Up In Smoke: Chapter Nine (Title is in pink because happy Valentine's Day!)
Sandpaw blinked, shocked, then gently stepped forward on legs that felt like jelly, pressing against Duskfire's side.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, gazing down on the peaceful-looking body of Featherblaze. If not for the horrible wound on her throat, she could have been asleep.
"Get out! You don't know what this feels like! You don't understand!" the new warrior screamed, half-sobbing, then broke down in tears, placing his forelegs around Featherblaze's shoulders. and pressing his muzzle against her lifeless one. "I can't lose you," he mewed to the body in barely more than a whisper, squeezing his eyes tightly shut as he mourned his beloved sister.
Stung by the raw, forceful feeling and anger in his words, Sandpaw stumbled out of the medicine den. Suddenly, the midday sun seemed harsh, too bright and happy for the young apprentice's eyes. She could still faintly hear Duskpaw mewing unintelligible words in a sobbing whisper. Head bowed and looking aged again, Vixenstar emerged after Sandpaw.
"Sandpaw, there you are!" Thistledusk called sharply across the camp. "We're going to try fishing in the stream with Flintriver and Troutpaw." Fishing, she thought dully. She hadn't been fishing before. At a time when Featherblaze was still alive, she would have felt energized and excited about the new activity. Now, all she felt was dullness. She had witnessed the death of a brave soul, and a good friend. Featherblaze didn't deserve to die. I'll kill Brightflash for what she did to my denmate. Sandpaw realized her muzzle was wet with tears, and her claws were digging into the soft soil. "Come on, mouse-brain, we're going!" her mentor yowled, and sadly, Sandpaw followed.
They trudged through the territory, Troutpaw bounding along happily beside her, weaving around and smelling everything, from the widest oak tree to the smallest twig.
The beautiful golden rays of sunlight blazed down happily through the looming leaf-bare trees. Dead leaves crunched under her paws, feeling to Sandpaw like the brittle bones of the cat who killed Featherblaze. Sandpaw kept her head down, staring at her paws as she imagined them coated with Brightflash's blood.
"We're here," Flintriver announced after they had been walking for a few minutes. Sandpaw looked up, gazing at the bubbling stream, not yet frozen from the cold breeze. "Bass still reside here; they don't leave during the winter."
"Sandpaw, Troutpaw, watch me closely. Try not to fall into the river."
"As if you didn't fall in when you were an apprentice," Flintriver purred good-naturedly. At another time, Sandpaw could have conjured a funny picture of a younger version of her mentor falling into the stream. Now, she just sighed, wanting to get on with it. Thistledusk shook his head and crouched neatly, pressing his belly as low to the ground as his body permitted, and keeping very still, leaving a little paw-room in front of him. His hawklike eyes raked over the water, and suddenly, his paw flashed out, hooking a bass neatly onto land. With a neat bite, he snapped its spine and it quit flopping under his paw. Despite her despair, Sandpaw couldn't help but be a little impressed with the skilled catch.
"Now you try, Troutpaw," mewed Thistledusk, standing aside so the younger apprentice could get ready. His paws were right on the edge of the bank, and his tail was whisking back and forth friskily. Gently, Flintriver placed a paw over his tail, stilling its motion. He was nearly lying down rather than crouching, so Thistledusk used his tail to gently lift the apprentice's belly a little. Troutpaw's ears flicked to and fro as he gazed intently at the splashing water. His eyes locked on a fish, and his paw began to flash out, but he hesitated. The shadow fell over the fish and it darted away.
"Oh," he mewed, disappointed.
"That was a pretty good try. Next time, don't hesitate, just go for it. Sandpaw, how about you try?"
Saying nothing, Sandpaw stepped up, sighing quietly as she got into a hunting crouch. Featherblaze just died, and we're going about normal business like nothing happened! she wanted to burst out, but kept quiet. She watched the water, keeping her tail still, and her eyes caught on a thing that looked like a fish. It wasn't moving, though, so she took the opportunity, using her paw to grab it. Her claws dug into it, scraping against stone. She tried to tug her paw back, but her claw snagged. She lost her balance and tumbled forward into the cold stream, soaking her through her fur to the bone. Quickly, she scrambled out as fast as she could, shivering and gasping.
"What did I say?!" snapped Thistledusk, his tail angrily lashing against the grass.
"I'm sorry I can't focus!" Sandpaw finally snapped. "It's just that Featherpaw happens to be dead, so sorry if I'm not at the top of my game!" Her fur was bristling and her claws were unsheathed. Troutpaw and Flintriver exchanged startled looks.
"We didn't-" Flintriver began, but Sandpaw's mentor cut him off.
"So?! A Clanmate dies, you move on! A death is no reason to neglect your duties!" Thistledusk growled back, stepping forward so he was only a few inches away from her. "Go back to camp if you can't focus, and mourn your friend all day, and be nothing more than another mouth to feed." Tears welled up in her eyes, and Sandpaw whirled on her heel, breaking into a run. The trees were no more than insignificant blurs as she raced through the forest. She caught her paw on a root, tripping and falling on her face, but that made her begin to cry more. Eventually, her paw hurt so much, and she felt so cold and miserable that she just collapsed, shivering violently, in a clearing full of browning grass. She covered her eyes with her paws, and her pads were ice-cold. She didn't recognize this clearing, because right now, everything looked the same. Snow began to gently fall from the sky, and she heard worried calls in the distance. Sandpaw looked up, blinking, and realized that the crater that held the Echo-Tree and the Connection Pool. Her tail tip and hind paws beginning to feel numb, she got up, stumbling towards it, and somehow descended into the crater successfully, feeling that maybe she could see Featherblaze in StarClan. The icy water of the Connection Pool lapped over her paws, and she touched it with her nose, but no sleep came.
Sandpaw found that she didn't have the effort to climb back out, so she lay down, not caring anymore, and wept herself to sleep, paws still submerged in the cold water.