“No,” Lionblaze shook his head gently, his amber eyes deep and full as he gazed at Bramblestar. “No, I can’t. Politics, words, that was always Hollyleaf’s dream. Thank you, Bramblestar, but I simply can’t.” He sat and faced his father, the dust beneath his body billowing out with a puff. Bramblestar’s face was forlorn and wistful. He padded over and touched his son’s head with his nose.
“You’re right. It should have been her,” he replied. “But Hollyleaf walks with StarClan now. I have to pick the cat I think is best for the Clan, and that’s you, Lionblaze.” There was a moment’s pause as Lionblaze turned his head into his father’s chest fur, briefly inhaling the comforting scent, as though drawing strength from it. He knew he wasn’t a kit anymore, but it was nice to pretend. Hollyleaf was still alive when they were kits. Bramblestar was still their biological father. It had been much simpler back then. But then was not now.
Lionblaze reopened his eyes and straightened up, looking into his father’s open face. “It’s not me. I don’t say that out of humility. Even before StarClan’s gift--and even now, after--I’ve never wanted anything more than to be a hardworking, loyal warrior. I’m a simple cat with simple desires. You can’t expect me to become deputy, to lead when you’re gone. It was never my destiny to leave a legacy among the stars; rather to serve my clan with every hair on my pelt and ache in my body and mouthful of prey. It would insult Hollyleaf’s memory for a cat so simple as I to take this position. I’m not fit to lead.” His gaze gradually lowered as he spoke, as though ashamed of speaking so boldly against the decision of a cat who was not only his leader, but his father.
Bramblestar sat back on his haunches as Lionblaze spoke. He heaved a soft sigh as the younger tom finished, eyes swimming with memories of Hollyleaf. In his heart of hearts, Bramblestar knew his son was right. “I can see you won’t be persuaded. Who, then? Moonhigh is approaching, and if we waste any more time, I won’t be able to consult Squirrelflight. StarClan knows she won’t thank me for that!” His whiskers twitched with amusement at the last statement and Lionblaze couldn’t help but let out a soft snort of laughter. It was true that despite having retired at dawn that morning, Squirrelflight hadn’t lost a single ounce of her fiery spark. He stood and brushed out of the den, angling his ears forward toward the fresh-kill pile. Crouched a tail-length away from the shaded clearing was a grey and white tabby watching the apprentices scuffle as she ate a squirrel.
Bramblestar twitched his ear thoughtfully, casting a sideways glance at Lionblaze. Ivypool had yet to move her gaze from the apprentices but had angled an ear towards the pair of toms. It was obvious she had noted their emergence from the den; any talk of deputyship would not go unheard this close to the sharp minded she-cat. Lionblaze puffed a soft grunt in response and padded over to join her, selecting a dove from the pile as he went. As the two ate, they made casual conversation, punctuated by short glances cast back towards Bramblestar when Lionblaze thought Ivypool wasn’t looking. Squirrelflight emerged from the elder’s den and stepped in quietly beside Bramblestar. She said nothing but kept her gaze fixated on Ivypool, leaning slightly to touch Bramblestar’s body with hers. She kneaded the ground subtly with her forepaws.
Well, that settles it then.
“Let all cats old enough to hunt their own prey gather here beneath the Highledge for a Clan meeting!”
Bramblestar’s yowl rang out clear and true into the equally clear night sky. Above, stars glittered like the eyes of fallen warriors. As he gazed up, waiting for the Clan to assemble, Bramblestar envisioned Firestar and his own lost-life silhouette among them.
Would he be proud of where I am now?
A soft meow from below reminded Bramblestar there was a ceremony to be had. Pelt hot, he stood and faced the Clan he had helped raise. Even though he wasn’t Firestar, this was his Clan and he would serve it with his last breath. Including by breathing the words of the ceremony now.
"I say these words before StarClan, so that the spirits of our warrior ancestors may hear and approve my choice.” He paused and made eye contact with Squirrelflight, who was wedged between Alderheart and Sparkpelt. She inclined her head, eyes shining.
