Sorry it's taken me so long. I was sick and then I had to go spend time with my brother and then it was Shark Week. I love you guys, but I can talk to you all year round. Shark Week only comes once.

It amuses me, on a sidenote, how Shark Week is split almost evenly into "Sharks are beautiful, amazing, and powerful hunters that should be respected!" and "OH MY GOD, this one time, I was almost eaten by a shark!" XD

Also, it's four-thirty in the morning here and I'm still awake. God, I hate insomnia. *_*

Mintheart - Yeah, but now it really is the last chapter. XD And yes! A sequel is on the way! More about that in my bottom AN!

LarkspiritOfThunderClan - Heehee~! I get so few times when I can trick so many people that I just have to take advantage of it. XD And sequel? Hmmm~ You might wanna check the bottom AN~!

Squirrelheart - Heehee! I can almost feel your excitement. I approve. X3

Rapidfeather - This chapter is super long! Just for you! (And possibly also because I had so much fun writing it. X3)

Amazingly Awesome Person - I know. Us Americans. We always have to be different, just because. I think it's because of that whole revolt-from-Britain thing. XD Aaaaw, but I LOVE twists! But there are no more...or are there? Muahahahahahaha!

Queen of the Pens - Aaaw, the effect could have been so good, too! Darn you for skimming! XD Total JK. I won't try and get you guys again. Or will I? -mysterious music-

LegendaryHero - Eeeeeh! Unpleasable, Hero! Unpleasable! It makes me both a little bit frustrated and mostly determined. One day, probably in the sequel, I will have a chapter that will be so amazing that you will love every single word of it! Mark my words! XD I wanted the ending to be very abrupt and very unexpected. It totally would have been cliche for them to hike back up the mountain and like, not even find her or whatever. Imagine that the entire time, through this whole story, Spirit has just been there waiting for the right moment. I think that's a lot more agonizing - knowing that she was close the entire time - than to have them go on some kind of exodus up the mountain. XD Plus, writing mountain scenes are kind of boring. XD

Before The Winter's Dawn - Ugh, I am so over Congress. Actually, the entire system. I'm an independant but I don't very much like anyone in the offices right now. I think it would just be best if we got rid of all the men and let women rule the country. XD Hee! I didn't think of the Rogue and the brook! Although there is a deep kind of irony that what protected him before turned out to betray him. It says loads about his kithood. Actually, let's just pretend I intended that symbolism. XD

tufted titmouse - Oh man! Even I'm not that cruel! XD

ponyiowa - Yay indeed! Lots of angst coming right up! XD

artemis7337 - I tried to make my name so I wouldn't have to remember any numbers. Before it was this, it was Shadow Before The Storm, but that's too many words. XD I wanted the Rogue's death to be very abrupt where everyone was just kinda like, "Huhwhat?" XD About the kit think, I know. I needed some kind of plot device to get Twist back over there and I didn't want her to just stumble upon Spirit. I guess it's choosing one cliche over the other. XD

theDiabolical - Yaaaaaaaaaay for no banning! My parents always used to do that to me when I was younger and got in trouble! XD

XxJabberjayxX - Heehee~! Your review made me giggle in fangirlish glee. I'm so happy that you like this story so much. That's really the best praise, just knowing that someone loves it. X3 Haha, I can imagine that ending: "I love you." "I love you." THE END! That would be dreadful. XD

XKajarX - Heehee! Thank you! But there's gonna be a sequel~! :D

Icestar0921 - I know. I was making a joke. The internet really needs to come up with a sarcasm font. XD And isn't it too bad? D:

Ravenshade - I did try butterbeer! I have to say, though, I didn't much like it. It tasted kind of like really thick cream soda with, like, cinnamon in it or something. XD Although I did very much enjoy eating at the Three Broomsticks. The last time I went there with my friend, we actually saw Celine Dion in there. She was just eating in there like a normal person! I couldn't believe it! XD Hee! I'm glad you liked Salvation's ending. This one won't be nearly as depressing, though, I can promise you that. XD OH GOD NO. Not Nyan Cat! (Though have you heard the "smooth jazz" version? XD)

Tangleflame - I love how you threaten me with death and then put a smiley face. XD But no worries, Tangle-chaaaan! We gonna be havin' a sequel. :D

Crowstorm - Yeah, I tend to lose some of the drama because I write so fast, I think. I get one of these chapters cranked out in like two hours maybe, and I sit and do them straight. Perhaps I should break them up more. XD

Emberspark - You know what I love? Your penname. XD And I shall write more! No worries! :D

pieinyaface - I know, I'm so mean to her. XD

Okay, and onto the story! For the last time in Sidestep. :(

After caresses and licks and overjoyed greetings and that heart-mending reunion of mother and daughter, Twist felt like she could positively fly. Her paws were so light as she sat down there in the shade of that oak tree, the warm breeze coasting over her whiskers, tugging her fur gently, the sounds of kits at play in the background.

