ƬΉΣ PӨIƧӨПΣD ΛПD ƬΉΣ PЦЯΣ

Five's An Unlucky Number

There were five tiny bodies at her paws, helpless, pleading with wordless mews. How could there be five?

"Five's an unlucky number," Sablepaw told her old mentor sternly, pawing away the lashing tail of a small she-kit.

Meadowmist only snorted. "And why are you here exactly?" she asked, retrieving a stray kit by its scruff.

"I just wanted to see my mentor's kits," the black apprentice muttered. In her head, she added, because it'll be me one day.

"What've you named them?" Sablepaw questioned, taking a seat on the edge of the mossy nest. Queens were special; the white she-cat's nest was lined downy white feathers, its rim crowned with mouse and bird bones. It was very decorative, but it probably did little against the flailing onslaught of the kits' churning limbs.

"Flurrykit," Meadowmist said, patting a white she-kit with ginger spots. "Swiftkit." A she-kit much like her sister, only with patches instead of dapples. The bright ginger tom was Firekit, and the white tom with the orange tail and muzzle was Cloudkit. The final one was a pale grey she-kit, covered in darker dapples with shockingly white fur on her chest and belly, named Ashkit.

"Play it right and you might even get to mentor one," Meadowmist said, licking one sleek white forepaw.

"How'd you get to keep five?" Sablepaw asked curiously, poking at Swiftkit. Meadowmist growled and pushed the other she-cat's paw away before replying.

"Morningstar said something about more kits, more apprentices, more warriors, more dead Tainted." Here she paused. When she spoke again, her voice turned smug. "She also told me- herself, in person- that she was carrying kits again. She'll match some of her litter to mine."

"That's, uh, lucky," Sablepaw muttered.

About a moon had passed since what Sablepaw had discreetly dubbed 'the incident of the spots', but the bloody memory was engraved into her mind. There was a jagged red scab on her foreleg that she didn't bother to hide or heal. Perhaps she hoped that the self-inflicted wound would scar; that way the cursed dapple would probably never grow back.

But what was even crazier than the golden she-cat was the fact that now, she was almost like Sablepaw's mother. She was a mother-like figure, at least, by being Thornstreak's pair; she did nothing to act like one. Strongpaw was her sort-of brother. Morningstar's new litter would be her half-siblings.

Embertooth is my mother, Sablepaw thought, disgruntled. Embertooth. Not that insane she-cat. Pepperpaw is my brother. Arrah is my sister. Embertooth is our mother and she was not a traitor. My father loved her.

Her father's betrayal had somewhat wounded her. For some strange reason she thought he'd remain without a pair, loyal to his old one. He was hardly likely to be matched to a kit, would he? She hadn't foreseen Sedgewing and his untimely death.

"Come closer," Meadowmist murmured, a light sparking in her green eyes. "I'll tell you a secret."

Sablepaw tilted her head towards Meadowmist's muzzle and pricked her ears.

"The great leader herself told me she knows who to pair you to," the white she-cat whispered, her snowy whiskers brushing the top of the apprentice's head. "You still need to have your assessments first, but it's almost for definite. She said...she thinks you'll be very pleased." The queen giggled; a very un-Meadowmist-like sound. Was she hyped up on borage leaves or something?

She thinks I'll be pleased? That's either very good or very bad.

Her mind flew to Smokepaw. She hadn't seen the grey tom much lately. Their interaction was minimal; a fleet smile, a passing grin there, a nod and a twitch of whiskers there. Pepperpaw wasn't their messenger, as Smokepaw had once been for her stupid plea. They didn't know what they had, but they knew that bringing anyone else into it was dangerous. Life-threatening. Ultimately, not worth it. Every warrior, every apprentice was hopelessly tangled in Morningstar's extensive web. She, the golden, venomous spider, had worked her trap with excellence.

Yet was there a chance she'd be matched to him? Despite her hope, Sablepaw's fur prickled warily. If Morningstar planned to pair them together thinking they'd be pleased, that meant she knew...something. Their feelings? Their odd relationship? What had transpired between them in that dark, dripping alley?

"Excuse me," Sablepaw muttered, slipping out of the den and brushing past a swollen-bellied Redsong.

Outside, it had already grown dark, but Sablepaw didn't care. She wasn't tired. The moss in her nest was stale and her den was crowded; Charpaw and Streampaw had recently been apprenticed to Crookedflower and Jayflight. Now, there simply wasn't enough room; the sisters had annoying tendencies to stretch out instead of curl up.