“The new deputy of ThunderClan is Ivypool.”
Ivypool sprung to her paws in surprise, tail shooting into the air. She could barely hear the cacaphonic yowls of support rising from her Clanmates above the roaring in her own ears.
Heart thudding, she waited for Bramblestar to approach her as he jumped down from the highledge. Dovewing, Whitewing, and Birchfall looked prouder than Ivypool felt. Her body quivered from ears to tail-tip when Bramblestar padded up to her. The brown tom’s face was warm and pride glimmered in his eyes. Ivypool opened here jaws to speak, but Bramblestar cut her off. “I know you’ll lead us well, Ivypool. You’ve taught Snowbush and Twigheart to be some of the best warriors in this Clan, and your loyalty is unwavering. I couldn’t ask for a better cat to be deputy.” His gaze flickered momentarily to Lionblaze, who was standing a few paces behind them. Bramblestar shook out his pelt and refocused on her.His eyes twinkled, and Ivypool dipped her head. “Thank you, Bramblestar. This is truly an honor. I’ll do my best to make you proud.” Bramblestar dipped his head in turn. “I am already proud. You will honor the Clan and Hollyleaf’s memory with your service.”
Ivypool felt a twinge of pain in her heart at the mention of the she-cat’s name. However many moons it had been, every cat who knew her missed Hollyleaf. She was captivating and an inspiration. Ivypool hoped she could live up to the expectation. Bramblestar’s face softened at Ivypool’s expression, and he touched her shoulder with his nose briefly. He spoke again.
“I think there are a few cats even prouder than I am that are itching to speak with you, so I’ll leave you to it. Congratulations again, Ivypool.”
The moment Bramblestar had stepped away, Ivypool was bombarded by a horde of cats. Dovewing pounced on her sister in unbridled kittish joy, a mixture of a purr and a yowl exploding from her being. Whitewing stood to greet her daughter with bright eyes and a faceful of rough motherly licks, and was shortly accompanied by Birchfall. Blossomfall followed quickly after, rubbing her face against Ivypool’s muzzle and chirping softly. The jumble of fur and purring lasted for several heartbeats before it settled. Whitewing stepped back and examined Ivypool’s face.
“Oh, Ivypool--” she interrupted herself with a massive purr. “We couldn’t be more proud of you.”
Birchfall nodded. “You deserve this. You’ve worked so hard.” His chest was puffed out in fatherly pride. Dovewing’s tail stood up in agreement, her ears pricked forward. “So much for me being the sister in the center of attention,” she purred jokingly, giving her sibling a friendly shove. “I’m so happy for you!”
Blossomfall made her way to the front of the group. “As am I. You’ve had to work twice as hard as any other cat to get where you are, after...” She paused to blink. “Well, you know. It’s been difficult. Any other cat would have faltered, but here you are! I just hope Eagleflight and Stemwhisker don’t let it get to their heads.” The last bit was mingled with a purr and followed by an indignant snort from their kits, who were near the edge of the group. Alderheart called out from the back, “Yes, you wouldn’t want to be like Sparkpelt, would you, Eagleflight?” Playful growling erupted from the siblings as Sparkpelt leapt up to defend her good name, and Eagleflight rolled her eyes.
“We won’t, though!” chirped Plumnose, who was seated by Stemwhisker. “Well, I won’t, at least.” Ivypool purred a laugh and went to nuzzle her daughter. “Of course not, dear Plumnose. It’s those bee-brains I’m worried about, after all!” More indignant growls and a trill of laughter were heard from the assembled cats. Ivypool glowed with happiness.
This was Clan life at its finest; a tight-knit family celebrating together. Memories of her time in the Dark Forest felt more distant they had been in a long, long time. Ivypool looked up at the setting moon as the chatter about her began to die out. Mingling with the stars above was a wisp of black and the scent of someone familiar. Her pelt tingled with bittersweet joy. Somewhere, Hollyleaf was watching.
She was happy. The Clan was safe. The Dark Forest wouldn’t touch her again.