Coming home.

 

Patch and Jess looked at the time.  It was eight in the evening, still plenty of time to play before bedtime, then Jess realised something, she had no set bedtime now.  Her life was lived with the bears, but not just with the bears, for she’d seen tigers and lions too.  Jess had already met one lioness, who’d been gentle with her.

The boss went upstairs and sat in front of the computer which controlled the whole setup.  Tapping into his general news feed, he noticed something on the urgent screen.  It was a news flash, something about a car crash.  The Boss knew something was amiss, so he clicked on the flash and got put through to the local police.  Talking to them, he learned that Jess’s guardians had been killed outright in a car crash.  It was said they were found on a road in the wood.  It was a two car accident.  One driver was yelling he’d seen a tiger watching him from the edge of the wood, and his lack of concentration had caused the crash, so the police were convinced.

      “My roads and wood are well maintained,” the Boss said, “and I can’t restrict my community.”  The police agreed that there was no fault on the Boss’s part or on the part of the tiger concerned.  The Boss disconnected from the feed and sat back.

       “Poor Jess,” he thought, dialling a number on his phone.  Jess was soon walking along the corridor which led to the Boss’s quarters.

       “Should I put socks on?”  Jess asked.  The Boss shook his head.

      “Many bare pawed creatures come here,” he said.  Jess sat down and the Boss told her as gently as he could about the accident which had killed her guardians.  Jess sighed deeply, and then looked at the Boss.

       “This is going to sound strange, and probably ungrateful,” Jess said, “but I’m not too upset.  I never knew them, not like I know Patch.  They cared for me professionally, not really loving me as family.  I know they had no choice, but I had even less choice.  I told them nothing about my previous life they couldn’t get from their files.  I know the system, and it’s nothing like what Patch and I have.  We love each other, and if anything happened to either of us, the one left behind would cry for weeks and weeks.  What I’m worried about now is what will happen in a year’s time.”

        “Here is safe,” the Boss replied, “I know you are too young to legally make choices Jess, but if it came to court and you were asked what you wanted to happen, could you reply truthfully and honestly?”  Jess nodded.  I already had to do that once,” she said.  It was either go to a children’s home or get fostered.  I chose fostered.”  The Boss smiled:

        “You seem happy with the community,” he said.  Jess nodded.

       “I am happier than I’ve been for a long time,” she replied, “I love Kamchatka and her family.  They’re a real family, they love each other so much, and I believe some cubs are adopted too.  Kamchatka loves her mate and cubs, and also that other polar bear, Nanuq Junior?”  The Boss nodded.

       “It’s a huge community this,” he said, “Everyone has links to everyone else.  There are the ursine family and the feline family, but the two families get on well.”

      “The community used to be run on pride lines,” jess said, “and that got stopped a while back I read.”  The Boss nodded.

       “I’m lucky my experiment, for experiment it was went well.  At first I didn’t know whether a community of different creatures would work well, but it has.  Now everyone looks after everyone else.  You saw the birth videos and the funeral ones too?”  Jess nodded.

       “They are community events indeed,” she replied.

       “I have had the way you and Patch used to communicate described to me,” the Boss said, “it’s amazing.”

      “Described to you?”  Jess asked, “can’t you see how we take each other’s hind paws in our forepaws?”

        “No,” the Boss replied, “I’m as blind as Ekaterina.”  Jess looked shocked.

      “I didn’t know,” she said.

      “No,” the Boss replied, “I don’t make mention of it unless I need to.”

       “How did you get a description of how we held each other’s hind paws in are fore?”  Jess asked.

       Kamchatka told me how it was done, then, as I believe she did in the wood, she sat down and with me sitting opposite her, showed me how it all worked.  Actually taking my left foot in her forepaws, me taking her right hind paw in my hands.”

      “So you do get to touch some of the community,” Jess said, “for you must be able to get some pleasure from setting this whole thing up.  After all, you run the show, so the community is yours.”

      “I allow my community to run things,” the Boss said, “but yes, I have met all the community, know everything about every member.  I’ve got hands on with Kamchatka, Conrad, Helga, and of course little Ekaterina.  Patch is sweet, as is his friend little Pipin.  Yes I know what happened to Ruslana, and I can understand why Patch killed her.  I know your tale Jess, and Patch brought you up like his sister cub, so he’s justified in what he did.”

      “How do you think the community see me?”  Jess asked, “As a human, or as a bear.”

       “As jess,” the Boss replied, “they don’t worry about your body shape; all they care about is what’s inside.  That’s why Samson can stroke Allie’s paws and love her like he does.  Neither of them cares the others not of their own species.  It’s the paw contact which matters, the paw, the spirit.  The touch of paw on paw is so important to the community, even more important than sight sometimes.”  Jess nodded:

       “I know,” she said, “I suppose you heard the discussion Patch and I had over clothing and bathing?”  The Boss nodded.

        “Again,” he said, “the community saw you as human to begin with, but now, a day on, because you have let them touch your paws and they like what they feel, they are accepting of you.  You showed by letting Kamchatka remove your shoes and socks in the wood that you’re receptive to new ideas.”

      “That time was special,” Jess said, “I know I got emotional at one point, but Kamchatka kept me sane.  Her hug, her paws!  So warm!”  The boss nodded:

        “I know,” he said.

       “I like being barefoot,” jess said, “it’s liberating, it’s how I was meant to be I think.  I want to be as close to patch as I can, but my human sensibilities make me want to cover up.

       “If you want to cover up but leave your hands and feet free you can,” the boss said, “and as for bathing, if I speak to patch, and you speak to him too, he can still wash your hands and feet, and you wash his.  I know you might want to be as much of a bear as you can be, but jess; you are a human after all.  I think the time when patch bathed you was a time when you and he had no choice.  Now though, even though you are integrated into the community, there are things you can’t change, your body is one.  If you want to cover your body with minimal fabric which is tight fitting so it doesn’t get in the way, wear a cat suit.”  Jess nodded.

        “I’ll talk it over with Patch,” she said, “but I really must wear something, despite agreeing with what patch says about him not worrying about my body shape, I do.  Also, if I can make my body as anonymous as possible, it would focus my mind and those of others on what my hands and feet tell them.”  The boss nodded:

       “If that’s what you feel,” he said, “then I’ll order you some cat suits so you can be with the community as freely as you want, but be covered too.”  Jess smiled:

      “I knew there was a solution,” she said.  The phone rang beside the boss’s chair and he lifted the handset.  Getting up, he went into another room and closed the door.

        “Oh hello Jim,” the Boss said, “you have news?”  Silence, then, “yes, ok, so you say the investigators found the other driver was doing too much speed for the road when he saw the tiger, took the bend too quick and ran across into the other lane?”   Silence again, “right, will do.  And how were the findings for the road surface and signage?”  The boss asked.  Silence again, the Boss listening intently.

       “So signage and surface was good, other driver in the wrong,” the Boss said, “Poor sods.”  The boss went back into the main room and dumped the handset.

        “Sorry about that,” he said.

      “It was the findings of the accident weren’t it?”  Jess asked.

      “Yup,” the Boss said, “though I won’t Burdon you with that.”

      “No, tell me, though the investigation was a little quick wasn’t it?”

       “They hurry things up here, for we can’t leave glass on the road in case the community get injured,” the Boss replied, “yes there were adequate signs warning of animals on the road and plenty of flashing twenty mile per hour signs, but some never heeds the signs.”

     “What happened?”  Jess asked.  The Boss took her hand.

       “Do you really think you can cope with it?”  He asked.  Jess nodded.

       “Yes,” she said, “Tell me.”

       “Other driver doing sixty sees a tiger on the verge, freaks out, hits a bend too quick, the other car coming the other way.  He used the whole road and smashed into the oncoming car at sixty, they were doing twenty.  The only mercy was they were killed instantly.  The driver survived as he had an airbag and they didn’t.  He’s critical now.”

        “I hate my race!”  Jess exploded, “who ever heard of a bear speeding?” the Boss nodded.

       “Let’s talk to Patch and then see about getting you some cat suits,” he said, “that way you can keep your hands and feet bare.”  Patch, who’d been listening at the door, padded in and sat down beside his lifelong friend.

      “What is a cat suit?”  He asked, and I don’t mind if you wear one Jess, it was me who suggested you get covered up anyway.  It was you who said it would be ok for you not to be, and now you’re deciding to get covered.  All I want to know is if this cat suit thing will cover your fore and hind paws?”

      “No it won’t,” jess replied, “it will cover my body from my neck to just above my wrists and ankles, my hands and feet will be free to do what they do best.”  Patch was happy with that.  Jess then told him of the car crash which had killed her guardians.

      “I’m so sorry,” Patch said.

       “I never knew them,” Jess replied, “it would be worse if anything happened to you dear patch.”  The Boss made a phone call, then went out, then came back with a black cat suit he’d bought from a local store.  Jess went away, then came back warring the suit.  Patch looked at her, taking in everything.  He reached out and touched Jess’s arm, then her hand with his paw.

       “It’s like another skin,” he said, tight, but it works to cover you up all right.  Jess grinned and sat down, showing Patch the palms of her hands and soles of her feet.

      “There, you see?”  She asked, “My hands and feet are bare.  I haven’t broken any rules of the community, and have also obeyed my own rules.  Patch, I will let you wash my hands and feet, but we can’t bathe together any more.  I bathed with you earlier, but that was the last time.”  Patch knew what she meant.

     “Okay,” he said.  Jess hugged Patch tightly, and then both left the boss’s place, crawling along the passage and ending up downstairs in Kamchatka’s lie up.  Kamchatka saw them and smiled, padding over to jess and embracing her, cat suit and all.

        “Now you feel better?”  Kamchatka asked.  Jess replied that she did.

      “Good,” Kamchatka said in faltering and bad English, “I said to patch you be big girl now and no want him bathe with you, but he say he want bathe with you.  I tell him you love him madly, but be a human in body if not in spirit.  I tell him he go and wait for you at the Boss’s, and he does that.  Now you both back here safe with mama Kamchatka.”

        “Your English is funny!”  Jess laughed.  Kamchatka snorted:

      “My English not very good, but at least I try speaking it.  You no speak ursine.”  Jess had to admit that point.

       “I’m sorry mama Kamchatka,” she said.

        “I talk with you in the community tongue,” she said, “so there is no misunderstanding.  Oh by the way, I’m sorry about your guardians.  The boss tells me just now.”

       “While I was putting on my cat suit?”  Jess asked.  Kamchatka looked mystified.

      “Cat suit?”  She asked, “What is cat suit?  You’re not a cat.”

       “”No no mama,” Jess laughed, “it’s what this black covering on my body is called.  The boss must have made a call to you while I was putting on the cat suit.”  Kamchatka touched the suit with her paw, then touched Jess’s left hand.

       “Would you stroke my hind paws mama?”  Jess asked.  Kamchatka grinned and nodded.

      “Sit down little cub and I will,” she replied.  Jess sat down opposite Kamchatka and gave the bear her right foot.  Kamchatka gently took it in her forepaws and began to stroke her toes and the sole of her foot.  Jess found the grizzly bear’s pads rough but warm, her touch gentle.

       “How can you be so gentle with your paws?”  Jess asked.  Kamchatka smiled:

      “We have to be gentle with our cubs,” she said, “they and their paws are as fragile as humans are.  All I do is treat you like a bear cub, which is not difficult.”  Jess told Kamchatka about the discussion she and Patch had about bathing and clothing.  Kamchatka nodded:

      “I think the solution you came up with is a good one.”  She said, “If you want to get into the water with Patch, all you need do is put on a cat suit then get into the water with him.  Both of you then have access to each other’s paws, and everyone’s happy.  You can be close to him, he to you, and you can keep your body covered.  If you want to bathe with patch, bathe with him before you wash yourself, keeping the cat suit you are going to wash on, and then change into a new one once you have showered in private.”  Jess nodded:

      “You know a lot about humans for a wild bear,” she said.  Kamchatka smiled:

       “Conrad tells me a lot about you when I ask him,” she said, “not about you personally, but about the way humans are about their bodies.  He says they most like being covered up as they have no fur, not like us bears.  I can understand that.  So I think you bathe with patch first, let him wash your hands and hind paws, and you wash his, maybe play a bit too, then you go wash privately and then come back in dry suit.”  Jess smiled and gently took hold of Kamchatka’s hind paw stroking Kamchatka’s pads, careful not to tickle them.

      “I tickled your paws on the track,” Jess said smiling.  Kamchatka grinned hugely.

       “I remember that.”  She said.

       “Playing with my toes and stroking my hind feet is so pleasurable it has to be wrong,” jess said.  Kamchatka shook her head.

        “Why is it wrong?”  She asked, “I think humans have become so divorced from their hands and feet that playing with their feet is seen as wrong.  No jess, your feet are bare for a reason, so you can feel the ground and feel the touch of another’s paw on yours.  I love my paws, and I would like you to love yours.”

      “I do,” jess replied, “I would spend time almost every night playing with my toes and stroking the soles of my feet.  I would sit in my private room and pull my socks off my feet, then take one foot in my hand and explore it with the other hand.  It felt wonderful!”

       “It felt wonderful because it’s natural and that’s what you are meant to do with your hind paws,”  Kamchatka replied, “we bears play with our hind paws into adulthood, indeed many adult humans play with their hind paws, but you won’t get many admitting to it, as it’s seen as cubbish stuff in their eyes.”  Kamchatka and Jess stroked each other’s hind feet for the next half an hour, and would have continued had Samson not padded in and disturbed them.

       “What’s this?”  He asked, “A human here?”  Jess nodded.

       “My name’s jess,” she said, “I’m Patch’s friend, um, and Kamchatka’s, um, cub too.”  Samson snorted:

       “Have you gone crazy Kamchatka?”  He asked, keeping his hatred for humans in check.

      “No,” Kamchatka replied, “jess is just like us bears, though her body is that of a human.  She was brought up as a bear you see, well, pretty much.”  Samson wasn’t convinced.

        “I have been watching you both,” he said, “it’s quite clear there’s something between this human, you Kamchatka and Patch.  Do you think of her as a bear?”

      “Yes, well in her mind,” Kamchatka replied, “take her hind paw in your forepaws, close your eyes, and then you’ll know what I mean.”  Jess looked at the huge lion.

       “I believe you stroke the paws of a polar bear,” she said.  Samson snapped:

       “How did you know about that?”

       “I’ve been studying the community,” jess replied, “and I know about you Samson.”  Samson growled to himself, but said nothing.  Jess motioned to her left foot.

      “Lie down big lion and take my hind foot in your paws,” she invited, “see what you think of me then.”  Samson did as jess asked; taking the girl’s left foot in his paws.  Closing his eyes, he let whatever would come into his head from the contact between pad and smooth soled foot arrive without his usual scepticism getting in the way.

       “Maybe you are suited to this community,”  Samson said after five minutes of holding Jess’s left foot in his paws, “you’re gentle, receptive, and like being bare pawed.”

       “Patch brought me up as a bear pretty much,” jess said.

      “I can feel that,” Samson replied, “You love him very much too, which is wonderful.”

        “I do,” she replied.

       “I think Jess looks cute when she plays with her toes just like Ekaterina or patch do,” Kamchatka said.  Samson let go of jess’s foot, jess smiling at Kamchatka and taking her right foot in her right hand, then playing with the toes of that foot with the fingers of her left hand.  Kamchatka and Samson watched jess playing with her toes.

       “She looks so cubbish it’s cute,” Kamchatka said.  Samson snorted:

       “She’s eleven in human years, that’s childish stuff she’s doing.”  Kamchatka shushed him.

        “Jess hasn’t had much of a cub, um, sorry childhood.  You don’t’ know her story, I do, so shut it Sammy before I get bloody angry.”  Samson padded away, not knowing what to make of Jess.

        “Keep playing with your toes if that’s what you want to do Jess dear,”  Kamchatka said, bringing her own right hind foot closer to her forepaws and cradling it in her right fore, before gently stroking her pads and playing with her toes.  Jess watched the grizzly bear, thinking how similar she must look when playing with her own toes.

       “We are very similar when playing with our toes Kamchatka,” jess said.  The bear smiled:

       “More proof you are ursine,” she said, “plus you love playing with your toes and that’s the best bit of all.”  Jess smiled:

      “I do,” she replied, “I really do.  I love curling and stretching them too, feeling with my free hand as the sole of my foot bunches into furrows and stretches. It’s so cubbish, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world!  I also like it when patch touches the soles of my feet and I curl my toes that‘s lovely too.  He likes me touching his paw pads and playing with his toes too,” Kamchatka grinned:

      “I like it when you play with my hind paws,” she said.

      “Same here when you play with mine,” jess replied.

     “We’re about even then,” Kamchatka said, “both paw pals.”

      “Paw pals?”  Jess asked laughing, “I like that Kamchatka, “paw pals, yes!  We are!”  Jess let go of her foot and, crawling to Kamchatka, dragged the grizzly’s forepaws off her right hind paw and grabbed hold of it herself.

      “That’s mine I think,” she said to the startled grizzly bear as she tickled Kamchatka’s toes, the bear flopping onto her back laughing helplessly.

       “Let go of my toes!”  She yelled.  Jess continued tickling Kamchatka’s right hind paw until the Grizzly bear was exhausted.

      “That’s enough!”  Kamchatka said forcefully, jess knowing not to push her any further.  Letting go of the bear’s right hind paw, jess sat back on her heels, watching as Kamchatka recovered.

        “I just had to do that,” jess said.  Kamchatka looked at jess with bleary exhausted eyes.

       “You won that one,” she said.  Suddenly she leapt up and, pushing Jess onto her side, grabbed the girl’s right foot in her paws, mercilessly tickling the young girl’s toes and the sole of her foot, jess imitating Kamchatka’s reaction to having her paw tickled.  Screaming with laughter jess thrashed about with her two free arms and one free leg, Kamchatka tickling the sole and toes of her right foot until the human was as exhausted as she’d been.

        “Thought I’d get you back to redress the balance,” Kamchatka said.  Jess sighing deeply.

       “You are so gentle mama,” she said, “so gentle with my fragile hind paws.”  Kamchatka nodded and kissed the toes of the foot she was stroking.

        “It’s easy to be gentle,” she said, “it comes naturally to you when you’ve had three cubs as I have.”  Jess looked into the bear’s deep brown eyes.

        “I love you mama,” she said.  Kamchatka smiled, leaning over and kissing jess’s nose.

       “I know little one,” she said, “I love you too.”  Jess felt tears pricking the backs of her eyes.

      “I know you do,” she said, “I can feel it, I know it well.”  Kamchatka touched Jess’s nose with hers.

        “I love you from your ears to your toes jess dear cub,” Kamchatka said.  Jess smiled, curling the toes of her right hind foot, Kamchatka working her toes beneath the curled ones and gently stroking the ball of Jess’s foot, making her toes relax.  Jess curled her toes once more, trapping Kamchatka’s, the grizzly bear smiling and tugging at her paw.

      “My toes are trapped now!”  She wailed.  Jess pretended her toes had minds of their own, curling them as tightly as she could around the grizzly bear’s.

       “I can’t control my toes!”  Jess whimpered, frantically stroking the bunched sole of her right foot with the fingers of her right hand in an attempt to release her toes, but they remained locked around the grizzlies!

       “Pull Kamchatka pull!”  Jess encouraged, the Grizzly bear tugging furiously but gently at her trapped paw, while jess did the same to her foot, both trying to pull their toes apart.  After a bit of tugging, Jess rubbed the sole of her foot with the fingers of her right hand, massaging the bunched skin on the sole of her foot.

      “It’s not working, it’s not working!”  Jess complained, digging her fingers into the furrowed skin on the sole of her foot in an effort to relax her toes.  Kamchatka, with her free forepaw, gently removed the human’s scrabbling fingers which were now desperately gripping the sole of her right foot.  Jess, whimpering with mock exhaustion, let her hand fall away, Kamchatka gently stroking the bunched skin on the sole of Jess’s right foot with her left forepaw.  Jess sighed deeply as she felt her toes relaxing.

      “It’s working, my toes, my toes are relaxing!  Careful Kamchatka, gently, gently stroke the sole of my foot, that’s it, that’s it!”  Jess encouraged, “ooh, that’s better; now free your toes, then we’re free, and all done!”  Kamchatka smiled broadly.

       “I loved that,” she said.

       “So did I,” jess laughed.  Patch watched everything.

       “That was so lovely,” he said, “jess, Mum, I loved watching you two playing!  It was wonderful!”

       “Can I play with you Patch?”  Jess asked.  Patch crawled over to his friend and sat down, giving her his hind paws.

       “Touch them with your hind paws and let me know what you think my reply to that is,” Patch said.  Jess did as he suggested, touching his toes with hers.

      “I think you want me to play with your hind paws,” she said.  Patch smiled:

       “I’d love it if you would,” he said.  Jess took Patch’s left hind paw in her hands and stroked his pads, then gently played with his toes.

       “Do you want me to curl my toes?”  Patch asked.

       “Do you want to curl them?”  Jess asked.  Patch curled his toes gently, making the sole pad on his paw bunch up.

     “I think the answer is yes,” Kamchatka said.  Conrad padded in then, smiling at the bears and jess.  Jess looked up at the polar bear.

      “What was it like helping Kamchatka have her cub?”  She asked.  Conrad smiled:

      “It was amazing,” he replied.  Kamchatka smiled:

      “I couldn’t have done it without you,” she said.  Conrad kissed his mate’s nose.

        “Ekaterina and I have been playing together, each chasing the other’s hind paws and catching each other’s toes.  It’s great Kamchatka!”  Kamchatka told Conrad of the game she and jess had played, the polar bear laughing with delight.

        “Paws were meant to be played with!”  He said.

      “I couldn’t agree more,” jess replied, “the role play game was liberating, and it was a beautiful game.”  Kamchatka smiled and nodded.

        “I would love to play with a polar bear’s paws sometime,” Jess said.  Conrad rolled onto his back and waved his paws in the air, telling:

      “My paws want to be played with now!”  He then sat up and began frantically rubbing his hind paws with his forepaws as if his life depended on it.  Kamchatka watched her mate rolling around on the floor in a desperate fight with his hind paws.

       “I can’t stop it!”  Conrad whimpered, “My hind paws want playing with, but I can’t play with both at once!”  He rolled onto his back, grabbed the toes of his hind paws with his forepaws and growled deeply with mock discomfort.  Locking his fore and hind paws together, he rolled from side to side, fighting to free his fore and hind paws.  Kamchatka clapped her forepaws together.

      “Pull Conrad pull!”  She encouraged.  Conrad pulled with his forepaws and pushed desperately with his hind, trying to break the bond.  With a rush his paws flew apart.

       “Got them apart, phew!”  He gasped.  Kamchatka went to Conrad and gently massaged the pads and toes of all four of his huge paws.

       “Oooh, that’s lovely, so lovely!”  Conrad said, curling his toes slightly to make his pads bunch up.

 

Meanwhile, Ekaterina and Jinghua were playing together, the polar bear cub and panda cub loving every minute of the contact between each other’s small paws.

       “I love your paws Ekaterina,” Jinghua said.  Jess watched the panda and polar cubs.

       “You two are so cute!”  She exclaimed.

       “Let Ekaterina get paws on with you while you’re playing with your toes jess, then she and Jinghua can see if they think you’re cute too.”  Jess laughed merrily and hugged Kamchatka.

       “I will do what you suggest,” she said.  Jess realised she could play with the polar bear cub.

       “Right Ekaterina,” she said, “come towards me.”  Ekaterina crawled towards the human, until her paw encountered Jess’s hand.

       “I’m now going to reach for my right hind foot with my forepaws,” jess said to the polar bear cub.  Ekaterina said:

       “You smell like Patch did when he came here, did you know him?”  Jess told her who she was.

      “Ah, ok,” Ekaterina said, “well, welcome home is all I can say.”  Jess giggled.

       “I know you can’t see me playing with my toes, and that you have to touch things you cannot see,”  jess said, “so I will let you touch me as I play with my toes and then you can decide if you think I’m as cute as Jinghua and Kamchatka seem to think I am.”  Ekaterina laughed helplessly.

       “Okay,” she said, “how paws on can I be?”

      “Touch my hands, my toes, the soles of my hind paws, everything you need to to get an idea of how I play with my toes,” jess replied.  Ekaterina smiled and said:

     “Thank you Jess.  I know it’s not the usual thing to let a bear get paws on with you because she can’t see.”  Jess hugged the cub.

       “Does your mum let you get paws on with her when she’s playing with her toes?”  Jess asked.  Ekaterina smiled and nodded.

       “Great,” jess replied.  Jess took her left foot in her left hand and played with the toes of her left foot with her right hand.  Once she was comfortable, Ekaterina explored the scene with her forepaws, touching jess’s arms, legs and feet with gentle care.

      “So you hold your left foot with your left hand and play with your toes with your right hand,” Ekaterina said.  Jess replied this was the case.  Ekaterina found jess’s free right foot, exploring her toes and the sole of her foot with her forepaws.  Jess gently curled her toes, the cub’s own toes working over them and down over the wrinkled skin on the sole of her foot.  Ekaterina grinned:

      “Your hind foot is like mine in how the pads bunch up when you curl your toes.  When I curl my toes, the same thing happens!”  Ekaterina exclaimed.  Jess smiled and asked if she could stroke Ekaterina’s paws once the bear had found out how she played with her toes.  Ekaterina smiled.

      “Yes you can, but first, let me explore your hind paws with my fore,” Ekaterina replied.  Jess smiled, pressing her right foot against the pads of the cub’s paw.

       “How does my foot feel in your paws?”  Jess asked.  Ekaterina smiled:

      “Your toes are small, the sole of your foot soft to my touch,” the bear replied.  Jess pressed her toes against those of the cub.

       “I like that,” Ekaterina said.

       “You’ve only found my right foot,” Jess said, “there’s my left foot to find now, and that’s the one that I’m playing with.”  Ekaterina giggled, patting the heel of jess’s right foot with her left forepaw, then finding the young girl’s left foot which Jess held in her left hand, while she gently massaged the toes of that foot with the fingers of her right.  Ekaterina found the finger’s of Jess’s left hand caressing the sole of her left foot, the toes of that foot being massaged by the fingers of her right hand.

       “You even play with your hind feet like I do!”  Ekaterina exclaimed, “that’s, that’s so cool!”  Jess smiled and sighed deeply as Ekaterina explored her left leg and arm, getting her bearings.

      “I like playing with my hind paws, do you like playing with yours jess?”  Ekaterina asked.  Jess asked:

     “Do you think I enjoy playing with my hind feet?”  Ekaterina touched the heel of jess’s left foot, working her toes beneath Jess’s fingers which were touching the bunching skin on the sole of her foot.  Jess gripped her foot hard with both hands, the fingers of her right squeezing her slightly curled toes, the fingers of her left gripping the sole of her foot hard.  Ekaterina smiled:

        “You’re squeezing your foot like mum did when she was giving birth to me,” Ekaterina said, “Conrad told me about that.  Jess released her hold on her foot, Ekaterina stroking the warm skin on the sole, feeling it bunching as jess curled and relaxed her toes.

      “I didn’t hurt you did I?”  Jess asked.  Ekaterina shook her head.

      “If you feel you need to squeeze your hind foot, squeeze it,” she said, “its okay by me.  It was nice to be part of it.”

       “I once watched a mama bear have her cub on television,”  Jess replied, “it wasn’t as intimate as what I watched when your mum gave birth to you, but I saw the mama bear rolling about in her den, squeezing her hind paws with her fore as she tried to give birth to her cub.  She was whimpering and whining in pain.  She squeezed her toes hard during her worst contractions.”  Ekaterina nodded.

      “Sounds like an intense video,” she said.  Jess smiled:

       “I tried to re-enact the birth of the cub, holding my hind feet in my hands and rolling about on the floor, whimpering and whining, growling and grunting like the mama bear did.”

      “Did you?”  Ekaterina asked, “Why?”

      “it was in an attempt to imagine what the mama bear was feeling while giving birth to her cub, to become more ursine myself, to get closer to Patch.  He and I were very close, and still are close today.”

       “I suppose pretending to be someone you’re not is a release for you as it is for mum or fleur when they pretend to give birth to a cub,” Ekaterina said.  Jess smiled and nodded:

      “It’s lovely,” she said, “It gave me the chance to get angry with something else other than what was happening in my life, to allow me to express my pain without hurting anyone.  I loved making all the noise I could, squeezing and curling my toes, rubbing the soles of my feet and rolling about on the floor.  It was so liberating!”  Ekaterina touched the toes of jess’s left foot with hers, feeling the girl’s intense emotions.

       “You really enjoyed that didn’t you,” Ekaterina said.  Jess smiled:

      “I did, I did!”  She said, “And I’m not ashamed to admit it.”

       “I know how you feel,” Nanuq Junior said, padding into the room, “I’ve re-enacted a cubbing also.  It felt great!”  Jess laughed merrily.

       “You might be the first male bear to ever give birth to a cub,” she said.  Nanuq Junior giggled.

       “My guardians didn’t mind me playing my game,” jess said, “They were out, and I made sure of that before I went for it.  I didn’t want to be disturbed while I was getting into character.  After an hour of this game, I was exhausted from trying to deliver my cub.  The end of the labour was hard, really hard, but big squeezing efforts, where I braced my hind feet against my locked fingers, along with using my fingers to rub the soles of my feet while curling my toes when things got bad helped, as did playing with my toes a bit when things were easier.  It was all an act, a lot of noise while pressing my hind feet into my cupped hands while imagining bearing down against the cub, that kind of thing.”  Kamchatka looked at Jess.

        “It’s great isn’t it,” she said.  Jess giggled:

      “I could only give birth to my cub when I was alone,” she said, “but yes, imagining I was a bear and giving birth to a cub was lovely.  I had a soft toy polar bear cub which I secretly treated like my own cub, so, so I could give it the life I didn’t have when young.  Now though, I’ll stop that, as I have a good life here.” Ekaterina hugged Jess tenderly.

       “You give birth to your imaginary cub if you want,” she said, “If you want to give birth to a cub, you do that as much as you want to.”  Jess smiled:

       “I loved pretending to have a cub,”  she said, “I could then care for the little soft toy cub I had as if he was my own cub, stroking him, playing with his paws, everything.”

