I Like Your Laugh (A SquirrelCrow AU) - Chapter 20.
For the first time in moons, Crowpaw was hungry.
Hunting had been as pointless as Tallstar had claimed. With the roar of monsters, as well as the lingering stink of Twolegs, prey was impossible to find. Worse than that, Crowpaw had seen those pale fleshed creatures skulking around the ruins of his home, carrying their storm of destruction with them.
They would mark the few trees left with a haze of red mist, and then bite into the thick bark with long silver claws. The crash of the wood as it slammed into the torn ground sent a tremble over Windclan. Every collision caused Crowpaw’s heart to tremble.
At this rate, it wouldn’t be long before the whole forest fell.
Hunting had been a fruitless effort. Crowpaw was the only one who had caught anything, but two withered shrew was not going to help the clans. Onewhisker had looked relieved at the mere sight of prey, and the way he praised Crowpaw was like he had caught a dozen hares.
“Well done, Crowpaw.” Onewhisker purred weakly as the hunting patrol made their way back. “That catch will help feed the kits another night.”
Nightcloud had mewed in agreement, her own face brightened at the stale scent of the shrews. Crowpaw had expected Webfoot to snarl the group back to reality, but the tom didn’t have a word to say, just a small grave nod.
Crowpaw attempted a small meow of thanks, but his throat instantly felt dry. The shrews hardly made up enough space to fill his mouth. Was this really all they could rely on to feed the starving kits and elders? He tried to not let this realisation mark his face with horror. It would do no good for anyone. Despite everything, the group was trying to keep some kind of determination; Crowpaw couldn’t kill that.
“Looks like all that travelling did some good for you, hey?” Nightcloud meowed, tapping his side with her tail. Under the darkening sky, her eyes lit up like pink embers. “You almost look like a natural hunter.”
Crowpaw nodded mildly, hoping the sound his throat made sounded more like a laugh than a groan.
“Don’t tease him, Nightcloud.” Onewhisker sighed tiredly, “We need all the prey we can find.”
“I was being serious.” The black molly insisted. “I wasn’t making fun of him.”
Onewhisker muttered something incoherent. Just looking at his back, it was clear that the tom had been discouraged by the hunt. As thankful as he was that some prey was caught for the kits that needed it so desperately, it was clear it would be a while before the thinning bodies of the Warriors got any end to their slow suffering.
Looking back at his still firm body, Crowpaw felt his growing hunger twist into guilt. He was nowhere near in the right to complain about prey.
Even standing besides the group, Crowpaw felt like he didn’t belong, didn’t deserve, to be there. By all means, he was able enough to get through the night without prey. Just how many queens, kits and elders had been forced to resign themselves to that fate.
The night air refused to respond to his question, it just scratched him with its freezing claws.
Once he’d taken the prey back, he’d have to find Tallstar. The time was approaching. Soon he would have to stand beside his…acquaintances from the other clans, hoping that they would receive a sign that told them where to go from here.
Crowpaw had never been so desperate to know an answer in all his life.
If any of the clans waited any longer, Crowpaw was certain that Windclan wouldn’t survive the next moon. Hunger, dehydration, and destruction was all that they would find here. Tallstar understood that, thankfully; Crowpaw could only hope the other clans would as well.
Unfortunately, the apprentice didn’t know whether they would share his clan’s sentiments.
He thought about what Tawnypelt and Stormfur would have to deal with when it came to their leaders. It didn’t matter how much they screamed the truth to their clans, ultimately it was up to Blackstar and Leopardstar if their clans moved or not. The Shadowclan leader would not be swayed easily. His pride was significantly excruciating from what Crowpaw remembered from previous gatherings.
And Leopardstar. At the thought of her, Crowpaw couldn’t help but feel fury prickle over his pelt. Tallstar had openly pleaded, putting all of his pride aside for his clan, the Riverclan leader to let them use the lake to drink. They hadn’t done that for nothing! Cats had needed that water then, it was essential now! Crowpaw thought the clans had reached an understanding.
