CHAPTER ONE: the gathering
“Hey, you!” A startlingly bright voice calls from a startling mouselength away, making you flinch. You turn to see wide blue-green eyes darting across your face and body before settling somewhere slightly off to one side. The cream tabby’s hooked muzzle is wrinkled in a friendly smile as he distractedly flicks a curled ear.
“...Hey,” You reply flatly.
“I don’t think we’ve met, but you’ve been gone for a while, haven’t you?” He gives you another once-over, making your fur prickle. “Is it the cut on your face?”
You try to fix him with a look, but he just stares blankly back before his eyes drift to the middle distance again. “Yes, I was in the healer’s den after I got blinded in one eye,” you bite out.
He’s unphased by your attitude. “Oh, StarClan, that’s terrible! You’re alright now, though?” He mews, voice sickeningly sympathetic. He talks so fast, too.
You shrug. When you don’t respond, he stares around at the rough walls of the crater, then back at you. “I’m Lightningpaw, by the way.”
He tilts his head, then snaps back to attention. “Wait, are you ThunderClan’s Applepaw?”
“Um- yeah, yeah, I am. Why?”
“Dude, I’ve heard about you! I remember now, Redstar mentioned it when you first didn’t show up at a Gathering. That wound is from ShadowClan, wasn’t it-”
“First of all, don’t call me dude,” you snarl. He finally reacts to that, shrinking back slightly. “Second, I don’t need anyone asking for the gory details of my injuries. Can't you just go back to your clanmates?”
“I- I’m sorry,” Lightningpaw mumbles. The brief apologetic look disappears and he’s back to swaying as he sits. “I don’t really talk to anyone in SkyClan, though, except my mentor, Gingerleap. There are two other apprentices, but they’re littermates and pretty close, so they don’t really need me to have any fun or socialize. And Cherrypaw’s a healer apprentice, so she’s super busy anyways, and…”
Lightningpaw is a SkyClan apprentice. He wasn’t born there, or in any of the Clans, but he fits into SkyClan’s eccentricity perfectly despite claiming he isn’t close with anyone there. He’s blunt sometimes, but that just means you can trust that whatever he’s saying is mostly genuine. He’s charming once you get used to him. You understand why he was able to weasel his way into befriending you now.
He has a tiny scar, just above his left eyebrow. He flinches sometimes when you move too fast.
Lightningpaw does not always notice when he’s not wanted.
“Hi, Lightningpaw,” you say, surprised he’s padding over to you instead of the other SkyClan apprentices. “What happened to making friends?”
“They just asked about you when I came up to them,” Lightningpaw replies. “Like, ‘Aren’t you friends with Applepaw?’ Yeah, why? ‘She’s in ThunderClan.’ Uh-huh! She sure is!” He sits down with a huff. “And then they just looked at me all weird. So now I’m here.” He doesn’t look upset, per se, just confused. When you look around to find Boulderpaw and Birdpaw, they glare at you. It’s then that you notice Streampaw and a pawful of other ShadowClan apprentices sitting with them.
Oh. Funny, your scar kind of sears at the sight of the swirled tortoiseshell.
You throw a dirty look of your own their way and shuffle closer to Lightningpaw. “ShadowClan is with them. The tortoiseshell, Streampaw, is the one that blinded me. No doubt he told his own version of the story to your clanmates.” You’d gotten a good slice on his flank, but he came away the winner in that particular fight.
Lightningpaw’s hackles spike. “Streampaw hurt you?” His voice is strained, like he’s holding back a growl. You sweep your tail around his back and lean against him when he starts to stand up.
“Don’t cause a scene,” you hiss. “It was a battle. I was prepared to get injured.”
Lightningpaw looks down at you, distraught, but sits back down and stares at his paws. “I don’t see why they didn’t just tell me to go away,” he mumbled.
“I think they were pretty clear,” you respond.
“No, they just- they just asked questions! And stopped talking! There was no exchange of information there!”
You pause, glancing between Lightningpaw and the SkyClan apprentices again. Does he really not understand what’s happening here? “Boulderpaw and Birdpaw are friends with ShadowClan apprentices. My Clan and ShadowClan aren’t friends. So your clanmates are siding with ShadowClan, and are… upset with you for being friends with me.” You watch his eyes flit about the Gathering crater and add, “Does that make sense?”
“I guess,” Lightningpaw says, brows furrowed. “I wish cats would just say that instead of making me figure it out myself. I’m not good at it. I never was. I always got in trouble with my d-” His jaws clamp shut, the fur on his back standing on end. “I always got in trouble and never knew why until later,” he amends.
Lightningpaw is a surprisingly good listener.