      “Did Patch know about this?”  Kamchatka asked.  Jess shook her head.

     “It was in the month before I came here,” she said, “during the time patch and I was apart.  I wanted to get close to what I felt I really was, which is a bear.  I saw the documentary where the mama bear had her cub, watching it over and over again, then I re-enacted it, loving the build up, loving the challenge of becoming that mama bear, feeling my body doing what I wanted it to, feeling my toes curling, my soles bunching, hearing myself snarling and growling as I tried to push my bare feet into my hands while imagining the feel of birthing a cub.  I could get angry with myself, angry because I wasn’t pushing hard enough, because my fingers slipped as I massaged my toes or gripped the soles of my feet.  Get angry with myself for throwing Old Grey out.  I screamed grunted and growled with effort.  Then when it was all over, when I’d screamed lustily and gripped my hind feet with all my might in a final squeezing effort, I embraced a tiny soft toy bear cub, crying as I remembered my Old Grey.  Hating myself for pushing him out of the car and not standing up to the council.”  Kamchatka nodded:

      “If I’m stressed, I’ll do the same as you,” she said, “imagine the birth of a cub, a hard, grunting, squeezing labour, just to get the anger out.”  Jess smiled.

       “You put yourself through all that?”  She asked.  Kamchatka nodded:

      “It beats whacking someone,” she replied, “We’re a non violent community as a rule.  Okay, Ruslana aside, we still are very soft pawed.”  Jess nodded, gently stroking Ekaterina’s right forepaw in both her hands, the polar bear cub curled up almost asleep.

      “I love it here,” she replied, “Here’s my home, where I feel comfortable, safe and cared for.”  Kamchatka smiled broadly:

       “I’m glad about that,” she said.  Jess looked round at the sound of purring.  What she saw didn’t look like a tiger, or a snow leopard, though the cat in front of her certainly had parentage from both.  She was enormous, with muddy brown fur sporting ill defined tiger stripes with spots on her belly, nose and paws, as well as a very long tail which was banded black and muddy brown like a raccoon’s.

      “Um, hello,” jess said, trying to hide a smile.

       “So you’re jess,” the big funny furred cat said.  This was a statement, not a question.

      “Um, yeah, hi.”  Jess replied.  The cat looked more closely at her.

       “My name’s fleur, I’m, was, the head of medical services here.”

       “Have you just been sacked?”  Jess asked.

      “Sacked?”  The cat asked, “You mean dismissed?”  Jess nodded.

       “Um, no, not really, not as such,” the cat replied, shifting her considerable bulk uncomfortably from paw to paw.

       “You look really uncomfortable,” Jess thought, but said nothing.

       “I used to be so good at my job,” fleur mewed, “but now, now, now Alaska’s got the touch, the way with the smaller cubs, the dexterity in her paws, I’m no longer the powerful cat I once was.”

       “I’m sorry to hear you’re losing your powers,” jess said, “but surely you’re loved just as much as you always were?  That never changes?”

       “I suppose, but when you’ve been used to a job for ages, a job that places trust in your paws, and that trust is taken from you.  It’s bloody hard,” fleur replied.  Jess let go of Ekaterina’s forepaw, motioning to fleur to lie down.

      “Let me take a look at you,” jess said.  Fleur lay down, feeling like a patient in one of her advice clinics.  Jess looked fleur over from nose to toes, then gently touched her left forepaw.  The big cat’s toes were tense, she was very unhappy.

       “Your toes are all stiff,” Jess remarked, “you’re one unhappy kitty.”

       “You call me Kitty once more; I’m going to get bloody angry!”  Fleur snapped, and then she seemed to crumple inside.

      “Oh shit, shit!”  She whimpered.

      “What’s wrong fleur?”  Nanuq Junior asked.  Fleur closed her eyes, her whole body shaking.

        “I’m finished,”  fleur moaned, “I found a mama Arctic fox, she was giving birth to her cub,.  It was a big cub and she was struggling.  She’d strain hard, the cub’s head would come forward, then she’d relax and it would slip back inside her.  She’d been pushing like that for hours, so she said.  I, um, my mind went blank!  I just couldn’t, couldn’t help her!  I’ve delivered bear cubs, even lion and tiger cubs, so a fox cub shouldn’t be a problem.  I freaked, bottled out, ran for Alaska, who came, and with a little traction on the cub, got it born.  The mama fox screamed and screamed during pushes, but she pushed how she pushed to deliver this cub, it was enormous!”

      “My cub and I survived though,” the vixen said, padding into the room, her cub tottering along on shaky paws beside her.

       “Tilly Brushtail!”  Kamchatka exclaimed.  Fleur looked blearily at the vixen.

       “I’ve had nightmares about your cub’s birth,” fleur mewed piteously.  Tilly Brushtail had got in cub from a wild red fox named Reynard two months ago.  The cub was a big one; she could still feel how its birth had stretched her to her utmost.  Her body was at full stretch when the cub wanted more space to be born than she could give him.  Alaska had pulled the cub free while Tilly pushed with everything she’d got.  Alaska had caught the whole thing on camera which she’d worn on her head while working.  The head cams were a new enervation which the Boss had introduced the bear to.  The self contained camera, battery and hard drive worked for two days constant use, and were operated by computers following the wearer’s eyes.  So wherever Alaska’s eyes went, the camera followed them.  Focusing was automatic.  Alaska looked through goggles she wore.  She could see perfectly, able to flick to the heads-up display when things were less stressful to see what the camera was seeing.  Alaska had even worked using the heads-up display, which wasn’t bad to work with, being military grade hardware.  Now Tilly Brushtail and her cub who she’d named Dusty due to his rather dusty grey coat and the fact he’d hung on during his difficult birth, were anxious to get into somewhere warm and dry.  Tilly still felt sore from Dusty’s birth only an hour ago.  The fox cub had struggled to his paws soon after his birth, complaining he was feeling rather squashed, and looking as exhausted as his poor mother.  Tilly, feeling bruised inside and out, walked carefully to a lie up and settled down, glad to get her weight off of her sore paws.

       “I curled my toes and braced my paws against rocks to give myself purchase during your birth Dusty,” Tilly panted.  The cub nodded.

      “I know,” he said, “I felt everything!  I tried to keep still, to point my toes and keep my head between my forepaws, but I was stuck!  When the bear came along, I was about ready to give up, but she helped me out into the world and helped you too.  I heard you screaming and felt you rolling and kicking mama.”  Tilly remembered her desperate fight to give birth to her cub.  Her paws ached from it, her throat was sore from screaming and yelling, inside she felt bruised and sore from straining with everything she had.

 

Meanwhile, in another room, Alaska was viewing the video of Dusty’s birth.  Tilly lay on the ground under a bush, panting, wriggling and moaning with pain.  Then she screamed, heaving and arching her back in an effort to deliver a massive cub.  Dusty’s head emerged, then, as Tilly relaxed, it slipped back inside, only to reappear when she strained hard once more.  Fleur and Alaska arrived, and Alaska grabbed the cub’s forepaws as they appeared, holding on tight to them, Tilly squealing as she felt her cub’s head jam tight, then pushing, pushing, pushing, so very hard with everything at full stretch.

      “Come on Tilly, push, push!”  Alaska encouraged, Tilly screaming at her:

      “Everything’s at full stretch, I can’t, I can’t!”  Alaska pulled on Dusty’s forepaws, Tilly squealing and heaving with everything she had, the vixen screeching as she felt his head finally emerging with a rush, Tilly whimpering, growling and barking with pain and discomfort.  Then she was straining, her mouth open in a shriek of agony!  Bullying her cub into the world, Tilly strained and strained, pushing into her tail, breathing hard, trying to breathe deeply.  During the passage of Dusty’s body, Tilly couldn’t help straining repeatedly.  Screaming effort after screaming, paw scrabbling effort, Rolling and fighting to deliver her cub while Alaska pulled gently with every heaving effort from the vixen.  Dusty’s body slid free after half an hour of work on the bear’s and Tilly’s parts, fleur having freaked out and run away at the sight and sound of the labouring vixen, her touch and fearlessness deserting her.  Alaska knew she and Tilly had done well.  Dusty was none the worse for his ordeal, and Tilly herself, while sore pawed and bruised internally, would recover.

 

Meanwhile, back in the arctic fox’s lie up, Tilly lay cradling Dusty in her paws.  The cub was huge, with enormous paws and a very long tail.  Tilly examined him minutely, taking in closed eyes, soft grey brown fur on a large body, long legs, and huge fore and hind paws.  Tilly loved Dusty on sight, even though he’d hurt her on his way into the world, for which he could not be blamed.  Tilly knew some mothers found the process of birth so painful and stressful they abandoned their young, but she couldn’t.  Tilly watched Dusty exploring his head with his forepaws, touching ears, closed eyes, nose and mouth with gentle care.  He then curled up tightly, finding his left hind paw fitted neatly into his forepaws.  Holding onto it, he realised it was part of himself.

      “This is like my forepaws,” he said, “but it’s, um, near my tail, so is a hind paw.”  Gently playing with the toes of the paw he’d found, Dusty giggled as the sensations of paw play made themselves apparent to him for the first time in his life.

      “This is nice,” he whispered.  Tilly watched her cub indulging in one of her own favourite pass times, which at a push she could accomplish.  Indeed, she’d played with her right hind paw quite a bit during Dusty’s birth, when she wasn’t heaving for all she was worth to deliver him.  The memories of the gut wrenching, straining efforts which stretched all her muscles and tissues to their utmost made Tilly want to clench her teeth, then open her mouth wide and scream.  Indeed she had, long and lustily during the horrible pain of pushing against a stuck cub.  then there was the pain of pushing Dusty’s head through to the outside air, Tilly remembered everything at full stretch, and Alaska pulling, trying to get things to stretch that bit more, Tilly curling her toes into the floor and squealing her head off as she felt the cub coming forward, then jamming tight as a contraction spent itself.  Everything clamped down on Dusty’s head, Tilly growling, snarling, barking and screaming with fear, then discomfort, then agony.  Tilly screaming she could not push any more, found herself splaying her hind legs apart as far as they’d go, trying to give her cub room, where there was no room.  Tilly remembered lying there and howling to the moon for the few seconds until another contraction built enough to stretch her to her limit again.  Then it was push, and push, and push as hard as she could, screams the whole way.  The relief when Dusty’s head finally came free was enormous, Tilly yelling with triumph, then moaning and grunting as she pushed against his body, then his legs, then his hind paws, such big hind paws!  Tilly lay on the rug in the lie up, her paws sweating as she remembered everything.

      “My labour was difficult and painful,” she thought, “though I wouldn’t change a thing about it. If anyone tried to take a second of that experience from me, I’d kill them!”

 

 

Fleur, in Kamchatka’s lie up, got to her paws, her whole body trembling with emotion.

      “I couldn’t do it, couldn’t be there, let alone watch,”  Fleur mewed, “I don’t know what’s come over me, but, but, if Alaska gets that bloody camera out and shows me Tilly in labour I’m going to scream and run away to a remote Scottish island!”  Kamchatka looked at fleur, seeing a cat in the latter years of her power, the powers she once had transferring to another.  Alaska was that other and fleur knew it.

       “I’m still fleur,” fleur said, “you know, dirty fur, spotted paws, long raccoon tailed fleur, but I’m not as good with my paws as I once was.  I can’t stand the sight of labouring mothers to be.  I’ll go into pharmacy work!  I know my herbs and oils, yes I’ll do that from now on, let Arki and Alaska do the work.”

      “But who will deliver the cubs of the big cats?”  Jess asked, “You look like you’d be handy at doing that, or were once, your paws are strong enough for that.”

      “Elsa’s shown an interest,” fleur mewed, “she can do it, or Petra can, they’re both good with their paws.  I’m getting too old for this now, too old, too clumsy, and I’m scared too!  I can’t believe I’m scared of a vixen in labour!  I’m a snow leopard tiger cross dam it!”

      “I’m sure Tigress Tess would love the work as a feline midwife,” Nuru said, padding into the room.  She’s been watching the births of her own cubs, and Snowy’s last labour over and over.  She’s got Petra to re-enact a cubbing once or twice, and tried to help her out.  Did a pretty good job too if reports are accurate.”

      “Tigress Tess it is then,” fleur replied, “I think, like Sammy, I’ll retire from my job.  Samson is no longer leader of the feline family as of tonight.”  Kamchatka stared at fleur.

      “Then who is?”  She asked.

       “Everyone’s rock,” fleur replied.

      “What?”  Conrad asked, “You didn’t employ a rock as leader did you?  I know you cats can be crazy, but bowing to a rock and asking for guidance, how stupid!”

      “No Conrad, no!”  Kamchatka laughed, “Not bowing to a rock you silly thing!  Fleur means everyone’s favourite rock, Rock of the white people, of the white lions.”

       “Not Petra?”  Conrad said.

      “Finally!”  Kamchatka said in mock exasperation, playfully clipping her mate round his head with her paw.

      “Hey! You bully!!”  Conrad yelled, swiping at Kamchatka, the two bears ending up engaging in a good natured tussle on the rugs.

        “You two stop that!”  Fleur laughed, “You know what happened last time you did something similar to that.”

       “We ended up with cub!”  Conrad yelled, “Ya for cubs!”  Kamchatka giggled.

       “We’re not having a cub until Ekaterina’s at least two,” she said firmly.”

       “Okay,” Conrad replied. 

 

Something made Jess look towards the door, she’d heard nothing, but what she saw made her eyes grow as big as saucers.  A large white lion padded into the room, he was handsome from his nose to the tips of his toes and from his ears to the tassel on the end of his tail.  The lion didn’t look round him for admiration, but he was getting it in spades.  Even Ekaterina turned her ear to him.

        “What a lion! A white lion, it’s a white lion!!”  Jess screeched.  Then she looked into the lion’s eyes, and they seemed to say:

      “Come to me if you want,” jess wanted very much to go to the lion, and before she knew what she was doing she was beside him, then right up next to him, then her arms were round his neck, and she was hugging him, kissing his nose and burying her face in his mane!  When she came to her senses, jess found the lion looking into her eyes.

       “I’m sorry,” Jess whimpered, much ashamed of her actions.

        “You needn’t be,” Theo junior said softly, his voice making jess’s fingers and toes curl and pulse quicken.  Theo leant down and kissed the bunched skin on the sole of Jess’s right foot which he could reach as she was curled up beside him.

      “How’s that?”  He asked, jess now crying into his mane.

       “I don’t know why I’m acting like this; I’m sorry, so sorry!”  Jess sobbed.  Theo looked sideways at her, not altering his position.

        “I know your tale, and it hurts me,” Theo replied, “I, like Kamchatka and her family, and everyone else here want to keep you safe.”

       “But why do I cry mister lion?”

      “Mister Lion?”  Theo asked, very amused, “my name’s Theo, please be so good as to address me so.”  Jess kissed Theo’s nose, the lion laughing softly.

       “You need no reason to react like you did,”  Theo mewed, “your hands and feet, which I think are the words for the fore and hind paws of humans, know what your spirit wants.  Your story pains me greatly jess, but I hope from now on there will be little pain in your life.  The pain of grief at the loss of a loved one maybe, but not the pain of previous years.  We will not be the ones to cause you pain.  For no lesser animal, as humans are fond of referring to us, has ever actively gone out of their way to cause a human to suffer.  There have been man eating tigers and lions, crazed elephants too, but they were driven mad by the humans themselves, encroaching on their territory, stealing their food, making them perform silly tricks for rations.  Here we do not perform tricks for our rations.  I’m not saying we haven’t got our problems, we have, but they are nothing in comparison to the problems of the human race.  I know this place is run by a human, and without him we’d not be here enjoying the life we do.  I was born in this place and call it home.  But what I say is that the problems of the world cannot be solved by one loan voice.  Many would accuse the Boss of lunacy for setting up a household where the so called animals run their own affairs, but it worked, and continues to work year after year after year.  We give birth, live, love, grow old and die here.  My mum gave birth to me here, and she says she would have given birth nowhere else if she’d had the choice.  I understand there has been a fox cub born only an hour and a half ago, and that his mama was helped to give birth.  The birthing attendant was a polar bear.  I believe the saying is every arctic fox has a friend in a polar bear, and this is certainly the case with Tilly and Dusty.”  Jess released Theo and sat back on her heels.

       “You kissed the sole of my foot,” the young girl said, “that’s rather beneath a lion isn’t it?”  She knew then she’d spoken out of turn.

       “Nothing is beneath a lion,” Theo replied, his eyes questioning jess, “Even kissing the heel pad and bunched sole of a human’s hind foot is not beneath a lion.  I was showing you humility, respect that is all.”

       “You say that is all, but that is everything,” jess said, “I’m sorry for questioning you dear Theo, I should have realised what my foot was telling me.”

       “You are young in the ways of the paw,” Theo replied, “when you have been here some time, you will know more.  Now I must go and find a large fox cub, for he too needs reassurance.”  Jess watched Theo turn and, when he was side on to jess; the lion lifted his right forepaw, showing the human the sole with its black pads.  Jess leant down and kissed the lion’s heel pad, feeling its softness and warmth.

      “That softness and warmth is Theo,” jess thought, “His paws communicate softness and warmth.”  Theo lowered his right forepaw to the floor and padded to Tilly and Dusty’s lie up.

 

Lying down beside the blind fox cub, Theo took Dusty in his paws, the cub cuddling up to him, sighing contentedly as his body was warmed by the lion’s.

        “That feels good, so very good!”  Dusty said, burying his huge forepaws in Theo’s mane.  Theo purred in Dusty’s ear, the fox cub relaxing completely.  Tilly watched Theo soothing her cub.

       “You don’t mind which creature needs comfort do you?”  The arctic fox Vixen said.

       “I don’t understand your meaning,” Theo replied.

       “You gave comfort to jess; now you’re comforting my cub.  You don’t mind which species it is you comfort do you Theo.”

      “My duty on this earth is to give comfort, at least I feel that is my duty,” the lion replied.  Tilly looked at Theo, wanting to tell someone about the birth of her cub.

       “You can tell me all about the birth of your cub,”  Theo said, “I’m ok with it now, for I know it’s natural for mama to push down hard when giving birth, she wants to do it for her cub.”  Tilly described the birth of her cub with the help of Alaska’s video.  Theo found his own toes curling as he watched poor Tilly trying to birth her cub.  When she relaxed after a contraction and Dusty’s head was only half way into the world, everything closing down, Theo curled his toes and clenched his teeth.

       “Ouch,” he said.  Tilly listened to her hysterical screaming on the video.

      It was horrible,” she said, “that bit was I mean.  Once I got pushing again though, things were easier.  Then it was just push, and push and push with Alaska’s help.  Now though, now I know it’s all worth it, for Dusty’s here, he’s come through it okay, and that’s all anyone can ask.”  Theo kissed Dusty’s nose, the fox cub giggling delightedly.

        “I know I’m bigger than I should be,” Dusty said, “but I can’t be smaller now.”  Tilly kissed the pads of her son’s right hind paw, the fox cub laughing:

      “Aw mum!”  He said, loving her attention.  Tilly loved her cub from his nose to the end of his brush and Theo had no problem in seeing that.

 

Meanwhile, back in Kamchatka’s lie up, Jess was still shaken from her meeting with Theo junior.

      “He’s, oh I don’t know!  He’s just so gentle, too gentle for a lion!”  Jess exclaimed.

      “He’s not the only gentle lion,” Nuru said, padding into the lie up, “Androcles is also very gentle.  He’s mine and Tigress Tess’s cub.”  Jess looked Nuru over from nose to paws.

       “You were once a wild lion?”  She asked.  Nuru nodded, “how did you come to be here?”  She asked her mind racing back to a visit to a safari park a year ago.

      “I, well, I came looking for a new life,” Nuru said, sensing Jess had seen him before.

        “You’re that lion that was said to run his pride with an iron paw!”  Jess squalled, “Nuru, Afua, Ajia, and poor Nala with that white cub whom you hated!”  Nuru’s toes curled and he looked away.

       “You horrid bastard! You bastard, bastard! Bastard!”  Jess yelled, running to Nuru and slapping him!

       “Stop it jess, stop it!”  Kamchatka yelled.

      “No mum, a!”  Jess screamed, “Do you know what this pig did to those lions?  No you don’t! For if you did, you’d be doing the same as me!”

        “Jess, stop that right now!”  Someone snapped the voice very authorities and meaning business.  Jess looked over at Rowena, the lioness’s eyes hard as flint.

      “Get over here right now!”  Rowena commanded.  Jess went to her, and Rowena, angered beyond words, spanked the human with her right forepaw.  Jess felt the lioness’s slight lack of coordination in her slap and looked down at her left forepaw.  It was mangled and almost useless; even so, her right forepaw had enough clout to bring tears to jess’s eyes.

       “You do not know Nuru’s tale, so do not judge him, let alone slap him!”  Rowena growled.  Jess looked at the lioness, her eyes burning hatred.

       “That lion, he terrorised his pride Rowena, you don’t know, you don’t know anything!”

       “You say I know nothing, but I could tell your life story back to you as if it were my own,” Rowena said calmly.  Jess looked into the eyes which now looked infinitely sad.

      “You know don’t you,” jess said, “You know my entire tale!”  Rowena nodded.

       “It is my business to know,” she said, “for it is I who know everyone’s tales, including Patch and Nuru’s.”  Jess felt her face burning.  She’d under estimated the community once more.  Of course these good souls knew the misdeeds of their fellow family members.  Jess felt ashamed and small, smaller than the newborn cub which she’d seen tottering in on shaking legs.  Jess crawled to Nuru, who was rubbing his jaw and nose with his paw where jess’s slaps had made contact.

       “Nuru,” jess said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you’d renounced your old life.”  Nuru looked at her, his eyes hard.

      “What would you know of the pain I went through,” Nuru snarled, “you have no idea Jess, get out of my sight!”  Jess crawled away, not wanting to walk in case this angered the lion further.  Returning to Kamchatka, jess flopped down beside the grizzly bear.

       “Poorly handled that jess,” Kamchatka said, “you really put your paw in it my dear.”  Jess sighed:

      “I know mama,” she said, “first Rowena slapped me down, and then Nuru said his piece.”  Kamchatka nodded.

      “It is good to let those you have wronged say their piece,” she said, “for they have a right to articulate the impact your actions have on their lives.  If you anger someone, if you borrow or ask more from or of them than they really can give you when you have been reckless or feckless with their friendship time or resources, but they give you all they have and more because they care for you, you must let them say their piece.  To deny them that would deny the impact you are having on their life.”  Jess nodded.

      “I must try not to put my paws in it,” jess said, “for this community will throw me out as easily as I was accepted.”  Kamchatka nodded.

       “Nuru will probably forgive you this time,” Kamchatka said.  Jess hoped he would.

      “What about that big lion, Mister Theo?”  Jess asked, “He’s amazing! But he doesn’t seem to know the impact he has.  Even Ekaterina turned an ear to him, and she can’t see him!”  Kamchatka smiled:

      “He’s one amazing lion,”  she said, “there are stories that say he’s the embodiment of the spirit of Theo Senior, the gentlest lion who possibly ever set paw on this earth.”  Jess looked at Kamchatka.

      “Mama,” she said, “Theo kissed the sole of my right foot, he kissed my foot mama.”

      “Theo loves you jess, and kissing the sole of your foot was one way of expressing his respect and love for you.

      “I kissed his paw too, for he lifted a forepaw as he was leaving, and I kissed his pads.  I love that lion, and I’ve hardly met him!”  Jess exclaimed.

       “He’s special that’s for sure,” Kamchatka replied.

 

Theo padded in shortly after this, going up to fleur and embracing the funny furred cat, fleur weeping into his white coat.

        “You’re passing on your powers to capable paws,” Theo mewed, kissing Fleur’s nose.

      “I know,” fleur mewed, “but it’s so hard to admit I’m no longer in touch.  I want to be, but my mind won’t let me.”

      “Retire knowing you’ve done your best,” Theo mewed.  Fleur hugged the white lion.

       “Your energy is like Rowena’s,” she said, “You really love everyone Theo.”  Theo smiled and kissed Fleur’s nose.

        “Go home now fleur, rest your paws and watch Alaska, tigress Tess, Arki, and Kamchatka do the work you’ve done for years.”  Theo released fleur and padded away.  Fleur plodded back to her lie up, flopping down beside her mate, burying her head in her paws.

       “I can’t believe my reaction to Tilly in labour!”  Fleur sobbed, Samson staring at her.

       “Maybe you need a change of career,” the lion said.

       “I freaked, screaming, screaming as loudly as the poor vixen!”  Fleur sobbed, “Sammy, she was in so much pain, screaming, screeching, growling, and straining to deliver her cub.  She had no room left for this huge cub.  She was at full stretch Sammy, and this cub, this poor cub, he wanted more room to be born!  Mama was heaving, crying, kicking with all four paws, splaying her hind legs as far as she could, trying to get an extra few inches when there were none to be had.  The birth sack had broken, and I could see the cubs face Sammy; it was visible to me every time Tilly’s muscles contracted.  I’m surprised the cub survived!”

      “Dusty survived,” Samson said, “and he’s wonderful fleur.  I’ve been watching him on the screen.  He’s got the most handsome face, beautiful paws and gorgeous tail, Um sorry, brush, I’ve ever seen on a fox!  His mum must be very proud of him that’s all I can say.”  Fleur looked up at the screen, where a shot of Dusty smiling right into the camera and waving a forepaw in the air was beautifully framed.  Fleur’s eyes filled with tears.

       “He’s beautiful,” she said, “Dusty’s perfect!”  Then she felt something soft and warm lie down beside her, taking her right forepaw in its smaller forepaws.

       “Do you wish to get paws on with me?”  Dusty asked.  Fleur looked down at the fox cub.

       “Paws on?  With you?”  She asked, hardly believing her ears or eyes.

       “Um yeah!”  The cub replied, grinning hugely.  Fleur closed her eyes, tracing Dusty’s head and body with her paws, tracing from little wet nose to cute thickly furred paws.

       “You’re so cute,”   fleur mewed, “I, I can’t, couldn’t watch your mum giving birth to you little’n, it was too much.”  Dusty nodded.

      “I remember everything,” the cub said, “it was a squeeze that’s for sure.”

       “I heard mama’s strength failed her while your head was half way into the world and everything clamped tight,” fleur said.  Dusty sighed and nodded.

       “It did,” he replied, “poor mum, poor mum indeed.  She was screaming and shrieking with pain for those few seconds, pedalling the air with all four paws, like this.”  Dusty rolled onto his side and pedalled the air with his paws, curling his toes as tightly as he could, “mum showed me how she lay in her den.  She said I had to know about my birth.”  Fleur nodded, the cub’s realistic portrayal of events making her want to cover her mouth with her forepaws and scream.

       “Mum said to me she’d not swap a minute of her experience of my birth though,” the fox cub continued, “we’re both grateful to the female polar bear that helped us.  I’ve met her fleur.  She’s lovely, so lovely!”  Fleur sighed heavily.

       “I was like her once,” she thought, “but no longer, no longer am I strong enough to do what I used to.”  Fleur began to cry, weeping into her forepaws, her tears wetting Dusty’s coat.

      “Why are you crying fleur?”  Dusty asked, “For I know your name’s fleur, mum told me that.  What I don’t know is why you are crying.”

       “I can’t cope any more, I’m going mad!”  Fleur screamed, “My paws are slippery with sweat and I’m losing my grip, I’m sliding down the slope into nothingness!”  Dusty kissed Fleur’s clenched right forepaw, the big cat’s screams as loud and full of pain as his mum’s had been during her labour.

       “My face is hideous, my paws are disgusting!”  Fleur sobbed, almost choking on her tears, “even when I’m clean I look dirty!  Dirty muddy river brown fur with horrid stripes and spots on my belly and paws.  Shit, even the soles of my paws aren’t spared the spots!!  The worst thing, oh the worst thing is my horrid tail, it’s banded like a raccoons, it looks like a bit of safety rope, and is just as thick!”  Dusty listened to Fleur’s rant, feeling the big cat’s disintegration.

       “You still have soft paws fleur,” Dusty said, “I can feel one in my paws now.”  Fleur curled round, biting at her right hind paw with her teeth.  Once she had the toes of that paw in her mouth she bit down hard!  Fleur bit down, tears of pain running down her face, she could taste the blood, which spurred her on, biting, biting, and biting.

        “Stop it fleur, stop it please!”  Samson pleaded, fleur having made her right hind paw a bloody mess.

       “It’s done now,” fleur said, “I’ll probably get infection in that paw, it will be painful, but nothing worse than I’ve coped with for every sorry day of my too long life.  Maybe the infection will be too much, and I’ll die, then I’ll be taken in paw by snowy and led to eohippus’s lands.  There I will sleep forever.  I want to sleep; I’m so dam tired Sammy!”  Fleur screamed.  Samson got to his paws and ran for Rowena, the white lioness meeting him half way to her lie up.

       “Fleur’s, she’s, she’s gone mad!”  Samson said, crying.  Rowena touched his paw.

      “Go Sammy, leave her to me.  Go find Theo.”  Samson, tears streaming down his face, and nearly tripping over his own paws, stumbled to his son cub’s lie up.

       “Theo, Dear Theo, please!”  Samson begged, the huge white lion drawing his sire into a huge hug.

       “Shhh Sammy, Shhh,” Theo purred, Samson’s tears drying after a while.

      “I saw and heard everything,” Theo mewed, “fleur is in distress, all her self loathing and anxieties about her appearance and abilities have come crashing in on her.  Alaska is more powerful than fleur now, but that’s natural progression.  Alaska is young, very young to be doing what she’s doing, but she’s fine with it.  Fleur has also helped cubs when she was young.  Fleur’s touch is going, her gift weakening.  Now it is for another to carry on her work.”  Samson gulped hard.

      “Theo,” he sobbed, “Fleur loved her work, she lived for the good she could do, for she hates herself.  Is she going to die?”

        “We’re all going to die sometime,” Theo mewed, “but fleur?  Because of this? Well, who knows, I don’t.”  Samson looked at his Son cub’s face, then at his paws.

