Warrior Cat Clans 2 (WCC2 aka Classic) is a roleplay site inspired by the Warrior series by Erin Hunter. Whether you are a fan of the books or new to the Warrior cats world, WCC2 offers a diverse environment with over a decade’s worth of lore for you - and your characters - to explore. Join us today and become a part of our ongoing story!
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“Look,” the voices snickered, all hunched over themselves around camp like creatures who fed on sick rumours. They were just eyes and teeth. “Little limping Leveret is out and about.” Limping Leveret, limping Leveret! The nickname hissed between the clustered groups like wildfire. Because they were all just bullies and the second one said something mildly clever, all the others picked it up and echoed it and thought themselves the first to do so, happy to be part of a bullying community because it meant they were the ones on top, the ones doing the laughing. Keeping his head down, only daring to glance around with seething, teary-eyed resentment when his head was bowed, Leveretpaw limped painfully slow out of the medicine den. It was his first time out since the League raid and his back leg was still in its splint, stiff and unusable.
“D’you think Kier will make that your name?” one of them tittered, leaning out from a group with eyes like a hunting dog’s.
Leveretpaw swallowed and kept his head down, not replying. He never replied. Wouldn’t that have been the most awful, believable thing — Kier playing to the whims of the multitude, to the current joke being passed around, and giving him the name just to grin and listen to the gratified cheers and the laughter the fact he did it, he really did it! Leveretpaw had never been popular before, but he’d never been openly derided by this. At least before he’d had Oleanderpaw to occasionally protect him — she got to bully him, not them. Now, they did what predators, what sharks, always did: the second they smelled blood, smelled fear, smelled weakness, didn’t matter who it came from — leader or deputy or warrior — they attacked. Kier and Snowblister had created something terrible, had created monsters, and one day they just as much as everyone else would have to live in fear of their creation. But right now, Leveretpaw was the one who had to cope, and Kier was the one watching from his den doorway with a little grin and shaking shoulders. The only thing he liked more than a young cat to imprint on was a young cat very much like himself who he could crush — to show there was only one of him, that the things he had achieved couldn’t be achieved by anyone else, that there was still a natural pecking order and just because he had managed to beat it didn’t mean he would allow anyone else to. He was especially savage with those ones. Keeping his position exclusive was what he did. The fact that Leveretpaw had seen Oleanderpaw spending time with him worried him, made him sad with it. Finally, still tittering to himself, Kier turned and disappeared back into his den — and Leveretpaw could breathe. Some of the groups lost interest when he wasn’t there to watch and impress; others launched into their hissing laughter with three times the gleeful venom. Hunching his shoulders self-consciously against the onslaught, he took a heavy seat by the pool of silty water to wash his paws. He never felt clean anymore, lying in his unchanged bedding.
'but gold we just started 50 other threads and also you still have to respond to the kier and oleander thread!' i hear you ask, and to that i say I KNOW. OKAY! I KNOW! just.... don't mention it, okay. im too busy giving leveretpaw soft kisses on his loser forehead to hear you
Since her talk with Kier, Oleanderpaw had gotten it through her head that she was invisible, indestructible, untouchable. He sung his praises of her so loudly that she was sure everybody had heard, he held her on a pedestal so high that she was sure everybody could see, and it wasn't the slightly disingenuous praise he gave to most toms simply for the fact that they were toms, it was real, it was honest, because she was a she-cat, someone who was supposed to be below toms, who was supposed to be submissive and silent and small — no, her respect was earned, fought for. She wore the jagged, half-healed wound like a badge of honour. Her time spent out of the medicine-cat's den grew longer, more frequent, but she quickly found there was nothing for her to do. All the busybody jobs went to the Inferiors, not those who had any semblance of respect, and certainly not the youth of the clan, the ones that had either been born or mostly raised under Kier's leadership and were therefore more loyal, less deserving of menial tasks. Oleanderpaw wasn't supposed to bother with it, she was supposed to rest, but she grew restless.
From where she sat just in front of the medicine-cat's den, she watched the group make jeering remarks towards Leveretpaw, eyes narrowing as she overheard their laughter, their simple-minded taunts. When her friend stalked off towards the water, she padded over before the clique dispersed, paws light but determined, an angry, slick grin on her features. "You!" She addressed the group, though her eyes fixated on the cat who had started the name-calling. Her voice was still low, raspy and damanged, but it didn't hurt as much to talk, not enough that she couldn't tough it out. She hoped it amplified her attempted intimidation. Her front paws pressed firmly together, she leaned her head forward, gaze raking the group as if she were picking them apart one by one — and she was, because Oleanderpaw was as much a shark as they were.
"If you don't back off, you'll be joining him." She leaned back, the fur on her shoulders lifting before she forcibly flattened it. "Honestly, is that the best you can come up with? Limping Leveret? You all think you're so clever, so funny?" She laughed, a biting, grating sound, throwing their words back with a lowered mockery of their voices. "What a wordsmith," she rolled her eyes. "Name-calling! You'd think we left that in the nursery. Guess not." With a last judgmental lookover, sharp and disdainful, she turned on her heels and left, making her way over to Leveretpaw to take a quiet place beside him, watching as the water rippled at his disturbance.
There was plenty she wanted to say, soppy, sincere things, but she couldn't seem to force them up her throat and out of her mouth. Affection, when it was real, when it was genuine, had never been her thing. "You've really got to fight back one of these days," she settled for something partially reprimanding, partially concerned. Still, she gave a grin, small but snide, not directed towards him. "Really, they're not as tough as they seem. Bottom-of-the-barrel. I swear they've got rocks in their head or something." She snorted, tapping the surface of the water just to watch it wiggle.
When Oleanderpaw stormed so daintily over to the group, the lead cat curled his lips in a silent, twitching warning snarl but stayed silent; their home was all hierarchy and unspoken understandings, and this was Kier’s new favourite. They might have had a thousand things to say to her a month ago, and those things still passed through all their heads. But they couldn’t say them now. They weren’t cowed, they weren’t put in their place — they were seething. But they couldn’t say a thing. So, instead, ears flat against half a dozen heads, the lead cat gave Oleanderpaw a faintly submissive hiss and slunk away, the others skulking after him low to the ground like a party of sewer rats.
Leveretpaw had been listening to the whole thing. He always listened to everything Oleanderpaw said, and just the same as all the other times, faint, burning redness had risen to his cheeks. He stayed where he was, not looking back, just going on with his paw-cleaning that was a little slower and a little more vague than before, but he listened to every word. A sad sort of love rose to his throat, sticking there like a ball; it was everything hopeless and grateful and awed, and everything miserable. Name-calling! As she went on and on — she could never just deliver one really stinging remark; she had to drive it home like she kept thinking them up and had to say them, or like she wasn’t convinced she’d been scary enough the first time — Leveretpaw started to smile, ducking his head with a shy sort of crooked half-grin, his ears fanning down and his cheeks hot under his pale fur. Before, when she’d set off on her strings of invectives, he’d always been worried and embarrassed for her, not because he was ashamed to be near her but because he was afraid of what would happen the day someone shot something back at her that really hurt. Now, it was his favourite thing in the world. Hearing her shatter the silence around camp by suddenly verbally attacking some poor soul for treading on her paws or cutting in front of her — even if he couldn’t see her, even if her voice just rose while he was somewhere else, it made his chest float. She was so scary, so mean and loud and confident. And he was smitten. There was no resentment now, no jealousy, no loneliness; he was just listening to her do the thing he loved most in the world. And she was defending him, too. He felt like crying.
When he heard her padding over, though, the little grin fizzled away and the tingling nerves came back. He bowed his head again, returning to his paw-washing. When she sat down, he only cast her a half-look out of the corner of his eye before looking back down at the water. His heart fluttered. He never knew what to say to her anymore, and yet she was the only one he ever knew how to talk around, like he was both nothing around her and everything. Anyway, when he was near her, his head became insane; all he could think was I like you, I like you, I have a crush on you over and over, and he had to clamp his mouth shut in case it came out in some mortifying rush. You’ve really got to fight back one of these days. He hummed a quiet, non-committal sound that was an agreement if she wanted one, a refusal if she didn’t. He’d be whatever she wanted him to be. Finally, after a stretch of silence, he spoke up, still so quiet, like he only spoke for her. “I wouldn’t know what to say.” It was meant as a sort of joke, like he was poking fun at how he’d only make it worse and they’d all pile onto whatever he said, but he wasn’t quite sure it sounded like one. When he saw her grinning at him out of the corner of his eye, he cast her a smaller one, still not fully looking at her, just faintly turning his head to drift his eyes up. When she snorted, he made a soft, similar little sound, looking back down at his paws. “Easy for you to say, Ollie. You could take them any day. You’re, like, the queen of NightClan now — they all prob’ly look like mites from where you are.” Leveretpaw cast her another shy half-smile, looking away again a moment later. He didn’t feel he could look at her straight. He’d never stop looking. “They just look like jaguars to me. Real pathetic jaguars, y’know, the jaguars that are the total loser jaguars to all the other ones,” he’d said jaguar too much, “but they’re still plenty scary to all the hamsters.” He never made sense when he talked. That was half why no one had ever really liked him, too. He’d found a wild hamster, once, and it had been his friend, he’d talked to it. And then some other apprentices had come along and laughed all over him and eaten it. He’d cried like a girl, and they’d had things to say about that, too.