Leopardstar, based on the word of some no-clan stray who had sauntered his way into Riverclan, had pretty much left Windclan for dead. She had left every one of them to suffer on their own. Crowpaw knew that Windclan had taken some prey every now and then, but it certainly wasn’t enough that Riverclan would notice it was gone! Windclan needed to survive too!
But no. Whoever this Hawkfrost was, he had convinced Leopardstar that Windclan had earnt such a punishment! Did they not have cats of their own that were feeling the strains of these horrors? Could they really look at those cats and feed them, knowing that they had refused another clan such a necessity?! Crowpaw knew that Leopardstar was a cat who was frosty on her best days, but could she really be that cruel? If she trusted Windclan so little, who was to say she wouldn’t refuse to follow them to a new home?
Could Stormfur even convince her? He hadn’t even been the one who was…
Oh Stars… no.
Crowpaw almost paused where he stood. Only walking on when he saw a concerned glint in Nightcloud’s eyes as he wobbled forward.
“Are you okay?”
Well, let’s see. He had left his clan to suffer, including his mother, while the home their entire clan had been rooted in for eons was being torn apart like it was nothing but sand, he had disgraced his father’s trust and was reminded of that with every disapproving flare of the stars above, and he might have ruined the clans hopes of getting Riverclan to follow them on their journey, destroying the history of the four clans themselves with a single paw, all because he hadn’t been the one who had rightfully died on that journey.
Did he mention it was his fault that an innocent cat, one of his best friends, had died to save his worthless pelt?
Crowpaw dipped his head at Nightcloud and she took that as a yes.
“Of course he’s okay.” Webfoot muttered, an audible curl on his lip. “He’s gotten everything he wanted.”
Crowpaw’s eyes snapped open.
“Webfoot!” Onewhisker turned his head to the tom with a warning growl. “Don’t you start any trouble.”
Webfoot grunted, “Why? He’s allowed to because he’s an apprentice.”
Crowpaw spat the shrews out of mouth, erupting with a snarl. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He demanded. There was a monster at the back of his head screaming at him to get into the tom’s face. “Gotten what I wanted? Are you trying to say that I wanted two-legs to come here?”
Nightcloud ran her tail over Crowpaw’s back. “Calm down.” Crowpaw ignored her, his eyes caught in a glare with the tom ahead of him.
Webfoot ignored the death stare that Onewhisker sent him. His eyes slid away from Crowpaw, disgusted. “No. But you got Tallstar to believe your stories. I bet you’re really proud to have that kind of influence.” He sounded like he was spitting out muck as he spoke.
Now, the demands to cause harm raced into a roar. Crowpaw couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Did Webfoot really think he was that shallow? “This isn’t about that at all, you piece of fox-dung!” Crowpaw’s shouting echoed over the hills. “It’s about-”
“Enough!” Onewhisker got between the two toms, hissing. “Both of you!”
Crowpaw was affronted, “He’s the one who-”
“I know that!” Onewhisker snapped, his stern snarl made Crowpaw cower away. “But Windclan doesn’t need the two of you fighting! If we have any hope of getting through this, we need to work together as a clan!” He turned back to Webfoot, his backfur prickling. “And we certainly don’t need any cats questioning the decisions of their leader!”
Webfoot frowned, one fang slipping over his lip. “That’s not what I was-”
“Quiet!” Onewhisker ordered. “Listen to me, Webfoot! I don’t care if you, or any cat for that matter, doesn’t believe in Crowpaw’s sign! If Tallstar decides that Windclan needs to move, that is what we will be doing!” The skinny tom took a pounding step towards Webfoot. “If you have an issue with that, then I’d be happy to take you to discuss it with Tallstar.” He dared with a snap of his teeth. It sounded like breaking a rabbit’s neck.
The panic Webfoot displayed was brief, but it was telling. His tail sank to the floor like a bird falling out of its nest. To his, limited, credit he kept his face straight. That was just all the more infuriating for Crowpaw.
