Finally, I got around to this. It's a prequel to Falling Smoke, though you don't have to have read Falling Smoke to understand, and there won't be any references to it. This fic is also almost completely canon; there are minor discrepancies in allegiances and ages, but hey, even the Erin Hunters get those things messed up. At least I did it on purpose. Also, this is my first shot at a fic like this, so a little leeway is appreciated... an now, you can go read. :)
One, of Loneliness
It is raining, and raining hard. The young apprentice closes his eyes against the pouring water, opening them every once in awhile to avoid the thick pine trees in his path, but cannot will away the pelting of the fierce droplets against his soaking pelt. He sloshes through the mud, spraying and splashing it all over himself and the cats around him, but they are too drenched and exhausted to scold him.
"I don't see why we have to have midnight patrols," Dawnpaw complains, her voice barely audible above the roar of the rain.
"Shut up, kit," snarls Oakfur, in a worse mood than usual. "You RiverClan cats are such wimps."
"You shove it, Oakfur," interjects Heavystep, stepping between his apprentice and the patrol leader with venom in his beady black eyes. "We're one Clan now, so don't you go berating my apprentice."
Oakfur snorts in response, and the young apprentice at his side would have delivered a biting insult on his behalf, had he not tripped over a tree branch and fallen face forward into the mud.
Rain splatters his body and the mud around him. He lifts his nose out of the muck, spit it out disgustedly, and looks up to see the rest of the patrol looking down at him.
"And you call my apprentice a wimp." Heavystep smirks down at the young cat splayed out in the puddle of mud.
Oakfur didn't even bother protesting, instead shooting a sharp glare at his apprentice. "We're moving on," he declares. "We don't have time to wait." For weak, useless losers goes unsaid, but is perfectly clear in his tone. "Join us when your pathetic tail out of the mud, Smokepaw."
The midnight patrol moves on without him. Smokepaw doesn't bother getting up; he just lies there curled up in the mud, allowing the harsh rain to beat down on his pelt and the mud to envelop his fur. He might have lay there all night, had something not fallen right next to him.
In the pouring rain, he doesn't even hear it coming, and doesn't know he is not alone until, with a loud squeal, something splashes into the mud puddle beside him. Smokepaw leaps to his feet and unsheathes his small claws and tries to look fierce, though he has scarcely been an apprentice for half a moon. Like every young cat, he longs for the chance to prove himself in battle, no matter how much his superiors and mentor tell him he's useless.
But the figure that emerges from the mud puddle is hardly an enemy combatant. It is about his size, and definitely a cat, but even if they weren't been covered in mud and rain wasn't falling in bucket loads from the sky, the untrained apprentice would have been unable to smell the ThunderClan scent.
The mud covered figure is obviously terrified, enough to be fooled by Smokepaw's attempt at intimidation. It takes a sloshy step backwards, squishing a bed of drooping white hyacinth flowers beneath her paws. Finally, it speaks. "Are you a TigerClan cat?"
Her voice - yes, she is a she-cat, that much Smokepaw can tell - is small and timid, and though she had barely elevated her voice above a whisper, he somehow understands her over patter of the rain.
"Yes," he replies proudly. But despite his attempt at boldness, he averts her gaze, his eyes instead falling to the torn hyacinth flowers sinking in the mud beneath her.
The young she-cat's voice trembles along with her cold, soaked frame. "Could... could you take me to Tigerstar?"
Smokepaw's eyes narrow, still trying to maintain his illusion of toughness. "Why should I?" he demands.
His yellow eyes finally meet hers, bright green and wet with - the rain? - wide and pleading, and he looks right into them as she murmurs, "He's my father, and I've come to join him."
Talonpaw lay awake waiting for Smokepaw to return. For all the ridicule he takes, for being a kit and a coward, he cannot sleep without his brother at his side. Finally, in the dead of night, his brother returns from the midnight patrol.
Oakfur, Smokepaw, Heavystep and Dawnpaw pad into TigerClan camp, drenched and exhausted. But there is a fifth cat with them that Talonpaw does not recognize. The young apprentice had gotten good at memorizing the names and faces of the new RiverClan recruits to TigerClan, but the small, mud-splattered cat's identity is lost on him. He furrows his small black brow, and wonders at her identity. Perhaps she is a rogue, come to join Tigerstar. He wouldn't put it past him. He'd have to ask Smokepaw.
Talonpaw watches from the apprentice den as Smokepaw and Dawnpaw break off from the group. Heavystep turns towards the warriors den, and Oakfur and the mud-covered cat continue towards Tigerstar's den. His confusion deepens, but Smokepaw is coming. Surely he can explain.
"Look, Smokepaw," Dawnpaw meows as they enter the den. "Little Talonpaw stayed awake for you." Though low, her voice did not lack the intended bite.
Smokepaw lets out a low growl. "Don't you dare insult him," he snarls.
Despite stinging from Dawnpaw's insult, Talonpaw feels a swell of happiness in that his brother is standing up for him. So he swallows his wounded pride, ignores Dawnpaw and says to Smokepaw, "Can we go outside? I have a question for you."
"Secrets secrets are no fun when they're not shared with everyone," Dawnpaw sing-songs, but Talonpaw ignores her mocking.
Smokepaw glares at the other apprentice, but gives his brother a curt nod. Talonpaw smiles gratefully, and the two apprentices exit the den into the pouring rain.
Smokepaw shivers. "There had better be a pretty good reason you dragged me out into the rain again, Talonpaw."
Suddenly Talonpaw feels guilty; his brother has been outside in the rain all night, is covered in mud and water, and is clearly exhausted. He should have saved his question till morning, but impatience is his worst fault, and he could not wait.
"I was just curious," Talonpaw mews, looking down at his wet paws in embarrassment. He suddenly wants to run back inside the nice, dry den, where the rain isn't battering his pelt and Smokepaw's intense yellow eyes aren't fiercer than the rain. But now he is here, and he has to know. "Who was that cat, the fifth one on the patrol? I didn't see her leave with you."
Smokepaw's expression, as always, is unreadable. "She is Tawnypaw, Tigerstar's daughter," he replies stoically. "She has come to join us."