She ruled out the possibility of retreating to her nest and instead headed out into the forest. She deliberately avoided the old tree and owl that roosted there; wariness was a virtue. She'd never heard of anyone being carried off by the feathered creature, but there was always a first. She thought about headed to the meadow, but without the sunlight, the green expanse was just a cold, whispering field. More grey than silver, more slumbering than awake.

She found herself trotting aimlessly through the dim forest, unsuccessfully trying to leave her troubling thoughts in the dead leaves and dust.

It's not as if I care about who I'm matched to, she thought, crawling underneath a fern and startling a mouse from its hidden den. It scampered away, eyes bright, but Sablepaw didn't bother to chase it. I mean, I shouldn't care. I don't. I'm a proud apprentice of PureClan and soon I'll be a warrior, and then I'll be a queen with my own kits. I won't care who their father is-

Her thoughts abruptly cut off as she found an eroding dirt cliff beneath her forepaws. The gorge stretched below her, the small river at its center gleaming in the moonlight. With a gasp she tried to back away, but her claws found no purchase in the crumbling dirt; she only seemed to push the ledge she was standing on away from the cliff. A wail burst out of her throat, only to be cut off as teeth closed around her scruff and jerked her back.

A familiar scent wreathed around her nose. Smokepaw. There was no time to thank him- they were still slipping.

Not even the grey tom's strength could save them both. He'd either have to let her go and run or fall with her. It seemed he had no intention of doing the former; he only wrapped his body around hers as the ledge gave out completely. They toppled into the void, the wind tugging the sound out of their cries.

Sablepaw somehow twisted in the air, her muzzle against Smokepaw's. She heard him yowl something, half-lost against the roar of air.

"I think I-"

Then, they hit the ground.

To be specific, it was another ledge.

At least it wasn't rock, Sablepaw thought, blinking dazedly, lying with her stomach pressed against dirt, Smokepaw's back at her side.

The black she-cat rolled to her paws, stumbling.

"Great StarClan," the tom groaned, pressing his paws against his head. "Why can't you look where you're going, Sablepaw?"

"What were you doing there in the first place?" she replied hotly. "Wait, did you...follow me?"

Smokepaw gave her a sideways look, as if he couldn't muster up the energy for a glare.

"Someone needs to look out for you if you insist on walking off cliffs," he muttered, lurching to his paws and shaking his pelt.

"Where are we anyway?" he asked, peering off the edge of the ledge. The river was a fox-length or two below them, and the top of the cliff was double that.

"Dunno. A ledge, maybe?" she replied, poking the dirt with her claws.

"Are we stuck here?" Smokepaw said.

"Looks like it." Sablepaw snorted. "This'll make great gossip. Sablepaw and Smokepaw found on ledge under mysterious circumstances. Sablepaw's and Smokepaw's ethics questioned. Sablepaw and Smokepaw starve to death." She stalked to the lip of the edge.

"Hang on." Smokepaw's voice was muffled. Sablepaw turned to see the grey apprentice disappear over the side of the outcrop. She didn't have time to worry before his head popped up again, dark eyes smiling.

"There's another ledge down here," he told her. "And a hole... Looks like a cave."

Sablepaw trotted over and jumped down beside Smokepaw. This one was thinner, shorter, but just as Smokepaw had said, there was a gaping hole in the cliff-face. The she-cat tested its width, cautiously poking her head into the darkness. Her whiskers didn't brush the sides; she took that as a good sign she would fit. Her curiosity rose.

"Let's check it out. Looks better than a cold dip, eh?" Her voice echoed in the small space. The she-cat felt Smokepaw at her tail as she crawled through the entrance.

"There's even room to stand up," she whispered. Somehow, a loud voice did not feel right. This tunnel wasn't exactly sacred to her; the feeling came from a wariness of a cave in.

"Speak for yourself," Smokepaw grunted, crouched behind her. His silhouette filled the entrance, blocking out the golden sunlight. While she'd been recovering from her numerous injuries, the grey apprentice had grown bigger, bulkier, taller. Whatever Waterstripe's mentoring methods were, they seemed to be working.

Sablepaw purred briefly- inwardly wincing as the sound reverberated against the dirt walls- before moving on.

"So we just keep moving forward?" she asked softly, as they walked.

"I guess. Hope this isn't a dead-end and actually leads us somewhere."

Sablepaw mmmed in response, unsure of how to respond to that. If it was a tunnel to nowhere… at least it was better than starving to death on a ledge. Or even worse, being found by PureClan, alone with a tom.

They walked in silence for a while; neither was quite sure what to say.

Smokepaw broke the sudden silence with a hushed voice. "Do you smell that? Fresh air. Something else too, but I can't quite…"

The grey tom pushed past her and took the lead. Sablepaw followed his grey pelt through the murk as best she could; she couldn't see much, nor smell the supposed fresh air. All she tasted when she opened her mouth was dirt, dust and a faint, faded scent of blood.