“There’s no need for that.” Webfoot drawled. He lashed a look at Crowpaw. “And please don’t misunderstand, I hope that Crowpaw is right in what he says.” His eyes narrowed snakily. “If he’s wrong, who knows what would happen to Windclan.”
Crowpaw growled to not show weakness.
Like most things he did these days, it repressed the way his body shook at the words.
“Well then,” Nightcloud stepped forward, her claws unsheathed. “Why don’t you shut up and believe in him like Tallstar does, you waste of fur!”
“Nightcloud!” Onewhisker hissed, “What did I just say about fighting?”
The molly scoffed, muttering a fake apology as she looked away. Webfoot didn’t reply, he had apparently decided he’d said enough.
And it was enough that Crowpaw got the point.
Onewhisker maintained a strained silence between the cats, before he let out a croaky sigh. He sounded like he was releasing the pain from his weakening joints. “Let’s not waste anymore time.” He frowned over at Crowpaw. “Pick up those shrews. There are cats who need them.”
Crowpaw looked down to where he’d spat out the sorry excuses for prey, and his heart dropped with disgrace. Those shrews could be what separated a cat from life and death, and he’d spat them out like some kittypet sulking at a two-leg. A horrible, regretful embarrassment clouded over the cat. He stuttered over his own selfishness.
“I-I’m sorry, Onewhisker.”
Onewhisker gave him a hard look that was hard to describe. It made Crowpaw uneasy. The older cat’s whiskers shook with a grunt. “Sorry doesn’t feed cats. Now pick up that prey and make sure you don’t drop it again until you’re in front of someone who needs it!”
Crowpaw dipped his head. The knowledge that his actions made him a liability sent him cold. “Yes, Onewhisker.” Carefully, he picked the shrews up again. When he looked up, Onewhisker was already strolling off, soon followed by Webfoot. The tom made sure to swipe his tail at Crowpaw before he turned away with a malicious scoff.
Crowpaw stared in their direction, then he began to follow them. What else could he do? He couldn’t blame Onewhisker for his fury, the cat had been struggling to make sure Windclan didn’t fall. If Crowpaw didn’t know any better he could have assumed that the cat was the Deputy.
He couldn’t even blame Webfoot really. Well… no. The cat was a fox-heart who had no right to claim those things about him. Crowpaw would never want any of this. But he could see how it looked. An apprentice that had ran away and come back without a reason he could prove and had convinced their leader to follow his advice. It made sense that Webfoot wouldn’t trust him.
That just worked to make Crowpaw feel worse.
If it made sense, then just how much could his clan trust him? How much could he trust himself to save them from an agonising fate?
Searching for those answers was like swimming through fog and ice.
A sympathetic purr rumbled at his side. Nightcloud was looking at him softly. “Don’t pay any attention to Webfoot. He’s always been a burr-furred mange pelt.”
If Crowpaw could open his mouth, he might have muttered a thanks to her. He kept silent. It didn’t matter really. He still ended up thinking, ‘Just because he’s a mange pelt, it doesn’t mean he’s wrong.’ Webfoot’s intentions, no matter what mouse-bile he spewed, were clear. He didn’t forgive Crowpaw for abandoning Windclan. He wanted to punish the apprentice, however he could.
Crowpaw had done everything he thought was right.
Crowpaw had done everything for the purpose of helping Windclan.
But that didn’t exclude the idea that maybe… he deserved to be punished.
“Hey?” Nightcloud murmured, “Do you want me to carry one of those for you?”
She was offering to help him carry some measly shrews?
Did he actually look that pathetic?
He shook his head. She watched him patiently, as if hopeful he would change his mind, before turning away with a sigh. She didn’t need to help him. Any burden for the clan was one Crowpaw deserved to carry.
