"Come on guys - I'll race you!"
Shira smiled fondly as the creamy-furred cub dashed forward, Diego laughing as his longer legs outdistanced her, Peaches holloring to wait for her, Sam jogging behind them all, his sharp amber eyes missing nothing as usual.
"Not joining in the fun?" Ellie had fallen in beside the white tiger. Shira shrugged one narrow shoulderblade lightly. "I'm not as fleet as I once was." She remarked, and Ellie beamed down at her. "I thought you were, as well! Yours are going to be here before my number two though." Ellie rubbed her trunk with her belly and smiled.
"Have you told Manny yet?" Shira asked. Peaches couldn't know yet - if she knew, she'd have been so excited every mammal in earshot would have heard the news. Ellie shook her head. "When I'm showing, I'll let him know, he'll be too anxious otherwise. You should have seen him the first time I was pregnant! Have you told Diego?"
Shira sighed. "Do you think he'll be happy?" Ellie blinked kindly down at the apprehensive sabre. "Honey, of course he will. Diego loves you, you know that."
Shira nodded absently. "I know." She couldn't help the small smile that edged into her muzzle at the thought of how Diego doted upon her. Then she twitched her ears doubtfully. "But we've all but adopted Sam and Sasha, since we've been looking for three months now and there's been no sign of their parents. I know he thinks of them as ours."
"He's going to be thrilled." Ellie assured her. "Sam and Sasha too."
"I'm not so sure..." Shira shook her head impatiently. This sort of indecision wasn't like her. "But there's no point in wondering about it. I'll tell the others when we make camp tonight."
Sitting around the fire that Sid had lit, Shira kept her word that evening. "Everyone, I have something to say." He stood and moved to hop up onto a low rock. Ellie's head turned to check on her brothers - usually they would have had something silly to remark like how Shira was going to leave Diego after realizing what a bully he was, or some other equally brilliant joke punctuated with a burp. She cocked her head curiously when they sat attentively up to listen to Shira. What had gotten into them lately? Sometimes she saw them talking to one another in low voices with serious expressions. Nobody else had noticed anything, but then she knew her brothers best, after all. It was almost as if they were growing up, Ellie mused. Then Eddie shoved Crash for a better view and Crash shoved him back, right off the tree branch they were hanging on, and they began to swat and squabble while hanging upside down. No - they were the same old Eddie and Crash as always.
Don't put it off any longer, Shira told herself sternly, and she dived right in.
"Diego and I are going to have cubs." She announced. There was a second of silence which was broken by a double squeal from Sasha and Peaches. "I'm going to be a big sister!" Sasha jumped for joy, bouncing in place, and Peaches followed suit. She weighed around three tons now and when she landed the ground shook under her large round feet.
"We are?" Diego's face split into a huge, proud grin, and he puffed out his chest happily. Surrounded by his own kind again - he and Shira were going to be parents. The thought ought to have terrified him, but not since Sam and Sasha entered the picture. The inherent rightness of it filled the male sabre, and he knew this was the best news he'd ever gotten. "I'm so proud of you, Kitty." He murmured in her ear, nuzzling her cheek. She purred softly and batted his nose. "You too, Softie." She whispered back with affection.
"Congratulations you guys." Manny stepped forward to nod, and Sam grunted, noticeably less enthusiastic than the rest of the herd. "Yeah - congrats." He muttered, then stood and padded away from the flames. Diego rose to go after him, looking worried, but Shira held out a paw to stop him. "Let me go instead."
"Sam?" Shira approached the young male. Sam had lost the roundness of cubhood, replaced now by the leaner proportions of an adult tiger. He stood about half as tall as Shira did now. Diego took him on practice hunting lessons now. Sam learned swiftly, though Diego permitted him only to practice on small animals like rabbits or birds like grouse. The larger prey that packs of tigers often tackled were too dangerous for a youngster to get close too.
"I'm fine. You didn't need to come after me." Grumbled Sam. Shira sat beside him. "I know. There's nobody in this herd who can take better care of themselves as you." She told him, bluntly honest. She had a pretty good idea of what was bothering him and continued to speak.
