It was too early when Squirrelpaw woke. She could feel something jabbing in her side and for a moment, she wanted to convince herself it was just a thorn. But even after she shifted away, the blunt prodding continued.
“Give me five more minutes… we’ve been walking for days,” she complained, squinting one eye open. Standing there, looking unduly excited for another day of hiking through fields full of dogs and Twolegs, was Brambleclaw.
His whiskers twitched as she rolled over and covered her eyes with her foreleg. “Come on,” he pleaded, but Squirrelpaw closed her eyes tighter. Then she felt his breath on her ear fur. “It’s worth it, I promise!” Squirrelpaw stifled a giggle from the tickling sensation.
“Isn’t Tawnypelt awake?” she begged. “Or Feather-” she stopped short, stumbling over the name. “Um, I mean, Stormfur?” she finished, ignoring the sudden pang of grief in her heart.
Brambleclaw went quiet. Thinking he must have given up, Squirrelpaw relaxed – but then she felt another prod. “Come on, Squirrelpaw.”
Finally she rolled onto her back and uncovered her eyes to look at him. The sun had barely inched over the horizon and the sky was overcast, so it was hard to make out Brambleclaw’s dark amber eyes from his mass of fur – but there they were, shining with excitement. It must be really good.
“Fine,” Squirrelpaw said with exaggerated dismay. “What is it?”
“No, you have to see,” Brambleclaw said, leaping to his feet. “Follow me!” With that, he bounded away into the meadow.
Squirrelpaw took a moment to stretch before following, loping over the grass with lazy energy. Her paws ached with the days of walking back from the mountains. Their time there had been brief but tragic, and the long journey back to the Clans had been tainted by everyone’s grief of Feathertail. Where once the journeying group had slept close together in one nest, now they spread out at night, each finding their own places to sleep.
Brambleclaw, as the self-appointed leader of the group, had taken Feathertail’s death almost as hard as her own brother. He seemed to blame himself for her sacrifice. It wasn’t as though he had said so, but Squirrelpaw had grown up with him. She could see it in him without his having to say a word. Brambleclaw had drawn away, not just from her but from all of them, caught up in his guilt. To see him so eager to spend time together again, well… it was hopeful.
Shaking her head clear, Squirrelpaw sped up to follow Brambleclaw more closely. He was headed for an abandoned Twoleg structure, and stopped a few fox-lengths out.
“I woke up too early this morning, but I couldn’t get back to sleep on my own and I didn’t want to bother anyone,” Brambleclaw began, his eyes shining and eager. “So I decided to roam a bit and go hunting. You’ll never guess what I’ve found.”
“Too right I won’t,” Squirrelpaw said, rolling her eyes. “What is it?”
“Take a sniff,” Brambleclaw said, indicating the Twoleg structure with his tail.
“You’re not my mentor,” Squirrelpaw grumbled, but she obliged. Immediately she picked up the familiar scent of mouse. “So the barn has mice? How surprising.”
“Not just that – keep sniffing,” Brambleclaw said.
Squirrelpaw opened her mouth to taste the air, and caught a hint of milk. “Kittens?” she guessed, baffled.
Brambleclaw cuffed her around the ear, claws sheathed. “Why would I be so excited about carrying a batch of kittens back to Clan territory, mouse-brain?”
“I smelled milk,” she sulked. “I give up. What is it?”
“It’s a nest of mice,” Brambleclaw said. “It hasn’t been touched by any cat in probably seasons, so there’s hundreds of them. Even a kittypet could catch a feast!”
Squirrelpaw’s heart leaped. She’d shared a mouse here and there with the other journeying cats, but she hadn’t had a proper meal of mouse since leaving home. Just a mouthful each moon was hardly enough to satisfy her craving for forest food. “A real feast,” she breathed.
Brambleclaw nodded, looking far too pleased with himself, and she flicked him across the nose with her tail. “What are we waiting for, then? Let’s hunt!”
The hunt was almost unbearably easy. Before long, they had caught stacks of mice – more than enough to feed every cat in the journeying group and then some. Squirrelpaw and Brambleclaw both are their fill, buried the extra, and slunk outside to lay out in the weak sunlight as it peeked through the clouds.
Feeling more relaxed than she had in moons, Squirrelpaw started in on grooming her tail. Over the past few days it had been caught in burrs and thorns, but between hiking all day and collapsing of exhaustion at night, she simply hadn’t had the time to clean it out. Beside her, Brambleclaw watched through eye half-closed with contentment.
“Was that worth it?” he asked.
“Of course, mouse-brain,” she purred.