        “Theo,” Samson said, “if fleur does something stupid, I don’t know what I will do!  I love her so much Theo, so much, so very much!”  Theo kissed his sire’s nose.

        “Fleur’s life might be too painful for her to live,” Theo mewed, “if it proves so, would you rather she lived in pain?”  Samson roared with anguish and grief, the sound reverberating off the walls.

        “No Theo no!”  He cried, Fleur can’t, she just can’t do it!”  Theo held his sire tenderly.

       “Fleur needs to make her own choice Samson,” Theo mewed, “in the end; her life is hers and no one else’s.  I cannot stop her from doing what her spirit wishes, and neither can Rowena.”  Samson screamed with pain.

 

Meanwhile, back in Fleur’s lie up, Rowena and Alaska were talking.  Fleur herself, now heavily sedated after attacking Alaska, calling her a bitch, a cow, and a usurper before launching a savage physical attack on the polar bear.  Alaska had thrown fleur to the floor and then quickly sedated her.  Now Fleur was flat out on the floor with her paws tied together.  Alaska didn’t want to sedate her employer, but violence was violence regardless of the reasons, and she couldn’t have fleur attacking her.

        “What do we do now?”  Alaska asked.  Rowena looked down at fleur.

      “It’s testament to your powers that you just touched her paws and she went out like a light,” the lioness said.

      “Bet I couldn’t do that to you,” Alaska said.  Rowena grinned and gave the polar bear her paw.

      “Try it,” she invited.

       “You’ll cheat,” Alaska said, “you’ll help me succeed in sending you to sleep.”  Rowena shook her head.

      “Try it,” she said.  Alaska touched Rowena’s paw, and the lioness lay down and was soon asleep.  Alaska knew Rowena hadn’t faked it.  Alaska rubbed the pads of Rowena’s left forepaw, asking the lioness to wake up.  Rowena shook herself and opened her eyes.

       “Strange,” she said, “that was so weird!”  Alaska kissed her nose.

        “I will not use my power like that again,” Alaska said.  Rowena purred:

       “Eohippus won’t punish you for knocking me out,” she said, “for I asked you to do it.  Now let’s discuss Fleur’s future.”  Alaska and Rowena padded to Rowena’s lie up, the polar bear and lioness settling down to deep conference.

        “Fleur’s life revolved around her work, it’s what kept her together,” Rowena said.  Alaska nodded:

     “Now, now due to natural waning of power, Fleur’s losing her grip, and she can’t cope with it, poor fleur.”

       “I think her life has lost direction since she touched the paw of a certain polar bear,”  Rowena said, “Alaska, you can’t help what you are, what happened that day when you touched Fleur’s paw was not your fault, but that was the beginning of the end for her.”

       “I know,” Alaska said, “I could feel her anxiety, her loss of confidence in her abilities.  Now she’s unable to watch a vixen having her cub.  Poor Fleur, poor dear sweet fleur.”  Rowena sighed deeply.

       “Natural decline of powers is not something I can remedy,” she said, “Fleur will have to acclimatise herself to the waning of her abilities in that field.”

      “But that’s all she lived for,” Alaska said, “Fleur’s work was her life.  Helping others was the only way she kept her mind off her own self destruction.  Now, now she’s open to her corrosive thoughts.  Fleur hates herself because those who should have loved her in early life hated the sight of her.  Fleur hates her paws, her tail, and her entire body.  She believes almost no one sees anything good in her.  Samson is an exception, but I fear he isn’t powerful enough to slow or halt Fleur’s mental destruction.”

       “I wish I’d never got into midwifery now!”  Alaska whimpered.

       “No you don’t,” Rowena replied, “neither do Dusty, Tilly or Helga.”  Alaska looked into Rowena’s face.

       “If fleur dies,” she said, “many will be upset.”

      “Fleur will die someday,” Rowena mewed, “as will we all Alaska dear.  I cannot stop death.  Like lion Clarence before her, if she wants to die, she’ll die.  Unfortunate as it is, no one can mitigate mental distress if the mental distressed don’t want to be helped.  Fleur has given up almost entirely.  In her mind she has nothing to live for now.  Her touch has gone; her mind is freezing her out of her main work.  She says she’ll go in to pharmacology, but I don’t think that’ll satisfy her.  Fleur’s the victim of a natural process complicated by an unstable mental state.  She has the key to her own survival, no one else does.”

        “She seems to depend on me for quite a bit,” Alaska replied.

      “Yes, and that’s a problem,” Rowena mewed, “she’s getting herself into dependency, and that’s not good.  She didn’t even try to help Tilly by holding her paw and comforting her, which is the first rule of medicine.  Now this is not the fleur we knew.  She’d be straight in, holding paws, pulling cubs, urging the mother to push or pant as was needed.  She did nothing of the sort.  Only running for you, then quitting the scene when you were arriving.  Fleur ran away with her tail so far between her legs, she almost stepped on the tip.  Now I think it is time for us to wake fleur up and see what she has to say.  Alaska, if she doesn’t want to live, we can’t impose it on her.  Emotionally draining though her death will be, it is also wrong to impose life on those who do not wish to live.”

 

Returning to Fleur’s lie up, Rowena and Alaska found Tigger in tears beside his cub.

      “What’s happening to her?”  He asked, “She’s dying, I can feel it!”

        “She’s losing the will to live,” Alaska said, “her power has deserted her, and she sees no sense in carrying on with her life.”  Tigger leapt to his paws, screaming:

       “You killed her Alaska!  It’s you who is responsible for this!  You touched her paw, you drained her powers!  Your paws are evil!”

        “Tigger,” Rowena mewed, “do not say these things, for you know as well as fleur does that they are untrue.  It is not Alaska’s fault nature made her the way she is.  Fleur had her time, now it is Alaska’s time.  It is down to fleur to find her own path in life now.  To find something more than just her job, to find what really matters.  To force herself to do something she’s refused to do for almost her entire life Tigger.”

      “What is that, oh great one!”  Tigger scoffed.  Rowena ignored his taunt.

       “To listen to her paws Tiggie,” Rowena said, “Fleur’s refused to listen to her paws, and then when she finally did, when Alaska forced her to, she couldn’t bring herself to believe their message.  Fleur believes no one but you and Samson truly loves her.  She believes she cannot be truly loved by others due to her somewhat unusual appearance.  She’s the most insecure member of this community, though she’s hidden it for years.  Scruffy Leo scratched the surface with a comment he made once, but fleur patched the wound up.  Now though her whole body is wounded, her mind is in turmoil.”  Tigger touched Fleur’s right forepaw with his, his toes curling round his daughter cubs.

        “You are loved fleur, I love you, and Samson loves you too, as do Theo and Clarence.  Isn’t that enough?”  Tigger whispered.  Fleur shifted slightly, her ears twitching a little.

       “I feel dreadful!”  Fleur whimpered.

       “You attacked me Fleur,” Alaska said.  Fleur looked at the polar bear, clearly not remembering a thing.

      “Did I?”  She asked, “Why?”

      “It was anger over me taking over your job,” Alaska said.  Fleur looked away.

       “I remember now,” she said wearily, “I’m so exhausted I couldn’t lift a paw, let alone massage another’s paws.”  Alaska touched Fleur’s paw, the big cat staring dumbly at her.

        “You do care don’t you,” fleur mewed, “you care what happens to me don’t you Alaska?”  Alaska said nothing.

        “Follow your paws fleur, trust them,” Tigger said to his cub.  Fleur held out her paw to Alaska, the polar bear taking it in hers.

       “Your job is not the whole sum of who you are,” Alaska said, “you started from nothing at first, so there must have been something about you, Fleur, the cross bred big cat, which made others take notice of you.  I don’t know what that something is, a natural compassion for others? Probably.  You’ve not lost that fleur.  The only thing you’ve lost is your ability to deliver cubs.  You can still wash big cats; you can still patrol the pool complex, which with the influx of new cubs and adults is being used more regularly than ever now.  Conrad and Ekaterina love the complex, and so, when he finds out about it, will Patch.  You are not finished here fleur.  Yes your job has changed, but that’s all.  You’ve not lost your home, your friends or your mate.  Samson is crazy about you, as is your cub Clarence.”  Fleur looked blearily at Alaska.

       “I can’t cope with the sight and stress of a mother giving birth to her cub, but I suppose I can help wash cubs and adult community members,” she said.  Alaska kissed Fleur’s nose.

        “I have you to thank for my current job,” the polar bear said.  Fleur shook her head.

       “You don’t need to thank me,” she said, “for you would have done it whatever I said.  Olga would have sung your praises from the rooftops.  Now you’re here, all gentle paws and reassurance, along with a great ability to deliver stuck cubs.”  Alaska grinned, looking down at Dusty, who was still lying beside fleur.

       “I dared not move,” Dusty said, “for I didn’t know where I was safe.”  Thinking of the poor fox cub frightened and confused made Fleur feel even worse.

 

Dusty got to his shaking paws and padded from the room.  Fleur watched him go, wondering if he was all right.  That shakiness in his legs, and weren’t his paws shaking too?”  Dusty found his way to his mum’s lie up, collapsing beside her.  Tilly watched as her cub flopped down beside her.

      “Are you all right Dusty?”  She asked.  The fox cub looked at his forepaws, noticing his toes shaking and twitching.

       “I’m fine,” he said, “but my paws won’t keep still, I can’t keep them still either!”  Tilly looked at Dusty’s toes twitching as he lay beside her.

      “You can’t stop it?”  She asked.  Dusty shook his head.

      “If I really try hard, then I can,” he said, “but it’s so hard to stop them twitching.”

       “Let’s take you to Alaska and see what she says,” Tilly said.  Dusty wasn’t frightened, for he didn’t regard Alaska as someone to be feared.  Padding along to Allie and Sam’s lie up, Tilly and Dusty found Alaska lying on her back examining her forepaws.

       “Sorry to disturb you Alaska,” Tilly said, the bear scrambling to her paws.

      “Um, no problem,” Alaska said, trying to make it look like she was alert and ready for business.

       “It’s dusty, or rather his paws,” Tilly said, “his toes just don’t stop twitching.  His whole paw shakes too!”  Alaska watched the fox cub as he stood flat footed; his shaking paws making his legs shake a little.

      “Lie down for me will you dusty?”  Alaska asked.  Dusty lay down, and then rolled onto his back, paws in the air.  Alaska saw Dusty’s paws shaking, his toes twitching uncontrollably.

      “Can you control the shaking?”  Alaska asked.  Dusty made a supreme effort, but couldn’t really change things.

       “Could it be something to do with his birth?”  Tilly asked.

      “In all four paws like that?”  Alaska asked.  Tilly nodded.

        “Could be,” Alaska replied, “could be something got trapped.  Dusty, are you in pain?”  Dusty shook his head.

      “It’s just that I can’t stand properly,” Dusty replied, “my toes and paws keep shaking!”

        “Trapped nerve somewhere,” Alaska mused, “I could try massaging his back to see if that helps.”  Dusty lay on his chest, Alaska’s huge forepaws working down his spine, the pressure she was using making the fox cub cry out with surprise!

        Alaska, ooh! That’s, I mean, you’re so strong, you’re pushing me into the floor!”

       “If you can’t stand any more tell me and I’ll stop.”  Alaska said.  Tilly growled:

      “She hurt you in any way Dusty, I’ll kill her!”

      “It’s like being under a very friendly steamroller!”  Dusty gasped.  Suddenly the cub cried out!

       “Ouch! Oooh!”  Alaska nodded with some satisfaction, Tilly screaming at her!

       “What have you done to my cub!”  Dusty stared at his forepaws, which were no longer twitching or shaking.

      “Curl and stretch your toes Dusty,” Alaska said.  Dusty curled and stretched his toes.

        “There,” Alaska said.

       “My toes don’t twitch any more!”  Dusty yelled.

       “Trapped nerve,” Alaska said, “probably trapped when he was born.  I freed it.”  Dusty got to his paws and danced about on his toes, getting them tangled and falling in a heap.

        “Thank you Alaska, thank you!”  Dusty said, running to the polar bear and embracing her as best he could.  Alaska rolled onto her back and let the cub clamber onto her chest, hugging him in her forepaws.

       “Now go home dear little fox,” Alaska said gently.  Dusty trotted away, Tilly gazing at Alaska as if the polar bear was a metrical worker.  Alaska smiled at the arctic fox vixen and playfully chased her out of the lie up.  Alaska turned away and sat down sighing with relief that her diagnosis and treatment of Dusty’s problem was correct and had been successful.  She watched the going’s on in Fleur’s lie up.

 

Fleur got up at the sight of Dusty walking steadily into the lie up.  Staring, she waited for him to be the slightest bit unsteady on his feet, but he wasn’t.  Fleur hadn’t seen what had gone on in Alaska’s lie up, but had been concerned about Dusty.

       “What happened?”  Fleur asked, “Dusty, you’re no longer unsteady on your paws like you were an hour ago.

       Alaska pressed my back with her paws!”  Dusty replied, “She pressed my back with her paws, hard, really hard Fleur!”  The fox cub replied.  Fleur guessed “pressed my back,” meant massage of some sort.

       “Did she?”  The big cat asked, “That’s great!”  Fleur wanted to get paws on with the cub to find out if Alaska had done more damage than she’d fixed, but couldn’t do that without undermining her colleague.

        “I’m glad you’re cured,” fleur mewed, wondering if the cure would last.

 

Meanwhile, younger Brunetta and Swarupa were conversing in low tones in the brown bear’s lie up.  Swarupa, being bored most of the time, wanted to have some fun with some of the younger community members.  They’d already picked a victim, Ekaterina, the blind cub being easier to confuse and seemingly more gullible than the others.  Swarupa had suggested playing a trick on Patch, but younger Brunetta had reminded the tigress that while Patch loved playing with his hind paws like a cub, he was streetwise, having had to defend a human from other humans in his previous home.  He’d spot a trick a mile off.  Ekaterina though, due to her disability and trust in most community members, might be easily picked upon.  The plan was put in motion very soon.

 

Younger Brunetta’s plan was to throw Ekaterina down the open waterslide when she wan was in the pool complex.  To that end, she waited for Ekaterina to pad up to the top of the tower one day when the cubs were all playing in supervised playtime in the pool complex.  Younger Brunetta watched Ekaterina and patch padding up the slope towards the slides time and time again, unable to get between them to throw Ekaterina down the slide.  It seemed patch knew something, for he was always with Ekaterina, blocking the brown bear’s line of access.

        “It’s not working!”  Younger Brunetta thought angrily.  She had a back up plan for Swarupa to trip Ekaterina and make her fall in the water if the first plan failed.  All through the activity day, the brown bear waited her chance, while Ekaterina and patch, along with Jinghua, dusty and Pipin, helped by jess, Kamchatka and Conrad, had a great time on the slides and in the pools.  Of course, the brown bear and her feline co conspirator could not be seen to do nothing, so they played together in the complex, but made the mistake of not mingling with the others, which seemed strange to the watchers in the control room.  Swarupa was usually so sociable, but not today.  The day came to an end, and younger Brunetta, frustrated by her lack of an opportunity to do Ekaterina mischief, tried to duck the polar bear cub while she was swimming.  In the deepest part of the pool as they were, younger Brunetta drove Ekaterina to the bottom of the pool and held her down for as long as she could, the frightened cub screaming and expending all her air.  Fighting the larger brown bear with desperate strength, Ekaterina could not fight her off!  Younger Brunetta, thinking this part of the game, and having heard of the polar bear’s legionary breath holding abilities, thought Ekaterina was playing along.  Patch however had seen the goings on beneath the water and swum down to investigate.  Full of air as his lungs were, he saw Ekaterina fighting for her life, and, knowing he had little time, drove full speed at young Brunetta, knocking her off Ekaterina, the larger brown bear floating away.  Ekaterina began to float to the surface, her paws dangling limply.  Brunetta, now found out, swum to the surface, where she met an angry polar bear!

        “I was going down to save her!”  Younger Brunetta protested as Conrad dragged her from the water and walloped her!  Meanwhile, patch had dragged Ekaterina onto the side of the pool, Ekaterina coughing and vomiting water as Patch held her upside down trying to remove water in her lungs.

       “What the hell happened?”  Kamchatka asked.  Patch looked very unhappy.

       “I knew she was planning something!”  He growled, “The bitch, the horrid bitch!”

       “Who?”  Kamchatka asked.  Her answer came when Conrad dragged a now very sorry looking brown bear to Kamchatka’s feet.

       “This, this piece of, of shit, plotted to drown our cub!”  Conrad yelled, kicking younger Brunetta.

       “Do you have proof of anything?”  The brown bear asked.

       “I’m sure we’ll get it,” Kamchatka said, “for there are cameras here, or have you forgotten those?”  Indeed, Brunetta had been punished for taping up the cameras in her lie up on many occasions in the past.  Now her lie up was patrolled by her sire and brother, who took no nonsense from her.

       “I don’t care what evidence the cameras have,” patch snarled, “I’m punishing her myself!”  Ekaterina, now semi conscious, was helped to a secure lie up to recover, while Patch, angry and upset, took his and Ekaterina’s revenge.  Ducking younger Brunetta, Patch held her down under the water until she was almost choking, then brought her up to the surface, let her take a breath, then straight down again, driving her to the bottom of the pool, ten feet down!  Patch held her there with his considerable weight, his fore and hind paws holding her down until Brunetta had screamed her lungs dry.  Then Patch let her float to the surface, just as she’d let Ekaterina float to the surface.  Younger Brunetta lay in the water, her paws dangling downwards.  Patch hauled her out, the bear semi conscious.

        “You bastard!”  Younger Brunetta moaned.

      “I had a point at which I would stop,” patch said to the brown bear, whacking her with a paw, “did you have an end point at which you’d stop your game?  I don’t think you had one!”   Younger Brunetta moaned with misery.  Patch, more furious than ever now, lashed out with a paw, striking younger Brunetta square on her nose, the brown bear screaming in pain.

       “That’s enough patch,” Kamchatka said firmly, “she’s had enough now.”  Patch glared at his mama.

       “I don’t agree,” he snarled, “that bitch, she meant to drown Ekaterina!  I will not let her get away with it!”  Younger Brunetta had raised her head slightly, opening her mouth and panting, her tongue lolling as she fought for air.  Patch brought his paw smashing down on her nose!  Younger Brunetta’s head hit the tiles, her mouth slamming shut, her teeth nearly biting through her tongue!

       “Patch!”  Kamchatka screamed, as Younger Brunetta’s blood ran all over the place.

      “That’s it, done,” patch sniffed, turning away from the mess and padding out of the complex on heavy paws.  Finding his younger sister, Patch flopped down beside Ekaterina, the blind cub shaking and confused.

        “Ekaterina?”  Patch asked.  Ekaterina panted for air, and then vomited more water.  Sobbing, she reached for patch with her forepaws, clinging to him.

      “What’s going on?”  Patch sobbed.

       “Ekaterina’s unable to speak at the moment, give her time,” Alaska said.  Patch looked into Ekaterina’s face, the cub’s eyes tightly closed.

      “Is she okay?”  Patch asked.  Alaska took patch to one side, then told him what she’d found.

        “She stopped breathing for a few minutes,” Alaska said, “I don’t know if she’s suffered any permanent damage.”  Patch tried not to scream.

      “If, if that brown bear has damaged my sister, I’ll kill her!”  He said faintly, “it’s not just the end of her tongue she’ll lose!”  Alaska nodded; knowing patch would have every justification for taking full and right revenge if Ekaterina was permanently damaged.  Horrendous screaming made Patch and Alaska run back into the lie up, the scene they witnessed there frightening both.  Ekaterina was stumbling round the lie up, seemingly bouncing off the walls as she hit them with her paws and nose, screaming and yelling.  Suddenly she headed for Patch, bowling him over and clinging to him with desperate paws, burying her face in his fur.

      “This is abnormal!”  Alaska yelled, running from the room.  Ekaterina clung to Patch, whimpering and sobbing, patch realising what had just taken place.

     “Ekaterina, can you hear me sister cub?”  Patch asked.  He could see the cub’s eyes were open.  Ekaterina made a gentle sound, cuddling up to patch once more.

      “Can you talk?”  Patch asked.  Ekaterina looked confused, and then began to cry with frustration.

       “She’s damaged you Ekaterina,” patch thought, “Younger Brunetta’s maimed my little sister!”

       “Let me look at her,” fleur said suddenly, breaking patch’s train of thought.  Fleur turned Ekaterina to her, the cub’s expression one of total confusion and frustration.

        “Can you talk to me?”  Fleur asked.  Ekaterina could only make sound, no words, though the look in her eyes told fleur she wanted to communicate, but she could not speak.

        “We have a severely disabled cub here,” fleur thought.  Patch looked at Fleur.

       “Younger Brunetta has maimed my sister hasn’t she?”  Patch asked.  Fleur nodded.  Ekaterina made a gentle sound, snuggling up to patch, burying her face in his shoulder.

        “We’ll work things out,” patch whispered to his sister, “I communicated with a human for years, so we’ll work it out for you too.”  Ekaterina cuddled patch with desperate paws.  Kamchatka padded in, very distressed.

      “What has that bitch done to my cub?”  Kamchatka asked.  Patch looked at her.

       “Ekaterina can’t speak,” patch replied, “she can only make sound, no words.”  Kamchatka buried her face in her paws and wailed with anguish.

        “I’ll help as best I can,” Patch replied, “I used to speak to Jess before she learned community language, “I’ll talk to Ekaterina in the same way.”

      “But you used to touch jess’s paws,” Kamchatka wailed, “how can she communicate with her paws?”

       “One tap for yes, two for no?”  Fleur suggested.  Kamchatka almost thumped her.

     “Don’t be so stupid!”  The grizzly bear snarled.

       “I was serious,” fleur mewed.  Ekaterina held patch’s forepaws in both of hers.

      “Tell me Ekaterina,” Patch said, “are you feeling all right now?”  Ekaterina squeezed patch’s right forepaw once.  Kamchatka looked at her cub.

       “So I now have a mute cub,” Kamchatka said.  Ekaterina padded over to Kamchatka and hugged her, Kamchatka embracing her cub with tender paws.

       “Will you ever learn to speak again?”  Kamchatka asked.  Ekaterina blew through her open mouth, trying to express her confused state.  Kamchatka kissed her cub on her nose, Ekaterina returning her mum’s kiss.  Ekaterina then made a gentle sound in the back of her throat while snuggling up to her mama.

 

Meanwhile, younger Brunetta spat blood from her nearly severed tongue.  Cursing patch, she spat blood into a paper towel she held over her mouth with her paws.

      “I hate that bear!”  She screamed.  Swarupa, horrified by the turn of events, had distanced herself from younger Brunetta.  Ekaterina’s increasing disability upset Swarupa so much she thought of confessing her part in the plot until younger Brunetta told her that if she breathed a word, she’d beat her within an inch of her life.  Swarupa watched in tears as the full extent of the damage to Ekaterina became clear.  The cub was unable to speak, could only make sounds, no intelligible speech.  Swarupa, crying bitterly, confessed her part in the whole sorry episode to Rowena, the lioness knowing all.

       “Your plot was a disgusting one as you sort to take advantage of a cub’s disability,”  Rowena replied, “for that you will be punished, but younger Brunetta will be the more punished because she deliberately held a helpless cub beneath the water.  It is the bear’s fault that Ekaterina is more disabled than she was when she got up this morning,” Rowena mewed, “yes your plan to trip her and throw her in the water was horrible, but younger Brunetta’s plan was worse.  Patch was restrained in what he did to younger Brunetta.”

       “You mean, mean it would not have been wrong to do more to her?”  Swarupa asked.

       “Younger Brunetta deserves to die for what she did to Ekaterina,” Rowena said, “She knew what she was doing.  She knew holding anyone under water would endanger them.  Now younger Brunetta has caused Ekaterina reparable damage, the brown bear will have to suffer more than just the loss of the tip of her tongue.”  Swarupa looked down at her paws.

      “Ekaterina won’t get better will she,” the tigress said miserably.

       “I fear she won’t,” Rowena mewed, “she might regain some power of speech, but it will take time, and might not happen.  Patch is courageous; he will stand by his sister through everything, just as he stood by jess.  Kamchatka though, I don’t know if she’ll cope so well.  Conrad will make the best of a bad situation, for he loves his cub regardless of her physical state.  I’m just glad the attack did not harm Ekaterina herself, her personality and temperament seems unaffected.  Though being blind and unable to communicate by speaking might become an issue which will test everyone who knows Ekaterina.”

       “You mean, mean that her parents might abandon her?”  Swarupa asked.

       “Stresses might become so great that Ekaterina might become the first cub to be officially abandoned here yes.  Kamchatka may disown her cub for want of strength to see what’s inside the damaged shell.  Ekaterina’s blindness is only a continuation of how she was when she was born.  A mute cub is not how she was born.  Ekaterina was articulate, and well spoken.  Now she can be neither of these.”  Swarupa, crying now, slunk out of Rowena’s lie up, choking on her tears.

 

Kamchatka took Ekaterina back to her lie up, settling the cub down on the rugs.  It seemed to Kamchatka that Ekaterina’s accident hadn’t robbed her of her mobility skills, nor had she lost her apatite for milk and chocolate biscuits which Kamchatka had found in the kitchen.

       “Wash your paws Ekaterina,” Kamchatka said, knowing this would put her cub in a terrible mood, for Ekaterina, the old Ekaterina that was, hated being told to wash her paws.  Sure enough, Kamchatka got her paw slapped then Ekaterina ran off to wash her paws.  Kamchatka watched her go, wondering if Ekaterina would fit in with her family.

 

Patch watched Ekaterina padding from the room.  He tried not to cry, not to show his emotions while she was about, but he so much wanted to burst into tears, beat his paws on the floor and scream.  In desperation, Patch went to the soft playroom where he and Ekaterina had played for many hours and padded about, trying to find something to punch or kick in his frustration.  Patch found a punch bag suspended from a rafter.  The bag was so enormous it nearly brushed the floor.  Patch imagined the bag was younger Brunetta and beat the life out of the bag with all four paws, punching with clenched forepaws and kicking with his hind, Patch took his revenge out on the bag, and when it came back at him and he misjudged the swing, and the bag hit him, Patch, with a scream of rage, would pummel the bag even harder.  Driving it back and back until it was bouncing off the roof.  Then he’d head but the bag, using all four paws and his head to inflict damage on the object of his rage.  The community watched him, Brunetta and Nanuq senior in particular, knowing their youngest cub was in mortal danger.

        “Patch loves his sister with everything he’s got,” Brunetta remarked to her mate, “I think I should let younger Brunetta take her chances with patch.  She should not be protected from him.”

       “You propose sending our cub to her death?”  Nanuq Senior asked.  Brunetta nodded:

        “Our cub all but drowned Ekaterina, and might have affected her family to the point where they can’t cope with her increased disability.  I think Patch has every right to do with younger Brunetta’s life what he will.  For she took it upon herself to drown Ekaterina in the pool.  I’ve seen the footage from the underwater cameras Nanuq, it’s horrible!  Ekaterina fighting Brunetta, the cub, the cub losing paws down!  Our cub held Kamchatka’s cub beneath the water Nanuq!  Held her down until patch went in all flailing paws and big muscle.  It was he who saved Ekaterina.”  Nanuq sighed heavily.

       “I do believe patch has a right to speak his mind to Brunetta cub, but not to set paw on her.”  He said.

 

Patch spent many an hour beating the life out of the punch bag in the playroom.  His anger made him irritable and quick tempered, changing a once fun loving bear into a morose shadow of his former self.  Within a week he’d withdrawn into himself, only happy when playing with Ekaterina, only at peace when he was sleeping, but even that became sporadic and unfulfilling.  Four weeks after younger Brunetta’s attack on Ekaterina, Patch was eating his peanut butter on toast when Jinghua playfully snatched a bit of toast from his plate and ran off with it.  This was something patch would let go from time to time, but today his control snapped!  Throwing the plate at the panda cub, Patch screamed horrible things at Jinghua, the plate breaking over the cub’s head.  Jinghua ran away, Patch pounding after her, screaming and threatening violence and worse.

       “Steal my food would you you horrid fleabag!”  Patch yelled, “I’ll crush you under my paws!”  Patch caught up with the younger panda and began to slap her about with his forepaws.

      “Patch, patch, please!”  Jinghua begged, “it’s only a bit of toast, I’ll make you some more, please, stop, stop!  Stop before you draw blood!  Patch!”  Jinghua screamed as patch’s claws scored down her nose!  It was at the sight of blood that Patch’s anger died.  Sobbing, he embraced Jinghua, the cub’s blood staining his fur.

       “I’m sorry, Jinghua, I’m sorry!”  He sobbed.  Jinghua looked into the pained eyes of the larger bear.

       “All this anger, it’s to do with what happened to Ekaterina isn’t it?”  She asked.  Patch dabbed at Jinghua’s blood covered face with a towel.

       “I can’t control my anger,” patch sniffed, “I’m sorry, it was only a bit of toast, nothing, nothing at all, and I did this!  Forgive me Jinghua, please!”  Patch sobbed.  Jinghua looked into the bear’s eyes.

       “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,”  she said, “but, patch, let me help you and Ekaterina, if I’m given the chance, I’ll do what I can.”  Patch took Jinghua to Alaska, confessing what he’d done to her.

       “Your stress levels are so high you lost it Patch,” Alaska said, holding the bear’s forepaws in hers.  Patch nodded.

       “I know,” he replied, “I flipped Alaska, I lost it over Jinghua stealing a bit of toast from my plate.  I know it was stupid to flip out like I did.”  Alaska kissed patch’s nose.

        “You need time out,” Alaska said, “Patch, don’t go back to Ekaterina, I’ll look after her for a bit.”  Patch left Alaska’s lie up, going to Rowena’s lie up to talk to the lioness.

        “I flipped out Rowena,”  Patch confessed.  Rowena held patch’s paws in hers.

      “I know what happened,”  Rowena replied, “patch, I know you will stand by your sister as long as you will live.  You love Ekaterina so very much.”

      “I bathed her yeserday,”  patch said, “Ekaterina let me hold her in my paws for a long time after we were both dry, she didn’t want me to let go of her.  she cried when I eventually left her to find something to eat.”

