Chapter 199: The Strain of Training.
""Say, Mr. Castles, do you have any use for that kitten there?"
George was genuinely confused. "What kitten?"
"The one that you're holding."
"This is a rabbit, you daft fool!"
Winston rolled his eyes. "Young rabbits are called kittens, as well."
-wtw, The Promised Friend
The digging at Sunflower Forest started off very chaotically, due to the complexities in organizing the group. Hawkbit and Dandelion, unable to come up with any realistic excuses, were forced to take part in the task. Additionally, Blackberry had to figure out which burrows were the safest to collapse at first: dig through the wrong wall, and everything would collapse, trapping the diggers underground. Once her inspections were finished, however, things sped up, as the diggers split up and got to work on one burrow each. However, after only a few burrows were demolished, Willow warned of the upcoming haunting; the living rabbits were therefore forced to leave after very little progress. Hawkbit and Dandelion in particular seemed disappointed.
-"I suppose we'll have to go back tomorrow," the grey rabbit said with a sigh, upon reaching the bottom of the Down.
-"What? No!" Dandelion's expression was one of total despair. "My claws can't take it anymore!"
-"Would you rather face Bigwig's training?"
-"If you want to go digging tomorrow, fine. But I won't. I'll be in pain either way, but at least, with Bigwig, I'll still be at my home warren."
Around halfway to the top, the rabbits came across a puddle. Hawkbit and Dandelion did not climb up the rest of the way; instead, they stopped and placed their front paws in the water.
-"Aren't you coming?" Hazel asked.
-"No, we'll stay here for a while, soaking our aching claws," Hawkbit said. "It's the only way we'll be able to make it the rest of the way."
-"Is it really that bad?" Blackberry asked sadly.
-"It is. Bucks, unlike does, aren't made to dig."
Blackberry sighed at the sexist remark.
-"I didn't want to push you too hard, but you DID volunteer..."
-"Biggest mistake of my life. Don't you have any advice or herbs that could take the pain away?"
-"I do have some advice." Blackberry winked. "The more you dig, the less painful it will be in the future."
-"Any HELPFUL advice?" Hawkbit said with a groan.
-"I just gave you some. If you choose to ignore it, that's on you."
With that, she hopped the rest of the way to the top, along with Hazel and the others, leaving Hawkbit and Dandelion behind.
-"What should we do?" Dandelion asked.
-"Technically, she's probably right," Hawkbit said. "It won't help us today, since our claws are already ruined, but it might help in the future."
-"Alternatively, consider this: the less we dig, the fewer opportunities we will have to hurt our claws."
-"Also a valid option. We'll see what we do in the morning, depending on if we're still agonizing, and what mood Bigwig will be in."
As the group reached the top, Hickory and Marigold were the next to split off from the others.
"I'm in the mood for some excitement tonight," Marigold said. "Are you ready, Hickory?"
-"Oh yes. That would be pleasant," the buck replied with a smile.
The couple briefly giggled, then went underground, as the other diggers watched.
-"Perhaps there is hope for their relationship after all," Blackberry said.
-"Indeed," Hazel replied. "They have gone through a lot, but it's good that they still have each other."
As Blackberry and Hazel hopped away in different directions, however, they failed to notice the sad expression on Fiver's face. He didn't want to ruin their mood with his latest vision, so he remained silent, and simply went back to his burrow.
Pipkin felt lonely and bored for much of the afternoon. The junior owsla was not on duty that day, and his best friend Fiver was gone digging, leaving him with nothing to do, and nobody to do it with. After an hour or so of just lying in his burrow, staring at the ceiling, he went to see Clover, who had taken Hickory and Marigold's kitten to silflay.
The kitten was not yet weaned, and had little experience with solid food. They spent more time sniffing than eating, putting their nose onto every individual blade of grass, and only afterwards did they cautiously take a bite. As they chewed, their eyes were wide open, as they took in all these new experiences, and they frequently paused to wiggle their nose. Clover had little to do besides making sure they didn't run off, or choke on an overly large bite of vegetation. Pipkin watched alongside her, until he finally decided to speak.
-"Did you ever consider having any kittens of your own?"
-"I have considered it," Clover admitted. "But the unfortunate truth is that it would take a second rabbit."
-"I take it there is currently no buck you're considering for this?"