He says it’s because he never knows how to respond. But he’s attentive and compassionate, even if it’s clear he can’t grasp exactly how you’re feeling.
The two of you have started meeting at the farm every half-moon, when you can slip out while the healers leave for their own meetings. One night you arrive slightly late, dragging your paws as you approach the fence. Lightningpaw’s ears perk up as soon as he sees you, but his smile falters when he looks over your lowered head and drooping ears.
“You’re upset,” he says.
You blink forcefully, focusing your eyes to leap on top of the fence and jump down to the other side. Lightningpaw follows silently and brushes up against you as you sit just inside the barn.
“I had a nightmare,” you murmur.
Lightningpaw settles down and folds his paws under his chest. “What about?”
You sigh heavily. “My mom.” When he doesn’t reply, you continue, “She lost her last life to Greencough of all things. It was hard on all of us- on the whole Clan- but… she was my mom. She and dad told my brothers and I that we had a sister, but she died before I can even remember.”
Lightningpaw nods along. He’s looking at your claws as you absent-mindedly unsheathe them.
“You know she was born a tom like I was? She was so… special to me. It felt like I was supposed to be like her.” You curl your tail tightly around yourself. “I dreamed that I saw her ghost, and that she was mad at me for fighting with ShadowClan. She always talked about how the Clans should be more peaceful-” your eyes burn and your throat tightens. “-and now look at me. I’m nothing like her.”
“I mean, you don’t have to be her. No one’s expecting you to be exactly like her. It’s cool that you got to be mollies together though,” Lightningpaw says softly.
That makes you smile. “It was. She would always go out of her way to point out things we had in common, since I look so much like my dad. I didn’t realize how much it helped until she was gone. She was the only one like me in ThunderClan.”
“I think there are a few in SkyClan,” Lightningpaw muses. “Maybe you could talk to them sometime!”
You snort, the last of your teary voice leaving. “The day I can prance into SkyClan camp and have molly chat with the warriors is the day that my mom’s wishes come true.”
“It could happen!” Lightningpaw insists. “You could start a club!”
“Like a half-moon meeting?” You squawk. “We all gather around the Moonstone and complain about looking like our dads?”
“I can complain about looking like my mom!” Lightningpaw adds, a cheerful glint in his eyes. He looks shy again as you fail to contain a shocked look at the mention of his mother. Lightningpaw… didn’t talk about his parents. To your surprise, he recovers, smiling wider. “I have her muzzle. Do you know how ridiculous it feels to see my muzzle and think ‘Ew, that’s a molly trait’?”
“You can have my long swoopy muzzle, it’s my dad’s,” you reply.
“Oh, if we’re switching bodies I am so in. I’ll do so much more gesturing with a tail like yours.”
“Do your ears even do anything, or are they just like that?” You purr, reaching up to bat at Lightningpaw’s unruly inner ear fur.
He jerks his head back and shoves you away playfully. “I have superior hearing,” he drawls.
“That is the opposite of what you have.”
He joined ThunderClan.
He… joined ThunderClan.
To be with you.
It scares you. It scares you to see how far Lightningpaw is willing to go for you.
And yet there’s a selfish part of you that’s glad to have him here. You’re glad to have him sneak into the healer’s den to sleep next to you. You’re glad he’s there to talk with you when you start panicking again.
You know the whole Clan stares at you. You know that they’re gossiping.
“So, are you gonna be, like, mates with Lightningpaw?” Sandpaw whispers to you one day when Lightningpaw is at the fresh-kill pile.
You choke on a mouthful of squirrel. “What!? No, we’re not- Lightningpaw’s… We’re not like that.” You swipe at your brother’s ears. “I don’t even like toms, you idiot!”
Sandpaw looks at you incredulously. “But does he like you?”
You pause, glancing at Lightningpaw trotting cheerfully back to the rock you’re eating in the shade of. “I don’t… think so,” you say.
Sandpaw waggles his eyebrows obnoxiously and you hit him for real this time.
“What’s gonna happen if we have to fight SkyClan?” You ask, not looking away from the clouds slowly moving across the sky.
Lightningpaw exhales quietly next to you, curling his tail a little tighter around yours. “Then I’ll fight SkyClan.”
You turn onto your side to look at him. He’s still looking up at the sky, but he’s starting to flex his claws nervously. “But they were your clanmates.”
“They aren’t anymore.”
“What about Gingerleap?”
The tip of Lightningpaw’s tail flicks, loosening its grip on your own. You try to ignore the spike of dread the lack of contact makes you feel. “He almost killed you,” he says darkly. “He doesn’t matter anymore.”