      “That was when you flipped out at Jinghua wasn’t it,”  Rowena mewed.  patch nodded.

       “I’m sorry, and Jinghua knows that,”  Patch replied, “I just want Ekaterina to be how she was before, happy, lively, playful.  Now she’s hesitant, retiring and scared.  I want my sister happy again Rowena!”

      “The only time she seems at peace is when she’s with you,”  Rowena mewed, “you both forget what’s taken place when you’re together, playing with each other’s paws or bathing each other.”

       “thank Eohippus younger Brunetta’s attack didn’’t rob Ekaterina of the use of her paws,”  patch said, “for that would have ended her life for sure.  At least she can still communicate a little with me.  She can still hear me, that’s not been affected, but she can’t talk.  Though strangely enough, I can understand her well.  We have a language of our own, much like Jess and I had.  This by the way is fading now she’s speaking community language.  Though I’m not losing my touch, if anything it’s getting more sensitive, alive to any change in Ekaterina’s mood.  Do you know when |I feel really safe?  When I am curled up with Ekaterina, her paws buried in my fur, her head on my shoulder, my paws wrapped tightly around her.  Then we can relax, Ekaterina knowing she’s safe, and me keeping her safe.  I did the same thing for Jess when she was young, I’m used to it.  Ekaterina can sleep, drift into her own world where she’s able to do whatever she wants.  I often lie awake, just enjoying Ekaterina being relaxed in my paws, knowing she’s carefree for the time she’s asleep.  Rowena, Ekaterina knows who maimed her, she knows, for she all but told me.  Ekaterina knows it was no accident, that she was deliberately drowned.  I want to tear younger Brunetta’s paws off!  I want her to die! To suffer! To be drowned like Ekaterina!  I nearly did it you know?  I nearly killed the bitch!  I came so dam close!”  Rowena touched patch’s paw with hers.

        “Maiming younger Brunetta would not give you any satisfaction,” Rowena said, “in the short term yes, it would feel like you’d redressed the balance, but in the long term, Ekaterina’s condition would make you want to kill again.  No patch, leave younger Brunetta alone, leave her to see what she did every day.  To see what she caused you and your family.”  Patch hugged Rowena tightly.

       “It’s so hard to see Ekaterina frustrated,” patch said.  Patch felt a paw touch him.  Looking round, he saw Ekaterina beside him.

      “Hug her patch, for she wants that,” Rowena said gently.  Patch hugged his sister, Ekaterina snuggling up to him.

       “Do you want me to hug you tightly?”  Patch asked Ekaterina, the cub pressing her body to patch’s, Patch hugging her with firm pressure, Ekaterina sighing with contentment.

       “You won’t be harmed again, I promise you,” patch whispered to his sister, Ekaterina burying her head in his fur.

      “I thought I told you to leave her in my care!”  Alaska snapped, running into the lie up, Ekaterina running away from Patch as if the soles of her paws were on fire.

        “She came to me Alaska,” patch said, “I made no attempt to find Ekaterina.”  Alaska snorted and ran after the fleeing cub, which, in her panic, had got disorientated and ended up running into Alaska, tripping her up, both bears landing in a heap.

     “You stupid little, Oh dear god!”  Alaska complained, picking herself up off the floor, leaving Ekaterina winded and confused on the floor.

      “You clumsy cub!”  Alaska yelled, Ekaterina crawling away, her forepaws groping for Patch’s.  Patch grabbed Ekaterina bodily and whisked her out of the lie up.

       “Let’s go dear sister,” he said to her, walking on his hind legs while cradling Ekaterina in his forepaws.  Reaching Theo’s lie up, patch laid Ekaterina down on the rug, the huge white lion watching them enter.

        “You two seem to have had the worst of things,” Theo mewed.

       “That’s the understatement of the year!”  Patch snarled.

       “Hey cousin bear, leave me alone will you,” Theo protested, “I was only making comment.  Now do you want my help or not.  Alaska’s proper pissed off that Ekaterina went to find you Patch.  She was forbidden from trying to find you, and she disobeyed Alaska’s instructions.

       “I’m glad she still can,” Patch said with heartfelt sincerity.

       “Me too,” Ekaterina said, Patch and Theo staring at her.

        “You spoke, you spoke!”  Patch screeched.

      “It was that fall, it kind of, well, jolted something.  I don’t know.”  Ekaterina replied.   Patch hugged his sister, Ekaterina cuddling up hard to him.

        “I’m so glad you can talk!”  Patch exclaimed.  Ekaterina giggled and kissed his nose.

      “So am I patch,” she said, “I suppose the unconscious time after what happened in the pool scrambled my brain a bit, then the fall over Alaska’s paws so outraged me that I forced my brain to unscramble.  Now I’m back talking again.  I was able to think of words, but they wouldn’t form in my mouth, I couldn’t move my mouth to make the right sounds, but now, now I can!”

       “Now we won’t be able to shut you up,” Theo laughed.  Ekaterina threw her paws around the lion’s neck, hugging him tightly.

       “You shut it!”  She said playfully, Theo kissing her nose.

       “I suppose, suppose you can’t see me?”  Patch asked hopefully.  Ekaterina shook her head.

     “That’s not changed,”  she said, “I heard the Boss saying the damage was to my optic nerves, whatever those are, they got crushed during my birth.  I had tests you see, the Boss got vets in to check me out while I was sick after my run in with younger Brunetta.  Well that’s what mum tells me.  I can’t remember any of that.”

      “What do you remember of the time after the attack to now?”  Patch asked.  Ekaterina looked confused.

      “I can’t remember much, it’s leaving me, I remember you bathing me, I don’t know how long ago.  I don’t remember much.”

      “Let it go,” Theo mewed, sensing Ekaterina was getting distressed.

        “Yes, something tells me I should,” Ekaterina replied.

      “What the hell’s going on?”  Rowena demanded, sprinting into the lie up, misjudging the angles of her entrance and cannoning off the doorframe.

     “Ow!”  The lioness screamed, collapsing in front of Theo, the lion kissing Rowena’s mangled left forepaw.

       “Dear sister Rowena,” Theo mewed, “how good of you to drop in like this.”

       “I want to know what the hell’s going on!”  Rowena panted, “Ekaterina’s talking, and I heard her, so don’t tell me she’s still mute!”

       “Yeah, no doing of Eohippus this,” Theo mewed, “it’s an act of force, rather than an act of horse.”  Rowena slapped Theo for being disrespectful.

       “You know nothing brother, so shut up,” Rowena snapped.

       “It was Ekaterina falling over Alaska which rewired everything,” Theo mewed, “it’s pretty cool!”  Rowena looked into Ekaterina’s face, her eyes asking the same question Patch’s had.

       “No Rowena, I can’t,” Ekaterina said, “that wiring can’t be reconnected just like that.”  Rowena sighed deeply with disappointment.

     “I was hoping, well,” the lioness said.  Ekaterina kissed her nose.

      “Eohippus might be a powerful force, but even the mare can’t rebuild what is broken.  That’s down to nature.  She might be able to influence dreams, guide paws etc, but she can’t rewire physical damage.”  Rowena sighed:

      “Well it’s good to have you back the way you were before younger Brunetta got her paws on you,” the lioness said.

       “You sound disappointed Rowena,”  Ekaterina said, “I’m not, if nature meant me to be blind then blind I shall be, but younger Brunetta’s damage was not natural.  I’m grateful for all I’ve got here.”  Rowena realised she was being chastised by the polar bear cub.

       “I’m glad you’re back to full health,”  Rowena said, “though I confess I wished for more than that though, I wanted Eohippus to give you sight too.”

      “Maybe I’m not meant to have sight as you have it,” Ekaterina replied.  Rowena looked at the polar bear cub.

       “You’re right,” Rowena mewed, “I’m asking too much.”

       “What you could wish for is younger Brunetta to see the error of her ways,” Patch said, “then we’d all be better off Rowena.”  The lioness shook her head.

      “There’s no chance of that,” she replied, “I can’t see her emerging from her darkness any time soon.  I’ve tried to talk to her, but she hates the community with a vengeance I can’t explain.  I think she should be expelled, but it’s not for me to make those decisions.

       “Maybe she will be expelled, or killed,”  patch replied, “for I have a feeling someone’s going to get very angry with her very soon indeed.”

       “You can’t take the law into your paws Patch,” Rowena protested, “I won’t allow it!”

       “Who said it would be me who got angry with her enough to kill her?”  Patch replied, “Though I have plenty of cause.  No, someone else, I don’t know who, but someone else will get so enraged at her that she dies.”

       Kamchatka,” Theo mewed, “it’s got to be her.  She would dearly love to smash younger Brunetta’s bones.”

      “I can’t say if it’s going to be her or some other bear that takes younger Brunetta’s life,” Patch replied, “but someone will give her more come back for what she did to Ekaterina.”

 

Four weeks later, Kamchatka lay in her lie up, sleeping peacefully when she was woken by a paw touching her shoulder.  Sleepily, she brushed the paw away.

      “Go away, I’m sleeping,” she mumbled.  Kamchatka’s nostrils were filled with a scent, a scent she remembered, the scent of a cub, a long lost, maybe dead cub, not Boris, no, not Boris.  Kamchatka’s dreams fled on, back, back, to a den in a wood, and screaming agony, her younger self too young to have a cub, much too young.  Screaming in pain, she’d given birth to a cub while not realising what she was doing.  Kamchatka remembered just obeying her body’s will, screaming when she wanted to scream, panting when she wanted to pant, until the pain ended.  Then, then there was a tiny bear, all covered in fluids all strange to her eyes and paws.  It cried out to her for warmth and protection, and she’d protected the little cub, which she named Kuruk.  Now she smelt his scent again, and the memories were flooding back, of Kuruk’s birth, of her surprise at his birth, of her fear of losing him to predators, of her inexperience as a mother.  She remembered running off when he was a year old, completely unable to cope with motherhood, breaking free to have another cub when she wanted, not when some over sexed male bear told her she was going to have a cub.  It was shortly after that she’d fallen pregnant with Boris.  Now though, Kuruk’s scent tormented Kamchatka.

      “Kuruk, my cub, you’re dead, you must be dead!  Dear Kuruk, my first born, my real first born cub.”  Kamchatka mumbled.  Raising a paw to disperse the scent which was making her cry, Kamchatka felt a furry nose brushing hers, then a kiss to her nose, a familiar kiss.

     “Kuruk, dear cub, is this dream real?  Are my current life and past life playing tricks on me?”  Kamchatka asked.  The scent grew stronger, and Kamchatka felt gentle paws embracing her.

      “Mama?”  The bear said softly, Kamchatka opening her eyes, her bleary tear filled eyes meeting those of a younger bear, those of a bear she’d not seen in seven years.

       “Kuruk come back mama,” Kuruk said, “Kuruk find mama after years of searching.  Now Kuruk here, here to find out if mama okay.  Kuruk find his mama now have family of her own with her own cubs and others cubs too.  Very happy for mama, but wonder why she cry last night.  Kuruk no want mama cry, so look and find blind cub, like polar bear this cub.  She poor cub not for being blind, but for what happen to her because of others.  Now, now big bear Kuruk work out who do little blind cub harm, and soon know who do her harm, and that she and mama and grown up brother cub too be very unhappy.  Kuruk fix bad brown bear that drown poor Ekaterina cub.  Ekaterina do no harm, and big bitch young brown bear Brunetta make Ekaterina go into big shock so she no speak.  Mama, Kuruk go into wood and make young Brunetta surely dead, she no move no more, as dead as salmon when out of water.  Now Kuruk know Ekaterina, she come from shock, she speak now, where she once quiet cub.  Now she good as new and young bitch Brunetta no more here to make Ekaterina lose tongue again.  That Patch, he no want fight young bitch Brunetta.  Kuruk know he better off using paws to cuddle little sister, so Kuruk, he get mighty furious and beat bitch Brunetta up in wood, flatten her like flatfish then dig hole for bury her.  Now work done here, Kuruk go, but want tell mama Kamchatka what he do for little cub.”

      “No Kuruk, don’t, don’t go, please don’t go!”  Kamchatka begged.  Kuruk sat down, his mama wiping her eyes with her paws.

        “How do I know what you say is truth?”  She asked.  Kuruk nodded.

       “You want me dig up young Brunetta and show you body?”  He asked.  Kamchatka picked up one of Kuruk’s paws and examined it, his pads were dirty, his claws scuffed and worn, and he also looked exhausted.

       “How did you kill young Brunetta without anyone seeing?”  She asked.  Kuruk shook his head.

     “Plenty see,” he said, “big tiger, he sees, as do big lion with long mane.  He sees everything, he asks Kuruk what business has here, and when lion get full story, he give directions to here.  He says mama Kamchatka really worried about Ekaterina.  Kuruk know such thing, for talk to Ekaterina and patch in darkness, Kuruk know mama’s cubs very well.  We talk, patch very angry bear, kick bag in place in house so he say, but no good, plenty angry still.  Ekaterina, she no speaks, but make sound, so Kuruk know she be healthy inside, just no speak from shock of big drowning by bitch bear.  Kuruk say to Patch that brother Kuruk go kill Brunetta bitch bear for him and little Ekaterina cub.  Patch want do thing himself, all big flexing paws and such, but Kuruk tell him no, for Patch need be with Ekaterina, as she need him like she need mama Kamchatka.  Kuruk promise Patch and little Ekaterina cub that he go and rip up bitch Brunetta bear.  So Kuruk wait, then he find Brunetta bitch bear walking in wood one day and pounce on her, slam flat into floor, and rip up like mad, then dig big hole to put body in.  Kuruk know bitch bear have mama, and cry big time for her loss.  Kuruk know mama Brunetta, he go to her and tell her what he do to daughter cub, beg forgiveness from mama Brunetta.  Kuruk no want kill daughter cub of mama Brunetta, for Kuruk gentle bear really, but get plenty bloody mad when see bitch Brunetta try murder Ekaterina cub.  Kuruk see televisions, they tell plenty bad shit mama.  Plenty shit like Bitch Brunetta drowning poor Ekaterina cub.  Kuruk bloody angry and vow help little cub and big grey brother bear.  Now work done, Kuruk happy now Ekaterina speak to brother patch again, you tell them Kuruk dam happy for them.  You no tell what Kuruk do though, for want no ceremony for doing thing.  Kuruk do this for mama Kamchatka and his brother and sister.  Kuruk think his duty to protect family from big bitch bear.  Now she gone and mama troubled no more.”  Kamchatka looked at Kuruk.

       “You can’t go back to where you came from,” she said, “its wrong for me to let you go.  Unless you want to go of course,” she said.  Kuruk looked into his mother’s face.

       “Mama,” he said, “Here is not place for Kuruk, Kuruk wild bear, no rugs or things.  Though they plenty nice to paws.”  Patch and Ekaterina sat listening to the large male grizzly bear a little way off.  It was clear he’d not seen them, or if he had, had disregarded them.  Ekaterina, decoding the bear’s strange talk, realised he’d done her and patch a great service, and they didn’t even know him.  They’d spoken to the big grizzly, but Ekaterina hadn’t touched him.  She wanted to touch Kuruk, to thank him for putting his own life in danger for a cub he’d never really known.

      “I must go to him patch, I must!”  Ekaterina whispered, patch hesitant to let her go.

       “Let Ekaterina go if she wants to go,” Conrad said, “for it is surely right she should meet the bear who did so much for her.”  Patch let Ekaterina go to Kuruk, watching her getting closer and closer to the grizzly.  He was not as massive as his mother, but was still of formidable stature.  Kuruk waited for Ekaterina to come up to him, and then gathered her in his paws, embracing her tenderly.

       “Thank you Kuruk,” Ekaterina said softly, the huge grizzly kissing her nose and letting her kiss his in return.

        “Ekaterina cub better now?”  The huge grizzly asked.  Ekaterina lifted a paw and traced Kuruk’s face with her toes.

       “I am now, thanks to everyone who gave me a helping paw,” Ekaterina replied.  Kuruk smiled broadly as Ekaterina’s paw touched his lips, the cub feeling the grizzly’s teeth beneath her pads.

       “I think Kuruk’s smiling,” Ekaterina said.  Exploring more, Ekaterina felt the male grizzly opening his mouth, her pads encountering sharp teeth, then his wet lolling tongue.

       Kuruk’s sticking his tongue out at me!”  Ekaterina exclaimed.  Kuruk touched his lips gently to the sole pad of Ekaterina’s left forepaw and blew hard, the cub giggling at his antics.

       “You silly thing!”  She yelled.  Kuruk rolled Ekaterina over onto her back and tickled her hind paws, Ekaterina screaming with laughter.

        “You never really grew up did you Kuruk,” Kamchatka said, her eyes shining.  Kuruk released Ekaterina, who snuggled hard up to him.

       “go now little sister,”  Kuruk said, “for Kuruk need food and sleep.”  Ekaterina left Kuruk’s side, padding over to patch, who was examining Kuruk with intrest.

       “he’s a handsome bear isn’t he,”  Patch said to Ekaterina, who laughed at him and took his paw.

       “Dear Patch,”  she said, “I can’t say either way about his looks, but I can tell he’s got a good spirit, Kuruk’s lovely.  To think he did all that for a bear who he hardly knew.  Putting his own life in danger for me.”  Patch looked at Kuruk, the large bear now eating the salmon his mother brought him.

        “he quieted my mind and made me keep a rational head,”  Patch said, “he spoke well.”

      “His language makes me smile,”  ekaterina said, “he sounds so funny!”

       “his grasp of the community language isn’t there, and the closest he has is rather broken and somewhat excentric english,”  Patch replied, “Kamchatka understands english, though she replies in Ursine, as she does not speak english, and her cub knows no community language.”  Kuruk curled up to sleep soon after he’d finished his salmon and tea.  Patch, seeing the huge male grizzly sleeping peacefully, wondered if he’d ever become friends with Kuruk.  Patch began to play with the toes of his left hind foot, something he did when agitated.  Feeling eyes on him, Patch looked up from watching the toes of his right forepaw playing with the toes of his left hind, to see Kuruk watching him.

       “What?”  Patch asked.

       “You play with toes of hind paw like cub,” Kuruk said, “but you no cub patch.  Kuruk know mama Kamchatka do same thing, so there no problem with it.  Kuruk know Patch feel anxiety about him.  No know if be friends with big bad Kuruk?”  Patch hesitated, getting upset.

       “I was thinking, something, something along those lines,” he babbled, “I didn’t mean to cause offence, those were private thoughts, how did you know?”

       “Your eyes on Kuruk whole time,” the male grizzly replied, “you think Kuruk sleep like cub, but how can Kuruk sleep after what he done this day.  Kuruk no like killing, even though he do it for little Ekaterina cub.  Kuruk feel sad and have gone see mama of bear he kills.  She cries big time, but knows why Kuruk have done what he did.  Now Kuruk want sleep, but no can sleep because of memories of fighting brown bear.  She just lies down and takes it, let Kuruk kill her.  Kuruk think she know she about to die.  Kuruk not proud of killing, but know that only way.”  Patch went to Kuruk and hugged the grizzly bear, breathing in his scent and wondering about his life.

       “I played with my toes to soothe my mind,” Patch said, “Kuruk; you did so much for Ekaterina and me.  What can I do to thank you?”  Kuruk smiled:

       “Kuruk thanked when Ekaterina hugged and spoke to him,” he said.  Patch Kissed Kuruk’s nose like he would Ekaterina’s, not thinking it was possibly the wrong thing to do.  Kuruk smiled broadly.

       “Brother bears Patch,” he said, “you part of family with Kuruk now.”  Patch wanted desperately for Kuruk to be part of his family, the bear looked lonely, despite his protestations he was okay.

       “You’re welcome here,” patch said, “but how did you find mama Kamchatka?”

      “I got on train like mama, I came to England, and I got directions from the birds.  I spoke to many creatures, lionesses, tigers, pandas.  They all spoke highly of Kamchatka,” Patch nodded, and Kuruk continued, “Kuruk learn she be midwife and then mama bear to lost bears and other cubs.  Kuruk learn so much while hiding in wood, and even stand at back of big room one day during family meeting.  Kuruk kept head down, and mama never saw or smelt a thing, for Kuruk get washed.  Kuruk been all over community house, but no one see him until he want them see him.  Kuruk invisible bear.  Now he want everyone see him that he come home, back to mama and family.  Kuruk miss mama big time, for he know she really too young to have cub when she have him.  He remembers birth, big screaming, mama no know what happening to her, she just scream and pant until pain over.  Kuruk come into world all wet and helpless, so he knows how mama feels.  Mama Kamchatka, she helpless too when faced with little cub, but she feed him, and only run off once year gone past and Kuruk big enough stand on own four paws.  Kuruk know from other bears how Kamchatka having cub made her feel.  Kuruk feel sorry for mama, for he know what happened, and that she have no choice.  Big bastard male bear come and make his way with her, then she feel pain one day, scream and pant, push too, and little cub come into world.  Mama no kill little cub though, she look after him.  Now little cub become big bear, and he want look after mama, though he not know what happening to his mama.  Mama no know how to give birth to cub, Kuruk remember mama say she just lie down on side and pedal air with paws while scream most of time, no push until the end.  Then she have to do big push, big huge push again and again, toes all curled and teeth clenched.  Kuruk seen Ekaterina’s birth video, and it make him cry.  Kuruk remember own birth, and he glad mama now safe in paws of big Conrad bear.  Conrad pull stuck cub into world, and mama and cub fine after this.  Kuruk also see spiritual birth of Patch cub too.  He sees Kamchatka mama gives birth to Patch’s spirit so he be like proper family to mama bear.  Kuruk know all this, he watch, he learn, he now happy be here in house, but as said before, will leave if community or mama no want him here.”

       “I want you here Kuruk, “I want you to live here until your last day on this earth!”  Kamchatka said, going over to her son cub and embracing him in her huge paws.  Kuruk snuggled up to his mum, Patch gulping hard as he saw how he must look when being hugged by mama Kamchatka.        

       “Welcome home,” Kamchatka said to Kuruk, the male grizzly finally relaxing properly.

 

Meanwhile, Brunetta and Nanuq senior sat in their lie up shocked after the death of their youngest cub.

      “Kuruk told us why he killed younger Brunetta,” Brunetta said, “he didn’t want to kill her, but she was intent on killing Ekaterina, and that’s disgusting!”

       “I know,” Nanuq replied, “it just seems impossible to me that anyone could do such a thing as our cub did!  Ekaterina had done her no harm, hadn’t even met her, and younger Brunetta does something like that.  It’s horrible, in fact that’s not the word for it!”

       “You’re so gentle Nanuq that you don’t want to see the spite and violence in our cub.  Younger Brunetta hated Ekaterina for one reason only.  She called what she was doing a joke, but that was no joke.  Ekaterina wasn’t breathing when she was dragged from the water by her brother.  Now she’s okay, but it was only by luck she pulled through.  Brunetta our cub wouldn’t have stopped her games, for she didn’t want to stop them.  She wanted Ekaterina dead, and Kuruk couldn’t have that happen.  He loves his family Nanuq, just like our son cub loves Ekaterina.  It doesn’t matter to Kuruk that Ekaterina and Patch, and even Helga aren’t all full brother and sisters to him.  As long as his mama gave birth to them, or loves them, he defends them with all he has.  Kuruk’s a lovely bear.  When, when he’d killed Brunetta cub, he came to me and prostrated himself at my feet, begging forgiveness.  I knew what had taken place, and told him what he’d done was acceptable because he was defending his family.  My cub had transgressed the laws of the wild and of this community; she’d forfeited her right to live when she attacked Ekaterina.  I told Kuruk he was blameless as he’d just enforced the laws.  Even so, he wept when he told me what he’d done.

      “Kuruk’s a gentle bear really,” Nanuq said, “just like his mama.”  Brunetta nodded:

      “I know,” she said, sniffing, “he took my paws in his, begging me for mercy or forgiveness.  His paws were warm and he was sincere in his apology.  I could not refuse his plea.”  Nanuq watched Kuruk and Patch embracing in Kamchatka’s lie up.  The two bears hugged with evident commitment to each other, Nanuq wondering if he and his son cub looked much the same when they hugged.  He reasoned they must do, for Younger Brunetta had hated them for it.  Nanuq covered his eyes with a large forepaw.

       “Why attack Ekaterina in the way she did?”  Nanuq asked, “Why attack her at all? But what I mean is, why try to drown her?  Was it; was it Younger Brunetta saw something between patch and Ekaterina which she felt she could not have?”

       “Commitment, unconditional love?”  Brunetta asked.  Nanuq gulped hard, fighting back tears.

       “I, I,” he took a deep breath, “I tried to love that cub, but, but she rejected my touch, she wouldn’t let me touch her Brunetta, not even to hug her with no direct paw contact.  Now she is gone, and I feel regret she made little of her life, but I feel nothing much more than that.  She was my cub for Eohippus sake!  I should feel more, and I thought I would feel more before this, but I don’t.  I feel awful for feeling nothing more than regret over a life wasted, as if, as if she was a promising student or something.”

       “Nanuq,” Brunetta said, “younger Brunetta wasn’t your cub, and she wasn’t even mine.  She didn’t want to know any of us.  Deep down, she wanted to feel love without returning it, when her brother showed her how deeply he could love her; she shied away in the end.  Nanuq Junior loves his cubs, adopted and natural and they love him.  I suppose I wasn’t much of a mother to her, for how could I be when my own mother hated us so.  She treated us like she was a professional carer and we were her charges, not her cubs.  You however, had a good cubhood, learning to love others.  Nanuq Junior is entirely your cub, from nose to toes he’s yours, and I can see that clearly.  I suppose we see our own upbringings reflected in our cubs to some degree, I see mine reflected in younger Brunetta and how she was.  Love poured from your paws from the first time you met our cubs Nanuq, and Nanuq Junior responded with everything he had, giving everything he had back to you, and me.  That time, that time when I taught him to play with his paws, I saw that cub flourish, he knew then how he was to communicate throughout life.  He will bring joy to many adults and cubs for many many years.”  Nanuq sniffed hard, tears rolling down his face.

        “I tried to help,” he sobbed, “I tried so dam hard!”  Brunetta hugged her mate.

       “Some fear a touch like yours,” Brunetta said, “they refuse to believe what they feel.  Those who are worth loving will respond to you Nanuq.  Just because you created a cub doesn’t mean that cub will love you, no matter how much you love that cub.  I’ve watched you and your son cub playing together, and its beautiful play, even now, when he’s four years old nearly, fully grown, you two still play naturally as if time had stood still.  You love each other’s company, and there’s something else too.  When Nanuq Junior meets you, or you meet him in the passages or private rooms, you both either touch paws, if in public, or hug if in private.  You both need that mutual contact and that’s very special.”  Nanuq wiped his eyes with a trembling paw.

       “We both need that,” he said, “I love Nanuq junior so much!””  Nanuq felt a shift in the air, and then felt a large familiar paw take his tear soaked left forepaw.  The toes of the paw holding his were strong, very strong, but gentle all the same.  The pads were warm and soft, if a little rough.  They weren’t the paws of the day old cub Nanuq had first met, but there were still strong connections with that cub in the touch of the paw pads on his.

      “”I treasure those times Nanuq my sire,” Nanuq Junior said gently, kissing his sire’s nose.  Nanuq closed his eyes, focusing his attention on the contact between his and his son’s paws.

        “I am sorry my blood sister died,” Nanuq Junior said, “but she was not really my sister cub.  I hardly knew younger Brunetta, and when she attacked little Ekaterina, I didn’t want to know her.  If Kuruk hadn’t killed her, I would have done it myself.  I’m sorry to say this to you, mama Brunetta and sire Nanuq, her and my sire and mother, but she was not my sister.  How could I call her sister cub when she wanted to be no one’s sister, no one’s daughter cub?  I tried to reach her, I tried to show her I loved her, could still love her despite her attacking those I held dear.  She wouldn’t even open the door formally, wouldn’t even shake my paw.  Instead she tried to destroy what I hold dear.  I know you’re supposed to love your family, but how can it be possible when they are seeking to destroy you with everything they have in their power?  I do not weep for younger Brunetta because I cannot, for there is nothing to weep over, apart from the damage she tried to do, and nearly succeeded in doing.  That will make me cry for a long time yet.  By good fortune, Ekaterina is now her old self.  I love her with everything I have.  You know the mock cubbing I said I’d experienced when I walked in while jess and Kamchatka were discussing Jess re-enacting the birth of the mama bear’s cub from the television?  Well that mock cubbing, the urge to perform such an alien act for a male bear, came on suddenly and strongly.  I play act some of the time anyway, but this was no act, I wanted to have that cub!  I’ve spoken to Rowena about it, how intense it was, how my body and paws ached afterwards, how I was bathed in sweat from nose to tail.  She said it was similar to Kamchatka’s experience, wanting Ekaterina to be part of my spiritual family as well as my physical one.  The need was so powerful and urgent I actually delivered her spirit in my mind from an outside spirit, to one which I hold dear to me as if she was my own born cub.”

        “Do you think Conrad will feel the same need towards Helga?”  Brunetta asked.  Nanuq Junior nodded.

       “He did,” the polar bear said, “Conrad came to me crying and told me all about his dream.  He didn’t understand it, and that’s when I took him to Rowena, where I explained my experience to her.  She explained to us both in detail the reasons why events had gone the way they had.”  Nanuq Senior looked at his son cub.

       “Can I hug you?”  He asked.  Nanuq Junior padded round and sat down in front of his sire, Nanuq Senior embracing him in his huge warm paws.  Brunetta looked at the two male polar bears.  Their love for each other was instantly visible to her, and she found it reassuring.  Nanuq Junior actually enfolded his sire in his paws, hugging him tightly.

 

Meanwhile, Patch and Kuruk were examining each other from noses to tails.  Patch found Kuruk’s paws gentle and comforting as he ran them considerately from his nose to the pads of all four paws. 

       “Patch has white soles to paws!”  Kuruk exclaimed, “That be unusual, but very special, for most bears have black soled paws, pads all black.  Patch has white pads though.  Now Kuruk, he know he have black pads, and that be ok too, for he be boring bear compared to brother patch.”  Patch giggled cubbishly, forgetting he was conversing with his older brother.