“How’s your…” He darted a shy little look up again, towards her throat. “Y’know. My leg’s totally busted.” He smiled, looking back down at his reflection in the water, and there was a sad, humourless sort of acceptance to it. Then he seemed to realise something, something that made his question irrelevant; he cared about Oleanderpaw, about her reputation, and he didn’t want her to ruin it for him. He was still her manager, her advisor, the anxious, harried representative to the LA diva in her pink feather boa. “Anyway, you shouldn’t be here with me. You gotta go sit with the cool kids, like—“ He didn’t say the name, but the way his mouth wrinkled like he’d eaten a lemon and he gave a mocking little wiggle of his head said all anyone needed to know about who he meant. It wasn’t even that he disliked Bumblebeepaw — despite everything, and because of everything, because of the shared history that so few cats their age had, he liked them. Maybe that just made him more pathetic; he was too nice to even properly hate someone. To properly be jealous, because all he thought was ‘well, I’d like them, too…’ That would change someday. Leveretpaw looked down and flicked a pebble into the water with his paw. “Duskpaw’s prob’ly ‘bout the only cat I could have for a friend nowadays, but I think we’d have, like, the worst conversation in the world. We’d just stare at each other. Remember when she was the loser after the trial? Man…”
She caught the half-look he gave with a turn of her head, holding it until he focused on the water, and even afterwards, she tilted her head forward and to the side, almost cheekily, trying to catch it again. She didn't feel the same buzz of lovesick nerves as Leveretpaw did, but a sense of care, soft and protective, coiled in her heart, so tight it was almost overwhelming. She hated seeing him hurt, seeing him so downtrodden and gloomy and quiet, not because the frailty was unusual for him, but because he had never quite been so sad — as a kit, he was nervous smiles and too much kindness, something Oleanderkit, even then, even without Kier's influence of cruelty, couldn't quite grasp. He gave hugs, he said things would be alright, and Oleanderkit had always brushed it off, pointed it out like it was a mistake, but now she missed it. Now, he would still do that, but it wasn't as light, as honest. Where Leveretpaw lacked in confidence, Oleanderpaw made up for it, however false, and where Oleanderpaw lacked kindness, gentleness, Leveretpaw had enough for the both of them, but now it felt off, wrong. She had always convinced herself she would be alone when she achieved great things, but now that she was, she didn't want to face that reality, to leave him behind.
With a tinge of guilt, she leaned back and focused on the water, too.
I wouldn’t know what to say. Again, she snorted, "I don't know, call them ugly or something. Or lame-faces." Flicking the feeling of salt off the bottom of her paw pad, she lowered herself to a laying position, leaning her head forward to stare at her own dim reflection, tilting her head this way and that as if examining it in search of something. Her expression brightened at the mention of her newfound status. "Hell yeah I am! It's so cool, isn't it? But, anyway," she waved a paw again, though she didn't bother picking up her sentence again in favour of letting him speak. A Leveretism, she called them, the strange things she noted he did but found too endearing to bring up. Sometimes, he spoke nonsense, making up stories inside metaphors just to get his point across, as if anyone had a better chance at grasping the confusing concept the longer he went on, but it always made her giggle. She nodded in understanding. "Hamsters creep me out, and I think they're plenty scarier than a jaguar. That's just a big, ugly cat."
At the mention of her injury, she fell silent, paused only briefly in her staring, before she adjusted her head just a smidge, enough to see the injury where it cut through her fur. "It's alright," she said offhandedly, tearing her eyes away from herself and towards Leveretpaw, avoiding sight of his leg. It wasn't that she thought it was ugly, or that she thought he was useless with it — certainly he would recover just fine, surely he would find a way to work around it — but because she didn't want to feel that sharp sadness, that slight grief, but the words he said only brought it to the surface again. She felt a small sense of anger at him, for doubting her like that, because Oleanderpaw did exactly what she wanted when she wanted it, and if she didn't want to sit with him and risk her reputation she wouldn't have bothered to do it, and if she didn't want to chew out those bullies than she wouldn't have.
"Oh, quit that." The words came out rougher than she would have liked, so she lightened it with a smirk. "I have all the time in the world to hang out with them later. You won't need to sit with Duskpaw," she spoke the name disfavourably, judgmentally, "'cuz you can hang out with me. Besides, you can't be a loser if you fought in the battle, even if you did cry like a little baby. Duskpaw didn't even do that. That big grey idiot probably would have killed me if you and Bumblebeepaw weren't there, anyway. But. . ." she trailed off, voice quieting further, one paw moving on top of the other, absent-mindedly puling her toes backwards, towards her foreleg, not far enough to hurt, "we've hardly spoken, because of being. . . injured and sleeping, and all."
‘leveretisms’ IM CRYING SCREAMING THEM!!!!!! THEM!!!!!! theyre so CUTE
When she tilted her head, trying to catch his eye with that little grin, Leveretpaw tried to avoid her for as long as possible, but finally let out a soft little laugh, cheeks burning again. “Stop,” he told her quietly, casting her a thin grin before turning it back down towards his paws, his cheeks hurting from it.
It’s so cool, isn’t it? Leveretpaw gave a little grin, still looking down at his paws, and a stupid smitten nod, like he was too overcome with gushing vicarious joy for her to speak, like he was all clogged up with it, and he was; his chest was as full of it as the rivers that got stuffed with cotton and pollen in the springtime. “Kinda cool,” he agreed, his voice sounding all choked up, the kind of voice you get when you’ll so filled with a sudden rush of excitement, when you’re so starstruck, that your throat closes up. Really, whenever he was away from her, it was the least cool thing in the world — it was a thing to be worried about. Nothing good came of spending time with Kier. Nothing good came of being his favourite. Leveretpaw could see that, because he had been pushed to the outside, to the fringes. It was addictive, when you were all caught up in the middle, when you were having the back of your neck stroked and praise whispered in your ear, when everything was a warm crush of bodies and a place among them. But when you were like him, cold on the edges, it all looked a nightmare, a thing of Wonderland and the Hollywood Hills. All their eyes were hazy and bleary and too-bright, like stage lights were shining into them. Blinding them. Only Kier’s eyes ever looked clear, like they were all drugged on whatever was in the tempting-looking cupcakes and he was looking around with that open-headed smile. The noise, the closeness, probably felt like family to them, all the ones without family, without food, without homes. To him, it looked like the most frightening thing in the world. But when he was with Oleanderpaw, all he felt was her, and all she felt was euphoric. That was just as addictive to him as prestige was to her, and he put the sugar cube on his tongue and felt his heart fizz with that guilty joy as it dissolved.
At her snappy little command, Leveretpaw turned his head slightly to smile at her, his cheek resting against his shoulder. ’Cuz you can hang out with me. The smile grew, still close-mouthed but wider, softly thankful, contrasting with the tired rings under his eyes and the sadness of them. He still felt a little guilty, a little uncomfortable, about how everyone talked about Duskpaw, especially now that he was low like her — he’d managed to put a sort of barrier between them when he was properly a Reporter, but now… There was just the reality of them, a sad girl and a sad boy. But they were still different. He still had someone in a higher place. And it was survival of the fittest here. Guilt didn’t get you food. That big grey idiot. The smile faded. He turned his head away again, back down towards the water. He felt sick — and then he felt sicker. But we’ve hardly spoken, because of being. . . injured and sleeping, and all. Leveretpaw swallowed, the corner of his mouth twitching slightly; his closed mouth moved around a lot in general when he was thinking or when he was uncomfortable, like he was going to chew on his lip and then never did. He really didn’t want to give relationship advice to his crush, not when it was for her and someone else. His chest ached with a lonely, bleak sort of longing. This was what best friends were meant to talk about, dumb crushes and kit names and the future. But not when she was the one he wanted to do those things with. Not when she was the one he wanted to have a future with. He’d be alright with best friend. He would try to be alright with best friend. He wouldn’t be alright with best friend. “Well, they’re really stupid then,” he replied at last. “You deserve to be, like, fanned while you sleep and given really good icy lemonade when you wake up.” He smiled down at his paws, embarrassed by his own imagery. The pines dripped with summer heat outside and the river gurgled with such lazy, sluggish slowness, but down here it was always chilly and damp. Sometimes it got humid, though, unbearably humid, and then the dens became so stiflingly sweaty that cats had to sleep outside in the cavern, scattered around and trying to stay cool.
“But don’t you think…” He knew this would end badly, but he had to try. There was bravery in that, to go up against the thing that made her happiest. He swallowed against the sick of his own fear. He didn’t want to get in a fight. “Don’t you think it’s…” The words died in his throat; his mouth went dry; he cleared his throat softly, nervously, finally looking at Oleanderpaw. His voice grew quieter, softer, his eyes pained, like it was some terrible secret. “Do you think this crowd is the best one to be getting mixed up in? They’re… bad, Ollie.”
"Ugh, you're right. Surely there's a guy here whose job it is to, like, wave a leaf fan or something. Maybe I could borrow them." She snickered, missing the captivation behind his words, the utter fawning of someone who was in love. Oleanderpaw had not been in love, not truthfully, not yet, and neither had she completely and utterly loved someone else (not counting Leveretpaw; he seemed to be the only one). She had obsessions, infatuations, she had fancies and people she wanted to impress, people she wanted to love her, but never did it extend to a genuine, honest caring. To her, respect was not love. She didn't respect Leveretpaw like she respected Bumblebeepaw or Kier, and she didn't love either of them like she loved Leveretpaw.
They’re… bad, Ollie. She stopped, stilled, her face fallen and, after a moment of blank expression in which she turned away from him, her brows furrowing together. Her mouth opened as if she was going to say something, then it closed, and then it opened again. "I'm not. . . good, though. You don't think I'm good, do you?" She sounded breathless, almost, as if the words were being torn from her throat instead, as if she didn't want them said out loud. Class wise, she was better than most of them now, but morality wise, certainly she wasn't. Oleanderpaw wouldn't have mentioned it to anyone else, she would have kept those feelings clung close to her chest, unseen and unheard of, because it would make her seem weak, vulnerable. The Oleanderpaw that everybody knew was, in part, an act, one of high confidence and persistent irritation and proud beauty, of toughness and meanness and excitement; everything sad, bitter, and self-loathing was hidden beneath the surface, certainly a deeper influence on her behaviour than she realized, but something that could be ignored, overlooked. Even around Leveretpaw, she didn't let the mask slip, but now he was low, far too low, and she felt compelled to let it drop. "What does it matter, anyway. Nobody's really good, here." Except you, was something she wished she could add, because in her eyes he was nothing but goodness, downtrodden goodness, but goodness all the same. In Nightclan, there was no other crowd, you either kicked it with the rowdy, violent, loyalists or you kicked rocks with Duskpaw and, now, Leveretpaw. Oleanderpaw just began to fit in, to find solid footing in a place she never thought she would ever find a place in, because it seemed the worse you were, the more you achieved, so judgement couldn't truly be cast, not when you were at the top.
