The grey skies continued to fling snow at the already icy world below as three tigers, strangers to one another before the day began, sought shelter in the hollow by the river. The entrance was nearly all snowed in now, the shrubs growing as a screen vanished under a thick white blanket. Diego, used to weathering storms, kept the very top open by poking branches through, allowing fresh air in. He decided it must be past midday by now, though of course with the tiny strip of sky they could make out completely obscured by the stormclouds, he couldn't be certain.
Sasha, full after her meal and content enough in the presence of the two sabres who had saved her life, had curled up for a nap. Diego watched her tuck herself into a fluffy ball beside Shira. Now her fur had dried off properly, he could see she was quite light, almost cream-coloured, though not pale enough he couldn't see her white chin, chest and underbelly, trademark colour of most tigers he knew. Diego shuffled his paws. "Thanks - for helping." He nodded towards Sasha, meaning both helping get her out of the river and look after her since.
"Don't mention it." replied Shira in an offhand manner, twisting to give a cub a quick lick between the ears as she squirmed in her sleep. She settled at the touch.
She would make a good mother, Diego thought despite himself. And with her sharp tongue, her kids would be the best-behaved cubs around! Of course, due to the said sharp tongue, he knew better than to voice his thoughts aloud. Instead, he kept the topic focused on their new charge.
"Where do you think her family are?" He questioned, and Shira frowned. "I don't know, but she's way too young to be on her own. No tiger ought to let such a young cub fend for herself." She spoke so vehemently Diego almost flinched. "Woah - are we still talking about Sasha, here?" He asked, and Shira growled at him. "Of course." But there was a catch in her voice that made Deigo think otherwise. The male sabre found himself sitting down at Shira's side, captivated by the hint of pain he detached behind her tough front... longing to so something to help.
"You know Shira... I'm not the bad guy, here." He reminded her gently, half expecting her to snap or claw at him in response. When she did neither, he carried on. "If there's anything that you want to tell me, you can."
For a long moment Shira studied his face - tough, macho, cocky even, but with real compassion, the kind she'd seen him display with Sasha when the cub lowered his defenses, shining in his eyes.
His very green eyes.
Eyes she couldn't look away from.
Eyes that made her want to trust him, dammit!
Shira hesitantly opened her mouth to say something, and a trumpeting bellow split the air. Both Diego and Shira leaped to their paws, Sasha blinking awake. Shira had an expression torn between panic and determination, Diego of happiness. He knew the herd had come to look for him and by the sound of Manny's call, they were close by. Shira had come to the same conclusion, but to her, the sound meant something very different.
"Mammoths! And close, too!" With one leap she shot towards the entrance, paws outstretched. Diego gaped as her lithe body hit the wall of snow them blasted straight through it, scattering the soft powder everywhere. "Shira, wait!" He urged, wiping his face along his foreleg, but she was already hurtling back inside at warp speed, grabbing Sasha and leaping with her outside, where she paused for a split second to get her bearings. "Diego, come on! We have to get Sasha somewhere safe!" Mammoths were not natural friends of vulnerable tiger cubs. Diego wriggled out through the snow after Shira, annoyed when his brawnier body got stuck. Shira had sailed through as if it were effortless. "Shira, you don't have to worry about this mammoth."
"Don't have to worry?" Shira spat incredulously, and her eyes widened in panic when Diego roared loudly back to Manny. "What are you doing? You'll lead it right to us!" She hissed, and Diego sighed, still trying to find the words to explain his unorthodox herd as she struggled free of the snow drift. He popped out suddenly and managed to land on his feet, though staggering a little. His shoulder was better after resting, but still tender. "Look Shira, you don't underst-" He began, but was completely unprepared for the silver blur that struck him. A paw moving faster than a lightning strike whapped his paws out from under him then cuffed him on the head as he fell, half stunning him. He grunted as he landed on his face and at once, Shira was on top of him, pinning him with one paw on his shoulder blades and the other at the top of her neck. Diego choked indignantly on a mouthful of snow, but he was torn between anger and disbelief. Never in his life had he seen any tiger attack that swiftly. And she'd taken him down although she had to weigh about a third less than he did! Although of course, him being injured and unprepared gave her the advantage, he told himself. In a fair fight, he would have beaten her, paws-down.
"Let me up!" He wheezed, wiggling. She leaned all her weight on him to keep him down. Sasha, sitting beside them, burst into giggles as if this were all a big game. "Now, I don't know what your problem-" Her words cut off in a screech, her time to be interrupted. She yowled in surprise as a trunk wrapped around a back leg and hauled her off of Diego and into the air. She swung upside-down, taking furious swipes at her captor that hit only air.