And her mother, Spirit, in front of her.

She was so lovely. Everything about her was warm, soft, comforting. Everything but the scars that lurked just beneath her silky pelt, and on the front paw that was wounded from a battle before Twist had been born. Twist drank in the sight of her, so familiar after so long apart.

"My dearest heart," Spirit murmured fondly, and Twist felt her heart swell up into her throat. "How is it possible that you've found me?"

And so Twist talked. She started with her journey down the mountain, into those cold, dark woods at the bottom, to the old no-pelt house she had lived in for a few days. She told her mother about the Sliders and the Claws, the enmity between them—that fierce, corrosive hate that had corrupted the hearts of those on both sides. She talked about Lucky and the Rogue, their history—Braiser's involvement, at which Spirit began to look a little ill—and of her friends in the Sliders—both those who were still there and those who had yet to be rescued from the Claws. She talked about Vivian and Kip, Audrey and Snit, Viktor and Kite.

And Declan.

Twist didn't miss the way her mother's green eyes glowed at his name. And even though she had never met him before, she wore a fond expression when Twist spoke of him, as if the two of them were old friends.

Finally, Twist was finished. Her throat ached from the strain of the words—both the physical strain and the one it put on her heart—but every word felt precious to her. Her history, she thought. Her life.

Spirit stretched out a paw to cover Twist's when she finished. "You have been so brave, Twist," she said. "Such a strong, beautiful she-cat you've grown to be while I wasn't there. I am so proud of you."

Twist dropped her eyes to where her mother's snowy paw was. "But…Mother, where have you been? I went down the mountain to find you. I searched for you. And after all this time…you've been so close. It took barely any time at all to get here from the Warren. Have you really been here so long? And how were you captured by the Claws in the first place? Why didn't you fight to free yourself? Why didn't you come looking for me? I've missed you so much!"

Spirit's eyes softened, dark like grass in the end of the warm season. "I'll tell you everything. Anything you want to hear. Where would you like me to begin?"

"From the beginning. How did you get caught by the Claws?"

Spirit settled down onto her belly, motioning for Twist to do the same. The big cream tom had gone over to the kits and ushered them away, beneath the shelter of a holly bush further across the lawn.

"After I came down the mountain—after your…your father fell off the cliff—I was lost. I couldn't find where I was supposed to go. I knew I had to stay away from the mountain out of fear of the gang's retribution—they clearly thought that I had been the one to kill Braiser. I couldn't go back home so I had to do the next best thing: find a new one. I had to stay close to the side of the mountain, I knew that. How else would you be able to find me once you had followed me? So I found a little cave in the overhang of a cliff and settled down there, prepared to wait however long it took for you to join me.

"It was deep in the bitter cold season. I could feel it creeping into my bones. I couldn't stay warm by myself, not for very much longer. I had to find some sort of company to help myself stay alive." She pulled a face then, surprising Twist. "As if I wanted to do anything less."

She's just like me, Twist remembered. She never wanted to rely on anyone either. She wanted to make it on her own, her own way. She had the gang's mentality sunk deeper into her mind than I ever did.

"I went into the woods and found cat scent. I followed it. The deeper I went into the forest, the stronger it got. I didn't notice anything was wrong at first. I didn't notice that the tracks I was following were bitter with the scent of fear.

"I stumbled right into their paws. A group of them—Claw guards—leapt out at me and pinned me down. They were covered in mud, their pelts thick and shaggy, stinking of pine needles and water. They brought me to their leader, some tabby with his head in the clouds. He spoke so slowly, formally. I didn't trust him for a heartbeat."

"They kept you in the caves, didn't they?" Twist asked softly. "The cliffs."

Spirit nodded, looking away. The fur on her shoulders was bristling. "It was cold. And dark. I had no company." Her lip curled. "No wanted company anyway. Braiser. He felt the need to continuously plague me with his presence. As if he couldn't understand that I didn't want to see him anymore. As if he couldn't understand that I couldn't bear to look at his horrific face." She shuddered at that.

So did Twist. "He's dead now."

Spirit blinked. She turned her head away for a long moment, so that Twist couldn't see her face. "I'm glad," she said finally, softly.

Twist wasn't sure if she really meant it. Lowering her head, trying to meet her mother's eyes, she asked, "How could you have loved him in the first place?"