You look back to the sky. Lightningpaw was always a bit stubborn.
He’d said Gingerleap regretted it. You aren’t sure how you’ll react if you see him in battle again. Redstar expects you to be ruthless. You are ruthless. You’re a ThunderClan apprentice, you’re Redstar’s apprentice, you are ruthless. But Lightningpaw used to say that Gingerleap was like a father to him. You’d targeted him in the first place because he was a beloved and respected senior warrior, thinking that if you could injure him, it would prove that ThunderClan was not to be messed with.
(And instead you almost died.)
Would you fight Amberstrike if you had to? Could you ever be brought to hurt the cat that raised you?
You imagine your father standing over Lightningpaw’s bloodied body.
Maybe you could.
You’re trying your best to listen to Lightningpaw explain moths and butterflies to you, but the way he’s scratching rough shapes into the dirt only reminds you of Redstar illustrating battle plans to you and Leafstorm this morning. Even ThunderClan’s deputy looked nervous at her leader’s suggestion that they invade ShadowClan.
“If we cut through Twolegplace,” he’d said, cutting a long curve into a patch of soft earth, “then we’ll be closer than ever without crossing the border they’ll be expecting. With WindClan’s help we can overpower them.”
“But why? ThunderClan has enough territory for its warriors,” Leafstorm had interjected, holding fast even when Redstar glared at her.
“You need to think of the future, Leafstorm. Of kits and migrating prey.”
“-but moths are usually much fluffier than butterflies, and more stout. They’re also asleep during the day- wait, are you nervous about something?” Lightningpaw finally looks away from his drawings and back at you. “I’m sorry, I didn’t notice.”
“It’s- it’s okay,” you say, tail swishing. “I got distracted, too, it wasn’t anything to do with you.”
“Are you.. okay?”
“Yeah.” Your response comes out too fast, too tense, but it goes over Lightningpaw’s head. His gentle smile makes your stomach twist as he rubs a drawing away, moving on to a crude, fat shape of a bumblebee.
A few days ago, Redstar ordered twice as much battle practice for the apprentices.
Lightningpaw doesn’t mind, really! He knows how important it is to be strong and skilled right now. But he’s only just realizing how different ThunderClan’s battle strategies are from SkyClan’s. Every time he maneuvers to get the high ground he’s knocked over, apprentices and mentors alike barreling into him with all their bulk and none of SkyClan’s leaping.
He thinks of Applepaw, the smallest mature cat in ThunderClan, and shudders a bit at just how dangerous his friend really is.
Snakepaw bunches her hind legs and makes a powerful lunge forwards, her large paws hitting Lightningpaw’s chest and knocking him over. He rolls quickly with the impact and jumps into the air to dodge her next attack, landing directly next to her and throwing himself into her shoulders to pin her on her side. There’s a sharp cheer and Lightningpaw looks up to see Icefang waving her tail excitedly. Amberstrike nods approvingly, and Snakepaw wriggles out from under him, shaking out her brown tabby pelt with a scowl.
“You both did great,” Icefang meows. “Good job keeping your lunge low, Snakepaw; Lightningpaw wasn’t able to swipe at your belly.” She turns to him and adds, “And that jump saved you there, that was impressive.”
“It’s time to meet at the obstacle course,” Amberstrike says. Lightningpaw and Snakepaw follow their mentors through the forest until the undergrowth breaks into another clearing. There are branches of every size and shape woven into complicated structures against one wall of trees, and several large rocks dotted around the grass. Nightpaw and Sandpaw are sparring in an empty patch of grass, their mentors watching over them and calling out advice. Snakepaw streams past Lightningpaw to shout encouragement to her sister.
Lightningpaw’s eyes snap to where Applepaw is running along one of the branches, tail streaming behind her as her brother Lightpaw chases her. She skids briefly at the end of the branch before twisting to the side and leaping onto one of the rocks, claws audibly skidding on the hard surface. As Lightpaw jumps to follow her, she rears up and slams her paws down onto him, sending him tumbling to the ground. He rolls over, but not fast enough, and Applepaw is on him, a paw braced on his neck.
“Go, Applepaw!” Lightningpaw whoops. Applepaw jerks around to find him, ears standing straight up, and she bounds over to greet him. Lightningpaw lowers his head to bump their foreheads together.
“You’ve never been to the obstacle course, right?” Applepaw says, glancing behind her as she trots around the grass, which was torn and rumpled from recent training. “We only use it for specialty stuff, like assessments.”
“So you guys do jump!” Lightningpaw purrs.
Paws land heavily off to the side. “We’re in need of honing our skills to prepare for this battle,” Redstar says. Applepaw stills as he pads over to stand next to her. “Though we will have the element of surprise.”