The thought didn’t leave Crowpaw even when he returned to the ‘camp’ Windclan had fashioned, not when Nightcloud pointed to him the tattered base of an old rabbit warren where they were sheltering the kits, not when the dark molly gave him a well-natured touch with her muzzle, and not when he slowly walked past his clanmates, all scarred, starving, or both, trying their best to get some rest in this terrible place.
His good intentions did not change everything that had happened because of him. Even as he walked by his clanmates, he could hear the gravelly whispers all around him. They didn’t sound happy. Crowpaw almost looked like he was trying to hide his head between his shoulders, unspeakably afraid to catch any cat’s gaze. If he turned and saw every cat view him with hatred, he didn’t know if he could carry on walking.
He cursed himself for looking so pathetic. He could only imagine what cats were thinking. He didn’t want to picture what they’d think when Tallstar revealed why he’d truly been gone. This shaking, moody apprentice was what their fates rested on.
Perhaps the forest would be the more honourable way to die.
Unlatching himself from these thoughts was like scratching at a rock. The truth came on him, refusing to let him go. He deserved the looks. He deserved the hate. And if he was being honest, he would have deserved Webfoot finishing him off with a bite to his throat. Admitting these things was almost relieving for the cat, like he was finally facing the inevitable.
He had given Windclan the message they needed.
What use – what good - was he to them anymore?
“Where are you going?”
Crowpaw jolted where he stood, his ears drifting back fearfully. He slowly met the eyes of his mentor. Mudclaw was looking down at him irritably, the night made his amber eyes flicker. Crowpaw could barely move as he remembered how the Deputy had been earlier. How he had not believed Crowpaw’s explanation and had looked betrayed when his leader did.
Mudclaw growled into the silence. “You should drop what you have in your mouth if you’re going to answer.”
Crowpaw could barely meet Mudclaw’s gaze as he gently dropped the shrews. “I was… I was going to take these to the Queens. That way the kits can get some milk.”
Mudclaw rolled his eyes, “I’m aware of how feeding kits works, Crowpaw.” He sounded as gruff as he looked. His back wasn’t spiked, but it still looked jagged and rough, like sand under a blistering sun. His face was dull with fatigue. “Good hunting I see?” He said, his voice dreadfully sarcastic.
Crowpaw dropped his head again. Even before leaving for the journey, there was nothing that made him curl up like the disappointment of his mentor. “There wasn’t much to catch.”
“I know that as well.” Mudclaw said, “I suppose that’s another reason we need to leave, hmm?” The sarcasm swiped again.
Crowpaw didn’t say anything. There would be no good response to that.
Mudclaw peered down at the shrews, sitting down and stretching his forelegs with a groan. “Truth be told, it is not easy to find prey around here. I had hoped that after a few days we would know where we could find some again.” His voice dimmed. “Regretfully, there hasn’t been much success.” He sniffed at the shrews and, to Crowpaw’s surprise, his mentor let out a laugh that almost sounded glad. “Not much of a mouthful, but at least they’re fresh.”
Whether it was the bleak praise of his mentor, or the idea that his actions could have been of any good in the first place, a calm purr rumbled in Crowpaw’s throat.
“Luckily,” Mudclaw started again, grooming his shoulder with snappy bites. “You won’t have to choose between a Queen to feed. Only Whitetail hasn’t received prey since yesterday. Thankfully, you’ve changed that.”
Whitetail. Realisation rushed through the apprentice. So that was why Onewhisker looked so happy to see the prey. His own mate could finally get the kill she needed for their kits.
“I’m… I’m glad I could help somehow.”
“Was there really nothing else to find?”
Crowpaw mewed sadly, “Nothing. And we won’t be able to scent anything now. The only smell around here is the stink of those monsters.”
Mudclaw hissed behind his teeth. “Fox-dung to it all.” Crowpaw could have been frightened by how grave his mentor sounded. Defeat was not something he had ever been able to associate with his leader. The older cat grumbled a moment more, before he stumbled over to his apprentice. Crowpaw tried not to flinch as the cat smelt his pelt.