"I was young. We met when he joined up with my gang. He was charming, handsome, ambitious. I didn't want to be attracted to him, I didn't want to love him. I didn't want to love anyone. A mountain cat looks after only herself, that's the rule. Even before Braiser joined up, I knew the rules. And I broke every single one of them to be with him. I wanted him to love me. I wanted him to look at me and know that I wanted him. And I wanted him to want me, too." She sighed heavily, shifting her weight. "I was young. Young and stupid. We fell in love. Completely, unconditionally. The forever kind, I always thought. And so I supported him in every way."

She turned to Twist then, her eyes entreating. "Twist, you must understand. When you love someone, you love all of them. You can't pick and choose what to love and what not to. You love everything about them. Their faults and weaknesses, their hopes and desires. Even the monster hidden where nobody but you can see it."

"You don't…love him now, do you?" Twist asked hesitantly. It was strange, she thought as a complicated expression crossed her mother's face, how much Spirit seemed like a stranger to her now. She had never wavered in asking her a question before, even if it had been about Braiser. Her mother had always been open to her, always, but now it had been so long that it felt the time had formed a physical barrier between them.

Spirit's face fell into a speculative look. "You know, I was about your age when he and I met. Maybe a little younger. That leaves a mark on someone."

"You didn't answer the question."

Spirit heaved a sigh, her head to the side. "It's a difficult question, Twist. And I can't answer it the way you want me to. I know you want me to say that I hate him, that he's horrific. Evil. But I can't say that because I honestly loved him. I loved him with my entire heart. And I believed in him. When that happens to you, Twist…it changes you. I'm only the way I am today because I loved him and he loved me. It places a mark on your heart so deeply that you can never fully be rid of it."

Twist looked down at her paws. A mark on your heart. Is that what Declan was to her? Was his presence so deeply pressed into her bones that he was always with her? Even now, half of her mind was dedicated to him. Could that mean that she would love him forever? She certainly couldn't imagine a life without him now. She could barely remember the cat she had been so long ago, in that dark time before she'd met him. Was she going to be like Spirit one day?

Though to be like her, Declan would have to die. And Twist shuddered away from that thought, her mind rejecting it before the thought was even fully formed.

"Of course I can never feel about Braiser the way I did before." Spirit's voice broke Twist out of her thoughts. "And I never have to again. He's dead."

"Does your new mate know about him?" Twist was surprised when she heard the bitterness in her own voice. She hadn't felt anything towards the big cream tom, not since he had brought her mother out, but now a kind of seething jealousy overtook her. Spirit should have been looking for her, she thought, not settling down with a mate and a new litter of kits.

And now Spirit's reluctance vanished. Her eyes a very clear green, she said, "Teddy knows everything. I don't have any secrets from him."

"But you do from your new kits?" Twist felt kittish herself for speaking like that, now so flat and emotionless. Like the jealousy and anger inside of her weren't bubbling to the surface.

Spirit's temper came into her eyes, Twist could see it; she had seen it enough in her own reflection to recognize it in her mother. "This isn't like you, Twist."

"I was searching for you, remember?" she asked roughly. "I never stopped looking for you until I was captured, first by the Sliders, then the Claws. I didn't give up on you."

Spirit's eyes widened. "You think I gave up on you?" she whispered.

Twist felt ashamed immediately. It was like when she was young and her mother had scolded her gently for playing too roughly with Stripes. "From the outside, it would appear so." This wasn't anything like she'd planned. She had never wanted to feel this way towards her mother, the first cat she had ever completely trusted, loved. She didn't want to sound like the reject, the kit left behind in favor of this new litter. She knew it was foolish and selfish and stupid but she couldn't help it.

Spirit's paw retracted from the top of Twist's then. "If you think that, then you're wrong. In my entire life, Twist, you are the one I loved the most. You are the most precious thing to me. Why do you think I never went back up the mountain, Twist? You think I haven't been looking for you? You think that I haven't been keeping myself here, hoping and praying every night that you would find me? By some stroke of blind luck, that you would come falling right back into my paws, safe and warm once more? It killed me to leave you up on that mountain with them. I've never done something I regret so much as leaving you there when you were still so young, right after…such a shock." She swallowed hard, closing her eyes. "I've never felt more ashamed of myself for running. I told myself that it was for you, for your protection, but it wasn't enough. It will never feel to me like it was worth it, to leave my only kit defenseless with a gang that I had grown to hate. It was worse than I could have ever imagined. I would have rather died.

"But I didn't. I couldn't. I had to keep living, stay strong, for you. That's why I went into the forest. That's why I escaped from them, with the help of a cat thousands of times braver than the rest of his gang. But when I got out of their grasp, I was so weak. I was starving, nothing but a pelt across bones. I wasn't going to make it.