Guilt bubbled beneath the surface, and with it, anger followed. Anger, because she wasn't supposed to feel bad, not when she lived, not when she was in the favour of Kier himself, not when she was practically in the clouds, and because she couldn't chase it away. "Leveretpaw, I killed someone, and I didn't get that — that rush, I was supposed to, you know? The one that everyone talks about. It wasn't. . . exciting, and it didn't feel good, and I'm not good." She wasn't sure what was tumbling out of her mouth. It didn't make sense to her, and she wasn't sure it would make sense to him, either, but the weight of it sat heavy in her chest, like cement, and the fact he was implying she was, in any way actually good, as opposed to cats like Bumblebeepaw or Ratsneer or Sneakysnap, it only made it unbearably heavier. Her face was warm with a flustered sort of anger, and she wasn't sure where it was directed, or why, and it all could have been avoided had she simply brushed his words off with a joke, not taken it to heart, not looked between the lines to find her own blaring insecurities, because those were things she didn't want to think about.
His brows drew together. “Of course I think you’re good,” he whispered, so soft, so disbelieving, leaning forward slightly, like he couldn’t understand how she could ask him that. Nothing she could ever say would shock him — not about killing someone, not about violence or cruelty or anger. But Oleanderpaw asking Leveretpaw if he worshiped her? That was an unthinkable question. He moved closer, delicate, tentative, afraid. Part of him couldn’t bear to be so near, but the other part was horribly selfish and it clung to any insignificant touch, grasped at it just so he could file it away for the long nights alone. She never seemed to hate it as much when he was the one messing up her perfect fur from her perfect morning routine and he felt horribly, selfishly happy about it. Smug, almost, in such a vile, guilty way. Loving her had made him the meanest he’d ever been, because he craved every personal thing and ticked it off against his name in chalk when he got something someone else didn’t. Or maybe he just didn’t know what meanness was. His heart felt like it would burst when their pelts brushed. He’d just started to grow taller than her; they’d always been different body types, him so lanky and gawky, short-furred and awkward, and her with her thick fur and warm solidness and beauty. What a pair they’d always made. He suddenly felt a burst of hatred for himself, a burst of grief that was so non-sensical because it would never happen in a thousand million years and so there was no use getting upset over it… But if he were a real tom… If he were a real tom and not just some desperate, pathetic semblance of one, then he might be able to imagine kits together that didn’t feel like he was just holding up dolls in a stupid little dollhouse. He was good at making himself upset over things, at hurting himself by over-thinking or snooping or just convincing himself of something.
“But everything you’re saying, Ollie, it’s just showing—“ He suddenly shook his head like it was out of his control, frustrated, flustered, like he couldn’t get his words in the right order. “You are good…” It came out more forceful, like she had to see herself the way he did. “And all of them, they don’t deserve you because you’ve always been so kind to me. If you were bad, you’d have liked what you did. You’d be like all of them — you’d be bragging about it and thinking it was the best thing in the world. But you’re not.” And he was terrified that she would lose that innocence, that she would sell her soul for a seat at the table and lock it all away and he’d lose her in every way that mattered. “You don’t… Why are you ashamed of it not feeling good? I— I know why, don’t answer that.” He shook his head, looking down. All she ever wanted was to fit in. He shuffled a little closer, pushing it. He was her friend, he could do that; it was exploitative, it was dishonest, but he could do it, because she wouldn’t know, she wouldn’t think it was anything different to what it was before. What a thing, to feel like he was a monster, for thinking he was like Kier, for seeking out a bit of softness. Maybe it was because of him that everything felt amplified; anything Leveretpaw felt for Oleanderpaw was inherently warped and tainted, like he was using her or lying to her, because the only role model he had to gauge the normalcy of how he should treat a she-cat was Kier. No matter how innocent he was, he felt like he was doing something wrong by wanting to touch her. “You have a heart, Ollie. And I love that heart. And I know it doesn’t matter what I think, ‘cause I’m a nobody and you’re… you’re you,” he gave her a sheepish little grin, “but I just… I just think it would suck so much if they won. I don’t want them to. Not when it’s you.” Not ever when it’s you. He felt like he was in a battle for Oleanderpaw’s soul, and he was the only one up against a whole clan of wraiths and monsters and tempters. He was never going to win. “I would’ve killed that sad sack’a bones Bermondsey a hundred million times if it would’ve saved you, and I prob’ly would’ve felt bad too even though he deserved it, but I still would’ve done it. You just did what you were asked to do, Ollie. You did your job. You don’t have to have the rush — that just means you’re a better person than them. You can do your… y’know, you can do your job and not love it.” He smiled, bumping his shoulder against her like it didn’t make his heart ache. “That’s what all the Inferiors do, anyway.” The smile turned to a sad little grin, and then to a laugh. It was a joke. “What matters is the benefits, right?”
Now he wasn’t trying to convince her not to be bad; he was just trying to help her not hurt. If he couldn’t do the former, if he had to watch her become a villain, he could hold her hand and do the latter. He could be a villain by association. He went where the starlet did, never mind the hungry wolves in the audience and the sleazy managers in the wings. Now, though, his voice dropped, and it became a moment of such inadvertent intimacy that his heart felt like it would break in his chest: his foreleg against her warm side, his breath on her ear, ruffling the tufts of fur that tickled his eyes in return. It was just a friend thing. Friends did this. Friends hugged, friends talked close. But friends didn’t feel the things he did. Friends didn’t feel like crying because of it. She smelled sweet, just like she always did. Weeks in the medicine den and all that blood, all that stone, all those herbs, and she still smelled like his best friend. He swallowed, trying to keep his voice steady; it still hadn’t quite broken, made him sound too young, too quiet, too girlish. “But i don’t care if you’re good. I just want you to be happy. Happy and okay. And if… if they’re gonna make you happy, then I think that’s neat. I just… I just hope you’ll be careful. They’re reckless. And I know you think jumpin’ off cliffs and gettin’ chased by dogs and fightin’ ghosts and trucks on the highway and leapin’ through fire is cool, and it is, when you do it…” He gave another little grin, because as anxious as it made him, he really was enthralled by her daring. Everything was cool when she did it. Then he sobered, grew soft again. “But I just hope you’ll be careful.” He was repeating himself. He always was. He turned his head to give her a small, shy smile. Their faces were still too close. He could feel the fur of her cheek against his. He wanted to be hers. His heart was breaking against the heat of her fur. “You’ve always wanted to be older, Ollie. More grown-up. I just… I don’t want you to miss out on bein’ a kid, too, y’know. We only have a bit of that left.”
I love you, he wanted to explode with. I love you, and I love you good, and I love you bad. I love you mean and kind and reckless and stupid and wonderful. I love you. He daydreamed about her. He never really stopped. He was just a lovesick teenager. He didn’t say a thing. Movement flickered at the edge of his vision and he raised his head from where it was still bowed towards Oleanderpaw. Across the cavern, by the mouth of Kier’s den, the leader was grooming his tongue over his mate’s ear, talking quietly to her with a wicked little grin like they were sharing some inside joke, all effortless intimacy and companionship. Their bodies knew each other; their voices knew each other; they didn’t have to think about a thing, they just did it. Leveretpaw never thought he’d be jealous of Kier. Stomach roiling with bitter sickness, he dragged his eyes away. In his craving for more, he was going to throw away the best thing he’d ever had, the best thing in his life, in the world: his friendship. And he didn’t even realise it. Leveretpaw moved away.
Of course I think you’re good. The words should have been a relief, they should have made her feel better, but they only pulled at her, made her face twist in a cringe of distaste, as if they were an insult. Leveretpaw was so earnest, so honest, about it, and that somehow made it worse. Her supposed goodness was arbitrary, it reared its head only at a whim, only sometimes, and she preferred it like that — if she didn't care about being soft, or hurting people, or her own insecurities, then she would get further. Nightclan was built on cruelty and judgement, and Oleanderpaw participated gleefully — she'd always take any chance to make herself feel better, and being mean, putting others down, it worked, and she hardly ever felt the pangs of regret; certainly that wasn't the mark of a good person. He was so hopeful about it, that there was something good enough to defend in her, something she only showed to him in their moments together, and she hated it, how confusing it was. You're too good-hearted for them meant the same as you don't fit in with them, you are othered, you are different, and that only made every self-loathing thought louder. It was unreasonable, she knew only in part, but she couldn't stop it.
She listened with her head bowed closer to her chest, despite the uncomfortable feel of her scabbed wound and the slight, numbed sting it provided from being bent so long. Her ears flattened as if she couldn't stand to listen to it any longer. She sat up, tense like she was about to stand, but despite her nervousness, her flightiness, she remained, giving him a wide-eyed, vulnerable look, only briefly, before her eyes narrowed and she was all teeth, lip twisting with defensive anger and a tinge of something akin to grief, but not the kind that mourned the dead, the kind that mourned something nonexistent, an idea or a thought that would never come true. It fluttered in her chest, nauseating. But I just hope you’ll be careful. The anger faded, drained like the words had sucked it out of her, and she slumped, fur still bristling only with the residue of her overwhelming emotions, and she was left wordless, wanting to say something in response but not knowing what, saved only by him continuing. She didn't pull away.
Then, she gave a long, tired sigh, so quiet and gentle and knowing. "I'm. . . due for a promotion soon, anyway. Real soon," she looked down, padding at the dirt idly. "I don't really have any time left," almost, she felt vaguely sad at the idea, but she pushed it away. "And. . . and maybe I'm not exactly like them, maybe I never will be, but I'm not like you, either. Maybe I do have a heart, but it's not like yours, either, because I don't do what I think is right and I'm not weak or soft or nice to cats I don't know." She went quiet again, short and thoughtful, lips still parted to speak. "Happy and okay," she repeated just for something to say, like it were some unbelievable concept, because her happiness was short-lived and fleeting, unfamiliar, "I don't know how to get that, I think, but. . . I'll be careful. I'll try. And you need to be careful, too. Because you have a heart, a stupid one, and it always gets you in trouble. Leveretpaw, you've got to start standing up for yourself. So, if I have to be, I don't know, better, braver, stronger."
