“And- all done! Well done, Rajia!”
The silver tiger slumped onto her back, panting, but pride beaming through her tired expression. A grey male tiger gently took the grey cub’s scruff and set him down beside Rajia’s chin so she could lick his fur to warm him up.
The cub squirmed and squeaked a little pitifully after a few seconds, and Rajia sighed in relief, knowing it was breathing. The male tiger nudged the cub towards her stomach, where two other little silver cubs were suckling their mother’s milk.
Rajia smiled down at them, then let her head fall back onto the moonlit nest and closed her eyes.
One year later
Kole, the last son, woke up to a sleepy kick in his gut. He grumpily glared at Omar, his oldest sibling, and tried to go back to sleep beside his mother’s chest.
It was no use.
The dawn sun peeked into the nursery and wanted to play. Kole got up, stretched his small legs, and stumbled towards the entrance. He sniffed and only caught the scent of the dawn patrol, which was surely gone. Maybe he could sneak some kill from the pile before anyone was awake.
Kole tiptoed into the half shadowed camp. The base faced a river, and the rising sun glistened off it. The camp was fortified on the opposite walls by oak trees that cast shadows over the back.
Kole snuck towards the high pile of the kill. It was laden with salmon and rabbits- the Water Ambush’s favorite foods.
Kole grabbed the slippery tail of a salmon in his tiny teeth and pulled, excitement rising in his chest. He was tired of Rajia’s milk and eagerly leaned in for a bite.
Kole stopped midway to the fish and turned around, busted. Rajia towered above him and she stared down at him with her river blue eyes.
Rajia bent down and met her cub’s green eyes. “What are you doing, my love?”
“I want to try something else,” Kole whined, shifting his paws. “Why do we have to have your milk all the time?”
“Because it makes us big and strong,” a more arrogant, cockier voice cut in.
Omar sauntered out from behind Rajia’s tail. He was taller than Kole by about a cub’s leg length, and he was very arrogant and proud that he was the firstborn. He constantly rubbed it in his little brother’s face, and the middle cub, Sera, was no help to either of the brothers, though she followed Omar around a lot.
Omar strolled up to Kole and pushed his nose to his brother’s. “You need to drink lots of milk so you can have a chance of being big and strong like me.”
Kole rolled his eyes and stepped back.
“What’s going on?” Sera meowed sleepily, stumbling into Rajia’s back leg. The mother tucked her tail around her and stared at the brothers.
“Enough,” Rajia growled. “You two are both my sons. Just because Omar is older does not mean I love him any more than you, Kole.”
Kole snorted and rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Thanks, mom.”
“Kole, I said, that’s enough.” Rajia tensed angrily. “You two fight like this every day! I’m sick of it, and now you’re going to get punished.”
Omar’s smirk melted away. “Both of us, Mother?” he repeated. “I’ve done nothing!”
Rajia rolled her eyes. “You’ve done just as much as Kole has. You caused this.”
Omar wrinkled his nose like he smelled fox dung. “Punish the little one. Not me! I’m destined for greatness. Father is the leader of our ambush, and as the firstborn, I have a right to the throne.”
“Give me a break,” Kole muttered under his breath. Luckily Rajia didn’t appear to hear.
The mother bristled. “I have an idea, you two. I want the two of you to go outside the camp together.”
“What?” Omar shrieked, surprised. “We’ve never been out there before! There are hawks! Badgers! Dogs!”
Rajia rolled her eyes. “I thought you were big and strong, Omar?”
“I am!” Omar shot back hotly, embarrassed. “I’m worried about Kole.”
Kole snorted. “Like you’ve ever worried about me.”
Rajia remained stiff. “The two of you will go out there together, and if you make it to sunset, I will forget your bickering. If you come back into camp before then, you will be punished. Understood?”
Kole nodded numbly.
“Can I go?” Sera whined.
Rajia tucked her tail around Sera’s mouth and nodded to the brothers. “Go.”
Rajia sat in the entrance of the camp and watched her two little sons stumble toward the river. Her mate, Yukon, came out of his den and padded over to her, sitting down by her side.
“Bickering again?” he mused.
Rajia nodded but didn’t speak. She watched Kole’s tail dip around the wall, heading around the camp in the direction of the oak trees.
“Who’s going to watch them?”
“I am,” Rajia replied, not taking her eyes off of the river. “They don’t know half the ambush, though. I’m going to ask Kia and a few others to scare them a little. Maybe then they will realize how much they need each other.”
Yukon smiled at her warmly. “You’re a brilliant mother, Rajia. Love you, my mate.”
Rajia smiled back, then got to her paws. “Do something useful for the ambush and watch your daughter, would you?”
Yukon laughed and grabbed Sera by the scruff as Rajia slipped out of camp.
“I can’t believe you got us into this!” Kole meowed grumpily, stepping gingerly over a root in the ground.
“It’s not my fault your so sensitive,” Omar snarled back, the fear momentarily leaving his voice.
Kole rolled his eyes. “Whatever. We’re stuck together for the day. We need to find food, water, and shelter, and we should stay close enough to camp that we can hear the voices.”
Omar said nothing, and Kole took his silence as agreement.
Suddenly, there was a loud screech. The brothers glanced up fearfully, their claws sliding out.
“What is it?” Omar shrieked, his blue eyes wide and scared.
“I don’t know, but keep your voice down!” Kole snapped quietly. “Maybe if it can’t see us it will go away!”
“That’s a big if,” Omar hissed.
