It is now Leaf-fall, Valley Year 8
The weather is now crisp and cool, with hints of frost forming overnight in the later moons. Prey is becoming scarce, leaves are changing colors. The valley feels busier somehow.
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Unsettled, to say the least, Aspenfire had found himself a bundle of nerves. Rumors spread quickly in the valley as if the wind itself carried news of the Clans throughout the land. Learning that RainClan hadn't made it to the gathering, Aspenfire found it nearly impossible to truly settle with the news.
Had they lost any cats?
It would be unlikely, he told himself in the quiet of the warrior's den as he laid there. Unable to sleep for long periods of time due to the anxiety that kept his heart tight. Aspenfire attempted to push away every worry that crept into his head, only to have it come back before his eyes drifted closed. Sleep seemed impossible.
A gradually fading memory of almost drowning made the anxiety worse. He knew the majority of the RainClan cats could easily escape the flood. It was in their blood to swim like the fishes they so happily feasted upon. Nevertheless, when they didn't show up at the gathering, Aspenfire feared the worst.
Were they all washed away?
Tossing aggressively in his nest, Aspenfire stood up abruptly. Fed up with not knowing, Aspenfire departed from the TreeClan without a word to anyone. He needed to find her. Aspenfire wanted to know the truth. The hostile behavior directed toward NightClan made everyone in the camp tense. The pending war would only bring more chaos to their lives. He wanted to see her for himself before the fighting camp. He needed to see her smile at least one more time.
Once outside the camp, Aspenfire picked up the pace. Relying on knowing the path by heart, he ran toward StarClan Claws. Leaping over fallen tree branches and skirting around mounds of tree leaves, Aspenfire's heart pounded with excitement the closer he got.
Through the area TreeClan often entered from, Aspenfire kept going. He crossed the gathering place and through the other side to where RainClan often entered from. Thankful for the mud and various scents that muddled his own, Aspenfire found a well-worn path. Coming to a halt, he had never been this far. Navigating this path would take time and tactic. The last thing he wanted was to be caught walking the path RainClan took to the gathering.
Taking it slow, Aspenfire walked lightly. Waiting to catch the scent of anyone nearby. Even if he didn't see Ferngaze right away he had some faith whoever he stumbled upon would be able to tell him she was alive. Then he could wait for her, all night if he had to.
Ferngaze had just finished up her patrol; RainClan had spent most of the previous days working to re-establish scent markers and bring their flooded camp back into order. She had been beyond glad to return; the Tribe had her gratitude for taking them in, but the scent of rock and the thin air of the mountains, as well as the sudden shift in diet, had made her homesick for the woods and the river. Coming back had been a balm, and she'd spent most of the first day out in the territory as much as possible- feeling glad once more for familiar surroundings.
In the days since, things had gone back to normal. They had missed one Gathering, but Silverstar was making plans for the one coming up- and she'd been busy in her own right, with an apprentice to care for. But for now, she'd wanted a little bit of quiet, sitting on the bank of the river and watching the fish swim by. When a sudden scent reached her nose over the smell of the water, she'd raised her head in a moment of alarm- before recognizing it. Delight sparked instantly and she was off to find the cat- he was far from his own Clan, but she had a good idea of just why he was here. Aspenfire would have known about the flood, and he would have heard, with his own ears or from the news later, that RainClan had not attended. He was probably worried about her.
Ducking into a crouch, the silver tabby she-cat darted to meet the tom before he got too far into RainClan territory; when she was ahead of him, she paused a moment, stifling a purr at her intended prank, and then sprang to stand before him, tail up and ears back. "I thought I smelled TreeClan!" she growled, glaring at him- but joy at seeing him looking as healthy as ever welled up in her and she was unable to keep up the facade. She relaxed, a loud purr breaking free as she approached and reached up to nuzzle his cheek. "You big furball, what are you doing here? If you're caught, you'd be in trouble from both of our Clans."
Nose, which usually helped him greatly to navigate various scent trails, was no help to him now. The vast majority of scents that assaulted his nose came from items and things he had no name to. Overwhelmed, to say the least, Aspenfire focused his attention on what he could see. What looked like a path to somewhere, at least he hoped it was a path and not some prey trail that would get him lost.
A flurry of fur catch his attention before the object of his search appeared before him. He stopped mid-stride, fur bristling in surprise. A playful smirk appearing on his face as she growled. He saw the joy in her face, just as easily as she could see it in his.