When he moved away, she almost moved closer to meet him again, the air suddenly chilly without the closeness, but she leaned back, too, sitting up straighter.
Leveretpaw didn’t notice Oleanderpaw’s discomfort, her anger — even with how besotted with her he was, he was never good at reading others’ emotions, at getting out of his head enough to see when someone else was feeling something. Bombs could have been falling and he would have babbled on and on while people screamed and ran, while roofs collapsed, while shrapnel cut the air. When it was at someone else, when it was people looking at Oleanderpaw with sneers and curled lips and judgement, then he understood, because they weren’t about him and they made his stomach curl with embarrassment, with anxiety; when it was murder, danger, hate — them he got, because you’d be a sorry scapegoat at the bottom of the pecking order if you hadn’t looked at a crowd full of it and learned to recognise the look through wide, terrified eyes. But when it came to him, he could have had his throat torn out and only realised someone was angry with him when he looked up at them from among the blood and the betrayal. For someone so sensitive, he was remarkably oblivious. Too deep in his own head, in his own stories, in his own fears. Maybe that was where his paranoia came from, his paranoia that someone would find out about Bermondsey — he knew he wouldn’t realise, wouldn’t notice, he’d outed himself until his head was on the chopping block. So, as his best friend flattened her ears and pulled her lips back over her teeth, he just talked on, looking down at their reflections in the water and rolling his paw over a stone and turning his head this way and that, thinking with a prickle of Kier-like delusional jealousy what a pretty pair they made. What he would do to be with her. The terrible things he would do.
When she finally spoke, he snapped out of the fog, turning his head to look at her with the remnant of a fantasy’s smile. As he listened, reality seeped back in and the smile faded to a melancholy little thing, like her pain was his, only deeper, because if she couldn’t feel it for herself, then he’d feel it for her. He always had. He knew he wouldn’t be promoted with her — well, he didn’t know, and there was still that innocent glow of hope, but it was so fractured and weak that he hardly felt it — but, despite his own personal bitterness, he felt no jealousy towards her for it. His jealousy only reached as far as not being the one she had her eyes on, however sour and twisting, however ominously deepening, that was; in every other area, she could thrive where he didn’t and all he would do is water the flowers and watch her grow. As she went on, he didn’t flinch when she inadvertently called him weak, when she said something unthinkingly even while measuring her words more than he’d ever seen; it was everything he liked about her. I’ll try. He gave a funny little nod, smiling sadly like that was all he wanted, like he was trying to be jokey, like he was trying to conjure up a little warm hopefulness for her that he didn’t really feel, just for her sake. And you need to be careful, too. Leveretpaw looked back down at his paws, embarrassed whenever the conversation turned back to him. He gave an awkward little shrug, like he was being told off by a parent. His cheeks burned again. “Yeah…” he mumbled around a goofy little grin, not because anything was funny but because she was talking about him. He laughed again as she went on, just a little sound. “Yeah, y’know, I would, but then you won’t come to save me and I’d hardly see you. I gotta be loser Leveret so you can be queen Oleander. It’s my, like, charity work. All the lame kits gotta see how to do it from someone.” He turned his head slightly to grin up at her, so thin and goofy and gawky teenager-y.
Then, suddenly, he sat up a little straighter — he’d adopted a slightly hunched way of sitting lately, like he was self-conscious about his height and was trying to make himself shorter to fit in — and looked over his shoulder towards the camp entrance. Still silent, he glanced back towards Kier across the cavern. He was still focused on Eris, his wicked grin turned to a lecherous one as he murmured non-stop into her ear; all his attention was on her, his head turned so their muzzles were almost touching and the back of his neck was twisted to the rest of the cavern, his eyes only trailing down her face when they left her eyes at all. He was clearly going to be out of action for the rest of the night; NightClan was forgotten, dead, something he would have signed away the deed for without looking so long as all his attention was on his mate. Anyone could have asked anything of him in that half-bewitched state. Leveretpaw had never understood it before; now he figured it was part of being a hormonal teenage boy in love — a tyrant was just the same as the lowest of the low. They were all ensnared just the same, all slaves to the right she-cat. “Hey,” he said to Oleanderpaw, suddenly looking back at her with an unprecedented boldness. “Wanna get out of here?” This was him standing up for himself. “Teach me to be brave — go lie on the thunderpath till we get run over or somethin’. Or just— just, gosh, lie by the river and look at the stars. I miss the stars.” He gave her a little grin, ducking his head. “I miss outside.” His leg would be fine — he’d make it be fine. He wasn’t going to pass up this sudden burst of bravery — it might never come again, and then he’d just be left lying there with that bitter regret burning even more resentment into the fire of his chest.
His words were light, dismissive, and though they would have made her smile any other time, she only felt a pang of something akin to anger, or perhaps it was fear, or disappointment — he didn't seem to get it; she couldn't defend him forever. She dipped her head, lip wobbling uncertainly, and then she shook her head. "No — Lev, that's not. . ." Her voice trailed, and instead of continuing she only sucked in a breath, a short, irritated sound, soft and gone in a moment, "alright. Whatever."
With one, lingering look at him, fierce but concerned, she turned back to her reflection, shifting on her side so her back was nearly leaned against him, paws nearly touching the water. It was almost ridiculous, how much she cared — it was so unlike her, she would argue, because Oleanderpaw couldn't name anyone else she felt so soft with, cared so much about without wanting to earn their respect or their adoration. She didn't catch his utter adoration, his lovesick fawning, and she wouldn't have wanted it, not from him, not between them. When it was just them, Oleanderpaw didn't have to put on a performance, she didn't have to sing and dance and act in an attempt to fit in, she didn't have to be loud or ditsy or egotistical, because she didn't want to impress him. With Leveretpaw, she was most herself. It was like when all the actors and actresses went backstage after their performance, and all the makeup and costumes came off, the character they played was shed like skin, and they were themselves again — that's how she felt, and Leveretpaw was always there, backstage, handing over her day clothes and saying what a great job she did. There was no other way she would have it, and if she were to lose him, to a trial or if he tried to run or if he got himself killed, she knew it would ruin her, and there would be nobody to fill that void he would leave.
Hey. She lifted her head to look at him, the anger and fear having faded. Teach me to be brave. She laughed, gleeful with a hint of pride, and she leaned in, lowered her voice, "you just suggested we break the rules — you sure you aren't already being taught?" She giggled again and leaned back, getting to her paws. The prospect of it, of sneaking out in the dark to go do who-knew-what, it felt exciting, youthfully exciting, a teenagers secret just between them. She bounced on her toes, ushering him up after her. Adventure was something Oleanderpaw could never refuse, and with her expectant promotion, it felt almost necessary to engage in childish antics before she was supposed to be grown-up.
"Okay," she leaned in again, nearly muzzle to muzzle (she had to lean up — her legs had always been short, and his were just so long), "what're you scared of, then? Is it spiders, or the dark, or heights? We'll hit it all, face it all, and then you'll be the bravest cat in all of Nightclan. Aside from me, of course," she added the last moment after a beat of silence.
When her face fell, when she was clearly annoyed with him, Leveretpaw’s face fell as well, glancing at her with a wounded, searching sort of expression, like he couldn’t understand why but he was hurt, worried, all the same. No — Lev, that’s not. . . alright. Whatever. His chest prickled with a desperate, sad sort of embarrassment; his cheeks burned with it. He felt stupid, out of the loop, hopeless. “Sorry,” he mumbled softly, looking back down at the water with his ears burning around the uncomprehension of her mood.
And then she was leaning against him, and he felt like he had been burned, singed. He almost flinched back, almost hissed. Tingles shot up through his fur from the point of contact; he felt tipsy with it. Half of him wanted to tell her not to touch him, because it wasn’t fair, how easy and meaningless it was for her and how horribly wonderful it was for him; the other half was just addicted to the closeness, to the unknowable meaning of it, and that made him feel filthily guilty, because what a thing — what a thing to take something like this from your friend without them knowing. Leveretpaw stayed still, unnaturally still, the sort of still confined to crushes and animals — you don’t want them to move, so you put up with your leg cramping and your back aching and your lungs being unable to get in enough air. A softer version of the poets’ tragic definition of love, and a truer version; this one really was about suffering for it. A harmless suffering. He tried not to let his breathing shake. He could feel her own breathing, could feel the faintest tremour of her heart against the side of his foreleg, could feel the warmth of her — and he hated it. He hated everything about it. He loved it. He loved everything about it. He loved her. He loved her so much he almost hated her for it, for not knowing, for not realising, for touching him like this, like they were the same as they used to be. He wasn’t the stupid one. But that wasn’t a nice thing to think, and he felt guilty the second he thought it. How could she be expected to know? When she was her and he was him. When the only thing holding them together in the same space was some accidental kithood adventure. He was so impossibly grateful to it; he clung to it like a holy thing, more relic than memory. It had given him her. As much of her as he’d ever have.
