A/N: This takes place at the same time as Dawn and Shadows, but it's not a companion to DAS, it's a separate oneshot. It's been revised 4 times.
I stared down at my reflection in the puddle left over from last night's rain. The cheery blue newleaf sky was reflected in the murky water, concealing the muddy bottom from view. However, I could still see myself clearly, framed against a few puffy white clouds.
Dark grey tabby. Short. Unremarkable hazel eyes. Stumpy legs, a notch in my dusty tail, a a couple of scars marring my face. I looked horrible. No cat would look twice at me, especially as a mate. And my personality wasn't exactly sunny, either.
A loud giggle, followed by an obnoxious squeal, broke into my miserable thoughts. I looked up and scowled at the offenders: Dawnpelt and Owlclaw. StarClan, I hated them so much! Dawnpelt was a beautiful cream-furred cat, with long legs, sparkling amber eyes, and a mischievous, yet at the same time elegant personality. At the moment, she was wrestling with Owlclaw... the strong, serious, intriguing tabby tom. In my whole relatively short life, he'd only spoken a pawful of words to me. To anyone, really. But now he was wrestling with Dawnpelt in the middle of the grassy clearing by the lake, without a care in the world. He was laughing.
And I was, as always, slinking around in the shadows under the pine trees. Nightslinker - my name said it all.
A muffled thud above me made me jerk my head up, expecting to see someone ready to pounce. But it was only Shrewfoot; she had just caught a thrush in the tree above me, sending feathers mixed with pine needles falling towards my head. I jumped backwards, my lip curling as a feather landed on my nose. To my distaste, its ticklish touch made my nose prickle... a moment later, I sneezed rather loudly, and the soft grey down went spinning away into the wind. Good riddance.
"Sorry, Nightslinker!" Shrewfoot called down to me. "Didn't see you there. Want to share this thrush?"
I bit back a sharp retort about her eyesight. "No, thanks. I bet the elders will want it more than I do. Besides, I ate at sunhigh already." I shook my pelt, getting rid of stray feathers and pine needles.
"All right then." Shrewfoot sprang gracefully from a low branch onto the grass. I couldn't help envying her sleek pale grey fur, and her delicate black paws. My fur was an unremarkable, dark grey colour, like smoke. It wasn't even black, so at least I stood out a little in a crowd of cats. No, the smudged tabby stripes made me look like a wraith. Just like I, the sarcastic, cynical elder stuck in an ugly young she-cat's body, deserved.
"Hang on... is that Owlclaw?" Shrewfoot placed her thrush down carefully, staring at the giggling cats wrestling by the lake. "I've never seen him look that happy before!"
"Dawnpelt is very pretty," I meowed stiffly. "She has a bright, charming personality."
Shrewfoot turned to look at me, a condescending, pitying expression on her face. "Oh, don't be jealous, Nightslinker. I'm sure you'll find a mate someday. I've heard Tigerheart is quite a catch... no female has managed to steal his heart yet!"
"Maybe that's because he associated himself with ThunderClan traitors," I snarled, too quietly for her to hear. I'd noticed him giving Dovewing sappy looks at every Gathering I've been to, in all my fifteen moons of life. Raising my voice, I meowed in a false sweet voice, "I'm not jealous at all, Shrewfoot. I was just expressing my happiness that a she-cat with so much grief in her past was able to bond with a grouchy old tom with no sense of humor."
Shrewfoot narrowed her eyes at me. "You know, Nightslinker, I try to be nice to you. A lot of cats do. And we'd really appreciate it if you stopped clawing our eyes out whenever we talked to you. You're not the only loner, you're not as ugly as you seem to think, and you're actually pretty smart - smarter than Dawnpelt, at least. But you know why no one's friends with you? It's because you always pity yourself, you constantly whine about how horrible your life is and how your own mother doesn't care about you. I just wish you'd shut up about yourself already. Maybe you'll find that cats like you better."
I recoiled, stung much more than I'd care to admit. "I do not pity myself! And I don't care if other cats like me or not. I'd rather kill myself than associate myself with shallow, flitty squirrels like you."
"What -" Shrewfoot started to say something, but I wasn't listening, trying to block out the painful truths in her words. Turning around, I stalked off into the gloomy pine forest, the warm sunlight from above unable to pierce neither its dense canopy, nor my bitter heart.
