The forest was dark. Not even the rustling of the leaves in a breeze broke the silence. Earlier that day, it had rained- not enough to make the ground sludgy, but enough to make it easy to dig and pack.
It was exactly the weather Longtail needed.
He crept beneath a bush, keeping a wary eye out for any cats who were out on a late night walk. Firestar had instructed every cat in the Clan to be in camp by Sundown, but that didn’t mean every cat listened. Longtail certainly hadn’t.
A stick snapping behind him caused Longtail to jump. He whirled around, a thousand excuses on his tongue- he couldn’t sleep, he thought he heard a noise, he wanted to scout out the battle site alone- but he didn’t need them. A gray, cottontail rabbit stared at him. It’s nose twitched and it’s eyes flicked back and forth, as if the slightest sound would send it scrambling. Longtail let out a breath. Me too, little guy, he thought as he kept moving. Me too.
He considered catching the rabbit, but in the end, decided against it. It would cause too many questions, and the fresh-kill pile was full anyway. Instead, he crept on towards Fourtrees.
As the Great Rock came into view, Longtail became even more on edge. It was entirely likely that that tiny black tom- Scourge?- had posted guards around the area. It was even possible BloodClan hadn’t left at all. But every scent was stale. Perhaps Scourge was so confident in his victory three days from now that he didn’t feel the need for any defensive measures. He shivered as he thought about the black tom’s claws, the way they ripped and shredded- but that was a problem for three days from now. Fully aware that he was open and vulnerable to attack, Longtail entered the clearing.
It didn’t take much effort- any effort at all, really- to find what he was looking for. Tigerstar’s body lay where he died, in the center of a ring of dark red. Flies were just beginning to buzz around his slit stomach. It wouldn’t be long until crows came and picked away the meat. Ants would crawl, carrying away bits of fur and scraps of sinew, and rain would wash away the blood. Soon, all that would remain would be bones, glittering and white. A testament to where a path of malice and ambition led.
Longtail refused to let that happen.
Carefully, he began surveying his options. Tigerstar was far too big to carry, so the traditional ThunderClan burial spot was out. That was fine. He hadn’t died a ThunderClan warrior anyway. Maybe by one of the Great Oaks? It felt blasphemous and perfectly fitting at the same time. His body would feed the representation of the Clan he tried to destroy. Satisfied, he began to work on how to go about hauling the huge warrior over there, when-
“Certainly you don’t think you’ll be able to lift him on your own?”
Longtail whipped around, dropping into an offensive stance. His lips pulled into a snarl as he recognized who it was. “Darkstripe,” he hissed.
The tabby seemed unimpressed. “He’s almost twice your size. And you when it comes to strength, you’re not exactly Lionheart. Come on Longs, you’re supposed to be the smart one here.”
The nickname hit Longtail harder than any blow with claws. It reminded him too much of a time he was trying to put behind him. “Don’t call me that!” He spluttered. “What are you doing here? You’re a traitor to the Clans! I should rip you to pieces.”
To his surprise, Darkstripe seemed more hurt at being told not to call him ‘Longs’ than being called a traitor. “Don’t be so sanctimonious, Longtail. I’m here for the same reason you are.” HIs voice softened. “He was my friend too, you know.”
They stood looking at each other for one heartbeat, then two. Finally, Longtail dropped his hackles, though he stayed tense. “I don’t trust you,” he snapped. “And I don’t need you either. The only reason your throat hasn’t been torn out yet is because it would be too hard to wash the blood off my muzzle.”
But Darkstripe knew him too well for that. “Come on,” he said, motioning with his tail. “Show me where you were thinking.”
The two cats worked together silently. The only words that broke the quiet were the occasional “Grab him from there” or “Make it a bit wider here”. They fell into a smooth rhythm that seemed reminiscent of the days they used to spend partner hunting together.
The grave was finished faster than Longtail expected it would be. As he patted the last bits of dirt on top, Darkstripe cleared his throat. “We should say a few words,” he said. “This is a burial after all.”
Longtail shifted. Would that make him a traitor? Maybe. He spoke anyway.
