The tom was out on his own, enjoying a morning stroll down by the lakeside. The soft lapping of the waves on the pebbly shore was a comfort to him; the lake would always be there, no matter how many seasons went by. And the sunrise? That would always be there too.
"What a perfect morning," he murmured, lifting his head so the breeze coming off the lake could brush his face. The best way to start the day was like this, in his opinion. Quiet. Peaceful.
A sharp rustling noise behind him was the only warning he had.
"Gotcha!" a gleeful voice yowled just before the tom was bowled over and pinned to the ground by a white blur. "Admit it, Pinefur! I so got you!"
He let out a low groan, looking up into shining green eyes. "Yeah, you got me. Now can I get up, Whitepaw?"
His apprentice let him up and danced around him, as if her excess energy had to go somewhere. Pinefur sat up slowly, chuckling at her antics. "You didn't hear me coming, did you?" she asked, giving a little bounce. "You had no idea I was there!"
"No, I didn't. Your stalking has improved a lot."
"Really?" Suddenly she looked unsure. "Are you sure it's good enough? I mean, I've been practicing for so long and…and I know my warrior ceremony was delayed…"
"You'll be fine, Whitepaw. Lakestar knows how hard you've worked for this. How about we go for one last hunting trip?" Pinefur suggested, to get her mind off the series of events that had led to Whitepaw staying an apprentice for much longer than usual.
"Okay." She brightened up and challenged, "Bet I catch more than you!"
"Bet you don't!" The two cats set off towards one of the better hunting spots. It was greenleaf, so the hunting was bound to be good. There was no rush.
The two cats returned to camp with their jaws full of prey. Pinefur had to admit, Whitepaw had caught more than he had. She had turned into a fine hunter, a credit to her Clan. He felt a glow of pleasure, knowing she was more than worthy of a warrior name. It was time Lakestar gave her hers.
Whitepaw's sister, Sparrowflight, came to greet them. The littermates looked as different as night and day; Sparrowflight was a dark brown tabby like their brother Tigerpelt and their father Mudstripe, the Clan deputy. Whitepaw on the other paw was as white as fresh snow, like their mother, Lilyfur. The only thing the siblings had in common were they all shared their father's piercing green eyes; Lilyfur had a soft blue gaze.
"Hey, there, Whitepaw," Sparrowflight meowed, touching noses with her sister. "Nice catch! Let's hope you'll join us in the warrior's den tonight."
Whitepaw's gaze brightened at the thought of finally becoming a warrior. She dropped her catch and mewed, "I sure hope so. I've waited so long for this."
"We know," Tigerpelt's deep voice meowed as he, too approached. "You deserve it, little sister. You're one of the best cats in ShadowClan. No cat has ever worked harder."
Pinefur dropped his catch on the fresh-kill pile and turned to offer to drop off Whitepaw's as well. But she wasn't looking at him; she'd acknowledged her brother's praise and was now staring hungrily across the camp. Sparrowflight followed her gaze and gave a quiet laugh. "Admiring your crush?" she teased.
"Am not!" Whitepaw protested, a little too quickly. "I was just wondering if Blackthorn would like to share fresh-kill with me after I become a warrior."
"Word around camp is he's padding after Tornfur," Tigerpelt rumbled.
Whitepaw gave a low growl. "Oh, she'd love that…" she muttered. Tornfur was a senior warrior, highly respected, and had a good chance of becoming deputy when Lakestar lost his ninth life. Blackthorn had been showing interest in her since she'd gained the scars that marked her chest, right flank and shoulder, and right side of her face. Her name had been changed at her request.
"Actually, she's got her heart set on leadership," Sparrowflight mewed. "She won't give any tom a second glance – not even Blackthorn."
"Good." Whitepaw seemed to realize how she was acting. "I – I mean…he can pad after her all he likes!" She spoke a little too loudly and Tigerpelt, Sparrowflight and Pinefur all gave her amused looks. "What?" she mewed defensively. "If she's not going to show any interest, then…" She looked away, embarrassed.
Pinefur's purr of amusement was cut off by Lakestar's approach. "Lakestar," he mewed respectfully.