They were quiet for a long moment. Squirrelpaw finished grooming and stretched out in the damp grass. “Do you remember mornings like this back in ThunderClan when you were an apprentice?” she asked.
“Of course I do,” Brambleclaw returned. “You always used to wake up early to beg Graystripe to let you go to training with Ashpaw and I. You were so much louder then.”
Squirrelpaw’s whiskers twitched. “Are you saying I’m not loud now? Because-” she took a deep breath and leaned forward to half-shout in his ear, “I can get a lot louder!”
“Never,” Brambleclaw said, wincing. “You’re very loud. Sorry to insult you.” He paused. “But back then you squeaked.”
Squirrelpaw snorted. Another memory rushed back to her. “Remember how Leafkit used to make those ‘medicines’ out of like, random leaves and I’d make you eat them?”
Brambleclaw smiled and shook his head. “StarClan, I’d get so sick,” he said. “And Cinderpelt would get so angry with the both of you, but especially Leafkit – she seemed to think she’d know better.”
“She was right!” Squirrelpaw said. “Look at Leafpaw now! Well… when we left, anyways.”
Her heart tugged on something far away, but the other end didn’t respond. It was hard for her to remember sometimes that she hadn’t spoken to Leafpaw for moons. Nor any of her Clanmates but Brambleclaw. In some ways the journeying cats felt more like their own little Clan now than an alliance of separate ones. It was part of why Feathertail’s loss had struck them so hard. She sighed.
Brambleclaw tucked in a little closer, touching his paws to hers. “You all right?” he asked gently. He must have mistaken her sigh for one more sorrowful.
Squirrelpaw nodded up at him. “Yes, fine. Just thinking about how long it’s been. Odd, isn’t it?”
Brambleclaw blinked in agreement, then grimaced and lowered his head. “Your father’s going to be so angry at me, isn’t he?”
“He might well be angry at me – I convinced you to go more than anything,” Squirrelpaw argued. Brambleclaw was Firestar’s son in all but blood.
“But I’m older,” Brambleclaw said. “And he knows you’re rash – that’s why he relies on me to keep you reigned in.”
“Since when?” Squirrelpaw said, offended.
“Since forever! Why do you think we always go on the same patrols? Or I was the warrior chosen to accompany you and Whitepaw and Firestar on your Moonstone journey? Or I always babysat you and Leafkit as an apprentice instead of having elder duties?”
“Easier to keep all your kits in one place, don’t you think?” Squirrelpaw snorted.
Brambleclaw purred. “You just don’t want to admit being rash. It’s too late, Squirrelpaw. I know you.”
He twitched his tail, and despite herself Squirrelpaw couldn’t help but bat at it like a kit. Brambleclaw swiped it away and gave her a smug grin.
“Wha- oh, no that doesn’t count!” Squirrelpaw cried. “You traitor! I thought I was among friends!”
Brambleclaw twitched his whiskers and purred again. Then, with a thoughtful look, he licked his paw and reached out to swipe it across Squirrelpaw’s head, she assumed to pat down a stray tuft of fur. “You remember how we used to play keep-away, too?” he said suddenly.
“Of course I do!” Squirrelpaw said, brightening. “You remember what else? We used to play truth or dare all the time. Except me and Leafkit and Whitekit were really a bit too little for it, weren’t we?”
“Yes, you were too young for secrets and too little for dares,” Brambleclaw agreed. “Remember once Fernpaw asked you if Dustpelt ever mentioned her, and you said-”
“’No, except to say I’m a better fighter,’” Squirrelpaw quoted. “Yes, I was clueless. It was nice of you to include us, though. By the time I got apprenticed and could really take part, Whitepaw was a goody-two-shoes, Leafpaw was a medicine cat and you, Ashfur and Ferncloud were in the warrior’s den. I never got to play properly.”
“It’s a boring game. Just gossip about Gathering crushes and messing with the elders. There’s a reason it stays in the apprentices’ den,” Brambleclaw snorted. He must have seen the look on Squirrelpaw’s face, though, because he added, “Well, for old time’s sake, why don’t we have a go at it now?”
“You can’t play with two cats,” Squirrelpaw said, shaking her head. “I tried with three once Ferncloud’s kits were apprenticed, and that was bad, though Spiderpaw being a spoilsport couldn’t have helped.”
“Come on,” Brambleclaw said, eyes shining. “We could bring it up with the group later, but for now let’s just have a big of fun.”
Privately Squirrelpaw thought Brambleclaw would probably rather die than bring up the idea of playing an apprentices’ game to Tawnypelt, Stormfur, and Crowpaw. But instead of calling him out, she sank into the grass and twitched her whiskers. “All right, but if it doesn’t work I told you so.”