      “You’re so funny,” he said.  Kuruk stroked Patch’s left forepaw.

       “Kuruk think patch be more cub than adult bear inside all his big fur and paws, Kuruk right?”  Patch nodded:

       “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m just a big cub, I wasn’t taught how to be a bear for at least eight years, and the cubbishness in me still surfaces.”

       “Eight years?”  Kuruk replied, “shit brother Patch, Kuruk sorry you no learn how to be adult by eight years old.  Mind,”  he said, now gently stroking the sole pad of Patch’s right hind paw, feeling the bear’s pads bunching as he curled his toes with pleasure, “being with humans all life is no life for bear, so Kuruk not so worried for patch be nice bear even though with humans all time until recent time.”  Patch smiled broadly.

      “I like you Kuruk,” he said.  Kuruk smiled hugely.

       “Kuruk want call patch brother cub, can he call him like brother cub?”  Patch pressed the toes of his right hind paw into Kuruk’s.

      “I want you to,” Patch replied, gulping back tears, “I want you to Kuruk, so, Ekaterina wants you to call her sister cub too.”

      Kuruk call patch and Ekaterina his brother and sister, for they cubs of mama, and Kuruk love them just as if he born with them, like mama push to deliver three cubs, she push, push and push then me born with Patch and Ekaterina.  That how Kuruk feel about Ekaterina and Patch.”  Patch shook his hind paw free of Kuruk’s, then began to examine the bear with his paws.  He found a two tone furred bear with black pads and a set of four gentle paws.  His eyes were gentle, his paws even gentler.

      “You’ve got gentle paws Kuruk,” patch said, “can I stroke your pads?”

      “Why you ask Kuruk such thing,” Kuruk said, “he wants Patch brother to stroke paws, Kuruk looking forward to it for long time.”  Patch giggled at the larger bear’s words.

      “Thank you,” he said.  Kuruk thrust a forepaw into Patch’s.

       “Stop talking and get on with touching Kuruk’s paws!”  The bear said with mock ferocity, Patch giggling and stroking Kuruk’s paw.  Patch lifted Kuruk’s paw in his and examined it.  Then, very gently, he turned it over and kissed Kuruk’s pads and toes, the large grizzly bear smiling broadly.

       “Kuruk like having paws kissed,” Kuruk said.  Patch smiled and tickled the sole pad of Kuruk’s left hind paw, the big bear curling his toes tight around Patch’s.  Ekaterina sat beside Kamchatka, Kamchatka giving the cub a vivid account of the goings on between patch and Kuruk.

      “Kuruk’s a big softy,” Ekaterina said, “I felt it!  I know he is.”  Kamchatka nodded.

      “I know he is,” she said, “I regret leaving him when he was a year old.  But I was young then, too young to have a cub really.  When labour started, I didn’t know what was happening to me.  I thought it was something I’d eaten, bad pains which got worse.  Then I felt like pushing, like you might when needing to relieve yourself, but this was uncontrollable, I just lay there and strained hard, again and again.  Then, on the third push, I felt whatever it was come free, and there was no more pain, no more urges to bear down.  I looked at what I had produced and recognised it as a cub.  I cared for Kuruk until he was a year old, then I left him.”

      “Why was his birth trouble free, and mine such a struggle?”  Ekaterina asked.

      “I was a wild bear then,” Kamchatka replied, “in the wild, mother bears have smaller cubs.  Here we don’t.  The cubs are larger, so the births are more strenuous.  Though my next cub, when and if I have a next cub, won’t be so difficult to deliver, as my body’s used to it now.”  Ekaterina was fascinated:

      “So your body and mine too, will get used to giving birth to big cubs?”  She asked.

      “The first labour you experience will be hard painful work,” Kamchatka said, “but do it more often, things will get easier.”

       “I can’t imagine giving birth to any cub is easy mum,” Ekaterina said, “I’ve listened to birth videos, I’ve even asked Arki to re-enact a cubbing, and she did too.  It was hard work for her mum; she puffed, panted, gasped, curled her toes and beat the rugs with her paws.  It was amazing!  Conrad’s also tried to show me what happens during a cubbing, but he’s not so good at it, even though he tries.  He’ll admit that too, so I’m not speaking out of turn here.  Arki let me get paws on with her, feeling everything from how she lay during the first contractions, to how she sat while playing with her hind paws when things got worse, then how she braced herself in a crawling posture while she strained to deliver her cub.  I felt her face, body and paws while she endured a contraction, her eyes were tightly shut mum and  her lips were drawn back from her teeth, which were clenched.  She was grunting with effort, panting and whimpering, then roaring with pain, such sound!  Opening her mouth she shrieked and screamed, her forepaws gripping the toes and sole pads of her hind paws, usually one hind paw in both forepaws, but once she even squeezed the toes of both hind paws.  She’d spend the brief time between contractions, as she called them, bouncing about a bit on her backside as she tried to get comfortable.  Then, then, at the end of it, well nearly, Arki got into a crawling position,” here Ekaterina demonstrated, Kamchatka smiling at her cub’s need to describe everything as best she could, “Arki would curl the toes of all four paws, gripping the rugs with her fore and curling her hind so tight during a contraction her claws nearly dug into her sole pads!  Arki pushed long and hard, trying to give birth to her cub.  She was groaning with pain and effort mum, huge groaning pushes.  Arki panted in-between contractions, while I stroked her hind paws in an attempt to soothe her.  Arki’s paw pads were rough to my touch, all bunched up when she curled her toes, as well as hot and damp mum.  I thought she was going to have a real cub!  When, with a weary effort she finally pushed the cub’s hind paws into the world, Arki collapsed in a heap.  She then told me I’d spurred her on to continue the cubbing that my paws were telling her I wanted to feel more of things, so she kept going until she was exhausted.  I told her I’d only been getting paws on with her as she’d invited me to, and that it was she who had the right to wrap things up.  Arki embraced me in her hot damp forepaws and confessed she’d actually enjoyed being pushed to her limit.”  Kamchatka laid the toes of her left forepaw on the sole pad of Ekaterina’s right hind.

       “You’re just intensely curious,” Kamchatka said, “Arki felt that and it drove her to work harder, to make the mock cubbing as realistic as possible and let you feel the whole thing.”

       “I felt her toes curling, her forepaws holding desperately onto her hind, and once Arki even rolled onto her back and held the toes of her hind paws with her forepaws while bearing down.  That was just before she got into the crawling posture and began to really push.  Mum,” Ekaterina said, “I’m sorry I caused you so much pain and trouble during my birth.”  Kamchatka hugged her cub.

       “You need not apologise, for it’s not your fault,” Kamchatka said, kissing Ekaterina’s nose, “now I don’t want you blaming yourself for getting stuck.  It was no one’s fault.  It happens sometimes.  Like when dusty got stuck during his birth, it was just a trick of nature, but Tilly had Dusty just like I had you Ekaterina, with someone pulling on your forepaws while I pushed.  That’s how we got you out.”

      “Sounds painful,” Ekaterina said.

       “Yes it was,” Kamchatka replied, “like something was blocking your entry into the world and I needed to push it out, but it wouldn’t come.  So much pushing, so much pain, so much effort.  I even grabbed my hind paws with my fore and bore down against you during the last of my contractions.  It felt the right thing to do.  Here, touch my paws now.”  Ekaterina did, and Kamchatka rolled onto her back, bringing her hind paws up to her forepaws and holding on tightly to her hind paws with both forepaws.

      “This was how I pushed against your hind paws Ekaterina,” Kamchatka said as her cub felt her hind and forepaws.

      “Oh,” Ekaterina said, “is, I mean, was that a comfortable position for you?”  Kamchatka laughed:

      “Try it yourself,” she said, “roll onto your back and hold your hind paws with your fore.  See what you think.”  Ekaterina did as Kamchatka advised, trying to imagine giving birth to a cub.

       “It feels secure,” Ekaterina said, “as if I can push hard against my forepaws with my hind.”  She tried pushing a little.  Then she rolled into a sitting posture and took hold of her right hind paw in both her forepaws, pushing down hard into her forepaws, her right hind paw pads pressed hard into her locked forepaws.

      “Arki said that when she took her hind paws in her fore, she braced them against her forepaws with everything she had,”  Ekaterina panted, pushing down hard, “it works too!  Must, must stop pushing, for its addictive!  Oh just one more, one more push,” Ekaterina said, pressing her right hind paw hard into locked forepaws, “that feels great!”  She enthused.

        “Did Arki by any chance help you to re-enact what she’d shown you?”  Kamchatka asked suspiciously.  Ekaterina looked scared.

      “Yes,” she admitted shame faced, “I asked it of her.  It helped me mum!  I wanted, wanted,” Ekaterina began to cry, “wanted to push, to scream, to get all my anger out!  It felt good to make loads of noise and curl my toes while rolling about on the floor and kicking the air.  Then the bits when I had to concentrate on pushing hard down, feeling the pads of my paws in contact with the rugs on the floor and with my own paws, feeling my toes curling, my mouth opening, my lungs screaming out in anger and fury at the pain and confusion caused me by another bear!  I hoped, hoped in a crazy way that I could give birth to a cub, one that couldn’t hurt anyone.”

        “I don’t want you doing anything like that again!”  Kamchatka snapped.

      “Mum, please,” Ekaterina said, “I had to, don’t you understand?  I had to!  I can’t go and punch a bag like Patch can.  Now, now I know what younger Brunetta wanted to do to me, I felt and still feel awful!  I can’t see to punch the bag and I can’t see to do her damage!  So how am I going to release my anger, on others like she did?  No!  My violence was not directed at anyone else other than younger Brunetta, but now she’s gone, I felt I must do the next best thing, take my anger out on myself, and fight to have a cub, a cub that would, in my mind, do no wrong to anyone.  I needed it mum, I needed to be shown how to express my anger.  Some take up boxing as a pass time, but I can’t see to do that.  So I have to do the next best thing.  It felt so bloody good!”

      “Watch your language!”  Kamchatka snapped.

       “She speaks truth,” Rowena said padding into the room, “Kamchatka, Ekaterina needed to relieve her stress, her anger at what had been done to her.  She isn’t stupid mama, she knows, she felt the hatred of one of her own kind.  It shows restraint on her part, great and enormous restraint that all she wants to do to relieve her stress is imagine the birth of a cub and put everything she has into that imaginary situation.  We are all fascinated by how we are born, and re-enacting cubbings hurts no one.  Ekaterina pushed Arki to her limit, and Arki pushed Ekaterina to hers.  I saw everything!  Arki showed Ekaterina how to act out a cubbing, what positions a bear might adopt, and then asked Ekaterina if she might want to try it out.  Ekaterina breathless with excitement after witnessing the older polar bear’s act said she’d give it a go.  Well she did.  I saw your cub nervously playing with the toes of one hind paw while thinking hard, then she became emotional, crying.  I knew what was going through her head, so I told her to use the knowledge she’d just gained to deliver herself from the stress and anger.  I told her to play with her toes, squeeze her pads, pant, scream, and roll about, brace her hind paws against her fore, give wild and imaginative birth to the cub she wanted to be.  I knew where her anger lay, and at whom it was directed.  I also knew Ekaterina wasn’t a violent cub, though she wanted to punch someone.  The bag was out of the question, so I suggested she try stretching her mind, putting her pent up anger into the most intense situation she could think of.  Ekaterina imagined herself giving birth to a cub like Arki had.  I told her it was fine, go ahead, everyone would understand.  Ekaterina, panting hard, rolled onto her back and wailed with pain before sitting up again to grip the sole and toes of her right hind paw in forepaws, Groaning and panting as her urge to vent her pain and anger overtook her.”

      “I just let it come mum, let it build in me, then I fought for that cub!”  Ekaterina said, “You can see it on the video, it was captured, I know it was.”

      How long ago was this?”  Kamchatka asked.

     “About a day after I tripped over Alaska’s paws and it all clicked back into place,”  Ekaterina replied,  “then, then I got the chance to scream, roll, and push, and groan, grab my paws and squeeze them while  yelling my head off!  I needed to push so badly mum!”  Ekaterina exclaimed.

       “I understand now,” Kamchatka said, almost crying.

       “Ekaterina wants to be the cub she imagined giving birth to.  She wants to be gentle and kind to others, but she had to get the anger out of her first.  Now she’s cleansed of all that,” Rowena said.

       “So you won’t be re-enacting cubbings any more?”  Kamchatka asked.  Ekaterina grinned:

       “It’s addictive,” she said, “I believe you know about that mum?”  Kamchatka looked shocked, but then smiled.

       “So you know,” she said.

       “I do, about everything,” Ekaterina replied, “I know you enjoy the challenge too.”  Kamchatka hugged Ekaterina tightly.

 

Meanwhile, Kuruk and Patch watched Ekaterina and Kamchatka, their own play forgotten when Kamchatka shouted at her cub.

       “Ekaterina need be angry at Brunetta; it’s only natural,” Kuruk said, “now she gets rid of anger, she fine.  Though she now addicted to playing with paws like she mama bear having cub.  That be realistic act, but she no want do it too much or she get worn out.  Now Kuruk want hug Ekaterina once more, damp paws n’all.”  Ekaterina padded to Kuruk and hugged him, the great big bear cuddling her hard.

       “You are so gentle Kuruk,” Ekaterina said softly, “I love you my brother.”  Kuruk gulped hard.

      “Kuruk love you plenty too Ekaterina,” he choked.

      “We’re all glad you found us,” patch said.  Kuruk got to his paws and padded to the bathroom, where he showered himself down, then washed meticulously from nose to tail.  Emerging, Kuruk looked even larger than he actually was.  Patch stared at a changed bear.  Kuruk looked at patch, and then danced on his toes, Patch laughing at his antics.  Running to Kuruk, Patch knocked Kuruk off his paws and rolled the startled bear onto his side embracing him tightly.

       “Sorry,” Patch said, releasing Kuruk, “I just had to do that.”  Kuruk smiled and nodded, getting to his paws.

       “Brother Patch impulsive with emotions,” the big grizzly said.  Patch took Kuruk’s large left forepaw in his, the bear resting his head on patch’s shoulder.

       “Kuruk’s balance no good when left forepaw lifted off ground,” he explained, though patch was having none of it.

      “You just want to be soppy,” he said.

      “That too,” Kuruk replied.  The two bears curled up on the floor of the passage, where a passage patrol found them five minutes later.

      “Are these two dead?”  Tinka asked.  Hop Along, on patrol with his mate, looked at the two supine bears.

       “It’s Patch and that new bear, um, Kuruk I think his name is.  What a place to sleep though!”

       “Kuruk and patch sorry for sleeping,” Kuruk said quickly, shaking patch who scrambled to his feet looking shocked and very guilty.

      “Sorry about that,” he said.  Tinka snorted and was about to deliver a lecture on blocking the passageways when a yell of pain sent Patch and Kuruk running into a lie up not far off.  What they found there was Bianca lying on her side, clearly in labour, Ekaterina and Arki attending to her.  Bianca growled and screamed her way through another contraction, clawing the air with all four paws.

       “Next contraction, get in and paws on with me if you want,” Bianca panted to Ekaterina, who settled down beside the labouring tigress, placing her paws gently on Bianca’s swollen belly.  Bianca panted, and then groaned loudly.

       “Oooh!  This one’s big, very big!  Ouch! Ow, ow ouch!”  She yelled.  Ekaterina gasped with surprise as she felt the muscles contracting under her paws.  She could feel the movement of the cubs as Bianca’s body forced them into the world.  Bianca, gasping, shifted a forepaw backwards and touched the toes of Ekaterina’s right hind foot, for the polar bear cub was sitting sideways onto her.

      “Squeeze my toes if you want,” Ekaterina said, feeling Bianca’s strong toes gripping hers.

      “Are you all right little one?”  Bianca asked.  Ekaterina laughed merrily:

      “I should be asking you that,” she replied, “but yes, I’m fine thanks.”  Bianca gently stroked the toes and sole pad of Ekaterina’s right hind paw with the toes of her left fore.

       “Tell me,” Bianca panted, “would you like to touch a cub while it’s being born?”  Ekaterina looked surprised and excited:

      “Could I?”  She asked.  Bianca grimaced as another contraction built inside her.

      “Yes, yes, touch all you want, it’s, it’s okay, ooh, ow! Ow! Ow!”  Bianca curled the toes of all four paws again, crushing the toes of Ekaterina’s right hind paw in her left fore.

      “Squeeze away Bianca!”  Ekaterina gasped trying not to cry with pain, for the grip of the tigress’s paw was like a vice squeezing her toes.

      “Bianca’s going through worse than you, so don’t cry, don’t cry!”  Ekaterina told herself.  Bianca strained for the first time, heaving convulsively.

        “Cub’s on its way,” she whimpered, “go to my hind quarters Ekaterina, and touch the sole of my right hind paw when you get there.”  Ekaterina tugged at her right hind foot:

       “I can’t move because you’re holding onto my paw,” she said.  Bianca released her hold on Ekaterina’s right hind foot and the cub crawled to the tigress’s hind quarters, touching the sole of her right hind paw as Bianca had requested.

      “Now touch my tail,” Bianca gasped, “I think you’ll soon find something amazing happening near my tail, if, if I can only keep pushing against the cubs!”  Ekaterina hesitated:

      “This is intimate,” she said, “are you sure you want me to touch your cub as it enters the world Bianca?”  Bianca panted hard and beat the rugs with her forepaws as she fought to suppress her urge to push.

       “Yes, I’m sure, “get paws on, if you don’t, I’m going to get bloody angry!  You’re missing a wonderful experience, and I can’t resist the urge to push forever.  You’ll be okay.  I, I trust you, just, just get paws on Ekaterina!”  Ekaterina touched Bianca’s tail, feeling it tense and arch away from her hind legs as things got tenser.

      “ouch! Ow, ouch, ow ow ow!”  Bianca complained, breathing hard.  Ekaterina gently touched Bianca, feeling the tigress’s sweat soaked body beneath her paws.  Drenched fur and soaked hind paw pads, the toes curled tightly with pain and effort.  Then Bianca took a deep breath and bore down hard, her whole body contracting.  Back arched, paws reaching into nothing, Bianca closed her eyes, set her teeth and strained hard.

        “Must ppuuuush!”  She screamed, Ekaterina hearing the tigress’s toes crack as she curled them harder than ever.  Then Ekaterina, feeling with her forepaws, felt something which blocked everything else from her mind.  A tiny set of slippery forepaws touched her own.  Then, with Bianca wriggling and straining, the forepaws came closer, Ekaterina gently holding one in her left forepaw.  Bianca squealed, bouncing about a bit, then growled and roared with pain and effort.  The paws stopped coming, then, with an explosion of fluid which soaked Ekaterina, the cub’s head emerged, Ekaterina ignoring the mess covering her fur.  Shaking herself, she touched the cub’s forepaws, then its head, and then the cub’s emerging back.  Then, with a huge effort from Bianca which drenched Ekaterina in more fluid, the cub’s hind legs and paws were delivered into the light of day.

        “Do you know what to do now little one?”  Bianca panted.

       “If she’s got any sense she’ll pass the job over to someone who knows what the hell they’re on about!”  Kamchatka snapped, bursting in angrily.

        “No, no mama, it’s okay,” Bianca gasped, “I invited her, and Ekaterina’s doing okay.”

      “Hurry up and have your other cubs,” Kamchatka said, “They won’t wait while you tutor Ekaterina in a job she’s not old enough to even understand yet!”  Bianca snarled at the grizzly bear:

       “I know when my cubs want to be born!  Yes there are two more cubs, but my body will tell me when.”  Bianca looked back towards her tail to find Ekaterina examining the newborn tiger cub with her paws and licking it from nose to tail.

       “I remember Conrad doing this for me,” Ekaterina said.  Kamchatka stared at her cub; Ekaterina was in a hell of a state!

       “Now you’ve witnessed the birth of one cub, come and get cleaned up!”  Kamchatka demanded.

      “No, no!”  Bianca gasped, “I want her here mama!  Another contraction’s building, and I want her to catch my cub!”  Ekaterina ignored her mum, for Bianca was wriggling and panting, her fur all hot and drenched with fresh sweat as she growled snarled and yelled with pain.  Ekaterina touched Bianca’s left hind paw, the tigress’s pads hot and rough under her slight touch.  Bianca braced her paws, and then strained hard, crying as the cub she was trying to deliver was a big one.

      “This is more difficult!”  Bianca panted, and then she took a deep breath and screamed with effort, trying to push the cub into the world, “I can’t do it!”  She roared.  Ekaterina felt the cub’s forepaws entering the world, then its head jam tight.  Gently exploring, she felt the cub’s nose and tightly closed eyes, just as Bianca’s strength failed her and the cub slipped back inside.

       “Let Arki or me take over!”  Kamchatka begged.  Bianca opened her eyes from the rest she’d been taking.

       “No!”  She growled, “I want Ekaterina to do this!  Tell her and she will do fine.  She’s, she’s got small paws, the cub’s stuck, she might, might be able to work her paws behind the cub’s head and help ease it out!”  You can’t pull cubs straight out.  Conrad did this for Ekaterina, I know it, I saw it, and he told me!”  Kamchatka remembered feeling Conrad’s small paws, for he had small paws for a male polar bear, gently easing Ekaterina’s passage into the world as she strained with everything she had.

        “When I push little one, try, try to get one paw behind the cub’s head and pull him down towards my hind paws.  That should, should free him.”

       “How do you know your cub’s male?”  Kamchatka asked.

       “It’s got to be, it’s bloody enormous!”  Ekaterina said.

       “Hey!”  Kamchatka snapped.  But neither Bianca nor Ekaterina were listening, for Bianca was pushing, pushing with everything she had against the cub.  Ekaterina felt the cub’s head jam tight, but before it did, she’d got the toes of one paw behind its tiny ears.

      “Roll the cub out towards you,” Arki said gently.  Ekaterina, feeling Bianca straining with everything she had, pulled the cub’s head down, Bianca shrieking and screaming as, with a rush of fluid, the cub’s head was forced to free itself.

       “Ow, ooooowwwwww!  Ooooooooowwwwwww!  Youch!  Ow, ow, ow! Ouch! Yawowowowowouch!”  Bianca yelled, kicking and straining.  Ekaterina felt the tigress’s paws raining blows upon her hind paws and one time she was even kicked in the stomach.  Winded, she held onto the cub, whose body was slipping faster into the world, Bianca screeching with shock and discomfort.

       “Nearly there, nearly there Bianca!”  Ekaterina said gently.  Bianca screamed and screamed as her cub’s hind paws made her strain hard to accommodate their large presence.  Ekaterina gently wiggled each paw free; first the cub’s left hind, then its right, Bianca panting, pawing at the air with all four paws, whimpering and yowling.

      “You kicked my cub!”  Kamchatka screamed, “Bianca, you will die for this!”

        “I have my claws sheathed, so shut it you bitch,” Bianca screamed.

       “I’ve never had a tiger talk to me like that before!”  Kamchatka snapped, her ursine pride dented.

       “Mum,” Ekaterina said, “if you hadn’t noticed, Bianca’s in labour.  Didn’t you kick out during my birth?  I think you did, indeed, you kicked Conrad.  He told me.  I’m fine.  My belly’s bruised, but that’s all.  The main thing is this cub’s safe.  If I had to push like Bianca did, I’d be kicking the walls down.”  Kamchatka subsided into a sitting posture, knowing Bianca was in control.  If she wanted Ekaterina to deliver her remaining cubs, Kamchatka could not set paw on Ekaterina or Bianca’s cubs.”

      “Any more cubs?”  Ekaterina asked.

      “It’s over to you Ekaterina,” Kamchatka said wearily.

      “I was talking to Bianca, but thanks mum,” Ekaterina replied.  Kamchatka stared down at her paws.

        “Exactly how much did you teach my cub?”  She snapped at Arki, who was busily cleaning her forepaws and fur, seemingly unconcerned with the labouring tigress.

       “As much as I could,” Arki replied, “whatever Ekaterina wanted to know, I told her, or showed her.”

       “How did you teach her the bit about how to free stuck cubs?”  Kamchatka asked.  Arki grinned:

      “I told her what to do, and then I pretended I was the cub, and she practised on me.”  Kamchatka gulped hard, her imagination filling in the gaps.

       “You showed her everything didn’t you,” the grizzly bear said.  Arki nodded.

      “I thought she deserved to know everything about her own birth, about how Conrad helped her,” the polar bear replied.

 

Patch and Kuruk stood staring at the scene, Kuruk shocked, Patch in tears.

      “This is just so amazing!”  He sobbed.  Kuruk touched his shoulder with a paw.

       “Kuruk think Ekaterina be brave cub to do what she do here.  She no scared.”  Bianca set to nursing her two cubs, uncertain if there was to be a third cub born.

      “If I feel another cub coming, “I’ll come find you,” Bianca replied, “I should be able to get to my paws and stagger to your lie up.  I might end up having the cub there, but it doesn’t matter.”  Ekaterina got to her paws, her fur stiff with fluid and blood.

       “I need to get washed,” she said, wrapping her paws in two towels Arki threw her.  Padding from the room with towels around her forepaws, Ekaterina made her way to the shower where she dumped the towels in a bin and showered herself down thoroughly.  Even then she wasn’t sure if she’d ever get the muck completely out of her fur.  Two more sessions with the soap and viragos rubbing of face, body, legs and paws later, Ekaterina stepped from the shower and went into the drying room.  Standing in the blast of warm air, Ekaterina thought over the past three hours.

       “Thank you Bianca,” she whispered, “thank you for believing in me.  I knew I could help, that I was gentle enough with my paws to help but not cause you or the cubs harm.”  Ekaterina padded from the drying room and went along to her lie up.  Reaching it, she found Kamchatka sitting down with her head in her paws.

        “I don’t know what to say!”  Ekaterina said.  Kamchatka looked up at her cub.

       “How long have you had that arranged with Bianca?”  She asked.

        “About two weeks,” Ekaterina replied, “mum, please, it happened like this.  I was walking out of the session with Arki where she’d told me and showed me all about cubbing.  On the way out, Bianca met us, and she said that after what she’d seen she’d like me to experience the birth of a real cub.  I didn’t think she was serious at first, but a few days later, Bianca approached me again while I was in the shower.  She came to me and asked me if I’d like to be present at the birth of her cubs.  I asked thereto give me her paw and ask me again, just to be sure, and she did.  I was overjoyed, but because Bianca wanted complete secrecy, we only discussed it in the showers, limited CCTV there.  We discussed it in the relieving place, for the place itself, and the paw bath have no CCTV.  Of course, if anyone wanted to use the place we’d see them coming and get out quick sharp.  So that’s how I got in on Bianca’s labour.  I wasn’t expecting to get so paws on with it as I did.  All I thought I would be allowed to do was feel Bianca’s belly during a contraction, touch her paws, that kind of thing.  It was while I was touching her belly that Bianca decided she’d let me get properly paws on.  I couldn’t refuse, I wanted it very much, but hadn’t asked.  Well, you don’t ask that kind of thing of any mother.  So to be invited, invited to touch a cub as it emerges into the world mum,” Ekaterina wiped her eyes with her paws, “that was amazing, humbling and unforgettable.”

       “Bianca really tore a strip off me once you’d gone,” Kamchatka said, “she made me feel as tiny as one of her cubs.  She told me that I was unwelcome in her lie up because I’d interfered with a private arrangement.  Bianca said she’d got a feeling about you which didn’t extend to me.  She trusted you with her own life and the lives of her cubs when she saw how gentle you were with Arki during the mock cubbing she showed you.  Bianca was bloody angry; she even, even had her claws extended during our brief chat!  She’d kept them sheathed throughout her labour, so that was a measure of how angry she was.  I don’t know if she’ll have a third cub.  If she does, she’ll be round here in a flash.”  Ekaterina nodded.

      “I have a feeling about the birth of her third cub if there is one,” Ekaterina said, “I don’t think it will be as dignified as the first two.”  Kamchatka stared at her.

      “What do you mean?”  She asked.

      “Wait and see,” Ekaterina said, “I think Bianca’s urge for me to get paws on with the birth and her cub’s will to be born will result in a battle between cub and mother.”  Kamchatka looked shocked!

       “I’ll tell her not to move,” she said, running from the room.

 

Bianca was dismissive of Kamchatka’s warning, saying she’d be okay if a third cub made its appearance.  Bianca was sure she’d be able to pick the phone up to Ekaterina in time.

 

The household settled down that night to sleep, Ekaterina unable to sleep in case Bianca had her third cub.  After hours of fighting sleep however, Ekaterina dropped off.  The next thing she felt was a paw urgently scrabbling at her shoulder.

      “Ay?  Hmm? What?”  Ekaterina asked.  Bianca, breathless and uncomfortable, tried not to cry out.

      “I, I’m having another cub!”  She whispered urgently, “I can’t, can’t’ make it back to my lie up.  Ow, ow ouch!”  Bianca spun round, squatting down, presenting Ekaterina with a straining tail, Ekaterina realising she’d been holding the cub’s progress up with sheer determination.  Bianca relaxed, opening her mouth and panting, the cub surging forward, Bianca bracing her hind paws and lowering her head to pant and gasp.  Then she was whimpering, whining and straining hard.

       “Ow, ow ow ow!”  Bianca complained, moaning and squealing quietly with pain while trying to be as quiet as possible.  Ekaterina caught the cub as it slipped free of Bianca.

      “Youch!”  Bianca screamed as the cub’s hind paws came free.”

       “All done, all done!”  Ekaterina whispered.

       “No need to Whisper,” Kamchatka said, “I know what’s going on.”

        “Hi little’n,” Ekaterina whispered as she cleaned the cub up, the tiny form mewing and snuggling up to her.

