The sun is bright this morning, and warm. I'm more grateful for it these days than I ever was as a young cat. These old bones are quick to latch on to a chill, leaving me cold for days on end. But today, it's warm, and I roll out of nest like I'm half the age I wish to be. I dislike staying in my nest for too long, particularly on lovelier days like this one.
Because even if the sun warms the air, one half of my nest has been cold for ten moons now.
I stretch, no longer alarmed by the cracks and pops that fill the air with my too-sudden movement. I have become familiar with them, just as I have with the ancient injuries that still crisscross my pelt. Aches and pains and scars. These are the perks of being an elder.
The camp is quiet this early in the morning, the sun barely peeking over the horizon. A few cats have braved this new day before me, blinking eyes still glazed with sleep as I pass. Tiny mewls have already begun to emant from the nursery, and a smile curls around my gray-flecked muzzle. My grandkits are in there, our oldest son's daughters. They will not be the first kits to call me their grandfather, but they are the newest.
(And, as I always tell them with sly glances at their tom cousins, by far the prettiest.)
I take a deep breath as my destination grows closer and closer. I have been planning this day for countless dawns, battled the doubt and anxiety that plagues me even as I go over the details in my mind. I was a worrier in my youth, too, although it had mellowed slightly as I aged. It seems that it is one trait I can never chase away forever, taking its place in the disk of my life just as it had in the dawn.
"Are you here to see her?"
I look up, jolted out of my thoughts as the soft voice catches my attention. My eyes find open air, and have to look down (down, down, down. Have the young cats always been this small?) until I finally see him. The little gray tabby shuffles his paws before glancing up at me with nervous yellow eyes. The kitten, unfamilar to me, is only a bit bigger than a mouse, and slightly less fearsome than one.
"Shadywing told me that you would be coming to see her," he explains in a voice I have to strain to hear. My hearing's going more and more every day now. Finally getting the gist of what he's saying, I nod.
"Yes, just coming by to make a visit." I pause slightly, cock my head to one side. "What's your name?" I should probably feel a bit more guilty for not knowing it, but I don't. Trouble with my legs limits my trips to the nursery, and the little tom hardly seems the type to go out of the way to introduce himself.
"Minnowkit." His answer is less than a mumble, but I manage to catch it. I offer him a smile, which he hurries to answer with one that's closer to a grimace. Another kit that hung around the medicine den with wide eyes and hopeful dreams. It seems that Shadywing had started a tradition. Hopefully, she would teach this one to speak up a bit more somewhere in between the names of herbs and how to use cobwebs.
"Well, lead the way, Minnowkit." He turns, and I pad after him.
The den smells of tansy and mint and an endless number of other things that I can't name. It is cooler in here, and my ears flatten as the warmth of the pale, wan dawn disappears. "Shadywing?" I call out, glancing around for the dark-pelted she-cat.
A sable head pops out of the nest, green eyes lit with the same warm look she always gives me when I come to visit. "You're certainly up early," she remarks, rolling her shoulders as she rises from the nest with an ease my old bones haven't known in many seasons.
I give a shrug. "Well, it's a big day." She already knows of my plans, has soothed my every worry and placated my every doubt. "I couldn't sleep in. Is she up yet?"
The medicine cat shakes her head. "No, not yet." She gives a small, sad chuckle. All this time, and she's still not one for early mornings." There's no humor in her voice, only a sorrow like the cold half of my nest and the empty space at my side.
I chuckle too, but there's really nothing funny about it at all.
"Well, I'll wake her up," I meow. "You have the day off." I try for a grin. "I've been handling her since we were kits, so I think I'm qualified."
The dark she-cat nods with that warm look, and it's almost enough to chase the chill from me. "Okay, you're in charge of her today. I want her home by dusk, you hear me?" Her mock-stern expression fades into something soft and sad. "Good luck. We're rooting for you. We all are." With that, she turns and pads out. The little tom named Minnowkit is quick to follow, and I am left alone in the den.
I take another deep, steadying breath that leaves me in a shaky exhale, and I walk to the back of the den, heading straight for her nest.