“You start,” Brambleclaw offered.
“Truth or dare?”
“Truth, duh. I’m no mouse-brain.”
“You are boring thought,” Squirrelpaw said. “All right, you mentioned Gathering crushes?”
Brambleclaw looked away quickly, and Squirrelpaw couldn’t stifle a giggle and twitch of her whiskers. Though she was still a good tail-length from him, she imagined she could feel the heat of a blush radiating off his skin. “Well...” he said.
“You can’t hold out on me, you brought it up!” Squirrelpaw trilled.
“Fine!” Brambleclaw said. “I always used to sit and talk with Whitetail when Tawnypelt wasn’t at Gatherings. She’s a loyal warrior.”
“A loyal warrior? That’s all you have to say about a cat you had a crush on?” Squirrelpaw scoffed.
“I never had any serious crushes outside ThunderClan,” Brambleclaw said defensively.
“Fine, who do you like in ThunderClan then?”
“Nuh-uh, it’s your turn,” Brambleclaw said, and he flicked her nose with his tail-tip. Thanks to his fluff, Squirrelpaw got a faceful of fur and had to sputter for a moment. “Truth or dare?” he asked.
“And you said I was boring,” Brambleclaw teased. “Who did you have a crush on, then?”
“Well...” Squirrelpaw felt her face heating a bit in embarrassment. “Do you remember me and Whitepaw’s Moonstone trip, when we stayed at the barn and I couldn’t hardly get a word out?”
Brambleclaw nodded assent.
“I was really nervous because I thought Barley was handsome,” Squirrelpaw said.
“You’re kidding!” Brambleclaw said, whiskers twitching.
“Hey, he is!” Squirrelpaw insisted. “He’s got those broad shoulders, wide square jaw, glossy fur, a lot like you!”
Brambleclaw looked at her and twitched his whiskers again. Squirrelpaw realized what she’d said a paw-step after he did.
“No, wait!” she said, heating even more. “I didn’t mean-”
“Did you just call me handsome?” Brambleclaw said, his eyes shining.
“No, you’re ugly as sin!” Squirrelpaw seethed. “I just said you looked like someone who is handsome!”
“I think that’s the same thing,” Brambleclaw purred. “Squirrelpaw, did you have a crush on me?”
Squirrelpaw bared her teeth, ignoring her pounding heart and red face. “Never!” she insisted. With that, she leapt forward and batted at his ears, and Brambleclaw purred even louder, lifting a forepaw to hold her away by the shoulder.
Squirrelpaw shifted her weight onto Brambleclaw’s paw, and reached out to batter his muzzle, claws sheathed. After sputtering for a second, Brambleclaw leaned forward, pushing her backwards. She rolled onto her back, her belly exposed, and Brambleclaw stood and leapt on her, kneading his paws into her soft belly fur and tickling her.
“S-stop!” Squirrelpaw giggled. “I give up!”
“Good!” Brambleclaw purred. He let her up and Squirrelpaw sat settled against him, their pelts brushing. She did not dare look up at him, though, lest he remember his question about her crush.
Did she have a crush on him? Squirrelpaw wasn’t sure she wanted to think about it too long. The more moments her mind rested on it, the more she realized every crush she’d had did look like Brambleclaw – Barley, Stormfur. She wondered…
“Brambleclaw,” she breathed, leaning against him. “Who do you like in ThunderClan?”
Brambleclaw purred beside her once more. “Oh, you really want to know? Well, back then I actually liked Ashpaw.”
“Hmm? I guess that explains why you always did everything together,” she said, injecting a slight teasing tone into her voice. If she was disappointed, she didn’t think about it.
“I was a little pathetic about it, yeah,” Brambleclaw chuffed. “Now any cat I like will never know, thank StarClan.”
“You’ll never get a mate that way, you big oaf,” Squirrelpaw said.
Brambleclaw paused, seeming to sober. “Yes, well, it’s not exactly a good time for that, is it? We don’t know what we’ll be doing a few moons from now – if we will be safe, if we will be with the Clans, if the Clans will even still exist.”
“What would you do if we came home and they were already gone?” Squirrelpaw blurted.
It was something she’d thought of on her own, on sleepless nights since Feathertail had died, but she’d never brought up her concerns to any of the others. She didn’t want to worry anyone, nor did she want to make the journeying group more upset than it already was.
“I’d stick with you, I guess,” Brambleclaw said, and he wrapped his tail around her affectionately. “I’ll go where you go. I can’t think of another cat I’d rather stick around with.”
Squirrelpaw purred and pushed her face into his long fur. “Me, too.”