When Oleanderpaw looked up at him, when she laughed, Leveretpaw blushed again, looking down and grinning without looking at her — too shy to, too flustered, because if she looked him in the eye while he was listening to her laugh, she’d know. She’d know and then he’d lose her. His ears had gone pink; his cheeks still held a tiny bit of kit softness around his thin, lopsided little grin. At her giggling question, he gave a messy half-shrug with the shoulder she wasn’t leaning on, still not wanting to dislodge her, and let out another little laugh; it sounded slightly, softly deranged, because he didn’t really know what they were laughing at — all he could hear was the sound of her joy. He felt like he was high in some fairy meadow, everything hazy and half-real. That was how he always felt around Oleanderpaw, or how he’d felt lately. She was like some perfect, innocent drug. When she leaned back, he almost chased her, casting her a forlorn, startled look like he was going to protest; he caught himself just in time, though his brows still looked mournful and his mouth was slightly open. He covered it up badly with a smile. She was bouncing up, ushering him up—
And then she was leaning in again. Leveretpaw stepped back so suddenly, so blindly, that his hind paw slipped over the edge of the stone and dipped into the icy water; he just managed to catch himself, smiling down at her like hunted, overwhelmed, sheepish prey with three paws on stone and his broken one now dripping water in the air behind him. He was so close to the edge that his legs trembled; one tiny push from her and he’d be in. He’d let her. When she leaned in, her warm breath over his face, he was again torn between wanting to cry at how warm and beautiful and safe it felt, how perfect she was, how much it made his heart clench in the best way instead of the worst — and wanting to just kiss her. He pulled back slightly instead, edging his way clumsily around her so he was away from the water, trying to give her an encouraging smile as he slunk around while actually looking like he’d just been squirted in the eye by a lemon. The way she rattled off fears she herself seemed immune to — it took his breath away. “Aren’t you scared of anything?” he laughed quietly. They were still too close, despite his best attempts. Or maybe he hadn’t tried at all. “Are you really not?” We'll hit it all, face it all. His heart squeezed. Just for that moment, she made it sound like forever. “I think…” Looking down at her, he couldn’t even think of any fears, though he had many; his mind was just blank, swirling fog. His eyes looked the same, completely glazed at the sight of her. So he picked one at random, from that thick air, hardly aware he was speaking at all. “Cars, I think.” And then he rattled off more, because he realised the more fears he had, the more time they’d spend together. And as he realised it, and as he said it, a playful little grin started to spread across his face, like he was making a game of it, like he was seeing the fun in it just the same as her. He began to bounce on his toes just the same as her, never breaking eye contact as he craned his neck to look down at her, grinning and laughing so softly like his fears excited him. He must have looked half mad, caught up in the moment and in her own energy. “And heights. And the dark. And close spaces and that old train track that goes into the hill and butterflies, because they’re too pretty and I like creepy crawlies much better, and moths get such a bad rap. And the unknown.” And being in love with you, because I can never have you.
"It's alright," she breathed finally, apologetic but faintly cross. There was more she wanted to say, about how they couldn't be playing kithood games anymore, how she wasn't just telling off childhood bullies but actual threats, cats who could lie or hurt, cats who would do anything to get to the top, cats who reveled in stepping on those weaker than them — but instead, she stayed quiet.
Despite that, she was standing anyway, bouncing in youthful excitement for a silly, immature adventure to help her friend get over his silly, immature fears. Often, she put herself on a pedestal above that, above callowness, despite her quick irritation, her tantrums, her need to get anything she wanted else she throw a fit or give the cold shoulder; she was carefree and curious and lacked impulse control, everything regarded as intrinsically immature and yet, somehow, she was still above it — she knew, truthfully, she wasn't, that it was an act, a cover-up, something to add to her long, growing list of insecurities she couldn't seem to quell. Tonight, she supposed she could allow it to surface, if only to match Leveretpaw in energy. Despite his new glumness, he was still stupid, and giddy, and unbelievably nice, and it made him someone she wanted to be around, no strings attached, no feeling like she had to impress him or be above him.
Aren’t you scared of anything? She only grinned impishly in response. Of course she was, she would say only to him, but she didn't get the chance, not when he already moved on, listing fears that ranged from reasonable to inane, and her smile only widened, mischievously thoughtful. She padded towards the far wall, walking past with a flick of her tail at his side to get him to follow, and hung close to it for a moment, moving towards the dip in the wall that led to the exit of camp. She knew there (probably) wouldn't be any trouble, especially not if she walked out in confidence, but she liked the feeling of being secretive, sneaky, like she was breaking the rules with him. With a final look around, eyes narrowing at the sight of whoever she could spot of the previous group she had told off, she slipped around the wall and up the thin tunnel that led outside.
When the air finally cleared, when the darkness of the closed path finally broke into the clearer, lighter darkness of the outside world helped by the light of the moon, she shook out her pelt. The white of it almost glowed in its pristineness, even after all her time slumped in the medicine-cat's den. "Ugh, it's just so dusty in there." She looked over her shoulder to smile at him, slowing to a stop to wait. "Now. . ." she trailed off in thought, walking ahead again, into the ferns and the pines of the forest, "we'll start at the thunderpath, then. And from there we can go to the tracks, and then we'll think more on it then. Also, I don't think we can find any butterflies at this time of night, but, whatever." She shrugged.
When she grinned up at him, Leveretpaw grinned back down, and he thought, how can she not tell? If she’s ever going to see, it’ll be now. How could she not? But she didn’t. He was looking down at her, only at her, his eyes like sad, hazy dreams and his teeth soft as buttermilk, and she didn’t see. She turned away, and he followed. When she tapped his side with her tail and padded across the camp to lurk suspiciously against the wall, eyes roaming about, he grinned, letting out an involuntary little hissing breath of laughter through his teeth, and half-trotted, half-slunk after her quickly. He was enraptured, caught up in her stupid game with a grin just as stupid on his face, so boyishly messy. When she moved off again, he followed like a loyal dog. It made his heart flutter, this secretiveness, and he could almost entertain a fantasy that they were lovers from two different Clans, sneaking out into the night to meet despite their Clanmates’ enmity, despite the danger and the betrayal — what a wonder, to have a love that strong. To have someone willing to do that to be with him. He was always prone to getting lost in romantic notions — the sad sort of romantic, the romantic that started with a capital R and loved tear-stained letters and gloomy windows — and now he almost succumbed to it; only Oleanderpaw’s smile thrown over her shoulder at him jolted him back to life, like he were the little pieced together monster and she was the lightning. He felt fearless when he was with her; he walked straight past those snickering cats like they weren’t there at all. She was like a glowing beacon in the dark, bright yellow among the black of the tunnel, and his eyes were only on her as he followed up the slope on numb, weak, limping legs—
And then his tail was suddenly jerked back. Oleanderpaw disappeared out into the night air before he could follow her. Leveretpaw turned, his fantasy disintegrating around him. Kier grinned back at him like a little predator, head tilted. He’d left Eris to catch him. Leveretpaw’s tail slithered out of Kier’s grip, hissing through his claws like sand in an hourglass. “Word to the wise,” he told the apprentice, and his quiet voice was such a lie against his grin — one was so gentle, the other was all gleeful, nasty teeth. “You don’t stand a chance with her. Your kind doesn’t belong with hers. She’s out of your league, Leveretpaw. She belongs with us. She will always belong with us. You don’t. Mm?” The grin turned to a smile; he still hadn’t blinked. “You wouldn’t want to see something unfortunate befall her because you couldn’t keep your greedy little upstart paws off.” Kier was so possessive about the mean girls he was so endlessly generous with, so endlessly kind to — everyone knew that. By every right, he should have been the loser kid they made fun of and stuffed in a locker, and instead they were the ones laughing with him, sucking up to him, letting him wine and dine them, the ones hanging off his arm. He loved the unnaturalness of it, everyone knew that too, like he’d hacked life, and he was shameless about spending time with them, the hot girls and the mean girls, because they had no business being near him but he’d gained access through sheer force of will. He was an interloper who’d tricked his way past Saint Peter’s list and sat charming and feasting with the models and starlets; if any other little runt was allowed in, what was he? Cheating the system had made a jealous, arrogant gatekeeper of him. The benevolent tyrant dishing out favours and gifts to his favourites turned around and was vicious to anyone nearby in the same breath. Everyone knew it even if no one said it. It only made him more frightening. There are few things as dangerous as a man’s insecurity. Leveretpaw stayed silent, holding Kier’s mismatched gaze with a forlorn sort of daring. He wanted to say, then, that he was betraying him, that he was feeding his weaknesses to Bermondsey, because in that moment he felt so courageous with hate and he wanted to surprise him. Even if it would be the last thing he ever did, he wanted to surprise him. Knock him down. Hurt him. Kier held his gaze, and the fact the apprentice wasn’t looking away seemed to make him terribly angry; the bottoms of his eyes pushed up and he tilted his head slightly, smiling up at him like it was a final chance, or he was being added to some list. Finally, though, Kier was the first to speak. “Have a nice night out with our Oleanderpaw,” he told him cheerily, like the tension of the moment was passed, or like Leveretpaw had imagined it. “Little limping Leveret,” he added as he turned away, padding back down the sloping path to his mate. “Don’t do anything a stupid girl would do,” his serene voice was quiet over his shoulder, but it was clearly meant for Leveretpaw; it was just some little power play, that he didn’t raise his voice, that he had to listen to catch it, “— you put that behind you, didn’t you?”
Leveretpaw just stared after him for a long few moments, his legs trembling and his heart feeling as cold and heavy as stone. Humiliated in such an aching way, because it must have been so obvious; even Kier knew he had a crush. The whole Clan probably knew; they were probably laughing. The thought that the leader might have just been uncannily astute, observant, obsessive wasn’t any comfort, because he didn’t know if it was true. He wasn’t even mad, though he had been so hatefully furious a second ago, a hate to match Kier’s. He was just… Destroyed. Kier had left and the anger keeping him up had deflated, and he was left with hollow, empty grief. Loss. Nothing. Because none of what the leader said was untrue; Oleanderpaw was out of his league. He was deluding himself, even by spending time with her. He was holding her back — he should cut her free, hurt her in some terrible way she couldn’t forgive him for, just so the last tether to her childhood was gone and she could be who she was meant to be with the right sort of people. And yet he wouldn’t. Because he was so horribly selfish and he wanted to be near her. He’d thought it was because he might be the last thing that could save her soul; now, in the wake of Kier’s words, he convinced himself it was just because he was too miserable, too cruel, to let her go. He’d cling to her till she was drowning. He was the worst thing for her, and yet he couldn’t do the kind thing, the thing she deserved, and take himself out of her life. He really was the monster.