"It was still snowing. I walked as far as I could, thinking if I could get back to the mountainside into that little cave, you would be able to find me. I stumbled through the snow forever. It was blinding me, freezing me from the inside out. My paw caught something and I was on the ground suddenly. It was snowing so gently it seemed to me. It spiraled down on me, covering me. I felt myself sink into such warm darkness that I almost didn't want to wake up. I wanted sleep to take me so I wouldn't hurt anymore."

Spirit shook herself then. "I woke up in the warm looking up into the brightest blue eyes I'd ever seen. Teddy had found me in the snow and brought me to his housefolk. They took me in, fed me, kept me, healed me. Teddy was so gentle to me. I am…not the easiest cat to get along with, as you know. But he was persistent and patient. Slowly, I opened to him, and he to me, and he was beautiful inside. So unlike Braiser. So unlike me." She looked over to where he was now, bundling a kit up into the air with all four paws. "He is such a gentle cat. I don't deserve him."

"And your kits?" Twist asked.

"A few moon cycles later, we had a new little family, Teddy and I. He was so happy, so proud. I loved him all the more for it." She turned her head back to Twist. "But that doesn't mean I ever forgot about you, Twist. You are, after all, my dearest heart, aren't you?" Her eyes sparkled.

And all at once, Twist knew she was forgiven for her loss of temper, that thoughtless jealousy. And Twist knew her mother understood her, too. She knew how Twist had been hurting so badly.

Spirit got to her paws and leaned over. Twist closed her eyes as her mother licked her gently between the ears, as if she was still a very young kit. "Come and meet your brothers and sister," she said softly.

Twist stood at once.

The kits turned to look at them as they approached. Teddy, covered in kits, gently pushed them off and stepped to Spirit's side, leaning into her flank in a subtle gesture of affection.

"Is everything alright?" he murmured, his words only for Spirit.

She pressed her cheek into his shoulder in response. "Everybody," she said to the kits, "this is a very special cat."

"That's Twist!" the little tortoiseshell Anole piped up.

Her brothers looked immediately interested. "The one you tell us about all the time, Mother?" one asked, the only gray tom.

"That's right."

They swarmed over to Twist at once, sniffing her, nibbling at her legs. "You don't smell like us," Anole pointed out in a rather annoyed voice. She wrinkled her little nose. "You smell like wildcats."

"I'm practically a wildcat," Twist teased.

Anole blinked up at her. Then she squinted her big green eyes. "You look a lot like Mother," she declared.

"She does not!" one of her brothers protested. "She's too dark! Look at her fur! She's nearly black!"

"She's got Mother's expression," Anole corrected herself, rolling her eyes. "Anyway, don't listen to them, Twist, because I have decided that I like you." She said this all in a very businesslike tone of voice.

Twist purred a little. "I guess that's an honor."

Anole lifted her chin. "It is. I don't like just anybody, you know."

"You just like her because now you have a sister," the same gray tabby brother whispered.

"She's your sister, too!" Anole turned on him, fur bristling. "It's not just me! You should be just as happy!"

Teddy let out a rumbling purr, much deeper than Twist's had been. "Calm down now, Anole. No need to get all worked up."

Spirit was laughing as her kits tussled, glancing over to lock eyes with Twist. In those shimmering green depths, Twist realized that she had never seen her mother so happy. She was truly at peace here, relaxed and joyous in a way the mountains had never made her. The mother Twist had always imagined in her head was a strong warrior, a gentle-tongued she-cat with eyes only for her. Now that she had grown up, Twist could see that Spirit's temper was softened far more than Twist thought she could ever be.

She felt a little prickle of envy for her mother's easy life here. Though soon, she thought, it would be her life, too.

Though she still hadn't completely decided that, she realized once again. What was she going to do when she saw Declan again? How could she explain to him that her place was here with her mother? Did that mean she couldn't be with him? Did she have to give up being with him to be with her mother?

That has always been the plan, she thought, her pelt crawling with anxiety. It has always been that way. I've known since the start that I was going to go with my mother. It's where I belong. Declan belongs…

She almost thought with me. But it couldn't be that way. She couldn't force him to stay with her, even if she wanted it more than anything. Even if she would give up everything to be with him.

Spirit was still laughing when she turned to look behind her, an edge coming into her eyes. Her fur bristled as she turned, not moving her gaze from where she was staring with a growing ferocity, reminding Twist of the cat she had been so long ago. "Who are you?" she demanded roughly.

Twist followed her eyes, a jolt so strong it felt like she'd been dropped in ice water coursing through her.

At the edge of the fence, half in shadow, stood Declan. He was hunched, his head low, placating in territory that didn't belong to him, and his tail was matted from travel but Twist didn't think she had ever seen him look more handsome.