Manfred the Mammoth glared down at the spitting tigress, then looked over at Diego. "You okay down there?" He asked dryly, keeping Shira far enough away from his face that she couldn't hook her claws into it. An anxious Ellie and a knee-high Peaches peered around Manny. The possum brothers were balanced on Ellie's topknot, shoving one another for a better view, and Sid was hiding behind her. He peered over at Shira with interest. "Hey, a white tiger!" He exclaimed with his typical deductive brilliance.
Diego scrambled up, tail swishing in agitation. "Manny, I didn't need any help, I had everything under control!" He protested, fur ruffled at having to be saved from a female sabre by his friend. Manny snorted sceptically. "Oh right. Cause from where I was standing EEEE-OOW!" The massive mammoth bellowed in pain as Shira neatly swung herself upside-down and latched her front claws into Manny's sensitive trunk.
"Manny!" cried Ellie and Sid at the same time, and both rushed forward to help. Of course Sid got under Ellie's feet and tripped her, causing her to land with a colossal nine-ton bang right by Sasha. The cub panicked, wailed and ran. Ellie and Crash went racing up their sister's head and launched themselves at Manny, who was trampling around bellowing and trying to shake a snarling Shira off his trunk, where she was now grimly clinging with all four paws. Sid began to wail about a broken tail, of all things, even though Ellie hadn't actually landed on him when she fell. Peaches hid behind her mother, although her eyes were bright, as if she were enjoying this madness. Diego made a huge if rather lopsided leap and landed in front of Sasha, scooping her up in his jaws before she could run too far. Crash and Eddie had caught a hold of Manny and were now bravely, if foolishly, throwing themselves at their brother in law's attacker. Blood-curling warcries filled the air, mixed with Sid's mourning about his broken tail and how he'd never walk again, Manny's trumpeting, and Shira's growls. The possum brothers were now scrabbling at Shira's ears and she shook her head sharply, sending one of them flying to land on top of Sid. Naturally, he set up a fresh round of wails. Diego stared at the scene in horror for a moment. Then he dropped Sasha gently, covered her ears with a paw, and roared at the top of his lungs.
"ENOUGH!" It was loud enough that it echoed up the riverbed twice, and every single animal there froze. "Manny, Shira, Eddie, let go of each other, right now!" Ordered Diego. They were all so surprised at the forceful tone of voice that automatically they did what he said. Shira unhooked her claws from Manny's trunk and dropped gracefully to the ground. Eddie leaped off Shira's head and ran over to sniff his groggy brother. Diego turned his baleful glare on Sid. "Sid, if you say one more word about your tail, I'll bite it off myself! Help Ellie up! Can't you all see you're scaring the cub?" He snapped, and bent over Sasha to lick her roughly between the ears. She cuddled into his leg, still a little fearful, oblivious to the amazed looks everyone present was giving Diego.
"Diegio, do you... know these herbivores?" Exclaimed Shira, and Sid put up a claw politely. "Actually, I'm an omnivore, but I prefer vegetarianism because eating right does wonderful things for your figure and-" He trailed off when Diego shot him a murderous look. Sid peeled Crash off the top of his head, where he swung by his tail, grinning jauntily and looking recovered from being thrown by Shira. "Of course he knows us. We're his herd!" Announced the possum as if it were obvious.
Manny's eyes narrowed threateningly as he nursed his clawed trunk. "How does he know you?" He asked Shira, looming threateningly close until the white sabre backed up, until she was beside Diego and Sasha. Ellie, far less suspicious than her mate, pushed him aside and leaned over Sasha to coo at the cub. "Oh, isn't she just the sweetest! Oh - Diego! You're bleeding!" she exclaimed. Diego glanced down at his shoulder. The wound had opened back up again when he jumped for Sasha. Sid pushed his way to the front of the assembled crowd, with Crash on one shoulder and Eddie on the other. "An injury? Allow Doctor Sid to take a look!" He exclaimed, leaning towards Diego to examine his wound. He promptly fainted, with saved Diego the trouble of braining him. Sasha leaned over and sniffed at the sloth's green-brown fur with interest.
The possum brothers sighed in disappointment. "Aww, we were going to assist Sid with surgey!" Crash whined, brandishing a thin, long rock like a scalpel. Eddie cheered up. "We could do surgery on him!" He said brightly. Crash nodded eagerly and jumped onto Sid's stomach, sawing at him with the rock. Fortunately, it was quite blunt and didn't so much as shave the sloth's fur.