Finally, he turned and followed the fading scent of Oleanderpaw on paws that felt none of the cold, dimpled stone beneath them. When he emerged into the cool, black forest and the fresh air, he forced a smile onto his face, a wordless apology for holding them up, or just a soft greeting. His head was fogged but he tried to force it down; he wanted to hear everything she said, wanted to spend this night with her. It might be their last. She looked mesmerising, beautiful in a way that was unfair to the rest of existence, that was cruel — how could anything ever hope to hold a flame to her? How could an ocean let itself live when this girl in front of him was… When she was… All these worlds and he’d somehow been born into the one that had her; even amid all the sick grief, he felt impossibly lucky. Being out here with her in the dark — he was so in love. If he ever doubted it before, he knew now. He was in love with his childhood best friend, NightClan’s resident mean girl. He, the poetic little nerd, was drawing hearts around the name of the cheerleader who probably thought Shelley was some influencer doing pink-hued sponsored ads, who would’ve shoved her homework into his arms so she could go out to a party. But he didn’t really think that. He knew she was clever, even if she tried to hide it. He knew she was brilliant. With Kier’s words still echoing in his ears, that love consumed him with selfish guilt. He didn’t deserve to love her; she was out of his league. She was one of them. He wasn’t. He would never be.
Quickening his pace, Leveretpaw tried to shake off some of his lecture from Kier and fell in beside Oleanderpaw, turning his head to smile down at her. His back leg stuck straight out behind him as he limped along; he was just happy it hadn’t been a forepaw that had been broken — then doing anything would have been nearly impossible. He could still be quick enough like this, quick enough to stay in step with her shorter legs. “Such a big night!” he exclaimed around his smile as he looked down at her, and it sounded way too happy and not nearly enough daunted. He hardly even registered they were going to the thunderpath; he’d have hopped into a car and kept on chatting happily. “We’re gonna be out till the sun comes up.” His voice had a bubble in it, like the thought had tightened his throat with excitement. He let out a dweebish, snorting laugh to cover it up. “Then they’re totally gonna put your fur up on the wall and all the kits will be like ‘oh my gosh who was that’ and I’ll be like — ‘cuz I’ll be a cranky old elder by then,” as if NightClan still had elders, as if cats no longer beneficial, who weighed down the Clan with no give to Kier’s take, didn’t just find an early grave, “— ‘that was this girl called Oleanderpaw and she was totally insane.’ And kind of cool, but not as cool as she thought she was.” He cast her a little rabbity grin, eyes scrunched up.
When Leveretpaw fell behind, Oleanderpaw only carried on talking, her friend's drawn out silence not a point of concern for her — often, that was how it was; she talked, he listened. Eventually, she fell into silence, and it was only then did something feel off, but it wasn't until she went to look over her shoulder with a 'you know,' on her lips did she realize he was gone. Going silent, she stopped in her tracks, turning her body in a small circle to gage the area around her, peering into the darkness, the undergrowth, and the arching shadows of the trees in search of him. It was almost ironic that they were supposed to be out facing his fears first, when being left alone, vulnerable, in the gloom of the wilderness was one of her fears. She felt the anxiety crawl through her pelt, like a thousand bugs had made their home in her fur, and she tried to shake the feeling off to no avail. It was some kithood residue, she knew, the feeling of being abandoned again. She remembered asking Moonblight about it — a fox had gotten her in these very woods, he said, there was no way she could have defended herself — and even though Oleanderpaw had been plagued by a terribly morbid curiosity towards her mother's death, there was always that tinge of fear at the prospect of ending up just like her. She was bitter, she was scared, and being alone just as Oleanderpaw always imagined she had been on that night, it made her limbs shake, it made her heart thumb twice as fast, it made her breath catch in her throat. It was silly, to be scared of the dark, but Oleanderpaw seemed only made of kithood traits she never grew out of.
"Leveretpaw?" She called, trying to make her voice sound more exasperated than scared. "I walked away for two seconds, how did you manage to get lost?" She wished she could raise her voice higher than the rasp it was still plagued with, the occasional breaks in her words, because if she was half-yelling, than she wouldn't have to pay attention to the silence of the forest. Every twitch of the ferns made her hackles rise. And then, with a few steps back the way she came, there he was, breathless and smiling and apologetic, and she nearly clobbered him — affectionately. The anxiety melted when she fell into step beside him, eyes catching his mangled leg, suddenly fearful she had walked too fast for him to catch up. She only gave a questioning look, but didn't dwell on the subject — maybe, she should have, maybe she should have prodded or poked, satisfied that tinge of curiosity, but she didn't want to dwell on her own fear, so she ignored it, moved on with a wobbly, awkward smile and a breath of a laugh, nothing more. At his words, she nodded enthusiastically, "and when we get back, we'll be braver than everyone combined. They'll have no choice but to grovel at our feet." She snorted.
And kind of cool, but not as cool as she thought she was. Her tail flicked indignantly, "not as cool as I thought I was because I'm cooler. Also, I hope you'd be taking extra, extra good care of my weird wall-fur, it's got to be pristine or I'll come back to haunt you. And what you have to do it find a little pool of water, right, and then you soak lavender and pine needles and hyacinths for a bit and then you put the fur in, 'cuz then it'll smell especially nice."
With a kick of her paw, she sent a pebble flying. It wasn't long before the dim roar of the river grew louder, but before they could reach it, she turned north, towards the border, skittering over prominent roots and brushing past ferns until the sound of the river merged with that of the waterfall.
Leveretpaw? "Here!" His voice was soft, hushed, the same as his apologetic smile. Kier's words ached in his chest like poison but still he smiled; he felt somehow like he was protecting her from them, almost more than he was protecting himself. "I've always sucked at directions." He laughed, soft as well. He didn't need to tell her that; they'd gone round and round for hours when they were kits. No one else might have noticed her fear, so covered up by blasé irritation, but he did; a little for her, but mostly for him, he moved a little closer till his fur was brushing hers. It made his breath catch, so loud his heart hammered in his chest at the possibility of her hearing. Her fur was thick enough he couldn't feel her side beneath it; his was short enough that she touched to the very heart of him. He felt both hyper-aware of everything and in an utter daze, the dark, green-black forest dripping around them nothing but thick air and distant tree rot. And then you soak lavender and pine needles and hyacinths for a bit. "Oh yeah?" he asked hoarsely, faintly overwhelmed by the thought — but then, he was overwhelmed by everything she did; the merest touch from her made him choke and splutter and blush. "Is that what you do? To your fur? I dunno if i’ve ever actually seen the famous Ollie twice nightly routine." He turned his head and gave her a lopsided little grin. "You do always smell, like, really super good though. Prob’ly the hyacinth." The grin grew; he didn't understand how she couldn't see everything else in it. 'Everything else.' What else was there? He loved her. That was all there was. That was all that had gotten him through his time in the medicine den — that, and resentment. Pining and hate; which was the stronger of the two? And how long until they merged?
When she flicked the pebble, Leveretpaw flinched, startled out of his thoughts. He gave a fluffy little laugh, casting her a look. When they neared the waterfall, something squeezed in his gut, something nasty and sour. He would never say it — would barely admit it to himself, because it had been creepy, it was creepy, all jealousy and no boundaries, and he'd crept home feeling dirty and guilty and angry, the only feelings that could drown out the envy — but he'd followed them here once. Slunk through the ferns and crouched down, watching between the fronds as Bumblebeepaw and Oleanderpaw talked by the falls. He'd thought, at first, that he was just friend-jealous. It was normal to be friend-jealous — it had been him and her for so long that, y'know, of course he was a bit... a bit iffy about there being someone else now. He'd been happy, hugely happy, all smiles and joyful encouragement, that she had an in with someone so popular, that she had new friends, and he'd helped her no end. But that night he'd followed them, he'd known for certain, with a sinking realisation in his gut, that it wasn't friend-jealousy. It had only curdled from there.
"I've never liked it here," he called to Oleanderpaw over the roar of the waterfall, glancing at her with a soft, near-apologetic smile, like he had to say sorry for the very thoughts he thought. "If I were a bird I'd be so scared." He didn't explain what he meant, which was that it was so loud it'd surely be frightening for something so small. Still smiling, he looked back to the path alongside the water and hurried his pace, limping quickly until the ground rose over slippery earth and stones and climbed towards the top of the falls. He hauled himself up, veering before they reached the top to limp back into the dense ferns and trees towards the thunderpath. Hopelessly, he thought how romantic this would be if she thought of him as anything more than a childhood friend. He would ask her to be his and she would say yes. At the fantasy, a despondent anger ripped at his chest, one so helpless and lost; the jealous anger that drove people mad precisely because there was nowhere for it to go. Heal, they said; get over it. As if jealousy wasn't the sickest feeling in the world; as if it didn't corrode away everything good until there was only rot-eaten metal and the ruins of a life. Leveretpaw widened his smile, cheeks dimpling, and beamed through it. He wouldn't succumb. She was his best friend; that was enough. He was her best friend. "Are you excited to be a warrior?" he asked, turning his head to look at her with soft eyes; they weren't forced. They weren't pretend. He didn't ask are you excited for us to be warriors? He already knew he wouldn't be joining her. If he had been uncertain before, the vindictiveness in Kier's little grin had confirmed it; he was a plaything to be batted about, to be held up and laughed at.
Oleanderpaw snorted, giving his shoulder a nudge, roughly playful, partially just to soothe her own nerves. "Yeah, I know. You'd get lost in a straight line. I mean, you just did." When their pelts brushed, she felt herself relax, sink into the feeling as if it were the heat of a warm fire. Out of the two of them, Oleanderpaw might have been considered more akin to a fire, burning and fiery and fierce, but she always considered Leveretpaw more warm, more comfortable, the type that illuminated her, the type that burned with an unwavering kindness. Oleanderpaw considered herself more like water, something that shifted and tumbled, something unpredictable, something that could either be shallow enough to stand or deep enough to sink.