Without looking back at her mother, she flew to him, tail up. She pressed her cheek up against his jaw, purring loudly. It was strange, she thought, even though she had only been away from him for a short while, how much she had missed him. How the empty space in her heart had filled when he had made his appearance.

"You found me," she murmured against his fur.

He ducked his head even further to press his forehead against hers, his chest rumbling with a purr. "You didn't make it easy for me. Sparrow had to lead the way. I'm afraid of my list of extraordinary talents, scent-tracking is absent."

Only then did Twist even notice Sparrow behind Declan. He looked awkward standing there, like he didn't want to be here. His eyes were warily fixed on the family of cats behind Twist. "Spirit," he greeted in a low voice.

Spirit led the way across the empty space of the peaceful grass, her mate and kits following. Her eyes flicked between Sparrow's, searchingly, before she said, "You've grown strong, Sparrow."

Sparrow turned his head away, just enough to take the edge off his marked eyes. "Not as strong as I would have wanted," he said softly.

"You have a good heart. You saved my life. I'll owe you for that forever, Sparrow."

"As will I," Teddy said, in his even voice. "Thank you."

Sparrow looked embarrassed—and confused. "I don't deserve your praise," he said, his voice stilted. "I allowed them to do…horrible things to you. I stood by and did nothing when they kept you hidden in the cliffs. I didn't say anything when they—" He cut himself off, turning his head sharply away now. "If anything, you should hate me. I might have let you escape but I will never be fully rid of my own crimes. I have to live with them. Helping you barely does anything to change that."

Spirit ducked her head to look into his eyes. "You're wrong," she said softly. "You are stronger than you think. You're a very brave cat. No one in the entirety of the Claws helped me but you. You were good, kind. You're the best of them. Don't change. Don't hurt yourself anymore. You don't deserve it." She took in a deep breath. "And besides, it's over. All of it. There's no need for you to be like this anymore. Make a new life for yourself."

Sparrow, head still low, turned his eyes to her, and there was guilt and sorrow in that marked gaze. "I can't," he whispered.

Spirit touched her nose gently to his forehead, like a kit, and she said, "I believe in you. You can do whatever you want. Don't allow hate to cloud your heart."

Sparrow's eyes were half-lidded, as if she was putting him into a trance.

She stepped back to Teddy's side, twining her tail with his with an ease that seemed long-practiced. "I wish you would come and visit me again, Sparrow."

Sparrow ducked his head further. To his paws, he mumbled, "Perhaps I will." He glanced up to Declan and Twist, that pain sharpening in his eyes. "I am so sorry for what I did to you. I…I'll beg for your forgiveness if that's what it takes. On my father's behalf." He paused. "And on my own."

"There's no need for that. It's all in the past," Declan said, but there was an undercurrent in his voice of something that made Twist wonder what he was really thinking.

When Sparrow turned to her, his eyes entreating, Twist said the hardest words she'd ever had to say in her life: "I forgive you."

Sparrow sighed then, letting out a huge breath of relief. "Thank you," he said, sounding genuine. He dipped his head low in respect, then turned and fled into the forest, his dark pelt swallowed up the shadows almost immediately.

Spirit watched him, her expression unfathomable, before she turned away. Looking down at her kit, the gray tabby, she said, "Aren't you glad we named you after such a brave cat, Sparrow?"

The little tom, Sparrow, curled his tail over his back. His eyes were still on where his namesake had disappeared. "Yes," he said, admiration in his voice.

Spirit purred, licking his forehead. Then she turned again, her eyes taking in Declan. "So you're the tom I've heard so much about?"

Declan shrugged modestly, his eyes lit with good humor. "I suspect that I haven't lived up to your expectations. Assuming Twist here has told you her side of the story."

Spirit laughed. "You're funny. I like that. Come on, come lay in the shade. We have so much talking to do."

Declan spared Twist an amused look before he followed after Spirit back beneath the old oak tree.

They all settled down into the warm grass, letting the filtered light between leaves come down and soak into their pelts. In the background, the kits' cheerful playing filled the air, along with the calls of blackbirds flying overhead. The sky was beautiful after the storm, a clear solid blue, with just wisps of tattered clouds soaring softly by. The smell of rain left just enough of a trace to be refreshing, clearing Twist's mind of the scent of blood.

Twist lay close to Declan on her belly. I'm not going to see him as often, she thought miserably, so I might as well get in as much time with him as I can.

Teddy took up a huge patch of grass with his long legs and wide shoulders. He was nearly twice Declan's size. "Spirit has told me so much about you, Twist," he said in his low, gentle voice. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."