She looks serene, sleeping there. Peaceful, younger, and just as beautiful as the day I first met her. Her brown fur is closer to gray these days, and her muzzle is steadily going to white, but she's still the one I remember from days that have long faded to black-and-white in my tired mind, memories left to gather dust and cobwebs despite my best efforts to keep them fresh and close.
I nudge her shoulder gently with one paw, not wanting to frighten her. "Wake up," I whisper, all but holding my breath in anticipation. "It's time to wake up."
Her eyes open, and my heart breaks just a little.
She smiles up at me, looking every inch the cat I have known almost all of my life, but her eyes give her away. They are the only things that haven't faded in those memories from seasons long past, and they have not yet faded here. Blue and bright as the greenleaf sun, they shine, but I do not recognize the cat there. Even as she smiles, I can see the confusion in her familiar-yet-foreign stare, the cold fear of waking up to see a stranger's face.
I have visited her in the medicine cat den every day since she began her stay here, and there has yet to come a day where she looks up and recognizes my face.
"Hello," I reply pleasantly. "Did you sleep well?"
"I..." She hesitates. "I think so, yes. Thank you for asking. Do...do you know where we are? I'm afraid things are a bit hazy."
"You're in the medicine cat den," I answer. "I'm sorry I woke you, but there's something I'd like for you to see." I smile down at her, and she returns it hesitantly.
"What is it?" she asks, curious, and my smile widens into a grin.
"A surprise. You'll have to come with me to find out." I gesture to the den entrance with my tail.
There is a moment of silence, and she turns those piercing eyes on me again. They are narrowed slightly now, but there was a glitter of something there that made me smile.
"This surprise," she began. "Will it get us into any trouble?"
"Almost definitely," I affirm gravely, masking my restrained chuckles with a stony expression.
My heart lifts at the sight of how quickly she is on her paws. "Well, then, what are we waiting for? Let's go." She smiles, and for a moment, the world is bright and hopeful as newleaf.
We stroll out of the herb-scented den together, my legs trembling with every step. It is not the nerves that make me shake, although my anxiety is far from gone. Walking is a challenge for me now, something I have to work at every day. I had always pushed myself to the limit when I was younger, and it has come back to haunt me; I'm nearly as weak as a kitten, and just as graceless.
I have heard the term growing old gracefully before, and I know with certainty that it is a lie. There is nothing graceful about aging, nothing eloquent in the passing of a season. It's messy. It's painful. It's filled with blood and loss and a sadness that is unimaginable to anyone that has not felt it before.
But, and I know this with certainty as I look over at my sweet-smiling, lost-eyed companion on our way over to the nursery, there's a heartbreaking happiness to it as well. I know the pain and loss and that deadly sorrow that may just kill me in the end, but I would not trade away a single second of it.
Bright eyes and brighter mewls greet us as we make our way inside, and the golden queen is on her paws immediately, amber eyes wide at the sight of the other she-cat. I give her a small nod, and she understands, dipping her head as she walked up to us.
"Good morning!" she chirped with a polite smile. "How are you two?" My son's mate is a good she-cat, probably one of my favorites, although that might have to do with the fact that she takes after her father rather than her mother.
"I'm fine, Lightfeather," I reply. "I was wondering if you could help me with a surprise for my friend here." I nod to the she-cat standing beside me, who dips her head in greeting. I put on my best smile. "Would you mind rounding up all of the kits?"
Her eyes light up, and I see a smile trace its way across her muzzle as she glances over her shoulder. "Larchkit! Russetkit! Pinekit! Over here, little mice! I have a job for you."
Three blurs of fluffy fur shoot across the den towards us, and a certain pair of blue eyes no longer look quite so lost.
Pinekit purrs as she rubs against my legs, kit-blue eyes beaming up at me. She is the smallest of them, and the loudest. "What're we doing?" she asks, looking up at me.
She looks so much like her grandmother that it hurts.
"Something exciting," I promise, and I can feel a pair of curious blue eyes on me as my grandkits gather around me, and as I tell them all the plan, I hope that I am not imagining the pelt that brushes against mine.