"Oh, yes, but if you tell anyone, I'm going to have to kill you," head tilted faintly, she nodded as if affirming her own words, and if she weren't walking she would have waved her paw dismissively. The illusion of nonchalance fell with a laugh, and she nudged him again. "Just kidding," as if he wouldn't have already known that. There was very little that Oleanderpaw actually hid from the world, save for her own internal flaws, because she liked to be open, transparent, seen for (almost) everything she was, but some things, some simple things, were just for her. The twice-nightly-fur-routine was just for her, because to someone who only wanted to get ahead in a tom-centric clan, being just another pretty, quiet thing wouldn't have gotten her far at all. She was loud, brazen, and still she liked to feel beautiful while she did it. Sometimes, it was distracting — sometimes she felt that if she focused so much on the outside, that she wouldn't have to deal with the inside, and if she looked so put-together, so pristine and perfect, than nobody would guess anything was wrong at all.
The waterfall was deafening, but she didn't mind it. Truthfully, she liked the all-consuming noise of it, how it blocked her thoughts and pulled her focus to the tumbling water instead, how she could talk about anything on her mind, good or bad, without the fear of being overheard if she kept her voice low enough. They walked a little way from the bank of the river, and though she usually walked it slowly, at the mention of his distaste her strides quickened, only slightly.
She only hummed thoughtfully. "I wonder what life would be like as a bird." They had a way of bouncing off each other, of taking one strange conversation starter and expanding it into something only faintly related, but equally strange. "I'd be one of those colourful ones, or maybe a little songbird, and I think you would be, like, a thrush, or something." She padded ahead, bounding up while the ground rose and scraping her way onto the rocks that led to the top, when she got there, she turned and waited.
Are you excited to be a warrior? She smiled softly, "yes, of course. So excited — like the most excited." And then the smile saddened, and she dipped her head to look at the ground as if she couldn't quite meet his eye, but after a moment she lifted it again, tilting to look at him. "Are you?" It was spoken a little hopefully, foolishly so, but they both knew it wouldn't end up that way. When she was a kit, when they'd first became friends, she assumed she would train with him at the same time, become warriors at the same time, always on the same level even though she pretended to be above (she knew he didn't mind that, and she never felt bad because it was never anything more than attitude), but Kier had changed so much that that idea was no longer plausible. Still, she would pretend it wasn't so, she would pretend, even if for tonight, that they were on the course she always thought they would be. After a breath, she continued, "I wonder what my name will be — I think Kier's got a knack for naming, you know? They always sound so nice on the tongue. Which is ironic because he doesn't even have a clan name, but maybe that's why."
The ground had long since steadied around them, and before long the sound of the waterfall faded significantly, leaving mostly open, quiet air. The forest was thinner around the thunderpath, but it always seemed foggier with the lingering fumes. She liked the spooky atmosphere of it. She felt like a ghost there, her fur stark white and flowing as if she haunted the area, and it was a fun thought to play with.
When she shoved him, he let himself stumble, hazy, smitten eyes and little grin never leaving hers. She’d always been stronger than him, even now that he was taller and lankier, and with his broken leg, he just tottered to the side on three paws, letting out a soft exhalation of near-laughter. He looked like he was in a blissful trance. Her side against his burned. “A thrush?” he asked softly, scrambling over rocks to follow her up. It was fitting, and he wasn’t offended; she picked the flashy, beautiful bird for herself and assigned him a common one as an afterthought, because it was polite to give him one too. He liked thrushes. He’d never liked them more than he did in this moment. He would always be happy to live in her shadow. The way she picked up his topic without any judgement or nasty word made his heart swell with a gratitude so immense it felt like sadness; he’d never meet someone else like her. The universe had given him the rarest gift of all when it had thrown these two kits together. Any other amount of suffering afterwards was worth it. He was already luckier than anyone in the world deserved to be, and he felt almost like the gift was made of eggshells; any movement from him could shatter them, and then the universe would take her back. And it would be worse than being alone — he didn’t care about that; he liked being by himself. It would be an alone-ness that didn’t have Oleanderpaw in it. “You’d be something beautiful,” he finished, his voice so soft, so full of that quiet longing that was all acceptance and sadness and love, and it was the closest he had come to confessing. Or, it would have been, if the waterfall they were passing hadn’t drowned it out completely. His words were swallowed up by the rushing roar.
At her excitement, Leveretpaw smiled, falling in beside her again. He was always happy to live vicariously through her happiness, through her joy. She always knew how to feel when he didn’t, always felt everything so clearly and strongly, and letting himself feel what she was feeling was like sipping the right emotions everyone else felt without being flooded by them. It felt safe and warm. Are you? Leveretpaw just looked down at his paws as they walked and smiled; it was answer enough. He didn’t reply; the closest he came was finally raising his head and meeting her gaze to hold it, the sad, warm smile still on his face. He knew; she knew. Her ceremony wouldn’t be his. Who knew when he would become a warrior. He might be Leveretpaw for the rest of his life. It wouldn’t be beneath Kier, to keep the sad, failed apprentice as a pay-to-view little freak show for the rest of his life. He’d be lucky to keep the name Leveret; Kier could rename that, too. Make it something nasty. Maybe if Oleanderpaw asked on his behalf, if she petitioned the leader who had taken such a fancy to her and told him how happy it would make her, it would do something. But Leveretpaw couldn’t ask her to do that. She was meant to go out and be a warrior and live her wild dreams. If that meant forgetting about him back at camp, then that was what Leveretpaw wanted. He’d break his own heart to keep her happy. He always had; he always would. As she went on, babbling, he just smiled along with his head down, limping along beside her. “Mm,” he hummed, warm and quiet, quiet enough that it gurgled softly in his throat like he’d just woken up. “I’m sure it’ll be something pretty. Or scary. Or prettily scary. That’d suit nice.” He turned his head to give her a toothy little grin, faintly, teasingly wicked.
As they neared the thunderpath, Leveretpaw tilted his head back to look up at the towering trees. They thinned out, but what pines there were became unfathomably huge — redwoods. Their gnarled, reddish trunks reached up and disappeared into the swirling mist, only the merest hint of dark green needles showing through the haze or growing lower down. The ferns thinned out too, clustered around the trunks but sparse everywhere else. As the blackness of the thunderpath came into view through the mist, Leveretpaw shivered and almost stopped. He hadn’t been here since… “It’s not really the cars I’m scared of,” he whispered as they drew closer, eyes frozen on the tarmac. “It’s… This is where we came on the cat hunt. I was faster than them and here’s,” he paused at the point where earth met black, “where I lost Ratsneer.” He looked over his shoulder, following some unseen wraith with his eyes as it ran past; the forest was pouring with rain, it dripped down the trunks, Ratsneer’s thundering paws threw up mud, his face was twisted with hate as he chased after him. Everything vanished. “It was raining and I ran up that verge.” He pointed with his muzzle up the hill that rose on the other side of the vast thunderpath; as he looked at it, it was briefly flooding with water that poured down the earth and turned it to mud; he blinked again and it was summery again, mist licking around the patchy undergrowth beyond the pines. “I caught up to her,” the escaped cat, “but…” He gave a one-shouldered shrug, looking down at his paws. “Didn’t do anyone much good, did it?” He looked at her with a sad little laugh, one half of his mouth pulled up in a miserable grin and his brows pushed together. It almost looked like hope. It had done good — not for him, but for the she-cat. He’d told her to run for DayClan and not stop running. And to the best of his knowledge, she had. She might be safe now. She might be happy and okay. And if he’d sacrificed himself for that, for that girl he hardly knew, then he was alright with that. At least he’d done one noble thing with his life. “She looked so terrified.” His gaze wandered back to the verge again, his head turning slowly. His whispered voice was haunted.
It was treacherous, to be saying these things to Oleanderpaw. He’d already gone on trial and been found innocent; this was tempting fate, especially since she lapped up all of NightClan’s violent rhetoric so hungrily. But if he was safe to speak to anyone, he hoped it was her. He was already the Clan joke, the weak, soft little traitor; now it was like a fond moniker more than a condemnation. If only they knew what he was doing when he snuck out at dawn. If only they knew who he was meeting and the secrets he was feeding him. But Oleanderpaw couldn’t ever know that. She would never speak to him again. Who could love a filthy coward?
Without waiting for her, Leveretpaw limped forward, drawn across the thunderpath like he were a ghost with strings tied round his paws. Letting out a breath, he stopped right in the middle and lay down, rolling onto his back so he could watch the thick mist swirling around the vast pine canopy above them. It was silent; there was no rumble of cars, no headlights cutting through the haze. The blackness was cold and rough against his back, and yet it felt like peace. To be lying here, in this place of nightmares, and to feel his heart slow. He blinked slowly as he gazed up at the sea of swimming mist, hints of redwood needles poking out every now and then. “It’s kinda sucky, that such a pretty place is all ruined by some messed up night. I guess I gotta make nice, new memories or something.” He rolled his head against the black to give her a tired and a little huff of breath through his nose. It looked tired.
A thrush? Oleanderpaw nodded enthusiastically, "yes, a thrush. It just fits you." She hadn't just given him one because it was the polite thing to do, because she wasn't one to do the polite thing if she could help it. She spoke whatever was on her mind, she inflated her tone with stubborn, strong-willed, blunt words, a disguise for her own fragility in the face of unacceptance. With someone above her, if they said jump she would, and when she was done she would blink at them sparkly-eyed and eat up whatever praise they laid out; with those below her (and, now it seemed, there was a lot), she spoke with icy words and thinly veiled aggression, just to get a kick. Leveretpaw had always been a lackey, someone who trailed her and held her handbag and her fur coats, and though she liked him, truly and unabashedly loved him as her best friend, she didn't have to extend her reaches of politeness to him. She knew he didn't mind. Being tough, snarky Oleanderpaw was her thing with him — but she could also be silly, uncool Oleanderpaw with him, too.
His lack of an answer was enough, and she fell quiet, into awkward, tense silence, just for a moment before she moved on, slowly but somehow rushed. It was wishful thinking, foolish thinking, to even humour the idea, but she had done so anyway, and now she felt guilt roil in her gut, but she didn't say anything. She could argue against Leveretpaw's circumstances, she knew she had the will, but she was hesitant — would her concerns be taken seriously? She had spent so long building a reputation, had almost lost her life for it, she wasn't sure if this thing, this simple action of standing against the set hierarchy, would be the death of it. The idea would be mulled over until she either entirely denied it or recklessly attempted it, but either way it could haunt her.