“Well,” Mudclaw’s voice was low, but not hard. “At the very least, you saw more of this territory.” He scoffed humourlessly, “You almost smell like Windclan again.”
Crowpaw knew better than to show how much those words sank into him.
Mudclaw padded back, studying his apprentice with a narrowed expression. “I was thinking about what Webfoot said earlier.” He said slowly, “What did he mean when he mentioned that Thunderclan cat. Owlpaw sought me out to tell me that she…” Mudclaw let his words loosen as his stare hardened. Crowpaw knew what Mudclaw was going to ask about and a sheer sense of fear stalked into his chest. “Embraced you. Is that right?”
The night air was growing too cold for Crowpaw. Why else would his paws shake so much?
It wasn’t fair! He had nothing to feel guilty about! He never asked her to do that! He had tried to say goodbye without igniting any suspicion among the clans, he had been loyal and fair about it! It wasn’t his fault if she couldn’t take that. It wasn’t his paws that had pulled her so close to him! It wasn’t him who had left her scent all over him! He wasn’t to blame! She was!
And yet, despite all these things, he couldn’t find it in his chest to be angry at Squirrelpaw.
He knew he should. He knew that if he allowed the rage of how she had made him look disloyal compel him to just a hiss, it would retain the normalcy that he had to reclaim.
For both their sakes.
Fox-dung! Why were his thoughts on her side? Why was he still brought to concern over her?
“Yes.” Crowpaw said, his voice as strong as a cloud.
Mudclaw eased back slightly, but his gaze still burned. “Why would she do that? Are you two ‘friends’?” Mudclaw’s tail thumped down at the word.
Say no. That’s all he had to do.
“We were allies.” Crowpaw said. The feeling in his chest was softening the race of his brain. Something inside him told him to tell the truth, but to not give too much away. The worry in his heart was not for himself. “We had to be. We travelled together that long, after all.”
Mudclaw did not look satisfied. “That doesn’t answer why she did that once you were on Windclan territory.”
Crowpaw kept fixed on his mentor, but he thought he could see a twitch under the moonlight. Was it the refletion of a claw? Crowpaw breathed in softly. “She was just saying goodbye. She was wishing me luck.” He shrugged innocently, “I guess that’s just her way of doing that.”
Mudclaw sniffed, “Interesting way, if you ask me.” His stare still prickled on Crowpaw’s skin for a long time. Crowpaw held onto the grass under his feet, begging that somehow he wasn’t showing any weakness. If Mudclaw suspected something else, who knew what he would do? Crowpaw didn’t want to know what the cat did with cats he suspected were traitors.
Crowpaw wasn’t a traitor!
But… neither was Squirrelpaw.
Crowpaw knew, he just knew, that Squirrelpaw wouldn’t have done that if she thought she would get Crowpaw in trouble. They had been like that, close, throughout the journey. She wouldn’t have thought she was doing anything wrong by just hugging him one last time.
Suddenly, Crowpaw’s tongue felt dry. Of course, she wouldn’t have thought that. Because she hadn’t done anything wrong. She had just hugged a friend. Besides, Crowpaw, all those moons ago, had been the one to do it first, when the fear of losing her had made his eyes water. It had been him that had told her he wished to keep seeing her once this was all over.
His heart sank again.
Maybe… this was also his fault. If he had given her the idea that it was okay, even when they had returned, then could he blame her. If he’d had any sense, he would have shut the idea down there and then!
The idea of doing that filled his head again. The normal strain resolved. Clan life resumed. The disappointment that would have stung her expression. The way that saying no would make his own heart break.
Crowpaw’s closed his eyes with a quiet hiss. What was wrong with him?!
He swiftly looked up at his mentor again, ignoring the way he had risen a brow. If he wasn’t careful he would have given his friendship with Squirrelpaw away. And that would be a disaster for the both of them.
But didn’t he want to be punished? If he was truthful, and accepted responsibility, then wouldn’t that make him a real Warrior?