"Y-you too," Twist stuttered out, surprised. "I'm glad that you've taken such good care of my mother."

Spirit scoffed. "Taken care of me!" she echoed. "I don't need taking care of!"

Teddy purred. "Sometimes you do. Don't you deny it."

Spirit huffed again, but her whiskers were twitching with amusement. "I don't think so."

Twist laughed. It was so light here, so simple. Just being in her mother's presence was so amazing. It was like she could breathe again.

They talked late into the afternoon. The sun began to sink lower in the sky, the light turning a brilliant orange and pink. Lights flickered on in the no-pelt houses down the street, one by one, until they were all glowing such a warm yellow light. Twist felt so safe here, secure. It must have been her mother's presence, she thought, because when the no-pelt opened the door and called for Teddy and Spirit to come in, Twist's fear racketed up.

Before she could think, she had flung herself backwards into a holly bush, her heart hammering in her chest. Shifting around, she met warm fur and knew that Declan had had the exact same response. Surprised, she glanced over at him. Hadn't he been a pet?

But then the no-pelt was outside and Twist couldn't stop staring. It was so…pink. Hairless except for a gray patch on its head and another beneath its nose, it came stooping out into the yard, clapping its large, nimble paws. Instead of running, like Twist had, her mother's kits flocked to the no-pelt, stretching up on their hind legs to grip on the strange pelt that hung down its legs. After another moment, Teddy followed, purring loudly.

Only Spirit remained behind. She turned to Twist, head to the side. Twist recognized the look in her mother's eyes—she had seen it enough hunting with Spirit in the mountains: Coming or not?

Declan said, so softly, "You should go with her."

A sick feeling twisted up inside her ribcage. She whipped her head up to look at him, seeing his eyes go so gentle. "What?" she rasped.

That soft expression on Declan's face was breaking her heart. "She's waiting for you," he whispered. "This is what you've wanted. You've always wanted to be back with her. And there she is, right now, waiting for you. You should go."

Twist felt like there was no air in her lungs. All of her emotions seemed caught in her throat, blocking her words. "But what about you?" she managed to get out, her voice barely above a whisper.

He put his head to one side gently; a holly leaf grazed along his ear. "Don't worry about me, Twist. This is your mother. I understand that. I know how you've been hurting for her." He took a deep sort of weight breath, the sound a little uneven. "I can be alone again. I was alone for a long time before I met you. I can do it again. Or I can go back to the Sliders. I'm sure they'll have me." He ducked his head so that their eyes were on the same level. "What's important to me is your happiness. I've never seen you happier than I have this afternoon. That's all I need to know. So go. Go with her."

"I…" Twist didn't know what to say. She had been thinking about this conversation for so long, playing it and replaying it over and over again in her head, but it hadn't been like this. She had been trying for so long to find a way to break it to Declan, to tell him that her mother needed her here, that they'd been apart for so long, but she had never been able to guess his response. She had known that he would be gentle with her but this…

This was unbearable.

Declan backed up a lithe step, placing himself closer to the slats in the fence. He stepped back over them until just his head was still there. The expression in his green eyes was very level, very calm. And that calmness was driving doubt deep into Twist's brain.

How can I allow him to leave when I love him so much?

"I'll come back and visit you," Declan said, stepping back again. "And you can visit me. I'll always be around if you want me." His voice was light, conversational.

And Twist didn't believe it for a heartbeat.

"Declan," she said, but no more words would come. Just his name. Always his name.

Something flickered across his eyes, too fast for her to identify it. "Don't be sad," he said softly.

This is more than sadness, she thought. This was her heart breaking apart.

He stepped forward just enough to brush his muzzle across her ears, soft and gentle and tender, and then he whispered into her ear, "Just don't forget me. Okay?" On that last word, his voice broke. She heard his sharp intake of breath, whether at his own emotion or at Twist's blank shock, she didn't know. "I'll…I'll see you later, Twist."

"Declan," she whispered again. "Don't—"

But he was already gone.


Twist walked on unfeeling paws back to her mother, who had stayed behind the entire time. Declan was gone. He had left her here. Not left her, she feebly tried to correct herself. He had brought her to her mother. What he'd always planned. What they'd always planned, since her capture by the Claws.

What Twist hadn't accounted for was falling in love with him.

Spirit looked concerned at once. Bounding to Twist's side, she asked, "Where's Declan?"

"He—" Twist had to stop to stabilize her voice. "He decided to go back to the Sliders."

Spirit looked shocked. "He…he's not… I mean, you're not—"

"No," Twist said. She straightened her shoulders, looking her mother square in the eyes. "I'm with you now, Mother. I told you I would find you."

"Oh, Twist." Her green eyes were full of sorrow. "You don't need to do this."