"Prettily scary?" She echoed, thoughtful, her tone losing any remaining tension. "I like the sound of that."
When he slowed to a near stop, she slowed with him, eyeing the thunderpath from where she had leaned her head forward with a tinge of curiosity. It’s… This is where we came on the cat hunt. She made a sound somewhere between a hum and a groan, an uncomfortable sound on her throat. It came to mind, the failed cat hunt, how news had spread around camp like wildfire, how Leveretpaw had caused a scene. She knew how Ratsneer could be, a jealous, brooding tom who thought himself above yet still had to beat everyone down anyway — nobody really liked him, not even Oleanderpaw. Sometimes, she thought, he needed a reminder that he was an Executioner, a lackey more than anything else, someone whose claws mattered more than their words. It was rich, coming from her. She thought he had almost been overexaggerating, but the subsequent trial of Leveretpaw had proved it, mostly, though not entirely, untrue. She remembered attending, her tail twitching with anxiety and her pelt messier than she usually ever let it be, rumpled by stress, and she hadn't been as loud, excited, as she usually was during trials — she sat silently, head dipped and leaned forward, ears twitching with every question shot his way, claws digging into the stone with every answer he gave. She didn't bring up her anxiety to him afterwards, she'd almost been scared to approach. Didn’t do anyone much good, did it? Her lips thinned, and she didn't meet his eye. She looked so terrified. For some strange, unfathomable reason, her mind wandered to the she-cat at the League that she had fed poison, the terrified, feral look in her eyes as her mouth foamed and her body twitched, helpless under the effects. Gently, hardly noticeable, she shook her head of the thoughts and turned her attention back to him as he limped away, trailing afterward with her head low between her shoulders, as if she was suddenly scared to be caught.
"Yeah — it is," she agreed quietly. She remembered how she had brought that night up to Bumblebeepaw as they, too, wandered the thunderpath. Then, she had been much more curious, channeling her inner gossiper and prodding puckishly. She tilted her head to stare into the far mist, watching it swirl, before standing beside Leveretpaw's laying form, turning to blink down at him. "Well, then," she prodded his side, gentle but challenging, "how do you suppose we do that? By laying here?" She wouldn't mind it, of course — they could wait the whole night away, just the two of them, or until headlights broke through the thickness of the fog and illumined them like they were fallen suns.
Yes, a thrush. It just fits you. Leveretpaw gave a sheepish little grin — it was hardly a compliment, but it still sent a rush to the tips of his toes and made his ears droop backwards with the force of his blush. 'It just fits you.' The idea that she ever thought of him, that she could look at something and know whether it fit her image of him or not — she could pick the ugliest clothes for him that he hated and he'd take them happily because she'd picked them. He looked down at his paws, almost walking into a tree. He hardly noticed that either, just tottered around it; all he could feel was the terrible ache in his cheeks from the breadth of his grin.
When she didn't fill the silence surrounding his warriorhood, however, the grin began to slowly fade. The warm swell in his heart was replaced by a sinking sadness, flowing so slowly downwards like cold water till he thought it was going to come out through his paws. Of course he knew it was happening — they both did. But somehow, not having it denied added a new weight to it. A new reality. It wouldn't have been her if she'd lied, if she'd tried to comfort him, and yet the sense of isolation, of otherness, of loneliness, swelled and ached. It felt like there was a wall slowly growing between them, or a distance — a wall he could see through, a distance he could look down, but she never saw him. Never looked back. He was trying to gasp for air in all this water filling the room and she didn't see; how could she, when the world in front of her was so blindingly bright and the praise, the hand on the small of her back, so warm? She had a future; he didn't. How could he hate her for moving on without him — especially when she wasn't? When she was trying every way she could to linger behind as long as she could? But that wouldn't last. It couldn't. They were trying to grab at the sand falling between their fingers but her attempts, her trying, would grow less and less and less, until she wasn't doing anything at all to help. She'd go. He'd watch her. Both of them knew. Neither of them could talk about it. It was Oleanderpaw — she hadn't comforted him after the trial, at least not in the way an ordinary friend would have; she didn't comfort him now. She wasn't good at it. She joked about, she brushed it off, she tried to take his mind off things, she pretended it had never happened. And he felt so strangely about that. Because on the one hand, how could he ever want anything else? Any other brand of comfort would seem pale and bland and meaningless. Coarse. It wouldn't be hers, and hers was so bright, so full of life. On the other, all he wanted was... All he wanted was the world and everything small. A gentle touch. A reassurance. But she did do that. That's what this was.
Loving her was the most confusing thing in the world — his mind was in constant disarray — and yet it was the simplest thing he'd ever known. He was happy. It was like breathing.
It's just that sometimes it was like breathing underwater.
But then she was prodding his side, and he cared as little as he always did. Leveretpaw turned his head to smile up at her, the tarmac rough against his soft cheek. Yeah, he wanted to breathe, looking up into her eyes. He didn't know how she couldn't see. Laying here with her in the dark, doing nothing for hours, for all that silence, was the best thing in the world he could think of. But, finally, his smile widened and he answered softly, "maybe just for a little bit. A breeze has picked up — d'you feel it? The fog will move on and we'll be able to see all the stars. And you can tell me all the things you want to do as a warrior." The smile pushed his eyes up as he gazed up at her. "Just one nice memory is all it'll take, I think, to get rid of the bad one. Then," he added, the smile pushing into a gentle little grin, because he knew she'd want more, "we'll take the long way around, the way along this thunderpath, and find the highest point in the territory. Somewhere we're in the sky and there's nothin' else. And then," there was a laugh in his voice, like he was teasing her with his itinerary, "I think it'd be sick to spend the night in the railway tunnel. Y'know, the one where you get into it along that rickety track that's so tall it's among the treetops, the one that looks like it's gonna break any second if you put even one single paw on. Come to think of it, maybe that's the highest point in the territory. It's totally not — there's a cliff above it— oh my gosh, but what if we climbed down from the cliff? That would be so scary, and it'd totally be two in one. Anyway, and then the tunnel — yes." His voice was so excited now; he was using his paws in the air, alive with enthusiasm. "I dunno if you've heard it, but there's this old story the kits used to tell when I was little, before you came — some apprentices had heard it at a Gathering when A—" He broke off; in his head, he'd already been walking along the mossy tunnel swaying on its narrow, splintering beams high in the trees, happily talking to Oleanderpaw in a world so high only the air could hear them, but now he came back to his body and a rivulet of fear crept back in, his ears falling back against his head; there were still other ears out here, "when she was leader. But they told all sorts of stories about NightClan — there are always stories about us — and one of them was this ghost that lives in the railway tunnel. It's not true, probably, but wouldn't that be the bravest thing in the world, to sleep in there?" He turned his head again to smile up at her. His voice choked slightly; the smile grew more sheepish, more tentative, like she'd slap him away any second. "Just the two of us?"
Then he realised how much he'd babbled — again — and he rolled his head to the other side, ears red. "Sorry," he mumbled shyly.
Out of anyone in the world, Oleanderpaw liked listening to Leveretpaw talk to the most, because everything he said was always uniquely him, interesting and silly and something that shouldn't make sense but did, inexplicably. She sat beside him, once more partially leaned against him while she stared into the swirling fog, listening even though she didn't look all that attentive — she was, and there was a faintly amused smile on her face, just because she liked listening to him ramble, making plans where he was previously unsure and where it had once been up to her. She didn't mind what they did, and even though she liked to take charge, to be the decision-maker, to do what she wanted when she wanted to, she let him plan it, and she listened, went along — part of her was still tinged with a certain guilt that wasn't entirely her fault at all, but a result of the environment that Nightclan had adopted. She couldn't change him to fit in, and she wouldn't want to, because nobody could be Leveretpaw like Leveretpaw could, and who would take his place? She liked it, the softness in a place that was only sharp edges and claws and darkness. She had strived to be one of the greats, to fit into the environment, and the only thing that ever made her doubt that it was, in any way, bad was the fact that cats like Leveretpaw were at the bottom. With anyone else, even other cats like him, she wouldn't be concerned, but perhaps it was just the fact that she saw so much goodness in him, that he was her friend, that she cared for him, that made her chest twist.
At his apology, she nudged his shoulder with her paw, "just the two of us," she agreed, laying down just beside him, wiggling in an attempt to get comfortable on the asphalt. She rolled onto her back, lip curling at the sensation of her pelt picking up stray specks of road and pebbles, but she ignored it. The clouds were soft and dark with the night, covering the stars, leaving only a small space for the moon, and eventually it rolled by, covering it. He was right, the clouds were moving, a soft, slow drift away to wherever clouds went. "Hey," she pointed out, paw reaching up momentarily before falling back down on top of her, "where do those clouds go? You think they have cloud homes? Cloud families?"
She giggled, ending with a drawn, windy sound that wasn't exactly a sigh. She thought about what she'd told Bumblebeepaw on their way to the same road, that ghosts were silly and stupid, and they'd poked fun together, but she knew she probably shouldn't do that here, with Leveretpaw, where he might feel bad for it. She didn't exactly believe in ghosts, either, even though she wanted to — she wanted to see one, more than she wanted to see most things. It was a silly wish, and she never voiced it, but she'd always hung onto scary stories like that, onto the concept of something after even if she couldn't bring herself to be convinced by it. Moonblight had told her of Starclan when she was small, too small to understand much of anything, and she'd only brushed them off. A sort of distastefulness crossed her mind at the thought of him, and she willed it away.
"I hope we find that ghost you were talking about," she turned her head to look at him, then looked back to the sky, "that would be cool." The clouds drifted by again, clearing up more of the sky, and she felt the breeze ruffle her fur. "But it'd be pretty lame to haunt the old railway tunnel. What do you even do there with all that time?"