       “Here’s your newest cub Bianca,” Ekaterina said, giving the cub to its mother.  Bianca padded from the room, Ekaterina getting to her paws and padding from the room to shower for the second time that day.  Showering herself thoroughly, she reflected on the speed of Bianca’s arrival and the even quicker arrival of her cub.  Considering things, Ekaterina felt she’d not be able to have any contact with the cubs, as the tigers were private creatures and rarely let others share the joy of their cubs.  Ekaterina knew she’d never forget the joy she’d felt at the births of each of the cubs, nor the feel of a cub being delivered into the world.  Sighing with regret that she’d never be able to hug the tiger cubs again, Ekaterina left the shower.  Padding damply along to the drying room, Ekaterina suddenly felt a paw take hers, then whiskers brushing her nose.  The scent was familiar, for it was half of that of the cubs, but not Bianca’s.

      “Bianca’s mate,” Ekaterina thought quickly, struggling to remember his name, “Luke?  No not Luke, duke!”  Ekaterina turned to the tiger.

      “Duke isn’t it?”  She asked.  Duke smiled and nodded.

       “You, you helped my mate,” he said, “I heard what you did for her and our cubs, I’m very grateful, as is she for your help.  I, I couldn’t stay when Bianca went into labour, she asked, asked me to, to get paws on with the birth!  I can’t, I don’t like it!”   Ekaterina hugged the tiger.

       “”the birth was difficult for one cub,” she said.

      “Yes, but if you could help him, then I could have,” Duke mewed.

       “Would you be calm when Bianca screamed and strained hard, would you ease the cub into the world without losing control?”  Ekaterina asked.  Duke knew he wouldn’t, and Ekaterina knew it too.

       “No, I’d be crying as hard as Bianca,” duke replied, unmasked by the polar bear cub’s touch, her paws dragging the truth from him.

        “You saw I was calm,” Ekaterina said, “excited by the birth of the cubs, but calm when things got tight.  So what makes you believe you’d do the same as me?  You just admitted to me you’d be a sobbing wreck.”  Duke knew his comment had been patronising, but he couldn’t say it.

       “It’s nothing,” duke replied, unable to apologise.

        “what you meant to say was this,”  Ekaterina said, “that if I, Ekaterina, Being blind, could help Bianca have her cubs, then surely you could being able to see.”  Duke whimpered with discomfort.

        “It takes more than a good pair of eyes to deliver cubs,” Ekaterina replied, “It takes a gentle manner and a careful, sensitive touch.  Sensitive in more ways than one that is.  I am honoured Bianca allowed me to be at the birth of her cubs.”

      “You just wandered in and found her didn’t you?”  Duke asked.

       “Yes,” Ekaterina replied, omitting to tell him of the prior arrangements.

      “Why not hand things over to Arki when things got tight?”  Duke asked.

      “As you no doubt saw on the video,” Ekaterina started to say, when Duke got angry!

       “I already told you bear, I don’t like seeing my mate in labour!”

       “All right, all right!”  Ekaterina snapped, pushing duke away.  Duke stood staring at the polar bear cub.

       “Bianca didn’t want Arki’s help,” Ekaterina replied, “she wanted me to help her.”

      “But you’ve had no training, no prior experience!”  Duke yelled.

      “Bianca thought I had gentle paws and a gentle touch,” Ekaterina said, “so I’m not going to argue with her when she’s offering the opportunity of a lifetime?”  Duke nearly vomited.

      “You consider, oh, yuck!  You consider, consider,” Duke actually gagged, “you consider getting your paws dirtied with the filth of birth to be a pleasant thing?  The opportunity of a lifetime?”

      “I didn’t notice the fluid,” Ekaterina said honestly.  Duke was physically sick.

       “Oh god!  Dear god!”  He moaned.

       “My mind was focused on Bianca and the emerging cubs,” Ekaterina said, ignoring Duke’s distress, I didn’t think of the mess I was in until the end when I was in the shower.  Then, then I had no chance to dwell on it, as I was thinking of the experience itself.  How wonderful it was to touch a cub while it was emerging into the world, and how grateful I was to Bianca for trusting me with her and her cubs in their most vulnerable moments.  I thank Bianca from the bottom of my heart.  Then, then,”  Ekaterina felt tears pricking her eyes, “when Bianca,”  she swallowed hard, “when she came to me, in violent labour with her third cub’s birth imminent, struggled to get to my side, with no time to spare, Bianca spun tail on to me and delivered her cub,,,”

      No more, no more!”  Duke complained.

       “That’s it,” Ekaterina replied, “I could make you completely lose your breakfast but I won’t.  I could go into great detail about everything.”  Duke promptly lost the rest of his breakfast.

      “You horrid creature!”  He whined.

      “You insulted me,” Ekaterina replied, “I said nothing to you Duke.”  Duke ran away, leaving Ekaterina alone in the room with a pool of vomit on the floor.  Padding round in an exaggerated circle so she didn’t step in it, Ekaterina went to a wall phone and explained the situation to the control room staff.  Petra told her everything had been seen and recorded, and that if Ekaterina stood where she was, Allie was coming with a bucket and mop.  Ekaterina, relieved things were being taken care of, ended the call and waited for Allie.  The next thing she knew she was drenched in soapy water!!  Screaming, Ekaterina whipped round.  Allie laughed merrily.

      “Hi!”  She said.  Ekaterina lost her temper.

       “You horrible animal!”  She yelled.  Allie cleaned up the mess, dumped the bucket and mop, washed her paws, then went back to the angry polar bear cub, embracing her in her huge paws.  Ekaterina wriggled furiously, but couldn’t free herself.

     “Let me go!”  She snarled.

      “I’m sorry for squeezing the mop over your head,” Allie said, “I was only playing with you.”  Ekaterina began to cry.

       “I’ve just been insulted by duke, and now you come along and give me a soaking!”  She wailed.

      “Duke’s comments were barbed,” Allie said.  Ekaterina sniffed hard:

      “He ran away from Bianca when she went into labour,” she sobbed, “then, then he said he could be calm during the birth of her cubs!  What shit he talks, what utter shit!”

        “Don’t use that language!”  Allie snapped.

       “I will use it, I will Allie!”  Ekaterina gasped, “For that’s what he talks, shit, and yet more shit!”  Allie covered Ekaterina’s mouth with her paw, the polar bear cub squealing and biting down on Allie’s toes, the adult polar bear quickly withdrawing her paw!

      “Hey!”  Allie snapped, “That’s uncalled for Ekaterina!”  Ekaterina wriggled free of Allie’s hug, running from the room, crying bitterly.  A brief but high speed encounter between her shoulder and a doorframe made her scream with anger and lash out, hurting her right forepaw as it slammed into the wood.  Pounding along the corridor, tears streaming down her face, Ekaterina blundered into Kuruk; the bear returning to the family lie up after eating his breakfast, something Ekaterina hadn’t yet had.

      “What upset sister Ekaterina?”  Kuruk asked, “Kuruk hear her do big service for Bianca tigress.  He hears she help with stuck cub too, and now he find Ekaterina crying?  She very unhappy Kuruk think, but no know why she be so.”

       “That’s the most round about way I’ve ever been asked what the matter is,” Ekaterina sniffed.

      “Well, you want tell Kuruk?”  The large grizzly asked, sitting down in the passage and drawing Ekaterina into a warm embrace.  Ekaterina told him everything.

      “That Duke,” Kuruk said, “I meet him, big tiger he is, but he looks like sheep when Kuruk find him.”

      “How can a tiger look like a sheep?”  Ekaterina asked laughing.  Ekaterina had never seen a tiger or a sheep, though she knew one was completely unlike the other.

       “No!”  Kuruk replied smiling, “Duke no look like sheep.  Kuruk mean Duke Look embarrassed.”

      “Oh,” Ekaterina said, “you mean sheepish?”  She asked.

     “Yes,” Kuruk replied, “so as I said, Duke looked like sheep, and he be telling Kuruk he meet little Ekaterina, and she be with Bianca during birth of cubs and he be very grateful to her, but she make him throw his breakfast by describing horrid things to do with birth like how Bianca in labour.”

      “I didn’t describe much,” Ekaterina said, “I just told him how things were, “I offered to describe further if he wished, but that made him vomit.”

     “Vomit?”  Kuruk asked.

      “Throw his breakfast,” Ekaterina replied, trying not to laugh.

      “Oh ok,” Kuruk replied.

      “I then phoned the control room for help in clearing up the mess and that’s when Allie found me with her mop, she squeezed a fully loaded mop of soapy water over my head!  I lost it then.  Then, then I told her what Duke had said to me, that he was patronising to me, that he made out he could have coped, and that it was amazing I’d coped, me being blind n’all, and Allie called duke’s comments barbed.  I lost my temper somewhere along the line and ran from the room, then hit a door, before running down the passage.  That’s when I blundered into you brother.”  Kuruk kissed her nose, and then quickly scrambled to his feet, throwing Ekaterina onto his back, where she clung with all four paws to his fur as he ran for a nearby lie up.

      “What’s the hurry?”  Ekaterina asked.

      “Kuruk sit in passage, and he already get in trouble with tigress Tinka for sleeping in place,”  Kuruk replied, “me see Tinka coming down passage, and me sitting there cradling Ekaterina.  We get into big stinky trouble if we found there, and she nearly catches us!”  Ekaterina laughed helplessly.

       “You fell asleep in the passage?”  She asked.

      “Kuruk and Patch, so Kuruk not totally to blame,”  the bear replied, lying down to allow Ekaterina to slide off his back, “we having brotherly hug, and before we knew it, we sleeping and being woken by angry tigress whom patch call Tinka.  That was when we hear Bianca having cub.  We see Bianca tigress having cubs, and Ekaterina with her, we see what Ekaterina do with stuck cub and with other cub too.  Kuruk think that if he ever have cub, then he want Ekaterina with him.”

       “You’re unable to have cubs!”  Ekaterina laughed, rolling about on the floor and waving her paws in the air, “Kuruk, oh Kuruk!  You, you silly thing!”  Kuruk looked shocked:

     “How come Kuruk no have cub when Conrad say he have one?”  He asked.

      “Conrad was talking from a spiritual point of view, giving birth to the family spirit of a cub that was not of his blood,”  Ekaterina replied, “you don’t need to do what he did, for you already feel part of our family because mama Kamchatka’s our mum.  Helga was not Conrad’s cub, nor mama Kamchatka’s.”

      “So Kuruk no have cub then,” Kuruk asked.

      “Not like that, unless you adopt another’s cub,” Ekaterina replied.

       “Kuruk sorry for misunderstanding,” Kuruk replied.  Ekaterina hugged him tenderly.

       “You’re lovely to me,” Ekaterina said, “you and patch.  Helga, she’s got distant since you two came along.  She’s found her own friends, Kuan-Yin and Jinghua.  Now all I have is you and patch, my big older brothers.”  Kuruk hugged his younger sister in a huge warm embrace.

       “Ekaterina make friends too,” he said, “she makes friends with big Bianca tigress and with her cubs too.  You no think Bianca let you near her when cubbing if she no like you?”  Ekaterina shook her head.

      “I suppose she likes me,” she replied.

     “Them tiger cubs too, and Dusty fox cub, they be young enough be friends with Ekaterina too.  They like the whole community no care what you are like or what shape your body is.  Them, they see what’s inside, not the body shape of their friends.”  Patch padded into the lie up and hugged Ekaterina.

       “You did wonderfully!”  He laughed.  Ekaterina smiled broadly.

      “I wouldn’t have missed a minute,” she replied, “I am so grateful to Bianca, so very grateful she let me be at and help her with the birth of her cubs.  I’ll never forget last night.”  Patch kissed his sister’s nose.

        “I saw you catch her third cub,” he said, “Ekaterina, you were calm, gentle, and reassuring to mother and cub, it was a joy to watch.  I could see Bianca’s face at one point during the birth of her third cub, and she looked like she was in pain, but she was calm, not panicking despite her dash to find you.  When she ran in, she was frantic, but when you got paws on with her, she calmed right down, straining to deliver her cub, but not stressed in her mind.”  Bianca padded into the lie up, having left her cubs with Duke.  Padding over to Ekaterina, she hugged her enthusiastically.

        “I watched the births of all three of my cubs,” Bianca said, her voice cracking with emotion, “I saw everything you did, everything you did for me and my cubs!  Now, now I want you to keep in touch with me and my family.  Sod duke’s comments, I slapped him for his comments and told him that I would deal with you exclusively.  Now, now, please, would you do something for me?”  Ekaterina could smell the tigress’s strong scent, unmasked by any oils or potions.  The scent was pungent and could be offensive to those who hadn’t been as close to her as Ekaterina had.  She knew why Bianca’s scent was strong, she’d felt her effort, her sweat and heard her pain.

      “What do you want me to do?”  She asked.

      “Only if you would like to,” Bianca mewed, “but, would, would you bathe me?  I would love you to do this for me.”  Ekaterina kissed Bianca’s nose, then hugged her.

       “I would be honoured,” she replied.  Bianca sighed deeply:

       “Thank you,” she whispered.  Ekaterina smiled and squeezed the tigress’s left forepaw as best she could.

       “I must eat breakfast, but after that, I’ll find you and we’ll bathe.”  Bianca looked into the polar bear cub’s sightless eyes.

      “It’s a pity you can’t see my cubs Ekaterina,” she thought.

       “I can identify your cubs as well by touch as you can by sight,” Ekaterina said.  Bianca gasped with shock!

       “I said nothing, but, but, you knew what I was thinking!”  She squealed.

       “Your paw told me,” Ekaterina replied.  Bianca feeling stupid.

        “Oh, yes, I, I should, should have remembered that,” the tigress gabbled.

       “Now I must eat,” Ekaterina said, “I will be backing soon Bianca.  Go to your cubs, feed them well, and I will ask Bramble to bring you some food.”

       “Bramble won’t take your orders,” patch said, “she’s a lot older than you Ekaterina.”

       “She will when she hears Arki’s asked me to be at the birth of her brother cub,” Ekaterina replied.  Patch stared at his sister.

      “Bramble’s brother cub?  The birth of her brother cub?”  He asked, “How do you know Arki’s going to have a cub, let alone a male cub?”

      “Arki pretended to have a cub to show me how it was, remember?”  Ekaterina replied, “Well patch, when I got paws on with her belly, I got a message that a cub was in there, and that it was male.  Arki’s now showing signs of being pregnant, and she’s been taken off midwife duties.  Mum’s taking over as from today.”  Patch stared at his sister.

        “Wow, oh wow Ekaterina!”  He said.  Ekaterina smiled, skipping out of the lie up and going to the kitchen to get her own and Bianca’s food.  Indeed, Bramble was resistant to Ekaterina giving her orders for food for a tigress, but when she heard what the blind cub had to say, she did what Ekaterina asked.  Bramble, now dirty brown all over, with her left forepaw still white, prepared the meals and then sat down beside Ekaterina.

       “I can’t believe my mum’s having another cub so late on,” she said, “mum’s nine now, I’m seven.”  Ekaterina finished her meal and wiped her paws on a towel.

       “I don’t think your mum’s too old to have another cub,” she said, “the cub felt healthy to me when I communicated with him.”  Bramble stared at Kamchatka’s youngest cub.

      “You helped Bianca have her cubs, I saw it, and I saw it!”   Bramble said, “You were so gentle, so caring, and so wonderful!  When you helped Bianca’s large male cub into the world, Bianca was straining as hard as she could, there was very little room, but you managed to get the cub out without damage to him or Bianca!”

      “Bianca listened to her body,” Ekaterina said, after she’d pushed the cub’s head out, she panted, squealing and yowling, but not pushing.  That’s what enabled everything to stretch a bit more and for Bianca to survive the birth without injury to herself or the cub.”

        “How do you know that?”  Bramble asked, “you’re not trained Ekaterina!”  Ekaterina smiled:

       “I felt Bianca’s body responding to a relaxed attitude,” she replied, “everything stretched a bit more, and the cub came easily into the world, Bianca having to push a bit to free his hind paws.  Now she and all her cubs are okay.  The third cub came rather quickly as my mama thought it might.  Bianca barely made it to my lie up.  Spinning tail onto me, she squatted and delivered her cub straight into my paws.  That was magical Bramble!”  Bramble grinned hugely.

       “Let me take your paw Ekaterina,” she said.  Ekaterina gave Bramble her paw, the larger female polar bear cross closing her eyes and thinking hard.

       “You don’t need to try so hard,” Ekaterina said, “Bramble, open your eyes, take three deep breaths and then see what your paws tell you about me.”  Bramble did as Ekaterina asked, then, smiling, presented Ekaterina with her report.

       “I think you’ll do very well when helping my mum,” she said.  Ekaterina smiled broadly.

 

Ten minutes later Bianca came to the kitchen and both tigress and young polar bear went to the bathtubs.  Ekaterina touched Bianca’s paw.

       “What do you want me to do first?”  She asked.  Bianca got into the bath.

      “Get in the water with me, and then explore my body with your paws,” Bianca replied, “explore me from my nose to my toes Ekaterina.”  Ekaterina got into the water and did what the tigress asked of her, Bianca curling the toes of all four paws with pleasure as Ekaterina ran her paws down her neck and over her belly.  Bianca drew her legs to her, the heels of her tightly clenched forepaws touching her belly.  Her hind paws braced against the bathtub as she experienced pure pleasure, equal to the pain she’d experienced during the births of her cubs.  Bianca whimpered with pleasure as Ekaterina’s paws worked over her body, the tigress giving herself up to her senses as she’d done during the births of her cubs, letting her body do what it wanted.  Wriggling, Bianca panted slightly, her brain consumed by the sensation of Ekaterina’s touch.

      “If, if the initial exploration is as good as this, the washing will send me crazy!”  Bianca thought, whimpering as Ekaterina’s paws caressed her right hind paw, which was now floating free after her wriggling session.

       “Am I hurting you?”  Ekaterina asked, knowing very well she wasn’t.

      “No, no!”  Bianca gasped, “Carry on Ekaterina; I want more, much more!”  Ekaterina smiled and stroked the pads of Bianca’s right hind paw, the tigress almost squealing with pleasure.

      “When I was pushing against my cubs,” Bianca said, “I used my entire body, just like now; my body’s telling me things.  I just want to stay here, to feel your paws on my body, to feel you touch my belly, my paw pads, my ears and toes!  This is as intense as the births of my cubs!”  Bianca exclaimed, thrashing the water white with her forepaws in an attempted to keep herself in control, when all she wanted to do was lose control completely.

         “Let go Bianca,” Ekaterina said.  Bianca sighed deeply, relaxing totally.

        “I know I’m going to enjoy this so much,” she mewed softly.

 

Ekaterina ran her paws all over Bianca’s body, then, once she’d completed her exploration, she got shampoo and rubbed it into the tigress’s fur and paw pads, Bianca sighing and shivering with pleasure.

      “I think she’s enjoying that,” fleur mewed.  Ekaterina grinned, intent on her work.  Bianca, nearly comatose with pleasure, mumbled that Ekaterina’s paws were doing amazing things.

      “Her paws might be the instruments which do the work, but their owner controls them,” fleur mewed.  Bianca, eyes closed, mumbled this was the case.

       “I can’t believe what I’m feeling,” Bianca said softly.

 

Once Ekaterina had bathed Bianca, the tigress led the polar bear cub to her lie up, where duke and her three cubs waited.  The cubs crawled to their mother and clambered all over her, Bianca chuffing with pleasure and laughing as one cub got hold of a hind paw and tickled it.

       “You know one cub is male,” Bianca mewed, “I’m naming him Tommy, the last cub I gave birth to I’m naming snowy, and the first cub you helped me bring into the world I’ll name Whitie.”

       “So you have two white cubs and a Bengal cub?”  Ekaterina asked.  Bianca smiled and replied that she had.  Tommy was the big male, and he was Bengal, snowy and Whitie were both white tigers.

 

Tommy fell off his mum’s back and crawled towards Ekaterina, the polar bear cub letting him come to her.  Ekaterina rolled onto her side and embraced Tommy tightly.

        “You helped me get out of the tight squeeze place,” the tiger cub mewed.  Ekaterina kissed his nose, then, as he rolled over, the soles of his paws too.   Tommy giggled cubbishly, curling his toes, sharp claws extended as he couldn’t yet retract them.  This would come when he was six weeks old.  Ekaterina kissed the cub’s nose once more, Tommy clasping her paw in both of his.

      “I like you, I like you!”  Tommy mewed.  Ekaterina felt the cub’s strong paws holding her own, and remembered the traumatic manner of his birth.

       “It was a tight squeeze in there,” the cub said, sensing Ekaterina’s thoughts.  Ekaterina kissed Tommy’s nose once more.

       “You two are making friends fast I see,” Bianca said to Ekaterina, Tommy and Ekaterina giggling cubbishly.

      “Ekaterina’s lovely,” Tommy mewed, trying to lift his head to touch the bear’s nose with his.

      “Ekaterina’s got soft paws mum!”  Tommy mewed, holding onto the bear’s paw with amazing strength.  Patch padded over to Ekaterina, Tommy catching his scent.

      “Ekaterina helped me out of the tight place,” Tommy said to patch, who smiled and leant down to kiss his nose.

       “I know she did, “I saw her do it,” he replied.  Bianca watched her second born cub and his new ursine friends.

       “I must meet your sisters,” Ekaterina said to Tommy, who released her paw.  Patch looked up at Ekaterina.

        “Was it that tighter squeeze?”  He asked.  Ekaterina nodded, “Bianca was at full stretch giving birth to him,” she said, “she couldn’t do any more than she already was doing.”  Patch nodded:

       “I saw and heard her struggling,” he said, “she was panting and kicking, trying not to push after straining hard to deliver the cub’s head.  Bianca’s squeals, so desperate, so high pitched they went right through me, but I don’t blame her for one minute.”

       “If only you could experience what I did,” Bianca said, “you’d be screaming with all your might.”  Patch looked at the tigress.

       “I’m sure I would,” he said, “I’d curl my toes and scream until I was hoarse, then scream some more.”  Bianca grinned:

       “I would like to watch the births of my cubs,” Bianca said.  Patch went to a video screen and called up the video.  Bianca and the others watched the video, seeing things patch had never seen before.

       “I’ve never seen the sole of a tiger’s paw before,” he said, “nor have I been so close to a cub being born!  I can see its paws emerging, its head, and its body!”  Bianca grinned.

       “You want to look at my paws?”  She asked.  Patch smiled and nodded:

      “If you’d let me,” he replied.  Then he stared, for cameras were following Bianca quickly down the corridors, the tigress whimpering and panting, her hind paws padding urgently along the tiles, whomever had edited the video focusing on her face, then on her urgently running paws, then her switching tail.  Bianca burst into Ekaterina’s lie up, and then she was scrabbling at Ekaterina’s shoulder with her paw.  Ekaterina woke, and Bianca spun tail onto her then squatted, relaxing, her face registering relief, and then increasing pain, then concern as she was forced to bear down against the cub.  The camera flicked to a shot of Bianca’s fore and hind paws, the tigress, shifting her footing uncomfortably between contractions, then, panting and squealing, Bianca settled down on her haunches, the toes of her forepaws curled into the rugs, her claws extended.  Sweat pouring off her fur, Bianca strained hard, her third cub emerging into the world in a graphic shot, Patch seeing the cub emerging into the world, Ekaterina catching her.

       “Oh, oh wow!  An amazing film!”  Patch gasped, his eyes full of tears, “I’ve never seen so much great footage!”

      “Kuruk saw Mama Bianca’s paw pads bunching as she curled her toes!”  Kuruk yelled, “Kuruk never seen anything like he saw today!  Well, not until he sees videos here of course, but it fresh every time!”  Bianca, seeing how imminent the cub’s birth really was, sighed with relief.

      “I saw Whitie’s forepaws entering the world during the run to Ekaterina’s while I was lying up!  I didn’t know the birth was that far along!  I suppose I was trying to stop her head from emerging, whenever I felt that coming, I’d tense up, and that stopped her from being born on the tiles of the passage.  I’m just glad the delay in her birth didn’t harm her at all.”  Kuruk looked at Bianca.

        “You are very brave tigress,” he said, sitting down and taking her paw.  Bianca laughed:

       “You don’t need to pay homage to me,” she said.

     “Kuruk pay respect to mamas.  Most good mamas, but some shit mamas also, Kuruk try not pay respect to mama who he think shit mama.”

        “I wish you wouldn’t swear like that,” Bianca said.

      “Kuruk sorry, but that how he taught English, he taught that if he want express himself with force, he use such words, but then when he taught, they no be called swearing, Kuruk know what swearing is, but he don’t know he doing said thing.”  Bianca kissed the grizzly’s nose.

       “As long as you keep a good heart,” she said, “that’s all that should matter.”  Kuruk shuffled over so he was close to Bianca and rested his head on her shoulder.

      “Kuruk like Mama Tigress Bianca,” he said.  Bianca smiled broadly.

       “Bianca like Kuruk bear too,” she said, hoping imitating Kuruk’s dialect would not offend the grizzly bear.  Kuruk smiled with pleasure, stroking the pads and toes of Bianca’s right forepaw.

       “You do very well having big cub when he gets stuck on way out,” Kuruk said, “Mama Bianca; she mewed and screams, but no real panic.  She even able tells Ekaterina bear how to get big cub out safe.  Kuruk plenty happy for tigress Bianca.

       “Yes, it was a struggle,”  Bianca said, “but it brought me, Ekaterina and my cubs closer, as least I think it did.  I’m defiantly closer to Ekaterina since she helped me give birth to my cubs.  I thought I’d just be letting an interested cub get paws on with me, but I found Ekaterina was more than just interested in witnessing the birth of a cub.  She was gentle and reassuring too, and I’m very grateful for that, as are my cubs I’m sure.”  Kuruk smiled broadly at the praise his little sister was getting.

      “She be talented that’s no doubt,” he said.

      “I heard Arki’s asked Ekaterina to help out at the birth of her cub?”  Kamchatka asked.

      “I have,” Arki replied, padding into the room, “I knew I wanted her to as soon as she got paws on with me during the mock cubbing.  you know when you want something so much it nearly consumes you totally?  Well it was like that for me.  I wanted to have a cub there and then, and Ekaterina sensed it, hence her comment about thinking I was actually having a cub.  I wanted to so much!  Now, now I’m having a real cub.  I don’t know if Ekaterina made contact with my unborn cub and asked it whether it wanted her to help it.  Maybe she did when she first touched my belly, and it told her to do what she would do for a mama giving birth, and when she did her thing, my cub told me in no uncertain terms that if he was ready, he would want to be born now, but he wasn’t ready.  Needless to say, now I know I’m in cub, I can’t re-enact more cubbings until my real cub’s born.”  Kamchatka nodded.   

   “Kuruk know what he wants right now, but don’t know if Ekaterina will do thing for him.  He want her stroke his paws, play with them too, and he want play with her paws.  Would sister Ekaterina cub do thing for Kuruk and let Kuruk play with her paws?”  Ekaterina smiled broadly.

       “Let me take one of your forepaws in mine,” she said, “then we’ll come to an agreement over what should happen.”  Kuruk gave Ekaterina his left forepaw.

       “I think, um, yes, stroking and playing with your paws would be a great thing to do, and as for you playing with mine?”  Ekaterina considered the prospect, though Kuruk could feel her response before she voiced it.

       “Um, yes, I’d like that too,” she replied.

 

Kuruk and Ekaterina settled down in Kamchatka’s lie up, and before long, each had one of the other’s hind paws in their forepaws and was exploring it, stroking pads and playing with toes.

       “You very gentle with Kuruk’s paws dear Ekaterina,” Kuruk said.  Ekaterina smiled and gently massaged the toes of Kuruk’s left hind paw with her right fore.  Kuruk smiled broadly as her smaller paws worked over his larger one.  He explored her left hind paw, the heel of which he rested on his right hind leg.  Her toes were tiny compared to his, and he could feel the pleasure she got from him playing with her toes and stroking her pads.

       “You be very gentle too Kuruk,” Ekaterina said.  Kuruk smiled broadly.

       “Kuruk know how be gentle with cubs, for he have one of own,”  the grizzly bear replied, “but her die after six months, got paw stuck in snow on mountain, Kuruk find her with paw stuck in trap.  Mama so upset she run away from Kuruk and throw self off cliff.  Kuruk then decide he wants find mama and go home.  He very upset about death of mate and cub.  Kuruk bury cub in deep hole, cry long time too.  He no able to bury mate though, as she leave and not let Kuruk follow.  Kuruk hear mate die at bottom of cliff some time later.  Humans, they make trap for bear in snow, this thing what kill cub of Kuruk.  Kuruk know traps, and he fined one on paw of six months old cub.

      “Not all humans are bad,” Ekaterina said, feeling she was on a loser.

        “Kuruk know thing,” the grizzly bear replied sniffing hard, “but Kuruk get bloody sad when think of dead cub.  He loves her so much, now she gone.”  Ekaterina withdrew her paw from Kuruk’s caress, and shuffled over to him, trying to hug him in her forepaws.

        “Dear Kuruk,” Ekaterina said, “is I the first you’ve told of your cub’s death?”  Kuruk nodded.

       “Kuruk no tell before this,” the grizzly said, now crying openly, “hurt Kuruk too much think of cub, let alone tell story of death of cub.  Kuruk think sometimes, but only in private place, then he cries for long time.  Cub of Kuruk was away for days, and he fined her proper dead.  So he hope she no suffer, but he think she suffer plenty.”  Ekaterina knew some might have smiled at Kuruk’s use of language, but she didn’t, not now, for she could extract the meaning from his twisted use of language.  What he was saying made her pause.

       “I’m sorry Kuruk,” she said, “Your cub’s suffering no more, I’m sure of that.”  Kuruk wiped his eyes with huge forepaws, sniffing hard.

        “Now Kuruk here, and he find bad bitch bear doing horrid things to sister cub!”  The bear sobbed, “Kuruk go proper bloody mad and kill bitch bear.  Now he hope Ekaterina be safe, for he love her so much.  Kuruk want sister cub Ekaterina have life his cub no have.  Kuruk see she making good with paws, touching tigress in way which make tigress give easy birth to difficult cub.  Now Ekaterina be invited to make mama polar bear soothed with her gentle paws too.  Mama bear cry and beat paws on floor in pain Kuruk think, for he see mate give birth to own cub, and she do thing.  She curls toes and scream, push like mad too, but Kuruk know nothing about massage paws thing, so he not able help much.  Sassier Ekaterina though, she know how soothe mama, calm her beating paws and screaming.  So Ekaterina do well with mama having cubs.  Kuruk think this be good job for sister cub, for he know what mama go through, kind of.  He hopes Ekaterina make friends with all mamas and cubs she helps.”  Ekaterina smiled:

      “I want to help them Kuruk,” she said.