-"There really isn't. Don't get me wrong, I like most of the bucks here, as friends. I just don't want to be mates with them, not at the moment, anyway. I want to be my own rabbit, without being defined by who I am with."
Suddenly, another rabbit came running; it was Strawberry. She arrived so quickly that the kitten, startled, went to hide beneath Clover.
-"Pipkin, you're close friends with Blueberry, right?" the visitor said.
-"We're on good terms," Pipkin replied; calling himself 'close friends' with Blueberry was a bit of a stretch. "Why?"
-"Have you seen him anywhere? I've been looking for him all over the warren, and I can't find him."
-"I think he went to spend time with the owsla. If you want, I can go take a look."
-"That would be appreciated. Also, I have been told that Silverweed had a vision, and me taking care of him is only temporary, until some permanent parents take him on, or something. Have there been any further developments on this issue?"
-"If there has been any progress, nobody told me about it."
-"He's a nice kitten, it's just that he's very independent, especially for someone his age. Makes me wonder whether he even needs parents at all."
-"Perhaps so. Still, there wouldn't be any harm in him getting adopted anyway, right?"
-"Also, he's cute, I'll miss him."
-"You two could still be friends."
As Pipkin approached the training grounds, the first rabbit who caught his attention was Gilia, who was sitting nearby, staring at the group of rabbits with a look of admiration on her face.
-"Hey Gilia," he said, hopping over to her. "What are you looking at?"
-"Oh he's so brave," Gilia says dreamily.
-"Bigwig?" Pipkin guessed. "He is. He'll do anything to protect this warren and the rabbits who live here."
-"Huh?" Gilia momentarily looked at Pipkin. "Oh no, not Bigwig."
As Pipkin took a closer look at the group of rabbits training, he spotted the kitten. He had just been tackled, and groaned in pain as he lied down on his side. He slowly got back on his feet, although he was quite wobbly.
-"Are you hurt?" Bigwig asked, as he had already done many times already.
-"Don't stop on my account," Blueberry replied, still wobbly, and slurring his words a bit. "Bring it on!"
-"What is he doing?" Pipkin asked Gilia, shocked by what he was seeing.
-"He's training," Gilia said.
-"I didn't know Bigwig let him in the owsla."
-"He said you said he could."
-"I said no such thing."
-"You didn't?" Gilia was left confused. "Huh, that's weird. Maybe Blueberry misunderstood what you said."
That seemed plausible to Pipkin: perhaps all this talk about "hanging out with the owsla" was really about joining. While Pipkin would still have been unable to forbid Blueberry from doing it, he would have advised against it, had he known. There's a fine line between bravery and foolishness, and Blueberry had crossed it. He hopped over to the kitten, helping him get back up following yet another tackle.
-"I think you've had enough for today."
-"Oh come on, why do you have to be such a killjoy? Can't I keep going just a bit longer? Please please please?"
-"You need rest."
-"Who are you to boss me around?" Blueberry took a few uneasy steps forward towards Pipkin. "You're not my father! I don't have a father!" At this, tears appeared in his eyes. "Never had one! But I will soon! I hope! I want...uh..."
A single missed step was all it took for Blueberry to collapse. As he saw this, Bigwig shook his head. Despite the kitten's insistence that he was fine, he was clearly not; this entire training session had been a big mistake.
-"Right, so, training is over for today," Bigwig announced. "We'll pick up where we left off tomorrow morning."
-"Let me take you to your burrow," Pipkin told the kitten.
-"Ah yes, a nice comfortable burrow..."
Blueberry tried to get back up, but was still very weak, so he did little more than crawl. He was also disoriented, going towards the edge of the Down rather than the beech tree. Pipkin nudged him in the right direction.
-"No, the warren is this way."
As the rabbits slowly made their way back underground, Pipkin pondered the situation. Blueberry really needed a stable family, both because he appeared to want one, and also because someone needed to protect him from himself. Perhaps he could also be the solution to Clover's problem. However, since nobody had told him who Silverweed had seen in his vision, he would not mention this just yet, in case someone else was destined to adopt him instead. He would have to talk to the seer about it soon.
As they reached the warren's main entrance, Strawberry ran over to them.
-"Brambles! What happened to him?"
-"You'll have to make sure he gets a lot of rest."