"It's okay Ellie." Diego assured the concerned mammoth as he placed a paw over his shoulder to slow the bleeding. "I'm fine. Guys, this is Shira. She helped me rescue the cub from the river." Manny relaxed a little, although it wasn't obvious. If Diego trusted this sabre... still, she had clawed up his nose nicely and so Manny kept his senses alert. Just in case she tried anything.
Diego began the introductions, at a loss to think of what else to do. At least Shira wasn't trying to maim anyone in his herd for now. "The big guy is Manny, and this is his mate, Ellie, their daughter, Peaches, and Ellie's brothers Crash and Eddie. The good doctor is Sid."
Shira stared from mammoth of possum to sloth back to Diego. "You guys are the weirdest herd I've ever seen." she observed. Diego winced slightly. "I hear that a lot. Now, if we could all stop trying to maul each other for a little while - guys, this is Sasha. Sasha's lost her family and Shira and I were going to see if we could find them."
Shira didn't recall exactly agreeing to a join search party, but she didn't see how she could back out now. Sasha, not paying much attention to the grownups now there was no more shouting, was more interested in Sid. Following the possum's example (as the smallest and least threatening of the strangers), Sasha had climbed up and sat on Sid's round belly, peering intently into his face. He blinked and came around to find a tiger staring into his eyes. He screamed, and Sasha began to giggle as he hid his eyes behind his paws. "No see!" She pointed at him, and Sid peeked through his claws at her and realized she was just a cub.
"Get off that Sasha." Shira strode over and picked the cub off the sloth. "You don't know where it's been." she scolded, setting Sasha back on the ground. Peaches began to giggle (this joke being new to her), leaning around her mother to get a look at the cub. Sasha looked at the little mammoth, then she burst into a beaming smile. The two young females both came a little closer to one another. Sasha looked from Peaches to Ellie and Manny, then carefully studied Diego and Shira. Then she beamed, sitting on her haunches and reaching up to touch Peaches' short trunk. "Little." She announced, then she placed her paw on her own very short canine tooth to show the baby mammoth they were the same. Peaches got it immediately and gave a little squeal of delight. Just like she was littlier than her parents, Sasha was littler than the two grownup tigers! Maybe they could be friends!
Manny, keeping a wary eye on his daughter and an even warier one on Shira, turned back to questioning Diego. "You said her parents were missing?" The male sabre nodded. "Yeah, she must have come from upstream somewhere. She asked about her parents, and a 'Sam'."
"They might be in trouble- otherwise they would have tried to save her themselves." Shira added, and Diego nodded his agreement. Ellie had leaned over to wash Diego's shoulder with clean snow, and he shot the motherly mammoth a tolerant look. "Can you walk?" Ellie asked him, and Diego shorted, flexing his shoulder. "No problem." He boasted, his old attitude flaring up again.
"What about Sasha?" Asked Shira, and Manny noted the hint of concern for the cub. Clearly, Sasha had captivated not only Diego, but also the white tiger. There certainly was a charming appeal to the little cream-coloured tiger, Manny observed as she and Peaches began playing. Like young children everywhere, they needed few words to communicate their desire for friendship.
"I'll carry her." Ellie offered, stepping forward and beaming at the little cub. She held out her trunk. Completely over her earlier fears now she had made a friend and seen how comfortable Diego was with these strange creatures, Sasha purred and trotted willingly to Ellie. She curled her up with her trunk, while Peaches trotted happily beside them.
"We'd better get moving." Manny lifted the still-lounging Sid upright and let the possums scamper up his leg and sit on his tusks. Ellie fell in at his side, and Sid waddled after the mammoth family.
Diego found himself pausing, looking across at Shira. "So, you're coming?" He asked in what he hoped was a casual tone, hoping she would say yes. She didn't keep him waiting long. "Of course."
The two tigers brought up the rear of a very strange procession, setting out it search of Sasha'a missing family.
A/N And the herd joins in with a nice long chapter for you guys! Hopefully I've kept everyone in character well, since while I find drama and romance easy enough to write, I tend to fall down a bit with humour. and let's face it - the sub zero heros are HILARIOUS!
A big thanks to ALL my reviewers, some of you had some interesting comments I've responded too this time!
Aquila - practice for a family in the future? How funny you should mention that :D
Emma - Hey, you have that same Mcdonalds tune in the Netherlands? We have it here in Australia, too!
Isanimes - hope you aprove now the herd is here, Carmina - I put in a little Peaches for you!
Story - we will certainly be seeing more of Sasha, though with such a big cast I can't promise she'll always be center stage ;)