The tunnel lead them sharply up, up, up, until finally a whisper of clean oxygen brushed her whiskers. But there was something off about it- just as Smokepaw had said. A taste, a hint, of something off, wrong and rancid.

Sablepaw nearly bumped into Smokepaw at the top of the slope; the grey tom had stopped dead in his tracks, his bulk pressed low to the ground.

"What is it?" she hissed; Smokepaw's muzzle was pressed against the wall.

"Be quiet," he replied, pulling back from the wall, and Sablepaw saw a tiny shaft of light beaming from a hole. The source of the fresh air, She realized, but also the source of the reek.

Smokepaw unsheathed his claws silently and and raked them over the hole repetitively. Piece by crumbling piece, the hole widened and a wave of rank air rushed out to greet them.

Sablepaw crouched down by the other apprentice, pressing her pelt against his to peer into the cavity.

"Smokepaw!" she hissed. "Who are they?"

He stared at them for a while, eyes roving over the wounded, ravaged bodies before he replied. He stared at their scabs, their scars. He stared at their ribs, prominently and painfully visible beneath their ragged pelts. He stared before he dared to speak.

"It's obvious, Sablepaw," he murmured, giving her a nudge with his shoulder. "They're Tainted."

She felt her jaw drop, before she remembered to close it. "You mean our Tainted? The ones we captured?"

"Yes. Our Tainted. Who else?" he explained. She leaned against him, feeling the tense muscles beneath his soft fur.

The sudden face in front of the hole surprised them both.

"Who're you?" it whispered. The voice was soft, feminine, yet slurred. She was a grey tabby, with ringed blue eyes and a muzzle crusted with scabs. She glanced over her shoulder with a wince at the slumbering cats behind her.

"That doesn't matter," she murmured decisively. "You have to get out of here and go back to wherever you came from. If these cats catch you-" she tossed another wary glance. ", then you're as good as dead. Run! Get out of here!"

Sablepaw almost felt sick. This Tainted was trying to help them run from the monsters they'd already become.

"What about you?" Sablepaw asked. For some reason, she felt concerned. She tried to suppress the feeling; her PureClan instincts tried to take over, but they could not quash the odd emotion.

The she-cat touched the edge of the hole with one white paw. "I've managed here for the past few moons," she replied, dragging her claws in a downward arc over the rim. "One more shouldn't hurt. I'm not the strongest or anything but it shouldn't take me that long to widen this up. Once I do... I'll be free."

Sablepaw pawed away the dirt on the floor. She should feel wrong about letting this Tainted escape. She should be clawing its throat out. She should be safe in her stale nest at camp, but she didn't and she wasn't.

"Good luck," Sablepaw whispered, and turned to continue up the underground path. Her last words seemed to suffice as both encouragement and farewell. She heard Smokepaw wordlessly follow her, as the grey she-cat curled up in front of the hole. It was her lifeline, her only hope. Even a Tainted deserved that.

The tunnel only progressed to wind upwards. The air grew fresher, sweeter, and that was a relief to Sablepaw. The surface could not be much further away. She didn't say anything to Smokepaw, but they both increased their pace. They rounded a corner, and were rewarded by a burst of moonlit air.

"Smokepaw!" Sablepaw cried, breaking into a run. She darted up to the surface, paws thumping against the dry earth, relief pounding through her heart to sing in her veins.

The pair burst onto the surface and collapsed among the long grass of the meadow, laughing.

"Smokepaw, we're free, we're free, we're free!" she giggled, rolling over onto her other side to find herself nose to nose with the grey tom.

"Of the tunnel, at least," he said quietly, amber eyes somber once more.

"Don't do that. Not right now," Sablepaw said pleadingly, staring up at the star-streaked sky.

"Do what?" he asked, twitching a curious ear.

"Be all sad and serious. Can we be happy, just for once?"

Smokepaw nodded slowly. "Whatever you want." The dire light in his eyes changed, intensified, and somehow it told Sablepaw that Smokepaw would give her anything she wanted.

"So," she murmured, smiling, although the memory was not particularly pleasant. "What were you gonna tell me as we fell? I think I-"

The grey tom wriggled closer and rested his muzzle on top of her head.

"I'll tell you later," he whispered back. "But I think you can guess."

She purred, he purred, and for a little while, they were both happy.

:D Finally, some SmokeXSable fluff!

Aaaaaaaaaand...over 200 reviews! Yay!

I have a little question: what was Smokepaw going to say?

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