"Nothing's going to change. We're still going to keep looking for your parents." She assured him. Sam glanced up at her, surprised she'd guessed. "We'll keep searching right up until I have the cubs." Shira already had everything planned out. "It'll take about a moon before they're big enough to walk, then we'll set off again."
Sam thought about this, then nodded once. "I'm sorry Shira." He said quietly. "I thought that because you were having your own family, it meant you'd forget about ours."
Shira licked the cub between the ears. He didn't even grimace and wipe it away. "I'll never forget, Sam. Because you, and Sasha, are a part of my family too."
Sam leaned against the white tiger's shoulder. "Do you think... we'll ever find them?"
"I honestly don't know, Sam. But that doesn't mean we'll stop looking. And it doesn't mean you should give up hope."
"Ahhh!" Diego ducked the set of claws aimed at his face. "Shira, look-"
"GET OUT!" Screeched the female tiger, her eyes wide with pain. It hurt Diego to see her struggling like this, and he didn't want to leave her. "But-"
"You put these things inside me!" groaned Shira, swiping at him again, but missing because she cramped up with a contraction. Ellie shouldered her way past Diego into the nursing cave. "Diego, just go and wait outside with Manny and Sid." The mammoth told him calmly, knowing his old friends would keep the expectant father calm. "Shira needs some alone time. With me." She gave the worried tiger a nudge in the right direction. Reluctantly, he left.
"How do they do it?" He sighed, flopping down by Sid. "Ellie wasn't nearly so difficult. Well..." He held up his paw to inspect, remembering how Ellie had nearly crushed it. Manny chuckled softly. "Shira will forget all the pain once the cubs are here, don't worry Diego."
"Do you think they're going to take after you?" Sid questioned. Diego sighed. "I hope not - I was a pawful as a cub." He admitted. Sid tilted his head slyly. "Get out."
"I am out." Grouched Diego, sense of humour deserted him completely, getting up to pace a circle around his friends. Manny held out his trunk to stop him but Diego just absently hopped over it so Manny let him continue, burning off his steam.
Manny was right about once thing - once the two cubs were huddled in Shira's belly fur, she began to purr, grooming the tiny scraps as they mewed and stretched their forepaws.
"They're beautiful Shira." Ellie smiled down at them. The firstborn cub was a male, and he was golden with striking black stripes. The second cub, a female, was almost all pure white. Her only marking was a shimmering lightning blaze that started between her ears and zigzagged down her nose and over her left eye. It finished up on her muzzle, right above her nose.
"Where is Diego? He's never around when I want him." Grumbled Shira, and Ellie had to hold back a laugh. "Okay Diego, come on in - meet your son and daughter."
Diego looked so overwhelmed when he inched to his mate's side that she melted a little and reached out to nuzzle him. His green eyes were enormous and he looked stunned. "Look how perfect they are." He hovered, as if afraid to go too near the tiny tigers. Shira nudged him until he lay down beside her, and they formed a protective ring of their bodies around their cubs. Diego dragged his gaze away from them and looked Shira over anxiously. "You're okay?"
"Tired. But they're worth it." Purred the sabre, licking his cheek. "What are we going to call them?"
"Storm for the female." Diego said at once, daring to touch his nose to the top of his daughter's head. "Look at that marking, just like a bolt of lightning."
Shira purred her agreement and leaned her head on his shoulder. "I think we ought to name the male after both of us. What do you think of Siro?"
"I love it." Diego agreed, gazing into Shira's beautiful turquoise eyes. "And you, too."
Ellie smiled, slipping outside to tell the news to the rest of the herd. The cubs would have a large but loving family around them when they opened their eyes and took their first, unsteady steps into the Ice Age. They would grow up strong and healthy, and soon enough she and Manny would have another new addition as well. The world might be dangerous as time, as Sasha and Sam proved only too well - but together, they would always pull through.
I hope you all enjoyed the ending! Never fear - I've already started work on this story's sequel, since I had so much fun writing this one, and got such wonderful reviews and loyal follows in doing so :)
Did anybody see my reuse of Storm as Shira and Diego's daughter coming? I loved her design too much to just drop it altogether!
Thank you once again to all my wonderful reviewers - I wrote this for you all.
One final note; I know I've got a few Warrior Cats fans in my audience, so for anybody who's interested, please check out my new fic, A Warrior of Windclan!