"Nightslinker?" someone meowed behind me, a note of surprise evident in his/her tone. I didn't recognise the cat from their voice, and I didn't bother turning around to look. Instead, I shifted my crouching position slightly, keeping my gaze fixed on the gently sparkling blue waters of the lake. It really was fascinating, how the morning sun sent reflections dancing across the water like butterflies...
"Nightslinker? What are you doing here?" that annoying voice again. I was fairly certain that it was Ferretclaw, that stupid ginger tom who chased after all the females, even the ones with mates and the ones in other Clans.
"I'm dying. My ears are bleeding from the pain of hearing your meow," I snapped. "So if you would do me a favor and go away, I'd be eternally grateful... for about five seconds."
"Aw, come on, Nightslinker. You know you don't mean that." Ferretclaw was padding closer to me; his paws crunched the dead leaves left over from last leaf-fall, swept onto this grassy clearing from the sparse oak trees lining the lake. A moment later, I felt him settle down next to me, his left flank brushing my right. What a disgusting freak... didn't he see that I wanted nothing to do with him?
"Yes, I actually did. And if you'll excuse me, I need to step a little farther away... I don't fancy suffocating from your stinky fox breath." I swished my tail from side to side, not bothering to conceal my annoyance, as I got up awkwardly and walked a few tail-lengths along the shore, away from Ferretclaw.
He snickered slightly, clearly dropping all pretenses of trying to be friendly. "You know, Nightslinker, if I was an ugly female like you, I'd jump on any tom who showed the tiniest bit interest in me. StarClan knows I'll be the only one who manages to see something in you... namely the fiery personality our kits could have."
"You're a disgusting, sick creep of a cat, Ferretclaw. Stay away from me or I swear on StarClan that I'll claw that stupid smirk off your face," I hissed. "I'd rather be a loner for the rest of my life than spend it with a fox-heart like you."
He didn't even bother to look embarrassed. I dug my claws into the moist earth and lashed my tail side to side, facing him, as he spoke. "Well, it's your loss. I won't stick around for long, you know... there's a certain other she-cat who has her eye on me. If you're planning on changing your mind, you'd better do it fast." He gave me a contemptuous glance and stalked off, back to camp, probably.
I curled my lip and settled back down on the grass, my crooked tail-tip twitching. There was still dew on it, but I didn't care. I'd spent the night out here, away from my Clanmates, because I couldn't stand Shrewfoot's pitying sighs or the other cats' whispers, about how I was one of those loners who didn't even belong in ShadowClan. What was I even doing here? I should just run away, or drown myself, or something. Not curse the others with my presence. And Shrewfoot was wrong. I did not pity myself. Or if I did, I had reason... didn't I?
A breeze tickled my ears, and I twitched them irritably. At the same time, I thought I picked up the sound of movement. I rotated my ears to the back, straining to hear if it was really someone trying to move stealthily, or if it was just a leaf -
Something grabbed my tail. I yowled and spun around; at the same time, whatever or whoever it was released me. I lashed out with unsheathed claws, not even thinking about who was in front of me.
"Hey! Stop it!" my attacker hissed irritably. "I didn't know it was you, Nightslinker!"
I blinked a few times, my eyes adjusting to the relative darkness of the shadows after the brightness of the lake. After the spots cleared, I realised that Scorchfur stood before me, his dark grey pelt bristling.
"How do you not know it was me? Can't you see that I'm sitting here, minding my own business until you so rudely came along?" I snapped, to buy time. At the same time, my thoughts were scrambling to make sense of what was going on. Scorchfur never talked to anyone. He was even more of a loner than I was, if that was even possible. Most cats didn't even notice him, and I was no exception. So what was he doing here?
"Look, I was stalking a mouse, all right? It disappeared somewhere, and I just thought your tail-tip was that mouse again." He shrugged, his expression cold. "So sorry to bother you. I'm on my way now."
"Good riddance," I snapped, turning away again. This day was just one encounter with a tom after another. Couldn't they see I just wanted to be left alone?
The retreating pawsteps suddenly ceased. I swiveled my ears in Scorchfur's direction, but made no comment on his hesitation, instead preferring to wait and see what he would do.
