tabby, and the other blue-eyed with gray fur. Both of them shifted their gazes suspiciously between the group of the Hidden cats. "What do you want from us?" snapped the gray she-cat.
"What we'd like to know is why you were lurking around in the bushes near our battleground," Electricswirl said coldly.
"Oh right, your battleground. So sorry we trespassed on your battleground." The she-cat rolled her eyes. Then her gaze fell on Strongheart, and her eyebrows lifted slightly. Silverbreeze glimpsed satisfaction in her gaze, and realized that-
Apparently deducing the same thing, only quicker, Reedfur mewed, "Hold on. You were the ones who saved Strongheart. But why? And how?"
Exchanging glances, one of the she-cats mewed, "What's it to you?"
Reedfur raised his eyebrows. "He's our best friend."
With a sigh, the green-eyed she-cat mewed, "Allow us to introduce ourselves. I'm Amberflower, and this is Stormflower. We're sisters."
"That still doesn't explain what you're doing here," Silverbreeze felt compelled to point out.
Stormflower didn't seem amused. "We're from-"
"Stormflower? Amberflower?" an incredulous voice came from behind them.
Turning, Silverbreeze saw Shellbeam, Firesoul, and Blazesong standing there. All of them seemed to have recognized Stormflower and Amberflower. But why? Her mind raced to make a connection between the group, but came up empty.
As usual, Reedfur figured it out first. "You're from the Network."
Of course. That was the connection. Except... Electricswirl was from the Network too. "Didn't you recognize them?" she asked the she-cat.
Shaking her head, Electricswirl mewed, "The Network is very complex. There's a good chance we could've exchanged information without ever seeing each other's faces. It's for the cats' own safety."
"But it happens we do know them," added Blazesong, blinking at Stormflower & Amberflower.
"Blazesong, Shellbeam, and Firesoul, the GreenClan ally," Stormflower said. Her face was a little more relaxed now. "I'm glad to see you all alive and well. What are you doing here?"
Blazesong shifted her paws. "We joined up with the rebellion. Temporarily, that is. But they looked like they could use our help in this battle."
"Which reminds me," Firesoul said, turning around and leaping on a GreenClan cat.
Appearing to be considering something, Amberflower bit her lip. She glanced at Stormflower and nodded.
"Okay. To help you guys, we'll fight now. Talk later."
Silverbreeze gave her a short nod, her respect for these cats growing. They knew what was important.
"Sounds like a plan to me."
Once again, Finchnose found herself alone as her warrior friends dispersed, but this time she didn't waste any time dawdling. Leaping to her paws, she began racing through the battlefield, making her way back towards the Tunnels. There were injured cats waiting there, in need of her help.
Before she could cross the field though, she felt a pair of sinister eyes on her pelt. No sooner had she turned around then a bitter wad of leaves was thrust in her mouth as a gag, and she was yanked into another clump of bushes.
Aquatail. The black she-cat's once-familiar reek mingled with the scent of blood that pervaded in the air.
"Mmmf," Finchnose said urgently, but the she-cat was too strong, and the gag too thick.
Kick as she might, she couldn't get herself free. When she had finally stopped struggling, Aquatail hissed, low and evil in her ear. "Don't struggle, Finchnose. You'll just hurt yourself."
"I knew you'd try the kidnapping/hostage thing again," a cool voice said from the darkness.
Aquatail froze. "Brightsong."
A pair of amber eyes glowed in the shadows. "Yes. Let's finish this sister. Leave Finchnose out of this."
Finchnose could feel Aquatail tremble with indecision. Then she was thrust to the floor, the gag still tight in her mouth. Aquatail placed a paw on her flank, drumming her claws threateningly across her fur. "Move, Finchnose, and I'll catch you. You'll be sorry when I do, so don't try to escape while I shred my sister to pieces."
Fearlessly, Brightsong stepped forward. Finchnose wanted to close her eyes, but she couldn't. She wanted to help, but even if she was free, she sensed that this wasn't her battle to fight. It was a test of honor and strength between two sisters.
Forget that. She wasn't a warrior. She didn't have to follow those roles of nobility and such. Her friend was in trouble, and pride & honor was nothing in the face of life & death.
Quietly, as Aquatail and Brightsong circled each other, Finchnose began to unwork her gag.
Things were going relatively well in Reedfur's opinion. Yes, they had a lot of wounded cats. But they had held the Tunnels, and that was making all the difference. GreenClan cats had nowhere to go to heal and hide when wounded. They were stuck out in the open, and had to keep fighting. But his warriors could rest before going back out, and it was beginning to drastically take effect.
"Reedfur!" Silverbreeze trotted towards him. His heart skipped a beat. Even with blood in her fur and a wild look in her eyes, she still looked gorgeous. But her next words snapped him back to reality with a jolt. "Where's Finchnose?"
"Huh? Isn't she inside the Tunnels?"
Real worry began to show on Silverbreeze's face at his answer. "No... Strongheart said the same thing, so I thought you might know... I just spoke with Jaywalker. He says she hasn't turned up since she left. At all. He hasn't seen her. He's been treating the cats all by himself."
"We should find someone to help him-" Reedfur began.
"Reedfur! That's not the point! We need to find Finchnose!" Silverbreeze's voice cracked on their friend's name.
Not willing to lose his head, Reedfur let his eyes slide shut, then reopened them. "I know that, Silverbreeze, but we have wounded cats- Cloverice! Could you help Jaywalker care for the wounded cats?"
The black-and-silver she-cat scrunched up her nose. "I'm a warrior not a-" She stopped when she saw the look on his face. "Okay."
Once she had ran off, Reedfur let himself slip into the waters of panic. Where could Finchnose be? No way was she fighting...
"Split up. We'll find her. We have to."
Strongheart had had no problem convincing Jaywalker to let him back out of the makeshift medicine cat's den that was set up just inside the Tunnels. All he'd done was whine a bit, and the harried tom had thrown up his paws and practically shoved him out.
To be honest, he felt a little guilty for causing trouble like that. But the Hidden needed him. Fighting was his strength. No way was he staying inside for this battle. Not even if he had almost been killed already.
Nearby, Stormflower and Amberflower fought back-to-back, a well-performing set of dual killers. He spotted a GreenClan cat trying to sneak up on them, and seeing that they had their paws full, sprang on it, rolling it into the dust.
"Thanks," Amberflower panted.
"No problem." He grinned and spat blood out of his mouth. Despite the fact that they had invoked all of GreenClan's wrath on their heads, he was feeling hopeful. With the Network came hope. Hope that they weren't alone, that there were others willing to fight with them.
Hope to keep them going.