And now Twist was confused. "I don't understand," she said slowly. "I want to be with you. I promised. We promised. When I came down from that mountain, all I wanted to do was find you. It's what I've been doing for the past…since you left. I wanted this. I want to do this. I want to be with you, Mother." She dropped her eyes to the ground, squinting them half-closed as if she could fight back the surge of agony that was racing through her.

Spirit's tail flicked out to brush gently down Twist's shoulder. "My dearest heart," she murmured. "You have found me. And I will always be with you, just as you will be with me. But"—and now her voice grew even deeper—"that does not mean we always have to be together to be with each other."

Twist raised her eyes to her mother's. "What do you mean?"

"Twist, you've accomplished your mission. You know where I am now. I'll be here for the rest of my life. You can always come and visit me, spend the day. I will never leave you. Not ever." Spirit's lips quirked. "But there is a young tom who is probably very confused right now. You've been sending him some very mixed signals. You're just like me when I was your age. And I'm sure that tom is very heartsick right now."

Twist swallowed hard. "He made his choice." She couldn't even say his name. "And I made mine. It just so happened that we made the same one."

"I didn't raise you to say what you think others want to hear, Twist," Spirit said, now with a little teasing purr in her voice. "I raised you to have your own opinion, your own mind. Your own heart. And what is yours saying right now?"

Twist gritted her teeth as a wave of pain rolled through her. "I don't know," she lied.

Spirit dipped her head to meet Twist's reluctant eyes. "You love him," she whispered.

Twist's mouth was dry, her heart hammering in her chest like a trapped bird. There was absolutely no way that she could deny it now. She didn't want to. "I love you, too."

"It's not the same. You've already proven that you're strong enough to live without me. But something tells me the same is not true for him. Is it?"

Twist just looked at her. She had no defense. Her mother was absolutely right.

Spirit leaned forward and nudged her. "Go on," she whispered, her eyes very bright. "I will always be here for you. Always."

Twist gasped once, her heart swelling almost painfully in her chest, but she welcomed that pain. Pressing her chin against her mother's neck, she whispered, "I love you," against her soft white pelt.

Spirit licked Twist's ears, nuzzling her with that easy affection. "I love you, too. Now go get that tom before he does something stupid."

Twist backed up slowly away from her mother. In the dying light of the sun, Spirit's pelt was a whirl of color—orange, purple, pink, soft grays from the shadows. Beautiful. The image would stick in her memory forever, Twist knew.

Then, before she could change her mind anymore, Twist dove into the holly bushes, squirmed through the fence, and pelted into the forest.

Declan's scent was strong on the long grass here. His track led along the border of the forest, ambled along a rock bed, through tufts of yellowy grass, and then to a field. Twist had never been to this field before—it must have been too far to the side to belong to the Claws. The grass was dying here, preparing for the cold season, and all the flowers were curled into little mats of color—purple, green, blue, soft white—that were soft underfoot.

She came to a rise in the earth and leapt on top of a rock there, scouting the area below for any sign of that distinctive red-brown pelt.

She saw a smudge of motion in the corner of her vision. Turning to it, her eyes fixed upon the point. Taking in a deep breath, she yowled, "Hey, you stupid tom! Where do you think you're going?"

Declan turned to look back, his eyes a very wide and vivid green. "Twist?" she saw his mouth frame.

With a coil of her hind legs, she sprang off of the rock and pelted down the side of the hill towards him, every step of her paws pounding in time with her wildly racing heart.

Declan ran towards her and suddenly they were together and her muzzle was in his fur and his scent was wreathing around her. He purred strongly, the sound vibrating through Twist's bones, though she could barely hear the sound over her beating heart.

When they broke apart, Declan, with shining eyes, asked, "What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same question!" Twist felt giddy, light as a cloud. She was surprised she could even stand, as it felt like her legs had suddenly turned to river-weeds. "Or do you always trot off into the sunset so dramatically?"

"I mean," he clarified, laughing. "Why are you here and not with your mother?"

Twist said breathlessly, "You think I could just let you walk away after all we've been through? What, do you think I'm a mousebrain? I don't think you can survive on your own without me leading the way. After all, you nearly fell off a mountain, remember?"

Declan's eyes grew so soft. He ran his muzzle across her neck, her throat, and Twist lifted her head to allow it, purring so strongly it was making her throat ache. "You're right about that," he murmured. "I definitely could not survive without you."

Twist's throat felt blocked again. Pushing against him, she whispered against his fur, "I…I don't think I could live without you, either. So?" She tipped her head back to look in his eyes. "How about it? How long do you think you can put up with me?"