“Tigerstar was a strong warrior,” Longtail started. “And very firm in his beliefs. He was stubborn too, and ambitious. He hurt a lot of cats. He killed a lot of cats.” Swiftpaw’s broken body flashed in his mind, and he had to dig his claws into the ground to keep from crying out.
And there it was. Tigerstar destroyed. Tigerstar was evil. And it got him killed. End of the story. There was nothing else to say, right? Nothing more to the tom. But… he couldn’t bring himself to leave it at that. “He also…” Longtail struggled to find the right words. “Tigerstar would… he would tell these jokes.” Longtail was acutely aware of how mouse-brained he sounded, but it was too late to stop. “They weren’t the jokes you could tell to your mother, or to an elder, but they were so funny. And the way he would tell them-“ His voice cut out, and he coughed. “One time, when I was an apprentice, I just… I couldn’t get this move right. It was a really easy move, but I just didn’t get it. And Tigerstar- Tigerclaw, then- he said, uh. He said, ‘I won’t let the apprentice of my apprentice be a failure.’ And I was so frustrated and angry because I thought I had disappointed him. But then he told me one of his jokes. Mother would have cuffed him if he heard the things that came out of his mouth! And he just kept telling them, joke after joke, until I was calm again. And then he worked with me on the move until I understood it. He didn’t try to hide my shortcomings under a layer of fluff. He told me what I needed to fix, and I did. I respected him, and I just… I think that’s worth mentioning.”
Darkstripe nodded in apparent approval, not feeling the need to add anything of his own. “May StarClan light his path. May he find good hunting, swift running, and shelter where he sleeps.” The sacred words sounded almost like a curse in the tabby’s mouth.
Again, the pair returned to an almost comfortable silence. Longtail knew he should leave, his job was done. But he didn’t. After a while that could have been a few heartbeats or a few seasons, Darkstripe began to speak again.
“Where… where do you think he is?”
“Under our paws? Buried?” But Longtail knew that wasn’t what he meant.
“But where is he? Not his body. Him.” He had a far off look in his eyes, and the tip of his tail twitched side to side.
Longtail hesitated. “I don’t think he went to StarClan,” he said slowly.
“Why not?” Darkstripe lashed his tail. “Like you said. He was a strong warrior. He only did what he thought he had to do. Maybe… maybe StarClan understands. And maybe they forgave him for the bad things he did.” His hackles were raised and his fur pricked, but it wasn’t anger that Longtail detected in his voice, in his eyes. It was fear.
In that moment, Longtail understood. This wasn’t about Tigerstar. Darkstripe knew the answers to his questions as well as Longtail did. No, this was about Darkstripe. There was a battle to be had in three days, and an attempted kit-killing traitor that defected from the Clans would not fare well against those he had wronged. Darkstripe was hurt, Darkstripe was scared, and more than anything, Darkstripe was so, so alone.
And despite himself, Longtail understood.
He reached out and touched his nose to his old mentor’s in a comforting way. He was reminded suddenly of his apprentice ceremony, back when the world was welcoming and the future was exciting and the cats he trusted were good. Before the suspicious stares of his Clanmates and the purposefully loud whispers filled every waking moment. Before his friends had disappeared one by one down the path of darkness. He sat with Darkstripe until he stopped shaking, and pulled away again slowly, as if not to startle him.
“I’m sure StarClan is understanding,” Longtail said. It was a blatant, obvious lie. Longtail knew it. Darkstripe knew it. But still, the tabby seemed less troubled.
“I’d better get going,” Darkstripe said, voice barely a whisper. “I’ll see you again later, Longs.”
As he disappeared into the night, Longtail didn’t have the heart to tell him, no, he probably wouldn’t.
The moon after the battle, Longtail went to the Gathering. He sat up straight as the leaders gave their reports. He maintained the proper, polite aloofness when talking to other Clans. He cheered at all the right moments, and let his head droop with grief when he was supposed to. The model of a loyal ThunderClan warrior.
The cats around him never noticed the way his eyes kept flicking back to a certain spot beneath one of the Great Oaks. They didn’t notice the large patch of earth that seemed freshly dug. They certainly didn’t notice the smaller section next to the large patch that seemed fresher still.
And maybe, Longtail thought, it was better that way.