It was the idea of having Squirrelpaw punished as well that made him silence that thought.
She didn’t deserve that. Only he did.
“After she’d done that, I got her off me and told her to go back to Thunderclan where she was needed.” Crowpaw explained stonily. “That was it. Or did Owlpaw tell you differently?”
The stink of the monsters wafted over Windclan, as venomous as Mudclaw’s silence. The Deputy drummed his claws into the grass, fire still pure in his stare. “And that was all?” It sounded more like a threat than a question.
“That was all.”
Crowpaw must have sounded convincing, because Mudclaw blinked and he looked satisfied. “I see. And no, that does match what Owlpaw told me.” Crowpaw was kind of thankful that the apprentice had been truthful, at least. “That’s good. I was concerned that you’d forgotten your place.”
Crowpaw shook his head, trying to look prideful. “Of course not, Mudclaw. The journey is over now, the only concern I have is for Windclan. The other’s will need to look out for their own clans.”
He hoped they could do that easier than he was finding it.
Mudclaw nodded, “I’m glad you know that, Crowpaw.” He let out a bitter chuckle, “If Thunderclan is lucky, maybe that molly realise the same.”
Crowpaw hoped that she did too. But that didn’t stop his claws from tensing unconsciously. He drew them back in before his mentor noticed, screaming inwardly to follow his own words.
“Hopefully.” Crowpaw managed to say. “If the Clans are to survive the journey, they’ll need to.”
Mudclaw looked irritable again. “Ah yes. You’ll need to find Tallstar soon, won’t you?”
Crowpaw grit his teeth as he realised his stupidity. He’d forgotten Mudclaw’s feelings about their travels. “I-I swear that this is the right decision, Mudclaw.” He meowed. The older cat didn’t look his way, his neck fur swaying in the icy breeze. “Windclan will survive if we do this, I promise.”
Mudclaw shrugged with a scoff, “Well, you’ve convinced Tallstar of that. I suppose that’s all that matters!” Crowpaw tried to be sympathetic to the Deputy as he remembered the way Tallstar had shut Mudclaw’s objections down. Crowpaw believed that Mudclaw’s suspicions were driven by his concern for Windclan, and it wouldn’t be easy for any cat to abandon their home when they didn’t see a need to.
Still, Mudclaw needed to trust in Starclan. Trust in Crow… Trust in Tallstar’s decision.
“I’m not lying to you.” Crowpaw meowed, “There is a better place somewhere.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” Crowpaw drew back sharply, taken aback. Mudclaw stared out, as if over the whole of the clan. His jaw was tight as his eyes creased with frustration. “I can see that our home is being destroyed. Of course, there is some place where we can go. Silverpelt does not shine over just the flowers, after all. But it’s whether we can make such a journey that bothers me!”
Crowpaw’s jaw slowly dipped from his mouth. It was rare he heard such apprehension from his mentor. He almost sounded pained.
“Cats haven’t eaten or drank for close to a moon, and when we have it’s just been those kind of catches,” He lashed his tail to the dirty shrews, “Everywhere I look, my clanmates are suffering and I can’t see how telling them to wander through the forest will help them in anyway!”
Crowpaw now saw the real mortification on his mentor’s face. Windclan was the only thing in Mudclaw’s mind. “If we stay here, we’ll all die.” Crowpaw said morosely, “I know it sounds crazy, but there isn’t anything else we can do.”
Mudclaw rolled his eyes. “I think there are many options we have, Crowpaw.” The older cat drawled, “But like I said, it doesn’t matter now. Tallstar agrees with you, and if he decides to go then I will have to follow my leader to the end.”
Crowpaw may have felt hope if not for the grave frown on the Deputy’s face.
“However,” His voice was low, “I fear that Tallstar may be approaching that end already.”
His words were like being torn apart limb from limb. Freezing horror wrapped all over Crowpaw. Surely Mudclaw wasn’t suggesting what he thought he was. “What do you mean?”