“It’s the only plan we have!” Kole growled, glancing around quickly. “Come on! Into that hollow!”
He pointed at a small hole dug into a tree trunk. They raced for it, and they dove in together as a large hawk landed on the ground right where they had been standing.
Omar muffled a yelp. Kole watched the big brown bird in horrible, stretched silence.
If it wasn’t trying to kill him, he would have liked to have gotten a closer look. It had brilliant yellow eyes, a short curved beak, and long chestnut-colored feathers.
The hawk turned its head back and forth a few times, then spread its mighty wings and pumped itself into the air.
“Well, we have shelter,” Kole joked half-heartedly. Omar gave him a dark look, then clambered out of the hollow.
“We can get water from the river when we need it,” Kole told him, following.“But we’re going to have to be careful. It’s fast-flowing.”
“Maybe we should just find a brook somewhere in the woods,” Omar suggested weakly.
Kole shook his head. “We don’t want to go too far from camp.”
“What about food?” his brother demanded.
“I’ve got some food for ya!” an eerie voice croaked.
The brothers whipped around fearfully. A large orange tiger with ruffled fur and slightly out of line amber eyes slowly stalked towards them. “Whaddya want? I got meat, berries. Even fish to tide over your tiny tummies!”
Kole’s eyes widened, and he stepped back. He gulped, feeling sand and pebbles under his paws. They were nearing the river.
“Go away!” Omar growled, stepping in front of Kole. He puffed out his chest. “Back off!”
The tiger’s eyes widened. “Ooh, a tough one. You wouldn’t be good for eats,” she meowed skeptically.
Omar let out a low, squeaky snarl. “Get away from us!”
The tiger crept closer, peeling back her lips to reveal long, ugly yellow teeth.
Omar let out a tiny roar and leaped for her, sinking his little claws into her eyebrows and muzzle. The tiger shrieked loudly and shook him off, sending him flying, but luckily Kole broke his fall (by accident).
The tiger scampered away. Omar climbed off Kole, panting.
“You saved us!” Kole wheezed, the wind knocked out of him.
Omar shrugged and grinned. “It was nothing.”
Kole laughed. “We can’t risk another run-in like that. You could get hurt. We should find something to eat, get some water from the river, then we need to hide in that cavern. We’ll be safe there.”
Omar swished his tail in agreement. “Sounds like a plan.”
“Well done. You scared them! Does your face hurt?” Rajia asked, anxiously touching Kia’s muzzle. Eight little claw marks were sunk into her skin.
“Yeah, it’s fine. It just stings,” Kia assured her. “How was my voice?”
She took a long drink from the river. The friends were sitting inside the entrance to the camp.
Kia cleared her throat. “That’s better. Sounds back to normal. How do my teeth look?”
She flashed a smile. Rajia laughed. “Much whiter, now that you’ve cleaned them.”
Kia licked her leg fur, smoothing it out. “You better go watch them, see what they’re doing.”
Rajia nodded and got to her paws. “Thanks again.”
She padded around the wall of the camp towards the oaks and caught sight of Kole’s green eyes, examining the woods. Rajia’s mind flickered, and she grinned. She jumped gracefully onto an oak trunk, sinking her claws deeply into the bark, and then leaped higher, until she was pretty high in the tree right next to the brothers’ hollow. She kicked a branch, and it cracked loudly.
“What was that?” Rajia heard Kole meow nervously.
Rajia kicked it again. Crack.
“Wassuh,” she heard Omar ask sleepily.
The branch was hanging on by a single strand of bark. Rajia kicked it again, and it dropped to the ground and broke with a loud snap.
The brothers screamed and leaped out of their cave, their backs arched and claws out. Rajia smiled at their natural instinct of putting their bums together protectively.
Kole caught sight of the branch first and exhaled, his spine relaxing. “It’s okay, Omar. It’s just a branch.”
Omar relaxed too and slumped his back against a tree. “This is scary, Kole! I want to go home,” he whined.
Kole stepped forward and met his brother dead in the eyes. “We can’t go home now, or else we’ll be banished! Then we’ll be stuck together forever. You can’t!”
Omar pulled himself to his full height. “You don’t have to, but I am. I can’t do this anymore!”
With that, he sprinted into the woods, leaving Kole alone and shocked.
Sunset came and went. Kole stepped back into camp with his head hanging and his tail dragging in the dirt. He trudged into the nursery, where Rajia, who hadn’t seen Omar storm off, was waiting for him.
“Kole!” she meowed happily, but her face fell and her smile melted away when no one followed him in. “Where’s Omar?”
Kole didn’t say anything, keeping his head down and his eyes on his paws.
“Is he- gone?” Rajia choked out. Her mind raced. Had she not watched her son closely enough?
“Not dead,” Kole mewed miserably. “Just.. gone. He walked off. He was sick of being stuck out there. There was a hawk, a big tiger, and a branch cracked and scared the claws out of him.”
Rajia stiffened. “Well.”
“This is all your fault!” Kole snarled, snapping his head up and glaring her in the eyes. “You never should have sent us out there! Risking our lives is no way to help us to stop fighting!”
Kole spun on his heel and stormed out of the den. Rajia threw herself to her paws and followed. “Where are you going? Get back here!”
“I can’t just leave him out there!” Kole snapped. “I’m going to find him!”
“Kole, no!” Rajia’s eyes filled with tears.
The small silver tiger didn’t speak. He whipped around and stormed out of camp, into the night.
Rajia collapsed onto the ground and pushed her head into her paws.
Both her sons in one day. Parenting fail.