Ice Bear's paws crunch temptingly against the cold snow. He felt sad that there wasn't as much of it as there should be, but it had been months since he had seen any snow at all, so he took what he could get.
A breeze blew his fur. It felt like home.
The word home made his mood sour. Suddenly, the snow didn't excite him anymore. Ice Bear pulled his head out of the pile he'd buried it in and begrudgingly crawled back under the rickety porch they'd been sleeping under, curling his paws around the stiff wood of Yuri's axe. Home was closer and farther away than ever.
A ball of black and white fur shivered beside him. On Panda's other side, Grizz shook even harder. Ice Bear didn't think it was all that cold, even this far from home.
"We should head for the ocean." Grizz chattered. "It's always warmer by the ocean."
(The ocean at home had been cold. His brothers had never had the pleasure of feeling its icy sting.)
Panda pulled his face out of his paws. He sneezed. "But- but what about brother?"
They both turn to him. Ice Bear feels a sudden shame for enjoying the season while they suffered.
"Well, bro?" Grizz prompts. "You gonna be okay? It's hot by the sea."
It's always hot at the edges here. Ice Bear wants to stay in the snow, bury himself in it forever and imagine he's home again.
Ice Bear nods.
Yuri's axe is an awkward but familiar weight on his jaw. Ice Bear carries it with him, with them, and sleeps with it at night.
"We're giving off the wrong impression, toting that thing around." Grizz had said, only once. "Maybe we should get rid of it?"
This comes from when they're chased away from a greasy spoon after asking for jobs. Child labor laws don't apply to bears, after all. The dish boy had cited something about a danger list they were on, and went to get the broom.
Yuri would've showed his claws and growled. Ice Bear will try harder next time.
(Yuri was human. He knows that. Yuri reminds Ice Bear of his mother.)
Ice Bear rubbed his paw over the carved name on the handle. Grizz can't really read yet, but Ice Bear has been teaching his brothers how.
"Is that the brand?" He squints at the simple-looking name.
Ice Bear pats the handle again, shaking his head. Grizz goes silent.
"Are you holding onto it for that guy?" He asks eventually, just as he was pondering another pat, voice oddly vulnerable. Ice Bear nods, and finds a brown paw on his shoulder. "That's cool, dude. I'm sure we'll find him again."
He would know, wouldn't he? After all, Grizz has lost family. He wouldn't be all alone in the world if he hadn't. Ice Bear doesn't really know about Panda, but it's obvious they only have each other. He knows the ache of wanting to hold onto the pieces.
The sun by the ocean is scorching, even for his brothers. They take to an overhang, panting but shaded. Ice Bear slips away, stalking ever closer to a flock of seagulls. He stops a half-second before he leaves the shade of the store front, mindful of his glaring white fur. Instead, he slowly edges closer, hiding expertly behind a trashcan, a water fountain, a lady's purse. Her dog licks his head in friendly greeting.
Ice Bear's claws slide out. He bares his teeth in a silent growl at the birds he hopes will make a decent meal.
The yell causes the birds to disperse. Ice Bear tries to grab one, but they're too fast. He grunts in irritation.
"Brother, over here!"
Ice Bear turns his back on the birds with a sniff, padding back over to the other bears. Grizz has produced a half-eaten pizza from a pitying couple. He misses the salty flavor of fresh-caught fish.
They head south in hopes it'll dry out their box, but the sea air and maybe that one water bottle has gotten to it.
"A bear's box is his kingdom." Panda sighs, watching with sorrowful eyes as Grizz climbs to the top of their stack to set the soggy mess into the trash bin. "And that makes us peasants."
"Don't worry, Pan Pan. There'll be other boxes." Grizz pats his head like a dog, but he's not trying to be demeaning or petulant. "Besides, it's warm here. We'll be fine."
Yuri's axe shimmers in the sunlight. Ice Bear knows what he must do.
Yuri always felt like the polar bear who survived, to Ice Bear. Unlike his mother.
Not to blame her. Ice Bear has felt the trap clamp around his paw, felt the fear when the husky barking came closer. He knows what hunters do to little Ice Bears.
But Ice Bear's memories of her have been poisoned with reality. Once powerful and cunning, now he only sees the terror in her eyes, the low wailing roar to run. Yuri remains strong and unconquerable in his mind, and that's how he wants it to be.
Ice Bear can keep those memories forever. He can't keep his axe.
The closest to home Ice Bear comes outside of winter is the country, the dirt roads that leave one dusty-pawed and tired from endless walking. The emptiness of them excite him, and the hidden life teeming throughout terrifies him.
Panda leads the charge, but he gets distracted easily. His little head cranes here and there, eyes wide.
"Look at the stars!" He breathes. The cosmos stretch above, unhindered by light pollution. They all stop to admire them.
Ice Bear looks at the rising hills. He looks at the wide open space. He looks at the stars. It's almost like home. Entranced, he lowers himself to the dirt with a flop, spreading his arms and legs as though he can soak it all in.
He feels Grizz's fur brush his outstretched arm as he lays down next to him, followed by Panda.
"It's so pretty." He sighs.
Panda nods, but is starting to twitch. "It feels dangerous out here, all alone."
Loneliness aches in Ice Bear's chest as he recognizes that, while close, it's still not right. It will never truly be home. He will never be able to go home.
He will never see Yuri again.
Ice Bear lets out a quiet bear wail, listening to it echo off the desert sadly.
Grizz stirs next to him. "Haha, yeah, dude." He pats Ice Bear's shoulder. "Let it all out, man. You too, Pan Pan."
Together they make bear sounds into the night. Ice Bear wonders who they're mourning.
The new box is stiff and unrelenting, and Ice Bear feels it was a decent trade. He likes to sleep in the corner, where he can lean against the walls.
"Hey, bro?" Grizz whispers. "We made you somethin'."
Together he and Panda unclench his paws, setting something into them. Ice Bear opens his eyes, only half-awake. It's a cardboard axe, the size of an Ice Bear, with no real edges or sharpness. It feels like a falsehood, like a lie.
Tears bubble up in spite of himself. He wipes them away and pulls the axe closer.
His new home feels like the axe. It lacks the sharpness and feel of the cold and Yuri, but it's home nonetheless.