Mudclaw narrowed his eyes, but his muzzle creased with upset. “Crowpaw, you’re not a mouse-brain. You have seen Tallstar since you came back here, and you and I both know that he is not… well.”
Truthfully, Crowpaw had noticed it. He was sure any cat would. The way the leader coughed after a mere sentence, the way he had relied on Onewhisker’s side to walk strong, how when he spoke it sounded as if rocks were cutting into his throat. It was true. Tallstar did not look well at all.
“He may keep strong for now, but he is not getting stronger with every moon that passes.” Mudclaw gazed up at the hollow light of the moon above them, his eyes bleak with thought. “If he can’t do that in his own clan, I fail to see how travelling would not make things worse. Additionally, if the other clans saw him in that state they would use it for their own advantage, of that I’m certain.” His teeth grit with the last line.
Crowpaw’s mouth opened but he couldn’t find the correct words. The idea that this journey could cause his leader to… His gaze found the ground again, dilated and afraid. “The…The other clans wouldn’t do that.” He hated how uncertain he sounded. “We have to work together if we…”
“Your logic makes sense, Crowpaw.” Mudclaw cut him off, stepping forward with a sigh. There was such a sense of authority in his step that Crowpaw had to step back. “But you cannot speak for the other clans or how they think. No matter how much you may have trusted those cats on your journey, there will always be those…” A low growl rumbled in his chest, “That will grin at the sight of weakness. Without a strong leader, we are vulnerable, and when that happens we can’t afford to lose our freedom for the sake of some temporary peace!” He stepped beside Crowpaw, pressing his tail hard into his side. “It may be the worst scenario, but it is there nonetheless. Windclan needs its Warriors to remember what side they’re on, they need to be willing to fight for that. Can I trust you to do that if the time comes?”
He spoke of a future that no one could truly understand. No one knew what was on its way.
But, by the Stars, Crowpaw was scared of how convincing Mudclaw sounded.
It made perfect sense after all. The clans had been rivals for generations. Before the journey, if Crowpaw had known that a leader from the enemy was sick, he would have howled with laughter at the idea of that clan becoming weaker. He could expect as much from them. Those feelings surely couldn’t just disappear because they were forced into this terrible partnership.
But when he thought of the journey. When he imagined the faces of his… He couldn’t, didn’t want to, imagine that they would do something like that after everything they’d been through.
But then… maybe that was the problem.
Maybe that showed how backwards Crowpaw had become.
It was time to face facts. There was no hope that anything real could survive with the cats he’d known. Their very nature wouldn’t allow it. Besides, Crowpaw had not been of any real use to them.
Feathertail hadn’t come home because of him.
No, with them… It would be better if they just never saw him again once all this was done.
He’d forgotten his loyalty, the loyalty ingrained in his blood, and he knew Windclan would not hesitate to remind him of that in the future. And that was fine.
He deserved to pay for everything he’d done. To every clan.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t try to be of use while he awaited that punishment.
Windclan deserved better than him, and they could get better than he ever was, but he still needed to work for them when they needed it. This was his one chance to do some real good in his life.
He needed to make sure Windclan knew he was loyal. He needed to make sure his previous friends knew where his loyalty really was. If they couldn’t grasp that, then he needed to remind them of it. They had all hated him at the start. He needed to make sure it was like that once again.
Even though… he didn’t think he could ever hate them again.
But that was why he needed to keep the line clear. Once they were all back to normal in their clans, it had to get better for them. They deserved that kind of ending.
That was why they couldn’t be friends anymore.
So when he suddenly found himself thinking of Squirrelpaw and her cheeky, amazing smile, he let the guilt and self-revulsion take him over. He accepted the sickness in his stomach and called it disloyalty.
If he wanted her to be safe, he needed to shut her away.
Even when the thought of that made his sickness worse.
“Yes, Mudclaw.” Crowpaw said, his voice hollow and found.