Once she got close, Aspenfire relaxed the press of her muzzle to his cheek confirmed she was real. A delightful purr escapes him, ears flicking to be attentive to her words. The threat of getting in trouble meant nothing to him. He'd spend the rest of his moons doing apprentice duties for the single moment they were sharing. Warrior code be damned.
"I had to make sure you were alive, I heard what happened and when I heard RainClan didn't show for the gathering it ate me up inside. I couldn't take it anymore, I needed to see you," His words deeply sincere as he returned her gentle touch. Rubbing his cheek against her's.
"Do you need anything? I can't offer much but maybe I can talk to Falconstorm about getting herbs to you," While he had no pull to convince TreeClan's medicine cat, he figured it would be worth the shot. If they agreed that needed it.
Cheek to cheek, Ferngaze purred. It was nice to have someone to worry about her- in a different way than the platonic Clan-sense. Aspenfire cared because he loved her, and as wrong as it might be to turn to a cat outside of RainClan, the silver tabby couldn't bring herself to care. It'd been too long and she was just as glad to see him. "I'm okay," she assured him. "I made it."
A moment of grief for those who hadn't- her head tucking under the black-and-white tom's chin before she pushed that aside. They had joined StarClan- and they were better off there. Pulling back a moment to look up at him, Ferngaze purred and rose, flicking her tail. "Come with me, there's something I want to show you. Somewhere we can talk and not be interrupted." Aspenfire rose and followed; the two of them making their way toward the sheltered Willow Stream.
Ferngaze sprang to one of the roots, more than sturdy enough to hold her, and hopped across the stream to a slight hollow there the grass grew thickly. "Here," she called back to him, settling comfortably. "Isn't it lovely?" The scent of the willows filled her nose with each breath, the gentle wind rustling the long, trailing vines. The water, mostly silent, added a layer of cool and beauty, and Ferngaze blinked up at Aspenfire, waiting for his reply. "We come here to be with our mates. It's the most beautiful spot in RainClan territory, and bad for hunting, so we're not likely to be interrupted right now. Sit with me, Aspenfire."
Admittedly Aspenfire felt unsure of Ferngaze offering to show him someplace speical. He doubted it was a trap but nevertheless, a prickle of uneasy wormed it's way up his spine. It never occured to him that territories outside of TreeClan would have their own uniquely beautiful spots.
His own love and admiration for the forest made it difficult for him to find beauty in other landscapes. His heart belonged in the forest and with a safe distance from the river and swamps alike.
Yet, with Ferngaze leading the way, Aspenfire kept pace with the she-cat. Eager to spend more time with the pretty silver she-cat, stealing the moments with her as often as he could.
Following her, he stopped entirely upon arriving at the willow tree. Awed by the sense of calm he felt upon seeing it. He understood why those native to RainClan considered the place romantic. Cascading branches that bent down to create a rippling of leaves reminded him of a waterfall. A thought crossed his mind for a moment, wondering if he and she could even venture to a real waterfall. A curious fantasy of standing behind it and watching the water tumble down overcame him.
Foolish and dangerous as his idea was, Aspenfire settled happily to keep near Ferngaze. His tail tucking near her, ears flicking upon the words 'mate'. Head shifting quickly he felt his eyes grow wide as he slowly came to terms with what she said.
"Do you mean that? Are we mates?" His words remained soft, barely above a whisper. The idea of having a mate hadn't really occurred to him but somehow he always knew it would be Ferngaze. She changed his life entirely, made him want to be a better cat. No matter the outcome, she had changed him for the better.
As he waited for her to answer his question, Aspenfire's stomach twisted. He couldn't help the anxiety that found it's the path along his spine once more. Did she want him to leave TreeClan? Could he? He hadn't had much reason to stay, his mother and sisters, Fawnspring mostly, but not that it mattered in the long run. Their relationship was the greatest example of strained. Deciding he wouldn't say anything under Ferngaze answered, Aspenfire attempted to hide the turmoil growing in his belly.
Aspenfire seemed appropriately awed by the spot, his eyes trailing across the lush trees to the calm pools of water. Ferngaze purred at him as he settled at her side, her silver-striped tail flicking to rest over his as she leaned closer. His voice was a rumble in her ears, his body jerking as it turned and she could feel his eyes on her.
She closed her eyes, unable to help the act of considering his question, as if she hadn't been thinking of him as such for some time- did he think of her that way, too, and was just making sure she was okay with it? Shifting to the side, the smaller she-cat lifted her chin to meet Aspenfire's worried expression. "I thought we already were," she replied, reaching up farther to press her nose to his. "If you want to hear it aloud: yes, I do consider you my mate. I love you- I have for a long time now."