Redstar had explained it when he doubled the battle training: they’re going to invade ShadowClan. And apparently Redstar had been talking to WindClan’s… healer? Leader? Lightningpaw honestly doesn’t know what’s going on over there. But Redstar and Meadowmist are discussing an alliance, so there will be WindClan warriors traveling through the Gathering crater’s neutral territory to assist them in the near future. It will be interesting to see WindClan cats again, Lightningpaw only sees them briefly at Gatherings anymore.
Applepaw always changes the subject when he brings up WindClan or the upcoming battle. She must be really nervous, after what happened the last time she fought. Her wound had healed, but they left her neck with rough, exposed skin where fur won’t grow anymore.
But she squares her shoulders and looks up at Redstar now, a stiff smile on her face. “They won’t know what hit ‘em.”
Her tail tip is quivering.
Applepaw is your best friend.
Applepaw is your only friend, your whole world, your shining StarClan warrior standing between you and everyone else. Shielding you from fear and discomfort and reassuring you over and over again, I love you, you’re safe, I love you.
Applepaw is curled tightly in on herself, eyes screwed shut and tail pinned under her flexing claws.
“Hey,” you say softly, glancing over to make sure none of the other apprentices are awake on the other side of the den. You prod her shoulder gently and her eyes snap open, flashing in the low light. “What’s wrong?” You whisper.
“I’m just nervous about ShadowClan,” she mumbles, voice dipping in her sleepy effort to stay quiet.
“Want to talk?”
Applepaw nods, shakily standing up and slinking out of the den. You follow closely behind and sit next to her along the camp wall, far enough from the dens that they didn’t have to whisper. Applepaw is still digging her claws into the ground and her ears are swiveling every which way, paranoid.
“I don’t want to invade ShadowClan.” She looks around after the confession, like Redstar would appear from the darkness and punish her. “We don’t need the territory. Redstar just wants the power. He wants to scare the other Clans, and I think he’s going to succeed.” She looks into your eyes and you try not to flinch away from her terror. “But he’ll know if I throw any fights. He always knows. I can’t sit this out.”
“We could run away,” you say, unexpected even to yourself. You mean it, though. “Just you and me, we can leave. We don’t have to stick around for this.”
“My family is here, Lightningpaw. And I can’t just leave everyone to deal with this, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
Aren’t I enough? You want to say. Can’t we just have each other?
Applepaw sighs. “I’m going to have to fight ShadowClan. And I’ll probably have to fight SkyClan later.” Her paws knead the ground and her tail knocks yellow petals from the bushes of the wall. “I’m so tired of fighting, Lightningpaw. I’m tired of hurting people.” She looks back up at you. “I would run away with you if I didn’t love ThunderClan so much. I promise. I want to live somewhere far away. I want to have a family. And I don’t want to bring kits into a world where they’ll have to fight their friends in wars.”
You bump shoulders with her, unsure of how to comfort her. “Where are you going to get kits?” You ask, hoping your tone is light enough.
Applepaw laughs, making your tail flick excitedly. “I dunno, I was imagining I’d meet a nice molly on my travels, maybe one who already had kits that I could help her with.” Her expression goes soft. “Can you imagine raising kits without having to teach them battle moves? Just games and hunting skills and herbs?”
“I’m not really good with kits,” you mumble. Kits were loud and unpredictable and they made you nervous, but they could be cute. “But it sounds like you’ve been thinking about this a lot.” You… would probably help Applepaw raise kits if she asked. If her imaginary mate was okay with it.
Honestly, the whole scenario is so unfamiliar it’s making your mind run in circles desperately trying to attach these thoughts to anything remotely similar you’ve ever experienced. You’ve never seriously considered if you want to be a father, and now Applepaw is dismantling yet another one of your walls as she confesses her hopes and dreams to you. Is this just something cats think about at her age? She’s less than a moon older than you, but maybe there’s a significant shift just on the horizon.
And now you're paranoid about growing up again. Great. At least it doesn’t seem like you missed anything during your mini freak-out, Applepaw is staring around the camp in comfortable silence.
Oh, her eyes are actually drooping quite a bit. She’s starting to sway.
You stand up, touching your nose to her ear. “We should go back to sleep.”
She nods and brushes against your side as you walk back to the apprentices’ den. You watch her circle around and settle into her nest and go to do the same, but she reaches a paw out and touches your foreleg. When you look down at her she’s pouting like a kit, eyes wide and ears pinned back. She hooks her paw around your leg and you sigh with a smile, laying down next to her and letting her bury her face in your chest fur.
You can be the shield tonight.