Declan pretended to take awhile to think, putting his head from side to side. "I think," he said slowly, before touching his nose gently to hers, "that forever will suffice."

Twist looked straight up into his eyes, that bright beautiful green. I am not afraid, her mind whispered. "I love you," she whispered.

Declan's eyes glowed. Dipping his head shyly, he said, "I can't tell you how thrilled I am that you said it first. I've been trying to tell you for nearly a moon now and I couldn't work up the guts to do it."

"No!" she said, shocked.

"It's true. Ever since you were captured, I knew. I couldn't understand it at first, why I was so desperate to get you back. I knew you were important to me, but…I just couldn't comprehend it. All of a sudden, there seemed like a huge gap opened up in me that I had never noticed before and I knew that I had to get you back or die trying. And I almost did a few times. Be grateful," he added, teasingly.

And Twist was grateful. More than she could ever say. "I knew when you broke the smoke treatment," she murmured. "When that recognition came back. And then when we were fighting…" She broke off.

"Yeah," Declan said softly, winding his tail with hers. "Yesterday, you started trying to push me away."

"You said being with me was difficult," she whispered, feeling the ache of that old pain mix with the ecstasy of her confession.

He looked stunned. "And you thought that meant that being together with you was difficult?" he asked incredulously.

Twist widened her eyes. "Uh, yes? What else could you have possibly meant?"

He rolled his eyes, groaning. "I meant that I felt so…different being with you. And you don't ever tell me anything! I always have to guess what you're thinking!"

"Well, I didn't know what you were saying!" she exclaimed. "You need to be clearer about these things! I could have saved a lot of time telling you that I loved you back when I thought we were going to die!"

"Okay, well let me set the record straight right now." He padded right in front of her, his eyes suddenly serious. He took in a deep breath. "Twist, I would like you to know that I am deeply, irreversibly, completely, and hopelessly in love with you. And I want us to be together forever."

Twist's heart felt suddenly warm in her chest. Her breathing accelerating, she whispered, "You really mean it?"

"More than anything I've ever said," he announced, bouncing a little from paw to paw, kit-like almost in his exuberance. "So I'd really like you to say yes."

"Yes to what?" she asked, confused.

He slanted his eyes down at her, looking remarkably like he had the time they had first met. "Yes to staying with me forever."

And Twist stepped forward, brushing her muzzle up into his thick white throat fur, feeling the last warmth of the sun settling onto her back and the soft grass beneath her paws, and whispered, "Yes."

Aaaw. I do love writin' da fluff. :D

So that's the end of Sidestep. I really hope you guys liked it. I'm so happy that so many people reviewed and read - or lurked and read - this. It's by far my most reviewed one. I have to tell you guys: we've been through a lot, you guys and I, and I've come to the realization that...I love you. All of you. Yes, even you, lurkers. You guys always make my day. Some of you have been with me since Sunrise - the trainwreck that that was - and now to have gotten to know some of you guys through reviews and replies, it's nice. I appreciate you giving a little of your time every so often to review poor old Shadow's silly little kitty stories. You guys rock!

So I've got the idea for the sequel. It's going to be called "FLOAT" to keep with this motion-theme I've got here and it'll be another 100K. That bad boy's gonna be HUUUUUUUUGE.

Also, if you wanna get prepped for it while I take a day or two off to write it, you might want to check out the song "Shattered" by Trading Yesterday. It might help you understand what's gonna be going down in Float. Not that I'm basing the plot of the story off of it or anything. -shifty eyes-

I have to tell you, it was rather amazing how Float came to me. It was the whole plot, start to finish, while I was at a red light today. "Shattered" was playing in the background and all of a sudden, it just popped into my head, in one big long shiny piece like a puzzle. It's gonna be quite the ride, guys.

So when I get the first chapter up, I'll pop another AN on this sucker so you guys know and don't have to go trolling for it or whatever. I'll make it easy on ya. ;)

It's been a good ride. I hope you guys stick around for the sequel and make my day every time I heard that little ding when I get a review.

Also, don't forget: Whoever gets that lucky 300th review gets to tell me what to write a oneshot about! Anything you'd like, as long as it's Warriors, it's not freaking weird, and it doesn't involve this latest series of books. XD

Love you guys!

You know what to do.

For the last time (D:):




I posted this on Float too but just to let you guys know, I have an original novel, MARKED, available to read on SwoonReads! Same penname as I have here and similar writing but now with *dragons*. If you like fantasy and dragon fights and cool girls and grouchy boys, please check it out! If enough people R&R, I could get published for real? (omg)

(Also, it's been a long time since I used this and I think it sent out like I updated the chapter. Oops. Sorry to disappoint.)

This has been a brief interruption from Shadow, back from the dead.

Thank you!