"Pinefur. Come, I'd like to talk to you." Pinefur nodded and followed Lakestar to his den. "Make yourself comfortable. I noticed Whitepaw brought back an impressive catch today," the aging leader mewed. "Do you feel she's ready to become a warrior?"
"I do," Pinefur mewed. "She'll be a warrior our Clan will be proud of for generations."
Lakestar nodded. "Then we'll hold her ceremony at sunhigh." The blue-gray tom gave a long stretch. After a thoughtful pause, he went on, "You know, there was a time when I feared Whitepaw would never become a warrior. But you've done well with her, been patient with her. She's worked harder than any apprentice I've ever known."
Pinefur let out a purr. "It's been great, teaching her. I never thought…" He trailed off, but Lakestar nodded as if he understood.
"Go on and get something to eat," the leader meowed. The ginger warrior nodded and started to get to his paws, then hesitated.
"Lakestar…if I may ask, what are you planning on renaming Whitepaw?"
"I was going to call her Whiteflower. Why?" Lakestar cocked his head curiously.
Pinefur relaxed. "I was just curious."
The blue-gray tom nodded. "Very well," he meowed. "If that was all, you may go."
"...from this moment you will be known as Whiteflower. StarClan honors your determination and your courage, and we welcome you as a full warrior of ShadowClan." Lakestar rested his muzzle on Whiteflower's head and murmured, "Lilyfur would be proud of you."
"Whiteflower! Whiteflower!" Pinefur lifted his head and called his former apprentice's new name as loudly as he could. She looked around, eyes shining with emotion. Sparrowflight bounded up and pressed her muzzle against her sister's, purring so hard she couldn't speak. Mudstripe wound around his daughter, pride showing in every movement. Tigerpelt gave her a hearty nudge, nearly knocking her over.
The ginger tabby tom pushed his way forward to touch his nose to the new warrior's head. "Well done," he purred. "No one deserves this more than you do."
She looked at him with an expression he couldn't quite name. "I owe it all to you," she murmured. "Thank you – for everything. For not giving up on me."
Pinefur felt a familiar twinge of sympathy as he looked at her left hind paw – or where it should have been. Early on in her apprenticeship there had been a nasty incident with a Twoleg trap.
Whiteflower had been on her first solo hunting mission. She'd been chasing a squirrel and hadn't seen the trap until it was too late. A pair of jagged jaws had clamped down on her leg with such ferocity that the bone was immediately snapped. When Pinefur heard her screams he'd rushed to her aid, and a patrol soon came running as well.
But there was nothing they could do to get her paw out of the trap. It had buried its teeth deep into her leg. After a while, Redtooth, their medicine cat, had given up and said that they would need to leave her paw there. He'd told Whiteflower as much. Pinefur remembered how his heart had broken at her response. Her voice had sounded so small, so scared.
"But don't I need all my paws?" she'd asked.
Redtooth had soothed her, and told her there were stories of cats surviving with just three paws. He'd then told her that getting rid of the paw would hurt. Bravely she'd screwed up her face and picked up a twig in her jaws.
It had been awful, watching the medicine cat bite through the skin, tendons and muscle that still connected Whiteflower's paw to the rest of her. And hearing her cries of pain made him want to cover his ears so he didn't have to listen anymore. But he stayed at her side until she was free, and comforted her as she recovered slowly but surely in Redtooth's den.
He'd worked as tirelessly as she had to help her walk, run, and later hunt and fight on three paws.
And all of that had led to this. Pinefur looked back at Whiteflower and replied, "I would never have given up on you."
Whiteflower purred at him and turned to look at someone else. Pinefur somehow knew she was looking at Blackthorn; he watched her happy expression slowly turn to one of longing. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the black tom murmuring something to Tornfur. He gave Whiteflower a gentle nudge. "You'll never know what can happen until you say hello," he murmured when she gave him a questioning look.
She looked away. "I wish I didn't think of him like I do," she muttered. "I bet he didn't even know I existed until a few minutes ago."
"Well, if he didn't, now he knows about you," Pinefur meowed. "You never know until you try, and there's a while yet until sundown. Why not get to know him a bit?"
"I…no. Not yet. I can't." She shook her head and backed toward her family; but he didn't miss that she shot one last glance at Blackthorn before she turned away.