We crouch in anticipation, silent and still, frozen still as stones. The kits stand in front of the two of us, and Lightfeather watches from her place at the entrance of the nursery. I take a deep breath, kneading the ground with my claws. This is it. I spoke, voice barely a murmur.
The kits crouch down, ready to spring forward.
Blue eyes catch mine, stunningly bright with their excitement, and for a moment, I see my mate in her face. I recognize my Larkflight.
"Copperblaze," she murmurs, and my voice builds to a triumphant yowl.
We race into the leader's den, and the kit attack has begun.
Everything is a blur, the kits excited battle cries and Quillstar's shocked yowl blurring into one thunderous cacophony that echoed throughout the den. I can hear my mate cheering them on and laughing, really laughing, and I have never heard a more beautiful sound in my entire life.
Before Quillstar has a chance to retaliate, I raise my voice once more. "Mission complete!" I yowl. "Retreat! The enemy has been defeated!"
"Victory!" Larkflight cries, blue eyes flashing, and we race back into the camp as fast as our old bones will carry us. The kits rush out behind us, and in that moment, StarClan themselves could not have stopped us.
As our grandkits run back to the nursery, eager to tell their mother about their conquest, a warm body broadsides me, nearly knocking me off my paws. A warm muzzle presses into my neck, and her words come warm and fast into my ear. "Copperblaze," she whispers over and over again. "Copperblaze, Copperblaze, Copperblaze. I love you. I love you so, so much. I'm so sorry. I'm h-haven't told y-you, I c-c-couldn't remember—"
I cut her off before she can continue, resting my forehead against hers and closing my eyes. "I know, love. I love you too. More than you can ever imagine. Everything's going to be okay, I promise."
Larkflight and I have been mates for countless moons, friends for even longer, and lying to her never gets any easier.
Shadywing has told me about what will happen. Her mind will only get worse with time, she says. There are no herbs to cure it, nothing that can treat it. The bouts of lucidity will disappear eventually, and she will be lost in a world of her own. She will not get better, not until the day she steps into StarClan.
"I'm so scared," she murmurs, and I press as close to her as I can.
"We're going to be okay. We'll get through this, alright? We'll do this together, just like we always do."
"Together," she echoes, twining her tail with mine, "forever and always."
Dusk comes far too quickly, but I bring her back to the medicine cat den as promised. Shadywing greets us with a smile bigger than any I have ever seen her wear, and I know it's not because of her day off. Larkflight presses her muzzle against mine before she pads inside.
"I love you. I love you more than I have loved anyone else in the entire world. I promised myself I would tell you that every chance I got, so you would never have the chance to forget it or to doubt. We're going to get through this, I know, but if we don't...I just want you to know."
I lick her cheek. "You never had to worry about that, Larkflight," I reply softly. "I love you too much to ever forget."
I watch her as she pads into the den, and I know that even if she forgets that I love her, I will not.
Dawn comes, and her eyes do not open.
She is tiny in death.
Shadywing apologizes constantly, trying to fill the silence. Her words fall on deaf ears, but I do not blame her. She had done all she could, and I could not ask for more than that. She helps me bury her out in the forest, underneath a tiny sapling that sprang up seasons ago from a hole in the ground after the snow had melted. I think she would like it.
I hope she is not angry that I lied to her.
I lay here, in my nest, and I am silent. I know that I will not see another dawn. My life has faded from dusk to night, and I am ready. I could not leave her to be alone, even in StarClan.
Because we're supposed to be together. Forever and always.
So I lay here, and I replay those dusty, cobwebbed memories over and over again. They have faded beyond even black and white, gone to fuzzy gray that I can no longer see through. My thoughts have lost their sharpness, their color gone.
Except for, and they remain brilliant in every memory, a pair of bright blue eyes.
"I am nothing special, of this I am sure. I am a common man with common thoughts and I've led a common life. There are no monuments dedicated to me and my name will soon be forgotten, but I've loved another with all my heart and soul, and to me, this has always been enough."
- Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook