It was hot. It wasn’t like that was unusual- The Dark Forest was always hot. Darkstripe figured the heat was supposed to be some kind of divine punishment from StarClan, but he was used to it by now. Besides, his pelt was thin enough and short enough that it didn’t bother him as much as it bothered others. Sometimes, when the fluffier cats felt overwhelmed by the heat, he would collect the slimy water from the one river in the Dark Forest and run it to them, wherever they might be. They never asked him to and they never said thank you either, but he figured it was his duty, in a way. The other cats usually let him sit in on their meetings, and they tended not to beat him up as much as they beat up the other warriors there, so really, he was just repaying a favor. Also, the one time he hadn’t brought the water, Brokenstar had made snide remarks about him all day. He hadn’t liked that.
The river was actually where he was heading now. Training was taking place there. He didn’t have an apprentice to train like the other Dark Forest warriors did, but it was his job to help out. That’s what Tigerstar said when he had asked why he hadn’t gotten a trainee yet. He’d said that it was Darkstripes job to help with training- when necessary of course. He wasn’t often necessary. Sometimes, though, they needed him, and when they did, he felt important. That’s what mattered, right? It was better to be sometimes important than never. And Tigerstar was his friend, so he wouldn’t do anything to hurt him, right? It all made sense really, when you thought about it. When the other mentors didn’t ask him train with them, it wasn’t because they forgot about him- it was because they knew he was best used elsewhere.
The ground grew wetter and stickyer the further he went. This was his least favorite part about the river. The boggy ground reminded him too much of ShadowClan, and that one night, seasons ago. Even as an apprentice, Darkstripe hadn’t been stupid. He saw the way his Clanmates looked at him when they thought he wasn’t looking, the way they fidgeted uncomfortably when he talked to a ShadowClan cat at a gathering, how his mother always dodged the question of his father's identity. He knew everyone’s suspicions. He had just wanted to know if they were true.
He’d snuck out of camp during the night, a few moons into his apprenticeship. He’d been practicing what he would say all day. He would march into ShadowClan camp and demand to know which one of the cats there was his father. They would resist at first, deny all claims, but eventually, one of them would crack. His father would break down and hold him close and apologize for never acknowledging him, not even once, and maybe he’d even offer to let him stay in ShadowClan permanently, because in ShadowClan half clanners were more accepted and maybe nobody would laugh at him or make jabs about his parentage there. The plan didn’t pan out though. He hadn’t even made it across the border before he had fallen apart into shaking, terrified sobs.
Tigerclaw was the one who eventually found him. Tigerclaw had picked him up by his scruff and carried him all the way back home. He told him to get something to eat and to sleep in a bit- training would start late tomorrow. Then, Tigerclaw had said something Darkpaw hadn’t expected. He told him not to go out chasing rumors anymore. That he was better than that. He told him that if his father didn’t talk to him, then maybe his father was a piece of mousedung. That he needed to focus on reaching his potential as a warrior. The happiness that had filled him in that moment had been overwhelming. He never did try to find his father again, because he knew there was someone in ThunderClan who cared about him, even a just little. Just a little was all he needed.
When he made it to the river, he found most of the trainees were already there. They bit and slashed at each other with a ferocious intensity. It made Darkstripe a bit proud, knowing that he had had some part in that. A small part, but a part nonetheless. He picked up his pace, focusing very intently on what appeared to be two WindClan cats fighting in the water. He didn’t even notice when his paw caught on a particularly slick rock until his legs slipped from under him and he crashed his head against the ground. He lay dazed for a moment, not moving. That was another thing he figured was divine punishment- every wound received in the Dark Forest seemed to ache so much longer. He finally stood after a few seconds to see a young tortoiseshell staring at him.
“Are you alright?” The tortoiseshell asked. Darkstripes pelt pricked uncomfortably. Her eyes seemed to be filled with genuine concern- he wondered if she was looking for a favor.
“Why do you care?” He snapped. Or at least tried to snap. To be honest, his head still hurt and his heart wasn’t really in it. “Tigerstar says that you shouldn’t worry about cats other than yourself.”
The tortoiseshell shifted her weight. “Well, you twisted your paw and hit your head, and then you didn’t get up... I just wanted to make sure you weren’t seriously hurt, I guess.” She shook her head. “Besides, we’re all Clanmates here. Tigerstar says that too.”
“I guess.” Darkstripe sat down. “Shouldn’t you be training?”
“Oh, well I just beat Harespring pretty badly a moment ago. We’re doing a tournament kind of thing, I guess, and they have to fight the others to see who advances to the next level before it’s my turn again, so I get a bit of a break. And I could ask the same of you, you know. Who’s your mentor? Why aren’t you training?”
“What?” Darkstripe was taken aback.
“I mean, I never see you with the other mentors, so I assumed that even though you’re dead- sorry if that’s a sore subject- you’re a trainee too.” She tilted her head. “Am I wrong?”
Darkstripe kneaded the ground with his paws. “I don’t have an apprentice, but I’m not a trainee. I help with training. Tigerstar says that’s my job.”
“You talk about Tigerstar a lot.” The tortoiseshell observed.
“I was his apprentice when we were alive,” Darkstripe said. He couldn’t help the hint of pride that slipped into his voice. “And he’s my friend.”
Now the tortoiseshell looked interested. “You were alive at the same time as Tigerstar? What’s your name?”
“I’m Blossomfall.” The tortoiseshell- Blossomfall- closed her eyes like she was thinking deeply. “Darkstripe...Darkstripe… no, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of you. Can I ask you something? Did you know my dad when he was a kit? Because he always tells me the craziest stories about when he was young and I want to know if they’re true.”
Darkstripe shifted. This cat was being nice to him. He felt he might as well answer a few questions. “Well, who was your dad?”
“His name is Graystripe.”
Had she said any other name, he would have been fine. Any other name. Instead, his brain was flooded with memories.
A gray kit cuddled between Whitestorm and and his mother. A happy kit who was clearly all ThunderClan and who would never be questioned or hated. A kit who made teasing brotherly remarks to him that he never really knew how to reply to. An apprentice who didn’t talk to him, but he did talk to the orange kittypet that Tigerstar told him to hate, so he hated him with all his soul. A gray flash of fur tackling him, scooping deathberries out of Sorrelkits mouth, ruining the one chance he had of making up with the one cat who ever really was his friend. Jaws clamping down on his throat, and then- nothing.
Blossomfall didn’t seem to notice the shock on his face. She was talking. “Once he told me him and Firepaw stole the freshkill pile. They just took the whole thing out of camp one night. Did that really happen?”
Darkstripes mouth was dry. “I remember that,” he said meekly.
“He said that once, Firepaw was supposed to feed Yellowfang as a punishment, but he went to feed her instead. He got caught though, and instead of giving up Firepaw, he ate two mice himself! Two whole mice! He must've gotten the worst bellyache after that.” Blossomfalls face softened. “You know,” she said quietly, “I’ve always wanted a group of friends like that. Friends who always have your back, no matter what. In the Dark Forest, sometimes it’s hard to tell who you can trust.” She straightened. “I’ve got Ivypool though. Just... it sometimes feels like it’s us against the world, you know?” She looked at him. “I guess you don’t know. I guess you’ve never felt like that before. Well, not recently. I bet all the Dark Forest cats are close.” Her eyes suddenly widened in panic. “You- you won’t tell any of them about this, will you? I mean, I just kind of started talking- I didn’t really mean- I mean-” Darkstripe shook his head. She seemed to relax, just a little. “Thank you. You seem like a good cat. I mean, as good a cat as anyone can be around here.” Suddenly, she turned. A gray and white molly was standing a bit aways. Blossomfall grinned. “There’s Ivypool now. I guess I’m up again. Thanks for letting me rant, Darkstripe. It was nice talking to you.” And with that, she bounded away.
“It was nice to…” The words died before he even said them. The entire encounter with the molly- his niece- was so strange. He couldn’t remember the last time a cat had seemed happy to talk to him the way she had been. Really, truly, happy. And the way she had said goodbye. It was almost like she regarded him as a...friend. It was odd.
A new thought forced its way into his head. Did he have friends? Just a few heartbeats before, he would have said yes, but suddenly, he wasn’t so sure. He had only talked to Blossomfall for a short period of time, but the conversation they had had seemed more heartfelt than any conversation he’d had...ever, really. The other Dark Forest cats tolerated him, he knew that, but were they his friends? Did they care about him? He closed his eyes and lay down. Maybe the other Dark Forest cats didn’t care, but Tigerstar did, right? Tigerstar had to care. He just had too. He cared enough to bring him home that night. That night when he was practically a kit and it was Tigerstar's job to keep him safe. He cared enough to keep the other cats from picking on him too much. But did he ever regard him when they weren’t? An awful thought popped into his brain. Every other Dark Forest cat had been given an apprentice by Tigerstar. Every other cat… but him. Why was that? Why was that? Did Tigerstar somehow not trust him? Was that it? He didn’t see how that could be true. He’d given everything to Tigerstar, unhesitatingly, because he felt he’d do the same for him. He fought for him, he tried to kill for him. Even when his morals and everything in his body screamed against what he was told to to, he did anyway. He even followed Tigerstar into eternal damnation with hardly a second thought. What else did he need to do? What else did he have to prove?
Darkstripe tried to steady his breathing. He couldn’t cry. Not here. Not now. He tried to think about it more. Would Tigerstar get a bellyache for him? Would he even have offered to take mice over for him in the first place? Surely, he reasoned, if he were to die again in training, Tigerstar would be upset. But everyone cries at a burial. Was there anyone who wanted to be with him now? He put his paws over his head. The hurt that was flooding into him now was so, so much worse than when he had fell. He just kept thinking and thinking and thinking-.
And suddenly, he was there.
“There you are Darkstripe. I’ve been looking for you.” Tigerstar's voice was gruff. “Follow me. We need you to help demonstrate some battle moves.”
And for a moment, Darkstripe wanted to refuse. He wanted to say no. Whenever he helped demonstrate battle moves, he was always the target, and he left with new cuts and bruises that stung endlessly. He wondered what would happen if he put his paw down. Denied him. He wondered what would have happened if he’d done that seasons ago.
But the moment passed. Tigerstar was there. Everything was better. It had to be.
“Darkstripe, are you coming, or do I need to hold your paw?”
He stood. “No, I’m coming Tigerstar. Of course I’m coming.” And he began to follow. Happily. Really, truly happily. Now he was important again, right? And, besides, Tigerstar had gone looking for him. For him specifically. He could’ve found any other cat, but instead, he spent time looking for him. And that had to mean he cared a little, right? At least a little. He couldn’t bear to think otherwise. And besides, a little was all Darkstripe needed.