       “Let’s go back to the tigers,” Ekaterina said.  Kuruk smiled broadly.

       “Kuruk never forget watching Ekaterina cub helping Mama Bianca have her Tommy cub,” Kuruk said, “she so gentle to Mama Bianca and cub Tommy.  Now she goes to give Arki help while mama bear Arki have cub.  Bet Ekaterina cub can’t wait for birth of cub.”  Ekaterina grinned:

       “I’ll have to,” she replied, “for Arki’s cub won’t be rushed.”

 

Meanwhile back with Bianca and her family, Tommy was getting upset because Ekaterina had left him.

      “I want her with the big paws back!”  He wailed.  Bianca tried to soothe her son cub, but he wouldn’t be pacified.  Beating his paws on the floor, he set up a growling, snarling protest.

      “Tommy, shut up!”  Duke snapped, bearing his teeth at the male cub, which couldn’t yet see him, “if you don’t, I’ll, I’ll eat you!”  Bianca leapt to her paws and smashed her paw down on duke’s shoulder!

       “You dare threaten my cubs again, I’ll destroy you!”  She warned.

      “I’m bigger and stronger than you, so you have no chance!”  Duke yelled, his male pride wounded.

       “You make any move to hurt Bianca or her cubs and you’ll have Kuruk and mama Kamchatka to deal with!”  Kuruk said, padding into the lie up.  Duke, defeated for the moment, subsided into a corner to growl and spit.

       “Disgusting!”  Ekaterina remarked.

      “I’m bigger than you too blind one, so watch your mouth!”  Duke warned.  Ekaterina wasn’t sure what happened next, she heard a scream, then a crunch, then Duke swearing loudly and persistently.

       “You bastard, bastard! Bastard!”

      “What happened?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “Kuruk make sure he no hurt cubs or sister Ekaterina by breaking right front paw,” Kuruk said.  Ekaterina was shocked!

       “You didn’t!”  She exclaimed.

       “Kuruk know duke dam dangerous to cubs, so he make sure tiger no do them harm.  Breaking paw is good enough, will heal in time, no problem, tiger limp a bit, but he know not mess with Kuruk.  Kuruk break neck next if male tiger duke put paw on cubs in unkind way.”  Sobbing with fear and pain, Duke limped away on three paws.

       “He’ll come back very angry!”  Bianca yelled, “what the hell were you thinking of Kuruk!”

      “Kuruk sorry if he cause problems,”  the bear said, “but he don’t think Duke tiger will come back to give his cubs and mate grief.  You safe here, but Kuruk keep on watch with mama Kamchatka to keep cubs safe.”

 

 

Meanwhile, duke limped to Fleur’s lie up, crying and screaming about Kuruk having broken the toes of his right forepaw.  Fleur looked at the injured paw and then traced the footage on the cameras.  Watching everything, she found out who was to blame for the damage to duke’s paw.

      “You are responsible for this,” she mewed, “you threatened to go for Bianca’s cubs, we don’t do that here!  Kuruk was right to do what he did; he protected the cubs, as is his duty to his community.  You are a pain Duke!  Now I will pass you to Alaska so she can bandage your paw, but that’s all we can do for your toes.”  Duke swore furiously!

       “Bloody bastard, that bears’ a bloody bastard!”  Duke screamed.  Fleur threatened to break the toes of his other three paws if he didn’t stop swearing.  Duke shut up after that.  Turning away, duke was about to leave when he stopped suddenly, staring at something.  Then he began to scream hysterically!

       “There’s, a, a, a tigress!  She’s, she’s enormous, white, with big paws and angry eyes!”  Duke yelled.  Fleur saw her also and smiled with recognition and pleasure.

       “Dear Snowy,” she mewed.  Dear snowy turned her gaze on duke, and then cuffed him with her paw, the male tiger squealing with fear and pain.

       “You will keep your paws off the cubs!”  Snowy snarled.  Duke limped away, his eyes tightly shut against the apparition.

        “I can’t face her!”  He yelled.  Snowy’s spirit chased duke out of the lie up and out of the house, the male tiger hobbling away as fast as he could.

       “I will make sure he doesn’t come back!”  Snowy yelled.  Fleur watched her chase the disgraced male white tiger from the house.  Duke ran into the wood, chased by Bianca’s mum’s spirit.  Duke screamed and screamed as he ran through the wood, down the road and out of bounds, his mangled paw causing him terrible pain, his fear and pain making him scream as loudly as Bianca did during her confinement.  Snowy’s spirit roared into the wood, making duke lose control of his bodily functions.  Terrified, he urinated and defecated on the road while he ran, the dead tigress’s enraged roar sending him further and further from the wood, crying and stumbling to his death.  A level crossing carrying a railway across the road near the wood blocked the tiger’s path.  Loping the gates, Duke landed on the track, hearing the scream of an express train coming towards him.  Looking round he saw the Cyclopes eye of the speeding train.  The enquiry into the train driver’s story of the tiger on the track found noone at fault, the tiger’s remains removed by the transport police, closing the line for an hour.  Duke died quickly on the tracks, his flight from what he did not understand ending quickly.

 

Bianca and her cubs heard of Duke’s death not long after the train struck him.  Bianca wailed with misery, grief constricting her heart.  She looked at her cubs, realising they were the only link she now had with her dead mate.  Bianca then remembered he’d threatened to kill Tommy just for expressing his views in a high pitched mewing voice.  Bianca lay down and thought of the cubs she’d born, and of the tiger that’d sired them.

       “Rest in peace duke,” she whispered, her forepaws clasped in prayer to whoever looked after the spirits of dead creatures.

 

Patch and Kuruk padded to the soft playroom, Kuruk not certain if he was able to go in, as he was not a cub.  Patch looked at the large grizzly.

     “You’re hesitating?”  He asked.  Kuruk nodded:

      “Kuruk no cub any more,” the bear said.

       “I’m no cub either, well not in stature, and I can play on the slides and things.  Come on Kuruk let’s play!”  Kuruk smiled:

       “Would you help Kuruk be cub again?”  He asked.  Patch picked up Kuruk’s left forepaw.

       “What do you think?”  He asked.  Kuruk kissed his brother’s nose.

       “Kuruk want have paws tickled and stroked, then slide down slide screaming head off with delight.  Kuruk want so much to do this!”  Patch smiled at his brother, and then tugged at his paw.

       “Come on then!”  He said enthusiastically.

        “Kuruk coming, he coming as fast as old stiff paws will let him!”  Patch lifted Kuruk in a fireman’s lift and carried him into the playroom, the grizzly bear laughing helplessly.

       “Patch no need lift Kuruk into air and carry him like potatoes!”  He laughed.

       “You said you couldn’t walk because your paws were old and stiff,” patch replied, “I’m going to check those paws over, play with your toes, get you to curl and stretch them to see how stiff your so called old paws really are!  If they’re not stiff, I will tickle them like mad!”  Kuruk, hanging upside down, couldn’t do much until Patch put him down, which he soon did.  Kuruk rolled onto his back and kicked the air with all four paws, Patch laughing helplessly at his brother’s antics.

      “You silly thing!”  He said, “Now, let me get hold of your paws, which ones are stiff?”  Patch grabbed each one of Kuruk’s paws in his and flexed the bear’s toes, stroked his pads and examined them closely.

      “Can you curl your toes?”  Patch asked Kuruk.  Kuruk smiled broadly and curled the toes of all four paws, stretched and wiggled them, Patch watching intently.  Kuruk tried to remember what being a cub felt like.  The joys of playing with his own paws, exploring things by touch, general play, and of course play with other cubs.  Kuruk remembered playing with his mama, those precious times when she wasn’t too stressed by looking after him that she could play.  Kuruk remembered Kamchatka being always frightened and ill at ease.  She had very little time to play, or so she thought.  When she could play, when she felt safe, which wasn’t often, Kamchatka and Kuruk had good times together, even if they’d been all too brief.

      “Kuruk?”  Patch asked, shaking the bear’s paw hard to wake him.

      “Um, what?”  The grizzly bear asked.

       “You were asleep,” Patch replied.

      “Oh, um, ah, Kuruk dam sorry about sleeping thing,” the grizzly mumbled.

       “It’s okay,”  Patch replied, “I can tell you that your paws are not old and stiff Kuruk, they are supple and well worth playing with, so you’re not too old to come in here and enjoy the slides, ladders and zip wires.”   Kuruk grinned hugely.

      “Let Kuruk get to big adult paws now turned cubbish,” Kuruk said.  Patch giggled:

       “Adult paws now turned cubbish?  What are you on about Kuruk?”  Kuruk stumbled to his paws, and then fell over as if his paws couldn’t carry him.  Lying on the floor, Kuruk looked up at Patch.

       “Kuruk want paws stroked Patch,” he said.  Patch stroked his brother’s paws, the large grizzly smiling hugely.  Kuruk pressed his paws into patch’s as he stroked his paws.

       “Push your paws into mine if you want to Kuruk,” patch said.  Kuruk pressed his right hind paw into patch’s forepaws, Patch embracing the grizzly bear’s warm paw.

       “Kuruk could stay here forever with Patch hugging paws,” Kuruk said.  Patch laughed, patting Kuruk’s left forepaw.

       “I don’t mind playing with your paws,” he said.  Kuruk smiled broadly, rolled onto his back, drawing his hind paws to him.  Grabbing his hind paws with both forepaws, Kuruk smiled at the sensation his paw play gave him.

       “You look cubbish doing that,” Patch said, kissing the toes of Kuruk’s right forepaw which covered the sole pad of his right hind paw, Kuruk smiling broadly.

       “Kuruk like playing with hind paws,” he said.

     “That’s how mama bears hold onto their hind paws while having their cubs,” Patch said.

      “Kuruk not surprised really,” Kuruk replied, “it very comfortable to hold hind paws with fore while lying on back.  Gives plenty of paws to push against if Kuruk want to push.  Kuruk like touching his hind paws.”  Patch watched Kuruk’s face as he sat up and played with the toes of his hind paws.

      “Why not Patch try out lying on back and grabbing hind paws in forepaws?”  Kuruk asked.  Patch rolled onto his back and drew his hind paws up, reaching for them with both forepaws, feeling the toes of his forepaws reach round the sides of his hind paws and touches the sole pads.  Relaxing, Patch felt his fore and hind paws relax into a comfortable and comforting position.

      “It feels really good!”  He said.  Kuruk watched Patch, grinning at his younger brother’s enthusiasm.

       “Good to play with paws isn’t it,” Kuruk said.  Patch pressed his hind paws into his fore, resisting his own pressure.  Then he hung on tightly to his hind paws with his fore, trying to imagine the effort of giving birth to a cub.  Gripping his hind paws with all his strength, Patch wriggled and rolled about a bit, puffing and panting.

       “You imagine too much, then you maybe be first male bear have cub!”  Kuruk said.  Patch laughed.

      “Mama has described cubbing to me,” he said, “she said it was painful but wonderful.”  Kuruk nodded.

     “Kuruk get description from mate, she say very painful but very wonderful.  She say better with Kuruk there too.  She say Kuruk give her support, though he only stroke paws of mama bear.”

      “That’s enough sometimes,” Kamchatka said, padding into the room.

      “You get out mama!”  Kuruk yelled, “you no cub!”

        “Mama can be a cub just like us, so leave her alone,” Patch said.  Kuruk smiled, scrambling to his paws, running to Kamchatka and embracing her.  Kamchatka laughed merrily and returned her cub’s hug.

      “I love you Kuruk, don’t ever forget that,” Kamchatka said.  Kuruk snuggled urt to his mum, the two grizzly bears standing together for a long time, their noses and forepaws touching.  Kuruk looked into his mum’s face, remembering their times together.

      “Do you remember playing in the snow on our little piece of land?”  Kamchatka asked.  Kuruk nodded.

      “Kuruk remember so much about playing in the snow,” Kuruk replied.  Kamchatka kissed Kuruk’s nose, the male grizzly bear smiling broadly.

       “You two look so contented,” jess said, crawling into the room and going over to hug Patch.  Kamchatka and Kuruk smiled broadly.

      “We are remembering times together,” Kamchatka said.  Jess looked at the two grizzly bears, wondering what Kuruk thought of her hugging his brother cub.

        “Kuruk,” she said, “I hope you don’t mind me hugging your brother cub.  I understand I represent the species that killed your own cub.”  Kuruk looked at jess.

       “Kuruk know Jess, but she not know him,” the grizzly bear said, “Kuruk no mind, but he want talk to Jess later.”

 

Jess and Kuruk met later that day, Jess as nervous as she’d been when meeting Kamchatka for the first time.  Jess knew of the grizzly’s aggressive reputation, and had managed to put it out of her mind until now.  This grizzly bear was enormous, and had reason to hold a grudge against her species.  Kuruk looked Jess up and down and then sat down, much as Kamchatka had.

      “Kuruk hear from Patch that you and he be good friend for years before come to community,”  Kuruk said, “but you throw him out, why Jess do said thing if patch say you be good friends?  Kuruk see you two be good friends too when you hug together earlier.”  Jess sat down like Kuruk had, only for the grizzly bear to get up and begin pacing about agitatedly.

       “Kuruk please, don’t pace,” jess pleaded.

       “Kuruk dam distressed about death of cub, and he trying dam hard not take thing out on jess!  Kuruk know Jess not responsible for death of cub, but he still plenty furious!”

        “Not all humans should be held responsible for the death of one cub,” jess pleaded.  Kuruk looked at her, his eyes full of sorrow.

       “When human get killed by bear them come and shoot bears in hope of catching right one,”  the grizzly said, “Humans no care which bear responsible , so why Kuruk care which human?”  Jess looked at Kuruk.

        “I’m only a child, a cub as you call us.  Do you think a cub set the trap or fired the gun which killed your cub?”  Kuruk sat down heavily, burying his face in his paws.  Jess saw the massive grizzly was crying.

       “Kuruk first see Jess, and he want destroy her as he see her as part of humans who kill cub!”  Kuruk sobbed, “Then, then he see how jess with Patch, and know she friend of patch.  Kuruk simple bear really, he want take revenge for death of cub, but he stop himself just in time before he destroy lives of others.  Now Kuruk no know what think, he confused!”

        “You, you were going to kill me?”  Jess asked.

       “Not kill you for being patch’s friend, but kill you for being human yes,” Kuruk admitted, unable to lie to jess.

        “Humans kill bears for sport, for no other reason than they find it pleasurable,” jess said, “at least if you had killed me, you’d have had a good reason for doing so.”

       “What them humans want with cub of Kuruk anyway jess?”  Kuruk asked.  Jess looked into the grizzly’s eyes.

         “I don’t know,” she said, “but some humans like killing bears, they skin them and show the bear skins off to their fellow humans as trophies.  Some humans need skins to make them warmer in the winter, though where your cub died, in the mountains I presume, that was more likely trophy hunting.”

        “What is trophy hunting?  You mean hunting for food?”  Kuruk asked.

       “No Kuruk, it’s not for food, it’s for sport, for the love of the chase and the kill.  Or to protect their livestock.  Humans sometimes kill bears just because they want to.”

        “but if Kuruk want kill humans, he go take one, maybe two, but that bloody impossible unless human cubs he take, but then get shot for taking human.  Humans come if want kill bear, and them shoot or trap bear, and get as many as them want?  Kuruk born in mountains is his place is.  Now humans want take cub from Kuruk who also born in mountains, she set paws on mountain as small cub, them mountains hers to play on and live on too.  She dies on them after six moons pass, and Kuruk very upset at manner of death of cub.”  Jess tried to hug Kuruk, but he shook her off.

       “Let Kuruk think on this,” he said, “Kuruk upset about trophy hunter too.  He need time, give time.”  Jess watched Kuruk pad from the room.

       “He can’t understand the lust for killing some humans have,” she thought, “Kuruk would only kill for food.  He would not take a human, but his reasoning is correct, in his mind, if humans take his cub, then he’s got the right to take one of theirs.”  Jess went after Kuruk, intent on making some kind of reparation, but what reparation could she make?  After all, the death of his cub was not her doing.

         “Why you follow Kuruk,” Kuruk asked.

       “I wanted to hug you, to tell you how sorry I am that certain of my species are so twisted they think killing for sport is acceptable.”

       “Kuruk know Jess no responsible for cub’s death.  Go back to patch and have long friendship with him.  Kuruk no know what he thinks of jess at moment.  He need get over fact her human, but that dam hard.  mama get over shape of body, and so Kuruk do in time, but sight of dead cub still fresh in mind, and now Kuruk know who kill her for sure, he not happy with humans.  He knows he no go after jess, the Boss etc, but he so want to tear humans up for killing cub!”

       “Do you mean I’m not safe?”  Jess asked.

       “Kuruk mean jess safe, but he very upset about death of cub.  he know story of jess and glad she now in community where safe and such, but seeing human for first time after seeing trap set and cub in trap was too much for Kuruk almost.  Now Kuruk ok and he say Jess safe.  Now go back to Patch, or you stay with Kuruk?”  Jess kissed Kuruk’s nose which was still wet with his tears, the bear’s tears tasting salty.

       “Kuruk good kind bear like mama Kamchatka be,” Jess said.  Kuruk smiled:

       “Kuruk try,” he said, “but sometimes it is so hard to be kind when he see some things.  He want tear humans up for doing thing to cub like he wants tear young Brunetta up for doing thing to Ekaterina cub.”

      “I thought no one minded my body shape,” jess said.

       “No one mind when them gets to know jess,”  Kuruk replied, “and Kuruk no mind now,  but at first he bloody furious when find human other than one which run place in community.  Now Kuruk ok though, and Jess safe from anger.”   Jess looked more closely at the grizzly bear.  She saw he had scars on his face, indeed, looking closely, she saw his face had been badly burnt once.

       “What happened to your face?”  She asked.  Kuruk started, his eyes registering more pain than she’d ever seen in them.

       “Kuruk burnt by man fire once,” the bear said, covering his fee with his paws, which Jess now saw were also scarred.

        “How?”  She asked.

       “Humans trapped Kuruk, then tied him up and hit with fire sticks.  Fire burnt face and paws, I get furious with pain and anger and attack humans, and then they leave alone, but Kuruk in lot of pain and go to river to cool face and paws.  This happen when two years old, cub lost at six years old, now Kuruk eight, but feel much older.  Kuruk had enough, now all want is to curl up in mama’s hug and sleep forever.”

        “How is it that I didn’t notice all this before?”  Jess asked herself, “Maybe it’s because I’m not frightened of Kuruk that I’m able to look at him closely.  I now see he’s had a hard life.”  Kuruk looked closely at Jess:

      “You had hard life too,” he said, “will jess Let Kuruk take her left forepaw in his paw?”  Jess gave the bear her left hand, Kuruk gently holding her hand in his forepaw.

       “Kuruk think Jess abused by humans too,” Kuruk said.  Jess looked shattered.

       “You know,” she said, “but how?”

      “Kuruk see it in face, and also once touch Jess’s right hind paw with forepaw while she asleep.  Your hind paw tells Kuruk a lot.  Kuruk want tear humans to bits for attacking Jess.  Now he hope she be safe here.”

      “I didn’t think you’d ever seen me, let alone touched my hind foot,” jess said.  Kuruk let go of Jess’s hand and then embraced her.

        “A local council caused me to throw patch out of the car,” Jess aid to Kuruk, “I didn’t want to; we’d lived together for years before.”

       “You back with him now though, and that dam good,” Kuruk replied.  Jess smiled.  Standing on tiptoe, she tried to throw her arms around Kuruk.  Kuruk smiled and lay down to allow Jess to hug him.  Jess embraced the huge grizzly bear.  Then stared as he rolled onto his back and presented his paws for her to examine.  Jess looked at all four paws, then took each one in her hands and stroked the bear’s pads and toes, exploring rough pads and softer upper fur, as well as long claws.  Kuruk smiled broadly as the young girl’s hands worked over his paws, caressing and stroking them.

       “Do you want me to let you stroke my paws, sorry, hands and hind feet after I’ve stroked yours?”  Jess asked.  Kuruk curled the toes of his right hind paw as jess stroked it.

       “If jess want Kuruk to stroke her hands and hind feet with massive bearlike paws, then he do thing for her.”

       “I’d like you to,” jess replied.  Kuruk released her right hand, the fingers of which he’d held in the toes of his right hind paw.

        “My fingers are quite strong,” Jess said, “but the toes of my hind feet are not as strong as yours.”  Kuruk smiled and sat up, Jess sitting down opposite him, just as she’d done in the wood.  Kuruk leant forward and took each one of jess’s hands in his forepaws, exploring them very gently.

      “Jess’s hands are tiny compared to Kuruk’s forepaws,” the bear remarked.

      “My feet are even smaller than your hind paws,” Jess replied, secretly looking forward to the bear taking hold of each of her feet in his forepaws, and then touching hind foot to hind foot with her.

       “Now you’ve explored both my hands, would you explore my feet with your forepaws?”  Jess asked.  Kuruk smiled and nodded, taking her right hind foot in his forepaws and resting her heel on his left hind leg.  Looking down at her foot, Kuruk saw jess’s foot was tiny in his forepaws.

       “Jess does have tiny hind feet as she says,” Kuruk said.  Jess curled her toes, the bear tracing the furrowed skin on the sole of her foot with the toes of his right forepaw, Jess giggling with pleasure.

       “You like Kuruk when he has hind paws played with by other creature,” Kuruk said, “he like same things as you do.  He like curling toes and letting other creatures stroke bunched pads.  Feels good Kuruk think.”  Jess smiled and stretched her toes, before curling them even harder, Kuruk smiling and blowing gently on the girl’s curled toes, jess laughing helplessly.

      “That tickles!”  She exclaimed, “Do it again Kuruk!”  Kuruk tickled the sole of jess’s right foot, Jess laughing delightedly.  Patch, hearing the laughter, padded into the room and sat down to watch.

 

“It’s great to see you two playing together,” he said.

       “Kuruk learn lots about jess and Jess about Kuruk,” Kuruk said.

       “I learned how to tickle and play with your paws too!”  Jess said, grabbing Kuruk’s left hind paw in her hands and tickling his pads and toes.

       “Kuruk love when jess play with his paws!”  The grizzly bear yelled.  Jess looked into Kuruk’s face, and realised with a shock that she could no longer see the scars, all she saw was the face of a dear friend, the face of a wild bear who had accepted her human shape, then discarded it, focusing on what he could see inside her.

      “When Kuruk takes my hands or hind feet in his paws he feels my spirit,” jess thought.  Jess and Kuruk touched hind feet, pressing the soles of their hind feet hard together.  Both human and bear pushed against each other’s hind feet, Kuruk and jess in competition with each other.  Jess knew Kuruk wasn’t trying hard to push her hind feet away with his, but he was making it look as if he was trying hard, puffing, blowing and panting as he pushed against her smaller feet with his huge hind paws.  Jess closed her eyes, feeling Kuruk’s rough pads against the smoother soles of her feet.  Setting her teeth, Jess pushed hard against Kuruk’s paws.

        “I can’t carry on!”  Jess panted, Kuruk smiling at her, taking her left hind foot in his forepaws, feeling how hot her foot was in his forepaws.

        “You were really trying weren’t you,” patch said to Jess.  Jess smiled and nodded.

       “I wanted to push Kuruk’s paws away with my hind feet,” she said, “but his paws are too big!”  Kuruk smiled and gently stroked the sole of Jess’s foot with one paw.

        “Try pushing against Kuruk’s paws once more?”  He asked.  Jess smiled:

        “I might try again,” she said.  Settling her feet against the grizzly’s massive hind paws, jess felt the grizzly’s pads against her own softer soles once more.  Closing her eyes she pushed hard against the grizzly’s huge paws, feeling them moving back and back.  Then Kuruk curled up and crawled away, admitting defeat.  Jess laughed with delight at the game, though she knew Kuruk had let her win.  Crawling after him, Jess grabbed Kuruk’s right hind paw and began to stroke his pads.  Kuruk smiled broadly and curled his toes, the pads bunching up under jess’s fingers.  Jess continued stroking the bear’s furrowed pads and working her fingers under the curled toes, trying to relax them.  Kuruk smiled broadly as he felt her attempts to relax his toes.

       “Kuruk like jess’s touch on his paw pads,” he said.  Jess smiled and gently ran one finger down the pads on the sole of Kuruk’s left hind paw from heel to toes, the grizzly bear laughing merrily.

       “Kuruk like that too!”  He yelled.  Kuruk relaxed the toes of both hind paws and crawled away.  He suddenly became still, his eyes filling with tears.

       “What’s the matter?”  Jess asked gently.  Kuruk looked at jess through his tears.

      “Kuruk play games with jess that he play with cub,” he said, “so you ursine jess.  Those paw play games be ursine games.”

      “They also are games some human cubs play too,” Jess said.

      “Playing with paws is great,” patch said, going up to his brother cub and hugging him.  Kuruk smiled sadly.

      “Kuruk enjoy playing with Jess and Patch,” he said, “but games be ones he used play with cub who now dead, so he a bit sad at moment.”  Patch kissed Kuruk’s nose:

       “But you enjoyed the games didn’t you,” Patch said, Kuruk smiled:

       “Kuruk enjoy them hugely,” he said, “Kuruk like the stuck paw games too.”  Patch giggled:

       “I like those games too,” he said.  Jess grinned:

      “You and I used to play with each other’s hind paws when we were younger Patch,” she said.  Patch left Kuruk and hugged jess tightly.

        “I remember those times,” he said, “the only times we had which were in any way carefree then.”  Jess nodded.

      “Now though, we can have carefree times again,” she said.  Patch hugged Jess tenderly.

 

Meanwhile, in Bianca’s lie up, Tommy was yelling for Ekaterina, wanting Bianca to find the bear who’d helped him into the world.  Bianca settled him down and then went to find Ekaterina.  Finding the polar bear in Arki’s lie up, Bianca spoke to her.

      “Tommy will have to wait for a bit,” Ekaterina said, “Arki and I are discussing her labour and where she wants to have her cub.”  Bianca felt like protesting, but the look Arki gave her silenced her.

       “You, you mean your cub is close to being born Arki?”  Bianca blurted.  Arki chased Bianca from the room, the tigress’s paws skidding on the tiles in her haste to escape.

      “Okay, okay! I’m going!”  Bianca yelled.  Arki settled down, rubbing her belly with one forepaw, her growl of discomfort telling Ekaterina all she needed to know.

      “Let’s get to that tub,” Arki said, getting uncomfortably to her paws.

       “If you want to crawl, you crawl,” Ekaterina said, “keep as comfortable as you can Arki.”  Arki nodded, padding stiffly from the room, Ekaterina following her, keeping in step with Arki all the time.  Arki found she couldn’t walk within a yard or two, crawling the rest of the way when a contraction tore through her.

      “Ouch!  Oooooowwwwww!”  Arki complained.  Ekaterina padded up behind the labouring sow polar bear and stroked her right hind paw with a gentle forepaw.

       “Take your time,” Ekaterina said gently.  Arki panted and growled with discomfort.

       “I’ll, I’ll be okay in a moment,” Arki gasped.  Crawling forward, Arki found her way to the bathtub.  Flopping into the water, Arki panted, moving restlessly, her fore and hind paws scrabbling for purchase.  Ekaterina listened to Arki’s struggle.

      “Do you want help?”  Ekaterina asked.  Arki, gripping the side of the tub with her forepaws and bracing the toes of her hind against the floor of the tub, raised her head wailing with pain and then grunting with effort as she was forced to bear down against her cub.

      “Things are okay, just about okay!”  Arki panted, “Want, want you in here though, check on the cub, and see how, how long I’ve got.  Ow, ow Ekaterina, ow!”  Ekaterina got into the water with Arki and checked on the emerging cub with a gentle forepaw.

       “Forepaws are out,” Ekaterina said, “push down Arki, bear down gently and things will be okay.”  Arki pushed gently, feeling the cub’s head jam, then, as she pushed harder, move down into the outside world.

       Oaahhhhh!”  Arki whimpered as she bore down against her cub, feeling it emerging into the world.  Stamping her hind feet, Arki felt some relief.

       “Stamp your hind paws if it helps,” Ekaterina said.  Arki got down into a crawling position in the water, her nose only inches from the water’s surface.  Bracing her forepaws, Arki strained hard, snorting water up her nose and choking on it.

        “Can’t, Can’t breathe!”  Arki gasped, coughing and thrashing about.  Ekaterina leapt from the pool and, with Arki now on her back in the water, grabbed the mama bear’s forepaws and tried to pull her from the pool.  Arki, distressed, coughed and screamed as her breath returned to her and she was forced to push down against her cub.

        “Paws off me!  Ooooooowhwhwhwhwhwoooowhwhwhwhwh! Paws off me Ekaterina!”  She demanded.

      “No!”  Ekaterina panted, “You nearly died back there, and I’m not having you die on me Arki!”  A tremendous splash announced Kamchatka’s arrival, the huge grizzly throwing Arki, still in labour, over her shoulder and lifting her out of the water.  Arki, gasping and straining, felt her cub come free while she was still over Kamchatka’s shoulder, the cub falling into the water with a splash.  Ekaterina leapt into the water, bringing the cub to the surface where she laid it down on the tiles.  Scrambling from the water, Ekaterina listened for developments.  The tiny cub lay limply on the tiles, Kamchatka sitting down and taking the cub in her paws to revive it.  Ekaterina heard Arki panting for breath while she laid strength spent and frightened on the tiles, while her own mum tried to revive Arki’s cub.  Ekaterina felt her toes curling into the tiles, for she thought she was to blame for the cub’s problems.

      “I shouldn’t have let Arki get down into the water,” she thought miserably, “it’s my fault the cub’s close to death!”

       “How is the cub doing?”  Arki gasped.  Kamchatka looked up at Arki.

      “Touch and go,” Kamchatka said.  Ekaterina turned and ran from the room, throwing herself down the passages and into her lie up, collapsing onto the rugs.  Burying her face in her paws, Ekaterina cried inconsolably.