"Nightslinker..." He paused.
"Yes?" I asked irritably, as no other words followed.
"Um... there's a feather on your head," he said, clearly embarrassed.
"What?" I swiped my paw angrily over my head, trying to get it off. "Is it gone?"
"No." More pawsteps, this time coming closer. I didn't dare turn around, but instead sat up and kept perfectly still. A moment later, his paw cuffed my ear. I couldn't help jerking my head, but the feather was already gone; it spiralled away in front of me, heading towards the lake. "There you go."
"T-thanks," I stammered. What was he doing? I couldn't even recall the last time a cat hung around to chat with me longer than they needed to. But maybe Shrewfoot was right - it was my own fault. I decided to try to be at least polite with the grey tom.
Scorchfur took a few more steps closer, then abruptly sat down, a tail-length to my right. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him staring fixedly at the retreating feather. "You're quite welcome."
"Am I?" I coughed dryly, hoping he hadn't heard. The moment seemed too precious and... strange... for words. They had just slipped out.
"I would think so, seeing as I said that." Scorchfur turned to look at me, his dark amber eyes amused for a change instead of completely devoid of emotion. My breath caught in my throat, and I quickly looked away, my pelt growing hot. This was just weird. I half-hoped he'd go away now.
"Brilliant day." Immediately, I wanted to claw myself. Who says that to someone? 'Brilliant day'? If I was getting this tongue-tied with some random tom that I barely knew, I had some serious issues. Nightslinker, snap out of it, I told myself firmly.
Scorchfur tilted his head questioningly; again, I observed out of the corner of my right eye as he stood and walked a little closer to me. "Yes, yes it is. It seems too good a day to waste going hunting. And it's rather warm. Would you like to go swimming?"
"Swimming?" I repeated stupidly, my eyes widening in shock. "We're not RiverClan cats!"
"So what? It's a great way to cool down. I don't know about you, but I'm burning up in this thick pelt." He shook out his fur as if to prove his point. "So, you coming?"
"Sure. I guess I'll try it out." I also stood and started walking cautiously to the edge of the lake, keeping a good foxlength of distance between me and Scorchfur. His sudden talkativeness was really starting to creep me out.
He sighed impatiently. "Oh, lighten up, Nightlinker! Like you said, it's a brilliant day!" He shot past me, running, and catapulted himself into the lake with an enormous splash. A few drops hit me on the face, and I wrinkled my nose with disgust.
"Fine." I walked right up to the edge of the water and dipped a paw in. Immediately, I had to retract it, gasping at the pain. The water was cold.
"Nightslinker!" Scorchfur suddenly leaped towards me, soaking me from head to tail. I tried to jump backwards, yowling a little with shock, but he managed to grab me by the scruff and drag me in.
"Scorchfur! Stop it! It's freezing!" I wailed. "And I don't know if I can swim!"
He only mrrowed with amusement. "It's easy. Just do what I'm doing." Effortlessly, he started paddling in a circle around me, keeping his chin well above the water. I frowned, still shivering, but after a moment attempted to copy him. To my surprise, the water seemed to suspend me on its surface, so I kept afloat without using up much energy.
I looked at Scorchfur, who was observing me, his whiskers twitching with amusement. "This isn't too bad. But... why?"
He tilted his head, considering. "You looked lonely. And I thought you needed a little cheering up."
I laughed wryly. "Sure, because you never look like that."
"I'm just good at hiding my emotions. Really, on the inside, I'm a great cat." He flicked his ears nonchalantly. "As you can see."
"Yeah, yeah," I snorted. "But thanks, anyways."
"You're welcome. Again." Scorchfur blinked at me, his eyes reflecting some strange emotion. I turned away to gaze at the distant WindClan shore, feeling thoughtful, but at the same time happy. I think I'd just found a cat who cared about who I was on the inside... and who was willing to see past my prickly, unwelcoming exterior. Who didn't just stop and think, 'oh, that's the ugly cat, I don't want anything to do with her.' Who actually cared.
I turned back in time to catch Scorchfur staring at me. He immediately blinked and looked away, ears twitching, and I snickered quietly to myself.
"So, you up for a game of cat and mouse?"