Mudclaw stepped away, his eyes never leaving Crowpaw. His eyes blazed like an owl’s. “Good. It’s important you understand what’s right if we find ourselves in that situation.”
“I understand.” Crowpaw said, dipping his head.
A real sound of contentment left Mudclaw. Crowpaw tried to let it ease him. “Excellent.” There was a long silence after that. Then a heavy exhale exited the Deputy and Crowpaw felt a tail smooth over his back. “I do hope that you’re right about this journey, Crowpaw. There is nothing I want more than for my clan to survive.”
Crowpaw sensed a ‘but’ so he didn’t take that as acceptance.
“But, just remember where your real allies are if the time comes. Understand?”
Crowpaw hated that he was right. He couldn’t speak this time so he just nodded his head.
Mudclaw made a pleased mrrow. “Now, take your prey to Whitetail and then go and find Tallstar. The sooner we have a real plan, the better. No matter what happens.” Something was hidden in how he said that, but he was gone before the chill had found Crowpaw’s tail.
He realised it was stupid to think about that.
Mudclaw was his Deputy. Mudclaw was Windclan. That made him an ally. That was where his trust needed to be.
Crowpaw picked up the prey again and strode quickly to the stinking, damaged warren. Sure enough, Whitetail was there. Her eyes were dark with exhaustion and sorrow as she listened to the three small kits at her belly cry hungrily as they suckled for milk that wasn’t there.
Crowpaw’s heart ached. No wonder Onewhisker accepted his story so easily. Anything was better than this.
Whitetail slowly lifted her head as Crowpaw approached. Suddenly, her eyes flickered open as a high mew of relief escaped her mouth. “Crowpaw!” She cried. “You have prey!”
Crowpaw dropped the shrews beside the molly, he tried not to look at how her ribs jutted when she moved to grab them. “That’s all we could find. I’m sorry there isn’t more.”
Whitetail shot him a wide-eyed glance, purring happily. “Don’t be mouse-brained! This is wondeful!” She stared down at the shrews like they were a pile of hares, then she nuzzled the kits closer to her belly. “Just wait a little longer, my darlings. I’ll soon have some milk for you.” Her eyes shone with love and when she smiled it looked like something she had almost forgotten how to do. “What do we say to Crowpaw?”
The kits mewed again, huddling to their mother for warmth.
Whitetail let out a soft mutter, laughing was too difficult these days. “They say thank you.”
Crowpaw dipped his head respectfully, “Tell them that they don’t need to. Any Warrior would do the same.” His eyes gently lifted to the white molly’s. “Also, let them know that whatever prey is given to me will be yours.”
An incredible gasp erupted from the Queen. “Don’t be ridiculous! I can’t accept that!”
“Yes you can.” Crowpaw said simply, “They need it more than me.”
“Crowpaw, that’s honourable of you to say so. But you are still an apprentice.” Her face was pure with gratitude. “You need your strength as well.”
“I’m strong enough as I am.” I don’t deserve to eat. “You look like you haven’t eaten for moons. You need to eat, I can survive without food for a few days.”
“With all due respect, Whitetail.” The apprentice said softly, lightly brushing his tail over the kits. “I’ve made up my mind. You won’t change it.”
Whitetail was silent with shock. Her face was a mix of awe and uncertainty. Crowpaw didn’t give her the chance to argue further. “Sleep well.” He said, to her and her kits. Then he rose up and turned away. He needed to find Tallstar now. Moonhigh was not far away.
Crowpaw sighed, but he kept calm as he turned back to the starving mother.
Her smile was a white as her fur, and notably overcome with joyful appreciation. She took a bite out of her shrew and then ran her tongue slowly over her kit’s small pelts, happier than she had been in moons. “I’m glad you’re back. Windclan missed you.”
That wasn’t true, Crowpaw thought. But he nodded, feeling underserving of such kindness.
“I’ll do anything for Windclan.”
What else could he do?
If he didn’t he might as well not be alive.
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