 

Meanwhile, back in the bathroom, Arki lay exhausted and frightened.

       “It wasn’t Ekaterina’s fault,” Arki said faintly, “I chose to get into a crawling posture, she encouraged me to stamp my paws, and I should have continued with that, but I didn’t, that was my choice.  Ekaterina tried to pull me out of the water and I told her not to.  I should have let her do what she wanted.”

       “Ekaterina couldn’t have pulled you out of the water,” Kamchatka said, “She’s only a cub!”

       “Who knows what she could have done when frightened,” Arki replied.  Kamchatka looked down at Arki’s weak little newborn cub in her paws.

        “I’m all wet!”  The cub gasped.  Kamchatka grinned, kissing the cub’s nose.

        “He’s alive!”  Arki exclaimed.  Kamchatka smiled:

       “Let’s clean him up and show him to a very distressed little female polar bear,” Kamchatka said.  Arki and Kamchatka padded from the bathroom and along to Kamchatka’s lie up, finding Ekaterina sprawled on the rugs in a distressed state.

       “I’ve got a surprise for you Ekaterina,” Arki said softly, gently placing the cub in Ekaterina’s forepaws.  Ekaterina felt the cub warm and alive in her paws.  smiling, she kissed the cub’s nose, then exploring him gently, found his paws, kissing the pads of his right forepaw, the cub giggling with pleasure and snuggling up to her.

       “Mum said you fished me out of the water,” the cub said.  Ekaterina explored the cub with her nose, tongue and paws, the cub loving every minute of her ministration.

       “I failed!”  Ekaterina said, “I shouldn’t have been there, I’m no midwife, I’m just a cub, yes I was taught how to pull a cub, but not how to help Arki in the water!”

      “It’s not your fault Ekaterina,” Arki said, “I’m the midwife; I shouldn’t have got into a crawling posture in the water.  I should have remained on my paws stamping my hind feet and gripping with my forepaws.  It was entirely my fault.”  Ekaterina could smell Arki’s wet fur and increased scent.

       “Thank the Boss for the cameras,” Ekaterina said, “mum saw what was happening and helped out.”

      “You were going to pull me from the water,” Arki said, “Ekaterina, you’re only tiny, and you couldn’t possibly pull me from the water.”

      “Who knows what I could have done then,” Ekaterina replied, “I was terrified Arki.”  Arki sat down and fed her cub, Ekaterina feeling her mum sit down beside her.

      “I’m sorry mum,” Ekaterina said, “I shouldn’t have been where I was.  I suppose I was too full of myself.”  Kamchatka embraced her cub tenderly.

       “Ekaterina,” she said, “Bianca before, and Arki today both wanted you at the births of their cubs.  Because Arki made a bad choice does not mean it’s your fault.  You were just observing, Arki should have made better choices, and she knows that.”

       “But she was choking on the water!”  Ekaterina exclaimed, “I heard her choking mum!  I heard her screaming and choking and everything!  It was horrible!  I was so scared!”  Kamchatka held her cub tenderly.

       “Put it out of your mind now,” she said gently, “please Ekaterina, try to forget what happened.”  Arki looked over at Ekaterina.

      “Forget it now Ekaterina,” she said.  Kodiak, Arki’s mate and father of the newborn cub padded into the room very concerned.

      “That was rather violent wasn’t it?”  He asked.  Arki nodded.

       “I screwed up,” she admitted, “getting into a crawling posture in the birthing pool was not a good idea.”

      “In case this cub suffers any more misfortune, I think we should name him,” Kodiak said, “how about Chowilawu?”  Kamchatka couldn’t help herself.  Laughing, she looked at Kodiak.

       “You insensitive thing!”  She yelled.

       “What?”  Kodiak asked, hurt, “it’s true enough.”

       “What does that name mean?”  Arki asked.

       “It means joined together by water,” Conrad said padding into the room, “it’s a Hopi name, Native American.”  Arki grinned.

       “I suppose he is,” she said, “for he was born in the water.”

       “He fell into the water,” Kodiak corrected her, “if you’d only stayed on your paws Arki!  You should have known better than to do what you did!”

       “I was in pain!”  Arki protested.

       “You were nearly dead!”  Kodiak screamed.

       “I know, I know!”  Arki replied, “I wasn’t thinking straight.  I just wanted to push, and a crawling posture was more comfortable.  I’d forgotten about the water.”

       “All’s done now,” the cub said, “I want the noise to stop!”  Kodiak stared at the tiny cub.

       “How dare you demand that of us!”  He yelled.

      “Just shut up!”  Ekaterina screeched.

      “Don’t even think of it!”  Kamchatka warned Kodiak.

      “I could eat you Ekaterina!”  Kodiak snarled.

       “You touch Ekaterina cub, Kuruk go bloody crazy!”  Kuruk warned, barrelling into the room.  Kodiak stared at the massive grizzly bear in astonishment.

      “Where the hell did that brute come from?”  He asked.

       “My cub from a long time back,” Kamchatka replied.

      “Oh, oh shit, shit!”  Kodiak gasped, backing away in fear.

      “You want fight Kuruk?”  Kuruk asked.

      “No, um, no!”  Kodiak whimpered turning and bolting.

       “Weak bear that Kodiak,” Kuruk said, “he be no threat to Ekaterina cub any more.  Kodiak jumped up cub.  Indeed, Kuruk think him no cub, for cub no act like him do.  He be stupid creature who think he bear, but he no bear, he wimp, he not worthy of name bear.  Now he gone, Kuruk plenty glad he gone.  For if he stays, Kuruk rip him up into little bits.”  Ekaterina couldn’t help smiling at Kuruk’s terminology.

       “You mean you don’t like him much?”  She asked.  Kuruk grinned:

      “Kuruk mean that thing,” he said.  Ekaterina laughed at her brother’s language.

       “The way you speak takes the threat out of any situation,” Ekaterina said, “Kuruk; you’d be no good at threatening anyone.”

      “Ekaterina cub says Kuruk weak bear?”  Kuruk asked.

      “No Kuruk, no,” Ekaterina said quickly, fearing a kicking, “all I said was the way you speak doesn’t sound threatening in the least.”

      “So you want Kuruk get serious with paws?”  Kuruk asked.

       “I wish I’d kept my mouth shut now,” Ekaterina replied, “I can’t explain it Kuruk.  Mum, please, explain things to Kuruk.”  Kamchatka did, speaking in rapid Ursine.  Kuruk nodded.

      “So you want Kuruk threaten Kodiak in Ursine?”  He asked.

      “He might take you more seriously,” Ekaterina said.  Kuruk picked up the phone, got through to Kodiak and directed a blast of ursine at him which had the Kodiak bear begging for mercy.

       “That’s done it,” Arki said with satisfaction, for she feared her mate when he was in one of his moods.

       “I’ll leave your sister alone, I promise!”  Kodiak yelled.

       “You make sure you do!”  Kuruk replied, his speech more coherent when speaking his native tongue.

       “If it’s easier, speak ursine to mum and me,” Conrad said.

      “No Conrad, it’s funnier when Kuruk speaks community dialect, or tries to,” Ekaterina said playfully.  Kuruk dumped the phone and then advanced on his sister, picking her up in his forepaws and tossing her into the air before catching her.

        “Hey!”  Ekaterina screamed.  Kuruk lowered her to the floor and touched noses with her.

       “Kuruk no speak community language well,” he said, “but Ekaterina cub speaks Ursine worse.”  Indeed it was true.  Ekaterina could understand spoken ursine, but not speak it herself.

       “All right Kuruk,” she said defeated, “carry on as you are.”  Kuruk smiled and kissed his sister’s nose.  Kuruk lay down and Ekaterina took his left forepaw in both of hers, the male grizzly’s paw huge in her tiny ones.

      “Your paw is enormous Kuruk!”  Ekaterina said.  Kuruk smiled and gently kissed the furry top of Ekaterina’s right forepaw, the cub smiling and kissing the toes of her brother’s huge paw.

      “I love your paws,” Ekaterina said to Kuruk, the huge grizzly kissing her nose and the toes of the paw holding his.

       “Kuruk watch the birth of Ekaterina cub,” he said, “Kuruk cry when he see Brother Boris attack little Ekaterina.”  Ekaterina smiled sadly and kissed her brother’s nose.

      “Your paws are soft on the top and rough padded on the sole,” Ekaterina said.  She turned his paw in hers and kissed his rough paw pads.

        “I love touching your paws,” Ekaterina said.  Kuruk smiled and kissed the cub’s paws holding his.

        “Words can’t express how I feel,” Ekaterina said, “my brother cub, my dear brother cub.”  Kuruk embraced Ekaterina with his free forepaw, the smaller bear snuggling up to him.

       “Ekaterina cub makes contact with Kuruk by touching paws,” the large grizzly said, “he like her touching his paws.”  Ekaterina let go of Kuruk’s paw and Kuruk embraced her properly, Ekaterina cuddling up tightly.

      “Hug me Kuruk, please!”  Ekaterina begged.  Kuruk held her tightly.

        “Kuruk want hold Ekaterina tightly,” he said.  Ekaterina sighed with pleasure.

        “I don’t want you to let me go,” she said.  Kuruk felt Ekaterina’s paws pressing into his fur.

       “Kuruk know Ekaterina do best for Arki,” he said, “she is in pain with coming of cub and Ekaterina do what she can by stroking hind paws of Arki,” he said.  Ekaterina nodded and smiled:

      “I did my best,” she replied.  Kuruk let go of Ekaterina and took hold of her right hind paw, massaging her pads and toes, Ekaterina smiling.

       “So that’s how Arki felt while I stroked her pads,” she said.  Kuruk nodded:

      “Well, mix in a bit of pain and Ekaterina have it,” he said.  Ekaterina tried to imagine horrendous abdominal pain, pressing her hind paw into her brother’s.

       “You stroked my paws with gentle care,” Arki said to Ekaterina.  Ekaterina smiled and relaxed from pushing against her brother’s paws.

       “Ekaterina have softer pads than Kuruk,” Kuruk said.  Ekaterina smiled and replied:

       “I know, but I’m a cub,” she said, “It’s usual for a cub to have soft paw pads.”  Kuruk kissed the sole pad of Ekaterina’s right hind paw, Ekaterina giggling with pleasure.

       “I love you playing with my paws,” she said, “Kuruk, I won’t ever get bored of it, and I love it too much, too much!”  Kuruk felt himself relaxing completely.  He felt something growing in him, a curiosity he’d not known since he was a cub, a need to play with Ekaterina’s paws just like he’d played with his mum’s paws when he was a cub, a play which was inquisitive, gentle and innocent, play for play’s sake, playing with Ekaterina’s paws because she wanted them played with, and he wanted to play with them.

       “I love you playing with my paws,” Ekaterina said, “or have I already told you that Kuruk?”  Kuruk grinned and stroked Ekaterina’s fore and hind paws, playing with her toes and tickling her pads for the thousandth time, never growing tired of her enthusiasm for the simple pass time.  Ekaterina curled and stretched her toes as Kuruk stroked her pads, then wiggled her toes as he played with them.  She loved catching his toes in hers and holding them tightly, Kuruk grinning with delight and kissing the curled toes holding his.

       “Such innocent play,” Arki said.  Ekaterina and Kuruk laughed delightedly.

        “We’ll play with your cub when he’s older,” Ekaterina said.

      “But I want my paws played with now!”  Chowilawu yelled.

       “I’ll play with his paws,” Ekaterina said, “come here Chowilawu.”  The cub crawled to Ekaterina, and without further comment the two cubs were playing energetically together, rolling about and catching hold of each other’s paws before stroking or tickling each other’s pads and toes.

       “I love having my paws tickled Ekaterina!”  Chowilawu yelled pressing his forepaws into Ekaterina’s.  Ekaterina smiled broadly and blew on the pads of the smaller cub’s right hind paw, Chowilawu laughing merrily.

       “I love that!”  He yelled.  Ekaterina hugged him tenderly.  Chowilawu was tiny compared to his playmate, and Ekaterina was careful to be gentle with him.  Even so, Chowilawu fought madly to outdo her by tickling her paws.  Ekaterina rolled the tiny cub over and pinned him gently down under one forepaw, Chowilawu wriggling and pawing madly at her paw.

        “Let go of me!”  The cub whined.  Ekaterina let him go, the cub clambering over her body, using her as a climbing frame.  Ekaterina felt the cub’s tiny toes gripping her fur, his pads soft but rough.  Ekaterina sighed contentedly as Chowilawu explored her from nose to paw pads.

       “You like me touching you don’t you,” the tiny cub said.

      “I do,” Ekaterina replied, “because I can’t see you little one, I need to touch you with my paws as you need to touch me with yours.”

     “Oh right,” Chowilawu said, “like that is it.”  Ekaterina knew Arki was watching them.

       “Kuruk leave now,” Kuruk said, “he no want disturb Ekaterina and Chowilawu.”  Ekaterina wanted to tell Kuruk he wasn’t disturbing her or the newborn cub, but he’d already padded from the room before she could say anything.

       “He feels left out of things,” Ekaterina thought, “poor Kuruk, he wants so much to be a cub again, but he’s not a cub.  Here am I playing with Chowilawu as if he’s my natural brother, and Kuruk, who is my natural brother, is left out of things.”  Ekaterina sent Chowilawu back to his mum and then padded off in search of Kuruk.  Finding him, she padded up to him and rested her head on his shoulder.

       “Kuruk, dear Kuruk,” Ekaterina said, “I didn’t mean to leave you out.  First Tommy, then Chowilawu wanted my attention, and I am forgetting my family.  Here I am now.”  Kuruk hugged Ekaterina tightly.

      “Kuruk want roll and play like cub, but he no cub,” the large grizzly said, “Kuruk want play silly paw play games with Ekaterina cub and Patch too.  He sick of hunting for food all time and want play like cub.  Kuruk tired Ekaterina, very tired.”  Ekaterina took Kuruk’s paw in hers; his life-force was good.

       “Why are you tired?”  She asked.

      “Kuruk had enough of dead bears, he see first cub, then mate dead.  Now he want see life, he want be cub again, he want play with paws of other bears.”  Ekaterina kissed his nose:

       “You only have to ask,” she said, “I’ll play with you, as will Chowilawu.  Maybe if I talk to the newborn cub, he’ll play with you, believe me, if you can make him happy, you can play with anyone.”  Kuruk looked uneasy, his uneasiness transmitted to Ekaterina through slightly curled toes.

      “You’ll be okay,” she said, “Kuruk, just go with whatever you feel.”  Kuruk touched Ekaterina’s nose with his.

      “Kuruk try to go with thing,” he said.  Ekaterina led Kuruk back to the lie up where Chowilawu and Arki slay together.  Ekaterina spoke gently to Chowilawu who crawled towards Kuruk who was lying on the rug, eventually touching noses with him.

       Can I touch you,” Kuruk asked.  Chowilawu took his life in his paws and cuddled close to the massive male grizzly bear, which enfolded him in his huge paws.  The cub was tiny to Kuruk.  Gently kissing the cub’s nose and the pads of one forepaw, Kuruk gazed down at the tiny form.

       “Thank you for let Kuruk hug you,” he said.  Chowilawu laughed at Kuruk’s language:

      “You do talk funny,” he said.

      “Kuruk no do talk funny thing!”  Kuruk yelled, knowing he mangled the community language quite a bit.  The cub laughed helplessly at this, reaching up to touch the grizzly’s nose.

       “You are soft bear,” the cub said.  Kuruk smiled and kissed Chowilla’s nose.

       “Ekaterina and I played with each other’s paws,” the cub said, “Do big male bears do that sort of thing?”  Kuruk put the cub down and gave him his enormous right forepaw.

       “Do you think Kuruk do paw play thing?”  He asked.  The cub took Kuruk’s paw in his tiny ones and considered the question.

        “I think you want to play with the paws of other bears Kuruk,” he said.  Kuruk sighed heavily:

       “But Kuruk no cub,” he said, “he big bear with big paws and he frustrated by thing.”

      “Roll over onto your side and let me explore your paws with mine,” the polar bear cub said.  Kuruk did as Chowilawu asked and soon felt the cub’s paws holding his right hind paw.

        “Can you curl your toes?”  The cub asked.  Kuruk curled his toes, the cub giggling and stroking the bunched pads of Kuruk’s right hind foot.

       “Now that’s better!”  The cub enthused.  Very gently he ran the toes of his tiny left forepaw down the bunched pads of Kuruk’s right hind, Kuruk laughing as his paw was tickled.

       “Kuruk love that!”  He said.  Chowilawu then rubbed Kuruk’s bunched sole pad, the older bear unable to keep his toes curled any longer.  Relaxing them, he felt the cub touching each toe in turn, counting them.

       “Your paws are like mine, just bigger,” he said.  Kuruk smiled:

       “Has your mum taught you to play with paws?”  He asked.

        “I was about to ask you that,” Chowilawu replied.

        “Kuruk know paw play games,” he said, “but he not sure if can play them with cub, for he too old.”

       “Why are you too old to play with your own paws or the paws of others?”  Chowilawu asked.

       “Kuruk feel silly doing thing,” Kuruk said, “it not feel like adult thing to do, but he so want do it.”  The cub laughed and patted the rough pads of Kuruk’s right hind paw.

        “Show me paw play games, please,” he said.  Kuruk sat up and let the cub feel his right forepaw holding his right hind while he played with the toes of his right hind paw with those of his left fore.  Chowilawu smiled and explored the grizzly bear’s massive paws with his.

       “That feels really comfortable,” the cub said.  Kuruk smiled and replied that it was.  Chowilawu couldn’t quite sit up, but, by bringing his hind paws up towards his body, managed to reach his hind paw with his fore, which felt just as good in its own way.  Reaching round the sides of his hind paws, the cub felt the toes of both forepaws gripping the pads of his hind.  Relaxing, he felt the rough sole pads his hind paws pressing against the toes of his fore.

      “This feels great!”  The cub yelled.

 

Fleur watched from her lie up.  She’d not yet formally met Kamchatka’s eldest cub, though she’d watched him ever since he came to the community over a month previously.  She looked at Samson, who was stretched full length on the rugs making a close examination of his forepaws.

        “I’m going to chat to Kuruk, get to know him a bit,” Fleur said.  Samson shook himself:

       “He’s nice enough,” Samson said, “though I’ve only spoken briefly to him, as I no longer have the jurisdiction I once had.  The bears keep to themselves mostly now.”

      “We cats do to,” Fleur reminded him.

      “True,” Samson mewed, “well, it looks like Kuruk’s getting on with, um, what’s his name?  The new cub?”

      “Chuw something,” Fleur replied, “Chowilawu that’s it.  Kodiak named the cub so as he was joined to his mum by water, something like that.”

        “Do you know what your name means?”  Samson asked.  Fleur shook her head.

      “Flower, it’s French,” the lion said.

      “I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted!”  Fleur snapped.

       “I’d be flattered if I were you,” Samson replied, “for I’m sure whoever named you meant well.”

      “Or they meant to take the piss!”  Fleur snarled, “Who named me fleur?  Which insensitive sod named me floor?”

       “I think it was Perdy,” Tigger mewed, padding into the room.  Fleur looked devastated.

        “If it had been snowy or someone else I’d be okay with it!”  She yelled, “But my bloody mother?  She named me fleur for one reason only, and that was to take the piss out of me!  I don’t possess good looks, and my mother knew that, so she named me fleur to take the piss!  Those who meet me for the first time will mock me because of my name!  I hate my name!”

       “Of course she could have been thinking about what’s inside,” Samson mewed.  Fleur rounded on him, screaming and stamping her paws.

      “No Sammy she wasn’t!  She wanted to humiliate me!  I know her, you don’t!”

       “Oh sorry,” Samson mewed, “I was only trying to help.”

      “Well you’re not helping!”  Fleur roared.

      “Fleur, please!”  Samson begged, but fleur was inconsolable.

      “Leave me alone Samson!”  She yelled, storming from the room.  Samson turned his head to Tigger, the blind tiger’s ears twitching as he listened to his grown cub’s paws on the tiles of the passage.

       “Poor fleur,” he said, “I hoped she’d never find out what her name meant.  It can be taken two ways, as you say Sammy, but Perdy meant to name her cub Fleur to spite her.  Of course, years have shown that the other meaning is truer of fleur.  She’s gentle and caring, a real flower in my life, though she won’t see that side of her name now.  Fleur’s hated herself for a long time, and the realisation of the meaning of her name and the reasons why her mother named her such has done her a lot of damage.”

       “I shouldn’t have said what I did,” Samson mewed, “I should have thought before I spoke.  I didn’t think of that side of things.  I knew Perdy’s and flours relationship hadn’t been good, but never entertained the thought Perdy might have named her cub to cause her pain.  That’s horrible Tigger!”

       “Many see beyond her fur, but some won’t.  I remember Perdy suggesting the name Fleur, and fleur then only a cub saying she liked the name.  Now she hates it.  Poor thing, poor dear fleur.”

Fleur stood in the pool complex, gazing down into the still waters of the main pool.  The shock of realising what her name really meant had caused her to run to the relieving place and be violently sick.  Now she was in the pool complex, well away from anyone, time alone to think.

       “I hate my mother!”  She thought savagely, “how could she do such a thing as saddle me with a name which every time it is spoken degrades me?”  Fleur watched her reflection in the water, a horrid cat’s face with angry red eyes staring back at her.

       “I hate you!”  She screamed, smashing her paw down into the water, shattering the reflection.  A paw touching hers made fleur look round.

       “Bianca?”  Fleur asked, “what are you doing here, how did you get in?  I locked the bloody door!”

        “I scanned my paw and the door opened,” the white tigress replied.

      “What the hell do you want?”  Fleur asked crossly.

      “I thought I’d come and try to help a cubhood friend,” Bianca replied.  Fleur looked at Bianca with hostility.

       “You forget,” Bianca said, “Fleur, you were there when I was born.  You saw snowy give birth to me.  You helped me play like a cub, you showed me where my nose, toes and tail were, remember?”  Fleur lowered her head ashamed.

       “I had forgotten,” she said, “I’ve forgotten so much recently.”

        “Like what makes you who you are,” Bianca replied.  Fleur remembered playing with a tiny cub, showing her where her nose, toes and tail were.  Fleur remembered Playing with Bianca’s paws, and the cub playing with hers.

      “I’ve always thought fleur to be a lovely name for you,” Bianca said, “for the three month old cub I met in my blind first weeks was gentle and kind to me.  I’ve never forgotten that.  Nor have I forgotten how I rescued you when you got tangled in that rug fleur.  Fleur smiled despite her dark mood.

      “Who have you left your cubs with?”  Fleur asked.

        “Tommy’s with Ekaterina, of course, snowy and Whitie are with Tigger.  Fleur, look into the water.”  Fleur reluctantly turned her head to look into the pool.  She saw her own face, her eyes now exhausted and bloodshot.  Then she saw Bianca’s face, the tigress’s face younger, much younger, that of a cub.  Fleur watched as the cub kissed the nose of the exhausted reflection of her own face.  Fleur’s legs collapsed beneath her, Bianca unable to stop her from falling in the water.  Fleur hit the water with a splash, Bianca leaping in after her and dragging her to the side, fleur unable to help herself out of the water.  Dragging fleur from the water like the cross bred cat was a drowned bison; Bianca dragged fleur to dry land.

        “It’s okay fleur,” Bianca said gently.  Fleur gasped for air, her whole body shaking with shock.

         “What’s happening, what’s happening?”  Fleur yelled.

       “You’re having a panic attack;” Bianca said softly, “breathe slowly Fleur.”

        “I’m okay now,” fleur gasped.  Bianca shook her head, but fleur struggled to her feet, only to fall over once more.

        “Time for me to return the favour,” Bianca said gently.  Fleur closed her eyes, for the room was spinning.

       “Hold me Bianca!”  Fleur begged.  Bianca embraced fleur tightly, the cross bred cat sobbing into her fur.

       “How about if I stroke your paws a bit?”  Bianca asked.  Fleur mewed pitifully, and then thrust her forepaws into Bianca’s.  Bianca gently stroked the big cat’s forepaws, fleur whimpering and sobbing.

       “You’ve had too much for one day,” Bianca mewed, “let’s get back to my lie up and settle down together.”  Fleur stumbled to her paws and staggered, with Bianca’s help, back to the tigress’s lie up.  Flopping down exhausted on the rugs, fleur curled up panting and whimpering.

      “Take it easy now fleur,” Bianca said, gently stroking the large cat’s left forepaw.  Fleur panted and lowered her head gasping for breath.

        “What’s happening to me?”  She screamed.

        “You’re suffering from stress and fatigue,” Alaska said, padding into the lie up.

       “What do I do now?”  Fleur asked, all direction gone.

       “Try to relax,” Bianca said.  Fleur curled her toes into the rugs, tearing into them.

       “How can I relax when I know my mum hated me so much she ridicules me every time someone speaks my name?”  She yelled.

      “Perdy need punishment for what she does to funny furred fleur!”  Kuruk yelled, dragging Perdy into the lie up and walloping her with his paw.

        “Ouch!”  Perdy yelled.

       “Slap her again!”  Fleur screamed.  Kuruk whacked Perdy once more, the snow leopard screaming for mercy.

      “Kuruk hate mothers who hate own cubs!”  Kuruk yelled, “so he bloody angry with Perdy leopard.  Perdy screamed with fear and pain.

      “Leave me alone!”  She pleaded.  Fleur struggled to her paws and leapt upon her mother, clawing and beating her.

      “Die bitch die!”  Fleur screamed.  Perdy didn’t die that day, for Kuruk pushed fleur away, flinging Perdy to the floor and pinning fleur down until the cross bred cat stopped struggling.

        “Leave Perdy leopard to suffer her humiliation,” Kuruk said, “Fleur cat need not worry about her any more.  Kuruk make dam sure she no hassled by horrid snow leopard.”  Fleur felt the bear’s paws pinning her firmly but gently to the rugs.

        “Okay, okay Kuruk, I’m, I’m calmer now, I’ll keep my paws off Perdy.”  Kuruk grinned and released fleur.

       “Kuruk hear you want meet him, so when he finished playing with Chowilawu he come look for fleur, but find her in distressed state so listen, when he find out who cause shit for her, he ask about Perdy leopard then find Perdy leopard and bring her to fleur to show her what she do to her own cub.  Now Kuruk finished his job.”  Fleur looked at the grizzly bear.

       “Thank you,” she said.  Kuruk smiled and kissed Fleur’s nose and then sitting down, picked up one of her forepaws and kissed the toes of her paw.

        “Soppy Kuruk,” fleur said.  Kuruk embraced fleur tightly, the cat snuggling up to him.

       “Want Kuruk stroke paws?”  Kuruk asked.  Fleur rolled onto her side, presenting him with all four of her huge fat paws.

       “What do you think is the best thing to do with these?”  She asked.  Kuruk smiled and began to stroke Fleur’s right forepaw.

       “How’s that?”  Kuruk asked.  Fleur sighed contentedly.

       “Carry on, stroke all four of my paws, please!”  She said softly, her eyes filling with tears.

      “You want Kuruk hug you again?”  Kuruk asked.  Fleur snuggled up to Kuruk, burying her paws in his fur, holding on tightly to him with everything she had.  Kuruk enfolded her in the biggest bear hug he could.

      “Hold me tightly Kuruk, please!”  Fleur begged.  Kuruk held fleur as tightly as he dared.

      “Hold onto Kuruk with all four paws if fleur want,” the bear said.  Fleur did as he asked, her hind paws gripping the toes of his hind.

       “Fleur need lots of love,” Kuruk said.

      “Why did you attack my mother?”  Fleur asked when she was warm and calm.

      “Kuruk see fleur getting upset, then he go investigate her story, find mother of fleur be bitch to her from time when Fleur be cub and get bloody furious.  He then tracks Perdy leopard down and drag her to Fleur so fleur make anger plain.”  Fleur smiled and buried her face in Kuruk’s fur.

       “Has anyone told you you’ve got beautiful blue eyes?”  Kuruk whispered to fleur, who, purring snuggled up even harder.

        “You two are so funny!”  Samson mewed, running into the lie up.  Sitting down, he watched fleur and Kuruk.  Fleur sprawled full length on the floor, Kuruk massaging Fleur’s body from nose to tail.  Fleur mewed and pawed at Kuruk as he worked his paws over her body.  Fleur closed her eyes, stretching each one of her paws, her toes flexing as she soaked up every last bit of Kuruk’s attentions.  Mewing and purring, fleur wriggled with pleasure, Samson feeling lost and helpless.  He knew what a bear’s paws could do, for he’d felt their power.  Fleur sank into a deep sleep, Kuruk’s paws gently massaging her left forepaw.  Fleur, eyes closed, breathed deeply as she slept deeply.  Kuruk turned to Samson, the lion seeing how big he really was.  Samson’s mouth opened in surprise as Kuruk faced him.

       “You’re enormous!”  Samson exclaimed.  Kuruk reared onto his hind legs and opened his mouth, Samson staring in fascination.

        “Kuruk, don’t make a sound!”  Samson begged silently.  Kuruk waved his forepaws in the air, Samson getting a good look at his enormous stature.

       “Wow Kuruk, just wow!”  Samson mewed.  Kuruk smiled and bowed majestically.  Samson, being crazy about bears, smiled broadly.

       “You great big show off Kuruk!”  Kamchatka said, padding in and rising to her hind paws and taking his left forepaw in her right, before both bowed to Samson, the lion roaring with laughter, waking Fleur.

       “What are you lot doing?”  She asked sleepily.  Samson quickly explained the situation.

       “The bears show off to anyone who will watch,” fleur mewed.  Samson and fleur padded away, the two grizzly bears watching them leave before dropping onto all four paws, touching noses and then padding to their lie up together.  Curling up together on the rugs, mum and eldest son cub cuddled up together.

       “I’m glad your back home Kuruk,” Kamchatka said.  Kuruk smiled and kissed his mum’s nose.

       “Kuruk glad he home too,” the male grizzly said.

 

 

Meanwhile, disgraced and knowing she’d be killed if she stayed in the community, Perdy ran for her life.

 

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